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Next season, UNC will welcome one-and-done talent. Will it be successful?

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Nassir Little is a legit one-and-done talent. What does that mean for UNC?

2018 McDonald’s All American Game Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

With the NBA draft behind us and UNC’s three freshman recruits stepping foot on campus this week, there is an undeniable sense of excitement about the talent that will take the court for the Heels next season. This is especially true with recruit Nassir Little who comes as the most highly ranked recruit since Harrison Barnes committed to Roy Williams’ program in 2010. There is no doubt that Little is an OAD (one-and-done) talent. If he desires to leave school after one year, he will likely be a lottery pick next summer.

This season, 19 D-I “OAD” freshmen kept their names in the NBA Draft and 13 were taken in the first round. Of those 13, eight were taken in the top-10. UNC fans have to at least acknowledge that only having Little for one year is a distinct possibility. If that’s the case, then it’s natural to wonder how UNC will perform with Roy William’s third OAD player since the NBA implemented its rule. One might correctly argue that Harrison Barnes was also an OAD talent, but since he returned for his sophomore year, he does not count.

Note: Marvin Williams came to UNC before the NBA made it a requirement to wait one year after graduating high school. No, he was not an OAD in the described time period.

Double Note: I did not include Billy Preston (Kansas), Mitchell Robinson (Western Kentucky), or Omari Spellman (Villanova) in this year’s numbers. Preston and Robinson never stepped on the court for their schools. Spellman was an academic redshirt prior to this season, thus, two years removed from high school.

Last year, I looked at the success of teams who recruited OAD players since 2005-2006. Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 looked at the phenomenon from various angles. It mostly focused on post-season success of schools who have used OAD recruits and looked for trends in those successes and failures. I walked away from that research thinking that OADs are largely overrated in the college landscape, though they can certainly be beneficial. There are clear examples of success and failures, but nobody is going to just stop recruiting the best talent.

Obviously not every OAD is created equal. Trae Young and Zhaire Smith were not heavily projected in mock drafts before they entered college, but both were first round picks on Thursday. UNC fans know that story, as Tony Bradley did the same after the 2017 season. Obviously those situations are different than schools like Arizona, Kansas, Duke, and Kentucky that have repeatedly signed OAD talent fully knowing the roster turn-over that will follow.

Nonetheless, after 13 seasons, patterns emerge. There are no hard and fast rules, and if you’re a UNC fan there are plenty of reason to be excited about the prospects of another deep March run. There are also just as many reasons, if not more, that should cause UNC fans to pump the brakes on their hype train and maintain a healthy amount of optimistic skepticism.

By the Numbers

In the 13 years the OAD rule has been implemented, 103 D-I teams have had at least one OAD player on their roster, and 76 of those teams made the NCAA Tournament. This past season, 13 D-I schools had an OAD and 10 of them made the tournament. Not a bad success rate, so UNC fans can sleep easy about making the tournament.

However, once they get to the dance, the results are mixed. Of those 76 teams, 22 have lost in the Round of 64/First Round and another 18 have lost in the Round of 32/Second Round. That works out to 53% of OAD teams that are eliminated by the end of the first weekend. This past season, five teams lost in the first round alone – Arizona was one of them, and they had the number 1 pick in the draft. Two more teams lost in the Second Round, and one team, Kentucky, lost in the Sweet 16. Texas Tech and Duke both lost in the Elite Eight.

Tournament success is often based on match-ups, so seeding is important as well. This past season, the 10 OAD teams were seeded at 10, 10, 9, 8,6,5,4,3,3, and 2. In what is likely an anomaly, 2018 was the first time in nine seasons that a team with an OAD did not receive a #1 seed. After all the games were played OAD teams lost five games to teams that were seeded higher (worse) than them, and lost five games to teams that were seeded lower (better). It should be noted that #1 Villanova was the cause of two of those losses so make of that what you will.

Elite Eight, Final Four, and Championships

This is where the debate gets fun. Most schools and fanbases that are in the market for OAD talent are chasing championships, not just NCAA Tournament appearances. This past season was not an overwhelming endorsement for the OAD recruiting method, though it wasn’t necessarily an indictment.

Only two of the Elite Eight squads had OADs on their rosters. Zhaire Smith represented Texas Tech and Duke’s 2017 pre-season national champions boasted four. Two out of eight teams are right in line with historical patterns. There have been 104 Elite Eight teams, and 25 have had OADs – 24%.

Yet, none of the last season’s Final Four teams had a true one-year freshman player on their rosters. This was the first season since 2013 season that happened, but it’s also not completely surprising. Only 12 of 52 Final Four participants since 2006 have had OAD talent. Some may deem that a positive stat, and it might be. However, 5 of those 12 teams belong to John Calipari coached teams, so only one coach has arguably figured out a way to make it work on a regular basis.

That doesn’t account for the 13 champions that have won the NCAA Tournament over that time. Only three – Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina – won the title with OADs. Kentucky and Duke started three freshmen on their teams, while UNC used Tony Bradley as the second man off the bench. For everyone clamoring for Nassir Little to start next season, it’s worth noting that no team has won a title with just one OAD in the starting lineup.

Interestingly, only Carmelo Anthony’s 2003 Syracuse team has ever won a title with just one OAD freshman in the starting line-up, and he technically doesn’t belong to this era. Maybe it’s just a quirk. Or perhaps it doesn’t always “just take one” stud recruit, as many fans like to say. There are no saviors or magicians.

What does it mean for UNC in 2018-2019

Clearly, different methods work to achieve these goals and the tournament can be wildly unpredictable. To say (or expect) UNC will or will not make a certain round of the tournament simply because they have OAD talent on their roster is shortsighted. Within the vacuum of one season there are so many variables that can impact a team’s trajectory, and recent results indicate a player’s NBA potential has no correlation to his team’s performance in March and April. Using this year’s draft as an example, this becomes increasingly clear.

The eight freshmen picked in the top-10 of the NBA draft had a combined 10 NCAA Tournament wins. Six of those wins can be attributed to Duke teammates Wendell Carter and Marvin Bagley (three apiece), two belong to Kevin Knox at Kentucky, and Collin Sexton (Alabama) and Jaren Jackson Jr (Michigan State) got First Round wins. Three players – Deandre Ayton, Trae Young, Mohamed Bamba — lost in the opening round.

Fortunately, when they have OADs, UNC has had decidedly more success than most teams. If you want to add Marvin Williams (I usually don’t when compiling these stats), UNC actually has more titles with one-year freshmen than any other school. Memorably, both in 2005 and 2017 the freshman came off the bench. When you factor Brandon Wright into the equation, UNC has at least reached the Elite Eight with all three OADs that have come through Chapel Hill. That’s better than most programs can claim.

Combine that track record with the possibility of three returning senior starters in Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson, and Kenny Williams? North Carolina may just have that special mix of talent and experience that (most) coaches try so hard to find.

Author’s Note: If you have specific questions, corrections, or clarifications about teams or stats regarding OAD success, feel free to ask in the comments or on twitter. I maintain multiple databases and am always looking for new ideas to explore on this topic.