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Rob Rossi

Rob Rossi: Madness becomes apathy for college basketball in Pittsburgh

| Friday, March 2, 2018, 5:03 p.m.
Arizona coach Sean Miller returned to the sidelines Thursday after missing time in the wake of reports he discussed a deal to pay $100,000 to a recruit.
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Arizona coach Sean Miller returned to the sidelines Thursday after missing time in the wake of reports he discussed a deal to pay $100,000 to a recruit.

It's March, so let's consider the questions we're asking as college basketball bounces into the conference tournaments portion of its season:

• What did Michigan State coach Tom Izzo know?

• Can Arizona coach Sean Miller be believed?

• Are any coaches/programs going to survive the FBI?

• Should players boycott the NCAA Tournament?

• Why is the Big Ten tournament so early?

On the bright side, we went five questions deep without digging into the possibly delusional, probably deplorable and positively disgraced Rick Pitino.

All that once most mighty man in college-basketball crazed Kentucky did was somehow end up on the outs with warring fans of that state's two powerhouse programs — which, come to think of it, is one way to make hoop historians forget about his Tim Duncan-or-bust, uh, bust with the NBA's Boston Celtics.

Remember when Pitino's return to the pro game after his revival run at Kentucky seemed destined to be the blemish on his Hall-of-Fame resume? Ah, those were the good old days.

You also might recall those days as the ones when turning your attention to college basketball in March didn't turn your stomach.

Are you looking forward to the conference tournaments? When was the last time that you did?

We ask that questions because it sure seems like this time of year on the sporting calendar used to belong to college basketball even in a great professional sports town such as our City of Champions. Even during the early days of the brilliant Ben Roethlisberger and Sidney Crosby eras, the first couple of weekends in March made Pittsburghers pay attention to the hardwood courts.

Our thoughts drift to a group of friends, only some graduates of Pitt, who routinely drove to New York to take in the early rounds of the old Big East slugfest at Madison Square Garden. They always returned with tales of tracking down vacated tickets, trading good-natured barbs with fans of Syracuse or Connecticut, reveling at how West Virginia alumni could transform any Manhattan bar into a karaoke tribute to the late John Denver. They always made the annual pilgrimage seem as though it was the sports fans' equivalent of Disneyland.

Perhaps it was a Disneyland for the damned. But to hear somebody describe attending the Big East tournament was to willingly suspend disbelief as to what was and wasn't possible.

On more than a couple of occasions, somebody swore he hadn't slept for four days as Pitt won all the Big East games until the championship contest. And when the Panthers didn't finish the tournament with a win, that same somebody usually swore he couldn't sleep on the way home because of a lingering disgust with Jamie Dixon's offense.

Again, those were the good old days — and they somehow sparked interest in a sport that many people in these parts followed only casually.

Those friends haven't trekked to wherever the ACC Tournament has been staged since Pitt joined college basketball's greatest conference. We have asked why, and their responses were unsurprisingly similar.

It just isn't the same.

No, it isn't. Though, maybe that is a good thing?

Take a second or two and scroll to the top of this column and review those questions.

How many of you don't know what we're writing about? How many of you tuned out the highest level of men's college basketball long before it appears to have injected itself with cyanide this season?

Our guess is most Pittsburghers barely are aware the once-hoped-for savior at Pitt (Miller) is caught up in a scandal that would make John Calipari's face hue with embarrassment. Actually, we're fairly confident a majority of casual fans around here would be puzzled if we argued that Pitt could now never bring back Miller to turnaround a Panthers program that hadn't claimed a single conference victory in coach Kevin Stalling's second season.

If we're correct about the general interest in college basketball in Pittsburgh, at least ignorance would be bliss. In this scenario, not too many people know it's become so ugly that the most popular athlete in the world, LeBron James, has called the NCAA corrupt — and to nearly universal agreement.

We can't universally agree on anything.

Well, except maybe this: College basketball doesn't matter that much right now in Pittsburgh, and we're poorer sports fans for it.

Pitt can't win. Penn State didn't enough. Duquesne hasn't won in forever. Robert Morris wasn't expected to win much. West Virginia was winning big then stopped winning when it was ahead.

All of this has been happening and met with a collective shrug. Nobody is even mad.

The madness this March is our apathy.

Rob Rossi is a contributing columnist. Follow him on Twitter @Real_RobRossi

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