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College Basketball Is As Good As It’s Ever Been

The past few seasons have been full of questions about whether the sport is broken. The beginning of the 2016–17 campaign is different: It’s been pretty damn close to perfect.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

At some point between Kentucky dominating the 2011–12 season with three freshman starters and Virginia head coach Tony Bennett building his team into a machine designed to systematically destroy opposing offenses, discussing whether college basketball is broken became a popular national talking point. Some swore the sport was sooooo much better back in the day, when clotheslining driving players to “make them earn it” at the free throw line was encouraged, when ball screens and the concept of shot selection were nonexistent, and when MEN WERE MEN. Others argued that imperfections are part of what made college basketball great, and that tweaking things would put the sport on a slippery slope toward becoming a far-less-talented version of the NBA.

Whatever the case, when Virginia’s and Kentucky’s defenses regularly made offenses look like kindergartners throughout the 2014–15 campaign, the powers that be decided enough was enough. A 30-second shot clock replaced the 35-second one; the number of team timeouts was reduced from five to four; and the bitching and moaning stopped for, like, five whole seconds before everyone directed their anger toward court-storming, whether players should be paid, and anything else that could give Dan Dakich an opportunity to explain to his Twitter followers why they’re idiots. Making fun of coaches will always be the most widely practiced pastime among college basketball fans, but complaining about the state of the sport has developed into a close second, especially in recent years.

That brings me to the matter at hand: We’re a little more than a month into the 2016–17 season, and against all odds, it’s shaping up to be the kind of year that will make even the most strident of doomsday proclaimers put down their social-media megaphones. I’m walking a very dangerous tightrope here, as the last thing the college basketball world needs is the talking heads thinking that they can actually influence the on-court product. But I must admit: It seems as though the bitching and moaning worked. College basketball is thriving, to the point that this feels like it might be the best season of the one-and-done era.

Before we look at what’s made this season so great, let’s first reflect on the themes of each of the past few seasons. The 2013–14 campaign was declared the Year of the Freshman, as the incoming class consisted of guys like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Julius Randle, and Aaron Gordon and whipped the nation into such a frenzy that ESPN insisted on shoving its “Freshman Focus” segment down everyone’s throat. Hell, in what might have been the biggest upset in history, a certain CEO of a certain website got so excited about college basketball that he flew from Los Angeles to Chicago just to watch a November doubleheader.

There was one glaring issue with the Year of the Freshman, though: Most of the best guys played on mediocre teams. Wiggins and Embiid were on head coach Bill Self’s only 10-loss team at Kansas. Randle, James Young, and the Harrison twins played for a Kentucky group that was a hot mess until the NCAA tournament. Parker and Duke were fun to watch, but they couldn’t play defense to save their lives. Arizona’s Gordon was the closest a high-profile freshman came to shining on a great team, but when Brandon Ashley broke his foot in February, the Wildcats’ title chances more or less broke with it. With all of the focus on the freshmen vying to be the top pick in the 2014 NBA draft, Florida, which lacked a can’t-miss talent and was led by seniors like Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young, emerged as the best team in the country. Meanwhile, Wichita State, which started 35–0 before losing in the tourney, was the story of the season.

The 2014–15 Kentucky Wildcats (Getty Images)
The 2014–15 Kentucky Wildcats (Getty Images)

2014–15 was the Year of Kentucky. Maybe revisionist history will spin it differently, but the Wildcats’ pursuit of 40–0 hovered over everything else that season. Duke, Wisconsin, Arizona, Gonzaga, Virginia, and Villanova were all significantly better than every team not mentioned in this sentence (excluding Kentucky, obviously), but even talks about them came back to the million-dollar question: Are they good enough to beat Kentucky?

The subplot to Kentucky’s dominance was that its defense (as well as Virginia’s, for completely different reasons) was almost too good, to the point that it was ruining the game. Casual fans who watch only the best teams or players saw plenty of Kentucky that season, only what they watched wasn’t so much basketball as it was a group of athletic freaks completely humiliating guys who will go pro in something other than sports. Thus, even the conversations regarding whether the sport was broken centered on Kentucky, because, again, EVERYTHING in 2014–15 was about Kentucky. Some fans thought it was cool that there was a final boss for the rest of the country to attempt to defeat, and some felt like the lack of parity (not just with Kentucky versus the field, but also with the top eight teams versus everyone else) made the regular season too much like a formality. Yet another group was simply hell-bent on figuring out if Kentucky could beat the 76ers.

Last season was like someone took all of the complaints of the prior two seasons and went overboard in addressing them. Oh, you don’t like when freshmen dominate the conversation? Fine. Here’s a season in which four of the five AP first-team All-Americans will be seniors and many of the good freshmen, like Ben Simmons, will be on really shitty teams. You don’t like it when there’s no parity? Well, how about a season that sends six different teams to the no. 1 spot in the AP poll and has Iowa, Xavier, Oregon, and Texas A&M ranked in the top five at some point?

2015–16 was great for many reasons, the most noteworthy being that it produced what was quite possibly the greatest national title game of all time. But all of these great things came at a cost. We got the Year of the Senior, yet the freshmen with the upside to become future NBA stars spent their lone college seasons toiling away on largely irrelevant teams. And as exciting as it was to have no idea what would happen in last season’s tournament, I still can’t shake the thought that any of the top eight teams from 2014–15 would have won the 2016 title due to the drop-off in overall talent and quality across the country. It’s like college basketball’s version of Newton’s Third Law was at play: For every entertaining aspect that was added to the sport, there was an opposite reaction, and an equally entertaining aspect had to be removed.

That’s precisely what’s made this season so great: It has somehow violated the Third Law. At long last, college basketball has something for everyone. If you like watching insanely talented one-and-dones use the NCAA as a pit stop, a freshman class that’s being billed as the greatest ever probably has your attention — especially since many of the most highly touted guys (like Kansas’s Josh Jackson, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Duke’s Jayson Tatum and Frank Jackson, and Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, and Edrice “Bam” Adebayo) are playing huge roles for national title contenders. If you like seeing upperclassmen who were unheralded in high school blossom into stars, then the dominant play of Villanova’s Josh Hart and Kansas’s Frank Mason might scratch your itch. If you like when the sport’s blue-blood programs are great, you’ll be happy to know that UCLA, Kansas, Kentucky, Duke, North Carolina, and Indiana are all in the top 10 of the AP poll. And if you like cheering for underdogs, you’ll welcome the fact that four of the six remaining undefeated teams are Baylor, Gonzaga, Creighton, and USC.

The national player of the year picture isn’t any clearer now than it was a month ago, nor is the race to become the no. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft. As with Kentucky in 2014–15, the sport has a Death Star team in Duke, but because the Blue Devils have suffered from all sorts of injury problems, the idea that the national title is theirs to lose hasn’t quite taken hold yet. Plus, many other teams are playing well enough to win it all.

That last bit is the most important point. This season’s quality of play has been through the roof. This is anecdotal, to be sure, but it feels like the overcoaching that has plagued college basketball for years is starting to go away. It feels like the players are using their skills and intuition to make plays instead of turning to the bench to see what they’re supposed to do. Pair that with the talent across the country being at an all-time high and it’s easy to see why there have been so many great early-season games, to the point that making a list of the top 10 so far would be nearly impossible.

Every relevant conference should feature an intriguing struggle for its championship, including the Big 12, SEC, and WCC. Steve Alford, Scott Drew, and Tom Crean are coaching top-10 teams. There have been shocking upsets (Fort Wayne over Indiana! Florida Atlantic over Ohio State! UT-Arlington over Saint Mary’s! Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes has stopped chucking 3s!) and compelling conspiracy theories. Brad Calipari wore a shirt with his dad’s face on it to cover up his “Earned Not Given” tattoo. The nation’s leading scorer is 5-foot-9 and the leading rebounder is 7-foot-6. Rutgers and TCU are both 9–1 and Grambling State already has five wins. And most importantly, I haven’t noticed Ted Valentine on my television even once this season.

There’s still enough time for everything to get ruined, of course, but right now college basketball is as good as it’s ever been. If you’re still bitching, it’s time to take a look in the mirror and ask yourself some tough questions:

1. Are you sure you’ve ever liked college basketball?

2. Could Kentucky beat the Sixers?