Over the years, the term “one and done” has taken on a bit of a condescending tone in college basketball circles. Sure, it’s always nice to have star freshmen, but as Villanova proved last year, you don’t need them to win a title. And even when you do have them, that doesn’t guarantee success either. Just ask the college teams Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz and Dennis Smith Jr. played on.
But in case we forgot the value of having truly transcendent talent – even if it is from the freshman class – we got a reminder of that lesson Sunday. In a wild, back-and-forth nail-biter, Kentucky beat Wichita State 65-62 to advance to the Sweet 16.
And to be blunt, they wouldn’t have gotten there without incredible play from their three best freshmen.
Before we get into the game itself, let’s credit both teams and players (whether they were freshmen, seniors or anywhere in between), for delivering the game of the tournament so far. Yes, Wichita State was mis-seeded as a No. 10, and yes it was unfair to both the Shockers and Kentucky as well. But at a certain point you have to put committee frustrations aside and go out and play the games. Both teams did that, and each team delivered with an epic performance.
But what also can’t be denied is that when the Wildcats needed big plays late, they got virtually all of them from their star-studded freshman class. Yes, senior Derek Willis hit some clutch shots in the second half. And yes, fellow senior Dominque Hawkins delivered as he always does off the bench. But Sunday really was about Kentucky’s “big three” freshman group of De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo.
It began with Adebayo, who – at times – has been a forgotten man in the post this season. He wasn’t on Sunday, but for the first time all year he also went up against an opponent just as big and strong as him in Wichita’s Shaquille Morris. Bam more than held his own, finishing with 13 points (including 11 after the half) to go along with a team-high 10 rebounds. Fox added 14 points, and Monk added 13. To Monk’s credit he also took on an entirely new role for most of the game; that of a facilitator. On a day where his shot wasn’t dropping early, he got others involved and finished with a team-high four assists.
But more than the raw stats, it’s about what these guys did down the stretch. There, those three were nothing short of tremendous when Kentucky needed them most.
Fox has been Kentucky’s most important player all season long, and once again played with poise beyond his years Sunday. Despite handling the ball for virtually the entire 31 minutes he played, Fox finished with just two turnovers and also had several big plays late. There was a steal and a score which put Kentucky up seven with four minutes to go, and an emphatic dunk which gave them a 63-59 lead with 1:30 to go. In between, Monk hit a clutch 3-pointer to help extend the Cats’ lead as well.
And then, there were the two plays in the closing minute that sealed the win.
The first came with Kentucky clinging to a one-point lead and the clock winding down. Off a missed shot, Wichita State (which had no timeouts) raced down the court, where Markis McDuffie threw up a 3-pointer with 12 seconds to go. Monk – who has made clutch plays all year – cleanly blocked the ball, then recovered it, got fouled and made two free throws to give the Wildcats a three-point lead. And on the game’s final possession, Adebayo got his own block as time expired to seal Kentucky’s win.
Looking at the box score really does show how spectacular these three were. On the day they accounted for 41 of the team’s 65 total points, including the final 17 of the game. No Kentucky player other than the three freshmen scored in the final eight minutes of the game. They also accounted for the two biggest defensive plays of the game (and season).
It’s unbelievable and shows you just how good those three freshmen are.
Whether you love Kentucky or hate them, they’re on to the Sweet 16.
And it’s thanks in large part to their three star freshmen.