Sunday, March 23, 2008

Early Entry Players Have Diluted Both College and Pro Basketball

March Madness is always exciting and this year is no exception but it is obvious that the overall level of play in college basketball is not as high as it used to be--and that is hardly a surprise considering how many of the very best players are "one and done" guys who go to the NBA after their freshman seasons, not to mention the number of players who went straight to the NBA from high school in the past decade before the NBA forbade that from happening. For better or worse, most of the best basketball players in the world who are 19 or older are all in the NBA. I say "for better or worse" because, on the one hand, a prodigy like LeBron James blossomed instantly and is already his franchise's career scoring leader. No one can honestly say that skipping college was a mistake for him. On the other hand, we did not really need to see Kevin Durant bricking shots all year long for an atrocious Seattle team. Just about everything that Durant learned this season he will have to unlearn in order to be a significant contributor on a winning team; the Sonics let him shoot the ball whenever he wanted and the team is indifferent at best defensively and does not always seem to play hard. Those are all traits and tendencies that will have to be corrected.

If Durant had stayed in college he likely would have had a spectacular season and perhaps he could have even led Texas on a magical NCAA run like Danny Manning did with Kansas in 1988. Both the college and the pro games would have been better off if Durant had stayed in school. I'm not saying that he should not have the right to turn pro but the exercising of that individual right does have an obvious negative effect at both levels of the sport.

Another consequence of the dilution of talent at the college level is that results that may look like upsets on paper really are not shocking to people who watch the games closely. The nation's blue chip programs used to get all of the best players and they used to keep them for at least three seasons. Teams consisting of great players who have been well coached and have played together for several seasons are less likely to be upset in the NCAA Tournament than teams consisting of young players who are already counting the days until they play in the NBA. Also, smaller programs who feature players who are not considered top NBA prospects tend to keep their teams together like all teams used to do, so sometimes you have a situation where a team consisting of young, highly touted players is facing a team of experienced college players--and experience is a valuable commodity in a pressure-packed tournament situation.

Number seven seed West Virginia beat number two seed Duke 73-67 on Saturday. That "looks" like an upset not just because of the seeding but because Duke is such a well established program--but if you watched the game you realized that West Virginia is a bigger, more physical and more talented team; this was not a Cinderella team that got hot or made a lucky shot late in the game. West Virginia basically just pounded Duke into submission, outrebounding the Blue Devils 45-19. Frankly, in this year's field the only thing that would have really shocked me is if one of the 16, 15 or 14 seeds had won their first games; the rest of the teams are fairly evenly matched.

While some fans may enjoy the fact that there is not a clear favorite, I much preferred it when the college game was played at a higher overall level and there were player rivalries that carried over from one season to the next. None of the players who participated in last year's Florida-Ohio State championship matchup will play a major role in this year's NBA playoffs but those teams could have been fun to watch this season if their key players had not elected to turn pro. Instead, those teams did not even qualify for this year's NCAA Tournament while their former stars received on the job training in the NBA. Florida actually gave us a taste of what NCAA basketball used to be like because the Gators kept their 2006 championship team together in order to make a title run in 2007.

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