NCAA teams’ success in March linked to NBA-cal­iber ta­lent

The Tribune (SLO) - - Sports - BY ED­DIE PELLS AND LARRY FENN

In the 30 sea­sons since the NCAA Tour­na­ment started mor­ph­ing into “March Mad­ness,” 120 teams have trav­eled the road to the Fi­nal Four. That’s 120 unique for­mu­las that have worked to make it onto col­lege bas­ket­ball’s big­gest stage.

For all the de­bate about what counts more to­ward building a cham­pi­onship pro­gram – great teams with vet­eran leaders and role play­ers versus out­stand­ing in­di­vid­ual ta­lent, even if that ta­lent makes only a short pit stop in col­lege be­fore go­ing to the pros – an As­so­ci­ated Press anal­y­sis of ros­ters found that one fac­tor out­weighs all else:

The most sure­fire way to con­sis­tently ad­vance deep into the tour­na­ment is by amass­ing play­ers with enough NBA po­ten­tial to leave col­lege early.

The AP an­a­lyzed ros­ters of ev­ery team to make the tour­na­ment at least 10 times over the last 30 years and saw a trend that goes be­yond the anec­dotes and oc­ca­sional tales of mag­i­cal runs that have un­der­scored the sto­ry­telling driv­ing this de­bate for decades. The con­clu­sion, as suc­cinctly summed up by Gon­zaga coach Mark Few: “It’s not a big se­cret. If you want to win and ad­vance in this tour­na­ment, you have to have NBA ta­lent.”

“You can get the NBA ta­lent through re­cruit­ing one-and-dones, or you can do it through de­vel­op­ment,” Few said. “But whether it’s one-and­dones or two-and-dones, you have to have it.”

A wealth of NBA ta­lent has been the main­stay on peren­nial con­tenders such as Ken­tucky, Duke and Kansas, which are among the pro­grams that stand out in the AP anal­y­sis. Of the 79 teams the AP an­a­lyzed (in­clud­ing seven that made fewer than 10 ap­pear­ances but went to the Fi­nal Four at least once), those blue bloods, along with North Carolina and Con­necti­cut, were the only pro­grams that av­er­aged nearly three wins – a trip to the Elite Eight – per tour­na­ment ap­pear­ance since 1989. All of those teams were also in the top 10 of pro­grams that had the most early en­tries in the NBA draft over the same span.

And though this year’s Fi­nal Four is be­ing touted as one in which ex­pe­ri­ence and teamwork won out over NBA-ready ta­lent, three of the teams in Min­neapo­lis this week do, in fact, have un­der­class­men on the ros­ter who could be first-round draft picks. Sopho­mores Jar­rett Cul­ver of Texas Tech and DeAn­dre Hunter of Vir­ginia are po­ten­tial lot­tery picks in this year’s NBA draft, and even Auburn made it this far with the help of now-in­jured sopho­more Chuma Okeke, who is widely con­sid­ered to have first-round abil­ity.

The re­al­ity only serves to heighten the de­bate about what is essen­tially the pro­fes­sion­al­iza­tion of col­lege bas­ket­ball. It’s an is­sue that has be­come in­creas­ingly fraught in the wake of FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tions that fur­ther re­in­forced the in­flu­ence that big money, shoe com­pa­nies and the prospects of pro star­dom have on the col­lege game.

“There are some things that are wrong with it, things that take place that are in­ap­pro­pri­ate,” said Auburn coach Bruce Pearl , who him­self has been pre­vi­ously banned by the NCAA and, more re­cently, has seen a hand­ful of his Tigers assistants caught up in the cur­rent probe. “That’s the busi­ness of col­lege bas­ket­ball. The rea­son why the NCAA is in­volved in this is be­cause it’s their job to mon­i­tor.”

There are, of course, ex­cep­tions to the tal­en­te­quals-ti­tles rule. This year’s Michi­gan State squad doesn’t ap­pear to have any NBA-ready un­der­class­men on its ros­ter, even though the Spar­tans are a pro­gram that tra­di­tion­ally draws that sort of ta­lent.

The Loy­ola-Chica­gos, Ge­orge Ma­sons and VCUs of the world are the teams that prove, semi-regularly, that any­thing is pos­si­ble, and are a big part of the rea­son the tour­na­ment cap­ti­vates Amer­ica ev­ery spring. But they are the out­liers. The re­al­ity is that gritty, un­selfish teamwork is nice, but raw ta­lent is bet­ter.

“It’s like when I go to (fried chicken restau­rant) Grandy’s, do I want dou­ble mashed pota­toes or mashed pota­toes and corn?” said Texas Tech coach Chris Beard. “I want both. So we would love to have All-Amer­i­cans and turn ‘em into grinders.”

As Gon­zaga’s role in the sport has mor­phed from plucky un­der­dog to peren­nial power over the past two decades, Few says he’s changed his strat­egy from one that em­pha­sized ros­ter building to one that fo­cuses on ros­ter man­age­ment.

“The most im­por­tant

part of the year now is April and May,” he said, in a nod to the pe­riod when NBA-cal­iber play­ers such as Rui Hachimura and Bran­don Clarke make their de­ci­sions about whether to stay or go. “You project what they’re go­ing to do, then you plan ac­cord­ingly.”

No pro­gram runs on the ham­ster wheel of quick turnover more than Ken­tucky. Not sur­pris­ingly, the Wild­cats, thanks largely to the im­pact of the one-and-done fac­tory John Cali­pari has been run­ning for the past decade, have been to the tour­na­ment 29 times since 1989 and sent 45 play­ers to NBA be­fore they grad­u­ated. They av­er­age just shy of three vic­to­ries per trip, and just shy of 1.7 early de­par­tures per year they’ve ap­peared. In the AP anal­y­sis, they are alone in their own quad­rant of the data grid.

Not in­cluded in the study are teams that didn’t make the tour­na­ment de­spite hav­ing one­and-done and other ear­lyen­try ta­lent. Ben Sim­mons spent one year at LSU, and Markelle Fultz spent a season at Washington, but nei­ther played in March Mad­ness.

On the other end of the spec­trum, hav­ing NBA ta­lent is no guar­an­tee of success. Both Texas and South­ern California have put more than a dozen early en­try play­ers into the league over the span of the study, but their vic­to­ries-per-tour­na­ment av­er­age hov­ers around 1.

And yet, the way the top pro­grams have en­sured con­sis­tent success, the anal­y­sis proves, is by re­peat­edly se­cur­ing that kind of ta­lent.

With the NBA and its play­ers’ union con­sid­er­ing changes that could end one-and-done, and pos­si­bly al­low play­ers to go to the NBA straight from high school – the way the sys­tem worked for decades be­fore 2006 – Ken­tucky’s path to success could be in peril.

“I don’t know how it will play out, but we’ll try to be first in what­ever we’re do­ing,” Cali­pari said.

Even pro­grams like Michi­gan and UConn, which tend to keep play­ers around longer, haven’t shied away from the re­al­i­ties of col­lege bas­ket­ball in the 2000s: one-and-dones dras­ti­cally im­prove teams’ out­looks, like it or not.

MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ AP

Texas Tech cel­e­brates af­ter beat­ing Gon­zaga in the NCAA West Re­gional fi­nal March 30 in Ana­heim, Calif. An AP anal­y­sis of ros­ters of peren­nial NCAA Tour­na­ment teams con­cludes it takes NBA-cal­iber ta­lent to go far con­sis­tently.

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