The relatively recent “one and done” model of success at the college basketball level has had disastrous consequences for the overall well-being of the sport. Blue-chip schools such as Duke, North Carolina, and especially Kentucky hog virtually all the top recruits and reload so well that their strings of success become a blur of top-flight talent coming in and out. Two seasons ago, a more well-balanced Wisconsin team tried to topple two of these such teams in the Final Four undefeated Kentucky in the semifinals (successfully) and Duke in the finals (unsuccessfully). One would probably figure it was solid play by a freshman that led to the Badgers’ undoing. And that would be a correct assumption. But in the decisive swing of momentum in the second half, the damage was done by a freshman who had no plans of jumping to the draft not out of some sense of altruism, but because of a genuine lack of latent ability.
That freshman-now a national player of the year candidate as a junior was Grayson Allen. And today he’s one of college ball’s most fascinating characters.
What’s always fascinated fans about March Madness is the David vs. Goliath match-ups and Cinderella runs by mid-majors. A recent rash of upsets by 15 seeds has sent brackets literally to the shredder and top teams home after just one game. Final Four runs by the likes of George Mason, VCU and Butler (twice even) boldly encourage fans of weaker teams that they, too, can dance with the top dogs. But as coaches such as coach K and John Calipari have mastered the art of recruiting skilled freshman, the game has slowly lost its charm over the past ten years. Fans enjoy upsets because the favorite is a clearly identifiable villain with nefarious leaders, ranging from Tom Brady of the undefeated Patriots to Lebron of the big-three heat. But with top teams having complete roster turnover every year, national champions have a corporate, septic, nameless feel now. Villanova was a rare champion with charm last year, but the winner just as easily could have been North Carolina, a team that wins with physical bullying strength (and was conveniently not held accountable for serious allegations of academic fraud).
What the game really needs now is a cocky, experienced player every other fanbase loves to hate and that’s where Allen comes in. Duke had a bit of a down year last year, but Allen had a notable season for two reasons. First, he showed dramatic improvement from his freshman year and became a legitimately talented starter. Second, he picked up a rather disconcerting habit of tripping opposing players and finding it amusing. With Duke now stocked with a large cupboard of younger talent behind Allen, the Blue Devils figure to be among the favorite to win the title again, if not the favorite by the time the team gets fully healthy and rounds into form. Duke has always been one of the teams fans love to hate going back decades, but what’s great about this year is there’s a specific figure fans can place their hate on.
The names and faces change so quickly at Kentucky that there’s very little time to form an opinion of the Wildcats, for either good or evil, before the next recruiting class arrives. Paper classes at UNC and alarming allegations of prostitutes for recruits at Louisville cast a pall over the entire program, to the point where any success by these or other unethical schools are met with a sad shake of the head. But today Duke is a team that fans can root against in good fun. Allen has come from a no-name rookie with a fluke good game in the championship to a deliciously unlikable-but undeniably quite skilled-leader. And once again college basketball has a school that no one else likes-but someone will still have to try very hard in March to find a way to beat.