Net contest March Madness (Getty images)Net contest March Madness (Getty images) © Copyright

March madness // Be excited

Imagine if Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli, Philippe Coutinho, Anthony Martial and loads of other amazing young stars of world football were all playing in a three-week tournament, with every game live on prime time telly this March. Sounds sick, right?

Well, over in America, that’s exactly what’s happening – and then some – when the world’s best young basketballers will be showcasing their absurd talents to millions of hoop-crazy fans every night, starting on 15 March in Dayton, Ohio. It’s called March Madness – or The NCAA Men’s Division I BasketballChampionship if you’re a Grade-A geek – and the annual knockout tournament to crown the best team in US college basketball can often bring the sport-obsessed country to a standstill.

Even President Barack Obama gets involved, filling in a “bracket” every year which predicts the result of each match from the round of 64 all the way to the final. Imagine David Cameron doing likewise for the Euros this summer. Never gonna happen. So why all the excitement? Other than the obvious reason that basketball is brilliant, dramatic and frenetic, this is a chance for the nation (and world) to see the future stars of the NBA.

The best thing about March Madness is that its outcome is basically impossible to predict. Last season, top2015 NBA draft pick Karl-Anthony Towns led the University of Kentucky through an incredible regular season, where they lost just one of their 38 games. Firm favourites, they were upset by the University of Wisconsin’s fourth-year forward Frank Kaminsky (now of Charlotte Hornets).

Jevon Carter March Madness (Getty images)

 

The eventual winners were the Jahlil Okafor-led Duke. Okafor now plays in the NBA for the struggling Philadelphia 76ers. Although scouting reports are filed and NBA Draft decisions are made long in advance of March Madness, the tournament still provides an opportunity for players to show a US audience that they can handle high-pressure basketball.

The most exciting thing about March Madness is the sense literally anything can happen. A player can go on a hot streak in the third quarter of a game and briefly be propelled to national superstardom, or a team from an unfashionable college can upset the pre-tournament favourites. Teams who make it unexpectedly far are referred to as Cinderellas, in the same way as we refer to the FA Cup’s successful minnows as giant-killers.

Alterations to the rules affecting how long young players must spend in the college game mean that players are increasingly playing just one year of college basketball before declaring for the NBA draft. In the past, players could have four stabs at an NCAA Champs, then go onto a successful NBA Career. Now, though, the pressure is on the “one-and-done” generation to win March Madness.

Since the early ’90s, most NBA-destined players would play three years of NCAA Basketball and the exceptional talents would leave college after just two. This gives them two years developing as student-athletes, at least two regular season campaigns, and two years of playing intense, high-stakes basketball in the NCAA Championships.

But the sport has changed. Scouting information has reached such a high level that potential NBA players are identified in junior high, showcased in the McDonald’s All-American game while in high school, and announce their college move early during their final year of high school.

Nowadays, once a player reaches college, they don’t tend to stick around. The recent trend for “one-and done” – that is, declaring for the draft after one year of NCAA basketball – means that more and more, college is being viewed as a finishing school for young American athletes, a final and brief stepping stone before the NBA.

John Calipari March Madness shouting (Getty images)

 

John Calipari – the head coach of men’s basketball at the University of Kentucky – is widely recognised as one of America’s greatest ever coaches, and earlier this year, he was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame. Year on year, his basketball programme attracts the finest high schoolers around, given Kentucky’s phenomenal track record of sending his players to the NBA.

In 2010, John Wall was picked first in the NBA Draft after one year at Kentucky. In 2012, Kentucky won March Madness and their star centre Anthony Davis went first in the draft. Last year, forward Karl-Anthony Towns was the latest Wildcat to go first pick.

Calipari earns a reported $8million per year, as well as large bonuses for getting his players to the NBA. But while other coaches can rely on players returning more experienced the following year, the Kentucky starting five changes entirely almost every year, meaning Calipari has to completely readjust the team’s playing style year after year, based on the relative strengths of their new recruits.

For the players, the immediate advantages are obvious. As Wildcats, they undergo strenuous physical training as their bodies are prepared for the rigours of the NBA. From the moment they arrive in Lexington, Kentucky, the players are treated like celebrities. Kentucky has no NBA team, so the state treats its players like superstars, selling out every game at the 23,500 capacity arena. Kentucky players head to the NBA fully versed in television and media commitments. In short, they’re ready for the NBA.

It’s not just Kentucky, either. Of the first 15 players selected in the 2015 draft, just three had spent more than a year in college. More and more, we’re adjusting to an era where “one-anddone” is the norm. And many former players are critical of the direction in which the sport’s heading.

Tip off March madness  (Getty images)

 

Glen Rice is a three-time NBA All-Star and NBA Champion with the Los Angeles Lakers. After his third year in college, he was projected to be selected 15th in the draft, but felt he had “unfinished business” in the college game, having failed to win an NCAA title. In his final year as a Michigan Wolverine, Rice won the NCAA Championships, leading his team in scoring, and thus winning the tournament’s coveted Most Outstanding Player award. He was selected fourth in the draft after his final years at Michigan State. Rice feels that players are entering the league immature, and missing out on the opportunity to develop their skills.

“Their experience is not where it needs to be,” he says, “and their maturity level is not there either. It’s rare that you get a guy who played one year in college come into the NBA and make an instant impact. It’s so hard to do that. In a lot of cases, you have guys come into the NBA and sit on the bench for two or three years before they start to play. You could have stayed in college and developed so much more, then when you come into the NBA, your chance of making an instant impact is much greater.”

In an ESPN All-Access documentary, though, Calipari defends his fleet of “one-and-dones.”

“I don’t think you need four years,” he insists. “When Steve Jobs left [school] early, or Bill Gates, do you know people [who] went crazy and said it’d ruin the education system?

“I don’t like the rule and I wish I had these kids longer. Could you imagine if I had these kids for two or three years? What, am I dumb? [Of] course I want them here. But it’s the way the rules are, that’s what we’ve got to work with.

“Would you tell a kid that was the number one pick that he had to come back to school? What if he got hurt and his stock went from one to 12? Would you feel bad? What if it was your son?” College careers may be shortening, but the NCAA Tournament promises thrills, spills and a brief opportunity to glimpse college players before they hit the big league. Whether or not they’re “one-and-dones”, they’re in the NCAA for this year at least. Don’t miss it.

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