You Gotta See This: Big 12
October, 25, 2013
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsIn what could be a banner year for college basketball, Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins may be the marquee attraction.It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the past month, we've highlighted the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up last: The Wiggins has landed.
College basketball has had a fascinating decade. In the last seven years alone, we've lived through the NBA age limit, watched the NFL become a dominant cultural force, tracked college football's exploding popularity, rubbernecked as the NCAA's power and prestige melt away, and witnessed a massive shift in conference affiliations and priorities. We've seen the sport slow to a crawl (and scoring tallies descend) even as offenses became more efficient. We've marked how one-and-dones have changed the game. We've marveled at the rise of the mid-major. We've celebrated this new world (Butler!) and recoiled at it (53-41?!). We've been forced to admit that, yes, in a lot of ways, college basketball ain't what it used to be. Different, at least. But still so very good.
Honestly? It's been weird. The NBA's vibrant parallel growth -- built on stars, but also on a more entertaining, open game -- has made talking about college basketball a matter of sensitivity. Say the college game needs to pick up a few stylistic tips from the NBA and college fans go nuts. Say the college game is struggling, and could probably fix a few things schedule-wise or rules-wise or anything-else-wise, and sit back as the defensive Twitter mentions roll in. That game was won on a buzzer-beater! What do you mean it wasn't exciting?! Go watch the NBA then!
In 2013-14, we say goodbye to all that.
John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/Getty ImagesWiggins might as well get used to the spotlight being on him this season.
That's the hope anyway, but it's well-founded. For starters, the new hand-checking, armbar and charge-call rules approved by the NCAA this summer are part of a major push to open the floor and get rid of brutally physical play. It may mean a lot of free throws in the first few weeks, but if officiating coordinator John Adams executes across the entire sport -- no easy feat, that -- we should see the effects right away. Even something as seemingly subtle as the charge call change (where a defender is no longer allowed to move into position after an opponent begins his upward motion) is a massive step in the right direction. The game should be more entertaining, more like Louisville and Michigan's gift of a national title contest than the historically low-scoring season before it.
Then there are the teams. Oh, the teams! You know how some analysts like to make a habit of proclaiming that there are no "great" teams anymore? This season, there are at least five candidates out of the gate, all of them marquee programs with national name recognition. Tom Izzo has his most well-rounded and talented Michigan State team since ... well, maybe ever. Duke might play its most beautiful basketball ever. Louisville is coming off a national title and, even with Chane Behanan suspended until who-knows-when, returns the best two-way player in the country last season in Russ Smith. Kentucky could be one of the best college basketball teams ever, period. And the ranks below them are loaded with great players (Marcus Smart, Doug McDermott), intriguing programs (VCU, Wichita State) and loads of stylistic diversity.
And then there is Kansas. And then there is Andrew Wiggins.
If all of the above were true, and Wiggins wasn't so naturally gifted at the game of basketball, I'd still hold the highest of hopes for the coming season. But his presence, like Batman's, changes things. It has sent, and will send, NBA franchises racing to the bottom. It brings everyone to the table: NBA fans fostering obsessions; causal observers who'd normally just wait for March; that dude you know who only watches the NBA when LeBron James is playing; GIF enthusiasts; people who don't care about basketball at all. You name it. College basketball can often be confused for a niche sport. Sometimes it is. Not this season. Not with Wiggins. If the monoculture still exists, it will be watching.
What that means for Wiggins himself -- a shy, reserved kid who seems equal parts bemused and exhausted by all the attention -- is yet to be seen. As Smart said recently, the burden of proof is impossibly high. But if Wiggins is even 60 percent of what everyone who has ever watched him play the game says he is, then he is the marquee attraction in a sport suddenly chock full of them.
At worst, it is going to be a very fun year. At best, it's the dawn of a new era. How's that for expectation?