Mail: Best and most disappointing players so far, Duke vs. Kentucky, more
Note: Seth Davis will periodically answer questions posed to him over Twitter, Facebook and emails sent through SI.com. Be sure to check out his Hoop Thoughts column every Monday and to send questions during his Twenty for Tuesday Q&A on Twitter at @SethDavisHoops. Trolls not included. Questions may be edited for clarity.
Twitterland always likes a good controversy, especially if it sheds light on an important issue. So we begin this week’s bag with a question about a story that broke late Monday night:
Any comment/opinion on the Mitchell Robinson/WKU situation? — Lauren Stevens (@YesThatLauren)
Lauren is referring to the immense—and immensely talented—7-foot, 220-pound center from Louisiana who gave Western Kentucky coach Rick Stansbury his commitment last summer. Rivals.com currently has Robinson ranked as the No. 6 overall prospect in the class of 2017. Why, you might ask, did a prospect of this caliber choose a program that finished eighth in Conference USA last season? Well, largely because Stansbury had the foresight to hire Shammond Williams, the former guard at North Carolina who just happens to be Robinson’s godfather. That prompted Robinson to renege on his previous oral commitment to Texas A&M, where Stansbury had worked as an assistant for the last two years.
Well, that connection might no longer be enough, because on Monday night, Robinson wrote on Twitter that he wanted to decommit from Western Kentucky so he could “explore my options.” The tweet was later deleted, but on Tuesday morning Robinson once again tweeted out his intent to decommit, only to once again delete it.
During a previously scheduled press conference on Tuesday, Stansbury said he was not concerned about the tweets because he had spoken to Robinson’s dad, who claimed that the player’s Twitter account had been hacked. Maybe that’s true, or maybe Robinson is getting cold feet and tweeting out his changes of heart in real time. At any rate, Stansbury pointed out that the question is moot because Robinson has already signed a National Letter of Intent, which binds him to play for Western Kentucky or suffer the consequences.
Setting aside what really happened with Robinson, this situation once again illustrates why the National Letter of Intent is such a sketchy arrangement—and why it’s foolish for top prospects to sign it. Though the NCAA manages the administrative operations of the NLI program, the letter itself is governed by something called the Collegiate Commissioners Association, which, as far as I can tell, exists for the sole purpose of overseeing and enforcing the NLI. Here’s the thing, though: No player is technically required to sign this letter, and no school is required to join the program. But if a player does sign it, and if he undergoes a change of heart, then he forfeits his ability to accept a scholarship at his next school, plus he is required to sit out a full year, after which he will only have three years of eligibility remaining.
I understand the need for schools to protect themselves against these last-minute changes of heart. Schools spend a lot of money flying around the country to recruit a player. When they award a scholarship, they stop recruiting other prospects at the same position. And in most cases, schools do the right thing and release players from their letters in the event of a coaching change.
Still, guys like Mitchell Robinson have a lot of leverage in these situations, and it seems odd that more of them don’t try to use it. If entering into a binding agreement is not required, why do it? Does anyone really think Stansbury would not accept Robinson if he declined to sign the NLI? Would any coach? The National Letter of Intent has never been negotiated or collectively bargained on behalf of the players. A player can decline to sign it and opt instead for a simple grant-in-aid agreement that doesn’t force him to rely on the goodwill of that school if he decides for whatever reason to play somewhere else.
So to answer Lauren’s question, it’s too early to tell whether this is a minor blip or a real controversy brewing at Western Kentucky. But it’s not too early to render a verdict on the National Letter of Intent. It’s a bad deal, kids. Don’t sign it.
Now on to the rest of the Twitterbag. . . .
Do you think Kentucky is better than a fully healthy Duke team? — Trey Blevins (@tblev_20)
Man, wouldn’t we love to see this game! I’d say April 3 in Phoenix would be perfect. That might be about how long Duke needs to fully get healthy. Mike Krzyzewski said after his team beat Michigan State Tuesday night that they were moving closer to getting the missing players back, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
Even without their injured players, the Blue Devils have been extremely impressive. They took Kansas to the final possession in Madison Square Garden before losing by two. They dominated a pretty good Rhode Island team in Uncasville, Conn., and dispatched the Spartans by nine on Tuesday night in Cameron Indoor Stadium. If the Blue Devils are this good without those three, and with Grayson Allen hobbled by a sore toe (he has not been practicing), can you imagine how good they will be when (if?) Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden join the fold?
Meanwhile, we don’t have to imagine how good Kentucky is at full strength. We can see it in full view. The Wildcats embarrassed Michigan State and Arizona State by a combined 67 points. Aside from that, they have beaten up on weak opponents at home. UK did not play in a holiday tournament last week, but they have a tough schedule coming up, with games against UCLA this Saturday at home; against Valparaiso next Wednesday at home; against North Carolina on Dec. 17 in Las Vegas; and at Louisville on Dec. 31.
It will be a lot easier to answer this question four weeks from now, but for the sake of this exercise, I will give a slight edge to the Blue Devils. The teams are pretty evenly matched when it comes to talent. Kentucky is the faster, more athletic team; Duke is more skilled. But the real advantage Duke would have is in experience. Four of Kentucky’s five leading scorers are freshmen; the fifth is a sophomore. Duke, by contrast, has two seniors and a junior among its top five scorers. Yes, that will change when the freshmen get healthy, but the Blue Devils have showed extraordinary mental toughness in the early going. They’ve also gained a lot of confidence while being so short-handed. So that’s my pick—for now, anyway.
Thoughts on Shavar Newkirk from Saint Joseph’s? — Bubba (@BubbaBranagan)
I’m always thankful when my Twitter followers put a player on my radar who hadn’t already been there. I had not seen any of the Hawks’ games yet, but based on his stats, Newkirk has to be one of the most improved players in the country. The 6 ’1” junior point guard from New York City has raised his scoring average from 8.0 as a sophomore to 21.8 this season. His field goal percentage has exploded from 38.0 to 53.6, and his three-point percentage went from 30.3 to 41.2. His 2.1 assist-to-turnover ratio is also improved over last season’s 1.76. The Hawks lost their top three scorers from last season, so if they’re going to compete in the Atlantic 10, they will need Newkirk to take advantage of his opportunity for heavy minutes. He is clearly doing just that.
Since numbers don’t tell the whole story—and since I don’t have a real job—I logged into Synergy to check out some video of Mr. Newkirk in action. Here’s my scouting part: He looks like a New York City point guard. Playing with obvious confidence. Has a city game that features feints and hesitations and artistic finishes. He’s been terrific at beating his defender off the dribble and finding the open man. The work on his jumper has paid off as his form looks perfect, although he still strikes me as more of a scorer than a shooter. That includes the lost art of the midrange. The biggest question is vertical explosiveness. He has plenty of chances to finish above the rim but seems unable to. That could hurt his prospects at the next level, but for the time being, he is a high-quality point guard who knows his time has come and is prepared to make winning plays.
Thanks for pointing him out, Bubba.
Who has been the best player in college basketball thus far? Also, the most disappointing player? — Donald Wine II (@blazindw)
Lists, lists, I love lists!
Josh Hart, Villanova
Joel Berry II, UNC
Monte Morris, Iowa State
Lonzo Ball, UCLA
Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State
Markelle Fultz, Washington
Malik Monk, Kentucky
Luke Kennard, Duke
Austin Nichols, Virginia (dismissed)
Eron Harris, Michigan State
Deng Adel, Louisville
Rodney Purvis, UConn
Kerwin Roach, Texas
Dion Wiley, Maryland
Do you like rule changes/emphasis regarding freedom of movement? NCAA CBB is making the NFL look bad and outdated. — Nothing Sacrid (@NothingsSacrid)
I don’t know about the football part, but I definitely like what I see in the early going in college hoops. This was not a rules-making year, so there were more tweaks in the off-season than wholesale changes. The biggest impact was the rules committee’s renewed emphasis on traveling, which has resulted in about four more turnovers per team. And yet, scoring is also up about a point. Even though we have all noted the occasional whistle-fest, overall the number of fouls called per game is pretty flat compared to last year, when we saw the biggest scoring increase in decades.
I’ve also seen enough games to say that I like the way refs are officiating post play. Even though many of these changes were designed to quicken the pace and make it easier to score, I have seen more fouls called on offensive players than in the past, which I think is a proper adjustment. I’ve also noticed that the rule change governing a defender inside the arc is working beautifully. Now, if the defender is inside the arc and he jumps straight up, he is entitled to his space, whereas before, a collision meant an automatic blocking foul. It feels like there have been fewer attempts at taking a charge in that situation.
So all in all, I have to say I’m pleased, but as we all know, you can’t make a true determination until conference play begins.
Which teams outside the top 20 have the talent to make some noise come March? — Kip Killigan (@mcip__)
Time for another list! Yippee!
1. Oregon (5–2). The Ducks have struggled as they first played without Dillon Brooks and now look to re-integrate him. Brooks hasn’t even cracked the starting lineup yet. Once he does, this team will compete for a Pac-12 title.
2. Michigan State (4–4). The Spartans are still re-orienting their identity after losing two veteran big men in the preseason. Look for Cassius Winston to take over the starting point guard spot sometime soon, and for Nick Ward to get into better shape and better rhythm. Both those guys are freshmen who need to grow up fast.
3. Syracuse (4–2). Yes, the Orange were outclassed in Madison on Tuesday night, but let’s not forget last season they lost to St. John’s in mid-December and still ended up in the Final Four.
4. California (4–1). The Golden Bears dropped out of the rankings after they struggled against UC Irvine, but they were missing three starters in that game. There’s also no shame in losing to San Diego State in Sacramento.
5. USC (6–0). Andy Enfield finally has some veterans he can depend on. I love the progress that junior Jordan McLaughlin has made at the point, and 6' 5″ junior guard Elijah Stewart, the team’s leading scorer, has made some terrific strides.