Apr 03, 2014 2:40 PM EDT
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.
Mar 28, 2014 2:30 PM EDT
While the underdogs are the story of the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the favorites take the stage in the Sweet 16 and Elite 8. The cutdown from 64 to 16 isn’t nearly as brutal as the one from 16 to 4. A team might sneak through the first weekend due to a favorable draw, but the quality of play ratchets up quickly the further you go. The talent gap shrinks as the field narrows and any weakness a team has will eventually be exposed.
That was the story on Thursday night, which featured two of the best games of the Tourney - Florida 79, UCLA 68 and Arizona 70, San Diego State 64.
After playing the America East champs in the first round and a middling ACC team in the second, Florida faced the second best team in the Pac-12 in the third.
Arizona, after rolling through the champions of two mid-major conferences in the first two rounds, faced a steep challenge from the Mountain West champs in the third.
The games between the 1 and 4 seeds in the South and West brackets were heavyweight matchups. Florida was the No. 1 overall seed and had won 28 straight games; UCLA had as much talent as any team in the country and was coming off winning the Pac-12 conference tournament. Arizona had a 31-4 record and was ranked in the Top 5 for most of the season; San Diego State had a 31-5 record and had not slipped out of the Top 15. All four teams had multiple NBA prospects.
The Florida game came down to rebounds - the Gators had a +10 margin on the glass, including 10 offensive rebounds. UCLA went into a zone early, hoping to exploit Florida’s inconsistent perimeter shooting. However, one of the problems with zones is that it’s harder to rebound out of them, since none of the defenders have a box-out assignment. So while Billy Donovan’s team missed plenty of shots, going 8-21 from three, they rebounded enough misses to make up for it.
The Bruins had a ton of perimeter talent, but they didn’t have the size and athleticism upfront to match-up with Patric Young (6’9 260), Will Yeguete (6’8 230), Dorian Finney-Smith (6’8 215) and Chris Walker (6’11 220). UCLA started two jump-shooting big men in the Wear Twins, who combined for only 8 rebounds. Tony Parker, their biggest player at 6’9 255, was still a year away - he picked up three personal fouls in only 10 minutes of action on Thursday.
Their weakness on the glass meant the Bruins were playing uphill for most of the night. The 1-on-1 talent of Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Zach LaVine fueled runs throughout the game, but they could never close the gap and get a lead. Florida always had an answer, either on the first shot or the second shot or the third. UCLA couldn’t turn them over consistently either, so they were never able to make up the possessions they lost on the defensive glass.
The Bruins were an offensive-minded team that played just enough defense to survive. Against lower-seeded teams like Tulsa and Stephen F. Austin, their overwhelming edge in talent made up for their inability to impose their will on defense. However, against an elite team, it doesn’t matter how many points you can score if you can’t protect your defensive glass. Florida exposed UCLA’s weaknesses in a way their opponents in the first two rounds couldn’t.
San Diego State was the polar opposite of UCLA - an elite defensive team that played just enough offense to survive. When the Aztecs were at their best, they were using their athletic advantage to turn teams over and get out in transition, getting points going from defense to offense. In the half-court, their lack of post play and perimeter shooting made them limited offensively, especially against teams with the size and athleticism to protect their defensive glass.
Arizona, like SDSU, played elite defense and could play an NBA-caliber athlete at every position on the floor. The difference was they had better shooters and more skilled players in the frontcourt, allowing them to run much better half-court offense. They turned the tables on Steve Fisher’s team - turning them over and scoring points in transition, before the Aztecs could set their defense. San Diego State had four assists on 10 turnovers; Arizona had 14 assists on 7 turnovers.
As long as Sean Miller’s team took care of the ball, they could force San Diego State to stay in the halfcourt and beat them from the perimeter. And with their season on the line, the Aztecs couldn’t make enough shots when it counted - shooting 39 percent from the field and 29 percent from three. All those misses allowed them to grab 18 offensive rebounds and keep the game close, but the Wildcats pulled away late, forcing a few huge turnovers and getting easy points on run-outs.
While UCLA could only beat you with offense and San Diego State could only beat you with defense, Arizona and Florida could beat you with both. An elite team can beat you in multiple ways. Some nights the shots aren’t falling, so you have to be able to dig in on defense. Some nights the other team can’t miss, so you have to be able to keep up. Just as important, a balanced team can exploit any weakness in the other team’s roster. They don’t leave points on the board.
In a one-and-done tournament, you never know who you are going to play or what type of team you will have to face. Match-ups can be a tricky thing - the Midwest was supposed to be the region of death, but the No. 3 seed lost to the 14 in the first round and the first seed lost to the eight in the second. A favorable draw will only take you so far; eventually you are going to run into a team with the pieces to expose any hole on your roster. That’s why the best teams have the fewest holes.
One of the age-old debates in basketball is whether offense or defense wins championships. The answer is neither - you need both. A team that plays good offense and good defense is going to have the edge over a team that plays great defense and average offense or great offense and average defense. That’s why balance is the key to winning in March. Arizona and Florida were more balanced than San Diego State and UCLA and that’s why they are moving on.
Mar 23, 2013 3:42 AM EDT
As I stuck on truTV on Friday night and soaked up the replays of Florida Gulf Coast’s Chase Fieler taking alley-oop dunks from Brett Comer, I was reminded that it isn’t just the great basketball that makes the NCAA tournament special. It is the other moments as well. It is the sight of Florida Gulf Coast senior Sherwood Brown reveling in the moment. When he started at the school, they weren’t even eligible for the tournament. But with his career reaching his fourth year, he was going to make sure he sucked up every moment. He shook hands with the announcers. He went into the cheerleaders and grabbed a group hug. And in the locker-room, his team celebrated as a family.
Meanwhile, the dejection on Georgetown head coach John Thompson III’s face was equally dramatic. I thought his words were so appropriate. “I told these guys, no matter what people write about you, no matter what happens, I am proud of you.” And he is exactly right. People are going to act like Georgetown failed because the big name brand school with all the resources lost to the small school just joining D1. But this was still a tremendous season. This group of players with no seniors and losing a key starter to academic eligibility still made tremendous strides this season. I was still proud to watch them play this season, even if they were the Goliath knocked off the mountain-top.
And that is truly the beauty of the NCAA tournament. All these teams, win or lose have had tremendous seasons. The X’s and O’s are great. The bracket busters are great. The buzzer beaters are great. But ultimately, the window is short. The moment of opportunity is fleeting. And win or lose, the drama of it all coming to an end is always great theater.
Ole Miss used great strategy against Wisconsin. They used full court pressure, not to cause turnovers, but to make the Badgers waste clock. And while that may seem counter-intuitive, (why slow down a slow team even further?), it worked. The Badgers didn’t have their normal time to probe for good shots. And with Mississippi also switching between man-to-man defense and zone defense to confuse the Badgers even further, Wisconsin had to settle for more bad shots than usual. The Badgers ended the season with a horrific shooting performance. Jared Berggren was 2 of 10, Ryan Evans was 2 of 8, Ben Brust was 2 of 9, Traevon Jackson was 2 of 10. And that was easily enough for a hot Ole Miss team to advance.
In the locker-room, the interview with Ben Brust said it all. In near tears the sophomore noted that this wasn’t the way it was supposed to end for his 5 senior teammates. They were his brothers. They were the only team to beat Michigan and Indiana twice. They had put in too much work, and too much effort to see the team lose without putting up a fight.
Meanwhile, despite Mississippi’s Marshall Henderson’s horrific 1 for 11 start, his coach never chided him. He simply said, “This is your half, take advantage of the moment.” And Henderson responded with 5 of 10 second half shooting.
Indeed this was probably another take-away from Friday. The unbridled teams win in the tournament. Florida Gulf Coast played without fear and Marshall Henderson wins by playing with reckless abandon.
On Friday Illinois played with reckless abandon as well. Freed from the dreaded Big Ten defensive teams that deny fast-break points at all costs, the Illini played like the aggressive team John Groce tried to build early in the year. (I.e. when the team started 12-0 and took three point shots without fear.) I heard a lot of criticism of Illinois taking 31 threes in the game because it opened the door for Colorado to come back, but I completely disagree. Illinois isn’t a great half-court team. They don’t have big guys who can score around the basket. And they aren’t a great passing team. The truth is, they are never going to get a better look than an open three in transition. And on Friday, those threes proved that more often than not in the NCAA tournament, ruthless aggression wins. (Of course those transition threes would not have been possible with great half-court defense. Illinois’s first half steals showed it most dramatically, but when Illinois’ DJ Richardson drew a 5-second closely guarded call in the second half, that might have been the biggest defensive possession of the game.)
The Day's Shocker
Style clashes were everywhere. We had bruising Villanova, going up against the 4-guard lineup of North Carolina. Wait, is that right? Had these teams actually flipped their rolls? Was it true that Villanova actually dominated the points in the paint 38-16 in this one? And yet North Carolina still won.
That was shocking. But it was not nearly as shocking as the news that UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammad might actually be 20 years old. That’s right, Muhammad might have pulled a Danny Almonte and faked his age in order to look extra dominant against his competition, and improve his NBA draft stock. Muhammad will still certainly be a top lottery pick in this year’s draft (since it is one of the weakest drafts in recent memory), but I have to think teams will think twice about drafting someone who would lie about something like that for all these years.
And we also learned that sometimes depth does matter in the NCAA tournament. I thought that with all the TV timeouts that teams couldn’t get tired out. But with UCLA’s Travis Wear and Tony Parker each picking up 3 first half fouls, UCLA was forced to keep its five other rotation players in the game at all times. And you could tell at the end of each half that UCLA simply had no energy defensively. They started the game playing lock down defense against the Gophers. But at the end of the first half, the Gophers got whatever they wanted dumping the ball into the paint. Low scoring back-up centers like Elliot Eliason and Maurice Walker dominated. And in the second half, Andre Hollins could pretty much take an exhausted Larry Drew at will. Minnesota caught almost no breaks this season playing in a rugged Big Ten. But UCLA was indeed the perfect first round draw as many experts expected.
Hot and Cold
The real story of the day was the back-and-forth scoring runs. 2013 has been the year when no team has handled success well. Whenever a team looks dominant, it tends to follow that up with its worst performance of the season. And thus perhaps it was not surprising that Friday was the day of hot and cold play.
-Temple led NC State 38-22 at halftime, only to see NC State cut the lead to 74-72 with 2 seconds left. Temple held on for the victory.
-La Salle led 44-26 at halftime, only to see Kansas St. take a 60-58 lead with 6 minutes left in the second half. Again, La Salle put the game away in the final minutes.
-Illinois led Colorado 37-21 at halftime, only to see Colorado take a 44-39 lead in the second half. Illinois then ended with a run of its own to win 57-49.
Finally, Georgetown took an 18-11 lead on Florida Gulf Coast. But FGCU went on a 41-15 run to take 52-33 lead. Then Georgetown had a run to cut the lead to 72-68 before FGCU sealed the game with free throws at the end.
After a day like Friday, we could start to question the pedigree of a number of coaches. We could ask how Bo Ryan can post such great margin-of-victory numbers during the regular season each year, but never follow that up with a Final Four run. We can ask what the string of losses to teams seeded 10+ in the tournament really mean for John Thompson III. But in both cases, I think we need to cut these coaches some slack. Bo Ryan never had a true point-guard this season, so for his team to go out with an offensive swoon, shouldn’t really be criticized. His team over-achieved this year. Similarly, John Thompson III’s teams massively over-achieved. It has been clear since November that the offensive weaknesses would likely cause the Hoyas to bow out in the NCAA tournament at some point. There is a reason JT3 won the Big East coach of the year award, and it is because this 15 over 2 match-up was not nearly the mismatch it looked like on paper.
No, the coach that most concerned me on Friday was NC State’s Mark Gottfried. His inability to get his team to buy in on the defensive end is a huge concern. NC State is rarely going to have as much offensive talent as they had this season. And in the newer, stronger ACC, it may never be the preseason pick to win the league again. But without some commitment to teach defensive fundamentals, NC State will never match its fanbase’s rabid expectations.
And perhaps that is why I should end where I began. A day like Friday is as much about ending as it is about winning moments. It is hard for me to believe that NC State senior Richard Howell’s career is over. The hardworking rebounder didn’t earn playing time until later in the career because he was often over-shadowed by more skilled players. But his hustle and grit, made NC State an incredibly fun team to watch the last two seasons. Scott Wood was one of the all-time great three point shooters in the ACC. And in a league with the ACC’s history, that is quite a compliment. And in a blink of an eye, their college basketball careers are over. To see NC State go down in the first round, without a single NCAA tournament win has to go down as one of this season’s biggest disappointments.
Expected Wins in the Field of 64
Once again, I’m tracking the expected wins in the field of 64 using the Pomeroy Rankings. San Diego St. increased its expected wins by 0.61 by knocking off Oklahoma. (See Own Game.) And its odds increased another 0.54 because Georgetown lost and because San Diego St.’s 15 point win increased their Pomeroy Ranking slightly. (See Other.)
Overall the large number of upsets today meant that most teams gained from the other results. But when Miami advanced in the East that lowered expectations slightly for Marquette. And when Duke advanced that lowered the odds slightly for Louisville.
Mar 21, 2013
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.
Mar 16, 2013
Bill Walton quotes, the fate of early college enrollees, is Ryan Harrow a curse, angry coaches, and the end of the Georgetown vs Syracuse rivalry.
Dec 24, 2012
Shabazz Muhammad projects as a high energy slasher with a developing mid and long range game. As the season progresses, look for him to improve considerably and become one of the nationís most un-guardable weapons, not to mention a surefire top-5 NBA draft pick.
Nov 13, 2012
If you want your team to have a great season, it isnít enough to simply get better. You have to get better at a faster rate than your rivals. One thing I have said in the past is that teams that play a lot of freshmen have the potential to improve the most.
Sep 20, 2012
UCLA, Utah, USC, Arkansas and Butler are five teams that have added enough pieces to project a substantial improvement in their offensive efficiency for the 12-13 college basketball season.
Sep 11, 2012
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?
Aug 13, 2012
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?
Apr 16, 2012
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.
Mar 08, 2012
Washington won the regular season championship, but were ranked fifth statistically in a conference that was bunched together in the top half.
Mar 08, 2012
How important is it to have Jim Calhoun on the sideline, Oklahoma's late game gamble, and other observations from Wednesday of Championship Week.
Feb 28, 2012
When it comes to February in college basketball, some teams get better, the rest get left in the rear view mirror. Here are the teams that are surging and falling over their past 10 games.
Jan 26, 2012
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.
Dec 22, 2011
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.
Dec 01, 2011
The average BCS team loses 38% of its minutes each offseason. Teams that have more returners also have more continuity and more early season wins. Here is how they rank.
Oct 03, 2011
The Pac-10 may have morphed into the Pac-12 this offseason, but the extra 24 players hasn't resulted in any surefire lottery players even though there are several sneaky good prospects.
Sep 16, 2011
Georgia Tech in 2003 with Chris Bosh, Michigan State in 2006 with Shannon Brown and Paul Davis, Connecticut in 2010 one year before winning the championship and a 2010 North Carolina team with Ed Davis, John Henson and a host of other top recruits.
Aug 15, 2011
It is hard to imagine a more exciting barnstorming series than a tournament featuring NBA players suiting up again for their college.
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