If I were an 18-year-old college basketball star, I would want to play for Team USA. Maybe it's because I grew up playing soccer, and representing your state, region or country at various age Olympic Development Program levels was always the goal (one I fell far short of reaching; I settled on playing for my high school). Or maybe I'm partial to being flown around the world to play basketball for what amounts to an age-appropriate national All-Star team. Who wouldn't be?
Quite a few of the best players in the class of 2013, as it turns out. On Thursday, USA Basketball released its list of players who accepted invitations to try out for the U19s in advance of the FIBA World Championships in the Czech Republic this summer. While the list is full of talent, much of it with a year of college experience under its belt, it is not full of top incoming freshmen in the class of 2013. Arizona's Aaron Gordon is the only top 20 guy on ESPN's top 100 to accept an invitation.
Conspicuously absent alongside the Jabari Parkers of the world is pretty much all of Kentucky's best-ever incoming class. On Thursday, Kentucky coach John Calipari made it clear to the Sporting News that wasn't his idea:
"Most of it is, they didn’t want to play. I’m not forcing kids to do anything,” Calipari told Sporting News. “I think the reason they all turned it down is, they want to get started.”
[...] Calipari said center Willie Cauley-Stein was invited to try out for USA Basketball this summer; Cauley-Stein is eligible for the World University Games. But Cauley-Stein said he preferred not to go and asked if it that would be OK. He said Randle took the same approach.
“Willie said, ‘This is not the summer for me to do this stuff. I just can’t wait to get back. I want to get prepared,’ ” Calipari said. “I’m happy they’re thinking in those terms. They know the spotlight’s on them.”
I'm anticipating a wave of "these kids don't respect their country!" comments, but let's go ahead and just not, OK? USA Basketball is an excellent development program in its own right, and no doubt a great experience, but the summer climate is different now. Gone are the days when players were essentially on their own until the official start of practice, when local summer ball leagues, open runs and the odd FIBA event were their only way to stay crisp during the offseason. Two years ago, the NCAA passed a rule that allows players enrolled in summer courses to receive a couple hours per week of individual instruction from their coaching staff. Not only can this class of incoming freshmen spend time getting used to their new collegiate homes, and getting a head start on schoolwork, they can actually work on specific basketball skills with their coaches. The idea of staying on campus is much more persuasive.
I'd say that goes highly touted freshmen, from Parker to Randle and Co. at Kentucky. For many of these players, the plan is to stay one year in college. That might not the most fun idea; there must be some impulse to stick around as long as possible. But at the very least, all of these players -- Kentucky's in particular, certainly -- must know that one college season isn't nearly as long as it seems from the beginning. If you really want to be good enough to win a national title in just five months, you'd better get a running start.
(Correction: An original version of this post listed Andrew Wiggins as absent alongside other young American players; Wiggins is Canadian. Duh. My apologies for the error. -- EB)