John Calipari's been the head coach at Kentucky now for a little more than 600 days, and in that short span of time he has seen an incredible amount of roster turnover. Make that driven an incredible amount of roster turnover. At Duke, players like Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith have been around, seemingly, forever, but in Lexington things are a little livelier personnel-wise. For UK fans, stars like John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe are here one year and gone the next.
Ordinarily I'd say that a constantly churning roster is a bad thing (ask Nebraska or Iowa State), but Calipari has pretty clearly carved out a new template for success in the one-and-done era. In Coach Cal's hands, roster turnover is a blessing -- it means the talent's too good to hang around.
Even more impressive, Calipari's always been able to do something that old-school purists say can't be done "anymore" or "nowadays." He gets that top-level talent to play defense. Last year Kentucky labored under a persistent misapprehension that they were some kind of explosive offensive team. In fact the Wildcats' offense was only as good as Florida's and was even a little worse than Vanderbilt's in SEC play. But UK's defense was on a different level entirely. The 'Cats played the best D the SEC has seen since LSU's 2006 Final Four team, led by Tyrus Thomas and Glen "Big Baby" Davis.
This season Calipari once again has a team that is extremely young and extremely talented. In fact if anything the Wildcats play younger this year. Last season at least there was a graybeard like Patrick Patterson on hand. This year the offense in Lexington is almost entirely supplied by freshmen, namely Terrence Jones, Brandon Knight, and Doron Lamb. And judging by performances like Jones' 27-17 double-double against Notre Dame, relying on freshmen might not be such a bad thing.
So, can a team as young as the 2010-11 Wildcats make the Final Four?
On the one hand this is an easy question. Of course Kentucky can get to Houston next April. In terms of the metric that I like to use to measure a team's experience (returning possession-minutes), this year's UK team is more or less exactly as young as last year's roster. You might remember that group came within a game of making it to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
And yet, Kentucky's near-miss in 2010 was more unusual than you might think. Wall, Cousins, and company were flying in the face of a tendency that's downright anti-youth: The further you go into the NCAA tournament, the older the teams tend to get. In this sense the example of Duke last year is particularly instructive. The Blue Devils seemed like a veteran bunch, right? Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek, Singler, Smith -- those guys weren't what you'd call precociously young.
Maybe not, but get ready for a surprise. Duke in 2010 actually skewed young in terms of recent Final Four teams.
Those frisky young 2010 national champs
Final Four teams, 2008-10
RPM's: percentage of possession-minutes returned from previous season
Butler 2010 97
Villanova 2009 90
Connecticut 2009 89
North Carolina 2009 84
Kansas 2008 84
West Virginia 2010 82
Memphis 2008 79
Michigan St. 2009 77
Michigan St. 2010 74
North Carolina 2008 72
UCLA 2008 72
Duke 2010 64
Entering last year the Blue Devils had said goodbye to Gerald Henderson, who in 2008-09 had a very good year as the co-featured scorer (along with Singler) in Mike Krzyzewski's offense. And, as seen here, making the Final Four after replacing a player like Henderson has been the exception rather than the rule the past three seasons.
Now for the caveats. You might remember a Ohio State team from a few years back led by one-and-done's like Greg Oden, Mike Conley, and Daequan Cook. That Buckeye team made it to the 2007 national championship game before falling to Florida. Thad Matta's roster that year was indeed pretty young, returning just 35 percent of the possession-minutes from the previous season. Yet even that team received big contributions from returning veterans like Ron Lewis and Jamar Butler.
I've been tracking RPM's for five seasons now, measuring how experienced major-conference and high mid-major teams are year in and year out. What I've found is that your run-of-the-mill team in that demographic tends to return about 59 percent of its possession-minutes in any given season. And based on those numbers I have reached a conclusion, one that your intuition already understood a long time ago: Ohio State in 2007 notwithstanding, Final Four teams are on average much more experienced than a team chosen at random.
That doesn't mean Kentucky is doomed this season just because they return a paltry 12 percent of their possession-minutes from last season. (In fact UK has the least experienced major-conference roster in the nation. The Cal Golden Bears are a close second.) It does mean that Calipari is trying to do something that's never been done before in the one-and-done era. Of course, he almost pulled it off last year, so we know it's not so very far-fetched. Relying this heavily on freshmen is not standard operating procedure -- and it sure is fun to watch. In other words it's Calipari, through and through.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider . John often sounds precociously young on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11 is now available on Amazon.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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