Why the Final Four is not better without one-and-done players

UNC’s win over Kentucky means there will be only two freshman starters in the 2017 Final Four, neither of the one-and-done variety. Many are celebrating this as a validation of the value of experience, of the superiority of college continuity. There are no real facts to support it.

PHOENIX —In advance of North Carolina’s game against Kentucky and their three freshman starters in the 2017 NCAA Tournament Elite Eight, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams was asked if he had a different approach to recruiting “one-and-done” level freshmen to their programs.

“Yeah, there’s a difference,” Williams said. “He got ’em, and I didn’t.”

It had been a source of significant frustration for Williams in recent years. He was heartbroken to lose forward Brandon Ingram and to Duke in 2015. He wanted Bam Adebayo and Harry Giles in 2016. He got neitherof them. But don’t expect him to view this as a triumph over the one-and-done culture. Because if Williams can land such players, and he probably will again soon, he’ll gladly take them.

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UNC’s victory in that game against Kentucky means there will be only two freshman starters in the 2017 Final Four, neither of the one-and-done variety. Many are celebrating this as a validation of the value of experience, of the superiority of college continuity. It’s a curious position, built on an anomalous foundation. There are no real facts to support it.

  • The difference between Carolina’s lineup with three senior starters and Kentucky’s with three freshmen was, in the end, one point —in favor of Kentucky. They played twice, remember, and the composite score was Kentucky 176, UNC 175. Each won once, but the Heels’ victory came in the South Region final. That’s the difference between playing this weekend at the Final Four and starting to think about the NBA Draft. But remember, one group owned four years’ college experience and the other was in its first.

  • On the game’s decisive play, the North Carolina player who made the winning shot was a sophomore, Luke Maye, with fewer career minutes than any of UK’s key freshmen. And, in defending that play, it was UK senior forward Derek Willis who made the impactful decision to help against penetration rather than stick with Maye, the player he’d been defending in transition. UK’s two freshmen guards, De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, transacted their responsibilities perfectly.

  • Over the course of this decade, freshmen have been more important to teams that reached the championship game than any other class of player. Hard to believe, right? But of the 70 starters in seven championship games since 2010, there were 17 each of freshmen, sophomores and seniors; 19 were juniors. Of the top two reserves for each team, there were five sophomores and juniors, six seniors —and 12 freshmen. So there were more freshman rotation players than any other class, by a significant margin.

There is a culture of antipathy toward elite freshman talent within NCAA basketball. Some of it is on the fringe, people who don’t follow the game all that closely but still feel empowered to comment. Some of it exists within programs unable to land such players and thus jealous of those who do. Some of it is fueled by misinformation from the likes of former Indiana coach Bob Knight, who called the one-and-done trend “a disgrace” and falsely suggested Kentucky’s freshmen often didn’t attend school in their second semesters.

It’s been noted there have been one-and-done freshmen on only two NCAA champions since the rule was adopted in time for the 2006-07 season: 2015 Duke and 2012 Kentucky. But there also were such players on teams that reached the championship game (Ohio State in 2007 with Greg Oden and Mike Conley; Memphis in 2008 with Derrick Rose, and Kentucky in 2014, which started five freshmen in the title game) as well as the Final Four (UCLA in 2008 with Kevin Love, Kentucky in 2011 with Brandon Knight, Syracuse in 2016 with Malachi Richardson).

“If I could coach one-and-dones, I’d be more than happy —because you’ve got pros on your team,” said South Carolina coach Frank Martin, who began his head coaching career with Mike Beasley playing for him at Kansas State in 2008. “You’ve got a chance to be real good.”

Martin does feel, though, that getting to coach a player through to his senior season can allow him to make a greater impact. He mentioned that senior wing Sindarius Thornwell wasn’t prepared to do interviews as a freshman and struggled to sustain a conversation with his coach.

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“Seniors, you live together, sometimes you grow together, sometimes you grow farther apart just because of relationships and the things that happen through those experiences,” Martin said. “I know I was completely different at 22 than I was at 18.”

When I joined the Cincinnati Enquirer in January 1997, my first game on the Bearcats beat was the first for freshman center Kenyon Martin. He’d been ineligible the fall semester but was able to join the team for the second term. I interviewed him in advance of that game, and his speech impediment and shyness made it a challenge. By the time he was a senior, he was the nation’s best player and the player I sought after every game. Last week I saw him serving as a panelist on ESPN’s SportsNation. Four years of college can be a wonderful thing.

So can one year of college, though. This was obvious in the Kentucky locker room following the Wildcats’ loss to North Carolina. So many of the players did not bother to hide their emotion. Fox, Monk and possibility Adebayo played their final college games that day. Their tears offered plenty of evidence they cared about winning as much as any senior.

“You see this locker room. We wanted it,” Fox said. “We love each other. We don’t want our season to end. We don’t want it to end right now. We wanted to be in the last weekend of the season. It’s tough playing against great teams like that, but if you don’t care, that’s on you. That’s not our problem.”

If your side of a debate means opposing De'Aaron Fox, you might want to rethink your position. That kid is fabulous.

Sportswriter Dirk Chatelain of the Omaha World-Herald tweeted on Sunday that he roots against “one-and-done programs” like Duke and Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament. After Carolina became the last team to advance to this weekend’s games, he tweeted this:

So I asked him why he thought that was a great thing.

He answered:

Gonzaga’s eight-man rotation includes five players who didn’t play for the Bulldogs prior to this season. One of them, center Zach Collins, is at least a candidate to leave the Zags after his freshman year.

It might not be his best option, but would that ruin the Final Four for anyone?

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