HOUSTON — When San Diego State coach Brian Dutcher first rose to fame in college basketball during the early 1990s, it was because he helped recruit the "Fab Five" to Michigan as an assistant under Wolverines coach Steve Fisher. During the group's first season on campus playing for Fisher and Dutcher, the Wolverines reached the national title game starting five true freshmen.
Now, as Dutcher prepares to lead SDSU into a Final Four showdown against FAU more than 30 years later, he is doing so with a starting five featuring four seniors and a junior.
That juxtaposition places college basketball's age race into focus as the sport prepares for its first Final Four since 1998 without a single true freshman starter. UConn starting forward Alex Karaban is a redshirt freshman after he enrolled last spring and spent a few months getting a head start with the program. Donovan Clingan also plays 13.2 minutes per game for the Huskies as a true freshman but does not start.
Aside from Clingan, it's unlikely that another true freshman will log substantive minutes during the Final Four as the No. 4 seed Huskies, No. 5 seed Aztecs, No. 5 seed Miami and No. 9 seed FAU battle to hoist the national championship trophy on Monday night at NRG Stadium.
"To be a freshman and play at our place, you have to be very good," Dutcher said.
Kansas won the national championship last season with five starters who were each in at least their third season with the program. Baylor won it all in 2021 with a starting five consisting exclusively of juniors and seniors. Neither team had a freshman in its rotation at the Final Four.
Both flamed out in the second round of the NCAA Tournament this year while starting freshmen.
"The reality is, if you can get great talent you take it," Dutcher said. "But then it's hard to win with them because it takes a while for them to make the adjustment to the college game. It's just a fact of what we're doing."
In the 10 Final Fours spanning 2006 to 2015, an average of 3.4 of the 20 starters between the four teams were true freshmen. The high point of six freshman starters came at the 2015 Final Four. Duke won it all with true freshmen Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Jahlil Okafor in the starting lineup.
But as the number of Division I men's basketball graduate transfers more than doubled between 2014 and 2019, roster calculus began changing. The shift towards age only accelerated when all players were granted an extra season of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic
That ruling coincided with the formalization of a rule change to allow players to transfer once without sitting out a season. The advent of money-making opportunities for players through NIL is also incentivizing players to remain in college longer.
"Now that the culture has changed a little bit with the portal and instant eligibility, we found a way to maintain our age and our experience level," said Dutcher, whose rotation is a mix of longtime SDSU players and a handful of veteran transfers.
All four of the teams at the Final Four rank among the top 150 nationally in Division I experience at KenPom.com. Though FAU is the last of the bunch at No. 148, it ranks 26th in minutes continuity after bringing back nearly every key player from the 2021-22 season.
San Diego State ranks 21st in Division I experience, while Miami ranks 27th. UConn is 115th but still in the upper-third of the sport with plenty of veterans to offset the relative inexperience of Karaban and Clingan.
Karaban's early enrollment and subsequent redshirt semester also stand out as a way that UConn could mitigate the learning curve a key player would face during the 2022-23 season. The 6-foot-8 perimeter shooting whiz enrolled in time to practice with the team for the final two and a half months of the 2021-22 season and described it as the "most important decision for me."
Usually a few freshmen at Final Four
|Year||Frosh||Final Four teams (champion listed first followed by runner-up)|
|2022||2||Kansas, North Carolina, Villanova, Duke|
|2021||1||Baylor, Gonzaga, Houston, UCLA|
|2020||N/A||Tournament canceled due to Coronavirus, , ,|
|2019||2||Virginia, Texas Tech, Auburn, Michigan St.|
|2018||3||Villanova, Michigan, Kansas, Loyola-Chicago|
|2017||2||North Carolina, Gonzaga, Oregon, South Carolina|
|2016||2||Villanova, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Syracuse|
|2015||6||Duke, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Michigan St.|
|2014||4||Connecticut, Kentucky, Florida, Wisconsin|
|2013||4||Louisville, Michigan, Syracuse, Wichita St.|
|2012||4||Kentucky, Kansas, Louisville, Ohio St.|
|2011||4||Connecticut, Butler, Kentucky, VCU|
|2010||2||Duke, Butler, Michigan St., West Virginia|
|2009||2||North Carolina, Michigan State, UConn, Villanova|
|2008||1||Kansas, Memphis, North Carolina, UCLA|
|2007||3||Florida, Ohio State, Georgetown, UCLA|
|2006||4||Florida, UCLA, George Mason, LSU|
|2005||2||North Carolina, Illinois, Louisville, Michigan St.|
|2004||2||Connecticut, Georgia Tech, Duke, Oklahoma St.|
|2003||3||Syracuse, Kansas, Marquette, Texas|
|2002||1||Maryland, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma|
|2001||1||Duke, Arizona, Maryland, Michigan St.|
|2000||1||Michigan State, Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin|
|1999||1||Connecticut, Duke, Michigan St., Ohio St.|
|1998||0||Kentucky, Utah, North Carolina, Stanford|
"It allowed me to get over the freshman hurdles right away and allowed me to practice against veteran forwards like Isaiah (Whaley), Tyrese (Martin), and Tyler (Polley) from last year's team," Karaban said. "I got better from playing against them every day. And I also learned how Coach Hurley operated offensively, what defense he likes to play, and the strength program really helped me get adjusted really quickly to the next level. If it wasn't for me coming early, I don't think I'd be playing this many minutes."
When Michigan made the title game in 1992 with the all-freshman starting lineup of Jimmy King, Jalen Rose, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Ray Jackson, the Wolverines were trounced 71-51 by Duke. The group did well to even make it that far after earning a No. 6 seed for the Big Dance.
Four of the five had been McDonald's All-Americans. Not a single former McDonald's All-American can be found at this year's Final Four. But Dutcher is back, still evolving along with the game and ready to pit his veteran San Diego State squad against a Final Four contingent of similarly old teams.
"The nature of the game changes," Dutcher said. "How long players stay has changed. And if you can't adapt in this business, you're not going to make it. So we're adapting to NIL. We're adapting to the transfer portal. And you can't sit there and say, boy, I wish it was the way it used to be. It's the way it is."