The face of college basketball has changed. Yes, it still features the iconic faces of Coach K and Jim Boheim. And yes some programs continue to remain the enviable leaders of the sport (see Duke, Syracuse, Kentucky). But men’s college basketball to your father or your father’s father would be nearly unrecognizable; and that’s what makes the game so intriguing.
The rise of the mid-major into the national conversation has been occurring for years now. However, it took the Cinderella runs of George Mason, Butler, and most recently, Wichita State to really give the conversation some tread. Now, mid-major conferences are earning respect and credibility in the college basketball world. No longer are the five through thirteen seeds overlooked in March. And thanks to the recent success and cultures of mid-major programs, talent is wandering away from the big name programs and walking onto campuses you wouldn’t expect. And who knows just how much further mid-majors could have progressed had an unforgettable half-court heave by Gordon Hayward found its way in and mid-major Butler won an NCAA Championship. One thing is for certain, mid-major teams are becoming competitive enough to compete for a national title, and it won’t be long until a Cinderella wins a crown.
The Big Ten conference has long been heralded for its football and wrestling supremacy. While the hub of wrestling continues to thrive in the breadbasket of America, the football success does not. It is no secret that the heartbeat of college football resonates from the south, but don’t fret too much Big Ten fans, you’ve lost one, but gained another. College basketball’s most difficult conference is no longer the Big East, the ACC, or even the Big 12. The most competitive and difficult conference in college basketball runs through the Big Ten. Much like the week-in week-out grind that is SEC football, Big Ten basketball has become a day-in day-out grind. Look through the Top 25 standings and only a few Big Ten schools are found, and the Big Ten conference itself is responsible for that. Syracuse, Arizona, and Florida, the top three teams in the country would not still stand where they currently do if their schedules took them through East Lansing, Ann Arbor, Iowa City, Madison, Columbus, and Bloomington.
Along with the changes that have occurred on the face of college basketball, the same could be said for the way the game is played. Now more than ever the game relies heavily on a few fundamental skills. If you look at some of the best teams in the country, there are a handful of common denominators that each possess which make them successful.
First, it wasn’t long ago that teams could have paint presence on the floor that lacked the ability to move or shoot. That’s no longer the case. Basketball has changed from the NBA on down, and it is here to stay in college basketball. Some of the country’s most successful teams possess a big man who has the ability to play both down low and outside. Duke has Jabari Parker. Creighton has Doug McDermott. Wichita State has Cleanthony Early. Kentucky has Julius Randle. Kansas has Andrew Wiggins. Iowa State has Melvin Ejim. All of these players feature a lot of size, but the ability to move, and the ability to stretch the floor with their jump shots. Gone are the days of true centers like Patrick Ewing and David Robinson. The game of basketball requires five guys who can stretch the floor.
Another feature of basketball that has grown in importance more recently is the concept of team defense. An art that is lost in the NBA, not because of lack of ability, but lack of pride, team defense has always been preached in the game of basketball. However fifteen years ago there weren’t seven-footers capable of beating a defense with the dribble twenty feet away from the basket. There also weren’t six-foot-six point guards who could play with their backs to the basket. The increase in speed, size, and talent has been extremely beneficial to offenses around the country and has become a problem for teams defensively.
But again, if we look at the best teams in the nation, you will find that all of them play very good team defense. Nowhere is this more evident than the ‘Cuse’s unique, but ever steady 2-3 zone. The way teams can shoot, create off the dribble, and get up and down the floor, you’d expect teams to struggle in a 2-3 zone. Not only is Syracuse successful, they are dominant defensively.
Their 2-3 zone is dependent upon communication and rotation, both key features of a successful team defense. It is Syracuse’s zone principles and success that make them a heavy favorite for a national title this year, and more importantly, it is the success of a team defense that has fueled the legacy of Jim Boheim.
Finally, college basketball rarely contains the term senior leadership. With much of the talent jumping to the professional ranks after one or two seasons, college basketball programs are having to succeed whilst expecting high turnover rates. Many argue that the concepts of experience and senior leadership are overrated, but ask any coach in the country and its a feature they wish they could find more often. There are three seniors in the college basketball landscape that stand out most. Ohio State’s Aaron Craft, Creighton’s Doug McDermott, and Syracuse’s CJ Fair. While many teams will be looking to eighteen-year-olds to lead their teams in March, these three teams have the benefit of senior leadership.
Aaron Craft is the engine that drives Ohio State. It starts for him on the defensive end of the ball, but when the Buckeyes need a big bucket, the ball goes through Craft. In Creighton, the story is much the same. Doug McDermott is the spark for the Jays offense. He has been that spark for four years and is familiar with the NCAA tournament. Lastly, CJ Fair is the touted leader of the dominate Orange. He is good for a double-double every night out, and while freshman guard Tyler Ennis has stolen much of the spotlight, when the big lights are on, CJ Fair is at his best.
For those of you who still doubt the importance of experience and senior leadership in college basketball I’d like to draw your attention to some glaring differences. Eighteen-years-old versus twenty-two years old; would you have had the maturity and leadership to lead a team to the Final Four within a year of your high school graduation? 32 games played versus 120 games played. Many of these seniors have the ability to draw on hundreds of experiences, situations, and moments; some of them from the NCAA Tournament itself. Your freshmen were playing for state championships at this time last year. Many will deemphasize the importance of experience and senior leadership, but ask the nation’s best coaches and many of them would love to have that on their roster.
Despite some unchanging fundamentals of basketball, the face of college basketball has undergone great change over the past fifteen years. While some aspects of the game will surely be missed, many are embracing and excited about the direction of the game. Never before has the parody of college basketball been more apparent, and while there are familiar faces and familiar programs to love and to hate, every year it seems a new one joins the party. If there is one predictable feature of college basketball that won’t be disappearing anytime soon, it is the unpredictability of March, and I know I’m not the only one who can’t wait for the madness to return.