At North Carolina, even an abundance of elite talent wasn’t enough to overcome a lack of guts and cohesiveness last season. One of college hoops’ “brand” programs, North Carolina was an embarrassment last year. It only added injury to insult that Duke’s archrival was left to watch, helplessly, from NIT oblivion as its nemesis hoisted the NCAA trophy. Now a still-supremely talented but deeply flawed squad welcomes the nation’s best freshman, Harrison Barnes, into the fold. But many of the same personnel who brought about last year’s debacle remain, inviting the question: can you make a poodle into a pit bull just by adding a kick-ass spiky collar? We’ll see.
Nowhere does the battle between delusion and reality manifest itself more glaringly than at Kentucky, the nation’s all-time winningest program. No program’s fans love or hate their own team more. I should know. I’ve been part of that deeply sick fanbase since birth. We’ve lost all sense of perspective in pursuit of another national title, which would be the school’s eighth (but who’s counting?). Our coach is the most loathed in the game, John Calipari, but also one of the best. Outside the Bluegrass State, Calipari is near-universally regarded as a cheat and a huckster, a rule-bending car salesman of the highest order. Back home, he’s a perfect salve for the acid belly of the Big Blue beast. Kentucky will have to find replacements for a record five first-round NBA draft picks. Nice problem to have, of course.
As if he needed more fuel for his haters. ‘Coach Cal’ now awaits word about whether his prize recruit—a professionally trained Turkish man-child named Enes Kanter whose presence could make an undersized but talented Kentucky side into a title-contender—will be allowed to play by the NCAA. And Big Blue Nation, Kentucky’s rabid, insatiable and generally obnoxious fans (of which I am unabashedly one), wait with him. No one demands more from their team than we do, and no one hurts more when that demand is (very rarely) met.
Fellow blueblood Kansas faces a similar situation. Their hotshot guard recruit, Josh Selby, awaits his own NCAA fate. But no Turkish professional issues here, just your everyday “family advisor might be a player agent” situation. With a team strong at most every other position, like Kanter, Selby could be the piece Kansas is missing, the perfect fit to a championship puzzle. Never mind the ethical issues involved, of course. To win big, you play by the rules the way they are written. Or wait for them to be re-written. Just ask Kentucky fans.
There are, of course, exceptions. Michigan State’s trek to the Final Four has become an almost annual affair. Coach Tom Izzo, widely regarded as one of the good guys, brings in “character guys,” preaches a brand of smash-mouth, 54-50 final score basketball, and the Spartans take it to gyms across the northern Midwest all winter long. Ready again to run with a roster of talented but oddball overachievers, Michigan State will probably be the nation’s best team not named Duke, but will still somehow find creative ways to lose 10 games along the way. That’s just the way it works in East Lansing.
But it’s not all about the pedigreed in college basketball. A slew of other programs seek their first glory in generations, if ever.
Pittsburgh will be the class of the Big East; a low-scoring, defense-focused team of scrappy streetballers who are coached to play games as grudge matches. Featuring players from all sorts of hamlets of the industrial northeast —Lancaster, Harrisburg … OK, and Brooklyn—the Panthers will try to out-will and out-tough better-heeled opponents like they always do, grace on the court be damned. And damned their brand of grace-less basketball most assuredly is.
With a roster chock full of transfers, junior college talent and vagabond prep All-Americans out in the heartland, Kansas State and maniacal coach Frank Martin look to build a hoops legacy from scratch the hard way. Kansas State is the serious college hoops fan’s dream: a hard-nosed team put together by a throwback coach at a middle-of-nowhere locale. It’s ur-Hoosiers shtick. Corn and basketball and shredded coaching vocal cords. Of course, we should probably ignore the small fact that none of the team’s good players are actually from Kansas, or anywhere near Kansas. And we will.
Of course, there are too many more stories like these to get into. And this is why Duke’s villainous narrative will dominate college basketball this season. Because while the rest of the game’s programs work to overcome their issues, Duke and Krzyzewski merely add the country’s best freshman point guard in Kyrie Irving to a team already loaded with NBA-caliber talent. And instead of trying to iron out wrinkles, the Blue Devils’ challenge will be avoiding overconfidence as they steamroll conference and non-conference foes alike. The story of Duke’s pursuit of basketball perfection will make writers breathless and opposing fans (even more) bitter.
Anguish, sloth, goofiness, disgust, unsightly basketball, unseemly rule evasion, delusional fanaticism, maddening inconsistency, frightening sideline behavior, unbridled bitterness. Yep. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Originally from Kentucky, JL Weill now writes from Washington, DC. His take on politics, culture and sports can be found at The New Deterrence and on Twitter.