College basketball fans leaving U.S. Bank Stadium enamored with the Final Four games were witnesses. Right before their eyes, they saw outstanding games in Minneapolis. And they also caught a glimpse into what likely is the future of the sport.
Experienced players rising to the top, not one-and-done freshmen already sliding toward the NBA draft.
Great defenses, not just high-scoring offenses.
First-time champions, not just blue-blood programs adding more drapery to their rafters.
This describes the past, to some degree, of college basketball, and it also describes what could be next.
The play on the court during the Final Four — and the coaching, and the atmosphere — was as entertaining as ever. We didn’t need superpowers (Duke, Kentucky, etc.) and we didn’t need superhype (Zion Williamson).
We should soon expect to see less Zions — sure-fire, soon-to-be No. 1 pick — in the college game. In as soon as 2021, the NBA is expected to again allow high school players to commit to the draft. The Dukes and Kentuckys of today, the one-and-done programs, could start to resemble the throwback Dukes and Kentuckys of decades ago, with returning players.
We can also can expect more parity in the game. Instead of having just a handful of programs and styles with a legitimate chance at a national title, Virginia and Texas Tech proved in this Final Four that the race to win it all will probably be more wide open in 2020 and beyond.
“Everyone has the dreams and the goals,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett, who won his school’s first national title in men’s basketball Monday in an 85-77 overtime win over Texas Tech. “Sometimes you get your foot in the door and then your shoulder, and then you can bust through.”
The Cavaliers were not the favorites in the ACC despite only losing one game in the league a year ago. They were also the slowest team in adjusted pace in the country. The Red Raiders didn’t play much faster and were projected seventh in the Big 12. Both Bennett and Texas Tech coach Chris Beard surpassed expectations not only for defensive-oriented teams, but for two teams that had never been to the title game before. Not since 1979 — Magic vs. Larry — had we seen first-timers square off.
Michigan State was the team with the highest scoring freshman in the Final Four, but Aaron Henry wasn’t a one-and-done candidate. Texas Tech, Virginia, Michigan State and Auburn reached Minneapolis mostly led by players who had experience — both in playing together and just simply playing period (as in the case of Red Raiders graduate transfers Matt Mooney and Tariq Owens).
If you’re looking for sleeper teams destined to make an NCAA tournament run next year, it would be smart to bet on veteran-laden squads.
“College basketball is the best education I think you can get,” Beard said on the value of players returning to school. “It teaches you how to get along with people and how to work for a goal and how to handle success and how to handle really, really tough times like we’re experiencing now.”
In the end, though, the Cavaliers showed having all sorts of star power is still a major factor. Juniors Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, who was the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, were clutch performers. Still, Virginia wouldn’t have cut down the nets without sophomore De’Andre Hunter, who picked the best time to play the game of his life, with 22 of his 27 points in the second half and overtime Monday night. His three-pointer with 12.9 seconds left sent the game into overtime.
Hunter’s not Zion nor even rated as highly as Duke’s other talented freshmen (RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish), but he’s still a potential lottery pick — and now more equipped to handle pressure at any level. Two-and-dones, such as Hunter and Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver, could be the new one-and-dones.
“He saved his best for last,” Bennett said of Hunter. “That tells you there’s something in that young man. He’s got more. He’s scratching the surface.”
Experience was simply the supreme ingredient this tournament. Top-rated teams in years to come that feel like finding a cave in which to hide after an upset can now use Bennett’s squad as an example of striving for redemption. After suffering the embarrassment and pain of the historic 1-16 upset to Maryland-Baltimore County last year, the Cavs might have been the most motivated team of the 68.
College basketball is far from out of the woods with recruiting scandals and investigations, but what happened in Minneapolis made it clear that the game not only will be fine, but it might just be on the rise.