ATLANTA -- I should have seen it coming.
It's not like it's new; it happens every year. It's not like I haven't noticed it before; I wrote about it last April. And it's not like I forgot that I wrote about this last April, because I had that exact column in an open tab on my browser when, right on cue, it happened again.
They're so loud I jump. I always jump. Every year. It never fails. I suppose I should have seen it coming, but it's tough to have your head on a proverbial swivel when it is buried in your laptop, and after all it's not like I was the only one caught off guard Monday night. Louisville coach Rick Pitino practically ducked for cover, and his slightly sheepish smile in the postgame handshake with Michigan coach John Beilein was ... well, let's just say I could identify.
If you haven't figured it out by now, I'm talking about the postgame fireworks. Every year, when the final buzzer sounds and a new champion is crowned, the line of demarcation between season and offseason is officially established by the most needlessly loud indoor explosion you'll hear all year. There is confetti and streamers and "One Shining Moment" and news conferences to attend to, but those fireworks are where you really physically feel it. The good stuff is behind us. The bad time -- all seven months of it -- is here.
Depressing stuff, I know. But for as quiet as the college hoops offseason can get, particularly in the heart of the summer, there are always goings on worth keeping an eye on. And with big existential issues facing the game on a variety of levels -- from the NCAA's ongoing unpopularity to the game's systemic and aesthetic woes -- that maxim may be more accurate than ever.
So, without further ado, here's our annual rundown of the big themes we'll be tracking throughout the coming college hoops dark age, aka the offseason. Ear plugs sold separately:
1. The rapid-fire NBA draft deadline. This is pretty straightforward at this point: You should brace yourself -- if you haven't already -- for the oncoming wave of news about NBA draft decisions, which are now more needlessly rushed than ever before. This is because, in its infinite wisdom, in May 2011 the NCAA decided that players must announce whether they are returning or leaving for the NBA draft one day before the start of the spring signing period. In 2013, that date is April 16, eight days after the national title game. Following that date, if players remain in the draft they risk losing their eligibility, and even if they don't officially declare, and merely solicit feedback from the NBA's Undergraduate Advisory Committee on their chances, that feedback must stop after April 16.
A little background: This deadline is so early because ACC coaches were annoyed they weren't able to wholeheartedly recruit new players while their old stars "tested the waters," so they submitted a proposal to change the rule, and it was approved. Why? Because the NCAA cares a lot more about millionaire coaches and schools than it does its student-athletes. I mean, obviously. Anyway, the point is, these decisions are already happening, and they will come and go faster than ever. You've been forewarned.
2. Speaking of which, the NBA draft itself. Is it just me, or is this year's group of NBA prospects being underrated? Bill Simmons and Chad Ford discussed the class at some length Tuesday, and the consensus among NBA folks seems to be that the 2013 crop is not merely down but one of the worst drafts of all time, bad enough to rival the fateful dystopia of 2000. Word to Stromile Swift.
Two things here:
It seems like we say this all the time, and it's starting to get a little tough to tell whether or not a wolf is actually present.
This class isn't that bad! Ben McLemore has a chance to be a frequent NBA All-Star, and often had the look of a guy confined by a college game (and a team) too small and too slow for him to unleash his freakish gifts. (He also needs to handle the ball better, but I'm not convinced he'll have to handle it all that much on most NBA teams.) Otto Porter is basically the ideal NBA small forward; he could be a top-10 defender in the league, and that might just be a baseline, given everything else he can do on the court. Assuming Nerlens Noel's knee will be fine, the sky is the limit for him defensively. Victor Oladipo was simultaneously one of the best defenders, most efficient scorers, hardest workers and best athletes in the college game this season. Marcus Smart is hugely intriguing (and his shooting is bound to improve). Anthony Bennett translates. Trey Burke is short, but a lot of NBA guards are short; he can shoot and handle and distribute and get to the rim, and he's a great kid and a great teammate and I have zero idea why he shouldn't succeed in the league. Cody Zeller is a rotation 4 for the next 10-12 years. Michael Carter-Williams is a 6-foot-6 point guard who posted a 40.2 percent assist rate this season. There are some interesting guys down the way in mock drafts right now, too: C.J. McCollum, Shabazz Muhammad, Alex Len, Isaiah Austin, Mitch McGary, Gorgui Dieng, Jamaal Franklin.
Is this class going to be as good as 2014? Is the next Kevin Durant in this class? No and no. But there are a lot of at-bare-minimum-solid pros here. The wailing and gnashing of teeth seems a little weird, right? Let's see how it plays out when NBA scouts have the chance to get up close and personal.
3. The Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes. The 2014 NBA draft will be really good, by the way, because there are a lot of really talented guys arriving in college basketball this season, but none are more talented than Wiggins, who is already causing NBA types to weigh the merits of tanking seasons that haven't even happened yet. You can examine this case on YouTube at your own leisure.
Even crazier? We don't even know where he's going to school.
His immensely high-profile recruitment appears to be coming down to two schools: Florida State, where his parents, former NBA player Mitchell Wiggins and former Canadian Olympic track star Marita Payne-Wiggins, were both athletes; and Kentucky, which is Kentucky. At the Final Four, many in the know whom I asked seemed to more frequently guess Florida State, largely because Kentucky has already signed (deep breath) six McDonald's All Americans, four of the top seven ESPN 100 prospects and the top point guard, shooting guard, power forward and center. Wiggins is the top small forward. Even without him, recruiting experts (like our own Dave Telep) think UK 2013 is the best recruiting class of all time. Move over, Fab Five.
The fear of a crowded roster, plus the familial ties, make the Florida State theory make sense. But if there's anything we've learned over the past five years, it's that if a top prospect is considering playing for John Calipari we should probably go ahead and assume he is going to play for John Calipari. Plus, it's not like Wiggins has to worry about minutes.
Anyway, if Wiggins chooses Florida State, he might just be good enough to make the Seminoles a contender in the ACC. If he picks Kentucky, just cancel the season and give the Wildcats the title. It will save us all a lot of time.
4. The college hoops rules changes. Already this offseason, our own Andy Katz has reported that the NCAA rules committee is going to look at a couple of hot-button rules issues this summer: the use of video replay (and the groaning logistics therein) and the brutal flagrant elbow rule, which was written with good intentions but is drastically misguided.
It's a start. Let's hope it isn't the end.
Fact is, Monday's national title game wasn't just a great game for a championship; it was a great game, full stop. We had not had many of those this season in college hoops, or even in the tournament. What we had instead was brutally low-scoring games, as the sport and its coaches continued their decades-long trend of sacrificing pace for efficiency, creativity for control.
There is only so much the rules committee can do. It can't force Tony Bennett to start coaching like Paul Westhead. It can't force coaches to stop emphasizing transition defense. It (probably) can't make radical changes to the nuts and bolts of the game. It probably doesn't want to shorten the shot clock to 24 seconds, although that might be a nice boost. But it can do what the NBA did: Think about what the legislation of contact means, and correct it to make the game more entertaining.
"I went to see [the Lakers'] Earl Clark play against Miami," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said Sunday, before his team's national title victory. "Earl was playing LeBron [James]. Earl just basically took his hand and just rested it on him and they went, foul. What happened in the NBA is they stopped all the arm bars, all the standing up of screens, all the coming across and chopping the guy. They stopped all that. Now there's freedom of movement in the NBA and you see great offense. When you coach in the Big East, you should wear a body guard. Peyton [Siva] wears a body guard, shoulder pads, because you can't cut, can't move.
"I always liked to watch the old films of Clyde Frazier and, you don't see defense touch anybody at all," he said. "Everybody cuts and passes, there's freedom of movement. That's what we've got to get back to. The only way to do it is the first 10 games of the season, the games have to be ugly and the players will adjust, then you will see great offense again."
On Monday night, after the game, Pitino was asked about this again, and he made a great point -- one that coursed through the best game of the regular season, his team's five-overtime loss to Notre Dame. The point is that college basketball is entertaining for different reasons than pure aesthetics. Outcomes are usually in doubt; even the best teams can lose; and because the game isn't dominated by four-year future pros, stories like Kevin Ware and Spike Albrecht are possible. Which is true. People love college basketball for different reasons than they love the NBA. The best teams don't always win (though the best team did win Monday night); the best stories have a way of shining through.
"You had no idea who was going to win going into this tournament," Pitino said. "I think that's so much fun -- as long as the game is well played."
Hear, hear. The college game has many, many things to recommend it. Few would list beauty among them. But beauty is a virtue, something worth working toward, and there was no greater reminder of that then Louisville 82, Michigan 76. More than anything, the game exists to entertain. We shouldn't be so shocked by it; we need to see it more often. And rules changes that better govern defensive contact are the first, best place to start.
5. The NCAA's ongoing existential crisis. Last Thursday, NCAA president Mark Emmert sat down for the organization's annual State of the Outdated Oligopoly meeting with reporters. These news conferences are usually about as entertaining as trying to play the new "SimCity," all platitudes and legalese and vague reassurances that the tournament isn't going to expand again anytime soon. Stuff like that.
This one was wildly, awesomely different. Emmert ditched his typically understated suit for a snazzy button-down, leaned forward into the microphone, and officially turned heel.
Emmert clearly came itching for a fight. It surely didn't help that his news conference arrived just a day after a USA Today story dug into his professional history, leading with his involvement into a costly construction scandal on UConn's campus during his time at the school and convincingly asserting Emmert "has a history of dodging blame in scandals that have festered on his campuses, sometimes moving on to a more lucrative job before their full extent becomes known." But he saved the heaviest dose of snippiness for reporters who have called for his resignation ("Thanks for the career advice. Kept my job anyway.") and even did his best attempt at a mike drop as he walked off the dais ("I'm still here. I know you're disappointed, but here I am."). Naturally, the official NCAA transcript was scrubbed of all this fun.
Still, as our own Dana O'Neil wrote, Emmert's top-rope fan antagonization and D-Generation X chops couldn't distract from the wide breadth of fundamental issues facing the NCAA as it lumbers into its second century. Emmert repeatedly referred to the organization's "change agenda," which includes a wide swath of recent rules changes that have been variously received by fans and membership schools alike. He discussed the lack of trust caused by botched NCAA enforcement staff investigations, highlighted new cell phone rules, made hay of his hope for full cost-of-attendance scholarships, or what he called "miscellaneous expense allowance."
All of these things are issues. Some are positive signs. But it was during his 2,700-word preamble that the NCAA president unwittingly revealed the depth of the organization's existential doom. Emmert was talking about enforcement penalties and "the concept of institutional control," when he said: "We still have a lot of work to be done around some definitional issues there."
Definitional issues. Taken alone, this is a pretty nondescript phrase, but when you think about it a bit you realize it is at the heart of everything people either don't like or don't understand about the NCAA: It can't even define its own definitions. This is why it can simultaneously argue in federal court that its student-athletes have no right to use their likenesses during or after their collegiate careers while classifying "miscellaneous expense allowance" -- $2,000 or $3,000 a year for student-athletes -- as a pragmatic tweak, and not a fundamental philosophical pivot. It's why Emmert can deflect a question about academic abuses at schools by saying "we're an athletic association" a few minutes after lauding the NCAA's increased Academic Progress Rate standards and its penalties for those who fall short. It's why it uses "student-athlete" to refer to the members of Northwestern's women's fencing team as readily as Auburn football players. When you're constantly re-defining your own terms, anything goes.
All of which is to say: This is going to be yet another interesting summer for Emmert and the NCAA. There might be a dozen rules proposals that have small or large impacts on the association; there is the ongoing O'Bannon case; there is sure to be another scandal or three (Rutgers and Mike Rice, anyone?) that undermines trust in the organization, if there is any left in the first place.
The NCAA isn't going away this summer. Or next year. Or in five. But its future is beset on all sides, and what it does when member institutions meet in the summers to come will have much to say about whether it has a future at all.