Baylor’s 86-70 beat-down of favored Gonzaga in Monday’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament finals was an emphatic reinforcement of the prevailing trend in how to build a national champion:
In men’s college hoops, old is gold.
Putting the cap on one of the most unlikely rebuilding jobs in NCAA history, Bears Coach Scott Drew started a lineup in which every player was at least in his third season of college basketball.
This is the fifth straight NCAA Tournament in which the champion has been built around a core of upperclassmen.
2016: Villanova started two seniors, two juniors and a freshman.
2017: North Carolina started two seniors and three juniors.
2018: Villanova started three redshirt juniors, a junior and a redshirt freshman.
2019: Virginia started a redshirt junior, two juniors, a redshirt sophomore and a freshman.
2021 Baylor started a redshirt senior, a senior and three juniors.
Now, the coaches most associated with the one-and-done recruiting philosophy — Kentucky’s John Calipari and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski — find themselves in a position that would seem to require a course correction.
In retrospect, it seems clear that the 2015 NCAA championship that Duke won with three freshman starters leading the way was the end of the one-and-done era.
How that era should be viewed historically comes down to perspective. Both coaches who fully embraced the concept of building rosters around talented freshmen expected to only be in college one season before turning pro — Calipari and Krzyzewski — won NCAA titles that way.
So in that sense, one-and-done was a 100-percent success.
From 2010 through 2015, Calipari and Kentucky were, to coin a phrase, eating first at the one-and-done recruiting table. During that period, the Wildcats played in five Elite Eights, four Final Fours and won the 2012 NCAA title.
All that success may have induced Krzyzewski to follow Calipari into the one-and-done pool. The iconic Duke head man’s fifth national title in 2015 was won with a team built around one-and-done freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones.
For teams to succeed with freshman-dominated lineups, coaches had to be able to stack multiple-elite talents — think John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe; Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist; or Okafor, Winslow and Jones — together on the same rosters.
Yet once Duke and Kentucky were both fully committed to recruiting the top of the one-and-done market, bundling elite freshmen became more difficult to achieve. That prospect pool has been further diluted by the NBA’s G League siphoning off top prospects with six-figure contracts in recent years.
As a result, programs built around experienced talent, not multiple star freshmen, have dominated March Madness.
Over the past five NCAA Tournaments, 71 of the 100 players who have started Final Four games have been either juniors or seniors — and three others have been redshirt sophomores.
Meanwhile, true freshmen have filled nine of those 100 starting slots in the past five Final Fours.
The changing tide in men’s college basketball may be best reflected in the number of overall NCAA Tournament victories.
From 2010-15, the ascendancy of one-and-done, Kentucky won a whopping 22 NCAA Tournament games, while Duke won 17.
(As a point of history, the Blue Devils were not engaged in the one-and-done recruiting approach at the start of the 2010-15 period. Krzyzewski’s 2010 NCAA title team started three seniors and two juniors).
Conversely, over the past five NCAA tourneys, UK and Duke have each earned only nine NCAA Tournament wins. Over the same time frame, seven schools — Gonzaga 17, Villanova 16, North Carolina 14, Kansas 12, Michigan 12, Oregon 10 and Virginia 10 — have more Big Dance victories.
Moving forward, it is going to be fascinating to see if and how Calipari and Krzyzewski adjust.
We are going to find out if Kentucky and Duke have so completely altered their brands to “quickest pathways to the pros” that they will not be able to organically build the kind of experienced rosters that are now winning NCAA championships.
Assuming the NCAA follows through on the expected passage of a new rule that will allow all Division I athletes to transfer one time without the current requirement of sitting out of competition for an academic year, that could turn the transfer portal into the new one-and-done.
“It’s changing right before us. Transfer without penalty, name, image, and likeness. Where is this all going?” Calipari observed of the college hoops landscape on his final weekly radio show of 2020-21. “We’re all trying to figure it out.”
One thing everyone who follows men’s college hoops should have internalized by now: The teams winning NCAA championships in the current era are built around experienced talent.
Baylor merely confirmed Monday night what has been increasingly apparent with each of the past five national champions:
If you want to win it all, vets are where it’s at.