SEATTLE — Four years ago, when the NBA instituted a 19-year-old age limit, the breathless first thought was to declare it a lifeline for college basketball.
The Superstar has returned to college hoops! No more preps skipping college! Polish Dick Vitale’s head for the show, baby! After the rule was announced, I called Louisville coach Rick Pitino and had a few "Isn’t this great?” questions. He sighed. "It’s not that big of a deal,” he said. I figured he’d damaged his brain by blowing his whistle one too many times. Then he offered his reasons for being so guarded, ending with one that’s proving disturbingly correct: Because a generation of kids have grown up figuring college wasn’t necessary to make it to the NBA, it will be a significant challenge to reprogram those who have slacked on academics and failed to develop an appreciation for college athletics. "In some cases, recruiting some of these kids could present an incredible burden for a program,” Pitino said. "The culture is so different now.” Four years ago, Pitino seemed like a buzz kill. Now, unfortunately, he’s a prophet. Derrick Rose — accused of academic fraud. O.J. Mayo — accused of being funded by a street agent. Brandon Jennings — fled to Europe because he couldn’t pass the SAT. Jeremy Tyler (a Pitino recruit) — will pull a Brandon Jennings, except he’s skipping out on his senior year of high school, too. It seems the age limit is producing as many headaches as memories. The freshmen in the 2009 draft class represent the third group that couldn’t hop straight from high school to the NBA. The previous two freshman classes have produced 13 of the last 28 lottery picks and the top two overall selections in the 2007 and 2008 drafts. For all the star power in those classes, only four of those players went to the Final Four. Greg Oden and Mike Conley led Ohio State to the championship game in 2007. Rose led Memphis to the title game in 2008, beating Kevin Love and UCLA in the semifinals. The nine other freshman lottery picks led their teams to a combined five NCAA tournament victories. So many college programs experienced the most prevalent fear of the one-and-done college star: He comes, plays well but you don’t win big, and then he leaves and throws the program out of whack. That scenario is bad enough.