Monday, January 7, 2008

Forward (IV)

So this series may go beyond January 8th.

College basketball: Are we ever going to keep our superstars? The Florida Gators deserved all of the accolades and press bestowed upon them for being the best team in college basketball over the past two years.

Okay, let’s rewind that.

The Florida Gators are far from worthy of all the accolades and press besto…

Wait. One more time.

The Florida Gators… well, they’re the defending champs. There’s nothing more to say about them at the moment.

During the run to their second title in as many years, head coach Billy Donovan had been courted by the University of Kentucky to replace Tubby Smith. At the time, Donovan said that he wanted to remain in Florida. And he did. He proceeded to accept an offer to become the head coach of the NBA’s Orlando Magic. No one could fathom why he would leave Gainesville, but the idea of meeting the next challenge may have been too hard to pass up. And it’s also a little difficult to say no to a five-year, $27.5 million contract and the prospect of coaching Dwight Howard.

There were folks who looked at the success rate of college coaches coming into the NBA and found that history was not on Donovan’s side. Maybe that played a role in his sudden change of heart. Maybe what he really hoped for were big bucks from UF. Who knows? Either way, he was an NBA coach for five days. It was a costly, controversial and quite honestly, flaky way back to the college game. Whether he flipped the script because he loved the collegiate ranks more or he was trying to get UF to give him the world can be debated forever and a day. Yet, before signing with the Magic, Donovan was the fifth star to have left a back-to-back national champion. When he returned after five days, he must have realized that Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green were not coming back with him.

Add the names of Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Jeff Green, Acie Law IV, Alando Tucker and Glen Davis and it was clear to see that the Gators were not the only program losing big name players.

It happens every year, of course. College basketball loses players because of the pros; be it the NBA for the more prominent players or international leagues for the lesser known. If you’re a major player and you’re in demand, your options become more lucrative and the opportunities are more challenging. Yet, there is an influx of freshmen and transfers that hit the campus shortly after the departed become pros. There’s a new group to fawn over, hype and pray for their health so that there is a March Madness run in the near future. As all media for a sport, they begin the hype machine for certain players with out of sight skills or humble beginnings to reach the national stage. When college didn’t have a chance to lose out on these potential phenoms because they aspired for the NBA Draft, the issue became a ‘pandemic’ for the game.

In 2005, David Stern threw the NCAA a bone – while trying to protect his league from unrefined high school players – by instituting an age limit for draft eligibility. Potential draftees have to be at least nineteen years of age and at least one year removed from high school. While the player can still skip college and play in a non-NBA affiliated pro league for a year, the rule has compelled players to go to college for at least one year. This has given the NCAA some prominent young talents for the first time in years, yet it has also forced a bigger recruiting dilemma than ever before. Desperation from agents and NBA scouts in the past were tempered by the fact that no matter how many teams showed an interest, the player could not choose where he would go. College coaches may have limited communications – don’t laugh – but there is no limit to the amount of schools that beg for a player’s talents. Could you imagine how many coaches went for Derrick Rose, O.J. Mayo and Michael Beasley?

The pressures of being a college coach in today’s sports climate are enormous. Every program wants to win now and beat the rival, no matter what. If neither are achieved within three or four years – before a recruiting class has even graduated – the coach gets canned, despite how irrational it is for 300+ Division I schools to dream of one national title. Getting several solid players and allowing them to develop was a concept that had gone out the window years ago, so grabbing the ‘can’t miss’ kid adds more pressure for the coach. Sure, there is a tremendous financial windfall for the school and coach if the player comes to his school and he catapults the team to the Big Dance. Case in point; last year’s Texas Longhorns with Kevin Durant and this year’s USC Trojans with Mayo.

Durant and Ohio State’s Oden were the first collegiate superstars in the age-limit era… and they still bolted. Durant is trying to give life to a Seattle SuperSonics franchise that may leave the Pacific Northwest. Oden is rehabbing after shutting down his rookie campaign for Portland with microfracture surgery. They were not the only one-and-done players in the college ranks last year: Daequon Cook & Mike Conley, Jr. (also Ohio State), Brandan Wright (North Carolina), Javaris Critterton & Thaddeus Young (Georgia Tech) and Spencer Hawes (Washington). Yes, some NBA media highlighted that fourteen of the selected players in the first round were juniors and seniors, yet for half of the remaining players to have been freshman just go to show that the concept of the college superstar is fleeting.

Those freshmen were much of the reason why college basketball enjoyed a boost of popularity last year. Yet, with so many departures at once, the ‘problem’ has not been solved. Originally, Stern wanted a two-year limit while Billy Hunter and the Players’ Union fought against the limit. When the two sides passed a new collective bargaining agreement in 2005, the one-year compromise was believed to have been one of the critical deal breakers. Some in the college ranks want the Association to revisit the rule and Stern may not hesitate to bring the issue to the owners and players’ union once more. Somehow, you can get the feeling that the NCAA is asking the NBA to solve its problem for them as opposed to being proactive about retaining their student-athletes. With the CBA not expiring until 2011, it may take a while for the rule to be amended (assuming both sides even agree to re-open the CBA to make the change). So what will NCAA president Myles Brand and the powers-that-be do in the meantime should be given greater attention than ever before.

Will the NCAA accept that college is going to be a layover en route to the NBA for some talented freshmen? Will they remedy the situation by offering to pay players for performance (which is a long held reason for some of the early departures)? Will they come up with any non-academic anecdote that forces players to stay on campus in order to remain on the team? After Rose, Mayo and Beasley leave for the pros – yes, after – these questions will sure come to the surface before the next crop of freshmen head for orientation this fall.

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