Please join me for a brief visit to Small Sample Size Theater:
Today's production deals with Duke basketball and the stars are freshman who happen to be the team's best players.
We have the 2012 Blue Devils, led by first-team All-ACC guard Austin Rivers. And then there are the 2014 Devils, led by first-team All-American Jabari Parker.
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Both teams flamed out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Therefore, the conclusion we should draw is that Duke's 2014-15 Blue Devils, which will be built around freshman Jahlil Okafor (the AP Preseason National Player of the Year), will crash and burn as the 2012 and 2014 teams did.
Or can we step back into the daylight and suggest that two examples are not enough to draw firm conclusions. And even those two examples are not as clear as many would suggest.
For one thing, the quick NCAA flameouts obscure the fact that both 2012 and 2014 were fairly successful seasons in most regards. The 2012 Devils won 27 games and finished No. 8 nationally in the final AP poll. And even that is misleading since the team was 26-5 and No. 6 in the nation when starting forward Ryan Kelly was hurt and lost in the week before the ACC Tournament.
No such excuses for the 2014 team, which did manage to win 26 games and finish - surprise, surprise - No. 8 in the nation. The Parker-led team beat the nation's No. 1 team in Cameron, ended the year with a fantastic victory over UNC at home and played in the ACC title game.
But both of those teams lost to inferior teams in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, so that's how we remember them. Both of those teams had similar regular seasons to the 1991 Blue Devils, a team that won 26 pre-NCAA games, finished No. 6 in the final AP poll and lost the ACC title game by 22-points to rival North Carolina.
Of course, that team - which featured freshman Grant Hill in the starting lineup - got hot in March and won the national title. So that's one of the great Duke teams.
There's another difference between the 2012/2014 teams and the current team. The two earlier teams were largely experienced teams built around one talented freshman. The 2015 Blue Devils are going to be a freshman-dominated team with a few veterans plugged in.
In 2012, Rivers was joined in the starting lineup by three juniors and either sophomore Tyler Thornton or junior Andrew Dawkins. For the most ;part in 2014, Parker started alongside a senior Thornton, junior Quinn Cook (or sophomore Rasheed Sulaimon), redshirt sophomore Rodney Hood and sophomore Amile Jefferson.
We can't know for sure, but it looks like Okafor will be joined in the starting lineup by fellow freshmen Tyus Jones at the point and Justise Winslow on the wing. Freshman Grayson Allen looks like he'll play a significant role off the bench.
That's a team that looks nothing like the 2012 or 2014 teams.
But that doesn't mean there aren't parallels in Duke history.
Even before Mike Krzyzewski, there was 1978, when freshmen forwards Gene Banks and Kenny Dennard helped transform a team that had finished last in the ACC for five straight seasons into a Final Four team.
In 1999-2000, Duke had to replace three starters and six top players off the 1999 NCAA runner-ups. Krzyzewski filled the gap by adding point guard Jason Williams, center Carlos Boozer and wing Mike Dinleavy to the rotation. The first two started, while Dunleavy was a sixth man who played starter's minutes until sidelined with mono late in the season.
That young team won 29 games, finished No. 1 in the final AP poll, and swept the ACC's regular season and tournament titles. It did lose in the Sweet 16, perhaps a bit because Dunleavy was still subpar after returning from his bout with mono.
I should point out that the two best players on that team were senior Chris Carrawell and junior Shane Battier, who both won All-America honors that season. But also keep in mind that both entered that season regarded as supporting actors. Both players had been third-team All-ACC in 1999 - in 2000, they became the top two vote-getters on the first All-ACC team.
Could Quinn Cook or Amile Jefferson or Rasheed Sulaimon make a similar jump?
Then there is the 2003 Duke team. After the early defection of Williams, Boozer and Dunleavy after 2002, Krzyzewski reloaded with the nation's top recruiting class. Freshman shooting guard J.J. Redick and freshman big man Shelden Williams started, while freshman big man Shavlik Randolph was the first guy off the bench.
That young team - anchored by senior Dahntay Jones and junior point guard Chris Duhon - won 26 games, finished No. 7 in the final AP poll and won the ACC championship.
Of course, offering those two freshman-dominated squads as a comparison to the 2015 Blue Devils means that we've returned to Small Sample Size Theater. I merely offer these two examples to suggest that maybe 2012 and 2014 don't tell the whole story.
The truth is that Krzyzewski has relied on young players since his earliest days. His first freshman-dominated squad was 1983, when freshmen Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, David Henderson and Jay Bilas all played major roles for a team that won 11 games and ended its season with a 43-point loss to Virginia in the ACC Tournament.
That group formed the foundation of his first Final Four team in 1986, when they were joined by freshman Danny Ferry (who began the season as a starter when Bilas was hurt, but finished it as the team's sixth man). Freshman Christian Laettner starred on the 1989 Final Four team and freshman Bobby Hurley quarterbacked the 1990 national runner-ups. As noted, freshman Grant Hill was a key player on the '91 national champs. Freshman Jeff Capel was a key player on the 1994 Final Four team. Freshman Chris Duhon started on the 2001 national champs. Freshman Luol Deng was by March the best player on the 2005 Final Four team. No freshman started for the 2010 national champs, but freshmen Mason Plumlee and Andre Dawkins were key reserves for that successful team.
Clearly, Coach K has had success with freshmen.
But with a team so heavily dependent on freshmen as this one is going to be? The 2000 and 2003 Duke teams offer at least a tenuous comparison, but again we're viewing the Small Sample Size Theater.
But is it possible to find a larger sample size?
THE FRESHMAN TEAMS
The truth is that few programs have the ability to recruit the kind of talent that Coach K has assembled in this year's freshman class.
Krzyzewski has done it a number of times. John Calpari does it frequently at Kentucky. Sometimes Bill Self does it at Kansas. Go back to 1991 and Steve Fisher certainly did it at Michigan with the Fab Five.
If we expand our horizon to all freshman super teams maybe we can draw some conclusions that aren't based on the Small Sample Size Theater.
Let's start by asking the question - has any freshman dominated team ever won the national championship? Again, we're not talking about one key freshman such as Michael Jordan in 1982, Pervis Ellison in 1986, Grant Hill in 1991 or Mike Bibby in 1997. I'm asking for a team that was dominated by freshmen.
I could be wrong, but by my definition, I see two freshman dominated titlists:
-- 2003 Syracuse. The best player on the team was freshman forward Carmelo Anthony, who led the Orange in both scoring (22.2) and rebounding (10.0). The number two scorer was freshman point guard Gerry McNamara. The No. 4 scorer was freshman guard Billy Edelin. Freshman Matt Gorman contributed off the bench. They teamed with senior Kueth (sic) Duany and sophomore big man Hakim Warrick to lead Syracuse to 30 wins and the 2003 national title.
It's worth nothing that the Orange weren't overpowering in the regular season, winning 24 games and earning a No. 3 seed. But they got hot in March.
-- 2012 Kentucky: The three most important players on the '12 Wildcats were freshman center Anthony Davis (the national player of the year), freshman forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and freshman point guard Marquis Teague. Freshman forward Kyle Wiltjer was a contributor off the bench. Sophomores Terrance Jones and Doron Lamb also played big roles, along with senior Darius Miller.
The Wildcats were overpowering in the regular season, taking a 32-2 ranking and a No. 1 national ranking into the tournament (ending with an NCAA record 38 wins).
It's not surprising that the two freshman-dominated teams would win in the last 12 years. It's not that there weren't freshmen dominated teams earlier (see the Fab Five in 1991), but the game has changed so much in modern times that it's become much easier for young teams to succeed. In the 1980s, the flood of underclassmen to the NBA was barely a trickle. Those teams dominated by freshman had to play opponents built around seniors and juniors. That began to change in the 1990s, but only gradually. And for more than a decade, the best potential freshmen - truly transformative guys such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard - jumped straight to the pros without seeing the inside of a college classroom.
Today, a team composed of top freshmen rarely has to face an opponent that combines experience and similar talent. They see one of the other - other uber-talented teams are teams loaded with less-experienced youngsters. The veteran teams usually feature less-talented upperclassmen.
Kentucky's John Calipari was the first coach to embrace the new age. At a time when other top coaches were trying to blend one or two super freshmen with a veteran core, he loudly proclaimed that he would win with a team of one-and-dones.
He couldn't have done that at UMass or Memphis, his first two stops. His vacated 1996 Final Four team at UMass started two seniors and three juniors. His vacated 2008 Final Four team at Memphis was led by brilliant freshman Derrick Rose, but the other key players included a senior, three juniors and a sophomore.
Only a coach at a Blueblood University could consistently bring in the kind of talent needed to make Calipari's scheme work. Other schools have done it on an occasional basis - Syracuse in '03; Ohio State in 2007, maybe Duke this season - but nobody except Calipari has tried to build his program on such teams.
How has it worked?
Let's check out his five-year run in Lexington:
2010 - Calipari's first Kentucky team was built around freshman point guard John Wall, freshman big man DeMarcus Cousins and freshman guard Eric Bledsoe. Junior forward Patrick Patterson was the most important upperclassman.
That Wildcat team was phenomenal - it entered the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 1 with a 32-2 record. But Kentucky's young team suffered a stunning upset to West Virginia in the East Regional championship game (the Elite Eight). When a veteran Duke team won the national title (beating a veteran Butler team in the finals), many experts scoffed at Calipari's experiment.
2011 - When all five starters off the 2010 team (along with sub Daniel Orton) entered the NBA Draft, Calipari reloaded with freshman point guard Brandon Knight, freshman forward Terrence Jones and freshman guard Doron Lamb. They were the top three scorers on a team that was good, but not nearly so dominant as the year before. Kentucky entered the NCAA Tournament with a 24-8 record and a No. 4 seed in the East Regional.
Then the 'Cats caught fire - winning five tournament games in a row to reach the Final Four (Calipari's first non-vacated appearance) and the national title game. Significantly, Knight was the only one of the Big Three freshman to pull a one-and-done, leading to …
2012 - The dominant national championship team that featured 2011 holdovers Jones and Lamb, along with the freshman trio of Davis, Kidd-Gilchrist and Teague.
All five starters off that team DID go pro.
2013 - The talent influx was not quite as strong as in the previous three years. Center Nerlens Noels would end up being the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, but guard Archie Goodwin and forward Alex Poythress would prove less than overwhelming. Big man Willie Cauley-Stein proved a project. When Noels was hurt late in the season, Kentucky slipped from a marginal NCAA team to a first-round NIT loser.
Noels and Goodwin both jumped to the draft.
2014 -- Calipari reloaded with forward Julius Randle, guards Aaron and Andrew Harrison, swing man James Young and big men Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. Sophomores Cauley-Stein and Poythress were also in the rotation.
The team experienced growing pains, entering the NCAA Tournament with a 24-10 record and a mere No. 8 Seed in the Midwest Regional. But like the 2001 squad, the 'Cats caught fire in March, winning five tournament games and reaching the NCAA title game.
Ironically, the 2014 'Cats lost to UConn in the finals, the same program (with several of the same players) that beat Kentucky in the 2011 championship game.
Still, a national title, three NCAA title games and an Elite Eight in five years is a pretty significant accomplishment - especially since it was accomplished with what were essentially five very different teams.
If you true to measure programs by regular season success over the last five seasons, Kansas has been the most successful, just ahead of Duke.
But when you measure postseason success, based purely on NCAA wins, you get:
1. Kentucky - 19
2. Louisville -- 13
3. (tie) Kansas --12
UConn - 12 (all coming in 2011 and 2014)
Ohio State --12
6. (tie) Duke - 11
Butler - 11
Syracuse -- 11
Michigan State -11
10. Wisconsin -- 9
11. (tie) Arizona -- 8
UNC - 8
Clearly, Calipari's formula is working. You can raise questions about his ethics (two vacated Final Fours) and object to his self-serving personality, but you can't deny that his methods have produced a postseason juggernaut. It's one that's likely to continue as just one stud off his 2014 national runner-ups jumped to the pros - Julius Randle. The hard core of talent from that team is still in Lexington - to be joined by another terrific freshman class.
That looks a lot like the formula that produced Kentucky's 2012 national champs.
FOLLOWING THE MODEL
Krzyzewski's 2014-15 Duke team looks very much like one of Calipari's recent Kentucky teams. More like the 2010, 2011 or 2014 'Cats that invincible 2012 Kentucky team or the mediocre 2013 team.
But I would suggest that the team it most resembles was not a Kentucky team at all. This team looks to me very much like Ohio State's 2007 Buckeyes.
Thad Matta built that team that year around a remarkable four-man freshman class:
-- Center Greg Oden was the consensus No. 1 prospect in the class - a 7-0, 250-pound true center projected as a dominant player. Injuries would hamper his freshman season (and would later destroy his pro career), but he was still a great player in 2007, when he led the Buckeyes in scoring (15.7) and rebounding (9.6).
The parallels between Oden and Duke's Jahlil Okafor are obvious. Personally, I think Okafor has a much more developed offensive game, while Oden was a more effective shot blocker (he averaged 3.3 blocks a game). But I think they have similar impact - I just hope that Okafor avoids the injury bug that prevented Oden from being the greatest big man of his generation (which he was on pace to become).
-- Point guard Mike Conley was the No. 21 prospect in the class - actually, he was the nation's third-ranked point guard prospect (behind Ty Lawson and Sherron Collins). Listed at 6-1, 180-pounds, Conley was the same height as Duke's Tyus Jones (and his listed weight was 10-pounds lighter).
Conley wasn't quite as highly rated as Jones (No. 7 overall and the No. 2 point guard behind Emmanuel Mudiay), but he is a very similar player. He averaged 11.3 points and 6.1 assists for the Buckeyes. If I had to guess, I suspect Jones will average a few more assists and a few less points in his freshman season.
-- Wing Daequan Cook was the No. 13 prospect in the class. At 6-5, 205 pounds, he was an explosive athlete for the Buckeyes. He averaged 9.8 points and 4.3 rebounds in an average of 20 minutes a game for the Buckeyes.
The similarity (on paper) between Cook and Duke's Justise Winslow is startling. Winslow was also the No. 13 prospect in the class (all ratings based on RSCI). At 6-6, 225-poinds, he's a touch bigger, but he's also going to be an explosive athlete on the wing. I think Cook (who hit 41 percent of his 3-pointers on '07) and Winslow are very similar offensively. Both have a varied skill set, although I think Winslow has the potential to be a better defender (which Cook didn't have to be with Oden behind him).
-- Wing guard David Lighty didn't start, but was a useful player off the bench for the Buckeyes, averaging 3.8 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.0 assists in about 12 minutes a game. He would also endure injury problems in college, which turned him into a five-year player. Lighty started in 2008, 2010 and 2011, averaging over 12 points a game in his last two seasons.
Duke's Grayson Allen is slightly higher rated (No. 24 vs. No. 31), and is a bit smaller (6-4, 195 vs. 6-5, 220). He probably has more offensive potential and I know he's a better ballhandler (although Lighty had a solid 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio for his career).
In addition to the four key freshmen, that Ohio State team boasted two veteran guards: Ron Lewis, a 6-4 senior who averaged 12.7 points and 3.6 assists; and James Butler, a 6-2 junior who averaged 8.5 points and 3.6 assists.
Duke, of course, has 6-2 senior Quinn Cook (11.3 points and 4.3 assists last season) and 6-5 junior Rasheed Sulaimon (9.9 points and 2.4 assists).
Up front, the 2007 Buckeyes boasted 6-8 senior Ivan Harris (7.6 ppg and 3.3 rebounds) at the power forward spot, where Duke will have 6-8 junior Amile Jefferson (6.5 points and 6.9 rebounds in 2014).
I don't think Ohio State had an equivalent to Matt Jones, a rising soph who is expected to take a bigger role at Duke this season. In fact, the 2007 Buckeyes didn't have a sophomore on the roster. They did have 6-8 juco transfer Othello Hunter, who contributed 5.7 points and 4.5 rebounds a game. I guess the closest Duke equivalent would he 7-0 junior Marshall Plumlee or 6-7 sophomore Semi Olejaye, who both come into this season hoping to earn bigger roles.
That freshman dominated Ohio State team finished with a 30-3 record before the NCAA Tournament. They won the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles and were seeded No. 1 in the NCAA South regional. Matta's team won five tournament games before falling to defending national champion Florida in the title game.
Now, I don't want to make too much of the parallels between the 2007 Buckeyes and the 2015 Blue Devils - that would be Extremely Small Sample Size Theater. There are differences - Ohio State played a lot of zone in 2007. And the Big Ten, which had just one other ranked team (Wisconsin) in the final AP poll, wasn't as strong as this year's ACC is going to be.
But I think the similarities between the two teams are interesting and suggest what is possible for this Duke team.
Of course, Duke's destiny is not defined by what Ohio State did in 2007 any more than they are defined by what Kentucky did in 2011 or Duke did in 2003 or by what the Blue Devils did in 2012 and 2014.
The season still has to play out. Just because Duke is a freshman dominated team doesn't mean the Blue Devils can't succeed … any more than the fact that Duke is one of most talented teams in college basketball means that they will
I do know that whatever happens this season, Coach K is not going to embrace the Calipari model. Not as a goal. True, he'll have teams like this one that look very much like a Kentucky team. But in the long term, Krzyzewski is still going to try to blend long-term players with talented freshman who are so good that they going to be short-term Blue Devils.
Maybe Calipari's system has worked better over the last five years. But that's Small Sample Size Theater again.
Over the full 34 years of Krzyzewski's tenure, no one else's scheme has worked nearly as well.