By Kevin Sweeney
It’s that time of year again.
The time when a 5-star recruit spurns swaths of college coaches for a pro contract and the sport of college basketball is placed on life support by the national media. This week’s edition was perhaps the strongest push: the development of a new pilot program by the NBA to place young stars in the G-League headlined by Jalen Green has writers everywhere rushing to declare a time of death.
“The college basketball model is crumbling before our eyes,” CBS Sports Radio’s Carrington Harrison said in a tweet.
“Another bad day for college basketball, which continues to lose top talent and recede in national relevance,” Yahoo’s Pete Thamel tweeted.
“2-3 years from now, when people try and say that the NBA killed college basketball … nope. Greed at the highest levels of the NCAA killed it,” Fox Sports’ resident hot take artist Jason McIntyre wrote.
Need I go on?
I could write about why this WON’T hurt college basketball in the long run in any substantive way. Plenty have written that column, and it’s a take I agree with. Look, the bottom line is this: 5-star freshmen don’t actually drive success in college basketball. Just three of the last ten national champions have a one-and-done on the roster. For every Zion Williamson college basketball loses by having consensus top-10 picks bypass college basketball, there are dozens that leave no meaningful impact on college basketball’s visibility. Outside of a transcendent talent like Zion, the majority of casual sports fans watch college basketball because of the brands from November through February and to win their office pool in March. Those brands aren’t going away anytime soon, and neither is college basketball.
That said, I think the discussion about whether losing Jalen Green from the sport highlights a larger problem with college basketball: how it’s covered. Why is college basketball seen as a pit stop? Partially because that’s how it’s framed by the media. Turn on a primetime ESPN game, and you’ll inevitably hear the broadcasters discussing how many Duke and Kentucky freshmen will be first round picks, if Obi Toppin should go in the lottery, and which mid-major guard is the next Ja Morant. Players are labeled “one-and-done”, “two-and-done”, and “multiyear guy” before they even step foot on a college campus.
Interestingly enough, college football is covered far differently than college basketball. Amazingly, the focus is on COLLEGE football. Of course there’s discussion about how a player translates to the next level. But you’d never hear Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit discuss an LSU game as a chance to watch future Cincinnati Bengal Joe Burrow. Is the narrative in college football driven far too much by a few blue blood programs? Of course. Is there discussion about how some high-profile players like Johnny Manziel will fit in at the next level? Obviously. But the halftime shows don’t rank the best prospects for the next level, they discuss conference races and prognosticate the playoff race.
At the core: college football isn’t framed like a development league. It is its own sport, beautiful in its own way. Why can’t college basketball be viewed the same?
This is not to say that ESPN, Fox, and the other major media players are the only problem with college basketball. Nor is it to say that the NCAA doesn’t have plenty of work to do to make players want to spend time in college– they do. Name, Image, and Likeness protections are vital in keeping multiyear stars in college longer rather than departing early for the pros. Keeping the likes of Jared Harper, Jordan Bone, Ty-Shon Alexander, and Luka Garza is the path to college basketball putting a great product on the floor.
College basketball isn’t broken. That doesn’t mean it can’t use some fixing. The first step to doing that is appreciating what it is. If we center college basketball coverage around college basketball, we take the first step towards a better sport– with or without 5-star recruits.