Individuals Who Have Shaped College Hoops

As many loyal college basketball fans are acutely aware, the past decade has netted a plethora of changes that were intended to infuse drama and order into the already drama-filled and orderly NCAA hoops landscape. Everything from the sublime (an overdue lengthening of three-point distance) to the ridiculous (a nonsensical expanding of the NCAA tourney field from 65 to 68 teams) has been considered, if not already implemented.

Even the NBA, in all its morality-fed grandeur, has contributed to the changing college landscape by implementing a curious restriction on a players' draft eligibility status. Though largely changing a whole lot of nothing, these rules have each been concocted with the best interests of the game in mind.

Beyond these topical changes to the game, some individuals have been so dominant that they themselves necessitated rules changes that still impact the college and pro games alike. While many of you out there surely remember the (Lew) "Alcindor Rule" — this was one that was actually rescinded upon Alcindor's (aka Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for those of you who take no interest in the history of the game; LeBron, I'm looking at you) departure from the college basketball scene — a few other well-known big men have significant rule changes credited to their dominance. George Mikan's introduction as the NBA's first real "big-man" resulted in a widened free throw lane and the institution of that pesky three-second rule. Wilt Chamberlain actually used to shoot free throws in high school by chucking the ball at the hoop, taking two large steps and launching himself towards the rim to hammer home his rebound. This resulted in a universally recognized basketball rule limiting a shooter's right to cross the free throw stripe upon being awarded foul shots.

Apart from these well-documented changes, the college game has been impacted by a handful of past and current players whose presence — or lack thereof — in the college hoops scene directly attributed some more vague rules changes or changes in procedures and policies. This article identifies a few of those individuals and details the altered state-of-the-game that followed.

Kevin Garnett — Okay, this is the most obvious culprit on the list, but the facts are even more staggering when you realize just how he changed the college basketball landscape. KG's decision to forgo the college experience marked the first time a player had made the move straight from high school since 1975 (Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby) and only the fourth time in the game's history.

Over the next 10 years, a total of 38 high schoolers followed suit. While this obviously has impacted the pro game a great deal more than the college game, the resulting lack of potential marquee names among the college ranks surely has impacted the balance of power in college basketball. Even with the onset of the NBA's minimum age requirements in 2005, this genie was very much out of the bottle and cannot be put back in under the current setup.

Consider for a moment the list of Final Four participants since 1995 and this interesting tidbit: in this span, only thrice was there not at least one team in the Final Four who had been there the previous year. In the 10 years prior to the 1995 season, only Michigan in 1992 and 1993 duplicated this feat (not including Duke, which I think we can all agree is a special circumstance: they made a staggering seven Final Four appearances over this time). Clearly, the reduced volume of young stars playing out the string in college basketball has provided an advantage to the programs that do manage to retain talent year in and year out.

Dorell Wright, Sebastian Telfair, Robert Swift, Shaun Livingston, Martell Webster, Gerald Geren, C.J. Miles, Louis Williams, Andray Blatche, Amir Johnson — These 10 players were members of the most abundant two-year stretch of ex-high schoolers to make the jump straight to the pros (16 players turned pro out of high school in 2004 and 2005). Though those same classes peppered in the occasional success story (Dwight Howard, Al Jefferson, Josh and J.R. Smith, Monta Ellis, Andrew Bynum), the volume of useless, underprepared, overmatched youngsters taking their shot at the NBA underscored the need for change.

The result was the aforementioned NBA minimum age limit being instituted, which did bring some of the talent back to college basketball landscape. While the efficacy of forcing pros-to-be to play at least one year of college basketball remains somewhat of a question mark, it certainly has helped bring up the level of play in some of the less-known college basketball programs. This hasn't translated to Final Four appearances or championships, per se, but it has allowed some of those teams to get some attention come March Madness as they make runs into the Sweet 16 and Elite 8 rounds of the tourney.

Michigan's "Fab Five" — Those who are in my age group certainly remember the five super-frosh players that the Wolverines trotted out in the early 1990s. Chris Weber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson were considered by most everyone to be the greatest class ever recruited in college basketball. As individuals, this five-some didn't necessarily change the game, but as a unit, their exploits — and ultimate failure to win a championship and subsequent embarrassing scandal — plays as a cautionary tale to any team looking to make a name for their selves by making a nickname for themselves.

Since the Fab Five fell into infamy, no other noteworthy group has dared attempt to inflate their value by way of a catchy group moniker. Further, the obviously underhanded tactics employed by the school to secure these five top-100 high school prospects in 1991 has led to a much more open-eyed approach by the NCAA in watching over "highly-touted" recruiting classes.

Rick Pitino — Yes, initial reaction to this will probably be "that S.O.B. has caused far more problems than good results in the game" and frankly, I can't disagree with such an assessment. But the fact of the matter is no coach has ever best utilized a rule change to gain a competitive advantage as Coach Pitino has. Facts don't lie (even if Coach Pitino does); Pitino is the only men's coach in NCAA history to lead three different schools to the Final Four (Providence, Kentucky, Louisville).

His teams are always, if nothing else, very entertaining to watch. His willingness to utilize the three-point shot as a strategic weapon by increasing the volume of attempts his team was directed to take remains one of the most significant "force multipliers" that have ever come to light in the game. "Pitino's Bombinos," as his Kentucky squads came to be known by, made those Wildcat teams a threat to win in every contest they entered and he has carried this reliance on the deep shot as one of the hallmarks of his very successful coaching career.

Make no mistake, the "bomb's away" strategies employed by many of today's basketball programs were birthed in the mind of Rick Pitino and his unique willingness to turn the focus from high-percentage offensive game planning to one predicated on a saturation of attempts is the model on which many a successful program has been built since.

John Thompson, Jr. – You can't really write a story about things that changed college basketball without introducing race as a contributing factor. While the stories about Texas Western's all-black starting five are well documented ("Glory Road," along with "Hoosiers," clearly are the bar by which all other basketball films will be measured), black student-athletes succeeding en masse in mainstream college basketball programs were still very much anomalies up to the late 1970s. This all began to change when John Thompson left his small-time Washington D.C. coaching gig to take on the challenge of leading the Georgetown Hoyas.

Thompson — one of a very small number of African American head coaches at the time — made it a point to pursue inner-city kids to fill out his roster, a practice that was largely unheard of in the late-'70s. Over time, the Hoyas were the only major East-coast program to regularly trot out an all-black starting five, and the successes he found in this strategy were far-reaching. In less than 10 years time, the Hoyas went from relative obscurity to the most successfully marketed brand name in college sports.

The appeal that followed is something of legend — inner city youths became very much in play for even the most traditionally white programs and many followers attempted to parlay the marketing successes the Hoyas had in their new-found demographic to their own potential growth in the apparel-selling arena.

Fact is, Thompson's willingness to think outside the box and stay true to his own roots and his unyielding belief in the value of black America as student-athletes ushered in an age of expansion and immeasurable growth in a college game that had — apart from the occasional Magic Johnson/Larry Bird showdown — largely fallen into relative obscurity. Without the paradigm shift that occurred as a result of the successes the all-black Georgetown teams exemplified, we would see a very different dynamic in college hoops and the universal appeal of basketball on this level would not have been realized.

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