College basketball: 22 things fans should be thankful for
Gone are the days when the NFL owned the Thanksgiving Day television schedule. It's true, not long ago, pro football games from Detroit or Dallas were the only sports options available before and after a turkey stuffing.
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1. Bill Walton - “If they're going to waste that much time on that type of play, we have no chance of survival as a species.” -Bill Walton, as officials studied a video replay Tuesday during the Maui Jim Maui Invitational.
Listening to Walton watch a college basketball game is like a rock concert intertwined with a history lesson while riding a mountain bike down a twisting road, all rolled into one. Reason tatters, the forces tear loose from the ashes.
2. Senior guards - Frank Mason III (Kansas), Josh Hart (Villanova), London Perrantes (Virginia), Bryce Alford (UCLA), Maurice Watson Jr. (Creighton), Jack Gibbs (Davidson) and Phil Forte III (Oklahoma State): These seasoned veterans are confident and composed to make the right play at winning time.
3. Lob dunks - A guard races down the sideline and 40 feet from the basket, lofts a perfect, arching pass to a soaring forward who catches the ball around the rim and slams it home.
4. Mascots - They incite, excite, agitate and bring out the kid in us all. What’s not to love? Except for the Providence Friar, of course, who is creepier than most.
5. Reliability from year to year - Louisville’s defense, Bill Self winning the Big 12 regular season, Syracuse’s 2-3 zone stocked with long defenders, Duke and North Carolina’s offense — the emphasis may be different, but the efficiency is consistent.
6. The quality of coaches in the ACC - The conference sent four teams to the Elite 8 last season and might be better this season. Then again, we should expect nothing else. The tradition is rich and so are the coaches: Coach K at Duke, Roy Williams at UNC, Rick Pitino at Louisville, Jim Boeheim at Syracuse — roughly 3,500 wins between them and 10 national championships, including six since 2003.
7. Allen Fieldhouse and Cameron Indoor Stadium - Bucket list venues for every hoops lover. Never leave, Jayhawks and Blue Devils. College basketball wouldn’t be the same without either one.
8. Gus and Raf - Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery form the best announcing tandem in the history of college basketball. Johnson’s excitement combined with Raftery’s insight and dry wit can make a non-conference game in November feel like a double overtime thriller in March Madness. Long may you run, gentlemen.
9. ESPN - The cable network’s impact on college basketball is immeasurable. Smart former coaches like Seth Greenberg deliver excellent analysis in between what sometimes feels like a neverending stream of games. We’re not complaining.
10. NCAA tournament regionals played in basketball arenas - Not a bad seat in the house.
11. The rules changes made prior to the 2015-16 season - When officials enforce all the points of emphasis, games can turn into a free-throw parade. In the long run, however, eliminating the grabbing and handchecking improves the product on the floor. Scoring and points per possession increased last season without a significant jump in points off free throws.
12. Shooting is better than ever - Basketball players are making baskets at a higher rate, per KenPom. Hooray!
13. Buzzer beaters in March - Lorenzo Charles to lift NC State in 1982. Bryce Drew for Valpo in 1998. Christian Laettner in 1992. Or maybe some guy named Jenkins in Houston. Pick one, any one. They are all great and contribute to making the NCAA tournament America’s greatest sporting event.
14. Conference road games - No team is safe in a hostile arena against a familiar foe. Rankings, standings, traditions, all rendered irrelevant.
15. Little guys - Winthrop’s 5-foot-7 guard Keon Johnson battled through painful cramps and poured in 38 points Monday night to spark an overtime upset at Illinois.
16. Big guys - UCF’s 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall is not only the tallest player in Division I, he might also be the most improved. Fall helped the Knights to a 2-1 record in the Charleston Classic last week, erasing paint scoring for opponents with his 8-foot-2 wingspan. He has a ridiculous 73.8 defensive rating in 27 minutes per game. He’s also an offensive force, making 81 percent of his shots (2nd in the nation) and averaging 17.8 points and 12.5 rebounds per game.
17. The freshmen - This class is incredible. Markelle Fultz is playing on a celestial level for Washington. Josh Jackson is exactly the versatile, rugged wing Bill Self needed this season at Kansas. Miles Bridges is a dunking machine forced to carry depleted Michigan State’s frontcourt for now. Frank Jackson is just another backcourt scoring machine at Duke, which has three talented freshmen who haven’t played yet.
18. Smaller school scorers - Mark Alstork (Wright State), Marcus Keene (Central Michigan), Ronnie Boyce (San Francisco), Cameron Morse (Youngstown State), Lamond Murray Jr. (Pepperdine): You have to dig a little deeper to find their games on a screen. But their explosive scoring ability makes it worth the trip.
19. Internet streaming - Along those lines, what a time to be alive. I watch college basketball on my phone. Conferences and schools provide high-quality live streams for free. Games are archived on the ESPN app. There’s no such thing as too much basketball.
20. Jay Bilas - I learn something every time I listen to Bilas call a game.
21. Selection Sunday - Teams, fans and writers make travel plans. A bracketologist receives the score from his final exam. Experts pontificate on teams bubbled in and out. The blank bracket represents equal opportunity for all 68 teams. They dream of the six (or seven) wins needed to clip the nets and hear the song in Phoenix.
22. The First Four - What a great decision to add these four games to the NCAA tournament. The days between Sunday and the noon tipoffs on Thursday used to feel like three consecutive Christmas Eves feel to an 8-year-old. Now, fans have just enough time to process the draw, fill a bracket and settle in for the three best weeks of the year.