Roundtable: Jordan Brand Classic 

April, 18, 2014
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It has been a busy few weeks for the top prospects in the ESPN 100.

It began at the beginning of the month when they arrived in Chicago for the McDonald's All American Game. Immediately after that game concluded, some players jumped on a red-eye to New York for the Dick's Sporting Goods High School National Tournament. Last week it was a trip to the West Coast for the Nike Hoop Summit in Oregon. This week, that string of all-star events gets a fitting culmination as the top players in the Class of 2015 return to New York for the Jordan Brand Classic.

Given what we've seen, not just in the past few weeks but in the past few years, is there anything left to learn? Here are a few players whom our Recruiting Nation staff will be watching during Friday's Jordan Brand Classic (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET):


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The Jordan Brand Classic features the best talent high school basketball has to offer. Here are some of the most intriguing potential matchups in this terrific annual event, which airs Friday night at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN2.

Tyus Jones (Duke) vs. Tyler Ulis (Kentucky)

This matchup will be the battle for who can get the most assists. Both are terrific pass-first point guards who can play fast or slow. They can make open shots in order to keep the defense honest, and their decision-making on the offensive end of the floor is excellent, as well. Ulis can apply more heat on the ball defensively, while Jones is stronger and the better finisher in heavy traffic. It will be interesting to see who makes the fewest mistakes with the ball and who will win the assist category as Jones and Ulis push each other on both ends of the floor.


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Look back, look ahead: ACC

April, 16, 2014
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A basketball-related expansion -- an anomaly during the entire conference realignment shuffle -- was supposed to culminate by making the Atlantic Coast Conference rise above other conferences. The league was supposed to be the biggest and baddest of the major conferences thanks to its first season with Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame as league members.

However, the only thing that increased was disappointment in the league’s overall showing.

Expanding to 15 teams did little to affect the ACC’s reach in the NCAA tournament. Six teams received bids -- and that likely would have been just five until NC State’s late push (including its upset of Syracuse in the ACC tournament).

North Carolina and Duke both failed to advance into the NCAA tournament’s second weekend for the first time since 1979. The Blue Devils were upset by Mercer in the second round. The Tar Heels lost to Iowa State in the third round. The ACC has long depended on the bluebloods to carry the league’s baton, and this season did little to change that narrative.

Only Virginia, which earned a No. 1 seed by winning the league title, advanced to the Sweet 16. The Cavaliers were then eliminated by Michigan State.

The league should improve next postseason thanks in part to Carolina's and Duke's potential to have powerhouse squads.

[+] EnlargeMike Krzyzewski
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesWith a stellar recruiting class, Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils may be the ACC's best in 2014-15.
What we saw this season: The Cavaliers returned to prominence by winning their first outright ACC regular-season title since 1981. Criticism followed since the Cavs, who only played Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina once each and two of those games were in Charlottesville. It took winning the ACC tournament for Virginia to erase those doubts.

Freshmen Tyler Ennis (Syracuse) and Jabari Parker (Duke) proved to be not only among the best players in the conference, but in the nation -- regardless of class.

Many ACC teams had outstanding individual talents -- NC State’s T.J. Warren (won the league’s player of the year award), Duke’s Rodney Hood, North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, Clemson’s K.J. McDaniels to name a few -- but those teams were heavily flawed. Opponents who stopped Lamar Patterson essentially stopped Pittsburgh. Syracuse had trouble scoring. Duke had a thin frontcourt. Carolina was limited by its shooting from the perimeter.

Syracuse started the season strong -- winning its first 25 games -- but faded down the stretch losing six of its last nine games, as its offense went on hiatus. The Orange did provide two classics sure to be talked about in ACC lore. Their first meeting with Duke was a thrilling 91-89 overtime win in the Carrier Dome and their 66-60 loss at Duke featured Jim Boeheim’s first ejection in a regular-season game.

As has long been a problem since the league expanded to 12 teams, the ACC failed to develop a strong second tier of added depth. The conference continued to be top-heavy as Florida State, Maryland, Clemson and Notre Dame never quite became teams to fear.

Three of the bottom four teams in the standings played poorly enough to end the season with their coaches being fired. Boston College arguably had the most disappointing seasons of them all relative to its talent level. The Eagles pulled it together long enough to hand Syracuse its first loss, which was the highlight of their season.

What we expect to see next season: More of the nation’s top freshmen. Duke’s recruiting class is considered tops in the land and is led by center Jahlil Okafor, who is ranked No. 1 overall in the ESPN 100, and Tyus Jones, the No. 1 point guard who is fourth overall. North Carolina also snagged two top-10 recruits in Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson and is ranked third as a class by ESPN.com.

Newcomers are great and all, but let’s also appreciate what we won’t see in the ACC for the first time in its existence. Maryland, a charter member of the conference started in 1953, will begin competing in the Big Ten. Let’s pause to remember the good times.

Long enough? OK.

Louisville obviously doesn’t compare to the tradition Maryland had within the league, but it could be considered an upgrade otherwise. With three national titles and a Hall of Fame coach currently on its sideline, the Cardinals fit the league’s basketball pedigree.

Their addition, plus Virginia’s returning most of its ACC title squad, should help the league become closer to the juggernaut many of its coaches expected this past season.

For all the hand-wringing over a change of guard in the ACC, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels look primed to re-establish their stranglehold on the top of the league standings. Regardless of how Parker’s NBA draft decision falls on Wednesday, Duke will have a good blend of experience (Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson) and young talent (Okafor, Jones, Justise Winslow, Grayson Allen) at Mike Krzyzewski’s disposal.

Carolina returns the likely front-runner for preseason player of the year in Paige. Forward Brice Johnson and center Kennedy Meeks give the Heels an inside offensive scoring punch that will be hard to contain.

Because of those teams at the top, a trio of new coaches could face a harsh inaugural season in the league. Buzz Williams shocked many by leaving Marquette to take the reins at Virginia Tech, replacing James Johnson. Jim Christian (after a stint at Ohio) takes over Boston College, replacing Steve Donahue. And Danny Manning returns home to Tobacco Road to rebuild Wake Forest, replacing Jeff Bzdelik.

It could all add up and help the ACC live up to its own expectations as the best basketball conference in the nation.

Looking ahead: ACC preview

April, 15, 2014
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Prior to the start of the 2013-14 season, the ACC was supposed to be the best league in college basketball. Although it didn't fulfill those expectations, next season appears to be different.

The conference adds perennial national title contender Louisville, Duke brings in ESPN's No. 1 recruiting class and North Carolina will be talented enough to go deep. The ACC's key will be for the bottom of the league to get more competitive and have those teams win games in their respective nonconference schedules.


Favorite: Duke Blue Devils

Duke will be the team to beat in the ACC with or without Jabari Parker. The Blue Devils return a solid core led by point guard Quinn Cook, a strong floor leader and a capable shooter. However, he must improve defensively for Duke to go far. He'll be pushed by ESPN's No. 4-rated prospect, Tyus Jones. The freshman is explosive off the dribble, sees plays and has the potential to be a disruptive defender on and off the ball. They'll be joined in the backcourt by Rasheed Sulaimon, a junior who should be one of the better shooting guards in the country.


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Roundtable: ESPN 100 commit predictions 

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
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The ESPN 100 has just three remaining uncommitted prospects, and the competition remains furious for their services.

Myles Turner, No. 2 in the ESPN 100, leads the way, followed by No. 94 Elijah Stewart, who was released from his letter of intent to Loyola Marymount following the firing of coach Max Good, and No. 98 Josh Cunningham.

Devonte Graham wasn’t ESPN 100 eligible by virtue of his post-graduate status, but there is no denying he is a wanted man after receiving his release from Appalachian State. He will take official visits to Kansas and North Carolina State while also considering Virginia, Virginia Tech, Xavier and Providence.

So where are these remaining four prospects headed? No one knows for sure just yet, but here are a few educated guesses:


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PORTLAND, Ore. -- In the 17th annual Nike Hoop Summit on Saturday, the USA team defeated the World team 84-73 for the first USA win since 2011. The USA squad featured a balanced attack as four players scored in double figures: Justise Winslow (Duke signee) led the USA team with 16 points, Jahlil Okafor (Duke) and Kelly Oubre (Kansas) each scored 14 points and Tyus Jones (Duke) added 13.

Let's take a look at what we learned from this year's Hoop Summit.


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Review: UNC literacy findings flawed

April, 11, 2014
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Research data from a University of North Carolina reading specialist doesn't support claims of low athlete literacy levels at the school, according to reports released Friday from three outside experts.

The university hired Georgia State, Minnesota and Virginia professors to review Mary Willingham's findings. Willingham told CNN in January that her research of 183 football or basketball players from 2004 to 2012 found 60 percent reading at fourth- to eighth-grade levels and roughly 10 percent below a third-grade level.

One expert estimated about 7 percent of athletes from Willingham's research read at fourth- to eighth-grade levels in his report. The school says the data included scores for 176 athletes, including baseball and volleyball players, and was based on testing to screen for learning disabilities or other problems.

The school said it had about 1,800 athletes attend the school during the eight-year period.

UNC had called Willingham's findings flawed after its own internal review of her data, which she provided to Provost James W. Dean Jr. on Jan. 13. She has stood by her findings and said in a statement Friday that she needed time to review the reports before "a full response."

"For now I will just say that I am disappointed that the university neglected to take even the most basic steps to ensure the integrity, impartiality and fairness of its supposedly 'independent' review of my data," Willingham said. "The fact that they engaged in this exercise without ever seeking input from me or my research partner, and without the raw scores, or an examination of the full battery of tests ... speaks volumes about the true motivations behind today's press release.

"UNC personnel with the knowledge and expertise to verify my claims continue to remain and/or are being forced to remain silent."


(Read full post)


Want to ask ESPN RecruitingNation national recruiting director Paul Biancardi a question about basketball recruiting? Tweet it to @PaulBiancardi using the hashtag #AskCoachB.
When our final rankings came out the other day Elijah Stewart came in at No. 94.

Stewart can play, as he has a rangy frame and is a terrific jump-shooter. He’s an explosive athlete who can compete and perform in any conference. He loves to attack the rim in combination with his jumper, which makes him hard to guard. An area of improvement would be his ball handling, as he attacks with speed more than control.

UNC has inquired, as have USC, UCLA and many other programs.

If Tar Heels go after him hard, they will get a visit. His quick-trigger jumper is just what they need.

Best 2015 CBB title bets

April, 10, 2014
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It didn't take long for the sportsbooks in Las Vegas to hang odds on the 2015 national title winner in college hoops. UConn cut down the nets in Arlington,Texas, on Monday night, and by Tuesday Jay Kornegay and his staff at the LVH Superbook had a full complement of future-book odds posted for next year's NCAA tournament.

There's little urgency to get involved with future-book wagers for next April -- the opening numbers aren't likely to move dramatically over the spring and summer. And the two main concepts that professional bettors use when assessing future-book wagers won't change over the next six months either: price point and potential. Both concepts are easy to explain and to understand. The "price points" are the odds. Savvy bettors won't touch teams if they're not offering anywhere near their true odds to win the title. And of course, teams must actually have the talent (potential) to win six straight games against elite-level foes over three weekends without wilting under the spotlight.

UConn came through as a rare long shot with its NCAA title this season, offering enormous return on investment for those who placed a futures bet on the Huskies. I recommended the Huskies at 75-to-1 in my preseason future-book odds column, written back on Halloween before a single game had been played:

"After being forced to sit out of the Big Dance last year, Kevin Ollie's Huskies are primed to make some noise in 2014. The Huskies return all five starters from last year's 20-win team, including senior studs Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright in an elite backcourt. ... UConn just might have the frontcourt muscle to make a deep March run."

    It's still very early in the process, but early sportsbook odds are always interesting to dissect and discuss. Here are a handful of schools that have piqued my interest with their future-book odds for the 2015 title.


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    2013-14 hoops season in review

    April, 10, 2014
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    Connecticut’s national title as a No. 7 seed provided the conclusive evidence of what we knew early on in the 2013-14 men’s college basketball season. There was no dominant team. Arizona settled down the revolving door of No. 1 teams -- the Wildcats were the third to hold the mantle just six weeks into the polls, and their eight weeks atop the Associated Press poll was the longest of the five teams (Kentucky, Michigan State, Syracuse, Florida) to be ranked No. 1. With the odds of winning the Billion Dollar Bracket already outrageous, parity in college basketball made it downright impossible.

    With the book finally written on the season, here are the chapters we’ll remember most:

    Freedom of movement: Officials were quick to say this season they weren’t creating new rules, they were enforcing the old ones. College basketball had become too defensive, the critics said. Physical play was ruining the game. The season started with an emphasis on allowing freedom of movement and handchecking was called to the point of being a “touch foul.” Players, coaches and officials alike never came to a consensus of understanding how a block/charge would be called. While scoring on the whole increased slightly, there was no denying that foul calls and free throws had a substantial spike.

    Champions Classic: Teams were allowed to begin practice two weeks before the traditional Oct. 15 start date, which in a practical sense meant earlier than ever. It resulted in a November filled with high-quality games beginning with a special night in Chicago. The Champions Classic doubleheader featured Michigan State’s win over Kentucky and Kansas beating Duke and ushered in the season with big-name matchups with budding superstars to get college hoops buzzing even in the midst of the BCS race and the NFL, the overlord of American sports, in the middle of its season.

    [+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
    AP Photo/Nati HarnikScoring machine Doug McDermott was one of the many seniors to make an impact on this season.
    Freshmen focus: The Champions Classic just solidified what was already being said about the 2013 recruiting class. These were not ordinary freshmen. Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins was projected as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft long before ever stepping foot on campus. Those expectations might have skewed his performance this season because it was always in the context of being a top pick instead of simply being a freshman. Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kentucky’s Julius Randle and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon were all expected to be exceptional before the season started. But others like Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis and Kansas center Joel Embiid elbowed their way into the elite conversation with their play.

    Senior spotlight: Plenty of seniors weren’t going to let the young guys hog all the spotlight and reminded us of the value of staying four years. No way UConn’s Shabazz Napier was mature enough in his previous three seasons to lead a team to the national title the way he did this season. Creighton’s Doug McDermott returned to school -- as a walk-on no less -- and finished as the fifth leading scorer in Division I history. He was also the first player since Wayman Tisdale (1983-85) and just the sixth ever to have three consecutive seasons scoring 800 points or more. Louisville’s Russ Smith returned and ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency by kenpom.com for a second straight season.

    Conference realignment: With the dust finally settled (we think), and teams shuffled into new leagues, we saw the good and the bad from the new configurations. A record crowd of 35,000-plus at the Carrier Dome watched Syracuse’s 91-89 overtime win against Duke become an instant classic in their first meeting as ACC foes. The future of ACC basketball, which adds Louisville next season, is partly why Maryland’s season-long swan song as a former ACC charter member was overshadowed. Creighton excelled in its new locale, finishing second in the new Big East, even though its move from the Missouri Valley hurt Wichita State. (More on that below.) The brand-spanking new American Athletic Conference truly reflected the nation with its huge disparity between the haves at the top of the league and the have-nots at the bottom. In the end, the national championship trophy resides in the rookie league.

    Shockers chase perfection: Wichita State became the first team since St. Joseph’s in 2004 to finish the regular season undefeated. Instead of drawing praise, it drew some skepticism from those who pointed to a weakened Missouri Valley schedule. Still the Shockers plugged along reaching 35-0 -- one game better than the 1990-91 UNLV squad that went 34-1 and lost to Duke in the Final Four -- and grabbing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Their season ended against eventual national runners-up and 8-seed Kentucky in the round of 32.

    Coaches behaving badly: The season provided Internet trolls a seemingly endless supply of memes and GIFs to loop. The list was long, including Iowa’s Fran McCaffery slamming chairs against Michigan State, Nebraska’s Tim Miles ending the Cornhuskers’ most memorable season in decades with an NCAA tournament ejection and Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson’s postgame rant that included that his wife, not his players, knows to, “at least shot-fake one time.” But a few stand out. Who can forget the sight of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim nearly losing his jacket while running on the Cameron Indoor Stadium floor to protest a charge with 10 seconds left in a loss at Duke? Boeheim joked after the game that his first trip to Tobacco Road, which resulted in his first regular-season ejection, would be a memorable one. Then there was Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (insert sarcasm font here) who will certainly think twice before throwing a pen toward his bench. Krzyzewski got a technical foul for doing so in the ACC tournament final against Virginia.

    [+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
    Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/Getty ImagesJim Boeheim's jacket-removing, court-sprinting rant against Duke earned his first regular-season ejection.
    Marcus Smart’s split-second snap: Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart earned praise in the preseason for putting off the NBA for a year and returning to school to work on his game. He couldn’t envision how frustrating the year would be. A season that began crumbling came to a boiling point at Texas Tech. With the Cowboys nearing a fourth straight loss, Smart shoved a fan when his momentum from a play carried him to the footstep of the stands. Smart said the fan called him a racial slur. The fan, Jeff Orr, said he called him a “piece of crap.” Regardless, Smart received a three-game suspension.

    Safety issues: There were the things out of man’s control like the postponement of Iowa’s game at Indiana due to a pane of the ceiling crashing into the stands. North Carolina and Duke postponed their first meeting when a snow storm left the Blue Devils’ bus unable to safely travel eight miles to Chapel Hill. It was the Tar Heels’ first postponed game since the Gulf War. Court storming continued to be a topic when a fight broke out at the end of Utah Valley’s win over New Mexico State. The incident started when an agitated K.C. Ross-Miller of NMSU hurled the ball at Holton Hunsaker as time expired. Two Aggies were suspended for their roles in the altercation. Thankfully no one was hurt when an alcohol-fused adrenaline rush sent a UC-Santa Barbara student running onto the court during the first half of a game against Hawaii; the fan got close enough to confront Hawaii coach Gib Arnold before players pushed him away and he was escorted out.

    Those were the top highlights from the season. Just missing the cut were: how teams turned around their seasons (including Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee); the impact of transfers (from the spectacular, including Duke’s Rodney Hood; to the cautionary, including Georgetown’s Josh Smith); the Carolina blues (potential All-American P.J. Hairston sat out the first nine games before the school announced it would not seek his reinstatement); and basketball as an emotional outlet (cellar dweller Boston College handed Syracuse its first loss after the passing of longtime BC media relations director Dick Kelley, and Georgia coach Mike Fox winning at Missouri after attending his father’s memorial service).

    Bilas: Top contenders for 2014-15

    April, 10, 2014
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    After another fun, exciting and competitive NCAA tournament, our attention immediately turns to next season -- and predicting that which we annually confirm we cannot accurately predict. Instead of basking in the glow of the most geographically spread out Final Four in history (evidenced by the fact it was the first Final Four named after a general region rather than a city), we instead focus on the next Final Four, and a city in which we can walk from place to place and actually use its name publicly. We will not be in the Central Till Plains region of the United States, but will be allowed by the NCAA to call it "Indianapolis," as long as we don't carry the actual name of the city in an unsanctioned or unsponsored NCAA cup.

    While we wait for walk-ons from NIT and CBI teams to decide whether to turn pro, and wait out the recruiting process for every fifth-year senior who may wish to pursue graduate degrees elsewhere (not to mention those that may receive a free tattoo or place this entire multibillion dollar enterprise in mortal jeopardy by playing in a summer league the NCAA has not blessed with its infinite wisdom), The Bilastrator is happy to reveal to you the 15 programs that will vie for the top spots in The Bilas Index next season.

    Of course, The Bilas Index is more reliable than any resource ever invented to measure basketball accomplishment. It relies upon all of the best metrics in the game, especially ESPN's Basketball Power Index, but also has access to the greatest evaluator of basketball prowess and capability and achievement: the massive brain of The Bilastrator. If this allows you to place a small wager on the eventual 2014-15 national champion now, well, you're welcome.

    1. Duke Blue Devils
    With a recruiting class that will rival Kentucky's from this past season, Duke will have a formidable team. If Rodney Hood or Jabari Parker come back, Duke will have the best team, by a fair margin. Of course, there is no earthly way that either Hood or Parker comes back, is there? After all, this is 2014. Still, Duke will have Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon, Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee to go along with the likes of incoming freshmen Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones.


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    Most likely No. 1 seeds in 2015

    April, 9, 2014
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    Let's start with this question. Is there a systematic method for making 68 predictions on an event that is over 48 weeks away?

    Every team in the country performed at a certain level for 30-plus games last season. Each team returns some percentage of minutes played from the players responsible for that level of performance.

    So we start with an assumption -- albeit inexact -- that returning players will not regress in their established level of performance. More specifically, we assume that the combination of improving players will at least equal the performance of those who regress or lose time to injury and other absences.

    Next, we look at the departures. In addition to graduating seniors and transfers, players projected in the first round of the NBA draft are considered gone, even if they've yet to announce their intention for early entry (that's you, Jabari and Joel). We can add them back into team calculations later, as needed.

    ESPN recruiting grades -- or prior school statistics, in the case of transfers -- are the baseline for determining the performance level of newcomers, in combination with an estimate of the available minutes each new player will assume.

    I no longer make any qualitative adjustments to this data. This bracket is strictly a numeric seed list of 68 teams (including projected automatic qualifiers) placed into the regionals and subregionals of a new year. Over the summer and into the fall, I'll begin to make subjective determinations based on things like coaching changes, projected schedule strength, news reports and other roster issues. Thankfully, there isn't as much conference realignment to potentially skew the data as was the case a year ago.

    This method does seem to occasionally overvalue teams with an unusually high number of returning players (On, Wisconsin!). And recruiting rankings tend to be haphazard, at best, while undervaluing the most important newcomers. But I've found the numeric approach to be more accurate, on balance, than the typical "eyeball" method for such things. It also provides a legitimate baseline for the many personnel changes that inevitably occur between now and November.

    One area in which our calculations have been a slight net negative is in the ability to forecast No. 1 seeds. So I offer a little of my own way-too-early eye test to set the following top-line odds for the 2014-15 season. Here are my odds-on favorites to land on the top line come Selection Sunday 2015:

    Wisconsin Badgers, Big Ten (50 percent): For now, the Badgers look to return all but guard Ben Brust to their Final Four roster.


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    Another NCAA tournament is in the books, and before we get too sad over saying goodbye to college basketball for six months, let's review what we just witnessed:

    One player can carry a team: It's particularly true if that player happens to be a guard. UConn's Shabazz Napier proved that point -- like Kemba Walker before him -- by leading the Huskies to the national championship.

    One player can't carry a team: Particularly if his team relies on outscoring its opponents. For all the scoring records Creighton's Doug McDermott broke, the Blue Jays defense was ultimately picked apart by Baylor, and one of the great college basketball careers of the past decade ended in the first weekend of the tournament.

    Freshmen can carry a team: Kentucky was only the second team to start five freshmen in the title game. After many stumbles during the regular season, the youthful Wildcats put it together at the right time.

    [+] EnlargeShabazz Napier
    Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesShabazz Napier took over the tournament and was a dominant force in UConn's run to the title.
    Freshmen can’t carry a team: Kansas played without its talented freshman center Joel Embiid in the tournament. Its other highly touted freshmen starters, Andrew Wiggins and Wayne Selden Jr., combined to shoot 2-for-11 and score six points as the Jayhawks were eliminated by Stanford. Wiggins might still prove to have Carmelo Anthony-type talent in the NBA, but he didn’t come close to matching Anthony's NCAA tournament legacy.

    Seeding is an inexact science: Louisville as a 4? Kentucky as an 8? The selection committee’s favorite phrase is "whole body of work," which is understandable, but it doesn’t take into account a team that's playing its best late, such as the Cardinals; or a team clearly better than its record, such as the Wildcats.

    Brackets aren't fair, but such is life: The biggest example was having No. 1 seed Wichita State pitted against No. 8 Kentucky in the round of 32. The game had an Elite Eight feel for a reason -- it probably should have been played in the later rounds.

    A 12-seed beating a 5-seed is no longer an upset: The 12-seeds nearly -- and probably should have -- completed a full sweep of the 5-seeds. No. 12 seeds Harvard, Steven F. Austin and North Dakota State all advanced and North Carolina State was positioned to join them but missed 9 of 17 free throws before blowing a late eight-point lead to Saint Louis. It was the second game in three days for the Wolfpack, who had to play their way in by beating Xavier.

    The 16-seeds are getting closer (incrementally, maybe, but closer): For those counting, the No. 1 seed is 120-0 against No. 16 seeds, but the gap is closing. Coastal Carolina led Virginia by 10 in the first half and by five at halftime before losing. Albany and Weber State also gave Florida and Arizona tougher than expected games.

    Four-point plays do exist: And for Stephen F. Austin it happened at the best possible moment. Desmond Haymon drew a foul on VCU's JeQuan Lewis and his four-point play tied the score with three seconds left in regulation before the Lumberjacks won in overtime.

    Big shots: Whether true buzzer-beaters such as Cameron Ridley's putback in Texas' win over Arizona State or simply big shots in closing seconds such as North Dakota State's Lawrence Alexander forcing overtime against Oklahoma with a 3-pointer, we love seeing a game-changer. Kentucky's Aaron Harrison made the most of his big shots, taking down Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin in the process.

    Shots not fired: With 2.3 seconds left, Arizona's Nick Johnson took one dribble too many and failed to get a shot off before time expired. The Wildcats' loss to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight proved the shot that's not taken hurts most.

    Check the monitor (Shots not fired Part II): Then again, it might hurt more to lose the game after an officials' conference. Officials didn't see North Carolina coach Roy Williams signaling for a timeout with 1.6 seconds left immediately after Iowa State's DeAndre Kane scored the go-ahead basket. The ball was inbounded but the clock operator started it late, allowing Carolina a timeout after the ball was advanced to half court. The officials checked the monitor, huddled and determined that time had expired before the timeout was granted.

    We still never figured out the block/charge call: It didn’t outright decide the outcome of any game, but it came close. Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes was called for a charge with six seconds left in a one-point game. Michigan's Jordan Morgan sold the call and the Wolverines advanced.

    [+] EnlargeMercer Bears
    Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsAn upset of Duke sent Mercer's Kevin Canevari into his version of the Nae Nae.
    Location. Location! Location? Wisconsin doesn’t rally to beat Oregon had the partisan crowd in Milwaukee not helped turn the momentum of that game. UConn might not get past Michigan State had it not been in the familiar confines of Madison Square Garden. Then again, Syracuse lost to Dayton in Buffalo, N.Y., and Duke lost to Mercer in Raleigh, N.C. Maybe location doesn’t matter as much as we think.

    Conferences might want to rethink who earns the automatic bid: Milwaukee had a losing record in the Horizon, yet beat regular-season champ Green Bay in the league tournament en route to earning their NCAA bid. Cal Poly had a losing record overall and finished tied for sixth in the Big West, yet earned the bid and beat Texas Southern before getting pummeled by Wichita State. Mount St. Mary's also had a losing record overall before winning the Northeast tournament title. All those upsets, of course, led to NCAA tournament seeds.

    Seniors matter: Obviously the shining example was Napier carrying UConn to the title and Florida reaching the Final Four by starting four seniors. But the common thread in nearly every early-round upset was that schools such as North Dakota State, which had five seniors in its rotation, and Mercer, which had seven seniors, played a lot of experienced players.

    Conference affiliation doesn't: The Big 12 had the most teams in the tournament with seven, but they flamed early. Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma lost their first games, only Baylor and Iowa State made it to the Sweet 16.

    Michigan State starting over: One of the best streaks came to an end this season when the Spartans lost to UConn. Keith Appling and Adreian Payne are the first players who stayed four years under coach Tom Izzo but did not play in a Final Four.

    Pay more attention to the Atlantic Sun: From the conference that gave us Florida Gulf Coast last season, Mercer came out of the league this year. The Bears beat Duke in a game they were positively poised and confident they would win.

    THE University of Dayton made a statement: A headline in the Dayton Daily News poked a little fun at Ohio State, but the way the Flyers were embraced after beating the Buckeyes, Syracuse and Stanford showed just how much March can unite a community.

    Kevin Canevari can dance: Moments after Mercer topped Duke in the tournament’s biggest upset, Canevari provided arguably the tournament’s best celebration dance by doing the Nae Nae in front of the Bears' fan section.

    Grudges last: Napier blasted the NCAA for keeping the Huskies out of the tournament last season because of their APR. That means SMU, which beat UConn twice, is on the clock for next season with some hard feelings of its own. The Mustangs missed the NCAA tournament and finished runners-up in the NIT. With most of their starters back, and adding arguably the best point guard from the 2014 recruiting class, Larry Brown's crew will be a force next season.
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    Scouting the country each year I’ll not only see players’ skills, athletic ability and basketball IQ, but I’ll also witness their character along the way. This year’s class might not have any NBA superstars at the moment, but it will have difference-makers for the college game, both in the short term as well as those who will make a difference in time because of their character traits combined with their talent.

    As we wrap up the Class of 2014, here are my five final thoughts:

    1. The land of the giants

    [+] EnlargeJahlil Okafor
    AP Photo/The Sun News/Charles SlateDuke center signee Jahlil Okafor finishes the season as the nation's top prospect.
    When you look at the top of a class it's so rare to have three post players sitting in the top three spots. Jahlil Okafor, who held the top spot for much of the season, finishes the season as the nation’s top prospect. The center from Chicago is a dominating presence in the paint. A Duke signee, Okafor led his high school team to a 4A state championship and was named the McDonalds Morgan Wooten player of the year.

    He is special because he scores down low in the paint with his back to the basket. His combination of size, touch and fluid footwork is too much for one defender and when he doesn’t score, he attracts a double-team, which gives his team an advantage. He operates with patience and poise and when he reads the double-team he will accurately pass out to the open man. Defensively he guards the post and is improving at ball-screen defense as he is a barrier to the rim for his team.

    Myles Turner, the nation’s No. 2 prospect, challenged hard for the No. 1 position and shows a big upside. Turner, who is uncommitted, is an elite shot-blocker and scores baskets with a soft touch and range. Cliff Alexander is going to be an absolute difference-maker for Kansas with his ability to rebound, finish and block shots, and he does it in an aggressive manner. Trey Lyles is one of the most skilled post players in this group and his future teammate at Kentucky Karl Towns Jr. has franchise skill-to-size ratio. Thomas Welsh is a fundamentally sound big who will anchor the middle at UCLA.


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    Most likely 2014-15 All-Americans

    April, 7, 2014
    Apr 7
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    Now that the 2013-14 season is behind us, we'll wave goodbye to stars such as Shabazz Napier and Doug McDermott. So who will fill their shoes as the best players in the game in 2014-15?


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