How Do College Teams Get Good?

The college hoops season is starting to get rolling, and this weekend should be an exciting one to watch. Two of the headline teams are Kansas, who is #1 in the country, and Kentucky, who is playing in the biggest game of the weekend against North Carolina.

Whenever those two teams are among the nation’s best, it makes me wonder about the nature of college hoops. Specifically, I ask myself how college teams get good. It’s a stupid question, I guess, but I don’t know the answer.

The reason that Kansas and Kentucky make me ask the question is that they are two schools that I think of as drawing students from rural areas, yet they regularly recruit basketball players from urban areas.

I’m not knocking either school; I’ve never visited either one, and have met hardly anyone who attended either one. I’m just saying that I grew up outside of New York City, lived in three of the nation’s biggest cities (NY, LA, and Philly), and never met anyone who moved from one of these cities to Lawrence, Kansas, or Lexington, Kentucky. Maybe I’m ignorant, but I know of no group of people who consistently move from big cities to either of those places EXCEPT for 18 year olds who play basketball at the highest level.

According to the University of Kansas’s website, 74% of its students are from the state of Kansas. Yet, Paul Pierce wound up at Kansas from Inglewood, CA (called “IngleHOOD” by a rapper I listen to). Tayshaun Prince wound up at Kentucky from Compton. Yes, from Compton to Kentucky.

Who makes that move, other than talented basketball players? I’ve heard Snoop Dogg rap lots of things about Compton, I never heard him refer to a large segment of the population that typically picks up and moves to Kentucky. (Just think of the lyric… “With so much drama in the L-B-C, it’s kind of hard being Snoop D-O-double-G, so I picked up and moved out to Ken-tu-cky.”) Yet, the Kentucky basketball program recruits star players from Compton.
Am I the only one who doesn’t understand why this happens?

Whenever I talk to people about how these schools recruit guys from big cities, I inevitably get two answers: tradition and coaching. I don’t think either answer suffices.

Tradition, the first popular answer, is not all that it’s made out to be. Sure, Kansas can claim an excellent “tradition” that includes Wilt Chamberlain, but are 18-year-olds from Chicago in 2009 really trying to be like Wilt Chamberlain? Wilt has done lots of things that 18-year-olds from Chicago are not necessarily trying to copy. I mean, Wilt slept with 20,000 women. Are 18-year-old males really still trying to sleep with 20,000 women?

Ok, that was a bad example to prove my point. No doubt.

But the point remains: tradition ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. When you look at the college teams with the most wins in men’s Division 1, the top 10 includes Temple, St. John’s, and Penn. With all due respect to the Quakers, none of those schools has fielded a premiere team for a looong time.

Coaching, the second popular answer, ain’t all that it’s made out to be, either. It’s important, but it’s not like a good coach will necessarily bring success to his program. Bob Knight, the winningest coach of all time, couldn’t get Texas Tech off the ground. Tubby Smith won a championship at Kentucky and looked like a hero. A few years later, after some not-so-fantastic seasons, he was looking for a new coach. Just about every year, it seems like some hotshot coach leads a Cinderella team to a win or two in the tournament, and then gets a job at a “big-time” program. These hotshot coaches often don’t do much of anything. Remember Stan Heath, who was a hotshot leading Kent State? He went to Arkansas and did nothing.

Yes, “tradition” and “coaching” matter, but I don’t buy either as an explanation to what makes teams good.

Further complicating the question is the fact that sometimes programs come out of nowhere, and become powerhouses. Programs we now think of as powerhouses had almost no “tradition” to speak of only a few years ago. As of 1998, UCONN had never won a championship. It has now won 2. As of 2005, Florida had never won a championship. It has now won 2. When John Stockton went to Gonzaga, most people knew nothing about it. Now the Zags are consistently in the Sweet 16. I won’t even mention Butler.

So, in conclusion… I don’t have a conclusion. I’m just saying that college hoops fascinates me. There is much about it that I don’t get.

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