Commentary

NCAA basketball is merely fool's gold

We celebrate purity in college ball, yet ignore the tarnish of an unfair system

Updated: March 27, 2014, 2:38 PM ET
By Tim Keown | ESPN.com

Aaron CraftAP Photo/Michael ConroyAaron Craft reacts to the abrupt end of his four-year college career.

Despite everything, despite the academic shadiness, the wink-wink nods in the general direction of amateurism and the Armani suits purchased from the Sweet 16 coaching bonuses, it's good to know some people still believe they can sell us on the idea of purity in college basketball.

[+] EnlargeFlorida
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe Gators' senior leadership has helped them dominate.

It happens every year around this time. One of the prevailing narratives of the NCAA tournament becomes the reflexive adulation of The Experienced Team. Give us a few seniors -- or one Aaron Craft, who rudely left before we could recite all our poetry -- and watch us swoon. They're everything that is right about basketball, higher education and America.

They stuck around. They persevered. They're what college basketball is all about. Mercer was the only team to start five seniors every game this season, and it beat Duke and one-and-done Jabari Parker, who played poorly. Coincidence or karma? It's March Madness -- the ethereal is a default setting.

Iowa State's DeAndre Kane sent North Carolina home with a sweet drive to the hoop in the final seconds. How? Experience. Kane is older than James Harden, who is in his fifth year in the NBA.

Look at Florida. The Gators are scabbed and scarred and healed over in a way that makes them so much more battle-tested than all those teams led by kids who haven't even been in school long enough to be suspended. They're going to win -- it's destiny, right -- and the storyline is already written.

I don't always root for Kentucky, but when I do, it's for the Wildcats to interrupt the unending ode to The Experienced Team.

It's no surprise that NBA commissioner Adam Silver is using the updraft of the NCAA tournament to refloat the idea that it would be best for college players to be required to spend two years in college. He calls two years "the right balance."

Wouldn't that be great? Seriously, seriously great? If this year's group of freshmen, from Parker to Andrew Wiggins to Julius Randle, were coming back next year, college basketball would be an unbelievable show. There would be the greatest collection of talent in college since ... maybe since ever.

There's a problem here, though: The Olympian, we-know-what's-good-for-them attitude of the NBA and NCAA is selfishness cloaked as righteous concern. Two years might be the best thing for some players, and it might be the worst for others. (Have we conveniently forgotten about Marcus Smart, who went from All That Is Good to All That Is Bad in record time?) In some cases, zero is precisely the perfect number of college basketball seasons a player should play. One size doesn't fit all, and the paternalistic attempts to artificially restrict the players' right to make a living keep getting in the way of a practical solution that could serve all sides.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Smart
Mark D. Smith/USA TODAY SportsWould Marcus Smart have done better in the draft if he went out last year?

(And when it comes out that Ohio State's athletic director received an $18,000 bonus because a Buckeyes wrestler won a national title, it's tempting to suggest solutions that are neither practical nor rational.)

First, any solution requires that all parties bury any and all references to purity and innocence. As concepts and realities, those two words fled town and changed identities long ago. You're not finding them and they're not coming back, so accept the players as vital parts of your cutthroat, multibillion dollar industry and move on from there.

The NCAA and NBA should adopt a modified version of the baseball model. Let high school players consult with "advisers" the way high school players do, since everybody agrees we're past the point of pretending the top high school basketball players don't already do this. Players can be drafted or signed directly from high school to the NBA, but they retain their college eligibility through the draft process. If they decide they don't want to turn pro, they can honor their college commitment. The catch: If they go to college, they must stay two years.

A team that drafts a player who doesn't sign gets compensated with a pick in the same slot the following year. It's a harsh penalty, sure, but it puts the onus on the NBA front offices to do their homework and make the right decisions. In some ways, it allows teams to control who stays in school, which seems to be the crux of the whole issue.

Silver can talk of "the right balance," but there is no balance at all to a rule that prohibits some of the best players in the world from earning money for two years of an already short stretch of peak earning. It doesn't matter how gooey you feel inside during March Madness -- that's a restriction that exists within college athletics only.

As it stands, even the deadline to enter the draft is an unnecessary roadblock. Players have just two weeks after the tournament ends to announce their intention. And once they declare, there's no going back. In this way, one of the NBA's arguments -- that two years of mandatory college service would reduce the number of bad decisions -- becomes almost self-fulfilling. The artificially early deadline, ostensibly intended to allow student-athletes (wink-wink one more time) to concentrate on their spring semester classes, serves the needs of everyone but the athletes. The NBA decision-makers can start preparing for the draft and college coaches can square recruiting numbers and set rosters, but a player's rushed, and possibly uniformed, decision is forever.

Not to pick on poor Craft, a seemingly remarkable young man who has no control over what people say about him, but his early exit from the tournament sent this topic over the edge. He was serenaded by more than one commentator for being one of the best players in the history of college basketball. The sentiment is clearly bolstered by the good will engendered over the course of Craft's four-year career, but it avoids an uncomfortable truth:

If Craft were truly one of history's best, he wouldn't still be a college basketball player.

He would be in his third year in the NBA.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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