Monday, January 6, 2014

The Freshmen Takeover

By Andrew Jones

The 2013-14 season of college basketball showcases three remarkable freshmen who are the stars of three of the best college basketball programs in the country: Jabari Parker at Duke, Julius Randle at Kentucky, and Andrew Wiggins at Kansas. This is not a new phenomenon. Plenty of teams have been led by first-year players in recent and not so recent memory.

But it is becoming a more of an annual occurrence for certain elect programs. Many of the freshman who carry the weight of their program end up in the NBA after only one season of college basketball, so one has to wonder if this trend is going to spread to other programs, and if it should be embraced or avoided.

It should be observed that not every team can currently even attempt such a philosophy. A mediocre program such as Nebraska would have trouble recruiting one top-50 recruit, much less five of them season after season. Only the best programs in the country can recruit freshmen who are good enough to lead their teams in scoring for a year and then enter the NBA draft. Those recruits are limited. Of the 30 players selected in first round of the 2013 NBA draft, six players selected were freshmen, seven were sophomores, seven were juniors, three were seniors, and seven were from international sources.

So let's look at the one program that has most embraced the trend and one program that has refused the trend and see how they have handled this trend and how well they have each succeeded.

Kentucky Wildcats

Nobody has been infected by the freshmen takeover as much as the Kentucky Wildcats. So far this season, the top four scorers for Kentucky have been freshmen. In 2012-13, the top three scorers for the Wildcats (by points per game) were freshmen. Two of those were selected in the first round of the 2013 NBA draft: Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin. The third, Alex Poythress, went from playing 25.8 minutes per game and averaging 11.2 points per game in 2012-13, second on the team to Goodwin, to playing 18.0 minutes per game and averaging 4.8 points per game in 2013-14, sixth best for Kentucky.

In 2011-12, the Wildcats were led in scoring by freshman Anthony Davis. Their number two and three scorers were sophomores — Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones — and their number four was also a freshman — Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The two freshmen were selected first and second overall in the 2012 draft. The sophomores also left early for the NBA. Oh, and their fifth leader scorer, Marquis Teague, was also a freshman who was drafted in the first round of the 2012 NBA draft.

In 2010-11, Kentucky was led in scoring by freshmen Brandon Knight, Jones, and Lamb. So, the roster for Kentucky could look like this: Knight, Jones, Lamb as seniors; Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist, and Teague as juniors; with Noel and Goodwin as sophomores; and Randle and the host of other Kentucky freshmen of 2013-14. That's at least 12 hugely talented recruits in the past four years, eight of which are currently in the NBA with the other four likely soon to follow.

Without replenishing their stock of freshmen every season, Kentucky would have serious problems. The success of Kentucky over the past three seasons is enough to give pause to anybody with a good enough program to even consider the tactic of using only freshmen over and over and over again.

In 2011, the Wildcats made the Final Four, but lost to UConn in the semifinal game. In 2012, they won the National Championship. In 2013, they didn't make the NCAA tournament. In fact, they lost in the first round of the NIT to Robert Morris.

From 2012 to 2013, the Wildcats showed with complete clarity what you are dealing with when you rely entirely on recruiting freshmen for your program. It's feast or famine. You have to recruit one of the top-10 players at every position every year. And even if your recruiting goes as well as it can and you manage to recruit the best player at every position every year, if they don't gel and play well together, you are in some serious trouble. Or if one of those top players gets injured (Nerlens Noel), you are in some serious trouble.

It's a dangerous game. Kentucky is seeking to rebound from a terrible season. It seems likely they'll make the NCAA tournament in 2013-14, but can they return to the Final Four this season? How about next season with an entirely new lineup of freshmen?

I used to think that Kentucky would never be able to continue their recruiting at this pace, but truthfully, top recruits would probably be more attracted to a program like Kentucky where they can shine, competing for time only with other freshmen and upper classmen with less raw talent who have played limited minutes.

Michigan State Spartans

So the question becomes, are there certain recruits who are too good for even very successful programs to bother recruiting. Michigan State for example, hasn't had a freshman lead them in scoring in the past decade. They are a perennial competitor who has made the NCAA tournament 16 seasons in a row, including one championship and six final fours.

Are teams like Michigan State — who are built upon the previous year, year after year — intentionally avoiding certain recruits? Do elite recruits assume they won't get to be the stars right away at a school like Michigan State? Does Tom Izzo say, "I want you to play here for at least three years?"

Or are we looking at something else entirely? Are schools like Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, and North Carolina built to produce better NBA players than schools like Michigan State? The resume of NBA players coming out of Michigan State during the Tom Izzo era is not amazing. There's Zach Randolph and Jason Richardson, but no other players of serious consequence in the past 20 years.

Compare that to Kentucky with names like John Wall, Anthony Davis, and DeMarcus Cousins, all drafted in the past three years. Kentucky has created 21 current NBA players. Michigan State has created five.

Expanding this analysis to include a dozen other top programs would be interesting, but I think you'd find the top Big Ten schools would reflect the Michigan State philosophy with similar or less success. The top ACC schools, as well as Kansas, would reflect Kentucky's philosophy, though with not quite as much turnover.

Which philosophy is better? That depends on your definition of success. If you want consistency, don't recruit players who will enter the NBA after one season. If you want to produce first round draft picks and high ceiling NBA talent, recruit away!

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