HOUSTON -- The college basketball season came to an end Monday night in the vast expanse of Reliant Stadium amid a cascade of confetti that also signaled the annual beginning of the NBA draft season.
There soon will be a string of fresh announcements about which early-entry players will make themselves available for the draft, which will hire agents, which will test the professional interest with the option to duck back to their schools if necessary, and which will give it the old college try at least one more time.
According to NBA talent evaluators and the best guesses of the mock drafts, more than one-third of the first-round selections will be players who have just completed their freshman seasons. Adding in a handful of sophomores, nearly half of the players in the first round will be great basketball prospects who have only begun to fulfill their potential.
This talent drain from the college game almost always affects only the best programs from the biggest conferences. Those are the schools that attract the just-passing-through players because they represent a chance to snatch some major television time and maybe some championship glory in their dash to the pros.
The era of "one-and-done" players became the norm as a result of the 2005 NBA collective bargaining agreement, which mandated that players could not be drafted until they were either 19 years old or had played one season of college ball.
The question -- one highlighted nicely by the just-completed Final Four -- is whether this system has hurt college basketball or helped it. On one hand, there are few great teams any longer, and the talent level, especially at the upper echelons, has been diminished. But on the other hand, it has brought about an era in which there seems to be greater parity from top to bottom than ever before, an environment in which schools from non-power conferences like Butler and Virginia Commonwealth actually can hope to advance to the Final Four.
So which is better? Great players for a longer time, and truly great teams, or the sense that anything can happen, and the little guy, with lesser players but more experience, truly has a chance now?
"With the way it is now, it's kind of like the wild, wild West. May the best team win and it doesn't have to have pedigree attached to it," said Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, whose perennially powerful Big East team played for the title against Butler University from the more lightly regarded Horizon League on Monday night. "If you could grab (back) some of the kids in the NBA, maybe the establishment would still be the establishment. But that's not the facts. The facts are that ... there's an opportunity for teams. I think that's healthy."
The question of whether it is good for the overall game, however, is a different one. It is a question being asked against the backdrop of a coming labor dispute in the NBA that is expected to lead to a lockout and, in a worst-case scenario, to the loss of at least part of next season. Some underclassmen who might otherwise jump to the league are considering a return to the safe haven of college instead while the situation settles itself. That trend could mean college basketball will have a refreshingly deeper pool of talent next season and the more powerful programs will reassert themselves.
The NBA's collective bargaining agreement expires at midnight June 30, just a week after the annual draft. The issue of contention between owners and players is almost identical to the one that led to the current NFL lockout. The owners, claiming financial losses, want a bigger piece of the revenue pie, and the players would like to keep the status quo. The two sides do not appear remotely close to settling things.
Among the side issues expected to be negotiated is a possible change in the "one-and-done" rule to an eligibility system that will make basketball more like baseball. Players will have the option of entering the NBA draft right out of high school, but once they choose to attend college, they will have to remain there, or remain ineligible for the draft, for at least two, and possibly three seasons. Baseball players who opt for college after high school rather than the minor leagues must stay in school three years.
"I'm in favor of anything that encourages people to stay in college," said NCAA president Mark Emmert. "If there are changes that encourage students to stay in school, develop and grow, that's great."
Emmert, predictably, takes exception to the idea there's anything out of whack with the college game, however.
"The so-called 'one-and-done' phenomenon has taken on a bigger-than-life position in people's minds. There were last year, 14 or 15 or something like that. Fourteen out of 5,500 Division I basketball players. I would very much like to not have that become the image of intercollegiate basketball, even though there are some that do that."
True enough, but there are dozens of players in the NBA who otherwise would have been in the NCAA tournament field had they remained in school. Almost without exception, they were players from power conferences. The little guys, meanwhile, have continued to do what they have always done -- build around good players who stick around.
"Two years ago, we started three freshmen, a sophomore, and a junior in an NCAA tournament game, and we weren't ready to win at that level," Butler coach Brad Stevens said. "I do think the landscape has changed. I think the more juniors and seniors you have, the better. I think that's a great thing."
It has been a great thing for Butler in the last two seasons, and the trend may continue with more small programs making their marks in the tournament. Whether it is good or bad for the game is a matter of perspective, and it will take more than 40 minutes of basketball played in a football stadium to decide it.