ARLINGTON, Texas — Julius Randle, the most fabulous of Kentucky’s freshmen, was asked during Sunday’s marathon Final Four media festivities what his reaction is when he hears the term “one and done.”
His response was coy: “Won and done, like, ‘We won and now we’re done’?”
Randle was subliminally making a point about how Kentucky is perceived, and it’s a valid one. Instead of vilifying Kentucky for what it is — a team with five freshman starters who are making a stopover on their way to the NBA — we should recognize what they’ve accomplished, reaching the national title game with five freshmen starting.
John Calipari’s Wildcats will face the University of Connecticut on Monday for the NCAA championship at AT&T Stadium in a game that will feature the two lowest seeds in a title contest in NCAA history. UConn is a No. 7 seed and Kentucky is a No. 8 seed.
Kentucky might be the most disliked college basketball team not named Duke since the 1990-91 University of Nevada Las Vegas Runnin’ Rebels of Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony and Co.
There are those who break out the garlic cloves and wooden crosses at the mere mention of this Kentucky team winning the national championship. It would represent a breakdown of the very fabric of our society if a team with five freshman starters was crowned champions.
You can despise the one-and-done rule and its effect on college basketball, as I do, without condemning the Kentucky players.
Randle, James Young, Dakari Johnson, and the Harrison twins (Andrew and Aaron) are living out their childhood dreams and have put a tremendous amount time, sacrifice, and sweat equity into reaching the pinnacle of college basketball. They’re young men playing by the rules that have been put in place by adults, rules that in the long run aren’t beneficial to them, college basketball, or the NBA.
Kentucky senior (yes, there is such an entity at Kentucky) Jarrod Polson said he can’t understand why Kentucky has become a dartboard for disdain.
“I don’t know why you would ever root against the guys that we have in this locker room,” said Polson. “Just because they’re freshmen that doesn’t mean that they’re not good guys. We have some of the best guys that I’ve ever been around in my four years. To root against them for that reason is kind of stupid to be honest. I think it’s better . . . to root for how we’ve come together.”
In New England, the sentiment will be, and should be, to cheer for the UConn Huskies. Like UConn coach Kevin Ollie said Sunday, the Huskies being in the title game is not a fluke. They play tenacious defense and have the best backcourt in America. Roxbury’s Shabazz Napier is the best college basketball player in the country (sorry, Doug McDermott). His backcourt mate, Ryan Boatright, is the Darrelle Revis of college defenders.
The national title game remains just that, a game. It shouldn’t be viewed as a referendum on the direction of the NCAA or the dangers of the one-and-done trend.
The teams shouldn’t be pitted against each other as if this is a battle of good vs. evil, the virtuous vs. the reprobate, with the soul of college basketball at stake. That’s not fair.
In some ways, this Kentucky team with McDonald’s All-Americans populating its bench (freshman Marcus Lee and sophomore Alex Poythress) represents a triumph of old-school basketball team ethos.
Kentucky is here because the seven highly sought-after freshmen — the starting five, plus Lee and 2013 Kentucky high school Mr. Basketball Dominique Hawkins — finally subjugated their egos and NBA aspirations for the greater good.
It’s not that different from the coalescence of the New Big Three for the Celtics. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen all had to lose themselves a bit to gain a winning team.
“I think any one of us top to bottom could have gone somewhere else and been the star player and averaged 20 points per game,” said Polson. “I think all the freshmen knew coming in that they were going to have to sacrifice. The upperclassmen knew that, and they were ready to sacrifice. Alex and Willie [Cauley-Stein] probably could have gone pro last year, but they wanted to come back and sacrifice and get a championship.
“Just to see all that sacrificing finally come together and come to a national championship is really exciting for all of us. “
Instead of focusing on their class rank, let’s acknowledge Kentucky has played superb basketball in this tournament.
They’ve beaten four legitimate title contenders in the NCAA Tournament by a total of 11 points and gotten three straight decisive 3-pointers from Aaron Harrison.
The Wildcats committed just four turnovers in their dramatic 74-73 victory over Wisconsin Saturday night. Florida, a team with four senior starters, committed 11 turnovers on the same stage.
In its win over Wisconsin, Kentucky got 66 points from freshmen, the most in a Final Four game since Michigan’s famed Fab Five scored 61 in 1992.
Randle spent the hours after Kentucky’s national semifinal win watching the ESPN documentary on Michigan’s Fab Five. Born in 1994, he was unfamiliar with the story of Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson.
You can’t blame Randle, who wasn’t alive when the Fab Five advanced to the Final Four in 1992, for wondering why Michigan’s freshmen were canonized as trailblazers for what they did 22 years ago and Kentucky’s are vilified as college basketball carpetbaggers.
“No matter what you’re doing in life, whether you’re a basketball player, a doctor, whatever, people are going to be rooting against you,” said Randle. “You’re always going to have that section of people that don’t want you to succeed. But proving them wrong just makes everything sweeter.”
Being bitter about the one-and-done rule is understandable. But don’t hate the kids for what the adults have wrought.Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist and the host of Boston Sports Live. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.