NCAA basketball is now officially the NBA’s farm system

I enjoyed watching the Kentucky-Kansas NCAA Championship game last night, but not nearly as much as I have earlier finals, such as the Butler-Duke game two years ago. That game was in doubt even during the final second, when Gordon Hayward came inches away from winning it for Butler with a 45-foot shot released microseconds before the buzzer.

Here’s the difference. Duke-Butler was a college basketball game. The stars were college players, most of which might have had NBA fantasies, but only four of which were drafted: Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack, Lance Thomas and Kyle Singler. Three still play in the NBA. Singler plays in Europe. Of the NBA players, only Hayward is a starter. [Later... see corrections in the comments below.]

The Kansas-Kentucky final was a pro game. By that I mean that the game showcased a lot of future NBA talent. “What I’m hoping is there’s six first-rounders on this team.” Kentucky coach John Calipari told the LA Times. “We were the first program to have five, let’s have six.” On the Kansas side, there’s Thomas Robinson for sure. Others likely to be drafted, when available, are Jeff Withey and Elijah Johnson. Another way of looking at it: Kansas-Kentucky was a college-pro game. Kansas was the college team, and Kentucky was the pro team.

But still, all the perennial high-seed college teams — including Kansas — have become showcases for NBA-bound talent. UNC, which many (including President Obama) expected to win it all this year, just saw three of their starters declare for the NBA draft. Last year’s top draft pick was Kyrie Irving, who played less than one year for Duke (he was injured some of the time). Austin Rivers, a freshman star at Duke this year, has also just declared for the NBA draft.

Part of me wants to believe that every great team takes years to assemble, even given the yearly attrition of talented underclassmen and graduating seniors. Yet the Kentucky team that won the championship this year was a very tight, well-coached and utterly unselfish team. They played some of the best team defense I’ve ever seen. I’d bet that John Calipari could put together an all-freshman team and get more than 30 wins in a season. Of course talent is required, but so is coaching, and a program that’s geared for one-and-done players prepping for their NBA careers by putting in a year at Kentucky. Even though most of those players won’t last, even if they do get drafted.

The 2012 Early Entry List at NBAdraft.net tells a story by itself. A handful of the the 107 players listed there will make it in the NBA. And that makes the unspoken sub-story of the tournament even more poignant. The Onion, as usual, surfaces those stories, with Totally Predictable Ending To Wild NCAA Tournament Prepares Student-Athletes For The Rest Of Their Miserable, Ho-Hum Lives and Nation Abuzz With Prospect Of 18-Year-Old Boys Having Their Dreams Crushed.

Which means that the NIT is now the only true college tournament, because — being comprised of teams that couldn’t make the NCAA playoff cut — they feature few future NBA players. Stanford won this year, and none of its players are on NBAdraft.net‘s list.

I’m not wringing my hands over this. Only pointing out a fact that just became clearer.

6 comments

  1. Mike Warot’s avatar

    I wish the NCAA would stop abusing these kids, and just give them 2 things… a full ride scholarship redeemable for the rest of their lives… (so they could get a degree after their “career”) AND pay.

    These kids subject themselves to possibly life crippling injuries to benefit the schools that collectively make Billions of dollars off of them, the least they could do is to stop treating them as serfs, and actually pay them the market rates for their talents. (Plus the above mentioned perk)

    In the age of ad supported everything, the “pure amateur” status of college athletes is a joke, and a cruel abuse of these young men and women.

    –Mike–

  2. Dave’s avatar

    Lance Thomas was not drafted. He played his way onto the Bobcats after playing well in the D league. Nolan Smith was drafted though and Mason Plumlee will be.

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Dave. I was going mostly by memory. Should have remembered Nolan Smith. Agreed about Plumlee. How do you expect Austin Rivers to do? I’m surprised his old man didn’t tell him to give it another year.

  4. JT’s avatar

    I heard that someone studied the NCAA champions of the past 15 years or so, and found that the winning team averaged 4 future NBA players.

    Does anyone know of a link to that data?

    Nice article, Doc. I’m no Kentucky fan, but I have to respect the quality of their play this year. It was very good basketball.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Dunno, JT. Maybe somebody else can weigh in on that. Even some of the low seeds that have won championships turn out to have been pretty darn good on draft day. Like when NC State beat Houston, it was Thurl Bailey, Sidney Lowe, Lorenzo Charles and Derrick Wittenberg over Clyde Drexler, Akeem Olajuwon, Reid Gettys, Michael Young, Cadillac Anderson … (again, as I recall). Houston had the better pros, but State didn’t have slouches. They were an outstanding team.

    Another recollection… The late, great Al McGuire, who won the championship with Marquette way back there, once said of Duke’s Kenny Dennard, “Give me four Dennards and a star, and I can get you into the NCAAs.” That would be five NBA players, since Kenny did have a brief but real NBA career.

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