John McGrath

John McGrath: College basketball come back, and you can blame it all on me

Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss drives to the basket as Pacific’s Jack Williams defends. The Zags are predicted to be a top seed when the NCAA announces seedings on March 12.
Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss drives to the basket as Pacific’s Jack Williams defends. The Zags are predicted to be a top seed when the NCAA announces seedings on March 12. The Associated Press

Dear College Basketball,

You’ve heard the apology before, but this time I really mean it: I’m sorry for ignoring you.

There’s been a lot on my plate since you showed up last November. The Huskies football team rolled to a 12-victory season and a berth in the national semifinals. The Seahawks both distracted and entertained me with their every-day-poses-a-new-plot-twist-in-the-soap-opera antics.

When the Hawks were bounced from the NFL playoffs, my attention turned to the Super Bowl. Just as the Super Bowl was winding up, it was time for the Mariners to report to spring training.

And all along, you were there on TV, seven nights a week. Familiar teams, obscure teams, it didn’t matter. Access was easy, but I couldn’t make the commitment.

“I’ll wait ‘til March,” I told myself. “Maybe I’ll care in March.”

March is here, and I care. The bracket for the NCAA men’s tournament began taking reservations over the weekend. Next Sunday afternoon, the full bracket will be revealed during an hour-long telecast that’ll bring me up to date on which conferences are overrated, which conferences are underrated, who got snubbed, and an annual refresher course on whatever schools belong to Big East.

I once adored you, college basketball, and even though I disappear 11 months out of the year, I crave the special moments you still give me.

But my affection for you is not the same, for the simple reason it can’t be the same. The best young players are one and done. The best young coaches come and go. There’s no continuity. All that remains intact, from season to season, are such uniform colors as North Carolina’s powder blue, worn on those occasions the Tar Heels aren’t outfitted in black jerseys and black shorts.

College basketball was never my primary love — that would be baseball — but it has been a love since the first time I saw a game in person: Iowa at Northwestern, 1970. My sister was a student at Iowa and so I took a rooting interest in the Hawkeyes. Kind of a right-place, right-time situation.

Iowa was powered by a duo of former high school stars from Milwaukee, forward John Johnson and guard Fred Brown. Before they went on to help the Seattle SuperSonics win the 1979 NBA championship, Johnson and Brown led Iowa to a 14-0 record in the Big Ten.

There was no seeding process in those days, and the Hawkeyes drew a first-round game against Artis Gilmore and Jacksonville in the NCAA tournament. Jacksonville, which eventually lost to UCLA in the national championship game, beat Iowa on a last-second tip-in. Kind of a wrong-place, wrong-time situation.

From a courtside seat on press row, I’ve had the opportunity to watch a few of the most iconic games in basketball history: North Carolina State’s upset of Houston’s “Phi Slamma Jamma” powerhouse in 1983. ... Villanova’s efficient, surgically precise half-court offense cutting apart Georgtown in 1985. ... Michigan’s Chris Webber, with the ball in his hands and 11 seconds remaining to give the Wolverines’ “Fab Five” a chance to beat North Carolina in the 1993 national championship, calling a time out after the time-out allotment had expired.

And from the Maybe-You-Had-To-Be-There file: The pep bands from Louisville and Kentucky combining for a rendition of “My Old Kentucky Home” before a 1983 NCAA tournament game that reunited the intrastate rivals for the first time in 24 years.

The cheerleading squads of both teams locked their arms and swayed to the song. Impartial observers found ourselves crying, and what was that about?

Maybe you had to be there.

So here we go again, another must-see conclusion to a college basketball season I’ve pretty much ignored. When the bracket is unveiled this Sunday, I’ll be scribbling on a notepad, late to the party the NCAA has trademarked “The Big Dance.”

This much I know: Gonzaga rates as a No. 1 seed, and Washington will get no closer to the dance floor than I did in the eighth-grade sock hop.

That’s my take on the 2016-2017 season.

And yet I love you, college basketball. I miss you even more.