March Madness Ends In Celebration For Connecticut Huskies

The "madness" is over, at least for the men. It's been a long road for the University Of Connecticut Huskies and the Butler Bulldogs, and the 2011 Men's NCAA basketball championship title has been claimed. It now belongs to the University of Connecticut. Host Michel Martin speaks with Tell Me More's regular contributor and Nation magazine sports editor, Dave Zirin about this year's tournament.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Last night, it was time to settle the madness.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Unidentified Man #1: The Huskies shut them down in the second half here in Houston. And the Huskies are the top dog in 2011.

MARTIN: The University of Connecticut Huskies defeated the Butler Bulldogs 53 to 41 to become, yes, the top dog. Butler made only 19 percent of its shots, making last night's final one of the lowest-scoring in NCAA men's basketball history. But it was enough for a third championship for the Huskies, whose coach, Jim Calhoun, became the oldest coach to win a championship.

Joining us now to talk about all this is Dave Zirin. He's sports editor for The Nation magazine. He's a frequent guest on this program. He's also author of the book "Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love."

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. DAVE ZIRIN (Sports Editor, The Nation; Author): Oh, great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: Let me just start with a little bit of sound from last night. This will be a sound that might still be ringing in people's ears. Here it is.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

Unidentified Man #2: (unintelligible) takes it in, and (unintelligible) the rim.

Unidentified Man #3: Can he do it a second time? No. Wide left.

Unidentified Man #2: Olander, jumper, no.

MARTIN: The clanging sound and the word no was so illustrative of the night for Butler. What happened?

Mr. ZIRIN: So many bricks, my goodness. That was the "Ishtar" of college basketball games. I mean, the long of it and the short of it is that Butler just did not hit their shots. Maybe it was the moment that was too big for them, although I find that hard to believe since they were in the championship game a year ago.

But the end result was an absolute bomb of a college basketball game. To give you some perspective, in 1973, Bill Walton scored 44 points in the NCAA championship.

MARTIN: By himself.

Mr. ZIRIN: By himself. Butler scored 41. Combined, it was the lowest number of points scored since 1949. Butler shot 19 percent from the field, the lowest ever. And considering that you now have a shot clock and a three-point shot, I mean, you could not get more tragically inept than what we saw on television last night.

MARTIN: But was the UConn defense just so formidable? Was it pressing them? Or do you think that it was kind of that they just got overwhelmed by the experience? I mean, this is still a pretty young team.

Mr. ZIRIN: I got to tell you that the UConn defense was very good, particularly inside. I mean, Butler only hit three two-point shots the entire game, which was an amazing number if you think about it. And it took them almost three-quarters of the game before they even hit their second shot inside the three-point line.

So some of that is UConn's defense. Some of that is superior size. Some of that is superior athleticism. But at the end of the day, no defense is that good. No defense is 19 percent from the field good.

MARTIN: But, you know, you were telling me earlier that, in fact, that these games have become more of a...

Mr. ZIRIN: Yes.

MARTIN: ...that these championship games that have become low-scoring over time.

Mr. ZIRIN: The shooting is far worse over the last 15 years.

MARTIN: And why is that?

Mr. ZIRIN: There are two big reasons for that. The first is that the best players leave for the NBA much earlier, what's sometimes called one-and-done syndrome. Players go for a year, then they leave. But the other thing is that the NCAA has become such a big business. This tournament has become such a big business - complete with $11 billion television contract and all the rest of it - that the game is now played in a football stadium, as opposed to in a basketball arena. And many players I talked to say that the depth perception is very different when you play in a stadium that vast.

And the percentages really do bear that out from the three-point line, even from the foul line, over the last 15 years. It's just a different game when you have that different depth perception.

MARTIN: And so they're playing the rest of the series, the rest of their season in a basketball stadium. But for the big games, they're moving...

Mr. ZIRIN: For the Final Four.

MARTIN: For the Final Four, they're moving into an entirely different arena.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yes.

MARTIN: I wonder if they're talking about this.

Mr. ZIRIN: Something that seats 70 or 80,000 people, you can't imagine they're talking about it too seriously because it's such big business at this point. More money is now bet on the NCAA championship than on the Super Bowl. It's big business.

MARTIN: I do want to ask, though, whether these were the two best teams in college basketball. Did the tournament work this year to put the best two teams together? Again, certainly, there was a lot of emotion involved here. I mean, just the fact that Butler was there at all, the fact that VCU made it, you know, all the way to, you know, the Final Four, certainly nobody thought, you know, had a chance. But were these the two best teams?

Mr. ZIRIN: I mean, Connecticut went nine and nine in the Big East, but they went on a run at the very end of the year and they won the Big East tournament, and then they ran the table in the NCAA tournament. No one expected this of Butler this year. So all you can really say is that they were the best teams in March, but they certainly were not the best teams throughout the college basketball season.

And the same thing is happening in the women's game, because tonight is the women's NCAA championship. And for only the second time in the history of the women's game, you're not going to have a number one seed in the final game. So this kind of parity and this kind of underdog culture, if you will, is pervading both the men's and the women's NCAA tournaments.

MARTIN: Well, do you think that makes the game better or worse? I think it's exciting.

Mr. ZIRIN: Oh, I think it's better.

MARTIN: You know, it mostly depends on what you - why you look. I mean, if you look because you think you like the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat -to pull out that old chestnut - you can't do better than that.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah, I'm thrilled with the setup of both games. I mean, I love the fact that Butler, I mean, such the scrappy mid-major underdog making the finals in its second consecutive year without their best player, who left after last year, Gordon Hayward. And in the women's game, it's - frankly, it's great to see some new teams there.

I mean, the women's game has been dominated by UConn, by Tennessee, over the years by Louisiana Tech, USC. It's been a dynastic operation, women's basketball. And so to see Notre Dame led by the great Skylar Diggins and Texas A&M, I think it's going to be a terrific game tonight.

MARTIN: Texas A&M is making its first visit to the championship game, is it not?

Mr. ZIRIN: Yes. And led by the two Sydneys, Sydney Colson and Sydney Carter. And the thing that's going to be interesting about tonight is that Notre Dame is a very exciting run-and-gun offensive team. So anybody who was offended by the lack of offense last night will enjoy Notre Dame tonight. And Texas A&M is actually a terrific defensive squad. So...

MARTIN: And how do you call it?

Mr. ZIRIN: Oh, I like Notre Dame in this game. They are the second women's team in history to play the final game in their home state. So Notre Dame, in Indiana, I think the crowd's going to be fantastic. It'll be a terrific game, and it'll be an anecdote for last night.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, though, at the NCAA board meeting later this month, it's expected that one topic of discussion will be whether college athletes - especially in revenue-generating sports like basketball and football - should receive any form of financial compensation for playing. The argument is that these sports, as you just told us, generate an awful lot of money, but the athletes don't get any share of the profit, and this has led to some unseemly things like, you know, selling jerseys and things that players are very much condemned for, and sometimes their families.

Mr. ZIRIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: But people say that, you know, we've created these economic conditions. And I know you have a point of view on this, since I'd like to ask whether there's actually serious consideration being given to giving the athletes come form of compensation. Or is that just sort of a placate the crowds?

Mr. ZIRIN: Well, it's interesting. I think the president of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, isn't so interested in justice at this point. But I think, as I call him, he's just as curious. He's willing to start to explore this, because I do think we've reached a tipping point with the level of scandal that's taken place.

And honestly, with the huge amounts of money that are so publicly there for everybody to see and the players who are shut out of this revenue-producing process, there needs - we've clearly reached some sort of tipping point where something needs to be done, unless we want to see the best players suspended for selling their own clothes.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Dave Zirin writes about sports and politics for The Nation. He's also a frequent contributor to this program. And he's the author of the book "Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love." And he was with us from our studios in Washington.

Dave, thanks so much.

Mr. ZIRIN: My privilege.

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