National sportswriters in this country love two things: Bruce Springsteen and narratives. The only thing they might enjoy more than making those narratives is stubbornly clinging to them throughout the year, regardless of how valid they remain as the world turns. More often than not, the truth is quite different than what these writers perpetuate. Yet, because of the power ESPN writers wield over national sports talk, the storylines never disappear once they’re floated.
That’s how we always end up talking about how the SEC is so great (it’s pretty good, but that’s it), how Michigan State is a Blue Blood basketball team (this will be the 15th straight year the Spartans haven’t won a national championship) and how Seth Greenberg would be a great hire for some transitional program (he wouldn’t be).
Obviously, this is frustrating to those of us who follow local teams closely. It’s like sitting at that table in Panera next to the two high school kids who are trying to talk politics: You just have to sit there and listen to the malarkey without being able to shut them up.
You can already see these narratives forming this college basketball season. Here are a few of them that are already out there and a few that you’ll probably see at some point. I’ll take my best shot at telling you whether there’s any validity to them.
“Marcus Paige took a step back this year.” We knew this one was coming before the season even started. Paige put the Tar Heels on his back last season and was a bona fide superstar, which led to all-everything status heading into this year. Now we’re three games into the season, and he’s averaging 12 points and three assists a game. Don’t fall for this. Paige’s role has transformed this season, and with the emergence of other offensive options, he doesn’t need to score 25 a night. There’s a chance he has a disappointing season, but you won’t be able to tell from his stats. As long as UNC is winning games, it’s probably safe to assume that Paige is doing his job.
“Jahlil Okafor is the best player in the country.” Yeah, this one is probably true. I’m always reluctant to put freshmen on a pedestal, but so far, he’s earning all the recognition he’s getting. He’s flashed unbelievable skill and maturity for a freshman, and we’re not even close to seeing him as a finished product. I don’t look at advanced metrics, so I have no idea what they’re saying about him, but I can tell from watching basketball games that he’s a great player. Go ahead and jump aboard the Okafor bandwagon.
“NC State should be a Top 25 team.” This one will be a hot topic heading into the ACC season, sure to bring out the best of #ACCTwitter. The Wolfpack are going to enter the conference season something like 13-1. Only a Dec. 20 contest against West Virginia looks like a probable loss until the New Year. But that’s because NC State is taking the Duke Football approach to rebuilding its program. The nonconference schedule is a total snoozer, and NC State will end up with one of the best records of all ACC teams come January. This is like how Pitt finally got ranked after starting last year 16-1 then promptly tumbled out of national relevancy. Look, NC State is pretty solid this year, and it’s better than most people probably expected. But let’s try to not get all up in arms when a 12-0 NC State team is still unranked. The media don’t hate the Wolfpack. Trust me.
“The ACC is the best conference in the country.” No. NO! And trust me, it pains me to say this. The ACC appears to be terribly overrated in the early going of this year. Yes, the top of the league is dynamite, and we’ll get some genuinely terrific basketball games out of the Duke, Louisville, UNC and Virginia crop. But this season is actually the shallowest the conference has been in some time. Boston College, Wake Forest, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech are all bad basketball teams. Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and NC State are 40-degree days. Florida State and Syracuse have been bigger letdowns than finally eating White Castle after watching Harold and Kumar. Only Miami seems to be a trap for those top four teams.
We can’t call out the SEC for riding the coattails of Alabama and LSU and then turn around make the same claims in basketball. Yes, the best conference talk is rooted in the addition of Louisville and the strength of the top of the league. But what was supposed to set the ACC apart was that teams six-through-10 were going to be dangerous NCAA Tournament teams. The middle and bottom of the conference have been disappointments in these first couple weeks, and that’s a problem for the league. The ACC’s perception won’t change as long as the top four are lurking in the top 10, but the battle-tested treatment those teams will receive won’t be legitimate. Until a handful of those middling squads nut up and start playing basketball, the ACC will erroneously carry the banner of the country’s best conference.
“It’s Kentucky and then everybody else at the top of the college basketball landscape.” Yes. Ugh. This Kentucky team is outrageously good. Are they going 40-0? Hell no. But they’re quite easily the best team in the country right now, and I don’t suspect that changes at any point this year. I will say this, though. The nation’s two best hopes of knocking off Kentucky come March? Duke and UNC. The title still goes through the Triangle in this sport.