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College hoops: your favorite team probably doesn’t care about winning

Mark Kuhlmann/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

The odds are that your favorite college basketball program doesn’t really want to win that badly.

Say WHAT?!

No one can turn on the NCAA Tournament and sincerely think the vast majority of programs don’t want to win in the worst way. How can anyone say — or even merely suggest — that schools really don’t care much about winning?

There’s an explanation which makes perfectly good sense… and dollars.

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What makes a basketball program great? Is it the coaches, the players, a dozen other things, or all of the above? Well, yes… but if we want to keep this as simple as possible, the best answer is money.

Save for a small number of schools — far fewer exceptions than we readily admit — our favorite college basketball programs don’t want to win all that badly… at least not when viewed through the prism of how much money they’re willing to spend.

While the levels of “wanting it” can vary to several degrees, many teams don’t necessarily lack the effort to get it, but they don’t really “want it” that badly.

It might seem harsh, but 99 percent of them either can’t afford it or have merely deemed it an unrealistic goal to consistently achieve.

It, of course, is winning.

Here is the story.

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Consider the program you hold dearest to your heart. Unless you are Kentucky or one of the few other programs of equal stature, see how much money your head coach makes. Then try to figure out if he’s paid properly in comparison to your program’s annual success. After doing that, look at programs who are regularly at the top of the college basketball coaching ladder — the Big Blue Nations and Dukes of the world — and notice how much money those coaches make.

See what I am getting at? If not, here’s a salary chart for (just) the coaches who were in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. While the chart doesn’t document every coach in the nation, you’ll still notice the pattern.

There is a near-direct correlation between how much money a university pays its basketball coach and how much success its basketball program has. While some coaches make absurd amounts and falter (and some make modest money but succeed), we’ll find that the schools with the ability — or willingness — to spend generally do well.

March 13, 2016:  Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari and his cats pose for photos after the 2016 SEC Basketball Championship Tournament Final   game between Kentucky and Texas A&M. Kentucky defeated Texas A&M in OT 82-77 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, TN. (Photos by Frank Mattia/Icon Sportswire)

March 13, 2016: Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari and his cats pose for photos after the 2016 SEC Basketball Championship Tournament Final game between Kentucky and Texas A&M. Kentucky defeated Texas A&M in OT 82-77 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, TN. (Photos by Frank Mattia/Icon Sportswire)

This isn’t success begetting success. This is Kentucky’s boosters, athletic department, and entire faculty valuing their basketball program far more than the DePaul Blue Demons value theirs. That’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less.

To be clear about this, there’s nothing wrong with universities not valuing their basketball programs. DePaul — a supposed sleeping giant — has spent the last decade using the money the basketball team has created to fund the majority of the school’s other athletic endeavors while reinserting very little of that sweet, sweet college basketball money back into the men’s team.

Again, fine.

There are also the have-nots. Not every university has a Who’s Who of boosters ready to donate massive amounts of money because they like “amateur” basketball. In other cases, the university flatly lacks the resources to consistently rule its particular conference.

The latter group here doesn’t lack that “wanting it” factor; it simply can’t afford it. For every other program, however, a realization needs to emerge for a large portion of fans — your favorite team doesn’t sincerely care about winning… not as much as you might think.

How do I know that? Being a consistently great program in college basketball — as measured strictly by a school’s athletic department — is the easiest thing to do in the world.

All those things that make a great basketball program — coaches, players, fancy facilities — start with money.

All a program would have to do is throw money at a proven, name-brand coach. BOOM — that program is nearly fixed overnight. He then recruits top-tier players while the university starts to build state-of-the-art facilities. That is very literally it. That’s what “wanting it” looks like. It starts with cold hard cash.

If DePaul SINCERELY wants to be good at basketball again, it can be. Sure, it can also go the cheaper route of trying to re-hire an old coach or find a hidden gem, but those are examples of cutting corners and not pursuing victory at all costs. If it wanted to absolutely make sure it was going to the NCAA Tournament in the quickest way possible and on a regular basis, DePaul would just offer an elite coach not at a blue-blood Old Money powerhouse (think Sean Miller, perhaps) a contract in the tens of millions of dollars per year.

DePaul is just one representative example here, and who knows if the Blue Demons could actually afford to hire a stud coach, but it is worth noting that such a coach would end up partially paying for himself through winning and boosters being more than happy to chip in.

The thing is, though: DePaul — like many dozens of programs in a similar spot — doesn’t actually want to win that badly.

The caveat needs to be added that DePaul — or any other program — is not anti-winning. It just wants to win on the cheap, which is a polite way of saying that those schools don’t actually want to win as badly as they claim.

You can’t claim you really want to own the safest car ever designed, but then look for the cheapest automobile in the lot.

02 February 2016: DePaul Blue Demons head coach Dave Leitao watches his team during a game between the DePaul Blue Demons and Providence

Hiring Dave Leitao a SECOND time?! Yep, DePaul would rather make a comparatively cheap coaching (re-)hire than break the bank to make the NCAA Tournament every year. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)

In conclusion, unless you live in Lexington or Durham or Chapel Hill or Bloomington or a few other select places, you care more about winning in college basketball than your school does. Your school almost certainly cares more about making money off sports — winning or not — than you do.

An important takeaway from this discussion: We can stop pretending that all Division I hoops programs are on an even playing field, because they are clearly not. Let’s also give up on the idea that all 351 schools are trying their very literal best to put together the best possible program on a consistent basis.

DePaul, which allowed Oliver Purnell to drift for many years — thereby saving the school plenty of money — set the kind of example you would never want to follow as a fan of your team.

Like it or not, that example is far more prevalent in this industry than you might have been willing to admit.

It’s not any kind of crisis, but it’s the truth, and it needs to be absorbed by everyone who loves college basketball.

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