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Joe Boozell | | August 28, 2017

How old (or young) are national championship teams?

At the beginning of each season, it's easy to become googly-eyed over The Next Big Thing in college basketball.

And it makes sense. How fun was that Malik Monk-De’Aaron Fox backcourt at Kentucky last season? We’ve never seen anything like the Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker-led UK team from 2014-15. Jayson Tatum did his best Paul Pierce impression at Duke last year.

And then there was Lonzo Ball, who helped transform UCLA from a sub-.500 team into one of the best squads in America. All in one season. We could go on.

Of course, none of these players, or teams, won a national championship. Winning the NCAA tournament is crazy difficult. And it also requires a baseline level of experience.

Some of this season’s top programs will be super young. Outside of Grayson Allen, Duke’s starting lineup will likely include four freshmen. The Blue Devils have a chance to be the AP preseason No. 1 team. John Calipari’s Kentucky squads are young every year; this could be his youngest yet. Missouri probably has the highest range of possible outcomes of any program. That’s because its best players – while awesome – are freshmen. Michigan State was a 9-seed in the 2017 NCAA tournament, returns most of its key talent (granted, it will add stud freshman Jaren Jackson) and is expected to be in the preseason top five.

A reminder: The Spartans’ best players last season were freshmen. How do you go from a 9-seed in the tournament to a top-five team in the country? By factoring in the improvement that comes with seasoning. It matters.

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We looked back at every team that’s won a national crown since 2000. Has any school during that span won it all while being younger (or as young) as Duke and Kentucky will be this season?

Here’s what we found:

Three historically young teams

The three youngest teams to win the national title since the turn of the century: 2002-03 Syracuse; 2011-12 Kentucky; and 2014-15 Duke. Here are their top-seven minutes leaders, along with their class:

National Champions
Team C PF SF SG PG Bench 1 Bench 2  
2002-03 Syracuse


Carmelo Anthony,
Gerry McNamara,
2011-12 Kentucky Anthony Davis,
Terrence Jones,
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist,
Doron Lamb,
Marquis Teague,
2014-15 Duke

Jahlil Okafor,

Justise Winslow,
Quinn Cook,
Amile Jefferson,
Grayson Allen,

Duke and Kentucky each had four freshmen in their top seven the years they won the championship, but they also had impact veterans. Cook averaged 15.3 points on 40 percent 3-point shooting for the Blue Devils that season. Miller averaged 10 points on 47 percent shooting; he was also an excellent defender. Jefferson was a key piece in Duke’s title run as a rebounding/energy guy; Jones and Lamb were crucial to Kentucky’s success, too, as sophomores.

In 2002-03, two of Syracuse’s three best players were freshmen in Anthony and McNamara. Duany, a senior, averaged 11 points on 35 percent from 3. Warrick, while not an upperclassman, was a powerhouse as a sophomore; he also doubled his scoring average from his freshman season.

Carmelo and AD, keep in mind, were two of the most transcendent players we’ve seen in the college game recently. Okafor wasn’t on that level, but he was close. All of this is to say: Yes, these teams were very young, and they won national titles. But they also had A) legitimate veteran contributors, and B) megastar freshmen. Not just good freshmen. The best of the best.    

Where does that leave us when it comes to the youngest teams of 2017-18?

A focus on Kentucky, Duke in '17-'18

We’re going to focus on the Wildcats and Blue Devils, considering they have the highest combination of expectation and youth of any program in America.

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The Blue Devil rotation projects as Allen, who's a senior, no juniors, a sophomore and the rest freshmen. That would make Duke younger than any team that’s won a national championship since 2000. (it’s possible Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier, both sophomores, could crack the rotation. But it’s unlikely, given Mike Krzyzewski’s affinity for short rotations. One breaking through is a safe assumption.)

Kentucky will be even younger. It doesn’t have a senior anywhere near Allen’s level. In fact, the rotation will likely be made up of two sophomores (Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones) and freshmen. That’s it. Even last year’s team, which was as youthful as UK's usual, had senior contributors like Derek Willis, Mychal Mulder and Dominique Hawkins. This is new territory, even for Kentucky.

None of this is to say Duke or Kentucky can’t win the 2018 national championship. They’ll just have to do something that hasn’t been done recently.

Trends among the young champions

Champ. Countdown: Okafor & Jones' road to Duke
In order to identify Syracuse, Duke and Kentucky as the youngest teams to win the NCAA tournament since 2000, we found some common age trends among champions during that span:

  • Coincidence or not, juniors rule. Some outstanding junior classes have earned rings over the years. Some notables: 2016-17 North Carolina (Justin Jackson, Joel Berry, Theo Pinson, Luke Maye); 2015-16 Villanova (Josh Hart, Kris Jenkins); 2012-13 Louisville (Russ Smith, Gorgui Dieng, Luke Hancock, Wayne Blackshear); 2006-07 Florida (Taurean Green, Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah, Al Horford); 2004-05 North Carolina (Sean May, Rashad McCants, Raymond Felton); and 2003-04 Connecticut (Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor).
  • The oldest team to win it was 2001-02 Maryland. Chris Wilcox was the only non-upperclassman in the top seven.
  • Most champions have a junior or senior star paired with an impact freshman. A few examples: Smith and Montrezl Harrell at Louisville; Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier at UConn; Tyler Hansbrough and Ed Davis at UNC; May and Marvin Williams, also at UNC; Gordon, Okafor and Charlie Villanueva at UConn; Carlos Boozer and Chris Duhon at Duke; Mo Peterson and Jason Richardson at Michigan State.

Some well-balanced (in age) teams to watch

With that in mind, here are a few teams that — age-wise, at least — should be considered national title contenders in 2018.

  • Arizona: Allonzo Trier is the junior star, with stud freshman Deandre Ayton likely to be an overqualified complementary star. Rawle Alkins and Parker Jackson-Cartwright are quality role players that return for the Wildcats.
  • Michigan State: Senior Tum Tum Nairn and junior Matt MacQuaid are reliable and battle-tested, but they’re not stars. Sophomore Miles Bridges is, though. He’s the best returning player in the country. Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford are talented second-year guys, too, and Tom Izzo welcomes highly-touted freshman Jaren Jackson to campus for an added jolt.
  • Wichita State: The Shockers won 31 games last season, came inches away from ousting Kentucky in the Big Dance, and return everyone of significance. Wichita State will boast depth at every position, senior leadership, and stars in junior Markis McDuffie and sophomore Landry Shamet.

One of the many reasons why college basketball is great: the most talented team doesn’t always win. In fact, if the most talented team lacks experience, it rarely wins.

Can Duke or Kentucky buck the ‘young teams usually don’t win titles’ trend in 2018? Maybe. They are bluebloods in every sense of the word.

But keep in mind: in order to win it all, they’ll have to buck history.

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