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Dan Shaughnessy

No dancing around the seamier side

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / March 20, 2011

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Sorry to disrupt the dance, but I’m here to tell you that the NCAA Tournament is one of the more fraudulent, overblown media creations of our time.

March Madness?

Please. What a farce.

OK, everybody likes their brackets. The David-vs.-Goliath themes are fun, great finishes always fascinate, and sometimes it’s nice to check in on old State U. But is there any connection between folks who actually follow the college game and this gluttonous festival of 24/7 bracketology bombardment? No. There isn’t.

Here’s a little test: Walk out your door and try to find someone who can name five players in this year’s tournament. You won’t find anyone unless you live next door to Bob Ryan, my boss Joe Sullivan, or one of the pudding-eating, basement-dwelling blog boys who’d normally be tracking UZR or NFL fantasy teams.

The tourney is great for office pools, gamblers, and happy hours, but most of the millions who fill out brackets wouldn’t know Nolan Smith from Nolan Ryan. Many folks who express “interest’’ in the tourney still think the UCLA Bruins need more work on their power play. Folks fill out draw sheets the same way they pick Kentucky Derby winners. Fortunately, the Derby is over in one day. This thing takes three weeks of our lives.

Certainly there are compelling Cinderella stories, but for the most part, the NCAA Tournament has morphed into a grotesque festival of AAU semi-pros working/playing for academic institutions. The players want to make it to the NBA and the schools want to rake in bundles of cash. A spot in the Final Four is the ultimate win-win.

Saturation coverage has become nauseating. ESPN is making me despise the tourney the same way it made me despise Brett Favre and LeBron James.

Let’s start with the bogus commentary. How many more sycophantic ex-coaches (thanks, Digger and Dickie) can we hear making excuses for every transgression made by current coaches? In the world of television commentary, every coach is pure and never responsible for NCAA violations. It was particularly disgusting to see Rick Pitino join the CBS crew hours after his team was eliminated. In March Madness, it’s always about the coaches more than the kids.

You have to love the astronomical salaries of these guys, many of whom make more money than the entire English department at your average NCAA school.

Coach-spin disguised as analysis keeps snake oil salesmen like John Calipari (two Final Four appearances erased because of infractions) in business. It’s safest to assume that all the schools and coaches are cheating. It’s just a matter of degree.

Today’s competition is seriously diluted. This year’s tournament featured a whopping 68 teams, and 13 of them had 11 or more losses. In the good old days, it was one team per conference. The 1974 Maryland Terrapins, one of the greatest college teams ever (six NBA draftees), couldn’t make it to the NCAA tourney because they lost the conference championship game to North Carolina State (103-100 in overtime).

That never happens now. The NCAA this year invited 11 teams from the Big East, which makes the conference tournament a joke.

I especially liked the “first round,’’ which were the play-in games. They’re telling us now that the first round is the second round and the second round is the third round. Guess that means 60 teams got a first-round bye. Boston University gets to say it lost a “second-round’’ game to Kansas.

And don’t you just love the way the NCAA pompously insists that we refer to the players as “student-athletes’’? Bull. Certainly there are young men on these teams who are serious students, but check out Derrick Z. Jackson’s column on today’s op-ed page and note the graduation rates of the tourney field. Twenty-one of the 68 teams in the tournament have graduation success rates under 50 percent for their African-American players.

Top-notch NCAA players are semipro athletes used by schools to gain money and exposure. If the ballplayers truly were students, they wouldn’t be able to take off the month of March for the tournament. A large number of the players have zero connection to the campus lives of the schools they represent. Do you know a kid who goes to Syracuse? Cool. Ask him or her if they’ve ever taken a class with or interacted with any of the basketball players.

Ultimately, March Madness is a competition of recruitment. Which coach was able to assemble the best players? Who had the most bags of cash to take care of players’ families and AAU coaches who have the power to steer kids to their schools? Isn’t it a miracle how Kansas attracts so many city kids to the flat farmland of whitebread Lawrence, Kan.? I bet Wilt Chamberlain longed for Lawrence when he was growing up in Philadelphia.

Coach Cal said it all last spring when his entire starting lineup (four freshmen) was selected in the first round of the NBA draft. Cal said it was the greatest night in the history of Kentucky basketball. Clearly, Kentucky’s seven NCAA championships take a back seat to getting kids jobs in the NBA.

Despite Calipari’s hideous comment, nitwit Kentucky fans continue to support the coach and the program. The mission is no longer about winning NCAA championships. It’s about getting kids into the pros — even if you have to rig their high school and college transcripts.

The sanctimonious, phony NCAA occasionally sanctions violators, but the college police don’t traditionally hassle prestigious “programs.’’ It’s a selective, subjective gendarmerie.

Yesterday I asked the estimable Bob Ryan how he still can love the tourney despite all the obvious hypocrisy and corruption.

“You just take a shower,’’ he said.

So I watched Kentucky and West Virginia — bag-man Calipari vs. bag-man Bob Huggins. Then I washed away all the dirt.

Yahoo. Boola boola. Go team.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.