Kentucky, Duke have shown 'one-and-done' is the way to go for teams looking for March Madness success

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Paolo Banchero Duke Blue Devils
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Trevor Keels is a big young man. He spent this past winter carrying the body of an NFL linebacker onto college basketball courts from Durham to San Francisco and, ultimately, New Orleans, but his 230 pounds of muscle did not mean he was not susceptible to tears when it all ended in the most heartbreaking fashion. When he and the rest of the Duke Blue Devils had finished losing to archrival North Carolina in the 2022 Final Four, he walked away from the bench, alone, raised his jersey to hide his anguish and then bent at the waist so no one could see the pain in his expression.

There was so much discussion about the pressure the Devils faced to deliver one more title to Mike Krzyzewski in his final season as head coach, but what so many missed was the desire of Keels and classmates Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin to win an NCAA Championship in their only chance they’d ever have.

They were one-and-done players on a Duke squad that fits the description of a “one-and-done team” – at least three players who’ll be selected in the NBA Draft after a single season – and they are leaving college without something they wanted badly. They did, however, strike another blow for the supremacy of the one-and-done.

MORE: Keels shows how to 'test NBA waters'

As such teams as North Carolina in 2017, Baylor in 2021 and Villanova in both 2016 and 2018 won national championships while starting almost exclusively veteran college players, it became an article of faith among many who cover and follow college basketball that the one-and-done model – which Kentucky mostly had been following since the 2009-10 season and Duke adopted as of 2014-15 --- is not the best means of producing championships. In fact, it might be the best course of all.

"I absolutely understand frustrations from, 'OK, we’re not regularly in the Final Four. So why are we getting one-and-dones?' That’s what the average fan is going to say," ESPN college basketball analyst Mike O’Donnell told The Sporting News. "Well, who is regularly in the Final Four? People think, 'If we’re not in the Final Four every year, what are we doing?' Advancing out of the first round is one of the hardest things to do. Only the best of the best can make a consistent effort, and even they fail sometimes.

"So you first have to establish what your barometer is before you can start talking about: Should we even be recruiting one-and-dones? If your goal is essentially not just getting to the tournament, our goal is to advance, if we think this player will benefit our program in advancing in the NCAA Tournament, then I don’t have any problem with it at all. It's your job to find the player who best fits your culture and your organization and what your goals are."

 

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Former NBA commissioner David Stern did much to make his league the financial and sporting powerhouse it is today, a global phenomenon that has made international stars of such players as Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. Deservedly honored by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Stern guided the league out of its tape-delayed NBA Finals dark ages, built up the business and helped the league focus attention on such stars as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan.

One of his most controversial projects was the advocacy of the 19-year age limit for the NBA Draft, which was negotiated into the collective bargaining agreement signed by the league and the players association in 2005. In private conversations, many scouts and executives – perhaps most, but I've not talked to everyone – will say they love the age limit because it allows them to evaluate prospects in high-level competition, whether it's at the college level, in international basketball or in the G League.

"Clearly, in a college environment, it's a better situation to evaluate than the high schools," one Eastern Conference player personnel exec told Sporting News for a 2018 project about how the age limit was empowering the NBA.

The way the one-and-done rule has been covered by the media, however, has altered its public perception. There have been common references to high school graduates being "forced" to play in college, even though such players as Brandon Jennings (in 2009-10, the third season the rule was in place) and Emmanuel Mudiay (2014-15) chose to play professionally overseas, and the G League, option always was open to such players.

The term "one-and-done" was not commonly used to describe basketball players when Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook arrived on the Ohio State campus in the fall of 2006. Sports journalist Pete Thamel used it in an article in December that year to describe the new phenomenon those three players – and Kevin Durant at Texas, Spencer Hawes at Washington and USC recruit O.J. Mayo – represented.

The Oden/Conley/Cook trio became the first true one-and-done team following the introduction of the age limit rule, and they were dominant because of Oden’s control of the lane and Conley’s control of the ball, compiling a 34-3 record and reaching the NCAA Championship game.

There seemed to be little controversy surrounding the gathering of those three players at OSU, but one-and-done became an issue when coach John Calipari (unpopular with some in the sporting media) collected John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe at Kentucky (unpopular with some in the sporting media) for the first of several such teams that would represent Big Blue Nation over the next decade-plus.

By the time the Wildcats arrived on the brink of the 2012 NCAA title game against Kansas, the team's success had been described by one columnist as "college basketball's worst nightmare." Calipari was asked in his pregame press conference if he ever grew "sorry for having to apologize" for the one-and-done concept. By the end of that session, a writer told Calipari his best players weren't "here by choice" and that the title would mean more to him than to them.

There was less hostility toward the concept when Duke began to recruit such players with the 2014 class of Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones. When that team appeared at the 2015 Final Four, and ultimately won the national championship, Krzyzewski faced none of the questions or challenges from reporters that Calipari dealt with three years earlier.

"I just thought it was the perfect combination, the perfect mix, of obviously really talented freshmen, really good upperclassmen, and I just though the pieces fit so well together with that group of freshmen," Pitt coach Jeff Capel, who was the associate head coach of the 2015 Duke team, told The Sporting News. "I just think they were so mature. Tyus, even though he was 18, it was like mentally he was a 24-year-old with how he could dissect the game game. Jahlil the same way. Justise the same way."

As Duke has continued along that path, however, its inability to win another championship has been underscored by those who continue to oppose the players impacted by the age limit rule, or the rule itself. In 2019, when the Blue Devils team that featured Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish fell in the Elite Eight to a veteran Michigan State squad, one radio host declared the difference to be the one-and-done Devils players not being as "invested" as the Spartans.

Then why do one-and-dones win more NCAA Tournament games?

 

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The simple answer as to why the Kentucky Wildcats have fielded so many one-and-done teams and players under Calipari is: because they can. And the same has been true for Duke since the 2015 team helped Duke break into the consistent recruitment of such players. No one is going to decline the opportunity to sign an Anthony Davis or Devin Booker or Paolo Banchero or Jayson Tatum.

Because these are the kinds of players who often make a difference at the highest levels of the NCAA Tournament, such as Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s game-clinching block for Kentucky in the 2012 title game against Kansas, or Tyus Jones’ 3-pointer to put Duke ahead of Wisconsin for good with 4:09 left in the 2015 final.

"When you get to that second weekend in the tournament, all those teams are really good, and all those teams know how to win. All those teams are going to be prepared," Kentucky assistant coach Orlando Antigua told TSN. "So it’s going to come down to a point in the game where someone has to make a play that isn’t drawn up – it’s just somebody making a play because of talent level. You need that."

The History of One-and-Dones
Year Team Record NCAA result
2007 Ohio State 35-4 NCAA final
2010 Kentucky 35-3 Elite Eight
2012 Kentucky 38-2 NCAA champions
2015 Kentucky 38-1 Final Four
2015 Duke 35-4 NCAA champions
2017 Duke 28-9 Second round
2017 Kentucky 32-6 Elite Eight
2018 Kentucky 26-11 Sweet Sixteen
2018 Duke 29-8 Elite Eight
2019 Duke 32-6 Elite Eight
2021 Kentucky 9-16 missed postseason
2022 Duke 32-7 Final Four

Calipari has coached 31 one-and-done draft picks since the age limit rule passed, all but two of them at Kentucky. Those players have been involved in one national championship, five Final Four appearances and 38 NCAA Tournament victories. With Derrick Rose as the only such player on his 2008 Memphis team, Calipari reached the title game; he did the same with Julius Randle and James Young in 2014 and made a Final Four with Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker and Trey Lyles in 2015.

Duke’s experiences with a single one-and-done player were not as positive; the Devils made the Sweet 16 with Kyrie Irving in 2011, then experienced huge first-round upsets in 2012 (as a No. 2 seed with Austin Rivers) and 2014 (as a No. 3 seed with Jabari Parker). The results have been better when loading up on such players, including this year’s Final Four trip with Banchero, Griffin and Keels.

Capel told TSN "there was not a conscious decision to build the 2014-15 team around one-and-done players, inside the program there wasn’t always an expectation that Winslow and Jones would join Okafor in declaring for the draft – even though The Sporting News predicted nearly two years earlier that's what would develop.

"I don’t think they came in thinking that was what was going to happen," Capel said. "As we went through the season, I would tell Coach K, 'We probably need to recruit another point guard.' He would be like, 'Tyus is not going to go.' I kept saying it, and I'll never forget, when we beat Gonzaga to punch our ticket to the Final Four, we were on the plane leaving Houston and Coach turns to me and he says, 'We probably need to recruit another point guard.'"

Tyus Jones
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There are challenges specific to coaching one-and-done teams. Freshmen have more to learn as practice opens than veterans who’ve been through the process before.

"A lot of times, early in the season, it's the struggle of getting used to the speed and physicality," Antigua said. "No matter how talented you are, there is a learning curve. And then you have to get past that freshman wall. Usually around mid-January, end of January, is when you see them start to get their real legs. Then the talent matches up with the experience, and that's when you're able to have success.

"Sometimes you’ve got to be paying attention to if they’re situationally aware of what’s going on, which comes with experience: time and score, or, 'Do we need to call a timeout to get them organized or do we need to let them play and let their abilities take over?' That comes down to preference and coaching philosophy. You’ve got to be aware of those kinds of things when you're in those kinds of games."

Sometimes it doesn’t work, as when Barrett missed a 3-pointer with 14 seconds left in the 2019 East Region final against Michigan State, then was fouled with 6 seconds left but missed one of the free throws that would have tied the game. Duke lost by a point.

More often than many believe, however, it does.

 

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ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla believes it has become more difficult even for Duke and Kentucky to center their rosters around one-and-done talents because more prospects are entering professional basketball through the G League Ignite program or Overtime Elite.

Duke has signed the top three players in the class of 2022, however, and Kentucky has Nos. 7 and 10.

So what can be expected of those teams in 2022-23?

More than is expected, generally.

The belief that "one-and-done" teams are coming up short in March is unfounded in reality. First it must be understood there are fewer such teams than many believe. Since Ohio State 2007 launched the trend, there have been only a dozen teams that featured three or more one-and-done players, with Kentucky fielding six of them and Duke five.

Two of those won the NCAA Championship. That’s a 16.7 percent rate, which is unfathomable given there are 358 teams in Division I, of which more than 80 operate at the high-major level, of which 25 are ranked in the polls and 16 are given seed preference by the NCAA Tournament selection committee. The contention in college basketball now is that teams must be "old" to win championships, but the reality is such teams underperform more often.

Teams with 3 freshmen who get drafted since 2005
Teams 12
Elite Eights 9
No. 1 seeds 6
Overall No. 1 seeds 3
Final Fours 5
National titles 2

One-and-done teams have won 81.6 percent of their NCAA Tournament games, a 40-9 record. Of those dozen one-and-done teams, only half of which earned No. 1 NCAA seeds, five reached the Final Four (including this year's Duke squad) and nine made it to the Elite Eight. Try finding another cohort of teams that produced 75 percent regional finalists. How about teams that were ranked No. 1 entering the tournament? Take out the one-and-done based teams that finished on top of the AP poll (Duke 2019, Kentucky 2015, Kentucky 2012 and Ohio State 2007), all of which got at least to the Elite Eight, and only 40 percent of No. 1 teams made it to a regional final. 

I tried to find a representative sample of non-one-and-done teams to use as a measure, and though it fairly could have been top-25 teams or top-15 teams or a similar group, I settled on No. 1 seeds to provide the severest possible test. Top seeds that were not one-and-done based won 80 percent of their tournament games, not up to the one-and-done standards. As well, a smaller portion reached the Final Four (31.6 percent to the one-and-dones' 41.6) and a smaller portion survived to the Elite Eight (62.9 percent to 75 percent).

This is not a recommendation for all of college basketball to follow the one-and-done model, because all of college basketball can’t. There are only so many elite prospects, and there even have been years when either Duke (2020-21) or Kentucky (2021-22) were effectively squeezed out of the space.

When either is able to land such players, though, that team has the opportunity to win big. In reality, it is rare such a team does not.

"The NCAA Tournament is the perfect variable conversation. It's one game, and there’s so many variables that go into one particular game," O’Donnell said. "We megaphone the upset losses to a degree that's disproportionate to how many times it actually works. I don't know why we do that as a college basketball fan base, but I think it is the 'nobody roots for Goliath' mentality.

"When Goliath goes down, you’re not supposed to go down. So we’re going to use that as a the poster child for any conversation about when it doesn't work. When it does work: Nah, they were supposed to do it. To me, it's such a garbage argument."

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Mike DeCourcy is a Senior Writer at The Sporting News