Time and time again, Duke fans like myself have slumped into their couches at home while watching their best basketball players cross a stage adorned with NBA logos, shake the commissioner’s hand, and leave college basketball, never to return after their first season.
The plague that is “one-and-done” – college basketball players entering the NBA draft after their freshman season – has swept through major basketball programs throughout the country, leaving behind short tournament runs, misplaced hype, and disappointed fans.
This relatively new phenomenon began right after the NBA prohibited drafting high school players in 2006. This totally shifted the basketball landscape compared to the ‘90s and before where players stayed for longer and teams were built on continuity and experience.
At the forefront of this one-and-done fiasco has been my Duke Basketball program. Almost every Duke team in recent memory has replicated the same season year after year. Every season begins with the rumble of an exciting new recruiting class. With those freshmen comes a wave of media attention and buzz that flows through papers, news sites, social media, and the collective college basketball consciousness like a river flooding after a storm.
Early preseason rankings only bolster the hype around these players as expectations for the upcoming year grow and grow. And yet, the facade of these high-flying young stars inevitably fades, as good teams expose their youth and inexperience.
Like clockwork, Duke fans from Durham to Denver witness far more experienced teams, led by upperclassmen players, whoop their freshman out of the gym.
In the 2018-19 season, Duke had arguably one of the greatest recruiting classes of all time, with the top three recruits in the nation. The buzz surrounding that Duke team was unreal as they went on to have a dominant regular season, win the ACC tournament, and earn a top seed for March Madness. In the tournament, however, their inexperience was exposed as they fell to Michigan state, a two seed described by ESPN as a “veteran-laden team.” Their pure talent couldn’t overpower Michigan State’s experience.
Now, I’m a Dukie through and through. I’ve been watching Duke Basketball since I was seven. I’ve vowed to never root for Carolina; I would never even think of adorning myself with that disgusting baby blue sickness of a color. And yet, just down the tobacco road, even I must admit that the Tar Heels are building a better system of college basketball continuity.
UNC consistently blocks out the hype of the one-and-done phenomenon, sticking to a model of retention within their program that consistently outperforms that of the flashy and young Duke teams when it really counts. While Carolina does recruit star freshmen, their program doesn’t churn out lottery picks after short March Madness runs like Duke tends to do every year.
Recently, it seems almost according to annual tradition when experienced UNC teams stomp all over the young over-hyped Duke teams. Over the past 10-20 years, UNC has done better in the NCAA tournament than Duke. Too many Duke fans remember the hype of top high school stars like Brandon Ingram and Jayson Tatum that used Cameron Indoor as a stepping stone to the NBA, while they leave in their wake a disappointing year ending in early tournament losses.
Instead of focusing on landing the next big recruit, UNC, under both former head coach Roy Williams and just last year with Hubert Davis, has gone after players who will stay for longer than their first season. Their program looks to keep players through their junior and senior years so they can improve, gain experience and mentor the younger players on the team.
This pattern of team-building and continuity between seasons is a no-brainer for building up a successful college program. Compared to Duke teams of the past, which blow-up their starting lineup of freshmen nearly every year when they go to the NBA draft, the UNC model is much more conducive to successful and championship-caliber basketball.
Look no further than the last college season which ended this past April. Duke was led by five freshmen who made them national championship favorites for much of the year. That Duke team lost to Carolina twice this past season, one time at home and the other in a historic Final Four face-off. Duke’s youth and inexperience shined horribly bright in both losses, while Carolina’s experience was the difference maker.
All five of those Duke freshmen left after the season to enter the NBA Draft.
Surely the Carolina players that handed those one-and-done Duke freshmen those embarrassing defeats also entered the draft… right? Wrong. This past Carolina team, led by then-junior Armando Bacot and sophomores R.J. Davis and Caleb Love, is retaining four of their five starters for the next season, a couple of whom were projected first-round picks. While Duke, yet again wiped their slate clean for the next year, the Tar Heels, who were a couple shots away from a national title, got almost all their starters back.
As a devoted fan, seeing my team year after year act as a springboard for recruits to build up their draft stock and go right to the league is very frustrating to watch. Every year, the hype builds. For a while, at the beginning of the season, their obvious inexperience and roster issues are overshadowed by their pure talent, but sure enough, when the conference season rolls around and they get closer to the tournament, it becomes painfully obvious what the team is lacking.
I’m tired of getting excited every November for a team that will be all but scattered to the winds in one year or two. I’m tired of learning four, five, six, seven, new names every year. I’m tired of getting a whole new starting lineup after just six months of the last one. While it might seem stupid to complain considering how good Duke’s been in years past, I’d trade some of that consistency for a real chance to win it all. Without that, it’s just the same season but with different players every time.