What I know about college basketball
Unlike many others, my career as a college basketball reporter didn't begin in a crowded, dank locker room or on press row of a multimillion-dollar arena. It started in the Allen Fieldhouse parking garage 11 years ago, when I forced myself between Roy Williams and the driver's-side door of his Lincoln Town Car.
It was July 2000, and Williams was having trouble deciding whether to remain the head coach at Kansas or accept an offer for the same position at North Carolina, his alma mater. No one -- not even Williams -- knew what he was going to do.
But that didn't stop a handful of media members from encircling Williams' ride as he attempted to leave the office.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Charlie RiedelIn barbershops across Kansas and North Carolina -- and in the newsroom of the Kansas City Star -- Roy Williams became the vocal point of college basketball passion among a pair of blue bloods.
"There's so much speculation out there," I said to Williams as he plopped into his seat. "Is there anything you can tell us at this point?"
Williams chuckled halfheartedly.
"Yeah," he said. "I need to shut my door, and you're in the way."
Not quite the answer I was looking for, but as I stepped aside, I realized I'd always have a memorable story about my first day as the Jayhawks' beat reporter at The Kansas City Star.
A few nights later, I was present when more than 10,000 fans filed into KU's football stadium to hear Williams' famous "I'm stayin'" speech. And I was outside the locker room in 2003 when Williams emerged with tears in his eyes after telling his players he couldn't turn down the Tar Heels a second time.
Taxing as they often were, the events of those three years turned a football-loving Texan into an addict for college hoops. When The Kansas City Star "promoted" me to cover the Kansas City Chiefs in 2007, I lasted six months before bolting to Yahoo! Sports so I could return to writing about my passion: college basketball.
Four years later, as I begin my job at ESPN.com, the enthusiasm is even stronger. Every year, there are new inspiring stories to tell, new champions to crown and new heroes emerging in the unlikeliest of places.
Just like Williams and his feelings about North Carolina, the world of college hoops is always changing. That much I know. What else do I know after more than a decade of covering the sport?
• Arizona's Sean Miller isn't one of the game's top five coaches -- but he may be among the top six. No one would rank Miller ahead of Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, John Calipari, Bill Self or Tom Izzo. At least not yet. But after those five, I'm not sure there's a coach I'd rather have on the sideline.
• Kevin Durant is the best college player I've covered. Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, Carmelo Anthony and John Wall are distant runners-up.
• The Big East will (again) be the country's top conference this season, but I'm more excited about the SEC. Kentucky, Florida and Vanderbilt are Final Four contenders, and no team intrigues me more than Mississippi State.
• A few years ago I never thought I'd say this, but I'm excited about watching Rutgers this season.
• The Pac-12 won't be down for much longer. UCLA, Cal and Oregon will take significant steps forward this season and will be even better a year from now. Arizona will always be strong under Miller and I like the direction of the programs at USC and Colorado.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Gerry BroomeThe towel-waving Herb Nebauer has been a staple at Duke home games for more than 30 years.
• "Crazy Towel Guy" is the country's No. 1 fan. Along with the customary pregame meal at Bullock's BBQ, my favorite part of a road trip to Duke is watching Herb Neubauer -- a season-ticket holder since 1980 -- twirl a white towel above his head lasso-style while the student section cheers his name during a timeout.
• USC's Kevin O'Neill and Marquette's Buzz Williams are two of college basketball's most underrated coaches -- and most interesting characters. O'Neill once dressed in a gorilla suit to pick up a recruit from the airport and sent another prospect 100 pieces of mail in one day. Williams is a snazzy game-day dresser who gained attention during the offseason for singing karaoke on YouTube.
• Other than North Carolina, Kentucky and maybe Connecticut, Baylor has as much talent and depth as any team in the country. With Kansas poised for a rebuilding year, the Bears could win their first conference title since 1950.
• Texas A&M will do fine in the SEC in all sports, but I still think the Aggies' decision to leave the Big 12 was ridiculous.
• One of toughest things to accomplish in coaching -- at least it seems this way to me -- is to get 18- and 19-year-old prima donnas who have been coddled throughout high school to buy into the importance of playing tough defense. John Calipari, Bill Self and Tom Izzo do it better than anyone.
• Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken in Memphis is my favorite restaurant to visit while covering a game. Giordano's Pizza in Chicago and George's Restaurant in Waco, Texas, are also must-stops.
• Barring health issues, I don't see any reason for Jim Calhoun to retire from Connecticut. Judging by last year's championship and this season's recruiting class, Calhoun is getting better with age.
• With the exception of the obvious "one-and-done" players, fans need to temper their expectations for incoming freshmen. Seniors such as Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor, William Buford and Tyler Zeller are the kinds of guys you want on your team in March.
• Other than on-court play, the pregame video at Allen Fieldhouse is the most impressive thing I've seen at a college basketball arena.
• Everyone knows about Rupp Arena, Cameron Indoor Stadium and Allen Fieldhouse. But plenty of schools in non-big six conferences tout a serious home-court advantage, too. Just ask anyone who has played in The Pit at New Mexico or at Wichita State's Koch Arena.
• Speaking of arenas, I've never been to Wisconsin's Kohl Center for a home game, but I hear the atmosphere is incredible. Put that place down on my bucket list.[+] EnlargeAndy Lyons/Getty ImagesAt Virginia Commonwealth, both the basketball team and the dance team are impressive.
• I still can't decide which was more impressive about VCU last season: the basketball squad or the dance team.
• Jay Bilas' Twitter account (@JayBilas) has more than 163,000 followers -- and for good reason. Whether he's tweeting old-school hip-hop lyrics, thoughts about amateurism or ribs aimed at Bill Raftery, Bilas is as entertaining as they come.
• The NCAA tournament is great, but it's a shame that the attention placed on that event often overshadows the accomplishment of winning a league title. What's more impressive? Winning six games in three weeks (including two or three against mediocre opponents)? Or going 15-3 in the Big East or 14-2 in the Big 12? I'd say the latter.
• This year's Maui Invitational field (Duke, Kansas, Georgetown, UCLA, Memphis and others) may be the best in the event's history. And how could anyone not get excited about the Champions Classic in New York with Duke facing Michigan State and Kansas taking on Kentucky? Hopefully, with the NBA season in doubt, college basketball will receive the attention it deserves this fall. In a strange way, I enjoy November almost as much as March.
Those are things I know, but there are so many things I don't. That's the beauty of sports, specifically a Cinderella-gets-her-shot sport like college hoops. The surprise. The spontaneity. The script that goes awry.
That unknown -- the don't-look-away nature of the next five-and-a-half months -- is what has me most excited.
For all those reasons and so many more, the 2011-12 college basketball season can't get here soon enough.
Add that to the things I know.
Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. The Dallas native lives in Overland Park, Kan.
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