Columnists, NCAA, Sports

McCARTHY: True basketball fans luck out in midst of lockout

In his column last week on Grantland, Bill Simmons wrote “two weeks (and counting) of canceled NBA games. And as we’re finding out, nobody except die-hard NBA junkies care. Everyone else? They’re more than happy to keep watching pro and college football through the holidays.” This is certainly an astute and not entirely inaccurate observation.

However, it is also a rare occasion in which I don’t wholeheartedly agree with The Sports Guy.

Now, let me be clear, I’m usually on board with everything Simmons has to say. If he were to move to Guyana and start a cult, I’d be the first to step up and drink the tainted Kool-Aid. That being said, his analysis of the overall apathy amongst basketball fanatics regarding the lockout is off-base.

I’m not a lover scorned looking for a respectable rebound. Nor am I filling the sizeable void left by Charles Barkley with Jon Gruden’s equally large ego. Sure, I’m a die-hard Celtics fan. Yes, I find it unfathomable that Kobe won the Finals MVP after going 6-for-24 from the field and I absolutely want to egg Danny Ainge’s house for trading Kendrick Perkins.

However, those are things that define my Celtics fandom — they are not the reason I watch NBA games, and are most certainly not the crux of my basketball fandom.

I watch basketball because the competitiveness is so visibly tangible. Stars can take over offensively just as easily as they can be suffocated defensively. It is also a game in which a player can be totally transcendent in a split second of athletic brilliance. It is, in my humble opinion, the ultimate spectator sport.  

So, I agree with most of what Bill has to say about the lockout… as he says, it is undoubtedly “indefensible.” However, I for one am not coping with the loss of the season by simply jumping into football’s awaiting arms. As a basketball fan, the loss of the NBA season is manageable for one reason, and one reason only — there is still basketball to be played.

Lost amongst the chatter about the lockout stunting the growth of the game, and whether the NHL will fill the gaping void, is the fact that college basketball is gearing up for what might just be its most exciting season in recent memory.

Lockout ramifications aside, this season looked to be spectacular to begin with. Over the last few years, the one-and-done rule had allowed traditional powers like Duke University, the University of Connecticut, the University of North Carolina and the University of Kentucky to reaffirm their dominance in the polls. 

However, amazingly, Cinderella teams were still finding a way to make noise in March. Two years ago, Butler University was a half of an inch of backboard away from a title. Last year, Virginia Commonwealth University made an inexplicable run to the Final Four. All in all, the game had seemingly found the perfect balance between elite talent and utter unpredictability.

Now, cue the lockout. While Simmons and other pundits argue incessantly over which professional sport has the most to gain, everyone has seemingly forgotten the most obvious beneficiary. 

Last spring, when players such as Ohio State University’s Jared Sullinger and Kentucky’s Terrence Jones wrestled with the decision of whether or not to forgo their remaining years of eligibility and enter the NBA draft, they dealt with an uncertainty that the classes prior to theirs did not have to. It was no longer as simple as getting confirmation from scouts that their skill set was NBA ready. Nor did the hunger for a national championship dominate their thought process.

As the rumors began to swirl about a potentially lost NBA season, the whispers were reaching a roar on colleges campuses across the country. Suddenly, they had to weigh the pros and cons of leaving school against the possibility that there might not even be a season at the next level. 

The result? Sullinger and Jones, among many others, stayed in school.

Now, thanks to the lockout, there is a level of talent in the college ranks that hasn’t been seen since the Fab Five were sagging their shorts and rocking black kicks. In fact, if one looks at the top-five schools in the current coaches poll, each teams carries at least one player on its roster that would undoubtedly be in the NBA if not for the lockout. Realistically, when Kentucky takes on North Carolina in their hotly-anticipated December match-up, both starting lineups could be in the NBA next year.

So, while some may mourn the temporary loss of professional basketball, I have resigned myself to waiting for the games that might as well be pro ball.

Did I temporarily mourn what looks to be a lost NBA season? Absolutely. The image of Ray Allen’s smooth-as-silk jumper is one that I take to my happy place. It will be missed. However, it is time to move on and embrace what might just end up being the greatest season in the history of college basketball.

The NBA can continue to selfishly drag its feet over revenue sharing and the mid level exception, but as they do, they should be aware that true basketball fans are more than willing to let college ball fill the void. 

In fact, given the current crop of talent, most won’t even notice the difference.

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