Judging by the anorexic look of their college basketball preview — probably the most-anticipated arrival in my mailbox, maybe a decade ago — things aren’t going so good over at Sports Illustrated. Which is kind of an industry-wide thing, but is still kind of sad for me. This is not just because the magazine used to be of totemic importance to me, although there’s that, but because of what the magazine theoretically could be and once was. Yeah, the game has changed and all that, but SI used to run long, literary features on sports that had an obvious, animating intelligence. Those still crop up every now and then — I linked to two last year, about the Dribble Drive Motion/Memphis offense and Rick Majerus, that I thought were really great — but for the most part, SI is working the same profile/charticle side of the street as ESPN the Magazine and ESPN the TV Network. It’s a bummer.

But even if they’re increasingly looking like everyone else, SI still has some of the best sportswriters out there working for them, both in print and on the Internet. The return of college basketball means that one of my favorites, Luke Winn, is coming back into the rotation on the internet side. I plugged Winn’s good-but-conventional profile of Hasheem Thabeet yesterday, in the bloggy gig I sometimes do over at the Wall Street Journal Online (it was given a hilariously WSJ-y headline by my editor), but his “Hoops Ideology Report,” which went up today, is much better and more interesting. It’s essentially one of those Atlantic Monthly info-enhanced diagrams in literary form, and charts the various trends in college basketball — how teams wound up with certain lineups, offenses, rosters, whatever — per the responses of college coaches to a questionnaire SI sent to every D1 program. It’s essentially a non-narrative data dump and hard to excerpt, but here’s one of my favorite bits:

Western Michigan coach Steve Hawkins (above) had no direct connection to Calipari or Walberg. So how did he pick up the Dribble Drive? It’s a good story. In September 2006, Hawkins was at what he called an “philosophical crossroads, offensively.” He was an up-tempo motion coach who didn’t like the fact that a lot of his team’s cuts were being made away from the basket. While leaving the MAC’s conference meetings in Indianapolis, Hawkins was heading to the airport to fly to a coaches’ clinic at Ventura (Calif.) College, when he heard the tail end of a radio interview with Calipari, in which he talked about how he’d adopted Walberg’s offense.

After Hawkins arrived in California, he was driving up the Pacific Coast Highway when he received a call from his friend Mike Burns, then the coach at Eastern Washington. Burns said, “Are you still messing around with that four-out, one-in offense? I think I’m getting ready to pull the trigger on Vance Walberg’s offense.” To that, Hawkins said, “Weird. I just heard Calipari talking about it on the radio.”

At the Ventura clinic the next day, Hawkins was on the same speaking roster with Nuggets coach George Karl, who told attendees that he’d always been a North Carolina motion guy, but he was getting ready to do something drastic with his offense. And then he said, “You guys have probably heard of Vance Walberg.” For Hawkins, it was the third time in two days.

That night he had beers with Karl and watched Karl diagram the Dribble-Drive Motion with packets of sugar and Sweet ‘n’ Low on a restaurant table. In a few weeks Hawkins and Burns flew to Denver to watch Walberg give a private seminar for Nuggets coaches. And by the time Western Michigan played its first game of 2006-07, the Dribble-Drive Motion was in place.

So, does it matter how the third-best team in the MAAC wound up running its offense? Probably not that much, in the long run, to non-dorks. But for those of us who care what the “Buna Offense” is, how Hawaii wound up with six international players on its roster or Sacramento State somehow has 15 junior college transfers on its team (out of 19 scholarship players) — that is, to dorks — it’s pretty great stuff. Thanks to Brendan Flynn for the link.