On College Basketball: Freshman Rule College Basketball, Unless the Rules Change

A related figure proves Bilas’s point: Since the 2005-6 season, 5 of 12 preseason No. 1s have made the Final Four — essentially identical to the overall rate. That was the season the N.B.A. began requiring that players be 19 years old or one year removed from high school before being eligible for the draft. The new rule touched off the so-called one-and-done era, in which the top prospects attended college for one season before turning pro. If experience mattered more, the preseason No. 1/Final Four rate should have dropped, as the best players in college basketball increasingly departed after their freshman seasons. Instead, it has remained constant.

“I totally understand the whole thought of now recruiting players that may only attend school for one year,” said Craig Esherick, a sports management professor at George Mason who was Georgetown’s head coach from 1999 to 2004. “If I were coaching now, I’d do the same thing, because some of those players are the best in the country, and if you want to compete with Duke and Kentucky, you have to have them, too.”

Ah, yes: Duke and Kentucky. The preseason No. 1 spot has been dominated lately by these two teams, which have most heavily recruited likely one-season players, precisely favoring supertalent over experienced talent. Kentucky’s coach, John Calipari, was a trailblazer in emphasizing one-and-dones in recruiting when he was at Memphis in the mid-2000s. Under Coach Mike Krzyzewski, Duke has transformed to adopt the model, too: The program that once won titles with four-year stars like Christian Laettner and Grant Hill beat Wisconsin in the 2015 national title game with four freshmen scoring 60 of its 68 points.

Either the Wildcats or the Blue Devils were the preseason No. 1 in four of the past seven years, a span in which they combined for five Final Fours and two championships.

Photo
Kentucky Coach John Calipari has built a powerhouse program by bringing in the nation’s top freshman year after year. Hamidou Diallo, left, is merely one of his latest prize prospects.

Credit
James Crisp/Associated Press

Now, as the 2017-18 season tips off, Duke is No. 1 again. It faces No. 2 Michigan State on Tuesday in Chicago, part of an annual ESPN showcase that will be followed by No. 5 Kentucky versus No. 4 Kansas. The names to know are Duke’s Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Trevon Duval and Gary Trent Jr., and Kentucky’s Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox and P. J. Washington. Memorize them quickly: These freshmen standouts probably will be off to the N.B.A. in several months.

Will the current system expire in a similar time frame? The N.C.A.A. commission surely will discuss this proposition, although it has no direct say over a policy that has been hammered out by the N.B.A. and its players union.

But one of the commission’s express charges is to examine the N.C.A.A.’s relationship with the N.B.A. It is difficult not to notice that much of the corruption that federal prosecutors and the F.B.I. outlined in September depended on the combination of amateurism and one-season college players already thinking ahead to their pro careers.

After all, central to the various plots sketched in three criminal complaints were agreements to pay precollege players under the table for the value they would produce for their college teams and would later earn for themselves in the N.B.A. Without restrictions, such valuable players could have leapt straight to the moneymaking N.B.A. (and without amateurism, their college teams might have legally offered them signing bonuses).

Mark Emmert, the president of the N.C.A.A., hinted at his own thinking last month, telling The New York Times, “A model that forces somebody to go to college who has no interest in being in college is fundamentally flawed.”

What comes next could change college basketball. The N.B.A. could remove its age restriction, and the best players again would skip college altogether. It could increase salaries and exposure for the N.B.A.’s development league, which would give more players an incentive to forgo college in favor of paid apprenticeships.

College basketball could, after nearly a half-century, reintroduce freshman ineligibility in men’s basketball, a move that would effectively dare the most talented players to test themselves with one year of professional basketball overseas. Or it could continue to encourage the best players to go to college and make staying another year more attractive by easing rules on contact with agents or even on payment.

“I would change the basketball rule to make it more similar to what baseball players can do,” Esherick said. “If a kid graduates high school, I think he should be able to play in the pros right away. But I think that if in fact he decides to go to college, I think there should be a requirement that he has got to stay there for two or three years.” (Baseball mandates three years before a player is draft-eligible again.)

But what effect would such alterations have on college basketball? Might they finally knock Duke and Kentucky off their preseason — and, not infrequently, postseason — pedestals?

History suggests no. Duke and Kentucky did not suddenly become great over the past decade, after all. Whatever the rules, the best programs probably will figure out ways to stay the best.

“We didn’t have parity before” the one-and-done era, Bilas said. “There’s never been parity in college basketball.”

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