Friday March 25th, 2011

"Kids should be going to college if at least part of what they want to do is get an education. The way it's set up on these one-and-dones. ... To me, it's a sham." -- Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy

"College basketball should be more than an extended-stay motel." -- Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski

Those quotes were lifted from two of the roughly eight zillion articles written over the past five years decrying the atrocity that is the NBA's "One and Done" rule -- i.e., the requirement that players must be a year removed from high school to enter the NBA draft. Lest you haven't heard, it's an abomination, a mockery, an insidious force threatening to bring down college basketball, if not the entire American educational system.

"I don't think college basketball has benefited from [the rule]," said Krzyzewski.

Hmm. So then there must be some other reason thousands of fans are flocking this week to the not-exactly-vacation-destination of Newark, N.J., and millions more will be tuning in to Friday night's highly anticipated East Regional games there between Ohio State and Kentucky, and North Carolina and Marquette. It must have nothing to do with the presence of freshman sensations Jared Sullinger (Ohio State), Harrison Barnes (North Carolina) and Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight (Kentucky).

According to, five of the Top 11 projected picks in June's draft (if you include ineligible Kentucky freshman Enes Kanter) can currently be found in Newark, not far from Secaucus, site of the annual lottery. David Stern could save money this year and just combine the two events.

"[Freshmen] are so much more worldly now," said North Carolina coach Roy Williams. "[They're] not in awe of being in the NCAA tournament, not in awe of playing on national television. They played on national television in high school, and traveled and done those kind of things."

The NCAA tournament has long comprised two related but separate events -- the first weekend, where we celebrate Cinderella (Morehead State, VCU); and the last two, where we get down to the business of determining a national champion. Novel as it may be, Friday night's matchup between 10th seed Florida State and 11th seed VCU does not figure to draw much of a rating for TBS. As the Final Four draws closer, fans want to see brand names colliding, and two of the biggest -- the Buckeyes and Wildcats -- will do just that on CBS.

Yet neither would be in the position they are without the presence of their transcendent freshman stars, who, were this six years ago (before the NBA's age minimum age requirement), may well have skipped college altogether. In the undercard, another blue blood, North Carolina, will take on Marquette. Lest we forget, the Tar Heels are a year removed from the NIT. They wouldn't be sitting here a year later with a No. 2 seed if not for the additions of Barnes and another freshman, point guard Kendall Marshall (who's not expected to jump to the NBA this year, but you never know).

One-and-done critics contend the rule is killing college basketball. It's quite the opposite, actually. They're helping to keep it relevant.

It's not like players only started fast-tracking their pro careers in 2006. It goes back at least a decade before that, to Kevin Garnett's landmark defection straight from high school in 1995. Before that, even the most elite players stayed in college for at least two or three years. However, post-Garnett, the floodgates opened to an exodus of both high school seniors (Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Al Harrington, et. al.) and college freshmen (Cal's Shareef Abdur Rahim, Georgia Tech's Stephon Marbury, Michigan's Jamal Crawford, et. al.).

College and professional basketball are infinitely better off than they were a decade ago, when the Top 10 of the 2001 draft comprised a bunch of flameouts: high schoolers (Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry, DeSagana Diop) and not-that-spectacular freshmen (Seton Hall's Eddie Griffin, Charlotte's Rodney White). In the race to get rich, a slew of naive 18- and 19-year-olds (Jonathan Bender, Donnell Harvey and Omar Cook, to name a few) destroyed their futures by prematurely entering the draft, and college basketball was deprived of a generation of potential stars.

This was the NCAA's consensus first team All-America Team in 2002: Dan Dickau, Juan Dixon, Drew Gooden, Steve Logan and Jason Williams. This is what Krzyzewski and the one-and-done crusaders would apparently like back.

The NBA, not the NCAA, implemented the one-and-done rule to end a cycle of franchises wasting millions of dollars on the development of unprepared teenagers. Some college coaches therefore resent the league using their programs as de facto farm teams. Some players (like Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings) resented being forced into a culture (college) in which they had no interest. Jennings chose to spend his year in exile in Italy, which is perfectly fine. Others are free to do the same. They should all be thankful they don't play football, where the waiting period is three years.

College basketball is far better off for having enjoyed the likes of Kevin Durant, Greg Oden, John Wall and Sullinger, even if for only one year. The two most exciting Final Fours I covered over the past decade were 2003, when the ultimate one-and-done sensation, Carmelo Anthony, led Syracuse to the title; and 2008, when all four No. 1 seeds reached San Antonio thanks in part to freshmen like Derrick Rose (Memphis) and Kevin Love (UCLA).

Meanwhile, those players benefited for having spent a year in college. The gifted Durant was likely destined to dominate the NBA at some point, but would he have blossomed into the mature, off-court leader of a young franchise without that year of development at Texas? Did John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins not grow from a year playing for a tough coach like John Calipari? Or would they have been better off moving straight from the high school bus to the NBA jumbo jet?

Ultimately, the one-and-done rule has normalized college ball, as much as is possible in today's age. (Sorry, old-timers, but we're never going back to the days of Patrick Ewing and Ralph Sampson playing four years.) For the most part, coaches know what they're getting when they recruit a prospective one-and-done player and can plan accordingly. There are far fewer surprise defections than there were a decade ago, and more than a few others have avoided potentially disastrous decisions by spending a year in college and finding out exactly where they stand.

"[If this were] the '70s, when you have the same guys for four years, boy, we would have some fun," said Calipari. "But it is not the '70s and we're playing in a situation where these young people have a chance to put their names in the draft and reach their dreams."

Certainly, you can disagree with Calipari's approach of relying excessively on a new set of freshmen every year. Many are hoping he never wins a championship with that formula because it would be a slap in the face to academia. (Never mind that Wall carried a 3.5 GPA during his last semester in Lexington, and Knight graduated high school with a 4.3.)

But for every Calipari there's a Bill Self, who continues to build championship contenders at Kansas with veterans, or Krzyzewski, who to this point has only sprinkled in the occasional one-and-done (Kyrie Irving) to complement a core of veterans like Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. The game is still brimming with guys like Kemba Walker and Jimmer Fredette, who took the conventional three- or four-year path to stardom.

And then there's top-ranked Ohio State, which, if it fulfills its championship destiny as the top overall seed, may well provide a blueprint for future contenders: Take one preternaturally talented freshman (Sullinger) and surround him with a bunch of four- and five-year players (Jon Diebler, William Buford and David Lighty). Heck, throw in a couple other blue-chippers (Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas) so you can start building your next great team.

"There have been some great freshmen in college basketball the last several years," said UNC's Williams, "but most of the time the teams that get to the Final Four and win it are those teams that do have a little more experience."

Still, freshmen have been starring in the NCAA tournament for decades. Louisville big man Pervis Ellison was the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player as a freshman in 1986. Point guard Bobby Hurley led Duke to the national title game in 1990. Ditto Michigan's Fab Five two years later. Syracuse's Anthony was the more transcendent freshman on that 2003 title team, but who can forget classmate Gerry McNamara drilling six three-pointers in the first half of the championship game against Kansas?

And the best freshmen, naturally, will always be drawn to the sport's most prominent brands. So it should be little surprise to see so many of them in Newark for what is widely viewed as the tourney's most "loaded" region."

Barring a change in the NBA's next Collective Bargaining Agreement, it will stay this way for the foreseeable future. Either we can hem or haw about the way things used to be back in the '70s, or we can sit back, relax and enjoy the likes of Sullinger and Knight donning their college jerseys Friday -- one of them, presumably, for the last time.

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