March has always been the only time of year when I get excited about basketball.
Being that college basketball's 65-team NCAA tournament, "March Madness", is held during that month, I know that millions of fans share my sentiment.
With 64 games being played over three weeks and one loss equaling a one-way ticket home, small liberal arts colleges with maybe a few hundred students beating longtime powerhouses with last second shots, crowds upward of 50,000 watching a Final Four that rivals the BCS football championship and the Super Bowl, and young undergraduates playing with an extreme passion for their school, this is hoops at its best.
And did I mention the countless individuals spending millions of dollars on bracket pools, making their guesses as to who will cut down the nets? That has become as much a part of spring as new leaves budding on trees.
There is something that I must confess, however...
I'm not as pumped about the college game or March Madness as I used to be, and not just because my alma mater, UCLA, had a bad season this year.
The fact that the game seems to be full of tattooed prima donnas and thugs who only care about being "the man" and get angrily insulted when offered a contract worth only $50 million instead of $150 million at the pro level, has soured me on the sport for some time. On top of that, guys on college teams don't really want to be in school and can't wait to announce their entry into the NBA draft the moment their freshman season ends.
The National Basketball Association has been the main culprit in this attitude I have for the undergraduate hardwood game, namely in the area of their policy that requires high school players to wait one year after their graduation before they can apply for the draft.
This policy was enacted a few years ago to stem the avalanche of 18-year-olds skipping college to join the league, the reasoning being that playing at least one year in college would be good preparation for the NBA's rigors.
Though the intentions were good, this eligibility rule has hurt college basketball immensely, as it has gotten to the point where if a team has a standout freshman, it is almost guaranteed that said freshman will be NBA-bound as soon as the season is over.
This has decimated teams such as UCLA, who has seen two top notch first-year players bolt in the past three years, where in generations past they would have stayed in school and made more significant contributions to the team.
The players who have embraced this "one and done" approach have convinced me that they were never interested in a college education, that they were only at places like Syracuse, Georgetown, and North Carolina to put in their time before hopefully becoming Lakers, Celtics, or Mavericks.
Indeed, just as sure as I am writing this John Wall, Kentucky's all-universe freshman sensation, will be in an NBA uniform (the New Jersey Nets', perhaps?) by this time next year; anyone who believes otherwise is delusional and fooling nobody but himself.
But I'm digressing here; there is a way that the NBA can help college basketball regain some integrity and have it become a true student-athlete endeavor once and for all:
Do away with the one-year eligibility rule.
I remember reading a book called College: A User's Manual, in which a longtime professor gives the lowdown on how to navigate undergraduate life. I especially recall the book's first two sentences:
College is not for everybody. Nor does everybody need it.
Those two statements are evidently true for all of those "Diaper Dandies", as hoops commentator extraordinaire Dick Vitale calls them, who make like vapor with an agent in tow the second the buzzer sounds at their last game.
Rather than forcing them to waste their time being in a place where they really don't want to be, studying things that they don't want to study, the NBA should adopt a policy similar to what Major League Baseball has.
Under MLB's rules, all high school seniors are eligible for the amateur draft while still able to sign college letters of intent, which they usually do after their junior year. If drafted by a big league team, the player can sign with that team and forgo college, provided that the money is right.
If the player decides to attend a four-year school, however, once he steps into his first class he is required to stay in college for three years. He is ineligible for the MLB draft until after his junior season, when his name is automatically put into the pool and can be chosen by the Dodgers, the Yankees, or any of the other 28 clubs.
For those whose academic credentials fall short of admission standards and are forced to attend a junior college, they are eligible for the draft after one season, though I would make it two years for the NBA, lest players flock to two-year schools so they can become "one and done". If not chosen, they can transfer to a four-year university and be eligible again in a year.
This system works well, because those folks who have no interest in an education can sign with a big league organization, while college coaches can keep their recruits for a while and not worry about them bailing the first time they hit .475 with 30 home runs.
If the NBA put in a system like this, where recruits can be signed and drafted out of high school without formally declaring for the draft, while those who don't catch on with a team and choose college are obliged to stay for three seasons, it would be good for all parties involved.
It would be good for the players entering the pros at 18 because they would be exercising the right to earn a (very lucrative) living.
It would be good for college hoops not only because coaches would have their recruits for more than a single year, but also because teams would have players who want to be in school and get a free education.
And it would widen the college talent pool considerably, due to the fact that since there are but two rounds of the NBA draft for that league's 30 teams, only 60 guys would get a shot at those multi-millions, out of roughly 500,000.
That leaves them with little choice but to go to school, unless they opt for Europe like Brandon Jennings, now with the Milwaukee Bucks, did, and being that those leagues are rough, that is likely not the best option.
So to sum it all up, the NBA's one-year-for-eligibility policy has, in my view, reduced college hoops to being a farce of sorts.
If commissioner David Stern dumped that rule for a new system like baseball's, it would make the college version of the hardwood that much better.
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