It’s March, and all of college hoops is mostly madness

Almost everything we’d come to believe about college basketball has been proved wrong. We recall the 2015 Final Four. Kentucky, then 38-0, lost in the semifinals to Wisconsin, which lost to Duke in the title game. Those Blue Devils started three freshmen, same as Kentucky had in 2012, when the Wildcats took the title.

That was the formula: Sign the nation’s best recruiting class and win it all. John Calipari took his mostly-one-and-done Big Blue to four Final Fours over five years. Mike Krzyzewski, bowing to reality, adopted the same blueprint. Surely either Duke or Kentucky would be crowned champ in every season from here to eternity.

Neither Duke nor Kentucky, each coached by a Hall of Famer, has reached a Final Four since. Duke had Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Marvin Bagley – all top three picks in their respective drafts. Kentucky had eight lottery picks over the same span. But no Final Fours for any of those luminaries.

The past five NCAA champs – there wasn’t one in 2020 – have started a total of two freshmen. One – Kihei Clark of Virginia 2019 – is still in college. The other was Jalen Brunson of Villanova 2016.

Of Kentucky’s top seven scorers this season, one is a freshman. Five are transfers, including Sahvir Wheeler from Georgia. Duke lists two freshmen among its top six. The one-and-done thing is largely done. None of the NBA’s past six No. 1 picks graced a Final Four. Two – Ben Simmons of LSU and Markelle Fultz of Washington – missed the NCAA tournament. Had there been a Big Dance in 2021, Anthony Edwards wouldn’t have participated. His Georgia Bulldogs were 16-16 on March 12, the day COVID-19 stopped sports.

Baylor is the reigning national champ. Of its top eight players last season, four were transfers. Auburn is ranked No. 5 and has claimed a share of the SEC regular-season title. Four of its top five are transfers. (Also of note: Four of its top five – Jabari Smith, K.D. Johnson, Walker Kessler and Zep Jasper – are from the great state of Georgia.)

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After the 2020-21 season, 1,729 basketball players entered the transfer portal. That’s according to VerbalCommits.com. That’s an average of 4.8 players – virtually a starting five – from each Division I program. That’s an increase of 1,000 since 2017. As Georgia coach Tom Crean said last summer: “Things are at lightning speed. You have to embrace it.”

Something apt to happen soon is Georgia firing Crean, who lost a lineup’s worth of players to transfers and was forced to scrounge the same portal for replacements. The incoming Bulldogs weren’t as good as the outgoing Bulldogs. Georgia was 14-12 last season. As of Friday, it was 6-24.

Georgia Tech’s Josh Pastner has said – many, many times – that the key for his program is to get old and stay old. In Pastner’s fifth season, the Yellow Jackets were old enough to win the ACC tournament. Minus Moses Wright and Jose Alvarado, Tech entered Saturday’s game with Boston College tied for last in the 15-team ACC.

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Duke went 13-11 last season, its worst record since 1994-95. Kentucky went 9-16, its worst record since 1926-27. North Carolina went 14-18 two seasons back. UCLA was 17-16 three years ago. Indiana hasn’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2016. Each of those programs have won at least five national titles. Together, they’ve won 35.

The gold standard of college hoops is Gonzaga, which has been ranked No. 1 in five of the past six seasons. Time was, the Zags won with no-names. No longer. They’ve had four lottery picks since 2016. They landed the top recruit of the 2021 class in Chet Holmgren. They played for the national title in 2017 and again last year.

The lesson herein is that there are no lessons. Fourteen of the schools ranked in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 haven’t won a national title. The hapless NCAA has done next to nothing with the Feds’ findings regarding shoe-company money. The transfer portal has become a bigger deal than recruiting. One-and-dones guarantee nothing.

Roy Williams retired after last season. Krzyzewski is exiting after this one. He’s the greatest coach since John Wooden – we can make a case for him being the best including Wooden – but he has gone five completed seasons without reaching a Final Four. Since Krzyzewski arrived in Durham in 1980, his Devils have never gone six seasons with a Final Four run. Coaching college basketball, never easy, now borders on the impossible.