What happened to the Program?   

Updated: February 27, 2007, 11:41 AM ET

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We're nearing the time of year when college basketball coaches are buried under gilded heaps of praise. They are exalted for qualities real and imagined. They are molders of men, selfless sufferers of long nights and worthless refs, conductors able to harness the wild-mustang inclinations of young men and turn their energies into something geometrically coherent.

And, for the most part, they act accordingly. They stare down sideline reporters. They assume ignorance in all others. They call timeouts with less than 10 seconds left to set up slow-developing plays designed to get game-winning baskets even though the better option is almost always to let the guys run the floor and create on the fly. Oh, but that wouldn't draw all the attention to Coach, who must justify the expense of all those dry-erase pens he uses to frantically scribble the X's and O's of brilliance.

Bo Ryan

Getty Images

How do you solve a run-and-gun game? You call a timeout.

Sorry. That last one is a pet peeve.

But what about the state of college basketball? If these men are the custodians of the game, how are they doing? Do they deserve the upcoming downpour of praise sure to be emanating from Billy Packer?

(Alert: Generalities ahead. Obviously, there's more than one category of coach, but a wide net must be used for the purposes of the discussion.)

First, this much is pretty much beyond argument: The talent level in the NCAA has been on the decline since it became standard for the best players to stay in college for two or fewer years. The NBA's misguided role as national truant officer won't change that.

Given that fundamental truth, it would seem logical for coaches to adapt to the changed landscape and teach a more team-oriented game. At the highest levels, with accelerated player turnover, continuity would seem to be paramount. The idea of a capital-P Program, in the manner of a John Wooden or Dean Smith, must be the surest way to remain successful and stay employed.

Well, apparently not. Instead, we have more isolation offensive sets and far less motion. In some cases, there's more catering to individual talent. If a coach can get a one-and-done, new-rule recruit who is good enough to carry a team, he'll change his style of play for that player, even though it means changing it again the next year.

Has the game forced them to coach this way, or have they chosen the path of least resistance? There definitely aren't as many Programs left. Smith coached North Carolina pretty much the same way with Michael Jordan as he did with Sam Perkins -- he got the ball in the hands of his best player at crucial moments, but it didn't come at the expense of the team concept.

It was inevitable, probably, but coaches have made the college game more like the NBA, perhaps as a means of making it more attractive to a life-changing recruit.

The Wisconsin-Ohio State game on Sunday, presumably the game of the year, was exciting and close, but it wasn't well-played. Both teams struggled to get open looks, and both teams had at least one player on the floor who didn't need to be guarded from beyond 15 feet. If those are two of the four or five best teams in the country, expect a lot of upsets during the tournament.

Why? Because the Programs are now schools such as Air Force and Butler and Southern Illinois. Because the star-centric nature of the game has opened the possibility of Winthrop beating Texas by stopping one player. Because Bob Knight, love him or hate him, runs a system that has the potential of beating anybody over the course of 40 minutes with players John Calipari wouldn't waste a stamp on to recruit.

And so the best teams are the ones who combine Program with talent. They're balanced and experienced, and they're just a little bit more upset-proof than the guys who reflexively put their heads down and go one-on-one against the world whenever it gets tense. Take Kansas, for one, and UCLA. Now those guys can coach.

This Week's List
There's a good chance it's a side we've never seen -- and frankly, never asked to see: Tennessee women's coach Pat Summitt is planning a stunt for Tuesday night's Florida-Tennessee men's game that will rival Bruce Pearl's shirtless display earlier this year, and Pearl says, "America is going to see a side of Pat Summitt they haven't seen in a long time."

If you find yourself in the unlikely position of having your life depend on a college basketball player's ability and willingness to pass the ball to you in an advantageous position -- or hell, any position -- here's absolutely your last pick: Eric Devendorf, Syracuse.

In this case, "personal issues" can be translated as "Sacramento at Indiana": When the Kings played the Pacers on Sunday, Ron Artest did not play "for personal issues."

Come to think of it: Nobody should ever play for personal issues; it's a team game, damn it.

• The Heat and the Cavs combined to go 25-of-51 from the foul line Sunday.

This is a question that comes purely from curiosity, nothing else: What's with the San Francisco Giants and their cross-dressing/"American Idol" infatuation?

That said, I really like the Packers' chances of picking up a solid third-down back in the fourth round: The only thing more exciting than the NFL draft is the long, slow and steady stream of outright guessing that goes on for months beforehand.

This week's ready-made example of why pro sports is heading down a ruinous path: Pacman Jones.

Which raises a question: Do fans really care about the moral fiber of the players for whom they root?

One man's opinion: No, they don't; if a guy can play, fans don't care, even if he did allegedly punch a woman at a strip club, bite a bouncer and control the guys who started shooting.

Just for the heck of it: Fennis Dembo.

Because, you know, judging by the current reading on my uncool meter, it's got to be getting close: At what point does the phrase "Manny being Manny" become so utterly overused and uncool that it becomes cool again in a campy, guys-in-the-know kind of way?

And finally, its most amazing feature is its ability to spend years and years telling you how great it is while still pretending to be humble: The TomTom navigation system has created a new option for its customers -- Curt Schilling's voice giving directions.

Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Sound off to Page 2 here.



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