College basketball oozes out of Dick Vitale's pores. So you may not expect him to have anything bad to say about NCAA basketball. But like all love, reality is not perfect.
The University of North Carolina is under scrutiny for academic fraud in athletics. The NCAA started questioning Tar Heels football players in July 2010 and the university opened an internal investigation soon after. It is still open and has expanded to other sports including the basketball program, which is headed to the Final Four.
"To me, I think the NCAA procrastinating, taking years and years to make a decision, is unbelievable," Vitale says. "I find it mind-boggling. I think this has been going on for multi-years and a decision should have been made. Obviously, it's going to be conversation, it's going to be a talk, and it's sad in a way because many of these kids are not involved. They weren't part of it all, and yet, they'll feel the brunt of it. It's sad in a way. I blame the NCAA for taking so long to make a decision as to what transpired. Everybody wants to know."
The most prominent UNC basketball player involved in the scandal is Rashad McCants, a third-team All-American on the Tar Heels' 2005 national championship team. McCants claims he took phony classes and had tutors perform parts of his coursework for him. Coach Roy Williams has stood by a clean record in his 13 seasons in Chapel Hill.
Academic fraud goes hand-in-hand with the one-and-done culture of college basketball in which athletes with little intention of graduating are essentially forced to go to college. Vitale claims the NCAA cannot fix this on its own.
"It's the NBA's fault, the one-and-done," he says. "Kids should be able to go to the pros immediately out of high school if they want to go, and if they want to go to college, they should have to stay three years. It works beautifully in baseball and it could work in basketball to bring more stability to the game.
"The NBA Players' Association is the one against it. You have Major League Baseball; everybody's involved and everybody has harmony. And it works. We shouldn't deny a kid. We have a term 'student-athletes.' Give me a break! You think a kid's a student-athlete if he knows he's going there for one year? He's going here to get his year in, get his basketball out of the way and that's it."
This is the guy who coined the phrase "diaper dandy" for freshman. Vitale used to feel like he was labeling young overachievers. Now the one-and-done world has watered down the value of this catchphrase.
That said, the 2016 Final Four is an outlier year with all four teams are loaded with upperclassmen stars. Three -- UNC, Oklahoma and Syracuse -- have leading scorers who are seniors (Brice Johnson, Buddy Hield and Michael Gbinije). Villanova is led by Josh Hart, a junior.
Vitale picked Michigan State to run the table this March, but that ship sailed before the end of the first round. It is a shame he shied away from his autumn favorite.
"In the preseason, I had North Carolina No. 1 in the tournament and then I backed away from them and took Kentucky to beat them," Vitale says. "Kentucky never got the chance because they didn't beat Indiana. That sort of killed me in my bracket, as well. North Carolina is now playing like team I thought they would be at the beginning of the season. They're the team to beat. If they play their A-game, nobody's going to beat them out there."
Vitale should have coasted to victory this year. As part of the fourth annual Allstate March Mayhem Challenge, Vitale matched up against Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon. Vitale made his picks based on his college basketball expertise, while Aldrin, a West Point and M.I.T. graduate, used science (bracket predictor tool).
As it stands, Aldrin leads Vitale 39-38, but the only remaining potential point belongs to Vitale, as Aldrin's Michigan State-Kanas final is moot. It comes down the Villanova-Oklahoma semifinal game. If Oklahoma wins, it's a tie. If Villanova wins, so does Aldrin.
Aldrin admittedly has limited knowledge of college basketball, but nonetheless, he saw a chance to be competitive and get educated.
"It was fun to get out of my realm and learn something about how you use statistics based on past performances to fill in a guess on how teams will win or lose," he said.
"If Oklahoma loses, I win. If Oklahoma wins, we tie. So don't tell Dick, but I have it made. I have a question for Dick. What's it feel like being beat by a spaceman?"
As Vitale points out, everyone is a winner in #MarchMayhem. Allstate is making donations to both the Space Center Houston, on behalf of Adrin, and the V Foundation for cancer research in Vitale's name. The V Foundation is named after his close friend the late Jim Valvano, former coach of Bucknell, Iona and North Carolina State who died in 1993.
"What we're trying to do, what I'm trying to do, is help kids," Vitale says. "Only four cents on every dollar raised for cancer research goes to kids. It's criminal. That's my concentration right now. There's nothing worse than a mom and dad having a child having a child battling that disease."
If Vitale could go back and broadcast any game, he says he would call the 1983 national championship game between Valvano's NC State Wolfpack and the Houston Cougars. Vitale was at the game in Albuquerque, New Mexico, working his first NCAA Tournament for ESPN, but CBS held the television rights.
"Jimmy V, man. Cutting down the nets, beating Houston. Phi Slama Jama. Who would ever know that Jimmy V would go on, that his legacy, to me, would be all the money that's raised," Vitale says. "I'm proud to be a member of the board of directors for the V Foundation. We have raised over $150 million for research to help people. Jimmy V, what he's done, is help people for years and year and years and that my friend, is special.
"I was right there at the game. At a press conference, I sat next to Jimmy's father, Rocco and he said, 'Man, look at my son. He's got the media at the palm of his hand.' Watching Jimmy V after the game with all the one liners, I've often said Jimmy V could've been Seinfeld before Seinfeld. He's one of the funniest guys I've ever met in my life."
This weekend, Vitale will call the Final Four on ESPN International with Sean McDonough.
"They're all really great!" Vitale says when asked his favorite Final Four city. "The whole town makes it special, whether it be Indianapolis, San Antonio, Houston, they'll treat you like royalty. For the next five to six days, it's the place you want to be. It's the basketball capital of the world. To be able to sit courtside and call the games and get paid for it, are you kidding me? That's stealing money, man! That's having fun!"
Give Dickie V credit. He has the energy to make others smile and let go of themselves in his presence. For him, that is important…to make people forget he is losing his bracket challenge to a spaceman.
Vitale on Tampa Bay Rays
Vitale, a Central Florida resident, recently ran into Baltimore Orioles outfielder Adam Jones in St. Armands Circle in Sarasota (where the Orioles host spring training). Vitale says the two of them were swarmed by kids recognizing the unique scene of a 76-year-old college basketball analyst hanging with a 30-year-old MLB All-Star.
Vitale, a Rays season ticket holder, also gave Jones his outlook on Tampa Bay's 2016 season.
"I love our pitching," he says. "For us, we're going to put some guys on the mound who can keep us in the game, whether it be [Matt] Moore or [Chris] Archer. We got some guys who can throw–[Drew] Smyly, [Jake] Odorizzi–but we got to get more production. We've got to get guys with the bat. They've added Logan Morrison, they've added guys like [Steve] Pearce, Brad Miller at shortstop. Now, they've got to produce."
Fun fact: The 1999 Final Four took place at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, home of the then-Devil Rays.
-- Follow Jeffrey Eisenband on Twitter @JeffEisenband.