No doubt, your list of great American concerns has been amended to reflect this sudden drought.
There have been 13 Final Fours since the NBA instituted a 19-year-old age limit in 2005 for players from the United States, forcing elite preps-to-pros candidates to use college hoops as a glorified gap year. Barring a severe case of mistaken identity or a prank by some wiseguy NBA executive begging to be fired, there will be no freshman first-round draft pick playing in the Final Four for only the fourth time (the other years were 2009, 2010 and 2013) in the one-and-done years. Among the 2018 semifinalists, only one true freshman averages more than six points per game: Loyola Chicago center Cameron Krutwig.
The one-and-done prodigy has become the superstar and, in some cases, the curse of men’s college basketball. Ten of the last 11 NBA No. 1 overall draft picks rented college for one year. Two former college players of the year — Kevin Durant in 2006-07 and Anthony Davis in 2011-12 — were such phenoms. A common, if oversimplified, belief has long been that teams with the most NBA talent eventually take over the NCAA tournament, and now it is often assumed that the true title contenders will have at least one freshman superstar.
But the timing of this NCAA tournament is interesting. And ideal. It’s just what the sport needed after scandal and an FBI probe rocked the season. The coaches and teams alleged to be the most corrupt bowed out early. Many of the freshmen just biding their time and susceptible to agent influence are gone now, too. They’re declaring for the draft and no longer pretending to be amateurs.
I’d caution against saying what’s left is pure. This season should have taught you to know better than that. But this Final Four is closer to ideal for the sport, and perhaps it’s a glimpse of how the game can remain compelling if the NBA changes its eligibility rules to allow preternatural young basketball talents to jump to the league from high school again.
What this Final Four lacks in freakish individual talent it makes up for with mature, selfless play. There are enough highly regarded players, too. Villanova junior forward Mikal Bridges is probably an NBA draft lottery pick. Michigan junior forward Moritz Wagner should have a long pro career with his shooting ability. Two point guards, Devonte’ Graham of Kansas and Jalen Brunson of Villanova, are all-Americans whose skills have value at any level.
It’s true that the sport’s greatest players, its future NBA all-stars and transcendent athletes, have exited. But good, experienced players can be captivating on this stage. The past two national champions, North Carolina in 2017
and Villanova in 2016, were built that way. This champion will be the third straight created from a culture of patience and player development rather than over-the-top recruiting and instant gratification. Since Duke won in 2015
with the freshman trio of Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones garnering the hype, there has been a shift. But even one-and-done champions have needed experienced role players.
“It’s always valuable in these games,” Villanova Coach Jay Wright said. “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.”
Wright has found his groove. After reestablishing the Wildcats as a national power, Wright and his staff struggled at times with balancing access to better recruits with the desire to maintain Villanova’s culture. The Wildcats plummeted to a 13-19 record six years ago. Since then, the program has gone to another level by choosing to maximize its best traits rather than coveting an elevated status in recruiting.
Villanova enters the Final Four as the most balanced team and should be considered the favorite to win the national title for the second time in three years. The Wildcats won’t overwhelm Kansas or any of the remaining teams. But they’re capable of adjusting to any style, and they have veterans with championship moxie. Win or lose, they epitomize what Wright has built. This is truly a Villanova team: terrific guards and scrappy post players, perimeter-oriented but tough. The Wildcats’ identity is obvious.
“It’s really the makeup of the players,” Wright said. “It really is. We’ve been here 17 years. We do the same things. But when you have guys like — I know I say it all the time, but it’s just the truth. Jalen and Phil [Booth] and Mikal, they don’t care whether the shots are going in — I still don’t think Phil Booth is 100 percent with his hand, but he does everything else — defends, rebounds, keeps our team together.
“It’s the character of these guys. They don’t judge themselves by whether their shots are going in or whether they look pretty. It’s how they play for each other.”
Bill Self could say similar things about Kansas. So could John Beilein about Michigan and Porter Moser about Loyola Chicago. This isn’t the year to focus on singular talents with irresistible appeal or the haves and have-nots of recruiting. This is, perhaps, as dramatic an example of the other side of college basketball as you’re going to get at the Final Four.
During a defense of what he has done with many freshman-led teams at Kentucky, Coach John Calipari asked a question in the middle of a soliloquy last week.
“Well, why are we looking at one player and saying this is what college basketball is?” he said before talking about all the Kentucky players who haven’t fit the one-and-done mold during his nine seasons.
Who knew that Calipari, of all people, would express a sentiment that sounds perfect for the anti-one-and-done Final Four?
Who knew that freshmen Deandre Ayton of Arizona, Marvin Bagley III of Duke and Trae Young of Oklahoma would end the year being so jealous of their older fellow first-team all-Americans, Graham and Brunson?
Every season in college basketball seems to be the year
of the freshman, for better or worse. But in this NCAA tournament, out of the muck of scandal, another story line has emerged, right at the perfect time.