The population of men’s Division I college basketball rosters as a whole in 2022 may be older than it’s been at any time since first-year students were granted athletic eligibility in the 1970s. If this is indeed the case, the geriatric shift has been brought about by allowances in eligibility granted in response to the pandemic.
Indeed, it’s possible we already started seeing the consequences of this demographic adjustment last year. With the benefit of hindsight, Baylor looked pretty old last spring even for a national champion in the one-and-done era not named “Duke” or “Kentucky.”
The pandemic may have expanded our definition of “old”
National champions, average age weighted by minutes (AAWM)
AAWM 2012 Kentucky 19.7 2013 Louisville 21.7 2014 UConn 21.7 2015 Duke 20.1 2016 Villanova 21.1 2017 North Carolina 21.6 2018 Villanova 21.2 2019 Virginia 21.4 2021 Baylor 22.3 Age on March 1 of title season
Poor Gonzaga. The Bulldogs arrived at the 2021 title game sporting a very late-2010s-looking AAWM of 21.0, doubtless thinking it was business as usual in the world of college basketball actuarial tables.
After all, a weighted average age of 21.0-ish had been good enough for Villanova not once but twice. Alas, the Zags’ opponent on Monday night last April was, in effect, a little more than a full year older than Mark Few’s guys across the board. The Bears looked very much like the casually dominant older sibling on the driveway right from the opening tip.
Naturally, age isn’t destiny. If it were, we could all congratulate the 2022 national champion Providence Friars right now. Ed Cooley’s group this season is rocking a truly ridiculous 23.3 AAWM.
Instead, age throughout the one-and-done era has presented elite programs with a choice between greater or lesser degrees of youth and turnover in exchange for higher levels of talent. The contrasts between these two emphases are perhaps sharpened when the oldest players in the game are even older than they were before the pandemic.
On the one hand, we’ve been aware for some time now that, for a select few giants and gods, it can be good and even transcendent to be really young at the college level.
Young man’s game
Youngest first-team All-Americans, one-and-done era
Age ORtg %Poss Kevin Durant, Texas 2007 18.4 116.5 31.6 Zion Williamson, Duke 2019 18.7 129.2 28.3 RJ Barrett, Duke 2019 18.7 108.0 31.5 Anthony Davis, Kentucky 2012 19.0 133.5 19.3 Jabari Parker, Duke 2014 19.0 111.7 31.8 D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State 2015 19.0 113.6 30.2 Marvin Bagley III, Duke 2018 19.0 123.8 25.8
The user’s agreement that Duke and Kentucky and occasional others have accepted in the one-and-done era goes something like this. You can gather this type of elite talent in sufficient quantity if you can convince the following year’s recruiting class that all these guys will be gone next season and that minutes will therefore be available.
If the player you’re signing is ranked in the top 10 nationally, you can, truthfully and with a clear conscience, give future recruits the kind of assurances they require. Those top-10 guys rarely stick around for year 2. They’re also better players across a significantly higher number of minutes as first-year stars than their classmates ranked Nos. 11-20.
Rankings out of high school are destiny, sort of
RSCI top 20 recruits, 2006-20
% who go one-and-done ORtg %Poss %Min Recruits 1-10 72.7 108.9 24.4 65.7 Recruits 10-20 25.3 104.5 21.3 53.3
These impressive numbers for elite first-year players, however, bring us face to face with the flip side of the “youth and turnover” coin. It turns out the guys who are going to become NBA stars, collectively, don’t perform at the same level at age 19 or 20 as mere mortal all-conference types do whatever their age.
Age and talent
Major-conference all-league first teams 2017-21, with RSCI top 20 recruits 2006-20
% who go one-and-done ORtg %Poss %Min All-conference 10.7 113.4 26.2 78.8 Recruits 1-10 72.7 108.9 24.4 65.7 Recruits 10-20 25.3 104.5 21.3 53.3
Of course, the tiny subset of performers who earn all-conference honors are going to set a standard that’s pretty lofty for any population of players to try to equal. Still, that standard’s probably a little less lofty than you might imagine. For one thing, the curse of the 10-person all-conference “first” team continues to wreak its havoc. (This is the only known case where old people who enjoy complaining about participation trophies and the way things are nowadays may actually have the germ of a point.)
If it’s good for a select few unicorns to be really young as one-and-done stars, it has been no less significant, purely in terms of impact at the college level, for a select few other guys to be really, really old. Some or even many of these guys may not do much at the next level, but they can certainly inflict their wrath on younger opposing players in D-I.
Nickels had pictures of bumblebees
Oldest first-team All-Americans, one-and-done era
Age ORtg %Poss Tyler Hansbrough, UNC 2009 23.3 124.0 26.7 Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia 2016 23.2 120.0 26.9 Buddy Hield, Oklahoma 2016 23.2 121.5 28.4 Alando Tucker, Wisconsin 2007 23.1 111.7 31.5 Devonte' Graham, Kansas 2018 23.0 117.9 25.2 Sherron Collins, Kansas 2010 23.0 113.7 23.4 Frank Mason III, Kansas 2017 22.9 125.2 25.7
Look at Kansas, surfing the market inefficiency that undervalues old standouts. Well done, savvy Jayhawks. Of course, this dynamic doesn’t really apply at KU this season. Potential first-round picks like Christian Braun (20.9) and even oldster Ochai Agbaji (21.9) are significantly younger than a good many of their illustrious predecessors in Lawrence were.
In fact, despite the best efforts of Jalen Coleman-Lands to wreck this particular curve, Kansas actually looks fairly normal in relation to its 2022 peers in terms of age.
Coach K is going out bold
Average age weighted by minutes for some projected 2022 high seeds
AAWM Providence 23.3 Illinois 23.1 Houston 22.9 Kansas 22.5 Texas 22.4 Villanova 22.4 Kentucky 22.2 UCLA 21.6 Purdue 21.4 Baylor 21.2 Arizona 20.8 Auburn 20.8 Gonzaga 20.8 Duke 20.0
One might hypothesize that a Duke team facing a larger age gap relative to D-I in 2022 than the Blue Devils did in 2015 or than Kentucky did in 2012 will, other things being equal, face a headwind that might be a tiny bit stronger. We’ll see.
In closing, a disclaimer. It’s difficult to know with a fair degree of confidence whether the sport really is older than it’s been in decades. We don’t even know the ages of a good many current players, much less role players from days gone by.
Being coy about one’s date of birth is one’s prerogative, naturally, even if it is perhaps an odd choice. (If you’re going to play professionally somewhere in the world, your employer will want to know how old you are.) Still, this older-than-ever business seems plausible enough for discussion’s sake. Handle with all due caution.