Commentary

NCAA basketball needs new ideas

Instead of recycling old thoughts and coaches, reclaim players and improve the game

Updated: April 1, 2010, 1:05 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

Really? Tim Floyd? The guy who's one tortured O.J. Mayo explanation away from landing a spot on "Dancing With the Stars" is suddenly the new basketball coach at UTEP?

[+] EnlargeTim Floyd
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltTim Floyd says he'd recruit O.J. Mayo again. Talk about needing new ideas.

Indeed he is. Also, for those keeping score, Steve Lavin -- of the basketball Lavins -- takes over at St. John's, while the presidents of your finer university establishments ponder whether their "student-athletes" can somehow withstand the addition of teams to a tournament field that is stuffed already with fakers, hangers-on and the terminally marginally qualified, because, well … it really pays.

So sure, college basketball is officially out of ideas.

The hirings of Floyd and Lavin alone should make it clear that there's nothing new under the sun. I hesitate to use the word "retread" in either case, since people seem to find it pejorative, so instead let us simply stipulate the facts: Floyd is on his seventh head-coaching go-round, having just run away from USC last year; and Lavin is seven years removed from his UCLA days (but not from the hearts and minds of America's discerning college hoops fans, thanks to the World Wide Leader).

And for the record, Floyd says he heard DePaul was going to call him about its coaching vacancy, and that after fleeing his "lack of support" at USC last summer he was offered jobs by both Memphis and Arizona. Way to charge down that different path, fellas.

But it's the tourney talk that puts the lie to the conceit that the NCAA is moving toward a "new" anything. Listen, expanding the tournament is a conversation as old as Dollar Bill himself. Only the scale and the names change. The greed factor is omnipresent, and, unquestionably, that extends to any college sport from which a school president or A.D. thinks he can turn a profit. It's just a little more visible right now in basketball.

Big Ten Conference commissioner Jim Delany said this week that he considers the move to a 96-team tournament field next year "probable," and while Delany no longer serves on the committee that guides and moderates such conversations, you can take his word to the bank. In the wake of the tournament we've just witnessed, such a move is almost inconceivable on a competitive scale, but of course that's not the point.

No, the point is that college hoops is scrambling around for its next good thought. The school captains will tell you that more money is always a good idea, and when you consider how many sports are getting axed at colleges and universities, I guess it's a fair hope that one of the "major" sports can generate enough revenue to cover for the others (although far more college football programs lose money than make it, according to the most recent estimates). But really, that's all they've got? A Wild West money grab?

If college basketball is serious about changing the face of its sport -- and I'm not suggesting that it necessarily is -- it's time to step up and do something more dramatic and meaningful than including the middle-of-the-packers from the major conferences and the rest of the NIT field (hey, no disrespect, North Carolina). It's time for something that will honestly produce a shifting of the tectonic plates.

And as it happens, there already exists a template for that. It's in just about the last place you'd look.

The baseball approach to the professional draft works in ways that the NCAA and the NBA, quite frankly, should consider for basketball. It's a remarkably straightforward system. When a player comes out of high school, he is free to sign a pro contract and take off for the hinterlands of the farm system -- but if he enrolls at a four-year college or university instead, he is not allowed back into the draft until he turns 21 or completes his junior year.

[+] EnlargeSteve Lavin
AP Photo/Craig RuttleSteve Lavin says the St. John's team he inherited isn't far from making NCAA tournament (and he doesn't mean with an expanded field).

There are exceptions, naturally. Anyone from a community or junior college can sign with a pro team any time, and D-III players are eligible before their junior seasons. But in the main, the rule achieves two mutually agreeable objectives: (1) It sends the non-college types straight into their professional lives; and (2) it fills the college ranks with quality sophomores and juniors, which not only makes the NCAA game better but also provides a ramp-up to the farm-system futures of those who will ultimately be drafted.

Now, baseball isn't basketball, and not everything translates. Baseball drafts hundreds of millions of young men -- or thousands, perhaps -- in a sort of wild, "Deadliest Catch" approach to acquiring talent each year. The NBA draft is concise, with little margin for error at the top. Baseball teams can afford to blow a No. 1 choice (or at least they used to be able to) without crippling the big league product. Not too many NBA teams can say the same.

But this much is absolutely true: The quality of NCAA basketball, at its higher levels, has seldom looked poorer than it does right now. The game is stripped. The NBA, meanwhile, is paying larger and larger salaries to "projects" who actually attended college, not that it means anything if a player only stays a year.

Memo to the NCAA: You don't need more teams in the tournament; you need better players on your teams. Tell the NBA to pound sand. Reclaim your turf. The guys who are destined to be NBA superstars won't come your way, anyway; they'll head straight for the pros or, if they truly aren't ready, the development league. And in the meantime, you get the competitive integrity of your league back. Now that is a revolutionary road.

Mark Kreidler is a longtime contributor to ESPN.com. His most recent book, "Six Good Innings," was named one of the Top 10 Sports Books of 2009 by Booklist. Reach him at mark@markkreidler.com.

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