Is Kentucky's Recruiting Too Good to Win Titles?

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↵Mark Story of the Lexington Herald-Leader asked an interesting question over the weekend: since no one-and-done has started on an NCAA Tournament winner after the NBA changed its rules to prevent high schoolers from jumping to the league in 2006, is Kentucky's recruiting too good for its own good? ↵

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↵⇥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.⇥⇥ ↵⇥

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

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

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↵⇥■ 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).⇥⇥ ↵⇥

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↵⇥(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).⇥⇥ ↵⇥

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↵⇥■ 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.⇥⇥ ↵⇥

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↵That's a staggering pile of evidence that would seem to make it hard to argue the other side and assert that freshmen can win a title. But it's actually not hard to do so, especially when you consider that the NCAA Tournament is really hard to win. ↵

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↵If you want to find a formula, consider the last five net-cutters: 2006 Florida, 2007 Florida, 2008 Kansas, 2009 North Carolina, and 2010 Duke. Each had at least one talented upperclassman step up inside during its run in March/April, whether it was Joakim Noah, Darrell Arthur, Tyler Hansbrough or, incredibly, Brian Zoubek. And each team had at least one great upperclassman perimeter player in Corey Brewer, Mario Chalmers, Ty Lawson, or Kyle Singler. That's a trend that would seem to show how to win titles, if recruiting stellar freshmen is how not to do so. ↵

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↵It's how far some of those teams stocked with freshmen got that makes it hard for me to believe that a team of freshman cannot win a title, though. ↵

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↵Ohio State made the NCAA final in 2007, ran into a Florida team that it matched up poorly against, and lost despite Oden putting on a show. Kentucky's team this year was the putative favorite to win the title entering the Sweet 16, but stupidly bombed away against West Virginia and shot itself out of the Tournament. Memphis' two great John Calipari-assembled teams led by Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans fell apart because of free throw shooting. These are small flaws that have torpedoed these teams, and they can be attributed to youth with logic: the Buckeyes didn't have mature enough wings to deal with Florida, Kentucky didn't have the wisdom to go inside repeatedly against West Virginia, and the Memphis teams didn't have the requisite poise to sink big free throws. ↵

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↵These are also small flaws that nearly every team has, and ones that sometimes waylay the great teams of upperclassmen. Kansas' loss to Northern Iowa was because of its upperclassmen struggling and a bizarre gameplan; remember, freshman Xavier Henry nearly pulled them out of the maw of defeat. Experts worried about Florida's super sophomores being mature enough to win the title. Then they did, by beating a UCLA team many assumed would be more poised. ↵

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↵If Kentucky doesn't flail away this year, if Memphis makes a few more free throws in 2008, or if Oden gets a little help in 2007, we're not worried about whether freshmen can win in the one-and-done era. (And if anyone remembered Carmelo Anthony or Mike Bibby, the "freshmen can't win" meme would take another hit.) But it's the one-and-done nature of the NCAA Tournament itself — screw up once and you're out — that is killing these teams. A champion must play six really good games to win it all; these freshman-laden teams can do that, but haven't. ↵

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↵The story presents a lot of evidence to support the hypothesis that constructing a super-team of one-and-done freshmen isn't the way to win titles. But that evidence is also from about five years of college basketball, and that's still a smallish sample size. If this trend persists for 20 more years, it would be really troubling; now, it's compelling and ultimately inconclusive. ↵

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↵My guess is this: the right group of freshmen will navigate the March/April minefield and win. Maybe it'll be Enes Kanter and Brandon Knight next year; maybe it'll be players John Calipari gets to come to Duke in 2015. (Yeah, you just threw up in your mouth, too.) ↵

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↵The problem isn't that freshmen can't win, just that they haven't yet. Give it time, and the chance for luck to aid the one-and-dones. Some of them will. ↵

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↵(HT: Kentucky Sports Radio.) ↵

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This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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