LAWRENCE, Kan. -- On Saturday night, after his team won a basketball game by 31 points, after he scored 13 points and gathered in seven rebounds and blocked six shots, Joel Embiid hoisted a little girl into the air and posed for a photograph. He was working the rope line of autograph seekers, men and women and children alike, and he was wearing a hat bearing the logo of the Brooklyn Nets. He is a stunning physical specimen for a 19-year-old; he's a legit seven feet tall, and even the way he runs, legs churning, arms flailing, almost feels like a newsreel throwback to the era of Chamberlain and Russell.
Just looking at him, it's hard not to think about the vast theoretical possibilities of Joel Embiid's professional future. It's hard not to compare him to Chamberlain or Russell or Olajuwon or Duncan -- even his Wikipedia entry does it. Which may or may not be a problem in itself, since Joel Embiid is still a college basketball player.
During Kansas's 85-54 victory over Texas, Embiid set the school's freshman record for blocked shots in a season. Asked about this, Embiid, who grew up in Cameroon and speaks haltingly, said it was humbling, and then he repeated himself; he seemed uncertain what else he was supposed to say about it. This is likely one of the few school records he will ever hold, because it is highly unlikely Embiid will be at Kansas next year, because he is almost assuredly an NBA lottery pick (if not the first pick overall). So, too, is his teammate, Andrew Wiggins, also a freshman, a willowy guard who has run hot and cold this season but scored 15 points in the first 12 minutes against Texas.
Between Wiggins and Embiid, it's possible that Kansas has the top two NBA picks this spring, as well as the most starkly talented roster in the country. It's possible that the Jayhawks will make a run in the NCAA tournament, and it's possible that yet another team dominated by high-profile freshmen who are already being sized up for the NBA will follow in the footsteps of the 2012 Kentucky Wildcats and win the national championship.
And two years later, I'm still not sure what all of this means for the future of college basketball.
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In early February, back when his team was still undefeated, back before his nationally televised conniption, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim made the case on ESPN Radio that college basketball is better than ever before. Parity, balance, the renewed emphasis on cleaning up physicality on the perimeter, the development of top-tier teams in several conferences in nearly every region of the country -- all these things, Boeheim claimed, have put the sport in the best place in its history. "It's almost every state," Boeheim said. "You have a team in your state that can make the Final Four."
Every individual point Boeheim made was accurate. Both Duke-Syracuse games this season have been stunningly good, and played before enthusiastic crowds, and the rules changes have made the game at least slightly more free-flowing. In the eastern part of Kansas alone, there are two teams (Wichita State and Kansas) with Final Four potential. The idea of a mid-major Final Four team is so ingrained in our consciousness that a number of mid-majors (Wichita, Creighton, St. Louis) can no longer be considered Cinderellas, and probably deserve high seeds in the NCAA tournament. The tournament itself is still three weeks of blissfully unpredictable attrition.
And yet when you view the sport as a whole, it still feels like there's something fundamental missing. It still feels like college basketball is wrestling with its identity, that the game is being encroached upon by the forces of modernity. To Boeheim, ensconced in the center of everything, nothing feels like it's missing. But to those who reside further on the outskirts, to those who may even live in a state where a team might make the Final Four but have no direct connection to those teams, I wonder if it's getting harder and harder to find an entrance point.
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Bill Self was in an effusive mood after Saturday night's victory. Last year, following a loss to lowly TCU, he evoked the ghost of James Naismith and a long-ago loss to the Topeka YMCA, but you could sense the compressed nature of this season's challenge in everything he said. Wiggins, Self said, was improving game by game and playing solid defense, and Embiid, if he could stay healthy, was a raw force in the middle.
In another era, in another system, it seems pretty clear that both Wiggins and Embiid might benefit from one more year in college, that it might afford them a chance to establish their own identities outside of the professional templates already being placed on them. But that's not how the system works at the moment, and unless the NBA players association bends, that might not be how the system ever works. The very idea of the one-and-done rule is universally reviled among college coaches and administrators, and no one can do much of anything about it. And so you either adapt, or you die, and this is why even Duke's best player, Jabari Parker, is a likely one-and-done; this is why every elite program in the country has now come to recognize this fact and has recruited within the system.
In that way, Calipari's 2012 Kentucky team was indeed a watershed. There is no turning back unless the rules are changed. There are now essentially two types of high-level college basketball programs: The mid-majors like Creighton with seniors like Doug McDermott who toil through their entire careers largely in national obscurity, and the traditional elites like Kansas and Duke, whose identities are increasingly filtered through the lens of the NBA lottery.
I am, of course, not blaming Embiid or Wiggins for leaving. Why shouldn't they, considering the way things work? And so, given this, it's obvious that coaches like Self realize that their only option is to win now. Everything feels heightened at Kansas this season; even the autograph seekers waiting on Embiid and Wiggins after the game seemed to sense they were speculating on the future more than embracing the moment.
And perhaps you could argue that it's always been that way at Kansas -- that the pressure to win now has never waned -- but during the Texas game, I kept glancing at the wall of Allen Fieldhouse above me to the left, a row of retired numbers. The last one on the end was Mario Chalmers, who played three years before leaving. In fact, no one on that wall played fewer than three years at Kansas. And it made me wonder: If Embiid and Wiggins win a national championship and then leave for the NBA, do they get their numbers retired, too? How will one-and-dones ultimately fit into the lore of a place like Kansas, a team that plays on James Naismith Court on Naismith Drive, a school that plies itself on tradition more thoroughly than any other program in the country?
"Our young kids have done a good job of staying in the moment," Self said on Saturday night, but you can feel that moment passing quickly, and you can feel that moment being swept up by the allure of professionalism. And maybe college basketball can survive within this shadow, but I'm not sure if it will ever feel quite the same.