Five of the last 10 men’s college basketball national champions have had a junior or senior All-American as their lead ball-handler. While there’s certainly evidence you don’t need a grizzled veteran at point guard in order to cut down the nets in early April — just look at reigning national champion Virginia, which started then-freshman Kihei Clark at point guard, and Duke won the 2015 title with freshman Tyus Jones earning Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors — it probably can’t hurt.

I went through every team that made the Elite Eight in the last 10 NCAA tournaments for a total of 80 teams and identified each team’s lead ball-handler by looking at their starting lineups and’s depth chart data. We then analyzed each player’s experience (freshman through senior, not counting redshirt seasons) and took note of whether he was an all-conference player (first team through third team), an All-American (first team through AP Honorable Mention) or the National Player of the Year.

Of course, there’s no hard-and-fast rule about who your primary ball-handler can or can’t be, in regards to experience, in order to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, but I found that 60 percent of the teams that made the Elite Eight last decade had a lead ball-handler who was a junior or senior.

Class Number Percent
Freshman 17 21.25%
sophomore 15 18.75%
junior 24 30.00%
senior 24 30.00%

There were exactly 24 juniors and 24 seniors, making 48 upperclassmen the primary ball-handlers of 80 teams examined.

There were 17 freshmen and 15 sophomores, making second-year players the rarest.

Of the last 10 national champions, none had a sophomore as its primary ball-handler, while there were six upperclassmen (three juniors and three seniors) and four freshmen.

MAKING HISTORY: Here’s how teams do in the NCAA tournament after earning their best-ever seed

As mentioned earlier, five of those six upperclassmen were All-Americans, while just one of the four freshmen were, which is an interesting contrast. In the last 10 national championship games, there have been a total of exactly five freshmen, five sophomores, five juniors and five seniors that served as their team’s primary ball-handler.

The teams with sophomores are 0-5 in those championship games.

The table below shows how teams with an All-American lead guard fared in the national championship game last decade.

Class Record in championship game Last decade
freshman 4-1
sophomore 0-5
junior 3-2
senior 3-2

While there were just three National Players of the Year among the 80 teams examined — Villanova’s Jalen Brunson, Kansas’ Frank Mason III and Michigan’s Trey Burke — 26 of the teams (32.5 percent) had an All-American as its primary ball-handler and 43 of the players examined (53.8 percent) were all-conference players.

That means that on average, the Elite Eight will typically consist of 2.6 teams that have a lead guard who will receive some sort of All-American recognition (honorable mention accolades, at the very least) and an additional 1.7 teams, on average, will have a primary ball-handler who was an all-conference player.


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