National final: Recruiting wisdom

When the ball tipped on Monday night to open the national championship tilt between surprising combatants Connecticut and Kentucky, most fans watched the game on its own terms.

But from a recruiting perspective, and especially now that the travel season will command the spotlight without the distraction of actual college games, some insights became apparent during the respective teams' tournament runs as well as during the game itself.

A team can win big with elite talent, even if almost no experience is present.

Kentucky, which single-handedly altered and then throttled the recruiting environment when John Calipari arrived in Lexington in 2009, now has advanced to the Final Four in three of the past four seasons. That includes the 2012 national championship and last night's finals appearance.

And it's not like those teams benefitted from returnees. Three different teams, three wholly unique core squads, including Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones, Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Julius Randle, James Young, Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison and many others who factored into the 2011, 2012 and 2014 clubs.

Most fascinating — and somewhat amusing — this season was Kentucky's ability to reverse the narrative of its season entirely during the past three weeks. Calipari's entire approach to program management came under fire, most frequently his penchant for recruiting elite, yet highly transient recruiting classes.

National columnists sprayed venomous ink in every direction, as the Wildcats' chemistry occasionally appeared toxic and the players more interested in their own stat lines than winning as a collective whole.

That was the backdrop for Kentucky as it entered the tournament. A lowly No. 8 seed that was considered an underdog — albeit a live one — in its final 32 matchup versus top-seeded Wichita State, even the Wildcats' victory in that contest did not trump the pervasive negativity hurled at UK throughout what had been considered a supremely disappointing season.

In fact, until the moment Kentucky dispatched archrival Louisville in the Sweet 16, the season still felt like a letdown. But the Wildcats prevailed over the defending champion Cardinals and then advanced all the way to the finale, riding dramatic moments from its precocious freshmen in the process.

Recruiting had felt just a touch stale in Lexington, at least relative to the Class of 2013 bonanza. The 2014 haul also ranks as elite, but only one top-10 player is headed to Kentucky (though Karl Towns is No. 11 and likely rising).

Now, however, Kentucky strolls into the Class of 2015 cycle with immense momentum. The 'Cats may take a slight dip next season if they lose too many players to the NBA, but even if so don't be surprised if some new version of this column arises in 2015-16.

You don't have to sign one and dones to win it all.

When Kevin Ollie took over at Connecticut in 2012 just following the Huskies' 2011 national title, he hardly walked into a harmonious scenario. The program had absorbed NCAA sanctions and was banned from the 2012-13 postseason, making recruiting extremely difficult as Ollie entered the scene. The program's functional demotion from the old Big East to the AAC also damaged its profile.

Not surprisingly, then, he didn't land a top 25 class entering college this season.

The program's freshmen were relative unknowns, as instead the Huskies won with talented experience. They followed the traditional formula: No instant impact superstars, just a bunch of good and some very good high school prospects who improved over time and developed into collegiate studs.

And the team's most scintillating performer, guard Shabazz Napier, was a senior who actually was a freshman on Jim Calhoun's triumphant 2011 squad. However highly the Wildcats' freshmen end up getting selected in this summer's NBA draft, none of them will wear an NCAA championship ring — much less one for each hand.

Connecticut's model requires patience and, yes, some luck.

But so does Kentucky's. While the 2012 Wildcats overpowered the tournament field, the 2011 and 2014 Final Four participants survived hair-raising moments to achieve postseason glory. And that doesn't mention the 2013 'Cats, who failed to advance to the NCAA Tournament at all.

Kentucky and Connecticut succeeded on a starkly contrasting basis. One had rich experience and obviously some talent, while the other lacked much experience at all but was loaded with talent up and down the roster.

Forming strong opinions until season's end can make one appear foolish.

Neither UConn nor Kentucky took the court this postseason as a title favorite. Neither team appeared to be on its way to a stirring legacy, with each (UConn a No. 7, and Kentucky a No. 8) seeded to lose in the round of 32. Along with that, and already discussed in relation to UK above, some combination of worry, anger and derision emanated from fans and media.

And now some of those folks look silly. It's one thing to criticize a team's performance to date, another to sign its death certificate in January and then herald the program's entire construction as doomed. Even if the Wildcats had fallen to the Shockers in the final 32, would that have negated Kentucky's national title two years ago or its Final Four appearance the season prior to that?

That same lesson applies to recruiting. Shabazz Napier was a heralded player in the Class of 2010, but his No. 62 ranking hardly served him justice in terms of his ultimate contributions. We say here all the time that rankings are a guide and an expectation, not a proclamation and certainly not carrying any degree of infallibility.

It works in reverse, too, of course, as some elite high school prospects fail to deliver on their perceived promise.

Bottom line: Neither the Kentucky or Connecticut model always will be superior to the other, nor does either exist without constant peril. Such is the nature of competitive athletics.

And who knows? Next year at this time, we might be celebrating an entirely different approach to program building. For now, suffice it to say there's more than one way to skin a (Wild)cat.

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