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Friday, April 5, 2013

Final Four thoughts

Posted by on Fri, Apr 5, 2013 at 11:29 AM

Is ACC basketball as we knew it over? Here, Duke and UNC players scrap over a loose ball in March 2010.
Fooled you—these are NOT thoughts about the Final Four this weekend in Atlanta.

Rather, these are my final four thoughts about the state of ACC and college basketball as the curtain closes on the 2012-13 season of basketball and basketball blogging for Triangle Offense.

1. Talk that the failure of an ACC team to reach the Final Four since 2010 is a sign of a weak conference is a bit overblown, for two reasons. First, the league has had teams in the final eight the past three years. Last year's Carolina team probably would have made it to the Final Four without the Kendall Marshall injury. This year's Duke team probably would have been a No. 1 seed without the Ryan Kelly midseason injury, and hence wouldn't have had to play a team as good as Louisville until reaching the Final Four.

Second, there are other much stronger indicators of the league's relative decline. By the start of conference play in January it was evident the league would be getting a max of five tourney bids—it ended up with four, which was about right. More tellingly, in recent years other schools beside Duke and Carolina have failed to break into the elite and make noise nationally at the same time. N.C. State was supposed to do that this year, but had a season of relative under-achievement and now faces the prospect of having to undergo a complete facelift of its personnel. Miami did break through in the regular season and ACC Tournament, but its woeful performance against Marquette in the Sweet 16 was a major letdown.

Generally speaking, ACC basketball has been in slight decline the last four years or so. But all that its supposed to change next year with conference expansion, leading to our second thought...

2. Is ACC basketball as we have known it simply over? I have heard that opinion expressed by many long-time fans who are not pleased with conference expansion. They may be right. But there is a clear-cut way to preserve local rivalries: creating "pods" or divisions with home-and-home play within each of 4 pods (in a 16 team league) or 3 pods (in a 15 team league). Either way, you could have an 18 game league schedule, plus a tournament that would be truly interesting as a mechanism for determining the league's best team, since the unbalanced conference standings wouldn't tell you. This would allow the Big Four teams to play each other home and away every year, and keep at least part of the Tobacco Road tradition going.

3. There is growing discomfort with the current one-and-done rules for college hoops. Kentucky is bringing in at least six McDonald's All-Americans next year, and odds are some will be one-and-doners. How much education do one and dones actually get or invest in? The one-year player makes a farce of college basketball. It's time to go to a version of the baseball rule: allow high school players to enter the NBA directly, but require those who enroll in college to stay in school for two years before being draft-eligible. To this I would add a requirement that basketball players successfully complete the equivalent of a full semester of academic work before being allowed to play in a game. (This could include summer school classes prior to their freshman year.)

That would at least assure that the top college programs who feel compelled to go after the best available talent don't end up becoming mere way-stations on the way to the NBA. What would make this proposal truly different, however, would be to also follow the baseball method with respect to high school players. High school baseball players can get drafted by MLB; they are made an offer by a club; and then they can turn the offer down and go to college instead. Why isn't that same option available to basketball players coming out of high school? Allow them to declare for the draft, go through the workouts, see whether they get drafted and in what round, and then decide whether to accept the deal or go back to college.

Currently, basketball players who declare for the draft lose college eligibility even if they are not drafted at all. This makes no sense. Follow the baseball rule instead.

4. The firing of Mike Rice at Rutgers this week was a no-brainer, but it also was a potentially significant moment in college sports. Probably Final Four (and future ACC) coaches Rick Pitino and Jim Boeheim are correct in their assertion that not that many coaches regularly heave basketballs at their players, but one would have to be very naive to think Rice is the only coach out there who regularly uses misogynistic or homophobic language.

This is an opportunity for a forward-looking coach to step up to the plate on this issue and say clearly not only that Rice's behavior was unacceptable, but that the coaching profession in men's basketball needs to understand that traditionally macho methods of communication based on denigrating women and gays is unacceptable on a college campus.

Who is going to take up Dean Smith's legacy and be the modern voice for social justice, on gender and sexuality issues, within the coaching profession? My guess is it'd have to be someone under 40, who is professionally successful and completely secure in their job, personally progressive, has a coherent educational and coaching philosophy, and has enough about them to not be bothered by any flak one might get from colleagues for taking a strong stand. (If you're guessing that I'm hinting at Virginia Commonwealth University's Shaka Smart, you are right.)

Whoever that person turns out to be will become my new favorite coach.

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Is ACC basketball as we have known it simply over? And other season-ending musings.

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