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IF ONLY: Blake Griffin could have played in this year's NCAA tournament but instead he's dunking all over the NBA. He's seen here in a March 27, 2009 file photo. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

There will be blowouts and buzzer-beaters, upsets and overtimes. There will be shouts of joy and screams of agony, followed by tears and more tears. And you just know there will be expressions of faith.

The First Four behind us, the NCAA tournament Thursday begins its journey to the Final Four, promising hoops at its pulsating best.

No matter how superb the tournament is -- and it will be fantastic -- it won't come close to being the tournament it might have been.

For as much as I love March Madness in the 21st century, and I have plenty of company here, this is where I hate the influence of the NBA.

(Click to enlarge and print bracket)

I understand the intent of the NBA rule that insists players be at least 19 years old and one year beyond high school graduation before becoming eligible for the draft. It's designed to give young men another year of physical and mental maturity -- while "developing" in college.

But the result is our most gifted players using college as a layover to the NBA. This hurts the college game and punishes its signature tournament. Watching the NCAAs reminds us what we're missing.

We're missing Blake Griffin, who would be a senior at Oklahoma, which isn't in the tournament but would have been.

We're missing Kevin Love, who would be a senior at UCLA, which slipped into the tournament but likely would have been a top-four seed.

We're missing Derrick Rose, who would be a senior at Memphis, which is in the tournament but would have been a serious contender -- especially if Rose were joined by Tyreke Evans, who would be a junior in the same backcourt.

We're missing John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, who would be sophomores at Kentucky -- and Jonny Flynn and Wesley Johnson, who would be seniors at Syracuse.

How's this for an all-tournament team without any of the aforementioned: center Greg Monroe, who would be a junior at Georgetown; power forward Derrick Favors, who would be a sophomore at Georgia Tech; small forward DeMar DeRozan, who would be a junior at USC; big guard Evan Turner, who would be a senior at Ohio State; and point guard Jerryd Bayless, who would be a senior at Arizona?

There's no room for O.J. Mayo, who would be a senior at USC, or Michael Beasley, who would be a senior at Kansas State.

That's 15 superior talents who could have been participating in March Madness but happen to be earning paychecks in the NBA. Who can blame them? Maybe they needed the money. It's almost certain they neither needed nor wanted college.

They shouldn't have to go. Most of the best players in today's NBA entered the league immediately after high school or after a brief pit stop in college. Kobe Bryant didn't go to college. Neither did LeBron James nor Kevin Garnett nor Dwight Howard.

Rose bided time for a year, following in the footsteps of Kevin Durant (one year at Texas) -- though both likely would have bypassed college altogether if not for the age restriction.

Which means none would have experienced the NCAA tournament. And that would be OK, perhaps even preferred. Leave the tournament to those who want to be in college.

Major League Baseball has no age restriction, opting to allow players to turn pro out of high school or after three years of college. That's fair to the schools, the franchises and the individuals. And the process takes nothing away from the College World Series.

Why can't the NBA do the same?

The NBA Players Association hopes to use the upcoming collective bargaining agreement to rescind the age restriction. It's accepted that the vast majority won't duplicate the success of Kobe or LeBron or KG or Durantula. It's also accepted that 18 is the age of consent, freeing people to choose their own path.

Abolishing the age restriction would diminish the level of pure talent in college, but it would be offset by much greater continuity.

Rather than relying on rentals to be replaced after the tournament, coaches could actually build programs. Annual development could beget overall improvement, begetting depth and quality.

We'd have more teams like Duke, led by seniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler. And Purdue, led by seniors JuJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore.

We'd have a deeper pool of seniors and juniors, players such as BYU's Jimmer Fredette, Kansas State's Jacob Pullen and Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor.

Folks like me, not knowing or caring what's missing, could simply enjoy what we have.

Here's hoping those flashing across our TV screens the next 21/2 weeks can make us forget what might have been.

Contact Monte Poole at mpoole@bayareanewsgroup.com.