March's real madness: The one-and-done rule

With Selection Sunday just a month away, the nation is getting ready to sit back and watch the most exciting tournament in sports.

Why does March Madness entertain us for almost an entire month year after year? It’s addicting with its sheer volume of single-elimination games and perennial unpredictability. Friends and co-workers form long-standing traditions of making brackets and embarrassing the fool who chose their 12th-ranked hometown team to take it all.

But the real reason behind the unpredictability and excitement of March Madness lies in the increasing prevalence of the one-and-done: top-ranked players going to college for a single year before declaring for the NBA Draft, usually just days after the tournament.

The one-and-done phenomenon is a direct result of a 2006 NBA rule that grants draft eligibility only to 19-year-olds with one year of separation from high school ball. While some players opt to take a year off or spend it playing in Europe, the majority of the top prospects in any given year choose to sign with a college team with the intention of staying only the bare minimum.

In 2006, the first year the rule was in effect, only two freshmen declared for the draft. A year earlier, nine total high school seniors were drafted, making 2005 the last time that a high schooler could graduate in May and be playing in the NBA in October of that same year.

The next year, however, seven players were drafted after just one year at the college level. This included three of the first four picks: Greg Oden, Kevin Durant, and Mike Conley. Both Oden and Conley came out of Ohio State, making it the first school to adapt to the new reality of constantly recruiting standouts that comes when you give away your best players at the end of every season.

The 2008 draft’s total rose to 12 freshmen, the most until 13 were taken in the first round alone in 2015. Last year, a record 16 freshmen were taken in the first round, including the first five overall, starting with Washington’s Markelle Fultz and ending with #5 De’Aaron Fox out of Kentucky. Only two seniors went in the first round in 2017, the least in NBA history.

This creates a quick turnover that threatens the stable core of players teams rely on to deliver success year after year. The one-and-done rule forces teams to adapt if they still want to go for top prospects out of high school. Usually, coaches will build their programs around one or two solid players that are in it for the long run — a Grayson Allen for Duke or a Justin Jackson for North Carolina.

From there, coaches are free to dedicate their energies to recruiting the best high school players despite knowing that they will likely only stay on for a single season. While this makes a coach’s job in the offseason quite a bit harder, it pays off in the long run for both parties.

On the university side, the system pays off in the form of revenue from ticket sales, advertising, merchandise, and name recognition that would have been lost if these kids were allowed to skip the college circuit altogether.

For the players themselves, that year gives them invaluable experience and development that can only help their chances of a higher position in the draft and eventual success in the NBA. It also allows them to create a name for themselves and attract as much attention as possible, especially come March.

John Calipari, since he took over at Kentucky in 2010, has become the ultimate master of the one-and-done strategy. Between 2010 and 2014, 42 freshmen went to the NBA.

Twelve, almost one-third, came from Kentucky.

In Calipari’s first year, four out of the five Kentucky players taken in the draft were freshmen, including John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. But letting these eventual NBA All-Stars go after one year didn’t stop Calipari from going on to take the National Championship in 2012 and finish as runner-ups in 2014.

Of course, Kentucky’s success in these years also relied heavily on freshman talent — Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (first and second overall) in 2012 and Julius Randle and James Young in 2014.

Over the last eight years under Calipari, the Wildcats have gone to the Elite Eight all but twice, making the Final Four four times.

Other teams, like Duke and Kansas, join Kentucky in a small club of teams that have had sustained success with the one-and-done method. This tight knit group consistently lands themselves at the top of the rankings every year thanks to a revolving door of young talent that prevents other teams from getting a read on their style of play from year to year.

In terms of recruiting, this gives rise to a little sense of elitism among incumbent college basketball powerhouses. With the best teams in basketball losing their stars every season, top recruits are more enticed to join their rosters, knowing that they have a good chance of being a star on an established team because standout players are leaving faster and faster each year.

This leaves smaller teams that are newer to the upper ranks at a slight disadvantage when it comes to signing day. Squads like Gonzaga, Wisconsin, and Florida have to draw upon more localized pools of recruits to harvest their talent, and when they sign, they are more likely to sign with long-term expectations than their more established counterparts.

Zach Collins, a freshman out of Gonzaga who went to the Trailblazers 10th overall in 2017, declared for the draft after his breakout performance led the Bulldogs to the final in April. Collins knew he had a shot at landing with a great team, but didn’t intend on leaving after a year until March Madness was over.

Recently, there has been discussion in the NBA about changing the age of draft eligibility, which would greatly change the face and conventions of college basketball recruiting that developed after 2006.

The players’ union has suggested lowering the age from 19 to 18 years old, which the league countered by proposing to raise it to 20. At 20, the requirement would force most college players to complete their sophomore years before declaring.

This would potentially create more consistency and stability in NCAA basketball, potentially setting teams up for better success over consecutive seasons. In the last 25 years, only one team, the 2006-2007 Florida Gators, repeated as NCAA champions. Even one extra year allows coaches to build a stronger core and develop reliable role players.

On the other hand, enforcing two years of college on some of the most exciting NBA prospects may drive them away to Europe, Australia or Asia to kickstart their professional career.

Worse, it may make March Madness less mad to watch, at least during the adjustment period when teams would be forced to rethink their recruiting and team building strategies.

The best teams are most likely to stay the best with their freshman stars returning as sophomore favorites. The middle of the pack may be doomed to remain there without the roster space usually freed up by drafted freshmen.

Ultimately, the question of any potential change to the one-year rule should be decided by its effect on how college basketball is played and watched. The players it targets will always want to turn pro as soon as the rulebook allows. For them, it’s a technicality that forces them to pay their dues before entering the real dance.

But for the rest of us, it may mean the difference between the madness we’ve grown accustomed to and just another predictable championship tournament.