NEW ORLEANS — The debate over the NBA age restriction has taken center stage here at the Final Four, where the overwhelming favorite to win the national championship, Kentucky, could have three starting freshmen turn pro after the season.
A Kentucky national championship would shine an even brighter spotlight on the controversial rule, passed in 2005, that requires players be at least 19 years of age and one year out of high school before they can be drafted.
The rule in recent years has hurt the stability of several programs that constantly rebuild after losing key underclassmen to the NBA in the spring. But no coach has used the rule more to his advantage than Kentucky’s John Calipari.
Calipari signs the nation’s best high school prospects each year, challenges for a national title and then often encourages his best freshmen to jump to the pros. Calipari has said that he is not a fan of the rule.
As for who is responsible for the rule, NBA Commissioner David Stern earlier this week took what was described as playful shots at the NCAA when he told reporters: “A college could always not have players who are one and done. They could do that. They could actually require the players to go to classes. Or they could get the players to agree that they stay in school, and ask for their scholarship money back if they didn’t fulfill their promises.”
On Thursday, NCAA President Mark Emmert said he and Stern have a good relationship, adding that the rule is embedded in the collective-bargaining agreement between the NBA owners and the NBA players’ union.
“The NBA and NCAA do indeed have different goals,” Emmert said. “Our goals are to put the best collegiate athletes on the court and provide them with educational opportunities. The NBA interests, of course, are to produce the best professional basketball teams that they can.”
Emmert said there are several things that can be done to encourage underclassmen to stay in school; “changing academic eligibility standards is one of those that we feel very good about.” He also said the NCAA does not have a vehicle for mandating that anyone stays in school.
“But are we going to continue to pursue things that make it as attractive as possible for people to stay in school and finish their degree?” Emmert said. “Yes.”
As if Kentucky needed any more pressure being the favorite in this Final Four, the Wildcats on Thursday were questioned about how they’d stack up in a game against an NBA team.
Former Maryland coach Gary Williams attracted attention when he told ESPN 980 on Tuesday that in a one-game matchup against the woebegone Washington Wizards “at Rupp Arena, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kentucky win one game.”
Calipari understands that his team’s season will be considered a failure if the top-ranked Wildcats don’t win the school’s first national title since 1998. But he would not even entertain the notion that his team — which consists of at least six players who are likely to have NBA careers, including June’s potential No. 1 pick in Anthony Davis — could beat an NBA team.
“This team could not beat one NBA team, not one,” Calipari said. “The worst one in the league we could not beat. There are good players on every team in this tournament.”
Louisville Coach Rick Pitino disputes the narrative playing out in the media this week that he and Calipari despise each other. Pitino said he is as close to Calipari as he is to Kansas Coach Bill Self or Ohio State Coach Thad Matta.
Pitino called his relationship with Calipari cordial and devoid of animosity. He remembers Calipari when he was a teenage camper at Five-Star Basketball Camp, and said that the nature of their relationship became competitive only when Calipari was coaching Memphis while Pitino was in his early years at Louisville a decade ago.
Pitino said that he and Calipari might have a lunch or a beer while staying at the Las Vegas Marriott during the summer recruiting circuit. But he said he is understandably not as close to Calipari as he is to his former assistants, including Florida Coach Billy Donovan, Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin and Arizona State Coach Herb Sendek.
Kansas’s Thomas Robinson, who spent his formative years in Washington, blossomed into a national player of the year candidate after serving as little more than a role player last season. Now comes a stiff challenge when he faces Ohio State big man Jared Sullinger, who entered the season as the nation’s most acclaimed forward.
“Why wouldn’t you be excited?” said Robinson, who averages a team-leading 17.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game. “This is the biggest stage — me against another big-time player.”
Robinson said it was important to reach the Final Four after the tumultuous past two seasons that he’s experienced. During a three-week span last season, Robinson and younger sister Jayla lost their grandmother, grandfather and mother.
“Yeah, I think I needed it,” Robinson said, “to prove to myself that I was capable of doing what I put my mind to.”
When asked whether Jayla would be in attendance Saturday, Robinson declined to comment.