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The notion that freshmen can’t win a title is wrong

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All week long, the folks over at Grantland are running a series featuring writers pen 4,000 word arguments as to why their favorite team will win the national title.

Matt Jones, the brains and the brawn behind Kentucky Sports Radio and the leader of the cult known as Big Blue Nation, was picked to provide a homer’s view of why Kentucky hang their eighth banner this year. And while much of the article reads like the sermon given at a Big Blue pep rally, Jones does make a crucial and important point, one that he will — and should — make many times throughout the year: winning a national title with elite freshmen is not only possible, its been done before.

In the last two decades, there have been five years were one team was able to land a powerful recruiting class that included at least three of the top 15 high school players in the country — Michigan in 1991 (the Fab Five), Ohio State in 2006, and Kentucky in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

  • In 1991, Michigan started five freshmen — Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson — and while they struggled during the regular season, earning a six seed, the Wolverines clicked during the NCAA Tournament. The Fab Five made it all the way to the national title game, where they lost by 20 to Duke.
  • In 2006, Thad Matta brought in Mike Conley, Greg Oden, Daequan Cook and David Lighty. Despite Oden battling injuries throughout the first half of the season, the Buckeyes were still able to earn a No. 1 seed in the tournament and a trip to the national title game.
  • In 2009, Kentucky’s recruiting class was so good that four players — including one kid that couldn’t get off the bench — were picked in the first round of the 2010 NBA Draft. But as talented as John Wall, Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins were, they couldn’t get past West Virginia in the Elite 8.
  • Last season, Kentucky played with blue-chip freshmen in Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb — Enes Kanter was the best recruit of the group, but he never got cleared to play. Regardless, even without Kanter, Kentucky was able to play their way to the Final Four, upsetting Ohio State (who started a freshmen at point guard and center) and North Carolina (who started a freshman at point guard and small forward) along the way.

In the previous four instances where a team has relied heavily on a vaunted freshmen class, there have been two No. 1 seeds, a trip to the Elite 8, a trip to the Final Four and two appearances in the National Title game. That’s impressive. And that’s successful. The worst case scenario in this (extremely) small sample is winning both SEC titles, earning a No. 1 seed and making a trip to the Elite 8.

What coach in the country wouldn’t take that?

But there’s more.

In 2002, Syracuse brought in a well-regarded recruiting class that was headlined by one uber-recruit named Carmelo Anthony. Anthony went on to have one of the best freshman seasons in the history of the NCAA, averaging 22.1 ppg and 10.0 rpg while being named a second-team all-american and leading Syracuse to the national title. Joining him in the starting lineup that year? Freshmen Gerry McNamara and Billy Edelin. McNamara averaged 35.3 mpg, which was second only to Anthony’s 36.4 mpg. That group of freshmen accounted for three of the Orange’s top five scorers in 2002-2003. Of their top seven scorers, three more were sophomores, meaning that of Syracuse’s seven-man, title-winning rotation, six were freshmen and sophomores.

There’s an even more recent example. Last season, Kemba Walker took over March. He led UConn on a five-games-in-five-days run through the Big East Tournament. After six more wins in the NCAA Tournament, UConn went back to Storrs with a national title. He was a junior, which means most people will ignore UConn on this list. But the Huskies need to be on here. Last season, five different freshmen started a total of 104 games for the Huskies. The freshmen averaged an even 100 out of a possible 200 minutes per game. In the national title game against Butler, UConn got 111 minutes out of freshmen. Freshman Jeremy Lamb became the team’s clear-cut No. 2 scoring option, the biggest reason teams were unable to double team Kemba. Freshman Shabazz Napier matured enough to hold down the point guard position, allowing Kemba free-reign to be a scorer. Alex Oriakhi, UConn’s enforcer inside and the guy that allowed a team that started (freshman) Tyler Olander or Charles Okwandu to dominate the offensive glass, was only a sophomore. In total, almost three-quarters of the minutes played by UConn Huskies last season were provided by freshmen and sophomores.

The UConn example is all the more reassuring for Kentucky fans because there is a good chance the Wildcat’s first two options offensively won’t be freshmen. John Calipari is notorious for using his words in the media to manipulate, but he said over the summer that Doron Lamb would be the best player on this team. Terrence Jones was the best player on the team last year before he lost his confidence. There’s a legitimate possibility that these hyped freshmen end up being the most highly-recruited role players in the country.

No one said that winning a national title with a roster chock full of talented underclassmen would be easy.

But winning a national title isn’t easy, period.

The best way to win it is by putting as much talent as possible on the floor. If you can’t compete with the blue bloods for top 20 recruits, than you have to build your program around development and upperclassmen. If you can compete for the best high school players in the country, then, by all means, recruit them and hope that things break your way during the season.

Because, eventually, Calipari is going to break through and win a national title. And when he does, this silly notion that experience is the only way to succeed in March will finally be thrown out the window.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

PHOTO: Nevada wearing pink jerseys to honor Coaches vs. Cancer this week

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Nevada announced that they’ll be wearing special pink uniforms for the next two games to promote cancer awareness.

The Wolf Pack will wear the jerseys on Wednesday (Jan. 25) on the road against Boise State and at home on Saturday (Jan. 28) against New Mexico.

“We are extremely excited and honored to release our new Pink “Cancer-Awareness” Jerseys. It was apparent very early in our time here, that many members of our Nevada Wolf Pack Basketball Program and in our Pack community have been affected or are currently being affected by cancer,” Nevada head coach Eric Musselman said in the release. “We could not be more proud to help support the cause and unite to fight this horrible and devastating disease.”

 

UCLA is no longer a Final Four contender if their defense doesn’t improve

LEXINGTON, KY - DECEMBER 03: Lonzo Ball #2 of the UCLA Bruins reacts after making a three-point basket against the Kentucky Wildcats in the second half of the game at Rupp Arena on December 3, 2016 in Lexington, Kentucky. UCLA defeated Kentucky 97-92. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Saturday’s win over No. 8 UCLA was massive for No. 7 Arizona for a number of reasons.

They got Allonzo Trier back into the fold. They remained undefeated atop the Pac-12 standings, keeping pace with an Oregon team that’s dealing with another Dillon Brooks foot injury and getting ready to make the nightmarish trip to the Mountain schools, Utah and Colorado, this weekend. They took a two game lead over the Bruins in the Pac-12 standings.

Perhaps more importantly, the Wildcats certified themselves as a legitimate threat to get to the Final Four. Their 17-2 record entering Saturday was pretty. A win at Pauley finally gave that résumé some substance.

So good for Arizona.

But that wasn’t the biggest story line coming out of Pauley Pavilion on Saturday afternoon.

UCLA’s defense, or lack thereof, was.

Ever since the Bruins went into Rupp Arena and knocked off then-No. 1 Kentucky, UCLA has been considered one of the very best teams in the country. Villanova’s up there, too. So is Kansas, and Gonzaga, and those Kentucky Wildcats. North Carolina probably should be in that conversation as well. Maybe Baylor, maaaybe Florida State.

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You get my point. The Bruins, for better or worse, were one of the handful of teams that everyone thought would enter the NCAA tournament as a favorite to win the national title, but it’s time for us to question whether or not that is actually the case. That’s how bad the UCLA defense has been this season, particularly of late.

Against Arizona, the Bruins were a train-wreck. They gave up 96 points on 1.315 points-per-possession, which, for those of you who aren’t into advanced stats, is atrocious. That game was the culmination of a four-game stretch where UCLA’s defense had gone from concerning-but-good-enough to a major red flag. In those four games – road trips to Colorado and Utah and home games against Arizona and Arizona State – the Bruins allowed an abysmal 1.153 PPP. For comparison’s sake, the 2015 Kentucky team that went 38-1, the best defense we’ve seen in the KenPom era, gave up 0.847 PPP. UCLA averages 75 possessions a game, which is a difference of 23 points over 40 minutes.

That’s a big deal.

And on the season, UCLA has fallen the way to 125th in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric.

That’s a bigger deal.

For those that don’t know, KenPom.com is a website that ranks teams based on how many points they score and allow per possession, adjusted for schedule strength. It’s widely considered the best way to determine who the best offensive, the best defensive and the best overall teams are.

It’s been around since 2002.

And since 2002, given where UCLA’s defense is today, they would be the second-worst defensive team to ever get to a Final Four.

In 2011, VCU ranked 138th in defensive efficiency as of Selection Sunday*, and they are the only team to ever rank outside the top 80 in defensive efficiency and make it all the way to the Final Four. Only three other teams have ranked outside the top 50 and made it to the final weekend of the season: Marquette in 2003 (76th), Butler in 2011 (72nd) and Michigan in 2013 (66th). Two others ranked outside the top 40 and won at least four games in the Big Dance: Texas in 2003 (46th) and Wisconsin in 2014 (50th):

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*(All of this info is via KenPom.com and as of Selection Sunday in those given seasons. That’s important to note, because winning games against good teams in the tournament changes those stats.)

The precedent is there.

UCLA, unquestionably, has to get better defensively if they want to win a national title.

But all hope is not lost.

The two teams with the lowest defensive efficiency entering the NCAA tournament to win the national title – North Carolina in 2009 and Duke in 2015 – both had top three offenses nationally.

UCLA leads the nation in offensive efficiency.

AP Poll: Villanova, Kansas neck-and-neck for No. 1

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 13: Head coach Jay Wright and Jalen Brunson #1 of the Villanova Wildcats congratulate Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats in the second half against the Temple Owls at The Pavilion on December 13, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Temple Owls 78-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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Villanova maintained a slim lead over Kansas for the No. 1 spot in this week’s AP poll, with Gonzaga being the only other program to receive any first place votes.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBCSports Top 25

After losing to Arizona at home, UCLA dropped to eighth as the Wildcats vaulted them into No. 7 in the poll.

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1. Villanova (35 first-place votes)
2. Kansas (28)
3. Gonzaga (2)
4. Kentucky
5. Baylor
6. Florida State
7. Arizona
8. UCLA
9. North Carolina
10. Oregon
11. Butler
12. Virginia
13. Louisville
14. Notre Dame
15. Wisconsin
16. Creighton
17. Duke
18. West Virginia
19. Cincinnati
20. Purdue
21. Saint Mary’s
22. Maryland
23. South Carolina
24. Xavier
25. Florida

Coaches Poll: Kansas remains No. 1, Villanova No. 2

LAWRENCE, KS - JANUARY 21: Frank Mason III #0 of the Kansas Jayhawks drives to the goal against Andrew Jones #1 of the Texas Longhorns in the first half at Allen Field House on January 21, 2017 in Lawrence, Kansas. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Kansas remained No. 1 in the Coaches Poll this week, getting 18 of the 32 first-place votes.

RANKINGS: AP Poll | Coaches Poll | NBCSports Top 25

Villanova sits at No. 2 in the poll, with Gonzaha in third, the only other team to receive a first-place vote.

After beating UCLA in Pauley Pavilion, Arizona jumped up to No. 9 but still sits two spots behind UCLA at No. 7.

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1. Kansas (18 first-place votes)
2. Villanova (11)
3. Gonzaga (3)
4. Kentucky
5. Baylor
6. North Carolina
7. UCLA
8. Florida State
9. Arizona
10. Oregon
11. Butler
12. Notre Dame
13. Virginia
14. Louisville
15. Wisconsin
16. Creighton
17. Duke
18. West Virginia
19. Cincinnati
20. Purdue
21. Sainy Mary’s
22. Xavier
23. Maryland
24. South Carolina
25. Florida

College Basketball Talk Top 25: It gets muddy after a clear-cut top four

VILLANOVA, PA - DECEMBER 03: Josh Hart #3 of the Villanova Wildcats reacts in front of Lamarr Kimble #0 of the Saint Joseph's Hawks in the first half at The Pavilion on December 3, 2016 in Villanova, Pennsylvania. The Villanova Wildcats defeated the Saint Joseph's Hawks 88-57. (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
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This week’s rankings were probably more difficult to put together than any week so far this season.

The top four, frankly, seem pretty obvious. I have Villanova No. 1, but I would have no qualms with ranking any of Kentucky, Kansas or Gonzaga in that No. 1 spot. I expect those to be the four teams that get votes for No. 1 in the AP and Coaches Polls this week.

After that, however, is when it gets difficult. Are you going to rank North Carolina above Florida State? UNC beat the Seminoles when they squared off this season but that was the Seminoles lone loss in a six game run against ranked teams. I went with Carolina over them because, simply, I think UNC is a better team.

Then there’s the question of what to do with the top three teams in the Pac-12. Arizona just won at UCLA and they got Allonzo Trier back. Oregon also owns a win over the Bruins, but there’s came at home on a buzzer-beater from Dillon Brooks, who is dealing with a foot injury again. And while UCLA has consistently proven to be one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the country, they are a nightmare defensively right now.

Where does West Virginia slot in after a pair of losses? What about Creighton without Mo Watson Jr.? Butler’s profile looks great but their performance on the floor has been less than stellar since their win over Villanova. Is Duke actually back?

You can find the rankings below. What did I get wrong?

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1. Villanova (19-1, Last Week No. 1)
2. Kentucky (17-2, 2)
3. Kansas (18-1, 4)
4. Gonzaga (19-0, 5)
5. North Carolina (18-3, 5)
6. Baylor (18-1, 7)
7. Florida State (18-2, 8)
8. Arizona (18-2, 16)
9. UCLA (19-2, 3)
10. Oregon (18-2, 10)
11. Louisville (16-4, 11)
12. Wisconsin (16-3, 13)
13. Purdue (16-4, 15)
14. Notre Dame (17-3, 17)
15. Cincinnati (17-2, 18)
16. Duke (15-4, 19)
17. West Virginia (15-4, 10)
18. Butler (17-3, 14)
19. Creighton (18-2, 12)
20. Saint Mary’s (17-2, 20)
21. Virginia (16-3, 22)
22. South Carolina (15-4, 24)
23. Maryland (17-2, 25)
24. Kansas State (15-4, NR)
25. Iowa State (12-6, NR)

DROPPED OUT: No. 21 Xavier, No. 23 Florida
NEW ADDITIONS: No. 24 Kansas State, No. 25 Iowa State