I love college basketball.
More than college football, more than NFL football, more than baseball and, obviously, anything else you could put on this list of sports. And when I say “I love college basketball,” I’m not saying I love March Madness, though I do. I can live with people who wake up to the existence of college basketball in the middle of March and stay tuned in for about four days. Those are four pretty good days. But that’s not me.
March Madness is the final exam, and I love studying for it. I like to spend Saturday afternoons projecting the tournament field while the day’s catalog of games plays on my television. I like settling in for two games featuring four potential-to-likely tournament teams on ESPN’s Big Monday. I like scouting the Bracket Buster games to get a feel for the mid-major standout squads. I like watching the small conference tournament finals, the ones where the winner is going to the dance and the loser is not.
Because when the field is announced and I’m looking at the bracket, I want to feel like Neo looking at The Matrix. I want to be able to see beyond the names and records.
That’s why it stings whenever I hear the sports media guys speak on the issue of underclassmen exiting college hoops for the NBA and the toll that it’s taking on the game of college basketball. I understand the idea and agree that the theory makes sense. If there are fewer stars, and logic dictates that there are, then the game would be less watchable.
But the idea that college basketball is getting worse is wrong and this season is proving it.
[ Before I go on making my argument that this college basketball season makes the case for the upperclassmen ruling college hoops, I want to make a case for this argument being bigger than sports. Whether its sports or movies or rock music or just whatever it is we do in our daily lives, we want to see people who have invested in their craft go on to succeed. ]
On Monday night, ESPN announcers Brent Musburger and Fran Fraschilla praised Kansas senior Travis Releford for waiting for his time, learning his role and then excelling for the Jayhawks as a senior. I rarely agree with announcers as much as I agreed with this sentiment.
I watched as Releford and fellow Kansas senior Elijah Johnson led the Jayhawks to a 108-96 victory at Iowa State, easily the most entertaining basketball game I’ve watched this season. Releford and Johnson took charge of the game and made sure Kansas won it, which they needed overtime to do. Freshman Ben McLeMore receives the bulk of attention when it comes to the Jayhawks but, from what I’ve seen, the freshman can’t carry Kansas forward the way Releford can. What’s more, if Johnson’s 39-point performance is the sign that another Jayhawk senior is stepping to the forefront, then Kansas has a legitimate shot at winning the NCAA championship.
Because, and this is key to this entire essay, junior and seniors successfully navigate the road to the Final Four and the championship way more often than freshmen and sophomores. The tournament Most Outstanding Player award has been won by juniors or seniors in 10 of the last 13 seasons going back to 2000.
Given the teams that seem to be on the rise right now and who is leading them, it’s probably going to be 11 of the last 14 by the time this year’s Final Four has come and gone.
Take your pick: Indiana junior Victor Oladipo; Gonzaga senior Elias Harris; Duke seniors Seth Curry and/or Mason Plumlee; Michigan junior Tim Hardaway Jr.; Probably Releford, but maybe Johnson from Kansas. These are just the ones I’ve seen play and seen that spark of “I’m getting this thing done.” Incidentally, I’ve watched Syracuse play a couple of times lately, including last night against Marquette, and didn’t see that same quality in its seniors, so I’m not just looking at ranked teams’ rosters and making a list of names.
The I’m-getting-this-thing-done trait is what I’m choosing to call the undefinable “it” quality that separates great athletes and fantastic basketball players from guys who end up winning championships. I could also just call it Jordan-ness. And right now, with the beginning of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament three weeks away, we’re seeing guys with Jordan-ness elevate their teams.
Last week, Dick Vitale and Magic Johnson volleyed compliments about Oladipo, cautiously comparing him to Jordan and Dwyane Wade as the Indiana junior led the Hoosier to a narrow victory over Michigan State.
It’s performances like Oladipo’s last week and the Kansas seniors this week that are making this one of the best college basketball seasons in recent memory. The upperclassmen still have their place. They always have. And that’s why I love college basketball.
Photo via Zimbio.
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