Mark Story

Has the ‘one-and-done era’ actually been over since 2015?

The 2015 Final Four seemed to herald the ascendancy of teams built around elite, one-and-done talent in men’s college basketball.

Kentucky, the program then most associated with one-year college players, arrived in Indianapolis two victories away from an undefeated 2015 national championship. The Wildcats had four freshmen — three of whom would go on to be one-and-done players — among their core players.

Meanwhile, Duke made it to Indy with three star freshmen, all soon to be one-and-dones, in its starting lineup.

The 2015 Final Four ended with Duke cutting down the nets after Kentucky suffered a heart-wrenching, come-from-ahead loss to Wisconsin in the national semifinals.

Coach K
Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski has gotten at least one top five-ranked prospect in seven straight recruiting classes. Gerry Broome Associated Press

At the time, it seemed that the programs built around elite one-and-done talent were ascendant. In retrospect, the 2015 Final Four seems to be where the one-and-done era peaked and began to wane.

On Monday night, Virginia and Texas Tech decided the 2019 NCAA championship. Whichever team won, it meant a fourth straight season in which the national title was decided in a game pitting veteran-dominated teams.

2019: Virginia’s regular starting lineup through the NCAA Tournament featured a redshirt junior, two true juniors, a redshirt sophomore and a freshman.

Texas Tech has started three redshirt seniors and two sophomores throughout the NCAA tourney.

2018: NCAA champ Villanova started three redshirt juniors, a true junior and a redshirt freshman; national runner-up Michigan started a senior, a redshirt junior, a true junior, a sophomore and a freshman.

2017: National champion North Carolina started two seniors and three juniors; runner-up Gonzaga started two seniors, two juniors and a sophomore.

2016: Villanova’s NCAA champs started two seniors, two juniors and a freshman; North Carolina’s runner-ups started two seniors, a junior and two sophomores.

In the last four Final Fours, 57 of the 80 players who have started games have been juniors and seniors.

Jay Wright triumphant fist
Villanova Coach Jay Wright has led veteran teams to NCAA championships in 2016 and 2018. Brynn Anderson Associated Press

Over the same time frame, only eight true freshmen have started in the Final Four. Only one, Malachi Richardson of Syracuse in 2016, went one-and-done into the ensuing NBA Draft. (Zach Collins, a reserve on Gonzaga’s 2017 Final Four team, was also a one-and-done player).

As for the programs who invested full-scale into the one-and-done dynamic, Duke and UK have the exact same NCAA Tournament history over the past four seasons: Each has two Elite Eights, one Sweet 16 and one round-of-32 elimination.

Both have had Final Four near-misses since 2015. Kentucky lost in the 2017 Elite Eight on a buzzer-beater by North Carolina’s Luke Maye; the Wildcats fell to Auburn in this season’s Midwest Region finals in overtime.

Duke lost in OT to Kansas in the 2018 Elite Eight. This season, the Blue Devils were beaten by one point by Michigan State in the East Region finals.

Since 2015, Duke has replaced Kentucky as the preferred destination for the elite of the elite among high school recruits.

Starting in 2009, John Calipari’s first six UK signing classes all included at least one player ranked in the top six in the Rivals 150. Kentucky inked multiple players ranked in the top six in their classes in 2009 (two), 2011 (three) and 2013 (two).

During this stretch, Kentucky went to four Final Fours (2011, 2012, 2014, 2015) in a five-year stretch.

However, from 2015 through the current recruiting class of 2019, UK has not signed a top five-ranked prospect.

Conversely, Duke has gotten at least one top five-ranked prospect in seven straight recruiting classes.

In 2016, Mike Krzyzewski and crew signed the No. 2 (Harry Giles) and No. 3 (Jayson Taytum) prospects. For 2017, Duke inked No. 2 Marvin Bagley III, No. 5 Trevon Duval and No. 7 Wendell Carter. Last year, the Blue Devils signed No. 1 RJ Barrett, No. 3 Cameron Reddish and No. 5 Zion Williamson.

Zion Williamson.JPG
Zion Williamson is part of a run of elite high school recruits to choose Duke in recent years. Chuck Liddy Associated Press

Duke has a verbal commitment from the No. 1-ranked player in the country, Vernon Carey Jr., for the class of 2019.

Having led teams to 1,132 career wins, five NCAA titles and three Olympics gold medals, Krzyzewski is the best men’s college basketball coach of our time.

Once Coach K went full-bore one-and-done, though, he has not produced as much consistent NCAA Tournament success as Kentucky enjoyed when Calipari was successfully wooing the best prospects.

Moving forward, the NBA wants to lower the age limit for entry into the league from the current 19 to 18 in time for 2022 draft. That would remove future star-caliber players the level of an Anthony Davis or Zion Williamson from the college talent pool.

Even though college players will still be able to turn pro after one season, many have circled 2022 as the year when the one-and-done era of college hoops ends.

If you judge things by Final Four success, the prevalence of freshman-dominated teams seems to have ceased in 2015.

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Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.
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