I said it before and I’ll say it again: It’s a good thing that people who don’t ordinarily follow college basketball start writing and talking about college basketball in mid-March. This is no time to get territorial and protective. I say: Y’all come. The passing interest of short-timers is a March ritual as hallowed as the brackets themselves.
Sure, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith might say erroneous things about particular teams or players, but people who fancy that they know more about particular teams or players say erroneous things all the time. Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. Besides, he’s Charles Barkley. Talking about college basketball. What’s not to like?
So it is that the estimable Michael Wilbon has cast his gaze toward college hoops and, taking a page from official Prospectus peep Jay Bilas, has voiced his concern over the state of the game. To Wilbon’s eye college basketball today has too few great players (they’ve all decamped to the NBA), too few great teams (see above), and a low overall quality of play.
To me the most plausible aspect of a lament like this is that absent time travel it’s inherently irrefutable. Wilbon could be right. If I were dropped in, say, 1987, maybe I’d watch a few minutes of Billy Donovan in short-shorts at Providence, slap my forehead, and say, “It is better!” There’s just no way of knowing for sure.
That said, I do think saying the college game is or will soon become bereft of stars vastly overstates our ability to know where the next stars are going to come from, just how good they’re going to be, and how soon they’ll be that good. At the moment the brightest star in the college firmament, one now projected as a mid-first-round pick, is a not terribly athletic 22-year-old from Glens Falls, New York. Good luck traveling back to March 2007, pointing to the young man, and telling everyone about this Mania thing that’s taking place in 2011. Carmelo Anthony, Blake Griffin, and Dwayne Wade all played college basketball subsequent to a draft they were eligible to enter because too few learned observers realized just how good these guys were going to be.
I realize I’m stealing a page (pdf) from Ken Pomeroy — he runs a more aesthetically pleasing version of this chart annually, I believe — but what the heck. This:
What you see here is the overall free throw percentage recorded by Division I in every season from 1948 to 2010. In 1948 D-I players were not very good at making free throws. Back then they shot just 59.8 percent at the line. Free throw shooting improved steadily over the following decade, however, and despite recurring laments that no one can shoot FTs “anymore” the accuracy has been more or less stable at right around 69 percent for the better part of 50 years.
I don’t suppose free throw accuracy translates seamlessly or even particularly well into the qualities that Wilbon finds in short supply: stars, formidable teams, and a high quality of play. But the serene knowledge that I could travel back in time to the Truman administration and kick my similarly-aged grandfather’s butt in a free throw contest has always made me provisionally skeptical of laments that things aren’t like they were in the good old days. Very often this lament is indeed correct, of course (I nominate movie stars and architecture), but it’s one we should always treat with some caution precisely on the grounds that it does come to our lips so easily.
Wilbon and I watch the same sport but come away with different impressions. That’s fine. Wilbon saw the same national championship game that I did last year. I thought it was well played, had NBA-track stars, and was quite thrilling. I may well be proven wrong eventually, but for now mark me down as blissfully unconcerned.
Last request. Before you make the (equally popular in March) inverse-Wilbon point — the world-weary belief that college basketball was born in original sin — by using “Sam Gilbert” as a two-word club, please read this. Failing that at least read this, which has the condign virtue of being 4,980 words shorter.