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NBA’s big-money lure hurts Hoosier hoops programs

We might never have noticed the Winter That Never Ended if the basketball had been better. This weekend the NCAA selection committee made it official: The 2014 tournament includes NO Indiana teams. Most of our usual basketball powerhouses, in fact, had losing records. IPFW, Valparaiso and Indiana were exceptions.

Before we all go off to our person-caves and push a worn, old copy of “Hoosiers” into the DVD player, pause a moment to consider what might have been at the most storied of Indiana hoops programs. Indiana, which was ranked first in last year’s preseason ratings and entered last year’s tournament as the number-one seed, finished this season just above even: 17-15. But imagine if Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo had finished out their college careers playing for Tom Crean, instead of succumbing to the all-but-irresistible call of the NBA draft after their sophomore and junior years in 2013.

Looking ahead, imagine how much Indiana’s prospects for next season will dim if Noah Vonleh, this year’s Big Ten freshman of the year, decides to become a one-and-done pro.

Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, one of Indiana’s most respected coaches, spent a few minutes on what he called the state’s “Black Monday” after the NCAA selections pondering whether changes are needed to protect the college game. His Fighting Irish squad ended at 15-17, his first losing season in 19 years as a head coach.

Brey is adamantly opposed to proposals for directly paying college players. The combination of scholarships, room-and-board allotments and summer jobs with basketball camps allows players to concentrate on their sport and their studies, he said.

But though many schools, including Notre Dame, have not been hurt by the one-and-done phenomenon, Brey believes NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s plan to raise the minimum NBA draft age to 20 would be a good move. Players could still join the NBA out of high school. But if they choose to come to college, at least “give us two years,” Brey said

Brey says another proposal that has drawn some support from among college coaches might help protect young players lured to the NBA before they have the maturity and experience to succeed there.

“Would there be a way of pushing the reset button for them?” Brey asks. “If one of these phenoms didn’t make it, could he regain his amateur status” and go back to play college ball again?

There is too much money at stake for us to expect every player to stick with the program for four years anymore. But the NCAA and the NBA need to be open to ways to mitigate the damage the current system is doing to the college game.