The first time I went to a Latin dance club here in the United States, I was in graduate school in Richmond, Virginia. I was fairly confident in my abilities, as I had studied in Ecuador, and had spent some, shall we say, cultural and anthropological time in a few dance halls in and around Quito. My Bolivian friends who had invited me were quite impressed, I must say, at the yeoman like effort I exhibited while showing off my knowledge and skills of the Salsa. Then…it happened. I realized that there were other dances…many other dances…and that I was going to be relegated to the sidelines quickly. You see, this thing called Reggaeton, a musical hybrid with Latin and Rap influences, was sweeping the world, and brought with it new dances. If you couldn’t Bachata or Merengue, you were sipping water with all the other wallflowers. In order to impress or be involved, I had to learn and adjust quickly, and on the fly, as it were.
Much like Latin dance halls in the mid 2000s, the NCAA basketball landscape is undergoing, or has undergone, a dramatic change in how one goes about the business of winning. The NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament, aka ‘The Big Dance”, now has two prescriptions for this fever they call March Madness. The old faithful remedy of getting through the arduous process of winning game after game, with only a day’s rest, and with the hope of reaching the Final Four or maybe even winning the entire championship, is to recruit talented players, nurture, counsel, and coach them for four years, and then let experience, wisdom, and muscle memory take over at that key moment that decides a champion’s fate. It works. It is a tried and tested path to excellence. Recently, however, there is a new way to win. It involves recruiting incredibly talented players out of high school, with the knowledge that he will only be with your team for one academic year and season, and then he will take his talents to the professional leagues. These wunderkind of basketball prowess are now known as “One and Done’s”, for the amount of time spent at the collegiate level, and these differing methodologies of dancing in “The Big Dance” are on full display in this NCAA Tournament, with powerhouse teams like Kentucky, Florida, Kansas, North Carolina, and Duke all showing variances and effects of these differing approaches.
To understand how this became an issue, one has to understand the relationship between the NCAA and the NBA. There have always been kids who have gone to the NBA straight from high school. It’s a free country, and with no rules in place to prevent it, why not, if he is deemed talented enough by the professionals? Old school guys like Reggie Harding, Moses Malone, and Darryl Dawkins had great careers. Even after the NBA became a worldwide phenomenon in the Jordan-led 1990’s, there were names like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O’Neal, and Tracy McGrady making the leap from prep ball to the NBA successfully…and that’s an understatement. The problem arose in the 2000s with the sheer numbers of kids thinking they could make that jump, and with some doing so with catastrophic results. From 1995-1999, there were nine young men drafted into the NBA from high school. From 2000-2004, there were twenty-one young men drafted into the NBA from high school. Twenty-one. To be fair, there were success stories. Names like LeBron James, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Dwight Howard were a part of that group, and are household names, but so were Kwame Brown, James Lang, Robert Swift, Dorell Wright, Sebastian Telfair, among others…and that doesn’t even touch on the kids who thought they would get drafted, quit on academics in high school, and never played a game in the League (see ESPN’s documentary on Lenny Cooke for a gut wrenching example). Thus, in 2005 the NBA instituted the “One and Done” rule with an age stipulation that requires players entering the draft to be 19 years old or have completed their freshman year of college. This is how we got here. Every year college coaches are running the roads trying to get these kids with ridiculous basketball talent, who now have to play a year at the collegiate level, to come play basketball for them, basically renting them for a season, to try and win a championship. Some have found great success in doing so, but not everyone employs this strategy, and both styles of coaching and recruiting are at play in this tournament.
The most delineated examples of this dichotomy of direction are the programs of Kentucky and Florida. John Vincent Calipari is the head men’s basketball coach at the University of Kentucky. He has been wildly successful and won everywhere he has coached. He has also left a wake of controversy everywhere he’s won. To say that Coach Calipari is unconventional, would be putting it politely. Unsurprisingly, he has taken the “One and Done” philosophy and has made it his own. No other coach in the country has embraced this philosophy the way he has, and, the thing is, he’s won. In fact, one could argue that his 2012 National Championship team was one of the single greatest teams in all of college basketball history…and yet…there is the crunch. Only one…maybe two…of those players on that team who contributed anything came back the next year. They all bolted to the NBA, leaving UK fans and coaches perched on the edge of their seats waiting to see what other 17-18 year old kid, or kids, would commit to play next season for them at historic Rupp Arena, only to bolt that same year themselves. In fact, this fall, they were printing 40-0 t-shirts in Lexington before the season even started, and before even one of those 17-18 year old young men had even played a game for Kentucky. It is a strange kabuki dance, to be sure. Florida, and its coach Billy Donovan, a protégé of Rick Pitino, has done it a little differently. One might say he’s old school. Florida has four seniors and a sophomore who start for them, and they, too, have been very successful this season…as in the Number 1 team in the nation for most of the season. And yet, both teams, as I write this, find themselves at the same place at the same time…knocking on the door of the Sweet 16.
Kentucky isn’t the only school to wade in the mercurial waters of the “One and Done”. Kansas, who built all of their hopes on two incredibly talented young men named Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, won their conference, but just flamed out in the Round 2. Duke, who placed hopes on a terrific freshman named Jabari Parker lost in Round 1. And then you have the smaller schools…the Creightons, Mercers, San Diego States, and Wichita States…who have no chance of landing a big time recruit, and have to win the traditional way. If the big time schools all go the way of the one year player, are the mid-majors going to be the last bastion of traditional collegiate hoops? It could happen.
There are other issues involved here that would require more time, space, and expertise than I have in order to do them justice…the effects of AAU, the academic side of players only studying for 1 semester, etc. But I can say that the game of college basketball isn’t just one of in-game philosophies anymore. The advent of the rented one year player has changed the game. The question is…can they win that way? And is it worth it? We’ll see…as the glitzy David Bowie would say…”Let’s Dance!”
(W. Michael Lawson is an alumnus of Lee University and University of Richmond. Mr. Lawson currently hosts a weekly radio show “The Strong Sauce Hour” and Co-hosts a daily sports show “The Sports Drive” on 101.3 FM/1570 AM. You can follow him on twitter @thestrongsauce.)