This was a strange sight in 2015. Four players, one from each Final Four team, sat on a large stage. They were, if not their teams’ biggest stars, their most important players. And they were a senior, a junior, a senior and a senior.
Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky. Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein. Duke’s Quinn Cook. Michigan State’s Travis Trice.
No one was paying attention when this turned into the throwback Final Four.
“At the beginning of the season, when they said this is going to be the people in the Final Four, it’s just crazy that these are the people in the Final Four now,” Cauley-Stein said. “I just have great respect for each one of these players up here and their teams. Each one of us is a big part of our team.”
At a time when college basketball is going through spasms of introspection and self-doubt over the pace of play and level of physicality and the quality of play and lack of talent in an era where the best players leave quickly for the NBA, this Final Four is more old school than new school.
Here in Indianapolis, there are four power programs, including two of the bluest bloods in Duke and Kentucky; there are four Hall-of-Fame caliber coaches; there are senior leaders; there are teams instead of superstars.
“Usually the superstars are supposed to have the big egos,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I don’t see a lot of big egos in this tournament. Probably the fewest I’ve seen in a lot of years.”
Most of all, there is talent. And lots of it.
“I would say in this Final Four, having played all the teams within the past year, there’s a little bit of everything,” Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. “It’s at a very high level.”
If nothing else, this Final Four features the rarest commodity in all of college basketball: Senior stars. Kaminsky and Trice are unarguably the best players on their teams, and Michigan State even has a second contender in Branden Dawson. Cook might defer to Duke’s three freshman stars in terms of talent, but he’s as invaluable as any of them. And Cauley-Stein is a junior, which at John Calipari’s Kentucky is like being a sixth-year senior.
Wisconsin is the 11th-oldest team in the NCAA tournament, per Ken Pomeroy’s experience ratings. Duke and Kentucky are among the five youngest, but even Duke, with its very un-Duke-like trio of one-and-done freshmen, still relies very heavily on Cook and juniors Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee. Kentucky, while known for its platoons and phenoms, probably is more of a team than it has been at any time during Calipari’s tenure, as both Izzo and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski noted and admired Thursday.
“For a few years, we’ve gotten to be like the pros where it’s a matchup of individuals,” Krzyzewski said. “This year it’s a renewal of what college basketball should be: It’s about teams. Kentucky’s been a great team.”
There are, this still being 2015, any number of players making a brief, nine-month sojourn through college hoops on their way to NBA stardom, all of them presumably either on Duke (Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones) or Kentucky (Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Devin Booker). That’s not traditional. That’s modern.
“It’s just a different era,” Calipari acknowledged.
But the rest of it just feels … like the old days. The way Okafor plays in the post, it might as well be 1985 instead of 2015. Move this thing over to Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Indiana Pacers’ arena, and it might as well be 1995.
Put the coaches and their 2,532 combined wins and 27 Final Fours and six combined national titles together (it’ll be seven by Monday), including a few that were vacated, and it might as well be 2005 instead of 2015 – the years have changed, but not the names and faces.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947