That’s it. Your instinct is to say, “What about Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse?” But they triumphed in 2003, two years before the NBA instituted its 19-year-old age limit and inadvertently created this situation in which high school phenoms needed to rent college hoops for a year. While the sport has long bemoaned its one-and-done conundrum and tried to dump all of its problems on that culture, reality presents a far more mixed review.
The game has benefited from the return of the superstar, with the likes of Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis capturing our imagination during their college cameos. On the other hand, they magnify the game’s biggest problem: It occupies an undefined space between the traditional definitions of pro and amateur athletics, but it forces amateurism policies on the participants despite generating billions of dollars. Combine the hypocrisy of leadership with the flippancy of the one-and-done athlete — or any player with a get-me-out-of-here-ASAP mentality and guardians who concur — about rules he must follow for a short period, and the system melts into corrupt chaos that requires FBI investigation.
Meanwhile, college basketball keeps rolling inexorably toward its annual elixir: March Madness. Last year’s NCAA men’s tournament, while under the cloud of scandal, was wonderful. And this NCAA tournament, with that cloud of scandal still hovering, figures to be magnificent, too. It will be this way despite the one-and-done conundrum. And it will be this way because of the one-and-done splendor.
Here’s the most underrated aspect of this era: the effect that the pursuit of these heralded freshmen has had on competitive balance. While it’s true that talent wins above all, fleeting talent complicates matters. Major programs face a crossroads. When to build around players who will develop gradually and stay three or four years? When to gamble on a stud who could deliver a championship or take a solid program to greater heights in only one year?
During the current era, several traditional powerhouses have fluctuated more than usual because the recruiting science is more inexact than ever. Mid-major programs and other nontraditional powers have had more dramatic success, particularly in the Big Dance, by continuing to build in a classic manner. For as much as the one-and-done superstar would seem to provide opportunities for a shortcut, the advantage has tilted toward teams that value experience, develop talent and evaluate under-the-radar prospects properly.
In the past 13 NCAA tournaments, there have been seven instances in which programs from outside the power conferences have advanced to the Final Four: George Mason (2006), Butler (2010 and 2011), VCU (2011), Wichita State (2013), Gonzaga (2017) and Loyola-Chicago (2018). I’m excluding Memphis in 2008, not because the NCAA vacated the Tigers’ Final Four appearance but because that program, regardless of conference affiliation, has made three Final Four runs in its history and functioned like a major school since the 1970s.
Let’s compare the stat to the previous 13 NCAA tournaments (1993-2005). During that span, you will find just two Final Four participants not affiliated with a power conference or grandfathered into power school status: Massachusetts (1996) and Utah (1998).
It’s just one way to measure the one-and-done era, and for certain, the big conferences still dominate. We’re talking about 7 of 52 Final Four slots in the current era versus 2 of 52 in the previous one. But it still represents 3 1
/2 times as many.
Perhaps it’s just as illuminating to consider all the programs formerly designated as mid-majors that have transcended their conference and established some national best practices in recent seasons, most prominently Gonzaga, Butler and Wichita State. Perhaps it’s just as illuminating to have witnessed Villanova win two of the previous three championships and rise from a scrappy underdog program to a perennial championship contender. Perhaps it’s just as illuminating to realize that Florida, once a contender for best program without a national title, claimed back-to-back championships at the start of this era with an underrated recruiting class that won it all as sophomores and stuck around to repeat as juniors.
This year, the freshman class isn’t as deep with immediate NBA prospects, but Duke snagged the best of them and created one of the best collections of phenoms in NCAA history. The quartet of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones
inspires loose comparisons to Michigan’s vaunted Fab Five and Kentucky’s 2012 title team.
If they win a championship, there’s a chance Williamson and Barrett could go down as one of the best duos in college basketball history. Offensively, there hasn’t been a pair in modern times to come into college basketball and dominate with such a combination of efficiency, flair and skills that translate to the NBA. Barrett averages 22.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists. Williamson averages 22.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and shoots a ridiculous 69.3 percent from the field. Barring another exploding shoe, the Blue Devils are the clear favorite to win the national title.
What could stop them? Only a gang of teams built like the aforementioned Villanova and Florida squads or like Roy Williams’s three championship teams at North Carolina. If not for Duke, this would be the year of the classically built title contender. Look at all the high-seeded teams that weren’t built overnight: Virginia, Gonzaga, North Carolina, Michigan, Michigan State and Houston. Even Kentucky, the most transparent one-and-done university under John Calipari, has a sophomore (P.J. Washington) and a senior graduate transfer (Reid Travis) providing stability for its freshmen.
It’s possible that Williamson and Barrett are just too good and too destined to be NBA stars. It’s possible that Reddish, who has shot only 35.4 percent this season, plays up to his reputation as an elite NBA prospect. And it’s possible that Jones, the Duke point guard and defensive ace, makes more than 24.7 percent of his three-pointers during the tournament. Maybe that’s enough for this team to win it all. But history suggests that their greatest challenge during the craziest of all tournaments will be overcoming their inexperience.
In 2015, Duke won the title with Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones
passing through en route to the NBA. But that team also had senior Quinn Cook as its second-leading scorer, and junior Amile Jefferson was an influential role player. In 2012, Kentucky featured freshmen Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who were the first two picks of the NBA draft later that summer. But the Wildcats had a valuable senior sixth man in Darius Miller. And when Davis went 1 for 10 against Kansas in the championship game, sophomore Doron Lamb led Kentucky to victory with 22 points.
During this era, plenty of freshmen have defined and dominated entire seasons. But few have won national championships in leading roles, and we are still waiting for one to do it without a major contribution from a player or two in another class.
Who will do that for Duke? The top four freshmen have scored 76.4 percent of the Blue Devils’ points. They have four older players who receive limited minutes: juniors Marques Bolden, Jack White and Javin DeLaurier and sophomore Alex O’Connell. We already know how unbeatable the Blue Devils seem when they’re rolling. But what happens during the inevitable game in which Barrett is 6 for 25 or Williamson gets into foul trouble?
In this tournament of survival, adaptability and experience mean much. Those are among Duke’s glaring weaknesses. And so, this will be a competition and not a coronation.
Once again, the one-and-done era provides star power, intrigue and a hint of invincibility. And then it balances itself out. So bad, so good. It’s complicated, as usual.