Monday night’s NCAA basketball national championship game came down to a few key plays in the final minutes.
With barely 100 seconds remaining, Gonzaga took a 65-63 lead after point guard Nigel Williams-Goss (junior), the Bulldogs’ best player, hit a jumper.
Then, North Carolina forward Justin Jackson (junior) answered with a layup and free throw. Tar Heels’ big man Isaiah Hicks (senior) made a jumper and then Jackson dunked on a fast break after a block from Kennedy Meeks (senior) and off an assist from Joel Berry II (junior).
It’s a far cry from two years ago, when true freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen led the Duke Blue Devils to a national title. The past two Final Fours were dominated by experienced players including Williams-Goss, Jackson and Buddy Hield. In fact, the Blue Devils, home of the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class, was unceremoniously bounced in this year’s Round of 32.
While the raw talent of one-and-done players will remain a factor in college basketball, national championship teams are moving further away.
It’s hard to tell the story of modern college basketball without one-and-dones. From Anthony Davis to Derrick Rose, these players have left an indelible mark on college basketball since the rules were changed in 2007 to prevent teenagers from jumping straight from high school to the NBA.
In the 2016 NBA Draft alone, NBA teams picked 10 one-and-done freshmen in the first round. That includes the first three picks: LSU’s Ben Simmons, Duke’s Brandon Ingram and Cal’s Jaylen Brown. The highly touted 2017 draft could be even worse — 11 of the top 13 players in DraftExpress’ mock draft are freshmen. In fact, UNC’s Jackson is the only collegiate upperclassman projected to go in the lottery picks.
But while true freshmen are continuing to thrive as NBA draft prospects, their effect on college basketball is diminishing. Of the Final Four teams — South Carolina, Gonzaga, North Carolina and Oregon — only Zags’ big man Zach Collins could leave as a freshman. Collins came off the bench this season for the Bulldogs.
In fact, only three of the projected one-and-done lottery picks made it to the Elite Eight. Two of them, Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox, played for Kentucky. The other was Josh Jackson, who played with national player of the year Frank Mason III at Kansas. Six didn’t even make it past the second round of the tournament.
Trying to build through one-and-dones is attractive. There can be instant results — just look at Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin at Cal. In one recruiting class, he signed 5-star prospects Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown. The Golden Bears made the NCAA Tournament the next season.
Kentucky built a nationally dominant program on this uncertainty. Every year, the Wildcats restock top talent. Unfortunately, most programs can’t get away with that. Just look at LSU the past few years.
Top 2015 recruit Ben Simmons was expected to be the jolt to the program LSU desperately needed. Simmons was electric on-court for the Tigers, averaging an absurd 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.0 steals per game. But after a year, he left to go be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft.
This season, the Tigers tied with Mizzou for worst conference record in the nation. LSU fired coach Johnny Jones after the season. The Simmons experiment was a failure.
Playing the long game
Unlike other blue-blood programs, North Carolina doesn’t recruit at the highest level. The Tar Heels haven’t reeled in a blue-chip prospect since Jackson three years ago. Only one player has left UNC after his freshman year in the one-and-done era: Brandon Wright in 2007, who became a career journeyman. It’s no coincidence, the Tar Heels reached the national title game for the second consecutive year in 2017, taking it home this time.
The same is true at Gonzaga. Recruiting services ranked seven Bulldogs players as 4-star prospects coming out of high school. However, the program’s top four scorers were juniors or seniors. Three of them were a year older than their classification after redshirt years from transfer and injury. The years off mixed with experience were critical for a team that finished 37-2.
In the SEC, South Carolina had contributions from 5-star sophomore PJ Dozier, but senior guard Sindarius Thornwell carried the team through the NCAA Tournament. Four of Oregon’s top five scorers were upperclassmen.
That’s not to say that elite freshman recruits can’t help teams. The Associated Press named five true freshmen All-America team members in 2017. UCLA freshman guard Lonzo Ball was one of four finalists for the Naismith national player of the year award. Gonzaga would not have made the national title game without big performances from Collins.
But while programs rightfully get attention for bringing in top recruiting classes, elite one-and-dones are not the ideal way to compete for national championships. Player development is once again taking center stage in college basketball.
Producing numerous NBA players, as Duke and Kentucky do, is a tremendous benefit for a program’s visibility. However, getting a slightly worse recruit (like Thornwell, the No. 32 recruit his year) for four years is a better long-term use of a scholarship than a guy who will be gone after a year.
One-and-dones can be the putty to plug holes, but teams can’t build them into solid foundations. Even John Calipari seems to be learning that, embracing several upperclassmen on his roster this season in ways he did not previously.
Ultimately, even the most talented players make mistakes. If recent college basketball history is to be believed, betting on 22-year-old men instead of 18-year-olds is proving to be a safer bet in the long run.