College basketball, Episode 2006-07: The Empire Strikes Back?
The force was with the common man last season. The Colonial Athletic Association's George Mason got to the Final Four and the Missouri Valley Conference placed four teams in the NCAA tournament, as many as the Big 12, Pacific-10, and - most vital in this corner of the hoops solar system - the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The offseason featured talk - aggrieved ACC coaches consider six bids a birthright - and action. The NBA will no longer draft a player until he's 19, and one year past the graduation of his high school class.
In 2004, eight of the first 19 players selected were young Americans with no college experience, but now kids of that caliber are being steered to campus. Will that become the major conferences' Death Star, crushing the rebellion among the mid-majors?
For Yoda-like insight, turn to Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt, who last December predicted that the 2006 tournament would include a No. 16 seed beating a No. 1 and a mid-major team in the Final Four. With a solid shooting percentage of .500, what fallout does Hewitt see from the new draft policy?
"After the Dream Team spread the popularity of the game [at the 1992 Olympics], and Kevin Garnett put his name in the '95 draft [leading other schoolboys to do the same], there was so much parity," Hewitt said. "Now, I think the age requirement is going to turn back the clock. The power conferences are going to have the kids who are earmarked for greatness."
Greg Oden, Ty Lawson and Kevin Durant enrolled at Ohio State, North Carolina and Texas, respectively. Their teammates on the 2006 McDonald's All-America team won't be found at a Bradley, Hofstra or Manhattan.
Not everyone at the top agrees that last season was more passing tremor than tectonic shift.
As Duke's Mike Krzyzewski said, "the NBA is full of guys who weren't McDonald's All-Americans, or didn't go to big programs."
Pat Flannery used some of those second-tier recruits to coach Bucknell to wins in each of the past two NCAA tournaments.
"The BCS schools can't take everyone," Flannery said, referring to the six major conferences that have lorded over college football and the Final Four. "Recruiting isn't scientific. You can't tell me that some BCS schools aren't any different than the rest of us. Their jobs aren't easy, taking chances on 10th- and 11th-graders."
For every potential lottery pick ready to leave college after one or two seasons, there's a veteran team primed to bring an even more premature end to his college career - think George Mason beating Connecticut and Rudy Gay in a regional final last March.
"An Oden can go to an Ohio State, yet Ohio State can still lose some games," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "It only has to be one night."
That essential charm of the NCAAs seems lost on some ACC coaches, who still bemoan the exclusion of Florida State and Maryland from the 2006 field. The ACC failed to put a team in the Elite Eight for only the second time since 1979, but that didn't stop Wake Forest's Skip Prosser from describing only one-third of the conference getting in the NCAAs as an "abomination," "slap in the face" and "clarion call."
From 2001 to 2005, Duke, Maryland and North Carolina won national championships, an unprecedented display of depth that had no carryover.
"What gets lost is that we look at teams, not conferences," said George Mason athletic director Tom O'Connor, a member of the NCAA men's basketball committee. "We can't look at past history. That's not fair to the student-athletes. Every year, there are new players, new coaches, new systems."
ACC complaints about the makeup of the 10-man committee appear baseless. Four are from the six BCS conferences; men from other conferences, of which there are 25, hold the six other positions.
The rhetoric crossed conferences in March, when Williams told The Washington Post that the Missouri Valley's strategy to improve its collective standing in the Rating Percentage Index, the formula driven by strength of schedule, hadn't included the ACC. In response, several of his coaches called Maryland to schedule, to the chagrin of MVC commissioner Doug Elgin.
"When a coach takes a shot at us, that's not appropriate, but it's also not a good PR move for our guys to call Gary's office," said Elgin, a Hagerstown native. "I told them, there's no upside to complaining about scheduling. Let me do that."
With few exceptions, the MVC refuses to play guarantee games, one-game deals with no return date in which a team, usually from a BCS school, pays an opponent from a lower-rated league.
Others have adjusted to the increased scrutiny of nonconference schedules.
When the Big East expanded to 16 teams last year, commissioner Mike Tranghese campaigned for nine teams in the NCAAs. In March, it got eight. In December 2007, the Big East will begin to team with the resurgent Southeastern Conference in a smaller version of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
This season is dotted with dates that are a byproduct of the times.
Washington rarely ventures out of Seattle for nonconference games, but it will play at Big East favorite Pittsburgh in February. January includes what will be the first conference game in Baltimore featuring a team coming off the Final Four, George Mason at Towson. On Nov. 14, Wake Forest plays at Bucknell, and Prosser isn't going to central Pennsylvania as a favor to his son Mark, a Bison assistant.
"Hopefully," Prosser said, "in March, the committee will say that Wake showed chutzpah in going to Bucknell."
At-large bids will be bestowed March 11, Selection Sunday. Does the politicking matter?
"It's a simple game," Elgin said. "Schedule well, and play well."
Flannery made it more elementary than that: "Win more games."
The 10 members of the NCAA men's basketball committee (conference affiliations of athletic directors in parentheses):
Chairman: Gary Walters, Princeton (Ivy) athletic director
Dan Guerrero, UCLA (Pacific-10) athletic director
Christopher Hill, Utah (Mountain West) athletic director
Laing Kennedy, Kent State (Mid-American) athletic director
John Le Crone, Horizon commissioner
Craig Littlepage, Virginia (ACC) athletic director
Stan Morrison, UC-Riverside (Big West) athletic director
Tom O'Connor, George Mason (Colonial) athletic director
Gene Smith, Ohio State (Big Ten) athletic director
Mike Slive, SEC commissioner