NCAA's potential Holy War an unholy idea

Posted: March 21, 2014

BUFFALO, N.Y. - This is apparently a minority opinion, and so be it. But putting Villanova and Saint Joseph's in adjacent spots in the same NCAA Tournament bracket is a cynical, lousy bit of business committed by the selection committee.

A Holy War in March is wholly unnecessary. It plays to story lines and television ratings and misses the point of the thing entirely.

Philadelphia does not get everything right, but it does get college basketball right. When it comes to this time of year, we celebrate the wins and lament the losses and that's about as critical as we get. We hope, most of all, that everyone gets something good out of the journey - and, best of all, sports writers get a chance to avoid writing about Chip Kelly and DeSean Jackson for a week or 2.

But this bracket intrudes on that mindset. If the Hawks beat UConn in the first game tonight and the Wildcats beat Milwaukee in the second game, it is a game of rivals in the Round of 32. The committee does this sometimes and quickly denies that it is doing it, lining up coaching rivals against each other, or a new coach against his old school, or a coach against his former assistant, or something else perceived as telegenically sexy for one of the weekend time slots. This year, magically, Creighton and Nebraska could face each other in the Round of 32. And so it is here.

But in its pursuit of narrative, the NCAA plays to the fans by intruding on the participants. This tournament is supposed to be about these players and about their experiences. It is supposed to be about now. Instead, if they manage to get through, the St. Joe's and Villanova players will find their experiences tangled up with all of this tortured historical nonsense. It isn't right.

Even during the run-up to the Round of 64 games, St. Joe's-Villanova is embedded into the subtext. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim managed to get involved, riffing on Phil Martelli's riff the other day about hoping to hitch a ride to Buffalo on what he figured to be Villanova's opulent plane.

"I saw Jay [Wright] last night," Boeheim said. "I don't know why Jay wouldn't let Phil on the back of the plane. I think they should have. That would have been neighborly for him to do that."

The players have some safety for the next little bit. The questions can be asked but the answers, appropriately, are about the upcoming opponent and about nothing after that. As the Hawks' Langston Galloway said, "We really can't look at Villanova right now. We know that we have a big team in UConn in our way. It's definitely our mindset right now because if we overlook UConn, we'll be headed back home to Philly."

But if they get through as the underdog tonight, and if Villanova gets through as the favorite, the shield of protection will be gone - it will be all Holy War, all the time. The current players will be bombarded with it, even if they don't understand the history and cannot really fathom the depths of some people's feelings.

It was a rivalry born of city kids vs. rich kids, but anybody who has seen the tuition at both places these days and the geographic breadth of their student bodies knows that they're really a lot of the same kids anymore. It was a rivalry stoked in the '80s when Villanova went to the Big East and the Big 5 tottered as a result - but that is ancient history, too, especially given how much Wright has worked to cement Villanova's place in the Philadelphia community.

None of this means anything to the current players, yet their tournament could be engulfed by the time-honored conflagration.

"I know in Philadelphia, if we played them, it would be huge in Philadelphia," Wright said. "If we played them in the NCAA Tournament, and this close [to Philadelphia], it would be big. No one knows except people who live in Philly how big that would be."

This tournament is supposed to be about the Fourth and Shunk layup and the Southwest Philly Floater and every unlikely, unforgettable moment in between. That is when it is at its best and its most pure. To make it, instead, about old men and their old hatreds, grudges passed down lovingly from generation to generation, is to shift the focus to a place that it does not belong.

All because of somebody's idea of what makes a good story - as if the games aren't good enough on their own.


Email: hofmanr@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @theidlerich

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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