NEW ORLEANS -- When Kansas and Kentucky tip off Monday night, don't assign any more meaning to the contest than it deserves. Even though the narrative from lazy writers and talkers will tout this as Stay-in-Schoolers vs. One-and-Dones, don't get suckered into that line of thinking.
Some will try to slip white hats on the Jayhawks and black hats on the Wildcats. Kentucky coach John Calipari will get painted as the villain (in this case) because he recruits potential one-and-done players. Kansas coach Bill Self will get painted as the hero because he starts four juniors and a senior.
Don't fall for it.
Yes, Kentucky's Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist probably will leave school after their freshman seasons to play in the NBA. Yes, Wildcats Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones probably will go pro after two years in Lexington. If that starting five happens to win the national title, it wouldn't signal the downfall of western civilization. It wouldn't make a mockery of the sport. It wouldn't really prove anything except the fact that the NBA scouts are on to something when they suggest their teams draft those players.
Yes, the Kansas starters are all in at least their third year of college. Does that make them better people than the Wildcats? Of course not. It means they aren't as desirable to the NBA. It means some spent parts of their careers sitting behind players such as Xavier Henry (one-and-done in 2010) and Josh Selby (one-and-done in 2011).
For whatever reason, college sports fans have been conditioned to believe that players owe it either to their schools or to themselves to play four years in college. For those readers with college degrees, ask yourself this: Why did you go to college? A few of you might have gone because you really wanted to learn Sanskrit or to argue the relative merits of Moliere vs. Honore de Balzac with equally insufferable people. If you're like me, you went to college to acquire the knowledge and skills required to embark upon a more lucrative career than those generally available to people without college degrees. If a player leaves college for a multimillion-dollar contract, has he not achieved that goal?
We never criticize the and-dones in other fields of endeavor. In fact, we don't even notice their departure from college. Pop quiz: Who is the wealthiest one-and-done from the University of Texas in the past 30 years? Kevin Durant? Not even close. It's Michael Dell, who founded his eponymous computer company out of his dorm room and then left school to run his business.
Lady Gaga went one-and-done at NYU. Entertainment mogul Barry Diller went one-and-done at UCLA, leaving for a job in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency. Bill Gates, like Lamb or Jones, went two-and-done at Harvard. Meanwhile, the greatest one-and-done in recent history spent one semester at Reed College in Portland, Ore., before leaving to pursue a profession.
His name was Steve Jobs.
"The integrity of their schools were at stake when they left," Calipari deadpanned Sunday after mentioning Gates and Jobs. "They should have stayed and not changed the world."
Sunday, someone asked Calipari if he was tired of having to apologize for recruiting one-and-done players. Before he answered, Calipari offered a correction. He never apologizes for it. "I don't like the rules," Calipari said. "I want Anthony to come back and be my point guard next year. It's what I really want. There's only two solutions to it. Either I can recruit players who are not as good as the players I'm recruiting, or I can try to convince guys that should leave to stay for me."
If Calipari talked a high first-rounder into staying in school, he would never sign another one. Recruiting less talented players seems foolish. Besides, Calipari is correct. He didn't make the rule. No one at any school did. No one at the NCAA did.
In the summer of 2005, the NBA and the NBA Players Association collectively bargained the rule that a player must be 19 before he enters the NBA Draft. Neither party particularly cared what college coaches thought. Neither party worried how the rule might affect the dynamics of college hoops.
Here's why the NBA has an age limit. General managers needed to be saved from themselves. Without a rule, they would draft players straight out of high school who may or may not be ready for the league. Now, those GMs can allow the college game to weed out the knuckleheads or the players who simply weren't as talented as they were projected out of high school.
As an added bonus, the marketing staffs at NBA teams don't have to figure out how to sell their newest players. A season of coverage on ESPN followed by wall-to-wall exposure in the NCAA tournament makes players household names. When Davis, the likely first pick, joins his team this summer, the brass won't have to create a marketing strategy. They can send cease-and-desist letters to everyone selling
Calipari can't do anything about the rule. Neither can Self. Neither can NCAA president Mark Emmert. "I've made no secret of the fact that I would prefer to have a different model," Emmert said last week. "I think most people would prefer to have a model that keeps young men and women in college as long as you can. That's to their advantage over the long run, we believe. It would be nice if that were the case. But I don't think we should blow the one-and-done out of proportion and suggest that's somehow undermining all of academics in the NCAA. It's 15 kids. They have a chance to go play professionally because that's what the rules allow and they all want to pursue it, so that's fine."
But it does get blown out of proportion because those 15 or so players usually are the best 15 or so players. They get outsize attention. Also, a popular assumption is that collecting one-and-dones is the easiest path to a title. That simply isn't true. Since the NBA added the rule ahead of the 2006 draft, not a single one-and-done player has been a member of national championship team. Calipari's 2008 Memphis team -- led by freshman Derrick Rose -- came the closest, losing to Self's Kansas team in overtime in the national title game.
That could change Monday if Kentucky beats Kansas. If that happens, it won't alter the sport for better or worse. It won't make other coaches suddenly start seeking one-and-done players. (Those coaches already want those players quite badly, and unless they work at Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke or some other major name-brand program, they probably aren't going to get them.) It won't undermine the integrity of the game. It won't prove anything except that some young players from Kentucky beat some slightly older players from Kansas.
Monday's matchup will determine a national champion. Don't try to attach any more significance to it than that. The game means enough already.