THE CHEAP SEATS with MATTHEW GWIN: College hoops not the same game anymore

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Ask any talking head to describe the 2019-20 NCAA men’s basketball season, and they’ll all use the same word: parity.

After Baylor leapfrogged Gonzaga to claim the No. 1 spot in the AP poll this week — despite the Zags pummeling Santa Clara and BYU by a combined 73 points in last week’s action — seven different teams have held the No. 1 ranking this season.

Only one other time in the history of the AP poll, which began ranking teams during the 1948-49 season, have seven teams reached the top spot.

San Diego State, the nation’s lone remaining unbeaten, and Dayton have risen to No. 4 and No. 7, respectively. Although these programs are consistently solid, it’s rare for either one (much less both) to experience this level of success.

So, it seems that the talking heads have a point.

But as much as this parity has been discussed, the causes remain hidden in plain sight.

FROM MY vantage point, the answer is simple: The best 18- to 22-year-old basketball players in the world aren’t playing on NCAA rosters anymore.

Most of them are in the NBA, courtesy of the ridiculous one-and-done rule that was instituted more than a decade ago.

A smaller but significant portion are in the G-League — the NBA’s version of the minor leagues — improving their skills, waiting for their opportunity, and getting paid to do so.

In recent years, some freshmen sensations who would otherwise be perfect one-and-done candidates have opted to play a year abroad in Australia or Europe.

Don’t believe me? Consult ESPN’s rankings of the best available players eligible for the 2020 NBA Draft.

Four of the top seven prospects are not on an NCAA roster.

THAT INCLUDES top prospect LaMelo Ball (you might have heard of his father, LaVar) who played professionally in Lithuania and now plays in Australia.

Third-ranked prospect James Wiseman played three games this season for Memphis, but rather than serve a 12-game suspension handed down by the NCAA, the 18-year-old chose to withdraw from school to prepare for the draft.

Moving right along, fifth-ranked prospect Deni Avdija has played for his hometown club Maccabi Tel Aviv of the Israeli Premier League since November 2017.

Finally, seventh-ranked R.J. Hampton bypassed college hoops in favor of a stint with the New Zealand Breakers.

All told, the top 10 prospects include four players whose NCAA careers either ended prematurely or never got started, five freshmen who will almost certainly be one-and-done, and Iowa State sophomore Tyrese Haliburton, who won’t turn 20 until next month.

To find a senior, you’ll have to go all the way down to 27th-ranked Cassius Winston of Michigan State.

IN AN alternate reality, guys like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, Trae Young, Deandre Ayton, and Zach Collins would still be playing college ball.

But that is not our reality, nor will it ever be again. Even if the one-and-done rule is eliminated, standout players will just follow the example of Ball and Hampton by taking their talents abroad.

We shouldn’t blame young men for following their dreams and getting paid for their exceptional skills — Bill Gates and Steve Jobs famously dropped out of college and bet on themselves in pursuit of the almighty dollar.

However, we also shouldn’t be shocked when no NCAA team dominates like the UCLA teams of the John Wooden era.

Luckily for Zags fans, Mark Few’s program may be one of the best equipped to handle this new era.

Few often relies on “program players” — think Kevin Pangos, Josh Perkins and Killian Tillie — who develop and improve over three or four years before moving on to the professional ranks.

So don’t fret, Gonzaga faithful: Even though the Bulldogs were bounced from the No. 1 ranking this week, they should be back on top sooner rather than later.

***

Matthew Gwin is a former Press intern living in the Kansas City area who won’t be taking his talents abroad anytime soon. He’s filling in for Steve Cameron while he recovers from some medical procedures.

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