Monday, July 14, 2008

Bettering College Basketball

A buddy of mine, Andy of Bi-Monthly Blog fame, recently asked why I had not yet commented on the moving of the college three-point line from 19'9" to 20'9". I am going to wait until closer to the start of the season to discuss the move (partly because I am torn over its effects, partly because I wasn't thinking about anything other than the draft until recently), but it got me thinking about changes that could (and should) be made to better college basketball. I wrote about one of those changes here and here, regarding Brandon Jennings and the one-year rule, but there are a couple of other changes I would make as well.

Before I get to that, I just want to say one more thing about the one-year rule. The reason I am so against it is not because I think high schoolers should be playing in the NBA - in fact, I believe the exact opposite. My problem with the rule is that the reason that it has been put into effect is because it allows the NBA to draft players that have already built up name recognition - if Derrick Rose was coming off of a state title instead of a trip to the NCAA finals, does he still go #1? Is there the same discussion revolving Oden-vs.-Durant or Rose-vs.-Beasley as the first pick? The NCAA benefits from the rule as well because they get the best players in the country suiting up for a year. The only people who don't benefit are the players themselves. They spend a year making a mockery of the term student-athlete while everyone makes money off of their talents except themselves.

If the NBA was serious about the claims that they want more of a chance to scout players they are drafting, and that they want the players to be more prepared for the NBA, make them go to school for two years (which, depending on how the Brandon Jennings situation pans out, could very well end up happening). Two years in college will give the players more of a chance to grow into their bodies (how many 19 year olds are physically ready to handle the NBA), learn the game, and develop their skills while keeping the moniker student-athlete somewhat accurate.

But that doesn't account for the issue that the players generate a ton money and do not get much compensation (what is a scholarship really worth to Michael Beasley when he only has to go to class for one semester) when, if they were playing professionally, they would be able to. Bottom line, I think that the players should be getting paid. Nothing huge - maybe like $600 a month depending on the school (bigger schools equal more revenue equal more compensation). Think about it - for any teenager that doesn't have to worry about things like rent or the cable bill, $150 a week will seem like a lot of money. Being able to get a couple of new shirts or a new pair of Jordans every week could keep a lot of players happy (especially when a lot of them get at least that already). I'll take it one step further - have the money come from the boosters that provide players with the (currently) illegal benefits. If you make the players file a tax return, then you can kill two birds with one stone - if there are legal consequences to the player receiving OJ-Mayo-esque benefits, then it will greatly reduce the likelihood of players taking that chance (right now, only USC is facing any backlash - losing scholarships, forfeiting games, fines - while Mayo gets away with just a little damage to his reputation).

Another change, as I mentioned Wednesday, is that I would make basketball (and football, baseball, or any other sport where the possibility of a career in that sport exists) a major, especially for schools with big time sports programs. Just to clarify, I'm not saying that these schools (or the NCAA) should allow these athletes to participate in the sport and represent the school without going to any class at all. Instead, educate them in something that will help these kids down the road. As Rick Reilly so tactfully noted in his column last week, there is a huge problem with athletes ending up broke way to quickly after they retire. This happens for many reasons - horrific spending decisions, poor money management, bad investments, and the fact that after taxes, agent/publicist/etc. fees, and the obligatory mansion (or two) and Bentley (or three), there really isn't that much left.

Brian Cuban (Mark Cuban's brother) had an enlightening interview with agent Jordan Woy about this issue, where Woy says

if athletes educate themselves, learn money management skills and make smart, safe investments along the way, they are usually in very good shape. After representing athletes for over 20 years, we call this our “life plan”. We take out clients to learn business networking. We have people from industries such as real estate, oil and gas, financial planning, credit repair, asset protection/estate planning, etc. come to educate the players and their wives so they can learn about these business and also determine if they are interested in any of these industries for life after sports.
Why not put the players under this "basketball" major in classes like this? For one thing, you might actually get some of them to attend and pay attention in class. Maybe you could even turn some of these one-and-done guys into honest-to-goodness student-athletes. I mean, I guarantee that Michael Beasley would have gotten more out of a class on how to value real estate or how to invest money effectively than he did from english 101 or geometry. You could even have classes on becoming a basketball coach, an announcer, or even a writer.

Needless to say, it is not as simple as creating a basketball major. For one, there are only a few schools, and only a few players at those schools, where doing something like this would even be feasible or logical (maybe just a generic professional athlete major where you can get a concentration in a particular sport would be more effective). There is also so much potential for corruption and grade fixing, a la Jim Harrick, but doesn't that already happen way too often? If a school is going to cheat, the school is going to cheat regardless of what classes the player is in.

Another risk is that some of the players under this major don't have the talent to be a pro and thus the classes that they would take would not be as beneficial to them - learning how to manage your money won't help if you can't make any. But isn't this a risk that is inherent in any major for every college student? How many college students know what they want to do in life when they choose their major? I have an econ degree, which probably won't help me too much as a sportswriter.

The bottom line is that the real student-athletes are still going to go to class and get a degree in a field they want to pursue. But by adding this option, you can help some kids learn how to capitalize on their talent and the money that they make off of it.

The last change that I would make is to eliminate the play-in game in the NCAA tournament. If one less middling high-major makes the tourney, is it really that big of a deal? Since 1985, when the tournament was expanded to 64, only 19 times has an 8 seed or lower reached the Elite 8, and only five times has one made the Final Four - 11 seed George Mason in 2006, 8 seeds North Carolina and Wisconsin in 2000, 11 seed LSU in 1986, and 8 seed (and eventual champion) Villanova in 1985.

You want more stats? Of the previously mentioned 19, only four were at-large bids that were lower than 11, meaning that they were one of the last schools to get into the tournament as an at-large - George Mason and LSU from above, 12 seed Missouri in 2002 and 11 seed Loyola Marymount in 1990 (in 2002, 11 seed Temple won the A-10 tourney). So only four times in the last 23 years has a team that could be effected by the reduction of an at-large made it as far as the Elite 8. The last few teams to get in are always either a mediocre power conference team or a very good mid-major that lost during their conference tourney. To be honest, I wouldn't mind losing one of them each year.

The biggest reason that I believe the NCAA tournament should go back to 64 teams (or at the very least remain at 65) is one simple reason: NCAA tournament pools. The way it is currently set up, the whole bracket can fit onto one, standard 8 1/2" X 11" piece of paper. All anyone in the world has to do is print out the bracket, fill in some team names, and throw down 10 bucks in your office pool and boom, you're thrown head first into the excitement of March Madness. That's the beauty of it. No matter who you are or what you do, no matter how much you care or know about college basketball, you are only one bracket away from having everything on the line.

Part of the reason it works so well is that it is so easy to print out that one piece of paper. If the tournament expands to 72, 96, 128, or whatever number Jim Boeheim asks for next, will your boss have the time to fill out that many games? Will your girlfriend have the energy to pick out her favorite mascots on multiple pages? Will the tourney still be the national spectacle it is if every average Joe and Jane doesn't fill out a bracket?

So there you have it - my proposed changes for the 2008-2009 basketball season. Leave a comment and tell me what you think.

1 comment:

Andy McKenzie said...

Good post. I like the idea of getting rid of the play in game and making the players file tax returns--although I think that paying the players is a little bit trickier than you suggest. I don't like the idea of a basketball major much, and the whole real estate investing thing doesn't make much sense either--isn't this essentially a finance class? And I also like the idea of getting rid of the play in game, I've never understood it and it should be eliminated.