Mourning the death of college hoops

I’m watching UK’s struggles in building the next team during the offseason, and I’ve come to the conclusion that college basketball as I knew it is now 100% dead. College hoops is nothing more than the NBA’s AAA league. I mean, it always was, but in years past we were allowed the illusion of a college team that played together, won and lost together, identified with the school and its legacy. But no more; it’s all dead.

Surprisingly, the slow death of college basketball began in 2006 when the NBA ruled that high school players could no longer be drafted by the NBA. That 2006 rule, still in force, says that athletes needed to be at least 19 years old and have one year of college under their belt before an NBA team could award them a contract. It’s surprising because at face value, that was a good thing. The NBA was on its way to scouting middle schools for the next LeBron – not a good look. So the NBA did the minimal “responsible thing”. I remember not liking what is now known as the “one and done” rule, but all it meant early on is that a few of the most talented players left for the NBA after playing for “their college” for one year. Think Anthony Davis, John Wall, Malik Monk, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Jamal Murray, Tyler Herro, and dozens more. John Calipari and UK embraced the system and had great success for a decade or so, but we lost more players to the NBA than any other school.

Other schools copied Calipari’s style and recruiting pitch, and a certain kind of parity settled over college ball from the late 90’s through 2019. Then, weirdly coincident with the pandemic, the death of college hoops was made certain in late 2018 with the advent of the transfer portal and NIL. I didn’t see it coming; I’m not sure anyone saw it with much clarity. But those two actions killed the game.

The transfer portal was created in 2018. From our own Courier Journal:

It’s the current method for NCAA athletes to transfer between schools. Adopted in 2018, the portal was designed “to help compliance administrators track transfers to better organize the process,” an NCAA spokesman said via email.

The portal is a “notification-of-transfer” model, which an NCAA spokesman said was adopted to “empower student-athletes.” 

Under the transfer portal system, athletes only have to submit their name into the portal to be transfer eligible, a change from the previous process that required permission from a coach, athletics administrator or other party to transfer.

The final death blow to college hoops came from a surprising source the next year, in 2019 – Gov Gavin Newsome of California (?!). Newsome drove a stake through the heart of the almost dead college game with the Fair Pay to Play Act, now known as NIL (Name, Image, Likeness). From the Atlanta Constitution in 2019:

For many decades, the NCAA strictly enforced rules against college athletes being paid for endorsements, autographs and the like. Such restrictions were lifted last summer, ushering collegiate sports into a new era in which athletes can monetize their fame without risking their eligibility. A look at how the change happened, how it’s evolving and what’s next:

Sept. 30, 2019: California becomes the first state to pass a law allowing college athletes to be paid for use of their names, images and likenesses (NIL). Gov. Gavin Newsom calls the Fair Pay to Play Act, initially set to take effect in 2023 and later accelerated to September 2021, “the beginning of a national movement.” NCAA officials call it “harmful,” “unconstitutional” and an “existential threat” to college sports.

Turns out the NCAA was right. The NCAA whined and complained, but the deed was done. By 2021 most states had followed CA’s ill-conceived lead and adopted some version of NIL, allowing college athletes to be paid while remaining a “student-athlete”.

All these changes seemed reasonable and mostly good at the time. Can’t recruit high schoolers to the NBA, that sounds good. Check. Giving student-athletes more choice in where they can play and study, that sounds good. Check. And rewarding great athletes to stay in college with a financial package, that seems more fair. Check (actually, checkmate). But the combination of those things – the high school rule, the transfer portal, and NIL, has killed the last vestiges of the old college system. NIL in particular exposes the naked capitalism of the system – giving college coaches the latitude to collude with sponsors (companies and individual donors) and create pay packages for athletes completely kills the notion of team. There’s now no team, no loyalty to school, no legacy respected – there’s only the athlete’s desire to extract the most cash from the system right now. The NCAA basketball system is now indistinguishable from the NBA. Coaches build a team based on how much money they can pay the best athletes enrolled in college. And the athletes are free to chase those paychecks via the transfer portal.

We’ll never see another four-year team; we’ll never see another group of young men develop together over four years. The old system is gone, and I miss the hell out of it.