Niyo: Players make Final Four worth sticking around to see

John Niyo
The Detroit News
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If you’re patient enough, this is what you’ll get, this Final Four that’s both a breath of fresh air and a bit of a throwback. And this is what we’ll all get soon enough, assuming college basketball’s “one-and-done” rule eventually goes away, as it should.

There is talk it could happen soon, with NBA commissioner Adam Silver hinting strongly at changes to the league’s controversial age-minimum draft rule that’s been in place since 2006.

But in the meantime, if you take a closer look at college basketball’s showcase event, you’ll notice something already is different about it: The transient talent again has left the stage before the climactic scene. And what’s left this year are four teams — Villanova, Kansas, Michigan and Loyola-Chicago — that are relying heavily on experienced players, many of them with bright NBA futures themselves, if you can believe it.

For the first time since 2013, it’s highly unlikely that a freshman playing in the Final Four will end up leaving school as an NBA first-round pick in June. And while luck certainly had something to do with that — Duke’s one-and-done stars came within a Grayson Allen rim-rattler of beating Kansas in the Midwest Regional final — the unfortunate consequence of all the hand-wringing over this topic is that some will say that’s a good thing. Or a bad thing.

When the truth is, it’s nothing, really.

A new-look Final Four

The one-and-done rule wasn’t going to kill college basketball. Doing away with it certainly won’t, either. And while the sport certainly has other issues to deal with — with an FBI investigation uprooting all kinds of uncomfortable truths — another Final Four that’s missing most of June’s lottery picks won’t be any less intriguing.

More: Michigan scout team’s unsung work playing pivotal role

Last year’s national semifinals were terrific, and the 2016 title game between Villanova and North Carolina was an all-timer. And if those two teams — the last two NCAA champs, by the way — proved anything, it’s that these things take time.

This time, there’s a matchup of No. 1 seeds led by first-team All-Americans awaiting in one semifinal. And a game featuring the nation’s two hottest teams in the other, one of them a small-school Cinderella story with a 98-year-old nun riding shotgun, just for good measure.

There are a pair of offenses (Villanova and Kansas) ranked top-five nationally. There’s also a top-five defense that belongs to — surprise! — Michigan, which ranks fourth in defensive efficiency this season and is limiting teams to just 0.89 points per possession in the NCAA Tournament. And if you saw that coming back in October, well, as John Beilein joked last week, “I would have said you obviously haven’t seen us practice yet.”

Yet that defense — something Beilein’s teams weren’t known for in the past — “that’s what has us going to the Final Four,” Michigan AD Warde Manuel noted.

More: Loyola’s court story: trendsetter to Cinderella

That and the development of a player like Charlies Matthews, to cite one example among several. A former top high school recruit out of Chicago, he went to Kentucky thinking he might join coach John Calipari’s one-and-done parade there. But Matthews’ plans quickly changed, and after transferring to Michigan in 2016, it took even more time to learn a new style of basketball from a coach who’s a stickler for the fundamentals.

“Last year all I used to hear in practice was ‘Turnover, Matthews! Turnover, Matthews!’” he said. “And, ‘Go see (section) 212’ — that’s when I have to run up to the top of the bleachers. But I stayed with it.”

He added weight to his 6-foot-6 frame, improved his ball-handling, his balance and his shot, and with a better understanding of Beilein’s system, he’s beginning to flourish. Matthews was named West Regional MVP, averaging 17.5 points with only two turnovers in 66 minutes.

“It’s different when you’re a freshman or you’re in your third year in college — you should grow,” Beilein said. “But his attitude has helped him do that. … For him to come in and just buy in — to culture, to individual workouts, scouting reports, to all the things that sometimes guys who are recruited so highly have a hard time buying into. So many times they’ve been told they’re the greatest, and now you say, ‘No, these are weaknesses we’re going to work on.’ These are blind spots.”

More: Ohio school to honor Michigan guard Zavier Simpson

And we’ve all got those, quite frankly. Those that can’t see the benefits in those fleeting freshman-year-only college careers are missing a point, too. One Calipari and others keep making, even as they’re cycling through top-ranked recruiting classes the way families like mine go through milk.

Duke’s four freshmen starters grew immeasurably as players this season, and the Blue Devils came within a shot of this year’s Final Four, where they might’ve matched coach Mike Krzyzewski’s last title team from 2015 before moving on to the NBA.

Then again, part of the reason they didn’t is because of what Kansas coach Bill Self was talking about last weekend. He’s had plenty of one-and-done players come through his program, most recently with Josh Jackson, whose name has shown up in reports detailing the ongoing FBI probe in college hoops. But his most successful teams have relied more on upperclassmen.

“And if you look at the best players for our teams over time,” said Self, “they have been guys that have been in the program two or three years that may not have been McDonald’s All-Americans.”

Developing players

Guys like Frank Mason and Cole Aldrich and Jeff Withey in the past, and guys like seniors Devonte’ Graham and Svi Mykhailiuk this season. Players who’ve shown that one isn’t necessarily done if they’re not in the NBA by the time they’re 20, and that all isn’t lost if they decide to stick around. Even the Jayhawks’ other scoring star, Malik Newman, fits that bill, with a story that’s similar to Matthews’ at Michigan.

More: Michigan fans have reason for optimism: Here’s 4

“Players are developing all the time,” said Krzyzewski, who, for what it’s worth, already has locked up 2018’s No. 1-ranked class featuring arguably the nation’s top three recruits. “And a lot of times a player that was not a McDonald’s All-American or in the top 20 or 25 as a sophomore is better than 15 of the kids that were rated before him, because he hasn’t fully developed or he’s gotten an opportunity. You see it all the time.”

We might not be seeing that play out here in the Final Four, exactly. Outside of Villanova’s Mikal Bridges, there won’t be another lottery pick — in 2018, anyway — on the court. Of the 20 starters between these four teams, the only true freshman is Michigan’s Isaiah Livers.

But that’s part of the new deal in the college game today: What you see is what you get.

And it’s not all bad.


Michigan vs. Loyola-Chicago

Tip-off: 6:09 p.m. Saturday, Alamodome, San Antonio

TV/radio: TBS/950 AM

Records: No. 3 seed Michigan 32-7; No. 11 seed Loyola Chicago 32-5

Up next: Winner advances to Monday’s national championship game against Villanova-Kansas winner.

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