It’s an age-old question. Would you rather have young players with long-term potential? Or would you prefer older players who already know how to play?
In 2015, that question was answered, but it remains far from settled.
To wit, your Wisconsin Badgers. They won the old-fashioned way. No “rent-a-players,” to borrow Bo Ryan’s phrase. Their best player, Frank Kaminsky, was referred to as “The Tank,” but in actuality he was more like a ‘57 Chevy, chugging along in style. In an age when the best college players don’t even become sophomores, Kaminsky averaged just 10 minutes per game during his sophomore season in Madison. By the time he reached the end of the road, Kaminsky was the national player of the year and a bona fide icon. But he was not an NCAA champion.
Jahlil Okafor was. On the day the 2015 NCAA championship game was played, Duke’s center and POY runner-up was 19 years old. His frontcourt-mate, forward Justise Winslow, had turned 19 the week before. Duke’s point guard, Tyus Jones, was 18. Yet just two nights after the Badgers vanquished another freshmen-with-potential-laden team, Kentucky, in the semifinal, it was Duke’s young guns who stood tallest. Wisconsin had more experience, but it was the callow Blue Devils who experienced their One Shining Moment.
College basketball has always had an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new leitmotif, what with seniors always leaving and freshmen always coming, but the days of orderly roster turnover are a relic of the past. Not only did we once again see the rush of underclassmen to the NBA (from now on, John Calipari should hold press conferences for players who are announcing they are staying; at least there will be more room on the dais), but the year also gave us yet another round of transfer roulette. More than 600 players switched schools in the off-season, mainly searching for more playing time. In the past, players usually transferred from a high-major school to mid-major, where the competition for playing time supposedly was easier. Now, we see more players transferring “up,” too. Think Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell, who came from Duquesne; Michigan State sharp shooter Bryn Forbes, who made the switch from Cleveland State; and Louisville’s current tandem of Damion Lee and Trey Lewis, who transferred from Drexel and Cleveland State, respectively. In the case of Louisville’s haul, both of those guards were graduate transfers, which means the Cardinals got better and older in one fell swoop.
This year also saw college basketball begin to pivot, at long last, from the past into the future. For the last two decades, the game has slowly gotten slower, to the point where scoring sank to levels not seen since The Honeymooners was on the air. As a result, the NCAA injected some overdue forward thinking into the rule book. The shot clock was shortened from 35 to 30 seconds, so that men’s college basketball is no longer the slowest game on the planet. The arc under the basket was widened from 3 feet to 4 feet, so that players would have to learn to play better defense. And the officials were instructed to enforce the rules as they were written, so that dribblers could drive, cutters could cut and big men could drop-step without having their freedom impinged. The yearning freedom goes back to Moses and the Old Testament, but these changes finally brought college basketball into the 21st century—and not a moment too soon.
This tension between old and young, between potential untapped and experience fulfilled, is nothing new. So it was fitting that as 2015 came to a close, we heard, for the very first time, the long-expired voice of Dr. James Naismith speaking to us from the Great Hardwood in the Sky. An associate professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas, who is researching a book on the game’s inventor, unearthed a recording of a radio interview Naismith gave during a trip to New York City in 1939. The interview was conducted 48 years after Naismith first hung those peach baskets at the Springfield Y, but the inventor’s voice still sounds fresh. Naismith reminded us that he created “Basket Ball” because he needed an indoor game that young man could play without getting hurt. His Eureka! moment arrived when he decided that players could not run with the ball. The dribble was not part of his original 13 rules.
Yet, as the game moved away from its original intent, its creator became increasingly frustrated. Naismith did not like zone defenses, he did not like rough play, and he especially did not like the decision in 1937 to remove the center jump after each made basket. The powers that be in college basketball wanted to speed things up, but Naismith preferred the slower version. He had aged much more quickly than he had realized, so much so that his own game was passing him by in a flash.
In the end, that was the main lesson of 2015: The game can modernize while staying true to its timeless essence. Somewhere out in the hinterland of America, a young lad or laddess is looking up from a pixilated device and catching his or her first look at Naismith’s beautiful game. In that moment, it won’t matter if college hoops is fighting an age-old problem or a New Age trend. What matters is that ball, and as the old saying goes, that ball don’t lie.
So while the year 2015 was not without its challenges for college basketball, it also offered great hope for the future. As the year comes to a close, let’s raise a glass and toast the ageless idea that you really can teach an old game new tricks.
Ten predictions for 2016
1. The next NCAA champion will not have a lineup dominated by freshmen. The reason is that this season’s freshmen are simply not as good as the classes from the recent past.
2. There will be no noticeable slide by the officials when it comes to enforcing the new directives designed to limit physical play. Such was the case two years ago, but the game’s stakeholders have learned from those mistakes.
3. Tom Izzo will coach his Spartans to yet another Final Four on the same weekend when it is announced he has been voted into the Hall of Fame.
4. Kansas will run its Big 12 regular season championship streak to 12—and still not get enough appreciation for it.
5. Barry Alvarez will name Greg Gard the next coach of Wisconsin. Sometimes the easy thing and the right thing are the same thing.
6. A mid-major school will play in the Final Four. It has already been that kind of season.
7. At least one more college head coach will be offered an NBA job. And at least one former NBA head coach will come back to college.
8. Something really bad will happen during a court storm. I just hope it’s not too bad.
9. We will continue to see more zone defense being played, and more types of zones. The 1-3-1 is already making a big comeback.
10. Both North Carolina and Louisville will be hit with major penalties once their current NCAA cases reach their conclusion.