Is Kentucky ruining the NCAA or saving it? Are military-base games hallowed tradition or just hokum? Can anything compare to the glory of being a Jayhawks fan?
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) catch up on the college hoops season so far.
Tipping off on a U.S. military base? A 24-hour hoops marathon on ESPN (6 a.m. ET: Stony Brook vs. Rider!) that ends with four past champions? Yep, it's college-basketball season again.
The season started off as last one did, with a made-for-TV event on military soil, this time UConn-Michigan State at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Despite the obvious gimmicky nature of the event, it remains a heartwarming and meaningful tribute to our men and women in uniform, especially so close to Veterans Day. UConn may have won the game behind the artful play of guard Shabazz Napier, but the lustily cheering soldiers in attendance stole the show.
As for the tip-off marathon, what more could you ask for than Michigan St.-Kansas followed by Duke-Kentucky? MSU bounced back impressively from its Germany jetlag with a second-half comeback against the Jayhawks that undoubtedly left Hampton gnashing his teeth. Meanwhile, the latest batch of freshmen in John Calipari's Grand Experiment at UK played like a bunch of freshmen against Duke, which is led by senior sharpshooter Seth Curry. But as Dick Vitale noted, the Wildcats will only get better as the season goes on, and Nerlens Noel is a manchild with the body of Chris Bosh and almost limitless potential.
As for the season itself, I'm gonna go all homerism on you guys and wax eloquent about the Big Ten for a minute (I refuse to call it the B1G on principle). The conference of my tragically flawed Northwestern Wildcats has produced just one NCAA men's basketball champion in the last 25 years, but this season may be different. Tom Crean's resurgent Indiana Hoosiers are ranked No. 1 in the early pools and have a legitimate player-of-the-year candidate in sophomore power forward Cody Zeller. Ohio State and Michigan are also ranked in the top five, and you can never count out the Spartans because of the leadership of Tom Izzo. With the rest of the NCAA elite in rebuilding mode (UK, UNC) or unproven (Louisville, N.C. State), look for a Big Ten team to bring home an elusive national title for the conference come April.
I know you've been busy excoriating Jeffrey Loria, Patrick, but come away from the train wreck that is the Miami Marlins for a minute and give us some college hoops thoughts.
First of all, let's all give thanks that there are no more college basketball contests this season scheduled to take place on the decks of naval warships. Nothing against American sailors, and/or nautical aggression; it's just that playing games outside means you're, well, playing games outside. Which means it can get wet. Go figure.
You mention Kentucky. It's hard not to mention the Wildcats. Under prep star pied piper John Calipari, Kentucky quickly has become the nation's top program—and if fawning ESPN coverage is any indicator, the most glamorous, to boot. Many in and around the sport—moralizing sportswriters, mostly, but also fans of other schools—have reacted to the Wildcats' ascendance with a full-on moral panic. Why? Season after season, Calipari recruits the best high school players. By which I mean: just about all of them. As a result, Kentucky wins lots of games. Said players move on to the NBA, sooner rather than later. Rinse and repeat. Somehow, this is bad. Downright wrong. Fainting couch material. A violation of all that is good and pure and just about college sports. There is a dark cloud hanging over the land, and it is raining one-and-dones.
Ahem. Please. Capliari and Kentucky's only real sin is honesty. Playing basketball for money isn't wrong. Amateurism is wrong. Treating a big-time, revenue-producing college sport like a campus marketing shingle and sports television entertainment product is utterly rational; pretending otherwise is insane. Deep down, I think what rankles the Wildcats' critics and detractors isn't the sneaking suspicion that Calipari and Co. are getting over in some unidentified-but-corrupt way, but rather that they're getting over in plain sight, working an inherently bogus system better than anyone else, including the other blue blood schools—Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, UCLA—who have long enjoyed the benefits of NCAA cartelism and restraint of trade masquerading as armed-for-life tinpot piety.
So, yeah: I'm definitely rooting for the Wildcats.
Along those lines, I'm also rooting for Shabazz Muhammad, even though I'm a huge University of Arizona fan and Muhammad plays for Pac-12 rival UCLA. A uber-talented freshman and likely NBA lottery pick, Muhammad was ruled ineligible by the NCAA for violation of—you guessed it—amateurism rules by accepting airfare and lodging for unofficial recruiting visits to North Carolina and Duke, paid for by a family friend and financial advisor. God forbid! UCLA is appealing the decision, and may have caught a break when a lawyer reportedly overheard an NCAA investigator prejudging the case. Of course, Star Chamber, fiat-style justice is nothing new for the NCAA, which recently announced a series of get-tough rules reforms that essentially hold that coaches presiding over programs that break the rules are considered guilty until proven innocent.
Seriously, who needs 15 centuries of Western legal philosophy when there are bigger fish to fry, like making sure college kids can't exploit their own market value?
I say let 'em play. Let 'em get paid. The games on the floor—the dry, indoor floors—will be just as good, and the corrupt, unnecessary Prohibition-enforcing administrative superstructure surrounding them won't be missed. If you have to keep burning the village in order to save it, guess what? It might be time to stop fighting the war. And to start enjoying major college basketball for what it really is—a minor league with campus benefits.
Hampton, give me your take on the nascent college season.
Patrick, I'd be disappointed if you didn't get off a good rant about the Shame of College Sports. Your speechifying serves a dual purpose, too. Rightfully savaging the NCAA's exploitation, you keep me from having to do so. That, in turn, lets me look breezy by telling you to chill, baby. We all loathe the NCAA, but there are still games to play. Some are on dry land. Some are even not Duke and Kentucky. My perspective, as you know, is Jayhawk-centric. My view of basketball is like that famous New Yorker cartoon showing how a Manhattanite sees the world. But with Lawrence, Kansas, is the center of creation. Being a Jayhawk, though, doesn't only mean watching the team play. They did that last night—winning ugly. It also means being part of a tradition.
That's a terribly overused word in sports. Still, what interests me most about the new season is a good illustration of what being part of a tradition can actually feel like for the fan. The season shows how, clichéd as it is, loving a team like KU can seem like being part of an extended family. It shows how being a fan can make something as huge and abstract as the entire sport of basketball feel like it's a living community of souls.
A professor of at KU once told me he thought that human beings can can only truly understand how it feels to experience the passage of time when they have lived long enough to see a new generation arise after them.
This season there is one game in particular, in Conference USA, of all places, that Kansas fans will find a particularly poignant reminder of how sports teams and the institutions that sustain them help people to mark the years, and understand how it feels to experience the passage of time. Come January 2013 in Dallas, there is a game where echos of the past and future will call to each other, voices reaching out through the generations to touch across time.
January 6 is when Southern Methodist University will meet the Tulsa Golden Hurricane.
Larry Brown, 72-years-old, is in his first—yes first—season as Mustangs head coach. The last time the oft-traveled Hall-of-Famer prowled a college sideline was 1988, the year he coached KU to a championship. The star he asked that year "to play the right way" was Danny Manning.
Manning came to KU with Brown—when the latter gave the former's father Ed Manning a job on the Jayhawk staff. After 1988, they left KU for the NBA together. Both men spent a decade or so bouncing around the pros, even reuniting for a season in LA when Brown joined Danny with the Clippers.
Brown, of course, would coach half the teams in the NBA, most memorably in Detroit. Manning would retire as a player, and head back to Lawrence and join Bill Self's coaching staff. In Allen Field House, he helped turn guys like Jeff Withey from seven feet of fouls-to-give into a NBA lottery pick.
In 2008 Brown was retired from the pros. He spent a lot of time hanging around Allen, informally working with the KU staff. That spring, he and Danny Manning watched—with the rest of us—when Mario Chalmers hit The Shot against Memphis. A quick 20 years after they had won a title together at KU, they had won another. Tempus fugit.Brown got clipboard fever again, and went back to the association for two more years. Kind of. He coached in Charlotte.
Danny, meanwhile, got a job offer after KU made another Final Four run this spring. That offer was from Tulsa—where Bill Self used to coach. Gee, that's probably not a coincidence. And maybe it's also not a coincidence that Larry Brown re-un-retired yet again, and took the job as head man at SM. That's in Dallas.
There in January 2013, Brown's Mustangs will meet Manning's Golden Hurricane. These two men and their brilliant careers, forever intertwined, will share an arena once more. From recruit and recruiter in the dim 1980's, to a pair of head coaches—one in his 70s, one 46, they will gaze at each other across the court for the first time as full equals in opposition. KU fans in particular will gaze at the two coaches and hear the echoes of the past reach across the years to touch, shrouded by the mystic fog of time.
So, that'll be cool.
Oh, also Ben McLemore looked awesome for KU in a 69-55 win against Tennessee-