Experience counts in March Madness

Posted: April 01, 2014

DUKE COACH Mike Krzyzewski can't deal with it. North Carolina's Roy Williams has been bitten in the rear by it. Kansas' Bill Self is soon to loathe it.

But Kentucky's John Calipari, well, he has no problem with the one-and-done syndrome that has become a staple of college basketball.

While other top programs have struggled in dealing with recruiting top-flight prospects who only make a quick pit stop on campus before bolting to the NBA draft, Coach Cal has turned managing it into a Final Four art form.

Kentucky, with five freshmen starting, won the Midwest Region to join veteran teams Wisconsin, Connecticut and Florida for next weekend's Final Four in the Dallas Cowboys' stadium.

This will be the third time in four seasons that Calipari has guided a group of Kentucky freshmen to college basketball's promised land. He won the 2012 NCAA title.

To the scorn of others, Calipari has embraced the new world by accumulating as many one-and-done prospects as he can and then unleashing what he hopes is their overwhelming potential in one-shot runs at NCAA titles.

"I want to recruit the very best players to Kentucky, as many of them as I can get," Calipari has said. "They are permitted to enter the NBA draft after one season with us, and if I do my job correctly, they will have that option."

And he will bring Kentucky a national championship before many scurry out the door.

But while Calipari has had about a dozen first-round freshmen drafted in his five seasons in Lexington, he's only won that single title.

The top NBA prospects may be 18-year-old freshmen, but history has shown that their momentary stays in college don't yield too many championships.

While freshmen have certainly contributed to NCAA championship teams since being made eligible in the 1972-73 season, only three teams - Louisville with Pervis Ellison in 1986, Syracuse with Carmelo Anthony in 2003 and Kentucky with Anthony Davis in 2012 - have won titles with a freshman as the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

Even in 1982, when Michael Jordan hit the winning shot for North Carolina, James Worthy was Final Four MOP, and he and center Sam Perkins both were better players than Jordan at that time.

If a college team wants to cut down the nets in early April, it needs upperclassmen, not freshmen to lead the way.

And that will be the story line for the Final Four.

The other three teams are all veteran squads.

Connecticut (30-8), which plays top-seeded Florida in the national semifinals Saturday, is led by senior guard Shabazz Napier and junior guard Ryan Boatright. The seventh-seeded Huskies upset a 2-seed in Villanova, a 3-seed in Iowa State and fourth-seeded Michigan State to reach the Final Four. Seniors Niels Giffey and Lasan Kromah plus DeAndre Daniels and sophomore Phillip Nolan play big roles in the rotation.

The Gators (36-2) have four senior starters in guard Scottie Wilbekin, center Patric Young and forward Will Yeguete and Casey Prather. Guard Michael Frazier II is a sophomore, as is sixth man Dorian Finney-Smith. The SEC regular-season and tournament champion Gators already have beaten Kentucky three times this season.

Wisconsin (30-7), a No. 2 seed, won the West Region with three juniors: starting center Frank Kaminsky, Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser; senior Ben Brust; and sophomore Sam Dekker.

At the college level, coaching still matters. You can't just put the ball in the hands of LeBron James, Kevin Durant or Kobe Bryant and say, "Go handle our business."

I don't mean to slight NBA coaches, because some of them have been the greatest tacticians ever. But once players have matured as physically and mentally tough athletes and refined their skills to the highest level, talent has a much bigger impact than coaching.

But players are just starting to develop when they are in college.

There are so many extenuating circumstances when dealing with teenagers and players in their early 20s that many times the team with the best athletic talent doesn't end up being the best team.

Winning at the college level requires coaches to develop a winning system that becomes the signature style of a program.

And to have the system work at the precision necessary to win an NCAA title, a coach needs to have players who have had a couple of seasons working together in that system.

Rarely are freshmen - no matter how talented and how much potential they have - refined enough to pull it all together in their first year in college and win a championship.

Calipari is out to prove that the 30-some games before the start of the NCAAs are all you need if your freshmen are talented enough.

The Wildcats, who start freshmen Julius Randle, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, James Young and Dakari Johnson, have one more weekend to show that he is correct.

In college, it is a rout for experience over potential.

In virtually every mock draft, the top three players are considered to be Kansas freshman teammates Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins and Duke freshman Jabari Parker - none of whom made it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

At least six freshmen - Wiggins, Embiid, Parker, Randle, Indiana's Noah Vonleh, and Arizona's Gordon are considered top-10 NBA draft picks. Randle is the only one playing in the Final Four.

Napier is the only player on Connecticut, Florida or Wisconsin who has been mentioned as a possible first-round pick.

However, while freshman potential gets you drafted higher in today's NBA, experience is shown to win NCAA championships.

Upperclassmen have been through the trials and tribulations. They know what to do and how to get it done in tough situations. They know how to be physically and mentally tough.

They know what it means to truly want an NCAA title rather than just think of it as something nice to have on the quick route to the NBA.

"I'm not so sure these four seniors, [without] having gone through the experiences in the previous Elite Eights, could have made the next step they made," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "This group has learned that you've got to pull together when the times get tough."

Unless you play for Calipari, that generally can only happen after you've been together for more than just one season.


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Columns: ph.ly/Smallwood

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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