As long as the “one and done” rule remains in effect, the Butlers and VCUs of the world will remain regular fixtures in March Madness. The game of basketball has changed dramatically over the past decade, diminishing the relative power of traditional programs like Kentucky and Kansas, and allowing “mid-majors” to compete with these squads.
The first and most obvious change has been the “one and done” phenomenon. Gone are the days when senior laden teams from power conferences filled out the Final Four. Once, players had to argue “hardship” and convince the NBA to allow them to enter early. That ruse was quickly exposed, leading to a glut of high school players entering the league without any collegiate experience. The problem was, however, for every Kobe and Lebron, there were two Jonathan Benders (yeah, remember him?) who weren’t ready to play professionally. As a compromise, the league mandated that players had to wait at least one year before entering the draft. While helping solve the NBA’s maturity problem, it has transformed colleges into merely rest stops for prospective NBA talents. This has wreaked havoc with the continuity and teamwork of teams who regularly recruit these players. Meanwhile, teams like Butler and VCU, who wouldn’t get a sniff from these McDonald’s All-Americans, are entering the tournament with less heralded players, but players like Shelvin Mack, who somehow flew under the radar of UK and Louisville. Mack has played four years of the college game, transforming himself physically and learning how to play. That makes him, at 22, the equal or better to many of the highly-touted 18 year-olds who he matches up against. And Butler and VCU benefit as teams by having a roster full of these players who practice and play together for four years, giving their teams a tremendous competitive edge when going up against teams who have merely been together since October.
The other lesser known phenomenon is the “globalization” of the game through AAU. Some of the shenanigans that occur in this system not withstanding, the AAU experience has positively influenced the psyches and the games of its participants. Once upon a time, a sweet shooting guard from the middle of Indiana would have only known the competition he faced in high school. He would come to college with gaudy statistics, but a question about whether he could play against higher caliber competition. Moreover, when he stepped into a place like Rupp Arena or the Dean Dome, the awe of his surroundings and actually seeing players he’d only heard about would often be overwhelming. Now, this kid from the farm plays 80 games in the summer with an AAU squad out of Fort Wayne. He travels to Orlando and Vegas and plays head to head against the more “famous” recruits. Before he sets foot on campus, he knows that he can compete against these guys.
If you’ve watched these teams play, they don’t back down from folks with more notable names on the fronts of their jerseys. In many cases, the player they’re guarding is four years their junior and lacking some wisdom on the court. What’s more, he’s seen this player before and isn’t awed by his game. The result is what we have, both last year and this one.
So next year, when you’re filling out your brackets, don’t discount the experience of the mid-majors. Take a closer look at those who have some experience and some players who, though not highly recruited out of high school, have developed their games and are more mature, polished players.