By Joan Niesen
March 24, 2014

Dakari Johnson and Julius RandleDakari Johnson and Julius Randle celebrate their 78-76 win over Wichita State in the round of 32. (Andy Lyons/Getty)

ST. LOUIS — John Calipari is loving this.

Freshmen? Look at all my freshmen. Did I mention I have freshmen?

Those weren’t quite Calipari’s words in the minutes after Kentucky’s 78-76 win over Wichita State, but they were close. When one reporter asked Julius Randle about other freshmen in the tournament failing to live up to expectations, Calipari interrupted.

“I would like all the other freshmen up here to answer the same question,” he said, his joke masking the fact that he has a point to prove.

Calipari gestured down the row. James Young, freshman. Randle, freshman. Aaron Harrison, freshman. Andrew Harrison, freshman. All at the podium. All advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. All 19 years old – except for Young. He’s 18.

Two days before, Jabari Parker’s college career had likely ended in Duke’s upset loss to Mercer. In the game, Parker had 14 points, although he did so on dismal 4-of-14 shooting. Then, just hours before Kentucky’s game, the other two highest-rated freshman made their early exits. KansasAndrew Wiggins had his worst game of the season, with just 4 points to go along with 4 rebounds, and Joel Embiid spent the game on the bench with a back injury. Adding insult to (literal) injury, the 7-foot center said after the loss that he’d have played in the Sweet 16 had Kansas made it.

Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis, too, made an early exit on Saturday with 19 points on 33.3 percent shooting, leaving only Kentucky’s crew and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon alive among the elite underclassmen. In a season featuring the most talked-about freshmen in years – most, if not all, of whom are bound for the NBA – the talent vs. experience debate has reigned supreme, and Sunday’s Kentucky win did a lot to shift that narrative.

First Parker. Then Wiggins, and Embiid by proxy. By Sunday afternoon, the freshmen were falling, and there was cause to wonder: Is experience beating out the one-and-done model? Mercer’s starting lineup was composed entirely of freshmen, Stanford’s of upperclassmen. Down fell Duke, and down fell Kansas, despite assurances that young rosters were ready.

“You’re a sophomore by the time conference play starts with all of the things that these guys have experienced before getting to school,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said Saturday. “So I do think talent will trump experience in a lot of ways, but certainly experience can play havoc on young talent. But I think at this point in time freshmen should be able to handle it.”

Self’s gist: Kansas was going to win with a lineup that had prominently featured three freshmen for much of the season.

It didn’t.

The problem with Self’s argument is that development is more complicated than some linear track. In the case of Wiggins, a season-long lack of temerity and the absence of Embiid resulted in struggles and the eventual loss. Parker was benched in the second half of Duke’s loss in favor of a stronger defensive lineup. Neither hotshot freshman had quite what it took, but maturity can be a tricky thing. When Stanford’s Stefan Nastic and Josh Huestis – aged 21 and 22, respectively – were asked about how long it takes for a player to develop into the kind of talent that can win in the tournament, neither could say for sure. It’s a case-by-case thing, Nastic posited, although Huestis admitted that he felt like it took him until his junior season.

For Kentucky’s freshman, it took until March.

There was no question in St. Louis: the 18- and 19-year-olds whom Calipari is priming for the NBA have found their step. Julius Randle, the highest-touted of the bunch, dominated Sunday’s game, finishing with 13 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. He looked like every bit the NBA player, and Young and the Harrison brothers weren’t much worse. All four players finished with double-digit points on the afternoon, when they beat older, more experienced No. 1 seed Wichita State.

“All of the adversity we have been through all season, just to see us coming together as a team and getting better each game and finally get a big win like that, we just enjoyed it,” Randle said.

Twice over the course of the weekend, Calipari admitted he was not doing a great job with two of his freshmen: Andrew Harrison and Randle. He was referring to his approach to coaching them, because approaches take time, and Calipari has only a few months in this system he’s built. He speaks about his players more as if he’s teaching them rather than coaching them, and he is. Unlike Stanford’s Johnny Dawkins or Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall, Calipari doesn’t often keep his teenagers around, and so instead of touting a coherent group or a system, Kentucky’s coach speaks more about learning and gelling. His band of freshmen is still getting better, he says, and there’s reason to believe him.

“It makes it a lot easier when you have so many people on your team going through the same thing you're going through,” Andrew Harrison said. “The changes in the college game and some of the criticism and stuff, it makes it easier when some of your brothers and stuff going through some of the same things that you're going through.”

Maybe Kentucky timed this perfectly, and their freshmen are finally finding a rhythm in time for a run. Or maybe not. Maybe they fall to Louisville next weekend. No matter what, though, experience hasn’t quite trumped talent just yet, and that’s a good thing. This shouldn’t be quite so black and white.

During Calipari’s postgame comments Sunday, he joked with Andrew Harrison about his development. After admitting he’d needed to tweak his approach with the freshman, he copped to one message once the two had figured out their relationship: “Make me look good."

Make me look good. Make the system I’ve embraced look good. None of the other teams’ super-freshmen did this weekend.

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