What’s wrong with college basketball?


It’s a widespread complaint these days that college basketball is broken – that the games have bogged down to a forty-minute scrum, plagued by bad shooting, inexperienced players, constant fouling and endless timeouts. By the numbers, there’s certainly some truth in this.

One very popular explanation for this is that, as Dick Vitale trilled on Mike and Mike yesterday, that the “one-and-done” have made a “joke” of the sport. To Vitale’s credit, he believes the players should have the right to go straight to the NBA from high school. But his main concern, of course, is the college game itself, his abiding love and passion. And he’s not alone in making this charge – the presence of one-and-done players is, according to many, the number one cause of the poor play currently on display.

I confess – I don’t understand the argument at all.

First, it’s worth remembering that only a handful of players every year stay in college for one season before entering the NBA draft. In 2014, for example, according to this wikipedia page, 11 freshmen made themselves available for the draft.

Remember that there are about 350 teams in Division I men’s basketball (and two of the eleven players on the list did not come from Division I schools). That’s about 5,000 players. It would be quite a stretch, wouldn’t it, to argue that those eleven players were, somehow, responsible for the quality of play in college basketball.

But the argument is even weirder than that. For Vitale’s claim to make sense, he’d have to believe that the sport would be better off if the following players never went to college at all: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love and so on. This makes no sense at all.

If we look at this year’s Final Four, Duke has three freshmen starters: Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones. All three are projected first round picks, with Okafor the expected first overall and both Okafor and Winslow very likely candidates to be one-and-done. Are these the players Vitale believes have turned college basketball into a “joke”? Kentucky, of course, has its usual bounty of freshmen sensations, including Karl Anthony-Towns, the dominant player in Saturday night’s thrilling win against Notre Dame. Would college basketball be better off if Towns had never set foot in Lexington? Towns is almost certainly a one-and-doner.

Of course, the complaint is necessarily logically broader – that freshmen themselves undermine the quality of play. But Vitale, who’s been involved with the sport as a coach and announcer for half a century knows, of course, that freshmen have added immeasurably to the game in the four decades since they’ve been eligible to play.

One can certainly assert that teams play more cohesively the longer they play together and that teams with a surfeit of young players might be more mistake-prone. But the players leaving early for the pros are, as a group, an indisputable (and essentially by definition) superior group of players to the ones who play three or four years. And the much smaller group that stays for a single season is greater still.

That this group of stars, a very significant proportion of whom performed spectacularly during their one year in school, is responsible for the demise of the sport is utter nonsense. Vitale himself can’t really believe it. It’s just another, especially silly and incoherent version of the age-old “kids today” lament.



  1. There has been research done that disputes the notion that college develop players. Vitale is so annoying. While I don’t watch college basketball like I used to, the idea that picking up habits of a game that won’t be the same at the pro level doesn’t hold with me. I have to catch up on all that I missed so I’m going to out on a limb and say that the stuff will be great. Thanks



    1. Andrew,
      I agree. Larry Brown made comments some months back about what a great training ground college was for the NBA. How come so many players coming from Europe, without the benefit of university experience, have managed to thrive in the pros?

  2. I’d certainly prefer a player from a European professional league to someone from the NCAA. College basketball is a joke, the only reason you could think it was enjoyable compared to the NBA is if you were deeply invested in a school or if you were racist and enjoyed the greater percentage of white players. I don’t really see any other reason since the shooting is terrible, the offenses are mediocre at best, and the defenses are terrible.

  3. OK–so I think I understand the argument. Not that I agree with the characterization of “ugly” basketball or the fact that it’s bad, but I think I understand the logical connection.

    First, the definition of “ugly” basketball–I’m assuming that UVa is a good example, given the criticism they’ve received this season. Ironically, it’s the case that “ugly” ball is focused on teamwork and depends on experienced players, which are the same things that (many of the) people who dislike one-and-dones are decrying the lack of! It turns out we don’t actually want to watch what we say we want to watch.

    The thing is that “ugly” basketball is deployed particularly by teams that expect to be on the wrong end of a talent discrepancy. If you can match your opponent’s talent you can play however you want–but if you fear that your opponent has a talent advantage, you want to slow down the game and focus more on defense. (And to be really effective, it has to be a primary strategy–it requires enough teamwork and discipline that it can’t be an occasional habit and still be effective.)

    Also, no one cares about “ugly” basketball they don’t see. No one really complained about the 80s Princeton teams because no one who writes or talks about basketball really sits down to watch Princeton-Penn. What’s causing the complaints now is that teams in high-profile conferences are playing and winning with slow-paced defensive strategies.

    So what’s the connection to one-and-dones? The players who could go straight to the NBA tend to be those who have talent that is, say, a standard deviation above the average college player. If all top teams reasonably expect to have a chance at these players, then there would be no incentive to go “ugly”, at least not as a primary strategy.

    But the one-and-done phenomenon, I would guess, is distorting the distribution of these superstar players. The relatively smaller number of high-profile schools that want these superstars-for-a-year get them, and the quick turnover means that a lot more superstars cycle through a single program than would be possible if the players stayed for three or four years. Would Okafor and Winslow really both be at Duke if Parker were on the roster this year and next? What superstar PG would have volunteered to sit behind John Wall for a couple of years at Kentucky?

    This skewed distribution of superstar talent is what drives teams that aren’t in the one-and-done market to adopt a primary strategy that is optimized for needing to overcome talent deficits regularly. You can’t win in the ACC unless you can beat Duke (and Carolina) and so a UVa team that expects not to get the one-and-dones has to plan on “asymmetric warfare” to have any chance of coming out on top.

    Either alternative to one-and-dones would likely get rid of the skewed distribution. If HS players are free to go straight to the NBA, then there will be very few college players who have a standard deviation talent advantage over their peers. And if all college players have to stay for two or three years, then the superstars will end up distributed over a larger number of teams.

    But the one-and-done arrangement may well have caused the basketball style that’s being called “ugly”.

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