Last season, the best team in the country started three freshmen and two sophomores, and one of the frosh won the nation’s player-of-the-year award. Then they all left for the NBA draft. It seemed like a turning point. Of course, the evolution had started years earlier: there had already been guys with games polished enough to excel in school immediately, like Kevin Durant — during one season at Texas, KD averaged 26 points and 11 rebounds (11! despite weighing about 90 pounds at the time and being so weak that he couldn’t bench 185 pounds a single time at the NBA Draft Combine). But Kentucky symbolized a total conquering of college basketball by its youngest members. The one-and-done player had been around for a while, but John Calipari won a title with what was essentially a one-and-done team.
On the edge of the 2013 tournament, though, Coach Cal’s title looks more like an outlier than a model for next-generation NCAA success. Instead of priming themselves for a chance to tear down the nets in Atlanta, four of the nation’s top six recruiting classes are sitting back on campus, playing Mario Kart. Kentucky, Texas, Baylor, and Providence — the #2, #4, #5, and #6 classes in the country, according to ESPN — all struck out on making the Dance; that’s in stark contrast to 2012, when only one of the top six classes, St. John’s, stayed home. And in case you want to argue that Kentucky’s failure should be excused because of the injury to Nerlens Noel, keep in mind that UK was being talked about as having the best haul in the country even before Noel committed, thanks to the basketball virtues of Alex Poythress, Archie Goodwin, and Willie Cauley-Stein — three coveted prospects who just lost last night in the first round of the NIT.
So what are we to make of this? That old, cagey basketball players still hold the secret to success? That teams should start trying to recruit Kurt Thomas? That we should blame the Millenials? That John Calipari has lost his edge? Maybe, yes, yes, and no. The one-and-done player certainly remains a viable model, but this year’s frosh-struggles demonstrate that the old-fashioned “have players learn to play the game with each other over time” strategy is alive and well.
Part of it is depth. Last year, five of the top six classes went to Duke, Texas, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Ohio State, a selection of blue-blood programs that brought those rookies to rosters already replete with grade-A players. They added ultra-talented freshmen to stable depth charts and team cultures, meaning that, in cases where those freshmen struggled or got injured, there was enough ability to replace or shore up the spots they left open. In 2013, Kentucky had to deal with losing almost all of its super-talented 2012 class as well as the departure of would-be upperclassmen Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones, meaning that, even though it once again had the number-one haul, the team wasn’t adding to the same bedrock as it did the previous year. (And make no mistake: as much as Kentucky has to thank its freshmen for that title, Lamb, Jones, and Darius Miller were huge aspects as well.) At Texas, sophomore guard and potential team leader Myck Kabongo was suspended for accepting improper benefits. Meanwhile, Baylor had seen its best player, Perry Jones III, leave for the draft at the end of last season, and Providence’s upperclassmen just weren’t very good to begin with.
Second, it seems possible that the sheer amount of talent in Kentucky’s 2012 haul will become harder and harder to put together. Because of the sea change in college basketball that has seen more mid-majors making the tournament and more players from mid-majors getting drafted into the NBA, a top recruiting class may not be that much better than the median as it used to be. With talent more evenly spread around the country, teams with less of a name-brand are getting taken more seriously by the selection committee, often at the expense of the major schools with the glitzy recruits. (Just ask this year’s Kentucky and Baylor teams.)
So it’s unlikely that we’ll see the phenomenon of overrating freshman-dependent squads next year, like what happened in 2012 with North Carolina State being the ACC preseason #1, based on their #10 class, or Baylor receiving a first-place vote in the preseason Big 12, or Kentucky being the country’s preseason #3. And don’t shed any tears for Kentucky, either: after retaining Goodwin, Poythress, and Cauley-Stein the Wildcats will once again bring in in the nation’s best recruiting class, replicating the particular formula that led to their national championship.
The takeaway from the 2012 college basketball season is simple: you still need old dudes! And by old, I mean 21.