Is one-and-done team building still working? Early struggles at Kentucky, Duke could signal end of an era

Krysten Peek
·8-min read

Head coach John Calipari has produced two first-round draft picks in every NBA draft since 2010. He is the king of recruiting and gets multiple five-stars to join his program every single year. The Wildcats even had the No. 1 recruiting class coming into the 2020-21 season, filled with top players like B.J. Boston, Terrence Clarke, Isaiah Jackson, Lance Ware and Devin Askew.

“Kentucky’s a place where they’re going to develop you,” Askew told Yahoo Sports prior to committing to Kentucky last year. “When you’re on that type of team it’s like, ‘Let’s go. Let’s all go chase our dreams,’ and it feels like a brotherhood. Coach Cal is a great guy and he knows what he’s doing.”

That might all be great for players hoping to make the NBA, but what is it doing collectively for programs having to rebuild year after year?

“It takes time to build new habits and adjust to the college level. I don’t know any coach that has said, ‘Oh yeah, our freshmen are doing great,’ ” one Power Five assistant coach told Yahoo Sports. “It has to be exhausting building a new culture every single year and trying to get these kids to play at a high level competing against older, stronger players.”

Other blue-blood programs have followed Calipari’s mold in recruiting the one-and-done high school players during the past five years. The most memorable class was Duke’s 2018 group with Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones. Coach Mike Krzyzewski landed three top-10 players and the No. 1 point guard coming out of high school. That group made an Elite Eight run, and Williamson, Barrett and Reddish were all top-10 draft picks. College programs will never turn down a Zion-like talent but with the transfer market opening up, it might be the end of collecting young, highly touted high school talent for a year and instead focusing on older, bigger transfers from other schools that already have experience at the college level.

Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari huddles with the team on the sidelines during a game against Kansas. (Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari huddles with the team on the sidelines during a game against Kansas. (Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

There were over 1,000 players in the transfer portal last year and many were ruled eligible to play this season. The NCAA Division I Council will vote in January to allow one-time transfers to have immediate eligibility and not have to sit out a season — a rule that has been in place since the 1960s.

“The new transfer rule will open up a ton of possibilities and cause some programs to maybe not stress so much as not getting a top high school kid,” an SEC assistant coach told Yahoo Sports. “There’s going to be a lot of coaches doing some recruiting in the handshake line, when we’re allowed to do handshake lines again.”

Michigan State went into this week with 11 returning players and a key transfer in former Marquette forward Joey Hauser. Tom Izzo’s team is ranked No. 8 in the nation and took on a young, inexperienced Duke team filled with, you guessed it, five-star, one-and-done talent. The Blue Devils looked lost on defense as Michigan State sophomore guard Rocket Watts got to anywhere he wanted on the court. Offensively, Duke only shot 21.7 percent from the 3-point line and 32.3 percent from the field and Michigan State handed Krzyzewski his first loss of the season.

On the same night 600 miles away, another young, inexperienced Kentucky team was facing No. 7 Kansas. The Wildcats had a brand-new starting lineup, with four freshmen and Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr. That starting five turned the ball over 11 times and didn’t have an answer for Kansas wing Jalen Wilson. The Jayhawks closed out the game and handed Kentucky its second consecutive loss. In the first loss to Richmond, the Wildcats had zero assists in the second half and 21 turnovers. Calipari has already warned fans and the media to be patient with this group.

“We have 10 new guys who have never played for me,” Calipari said after the home opener against Morehead State. “No one’s doing what we’re doing. We got nine games and seven of them are ridiculous. And so it’s going to be a tough road. And I would tell the fans, ‘Don’t you be mad at these kids. Be mad at me.’ I’m fine with that record because I’m the one that wants them to play all these tough games.”

Three games in and Kentucky fans are already getting restless. The huge recruiting wins are not translating to the court. Coach Cal hasn’t made a Final Four appearance since 2015 but has produced 20 NBA players in that time. If changes are to be made, it’s not happening next year. Kentucky already has one of the top recruiting classes, bringing in five-star Daimion Collins and four-stars Nolan Hickman and Bryce Hopkins.

Gonzaga is the No. 1 team in the nation. Baylor, Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois round out the top five. Not a single one of these schools had a top recruiting class coming into this season. While Gonzaga has a star freshman in Jalen Suggs, the supporting cast of players is what makes the Zags so deadly. Senior Corey Kispert led the team in 3-pointers last year and is already averaging 22.3 points per game this season. Sophomore Drew Timme has been a force in the lane and Florida transfer Andrew Nembhard was the best player on the court in Gonzaga’s win over No. 11 West Virginia on Wednesday night.

Baylor’s backcourt duo of MaCio Teague and Jared Butler withdrew their names from the NBA draft and returned for another season. Butler has high expectations for this season and is confident after being one of the top teams last year.

“Hopefully we can win the Big 12 championship and get to the Final Four and win the national title,” Butler told reporters back in August. “Without a doubt, in college basketball, experience is an X-factor. It helped us to go through last year and get more mature and know what it takes to win.”

Rich Kelly of the Boston College Eagles defends Collin Gillespie of the Villanova Wildcats during a game on Nov. 25, 2020. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Rich Kelly of the Boston College Eagles defends Collin Gillespie of the Villanova Wildcats during a game on Nov. 25, 2020. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Villanova has done the best job at retaining returning talent and adding one or two elite freshmen to the team each year. They are one of the favorites to win a national championship this season and have three players from the 2018 championship team. Senior Collin Gillespie and sophomore Justin Moore make up the dynamic backcourt. Both players are averaging over 10 points per game and returning sophomore forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl has been the surprise for the Wildcats this season. There are no true freshmen on the team with center Eric Dixon redshirting last season.

“Villanova’s recruiting strategy is pretty simple. They look for experience, versatility and shooters,” 247 Sports national recruiting director Eric Bossi said. “The coaching staff doesn’t necessarily recruit over current players and they’re able to maximize what they want out of the players they have.”

There could be an end to the one-and-done era in the next few years with the NBA possibly removing the rule altogether, but the G League has provided a different path for top recruits not wanting to play one year of college basketball. Top high school players like Jalen Green, Jonathan Kuminga and Isaiah Todd all elected to join the inaugural G League Ignite team this year instead of going to college.

“My end goal is to be an NBA player and this was the best option for me,” Todd told Yahoo Sports. “I’m in a position right now where I can work on my game every single day and prepare to be a pro on and off the court.”

This is uncharted territory and current top high school recruits are watching closely to see what joining the G League team does to help a player’s draft stock.

“We’ve all been getting phone calls from high school players just asking about the process and how the first couple months have been,” Todd said. “It feels good to be a part of something that’s going to grow the game of basketball and give players other options other than going to college.”

It is still early in the season and hopefully college basketball makes it to March. In an unprecedented season such as this, there is a bigger sense of urgency to get players on the same page. This unique season could expose some of the issues that come with bringing in the best high school talent for one year and trying to rebuild season after season. If schools like Kentucky and Duke can’t find a way to win this year, it might signal the end of the one-and-done powerhouse recruiting class era.

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