When we talk about the top prospects in the country, we’re typically talking about the players with the most direct route to the NBA. But are those the same players who have the best chance of leading their teams to success at the highest levels of college basketball?
If recent history is any indication, the answer is no.
The 2012 Kentucky team is widely perceived to be the example of how you can pursue national championships with one-and-done talent. But if you look back at the past 10 years, what you find is that Kentucky team is the outlier, a perfect storm of sorts that included a loaded 2011 national recruiting class, a virtual clean sweep of the team's top recruiting targets, and a once-in-a-generation talent in Anthony Davis.
Every other national championship team since Carmelo Anthony’s one-and-done title with Syracuse is aligned by far different characteristics.
2013 – Senior point guard Peyton Siva and junior guard Russ Smith set the tone for the club. Junior big man Gorgui Dieng was equally important on the interior, solidifying the team defensively.
2012 – The freshman frontcourt of Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist led the Cats to a title. They were taken with the first two picks in the subsequent NBA draft. Fellow freshman Marquis Teague ran the point while sophomores Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb made up the rest of the top five.
2011 – Connecticut had some young pieces in its core but ultimately it was junior guard Kemba Walker who put the team on his back and carried the Huskies to both the Big East and NCAA championships.
2010 – Coach K’s most recent national title came from a battle-tested squad that was built around the one-two punch of senior guard Jon Scheyer and junior forward Kyle Singler. Two more seniors, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas, solidified the frontline, while junior guard Nolan Smith also played a pivotal role.
2009 – Roy Williams' last national championship came from an equally experienced roster with four upperclassmen in its veteran core. Tyler Hansborough and Danny Green were seniors, while Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington were juniors.
2008 – The junior tandem of Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush led the way in Kansas’ run to the 2008 national championship. Sophomore big man Darrell Arthur was a young weapon, while seniors Darnell Jackson and Russell Robinson were critical components of the team’s core.
2007 – Florida took its second consecutive national championship behind juniors Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green, while the senior tandem of Lee Humphrey and Chris Richard also played important roles.
2006 – Billy Donovan’s first championship included many of the same faces who won it in 2007, just a year earlier in their development. While there were no seniors on this roster, there also weren’t any freshmen being relied upon for significant contributions.
2005 – Roy Williams’ first national championship included a one-and-done freshman, Marvin Williams, but more important to the team’s success was the junior core of Sean May, Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants.
2004 – Not unlike Jim Calhoun’s other great teams, there was a clear superstar with this group and that was junior big man Emeka Okafor. Junior guard Ben Gordon wasn’t far behind. Senior point guard Taliek Brown solidified the supporting cast.
By considering the common threads within these teams, we can draw some conclusions about how best to build national championship-caliber programs.
Most obviously, experience counts. The fact that nine of the past 10 national champions have been led primarily by upperclassmen speaks volumes about finding dependable three- and four-year players, even for the most prestigious high-major programs.
In contrast, for all the one-and-done freshmen college basketball has seen, the fact that Carmelo Anthony and Anthony Davis are the only ones to lead their teams to a national championship suggests that beyond these rare talents, perhaps we overvalue the importance of these prospects in the recruiting process.
Instead, college programs might be best served targeting prospects who are more likely to need two or three years at the college level. Most of the marquee players on the past 10 national championship teams have been in their junior season.
There’s also a pattern in terms of the amount of teams that had seniors. Those players weren’t necessarily their most talented guys, but they frequently were in the starting lineup or primary rotation. That suggests there is definite value in finding stable, four-year players who can add to the culture of a college program and fulfill a role, even if they’ll never go on to be primary offensive weapons.
That senior experience seems most valuable in the backcourt, where there is a clear pattern of teams benefiting from having battle tested ball-handlers and decision-makers.
Ultimately, even this very broad analysis suggests certain inconsistencies between the way many high-major programs evaluate prospects and the apparent recipe to build a national championship caliber team. At minimum, it requires such programs to consider these patterns in more detail, and potentially even reconsider the way they go about evaluating and prioritizing their prospective recruits.