BY JUSTUS STURTEVANT, SPORTS EDITOR
College basketball is here. For most sports fans, that statement does not mean much this time of year.
March Madness, the pinnacle of the college basketball season, is still months away, and the big rivalry games that highlight the sport are as well.
Football still owns primetime this time of year, whether it’s professional or college, and the NBA takes precedence when football is not on.
For this sports fan, however, those words are music to my ears.
Why? Because college basketball represents so much of what can be great about sports. Yes, March Madness, with its upsets and onslaught of quality games, is the greatest three-week period of sports in the calendar year.
The beauty of college basketball goes far beyond the big dance, however.
Take, for example, the Nov. 18 Champions Classic tournament in Indianapolis.
The single-night event features three of the top five teams in the country in Duke, Kansas and Kentucky.
I had the pleasure of watching both games this year, and what I saw only reinforced my belief that college basketball is superior to the NBA.
In the first game of the night, Duke outlasted a depleted Michigan State team 81-71.
The game was never particularly close or exciting, but it was still a very interesting game to watch for one reason, the Duke ball movement.
One of the reasons I do not enjoy NBA games is the lack of ball movement. Isolation plays, as productive as they might be with NBA stars, are inartistic if you ask me.
No offense is quite as beautiful as one that features good ball movement, and the Blue Devils’ offensive execution was very good at times against Michigan State.
One particular play in the first half of the game showcased the Blue Devils’ ability to create offense through great ball movement.
Freshman center Jahlil Okafor received the ball on the block. Instead of trying to go through the double-team, which he likely could have done, Okafor hit one of the team’s guards on a quick back-door cut.
Instead of going up for a contested lay-up, he then completed a touch pass to another cutting Duke guard for a wide open lay-up. It was a perfect example of what you hear coaches say all the time: complete the extra pass.
Lately, I have been following the experiment that is the NBA’s latest big three in Cleveland, and I have been quite dismayed by the lack of offensive execution they have displayed.
Remember when Kyrie Irving, the team’s all-star point guard, dropped 34 points without a single assist in his team’s Nov. 5 loss to the Jazz?
In its win over Michigan State, Duke recorded 15 assists on 27 made field goals, while turning the ball over just eight times.
Four of the five Duke starters scored 15 points and none had more than 19.
Meanwhile, in their game against the Jazz, the Cavaliers managed just six assists on 30 made field goals. Four of the assists came from Lebron James.
Perhaps the professionals could take some pointers from these college kids.
The second game of the night, between Kansas and Kentucky, was not even close, as the Wildcats of Kentucky steamrolled the Jayhawks 72-40. Once again, however, I found myself glued to the screen. This time it was because of the Kentucky defense. The Wildcats held one of the best teams in the nation to 40 points and just 12 points in the second half.
Kentucky is a team that features nine McDonald’s All-Americans in its 10-player rotation. Much of the team will be drafted very early in this spring’s NBA draft.
Yet, the Wildcats have bought into the team-first mentality that the best college teams always seem to feature.
Coach John Calipari’s two-platoon rotation has led to minimal minutes for players who could easily drop 20 or more points in a star-role elsewhere. However, his players have embraced the system, playing high-energy defense that resulted in 11 blocks and seven forced turnovers.
Such a performance is out of the realm of possibility in the NBA, where scores routinely reach triple-digits.
Perhaps the most inspiring moment of the game was the end. With the Wildcats up by 30 points, both teams had released their reserves into the game for the last few minutes.
Rather than sitting on the bench with a cool towel around their shoulders, the Wildcat stars were all on their feet with their arms around each other, screaming and jumping as their teammates made plays in the game’s closing minutes.
It was refreshing to see players genuinely excited for their teammates, even if they were playing unimportant minutes. That is not something you typically see in the NBA.
To a fan of ball movement and defensive energy, college basketball is worlds more exciting than the NBA, and man am I glad it’s back.