Strange doings on tobacco road

On Friday night, I watched the ACC tournament semifinal game between North Carolina and Duke. It was my first viewing this season of these college basketball powerhouses.

Two things surprised me. First, Duke, famous for its hard-nosed man-to-man defense, played a zone. Second, North Carolina’s oft-maligned Theo Pinson was dominating the game as kind of point-forward. The day before, Pinson had scored 25 points against a nationally-ranked Miami team. Against Duke, he wasn’t scoring that much, but picked apart Mike Krzyzewski’s zone defense.

There’s a relationship between my two observations. To understand it, let’s begin by noting that Duke basketball has become the king of one-and-done programs — programs that recruit the very best high school basketball players knowing that, if the players live up to their billing, they will be done with school and heading to the NBA after one season.

Kentucky used to be the king of one-and-done programs, and its coach, Jim Calipari, received plenty of criticism for it. But Duke pulled even with Kentucky in this department a few years ago and now has surpassed it.

In this mock NBA draft, Duke’s Marvin Bagley, a freshman, is projected to be the third overall pick (some mock drafts have him as the very first pick). Freshman Wendell Carter also projects as a lottery pick and freshman Gary Trent as a first rounder. Frosh Trevon Duval comes off the board very early in the second round. (Grayson Allen, a sharp-shooting enior noted for tripping opponents, is also projected to go in the first round).

Kentucky lags behind Duke, with two freshmen projected as late lottery picks and one as a late first rounder.

Not many high school players enter college ready to excel in man-to-man defense at the ACC level; nor can even Coach K be expected to get them to excel at this in the first year. I suspect that’s a major reason why Duke was playing man-to-man defense down the stretch this season.

Theo Pinson is typical of the player Tar Heels coach Roy Williams brings to his program — a highly-regarded high school player but not a prospective one-and-doner. Though I’m pretty sure Williams wouldn’t turn down the likes of Bagley, Carter, Trent, and Duval, getting the Pinson’s of the world gives him a chance to develop players over a multi-year period.

Pinson took a long time to develop. He was only mildly productive as a substitute in his first two years. In year three, he was a solid contributor but a terrible shooter.

This year, Pinson finally blossomed. He led the team in assists, was second in rebounds, managed 10 points per game with a respectable shooting percentage, and continued to excel on defense. Kenny Williams, a junior who also excelled against Duke, is a similar success story.

This is what college basketball used to be about. Fans would watch players develop for four, or at least three, years — improving every season. At Maryland, the team I followed most closely, we marveled at Gary Williams’s ability help moderately recruited players become stars and relatively lightly recruited ones become useful players.

There’s much less of that at the very top programs these days. Some players leave early because the NBA beckons. Others transfer early because they are unhappy with their playing time. In other words, if a player is very good right away, there’s a good chance he’ll leave within two years. If he’s not very good right away, there’s a a good chance he’ll transfer within that same period.

Roy Williams seems to have found the sweet spot at North Carolina. His players generally aren’t quite enough to leave after a year or two, but they are good enough to win national championships as juniors and seniors. And the belief that a national championship might be in their future seems to be enough incentive for players to stick around even if their playing time early on isn’t what they hoped for.

Williams has won three national championships at Carolina in the last 13 years, more than the legendary Dean Smith won in 27 years. (It must be noted, though, that Williams’ basketball team was at the center of a major academic scandal). During this 13-year period, Coach K has won two championships, but just one using the one-and-done model. Calipari also captured one title with one-and-doners.

Villanova, which edged North Carolina for the championship in 2016, uses the Williams model on stilts. Some of its players “red-shirt” — sit out a year while developing — a concept normally associated only with college football.

The NCAA tournament is about to get underway. Villanova is a one-seed, while Duke and Carolina are two-seeds. Kentucky is seeded as a five and, as has been the case with a number of Calipari’s teams, came on strong late in the season.

Let the argument continue.


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