Last Sunday, my father drove the 45 miles north to Champaign, Ill., to watch his beloved Illinois Fighting Illini play Jacksonville State, a school that's in Alabama, not Florida. In my hometown, Illinois basketball is basically the Yankees: Whether you have tickets, and where they are, is as reliable an indicator of your social strata as how big your house is. Illinois basketball is woven into the fabric of Central Illinois the way high school football is in Texas, or college football is in the South. There is no bigger celebrity sighting than Lou Henson; no great villain exists, still, than Bobby Knight.
Illinois college basketball took such a strong hold over our community, in large part, because of the luck of television scheduling: For decades, WCIA, the local CBS affiliate, showed every Illinois basketball game, in the days before ESPN and Dick Vitale and the Final Four as Bird-Magic spectacle. Games were simply local programming, with the Champ Kinds on the sports desk calling the game using local cameras and amusement park graphics. Illini basketball games trumped any national CBS programming; no matter what, Illini games were shown on WCIA. This is in the days of three channels. You watched the Illini whether you liked basketball or not, because there was, quite literally, nothing else on.
That was pretty much my youth. Because all the games were on television, the Illini players became your friends, these recurring characters who showed up in your home three times a week. I remember those Illini players better than I remember my childhood friends. Derek Harper. Brian Leonard. Efrem Winters. Bruce Douglas. Anthony Welch. George Montgomery. Doug Altenberger. Tell 'em, Bob Ley . Central Illinois isn't near any major cities -- whenever I fly home, it's a two-hour drive from the airport -- so even though there are Cardinals and Cubs and Bears and Bulls and Pacers fans, those are distant, far off heroes. The Illini players are near to home, and they are ours. We watch them mature and grow, and we cheer them and scream at them and fret about them. (I'll never forget my late grandmother cursing at Ken Norman, then apologizing to him through the screen.) They are, in the dopiest way, a sort of family.
So Dad's visit to the newly renamed State Farm Center on Sunday was less about watching a tune-up against KenPom's 244th-rated team and more about a reunion with old friends. Which is why Dad was taken aback when he realized … he didn't know anyone on this team.
Illinois, this season, has four returning players from the team that nearly reached the Sweet 16 last year. Everyone else on the team is new: There are a couple of transfers and a ton of freshmen. Of the 11 Illini who played against JSU, seven of them are people Dad had never laid eyes on before. The scoreboard helped, but he still kept getting Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn confused. I've been having the same problem. We'll know all these guys eventually. But now they're strangers.
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College basketball has been going through an identity crisis over the last few years. Plagued by early defections to pro ball, an emphasis on freshmen playing immediately, a rampant and sudden epidemic of transfers and, perhaps most of all, coaches trying to control all this by clamping down and asserting suffocating control of every aspect of the game, college basketball is in an ugly, awkward phase. Games are choppy, sloppy and low-scoring; high-level games have turned into wrestling meets in the paint; nobody can shoot anymore. It's tough to watch college basketball these days and not notice how much more lumbering games are than they used to be. The NCAA is trying to fix this problem this year by calling every possible foul -- Sports Illustrated's Pete Thamel calls it "a steady diet of kale" -- to get players to back off on defense and thus let the game flow more smoothly. This seems like a good idea on the surface -- even if it's going to lead to even more hideous foul-fests in the early going -- but you can see how it might go wrong: Coaches' oppressive strangling of the game that led to this will just evolve and take another form. Coaches don't care how the game looks. They just want to win.
I think it's something different than foul-calling and defenses, though. I blame Kentucky.
Nothing has changed the landscape of college basketball faster and more dramatically than the success of John Calipari and Kentucky. Basically, Calipari, as Chuck Klosterman put it on the eve of the Wildcats' championship 18 months ago, has professionalized college basketball. He has taken the platitudes of the game -- come to college and learn, get an education and grow and mature, give back to the University that gives to you -- and blown them up. These platitudes are B.S. College athletics is a huge money-making endeavor that uses often poor kids to make money for universities that are already gouging their student body in fees. Players don't get a dime for pouring their bodies and souls into the game, but coaches and administrators make millions off their walking advertisements, their jerseys, their shoes, their sweat. The only sane thing for an athlete to do is to be as pragmatic as possible. Go to the school that's more likely to get you paid faster. Make sure you get to play immediately. If you don't like how it's working out, leave.
The reason college basketball is so choppy and constantly shifting is because rosters are so fluid now. The player who stays four years at the same university, becoming part of the family, growing, all that, is the rarity: Now, it's essentially free agency. Players may still not be getting paid, but they have more power than they've ever had before, and they're wielding it. It's working out great for them, but the game is suffering because of it. These early games look rough partly because of the foul-calling -- and it's worth noting that that's overblown anyway -- but mostly it's because most of these guys haven't played together that much yet. (The changing practice schedule this year has something to do with that too.) This is a players' game now, and that can lead to confusion and sloppy play, particularly when coaches keep trying to clamp down the chaos of an inherently chaotic game. Kentucky is the model for this. Calipari brings in eight new guys every year and says, "Do your thing, guys." Sometimes it works and you win a national championship, and sometimes it doesn't and you lose to Robert Morris in the NIT. But no one can argue it's the players in charge now.
I want to be clear on this: Not only is what Calipari and Kentucky have done not wrong in any way, it is in fact much more honest and beneficial to the "student-athlete" than college basketball as a whole. Coaches always get angry about players who leave college early -- coaches other than Calipari, anyway -- and about players who transfer, but of course they'd leave for the NBA or a better job if it meant more money in half a second. They're losing control. Tuesday night, Calipari's Kentucky will play Tom Izzo's Michigan State. The teams are generational contrasts: Kentucky has all those freshmen, while Michigan State has "veteran" seniors and a stable rotation. Traditionalists -- those who have grown up thinking of college basketball teams as "family" rather than "a moneymaking, probably corrupt enterprise built on the backs of unpaid labor" -- will see this as a cultural battle of Izzo's firm foundation against Calipari's upstarts. But history is not evolving in their favor. And I'm not sure justice is either.
This changes the experience of watching college basketball. The confusion my father had watching all these new Illini players, that's just going to multiply as the years go by. Already, Illinois is going to welcome five new players next year, maybe six if star recruit Cliff Alexander leans its way this Friday. And that's not counting any transfers who might leave or come in. These are not characters who visit our living room three nights a week for four years anymore. It is the difference between a long-running sitcom and a reality show; the cast is always changing now.
This is no longer a mom-and-pop game with local sportscasters calling the game with two cameras and chintzy graphics. It is more honest, and just, and fair, and beneficial to the athletes who are playing the games. It is more in line with how sports are played, and viewed, and paid for. It is a positive evolution, a step forward.
It's also making the game less fun to watch and be a part of. This is the fundamental issue college basketball needs to solve. I'm not sure they can. I'm not sure they should.
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