Every Final Four has a star. Last year, it was Sister Jean, Loyola (Chicago)’s beloved 99-year-old team chaplain. In 2016 it was telegenic Villanova coach Jay Wright, who kept a stone face as his team won a championship in most exciting way imaginable. In 2013, it was Kevin Ware, the Louisville guard whose gruesome leg injury in the regional final made him the inspirational cheering reaction shot on the sideline of the title game. Each of these characters represented something about college basketball that the sport is eager to showcase: Lovable academic figures, smooth handsome coaches, underdog players who overcome great odds to succeed. They are why people have loved this tournament for decades.
This year, the Final Four’s star was … probably Charles Barkley. The NBA legend and Olympian gabber has been on CBS’s NCAA studio show since 2011, and he has been consistently entertaining, partly because he’s Charles Barkley but mostly because he rather obviously doesn’t follow college basketball closely yet has the most high-profile commentating gig in the sport, leading to a cavalcade of amusing mistakes. (He once praised the defense of a player who wasn’t in the game and somehow confused Iowa and Purdue.) But this year Barkley has nearly taken over the whole tournament, largely because his alma mater, Auburn, reached the Final Four for the first time in the school history. This has led to constant Barkley viral moments, from the speech he gave the team before its game to what has essentially served as a collective Barkley cam, capturing his reaction to every little thing his team did.
Barkley is Barkley — he remains the only celebrity in the country who can tell a police officer who just arrested him for a DUI that he was “gonna drive around the corner and get a blow job” and garner not one whit of negative publicity for it — but to many, the fact that the biggest star of this Final Four is a famous NBA commentator who openly admits he doesn’t watch the sport until his job requires him to do so is perhaps not the greatest indicator of the current health of college basketball. In fact, for most of Monday night’s title game, the general consensus was that the sport, and this game, was terrible. That the teams in the title game, which Virginia won 85-77 in overtime, were two of the most notoriously defensive-minded in all of basketball led to an undeniable takeaway: This Final Four, which could have had Zion Williamson and Duke but instead had Virginia, Texas Tech, Michigan State, and Auburn, stunk. Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel called the game “generationally unsexy,” which, shout-out to Jake Peralta, is the name of your sex tape.
It seemed to take forever for onlookers to notice they were watching one of the best championship games of all time.
While the ratings for the semifinals on Saturday were actually better than last year’s, this Final Four has, until Monday’s incredible finish, unleashed the usual complaints about college basketball with particular fury. The players are anonymous; the coaches have too much power; the games are choppy and difficult to watch; random teams like Texas Tech and Auburn getting hot and making the Final Four just further emphasizes how little reason there is to watch regular season games. College basketball has lost considerable cultural capital in the last decade or so — it was ranked below the NHL and NASCAR in the most recent Harris Poll of America’s favorite sports, and men’s soccer is gaining on it — as the sport’s exploitation of its unpaid athletes has come under more and more scrutiny, particularly from NBA stars like LeBron James, who called the NCAA “corrupt” last year. (DeMarcus Cousins flat out said “college basketball is bullshit.”)
Monday night’s game started out not exactly advancing the cause of those who love college basketball and want the sport to thrive and possibly return to its glory days. The score at the first media time-out, five minutes in, was 3-2: Fans were treated to both teams missing 10 of their first 11 shots. The whole spectacle inspired NBA Twitter, always a swarming, relentless force anyway, to bemoan that the league took the night off to stay out of the title game’s way, with esteemed NBA reporter Howard Beck popping in to tweet “*checks score of college basketball game* *wretches uncontrollably* *returns to washing dishes*” Even Barkley himself got in on the action, joking about the game’s slow pace that “even my grandmother got a speeding ticket every now and then.” And as established: He’s a guy who knows his vehicular regulations. It was definitely looking like a night for people who don’t naturally like college basketball to pile on college basketball.
But, even before the game got crazy at the end, it is also worth pointing out that college basketball diehards loved Monday night’s matchup. Coaches Tony Bennett and Chris Beard are two of the most respected, strategically inventive coaches in the game (and, not for nothing, are both considered potential NBA coaches someday). The idea that these are the only two teams in all of basketball who play defense is absurd — the NBA plays the best defense in the world, don’t you know — but they are both particularly great at it, and some people do, in fact, like watching defense: They’re called college-basketball fans. Also, in case this matters: It was in fact a fantastic game that came down to the final seconds, the seventh time in the last eight years that the national title game has been within six points or less. Meanwhile, you likely fell asleep during the Super Bowl this year, and everyone already knows who is going to win the NBA Finals this year. Virginia’s championship is itself its own terrific story too; it’s the first in school history, and it came a year after they became the first No. 1 seed in tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed. This game might not have pleased people who only watch one college basketball game a year. But the way each team kept unleashing haymakers at each other in the biggest game any of them will ever play made those of us who do watch college basketball downright giddy.
Is it enough to pull the game out of its doldrums? It’s not necessarily an academic concern: Major League Baseball is so worried about casual fans maybe turning away from their game that they’re toying with major rules changes that carry considerable risk of turning off the people who truly love it. College basketball has the same existential threats that all big-time college sports face, and ideally, when it has a transcendent player like it did this year with Duke’s Zion Williamson, you’d like him to reach the Final Four. But while your NBA isolationist might dislike a game played at such a slow pace, your dedicated college-basketball fan ate Monday night up. And seriously: If you stuck with it, what an ending.
Monday’s game was likely the last time your average drive-by sports fan will think about college basketball until next year’s tournament begins. But the rest of us are already putting together our top 25s and scoping the recruiting message boards. College basketball isn’t as big as it used to be, and it surely never will be that big again. That’s okay. Nothing is as big as it used to be anymore. Not everything has to be for everybody. If you didn’t enjoy the national title game, then maybe, yeah, college basketball just isn’t for you. Perhaps you would like this Charles Barkley Cam.
Will Leitch’s Games column runs weekly. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.