WHO WAS THAT woman? You know, the Kentucky nut job in the fetching pigtails, the one jumping up and down next to the coach's wife, waving a 3 sign in the air and (somebody stop her!) rushing the court during a timeout on Sunday to whip the crowd of 24,367--the second largest in Rupp Arena's 29-year history--into a big blue frenzy. Why, she was none other than (gasp) the Belle of Bluegrass Basketball. "Ladies and gentleman," the P.A. announcer brayed, "Ashley Judd!"
It was easily the Hollywood star's most arresting performance since Double Jeopardy, but could anyone blame her (or any other right-minded Kentucky alum) for a momentary lapse of sanity?
Here were No. 2 Kansas and No. 8 Kentucky, two of the nation's most storied programs, renewing their annual series after a 15-year hiatus. "I've been waiting for this game since the second they announced it," explained a blue-wigged, blue-fingernailed, blue-bejeweled Rupp regular named Willa Itani an hour before tip-off. "If you grew up on UK basketball, there's no feeling quite like it. It's more than orgasmic."
In that case you didn't need to be Dr. Kinsey to recognize the displeasure of Kentucky fans after the Jayhawks squeaked out a 65-59 win, improving to 11-0 and making a case to be ranked No. 1. Somebody enjoyed the climax of Sunday's game, but it sure wasn't the Wildcats faithful, who lustily booed the zebras for not calling a debatable travel by Kansas guard Aaron Miles in the final minute. (The arena's video-board operators fanned the flames by showing the slow-motion replay twice.) "You come out for the shootaround, and they call you names, but when you silence them, they can't say anything else," Miles said afterward, flashing a satisfied smile. While no one asked him if he felt orgasmic, you half expected him to light up a cigarette.
Let there be no doubt: College basketball still matters. In fact it's enjoying an unexpected mid-decade renaissance, defying the doomsayers who've carped for years about the game's shortcomings. Convinced that too many stars have left for the pros? That the regular season doesn't matter? That the games have devolved into brick-filled, me-first rat ball? Think again. The game's heartbeat is as strong and steady as the sound of leather pounding hardwood. New arenas are being built throughout the country, and record crowds are filling them. TV ratings are up and so is the quality of play. More good players are staying in college longer, and more teams than ever have a chance to win it all. There are no lockouts, no steroid scandals, no brawls in the stands--and, as ever, no arguments on how to determine a champion.
If the 2004-05 season were a Jerry Bruckheimer production, the trailer would feature Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski blasting holes in a Kobe Bryant poster above the title THE SCHOOLS STRIKE BACK. "I really feel like the game is on an upward trend right now," says Coach K, whose decision last summer to forsake a $40 million offer (and a never-ending case of heartburn) to take the reins of the Los Angeles Lakers struck a blow for college hoops solidarity. "We've always had a great product with its traditions, its rivalries and its spirit, but it's taken a while to adjust to the changes over the last decade."
What's going on? For starters, fans can actually recognize the players on the court. SI's preseason Top 20 featured more returning starters (74) and more starting upperclassmen (79 juniors and seniors) than in any of the previous six years (chart, page 56). A number of All-Americas with NBA aspirations chose to return to school, including three significant seniors: Mississippi State forward Lawrence Roberts, Providence forward Ryan Gomes and North Carolina State swingman Julius Hodge. The starting lineup of top-ranked Illinois is made up entirely of juniors and seniors. Number 6 Oklahoma State has six seniors among its top seven players. And No. 3 North Carolina, blessed with five potential NBA first-round picks, is led by a trio of juniors: point guard Raymond Felton, center Sean May and swingman Rashad McCants. "There's no way when those three guys got recruited that Carolina thought they'd be there for three or four years," says Texas coach Rick Barnes.
To understand why they've stuck around, consider how many international and high school players were selected in the most recent NBA draft. A record 48% of last year's first-round picks never played college ball (compared with 25% of first-rounders two years ago). Without the lure of guaranteed contracts, more collegians are staying in school, especially now that they can test the waters at the predraft camps and still maintain their eligibility. Gomes's coach, Tim Welsh, recalls hearing something new last summer. "For the first time the NBA guys all said the best college players are coming back to school and made the right decisions," Welsh says. "Too many guys had been making bad decisions and ending up in the CBA or the NBDL."
Would the record eight high schoolers taken in the first round have had a positive impact on campus? No doubt. But if the choice comes down to landing Sebastian Telfair, Shaun Livingston and Al Jefferson for one season on the front end of college or retaining terrific players for an extra year or more on the back end--think Arizona State junior forward Ike Diogu, Kansas senior center Wayne Simien or Syracuse senior forward Hakim Warrick--the college game will take option number 2 every time. "Kids understand now that the NBA will still be there," says North Carolina coach Roy Williams, "so it's easier to sell them on the idea that 'You're in college basketball, now give everything you have.' I'm seeing it with my team, and I'm seeing it with other teams."
More seasoned talent has led, in turn, to improvements in the quality of play, which had dropped like a fumbled pass in recent years. "The games aren't nearly as sloppy," says Illinois coach Bruce Weber, whose undefeated Illini have been in March form since early December. "Most of the Top 10 teams have older guys who've had more time to work on their ball handling, shooting and passing. People love the dunk and the three-pointer, but true fans enjoy watching teams move the basketball and get it to the open man." The Illini are exemplars of that style--they had 27 assists on 38 baskets in their 91-73 destruction of No. 4 Wake Forest last month--and they do it at a breathtaking pace. In that regard they're not alone. Since most athletic big men skip school these days, the college game has maximized its reliance on speed (SI, Nov. 22, 2004), making games more entertaining to watch.
Television has certainly noticed the difference. At a time when the Nielsens for many major sports are declining or flat, college hoops ratings are up 12% on CBS (compared with this time last season), 10% on ESPN and 25% on ESPN2 (chart, page 57). "In our world double-digit growth is more than significant. That's a major change from one season to the next," says Burke Magnus, who has coordinated ESPN's college basketball programming for the past five years. The ratings are up despite a proliferation of games: The ESPN family plans to televise 303 men's games this season, including 18 that have been added on Wednesday nights in place of locked-out NHL games. And that doesn't take into account the 510 additional games available on ESPN's Full Court satellite and digital-cable packages for the most addled of hoopheads.
Meanwhile, thanks to prodding from the TV networks and the NCAA tournament committee's increased focus on strength of schedule, coaches now have more incentive than ever to arrange the kind of marquee intersectional matchups that fans want to see. Back in the 1980s John Thompson's Georgetown teams would load up on cupcakes like St. Leo and Hawaii-Hilo. Now even notorious Syracuse fraidy cat Jim Boeheim is willing to take on Oklahoma State and risk an early-season loss. (The Orange fell to the Cowboys 74-60 on Dec. 7.) "I'm finding more teams are willing to play anybody," says Mike Aresco, the senior vice president for programming at CBS Sports. "We've never had so many good nonconference games, like Kansas-Kentucky and Connecticut--North Carolina [on Feb. 13], scheduled in January and February."
Three of the most electrifying games this season have been No. 16 Gonzaga's takedowns of No. 8 Georgia Tech, Oklahoma State and No. 14 Washington, prime contenders, respectively, for the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-10 titles. Such matchups might not have happened in years past. "As a coach you control a certain number of games, so you'd better do something to show you'll schedule the way the committee wants," says Zags coach Mark Few. "In the end you'll be rewarded, either by getting into the tournament or drawing a high seed." Even better, the tournament committee's recent changes to the Ratings Percentage Index--which will reward teams more for road wins than for home wins--should only increase the willingness of powerhouses to venture into the lairs of other heavyweights, as Georgia Tech did on New Year's Day when it dropped a 70-68 overtime thriller at Kansas.
You say the regular season is meaningless? No league will be watched more closely than the ACC, which has at least four serious national title contenders--North Carolina, Wake Forest, No. 5 Duke and Georgia Tech--and may be the best league in college basketball since the Big East muscled three teams into the 1985 Final Four. "I don't know if I've ever seen one conference have as many dominant teams as this one does," says Williams, who's been a coach in the college ranks for 27 years. This week alone, ACC fans can watch those four Top 10 teams in a 72-hour span, all without leaving the state of North Carolina. As street-legal drugs go, nothing could be finer.
That frisson of energy is coursing through the sport, not least because so many teams could raise the championship trophy in St. Louis on April 4. Last season UConn was the consensus choice as preseason No. 1, and sure enough the Huskies shook off a midseason slump, raced through the NCAA tournament and won the title game going away. Before this season there was no obvious favorite, and nine teams have received first-place votes in the AP poll. Illinois may be the first among equals these days, having flayed Gonzaga, Wake Forest and No. 18 Cincinnati by an average of 19 points. But ask observers who'll rule in the end, and you'll hear as many questions as answers.
Could it be North Carolina, SI's preseason pick, which at week's end had run off 13 straight wins (including last Saturday's 109-75 demolition of then No. 21 Maryland) after a season-opening loss at Santa Clara? Or perhaps Kansas, which seems primed to peak in March after Simien returns from thumb surgery? Maybe it's a senior-stuffed team like Oklahoma State or a rapidly maturing young outfit like Kentucky or Texas. Who knows? It may even be a sleeper as far afield as Gonzaga (owner of the nation's most impressive victims list but an upset loser to West Coast Conference rival St. Mary's on Saturday) or 13-0 Boston College, which slayed UConn in Hartford last week and leaped to No. 13 in the rankings. New contenders pop up all the time: Last week, upsets dinged nine members of the Top 25.
"Usually at this point you can pick out a group and say they look like your Final Four teams, but I can't do that this season," says Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz, whose 10-2 49ers could spring a March surprise. Adds N.C. State athletic director Lee Fowler, a former chair of the tournament committee, "Where last year you may have had 20 teams that could have gone to the final eight, this year you might have 40. It's a higher-quality kind of parity, and that's good for college basketball."
The game still has issues, of course. Will the exodus of college players resume if there's a down cycle in foreign or high school talent? (Perhaps, and maybe as soon as the 2005 draft.) How can college hoops turn out as many pros as the European clubs, which have no limits on the hours they spend on a youngster's roundball education? (One solution: by modifying the NCAA rules on practice time to allow more interaction between coaches and players.) For that matter, is there any way the NBA Players' Association would agree to a plan limiting or preventing early entries? (Not likely, even if for every LeBron James, Amare Stoudemire and Dwight Howard there are five Ndudi Ebis, DeSagana Diops and Kwame Browns.)
But here's the good news: The guardians of the game appear serious about tackling the problems that have plagued it. Last month NCAA president Myles Brand joined Krzyzewski, Boeheim and Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson to announce the formation of the College Basketball Partnership, a new 27-member panel of coaches, administrators and TV executives--and soon, one hopes, players--that will address all issues related to the sport. "We're a group planning for the future of the game," declared Brand, who has won the trust of skeptical coaches by (imagine this) listening to their views. Detailed proposals are still to come, but if the CBP can enact genuine reform, perhaps in concert with the NBA and its players, then the prospects for college basketball will be even brighter.
Already the sport has come a long way since 2003, when Baylor's Carlton Dotson was charged with murdering teammate Patrick Dennehy (Dotson was later ruled incompetent for trial) and college coaches convened an emergency ethics summit after scandals at St. Bonaventure, Georgia and Fresno State. Only a na√Øf would believe that college hoops was rid of its difficulties, but for now it has ceded the damning headlines to meltdowns in other sports. "Some of the negative things in the NBA, from the Kobe case to the fight in Detroit, have turned people off," says Illinois's Weber, who points out that the three players who most seriously escalated the conflict at The Palace of Auburn Hills--the Indiana Pacers' Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal--spent a total of two years in college among them.
It's their loss. Had they been in Lexington on Sunday, they would have enjoyed a Final Four atmosphere during the second week of January. If college football has the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party, then the Hyatt Regency lobby adjoining Rupp Arena is home to the World's Largest Tip-off Tipple, a fiesta at which a few thousand rabid partisans start gathering more than three hours before game time. Kentucky issued credentials to 75 media members from around the country for the Kansas game--in addition to those for the local media horde and 23 NBA scouts--and the Lexington Herald-Leader hyped the KU-UK showdown like a prize fight, filling five broadsheet pages on Sunday alone.
Even with the Jayhawks' Simien sidelined, the game featured three of the nation's top seniors in Kansas guards Miles and Keith Langford and Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes. But ultimately it was another graybeard, Jayhawks senior guard Michael Lee, whose three-pointer from the left corner with 30 seconds left was the clincher. In circumstance, if not result, the shot was eerily similar to the one Lee hoisted that was blocked by Warrick to seal Syracuse's 2003 NCAA title-game triumph--a reminder that players in today's game do have a history that resonates.
As Lee nodded his head while running downcourt, it was as if he was answering the question for all of us. Yep, college basketball is alive and well.
Thwarted pro ambitions have proved to be a boon for college basketball. One reason that the quality of play is up this year in the collegiate ranks is experience. In SI's last seven annual preview issues we've listed the starting lineups for our preseason Top 20 teams, noting each player's class and whether he was a returning starter. In 2004-05, with several of last season's top top college players--among them, Mississippi State's senior forward Lawrence Roberts (below)--forgoing the NBA draft, the numbers of upperclassmen (juniors and seniors) and returning starters suddenly spiked to their highest levels in seven years.
RATING/MOST RECENT SEAS0N
NCAA BASKETBALL (ESPN2)
NCAA BASKETBALL (CBS)
NCAA BASKETBALL (ESPN)
NCAA FOOTBALL (ESPN)
PGA TOUR (broadcast)
NCAA FOOTBALL (broadcast)
SOURCES: Nielsen Media Research, CBS, ESPN *Through Jan. 2 **Through Jan. 10
TOP OF THE HEAP
In a season of parity, these five teams are the class of the field--but it's a long way till March
KANSAS With big man Wayne Simien sidelined (thumb surgery), stalwarts like senior point guard Aaron Miles (above) have held the fort for the 11-0 Jayhawks, aided by freshmen Alex Galindo and C.J. Giles.
WAKE FOREST Losers only to Illinois, the Demon Deacons boast a seasoned, well-rounded cast led by nonpareil sophomore point guard Chris Paul (left). Wake showed its gumption in an 89-88 win over No. 10 Texas on Dec. 18.
ILLINOIS The No. 1 Illini (16-0) have barely had to break a sweat. The heralded junior backcourt of Dee Brown (11) and Deron Williams has performed to expectations, while two key senior role players, guard Luther Head and forward Roger Powell (43), have exceeded them.
OKLAHOMA STATE Their loss to Gonzaga may have exposed the 11-1 Cowboys' vulnerability on the inside, but their run 'n' gun attack, with old hands like senior Daniel Bobik(above), demoralizes foes.
NORTH CAROLINA Seven of the 13-1 Tar Heels' wins have been by more than 30 points. Junior swingman Rashad McCants (right) scored 19 to lead seven players in double figures in the 109-75 dismantling of Maryland.