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College basketball will do fine without this top prospect, too

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On the latest “existential threat” to the sport that I grew up on.

SLAM Summer Classic 2019 Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

One of the more annoying aspects of media coverage of college basketball is that national sports media guys are nothing if not people who look out for the interests of casual fans. Casual fans, the people who never watch golf outside of the Masters and maybe the U.S. Open (but never the Open Championship, damn Brits.) The people who dutifully watch the NFL and tune in to college football, but only for the Brand Name Programs, and might have loved baseball when they were kids but now that they’re adults, my God, who has time for 162 games?

Oh, yeah, and they’re the people who only tune in to college basketball in March. And maybe then they stop watching if those Brand Name Programs get bounced in the first weekend.

Pity the casual fan, because he won’t be getting to see top prospect Jalen Green play in college at Memphis, which would have been his choice had he not opted for the G-League. Well, sort of.

California high school star Jalen Green, the No. 1 prospect in the 2020 ESPN 100, is making the leap to a reshaped NBA professional pathway program — a G League initiative that sources say will pay elite prospects $500,000-plus and provide a one-year development program outside of the minor league’s traditional team structure.

If you’re confused by this, the NBA is more or less paying Jalen Green half a mil to train for the 2021 NBA Draft and play a handful of exhibition games against G-League teams. Sounds like a pretty sweet gig, if you can get it.

Or, if you’re Yahoo’s Pete Thamel, a “big middle finger to the NCAA” (his headline, not mine.)

Combine this trend with the general expectation that the NBA draft will begin taking high school players in 2022, and it’s all bad news for college basketball. A sport that’s seen elite star power like Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose and Zion Williamson the past two decades will instead be led by Luka Garzas, Malachi Flynns and Payton Pritchards.

Oh no. Not Luka Garza, Malachi Flynn, and Payton Pritchard. (Is it a coincidence that he chose those guys and not, say, Cassius Winston? I’ll let you do a Google Images search and figure that one out yourself.)

Meanwhile, here’s USA Today’s Dan Wolken with a more measured take (more measured, in that at least he didn’t go for the “oh noes, white guys” tack):

Imagine being in the middle of a half-decade stretch where you had Kevin Durant’s games at Texas leading Sportscenter every night or Anthony Davis leading Kentucky to a national title and saying, “Yeah, we’d rather players like that just skip college if there’s a more attractive option out there.” But here we are.

(And SB Nation, being SB Nation, had an article written by the college basketball writer with the headline “Jalen Green is the perfect G League prospect to take down the NCAA.” You keep right on going with your hate boner for the NCAA, SB Nation.)

Okay, look, guys: I loved the 1990s, too, and if you’re slightly older than me you probably really loved the 1980s. But that golden age of college hoops isn’t coming back, and those days have been long gone ever since Kevin Garnett was selected with the #5 pick of the 1995 NBA Draft.

Oh, what’s that? You mean there was actually a period before when this happened? That’s right: from 1995 to 2005 (when the NBA implemented the so-called “one-and-done” rule), 39 players were drafted straight from high school into the NBA. That list includes megastars like Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James; that list also includes guys you’ve never heard of like Ricky Sanchez, Ousmane Cisse, and James Lang. (And that list also doesn’t include a few guys who declared for the NBA Draft out of high school and went undrafted, like Taj McDavid.) The watershed moment might have been the 2004 draft, which saw eight high school players in the first 19 picks.

Now, I’m not going to lie to you and claim that the period from 1997 to 2006 was a watershed moment for college basketball. Still, the 2005 title game between UNC and Illinois, at the height of the prom-to-the-pros phenomenon, got a higher rating than all but one title game of the one-and-done era. More to the point, the 2015 title game between Duke and Wisconsin — the best-drawing title game of the era — drew fewer eyeballs than the 1997 title game between Kentucky and Arizona, and all but one title game between 1981 and 1994.

You get where this is going. If you want to spin it, the one-and-done era has stemmed a long-term decline in the popularity of college basketball from its heyday in the 1980s up to the mid-1990s. But if there’s been an increased interest in the sport because a handful of guys every year have a cup of coffee in college instead of going straight to the NBA, the numbers don’t show it.

Now, part of the problem if we’re looking at national championship game ratings is that, actually, teams built around one-and-done prospects haven’t actually been great at making the title game. Just two teams that built around one-and-dones have won a national title — and one of those comes with an asterisk. While freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones got all the attention on Duke’s 2015 title team, the second-leading scorer on that team was Quinn Cook, a senior. And the backbone of that team was a more traditional Mike Kryzyzewski team similar to his 2010 title team, with a bunch of four-year players doing the dirty work around the freshmen stars.

And since that 2015 Final Four, neither Kentucky nor Duke, the two recruiting powerhouses du jour, has made it back to that stage. Since that weekend in April 2015, Kentucky and Duke have ceded the spotlight to programs like Villanova and Virginia... which, well, look much more like college basketball teams did in the 1990s than one-and-done factories. Virginia’s 2019 team had just one freshman in its top eight, while Villanova’s two title teams in 2016 and 2018 had just one freshman in the top six. In between, UNC won a title while starting two seniors and three juniors.

Okay, so none of this really speaks to the popularity of the sport. After all, Duke making the title game did draw the highest ratings of the one-and-done era. Then again, that might have just been because of the name of the front of the jersey rather than the names on the back. (The title game that drew the second-most viewers of the one-and-done era was the 2010 game between Duke and Butler. The best player on that Duke team was... Jon Scheyer? That might suggest that Duke draws ratings more than star talent does. Weird how that works.)

So, look, let’s get something straight: the 1980s aren’t coming back. If that’s your point of comparison, then the “inflection point” for college basketball came about 25 years ago, not yesterday. College basketball in the 1980s and early 1990s was about star power, but it helped that the stars would stay for a while. Patrick Ewing was once Public Enemy #1 in the Northeast Corridor because he was at Georgetown for four years. Hell, Michael Jordan spent three years at UNC.

And now, Anthony Edwards might go #1 in the NBA Draft after making some highlight-reel dunks for the 13th-place team in the SEC. About the only difference between Edwards spending a year in college and Edwards spending a year in an NBA training facility is that poor Braelee Albert would not have made it onto a poster. If college basketball can’t do without that, well, the problems might be bigger than we thought.

See, the silliness of all this is that for all the talk of existential threats, business is doing pretty well, all things considered. Ratings for individual regular season games are low, but that’s largely because there are so damn many of them on television now that we don’t all have to watch Duke-UNC on ESPN. Not when I can watch Vanderbilt play MIssissippi State on the SEC Network, a game that probably wasn’t even on television a decade ago (hi, Shan Foster.) March Madness is still the phenomenon it was 25 years ago, with even the people in your office who don’t watch sports doing a bracket.

And the other thing is that there really isn’t anything the NCAA can do about this. Not when the NBA is offering guys $500,000 and they don’t even have to go to class and can concentrate on basketball full-time. (If there’s a threat here, it’s not the loss of the handful of guys who were going to be in college for no more than a year anyway, but the slow drip of Saben Lees and Jordan Bones who decide to forfeit their last year of eligibility for marginal odds of playing in the NBA. Those are the guys who actually might be moved by opportunities to profit off their name, image, and likeness — or, ya know, maybe not, since even the biggest proponents of NIL aren’t calling for players to be allowed to skip class.)

So, yes: this, too, shall pass, with maybe a minor ratings hit from NBA fans deciding to do something else on a Saturday night rather than watch the number sixteen pick in next year’s draft. Those of us watching because we’re invested in our team, on the other hand, will keep watching, to our own detriment if we are Vanderbilt fans.