GLENDALE, Ariz. — It certainly was not done by choice.
Given the opportunity, all four of the coaches at this year’s Final Four said they would love to have a young, exciting freshman player who is ready to make the immediate jump to the NBA. A transient star who can carry the team toward a championship — maybe all the way to it — then bid adieu to the NCAA after a stay of only seven or so months.
Who wouldn’t want that?
“If I could coach one-and-dones, I’d be more than happy,” South Carolina coach Frank Martin said. “You’ve got pros on your team. You’ve got a chance to be real good.”
So the fact that there likely are no such players in this year’s championship weekend (Gonzaga’s Zach Collins might have a decision to make about his future in the coming days and weeks) probably is no big statement or illustration of a philosophical shift. It’s hardly a condemnation of the system. It’s just the way it worked out.
“We really aren’t in that market just because it’s kind of a select market,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said of his team’s exclusion from the club.
Then again, there have been one-and-done freshmen on only two NCAA champions since the rule was adopted for the 2006-07 season: Duke in 2015 and Kentucky in 2012. Maybe it’s not the formula for success people think it should be.
The only school at this year’s event that could be in that market is North Carolina, the lone blue blood program (albeit a powder blue). Even the Tar Heels, though, reached this point without a one-and-done. In terms of experience, Carolina arrived in Arizona with by far the most on this stage, returning to the Final Four for a second straight year.
“You know, the easy answer would be that more experience handles tournament play better,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “But [in 2015] Duke won it with three or four freshmen starters.”
So is it a coincidence that all four of these teams rely on older, veteran players? Could it be the start of a trend?
“Everyone falls in love with the one-and-done phenomenon,” Martin said. “I get it. I coach them, too. I’m lucky that I started my career with two of them [at Kansas State]. It’s part of what we do. But there’s a big difference between 18-year-olds and 22-year-olds . . . As a college coach, the conversations I have with my seniors are completely different than the conversations I had with the same guy when they were freshmen. There’s a maturity factor.”
Yet this is the first time since 2013 and only the fourth time in the past decade that four teams have assembled for this event without a clear one-and-done. Maybe the paradigm is changing.
“I just think that there’s so many really good players, so many really good teams, that you want to be playing your best right at the end of the year,” Williams said. “And I think that older guys understand how fleeting it is and how sudden the season is over with, and perhaps they focus a little bit more on that part of it.”
Oregon had 25-year-old guard Dylan Ennis. Gonzaga has fifth-year senior (and winningest Division I men’s basketball player of all time) Przemek Karnowski. South Carolina started two seniors in its ferocious backcourt and North Carolina goes with two seniors in its starting frontcourt.
“There are a lot of different ways to build a program and build an elite program,” Few said. “You can do it through attracting the greatest talent out there or you can do it by getting good players and develop them and get them to play together. And that’s always been our deal at GU: We just try to get the best players we can, try to max out their development, and then really stress team chemistry and connection and playing together.”
Few likened it to a book titled “Water the Bamboo” by former Oregon player Greg Bell (Few wrote the foreword). The philosophy is that when growing bamboo, you have to keep watering it and watering it underground even though for the first four years or so, nothing sprouts. And then, he said, in the fifth year, it shoots up 50 feet.
“It’s about the process of preparation and physically, mentally showing up,” he said. “And then eventually you’re going to reap the rewards of that.”
It seemed to work with basketball players as well as bamboo for the teams here.
“I would say it has,” Few said. “Wouldn’t you? We’re here at the Final Four!”
SHALL I STAY OR SHOULD I GO?
One-and-done players in the last 10 Final Fours:
2017 – None (?)
2016 -- Syracuse: Malachi Richardson
2015 -- Duke: Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones; Kentucky: Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Trey Lyles
2014 -- Kentucky: James Young, Julius Randle
2013 -- None
2012 -- Kentucky: Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague; Kansas: Ben McLemore
2011 -- Kentucky: Brandon Knight
2010 -- None
2009 -- None
2008 -- Memphis: Derrick Rose; UCLA: Kevin Love