In transition game lure of NBA spurs a change of face

Early departures dilute sport's talent pool, shift focus to younger players

National Men's preview


Shane Battier came to Duke two years ago as a member of college basketball's top-rated recruiting class. By the time he leaves, most likely after his senior year, his memories of playing with Elton Brand, William Avery and Chris Burgess will be distant -- and a bit disappointing.

The disappointment doesn't come only in the fact that the Blue Devils fell short of their ultimate goal the past two years, losing to Kentucky in the NCAA tournament South Regional final when Battier and the others were freshmen, and falling to Connecticut in the tournament's championship game last season. It also comes from the departure of his former teammates last spring.

Brand and Avery left Duke for the NBA as first-round draft choices, as did freshman phenom Corey Maggette. Burgess, unhappy about his role the past two years as Brand's backup, left for the University of Utah. And Battier was left with an interesting perspective about a program that has been the most successful in college basketball for the past 15 years.

"College basketball is a very transitory sport right now," Battier said one afternoon last month, hours before the Blue Devils were to take the court at Cameron Indoor Stadium for Midnight Madness. "The Duke program of 1997 is not the same as the Duke program of 1999."

If there is any consolation for Battier, college basketball isn't what it used to be when Duke's dynasty -- under Mike Krzyzewski -- began with a trip to the Final Four in 1986, or what it was when the Blue Devils won back-to-back championships in 1991 and 1992. The sport is not even what it was when the program fell to the bottom of the Atlantic Coast Conference during Krzyzewski's absence for most of the 1994-95 season.

A number of factors have served to dilute the sport of its top stars: the growing number of players leaving for the NBA before their college eligibility is over and the increase in players, usually for academics or economics or both, who choose to go directly from high schools to the pros. The changing face of college basketball has more peach fuzz than stubble.

But Duke, which had never lost a player early to the NBA until this year, was certainly not alone.

Connecticut shooting guard and Final Four MVP Richard Hamilton left after three years in Storrs and became the top draft pick of the Washington Wizards. Maryland, which reached the Sweet 16, watched senior-to-be Steve Francis renounce his college eligibility after one year, as did Rhode Island's Lamar Odom. St. John's said goodbye to Ron Artest, after his sophomore year.

And then there was Mississippi State, which received an oral commitment from Jonathan Bender before the high school star opted for the NBA.

"I've never had one kid say to me, `Coach, I'm going early,' when we're recruiting him," said Krzyzewski, now in his 20th season at Duke. "That's not to say they won't leave after a year or two. You've got to be good to be in that position. Hopefully we'll get more players like that and we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Rick Majerus has had less than a handful of players at Utah who find themselves contemplating that decision. Last spring, it was Hanno Mottola. The year before that it was Andre Miller. Before them it was Michael Doleac and Keith Van Horn. Each, for his own reason, stayed. Miller, Doleac and Van Horn all benefited, improving their games and their position in the draft, something Mottola hopes to do this season.

Not that Majerus would mind having a player good enough to make the jump after his sophomore year -- and might when Britton Johnsen returns next season after a two-year Mormon mission.

"I'd rather have the talent once in a while and see how much fun it is," said Majerus, whose Utes lost to Kentucky in the NCAA final two years ago with Doleac and Miller, then a fourth-year junior. "I'd like to lose a Richard Hamilton."

As a result of the defections, na's Ed Cota is out indefinitely after being suspended Nov. 1 for his part in a bar brawl. They were considered the two top point guards in the country.

Among the teams given a legitimate chance to win a national championship, Cincinnati and Auburn will again rely heavily on former junior college transfers, while Florida is still in the midst of its youth movement under boy-wonder coach Billy Donovan. Another team considered among Final Four contenders, Ohio State, will be led by senior Scoonie Penn (who transferred two years ago) and junior Michael Redd.

"I think when you have experienced guys, like me and Michael, it gives you a big advantage, especially in the NCAA tournament," Penn said after the Buckeyes beat St. John's, with then-freshman point guard Erick Barkley, in last season's South Regional final in Knoxville, Tenn.

Majerus remembers watching an NBA playoff game last spring.

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