On Sunday, a very lackadaisical Duke team decided they didn't need to play defense to beat the Army Black Knights, and while that turned out be correct—the Blue Devils scored 94 points and won by 22—it made for a less inspiring spectacle than the merciless 34-point beatdown of no. 2. Kentucky on Election Night. The biggest media-wisdom takeaway seemed to be that Duke wasn't the swaggering juggernaut of popular imagination, and that the Devils would definitely not go undefeated. I'm not so sure. If you come out flat and still score 94 points with ease—(Jeff Foxworthy voice)—you might BE…a team that doesn't actually need defense.
In any case, my focus was less on Duke than on its absurd freshman star, Zion Williamson. I gushed on Twitter that he was the greatest thing to ever happen to Duke basketball, and I'm not ashamed to say that when I read this even-more-over-the-top reply, I immediately nodded my head in agreement:
Now, granted, this will seem a little premature to you after just two college games, especially if you've never seen him play. But let me persuade you with some plain, true facts:
He had just gone 10-for-11 in the first half—his only miss was a desperation three-pointer at the buzzer—and somehow it seemed like that output was just average. Like he had a lot more in him.
He is the love child of LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Seriously, he can get to the rim and score at will, he can shoot, and he has the massive physical presence (along with speed, power, leaping ability, strength) to make it look like he's playing against children…even when those children are highly touted Kentucky recruits and future NBA stars. He's at the stage of his career where the only way people know how to describe him is by using the word "freak." And like his love parents LeBron and Giannis (sorry), he's a prodigious passer, which means his mere presence transforms a good offense into a flawless scoring machine, with open threes galore.
Despite being the best player on any floor, he somehow also has the most fire. This is my favorite part—he's not a timid Jabari Parker, or a sleepy Jahlil Okafor, or a snarling black hole (Marvin Bagley III), any of the other Duke bigs who are extremely talented yet questionably motivated. He cares the most of anyone out there, and it's spectacular. When the best player in the country is also the one diving around for loose balls, pumping up teammates, and screaming his passion to the rafters, you are in for a good year.
He can save our planet from global warming and defeat the alien hordes.
I think you'll agree that these are all reasonable conclusions. You only have to watch Zion for about 12 seconds before you realize that he's an unearthly, historical talent. He's going to lead Duke to the national championship this season, he's going to be an NBA champion, and he's going down as one of the best to ever play the game. I am beyond elated that I get to see him play for my favorite team for a year, and I wish he was being paid millions of dollars already.
Remember Bryant "Big Country" Reeves? He was perhaps the height of the "giant white guy" centers golden age in college basketball, and he played for the Oklahoma State team that went to the '95 Final Four. His son plays for the Cowboys now as a walk-on, and though he rarely gets meaningful minutes, his teammates and coaches love him, and decided to do something special for him. The set-up is perfect, and I won't spoil it any more…just watch:
All hail Little Country!
College basketball has a serious quality of play problem. Aside from a few teams that reload every year with NBA-caliber talent (Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, UNC), the sport is plagued by slow, stodgy, physical basketball that tends be low-scoring and painfully dull. If you watch an average Big Ten game side-by-side with an NBA game, you'd be hard-pressed to believe that you're watching the same sport. This has done immense damage, and sent even diehard fans like me into the open arms of the NBA—other than Duke and March Madness, I haven't sat down to watch a full college game in probably three years. It's just not fun.
The NCAA, to its credit, is trying to remedy the situation. They moved the shot clock to 30, which was a step in the right direction, and now they're tackling the real scourge: Freedom of movement. Just as the NBA rid itself of the mid-90s plague of brutish, physical, low-scoring play by instructing officials to call a tighter game, and just as they continue to prioritize offense and showcase the scoring ability of their stars, so the NCAA is now desperately following the same path (about 15 years too late, but still). The problem is that the talent gap is so wide in college hoops that lesser teams know their best chance to win is by holding, grabbing, and generally injecting molasses into the flow. It's the Bo Ryan/Brad Stevens formula, and it's ugly with a capital-U.
The only remedy is to actually call fouls, but the problem is that coaches have spent the last decade and change getting away with this "physical" brand of basketball, and they teach their players to foul. Which means that if the college game is ever going to recover, there will be a period of severe growing pains where endless fouls are called until coaches wise up. While this happens, those coaches will fight against it at every opportunity, both by forcing referees to whistle foul after foul, and by conducting a negative PR campaign in post-game gripes. And make no mistake: The coaches have the simpler message, because most fans don't understand the long-term stakes and are just annoyed by the whistles.
Here's Tom Izzo—poster coach for the reliably stodgy, muscular brand of hoops—after yesterday's Michigan State win:
"I felt bad for our fans, I felt bad for their team, I felt a little bad for our team, and I felt really bad for the officials," Izzo said. "I've been here 24 years as a head coach and not sure I ever felt bad for an official."
"The poor officials are mandated. If they don't call it this way, they don't work the NCAA tournament," Izzo said. "But the stoppage of action in that game made it the most boring game."
What Tom fails to understand, willfully, is that the failure to blow whistles for the last umpteen years has made college basketball the most boring game. So these are the terms of battle: Either the NCAA maintains its courage and the sport eventually becomes watchable again, or the coaches gripe enough that the higher-ups lose faith, and college hoops staggers on into its ugly future.
Calhoun, the former UConn legend, decided after seven years that he missed the game, and so he decided to take the helm at the Division III University of Saint Joseph. And what happened? He got T'ed up in the first half! I love this:
"With his team down 4-0 just 40 seconds into the game, Calhoun jumped from his seat, called his first timeout and loudly sent a player to the bench for poor play. Sixteen minutes in, he picked up his first technical foul."
He hasn't lost the fire, baby! Calhoun was brought to Saint Joseph a year ago to create a basketball program at a former all-women's school, and apparently he couldn't stay off the sidelines. Amazingly, the official who gave him the T was a UConn alum. The only great tragedy of this episode is that there is apparently no video. In lieu of that, since this is a golf website, here's video of him hitting a drive at the Travelers last year: