Psychosomatic reactions and college basketball

You don't need a Ph.D. from Illinois like Dr. John Giannini to understand how folk wisdom influences perception.

You don’t have to have a Ph.D. from Illinois like Dr. John Giannini to wonder how folk wisdom influences perception.

People will say certain things during this college basketball season that are said every year. Certainly there really are some things that are true each year, but coaches, announcers, and writers don’t expend precious time saying “The baskets are 10 feet high this year,” or “made free throws are worth one point.” Instead the annual statements I refer to are phrased as considered judgments based on what’s been observed that particular season. “Parity,” for one, or “there are no great teams,” or possibly even “more blown calls than ever before.”

Still another considered judgment that recurs quite often is that we’re seeing a decline in the overall quality of play in college basketball. I suppose the interesting question is whether this can ever be true under normal circumstances. Obviously when the NFL uses replacement players during a strike, or when major league baseball tries to keep things going during a world war, there is likely to be a decline in the quality of play.

In the case of college basketball in particular, there are what appear to me to be conflicting attitudes toward defense. The underlying dynamic goes roughly like this…. 

  • Active coach, local writer, and fans to specific team: “Be good at both offense and defense!”
  • Former coach, national writer, and fans to sport in general: “Don’t be good at defense!”

And even after we have that sorted out, we’ll still be confronted with the heart of the matter. Speaking literally, what would be the sequence of events that would lead to a decline in the quality of play in college basketball?

According to the best information we have, young people are taller than they used to be, and they also run faster and jump higher than their parents and grandparents did. Coaches are for the most part former players, just like always. Officials vary widely in their performance, of course, but no more so than coaches and players and, most saliently, no more so than officials used to vary in their performance. We’ve had a shot clock since 1985, a three-point line since 1986, and the same NBA eligibility rules since 2006. Why are we so certain the net result of one very slow and gradual improvement and a bunch of constants is an inexorable decline?

Before one-and-done, during the Kwame Brown-era high noon of direct high-school-to-NBA migrations, it was said unselfconsciously, without intentional irony, and with some degree of vehemence that both the professional ranks and the college game suffered subsequent declines in their respective qualities of play even though the two events under discussion were the loss (college) and addition (NBA) of the same exact players. I suppose that’s possible — you can envision Player X being a great college freshman within the same year that he’d be a nondescript pro — but this particular episode may also have furnished an unintentionally revealing experiment. Might there be a preexisting tendency toward diagnosing a decline in the quality of play?

The fact that no one ever says there’s been a decline in the quality of coaching in college basketball suggests to me that a good deal of what we hear about an alleged decline in the quality of play can perhaps be traced to something as unobjectionable as people older than 25 complaining about people younger than 25. Such complaining constitutes a venerable tradition, it likely reflects a healthy instinct born of concern and stewardship, and it is happening at this very moment in homes and offices all throughout the globe. Not to mention on occasion the complaining will, of course, be absolutely correct. For my part I’ll nominate in-play lobbying for calls, leaving your feet on defense, and spelling the word “lose” incorrectly. Kids these days!

But with something as sweeping as “quality of play” in what is by far our most sprawling major American spectator sport — one with no fewer than 351 teams — we should pause before rapping knuckles yet again. In terms of sheer popularity the game seems to be doing pretty well, actually, and saying there’s been a decline in the quality of play might be a bit like saying “You should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days.”