North Carolina Tar Heels: Arizona Wildcats

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After a long and detailed conversation about the nation’s best prospects, Ivan Rabb holds on to his No. 1 spot as we launch the new ESPN 100 for the Class of 2015.

Why he is No. 1: Many factors go into being tabbed the nation’s top prospect such as strong performance, consistent production and potential. At 6-foot-11 and 210 pounds, Rabb has all the physical markers to impact a game. Rabb has mobility and an enormous wing span (7-4). He utilizes those features along with speed and lateral quickness to protect the basket, outrun opponents and score the ball. It’s his efficiency that is impressive, as the majority of shots come inside the paint. After 16 games in the Elite Youth Basketball League, he had made more than 60 percent of his field-goal attempts, per GameChanger stats service.

ESPN 60 guard Allonzo Trier made Nike EYBL history last weekend, becoming the first player to ever record 30 or more points in each game of a single session.

While the feat has never been accomplished before on the Nike circuit, ironically, Adidas had someone accomplish the very same thing on the same weekend when fellow ESPN 60 guard Jalen Adams finished with 30 or more points in all four of his games.

While Trier and Adams are similar in that they are two of the nation's best scoring guards in the 2015 class, they’re unique in the way they look to attack the defense.


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Position battles: Centers

May, 16, 2014
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CHICAGO -- Julius Randle is gone, but he wouldn't mind watching the Kentucky big men battle in the fall.

"Yes, there's going to be some competition," Randle said at the NBA draft combine in Chicago. "But Coach [John Calipari] will figure it out."

Randle wasn't going to return next season. He was a one-and-done player from the moment he arrived, looking like a chiseled NBA veteran. He was the one big man who didn't need seasoning. But the rest did. Toss in newcomer Karl Towns Jr., and the Wildcats have as many bigs as any team assembled recently.

Randle's favorite to replace his low-post ability? He's leaning toward sophomore to-be Dakari Johnson.

"He's very good in the low post," Randle said. "He's got a nice touch. It's hard to move him down there."

Randle should know. He had to tussle with Johnson in the low block in practice every day. Now, Johnson will take Randle's role as the player whom the others try to knock off in the post -- for position and, possibly, playing time.

ESPN.com is examining position battles this week. Here are some center battles to keep an eye on:

Kentucky: Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein, Marcus Lee versus Karl Towns Jr.: Yes, there are veterans -- three of them -- returning against the young pup. Calipari could figure out how to play all four of them at some point during a game. Johnson, Cauley-Stein and Lee all had their moments in which they shined. Johnson has the best chance to be in the low post, Cauley-Stein can be the top shot-blocker and Lee is a bit of an X factor among the group. Now, enter the newcomer. Towns can do a bit of everything, but he doesn't need to be the primary option. That's key for him and rare for a high-profile Kentucky player. This isn't even mentioning Trey Lyles and Alex Poythress, who are more positioned to play smaller forward positions next to the bigs. This team is loaded.

North Carolina: Kennedy Meeks versus Brice Johnson. Meeks is much more of a physical specimen. He can be immovable at times in the low post. Johnson has more finesse to his game. The two of them can play together, but they could take turns sharing the focal point in the middle, depending on the opponent or the flow of the game. They have a chance to both average double figures and nearly seven or eight rebounds per game. If that happens, the Tar Heels could be a force in the ACC and beyond.

Texas: Cameron Ridley versus Myles Turner. Ridley made himself into a real threat last season. He was nearly a double-double player (he averaged 11.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game). Ridley could progress even more next season. The Longhorns nabbed a late-recruiting season coup in Turner. Turner is too good, too effective to not be on the court. The key for coach Rick Barnes will be whether he can play the two as a tandem. If he can't, then who is on the court when the game matters most is more of a competition than the overall minutes. Regardless, both players can help Texas take a huge leap next season.

Gonzaga: Przemek Karnowski versus Kyle Wiltjer. Karnowski is the traditional post player. He can be difficult to move around, and his offensive game continues to develop. Wiltjer can certainly play with Karnowski because he's slender and is much more of a face-up player. The two can be an effective high-low tandem, but if there is a need to see who is on the floor late, then that is also, like with Texas, where the real competition begins. Wiltjer had a year to get stronger, but he won't turn out like Kelly Olynyk. Wiltjer is still going to be skill first, strength last. Karnowski needs to be the opposite for the Zags to find the right balance.

LSU : Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey versus Elbert Robinson. The Tigers have a chance to make the NCAA tournament because of the decisions of Martin and Mickey. The two were effective double-figure scorers last season playing with Johnny O'Bryant III. Now, toss in the newcomer Robinson. He'll need to find minutes as well. Coach Johnny Jones can't play all three together, but the minutes will need to be divided up. These are good problems to have, and with 15 fouls to expend among the three, the Tigers are one of the few teams in the SEC with the numbers to hang with Kentucky's frontcourt.

Arizona: Kaleb Tarczewski versus Brandon Ashley. Tarczewski was one of the most improved players in the country last season. Give him another summer and he should really be a regular to score in the post. But he has to command the ball even more next season without the presence of Aaron Gordon. Ashley is coming off a foot injury that sidelined him for the second half of the Pac-12 season. He will play with Tarczewski, but if there is any question who would demand more minutes, then that can be a highly competitive battle in practice. It might be moot for coach Sean Miller since the two can coexist, but dividing up the frontcourt minutes will still be an interesting decision for the staff.
Some of the best one-on-one matchups will take place before the college basketball season tips off. They will come in the form of position battles within a team to determine a starter, which in some cases will shape an entire lineup.

Starting with point guard, ESPN.com will examine those quiet battles on a position-by-position basis this week while also promising we will never use the phrase "iron sharpens iron" to describe the competition.

It’s important to remember that “small forward” does not mean the same thing to every program. Some of these players will essentially play guard slots next year. Others will resemble power forwards or combos. And most can play multiple positions.

Here are small forward battles to keep an eye on:

Arizona: Stanley Johnson vs. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
Should coach Sean Miller go with Hollis-Jefferson, the soon-to-be sophomore who excelled against the top teams in America and blossomed into a promising NBA prospect down the stretch last season? Or should Miller insert Johnson, the 6-foot-6, 225-pound freshman beast who will probably play his first and only season of college basketball in Tucson next season? #nationaltitlecontenderproblems After Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury in early February, Hollis-Jefferson played a more prominent role in Arizona’s seven-man rotation, and with a summer in the weight room he should return as a more effective player capable of carrying the Wildcats in 2014-15. But Johnson is a unique talent who won’t stay off the floor. Too many tools. Too much talent. California’s Mr. Basketball is a natural 3-man, but he can guard three or four positions and probably play power forward if necessary. Miller is blessed with another strong roster, but assigning minutes to a pair of future pros could be a challenge.

North Carolina: Justin Jackson vs. Theo Pinson vs. Isaiah Hicks
If J.P. Tokoto plays more at shooting guard with the graduation of Leslie McDonald, this is a situation coach Roy Williams can address with multiple young talents. Hicks played like a typical freshman last season. He struggled in minimal action, but some of the North Carolina native’s challenges were tied to his adjustment from the power forward role he played in high school to the small forward slot he manned as a reserve last season. Still, the 6-8 Hicks was one of America’s top recruits in the 2013 class and understands Williams’ system and demands. But a pair of McDonald’s All-Americans -- Jackson and Pinson -- will fight for that spot, too. Williams might use all three players in his rotation. Jackson is a shooter who could move to shooting guard. Pinson is the most natural small forward in the group, and Hicks has the size and knowledge to play bigger if necessary. One of these players, however, could get lost in the mix next season if they’re all battling for the same position.

Iowa State: Jameel McKay vs. Dustin Hogue vs. Abdel Nader
Fred Hoiberg is accustomed to turnover. It’d be odd if the Cyclones' coach didn’t have some key voids to fill this offseason. Departing senior Melvin Ejim earned Big 12 Player of the Year honors in 2013-14 after a campaign that saw him average 17.8 PPG and 8.4 RPG. With Monte Morris, Naz Long and UNLV transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones, Iowa State’s backcourt should be one of the best in the Big 12. Georges Niang will be the go-to guy inside once he’s healthy again, but Hoiberg could use multiple players at the hybrid forward slot, the role that Ejim played so well last season. Hogue is more of an undersized power forward than a true small forward, but he proved his worth in the postseason. This is his spot, but McKay, a former Marquette recruit and Hogue’s former junior college teammate, has been a terror in practices for the last six months. McKay is a versatile 6-9 forward who could join Niang in Iowa State’s frontcourt but won’t be eligible until December. Nader, who led Northern Illinois with 13.1 PPG in 2012-13, will also be a candidate to contribute, but he has some offseason issues to clear up. Nader was suspended after an April incident in which he was arrested and charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated. He has pleaded not guilty and has a court date set for June 24.

Louisville: Wayne Blackshear vs. Shaqquan Aaron
In late March, coach Rick Pitino gave reporters this postseason assessment of Wayne Blackshear: "The only player I've had in the past four years that hasn't had substantial improvement is Wayne Blackshear.” That’s not good, but it’s true. Blackshear was a McDonald’s All-American in high school, but the Chicago product suffered a shoulder injury that prevented him from playing in that game, which was held in his hometown after the 2010-11 season. He has never reached that pre-injury promise. So Aaron, a four-star forward from Seattle who is ranked 33rd in the 2014 class by RecruitingNation, could grab minutes from Blackshear if he continues to underwhelm. Louisville has the pieces to compete for the ACC crown in its first year in the league, and Pitino won’t let Blackshear ruin that potential, especially with all of that young talent on his bench.

Ohio State: Sam Thompson vs. Keita Bates-Diop vs. Jae’Sean Tate
Thompson is the top returning scorer on an Ohio State squad that lost its top three scorers (Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and LaQuinton Ross) from last season. But the Buckeyes wrestled with offensive issues all season. Bates-Diop, a 6-7 forward ranked No. 22 in the 2014 class, could be the solution. He has a strong midrange game and is an elite athlete who might be the most talented player on the roster. Tate is an aggressive incoming freshman who could earn solid minutes, too. It would make sense to start Thompson, the senior, at the beginning of the season, but it won’t be easy to keep Bates-Diop and Tate off the floor.

Florida: Dorian Finney-Smith vs. Devin Robinson
Florida had multiple interchangeable parts in 2013-14. Casey Prather chased national player of the year honors as a 6-5 combo forward who loved to attack the rim. Coach Billy Donovan will have the personnel to play a more traditional lineup next season. Experience has been crucial in his team’s streak of four consecutive Elite Eight appearances, so Finney-Smith -- who averaged 8.7 PPG and 6.7 RPG for the Gators last season -- will have an early edge. But Robinson is a five-star talent who is ranked No. 23 in the 2014 class. He’s more of a true wing than Finney-Smith, which should give Donovan more variety. Duke transfer Alex Murphy, who should be eligible in December, could also be used in that role. It’ll be interesting to see how Florida’s rotation changes throughout the season.
This week, ESPN.com will feature a position-by-position look at players to watch for the 2014-15 season.

In 2003, a young man from Akron, Ohio, excelled during his rookie season in the NBA (20.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.6 SPG) and crushed philosophies about specific roles and positions in 21st century basketball. Stat hub basketball-reference.com lists LeBron James as a shooting guard his first season, a small forward the next eight years and a power forward from 2012 to the present. That might be a typo. But James does everything. He pushes the ball, he flows in the midrange, he rebounds, he posts up and he guards wings and big men. What can’t he do?

[+] EnlargeRondae Hollis-Jefferson
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesWith several departures, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson could be the focal point of Arizona's team next season.
At this level, there is a pool of “small forwards” who idolize the icon, and have expanded their games beyond the traditional descriptions of what a small forward should be and instead focused on what it could be. The college game, much like the pros, has been seized by lengthy forwards who demonstrate dexterity in everything they do. The elite small forwards play multiple slots and they’re often asked to stretch on defense, too. Guard/forward or combo forward is probably more accurate than small forward. Simply put, the following players are not one-dimensional:

Top returnees to watch

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona: As a reserve and occasional starter in the final weeks of the season, Hollis-Jefferson blossomed on one of the most talented rosters in the country. And that’s not easy to do, especially for a freshman. He averaged 9.1 PPG, 5.7 RPG and 1.1 BPG in just 25.3 MPG. He also accrued a 113.1 offensive rating. He’ll be even more pivotal for the Wildcats next season, now that Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson have departed. The NBA prospect has All-America ability.

Sam Dekker, Wisconsin: With the key pieces returning from Bo Ryan’s first Final Four team, the Badgers will compete for the national championship in 2014-15, and Dekker is a significant component in the quest. The 6-foot-8 NBA prospect had a solid sophomore season, when he logged more minutes (29.8 MPG compared to 22.3 as a freshman) and improved his defense. His 3-point shooting numbers were down in 2013-14 (33 percent compared to 39 as a freshman), but Dekker also finished with 12.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG and 1.4 APG in a system that demands balance. Next season, Dekker could take the next step as he continues to evolve into an elite talent.

Treveon Graham, VCU: As a junior, Graham earned first-team all-Atlantic 10 honors last season after averaging 15.8 PPG, 7.0 RPG and 2.0 APG. Even though the Rams lost Rob Brandenberg and Juvonte Reddic, this will be Shaka Smart’s most talented VCU squad. It will also be Smart’s deepest VCU squad now that he has added the top recruiting class of his tenure. There were offensive issues all season for a program that averaged 75.4 PPG but finished 107th in adjusted offensive efficiency (per Ken Pomeroy), but Graham, the team’s top scorer, wasn’t the issue. He ended the year with a 111.2 offensive rating, No. 1 among A-10 players with a minimum 24 percent usage rate (per Pomeroy).

Branden Dawson, Michigan State: Dawson considered the NBA but ultimately returned to East Lansing, where he’ll be Michigan State’s featured act next season. The forward missed nearly a month of action last season with a hand injury, but he found a rhythm shortly after he returned. He wasn’t as effective as he could have been in Michigan State’s loss to Connecticut in the Elite Eight (1-for-3, five points, eight rebounds). But in the six previous games, he averaged 17.5 PPG and 8.1 RPG. If he brings that game into 2014-15, the Spartans will still be viable contenders in the Big Ten, despite losing Adreian Payne and Gary Harris.

Anthony Drmic, Boise State: The Broncos did not meet expectations last season. Although the anchors of an NCAA tourney squad, Drmic and Derrick Marks, returned to Leon Rice’s program, Boise State failed to earn a bid to the Big Dance. But Drmic and Marks are back again. And in a Mountain West that has absorbed many blows since the conclusion of the 2014-15 campaign, Drmic (111.2 offensive rating) could lead the Broncos back to March Madness, especially if he duplicates last season’s impressive numbers (15.9 PPG, 34 percent from the 3-point line).

Top newcomers to watch

[+] EnlargeJustise Winslow
Chris Williams/Icon SMIJustise Winslow isn't the highest-rated recruit in Duke's loaded class, but he could be the most important.
Justise Winslow, Duke: Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker are gone. Winslow, a 6-6 McDonald’s All-American from Texas, will help the program fill that void. The Blue Devils have ESPN RecruitingNation’s top recruiting class, which includes Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Grayson Allen, but Winslow might be the most significant recruit in that foursome considering what the program has lost.

Stanley Johnson, Arizona: One day, Johnson will explain how he and his 6-6, 225-pound NFL tight end frame found their way to a basketball court instead of a football field. This freshman is built like Colossus. He’s a physical player who embarrassed the boys in high school who tried to contain him. Things won’t be that easy at the college level, but Johnson, the No. 7 recruit in the 2014 class, will play early and often for Sean Miller.

Theo Pinson, North Carolina: Maybe he’ll end up playing more of a true wing role, but the 6-6 small forward is the type of explosive athlete that Roy Williams will need to compete in a conference that will add Louisville next season. Pinson, the No. 10 recruit in the 2014 recruiting class per RecruitingNation, is a fearless youngster who could crack the Tar Heels’ starting rotation early.

Kelly Oubre, Kansas: Andrew Wiggins is gone, but Oubre, a McDonald’s All-American, could be the next one-and-done small forward at Kansas.
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At 11:59 p.m. ET Sunday night, the NBA's early-entry draft deadline came and went. No key college hoops offseason date has so much, or so widespread, an impact on the landscape to come. And, for the fledgling offseason rankings writer, no consideration is trickier. Without question, that's the hardest part about the Way Too Early Top 25, which we published with confetti still on the keyboard just after UConn's national championship earlier this month. Until draft decisions are in, you're just making guesses. Educated guesses, sure. But guesses all the same.

Now that we know which players are staying and which are going, it's time to offer an edited addendum to this offseason's first attempt at a 2014-15 preseason top 25. How did draft decisions change the list?

In short, not a whole lot. But we do have a new No. 1. It will surprise nobody.

  1. John Calipari
    Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesJohn Calipari will have a roster full of future NBA players, as usual, next season. And this one will have experience.
    Kentucky Wildcats: Kentucky was our No. 3 in the Way Too Early rankings back when we were almost certain the Harrison twins, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, and maybe even Dakari Johnson would be headed to the NBA. In the end, Kentucky kept all five, and add two of the best big men in the country (Trey Lyles, Karl Towns) in the incoming class to form a team that is surprisingly experienced, mind-bendingly tall (Calipari has three 7-footers and two 6-10 guys, all of whom are likely to play in the NBA), and every bit as loaded on natural talent as ever. Kentucky is losing Julius Randle and James Young to the draft, and will probably be better next season. Kind of insane!
  2. Duke Blue Devils: Nothing less than a Jabari Parker return could have moved Duke beyond Kentucky and into the No. 1 spot at this point in the season, and Parker is heading to the NBA, as expected. Even so, the Blue Devils are in great shape, mixing the nation's best recruiting class with a really solid group of veteran, tried-and-tested role players.
  3. Arizona Wildcats: The tentative No. 1 back when Nick Johnson was still weighing the proverbial options, Arizona takes the deep, chasmic plummet all the way to No. 3. In less sarcastic terms: Sean Miller has Arizona so well-oiled that it can lose its two best players (Aaron Gordon and Johnson) and still be a national title contender next season.
  4. Wisconsin Badgers: Frank Kaminsky almost made this more work than it had to be; after a breakout postseason, Kaminsky saw scouts' interest skyrocket. But he held off in the end, which means the Badgers are still only losing one player -- senior guard Ben Brust -- from last year's excellent Final Four group.
  5. Wichita State Shockers: Nothing to report here: The Shockers are still losing Cleanthony Early and still keeping Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet. Will they go unbeaten until late March again? No, but they'll be awfully good.
  6. North Carolina Tar Heels: Point guard Marcus Paige played well enough in 2013-14 to earn a fair amount of NBA discussion by the time the season was over. Brice Johnson was just as promising, even in more limited minutes. But both players were always likely to come back, and now that they have, Roy Williams has more talent and experience at his disposal than at any time in the past five years.
  7. Virginia Cavaliers: The Cavaliers are still a relatively predictable bunch going forward. Losing Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris will hurt, but Tony Bennett's team will still be led by Malcolm Brogdon and a very solid returning core.
  8. Louisville Cardinals: Montrezl Harrell was probably a lottery pick, making his decision to stay in Louisville for another season one of the most surprising of the past month. It's also worth a big boost to Louisville's 2014-15 projections.
  9. Florida Gators: Probably the biggest boom-or-bust team on this list, Florida's 2014-15 season will hinge on the development of point guard Kasey Hill and raw-but-gifted big man Chris Walker. Jon Horford, a graduate transfer from Michigan, will add size and stability.
  10. Kansas Jayhawks: Bill Self's team won't have Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid in the fold next season, which was always a foregone conclusion (even if Embiid waited just long enough to make us wonder). But the players Self does have returning, plus another solid batch of arrivals, should make for another Big 12 regular-season title, the program's 11th in a row. Ho-hum.
  11. Connecticut Huskies: DeAndre Daniels' pro turn is a little bit surprising, given how quickly Daniels rose from relative obscurity in the NCAA tournament, but it is far less damaging than Ryan Boatright's return is helpful. And transfer guard Rodney Purvis, eligible this fall, will help, too.
  12. Southern Methodist Mustangs: An already good team (and one that probably deserved to get in the NCAA tournament over NC State, but oh well) gets almost everyone back and adds the No. 2 point guard in the 2014 class (Emmanuel Mudiay) to the mix, coached by Larry Brown. This should be interesting.
  13. Villanova Wildcats: Before Jay Wright's team lost to Seton Hall in the Big East tournament and UConn in the round of 32, it lost exactly three games all season. Four starters and an excellent reserve (Josh Hart) return, and Wright's program should remain ascendant.
  14. Virginia Commonwealth Rams: Shaka Smart has a lineup full of his prototypical ball-hawking guards, with the best recruiting class of his career en route this summer.
  15. Gonzaga Bulldogs: As Kentucky prepares for another season in the spotlight, a player who helped the Wildcats win their last national title -- forward Kyle Wiltjer -- re-emerges at Gonzaga, where he'll be the perfect stretch 4 in a devastating offensive lineup.
  16. Iowa State Cyclones: By and large, the Cyclones are what they were when their season ended: Seniors Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane are off to the Association, but Fred Hoiberg still has a lot of interesting, interchangeable pieces at his disposal.
  17. Texas Longhorns: The recently announced transfer of Maryland forward Shaquille Cleare won't help the Longhorns until 2015-16, when Cleare becomes eligible, but with everybody back, the Longhorns have a chance to make a real leap right away.
  18. [+] EnlargeBranden Dawson
    Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesMichigan State shouldn't slide back too far with Branden Dawson returning.
    Michigan State Spartans: Our first offseason ranking of Michigan State essentially assumed that Gary Harris would leave, which he did. Branden Dawson's return is crucial, and if Denzel Valentine has a big year, Tom Izzo's team might not take as big a step back as everyone is predicting.
  19. Oklahoma Sooners: Same story here: a very good offensive team with most of its major pieces back that needs to get a bit better defensively to really make a move into the elite.
  20. San Diego State Aztecs: The team that should have been on our first list anyway gets here now in large part as a function of its competition. But that's not an insult: Even losing Xavier Thames, the Aztecs are going to defend really well again, with a group of exciting young West Coast players on the way.
  21. Syracuse Orange: The Orange took not one, but two big-time hits in the draft-decision window. The first was point guard Tyler Ennis; the second, forward and sixth man Jerami Grant. Ennis was the most crucial, as it leaves Syracuse without an obvious point guard replacement.
  22. Oregon Ducks: Now that UCLA's Jordan Adams switched his decision and will leave for the NBA (with little time to spare, too), Oregon's combination of Joseph Young, Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson looks like the second-best Pac-12 team.
  23. Kansas State Wildcats: Freshman star Marcus Foster was one of the pleasant surprises of the 2013-14 season; he should be even better as a sophomore.
  24. Michigan Wolverines: The worst-case scenario for Michigan fans came true: Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary all left for the NBA draft. That said, Caris LeVert is on track for a major season, and while Michigan won't have the firepower of the past two seasons, it's fair to assume the Wolverines will still put up a ton of points.
  25. Iowa Hawkeyes: The argument for Iowa still stands: Fran McCaffery can reasonably replace Roy Devyn Marble and Melsahn Basabe with Jarrod Uthoff and Gabriel Olaseni and still get the kind of offense that fueled the pre-collapse Hawkeyes last season.

Early-entry winners and losers

April, 28, 2014
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The NBA’s early-entry deadline passed Sunday night as Division I coaches were returning from the only April recruiting weekend.

For the first time since the end of the season, the coaches finally know whom they will have and whom they won’t for next season.

Here are the winners and losers after the early-entry deadline. Keep in mind, some teams -- Duke, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Colorado, Arizona State and Tennessee -- knew long ago they would be losing players, so they don’t fit in either category.

Winners

Kentucky: The Wildcats could have been starting from scratch again next season. The players would have had plenty of reason to bolt after making the national title game. But only two did, and the Wildcats can absorb the losses of Julius Randle and James Young. The decisions by Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee to stay, coupled with newcomers Trey Lyles and Karl Towns Jr., give Kentucky a deeper and more versatile frontcourt. The return of guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison means coach John Calipari doesn’t need to restart his perimeter. Kentucky is probably the only program in the country that can be in the winners column by losing two lottery picks because of the NBA draft-level depth of the freshman and sophomore classes.

Wisconsin: The Badgers were within one stop of advancing to the national title game before Aaron Harrison’s 3-point dagger in Arlington, Texas, in the national semifinal. Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky easily could have put their postgame emotions behind them and said goodbye to Madison. But they did not. The return of the two scorers -- one on the wing and one inside and out -- means the Badgers have enough returning to be a Big Ten preseason favorite, a top-five team and a national title contender.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels were in a danger zone. UNC lost James Michael McAdoo, who had been inconsistent at times during his career. It could have seen point guard Marcus Paige and forward Brice Johnson bolt too. But that didn’t happen. Having Paige return is huge for coach Roy Williams. Paige will be the preseason favorite for ACC Player of the Year. His return was a must for UNC to be a conference title contender.

Louisville: The Cardinals had the most electric frontcourt player in the American last season in Montrezl Harrell. Few players could keep him off the backboard when he was going for a flush. The Cardinals continue to reload but don’t need to restart in the ACC sans Harrell. They won’t have to with his return.

Arkansas: The Hogs were a bit of an enigma last season with a sweep of Kentucky and a near-miss overtime loss at home to Florida. But the chances for Arkansas to make the NCAA tournament next season under Mike Anderson would have been reduced considerably if 6-foot-10 Bobby Portis and 6-6 Michael Qualls declared for the draft. Anderson was pleased to report Sunday that they did not.

Nebraska: The goodwill created by the Huskers’ run to the NCAA tournament could have been snuffed out if Terran Petteway was romanced by the good fortune and declared for the NBA draft. But he chose against it, and as a result Nebraska should be in the top six in the Big Ten and competing for a bid again.

West Virginia: The Mountaineers had moments last season when they looked like an NCAA tournament team. They should be next season with the decision by point guard Juwan Staten to return to Morgantown. He averaged 18.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. He will enter the season with a strong case to be considered for Big 12 Player of the Year honors.

Oregon: The Ducks are constantly in transition but needed some sort of consistency from one season to another with a key transfer. Joseph Young had the goods to declare. But he’s coming back to give them a legitimate scorer going into next season and an all-Pac-12 player in the quest to return to the NCAA tournament.

Utah: Larry Krystkowiak has the Utes on the verge of being an NCAA tournament team. That plan could have easily been derailed if Delon Wright took the bait of being a possible first-round pick. Wright’s return means the Utes will be an upper-half Pac-12 team and a preseason pick to make the NCAA tournament.

Losers

UCLA: The Bruins found out late Saturday night that Jordan Adams was gone. He joins Kyle Anderson and Zach LaVine. That means four of five starters are not back from the Pac-12 tournament champs. Steve Alford has a stellar recruiting class, but this team will be extremely young.

Michigan: The Wolverines are a prisoner of their own success. Nik Stauskas was hardly a two-year player when he was signed. But he matured into a Big Ten Player of the Year. He jumped with Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, who had no choice after a one-year ban because of a failed drug test for marijuana during the NCAA tournament. The Wolverines will enter a new era under John Beilein.

Syracuse: Tyler Ennis was probably more of a two-year point guard when he was signed. But he was one of the best players in the country as a freshman and capitalized on his success by leaving for the lottery. Jerami Grant's departure means the Orange will look quite a bit different in their second year in the ACC.

Missouri: The Tigers lost coach Frank Haith to Tulsa and their two best players in Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown. They will be pushing a restart button next season.

Xavier: The Musketeers had one of the most dynamic players in the Big East last season in Semaj Christon. Xavier is never down, but this presents yet another challenge for Chris Mack.

New Mexico: Alex Kirk was a potential early entrant. Add his departure to the known exits of Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams and the Lobos are rebuilding under Craig Neal.

Clemson: The Tigers had serious momentum with a strong finishing kick led by K.J. McDaniels. Brad Brownell always finds a way to keep his teams competitive. He’ll need to reinvent the team again with the loss of McDaniels.

Oregon State: The Beavers had a real gem in Eric Moreland, if he came back to work on his skills. He is tantalizing with his length and athleticism for the NBA, but he leaves the Beavers as a raw product when he and Oregon State could have benefited from his return.

Indiana: The Hoosiers have recruited at a high level the past four years under Tom Crean. Noah Vonleh is the latest to bolt. The problem for the Hoosiers is that he left a year too early, before he could have a full effect on the program with an NCAA berth.

NC State: The Wolfpack made a remarkable late surge to the NCAA tournament and won a game in the First Four before a late-game loss to Saint Louis in the round of 64. They had the ACC Player of the Year in T.J. Warren. The Wolfpack were supposed to be rebuilding last season and at times looked the part. But the run to the tournament changed the narrative. Now, with Warren gone, the rebuild might be underway.

UNLV: The Runnin’ Rebels were a disappointment last season even with Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith. Now they’re both off to the NBA draft, putting more pressure on Dave Rice to keep the Rebels chasing San Diego State, among others, next season.

Ohio State: The Buckeyes lost their best defensive player and leader in Aaron Craft. Now one of their top scorers is gone, too, with LaQuinton Ross' decision to declare.

Push

Arizona: The Wildcats lost Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson -- two significant body blows. But the return of Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski, coupled with another elite recruiting class led by Stanley Johnson, means the Wildcats will be the pick to win the Pac-12.

UConn: The Huskies could afford to lose DeAndre Daniels with the addition of transfer Rodney Purvis but couldn’t handle the loss of Ryan Boatright. His return gives Kevin Ollie a lead guard to run the offense and jump-start the defense. No one will pick the defending champs to win the title again, but that’s exactly how UConn likes the odds.

LSU: Johnny Jones knew he was likely going to lose Johnny O’Bryant III, but there were questions about whether he would be without freshmen bigs Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin. He got them both back, and the Tigers should be in contention for the NCAA tournament.

Michigan State: The Spartans weren’t surprised Gary Harris left after two seasons. But Michigan State would have taken an even deeper dip if Branden Dawson had jumped at the chance for the NBA. Dawson wasn’t a lock for the first round. He took the advice and stayed.
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The Jordan Brand Classic was played at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Friday.

This game is always filled with future NBA talent and usually has the No. 1 pick in a future NBA draft.

Twenty-two of the country's elite players went head to head for likely the last time before they meet again in college. There were so many impressive plays and highlights, so let's take a look at what we learned from the event.


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2013-14 hoops season in review

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
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Connecticut’s national title as a No. 7 seed provided the conclusive evidence of what we knew early on in the 2013-14 men’s college basketball season. There was no dominant team. Arizona settled down the revolving door of No. 1 teams -- the Wildcats were the third to hold the mantle just six weeks into the polls, and their eight weeks atop the Associated Press poll was the longest of the five teams (Kentucky, Michigan State, Syracuse, Florida) to be ranked No. 1. With the odds of winning the Billion Dollar Bracket already outrageous, parity in college basketball made it downright impossible.

With the book finally written on the season, here are the chapters we’ll remember most:

Freedom of movement: Officials were quick to say this season they weren’t creating new rules, they were enforcing the old ones. College basketball had become too defensive, the critics said. Physical play was ruining the game. The season started with an emphasis on allowing freedom of movement and handchecking was called to the point of being a “touch foul.” Players, coaches and officials alike never came to a consensus of understanding how a block/charge would be called. While scoring on the whole increased slightly, there was no denying that foul calls and free throws had a substantial spike.

Champions Classic: Teams were allowed to begin practice two weeks before the traditional Oct. 15 start date, which in a practical sense meant earlier than ever. It resulted in a November filled with high-quality games beginning with a special night in Chicago. The Champions Classic doubleheader featured Michigan State’s win over Kentucky and Kansas beating Duke and ushered in the season with big-name matchups with budding superstars to get college hoops buzzing even in the midst of the BCS race and the NFL, the overlord of American sports, in the middle of its season.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
AP Photo/Nati HarnikScoring machine Doug McDermott was one of the many seniors to make an impact on this season.
Freshmen focus: The Champions Classic just solidified what was already being said about the 2013 recruiting class. These were not ordinary freshmen. Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins was projected as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft long before ever stepping foot on campus. Those expectations might have skewed his performance this season because it was always in the context of being a top pick instead of simply being a freshman. Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kentucky’s Julius Randle and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon were all expected to be exceptional before the season started. But others like Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis and Kansas center Joel Embiid elbowed their way into the elite conversation with their play.

Senior spotlight: Plenty of seniors weren’t going to let the young guys hog all the spotlight and reminded us of the value of staying four years. No way UConn’s Shabazz Napier was mature enough in his previous three seasons to lead a team to the national title the way he did this season. Creighton’s Doug McDermott returned to school -- as a walk-on no less -- and finished as the fifth leading scorer in Division I history. He was also the first player since Wayman Tisdale (1983-85) and just the sixth ever to have three consecutive seasons scoring 800 points or more. Louisville’s Russ Smith returned and ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency by kenpom.com for a second straight season.

Conference realignment: With the dust finally settled (we think), and teams shuffled into new leagues, we saw the good and the bad from the new configurations. A record crowd of 35,000-plus at the Carrier Dome watched Syracuse’s 91-89 overtime win against Duke become an instant classic in their first meeting as ACC foes. The future of ACC basketball, which adds Louisville next season, is partly why Maryland’s season-long swan song as a former ACC charter member was overshadowed. Creighton excelled in its new locale, finishing second in the new Big East, even though its move from the Missouri Valley hurt Wichita State. (More on that below.) The brand-spanking new American Athletic Conference truly reflected the nation with its huge disparity between the haves at the top of the league and the have-nots at the bottom. In the end, the national championship trophy resides in the rookie league.

Shockers chase perfection: Wichita State became the first team since St. Joseph’s in 2004 to finish the regular season undefeated. Instead of drawing praise, it drew some skepticism from those who pointed to a weakened Missouri Valley schedule. Still the Shockers plugged along reaching 35-0 -- one game better than the 1990-91 UNLV squad that went 34-1 and lost to Duke in the Final Four -- and grabbing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Their season ended against eventual national runners-up and 8-seed Kentucky in the round of 32.

Coaches behaving badly: The season provided Internet trolls a seemingly endless supply of memes and GIFs to loop. The list was long, including Iowa’s Fran McCaffery slamming chairs against Michigan State, Nebraska’s Tim Miles ending the Cornhuskers’ most memorable season in decades with an NCAA tournament ejection and Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson’s postgame rant that included that his wife, not his players, knows to, “at least shot-fake one time.” But a few stand out. Who can forget the sight of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim nearly losing his jacket while running on the Cameron Indoor Stadium floor to protest a charge with 10 seconds left in a loss at Duke? Boeheim joked after the game that his first trip to Tobacco Road, which resulted in his first regular-season ejection, would be a memorable one. Then there was Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (insert sarcasm font here) who will certainly think twice before throwing a pen toward his bench. Krzyzewski got a technical foul for doing so in the ACC tournament final against Virginia.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/Getty ImagesJim Boeheim's jacket-removing, court-sprinting rant against Duke earned his first regular-season ejection.
Marcus Smart’s split-second snap: Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart earned praise in the preseason for putting off the NBA for a year and returning to school to work on his game. He couldn’t envision how frustrating the year would be. A season that began crumbling came to a boiling point at Texas Tech. With the Cowboys nearing a fourth straight loss, Smart shoved a fan when his momentum from a play carried him to the footstep of the stands. Smart said the fan called him a racial slur. The fan, Jeff Orr, said he called him a “piece of crap.” Regardless, Smart received a three-game suspension.

Safety issues: There were the things out of man’s control like the postponement of Iowa’s game at Indiana due to a pane of the ceiling crashing into the stands. North Carolina and Duke postponed their first meeting when a snow storm left the Blue Devils’ bus unable to safely travel eight miles to Chapel Hill. It was the Tar Heels’ first postponed game since the Gulf War. Court storming continued to be a topic when a fight broke out at the end of Utah Valley’s win over New Mexico State. The incident started when an agitated K.C. Ross-Miller of NMSU hurled the ball at Holton Hunsaker as time expired. Two Aggies were suspended for their roles in the altercation. Thankfully no one was hurt when an alcohol-fused adrenaline rush sent a UC-Santa Barbara student running onto the court during the first half of a game against Hawaii; the fan got close enough to confront Hawaii coach Gib Arnold before players pushed him away and he was escorted out.

Those were the top highlights from the season. Just missing the cut were: how teams turned around their seasons (including Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee); the impact of transfers (from the spectacular, including Duke’s Rodney Hood; to the cautionary, including Georgetown’s Josh Smith); the Carolina blues (potential All-American P.J. Hairston sat out the first nine games before the school announced it would not seek his reinstatement); and basketball as an emotional outlet (cellar dweller Boston College handed Syracuse its first loss after the passing of longtime BC media relations director Dick Kelley, and Georgia coach Mike Fox winning at Missouri after attending his father’s memorial service).
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Scouting the country each year I’ll not only see players’ skills, athletic ability and basketball IQ, but I’ll also witness their character along the way. This year’s class might not have any NBA superstars at the moment, but it will have difference-makers for the college game, both in the short term as well as those who will make a difference in time because of their character traits combined with their talent.

As we wrap up the Class of 2014, here are my five final thoughts:

1. The land of the giants

[+] EnlargeJahlil Okafor
AP Photo/The Sun News/Charles SlateDuke center signee Jahlil Okafor finishes the season as the nation's top prospect.
When you look at the top of a class it's so rare to have three post players sitting in the top three spots. Jahlil Okafor, who held the top spot for much of the season, finishes the season as the nation’s top prospect. The center from Chicago is a dominating presence in the paint. A Duke signee, Okafor led his high school team to a 4A state championship and was named the McDonalds Morgan Wooten player of the year.

He is special because he scores down low in the paint with his back to the basket. His combination of size, touch and fluid footwork is too much for one defender and when he doesn’t score, he attracts a double-team, which gives his team an advantage. He operates with patience and poise and when he reads the double-team he will accurately pass out to the open man. Defensively he guards the post and is improving at ball-screen defense as he is a barrier to the rim for his team.

Myles Turner, the nation’s No. 2 prospect, challenged hard for the No. 1 position and shows a big upside. Turner, who is uncommitted, is an elite shot-blocker and scores baskets with a soft touch and range. Cliff Alexander is going to be an absolute difference-maker for Kansas with his ability to rebound, finish and block shots, and he does it in an aggressive manner. Trey Lyles is one of the most skilled post players in this group and his future teammate at Kentucky Karl Towns Jr. has franchise skill-to-size ratio. Thomas Welsh is a fundamentally sound big who will anchor the middle at UCLA.


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CHICAGO -- Wednesday marked the 37th Annual McDonald's All-American game featuring the top high school boys basketball players in the country. The game took place at the United Center, home of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls.

Best low-post player: Jahlil Okafor


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CHICAGO -- The prestigious McDonald's All American Game annually brings together the best talent in high school basketball, all on one stage. Here are a few game matchups to watch for this year's star-studded event, which can be seen live on ESPN Wednesday night at 9:30 ET.


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Roundtable: Future NCAA tourney stars 

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18
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March Madness is in full swing with conference tournaments and selection Sunday giving way to the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament.

With each possession of each game now carrying far greater magnitude, championships are being decided by the players and teams that are able to control their emotions and execute under intensity and pressure.

Coaches go to great lengths to simulate these types of scenarios during the course of the year. Programs such as Kentucky and Connecticut actually monitor their players’ heart rates during games and practices, measuring and ultimately trying to reduce the variance as much as possible, while other coaches dedicate a huge amount of practice time to late-game situations in hopes of relieving the pressure of a potential tense moment, replacing it with a sense of preparedness.

Ultimately though, so much of being able to thrive in high-intensity situations comes down to a player’s DNA, and that is something that can be evaluated during the recruiting process, especially at this time of year, when high schools are going through their own postseason tournament runs.

With that in mind, we again went to our team of experts at Recruiting Nation and asked them which current high school prospects are built for future March Madness success, specifically in the game’s most critical minutes.


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Saturday by the numbers

March, 9, 2014
Mar 9
12:07
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Saturday, the last full day of regular-season college hoops, was a grand affair. We had overtime and history-making matchups and buzzer-beaters and memorable Senior Nights.

And the NCAA tournament hasn’t even started.

It’s probably best to recap this day according to its most significant numbers:

3,000: Bill Walton won two national championships with UCLA. Lew Alcindor won three national titles for the Bruins. J.J. Redick shattered records at Duke during his time there. Ralph Sampson won three consecutive Naismith player of the year awards at Virginia. Sampson, Alcindor and Walton are three of the greatest athletes who ever played at the collegiate level. But none of the aforementioned four players scored 3,000 points in their respective careers. Now, it’s only fair to note that eligibility limits blocked freshmen from competing with the varsity squads then and the 3-point line wasn’t available, either.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
AP Photo/Nati HarnikCreighton's Doug McDermott because just the eighth player to score more than 3,000 career points.
None of that diminishes what Doug McDermott has accomplished, however, as the senior forward became just the eighth player in NCAA history to score 3,000 career points. He reached that historic tally on a 3-pointer with 11:27 to play in Creighton’s 88-73 win over Providence on Saturday. He finished with 45 points total and 3,011 for his career to date.

4: Iowa State and Oklahoma State have had two battles this season. And after Saturday’s thriller, the Cyclones can claim both victories over the Pokes, but they needed four overtimes to get there. The first game, a 98-97 win for Iowa State, demanded triple overtime in Stillwater. Naz Long hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to drag Saturday’s game into the extra period in Ames, where Iowa State secured the 85-81 victory in the rematch.

41: Remember that stuff about Andrew Wiggins not being aggressive enough? Well, that’s so 2013. The freshman, a finalist for the Wooden Award, has been one of America’s best players in recent months. Proof? He dropped a career-high 41 points in Kansas’ 92-86 loss at West Virginia. At one point in the game, the Mountaineers had a 64-39 lead. But the Jayhawks, who were missing Joel Embiid, had a chance in the end. Yes, Kansas suffered a loss, which doesn’t help its argument for a top seed. But Wiggins produced the second-highest point total for a freshman in Big 12 history, per ESPN Stats & Information. That’s impressive.

18-0: Kentucky made things interesting for a moment. But the Wildcats couldn’t handle Florida’s full onslaught in the Gators’ 84-65 victory in Gainesville, a win that gave Florida a perfect 18-0 record in conference play. The Gators are the first team in SEC history to finish a year with 18 wins, per ESPN Stats & Information. The win also extended Florida’s winning streak to 23 games.

13: In the final home game of his career at Louisville, Russ “Russdiculous” Smith decided to let his teammates shine. He dished out a career-high 13 assists during an 81-48 Senior Night win over UConn.

1: With Cincinnati topping Rutgers and Louisville beating UConn, the American Athletic Conference had a problem. The Bearcats and Cardinals split the league title so the conference used a coin flip to finalize the top seed in next week’s AAC tourney. The winner? Cincinnati. "I requested that Coach Pitino and I play one game of liar's poker," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin joked to reporters after the game. “We used to do that all the time -- for fun, obviously.”

7 minutes, 32 seconds: That’s how long Arizona went without a field goal in the second half of a 64-57 road loss to Oregon, which snapped the Wildcats' five-game winning streak. That drought helped the Ducks seize a commanding lead via their 17-5 run.

73 seconds: That’s how much time remained in the game when Glenn Robinson III hit a go-ahead 3-pointer in Michigan's 84-80 win over Indiana.

33: Wins for undefeated Wichita State after Saturday’s 67-42 victory over Missouri State in the Missouri Valley Conference tourney semifinals. The Shockers are just the third team in Division I history to achieve a 33-0 mark, per ESPN Stats & Information.

30: Jabari Parker's career high in a 93-81 win over North Carolina at Cameron Indoor (most points by a Duke freshman in a matchup against North Carolina, according to ESPN Stats & Information), which gave Duke 33 consecutive home wins -- a Division I-high that the Blue Devils currently share with Stephen F. Austin.

2007: Eastern Kentucky upset top-seeded Belmont, 79-73, in the Ohio Valley tourney title game. The Colonels became the second team to punch their ticket to the NCAA tournament this season. And they’ll be dancing for the first time since 2007.

3-point shot: Player, teams of the week

February, 24, 2014
Feb 24
9:30
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ESPN reporter Andy Katz hands out awards for college basketball's player and teams of the week.

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