Monday, April 5, 2010

Duke versus Butler: A Harbinger or Aberration?

The NCAA tournament looks like an anomaly with two small private schools that graduate 90 percent of their student athletes in basketball. They are both coached by nontraditional coaches. Mike Krzyzewski arrives from West Point via the army. Brad Stevens arrives via DePauw and Eli Lilly pharmaceuticals. Both bring focused intensity and relentless commitment to teams built around role players, commitment and relentless defense. One has coached for 30 years while one looks twelve and was 3 when coach K started coaching. On top of it all, they played an incredible game, tight, taut, well played. Good hard thoughtful basketball, a really fine game especially compared to more than a few of the recent blowouts.

I'm not sure we'll see such a repeat, although I am sure Myles Brand would appreciate the reality of small schools (yes Duke is small with an undergraduate enrollment a little over 6,000) I truly doubt we'll see many 90 percent graduation rate finals, but what fascinates me is what I hope is a deeper trend in college basketball, sort of back to the future.

The college basketball scene is deeply infected and inflected by early moving to the NBA by players. The early movement makes it very difficult to educate the young student athletes in any serious way as students and the movement makes it hard to build a strong athletic system and program over time. I can't blame the young student athletes and don't, but the early exodus hurts the college game in many ways.

The worst problem exists with the "one and done" guys. Sponsored by the NBA rule that teams cannot draft 19 year olds, the rule is ostensibly progressive to encourage kids to stay in school. It really means NBA teams did not want the liabilities and problems of baby sitting 18 year olds as they acclimate and devolope in the NBA. The NBA development league is really neither development nor a  league, so the talented 18 year olds can go to Europe, spend the year working with a trainer or hang around college for a year on a college campus, get some coaching, travel alot, and get fame and visibility that increases you draft position. Going to hang out at college for a year is a real win win for the talented player and for the NBA. But for colleges it is fool's gold.

It makes a mockery of any pretense to being students. Coaches rationalize that just being on a college campus and hanging around a couple classes helps educate the student athletes This delusion is simply delusional. Most underprepared college student athletes enter prep programs during the summer and enter calibrated classes to build up their skills. The whole experience for the first year tends to be a cocoon, for good or bad, to acclimate young athlete to startling culture changes and academic demands that  are beyond anything they dreamed of. This cocoon covers  the first semester or quarter, by the second semester, many of the one and out kids are playing full time and barely attending class. It becomes unbelievably difficult to keep them motivated to attend class and stay eligible when they plan to work with trainers and do tryouts as soon as the NCAA season is over.

You could call it the Kentucky plan, bring in three one and done kids, let them run and speed ball and hope for a little defense. The talent can get you along ways--this year to the elite eight. But besides the educational debacle, it degrades the basketball. The Kentucky plan--bring them in, do a drive and dribble offense that does not really depend upon a true team concept and then watch four of them declare for the draft one week after the NCAA finals. The model is really tempting for fast turn-arounds or if you have a razzle dazzle coach who does not worry too much about recruiting rules or graduating students, Kentucky under Calipari qualifies on all counts and got what it paid for.

Too many one and done stars or too many two and out  players, makes it very difficult to develop a strong defense. It also makes creating complex and effective offenses impossible. Coaches simply cannot teach with the athletes using a four month and jackpot time horizon. Ohio State tried it; Kentucky will perfect it with Calipari's recruiting skills and dribble/drive shoot and run or whatever offense. But the approach has real limits for schooling and quality of basketball. The only time it really works for a quality game is when a one and done star enters into a well defined and trained web of juniors and seniors so can fit into and flow with an existing team and system.

West Virginia, Butler, Duke and Michigan State all represent a different model. No one and outs. Few if any sophomore exits. Many very talented juniors, seniors--some may play pro in NBA or abroad--but all play within strong systems and all accept the role and honor of playing complicated defense that depends upon a team commitment and knowledge of each other. Most of the players have roles that they accept and pursue with relentless effort. They play as teams with roles, team oriented defense and a trust and awareness of each other that comes from a common belief system built up over time.

It would be good if this team oriented upper class built teams become the norm and offset the star riddled one and out Kentucky approach. Duke actually suffered from a surfeit of stars and early moves to NBA and early NCAA exits. It learned. Last year's North Carolina team built on seniors and juniors and the juniors and seniors left, but academically and athletically, far better three years to grow as a person, student and player, then the mockery of one and out.

This approach is better for the quality of the student athletes' education and better for the quality of the game. It is at war with the quicker more glamorous approach that Kentucky now models. Let's hope coaches figure it out for both educating and winning.

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