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Archive for Sunday, March 30, 2003

Mayer: College basketball lacking continuity

March 30, 2003

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Brash comedian Wanda Sykes was asked by Jay Leno if she'd become caught up in college basketball's March Madness.

"Why should I be interested in a bunch of guys who can't even jump from high school to the NBA?" she snapped with a snarl in her grin.

Pretty cruel reference to stalwarts such as Kansas's Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich, and terribly oversimplified. But it's sadly symbolic of a trend toward "pro" first, college second with a lot of wannabes. Continuity is taking a terrible beating.

Remember when rosters of baseball teams such as the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants remained stable enough that rivalries could prosper and fans could drool? Take the NBA when the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, Philadelphia Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers could give us such marvelous competitive theatrics.

Let me hark back to when college football and basketball coaches never had to worry about "early outs" to the pros. Followers could get juiced up over who might be back for one or two more promising seasons. You could bank on it.

Any more, sad coaches sing choruses of "Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine." Further, coaches have succumbed to peristalsis and move frequently. Will the Big 12 Conference ever again see a coach stay 39 years as Phog Allen did at Kansas University? Hank Iba 36 years at Oklahoma State, Norm Stewart 32 at Missouri?

Roy Williams is an oddity with 15 years at Kansas. Info-challenged railbirds are speculating he might leap to UCLA or go home to North Carolina, because he's not too enamored with athletic director Al Bohl. Al may be gone first, of course. My theory is that when Roy leaves Kansas, which he might do once he gets a national title, he and wife Wanda won't be in a coaching venue anymore.

What about Missouri's Quin Snyder and UCLA? The Bruins are in deep doo-doo after firing Steve Lavin. They have financial problems, lousy facilities, an outdated playing forum. John Wooden, still showing up, won 10 titles between 1964 and 1975, retired and the program has stuttered since. Jim Harrick bagged a title but left in disarray; there's a trainload of baggage to shuck. Roy'd want that rat's nest?

But back to those quick leaps into the NBA and how the threat has so greatly altered basketball because of grave uncertainty.

In 1949-50, Clyde Lovellette, Bill Hougland, Bob Kenney and Bill Lienhard burst upon the college scene as touted sophomores. They tied for a league title but fell to Bradley in an NCAA playoff. But fans could be excited about "next year". The pro ranks wouldn't take guys early.

So the Fab Four plus guys like Dean Kelley, Charlie Hoag and Jerry Waugh (for a half-season) were around for a '50-51 bid. The air was electric. Coaching? Phog Allen was never linked to UCLA or North Carolina. Continuity, folks, continuity.

Close but no cigar for the Jayhawks in 1951, but boy, were fans poised for big things in 1951-52. They got 'em, including the national college title and seven Olympic berths Phog promised the Fab Four when he and Dick Harp assembled them.

Point is, you could dream and plan on the basis of foreseeable personnel.

Along came Wilt Chamberlain for a '56-57 sophomore debut, a guy who truly could have gone into the NBA from high school. The NBA couldn't touch him until after the 1959 season. He left a year early, but because of about a $100,000 package and discontent with the stall-ball and keyhole constipation opponents created when there wasn't any shot clock.

Consider that in 1955 and 1956, Bill Russell and K.C. Jones sparked San Francisco to college titles. There never was a question they'd play three years of college ball. It was easy to get worked up about teams then because you knew which guys they'd have back. That got terribly monotonous when UCLA was on its fabulous run of dominance in a 12-year span. But other schools could recruit to beat the Bruins and were able to have their guys around for the long haul.

KU lost all-leaguer Wayne Hightower after his junior season ('61) but that was due to grades and a need for money via pro play in Europe. The first official KU loss to the greedy pros was Norm Cook, who was the Boston Celtics No. 1 draft choice after the 1976 season.

But for the most part, Kansas has been terribly lucky. Danny Manning considered going pro before his miraculous '88 senior year due to differences with Larry Brown. They patched the leaks and there was a title.

Paul Pierce vamoosed to the Celtics with Roy Williams's blessing after his junior season ('98) and junior Drew Gooden, now with Orlando, went to the Memphis Grizzlies after '02. Collison and Hinrich considered early outs but returned to hub this year's entertaining club. With a whole Wayne Simien, I swear they would make the Final Four again, maybe win.

Take Missouri, please! Snyder is due to have back a fine talent featuring Arthur Johnson and Rickey Paulding. But suppose one or both leave the way Keyon Dooling did. Then there's sophomore T.J. Ford at Texas. His loss could be devastating.

Got a theory. Take little Gonzaga, which has created a lot of waves of late. Not many high-profile kids but virtually all the good ones are back and don't appear to be pro fodder.

Will the Butlers and Gonzagas and "mid-major" clubs like them be the wave of the future in the NCAA? How can you tell? The rapacious NBA with its greedy outlook doesn't seem to realize, or admit, how it has hurt colleges and itself.

NBA attendance may continue to drop because the world's best farm system keeps withering. Maybe then there'll be rules like "not until age 20" or not until the freshman class is four years old, as when Wilt came here. Colleges used to produce "names" for the pros. How many Magic Johnsons, Larry Birds and Pete Maraviches are being allowed to develop these days?

Who are a lot of those guys?

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