Saturday, November 15, 2014

TBI's College Basketball Opening Weekend Extravaganza: The All-Americans

Most outlets may give you only two teams' worth of All-Americans. Some will give you three. Here at The Back Iron, much like at noted college basketball bible Blue Ribbon, I drop four.

One thing you don't get here that you get literally everywhere else is the unrelenting hype for incoming freshmen. Writers get their All-American ballots confused with an NBA draft board and throw a bunch of one-and-dones on their teams, ignoring the dangerous precedent that was set when they anointed Harrison Barnes back in 2010. Barnes scuffled through his freshman year, bowed by the weight of the expectations, and was forced to return for a second year to salvage his draft stock.

Since then, TBI has had a strict no-freshmen policy on its All-American teams. While Jahlil Okafor, Myles Turner and Karl Towns may show up and dominate the game, I prefer to give a little dap to those guys who've proven they can perform at this level.

You'll surely have some other suggestions, and you're encouraged to supply them below. Rest assured, however, that if I left your team's favorite player off, it's not because I "dont know nothin bout ball" or some other unintelligible rant. The more vituperous you get in your rant, the more assured I am that I've watched more basketball games than you've had hot meals. Be civil or be gone.

Now, 20 of the game's best--and a few controversial omissions--await after the jump.

Does he look mad to you?
F Treveon Graham, VCU
G Aaron Harrison, Kentucky
F Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona
F Larry Nance Jr., Wyoming
G Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga
G Keifer Sykes, Green Bay
G Joseph Young, Oregon

--Graham will have some phenomenal games and inherit Juvonte Reddic's mantle as double-double machine in residence, but he'll also have some brutal shooting nights (like Friday, when he went 3-13 against Tennessee).
--BBN will cry for someone to get named to every All-American team, but with that many weapons, will anyone take over on a consistent basis? Just worry about the championship, and the rest will take care of itself.
--Hollis-Jefferson and Pangos, like Harrison, are on loaded teams with multiple potential stars. Besides, have we seen this reported improved jumper that RHJ was working on? Call me when we do.
--Nance has the small matter of finishing his recovery from a torn ACL, and his award candidacy could be done in by a slow start. He'll be right in the mix for Mountain West Player of the Year, though.
--Sykes will show up on SportsCenter and go viral on YouTube multiple times this season. However, he plays in the Horizon League. Games at Wisconsin and Miami, plus a home-and-home against Georgia State, will give him a chance to prove himself against solid comp.
--Young is my pick to lead the nation in scoring. However, the Ducks could be very, very bad, and losing teams typically don't get a guy any A-A support, no matter how much he scores.

Still undecided: recruiting special or infomercial?
THE ALL-FRESHMAN TEAM (because dammit, these guys have to go somewhere)
F Stanley Johnson, Arizona
G Tyus Jones, Duke
C Jahlil Okafor, Duke
G D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State
G Rashad Vaughn, UNLV

--Johnson is as much running back as small forward. Defenders nationwide will decide that standing in his way on drives to the rack simply aren't worth the pain. The Wildcats need him to improve his shooting, but everything else is already dominant. He'll be a more versatile all-around player than the departed Aaron Gordon.
--Jones cracked Duke's starting lineup along with classmates Okafor and Justise Winslow. If Jones' decision-making is as good as it's rumored to be, the Blue Devil offense will absolutely hum this year.
--Okafor will score on nearly anyone. He should probably be expected to crack a double-double any given night until proven otherwise. Look for the matchup against Wisconsin and Frank Kaminsky on Dec. 3.
--Russell is my pick for Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and he'll step into OSU's primary scoring role early. He led the Buckeyes with 16 points in their opener, dishing six assists to boot.
--Vaughn, like Russell, will step in and dominate the ball for his new team. At 6'6", he's a matchup nightmare for most shooting guards.

G Tyler Haws, BYU
G Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
F Brice Johnson, North Carolina
F Bobby Portis, Arkansas
C Josh Scott, Colorado

--Haws, like Joe Young, could lead the nation in scoring. Unlike Young, he has a little talent around him and a team that could go dancing. As an aside, the largely anonymous Haws could pass The Jimmer for BYU's all-time scoring lead sometime in February. But never mind all of that. Examine the pics on the right and join me in a little game I like to call "Pick the Douchier Hairdo."
--Hield was one of the nation's most improved shooters last season, and he's always been lightning fast. He's a dangerous defender and, at 6'4", is a solid rebounder as well. He'll make the Sooners a primary challenger to Kansas' throne in the Big 12.
--I've written it here and elsewhere, but Johnson put up absurd per-40 minute numbers over his first two seasons. If he can play defense without hacking folks, he could push a double-double any night. If not, he's still gotta be better than James Michael McAdoo.
--Portis is one of the finest athletes in the SEC, a league teeming with guys that can run and jump. If the Hogs intend to live up to expectations and crash the Big Dance this season, he'll have to rack regular double-doubles.
--Same with Josh Scott. Colorado shouldn't have a ton of difficulty reaching the tournament, but Scott will still have to carry a big load to get them deep. On a front line with Xavier Johnson and Wesley Gordon, rebounds may be hard to come by, so if Scott records more than, say, 15 double-doubles, it'll be a true mark of his dominance.

About as close as Ellis ever gets to a smile.
F Perry Ellis, Kansas
G R.J. Hunter, Georgia State
G Nic Moore, SMU
G Juwan Staten, West Virginia
G Fred VanVleet, Wichita State

--Ellis, not hyped freshmen Cliff Alexander or Kelly Oubre, will lead KU in scoring. He'll be prolific and efficient enough to contend for Big 12 POY.
--Three words sum up Hunter's exquisite shooting: Baby. Reggie. Miller. And coming from a born-and-bred Pacers fan, that's some heavy respect. If we don't see Georgia State in the NCAA tournament, then every conference tournament in America should be boycotted from now until infinity. (Or until Adam Sandler does another good movie. But probably infinity comes first.)
--Moore's role as the leader for SMU becomes that much more important with ace forward Markus Kennedy suspended. He should certainly be among the favorites for AAC POY.
--Earlier this offseason, we wondered if Staten would have to be a one-man show to get WVU to the tournament. He won't, not with Devin Williams always a threat to go 15/15 like he did against Monmouth last night, but he'll always be capable.
--VanVleet is often placed ahead of backcourt mate Ron Baker in the queue for national respect, but it's quarterback bias. FVV doesn't make mistakes on or off the court and is widely renowned as a nice guy, so he's a critical darling.

"Is this what all the rappers mean by flossin'?"
G Ron Baker, Wichita State
G Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia
C Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
G Caris LeVert, Michigan
G D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown

--Of course, everything above about VanVleet also applies to Baker. Plus, he's a better shooter, a more effective defender and a better athlete. If there's justice, Baker will rack better numbers than VanVleet and get a fair shake in the Missouri Valley POY race.
--Brogdon isn't a guy who'll rack up absurd numbers in Tony Bennett's glacial defensive-oriented system. Still, there are shots to be had now that Joe Harris is gone, and Brogdon is another versatile player willing to get his hands dirty on defense. He's another guy who'll get a lot of love from writers unless Virginia craters this season.
--Kaminsky is the closest thing we have to Dirk Nowitzki in the college game today. His handle, shot, rebounding ability and defensive instincts are all on point. The only thing keeping him off the first team is the issue he had with Kentucky in the Final Four. He followed a great game against Arizona, and doing it again vs. UK could have sealed him as a lottery pick. Of course, we're all better for him being back.
--LeVert has several other strong scoring options sharing a backcourt with him, but his defensive skill and versatility may make him both the Big Ten's best college player and best NBA prospect.
--Smith-Rivera is the best player in the Big East, and it's not very close. He's had a couple of years to prove himself as a top scoring threat, now he can add point guard to his list of responsibilities.

The 3-monocle has to be an obscene gesture in some country.
F Sam Dekker, Wisconsin
F Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
F Georges Niang, Iowa State
G Marcus Paige, North Carolina
G Delon Wright, Utah

--Dekker's grown two inches in the offseason--now up to 6'9"--and he spent his summer crushing elite competition at LeBron James' summer camp. If he returns to the 37% three-point shooting he flexed as a freshman, he'll be just as hard to guard as Kaminsky.
--Harrell is attempting to add the three-point shot to his arsenal, but even if that experiment fails, he's still one of the nation's most muscular finishers in the post and a fierce rebounder. No big man in America runs the floor better, either.
--Niang lost about 25 pounds in an attempt to improve his ability to get to the rim. He's one of the best late-game scorers in America, and his duties at winning time will only increase now that Melvin Ejim has departed. His foot injury derailed what could have been a Final Four run for the Cyclones, so his continued health will be key. Hopefully he didn't overwork himself at the Nike Big Man camp and LeBron's academy over the summer.
--Paige is TBI's pick for National Player of the Year. He established himself last season as a scorer who could take over the game at will, usually in the second half. This season, expect the Tar Heels to have more options on hand, allowing Paige to play the occasional distributor role. He can lead the ACC in both scoring and assists.
--Wright is the single most versatile player in college basketball. Aside from three-point shooting, there's nothing he doesn't do well on the court. The one thing that could keep his numbers down is the improved depth that the Utes are sporting this year. Of course, the numbers aren't everything if all that new talent helps Utah push for the top 10.

Damn, Tre still mad, ain't he?
Because I like to see how dream-team matchups like these might actually come off, I paired up these teams and took them over to WhatIf's Dream Teams feature allows you to draft historical players and pair them off to establish...something, I guess. Mostly, it's mindless fun that stirs some intriguing possibilities.

The First and Fourth teams were paired up against the Second and Third, with each team adding two randomly selected Left Behind players to form a 12-man roster. Hollis-Jefferson and Nance were added to the 1/4 squad (call them Team Dekker), while Sykes and Young were added to the 2/3 team (call it Team Baker).

Games between the two teams were simulated seven times to replicate an NBA-style playoff series.

Game 1: Dekker 91, Baker 82
--With 14:42 remaining, the game was tied 52-all on a Kaminsky layup. From there, Team Dekker launched a 24-11 run to salt the game away. Team Baker never got closer than seven the rest of the way, despite great second halves from Ellis and Kaminsky. Frank the Tank got 15 of his team-high 20 in the final 20 minutes, while Ellis chipped in 11 after the break.

For Team Dekker, Paige (27) and Portis (10) were the only players in double figures, but everyone scored at least four and the team sank 50% from the floor while missing only one of 17 foul shots. Dekker enjoyed a 41-32 rebounding advantage, paced by Portis with seven, Harrell's six and Nance's six. Portis also added three steals, while Dekker and Nance blocked three shots each.

Game 2: Dekker 93, Baker 87 (2-0 Dekker)
--The game came down to the final minute, as Kaminsky gave Team Baker the lead with 1:28 to go. Harrell put Dekker back up with a thunderdunk, then Scott followed a missed layin by Paige to extend the lead to three. Kaminsky struck again with a bank shot from the right side, but Team Baker decided to foul instead of playing for a defensive stop. Their mistake came in fouling the automatic Paige, who sank both ends of a one-and-one. Wright rebounded a missed triple from Smith-Rivera, and Nance knocked down three of four foul shots to seal the game.

Ellis led all scorers with 19 points, but fouled out on a charge with 2:28 to go. Kaminsky (17) and Sykes (14) joined him in double digits. Paige and Wright paced Team Dekker, combining for 32 points, 12 rebounds, 13 assists and six steals. Harrell added nine points (eight in the second half) and a game-high eight boards.

Game 3: Baker 100, Dekker 94 (2-1 Dekker)
--Team Baker got on the board in another see-saw game. Once again, Kaminsky produced in the clutch, putting Team Baker ahead on a pair of free throws with 3:21 left. Baker's team excelled at the line all game long, sinking 27-30 including 10-10 for Kaminsky. 11 of Team Baker's final 16 points came from the line, with the big Badger knocking in eight during that final 3:21.

Baker's big post duo again couldn't be contained, as Kaminsky led all scorers with 18 and Ellis added the series' first double-double (17 and 10). Six other Baker players put up at least eight. For Team Dekker, five players reached double figures, paced by Paige's 24. Wright and Paige each dropped six dimes, while Hollis-Jefferson led his team with eight rebounds.

Game 4: Baker 88, Dekker 84 (series tied 2-2)
--For the first time in the series, Team Dekker struggled with its shooting and allowed Team Baker to tie the series. It wasn't without a valiant comeback, however. Dekker rallied from a 13-point second-half deficit to take a 70-69 lead with 8:35 to go. A pair of VanVleet assists put Baker back on top, then both teams went cold for more than two minutes. Wright closed the lead to two with a dunk, then Kaminsky and Baker knocked in back-to-back threes to extend it to eight. That lead disappeared quickly, and a pair of freebies from Paige tied the game at 84 with 0:50 to go. LeVert knocked down a long two-pointer, then Scott missed a baseline jumper. Young corralled the rebound with 0:08 left, drew a foul and sank both shots to close the scoring.

Kaminsky stuffed the boxscore to the tune of a game-high 18 points (including three triples), five boards, four assists, three steals and two blocks. Staten, Ellis and Hunter each joined him in double figures, with Hunter adding a game-high four blocks. For Team Dekker, Nance led with 17 points while Paige and Harrell both contributed double-doubles. Paige put up 14 points and 10 assists, while Harrell added 16 points and 14 boards. Outside of those three, however, the rest of Team Dekker shot a combined 14-39 from the floor and 7-14 from the line.

Pictured: BOSS.
Game 5: Dekker 98, Baker 89 (3-2 Dekker)
--A slightly less dramatic affair, Game 5 was still a one-possession game until the final 3:00. Hollis-Jefferson made the second of two free throws to push the lead to four, and Team Baker could get no closer the rest of the way. Marcus Paige's heroics were the story, as "Second-Half Marcus" dropped in 23 of his 32 in the final 20 minutes. His three-pointer with 47 seconds left was the final dagger, stretching the lead to 94-87. Aside from his scoring, Paige flirted with a triple-double, adding nine rebounds and eight assists, plus three steals.

Again, Kaminsky was the story for Baker's bunch, scoring 11 of his 17 points in the second half, but none in the final 12 minutes. Ellis (15), Hunter (12) and Sykes (10) joined him in double figures.

Game 6: Dekker 109, Baker 104 (Dekker wins series 4-2)
--Team Dekker's size advantage finally reared its head, as it dominated the glass by a 49-27 margin and landed Kaminsky in foul trouble to clinch the series. Frank the Tank's fifth foul--picked up with 12:01 to go--left Perry Ellis all alone in the post. Still, Team Baker's shot-makers kept the team in front until Rondae Hollis-Jefferson tipped in a third-chance bucket to make the score 99-98. From there, Team Baker only got one look at the basket on every trip. Threes from Smith-Rivera and Staten kept the game close, but Nance and Scott closed the game out strong on the glass and converted their foul shots to take the series.

Paige once again dominated with 24/6/6, leading five Team Dekker players in double digits. Harrell produced his second double-double in three games with 12 and 12. Six Team Baker players scored 10 or more, largely out of necessity once Kaminsky--who still led his team with 17 and eight boards--fouled out.

So, after this show of imaginary dominance, it seems Paige was a fine choice for TBI POY. And maybe I'm slow-playing Kaminsky just a bit. We'll see when the season hits its climax in about four months.

Stay tuned tomorrow for TBI's completely unscientific attempt at projecting the field of 68. I like to call it Bracketometry.

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