The Six Eras of College Basketball

Much like college football this autumn, college basketball is back to its familiar positions on the calendar after massive interruptions and starts and stops in 2020-21. While familiar teams from last season's all-Indiana NCAA tournament like UCLA, Gonzaga, and Villanova are favorites to make deep March runs again, it's indisputable that we're entering a new era for the sport as name, image, and likeness rules and immediate eligibility transfers come into being.

Additionally, with Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, and Jim Calhoun — coaches responsible for 11 of the last 31 national championships — all retiring or announcing their retirements from college basketball in 2021, Jay Wright, John Calipari, and Bill Self are now the unofficial deans of NCAA basketball among coaches.

The new world of personal profitability and freedom of movement for players and the passing of the torch among coaches got me thinking about how to define the past eras of college basketball. I came up with six, including the one starting in the 2021-22 season.

1896 to 1955: Peach Baskets and Decentralization

When the NBA released its Top 75 list last month, I had a limited idea of what to think of the majority of players on the list who started their careers before 1960 or so. The game was too different and not integrated enough for my modern brain. And that's pretty much where I am on how to define this initial era of college hoops history.

But I do know that from before 1939, when there was first an NCAA-recognized national championship tournament, to 1951, when the CCNY point-shaving scandal rocked the burgeoning national sport, the NIT was the more prestigious post-season prize. The modern, centralized NCAA under Walter Byers started in 1955, and the NCAA tournament was inarguably the better tournament soon thereafter, so that's one reason why I'm drawing the line here.

1956 to 1971: Integration and the Wooden Era

Another reason I thought of 1955 and 1956 as a perfect line of demarcation is that those were the years Bill Russell and K.C. Jones' San Francisco teams won consecutive championships with respective records of 29-0 and 28-1. College basketball wouldn't truly be integrated nationwide until the early 1970s after Russell's legendary and unprecedented pro career was concluded.

On the court, UCLA began its run of 10 championships in 12 years in 1964. A run of seven in a row started in 1967, a year after an all-Black starting five for Texas Western upset Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky roster.

1972 to 1990: Freshman Eligibility and the Rise of the TV Product

I've known for years that freshmen didn't have NCAA football or basketball eligibility until 1972, but I didn't realize until writing this article that freshmen in all the other sports were allowed to play starting in 1968. Even then, with an infinitesimal amount of business interests and TV deals related to the two most popular NCAA sports, basketball and football were treated differently.

And those TV deals changed dramatically over the course of the 18 years in this era. In 1972, NBC owned the rights to the NCAA tournament but left a lot of games off the airwaves altogether. It wasn't until 1973 that the peacock network broadcasted both national semifinals to the entire country.

At the end of these 18 years, ESPN was broadcasting regular-season games several nights of the week, every round of the tournament could be seen on CBS or the Worldwide Leader, and even the Selection Show became a TV commodity.

1991 to 2006: Transition from Old to New (Players)

This is the period I came of age in and, from the perspective of when and where you could watch games and the NCAA tournament, it was remarkably stable in the era before streaming/broadband Internet and when most American households had cable or satellite. Of course, this was a time of massive upheaval in terms of player longevity at the highest levels of the sport, spurred on by recruits jumping straight from high school to the pros.

But even more than some of the nation's best 18-year-olds skipping college for the NBA, the traditional assumptions about how long players would stick around shifted.

An example from this era's premier program, Duke (apologies to UConn and UNC), sticks in my mind: when Jay Williams was a junior in 2002, there was such an understanding he'd go pro for the 2002 NBA Draft that the Blue Devils retired his number on "Senior" Day that year. The next year, when Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to the national title as a freshman, there was a much greater likelihood he'd be picked over LeBron James that June than him staying for a sophomore year in central New York.

And by the time this 15-year period was done, it was downright stunning that the best four players on Florida's national championship team — all sophomores — elected to come back and go for the repeat in 2007.

2007 to 2021: One-and-Dones and the Billion-Dollar Tournament

If you're a Gen Zer, chances are you don't even remember a time where the one-and-done NBA rule wasn't in operation and where most NBA first-rounders played two or more years of college hoops.

This era, namely led by 2012's Kentucky team and 2015's Duke team, proved that not only could you rely on freshmen for key contributions on a championship team in the NCAA tournament gauntlet but that freshmen could effectively be your entire team on a title-winner. It's also during this era that the most captivating college basketball players were usually one-and-done freshmen who left an indelible and brief mark on the sport, with Kevin Durant, John Wall, Anthony Davis, and Zion Williamson immediately coming to mind.

Paradoxically, with talent cycling through the sport faster, and players transferring more often in the 2010s, it's during this era that the NCAA yournament TV contract approached $1 billion annually, reaching 10 figures by the middle of the current decade.

2022 to ?: NIL, the Transfer Portal, and More Volatility on Tap

Name, image, and likeness is finally here for college athletes, as is the ability for players to transfer schools and not sit out a year or prove a hardship. If you know how exactly how these two massive changes will play out, I'm going to call you a liar. It could be that these changes will turn out to be relatively benign and should have been done 10 years ago, or they could cause the sport to shift to something very different.

I don't want to make any smart-aleck cracks about players taking pay cuts when NIL came into place, but I do think the transfer portal effects will be more profound for the competitive balance of the sport, how the top programs stay successful in recruiting, and how new national powers come into place.

I've been banging the drum on this for a bit, but I also don't want to discount the fact that there's a legitimate professional path now in the G-League for high schoolers who don't want to go to Europe or Australia. So far, we've only seen a few elite prospective draft picks take this path. But it could end up being more viable for development and learning the pro game than it is today.

The current era of college basketball is a mere two weeks old. What it has in store and how it compares to past eras is anyone's guess. But this first season under the newest rules should be quite an exciting one.

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