Why we're even bothering to preview the forthcoming season, I
don't know. College basketball is dead, or close enough to death
that the corpse will be cold by June.
This is an article from the Dec. 2, 1996 issue
We know this because everyone says so. Kentucky coach Rick
Pitino has pronounced the game "in serious trouble." Best-
selling sports author John Feinstein calls it a good sport
spoiled, on the brink, on the blink, or some such. CBS
commentator Billy Packer says college hoops is "totally out of
whack," and Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson pleads for legislation
to redress what ESPN announcer Dick Vitale calls imminent
"devastation." The doomsayers even include my man a few pages
over in Scorecard, Jack McCallum, who blames the events of last
spring--37 collegians renounced their remaining eligibility for
a chance to turn pro, and high school stars Kobe Bryant and
Jermaine O'Neal bypassed college to join Kevin (the Teenage
Timberwolf) Garnett in the NBA--for "ripping the heart out of
the college game."
Yo, Jack: If you're searching for signs of the apocalypse, look
elsewhere. And the rest of you Cassandras, put a sock in it.
College basketball's heart isn't just intact, it's strong and
You're trying to tell me a sport featuring both Bubba Wells and
Bonzi Wells is in trouble? No, you're in trouble if you can't
tell a Bonzi (he's a forward at Ball State) from a Bubba (he's a
forward at Austin Peay), because each finished among the
nation's top five scorers last season, and both are back
(although a stress fracture will sideline Bubba until the end of
December). Ditto if you can't enumerate the pierced body parts
(brow, navel, tongue) of Duke's (Duke's!) Greg Newton; cite the
particular skill of Wisconsin freshman Duany Duany (duaning the
trey, of course); or produce the uniform number that Penn's
Michael Jordan has chosen for his freshman season (23, proving
conclusively that just because you attend an Ivy League school
doesn't necessarily mean you're smart).
Don't know about James Price, the 25-year-old Desert Storm vet
who will start at the point for Arkansas-Little Rock? Or about
guard Steve Ransom, a former bare-chested, body-painted stalk in
Kansas's Swaying Wheat student section who now suits up for the
Jayhawks as a Walter Mitty walk-on? Or about Wes Flanigan, the
Auburn guard who contracted cancer in his left arm and, after
off-season chemotherapy and a bone graft, will take this season
one J at a time? Your loss, gentle reader.
Coming out of high school, players like point guard Brevin
Knight of Stanford, forward Anthony Parker of Bradley, center
Brian Skinner of Baylor and shooting guard Dedric Willoughby of
Iowa State all flew under the radar of the scouting services and
player procurers. Now tell them, their coaches or their rivals
that they don't belong on preseason All-America teams, and you'd
better duck. "He's salt of the earth," Bradley coach Jim
Molinari says of Parker, a two-time science scholarship winner
who, since adding 35 pounds to his 6'6" frame after graduating
from high school, has become one of the finest small forwards in
the land. A few years ago, when players didn't come and go so
often, Molinari says, "he's a kid we'd have probably overlooked."
It's as if some of the game's followers resent having to study
up on the new material every year. Last season's biggest canard
was that the ACC faced ruination because Maryland's Joe Smith
and North Carolina's Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace left
school early. In fact the ACC staged perhaps its most
unslackingly competitive season, and fans--real fans--got to
know forward Antawn Jamison at North Carolina, center Todd
Fuller at N.C. State, point guard Terrell Stokes at Maryland and
forward Matt Harpring at Georgia Tech, as the Yellow Jackets
rose from a 6-7 start to their first regular-season title.
Only a couple of years ago the WAC was mocked for its pantywaist
style and middling power rating; now it's a 16-team bicameral
behemoth that this season will feature such studhorses as Utah
forward Keith Van Horn, New Mexico forward Kenny Thomas, Tulsa
swingman Shea Seals, TCU forward Damion Walker and Fresno State
guard Dominick Young, as well as coaches Jerry Tarkanian at
Fresno State, Rick Majerus at Utah and Billy Tubbs at TCU.
You say the Big Ten has slipped? The Big Ten has slipped. But
the big-city talents, juco juke-artists and Prop 48's who once
found their way to Illinois, Iowa and Ohio State are now
roosting with Conference USA powers like Cincinnati, Louisville
and Memphis. So deal with it. As for the SEC, which last spring
prematurely lost Kentucky's Antoine Walker, Mississippi State's
Erick Dampier and Dontae' Jones and LSU's Ronnie Henderson and
Randy Livingston, few leagues more reliably restock themselves.
"Nobody knew who Dampier or [former Alabama star Antonio]
McDyess were two years ago when they came out of tiny towns in
Mississippi," says South Carolina coach Eddie Fogler. "There are
good players in this league that we don't know about, haven't
"Is there a guard coming into college basketball as good as
[former Georgetown star and newly minted Philadelphia 76er]
Allen Iverson? No. Will somebody emerge as a big-time player?
Still the Chicken Littles make their arguments. Here's why each
of their points is a big turkey:
"Fans like to watch established stars," Jack Mac wrote last
spring. "The charm of the college game is watching players and
teams develop over the course of three or four years." In fact,
the charm of the college game rests with the players and the
teams on a roll come tournament time--the Loyola Marymount of
Gathers and Kimble; Michigan's Fisher Nut Company--and nonce
heroes like Lorenzo Charles, Harold Jensen, Keith Smart, Donald
Williams and Scotty Thurman, who rarely play a minute in the
NBA. As for those who think nothing of swapping their youth for
a premature place in the play-for-pays, I say let 'em go off to
assemble their entourages of toadies and tape their hypocritical
stay-in-school PSAs. The players really worth getting to
know--Van Horn, Eric Montross, Grant Hill, Tim Duncan and Jacque
Vaughn--do play four years.
Yeah, fret the doomsayers, but the exodus is out of control.
When will it end? It'll end when kids contemplating an early
exit realize that, of the 88 players to declare early for the
NBA draft this decade, fewer than half are still in the league.
Eventually college coaches and pro scouts alike will start
saying, "Go pro early? I dare you. I Yinka Dare you." And the
pendulum will swing back.
But in the meantime TV ratings are down. Of course they're down.
If Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine were on television three
times a night, five nights a week, Seinfeld's ratings would be
down too. And while the audience for the national-championship
game has diminished slightly over the past few years, more
people are looking in on the signature stretch of the NCAAs--the
first two rounds. When the hoop is good, the audience is there,
even before NCAA time. Witness the SEC tournament final last
March between Kentucky and Mississippi State, which went
head-to-head with the Orlando Magic and the Phoenix Suns, Shaq
versus Charles, and drew a higher share.
The NBA's mission is to create dynasties and drawing cards,
superteams and superstars--superbrands that they can sell, sell,
sell. The suits in the suites hate parity and unpredictability,
for they make a mess of carefully laid marketing strategies and
raise the possibility of a Charlotte-Utah NBA Finals when a
Lakers-Bulls matchup would be better for business. But college
basketball derives its glamour from its rear admiral coaches and
their flagship programs--Krzyzewski's Duke, Pitino's Kentucky,
Smith's Carolina, Knight's Indiana, Thompson's Georgetown. And
the game's essence lies with its swabbies, the annual infusion
of high schoolers and jucos and (more and more) mercenaries from
overseas. All that turnover begets parity, which begets a
crazier postseason. The madder March becomes, the more the
public falls under the NCAA tournament's lunatic spell.
"One of the reasons UNLV, Duke, UCLA and Kentucky won the
tournament [in recent years] was that they were able to get
their great players into the senior class," says Pitino, for
whom that task is particularly difficult because he, more than
any other coach, sells his program as a way station to the NBA.
But he's right: The Wildcats wouldn't have won last April
without the steady contributions of seniors Tony Delk and Walter
McCarty. Similarly, Duke has sat astride the game for most of
the past decade precisely because no Krzyzewski-coached Blue
Devil has gone pro early, and UCLA would have reverted to
one-and-done tournament form if senior Ed O'Bannon hadn't
captained its 1995 champs. There's something just about a system
in which, if you cut out early, your school won't cut down the
What's more, isn't it great fun to watch how all those early
exits force the control-freak coaches to behave "like the little
Dutch boy," as Wake Forest coach Dave Odom puts it, scrambling
to plug holes and make do? Even what's bad about college hoops
is good: With broken curfews and dorm altercations, ill-gotten
4x4s and cash-stuffed overnight envelopes, it's still the place
where, as Al McGuire used to say, fortune is fickle because "the
cheerleader can always get pregnant."
In short, college ball is a game of change, actual and
imminent--change that we should celebrate, not denigrate. So let
the Cassandras whine on. The only Cassandra I'm listening to is
Cassandra Wilson, who offers these lines as invocation to the
months to come: "In and out of stages like the phases of the
moon/We can shine so brightly let the fullness soon come soon
Now playing, the 1996-97 season. Dead man's walking.