UK's recruiting might be too good

Getting to Final Four a rarity with one-and-dones

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMay 9, 2010 

With not one, not two, not three but four freshmen basketball players entering the 2010 NBA Draft, the joke is that the University of Kentucky is dropping "UK" in favor of a new initialized moniker: "ODU."

One & Done University.

What is likely a boon to UK basketball recruiters — selling Lexington as the quickest route to NBA riches — creates a bit of an image problem for the university proper. Hard to maintain the idea that there is a scholastic component to University of Kentucky basketball when there are so many players leaving after so short a stay in school.

At a Monday news conference, Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari was never asked about the NBA's 19-years-old age limit, which created the current one-and-done dynamic in college hoops.

Yet, unprompted, Cal launched into an exposition on the subject.

"I've said this a thousand times: I don't like the rule," Calipari said. "Kids should be able to go directly to the NBA or, like in (major-league) baseball, if they come to college they stay two or three years. I've never wavered. But as long as we have a rule, I have to deal with it."

The Kentucky coach went on to say that, when they entered UK, he was not expecting big man Daniel Orton or guard Eric Bledsoe to be one-and-done players and wasn't 100-percent sure of DeMarcus Cousins being so.

Setting aside the academic and compliance issues that surround the "one-and-done culture," let's take strictly a basketball look at the current landscape.

On the floor this morning is this question: As long as the NBA's rules ensure the existence of one-and-done players, is recruiting the elite high school players that are almost certain to turn pro after only one year the most likely way for a college program to make the Final Four?

The current situation came into being starting with the 2005-06 college basketball season. The NBA and its players' union agreed on a labor pact that took effect after the 2005 draft that required players to be either 19 or one full year out of high school before they could enter the league.

We have now had five Final Fours played under the current system. A review of the starting lineups of every team that has played in the Final Four from 2006-10 is interesting:

■ No team that has won the college national championship since the NBA created the one-and-done scenario starting in '06 has had a freshman in its starting lineup.

■ No one-and-done player played in the Final Four in 2009 or 2010.

■ Out of 100 players to start in the Final Four in the last five years, 11 have been freshmen.

■ Of those, only four starters have been pure one-and-done players: Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr. from Ohio State (2007); and UCLA's Kevin Love (2008) and Derrick Rose of Memphis (2008).

(Tyrus Thomas of LSU 2006 turned pro after his freshman year of eligibility but had redshirted the year before. Daequan Cook of Ohio State did not start in the 2007 Final Four but was a one-and-done player).

■ Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Derrick Favors are among the mega-star one-and-dones to pass through college basketball in the last five years without getting their teams to the Final Four.

At Memphis, Calipari had a veteran nucleus that had played in a regional final in 2007. He added a special talent (Rose) all but certain to be a one-and-done in hopes of putting his team over the top in 2008.

Calipari is recruiting so well at UK, however, it's hard to see players staying long enough to form that capable, veteran nucleus.

Since coming to Lexington, Cal has either signed or gotten commitments from eight players ranked in the top 25 of their respective classes by the recruiting service Rivals (and he inherited another such recruit, Orton, from Billy Gillispie).

In 2009, Wall was No. 1 and Cousins No. 2 by Rivals; some think they may go that way in the 2010 NBA Draft.

For 2010, Kentucky has pledges from Rivals No. 3 (Enes Kanter), No. 6 (Brandon Knight), and No. 21 (Doron Lamb).

Already, one basketball Web site projects Kanter going No. 2 and Knight No. 6 in the 2011 NBA Draft.

Meanwhile, in the 2011 recruiting class, UK already has commitments from the No. 1 (Michael Gilchrist) and No. 2 (Marquis Teague) players. Most analysts expect both to be one-and-done.

Unless the rules change.

The NBA's current collective bargaining agreement with its players' union expires in 2011. As part of the next pro hoops labor pact, there will be a substantial push from college basketball interests for the league to adopt something close to the professional baseball rule:

You can go pro straight from high school, but if you don't do so, you can't go back in the draft for three years.

My guess is college basketball's powers that be would settle for two years.

It's not at all certain, however, that the NBA players' union — with the mega-powerful players' agents lurking in the background — will agree to any significant changes in the status quo.

(Some type of lockout or other labor action that disrupts the 2011-12 NBA season could keep at least one class of star players in college for a second year.)

For Kentucky, you can find an irony in the current situation.

In the latter years of the Tubby Smith era through Gillispie's two years, UK fans fretted over what they saw as lackluster recruiting.

Now, Kentucky is setting a blistering pace in the recruiting race.

Yet counter-intuitive as this sounds, recent history suggests that — as long as the one-and-done rule remains — your best chance for winning NCAA championships may not come from signing the very best players.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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