Once upon a time, NCAA players played a minimum of three or four years for their school.
That was the college basketball fairy tale. Even after the most statistically successful freshman year, players would anxiously await the next season for a chance to pursue and win a national championship. To these student athletes, living “happily ever after” meant a chance to compete and come home with the biggest prize of all – a glimmering trophy that would shine in their school’s history and showcase forever.
Over time, a new reality replaced that fairy tale. After one year of college, players left to pursue a different trophy – the money they might earn as a lottery pick in the NBA Draft. One-and-done.
The 2010 NCAA Final Four is different. In this year’s tournament, experience and veteran leadership has outlasted raw talent.
No remaining teams left in Indianapolis have one-and-done or two-and-done players to speak of.
For the four remaining teams pursuing the national title, their stars’ quests have lasted years and not months. All four remaining coaches, Butler’s Brad Stevens, Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski have helped turned the pages of this year’s tournament into a story resembling the college fairy tale of the past.
How did they do it? By recruiting players who believed in their vision, who understood their message, and knew that with time, commitment and a belief in one another that they could accomplish their collegiate dream.
At their team’s respective press conferences Friday afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium, each coach addressed his own unique situation.
Three-time NCAA title winner Krzyewski said it begins with the love of the game – the college game.
“In college you are always still playing for the name on the front of the jersey,” Krzyewski said. “There’s not one player and there’s not one coach who’s bigger than the college game. It just doesn’t happen … I love that.”
Krzyewski’s teams have always embraced that philosophy. In 1991 and 1992, they were led to back-to-back championships by upperclassmen Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley. (Grant Hill was a freshman and sophomore in the championship years). Now 18 years later, seniors Jon Scheyer and Brian Zoubek, along with juniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, will be asked to help carry the Blue Devils one step closer.
Standing in the way is Bob Huggins, coaching in his second Final Four since 1992. Huggins echoed a similar sentiment of Krzyewski when discussing the contributions of his two stars, senior Da’Sean Butler and sophomore Devin Ebanks.
“The longer any young person spends on a college campus, certainly the more prepared he’s going to be for the rest of his life,” said Huggins.
“Da’Sean never thought about exploring the draft. That never crossed his mind. Devin, a year ago, never thought about it. I mean, those guys never thought about exploring leaving.”
But that begs the question of why wouldn’t they explore leaving? While there is the obvious financial incentive to turn pro, there are only 30 teams in the NBA, and 347 Division I basketball programs. The competition to make it into the NBA is fierce and intense, leaving many aspiring players hanging out to dry.
For the Butler Bulldogs, one way coach Brad Stevens has recruited successfully is to leave the NBA conversation out of the mix.
“Very rarely does the NBA come up in the discussion of recruiting, in part because some of these guys won’t be able to play there eventually,” Stevens said. “The most important thing in our recruiting is identifying character … beyond the minimum level of basketball ability.”
And if the NBA discussion does come up? Michigan State’s Tom Izzo said he saw no problem with a player leaving early as long as it makes sense for both parties, citing former Spartans all-star guard Jason Richardson as the ideal example.
“I want all my players to stay here as long as they need to stay … I like them to graduate,” Izzo said. “But for Jason … it was absolutely the right thing to do. I have absolutely no problem with that whatsoever.”
So while the young NBA one-and-done prospects are back at their respective schools, training and preparing for life after college, the veterans are preparing in Indianapolis, where years of sweat, frustration and perseverance culminated in a chance to win it all.
A team of Indiana University journalists is reporting for the Final Four Student News Bureau, a project between IU’s National Sports Journalism Center and the NCAA at the men’s tournament in Indianapolis.