Where it comes to Zion Williamson, the Duke man-child who helped open the college basketball season with a thunderous debut against Kentucky, there is zero pretense. There are the 31 games of the regular season. There are, perhaps, three games in the ACC tournament. And, should the Blue Devils reach the NCAA championship game, there would be six games deep into March.
Forty games — maybe. Love him and leave him, college hoops fans.
“He’s going to be an outstanding player for us for the one year,” Blue Devils Coach Mike Krzyzewski said before the season opened. “And I think he’s going to be — he has a chance of being, even, an NBA all-star.”
But what if he never played college basketball at all? What if he and his freshman running mates R.J. Barrett and Cameron Reddish — not to mention, say, Maryland’s Jalen Smith and North Carolina’s Nassir Little and Oregon’s Bol Bol, among others — had another option and never went through the farce of enrolling in college to take classes toward a degree they have no intention of receiving four years from now?
College basketball is, at the moment, a niche sport. I love it and probably always will. But it undeniably has been shoved to the margins. This past spring, the NCAA tournament selection show, which for years I thought of as a national holiday, received fewer television viewers than at any point in its history. The result of wandering attention spans and expanding options? Consider it was outdrawn by PGA Tour golf (yes, with Tiger in contention), a NASCAR race and a regular season NBA game.
Three weeks later, the national title game between Villanova and Michigan, two name brands with national appeal, drew fewer than 16 million viewers, the lowest total on record.
Yes, the move of both the title game and the selection show from old standby CBS to cable’s Turner properties played into the ratings drop. But ask yourself, too: Why was CBS willing to move what’s supposed to be a marquee property to a cable outlet?
To my mind, college basketball has problems that are deeper than those revealed last month in a Manhattan courtroom. Yeah, a low-rent agent and a couple of Adidas executives were convicted of fraud charges for their roles in the kind of pay-for-play schemes that, darkly, have been part of the sport for decades.
The people who run the college hoops consider this important because — if you trust them — they believe basic faith in the sport has eroded. Cue John Swofford, ACC commissioner, to reporters last month: “It’s critical to the long-term health of the sport and the health of college athletics that there’s institutional and public confidence in the integrity of the sport.”
If corruption were indeed the heart of the problem, I would argue the solution is simple: pay the players. The kids aren’t in college to go to college anyway. The money — that would be $19.6 billion-with-a-B that CBS and Turner paid to carry the NCAA tournament from 2010 to 2032 — goes now not to the performers but to coaches and administrators and general athletic department bloat.
“We’ve found that our fans say they would lose interest if the players weren’t amateurs,” Larry Scott, the Pac-12 commissioner, said this fall. “They wouldn’t care as much.”
But as demonstrated, the interest in college basketball is dissolving, and you can’t convince me that minor league bagmen are the reasons.
The fact that Williamson and Barrett and others won’t be around at this point next year is far more important. In 2006, the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement put in place an age limit on players for the draft. As backward as it seems now, that was supposed to help college basketball because even if the most talented players would spend only one year on campus, at least they would arrive.
Instead, those players have done more to define the ensuing drafts than they have to define the college programs they drift through. That initial year of 2006, the first round of the NBA draft included only two freshmen — and eight college seniors.
But that’s no longer the case. The NBA pounces on the talent whenever it becomes available. In the past five drafts, 33 college freshmen have been selected in the top 10 — as opposed to two seniors. The past nine first overall picks have been college freshmen. This year should make that 10 in a row.
Did college basketball benefit because Ben Simmons played at LSU or Deandre Ayton logged 35 games at Arizona? Do you even remember Ben Simmons playing at LSU or Deandre Ayton logging 35 games at Arizona? There’s no way to become attached to these drifters. You might have hated former Duke guard Grayson Allen — many did. But after four seasons, 142 career games, an NCAA title and the occasional trip of an opponent, at least there was a relationship there. At least you cared.
The NBA is thinking about altering this math and giving 18-year-old players another option. Prefer to get paid for your marketable skills immediately upon graduation from high school? (What a concept!) Then the developmental G-League would have a place for you. The proposed contracts would be for $125,000 annually. (Which leads to an easy joke: “Well, I could make more at Louisville.”)
Might a Zion Williamson or an R.J. Barrett decide to earn six figures rather than spending a year at Duke? Maybe not for $125,000 flat. But because they would be pros, they would be able to sell Gatorade or have their own shoe or receive aboveboard money from a car dealer or what have you. The gateway to the NBA marketing life would be open a year earlier.
Would college miss either of them? Eh. Kevin Garnett would have been a college freshman in 1995-96. Kobe Bryant would have matriculated the following year. Those two seasons, Kentucky won the NCAA title with rosters featuring Tony Delk and Antoine Walker and Ron Mercer and on and on. Wildcats fans could identify with those players and those teams because they watched them develop over years, not months. Yes, there were still one-and-dones then. But the obvious ones — Garnett and Bryant among them — never showed up.
So as college basketball gets going, interest may be high in Chapel Hill and Lexington, Bloomington and Lawrence and the like, but the rest of the country is waiting for three weeks in March. The problem isn’t the talent level of the players or whether someone slipped them an envelope during a summer league event. The problem is by the time we learn who they are enough to care, they’re gone, and we have to start over the next November.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.