A college basketball celebration at the Garden, and a sport grappling with its future

NEW YORK — College basketball’s elders rolled out four heavyweights for a kickoff Madison Square Garden doubleheader and hoped everyone would quit talking about players getting paid. Zion Williamson’s presence would have made the sell a bit easier. Given the transient nature of the college game, your average New Yorker would have had a hard time naming four or five kids who dressed for Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State.

Not that star power was in short supply Tuesday night. You just had to know where to look to find it — on the sideline. Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Self, John Calipari and Tom Izzo walked into the Garden as Hall of Fame coaches with a combined 3,168 victories, 27 Final Four appearances (not counting the two Calipari lost at Memphis and UMass over NCAA violations), and eight national titles (five from Coach K) over a combined 121 Division I seasons. They are the faces of their universities, not just their teams, for a reason.

If the NBA belongs to the players, and all the franchise-making and breaking they do in free agency, college basketball belongs to the coaches. They are the constants, the only stars who never graduate or turn pro. They have the money and the power. They control the distribution of scholarships, minutes, and just about everything else in their programs. That isn’t going to change.

But something fundamental does need to change about college basketball fame and fortune, and much sooner than later. Coaches can keep all of their fame; it’s the fortune part they have to start sharing with the athletes who sent them to the Hall of Fame in the first place.

As for the opening-night action on the floor, Duke beat Kansas 68-66 before No. 2 Kentucky defeated No. 1 Michigan State by seven in the State Farm Champions Classic. Frankly, having the nation’s four top teams under one roof reminded everyone of how this sport can stand among the best of the best. Over more than three decades of covering the pros in New York, of covering championship Yankees and Giants teams and contending Knicks teams (yes, they did at one time exist), I thought nothing was more alive in the big city than the old-school Big East tournament, or a big Garden doubleheader around holiday time.

“I’m not going to shortchange our place, Cameron,” Krzyzewski said after winning his first post-Zion game, career victory No. 1,133, “but this is the one I love to play in after Cameron. The balls bounce differently, the noise — there’s just something about this place. … Eventually when I stop coaching I’ll look back on the times here as very special times in New York.”

At 72, savoring the start of his 40th Duke season — not to mention Tre Jones’ poise in a tense victory with a March feel to it — Coach K didn’t sound like a man who would stop coaching anytime soon.

“What a way to start the season,” he said. “College basketball certainly did it right. …To bring four of the storied programs in our country together in this venue, you’ve got to be kidding me. And the game certainly lived up to it. That was a big-time game. A big-time game.”

Yes, given the recent turmoil that has swallowed college basketball whole, the game needed the games to begin. Turns out the Kansas Jayhawks needed the ball in the air more than anyone.

Forced into action by the FBI corruption probe and the trial that played out in a federal courthouse 3½ miles from the Garden, the NCAA has hit Kansas with serious allegations of wrongdoing. Self and assistant Kurtis Townsend were accused of having “blatantly disregarded the NCAA constitution and bylaws,” after a former Adidas grassroots consultant, T.J. Gassnola, testified in federal court that he paid $90,000 to the mother of former Kansas recruit Billy Preston and agreed to pay $20,000 (on top of an earlier $2,500 payment) to the guardian of current Kansas player Silvio De Sousa.

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