Veteran Leadership vs. Youthful Potential in College Basketball

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The final sequences of the 2016-17 college basketball season featured all five starters on the North Carolina Tar Heels’ national championship-winning roster touching the ball. Those five Heels — Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, Joel Berry II, Theo Pinson and Isaiah Hick — were all either juniors or seniors.

North Carolina winning the 2017 national championship with such veteran presence adds a layer to one of college basketball’s most recurring topics of discussion: Is the ideal model building around veteran upperclassmen, or cycling through 5-star talent putting in their mandatory year before the NBA draft?

The last two national champions — North Carolina and Villanova — both followed the old-school model; the time-tested theory that experienced players with a few years of established chemistry and time spent in a Div. I strength-training program had inherent advantages.

In the moments following their title win in April, North Carolina’s Pinson touted the benefits of the 2016-17 Heels having built rapport over time.

“We’ve been through so much,” Pinson said. Among those experiences the Tar Heel upperclassmen experienced was a fiercely contested national championship game, just a year prior. The North Carolina guard said that came full circle when trailing Gonzaga at halftime.

“People underestimate, we were veterans,” he said. “We’ve been [in] the locker room at halftime of a national championship before. This is different. But at the same time, look at everything we’d been through already in the tournament. So this wasn’t different.”

Veterans Berry, Hicks, Jackson, Pinson and Meeks all rallied, leading a second-half comeback to avoid the heartbreak of a year prior. In that contest, a Villanova squad with seniors Daniel Ochefu and Ryan Arcidiacono, as well as juniors Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, showed poise down the stretch. The senior Arcidiacono found the junior Jenkins for the game-winning shot to conclude one of the greatest — if not the greatest — national championship game in history.

Villanova’s build-up to that point wasn’t without its own heartache, however. The Wildcats endured three opening-weekend exits in the previous six years — two in which the 2016 upperclassmen would have been a part.

“You can always learn from a loss,” Arcidiacono said. “But I think what we try to do is even when we win games, did we really win that game playing the type of basketball we want to play, and can we look each other in the eye in the locker room and say we played Villanova basketball for 40 minutes?”

To build such a cohesive style in college basketball — that knowing of what defines “Villanova basketball” or “North Carolina basketball” — comes through experience. But it’s not an ironclad guarantee for success, in part because it can be a difficult pitch.

The top recruiters in college basketball are typically those coaches who have established their program as launching pads for underclass talent to parlay their skills into first-round NBA draft status.

Contrast the scene of the last two Final Fours with the draft. The first 10 NCAA prospects selected were all freshmen. The first Final Four participant off the board at No. 10 was Zach Collins, a one-and-done prospect and a bench player for runner-up Gonzaga.

Collins played an integral role in the Zags reaching their first Final Four, no question. But he also relieved veterans Przemek Karnowski and Johnathan Collins. Meanwhile, the driving engine behind Gonzaga’s success — guard Nigel Williams-Goss — was an upperclassmen, and one of the last draftees.

Coaches face a difficult balancing act. No one’s been better at signing NBA draft-bound talent than John Calipari, and he’s parlayed rosters built on underclassmen into a national championship. The 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats featured just one senior who played significant minutes (Darius Miller), while freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, as well as sophomores Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones carried the bulk of responsibility.

When Calipari is routinely send young prospects to the NBA, he builds a self-perpetuating machine. He’s posted up at the NBA draft, with De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk going in the lottery, and has an instant pitch to the next generation of stars.

Calipari’s best team, however, fell short of a perfect season when a loaded roster of freshmen-and-sophomore talent ran up against the veteran lineup Bo Ryan had at Wisconsin. Seniors Frank Kaminsky and Traevon Jackson, with junior Sam Dekker, denied Kentucky’s kiddie corps a place in college basketball history.

And yet, Wisconsin left Indianapolis without the national championship. A Duke roster built around freshmen Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, with fellow frosh Grayson Allen coming off the bench in a star-making performance, bested the Badgers in the title game. Score one for prioritizing top-flight recruits over the steady assembly of a veteran roster.

As for NBA-aspiring recruits, NBA draft results suggest a clear path to guaranteed money and the most likely odds for sticking with a team. But for Pinson — who, after testing the waters, opted to return to North Carolina for his senior season — a different route exists.

“If you win, everything else will take care of itself,” he said. “People [in the NBA] will say, ‘That dude’s a winner, we want him on our team.'”