NEW ORLEANS -- Somehow, I always forget the fireworks.
Every year, just as the national title game concludes -- as the confetti spills and the streamers stream and the players pop their jerseys and the head coaches shake hands -- there is an explosion, an almost incomprehensibly loud POP. Focused on work and caught up in the moment, I always forget about that pop. It never fails to make me jump in my seat. Monday night's edition, in honor of those remarkable 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats, was no different.
That pop is just the starting gun to the annual post-title game festivities, which include the cutting of the nets and "One Shining Moment" and news conferences and all the rest. When the rituals are finished and the adrenaline wears off, you eventually walk out of the arena and into the long college hoops offseason, seven months of draft decisions and coaching changes and recruiting news and nothing in the way of real, actual basketball. Just hours ago, you were watching Anthony Davis, or Kemba Walker, or Kyle Singler and Gordon Hayward. Now? Nothing.
The NCAA tournament is the most wonderful time of the year. But it, like the season itself, comes and goes far too quickly, and the days after its conclusion are the most depressing in this writer's calendar. What are we supposed to do now?
Maybe that's why the fireworks always catch me off guard. I hate the offseason, and I'm never really ready for it.
Or maybe I'm just a wuss. It could be that, too.
Either way, it's time to come to terms with reality: The season is over, we've crowned a champion, and we're once again 194 days -- 194 days! -- away from the mid-October start of Midnight Madness, the first official practices of the season. This is a long and arduous journey. But not unlike the smash video game hit "Journey" -- and hey, there's a good way to spend at least some portion of your offseason -- despite appearances, it won't be one of total inactivity.
Indeed, there are always distinct storylines worth tracking this time of year. What will we be watching in spring, summer and fall of 2012? I'm glad you asked. Let's take a look.
1. The fast and furious new underclassman draft deadline. For decades, college hoops underclassmen had nearly the entire summer -- almost all the way up to the late June NBA draft itself -- to gather information about the process and their standing within it. If they choose not to hire an agent, but went on a fact-finding mission instead, players who learned that the best route was to stay in school, try again next season and not sacrifice their amateur eligibility on a massive risk had plenty of time to do so. That was the thinking, anyway.
Last season, that deadline was shortened by 40 days, to May 8. Why? Because college basketball coaches were tired of waiting around all summer to find out whether or not they should extend a scholarship offer to that hot young recruit. Coaches often said they felt like hostages in the process -- which seems overdramatic, because it is -- and the NCAA moved forward on approval of a proposal by the ACC's coaches to shorten the deadline to the final day before the spring signing period.
As such, in 2012 the date becomes even more drastic. This spring, underclassmen will have to decide whether they should leave school by -- get this -- April 10. That's just six days from now, just eight from the end of the season itself. If underclassmen don't withdraw before that date, they'll forfeit their collegiate eligibility. Considering the stakes -- these are kids' careers and livelihoods on the line, after all -- this seems like one of the least player-friendly rules governed and enforced by an organization known for exactly that.
How is this fair? It's not. But it exists all the same, and so the question now is how the rapid decision process will effect the will-he-or-won't-he drama we see every season. Will players make hastier, and thus worse, decisions? Or will the short turnaround prevent them from getting a deluge of bad information in the process, prevent them from getting drawn into a draft they may have been otherwise predisposed to ignore? The former seems more likely, but the latter is just as plausible. For many players, it might not matter. But how it affects relevant draft hopefuls will be fascinating to watch. We have six days to find out.
2. Speaking of those draft decisions In a general sense, the new draft deadline could loom large. But each draftee is different, and each decision will be individually impactful. We've already seen a bevy of underclassmen fully declare their intentions -- a list ESPN Insider Chad Ford maintains and updates here -- but there are just as many still leaning without an official announcement, as well as players who seem truly divided on whether to stay or go.
Could Michigan guard Trey Burke decide to take advantage of a weak crop of point guards? Michigan fans certainly hope not, and the same goes for shooting guard Tim Hardaway Jr. What about North Carolina's remaining talents, guard P.J. Hairston and (especially) forward James Michael McAdoo? Will Baylor forward Perry Jones III determine, contrary to his decision last year, that he's ready for the rigors of the NBA?
Will Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger -- who was immediately decisive last season, and clearly effected by his team's Final Four loss in 2012 -- surprise everyone by returning?
There are plenty of these sorts of decisions still in the balance, and while we can agree about how silly the NCAA's new draft deadline rule is in abstract, fans across the country will be sweating it out in very tangible, real ways. Stay tuned.
3. Is the coaching carousel gone for good? This was a remarkably quiet season on the coaching front. The two noteworthy job openings -- Illinois and Kansas State -- have already been filled, and in cyclically closed fashion to boot: Bruce Weber was fired at Illinois but replaced Frank Martin at Kansas State after Martin left for South Carolina. After striking out on a handful of preferred options (and totally mangling the process), Illinois hired Ohio coach John Groce. Solid hire, but the Ohio job isn't exactly going to keep us on pins and needles for weeks to come. This week, Mississippi State replaced Rick Stansbury with little-known Clemson assistant Rick Ray.
And yeah. That's pretty much it. Unless a coach at a high-profile, blueblood-type gig retires or leaves for the NBA -- triggering the classic coaching search domino effect -- 2012 appears likely to go down as quiet and tidy where coaching replacements are concerned.
Which brings us, of course, to this:
4. Will John Calipari leave Kentucky? It seems silly, right? Right. Calipari said on Wednesday that he's not interested in the NBA. But the talk has swirled for weeks, long before he put his stamp on his tenure at Kentucky with Monday night's comprehensive national championship. Why? The New York Knicks fired Mike D'Antoni in mid-March, and before the day was out, two possible candidates had been named to be his high-profile replacement: Lakers and Bulls legend Phil Jackson and Calipari.
If the Knicks came calling -- with a massive contract offer and a talented roster and the chance to be The Man in New York City, arguably the greatest place to be The Man in the sporting universe -- Calipari would have to consider it. The man has never been one to back down from a challenge, that's for sure, and he may still want to wipe the record of his failure with the New Jersey Nets clean. But Calipari could also be called a fool for leaving his current job. He recruits the best players to play in front of one of the nation's greatest fan bases on a year-in, year-out basis; as long as he is there, the Wildcats will compete for national titles. And it's not like he's underpaid now.
If I had to guess, I'd say the chances Calipari goes to New York are minimal. At best. But Kentucky fans will be sweating the tabloid-driven Knicks news all offseason. At the very least, they won't be able to escape the discussion.
5. Where does Kentucky go from here? Your 2011-12 national champions were built upon a simple calculus: That youth was less important than talent and teamwork and shared sacrifice, and also that when all that talent left, Calipari could find another batch nearly as good to replace it. He looks likely to do so yet again: The Nos. 1 and 2 players in the Class of 2012 -- Nerlens Noel and Shabazz Muhammad -- both rank Kentucky among their final choices, and Calipari has already signed two other top-20 prospects in Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress.
Reserve forward Kyle Wiltjer -- himself a top-20 prospect in the 2011 class -- will be back in the fold, and there's an admittedly slim, but still plausible, chance Calipari could retain point guard Marquis Teague, too. Either way, as this season's dominant Cats ship off to the land of NBA riches, the program they'll leave behind is certain to reload for another title run in 2012-13. Life is good in Lexington.
6. Is Indiana a national championship contender? The early answer: yes. Considering where this program was just a season ago -- when it went 12-20 and finished 11th in the Big Ten -- that's a remarkable statement to make. But it's also the correct one. The Hoosiers opened ESPN.com's way-too-early 2012-13 Top 25 poll ranked No. 1 in the country. Forward Cody Zeller is considering the NBA draft but seems likely to return; Christian Watford seems more likely to jump but probably shouldn't, considering his current status as a second-round pick (in a draft loaded with skilled forwards, no less; turnaround contributors Victor Oladipo, Will Sheehey and Jordan Hulls will all be back; and Tom Crean will bring in a top-10 recruiting class that includes McDonald's All-America point guard Yogi Ferrell, small forward Jeremy Hollowell and athletic power forward Hanner Perea, among a group of players familiar from their days on a powerhouse Indiana Elite AAU squad.
Indiana may not begin the preseason ranked No. 1 -- that seems like a stretch -- and Crean still has to parse what will surely be a crowded lineup and rotation. But make no mistake: Indiana fans will no longer be happy with merely playing hard and competing. This season changed all that, and the expectations for 2012-13 will make 2011-12's Sweet 16 run seem downright quaint.
7. What will UConn's APR case say about the NCAA? Last season, the NCAA raised the minimum Academic Progress Rate standards for admission to the NCAA tournament. The Connecticut Huskies fell below them. This made them ineligible for the 2013 NCAA tournament. UConn, of course, did not take this punishment lying down: It filed a formal appeal with the NCAA before the March 26 deadline, as school president Susan Herbst argued that data from the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons shouldn't be used to assess the current group of players and their eligibility for the NCAA tournament. It now awaits a hearing in front of the NCAA's Committee on Academic Performance (CAP). No less than UConn's 2012-13 season is on the line.
But the effects of the rule will go far beyond just the Huskies. This is the first high-profile appeal regarding the APR -- which punishes schools for athletes that leave for the draft or transfer in bad academic standing over a four-year window's average -- and therefore no precedent exists to guide the CAP committee in its ruling. It would seem fairly cut and dry: The rule says you can't play in the tournament if your APR score is below a certain threshold, and UConn's is.
If the NCAA allows the Huskies leeway, will that damage its ability to enforce the rule in the future? And what would it say from a public relations standpoint? That it takes academics seriously -- so long as you're not a marquee basketball program? We'll see, sooner rather than later.
8. What will UConn's APR case say about UConn's 2012-13 season? As I wrote above, what the CAP decides in this case will have a wide-ranging effect on the efficacy of the APR rule in general, but it would also be a possible death knell for the Huskies as we know them. UConn forward Andre Drummond is likely to leave for the NBA draft, as is guard Jeremy Lamb. Meanwhile, junior Alex Oriakhi has already declared his intent to transfer; if UConn is tournament-ineligible next season, he would likely be granted a waiver to play his senior season right away.
And what about Jim Calhoun? The legendary Huskies coach won his third national title in 2011, suffered through debilitating physical pain in a frustrating 2011-12 season, has battled his share of health issues before, and turns 70 in May. Would Calhoun really choose to come back and coach in a season when he not only had no chance to win a national title, but no chance to even qualify for the NCAA tournament? Calhoun contemplated retirement while on top after the 2011 title, but he decided to return. The chances of him doing so under the aforementioned conditions seem far less likely.
9. Is more conference realignment on the way? Ah, we never know, do we? The past two seasons have seen a sea change in conference structure and affiliation and more often than not, basketball has taken the hit. Conference realignment has essentially destroyed any semblance of the classic Big East. It also killed the century-old Kansas-Missouri rivalry, which in 2011-12 -- its lamentable final season -- provided not one but two of the season's most thrilling games. What more is in store? Not much, we hope. But with millions of TV dollars and unfettered football-oriented greed driving the bus, our hope doesn't mean much.
10. Will the NCAA continue large-scale reform? Two weeks ago, just minutes after Louisville's thrilling Elite Eight win over Florida, NCAA president Mark Emmert described the current collegiate sports environment as "very challenging," with "more collisions between the collegiate and the commercial models than before." The NCAA is beset on all sides: Conference realignment over here, scores of cheaters over there, critics who fail to see the NCAA's amateurism model as viable here, there and everywhere.
And so the NCAA is doing its best to keep up. Emmert has tasked committees with trimming down the infamous rule book (the one that once distinguished between a bagel with or without cream cheese as either a "meal" or a "snack," and God help you if you didn't know the difference). He wants to make the process of catching cheaters not only more effective but also easier to understand. And he, like many, has supported steps to bring student-athletes' lives in order with the modern times. The biggest issue on the table this summer is likely to be the "cost of attendance" stipend, an optional $2,000-per-year addition to players' scholarships to help them with current non-scholarship costs like clothing, recreation, transportation and plain old cash.
The stipend has been met with resistance -- smaller schools get a vote, too, and they're worried about competitive balance within an already wide haves vs. have-nots gap -- but it is only one step in the NCAA's process to keep its entire organizing principle alive. It believes athletes should be students, and that they shouldn't be paid. Thanks to unpopular violations punishments at major schools like Ohio State, and realignment dollars being casually tossed around, this argument has become more difficult to make.
What progress will the NCAA make this offseason? To stem this tide, its answer needs to be significant.