With his penchant for player development, his aura for recruiting, Rick Pitino belonged back in college basketball. Everyone was so sure of it. So, Pitino came back to school promising that he wouldn't let himself get lured by the sweet siren of the superstar recruit with one eye on his Louisville letter of intent, and the other on the phone to David Stern's office.
He swore resistence, but resistence was futile.
For consecutive seasons now, Pitino has gone out of the NCAA Tournament to the non-glamor programs at Butler and Xavier, where senior guards pounded his Cardinals senseless. These were important reminders for Pitino, reinforcing that marching deep into this month is still largely done on the strength of upperclassmen. New York high school star Sebastian Telfair made the cover of Sports Illustrated, but he'll likely never make the cover of a Louisville game program.
And with the NBA executives far more fascinated with the practices at Sonny Vaccaro's high school all-star game workouts in Chicago than the players participating in the NCAA Tournament, the four-year player has never been so telltale to the March surprise. Suddenly, March doesn't belong to the Rick Pitino's and John Calipari's and Bob Huggins, but the Phil Martellis, Thad Mattas and Mike Andersons.
Every year, there are going to be teams like the Saint Joseph's, Xaviers and Alabama-Birminghams crashing Sweet 16s and Elite Eights ... and yes, even Final Fours. The one-year wonders like Carmelo Anthony promise to be the exception to the rule of Jameer Nelsons and Romain Sotos. Calipari can take his bows for recruiting Dajuan Wagner, but all it got him was an NIT banner and another strike against his graduation rate.
And suddenly now, the one-year college wonders aren't even bothering. It isn't that the elite programs are losing kids after one season, as Syracuse did with Anthony, they're losing them before they ever step on campus. Louisville, Duke and Indiana could lose top signees in the spring, when there could be a record 10 to 12 high school stars declaring for the draft. Some never considered college, but most are promising to puncture holes in blue-chips recruiting classes.
This promises residual effects on the NCAA Tournament, where the Sweet 16 is bursting with programs living on four-year players, from Xavier to UAB, Vanderbilt to Nevada, Pittsburgh to Wake Forest. There are high-seeded teams, including No. 1 St. Joe's, and low-seeds, No. 10 Nevada, where the nucleus has developed over several seasons. Pittsburgh has won more than 60 games these past two seasons in the Big East, without a player even close to considered talented enough to leave early for the pros.
Everybody is turning pro now. It used to be just the extraordinary talents and the classroom clowns, but now the smart kids are turning pro too. Every year, there will be major powers burned by these kids, setting programs back a season or two, and leaving a window of opportunity for those second-tier programs to make a move.
Pitino couldn't stop himself when it came to the recruitment of Telfair, believing the kid's obsession with turning into basketball's first sub-six-foot prom-to-the-pros pick was a wild, wild summer dream.
Sure, sure, Sebastian, Pitino told him, if you're going to be a lottery pick, I'll tell you to go.
Never in his wildest dreams could Pitino have believed it possible, but it's true. At worst, the kid could be a mid-first round selection -- which means he'll never make it to Louisville.
Pitino could've signed Louisville high school star, Rajon Rondo, but it wasn't until December that Telfair elevated himself into lottery status with pro scouts. It was too late for Pitino to sell Rondo on the Cardinals, losing him to something far more devastating than the NBA: The Kentucky Wildcats.
Pitino can recover and still stay an NCAA Tournament contender, but it's a tricky proposition balancing a power program's need for star power against stability.
There is a changing face of the NCAA Tournament now, an East Rutherford Regional where the top four seeds -- St. Joe's, Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest -- haven't lost players to early entry. Whatever.
The ball goes up this weekend in the NCAA Tournament, and from East Rutherford to Atlanta, St. Louis to Phoenix, there's something important to the history of the kids on the floor, about the years they go back together on campus.
They're making a move in the tournament. They're making a move on the college game.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for the Bergen Record and a regular contributor to ESPN.com