This college basketball season, I signed up for season tickets for my alma mater’s men’s basketball team. Games are played off campus, and the team is worse-than-average in a Division 1 conference that is worse-than-average. Needless to say, attendance is shoddy, averaging just north of 1500 people per game. The venue is oversized and games are middling in quality, but supporting a college I loved well after attending has been more enjoyable than I could have imagined.
March is the month for college basketball. The NCAA tournament may be the best sporting event in all of sports (as well as the one that ruins productivity the most). Every year, American spend more on March Madness betting than on presidential elections. The first piece of excitement is the conference tournament phase, where small teams and giant killers are scrapping their way into competing for NCAA tournament bids. Once the 68-team field is set, the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament make up the best two days in sport – 32 games at 8 locations, game after game, and upset after upset. This atmosphere fuels thrilling moments. It is an event more sports and organizations should emulate, as most people do not have any allegiance to the teams at play, but watch and engage like it was their favorite team playing.
The tournaments interest continues to escalate despite radical changes to the college basketball landscape. In the past 15 years, college basketball has radically transformed from programs built on juniors and seniors to teenagers. Sure, Duke and Arizona are still national powers and the same coaches rule the landscape, but the investment of individual players in their programs is diminished. Gone are the days of powerhouse players staying at their programs for loyalty or developmental reasons – as soon as your NBA draft stock peaks, it is time to move on to the professional ranks. When the NBA instituted a 19-year-old draft minimum, it all but insured college basketball to become the minor league basketball league, and has altered the landscape of recruiting, player development and player commitment to their college.
This philosophy translates to a college basketball product that has huge correlation to trends in the NBA draft. In 1999, 1 lottery pick was a college freshman, and 2 of the first 20 picks were freshman or sophomores. No high school players were taken in the lottery. 2001 kicked off the High school draft era, which actually helped college basketball; players who had no interest in playing college ball declared for the draft. In 2005, the last year high school players were eligible for the draft, 1 college freshman was taken in the entire draft. 3 high school seniors were selected in the first round. These draft classes look old by comparison to 2014: 8 lottery picks were college freshman or minimum age international players, with only 3 players in the top 20 being college juniors or seniors. College basketball has become a 1-year NBA draft combine.
Not all of this can be blamed on the NBA age minimum – NBA teams are also realizing younger is better. Studies were showing teams had more success in developing talent when they drafted younger players. A 19-year-old with NBA tools could be challenged to improve faster on the bench of a scrub NBA team than dominating college ranks, so it benefitted players both financially and developmentally to forgo most of college eligibility. With this change in NBA philosophy came a change to the college ranks – with the best talent, 1 year is all you are going to get.
Which brings us to Kentucky basketball. Led by a seemingly unending group of teenagers, The Wildcat basketball team has laid wreckage to the college ranks this season. The team is deep (10 players average at least 10 minutes/game), huge (6 players are 6’9” or taller) and talented (8 players ranked in Rivals top 50 of their respective recruiting classes). They are undefeated, and had only 7 games finish with single-digit differentials. This success comes off the heels of a 2014 NCAA tournament run, reaching the championship game with a roster mostly composed of freshman, and a 2012 national championship with baby faces leading the way. Kentucky has become the face of the college basketball youth movement, and many blame them for the demise of college basketball (or imminent demise).
The “ruining college basketball” moniker has 2 huge flaws. First, it is misinformed regarding Kentucky’s roster makeup. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky’s frontrunner for player of the year awards, is a junior, and another Kentucky starter, Alex Poythress, is also a junior (although he is out for the year). Two others starters all year have been sophomores. How does this to other college basketball programs? My alma mater finished .500 with two senior starters (both junior college transfers), 2 sophomores and a freshman. Our conference’s champion starts 2 freshman, a sophomore and 2 juniors. Although anecdotal, it speaks to the lack of disparity between Kentucky and the “little guys”: every team is starting and playing freshman. This isn’t 1964. And Kentucky is working their freshman into a rotation of NBA-quality players that all wanted to play college basketball together. No crime there.
The second nauseating piece of this argument is the doom and gloom: how the tournament will be ruined because of this “freshman philosophy”. This argument was aided by Kentucky’s run last year, much to the chagrin of basketball purists. The 2014 Kentucky team was freshman heavy, and struggled all regular season only to reach the championship game. This made them easy villains to many during the tournament. The common argument is that last year’s Kentucky run will become every year in college basketball, where freshman heavy teams will dominate the landscape. First, how is this working out? Plenty of teams in the country are blending freshman with older role players, and winning. Arizona starts seniors. Duke has important pieces that stay all four years. Experience still plays a vital part of success in college basketball, and will for some time to come. If you don’t believe that, look at Wisconsin the past two years (and that roster… look at all the home-grown talent!) Second, how is this any different from what the game was turning into, without Kentucky? The “Fab Five” in the early 90s was going to doom college basketball, and it appears we have ridden that wave fairly well (and got some really sweet boy band pictures out of it too) Carmelo Anthony led a young Syracuse team (starting 3 freshman that year) to a National Championship in 2003. Since then, countless other teams have loaded up on young talent (North Carolina, UCLA, Memphis in late 2000s) to varying success. And for those that talk about lack of parity, they obviously don’t see the fact that Duke, UCLA, North Carolina and Kansas dominate the top seeds and final four history books, dating back far before Freshman were even allowed to play NCAA sports. Calling Kentucky out in the name of parity is foolish.
Most importantly, there is a reason that no other program is as successful at Kentucky at this style of program: it is hard to do. Say what you will about John Calipari, the Kentucky head coach: he has worked relentlessly to make this team what it is. From recruiting to coaching the players, this team is well coached and immensely talented. The players have all put egos, NBA money and awards aside to be the deepest and most balanced team in my lifetime. It is hard to be a player that knows they may be losing draft stock because of playing in a system that does not showcase them. In addition, it is incredibly challenging to get young players ready to compete at the highest level every season. Look at the 2013 Kentucky for proof of that, where they missed the tournament, scuffling with young players who never meshed. One last thought: how much animosity of this years’ Kentucky team is centered on a different culture making college basketball successful? Kentucky’s basketball team is centered on talented young African-Americans, as opposed to a belief that college basketball looks like skinny white seniors hanging out in the corner chucking threes. Kentucky wins because they are disciplined, unselfish, and efficient, and they are doing those things in a style that is challenging the mainstream ideologies of what those qualities look like.
My alma mater’s basketball season ended in heartbreak: no NCAA tournament and no national TV time. I will still watch next year because it connects me to the university that I love. This fact is what brings most adults into college arenas all over the country no matter how many freshman take the court. And as for Kentucky, I will still watch the tournament, rooting for Kentucky the entire way. Being this good is hard to do, and it also creates more interest for me than in years past. Besides, I want to know who I can root for on the 76ers next year.