College basketball faces an important season. More rule changes have been put in place, with the 30-second shot clock being at the forefront of possible scrutiny, and the game itself continues to be bashed by casual fans for its lack of entertaining play.
A point I have made in the past, which certainly can’t be touched on enough, is that college basketball can never be what many want it to be. With over 300 Division I programs in the land, there simply isn’t enough talent which would allow the sport to flourish in some of the offensive ways many would like. To put it more plainly: College basketball will never be as fluid a game as the NBA — and, yet, there is nothing wrong with that.
The central issue college basketball has is that it sometimes tries to venture outside its own identity. An example emerges when March Madness hits and networks decide it is time to pull NBA personalities from all over creation, instead of creating new college basketball media stars, they feature the NBA folk during the sport’s largest event.
That takes away from what college basketball is. Amateur shooty hoops is not the NBA, and never will be. The people helping to run the sport should try to distance themselves from their professional counterparts as much as possible; embracing an NBA-centric voice in March is making the sport cannibalize itself for not being what it can never become.
Unfortunately, there is more to be concerned about.
Without there being a year-to-year star-player which the sport can cling to as a marketing ploy, ambassadors of the sport have long turned to each coach. This, naturally, has led to all sorts of wretched instances of coach worship. This ignores the idea that humans — even college coaches — are flawed. Time and time again, this recurring pattern has done the sport no favors: Casual fans see it and think the worst about college coaching and recruiting. Also, as a personal aside, if you’re watching any sport for the coach, you are not really watching the sport. It would be like going to your local YMCA to play pickup hoops, but instead of playing, you would rather watch the guys on the sideline yell instructions.
All of the above — new shot clock, attempting to be “NBA-lite,” and ambassadors of the sport doing it no favors — are merely some of the reasons why college basketball needs to do what it should have always done: simply be college basketball.
Maybe it is a fundamentally flawed idea, but a call of arms needs to be made. Ambassadors of the sport who don’t view it through the rose-colored glasses which turn coaches into gawds need to step up and broadcast the positive aspects of the sport. This can be done while pointing out the flaws as we go; a balance can be struck in which appropriate criticism coexists with an appreciation of what makes college basketball so special.
What exactly makes college basketball special?
Some will say it is the atmosphere, which in part is true, but who actually likes sports because of the crowds? No one ever says “I am a fan of crowds,” right? It isn’t the style of play either; every aspect of the game — tempo, efficiency, defense — isn’t as strong as the NBA’s. College hoops’ greatest strength is actually its ability to help us discover new talent, new stories, and new teams rising to the occasion each and every year.
Unlike the NBA, where many can predict the four best teams rather accurately before a ball is even tipped, college basketball does have parity — not so much so at the top, but the goal for many programs isn’t to win a national title every year. Sometimes the goal is simply to be competent, or compete strongly in one’s own conference, or make the NCAA Tournament, all of which can provide a bevy of fan bases a glimmer of hope each year.
The above, unlike the NBA’s lengthy 82-game season, sets a sense of urgency among many fan bases which simply doesn’t apply to the NBA.
An example: I am a noted St. John’s Red Storm fan. Weird? Yes, but we can blame my father for taking me to the Garden when Bootsy Thornton scored 40 against Duke back in the day. My NBA counterpart is the Los Angeles Lakers (Eddie Jones is the goat!).
The Johnnies haven’t been super competitive on a consistent basis since the diabolical Mike Jarvis roamed the sidelines. While the Lakers stink now, I have been long spoiled by their consistency. Yet, despite rooting for the Lakers and enjoying their runs of success, I live and die with St. John’s… but why?
Because every game the Johnnies play will alter the result of their season.
Even a supposedly meaningless early-season game against a lowly NJIT can have a large impact. Lose that game, and the Red Storm can find themselves outside the tourney bubble come March. Hell, to be honest, I wish St. John’s could even be close enough to a bubble to make it burst at this point.
If the Lakers lose a game in November? Well, it certainly might have an impact on the rest of the season, but we already mostly know where they are supposed to finish at the end of the season. The average will either shoot up or down to the mean of where they are intended to finish. This does not happen in college basketball: Programs without strong rosters happen to fight, scratch, and claw their way to the NCAA tournament simply by winning the games they are supposed to, upsetting one or two they aren’t, and not losing embarrassingly (beyond once or twice) — all of which highlights why each and every game is stupidly important.
Again, that is what’s right with the sport. Yet again, this is why the sport needs to stop attempting to be the NBA, especially in the ways it can never be.
It is also why it is imperative for the ambassadors of the sport to do a better job of painting the picture of reality as it exists, not a fantasy world in which everything is pure and perfect.
No more coach worship. No more complaining about the play on the floor. The former is something mainstream media has long done, and it has failed us time and time again. The latter is something we simply need to realize can’t be fixed.
Yet, the stories are there. The handful of incredible players are there each year, too. The urgency, even if the players aren’t at the same level as the few the year before, is always there. The sport is always there.
It is time to take the sport back from people who (desperately, in many cases) want it to be the NBA. It is time to ignore the talking-head cheerleaders who can’t deal with the realities of the flawed sport they undoubtedly love more than they would like to admit. It is simply time for college basketball to be college basketball.
Know what? There isn’t anything wrong with that. The sport doesn’t have to be for everybody. Therefore, let’s stop trying to make it that way, when we know we don’t have to fight that losing battle.