Senior moment

Juan Dixon didn't dominate as expected Monday, but he's the third straight fourth-year man to carry his team to the NCAA title. Isn't that funny, in an era when the great players all leave school early?


King Kaufman
April 3, 2002 1:00AM (UTC)

Indiana kept Juan Dixon in check. Except when it counted.

Dixon never really took over the NCAA title game Monday the way most of us thought he would. But when the game was up for grabs, when Indiana had finished one of its patented comebacks, finally taking its first lead midway through the second half after trailing by as many as 12 in the first, Dixon was there. He took over just long enough to give his Maryland Terrapins the championship.

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Indiana had taken a 44-42 lead with 9:53 to go on a goaltending call on a Jared Jeffries layup that went in anyway. Since starting the half slowly, the Hoosiers had gone on a 17-7 run over a little more than six minutes. Over the last three and a half minutes, the run had been 9-2.

Now Maryland's Steve Blake dribbled the length of the floor, penetrated and kicked it back out to Dixon, whom Dane Fife of the Hoosiers had momentarily lost track of. That didn't happen often during the course of the game. Fife blanketed Dixon and kept him from getting the ball on trip after trip down the floor. But this time Dixon had snuck away from Indiana's great defender. He caught Blake's pass and went right up, burying a three. The clock showed 9:42. Indiana had held its only lead of the game for 11 seconds.

Fife badly missed a three-pointer on Indiana's next trip, and Maryland took a three-point lead on a pair of free throws by Lonny Baxter. After Indiana got back to within one on a Fife jumper, Dixon got the ball again. This time Fife was on him. Dixon went to the dribble, drove the left side of the lane, then pushed himself into the air and away from the basket -- and from Fife, who couldn't stay with him -- and hit the fall-away jumper. Maryland led by three again.

Dixon would score only two more points, on free throws, the rest of the night to finish with 18. But his two baskets had effectively ended Indiana's run. Maryland soon led by seven again, outscored Indiana 13-3 from Dixon's fade-away to the onset of garbage time, and won the game 64-52.

In this era of high school players going straight to the NBA and college stars leaving school after a year or two for the same reason, isn't it interesting that for the last three years, a senior star has led his team to the NCAA championship? Two years ago it was Mateen Cleaves of Michigan State. Last year it was Shane Battier of Duke. Now Dixon of Maryland.

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Star players leaving big programs before their senior year have contributed to the rise, especially in the Tournament, of teams from so-called "mid-major" conferences, teams that tend to retain their stars, who aren't quite as shiny as those in the major conferences. Those teams -- Kent State, Southern Illinois and Gonzaga are examples from the last couple of years -- often benefit from senior leadership as they beat more talented but veteran-free big-conference schools.

Many brows have been knitted over the talent drain in college basketball. How can college ball keep from becoming a development league for secondary talent? the thinking goes. How can you keep 'em down on the campus after they've seen their classmates sign seven-figure contracts with the Clippers? There doesn't seem to be an answer short of paying the players. Why play college ball for free when you can make millions in the pros?

Here's what I think: I think the pendulum's going to swing back, and you're going to start seeing more top players stick around in college for longer. I think NBA teams are going to sour a little bit on the idea of paying top dollar to some talented kid for three or four years while he learns how to play the game, fills out physically, matures. There will still be some huge talents, the Kobe Bryant types, going pro in their teens, but Battier's solid rookie season for the Memphis Grizzlies will I think go a long way toward convincing teams that it's better business to draft a good player who can help your team now than to draft a high school kid or a college underclassman who might have more raw ability, but is a few years away from helping you win.

Juan Dixon will only help the argument.

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And so will Jeffries, Indiana's star. Word on the street is that Jeffries, a sophomore, is planning to enter the NBA draft this year. That's going to be a mistake. Jeffries is a talented player, with good footwork, quick moves and a reliable jump shot. He handles the ball well and makes good decisions. He was the Big Ten player of the year this season, and they don't give that to just anybody.

But though he's 6-10, Jeffries plays smaller than that. He's improved on this during the course of the season, but when he gets the ball inside, his first move is almost always away from, rather than toward, the basket. And he lacks the strength to bang inside. Baxter, at 6-8, 260 pounds, manhandled the 220-pound Jeffries Monday. Matched against stronger front-court players in the semifinal Saturday against Oklahoma and the final Monday against Maryland, Jeffries necessarily resorted to reaching and pushing, and quickly began picking up fouls.

In the NBA, presumably, Jeffries would be a small forward, not an inside player. Still, in each of the two biggest games of his life, Jeffries scored eight points and spent significant stretches of time on the bench nursing foul trouble. This is not a man ready for the NBA, where everybody's big and strong, and fast to boot.

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With another couple of years of experience and bulking up, Jeffries will likely be ready. But it's hard to tell a kid that he should play for free (and help enrich his university, his coach, the merchandise sellers, etc.) when he could be getting paid, and getting paid big. And I'm not under any illusions that Jeffries is at Indiana to do anything other than play basketball. He said this week that he would make his decision about turning pro during a two-week fishing trip to Tennessee immediately after the Final Four. Uh, isn't there a semester going on?

But after years of believing that athletes who put off pro millions to stay in school and "get their degree" were misguided and foolish, I've come around to the idea that, in basketball at least, they might be on to something. I think Jeffries, one way or the other, is going to help prove the point. If he turns pro, he'll be a disappointment, at least for a while. If he surprises everyone and decides to stay at Indiana, he might be two years away from becoming the next senior to lead his team to the promised land. He'll certainly arrive in the pros much more able to help his team.

From Jeffries' perspective, is it worth giving up those two years' worth of salary? I can't say. There's always the risk of injury, but there's also insurance. And though I think the media's sanctimonious clucking over athletes leaving school without their diplomas -- something that doesn't seem to bother the typing classes when actors or musicians do it -- is silly, I also think Jeffries might want to listen to his conqueror, Dixon.

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"I've had a lot of fun in college and I've developed as a basketball player each year," Maryland's hero said after being named the Tournament's Most Outstanding Player Monday. "College is a good experience."

- - - - - - - - - - - -

Before the Final Four, my stablemate Allen Barra, noting that I'd picked Kansas to go all the way, wrote, "King is a nice guy, but he fronted a rock band for years, and you can see what all that time standing too close to the amps did to his thought processes." Barra went on to say that, obviously, Oklahoma would win the championship.

So he was just as wrong as I was, but he never got to experience hundreds of teenage girls screaming his name night after night.

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Neither did I, of course. But I think you see my point.


King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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