Despite the hype generated by the recruiting machine year after year--accentuated by Kentucky's championship crop of freshmen and sophomores a season ago--it's never been more apparent that the real key to college basketball success (at least on an elite level) is not talent, but experience. And if you're an elite program with a lot of experience, chances are you have that most coveted of commodities: experienced talent. But of the two, if we're talking tournament-caliber teams, I'll take the more experienced team over the more talented team nine times out of ten.
Case in point: North Carolina.
A modest amount of talent will get you past the Long Beach States, UABs, and ECUs of the world, no matter how experienced those teams are. But as we learned with Butler (3 seniors, 2 juniors in regular rotation), Indiana (4 upperclassmen averaging 20+ minutes), and Miami (5 seniors, 1 junior seeing 20+ minutes), when it comes to beating upper-echelon teams, experience often makes the difference.
Take a look at the top 10 teams in the nation right now:
Duke (No. 1/1) starts 3 seniors (Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly) who combine to average over 30 minutes per game, when healthy, and the first two guys off their bench (Tyler Thornton, Josh Hairston) are juniors. That's 5 upperclassmen in a regular 7-man rotation.
Syracuse (No. 3/4) is among the youngest of the bunch with 4 upperclassmen in their 9-man rotation. Senior Brandon Triche and junior C. J. Fair see 32 minutes apiece as the starting backcourt, while senior James Southerland and junior Baye Moussa Keita see the most minutes off the bench for the Orangemen at 26 and 15, respectively.
Louisville (No. 5/5) plays 5 upperclassmen in their 9-man rotation, three of whom start (Russ Smith, Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng). Of the six Cardinals to see 20 or more minutes per game, four of them are upperclassmen (Siva, Dieng, Smith, Luke Hancock).
Indiana (No. 7/8) has 6 players playing more than 20 minutes per game--4 of them are upperclassmen, and all four average double-digits scoring. Three are starters (seniors Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford and junior Victor Oladipo), with junior Will Sheehey as the first guy off the bench.
Florida (No. 8/7) has 8 players receiving double-digit minutes per game--7 of them are upperclassmen. Three seniors (Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario, Erik Murphy) and three juniors (Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete) have started 9 or more games and are the only Florida players to see more than 20 minutes a game. These seven upperclassmen (junior Casey Prather is the seventh) are the top seven scorers on the team.
Gonzaga (10/10) has 10 players seeing double-digit minutes per game--6 are seniors or juniors (Elias Harris, Guy Landry Edi, Mike Hart and Kelly Olynyk, David Stockton, Sam Dower). All six are in the top eight for minutes on the team, and five have seen 6 or more starts (Harris, Edi, Hart, Olynyk, Dower).
Michigan (No. 2/3) is the exception to the rule here with 4 freshman (Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas, Mitch McGary, Caris LeVert) and 1 sophomore (Trey Burke) comprising the bulk of their 7-man rotation, making them my pick for an earlier-than-expected exit this March.
The ACC is illustrative of this phenomenon on its own. The top three teams in the league (Miami, Duke, NC State) are heavily reliant on upperclassmen, while the bottom three (Clemson, Boston College, Georgia Tech) are the youngest in the conference. It should be no suprise that Miami, undefeated in league-play (5-0), has five seniors and one junior in its seven-man rotation; or, that Boston College (9-9, 1-4) features exactly one returning upperclassman, who played all of 6.8 minutes per game last year as a sophomore.
That's the argument for experience. On the flip side, take a look at how talent without experience is faring this year:
Of the Top 10 recruits for this year's freshman class (according to ESPN), only two are playing for a currently-ranked team (they both play for Arizona). Only 8 of the Top 20 do so, 12 of the Top 30, 14 of the Top 40, 18 of the Top 50, and 32 of the Top 100. That's a 32% success rate for talent (if success is defined as playing for a Top 25 team). Not very good.
When you include the previous year's Top 100 recruits, the talent argument looks even bleaker. Exactly zero 2011 Top 10 recruits are playing on nationally-ranked teams as sophomores. Of course, this calculation includes 6 players drafted into the NBA after one season who would arguably be helping their alma maters' prospects (Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Brad Beal, Quincy Miller, and Marquis Teague), as well as one who would arguably be hurting them (Austin Rivers). But the trend continues. Only 2 Top 20 sophomore recruits are on ranked teams, 8 of the Top 30, 11 of the Top 40, 15 of the Top 50, and 25 of the Top 100. Even with the six draft picks mentioned above, that's a 31% success rate for sophomores.
It would appear that talent alone does not ensure success to the extent that experience does.
There are any number of reasons why this is the case--physical and emotional maturation, team chemistry, a reinforced and more nuanced understanding of your coach's system, strategy, and expectations. But in a college basketball world progressively dominated by instant gratification and the quest for the next big thing, it is most important to understand not why this is the case, but simply that this is the case.
Which brings us back to Roy Williams and North Carolina basketball.
Things are going ok for now. But when our talented and inexperienced crew suffer their next inevitable setback (which doesn't necessarily equate to a loss this Saturday), we will be forced to endure predictable chatter of the "What's wrong with Roy?" variety. Why can't he get the most out of his talent? This is just like 2010. It's becoming a trend.
The trend, of course, is not a deficiency or decline on Roy's part. It's that he loses an entire team to the NBA Draft every few years, usually comprised of multiple sophomores or juniors leaving early, while the Coach K's of the basketball world are routinely bringing back multiple contributing seniors. This isn't a knock on K - Roy has certainly had his years of returning key three- and four-year players (2005, 2008, 2009), and I would love it if we could have that every year -but it is an explanation of "what's going on at Carolina" this year. And "what's going on" isn't a lack of talent or a lack of coaching, it's a lack of experience.
Calipari (where he's not viewed as a cheat) is widely seen as some type of recruiter-coach savant, but even his occult ministrations have not been enough to overcome the equally huge personnel hit he took this past off-season.
The Heels have ten players averaging double-digit minutes this year: one senior (Dexter Strickland, who missed the entire second half of last season); two juniors (Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald, who has missed the last four games with no clear indication of when he'll be back); three sophomores (James Michael McAdoo, P. J. Hairston, Desmond Hubert); and, four freshmen (Marcus Paige, J. P. Tokoto, Brice Johnson, Joel James). Their 11th and 12th men are both sophomores (Jackson Simmons and Luke Davis). It's a wonder we're sitting at fourth in the conference.
I understand the impatience; and the criticism just reflects the level of respect Carolina engenders in the wider basketball community, which gives rise to such expectations. It comes with the territory, and that's as it should be.
Just don't let it carry you away.