Kentucky-North Carolina: The one-and-done machine versus experience

Kentucky-UNC a rematch of titans (0:36)

Myron Medcalf previews Kentucky's Elite Eight matchup against North Carolina. (0:36)

MEMPHIS -- They all giggled in unison.

Five Kentucky Wildcats, including three freshmen who will likely turn pro after this season, sat perched along a dais at FedEx Forum, all smirking and shaking their heads when coach John Calipari mentioned former Kentucky standout Devin Booker and his 70-point outing for the Phoenix Suns on Friday night.

"Miss Veronica, Devin Booker's mom, hit me [up] last night, and we went back and forth, and she even mentioned, 'I think Devin being your sixth man helped him, and it's driving him,'" Calipari told reporters at the FedEx Forum on Saturday, a day before Kentucky gets set to face North Carolina in the Elite Eight. "He was the sixth man. He scored 70. He scored 70. And he wasn't even a starter here because he accepted that you have to do this together."

Booker's wild Friday night against the Boston Celtics exemplified the power of Calipari's controversial one-and-done machine, one so potent that Booker and reigning NBA Rookie of the Year Karl-Anthony Towns averaged less than 22 minutes per game in 2014-15, their lone season at the collegiate level.

Calipari's waves of freshman talent changed the structure of college basketball after the NBA introduced its age limit in 2006 (players must be 19 and a year removed from their high school graduating class to enter the league). But North Carolina's Roy Williams, who won national titles with the Tar Heels in 2005 and 2009, doesn't rely on freshman talent. Since 2006, only one player -- Brandan Wright (2006) -- has left North Carolina after one season under Williams. Calipari has lost 18 one-and-done prospects at Kentucky since he accepted the job in 2009.

That's why the theme of Sunday's rematch from December, which Kentucky won 103-100, goes beyond the stats and analytics and includes a persistent question with repercussions beyond this matchup and season: Does the one-and-done model work best?

"With this, it's disrupting," Calipari said. "It's not the norm. It's not what it's supposed to be."

No matter the outcome on Sunday, proponents of Calipari's annual youth movement will cite his squad's run to a third Elite Eight -- and a possible third Final Four -- in the past four seasons as proof of its value. And the critics of Calipari's methods will cite a loss as more evidence freshman talent rarely ends the season snipping the nets after a national-title victory.

The latter will also point to those who failed in their quests to win big with one-and-done stars. Both Johnny Jones and Lorenzo Romar were recently fired after they missed the NCAA tournament with Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz leading the rosters at LSU and Washington, respectively.

The young Kentucky players involved in Sunday's rematch recognize the scrutiny attached to their youth-talent combos.

"Everybody thought we were going to lose [the first game] because they were veterans and we were the younger team, and we just came out, fought, played together and just played Kentucky basketball, and we came out to win," Wildcats sophomore Isaiah Briscoe said.

Williams has created a monster with Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley -- who could turn pro after his freshman season -- dominating the paint for a team ranked first in offensive rebounding rate all season. A veteran backcourt of Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson helped the Tar Heels eliminate Butler in the Sweet 16. North Carolina's top four scorers are upperclassmen.

Three freshmen (Malik Monk, Bam Adebayo and De'Aaron Fox) and Briscoe -- all underclassmen -- lead the Wildcats in minutes this season. In the team's win over UCLA in the Sweet 16, Fox penetrated and sliced through Steve Alford's defense on his way to 39 points. Monk added 21 points. Adebayo recorded a double-double in a second-round win over Wichita State.

Multiple Tar Heels could return next season for another run. But Monk, Adebayo and Fox will all follow their predecessors and bolt for the NBA after the NCAA tournament.

So what's worth highlighting in conversations about Kentucky's youth versus North Carolina's experience and one-and-done stars versus veterans?

Well, Calipari tends to recruit NBA-ready players more physically and athletically mature than their peers. Other coaches chase the same players, however, as they attempt to assemble each incoming class, just not at the same clip as Calipari, who has a roster ranked 340th in experience, per KenPom.com.

"Yeah, there's a difference: He got them, and I didn't," Williams told reporters on Saturday. "I recruit the same guys. I recruited Bam for a long time. I just thought he was great. I went in to see Malik. De'Aaron, we tried to recruit him early but didn't think we were getting there. Jayson Tatum. I recruited Jayson Tatum for three years as hard as I could. That's the only difference, is they got them and we didn't. We've got to try to figure out a way to compete with them and go from there."

After the teams' first meeting in Las Vegas, arguably the best game of the regular season, Sunday's Kentucky-North Carolina rematch was never desperate for additional hype.

Monk's game-winning 3 from the corner -- Calipari told him to drive -- punctuated the fury of the evening.

But Adebayo fouled out after just 19 minutes of action. And Theo Pinson didn't play due to injury.

Plus, the teams played in December, which South Carolina, Florida, Xavier and the other surprises of the NCAA tournament will tell you was more than a lifetime ago.

Kentucky, win or lose, will continue to fuel the drama surrounding Calipari's system.

One group of critics anticipates a Kentucky loss and another chance to attack the one-and-done culture. And if the Wildcats win again, their supporters will point to Kentucky's third trip to the Final Four since 2014 to tout the potential of the one-and-done phenomenon, while the next set of wunderkinds will join Booker at the next level.

"For me, I'm not worried about that," Fox said. "We're still playing basketball, so I'm not thinking about leaving. If things go as planned, we still have three games left, so that's not in my mind right now."