Men's Basketball

John Clay: NCAA finals proved the game is what matters

There are the hypocritical powers that be at the NCAA, determined to dilute its product by expanding its men's basketball tournament to an unwieldy 96 teams, all for the sake of grabbing more green.

Yet they can't kill the game.

There are the phony coaches, preaching loyalty and commitment before breaking one contract and signing another, rarely worried about anything but their own self-interest.

Yet they can't kill the game.

There are the college presidents, who talk grandly of integrity and priorities but, in reality, lack the backbone to say no to their big-contract coaches or their demanding donors.

Yet they can't kill the game.

Last but not least, there are the fans, the modern fans, anyway, who hurl vile and spite in the stands and on the Internet, fans who demand results right here, right now.

And yet, even they can't kill the game.

The game lives on.

That was what was so reaffirming about Monday's classic NCAA championship game between Duke and Butler in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, a joyful reminder that when it's all said and done, what matters most is the game itself.

And by game, I mean the game played Monday night between the lines by — dare we say it? — student-athletes, who competed with grace and valor through one grueling possession after another.

Never mind that there were no sure-fire NBA stars on that 94-foot court, no wow-inspiring gifts of athleticism. Never mind that probably neither team will be remembered among college basketball's great assemblages of talent.

As fun as it was for us here in the Bluegrass to watch the likes of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Co. in Kentucky's one-and-done season, there was something even more intrinsically satisfying in the way Duke and Butler competed Monday night.

Midway through the second half, John Adams, the NCAA's director of officials, leaned over to me and said, "I don't know who's going to win this game. But I think everybody's gotten their money's worth."

Now that was a good call.

The Bulldogs and Blue Devils were two true teams that played a brand of basketball we don't see that much anymore.

They played smart basketball.

They helped on defense. They hit the open man on offense. They lifted each other up off the floor. There was little griping to the officials or playing to the crowd. The players on both teams played in a way that honored the game.

And isn't that what it's all about, after all, the game?

It's the game itself that draws us in the first place. Its level of skill. Its strategy. Its competition. Its drama.

It's why Butler Coach Brad Stevens gave up a potentially high-paying marketing job at a pharmaceutical company to take a non-paying job as a volunteer basketball coach at a mid-major university.

It's why even after (now) four national titles and an Olympic gold medal, Mike Krzyzewski keeps on coaching, just for the chance to be a part of what he called "a benchmark game."

A word here about Duke. It's easy to hate the Dookies. Call me guilty as charged. But you'd have to be basketball blind not to see the terrific work Coach K did this season, adjusting his lineup, playing to his team's strengths.

To let a rooting interest discount Krzyzewski's four titles would be equal to discounting Adolph Rupp's four crowns, which I doubt Kentucky fans really want to do.

Reality says Duke now rules a game that, despite evidence sometimes otherwise, is a game still worth ruling. Monday night showed us that.

No matter what goes on outside the lines, it's what goes on inside the lines that makes the game great.