The last time there was an NCAA Tournament without Duke or Kentucky, there really wasn’t an “NCAA Tournament,” and the term “Final Four” was not yet a staple of the sporting lexicon. It was just a small group of accomplished basketball teams that would get together and play some hoops until UCLA was crowned national champion.
The 1976 NCAA basketball championship proceeded without either the Wildcats or the Blue Devils. It was not as big a deal back then for either of them to be missing, because this still was a time when the tournament field recently had been liberated from its constriction to conference champions and successful independents. Duke hadn’t made it since 1966; this was Kentucky’s second missed tournament of the ’70s.
It’s a pretty huge deal now. Under John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski, Kentucky and Duke have won three of the past 10 NCAA titles. Both have made every tournament since 1996. And this is a sudden fall, because had there been a tournament in March 2020, it’s likely each would have been a No. 3 seed, at least.
So what has gone wrong?
Why is Kentucky 5-11 and seventh in the Southeastern Conference? Why will Duke take a 7-6 record into its first game against rival North Carolina this season, with neither ranked for the first time since February 1960? Some of us weren’t even born when that game occurred.
The answer: A lot.
Recruiting. It starts here for both the Blue Devils and Wildcats. Although they entered the season, with the Nos. 1 and 3 recruiting classes, it’s important to understand how the methodology for those rankings work. Landing an abundance of five-star and four-star players is a big deal, even if one of them is not a game-changer like Anthony Davis or Marvin Bagley — or, more to the point, Cade Cunningham or Evan Mobley.
“I think the fundamental difference is, when you’re relying on one-year kids, first-year kids, there’s a big difference between the surefire pro — Cade Cunningham, John Wall — and the kid who’s just a half-step below that,” recruiting analyst Brian Snow of 247 Sports told Sporting News. “Especially when you’re going against 22-, 23-year-old guys.”
None of Duke or Kentucky’s freshmen is averaging even 14 points a game, and only three such players are in double figures. And that’s with seven of them starting regularly.
Cunningham and Mobley both made the Sporting News midseason All-America team. Cunningham chose to attend Oklahoma State, where his brother was hired in 2019 to be an assistant coach. Mobley chose Southern California, where his father was hired to the coaching staff in 2018.
In addition, two of the top five 2020 prospects, guard Jalen Green and big man Jonathan Kuminga, chose to accept offers to join the G League pathway program.
It was a lot tougher out there to get the best players.
The promising players they did get, like Brandon Boston at UK and Jalen Johnson at Duke, have struggled in some areas.
“They’re not those transformative type talents. They’re very good ones,” Snow said. “They can’t be the best player on your team at 18, and I think Duke and Kentucky are running into that.”
Retention. Perhaps the biggest issue that has developed is that so many players who enter these programs think that merely being recruited by them magically transforms them into elite professional prospects.
Hey, it’s happened for some. Kentucky has had three players rated outside the top 30 in their high school classes (Eric Bledsoe, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Tyler Herro) turn into one-and-done first-round draft picks. Justise Winslow was the No. 13 player in his recruiting class and the No. 10 first-round NBA pick just a year later.
But it doesn’t work like that for everyone. Some have been judicious about their draft prospects; P.J. Washington remained at Kentucky for his sophomore year and became a lottery pick. Immanuel Quickley became the 2020 SEC Player of the Year and a first-round pick of the Knicks. Grayson Allen stayed four years at Duke and became the No. 21 overall pick in the 2018 draft.
Those have been the exceptions, though. There have been more players like E.J. Montgomery, who went undrafted after averaging 4.8 points and 4.6 rebounds for his two-year career at UK. And why wouldn’t he? He scored 4.8 points a game. He now is playing in Lithuania for Nevezis Optibet and averaging 2.3 points and 4.0 rebounds.
Duke’s Cassius Stanley averaged 12.6 points and shot 36 percent on 3s as a freshman last season. He lasted until the 54th pick of the 2020 draft. He played in eight games for the Pacers but now will join the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the G League.
They seem to feel the pressure or expectation to succeed immediately as draft prospects because of where they chose to attend college. Duke has had four players since 2018 leave with eligibility remaining to be selected in the second round, and two more who went undrafted. Kentucky has had three such players selected in the second round and three others go undrafted.
“Some of the kids make the decision to go to these places, and all they want to do is rent Duke or Kentucky, not buy Duke or Kentucky,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla told SN. “They might love Coach K or Coach Cal, but they don’t really want to buy into the program.”
Evaluation. With Ashton Hagans departing Kentucky after his sophomore season, the Wildcats gained a commitment from point guard Devin Askew of Mater Dei in California. Although he had to reclassify to enter college in 2020, Askew was positioned for the job (and responsibility) that has belonged to such stars as Wall and Gilgeous-Alexander. He’s not gifted enough to handle it. Askew has averaged 6.6 points and 2.9 assists though he is playing 30 minutes a game.
Neither of Duke’s freshman guards, D.J. Steward and Jeremy Roach, is shooting even 34 percent from 3-point range.
They may develop into players who can be difference-makers. But they have to stick around for it to happen.
Pandemic. Calipari said on his radio show Thursday he always believed in the development time UK spent in the summer and early fall in the years before COVID-19 impacted so much of how college sports operated in 2020. But seeing all that compromised has underscored its importance.
The many young players in both programs did not get the opportunity for typical summers or preseasons, and they especially did not get the experience of playing in exhibitions or closed scrimmages.
That made it more difficult to be ready for the season.
Scheduling. As he approached the start of the season, Calipari warned that he’d overscheduled the young Wildcats and that fans would need to be patient. Even he underestimated how badly he’d erred in this department.
With the schedule shortened because of the pandemic, UK lost a number of the “buy games” ordinarily staged at Rupp Arena that help make the athletic department money and help the team to ease into the demands of major-conference hoops.
The Wildcats played a single game against a mid-major opponent, Morehead State. Every other game has been against a major opponent. They had no opportunity to gain comfort with the system, with their roles, with the idea of playing Division I basketball. Winning is a habit, and so is losing. It’s obvious which one became more familiar.
Duke has had similar issues for different reasons. It faced Coppin State and Bellarmine, but three similar games were canceled because of COVID protocols; one was to be rescheduled, but when Krzyzewski became concerned about how the pandemic was affecting his players, he called off the game so his players could have a break at Christmas.
And thus the 2020-21 season has been no holiday for either.
“There’s no question that the older teams coming into this particular season are slightly less affected,” Fraschilla said. “The talent level at Duke and Kentucky was not able to overcome the disadvantages that developed because of the pandemic.
“There’s been adversity on a daily basis, in so many different forms. And the fact these two recruiting classes, by the standards of Duke and Kentucky, are below average. But as big a factor, to me, is their competition has figured out the only way [for] these teams to compete is to build older teams that can compete with the young, talented teams.”