No. 1 Problem
Young teams having trouble tackling nation’s top ranking.
by Seth Gruen
College basketball coaches who say they don’t pay attention to rankings may not be lying after all. It isn’t an attempt at humility or gracefulness. Coaches don’t seek out the rankings. They only come to know their status in the polls when someone tells them or they stumble upon it on television (that isn’t too hard with 32 different ESPN’s).
This season it has become evident why coaches don’t put much stock in rankings.
It isn’t ignorance. Recruiting and game planning don’t consume so much of their time that they can’t take the 30 seconds to look at the polls each Monday. They just look for every excuse to avoid talking about them.
Rankings in college basketball don’t matter considering it boasts the most democratic post-season of any sport—professional or collegiate—but college basketball coaches focus on plenty of meaningless brouhaha. Rankings probably have trophy value to these coaches and they likely use them to win over recruits. But during the season, they simply want to keep those rankings from their players. It has proven to affect their play.
The players also dismiss the rankings as often as girls on sorority row. Similarly to the coaches, they understand that focusing on a ranking could distract them. And no ranking has done so more than the polls’ top spot.
Kansas, Texas and Kentucky have been those named king of the court during the ‘09-10 season. Lately, though, these teams have had as volatile a relationship with the top spot as “The Jersey Shore’s” Snooki has with men.
Since conference play has started, none of the three teams have held the No. 1 ranking more than two weeks. Kansas reclaimed it Monday after initially losing their No. 1 status with a January 10 loss to Tennessee.
It isn’t a mystery when you examine the rosters of the three squads. Combined their rosters boast 16 freshman, nine sophomores, 12 juniors and eight seniors. All three teams rely heavily on an inexperienced freshman class for production.
Consider that just a year ago these 16 freshmen were playing against middling high school hoopsters who had a better chance of playing in the Tournament with their Xbox 360 than their jump shot.
Freshman like Kentucky’s John Wall, Texas’ Avery Bradley and Kansas’ Xavier Henry weren’t challenge as high school seniors at the top of the prep game. The jump to college closes the talent gap.
These three players are not only charged with adjusting to the competitive challenges of power-six conference basketball, but are pressured by the success or failure of the business—and make no mistake; it is a business—of college basketball.
With big business comes big hype. With big hype come big expectations. And many of these neophyte college basketball players aren’t used to the lofty expectations placed on them by coaches, fans and boosters. Yes, it could be argued that with recruiting rankings top tier high school players have expectations placed on them at a young age, but at the collegiate level they are responsible for the success of their teams, not just their individual performance.
Consider that for the past four seasons at least three teams have held the top spot. Last season six different teams were ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll (Mind you, I’m not saying this is a bad thing. There isn’t anything more beloved in sports than parity).
The last team to hold its No. 1 rank throughout the conference season was Illinois in ’04-05. It’s no coincidence that the Illini started two seniors and three juniors. And it’s no coincidence that the teams unseating top teams this season are stacked with veterans.
South Carolina, Tennessee and Kansas State were the teams that beat the No. 1s this season (Texas’ loss to Kansas State caused them to lose the No. 1 ranking even though they went onto to lose two of their next three games). Those teams have a combined 10 freshman, six sophomores, 12 juniors and 12 seniors.
Granted Kansas State has slightly more underclassmen, but three of the Wildcats’ four leading scorers are upperclassmen. Players that have competed longer at the college level are more adept at handling big-game pressure.
It isn’t as if the country’s premiere freshmen shouldn’t start. In fact, they have to. Since the NBA instituted its new draft rule, the freshmen class is at its height of impact. These players comprise some of the best talent in the country. Wall, Bradley and Henry would have a spot on any starting five in the country.
But there is a mental learning curve. These players are among the most physically gifted in the country, but may not be as mentally strong as some of college basketball’s more seasoned players. Certain physical characteristics can’t be taught, but the ability to deal with pressure and composure can be taught over time.
A school like Kansas does have impact underclassmen who keep the team stable. But nonetheless teams that have strong upperclassmen still rely heavily on freshmen.
Freshmen players can’t be expected to be equipped to handle the pressures of a big-game on a nightly basis. There has to be room to make mistakes. And right now there is. Coaches have the patience to wait for them—to teach them.
As for being ranked No. 1? Both coaches and players can wait until early April.
Seth Gruen is a sportswriter based in Chicago with experience covering every level of basketball. He can be reached at SethGruen@gmail.com.