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Sunday, April 02, 2006

LeBron 47, LSU 45

LeBron James had 47 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists as his Cleveland Cavaliers defeated the Miami Heat 106-99 in a battle of Eastern Conference contenders on Sunday afternoon. LSU managed 45 points as a team on Sunday night, losing by 14 to UCLA in the Final Four, the showcase event for college basketball. We often hear about assist/turnover ratio in reference to point guards, but my favorite statistic for this NCAA Tournament is team field goals made/team turnovers ratio. LSU made 16 field goals and committed 15 turnovers. UCLA is a good defensive team but, to borrow tennis terminology, a lot of LSU's errors were "unforced." Anyone--other than UCLA fans or alumni--who says that the UCLA victory was more entertaining or in any way superior to the Cavs-Heat game is lying or delusional. Florida's 73-58 win over George Mason in the other Final Four matchup was hardly a barnburner, either. Near the end of the UCLA game, CBS analyst Billy Packer offered this succinct summary: "This was a very weak Saturday evening." He and play-by-play man Jim Nantz tried to soften the blow by suggesting, incongruously, that after two disappointing games maybe Monday's championship game will be a classic. Guys, does a money back guarantee come with that? A free pizza? Something?

If James had not gone straight to the NBA after high school then he would be a junior in college now. James clearly made a wise decision for himself, since he is a leading MVP candidate and has the Cavaliers playing better than they have in years--but the parade of high schoolers and underclassmen to the NBA in the past decade has had a negative impact on basketball at all levels. It's been bad for the high school game because it shifted the focus from having fun and trying to get a college scholarship to trying to impress NBA scouts; NBA scouts don't belong in high school gyms and it is a great step forward that the NBA now has a minimum age requirement that will prevent players from jumping straight from the preps to the pros. The college game has been decimated because the cream of the crop of young players over the past 10 years has either bypassed college or attended school briefly. It might seem on the surface that this influx of young talent has been good for the NBA but it is important to remember that even players like Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett were not great from the start. NBA teams paid their salaries as they underwent accelerated apprenticeships into the pro game--and they are the success stories. What about the host of players who skipped college or left early and are now playing minor league ball somewhere, still trying to develop the fundamental skills and knowledge of the game that they could have learned while benefitting from a full college scholarship? NBA coaches now have to help players to develop practice habits and fundamental skills that used to be honed in college.

Other observers have noticed the sad state of affairs in college basketball. The Chicago Tribune's Skip Myslenski wrote a great article on March 27 about the dearth of truly great teams in college basketball today, pointing out that just 10 years ago the NCAA champion Kentucky Wildcats started five future NBA players--Antoine Walker, Derek Anderson, Tony Delk, Ron Mercer and Walter McCarty. Can you imagine either of Monday's finalists offering much resistance to that team? I'm not sure about Anderson's current health or Mercer's whereabouts, but I might take that Kentucky team today against Florida or UCLA. In the April 7 issue of the Sporting News, Dave Kindred writes, "Anyone who has paid attention knows the cold truth. The games remain dramatically contested (parity at work) and inherently thrilling (youthful enthusiasm). But the quality of play seldom rises past mediocre." Sunday's games failed to even reach the minimal bars of being contested and thrilling. Kindred continues, "With so many talented players gone to the NBA before even pretending to read a textbook, the college game's decline has long been inevitable." He goes on to lament "the college game's sorrowful devolution from the steel-spined days of Larry Bird and Patrick Ewing."

UCLA's dismantling of LSU had barely concluded when ESPN's Dick Vitale, Digger Phelps and Jay Bilas began discussing the pro prospects of LSU sophomore Glen Davis, who shot 5-17 from the field versus UCLA and clearly is not in proper physical condition to play in an uptempo game; if he can't run with UCLA I'd hate to see him trying to keep up with the Phoenix Suns in the NBA. Bilas explained that Davis is not currently ready to make an impact in the NBA but Vitale delivered the bottom line truth: the NBA is drafting players based on potential, not current ability, and the lure of the guaranteed money is irresistible to a lot of players, particularly those from impoverished backgrounds.

Before Davis leaves Indianapolis and makes a decision about his future he should talk to Tito Horford--father of Florida forward Al Horford--who now admits that he made a mistake when he left college early nearly 20 years ago for what turned out to be a 63 game NBA career. Leaving early can lead to quick money but staying in college to polish one's game can result in making more money in the long run. Remember The Empire Strikes Back? Luke Skywalker left Dagobah before he completed his Jedi training with Yoda, thinking that only he could rescue Han Solo, Chewbacca and Princess Leia; all Skywalker got for leaving early was a chopped off hand courtesy of Darth Vader and, as it turned out, his friends escaped on their own and had to rescue him. Somebody please get Davis DVDs of that movie and some of the Suns' recent games. All I can say is, "Big Baby," if you don't believe Jay Bilas, listen to Yoda, who pleaded with Luke Skywalker that only a fully trained Jedi Knight could face Darth Vader. Or, to paraphrase what Vader told Luke Skywalker during their lightsaber duel, "The Force is strong with you--but you are not a legitimate NBA player yet."

posted by David Friedman @ 12:17 AM

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