College Ball’s Talent Deficit (and Why It Doesn’t Matter)

By Darren Iverson
Updated: March 20, 2010

NEW YORK — As we watch the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, we can’t help but notice that the game’s talent level — the sheer ability of the players on the floor — seems to be at its lowest level in years.

Yet we’re riveted as always. The games seem no less exciting — Thursday’s three early contests included two that went to overtime (one to double overtime), one that was decided by one point, and another, Murray State’s upset of Vanderbilt, that was won on a buzzer-beater.

It all has us starting to wonder: Does talent matter in college basketball?

Players such as Evan Turner of Ohio State, above, and Wes Johnson of Syracuse, below, are juniors who have bought into the team approach in leading their schools into the NCAA tournament.

The game has less and less of it every year. Top teams get blown to bits annually by NBA defections, successful or otherwise.

The Pac-10 Conference, traditionally one of the nation’s best, became a national joke this season because of its depleted state.

True “post” players — back-to-the-basket big men who stand 6-foor-9 or taller — are virtually extinct.

“The talent is there,” says Missouri coach Mike Anderson, whose 10th-seeded Tigers defeated seventh-seeded Clemson in a first-round East Regional game on Friday. The problem, he says, is “it’s just so spread out.”

Still, March Madness continues to command big television audiences. Networks are salivating at the possibility of the NCAA’s opting out of its $6 billion contract with CBS with three years remaining, expanding the tournament to 96 teams from 65 and going to another bidder.

College-basketball fans have seen a rise in early departures to the NBA and a resulting drop in the sport’s skill level, yet their reaction has been loud and clear: So what?

For whatever reason, the drama of the games, if not how expert the players on the court, continues to captivate us. There’s also our devotion to our chosen teams (and our painstakingly picked brackets).

Tiny Robert Morris’s near-upset of No. 2-seeded Villanova Thursday afternoon had fans spellbound — never mind that the teams missed a combined 62% of their shots, or that Villanova isn’t nearly as good as last season, when it reached the Final Four. In short, we seem to not mind the fact that, from a skills standpoint, we’re consuming a watered-down product.

Anderson, who was an assistant on coach Nolan Richardson’s 1994 national-title team at Arkansas, says that these days, top high-school players are fanning out across the country to attend college — not just to North Carolina or Duke but to mid-major schools that have gained national attention. And the rare great ones don’t stay long.

The biggest difference on the court is the dearth of top post players. This season, there were no players taller than 6-foot-8 on the All-Big Ten, Pac-10 or ACC first teams.

All the big men are “now playing on the perimeter,” Anderson says. “And if you find one of those great post guys, they’re definitely one-and-done or at most two-and-done,” that is, leaving the college game after their first or second year.

Usual power Oklahoma missed the tournament entirely this year after big man Blake Griffin, the top pick in last summer’s draft, left two years early. Ohio State, the Midwest Regional’s No. 2 seed, who defeated Cal-Santa Barbara on Friday night, lost 7-foot freshman B.J. Mullens to the NBA draft last season, even though he averaged a shade under nine points per game and wasn’t even a starter.

The once-mighty Pac-10 has been all but reduced to rubble by early departures. In the past two NBA drafts, the Pac-10 has had 14 non-seniors taken, the most of any conference.

That’s the main reason that Pac-10 schools suffered embarrassing losses to the likes of Oral Roberts and Seattle this season and landed just two teams in the tournament.

Even the powerful Big East, which placed eight teams in this year’s tournament, isn’t what it was. If this year’s Syracuse team, which is led by All-Big East junior forward Wes Johnson, had to play in last year’s Big East, coach Jim Boeheim said the Orange — which were ranked No.

1 in the nation earlier this month — probably would have finished where Syracuse did last year, which was sixth.

“Last year this league had some players in it,” Mr. Boeheim says. “Pittsburgh lost two pros. Louisville lost two first-round picks. The league lost eight great players.”

Despite all this, we love what we’re watching.

Last season, there were 8.7 million viewers per NCAA tournament game, according to Nielsen Co., compared with 8.6 million in 2000.

The number of viewers occasionally surges or dips depending on matchups and events — the 2005 North Carolina-Illinois final game was a big draw, for example, while the Iraq war hurt ratings in 2003 — but overall, the number of viewers is virtually unchanged despite the explosion of cable and other competing TV offerings.

And the talent drain hasn’t really hurt the game’s actual quality of play. No matter their talent, teams today use a dizzying array of zones, traps and pressure defenses to rattle star scorers.

Offenses work differently, too, relying more on ball movement and team play. While a top talent can take a team to great heights — freshman Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse’s 2003 national-title team come to mind — the focus on the star also can make a team painful to watch.

In the 2007-’08 season, when former high-school prodigy O.J. Mayo spent his token college season at USC, he responded by taking so many shots — 34.4% of his team’s total attempts when he was on the floor — that one of his teammates, NBA prospect Taj Gibson, turned into a timid role player.

Fellow one-and-done gunner Michael Beasley of Kansas State — whose team beat Mr. Mayo and USC in the first round of the tournament — took a jaw-dropping 35.7% of his team’s shots when he was in the game that season.

That’s a far cry from some star players who’ve spent years on campus and bought into a more team-oriented approach.

Ohio State junior swingman Evan Turner, who is arguably the nation’s best player this season, takes roughly 30% of the Buckeyes’ shots.

As often as these fast-burning college transients bring excitement to campus, they also leave behind trails of destruction. USC wound up imposing a postseason ban on itself this year because of recruiting allegations regarding Mr. Mayo, and Memphis had its 2008 NCAA tournament runner-up finish vacated because guard Derrick Rose, another one-and-done player, had his SAT score invalidated.

As much as we’re enjoying watching this year’s brightest talent, Kentucky star John Wall, playing in what will almost certainly be his only college season, you could argue that his level of talent doesn’t do anything to make college basketball more meaningful.

Besides, if we wanted to watch one guy take all the shots and get all the attention, there’s another place for that: It’s called the NBA.