The youngest, most mystifying team in the country will open the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis on Friday, a program led by one-and-done talent and a coach with one shining moment to his name.
Kansas coach Bill Self may be relieved we’re not talking about his team. No, the youngest team in the country is No. 8-seed Kentucky, which will open the tournament against No. 9 Kansas State at the Scottrade Center. For the season, the latest crop of hyped Big Blue freshmen has played 74.2 percent of the minutes for coach John Calipari.
From a historical perspective, it’s a staggering number. By comparison, the famed Fab Five freshman class at Michigan accounted for 68 percent of the minutes while leading the Wolverines to the NCAA title game in 1992. Kentucky is young, and Calipari’s team has played like it.
But as Self prepares to guide his own young team into the murky waters of the NCAA Tournament, the Jayhawks face many of the same questions. The Jayhawks aren’t close to matching Kentucky’s youth brigade — at least from a minutes standpoint — but they are still among the youngest teams in the field.
Kansas’ seven freshmen have played 55.6 percent of the minutes. And as both blue-blood programs convene in St. Louis this weekend, they will provide two interesting test cases for the one-and-done era: How young is too young in the final weeks of March?
“We can’t really get complacent,” said Kansas guard Wayne Selden, one of the seven freshmen on the roster. “Because we know this is close to the end now.”
The following numbers are not necessarily predictive of what will happen during the next three weeks, of course. But the case against freshmen in March is thick.
In the last decade, only one team has won the NCAA title with freshmen playing more than 50 percent of the minutes. That was Calipari’s 2012 Kentucky squad, which defeated KU in the title game while its heralded freshmen class played 54 percent of the minutes. More evidence: Only two teams in the last decade have won a title with freshmen playing more than 40 percent. And from 2004 to 2013, freshmen played less than 21 percent for the eventual champion.
If there’s a counterweight to Kansas and Kentucky, it’s No. 1-seed Florida, which starts four seniors and could face the Jayhawks in an Elite Eight matchup in Memphis, Tenn. Kansas, meanwhile, has one scholarship senior on the roster; forward Tarik Black, who will start in place of freshman Joel Embiid until he’s ready to return from a back injury.
The reasons for the freshmen failures are complicated, coaches say. For one, freshman-dominated teams are rare in college basketball, and freshman-laden teams that can win it all are even more elusive. Talent can trump all in March, but experience can be pivotal.
The stage is bigger, distractions await and one bad night can end a season.
“It’s not exactly how it appears from the outside,” Self said this week. “Because I don’t know that anybody can really grasp that there’s so much more than just being with your team and your team being together (during the tournament). It’s agents. It’s runners. It’s family members. It’s distractions.
“(There) can be things that are legitimate, and things that people want to put things in people’s heads that aren’t so legitimate.”
For seven of Kansas’ top 11 players, this will be their first experience in the NCAA Tournament. It was just two years ago that Jayhawks advanced to the NCAA championship game, but only one scholarship player (junior guard Naadir Tharpe) remains from that team.
Now the Jayhawks must focus in for a tourney run. And when the subject of distractions comes up, perhaps it’s no surprise that Self mentions his 2008 title team.
“That was a wild crew,” Self said. “But for three weeks they just totally, totally gave up themselves to do exactly what we said, and they trusted what we told them was good.”
It was also a veteran crew. In 2008, KU’s freshmen accounted for 6.9 percent of the minutes — the fewest by a title team in the last decade. This time around, the Jayhawks will lean on Tharpe, Black and sophomore Perry Ellis, who have played minutes in the NCAA Tournament.
For all the examples of experience winning out, there are some recent examples that favor youth. There was the Kentucky team in 2012, which started three freshmen, and Michigan reached the title game last year with freshmen playing 51 percent of the minutes.
One year later, Kansas will have an opportunity to be the latest young team to go against the grain. But as the Jayhawks prepare for a run with seven freshmen, Self is hoping for a balanced effort. Sometimes, it’s not a matter of talent vs. experience. It’s about having both.
“We need everybody to play a big role in our potential advance through the tournament,” Self said. “Because we’ve always been a very balanced, team-oriented group.”