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A Different Shade of Blue Blood

Roy Williams hasn’t seen a freshman leave North Carolina for the NBA in a decade, and yet in the age of the one-and-done, the Tar Heels remain a perennial tournament powerhouse

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

When Luke Maye channeled Christian Laettner to stun Kentucky in the Elite Eight, the last of this year’s great freshman class was knocked out of the NCAA tournament. The first 10 picks in the upcoming draft could be one-and-done players, and none of them will be playing in the Final Four. North Carolina, the favorite to cut down the nets in Phoenix, brings its only freshman McDonald’s All American (center Tony Bradley) off the bench. It’s hard to know what Bradley is capable of because he doesn’t play much behind senior big men Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks. UNC hasn’t kept up with Duke and Kentucky in recruiting in recent years, but that hasn’t kept them from being a perennial national title contender. Even for the best teams, building around guys who stay more than one season in college is a more sustainable way to develop a program.

Since the one-and-done era began in 2006, Brandan Wright has been the only UNC player who has gone directly to the NBA after his freshman season. That’s not entirely by choice: UNC has had an academic scandal and the threat of major NCAA sanctions hanging over its athletic department since 2015, while Williams’s refusal to offer scholarships to players early in the recruiting process has killed his chances of competing for elite prospects. The Tar Heels would’ve loved to have had Brandon Ingram, a North Carolina native, on their roster last season, but they still reached the national title game without him. They have made lemonade out of lemons, using older and more experienced teams with less talented rosters to play deep into March on an annual basis.

The core of this year’s UNC team was recruited three and four years ago. Meeks and Hicks were McDonald’s All Americans in 2013, the same class as Julius Randle, Andrew Wiggins, and Jabari Parker, who are all up for extensions on their NBA rookie contracts this summer. Joel Berry II, Theo Pinson, and Justin Jackson were McDonald’s All Americans in 2014, the same class as Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor, and Justise Winslow. All five of UNC’s starters are being looked at by NBA scouts, but Jackson is the only one guaranteed to play at the next level. Hicks and Meeks don’t have the perimeter game that NBA teams want in big men these days, while Berry is undersize and Pinson has struggled with injuries, inconsistency, and his outside shot. They all have an Achilles’ heel in their games that could prevent them from playing in the NBA, but at the college level, that kind of talent adds up. The new market inefficiency in college basketball is high-level recruits who lack NBA measurables, because they have no choice but to stay in school.

It was the same story with the best two players on last year’s team, Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, both of whom stayed four seasons. That type of continuity is a huge luxury for a blue-blood program. In Berry’s three years at North Carolina, Kentucky coach John Calipari has cycled through three different point guards — Andrew Harrison, Tyler Ulis, and De’Aaron Fox. Fox has a much brighter future in the NBA, but he wasn’t able to outclass Berry on Sunday in the same way he did fellow freshman Lonzo Ball in the Sweet 16. In the crucible of the NCAA tournament, experienced players often outplay guys more talented than them. Frank Kaminsky got the better of Towns in the 2015 Final Four, something that will get only more unbelievable as time goes by.

Part of the advantage that older players have is the infrastructure around them. Everyone in UNC’s starting five has played together before, and they all understand their roles on both sides of the court and what Williams wants from them. The Tar Heels always play at one of the fastest paces in the country, and they throw waves of big men with NBA-caliber size and speed at opponents. Very few teams have the speed to run with UNC in transition and the size to hang with them in the paint, which allows them to overcome rosters that don’t always shoot well and can struggle to execute in the half court. The key for Williams’s teams is always the point guard who pushes the pace and commands the offense: He won national titles with Ray Felton and Ty Lawson running the show, and Berry will have a chance to follow in their shoes if they can win two more games over the next few days.

Kentucky, by contrast, makes up everything on the fly each season. Fox, Malik Monk, and Bam Adebayo are still figuring out who they are as players, and they will have had a very limited window of time to mesh in Lexington if they all end up declaring for the draft, which seems likely. They didn’t have many older players to lean on because the heart of last season’s team — Ulis, Jamal Murray, and Skal Labissiere — is already in the NBA. It’s no coincidence that Derek Willis and Dominique Hawkins played the best basketball of their careers as seniors. For as talented as Kentucky was when it had Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in 2012, it might not have won the national title without senior Darius Miller, a second-round pick of the Pelicans who got only a cup of coffee in the NBA.

The ideal team-building scenario is probably a mix of older role players and a freshman star, like what Kansas had with Josh Jackson this season, where they used him as a small-ball power forward next to two seniors (point guard Frank Mason and center Landen Lucas) and two juniors (guards Devonte’ Graham and Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk). Kansas was one of the favorites to win it all, but it was knocked off by Oregon in the Elite Eight thanks in large part to Jackson being in foul trouble for most of the game. Self built a great team around Jackson, but when there is only a short amount of time to take advantage of a freshman’s presence, the margin for error with one-and-dones is nonexistent.

Let’s compare what Williams, Calipari, and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski have done over the last decade.

If you organized a pickup tournament among the best players from UNC, Duke, and Kentucky over the last decade, the former Tar Heels would get run off the floor. Williams hasn’t coached a single NBA All-Star in his 14 seasons in Chapel Hill. Calipari had Devin Booker (who dropped 70 points on the Celtics over the weekend) coming off his bench in 2015. The best NBA players Williams has produced at UNC are Danny Green, Lawson, and Harrison Barnes. Yet despite the disparity in talent, Williams has had just as much success as his peers at other blue-blood programs.

UNC will face a mirror image of itself this weekend when it goes up against Oregon, a team stocked with upperclassmen who are fringe NBA prospects. DraftExpress has Oregon juniors Jordan Bell and Dillon Brooks projected as second-round picks in the upcoming draft, while junior guard Tyler Dorsey could play his way into the league thanks to his ability to shoot 3s off the dribble. Oregon is the last Pac-12 team standing, even though it doesn’t have nearly as many future NBA players as either UCLA or Arizona.

Having the most talented players can get a coach only so far in March. If there’s anything this year’s tournament has shown, it’s that even players from the strongest freshman class in recent memory can’t carry teams to the Final Four. They need some luck to make it that far, but they also need to be part of a well-constructed team that is better than the sum of its parts. There’s no substitute for experience. Just imagine how much better Fox, Monk, and Adebayo would be if they were to come back to play in next year’s tournament. Kentucky will have a whole new crew of über-talented freshmen next season, but UNC will likely still have all of Berry, Pinson, Bradley, and Maye. In the world of college recruiting, Williams is the tortoise and Calipari and Coach K are the hares.