Cinderella Swan Song?

Cinderella Swan Song?
Mar 29, 2006, 02:46 am
Cinderella Swan Song: Will the NBA age limit shatter the glass slipper for smaller upstart schools?

It was quite a show once again in the big dance. Last week’s last second heroics both sealed the fate of the Gonzaga Bulldogs and created a rather interesting bookend to the season of a program that has been one of the strangest and most intriguing stories of the last decade.

Eight seasons ago the Bulldogs burst onto the scene with 3 improbable victories in the NCAA tournament before top ranked Connecticut finally put an end to their run. Back then it was to see a program such as Gonzaga make a sustained push into the Sweet Sixteen, let alone blow by it in such impressive fashion.

The Bulldogs have now firmly entrenched themselves into the ranks of the so-called elite programs and their sustained run of success has bolstered their recruiting capability past the point of regression. The notoriety that the program has garnered for itself has gotten them television time and the exposure that comes with it. In other words, the Bulldogs are here to stay.

However, the Gonzaga success story is more than just a fairytale filled with good fortune. There is always causality involved in any situation, and circumstance played a large role in the rise to prominence that the small school from Washington has seen.

When Kevin Garnett announced in 1995 that he was going to forgo his college eligibility in order to enter the NBA draft it changed everything. While this has been well chronicled in numerous stories pertaining to the effects on both the college and pro games there is still some under-explored facets to this decision.

Most of the focus is typically on how much the college game has lost over the last decade in terms of talent and the interest that talent brings. The collegiate game has taken a backseat to the individual talent of the players who flirt with the notion of actually attending a school. The intrigue tends to center around the decisions of those individuals as they utilize the notoriety and exposure of a big-time program to launch themselves into the spotlight during a season or two that resemble little more than a campaign push.

Look no further than the way the McDonald’s All-American game was covered in the past by ESPN and how little exposure/hype it’s receiving this year in the post-age limit era. The message? Without the catchy preps to pros storyline front and center, and the inevitable cherry picking, ball-hogging and selfishness that the game ends up producing in turn, this game simply isn’t as interesting to the national media anymore.

But pure college basketball enthusiasts have never been happier, particularly fans of the elite teams that will now be enjoying these 5-star prospects.

Over the course of the eight seasons since Gonzaga first hit the scene, the number of so-called “Cinderella” teams that have found modest tournament success appears to have increased substantially. More and more of the mid-major schools are finding that they can compete with the elite programs by shrewd recruiting and keeping their players in a single system for four years. That’s why it’s probably not as much of a surprise that 11th seeded George Mason has reached the final four with a cast of relative unknowns while knocking off top ranked Connecticut in on their way to the big dance, since this is a logical extension of what we’ve seen in the past.

However, while teamwork, chemistry, and discipline can all lead to tournament success, there is a limit to what can be accomplished through that alone. Despite the homogenization of talent in college ball over the last decade, things look like they might start to “normalize” once more thanks to the implementation of the NBA age limit.

Until the league establishes a more formalized minor league system, the preps-to-pros wannabe superstars of tomorrow are going to have an easy choice facing them after graduating from high school. First off, return the tuxedo they rented for the prom. Second, quiet the buzzing flies of the community who are hyping up your head and talking NBA. Third, get yourself a shirt and tie and go try and impress Jim Calhoun, Ben Howland, Roy Williams or Coach K if you are actually talented enough to be recruited by them.

To quote one of my favorite movies: “The tables have turned Mr. Bond.” While blue chip talent will always have some celebrity associated with it, the age of 18 year olds with 80 million dollar shoe deals has come to an end. Sticking these kids back into the collegiate system, if even for a year, is going to help out all interested parties. The college level talent will increase, the quality of the pro game will improve, and the skills of the players will actually be increased. There will be an obvious trickle down effect as the 2nd and 3rd tier blue chippers start committing to the next bunch of up and coming high-major programs, in elite conferences and so on and so forth.

It seems that something as simple and short as a one year restriction on draft eligibility couldn’t do all that, but I beg to differ. As we have seen over the last decade, some of the best professional talent has ridden the High School route, but there are an overwhelming number of these players who have either taken 3-4 years to actually have an impact on the pro game and many others who simply disappeared after their heads shrank and they discovered they were in deep waters far above their capacity to swim.

What the 19 year old age restriction does is force these kids to take an objective look at who they are and what they can actually do. No more Sebastian Telfair videos chronicling their “rise to the top”, before they’ve even found modest success as a pro. No more press conferences for brace-faced boys with embarrassing myspace accounts pretending to be men before truly figuring out who they are. Like Dick Vitale so often shoves down our throats, the kids will finally allowed to be kids.

For all the poise and aptitude that Lebron James and Amare Stoudamire brought to the court directly from their High School gyms, one can look at Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady and see the early struggles they had adapting to the league. 2-3 years of spot minutes and poor decision making could have been replaced by screaming fans and adoring coeds worshiping the ground they walked on while a demanding coaching staff had them learning the fundamentals of team play and how to operate within a system--something Bryant and McGrady are still shaky with.

So, this simple 19 year old age limit is going to put the top-notch talent back into the recruiting pool, and guess what happens then? The cream rises to the top as they say and these extra 6-10 players have the type of talent that can single-handedly boost a college team to national dominance. Hello Carmelo Anthony.

But, unlike Anthony, some of these upper level amateurs are going to find that they like it just fine in the college game. A great many more will discover that they weren’t quite as good as they thought they were, which will lead to more seasons of skills refinement as they look to improve their draft stock the traditional way. The elite few who are good enough to jump to the pros after a season of ball are welcome to it, they’ve already “served their time” and in the process would have had the production that warrants the attention while helping a college program succeed.

That brings us full circle back to Gonzaga, the “Cinderella Swan Song” starts this season. While the Bulldogs have established themselves in the national consciousness, the George Masons, Wichita States, and Bradleys will have an even tougher time accomplishing what they did in this NCAA tournament. .

As the next few seasons come and go, the old school way of college basketball is going to return. The major programs are going to continue to reap the rewards of their storied histories by getting the top recruits. With the blue chippers chirping, and chopping it up on the college hardwood instead of collecting splinters in the pros, the level of competition provided by the big time schools is going to increase substantially. Just like David Stern envisioned.

Imagine throwing Dwight Howard onto Duke for a season. More simply, what if Monta Ellis, Gerald Green, and Martell Webster spent a couple seasons on campus? These players have NBA ability, but lack refined skill. In an environment that stresses what’s best on a basketball court and coupled with what’s greatest in athletic performance, the stage is set for the return of the dominant prominent collegiate programs led by standout superstar players.

There will always be room for the true Cinderella storybook team. At the age these kids are competing, and the lack of experience and maturity they have being central factors in crunch time moments, the proverbial “upset” is always just around the corner. But, there is only one glass slipper and not every foot can wear it. What makes an underdog story great is its unlikelihood and the surprise one feels when a team rises from utter obscurity to capture our hearts and tantalize us with what shouldn’t be. It’s that precious rarity that truly inspires. As the ball room fills up with the best talent from all the land, only a true Cinderella will be able to emerge from the pack of suitors to win our hearts and minds, the rest will turn to pumpkins as the brackets unfold.

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