The absolute best version of Duke’s lottery pick-laden team revealed itself on the opening night of the season and spent the next 37 games trying unsuccessfully to reach the same level. Over an eight-day stretch in mid-February, Kentucky was probably the best team in college basketball, taking down then-No. 1 Tennessee by 17 points and beating Auburn by 27, raising hopes for a Final Four appearance that never came.
Within hours of each other on Sunday, two of the sport’s iconic programs and the top purveyors of building teams around the highest-ranked recruits, were knocked out of the NCAA tournament by teams with experienced guards and generally more mature rosters. As a consequence, we now have a Final Four with matchups that sound more appropriate for a Belk Bowl than a basketball tournament: Michigan State vs. Texas Tech, Auburn vs. Virginia.
While a non-traditional Final Four has its own kind of appeal, Sunday’s outcome seemed to invite a larger conversation about whether it’s more likely to go deep in college basketball’s postseason tournament with older players instead of younger ones.
Among the last six teams who have played in championship games since Duke’s 2015 title, the only so-called “one-and-done” player who saw the court was North Carolina’s Tony Bradley, who averaged a mere 12 minutes off the bench in that tournament. Meanwhile, Duke and Kentucky have missed the Final Four now for four consecutive years with freshmen-heavy teams, and the last three No. 1 overall NBA draft picks won a combined zero NCAA tournament games.
The trend is now too obvious to ignore.
“I thought they played older than we did,” Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski said Sunday after losing to the Spartans. “But that’s happened to us — we are young.”
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AGE MATTERS: Michigan State’s experience wins out over Duke’s talent
But to boil this down just to age seems overly simplistic, especially when teams have won championships with a freshman as their best player in 2003 (Syracuse), 2012 (Kentucky) and 2015 (Duke) and reached the final game in 2008 (Memphis) and 2014 (Kentucky). Had Duke or Kentucky made just one more basket this year, they could have very well joined that list.
But in both cases, their losses highlighted the reality of the world Krzyzewski and Calipari have been operating in: Pulling whatever players you can off the Rivals.com top-20 list isn’t the easiest or even the best way to construct a roster. And it’s hard to see how either one of them figure out how to break that cycle.
Krzyzewski critics have taken pleasure in the idea that he couldn’t get to the Final Four despite having players ranked No. 1 (R.J. Barrett), No. 3 (Cam Reddish), No. 5 (Zion Williamson) and No. 14 (Tre Jones) in the final Rivals evaluation of last year’s recruiting class. Is it underachieving to have such a wealth of talent and yet lose to a Michigan State team that probably won’t produce a first-round draft pick? Possibly.
But if there was any failure in Duke’s 32-6 season that yielded an ACC tournament title, it was putting pieces around Williamson that didn’t really fit his skill set if he was going to be the centerpiece of your team. Of course, when Krzyzewski recruited these guys at age 17, nobody really knew that would be the case.
Instead of surrounding Williamson with shooters who could open up the floor like an NBA team will almost certainly try to do, Duke often found its offense clogged up because Barrett was miscast as a primary playmaker and Reddish was reduced to a third wheel who often waited on the perimeter for three-pointers, which he shot at a mediocre 33.3% clip.
Duke largely found ways to overcome those flaws and win lots of close games because Williamson proved to be a transcendent talent. But aside from that season-opener on Nov. 6 — a 118-84 win over Kentucky — the Blue Devils never functioned as well as they would have hoped because the skill sets just didn’t fit very well together.
Is that a coaching failure? Or, as someone who knew he’d only have these players for one year, did Krzyzewski make the best projection he could and simply get it wrong? Would he have been better off passing on someone like Reddish, who never had a role in the offense for his skill set, and instead recruit a player who could have been more useful in creating space?
Kentucky’s recent first-world problems fall along the same lines. Of Calipari’s 10 teams, three stand out as his best: The 2012 national champions led by Anthony Davis, the 2010 group with John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe and the 2015 team that went 38-0 before losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four. The commonality between all three wasn’t just brilliant freshmen who would go on to star in the NBA, but players who came back as sophomores or juniors and were willing to remain in secondary roles like Willie Cauley-Stein in 2015 or Darius Miller in 2012.
John Calipari might have thought he had that kind of team this year with forward P.J. Washington coming back as a sophomore and Reid Travis transferring in as a graduate from Stanford to form an older frontcourt that could help out his young guards. As it turned out, what Kentucky really could have used was a veteran in the backcourt for a game like Auburn when freshmen Ashton Hagans and Immanuel Quickley struggled badly against senior Bryce Brown and junior Jared Harper.
Of course, even for a master recruiter like Calipari, trying to find a quality guard to transfer in and back up those one-and-done players isn’t the easiest ask. And trying to develop one from within over two or three years would mean trying to persuade a player ranked outside the top-50 to play fewer minutes at Kentucky rather than go to other good programs where they could make more of an impact right away.
That’s not an easy puzzle for Calipari to figure out. Kentucky will probably lose most of its team to the draft, again, and start over next November with the same potential roster holes that existed the last few years.
When Calipari started the trend of specifically targeting one-and-dones with Derrick Rose when he was at Memphis, the formula for success was to add those types of players to already-established teams. Now, the way both Kentucky and Duke operate, that’s almost impossible.
As long as Krzyzewski and Calipari are coaching, they’re going to get more than their share of the best recruits every single year because of the pathway they’ve established to the NBA. But both programs have discovered in the tournament that elite recruiting and good roster construction don’t mean the same thing.