By giving athletes a free year of eligibility last season, the NCAA made a great decision. Many teams had their seasons cancelled or severely limited by Covid-related issues. It certainly wouldn’t have been fair to take away a year of eligibility from someone when their season was only a few games, or in some cases, no games at all. 

A benefit to this for fans is that college basketball will be older than at any time since possibly the era of freshmen ineligibility in the 1970’s. It remains to be seen how that will play out but it doesn’t take a logical leap to assume that the product will be better. 

I think it’s undeniable that the product will be better both on and off the court. Players with more experience, that are faster and stronger, will make the on-court product better. And an extra year of eligibility gives players a longer window in which to graduate, allowing the NCAA to better fulfill its mission on the academic side. 

I have no idea how players get a good night sleep after a game let alone get enough work done to pass their classes. Mind you, courseload is minimized during the season and most players make up the difference in the summer. But the larger point remains: It’s unfair to expect people to complete a degree in four years while also maintaining a full-time high-pressure job that involves frequent travel. It’s just the humane thing to do to give them five years to complete a task that even most regular students fail to complete in four years.

And having older and more mature players on the roster figures to help younger players acclimate to the unique pressures that accompany playing major college basketball while trying to maintain academic eligibility.

Given that five-year eligibility is good for the game and its participants, why not make it permanent? I don’t know the answer, other than tradition. Tradition is sometimes a worthy consideration, but I don’t think it matters here.

I haven’t heard anyone publicly suggest that five years should be the new norm, so I haven’t heard any arguments against it. (Our friends north of the border already do this and nobody seems to complain.) But as a good-faith blogger, I’ll try to anticipate the criticism of such a change based on my years of experience of proposing rules changes.

It hurts mid-majors. I actually don’t know how it would hurt mid-majors but it seems whenever a major rule change is proposed there is a group of people that instinctively claim it will hurt mid-majors. Then after the change is rejected, they go back to complaining about the current plight of mid-majors without any real solution except to ban teams with sub-.500 conference records from making the NCAA tournament (which will never happen). 

But I’m not sure how this hurts mid-majors. Almost any player with professional aspirations will be leaving before their fifth season and it figures that programs higher up the food chain will have more players with professional aspirations. Obviously those programs will fill vacancies with the best players from lesser programs in some cases. But they do that now.

Except with five-year eligibility coaches don’t have to avoid redshirting a player simply to limit their grad transfer options later on. There would be no more redshirts!  Play your freshmen guilt-free.

And as you’ll see below, mid-majors retained more super-seniors this season than teams from multi-bid conferences. Among conferences, the SWAC actually retained the most – an average of 1.8 players per team.

There will be more transfers. I’ll admit that people who breathlessly tweet out the Verbal Commits transfer count whenever it changes (which is, by the way, nearly a two-fold exaggeration of the true D-1 to D-1 transfer rate) won’t be happy. As players get older they tend to transfer more. Of the seniors on last season’s rosters, 22.1% are on a different D-1 roster this season. That figure is just 9.9% for freshman.

This is a rational approach by players, though. In the margins, younger players are more willing to stick things out for another year in a situation they don’t particularly like, given that they have more eligibility left. Older players have more urgency to find a better situation, and, of course, are in more demand.

So it’s safe to say this change won’t make the transfer rate decrease. Though it wouldn’t surprise me if the transfer rate of freshmen decreases given they will now have an extra year to see things through. However, this is not something I really care to debate. As long as coaches can run off players and be able to replace them immediately, players deserve the right to change schools when they wish (and be eligible immediately).

If you hate transfers, you may have an anti-player world-view and/or wish the game was still like it was in 1982 (when the AP #1 and #3 played a 16-11 second half in the ACC championship game). And giving players four years vs. five years of eligibility is consistent with that. This is an issue that goes beyond moving to five-year eligibility.

There will be fewer scholarships for freshmen. Thirteen scholarships rotating every four years means 3.25 scholarships per team are theoretically open every year. Rotating those scholarships every five years reduces that figure to 2.6. But some players used five years of eligibility pre-Covid. And many teams don’t use all of their scholarships now. And a lot of players leave college before their eligibility is exhausted. So in practice more scholarships are open than the figures I’m using. 

But there will be slightly fewer freshmen on rosters under a fixed 5-year eligibility plan. Maybe that’s a bad thing for you. I’d argue it’s worth the trade.

Cost. I’ll admit I don’t fully understand the cost issue. In a world where the scholarship limit stays the same, there is no issue. But the Covid rule is that a player can participate in a fifth year at his current school without his scholarship counting against the limit. And if you want a neat way to promote more roster continuity, that’s a rule to consider keeping. But larger rosters mean more expenses and that might give an advantage to programs with larger budgets.

However, at least for this season that hasn’t been the case. Here’s the breakdown of super-seniors (players on a roster this season that were listed as a senior last season) per team by conference type:

Conference type   Super seniors  Teams  Per team
        P6             73          76     0.96
       ALQ             49          56     0.88
        MM            234         224     1.04

P6: You know who
ALQ: “At-large quality” (American, WCC, A-10, MWC, MVC)
MM: Everyone else

Irrespective of budget, about one senior per team returned this season. So economic issues didn’t seem to play a role. (It’s also fair to assume that few teams are using more than 13 scholarships even with the extra player(s).)

In short, if we had to pick the best solution to eligibility without regard for tradition, the case that four years is more appropriate than five is weak. The drawbacks of permanently going to five years are insignificant or non-existent.

Finally, we can assume that G-League Ignite, Overtime Elite, and top international leagues (or at some point in the future, the NBA) will continue to siphon off some of the best freshmen talent from the college game. One way to compensate for this is to add a bunch of older players to college basketball. Add this isn’t one of those changes where you have to use your imagination to anticipate the impacts. We’re doing it this season and it’s probably going to be awesome: A better product for the fans and a better experience for the players involved. 

College basketball will be more skilled and more experienced than it has been in a few decades, with higher graduation rates as a bonus. And the NCAA should do all it can to keep it that way. Five-year eligibility is the reason we’re here. Why not make it that way forever?