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From dwindling draft stock to diminished dynasties, the NBA was omnipresent throughout the first week of the NCAA tournament, looming like the evil eye of Sauron in "The Lord Of The Rings." That's the analogy that springs to mind because the NBA gets blamed for so many wicked things, including the lack of program-building patience in the NCAA that leads to events such as Mercer 78, Duke 71. If the NBA is only going to catch flack it might as well make the logical move and disassociate itself from college basketball completely.
It's already an uneasy alliance, one that the NBA has only encouraged because it provides evaluation and promotion opportunities for players before they enter the league. While there are slight conveniences, they're blurred by the facts there are different agendas and vastly different business models at work. College coaches are best served by attracting and using players in a manner that suits them, not the NBA. And the college game's longer shot clock, shorter 3-point distance and prevalence of zones that both hinder individuals' offensive impact and mask their defensive deficiencies do not help prepare players for the next level. There's also little incentive for the best players to stick around for more classes and books when guaranteed millions await them at the next level.
The NBA should stop worrying about institutional preservation and start focusing on player development. Get teenagers playing the NBA version of the game, taught by NBA-trained coaches and watch the worries about underprepared players entering the league diminish. Organize more clinics and camps instead of leaving it to the current setup of a constant schedule of "offseason" games and tournaments that leaves little time for practice. Upend the current pipeline of AAU and college programs that are centered on recruiting, not coaching. Build up the D-League so it becomes a viable alternative to college basketball and a true minor league system for the NBA. If it requires directly compensating players, thus "contaminating" them in the eyes of the NCAA, so be it. If that causes the NCAA to come into line with the rest of American workplaces and allow for market-based compensation for its players in order to field a more competitive product, even better.
The NCAA might want to reconsider for its own good. The number of high-level players willing to spend all four years of eligibility working under the antiquated amateur rules is dwindling, with early entry candidates for the NBA draft skyrocketing from single digits annually in the 1980s (the fabled 1984 draft class had nine applicants), to an average of 24 per year in the 1990s to more than 80 in some of the years since 2000 (those numbers include players who later withdrew from the draft).
The dirty little secret of the talent drain is that while it might not make for better basketball, it makes for a better basketball tournament. And the tournament accounts for 95 percent of the NCAA's revenue. The money comes from TV, and the prospect of upsets makes for compelling television. Mercer doesn't knock off Duke if, say, Austin Rivers stays through his junior season. Kentucky wouldn't have faltered its way to an 8-seed and what turned into a classic second-round matchup with Wichita State if Anthony Davis was still a Wildcat instead of a second-year pro. These are still rare moments, and they're limited to March. They mask a generally unhealthy state of a college sport played by transients with underdeveloped skills.
The NBA doesn't provide any incentive for players to stay longer. In the past three drafts, only two top-10 picks per year were used to select juniors and seniors. The last time a senior went higher than 10th was in 2006. And there hasn't been a senior No. 1 overall pick since Kenyon Martin in 2000. Joakim Noah was being talked about as a No. 1 pick as a sophomore, but he wanted to make another championship run at Florida and wound up falling to the ninth pick when he came out following his junior year. Four freshmen were picked ahead of him, including two of the players he beat in the championship game: Greg Oden and Mike Conley. (The NBA isn't the only industry obsessed with youth, as this fascinating New York Times look at Silicon Valley demonstrates).
Only one of the eight players picked ahead of Noah in 2007 ranks above him in the NBA Most Valuable Player discussion this season: Kevin Durant. In a similar fashion, Shane Battier won a championship at Duke as a senior in 2001, but went sixth in the draft; only one of the players picked ahead of him (Pau Gasol) has played more NBA minutes or won as many NBA championships.
The NBA says it wants players to stay in school longer in part to minimize draft mistakes, yet teams sometimes penalizes players for staying longer. Players keep making mistakes by leaving before they're physically or mentally matured, creating turnover and inconsistency at the schools they leave behind. The association between the NBA and college basketball is one that's unproductive for everyone involved.