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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.

P.J. Hairston Excellent In D-League Debut

It’s been a complicated nine months for P.J Hairston.

Coming off a successful sophomore season where Hairston averaged 14.6 points per game for North Carolina, he faced a troublesome offseason that sparked an NCAA investigation involving his relationship with Haydn “Fats” Thomas.

First, Hairston was cited for speeding in May while driving a car that was rented using Thomas’ home address. He was then arrested and charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession while driving a different car that was rented by Thomas. Head coach Roy Williams suspended Hairston nine days later after he was cited for speeding while driving 93 miles per hour in a 65 mile per hour zone (Associated Press).

After an extensive investigation by the NCAA, the University of North Carolina eventually denied reinstating Hairston in late December, stating that he “made a number of mistakes that placed his eligibility at risk.” As a result, Hairston decided to enter the D-League where the Texas Legends claimed him off of waivers.

Hairston made his professional debut on Saturday against the Austin Toros where he showed promise of becoming an instant superstar in the D-League, that is, until he’s eligible for next year’s draft.

He entered the game with 3:03 left in the first quarter and immediately made an impact. Hairston converted on his first three field goals, two of which were three-pointers, and didn’t show any sort of rust despite the lengthy delay since his last organized game.

The 6-foot-6 shooting guard finished with a team-high 22 points (9-16 FG, 4-9 3FG) and six steals in 28 minutes of action to lead the Legends to a 109-99 victory that wasn’t nearly as close as the score indicated. He scored in a variety of ways, including high-flying dunks, mid-range jumpers, and his well-documented deep threes.

“I found a home here in Texas and I’m grateful for the opportunity to be here,” Hairston said in an interview for the D-League’s YouTube channel on Friday.

“What I can bring is just another shooter and another scorer and someone they can trust to put the ball in the basket.”

His self-evaluation proved to be true on Saturday. But not only did Hairston show himself as a premier scorer, but he hustled for loose balls, deflected passes, and showed just as much talent on the defensive end of the floor. His defense is what impressed point guard Mickey McConnell, who had 20 points and 10 assists for the Legends.

“He’s a great player and he comes from a great program, so obviously he knows how to do things the right way,” said McConnell. “We got a couple additions that have really helped us energy-wise defensively. I thought the best thing that he did was that he got his hands on a lot of passes and on defense he was great tonight.”

As a gifted scorer with his size and athletic ability, Hairston showed why he was regarded as a first round pick last season. If he can continue to play at this type of level while staying out of trouble, there’s no doubt that he can salvage his draft stock and become a 2014 first round selection. With an excellent debut, Hairston and the Texas Legends will be fun to follow for the rest of the D-League season.

Coaches That Peak Early In The Year

Believe in the Cyclones because you should believe in the Hawkeyes

For a lot of poll voters, Iowa St.’s home victory over Iowa won’t be that impressive. Many observers will say this was just another case of “Hilton Magic”. They will say weird things happen in that loud arena and that led Iowa’s Mike Gesell to miss two free throws in the final minute.

But I think that sells this game short. This game wasn’t defined by Hilton Magic as some of Iowa St.’s other games have been. This wasn’t a game with a bunch of huge three point shots, a huge run for the home team, and a road team looking shell-shocked.

That’s not to say the arena wasn’t rocking. From the opening tipoff, the fans were loud. They were as passionate as any fans will ever be in December. But this game was not about Iowa being rattled. For most of the game, the Hawkeyes played like a veteran team. They executed beautiful out-of-bounds plays, including one gorgeous lob in the second half. They ran the secondary break so well, with Aaron White constantly finding defenders out of position, that Tar Heel fans would have been jealous. And when things got stuck in the half-court, Roy Devyn Marble and Mike Gesell were effective at getting into the lane and finding cutters. Iowa’s consistent effort and execution was at a much higher level than what we have seen from any Iowa St. opponent this year. For 38 minutes, every time Iowa St. went on a run, Iowa had an answer.

The announcers seemed surprised by this. Perhaps Iowa is sneaking up on people because they missed the NCAA tournament last year. But by almost every statistical measure, Fran McCaffery’s rebuilding project is reaching the end. The next table shows how Iowa’s Efficiency Margin (opponent adjusted offense minus opponent adjusted defense) has improved since McCaffery became head coach in 2010-11. The table also shows how McCaffery has reinstated the fast-paced style of basketball that made Iowa a joy to watch in earlier eras.





Eff. Margin


Todd Lickliter




Fran McCaffery




Fran McCaffery




Fran McCaffery




Fran McCaffery



The reason Iowa is not getting more credit is because as good as they have looked in most games, Iowa simply does not have the resume wins against quality teams. Last year in Big Ten play against NCAA tournament teams, Iowa picked up three quality wins. They beat Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota. But against most of the NCAA tournament teams the Hawkeyes faced, they lost nail-biters. Iowa lost to Michigan St. by three points twice, lost to Indiana by four, lost to Minnesota by three, and lost to Wisconsin in 2OTs. And because they could not finish those games, a lot of people were unwilling to acknowledge how well the team was playing.

Those same skeptics will be out again this year. In Iowa’s two games against elite competition this season, against Villanova and Iowa St., Iowa came up short. The Hawkeyes lost in OT and lost by three points on the road. To some observers, Iowa’s inability to win close games against elite teams proves that this is not a quality team.

There is one part of that poor close game execution story that I buy. This isn’t so much about Gesell missing those two free throws, but it is about Iowa’s extreme balance. Balance is a great thing when the team is playing well. But it can be a problem in close games. Iowa does not have a Keith Appling type closer, a guy who can get into the lane in crunch time and punish his opponent by knocking down his free throws. (Roy Devyn Marble should be that guy, as his driving has reached another level this season. But Marble’s free throw stroke has been off this year, and he doesn’t have the confidence in close games right now.) Perhaps, the lack of a “closer” is a real concern.

But this emphasis on Iowa’s flaws undersells what Iowa St. did to win this game. Dustin Hogue, the undersized JUCO forward at 6’6”, played like the biggest man on the floor, dominating the boards and being strong at the free throw line in crunch time. DeAndre Kane couldn’t make a basket, but he didn’t let it stop him from playing smart basketball. Kane penetrated and dished out 9 assists, and his inbounds pass off of Adam Woodbury’s back for a lay-up was brilliant. But most importantly, Georges Niang was the closer that Iowa wishes they had. Niang got the ball time-and-time again down the stretch, and no one on Iowa could keep him out of the lane.

And when I looked up the Sagarin Ratings on Sunday morning, according to Sagarin’s margin-of-victory based predictor, Iowa St. and Iowa are both in the Top 10. It is early, and I am skeptical that both teams will be there in March. But after watching these two teams play polished basketball on a Friday night in December, it felt about right.

On the Flip Side

At some point during Saturday’s North Carolina vs Kentucky game, Dick Vitale said we should all call our friends and tell them that the game was close. Suffice it to say, I passed on that recommendation. Whatever you think about these two teams, this was not a fun basketball game. There were way too many fouls and way too many free throws. And it didn’t feel like a game with athletic plays and fierce defense leading to more free throws. It just felt like a lot of bodies running into one another with no continuity. (Worse yet, the foul shooting wasn’t even that great. North Carolina was 26 of 45, while Kentucky was 29 of 43 from the charity stripe.)

Now, I don’t want to say there were not some surprising performances. Kentucky’s Alex Poythress seemed to be playing inspired basketball for once, before he fouled out. Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison got into the lane and found his big men for a few highlight reel buckets. North Carolina’s JP Tokoto proved that we shouldn’t yell “terrible shot” every time he jacks up a long range jumper.  And North Carolina’s James Michael McAdoo, went back in a time machine and started playing like he did last season when he was often the most important player on his team.

But this was still a game where neither team seemed to “get it.”

-Kentucky threw so many lazy passes that I thought John Calipari’s head was going to explode.

-Meanwhile North Carolina seemed unable to take advantage of Kentucky’s constant switching on defense. The Harrison twins are tall at 6’6”, but they shouldn’t be able to guard North Carolina’s forwards in the paint.

-Projected top NBA draft pick Julius Randle struggled against a team that could throw multiple big bodies at him in the paint.

-And North Carolina walk-on Jackson Simmons and 6th UNC forward Desmond Hubert were two of the most impressive players on the day, in no small part because they simply knew where to be offensively and defensively.

If ESPN’s speculation is correct, and PJ Hairston will be back in January, I still like the upside for both these teams. But at one point, Dick Vitale leaned over and said, “I don’t really like Kentucky’s offense here. They don’t seem to have any rhythm.” Kentucky was leading in the game at this point. And the comment was pretty much spot on. Nothing that happened in this game looked like a finished product.

Coaches Whose Teams Do Not Get Better

Last week I showed the list of coaches whose teams tend to improve the most in-season. Today I show the list of coaches whose teams usually peak early. Some of these coaches will make sense. There is a reason Dayton fans were happy to see Brian Gregory leave. There is a reason Paul Hewitt was forced out at Georgia Tech. More often than not, their teams built high expectations early in the year, and then faded.

But some names will be a surprise. Over the last 10 years, Mike Krzyzewski’s team has never played better after January 1st than before January 1st. This is true even after adjusting for opponent and venue which is what the Pythagorean winning percentage measures.

But I also want to say that these lists are not necessarily predictive of future results. Part of the reason Krzyzewski shows up on this list is that his teams have historically been dominant in November and December. Even his national title team from 2010 started hot at 11-1, with the only loss coming by a narrow margin in a road-game at Wisconsin. Because Duke has started so hot, there has been nowhere to go but down. With a weaker start this season, Duke does have room for improvement, and I expect we will see it. Still, the last two columns of this chart are fairly amazing:

Mike Krzyzewski

Off Nov/Dec

Off Later

Def Nov/Dec

Def Later

Pyth Nov/Dec

Pyth Later







































































Overall, here are the coaches with the biggest average drop in production from early in the season until later in the year. (Note: I only count seasons while coaching in a major conference and only show coaches with at least 4 years of data.)

In-Season Drops


Pyth Nov/Dec

Pyth Later


Brian Gregory

Georgia Tech/Dayton




Ken Bone

Washington St.




L. Eustachy

Colorado St./S. Miss




M. Anderson





Tom Crean





Rick Barnes





Dave Rose





Tim Miles

Nebraska/Colorado St.




M. Krzyzewski





Paul Hewitt

G. Mason/Georgia Tech




Tim Miles is a bit of a surprise given that he tends to rebuild programs, but oddly last year at Nebraska was the first time in six years that his team played better after January 1st than before January 1st.


-Big Ten teams didn’t necessarily look horrible this weekend, but their failure to pick up a signature win may be costly in March. Iowa narrowly lost at Iowa St. Michigan lost to Arizona at home. Illinois lost to Oregon. Indiana lost to Notre Dame. Purdue lost to Butler. And Penn St. lost in OT at home to Princeton. The league had lost 23 games through the first five weeks of the season and lost 6 games in the span of 27 hours.

-Indiana’s offense was always going to be a work in progress with so many new players, but it is a bad sign that the team could not find a way to score against Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish defense had been a sieve against the team’s four previous Top 100 opponents.

-Boise St. and La Salle were trendy mid-major NCAA tournament picks in the pre-season. Both were guard-led teams that played well late last season and brought just about everyone back this season. But right now I can feel people jumping off the band-wagon for both teams. After La Salle lost its fifth non-conference game on Sunday to Villanova, and after Boise St. lost at home to St. Mary’s neither team has any remaining shot to build a tournament worthy non-conference profile.

-I really enjoyed Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery’s call of the St. John’s vs Syracuse game on Sunday. But it is hilarious to hear the two together because they both like to emote after the game’s biggest plays. You could really tell Johnson was deferring to Raftery more than he normally would as St. John’s cut into the lead. Syracuse eventually won the game thanks to two huge baseline shots from CJ Fair.

-This week PG Tom Maayan left the Seton Hall team to return to military service in Israel. I’ve gone on the record before to say that Maayan’s departure should not be devastating to the Pirates. His turnover rate the last two years has been 54 percent and 45 percent. But then PG Sterling Gibbs went down with a knee injury in Seton Hall’s OT loss to St. Peter’s. And Gibbs is a huge loss. He led the team in percentage of possessions used, led all starters in efficiency, led the team in assist rate, and was one of the Top-5 players in the nation at getting to the free throw line this year. For the second season in a row unexpected player losses might stop Seton Hall from being competitive in the Big East.

-The calf injury to Oklahoma forward Ryan Spangler is also worth watching. Seldom-used senior forward Tyler Neal picked up the rebounding slack after Spangler went down, but Oklahoma can ill-afford to be missing its only clear post-defender and rebounder for an extended period of time.

-When Rutgers hired Eddie Jordan, I thought he would face an uphill climb due to all the roster attrition. But he did a brilliant job bringing players back who planned to transfer, and adding key pieces like JJ Moore. (This week the team also announced the addition of Georgetown transfer Greg Whittington.) It certainly seemed like Rutgers had a lineup that could compete in the AAC this year. But unfortunately, Jordan doesn’t seem to know how to teach defense right now.  This is the worst Scarlet Knights defense in the 12 years Ken Pomeroy has been keeping track of tempo free stats. For a power conference bottom feeder, it is never good to be setting a new standard of poor play. But that is exactly why Rutgers keeps dropping non-conference games.

Notes On 2013 ACC-Big Ten Challenge

Although there wasnít a conference crowned the champion of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge because of a tied 6-6 outcome, plenty of story lines and questions emerged from the event. We take a glance into some intriguing aspects seen in the challenge.

Super Sophomore Point Guards

Typically in college basketball, point guards see the most dramatic improvement between their freshman and sophomore seasons. Trey Burke, Michael Carter-Williams and Shane Larkin were prime examples last season. Now it's Marcus Smart, Marcus Paige and Jahii Carson.

From The Champions Classic To Cupcake Week, Part 2

On Obama watching Oregon State, VCU, Trae Golden, the search for upsets, Branden Dawson at the 4, Harvard Watch and more.

2013 Holiday Tournaments (Part 1)

In the first of a three-part series, we breakdown several holiday tournaments including 2K Sports, Puerto Rico, Coaches vs. Cancer, Hall of Fame Tipoff, Paradise Jam and the Charleston Classic featuring the likes of Michigan State, Louisville, North Carolina and Michigan.

Changing Pace With Conference Realignment

When it comes to pace-of-play, a teamís head coach is critical. In this edition, we look at the pace of play for each team in all of the major conferences.

March Madness Through The NBA Lens (Round Of 64)

While the NCAA Tournament has cachet all its own, one way of looking at the Tournament from the perspective of NBA talent evaluators. Here are the games and prospects most worthy of your attention for the round of 64.

Comparing The Conferences

The Pac-12 has been suffering through a long dark period. The Big Ten has been dominant (at least in the pre-conference schedule) for the last few years. Should we expect a change this year? Is the Pac-12ís slump over? Is the Big Tenís boom about to come to an end?

Team-By-Team Gold Medal Winners

The Jazz and Thunder have had the most Gold Medalists since the USA began bringing NBA players in 1992, while Duke leads amongst colleges. How do the other 29 NBA teams rank?

Notes On The 2012 Jordan Brand Classic

Anthony Davis wanted to wear Michael Jordanís number in this game last year. This year no one chose to wear #23. Maybe people are right when they say this yearís class of high school seniors is missing a larger than life star.

The Cautionary Tale Of Harrison Barnes

All the extra exposure Harrison Barnes has received has only served to magnify his flaws as a player, and thereís a very good chance he will end up regretting his decision to return to school for his sophomore season.

Sweet Sixteen Day 2

What does every coach in the Sweet Sixteen have in common? A great efficiency margin over the last 5 years.

NCAA Tournament Day 4

Twelve of the 16 teams in the Sweet Sixteen were in the preseason AP Top 25, and Michigan St. was among the first teams in the ďothers receiving votesĒ category. But Indiana, Ohio, and NC State have all exceeded expectations this season by making it this far.

All Roads Go Through Kentucky, North Carolina

Kentucky and North Carolina played a thriller on Dec. 2nd and are setup to meet again in a national championship game filled with future NBA players if there are no stumbles along the way.

Major Conference Tournaments Day 4

Baylor broke through, Michigan and Tennessee had huge game tying 3's, but the true action on Friday took place in the A10.

Bubble Edition Of Injury Splits

One of the most important things to look at when examining bubble teams is how they have fared with and without key players.

Rivalry Week Musings And More Conference Shuffling

Breaking down Duke/North Carolina, Syracuse/Georgetown, Kansas/Baylor and Florida/Kentucky, along with which conferences are improving with the new round of shuffling.

Top NCAA Coaches Of Past Five Years

There are a lot of complicated ways to evaluate college coaches, but in this edition we look at the coaches with the best per possession numbers over the last five years.

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