EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The problem with college basketball, some say, is too many freshmen in ripped undershirts, too many sophomores with police records, too many juniors with agents, and not enough seniors. You remember seniors, don’t you? The elder statesmen of the game? Not long ago, a coach would say, “We have a good team; we start five seniors.” Today, five seniors is a golf tour.

Which is what makes tonight’s matchup between Kentucky and Syracuse both pleasant and — I know this is a funny word when talking about college sports
— educational.

For neither team would be here without its seniors.

Tony Delk, a smooth-shooting senior guard, was the high scorer for Kentucky on Saturday night, when his team ousted mighty Massachusetts (which was led by a junior). Delk’s fellow senior Walter McCarty was Kentucky’s leading rebounder. And a gangly, blond string bean named Mark Pope hit several crucial free throws in the closing minutes to ice the game for UK. I know. Free throws are for old folks. Pope is a senior, too.

“You know, it’s funny,” Rick Pitino, the Wildcats’ coach, said at Continental Airlines Arena after his players had disappeared down the hall.
“These kids are all in such a rush to get to the NBA. But I tell them, if you told Patrick Ewing, ‘Patrick, we’ll give you a championship if you donate $15 million to charity’ — he’d do it today.

“If you leave early, you’re losing not only your boyhood, but experiences you can never replace. Experiences like this weekend here. This is so great.

“Some of these guys who want to jump to the NBA, I wish they would just get real, because it’s not what they think it is — it’s a hard-core business. It’s a job. They’re going to have plenty of time to work in their lives.”

What’s the hurry? Webber: ‘You were right’

A few years ago, I sat in a restaurant with a young man named Chris Webber. He was a sophomore at Michigan, thinking about leaving, and he asked me what I thought he should do. What I told him was this: If someone offered me a ton of money, but said from the moment I accepted it, I had to forget all my memories from my junior and senior years of college, all the friendships, all the laughs, all the stories I’ve been sharing with people over the years — all that would be gone — I wouldn’t do it.

Webber nodded thoughtfully.

Two days later, he went pro.

But last month, I got a call from Chris, who is injured and sitting out the remainder of his third NBA season, with the mediocre Washington Bullets. He is rich. He also sounds tired. This is what he told me: “You were right.”

Don’t take my word for it. Ask John Wallace. He was Syracuse’s star player Saturday night. He dunked with authority, he swatted away shots. And when the buzzer sounded he was in a pile of happy players, waving his fist.

Last year at this time, Wallace wanted to go pro. He put his name in the NBA hat. Two days before the draft, thankfully, he pulled it out.

“And that’s the reason we’re here today,” teammate Otis Hill said. He’s right. Instead of being some late first-round pick, Wallace stayed in school and improved his scoring average nearly six points. He has sharpened his reputation from an immature trash-talker to a leader. He will make a better pro — and probably last a lot longer — because of the maturity he has gained in his senior season.

Which is not as important as his smile Saturday night — a smile as big as Christmas morning. How much is that worth? How can anyone say? How much for a memory?

In the boisterous Kentucky locker room after the semifinal win, Mark Pope, the senior, was laughing about “the old men on this team.” He went over to sophomore Antoine Walker and interrupted his interview.

“You’re writing about Walker?” he said, smiling at a reporter. “Here’s your first line: ‘And a child shall lead them. . . . ‘ “

Strange, isn’t it? A 23-year-old calling a 19-year-old a child? But that’s how much difference two years can make in college. The problem is, there are too many children leading programs — and they often leave without ever growing up.

Right now, Georgia Tech’s Stephon Marbury is reportedly turning pro. He’s a freshman. He’s played, what, 30 college games? He says he wants the money. Hey, who doesn’t? Go visit him next February, on a cold, empty-arena night in Minneapolis. See how great he feels about the money then.

By the way, Marbury did not lead his team to a college championship. Neither did Shaquille O’Neal, Webber, Joe Smith, Kenny Anderson or many other top underclassmen who jumped early. Had they stayed, who knows what memories they’d have?

Understand this: No one is denying young men the right to earn a living. But the millions they delay now may come back tenfold — if they have a mature career. Meanwhile, they are taken care of at college, fed and housed, nobody is starving, and let’s hope, they even get educated.

Here was the lesson taught at center court Saturday night, as the Syracuse players pointed and smiled at their families, and the Kentucky players hugged to the music of “My Old Kentucky Home”: There’s nothing like being a happy kid.

Who on earth would want to end that early?

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