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Bucky Gleason: Duke legends offer look back to better era in college hoops

Grant Hill couldn't remember the exact number, but someone told him years ago it was at least 100 during his four seasons at Duke. That was how many times he appeared on national television during his 129-game career before he graduated with degrees in history and political science in 1994.

Hill, the best player in the past 25 years to stay in college when he had the option to leave early for the NBA, was a sophomore and potential top-five pick when he helped Duke win its second straight national title. Christian Laettner was a senior on the 1992 team and the best player in America. Bobby Hurley was a junior.

Their blowout over Michigan and its freshmen Fab Five in the final signaled the conclusion of a terrific period in college basketball. Hill and Hurley remained in the program through their senior years, but college hoops was never quite the same when Laettner played his last game.

“To me, the most important thing was that it was the end of an era," Hill, an analyst for Turner Sports and CBS who will work the NCAA championship game Monday, said by telephone. "It was right before the mass exodus when players left early and went into the league. Good, bad or indifferent, you saw these guys play for four years. Whether you liked them or hated them, you remembered them."

The shot: 25 years ago, Christian Laettner hit the swish for the ages

Basketball fans remember the great Duke teams 25 years later the way teenyboppers from the '60s remembered the Beatles years after they broke up. The Blue Devils were like rock stars who had a cult-like following.

People felt like they had personal relationships with players because they watched them perform so many times. They saw Duke more often than their own family members. Even casual fans fawned over them.

Florida won back-to-back titles in 2006-07 but left nowhere near the same impression. Juniors Joakim Noah and Al Horford, who left for the NBA after the first one, were hardly household names in college. Duke, on the other hand, was television gold.

Laettner reached the Final Four in four consecutive years and finished his career with back-to-back national championships. He holds four NCAA Tournament records that likely will never be approached: most games (23), most points (407), free throws made (142) and free throws attempted (167).

One single-game mark guaranteed to stand is highest combined field-goal and free-throw shooting percentage. Laettner was 10 for 10 from the floor and 10 for 10 from the foul line when he scored 31 points and beat Kentucky at the buzzer in the 1992 epic East Regional final.

"The number of games, the points and the free throws will never be broken because nobody stays," Laettner said. "I take huge pride in it. It would be more relevant if they made everyone stay for four years. Right now people could say, 'That's not going to be broken' because why? Because they take off."

It was no coincidence that North Carolina, Gonzaga, Oregon and South Carolina rode upperclassmen into the Final Four. North Carolina started all juniors and seniors. Gonzaga's youngest starter was sophomore Josh Perkins. Oregon started two juniors and a fifth-year graduate student. South Carolina's leader was senior Sindarius Thornwell.

According to various rankings, the top 10 NBA prospects coming out of college leading into the NBA Draft are freshmen. Lonzo Ball was barely out of his uniform after UCLA was eliminated from the Big Dance before announcing his intention to turn professional. When he did, some wondered what took so long.

In 2005, the NBA implemented a rule forcing players to wait at least one year after high school and at least 19 years old before they were eligible for the draft. It was an upgrade over previous practices. You know Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady, who jumped from high school to the NBA in the '90s and became stars.

Here are some other names: Korleone Young and Ndudi Ebi. They played fewer than 100 minutes in the NBA. Or how about Leon Smith and James Lang? They scored fewer than 40 points in the NBA. They lead the list of underachievers who jumped from high school and failed to establish themselves in the NBA.

Laettner would have been a lottery pick after his junior year at Duke, but he never seriously considered the option. Why would he? He was getting a great education on full scholarship, having the time of his life and leading a top-ranked Duke team that was intent on validating one national championship with another.

He could wait for the NBA.

"It was there," Laettner said. "It was something I could think about and contemplate if I wanted. But I looked at it like, 'That's nice to know that I'm wanted and that I could go if I wanted.' It's also nice to know that my car works. It was nice to know, and it was flattering, but there was no interest. I wanted what we were doing at Duke, which was having lots of success and lots of fun. I wanted to do it again."

Nowadays, players treat college like a necessary inconvenience for NBA stardom. Some argued the NBA eligibility requirements interfered with the right to work. Others whined about colleges making money from teenagers or they drew parallels to 18-year-olds who could serve in the military but couldn't play in the NBA.

Oh, the injustice.

Several occupations have age minimums, including law enforcement. It would be great if an effective system could police one-and-done players. Perhaps it would have spared Jereme Richmond, Tommy Mason-Griffin, Evan Burns, Josh Selby and numerous other no-names who played one college season and faded into obscurity.

John Calipari made peace with one-and-done players and used the rule as a recruiting weapon at Kentucky. Mike Krzyzewski initially resisted recruiting players who were looking to leave after a year, as if he was trying to uphold Duke's purity and the sanctity of a college education, but he eventually caved like the others.

And when Duke won a national title in 2015 with freshmen Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, who left for the NBA after one season, nobody seemed to mind. But those players and that team weren't viewed with the same reverence or granted eternal worship. It was just a championship team from another era. By then, college basketball had changed.

Better days were gone for good.

“People saw us, sometimes two or three times in a week," Hill said. "And they saw us for four years. It leaves an impression. We won, and you tend to remember teams that won championships more. Present day, I probably would never have played with ‘Laett’ because he would have been gone before I arrived. I wouldn’t have played with Hurley. We wouldn’t have had that kind of team."

Bucky Gleason: Gold nuggets from the silver anniversary of Duke-Kentucky classic

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