COLLEGE MEANS MORE THAN A 2-YEAR HITCH

The last time I saw Jason Richardson, he was silent and depressed, sitting at a locker inside Minneapolis’ Metrodome. His head was down. His eyes were moist.

His team had just lost in the semifinals of the NCAA Final Four — and Jason had played miserably. In fact, his whole tournament had been sub-par. He’d been the leading scorer for Michigan State during the season, but he seemed to disappear in the postseason, missing shots, getting frustrated.

Now here he was on the losing end. And another team was out there celebrating. Not so long ago, Richardson would have been vowing to “wait until next year,” when he was a junior.

Instead, he held a news conference Tuesday, announced he was jumping to the NBA, and said, “I feel like I’ve raised my game to another level.”

Sure. You play your worst at the most important time, and then you bolt.

That’s another level.

It’s called the exit.

Can I ask a dumb question here? Does ANYBODY want to be in college basketball anymore? Anyone who thinks the college game is, for top players, anything more than the board you jump off before landing in the rich waters of the NBA is out of his mind.

College basketball is now a toll booth; you pick the lane with the least traffic.

This is not new, folks. It’s just new to East Lansing, where the last underclassman to declare early for the NBA draft was Magic Johnson, 22 years ago.

Jason Richardson is no Magic Johnson.

But he doesn’t have to be. That’s the thing. What Richardson has is raw ability, he can leap, he can run, he can dunk and — at least some of the time
— he can shoot.

So never mind that he didn’t rise to the occasion in the NCAA tournament. They’re saying he’ll be a top-10 pick. In today’s NBA, they don’t draft what you’ve done; they draft what they think you can do.

And then there’s Zach . . .

The truth is, the best thing a prospect has going for him these days is the NBA’s imagination. They almost prefer not to see too much of your performance. That may explain why later today, another MSU standout, Zach Randolph, is expected to declare his intention to leave college and go pro.

Unlike Richardson, Randolph is a freshman. He didn’t even start half the season. He is a funny kid who is overcoming a difficult past and certainly shows talent. But if you had to use a word to describe him right now it would be “young.” Young in every way.

But not too young for the NBA.

He has “potential.” He has height, and a good inside move and a nose for the basket. Now, is he going to get any better than he is right now? Who knows? What all these guys will find out is that nobody in the NBA is in the business of teaching. You practice for 90 minutes and then you board the bus for another airport and another city. Nobody is saying, “Hey, Zach, let’s spend tonight at the field house. We’ll go over your post moves.”

Never mind. The players don’t want to know, and the NBA won’t tell. They love the smell of a “steal.” They always see Kobe Bryant. They never see Korleone Young.

So Randolph is expected to leave, and it is a shame because this is a kid who could really use the nurturing of an educational environment.

Oops, silly me. There I go thinking that college is about something more than professional training.

It is not. Not for players who are good, not for players who think they’re good, and not for players who are surrounded by people who think they’re good. Word is that some of those people are whispering in Randolph’s ear right now. People who say things like “You’re better than that guy! Look how much he’s making!”

There’s no shortage of these people.

And there’s no shortage of players ready to listen.

Standing by his men

So Richardson is gone, and Randolph may be gone, and suddenly, this little dynasty that Tom Izzo was building in East Lansing is curiously devoid of personnel.

Izzo was present for Richardson’s farewell. He is supposed to be there for Randolph’s, too. This is admirable, because it shows Izzo stands by his players and wants them to do well wherever they go.

It’s also smart, because any potential recruit who is thinking of picking Michigan State sees he’ll be playing for a coach who doesn’t object if he checks out early.

The thing is, what choice does Izzo have? He has to go after the best payers or he can’t win. But the best players are not inclined to stick around very long.

After Duke won the NCAA title, Izzo asked Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke coach, how he did it year after year. Coach K shrugged and pointed to a player across the room.

“Battier,” he said.

As in Shane Battier, who stayed all four years, who led the team as a senior, who became, in the doing, a man, a leader, a college graduate.

And a relic.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.

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