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Volume 21 No. 30
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College basketball: Game on … as usual

Following what many experts thought would be a transformative year in which scandal and court cases would forever change the college basketball landscape, a new season opens with little change as the sport moves at a glacial pace amid calls for significant reform
The makeup of college basketball has not changed much since last season ended.
Photo: getty images

Despite the outcry to clean up college basketball a year ago, a new season will start this week with most of the game’s top officials saying it’s business as usual.

Status quo wasn’t the expectation last year after NCAA President Mark Emmert said it was time for “bold changes” to stop the cheating and fraud that were exposed by an FBI investigation. Certainly, there was an anticipation that college basketball would look and feel different by now. There are several reasons why it doesn’t, based on reaction from a dozen college officials contacted in the last two weeks.

The recommendations from the NCAA’s Commission on College Basketball, chaired by Condoleezza Rice, need more time to be implemented. Those measures include permissible contact with agents and the ability for some athletes to return to school if they’re not drafted.

Ongoing court cases also could affect the NCAA’s collegiate model, especially the Alston v. NCAA case playing out in California that would enable athletes to be compensated beyond a scholarship.

And the one-and-done rule, the object of such contempt in college basketball, will be with us until at least 2022, if not longer. 

Those changes in the future eventually might overhaul college basketball, but for now the game rolls into a new season fueled by the same cast of characters and blue-blood programs. The NCAA and its 353 Division I schools have a history of creeping at an incremental pace and this will be no different.

“Yeah, there is a sense that nothing has really changed,” said Mike Montgomery, the Pac-12 Networks analyst and former coach at Stanford and California. “It’s like pushing a boulder up a hill. It’s going to take time to see change.”

Montgomery was one of 14 people on the NCAA commission tasked with developing new guidelines for recruiting, agents and other issues facing the game. Many of the changes were so “inside baseball” that they weren’t easily consumed.

Even basketball’s most influential voice, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, said recently that he wasn’t paying much attention to the federal case involving Adidas, which made it criminal to pay college athletes. After all of the hand-wringing of the past year, Krzyzewski and others are right back where they started, espousing the positives of college basketball, believing that fundamentally most programs play by the rules. That flies in the face of the calls for reform. 

“Right now, it feels largely like business as usual. Nothing’s changed,” said Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman. “But that’s not a bad thing because most of the programs, from where we sit, fall into the ‘good apple’ category.”

With that as the backdrop to a new season, here’s a look at the storylines off the court that could alter the future of college basketball, even if they’re not plainly evident right now.

One-And-Done

There’s a growing sense among college leaders that the NBA’s one-and-done rule might not be done after all.

The league has set a runway to revise the draft eligibility rule, with 2022 being the goal to have it changed. The required age to enter the draft theoretically would drop from 19 to 18, allowing players to go from high school to the NBA.

College leaders had hoped that the NBA would make faster progress than that in talks with the players’ union to change the draft age, but there’s little evidence that any changes could come before 2022, and that’s a best-case scenario. 

In the meantime, the NBA’s G League has come out with a new “Select Contract” that starting next year will pay $125,000 for the five-month season to players who are out of high school but not yet eligible for the draft. The G League, whose eligibility age is already 18, will target elite prospects by offering them an alternative path to the pros so that going to college isn’t the only way to get to the NBA. 

“Now is the time we should be more assertive. It’s time for us to offer a professional path,” said G League President Malcolm Turner. “The basketball community has been calling for an alternative and the Select Contracts are our way to provide a thoughtful response to that call. Our growth has enabled us to be part of this conversation.”

Most athletic directors and college commissioners don’t consider the G League to be a legitimate competitor for the best players. The coaching, exposure, facilities and college experience provided on campus still will attract top talent, they say.

“I think it will have zero impact on the popularity of college basketball,” Ackerman said. “We won’t lose a step if some of these players who don’t want to go to college go to the G League. College basketball fans still cheer for the name on the front of the jersey.”

But what about five to 10 years down the road, asks Tom McMillen, a former player at Maryland and in the NBA who now oversees Lead1, a trade association for ADs.

The G League could be a disruptive force to the college basketball model, especially if that annual salary grows. At some point, whether it’s $125,000, $250,000 or more, the G League will find a monetary threshold where it is worthwhile for the top players to sign a Select Contract rather than go to college.

“I think the big question is whether college sports can compete 10 years from now as the NBA is pouring millions of dollars into these G League opportunities to pull the best high school players,” McMillen said. “If the NBA is hell-bent on creating this feeder system, will it be significant competition?

“Just because you can write it off today doesn’t mean you can write it off tomorrow.” 

Montgomery, the ex-coach who served on the Rice commission, said the NBA’s one-and-done rule was the first issue where the group reached a consensus. And it didn’t take long.

Many of the commission’s members were university administrators and attorneys who felt one-and-done denigrated the school’s educational mission. 

“The first thing that came out of the meetings was that kids playing college athletics should want to be in school and want that experience and the education,” Montgomery said. “Those who didn’t, allow them not to go. Give them another path to the pros. One-and-done was seen as a black eye on education because the players really didn’t want to be there. So, let them go.”

If the NBA dropped its age limit to 18 and took players straight out of high school, the elite players who weren’t interested in college would be able to go into the draft. So it reasons that many of the negative influencers who do business under the table, such as agent runners and the shoe companies, would go with them.

“The incentive wouldn’t be there for them to operate in the shadows,” Montgomery said.

Scandal Fallout

The first three defendants in the college basketball scandal — a wannabe agent and two Adidas executives — were found guilty of wire fraud for paying players’ families and steering them to Adidas schools.

This is significant for three reasons:

It criminalizes the decades-old method of paying players under the table.

The guilty verdict sets the table for the next round of cases in February when former Auburn assistant Chuck Person will be among the defendants on trial.

The three found guilty might be more willing to turn over evidence to lighten their sentence.

While Krzyzewski says he’s not paying attention to the case, plenty of high-profile coaches are, especially now that a court has established that they can go to jail for cheating.

“You’ve got to nail somebody, you’ve got to prove that you mean business,” Montgomery said when asked if the case could serve as a deterrent to other coaches.

Head coaches who have been linked to the defendants through news reports include Kansas’ Bill Self, Arizona’s Sean Miller and Creighton’s Greg McDermott, among others.

Paying Players

Everyone in college sports is paying attention to Alston v. NCAA, the case in California that could blow up the NCAA’s amateur model and permit players to be compensated beyond a scholarship.

There’s a growing sense of capitulation among college administrators that the NCAA’s case, built on the model of amateurism, is becoming tougher and tougher to defend, especially with the billions of dollars flowing through the system. One AD joked that his athletic department might even save money by paying players and spending less on the Taj Mahals they’re building as part of the facilities arms race.

In closing arguments a few weeks ago, the plaintiffs suggested that each conference could determine its own pay structure, prompting CBSSports.com’s Dennis Dodd to write that the case’s outcome could trigger massive conference realignment.

But given the potential for appeals, this could take years to resolve.

Free Agency

The issue of player movement has dominated conversations among coaches for more than a year. Advocates for players to transfer freely from one school to another without having to sit out a year argue that a regular student can transfer without penalty, so why not athletes.

But that freedom of movement would have created a college version of free agency that coaches and administrators saw as too disruptive. They were relieved that the NCAA’s commission didn’t push for that kind of penalty-free transfer rule.

What others are saying


“The NBA will be a major disruptive force to college sports, there’s no question in my mind. How the NCAA responds will be interesting to me. College sports has to think about how they’ll respond.”

Tom McMillen

CEO, Lead1

 

“What we’re missing is that this has become too big for the NCAA and its organizational structure. It requires a special type of administration, a separate organization to control college basketball. It’s just too unwieldy for the NCAA by itself. Enforcement, student-athlete welfare, monitoring practice hours … the NCAA thinks their shoulders are broad enough to handle all of these problems and I don’t think they are.”

Len Elmore

Fox Sports analyst, Columbia University professor

 

“If a player is good enough to go to the NBA from high school, he will take with him the sneaker company interest and the interest of agents. If they go to the NBA, college basketball likely will be spared the kind of third-party influences that come with them. They’ll just be rerouted to the NBA. In that way, I think what the G League is doing is a good thing.”

Val Ackerman

Big East commissioner

 

“The things that have surfaced about college basketball are not a big surprise. I’m not sure who really cares. Most people, I think, just want to watch their teams. It reminds me of the steroid thing in baseball. I’m not sure anybody cares.”

Mike Montgomery

Pac-12 Networks, ex-coach, Commission on College Basketball 

“That could have been very impactful,” Ackerman said. “Allowing for immediate eligibility would have been alarming, but the commission put the skids on that.”

Undrafted Eligibility

The NCAA is taking a few steps out of its comfort zone by allowing players who apply for early entry to the draft and don’t get selected to return to school with their eligibility intact. That’s a change from the past when players who stayed in the draft lost their eligibility. 

Allowing undrafted players to return to school is effective only if the NBA and the union change their rules regarding the players’ free agent status. Currently, undrafted players become professional free agents. The NCAA will make undrafted players eligible to return as long as they’re not free agents until the end of the next college season. 

The reason that the NCAA doesn’t want free agents playing college basketball is to avoid a situation like Kentucky faced in 2007 when Randolph Morris went undrafted, applied for reinstatement and went through a college season as an unrestricted free agent, essentially making him eligible to be “called up” by an NBA club. NCAA rules have changed since then.

The NCAA also created a rule that will allow agents to consult with players who request an evaluation from the NBA. The idea is that players will benefit from an agent’s input when deciding whether to turn pro. If the player returns to school, the relationship must end. The NCAA has similar rules for baseball and hockey players who are considering the draft.

Count Len Elmore, a former agent himself who now does TV analysis for Fox and teaches at Columbia University, as a skeptic of the new access for agents.

“It just blows my mind,” said Elmore, a teammate of McMillen’s at Maryland in the 1970s. “Many of the problems in the game are precipitated by the agents, so why would you let them into the game earlier. You’re just asking for more
trouble.”

There has been some conversation about allowing a player who has spent a year or two in the pros to return to college. But the concern is that a player who has already played in the NBA or the G League would be a free agent and could return to the pros in the middle of the college season.

Other reform-minded adjustments, such as a new summer recruiting calendar and stricter enforcement of the recruiting rules, are being implemented.

“Only time will tell how effective the reform package will be,” Ackerman said.

Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman says “most of the programs, from where we sit, fall into the ‘good apple’ category.”
Photo: getty images