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What might UNC’s turn towards one-and-done players mean for NCAA Tournament results?

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Another likely one-and-done freshman is headed to UNC. What do the numbers say that means for next March?

High School Basketball: Geico Nationals Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

The deadline to withdraw from or remain in the NBA draft has passed and we now know who is staying or leaving college. Those of you who have read this site for the past few years know the draft deadline is one of my favorite days of the offseason. It gives us a chance to look at the freshman that declared and look back on the success of one-and-done players and compare their preseason hype with their March success.

For multiple reasons during the first 11 years of the OAD era, UNC was often unaffected by the trend of freshmen leaving after one season of college ball. That has changed since 2017, as the last three McDonald’s All-Americans to commit to UNC have left after one year. Tony Bradley played a reserve role in 2017, and of course Coby White and Nassir Little will see their NBA dreams come true after playing this past season.

This upcoming season will see the addition of two more McDonald’s All-Americans in Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot. Anthony is expected to only stay one year, while Bacot’s status or plans are less certain (at least publicly). Their arrival has helped spur excitement in the fanbase and will partially alleviate the loss of four starters from last year’s Sweet 16 team. Recruits, though, always look good on paper. What could their addition ultimately mean for UNC’s success next March?

Let’s look at some numbers.

Last season, 15 D-1 teams accounted for 21 OAD players. Both are all-time highs. Just 8 of those 15 teams made the NCAA Tournament. They received seeds of 12, 11, 6, 3, 2, 2, 1, and 1. How did they fare once in the tournament? Depends on your definition of success.

Arizona State (#11) and Iowa State (#6) lost in the first round.
Oregon (#12), LSU (#3), Michigan (#2), and UNC (#1) lost in the Sweet 16.
Kentucky (#2) and Duke (#1) lost in the Elite Eight.

For the second year in a row none of the Final Four participants had an OAD player.* It was the third consecutive year that none of the Final Four participants started an OAD. (Tony Bradley and Zach Collins came off the bench in 2017). In fact, in the past four years, Syracuse is the only Final Four team to start an OAD. That’s just 1 of the last 16 Final Four participants.

*(Villanova’s Omari Spellman was forced to sit for a season before playing for one year in 2017-18 and heading to the subsequent NBA Draft. I do not count him as one-and-done.)

That’s an interesting trend, and seems to contradict the earlier success of OADs in March. It certainly doesn’t mesh with public perception and preseason national championships that some teams claim in October. Let’s check out an abbreviated history of the OAD era for some clarity.

The one-and-done era began in 2005-2006 with the NBA’s rule that limited draft participants to players who were 19 years old and a year removed from high school. That makes this past season the 14th cycle of OADs in the college game. In those 14 years, 160 freshmen from 118 teams have declared for the NBA draft. Those players and teams came from 50 different programs. (To clarify the distinction between program and team: Kentucky is one program, but has had 10 teams with OADs). The top 10 programs, with total number of OADs in that time, are listed below:

Kentucky – 26
Duke – 17
Kansas – 9
UCLA – 9
Texas – 8
Arizona – 7
Ohio State – 6
UNLV – 5
Washington – 5
UNLV/Syracuse/UNC – 4

No major surprises there.

Of the 118 teams with an OAD, 84 have made the NCAA Tournament. They have received the following seeds:

#12 – 1
#11 – 4
#10 – 8
#9 – 5
#8 – 6
#7 – 1
#6 – 7
#5 – 3
#4 – 9
#3 – 8
#2 – 12
#1 – 20

Almost half earned a #3 seed or higher. Nearly 1 out of every 4 earned a #1 seed. Take from that what you will. Clearly OADs have a strong track record of making the tournament. How did those 84 teams perform? Again, that depends on your idea of success.

24 lost in the First Round (28.5%)
18 lost in the Second Round (21.4%)
15 lost in the Sweet 16 (17.8%)
15 lost in the Elite Eight (17.8%)
5 lost in the Final Four (5.9%)
4 lost in the championship game (4.7%)
3 won the title (3.5%)

Exactly half of teams with OADs were knocked out before the second weekend. Just 12 made the Final Four. Those teams were LSU (2006), Ohio State (2007), Memphis and UCLA (2008), Kentucky (2011, 2012, 2014, 2015), Duke (2015), Syracuse (2016), Gonzaga (2017), UNC (2017). In 14 years, Kentucky remains the only school that has had multiple Final Four teams that rostered OAD players.

Meanwhile, Butler, Florida, Villanova, Michigan State, UConn, Louisville, Wisconsin, and Michigan all had multiple Final Four appearances without OADs. Even UCLA, UNC, and Kansas — who are all in the top 10 programs listed earlier— have a combined EIGHT Final Fours without an OAD on those specific rosters. (UNC’s Final Four teams in 2008, 2009, and 2016 didn’t have a freshman who left for the NBA after one season, to provide examples).

From 2009-2015, just two schools sniffed the Final Four with OADs. Kentucky and Duke. They combined for five appearances in six years. Kentucky had four of them. In that context, it doesn’t make the past four seasons seem like that much of an anomaly. One could argue that John Calipari (five total Final Fours with OADs) is the only coach who truly knows how to find consistent March success with this system – and even he has struggled in recent years now that other schools (Duke, Kansas, Arizona, and now Memphis) have lured some of the top talent away.

I lay all this out to simply say that March and April are not necessarily kind to freshman-led teams. Kentucky and Duke’s title squads started three freshmen. UNC’s title squad brought theirs off the bench. Bringing top recruits obviously has its advantages, but the idea of “it only takes one” top recruit to reach memorable success has largely been a myth. The past few seasons, it hasn’t even resulted in a Final Four.

Sure, there are caveats to each situation. Every team could “what-if” their shortcomings or find “reasons” for March disappointments. Whataboutism runs rampant in these conversations. Injuries, illness, and referees impact the ultimate outcome. Luck is always a factor. It’s also really freaking hard to make the Final Four.

14 years, however, is a long enough time for patterns to emerge. The numbers are black and white. Top programs don’t just want to dance. They want to go home with the prom queen.

What does this mean for UNC?

With at least one anticipated OAD recruit next season in Anthony, UNC may be in a perilous situation. No matter how good any freshman is, expectations should be tempered. Combined with the fact that only two starting freshman point guards have ever led the Heels past the Sweet 16, patience will need to be exercised. North Carolina will be high on potential, low on proven success, and loaded with peaks and valleys.

It’ll be a fun and wild ride. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. Correlation doesn’t prove causation. Most of us will still pick them to win in our brackets. In Roy we trust. Use whatever rationale you deem necessary to maintain a healthy (if not delusional) level of optimism.

Besides, history has shown a deep March/April run is certainly possible with OAD freshmen.

Just, maybe, don’t get your hopes up.