Learn How This One Weird Trick, Invented By A Dad, Ruined College Basketball Forever!!
Myron Medcalf apparently never learned not to poke a bees' nest. Mark Titus had it right about UVA fans, even if "emotionally fragile" isn't quite the turn of phrase I'd've used. UVA is a school with just enough success to make its fans think it should have a hell of a lot more, and greatly fear losing what we have. We react, I think, more favorably than most fanbases to favorable opinions, and launch more heat-seeking missiles than most fanbases at those perceived to be haterz, whether or not the haterism was the result of malice or negligence. I don't even remember which ESPN writer it was, but when he left Mike Scott off his Wooden Award list, he felt the Twitter wrath so strongly that he felt compelled to jokingly warn another writer (who made the same mistake) that the Mongol hordes would soon descend.
I enjoy this reputation, to be honest. It speaks to a passionate fanbase - one which is absolutely overjoyed to have something worth being passionate about, and sometimes aims that passion in interesting directions. So when guys like Myron Medcalf write articles entitled, "Is UVA's style bad for the game?" (and make no mistake, he wasn't actually asking) it's like chumming for sharks.
I don't know which fallacy to start with in Medcalf's article, so I think I'll start by pointing out that it wasn't just UVA fans blowing up the joint. David Teel let him have it, albeit without actually mentioning him by name. It was worth every word. Kentucky fans did too. The comment section is loaded with people from non-UVA schools saying how stupid this is. My favorite was from a guy Facebook-identifying with Boston University who bought tickets to UVA at Boston College because he wanted to see UVA's defense in action. Keep in mind: BU and BC is to hockey what UNC and Duke is to basketball. This is sort of like if you, the Virginia fan living in DC, actually paid money to the University of Maryland just because you wanted to see Tom Izzo. This is the "casual fan" that Medcalf thinks hates UVA.
Medcalf wrote his column after, and cited, the Pitt game, which ended 61-49. A slow-paced score. BOOORRRINNNG. UVA is about seven possessions a game short of the national median for tempo; we average 58 possessions a game, while the median is 65. Seven more possessions means that game would've finished, oh, about 68-55. WOW SO EXCITING!!!
Let's leave aside the fact that Medcalf essentially said that sound defense and good fundamentals are bad for the game. Even on his terms, the fact is, UVA's system is good for the game, not bad. Inarguably, indisputably so. What Tony Bennett is doing is a boon for the sport - and for the so-called casual fan.
-- It keeps the variety in the game. Listen, the Venn diagram of college basketball fans and NBA fans has a smaller intersection than you think. NBA fans go in for the soap operas and the transcendent athletes. College fans appreciate the variety of styles. If there are differing styles between NBA teams, they're lost on all but the most serious students of the game - and most of those students are studying college ball instead. One reason Kentucky fans think the Medcalf piece was dumb is because they'd love to get a piece of UVA. Really. And for much the same reason as we would love to play them. That particular clash of styles is an irresistable attraction. Both fanbases want to win this year's championship, but both fanbases would love, along the way, to prove their team's style is superior as well.
-- It keeps games closer, and closer games are shockingly more interesting to the "casual fan." Actually, I think this is a bit overblown, but announcers harp on it every time a team hangs close with UVA. Fewer possessions, less opportunity to break open the game, and so on. There's a kernel of truth to it, but there's also this: if the so-called casual fan keeps hearing these announcers blather about it, he's likely to think, "this might be a good chance to see an upset."
-- It occasionally produces circus-freak scores. Like 76-27 or 45-26. That certainly draws attention, yes? It is possible to say with a straight face that this team might one day finish a first half with a goose egg on the other team's scoreboard. I find it hard to believe that wouldn't interest anyone.
-- Finally - and this is absolutely the crux of the argument right here - that "casual fan" that Medcalf thinks dominates the game's fanbase? The one that "cares about entertainment," where "entertainment" means running and scoring? You know the type.
It's a unicorn. It doesn't exist. Medcalf wrote a whole article about his own imagination.
There is such a thing as the "casual fan," yes. That person is a fan of a team, not a sport. (Or they're a fan of an event, specifically the NCAA tournament.) Medcalf thinks Joe Schmo, the "gamblers, bus drivers, CEOs, and salesmen" in his article, will be sitting in their living rooms going, "hmm, I wonder who's playing college basketball tonight" in much the same way they peruse Netflix for a movie to pass the time. They don't. People who are fans of college basketball have a team and they watch that team. The more casual they are, the less likely they are to watch or care about Random Monday Night Game, not more. Duh! (And, obviously, the more casual they are, the less likely they are to notice the difference between Game A and Game B where Game A has eight more possessions than Game B. As well, the more casual they are, the less likely they are to know which team plays what style of ball. Duh, again.) It's the serious fans - you know, the ones that like college basketball pretty much the way it is, that watch random games for entertainment.
The real casual fans, not the ones that exist in Myron Medcalf's head, are interested in seeing their team do well. That team is not likely to be Kentucky or Duke or Kansas. There are 351 teams in the country, of which maybe eight are considered royalty of the game. Chances are extremely good that their team isn't one of them. Tony Bennett gives them hope. Because Tony Bennett is proving you can be elite without recruiting Burger Boys, as long as you have a system. If college ball encourages running and hyper-scoring, it means the only way to succeed is with elite athletes, and the only schools that can recruit elite athletes are the royalty. Fans of UVA and Wisconsin and Baylor and Utah and Wichita State and Iowa State (and so on and so forth) want to know their team has a shot at hanging a banner. If college ball listens to the Myron Medcalfs of the world, and NBA-ifies the game, the Final Four will be four of the same eight teams, every year.
Nobody wants that. Any drooling idiot can see that the thing that makes the NCAA tournament interesting to the "casual fan" (the one from above that's a fan of the event) is Cinderella. Hell, Cinderella is probably one of the major forces that has helped keep the NCAA together.** That's the one thing the "casual fan" likes above everything else.
One could go the cynical route and suggest that Medcalf is fronting for his employer, an employer which holds a vested interest in TV ratings. ESPN isn't a neutral observer; they want games to be as interesting as possible. Maybe Medcalf is just mouthpiecing the results of some focus group that got latched onto by the C-suite at Disney. I say, never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity. Hanlon's razor. Medcalf wrote something dumb because it'd been percolating in his head for a while now, and he's surrounded by groupthink in his media bubble. As we've seen, actual college basketball fanhood reacted to it as they should've.
**The Power 5 conferences might have made a stronger move to break away, if the NCAA tournament weren't such a money machine, and it's a money machine because Lehigh over Duke.