Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Death of the 4-year superstar

A look into college basketballs ongoing affair with underclassmen leaving early and its affects on the games identity and stability

April 1, 2002

Inside his office in the new Berkowitz Basketball Complex, MSU men’s basketball associate head coach Brian Gregory sat and listened to my questions about the state of college basketball.

“Can you think of any recent superstar-type players who turned down the NBA and came back for their senior year?” I asked.

“Here at Michigan State you have to look at Mateen (Cleaves) and Morris Peterson, because those two guys had the opportunity to leave early,” Gregory said. “Nationally, you look at (former Duke forward) Shane Battier, a guy who had an opportunity to leave and stayed.”

But just when it seemed Gregory was ready to continue his list, no names ran off his tongue. In fact, absolutely no words filled the office. The only sound was a slight hesitation in Gregory’s voice, followed not so quickly by his now deflated voice.

“In all honesty, over the last few years there hasn’t been a ton of them.”

And with the decline of four-year superstars, the face of college basketball has been altered, impacting the sport in areas ranging from recruiting to player development.

Spartan head coach Tom Izzo raised a national championship banner after the 1999-2000 season with a team that featured four seniors, including Cleaves, Peterson and A.J. Granger in the starting line-up.

Izzo’s latest team started no seniors, and had only one senior on the roster - guard Mat Ishbia. Ishbia played in just 13 of the Spartans’ 31 games.

“If I was to be honest, are the Mateen Cleaves’ and the Morris Petersons type of guys (dead)? Yeah I think so, I really do,” Izzo said. “Maybe we can hope to get three years, but the four-year superstar probably is dead.”

And the major culprit depleting the stock of senior stars is the NBA. The lure of the league stems mainly from the dreams of players everywhere who hope to take their games to the highest level in professional basketball.

Four years of collegiate ball used to be a steppingstone a player had to use to get to the NBA, Gregory said.

“Everyone’s ultimate goal isn’t to go to college, earn your degree, play on a championship team and win a national title,” he said. “Everything is directed at getting to the NBA.

“Visions and goals and directions have changed, and the sooner you can get there the better.”

The changes in visions, goals and directions have left Spartan coaches wondering about their priorities.

“We really believe that the players and their futures come before the program’s,” Gregory said.

Consistently losing players early to the NBA Draft presents both positives and negatives to a school.

In losing sophomore guard Jason Richardson and freshman forward Zach Randolph to the 2001 NBA Draft and with sophomore guard Marcus Taylor declaring himself eligible for the draft Tuesday, big voids have been left on the Spartans’ roster.

Taylor hasn’t signed with an agent and could return for his junior season by removing his name from the draft by June 19.

But while MSU fans and coaches wonder if the Spartans could have been playing in tonight’s national championship game if everyone had stayed, Gregory said it’s still beneficial when players leave.

“It is a double-edged sword,” he said. “Obviously, it’s a positive for us when we have one of our players make it to the NBA, but at the same time it makes the job more difficult.”

Izzo agreed coaching is becoming more difficult - particularly when it comes to filling his wish list.

“I still think you have to get great players,” he said. “It makes it harder because you sign a great class and you have to wonder how long you’ll have them for.”

Izzo and other coaches do not miss having seniors more than in March during tournament time.

Recruiting expert Van Coleman said the formula for success in the postseason isn’t a big secret. Coleman, publisher of Iowa-based FutureStars magazine and FutureStars Recruiting Service, said all four teams that made the Final Four relied heavily on juniors and seniors to fill crucial roles.

“Who’s winning?” Coleman said. “The teams where the kids stay are who’s winning.

“The senior-driven team is the one who wins.”

And both of the two remaining teams in the NCAA Tournament, Maryland and Indiana, rely heavily on their veterans.

Maryland is powered by a rarity in college basketball - two seniors. Both center Lonny Baxter and guard Juan Dixon, the tournament’s leading scorer, spurned the NBA for one more chance at a title. The Terrapins’ four seniors combine for 45.3 percent of the team’s minutes and 54.7 percent of their scoring.

The success of Cinderella-teams such as Kent State this year and Gonzaga in previous years are enabled by experience, he said.

To combat ever-growing parity between powerhouse schools from the major conferences and midmajor conferences, coaches across the country are looking for the answer to an all-important question: What’s the formula for success?

Gregory said developing the bond between coaches and teammates will become more crucial and will have to happen faster.

“The chemistry of the team is going to become even more important,” he said. “What you’re going to have is upperclassman who are all good players, but maybe none of the superstar caliber.

“And you’re going to have freshman and sophomores who might be a little more talented and superstar caliber, but don’t have the experience to perform as well.”

Gregory said the raw, but talented, younger players will catch the eyes of NBA scouts because of their enormous upsides.

“The atmosphere and the environment we’re in right now, guys are able to go much earlier than they could before,” he said.

And that presents a dilemma in recruiting philosophies.

“I think you have to take that into consideration now, because it’s a reality you’re going to have to deal with - that very easily guys aren’t going to be with you for four years,” Gregory said. “And that’s especially with the guys who are coming out the most-highly rated.”

But schools still need to attract the top talent to compete, and one of the best ways to do it is by consistently winning.

With more players walking in and out of the collegiate programs annually, keeping a program on a consistently successful level becomes extremely difficult.

Forty-eight players gave up their eligibility for a spot in the 2001 NBA Draft, the most underclassmen ever. Only 29 were selected.

“It makes it harder,” Izzo said. “It’s like it’s a never-ending cycle, where it used to be we have this guy for four years.”

And things probably can’t return to the way they used to be. The lure of financial freedom, lavish expenditures and endorsement deals coupled with the fulfillment of a life-long dream of playing in the NBA probably won’t be able to keep college players in school.

“They have the sense that there are opportunities out there,” Gregory said. “If that’s the case then you can’t fault them for taking it, because they see it.”

And in Gregory’s office, as the two of us sat and discussed some of the issues staring down college basketball, a sense of nostalgia entered the room - a sense that it wasn’t always like this.

A sense that it was easier.

And Gregory said he senses, regardless of how he changes as a coach, the game can’t be that way, again.

“I just don’t think that’s going to happen,” he said.

Dan Woike can be reached at woikedan@msu.edu.

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