ST. LOUIS, April 1 -- It wasn't long ago that basketball coaches and fans were bemoaning the exodus of gifted players to the NBA, wringing their hands over the havoc it was sure to wreak on the college game. But on the heels of a thrilling weekend of NCAA region finals, in which three of four games were settled in overtime, some of the sport's most esteemed coaches now point to the talent drain as partly responsible for injecting new drama in college basketball.
"In some ways, the college game might be better today because there are more teams that have a chance to win in the [NCAA] tournament because the so-called power schools can't stockpile as many great players because the great players leave early," said Jim Boeheim, who led Syracuse to the 2003 national championship with freshman phenom Carmelo Anthony. "In spite of everything that has happened, we have a very strong game. If you saw the games this last weekend, I don't think the college game has ever been in a better position in terms of the competitive balance and effort in those games."
Louisville Coach Rick Pitino echoed the sentiment, gushing over Bucknell's upset of Kansas and Vermont's upset of Syracuse in the tournament's first round, as well as the riveting comebacks and overtimes in the region finals. Pitino said parity and players' hard work were responsible for the thrills.
"College basketball is so staggering right now from an entertainment value," Pitino said. "As a coach who has great passion for the game, when I watch these things, I just sit back. It's like you're watching a movie that's going to win an Oscar."
Neither Boeheim nor Pitino faulted exceptionally gifted youngsters like Anthony or LeBron James for leaving college early, or skipping it altogether, to cash in on the NBA riches that awaited. But in the majority of cases, they said, it's a short-sighted move on both the player's and NBA's part.
"I think it's ultimately going to kill the NBA, and I don't mean 'kill it' where it's not going to be existing or not be a great product," Pitino said. "The best part about the NBA is the veterans who understand how to play. The 18- and 19-year-olds taking over for the Charles Oakleys are really going to take away from teaching the young guys, who need to be taught what the NBA is all about."
Concern Over Title IX
NCAA President Myles Brand reiterated his concern over a recent policy clarification by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights that makes it easier for universities to prove they're complying with Title IX, a federal law that bans discrimination on the basis of gender. In an interview Friday, Brand said the NCAA would seek guidance from the Women's Law Center about how to proceed.
According to the OCR, schools that don't comply with Title IX can absolve themselves of legal culpability by proving that they're already meeting the interests of their female students through Internet surveys. Advocates of women's sports, and the NCAA, argue that surveys aren't an adequate gauge of interest or potential interest in sports. That argument held sway in a Title IX case against Brown University, and it's possible the Women's Law Center will mount a similar legal challenge to the recent clarification.
"Whether that will be tested in court or some other way, we're waiting to see what the Women's Law Center and others might do," Brand said. "We're supportive of their actions."
Brand's chief concern is that an Internet survey would measure only women's current interest in sports, rather than tap or inspire potential interest.
"If we only have current interest, we're never going to get any better in women's sports," Brand said. "Women's sports is still growing; it hasn't stabilized like men's sports. What we have to do is motivate and generate interest."
The NCAA has teamed up with one of its corporate sponsors, The Hartford, to encourage college athletes to plan their financial future. To disseminate the message -- distilled in a 25-page "Playbook for Life" -- the financial services company has tapped a group of former athletes to visit campuses and talk to student-athletes about the basics of setting a budget, eliminating credit-card debt and saving for retirement. Among them are former Notre Dame running back Allen Pinkett and former Duke basketball player Brian Davis, who were in St. Louis Friday to promote the initiative.