College basketball suffers from lack of senior leadership
TAMPA - College basketball is a mess, its carcass bleeding from attacks by the National Basketball Association vultures. Rather than nurture its vast free feeder system by working with college coaches, the NBA's absurd one-and-done policy is damaging the college game on a nightly basis. I should admit I have editorial bias. I love the college game. I have nothing against the pros, but I just prefer the atmosphere and diverse styles and personalities you find in college. I also know that just about every kid who laces up a pair of Nikes dreams of making big bucks in the NBA and no one wants to deny them that right if they're good enough, but that brings us to today's point. On Saturday, the University of South Florida men will play Notre Dame at the Sun Dome. Beyond having the mystique of the Irish and one of the coolest fight songs around, Notre Dame is that rarest of college teams. The Irish are dominated by seniors.Five senior starters, including national player of the year candidate Ben Hansbrough. No wonder Notre Dame is ranked in the top 10 and can legitimately think in terms of the Final Four. "A lot of us, including me, are envious of Notre Dame," USF coach Stan Heath said. "There's something about realizing this is your last go-round that makes players dig down a little bit deeper, practice a little bit harder. A lot of games are decided in the last two or three minutes and that's where you rely on the experience of your seniors." A laboratory example of Heath's example played out Wednesday night in a 59-58 loss to Marquette at the Sun Dome. The Bulls let a 16-point lead in the second half get away and lost control of the game's tempo. The natural thought is that wouldn't have happened if Dominique Jones hadn't jumped to the NBA this season (he would have been a senior), but I was thinking more about the stability Chris Howard brought last year as senior guard. The Big East is a guard-driven league and Howard was steady, heady, and never got rattled because he had seen it all before. The Bulls don't have anybody like that now, which explains why they're 8-17 after winning 20 games a year ago. So what does all this have to do with the NBA? After all, Jones wasn't a "one-and-done" guy, although it's clear by his lack of playing time in Dallas - he was even sent back to the NBA's development league - that he would have benefitted greatly by another year in college. The bigger picture for college hoops can be seen in teams like Ohio State and Kentucky. When the NBA changed the rule a few years ago, prohibiting players from turning pro directly out of high school, it turned many college programs into a bus stop for top-level players just passing through. It made economic sense for the NBA; for every Dwight Howard or LeBron James who made the leap directly from high school to professional stardom, there was a Kwame Brown who ate up lots of cash and contributed little. It also forced top college programs to reassess how they operated. The Wildcats loaded up on highly ranked freshmen last season, including John Wall, and then lost them all after one year to the NBA and had to do it all over again this year. Unbeaten and top-ranked Ohio State will be in the same boat next year when freshman Jared Sullinger takes the money and runs. Every year you're just putting a team together of, cough, "student-athletes" who have no intention of staying in school. "You don't have to go to Harvard to know the damage this has created," ESPN's Dick Vitale said. "This has created havoc in college basketball. Notre Dame is one of those rare cases out there. There's a few of them - Pittsburgh, Villanova, BYU. They've done a great job. But the rest of it's a problem. "My solution is very simple. The NBA doesn't want to hear this, but if a kid like John Wall or Derrick Rose comes along, why force them to go to college for one year? If a kid doesn't want to go to college, he shouldn't go. Let him sign out of high school. But once a kid steps onto a college campus, do it like baseball does. Once you enroll, you can't leave for three years." That seems like a fair solution. You don't see freshmen jumping to the NFL or Major League Baseball, so college programs have a chance to build and players have a chance to get better. Heath knows all about that. He was an assistant when Michigan State won the national championship by beating Florida, relying on - get ready for it - senior leadership from Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson. "It made such a difference for us, and it's a better game overall," Heath said. "But there's nothing we can hold over the NBA's head to make them change and help us. Their interest is in the NBA. I just don't know if we can ever change them back."