CHICAGO - Spring is nigh, which means that all across America, millions upon millions of basketball fans are tensely awaiting that hard-court extravaganza, the biggest and most exciting basketball event of the year: the NCAA women's tournament.
Well, actually, they're not. Even in this era of gender equality, females playing hoops don't get much attention from a populace that assumes almost any sport played by men trumps any played by women.
A sum of cash exceeding the gross domestic product of Italy is invested each year in March Madness pools, but you'd have to be truly insane to try to organize one for the women's counterpart. (I know. I've tried.)
Title IX may have helped produce a lot more athletic participation by females, but as soccer can attest, participation doesn't necessarily generate spectators.
They don't dunk, they don't use the same size ball and they play to houses packed with empty seats: Detractors make much of all the things lacking in the women's game. But it has conspicuous virtues that the guys can't claim. And though I don't mean to disparage the efforts of hardworking male players, I find it impossible to avoid the conclusion that the women's game is just plain better.
A lot of what it lacks is stuff the sport can do fine without. If you go to a women's game, you should not expect to see prima donnas monopolizing the ball. You'll listen in vain for trash-talking.
Tattooed biceps are exceedingly rare. You'll have to get along without all the grappling, shoving and pounding that makes a lot of men's games resemble a tryout for professional wrestling. High ticket prices are nowhere to be found.
You won't have to be reminded of the point guard's arraignment on weapons charges, or wonder how many child-support lawsuits the center has been slapped with. If there's a female player who's ever spit on a kid or choked her coach, it would be news in my corner of the world. Last season, 15 NBA players were suspended for fighting. The WNBA had only two.
The women's college game does have something you don't always find on the men's side: players who are interested in an education. The University of Connecticut, one of the winningest women's programs in the country, boasts a graduation rate of 100 percent. And if you find a female collegian you like, you can bet the mortgage she'll stay four years.
Naysayers prate endlessly about the almost complete absence of dunking. Being shorter on average than men, it's true, women play the game under the rim instead of over. But below the rim is exactly where God and James Naismith intended it to be played, and where it was played for decades.
There are women who can dunk, but generally they don't see the point of doing something just to make Sports Center. Margot Dydek, a 7-foot-2 center for the Utah Starzz, can jam with ease but chooses not to. "Two points is two points," she once said. "When dunking is worth five points, then I'll think more about dunking." Where does she get such ideas?
Because they can't fly quite as high as the men, the women tend to focus on more crucial but less flashy skills, such as passing, ball handling and defense.
"Women's basketball is how the game was played years ago by men," says Northwestern coach June Olkowski.
No less an authority than John Wooden, whose UCLA men set the record of 88 consecutive wins, thinks that's a good thing. "To me, the best pure basketball I see is among the better women's teams," he wrote in 1996.
It's also sport on a human scale. Watching Yao Ming and Shaquille O'Neal banging bodies is like watching a demolition derby involving tractor-trailers. I find it heartening that there are lots of basketball stars like Sue Bird - who led UConn to a national title last year before going to the WNBA's Seattle Storm - who are actually smaller than I am.
By all rights it should have appeal across the political spectrum. Conservatives can cherish it as an old-fashioned, scandal-free antidote to the irresponsible hedonism often on display among male players. Liberals can enjoy it as a triumph of communitarian values over money-driven, me-first individualism.
But of course to see it as anything, you have to see it. If you don't, I'll have to tell you what I always tell the refs: You're missing a great game.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.