Everybody knows who Mark Emmert is. Earlier this month, Senator Claire McCaskill asked him: "Why should you even exist?"

It's an interesting question being asked of the NCAA on multiple fronts, whether in the Ed O'Bannon case or by the biggest collegiate conferences.

But there's a different question in the air, one that relates specifically to college basketball. For decades, the NCAA's basketball programs have served as the farm system for the NBA. Many have prospered going through this system, though many, many more have not.

However, absent a viable minor league structure, it was the only way for domestic players to get to the NBA, and the only real way for NBA teams to identify and draft those players.

If you're paying attention, though, you may have noticed P.J. Hairston, kicked off the team at University of North Carolina. He didn't do what countless others in his position have in previous years, which is to sit at home, waiting, and hope to impress at the NBA draft workouts.

Instead, he played for the Texas Legends of the NBA's D-League, scored 21.8 points per game over 26 games, and got drafted 26th overall by the Miami Heat (who traded him to the Charlotte Hornets). Thanasis Antetokounmpo, brother of Giannis, got picked 51st by the Knicks after impressing with the D-League's Delaware 87ers.

This may not seem like much: 58 other players were also drafted, mostly from the NCAA, otherwise from overseas.

But the D-League offers players an opportunity to play professionally, at an earlier age than even the NBA's entry point (the D-League's age limit is 18, not 19), and with none of the kind of arbitrary rules nonsense that has made the NCAA so universally loathed. Look no further than Hairston's former school, UNC. Rashad McCants made startling accusations of academic fraud concerning the basketball team. He's still waiting for a call from the NCAA. Hairston, of course, was immediately suspended, pending an investigation. Ultimately, UNC gave up seeking reinstatement for him, leaving him without options. The powerless player is the NCAA's way.

The D-League, where Hairston instead was able to play basketball, get paid for it, and parlay his talent into getting drafted, is now up to 18 teams. 17 of them are either owned by an NBA team, or have an affiliation agreement with them. Those numbers are up from 14 overall, and just one affiliated team back in 2007-08.

The league has the muscle of the NBA behind it, financially and technologically. And not only can players can be culled from the league for the NBA proper, developed using specific systems the teams themselves run, but personnel of all kinds come through the D-League.

"The simplest way to describe the goals of the D-League is, we're a for-profit R-and-D department," D-League president Dan Reed said in a telephone interview last week.

Chances are, you many not have heard of Reed. But you will. And no one is asking, of either him or his league, why it exists.

The league's goal, Reed explained, "manifests itself in three areas. One is the development of talent -- players, coaches, front office executives. Really, it's holistic -- it's literally everybody involved with the league, to grow, develop, and reach that next level.

"That's 1A. 1B is to ensure that we have a strong business model, to ensure that our owners are in a position to make money if they manage their team well, and that we're creating value for our owners over time, financial value.

"And 1C would be experimentation on behalf of the NBA. So this is new rules, new technologies, new equipment, new styles of play. And generally, using the NBA D-League to incubate the future of the game."

That's the part that should scare college basketball the most. If the D-League is a more logical place for basketball's best prospects to show off their skills, and it may be already, the extent to which the D-League is a microcosm of the league itself may become the biggest driver of change.

It's already happening at the margins of league rosters. Back in 2008-09, 83 players with D-League experience ended the season on an NBA roster, or 19 percent of all players. That number has risen steadily, and 149 of all players on end-of-year NBA rosters in 2013-14 played in the D-League, or 33 percent.

Still, almost all of those players, like Jeremy Lin, or Troy Daniels, played in the D-League after their NCAA eligibility ended.

But there are others who are taking the D-League path in lieu of college basketball. Aquille Carr gave up a scholarship to Seton Hall. Just this week, former Kansas guard Naadir Tharpe, instead of transferring, decided to head to the D-League.

"If you're an elite basketball player, you have a number of options at your disposal," Reed said. "Historically, players have chosen to go play college basketball, and that's their step. In addition, we certainly believe that playing in the NBA Developmental League is an alternative to that. And we've seen more and more players choose that path in the coming years."

Reed stressed that the D-League's relationship with the NCAA is a good one. "And we're not planning on recruiting in high school gyms, things like that. We are supportive of college basketball and the NCAA."

But in his very next sentence, he returned to his language from before: "So the NBA D-League is an alternative to elite players, as they consider how to prepare for a potential NBA career. We certainly think that if they choose to play with us, that they will benefit from that. They'll play NBA rules, NBA-style of play. Typically, 17 of our 18 teams are playing for NBA teams. You're playing against NBA-caliber players, as well as former college all-American, all-conference performers. And you're playing in the most heavily scouted league in the world, by NBA teams. But it's a choice."

Lest you think Reed is running some rogue challenge to the status quo, consider that Reed was an internal promotion by the NBA back in 2007, after serving as Director of Team Marketing and Business Promotions. Back then, just one NBA team had an affiliation agreement with a D-League team, and the circuit faced threats to its very survival.

"At that time, the league was frankly struggling. And so the primary mandate was to stabilize the league, make sure we had a team business model that worked, and continue the development mission... with an eye on, eventually, getting more NBA teams involved in the D-League development mission. I think back then, the idea of 30 teams was a very far out goal. We had more issues we had to address before we could tackle that."

Seven years later, that's changed, and faster than Reed imagined it would. This creates other issues: the players are signed by the league, MLS-style, not individual teams, and allocated in various ways. Players don't have things like split contracts to sign, as exist in MLB, providing for one salary for major league time, another for minor league time. And NBA teams can't yet keep players beyond their 15-person roster stashed on a D-League affiliate, limiting most teams' abilities to develop players en masse. Taking up roster spots means time is of the essence.

"That is a conversation that has been had," Reed said when I asked about changes that would expand such rights for teams. "Any changes in holding rights for players would have to be collectively bargained with the NBA Players Association. And there are a series of discussions during the last collective bargaining process that were tabled. We certainly hope that after the union hires its next executive director, we'll have another opportunity to discuss that."

Note, once again, that Reed isn't talking about these changes waiting for the next CBA. I asked him point-blank if he could see those changes negotiated within the current CBA confines.

"We certainly hope so," Reed said. "But we don't control that process."

What the D-League does control, however, is its expansion process. The faster it gets to the platonic ideal of 30 teams, each one affiliated with a single NBA team, the sooner the entire NBA will be fully invested in the the D-League. Full participation means a closer hew to the NBA reality, more eyes from The League on the league, and less reason than ever for the best young prospects to go play for Duke or Kansas instead of the Austin Toros or the Westchester Knicks.

Getting there will still require a good bit of trial, and perhaps error, from Reed and the league. When I asked him about the ideal markets for remaining expansion, he pointed out many potential pitfalls within his definition -- ownership must be committed, preferably local. The market itself must be neither too big nor too small. The arena, ideally, would be primarily for the D-League team, or at least available on most weekend dates. And the affiliates, ideally, are within "a 2, 3, 4-hour drive of the NBA affiliate."

Needless to say, none of these issues are of particular concern to Duke, or Indiana, or Kansas.

Consider, though, just how rich the market is for watching college basketball right now. Sure, part of that is alma mater pride, and you'll never get a built-in audience for the Bakersfield Jam in precisely the way UConn alums flock to Madison Square Garden to relive their days in Storrs.

Plenty of others are watching college basketball because the very best prospects in the game can be found there. And whether that arrangement is in the best interests of either players or the NBA is very much in question.

So the race is on for 30 teams, 30 affiliates. The allure of the league as showcase is still significant now. But a chance to be a single call from the NBA at any given time on any given team might, by itself, could be enough to upend the college basketball model forever. And for the D-League, entirely realized and ready for all of the best basketball prospects in the world, it's simply a matter of time now.

"If you had asked me five years ago whether we would reach the 30-team league, if I was being honest, I would have said I'm not so sure," Reed said. "Today, I am absolutely convinced that we will achieve a 30-team league, and a fully-evolved minor league system on behalf of the NBA."

At that point, you can be sure a lot more people will be asking the NCAA what Senator McCaskill did.