by Conor GeregFollow @CTGereg
Get old and stay old: It’s a mantra Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey has abided by throughout his tenure in South Bend and it’s a philosophy that’s been widely admired throughout the coaching ranks. Cultivate, retain, and replenish veteran talent and the rest will take care of itself when it comes to running a successful program. Far easier said than done.
Even Brey has struggled to execute his doctrine, sliding down the ACC totem pole, unable to maintain a pipeline of steady-handed upperclassmen to keep things afloat.
Mike Brey is far from the only high major coach to fall short of keeping veteran talent on campus, a trend that has collectively lead to an NCAA average of 1.75 years of experience per player last season. The sport has gotten younger and the years of roster stability have gone the way of the mid-range jumper. Gone for good. But to what degree can continuity and experience factor into success? Is a hardened veteran more valuable than a prized freshman recruit? For the answer to this, we look no further than this past March and put a microscope to which teams assembled the oldest rosters, the most constancy top to bottom, and how it all added up.
The Wildcats forgettable 2020-2021 season was due in large part to youth, inexperience, and perhaps the worst roster of the Calipari era. Kentucky finished 335th in KenPom’s “Experience” metric, a data point that measures the collective games and minutes played of each team. Unsurprising is UK’s “Continuity” measurable which placed the young cats at 342 nationally, returning just 7.6% of their contributors from a year earlier.
Coach Cal built last year’s group around a recruiting class that ranked first overall according to 247 sports. The usual formula of top-rated freshman talent couldn’t belie the need for veteran leadership (apologies to Olivier Sarr). The Cats brought in a quintet of top-50 prospects, Brandon Boston Jr. (5), Terrence Clark (8), Isaiah Jackson (30), Devin Askew (32), and Lance Ware (39) through a winless December (0-6) sunk Kentucky’s hopes even before the calendar turned to 2021.
It didn’t take Coach Cal long to change this script–and the team’s youth movement–opting to sign Davidson transfer, a 2,000 point scorer, Kellen Grady, and West Virginia’s Herculean big man Oscar Tschiebwe. Both enter Rupp Arena this fall as options 1A and 1B while giving Calipari a pair of experienced starters to moor alongside his talented 2021 recruiting class.
Staying in the SEC, the Tigers were the nation’s 11th most “experienced” team according to KenPom and this seasoned roster helped to get Missouri back on the basketball map. 6th in continuity, Mizzou returned a bevy of talent from last year’s group which proved to be critical in navigating an SEC that ranked 2nd among all 32 conferences in NET rating.
Returning Xavier Pinson atop the offense gave Cuonzo Martin a featured returning scorer who finished second in the SEC in the percentage of possessions used. Bringing back an offensive focal point like Pinson proved to be potent alongside seniors Dru Smith and Jeremiah Tilmon. Coach Martin is now in the unenviable position of replacing Pinson who announced on April 12th that he was staying in the conference and joining a different set of Tigers and suiting up for LSU.
Texas returned all the pieces necessary to make a splash this season—and they splashed—sort of. A climb into the AP top 10 seemed fitting with all the personnel that came back to Austin but even though the Longhorns were 3rd in the nation in KenPom’s “continuity”, their 1st round exit was one of the most surprising early exits from the tournament’s first weekend.
The Longhorns were 8-2 over their final ten games though a shocking 52-53 loss to Abeline Christian highlighted a wart that beleaguered one of the Big 12’s most veteran teams: turnovers. Texas coughed the ball up a season-high 23 times against ACU, a statistic that’s far less appalling when one considers that they were 265th in the nation in taking care of the ball. Continuity, experience, and institutional memory fail to translate when plagued by turnovers.
Remarkably, coach Chris Mack steered the Cardinals into the NCAA Tournament bubble conversation considering his team entered the season 324th in continuity. Were these Cardinals an anomaly considering the program’s roster fluctuation? Not quite. If we take a closer look it’s clear that returning (and supplementing) a team’s primary ball-handler is a vital component in keeping a program’s momentum. The Cardinals did just that with the addition of Radford transfer Carlik Jones alongside developing sophomore David Johnson. The backcourt duo clicked immediately to start the year, guiding the Cardinals to a 9-1 start.
A 5-6 finish stalled the hopes of a return trip to the tournament, a detail which of course disappointed many, but for a season with multiple COVID interruptions, it’s remarkable Chris Mack had the Cards in position for an at-large berth.
The Wildcats might not have been the oldest team in college basketball last year (148th) but Jay Wright’s group ranked 8th in continuity, a system that even without star Collin Gillespie, still churned out a Sweet 16 appearance. Villanova, despite producing six NBA draft picks over the last decade, has kept its roster together and adhered to a formula centered on player development, and in turn, creating a sense of familiarity among its group that few programs can attest to.
This upcoming season should be no different considering the April 12th announcement from Colin Gillespie that he’ll be opting in for a fifth year. Gillespie was featured on 22.4% of every possession this past season, second on the team to only NBA first-round hopeful, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl. In Gillespie and fellow repeat senior Jermaine Samuels, Wright is returning veteran leadership and trusted playmakers, ingredients necessary for yet another run at a third title.
No one should have been surprised to see Josh Pastner’s Yellow Jackets hoist an ACC tournament crown considering this team entered the year in the top ten in both continuity (10th) and experience (4th). The ingredients were all there hiding in plain sight. A veteran point guard: Jose Alvarado. A battle-tested big man: Moses Wright. Weathered wing players: Jordan Usher and Michael Devoe.
Georgia Tech loses a ton with this group set to move on and it may be the ultimate test of Pastner’s coaching chops if he can get the Yellow Jackets back into the ACC’s upper echelon without the bulk of his veteran core.
It’s difficult to discern Mick Cronin’s formula for last month’s Final Four run. The second-year coach in Westwood entered 279th in team experience but he assembled a group uniquely familiar with one another (34th in team continuity).
Unlike teams like Texas, the Bruins were judicious in their offense, finishing 25th in turnover rating all while running the nation’s 11th most efficient sets. If we’re looking for a pattern for future seasons perhaps it’s this: experience is elusive in the modern college game but a team mostly intact from year to year is one that’s particularly dangerous especially when it’s a group that can avoid self-inflicted errors.
Sure, talent is an advantage, but as British Romantic John Keats reminds us, “nothing ever becomes real until it is experienced.”