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.

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.