Sit back and enjoy NCAA renaissance

Time to put aside talk that the NBA is damaging college basketball. For at least one season of basketball — this glorious, exciting, incredible season — the NBA has accidentally enhanced itself and college basketball in one broad swoop.

The lockout that was supposed to inflict untold damage on the professional ranks instead helped maintain interest in the NBA on a level unseen in a decade or more. The compressed schedule, the heightened drama it produced and the focus on games after much of the NFL regular season have all been key factors.

That’s been well documented. But with March Madness now upon us, it’s time to point out that a similar dizzying excellence has mushroomed at the NCAA level — and how, at least this time around, the NBA played a major role in making it so.

Here in Kansas City, with the Big 12 tournament kicking off Wednesday, the impact could not be more clearly felt. Kansas and Missouri are each national-title contenders and likely No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, respectively, once the NCAA tournament begins. Each team is loaded with talent that last season seemed likely to leave for a shot at the pros.

Neither would be the same if even one of these players had bolted for the pros, a fact that might have happened had the lockout not been looming overhead.

For Missouri, Kim English went so far as to put his name in for the draft before deciding to stay, and Wooden Award finalist Marcus Denmon was thought to be considering leaving as well. For Kansas, there were fears last year that Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor were both flirting with an early exit and would bolt for richer pastures.

Instead, these serious talents have turned their teams into thrilling squads that could do some serious damage in the weeks ahead. It’s a storyline playing out across the country. Players who were expected to leave — and who likely weighed the impending NBA lockout last season when they chose to stay — are infusing college basketball with some of the magic of this March Madness.

Baylor’s Perry Jones III is back despite having been a lock as a lottery pick last summer. Same for Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, who has helped put the Buckeyes into national title territory. Harrison Barnes, who is a key ingredient in North Carolina’s run toward what seems a likely No. 1 seed, would also have been a lottery pick — like Jones and Sullinger perhaps a Top-5 selection.

That’s a lot of money left on the table, and a lot of talent left at the college level.

Every player is different, and each weighs the reward-risk ratio of going pro differently. But last year’s lockout was a looming worry that surely mixed into each player’s decision-making process. Throw in the fact that players are required to play one season of college basketball before testing the pro waters — hello, Kentucky — and there’s very little reason to knock the NBA for hurting college basketball. At least right now. At least for this intoxicating stretch of college and pro basketball.

In the NBA, the Miami Heat, Linsanity, the battle for Los Angeles, Kobe’s stubborn excellence, Dwight Howard’s drama, Oklahoma City’s superb play, Chicago’s continued dazzling rise and a dozen other storylines have made it a league on the way up.

At the college level, a crop of extra talent that did not go pro, blue-chip recruits forced into at least one season of collegiate competition, dangerous underdogs like Creighton, Saint Mary’s and Murray State and all-time coaching greats like John Calipari at Kentucky, Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, Bill Self at Kansas, Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and Tom Izzo at Michigan State with serious contenders have led to the same fact.

This is a golden era in basketball, pro and amateur, and the NBA lockout has played a small but significant role in getting us here.

It’s about to be a raucous month on the hardwoods, from the NBA to the March Madness. Let’s enjoy its every single moment. No telling when the interests of the pros and the amateurs will again diverge.

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