The contrasts at the Final Four include different shades of blue – one light and one dark – and differences in pace and playing style and perhaps the most striking difference of them all: the one in the philosophy of team-building.
The split is even: two teams that have favored, and used with success, a traditional model built on a foundation of experienced, veteran players. And then two teams that have relied heavily – and at times exclusively – on freshmen.
Old will face new Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium in the first national semifinal between Duke and Michigan State. And then it will happen again in the second game, when Kentucky plays Wisconsin.
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Duke, with three freshman starters – all of whom could be playing in their final college game, or games, if the Blue Devils advance – is among the youngest teams in the country, according to kenpom.com. But they’re not as young as Kentucky, which had less experience this season than all but five teams.
By now, as the old saying goes, freshmen aren’t really freshmen anymore. Every team here is approaching its 40th game of the season, and youth matters less now than it did back in November, when Duke and Michigan State played each other for the first time.
Nonetheless, if experience is ever going to matter, it makes sense it would on the sports’ grandest, most stressful stage. Both Wisconsin and Kentucky have Final Four experience. They played each other in a national semifinal a season ago.
Michigan State, meanwhile, is led by a pair of seniors – guard Travis Trice and forward Branden Dawson – and junior Denzel Valentine. Then there are the Blue Devils, who returned to the Final Four for the first time since 2010 thanks in large part to three freshmen.
Kentucky coach John Calipari has mastered team-building in the one-and-done era. The Wildcats’ 2012 national championship team was led by Anthony Davis and three other freshmen who left school after that season and became first-round NBA draft picks.
And even now, after several college basketball programs have adopted his approach and targeted prospects likely to remain in school only for one season, or maybe two, Calipari continues to be the face of a trend that’s become common.
A reporter asked Calipari about that Friday. He smiled at the question about why he continues to receive the most criticism – more than anyone, it seems – over the use of one-and-dones.
“(It’s) because I’ve got a big nose,” he said, before answering more seriously. “I don’t know. But it’s not my rule. It’s the NBA and the (NBA) Players Association.”
No program is more synonymous with the use of one-and-dones than Kentucky, but Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has embraced it as much as Calipari. It took some time, though.
Krzyzewski said on Friday that before the NBA mandated that players had to be a year removed from their high school graduation class before entering the draft, he didn’t recruit players who he thought might go straight to the NBA out of high school. And then for a while, after the rule took effect, Krzyzewski didn’t recruit one-and-dones, either.
“And then we started to recruit (them),” Krzyzewski said, “because we said, ‘Maybe some of them or one of them could fit the profile for Duke.’ When I say that, that doesn't mean they're not great kids and all that, but there's a certain profile we look for, for whether he's one-and-done or four years or whatever.
“So if we can find kids that fit our profile, we'll deal with the consequences of whether they're there for one, two, three or four years.”
The results that have come emphasizing recruiting one-and-dones have been mixed at Duke, as they’ve been at Kentucky.
There were the first round NCAA tournament losses in 2012 and 2014 when, as has been the case this season, Duke was most reliant on freshmen, first Austin Rivers, then Jabari Parker. And now this, a trip to the Final Four. Krzyzewski on Friday bristled at notion that the use of one-and-done players is deserving of scorn.
“I think a lot of criticism we get as player and coaches is not right,” he said. “Look, it’s there. What, are you going to discriminate against one-and-done? Where are these kids going to go?
“When we recruit a kid, we don’t say, ‘You’re one-and-done.’ But we recognize he could be.”
Jahlil Okafor, the 6-foot-11 center who has been the focal point of Duke’s offense since he arrived on campus, could be the top pick in the NBA draft if he decides – as everyone expects – to enter the NBA draft. Tyus Jones, the point guard, and Justise Winslow, the forward, could also be lottery picks.
Calipari has made his program an established – and preferred – destination for players who want a fast track to the NBA. So, too, has Krzyzewski. Both wonder, though, if that track will continue to exist.
“The next time there’s a collective bargaining agreement between the players’ association and the NBA owners, I’m sure that will come up,” Krzyzewski said of the NBA rule that forces high school players to be one year removed from graduation before entering the NBA draft. “It seems like they’re at two opposite ends of that.
“I think (NBA Commissioner) Adam (Silver) and the NBA would like two (years), and from what initially has come out from counsel from the players union is they would like to come right out of high school.”
Calipari this week compared one-and-done players to students who excel in other areas – science, the arts – and leave school early to pursue professional opportunity. He said his basketball players who leave early possess a form of genius.
And so does Calipari for taking full advantage of a system that forces players who might be ready for the NBA to attend college – or go overseas – for a year. This Final Four is the best of both worlds.
There’s an even split between the one-and-done model that has been so often criticized and the more traditional approach of building a team around experienced upperclassman. The downside? There’s not a chance of a repeat next season, at least not with these teams.
Wisconsin and Michigan State will lose their seniors and at Duke and Kentucky, a good number of the freshmen and sophomores are likely to be gone, too.