It has been a wild season and a tame one because there is no focal point, no standard, no transparent greatness to probe and put what you’re viewing in context. The competitive balance has been negated by limited star power. While die-hards don’t feel like they are missing anything, the unfortunate reality is that generalists define whether a season can reach viral interest. And there happens to be a scarcity of household names, elite NBA prospects and undeniable excellence to captivate an even larger audience.
There is no Zion Williamson, no Anthony Davis, no Kevin Durant. There is no epic scoring race to rival the Adam Morrison-J.J. Redick duel of 2005-06. There are no teams playing for immortality.
What’s the big deal? Well, on a micro level, nothing. This occurs a few times every decade in major college athletics. It’s a result of the transience. So you enjoy or tolerate Baylor, Dayton and San Diego State getting to shine, hope the parity makes for a great NCAA tournament and move on. No problem, on the surface. But there is a bigger picture to consider.
This peculiar season offers a fairly accurate glimpse of the sport’s near future, and that should concern you. A major reason for college basketball seeming underwhelming is the lack of a great freshman class, and guess what could occur by 2022? The NBA is expected to lower its 19-year-old age limit and allow players to jump from high school to the pros again. Though the most proactive college programs already are making plans to adjust, it won’t be an easy transition for the sport.
During the last period when high school players were eligible to be drafted — starting with Kevin Garnett making the jump in 1995 and ending with a hot mess by 2005 of too many players foolishly skipping college — college basketball struggled to find itself while just about every McDonald’s all-American at least entertained the thought of skipping college. It altered recruiting, changing it from an all-out talent grab to the ultimate game of risk assessment whenever coaches fell in love with the next can’t-miss prospect.
For all the challenges of the current era, for all those uneasy feelings that the college game has become a glorified pro developmental league, the sport is in a better place now. On the court, college basketball has been the best version of itself. That is often forgotten amid the debate over how to improve the sport, reduce its lawlessness and eliminate some of the exploitation disguised as protecting amateurism.
In reality, the freshman phenom has been as equitable a relationship as you will find in the NCAA.
Many of these young stars have come to college, showcased their game while raising their profile during a brief stay and gone to the NBA with enhanced marketability. College programs and the entire NCAA make a lot of money off them in a short time, and the players turn it into a lot of money over a potentially long time. It’s indirect, delayed compensation, if you will, which is about as fair a deal as the so-called student-athlete is going to get in this game.
The one-and-done superstar hasn’t defiled the spirit of college athletics. He has simply provided fleeting entertainment while hustling the hustler. And as we will find out in a couple of years, his presence will be missed.
This season is a bit of a warning. It hasn’t been a disaster, but it hasn’t been all that satisfying, either. This season, there’s just not enough greatness.
The freshman class is weak. It’s only mid-February, but it is safe to declare there won’t be a freshman named to the all-American first team for just the fourth time in the past 14 seasons. For 10 straight seasons, the NBA has selected a one-and-done freshman No. 1 overall in the draft, and that streak is very much in jeopardy.
The only legitimate contender for the No. 1 pick currently in college is Georgia freshman guard Anthony Edwards, whose 12-11 team isn’t even on the NCAA tournament bubble. Center James Wiseman, another elite freshman prospect, left Memphis in December to train for the draft after growing impatient while serving a 12-game suspension for NCAA rules violations. And two other highly regarded guards, LaMelo Ball and RJ Hampton, skipped college and opted to bide their time in Australia.
There are some really good and fun players in college this season. Obi Toppin is a beast for Dayton, and he could end up being a high lottery pick. Louisville’s Jordan Nwora is extremely skilled. But they’re stars, not superstars. They can carry their teams, not the whole sport.
College basketball should be worried about how the NBA ultimately decides to change its rule. The details are still being discussed and negotiated. This is a different NBA now, one with a fully formed developmental league and a more flexible way of structuring contracts. There is infrastructure in place that suggests the NBA would be wise to consider adding a third round to its draft in conjunction with the age-limit tweak. It would have the potential to make the G League more interesting and position the NBA’s minor league system as a desirable alternative to college hypocrisy. The thought of an expanded draft already frightens some college coaches.
“If anybody supports more rounds in the draft — those more rounds are to get kids to go to the G League — you do not care about college basketball, or you’re trying to ruin college basketball,” Kentucky Coach John Calipari told ESPN last fall.
In publicly thinking out the age-limit issue, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has said on several occasions that “in essence, the college community is saying, ‘We do not want those [one-and-done] players anymore.’ I mean, that sort of tips the scale in my mind that we should be taking a serious look at lowering our age to 18.”
The implied message is clear: If the NCAA is foolish enough to alienate its very best talent, well, uh, thanks for the gift. Don’t blame me for seeing opportunity.
In college basketball, the one-and-done era has tested compliance and amateurism, but without question, it has been great for business. The positives should be more appreciated. This goodbye, though necessary, will be long and sad, sadder than envisioned. The current starless season portends the difficulty ahead.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.