This is 7 in a series of 10 early-season essays.
Karl Marx was a smart guy, he had some revolutionary ideas about class struggle and stuff. But even though the East German city named in his honor would field a dominant women's team named the Karl-Marx Stadt Chem Cats
, the father of modern communism
didn't know s**t about basketball.
He had a valid excuse, though - the game wasn't invented until eight years after he died. But if ol' bushy-beard had ever had the chance to witness a Villanova
game, he would have recognized a genius economic model when he saw it. Maybe he would have opened a popcorn stand instead of writing all those manifestos.
Guarantee games aren't listed as such in the schedule, so a lot of casual fans don't know what they are. Heck, a lot of longtime fans don't. That's why, in the interest of higher education, I've put together a simple "The More You Know" PSA that can be printed out and read aloud before one of these events occurs."Ladies and gentlemen,"
the public address announcer could intone, his voice echoing in the corners of the vast arena. "Tonight's game is not actually a game, per se. What you are about to witness is a prearranged win for our team. Take a good look at that sorry bunch over there in their dark jerseys, from a faraway college you've never heard of, huddling around their bench."But don't feel sorry for those guys. At the end of the night, they'll receive $50,000... minus their travel expenses... to lose by upwards of 40 points. But the real winners tonight are us, your athletic department. We'll make our money back... and that's because you great fans paid money to come out tonight and watch this. Please remember to visit the concession stand. And now, please welcome... Your! Syracuse! Orange!"
Guarantee games have been around ever since the Soviet Union's heyday - as long as there's been a stratified structure to college basketball, haves and have-nots. Have-littles and have-nothings have little to offer other than sloppy service as basketball prostitutes - a big college doesn't gain much from a home-and-home or three-for-one deal with a school with a 1,200-seat arena in the middle of nowhere, miles from the nearest full-service airport or two-star hotel. The Road to the Final Four does not go through, or anywhere near, Itta Bena
It's tough to really learn very much from any given guarantee game. Fans of the power-conference teams that host them insist that these matches are a good indication of where their team is "at," though they'd find out just as much with a PlayStation, EA Sports March Madness 2006, and a sheetful of cheat codes off the Internet. Personally, I appreciate the opportunity to watch teams I know I probably won't see again all season, see them run their offenses - okay, try
to run their offenses - and view plays that might or might not work against equally-matched competition in January and February. When it comes down to it, guarantee games are all about the power of imagination.
And there's no question that they're an integral part of the college basketball gestalt. Recently retired Stony Brook
coach Nick Macarchuk, in his farewell speech to the media after losing in the 2005 America East quarterfinals
, sighed and said he wouldn't miss the grueling November and December travel, the four-game stretches over five days that were little more than glorified milk runs. But he conceded that the money had gone a long way to build the program from scratch, helped Stony Brook find its D1 footing. He joked that the athletic department had named furniture items after the games that paid for them, and that they had a fishtank named after former Utah
coach Rick Majerus.
Some hoops purists maintain that guarantee games are a shameful element of college basketball, that they should be eliminated like the schedule scourge they are. Paying palookas to lie down and lose is anti-competitive, and quite possibly anti-American.
But over the past two decades, each of the four major pro leagues in this country have instituted some type of cost certainty, which is just "wealth redistribution" in eight fewer letters. The NFL, NHL and the National Basketball-themed entertainment Association stem sporting Darwinism by limiting, or "capping," team spending. Major League Baseball imposes an odd "luxury tax" financial penalties to teams that have spent too much on payroll, or put too many apartments and houses on Park Place.
But there's a key difference between MLB's revenue-sharing bean counters demanding that George Steinbrenner fork over a $30 million dollar check
so that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays can stay in business, and a Michigan State
game. In the latter case, the recipient of the check has to commute, show up for work on time, and put in three and a half man-hours of hard, sweaty labor before the check is cut.
Now, I ask you: who's the commie?