MEMPHIS — We know that it’s possible to win an NCAA title with one-and-dones. Kentucky did it in 2012 (Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague). Duke did it in 2015 (Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones). These are facts. So, too, is this:
No matter how gifted your Ones are, it’s not easy to win a national championship with one-and-dones.
We’ve just seen as much. The heralded Duke freshmen – meaning Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles; Marques Bolden was no factor – were gone in Round 2, eliminated by a South Carolina team that lost six of its nine games heading into the Big Dance. The UCLA rookies – Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf – were gone in the Sweet 16, beaten by Kentucky, which got 62 of its 86 points from its freshmen. And now the Wildcats are themselves gone, beaten by a North Carolina team that Had Been There Before.
Credit Kentucky for giving itself a chance in a game where, as matters unfolded, it should have had none. Credit the Tar Heels for turning a punch to the figurative gut – Malik Monk’s tying trey with nine seconds remaining after Justin Jackson missed the front end of a 1-and-1 – into the regional-winning basket. They knew what to do, what they’d been coached to do, and they did it.
Afterward Kentucky coach John Calipari bemoaned his team’s late failures against Carolina’s zone, which is something Carolina rarely uses. “Five minutes to go, I told the staff in the huddle, they’re going to go zone,” he said. “Some guys argued. I said, ‘They’re going to go zone.’ And we did not quite execute. We weren’t in the spots we were supposed to be in, and it kind of started from there.
Then: “I told (his players) they’ve got to self-reflect because we made some plays, some individuals made some plays down the stretch, like, ‘What were you thinking?’ But … young kids.”
Well, yeah. Six empty possessions saw Kentucky plummet from five points ahead to seven behind, and when finally Monk did the Monk riff – two outrageous treys in 30 seconds – they only forged a tie. When Theo Pinson fled downcourt after the second Monk bucket, when Luke Maye took Pinson’s pass and rose to shoot from 18 feet away, the Heels were operating knowing the worst they could do was go to overtime.
The great Kentucky frosh – Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo – had had a difficult night. Each had two fouls before halftime. They finished with 38 aggregate points, nine coming in the last minute. The Carolina veterans – and Carolina is essentially the same crew that lost the national championship game to Villanova on an eerily similar transition basket – outdid Cal’s one-and-surely-dones. You know … young kids.
On Saturday, Calipari spoke of that 2012 title: “It took off all the negative stuff, and then when another program (meaning Duke) did it, it became nonexistent. So now we can worry about the kids instead of worrying about what everybody is saying.”
Before Kentucky broke through five years ago, the widespread belief was that you couldn’t win a championship with freshmen. (Michigan’s Fab Five hadn’t quite done it, had they?) The Wildcats and then the Blue Devils put the lie to that, but it’s worth noting that neither of those programs – the heaviest traffickers in one-and-dones – have won since. And what folks missed about that Kentucky team was the presence of sixth man Darius Miller and sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb. They weren’t the biggest names, but they were essential names.
Should we be shocked that teenagers who were playing in high school state tournaments a year ago – and who’ll be in the NBA next spring – couldn’t find a decent shot against a zone defense with a Final Four berth on the line? We know that freshmen can and have won it all. What we forget is that almost everything has to go right for that to happen. Kentucky had six dry possessions at the worst possible time. You know … young kids.
Further reading: Maye in March – North Carolina stuns Kentucky at the frantic end.