The one-and-dones in this year’s NCAA tournament dropped like flies over the weekend. Six potential lottery picks from the freshman class (Deandre Ayton, Michael Porter Jr., Mo Bamba, Trae Young, Lonnie Walker IV, and Daniel Gafford) lost in the first round, while Collin Sexton and Jaren Jackson Jr. joined them in the second. Betting on elite freshmen is a good way to bust your bracket. Even the best 19-year-olds in the nation can’t carry a team in March. They either need a stable infrastructure to plug into, like Derrick Rose at Memphis in 2008, or a bunch of one-and-dones around them, like Kentucky in 2012 or Duke in 2015. Adding a future NBA player for one season can raise a team’s profile, but it isn’t necessarily going to do much in the most important games at the end of the season.
The NCAA tournament isn’t all luck. While anything can happen in a given game, and teams are eliminated on impossible buzzer-beaters every year, stringing together multiple wins is difficult if a team has any glaring weaknesses. Mid-majors without future NBA stars tend to be older and more experienced groups, and upperclassmen who have played together for years know how to get the best out of each other. That rapport becomes the great equalizer in the tournament. A young Power Five team that doesn’t know how to play together can become putty in the hands of a veteran squad, regardless of their star power.
Arizona’s loss to Buffalo is a perfect example. It exposed some of Ayton’s defensive issues, but the Wildcats still had more than enough talent to win. The problem was the way Arizona head coach Sean Miller used his players. Ayton replacing Lauri Markkanen was the only thing that changed stylistically from their upset loss to Xavier in the Sweet 16 last season. The Wildcats didn’t have enough 3-point shooting to space the floor for either of their star big men or the patience to get them the ball. Buffalo packed the paint and dared the Wildcats to jack up tough shots off the dribble, just like Xavier did to them a year ago.
There’s a rot in Miller’s program that goes beyond the FBI investigation. For the second consecutive year, junior guard Allonzo Trier, a fringe second-round pick, took more shots in an elimination game than a lottery-bound 7-footer. Running the offense through Trier instead of Markkanen or Ayton is a criminal misuse of their talents. Miller never properly established roles on his team or got them to play with much discipline on offense. He had the entire season to prepare them for the type of situation they would face in the tournament, and they didn’t look ready for it at all.
A star can be only as good as the team around him, as Texas found out in its 87-83 overtime loss to Nevada in the round of 64 on Friday. The Longhorns had one of the most dominant interior defenders in the country in Bamba, but they didn’t have the personnel to press up on Caleb and Cody Martin—Nevada’s pair of 6-foot-7 wings—and funnel that duo into their freshman big man. With only one wing taller than 6-foot-3, Texas almost had no choice but to play a zone and effectively concede long-range shots. Texas head coach Shaka Smart didn’t have the players to play the fierce brand of man-to-man defense he became known for instilling at VCU.
The Longhorns never overcame the absence of sophomore guard Andrew Jones, who was diagnosed with leukemia in January. Jones was their biggest perimeter player (6-foot-4 and 195 pounds with a 6-foot-7 wingspan) and their best 3-point shooter (47.5 percent from 3 on four attempts per game). He was considered a fringe first-round pick before his diagnosis, but his skill set was more irreplaceable than Bamba’s. Smart had several talented big men besides Bamba who could have done a passable imitation of his star freshman’s role on the team. A balanced roster with players filling every necessary role will usually beat an imbalanced one that needs one dominant player to do everything.
Smart has not been been able to generate momentum in three seasons in Austin because he has never had a complete roster. He had one-and-done big men in consecutive years with Jarrett Allen and Bamba, but the supporting cast wasn’t good enough for it to matter. The Longhorns were 345th the country in 3-point percentage last season, and they were 316th this season. There’s a chance freshman center Jericho Sims, who backed up Bamba, ends up a more impactful college player than either Allen or Bamba because he will have more shooting around him moving forward. Assuming Jones recovers by next season, Smart will have his most well-rounded group of perimeter players since coming to Texas.
The equation is different for Kentucky and Duke, the only schools built around a star freshman to win a national title in the one-and-done era. John Calipari and Coach K get so many five-star recruits that they can build an elite team with only one recruiting class. Six of the eight players in Kentucky’s rotation this weekend were freshmen, as were four of Duke’s five starters. Their biggest problem is having more future NBA players than they can use. An injury to Kentucky freshman Jarred Vanderbilt, the Wildcats’ most talented big man, might have been a blessing in disguise because it forced Calipari to put more shooting on the floor.
Duke and Kentucky were both able to make the Sweet 16 with relative ease because their stars play off of each other and everyone else understands their roles. Calipari figured out his team’s identity at exactly the right time: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander dominates the ball, Kevin Knox hunts for his own shot, and the rest of the team spots up, sets screens, and attacks the offensive glass. Duke plays enough shooters to create room for Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. to work inside, and then sits in a zone to protect them on defense. A good defensive team can always take something away. The key is to have a counter. Duke and Kentucky can make you pay when you overload on one of their stars.
A successful college team has a formula, and losing a piece can cause the whole thing to fall apart. Villanova was up only five points at halftime in its second-round win over Alabama because its starting point guard (junior Jalen Brunson) and center (freshman Omari Spellman) sat most of the first half with two fouls. Junior wing Mikal Bridges, their best NBA prospect, struggled without Brunson to create shots for him, with one point on 0-of-5 shooting. He’s an elite 3-and-D player, not a shot creator. In the second half, with Spellman opening up the floor and Brunson getting into the heart of the defense and kicking the ball out, Bridges exploded for 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting. With everyone back in their proper roles, Villanova wound up winning by 23.
A college coach has to figure out a formula and then develop his players into roles over the course of the season so they can execute it in March. A star freshman, no matter how talented, is at the mercy of the types of players his coach puts around him. Getting a star before you have a team to put around him is putting the cart before the horse. All these freshmen will be drafted in the lottery in a few months by NBA teams hoping they can build a team around them. It’s the opposite of the way it works in college, where their coaches get only one season with them. The team has to already be in place. In the one-and-done era, the star freshman is the final piece, not the foundation.