The 2016-2017 college basketball season is in full swing. Conference play began this week, signaling the beginning of the “true season” in the minds of many fans. Many of the conferences appear wide open, promising competitive races from Tobacco Road to the Pacific coast. According to the NCAA, over 27 million fans flocked to roundhouses, barns, and arenas throughout the country to watch the country’s top amateur players compete last year. College basketball has become a central component of the winter and spring sports schedule, and a big money sport for many colleges. In this roundtable Noah Cohan, Robert Greene II, Maureen Smith, and Andrew McGregor share what they are watching this season in both the men’s and women’s game as well as how they wrestle with and teach about the complicated nature of college basketball.
Now that conference play has begun, what storylines or issues are you interested in following in this year’s NCAA basketball season? Who are the top teams or players that you’re excited to watch?
Kelsey Plum’s pursuit of Jackie Stiles’s NCAA Division I scoring record is certainly the top story for me, as a Seattle-native and a fan of fearless small guards. The University of Washington women’s team made it all the way to the Final Four last season and are ranked in the Top 25 right now, so it’s a fun time to be a fan of women’s basketball’s other Huskies. On the men’s side I’ll be paying close attention to the Pac-12, as usual, as well as the other UW: Wisconsin. Badger players Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes have been in the headlines for their athlete activism this fall—a movement which has burgeoned in the wake of the University of Missouri football team’s boycott and Colin Kaepernick’s protest—and I’m eager to see how they, and all athletes who speak out against injustice, perform and are received by fans and media.
A major storyline has to be UConn women’s basketball. Many folks assumed (or perhaps, to be more accurate, hoped), that the Huskies would be in “rebuilding” mode. For them, a rebuild means 2 or 3 losses and merely getting to the Elite Eight or Final Four. So far, though, they’ve kept their undefeated streak alive. Perhaps with women’s college basketball the question is: will we see the continued growth of good women’s basketball programs across the nation? While the focus has been on the superpowers in UConn, Notre Dame, and the rise of newer powers such as South Carolina, never before has women’s college basketball seen so many good teams competing for spots in the national tournament.
Turning to the men, the obvious is whether or not Villanova can be the first men’s team to repeat as national champions since Duke in 1991 and 1992. Beyond that, the trials and tribulations of another young and ultra-talented Kentucky team led by John Calipari will captivate millions of basketball fans.
Full disclosure: I’m a season ticket holder for Cal women’s basketball and a regular attendee at men’s and women’s basketball games at my institution, Sac State – so I attend men’s and women’s basketball games at least once, sometimes twice a week. This weekend, I will attend women’s basketball games three days in a row – and I’m excited about it.
Pac 12 women’s basketball is terrific competition – I think there were five or six teams in the most recent Top 25 rankings. Friday night’s game has Cal hosting Oregon State – and it should be a good match up. Tara VanDerveer, head coach for Stanford, is eight games away from her 1000th career win – that’s a storyline I’m following. The Pac 12 tournament, held in Seattle, is also a weekend of high quality women’s basketball – 11 games over 4 days. Last year, I saw Washington’s run through the tournament (they didn’t win), and weeks later, they appeared in the Final Four.
I’ll attend and follow both men’s and women’s basketball at Sac State – the gym holds 1000 fans, it can get pretty loud and exciting, and most Big Sky games are even matchups. The women’s team is among the top teams in the country for three-point attempts and they generally sub like ice hockey, with five players on and five players off – so it is a fast paced game and fun to watch. For me, this is a different kind of fandom. These are my students, some of them are my advisees, I’m invested in them as people as opposed to producers of my entertainment. The more time I’ve spent in our small gym, the more I’m reminded of how small the court is and how sometimes when you spend time watching it on TV or from nosebleed seats, your spacing of the game is off a bit.
I don’t generally pay much attention to other conferences during the season, until it’s closer to the March Madness tournament. I’m not on the edge of my seat about UConn’s winning streak nor do I have a voodoo doll of Geno Auriemma. I’ve got tickets to the regionals in Stockton, California, and will attend the Final Four in Dallas, a springtime ritual I’ve practiced for over a decade with a set of similarly minded basketball pals. Maybe you’re reading this and saying, the Final Four is NOT in Dallas, but the women’s Final Four IS in Dallas. I don’t gender mark my postseason basketball! But I will cheer for women’s teams coached by women.
College basketball is like a religion to me. I grew up in basketball obsessed Kansas, and now live in Indiana where basketball is a central part of Hoosier life. I’m a provincial fan and a bit of a hater, so I root for the BigTen and BigXII as well as Nevada (where I did my MA), and against IU, UNLV, Kentucky, and the ACC (except Virginia). For the past 3 years I have had season tickets to Purdue men’s basketball. I’ve enjoyed following them this year, and watching what will probably be Caleb “Biggie” Swanigan’s last season. The BigTen race fascinates me — what’s up with Nebraska?! MSU has started off hot! and Wisconsin seems to be going steady without Bo Ryan! I’m also interested to see if KU can extend its conference championship streak to 12 this year. UCLA holds the record at 13. The rest of the BigXII is going to be a dogfight and the round-robin schedule makes it a delight to watch. Nevada looks like it could be a real mid-major contender in the MWC this year. Second year coach Eric Musselman has the Wolf Pack playing well, standing at 13-3 after a close-win against perennial tourney team SDSU last night.
More broadly, like most fans I am intrigued by the drama at Duke. The Coach K back injury and the Grayson Allen tripping incidents makes Duke a fun story (for haters) to follow. Is Coach K (finally) nearing retirement? Was a 1-game suspension “indefinite” enough? Andy Enfield has USC playing pretty well (they’re 14-1), adding intrigue to the battle for Los Angeles against UCLA. Butler upset Villanova last night, and is probably Indiana’s best team right now. They’re a fun program to watch!
I don’t follow women’s basketball very closely. A former student of mine is on the Purdue team, so I keep tabs on them and have tried to learn more about the program in the last year. There has been some grumbling about their coach receiving an extension this summer. Purdue traditionally has had a strong women’s team, but they’ve struggled the last few seasons. After their 1999 NCAA title, they’ve also failed to keep pace with in-state rival Notre Dame, who they used to routinely out-recruit and beat (or so I am told). Added to the drama is the fact that Vanderbilt hired Stephanie White away from the WNBA Indiana Fever as their head coach. Some local fans wish White, a former Purdue star, would have come back to West Lafayette instead. The BigTen has improved and intensified in women’s basketball after conference expansion with the addition of Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutgers. I’m cheering for Purdue to make the tournament and get back on the right track.
This history of college basketball is filled with scandals — from point shaving in the early 1950s to NCAA investigations into academics and recruiting like those at UNC and Louisville — how do you reconcile the on-the-court product with the hypocrisy and/or shady practices by both schools and the NCAA off-the-court?
Like many in sports studies, I find the NCAA’s policies and regulations to be unjust to its labor force. Scandals affecting individual schools, teams, and players are mostly symptomatic of this larger systemic injustice, it seems to me. But I have worked in athletic departments, so I also know that they are precarious ecosystems—most people in them aren’t athletes generating millions of dollars or athletic administrators earning that much—and that necessary changes in athlete compensation and sponsorship models will likely have destructive ramifications for the wider landscape of college sports as we know it. Mostly, I process college basketball scandals secure in the knowledge that, for all the sport’s problems, at least it is not college football. The ethical ramifications of football players insidiously accruing brain damage while the agents and structures of neoliberal capitalism suppress their earnings potential is, well, mind-boggling.
In many ways the problem is similar to that college football. For both, my answer is simple: I cannot. I admit this is a cheap cop-out, but unfortunately I think many college sports fans have become used to the cognitive dissonance of supporting “Student-athletes” while struggling to ignore how little of the “Student” part is actually important at most of the big, prime-time programs.
I just hope there isn’t another major scandal. The problems with UNC’s African American Studies department, in particular, have filled me with a special kind of dread.
My reply to this question may sound glib, but how do I reconcile the product with the hypocrisy? I don’t. I primarily watch women’s basketball and the men’s basketball I watch is local – and I have a working knowledge of the absence of shady practices. Elite men’s basketball in college is a terrible system where coaches profit off the labor of young men, primarily young men of color. So, no – I don’t reconcile the product with the hypocrisy – because I don’t consume the product.
Figuring out how to reconcile this was one of the reasons why I chose to study sport history. I was blessed to compete in the NAIA where money and fame are pretty much non-existent. The more I have learned the more difficult it is. I’m a hypocrite as a fan because I prefer most college sports to professional leagues. Purdue doesn’t use student fees or state money to fund its athletic programs, which makes it easier to support them. I’ve learned and experienced first hand that our athletes are real students (quite a few take my class). That doesn’t make everything OK, but it helps a little bit. I’ve met and talked to some administrators, coaches, and NCAA personnel. I know they think about these things, and that although the system is flawed and full of issues, they’re not a monolith devoid of reason. That’s how I sleep at night, even if I’m less than optimistic at the potential for real reform without blowing up the whole thing.
What changes would you make to improve college basketball?
I would make the shot clock 24 seconds for men and women in college, as it is in the NBA. Up tempo basketball, sloppy though it may be at times, is so much more fun. Let’s just say I do not enjoy the (maddeningly effective!) strategies propagated by the disciples of Pete Carril and Dick Bennett.
I would simply take the use of four quarters from women’s basketball and apply it to the men as well. I have to admit it took me some time getting used to quarters in women’s basketball, but I’ve actually come to enjoy it.
I know a lot of people will not agree with me, but I really like the change to quarters in the women’s game. I realize that the possession arrow is a timesaver and I’m not advocating a return to jump balls, but I would begin the second half with a jump ball, and I’d find a way to stop the “going in and grabbing the ball because it’s our possession” pattern. It seems like sometimes a small scrappy guard gets in there because they can, and if they had to go up against the opponent for the jump ball instead of the gift of the red arrow, maybe they’d think twice. I realize there’s strategy, so this is not something that I spend much time thinking about. During most games, there aren’t many moments where I am thinking about how to fiddle with a rule to improve the game. Rather, I’d enforce certain rules – like traveling. Is that even a violation anymore? I love that great player can still get called for double dribble.
After Tuesday night’s Kansas State-Kansas game that ended on a blatant travel that wasn’t called, I would like to see them make more plays reviewable. Why isn’t traveling reviewable? It seems like it should be. To reduce the stoppage time, which is downright annoying and confusing to fans sitting the arena with no idea what is going on, I’d add a replay official who is tasked with reviewing and making changes without too much of delay.
What are your favorite book(s) and article(s) on college hoops?
Hmmm….this is perhaps the toughest question on the list. I think J. Samuel Walker’s book, ACC Basketball: The Story of the Rivalries, Traditions, and Scandals of the First Two Decades of the Atlantic Coast Conference is an interesting read that reminds you of the early days of arguably the best college basketball conference out there (with the destruction of the old Big East, the argument seems a bit stale now). Scott Ellsworth’s The Secret Game, about the secret game between North Carolina College’s all-black basketball squad and the all-white Duke Medical School team, is also worth a read.
One of my favorite articles is something published by the University of Mississippi’s wonderful digital journal, Study the South, titled “Back to One City” by Aram Goudsouzian. It’s all about the 1973 Memphis State Tigers, a great men’s college basketball team that was a symbol of Memphis’ complicated racial politics after the MLK assassination.
There are not a lot of books on women’s college basketball. Surprise! I’d say Pamela Grundy and Susan Shackelford’s 2007 Shattering the Glass: The Remarkable History of Women’s Basketball is a solid read, very accessible for a range of readers, though it doesn’t focus solely on the college game. Before that was published, I probably would have reached for Joan Hult’s 1991 A Century of Women’s Basketball: From Frailty to Final Four. Pat Summitt’s Raise the Roof is a good inside look at an amazing season, and an enjoyable read (I’ll read books about coaches, but I don’t typically read books from coaches with life lessons, so Reach for the Summitt holds limited appeal – for me). There are probably more books and/or articles that I’m waiting to be written that hold more appeal for me – including on relatively lesser known teams, coaches, and athletes. I’m always amused (and so are my students) to pull out an old Mable Lee screed on women’s basketball and the evils of competition.
The first academic sport history article I ever read was Aram Goudsouzian’s “‘Can Basketball Survive Chamberlain?’ The Kansas Years of Wilt the Stilt” (Kansas History, 2005) so it has a soft spot for me. I also read Dean Smith’s autobiography (written with Sally Jenkins and John Kilgo) A Coach’s Life: My 40 Years in College Basketball early on in my career. Unlike a lot of autobiographies and coach’s books, it tells a good deal of history and paints a portrait of how college basketball changed during his career, including talking a bit about the infusion of money and endorsements. In my class I use Rita Liberti’s “‘We Were Ladies, We Just Played Basketball Like Boys’: African American Womanhood and Competitive Basketball at Bennett College, 1928–1942″ (Journal of Sport History, 1999). Johnny Smith’s book Sons of Westwood: John Wooden, UCLA, and the Dynasty That Changed College Basketball is probably the best academic treatment of college basketball and how it changed. There is still a lot of room for more work here — we haven’t found the Michael Oriard of college basketball just yet!
How do you approach the history of college hoops in your classes?
I have never approached the history of college hoops as a topic independent from the larger history of basketball, and I’m not sure I’d want to, at least in the classroom. The narratives of the game’s cultural impact are so interwoven—and the stories of its professionals and professionalization so rich and critically valuable—that I can’t imagine separating NBA and WNBA histories from a consideration of college hoops.
I often put it in context of other events going on at the same time. I always argue, for instance, that the loss of great African American athletic talent from the South to the rest of the country (or to HBCUs across the South) during the era of Jim Crow segregation is a good example of the larger brain drain that took place during the Great Migration. Being at the University of South Carolina–which during the 1970s was, essentially, a basketball school thanks to the great coaching of Frank McGuire and Alex English leading the Gamecocks from 1972 to 1976–I often take great pains to tie together the school’s athletic history with the changes in racial politics in the state during and after the Civil Rights Movement.
Generally, college basketball appears in my courses as an illustration of broader themes or as an example of progress and change (or lack of progress). For example, when we discuss the civil rights movement and the 1960s, we discuss the all-Black starting five at UTEP in the NCAA Championships against Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky. Or we discuss the ban on dunking and how that impacted Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the racial politics of such decisions by the NCAA.
For women’s basketball, I will sometimes discuss the early college game, specifically in the 1920s, using yearbooks and other primary sources to examine the game and women’s involvement in the sport. We also discuss the changes in the women’s game from zones and half courts, to six on six, to the current game, as well as the college game under the AIAW and the shift to the NCAA.
As a white kid growing up in Kansas, basketball was one of the first places I learned about and experienced race. In my class on “the black athlete,” I use college basketball in a variety of ways. Early on, I tease out expectations and stereotypes of black athletes my students may have heard or believe based on Indiana being a major basketball state. This helps me frame discussions of scientific racism and ongoing prejudices surrounding black athletes. A lot of my class is built around individual athletes, so we spend time learning about the “barrier breakers” and activists — like Texas Western, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I also like to bring in the Bennet College Women’s team of the 1920s and 1930s when talking about early black women in sport and comparing notions of womanhood and respectability between them and Ora Washington. Finally, I spend quite a bit of time digging into the hypocrisy and exploitation of major men’s college basketball, exploring notions of “the Dream” and the process of branding and recruiting.
Noah Cohan is a Lecturer in American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, where he received his PhD in English and American Literature in 2015. His book project, “We Average Unbeautiful Watchers”: Fan Narratives and the Reading of American Sports, is under contract with the University of Nebraska Press. He is the co-editor of Sport in the University, a special issue of the journal American Studies, Fall 2016, and the founding coordinator of the Sports Studies Caucus of the American Studies Association.
Robert Greene II is a PhD Candidate at the University of South Carolina. He studies American history after 1945 with a focus on the American South, political history, and memory. You can find him on Twitter at @RobertGreeneII.
Maureen Smith is a Professor of Kinesiology at California State University, California. She is a past president of the North American Society for Sport History. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew McGregor is a PhD Candidate in the Department of History at Purdue University, where he teaches courses in history and African American studies. He is also the founder and co-editor of this blog. You can reach him via email at email@example.com or on Twitter: @admcgregor85