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Why I Love The Nike Hoop Summit

After seeing the confetti rain down on UConn on Monday, I wasn’t quite tired of that championship spirit.

On Friday, I watched a few minutes of the NCAA Men’s Team Gymnastic Final on the Big Ten Network. Michigan Senior Sam Mikulak, who you may remember from the 2012 London Olympics, had the title clinching floor routine for the Wolverines. And then his teammates tackled each other in jubilation.

Then on Saturday night, I snuck up to Philadelphia and saw the Frozen Four title game in person. Union College plastered Minnesota with 20 shots and four goals in the first period en route to a 7-4 Victory. And as I watched the post-game from the upper deck, I saw the contrast in emotion. One of the Gopher players knelt down with his elbow on his knee, knowing that his dream had come up just short. Meanwhile on the other end of the ice, the Union College players had thrown their gloves and sticks aside and had formed a huge dogpile. Whether you follow these teams from the opening practice, or only start watching in March and April, the scene when a team wins a championship never gets old.

And the spirit of competition never gets old. This is why the Nike Hoop Summit is the best of the high school All-Star games. OK, so it isn’t quite like seeing two teams battle for a national title. But something happens when those players put on the Team USA uniform. This isn’t just an all-star dunk contest. You get to see a little bit more of the player’s character. For example:

-In the 2011 Nike Hoop Summit, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were star scorers, but we also learned that they had defensive intensity. Twelve months later Davis and MKG were national champions.

-In the 2012 Nike Hoop Summit, a very young Andrew Wiggins (playing for the World Team) loved the 24 second shot clock and dominated an up-and-down game. We learned that Wiggins was willing to take over when his team needed his scoring. At Kansas, Wiggins had his best games when Kansas was playing full-court basketball. And while Wiggins liked to defer to his teammates, when the Jayhawks were struggling, he tended to take over and have his best games.

- In the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit, the US gave up an embarrassing number of points in a blowout loss. We learned that as good as Jabari Parker and Julius Randle might be, last year’s freshmen class was not filled with elite defensive players. Perhaps not surprisingly, Duke was a bad defensive team all year, and Kentucky narrowly made the national title game, despite a string of poor defensive games leading up to it.

So what did the 2014 Nike Hoop Summit offer up as lessons?

Of course there are lots of small observations whenever you watch an all-star game.

- Seeing North Carolina recruit Theo Pinson attack in transition, and draw a foul, you couldn’t help but wonder whether Roy Williams is assembling the perfect group of players to take advantage of college basketball’s tighter whistles. I still wonder whether the Tar Heels have enough outside shooting, but with three true point guards on the perimeter, and a player like Pinson that can get to the rim, teams are going to find that if they have a slow-footed guard on the floor, they have nowhere to hide him against the Tar Heels.

- Seeing Florida recruit Brandone Francis wearing a Dominican Republic jersey, you could not help but remember that Florida’s 2006 and 2007 title teams had a certain international flavor with Joakim Noah’s French heritage, and Walter Hodge’s Puerto Rican lineage.

But I thought there were three real lessons in the game:

1)     Duke might have a championship caliber defense next season.

Duke has so many elite offensive players, they shouldn’t have a problem scoring next year. The big question for is whether the freshmen can elevate the defense to a national championship level. Saturday wasn’t necessarily Jahlil Okafor’s best game, but his defense still stuck out. He had an early block on Kentucky recruit Karl Towns. Then later in the quarter, he switched on a screen, and was able to move his feet, and force SMU recruit Emmanuel Mudiay to commit a turnover.

Meanwhile, Paul Biancardi was raving about Justice Winslow. He not only said Winslow was the best defensive player in the country, but he pointed out multiple times when Winslow’s quick hands caused the key tip that led to a Team USA steal. And the beneficiary was usually fellow Duke recruit Tyus Jones. Jones somehow got his hands on five steals in the game.

2)     SMU recruit and World Team PG Emmanuel Mudiay, can learn from future head coach Larry Brown.

Emmanuel Mudiay might be one of the most intriguing players in college basketball next year given his next-level size, and overall athleticism. Scouts are going to be picking his game apart to see whether he can truly become an NBA PG.

And while Mudiay may have rung up a lot of great assists on dunks in the McDonald’s All-American game, whenever the game between the US and the World Team got close, his natural instinct wasn’t to create shots for his teammates. Mudiay’s natural instinct was to call his own number. This is a little unfair, given how the US Team basically threw its best defenders at him constantly, making it very hard to drive and create for teammates. But Mudiay’s natural instinct wasn’t to share the ball.

On one possession in the second half, Fran Fraschilla also perfectly called Mudiay out for ruining a 2-on-1 fastbreak. Instead of spacing the floor and making the pass, Mudiay drove into his teammate, ruined the spacing, and was lucky to get fouled.

3)     USA basketball remains in great shape.

But most importantly, and I don’t want to lose this given the introduction I wrote at the start, the US Olympic pipeline remains strong. This was a real game with real strategy. Canada thought the US didn’t have enough shooters, and played zone from the opening minute. 10 years ago, the US international pipeline might not have been ready for that. Saturday, the US counter-attacked by using full court pressure for long-periods of game time. Basketball 101 says that if you don’t have the shooters to attack a zone in the halfcourt, attack before the zone it gets set, and the US was prepared to do just that.

But this is also about Team USA valuing the diverse skill set. LeBron James has been the perfect face of USA Basketball. He was willing to play center in the Olympics, showing that he would do anything to help his team win. And that continues to rub off at all levels.

Stanley Johnson, an Arizona recruit, played some PG by necessity in high school, but he told Paul Biancardi and Fran Fraschilla that this was not his preference. But when the full-court pressure didn’t work in the first half, I thought Johnson’s ability to attack the zone by driving from the wing was absolutely crippling to the World Team’s defense.

Overall, by valuing versatile players, and building a strategy that takes advantage of the US athleticism, the US developmental system is in great shape. And while there weren’t any gold medals on the line, for the young men putting on a Team USA uniform, winning this game meant something.

A Champion Is Crowned

#7 Connecticut defeated #8 Kentucky

Monday’s national title game ended with a pair of missed threes, and a rebound that careened across the court. Instead of the normal sequence of fouls and timeouts, we got an abrupt and surprisingly quick ending to a basketball game. Jim Nance barely found time to sneak in a quote about UConn winning the title for the postgame highlight reel.

And in some ways, that abrupt, quick finish was appropriate. This UConn title snuck up on us and caught us all by surprise. It is hard to call the UConn win a complete shocker. When a team had won three national titles in the previous 15 seasons, it was not quite like Butler and VCU making the same Final Four.

Moreover, when a team had guards as quick and talented as Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, out-executing a team down the stretch should not have been shocking. And yet Napier did not look like his normal comfortable self in this game. When he and Boatright dived out of bounds for a loose ball, and Napier had no one to throw it too, Napier was frustrated. When Kentucky got a bucket and foul moments later, Napier was angry with his teammates. This was not quite the normal calm and calculated late game execution you normally saw from UConn. And yet there it was, the final buzzer sounded, and the game was over. And it was hard not to play-up three storylines:

1) The downfall of youth

Connecticut was the veteran team that knew the importance of practice and making free throws. They were 10 of 10 relative to Kentucky’s 13 of 24.

Kentucky all season was like the young college student that loves to procrastinate. First, they didn’t focus enough during the season, and had to overcome an 8-seed to make the Final Four. Then they kept falling behind by double digits in every game. Metaphorically, they didn’t study for their exams until the final minute, and they bombed the final.

But that’s probably a gross simplification. What Kentucky really struggled with was adjusting to each opponent’s approach. They had the talent to compete with anyone, but it usually took them awhile to figure out where they had their strengths. On Monday, it took them awhile to figure out that the Harrison twins could not beat Napier and Boatright on penetration.

And even late in the game, they struggled to adjust. When UConn went very small and played zone with Amida Brimah and Phillip Nolan in foul trouble, Kentucky didn’t have a clue how to attack that defense on the first possession. They wasted a chance to throw a simple lob to Julius Randle, and a veteran team would have seized that moment.

2) The downfall of philosophy

If Kentucky’s youth was costly on Monday, you can argue the one-and-done strategy is flawed. But I think there was another failure of the NBA development strategy too.

Anyone who watched Kentucky this year knew they struggled with pick-and-roll defense. John Calipari decided he was going to use a switching man-to-man defense this year, and it was never great. I thought from the beginning of the year that if Kentucky played zone, they would have the best chance. Passing over the top of a defense with 6’6” players up top would be virtually impossible. But playing zone doesn’t really fit with the philosophy of one-and-done players. Like the dribble-drive offense, Calipari was trying to get his team to learn how to play man-to-man defense, because that’s what the NBA wants to see. And Calipari values the NBA pipeline over everything else.

Busting out a zone defense helped a little on Monday, but according to Seth Davis, Kentucky only played zone five percent of the time this season. That simply wasn’t enough game preparation to be ready to play elite zone defense in the title game.

That said, this doesn’t prove Calipari’s philosophy of focusing on developing players for the next level is a bad one. Kentucky played for a national title. And if Julius Randle has a more typical day, or if the Wildcats made a few free throws, his strategy would have worked.

3) The downfall of arrogance and the redemption of years of practice

One of the things that amazed me heading into Monday’s title game between Kentucky and Connecticut is how many people viewed Kentucky as a huge villain. Unlike Michigan’s Fab Five, Kentucky has never really captured the nation’s imagination. And that’s surprising because these kids have done nothing to earn our hatred.  This is not a team where the players have been arrested or suspended for off-court conduct. Julius Randle is a gregarious and charismatic player on the court, and I don’t know how anyone can watch him play and wish harm upon him.

What people hate about this team is not the players, but the concept of this team. Whatever you want to say about Michigan’s Fab Five, at least they stuck around in school a little while. This group has basically announced from the start of the season that college degrees are not their long term goal.

It also hurt that they were not even remotely humble. Just like when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh announced that they were getting together to win multiple titles, John Calipari endorsed the idea that this team could go undefeated. That kind of confidence comes across as arrogance, and it turned people off from the beginning.

The good news about Final Four weekend, is that even if you get sick of all the future NBA stars, there is still an acknowledgement of something more. Saturday afternoon featured the NABC Senior Game. And if you missed it, spend a minute looking at the rosters, and you will see some of the players that symbolize college basketball. Personally, I was happy to see Indiana’s Will Sheehey, denied a post-season experience because “Indiana doesn’t play in the CBI”, play well in that game. Sheehey started the game with a three and moments later he had a brilliant drive for a basket and one. It was a more fitting end for the Hoosier senior than the first-round flame-out in the Big Ten tournament.

But in the second half of the NABC senior game, Doug Gottlieb and Steve Lappas really hit the nail on the head with their commentary. First they talked about how Pittsburgh’s Talib Zanna came from Nigeria to the US and saw snow for the first time. Then they talked about how Zanna enrolled at Pittsburgh because his dad knew a professor, not a basketball coach. They talked about how Zanna, despite being a less heralded recruit, was actually Pitt’s best post player over the last three years.

Then they talked about Rober Morris’ Karvel Anderson. Anderson went from being homeless to becoming a star college player, to becoming a man with a college degree. They talked about Weber St.’s Davion Berry becoming the first member of his family to get a college degree. Even if your stomach turns at seeing one-and-done players in the title game, Saturday was one last chance to salute the players who symbolize what college basketball is all about.

And Monday gave us that chance too. UConn senior Shabazz Napier went from apprentice to leader, and earned titles at the start and the end. He improved his efficiency and shot volume every year. He was a leader in every area of the court.

But probably the player who best exemplified college basketball was Niels Giffey. Giffey was never going to be the best player on the basketball court. He lacked the strength or quickness to be a truly dominant player. There were plenty of times during his career where I questioned why UConn kept playing him. But he honed his jump shot. After averaging just 10 threes per year as a freshman, sophomore, and junior, his coach finally saw his shot falling in practice and gave him the green light. And Giffey made 60 threes, shooting nearly 50%, as a senior. His two late threes in the national title game were daggers. In a game filled with fabulous freshmen, UConn would have never won without a hard-working senior.

And for many fans, the villain was slain.

Looking Ahead

In sports today, there is no offseason.

If you have not yet read my Way Too Early Top 25, click here.

Next week, we’ll have team coverage of the best high school all-star game of the year, the Nike Hoop Summit. And we’ll be back with coverage of the Jordan Brand Classic the week after that.

In May, I’ll be back with my Way Too Early Conference Previews. And I hope to have some other fun summer features as well. For example, I have some numbers and hope to show whether the change in the foul rules has made PGs more valuable than SGs.

And as always, RealGM will have wiretaps on all the key coaching changes, transfers, and NBA draft decisions. Even if they just cut down the nets, we’re not going anywhere.

Final Four Saturday

#8 Kentucky defeated #2 Wisconsin

This tournament is decided by the slimmest of margins. I honestly don’t mean this as a slam against Kentucky, as I think it is better as a compliment. When Kentucky trailed Wichita St. 40-31, Ken Pomeroy’s in-game probabilities said they had only a 12% chance of winning. When they trailed Louisville 64-57 with 5 minutes left, they had only a 5% chance of winning. When they trailed Michigan 32-22, they had just a 22% chance of winning. Saturday against Wisconsin was no different. To overcome those odds is something that you can never take away from this incredible group of freshmen.

Someday they will make one of those ESPN 30 for 30 movies about this team. They will talk about the recruiting, the expectations, the disappointment.

And they will talk about redemption. Alex Poythress scored only eight points on Saturday, but I don’t think I have ever seen a player make as many momentum swinging buckets in one game.

They will talk about surprises. Kentucky supposedly couldn’t win if the Harrison twins were on the bench, but less heralded freshman Dominique Hawkins played 11 critical minutes, including several at the end of the first half as Kentucky cut the lead. (And don’t forget about Marcus Lee’s dunk over Frank Kaminsky’s head.)

They will talk about players stepping up. When Wisconsin went up seven to start the second half and John Calipari called time-out, James Young almost single-handedly saved the game. He helped force a shot-clock violation on defense. Then he drove and was fouled. Then he hit a jumper. Then he had a steal from behind. Then he had a floater that was put in by Poythress. He personally sparked a run that for a period of time, made Kentucky look invincible.

They will talk about a heroic recovery from injury. When Julius Randle sprained his ankle in the first half, it looked like Kentucky’s dream might be over. But there was Randle late in the game driving for a key basket and foul to keep his team in the game.

They will talk about family. After Andrew Harrison fouled Traevon Jackson and sent him to the line for three free throws, his brother Aaron Harrison hit a miraculous three (again) to save his brother, and his team.

And whether Kentucky wins or loses Monday’s championship game, this season will go down as one of the most amazing stories of all time.

But Kentucky fans will have to forgive me if I save a lot of this space for Wisconsin. I wrote a long game review about the Connecticut and Florida team simulcasts. (Scroll down for the recap.) But it wasn’t until I watched Wisconsin lose that I realized how powerful the team simulcasts can be.

For probably 20 years, I’ve heard Wayne Larrivee’s voice calling various sporting events in the Midwest. And just the sound of his melodious wordsmithing brings back feelings of being a teenager and hearing a regional broadcast of a Big Ten game at 11am CT. And though I watched the game on TBS with Jim Nance, Steve Kerr, and Greg Anthony, when the game was over, I switched to the Wisconsin simulcast. And I rewound and listened again as Larrivee called the final minutes of action. The beauty of the simulcasts is sometimes as simple as this. The local legends and heroes who have called games for decades finally get to call the most important games of a school’s existence. Is there anything more perfect than that?

And then on the Wisconsin channel, while John Calipari could faintly be heard giving his interview with Tracy Wolfson in the background, they simply showed the Wisconsin fans one at a time. They showed sadness. They showed distress. They showed shock. They showed pride.

Florida’s loss on Saturday will be painful for a long-time. To lose as a heavy-favorite is never easy to overcome. But to lose at the last second like Wisconsin lost, when the opportunity for a championship was at hand, is devastating.

In the post-game interview, Charles Barkley basically said two things. First, he said it was a great game. Then he said, losing is extremely painful. When you look at those two thoughts on paper, they are truly inane. But that is why Charles Barkley is absolutely the best in the business at what he does. He can take those simple statements and make them mean something.

And you cannot get over how painful this loss is for Wisconsin. Having watched the Badgers for 20 years, and having seen the team make the Final Four before, I can easily say that this is the best Wisconsin team I have ever seen play. Frank Kaminsky was a dynamic post player, driver, and three point shooter. Sam Dekker, while later posterized by Alex Poythress, opened the second half by blocking a Julius Randle dunk attempt inside. He showed spectacular athleticism. The Badgers had the perfect collection of shooters. And with Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser, and a suddenly emerging Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin also had a group of perimeter players who could beat their man off the dribble. For this team to end its run short of the pinnacle is truly heart-breaking.

The temptation is to look ahead to next year. Of all the rotation players, only Ben Brust graduates. If Frank Kaminsky does not declare for the draft, expectations should be through the roof. I’ve already run my Way-To-Early-Simulation for next year and I can tell you that if everyone comes back, I project Wisconsin fourth nationally.

But you cannot look to the future and assume everything will work out as planned. Ask Michigan St. how quickly a dream lineup can go astray. Ask Marcus Smart what happens when you come back to get your team deeper into the tournament. In a one-game setting, almost anything can happen. This may be as good as it ever gets.

I remember when Dee Brown, Deron Williams, and the Illini went 37-2 and returned home after losing the Championship Game in 2005. Bruce Weber had a somewhat pessimistic comment when he came back to town. People kept telling him, “We will win it next year coach.” And Weber’s response was not, “Of course.” His response was, “Enjoy the moment. Remember this season. 37-2 will not happen nearly often enough.”

And that’s what I have to say to Wisconsin fans. You don’t have to worry about falling off the map, because Bo Ryan is a winner. But also realize that the joy of this season will rarely, if ever, be duplicated. The amazing comeback against Oregon, the shocking beat-down of Baylor, and the thrilling game against Arizona, are memories that Wisconsin fans should hold dear for the rest of their life. Go buy that Final Four shirt and wear it with pride.

#7 Connecticut defeated #1 Florida

I watched quite a bit of the team simulcasts during the Connecticut vs Florida game. If you were hoping for some comedic hometown announcers that gleefully explain how their team never commits a foul, you were probably disappointed.  There were the occasional hidden jabs.  For example, the Florida announcers made sure to emphasize that when Florida lost to Connecticut early in the season that Kasey Hill did not play. And even though Florida trailed at the half, the Gators production team pulled out a stat from Bloomberg that said that the Gators were still favored to win 54% of the time. But, overall the jabs were pretty subtle.

To really understand the differences, I watched the exact same moments of game time. I watched both simulcasts in their entirety through the first ten minutes of game action, and for the final five minutes of regulation:

-Starting with the opener, the UConn channel showed highlights of UConn from this season. Meanwhile, the Florida channel showed highlights of Florida from this season. Both packages were well done. This was a good idea.

-The UConn channel showed a graphic that said that UConn has the sixth most NCAA titles in history. Meanwhile, the Florida announcers noted that the Gators were the #1 overall team in the entire NCAA tournament.

-The UConn channel showed a tweet from Rip Hamilton telling his team to #standup. Meanwhile, the Florida channel had a graphic that said that there were 110,000 Twitter mentions of the Gators over the weekend, and 75,000 fewer mentions of UConn.

-Opening minute: The UConn announcers bemoaned the fact that Florida’s Michael Frazier hit a three to open the game. “That’s a very bad sign.” Ironically, it was Florida's only three of the game. Meanwhile, the Florida announcers didn’t just praise the play, they fully diagnosed the play. “That was a designed set by the Gators. It is called the elevator play.” The Gator crew then showed a complete replay of what led to Frazier getting open. Frazier essentially slid between two Gator forwards who stepped together and cut off Shabazz Napier. Meanwhile, the UConn announce team moved on and did not emphasize what led to the open shot. This showed an important distinction between the two telecasts. This was not just the same set of pictures with different announcers. These were completely different productions.

-When the Gators took a 7-0 lead, again we saw a key difference between the two production crews. The UConn channel just cut to a commercial, but the Florida channel first showed a shot of the Florida student section cheering. Overall, the team channels only showed the fans of the team in the spotlight.

-At 12:18 left in the first half Patric Young blocked Ryan Boatright’s shot out-of-bounds leading to a shot-clock violation. On the Florida channel, they emphasized the incredible defense that Florida displayed for 35 seconds. But on the UConn channel they talked about what a great job Boatright did getting into the lane. They noted that Boatright just held the ball a second too long which allowed Young to recover and get the block.

-After the under 12 minute timeout, we saw the next biggest difference in the two production crews. They had different interviews with formers players. While former UConn player Swin Cash was interviewing Caron Butler and Jeremy Lamb, over on the Florida channel the sideline reporter’s microphone wasn’t working.  (Later the Florida channel would interview Chandler Parsons and Matt Bonner.)

In my opinion, this was a huge and important difference in having multiple channels broadcast the game. One of the most painful things that can happen when watching your team play in a sporting event is for the announcers to interview someone related to the opposing team. First, the interview almost always makes it impossible to follow the game action. And second, if it isn’t your team, you don’t care what the interviewee has to say. In this case, if you hated the interviews, you could always switch back to the primary TBS telecast. (And quite frankly, you should have made this choice. In the Matt Bonner interview we learned that he now only wears corduroy pants and he has given up jeans. This is some information I never wanted to know.)

Jumping ahead to the last five minutes of the game:

-At 4:25 left, the Florida announcers reminded us that there was “still plenty of time left.” Meanwhile, the Connecticut announcers noted that it was too early to hold the ball and run clock.

-At 3:53 on the Florida channel we got the Infiniti Spotlight. They showed a 3D view of Florida’s great court spacing which allowed Patric Young to go one-on-one and get an easy basket inside. Meanwhile, the Connecticut channel showed the Capital One Cup Impact Performance which featured a series of highlights of DeAndre Daniels.

-With 2:04 left and Shabazz Napier heading to the line, the UConn channel focused on Napier’s mom. Meanwhile, the Florida channel showed the sad Gator players sitting on the bench.

-With 1:21 left, UConn turned the ball over. On the UConn channel, “This game is not over!” But on the Florida channel, they had gone into full concession mode and were talking about the “core four” Florida Gator seniors, whose career was now over.

This, by the way, is a key feature of human nature. When you are up 10 with 1:21 left, you are still nervous and fear the loss. But when you are down 10 with 1:21 left, you usually view the lead as insurmountable.

-With 47.5 seconds left in the game, Patric Young made a miraculous play diving for a loose ball. The Florida channel praised his effort while talking about all of Florida’s great wins this season, including winning at Tennessee and Kentucky in the same week. On the Connecticut channel, they started showing shots of the UConn players on the bench jumping up and down and needing to be restrained by Kevin Ollie from stepping on the floor. They also panned to the UConn fans cheering.

-Postgame: Florida’s announcers noted that after the way the season started with all the injuries and off-court issues, no one gave the Gators a shot of making it this far. Meanwhile UConn’s announcers noted that no one gave Kevin Ollie’s squad a shot of making it to the national title game.

As for the game, I thought Steve Kerr nailed it. While Florida won the points in the paint 32-14 in the first match-up, they did not dominate in this area in this game. That was a little shocking given that Amida Brimah and Philip Nolan were in significant foul trouble and UConn had to go small on a number of occasions. Patric Young carried Florida for quite a stretch in the second half, but it wasn’t enough.

I thought former Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun (interviewed on the UConn channel), also had the perfect take on the game. He said that people assume that when a team goes small, the defense will be terrible. But Connecticut’s players were able to stay closer to the ground, and that made it very hard for Florida to get by them. Florida was a team that penetrated and shared the ball for easy baskets. But Florida had just three assists in the whole game. And Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright got some huge steals again in this game. And somehow, a Connecticut team that lost to Louisville 81-48 just a few weeks ago, is playing for a national title.

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