Amidst the hysteria over Zion Williamson giving Duke commitments from the top three prospects in the men’s basketball recruiting class of 2018, it seems a good time for a reminder.
In last season’s NCAA Tournament championship game, the team that won, North Carolina, started two seniors and three juniors. The team that lost, Gonzaga, started two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore.
For the 2016 NCAA Tournament finals, the team that won, Villanova, started two seniors, two juniors and a freshman. The team that lost, North Carolina, started two seniors, a junior and two sophomores.
If Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015 proved that national titles can be won with teams built around multiple one-and-done stars, the past two NCAA tournaments have shown the value of squads built with high-quality college players of ample experience.
For teams at the very top of the college hoops food chain, the ideal scenario, it seems to me, would be a combination of both: a couple of elite one-and-done difference-makers supplementing a nucleus of experienced, solid college talent.
Alas, as the 2017-18 Kentucky Wildcats roster shows, creating that optimum balance is more challenging than it sounds.
With seven freshmen and two sophomores with limited experience in the UK playing rotation, John Calipari’s Cats (14-5, 4-3 SEC) fell out of the AP Top 25 on Monday after losing leads and games last week at South Carolina and to Florida in Rupp Arena.
As a rhetorical exercise, ask yourself: For a UK team struggling with excessive turnovers, closing out games and containing physical interior players, how much difference would veteran guard Isaiah Briscoe and 255-pound center Isaac Humphries have made if they had returned to UK for their junior seasons?
Instead of providing veteran leadership in the Kentucky backcourt, the 6-foot-3 Briscoe is playing professional basketball in Estonia for BC Kalev/Cramo Tallinn.
Rather than giving UK a big body to throw at muscular opponents in the lane, the 7-foot Humphries is playing for his hometown Sydney Kings in Australia’s National Basketball League.
Some players turn pro with remaining college eligibility but little realistic chance of making an NBA roster for varied and individual reasons. But in the specific case of UK, the incentives for players to stay that exist in other programs don’t always apply at Kentucky.
Because UK has had so much success sending players quickly to the NBA, the peer pressure to leave Kentucky early in a college career for the play-for-pay seems irresistible for some players who probably would stay in school in other programs.
Briscoe’s best position was point guard. However, as a Kentucky true freshman, the Newark, N.J., product played off the ball with sophomore Tyler Ulis running the point. Last year, as a sophomore, Briscoe again played wing with true freshman De’Aaron Fox at lead guard.
After two years of that, if you are Briscoe (who averaged 10.9 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists in his UK career) and you want to play point, do you risk returning with another class of touted freshmen guards, including lead guard Quade Green, arriving?
A sparsely used reserve in his two years in Lexington, Humphries played the best game of his Kentucky career last season in what became the Wildcats’ heart-wrenching 75-73 loss to North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament. Against UNC’s burly front line in the round of eight, the big Australian hit five of eight shots and had 12 points and five rebounds in 20 minutes.
Given that Humphries, who just turned 20 on Jan. 5, was almost a year younger than his class, that strong effort against the eventual national champions seemed an ideal launching pad for his junior season at UK.
However, Humphries had to factor in whether, with Kentucky adding another influx of five-star freshmen frontcourt players, his role would substantially expand if he returned.
This will sound more crazy than counterintuitive to some people, but I don’t think Duke wresting the very top of the one-and-done market away from UK, at least for now, is necessarily bad for Kentucky.
It could give the Wildcats a chance to create a core of talented, multi-year players of the kind that led Villanova and North Carolina to the past two NCAA championships.
That happens, however, only if enough of the current UK playing nucleus of seven freshmen and two sophomores defy the incentives that have built at Kentucky that seem to compel even players with no clear, immediate path to the NBA to leave early.