Tuesday, April 5, 2011

College basketball is in bad shape

College basketball is in pretty bad shape.

I've thought so for a while, but watching last night’s national championship really convinced me. I would've been better off staying home and watching YouTube clips of Derek Rose breaking peoples' ankles.

Anyone who watched that game after watching many championships before will probably tell you it was the worst Natty-C they’ve ever seen in their lives. It was 40 minutes of basketball that would’ve been almost painful to watch without the aid of Natty Light. It’s just not what you look for at all from what is theoretically supposed to be the most anticipated and entertaining game of the entire season.

Before tipoff, it had the inherent makings of what could be a very good game, if both teams performed as expected. Butler was a noticeable underdog, despite having gone to the championship last year, and UConn seemed to be the athletic goliath you’d expect from a storied Big East team whose coach uses his reputation and myriad recruiting violations to stock up on raw young talent. (Which means virtually nobody was rooting for UConn except actual Huskies fans and those weird people who cheer against the team who beat their favorite team fair and square earlier in the tourney.) You knew going into it that Butler would have to rely on its teamwork, discipline and generally high-percentage field goal shooting, while the Huskies would basically beat the Bulldogs on the boards and in pretty much every athletic aspect of the game while Kemba Walker displayed his ridiculous talents. I thought that if Butler shot well and played their teamwork-based game, they’d have a shot of keeping it close going into the final three or four minutes, when things can go either way and probably favor the team that garnered national championship game experience the season before.

But then Butler shot 18 percent from the field, and with just less than 10 minutes left in the second half, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Since I was pulling for Butler, I was happy at halftime, when they were up three. Since the score was 22-19, however, I was happy in an unimpressed way, like when I wake up on a Saturday morning to find out my friend Ant has slept drunkenly on the couch through the entire evening without pissing himself. The Bulldogs had scored one two-point field goal in an entire half of basketball. As a team. If you'd like some context, Jimmer Fredette, BYU's NCAA player of the year, scored more than 30 points in one half by himself this season. His high for the year? A startling 52 points, which is one point less than UConn scored in their 53-41 victory, and three points less than the amount of wives Brigham Young had (fact).

Still, though, it was just one bad game, right? Every win isn't going to be pretty, championship or not. I accept that. I mean, I'm a Penn State grad, and the win they had over Wisconsin in the Big 10 tournament was potentially even uglier than last night's game. I guess I don't have as much a problem with that as I do the way the paradigm has shifted in the way college basketball seasons play out.

There is quality of play and team chemistry, still, and there are tremendous athletes -- the best their age in the world, in fact -- but in the past few years it has been rare to see the two combined. I lay the blame for this on the NBA as a direct result of its relatively new rule that players have to wait at least one year after graduating high school to declare for the draft. So, unless you're Brandon Jennings' crazy ass, you end up playing college ball for a year, whether you want to or not. I think this results in schools snagging guys who have it in their head that they'll jump for the league immediately after freshman season, which in turn has them focusing more heavily on individual performance than they would if they'd made the decision to go to school for themselves, to grow as players and win a championship. The dudes who decide they want to be at a school because they want to win and think they may stay for more than one year have more of a team-centric mindset, and that promotes chemistry with the other players who are going to be there for at least four years, with no goals in mind except winning a championship.

Think about Carmelo Anthony. James went straight to the NBA, and Anthony chose to go to Syracuse just before the league enacted the rule. The 'Cuse team played well together and won it all. Who knows? If they hadn't, Anthony would've possibly stayed another year. Florida, the last team to repeat, did so with all five starters returning. Four of those five are in the NBA right now. They came back because they were into winning championships; they were a team, not an individual doing everything he could to get through a year and get his draft stock as high as possible.

That, I think, is the reason John Calipari hasn't won any championships with Kentucky or Memphis. He specifically recruits players who are going to stay for one year, which means he essentially starts over every season, and the nation gets to watch some of its most talented players play a style that slightly resembles a pick-up game. They consistently win lots of games, but don't find much success in the tournament. Then, the emotionally unattached group leaves to make lots and lots of money.

On the other side of things, I think this is the reason teams like Butler, Virginia Commonwealth and George Mason have found themselves overachieving in recent years since the NBA one-year rule. There is no way you can tell me those teams are the best in the nation skill-wise. They are, however, a unit that works together, and that prepares them for success in a high-pressure setting like the tournament. Because of this, Cinderella teams have become much less impressive than they used to be, simply because there are fewer good "teams" in the NCAA for them to really upset.

At the end of the day, UConn won, and they did so by starting three freshman and bringing two off the bench (four of the five played more than 20 minutes). But, they only won by 12 when Butler shot so horribly and played awfully altogether. You're really not going to win many games on any level beyond fifth grade recreational playing like they did.

It's ironic, though, that Gordon Hayward led Butler to the Natty-C last season during his junior year, and then opted to leave for the NBA early -- something unprecedented among Butler's players. In the 2010 championship, Hayward scored 12 points, the Huskies' exact margin of victory. Had he played in the game this year, I've no doubt he would've scored more than that.