How did Kentucky, Duke discover such fights in 2020-21? Let's depend the methods
The last time there was an NCAA tournament without Duke or Kentucky, there really wasn't an "NCAA tournament," and the term "Final Four" wasn't a staple in the sports dictionary. It was just a small group of savvy basketball teams that got together and played a few hoops until UCLA was crowned national champions.
The 1976 NCAA basketball championship went without the Wildcats or the Blue Devils. Back then, it wasn't that big of a deal that either was missing, as this was still a time when the tournament field had recently been liberated from its confinement to conference champions and successful independents. Duke hadn't made it since 1966; This was Kentucky's second missed tournament of the 1970s.
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It's a pretty big deal now. Under John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski, Kentucky and Duke have won three of the last 10 NCAA titles. Duke has played every tournament since 1996; Kentucky has only been absent twice since 1992. And this is a sudden drop because if there had been a tournament in March 2020 it would have likely been at least a number 3.
So what went wrong?
Why is Kentucky 5-11 and seventh in the Southeastern Conference? Why is Duke going to set a 6-7 record in his first game against rival North Carolina this season, where no one has been # 1 for the first time since February 1960? Some of us weren't even born when this game was taking place.
The answer: a lot.
Recruitment. It starts here for both the Blue Devils and the Wildcats. Although they entered the season with recruiting classes # 1 and 3, it's important to understand how the methodology works for these leaderboards. Winning a plethora of five- and four-star players is a big deal, even if one of them isn't a game changer like Anthony Davis or Marvin Bagley – or more specifically, Cade Cunningham or Evan Mobley.
"I think the fundamental difference is that there is a huge difference between the surefire professional – Cade Cunningham, John Wall – and the kid who is only half a step below when you look at one-year-olds and first year children 247 Sports recruiting analyst Brian Snow told Sporting News. "Especially when you play against 22- or 23-year-old boys."
None of the newcomers to Duke or Kentucky averaged 14 points per game, and only three of those players were in double digits. And seven of them start regularly.
Cunningham and Mobley both made the Sporting News All-America team midseason. Cunningham chose Oklahoma State, where his brother was hired as an assistant coach in 2019. Mobley chose Southern California, where his father joined the coaching staff in 2018.
Additionally, two of the top five prospects for 2020, security guard Jalen Green and the great Jonathan Kuminga, have accepted offers to join the G League program.
It was much more difficult to find the best players.
The promising players they got, like Brandon Boston in the UK and Jalen Johnson at Duke, are struggling in a few areas.
"You are not that transformative talent. You are very good," said Snow. "At 18 you can't be the best players on your team, and I think Duke and Kentucky meet them."
Storage. Perhaps the biggest problem that has developed is that so many players who participate in these programs feel that the very mere recruitment they do is magically turning them into professional elite prospects.
Hey it happened to some. Kentucky picked three players who were rated outside the top 30 in their high school grades (Eric Bledsoe, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Tyler Herro) into one-off first-round draft picks. Justise Winslow was number 13 in his recruiting class and only a year later number 10 in the NBA first round selection.
But it doesn't work that way for everyone. Some were sensible about their draft prospects; P. J. Washington stayed in Kentucky for his sophomore year and became a lottery election. Immanuel Quickley was named SEC Player of the Year 2020 and a Knicks selection in the first round. Grayson Allen stayed with Duke for four years and became number 21 in the 2018 draft.
However, these were the exceptions. There were more players like E.J. Montgomery, who averaged 4.8 points and 4.6 rebounds for his two-year career in Great Britain was vacant. And why shouldn't he? He scored 4.8 points per game. He now plays in Lithuania for Nevezis Optibet and averages 2.3 points and 4.0 rebounds.
Duke's Cassius Stanley averaged 12.6 points and shot 36 percent to 3s as a freshman last season. He lasted until the 54th draft election for 2020. He played eight games for the Pacers but will now join the G League's Fort Wayne Mad Ants.
They seem to be feeling the pressure or expectation to immediately succeed as a design prospect because they decided to go to college. Duke has left four players since 2018, pending selection in the second round, and two more who have not been drafted. In Kentucky, three such players were selected in the second round, and three other players are not required.
"Some of the kids make the decision to go to these places and all they want to do is rent Duke or Kentucky, not buy Duke or Kentucky," ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla told SN. "They may love Coach K or Coach Cal, but they really don't want to buy into the program."
Evaluation. When Ashton Hagans left Kentucky after his sophomore season, the Wildcats received an engagement from Point Guard Devin Askew of Mater Dei, California. Though he had to reclassify himself to go to college in 2020, Askew was positioned for the job (and responsibility) that belonged to stars like Wall and Gilgeous-Alexander. He's not gifted enough to handle it. Askew averages 6.6 points and 2.9 assists, despite playing 30 minutes per game.
None of Duke's newcomers, D.J. Steward and Jeremy Roach even shoot 34 percent from 3-point range.
They can develop into players who can be differentiators. But you have to stay for it to happen.
Pandemic. Calipari said on his radio show on Thursday that he had always believed in the development time the UK spent in the summer and early fall of the years leading up to COVID-19 to have so much impact on how college sports work in 2020. But all of these compromises have underscored its importance.
The many young players in both programs did not have the typical summer or season, and in particular they did not have the experience of playing in exhibitions or closed scrimmages.
That made it harder to be ready for the season.
Planning. As he neared the start of the season, Calipari warned that he had over-planned the young Wildcats and that fans would need to be patient. Even he underestimated how wrong he was about this department.
As the schedule was cut short due to the pandemic, the UK lost a number of "buy games" that normally take place at the Rupp Arena. This helps ensure that the sports department makes money and that the team can meet the demands of the large conference circles.
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The Wildcats played a single game against a medium-sized opponent, Morehead State. Every second game was against a big opponent. They didn't have a chance to familiarize themselves with the system, their roles, or the idea of playing Division I basketball. Winning is a habit, as is losing. It is obvious which one became more familiar.
Duke had similar problems for a number of reasons. It faced Coppin State and Bellarmine, but three similar games were canceled due to COVID protocols. One was supposed to be postponed, but when Krzyzewski became concerned about how the pandemic was affecting his players, he abandoned the game so his players could take a break for Christmas.
And so the 2020-21 season was not a holiday either.
"There's no question that the older teams are a little less affected this season," said Fraschilla. "The talent levels at Duke and Kentucky failed to overcome the drawbacks created by the pandemic.
"There have been adversity in so many different forms on a daily basis. And the fact that these two recruiting classes are subpar by Duke and Kentucky standards. But an equally big factor for me is that their competition has figured out the only option for these teams in building older teams that can compete with the young, talented teams. "