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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.

The Bigs Of The Incoming 2014 College Class

At this time last year, Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle were already household names, at least among households who follow the NBA. This year’s group of McDonald’s All-Americans, in contrast, is relatively anonymous. After a week of practices in Chicago, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus No. 1 overall prospect in the incoming college class of 2014. The talent is concentrated among the big men, who develop at a slower pace and aren’t as flashy as perimeter stars.

The biggest name is Jahlil Okafor, the Duke-bound center coming off a dominant showing at last summer’s U19 world championships, where he posted a 40.2 PER. Okafor is a throwback - a 6’10 270 post player with an advanced back to the basket game. As an undersized center who can’t shoot 3’s or play on the perimeter, it’s unclear how his style of play will translate to the modern NBA, where everyone wants to push the pace, spread the floor and run pick-and-roll.

Okafor, for all his skills, plays more like the No. 1 overall pick in 1994 than 2014. For a glimpse at where the game is going, you have to look at Karl Towns and Myles Turner, two of the other top big men in the class of 2014. Towns, a Kentucky commit, pulled off a blindfolded windmill in the dunk contest and says his favorite player is Len Bias. Turner, who is still undecided, grew up rooting for Kevin Durant and finished in fourth place in the three-point contest.

At 7’0 250, Towns is a fluid athlete who can play inside or out. He’s the most skilled big man John Calipari has recruited since Anthony Davis, far more comfortable playing on the perimeter than Randle, Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein or Dakari Johnson. Towns played for the Dominican Republic and backed up Al Horford in the FIBA Americas Olympic qualifying tournament last summer. He wouldn’t look out of place coming off an NBA bench right now.

The LaMarcus Aldridge comparisons were inevitable for Turner, a skilled and athletic 7’0 from the Dallas area. The biggest difference is generational - Turner has been encouraged to play out on the floor from an early age while Aldridge’s desire to float to the perimeter was viewed much more skeptically. Like Aldridge, who improved every year from 18-28, Turner has only begun to scratch the surface of his potential on the high-school and AAU levels.

Like with most big men, Towns and Turner’s college production will depend as much on their guard play as their own development. Unlike Anthony Davis, a high school guard until a late growth spurt out of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, they have been big men all their lives. For the most part, they won’t be bringing the ball up the floor and initiating the offense next season. They will need guards who can slow the pace, spread the floor and get them the ball.

After Kentucky’s unlikely run to the Final Four, the situation Towns will be walking into next season is more in flux than it was a few weeks before. Before the NCAA Tournament, Willie Cauley-Stein seemed all but gone and the Harrisons looked like they would have no choice but to stay in school. Now the dynamic has flipped - Cauley-Stein may have to come back if his ankle injury is serious while the Harrisons draft stock has been boosted by their postseason heroics.

If Andrew Harrison opts for the NBA draft, Towns will be depending on the rapid development of Tyler Ulis, a 5’9 McDonald’s All-American from the Chicago area. Ulis has the athleticism and floor game to make up for his lack of size, but it’s unclear how much of an adjustment period he will need against much bigger and more physical guards in the SEC. James Young is all but gone already, so Kentucky won’t have much experience on the perimeter to take the load off Ulis.

If Cauley-Stein comes back, the Wildcats will have an embarrassment of riches in the frontcourt. The Cauley-Stein and Johnson duo would take most of the minutes at C, which would push Towns to the forward positions, where he would be sharing time with fellow McDonald’s All-American Trey Lyles as well as Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee. While Towns has the skills to manage the transition, how many shots and minutes he will get next season is unclear.

Most of the recruiting consensus has Turner choosing between Kansas and Texas, but he shot down that notion on Media Day. As the only All-American still on the board, Turner has been pursued by every program in the country and he has shown no indication of making his decision anytime soon. He’s playing things close to the vest - at this point, the only thing we know is that if Joel Embiid returns, there probably won’t be enough playing time for Turner in Lawrence.

If Turner goes to Texas, he will join a crowded frontcourt that already includes fringe NBA prospects Cam Ridley and Jonathan Holmes. None of the Longhorns guards are proven three-point shooters, so if Turner comes to Austin, opposing teams will pack the paint and force him to give up the ball. That’s why I think SMU has a real chance at Turner, since Larry Brown can pitch playing with two PG’s in Nic Moore and Emmanuel Mudiay, the best guard prospect in the class of 2014.

Either way, whatever happens with Turner and Towns next season shouldn’t have too much of an impact on their NBA potential. With the league becoming smaller and more perimeter-oriented by the season, big men with the skill and athleticism to play on the outside are worth their weight in gold. Okafor, in contrast, will have to be placed in a very specific situation at the next level, a la Al Jefferson in Charlotte, with a team that builds its offense around him.

And while Okafor may be close to his ceiling as a player, Turner and Towns have a lot of room to expand their game. The next step for both is learning how to make their teammates better - either by drawing double teams with their back to the basket or facing up and putting the ball on the floor. There’s just not many big men at any level of basketball with the size and athleticism to bang with Turner and Towns around the basket or run with them on the break.

As athletic big men who can shoot the ball, Turner and Towns can slide into almost any situation at the next level and be successful. They can be small-ball 5’s on an uptempo team that spreads the floor or they can be face-up 4’s on a huge team that pounds the ball inside. Their versatility is what makes them so intriguing - they could conceivably share a frontcourt in the NBA. A franchise that puts two 7’0 like that on the same team would have something really special.

Coaches Hurt The Most By New Foul Rules

This year the NCAA revised its rules about defensive contact. It has been well documented that while fouls have increased, the increase is relatively small. But one thing we have not talked much about is the fact that the foul rules have not impacted all coaches (and teams) equally.

As a starting point, I thought it might be nice to look at long-tenured coaches (5+ years D1 experience) in the major conferences and sort them by how often their teams typically foul. Some coaches teach their teams to be more physical and aggressive and thus you might expect the rules to impact these coaches more. In the next table, I sort by the defensive free throw rate (the number of free throw attempts allowed per field goal attempt on defense). The table shows each coach’s career defensive free throw rate prior to this year. At the top of the list we have aggressive coaches like Frank Martin and Tony Barbee. Their teams have typically been exceedingly physical. At the bottom of the list we have coaches like John Beilein and Mike Brey whose teams typically play defense without fouling.

The table also lists this year’s free throw rate for each of these coaches. As it turns out, the new foul rules have not systematically hurt the aggressive coaches more. Some aggressive coaches, like Frank Martin, have struggled to adapt to the new rules and seem to be fouling at an exceedingly high rate. But others, like Mike Anderson, have adjusted. Also, some coaches that rarely foul, like Roy Williams have seen their team struggle to adapt to the new rules.

Def. Free Throw Rate

Schools

Career

This Year

Frank Martin

Kansas St./South Carolina

45

61

Tony Barbee

UTEP/Auburn

45

48

Pat Chambers

Boston U/Penn St.

42

45

Kevin Willard

Iona/Seton Hall

41

39

Mike Anderson

UAB/Missouri/Arkansas

41

44

….

     

Fran McCaffery

UNCG/Siena/Iowa

28

32

John Beilein

West Virginia/Michigan

28

27

Mike Brey

Notre Dame

27

31

Roy Williams

Kansas/North Carolina

27

42

Thad Matta

Xavier/Ohio St.

25

29

It also does not appear that the new rules are uniquely harming coaches whose teams gamble for steals like like Shaka Smart, Oliver Purnell, and Rick Pitino. While Purnell’s team is fouling at a career high rate, Shaka Smart’s team is only fouling a hair more than last season, showing less of an increase than the NCAA average. And while Pitino’s team is fouling at a higher rate, it isn’t unusually high. His team had an even higher foul rate during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons.

Now that doesn’t mean that these teams have not been hurt by the rule change. In next week’s column I plan to talk more about changes in turnovers and talk about one team in particular that has completely changed its defensive philosophy thanks to the new rules.

But let’s stick with the free throw rate for today, because clearly a substantial uptick in fouls committed can be a major hindrance to winning. The next table shows the major conference coaches with the biggest increase in defensive foul rate this year. As it turns out, coaches with a wide variety of defensive styles have struggled with the adjustment to the new rules:

Def. Free Throw Rate

Schools

Last Year

This Year

John Thompson III

Georgetown

35

53

Roy Williams

North Carolina

27

42

Frank Martin

South Carolina

46

61

Bill Self

Kansas

32

45

Dana Altman

Oregon

33

46

Ken Bone

Washington St.

32

43

Steve Donahue

Boston College

29

40

Steve Lavin

St. John's

29

40

Now, not all of these differences can be attributed to the new rules. Maybe Frank Martin’s roster is particularly slow-footed this season. Maybe North Carolina has been behind in more close games causing them to foul more. But when you look at the historic track record, these coaches have been very consistent in their defensive free throw rates. The next table suggests that this is more than just normal fluctuations in personnel and game scores. These coaches are struggling to teach their teams how to play defense with the new rules:

Defensive Free Throw Rate

D1 Average

John Thompson

Roy Williams

Frank Martin

Bill Self

5 yrs ago

36

33

25

49

35

4 yrs ago

38

34

25

47

31

3 yrs ago

38

38

25

45

32

2 yrs ago

36

36

22

42

33

Last Year

36

35

27

46

32

This Year

41

53

42

61

45

Of course, in Kansas’ case, the new rules have been a bit of a wash. That’s because the new rules have also greatly benefited teams with superstar athletes. Just look at the jump in offensive free throw rate for Kentucky and Kansas relative to their historical norm:

Offensive Free Throw Rate

D1 Average

John Calipari

Bill Self

5 yrs ago

36

40

40

4 yrs ago

38

44

41

3 yrs ago

38

36

39

2 yrs ago

36

42

40

Last Year

36

42

40

This Year

41

58

52

Some of the teams with big jumps in offensive free throw rate this year seem a little odd to me. (Seton Hall has shown a huge uptick in getting to the line, but that was mostly due to the first two games of the year against Niagara and Kent St. and doesn’t seem to be a permanent trend.) But if you believe the change in enforcement will benefit athletic teams, the above table provides some evidence that this has happened.

Wisconsin in the Paint

Even though Wisconsin has lost three of its last four games, I am not ruling the Badgers out as a Final Four contender. I watched all 80 minutes of basketball they played this week, and I’m more in love with Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky’s game than ever.

One of Bo Ryan’s strengths is making players go through every drill, regardless of whether they are a forward or guard. Big men have to shoot, small players have to learn to post-up. And Wisconsin exploits these unexpected abilities with great success. For this year’s big men, it isn’t just the shooting. What makes forwards Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky special is their driving ability. Because they are such great three point shooters, opposing big men have to close out on them. And Dekker and Kaminsky are two of the only big men I have ever seen who can consistently get from the three point line to the basket without a turnover or an ugly charge.

Kaminsky’s scoring moves around Minnesota’s Elliot Eliason on Wednesday were insane. Pump-fake, dribble by initial defender, spin past second defender, bank home the shot. Dekker is so agile, the defense doesn’t know what hit them. And when they are on the floor together and running the offense, Wisconsin is almost unstoppable. The Badgers had 17 points before the first four minute time out on Saturday against Purdue.

The problem, as we learned this week, is that as well as Wisconsin operates with both these guys on the floor, if Kaminsky is in foul trouble, Wisconsin is not nearly the same team. Against Minnesota, Kaminsky picked up two fouls in the first minute, and Bo Ryan elected to go with the 6’7” Nigel Hayes for his offense. But Minnesota exploited Hayes’ lack of size by pounding the ball inside with Maurice Walker. While Walker has been playing limited minutes, because of the size mismatch, he exploded for a season-high 18 points in the Gophers win.

Then on Saturday, while the Badgers hung on for victory, Kaminsky’s foul trouble was still an issue. Rather than go small again, Bo Ryan went with the 6’10” but rarely used Evan Anderson. But Anderson was no panacea because of his offensive limitations. After the 17 point scoring output to open the game, Wisconsin’s offense stalled out.

The problem is that Kaminsky and Dekker are really the same player. They are both gifted offensive players, who should be playing a weaker post player to avoid committing fouls. But you can’t protect them both. And as Wisconsin showed in the previous week against Indiana and Michigan, if Wisconsin is too passive and just lets players go to the rim un-checked, then dribble penetration can kill them too.

And thus I’m starting to believe that Wisconsin’s upside depends significantly on the defensive play of Frank Kaminksy. At 7 feet tall, Wisconsin needs him to be a defensive stop-gap. But they also need him to stay on the floor for his offense. When he can pull off both, the sky is the limit.

Winning with Young Players is Very Hard

Texas head coach Rick Barnes has earned a lot of praise this week after his team won its fifth straight Big 12 game. But I don’t think anyone has fully articulated why his coaching has been so impressive this season. I’ve watched a lot of Texas this year (because of all the close games in November), and this is one of the most inconsistent rosters I have ever seen win games. You never know what you are going to get from anyone in the lineup.

Sure, Javan Felix is going to take a lot of shots, but he doesn’t always make them. Demarcus Holland plays a ton of minutes, but his offensive output has completely disappeared in Big 12 play. The only upperclassman, Jonathan Holmes, might be the streakiest shooter on the team. And Cameron Ridley and Connor Lammert are both explosive offensive rebounders, but I’m shocked at how often they fail to finish inside given how often they grab boards 2 feet from the basket. Now all that inconsistency is to be expected given the youth on the roster. But to manufacture close wins and come-from behind wins all season with that inconsistent lineup, has truly been an impressive coaching feat.

There is a decent chance Texas is over-achieving and will run into a losing skid at some point in February. But with no seniors in the lineup, the future is incredibly bright. 2012 Top 20 recruit Cameron Ridley has really been a rock with his scoring and rebounding over the last four games, and if he can start to deliver that consistently every night of the year, Texas could have a Top 10 team next year.

Bullets

-As if Rutgers hasn’t found enough ways to lose, they dunked in the pregame warm-up line on Saturday and were given a pre-game technical foul by the refs. You just cannot make this stuff up.

-Announcers often ask why no one in college tries for a 2-for-1. Well, keep in mind that the clock does not stop on scores in the first half. Even if you score with 40 seconds left, if the opposing team fumbles the ball for five seconds, they can easily inbound the ball with 35 seconds left on the clock and deny you a final possession. There is no magic time in college basketball to make sure you get two possessions.

-Oklahoma St. point guard and future lottery pick Marcus Smart kicked a chair in frustration during Oklahoma St.’s narrow win over West Virginia on Saturday. Later he tweeted an apology to his teammates. It will be interesting to see how scouts spin this event going forward. If scouts decide he has real anger issues that could hurt his draft stock. But I suspect that some folks will eventually spin this as more evidence of Smart’s competitive drive.

-During the Tennessee at Florida game, some Florida fans threw something on the court and the public address announcer in the stadium said that if anything else was thrown on the court, Florida would be assessed a technical foul. Jimmy Dykes “This strikes me as such an odd announcement. If I’m a Tennessee fan in a hostile environment, I’m seriously considering throwing something on the floor right now.”

-Marquette remains limited offensively, but Todd Mayo is becoming the clutch perimeter scorer the team needs to compliment Davante Gardner. His shots twice allowed Marquette to come from behind and go to OT this week, although Marquette split those OT contests. (Villanova also really should have beat Marquette in regulation, but Villanova’s Tony Chennault was called for a charge on the game-winning buzzer beater. Replays showed that the secondary defender had his foot in the restricted circle so the charge should not have been called.)

-Speaking of late game comebacks, there were two crazy but incomplete comebacks on Sunday. After trailing by 15 points and 10 points with 90 seconds left, Minnesota pulled within 2 points with 2.7 seconds left but still lost at Nebraska. And Temple came back from 19 points down to tie the game against Cincinnati in the final minute only to lose on a foul in the final seconds. Perhaps the coaches can build on this, but in the grand scheme of things, there are no moral victories. Malik Smith (filling in for an injured Andre Hollins) had 29 points in the losing effort for the Gophers and Dalton Pepper had 33 in the losing effort for Temple.

-My infinite frustration with Purdue’s AJ Hammons continues. Noting my earlier discussion about Wisconsin’s limited front court depth, Hammons picked up three fouls in his first two minutes of game time against the Badgers. The third over-the-back-foul in the first half was particularly egregious.

-Duke’s Jabari Parker got an insane ten offensive boards on Saturday. That is impressive against any team. But I don’t think enough people have noted how terrible Florida St. is at grabbing defensive rebounds this year. Despite being the second tallest team in the country (behind only Kentucky), Florida St. ranks 322nd on the defensive glass. The Seminoles clearly challenge for too many blocks and fail to box out, but it is still a mystery how a team with so many big and talented offensive rebounders can be so poor on the defensive glass. Duke has looked better in recent games, but we will learn if they have made real progress as the Blue Devils travel to Pittsburgh and Syracuse this week.

Harvard Watch

The box score said it all. Steve Moundou-Missi, 2-for-11, Wesley Saunders (returning early from an injury), 3-of-14, Siyani Chambers, 1-of-8, Brandyn Curry, 1-of-7, Kyle Casey, one point before fouling out. It is hard to imagine Harvard’s current lineup of talented players playing any worse than they did in this week’s loss to a mediocre Florida Atlantic squad. A blowout win against Dartmouth did little to heal the wounds from that game, but Harvard now faces the long grind, six weekends of Friday/Saturday contests to an Ivy League title.

2013 Holiday Tournament (Part 3)

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The NCAA can act like the NBA’s disinterest is a burden for the NCAA, but it’s really an opportunity to make $11 billion over 14 years to put on a March basketball tournament. There are plenty of people who want to watch the best 18-20 year old basketball players in the world.

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Sweet Sixteen Day 2

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NCAA Tournament Day 4

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Teams that play a lot of freshmen are the most likely to improve as the season goes on, while those with a lot of experience are more likely to plateau. In this piece, we examine freshmen minutes for every major school in the country.

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Syracuse has yet to leave New York and have played a relatively soft schedule, with their only impressive wins coming against Florida and Stanford, but they are 10-0 and now No. 1 in RealGM’s weekly poll.

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Aaron Craft, Jared Sullinger and Ohio State were ready to trounce on the No. 1 slot in RealGM's rankings if not for an Anthony Davis block.

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