Blue Blood Schools Again Taking Country's Best Talent
The McDonald’s All-American Game is no longer the only big event on the all-star circuit, but it is still the most prestigious. If you look through the game’s rosters over the last decade, you will recognize most of the names. Even the guys who didn’t make the NBA usually had great NCAA careers. The programs who reel in multiple players from the McDonald’s game are the sport’s blue bloods - not every elite player from the class of 2014 was in Chicago, but most were.
You can see that in the distribution of this year’s crop. There were 13 schools represented at the game, but only five with multiple recruits - Duke and Kentucky with 4, UNC with 3, Kansas and UCLA with 2. In college basketball, the ability to consistently attract elite recruits is what separates good jobs from the great. If any of those jobs came open, every coach in the country would at least listen. There’s no substitute for talent and those schools always have it.
For a school like Seton Hall, securing the commitment of even one McDonald’s All-American can be a program altering move. Isaiah Whitehead is the first player from the McDonald’s game to go there in 14 years. Getting the first is always the hardest - elite players want to play with other elite players, whether it’s in college or the NBA. Whitehead, the only player in this year’s game headed to the new Big East, will be a marked man for the next four seasons.
Kentucky, in contrast, has so many McDonald’s All-Americans they don’t even know what to do with them. There will be more elite recruits coming off their bench next season than there will be in the entire Big East conference. John Calipari is the only coach in the country who can run off a kid from this game and not think twice - Kyle Wiltjer (2011) averaged 17 minutes a game in two years in Lexington before deciding to transfer to Gonzaga this season.
His recruiting class last season was considered one of the best of all-time and you can make the argument that this year’s bunch is even better. Karl Towns and Trey Lyles aren’t as big as Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee, but they are more skilled and more comfortable playing on the perimeter. It’s the same story in the backcourt - Tyler Ulis and Devon Booker project as better shooters than the Harrisons, who shot 42 percent and 37 percent from the field as freshmen.
In five seasons at Kentucky, Calipari has made an Elite Eight and three Final Fours. No matter who decides to go pro in 2014, he shouldn’t miss a beat in 2015. Towns has a chance to be the No. 1 overall pick while Lyles and Booker both have first-round measurables. Even without the five projected first-rounders from this year’s team - Randle, Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein, James Young and Andrew Harrison - the Wildcats have a McDonald’s All-American at every position.
Duke could lose two lottery picks - Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood - and be a better team next season. Jahlil Okafor, the consensus top player in the class of 2014, gives the Blue Devils a legitimate post presence at the center position, something they have not had in many years. Okafor means Marshall Plumlee, a McDonald’s All-American in 2011, will spend another year on the bench after averaging six minutes per game in his first two seasons in Durham.
On the perimeter, the three other McDonald’s kids from this year’s class - Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen and Justise Winslow - will be competing for minutes with one from 2011 (Quinn Cook) and 2012 (Rasheed Sulaimon). For the most part, everyone on Duke can shoot 3’s, which will allow Okafor to play in a tremendous amount of space around the rim. If there’s a weakness on next year’s roster, it’s at PF, where they might have to get by with a four-star recruit.
Even with the addition of Louisville, things should be back to normal in the ACC, with Duke and UNC fighting for the crown. The Tar Heels never recovered from losing PJ Hairston to eligibility issues and they struggled to space the floor and score from the wings all season. Next year, they are bringing in two McDonald’s All-Americans on the wings (Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson) to complement the one they have at PG and the four they have in the frontcourt.
Kentucky might be the only team in the country with the size to bang with Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Joel James. NBA scouts will learn more from watching the UNC big men in practice than they will from watching them against most of the ACC. The Tar Heels didn’t have enough perimeter shooting to exploit their size this season, but next year’s group, with Marcus Paige running the show, should blow most teams off the floor.
Kansas has a chance to be better without Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins. Bill Self runs the most consistent program in the country because he doesn’t need his McDonald’s All-Americans to dominate as freshmen. Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre won’t have to carry the Jayhawks - they will be playing off Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor. With no other Big 12 team represented in Chicago, Kansas will be favored to win their 11th consecutive league title.
UCLA’s lack of size was exploited by Florida in the Sweet 16, but that should change in the coming years with the additions of Kevon Looney (6’9 210) and Thomas Welsh (7’0 230). With Brice Alford, Jordan Adams and Norman Powell still in the fold, the Bruins will just need their young big men to catch and finish around the rim next season. When Looney and Welsh start putting on weight, they are going to be way too big and skilled for the vast majority of the Pac-12.
When a coach can throw multiple McDonald’s All-Americans at every hole on his roster, it makes his life pretty easy. And when you are bringing in 2-3 a year, you aren’t held hostage to every recruiting mistake or off-court incident. Imagine the Miami Heat getting a lottery pick in every draft and you can see why there isn’t much parity in college basketball. A single-elimination tournament gives every team a chance, but some teams get more chances than others.
The blue-bloods were a little down this year, which opened up room for a team from the Missouri Valley Conference to get a 1 seed and made the NCAA Tournament more wide open than usual. However, with so much of the elite talent in the class of 2014 concentrated in so few schools, 2015 could look a lot more like 2012, when Kentucky and UNC dominated the sport. In college basketball, the rich don’t stay down for too long. They just get richer.