For one night, all was forgiven.
The March Madness and bracketology hype. The 8:30 p.m. starting time. The endless television commercials, especially the one with Charles Barkley producing a hot dog from the vicinity of his left armpit. The football venue. The thinly disguised NBA development league for student athletes. The disappointment of my rooting interest.
It was all overshadowed by 40 minutes of great basketball in Louisville's 82-76 win over Michigan in the NCAA men's final Monday night. As every fan knows, two substitutes played like stars. Spike Albrecht scored 17 points in the first half for Michigan and consistently broke Louisville's press with his dribbling until the magic wore off four minutes before the end of the half. Louisville forward Luke Hancock did even better, with 22 points including four three-pointers in two minutes at the end of the half that got his team back in the game.
Neither of these long-range bombers had a single dunk, and neither player was a star during the regular season. They proved the prediction by Michigan's coach John Beilein that some "outlier" might be the key player in the game.
The quality of the game, the huge audience, and the special players on both teams ensures that several trends in sports will be accelerated.
The 20-year-old freshman: Albrecht and Hancock might have looked like throwbacks to another era of college basketball, but they did not exactly come out of nowhere. Although they were not highly recruited, they both went to prep schools for a year after graduating from high school to improve their chances of getting a scholarship to a Division 1 school. Like Albrecht's teammate Mitch McGary, another story line of this year's tournament, they are or soon will be 20-year-old college freshmen. Whether at Michigan, Louisville, or Memphis, today's big-time college athlete is likely to be a year or two years older than his classmates. The same goes for star players in high school and middle-school who are "red-shirted" to give them time to bulk up, develop their skills, and maybe accumulate enough credits and a high-enough ACT score to be college-eligible. Rare is the 17-year-old high school senior who can compete at the highest level in basketball, football, or baseball.
Basketball in indoor football stadiums: The Final Four and two of the Elite Eight games were played in indoor football stadiums. This means thousands of empty seats at some venues, when fans of losing teams go home, but it sure didn't deter a reported 74,000 people from showing up Monday night at the Georgia Dome to party, squint at the floor, and watch the action on the big screen. The chances of the Final Four returning to a basketball arena are remote.
Commercials rule: A couple of minutes of television commercials used to be interspersed with several minutes of game action. Now it's just the opposite. Several times during Final Four games there would be only a few seconds of "action" between commercials. Players call time-outs when they can't inbound the ball, and coaches call those dreaded "20-second time-outs" that freeze the action and kill momentum at the end of the game. Cut to another commercial of Alec Baldwin and Charles Barkley or a CBS promo. Basketball's television timeout at the eight-minute mark has become as institutionalized as pro football's two-minute warning.
So long, CBS and Final Four. CBS has broadcast the NCAA men's final for more than three decades, but it could go to a cable station as early as next year. Time Warner's Turner Broadcasting now shares the rights to the last three rounds, but several media outlets have reported that Turner could take over in 2014 instead of 2016. More games on cable means more advertising slots, more revenue, and higher bills for bundled cable packages for consumers who want to watch sports.
Newspapers say "thanks." College and pro basketball and football aren't the only things keeping print newspapers and their websites and pay walls going, but they're big attractions for readers and, therefore, advertisers. More and more, sports stories, pictures, and columns aren't just on the front page, they are the front page.
Good news for Josh Pastner, the University of Memphis, and FedExForum. Especially if they can keep Louisville on the schedule and win a couple of games each year in the tournament, Memphis and its well-paid coach, first-class arena, and short-term players should prosper in the brave new world of college hoops.