The 2017 NCAA tournament was packed with fantastic freshmen. Jayson Tatum was primed for a breakout performance for Duke. Lonzo Ball was ready to back up his dad’s praise by leading UCLA to the Final Four. De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk formed the best backcourt in the country. Josh Jackson was a vital cog in the winning machine at Kansas. Other freshmen such as Lauri Markkanen at Arizona, Jonathan Isaac at Florida State, and Miles Bridges at Michigan State all showed flashes of brilliance and will more than likely become lottery picks in this summer’s NBA draft. Unfortunately, or fortunately based on who’s judging, all of the aforementioned players could not reach the peak of college basketball by having their respective teams advance to the Final Four.
The battle rages on as to the NBA rules that force basketball players to attend college for one season before becoming eligible for the draft. The 2006 draft was the first in which high school players had to wait one year to be eligible to enter the NBA, and thus the one-and-done era began. There is no question that many of these players have gone on to greatness in the NBA, but the question remains on how it has affected the college game. Can teams that recruit these high-level players be competitive at the highest level and win national championships? Let’s break it down by looking at each college basketball season to see if these talented freshmen have led to national success in the NCAA tournament.
2006: There were no key players in this year’s freshmen mix that played large roles in college basketball. Tyrus Thomas of LSU was a redshirt freshman, so he was actually in college for two seasons before going pro. His team did advance to the Final Four. Shawne Williams out of Memphis was a first round pick, and he was one of the key players in helping them reach the Elite Eight. Florida won the title with sophomores and juniors.
2007: This was the first year in which one-and-done players emerged as key components in college basketball. Ohio State featured Greg Oden, Mike Conley, and Daequan Cook. They advanced all the way to the national championship game before losing to a deep and experienced Florida team featuring Al Horford and Joakim Noah. Kevin Durant played one season at Texas where he averaged nearly 26 points per game. He was unable to lead the Longhorns past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. Georgia Tech had two players in Thaddeus Young and Javaris Crittenton that both left after one season. The Yellow Jackets did win 20 games but lost to UNLV in the first round of the NCAA tournament. While the results in 2007 were mixed, coaches and fans did see the benefits of recruiting one-and-done talent in order to be successful.
2008: Two Final Four teams were led by freshmen. Derrick Rose, the No. 1 selection in the NBA draft, took Memphis all the way to the national championship game before losing in overtime to a Kansas team that featured many upperclassmen. Kevin Love was vital in helping UCLA reach their 3rd consecutive Final Four, but they lost in the national semifinals to Memphis. A few other players such as Michael Beasley at Kansas State and O.J. Mayo at USC both got their teams to the NCAA tournament but had very little success.
2009: No one-and-done players were able to make a mark in the NCAA Tournament this season. North Carolina, which featured senior Tyler Hansbrough, cut down the nets in Detroit. Tyreke Evans, who was the 4th pick in the 2009 NBA draft, had moderate success by helping Memphis make the Sweet Sixteen. The Final Four featured no key freshmen that left after one season.
2010: John Calipari arrived at Kentucky in 2009. That is all you need to know about where this article is about to go. Freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Eric Bledsoe, and Daniel Orton announced their arrival by leading Kentucky to the Elite Eight. Unfortunately they lost to a talented West Virginia squad led by senior Da’Sean Butler. While the season ended in disappointed for the Wildcats, the seed had been planted in Lexington for future recruiting classes. Xavier Henry was a highly touted freshman at Kansas, but they were shocked by Northern Iowa in the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament. In the end, the national final featured Duke and Butler, two experienced squads with players that had been developed over multiple seasons.
2011: Kentucky advanced to the Final Four with talented freshman Brandon Knight, but they lost to eventual national champion Connecticut. UConn was led by Kemba Walker, a player who had already played in the 2009 Final Four. The Final Four also featured veteran teams in VCU and Butler. Kyrie Irving was injured for most of the season at Duke but returned in time for the NCAA tournament. Duke lost in the Sweet Sixteen to Arizona. Texas featured two talented freshmen in Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph, but they were unable to get past Arizona in the 2nd round.
2012: By many accounts, this was the most successful season for one-and-done players. Kentucky won the national championship with Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Marquis Teague leading the way. They showed no signs of immaturity in taking down experienced teams Louisville and Kansas in the national semifinals and final. This has been the crowning achievement of John Calipari’s tenure at Kentucky. Bradley Beal led a young Florida team to the Elite Eight before losing to an experienced Louisville squad.
2013: Things hit rock bottom with freshmen this season. No one-and-done player of significance played much of a role on any of the Final Four teams. Louisville, the national champion, was loaded with experience. Michigan, the national runner-up, was young, but no players were one-year talents. Syracuse and Wichita State were both veteran teams in the Final Four. Ben McLemore of Kansas recorded a nice season, but they lost to Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen. Kentucky did not even make the NCAA tournament. Nerlens Noel missed a majority of the season with injuries, and the Wildcats lost to Robert Morris in the 1st round of the NIT.
2014: This was a deep year for talented freshmen, but the results were mixed. Kansas featured Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, but they lost in the 2nd round to Wichita State. Jabari Parker was a star at Duke, but they were upset in the 1st round by Mercer. Kentucky had a roller-coaster in which they were on the cusp of missing the NCAA tournament at different points during the season. They caught fire in March though and advanced all the way to the national championship before losing to a Connecticut team featuring talented senior leader Shabazz Napier. Julius Randle and James Young were the two young talents for Kentucky who left after one season. Veteran squads Wisconsin and Florida also advanced to the Final Four.
2015: The most important game of the one-and done era occurred in the national semifinal when undefeated Kentucky faced off against experienced Wisconsin. Kentucky featured freshmen Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, and Devin Booker along with some holdovers from the previous season. They were 38-0 entering the game against Wisconsin. The Badgers had Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, and a slew of other players that had been in the program for multiple seasons. The game was close, but Wisconsin pulled out the victory. While the talented freshmen of Kentucky failed to take down Wisconsin, the national championship was a different story. Duke, who also featured multiple one-and-done players, defeated Wisconsin. Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones led the way for the Blue Devils. For the second time in the one-and-done era, a team full of freshmen won a national championship.
2016: Of the 30 first round picks in the 2016 NBA draft, 10 were freshmen. Of those 10 freshmen, only Malachi Richardson of Syracuse saw his team make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. The best freshman in the country, Ben Simmons, couldn’t lead LSU to the tournament. Kentucky freshmen Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere couldn’t get past Indiana in the 2nd round. It was an overall disappointing season for one-and-done players. The Final Four featured experienced teams in Villanova, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Syracuse. The championship game ended with amazing heroics first from UNC’s Marcus Paige and then Villanova’s Kris Jenkins on a game-winning buzzer beater.
2017: The Final Four is full of experienced rosters even though the freshmen earned a lot of the press entering the tournament. South Carolina, Gonzaga, Oregon, and North Carolina are all led by juniors and seniors who rely heavily on experience. The projected #1 draft pick Markelle Fultz failed to get to the NCAA tournament with Washington. Lonzo Ball had a phenomenal year at UCLA, but he had a poor game in a loss to Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen. Josh Jackson at Kansas was a game away from the Final Four, but his team lost to Oregon. Jayson Tatum at Duke lost in the 2nd round to South Carolina. The most successful freshmen were Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox at Kentucky. It took a last second shot from Luke Maye at North Carolina in the Elite Eight to knock them out.
Conclusion: Other than Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015, the teams dominated by one-and-done talent have for the most part fallen short of expectations in the NCAA tournament. As mentioned earlier, the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats will go down as a great example of experience beating potential when they lost to Wisconsin in the national semifinals. John Calipari has taken full advantage of the NBA rules and annually gets the best recruits. Opinions differ on how successful he has been overall with the talent he accumulates every season. Some say that he has done a great job of bringing together big talents with even bigger egos and gets them to play as a team. Others argue that with that much talent, the Wildcats should be winning national titles every year.
In the end, there is an annual influx of talented that freshmen that are in college only because the NBA forces them to be. In my opinion, there should be no restrictions on players jumping straight from high school to the pros. The current crop that will be in the 2017 NBA draft all would have been just fine in the NBA without a year in college. It is a pity they lose out on a year of salary and have to pretend to be interested in the college they attend. In many ways they are using their respective schools as a spring board to the pros, and the schools use the athletes by making millions in revenue. Overall though, the NCAA tournament results haven’t been affected much by the one-and-done rule. Experience and veteran leadership still rules college basketball.
By Ben Billman
Ben Billman is currently a doctoral teaching assistant at the United States Sports Academy. He lives in Mobile, Ala. with his wife Jennifer and son Derrick. He is originally from Indiana, and therefore has a deep love for the game of basketball. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.