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One And Done Model Works For Everyone

While Kentucky came up just short against UConn on Monday, their run to the national championship game completed a remarkable five-year stretch for John Calipari. Since coming to Lexington, Calipari is 18-3 in the NCAA Tournament. Even more remarkable, he compiled that number with four completely different teams, sending upwards of 15 players to the NBA. It’s a vindication not only of how he built his program, but of the entire “one and done” model.

The NBA didn’t institute the rule for altruistic reasons. They are a remarkably cheap organization that doesn’t want to pay for the development of their talent base, preferring to pawn as much of it on the colleges as they can. Just as important, forcing players to spend one season in college allows them to make a better evaluation of their pro ability. For all of Kentucky’s success, this season revealed holes in the games of its players that high school and AAU ball couldn’t.

Nevertheless, the rule has been a win-win for everyone. While some of the traditionalists of the sport might disagree, one-and-done has clearly been a boon for college basketball. Interest in the NCAA Tournament is as high as it’s ever been and the five classic games Kentucky played is one of the biggest reasons why. Just compare the level of intrigue surrounding UConn’s victory over Kentucky in 2014 as opposed to their victory over Butler in 2011.

Under Calipari, the Wildcats have embraced an us against the world mentality that makes them a natural villain and a compelling antagonist. They are the Oakland Raiders of the 21rst century - hate them or love them, everyone has an opinion. When you play against Kentucky, the basketball world is watching. Cleanthony Early went from a fringe second-round pick to a fringe first-rounder based off scoring 31 points against the Wildcats frontline.

Upsets are always the big story of the first weekend of the Tourney, but as you get deeper into March, you want the natural order to reestablish itself. What would David be if not for Goliath? Kentucky is the measuring stick that every other program in the country can compare itself to - beat Calipari and you put yourself on the map. Two of his three losses in the NCAA Tournament have come against teams that went on to win the national title.

And while the popular perception is a guy who just rolls the basketball out on the floor every year, this season should have put those notions to bed. Calipari just went toe-to-toe with Gregg Marshall, Rick Pitino, John Beilein, Bo Ryan and Kevin Ollie - you don’t beat coaches like that if you don’t know what you are doing. He knows the right buttons to push, in terms of instilling team play and making the correct adjustments over the course of a game.

As long as Calipari stays in Lexington, Kentucky isn’t going anywhere. For all the hype this year’s recruiting class got, I think next year’s class is even better. Julius Randle and James Young are gone, but as long as one of the Harrison twins comes back to school, the Wildcats will start a McDonald’s All-American and NBA prospect at every position. Karl Towns, Trey Lyles, Devin Bookert, Tyler Ulis - NBA fans will be hearing those names soon enough.

Of course, there’s no question that Calipari’s players are being exploited on some level. Towns is only 18 years old and he could play in the NBA right now. A skilled and athletic 7’0 250 big man, he could have been a professional at the age of 15 or 16. That’s how they do it in Europe - Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter and Jonas Valanciunas were all cashing checks when they were still going through puberty. All of those guys seem to have turned out alright.

If you aren’t going to let young basketball players operate in a completely free market, where professional teams are forced to bid for their services, forcing them to spend a year in college doesn’t seem like that much more of an imposition. What’s really the dividing line between 18 and 19 years old? Well-meaning reformers who want the NBA to eliminate the one-and-done rule are missing the forest through the trees  - the rot starts way deeper than that.

The league has its own financial reasons for setting up the draft the way they do and they aren’t going to change them because it makes Mark Emmert feel like a hypocrite. Every coach in the country would happily take Calipari’s players if they could. It’s not like he’s doing them a disservice - he puts them in a position to rack up statistics, win games and become high draft picks. For the most part, his players do well in school and start on the road to degrees.

They aren’t risking all that much in college - Nerlens Noel tore his ACL and he was still taken with the sixth overall pick. Medical science has made tremendous advancements over the last generation. If an injured guy has the talent to succeed at the next level, an NBA team will have no problem paying him a few million dollars while he recovers. Was Anthony Davis better off losing 60 wins on a team like the New Orleans Pelicans or winning a national title at Kentucky?

When Randle, Young and the Harrisons are old men looking back on their careers, they will remember these last six weeks as fondly as anything that happens to them in the NBA. Looking back, is it that big a deal that Kevin Durant has spent eight years with the Oklahoma City Thunder instead of 9? Carmelo Anthony gave $3 million to Syracuse for a practice facility - the players are getting something out of the experience that lasts with them in the NBA.

One way or the other, the best players will eventually make it to the NBA. In an ideal world, the current structure of youth basketball would not exist, but that is far from the world we live in. If being forced to wait an extra year in college before they become multi-millionaires is the worst thing that ever happens to Julius Randle or James Young, they had a pretty good life. Playing college basketball for a year isn’t so bad - if you don’t believe me, just ask them.

A Champion Is Crowned

#7 Connecticut defeated #8 Kentucky

Monday’s national title game ended with a pair of missed threes, and a rebound that careened across the court. Instead of the normal sequence of fouls and timeouts, we got an abrupt and surprisingly quick ending to a basketball game. Jim Nance barely found time to sneak in a quote about UConn winning the title for the postgame highlight reel.

And in some ways, that abrupt, quick finish was appropriate. This UConn title snuck up on us and caught us all by surprise. It is hard to call the UConn win a complete shocker. When a team had won three national titles in the previous 15 seasons, it was not quite like Butler and VCU making the same Final Four.

Moreover, when a team had guards as quick and talented as Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, out-executing a team down the stretch should not have been shocking. And yet Napier did not look like his normal comfortable self in this game. When he and Boatright dived out of bounds for a loose ball, and Napier had no one to throw it too, Napier was frustrated. When Kentucky got a bucket and foul moments later, Napier was angry with his teammates. This was not quite the normal calm and calculated late game execution you normally saw from UConn. And yet there it was, the final buzzer sounded, and the game was over. And it was hard not to play-up three storylines:

1) The downfall of youth

Connecticut was the veteran team that knew the importance of practice and making free throws. They were 10 of 10 relative to Kentucky’s 13 of 24.

Kentucky all season was like the young college student that loves to procrastinate. First, they didn’t focus enough during the season, and had to overcome an 8-seed to make the Final Four. Then they kept falling behind by double digits in every game. Metaphorically, they didn’t study for their exams until the final minute, and they bombed the final.

But that’s probably a gross simplification. What Kentucky really struggled with was adjusting to each opponent’s approach. They had the talent to compete with anyone, but it usually took them awhile to figure out where they had their strengths. On Monday, it took them awhile to figure out that the Harrison twins could not beat Napier and Boatright on penetration.

And even late in the game, they struggled to adjust. When UConn went very small and played zone with Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan in foul trouble, Kentucky didn’t have a clue how to attack that defense on the first possession. They wasted a chance to throw a simple lob to Julius Randle, and a veteran team would have seized that moment.

2) The downfall of philosophy

If Kentucky’s youth was costly on Monday, you can argue the one-and-done strategy is flawed. But I think there was another failure of the NBA development strategy too.

Anyone who watched Kentucky this year knew they struggled with pick-and-roll defense. John Calipari decided he was going to use a switching man-to-man defense this year, and it was never great. I thought from the beginning of the year that if Kentucky played zone, they would have the best chance. Passing over the top of a defense with 6’6” players up top would be virtually impossible. But playing zone doesn’t really fit with the philosophy of one-and-done players. Like the dribble-drive offense, Calipari was trying to get his team to learn how to play man-to-man defense, because that’s what the NBA wants to see. And Calipari values the NBA pipeline over everything else.

Busting out a zone defense helped a little on Monday, but according to Seth Davis, Kentucky only played zone five percent of the time this season. That simply wasn’t enough game preparation to be ready to play elite zone defense in the title game.

That said, this doesn’t prove Calipari’s philosophy of focusing on developing players for the next level is a bad one. Kentucky played for a national title. And if Julius Randle has a more typical day, or if the Wildcats made a few free throws, his strategy would have worked.

3) The downfall of arrogance and the redemption of years of practice

One of the things that amazed me heading into Monday’s title game between Kentucky and Connecticut is how many people viewed Kentucky as a huge villain. Unlike Michigan’s Fab Five, Kentucky has never really captured the nation’s imagination. And that’s surprising because these kids have done nothing to earn our hatred.  This is not a team where the players have been arrested or suspended for off-court conduct. Julius Randle is a gregarious and charismatic player on the court, and I don’t know how anyone can watch him play and wish harm upon him.

What people hate about this team is not the players, but the concept of this team. Whatever you want to say about Michigan’s Fab Five, at least they stuck around in school a little while. This group has basically announced from the start of the season that college degrees are not their long term goal.

It also hurt that they were not even remotely humble. Just like when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh announced that they were getting together to win multiple titles, John Calipari endorsed the idea that this team could go undefeated. That kind of confidence comes across as arrogance, and it turned people off from the beginning.

The good news about Final Four weekend, is that even if you get sick of all the future NBA stars, there is still an acknowledgement of something more. Saturday afternoon featured the NABC Senior Game. And if you missed it, spend a minute looking at the rosters, and you will see some of the players that symbolize college basketball. Personally, I was happy to see Indiana’s Will Sheehey, denied a post-season experience because “Indiana doesn’t play in the CBI”, play well in that game. Sheehey started the game with a three and moments later he had a brilliant drive for a basket and one. It was a more fitting end for the Hoosier senior than the first-round flame-out in the Big Ten tournament.

But in the second half of the NABC senior game, Doug Gottlieb and Steve Lappas really hit the nail on the head with their commentary. First they talked about how Pittsburgh’s Talib Zanna came from Nigeria to the US and saw snow for the first time. Then they talked about how Zanna enrolled at Pittsburgh because his dad knew a professor, not a basketball coach. They talked about how Zanna, despite being a less heralded recruit, was actually Pitt’s best post player over the last three years.

Then they talked about Rober Morris’ Karvel Anderson. Anderson went from being homeless to becoming a star college player, to becoming a man with a college degree. They talked about Weber St.’s Davion Berry becoming the first member of his family to get a college degree. Even if your stomach turns at seeing one-and-done players in the title game, Saturday was one last chance to salute the players who symbolize what college basketball is all about.

And Monday gave us that chance too. UConn senior Shabazz Napier went from apprentice to leader, and earned titles at the start and the end. He improved his efficiency and shot volume every year. He was a leader in every area of the court.

But probably the player who best exemplified college basketball was Niels Giffey. Giffey was never going to be the best player on the basketball court. He lacked the strength or quickness to be a truly dominant player. There were plenty of times during his career where I questioned why UConn kept playing him. But he honed his jump shot. After averaging just 10 threes per year as a freshman, sophomore, and junior, his coach finally saw his shot falling in practice and gave him the green light. And Giffey made 60 threes, shooting nearly 50%, as a senior. His two late threes in the national title game were daggers. In a game filled with fabulous freshmen, UConn would have never won without a hard-working senior.

And for many fans, the villain was slain.

Looking Ahead

In sports today, there is no offseason.

If you have not yet read my Way Too Early Top 25, click here.

Next week, we’ll have team coverage of the best high school all-star game of the year, the Nike Hoop Summit. And we’ll be back with coverage of the Jordan Brand Classic the week after that.

In May, I’ll be back with my Way Too Early Conference Previews. And I hope to have some other fun summer features as well. For example, I have some numbers and hope to show whether the change in the foul rules has made PGs more valuable than SGs.

And as always, RealGM will have wiretaps on all the key coaching changes, transfers, and NBA draft decisions. Even if they just cut down the nets, we’re not going anywhere.

UConn-Kentucky Title Game Shows Changes In College Basketball

The 2014 NCAA Tournament provided one of the strangest championship matchups between seventh seeded Connecticut and eighth seeded Kentucky. Each team’s run to reach the finals was unlikely, but showed the changing landscape in college basketball.

Kentucky’s strategy has been well documented. The Wildcats start five freshmen, all of whom are McDonald’s All-Americans, and even have another All-American coming off the bench in Marcus Lee. The one-and-done rule has been analyzed and discussed plenty of times throughout the last few years, but it has certainly worked for Kentucky. John Calipari has a chance to win his second NCAA title in the past three seasons behind his recruiting strategy. It has been criticized for not being sustainable, but it seems to be working just fine for the Wildcats. Kentucky knocked off a Wisconsin team that started four upperclassmen and a sophomore to reach the final.

The Wildcats clearly had the talent to make this run, but had early struggles due to the heavy dosage of inexperience. As the season progressed, Kentucky has shown why it was ranked as the preseason’s top-ranked team.

What’s more surprising was Connecticut’s run to make the championship game. Kevin Ollie didn’t recruit most of his roster, but his offense and maneuvering of lineups have been essential to reach the championship. The Huskies starting lineup has shown a change of the times as well.

In the backcourt, Connecticut has two scoring point guards in Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Both Napier and Boatright can play either guard spot and score at a high level. Napier, a 6-foot-1 senior, is averaging 17.9 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game this season while drawing the inevitable comparisons to Kemba Walker. Boatright, a 6-foot junior, has chipped in 12.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 3.4 assists per game. They can both beat defenders in isolation situations, helping the Huskies at the end of the shot clock.

Although they may give up some size in the backcourt, their energy and quickness give opposing guards trouble. In their last game against Florida, Napier and Boatright forced point guards Scottie Wilbekin and Kasey Hill into committing an uncharacteristic seven turnovers and limited them to only 11 points.

To put that in perspective, the Florida tandem has averaged a combined 18.6 points and only 3.3 turnovers per game. Last year’s Louisville squad had an undersized backcourt as well, meaning this could be back-to-back years where the starting guards were 6-foot-1 or smaller. While Napier and Boatright may form an unconventional backcourt compared to most NCAA teams, their production has been key to Connecticut’s run.

The Huskies’ frontcourt has been a recent trend as well. At the “3” position, Connecticut starts a three-point sniper with Niels Giffey. He’s struggled from behind the arc this tournament, but is hitting threes at a 48 percent clip this season. Giffey doesn’t have many plays ran for him, but his jumper has allowed him to start for the Huskies. He may not score at a high rate, but his jumper creates spacing for the guards to excel and avoid help defenders. A similar role was seen in Louisville’s Luke Hancock last season.

The “4” position, however, might be the reason Connecticut has reached the championship. Junior DeAndre Daniels has been the new-school breed of power forwards in the college game who are athletic and can stretch the floor. He’ll likely translate into a small forward at the next level, but his versatility has been a huge advantage for the Huskies. This tournament, the 6-foot-9 forward from Los Angeles has averaged 17.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. He even played the center position against Florida on occasions.

Connecticut doesn’t ask a lot from the center position and prefers a defensive-minded rim protector. Phillip Nolan and Amida Brimah are only averaging a combined 7.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game, but also contribute 2.7 blocks. The offense doesn’t require a skilled “5” which is a plus because of the rarity of this type of player in today’s age.

The following play, published on the Twitter account @RollOrPop, shows one of the main concepts of Connecticut’s offense. The “5” sets a screen for the “1” which can potentially create space for a three-pointer. If not there, the “4” and “5” screen for the “2” who catches the ball at the top of the arc. Both guards touch the ball and have the freedom to create off the dribble.

The next play, also published by @RollOrPop, now hopes to get the ball in Napier’s hands. Napier, who would be the “1” on this play, gives it up to the “4” and the “1” sets a screen for the “3”. If the defender gets caught on the screen, the “4” can find the cutting “3” for an easy look. This sequence likely won’t be there, but the “5” goes on to screen for the “1”. The “4” feeds the “1” on the wing who could have space to knock down the three. If not, there’s now spacing for the “1” to attack off the dribble or call the “5” for a pick-and-roll.

Both examples show the attempt to feed the guards and allow for creativity and spacing. Ollie has brought a simple yet effective offense to play to his team’s strength.

The contrasting backcourts will be a storyline to watch as the quicker, experienced Connecticut guards take on the bigger, stronger, but younger Harrison twins. Aaron Harrison has hit some big-time shots to get to this point and will look to continue his clutch play in the finals. Napier, on the other hand, hopes to end his collegiate career with two NCAA titles.

No matter who wins, this game will be interesting to watch because of simply how different these teams are compared to traditional champions. There are plenty of similarities to be seen in Louisville and Connecticut, but earlier champions haven’t had these types of lineups, especially in the backcourt. Kentucky’s closest comparison to a national champion is probably to, well, Kentucky’s team led by Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist three years ago. Outside of that, freshman loaded rosters haven’t had this type of success since Michigan’s Fab Five.

College basketball is changing in more ways than one; Connecticut and Kentucky were simply ahead of the curve this year.

Final Four Saturday

Kentucky continues to overcome the odds, Wisconsin's season was historic even without a Final Four win, and I break down the simulcasts.

Blue Blood Schools Again Taking Country's Best Talent

The programs who reel in multiple players from the McDonald’s game are the sport’s blue bloods. There were 13 schools represented at the game, but only five with multiple recruits - Duke and Kentucky with 4, UNC with 3, Kansas and UCLA with 2.

The Bigs Of The Incoming 2014 College Class

Jahlil Okafor, for all his skills, plays more like the No. 1 overall pick in 1994 than 2014. For a glimpse at where the game is going, you have to look at Karl Towns and Myles Turner, two of the other top big men in the class of 2014.

How Kentucky Became Better Than The Sum Of Its Parts

In a tourney filled with unlikely stories, none is more unlikely than John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats becoming a Cinderella. Rather than 2-3 guys emerging as stars, everyone on has shared the burden, with each member of their rotation coming up big at a different time.

Every Player In The Sweet Sixteen

Time to classify every player in the Sweet Sixteen.

Coaches Hurt The Most By New Foul Rules

The impact of the new foul rules on Kansas and Kentucky, the new key to Wisconsin's season, and Florida St.'s poor defensive rebounding highlight this week's column.

Coaches That Peak Early In The Year

Explaining how an Iowa vs Iowa St. basketball game can be better than Kentucky vs North Carolina, and how Mike Krzyzewski can show up on a list about coaching disappointment.

More On Kentucky's Downside

After receiving a ton of questions about how to interpret Best Case and Worse Case Scenarios in the projections, we run models on Kentucky and Michigan from last season as both were outliers.

Why The NCAA Loses Nothing By Eliminating Amateurism

The NCAA can act like the NBA’s disinterest is a burden for the NCAA, but it’s really an opportunity to make $11 billion over 14 years to put on a March basketball tournament. There are plenty of people who want to watch the best 18-20 year old basketball players in the world.

2013 McDonald’s All American Game Recap

Arizona's latest commit Aaron Gordon stole all the headlines, but I was more impressed with a less-heralded name headed to Washington.

A More Meaningful McDonald's Game

With a few exceptions (Anthony Bennett, Marcus Smart) last year’s class didn’t quite live up to typical McDonald’s All-American game standards. But with Andrew Wiggins headling, we are confident that this year’s class will be different.

Major Conference Tournaments Day 4

Bill Walton quotes, the fate of early college enrollees, is Ryan Harrow a curse, angry coaches, and the end of the Georgetown vs Syracuse rivalry.

Freshman Prospects Before New Year's: Nerlens Noel

If Nerlens Noel can continue to progress in his understanding of basketball and improve his skillset along the way, he could actualize his potential and become a top player from the 2013 draft class. He does have a long way to go before he can make an impact in the NBA though.

Freshman Prospects Before New Year's: Archie Goodwin

Archie Goodwin projects as an athletic slasher with arguably the highest upside in the 2013 draft. He must continue to learn how to play without the ball in his hands, as he struggles using screens effectively.

Is Youth An Excuse?

If you want your team to have a great season, it isn’t enough to simply get better. You have to get better at a faster rate than your rivals. One thing I have said in the past is that teams that play a lot of freshmen have the potential to improve the most.

Comparing The Conferences

The Pac-12 has been suffering through a long dark period. The Big Ten has been dominant (at least in the pre-conference schedule) for the last few years. Should we expect a change this year? Is the Pac-12’s slump over? Is the Big Ten’s boom about to come to an end?

Team-By-Team Gold Medal Winners

The Jazz and Thunder have had the most Gold Medalists since the USA began bringing NBA players in 1992, while Duke leads amongst colleges. How do the other 29 NBA teams rank?

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