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TOM DAVIS: The truth about ‘one-and-done’ players? They hurt more than they help

Butler's Kelan Martin shoots over Purdue's Isaac Haas (44) during the first half of a game earlier this season in Indianapolis. (By The AssociatedPress)
Michigan State forward Jaren Jackson Jr., left, fouls Bucknell forward Zach Thomas, right, during the first half of an NCAA Tournament first-round game in Detroit Friday. (By The Associated Press)
Arizona forward Deandre Ayton (13) reaches for a loose ball during a first-round game against Buffalo in the NCAA Tournament Thursday in Boise, Idaho. (By The Associated Press)

DETROIT – The final horn marking the end of the collegiate career of Butler senior forward Kelan Martin was still fresh in the Little Caesars Arena Sunday and the first thought that the Bulldog great had was to gather his teammates for a group hug.

There would be time to go through the handshake line with the victorious Purdue squad in a second, but first, the Butler players had to take a moment to show their appreciation and love for each other.

Experience leads to this level of affinity.

At some point soon, the Boilermaker players will do the same and for the exact reason.

When you endure the joys of victory, the pain of defeat, the grueling off-season weight-room sessions, and the exhausting road trips in the dead of winter, and you do so for four years, it leads to a bond that will last a lifetime.

“I just can’t put it in words,” Martin said following the defeat. “I’m going to miss this team. I love every single person on this team, even the coaching staff. It’s just – I’m just going to miss it.”

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I’m sorry; a player doesn’t possess that level of emotional investment when his career plan calls for a nine-month stay at a college before venturing to the NBA.

And that brings me to the premise of this column.

Recruiting at the highest-level is overrated, and truth be told, can be a waste of time.

For the programs that invest in the short-term procurement of talent, it hurts their program more than it helps it, and yes, I’m including those that have won championships by doing so.

A decade from now, the Purdue fans will still talk longingly about the impact that the 2018 senior class made on resurrecting the Boilermaker program.

At the same time, Martin and fellow Bulldog senior Tyler Wideman will still be surrounded by well-wishers and admirers every time that they walk into Hinkle Fieldhouse.

Those things will occur because – over an extended period of time – a fan base develops a deep emotional connection with the student-athletes, just as those athletes do inside the locker room with their teammates.

It gives the program a sense of tradition and history for its fans and memories for the athletes, which investing heavily in “one and done” players doesn’t.

There are no Arizona basketball fans that are sentimental about the Lauri Markkanen-era; no Duke fans that recall fondly their memories of Austin Rivers; or a Kentucky fan that wishes that he could watch Marquis Teague suit up just one more time in the blue and white.

However, it would take Robbie Hummel or E’Twaun Moore an hour (or more) to walk through Mackey Arena on a game night.

And a lack of a national championship will never change that fact.

Congratulations on those titles, but those are empty calories.

Duke’s tradition has been constructed on the memories of former Blue Devil legends Bobby Hurley, Christian Laettner, Grant Hill and even Grayson Allen, not on Kyrie Irving.

In addition, what gets lost in the euphoria of recruiting the top high school players is that it mostly doesn’t lead to success of any magnitude.

Michigan State was lauded when it recruited and signed the sixth-best prospect in the nation last year in prep school star Jaren Jackson, who is expected to leave this spring for the NBA. However, I sat courtside Friday and watched Bucknell SENIOR Zach Thomas destroy Jackson.

One guy had 20 points at halftime (and finished with 27), while the other finished with six points and was limited by foul trouble all night.

I’ll let you guess who was who.

From a recruiting standpoint, Bucknell signed Thomas along with Nana Foulland and Stephen Brown four years ago and the Bison have won four conference championships and advanced to three postseasons (including two NCAAs) with the group.

Michigan State won the 2018 Big Ten regular season title before losing in the league tournament and NCAA Tournament much earlier than expected this month.

You tell me which program was impacted more by its signings.

As great as Arizona freshman DeAndre Ayton was this year, no rationale person believes that the Wildcats have benefitted more from landing him than Purdue did in getting Isaac Haas four years ago.

“We’ve had great size,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said, “but the guys that haven’t played the post for us, we’re just trying to get guys that can dribble, pass and shoot that are competitive, that are about winning, I think sometimes that gets lost in recruiting.”

What is important in recruiting isn’t getting the BEST players; it’s getting the RIGHT players. Think I’m wrong?

UCLA signed the sixth-best recruiting class of 2017 and got beat by St. Bonaventure to open the NCAA Tournament.

Arizona landed the third-ranked class, highlighted by 2018 NBA Lottery selection Ayton and lasted all of 40 minutes in the postseason before losing by 21 to Buffalo.

Texas rode the fourth-best class, which included 7-footer Mo Bamba (rated fourth individually) to an impressive 8-10 record (sarcasm) in the Big 12 and a first-round defeat to Nevada, whose roster was decimated and only featured seven scholarship players.

“We all get judged,” Painter continued, “whether you’re a player, you’re a coach, even administrators, you get judged on winning, do your programs win? And that’s so important.”

Programs like Purdue and Butler have indeed won – a lot – which is “important,” as Painter noted. But so is achieving that success in a manner that continues a legacy and tradition for your program and its fans to embrace, which isn’t done with one-year athletes.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at Tdavis@news-sentinel.com.

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