Wiedmer: Like it not, one-and-done works at UK

Wiedmer: Like it not, one-and-done works at UK

April 4th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

According to Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari, into the Wildcats' locker room a few weeks ago was wheeled a casket, from which Cal soon popped up proclaiming, "We aren't dead yet."

Now his youngest Kiddie Kats team ever -- and that's saying something for Coach One-and-Done -- has reached Cal's third Final Four in four seasons despite being presented the toughest draw of the NCAA tournament.

Yet having conquered pesky Kansas State, previously undefeated Wichita State, defending national champ Louisville and 2013 national runner-up Michigan by a total of 17 points, can UK's five freshman starters somehow squeeze the life out of Wisconsin on Saturday and the Florida-UConn winner on Monday to claim the school's ninth national championship?

And if they can, is their successful reliance on a one-and-done philosophy a good thing for the college game going forward?

"It's not my rule" is Cal's mantra, and he's correct. It's an NBA rule that states players must be 20 years old to play in the professional league. Nor is the UK coach the only guy out there signing guys who expect to flee their college choices after a single season.

Duke's Mike Krzyzewski -- arguably the most respected coach in the game -- built this year's Blue Devils around forward Jabari Parker. Kansas coach Bill Self hung the Jayhawks' high hopes on two rookies, Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. Syracuse, despite a veteran team overall, placed much of its trust in freshman point guard Tyler Ennis.

Check your NCAA tournament brackets today, and none of those three reached the Sweet 16. And though the Jayhawks were without the 7-foot Embiid, whose back injury may have cost them a national championship, almost no one nationally could match their freshman lottery picks with top-shelf veteran talent.

So how does Cal do it? Is this UK bunch -- the first to start five freshmen since Michigan's Fab Five in 1992 -- as good as those guys, who lost to Duke by 20 in that year's championship game? Could they actually be better? Or is Big Blue about to become the odd man out in a Final Four otherwise stocked with great experience, from Florida's fab four seniors -- including point guard Scottie Wilbekin, arguably the best player in the tournament to this point -- to Connecticut's junior-senior roster to Wisconsin's junior-dominated squad?

Asked to compare these Wildcats with those 1992 Wolverines, the Fab Five's Jalen Rose noted, "You have to remember we were going against junior- and senior-dominated teams. It's different now."

While he's certainly right overall, take away Kentucky and this Final Four is exactly that -- veteran squads that have been building for this moment for several years, especially Florida, which has gone out in the Elite Eight each of the past three seasons.

If you think this weekend doesn't mean everything to the grizzled Gators, consider this quote from center Patric Young last weekend: "Our goal wasn't to become South champions. It was to become national champions."

Every team in the country somewhat has that same goal, certainly every team that reaches a regional final. But only Kentucky seems to keep getting there year after year with freshmen in multiple key roles. And with four McDonald's All-Americans already signed for next season, the formula isn't being altered much.

And though a mass freshman exodus once seemed unlikely of this team, at least five UK players -- freshmen Julius Randle, Aaron and Andrew Harrison, James Young and injured sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein -- are now projected to go in this summer's first round.

"It should be a two-year rule," Cal said last week. "But it has nothing to do with me or the NCAA. Now, would I rather have had Anthony Davis (the freshman MOP of the 2012 Final Four and that year's overall No. 1 NBA draft pick) on my team right now? Yeah. But I kind of like what he's doing in the league for him and his family."

Won-and-done, the Wildcats faithful playfully called that season. The Big Blue Nation may reprise that thought come Monday night inside the new Cowboys Stadium that Jerry Jones built. Or it may go to a team taking a more traditional route, one shaped by mature upperclassmen who have paid their dues.

And it would seem both fair and just for a Florida, UConn or Wisconsin to win it all, if only for all the years they've put in to get there. Yet the pressure is greater for them, too. Think of the Florida or UConn seniors, knowing that they have to win or else their tomorrow's gone. For UK, the future is always next year's recruiting class, new hope without being haunted by past failures.

The fans, even UK's, might almost universally rather watch their heroes grow. To borrow a line from Louisville coach Rick Pitino, who formerly coached Big Blue: "I just can't say hello and goodbye in eight months."

But Indiana waited four years to fall apart in last year's Sweet 16. Michigan State likewise fell short this season with veterans. Sport can be cruel. Especially in a one-loss-and-you're-out format.

"As a coach, you're only as good as your players are," Florida coach Billy Donovan said earlier this week. "There's a lot of great coaches out there that have never had a chance to get to a Final Four."

Then there's Cal, who's gotten there three times in the last four years with three vastly different rosters.

"We're going in a little bit blind," Cal said earlier this week, despite the fact his Kittens are the only one of the Final Four teams to have played in Jerry's World, having there to Baylor in early December. "But we've got good skill. We've got good size. We've got good toughness."

And as long as he keeps getting to the Final Four, Cal's one-and-done model won't fall dead any time soon.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com