John Calipari’s 13th basketball team at Kentucky is, like most of his first 12, a legitimate Final Four contender. But something unusual is happening with this year’s juggernaut in Lexington. Calipari is relying mostly on a cadre of seasoned older players, including several transfers, who have brought some experience to the traditionally young Wildcats. The program with 11 straight top-two recruiting classes is thriving, but not with five-star freshmen leading the way.
Meanwhile, the school that Calipari left 13 years ago has followed the typical Kentucky model but is struggling. Memphis eclipsed Kentucky with two No. 1 classes in three years and is getting more production from freshmen this season, but the Tigers sit on the NCAA Tournament bubble. A new order has arrived.
After the NBA’s age minimum ushered in the one-and-done era, in which freshmen have dominated men’s college basketball, the sport’s newest players are playing smaller roles this season. The free year of eligibility granted because of COVID-19 translated to an outsized number of fifth- and sixth-year seniors. The NCAA’s new transfer rule facilitated a record 1,740 players entering the transfer portal last offseason. And of the top 10 recruits from the class of 2021 in 247Sports’ rankings, three have not suited up in college. (Five-star prospects Jaden Hardy and Scoot Henderson turned pro, while Kentucky’s Shaedon Sharpe joined Kentucky for the spring semester and will not play for the Wildcats this season.)
All of those trends mean this year’s freshmen are a slightly smaller factor. Through Monday’s games, freshmen were playing 14.8 percent of minutes, taking 13.7 percent of shots and scoring 13.3 percent of points, while seniors were playing 38.0 percent of minutes, taking 39.2 percent of shots and scoring 39.7 percent of points. In 2018-19, the last pre-pandemic season of college basketball, freshmen played 19.6 percent of minutes, took 18.1 percent of shots and scored 17.4 percent of points, while seniors were less prevalent, with 28.2 percent of minutes, 29.4 percent of shots and 30.1 percent of points.
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Two of the sport’s top teams (Gonzaga and Duke) still boast two of the country’s top freshmen (Chet Holmgren and Paolo Banchero), so it’s not as if the freshman is irrelevant. But even those stars — both top-10 recruits projected as top-five picks in this year’s NBA draft — are a bit less remarkable than their predecessors. Duke has four players averaging double digits in points per game, only two of whom are freshmen, and Holmgren isn’t even the leading scorer on his team — that would be Drew Timme, a junior.
In Bart Torvik’s player-value metric, which is adjusted for tempo and usage rate, the highest-rated freshman this season is Arizona’s Bennedict Mathurin at 4.4. In every season since 2008-09 — incidentally, just before Kentucky hired Calipari — at least one freshman has finished with a rating of 4.8 or better, the leaders being Oklahoma’s Trae Young (7.1) in 2018 and Duke’s Zion Williamson (6.8) in 2019.
The de-emphasis on freshmen bears out in many of this year’s top teams. Kentucky and Duke each signed top-three recruiting classes every year from 2014 to 2020, and both missed the tournament last season. Both remade their rosters last offseason, relying less on their star freshmen — particularly Kentucky. Of the Wildcats’ four top-50 recruits, only TyTy Washington is playing more than 20 percent of available minutes. Two others, Daimion Collins and Bryce Hopkins, are playing only complementary roles.
Memphis beat Calipari at his old game this year, signing top-10 recruits Jalen Duren and Emoni Bates, both of whom reclassified from 2022. In another year, Duren and Bates might be among the country’s top players, but neither of them is making much of an impact this year: Duren is scoring just 11.4 points per game, while Bates is at 10.4 and has been sidelined since Jan. 27. The Tigers, ranked No. 12 in the preseason, are now a fringe NCAA Tournament team.
Michigan was another team that broke into the elite tier of recruiting in 2021, signing the third-ranked class with four top-50 players. But the Wolverines are also on the bubble, at 14-11, and coach Juwan Howard is suspended for the rest of the regular season after a postgame altercation on Sunday at Wisconsin. For all of the hype around Michigan’s freshmen, the team’s two top scorers are a sophomore and a fifth-year senior. The sophomore, Hunter Dickinson, announced his return to Michigan on July 6, five days after the NCAA allowed players to begin profiting off of their name, image and likeness. And the senior, Eli Brooks, took advantage of the free year of eligibility and just played in his school-record 150th career game.
When the one-and-done rule meant freshmen started taking over college basketball, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski famously transformed the way in which he constructed his teams. And when the tide started to turn back the other way last year, Calipari performed something of his own pivot. After this season, Krzyzewski will give way to associate head coach Jon Scheyer, who has helped sign three of the top five freshmen in the class of 2022. Calipari will bring in the seventh- and eighth-ranked freshmen, plus Sharpe if he returns to Lexington.
Moving forward, the college game remains at the crossroads of all the changes of the past year. Any player who played last season will have five years of eligibility, allowing for many more seasoned fifth-year seniors over the next four years (depending on how many choose to use that extra year). As for the younger players, two factors are at work: The G League as an alternative to college basketball is growing, while the new NIL rules simultaneously make college more attractive for some high-level players.
After his team suffered a blowout loss to Kentucky at home in January, Kansas coach Bill Self put into perspective the changes in Lexington and across the landscape. “[Calipari] has had so many talented guys and so many one-year guys. But a 21-year-old competing against an 18-year-old, if talent is comparable, experience will prevail,” Self said. “Talent isn’t always comparable. But in this case [with transfers], the talent is comparable.”
With talented, experienced 21-year-olds on many rosters, in many ways it’s not a great time to be a freshman in college basketball. Freshmen shaped Calipari’s tenure at Kentucky. The sport may soon become an older man’s game again — but, as it turns out, Calipari is pretty good at that one, too.