by Alex Langer
It might be crazy to think about, given that we’re in the heart of the NFL season, in the middle of the World Series, and just getting back into the NBA season, but NCAA Basketball is almost back. Next week, most basketball programs will play exhibition games as final tune-ups for the non-conference season. On Friday, November 11, the season will tip off with a frenzy of all-day televised basketball featuring the No. 3 Villanova Wildcats, the defending NCAA champions, along with No. 1-ranked Duke University and most of the top-ranked teams. Most of the national attention has been on Duke and No. 2-ranked Kansas, schools that pulled in the top-ranked recruiting class and the top-rated player, respectively (small forward Josh Jackson). Future NBA stars such as Jackson and Duke’s Jayson Tatum stand ready to wow fans of college basketball all winter.
In this preview, I am not going to make any predictions about records and champions. While college basketball is far less unpredictable than the “March Madness" moniker would suggest, it still has one of the more unpredictable playoffs in the U.S. With many new players at new schools in new environments, brought on by the roster turnover made possible by early entry into the NBA Draft, any predictions I make would either be destined for second-guessing, or rooted in blatant partisanship (Arizona Wildcats Final Four, baby!). Instead, I will take a look at two teams, the Kentucky Wildcats and the Villanova Wildcats, to explore the two very different ways college basketball teams build their rosters.
It has been ten years since the National Basketball Association instituted the so-called “one and done” rule, in which a prospect must be one year removed from high school in order to be eligible for the NBA Draft. That rule banned players from going straight from high school to the NBA (a la LeBron James or Kobe Bryant), forcing them to play at least one year in college. What that means is that most of the top talent that goes to college each fall is planning on only playing one year of NCAA basketball. For the top recruiting teams, i.e. the Dukes and Kentuckys and Arizonas of the sport, this means a yearly arms race over a handful of promising talents who stop by for a year and then head off to the NBA. For other teams, it means finding talented athletes without much of an NBA future who are willing to stay for years. While the first strategy seems to be predominant, Villanova’s impressive run to a championship suggests there may be just as much merit in the second.
When the one-and-done strategy works, it works spectacularly. After all, it’s hard to fault a strategy of recruiting the most talented players possible and letting their athleticism and talent win the day. Perhaps no team, and no coach, has embodied this strategy better than Kentucky and John Calipari. Since becoming the Wildcats’ coach in 2009, Calipari has hauled in the top-ranked recruiting class all but two times. In those two years, he finished second after Duke. Success on the court often followed these rankings. Kentucky has been to four Final Fours in his eight years as head coach, won a national title in 2012, and went undefeated until losing to Wisconsin in the Final Four in 2015. When Kentucky’s numerous recruits fit well together, they played at levels that few teams could match, most obviously in 2012. Led by freshman phenom Anthony Davis, who went on to be drafted No. 1 overall by the New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans), and stud freshman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (drafted No. 2 overall), the Wildcats won the national championship.
However, the problem with relying on stud freshmen was made clear the next year. Much like the previous year, Kentucky had the top-rated recruiting class, led by can’t-miss prospect Nerlens Noel, a shot-blocking center with enough athleticism to dominate in college. Kentucky looked poised to make a run at repeating. Instead, Noel tore his ACL in February 2013 and the Wildcats failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament, settling for an NIT (National Invitation Tournament) bid and an unsatisfying season. The system Kentucky put in place, with one-and-done players coming and going, left the depth remarkably thin once the star center was injured. For a team like Kentucky, which refreshes its roster with NBA talent every year, there is little incentive for so-called glue guys, three and four-star recruits, to come and sit on the bench for years. Instead, Calipari recruits as many five-star recruits as he can and gambles that most of them will live up to their reputation. The depth can be there, as it was in 2015. However, in years like 2013, the depth was non-existent behind Noel.
Other times the issue isn't injury but immaturity: top ranked players can and do fail to make the transition from prep hoops to the college game. For instance, last season, Cliff Alexander, a McDonald's All-American, went to Kansas, where he was (allegedly) unable to grasp his defensive responsibilities, was buried on Bill Self’s bench and ended up as a second-round draft pick. In 2011, Arizona hauled in the No. 4 recruiting class. Of those four players, however, one was dismissed from the team while on a trip to New York, one was suspended repeatedly for violations of team policy and was dismissed by the end of the season, and one sat on the bench all season before transferring away. The team, which began the season ranked No. 13, missed the NCAA Tournament and lost in the first round of the NIT.
For all its potential pitfalls, the one-and-done strategy has been the most reliable way to make it to the Final Four or win a national championship. The teams that win the recruiting battle tend to be the ones who make the Final Four. However, Villanova University proved that another way was possible. The four recruiting classes leading up to Villanova’s national championship were all unranked by scout.com. Their national championship team did not feature a future NBA player on the roster. The roster was mostly comprised of upperclassmen who had spent two or three years in head coach Jay Wright’s system. While they could not match the absolute talent of their opponents, they won thanks to four years of coaching and an understanding of their roles on the court.
Before 2016, the jokes at coach Jay Wright’s expense focused primarily on his inability to take his team beyond the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Now, however, his strategy bore him Villanova’s second national championship, and his team enters the 2016-2017 season as the No. 3 team and a Final Four favorite. In addition, his recruiting class during the 2016 season ended up as the twentieth-ranked class, and he currently has the tenth-ranked class, with the potential for a few one-and-done players.
This year, when watching NCAA basketball, I encourage you to look at your favorite team and see how they build their roster. Are they relying on stud freshmen for their success? Or are they a team of less talented but well-coached seniors? Is it possible that Villanova’s triumph will lead more teams to vary their recruiting? Arizona, typically a top-ten team, seems focused on finding a mixture of one-and-done players and four year members. Their recruiting class this year boasts the No. 1-ranked recruit, DeAndre Ayton, who is the presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2018 Draft, along with 4-star recruits such as Alex Barcello, who have no NBA future and should play for four seasons. Before last year I’d have claimed that teams like Villanova were steadier, but lacked the chance at immortality, while teams like Kentucky rode the line between greatness and failure. And then came the Villanova Wildcats’ championship, proving that I truly don’t know anything. This year, pay attention to the difference between teams like Kentucky and Duke, relying heavily on the NBA stars of tomorrow, and Villanova and Oregon, who rely on a well-oiled machine of juniors and seniors. Pay attention, as well, to what the teams in between, like Arizona and Michigan State and North Carolina, and whether they take the strengths and weaknesses of both strategies and try to find the perfect middle ground for sustained success. Tip-off is only two weeks away!
 Both these rankings came from scout.com’s ranking system.
 Or by playing overseas for a professional league, which is becoming a more popular option. Brandon Jennings took that route instead of attending the University of Arizona, and this last year Terrance Ferguson, a top-25 ranked player, chose to play in Australia instead of at an American college.
 The fourth, Nick Johnson, stayed for three years, won the PAC12 Player of the Year Award and is currently in the NBA D-League.