Should power teams rethink their ros­ters?

One-and-dones need sup­port cast

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Dan Wolken Colum­nist USA TO­DAY

Dan Wolken: Full of fu­ture draft picks, Duke, Ken­tucky fall short of Fi­nal Four

The ab­so­lute best ver­sion of Duke’s lot­tery pick-laden team re­vealed it­self on the open­ing night of the sea­son and spent the next 37 games try­ing un­suc­cess­fully to reach the same level. Over an eight­day stretch in mid-Fe­bru­ary, Ken­tucky was prob­a­bly the best team in col­lege men’s bas­ket­ball, tak­ing down then No. 1 Ten­nessee by 17 points and beat­ing Auburn by 27, rais­ing hopes for a Fi­nal Four ap­pear­ance that never came.

Within hours of each other on Sun­day, two of the sport’s iconic pro­grams and the top pur­vey­ors of build­ing teams around the high­est-ranked re­cruits were knocked out of the NCAA tour­na­ment by teams with ex­pe­ri­enced guards and gen­er­ally more ma­ture ros­ters. As a consequenc­e, we now have a Fi­nal Four with matchups that sound more ap­pro­pri­ate for a Belk Bowl than a bas­ket­ball tour­na­ment: Michi­gan State vs. Texas Tech, Auburn vs. Vir­ginia.

While a non-tra­di­tional Fi­nal Four has its own kind of ap­peal, Sun­day’s out­come seemed to in­vite a larger con­ver­sa­tion about whether it’s more likely to go deep in col­lege bas­ket­ball’s post­sea­son tour­na­ment with older play­ers in­stead of younger ones.

Among the last six teams that have played in cham­pi­onship games since Duke’s 2015 ti­tle, the only so-called “one-and-done” player who saw the court was North Carolina’s Tony Bradley, who av­er­aged a mere 12 min­utes off the bench in that tour­na­ment.

Mean­while, Duke and Ken­tucky have missed the Fi­nal Four now for four con­sec­u­tive years with fresh­man-heavy teams, and the last three No. 1 over­all NBA draft picks won a com­bined zero NCAA tour­na­ment games.

The trend is now too ob­vi­ous to ignore.

“I thought they played older than we did,” Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski said Sun­day af­ter los­ing to the Spar­tans. “But that’s hap­pened to us — we are young.”

But to boil this down just to age seems overly sim­plis­tic, es­pe­cially when teams have won cham­pi­onships with a fresh­man as their best player in 2003 (Syra­cuse), 2012 (Ken­tucky) and 2015 (Duke) and reached the fi­nal game in 2008 (Mem­phis) and 2014 (Ken­tucky). Had Duke or Ken­tucky made just one more bas­ket this year, they could have very well joined that list.

But in both cases, their losses high­lighted the re­al­ity of the world Krzyzewski and Cali­pari have been op­er­at­ing in: Pulling what­ever play­ers you can off the Ri­vals.com top-20 list isn’t the eas­i­est or even the best way to con­struct a ros­ter. And it’s hard to see how ei­ther one of them fig­ure out how to break that cycle.

Krzyzewski crit­ics have taken plea­sure in the idea that he couldn’t get to the Fi­nal Four de­spite hav­ing play­ers ranked No. 1 (R.J. Bar­rett), No. 3 (Cam Red­dish), No. 5 (Zion Wil­liamson) and No. 14 (Tre Jones) in the fi­nal Ri­vals eval­u­a­tion of last year’s re­cruit­ing class. Is it un­der­achiev­ing to have such a wealth of tal­ent and yet lose to a Michi­gan State team that prob­a­bly won’t pro­duce a first-round draft pick? Pos­si­bly.

But if there was any fail­ure in Duke’s 32-6 sea­son that yielded an At­lantic Coast Con­fer­ence tour­na­ment ti­tle, it was putting pieces around Wil­liamson who didn’t re­ally fit his skill set if he was go­ing to be the cen­ter­piece of your team. Of course, when Krzyzewski re­cruited these guys at age 17, no­body re­ally knew that would be the case.

In­stead of sur­round­ing Wil­liamson with shoot­ers who could open up the floor like an NBA team will al­most cer­tainly try to do, Duke of­ten found its of­fense clogged up be­cause Bar­rett was mis­cast as a pri­mary play­maker and Red­dish was re­duced to a third wheel who of­ten waited on the perime­ter for 3-point­ers, which he shot at a medi­ocre 33.3 per­cent clip.

Duke largely found ways to over­come those flaws and win lots of close games be­cause Wil­liamson proved to be a tran­scen­dent tal­ent. But aside from that sea­son-opener on Nov. 6 — a 118-84 win over Ken­tucky — the Blue Devils never func­tioned as well as they would have hoped be­cause the skill sets just didn’t fit very well to­gether.

Is that a coach­ing fail­ure? Or, as some­one who knew he’d only have these play­ers for one year, did Krzyzewski make the best pro­jec­tion he could and sim­ply get it wrong? Would he have been bet­ter off pass­ing on some­one like Red­dish, who never had a role in the of­fense for his skill set, and in­stead re­cruit a player who could have been more use­ful in cre­at­ing space?

Ken­tucky’s re­cent first-world prob­lems fall along the same lines. Of Cali­pari’s 10 teams, three stand out as his best: the 2012 na­tional cham­pi­ons led by An­thony Davis, the 2010 group with John Wall, DeMar­cus Cousins and Eric Bled­soe, and the 2015 team that went 38-0 be­fore los­ing to Wis­con­sin in the Fi­nal Four. The com­mon­al­ity be­tween all three wasn’t just bril­liant fresh­men who would go on to star in the NBA, but play­ers who came back as sopho­mores or ju­niors and were will­ing to re­main in sec­ondary roles like Wil­lie Cauley-Stein in 2015 or Dar­ius Miller in 2012.

John Cali­pari might have thought he had that kind of team this year with for­ward P.J. Wash­ing­ton com­ing back as a sopho­more and Reid Travis trans­fer­ring in as a graduate from Stan­ford to form an older front­court that could help out his young guards. As it turned out, what Ken­tucky re­ally could have used was a vet­eran in the back­court for a game like Auburn when fresh­men Ash­ton Ha­gans and Im­manuel Quick­ley strug­gled badly against se­nior Bryce Brown and ju­nior Jared Harper.

Of course, even for a master re­cruiter like Cali­pari, try­ing to find a qual­ity guard to trans­fer in and back up those one-and-done play­ers isn’t the eas­i­est ask. And try­ing to de­velop one from within over two or three years would mean try­ing to per­suade a player ranked out­side the top 50 to play fewer min­utes at Ken­tucky rather than go to other good pro­grams where they could make more of an im­pact right away.

That’s not an easy puz­zle for Cali­pari to fig­ure out. Ken­tucky will prob­a­bly lose most of its team to the draft, again, and start over next Novem­ber with the same po­ten­tial ros­ter holes that ex­isted the last few years.

When Cali­pari started the trend of specif­i­cally tar­get­ing one-and-dones with Derrick Rose when he was at Mem­phis, the for­mula for suc­cess was to add those types of play­ers to al­ready-es­tab­lished teams. Now, the way both Ken­tucky and Duke op­er­ate, that’s al­most im­pos­si­ble.

As long as Krzyzewski and Cali­pari are coach­ing, they’re go­ing to get more than their share of the best re­cruits ev­ery sin­gle year be­cause of the path­way they’ve es­tab­lished to the NBA. But both pro­grams have dis­cov­ered in the tour­na­ment that elite re­cruit­ing and good ros­ter con­struc­tion don’t mean the same thing.

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