By Rustin Dodd
LAWRENCE — So youth has been the story in college basketball this season, here in Kansas and throughout the country.
From the rather premature 40-0 talk at Kentucky, to the early-season dominance of Jabari Parker, to the fog of hype and scrutiny surrounding Andrew Wiggins, to the midseason rise of Joel Embiid. It’s been a year for the uber-prospect — even if the most productive (and perhaps best) player in college basketball is a four-year senior who didn’t think he was good enough to play in the Big 12.
But as we move closer to March, brace yourself for more talk about youth. Can a team dependent on freshmen be the last one standing at the Final Four in Arlington, Texas?
It’s a good question to ponder, so let’s start here:
In the last decade, only one team has won the NCAA title with freshmen playing more than 50 percent of the minutes. And only two teams have won with freshmen playing more than 40 percent of the minutes. More evidence for experience: From 2004 to 2013, freshmen played, on average, just fewer than than 21 percent of the minutes for the team that won the title.
So what does it mean? Maybe not as much as you’d think. Most freshmen don’t play a ton of minutes, because well, most freshmen aren’t very good. It’s rare that freshmen-centric teams win the title, but that’s partly because freshmen-centric teams are rare to begin with.
Still, recent history suggest it’s possible:
– Two years ago, Kentucky won it all in New Orleans with freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and point guard Marcus Teague leading the way. The Kentucky freshman class played 54 percent of the minutes.
– In 2011, Connecticut won the championship with a surprising tourney run; junior guard Kemba Walker did most of the heavy lifting, but the Huskies’ freshmen played 47 percent of the minutes.
– And last year, Michigan went to the NCAA title game with a class of freshmen that accounted for 51.4 percent of the Wolverines’ minutes.
All of those teams, of course, had veterans (well, sophomores at least) playing crucial roles. Kentucky had Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb; UConn had Walker; Michigan had Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.
That brings us to this year, and two freshmen-dominated teams.
In 22 games, Kentucky’s crop of McDonald’s All-Americans have played 74.6 percent of the minutes for John Calipari. That is, quite simply, taking freshmen dependence to the extreme. (In a preseason study, Sports Illustrated found only two teams that have relied that much on freshmen: Michigan’s Fab Five, which played 68.5 percent of the minutes; and Texas in 2006-07, which was Kevin Durant’s class.)
Meanwhile, in Lawrence, Bill Self’s freshmen have played nearly 57 percent of the minutes — a profile much closer to Anthony Davis and Co. than the Fab Five. So while we’ll likely spend the next few months gauging the development of Wiggins and Embiid, maybe we should remember this: The emergence of junior guard Naadir Tharpe has been just as key to the Jayhawks’ 8-1 record in the Big 12.
Here it comes, the same question for the next two months: Is Kansas too young to do damage in March? It’s a worthwhile debate, but it also obscures this point: If you’re going to win with freshmen, you need the right freshmen, of course. But you also need the right mix.
So while KU’s freshmen play 57 percent of the minutes, the Jayhawks’ tourney prospects could hinge on the veterans — the other 43 percent.
Here’s a look at the percentage of minutes freshmen played for the last 10 NCAA champions:
2013: Louisville, 8.1 percent
2012: Kentucky, 54 percent
2011: Connecticut, 47 percent
2010: Duke, 14.8 percent
2009: North Carolina, 16.8 percent
2008: Kansas, 6.9 percent
2007: Florida, 7.8 percent
2006: Florida, 13.7 percent
2005: North Carolina, 14.0 percent
2004: Connecticut, 21.3 percent