Men’s college basketball died in 1995. At least that is the consensus you might glean from the wailings of some coaches and sportswriters as they lament the P.G. (post-Garnett) era. In June of that year, Farragut Academy (Chicago) graduate Kevin Garnett became the first high-schooler to skip college and leap directly into professional basketball since Hall of Famer Moses Malone made the jump twenty years previous. Suddenly, college basketball had become (gasp!) merely an option. Cynics surmised that college basketball was doomed; surely it would follow college baseball and hockey – whose professional leagues were already drafting high-schoolers – into relative obscurity by draining it of premier talent.
To some degree, these pessimists proved correct. Garnett, currently the leading candidate for NBA Most Valuable Player, has been followed by an ever-increasing mass of prodigies, some of whom have gained a little notoriety: Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O’Neal and LeBron James. Moreover, word comes recently from the Roundball Classic, a prominent high school All-Star game, that perhaps half of this year’s participants are contemplating turning professional without setting foot in a college classroom. In addition, those players who do make it to a college campus (and most likely within the vicinity of a college classroom) are clearly viewing it as a pit-stop. Players such as current Denver Nuggets rookie phenom Carmelo Anthony are choosing the path tread by such NBAers as Stephon Marbury and Allen Iverson; they stay for a year, maybe two, before bolting to the draft and U-Hauls full of cash money. And yet, contrary to the portentous omens propagated in 1995 and echoed virtually every year since, men’s college basketball, as attested by this year’s thus-far fantastic rendition of March Madness, has clearly survived.
Garnett and the precedent he set did greatly affect college basketball, but not in the manner expected. The absences of Garnett, Bryant, and James and the early departures of Marbury, Iverson and Anthony have given college basketball a far greater gift than their collective presence: parity. By erasing the vast differences between top-tier programs and their lesser counterparts, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the most egalitarian of sporting events, has become even more so, and consequently, commensurately more compelling.
To observe this phenomenon, one must look no further than the paragons of college basketball: the three most storied programs in NCAA history all ended their tournament runs well before the tournament shifted into high gear. UCLA, winner of the greatest number of tournament championships and alma mater of two of the most dominant college players ever, Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton, did not make it out of the exceedingly weak Pacific 10 conference, and has made little noise on the national scene since its last national championship some ten years ago. The University of North Carolina, Tobacco Road bastion of Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Sam Perkins and Dean Smith, was shown the door in the second round of the tournament. And finally, the University of Kentucky, winningest program in the history of college basketball and highest overall seed in this year’s field, was unceremoniously defeated in the second round . . . by the third most important school . . . in a football state: the University of Alabama-Birmingham. In all likelihood, these “name” schools would have been the ones benefiting, had Garnett and his cronies chosen the college route. Assuming that, such dismal outcomes would have been unlikely, at minimum. Yet this is not to suggest that the absence of such stars has simply caused a sharp decline in the quality of basketball; it has simply taken away the “superstar edge” that allowed certain schools to flourish year-in and year-out.
This elimination of the superstar edge has been answered by a concomitant uplifting of the caliber of play at mid-major schools, leading to greater top-to-bottom quality. Gonzaga, a little-known university out of Spokane, previously acknowledged only as the school of John Stockton, burst onto the national scene several years ago as a basketball powerhouse. This year, it ended the regular season ranked in the top five in the major polls and merited a #2 seed in the tournament. (Ironically, of course, Gonzaga itself was upset by a little-respected University of Nevada team, dubbed “this year’s Gonzaga.”) More pertinently, two schools out of the notoriously weak Atlantic 10 conference, whose last sighting in the sports pages came with last year’s revolt of the St. Bonaventure basketball squad, reached the Elite Eight. Western Michigan, a team relatively few people had seen play during the regular season, was nonetheless favored in its first round game against Southeastern Conference opponent Vanderbilt, based solely on the reputation of Mid-American Conference teams as upset specialists. Perhaps the most convincing evidence, however, is the simplest: in the first round of this year’s tournament, ostensibly the most rife with blowouts, only twelve out of thirty-two games were won by over fifteen points; eight of those games were victories by #1 or #2 seeds, which are statistically guaranteed (though five of these would lose in the second round). Thus, only an eighth of the games featuring legitimately comparable teams were not worth watching – an eighth that was more than canceled out by the myriad competitive games decided in the final few seconds.
Certainly it would have been exhilarating to see a Magic Johnson-Larry Bird Final Four redux in the form of LeBron James and this year’s top high schooler and probable #1 overall draft pick, Dwight Howard. But if today’s high schoolers want to skip college to (with a few exceptions) ride the pine, cash checks and do little else for four years, the college game will be no worse for the wear. The most successful current sports enterprise in the United States, the National Football League, has clearly defined that the essential element to the success of a given sport is parity, and that is exactly what Kevin Garnett’s trendsetting has given men’s college basketball.