With March Madness once again upon us, it’s that time of year in which everyone turns their wandering eyes to the spectacle of college basketball. From die-hard fans to those whose only connection to the game are annual office bracket pools, America’s collective eyes are focused on the country’s most beloved sporting event: the NCAA Tournament.
Like all sports, college basketball is driven by the big names. There’s Duke, UNC, Kansas and Kentucky — the perennial powerhouses that seemingly draw No. 1 seeds each and every year. These big-time programs have fans all throughout the country and their support shows up in droves come March.
However, those programs would be nothing without their stars. Over the years, some of the tournament’s biggest moments are associated with players, not teams. There’s Christian Laettner’s buzzer-beater to push Duke past Kentucky in 1992 and Michael Jordan’s game-winning shot over Georgetown a decade earlier. People still talk about Chris Webber’s fateful timeout call — or lack thereof — that derailed the Michigan “Fab Five’s” title hopes in 1993.
It’s been the case for decades. Even in the 1960s and ‘70s, it was more about Bill Walton and Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) than it was UCLA. In 1979, all of America tuned in to watch the contrasting styles and personas of Larry Bird and Earvin “Magic” Johnson. It’s not like anyone outside Terre Haute cared about Indiana State basketball.
While the NCAA may lead their fans to believe it’s all about the schools and their historic basketball programs, March Madness would be nothing without its star players.
Look no further than this season. Villanova — who holds the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament — had seen little coverage until they were knocked out of the tournament by No. 8 Wisconsin, compared to star players like UCLA’s Lonzo Ball or Duke’s Grayson Allen. The players, not the programs, are the ones who dominate headlines.
Take this into account when considering the NCAA’s “one-and-done” rule, where stars are forced to play just one season in college before they are allowed to bolt for the bright lights and fat paychecks of the NBA.
Because of the booming popularity of the NFL and college football, college basketball’s more casual fans do not begin tuning in until after the Super Bowl, once teams are fully into conference play and the postseason is just around the corner.
In light of this, they find themselves with very little time to become accustomed to the game’s star freshmen before they head off to bigger and better things in the NBA. They get a month-and-a-half to watch guys like Ball and, in the bat of an eye, they’re gone.
Now, just imagine what it would be like if Ball and other freshman sensations like Kentucky’s Malik Monk or Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen were to come back next year — the hype surrounding college basketball would be unprecedented.
For that reason, the NCAA and NBA Players Association need to find a remedy for the dilapidated one-and-done rule.
One option could be letting the most talented high school seniors go straight to the NBA and making everyone else stay in college a minimum of two years.
The way it sits now, many of these so-called “student-athletes” are no more of a student than the janitor who cleans the locker room after a big win or the lady who serves hot dogs and cheese-drenched nachos on the concourse. They have no incentive to show up or put in any work towards school when they know they will be in the NBA come June. These types of players waste everyone’s time — including their own — and take scholarships and roster spots from players who would be much more committed to the program and the university.
Let them go straight to the pros and score their inevitable big payday. Their absence won’t put any strain on the NCAA or take away from the beauty of March Madness. It didn’t in the past.
Sure, there would be potential stars missing come March, but back when there was no one-and-done rule and high-schoolers were free to make the jump to the NBA, there were usually less than a handful good enough to be drafted. The LeBron Jameses and Kobe Bryants of the world were few and far between.
Instead, by giving players the option to either forego college or stay at least two years, programs would have many more opportunities to develop chemistry and groom their star players. There would be more talent and cohesion and March Madness would become even more exciting.
Changing the rule is a no-brainer for all involved. For the talented few good enough to make the jump straight out of high school, they are able to skip college rather than risk injury in one year of what is essentially basketball purgatory. For the universities, they have more stability and name recognition, which will lead to more wins and greater buzz surrounding their programs. The fans, players and universities all come out on top. In a game where 68 teams annually compete for one coveted title, everybody wins.
Nick Versaw, Staff Writer