The UConn/Butler trainwreck proves it: we need to be done with one-and-done

Last night’s NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Game doesn’t get a recap. It gets a post-mortem. I won’t mince words – it was the worst championship game I can recall seeing in my lifetime. Hell, it was one of the worst college basketball games I’ve ever seen, period. That may be because when games get this bad you turn them off. You flip through the channels to see if there’s another game, and failing that, are any Three’s Company reruns on.

I did, in fact, turn the game off. At about the 12:00 mark in the second half UConn had built a seven-point lead that was clearly insurmountable, and life is too short to flush precious minutes on two teams making a mockery of a sport you love above all others.

And please, let’s not have any silliness about the intensity of the game and how hard the defenses were playing. Yes, it was intense (as desperate flailing about in quicksand often is) and yes, the defenses played well. But the defenses succeeded because of the abject ineptitude of the offenses. Anybody who has played the game can tell you that an athletic guy who works hard can defend a player with no particular offensive skills. And when the other team only has one player with offensive skills, you can absolutely minimize their effectiveness by loading up on him and making the other guys beat you.

This is something that critics of the NBA (where “nobody plays any defense”) fail to grasp. The defense in the NBA is even better and more intense than in college, but it doesn’t look as effective because NBA players can score. Event the worst among them were pretty good offensive players in college.

In a way, the UConn/Butler debacle was the most fitting finale possible for the 2010-11 season, in which I watched the least college hoops of any year since I was a kid. Part of my disinterest results from the haplessness of my alma mater, Wake Forest, which bumbled to its worst season in memory. But beyond that, the sad truth is that college basketball just keeps getting worse. And worse. And worse. An unwatchable title game was an appropriate cap to an unwatchable season.

But why has the quality of the game deteriorated so badly? The short version is that we have evolved a system that underdevelops talent at the high school level and then quickly siphons the top players into the NBA.

  • In a radio interview the other day, Louisville’s Rick Pitino talked about the challenges of being a college coach these days. He described recruiting, where he routinely encounters players that weren’t good enough to play for the Cardinals, but who think they’re ready for the NBA. These players are nearly impossible to coach, he says, because they don’t see the need to put in the work required to excel.
  • These kids have such badly informed ideas about their ability because the high school and AAU systems do nothing but tell them how great they are. They never hear “you aren’t good enough” or “you need to buckle down and learn some fundamentals” – it’s all about the show-dunk.
  • The top players in high school may have NBA level raw talent, but they lack the experience and the seasoning required to succeed. Back in the old days these players would spend three or four years in college learning the game from top coaches, and when they then entered the NBA they were able to contribute. Think about – who’s more prepared, an 18 year-old high school graduate or the same player after three years under the wing of a John Wooden or Dean Smith?
  • Now, though, it’s one-and-done – put in a year because you have to, listen to the coach if you feel like it, and then cash in. The coach isn’t going to jack you around because if he does he’ll never be able to recruit another prima donna talent for the rest of his career.

This structure produces two problems. First, it damages the college game. You now have college teams comprised of a couple types of player: the phenominally talented physically who have no clue how to actually play the game; and players who know how the game works but who lack top-flight talent. There are exceptions, but make no mistake – upperclassmen who are high draft picks are the exception, not the rule. In last year’s draft, for instance, seven of the top ten picks were freshmen or sophomores and the first senior wasn’t taken until #23.

Second, it hurts the pro game, and every time the subject comes up you hear analysts, players, former players and coaches talking about how they wish players would stay in school for two or three years before turning pro. To understand just how much things have changed, compare last night’s teams to, say, UNC’s 1982 championship team, which featured Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, James Worthy and Matt Doherty. Kemba Walker is a good player, but it isn’t clear that he could have even started on that UNC team.

Sure, that’s one of the greatest teams ever, but look back through the history of NCAA champions. How many teams from before the one-and-done era could the 2010-11 Connecticut Huskies beat?

This time yesterday I could have made a case for some structural reforms, and that case would have been in line with what a lot of the experts are saying. Step 1: adopt an NFL-style rule requiring a player to wait until three years after his high school class has graduated to enter the draft.

An NCAA official, charged with toeing the company line, could have responded by saying that this year’s tournament was one of the most exciting ever, so what’s all the carping about? Today, though, the all the talk is all about how horrible the game was. Nobody is going to remember the exciting 66-game preliminary – all they’re going to yap about for at least the next year is the debacle of UConn/Butler, a game so bad that the people being paid to call and analyze the game couldn’t find anything nice to say about it. It was like a Miss America pageant with Tommy Davidson as the MC and Wanda as the winner: “Theeere she is….Miss Amsweetgodamighty!!” They couldn’t even pretend. If next year’s final also underwhelms, you’re going to have a trend on your hands.

The unfortunate thing, if you’re the NCAA, is that this is primarily your problem, but you need the NBA to solve it for you. And they might – the one-and-done rule is likely going to be on the table as The League wades into its forthcoming collective bargaining process. The thing is, while there are going to be some who prefer the NFL’s approach, there are others who are likely going to lobby to let players enter the draft straight out of high school, a strategy that will assuredly make a bad situation worse.

I’m not sure how hopeful to be, even though both NBA and NCAA management seem clear on what is in their shared best interest. But I’m going to be hopeful, just the same. I grew up in North Carolina, where college hoops is religion. I got my BA from Wake Forest, the school responsible for two of the NBA’s top stars, Tim Duncan and Chris Paul.

So I love NCAA basketball. And I’d like to be able to watch it again with a sense of joy instead of disgust.

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  1. Kevin S
    Posted April 6, 2011 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

    I do think the one-year-of-college requirement is ridiculous. They should either require 2+ years of college or just let players go into the NBA from high school. That said, I’m not sure I can support a requirement for more years of college.

    Your whole argument assumes that the purpose of colleges is to produce exciting sports teams. But they’re supposed to be institutions of learning, and any requirement that aspiring pro athletes attend college before going pro just puts a lot of students on campus who don’t really want to be there or learn anything. I’d rather see players be allowed to go into the NBA draft after high school (just like they can go into the MLB or NHL drafts at that age). The problems with the high-school/AAU system will straighten themselves out after a few ambitious high-schoolers don’t get taken in the NBA draft. Of course, I would prefer it if the NBA also stopped using NCAA basketball as a farm system and established a legitimate minor league for players who aren’t smart enough for or interested in college. Unfortunately, that may never happen.

  2. Posted April 6, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

    Your whole argument assumes that the purpose of colleges is to produce exciting sports teams.

    No, my whole argument accepts, for the moment, everybody else’s assumption to that effect. MY solution is to completely get rid of all athletic scholarships and let universities stick to being, you know, universities. The pro leagues can set up their own developmental systems and kids who have no interest in college can go play ball.

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