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Originally published Sunday, March 17, 2013 at 9:43 PM

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After a terrible NCAA basketball season, this sport needs March's madness

College basketball has been borderline unwatchable at points this season. Good thing it has the most entertaining finale of all: the NCAA men's tournament.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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No matter how much you love March Madness, no matter how much you Gus (Johnson) it up, there's no denying this college basketball season has been an eyesore.

Low scores, loose fundamentals, diminished star power, over-coaching — the year has been a cocktail of pitiful and puzzling. In November, Georgetown beat Tennessee in a real shootout, 37-36. It was the best football game the Volunteers, a struggling pigskin school, played all season. And, yes, those victorious Hoyas went on to earn a No. 2 seed in the men's NCAA tournament.

This is the year of the deceptive, close game. This is the year of the 59-57 overtime game that ends with last-minute theatrics and leaves you thinking, "Uh, was that good basketball?" This is the year in which the No. 1 ranking turned good teams into middling ones, the year in which ordinary became a feat.

But now that it's time for the most exciting tournament ever devised by man, here's the beauty of ugly: These tight, low-scoring games between closely bunched teams will only make this March madder.

The worse the basketball, the better the Big Dance?

In a sense, yes.

The thrill of the NCAA tournament is the challenge it presents to the gambler in all of us: an attempt to predict the unpredictable. Crazy tournaments make for lively office pools, and they ensure the Big Dance maintains its allure. This tournament is inclusive in that way. It isn't for the hoops snob, at least not in the opening rounds. It isn't even for the expert, because knowledge can be futile when you're trying to anticipate upsets.

So nitpicking the quality of play becomes secondary to marveling over crazy finishes and crazier outcomes. Judging the supposed great teams becomes secondary to the sole standard of surviving and advancing.

But make no mistake: The sport needs an entertaining tournament badly. The regular season wasn't up to par. College hoops stats maven Ken Pomeroy offered a startling fact midway through the season in story by USA Today reporter Nicole Auerbach: This could be the worst scoring year since 1952, when teams scored an average of 63.3 points per game.

Over the past 61 years, that average has dipped below 68 points only once (in 1982). A year ago, the average was 68.01. Entering the conference tournaments, the average was 67.6, and the pace of games tends to get slower in the postseason, which can mean even lower scoring.

It's not just about scoring, however. Right now, with the 19-year-old NBA draft age limit, the perception of college basketball is heavily influenced by every incoming freshman class. This year's crop is one of the weaker ones in recent memory, and that has led to a lack of star power. People aren't talking about Anthony Davis' uni-browed gifts. Derrick Rose isn't beating everyone downcourt. Carmelo Anthony isn't carrying Syracuse to a national title. There are plenty of good players remaining, but there's no dominant, obvious No. 1 overall NBA draft pick.

So, with teams more balanced and limited, you're seeing the poor fundamentals of players who can't compensate with superior athleticism. You're also seeing coaches smother the game. They're not letting players play. They're so good at scouting, their teams are so even and their ability to influence games is so great. Coaches can't sit back anymore. And they're mucking up games.

But the Big Dance is a known elixir.

"Do we need it?" NCAA men's tournament selection committee chairman Mike Bobinski asked in a conference call last week. "We're certainly not going to turn it down."

Naturally, Bobinski defended the sport.

"It's easy to take those grinders that have happened — none of us can deny that during the course of the year — and extrapolate that to the whole," he said. "But it's not true. In general, there have been a lot of terrific games out there. I think the tournament will play a tremendous role in restoring that really good feel. I think it does every year. It's a cleansing moment for a lot of college athletics because for three and a half weeks, people focus intently on college basketball, the game, all that's good about it.

"If the regular season and its competitiveness is any indication, I think we're going to be in for a very thrilling tournament and really give the game a great boost as we move through this next month."

For that to happen, the NCAA needs a wild start that yields to great basketball from teams that prove elite. Wild is almost certain to happen. Elite performances? Well, even big-time coaches have wondered aloud if this is the year a No. 1 seed loses to a No. 16.

Cinderella's dance card is full this March. Everyone is staring at her, expecting good times. But as always, Goliath will ultimately decide how good this tournament is.

If you have seen him, tell him now would be a good time to make an appearance.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

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