It didn’t take long for my chances at a billion dollar bracket were destroyed. I picked the Duke Blue Devils to beat Michigan State in the National Championship, but Duke couldn’t even get past Mercer University, who I had to Google to find out is located in Georgia. It’s anyone’s tournament at this point, and it’s a reminder that basketball is at its best when played as a team. That’s the beauty of the NCAA tournament: the unexpected happens, and it’s virtually impossible to pick the outcome. It’s a fun tournament and in a lot of ways is better than what the NBA has to offer.
My bracket picks were by no means the most educated ones out there, but I wasn’t in the minority when I thought Duke would advance past the 1st round, or even past the Sweet Sixteen. Mike Krzyzerski is one of the best coaches in the history of college basketball, and has guided the Blue Devils to 11 Final Fours and four NCAA Championships since taking over the program in 1980. They’re the villain of college basketball, since they’re always good, and they carry themselves with an air of superiority. They’re what the Yankees are for baseball and the Canadiens are for hockey. It’s hard to pick against that kind of success. This year, Coach K had arguably the best player in college basketball in 19 year old freshman Jabari Parker. I saw maybe half a dozen college hoops games this regular season, but I was impressed with what I saw from Parker, and was hoping that my Boston Celtics would somehow land a high enough draft pick to get him this summer. My excitement over Parker sold me on Duke in the tournament, and it ended up costing me.
Parker had a bad game. Even the best players have bad games. It’s better if it doesn’t happen in the first game of the NCAA tournament against a team that you have no business losing to on paper, but that’s what happened. Paker scored 14 points, went 0-3 from the three point line, and had four fouls and four turnovers. Parker looked like a freshman playing against a team of seniors that weren’t afraid of taking shots, and had overcome adversity just to make the tournament. This is why college basketball players should stay in college. It’s a good place to learn these kinds of lessons. I understand the arguments for allowing high school seniors to enter the NBA draft. Kevin Garnett was ready for the NBA at 18. So was Kobe Bryant. So was Lebron James. But those are three of the ten best drafted into the NBA in my lifetime. Most kids that age could benefit from a few more reps in college before running with the big boys of the NBA. Allowing more time to develop in college would improve the quality of NBA players, and would improve the quality of these college games, too, if coaches don’t have to turn their rosters over every year. At the end of the day, a good basketball program should have a greater emphasis on the whole team, rather than putting so much weight on one 19 year old star. Coach K should know that. If it were up to me, high school players would be allowed to enter the draft, so the KGs and the Lebrons and the Kobes of the world can play in the NBA as soon as they have a diploma, but if you play college basketball, you must make at least a two year commitment, and players might actually learn a thing or two in class while they’re there.
Parker had such a good season that he might still get drafted with the #1 overall pick, but his early exit from the tournament opens the door for players like Julius Randle of Kentucky and Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid of Kansas to move up if their teams go on a run. They’re teenagers. The outcome of this tournament will not make or break their basketball careers if they respond to it the right way. There have been plenty of college superstars who have gone bust in the NBA, but there have also been plenty who elevated their game at the next level beyond what anyone thought they could. Larry Bird didn’t wallow in despair after his Indiana State lost to Magic Johnson’s Michigan State. Instead Bird and Magic took their rivalry that revived college basketball to the Celtics and Lakers and reignited the best rivalry in this history of the sport. They combined for eight championships as players, and it may have been more if they had today’s advancements in sports medicine when their careers were declining 25 years ago. If these kids stay healthy, work hard, and learn from their failure, they will have a lot of basketball ahead of them. In the meantime, we get to sit back and watch some great games, hoping that one of these great young players will be wearing green and white this time next year.