The best parts of the early rounds of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament, which begins today, are the upsets, as a few low-seeded teams inevitably knock off some high-seeded ones. Like most college basketball fans, I usually choose as my favorite underdog a scrappy directional school (like fifteenth seed Eastern Kentucky) or an overachieving Ivy (such as thirteenth seed Penn). But this year the underdog I'm most rooting for is a team that, while carrying a ten seed, is a former national champion and typically a national power. I'm talking about the very un-underdog-like North Carolina State, which plays Charlotte tomorrow. I'm rooting for N.C. State to win a few games in the tournament for one reason: their extremely talented, always mercurial, and shockingly skinny senior forward, Julius Hodge. His success in the tournament would be good for the future of NCAA basketball and would represent a very small, symbolic victory for the proper relationship between college athletes and the academic institutions they play for.
Hodge is an impossible-to-ignore presence on the court. A trash talker of the highest order, he's constantly running his mouth and getting under his opponents' skin. And he doesn't just annoy opponents with his taunts: Hodge has been known to a throw a well-placed elbow or (a bit more unconventionally) to untie the shoe of a player on the opposing team. He complements all his yapping and quasi-dirty play with an old-school floor game--playing suffocating defense and demonstrating an uncanny ability to weave his slender 6'7" frame through traffic and down the lane for wondrous layups. In other words, Hodge is one of those players you love if he's on your team and you hate if he's not. As a fan of the University of North Carolina--which has a fairly strong rivalry with N.C. State--I've spent most of the last four years doing the latter. But now, as Hodge's college career is about to come to an end, I'm anxious for him to play just a little bit longer.
One of the reasons I've come to appreciate Hodge is for his entertainment value. His trash talking--which carries over from the court into his media interviews--is actually pretty hilarious. Last year, after a disappointing performance in a game at Duke, a reporter asked Hodge whether the raucous Duke students in the stands--better known as the Cameron Crazies--had thrown him off his game. Hodge was offended by the question. "There's no way I could let a guy with a 4.5 GPA, acne, and bad breath decide the way I'm going to play," he replied. Later that year, after State beat Duke in a rematch, Hodge was asked by a reporter to explain the victory. While most athletes would have given a standard quote about "playing as a team" and "following the game plan," Hodge--who's listed at 205 pounds but looks like he weighs about 190--was far more colorful. He simply said, "When we hungry, we eat!"
More important than Hodge the entertainer, however, is Hodge the symbol, because he actually represents something all college basketball fans should support: the star player who ignored the temptations of the NBA to come back to school for one more year. The Harlem-born-and-bred Hodge was a McDonald's All-American in high school who was highly touted when he came to N.C. State. In his first year there he was the runner-up for freshman of the year in the Atlantic Coast Conference (the top conference in college basketball); his sophomore year he made first-team All-ACC; and in his junior year he was named ACC player of the year. At that point, it seemed only natural for Hodge to forgo his senior year and turn pro. Most basketball experts projected him as a late first-round draft pick--which meant that, like all players selected in the first round, he would have received a three-year guaranteed contract. But Hodge decided to return to N.C. State for his senior season (becoming the first ACC player of the year to come back to school since Tim Duncan returned to Wake Forest in 1996).
One of Hodge's reasons for coming back to school was high-minded: He'd promised his mother he'd get his degree. He also said he wanted to try to win a national championship. But the biggest factor, it seems, was that Hodge hoped another year in college--during which time he could work on his jump shot and gain some weight--would improve his draft status, moving him from a late first-round pick to an early one.
That calculation is one that's been made by an increasing number of top-flight college basketball players in recent years. With the influx of foreign players to the NBA, not to mention high-school hoops phenoms who decide to skip college altogether, the supply side of the NBA draft equation now sometimes exceeds the demand, leading some college players, who a few years ago might have turned pro after their freshmen or sophomore years, to spend a little more time in school. Just look at the number of upperclassmen in this year's crop of All-America candidates, including Duke's J.J. Redick (junior), North Carolina's Sean May (junior), Kansas's Wayne Simien (senior), and Syracuse's Hakim Warrick (senior); it wasn't that long ago that players of their caliber didn't stick around college for their junior and senior years.
Alas, one person not in that crop is Julius Hodge. His decision to come back for his senior year was an obvious gamble and, at this point, at least, it looks like a gamble that won't pay off. Hodge has had a very disappointing year--his scoring average and shooting percentage are down and, perhaps more importantly, his team is, too. At the beginning of the season there was much talk that Hodge, by coming back to school, would make N.C. State a legitimate national championship contender; instead the team has underperformed (which is the reason for its low seed in the NCAA tournament). This poor performance has mostly been blamed on Hodge; last year's ACC player of the year only made second-team All-ACC this year, and there are plenty of people who thought he was a charity pick even there. NBA scouts have surely noticed all this, and now some basketball experts feel that Hodge has played himself out of being a first-round pick. The mock draft at NBAdraft.net has Hodge falling all the way to the 22nd pick of the second round. If Hodge does indeed go in the second round, college basketball players will notice; and when they face the decision down the road between going pro or coming back to college, the cautionary tale of Julius Hodge will likely weigh on their minds and perhaps convince them that staying in school for another year isn't worth the risk.
But a stellar tournament performance by Hodge, in which he leads N.C. State to a couple of upset victories, could do wonders for his draft status and transform him from a cautionary tale into an inspiring one. Which is the biggest reason I'm pulling for N.C. State to make a bit of a tournament run. The talent level in college basketball, while not as great as it was before the rash of early entries to the NBA in the 1990s, is finally approaching the pre-NBA-exodus level again. And at no time is this more evident than in the NCAA tournament. As we watch the games over the next few weeks and marvel at the high caliber of play, we should be rooting for anyone whose success makes it more likely that such a high caliber of play continues in future years.
There's also the matter of how the defection of players to the NBA affects the relationship between college athletics and academics. No one should delude himself into thinking that star athletes at schools like N.C. State are scholars first. And Hodge didn't exactly return to school to give himself a shot at a Rhodes (although he is scheduled to graduate this spring). But at this point, anything that makes the relationship between athletes and their schools just a little less mercenary seems like a small step in the right direction. Julius Hodge is obviously hungry to have his college career end on a high note. Let's hope that in the coming weeks he gets to eat a few more meals.
Jason Zengerle is a senior editor at The New Republic.