College basketball was never better than it was in the 1980s and before you dismiss this as the nostalgia of a long-time columnist yearning for the good old days you should consider the real source of that statement.
Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke University basketball coach and the winningest coach ever, said it during an ESPN story about North Carolina State's 1983 national championship team. The 1980s were the best the game ever has been and ever will be, according to the coach. His reasoning is simple: The game's star players didn't leave college early en masse to join the NBA.
Imagine what might have been if Blake Griffin had stayed at Oklahoma more than two years; or if Gordon Hayward had stayed at Butler more than two years; or if Greg Oden, Derrick Rose, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durrant and John Wall had played beyond their freshman seasons.
This is to say nothing of the stars who didn't play any college basketball — LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard, etc.
Undoubtedly, more players would choose to skip the college game altogether if not for the rule the NBA adopted in 2005 that requires players to be 19 and one year removed from high school to be eligible for the draft.
As it is, most of college basketball's biggest stars are one and done, maybe two. The caliber of play no doubt has suffered. Teams don't get a chance to play together and develop for more than a season or two. During college basketball's best years, teams and players improved their skills and chemistry by playing together for several years. Now college teams have the same turnover as modern professional teams with their free agency. The John Wooden era couldn't come close to happening today.
Not that stars didn't leave college early in the '80s — Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas and Larry Bird, among them — but now virtually all of college's best players leave early. If Ralph Sampson, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird played in today's college game, they wouldn't have remained in the college game for four years.
With Johnson and Bird setting the stage in 1979, the game took off in the '80s. Darrell Griffith — a four-year player — led Louisville to the 1980 championship. Thomas — a two-year player — led Indiana to the '81 championship. Michael Jordan — a three-year college player — hit the winning shot to win the '82 championship. Thurl Bailey — a four-year player — helped North Carolina State win the championship in 1983. Patrick Ewing — a four-year player — led Georgetown to the title in '84.
Villanova won the '85 championship with All-American Ed Pinckney — a four-year player. Pervis Ellison — another four-year player — led Louisville to another championship in 1986. Indiana won the '87 championship behind the play of Steve Alford and Keith Smart — both four-year players. Danny Manning — another four-year player — took Kansas (aka "Danny and the Miracles") to the 1988 championship. Glen Rice — a four-year player — and Rumeal Robinson — three years — took Michigan to the 1989 championship.
And then the star exodus began in earnest in the 1990s. Garnett, Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal went straight from high school to the NBA, and other high school players followed — i.e., Amar'e Stoudemire, James, Kwame Brown, McGrady, Howard. The game has never been the same since.
Kentucky had a juggernaut in the making last year when it won the NCAA championship; the school didn't even qualify for the NCAA tournament this season after losing all of its stars to the NBA.17 comments on this story
This is why college basketball is known as a coach's game. Don't bet on players, bet on coaches, the one constant; bet on Krzyzewski (No. 1 on the winningest coach list), Jim Boeheim (No. 2), Billy Donovan, John Calipari, Rick Petino, Roy Williams, Tom Izzo. Two of those coaches — Boeheim and Petino — have teams in the Final Four — and two others — Krzyzewski and Donovan — came within one game of making it there.
These days, they're the only enduring stars in the game.