Backdoor Cuts: Vol. VIIIPosted by rtmsf on January 28th, 2010
Backdoor Cuts is a college basketball discussion between RTC correspondents Dave Zeitlin, Steve Moore, and Mike Walsh. This week the guys wax poetic about the rarest thing in college basketball: the four-year star.
DAVE ZEITLIN: I feel like it happens every year. Whenever a four-year starter has a big game, people start chirping things like “How long has this buy been playing for?” and “Shouldn’t he have graduated by now?” and “I didn’t know seventh-year seniors were allowed to play.” You guys know what I mean, right? The sad truth is that the four-year star player feels like an endangered species — and we’re all victim to that kind of thinking.
Take, for instance, Villanova’s Scottie Reynolds. I remember watching him play in the NCAA tournament as a freshman, and yes while it does feel like that happened some time between the Jurassic Period and the Neolithic Age, my point is, well, my point is it shouldn’t be that way. At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, I miss the days when guys all stayed three or four years. And while I certainly can’t blame many stars for bolting early to the pros (I know there are typically many factors at play), I feel like too many are missing out on the full college experience. And, seriously, what’s better than college? Maybe bacon-wrapped scallops. And Will Ferrell. That’s about it.
And all things being equal, having upperclassmen has got to help the teams themselves, right? Let’s just look at two players for a moment. At Villanova, Scottie Reynolds is on the verge of becoming the greatest player in program history — if he isn’t already. At Kentucky, John Wall is on the verge of becoming one of the best freshmen ever — if he isn’t already. Both have their teams in the top three in the latest AP poll. And while Wall will surely be an NBA star, and Reynolds may have a difficult time even cracking an NBA roster, I’d like to think come tournament time the senior will be better prepared to lead his team on a deep run than the freshman. But then again, Carmelo Anthony won a championship in his only year in college and Greg Oden almost did the same… so who knows
Either way, something bugs me about these one-year rent-a-players. I’m actually not bothered by the players themselves because, as we know, they have no choice but to go to college for a year and the true NBA-bound superstars shouldn’t feel obligated to stay longer. I think I’m mostly bothered by the coaches, who say disingenuous things like “So-and-So will help the program even after he leaves” and “I really want So-and-So to test the draft waters.” Please. Just admit you sold your soul for a season of glory and your recruiting pitch went something like this: “Come to our school and you only have to take four college courses in your entire life! And three of them will be about massage therapy! After that, I’ll help you get rich rich rich!” (Yes, I’m looking at you Calipari.)
What’s my point? I’m not sure exactly. Maybe I’m just hoping that when March rolls around, the Wildcat who’s been through it all will get just one more lucky bounce than the Wildcat who’s already planning his wardrobe for Draft Day.
And with that, my ode to Scottie Reynolds comes to a close as I pass the curmudgeon torch to my two pals.
MIKE WALSH: College basketball rosters are a revolving door, it’s sad, but true. Unlike football or hockey, basketball is one of the few sports where 18- and 19-year-olds can hold their own against guys in their 20s. And let’s be honest, what 18-year-old kid is going to be able to pass up the promise of millions of dollars when the majority of his classmates will be thrilled to rake in $30K after graduation? If someone offered me the NBA rookie minimum right now I’d be gone… I wouldn’t even finish this column (Ed. Note: we’re all replaceable, Mike.). But alas, I’m a doughy white guy with bad knees, a worse jump shot, and a bank account that wouldn’t even cover the small blind in an NBA road trip poker game.
The four-year college player is as rare as beef carpaccio (I figured I’d keep the food comparisons going, Dave) but unfortunately, four-year guys rarely make much noise once they make it to the NBA. More times than not, the reality is, if they were good enough to play at the next level, they would have made the jump already.
Take Notre Dame’s Luke Harangody. The kid has had a monster career for the Irish. When it’s all said and done, Harangody will go down as one of the most prolific scorers and rebounders in the program’s history, but do you really expect to see kids rushing to the store to buy Harangody’s jersey next year? Me either … unless, of course, he gets drafted by the Jazz.
There is, of course, the exception to the rule. Take my mancrush Jameer Nelson. After testing the NBA waters following his junior year, he came back for his senior season at St. Joe’s. He had a decent senior year… you may have heard about it. Undefeated regular season? Seconds away from a Final Four? No? Not ringing a bell? Flash forward to today… he’s an All-Star piece of one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference.
C’mon, you guys didn’t really expect me not to bring that up, did you? OK, back to our regulary scheduled programming ….
I wonder if more high school seniors will consider the path taken by the Milwaukee Buks’ Brandon Jennings? No, I’m not talking about the Kid ‘n Play haircut, I’m talking about his decision to play professionally for a year overseas in an effort to bypass the NBA’s age restriction. Think about it, the money is going in the player’s wallet instead of Sleazy Coach X’s. He’s playing against older, more fundamentally sound opponents, and he gets to spend a year in Italy. Now, a year later, Jennings is proving all his naysayers wrong as one of the most exciting rookies out there. Will more kids follow in his footsteps? Stay tuned …
So, like Dave, I seem to be able to ramble about this with no real point. Are four-year players important to their teams? Yes. Do they bring intangibles to the locker room that underclassmen just can’t provide? Yes. Would I leave campus a minute earlier than I had to? No. Are any NBA teams offering me a contract? Not yet… but I haven’t checked my voicemail in a few hours. Maybe I should get on that ….
STEVE MOORE: Listen to us, we’re the oldest, most curmudgeon-y 20somethings I’ve ever seen. These damn kids today with their video games, and their loud music….
… And I completely agree.
Listen, I love watching John Wall play as much as anyone, but show me a few experienced guards and I’ll show you a team with the chops to play deep into March. My mancrush Greivis Vasquez is the perfect example. Maryland is starting to find its legs now, and using upperclassmen (with a few injections of young talent) to make a move in an otherwise ho-hum ACC. And if you saw Kentucky’s youngsters blow easy layups and make bonehead plays in Tuesday’s loss to South Carolina, you’d understand if John Calipari was secretly wishing for a few more upperclassmen in his lineup (does he know how to recruit players like that — or how to keep them eligible for four whole years?)
Four-year players, and seemingly endless college careers (Chris Duhon still plays for Duke, right?) make any true college basketball fan feel all tingly and warm. Players like Vasquez and Scottie Reynolds have obvious flaws in their game — otherwise they wouldn’t still be in school. Whether it’s size, shooting ability, or a certain “intangible” that makes NBA scouts all tingly and warm, they’re missing it. For example, I don’t think Scottie Reynolds has ever looked to his left — like, ever. He can’t dribble that way, can’t pass that way, and probably can’t pick his left nostril. But that’s what’s great about being so much older than most of your opponents. Reynolds KNOWS his flaw, and uses his experience to realize that no one else seems to notice it. He’s able to use his head to pick apart opposing defenses and ignite his troops like no freshman phenom ever could.
My thought process on this subject has changed a lot over the years, though. Back when I was a naive sports fan, I never understood how athletes could skip out on college for a shot at the pros, and always thought less of those who did. Then I went to college myself, where I spent some time covering the (reigning National Champion) Boston University ice hockey team. Now, no BU hoopsters are destined for the pros, but the hockey team has created more NHLers than any other school in the nation, and getting to know a few of those guys brought me a new perspective.
For those who don’t know, the rules in ice hockey are a little different when it comes to college vs. pros. In hockey, you are eligible to be drafted even before you head to college, and most players at the bigger programs have already been drafted, and are the “property” of a certain NHL team. They can choose to skip college altogether if they want and head right for the big time, or play anywhere from one to four seasons in the NCAA. When they decide to make the jump, they go to the team that drafted them, even if it was four years earlier.
Anyway, as I got to know these guys, I realized that they were in college for the same reason I was — to DRINK BEER! (Just kidding, mom). Like me, they were there to prepare themselves for their future. For me, it was getting experience in journalism and, in the end, a meaningless and expensive piece of paper. For them, it was playing hockey at a high level. So when it was time to go, it was time to go, and I realized I could never blame them for it. As a sophomore, I even had a journalism professor say, “If Sports Illustrated called you tomorrow to offer a job, you’d be crazy not to drop out of school and take it.” And he was absolutely right.
So, as I meander back to the original point of this debate (what was it again?), I don’t blame the kids at all when it comes to this issue. They’re put in this position by the ridiculous rule the NBA has created, and helped along by college coaches and programs playing the year-by-year crapshoot in hopes of a magical (and money-generating) run through March. If you’re a good enough basketball player right out of high school that the NBA wants you, then you should be able to go. It’s a free country.
Would it hurt the college game to abolish the one-year rule? No, I think it would help it. Sure, John Wall would be withering away on the end of the New Jersey Nets’ bench and not appearing on SportsCenter every night, but therein lies my point. Wall is the exception, not the rule. Let kids like Wall jump right to the pros if they want, and let’s leave the allure, pagentry and magic of college hoops to kids like Scottie Reynolds, Vasquez, and Harangody, for whom these will be the best four years of their lives. Some will argue that you’re diluting the college game by leaving out the kids with the most talent, but I think you’re disgracing it by creating an atmosphere where slimy college coaches fall all over each other to bring in a one-year mercenary project to bring them fame and glory.
I’m looking at you as well, Calipari (and almost every other coach in the country, really). Except for Jay Wright. I like Jay Wright. He seems like a good guy.
DAVE ZEITLIN: Wow, we’ve written a lot of words without having a point. I bet our reader is impressed — if he’s made it this far, which is doubtful.
So here’s my attempt to recap this column: Mike loves St. Joe’s (already knew that), Steve loves hockey (already knew that) and I love bacon-wrapped scallops (we didn’t know that yet, and I’m hoping my Jewish grandma doesn’t figure out to use the Internet to read it). I’m just glad I didn’t mention Penn. Oh wait, I just did. Damn.
I think it’s also fair to say we both like our March Madnesses filled with seniors and we aren’t fans of the one-year freshmen phenoms — though we don’t blame them for turning pro. I, however, won’t go as far as saying I hate the rule that forces high school kids to play at least one year in college. The Oden-Durant season was great theater, and Carmelo’s run to a championship was also a lot of fun. But as I’ve said before, I just believe — and, in most cases, hope — that the four-year players will be better equipped for March than the youngsters.
And if that’s enough of a point, here’s something else: Scottie Reynolds has had a better career than anyone in college basketball right now. Chew on that, readers. I mean, reader.