March Madness: One-and-Done Conundrum

This year's March Madness brackets aren't as strong as year's past with the chances of a repeat national champion becoming even slimmer. Photo Courtesy: GoonSquadSarah
This year’s March Madness top seeds aren’t as strong as year’s past with the chances of a repeat national champion becoming even slimmer. Photo Courtesy: GoonSquadSarah

By Wendell Barnhouse

Measuring the madness of the month of March always is difficult. There is no Richter or Fujita scales, no decibel meter. But with the season up to this point, this March Madness could be mad times a thousand.

On the first Saturday of February, the No. 1 and the No. 2 teams in the media and coaches’ polls each lost to unranked teams. That’s only the seventh time that’s happened. By mid-February teams ranked in the top five of the Associated Press rankings had lost 28 times. Last season there were 21 such losses the entire season.

Through the second weekend of February, the four teams the bracket prediction geeks projected as the No. 1 seeds had combined for 16 losses. Last year’s four No. 1 seeds had a total of nine losses…heading into the tournament. And 107 unranked men’s teams have defeated ranked teams; that’s the most ever in a single season through the middle of February.

Whatever craziness occurs during the three weeks of March Madness – and, considering how wacky college hoops can be, maybe it will be chalk and four No. 1 seeds winding up in Houston – one thing is reasonably certain: We won’t have a repeat champion.

That’s not dismissing Duke. The Blue Devils are a solid team but lack depth, consistent point guard play and star power. Duke won last year’s national championship thanks to three freshmen – Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow. All three declared for the National Basketball Association draft and went in the first round.

Had that threesome remained in college, the Blue Devils would be at least a favorite to return to the Final Four with a chance at a repeat. The last college team to win back-to-back titles was Florida in 2006-07. The Gators won in 2006 starting four sophomores and a junior; the entire starting lineup returned to win another championship.

The three-word phrase that has regulated repeat champions is “one and done.” Because of NBA draft rules enacted in 2006, the top high school players no longer have an option to head straight to the NBA. To turn pro, players must be at least 19 years old. That has resulted in the best-of-the-best high schoolers playing at least one year in college.

That coach Mike Krzyzewski embraced the process and signed Okafor, Jones and Winslow knowing they probably were going to spend just one year at Duke tells you that the one-and-done rule is an accepted, if not loathed, part of college basketball. Duke is a private school with a lofty academic mission and cringes at the perception it also exists as a “basketball factory.”

Okafor, considered the top high school player of his class, followed Jabari Parker at Duke. Parker, one of the top players in his prep class, played one year and was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.

“One of the things that you try to do in recruiting – when we knew Parker is going to go and Okafor is going to go – you try to get to know them at a higher and deeper level before you get them,” Krzyzewski said before the last year’s trio arrived on campus. “The summer is huge (now that incoming freshmen can be on campus and practice). You have to set the tone right away – the level of work they have to do  and how hard they have to work. You’re trying to cram in four years in nine months.

“There is going to be slippage, and you have to accept some slippage and not be (a perfectionist) teaching everything. How much can I accept while still teaching? Sometimes it works out and sometimes you lose in the first round. That’s the culture we’re in right now.”

The one-and-done rule is not a scourge on the college game. It gets considerable attention from the media because the media loves to fast forward careers of high school or college athletes.

ESPN, which now is a major carrier of NBA games, recently designated a week of its college basketball as “Green Room Guys.” The promotion was classic Disney synergy. ESPN promoted the NBA during college telecasts by focusing on top players who might be in the “green room” and awaiting their names to be called on draft night.

The numbers, though, indicate that the one-and-done hype is just that – hype. The most college freshmen drafted by the NBA was 11 in 2008 and an average of eight freshmen have been drafted each year.

And since 2010, a majority of the one-and-done players have come from just six schools – Kentucky (17), Duke (6), Kansas (5), Texas (4), Arizona (3) and UCLA (3).

The National Collegiate Athletic Association and the NBA are like two ex-lovers forced to sit next to each other on a trans-Pacific flight. The NCAA doesn’t like the fact that the NBA draft rule leads to men’s basketball players treating college like a drive-thru. The NBA changed the rule because its teams couldn’t help themselves from drafting high school players – many of whom weren’t ready physically, mentally or emotionally.

In 1996, the NBA Players Association and the NBA agreed to a rookie salary cap with first-year players becoming free agents after three seasons. For incoming NBA players, it makes more sense to start that three-year “clock” as early as possible, prove your worth and then hit it big with a new deal. A mega-millions dollar at age 22 is better than won at age 25 (after four years in college).

“The players’ union has to represent the players, and if a player is really good, an extra year you spend can cost you tens of millions of dollars,” Krzyzewski said. “I’m not sure the players’ association would take that away from the players. I would like to see it (two years), but it’s not a done deal. What we have is probably going to be there for a while.”

National Football League draft rules require players to be three years out of high school to be eligible.  Major League Baseball drafts players out of high school but once a player attends a four-year college, he’s not eligible until he spends three years on campus. The NCAA and most college coaches would love to use baseball’s model but that would mean NBA teams would be tempted to draft players out of high school.

Kentucky coach John Calipari has benefited and been criticized for thriving under the current rules. Starting with Derrick Rose at Memphis in 2007-08 and including players like Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns at Kentucky, Calipari has recruited some of the nation’s top high school players. Without the one-and-done rule, most probably would have picked the NBA draft over one season with Big Blue Nation.

And Calipari is fine with bringing young men to Lexington who hardly have time to establish residency requirements. He points out that he has coached 29 players who have played in the NBA.

“You go from (your ancestors) being the generational laborer, then you get a college education, and your children now have a chance to go to Harvard, Yale law school, med school,” Calipari said. “That’s how this is supposed to work. And I want to be a part of the base of that.

“Generational poverty ended because that young man, if he does right with his money now, can take care of his family, his family’s family, and his family’s family’s family.”

The Wildcats won the 2012 national championship with Davis plus freshmen Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague in the starting lineup. However, the argument could be made that the roster churn Kentucky encounters each season doesn’t equate to more titles.

Kentucky reached the 2014 national championship game and was 38-0 before losing to Wisconsin in last year’s Final Four semifinals. In the NCAA Tournament, having the most talented players or the most first-round draft picks on the roster doesn’t guarantee anything.

March Madness? It’s also one and done.