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Basketball Factories

February 12, 2002 Columns No Comments

Basketball Factories

by Michael Ermitage

It was Wednesday night and I was crying in my beer. My alma mater had suffered yet another embarrassing defeat. And I asked myself why? How? What makes a once-proud program turn into the whipping boys of the conference, the punch line to every message board joke? After some long, hard thought, I came to a pleasing explanation. A smile crept across my face and I was glad for the reason my team currently couldn’t beat the Washington Generals. It is because my team is a true college program and not a modern-day college powerhouse.

An elite group has certainly emerged in college hoops today. A basketball royal class. Duke, Kansas, UCLA, Arizona, Florida, and Kentucky are your main culprits. Nationwide recruiting, huge coaching salaries, and low academic standards mark these programs. Let’s take defending national champion Duke as an example. The Blue Devils have two scholarship players from their home state of North Carolina. They are junior guard Andy Borman and sophomore forward Reggie Love, hardly household names. Perhaps this is the best strategy for Duke, who boasts of a diverse, nationwide student body. As much as ESPN would like to paint UNC and Duke as a fierce rivalry, this doesn’t actually exist. North Carolina rules the state since it is the large state school with a huge alumni base. Many of Duke’s graduates are from other states to begin with and often leave the state after their four years at Durham. Few kids shoot hoops in the state of North Carolina with Duke hoop dreams.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has a lifetime contract. Duke did not disclose the economic details of the deal, but they indicated that Krzyzewski would be “well-compensated.” Top-notch coaches make anywhere from $150,000 to $450,000 per year before other intangibles. Those intangibles are television shows, radio shows, shoe contracts, commercials etc. Often the total package is in excess of a million dollars per year. There is absolutely no doubt that Coach K makes at least a $1 million per year.

Now, I know that many fans will cry bloody murder when I say that Duke has low academic standards. But folks, the NCAA has set up a level playing field and no matter the academic reputation of an institution, the minimum requirements for a scholarship basketball player are the same across the board. The absolute minimum grade point average for prospective Division-I basketball players is 2.0 while the minimum SAT score is 820. Even at Duke. And every program takes questionable athletes if the player can help the team.

All this adds up to a basketball factory. The rest of Division I – the basketball bourgeoisie – has definitely followed Duke’s lead. They just aren’t as good at it. But I like to contend that there is still a semblance of old-fashioned college student-athletes out there fueling old-fashioned college programs. And you don’t have to read John Feinstein’s “The Last Amateurs” to find it. It exists in every major conference – just look at the middle-to-bottom of the pack teams. There you will see teams full of homegrown products, coached by moderately-paid former assistant coaches with a few players that are actually there to get an education. Although, sadly, not many. This is where we get our greatest college basketball stories.

Michigan State is a perfect example. The Spartans have a program that has ebbed and flowed. They recently won a National Championship fueled by the play of several home-state products – the Flintstones – Mateen Cleaves, Morris Petersen, Charlie Bell and Antonio Smith. Finally, after 21 years and some awful seasons, the Spartans reaped the rewards of kids who always wanted to wear the green and white. Tom Izzo, a class act who was awarded the job after spending 12 years as former coach Jud Heathcote’s assistant, led them. He wasn’t handpicked, wooed by big dollars or recruited by a committee. This season, Izzo’s newest home-grown kids haven’t developed as he liked and State is experiencing a bit of a down turn. Inevitable for a true college program, unacceptable at a college powerhouse.

Everyone wants to be Duke. Everyone is trying to be them, trying to be in the national picture year in and year out. They graduate most of their players and they are the standard by which the rest of the college basketball world measures itself. But it’s come at a price – the price of community.

So, as the season turns and the NIT comes calling, I will not hang my head. Instead, I’ll appreciate the home-state kids making a dream come true. I’ll appreciate the hard-working coach who has spent his career at the school. I’ll appreciate the gunner who is looking forward to his career as a pharmacist or an engineer. And I’ll hope the new no-name kids coming in next year make a name for themselves. I’ll appreciate college basketball as it was intended to be.


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