Featured Column, Men's Basketball, Column

Kentucky and Duke Provide Much-Needed Villain Role in College Basketball

Go on, admit it—you watched the trailer for the upcoming live action Beauty and the Beast when it came out on Monday.

There’s no shame in it. I personally watched it a couple of times, even though I only saw Beauty and the Beast for the first time two weekends ago. (Although I played Maurice in a camp production of the play this summer, to overwhelmingly positive reviews.)

From what I’ve seen, most of the online chatter about the trailer centers on the brief moments we get to see Luke Evans as Gaston. And there’s a good reason for this—everybody loves a villain. Just as Maleficent got her own movie a couple of years ago, Gaston seems to be what everyone is looking forward to the most here.

Villains are present in reality, too. We’ll soon have a real-life villain living in the Naval Observatory in D.C.—how exciting! But the biggest source of actual villains is definitely sports. You can single out individual players, like LeBron, or entire teams, like the New England Patriots. Both LeBron and the Pats are villains, but—and it pains me to say this—they make everything a little more interesting.

The same goes for Duke and Kentucky men’s basketball. Both the AP and USA Today currently rank Duke at No. 1 and Kentucky at No. 2. With the college basketball season kicking off, the Blue Devils and Wildcats seem to be on their own talented platform looking down on everyone else.

Duke and Kentucky are both historically successful programs. There is something special about saying you play for the Blue Devils or the Wildcats. Not to mention Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari are two coaches who will go down in the history books as being geniuses. These schools are on a pedestal right now, with their legendary coaches and their golden history.

The top freshmen in the country want to come to these schools because they can pitch success in the NBA. Kentucky boasts all-star grads like John Wall, who tested the waters in college before moving on to the NBA. Duke alums in professional basketball include recent champion Kyrie Irving. As a result, both schools have unbelievable talent on their rosters this year. According to ESPN, six of the country’s top-10 freshmen play at Duke and Kentucky. In its ranking of the country’s top freshmen, the worldwide leader in sports ranks Duke’s Frank Jackson at No. 1, while the No. 2 is Kentucky’s Malik Monk. With stacked rosters, a champion mentality, and all the swagger you might need, Duke and Kentucky are poised at the top of the college basketball world.  

This is a good thing. This is perfect. You need villains in sports. You need to have dominant teams that are a little cocky about it, too. Earlier this year I argued that UConn is good for women’s college basketball. This argument is a little bit different—men’s hoops doesn’t need the same attention that the Huskies bring to women’s basketball—but there are some similarities here, too.

UConn’s dominance has not led to a lack of rivals. Notre Dame and Stanford are two notable schools that have heated rivalries with the Huskies. And in much the same way, Duke and Kentucky being the dominant villains will only serve to make other teams that much more competitive against them.

In fact, we already saw it on Tuesday night, when a buzzer-beater from Frank Mason carried Kansas over a shorthanded Duke. The Blue Devils were missing Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum, and Marques Bolden for the entire game, and star Grayson Allen temporarily left the game because of an injury. Kansas took advantage of these shortcomings and played a hard-fought, competitive game. It was the type of game that fans love, and it’s the type of game that fans can expect throughout the rest of the season.

Think about it. If you’re UNC, you’re saying to yourself, “Hold up. Have they really forgotten I played in the national championship last year? Duke got knocked off in the Sweet 16, and Kentucky lost in the second round. They really think I can’t hang with them this year?”

(If you’re Villanova, you’re saying all this and more, because you actually won the national championship.)

It’s not even just that UNC and Villanova, though. If you’re a team like Virginia—a team that knows how to win, but just isn’t at that top level right now—you’re thinking that an upset isn’t totally out of the question. And to upset the villain would be the most amazing feeling ever.

Kansas is probably feeling like Virginia, too. And there are a whole host of other schools that take this whole villain thing and turn it into extra motivation—extra sprints, extra shots at practice, extra reps in the weight room.

The point is, Duke and Kentucky being put on a pedestal doesn’t mean it’s going to stay that way all season. That pedestal can crumble. No team is going to walk into Cameron Indoor Stadium or Rupp Arena thinking that it doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell to win the game. That’s not how sports work. Upsets are a part of the game, and upsets are possible for anyone and everyone. I mean, BC almost beat UNC last year, and if the Eagles can push it to the last few seconds, anyone can.

Okay, but a plausible scenario is that Duke and Kentucky just dominate all of their opponents all season long and nobody manages to pull off an upset. That’s still all right—being the villain means you’re sometimes guaranteed to win. LeBron is living proof, unfortunately.

There’s also something so exciting about witnessing a historic run to a championship. When the Warriors went all the way in 2015 and set the win record last year, it was thrilling. The same principle applies here.

Either way, it’s not like having these two villains at the top of the sport is going to have a negative impact on men’s college hoops. It’ll make games more competitive, even without upsets, and competitive games get views. Just Tuesday night my timeline blew up with friends marveling over the stunning last-minute finish of the Maryland/Georgetown game. Imagine competitive games like that on a consistent basis. It’s a fan’s dream come true. And even if they don’t get upsets, the competition and thrill of dominant seasons is enough to satisfy fans.

So don’t feel upset that Duke and Kentucky seem to be untouchable right now. Feel excited. We’re standing at the very beginning of a long college basketball season. Anything can happen.

Featured Image by Julie Jacobson / AP Photo

November 16, 2016