CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – With no dominant teams, a glaring lack of star power and a regular season bogged down by mediocrity, college basketball is slogging through its worst season of this generation. There’s a lack of heroes to root for and villains to cheer against, and the sport has managed to make the unpredictable become mundane.
With top collegiate talent fleeing the sport at unprecedented rates and the NCAA lacking the flexibility to accommodate those attempting to come (see Wiseman, James), this season has unfolded with all the good vibes of three hours of uninterrupted airplane turbulence.
In a way, No. 7 Duke finds itself as emblematic of this college basketball identity crisis. This Duke team is 19-3 after beating Boston College on Tuesday and a Final Four favorite, yet a faint echo of the talent and teams Mike Krzyzewski has fielded in recent seasons. That makes Duke much like the sport itself – underwhelming, unsatisfying and chasing in vain to mimic recent renditions.
Nowhere has the talent drain impacted the sport more than the ACC, which is spiraling toward the worst season of this generation and, potentially, in the history of the conference. When asked about the ACC’s underwhelming place in college basketball on Tuesday, Krzyzewski issued a blistering rebuke – and clever redirection – of the state of the sport and the lack of leadership at the NCAA level.
“Do you see anything coming out from the NCAA saying what our future is?” Krzyzewski said. “What our plan is? And by the way, who would say that?”
Krzyzewski has long been a proponent of some type of commissioner to run the sport. At the least, he’d wish basketball showed the vision and foresight of college football.
“Collegiate NCAA football, they run it big-time,” he said. “We don’t do it. We don’t do it. It’s sad.”
Duke could very well be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and win the national title. They could also slip to a No. 3 seed and lose in the first round. Neither would be a surprise. This sums up a college basketball season where parity has transitioned from a novelty to an anchor, making the sport undistinguished and, at times, unwatchable. There’s no clear path back, either.
Krzyzewski’s college basketball State of the Union, which unfolded parallel with the one in Washington, was born of an artful dodge. ESPN’s bracket projections on Monday included just three ACC teams in the NCAA tournament, which would tie the low in league history and be more than half of what the league has averaged – 7.3 – since expanding to 15 teams in 2013-14
Krzyzewski’s diversion to college basketball’s leadership issues was likely rooted in Duke’s upcoming opponent. Somewhat amusingly, he said, “I don’t watch the ACC,” and, “At my age, the less I look at it, the better.”
Any talk of a historically bad ACC begins with UNC, which hosts Duke on Saturday and has been ghastly – 10-12, 3-8 ACC – this season. (Yes, star freshman Cole Anthony has been hurt, but it’s becoming evident he couldn’t have saved this shipwreck season even if healthy.)
“There aren’t great teams,” Krzyzewski said. “There are some really good teams, who have great records.” He summed up Duke this way: “I think we’re just a team that’s just good, and we can get better. But we’ve won a lot.”
This transitioned to a conversation about the sport’s biggest issue – solid players who could blossom to stars fleeing the college ranks. They’re doing so despite no certainty at drawing a decent paycheck professionally. In the past decade, the value and cache of playing college basketball has dipped precipitously, something shown by the fact that a record 86 underclassmen entered the NBA draft last year. The previous year, that number was 79. Combined over the last two years, at least 85 college underclassmen went undrafted by the NBA.
“I think the whole state of college basketball has been hurt by how many kids have tested the waters,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s not the one-and-dones. We’ve lost about 70 or 80 kids who weren’t even drafted.”
While the world is changing, Krzyzewski criticized the NCAA for staying stagnant. He noted how the NBA has ramped up the G League in anticipation of high school players being expected to be able to enter the NBA directly in the next few seasons. He noted the uptick in high school games on television to showcase young stars who could end up jumping to the NBA. “We’ve got to be so careful,” Krzyzewski said. He added: “We as a college committee don’t think of what that means.”
He went on to predict an uptick in exposure for great players outside of college basketball.
“I see in the future, a high school mega-league that has a TV contract,” he said, likely not realizing there is a national prep school league already. “I don’t know. Could that happen? You bet your butt it could happen. Especially if those kids aren’t going to go to college. The NBA is going to want to promote those guys.
“Come on. These things are happening. … We have to be careful and strategic.”
The buzziest high school players right now – LeBron James Jr., Emoni Bates and Mikey Williams – will likely never take a dribble in college basketball. College basketball has functioned at a high level without the brightest stars before, but back then the solid players weren’t fleeing the sport as if their pants were on fire. It was notable that Williams, a star freshman with 1.4 million Instagram followers, told Evan Daniels of 24/7 Sports last week: “I am trying to get to the NBA as fast as possible.” In reality, he was speaking for this generation.
That ethos has left college basketball stripped for parts. The players have become much less recognizable because of transfer rates and jumping to the pros. The home teams aren’t as familiar because of that constant turnover and the opponents aren’t often recognizable after waves of realignment. Intimacy and familiarity have gone into the transfer portal, replaced by graduate transfers and Creighton playing Providence in a conference game.
(The extended 3-point line this season hasn’t helped, either, as BC and Duke showed by combining to shoot 3-for-33 from 3-point range in Duke’s 63-55 win on Tuesday.)
The state of the union for college basketball is simple – the scope of problems is much greater right now than the shine of the stars. Krzyzewski summed up his frustrations this way: “I wish the whole thing would change.”
On Tuesday night, after another forgettable slog of a college basketball game, there were only signs that the sport’s relevancy spiral will run parallel with the leadership void.
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