Elite prep stars are back in the college game

The spring signing period ended Wednesday and a new era will begin in college basketball in the coming weeks with the return of the top-10 high school player to campus.

Ohio State, North Carolina, Texas, Washington, Kansas, Georgia Tech, Arizona and Syracuse will welcome the top-rated players in the class of 2006, most of them for summer sessions, after the NBA essentially made the preps go to college for at least one year.

The NBA's new draft eligibility rule calls for players to be at least 19 years old and at least one year out of high school before they can enter the draft. Translation: The top prep players no longer can declare straight out of high school.

For the past decade, the number of high school seniors skipping college and getting selected in the NBA draft has fluctuated. In the past three seasons, though, it has climbed from five in 2003 to eight in 2004 to nine in 2005, when projected college standouts such as Andrew Bynum (UConn signee), Martell Webster (Washington), Gerald Green (Oklahoma State), C.J. Miles (Texas), Monta Ellis (Mississippi State) or Louis Williams (Georgia) jumped straight to the pros.

As such, it's rather easy to see the potential impact of the arrivals of Greg Oden at Ohio State, Kevin Durant at Texas, Chase Budinger at Arizona, Darrell Arthur at Kansas, Thaddeus Young at Georgia Tech, Spencer Hawes at Washington, Paul Harris at Syracuse and Brandan Wright, Tywon Lawson and Wayne Ellington at North Carolina. All of them should significantly impact their teams' fates next season.

"It's going to help to have more talent in the game," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. "I'm not saying it's going to improve the game, but it should make for an exciting tournament. If a lot of kids are now forced to go to college, they may stay longer than a year."

Ohio State head coach Thad Matta said he sees a culture change happening in college basketball with the arrival of the top five players in the prep class, but that's where he sees the impact end.

"Explain to me the difference with the next 95 [players in the top 100, most of whom were already going to college]," Matta said. "There isn't much. To have a guy like Greg, well, I've always said that it's good for the game."

The immediate reaction from the college coaches is that they wanted a two-year rule. Without actual legislation, they may still get that out of these guys.

South Carolina coach Dave Odom projects that if seven of the 10 have a good freshman season, they could jump to the draft. That seems to be the consensus opinion from NBA personnel, too.

Though tempered by the fact that there were fewer NBA-ready freshmen entering the college game, the numbers say otherwise. There was only one freshman in the NBA draft last year: North Carolina's Marvin Williams. There were three the previous year: Minnesota's Kris Humphries, Duke's Luol Deng and UCLA's Trevor Ariza (second round). There were only two in the 2003 draft: Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony and Georgia Tech's Chris Bosh.

This year, there are only three who have declared, and really only one true freshman -- Memphis' Shawne Williams -- likely to be selected. Indiana's Cem Dinc isn't expected to be picked while LSU's Tyrus Thomas, who may be the top pick in the entire draft, is a redshirt freshman after a neck injury forced him to sit out his initial season at LSU. (Williams still hasn't technically rid himself of the amateur tag by signing with an agent, but that should change soon with him projected to go in the lottery.)

"There's no question that there could be a number of freshmen who leave," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "But once they get here, they will see the need to stay."

Connecticut's Rudy Gay is a prime example. He could have left after his freshman season, but he didn't do enough to stand out. He ended up staying for a second season before declaring. Most players don't get enough of a chance to star as freshmen to make the jump, even if they come out of high school as heralded as some of the top-10 talent arriving soon at a campus near you.

On the incoming 2006-07 freshman list, the favorites to bolt after one year are Oden, Durant, Young, Hawes and Lawson, in large part because they will be featured more prominently than most freshmen.

Still, that might not be enough to push them out. Oden has contended for years that he wants to go to college for -- get this -- the education (he loves math). So far, he hasn't done anything that shows he's bluffing.

"That's what I love about Greg," Matta said. "He wants his education and he eventually wants the college degree. That's what excites me about coaching a guy like that."

Romar isn't ready to project on Hawes yet, but it's clear he'll be the focal point for the Huskies.

"I'll take it one year at a time, but there's no question he would have seriously considered [declaring for the draft if the new rule hadn't been in place]," Romar said. "He's the first true low-post guy with size that we've had. I would predict he'll be one of the best passing big men in the country."

Young will get plenty of touches with the Yellow Jackets and Lawson will be the featured point on a potential national title team in Chapel Hill. Still, it's hard to push anyone out the door once they get a taste of the college life. Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough found that out when he starred last season; he wanted nothing to do with bolting after one season.

"The one year will help a lot of guys and a lot will see they need to stay," said Boeheim, who champions the one year Anthony had with the Orange as having been a benefit for his pro game. "It's a good rule. This will help college in the long run and help the players get ready for the NBA."

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.