Tuesday November 11th, 2008

You can tell a lot about a society from its iconic arcs. The ancient Romans built an empire on the curved supports of their bridges, aqueducts and architecture. The reign of Napoléon in Europe is commemorated by the majestic Arc de Triomphe in Paris. And modern-day America has given the world two symbols that are recognized in every corner of the planet: the golden arches of McDonald's and basketball's three-point arc. (Talk about a civilized society!)

Now imagine that the golden arches suddenly appeared in, say, lime green. You'd still recognize the symbol, of course, but it would seem strange -- jarring, even -- and you might wonder if the new look signified a groundbreaking change. The same sort of thoughts might occur to you at the start of the 2008-09 college basketball season. In what could be the most significant rule change to the men's game since the three-point line was installed 22 years ago, the arc has been moved back a foot, from 19-foot-9 to 20' 9".

This is good news for court-painting companies, but whether it's beneficial for basketball is up for debate. Talk to coaches and you'll hear all sorts of opinions on the new line. Connecticut's Jim Calhoun thinks it will create more spacing (good news for those who like open, flowing games) as defenses are stretched thin trying to double-team the post and still prevent open threes. But Tennessee's Bruce Pearl argues that the lane will be more congested as teams lay off shooters, inviting them to take lower-percentage treys. Says Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings, "It won't affect your offense much if you have good shooters, but it will affect you a lot if your shooters aren't very good." Meanwhile, Kentucky's Billy Gillispie says the line will have unintended consequences on the women's game, which kept the 19' 9" line but now has to deal with a second arc on the floor. Pitt women's coach Agnus Berenato doesn't see it as an issue. "Our line is navy, the men's is white," she says. "Players will just have to get used to it. It comes down to focus and discipline."

Long story short: Nobody knows what the impact will be. "I don't think it will be significant," says North Carolina's Roy Williams, who has never had much use for the three-pointer anyway. But the experience of the best young American shooters suggests otherwise. In the last three tournaments for college-aged men's teams, the U.S. shot just 30.3 percent from the 20-6 international three-point distance -- compared with the average of 35.2 percent from the 19' 9" line in Division I last season.

The notion of changing arcs applies to more than just the three-point line this season. The career arcs of college players are going through their own transition games. North Carolina senior forward Tyler Hansbrough is the first men's national player of the year to come back to school since Shaquille O'Neal in 1990-91, and Psycho T is only the most visible example of the latest trend. The nation's top teams are filled with well-established stars, from North Carolina (Hansbrough), Connecticut (center Hasheem Thabeet) and Davidson (guard Stephen Curry) on the men's side to UConn (forward Maya Moore), Oklahoma (center Courtney Paris) and Maryland (guard Kristi Toliver) on the women's.

In fact, if you're looking for transcendent one-and-done freshmen, this season won't be for you. A few newcomers could make a major impact -- USC forward DeMar DeRozan, Louisville forward Samardo Samuels, Memphis guard Tyreke Evans -- but don't count on fantastic freshmen hogging the headlines as they have since 2006-07, when the NBA's age-minimum rule kept high schoolers from jumping straight to the league. "It's not like the group that came in last year," says Memphis coach John Calipari. "There were 11 [one-and-done] guys last year. I think this year there will be two or three."

Speaking of changing career arcs, it's an odd turn of events when neither of last year's top-rated high school seniors is playing college basketball this fall. Whether Elena Delle Donne and Brandon Jennings are isolated examples or harbingers of systemic change remains to be seen, however. Delle Donne, a 6-5 guard-forward from Wilmington, Del., signed with UConn but left Storrs during summer school and is now playing volleyball at Delaware. It's possible that Delle Donne may herald a wave of athletes rebelling against extreme specialization in youth sports -- or she may just have been a kid who was desperately homesick.

As for Jennings, the 6-foot point guard from Compton, Calif., signed with Arizona but failed to meet the NCAA's minimum academic requirements. So he became a pioneer, following the advice of former shoe company czar Sonny Vaccaro and agreeing to a three-year deal worth about $1.2 million annually with Virtus Roma of the Italian pro league. The best-case scenario for Jennings: He'll excel overseas for a season and then jump to an NBA team in 2009 (after that team buys out his contract). The potential negatives are just as real, including underperforming in a sink-or-swim environment. Either way, he'll be an important test case, one that players and college coaches are following closely.

"I think you'll see a guy or two every year going to Europe," says Alabama coach Mark Gottfried. "It could be a great player who just doesn't want to sit in class every day. He'd rather be making a million dollars." UConn's Calhoun isn't so sure. "There's too much to be gained by playing college basketball," he says. "You get discipline and an education in college that you won't get from a professional team. And Tyler Hansbrough is a household name because of college basketball."

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has a team that's a good bet to reach next spring's Final Four in Detroit, but he isn't afraid to call Hansbrough's Tar Heels "a bigger landslide favorite than even Florida" was before its repeat title in 2007. "When I scheduled them, I figured they would be losing four guys," says Izzo, whose Spartans meet North Carolina on Dec. 3. "What the hell happened?"

Maybe it has something to do with the 40-12 hole that the Tar Heels fell into against Kansas in last April's national semifinal, when they lost 84-66. Maybe their stars saw this season's weak freshman class and realized their draft status would be higher in '09. Or maybe they just want to win, as their coach might put it, a dadgummed frickin' championship. Just as long as that's not the only reason. "I talked to each guy about two things," says Williams, who vows never again to read the Carolina Blue fanzine after it asked whether last season's 36-3 team was a failure. "Don't come back if it's only to win a title -- or if you think we'll get you 30 shots a game. We're about one thing: our team."

With all the talk of elite players like Hansbrough serving their full four-year terms, it's only natural in this election season for SI to hail the men's and women's "running mates" on our preview covers. More than ever, it seems, basketball powerhouses of both genders are emerging on the same campuses: not just old standbys such as Connecticut and Tennessee but also at places like Arizona State, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Pittsburgh. At Louisville the women's basketball team enjoys the same kind of financial support -- and, increasingly, fan support -- as the men's does. "We're seeing women's basketball [programs] become much more aggressive," says Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich, whose school is building a $238 million arena to be shared by its men and women. "It's a highly visible sport, a lot of our games are televised, and we get great crowds. Women's basketball is a high, high, high priority for us." And for one campaign, at least, the men's game shares what makes the women's game so appealing: star-power staying power that has produced Hansbrough-style figures past (Tennessee's Candace Parker, UConn's Diana Taurasi) and present.

The result is an electricity that's arcing through college basketball, no matter how many arcs may be on the floor.

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