‘Survive and Advance’ at the dance

March 20, 2013 

While watching “Survive and Advance” on ESPN during the evening of Selection Sunday, I realized for the first time that I witnessed the golden age of college basketball.

Led by the late Jim Valvano, North Carolina State battled through a key injury and a mess of really, really good teams to win its last nine games of the 1982-83 season and claim ACC and national championships. Video of Lorenzo Charles’ buzzer-beating dunk in the national title game is as familiar to those of my generation as Mikey and his cereal.

The mythology surrounding that team has grown in the last 30 years. Valvano’s death -- to cancer, 10 years to the month after Charles’ basket -- contributed. Had Valvano not died -- and Charles, too, more recently -- the Wolfpack’s run wouldn’t have been seen as epic.

The era in which the team played certainly was, however.

The list of players N.C. State competed against during that run reads like a Who’s Who of basketball greatness. Michael Jordan. Ralph Sampson. Hakeem Olajuwon. Clyde Drexler. Others in the tournament included Dominique Wilkins and Patrick Ewing.

Dominant centers Sampson, Olajuwon and Ewing were all in the college game at the same time. The best big men in today’s college game -- the best players overall for that matter -- are in the NBA.

Do you think defending national champ Kentucky would be a no-show in this year’s Field of 68 if three NBA-bound freshmen had returned for another season? Not that I think the NBA should increase its age elibility requirement. (In fact, the current one that yields so many “one-and-done” players is flat out wrong.) But there’s no doubt the college game suffers as a result of a decreased talent pool.

It’s not just that the players were better then, however. The coverage was, as well. ESPN was a bigger underdog than N.C. State at the time. College basketball nurtured the fledgling cable network while it found its legs. For the first time, sports-mad college students like myself could watch hoops four or five times a week. And it was ESPN that first broadcast the early rounds of the tournament.

The rules were better, too. There was no shot clock. There was no three-point shot -- at least not in the tournament. It wasn’t nationalized until 1986.

Designed to force teams to defend more of the half court and thereby open up the floor, the 3-point shot created unintended consequences for the college game. Athleticism in the post has been replaced with physicality. Centers and forwards merely rebound for shooters. They aren’t asked to develop their own offensive skills.

Yes, “Survive and Advance” recalled how good the college game was. But all is not lost. Year in and year out, March Madness delivers. There will be bracket busters. There will be buzzer beaters.

And as it was 30 years ago, a team from Tobacco Road will once again cut down the nets when it’s all over. It’s Duke.

Contact Chris Deighan at cdeighan@cox.net.

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