As you can tell by the cover of this magazine (Ohio State
freshman LeBron James, in vintage naval captain's uniform,
peering through handheld telescope), we think the
scarlet-and-gray are the best college basketball team on land or
sea, which explains our cover line, AYE AYE, BUCKEYES!
But it won't all be smooth sailing in Columbus, and we could just
as easily have chosen Memphis, whose stars--sophomore Amare
Stoudemire and junior Dajuan Wagner--have become the most
salubrious college hoops duo since Street met Smith. (Our 12-page
feature, Dajuan and Only, begins on page 90.)
Of course, Syracuse could finally win a title for coach Jim
Boeheim, thanks largely to sensational sophomore Carmelo Anthony,
the often imitated, never replicated forward who is profiled,
beginning on page 32, in Nothing Rhymes with Orange.
Finally, we might well have selected Connecticut as our
pre-season No. 1, as senior swingman Caron Butler has NBA scouts
hyperventilating. Indeed, readers in New England have received
our high-concept alternate cover: Caron, in a bathrobe at the
breakfast table, staring glumly into a margarine tub emblazoned
with the brand name I CAN'T BELIEVE IT'S NOT BUTLER!
Whatever happens, it's unlikely that any team will duplicate
defending champion Duke's unbeaten record of last season, when
its three seniors--Jay Williams, Carlos Boozer and Mike
Dunleavy--were renowned as Jay & the (All) Americans.
The Blue Devils' epic final against Kansas--led by Drew Gooden,
Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich--featured more seniors than a 60
Minutes wrap party and nearly as much dribbling. It was, in
short, everything that's right with college basketball.
College basketball is, at this very moment, at the apex of its
Golden Age. Has there ever been a season so pregnant with
promise, so star-spangled, as this one? (Thank goodness no player
has left early, or skipped college altogether, since Moses Malone
went from prep to pro in 1974.)
Sure, LeBron and Ohio State get most of the media
attention--witness last week's blockbuster Bravo special, Queer
Eye for the Buckeye--but the fact is, Jim O'Brien's team might
not even win its own conference. Indiana senior Jared Jeffries is
the Big Ten's best player and its most popular, to judge by John
Feinstein's best-selling book on him, Hoosier Daddy. (It
continues to outsell even The Best and the Brownest, David
Halberstam's magisterial account of a season with Georgia junior
Kwame Brown, who saved coach Jim Harrick's job by taking the
Bulldogs to the Final Four.)
One could argue that college basketball has, top to bottom, more
talent than the pros. It certainly has more cultural cachet. For
four years now playground players have mimicked the moves of
Jason Richardson, who could have won the NBA dunk contest last
year while still a senior at Michigan State.
In New York City kids pull invisible antennae from their
foreheads after dunking, a la St. John's senior Darius Miles, who
will actually move to a smaller stage upon leaving college for
the pros: from Madison Square Garden, where he plays now, to some
godforsaken outpost like the Clippers or Cleveland. Likewise,
Marquette senior Dwyane Wade has returned to frigid Milwaukee and
one more shot at the Final Four rather than spend his winter
shooting and shvitzing for a lottery team like Miami.
And who can blame these guys? UCLA juniors Tyson Chandler and
Eddy Curry have brought the Bruins back to national prominence,
playing in Pauley Pavilion, eyeballed by CAA agents, rather than
in the CAA (Continental Airlines Arena), eyeballed by Paulie
Walnuts. Given the choice--NBA or college--who wouldn't prefer to
defer one's working life for as long as possible?
Where would forward DeShawn Stevenson rather be: playing at
Princeton, where he's now a senior, or rotting on the bench for
some NBA also-ran, a pituitary pawn on an oversized chessboard?
All of these men made the right decision. The NBA will be there,
as Tracy McGrady (now in his third professional year), Kobe
Bryant (in his fourth) and Kevin Garnett (in his fifth)
discovered after unforgettable college careers that are now
consigned to ESPN Classic. The 1998 title game, in which Duke's
backcourt (Bryant, Trajan Langdon) was overwhelmed in overtime by
Michigan's frontcourt (Garnett, Tractor Traylor), remains the
highest-rated in history.
More important, these players are given a social polish in
college that becomes essential as they segue into adulthood. (You
don't see Kobe's name in any police blotters, and you're not
about to, either.) So savor the senior seasons of T.J. Ford (at
Texas), Mike Sweetney (at Georgetown) and Luke Ridnour (at
Oregon), while the NBA desperately tries to flog its all-rookie
showdown: Darko versus Zarko.
College basketball just gets better every year. There's something
quaint about Dick Vitale calling LeBron a Diaper Dandy. It's
reassuring to see a meal ticket like 'Melo playing only for meal
money. So enjoy it while you can, fans, because nothing this good
Even now, it seems almost too good to be true.
College hoops is at the apex of its Golden Age. Thank goodness
no player has left early or skipped college altogether.