We’ve gone way past the time when the collegiate players stayed on campus four years. (Some among us recall when freshmen were ineligible for varsity play.) There will never be another amateur career like Bill Russell’s or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s or Bill Walton’s, and we know not to expect as much. But we did get to see those great players in college, and without one-and-done the greats won’t set foot on campus.
Say what you will about Zion — and by now we’ve said it all a thousand times — but he made Duke games must-see events. As oppressive as the hype was, he exceeded it. (In that way, he was indeed like LeBron.) For conspiracy theorists who believe that CBS rigs the NCAA tournament, we were just handed proof to the contrary. A Final Four with Zion would have been the highest-rated in decades; a Final Four with Virginia and Michigan State as its glamour teams will move no needles.
The failure of Zion and his super-frosh friends to reach the Final Four offers further evidence that the Kentucky/Duke method has run its course. When the Wildcats won the 2012 title with one-and-dones Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague, they had sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb plus senior Darius Miller — of Maysville, Ky.! — filling essential roles. When the Blue Devils won with three one-and-dones in 2015, they had senior Quinn Cook and junior Amile Jefferson, plus non-one-and-done freshman Grayson Allen.
The Michigan State starting five that undid Duke included junior point guard Cassius Winston, senior shooter Matt McQuaid, sophomore big man Xavier Tillman, freshman forward Aaron Henry and the maker of the game-winning trey — fifth-year senior Kenny Goins. The play that begat Goins’ 3-pointer came off a halfcourt set after a timeout. Duke’s efforts to respond involved freshman RJ Barrett, maybe the second-most-gifted collegian, forcing the issue while the most-gifted collegian (Zion, duh) stood watching.
Michigan State performed as a team that had been to the Dance before, which it had. For Zion and Co., this was always going to be the first/last chance. Auburn’s splendid backcourt consists of Jared Harper, a junior, and Bryce Brown, a senior. Virginia starts three juniors, a sophomore and freshman Kihei Clark. Texas Tech starts a fifth-year senior, two sophomores and two grad transfers. There will be half as many freshmen starting in this Final Four as Duke had in its regular lineup.
After one-and-done, college basketball will be (another duh) much different. It will have a dearth of top-end talent, but it will be a game played by guys who want to be in college. It was no fault of Zion’s that an NBA rule essentially him a tourist – we can’t call one-and-dones mercenaries, given that mercenaries get paid – and it was fun for us, and from all appearances for him, that he made a brief stopover in Durham, N.C. But one-and-done has always felt wrong, and wrongs need righting.