Busting Brackets

Let's Stop Ignoring The Problem And Fix College Basketball For All

Vanderbilt v Arkansas
Vanderbilt v Arkansas / Wesley Hitt/GettyImages
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The first step towards making college basketball the best it can be in the future is the acknowledgement that there is a problem, a step that many are reticent to take. Sure, there's enough data points to compile together and make a case that the sport has never been better. TV ratings are up, but that was true of all major sports in the last year, thanks to a change in ratings calculations and the continued growth of sports' gambling. It's also hard to go down when 2023 was already a viewership nadir, highlighted by the lowest rated National Championship game since the advent of basketball on tv. For the first time ever, the Women's National Championship game outrated the men's. Part of it was the presence of Caitlin Clark, but Iowa and South Carolina having a bunch of core players who had been with their teams for years certainly helped as well.

The problems beginning to plague college basketball, and football too, may not necessarily lead to its downfall, and in all honesty, it'll take more to cause a complete collapse. But think of college basketball as a magnificent and ornate old mansion. That mansion has a leaky pipe that's leaving a big water stain on the basement wall. Ignore the leak and maybe everything will be fine, the stain will dry up and eventually get painted over. Or maybe the leak becomes a burst and the foundation of the house comes crashing down beneath it. I say we fix it now and make sure everything is in proper order.

The great core changes brought to collegiate athletics by the advent of the transfer portal and NIL were quickly outweighed by widespread abuse of the new rules in this completely unregulated world. All thanks to the NCAA investing all time and resources into trying to stop the inevitable, rather than embracing it with enough caveats to make it an equitable system for all.

The system that was instead created hurts basically everyone, including a portion of the "student-athletes", the vast majority of coaches and a significant portion of the fans who fuel the sport. Basically the only people who are undoubted winners are the coaches, fans and donors around the elite powerhouse programs, NIL agents and anyone who gets paid to make commitment graphics.

Dalton Knecht is the quintessential athlete who took proper advantage of the transfer portal. A terrific player in the small spotlight of Northern Colorado, Knecht graduated and jumped up to Tennessee for his extra season, becoming an All-American and a likely NBA Draft lottery pick. Others like David Shriver would have never gotten shot a decade ago. Shriver is from a small West Virginia town and went to the local Division II school Alderson Broadus, where he was a great enough shooter to jump up to Division I and play for Hartford. Unfortunately, that program unexpectedly dropped to Division III and Shriver spent his extra season becoming a cult hero at VCU, which led to a professional contract with Rasta Vechta in the Basketball Bundesliga (top division in Germany). He would have never been able to make that jump straight from Division II.

Unfortunately, for the all of the Knechts and Shrivers, there are far more who made a bad decision that threw them off the rails on the court and academically. Driven by the promise of a better single season financial payment (and sometimes represented by a temporary agent thinking only of the commission), hundreds of players each off-season make a bad decision that stunts their basketball development. Transferring multiple times is extremely damaging unless the final destination is a truly great fit.

By constantly leaving, these students lose the chance to achieve anything of value academically, and with the ability to use a fifth year of eligibility just about gone after next season, graduation rates will start to take a hit. These young men also lose out on the benefits that everyone else gets from four years in the same place, from the connections with alumni that could be valuable in their future life, to the friendships that come with being on campus for years. They won't be going pro in sports and might not be in something other than sports either. Those stories won't be told.

College basketball coaches, who already work insane hours with an overabundance of travel, are strained by the new world as well. The great John Fanta already covered this as well as anyone could over at Fox Sports and I highly encourage everyone to read it. The quotes from coaches cover all of the bases of the problem with the current system, but I'm aggregating one from an anonymous blue blood head coach that sums up what his colleagues are going through:

"I'm not mad at student-athletes at all. They've set their own value. We, the coaches, have lost any leverage. I am not mad at these kids for earning money. I think they should. Not having a boundary or system in place, to be able to regulate equity or fairness is a f---ing disaster. To not have regulation is crazy. These collectives are going to get coaches fired. We have had no break. Not one coach in the country has had time to sit back and breathe or spend time with their families."

Blue Blood Head Coach, via John Fanta

No matter what happens in terms of player movement, the casual fan will continue to tune in for March Madness, so long as the Cinderella possibility remains. But we are rapidly heading towards a breaking point in regards to the interest of the diehard fans. These are the alumni and locals who are responsible for buying season tickets, traveling to neutral site MTEs and driving daily discussion. Without them, November through February will cease to have meaning.

The lack of multi-year players is testing the resolve of these fans and this off-season took the frustration to a new level. Mat Shelton-Eide is so dedicated to his VCU basketball fandom that he was instrumental in the creation of two major college basketball blogs, VCU Ram Nation and A-10 Talk, over a decade ago. He's even been the general manager of a TBT team sevens times. When someone who cares this much about college basketball starts to question his fandom, you listen:

Shelton-Eide is far from alone with that sentiment permeating through the VCU fanbase and plently of other schools as well. Having an entire roster on one year contracts sucks for all fans, but it gets measurably worse the moment you drop below the very top level of the totem pole. Unlimited transfers means that a quality mid-major or low major player can easily transfer up a power conference school and if they fail there, they can just head back down to a third school at the level they previously succeeded at. And the few years of unregulated NIL has proven that the super majority of those who can, will do so.

The power conference schools have always held plenty of advantages over the rest but the gap just continues to grow. Now they can significantly outbid smaller schools for the players they want, and with rampant tampering, smaller program coaches have gone from winning one recruiting battle and then having the chance to fully develop a player, to always being a single phone call away from losing anyone, even players that originally wanted to stay.

The disparity is significant, and thanks to work of @SBUnfurled on Twitter, the gap can be calculated and visualized. This offseason is very much in line with the past two, as the only conferences that gained player value and experience were the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Big East (the A-10 and ACC gained experience, but not player value). The A-10's position away from the other non-power conferences is basically because of two teams. Saint Louis hired Josh Schertz away from Indiana State and he brought one of the best transfers in country, Robbie Avila, and another all-conference player, Isaiah Swope, with him. Dayton picked up a pair of power conference contributors, but they (along with Memphis and their access to the FedEx fortune) have proven to be a massive outlier in mid-major recruiting the past few years.

Obviously the top leagues are going to continue to bring in the most talent, but it's the massive disparity that is so crushing. Looking at how last year's transfers performed, and despite plenty of power conference players losing value due to reduced roles, the story was still the same. The Big 12 ran away from everyone else and the SEC was a clear second in value added. The Big Ten, Big East and ACC rounded out the top five. Although the America East actually wasn't far behind, thanks to some shrewd Vermont pickups and Bryant's vexing ability to get players leaving power conference schools.

The simple fact is that the power conferences are absolutely ravaging everyone else (the Missouri Valley, for example, will only return one of eighteen all-conference players next year), and the vast majority of quality players that are transferring down are simply going to weaker power conference schools. Per SBUnfurled's player rankings of how the 2023 transfers performed, only 13 of the top 100 went from power conferences to mid or low-major schools. Four of those players had previously transferred up, only to play limited minutes and come back to their previous level. The only conferences that added real value from transfers down last season were, unsurprisingly the A-10 and AAC, along with the MAC.

This reality is massively disillusioning to the fans of nearly three hundred Division I teams. Every conversation about a player's development, even as early as November, is meant with the immediate caveat of "well, if he stays, of course." It's absolutely crushing for these who have spent their entire life with a love of college basketball.

At the core of college sports' fandom is getting to watch players grow and develop over multiple seasons. Maybe it's unrealistic to believe that any high level player will stay for all four years, but two or three is incredibly reasonable. Somehow, college sports shot right past that possibility and now allows for the least restrictive player movement of any sport. Professional players can't just declare themselves free agents every single off-season. If this continues completely unchecked then even the most caring fans will soon find a new hobby to replace their arena trips.

There are two ways that the next decade in college sports can go, the NCAA can choose to head down the path to becoming a full-time semi-pro league, with die hard fans walking away, student-athletes never receiving diplomas, coaches walking away and potential Cinderella teams weakened. Or they can finally start being proactive and begin to make changes. It just so happens that I got plenty of ideas for them, grouped into three categories, ranging from the obvious to the really outside the box.