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What this incredible Final Four field is missing

In Loyola Chicago, the 2018 Final Four has a Cinderella story for the ages. In Michigan, it has a traditional football power trying to win the Big Ten’s first basketball championship in 18 long years. In Kansas and Villanova, it has two bedrock basketball programs led by coaches aiming for their second national titles.

You know what this Final Four doesn’t have?

Freshmen.

At least not the five-star hot shots from the ballyhooed class of 2017, the guys who were supposed to shape the course of this season in their brief collegiate layover on their way to the NBA. The one-and-dones up and left Bracketville, eliminated by veterans. They can move on to the draft while the team hardware is distributed in San Antonio.

Of the 20 starters on the Final Four teams, just three are freshmen: forward Isaiah Livers of Michigan and centers Cameron Krutwig of Loyola and Omari Spellman of Villanova. Livers is a nominal starter who actually plays backup minutes. Spellman was redshirted last year for academic reasons. If any of the three go pro after playing one season in college, it would come as a considerable surprise.

The rest of the starters, by class: five true seniors; four fourth-year juniors; four true juniors; two third-year sophomores; and two true sophomores.

That’s a lot of experience. And experience wins big in modern college basketball — bigger than teams built around freshmen. That risky model is looking more flawed every season.

Villanova’s Jalen Brunson, left, walks with head coach Jay Wright during the first half of an NCAA men’s college basketball tournament regional final against Texas Tech, Sunday, March 25, 2018, in Boston. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

Start with Duke. The preseason No. 1 team, with the preseason No. 1 freshman class, lost Sunday in the regional final to Kansas — a program with a history of one-and-done freshmen, but now making its third Final Four under Bill Self with a rotation heavy on veterans. Self’s 2012 national runner-up didn’t start any freshmen either. Neither did his team that won it all 10 years ago, in San Antonio.

(Note to Self: One-and-done freshmen Josh Jackson, Cheick Diallo, Kelly Oubre, Andrew Wiggins, Ben McLemore and Josh Selby never got you to a Final Four. Just something you might want to keep in mind.)

Now you can add Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter, Gary Trent Jr., and Trevon Duval to the growing list of Duke freshman stars who failed to reach a Final Four. Last year it was Jayson Tatum, Frank Jackson and Harry Giles. The year before it was Brandon Ingram.

The Blue Devils did win a national title in 2015 behind freshmen Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow. That same year, Kentucky made the Final Four with one-and-done freshmen Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles and Devin Booker. Since then, the one-and-done trade schools have been taken out by more experienced teams.

None of the current Duke freshmen may be sophomores, as Mike Krzyzewski reloads for another quick fix in 2018-19. He’ll have the top three recruits in the country, an unprecedented sweep, but will they be mature enough to handle the rigors of single-elimination tournament basketball?

At least Duke’s freshmen made it to the Elite Eight. That’s one round farther than Kentucky’s Kevin Knox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo made it; two rounds farther than Collin Sexton of Alabama and Jaren Jackson Jr. of Michigan State; and three rounds farther than Arizona’s Deandre Ayton, Texas’ Mohamed Bamba, Oklahoma’s Trae Young, Miami’s Lonnie Walker and Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. advanced.

So much hype. So little NCAA tournament success to show for it. And the vast majority of those listed above will head to the NBA now.

Who are the stars of this Final Four?

For Loyola, it’s a core four of perimeter players: Clayton Custer, Ben Richardson, Marques Townes and Donte Ingram. That’s two seniors and two fourth-year juniors, veterans of a combined 414 college games. None were highly recruited. Yet watch them pass, move and defend as a unit, and you’ll see a chemistry and knowledge that freshmen-filled teams could never replicate.

For Michigan, it’s senior Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, junior Moe Wagner and third-year sophomore Charles Matthews. Abdul-Rahman was a late, lower-tier recruit who built himself into a key college player. Wagner, from Germany, put his name into the draft last year after his sophomore season but withdrew and has improved considerably this season. Matthews, a Rivals.com Top 50 recruit out of high school, started at Kentucky but played little and transferred after one season. Their combined experience has helped the Wolverines win a couple of tight NCAA battles (with, yes, the vital assistance of freshman Jordan Poole’s game-winning shot against Houston).

For Kansas, the guy who carried the Jayhawks in overtime Sunday against Duke was third-year sophomore Malik Newman — a former top-10 recruit at Mississippi State who a lot of people thought would be one-and-done. Instead of what likely would have been a mistaken early jump to the NBA, he stayed in college and is now playing like a pro-ready player. The other stars for the Jayhawks are seniors Devonte Graham (140 college games played) and Svi Mykhailiuk (134).

And for Villanova, the roll call starts with junior guard Jalen Brunson and fourth-year junior Mikal Bridges. Both were on the Wildcats’ 2016 national championship team, but that group was led by upperclassmen. Jay Wright has built a veteran-driven culture that succeeds annually without expending much effort chasing potential one-and-done recruits.

Despite the absence of all the hyped freshmen, it should be a great Final Four. In fact, you could even argue that it will be great because they’re not there. As the last three seasons have shown, experienced teams are the biggest winners.

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