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Will March Madness Suffer From Its Lack of Star Power?

The 2020 NCAA tournament will likely feature less NBA-caliber talent than any iteration in recent memory. Some of that is bad luck—and some of it may be a shift that could have a lasting impact on the sport.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This year’s NCAA tournament will feature most of the things we know and love about March Madness: A powerhouse will inevitably be upset by some school you’d never heard of before filling out your bracket; teams will win and lose on outrageous buzzer-beaters; a lovable Cinderella will do all it can to stave off the stroke of midnight. But this year’s tournament will also lack something: There will be fewer elite NBA prospects than ever before.

Some 2020 mock drafts have just one of the top five players on the board coming from a team that’s likely to make the NCAA tournament. Others have zero. The list of potential lottery picks primed to partake in March Madness is slim: Dayton’s Obi Toppin, Arizona’s Nico Mannion, and Kentucky’s Tyrese Maxey seem like the only locks, while Duke’s Vernon Carey Jr. and Auburn’s Isaac Okoro could be in the mix as well.

Some of the notable players set to miss the tourney have familiar stories. Georgia’s Anthony Edwards will likely follow in the footsteps of LSU’s Ben Simmons and Washington’s Markelle Fultz as no. 1 picks whose teams simply didn’t make the cut in their lone year of college ball. Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton is injured, and North Carolina’s Cole Anthony missed much of the season with a partially torn meniscus as the Tar Heels slipped below .500. The 2020 draft class also features one of the strongest European player pools in recent memory, headlined by Israeli Deni Avdija and Frenchmen Killian Hayes and Theo Maledon.

However, three prominent NBA prospects have opted not to play college basketball this season. James Wiseman played three games for Memphis, but eventually decided he wouldn’t return to campus after the NCAA suspended him for 12 games because his family received a $11,500 loan while he was a sophomore in high school. LaMelo Ball would’ve likely been ineligible to play college basketball for myriad reasons—his father used his name to sell shoes when he was a junior in high school; he signed with an agent; he played professionally in Lithuania and in a dysfunctional league founded by his father in which every team was nicknamed the “Ballers”—but he found a home playing professionally in Australia. RJ Hampton did not star in any reality TV shows, but joined Ball in Australia’s NBL. Skipping school doesn’t seem to have damaged their stock. Before playing in Australia, ESPN’s Jonathan Givony had Ball as the 24th pick in the 2020 draft. After a few weeks of pro ball, Givony wrote that he was a legitimate contender to be the top pick. CBS currently has Wiseman projected to go no. 1, and he seems unlikely to fall lower than third.

Wiseman, Ball, and Hampton are not the first players to skip college and retain their draft stock, but in the 14 drafts since the NBA raised its age eligibility minimum to 19 in 2006, only three players have stories that feel comparable. Brandon Jennings skipped college to play professionally in Italy in 2008 before being selected 10th overall in 2009. Emmanuel Mudiay committed to SMU in 2013 before deciding to play in China and going no. 7 overall in 2015. The story most similar to Wiseman’s may be that of Enes Kanter, who committed to play at Kentucky but was ruled ineligible by the NCAA; he ended up sitting out for the year before the Thunder drafted him third overall in 2011. But even Kanter’s case is different than Wiseman’s. Kanter was ruled permanently ineligible, while Wiseman was issued a 12-game suspension and decided he just didn’t want to come back.

Other players have gone overseas or sat out a season, but Jennings, Mudiay, and Kanter were the only three to do it while maintaining their NBA draft stock. Now, three top players are doing it in the same year.

The issue, as always, is money. The NCAA does not allow athletes to receive money for playing college sports. The organization is so firm in this stance that it punished Wiseman even though he didn’t directly get paid for playing college basketball—he was punished because his family received a loan while he was in high school. Around the time of its founding in 1906, the NCAA jotted down reasons why student-athletes shouldn’t be paid, and ultimately realized how profitable it was to cling to those ideals. CBS and Turner Sports pay the NCAA $857 million annually to broadcast March Madness. Because it does not believe the athletes deserve any of that money (and, somehow, established that not paying its labor is legal), the NCAA and its member institutions keep the vast majority of that. Ad revenue is so lucrative that TV networks apparently thought this contract was a bargain—in 2016, CBS and Turner locked in an extension that will pay the NCAA $8.8 billion so they can broadcast the tournament through 2032.

But what happens if more prized players become convinced that the path Wiseman, Ball, and Hampton are paving is replicable? For years, these types of talents were encouraged to play in college because it gave them the best chance of becoming top NBA draft picks, and years of seeing Duke and Kentucky products own the top of the draft reinforced that. But what if playing well against professional competition—like Ball did in Australia—is actually more impressive to NBA scouts than dunking on schools like Wake Forest and Vanderbilt? What if Wiseman is able preserve his lofty draft stock while avoiding risking injury playing for free?

To the NCAA, the tourney is a perpetual money-making machine. There is an infinite stream of unpaid talent coming in, and it produces an infinite amount of entertaining basketball. The NCAA likely believes an exodus of NBA-caliber talent wouldn’t matter. Even if an entire NBA draft’s worth of talent skipped college at once, that would amount to just 60 players in a division that counts 353 teams. As the NCAA likes to make clear, most of its players go pro in something other than sports—and the NCAA believes this is a boon.

The association says fans watch college sports because of the teams involved, not the players—and has made this case in court as part of its legal argument that there is no monetary value associated with the names, images, and likenesses of student-athletes. With the NCAA tournament, this almost seems to hold water—after all, the biggest buzz comes when a squad of relative nobodies knocks off the big boys. If we’re excited by the Loyola Chicagos and UMBCs of the world, why do we need to see future NBA players to love the tournament?

But this line of thinking is flawed. There’s a reason why we watch the Division I men’s basketball tournament and not the Division III men’s basketball tournament: We want to see the best of the best, and we know the quality of play is higher at schools where the players get athletic scholarships than at liberal arts colleges. (It’s a shame—the world needs to know about Yeshiva University’s historic Sweet 16 run!) Sure, some fans will attend every game at State U regardless of whether the team is any good, but casual fans are drawn in by talent. Local fans are more likely to support winning teams; national fans are more likely to tune into games featuring future widely renowned prospects.

This became extremely clear last year when Zion Williamson played for Duke. Some fans will always watch Duke because it’s Duke—but with Zion, virtually everyone watched Duke. The Blue Devils’ regular-season games outperformed NBA games in terms of viewership; their Elite Eight loss to Michigan State got higher ratings than any game in the 2017 and 2018 NCAA tournaments—including in the Final Four. Without Zion, Duke’s ratings have plummeted. Last year, four of its regular-season games were watched by at least 4 million viewers; this year, its most-watched game was its first matchup against UNC, which drew 2.67 million viewers.

Duke’s brand boosted Zion to a degree, but mainly people wanted to watch Zion. After all, he was a big draw before college—in 2017, 800,000 people streamed one of his AAU games—and remains a massive draw in the pros. Of course, that AAU game also featured another star: a California junior named LaMelo Ball. Reports indicate Ball’s Australian debut was the most-watched game in NBL history. What would happen if someone like Zion skipped college? With LaMelo, it’s possible we’re already finding out.

This year’s NCAA tournament will be a test run for the NCAA’s theory about the value of premier college basketball talent. The event will still include bracket busters, buzzer-beaters, and Cinderellas, but there will be fewer NBA prospects than ever—in part because of bad luck, and in part because of the NCAA’s insistence that athletes can’t get even a small slice of its revenue. How much less interesting will that make March Madness?

This season, three top prospects skipped college basketball because of money. What if it were five? What if it were 10? How many great players need to disappear from the tournament for the NCAA to realize it must divert some of its cash flow to keep its stream of talent from drying up?