Appreciate the Now: Part I

It’s been a roller coaster of a college basketball season. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at just how crazy it’s been:

  • Five AP No. 1 teams had been defeated before February even started. Then top-ranked Oklahoma, who didn’t leave the top spot after a loss to Iowa State, lost for a second time while at No. 1 to Kansas State on Feb. 6. The last time five AP No.1 teams lost before February was 1949.Screen Shot 2016-02-12 at 4.22.02 PM
  • Three of these No. 1 teams lost in the state of Iowa. Northern Iowa beat North Carolina, Iowa beat Michigan State, and Iowa State beat Oklahoma. (I hope you get the Field of Dreams reference).
  • Duke is not in the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2007 (Minivan sized hail and balls of fire simultaneously fall from the sky).
  • Twelve teams that were ranked in the beginning of the season are no longer ranked. Of those teams, four are not even receiving votes.
  • In 23 of the 31 days in the month of January, at least one ranked team lost to an unranked opponent. But on five of those days in January, not a single ranked team played. That means there were three days in January where a ranked team didn’t lose to an unranked opponent.
  • Four powerhouse college basketball programs, Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State, and Virginia, had three combined losses over the first five weeks of the season. Over the next six weeks, those four teams combined for 13 losses.

All that being said, if you’re a college basketball fan, you are in Iowa (i.e. heaven). But that is also why as fans of the game, and fans of sports in general, we need to slow down and take all this in. There’s no such thing as a favorite, and no one will be out of it until the very end this year.

We watch because we’re seeing young kids do some incredible things every night of the week, some we may never see play again. We’re also getting nightly rivalry games that have been around for decades. Every player in every conference matchup has a chip on their shoulder, and in every non-conference game you see young men shine to show why they are better. College Basketball is a game in its own category where games don’t always matter, but matter just enough where every loss in the 30-game season stings. Then when it’s a down year for your school every upset you cause feels incredible.

But it’s easy to forget that sometimes with how the media portrays the game.

ESPN has created a segment called “Green Room Players.” College basketball analysts at the Worldwide Leader will discuss before, during, and after games who should be in the green room during the 2016 NBA draft. Every year, before the draft, a group of star college players most likely to be lottery picks are invited to the green room where they will wait for their names to be called. This concept ESPN has created has inspired rants by legendary North Carolina head coach Roy Williams and other college basketball analysts in the media, and rightfully so.

This season, some of the games in college basketball have been among the best ever, such as the Oklahoma-Kansas game, Michigan State-Kansas game, and the North Carolina-Maryland game. As fans we are getting to witness some of the most transcendent talents at the collegiate level. Part of this is due to the fact that more seniors are staying put, in turn creating better rivalries and matchups. In fact, 14 of the 20 on the Wooden watch list are seniors. Yogi Ferrell, A.J. Hammons, Jarrod Uthoff, and Denzel Valentine are some of the Big Ten’s top players, all seniors. This is similar to what happened in the 1980s, when college basketball was arguably at its peak. It was the norm for players to stay all four years.

Appreciate the talent of these players and the exhilaration of these games. It’s so easy to surround the best talents with draft buzz and say only tournament games matter, or forget about what the player is doing during the season. We must sit back and witness these great players while they’re here.

Guys like Buddy Hield and Ben Simmons are almost certain to leave their mark at the next level of the game, but others, like Kay Felder and Valentine, are left with uncertain futures because scouts aren’t sold on them. But even the best players and lottery picks are left waiting a few years to break into the National Basketball Association.

Appreciate the dominance of the young star Simmons. Admire Hield’s late game threes. Enjoy a near-triple double performance from Valentine every night. Relish Felder coming close to leading the country in both points per game and assists per game.

What one might think these men will do in the NBA doesn’t change what they do on the court now. Green room talk and a new mock draft from a different website every day just takes away from the accomplishments these young players are amassing now right in front of us, and it’s great basketball.

But it is not just about the stars. You are also seeing kids take the court that will never play professionally. Walk ons strictly playing for the love of the game. So look away from the mock drafts for a minute and pay attention next time you’re watching a college game. Look out for those walk-ons who are diving on the floor for the ball. Look out for that fifth-year transfer student, who just wants to keep playing, hit that big late-game three ball. Because it’s moments like this you don’t get to witness at the next level.

Then, come June, when it’s finally time for the NBA draft, just remember the moments you saw Simmons make someone look silly, Hield completely take over a game, Valentine dominate in all categories, or Felder take every shot like he had something to prove.

But don’t just appreciate the players. Appreciate the overtime shootouts, the daily upsets, and new teams fighting for a conference title that never have before. It’s these moments that make this sport so different and so much better than others.