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Kentucky Basketball: Will Experience Always Trump Talent?

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John Stevens at Rush The Court has an essay today which analyzes the question of the success of "one and done" talent in the NCAA tournament.  This has been a topic of much conversation (and a question I was asked on the Versus Network's The Daily Line program).  The consensus of opinion is that "one and done" players cannot win a national championship in basketball.

Consider this from John's article:

It’s not that the list of one-year players isn’t strong; we’ve already mentioned Durant, Beasley, the UK players and can add OJ Mayo, Tyreke Evans, Eric Gordon and many others to the mix, but they generally haven’t been able to carry their teams through to the Four.

He's right about this.  In the "one and done" era, teams that have had multiple freshmen who ultimately moved on to the NBA after their first year have yet to win a championship, with the exception of Syracuse.  That's the exception that most people arguing the side against "one and dones" are forced to face -- Carmelo Anthony and the Syracuse Orange.

The fact of the matter is the 2002-03 Syracuse Orange looked somewhat like the 2009-10 Kentucky Wildcats.  Syracuse started two freshmen, two sophomores and a senior, and UK started three freshmen, one sophomore (usually) and a junior.

The Orange that year were young coming off the bench, too, with two of their top three reserves sophomores or younger.  That seems to match up nicely with UK's youth brigade off the bench this year, which like Syracuse had a couple of upperclassmen but saw most of the minutes go to younger players.

The tendency for those taking the argument that it is all but impossible for a team with a bunch of "one and dones" to win the national championship or even get to the Final Four rests on the theory that Anthony & Co. were outliers, and not an outcome that should be expected to be repeated.  Because of the relative dearth of data available for the "one and done" era, it is hard to make a convincing statistical argument that this is so, but:

The available evidence suggests that Calipari is going to have to figure out a way to keep some of the nasty talent he’s recruiting on campus a little longer than one season so that the players can become familiar enough with each other to push on through to a Final Four and championship.

This makes sense, according to the evidence he's cited, which primarily includes the "one and done" era (Note that Anthony came before this rule was put in place).  And as a practical matter, I would agree that if UK continues to lose five players a year to the NBA, it will be a problem for their national championship aspirations, primarily because with so little continuity from team to team, there is no "culture" developed that can be passed on.

There are several other things which make me dispute the position that Kentucky is going to have difficulty on the path it has chosen:

  1. This year was likely an outlier for UK.  It will be rarely, perhaps even never again, when Kentucky sends its entire freshman class to the NBA.  So some of that "nasty talent" will be hanging around campus for at least one more year, more times than not.

  2. The University of Michigan and their original Fab Five made it to the National Finals as freshmen, although they did not win that game.  But this fact is another "outlier" that critics often forget about.

  3. Never in the history of college basketball have incoming freshmen been so well-prepared.  This is particularly true of the "cream of the crop," because they play all summer long against top talent in the AAU.

I would also argue that neither Syracuse nor Michigan were outliers.  Freshmen-led teams are in the minority when it comes to getting to the Final Four and beyond, but the biggest reason is that there have been so few of them with more than one freshman who was good enough to jump to the NBA.  As far as I know, there has really only been one in the "one and done" era --  the 2007 Ohio St. Buckeyes, and they got to the National Finals.  Even Syracuse only had Anthony jump to the pros, which makes their feat look even more improbable from the standpoint of the negative side of the argument.

When I was asked if I thought Kentucky could win with "one and dones" on The Daily Line, I answered "Yes," and rationalized that just because it has never been done does not mean it cannot be done.  But both the question and the answer lacked a significant context, like "How many freshmen are we talking about?  Two?  Five?"  That matters -- a lot.

In the end, we don't know how many of the new incoming class will wind up "one and done," but as of this moment (assuming Lamb actually does sign with Kentucky) I can see only two players who are likely to leave after one year -- Brandon Knight and Enes Kanter.  So I think that John's suggestion will ultimately be fulfilled, as Kentucky will only have one departing senior next year to go with whoever winds up "one and done"

Kentucky can, and probably will, win the national championship with "one and dones."  Of course, the critics will make excuses (and I'm not talking about John here, but others such as the crew of The Daily Line) when it happens, but it will happen.  Just remember, you heard it here first.