Duke, Kentucky and UNC have long sported familiar shades of blue on the college basketball court, but the programs’ true colors have started to show in how they recruit and retain student-athletes.
After UCLA’s 11, these three schools have the most college basketball national championships. Each reps a blue logo and uniform color scheme. And each has a passionate national fan base. But when it comes to recruiting their players, and retaining their players, there’s not much similarity anymore among Kentucky, Duke and UNC.
I realized that this past week when Florida high school forward Kevin Knox finally announced his decision to attend Kentucky and play for the Wildcats. His recruitment was the obsessing subject of college basketball fans in the eastern United States in recent months. And it turns out Knox’s choice tells us much about the state of college basketball as a whole, not just about his own future.
Knox has often emphasized that he plans to only play a year of college basketball as a bridge to meet the NBA’s requirement that athletes must be at least a year removed from high school to enter the league rookie draft (an incredibly inept rule that leads to talented but unready youngsters throwing their educations and careers away each spring and summer). So his allegiance to Kentucky makes perfect sense, because that’s what the Wildcats program has made its specialty during the John Calipari coaching years. It’s not uncommon for five or six Kentucky players to depart Lexington after their freshman year for the draft. And that’s fine for the players (although only Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns have found sustained success taking that route). But what about those large fan bases I referenced previously?
College basketball has a wide audience. Alumni of renowned public and private schools like Kentucky, Duke and UNC are often rabidly supportive of their schools and their basketball teams. Then there are the major fans who aren’t alumni, as well as the casual fans who align with specific schools for other reasons. Regardless of which of those categories a fan fits into (but even moreso for the die hard fan), it seems reasonable to think that the hope is that a program is a strong sustained product for both the school and student-athletes. Kentucky has the latter covered, but what about the former? Does Calipari’s program make a good name, and a good dollar, for “Big Blue Nation?” Perhaps most importantly, is it a program that makes UK alumni proud? Is that even possible with the revolving door of players each year who are more self-centered about their professional opportunities than their allegiance with a school and its storied basketball program?
Knox also considered Duke and UNC for his one-year college career. Duke hasn’t quite been Kentucky in recent years in terms of sending one-and-dones to the pro draft. But two years in particular would suggest they have become the same pro-prospect generator, more than a college basketball program for the school and alumni/fan base. After winning the 2015 national championship, three Duke freshmen immediately went pro — Jahlil Okafor, Justice Winslow and Tyus Jones. The 2017 NCAA tournament didn’t lead to the same result for the Blue Devils, but another group of freshmen/underclassmen decided it was time to trade the student-athlete life in Durham, N.C., for a shot at a few million dollars and a spot on the bench of an NBA roster — Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Luke Kennard.
Duke’s one of the most recognizable sports brands in the world, college or pro or otherwise, but as a college basketball fan, that brand starts to really get watered down by the turnover-prone program the Blue Devils have become. How do you get excited to play a team when all of the players are new every year? Part of rivalry is knowing the names of the athletes you’re watching. And in the case of UNC fans, the old adage that “familiarity breeds contempt” is true. Just reference Redick, J.J.
UNC had a shot at Kevin Knox as one of the members of his final list of schools, but did it really? UNC has not been adept at producing one-and-done players, or attracting those types of prospects in the first place. Now, many people would say that UNC has failed in recruiting in general since the “paper classes” scandal that’s doomed its public relations department for what seems like a decade now. But has it really? UNC has won three national championships during Roy Williams’ tenure as head coach in Chapel Hill. During that time, Duke has two and Kentucky has one. And the Tar Heels have done it, each time, with a slew of upperclassmen leading the way. When it comes to a winning program that has made its fan base proud on the court, I’d call that success.
I’d love to see a full-time sportswriter tackle this subject and look at topics like program revenue, fan support and change, early-entry draft numbers, etc.
What I’m getting at most is this: What do you want out of your college basketball program here in the 21st century? There’s the model that recruits, coaches and grows young men who reap the benefits of three or four years of hard work into success on the court and in life, which may seem so 20th century at this point. (UNC) On the opposite end, there’s the process that prides itself on snaring highly ranked high school players, welcoming them into the “family” for a year and then shipping them off at 18 or 19 to play a men’s game in the real world, ready or not. (UK) And there’s something akin to both of those takes, somewhere in between. (Duke)
UNC, Duke and Kentucky are known as college basketball royalty…but will that always be true…or accurate? If Kevin Knox and the past decade are any indication, no.