Perhaps more than anything, the Gators baseball team is a national championship contender this year because of MLB’s eligibility rules.

If you read any season previews, you know the obvious reasons why Florida is a top-five squad in every poll. They return five freshman All-Americans. They bring back all but one starter in the field. They hauled in one of the best recruiting classes in the country — a ritual that has become almost preordained in Gainesville.

But consider how different Florida’s team would look this year if MLB operated like the NBA, where one-and-done college stars are more than simply tolerated. In the last four basketball drafts, 11 of the 20 top-five picks (including three No. 1 overall selections) were coming off their freshman seasons.

NBA Commissioner David Stern’s demand that every American basketball player go to college for at least one year — unless they pursue the less appealing options of bolting to Europe or playing in the D-League — has created an ugly system where some schools can thrive as de facto minor league basketball programs.

Look at Kentucky, where four freshmen turned pro last season, perhaps out of fear that slipping on the grease dripping from coach John Calipari could lead to serious injury.

MLB’s draft rules, on the other hand, encourage commitment. Unlike in basketball, you can turn pro out of high school. Perhaps it’s unwise to spend the rest of your life relying on a prep diploma and a $150,000 signing bonus, but it’s your prerogative.

Let’s say you don’t turn pro out of high school, whether it’s because teams don’t like you or you don’t like them or the money is simply not right.

You have two choices: You can either go to a junior college, where you will be eligible for the draft at the end of your first and second seasons, or you can go to a four-year university like Florida, where you will not be eligible for the pros until you finish your junior year or turn 21.

This system has the best of both worlds. If a player only cares about turning pro, that’s fine. But that type of “student-athlete” should not be going to a typical university.

Only about 0.9 percent of UF students are listed on a team roster this year, and it’s unfair to stereotype all athletes as meatheads.

But I won’t forget the time I sat next to a freshman basketball player in an introductory math class two years ago. He whipped out a PSP and, without headphones, watched an episode of “Family Guy” during the lecture. I don’t remember anything else from that class.

More importantly, MLB’s eligibility rules make the life of a college baseball coach slightly  easier.

Once they figure out how to balance 11.7 total scholarships for a whole team and out-recruit other premier programs for the best prospects, coaches know they can pencil a player’s name in the lineup for three years.

At Florida, that’s been the biggest story of the past two offseasons. Last year, the talk was about then-sophomore Preston Tucker, who somehow led UF in home runs, RBIs and batting average in his first year.

Just like that, he was one of the best prospects in the nation, drawing comparisons to former Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez, the draft’s No. 2 overall pick in 2008.

While the rules cost Tucker a shot at some quick cash, they rewarded UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan, who offered a scholarship to a player not even selected in the 50-round 2008 draft.

“You’ve got to work extremely hard to get him here, but knowing that you’ve got him for three more years after that at least makes it a little bit easier,” O’Sullivan said entering last season. “I’d hate to see the rule change.”

And so would any Gators fan looking at the team’s weekend rotation. Sophomores Brian Johnson and Hudson Randall will be back next year. Same goes for freshman Karsten Whitson, who automatically became the biggest name on the team when he turned down about $2 million from the Padres to come to UF.

This is like Jared Sullinger announcing he will return next year.

But that won’t happen, because the NBA has turned college campuses into pro basketball pit stops. If a star doesn’t want to go to class, who cares? Look deep in the rulebook and you will find, “A double-double excuses you from a week’s worth of attendance.” 

And the system does not look like it’s going to change. Michael McCann, a law professor specializing in sports at Vermont Law School, believes the NBA uses the one-and-done rule to boost the marketability of its top draft picks.

Because he was on a top-10 team last year, John Wall played several nationally televised games and became a SportsCenter regular. This past summer, mere months after supposedly living as a wide-eyed college kid, Wall signed a $25 million deal with Reebok.

But to Kentucky fans, Wall was nothing more than a piece in the Calipari assembly line.

College sports shouldn’t be that cold. And while you look down Florida’s batting order, recognizing name after name from last year’s squad, you realize it doesn’t have to be.

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