On a recent episode of PTI, hosts Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser asked me why the offense in college basketball has been so poor this season. The crux of the query is warranted, but it’s also part of a larger question that seems to be gaining traction, which is: Are there any great teams in college basketball?
No. There’s not. And there hasn't been in a while.
The answer to why for both questions is not that dissimilar, either. Talent no longer stays on college campuses -- it departs to the league. The one-and-dones have changed the landscape of college basketball and the gap with mid-major teams has narrowed over the years. Stylistic changes have altered the style of play and, as Wilbon and I talked about, the lack of offense is notable.
There are countless reasons that have made the game change, but I also believe that we are starting to see upperclassmen really step up and perform at a high level. Guys like Mason Plumlee, Jeff Withey, Peyton Siva, Kenny Boynton, Brandon Triche and others are excelling in what is shaping up to be the year of the cagey veteran. These kids are having standout years and have their respective teams vying for a championship.
Going by the critics’ standard for determining “great,” I would argue you’d have to go back to 1996 and look at Rick Pitino’s Kentucky Wildcats to see that last truly great team. That group won a national championship with guys like Tony Delk, Antoine Walker and Walter McCarty. Rick had so much depth on that team that Ron Mercer came off the bench and nine of those guys -- nine! -- went on to play in the NBA. Incredible.
Those types of teams come around rarely. There will be some that would argue that last year’s Kentucky team should be in that conversation. Maybe. But can you imagine if those kids came back and stayed for their sophomore and even junior years? That would have been a great team.
Jim Calhoun’s 2011 Huskies are a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Senior Kemba Walker lifted that UConn team on his back and took that program on an unprecedented run through the Big East and NCAA tournaments. It was not a great team. The Huskies were the No. 9 seed in their own league tourney. But Calhoun, a Hall of Fame coach, got the most out of his guys on the way to Connecticut’s third national championship.
UConn's title-game opponent, Brad Stevens’ Butler Bulldogs, are another good example, both in 2011 and the year prior. In 2010 they were a No. 5 seed -- and an 8 in 2011. Neither team was a great team, but they were led by veterans who played great basketball in March. The result was a run all the way to the championship game both years.
In either case, UConn or Butler, it didn’t matter what stature was assigned to them. Fans from Storrs to Indianapolis got to enjoy the ride of their lives and we got to see some exciting basketball. The point is two-fold: 1) The historical context of where a team stands is for fans that do not have a team in the race, and 2) If there is a measure of greatness that truly counts, it should be regarding the coach.
As I mentioned earlier, the one-and-done players have etched their way into the landscape of college basketball. But the elite coaches are still around and the veteran student-athletes that have put in the work are seeing the payoff. Look at the top 25 as it is. Teams like Duke, Kansas, Florida, Butler, Oregon and Miami are heavily reliant on their core groups of seniors to lead their programs.
It’s paid dividends so far. At Duke, with guys like Plumlee, Seth Curry and (when healthy) Ryan Kelly. At Kansas, with the combination of Withey, Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson and Kevin Young. At Miami, where the Hurricanes get more than 80 percent of their points from their seniors. Of course it helps having a Ben McLemore, Rasheed Sulaimon or Shane Larkin, but that’s part of the team concept.
Like my ESPN colleague Seth Greenberg likes to say, seniors are invested in winning. They have paid their dues and they understand their roles. In most cases they are patient and improve every year. Having tried and failed before, they are sometimes hungrier knowing that this is their last go around.
I love seeing kids diving all over the court coming up with floor burns from getting tangled up. It’s fun to watch skilled players dictate the pace of play, both defensively and offensively. There’s nothing better than a poised Jordan Hulls or Rotnei Clarke knocking down a clutch shot to help their team win. And it seems we’re seeing that from our seniors more this season than in recent years.
The truly great teams may not be there, but the great kids are and so are the coaches. Mark my words: Come that first weekend of April, you will see a decorated coach and, more than likely, a team with some standout seniors raising that trophy.