MINNEAPOLIS — Here in the age of one-and-done, where Duke and Kentucky famously stockpile McDonald’s All-Americans for their glorious — if brief — college layover, something seems amiss.
It ain’t working. Not in late March, anyway.
You may have noticed Duke and Kentucky are not at the Final Four. Neither has made it since 2015. But consider the lineups that will be in Minneapolis this weekend. Twenty starters for Auburn, Michigan State, Texas Tech and Virginia – 14 juniors and seniors, two freshmen. Two. Michigan State’s Aaron Henry and Virginia’s Kihei Clark.
“Everybody would like to have what Duke and Kentucky have as personnel,” Michigan State’s Tom Izzo was saying. “Both of them have had incredible years, but experience does matter, too, you know.”
We should know, anyway, by just looking at recent national championship games.
Since Duke’s last crown and Kentucky’s last Final Four trip in 2015, Villanova has won two titles, North Carolina one. North Carolina, Gonzaga and Michigan have been runners-up. So, that makes six teams in three title games, 30 starters. This is what you get:
Twenty-three upperclassmen, meaning juniors or seniors. Three freshmen.
And then there’s the Most Outstanding Player award at the Final Four. There have been 19 so far this century – five seniors, nine juniors . . . and three freshmen.
One-and-done gets much of the buzz. But lately, four-and-done or three-and-done have been getting most of the hardware.
So here we have Michigan State, having pushed by Duke’s No. 1 ranked kids with the leadership of Cassius Winston, a veteran who has been around long enough to have seen it all. When Izzo and Henry were having their heated and much-discussed tournament tete-a-tete in the first round, who was the cool head who intervened and sent the Spartans on their merry way? Winston. No freshman, no matter how blue his chips, could do that so well.
And when the Spartans needed a dagger against Duke, it was taken and made by former walk-on and redshirt senior Kenny Goins, a 22-year-old who in his glasses and suit in his bio picture reminds you of a young advertising executive.
“I felt for Duke and (have) respect for those four great freshmen,” Izzo said. “But we played one or two in that game and both of ours were kind of in the fog. I can imagine what that’s like.”
The average age of Michigan State's starting lineup Sunday was 21. For Duke, 18.8. It might have mattered.
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Here we have Auburn, driven to Minnesota by the veteran backcourt of Bryce Brown and Jared Harper. “I think we may not have had the advantage in some ways because Kentucky’s got a great backcourt,” said coach Bruce Pearl, “but that experience definitely was able to play itself out.”
Not just the experience of playing, either. The experience of pain. That can’t be measured by any metrics, so it doesn’t get brought up a lot when it comes time to pick favorites and fill in brackets. But it may put something into older teams that not even the mightiest young powers can stop. Not in March.
Pearl told the story of the 84-53 whipping Clemson put on Auburn in the NCAA Tournament second round last season, and the mission of unfinished business that put in his players. It lit the fire that burned Kentucky last week.
“The reason sometimes some of the kids that are coming in as freshmen haven’t been able to advance past a certain round and not get to the Final Four or win a national championship is because they don’t have the experience of having not gotten there,” Pearl said.
“Virginia had the experience of not getting there a year ago. That experience has helped them grind through this tremendous run they’ve had. That experience we had a year ago of not being able to advance through the tournament helped us as well.”
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Indeed, the Virginia camp has said many times the scars from the UMBC game provided a unifying force that has carried the Cavaliers to this very week. The other day, Tony Bennett recalled his pre-season message to his team: “If you learn to use it right, it can buy you a ticket to a place that you couldn’t have gone any other way, talking about hard experience.”
Or as Kyle Guy said, “We got the greatest lesson learned ever last year.”
And here’s Texas Tech, with a coach who has had to build his program on age, not recruiting rankings.
“We basically just try to stay old,” Chris Beard said. “I’ll never forget the night we got the Texas Tech job, sitting around thinking, OK, how are we going to win a game? Are we going to outcoach people? No. Bill Self, Lon Kruger, Bob Huggins all of them (in the Big 12) – that’s not going to be our plan.
“Are we just going to out-talent people? No, that’s not our plan. So as we went down the list and tried to get an identity, one of things we thought was trying to get old. I think experience is everything.
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“I think sometimes to beat really, really good, talented teams, experience has always been part of our equation.”
It is an equation that keeps coming up with the right answers in the NCAA Tournament. The one-and-dones rule on NBA Draft night. Championship night belongs to the old guys.