by Doug Ireland

That March Madness you just enjoyed? It’s like it didn’t happen.

Of course, it did. After it didn’t a year ago.

But as fun and crazy and bracket busting as the NCAA men’s tournament was, to some degree, with apologies to the champion and the Cinderellas whose glorious wins will always be treasured, this was a one-off.

Like it didn’t happen.

As far as the eligibility of the players involved, it didn’t happen. Neither did the season, or, for that matter, any NCAA Division I sports season this academic year.

The games have been played, defying the worse-case scenarios, although some sports had to shift from fall to spring.

The scores, they counted. But for the players, time stood still.

Freshmen in this pandemic-addled year will be freshmen again. Sophomores return as sophomores, juniors come back as juniors, and seniors, if they want, get their senior season to do over next year.

It’s like when Bill Murray as Phil Connors keeps waking up day after day, wondering if Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow and more importantly, if his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) will see what a good couple they could be. Of course, watching Groundhog Day, it just feels good hearing “I Got You Babe” first thing every morning.

If you’re a college coach in 2021, that is the polar opposite of the soundtrack looped in your head.

More appropriate picks: “She’s Gone” by Hall & Oates. Or more recently, “Black” by Pearl Jam, with the crowd-favorite refrain —

“I know someday you’ll have a beautiful life/ I know you’ll be a star in somebody else’s sky.”

Because as a coach, you’re not sure who you’ve got on your team for next season. This year’s star could be shooting someplace else.

Along with this being a standstill year for eligibility, it’s also Leap Year. There aren’t 29 days in February, just an unprecedented free range for players to transfer anywhere, without having to sit out next season, without any penalties, with the chance to find what will seem like a better fit for their immediate future.

So Johnny Jumpshot, who looked so good for State U at times last year, is looking for more good times and more time on the floor elsewhere. He has plenty of company in what’s called the transfer portal, NCAA Division I sports’ version of Farmers Only or Just in men’s basketball, recently there were about 750 players in the pool, making themselves available.

Case in point: this year’s Southland Conference men’s basketball Player of the Year, Zach Nutall of Sam Houston State, is no longer going to be of Sam Houston State. He might be of  Texas Tech or SMU, Houston or Texas A&M, or any place where a spot is open and a match is made.

Also on the transfer list: NSU junior star, Trenton Massner, All-Southland in his second season playing for Mike McConathy’s Demons, as crafty a hand as you could want, a hustling guard with a soft shooting touch and a slithery way of getting through crowds to the rim. He’s not unhappy, but he is about 15 hours away from home in Iowa, and with his best buds at NSU graduating, he would rather relocate near his family than play a couple more years in Prather Coliseum.

Doesn’t make him a bad guy, just a real human. It happened last year, too – All-Southland junior, Chudier Bile, played just one season in Natchitoches, after transferring from Bradley, after transferring from
junior college. He entered the portal, popped out in Washington, D.C. at Georgetown, and emerged as a productive player as the Hoyas won the Big East Conference Tournament and made the Big Dance.

Along the way, the guy known as “Choody Bile” to teammates in Natchitoches changed how he said his name, emerging as “Chudy-err Bee-LAY.” He’s probably no longer eating fried food, either.

Transfers have certainly been good to NSU. Go all the way back to football greats Charlie Tolar and Charlie Hennigan, legends of the AFL with the Houston Oilers after they played for the Demons – and after they transferred from LSU.

More recently and more locally, Alexandria’s Craig Nall opted out of a three-ring quarterback circus at LSU and headed to Cane River Country, where he passed the 2001 Demons into the playoffs and got himself drafted by the Green Bay Packers. While bolstering his winter wardrobe, he backed up a guy named Brett Favre and cashed NFL checks from 2002-08.

Just a couple years ago, receiver Jazz Ferguson migrated from Baton Rouge to Natchitoches and dominated Southland defenses in 2018. He’s headed to Canada shortly to make some bank deposits and play ball north of the border, where his talents seem perfectly suited for the CFL.

But those transfer rules were relatively restrictive. Today’s rules aren’t. See lilly pad, jump to lilly pad, as long as it’s not overcrowded already.

Can’t blame Massner. He’s homesick. Can’t blame Bile/Bee-LAY. He got into Georgetown. And he did leave NSU with his undergraduate degree. Massner may, also.

It’s the NCAA’s latest dodge of a full-blast player revolt, which is bubbling closer and closer to the surface. For now, we can expect lots more movin’ and shakin’ on college rosters in all sports, all around Division I. The kids you cheer this year at NSU, LSU, Grambling, Southern, and the rest might have different uniforms next season.

Those who stay deserve a little extra admiration. Not saying those who leave are disloyal, but without question, those who stay ARE loyal.

As for the NCAA? This free range transfer business pales in comparison to the absurdity of treating the NCAA women’s basketball tournament like an intramural inconvenience that coincidentally was being played in March, billed as Women’s History Month. Giving women’s teams dainty workout facilities compared to what the guys got, and declining to apply the March Madness brand to the ladies’ tournament, and providing minimal media services … that’s tone deaf.

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