When top-ranked Indiana fell to a mediocre Illinois squad Thursday night on a buzzer beater, the buzz across my Twitter feed from college hoops junkies was that we’re in the midst of a spectacular college basketball season.
Five straight weeks, the team ranked No. 1 has been knocked off. Even more fascinating, the nation’s elites have been incredibly vulnerable to the nation’s also-rans — evidenced by lowly TCU’s shocking upset of Big 12 bully Kansas and Arkansas’ hard-to-fathom bludgeoning of No. 2-ranked Florida.
This year, the madness hasn’t waited for March. The hoop heads have taken notice and they’re quite pleased.
“Illinois beats No. 1 Ind. at buzzer. Best college basketball regular season ever? Theoretically, it should produce the most wide-open Tourn ever,” tweeted Bob Wojnowski of the Detroit News.
“The college basketball regular season this year has been better than the 2012 college football reg season. So many amazing finishes/upsets.” tweeted Jason McIntyre of TheBigLead.com.
I don’t share their joy or optimism. I see the parity and inconsistency found within the college game as yet another sign of American basketball’s ruination.
Greatness — team greatness — has been devalued by the popularity and influence of summer (AAU) basketball. Our youth basketball feeder system no longer promotes a culture of winning because summer basketball has replaced high school basketball as the most important route to a college scholarship and the attention of NBA scouts.
Moving forward, let’s call summer basketball what it is: The NCAA/NBA Combine. The best teenage players gather each summer and crisscross the nation in an individual skills competition disguised as basketball games. No one really cares who wins. What we really care about is who impresses.
If they have them at all, practices are loosey goosey. Mostly the kids play games. A lot of them. Oh, there are trophies handed out at the end of tournaments. I do not want to denigrate the commitment required and good intentions of most of the NCAA/NBA Combine coaches. Despite the prevailing narrative that they’re predominantly ex-cons and hustlers looking to cash in off the backs of kids, it’s my belief their character in general is no more or less high than the typical high school coach.
Where they do fall short is training and aptitude for actual coaching. The NCAA/NBA Combine fails to teach kids how to compete, how to lead in a true team environment. Competing is about preparation. Preparation is about practice.
It takes a common, significant goal to inspire athletes to practice and sacrifice and compete on a daily basis. The NCAA/NBA Combine has undermined all of that.
And that’s part of the reason even the very best college coaches (Bill Self, Billy Donovan, Roy Williams) struggle to get their teams to compete on a consistent basis. Team greatness just isn’t as important as it used to be.
Look at the NBA. LeBron James and the Heat, given the weakness of the Eastern Conference, had a chance this season to pursue team greatness and quite possibly Michael Jordan and Chicago’s 72-10 regular-season record. The Heat have no real interest. They’re saving themselves for the playoffs. They’ve lost 14 games before the All Star break. The truth is only the Spurs, a team led by a core (Duncan, Parker, Ginobili) not raised on traditional American soil, have a legitimate interest in the regular season, and their coach leaves his veteran players in street clothes or at home whenever he feels they’re physically taxed.
Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas — the generation of stars that made the NBA a force — all wanted to lead all-time great teams. LeBron wanted that in Cleveland and won 66 regular-season games in 2009. Unfortunately, he bought the hype and surrendered to the NCAA/NBA Combine culture that subtly preaches team greatness is irrelevant, individual greatness is all that matters.
Only the ring matters.
The media helped redefine college basketball greatness. In our self-indulgent lust for a college football playoff, we’ve taken a repeated, massive dump on regular seasons. College coaches used to inspire and focus their teams by pointing to a coveted conference championship. It’s so much harder to do now with every media outlet discussing bracketology and seeding in December and the BCS title game in September.
CONTACT JASON WHITLOCK
A basketball conference championship, especially a regular-season one, is virtually irrelevant. And you wonder why Indiana can lay down on the road to a previously comatose Illinois squad? Bill Self is absolutely baffled by his team, losers of two straight, including one inside the Phog and one to the Horned Phrogs.
The kids know. It’s early February. We’re a month away from the games really counting. They’ll buckle down when the ring is on the line. For now, they’ll let you believe you’re watching regular-season greatness.
You’re not. You’re watching the ramifications of a broken system. American basketball needs to be overhauled from the ground up. I want to direct you back to the column I wrote two weeks ago about NBA players needing to get involved with fixing their sport.
The overhaul should begin with the NCAA/NBA Combine. Winning games must always be at the foundation of any sporting endeavor.