Anyone who’s ever played basketball – even if you go to the park just to play pickup – knows the easiest way to win. You find a guy who’s awesome, ride his coattails, and try your best not to block his shine. It’s effective, but it’s also super not fun. Unless you’re one of the rare people who plays basketball purely for the camaraderie and high-fiving. “I came here to do two things – shoot some hoops and slap some butts – and I’m all out of field goal attempts.”
This is true for every level of basketball. If you don’t have one of the guys, you don’t have much of anything. And while this line of thinking is generally correct, it has infected the game so deeply that it’s hampering the very notion of “team basketball”. Players on the outside of stardom looking in are suffering, and the amount of attention heaped on the actual stars is becoming counterproductive.
Being good at something is all about good habits, yo. It’s the reason I’ve eaten a burrito every single day for the last 6 years. Now, no one eats a burrito better than me. NO ONE. And if I keep it up, I’ll continue to have that success until the day I die from farting. That said, the opposite is also true – bad habits form from repetition – are they’re incredibly hard to break. So, it’s not a stretch to say the basketball development system as it’s currently constructed is creating some unbreakables.
From the moment a star-level kid hits AAU, everything becomes about him. The team is built around him, the coaches focus is on keeping him happy instead of pushing him, and his teammates are there to compliment his game (both literally and metaphorically). All this accommodation means that by time he reaches college, he has a great understanding of what works for him, but a much worse understanding of how to make the people around him better. And for his teammates – the ones who are good enough to make it to college with him, but won’t make it any further – years of standing around and celebrating a star have made them crappier than they ever should be.
The desire to build around a star is obvious. It makes winning easy and winning is fun. But, you know what wasn’t fun? The Gonzaga vs West Virginia game. The one that was so bad it looked like it was being played in the movie Catwoman.
Don’t get me wrong – March Madness is one of most blessed thing on god’s green earth. But, just because a game is close, doesn’t mean it’s good. And just because the tournament is fun, doesn’t mean college basketball is a success. The game has been resting on the tourney for far too long. And the tourney has been resting on its brackets, buzzer beaters, and the beauty of its own construction instead of addressing the poor quality of its actual play. In other words, the focus on college basketball as simply one tournament and a conduit for stars to the pros has distracted from a more troubling truth – college players don’t know how to play – and even the best college coaches don’t seem to know how to fix it.
Coaches at top-tier schools have all but washed their hands of player development. And maybe that’s the right move when you’re consistently getting kids with one foot out the door. For the Bill Selfs and the Coach Ks of the world, one year at college probably isn’t enough time to undo 10-15 years of AAU brainwashing. It’s definitely easier to roll the ball out, point them in the right direction, and let their talent get you as far as it can. But for the programs these coaches employ – the ones who deeply value the college game – they better start putting some thought into the development of these players who end up going to their schools. Otherwise, they’ll risk the game they love becoming so sloppy and unwatchable it’s no longer relevant.
I don’t know exactly what these solutions are – smarter people than me should get in the lab with a pen and a pad on that one. But, I do know that the players John Calipari coaches at Kentucky shouldn’t look better in the NBA than they do against college guys who couldn’t sniff an NBA court. That doesn’t make any sense. And basketball should make sense. THIS ISN’T CATWOMAN DAMMIT.
Programs shouldn’t just accept the status quo and say because we have a good recruiter our program is good enough. Yeah – Kentucky, you’re good! But, how good is college basketball??? What’s the point of being the best at a sport that sucks to watch? I don’t hear a lot of people demanding their college build a dominant rhythmic gymnastics team.
Just because the talent pool this year was deeper than it has been in the past – and just because the tournament is fun – doesn’t mean basketball is anywhere close to maximizing its potential. And if we’re not trying to do that, we’re doing the game (especially college basketball and the kids who play it), a great disservice.
It’s a problem that needs to be addressed. Because if it’s not, in a few years, the thing that happens when I google “Monmouth basketball” will start to happen for almost every program. The first video that comes up won’t be about the team’s basketball at all – it’ll be about their high-fiving: