Will Killing The One And Done Rule Really Fix College Basketball?

Michael Porter Jr., Missouri’s star freshman forward and sure fire top three pick, will likely never take another shot for the program. One and done. More like two and done, actually. Two minutes that is. The 6-10 forward played for solely that duration against Iowa State in the Tigers’ season opener before getting pulled with an injury.  He never returned.  And despite Porter Jr.’s optimism he probably won’t return this season(nor should he). According to Missouri hoops' Twitter account, Porter Jr. “underwent surgery on Tuesday, Nov. 21, in Dallas, Texas. The procedure, a microdiscectomy of the L3-L4 spinal discs, has a projected recovery time of three-four months and will likely cause him to miss the remainder of the season.” So long Michael. So long Final Four hopes. So long one of college basketball’s biggest stars. So long my peaking interest in the college basketball season.  

Little did I know it, but I was relying on the Michael Porter Jr.’s of the world to generate interest in the upcoming season. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that similar mindsets are problematic because although college hoops has always had stars, it feels only recently that the sport, which has always advertised a “team basketball first” motto, has somehow found itself wrapped around a “how’s that guy doing” culture instead of a “how’s that team doing” culture. This change in culture can no doubt be tied directly back to the NBA’s Article X, better known as the One and Done Rule, but it ultimately goes deeper than than that, rooting itself in the sport's struggle for amateurism. Essentially, college basketball is having an identity crisis.        

Normally I would say the law of basketball works as followed: the better the players, or the talent level, the better the basketball.  And I would say usually that applies to every level. We can obviously debate exactly what better basketball means. One person might believe it means better competition, but I would argue no one watches basketball or any sport for that matter solely for good competition. We don’t seek out pee-wee basketball because it's competitive. Sports need grace. They need expertise and masterful-ness. Basketball fans can get as pissy and stand offish as they want about the Golden State Warriors but they can’t call it bad basketball. Golden State’s demolition of the NBA last season was remarkable, even if it was frustrating. And the numbers show it, as a lackluster NBA Playoffs, one that many were calling “terrible,” saw its ratings improve from the year before.

Conversely, that law seems to have proven merely hypothetical for college basketball. Better players have not made college basketball better. We know this because the hot topic surrounding the league over the last few years, despite Article X, has been the long and drawn out colloquy that is “how do we fix college hoops?” And despite changes to the shot clock and contact fouls that have increased the fluidity and watchability of the game, killing the tortoise pace of the early 2000’s, the conversation still continues. Don’t believe me? Then why do things like this keep surfacing.

To create and maintain fan bases, college sports rely heavily upon branding. They have always needed fans to form allegiances with institutions instead of athletes because the athletes are only temporary fixtures. Essentially, college basketball needs you to care more about its teams than its players, and to do that its teams need to be bigger subjects than its players. One way college basketball has accomplished this in the past is to rely on the amateurism of the sport. College hoops used to be a place where young players went to mold and grow their game, spending three or four years(maybe getting an education?), before making the jump to the pros or graduating.  In this sense, younger basketball players needed college basketball to be successful. In return this meant being recruited by a big time program was a bigger deal than it is today.  

The One and Done Rule hasn’t destroyed this philosophy, but it certainly hasn't played well alongside of it. Tons of players still stay three or four years. Unfortunately though, the good ones don't, and the ripple effect is not heartwarming. Besides die hards, do we even care about how Duke does this year? Do we care about Grayson Allen? Or do we just want to watch Marvin Bagley III put up big numbers and monitor how he does under pressure so we can further evaluate his NBA prospectus? Forcing the best players in the nation to play one year of college hasn’t given college basketball a boost, it’s given us a different reason to watch the sport entirely.  It’s given us an aversion; a reason to watch other than just for the sake of college hoops.

And so it’s not that college basketball doesn’t need good players like the one’s Article X forces to go to school for one year. It’s that for college basketball to be truly good players need to need college basketball because in return it forces us to treat the sport like it should be treated, as its own individual entity. In 2013 John Calipari, head coach of Kentucky and one of the biggest beneficiaries of Article X, came out in opposition of it, stating:

“I'm the one guy out there saying we've gotta change this somehow. We've gotta encourage these kids to stay two years. But the NCAA's gotta do some stuff, and if they don't do it we need to separate from them. I'm not afraid to say it...I don't really care. But something's gotta change with this one-and-done rule. I seem to be the only coach saying anything. It's wrong for high school kids, it's wrong for college kids, it's wrong for the NBA. So why won't we come together and do something about it?”

Calipari’s point is that college hoops is caught in the cross hairs, or that right now the sport is inbetween two identities.  It’s trying to capitalize on NBA talent, but also preach amateurism, and it’s becoming quite obvious it can’t do both effectively.  Like any sport, college basketball needs stars to be effective. The problem right now is that college basketball stars don’t really exist, or rather, they are completely overshadowed. Marvin Bagley III is not a college basketball star, he’s an NBA prospect. The same for Michael Porter Jr.  And it was the same for Jayson Tatum, Andrew Wiggins, Ben Simmons, etc. J.J Reddick was a college basketball star. So was Sean May, Deron Williams, Grant Hill, Chris Webber, etc. Those guys were a part of the college basketball spectacle, the former used it as a liftoff pad solely because they were forced to, and that difference is paramount.

Killing the One and Done Rule removes this entire problem. It removes the issue of Kentucky, Duke, and Kansas solely being pro factories and returns them to their former statures: collegiate powerhouses. It removes the emphasis of the “how’s that guy doing” culture and reverts the focus back to a “how’s that team doing” culture. I think we’d care more about Duke basketball this year if we had no idea whether or not Marvin Bagley III was going to go pro, or if we didn’t know that when he’s gone in 2018, Duke will just replace him with another otherworldly one and done talent.  It’s that kind of perfunctory repetition and predictability that hurts actual interest in college basketball.  Without article X we might go back to saying things like “hey, this team might be good in a year or two if these young guys progress,” a conversation we save only for non traditional powerhouses now.

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said it best when he said, “We are not running this the way a billion-dollar industry should be run. We try to put a circle into a square. That’s what men’s college basketball is. It’s not a bad circle. But it can’t be done like the square.” And he’s right, college basketball is not itself right now. And while the ratings are up, and the talent pool is maybe better than it’s ever been from year to year, the spectacle of college hoops has almost never felt any less important. Maybe killing the One and Done rule will help or maybe it won’t. The only thing we really know is that college basketball somehow needs to regain its amateurism, and put the focus of the sport back on its own product. People need to care about college basketball because it’s college basketball again, or else it’s going to be truly difficult for it to regain its magic.