Mike Krzyzewski has reinvented Duke’s program by mastering the art of one-and-done recruiting, both in terms of attracting elite talent and then performing college basketball’s version of a control-alt-delete yearly reboot.
No team represented the hello-goodbye layover more than Duke’s hyped freshman class this season, led by supernova talent Zion Williamson. But at the moment of truth, in a season christened as championship or bust, Krzyzewski lamented that his players weren’t older.
“I thought they played older than we did,” Krzyzewski said after Duke lost to a veteran Michigan State team 68-67 in the East Region final.
The Spartans played older because, um, they were older.
The one-and-done era has turned college hoops into a rest stop for a small percentage of players, but being older isn’t taboo. It’s actually kind of nice.
Of the 20 players expected to start in the Final Four semifinals Saturday, only two are freshmen. The breakdown consists of eight seniors, six juniors, four sophomores and two freshmen.
Call it an old-school Final Four.
“Experience matters,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.
Matters but isn’t required. There’s a difference.
This Final Four field does not represent a referendum on the one-and-done movement as much as it serves to remind the value of experience.
Krzyzewski and Kentucky coach John Calipari — the kings of one-and-done — have won national titles with freshman-dominated teams. So the narrative that it doesn’t work is false.
The times that it falls short, though, become magnified because of the temporary nature of those pursuits, like an experiment that goes up in a plume of smoke. The freshmen don’t build upon the experience, or return next season wiser for having gone through it. They just move on and their team starts over.
“The value in having older guys is that guys have done it and been through the heartbreak,” Texas Tech senior guard Matt Mooney said. “Sometimes when you’re younger you experience hard losses. Experience helps in these situations.”
Veteran players know what these pressure situations feel like. Auburn senior guard Bryce Brown has played in 130 college games, 3,615 minutes of action. Combine his talent with that measure of experience and there’s little wonder he has performed so well in the tournament.
“We have three or four years of SEC experience,” Brown said. “In late-game situations, we know what we have to do. One-and-done guys haven’t been in that situation [as much]. They don’t really know what to do in certain situations when games get tight or who the ball goes to in late-game situations.”
The NBA plans to eliminate the one-and-done rule. Players should have freedom of choice and not be required to attend college for one year. Until then, coaches face a Catch-22 in recruiting players in that category.
Coaches want the best talent, but they also crave experience. Elite high school players often view one-and-done as their preferred path, and it’s not unusual for them to announce that publicly. That doesn’t deter coaches of blue-blood programs from recruiting them, though.
“It’s a funny problem,” Izzo said. “Everybody would like to have what Duke and Kentucky have as far as personnel. Both of them have had incredible years, but experience does matter, too. Somewhere there’s probably a happy medium. If you don’t have the best talent, you’d better be very old and very experienced.”
Izzo’s veteran squad prevented Duke’s collection of one-and-doners and future lottery picks from reaching Minneapolis. But Izzo, wisely, wanted to make himself clear on recruiting.
“Let’s make sure we understand,” he said, “we want to get the best players we can get, too. If the No. 1 player in the country wants to come, we’ll make room for him.”