Of all my early memories as a sports fan, none is more vivid than the 1996 college basketball season. Sure, I liked sports before then, but I can’t say I remember anything quite as clearly as I do that particular sport, in that particular year. To say I enjoyed college basketball that winter would be an understatement; I consumed it, like Rex Ryan gobbling up tortilla chips at a Mexican restaurant. The names and faces and teams are still so clear, in a weird way it’s kind of scary.
Reflecting back, it’s not hard to see why I enjoyed that particular college basketball season so much; the sport was stocked with more talent than a party at the Playboy Mansion. In no particular order, here were a few of the guys who were some of college basketball’s best players that season: Marcus Camby at UMass; Allen Iverson at Georgetown; UConn’s Ray Allen; Tim Duncan at Wake Forest; Keith Van Horn at Utah; Raef LaFrentz and Paul Pierce at Kansas; Steve Nash at Santa Clara. On and on it went, with the 1996 college basketball season stockpiling maybe the best draft in NBA history the following spring, and filling up All-Star rosters for the next decade.
Above all though, that entire 1996 season was about the Kentucky Wildcats, a team that only continues to take on more mythical proportions as the years pass. They were the single greatest college basketball team of my lifetime, a rare confluence of talent (eight players were drafted off that team) and coaching (Rick Pitino in his absolute peak of his powers), at the most prestigious program in the sport. There has never been- nor I doubt ever will be- anything quite like that team again, as Kentucky not only went on to win the 1996 National Championship, but also play in the next two National Championship games, taking home the 1998 title (That's right, the Wildcats were one win away from taking home three straight titles). But still, 1996 was the apex of that run. When I asked my buddy Chris from Louisville about it, he said it was “The most anticipated Kentucky season I ever remember. It was championship or bust.”
And with all that as a background, I’m guessing by now you’re probably only thinking one thing: “Aaron, why are you bringing up a random team, from a random college basketball season that was almost 20 years ago, and meant little to anyone besides you and Kentucky fans?”
Well, good question, and the answer is simple. It’s that as college basketball teams get set to tip off their first practices Friday night, I firmly believe that we are entering the most talent-rich season since that 1996 campaign.
Why the season has so much skill and talent, is a weird confluence of events in its own right.
First and foremost, college basketball fans all across America really should send David Stern a nice fruit basket, for putting this NBA season into doubt and forcing many of college basketball’s top players to reconsider their professional options.
While it’s impossible to know who stayed in college strictly because of the NBA labor uncertainty, what I do know is this: By my count, there are at least eight players who returned to college this fall, that likely would’ve been lottery picks in last June’s NBA Draft. They are: Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, Kentucky’s Terrence Jones, John Henson of North Carolina, Thomas Robinson of Kansas and UConn’s Jeremy Lamb, with Baylor’s Perry Jones and UNC’s Harrison Barnes possibly passing up the opportunity to be the top overall pick. It’s not hard to argue that there was more talent that stayed in college basketball last spring than left it.
Speaking of Jones and Barnes, if either ends up as the top overall pick next June, it’ll be an upset of pretty epic proportions, considering that at least two incoming freshmen could pass them this season for that honor. They are Anthony Davis of Kentucky and Andre Drummond of UConn, and from the best I can tell (and I’m only a fan who reads about these guys like you), they could be part of one of the better freshman classes in a long time. In no particular order, Marquis Teague and Michael Gilchrist (Kentucky), Austin Rivers (Duke), Bradley Beal (Florida), James McAdoo (North Carolina) and Myck Kabongo (Texas), are all entering their first year of college, and could all end up in the lottery themselves next June.
Then there are the veterans. At this point, this column is turning into nothing more than a list, so I’ll be quick here. But with that said, what’s a college basketball season with some names ya know, right? Well to quote Sam Malone, if you “Want to go where everybody knows your name,” college basketball this year is a good place to start. If I say the names Scoop Jardine, Peyton Siva, Alex Oriahki, Tyler Zeller, Mason Plumlee and Aaron Craft, you’d know exactly what school they go to without needing to look it up, right? Good news then, since all those guys are back in college basketball this year.
Really though, what I’m most excited about is that all those names combine to form some of the most talented teams- and one of the most top-heavy Top 25’s- I can ever remember entering a college basketball season. With so many good teams this year, it seems next to impossible for a team to use an early season run to break into the Top 10 like UConn did last year. Granted, it’s not impossible, in the same way that me dating Mila Kunis isn't impossible. It is damn unlikely though.
This year, there are three teams that are head and shoulders better than everyone else: North Carolina, Kentucky and UConn, and really, how you order them is your own preference. Just know they’re all good, really good. And what’s most interesting is that they’re “good,” in different ways.
With North Carolina, they are, as a reader of this site named Arjun called them, “the perfect basketball team.” That might seem a wee bit oxymoronic, but it actually makes a lot of sense.
What Arjun meant was that no team in the country has parts that complement each other, and fit more flawlessly than Carolina’s do. Everyone, from Kendall Marshall at point guard through Harrison Barnes on the wing and Zeller and Henson down low fit in at North Carolina like a perfectly put together puzzle. All will play their natural positions and their natural skill-sets go hand-in-hand. Again, they’re a perfect basketball team in every sense of the word.
Kentucky on the other hand, well, they’re not quite the perfect puzzle of North Carolina, but are hands down the most talented team in the country. If I had to come up with the perfect analogy to describe what John Calipari will be dealing with at his first practice this fall, it’d be akin to what the director of the movie Ocean’s Eleven dealt with his first day on set. Essentially, how do I get all these talented guys to fit together?
As I already mentioned, the Wildcats likely have no less than five lottery picks (point guard Teague, wing Gilchrist, shooter Doron Lamb, and power forwards Terrence Jones and Davis down low), with a very strong reality that last year’s SEC Tournament MVP Darius Miller will be relegated to the bench, along with a few other big names. Looking at all that balance, Kentucky doesn’t quite have the symmetry and balance that North Carolina does, but are just flat out more talented, from the first player to last player on their roster. The problem for John Calipari now, is how to maximize it all. As the age old adage goes, “Will one basketball be enough?” Regardless, one thing is clear: If North Carolina is the most balanced team in college basketball, Kentucky is the one with the more upside.
Then there’s UConn, which, much like the cute girl at the bar who also happens to have bicep tattoos, is a total wild card.
Now I know that sounds stupid, since they return four starters off of a National Championship team (in case you hadn’t heard). Still, it’s impossible to say what this team will look like without Kemba Walker (moment of silence please…thank you), and more importantly, it’s impossible to figure out what to make of Drummond’s arrival in August.
For those of you who don’t know Drummond’s story, well, I did write a column about him in August, so shame on you for not reading it! Kidding. But in all seriousness, what you essentially need to know is this: He was the No. 1 high school player in the class of 2012, and rather than playing another year of prep school, decided to skip it, and come to college. He literally showed up at UConn just days before the fall semester started, and grouped with the guys UConn has coming back, the Huskies might be the scariest team in all of college basketball. Understand I’m not saying that as a UConn fan, but as a fan of the sport. I simply don’t know how anyone will be able to score on a front-line of Drummond, Oriahki and Roscoe Smith. No, like really. I think they may actually hold at least one team scoreless this year (I’m looking at you, Central Connecticut).
So when you factor in that top three, the easy assumption- and the one that people have been making all off-season- is that this is the most talent-filled college basketball season since 2008. You remember that season, don’t you? When Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, Ty Lawson, Mario Chalmers, Tyler Hansbrough and Derrick Rose were all in college, and all four No. 1 seeds made the Final Four? Sound familiar?
Except here’s the thing: This year isn’t like that year. Not even close. The reason being, in 2008, those four teams were head and shoulders above the rest. It wouldn't have been impossible for those four to get tripped up before the Final Four. But it would've been a pretty significant upset.
But this year it’s a totally different ball-game. Because beyond those three teams, there are easily another 10 or so that can not only play with them, but beat them on any given night.
Again, looking around the rest of college basketball, there are some really stacked teams. Baylor has two future Top 10 picks in their front-court with Perry Jones and Quincy Miller. Ohio State has Sullinger returning with Aaron Craft and William Buford. Duke has Rivers joining a really talented team. Louisville and Syracuse will be really, really good in the Big East. Vanderbilt and Florida will be really, really good in the SEC. Not to mention that Kansas and Memphis will be excellent as well. And there is probably another team or two I’m forgetting.
And really, above all, that’s what’s going to make this college basketball season so special.
In years past, we’ve had some mix of what we’ve got this year; all of the parts, but not necessarily the sum of them, if you will. We’ve had years with uber-talented freshmen (2007) but a lack of upperclassmen, and others where the upperclassmen have carried a weak freshman class (2009). We’ve had years with really good top teams, but no depth behind them (2008), and others where there’s balance across the sport, without any one team standing out as great (2010). Well this year, we’ve got it all. Talented players and teams, and depth over the place.
So buckle in, because these next five months are going to be a bumpy, wild, fun ride if you’re a college basketball fan. Actually, they’ll be fun even if you’re not.
I never thought I’d say this, but it’s time to party like its 1996!
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