ARLINGTON, Texas — Kentucky reached the brink of an NCAA title with five freshman starters, including the cool right hand of Aaron Harrison and his decisive 3-pointers in three straight games.
Connecticut got to Monday night’s championship game behind a pair of starters with Final Four experience, and a strong dose of defense.
Wisconsin and Florida rode rosters heavy on upperclassmen to the final weekend, and the Badgers were in position to beat the young Wildcats thanks to their 3-point shooting after 7-foot stalwart Frank Kaminsky was shut down.
Bottom line: There are plenty of ways to make a run in the NCAA tournament. And there will be another batch of potential “one and dones” in the nation’s elite programs no matter how many in the current crop jump to the NBA.
“There’s a lot of different ways to play this game and there’s a lot of different ways to teach it and coach it and play it,” said Kentucky’s John Calipari, the one-and-done king who says the term is too negative and redubbed it “succeed and proceed” during Final Four weekend. “My whole thing is I’m coaching the hand that’s dealt.”
Calipari’s hand has a lot of aces, and he’s facing the annual question of how many will still be there after the NBA draft. Julius Randle, playing for the title in the Dallas area he calls home, seems the most likely to make the jump.
Aaron Harrison is certainly getting a lot of attention after last-second 3s to beat Michigan and Wisconsin and another late shot from long range that put the Wildcats in front of defending national champion Louisville.
Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier and Niels Giffey are seniors who had roles on the Huskies’ national title team in 2011.
“The scope of talent is always a funny word,” said retired UConn coach Jim Calhoun, who won three national titles. “They have that experience. That’s part of the talent.”
UConn fell behind 16-4 before a suffocating defense took Florida leader Scottie Wilbekin out of the game. DeAndre Daniels, a junior, scored from inside and out to keep the Huskies afloat.
Kaminsky had just eight points and five rebounds after being named the outstanding player of the West Regional, but the Badgers made eight from long range and Traevon Jackson forced a foul by Andrew Harrison on a 3-point shot with the score tied in the final seconds.
Jackson, a junior with an NBA pedigree in father Jim Jackson, missed one of the free throws and then a potential game-winner at the buzzer after Aaron Harrison’s shot. That’s the razor-thin difference between programs with vastly different makeups.
“In basketball it might look like there’s different styles, but I’ll tell you, we’re trying to do two things,” Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan said. “We’re trying to get more shots than the other team and we’re trying to get better shots than the other team.”
Chances are the conversations will be similar in a year.
Jahlil Okafor, a top high school prospect out of Chicago, is one of two leading recruits headed to Duke. Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas have signed a pair each as well.
So even if Randle, Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kansas star Andrew Wiggins — who has already announced he’s leaving — are in the NBA, a new batch of freshman stars will be on campus.
Even SMU and Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown might be part of the one-and-done crowd with Emmanuel Mudiay, a point guard. Another top prospect from the Dallas area, Myles Turner, has the Mustangs on his list.
“You need to have an unusual personality in my opinion, patience, to be able to coach that many young kids,” Calhoun said. “Everybody thinks there’s different wants to do it. And there are different ways.”
The Final Four in North Texas is showing it. Next year’s event in Indianapolis probably will, too.