College Basketball Nation: Jared Sullinger

In the weeks leading up to the June 27 NBA draft, we’ll be taking a look at the 20 schools that have produced the best pros in the modern draft era (since 1989, when the draft went from seven to two rounds). Click here to read Eamonn Brennan’s explanation of the series, which will be featured in the Nation blog each morning as we count down the programs from 20 to 1.

Top Five NBA Draftees Since 1989

1. Michael Redd (2000)
2. Mike Conley (2007)
3. Jim Jackson (1992)
4. Evan Turner (2010)
5. Jared Sullinger (2012)

Sixth man: Daequan Cook (2007)

The rest: Jon Diebler, Byron Mullens, Kosta Koufos, Greg Oden, Ken Johnson, Scoonie Penn, Lawrence Funderburke

Why they're ranked where they are: Because this is a solid, albeit not particularly inspiring, list of former NBA draftees? Let's start with that.

If you're young enough to have just started watching professional basketball in the past few years, and have only seen an aging, slightly paunchy Redd chucking 3s for the Phoenix Suns, you might not be aware of just how good of a pro he was for almost all of the aughts. Or maybe you just aren't aware the Milwaukee Bucks exist. (Sorry, Myron.) But they do, and Redd is easily their best player of the past decade-plus. From 2003-04 to 2008-09, he averaged 21.7, 23.0, 25.4, 26.7, 22.7, and 21.2 points per game, respectively; he was one of the purest perimeter scorers in the NBA, an NBA All-Star in 2004 and a member of the U.S. Men's Olympic "Redeem Team" in 2008. Basketball-Reference's Elo Fan Ratings list Redd as the No. 207th-ranked player of all time, ahead of Allan Houston and behind Steve Francis. That sounds about right, and it's not too shabby for a guy drafted 43rd in 2000. Redd was a good pro.

[+] EnlargeMichael Redd
Jonathan Daniel/AllsportMichael Redd filled it up during his three seasons at Ohio State, then averaged 19.6 points in a 12-year NBA career.
Conley currently is a good pro -- an intelligent do-everything-well point guard lynchpin for a very good Memphis Grizzlies team, which was just eliminated by the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals this week. Conley struggled early in the NBA but has improved dramatically since, making the much-derided $45 million contract extension he signed in 2010 look more like a steal than a boondoggle.

Meanwhile, don't sleep on Jackson, either. The former Buckeyes guard played for 12 mostly bad teams in his 14-year career, so it's easy to forget how productive he was. But a 14-year career is impressive in and of itself, even before you see Jackson's 14.3 points/4.7 rebounds/3.2 assists per-game splits.

Those three guys are good enough to get Ohio State on this list and good enough to bump the Buckeyes above No. 20 Syracuse. But the rest of the list -- with the possible exception of Turner, who is clearly talented but reportedly not the easiest person to play with -- makes it hard to go beyond that.

Why they could be ranked higher: Conley, Redd and Jackson are really a solid group of pros whose careers all began at disparate times; that speaks to at least some consistency with the production of NBA talent even before Thad Matta made the Buckeyes a national title contention stalwart. Redd's heights were high; his averages of 25.4 and 26.7 points in consecutive seasons is no joke, nor is membership on a hyper-talented national team that won a symbolically redemptive gold medal in Beijing. Conley might still be underrated in general; many of the things he gives the Grizzlies (control, smarts, great perimeter defense) don't show up in box scores. Jackson, as we've already laid out, is definitely underrated as a pro.

Really, the thought that OSU could potentially go higher comes down to exactly that: potential. Turner could yet morph into a very good NBA player. Sullinger is just getting started but proved he can rebound in the league as a rookie. Mullens averaged double figures in Charlotte this season. Even Oden, whose NBA career has been such a massive disappointment, is still just 25 years old. If he can get to a team on which he can get healthy this summer (and ifs don't get bigger than this, I realize), there's no reason he couldn't change course on what has thus far been a tragic career arc.

Also, if you're the type of person to award extra points for awesome names, Lawrence Funderburke is a big-time asset.

Why they could be ranked lower: Because, with the exception of Conley, almost all of the players on this list have produced what they've produced on bad teams. Sure, Mullens made a nice little jump this season, but he was playing for the worst franchise in the sport. Oden is less a basketball player than a cautionary tale about the fallibility of irregular human biology. Sullinger has a ton to prove. Turner is trending upward, but he still shot 41.9 percent in his first featured season in Philadelphia.

Cook played a solid bench sharpshooter role for the Oklahoma City Thunder in their emergence in recent years (though he was weirdly buried by mad basketball genius Tom Thibodeau for the Chicago Bulls this season), and he gets some credit for maximizing that all-important one NBA skill. But when Cook is your sixth man, you're not going to be near the top of this list.

What’s ahead? We've already discussed the varying futures on the table for Turner, Sullinger, Mullens, as well as the unlikely-but-still-possible resurrection of Oden, so let's focus on the prospects. Deshaun Thomas is Ohio State's one draft entrant this season, and he isn't particularly highly regarded by NBA scouts. Thomas is seen as a tweener who isn't athletic enough or a good enough shooter to play guard and not big enough to score over taller defenders in the post. I'm more bullish; when you're a born scorer like DT, you find a way to get those buckets.

Looking ahead, the clearest NBA prospect on the Buckeyes' 2013-14 roster is LaQuinton Ross, an immensely gifted 6-foot-8 wing with an NBA body, who can handle and hit 3s, among other skills. Ross blossomed in the NCAA tournament in March, and he'll be expected to take on a larger scoring load next season. Whether he maximizes it is yet to be seen. Likewise, Sam Thompson doesn't get much NBA love, but he's a great defender with good size, and that should hold up if he gets a shot at the league.

Final thoughts: Ohio State always has been, and probably always will be, a football school. Matta has changed that reputation more than any other coach in OSU history; he's spent the better part of the past decade recruiting top talent and fashioning it into tough, defensive-minded teams that challenge for national titles. Redd and Jackson prove that NBA talent at OSU isn't limited to the Matta era.

If Matta keeps moving at his current pace, Ohio State could climb much higher in this list in a decade's time. Right now? It's worthy of inclusion … but only just.

NBA draft's biggest surprises

June, 29, 2012
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Andre DrummondJerry Lai/US PresswireThe Pistons drafted Andre Drummond with the No. 9 overall pick, mostly based on potential.
For college hoops/NBA nerds like me, the NBA draft is an event.

Chinese food. High-def TV. A comfortable chair. An iPad/laptop to follow Chad Ford’s “Matrix”-like draft coverage. (When I logged off, he was teasing his 2025 mock draft, which will likely feature the children of D-Wade and LeBron.)

I anticipated more trades. And I had no idea David Stern would take on the hostile crowd the way he did. Fascinating stuff.

And there were certainly some surprises with the various selections. Some good. Some bad. Some baffling.

The Good ...

Jared Cunningham to Dallas at No. 24: I think Cunningham is a major sleeper. It’s nice to see a guy get credit for defensive prowess. He’s a versatile guard. His defensive skills (2.5 spg) will make him a valuable player on Day 1. He’s big (6-foot-5), too. This pick may have turned a few heads, but Cunningham is legit. Nice sleeper.

Royce White to Houston at No. 16: I figured some team was hiding its interest in White, a high-level passer and ball handler trapped in a power forward’s body. Some called his anxiety disorder a red flag prior to the draft. But the concern was so over-the-top, I started to think that some NBA squad probably wanted that. Let everyone assume he’s not top-20 and then grab him. The Rockets did that. He has NBA strength right now. And the best part about White’s game is he’ll facilitate an offense and not worry about buckets. Just wants to win.

Austin Rivers to New Orleans at No. 10 : Some booed this pick. Rivers couldn’t escape the haters at Duke. He either did too much or too little. Here’s the thing. He played within an offense that didn’t have a true point guard. He had to run the offense and create shots. Now, he can focus on the latter. Rivers has an NBA game. He’s not going to face the zones and traps that teams needed to lock him up his freshmen season. He’ll have the freedom to roam. This is how he learned the game. The son of Boston Celtics and former NBA standout Doc Rivers will be a different player at the next level. Might not make sense right now. But give it a year.

The Bad ...

[+] EnlargeDion Waiters
Mark Konezny/US PresswireDion Waiters, a guard drafted by Cleveland, averaged 12.6 points per game at Syracuse last season.
Dion Waiters to Cleveland at No. 4: So NFL officials aren’t the only ones who fall for athletes after one or two workouts. Based on reports, Waiters had a few amazing auditions in Vegas and the Cavs fell in love with him. The former Syracuse star is a great athlete who attacks the rim. He’ll push the pace and get buckets in transition. But Harrison Barnes is more polished. Thomas Robinson, too. Big risk for the Cavs here. And Barnes and Robinson could have better careers.

Andre Drummond to Detroit at No. 9, Meyers Leonard to Portland at No. 11: Plenty of potential with both players. Drummond has the gift to form a potent frontcourt with Greg Monroe. In stretches, Leonard was a stud. One of his biggest challenges at Illinois was the limited touches he received. They didn’t feed him enough.

But I can’t justify taking these two over North Carolina’s duo of Tyler Zeller and John Henson. Henson blocked 2.9 shots per game last season with few fouls (1.6). So many knocks against his limited strength. How about the fact he’s a pure shot-blocker who plays the ball and not the body? Few possess that skill. Milwaukee should be happy with that pick. Zeller, who was traded to the Cavs, was the ACC’s player of the year. He averaged 16.3 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 1.5 bpg. He’s 7 feet tall. Both Drummond and Leonard have had some motor issues. Can’t say that about Zeller and Henson. Drummond and Leonard were drafted on potential. Zeller and Henson produced. I just don’t get it.

Miles Plumlee to Indiana at No. 26: Over Draymond Green? Over Arnett Moultrie? Over Perry Jones III? At this point, you’re not necessarily drafting according to need. You just want a good player. Plumlee is big (7-foot), but he averaged just 6.6 ppg and 7.1 rpg as a senior at Duke. I just think Indiana had a chance to pick multiple players with more talent and higher ceilings.

More surprises ...

• Barnes fell to No. 7, but he might average 15.0 ppg for the next decade. Might not be a star, but he could have the most consistent career in the entire draft.

• I don’t know about Jared Sullinger’s back. But if he’s healthy, he’ll be one of the best players in this draft. He faced bigger, more athletic players in college. High school, too. Yet he keeps winning. That should count for something, too.

• Perry Jones III slipped all the way to 28th? Just ... wow. Read more of my take on this here.

• Not sure why so many teams passed on Draymond Green, who fell all the way to No. 35. He played point guard in the NCAA tournament. He’s a strong rebounder. Knows how to be a leader. Not the most athletic forward in the draft, but he’ll surprise people next season. The Warriors made the right move when they took him in the second round.

• Maurice Harkless is very athletic. Not to mention he was one of the best athletes in the draft. I’m just not sure what else he has to offer Philly right now. He might develop into a stud (15.3 ppg for St. John’s). But there’s a lot of work to do.

• I think the Grizzlies made a great pick at No. 25 when they grabbed Tony Wroten (16.0 ppg last season). The confines of college basketball were not suited for this guard’s strengths. He’s a free spirit on the floor. And the NBA’s flow will really enhance his game. He’ll be a different (better) player at the next level.

• This isn’t surprising, but it’s ironic. The Minnesota Timberwolves picked Purdue’s Robbie Hummel at No. 58. Two years ago, Hummel tore his ACL for the first time during a matchup against the Gophers in Minneapolis. That was the beginning of a tough road for Hummel, who tore his ACL again about eight months later. I wouldn’t count him out. He could stick with the Wolves and earn a spot in next year’s rotation.
Harrison BarnesJerry Lai/US PresswireThanks to another season at UNC, Harrison Barnes' draft stock slipped a bit from a year ago.
Perry Jones III fidgeted as he waited for his name to be called. Jared Sullinger wasn’t even invited to Newark, N.J. Terrence Jones couldn’t crack the lottery. Harrison Barnes was picked seventh.

A year can change everything.

The 2012 NBA draft re-emphasized the risks talented freshmen (and talented players in general) take when they return. The four aforementioned players were projected lottery picks last season. Three of them weren’t even top-17 Thursday.

This season’s draft was unique. The NBA lockout definitely influenced both Joneses, Sullinger and Barnes. Without it, they’d probably be enjoying the offseason following their rookie seasons in the NBA.

Returning for another year cost them. The additional year of college basketball only subjected the elite sophomores to more scrutiny that ultimately impacted their draft status and affected the money attached to their first pro contracts. Plus, they were competing against a fleet of freshmen that hogged the lottery.

In my opinion, it’s always best to leave when you’re hot.

For two years, Sullinger was an All-America big man. He was dominant. And in Year 2, he improved. He developed more range. He added a few wrinkles to his post game. He lost weight, which enhanced his conditioning.

But he also suffered a mid-season back injury that plagued him in the draft. Pre-draft tests scared teams. And suddenly the most complete big man in college -- perhaps for the past two years -- didn’t have a game that would translate to the NBA. It wasn’t just the back issue.

He wasn’t athletic enough. He couldn’t shoot over the top of taller guys. The sprinkling of criticism quickly turned into a downpour. And Sullinger ended up being drafted by Boston at No. 21.

Perry Jones III had a chance to leave last year, too. Although he faced a short suspension for NCAA violations, Jones decided to return. And that didn’t help his cause.

A year ago, he was the "potential" guy. Could be Kevin Garnett. Could play three positions in the pros. A 6-11 forward who can handle the ball and roam in the half court? I’ll take him.

During the 2011-12 season, however, Jones was knocked for his inconsistent motor. All that talent. But he didn’t dominate the way we thought he would.

Concerns about his energy level and reports of a knee problem led to his fall all the way to No. 28.

I can’t feel sorry for a guy who ended up with the Oklahoma City Thunder, a squad that could win the title next year. (Although it’s difficult to find a niche on a team that’s developed that level of chemistry.)

But Jones wasn’t supposed to be available that late. He wouldn’t have lasted nearly that long in the 2011 NBA draft.

Terrence Jones won a title with Kentucky. So I’m sure he doesn’t regret his decision to return. But he’s another example of a guy who ended his freshman season as a lottery pick but entered the draft after his second year with a different status.

Jones played with three other first-rounders (Marquis Teague, Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist). So it was difficult to emerge from the pack (although I thought he should have been top 12 in my opinion, based on his NCAA tourney performance).

Golden State took Harrison Barnes at No. 7. Unthinkable a year ago. He was a top-3 guy last season, but the pre-draft buzz cast doubt on his ability to shine at the next level.

I know we would have witnessed a different draft without last year’s lockout. But the same theory applied this year.

It’s usually best to leave when you’re a projected lottery pick unless you have a shot at the No. 1 slot.

I know college players have other goals. They want to win national titles. They want to enjoy the college lifestyle.

They have to consider a multitude of criteria as they make their decisions.

But based on draft status alone, it’s much easier to fall than it is to climb when they decide to come back for another season.

Thursday night’s draft was another example.
Thomas Robinson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist & Andre DrummondUS PresswireWhere will Thomas Robinson (left), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Andre Drummond end up?
That headline ought to be fairly self-explanatory. Here are the 10 things I'm most intrigued to see in Thursday night's NBA draft:

1. Who goes No. 1 overall?

(Kidding. I hope I have your attention now.)

2. OK, seriously, who goes No. 2?

Now this is an intriguing question, one we've argued before in this space. With Anthony Davis such an obvious No. 1 pick, this is really the only top-two suspense in this draft, made all the more so by the simple fact that the Bobcats could pick just about anybody and become immediately better. Under "needs," the Bobcats have listed "a basketball team." They could trade their pick. They could draft Thomas Robinson and shoot for the stars, or take Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and try to work on a winning culture, or do something crazy and take Andre Drummond. Whatever they do, it will be fascinating to see the implications for the other teams in the top five, and the players they select.

3. Will someone reach for Andre Drummond?

If I was a general manager, I'd be horrified to take Drummond. I'd also be horrified to not take him. There's all that physical talent. There's that apparent basketball apathy. The only time I remember seeing Drummond openly enjoying basketball as a freshman was that tip-dunk against Syracuse (just YouTube it). Being able to do that to wide-open tip-dunks would bring a smile to my face, too. Battling with NBA bigs? Not as much fun!

Austin Rivers
Mark Dolejs/US PresswireWhere will Austin Rivers, the talented yet polarizing guard from Duke, end up?
4. Who loves (or hates) Austin Rivers?

A year ago, I randomly polled some of the NBA scouts at the Nike Skills Camps in Chicago for their opinions of Rivers, the incoming Duke guard. A few loved his crossover and his swagger; others had big lingering questions about what he was (A 2-guard? A point? A combo scorer? Monta Ellis?) at the next level. Even then, he was polarizing.

That didn't change much during his one-year stopover at Duke. Rivers struggled early, had big moments (remember this?), never totally put it all together, and Duke went out in the first round to 15-seeded Lehigh. It's clear it hasn't changed at all since the NBA draft process began.

Resident draft expert Chad Ford does not like Rivers one bit, and plenty of NBA scouts have told him why: "However, here's my knock on Rivers. He thinks he's Kobe. He's not. He doesn't have the length, the height, nor the athletic ability. Take those things away from Kobe, and he's Ricky Davis -- an irritating ball hog no one wants to play with and who isn't good enough to warrant the diva act."

On the other hand, Rivers has the best dribble moves in the draft, a well-respected coach-father who knows everything about how to be a pro in the league, and a shooting mechanic ripe for improvement. I'm just as torn as everyone else. I can't wait to see where he lands, and how the franchise that takes him will affect his development.

5. More trades! Please?

On Wednesday night, my buddy Phil asked me if the draft was on. When I told him it was Thursday night, he said, "Oh. I just can't care about the NBA draft." Phil is not an NBA fan. I am. Which is why I am fascinated by the slew of trade rumors out there already, from the Houston Rockets' play for Dwight Howard to the Lakers dangling Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace. Always one of the best parts of the draft, at least for me. Your mileage may vary.

6. Which late first-round team will be smart and take Draymond Green?

I realize the dude's 22. He's definitely a tweener and there are 20 players in the draft with more enticing measurables. But Day-Day is about as versatile as any player in this draft, and he's a winner. He won't be an All-Star, but he will be a perfect fit on any already-good team looking for a solid rotation piece and a great teammate to boot. And he'll get a chance to play for a good team right away. I think that's a huge blessing in disguise.

7. How far will Jared Sullinger slide?

Get this: The guy who spent two years dominating the Big Ten, whose freshman season statistically most closely resembled Kevin Love's, who earned All-American honors and led his team to a Sweet 16 and a Final Four, might actually fall out of the first round. I get the back issues scaring people slightly, but come on! He was a top-five pick last year! NBA GMs, get it together!

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireHow far will Jared Sullinger fall on Thursday night?
8. Speaking of Sullinger ... what will this draft say about staying in school?

More often than not in the one-and-done era, players promised top-10 draft picks left after just one season in school. It just made too much sense. Last year's lockout changed that calculus, and college basketball was better for it. We got to see sophomore seasons from Sullinger, Harrison Barnes, Terrence Jones and Perry Jones, all of whom could have been top-five picks in last year's draft. This June, only Barnes has retained his top-five status. Terrence Jones is coming off being a top rotation player on a national title team, while Perry Jones came back and improved, though only marginally. Both are borderline lottery picks, according to most mock drafts. Will things go even further south Thursday night? And if so, what will that say to elite prospects considering a sophomore season in the future?

9. Will the Bulls get Will Barton?

That's what Ford has in his latest mock draft, and as a Chicago resident, let me just say: Yes, please. I think Barton could be a real steal. He had a thoroughly excellent (and underrated) season in 2012 -- he finished behind Green, Davis and Sullinger in Ken Pomeroy's final player of the year efficiency calculations. Barton definitely needs to add things to his game (more strength and girth, a more consistent outside shot) but he is already a very versatile player who could conceivably play a 2 or a 3 in the NBA for years to come. Also, he's bouncy. I like him. It would be a great pick for the Bulls, but really for any team at that level of the draft. We'll see.

10. Whose suit will be most on point?

I'm not sure anyone in this class has the chops to pull off the Joakim Noah swagger (sorry, but that suit was and is amazing, almost as amazing as this photo). Unfortunately, based on most of the personalities in this class, I don't think most of these guys will go the wacky route, either. I hope I'm wrong. Nominate in the comments.

3-point shot: NBA draft in sight

June, 27, 2012
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1. Jared Sullinger, Terrence Jones and Perry Jones III all returned for their sophomore seasons to be top-five picks and compete for a national title. None was invited to the NBA draft green room Thursday night. But none of them should regret a thing. Terrence Jones won a national title at Kentucky and wasn’t ready emotionally after his freshman season to leave, let alone from a basketball perspective. Sullinger reached the Final Four with Ohio State. Perry Jones III got to the Elite Eight with Baylor. Neither of them was ready a year ago, either. Revisionist history isn’t appropriate here. All three should still land in decent situations Thursday.

2. Terrence Ross was a late addition to the draft. The Washington sophomore wing could be a legit pick for Milwaukee, Phoenix or Philadelphia at Nos. 12, 13 and 15, respectively. Had Ross played in the Big East or the ACC he would probably be a household name. Having played at UW doesn’t mean he'll go higher, since teams are well aware of players all over the country (see Weber State’s Damian Lillard), but recognition of Ross wouldn’t be a question Thursday night.

3. As the NBA heads into the final two days of pre-draft drama, there are a number of teams looking to make a move. Milwaukee and Houston want to move up. Sacramento is willing to move down. Cleveland would love to get to No. 2. Charlotte could easily move back, even after the latest trade to get Ben Gordon. Golden State has plenty of flexibility and can stay where it is or move.

Video: Most overrated/underrated prospects

June, 22, 2012
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ESPN Insiders Chad Ford and Doug Gottlieb break down where Jared Sullinger might fall in the NBA draft, as well as overrated and underrated prospects.

Video: Doctors red flag Jared Sullinger

June, 19, 2012
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Andy Katz breaks down how Jared Sullinger's back issues will affect his draft stock.
Incoming freshmen should anticipate major adjustments at the Division I level. The players are bigger, stronger and faster.

But the uptick in competition is only part of the transition from high school to college. The 21st-century college basketball player should understand off-court expectations, too.

They're all about adhering to proper swagger etiquette.

I hope you all have notepads ready. Here’s what you’ll need to get ready for Division I basketball off the floor:

  • An Instagram account: Twitter is so 2011. These days, college basketball players send messages through photos via Instagram. It’s a cool tool. You take photos, attach a brief memo and ship the image to the world. Or if you’re Jared Sullinger, you send photos of text-message exchanges with other All-America forwards. You need this. Trust me.
  • Friendships with rappers: Blame Notre Dame’s Skylar Diggins. Lil Wayne’s highly publicized crush on the talented guard dramatically increased her street cred and Twitter follower count. Jay-Z sat behind Kentucky’s bench during the Final Four. Romeo Miller (the onetime Lil' Romeo who now just goes by Romeo) didn’t just support USC basketball. He actually joined the team. Find a rapper. Become his friend.
  • Fashionable specs: I know. You have 20/20 vision. Doesn’t matter. This is all about style. I learned about this recent development in college basketball fashion from Michigan State’s Adreian Payne. He says his black glasses project sophistication. It’s either that or an affinity for Clark Kent.
  • [+] EnlargeNerlens Noel
    Kelly Kline/Getty ImagesNerlens Noel brings a signature coif to Kentucky ... but does he have the right backpack?
  • The Kevin Durant backpack: Throw the gym bag in the trash. That’s old school. You need a backpack. Not a normal backpack. You won’t haul anything in it. You need a backpack that’s also a fashion statement. Durant’s backpack -- one he wears to postgame press conferences -- started this trend.
  • Access to a state-of-the-art facility: Florida State’s players get access to their team’s practice facility by placing their hands on some sort of “Star Trek” detection device. Indiana’s facility features underwater treadmills in the training room, his and hers gyms for the men’s and women’s squads and an atrium that doubles as a museum for Indiana basketball. Players’ lounges -- think college kids bonding, not “Shaft” -- are standard, too. And then, there’s Oklahoma State’s basketball facility. Is that legal?
  • Trend-setting hair: Nerlens Noel is covered. But what about the rest of the incoming freshmen? Will your hair matter? It definitely did for Wisconsin’s Mike Bruesewitz. Stores in Madison sell wigs of his former curly-afro look. Still waiting for the cornrows version. The hair on top of St. Louis guard Jordair Jett’s head can only be described as majestic. Talk to your barber about this.
  • Beats by Dre headphones: Yes, they’re $300 headphones, but a multitude of college players wears them and, somehow, purchases them. They’re a necessity, I guess. You either have a pair of mammoth Beats by Dre headphones or you don’t wear headphones in public as a Division I basketball player. I don’t think the headphones offer a real advantage over their competitors. But, they’re the norm for college basketball players. The obsession with Dr. Dre’s headphones among NBA players has certainly trickled down. Even high school players demand them now. Put it on the shopping list.

Feel free to add on …
Editor's note: It's the offseason edition of The Watercooler. Eamonn Brennan and Myron Medcalf talk NBA draft decisions, the preseason's No. 1 team, UCLA's upside and more.

Myron Medcalf: What's up, Eamonn? Feels like we left New Orleans months ago. Not sure how I'm going to handle the upcoming months without games. Withdrawal is setting in. But, it's already time to look forward to next season. How about Indiana? Three Big Ten wins two seasons ago. The Hoosiers will enter next season as a top-three team for sure. Cody Zeller is coming back. Wow, huh?

[+] EnlargeCody Zeller & Tom Crean
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireCody Zeller and coach Tom Crean have helped revive the Hoosiers.
Eamonn Brennan: My buddy's little brother attends Indiana, and his mom brought back a shirt they're selling on campus that simply says "We're Back." Needless to say, IU fans would be loving this renaissance if they merely had a top-20 team. To go from where they were two and three years ago -- I mean, they were 12-20 in 2010-11; that literally just happened! -- to No. 1 in our very early preseason poll … well, it's remarkable, when you think about it. Such a dramatic turnaround.

MM: Very remarkable. And Zeller is back. I know I mentioned that earlier. But he's a lottery pick if he leaves. I know the NBA draft entry deadline was Sunday, and many storylines were connected to it. But Zeller's decision to stay away from the draft is bigger than any of them in my opinion.

EB: My reaction to Zeller coming back trends far more toward the "meh" side of things. It's not because he's not a great player, an immediate POY candidate and hugely important to the Hoosiers' chances, because obviously he is all those things. But I never thought there was any real threat Zeller would leave for the draft. Even as he jumped up to potential top-10 pick status, the way he's openly enjoyed his first season on campus, the patience his brother displayed at UNC, and the fact that Tyler will be a pro -- there's no rush, in other words -- made it clear that Zeller would be back as a sophomore. Some IU fans are hoping he'll stay all four years. That might be asking too much, but he's back for his sophomore season, and he has an awfully talented team around him.

Let's talk draft. Any decisions that really surprised you?

MM: A few. Maalik Wayns … OK. He's a junior who carried the load for a bad Villanova squad. But he's a projected late second-rounder, and will possibly be undrafted. His teammate, Dominic Cheek, drank the Kool-Aid, too. The whole 'If I jumped off a bridge, would you do it?' is sometimes true. But the biggest surprise is Quincy Miller. He made the right decision to return a few weeks ago. Then he changed his mind. He should be a first-rounder. But with another year, he could be top 10. He's a great example of a young player who would gain a lot by coming back for his sophomore season.

Who surprised you?

EB: Yeah, I thought Miller made the right call initially, because (a) without Perry Jones III there, he would have been the featured scorer on a good Baylor team, (b) he could take on college competition (and not fully grown men) while beefing up that lanky frame in the weight room, and (c) this draft already has how many talented tweener forwards set to go in the first round? Twenty? Thirty?

But when you're projected as a first-round pick, particularly when you're closer to the lottery end of things than the fringe, it never feels like a particularly bad decision to go.

That's kind of the deal with Moe Harkless. I thought Harkless could probably use another year in school for a St. John's team that really had time to congeal, but he looks like he could go in the first round. So you can't fault him for leaving now.

I thought Khris Middleton was one of the real surprises. He could have been a first-rounder last year but stayed. Then he got hurt all season and A&M struggled in its first year under Billy Kennedy. Now Middleton is in the draft, but isn't a likely first-round choice anymore. It will be interesting to see how he tests out and what scouts think if he can get healthy in pre-draft camps, because he's an awfully polished and athletic forward when he's at full speed. He could be a steal. (Which probably means the Spurs will draft him in the second round. Figures.)

MM: True. The Spurs would nurse Middleton back to 100 percent, then use him to fuel some epic playoff run next season. You have to look at the powerhouses, too. Kentucky lost everyone. And yet, Calipari inks a top-two class again. And Anthony Bennett is still available. North Carolina is in a different boat. Still a very talented team, but a major shift from the veteran core the Tar Heels employed last season. On Kentucky … and I know this is a tough thing to assess right now … but should the Wildcats be preseason No. 1 with the talented freshmen who are headed to Lexington next season?

Also, what's the over/under on me adopting the Nerlens Noel box cut?

EB: Oh, you should totally do it. I would put the odds at just slightly more favorable than a UK national title.

I am torn on the Indiana-Kentucky preseason No. 1 thing, because it's easy to forget the talent Indiana has arriving in Yogi Ferrell (a true athletic point guard who is exactly what they need) and even Hanner Perea, who comes with ready-made NBA athleticism (another thing the Hoosiers really need) at the 4 spot.

But Kentucky is reloading, no question, and if there's one thing we know about John Calipari, it's that he's the best in the country at getting new, young teams to come together as actual teams very early in the process. But this is not the 2012 Wildcats. Nerlens Noel is going to be a beast, but he's not Anthony Davis. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the heart and soul of that national title team, is nowhere to be found next season. I will be fascinated to see what this team looks like in November and December.

I have Louisville at No. 3 -- I think Chane Behanan is going to have a star-making breakout sophomore season.

My biggest preseason-ranking question revolves around the UCLA Bruins. Assuming Kyle Anderson's hand ligament injury is long since healed by the time the season starts, is that a top-five team?

MM: Oh man … I mean, I'm trying to erase memories of last season. That "talent." That preseason ranking … That collapse. But if we're going to give Kentucky No. 1 status (potential) based solely on the status of its recruiting class, I think you have to give UCLA the same consideration. Tony Parker helped the Bruins grab a No. 1 class ranking on ESPN.com. We know talented freshmen can win national titles.

So I say they're top 10. Can't go top five yet because the returning guys were so inconsistent. Since we're talking about teams that are hard to assess … Thoughts on Ohio State? Is that a top-five squad with Deshaun Thomas leading the way now?

EB: It's hard to know what to do with UCLA, because unlike Kentucky, we've yet to see Ben Howland take a star-studded recruiting class and turn it into a contender. In fact, last time he had a great class, things pretty much fell apart.

And yeah, I like Thomas as the star scorer. I think that's his perfect role. The question is whether he can be a leader on both ends of the floor, whether he'll devote himself to a total game, rather than being happy scoring a ton of points every night. Because he will shoot -- and score -- a lot.

[+] EnlargeAmir Williams
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesThe Buckeyes need a big season from Amir Williams.
The biggest question re: OSU is Amir Williams. I thought he was going to get a lot more run as a freshman, so Jared Sullinger could do his whole "hey, I'm a versatile, skinny power forward now, check out this 15-foot jumper!" routine in 2012. Instead, Sullinger gained all that weight back by the end of the season; he was basically playing the exact same position he played as a freshman, and Williams spent most of his time on the bench.

He has to take over in the middle right away, and Shannon Scott needs to have a big sophomore season as a combo 2-guard alongside Aaron Craft. If Craft and Scott can figure it out, I think that's OSU's most talented and dynamic lineup, and an awfully good one.

MM: The bottom line is that we have a lot to look forward to next season. Many question marks remain, but I like the intrigue. Plus, some talented players are back. C.J. Leslie could make NC State a top-10 team. Jeff Withey was the most dominant interior defender in the NCAA tourney. He's back. The Big Ten is stacked. The Pac-12 might matter again.

I know it's early, but I'm pumped about the 2012-13 campaign. Not sure how I'll last until November without it. Maybe I'll watch this LeBron guy in the NBA playoffs.

EB: My two-point is as follows:

1. Watch as much of the NBA playoffs as humanly possible (I love the NBA playoffs).
2. Watch the new Rihanna video as much as possible. No, RiRi, where have you been all my life?

MM: Rihanna and the NBA playoffs … the perfect elixir. Good times as always, Eamonn. Until next time … or the next big development.

EB: We'll talk that talk. Until then, Myron.
Until he misfired during a Final Four loss against Kansas (9 points), forward Deshaun Thomas had been the best player –-- arguably -- on the Buckeyes' roster throughout the NCAA tournament.

The left-hander’s versatility fueled Ohio State’s run to New Orleans with performances that raised his NBA stock.

But Thomas announced Friday that he’s decided to return to school for another year. And that call automatically keeps the Buckeyes in the national title hunt for the 2012-13 season, even with Jared Sullinger turning pro and William Buford graduating.

I think they’re a solid top-10 squad. Aaron Craft is back to harass opposing guards. And there’s potential among young players who didn't get a ton of minutes this season.

If former McDonald’s All-America center Amir Williams blossoms in the offseason and starts to fulfill his potential as a sophomore, the Buckeyes could make another strong run in the NCAA tournament.

But Thomas will be the focus of Thad Matta’s system. And I think his skill set will allow Ohio State to spread the floor and take full advantage of Thomas’ abilities, which we saw during the NCAA tourney.

[+] EnlargeDeshaun Thomas
Richard Mackson/US PresswireDeshaun Thomas could thrive next season in Thad Matta's offense for a top-10 Ohio State team.
While the Thomas announcement solidifies Ohio State’s position entering next season, the rest of the Big Ten is one giant question mark.

The league has the potential to send multiple teams to the Big Dance. But depending on who goes pro by the April 29 deadline (after April 10, any early entrant who applies for the NBA draft will lose his collegiate eligibility), it might not pack the same punch it did during the 2011-12 campaign.

Indiana and Michigan could join Ohio State in the preseason top 10, but that all depends on a few decisions that will be made in the coming weeks/days.

If Cody Zeller and Christian Watford return, the Hoosiers could compete for the national championship. Tom Crean is bringing in one of the best recruiting classes in the country. Zeller will be a Wooden Award candidate and preseason All-America center. If Watford builds on his Sweet 16 performance against Kentucky (27 points), he could be one of the best forwards in the conference.

Michigan needs Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. to return. Burke, however, is more vital to John Beilein’s plans. With highly rated prospects Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson Jr. coming to Ann Arbor for the 2012-13 season, the Wolverines will add productive scorers who can contribute right away if Hardaway goes pro. But what will they do if they lose Burke? He might be the best point guard in the country if he comes back for his sophomore season. Without him, Michigan will still possess a talented, young roster. But the Wolverines could end up in Atlanta with Burke leading the way.

Minnesota also faces an uncertain future. The Gophers could be a borderline top-25 squad if preseason all-Big Ten forward Trevor Mbakwe returns. He missed most of last season after suffering a knee injury, but the NCAA recently granted the Big Ten’s No. 1 rebounder during the 2010-11 season a sixth year of eligibility. He’s expected to return -- assuming the Gophers have a scholarship for him. Tubby Smith has already reached the 13-scholarship limit, with two recruits joining the team next season. So Minnesota’s situation could get complicated, too.

Smith has asked the NCAA to allow the team to use a 14th scholarship next season. There’s also a chance that a player will transfer; five have left the program since 2009. But there are no guarantees right now for Mbakwe or the Gophers.

The Big Ten will be talented next season even if the aforementioned stars leave for the NBA.

But right now, it’s hard to project the league’s potential without knowing if its best players will stick around for another season.
1. The NCAA would have had a field day trying to keep fans and a top recruit separate Sunday night. It was hard to miss ESPNU 100 No. 1 player Nerlens Noel walking down Bourbon Street with a host of other high school All-Americans. There were hundreds of Kentucky fans walking in the opposite direction and a number noticed Noel, yelling out to him to go to UK. Noel referenced the scene in his blog for ESPN.com. His decision will be either Kentucky, Georgetown or Syracuse.

2. I don’t understand why Keno Davis (Central Michigan), Bruce Weber (Kansas State) and Doug Wocjik (College of Charleston) can all get fired and hired and former Boston College coach Al Skinner can’t get a sniff. His record dwarfs Davis and Wojcik and as the all-time winningest coach at BC, Skinner can match Weber, too.

3. Ohio State coach Thad Matta said in New Orleans that Jared Sullinger promised him two years and that’s exactly what he received. Sullinger also was a winner during his tenure in Columbus, reaching the Final Four in his second season and winning a share of two Big Ten titles. Sullinger could have gone the route of Tyler Hansbrough of North Carolina and stayed to see if he could win a title. But it’s hard to argue with his decision if he’s a lock for the lottery.

Video: Jared Sullinger on NBA decision

April, 4, 2012
4/04/12
7:27
PM ET


Ohio State sophomore Jared Sullinger will enter the 2012 NBA draft.

Jared Sullinger going pro

April, 4, 2012
4/04/12
3:13
PM ET

Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger announced Wednesday that he will enter the NBA draft.

Sullinger and Buckeyes coach Thad Matta appeared at a news conference Wednesday afternoon at Value City Arena on the Ohio State campus to make the announcement.
NEW ORLEANS -- As fans from the upper deck littered the court with seat cushions, this Final Four's version of confetti, Bill Self and Thomas Robinson stood amid the din and chaos, waiting to do their postgame TV interview.

Self, a grin as wide as a mouth can stretch spreading across his face, turned briefly and looked at Robinson, shook his head and mouthed, "Wow."

Perhaps the only people more shocked than Jared Sullinger, who sat jersey over his head in the middle of the court after the buzzer solidified Kansas' 64-62 win over Ohio State were the Jayhawks.

Find a locker room, any locker room in any sport, and you will find athletes lined up to insist that they knew they could and would succeed and achieve, no matter how improbable the odds or ragtag the roster.

Not at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Ten minutes after Kansas landed itself in a national championship game against Kentucky, there was as much stupefied disbelief as unfiltered joy filling the steamy Jayhawk locker room.

For Dana O'Neil's full story, click here.


NEW ORLEANS -- Back in October, we said we'd get a colossal Final Four. When the brackets were released, we forecast a chalky March. When the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight finished in thrilling fashion and the final weekend of the NCAA tournament's marquee event took shape, we knew, after two years of unexpected mid-major incursion, we'd get back to the blueblood basics on the grand Superdome stage.

We were right.

And even so, whether four months or four weeks or four days ago, it was difficult to fathom the sheer titanic size of Monday night's matchup. Because they don't get much bigger than this.

It is Kentucky and Kansas, the two winningest programs in the history of the sport, the place where the game was invented versus the place that has obsessed over it each and every day since. It is Anthony Davis versus Thomas Robinson, the nation's consensus national player of the year and the player who most closely challenged him for those honors all season. It is a rematch -- a rare national title rematch after two such games in the Final Four -- of a mid-November Kentucky win at Madison Square Garden. It is John Calipari and Bill Self -- the coach whose 2008 Memphis team frittered away a national title in the final two minutes getting a redemptive crack at the program and coach who beat him. And it is, of course, the Superdome, an epic setting with a knack for producing fittingly monumental games.

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Anthony Davis
Richard Mackson/US PRESSWIREAnthony Davis, who won multiple awards as the nation's top player, put on a show Saturday.
So, now that we know what to look forward to -- and the process of evaluation, analysis and prediction begins in earnest -- let's take a first look at what (we hope, anyway) will be a national championship game every bit as big as the programs, storylines and atmosphere that inhabit it.

This is Kentucky's title to win. Kansas was asked about its first meeting with the Wildcats (a 75-65 Kentucky win) more than few times here Saturday night. It would be foolish to pay too much attention to that game for obvious reasons: It came on Nov. 15, nearly five months ago; it was just the second game of the season; both teams were still in the larvae stage, and so on. But it is instructive in at least one way: Nov. 15 was the date we all realized just how insanely talented this Kentucky team is, how high its ceiling was, how much sheer athletic ability it brought to the floor. Kansas' Thomas Robinson was everything we imagined he would be, but even one of the nation's most gifted frontcourt players was dwarfed and swarmed by Anthony Davis -- who had seven blocks and 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting (he's always been this good) -- Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and the rest.

Jeff Withey had yet to emerge for Kansas, which has made this team an entirely different beast. Self's guidance since has been magnificent. Kansas of April 1 barely resembles Kansas of Nov. 15. All of that is true. But the point remains: Kentucky has looked like a national title contender since it dropped the Jayhawks in November, and it has only gotten better since. Marquis Teague has gone from too eager and turnover-prone to the cool hand that calmly guided Kentucky past a tricky Louisville team Saturday night. Darius Miller has emerged as a glue guy, leader and sixth-man extraordinaire. Kidd-Gilchrist has played himself into the top three of the NBA draft thanks to his rare combination of toughness, talent and willingness defending. Terrence Jones is a less moody, more driven version of himself, less likely to pout, more likely to seek and destroy.

If you haven't figured it out by now, know this: This is not your typical freshman-filled, one-and-done team. This is a group with no ego. Its two best players (Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist) rank sixth and seventh on the team in shot percentage (the percentage of available shots they attempt). On the whole, Calipari has molded this once-in-a-decade (if that!) combination of talent and unselfishness into a national championship steamroller.

The names on these teams' jerseys suggest there is no true underdog here, but that will not be the case on Monday. Kentucky is too good to be anything other than the overwhelming favorite. It's just too good.

Which doesn't mean Kansas' cause is hopeless. Far from it, of course. Yes, Kentucky inhabits a different stratosphere, but down here on Earth, the Jayhawks happen to be a very good basketball team. They entered Saturday's Final Four as the No. 4 team in the nation in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings, with a defense ranked No. 4 in efficiency and an offense ranked No. 16. They were 16-2 in the Big 12, 32-6 overall, they have a top-five draft pick of their own in Robinson, a talented senior point guard in Tyshawn Taylor, and a 7-foot shot-blocking center of their own in Jeff Withey. In fact, Withey's block percentage -- he had seven more against Ohio State and Jared Sullinger on Saturday night -- is 15.1 percent, the highest in the nation. Anthony Davis' 13.95 percent actually ranks No. 3.

In so far as anyone can match up with Kentucky -- and really, no one can -- Self's team actually matches up pretty well. Withey isn't nearly as mobile as Davis (obviously), and it's hard to figure who will guard Kidd-Gilchrist or how a good-but-not-great offense will find its buckets against a still very good Kentucky defense. But in terms of sheer strength-on-strength matchups -- Kentucky's strength is offense, Kansas' defense -- Self's team isn't that far off the mark.

Especially if it plays two halves of defense. It is somewhat miraculous that this team has a chance to win the national championship, once you consider how poorly it has played in the first half of its past four NCAA tournament games. In wins over Ohio State, North Carolina, NC State and Purdue, the Jayhawks have allowed an average of 37.5 points in the first half and just 24 points in second halves. Their opponents' shooting percentages plummet after the locker room visit: Total field goal percentage drops from 49.1 to 24.2, and opponents' 3-point percentage drops from 51.2 to 18.4.

[+] EnlargeKansas' Elijah Johnson
Chris Steppig/US PRESSWIREElijah Johnson and Kansas outscored Ohio State 13-7 in the final five minutes.
The glass-half-empty pessimist would be inclined to wonder why Kansas doesn't muster that stifling defense all the time. But give the Jayhawks credit: They turn it on late.

Kansas outscored Ohio State 13-7 in the final five minutes Saturday; the Buckeyes shot 2-for-10 during this stretch. It was the fifth straight game that a Kansas opponent shot worse than 30 percent in the final five minutes, including 0-for-7 by North Carolina in the regional final. That's a remarkable quality -- the ability to get better and better as the game goes along -- and it will be one the Jayhawks need to expand on to give themselves a chance to take home a title Monday night.

"Kentucky had to play for 40 minutes today, too," Self said after his team's win Saturday. "And the thing about it is they're terrific. Our second-half performance, if we could play both halves that way, [Kentucky] is still good enough to [for us] to get beat."

The hype says T-Rob versus the Brow. The matchups say otherwise. As much as we would love to see Davis and Robinson match up on the low block time after time -- a vintage clash for the ages in the Superdome, just turn down the lights and shut up and watch -- that dream (which is currently playing in my head, and it's glorious) is probably no more than that. The two national player of the year candidates will surely meet at the rim more than once Monday. They'll see plenty of each other, no doubt. But the way Kansas and Kentucky are composed, the Jayhawks almost certainly have to put Withey on Davis or use that triangle-and-two defense Self has often busted out to confuse opposing offenses in the tournament. Leaving Withey to guard Terrence Jones, who could pull the 7-footer out to the perimeter, seems like an unwise idea.

Good news for Tyshawn Taylor. Kentucky doesn't force many turnovers. As of this writing, the Wildcats rank No. 297 in the nation in opponents' turnover rate, which is just 17.7 percent. That's been the fundamental flaw in Taylor's game all of his career, and throughout the tournament, and it was part of the reason he struggled so mightily against Aaron Craft and Ohio State on Saturday. Kentucky's defense holds back its foes in other ways -- namely Davis' shot blocking, great shot defense all over the court and a unique ability to avoid putting opponents on the free throw line.

Can Kansas' offense break down the Wildcats' defense? It's hard to imagine. But at least Taylor won't have to worry about Craftian levels of stress Monday night. That must be a relief.

No one will be distracted by Bourbon Street now. There is a tendency to assume that this insane city bleeds into focus and preparation, that it makes it more difficult for the coaches to control their players, keep them in line and keep them ready to play. That doesn't seem to be the case. Kansas' players were spotted strolling Bourbon Street on Wednesday night, and that didn't change their ability to lock down on defense Saturday. Kentucky's players, both old and young, seem entirely unwilling to focus on anything else but the basketball. They are preternaturally calm.

And as for Self, he was asked about this just after the game Saturday. His strategy? Lock his players away.

"I told them Bourbon Street was in the locker room tonight," Self said. "That's as close as they're going to get to it. ... Guys will go straight to their room. We don't even let them go to the lobby. Unless they got some sheets they can tie together and drop them from the 14th floor, they're not going anywhere tonight."

It seems slightly draconian, but if it's the price KU's players have to pay to give us the best possible game Monday night, we're glad they're (probably begrudgingly) willing to take it.

After all, this game has all the makings of an epic -- the programs, the history, the coaches, the talent. All it needs is a Kansas team up to the task.

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