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COLUMN: March Madness is over, but madness in prep basketball is on

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 | 8:55 p.m. CDT; updated 9:24 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Kentucky head coach John Calipari talks to his team during a timeout during the second half of their NCAA college basketball game against Auburn on Jan. 11 in Auburn, Ala. Kentucky won 68-53.

Now that March Madness is over, we can move on to the real madness.

We're talking about the ludicrous system that the pros and colleges conspired on to make prep stars spend an extra year passing themselves off as students, denying them the chance to start playing hoops for a living right out of high school.

They hold nationally televised spectacles to announce where they'll pretend to go to college next season. Decisions are made on where is the best place to run some pick-and-rolls, pull off a few spectacular dunks and maybe win a championship before getting on to the real task at hand: making it big in the NBA.

And now since the NBA and the NCAA can't even agree when that is — they're bickering over dueling deadlines for players to declare themselves eligible for the draft — this seems like a good time to scrap this farce of a system altogether.

Two of the system's latest victims, I mean, two of the latest crop of top prep stars — Shabazz Muhammad and Nerlens Noel — were making their announcements Wednesday night. Muhammad went first, picking UCLA over his other finalists, Duke and Kentucky.

No word on whether he would've chosen the NBA if that had been an option.

"I choose to be a Bruin," Muhammad said. "So I'll be at UCLA next year."

Although he very well could spend the next four years in school, he tellingly made no commitment beyond that.

Noel picked Kentucky, which was no surprise. Wildcats coach John Calipari has perfected the one-and-done system — now known as won-and-done — that everyone has played by since 2005.

But really, if a kid is truly serious about getting an education, he should commit to a school for a minimum of three years — just like they do in college baseball. If he wants to go to the NBA, the door should be open as soon as he picks up his high school diploma.

Don't count on any changes, though.

For everyone beyond the kids, the status quo is working out just fine.

NBA Commissioner David Stern actually wants to increase the age limit from 19 to 20, ensuring a player has to spend two years in college whether he wants to or not — development time that would further reduce the chance of a team making a huge mistake on draft day (see Kwame Brown) and delaying a player's progression to the really big money beyond entry level contracts.

"This is a not a social program. This is a business rule for us," Stern conceded recently, showing a lot more forthrightness than the NCAA ever does. "We would like a year to look at them, and I think it's been interesting to see how the players do against first-class competition in the NCAAs and then teams have the ability to judge and make judgments because high-ranking draft picks are very, very valuable."

The colleges would certainly go along with a two-and-done proposal to ensure themselves of an additional year of free labor from the best players, undoubtedly boosting their own bottom line even if it did force them to pay a bit more attention to that whole academics thing. As it stands now, the top recruits barely have to find their way to class, needing only to maintain grades for one semester to get through their required season.

Even for an educational system that long ago sold its soul, this is perhaps the greatest farce of all, trying to pass off the one-and-doners as actual student athletes.

The NCAA has shown its true colors again by attempting to push up the deadline by more than two months for players to decide whether they'll be bolting campus — a move the organization tried to sugarcoat by saying it keeps players focused on academics (yeah, right) when its true intention was to give coaches a chance to start restocking their rosters with the next wave of early entry candidates.

Granted, a player can certainly benefit from spending a year in college. It's a chance to adjust to life away from home in a controlled environment, an opportunity to grow up a bit before getting on with the rest of their life. But is college really necessary for someone who has no intention of opening a book, who already has one eye on the NBA as soon as he steps on the quad?

Many of the leading prospects already leave home while in high school, going off to play for elite prep schools that travel the country playing games, just like they do in college. Those experiences — combined with opportunities to hone their games in sophisticated AAU programs — certainly raise questions about how much a player really benefits from a single season at a university.

Sure, Brown was a colossal bust after going straight from high school to the NBA as the top overall pick in 2001. But what about LeBron James? And Dwight Howard? And Kobe Bryant? They all took the same route, and it seems to have worked out just fine for them.

Calipari is a convenient whipping boy for all that's wrong with college athletics, but he's simply playing the hand he's been dealt better than any other coach. If he's able to recruit four or five top freshmen each year, win a national championship as he did this year, send them on to the NBA and start all over again, more power to him.

Besides, it's not like he's the only coach working the system. Everyone wants to put a halo on Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, while conveniently forgetting that Kyrie Irving played a grand total of 11 games for the Blue Devils (he was sidelined much of his freshman year by a foot injury) before moving on to become the No. 1 overall pick by Cleveland.

Coach K might be quite the Svengali, but it's doubtful he had much impact on Irving's draft status or his stellar play as a rookie for the rebuilding Cavaliers.

Just imagine if this was Irving's second year in the NBA.

He should've had the choice.


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