GLENDALE, Ariz. - The Final Four is where you get to see the end of the road for college basketball every year, but more often than not, it isn't the place to mark the start of the journey to the NBA for players who will make that jump.
When North Carolina and Gonzaga play Monday evening for the national championship, there will be one sure first-round pick in the game, junior Justin Jackson of Carolina, and perhaps another if Zags freshman Zach Collins elects to enter the June draft. That's it, however, and neither would be considered a lock to be a lottery selection. Among all four teams that made it to Arizona for the final weekend, the only other potential first-rounder was Jordan Bell of Oregon, and many projections have him going in the early second round instead.
"It's really not that easy to justify being here," one NBA scout said Saturday.
For a few days in the desert warmth, they'll figure out that part, though. There are always evaluations to make for the future, for that one role player who might be worth a second-round pick, or for free agents who will be available after the draft.
But the overriding conclusion is that while there's nothing wrong with having talent - especially the rarefied talent that comes with one-and-done freshmen - that isn't necessarily what gets college teams to the Final Four. Villanova won the championship last year without a player who would be taken in either round of the draft, and the only lottery pick in the Final Four was Oklahoma senior Buddy Hield.
While talent is great, teamwork is better to have at the college level, even if the biggest programs continue to chase the short-timers whose lack of experience often leaves their teams at the side of the March road.
"Everyone would choose experienced talent over everything," Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "When you play golf, some guys like to hit a draw, some guys try to hit a fade, but you're still trying to get to the middle of the fairway. That's the way it is in basketball - you choose how you can recruit successfully and try to stick with that and try to get the best players you can that are willing to make those sacrifices."
In the 2005-06 season, unhappy with the number of high school players declaring for the draft - many of whom became expensive failures - the NBA required that a player's natural class must have finished a freshman year before he could be eligible. That led to the current "one-and-done" era, in which the most talented players stop by the college game for what amounts to an extended semester.
"There's no perfect rule," Williams said. "I don't think LeBron [James] made a mistake, but there's a lot of guys who did."
Since that 2005-06 season, there have been 11 completed Final Fours. The one that will end Monday night is the 12th. In the previous 11, which had a total of 44 teams, only 46 players emerged from those teams to become first-round picks in the following draft, and only 30 went in the lottery. That's counting all classes.
Among freshmen, the one-and-done wonders, only 19 first-round picks, and only 15 lottery picks, have made it to the Final Four since the rule change. Consider that. Of the most sought-after recruits in the nation, the special talents capable of going from a brief college apprenticeship to the NBA lottery, there have been just 15 in 11 years on those 44 teams. (Five of those were clustered on just two teams in the 2015 Final Four, when Kentucky had Karl Anthony-Towns, Trey Lyles, and Devin Booker, and national champion Duke had Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow.)
The takeaway from that is simple. Going after one-and-done players might be the way to recruit, but it isn't necessarily the way to win the biggest games of the college season.
"We really [aren't] in that market, because it's a select market," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "There are a lot of different ways to build a program and build an elite program. And you can do it through attracting the greatest talent out there, or you can do it by getting good players and develop them and get them to play together. And that's always been our deal . . . get the best players we can, try to max out their development, and then really stress team chemistry and connection and playing together."
The best example of going after it the other way is Kentucky. Since John Calipari began coaching the Wildcats for the 2009-2010 season, Kentucky has had 12 freshman taken in the NBA lottery, a number that will almost certainly grow to 14 this year with Malik Monk and De'Aaron Fox. That's 14 one-and-done lottery picks in eight years, which is impressive. It's also four Final Four appearances and one national championship in that time, so the philosophy works for Calipari, or at least it will until he lands a third program on probation.
"I would have liked to have some of those guys. I tried to recruit them for us, too," Williams said. "I'd love to have a great mix . . . to have guys you think are going to be around three or four years, but to also have that talent of the one-and-dones as well."
Carolina got to the final game without one of those, however, and Gonzaga certainly didn't build its program around that premise, either. They are here, though, the last teams standing. When their coaches went out recruiting, they didn't necessarily come back with The One, but, then again, they still aren't done.