There’s no doubt that ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla would like to see his friend, John Calipari, lead Kentucky to the national championship. But Fraschilla is not completely confident that UK will win two games in Indianapolis this weekend in order to advance to the South Region semifinals.
“I worry about the inexperience,” he said this week.
That worry intensifies as a freshman-dependent team like Kentucky advances.
Either Dayton or Wichita State can beat Kentucky “on a good day,” Fraschilla said of a possible Sunday game in the NCAA Tournament. “But I’m expecting Kentucky to get to the Sweet 16. And then I think how quickly these young guys grow up in pressure moments in the tournament will determine their fate.”
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Only twice in the last 11 years has a team with at least one of the so-called one-and-done players won the NCAA Tournament: Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015.
Of course, three freshmen play prominent roles for Kentucky: guards Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox, plus big man Bam Adebayo. A fourth starter, sophomore Isaiah Briscoe, has not experienced the NCAA Tournament beyond the first weekend. Another freshman, Wenyen Gabriel, is one of the first substitutes off the bench.
From the start, Calipari acknowledged that building teams around star freshmen impacted Kentucky’s ability to win the NCAA Tournament. After a loss to West Virginia in the 2010 Elite Eight, the UK coach said he had to identify and overcome the additional hurdle inexperienced teams faced deep in an NCAA Tournament.
Another ESPN analyst, Seth Greenberg, seemed satisfied that Calipari found what he was looking for.
“They’ve gotten over the hump,” Greenberg said this past preseason. “What do you mean? They’ve won a national championship. They’ve been to the Final Four since then. I think they’re over the hump.
“I’d hate to think what everybody else is doing if they’re not over the hump.”
Good guard play and experience, I have always felt, are the two most important ingredients going into the tournament. John won without an experienced team, which is an incredible accomplishment. I don’t think John gets enough credit.
But former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, who has been hired by the Southeastern Conference as a consultant, suggested that UK’s 2012 championship can be considered the exception that proves the rule.
An exceptional freshman like Anthony Davis can lead an inexperienced team to a championship. But it takes exceptional freshmen.
“Good guard play and experience, I have always felt, are the two most important ingredients going into the tournament,” Tranghese said. “John won without an experienced team, which is an incredible accomplishment. I don’t think John gets enough credit.
“People say to me, look at these players. I say, by the way, try to coach one-and-dones. Give me a break. It is one of the hardest things you can do. Very few people can do it, and John does it as well as it can be done.”
To try to prove his point about experience, Tranghese cited last year’s championship game. Two experienced teams, Villanova and North Carolina, were in the finals.
Yes, Kentucky advanced to the Final Four in 2014 and 2015. But the Cats lost to more experienced teams in Connecticut and Wisconsin, respectively.
Of experienced teams, Fraschilla said, “They have the reservoir of knowledge being in so many big games.”
Fraschilla also cited last year’s Villanova-North Carolina finals as the “perfect example” of how experience matters.
“On offense, you see it, I think, often times with great shot selection,” he said. Villanova “passed up a good shot for a better shot, then a better shot for a great shot.”
On defense, experience shows itself in a collective effort, Fraschilla said.
“They’re covering for each other, in part, because they’ve been on the floor together for so long,” he said. “Over two or three years.
“It doesn’t mean a talented team that’s young, like Kentucky, can’t find that magic in three or four games in the tournament.”
Not all experience is good. don’t want bad experience. That doesn’t help you at all.
Fraschilla was not convinced the 11-game winning streak Kentucky takes into the NCAA Tournament means the Cats have gained the necessary experience.
Eight of the 11 victories came against teams that did not make the NCAA Tournament field.
After presumably beating Northern Kentucky on Friday, “they’re going to see teams that are going to be at a little higher level,” Fraschilla said.
Arkansas Coach Mike Anderson, whose team lost to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament finals Sunday, said UK showed the growth that comes with experience.
“A little more seasoning,” he said.
Calipari pointed out that experience, in all instances, is not a magic elixir.
“Not all experience is good,” he said. “I don’t want bad experience. That doesn’t help you at all.”
On his recent radio shows, Calipari spoke hopefully of the Cats learning many lessons this season: Playing from behind, fending off opponents’ rallies, facing zone and man-to-man defenses, riding individual players’ excellence or overcoming their off games.
As Tranghese said of his conversations with Calipari this season, these experiences can be invaluable.
“Every time I see him,” Tranghese said, “one thing he says is ‘we’re so inexperienced.’”
Kentucky vs. Northern Kentucky
What: NCAA Tournament South Regional round-of-64 game
When: About 9:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis
Records: No. 2 seed Kentucky, 29-5; No. 15 seed Northern Kentucky, 24-10