As all basketball fans realize, the past decade of NCAA basketball has given us an overabundance of incredible finishes, groundbreaking plays, and historically great teams. We as fans have been spoiled by the exceedingly talented players that have descended on the college hoops landscape, and we have but one man to thank: Kevin Garnett.It was Garnett who, back in 1995, chose to bypass the college experiment altogether in favor of bumrushing the Association.

The move forced David Stern’s hand and changed the college game forever. Stern worried that Garnett would serve as a blueprint every prep star would try and emulate. These high-schoolers would not be physically or emotionally mature enough to handle life in the NBA, which would hurt his company’s market offering and their bottom-line.

Instead of an awe-inspiring young talent entering the NBA primed and ready for greatness, Stern saw that he would have been forced to promote a league whose talent level was watered-down and whose youngsters did not understand fundamental aspects of the game. He simply would not stand for this reduced level of play and the impact it might have.

What followed of course was am infamous and lengthy legal showdown, as the league sought to impose an age requirement on the Draft that restricted players under 20 from consideration. The Players Union and a group of prep stars fought the motion’s validity tirelessly on the grounds of antitrust and competition laws, but ultimately they were ignored.

The two season requirement in college ushered in a new period for the Association, now full of known-commodity veterans and more fundamentally sound play. It also created the Golden Era of College Basketball.

There can be little doubt that the first impact of the age limit was felt in Durham, North Carolina. It was there that a precocious, charming young man/human scoring machine named Kobe Bryant touched down and forever left his mark on the college scene.

Bryant employed a scorched earth technique across the country, as his two years in Cameron Indoor Stadium brought Coach K two national championships, an undefeated season, two ACC titles, and a 6-0 record against North Carolina. Having set the ACC single season scoring mark, Bryant took his two National Player of the Year awards and dual national scoring titles to the Los Angeles Clippers as the first pick in the 1998 NBA Draft.
Bryant’s departure created room at the top of the college landscape, and no player or program seized that opportunity more than Tracy McGrady and his Kentucky Wildcats. As a high-schooler, McGrady committed to Kentucky after breaking onto the national stage at the adidas ABCD All-American camp. McGrady’s freshman season in Lexington saw the Wildcats reach the Final Four before bowing out to North Carolina and their star sophomore Jermaine O’Neal.

The next season though, McGrady, Jamal Magloire and Rick Pitino put it all together. The Wildcats won 30 games en route to raising another championship banner into the rafter of Rupp Arena.

After two relatively uninspired years that saw Michigan State triumphant followed by Duke capturing an unprecedented fifth title in eight years, the 2002 season brought a return to form in terms of fan exhilaration and bold, youthful athleticism.

Kwame Brown, a star recruit of coach Billy Donovan, helped propel the Florida Gators to the national crown. The Fab Five 2000, as the Gators recruiting year of Brown, David Lee, James White, Adrian Moss and Max Booker came to be known, ignited the college game with their sweltering pace and searing team defense that lead to more fast break dunks than any team since Houston’s fabled Phi Slamma Jamma squad.

It was here that Brown polished his low post game and gracefully eased into his role as leader. Not shouldering impossible expectations like those suffered by lottery picks, Brown matured and grew into a highly effective defender and scorer during his three years in Gainesville before starting his solid NBA career as a polished talent.

Brown and the rest of the Fab Five redux nearly achieved back-to-back national championships, in fact. Their quest reached the Final Four, where their usually immaculate interior defense was shredded for forty minutes straight by Amar’e Stoudemire, a phenom who possessed raw power not seen in a college player since Larry Johnson and whose athleticism seemed limitless.

Stoudemire had paired with Chris Massie and Rodney Carney to give John Calipari’s Tigers to most physically impressive frontcourt the NCAA had seen in years. Yet even they proved to be no match for Carmelo Anthony’s Syracuse Orangemen, who had defeated a Dwyane Wade-led upstart Marquette squad earlier in the tournament. Anthony’s one man assault on the lane got Stoudemire into early foul trouble, and from there the product of Oak Hill Academy showed his sweet shooting touch in a blowout for the title.

That epic season served only as a prelude, or rather, a coronation ceremony, to the man that would be King.

LeBron James had been the most celebrated amateur in his sport since his fourteenth birthday, and there was no question that he had all the physical abilities to be a “once-in-a-generation” exception to David Stern’s age limit. James and his handlers knew this and from the time he was a high school Junior onwards, they fought the league in court, claiming that the age restrictions unfairly impacted his ability to earn a living given the NBA’s monopoly status as a pro league in America.

When James’ numerous appeals proved fruitless, he decided it best to vent his frustration on the court at Ohio State.

James towered above everything and everyone in the college game. From the first moment he donned the Scarlet and Grey, James began his NCAA conquest: his two seasons as a Buckeye saw him win back-to-back unanimous Player of the Year awards by averaging a gaudy 27.2 points, 10.2 assists, and 12 rebounds a contest.

Having recruited fellow All-Americans Ivan Harris and Kendrick Perkins to join him in Columbus, James led the school to repeat Final Foul appearances. So dominant was James that many were surprised he was unable to carry his team, inexperienced and short on talent though it was, to the championship as a freshman. While James produced one of basketball’s greatest single game stat line in the National Semifinal (40, 12, 15), his supporting cast was too limited to overcome Ben Gordan, Emeka Okafor and the Huskies from Connecticut.

James would not be denied again. Ohio State defeated Shaun Livingston and Duke easily to enter the Final. It was there in the 2005 National Final that LeBron finally squared off with the only player with a level of athleticism as commanding and potent as his own. The results were gripping.

Georgia Tech’s freshman superstar Dwight Howard possessed a level of brute power so overwhelming that he had broken two backboards that year. Howard’s Yellow Jackets reached the tournament’s summit by upsetting North Carolina, who was led by a group of juniors (but had standout freshmen of their own in JR Smith and Marvin Williams).

To the delight of hoop fans everywhere (yes, even Billy Packer), James and Howard turned the game into their own personal match of “Can You Top This,” creating highlight after highlight, from fall-away threes to earth-rattling dunks, from no-look-behind-the-back passes to rejections into the seventh row.

After thirty-nine perfect minutes of action, the game was on the line and the ball lay in James’ hands. James took Anthony Morrow off the dribble to his right before losing him at the foul line and exploding to the rim to be met in mid-flight by Howard. Chest-to-chest, the two prodigies crashed together for what felt like an eternity before James thundered down a career-defining jam.

It was in that moment that what was to be struck violently together with what already was.

There was only one word to describe that moment: Madness.

Thank heaven David Stern stepped in when he did and gave us that One Shining Moment. Can you really imagine if it had been any other way?