By David Roth
There's the question, unasked but constant and all-caps glaring, of expectations when it comes to college basketball. Where a reasonable person might not necessarily trust a 19-year-old with an empty house and its fully stocked liquor cabinet, seemingly reasonable people think nothing of expecting 19-year-olds to deftly defend the pick-and-roll or initiate an offense in front of an audience comprised of tens of thousands of yowling and inebriated people in bleachers and thousands more at home; all this while Bobby Knight grumblingly nitpicks said 19-year-old in front of a national television audience, all this while a millionaire coach screams profanities, instructions or profane instructions, all this all the time until March, when the audiences get bigger and louder and the unreasonable expectations of even reasonable-enough college basketball fans edge still further out.
Reasonable fans -- a group that may at times include you, and which includes me only when I'm watching games I don't care too much about -- know that this is all kind of strange. But college basketball isn't strictly for reasonable fans, and isn't strictly reasonable.
Instead, college basketball casts fans in Matthew McConaughey's "Wooderson" role from Dazed and Confused. While we may not bring McConaughey's easy charm and world-historic mustache to the part, anyone who has watched a lot of college basketball can relate to Wooderson's explanation for hitting on high school girls: "I get older, they stay the same age." In the case of college basketball, the fans’ fixed place just slightly above all that college-kid churn and chaos manifests as less Woodersonianly pervy and more parental and half-jaded: the panicked point guards tasked with tuning out 15,000 people screaming at him with ACC or Big East or Big Ten accents is living that nightmare for something like the first time.
Those of us on the couch, on the other hand, have the twin advantages of distance and perspective. Yes, we get to remember watching Derrick Rose or Carmelo Anthony or Chris Webber play college ball, but there are some things we lose in the getting old(er) deal -- that 19-year-old point guard, scared and screamed-at and Knight-nitpicked though he unfortunately is, is experiencing something much more intense and urgent than the experience we reasonable fans are getting at home, in HD. The better part of watching college basketball -- that is, both the largest part and the best part -- is the safely secondhand vicarious high fans catch from the energy and overage that college basketball throws off.
There is exponentially and objectively better-played and otherwise better basketball to be had in the NBA, but there is nothing in sports with the emotional throw-weight of a meaningful college basketball game. It would be nice, if maybe a little over-abstracted, to just leave it there -- with some appreciation for what the players playing the game give us, and with a little prayer of thanks that we don't have to live in those players' over-urgent and overwrought 19-year-old lives. No non-teenager, with the possible exception of Taylor Swift, really wants to live or feel like a teenager; no one, anywhere, would want to live under the strict and arbitrary rules of the NCAA. We've got college basketball and music and movies to remind us what it's like to be a teenager, good and bad, but most of us also have that Wooderson escape clause: that's not us, anymore. That would be the reasonable way to watch college basketball, it seems. It is not, admittedly, a very popular way.
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Which leaves us with what? A couple of things, broadly. One is a curmudgeonly and strictly fantastical conservatism that lionizes an imaginary golden age when college basketball was without compromise or serious fault, all vital amateur enthusiasm and love-of-the-game pride, an era in which no one thought to take advantage of all these earnest and uncompensated young student-athletes. (They thought to take advantage, of course). The other is just as blinkered and silly: a stern, childishly entitled demand that those college-age kids -- who are, if you're just joining us, taller, lither, longer and more athletic than the average college-age kid, but still college-age kids -- play and behave and deliver as if they were adult professionals. It's tough to say which is worse, although it's easy to say that neither is good.
The latter, though, is easier to dismiss: tuff-dad message-board goofballs and comment-section tough guys fearlessly calling out 20-year-old kids for making bad decisions, as if no 20-year-old, or every 20-year-old, had previously proven prone to bad decisions, are easy to tune out. This is a skill that anyone who has ever talked sports in a bar, or listened to sports talk radio, or been seated next to a scotch-powered uncle at a family dinner, has picked up. You nod, you agree that the point guard with the My First Mustache and glazed, terrified look in his eyes should've made a better decision on that pivotal play. You excuse yourself. It's easy.
The other response, though -- that tendency towards some weird sentimental essentialism that situates whatever seems wrong in college basketball in some broader critique of a World Gone Wrong -- is a little tougher. It's still goofy, but there's more there: if the demand-o superfan is just some silly-stern dork asking for the impossible, the historicist makes a broader appeal. Take, for instance, the case of Kentucky, which started the still-young college basketball season ranked third in the nation, and which became the fastest team so-ranked to fall out of the Top 25 entirely this week. One type of fan, spoiled by the last few years of supremely poised and brilliant one-and-done freshmen that John Calipari recruited to Kentucky, demands the mostly impossible, because that fan has (implausibly) seen it in recent years, and become accustomed to it. The other looks at this year's team, swaggering and scuffling in equal measure, and sees an indictment of the entire college basketball enterprise circa now.
Both have a point, but both are mostly wrong. Kentucky fans, and college basketball fans by association, got exceedingly lucky with Kentucky for years. DeMarcus Cousins and John Wall and Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were magic freshmen; necessarily immature, but undeniably transcendent even in their teens. This year, finally, Calipari wound up with a bunch of freshman players who play like freshmen -- bouncy big Nerlens Noel gets better with every game, but still seems to be figuring things out; Alex Poythress has an NBA body imbued with NBA skills, but that body is piloted by a typically distractible 18-year-old mind. It's easy to make a big deal out of the fact that there are no 21-year-olds around to lead these 18-year-olds, but also maybe go back and look at that sentence, and think about what to expect from that scenario. Fans who came to expect the unlikely in previous years are now being confronted with the likely: talented 18-year-olds playing like talented 18-year-olds. Which is to say: looking shaky on the road, acting nervous at home, and otherwise behaving in the unpredictable and vexing and vulnerable and hugely human way that teenagers do.
And the others, the ones holding Kentucky's early failures up as an indictment of the entire college basketball enterprise? They have a point, at least insofar as the NBA's one-and-done rule and the weird exigencies of college sports -- a hugely lucrative business that doesn't pay the labor that is also its product, if you'd forgotten -- are indeed weird. But they, too, are demanding something they can't have, albeit more in sorrow than anger. These fans are demanding a return to a past that never was, and certainly could not now be. The wearying compromises and contradictions of college basketball are what they are, and we all know about them. They are likely not going anywhere so long as they continue to benefit the people they benefit. This is not exactly good, but it's not exactly news, either.
So why not try to be reasonable about all this? No, it doesn't quite suit: college basketball is not a reasonable or rational thing, which is why it's great and why we watch. And consider the alternatives: arguments alternately selfish and self-righteous, childish and cynical. At the risk of roping poor stoned Wooderson into all this one too many times, these familiar frustrations with college basketball are old, and getting older; there's no reason for us to pretend to be staying the same age. We might as well grow up, and watch the game with our eyes open.
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Roth is a co-founder and editor of The Classical, the co-author of the Wall Street Journal's “Daily Fix” blog-column, the sole author of Vice's "Mercy Rule" column and a writer of things at GQ, New York Magazine, The Awl and some other places when there's time. He lives in New York, and is on Twitter.