The NCAA tournament is about passion, no doubt. Passion from players, fans, alums. But there also is a more business-like agenda being served: inflating the draft resumes of a few dozen future NBA stars.
To that point, the tournament is where high school blue chippers can actually turn the tables on a system that uses them, to some degree. It's their turn to cash in. It's audition time -- and by having the biggest sporting platform after the Super Bowl, gifted players get to showcase their skills on national TV, before millions of fans and in front of every NBA team.
The visibility is why high school kids who want to get paid don't go the Brandon Jennings route. Jennings spent that year in Europe before entering the draft and going to the Bucks. It wasn't totally by design; he didn't qualify academically for college and didn't have much choice, other than sit at home or try the D-League (since 2005, the NBA has barred athletes from being drafted until one year beyond their high school graduation). But there are three good reasons why no highly-regarded high school player who qualified academically has chosen to skip the tourney and spend his one-year NBA "probation" in Europe.
One, it's awfully far from home. And in some places, the people speak funny.
Two, you're out of sight, out of mind. Their friends and family ask the inevitable question: So, you say you're playing for Portugal's B-team? OK. Can I get that on the internet?
Three: CBS and Jim Nantz don't do those games. The best route to play your way into the NBA draft lottery, or at least the first round where the money is guaranteed, is to spend at least one year on a college campus. While that doesn't pay a salary -- which is a topic covered comprehensively by fellow Sports on Earth writer Patrick Hruby -- the so-called payoff comes every March if your team is good enough to make the tourney. It's where memories are made, reputations are formed and draft statuses are improved (or suffer). Players who streak through the tourney usually have the chance to do the same in the draft if they bring certain NBA qualities (meaning no 5' 8" slow guys).
A few years ago, Kemba Walker made folks forget he's only 5' 10" by leading UConn to the title game and upping his stock in the process. And wasn't half the Kentucky team taken in the first round last year after the tourney? (Obviously won't be an issue this year.)
So on the eve of another NCAA tourney, we spoke to three scouts. We asked about NBA-quality players who'll appear over the next few weeks and had the scouts rate them. We purposely left out the unlucky ones who'll watch from home or are sentenced to the NIT. That means you, Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein. And also Alex Len of Maryland and C.J. McCollum of Lehigh and a few others with first-round talent. And any potential first-rounder currently playing overseas. The consensus from the scouts? There is no consensus. There's no Patrick Ewing or Tim Duncan or franchise player who's a lock for No. 1. It's going to be that kind of draft.
But the scouts did give us a top 20 list:
1. Ben McLemore, freshman guard, Kansas. Big guards are in abundance in this draft. Six or maybe seven could go in the lottery, and the tournament will help decide a pecking order. McLemore has all the physical gifts and is a solid shooter (43-percent from deep) who plays big but doesn't always show up.
2. Marcus Smart, freshman guard, Oklahoma State. A good leader and plenty tough with nice size (6' 4"), he can do it all except shoot, but that hasn't stopped scouts from chatting him up among the top-three.
3. Otto Porter, sophomore forward, Georgetown. Over the course of the college season, few have collected more momentum and fans than this shorter (6' 8") version of Kevin Durant who can handle his business at both ends. Scouts don't see Porter slipping far, if at all.
4. Victor Oladipo, junior guard, Indiana. Another high-rising guard who has delivered some big performances against good competition (19 points, nine rebounds vs. Michigan State), his visibility can only soar if the Hoosiers reach the title game.
5. Shabazz Muhammad, freshman forward, UCLA. He would've been a lottery pick out of high school and while his freshman year with the Bruins -- threatened early by the NCAA police -- hasn't quite matched the too-steep expectations, scouts remain infatuated.
6. Anthony Bennett, freshman forward, UNLV. A solid and no-frills 6' 8" power forward with a fairly high ceiling, scouts were impressed by how he shook off a mid-season shoulder injury and still came to play.
7. Cody Zeller, sophomore center, Indiana. He might be the most famous player on the most visible team in the country but that doesn't translate into unanimous love among the scouts for the seven-footer. That said, he and Len of Maryland, who isn't in the tourney, are the centers in demand.
8. Trey Burke, sophomore guard, Michigan. The player of the year in the Big 10 is easily one of the best point guard prospects, and gets high marks except for his size (a skinny 6-foot). If Jennings can make it at 170 pounds or so, Burke can, too.
9. Michael Carter-Williams, sophomore guard, Syracuse. It's an apparent toss-up between Carter-Williams and Burke for point guard honors; Carter-Williams has a clear size advantage at 6' 6" but some scouts aren't sold that he's pure for the position.
10. Mason Plumlee, senior forward, Duke. Being big and smart and athletic will serve him well in the tournament and beyond, but there's plenty of skepticism about Plumlee ever cracking a starting lineup in the NBA. They feel that way about most of the big men in college basketball.
11. Kelly Olynyk, junior center, Gonzaga. He could have the greatest upside among the top centers in the country. Averaging 17 points on 65 percent shooting and took a big leap this season all-around.
12. Glenn Robinson III, freshman forward, Michigan. The scouts like him now, might love him better if he stayed until next year. He's just an average shooter from both lines -- free throw and three-point -- for someone who plays a high-scoring position.
13. James McAdoo, sophomore forward, North Carolina. The general feeling is McAdoo didn't take a big leap forward from last season and would be better off spending another year on campus to spruce up. Great athlete, but scouts can't recall more than a handful of his better games.
14. Jeff Withey, senior center, Kansas. Very reliable around the rim, especially defensively, makes him a first-round lock, and a history of playing important games and a challenging schedule for a solid program won't hurt on draft night. Intangibles galore.
15. Tim Hardaway Jr., junior guard, Michigan. Scouts were all over the map on him; some like him in the first round, another wouldn't be surprised to see him drop. All agree he'll play in the NBA and won't be as good as his father.
16. Gary Harris, freshman guard, Michigan State. He doesn't turn 19 until September and yet scouts cite his smarts and intangibles as reasons he'll be in demand whenever he makes the jump. If he stays another year and gets more seasoning, he could be a top-five pick in 2014.
17. Jamaal Franklin, junior forward, San Diego State. Very suspect shooting both inside (40 percent) and outside the three-point line (27 percent) keep him from being in the lottery, but Franklin is a rugged defender and amazing rebounder (9.5) for a swingman. Reminds scouts of Tony Allen.
18. Doug McDermott, junior guard, Creighton. He might be the best all-around shooter in the nation, hitting just over half of his three-point shots and reminding some scouts of the last great gunner from Creighton, Kyle Korver.
19. Markel Brown, junior guard, Oklahoma State. Smallish for a shooting guard at 6' 3", Brown hasn't shown the skills to switch to the point but could have just enough shooting to compensate for size on the next level.
20. Gorgui Dieng, junior center, Louisville. A raw yet developing big man with an instinct for what big men do best: rebound and block shots. Which, right now, is all he can do.