When I visited Central Kentucky for my annual pilgrimage to the beautiful Keeneland Race Course last weekend, the couches had long since stopped burning and the Wildcats’ blue-chip recruits were preparing to hire agents and enter the draft after hanging the school’s eighth banner in Rupp Arena.

And, somehow, the bluegrass is an even brighter shade of blue today. Wednesday’s announcement that Nerlens Noel will play for UK gives Head Coach John Calipari his fourth top recruiting class in as many seasons in Lexington.

For many critics, this was further fodder for their complaints about Calipari and his reliance on the so-called “one-and-dones.” Most of these grumbles object to how the University of Kentucky — likeCalipari’s previous school, Memphis — has become nothing more than a waystation on the road to the NBA, shredding the concept of student-athletes that underpins college sports.

While that complaint has its merits, I’m not sure that college basketball players in the nation’s elite programs have really lived up to the “student-athlete” ideal in the past. I also don’t know what that nicely-packaged NCAA term really means in the big-money sports of football and men’s basketball.

At its heart, those complaints concern a broken regulatory structure, one that Calipari has exploited but not violated … unless you count the sanctions placed on UMass and Memphis after some of his heavily-recruited prospects were discovered to have breached NCAA amateur status and eligibility rules.

But as a fan, I have a much deeper concern, one that goes to the heart of both the saga of Nerlens Noel and the game itself.

One-and-done players cheapen the college game. They turn the focus from the games that will be played to the recruitment itself. And although it can be done, as this year’s Kentucky team showed, it can be difficult for coaches to mold one-and-dones into team players.

During March Madness this year, one of the television stations here in the District aired the 1992 NCAA matchup between Duke and Kentucky. As I’ve written before, that contest is one of the best college basketball games ever played.

The excellence and timelessness of this game is rooted in a college experience that has become anathema to many college basketball players these days. Both teams had rosters that had experience with their coaches’ systems. The players had spent four years working together, building team chemistry while honing their individual skills.

So while the individual talent on both squads was considerably less than that on recent teams of one-and-dones, I don’t think there is any debate that college basketball was better in that era. The passing, the shooting, the defense — it was all more skillful.

But it wasn’t just that skill, but also the affinity that fan bases felt to their players that is different now.

After Kentucky lost in that Elite Eight game, the Wildcats quickly retired the jerseys of the four seniors — the “Unforgettables” — who completed their final season in 1992. They weren’t all headed to the NBA (in fact, only Sean Woods went), but their contributions and their effort meant something to the fans.

It’s also no surprise that the Wildcat on this year’s championship squad most likely to be singled out for praise from the Kentucky faithful isn’t Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. It’s Darius Miller.

Miller, a senior who will graduate this spring, is a Kentucky native who’s played for the Wildcats all four years and stuck it out through his freshman year aboard the train wreck that was Billy Gillispie’s tenure. He wasn’t the team’s best player — not by a long shot — but he represented the spirit that people long for in college basketball.

When I was in Lexington last week, I read a lament, one of many, of the lack of stars in horse racing. Far too often, the most promising horses are retired to stud farms before they have a chance to demonstrate their greatness. It’s one of many problems that have reduced the quality of horse racing in America and eroded the fan base of the Sport of Kings.

And while one-and-done players have another level ahead of them, they too leave the game too early. They never have time to fit into — and help build — a program. They also don’t have time to earn the admiration of college fan bases, the best supporters in all of sports.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure how, or if, we can roll back the clock on one-and-dones. But just as a day at the racetrack is more thrilling than a horse auction, I don’t want to see college basketball become a game in which the most important moment arrives before the season even starts, in overwrought ESPNU signing announcements.

That’s no fun.

Evan Hollander is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service and deputy sports editor of The Hoya. TOP OF THE KEY appears every Friday.

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