NCAA BK

Will talent trump experience?

Gary Harris and Tom Izzo
Gary Harris and Tom Izzo will try to lead Michigan State to the title.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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The college basketball season that begins today should be titled, “A Reckoning in the Age of One-and-Dones.”

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Look at the past two national champions. The 2011-12 Kentucky team had two dominating freshmen in Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who went Nos. 1-2 in the 2012 NBA Draft, and two other underclassmen (sophomore Terrence Jones and freshman Marquis Teague) who went in the first round. It was the ultimate test of the Calipari Way: Can a team filled with young talent gel quickly and win it all?

The answer was yes, but only if the talent is that huge and can learn to play together in just a few months.

Then last year, Rick Pitino’s national-title-winning Louisville squad drove down the same road as Kentucky in a completely different car. There wasn’t a single lottery pick on Louisville, but there hasn’t been a better example in recent college hoops history of a team playing like a psychic extension of its coach and his philosophy. The team was led by senior point guard Peyton Siva, perhaps not the biggest natural talent but surely one of college basketball’s biggest hearts. The rest of the team was dominated by upperclassmen, with Montrezl Harrell as the only freshman to get significant minutes.

I bring up the past two national champions because your view on which is the better philosophy in today’s college game — win with the most talent, or win with the most teamwork — will inform who you think is best primed to cut down the nets in Arlington, Texas on April 7.

And that’s why I’m picking . . . Michigan State.

The all-freshman narrative of the 2012 Kentucky team is, of course, flawed. Yes, the team had tons of talented underclassmen, but that narrative leaves out the senior leader who several Kentucky basketball alums have told me was the glue that held that team together, the less-heralded Darius Miller.

When people talk about the “veteran leadership” of this year’s ludicrously talented Kentucky team, they’re talking about two sophomores, Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein.

Wait a second – sophomores are now considered veterans?

Calipari is a master of melding egos on a basketball court and getting them to play as a team in a short period of time. There’s no one better. People who think he has an easy job because his teams are always the most talented in the country are misunderstanding the alchemy of a winning basketball team. He’s a coaching genius, but coaxing a national title out of this out-of-this-world talented, baby-faced squad will be an even more impressive work of art than his 2012 national title.

He could. But I don’t think he will.

Michigan State, however, has a better combination of blue-chip talent, experienced upperclassmen and top-notch coaching as any team in the nation. Yes, Tom Izzo has a likely lottery-pick talent in dynamic two-guard Gary Harris, a dead-aim shooter who plays both ends of the floor nearly as well as Oklahoma State’s more celebrated sophomore, Marcus Smart. But more importantly, the Spartans have a senior point guard, Keith Appling, who will need to increase his assists and decrease his turnovers to succeed Siva as a senior point guard for a national champion. They also have an athletic senior big man in first-round talent Adreian Payne and junior swingman Branden Dawson as players who’ve been through the Big Ten wringer.

That’s why I’m picking grizzled experience over young talent to win it all in college basketball’s age of one-and-dones.

Here are 10 other questions to ponder between now and April 7:

1) Why do I think Kansas — a freshman-dominated team — will be the national runner-up despite my diatribe on experience over blue chips?

Because if you paid attention to last season, nothing ever happens the way you think it will in today’s college hoops. That’s a big part of what makes the sport so great.

Bill Self’s recruiting class is ranked second in the country, a notch below John Calipari’s — and I’d argue that a decade from now we might argue that the class in Lawrence had better NBA talent than the class in Lexington. This Jayhawk squad matches up favorably (or equally) with Kentucky at every position but point guard, where Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison is a complete dynamo and Kansas’ Naadir Tharpe has a lot to prove.

Here are two reasons why I think Kansas is primed for a better year than Kentucky: The Jayhawks could very well be more talented, with three likely lottery picks in Andrew Wiggins, center Joel Embiid and shooting guard Wayne Selden, who looks (and plays) more like a grown man than any freshman in college hoops.

But more importantly, the Jayhawks have that veteran leadership that the Wildcats sorely lack. Tharpe is a junior and has already experienced the growing pains of an underclassman. Self told me Tharpe’s the most talkative player he’s had on the court in a while, and communication is an undervalued asset for a point guard. And KU’s starting big man will be graduate transfer Tarik Black, who came from Memphis as a grown man and who will be one of this team’s leaders. He can be a Darius Miller for the rest of this young team.

2) Can Louisville repeat?

Absolutely. Self told me this week he thinks there’s 10 or 15 teams that can compete to win it all, and Louisville was his pick. (“Present company excluded” was how I asked the question.) Much has been made of Russ Smith playing Russ-diculously — you never know if you’ll get 30 points out of him or the 3-for-16 egg he laid in the national title game – but he’s actually a very efficient player. Smith returning for his senior year is huge for Rick Pitino’s squad.

I watched big man Montrezl Harrell at the U-19 national team tryout this summer in Colorado Springs, and that kid is the real deal. He’s out-of-this-world athletic, and though I doubt Pitino will let him attempt too many, I even saw him make a three in a scrimmage. Sure, Chane Behanan — a player Pitino has compared to Charles Barkley — is suspended indefinitely, but I can’t imagine Pitino will keep him off the floor when games really start to matter.

The only thing I think will keep Louisville from repeating is the point guard position. Pitino’s two new point guards — transfer Chris Jones, who won juco player of the year last year, and freshman Terry Rozier — are both considered an upgrade in talent over Peyton Siva. But going back to my original point, you can’t underestimate what Siva’s leadership and experience meant last season — especially in a Pitino system that thrives off a complicated full-court press that values players who can anticipate their teammates’ next move.

3) What happened to good old American hoops, eh?

The reigning No. 1 draft pick, Anthony Bennett, is from Canada. So is the likely 2014 top pick, Andrew Wiggins. Canadian big man Kelly Olynyk dazzled for Gonzaga last year, and Canadian point guard Kevin Pangos ought to do the same in Spokane this year. Others from north of the border: Olivier Hanlan (Boston College), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Kevin Powell (Stanford), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Brady Heslip (Baylor), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse). What the eh?

4) How will the new rule changes affect the game?

Wonderfully.

Assuming the rule changes — calling fouls tighter when defenders are physical with ballhandlers, and refining the block-charge rule to make it more offense-friendly — stick around come conference play. After the lowest-scoring college hoops season in more than 50 years, these changes were more than overdue. I went to an officiating clinic this summer, and the feeling among college officials and officiating supervisors is that these rules will be called all season; coaches will complain at first, then players will adapt, then the flow of the game will improve across the board.

Yes, November and December will have some sloppy games that turn into free-throw-shooting contests. One head coach told me he expects that, at least once during this season, a high-fouling team will finish a game with only four players on the court. There will be bumps in the road, but rest assured this will only improve the college game.

5) Who is the mid-major team that will surprise people this season?

Last year I wrote in February that I thought Wichita State had the chops to make a Final Four. When they did, I don’t think I went an hour without mentioning my prediction to someone. Believe it or not, if they’re healthy, Wichita State could be an even better team than last year — in fact, head coach Gregg Marshall told me last January that he considered last season a rebuilding year, and then that team went to the Final Four.

But the mid-major I expect will surprise people is another Missouri Valley squad I actually watched beat Wichita State in Wichita last season in the middle of winter: Indiana State. The reason is one player: senior point guard Jake Odum, a scrappy point guard who can shoot, pass and rebound. VCU, Wichita State and Gonzaga will all be tourney-bound, too, but those no longer count as surprises.

6) Who will win national player of the year?

With apologies to Creighton senior Doug McDermott and that stellar freshman class (Wiggins, Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kentucky’s Julius Randle and Andrew Harrison, Arizona’s Aaron Gordon), the best college basketball player this year will be . . . Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart.

I would not be at all surprised if Smart wills this talented and experienced Oklahoma State squad to a Final Four before leaving for NBA riches. A side note about Smart: From seeing him play, my initial thought about him was, “I do not want to be stuck in an alley with that guy. What a thug.”

But after getting to know him a bit, I can tell you that his off-court persona isn’t nearly as terrifying as his on-court persona. He’s smart and thoughtful, authentic and honest and funny, and someone whose up-from-the-bootstraps story ought to be an inspiration to all of us. He’s a guy you should root for.

7) Who is the best in the West?

Arizona is head-and-shoulders above everyone else, and not just because of athletic freshman Aaron Gordon, who can literally jump over most of his opponents’ heads and shoulders. This is a team that combines raw talent with that all-important experience, and they’re in the (rather long) short list of teams I think could win a national title if the chips fall the right way.

After them? Only four other teams from west of the Rockies are in the AP Top 25 to start the year (Gonzaga, Oregon, UCLA and New Mexico). After somehow leading the nation in conference RPI last season, the Mountain West will experience a serious downturn due to graduations and NBA defections. The Pac-12 will be a fine league but not a great one.

8) What will be the identity of the new Big East Conference?

The banding together of these 10 basketball-centric schools is one of the best things to happen to college basketball in an era of football-driven realignment. The only thing that holds these schools together, however, is basketball. It’s a glue that will stick, but it doesn’t mean it will be easy for this new group to gain an identity. This is no longer a league that’s centered on the eastern seaboard, as five of the 10 Big East teams — Xavier, Butler, Creighton, Marquette and DePaul — are in the Midwest. New rules favoring offenses could alter the heavily physical nature we associated with the old Big East.

And Creighton, with one of the most efficient offenses in the nation and a Euroball, spread-the-offense approach, is my pick to win the new version of an old conference traditionally populated by rough-and-tumble bangers. That’s not the style of team you’d ever expect to win the old Big East.

9) What teams aren’t in the top 25 now but will be mainstays come January?

In no particular order: Creighton, whose exclusion from the AP Top 25 shows some weird coastal bias; Iowa, which is returning all but one contributor from a well-rounded team that played in the NIT championship last season, and which added a stellar freshman 3-point shooter in Peter Jok; St. John’s, the most talented team nobody’s talking about, and which I watched grow together as a team during a summer basketball tour of Europe; and Arizona State, because of Jahii Carson.

10) Could this end up as the best regular season in college hoops in recent memory?

Yes. And not just because it’s a preamble to an out-of-this-world 2014 NBA draft. Casual fans tend to grumble that November and December are filled with powder-puff non-conference games, but really this is a case of the casual fans forgetting to pay close attention. The chase for the national title will begin with a bang in the second week of the season, when four of the top five teams in the AP Top 25 will face off at the Champions Classic in Chicago: Kansas vs. Duke, and Michigan State vs. Kentucky. Kudos to those four coaches for being up for those early-season tests; it’s good for the game. November and December tournaments will be filled with tons of high-profile matchups, and Louisville will play Kentucky between New Year’s and Christmas.

I’m glad Andrew Wiggins chose Kansas over Kentucky. If he chose Kentucky, my “only experience matters” mantra would be thrown out the window, because a Kentucky team with Wiggins would be almost unfairly good. As it stands, though, Wiggins heading to Kansas evens out the scale at the top of college basketball. To me, having a dozen or more teams that could win it all indicates we’re heading toward a season like no other.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: Louisville, Arizona, Iowa, Michigan State, Michigan, Duke, Kentucky, Creighton, Wichita State, Oklahoma, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Gonzaga, Darius Miller, Peyton Siva, Russ Smith

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