Kentucky can win a title with ideal mix of blue-chip frosh, savvy vets
John Calipari had a more talented freshman class last year than the '11 season
And yet, this year's blue-chippers are better suited for late-game pressures
The club's supporting cast gives the 'Cats more depth, brawn and versatility
It's cool to be Brandon Knight: A-student, high school all-American, prolific provider of game-winning shots in March. He's a star freshman on the basketball team at the University of Kentucky. That's like being the only female at a Johnny Depp convention.
It's not quite the same to be Josh Harrellson, who commits fashion heresy and once spent a halftime quarantined in a locker room bathroom stall, at the behest of his coach.
Knight looks to the future and sees money and fame, and a 4.3 high school grade-point that will take him wherever his sneakers cannot. Harrellson looks at the future and tries not to hit his head on the door frame.
Who's more important, right now, to the Wildcats' owning the One Shining Moment on Monday night? What matters more? The bright and shiny penny of youth? Or the savings bond you bought a decade ago?
The penny, right? Kentucky doesn't beat Princeton or Ohio State without Knight's accuracy at winning time. Ask North Carolina what Knight means to UK.
You could make that case. I'd say Kentucky survives without huge numbers from Knight. The Wildcats did it against Princeton. They have other players who can score in bunches. The 'Cats do not claw their way to Houston without Harrellson, the jean shorts-wearing senior who until this year served as a wooden Indian in practice scrums.
Harrellson has bellied up with Jared Sullinger and not been bullied. He did the low-post bump with Tyler Zeller and got the best of it. Harrellson is averaging 15 points and nine rebounds in four Madness games. His good work has made everyone on his team better.
Basketball 101: Harrellson played Ohio State's Sullinger straight up, with no help. That allowed the Wildcats to concentrate on stopping the Buckeyes' blistering three-point game. OSU made just 19 of 58 shots.
That prompts the question: Is it better to be young and great in Houston this weekend? Or old and pretty good?
Young and great: Kentucky and, to a lesser extent, UConn, which starts three freshmen. Old and pretty good: VCU and Butler. The other guys.
Ideally, you have some of both. That's where UK is now.
John Calipari is the reigning king of one-and-dones. Three of his point guards -- John Wall last season, Tyreke Evans and Derrick Rose at Memphis -- opted for money after a single season of dunkademia. This helps Calipari on two levels: He can get the best high school players and promise them he won't hold them back. If they don't win as much as expected, Calipari can blame inexperience.
That won't work this year. Calipari's most talented players might be freshmen. His most important players are not. If you're playing 3-on-3, you take Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, every time. But college basketball in March isn't a scoring contest. I put some of my cash on Harrellson, DeAndre Liggins and Darius Miller.
Younger isn't always better. Sometimes, younger is just younger.
This goes against the quasi-amateur basketball grain. It suggests that a player who has put in the time, endured indignities and hasn't been worshipped since his first pair of Nikes can actually be The Man.
College basketball coaches chase the holy grail of talent. They haunt the summer camps and the AAU events, seeking magic bullets that look like Carmelo Anthony or John Wall or Brandon Knight. If the player's goal is strictly mercenary, so what?
We live in an age when five minutes ago is yesterday. Get me a guy who helps me win now. Coaches who "build programs'' went out with double-breasted suits and quadraphonic sound.
Kentucky has very good freshmen.They're not as good as the group Calipari brought in last year: Wall, Daniel Orton, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe all went in the first round of the draft last spring.
They also lost in the Elite 8.
Kentucky is in the Final Four now, and has the best players of the last four teams standing. Harrellson is one of them. So are Liggins and Miller, both juniors.
Liggins, especially. He had 15 points, six rebounds and three assists against Ohio State. He shut down West Virginia sparkplug Joe Mazzulla and Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft. He helped beat North Carolina with a blocked shot and a late three. Liggins will guard UConn's Kemba Walker on Saturday.
Miller, meanwhile, poured in a game-high 17 points against Princeton. And although he scored just three points the next round against West Virginia, they came via a crucial three-pointer, late in a two-point game.
Not many teams get the best of both age groups. If I'm forced to choose between age and talent, I take age. Every time. I want to grow the grapes before I drink the wine.
As Xavier coach Chris Mack explains, "It's such a crapshoot, trying to get it done in that first year. Those kids haven't experienced close games or the pressure of the NCAA tournament.'' It's not as if the Musketeers are tracking the next Carmelo Anthony. As Mack admits, "We're not generally in that conversation. We've graduated 79 seniors.''
Still, Mack has been in that arena, having coached under Skip Prosser at Wake Forest, when the Demon Deacons had a title-worthy roster. Plus, Xavier has made the Sweet 16 three of the past four seasons.
"It's a case-by-case basis,'' Mack said. "I don't know if any coach would have turned down Greg Oden. He was a great player and a phenomenal kid. But you have to understand the chemistry. Would that one-and-done guy come in and replace a two-year starter at point guard, who is well-liked by his teammates?''
Good question. Ask Butler and VCU. For most of the year, the Bulldogs have started two seniors and two juniors. The Rams are even more grizzled: Four seniors and a junior have started.
Syracuse drank the wine in 2003, with freshmen Anthony and Gerry McNamara. Since then, teams heavy on kids have not done as well. Cincinnati's Mick Cronin says Kentucky has "the perfect mix. You have to have talent. True talent doesn't stay around.''
Cronin cited the experience at North Carolina of three super freshmen from 2003: Raymond Felton, Rashad McCants and Sean May. "As freshmen, they were so immature they got Matt Doherty, the guy who recruited them, fired. Their junior years, they got Roy Williams a national championship.''
Calipari might be the best at attracting the One and Done All-Stars. This year, he has a few other players who have taken the longer road. It might make all the difference.