At Villanova, where coach Jay Wright's vision for the men's basketball program is executed year after year with barely a trace of drama, there is one question that always seems to stir discord among the coaching staff. When identifying players to recruit, what should come first: talent or a desire to be a part of Villanova's culture?
"That's a really controversial topic amongst our staff and in our program, in that we would love to have some of these one-and-done players; you know, we really would," Wright said on a teleconference late last month. ". . . We love those guys, and we want them, and I want it to be known we want them. It's just, it can't supersede wanting to be a part of the Villanova program. Now, it's easy to say that, but it's hard to make those decisions."
In the 16-plus seasons that Wright has coached the Wildcats, the scales have always tipped toward players who want to be a part of the culture more than players for whom college is the necessary stopover before the NBA.
No player of Wright's has ever left school for the pros after just one season, and though Villanova has become a poster child for players sticking around college for three or four years, Wright isn't alone in the Big East.
At the Big East tournament that got underway at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, the players to watch are all juniors and seniors, such as Villanova's Jalen Brunson, Xavier's J.P. Macura and Seton Hall's Desi Rodriguez. The starting lineups will be full of upperclassmen, especially compared with the other larger conference tournaments starting this week. There won't be a one-and-done in sight.
Since its realignment before the 2014-15 season, the 10-program league has had just two one-and-done players in Marquette's Henry Ellenson, who left in 2016, and Creighton's Justin Patton, who actually spent two years in school but played only one season after being redshirted. In comparison, of the 54 one-and-dones in college basketball since 2014, 15 of them played in the ACC; 12, in the Pacific-12; and 11 in the Southeastern.
The lack of short-stay talent hasn't hurt the Big East's national standing. In the past few years, the league has solidified its brand and spawned a national champion in Villanova, and this season, it boasts two programs with résumés worthy of No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. More teams without one-and-done players have made the Final Four since 2014 than teams that had at least one.
Some Big East coaches, such as Wright and Chris Mack, whose Xavier team is the No. 1 seed in this week's tournament, think the lack of one-and-dones jibes with the brand the conference is trying to sell.
"Player development has certainly been a hallmark of this conference," Mack said on a teleconference. ". . . Just being able to make a guy better, own his skills and still think team-first, I think, has been a trademark of our league and something that, at least in our program, we're really proud of."
Said Wright: "I think it's because all of us have very similar programs, and that's why the league was formed. All the schools have great tradition, academics are very important, graduation rates are very high, so the culture at each of these schools is such that you're coming here to be a part of us."
At the same time, coaches are aware that the league's reputation trickles down to high school recruits. Not every program in the Big East has Wright's dilemma when it comes to recruiting, but for those who can attract one-and-done-level talent, they spend a considerable amount of energy convincing those kids that they are wanted.
"I don't want to speak for every coach, but I would be hard-pressed to think that coaches in our league wouldn't want to have a talented player that may be a one-and-done," Mack said. "To throw all those guys in one bucket and say they're disinterested in college, or it's all about them, I think would be doing a disservice to some great players."
"It's hard to get a young person to understand that we believe that you can come in, be a part of our culture and be one-and-done," Wright said. "It's hard for them to comprehend that, and then we battle that in recruiting, where everyone tells the guys that we don't want one-and-done guys. We do. We just want them to believe that if you come in and be a part of our culture, you can do it in one year."
Wright's quest is a common theme among Big East coaches. They don't want just any one-and-done; they want the right one-and-done.
Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing doesn't hold NBA ambition against any college recruit, and has made a point to make his NBA experience and connections part of his pitch on recruiting trips.
But even he wants a one-and-done who cares about Georgetown's tradition.
"If I was in this era, I probably would have been a one-and-done," Ewing said. "If I have the opportunity to get a one-and-done, I'm taking it. But one of the things I would love for that person to do if he does come is come back, finish, and get your degree."