When Duke last traveled here for a Final Four in 2010, the Blue Devils were the most experienced team remaining in the NCAA tournament and left as champions.
Now, five years later, they return as the second-youngest team in the Final Four – behind only Kentucky, which has, under coach John Calipari, been known for its reliance on talented youth. Kentucky has won big before when it has been most reliant on freshmen and sophomores.
For Duke, though, this is new – sustained postseason success with a team that, statistically, is most reliant on the freshmen trio of Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow. Yet the chemistry questions that surrounded other recent Duke teams haven’t this one. The parts have better meshed.
And then there’s perhaps the greatest difference of all between this Duke team and the ones in 2012 and 2014 that didn’t survive the first weekend of the tournament.
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“It helps them tremendously to have at least one upperclassman who is a key player,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said Thursday, two days before his team’s game on Saturday night against Michigan State in the national semifinals. “Not just upperclassmen who are on the team.
“In this case, Quinn (Cook) has helped these guys.”
Krzyzewski hasn’t said – and likely wouldn’t say – that some of his recent freshmen-laden teams lacked leadership and direction. This team has clearly had it from Cook, though.
Cook, the senior guard, was a freshman when Duke lost against Lehigh in its first NCAA tournament game in 2012. He was a junior a season ago, when the Blue Devils lost against Mercer.
Both of those teams, like this one, relied heavily upon freshmen. Austin Rivers was the team’s leading scorer in 2012, and Jabari Parker was the same a season ago. They both spent one season on campus before leaving for the NBA, and they both left after disappointing – and short – March runs.
For a moment Thursday, Cook looked around and took in the environment. Here he was, finally, on his sport’s grandest stage.
“I’m like a kid in a candy store here,” he said. “Obviously it being my first time, you know, I’ve had two early exits in the first rounds, losing to Louisville in the Elite Eight, seeing those guys cut the nets down, celebrate, remembering that.
“It’s a blessing to be here … where I am on this team because we’ve been through a lot this year, a lot on the court, off the court. We always have trust in each other. Coach never gave up hope and always encouraged us.”
According to kenpom.com, which is run by statistician Ken Pomeroy, Duke is the sixth-youngest Final Four team since 2007, when Pomeroy began tracking team experience. He uses a weighted formula in which those who play the most minutes most determine a team’s experience rating.
Two teams that entered the tournament with less experience than Duke – the 2012 Kentucky team and Connecticut in 2011 – won national championships. Kentucky’s team a season ago was the least experienced Final Four team since Pomeroy began tracking the metric.
Those Wildcats lost in the national championship game against Connecticut. The nucleus of that Kentucky team returned intact but, even so, it’s still the second-most inexperienced Final Four team of the past eight years.
Perhaps lost in the data, though, is the value of learning on the fly. The Kentucky freshmen who last year lost in the final game of the season are now sophomores. Or, in the case of Willie Cauley-Stein, a junior.
A national player of the year candidate, Cauley-Stein missed Kentucky’s final three games a season ago with an ankle injury. His production, and leadership, have been vital for the Wildcats during their undefeated run to the Final Four. He said it was easier this year, forming a team.
“Especially the way coach Cal coaches,” Cauley-Stein said, speaking of Calipari. “It’s really high (intensity); it’s really quick. As freshmen coming in, you have to learn stuff at a way faster rate than other teams do because they have so many guys that have stayed.
“This year it was like that. We had the majority of our team that had played under him before.”
At Duke, meanwhile, Okafor, Jones and Winslow had never played for Krzyzewski before October. All three, though, entered college after playing on USA Basketbal teams – Okafor on the 2014 Junior National Select team, and Jones and Winslow on the 2014 under-18 national team.
“A lot of the young kids who are exposed to USA Basketball come in a lot more mature than the normal freshmen,” said Krzyzewski, who coached the men’s national team. “They’re just exposed to more teamwork, different roles, more of a sense of reality than they are when they come from their regular high school programs.”
Then there are the intangibles; the chemistry. How the parts fit.
Those were questions that surrounded Duke in 2012, when Rivers’ memorable season was overshadowed by the team’s ultimate failure in the postseason. A year ago, Parker was among the best individual talents in the country but Duke, ultimately, wasn’t among the best teams.
This year has been different.
“The way they coalesced, the way they galvanized, is incredibly unique today,” Kevin White, Duke’s athletic director, said of how the Blue Devils came together. “The way young people are, and the way the world is.
“And we live in a world that tends to pull us apart, and not drive us together. If you’re a high-profile kid, (it’s), ‘What can I harvest from this experience?’ We don’t have that. We have, ‘What can we harvest?’ It’s an amazing thing.”
The Monday night championship game everyone wants to see here – from fans to television executives, given the likely ratings – would be between two of the most inexperienced teams in the country. Duke and Kentucky, though, have experience that can’t be measured in years, and other intangibles that can’t be measured at all.
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Kentucky and Duke are two of the 10 youngest teams to make the Final Four since 2007.
Year; team; average experience (years); nat'l rank in experience; FF result
2014;Kentucky; 0.31;351;lost final
2013;Michigan; 0.73;342;lost final
2007;UCLA; 1.21;294;lost semi
2012;Ohio State; 1.27;286;lost semi
2007;Ohio State; 1.33;276;lost final
2007;Georgetown; 1.34;274;lost semi
NOTE: To calculate experience, a freshman has zero years of experience, a sophomore has one year of experience, etc. Players who played less than 10 percent of their team’s minutes are not included.