Barnes' decision hints at larger shift

Monday, April 18 greeted you with some rather exciting news -- and no, not just that Kanye West's amazing 98-minute Coachella performance was easily searchable and viewable on these here Interwebs, meaning it was OK for you to close the YouTube stream and go to bed before the man got through "Lost In The World" at about 3:30 a.m. EST. (Seriously, what a show.)

No, for the college hoops fan, Monday morning's news is arguably much more exciting.

North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, one of the best players in the college game in 2011, is indeed returning for his sophomore season.

This isn't exciting just to UNC fans, although they're no doubt beside themselves today. After all, Barnes' return mirrors those of forwards John Henson and Tyler Zeller, and as such the Tar Heels are practically a lock to be the preseason No. 1 when the first polls are released this fall. They're going to be very, very good.

But it's not just UNC fans that should be thrilled. In fact, Barnes's decision counts as good news for the college game in general. Frankly, it marks a shift -- perhaps temporary, maybe permanent -- in college basketball's relationship with the NBA, its relevance to the casual sports fan, and the quality of play at the very highest levels of the sport. And it seems we have the looming NBA lockout to thank.

Barnes isn't the first marquee freshman to turn down NBA riches and return to college hoops this April. In fact, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Baylor's Perry Jones -- two fellow top-flight NBA prospects and likely top-five picks in June's NBA draft -- have already chosen to come back for their sophomore seasons at their respective schools. And Barnes' choice hasn't been a universal one; Duke freshman Kyrie Irving and Arizona sophomore Derrick Williams both decided to enter the draft and take their shots at a No. 1 overall selection all the same.

But the decisions of Barnes, Sullinger and Jones do mean something larger than the sum of their parts. Each player's reasons for staying are different, but it's not hard to see the threat of an NBA work stoppage as a factor in each. By turning pro, each player would risk getting drafted to a team in uncertain financial straights. By turning pro, each player would take a chance of not playing for much, if not all, of their would-be rookie seasons in the NBA. By turning pro, each player would roll the dice on a league that wants to change a variety of things about the way players -- including rookies -- are paid. They'd be taking those brave chances at the very moment the league would be implementing huge structural changes to the professional game.

The usual risks associated with a return to school are injury and/or a decline in draft stock. For once, those risks seem significantly outweighed by the ones associated with a jump to the NBA draft.

The alternative is far more attractive. Barnes, Sullinger and Jones, among others, will get a chance to work on their games full-time, and at full speed, for the next 12 months. They'll get to pick up things they didn't learn as freshmen. They'll get to hang out with their college buddies for another two semesters. And they'll get to make runs at league titles and national championships, something all three seem uncannily aware of.

More than anything, though, these decisions mark a sea change in the sport. Last year, No. 1 overall pick John Wall's thoughts of staying for his sophomore year were laughed off by his coach, and rightly so. When you're that good, you belong in the NBA. But what if the NBA isn't there?

That's the issue in 2011. With the NBA draft situation in flux, top prospects have a legitimate reason to return to the college game. (And no, this isn't always the case. Despite what some stalwarts claim, players can develop in the NBA, too.) As such, the game stands to benefit. The talk of the one-and-done hurting the experience level at top programs no longer applies; both Ohio State and North Carolina will return hugely talented, NBA-ready sophomores. What's more, casual fans will know Barnes and Sullinger as marquee names on elite teams; the usual complaints of annual personnel turnover are relatively moot.

And here's where things really get interesting: If NBA owners do lock their players out, and the NFL follows suit -- which appears to be the most likely scenario at this point -- the sport with the most to gain is college basketball. College football is already hugely popular for much of the year, but college hoops lacks a large casual following in October, November, December and even January, when most sports fans are too busy managing their fantasy football teams and watching the NFL playoffs to notice. And when die-hard NBA fans find themselves starved for basketball next season ... well, here you go, guys. College hoops isn't locked out -- being an arguably unfair free labor market has its perks, after all -- and it has some awfully good players for you to watch. Dig in.

In short, everything seems to be turning up college hoops. Two of the nation's biggest professional leagues are teetering on the abyss, and one of them happens to be the league that has gobbled up much of the nation's best talent for five years under the one-and-done. In 2011-12, the college game's best young players will be playing for some of its best and most popular teams, and there's a good chance it'll be the only hoops game in town.

Eventually, NBA owners will settle with players. Eventually, the pro game will return. How it returns is the story of the offseason, because a new NBA collective bargaining agreement could either get rid of the one-and-done entirely (favored by the NBA Players Association) or replace with a two-year rule (favored by the owners). If it's the latter, next season could give us a sneak preview at the new-look nature of the college game, a place where freshmen are compelled to commit to college for longer than eight months.

Whether that's fair or not -- you can argue it's incredibly unfair; frankly, some players should be allowed to start earning their millions as soon as possible -- it would be a major boon for college hoops, for college hoops fans, and for anyone who likes watching the best basketball players play in front of some of the best crowds in all of sports.

Depending on the lockout's outcome, next season will either be a sneak peek at every college hoops fan's selfish dream, a harbinger of what's to come, or a tantalizing taste of a forever bygone hoops era when top freshmen didn't scoff at another year in the unpaid college ranks.

Either way, to paraphrase the aforementioned Mr. West, Barnes's presence is a present. Same goes for Sullinger. Same goes for Jones.

We might not know what's going to happen in the NBA this summer, but thanks to that uncertainty, we do know at least one thing: In 2011-12, the college game is going to have a defining year. Come on: How exciting is that?