Thanks to the Cats

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(HOST) Commentator Brian Porto isn’t usually a big fan of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, but thanks to the University of Vermont Catamounts, this year was different.

(PORTO) I watched both of Vermont’s tournament games with great interest, which was a nice change because, in recent years, the reasons not to watch have been more compelling than the reasons to watch.

To be sure, there is still plenty to dislike about the tournament. One of its most unpleasant features is the dreadfully low rate at which players at the participating colleges earn degrees. For example, at 42 of the 65 colleges in this year’s tournament, fewer than 50 percent of the male basketball players who enrolled between 1994 and 1997 graduated within six years, despite having athletic scholarships to cover academic costs and tutors to help them with schoolwork.

Another unpleasant feature of the tournament is its excessive commercialism. For a television viewer, the clearest evidence of this is the annoying frequency with which the games are interrupted by media timeouts designed to make money for corporate sponsors. For coaches and athletic administrators, commercialism creates great financial rewards, both personal and institutional, for winning tournament games. This intensifies the coaches’ natural competitiveness, which makes them treat basketball with a degree of seriousness that should be reserved for neurosurgery, arms-control negotiations and arguments before the Supreme Court.

Happily, just when I thought that academic fraud and commercial excess had swallowed college basketball whole, along came Vermont. Forward Taylor Coppenrath, who was second in the nation in scoring this year, and point guard T.J. Sorrentine deserve all of the accolades they have received for their wonderful basketball skills. But I was especially impressed with Cameroonian senior forward Germain Mopa Njila and with the Catamounts’ wisecracking coach, Tom Brennan, retiring this year.

I love Mopa Njila, not just because he had the game of his life against Syracuse, scoring a career-high 20 points in Vermont’s 60-57 upset win, but because he understands that his basketball scholarship is a means to an engineering degree, not an end in itself. I love Brennan, too, because he claps and cheers and pumps his fist in the air, while so many of his fellow coaches look as tense as if they were negotiating a treaty with Kim Jong Il, regardless of the score.

Admittedly, all is not sweetness and light in Burlington. Only 45 percent of the male basketball players who entered UVM between 1994 and 1997 graduated within six years. The University needs to improve that percentage significantly and soon. Still, Germain Mopa Ngila and Tom Brennan have shown us that college basketball could be a sane activity, if only the players took schoolwork more seriously and the coaches took themselves less seriously.

This is Brian Porto of Windsor.

Brian Porto is an attorney and a freelance writer. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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