Two days after the Final Four teams were decided and four days before they play the semifinals in San Antonio, the Associated Press announced its All-America team for 2017-18. For the first time in its 70-year history, three freshmen made the first team: Oklahoma’s Trae Young, Arizona’s Deandre Ayton and Duke’s Marvin Bagley III.
All three had marvelous seasons from an individual stand point. Their teams, though, had disappointing finishes. Oklahoma, Arizona and Duke combined for a 3-3 NCAA Tournament record with the three victories courtesy of Duke.
So, with a compelling Final Four fast approaching, a sidebar story is the risk/reward of the one and dones. Your Veteran Scribe believes the debate over freshman phenoms who spend one season on campus is much like arguing about the comparative pennies in the national budge for the National Endowment for the Arts. Most folks would say art is worthwhile and should receive funding but the issue of the amount of funding is silly when compared to billions spent (wisely or foolishly) in other areas.
(And now, because some of you dear readers are yelling “STICK TO SPORTS” …)
It was 26 years ago and YVS was in Minneapolis for Duke’s second of back-to-back championships. The Blue Devils dominated the second half to defeat Michigan’s Fab Five. The Wolverines, next to Duke, were the story of the 1991-92 season because of the all-freshman starting lineup.
This was before the one-and-done era and the Fab Five returned as sophomores – and lost in the championship game … again.
In fact, Michigan’s only “trophies” during the Fab Five era were for two regionals.
A quarter of a century later the idea of freshmen as game changers is even more prevalent – and based on the results, more irrelevant. The added emphasis on recruiting, the “everybody knows everything” influence of social media and viral videos create impossible standards.
Every 5-star is a “freak” who can “dominate” and is “impossible to guard.”
At the blue blood programs – Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, North Carolina – the promise of newcomers who have never played at the college level keeps fans excited and curious 24-7-365.
Schools that want to compete with those schools realize that if they want to whip their fan base into a frenzy, the “non-game space” needs to be occupied with hope for the future. The ranking of recruiting classes and of future commitments allow fans to post brags behind their anonymous screen names. (Can’t you just imagine the goose bumps of excitement?)
Let’s take Texas (it’s a swimming school, by the way) as an example. Third-year coach Shaka Smart has a 50-50 record, is 0-2 in the NCAA Tournament and the last two seasons has had a first-round pick (Jarrett Allen) and a likely lottery pick (Mo Bamba). There have been extenuating circumstances but even luring 4-star/5-star big men hasn’t moved the needle on Longhorns basketball.
There will be three freshmen starters this weekend: Michigan’s Isaiah Livers (who doesn’t play starter’s minutes), Loyola’s Cameron Krutwig and Villanova’s Omari Spellman. All three are unlikely to be lottery picks … ever. This isn’t a senior-dominated Final Four but it’s an experience Final Four in terms of players who have seen extensive playing time during their careers and/or are older in calendar terms because of transfer or red shirt seasons.
Kentucky coach John Calipari started the one-and-done era nearly a decade ago. He was vilified for the obvious move of turning the Wildcats’ program into a trade school. And then Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski followed suit a few years later and to some that reduced the “stench” of turning education into a one-year (or, one semester, experience).
Going younger has produced one national championship each for the Wildcats and the Blue Devils.
The empirical evidence is clear: you can win a national championship with fabulous freshmen, but those youngsters need to be buttressed by older, experienced players.
Kentucky won the 2012 national championship with three rookies but senior Darius Miller along with upperclassmen Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb provided experience while freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague provided the electricity.
Duke started three freshmen in 2015 and Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor were key factors in the Blue Devils winning the national championship. But senior guard Quinn Cook started while 6-9 junior Amile Jefferson was a valuable post defender and screen-setter.
“It’s always valuable in these games,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said about experience in the NCAA Tournament. “And I think the teams — even the teams, the Duke teams, the Kentucky teams that have won with one-and-done players, they’ve had great experienced players on those teams, too. They might not have gotten the hype, but they were the players that kind of led those young guys through that experience.”
No. 1 seed Villanova is the favorite to win its second title in the last three seasons. The key players from the 2016 title team have moved on but the Wildcats have no seniors in their rotation but there are six “RS” – red shirts – listed on the roster. Even Spellman is in his second season in the program and is a 20-year-old “freshman.”
Kentucky started five freshmen but lost its Sweet 16 game to No. 9 seed Kansas State. The Wildcats’ inability to defend and initiate cohesive offense in the final minutes was glaringly evident. Duke started four freshmen along with senior Grayson Allen in its Elite Eight loss to Kansas. It can be endlessly debated if nervous inexperience cost Big Blue Nation or if the Blue Devils would have benefitted from another veteran on the perimeter.
What’s obvious is that the cycle will continue. Duke will become the first team to land the top three recruits in a single class with Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish. Plus, the Blue Devils have another top 10 recruit in point guard Tre Jones.
Will next season’s Fab Four do what this season’s Fab Four couldn’t?
Craig Esherick, the former Georgetown coach who is now a sports management professor at George Mason told Adam Zagoria that, “I don’t think people are going to stop recruiting the best players … because that’s the only way you’re going to be to compete is to recruit the best players.”
The NCAA correctly faults the NBA’s age requirement rule for the one-and-done culture. A billion-dollar sports league whose owners are billionaires want protected, lowest-risk investments. The idea of signing players out of high school yielded as many boons as busts. Requiring most NBA aspirants to spend a year in college lowers the risk for NBA teams.
Was this college season better with “swim throughs” by Young, Ayton, Bagley, Bomba and the other one-and-doners? Hell, yes.
Did they benefit from their one season playing for their college team? Again, hell yes.
Would any of them, going pro out of high school, have done anything more than get 10-15 minutes a game while apprenticing in the No Boys Allowed league? Probably not Young, maybe yes on the other three big men.
The three weeks and the 67 games of each NCAA Tournament captivates us because each 40-minute game is its own separate passion play where the season ends for the loser. No matter how good a team is, bad bounces (see Allen’s shot vs. Kansas) or foul trouble or a cold-shooting five-minute stretch can decide the outcome. It takes six victories – five of the survive-and-advance variety just to reach Monday night. And then it’s either confetti and t-shirts or tears and towels.
The promise and potentials of one-and-done players might fuel much of the college basketball narrative. The perpetual beauty of March Madness is about the one-and-done games.