I watched #22 Kentucky fail to put forth the effort to play a basketball game against a team with the nickname, Runnin’ Bulldogs. The Runnin’ Bulldogs would be Gardner-Webb University, located in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, population 3,866. Seriously, 3,866. The student population is approximately 4,000.Last season the Runnin’ Bulldogs, a member of the Atlantic Sun Conference, had a 9-21 overall record and finished seventh in the 12-team conference. This season, so far G-W is 2-0 with a win over Alabama A&M and an 84-68 upset of Kentucky.
This was supposed to be Billy Gillespie’s coming out party at UK. It was his birthday, after all. Gillespie built Texas A&M into a national power through tough defense and disciplined offense. He was hired at Kentucky to bring this brand of basketball to Lexington. However, last night Kentucky only exhibited a distinct ability to roll over and play beta dog when under duress.
And the game got me thinking about a growing, prevalent attitude in college basketball. Over the past 10 years or so upsets have grown in number to the point where there is some potential for an upset each time teams take the floor. This is normally blamed on parity brought on by the allowance of fewer scholarships per school. Big-time colleges and universities can’t stockpile talent and so better players are spread out to more schools across the country.
Yet there is something else afoot that accounts for these upsets. Too many players on too many teams, no matter what a head coach says, walk out onto the court and feel if they go through the motions they are better then their opponent. And this isn’t just teams like Kentucky or Michigan State which was upset by Division II Grand Valley State. The last couple of years Gonzaga has too often played as if it is their birthright to win. Duke does it, North Carolina does it. Most – not all, but most – big-time college basketball programs play up to a half-dozen games a season with this feeling of inherent privilege.
Sure, the Runnin’ Bulldogs run the Pete Carrill motion offense, full of back cuts and three-pointers. The offense requires opponents to be aware and play solid basic defense. The mantra for man-to-man defense against Carrill’s attack is simply, keep your body between the player you are guarding and the basket.
It’s not that big a deal. Unless you think you’re so damn cool, so damn good that you can just swagger onto the court, collect your “W” and collect some obligatory postgame party swag.
This pattern of upsets has been going on long enough so that a discernible pattern of, no concentration equals upset, has been established. So why is it that players on what would normally be very good teams continue to fall into this trap?
If sports mirror society, there are reasonable answers.
We are part of a society that places a premium on instant gratification. But that excuse is old hat by now. You still have to win to get the gratification. There’s also complacency. Sure, that happens, but there’s something deeper still eating at us. There is something more insidious that permeates our society and by extension, sports teams. It is so insidious that it threatens everything we stand for and everything we do.
The image has become the thing itself. Who a person is affiliated with is more important than what is the person actually accomplishes. What a person represents is more important than what they do.
Kentucky basketball players walked onto Adolph Rupp court wearing the UK uniform in the UK arena, which means they win, right? The guys who earned their scholarships by playing their butts off each night, by shooting an extra 100 jumpers after every high school practice, play for Gardner-Webb. The guys with all the talent, all the potential, those guys are wearing the Kentucky unis. Grayson Flittner, the leading scorer in the G-W game against UK is a walk-on. At Gardner-Webb. Not a walk-on at UCLA, or Kansas, Or North Carolina, or Kentucky —— a walk-on at Gardner-Webb.
We, in no way live in a society where you make it by how good you are, or even by how hard you work to become proficient at what you do. We live in a country where, if you know the “right” people, or the “right” people know you, you’re in – period. Only when you get “in” and your boss or your coach finds out your abilities are insufficient to fulfill the responsibilities that come with your position do you get replaced.
We no longer, in any way, live in a meritocracy. We live in an “imagocracy.”
The imagocracy in which we live is why Kentucky lost last night. The imagocracy is why the Wildcats’ loss will be repeated constantly this season, as it has for the last few NCAA men’s basketball seasons.
Oh yeah, and notice we don’t see huge, huge upsets nearly as often in the women’s game. We might see six all year. That says something about the privilege men feel compared with women. It also says something about the head coaches, male and female, recruiting these young women and what the coaches look for when assessing a player’s worth to their programs. Not to say, though, that there aren’t young women and coaches who fall into the imagocracy trap. But there are far, far fewer in the women’s game. And that’s a huge statement.
And that is a huge indictment on our society ——– and our teams.