Duke, Kentucky again rely on freshmen in tournament
Duke and Kentucky are viewed as the masters of the one-and-done era, winning championships with extraordinarily young rosters.
Both programs have a chance to do it again.
After several potential one-and-done phenoms were bounced from the NCAA Tournament in the opening weekend, the Blue Devils and Wildcats are the teams still playing that have rosters stacked with high-profile freshmen.
Duke, the No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region, starts four freshmen — led by Wooden Award finalist Marvin Bagley III — while Kentucky, the South’s No. 5 seed, features Kevin Knox as its centerpiece.
The Wildcats (26-10), arguably the biggest beneficiary of a run of upsets in the South, play ninth-seeded Kansas State tonight in Atlanta. The following night, Duke (28-7) faces a rematch with 11th-seeded Syracuse in a Midwest semifinal in Omaha, Neb.
Hall of Fame Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said his freshmen are “not afraid of the moment. It’s how much preparation do they have for the moment?
“We’re trying to condense about four years into eight months,” he said. “I don’t know how it’s going to turn out. You just kind of live it.”
Among the star freshmen who didn’t make it to the tournament’s second weekend were Arizona’s Deandre Ayton, Oklahoma’s Trae Young, Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr., Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson, Alabama’s Collin Sexton and Texas’ Mohamed Bamba. Young and Bamba have already declared for the NBA draft, and Ayton joined them Wednesday.
Both the Blue Devils and Wildcats have previously had predominantly young teams cut down the nets at past Final Fours. Kentucky won a national title in 2012 behind top-two draft picks Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, while Duke’s most recent national title came in 2015 behind three one-and-done freshmen — Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones.
This Duke team has looked capable of joining that squad, with four freshmen averaging double figures in their two NCAA Tournament games, led by Bagley’s 22.0 scoring average. Another of those freshmen, forward Wendell Carter Jr., believes the Blue Devils are “reaching our peak at the right time” and have “developed into a team that can crush another team, our opponent.
“I try not to look ahead about this being my last year or anything,” Carter said. “I’m just living in the moment.”
The Blue Devils have three players - Bagley, Carter and point guard Trevon Duval - in the top seven of the 2017 recruiting class, according to 247Sports. The fourth freshman, Gary Trent Jr., was rated No. 17 by the service.
The highest-rated members of Kentucky’s class are Hamidou Diallo, Knox and Jarred Vanderbilt — who are ranked 10th-12th by 247Sports — as well as Nick Richards, who’s No. 18. [Point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander arrived as a relatively unheralded recruit.) No other top-20 ranked players are still playing in the NCAA Tournament.
“No one really cares what the [NBA] is telling you to do, you’ve just got to come out and do what you do best,” Knox said. “And that’s why (coach John Calipari) has sat down with each and every one of us and told us what we need to do for the team, and that’s what we’ve been able to do.”
Calipari has said his group “needed to fail as a team” to figure out how to win. The Wildcats in January dropped out of the Top 25 for the first time since 2014, then in February lost four in a row to NCAA Tournament team. But Kentucky enters the Sweet 16 on a five-game winning streak and are the highest remaining seed in the South.
Of his group, Krzyzewski said he doubts “they have ever felt pressure.”
It showed last weekend when the Blue Devils beat both Iona and Rhode Island by at least 20 points to cruise into their 26th Sweet 16.
“It’s not just pressure being off, it’s confidence growing,” Krzyzewski said. “We know [as coaches], if we lose, that’s it. But they don’t look at, ‘That’s it.’ No, the reality is, that’s it, and that’s a different way of looking at it.
“Dealing with reality is good. Being nervous about it is not good.”