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The unfamiliar tournament

National | Sports

Issue: "Darwin's meltdown," April 3, 2004

The unfamiliar tournament

Early ratings proved March Madness basketball remains relevant despite the exodus of talent to the NBA. CBS attracted its biggest audience since 1993 for this year's tournament, proving it's the format, not the substance, that draws many fans to March basketball. But just imagine what product CBS could show if the sport could plug its slow talent leak to the NBA.

Despite the NFL's recent court loss, the NBA remains the banner sport for neophyte millionaires. The combined college experience for the first three players taken in last year's draft was one year. Once the dominant force in NBA drafts, seniors were shut out until pick No. 7, when Chicago drafted Kansas guard Kirk Hinrich. The result is a weaker player base in college basketball and, until recently, declining interest.

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Syracuse made the Sweet 16 this year without Carmelo Anthony, who now laces up for Denver. Mr. Anthony would have been a sophomore for the Orangemen and would have likely made them favorites to repeat as champions. Would Texas have been a No. 1 seed had T.J. Ford remained for his junior season?

Alumni interest and the millions Americans wager on college basketball may explain why it remains popular despite the lack of consistent star power, or even the lack of many consistent programs. Just imagine how much interest March Madness would draw if Carmelo and LeBron faced off in the Final Four.

What could have been…

Following the lead of Kevin Garnett, more and more high-schoolers opted to go professional and skip a college career. But the players coveted most by NBA franchises are spending less and less time in school. That leaves college basketball grasping for stars and wondering what the sport may have looked like if its top stars weren't lured away. The following NBA players left their schools early to play professionally and are listed by what college they attended and what class they would belong to today.

Carmelo Anthony syracuse / sophomore

Mr. Anthony's former team surprised many by getting into the Sweet 16. The forward had no problems propelling Syracuse to the Final Four last season, and this season in the NBA, he's having no problems scoring. Mr. Anthony is averaging more than 20 points in his rookie campaign.

Chris Bosh georgia tech / sophomore

The night Georgia Tech won its tournament opener, Mr. Bosh scored nine points and grabbed 14 rebounds for the Toronto Raptors. Next year he could average a double-double.

Dwyane Wade marquette / senior

This year with Miami, Mr. Wade is scoring over 16 points a game. Last year, Marquette was a Final Four team. Without Mr. Wade, the Eagles couldn't make the tournament, showing how easy it is to go from riches to rags.

T.J. Ford texas / junior

This year's Texas team was a squad without a centerpiece. Mr. Ford willed the Longhorns to the Final Four last season. And the Longhorns, who this year relied on streaky shooting for their offense, would have been all the stronger. Mr. Ford is averaging 6.5 assists for the NBA's Milwaukee Bucks.

Mario Austin mississippi state / senior

A dinged-up Mississippi State team caught Xavier on a hot streak and paid with a second-round departure from the tournament. Mr. Austin's presence would have helped the Bulldogs likely nab a No. 1 seed. Mr. Austin probably wishes he hadn't left Mississippi State early-after being cut by the Bulls, he moved to Moscow to play in a European league.

Caron Butler uconn / senior

Mr. Butler left Connecticut after his sophomore season with the Huskies in 2002. In his rookie season he averaged more than 15 points per game and would be a fine complement to the Huskies' pivotal force, Emeka Okafor.

Chris Wilcox maryland / senior

Chris Wilcox is already languishing with the L.A. Clippers-a team known for turning good young prospects into underachievers. Like Mr. Butler, Mr. Wilcox left school after his sophomore season. Maryland surged late, but ran into a hot-shooting Syracuse team in the second round. Mr. Wilcox's defensive presence probably wouldn't have affected Gerry McNamara or Carmelo Anthony.

Around the horn

Prosecutors in Colorado are worried that Kobe Bryant's high-profile sexual assault case will damage rape shield laws. Last week, Mr. Bryant's accuser was forced to testify about her previous sexual experiences. Colorado has such a law to protect victims' reputations, but defense lawyers say they need to raise questions of character. In this case, a judge ruled that due process required the victim to take the stand.

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