- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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There's been a weeks-long drumbeat of warnings that the University of Kentucky One-and-Doners are too formidable, too deep, too breathtakingly versatile not to win the first career national championship for controversial head coach John Calipari. So it's entirely predictable that now that the moment is nearly upon us, with the Final Four set to start Saturday in New Orleans, NCAA president Mark Emmert and NBA commissioner David Stern are sliding the blame back and forth at each other for exactly whose "fault" this benchmark is going to be.
Emmert tried to punt the issue to the NBA on Sunday by advocating that the NBA raise its draft age minimum from 19 -- only to have Stern surface two nights later, before an NBA game in Phoenix, and fire off a few haymakers that had to leave Emmert shell-shocked and nursing a fat lip. Stern was wearing that wolfish smile he often likes to affect when he's done dining out on some poor schlub and looking for a toothpick to get the gristle out of his teeth.
What's really motivating all this is that Calipari is the NCAA's most blatant example yet of a coach who doesn't run a college program as much as a basketball finishing school. Since he arrived at Kentucky, he's used his unparalleled recruiting chops better than anyone else to exploit the NBA's draft age minimum of 19 years old that was passed in 2005.
Calipari's practice of re-loading annually with freshman-studded lineups who treat college basketball like a pretty cool way to spend the gap year between their AAU teams and the NBA isn't a violation of any rule, per se. But the fact Calipari has annually contended for national championships -- first at Massachusetts and Memphis, and now at top-ranked Kentucky, sometimes while other rules are broken along the way -- does offend some purists' sense of propriety. He's either a saint or a slime-slicked sinner. Nothing in between.
Now toss in the fact that just last week, even Austin Rivers, son of Celtics coach Doc Rivers, announced he was one-and-done and bolting Duke, one of the traditionalists' last redoubts, and what you have is a sky-is-falling moment for some folks.
Or at least something that can pass for the sky falling until a genuine college basketball apocalypse comes along: Good kid, good family, good school -- and this is still goodbye for Rivers?
The NBA and NCAA have a perception problem on their hands, at minimum, because of the one-and-done issue.
The NCAA is vulnerable to talk that early player departures leave college basketball a shadow of the game it used to be. And the NBA stands accused of coldly allowing the gutting to take place.
But Emmert clearly did not anticipate that Stern might be irritated by his interview Sunday with CBS' Jim Nance, in which Emmert said only the NBA can change the age minimum rule, and the NCAA is all for making "youngsters" stay two, even three years (hint hint!).
When Stern surfaced two nights later in Phoenix, he started dissecting the NCAA with a scalpel.
Writers who were in the room reported that Stern said most of it with a "lighthearted" tone and a smile.
But the uncomfortable expression of deputy commissioner Adam Silver, who was seated next to Stern, told a different story. At times Silver looked like a guy trying to pass a kidney stone.
Stern started by dangling a suggestion that the NBA is doing the NCAA a favor as it is.
"A college could always not have players who are one and done -- they could do that," Stern dryly began, knowing full well that the NCAA doesn't want to lose that one measly year it does get from prep stars.
Then Stern suggested the NCAA, not the NBA, is the one shirking its duty with this shot to the liver: "They could actually require the players to go to classes."
(I think Stern was talking to you too, Connecticut. UConn, the 2010 men's champ, is currently appealing the NCAA's ruling that the program will have to sit out the 2013 tournament for abysmally failing to meet NCAA academic requirements.)
If this were a prizefight Emmert would've already been out on his feet.
But Stern was on a roll. And on it went.
The commissioner also held forth on what the NCAA should really be doing instead of, you know pinpricking him in the public square with these phony claims that it's up to his league to fix its game. And it turned out Stern is an idea machine -- if he did say so himself.
"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," Stern said of the NCAA. "There's all kinds of things that, if a bunch of people got together and really wanted to do it, [they could] instead of talk about it "
By now reporters noticed Silver had started to squirm. But Stern kept bulling on and boring in, seemingly intent on burying yet a few more shivs in Emmert's hindquarters.
The topic now: Without ever saying the exact words, Stern suggested let's just call a hypocrisy a hypocrisy, shall we? Does the NCAA really think it can decry one-and-done stars by holding its nose with one hand and using the other hand to rake in all that March Madness money by the billions? At least the NBA shares its swag with players.
"I'm not concerned about NCAA, and our rules are not social programs," Stern said. "We don't think it's appropriate for us to lecture kids as to whether they should or shouldn't go to school. [But] for our business purposes, the longer we can get to look at young men playing against first-rate competition, that's a good thing. Because draft picks are very valuable things [to NBA teams]."
So there -- finally! -- something Stern and Emmert do agree on: Forcing men's basketball players to play somewhere before they can declare for the NBA draft benefits both the NCAA and the NBA talent evaluators.
But beyond that?
Stern acted as if Emmert and the NCAA know full well what happened when raising the draft age minimum to 20 or 21 came up during last year's NBA lockout, as the league and its players association negotiated their new collective bargaining agreement. So cut the posturing.
"We proposed to the players two more [years], and it was sufficiently contentious around that," Stern said, adding that the issue was slid over to a subcommittee.
Stern's attack was extraordinary, really. Pay no attention to his disclaimer at the end that he has an excellent relationship with the NCAA. Stern would probably describe it like this: He talks. The NCAA cowers.
The bottom-line takeaway to Stern (if not Emmert) seems clear: College teams that thrive because of one-and-done players aren't much of a "problem" for the NBA at all.
No wonder Stern was smiling.
Anyone who really yearns for more of these freshman stars who could win it all for Kentucky on Monday and say goodbye on Tuesday knows damn well where to find them.
They'll be in Stern's league this time next year.
35mEthan Sherwood Strauss