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March 29, 2012

Why a UK title will not end college basketball as we know it

Filed under: Uncategorized — John Gasaway @ 12:07 am

Remember our previous definition of the “Taylor Branch fallacy“?

The misplaced belief that simply saying “I don’t like this” about something that one has accurately described is somehow not enough, that something one doesn’t like must instead be A National Menace or akin to slavery or both.

For some reason I thought of that this week when I read the following peroration from Chuck Klosterman, on the likely consequences of a potential national championship for Kentucky and John Calipari:

Now, I’m not suggesting that every single college will turn into a clone of Kentucky, because that’s impossible. There aren’t enough good players in America for that to happen. But Calipari’s scheme will become standard at a handful of universities where losing at basketball is unacceptable: North Carolina, Syracuse, Kansas, UCLA, and maybe even Duke. These schools already recruit one-and-done freshmen, but they’ll have to go further; they’ll have to be as transparent about their motives as Calipari is (because transparency is the obsession of modernity). If they resist, they will fade. And the result will be a radical amplification of what the game has already become: There will be five schools sharing the 25 best players in the country, and all the lesser programs will kill each other for the right to lose to those five schools in the Sweet 16. It will skew the competitive balance of major conferences and split D-I basketball into two completely unequal tiers. Final Four games will look more and more like sloppy pro games, and national interest in college basketball will wane (even if the level of play technically increases). In 10 years, it might be a niche sport for people like me — people who can’t get over the past.

I blame Klosterman’s unseen and nefarious editors for this vision of Lord Calipari and Empress Judd laughing maniacally in 2022 as helpless college basketball fans from the rest of Division I toil in UK’s underground sugar caves.

Editors love Grand Sweeping Narratives. Last year we had the least chalky Final Four ever, so the GSN, not surprisingly, revolved around A New Dawn of Parity. (Ah, memories.) Do we have any reason to believe this year’s GSN will have a longer shelf life?

Not really. Calipari’s hegemony is not only real (no other program’s been to the last three Elite Eights), it’s old news, and it poses no threat to the competitive balance of the sport. To say his hegemony’s degree or duration depends greatly upon whether he wins the national championship this weekend rather underestimates Calipari (who’s on a remarkable personal run of seven consecutive Sweet 16s), while greatly overestimating the immediate return on a national title (just ask Duke and Connecticut).

If Calipari keeps being this good — and we have no reason to think he won’t — he will most certainly win a national championship, if not this year then very soon. That won’t change what I’ve alluded to earlier as the structural essentials of college basketball:

Basically there are three “national” teams, in the sense that the nation’s best recruits compete head-to-head for the honor of playing for them: Kentucky, North Carolina, and Duke. In any given two- or three-year span those three are customarily joined talent-wise by a team like, say, Kansas, Connecticut, UCLA, or Michigan State. Happily, every player has an insatiable hunger for playing time, and even these heavyweights, as formidable as they are, cannot corner the market on talent. Not only is it possible for a Butler or a VCU to happen, but even Duke won a national title in 2010 with zero representation in the ensuing NBA draft. (Not even in the second round!) Those are the essentials, [and] they have been for decades….

Besides, anyone who fears a coming era of pernicious talent oligopolies hasn’t been paying enough attention to the present. Others have already pointed out that [the December 3] game between North Carolina and Kentucky featured seven of the top 14 players on the oracular mock draft board at Meaning 50 percent of 2012’s projected lottery picks are concentrated within 0.6 percent of Division I. Excuse me if I don’t wring my hands in panic at the dawning new age of talent imbalance….

Talent distributes itself across national programs according to a player’s preference and in response to available playing time at a given player’s position.

Of course there’s always a chance I could be mistaken. Here’s a friendly wager extended to Mr. Klosterman’s editors. Let’s reconvene in one decade’s time. If I am in fact lamenting the jeweled pivot upon which the entire sport swung into the abyss on April 2, 2012, I will change my Twitter avatar to “I (HEART) RPI.” Rest assured the metric in question will still be in use — a prediction which, yes, I realize is itself a Grand Sweeping Narrative. Consider this my pitch.

Twitter: @JohnGasaway. Contact: here.

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