King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Georgetown's comeback ensures the Final Four won't be a fabulous freshman fest. Except for Greg Oden.


Salon Staff
March 26, 2007 8:00PM (UTC)

The Don't Touch That Dial Tournament keeps coughing up the comebacks, culminating Sunday in Georgetown roaring past North Carolina in the East regional to complete the Final Four.

Down by 10 with six minutes to go, the Hoyas went on a 16-6 run to force overtime. The Tar Heels lost the ability down the stretch to make a shot or get an offensive rebound, two things that come in handy during a basketball game. As a result, Carolina bore a striking resemblance to a boat that had lost the ability to float.

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Two minutes and seven seconds into overtime Georgetown star Jeff Green drove the lane and hit a fall-away 15-foot bank shot that made the run 22-6 and the score 87-81. There was little left for the Tar Heels to do but stand on the bridge, saluting as the water rose. Georgetown led 95-81 -- a 14-0 overtime blitz -- before Carolina's Ty Lawson hit a 3-pointer.

Georgetown, resurgent under John Thompson III, son of the coach who led the Hoyas in their 1980s heyday, will play Ohio State in one semifinal Saturday in Atlanta. The other semi will be a rematch of last year's one-sided title game, defending champ Florida vs. UCLA.

Thompson and Thompson are the first father and son pair to lead teams to the Final Four, Thompson pere taking the Hoyas to the championship in 1984 and the title game in '82 and '85. That's the sort of trivia that's the stuff of pregame shows and newspaper previews, but far more interesting, it says here, is what this Final Four will not be:

The Fab Frosh Final Four.

This is the first year the NBA's minimum age has been in effect. Players must be 19 to enter the draft, so those high school phenoms who used to go straight to the league are now funneled into college ball, presumably for one year.

You remember those phenoms? They were the guys who were simultaneously hurting the college and pro games by turning pro early.

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You know, fundamentally unsound phenoms like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Jermaine O'Neal and immature troublemakers like Ron Artest (two years, St. John's), Bonzi Wells (four years, Ball State) and Rasheed Wallace (two years, North Carolina). Those guys all should have gone to college.

Well, that was pretty much the argument, anyway, and it prevailed. And you think it's an upset when some 12-seed knocks off a No. 5?

The number of straight-out-of-high-school kids in the NBA was always exaggerated in the popular imagination, and the list of 18-year-olds who had a real impact on the court was a short one. Here it is: LeBron James.

But the one place the new rule -- which was created strictly to benefit the NBA, pious talk of encouraging "education" notwithstanding -- figured to have some impact was at the top of the NCAA food chain. High school superstars forced to play for free -- officially -- for a year weren't going to go to some rebuilding program or to some noble underdog out west.

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They were going to the big time, the big conferences, the big programs in those big conferences. There might not be enough of them to stop the general trend toward parity in major college basketball over the last decade or so, toward smaller programs and conferences being able to compete with the big-timers, but they might be a way for a few of the elite elites to put a little distance back between themselves and the hoi polloi.

And sure enough, here's Ohio State, not traditionally a basketball elite but an athletic juggernaut with a program on the upswing under coach Thad Matta. The Buckeyes are led by center Greg Oden, the most sought-after grad in 2006. He's from Indianapolis. Is it even conceivable he might have gone to Butler? No, he was going somewhere big.

He, high school teammate Mike Conley Jr. and sixth man Daequan Cook have helped lead the Buckeyes to the Final Four, a level they likely wouldn't have reached without Oden, which means without the NBA age limit.

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But fabulous freshmen are scarce in the rest of the Final Four. Florida returned its entire starting lineup from last year's champions, and none of those five were freshmen last year. No freshmen get significant playing time for the Gators. UCLA also has exactly zero freshmen in its regular rotation.

Georgetown has DaJuan Summers in the starting five and Jeremiah Rivers, son of Doc, as a role-player.

So except for Oden and maybe Summers, the age limit hasn't had much of an effect on the Final Four. It's not like elite high school players never went to college for a year or two before turning pro before the age limit. The memory of freshman Carmelo Anthony leading Syracuse to the title in 2003 is still pretty fresh.

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It would be easy to read too much into this. If Kansas had beaten UCLA and North Carolina hadn't sunk against Georgetown, the Final Four would have been a different story. Carolina started three freshmen, and while Kansas' three best players were all sophomores, the Jayhawks relied heavily on freshmen Darrell Arthur and Sherron Collins. Kansas and North Carolina stocking up with fabulous freshmen certainly fits the thesis that elite programs would benefit from the age limit.

We can also read too much into the lack of upsets. We could point to the freshman stars forced back into college ball, note that they mostly went to schools that tend to wear white in the opening rounds, and draw a conclusion that the NBA age limit means the rich get richer in the NBA's minor league.

That may be, but 2007's lack of upsets was probably just one of those things, an outlying year, the same way 2006 was in the other direction.

I don't think we should read nothing into this relative absence of would-be 18-year-old first-rounders in the Final Four, though. I don't think we're going to see future NCAA Tournaments dominated by multiple Greg Odens. If it was an exaggeration to say the NBA was being overrun by 18-year-olds, it was also a simplification that the NCAA was being ruined by the exodus of superstars.

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The thing about superstars is they're rare. The biggest impact of the NBA's age limit on the NCAA hasn't been the presence of a small handful of great players like Oden in the Tournament. The biggest impact has been on the kids themselves, of course. Oden and a few others have had to wait a year to become millionaires.

After that, the biggest effect the age limit has had has been to highlight, yet again, the NCAA's "student-athlete" farce. Listening to Oden and Texas Longhorns phenom Kevin Durant sit in press conferences this month and talk about what classes they're planning to take next semester -- Oden at one point surprised to find the math class on his ledger was going to be pre-calc -- has been an exercise in winking and nudging.

There's a mini-trend of star college athletes staying in school, that Florida starting five and Matt Leinart being the most famous examples. Anything's possible, but let's just say I wouldn't bet the house on Oden sticking around. And I mean the doghouse.

The latter stages of this Tournament have featured a lot of tense, exciting, well-played games, with tough defensive teams leading the way. That's happened mostly because of the historical accident of all those early-round upsets that didn't happen, leaving the best teams standing. It didn't happen because of all these terrific freshmen running around who before this year would have been in the NBA.

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A few great high school stars have to play a year of college ball now. That'll help a small handful of the elite schools who can attract them. And the teams that get to the Final Four will continue to be a mix of those teams and teams with older, slightly less flashy players.

It would have been nice, I suppose, if a simple rule change could give college basketball a shot in the arm. Instead, it gives us a couple of great players playing a year for free, talking about how much they love the college life, and then, almost certainly, bolting at the first opportunity.

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