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Paycheck might keep NCAA hoop stars from shooting to the pros

Tuesday's heartstopping, balloon-popping barnburner of a basketball game between upstart Virginia and down-and-out North Carolina spoke to why college hoops can be the most entertaining sport around.

There was drama -- the game's conclusion was delayed twice because of a combination of fan frenzy and lackluster officiating. Then there were the Tar Heels ... or simply the heels if you ask any Cavalier fanatic. Even "The Ronald" -- Curry that is -- made a guest appearance to throw another bucket of kerosene on the proverbial bonfire.

For a glorious couple of hours, the NFL playoffs took a backseat; John Rocker's asinine tirade faded away and Derek Jeter's monstrous contract didn't matter. The college kids were front and center, and at least for one night, they were king.

However, upon returning to my humble dorm room and logging on to ESPN.com, I was reminded in the form of the follwing headline why the college game can be but isn't the greatest show on earth: "Mihm's mum on leaving early for NBA."

Huh? Excuse me? Are you talking about Chris Mihm -- that Chris Mihm -- the same Chris Mihm who evidently has been anointed college basketball's most coveted professional prospect by default because ... well ... there aren't any prospects to covet?

During any normal season, Mihm is an above average center at best, but this year he's Bill Walton incarnate -- at least according to the experts, who tab him as the top pick in next June's draft.

I don't want to unfairly place blame on young Mihm's shoulders, but his college basketball celebrity points to a problem that continues to plague the game: a lack of starpower.

There's plenty of team unity, enough colorful coaching to go around (if searching for proof, pick up a transcript of Bobby Knight's postgame comments Tuesday) and of course, "March Madness." Now it's time to add a few superstars to the mix, because, no matter the quality of play, a game lacking in stars is a game lacking in success.

Take a gander at the list of players projected as first round draft picks, and the watered-down talent pool manifests itself.

Mateen Cleaves a "lottery lock?" Call me when he gets a jumpshot. Mamadou N'Diaye a sure-shot top 10 pick? If his game at all resembles that of former Wolverine/Tar Heel Makhtar Ndiaye, then expect a career rivaling Yinka Dare's. Stromile Swift -- a can't miss star-in-the-making?. Just one question: who is Stromile Swift?

College basketball could flaunt an All-American team consisting of supertalents like Steve Francis, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant, Jonathan Bender and Al Harrington had the NBA not gobbled up all the choice cuts early, but it did, leaving the paltry leftovers in the back of the fridge for college basketball to gnaw on.

With all due respect to the N'Diayes and Swifts of the world, college basketball desperately needs more transcendent luminaries, more bonafide studs if it wants to compete against professional sports on a commercial level. The NCAA Tournament is a three-week rollercoaster capable of tingling the spine and raising the hair, but it lasts just 21 days, and for the other 15 weeks, the N'Diaye's and the Swift's just don't appeal to the casual fan the way, say ... oh ... Kevin Garnett does.

From my ranting and raving, one probably thinks I'm begging the megastars -- the Vince Carters and the Allen Iversons -- to place unimaginable wealth and unfathomable fame on the backburner for the sake of good old college basketball by hanging around campus an extra couple of years.

No. What I'm asking college basketball to do is step up to the plate and pay them!

We've heard the pundits offer their heartfelt, selfless reasons for paying college athletes:

1. Through the sale of their jerseys and the marketability of their names, the greats of the college game horde truck loads of money for their respective universities yet never see a dime of it.

2. Coming from humble beginnings, these athletes don't have the ability to support themselves on a day-to-day basis without a little money in their pockets.

3. If colleges pay their players, there is a greater likelihood that the athletes will stay in school to earn a degree.

All fine and dandy reasons, but let's get selfish for a moment.

If the college game truly wants to shine, then it has no choice: open up the checkbook and do what it takes (within reason) to keep the Clydedales on grounds. If not, then get used to watching Mamadou N'Diaye.

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