WASHINGTON — First, the bad news: College basketball's ranks have been depleted by the NBA. Great players like Shane Battier of Duke have moved on to the professional level. So have players who think they're great, like Omar Cook of St. Johns.
The good news: College hoops is still the king of sports (at least, in this writer's opinion) and will be as exciting as ever this year.
Why? Because for every Eddie Griffin, who skipped the best years of his life at Seton Hall for the quick riches of the NBA, there comes along an 18-year-old like Dajuan Wagner at the University of Memphis (Tenn.), who should be the most dangerous freshman guard in the country.
At powerhouses like No. 1-ranked Duke, where undisputed leader Battier paid his dues for four years, there's always someone like all-American Jason Williams to step up and take the reins of the team.
The game, in other words, is still sound. But, while college basketball may appear the same to the TV viewer, the trend of players leaving school early is having a far greater effect on the real engine of the sport: the recruiting of high school players.
More and more coaches are shying away from some of the top prospects in the country for fear that they will stay in school only one year before jumping to the NBA. In fact, some coaches think the best way they can succeed or make the Final Four is to have a veteran team of second-tier players - guys who are good enough to star at the college level but not good enough to become a first-round NBA draft pick after their freshman year.
"A lot of coaches have said they're not going to recruit that kid who will come in and play for one year, then leave early," says Greg Swaim, who runs a college basketball scouting service based in Oklahoma. "They're afraid of being left high and dry."
Rick Pitino, for instance, the new coach at Louisville, reportedly didn't recruit Wagner because Wagner, a sensational scorer from Camden, N.J., made it clear he would only play one year of college ball.
Three elite college coaches dropped interest in high school senior Kelenna Azubuike of Tulsa, Okla., because they were convinced Azubuike would rather be in the NBA than in a freshman dorm.
After losing point guard Omar Cook after only one season, St. John's coach Mike Jarvis has essentially questioned why he recruited the brilliant passer in the first place.
"The balance must shift," Jarvis said at a preseason luncheon with reporters. "I have to be a little more conservative. If I have to choose between a kid that could really develop over four years or a one-year phenom, I'm looking more at the kids that have ... [a] chance of being in college for four years."
According to recruiting experts, a one-year phenom like Cook can do more damage to a program than is immediately evident - and not just by having a bad attitude or wanting 30 shots per game. Oftentimes, it will be hard for a school to recruit another player at that same position as long as the star is enrolled in the school. Then, when the star leaves, the coach doesn't have a top-grade replacement.
The so-called "5/8" rule limits schools to bringing in only five scholarship players in one year and eight in two years. That makes it more difficult for teams to restock quickly after they lose talent. That hurt the Arizona Wildcats, for example, who played in last year's national championship game and then lost three underclassmen to the NBA. That means that this season they must make do with only 10 scholarships, compared with the normal 13.
Now consider the opposite scenario. Teams like Maryland and Illinois, arguably the two best teams in the country after Duke, have recruited a solid core of "sleepers" - players who have talent but were not McDonald's high school all-Americas. These players develop for their first two years, and by their junior or senior years, they are all-conference. The coach knows how long his players will stay, and he can recruit a steady stream of replacements.
That's the type of player Duke had in Battier last year, when it won the national championship. This year, it has maturing talents Mike Dunleavy and Carlos Boozer, the kind of players who make the difference between reaching the Sweet Sixteen and moving up to the Final Four.
The year before, Michigan State won with seasoned point guard Mateen Cleaves and forward Morris Peterson, both of whom stayed four years. Other teams with strong veterans who could compete for a national title this year are Kentucky, UCLA, Florida, and St. Joseph's (Pa.).
As for the blue-chip high school players who want to play just a year in college, their role is changing too. They've become more like big-name free agents in baseball - players a coach adds to complement a strong team in contention for a championship: "hired guns."
"What a good college coach needs to do is build a strong nucleus of four or five players," says Clark Francis, the publisher of Hoop Scoop, a scouting publication. "Then they can bring in a 'free agent,' who can be the last piece to the puzzle."