By Dave Skretta
The Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — A bunch of one-and-done phenoms brought together by Kentucky coach John Calipari stepped onto the floor into the spotlight of the cavernous Superdome 10 years ago, oozing with the kind of NBA potential that made it clear their college basketball careers were about to end at the Final Four.
Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the rest of them went out on top, too, beating Kansas in the Big Easy to deliver the Wildcats their eighth national championship and Calipari the first of his career.
Fast-forward to the present, and the return of the Final Four to New Orleans, and there is a much more old-school feel to the national semifinals as each of the the participants — Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Villanova — benefited in one way or another from COVID-19 waivers, medical redshirts and the explosion of the transfer portal.
“It’s the oldest that college basketball has ever been,” acknowledged Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, “so as a result of that, it’s going to be tougher to win. I mean, I think (Shane) Battier played the most games here, 130-something. We’re playing against guys that have played 160 games, sometimes three of them are on the other team. That’s a lot.”
Indeed, all four teams in the Big Easy have the kind of savvy veterans once seemed endangered in the world of big-time college hoops, and together they are proving on the game’s biggest stage that experience still matters.
“That’s why we shouldn’t be shocked at anything that’s happened in the tournament,” the retiring Krzyzewski said, “because the age differential is so dramatic. For us, it’s been dramatic.”
Yes, the Blue Devils are the youngest team in New Orleans, but everything is relative. They still feature senior Joey Baker and fifth-year senior Theo John, who began his career at Marquette and is about to play in his 162nd game.
The experience has paid off. Young, talented teams such as Memphis were bounced early out of the NCAA Tournament, while hardened teams such as Providence, Saint Peter’s and Miami made runs into the second weekend.
“It takes a significant amount of time to get everyone to buy into your program,” explained Jayhawks coach Bill Self, who has had more success with veteran teams than with one-and-dones such as Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid.
“Goal,” Self cautioned, “I would say that talent plus experience is what wins.”
Good luck finding a team more experienced than Kansas.
— Backup guard Jalen-Coleman Lands will play in his 171st game spanning stints at Illinois, DePaul and Iowa State when the Jayhawks face Villanova, trailing Iowa’s Jordan Bohannon and USC’s Chevez Goodwin for the most in Division I history.
— Mitch Lightfoot will play in his 167th game and second Final Four after making it with the Jayhawks in 2018.
— Arizona State transfer Remy Martin and big man David McCormack will have surpassed 130 games by the time their season ends, while All-American guard Ochai Agbaji is about to play his 121st game for Kansas.
In fact, the Jayhawks’ top eight scorers have appeared in 965 games — almost certainly a record for a Final Four team.
Maybe for any team.
The Jayhawks aren’t alone. Brady Manek spent four seasons at Oklahoma, transferred to North Carolina for one more, and will play in his 160th game against Duke in the second semifinal Saturday night. Villanova has two players, Collin Gillespie and Jermaine Samuels, who have played more than 150 games apiece, and two more who have topped 100.
Over the years, the Wildcats have become the poster program for winning with experience.
When they captured the national championship in 2016, they had four starters that had played at least 100 games, led by seniors Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu. The top six scorers on coach Jay Wright’s 2018 title team, which romped past Lightfoot and the Jayhawks in the Final Four, included four juniors along with senior Phil Booth.
“Everyone should applaud what they’ve built there, and of course Jay is the ringmaster of that,” Self said, “and how they develop their guys and fundamental they are. You have to beat them; they don’t beat themselves. And when you have older players, I do think a culture can exist, and they would be the top of our profession.
“When you look at our situation,” Self said, “we had Josh (Jackson) who was one-and-done, and I guess Wiggs and Jo were one-and-dones. That’s going back to 2014. But we’ve done it with older kids, too. We’ve done it with the Frank Masons and the Devonte Grahams and Landon Lucas. We’ve had comparable success with, you know, older guys.”
Everyone in this year’s Final Four has older guys, though.
The combined experience of Duke, again the youngest of the bunch, still far outpaces that 2012 Kentucky team or another collection of one-and-done national champs: the Blue Devils of Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow.
Their title in 2015 might have been the high-water mark of the one-and-done championship era, though. The rise of the G League, Overtime Elite and more overseas opportunities are providing alternative pathways to some of the best prep prospects. As a result the talent level of programs relying primarily on freshmen and sophomores is not quite the same, and in many cases, they can no longer rely on pure ability to beat teams that have been together for years.
Meanwhile, the recent passage of NIL legislation is allowing college athletes to earn endorsement money in college, giving them another reason to stick around when they might otherwise chase a professional career.
“Some of these teams, they’ve got kids, some of them are in their sixth year of school, because maybe they redshirted and now they’ve got the COVID year,” Florida Gulf Coast athletic director Ken Kavanagh said. “You’ve got older teams and they are maybe not good enough (players) to go to the NBA, but they’re really good, talented players who can make a difference.
“Older teams that have been playing together are usually more experienced than kids who are 17, 18 years old.”
Four of those older teams are the last ones standing in New Orleans this week.
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Kavanagh said.