One and Done? Yes, but Done Before the Final Four


It is, with rare exceptions, the era of the freshman in college basketball. Across the country, elite teams are led by teenagers who hit town for a few months, maybe win a few dozen games and even a title, and then head to the lucrative world of the pros.

The N.B.A.’s so-called “one and done” rule, which bars 18-year-olds from playing in the league, has been at the heart of this transformation. Since its formalization more than a decade ago, the rule had led young players to opt for only a year of college ball — a pit stop on the way to the N.B.A. — but its effect has been to reshape the college game, and to make it unrecognizable to grumbling traditionalists.

So how many one-and-dones, the college freshmen expected to be 2019 N.B.A. draft picks, are playing critical roles for Final Four teams this season?

Zero.

None of the freshmen on the four teams left in the N.C.A.A. men’s tournament are averaging more than 6 points a game, and the only Final Four players likely to be drafted in June are upperclassmen. Sophomores, juniors and even (gasp) seniors are leading the way for Virginia, Michigan State, Texas Tech and Auburn.

And it is not just this year. Freshman stars have not dominated any recent Final Fours, either. There was just one drafted one-and-done player in the 2018 Final Four, Omari Spellman of Villanova, who was selected 30th over all. There were two in 2017 and one in 2016, with only Zach Collins of Gonzaga, now with the Portland Trail Blazers, being drafted in the top 20.

While the phenomenon of talented young players’ spending only a year in college has certainly had an effect on the game, it turns out that for the most part it has not reshaped it — at least in championship terms — at all.

One big reason for the lack of one-and-dones in the Final Four for the last four years has been the absence of Kentucky and Duke — two programs that have come to rely on them. In fact, a trend that was supposed to reinvent college basketball has mostly restricted itself over the years to those two colleges and a few others. Duke has four potential one-and-dones this season; Kentucky has two. But both teams were eliminated in the regional final round over the weekend. (North Carolina, with two possible one-and-dones this season, lost in the round of 16.)

The one-and-done era began in 2006 when the N.B.A., concerned about a few high-profile young busts, decided it would raise the age limit for players to 19. That left most high school stars with a year to kill before they could begin their pro career in the United States. In many cases, the best ones decided to spend that year in Lexington, Ky., or Durham, N.C.

Ohio State was an early adopter, too, riding the freshmen Greg Oden, Mike Conley and Daequan Cook to the championship game in 2007. But soon Kentucky and Coach John Calipari became the masters of the art form.

Kentucky made the Final Four four times in five years with freshmen as key elements, winning one national title. In 2011, it had Brandon Knight. In 2012, it won with Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. In 2014, it had Julius Randle and James Young. All of them were drafted in the first round a few months after their only college season ended. (A year before that run started, Kentucky lost in a 2010 regional final with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins.)

In 2015, the one-and-done trend appeared to reach its apotheosis as six future freshman first-rounders turned up for the Final Four. Kentucky arrived with Devin Booker, Trey Lyles and Karl-Anthony Towns, but Duke won it all with Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones.

Neither team has been back to the Final Four since. And the flow of elite one-and-done players, at least on the game’s biggest stage, has slowed considerably.

Regardless of its impact, though, the one-and-done era may be coming to a close. In February, reports emerged that the N.B.A. had formally proposed lowering its age limit to 18, perhaps by 2022, meaning that the nation’s best high schoolers would again be able to follow players like Moses Malone, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and skip a campus cameo.

Hidebound college basketball fans seeking a return to the good old days may feel relieved. But they may not have noticed that the old game never changed quite as much as they thought it had.



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