NCAA Tournament Upsetting, But Still A Thrill

Who would have predicted some of the tides of March in the NCAA men's basketball tournament? St. Mary's over Villanova? Butler over Syracuse? And the University of Northern Iowa over Kansas? Are there more surprises in store? Host Scott Simon talks with Howard Bryant, senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine, about the NCAA tournament and the sentencing of Gilbert Arenas.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Scott Simon.

Time for sports. Who would have predicted some of the tides of March in the NCAA men's basketball tournament? St. Mary's over Villanova? See, Im getting choked up. Butler over Syracuse? University of Northern Iowa over Kansas?

More surprises in store? Who knows? Maybe Howard Bryant, senior writer for ESPN.com, ESPN the Magazine, and ESPN the Home Improvement.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Howard, how are you?

Mr. HOWARD BRYANT (ESPN): Good morning, Scott. Youve come to the wrong place if you think that I know what Im talking about. I had Syracuse actually in the final game. What do I know?

SIMON: Syracuse, I kind of had penciled in myself in so far as, you know, I know anything Im talking about when it comes to this. But wow, this has been incredible drama. Hasnt it?

Mr. BRYANT: It's been a great tournament. In fact, I think that now we're starting to get to that point where you're wondering if it's the greatest tournament ever. And I think what you're seeing here finally is a by-product of the last 15 years.

If you go back to 1995, when Kevin Garnett bypassed college and went straight to the NBA, there had been this conversation that eventually the talent drain in college was going to create parity. That when these great, great young players skipped college or only went to college for a year, suddenly the North Carolinas and the Kansases and the UCLAs were not going to be as dominant. And I think thats what you're seeing now.

I mean think about it. North Carolina didnt even make the tournament and they're the defending champions, because their players are all in the NBA. LeBron James never went to college. Derek Rose, who was the number one pick overall from Memphis, he would be in college right now.

And so what you're seeing is the gap between that number one seed, which is supposed to just zoom through the tournament until at least the second and third rounds, suddenly they're having many more problems. And those nine and 10 and 11 seeds, there's no such thing as a mid major anymore. Now youve got a lot of parity. The gap has never been smaller.

SIMON: And I guess even arguably, if you get a team like the Tar Heels that win one year, they pay the price for it the next.

Mr. BRYANT: Sure, they pay the price because they're players. Well, it's also the NBA's rule. The NBA has an age limit rule which prevents a lot of players from going directly to the pros. So theyve got to come to college for one year. They play their one year. I mean a guy like Carmelo Anthony as well.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. BRYANT: You play for one year. You win a national championship and then you go to the pros. They dont have any real desire to stay for four years, which is why those Florida teams that won back-to-back championships were so impressive, because those players were - they wanted to stay together. They wanted to repeat and it's very, very rare that you're going to see that.

SIMON: Anything special you're looking for in the rest of the tournament?

Mr. BRYANT: Well, I think Kentucky is my nemesis because Im not a fan of John Calipari. How many other coaches go to the Final Four twice and have both of them vacated? I think he's one of the big problems in college sports. However, Kentucky is destroying the field right now. They're the best team going right now.

I am partial to Michigan State, actually. I like the way they play and I really like Tom Izzo and the match-up zone.

SIMON: Before we leave, Gilbert Arenas, Washington Wizards, was sentenced yesterday for bringing guns into the locker room - not that it helped the Wizard's scoring.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Thirty days in a halfway house, 400 hours of community service, two years probation, $5,000 fine, any reaction to that sentence?

Mr. BRYANT: Certainly not what the prosecutors wanted. They wanted him to go for three months. In fact, they had first wanted him to go for six months. And it's a rebuke to the prosecutors. I dont think that it was an offense where he would - where he deserved to go to prison.

However, it's a cautionary tale with these athletes that you do have to comport yourself a little bit better. And I think that he got away with one, if you compare him to Plaxico Burress, who is in prison right now, I think Gilbert Arenas is breathing very much a sigh of relief.

SIMON: Howard Bryant, senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. BRYANT: My pleasure, Scott.

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