On Tuesday, Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips, who is chair of the new Division I council, offered up some strong words against the growing trend of NCAA men’s basketball players who are “one-and-done” who leave college basketball after a single season to make the jump to professional basketball. Phillips offered up a strong rebuke of this trend by saying:
“Frankly speaking, shame on us. We’ve allowed the National Basketball Association to dictate what our rules are, or influence what our rules are at the collegiate level…Nobody feels great about kids going to school for a semester and then leaving. That’s crazy. It’s absurd. So we’ve got to fix it. Why have we accepted that? Why have we just allowed that to happen without any pushback?…We’ve gotten to the point where it is time for a timeout and everything should be on the table. Nothing’s sacred. Let’s do the right thing for our student-athletes…If you’re not for a year of readiness and you don’t think we should just blanket — make freshmen ineligible — then let’s have a national discussion about what would be right…What do we want the experience to be? Personally speaking, I don’t want to be the minor leagues. I cringe that we’re considered and that people look at us that way. We’ve allowed it to get to this position. So now, we are at a very important point for us to make some hard but decisive decisions about what the future of college athletics is going to be.”
Phillips’ words echo those of both NCAA president Mark Emmert as well as Kentucky coach John Calipari, who discussed the issue during the 2014 men’s Final Four. Both men expressed concern about the trend, which is has become more and more prevalent since an age restriction was put into place with the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement in 2005. The restriction was put into place just two years after Lebron James entered the league straight out of high school. James’ entry into the league came on the heels of successful players like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett, who also made a successful transition from high school straight to the NBA. Unfortunately, the league saw many high schoolers who were unable to make the transition, and many who were drafted struggled mightily and either ended up playing overseas or in the NBA Development League. Therefore, it was decided that in order to declare for the NBA draft, you had to be at least 19-years-old.
For the NBA, it is an issue that has recently come about over the past two decades. In 1974, Moses Malone became the first high schooler to be drafted by the ABA, the rival league of the NBA at that time. Malone had a Hall of Fame career that included a championship as well as a league MVP award. In 1975, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby became the first high schoolers to be drafted by the NBA. Neither of them had especially successful NBA careers and eventually after the NBA and ABA merged in 1976 there would be no further high school athletes to apply for the draft until Kevin Garnett in 1995. At the time, even though Garnett was the consensus national high school player of the year, there was a cloud of doubt as to whether or not he would be able to successfully make the jump from high school to the pros. However, Garnett proved the doubters wrong and paved the way for the next decade where NBA teams would gamble (sometimes successfully and sometimes not) on high school players.
So here we are, a decade after the 2005 age restriction was put into place, and the pendulum has once again swung back to address new, growing concerns. Now, the main concern as Phillips mentioned, is that college basketball is being diluted by players who are using their single year of college eligibility as a stepping stone to the NBA. They are using their one year to gain national exposure and do not feel any particular pride in their college or university. Long gone are the Duke teams of the early 90s with a core of great college basketball players who were able to win consecutive championships. Now, we have the Duke team of 2015 which included Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, two freshmen who won a national title and immediately declared for the NBA draft. Some coaches like Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky’s John Calipari have adapted to the new one-and-done world. However, other coaches believe it has ruined the game. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan offered off a not-so-subtle shot at Krzyzewski after this season’s championship game when he said that “we don’t rent-a-player.”
The truth is, men’s college basketball is now at a crossroads. This past season served as a prime example of the dilemma. You had Kentucky, an all-time great team with 9 McDonald’s All-Americans, on the verge of being the first undefeated men’s college basketball team since 1976. They had the talent and the coaching to be special. Yet, watching this team you felt that the game had changed and not for the better. Even if the team had run the table and won the national championship, it still would have lost its three one-and-done players after the season. In fact, Kentucky lost a total of seven underclassmen to the NBA draft once their season was over. Next year, Kentucky will once again compete for a national title, but it will be with an entirely different roster. There’s always the chance that a senior-laden team like Wisconsin could win it all, but in today’s one-and-done college basketball environment, it is no longer possible to have a Duke team of the early 90s where all the stars stayed for their entire four years.
And so, the question that NCAA men’s basketball now faces is what to do with a broken system. We can’t revert to a system that prevailed during the time of Pete Maravich when freshmen couldn’t play college basketball. However, we also shouldn’t return to the era of 1995 to 2005 when high school athletes threw away their futures when they clearly weren’t ready to become NBA players. When it comes down to it, the NCAA would be wise to look no further than to its spring season counterpart for the answer: College baseball.
The draft rules for college baseball are simple in that you can be drafted after high school but then must attend a college or university for three seasons before going pro. This issue here solves both problems: It provides financial stability for the player coming out of high school and it also keeps players in school for at least three seasons. Imagine too, the intrigue it would create on the court. Future NBA teammates playing against each other in a conference or NCAA tournament game. Future NBA players on rival teams playing together for three years in college. Future Team USA players practicing against each other for three years in practice. All in all, it would become a system that would be much more entertaining and much less like the current system we have in place, which, as Phillips described, has essentially become the NBA minor leagues. It would make perfect sense.
Which, knowing the NCAA, is exactly why it will never be put into place.