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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
WHO WAS THAT woman? You know, the Kentucky nut job in the fetching pigtails, the one jumping up and down next to the coach's wife, waving a 3 sign in the air and (somebody stop her!) rushing the court during a timeout on Sunday to whip the crowd of 24,367--the second largest in Rupp Arena's 29-year history--into a big blue frenzy. Why, she was none other than (gasp) the Belle of Bluegrass Basketball. "Ladies and gentleman," the P.A. announcer brayed, " Ashley Judd!"
Here were No. 2 Kansas and No. 8 Kentucky, two of the nation's most storied programs, renewing their annual series after a 15-year hiatus. "I've been waiting for this game since the second they announced it," explained a blue-wigged, blue-fingernailed, blue-bejeweled Rupp regular named Willa Itani an hour before tip-off. "If you grew up on UK basketball, there's no feeling quite like it. It's more than orgasmic."
In that case you didn't need to be Dr. Kinsey to recognize the displeasure of Kentucky fans after the Jayhawks squeaked out a 65-59 win, improving to 11-0 and making a case to be ranked No. 1. Somebody enjoyed the climax of Sunday's game, but it sure wasn't the Wildcats faithful, who lustily booed the zebras for not calling a debatable travel by Kansas guard Aaron Miles in the final minute. (The arena's video-board operators fanned the flames by showing the slow-motion replay twice.) "You come out for the shootaround, and they call you names, but when you silence them, they can't say anything else," Miles said afterward, flashing a satisfied smile. While no one asked him if he felt orgasmic, you half expected him to light up a cigarette.
Let there be no doubt: College basketball still matters. In fact it's enjoying an unexpected mid-decade renaissance, defying the doomsayers who've carped for years about the game's shortcomings. Convinced that too many stars have left for the pros? That the regular season doesn't matter? That the games have devolved into brick-filled, me-first rat ball? Think again. The game's heartbeat is as strong and steady as the sound of leather pounding hardwood. New arenas are being built throughout the country, and record crowds are filling them. TV ratings are up and so is the quality of play. More good players are staying in college longer, and more teams than ever have a chance to win it all. There are no lockouts, no steroid scandals, no brawls in the stands--and, as ever, no arguments on how to determine a champion.
If the 2004-05 season were a Jerry Bruckheimer production, the trailer would feature Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski blasting holes in a Kobe Bryant poster above the title THE SCHOOLS STRIKE BACK. "I really feel like the game is on an upward trend right now," says Coach K, whose decision last summer to forsake a $40 million offer (and a never-ending case of heartburn) to take the reins of the Los Angeles Lakers struck a blow for college hoops solidarity. "We've always had a great product with its traditions, its rivalries and its spirit, but it's taken a while to adjust to the changes over the last decade."
What's going on? For starters, fans can actually recognize the players on the court. SI's preseason Top 20 featured more returning starters (74) and more starting upperclassmen (79 juniors and seniors) than in any of the previous six years (chart, page 56). A number of All-Americas with NBA aspirations chose to return to school, including three significant seniors: Mississippi State forward Lawrence Roberts, Providence forward Ryan Gomes and North Carolina State swingman Julius Hodge. The starting lineup of top-ranked Illinois is made up entirely of juniors and seniors. Number 6 Oklahoma State has six seniors among its top seven players. And No. 3 North Carolina, blessed with five potential NBA first-round picks, is led by a trio of juniors: point guard Raymond Felton, center Sean May and swingman Rashad McCants. "There's no way when those three guys got recruited that Carolina thought they'd be there for three or four years," says Texas coach Rick Barnes.
To understand why they've stuck around, consider how many international and high school players were selected in the most recent NBA draft. A record 48% of last year's first-round picks never played college ball (compared with 25% of first-rounders two years ago). Without the lure of guaranteed contracts, more collegians are staying in school, especially now that they can test the waters at the predraft camps and still maintain their eligibility. Gomes's coach, Tim Welsh, recalls hearing something new last summer. "For the first time the NBA guys all said the best college players are coming back to school and made the right decisions," Welsh says. "Too many guys had been making bad decisions and ending up in the CBA or the NBDL."
Would the record eight high schoolers taken in the first round have had a positive impact on campus? No doubt. But if the choice comes down to landing Sebastian Telfair, Shaun Livingston and Al Jefferson for one season on the front end of college or retaining terrific players for an extra year or more on the back end--think Arizona State junior forward Ike Diogu, Kansas senior center Wayne Simien or Syracuse senior forward Hakim Warrick--the college game will take option number 2 every time. "Kids understand now that the NBA will still be there," says North Carolina coach Roy Williams, "so it's easier to sell them on the idea that 'You're in college basketball, now give everything you have.' I'm seeing it with my team, and I'm seeing it with other teams."
More seasoned talent has led, in turn, to improvements in the quality of play, which had dropped like a fumbled pass in recent years. "The games aren't nearly as sloppy," says Illinois coach Bruce Weber, whose undefeated Illini have been in March form since early December. "Most of the Top 10 teams have older guys who've had more time to work on their ball handling, shooting and passing. People love the dunk and the three-pointer, but true fans enjoy watching teams move the basketball and get it to the open man." The Illini are exemplars of that style--they had 27 assists on 38 baskets in their 91-73 destruction of No. 4 Wake Forest last month--and they do it at a breathtaking pace. In that regard they're not alone. Since most athletic big men skip school these days, the college game has maximized its reliance on speed (SI, Nov. 22, 2004), making games more entertaining to watch.