Jameis Winston and Florida State beat Auburn for the BCS National Title on Monday night in one of the most thrilling football games that you’ll ever see.
Was it the best ever?
I’m probably the wrong person to ask, but I feel comfortable saying that there has never been a national title game that was markedly better than last night’s. It got me to thinking: if you could pick a matchup for the NCAA Tournament Title game right now, who would it be and why? Our panel answered. You can chime in in the comments:
Raphielle Johnson: Arizona vs. Syracuse.
This would be the ideal title game matchup right now if we were to go with a BCS-style game. Why? These are two of the most talented teams in the country, and they’ve backed it up with results as well.
While Arizona may not have the deepest rotation, head coach Sean Miller does have the pieces needed to attack just about any system they’ll encounter. And for as much as their need for a consistent perimeter shooter has been discussed, they’re still a Top 25 team in adjusted offensive efficiency per kenpom.com. Defensively their work has been excellent to this point in the season, and it helps to have athletes such as Nick Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Brandon Ashley when it comes to defending. As for Syracuse Jim Boeheim’s team put forth an uncharacteristic performance against Miami on Saturday, which is a credit to the Hurricanes more than an indictment of the Orange. Tyler Ennis has been one of the nation’s best point guards, and forwards C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant have done what was expected of them when the season began. The combination of talent and depth makes Syracuse a logical selection for this game.
Scott Phillips: Kansas vs. Kentucky
I’ll preface this by saying that I want to see the two teams playing the best ball in the country facing each other for the NCAA title, I just hope that it happens to be Kansas and Kentucky because they’re the two most talented teams I’ve seen play this season. No disrespect to the other top contenders that are playing better ball than the Jayhawks and Wildcats, but they don’t boast the type of talent that these two teams possess. Can you imagine the intrigue around the storylines? Wiggins in the title game. Kentucky’s freshmen trying to prove everyone wrong. Embiid vs. Cauley-Stein in the post. Self vs. Calipari. Now wrap your mind around those four incredible storylines for a second and realize that none of the four even intertwined. This would be a matchup for the ages; two titans of college basketball colliding with the best talent in the country on the floor. Hardcore fans, casual fans; they’d all tune in for this one. And it would hopefully be a hell of a game.
Terrence Payne: Florida vs. Syracuse
Personally, after going through the preseason debate of Michigan State or Kentucky for the No. 1 spot, I’d like to see a national title between the Spartans and Wildcats, to have that initial argument come full circle. Even though they played a week into the season. I’m not sure will see a rematch. I’m going with Florida and Syracuse as my ideal national championship. The Gators look the part of the contender as they get players back in the lineup (still waiting on Chris Walker) and as they begin to mesh as a team. The Orange still have key pieces from last season’s Final Four team in addition to point guard Tyler Ennis, who’s playing as well as any freshman in the nation. Maybe I’m wrong, but the ACC-SEC battle seemed to work last night in the BCS Championship Game, right?
Rob Dauster: Arizona vs. Michigan State
There’s been a lot of talk here about so-and-so being the two best teams in the country, and it’s all been wrong.
Because Arizona and Michigan State are the two best teams in the country, at least right now. That could end up changing if some of these super-talented freshmen turn into super-human basketball players in the next three months, but as of today, the matchup this is the matchup that I would most look forward to.
Think about it: there may not be two better game-planners and in-game coaches that Sean Miller and Tom Izzo, which is saying a lot considering the quality of coaching at the top level of college basketball. Nick Johnson is one of the nation’s best defenders, and he’ll be locked-up with the now-healthy Gary Harris, creating a matchup almost as intriguing as watching two of the nation’s most physically-gifted players in Aaron Gordon and Branden Dawson square off. Brandon Ashley and Adreian Payne will spend 40 minutes trying to out-face-up-game each other, while the key to the game could end up being the play of the point guards (Keith Appling and T.J. McConnell).
You guys are crazy if you don’t want to see this game happen with everything on the line.
Kevin Doyle: Arizona vs. Florida
If Arizona has holes, they’ve masked them well to date. The Wildcats are one of the most sound defensive teams in the country, have a rock solid point guard in T.J. McConnell, a center in Kaleb Tarczewski who is leaps and bounds better than a season ago, and a dynamite wing in Nick Johnson. All of that, and I haven’t even mentioned Aaron Gordon. The X-factor on this team is Gabe York. He has one role: to shoot and hit threes. He has been sub-par in that regard thus far, but if Sean Miller can rely on him for a couple of threes per game, Arizona’s offense becomes that much better.
As for Florida, they may seem like a peculiar pick, but I don’t think we have seen this Gators team even close to their best this season. Remember, they were playing without Scottie Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith to begin the season, and Kasey Hill has missed time due to injury. As good and talented as Kenny Boynton was during his career, Wilbekin is an upgrade, in my opinion. Plus, Casey Prather is better than anyone could have possibly projected this year. Florida hasn’t come close to peaking yet. If we have learned anything about Billy Donovan, it’s to not doubt him in March. Florida has been to the Elite Eight the past three seasons, and this season they make it to the championship.
George Washington tabs Maurice Joseph interim head coach
George Washington announced on Tuesday that Maurice Joseph has been named interim head coach for the 2016-17 season.
“I am eager and well prepared to begin this journey with the 13 student-athletes in our locker room and the tight-knit group of coaches that I will rely upon heavily,” said Joseph. “It is a distinct honor to have the opportunity to be a mentor to our team in this new role. I have the utmost confidence that I will validate the trust that Provost Maltzman and Patrick Nero have placed in me, and that we will deliver a product that makes our students, alumni and fans across the globe proud of GW Basketball and the university.”
Joseph has been a part of the GW coaching staff for the last five years, a full-time assistant for the last three.
He takes over for Mike Lonergan, who coached Joseph for three years at Vermont. Lonergan was fired two weeks ago stemming from an investigation into allegations of abuse.
Lonergan’s other two assistants, Hajj Turner and Carmen Marciariello, both were interviewed for the position as well, according to sources. Turner had been Lonergan’s associate head coach for the past five years, since Lonergan took over at GW.
“In his five years at GW, Maurice has shown himself to be selflessly dedicated to the success of our student-athletes and fully committed to our department and university,” said Nero, GW’s athletic director. “His leadership ability and basketball acumen will bring focus and stability to the talented team we have this year. Our team, basketball staff and athletic department are looking forward to working together for a successful season.”
We figured that it wasn’t enough just to simply list out who was on our All-America teams and who was our National Player of the Year, not when the decision is so wide open. Not when there are so many worthwhile candidates.
PRESEASON NATIONAL PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Grayson Allen, Duke
Picking the Preseason National Player of the Year this season was not an easy thing to do. This year’s freshman class will rival the Class of 2013 — Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon, etc. — in terms of overall talent, and there are a number of newcomers entering into a situation in which they should be able to shine. Hell, there are two potential No. 1 picks and a third projected lottery pick on Duke’s roster this season, and none of them are named Grayson Allen.
But the reason we picked all for this award is actually pretty simple: He’s the best player on the best team in the country. Don’t believe me? Think about this: As a sophomore, his first season playing consistent minutes at the collegiate level, Allen averaged 21.6 points, 4.6 boards and 3.5 assists while posting a 61.6 true shooting percentage. That hasn’t been done by a high major basketball player since 1993, which is as far back as the CBB Reference database has statistics. As far as I know, it’s never happened before by a player at the high major level. For comparison’s sake, when Damian Lillard was a senior at Weber State, he was one of the three other players to post those stats.
And Allen did it while playing in a conference that sent six teams to the Sweet 16 and two to the Final Four last season.
Markelle Fultz, Washington: Fultz was one of just two other guys that we truly considered for Preseason Player of the Year. He’s the current favorite to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft and, given Washington’s uptempo style of play, he has a chance to post massive numbers. The biggest question mark here is whether or not the Huskies are going to be good enough to dance; to win the award on a team that’s not a national title contender is hard to do. It’s only happened three times in the last two decades, and all three of those winners — Doug McDermott, Jimmer Fredette and Kevin Durant — averaged more than 26 points. McDermott and Fredette were on teams that earned No. 3 seeds in the NCAA tournament.
Josh Hart, Villanova: Hart was the third player to get serious consideration for National Player of the Year. He’s the guy that is most likely to have a Buddy Hield-esque, breakout senior season. As a junior with the Wildcats, Hart averaged a team-high 15.5 points and 6.8 boards, playing an integral role in Villanova’s small-ball attack. His ability to attack the glass and playing bigger than his 6-foot-5 frame will be even more important for Jay Wright’s club this season as they deal with a lack of size on the interior, but the key for Hart’s long-term future will be his three-point shooting. He made 35.7 percent of his threes last season and 46.4 percent the season before, but that was on relatively limited attempts and his flat shot and awkward release makes it tough to project him as a floor-spacer at the next level. Did he put in the work this offseason to make a jump the way Hield did last season?
Josh Jackson, Kansas: Jackson was ranked the No. 1 prospect in the Class of 2016 by a number of outlets, and there are still people that believe he’ll eventually be the best NBA player out of this group. A freak athlete like Andrew Wiggins, Jackson is a bit more polished and a whole lot tougher than Wiggins was a freshman. It’s not crazy to think that he can match Wiggins’ output (17.7 points, 5.9 boards, nation’s top perimeter defender), and considering Kansas is a preseason top five team, that puts him firmly in the All-America discussion. But here’s what will limit him: If Carlton Bragg makes the improvement many expect him to, Jackson’s offense may be cut into, and considering there are a pair of alpha-dogs that will be the guys called on to make big shots in key moments, it’s hard to see him having any “Wooden Moments”.
Ivan Rabb, California: We went with Rabb as the nation’s best big man this season. Like Fultz, Rabb could end up playing on a team that doesn’t reach the NCAA tournament. That’s concerning, but there’s a real chance that Rabb could end up averaging 18 points and 10 boards this season. Last season as a freshman, he averaged 12.6 points and 8.5 boards playing as a tertiary option on the offensive end. He would have been a lottery pick had he opted to declare for June’s NBA Draft.
SECOND TEAM ALL-AMERICA
Monte’ Morris, Iowa State: Morris is in an interesting situation this season. For the past three years, he’s defined himself as the model of point guard efficiency, a facilitator who makes big shots when he has to but who excelled as running a team and creating for the guys around him. This year? That talent around him is depleted, meaning Morris will be asked to become more of a volume scorer. We expect him to embrace that role and excel in it.
Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State: Smith tore his ACL last August, forcing him to miss his senior season of high school. But the injury meant that he was able to graduate high school early, enroll in college in January and spend the majority of his rehab time doing so with the Wolfpack trainers. The result? He’s returned from the injury as good as new, which is important considering the fact that so much of what makes Smith dangerous is his explosiveness. A potential top five pick, Smith is talented enough that he could take a perennially under-achieving team to the NCAA tournament.
Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga: You may not recognize this name. A former top 30 recruit, Williams-Goss transferred out of Washington after an all-Pac 12 season as a sophomore. He sat out last year as a transfer and will step in to the starting point guard role this season. Gonzaga lost Kyle Wiltjer and Domas Sabonis, but with the talent they have returning — and becoming eligible this season — the Zags have the look of a top ten team, and we expect Williams-Goss to be their engine.
Austin Nichols, Virginia: Nichols is going to be the star for this year’s Virginia team, which is once again a contender for the ACC title. As a sophomore at Memphis, the former McDonald’s All-American averaged 13.4 points, 6.7 boards and 3.4 blocks. He spent last season redshirting at Virginia and learning the system, which he is a perfect fit for. He’s a better big man that Anthony Gill, and Anthony Gill was one of the most underrated players in the country last season.
Thomas Bryant, Indiana: Bryant is another guy that had a chance to be a first round pick last season but opted to return to school. He had a promising first year in Bloomington, but it came with typical freshman mistakes: He was lost early in the year, especially on the defensive end. But Bryant has the tools, he plays extremely hard and he’s young for his grade; he was born five months after Josh Jackson.
THIRD TEAM ALL-AMERICA
Dillon Brooks, Oregon: Health is the big question with Brooks, and the reason that he’s a third-teamer instead of being in contention for the first team. Brooks has a foot injury, one that Oregon has already said could keep him out at the start of the season. If healthy, he’s a junior that averaged 16.7 points, 5.4 boards and 3.1 assists last season for a preseason top five team.
Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson: Blossomgame had a chance to leave college and head to the NBA Draft this spring, but he opted to return to school for his senior season. Blossomgame is certainly talented enough to be on this list — he averaged 18.7 points last season — but without the hype of a guy like Smith or Fultz, will he be able to get the Tigers to be a good enough team that people will play attention to him?
Jayson Tatum, Duke: The Blue Devils are the most talented team in the country, and trying to predict where production is going to come from in that offense is tough. Tatum is one of the best pure scorers in college basketball this season, but there’s a real possibility he could end up being the third or fourth leading scorer on this team. The good news? Jabari Parker and Brandon Ingram thrived in the role he’ll play. The bad news? Harry Giles III may be the best player on Duke come March.
Alec Peters, Valparaiso: Peters is the best player at the mid-major level in the country, a kid that graduated from school in three years and had the chance to leave for literally any other program in the country. He didn’t. He opted to stay at Valpo, where he’ll be the centerpiece of new head coach Matt Lottich’s offense. It’s not crazy to think he could average 23 points.
Bam Adebayo, Kentucky: Who is going to be Kentucky’s leading scorer this season? It’s tough to figure out, right? Our money is on Adebayo, their 6-foot-10 center. He’s a freak athletically with more of a face-up game than he gets credit for. Given the lack of perimeter shooting for the Wildcats this season, Adebayo will be asked to carry much of the load.
We named Duke’s Grayson Allen the Preseason Player of the Year. Allen spoke exclusively to NBCSports.com about how things have changed for him in the last 18 months, going to unlikely hero to Duke star to a despised figure in college basketball.
The worst part wasn’t that he had gone from being celebrated as the surprising hero of a team that had won a national title to the Most Hated Man In College Sports.
The worst part wasn’t that he followed a path, carved by Christian Laettner and taken by J.J. Redick before him, that he never wanted to be on. It wasn’t that he couldn’t go anywhere online or watch any sports on TV without seeing, reading or hearing someone ridiculing him, or that he had heard the four most soul-crushing words any child can hear their parents say: “We’re disappointed in you.”
The worst part?
For Grayson Allen, in the midst of a year where he was playing the best basketball he had ever played and dealing with more public and personal turmoil than he had ever before dealt with, the worst part was that he knew that he had done this to himself.
It only took two weeks for Grayson Allen to fulfill the legacy he never wanted.
It started on a Big Monday, the day after Peyton Manning had won his second Super Bowl, when the Blue Devils hosted a top ten Louisville team that was just three days removed from announcing that they would be self-imposing a postseason ban due to a burgeoning escort scandal. All eyes were now on basketball, and all college basketball fans were tuned into to this game.
And Allen, who was well on his way to a second-team NBCSports.com All-American season, delivered with a moment that immediately went viral. After getting knocked to the floor on a drive to the rim early in the second half, Allen tripped Louisville’s Ray Spalding to stop a breakaway, a move that looked intentional but was awkward enough to earn Allen the benefit of the doubt.
That benefit went away two weeks later when, in the waning seconds of a 15-point win over Florida State, Allen extended his left foot backwards, sending Xavier Rathan-Mayes sprawling to the Cameron Indoor Stadium floor. This time, there was no denying it.
It was blatant.
It was intentional.
And it set off a firestorm.
The video was posted on every website. His picture was broadcast on every sports network. ‘Should Grayson Allen be suspended?’ and ‘Is Grayson Allen a dirty player?’ was a topic discussed by every personality paid to have an opinion.
Imagine if your worst moment was broadcast live to millions of people, if the dumbest thing you ever did — the event that plays over and over in your head as insomnia takes hold — was replayed over and over on Sportscenter. Imagine if those same videos, accompanied by a story written by someone you’ve never heard of that details how annoying you are or how punchable your face is, can forever be found by simply typing your name into Google.
That’s where Allen was when the calendar turned from February to March.
“I knew that I made mistakes,” Allen said. “I messed up. I always had to be reminded of that and see that on TV. It was tough. It’s embarrassing to see my mistakes, stuff I regret a lot, being replayed for everyone to see.”
Four months earlier, Allen was the player everyone had pegged as the nation’s breakout star. He wasn’t even a year removed from igniting Duke’s 2015 National Championship run, going from being a seldom-used, confidence-sapped freshman to the spark in a come-from-behind win over Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament title game. He had all the makings of being the Next Great Duke Villain — he’s white, he’s handsome, he plays with an edge and he’s damned good, good enough to be named the 2016-17 NBCSports.com Preseason National Player of the Year — but simply being the footnote to the story of Coach K finally embracing, and succeeding, with the one-and-done model was not enough to make him memorable.
Not in the same way that Laettner and Redick are memorable.
It works like this: there is no middle ground with Duke. They’re like the New York Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys in that fans either love them or actively root for them to lose, regardless of opponent. Playing at Duke comes with the caveat that you will be disliked because of the jersey you wear for you entire college career. It works that way for everyone, whether they’re white or black, good or bad, tall or short, whatever.
But when you reach the level of a Laettner and a Redick, it changes the equation. That’s when the target gets put on your back, and Allen got there last season. He averaged 21.6 points, 4.6 boards and 3.5 boards — which, when combined with his 61.6 true shooting percentage, gave him a stat-line that had never been accomplished at the high-major level before.
Throw in a pair of tripping incidents in the span of two weeks, and Allen didn’t stand a chance. The hate he had to deal with last season was arguably more intense than anything any previous Duke player has dealt with. All Laettner had to do was to shut off the TV. Twitter didn’t exist and FaceBook didn’t allow anyone that wasn’t a college student until after Redick graduated. Allen can’t post on Instagram or Twitter without getting a barrage of responses telling him just how terrible of a person he is.
“There’s nothing you can do to fully get away from it,” he said.
Allen spoke with both Laettner and Redick about how to deal with the backlash, and their message was simple: Tune it out.
“Listen to the voice of our team and our coaches and not worry about stuff from the outside that’s being said,” Allen said. “[Coach K] has been through so many seasons and had so many players come through. He knows how to deal with it.”
But they also told him that there is no blueprint for this, that different people have to find different ways to cope. He’s not Laettner and he’s not Redick. Laettner loved playing the role of the heel. Redick learned to embrace it, to use the vile things spewed from student sections as motivation, but it was also a defense mechanism.
“Instead of getting hurt by it, if this is who they want me to be, then I’m going to have fun being that villain,” former Duke assistant Chris Collins explained. At the time, Collins and Redick were, and still remain, incredibly close. “I think it helped him deal with all the things that were coming his way.”
That’s not Grayson.
He doesn’t like the attention. He doesn’t want the spotlight. “He never has,” his mom, Sherry, said, which is what made his decision this spring so interesting.
Allen had a chance to declare for the NBA Draft. He likely would have been a first round pick — potentially top 20 — and, in a worst-case scenario, he would have been taken early in the second round and landed a guaranteed contract. Living out a life-long dream while cashing NBA paychecks or going to class five times a week while spending another full season getting abused every time he leaves Duke’s Durham campus? Play a role on an NBA team or see a new crop of freshmen come in and cut into your shots and minutes?
It seems like an obvious decision, and for Grayson, it was.
Just not the way many expected.
“Getting that Duke degree, having the opportunity to play as a lead guard, having the opportunity to play with an extremely talented group,” Allen said, listing the reasons why staying in school was the easy choice. “Step outside my comfort zone more, talk more, be a leader more. I definitely think about winning another national championship.”
Sherry Allen is from the heart of SEC country. She understands how the life of a college athlete can be under a microscope, that a superstar for a powerhouse program living in the fishbowl of a college campus can have a mistake magnified out of proportion.
But she’s a football fan.
She didn’t realize that, in sending her son to Duke, she was potentially setting him up for this. It never crossed her mind, largely due to the fact that she never thought her son would put himself in this situation.
“The word ‘mad’? We weren’t ‘mad’ at Grayson, we were disappointed in Grayson,” Sherry said, realizing full-well that, for someone Grayson’s age, disappointing one’s parents is far worse than angering them. “We were disappointed because he wasn’t smart. And Grayson is smart. He let down for a brief moment, and he was not smart and he made a mistake. That was the disappointment for us.”
And that disappointment led to anguish as the newscycle spiraled.
“To tell you that I wasn’t hurt, I was,” she said. “I think the biggest hurt that I had personally was the name calling. To hear adults, who are parents and have children and are professionals, call names out to your child knowing that they are a parents their self, that was the biggest hurt to me.”
She tried not to let her son see it, because he was able to move on from this. He could put the trips and the hatred that it spawned behind him. He could block out the noise. He could focus on the message from within the team. She knew he could do all of that, and she was right. He played some of his best basketball down the stretch, leading Duke to the Sweet 16 despite playing without their starting power forward and with a six-man rotation.
But he wouldn’t have been able to do that if he knew that what he did had hurt the women he calls “such a big sweet-heart.”
“What Grayson would not be able to handle is if he knew that we were hurt, showing hurt and feeling hurt,” she said. “He would not have been able to move on from that.”
That’s what led to the phone calls.
As Grayson tells it, whenever his mom saw or heard or read something about him, she would call him to take her mind off of it. As Sherry tells it, she was simply calling to make sure that he was OK, that what she was seeing — whether it be a segment on First Take or a FaceBook post from a family friend — wasn’t bothering him. The truth doesn’t matter, because the end result of those conversations was that Sherry and her husband were able to get their message across to him: Move on. It happened, and unless you can go back and change the past, learn from it, grow from it, and let it go.
That’s the message that Allen was hearing from his coaches, too. It’s what he was hearing from his teammates. It’s what he’s spent the last eight months doing.
The question now is where he goes from here, because the tricky part is that playing with an edge is what makes Allen as good as he is. There’s a toughness to him, a competitiveness that cannot be taught. Ask anyone associated with the Duke program the last two years — players or coaches that were forced to scrimmage with the undermanned Blue Devils in practice last season — and they’ll all tell you playing against Grayson Allen is a miserable experience.
He’s never not going to play hard. He’s never not going to be super-competitive. He’s been that way since he first learned what sports were. But last year, he was competitive to a fault. Last year, he let the intensity of the moment get to him. He tripped Spalding after he didn’t get a call on a drive to the rim that left him on the deck. He tripped Rathan-Mayes after the Seminole point guard bumped him.
In those situations, he was the one that reacted.
But what happens if it’s not Allen’s fault?
The perfect encapsulation of just how bad it got for Allen last season came at the very end of their season. Oregon’s Dillon Brooks had just buried a long three to beat the shot clock with a few seconds left and the game no longer in doubt. After Allen dribbled out the clock, Brooks bumped into him and the announcer said that Allen “shoved” Brooks away.
That’s not the case. It was relatively harmless — as Allen tells it, Brooks apologized for running into him, complimented him for being a good player, Allen responded with a “you too, good luck”, and that was that — but since it was Duke and Grayson Allen, and since Coach K was caught on camera lecturing Brooks about the shot in the handshake line, it turned into a massive story.
The point isn’t to argue the merits of Coach K deriding opposing players. The point is that any little flashpoint involving Allen is going to become ‘a thing’ very quickly, and it’s fair to wonder if a fear of another incident — either consciously or subconsciously — will affect the way he plays this season.
There’s nothing he can say that will change this, either. This isn’t something that he’ll be able to fix during what is, in all likelihood, his final year on campus. He can’t un-light that fuse. That’s what happens when you’re caught on camera taking a pair of cheap-shots. Ask Draymond Green how the court of public opinion reacts.
But regardless of your opinion on Allen, it is important to remember here that he returned to school despite the fact that he’ll have to face the music every night. He returned to school because he wants to get his Duke degree, which he’s hoping to finish in three years. He passed up on guaranteed NBA money to chase a second NCAA title.
Education matters to him.
Winning matters to him.
The program he plays for matters to him.
He is everything we want our college stars to be.
And he knows that two moments of weakness ensured that he’ll never be remembered that way.