By Dan McLoone, columnist
The men’s college basketball season ended on Monday night with a group of freshmen leading its team to a National Championship. However, it wasn’t the freshmen everyone thought would be hoisting the trophy – it was Duke University, not the University of Kentucky, that walked away with the win.
Kentucky entered the National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament as the top overall seed. The Wildcats boasted a 34-0 record and looked to become the first team to go undefeated throughout a season since Indiana University did it in 1975 when they went 32-0 under Head Coach Bob Knight.
Most impressively, Kentucky brought out a lineup including nine McDonald’s All-Americans, the most ever by a college team. Head Coach John Calipari was able to throw out two separate platoons of five players throughout the season, and depth or foul trouble was never an issue. The team even had the talent to absorb the loss of junior forward Alex Poythress in stride, throwing another body in his place.
However, Kentucky had a few issues getting to the Final Four. After blowing out Hampton University and pulling away from the University of Cincinnati in the first weekend, the Wildcats doubled up on West Virginia University in the Sweet 16. The University of Notre Dame, the same team that Northeastern University lost to in the second round, gave Kentucky its biggest test, coming up short after missing a corner 3-pointer in the final seconds.
Then, Kentucky ran into the University of Wisconsin. A rematch of last season’s Final Four, it featured two teams that couldn’t be more different. Calipari and his Kentucky teams have thrived in the one-and-done era of college basketball, where players stop at colleges for the mandatory year before entering the NBA draft. Calipari’s expert recruiting and great track record of NBA success has led him to big-name “rentals” such as Anthony Davis, John Wall, Demarcus Cousins, Brandon Knight and Julius Randle. While not all at Kentucky at the same time, each athlete was a big part of an Elite Eight team. Three of them played for a National Championship. Davis won one.
This Kentucky squad boasted five likely lottery picks, including the potential NBA first-draft pick in freshman forward Karl-Anthony Towns. This means that Kentucky will see a mass exodus of talent next year, as freshman guard Devin Booker, sophomore guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison, junior center Willie Cauley-Stein, freshman forward Trey Lyles and sophomore forward Marcus Lee are expected to join Towns in the NBA.
Wisconsin, on the other hand, has preached a consistent program philosophy under Head Coach Bo Ryan. Ryan doesn’t look for player turnover year-to-year, but instead looks to develop internally. Much of this year’s team returned from last year’s Final Four squad, including National Player of the Year senior forward Frank Kaminsky. Instead of the talented but inexperienced freshmen, Ryan has relied on steady senior leadership from Kaminsky and guards Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser, along with junior forward Sam Dekker. All of those players, however, will be in the NBA next season, too.
Both squads will see a major loss in talent, however, this Kentucky team seems more equipped to contend. Calipari knows the one-and-done way inside and out, and actively looks to restock every season. Ryan still has some talented players left, but with the development mindset of his in today’s game, it may take a few years before Wisconsin is truly a National Championship contender again.
And then there’s Duke. Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski has always been against the one-and-done mentality. Duke won its last title in 2010 under the leadership of senior guards Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. Despite previous success, Coach K has realized that to win in college basketball today, you have to get on board with the idea of a player who sticks around for just one year. He did so this year, bringing in a top prospect in center Jahlil Okafor. Krzyzewski also brought in likely top-five pick forward Justise Winslow and guard Tyus Jones – and the commitment paid off. Of the 68 points scored by Duke in its championship win over Wisconsin, 60 were scored by freshmen.
Top NBA prospects will pick the school they think gives them the best chance to win a title and improve their draft stock in one year, and that’s where they end up playing. This is why mid-major teams like Northeastern never stand a chance to win the title – no top players are going to choose our school as a one year stopping point.
The NBA has explored the idea of raising the minimum age requirement to 19, which would force players to stay at least through their sophomore year of eligibility, but the only way that the landscape would even out is if players were required to give four-year commitments to a college team.
Everyone roots for a Cinderella team, and some even make it pretty far in the tournament. However, let’s be realistic: in today’s style of playing college basketball for one year, we won’t be seeing any non-power conference teams cutting down the nets when the tournament is over.
And that’s a shame.
-Dan McLoone can be reached at Sports@HuntNewsNU.com.