Intriguing offseason storylines
HOUSTON -- Ugh.
If that was your reaction to Monday night's national championship game -- in which national fan favorite Butler had its underdog dreams depressingly dashed thanks to UConn's defense, poor shooting and more poor shooting -- well, I'm right there with you.
Then again, I'm not complaining about the game itself. No, it wasn't our finest national championship ever. Yes, it paled in comparison to last year's thriller. No, watching a team post the lowest field goal percentage in any NCAA tournament game since 1946 isn't fun. But Monday night's finale was merely one game in a tournament, and a season, that offered up more than its fair share of brilliant play, upset surprises and down-to-the-wire madness. Complaining about that championship final is like complaining about a so-so dessert after the best steak of your life. Let's not get greedy.
No, I'm "ugh"-ing because Monday night's national title means one thing: It's the offseason. Oh, the interminably long college basketball offseason. The World Cup-free offseason. The offseason of the greedy NFL owner and the questionable NBA lockout. The Cubs-aren't-any-good, man-I-stink-at-golf, hey-maybe-there-are-some-old-games-on-ESPN-Classic offseason.
Yeah. Like I said. Ugh.
It's a long, hard road 'til we make our way to the promises of Midnight Madness in mid-October; according to my count, we're 189 days away from the official start of the 2011-12 basketball season. Shudder.
The good news? College hoops season never really goes away; there's always something to watch in the months between April and October. In that spirit, then, here's a rundown of the 10 biggest storylines of the 2011 offseason. It won't be easy, but we'll get through this one together.
1. How the likely NBA lockout changes college basketball
The effects of what will almost certainly be an NBA work stoppage -- initiated by the owners, led by NBA commissioner David Stern and designed to reduce the NBA's salary cap and guarantees on contracts, among other things -- could have a profound impact on the amateur game both this summer and for years to come. This is really offseason storyline one, two and maybe three. Why?
1. The age limit could change. Lots of casual college basketball fans complain about the one-and-done rule as if it's something the NCAA can control. In reality, one-and-done was created by the NBA's 2006 collective bargaining agreement to raise the minimum age for entering the league from 18 to 19. In theory, 18-year-old NBA prospects didn't have to come to school; they could play that extra year of basketball overseas, or they could spend a year working out with a personal trainer. In practice, though, the one-and-done created a special class of college hoopster: the eight-month mercenary intent on making a brief league-bound college layover as short and painless as possible.
The one-and-done rule's effect on the college game has been mixed. At the very least, having the game's brightest young stars -- Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose, John Wall, Kyrie Irving -- in the sport for one season, even if it's only one season, has been a net benefit. But the rule has also raised some serious ethical concerns, increased annual star-power turnover at the top end of the sport, and given birth to the O.J. Mayo-style "Who cares if I get benefits now? By the time anyone finds out I'll be in the NBA" compliance headache.
When the NBA and the NBA Players Association sit down to hash out the new CBA this offseason, the age limit won't be the primary concern. That concern, as always, will be how the league balances the money it makes between players and owners. (NBA ownership and players are also divided over things like the salary cap, guaranteed contracts, the rookie salary scale, and more. Fun!) But the age limit will be among the items on both sides' bargaining chips. Stern and the NBA ownership would like to extend the age limit to two years. The NBAPA would like to obliterate the age limit and allow 18-year-olds to be NBA rookies again.
Whether the two meet in the middle, or whether one side (specifically the players' association, which is more concerned with veteran salaries and guarantees) decides to use the age limit as a throw-in, any change would trigger the most profound overhaul in college basketball since well, since the age limit was changed in the first place.
2. Will the lockout uncertainty keep players out of the draft?
We've already seen Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger, a possible No. 1 overall pick, turn down that spot by saying he'll return to the Buckeyes for his sophomore season. We've also already seen Duke point guard Kyrie Irving, a possible No. 1 overall pick, decide to hire an agent and leave for the NBA draft. How much did those decisions have to do with the NBA lockout? It's hard to say. (For his part, Sullinger seems more concerned with adding things to his game and winning an NCAA title, and the lockout clearly didn't deter Irving.) How much will the prospect of missing an entire rookie season -- or, at worst, being drafted into a league that technically doesn't exist -- loom over each top prospect's draft decision in the days and weeks to come? We're about to find out.
Which dovetails nicely into No. 3
3. Should they stay or should they go?
This is the key question every potential NBA draft pick must make, and thanks to recent changes to the draft decision deadline -- players must declare by April 24, and the shortened deadline to return to college basketball or stay in the draft is May 8 -- those prospects are forced to make their decisions at warp speed. Of course, this doesn't just impact potential one-and-done players like Irving, Sullinger and North Carolina's Harrison Barnes. It also affects every team with a possible first- or second-round pick on its roster. Those range from Arizona (Derrick Williams) to Colorado (Alec Burks) to North Carolina (Barnes et al) to Texas (Tristan Thompson, Jordan Hamilton) to Vanderbilt (Jeffery Taylor, John Jenkins). How the national college hoops landscape looks today could be vastly different from how it looks May 9, and that disfiguring will come thanks in large part to the varied decisions of the NBA's latest crop of talent.
4. Who's No. 1?
A classic offseason question on par with "Who's leaving for the draft?" the often-collective decision over next year's consensus No. 1 team is both fascinating and ultimately pointless. After all, when we're talking about the No. 1 team, we're talking about polls, and we all know that college basketball polls can have little more than a passing relationship with reality. Still, with North Carolina forwards John Henson and Tyler Zeller returning to school, and with the possibility that Barnes could also stay, are the Tar Heels our consensus No. 1? Should Ohio State -- which returns Sullinger, freshman point guard Aaron Craft, freshman forward Deshaun Thomas and junior guard William Buford -- receive the top nomination? And what about Kentucky, which this fall will welcome what is arguably the greatest recruiting class of John Calipari's career? (Which, given Calipari's recruiting track record, is saying something.) All three will have a shot at the preseason No. 1, a shot to enter the year as the overriding favorite, a shot to underwhelm -- or outperform -- seven months of basketball-free expectations before reality finally sets in.
5. Is the coaching carousel done spinning?
Most programs with coaching vacancies typically like to fill those vacancies before, or during, the Final Four; no athletics director likes to leave a program in limbo for too long. Hence the new hires at all of this offseason's biggest open jobs: NC State hired Mark Gottfried (meh); Georgia Tech hired Brian Gregory (yikes); Tennessee landed Cuonzo Martin in the midst of its post-Bruce Pearl mess (not too bad, given the circumstances); Oklahoma lured Lon Kruger away from UNLV (pretty good!); and after Mike Anderson left for Arkansas (the hire of the offseason), Missouri went from a potential Matt Painter hire (wheee!) to settling on Frank Haith (ouch) in the matter of a week.
Is the job-hopping frenzy over? It seems that way. Few of the hires above lured top coaches away from the kind of program that would conduct a national, rumor-filled coaching search. What's more, the biggest remaining vacancies lie at Miami and UNLV, and while one of those jobs might lure a big-time candidate away from his current position -- see Kansas State coach Frank Martin, who could be interested in a return to his sunny hometown to head up the Hurricanes -- none seem likely to spring mass movement the way a big hire often can. Unless one of the NBA's locked-out franchises decides to make a gigantic offer to a top college coach, the rest of the offseason should be light on big-time coaching intrigue.
6. The aftermath of conference realignment.
Conference realignment may not be over -- don't be surprised if a mess of teams end up changing leagues in years to come -- but it doesn't appear to have major momentum this offseason, not after a 2010 summer that remade the look of college sports in conferences large and small, rich and poor. Still, conference realignment takes its first big step toward reality this summer, when, for example, Nebraska joins the Big Ten, Colorado and Utah join the Pac-10 (er, Pac-12), BYU moves its basketball program to compete with Gonzaga and Saint Mary's in the WCC, and so on. How will last summer's football-driven moves affect next winter's basketball? We'll see hints sooner than you think.7. The rise of Butler.
Make one national title game and you're a cute little story: Look at that mid-major competing with the big boys!
Isn't that nice? Make two national title games and, well, that's something else entirely. Butler's second straight appearance on college basketball's grandest stage wasn't just a high-water mark for mid-majors on the rise, or proof that experience and coherence can overcome the resources and talent available at larger programs with deeper pockets. It was also a possible harbinger of a burgeoning hoops dynasty. Butler coach Brad Stevens is constantly name-dropped in possible job openings, but he doesn't look likely to leave Indianapolis any time soon: He has a long-term contract, a happy home situation and the cachet to wait for the dreamiest of dream jobs before he makes a career move. In the meantime, Stevens has made the Bulldogs -- and, for that matter, himself -- a national brand. Could Butler -- a small, Indianapolis-based school with a limited athletics budget and an enrollment of about 4,000 -- become college hoops' newest dynasty?
OK, maybe not. (It's hard to be Duke, or for that matter Connecticut, when you play in the Horizon League.) But it will be worth watching what kind of players Stevens begins competing for on the recruiting trail. This year, he narrowly missed on future Indiana forward Cody Zeller, who would have been the biggest recruit in the history of Butler basketball. Does Stevens start landing the Zellers of the world? Will high school players be attracted to the Butler Way? The Bulldogs may never recruit a McDonald's All-American, and Stevens may not want to, but Butler's advance onto the national scene should make mid-level prospects -- especially those from Indiana's still-vibrant rural hoops culture -- consider its intelligent family-oriented coach, its relationship-first program and the idea of building a national hoops power from humble beginnings.
8. No more changes to the NCAA tournament. (Please?)
The tournament's expansion to 68 teams was arrived at after a full offseason of wailing and gnashing of teeth. For a time, the NCAA seemed intent on expanding to 96, but once it became clear that fans (and, of course, the media) hated this idea -- with good reason -- the NCAA took a much more reasonable path.
Since then, the cause for expansionist alarm has been minimal. But there are dissenters out there. For one thing, most college hoops coaches still believe in the power of 96 teams; coaches, obsessed with their own job security, have always believed a bigger tournament would make their lives easier. There's also the notion -- vague but still out there -- that Virginia Commonwealth's thrilling, unexpected First Four-to-Final Four run is proof that even the NCAA tournament's most marginal teams deserve a chance to do the same.
This idea is wrong, of course, and the reasons are both too obvious and too lengthy to discuss in detail here. But since NCAA president of basketball operations Greg Shaheen refuses to rule out the possibility of further tourney expansion in years to come, anti-expansion vigilance is still required.9. The NCAA's continued crackdown on the seedy side of college sports.
Last summer, the NCAA made its most pointed effort in modern history to curb the influence of agents, runners and other nefarious negative influences on college basketball. The results were both noteworthy and messy. The NCAA Committee on Infractions did crack down. This is a good thing. But the NCAA Committee on Infractions isn't great at messaging. As such, the differing punishments for seemingly similar penalties; the apparent toothlessness of some of the NCAA's suspensions (see: Ohio State football, Jim Calhoun); and the always-present questions about the NCAA's right to insist on amateurism while cashing billions of (albeit reinvested) dollars from the performance of student-athletes left many cold.
How will the NCAA continue this work in the offseason to come? How will the infractions committee decide the Tennessee case, which it will hear June 10-11, and what will that say, if anything, about the sport's future? Either way, expect plenty of hand-wringing and, more helpfully, plenty of discussion about the modern state of college sports, amateurism and the NCAA's place in both.
10. In the meantime, the summer recruiting circuit will roll on.
The average fan doesn't share much in common with the big-time college hoops coach -- multimillion-dollar salary and access to private air travel are among the major differences -- but they do have one thing in common: Both spend most of the summer agonizing over recruiting.
Unlike in recent years, most of the 2011 class has already decided its future. (None of the remaining uncommitted ESPNU 2011 top 100 recruits are in the top 30 in the class.) That's not the case for the Class of 2012, however, which will spend much of its summer playing AAU ball, attending various camps (sponsored by shoe companies, of course) weighing scholarship offers and moving up and down ESPNU's list of the top freshmen-to-be in the nation. Recruiting is probably the most annoying and unseemly part of being a college hoops fan -- and for that matter, a coach -- but, as always, it holds many a program's future in the balance.
Hope springs eternal in young legs. The summer of 2011 will be no different.
Eamonn Brennan covers college basketball for ESPN.com. You can read him Monday through Friday on the College Basketball Nation blog.
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