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Two-Lane Road to the Final Four

The “Road to the Final Four” is actually a two-lane highway

There is the Express Lane, also known as the Calipari Lane, in which schools drive high-performance freshmen to a berth in the national championship game. It is no coincidence that four of the past of the five No. 1 overall selections in the NBA Draft have been freshmen whose teams advanced at least to the Sweet Sixteen. Two of those five – Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis, both of whom played for Calipari – played in the national championship game.

The second lane, the slow lane, is taken by schools whose coaches understand that they have no shot at landing elite AAU recruits (unless, like Creighton coach Greg McDermott, that player happens to be your son). The slow lane is a three- to four-year slog in which coaches endeavor to get their teams to the Final Four in that time-honored way that musicians find their way to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

If you wish to condemn the one-and-done rule (born in 2005), an NBA mandate that stipulates that a player applying for the NBA draft must be either 19 years old or have spent one year in college, go ahead. But don’t condemn the coaches such as Calipari or UCLA’s Ben Howland who use it to their advantage. They have just chosen to take the fast lane, a lane that as recent Final Fours suggest, is no surer a path than the one that Brad Stevens of Butler has taken.

Let’s back up a moment. In both football and basketball, you can argue that NCAA scholarship athletes fall into two classes: those who are in school purely as a stepping stone to professional athletic careers and those who understand that a free education in exchange for playing a sport they love is a pretty terrific deal, maybe the best one of their lives.

Nor is it an all-or-nothing proposition. The process is fluid. Jeremy Lin probably attended Harvard in order to obtain the best (free) education possible, but he never surrendered his dream to play in the NBA. A few years and a $25 million-contract with the Houston Rockets later, look at Lin now.

On the other hand, there’s Baylor quarterback Nick Florence, who finished second in the nation in total offense behind only Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. Florence, who only started one season after backing up the previous season’s Heisman Trophy winner, Robert Griffin III, would probably be more than welcome in most NFL camps next summer. Instead, Florence has chosen to pursue his MBA than to apply for the NFL draft.

“I’ve decided to hang up my cleats and finish my master’s (degree),” Florence said. “It all comes down to what we (Florence and his wife) wanted in life, and it didn’t include playing football.”

So to say that a student-athlete enters college knowing exactly what path his own road will traverse is folly. However, college basketball coaches cannot afford to wait for a Robert Frost poem to pop up in a potential recruit’s head. And so what has developed in college hoops are two classes of elite teams: those that bank on hyper-athletic but inexperienced (I’m already shuddering as I type this) “diaper dandies” and those who patiently build teams over the course of two to four seasons, understanding that team chemistry may sometimes overcome a top-five lottery pick and his fellow fab fivers.

Let’s not make this a moral issue. I doubt that Brad Stevens, the coach who led Butler to the NCAA championship game in both 2010 and 2011, would turn away Nerlens Noel or Anthony Davis if they pleaded to play for him. If you look at the schools that have made more than one Final Four in the past decade (UConn, Duke, Florida, Kansas, Kentucky and UCLA, besides Butler), the Bulldogs are the only one that has not lost an underclassman –or a few –to the NBA draft the following June.

In fact, no Butler player from those Final Four squads is currently in the NBA except one. Gordon Heyward is averaging 9.7 ppg in two years with the Utah Jazz.

Rather than worry about how the one-and-done rule is corrupting college hoops (Dear Columbus: those ships have already sailed), I’d rather focus on Darwinism. The one-and-done rule put an end, for as long as the rule continues to exist, to the Lebron Jameses of the world to skip directly from the preps to the pros. And so it was thought that any coach that could lasso precocious prepsters and persuade them to remain on their campus at least until the opening round of The Masters would have a distinct advantage in the NCAA tournament.

But, as anyone who has ever seen a weed or a blade of grass pop up through the cracks in a sidewalk, there is a law of unintended consequences. There are more ways to survive. And what the one-and-done rule has done is create a class of basketball programs that must entirely reinvent themselves every year. Kentucky won the national title last season, then saw four of its five starters selected in the first round of the NBA draft. Three were freshmen and one was a sophomore. The first two picks in the June 2012 draft, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, were Wildkittens.

This year? Coach Calipari had arguably the most dominant freshman in college hoops, shot-blocking stud Nerlens Noel. But the Kitties were only just starting to become accustomed to playing together when Noel was lost for the season with a torn ACL, an injury he suffered last week at Florida.

Now, the Wildcats are a coin-flip to even make the 68-team field.

Meanwhile, in the slow lane, coaches such as Butler, Mark Few at Gonzaga and Shaka Smart at VCU are feeding off what the recruiting world has given them: second-tier recruits who are willing to work hard and develop.

Basketball, unlike football, is an intimate sport that only takes a few key players for a team’s fortunes to turn. Evidence: Noel. Evidence, also, however is Kelly Olynyk. A seven-footer for the Zags, Olynyk red-shirted as a sophomore last season in order to develop and mature. He knew he wouldn’t see much playing time. This season Olynyk is a potential first-team All-American while the Zags (25-2) are ranked No. 3 in this week’s poll. Gonzaga starts two seniors, Olynyk, a junior, and two sophomores. It’s who they do not start that stands out: a single freshman.

There was a time, less than a decade ago, when schools such as Butler and Gonzaga (and VCU and Belmont and Creighton, etc.) were known primarily as Cinderellas. As fine sidebars to the NCAA tourney’s actual contenders. Those days are over. Gonzaga is better than North Carolina and UCLA this season, and it’s not even close.

It’s the newest wrinkle in college hoops. Teams that win with elite talent and teams that win with experienced players. Just as a basketball court has two lanes, so does the Road to the Final Four.

Are you ready for the NEXT STEP!