Monday, February 11, 2013

What it Means to be Great in College Basketball

LeBron James and Dwayne Wade were at the Miami-UNC game.

Think about that. @KingJames and Wade (who would have never considered playing for the Hurricanes as 18 year-olds) were sitting court side wearing glasses they don’t actually need to see the U play an unranked UNC. It was an incredible show of validation for the hottest thing going in college basketball.

Miami has two bad losses, one against Florida Gulf Coast in just the second game of the season and the other in overtime against Indiana State on Christmas Day in Hawaii in a game I’m sure no one wanted to play or watch. But since, the Canes have been on an absolute tear, winning on average by nearly 14 in conference play. They are 10-0 in the ACC. They’ve routed both UNC and Duke. They're currently the favorite to earn the number one overall seed in the tournament.

So why is it, with a team playing as well as anyone in any season, are sports writers, analysts, and fans (myself included) continuing to lament the end of great, legendary teams in college basketball?

It's time we all changed what it means to be great.

In my generation, the sport has been dominated by four programs: Duke, UNC, Kentucky, and UConn. Combined, they’ve won 13 titles since 1991. Florida, Kansas, and Michigan State have had great, Final Four teams during this time as well, and they’ve all produced top level, pro talent. Just off the top of my head, I can think of ten NBA All-Stars and two sure-fire Hall of Famers (Grant Hill and Antwan Jamison).

As a fan of one of the 200 or so other D-1 schools, this is very, very boring.

In sports, parity can be an incredible asset and the lack thereof can be a debilitating weakness. (The contrasting trends in popularity between the NFL and MLB is a perfect example.) When more teams have a shot, more fans watch. March Madness is the biggest “any team can win” tournament in American sports, and its television ratings were at an 18 year high in 2012 (even with Duke and UConn losing in the first round). Even when VCU and Butler made the Final Four in 2011, ratings were tied for the highest since 2005. That period includes the 2008 tourney when all four top seeds made it to the final weekend

Miami doesn’t look the part of a traditional powerhouse program, but, ironically, it has so much that basketball romantics romanticize. The team is mostly upperclassmen, the best player is a senior (Durand Scott), and all five starters average nine points or more. If the Hurricanes can win at Cameron on March second, this team has a legit shot to go undefeated in conference play. (Something the ’05 and ’08 Tar Heels couldn’t do.) The only difference between this team and the “great” teams before is Miami is winning without consensus All-Americans or lottery picks. And isn’t that more exciting? And more impressive?

College basketball has problems, but problems shouldn’t be confused with change. The game is different than it was in 1973, ‘83’, ’93, and ’03, so why would it not continue progressing in 2013? Rather than singing dirges of what’s been lost, why not embrace that the sport has become wide open with can’t miss excitement every night? Baseball would kill for something like that. Especially in Miami.

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