By Jason Keidel
What do Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones have in common? They could all be wearing the same uniform this year. But not in the NBA. Each left a trail of eligibility on the side of Tobacco Road.
Imagine entering March Madness with that most holy trinity playing for Coach K and Duke. Since they already won the national title with said triumvirate, they would be the runaway chalk to repeat.
Or would they?
If Duke thought they were gutted by the NBA’s allure, how does John Calipari feel in the Blue Grass State? Karl-Anthony Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, Trey Lyles and Devin Booker were a potent quartet that led Kentucky to a 40-0 record last year, and fell just short of becoming the first team since Bobby Knight’s 1976 Indiana Hoosiers to finish a season undefeated.
So if Duke feels teased by the fleeting promise of a college dynasty, the Kentucky Wildcats must feel like John Wooden’s Westwood bunch.
All seven players, of course, entered the NBA Draft in 2015 and were quickly plucked in the first round. And while no one questions a young man’s right to provide for his family, the turbulence at the top of the NCAA and NBA Draft board makes you long for more stability. It adds an epic sense of nostalgia.
If you’re not sure who would win the battle of blue-chippers, let’s sprinkle Jabari Parker and Julius Randle onto the Blue Devils and Wildcats, respectively. Then we can add Andrew Wiggins to top-ranked Kansas.
Many may not remember the Larry Bird days of college commitment. So let’s stroll down Nostalgia Blvd.
Patrick Ewing, the best college center of the last 30 years, actually planted his college flag for four years. Indeed, when a young man left after three years, it was considered controversial. That’s not the case today, as one-and-done prodigies use the classroom as a chalkboard funnel to their first sneaker deal.
It’s hard to recall a kid staying in school for four years. At least not one of any heft. Indeed, Tim Duncan was the last megastar to stay for his diploma. The five-time NBA champion whose next NBA stop will be the Naismith Hall of Fame, actually cared about his name as much as his game, pledging his life and love to Wake Forrest for the full four years. Seemed to work out pretty well for him (never mind his old teammate David Robinson, who did one better by serving his country at the Naval Academy).
Are kids any poorer now than they were 20 years ago? Or 40 years ago? Why are young men so eager to leave the dorm for the doom of adult life? It’s a socioeconomic question beyond this writer’s experience. But there’s nothing in the real world to suggest young men en masse are any worse off today.
Along with Duncan, Grant Hill is the other recent, iconic player who played four seasons in college. Is it a coincidence that Hill and Duncan were not only divine players but also sublime people? Are there two more noble ambassadors for the league and the sport?
And there’s the benefit of knowing a few players before they enter March Madness. Back in the NCAA glory years, the 1980s, you knew St, John’s had Chris Mullin, Mark Jackson, Walter Berry and Bill Wennington. Georgetown flaunted Ewing and Billy Martin and David Wingate. Coach K trotted out Johnny Dawkins, Tommy Amaker and Jay Bilas.
Dean Smith had a decent squad in the early ’80s. Sam Perkins was pretty good. So was Brad Daugherty. Both All-Stars. Then add Hall of Famer James Worthy, and you’ve got an iconic club.
Oh, they weren’t even the best players on the team. That would be some guy named JumpMan, the greatest ever to slide kicks onto his blessed feet. Michael Jordan won an NCAA title as a freshman, but didn’t bolt for the NBA, not even after his sophomore season, when he easily could have played pro. No, Jordan played three college years.
The last monoliths were the Duke and UNLV teams of the early ’90s, both gorged with underclassmen and seniors. The Runnin’ Rebels had Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Anderson Hunt and Greg Anthony. Duke had Grant Hill, Thomas Hill and Bobby Hurley, not to mention the most hated player in the sport, Christian Laettner.
All this exhumes the debate about dynasties. Are they good for sports?
Whether you love or loathe, your eyes won’t waiver from the game if it drains your adrenal gland. If you weren’t a Duke alum, you probably cussed and tossed soft drinks at your TV set. Likewise, the Fab Five, spawned by freshmen, were household names by the second year.
But by modern metrics, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose and Jimmy King would have darted for the draft after one season. Bonding for just one year was the difference between being a bookmark in history and a flashpoint of a fresh dynasty, even sans a championship.
While Duke and Kentucky couldn’t survive losing seven players to last year’s draft, and enter March as rare underdogs, there are still some blue bloods at the top of the big board. But name four players for Kansas. Or Michigan State. After Denzel Valentine, the next player you’d think of is Speedy Claxton or Draymond Green.
March Madness will always sell. First, for the inherent drama, the screen-in-screen mayhem of the opening rounds. That first, four-day weekend is a wild ride. Then it’s about the fidelity of former students, who flood bars every spring swathed in their college sweatshirts that no longer fit.
Then, of course, there are the brackets. Like fantasy football, billions are wagered under the guise of something else, deflected in a benign direction. In fantasy sports, it’s sold as skill. With brackets, you wave the flag of college pride. But it’s all gambling, which nudges the needle of sports more than any of us are comfortable admitting.
But some of us would bet that college basketball would be more than regional or seasonal if a player actually lived the college experience, hit an occasional book and enjoyed being 19. There’s time to gorge on the financial buffet of the NBA. But you’re only a fresh-faced sophomore once.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.