With college big men gone, it's still game on

Published April 1, 2005

Despite forecasts of doom as potential college superstars skipped right by on their way to the NBA, the college basketball scene has never been more full of life.

So says CBS analyst Billy Packer.

"When you take a look at the college game right now, it has never been healthier, it has never been more fun to watch, it has never been more competitive, you've never seen so many kids playing this hard, never seen coaches able to get attention of their teams to remind them it's a team sport, never seen coaches in postion to never take baloney from the so-called superstars," Packer said, all in one breath. "You see the top programs today, they'd just as soon not even have them in their program."

Packer may overstate and romanticize the game just a bit with his points, but look around, he says.

This year's NCAA Tournament has been one of the most exciting in recent memory, and the wave of outstanding region championship games has heightened the expectations for the Final Four.

College basketball was supposed to suffer when the top high-school players started jumping to the NBA en masse around 2000-01. The losses have had a definite impact, but whether that's a plus or minus depends on your point of view.

Packer's is this: The lack of dominant big men in the game today - quick, name a true center starring for any of the Final Four teams - means more teams have a chance to win, which means more competitive games and more interested fans.

Packer said he did a study of the 96 kids on McDonald's All-Star Game rosters in 2001 who would be in college basketball today. Thirty are in the NBA, he said, another seven are out of basketball and 59 are playing somewhere in college right now.

Most of the 30 who skipped college or left early were big men, leading many at the time to predict a weakening of NCAA basketball.

Packer thinks the opposite happened.

"The fact that these 6-foot-10 players are no longer in the game has really turned out to be a great bonus for the college game because now, instead of having maybe 8-10 teams that realistically could take a shot at the national championship, you now have 30 or 40," he said.

Exaggeration? Maybe not. The 3-point shot has been the great equalizer - in the four region final games, an average of 46 were shot - giving teams such as West Virginia and Wisconsin a shot.

"How many teams that are not going to be in St. Louis were one possession away from being here in this tournament?" Packer said. "It's unbelievable."