Some of you may know that before I started doing Mavericks games on radio, I spent my time (a lot of time) around college basketball. There is no doubt in my mind that the NBA game is a better game (please don’t tell me NBA players don’t play hard), but the college atmosphere is far superior to the NBA. In the NBA, everybody has a 20,000 seat arena. Everyone has a screaming public address announcer (except for the Lakers Lawrence Tanter) and everyone shoots T-shirts into the stands. But in college, a place like Allen Field House is so different from Cameron Indoor Stadium, which is so different from Assembly Hall, which is so different from Moody Coliseum. You get the picture. Unique is a word that comes to mind.
Naysayers of the college game will say that it’s only about the “three weeks” in March. If that’s the case, then the only sport that really matters is European Soccer, where there is no tournament or a playoff to determine a champion. It’s a shallow argument that takes away from the fact that while the NCAA Tournament is still a magnificent event (and about the only thing the NCAA does right on a yearly basis), the college season day in and day out has story lines a-plenty to keep you occupied and make it worth your time.
I submit to you the following in no particular order:
How could anyone not be enthralled with Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield? A four-year player and the likely National Player of the Year, who no one will have to wait on to produce at the next level, has a shooting ability which reminds one of Stephen Curry. His clutch factor (witness games on the road at LSU and Kansas) is totally off the charts. Add in a work ethic, that by all accounts is unmatched, and he is total must see TV.
How could LSU’s Ben Simmons not fascinate? Not because he’s likely to be the top pick in the NBA Draft, but by the fact that someone with that much talent could be so invisible so often. He averages 19.5 points, 12.5 rebounds and 4.9 assists, shoots over 56 percent from the floor, and yet his team is a serious danger of not making it to the NCAA Tournament because way too often, he takes himself out of the mix in crunch time. Sure some of that falls on his coach (North Texas-ex Johnny Jones), but more of it has to do with his desire to pass rather than score. Greats like Magic Johnson and LeBron James had those thoughts as well, but learned there were times where they HAD to be “the man.” Watching Simmons attempt to figure that out is worth your time.
You should care about what’s happening over on the Hilltop here in Big D. I don’t know if what SMU is doing right now will be sustained once Larry Brown isn’t coaching anymore, but given what he has built, and the scene he has created at Moody Coliseum for Mustangs home games, I’m not so sure he’s going anywhere anytime soon. So everyone ought to enjoy this. Brown is 75, looks like he’s 45, and is doing what he’s always done regardless of where he’s coached. He’s won – a lot – with teams that are fun to watch and easy to root for. Because of injury, redshirts and transfers, right now SMU is playing with only seven scholarship players, and yet his team is 19-2. The fact they’re ineligible for the NCAA’s has helped expand their story, and certainly makes you want to watch to see how kids respond to adversity once they’ve been knocked down.
You should care that Texas A&M – Texas A&M, not Kentucky and their annual run out of the bluest of blue-blood talent – is leading the SEC! Not Florida, which has always nipped at Kentucky’s heels, and not LSU, with the aforementioned most talented all-around player in the nation. It’s Texas A&M leading the way, coached by Billy Kennedy, who almost never got his program off the ground because of his battle with Parkinson’s disease. The Aggies are ranked 5th in the nation! They’ve never had a ranking like that, and are doing it without any truly incandescent talent.
And then there’s the Big 12, far and away the best conference in America, with a storyline for almost every team. Can Kansas make it 12 straight regular season titles? Oklahoma is sitting at number one for the first time since 1990 when Billy Tubbs was coaching them. Iowa State has a terrific veteran squad that Steve Prohm inherited from Fred Hoiberg. West Virginia plays defense like Bob Huggins’ 1992 Final Four team at Cincinnati. And, don’t look now, but here comes Texas having won six of their last seven, with road wins at Iowa State, West Virginia, and Baylor – all after losing their best player Cameron Ridley to injury. The Longhorns also own a win over North Carolina. Not much was expected in Shaka Smart’s first year in Austin, but now there are plenty of reasons to watch.
Suffice to say, college basketball is alive and well not only in DFW, but in the state, and around the nation. Even in this “one-and-done” era, there are still a lot of great players, and a ton of compelling drama. Wait until March to start watching if you choose, but if you do, you’ll fail to really understand what it took to get to the Dance, and indeed, why there is such joy and sorrow at the end of each and every one of the 65 tournament games.