Here at Stein Line HQ, the tournament is already over. All too typically, it was over before it started. Our beloved Cal State Fullerton dragged Utah State to overtime in the first round of the Big West Tourney, wound up losing by six after going 5-0 in OT league games, then watched as the Aggies inevitably won the next two rounds to claim the automatic Big Dance bid that has eluded us since 1978.
It was all more maddening than our Marches normally are. It proved a rather torturous way to commemorate the 25th anniversary of my Titans' only trip to the NCAAs, when they shocked Michael Cooper's New Mexico and Bill Cartwright's San Francisco to reach the Elite Eight and become Cal State Who? It is why we proceed straight to a question that will actually have an impact on the NBA Draft, because the Field O' Sixty-Five -- with no obvious must-see teams or players and without the Titans -- offers little to hold the Line's interest.
Question is ...
Is there any scenario that could materialize in the next few months that would make Darko Milicic the No. 1 overall pick in June's NBA Draft?
Ahead of LeBron James?
It's a more reasonable question, surely, than asking general managers which collegians can really help themselves between now and New Orleans. As so aptly described on ESPN's "Sports Reporters" on Sunday morning, you haven't heard of most of the guys who will decide the office pool and you will forget the majority of them as soon as the tournament ends. That is the state of today's scholastic game, with the bulk of the college-aged NBA talent already playing in the NBA and the charm of the bracket sitting on your desk forced to make up for what's lacking on the floor. There likewise isn't a lot of scout-based excitement about what the next few weeks hold, with no one on display on par with LeBron and Darko. Syracuse freshman Carmelo Anthony is next on teams' lists but hasn't totally committed to leaving school.
"You pretty much draw a line after the top three, because there doesn't seem to be a whole lot there," said one Western Conference executive, referring to the trio of aforementioned studs he's not allowed to discuss by name.
"The first three picks," an Eastern Conference GM adds, "are basically etched in stone."
As a result, sadly, not even our LeBron vs. Darko question -- founded upon the basketball wisdom that dictates drafting Legit Big Man over a swingman -- spawned much debate. The notion that there might actually be a team out there willing to pass up all the interest (read: revenue) James will generate, in addition to the otherwordly potential package he'd be bringing in, didn't last any longer than Fullerton.
It has already been decided, folks.
"The gap that once existed with international players is gone, and with the position that (Milicic) plays, he's right in line to take a team that's not on the map and put it there," Eastern Conference GM No. 2 said. "But it would be a pretty big test of someone's conviction in the European market."
Put in more succinct fashion, courtesy of Western Conference executive No. 2: "There will be 13 teams at the lottery with LeBron jerseys to hold up."
It apparently doesn't matter that Milicic is a 7-footer with more back-to-basket polish, at this stage, than any of his Euro predecessors. Doesn't matter that he has been playing pro ball against men for a few years now. Doesn't matter that Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie were drafted ahead of little Michael Jordan in 1984, or that the Dallas Mavericks went bold and overseas in 1998 (Dirk Nowitzki) when safe and domestic (Paul Pierce) made for a comparable decision at No. 9 that year.
It doesn't even matter that the lottery-bound Sonics and (most famously of all) the Knicks are desperate for size -- that the grand fortune of winning the lotto could put those teams in line to snag an All-Star post prospect.
"I have Darko as a clear-cut No. 2," West exec No. 2 said. "But I just think LeBron is going to be like Magic (Johnson). He's a 6-foot-8, 240-pound point guard. He's smart. He's competitive. LeBron's shot will be an issue at the start, but Darko is nowhere near LeBron on his development curve. As good as Darko is, he hasn't played (in the summer) with NBA players and left them standing speechless like LeBron. He's not like (Pau) Gasol, who came here from playing at a high level in Spain."
Said East GM No. 1: "We don't draft players because of what the fans think or what the media thinks, but if you're going to draft (Darko over LeBron), you better have a damn good reason. This has been the biggest buildup of a high school player of all time. There has never been a high school player known worldwide."
A third Eastern Conference official was even more emphatic.
"We all like Darko, and all of us want the next Nowitzki, but I don't care who you are," he said. "I don't see how any owner would allow (drafting Darko ahead of LeBron). The Lakers would still take LeBron, and they have Kobe (Bryant)."
That's because James is guaranteed to sell out every building he plays in and move reams of merchandise and provide the franchise lucky enough to land him with everything it could wish for business-wise. He's probably just as certain to be voted by the fans into next February's All-Star Game as a rookie starter.
It's also because, even with a whole league of vets coming at him like no 18-year-old has ever faced -- and in spite of the very public growing pains, under the most intensely focused microscope in history, sure to follow -- there isn't a team in the league that doubts LBJ's scouting reports.
"The chances of LeBron not being a great player someday," East exec No. 3 added, "are very, very, very remote."
In Stein Line terms? The odds are about the same that we'll see Cal State Fullerton, back within four points of the Final Four, just like that glorious spring of '78 when Sidney Moncrief's Arkansas didn't topple the Titans until the last few seconds.
In my lifetime.