It was hyped as the Year of the Freshman (again) in college basketball.
As usual, it was a juvenile assertion.
There’s no doubt the 2013-14 season has been blessed by the latest Best Class Ever. Jabari Parker has played like a first-team All-American. Despite bouts of passiveness, Andrew Wiggins has been among the nation’s top 15 performers, as has teammate Joel Embiid when healthy. Julius Randle has been the nation’s best post scorer, and Aaron Gordon has been an impressive contributor for Arizona, a worthy No. 1 seed. There’s a chance those five freshmen will be the top five picks in the NBA draft in June.
But have they owned college basketball? Try telling that to Creighton senior Doug McDermott, the overwhelming favorite to win national player of the year. Or Louisville senior Russ Smith. Or Connecticut senior Shabazz Napier. Or Cincinnati senior Sean Kilpatrick.
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Try telling that to Florida, the best team entering the NCAA tournament, whose roster is balanced and not heavily reliant on freshman talent. Try telling that to Wichita State, which has compiled a 34-0 record without precocious, big-name stars.
This hasn’t been the Year of the Freshman. It has been another year of parity in a sport that remains difficult for newcomers to dominate, even when they’re expected to become NBA stars.
Just ask Kentucky coach John Calipari, whose latest super class entered the season with a No. 1 ranking and 40-0 dreams but quickly turned human. Duke took its lumps despite Parker’s greatness. The same happened to Kansas despite the eye-popping ability of Wiggins, Embiid and Wayne Selden Jr.
It has been nine years since the NBA implemented a 19-year-old age limit, forcing these elite prospects to spend at least one year in college. While it has satisfied our curiosity to see college cameos from players who would’ve gone straight to the NBA out of high school, the results are mixed, at best, when you evaluate what it has done for the college game.
College remains an environment best suited for people who want to develop — personally, athletically and academically — and that is reflected by the teams that have won national titles. We’ve seen the likes of Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, Greg Oden, Kevin Love, John Wall and Michael Beasley play one spectacular collegiate season. But during this nine-year period, only one superstar freshman — and one freshman-dominated team — has won a national title. That happened in 2012, when Anthony Davis led Kentucky to a championship with a 38-2 record.
It remains the exception to see a freshman like Carmelo Anthony lead a young Syracuse team over the top like he did in 2003. And even when a freshman leads a team to greatness, it usually doesn’t happen without the efforts of some underrated upperclassmen.
New NBA commissioner Adam Silver won’t even give the 19-year-old age limit as much credit as I have. In recent interviews, he has gone as far to say that it has been “a disaster” for college basketball. He plans to make a strong push to raise the age limit to 20. And while the NCAA will have no say in the matter — it’s an issue to be bargained between the NBA owners and the players association — Silver says a 20-year-old age limit will improve college and pro basketball.
“It is my belief that if players have an opportunity to mature as players and as people, for a longer amount of time before they come into the league, it will lead to a better league,” Silver said during an All-Star Game news conference last month. “And I know from a competitive standpoint that’s something as I travel the league I increasingly hear from our coaches, especially, who feel that many of even the top players in the league could use more time to develop even as leaders as part of college programs.”
The benefits for college basketball are clear. Imagine Parker and Wiggins as hungry sophomores capable of leading their teams in scoring, and possessing through experience an understanding of what it truly takes to chase a national title. Imagine elite teams shifting their focus from renting mega-stars back to building truer programs that have more stability and don’t sway on the whims of 18-year-olds. Imagine top players who enter college knowing they must be there for at least half their eligibility and perhaps making more progress toward earning a degree.
A 20-year-old age limit wouldn’t solve all of college basketball’s problems, but you’d see better basketball played by more polished teams and elite players who would have to invest more in their schools.
In an ideal world, the system would mirror baseball’s, in which players can jump from high school to the pros or opt to stay in college for at least three years. In this scenario, the top 10 or so players from every high school class would sprint to the NBA every year, but college basketball would thrive because coaches could actually build around the players they recruited. But that will never happen. The 20-year-old age limit will be difficult enough to pass.
No question, though, college basketball needs it to happen. For all the thrills that one-and-done players provide, the college game consistently shows that player development, chemistry and team building are essential to success. That’s the formula for all team sports. But in this one-and-done era, it has become too tempting to take shortcuts.
It’s NCAA tournament time, and another Year of the Freshman will yield to some tough, balanced team with a good mix of underclassmen and upperclassmen. Then the NBA draft will come around, and there will be bittersweet emotions because your team didn’t reach all its goals with that supreme, young talent.
And then teams will play this game again because it’s counterintuitive not to want the best players. On occasion, there will be an Anthony Davis and Kentucky. But mostly, it’ll be a mixed bag of highlight reels and phenoms gone too soon.
The revolving door swings, one and done, one and done.
And seldom is there enough to show for it.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JerryBrewer