Earlier today, ESPN published a terrific feature on John Calipari and the Kentucky program breaking down precisely how Coach Cal has managed to build Kentucky into the nation’s preeminent college basketball program.
And it’s simple, really: marketing.
Coach Cal is a very good basketball coach, but when it comes to x’s-and-o’s, he’s not one of the nation’s elite. All things being equal, I’d say there are probably ten coaches — maybe more — who I’d take to coach my team in a one game playoff before Cal. He’s an excellent recruiter and always has been, but he’s never been able to recruit at this level before; with the possible exception of those UCLA teams in the 1970’s, no one has.
What’s gotten him to this level is his ability to promote his program and the way that he does things at Kentucky. And there’s no better example than the one that King provided in the lead of his story:
Two days before his team’s first official practice of the season, the most polarizing — and, lately, most successful — figure in college basketball has the sudden urge to chase down Charlie Sheen.
John Calipari had spotted the Hollywood actor a few minutes earlier during a Cincinnati Reds playoff game, when both celebs were in the same suite.
With a Bloody Mary in his left hand and a Marlboro Red clamped between his fingers, Sheen places his right arm around Calipari, who’s dressed in a suit. Both men smile as a bystander snaps a picture with the coach’s cell phone. Hours later, in his office back in Lexington, Calipari is still giddy about the encounter — but not for the reasons you’d expect.
Calipari calls up the photo and then hands his phone to associate athletics director DeWayne Peevy, who manages his social media accounts.
“We’ve got to get this picture out on Twitter,” Calipari says. “It’ll generate some talk, don’t you think? How many followers does Charlie Sheen have?”
Peevy informs Calipari that more than 8 million people track Sheen on the popular site. The coach reclines in his black leather chair and grins.
“Tweet it,” he says.
That’s all it takes.
Cal has made himself more than simply a basketball coach. He’s a celebrity. He rubs elbows with the biggest names in basketball and the biggest names in hip-hop. He thrives on the attention, and there is no program in the country where he’ll receive more attention than at Kentucky. Why do you think he gave ESPN unlimited access to his program, not only for this story, but for the ‘All-Access: Kentucky’ TV show that aired. He knew what kind of attention that would bring his program, and he knew that ESPN would eat it up because of the number of eye balls that would be on TV screens when the shows aired.
It’s made him one of the most polarizing coaches in the country. Some people hate him. Others deify him. Me? I love the way he runs his program, but I also realize that everything that comes out of his mouth — especially when their are tape recorders rolling — is spoken for a reason. Everything has spin. Every interview he grants, he grants for a reason. He goes into every press conference with a game-plan.
But the most important thing to note with Coach Cal is that regardless of how you feel about him, he does use his influence in a way that benefits more people than just the prospects who will likely be making millions of NBA dollars regardless of where they go to school.
Take, for example, the Hoops for Haiti telethon he hosted back in 2010 that raised more than $1 million for earthquake victims. Or the $75,000 he raised for Kentucky’s Children Hospital by simply tweeting out a code to give when ordering a Papa John’s pizza. Or the telethon that he’s hosting on Wednesday night to help victims of Hurricane Sandy.
If you want to call John Calipari a glorified used car salesman, I probably wouldn’t disagree with you. If you wanted to say that the real purpose of the charitable ventures was to build up public support if he’s ever caught “cheating”, I’d call you a cynic, but probably not that far off.
But at the end of the day, regardless of the reasons behind it, Cal is raising a ton of money for people that are in need of the donations.
And that’s a point that simply cannot be glossed over.
The most difficult thing to do when putting together a list of the nation’s best back courts if figuring out who, exactly, belongs listed as a member of the back court.
Take Brandon Ingram, for example. Last season, he played the four for Duke, typically lining up alongside Marshall Plumlee on the Blue Devil front line. But given his skill-set and his physical tools, he natural position is probably as a three. Then if you actually go back and watch the film, the role he played was essentially as a scoring guard, a two.
Positionless basketball, by definition, makes identifying positions a nightmare.
So we worked through a lot of these. Duke’s Jayson Tatum is listed as a guard because we expect him to play the way Ingram did last season. Villanova’s Josh Hart is in our back court rankings because, like Kansas’ Josh Jackson, his ability to rebound doesn’t change the fact that he is true wing. Hart’s teammate, Kris Jenkins, is more of a small-ball four and a mismatch in the front court, which is more or less the same way we view Dillon Brooks.
With that in mind, let’s get to our list of the top 15 back courts in the country.
1. Duke (Grayson Allen, Jayson Tatum, Luke Kennard, Frank Jackson, Matt Jones)
I have concerns about the point guard situation with the Blue Devils. I’ve written about that numerous times. There is no true point guard on the roster, just a bunch of guards that are at their best with the ball in their hands as they look to get their’s; a group of players that are extremely talented but that can struggle handling the ball if pressured. But at some point, you have to simply look at the talent and realize when picking nits is silly to do. Grayson Allen averaged 3.5 assists last season, spent the summer working on becoming a better playmaker and, with more talent around him, won’t have to look to score quite as often. Luke Kennard had twice as many assists as turnovers as a freshman. Frank Jackson was recruited as a point guard, even if he is still in the process of learning the position.
The point is this: Duke has their flaws, but at some point you have to look at the amount of talent on display. The Blue Devils have two potential first-team all-americans in their back court, one of whom was the NBCSports.com Preseason National Player of the Year and the other of whom could be the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. No one else can say that.
The Jayhawks slide into the No. 2 spot in these rankings by a fairly significant margin, largely due to the fact that we are considering Josh Jackson as a member of the back court. Jackson is big enough and tough enough that he could see some time at the four in small-ball lineups for Kansas, but considering that his long-term future is as a two-guard and that he is an excellent passer that can operate in pick-and-rolls, we see him as a perimeter weapon.
Jackson is another potential No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft, and when you combine him with the veteran duo of Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham, what you’re left with is the best perimeter defensive team in the country. Mason may be the toughest point guard in the country, Graham is a point guard by trade that has taken well to playing off the ball and Jackson is, well, a monster. If Svi Mylhailiuk, a junior who is four months younger than Jackson, reaches his potential, look out.
3. Villanova (Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart, Mikal Bridges, Phil Booth, Eric Paschall)
This Villanova perimeter is really exciting because of their versatility. There’s a real possibility that the Wildcats put a lineup on the floor with three 6-foot-7ish wings, Jalen Brunson at the point and Kris Jenkins at the five; the Villanova Death Lineup, if you will. Jay Wright has thrived when he’s had a roster that included a tough, intelligent point guard and a myriad of versatile wings, which includes all-american Josh Hart. Think about it like this: the Wildcats are the most likely team to repeat as champs since Florida did in 2007, and that’s despite the fact their best big man is Darryl Reynolds. That’s how good this back court is.
4. N.C. State (Dennis Smith Jr., Torin Dorn, Terry Henderson, Maverick Rowan, Markell Johnson)
I’ll freely admit that the Wolfpack are here because Dennis Smith Jr. has a chance to be something special this season. He should be better than Cat Barber, who averaged 23.5 points, 4.6 boards and 4.5 assists last year, and he’ll have a better supporting cast. Maverick Rowan, who averaged 12.9 points as a freshman, returns while Terry Henderson is finally healthy and Torin Dorn is eligible after redshirting last season. I have no idea what to make of this Wolfpack team, but if they struggle this season, it will not be because they lacked perimeter weapons.
5. Creighton (Maurice Watson Jr., Marcus Foster, Ronnie Harrell Jr., Davion Mintz, Isaiah Zierdan, Khyri Thomas, Kobe Paras)
I love this Creighton group mainly because I love the duo of Maurice Watson Jr. and Marcus Foster. Watson is a redshirt senior and one of the best point guards in college basketball. Foster? He had a monster freshman season at Kansas State before a disappointing sophomore campaign resulted in him transferring out of the program. He’s had a year to stew while sitting out at Creighton, meaning that he should come back in shape and angry this season.
6. Kentucky (De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Isaiah Briscoe, Dominique Hawkins)
There is no questioning the talent of this group. De’Aaron Fox is probably the best on-ball defender in the country and Malik Monk is one of the most entertaining players you’ll see this year. The issue is going to be perimeter shooting. Monk is inconsistent and something of a gunner. Isaiah Briscoe shot 13 percent from three last season. Dominique Hawkins shot 27 percent. Fox has never been known as a good perimeter shooter.
7. Louisville (Donovan Mitchell, Quentin Snider, Deng Adel, Tony Hicks)
This ranking, and Louisville’s spot in our preseason top 25, is a direct result of what we thing two of these kids will turn into. Donovan Mitchell is going to be on everyone’s list of this season’s breakout stars while Deng Adel may actually be the most talented player on the roster.
Edmond Sumner burst onto the scene last season with a tremendous redshirt freshman year. His knee troubles were behind him and he had grown to an explosive, 6-foot-6 lead guard. If he, and J.P. Macura, can both take a step forward, Chris Mack will have all the pieces he needs to make a run at Villanova assuming Trevon Bluiett keeps playing at an all-Big East level.
9. UCLA (Lonzo Ball, Bryce Alford, Aaron Holiday, Isaac Hamilton, Prince Ali)
The Bruins fall somewhere in between talent and performance. On paper, their back court belongs in the top three. Lonzo Ball might end up being the second-coming of Jason Kidd while Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton combined for 35 points and nine assists last season, and that’s before you consider Aaron Holiday. On the floor, they struggled to defend and churned out a losing season last year.
Josh Perkins and Silas Melson were the starting back court for the Zags in last year’s run to the Sweet 16. They’ll likely be coming off the bench this season as Nigel Williams-Goss, a former first-team all-Pac 12 point guard, and Jordan Mathews, who averaged 13 points and shot 41 percent from three for Cal the last two years, join the fray.
11. Rhode Island (E.C. Matthews, Jarvis Garrett, Stanford Robinson, Jared Terrell)
This all depends on how well E.C. Matthews recovers from his torn ACL. If he’s back to 100 percent, he’s a potential Atlantic 10 Player of the Year and URI is probably too low on this list. If he goes through the Jamaal Charles recovery process, the Rams are probably not going to be as good as some may expect them to be. The truth, like this ranking, is probably somewhere in the middle.
The Wildcats have quite a bit of talent in the back court even with Terrence Ferguson’s departure for Australia. Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons are all big time talents. The question is going to be how they fit together on the floor at the same time. Are there enough shots to go around?
13. North Carolina (Joel Berry II, Justin Jackson, Nate Britt, Kenny Williams, Theo Pinson, Seventh Woods, Brandon Robinson)
Maybe I’m just down on this group because they’re all mostly know commodities. Maybe I’m just not seeing the upside. I don’t know. Unless Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson take major steps forward as juniors, I just don’t see what there is here to get excited about.
14. Iowa State (Monte’ Morris, Naz Long, Matt Thomas, Donovan Jackson, Nick Weiler-Babb)
For my money, Monte’ Morris is one of the two or three best lead guards in all of college basketball. That’s why the Cyclones made this list despite Morris sharing the floor with a bunch of guys that don’t really move the needle. He makes them good enough to be relevant.
15. Maryland (Melo Trimble, Dion Wiley, Kevin Huerter, Jared Nickens, Anthony Cowan)
Like Morris, I am very high on Melo Trimble. He’s not quite as good as getting other people involved, but he will be on a mission after a disappointing sophomore season. He also has a better supporting cast that some may realize. That includes Anthony Cowan, who will allow Trimble to spend some time playing off the ball.
Florida State (Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Dwayne Bacon, Terance Mann, C.J. Walker, Trent Forrest, Patrick Savoy Jr.)
Miami (Ja’Quan Newton, Davon Reed, Rashad Muhammad, Bruce Brown, Anthony Lawrence, Dejan Vasiljevic)
Oklahoma State (Jawun Evans, Phil Forte III, Davon Dillard, Leyton Hammonds, Tavarius Shine)
Beginning in September and running up through November 11th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2016-2017 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
Today, we are previewing the Pac-12 conference.
The Pac-12 hasn’t had a Final Four team since UCLA made three straight from 2006-2008, and the conference has had a long stretch without an elite program.
Oregon is hoping to change that this season, as the Ducks return most of last season’s team that had a breakthrough year. Arizona and UCLA also have talented teams, and the Pac-12 has a lot of intriguing newcomers to keep an eye on this season, including the potential No. 1 pick in the draft in an unlikely spot.
1. Oregon remains a major threat: For a No. 1 seed with nearly everyone returning, the Ducks aren’t getting a lot of preseason hype. That shouldn’t be the case. Oregon brings back lethal scorers in Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey and Chris Boucher and Jordan Bell are back to protect the rim. Senior Dylan Ennis and freshman Payton Pritchard add guard depth to a team with Final Four aspirations.
2. Arizona reloads with some talented freshmen: The Wildcats lost plenty of talented seniors but Sean Miller reloaded with a strong recruiting class with some talented returning pieces. The Wildcats have a proven scorer in Allonzo Trier and they’ve added five-star freshmen Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons. Five-star big man Lauri Markkanen could also make an impact and Dusan Ristic returns up front, as does former top 10 recruit Ray Smith, who is coming off of his second ACL tear.
3. Arizona’s freshmen aren’t even the best freshmen entering the league: Arizona is bringing in three five-star prospects but the most exciting freshmen to watch will be Washington’s Markelle Fultz and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball. Fultz is getting buzz as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft while Ball is an exceptional passer with a high IQ and skill level.
4. UCLA has a lot to prove: Speaking of the Bruins, they’re in for an intriguing season after a disappointing 15-17 record. They return most of the core from last year with Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton, Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday all returning and Lonzo Ball is coming in. This Bruins offense should be tough to stop. But defense is the huge question mark and they have to learn to get stops.
5. Ivan Rabb returned to lead Cal: The former five-star center had a very good freshman season, averaging 12.8 points and 8.6 boards per game in only 28 minutes — and limited touches. But he opted to return for his sophomore season and now the Golden Bears are his team. Rabb has a serious chance to be an All-American and a lottery pick with a good season.
PRESEASON PAC-12 PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Markelle Fultz, Washington
Potentially the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, Fultz is an immensely talented guard who can play on or off the ball and scores in a number of ways. Also a skilled passer with good vision, it will be interesting to see how Fultz plays this season and if he’s able to carry Washington to the NCAA tournament with a relatively young roster.
THE REST OF THE PAC-12 FIRST TEAM:
Jordan McLaughlin, USC: Efficient and talented, the junior point guard should get full point-guard duties with Julian Jacobs leaving.
Kyle Kuzma, Utah: Kuzma was impressive in spurts as a sophomore, but with the amount of talent the Utes lose, he should put up monster numbers this season.
Dillon Brooks, Oregon: Health will be a factor for Brooks, but he’s a matchup nightmare with confidence in big games.
Ivan Rabb, Cal: If Rabb can protest the rim and add to his 1.2 blocks per game, he could be the best two-way big man in college hoops.
BREAKOUT STAR: Utah junior forward Kyle Kuzma has the look of potential star and with the Utes losing Jakob Poeltl and so many key players it could be his chance to shine. The 6-foot-9 forward can attack off the dribble or knock down jumpers, but he has to be more consistent.
COACH UNDER PRESSURE: Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar is bringing in NBA-caliber talent the last few recruiting classes, but he has to start winning games and making consistent runs to the NCAA tournament. The Huskies haven’t made the NCAA tournament in
ON SELECTION SUNDAY WE’LL BE SAYING … : There are some intriguing teams here with future pros, but the conference needs to prove it can make a run to the Final Four to quiet the doubters.
I’M MOST EXCITED ABOUT : The Pac-12 might be the most exciting league in the country this season when it comes to freshman guards. Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Rawle Alkins, Kobi Simmons are all headliners, but players like Charlie Moore, JaQuori McLaughlin and Payton Pritchard could also have key roles.
FIVE NON-CONFERENCE GAMES TO CIRCLE ON YOUR CALENDAR:
1. Oregon: This team has scoring, solid guard play and a nice mixture of post defenders to make another deep tournament run. If Dillon Brooks is healthy and others around him step up, Oregon has a serious chance to make a Final Four run.
2. Arizona: Watching how the new five-star pieces will mesh will be fascinating but this team undoubtedly has a lot of talented players. If former five-star freshman Ray Smith can return from multiple knee injuries then Arizona has a real shot at the league title.
3. UCLA: Defense is going to be the huge question for UCLA since we already know their offense is going to be tough to stop. If Lonzo Ball can help rally together this talented group of returnees, the Bruins could easily make a deep run in March — or have another chaotic season and miss the tournament.
4. Cal: This Cal team will look dramatically different from last season as this is clearly Ivan Rabb’s team. The sophomore big man should get more post touches and he has some decent players coming back like Jabari Bird, Kameron Rooks and Sam Singer.
5. Colorado: The Buffaloes have quietly been to four of the last five NCAA tournaments and have George King and Josh Fortune back this season. This team can really knock down perimeter shots and its gives them a huge boost on offense.
6. USC: The Trojans lost plenty of pieces from the rotation but they also have a lot of talent coming back. Point guard Jordan McLaughlin is efficient and forwards Bennie Boatwright and Chimezie Metu have the talent to make a leap.
7. Washington: This will be Markelle Fultz’s team but a lot of the role players from last season return. Noah Dickerson and Matisse Thybulle both started as freshmen and shot blocker Malik Dime returns as well.
8. Oregon State: The Beavers lost Gary Payton II but return most of their young core and add four-star point guard JaQuori McLaughlin. Sophomores Tres Tinkle, Stephen Thompson Jr. and Drew Eubanks give Oregon State a bright future.
9. Utah: With so many talented players leaving, there will be a lot of question marks for the Utes as Kyle Kuzma and Lorenzo Bonam lead. Transfers like David Collette (Utah State) and Sedrick Barefield (SMU) need to make an impact.
10. Arizona State: This team should have a lot of talented guards but the frontcourt remains a question mark. Tra Holder and Kodi Justice are back and they get Buffalo transfer Shannon Evans and Sam Cunliffe in the rotation.
11. Stanford: New coach Jerod Haase gets 10 of the team’s top 11 scorers back and the return of injured players like Robert Cartwright and Reid Travis will help. Marcus Allen, Dorian Pickens and Michael Humphrey are all returning double-figure scorers.
12. Washington State: The Cougars lost 17 straight to end last season as they’re in rebuilding mode. Seniors Josh Hawkinson and Ike Iroegbu should put up numbers but they need more help.
VIDEO: East Tennessee State players hit back-to-back halfcourt shots to win free tuition for two students
East Tennessee State’s Bluenanza hoops celebration reached a new level on Monday night when the team incredibly made back-to-back halfcourt shots to give two ETSU students free tuition.
ETSU students Garrett Pack and Jeremiah Pearson were both selected by the school to attempt halfcourt shots to win free tuition. Both students missed their attempts, but Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Dr. Richard Sander gave them a second chance to win with a unique twist — each student could pick one player on the team to shoot for them.
The students picked senior T.J. Cromer and junior Devontavious Payne to take the shots. Both players delivered clutch shots to secure free tuition for Pack and Pearson.
Talk about a ridiculous way to end a madness-type of event.
Utah landed an important player for its future on Sunday as four-star center Branden Carlson pledged to the Utes.
The 6-foot-10, 210-pound center is great commitment for Utah as he’s regarded as the No. 113 overall prospect in the Class of 2017 by Rivals. Carlson’s development is going to be especially intriguing because he won’t play for Utah until the 2019-20 season because of a two-year LDS mission out of high school, according to Scout.com’s Josh Gershon.
Since Carlson needed to add strength and weight, that should give him a little more time to bulk up before college begins. Utah also has freshman center Jayce Johnson just entering the program — another four-star center — so that spaces the two big men out by a few years.
Head coach Larry Krystkowiak has done a nice job developing big men, specifically Jakob Poeltl, and it appears to be paying off on the recruiting trail.
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) North Carolina won’t have a difficult time finding motivation this season.
The memories of losing in the NCAA championship game on a last-second 3-pointer to Villanova still sting more than six months later. It was the crushing final play in a 33-win season that saw the Tar Heels go from a preseason No. 1-ranked team questioned about its toughness to a group that matured enough to sweep the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles before reaching the Final Four.
There are enough veteran returnees for UNC to have the potential to do it again, driven by the memory of coming so oh-so-close to cutting down the nets in April.
“Every time I turn around and look up at the banners, where the national championship banners are,” junior Joel Berry II said, “sometimes it hurts me that we don’t have the 2016 national championship up there. So it’s just motivation to me.”
Some Tar Heels, including Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams, still haven’t watched film from the loss.
“I thought we had a great, great year but it’s just like somebody pulls your heart out and taunts you by shaking it in front of you,” Williams said. “But you’ve got to get over it.”
The Tar Heels (33-7, 14-4 ACC) have some big holes with the losses of four-year starter Marcus Paige – the guy UNC looked for when it needed a big shot – and Associated Press all-American Brice Johnson inside. But they return six of their top eight scorers while adding a top-10 recruiting class.
Berry is the top returning scorer (12.8 points), while fellow junior Justin Jackson (12.2) and senior big man Kennedy Meeks are returning starters. The Tar Heels also return ACC sixth man of the Isaiah Hicks, now likely to earn a promotion into the starting lineup.
On the bench, senior Nate Britt provides backcourt depth along with junior Theo Pinson – out indefinitely with a broken bone in his right foot – and sophomore wing Kenny Williams III.
The Tar Heels also will get help up front from McDonald’s All-American Tony Bradley Jr., who headlines a wing-heavy recruiting class.
Some other things to know about the Tar Heels this season:
PINSON’S INJURY: Pinson’s injury during a recent practice, announced Friday, has the potential to be a big blow. The versatile swingman is the team’s top defender, a good passer and a leader with a knack for keeping up team morale .
BERRY IN CHARGE?: Berry looks like the top candidate to take Paige’s role as the guy to entrust with taking the big shot. He was the team’s best outside shooter (38 percent from 3-point range) and led the team in assists, steals and free-throw percentage. And in a sign that Berry could be ready for a leap, he upped his game by averaging 13.7 points and shooting 50 percent in six NCAA Tournament games – ending with 20 points against Villanova.
HICKS’ FOUL TROUBLE: Keeping Hicks on the floor last season was a challenge, including twice in the final 10 games when he picked up four or five fouls in fewer than 10 minutes. The 6-foot-9 forward brings scoring and rebounding, and he was the team’s defensive player of the game eight times – third most on the team behind Paige and Berry. The Tar Heels need him out there this year with fewer frontcourt options.
JACKSON’S GROWTH: Jackson has good size on the perimeter and has been a complimentary scorer through his first two seasons. The Tar Heels need him to become a consistent scorer now in a leading role, especially when it comes to improving his 29-percent shooting from behind the arc last year. He’s an unselfish player and has occasionally seemed content to blend into the background, but the Tar Heels are tougher to stop when he’s playing assertively .
THE ROOKIES: The 6-foot-10 Bradley, a native of Bartow, Florida, will have a shot at immediate minutes for a team with only Meeks and Hicks returning to the frontcourt. The rest of that recruiting class brings depth on the wing with Brandon Robinson, Seventh Woods and Shea Rush.