Justin Jackson (left) and Jahlil Okafor (right) at the McDonald's All-American Game

Five thoughts and observations from the McDonald’s All-American week

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(McDonald’s All-American Game)

CHICAGO — The 2014 McDonald’s All-American game was played last night and the same saw a showcase of the future stars of college basketball. Having McDonald’s All-Americans on your roster is usually a pre-requisite to winning a national championship.

Since 1979, only Maryland in 2002 won a national title without a McDonald’s All-American on its roster. Wisconsin and UConn (Rodney Purvis is sitting out the year) could threaten that status in this year’s Final Four.

The game is a fun showcase that saw the West beat the East, 105-102, in the United Center in Chicago on Wednesday, but the week’s worth of practices and scrimmages are where the action takes place. NBA GMs and scouts will take in McDonald’s All-American practices and all of the top national talent evaluators are in the building as well.

Here are five thoughts from the week of practices and the game that saw a talented — but not star-laden — 2014 class compete.

1. I’m not sure who the No. 1 player in this 2014 class is yet, but I’m not sold on it being Jahlil Okafor, the No. 1 player for ESPN, Scout and Rivals. Although Okafor is a no-brainer contributor on the offensive end for Duke next season — and Jahlil won co-MVP honors for the West team on Wednesday — there are still some concerns in his game going into the collegiate level. Outside of three feet Okafor often puts the ball on the floor and attempts to spin and use his hips to create space instead of going up strong or quick, which will aid collapsing double teams at the college level. Okafor is also an average positional defender who is just okay at hedging ball screens. He’s a great area rebounder but average out-of-area rebounder at times. That being said, Okafor isn’t falling out of the top three, but there are some concerns about all of the bigs in this class.

2. To go along with the other bigs, Texas-native and unsigned center 7-foot center Myles Turner has a lot of potential with his ability to block shots and hit perimeter jumpers. Turner has added strength and still has good end-to-end speed. But he isn’t very laterally quick and at times struggles with footwork. 6-foot-8 Chicago-native and Kansas commit Cliff Alexander is aggressive, powerful and raw, but he still needs skill development and at times struggles against length. Kentucky commit and Indiana-native Trey Lyles is talented at 6-foot-9 but has slowdowns in effort and isn’t as tough on the interior as he needs to be at times. Similar things can be said of fellow Kentucky commit Karl Towns, a skilled 7-foot center with great skill but a power game that lacks at times.

3. So if Okafor isn’t the clear-cut No. 1 player, who is? Texas guard Emmanuel Mudiay will try to put SMU into the NCAA Tournament next season and he should pair nicely with current sophomore guard Nic Moore. The two can score or handle and Mudiay told NBCSports.com that they plan on playing both guard spots. Mudiay is a tremendous athlete at 6-foot-4, a lockdown defender, fierce competitor, and fantastic passer. He is at his best scoring off the dribble where he is nearly uncontainable because of his first step, size and athleticism. His jumper still needs some work, but he’s tough going to the rim. Findlay Prep guard Rashad Vaughn should be exactly the go-to perimeter scorer that UNLV needs next season as he’s a complete guard that can do a number of things well. At 6-foot-5, Vaughn has an advanced array of moves off-the-dribble, can go left or right with ease, he passes well with both hands and has improved cross-court vision. Vaughn is also a reliable jump shooter that has improved tremendously in consistency since last summer. He’s clearly put in a ton of work in his senior season. Arizona commit Stanley Johnson, a 6-foot-7 skilled and strong force on the perimeter also could stake his claim at being one of the best players during the week.

4. Multiple schools have multiple All-Americans. Kentucky and Duke each have four, North Carolina has three and UCLA and Kansas each has two. The rich get richer. The Wildcats add Lyles, Towns, point guard Tyler Ulis and shooting guard Devin Booker. Ulis is small at 5-foot-9 but incredible at running pick-and-rolls and running high ball screens while Booker is skilled and shows a great ability to score in multiple ways, although he’ll need to get more physical. Duke has Okafor, point guard Tyus Jones, shooting guard Grayson Allen and wing Justise Winslow. Jones is fantastic offensively and the most complete offensive package of any point guard, but he’s had a so-so defensive week as an on-the-ball defender. Allen has shown a pretty well-rounded guard package with great athleticism and bounciness. Winslow is the son of former McDonald’s All-American Ricky Winslow (’83, Houston) and is a really tough two-way wing that does anything to win. The Carolina trio of point guard Joel Berry II (6-foot-1), wing Theo Pinson (6-foot-5) and wing Justin Jackson (6-foot-8) are all skilled and should play well together. UCLA’s interior duo of Thomas Welsh (7-foot) and Kevon Looney (6-foot-9) played well at times this week and should help the Bruins interior depth. Kansas commits Alexander and 6-foot-8 wing Kelly Oubre both had great days and off days during the week.

5. Some good scoring guards headed to some unique schools in this game. Seton Hall is getting a competitive 6-foot-4 guard in Brooklyn native Isaiah Whitehead. Whitehead can really defend and loves hitting tough shots. Indiana is getting a tremendous scorer in James Blackmon Jr., who is definitely more of a scoring guard. On high screens, he’s devastating, but he’s not strong enough as a passer to be a primary handler. Maryland commit Melo Trimble is 6-foot-3 and can really get hot shooting the ball with his great-looking jumper. He has a tough time defending at times, but should get points off the bench at a minimum. Ohio State should get some scoring help from D’Angelo Russell, who’s sweet lefty jumper can go down from nearly anywhere on some tough looks. The only player I didn’t mention is Stanford commit Reid Travis, who is a tough 6-foot-7 forward that is athletic and plays with power moves but is a tad undersized. He’ll figure things out eventually.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
AP Photo/Kathy Willens
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.