The Evolution of College Basketball

I went back in time today, and I realized that 1995 was a long time ago.

Nine years doesn't seem like that much -- barely half my lifetime. I was in seventh grade back then. I'm a senior in college now.

But as I stumbled upon a dusty, ratty old magazine from October 1995, I realized just how long ago it was. The magazine was Street & Smith's 1995-1996 College Basketball Preview, and just flipping through the pages showed me that a lot has changed in the world of college basketball. So much that you'd think nine years was a lifetime.

So, now, boys and girls, it's time for a history lesson, a comparative one thanks to my continued reliance on Street & Smith's previews (I bought this year's edition last week.)

In 1995, the preseason Top 25 featured some familiar names -- Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Louisville, Wake Forest, and Connecticut. And after that, well ... a lot has changed. Only nine of the Top 25 from 1995 are in the 2004 preseason rankings.

Some of the teams in the old rankings that are nowhere to be found these days: Utah, Georgetown, UCLA, Massachusetts, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Tulane, Georgia, and Old Dominion. Yes, Old Dominion was in the Top 25. I'm not sure how.

How about the teams that are in it now? No. 2 Illinois was picked to finish fourth in the Big 10 back in 1995. No. 4 Syracuse was tabbed as the fourth-best in the Big East. And No. 6 Georgia Tech was picked eighth in the ACC, with the magazine noting that prized freshman Stephon Marbury might be the only bright spot for the Yellow Jackets.

The most startling nugget has to do with coaching. I went down that same Top 25 list from 1995 and was taken aback at how many teams in the rankings had made coaching changes in the nine years since then. I dug a little bit deeper and came up with this whopper: 23 of the 25 teams ranked in 1995 have made coaching changes.

Only Bob Huggins at Cincinnati and Jim Calhoun at Connecticut have stayed put. (As a side note, Coach K would be in this list, but for whatever reason, Duke wasn't ranked in 1995).

So what does this mean? I'm not sure, but if I were a coach, I wouldn't be feeling real good about job security.

Let's move on to the players. The biggest difference is the one I expected to see -- there were a lot more true centers back then. In my mind, a true center is a guy who's 6-9 or taller and who plays mostly with his back to the basket.

The four All-America teams from the 1995 preview featured five true centers, including Tim Duncan, Marcus Camby, Erick Dampier, and Lorenzen Wright.

The same teams from 2004 really have only two guys that meet the criteria -- Wayne Simien and Shelden Williams -- and they're even a bit of a stretch. If they play at the next level, it won't be at the five spot.

Of course, we don't need proof to know that college basketball is no longer a game of big men. Look at the top teams in the country. Few have dominant big men and most are guard-driven. College basketball is all about speed these days. Just watch a few games between some of the best teams in the country. Illinois has Dee Brown, a guy they call the "One Man Fast Break" behind the wheel. Wake Forest runs and guns with Chris Paul at the controls. Even Kansas, with Simien in the middle, gets up and down the court faster than most.

There are still big guys, and teams with the big guys -- as long as they can counteract the opposition's speed -- have a decided advantage. But the big men you see now aren't always polished and typically aren't dominant. Georgia Tech's Luke Schenscher is a talented player now, but he was a project just a few seasons ago. Syracuse's Craig Forth is a space-eater, an anchor on defense, and a rebounder. But the offense doesn't run through him. And ... uh ... if I could think of another big man, I'd give you another stellar example. But I can't.

Where did all the big men go? They hopped a flight to the NBA, of course, and the best of them never had a layover on a college campus.

Some of the big men listed in the "Freshmen of Influence" section of the 1995 magazine probably wouldn't have made it to campus if they were high school seniors today -- Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Mark Blount, Robert Traylor, Jelani McCoy, and Kenny Thomas. Kevin Garnett would have been in that class, but he made the jump and left the door open on his way out.

Who would we be seeing in college today had the NBA not lured them away? Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry, DeSagana Diop, Kendrick Perkins, Dwight Howard, and Robert Swift, just to name a few.

I don't know if all those guys would have stemmed the tide of a changing game, but they would have made a difference.

It's also fun to look back at who Street & Smith's thought would make a difference from the high school ranks in 1995. The magazine has four prep All-America teams. You might call it a "Who's Who" list. Looking back on it now, you might call it a "Who's He?" list.

Some of the guys have had tremendous success. Kobe Bryant is at the top of the list. Also on the first team are Tim Thomas and Mike Bibby, both established NBA players. Jermaine O'Neal is on the second team. But the rest of the high school all-stars didn't live up to the hype. Chris Carrawell and Shaheen Holloway were solid college players, but didn't do much in the pro ranks. A few names, like Eugene Edgerson, Nate James, and Lucas Barnes, ring a bell. But I've never even heard of some of the others -- Michael Robinson, Willie Dersch, Olujimi Mann, Winfred Walton, Kevin Ault, and Mark Kimbrough.

I don't know what became of those guys, but it's enlightening to know that recruiting isn't a sure thing. Even the supposed best of the best can fizzle.

Well, that's about enough for the history lesson. Go watch some basketball and appreciate what the game is today. Because in nine years, it won't be the same.

As for me, I'll have to save that new magazine.

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