Styles collide at Champions Classic

Updated: November 13, 2012, 9:17 AM ET
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

We've given the most important date in college basketball the Heisman for too long now. It's time for Jan. 8 to be recognized annually.

It was on that date in 1972 that the NCAA decided to reverse its own rule and allow freshmen to participate in college basketball and football, unknowingly leading us to the most controversial player in our game today: the whippersnapper.

These pesky college toddlers dominate our conversations, from the moment they sign with their college until the moment -- sometimes a mere handful of months later -- when they leave for grander endeavors.

It is not a topic that is going away anytime soon, not with Kentucky defending its national championship with just one player who actually played in the championship the Wildcats are defending.

But the conversation arrives at an interesting crossroads on Tuesday, when four of the most successful programs in college basketball's history and present convene in Atlanta for the Champions Classic.

Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State have so much in common. Ardent fan bases, strong coaches and not just a history of winning but also consistent success, somehow avoiding the major valleys and long droughts that even the best often are susceptible to.

Yet these four winners have won with decidedly different approaches to the one-and-done rule. Since the NBA age limit went into effect in 2006, each has been to at least one Final Four and all but the Spartans have won a national championship.

And since that time, Kentucky, thanks largely to the Freshman Whisperer, John Calipari, has had eight freshmen who each spent one season walking in and out of the campus turnstile; Duke and Kansas have had just two and Michigan State has had zero.

So while plenty of people are lining up to say Calipari's way is the wave of the future and the only path to success, there is enough evidence to support the contrary.

So the age before (recruiting) beauty question isn't easily answered. It depends on the player, it depends on the coach and it depends on the situation. Not everyone has the patience to start over like Calipari or the coaching chutzpah to make them stop playing like rookies. And not everyone can wait for Draymond Green to turn into Draymond Green.

Here is one thing that can be stated with certainty: When the NCAA ushered freshmen into the fold 40 years ago, it could never have envisioned just how critical they would become.

Look at these games. Four of the nation's premiere programs will be relying heavily on freshmen to determine their fate. This is handing the keys to the Cadillac to a kid with a learner's permit.

Kansas versus Michigan State

By my experience, the older you get, the more sleep you need. That doesn't bode well for Michigan State. Taking Tom Izzo's anyone anywhere mantra to near-insane levels, the Spartans will be crisscrossing oceans and continents for this game, commuting to Atlanta from Germany.

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
Martin Goldhahn/US PresswireAfter playing in Germany, Tom Izzo's Spartans come home to Kansas.

And the Spartans' roster includes but one youngster, freshman Gary Harris.

That would make Michigan State the abnorm in most places, but not in East Lansing, where Izzo has built a career on growing players over time and a team over a season. Those who witnessed the Spartans' opening loss to UConn and Harris' 4-for-13 performance (1-of-7 from the arc) and immediately wrote off both player and team haven't been paying attention.

Harris is fortunate to have help, those rarity of birds called upperclassmen he can lean on. Harris' growth will ultimately go a long way to determining the Spartans' success, but thanks to the likes of Keith Appling, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, his inevitable growing pains won't be killers.

Kansas isn't much different. Bill Self has toed the line on the one-and-doners, fighting hard to recruit many of the same players whom Calipari went after. Yet he's sent just two packing early -- Xavier Henry and Josh Selby. His success at KU is more an amalgamation of true experience (Tyshawn Taylor), some experience and stupidly great talent (Thomas Robinson) and fantastic freshmen.

Which is exactly what this team is. He's got three seniors in his starting lineup -- Elijah Johnson, Jeff Withey and Travis Releford -- but like Michigan State, his fate could very well be wrapped up in the play of Ben McLemore and Perry Ellis.

Kentucky versus Duke

If you're of a certain age, this is an I-remember-where-I-was matchup. Twenty years ago in March, the Wildcats and Blue Devils got together for a little Elite Eight game in Philadelphia for what remains (thanks to Gordon Hayward's buzzer-beating miss) the single greatest game and finish in college basketball.

Since I am of a certain age, I can share that I was two years out of college, working for The Trentonian, sitting behind the Duke bench and absolutely terrified to chronicle what I had just seen -- especially after legendary Boston Globe reporter Bob Ryan announced that he wasn't fit to write this game.

[+] EnlargeMason Plumlee
Mark Dolejs/US PresswireMason Plumlee will get a crack in the post at Kentucky's young studs.

A lot has happened since then. For starters, Christian Laettner has gone from detested to at least tolerated in Kentucky. He good-naturedly captained the villains team in a Heroes vs. Villains game at Rupp Arena last year, and on Tuesday, he'll partner with Jeff Sheppard for a charity endeavor in Atlanta.

The two teams haven't played in 11 years, and so the rivalry that exists is based more on the programs' place in college basketball's hierarchy than any real on-court fisticuffs.

What hasn't changed since: winning. The two teams have continued to succeed, although taking different routes to get there.

Two years ago, Kyrie Irving became Mike Krzyzewski's first post-2006 one-and-done player. A year later, Austin Rivers followed him out the door.

To which Calipari replies, "One a year? Please."

In a lot of ways, this game is a referendum on the sport today, with the Blue Devils starting three seniors (yes, Virginia, there are still seniors in college basketball) while the Wildcats count a sophomore as an upperclassman.

It's hardly fair to extrapolate a nationwide conclusion from this game, or even a solid decision on these two teams. But don't think for a minute folks won't be watching intently to see who wins the battle in the low post, Mason Plumlee or Nerlens Noel, or whether Ryan Kelly can get the best of Alex Poythress.

But this is what 1972 hath wrought.

Isn't it time we salute the holiday?

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball