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One and done? None of that at this year’s Final Four

Texas Tech Red Raiders head coach Chris Beard gestures during practice for the 2019 men's Final Four at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on April 5, 2019. Robert Deutsch / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- With underdog Michigan State on the verge of being blown out by almighty Duke — a once-in-a-generation team featuring potential one-and-done star freshmen Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones — Cassius Winston felt a sense of calm rush over him

As grim as it looked, trailing 30-21 in the first half, Winston felt confident knowing the Spartans had something the Blue Devils did not.

Experience.

“It helps a lot,” Winston said, “Just knowing how to make plays. Just knowing certain situations. Just knowing how to win. All that type of stuff, when it’s winning time, experience really helps with that.

“You could see it in that game against Duke,” Winston added. “They had us down a couple of times and they couldn’t put us away. We kept marching and made some big plays down the stretch and came away with the win.”

That same story played out a few times in the Elite Eight last weekend with more experienced teams prevailing across the board.

Take a look at this year’s Final Four teams — whether it’s Michigan State, Texas Tech, Virginia or Auburn — and all of them have opted to stay old during an era when so many programs are going young.

That has always been part of the plan for coach Spartans coach Tom Izzo.

While some blue-blood programs like Duke and Kentucky have gravitated toward one-and-done players over the past decade, Michigan State has opted to go against the grain.

“It’s a funny problem,” Izzo said. “Everybody would like to have what Duke and Kentucky have as far as personnel. Both of them have had incredible years. I’d say experience does matter, too. Somewhere there’s probably a happy medium.”

Essentially, if a program can’t attract the top-tier recruits in the nation, it better have experience.

“It helps to have some blend in there,” Izzo said. “I say a lot of times that games in the (NCAA Tournament) are won on the airplanes, in the hotels, in the locker rooms. We played maybe two (freshmen) in that game (against Duke) and both of ours were kind of in the fog.”

Perhaps the biggest indictment of the one-and-done era is that no one-and-done players advanced it to the Final Four this year.

Since taking over as Texas Tech coach a few years back, Chris Beard has made a concerted effort to attract older talent, evidenced by the fact that graduate transfers Matt Mooney and Tariq Owens have played big roles this year.

“We basically just try to stay old,” Beard said. “I’ll never forget the night we got the Texas Tech job and sitting around thinking, ‘OK. How are we going to win a game? Are we going to out-coach people? No, with Bill Self, Lon Kruger, Bob Huggins, all of them, that’s not going to be our plan here. Are we just going to out-talent people? No, that’s not our plan.”

Truthfully, that’s the beauty of college basketball. As much success as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and Kentucky coach John Calipari have had over the course of their careers, they don’t win the national championship every year.

“There’s so many different ways to build the program,” said Virginia coach Tony Bennett, whose team is led by juniors Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome. “I love that about the game. It’s pure. You don’t have to say, ‘Well, this is a cookie-cutter way to do it.’

“Our formula has always been, ‘How can we build a program that can compete against the best in our conference?’ It was get guys experienced, get them to where they have two years or three years where they learn, and maybe learn the hard way, and then when they’re upperclassmen, they’re ready to play against the best.”

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