The players didn’t get it wrong.
Those who projected their teams did.
Kansas and Kentucky are in different NCAA Tournament regions but will play the first weekend under the same roof at the Scottrade Center.
Two of the game’s most hyped players will compete on the same floor Friday, Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Kentucky’s Julius Randle.
They’re having superb seasons, along with other mega-hyped freshmen such as Duke’s Jabari Parker and the Jayhawks’ Joel Embiid.
But the Jayhawks and Wildcats fell somewhat short of their November projections, predictions that were based on the ability, advanced as it was, of 18-year-olds.
Kentucky was preseason No. 1. The Wildcats, seeded eighth in the Midwest Region, returned two players who started at the end of last season and are expected to start five freshmen against Kansas State on Friday night.
Kansas, a No. 2 seed set to battle Eastern Kentucky in the South Region, replaced its entire starting lineup from last year, and three freshmen started most of the season. Yet, the Jayhawks were ranked fifth in the preseason. They are 10th today.
Why was so much faith put in freshman-led teams, ones that invested heavily in the one-and-done type talent?
Julius Randle couldn’t have been more uninterested in the topic.
“That’s up for y’all to decide,” Randle said. “I don’t care about preseason expectations. We’re in the postseason now. That’s all I care about.”
But the early-season hype, like Kentucky’s comparisons to Michigan’s famed Fab Five, and Wiggins to LeBron James, spelled disappointment early. The Wildcats lost three of their first 11. Kansas lost four nonconference games.
More experienced teams, with older talent zoomed ahead. The top seeds, Florida, Wichita State, Arizona and Virginia, have a total of two freshman starters. The favorite to sweep the national player of the year awards is a senior, Creighton’s Doug McDermott. Maybe the hottest player entering the tournament is Louisville guard Russ Smith, a senior.
But this wasn’t billed as the year of the senior or experienced teams. College basketball was mesmerized by the precocious talent.
It started with the Champions Classic in November that featured all of the top freshmen, salivating fans in losing NBA cities, and ran through a regular season of team highlights that featured one of the freshmen, no matter the game’s outcome or greater production by teammates.
If anything, the hype clouded the perspective. Even top-level freshmen need time to develop, but that’s not what anybody wanted to see. Excellence from the teams and stardom from the players, from the outset, was the expectation.
“I don’t think it was fair at the start,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “People take for granted that sometimes just because they come in with hype that automatically in November they should be better than 21- or 22-year-old men. That doesn’t happen often. It does some, but not often.”
This is the world of one-and-dones, the NBA-created rule that keeps players from entering its league until they’re 19, which essentially requires top talent to spend a year in college.
In the ninth year of the rule, debate has gone high profile. In the last few weeks, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban suggested elite prospects would be better served in NBA’s D-League. SMU coach Larry Brown strongly disagreed.
New NBA commissioner Adam Silver said he believes a 20-year-old minimum would benefit the pro and college games. The NBA Players Association has the ultimate say. Others have suggested the baseball rule. Prospects could be drafted out of high school, but those who enroll must remain for at least three years.
Randle, Wiggins and Kansas guard Wayne Selden, a freshman who has appeared as a first-round selection in draft projections, were asked about the one-and-done, and all essentially found it a moot point. None had the option to bypass college.
“I go with the flow, follow the rules,” Selden said. “There are some kids who come out of high school that are ready for the pros.”
In the one-and-done history, only one freshman-dominated team has won the NCAA championship, Kentucky in 2012. And that team, led by Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, also started two sophomores.
Other freshmen have carried teams to titles, notably Syracuse’s Carmelo Anthony in 2003 and Louisville’s Pervis Ellison in 1986. But those weren’t freshman-dominated teams.
Those young, freshman-dominated teams don’t tend to make big pushes in March. Their noise was made in November.