The head coaching career of Frank Martin got off to a fabulous start at Kansas State in large part because of the relatively new NBA age limit, which meant at least one year of college for players before they entered the draft.
Michael Beasley was Martin’s one-and-done stud in 2008.
But Martin didn’t bring South Carolina to his and the program’s first Final Four with a star freshman. No coach did this time.
Upperclassmen provide the star power for this Final Four. There are two freshmen starters among the teams competing for the national championship, and neither is going pro next year.
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Among those not in this year’s Final Four: Kentucky with Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox and Bam Adebayo, Kansas with Josh Jackson, UCLA with Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf, Duke with Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles and Arizona with Lauri Markkanen.
All could be first-round draft selections.
Martin isn’t stunned that the teams that got this far are loaded with veterans.
“Everyone falls in love with the one-and-done phenomenon,” Martin said. “I get it. I coach them too.”
But Martin reflected upon his days as a high school teacher and coach to define the difference between those just a few months removed from their high school graduation and those who have been in college for three or four years.
“I know as a high school teacher when they left my classroom at 18 and they came back two years later to say hello, they’re a completely different human being,” Martin said. “I know as a college coach, the conversations I have with my seniors are completely different than the conversations I had with the same guy when they were freshmen. There’s a maturity factor.
“The older we get, the less we give in to the emotion of a moment and the more we stay focused in on what matters, which is the moment that we’re in, so we can act the right way and perform and think the right way. And I think that’s why the older teams usually figure out a way to make it to this stage, in this moment.”
Among the probable starters who will take the floor Saturday are six seniors, eight juniors and four sophomores. One non-starting freshman, Gonzaga big man Zach Collins, could make the jump to the NBA after this season. South Carolina plays Gonzaga at 5:09 p.m. and Oregon takes on North Carolina at 7:49. Both games are on CBS.
But none of the big names at the Final Four are expected to be among the first 10 players taken in the NBA Draft. The projections are loaded with freshmen and international players.
The first Final Four participant who shows up on mock drafts is North Carolina junior forward Justin Jackson. The next prospects from the quartet in draft order might be Oregon forward Jordan Bell or swing Dillon Brooks or South Carolina guard Sindarius Thornwell, perhaps in the second round, according to draftexpress.com.
One and done entered the NBA and college basketball more than a decade ago. Beginning with the 2005-06 season, the NBA increased the draft’s entry age from 18 to 19 and required prospects to spend one year removed from high school.
The first year, only one true freshman, Memphis forward Shawne Williams, was selected in the first round. But 2007 was a different story.
The top two selections were freshmen Greg Oden of Ohio State and Texas’ Kevin Durant. Another freshman, Oden’s teammate Mike Conley, went fourth. They had led the Buckeyes to the Final Four that season.
There have been two championship teams over the past decade led by one-and-done stars: Kentucky and Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague in 2012, and Duke in 2015 with Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones. All were first-round draft selections.
Others like Memphis’ Derrick Rose, UCLA’s Kevin Love, and Kentucky’s 2014 team that started five freshmen in the title game had great success with one-and-dones.
“In many of those cases, teams didn’t have one player who was a one-and-done but multiple players like that,” said Dan Gavitt, NCAA vice president of men’s basketball.
Gavitt contends that the NCAA Tournament has become such a grind that a team with experience is better equipped to handle the challenge.
“It’s more competitive than it’s ever been,” said Gavitt, citing such second-round matchups as Kentucky-Wichita State, Michigan-Louisville, Kansas-Michigan State and Wisconsin-Villanova.
“Those are Sweet 16-type games, even Elite Eight,” Gavitt said. “For a young team to go through a gauntlet that begins like that, I just think that’s very difficult.”
Gavitt cited Oregon as an example of a team that used the experience of last season’s loss to Oklahoma in the regional final to better their Midwest Regional title game effort against Kansas. The Jayhawks owned the same regional-loss motivation. But they also had relied on Jackson, the freshman who collected his second foul 2 1/2 minutes into the game and never seemed to find his rhythm.
North Carolina outlasted Kentucky and Monk and Fox in the South Regional final after falling to the Wildcats during the regular season. In that regular-season game, Monk scored 47 points in one of the top individual performances of the season.
In the rematch, with a Final Four berth on the line, Monk had 12. But he hit two huge three-pointers — and Fox had another one in the game’s final minutes.
Still, when asked before the game about Kentucky having the freshman stars and not North Carolina, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said, “He got ’em, and I didn’t.”
But the Tar Heels are in the Final Four for the second straight without a one-and-done. Last year’s finale, Villanova’s buzzer-beating triumph over North Carolina, included no one-and-dones on either roster.
Once again, star power has a different meaning at this Final Four. There might be future NBA stars playing this weekend. But they will have been in college for more than one year.