The 2005-6 Season Preview (of Preview Guides)
As you well know, basketball season is fast approaching. If you’re like me, this means many things, but this early, it means one primary thing—it’s time to think about starting to buy basketball preview guides. Given my level of fanaticism, I find it best to just suck it up, buy every guide that I can get my hands on, refer to the appropriate guides when necessary, and get the whole lot bound into a handsome, leather-bound edition for my library at the end of the year. Sure, this commitment may mean that each year there’s a week in which I can’t buy groceries, but I think it’s worth it.
However, you may not share this level of devotion, which is why I’m here to help you. Below you’ll find my critiques of a variety of basketball preview guides that I’ve read over the years, in what I suppose you could call a guide to basketball preview guides. If that’s too much use of the word “guide,” however, feel free to call it whatever you wish. Just check it out, since I’m sure some of you are confused as to where to get your basketball info. Enjoy:
1) Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook
--I’m not going to lie—you’re not going to be able to walk into the grocery store and get this thing for $6.99. It’s not that kind of guide. You’re going to pay $26.95 (including shipping) for it. There are no color pictures inside, and few pictures of any kind. You’re going to have to special order it from a website (since the makers no longer seem to distribute their product through large booksellers like Barnes & Noble or Borders, as in years past). And at the end of the day, you’re going to be happy with your effort. If you can only buy one basketball publication in any given year, this is the one to buy. It’s so comprehensive, you’ll never use all of it. Want some thoughts on how Canisius will be this year? Some of those other guides might give you two inches of column space on the Golden Griffins. Blue Ribbon’s going to give you at least a third of a page, and probably more. This is where I find Blue Ribbon’s greatest value—telling you about the teams that no one else (except maybe the Mid-Majority) knows anything about. But let’s you say you don’t care about Canisius, and you just want the top 25. Well, if you’re top-25, you get a couple pages of coverage, complete with breakdowns of each player on the roster, key losses, and general commentary on the state of the team. There is no other publication that will tell you the things that you will learn in this guide. Was it better back when Blue Ribbon also sold a mid-season and NCAA tournament update to your guide? Sure, but even without those options, this is the gold standard. It’s like a media guide for the all of Division 1 basketball.
2) Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook
--If you live in Wisconsin, and you like college or high school basketball, this is the only thing I might consider buying before the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Forecast. Capsules (including schedules) on just about every high school team in the state? Check. A section with rankings and biographies of the top high school players in the state? Check. A page worth of preview space for each of Wisconsin’s D-2 and D-3 teams? Check. Coverage of the state’s division one college teams? Check. If it’s basketball, and it’s located in the state of Wisconsin, then it’s in this guide (no, I don’t consider the NBA to be basketball, so don’t even ask). Blue Ribbon may cover that which does not receive enough coverage, but the Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook covers things that simply aren’t covered anywhere else.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t note that I’m aware that publications like this exist in other states. One that I’m familiar with, having stumbled upon it on a trip through Indiana, is the Hoosier Basketball Magazine. And while I will concede that Indiana has a much greater basketball tradition than Wisconsin, when you compare these two books, Wisconsin wins by a mile. Opting to forego overdone supportive ads from high school booster clubs (all you’ll find here is ads for basketball camps and that ridiculous Shoot-A-Way training device) and slot in actual analysis has been a great choice by the editor of the Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook. As long as things continue as they have, Wisconsin will always have a must-buy publication.
3) Street & Smith Basketball Preview
--Once upon a time, Street and Smith was THE place to go for any type of sports preview. Baseball, NFL, NBA, college sports—you name it, and they covered it well. When I was a child, this was the only college basketball magazine that I would buy. It was easy to find, gave a wealth of information for a magazine, and benefited from having minimal competition. My how the times have changed. The downfall has been gradual over the last decade or so, but Street and Smith can match up to neither its competitors nor its former self.
The first sign that things have fallen off is the covers. In its earlier incarnations, the cover of a Street and Smith magazine was printed on a much heavier paper. Even if the information inside was crappy, you knew you were at least getting a fine piece of craftsmanship. Now the cover is just slightly heavier than the rest of the magazine pages, and certainly is not as heavy as the covers on most glossy competing magazines. And the photos on the covers are also not what they should be. Just glance at a magazine rack—most of the cover photos that you see for other magazines will be bright and vibrant. Then you turn to Street and Smith and there’s typically one or two players amidst a dark arena. More artful and realistic? Maybe, but if I’m buying a basketball magazine, I don’t want art—I want to be dazzled by the joy of the coming basketball season. Darkness doesn’t dazzle me.
And finally, there’s the content. Last year I thought I had seen an aberrant trend that would be promptly taken care of when I noticed two typos within the first 30 minutes of my perusal of a new Street and Smith guide. Much to my dismay, I was 15 minutes into checking out this year’s guide when I saw my first typo. That’s unacceptable for a national publication like Street and Smith. Even I hide my head in shame when I find any of the numerous typos that I produce here on a daily basis, and I don’t have a staff to edit for me. And frankly, with the half-assed team capsules (which for a few years didn’t even include rosters), I’d like to think that the writers at Street and Smith could manage to control the quality on the two paragraphs that they manage to churn out about any number of major teams who deserve more coverage.
So why, other than my completist tendencies, do I still buy Street and Smith? The answer is simple—each year they have an approximately 5-page feature in which they do a “where are they now” piece on the high school all-American teams that they named 10 years prior. I’m a sucker for human drama, and can’t help but be fascinated that while some percentage of guys always make it to the NBA, there are other guys like Willie Dersch (3rd team, 1995-96) and Glendon Alexander (4th team, 1995-96), who are now an investment banker and a prison inmate, respectively. This feature seems even more intriguing to me this year since these guys are all in the same high school graduating class as me. I can now compare my last 10 years with those of Kobe Bryant and Ronnie Fields. With info like this, I can over look the facts that the authors can’t spell and the printers can’t make a heavy duty cover anymore.
4) Lindy’s and Athlon
--I cover these two together, because though the titles are different and the content isn’t exactly the same, they’re essentially the same magazine. Both are consistently the first magazines out on the newsstand, and have glossy, impressive pictures of players on the front of their covers, which are made of high quality paper. You also won’t need to go much further than your local supermarket to find one, so as you can see, marketing is what puts these two guides on the landscape.
Though the information inside is basically good as of the date of printing, because of the early release dates, it’s not always accurate by the start of the season. A lot goes on between mid-September and the actual start of the season. However, if you’re a casual fan or a basketball junkie who just needs a fix (I bought this year’s Athlon at an airport just before boarding a plane) then either of these will generally suffice to tell you what teams will be good will be good, who the best players in the country are, and what the rosters of the teams in good conferences are. If you think of Blue Ribbon as an actual book, you might say that Lindy’s and Athlon are like Cliff’s Notes. And given my numerous failed attempts at reading and comprehending Joseph Conrad’s landmark novel, Heart of Darkness, I can tell you that a Cliff’s Notes version is not always a bad thing.
Of course, I would be doing everyone a disservice if I didn’t put out a warning with regard to the Lindy’s guide this year. When I pick up a preview magazine, I’m typically pretty quick to check out where the Big Ten is ranked nationally. Here’s all that you need to know—in the ranking of the top 25 teams in the country, Lindy’s has Iowa at #9 and Wisconsin at #14. Now, I could piece together a weak argument for Iowa at #9 (strong returning personnel, excellent finish last year post-Pierre Pierce fiasco), but not even my Wisconsin bias could never lead me to the conclusion that they’re anywhere near the #14 team in the nation coming into the year. These two ranking decisions undermine the credibility of the Lindy’s guide, in my mind. So read at your own risk.
5) ESPN Magazine Preview
--I’m bitter at ESPN Magazine for doing a basketball preview for two reasons. First off, they do a really half-assed job, making it a section in their regular magazine and not doing anything special with it. It’s sort of like back when Sports Illustrated wouldn’t completely commit to the Swimsuit Edition, so it didn’t stand on its own and the scantily clad women were stapled in with sports articles. At least with the swimsuit issue if someone caught me looking at it I could spare myself the embarrassment of being caught ogling bikini-clad magazine temptresses and pretend that I was reading an article on Clifford Robinson (Who am I kidding— that Robinson article was great.). There’s no such benefit with ESPN Magazine, since there’s no shame in reading about college basketball.
My second problem is the dawn of the ESPN preview issue signaled the end of one of my old favorite guides to pick up—the Dick Vitale Basketball Preview. Think of it—a whole basketball guide written as if Dick Vitale was doing the analysis. Okay, maybe the entire magazine wasn’t filled with phrases like “Dipsy Do, Dunk-a-Roo!!!!!” but the brief page that Dick gets to lay out his All-Diaper Dandy Team (outstanding freshmen), All-Marco Polo Team (transfers) and All-Name Team (alums include God Shamgod and Majestic Mapp) pales in comparison to the space he used to get in his own magazine. You’re welcome to love or hate Dick Vitale, but if you ever saw his stand-alone preview magazine, you’d know just how surreal it is to see that guy’s thought’s in written form. Like a William Shatner album, you know it’s not good, but you’re still drawn to it for reasons that you can’t completely explain. That’s why, to this day, Dick’s 1995 preview magazine is the most-pulled preview magazine from my library. Man, I miss getting a new one every year.
6) ACC Basketball Handbook
--For those of you in ACC country, this is a great find if you can get it. I first saw it back in 2000 while traveling in North Carolina. I’ve since seen it in a Barnes and Noble here in Milwaukee, which is nowhere near any school in the ACC, so they must be doing something right. Basically, it’s a basketball guide that’s geared only to the ACC, so it can go more in-depth. Production values are high, so you’re going to pay a little more, but you’re going to get pretty pictures on glossy paper, too. The only thing that might make you not want to buy this magazine is that it is so specifically geared toward one particular conference. On the flip side, if you’re primarily an ACC fan, you’re going to want this publication more than any other one out there. I would salivate over the release of a publication like this if I could find it one about the Big Ten or Big East. Then again, I will concede that the ACC is the best basketball conference in the land, so they’d probably still have the best guide anyway.
7) Sports Illustrated
--For what Sports Illustrated is trying to do, they actually do a pretty nice job. Their downfall, much like ESPN, is that they are a multi-sport magazine, and can’t spend all of their time and resources dealing with previewing the college basketball season. That said, their time is generally pretty well-spent, and if you read the meat of their analysis, it’s pretty solid for a magazine that won’t give upwards of 10 pages to college basketball again until March rolls around. As with any Sports Illustrated preview, however, be somewhat wary of the actual rankings that they put out, since odd rankings can sometimes help build intrigue and sell magazines.
After that there’s a mix of preview guides that I won’t get into, since most change from year to year, and you can always get a cheap, quickly thrown together guide if you’re in a pinch. I didn’t really cover The Sporting News guide, since I don’t have a great picture in my mind of what it is, but I recall it generally being acceptable. Sorry I can’t say more on that. Even with the omissions, hopefully this breakdown will help someone out there in their quest to purchase a preview guide. Every guide is not for every person, but I assure you that there’s a guide out there for you—you just need to keep looking. And if anyone has any suggestions for me about a guide I should pick up (particularly if you’re in a state that has something analogous to the Wisconsin Basketball Yearbook), drop me an email. Your assistance with my library will be appreciated.