This season will test our love for -- and desire to improve -- college basketball
The NCAA scandals may give us a chance to fix what is broken. Will we take it?
At 10:30 a.m. Eastern time today, at the Convocation Center in Ypsilanti, Mich., the 2017-18 college basketball tips off as the Spring Arbor Cougars visit the Eastern Michigan Eagles. An hour and a half later comes the first game involving a ranked team: Savannah State at No. 12 Cincinnati. The first game between two ranked teams, No. 25 Texas A&M and No. 11 West Virginia, tips at 6 p.m. ET at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and the season starts on Tobacco Road an hour later, with Northern Iowa facing defending champ North Carolina and Elon visiting top-ranked Duke.
One of the final games of the 163-game opening day will be, appropriately enough, the Bad PR Classic in Shanghai, as Georgia Tech, which recently self-reported NCAA violations that exploded into full view this week, faces UCLA, which this week saw three of its freshmen, including LiAngelo Ball, arrested for shoplifting from a Louis Vuitton store.
The arrival of the college basketball season is typically a cause for celebration. And yes, I'm pumped for the games to finally start.
But this year it is, at best, a respite from a scandal-ridden offseason, a time when we can finally "focus on the games" after an offseason that brought the ascendance of LaVar Ball, the firing of Rick Pitino, the end of the years-long NCAA investigation into academic improprieties at UNC and, most prominent of all, the revelation of wide FBI investigation that has turned the sport on its head.
At its worst, the season that starts today will merely highlight the deep troubles of a sport that has lost its way.
In the 143 days between today's tipoff in Ypsilanti to when the nets are finally cut down on the first Monday in April in San Antonio, we will watch games, certainly, and we will enjoy the games, obviously, but we will continuously be waiting for (pardon the pun) the next shoe to drop. The next program to turn itself in for breaking NCAA rules. The next big-time coach named in FBI documents or indicted in the FBI investigation. The next star player whose team holds him out of games for fear that the player will be declared ineligible. The next public and embarrassing black eye for a sport that we love but that we are increasingly realizing is somewhere on the continuum between flawed, broken and flat-out corrupt.
I get it: You're sick of talking about the tawdry side of this great sport and would rather get onto the games. Believe me, I feel the same way.
And yet if you think these awful offseason storylines will go away once the games begin, you couldn't be more wrong.
How much of the thrill is taken away from one of the greatest rivalries in sports when Louisville visits Kentucky (Dec. 29 in Lexington), but Rick Pitino isn't walking through that Rupp Arena door? How can we kick back and enjoy a game between Miami and Louisville (Jan. 24 in Coral Gables) and all their future NBA players (Bruce Brown, Lonnie Walker, Deng Adel) when both teams have the FBI investigation hanging over their head? Or what about the game that ought to be for the primacy of the Pac-12 and between two top-10 teams (USC at Arizona on Feb. 10)? How should we feel about the newest crop of potential one-and-dones when eligibility concerns already have popped up (though )?
And what level of public-relations crisis will it be for the NCAA if scandal-ridden teams are still playing in San Antonio at the Final Four -- or, worse, if big, scandalous news breaks during the NCAA's marquee event?
As much as we'd like it to be about the games, the story of this college basketball season will be about everything but the games. It will be a year of reckoning in this sport.
But out of scandal can come strength; out of adversity, opportunity. What college basketball looks like a decade or two from now will depend in a large part on how this sport deals with the current reckoning.
It's never been a secret in college hoops that cheating runs rampant. Nor has it been a secret that the marriage between big-money sports and amateurism is, if not fully broken, certainly in need of a modern-day rethinking. Now is our chance.
And so instead of using this college basketball season to bury our heads in the sand -- to focus on just the game instead of focusing on the very serious issues that trouble the game -- we should use this season to reexamine the very philosophies behind this sport. I'm not certain where a deep soul-searching will take us as fans, just as I'm not certain where a deep soul-searching will take the NCAA's recently formed commission on the reform of college basketball. Perhaps it's a tightening of the rules of amateurism that have long been flouted; perhaps it's a rethinking of those very rules. Perhaps it's changing the NBA's one-and-done rule to allow anyone to enter the draft; perhaps it's adopting a stricter version that encourages student-athletes to look at college as something more than a stopover en route to the NBA. Perhaps it's heightening academic standards, so the phrase "student-athlete" is never derided as an oxymoron; perhaps it's a more honest recognition that the college experience is different for everyone and should be tailored as such. Perhaps the shoe companies must be ejected from the sport they exert so much control over; perhaps we just need a more honest, above-the-board recognition of where this sport's money comes from and where it goes.
I do not know these answers. And neither do you. But this sport needs a deep period of self-reflection, a bit of time on the therapist's couch before it again can present its best self to the world.
Just know this: When those nets are cut down in San Antonio on the night of April 2, college basketball will look a lot different than it does on Nov. 10. And let's just hope that future looks better than the ugly, ugly present.
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