Photo: Duke's players celebrate their NCAA title over Wisconsin in Monday night's final.
Duke’s freshmen players talked about committing to the Blue Devils and coach Mike Krzyzewski to win a national title. The name on the front of the jersey mattered.
Kentucky’s freshmen -- starting with John Wall as head coach John Calipari's first freshman lottery pick in 2010 -- talk about the NBA. The Wildcats' roster is an NBA combine disguised as a college basketball team. Their culture is to commit to the place they perceive is the best to jump to the NBA. The name on the front of the jersey only matters because that’s where Calipari coaches.
In other words, the college experience – even if it’s only one year – mattered to Duke’s projected NBA lottery picks, Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow, as they celebrated Monday night's 68-63 win over Wisconsin in the NCAA championship game.
Their attitudes were on a level comparable to the veteran rosters at Wisconsin and Michigan State, where the older players matured and the team chemistry came together at the right time to join the talented Duke and Kentucky youngsters in the Final Four.
“I just wanted to be a part of a special team,” said Jones, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player with 23 points in the final, who is from Minnesota. “I knew Grayson, Justise and Jah even before we got to campus. I just trusted Coach K and everyone on the staff with all my heart. I wanted to go somewhere where I knew we would win.
“As soon as I stepped on campus, you could just feel the family atmosphere. It was just always positive energy, everyone caring for one another. You could just tell that this year was going to be special.”
Allen, the Final Four freshman super-sub that scored 16 points in the final after nine in the semifinal win over Michigan State, might think he’s ready for the NBA if he played with a Kentucky attitude. At Kentucky, the vision looks past the college season to what awaits on the NBA horizon. But Allen is the one player Coach K is sure at this point will return.
Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison might have uttered words similar to Tyus Jones’ if the Wildcats had survived Wisconsin and then defeated Duke in the final. But we’ll never know. All we know are the examples of poor sportsmanship that surfaced when he wasn't taking the time to think about saying the right things. In the semifinal, he walked off the court without shaking hands with the Wisconsin players and used foul language and N-word with an open microphone regarding Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky.
That attitude comes out in a guy that attended college as a path to the NBA. Duke’s players dream of the NBA, too, but their primary goal was the college experience. Pros walk off the court without shaking hands. Can you imagine a Coach K player acting that way after a loss?
Calipari recruits his players with the carrot he can get them to the NBA. Krzyzewski builds a team to win a championship for themselves and their school. In the moment, it's not about his fifth NCAA title or the NBA. Coach K's players major in life.
Calipari's players, by contrast, are majoring in basketball. The moment for them is the NBA draft on an New York stage with the commissioner.
With the Wisconsin semifinal upset of Kentucky and the Duke Monday championship, we were spared the example of the Kentucky blueprint motivating more young high school players into believing the Kentucky combine is the proper path to a national title and place in the draft lottery.
“All year, and especially this past week, Coach has been making it not about his fifth, but about our first together,” said senior point guard Quinn Cook said of Krzyzewksi. “I can remember when we won 1,000 games for him, he was more worried about us getting our 17th win. He's kept us all in the moment of this team. It's great to get him his fifth, but I know he's happy that this is his first with us. It's just something that you dream of, winning the national championship.”
A few years ago, Krzyzrewski was no different than other coaches when the one-and-done era dawned. When his favored 1999 team was upset by Connecticut in the NCAA final, freshman bench player Corey Maggette turned pro. Coach K reacted by saying he wasn’t ready.
But he’s adjusted to the one-and-done attitudes of players. He may lose Okafor, Jones and Winslow, but he knew far more about them when they stepped on campus than he understood Maggette.
“Well, with guys who aren't going to be here as long, what we've tried to do over the last few years is get to know them even better before they got to Duke,” he said. “For all four of those kids, their families are so good. They committed pretty early, so they got to know us deeper than a normal incoming freshman. Then they got to know the guys on the team coming back. I think a statement that Quinn has said a couple times this week is how humble the guys are.
“So here you have these four really good freshmen coming in, and they want to blend. They want to be led. They don't want it to be about them, although it's going to be a lot about them. They're good guys. They had that chemistry right away. It's been an incredible group. I've never had a group that has had this chemistry and the brotherhood that this group has had. Maybe because it's so small. I don't know.”
Kentucky’s players may be good kids, too, but I doubt humility is on the curriculum at Kentucky.
Thankfully, the Final Four was still a college basketball event in 2015.