- Jason King
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What if you could build the ultimate college basketball player, Mr. Potato Head-style?
How tall would you make your point guard? Would speed be a factor for a center? Sure, you want your small forward to be able to score, but does it matter if he rebounds?
Of course it does.
Or at least it should if you truly want to construct a dream player, a guy at each position who possesses the very best traits of the top college basketball players from around the country.
After discussing the issue with four Division I coaches and three NBA scouts -- whose comments are sprinkled in below -- here's how I'd construct my team. And please note, I picked players based on how they project at the next level. For instance, while Ben McLemore is playing small forward for Kansas, he'll likely be a shooting guard as a pro, so that's where he appears on this list.
My ideal point guard would have
1. Michael Carter-Williams' size and length: The Syracuse sophomore ranks first in the country in assists (8.5) and third in steals (3.1). At 6-foot-6, he is one of the tallest players in the country at his position and presents a matchup problem for almost any perimeter player trying to defend him. "He's the highest-rated point guard on our board," one scout said. "He and Marcus Smart are probably the only point guards in this [draft] class that have the potential -- the potential -- to be high-level NBA players."
2. Marcus Smart's leadership: In his first -- and likely only -- collegiate season, Smart has transformed an Oklahoma State squad that hasn't made the NCAA tournament in two years into a Big 12 title contender. No player in the country motivates his teammates and demands more of them than Smart, who also sets an example with his play. How many point guards do you see averaging 5.9 rebounds? That's how many Smart snares for the Cowboys per game -- not to mention 4.6 assists and three steals. He does all of the little things to help his team win.
3. Aaron Craft's defense: There are far better offensive threats than Craft, but there may not be a better on-ball, perimeter defender in America than Ohio State's rosy-cheeked junior. Some of the country's quickest point guards have tried unsuccessfully to blow by Craft and penetrate into the lane. What makes Craft's peskiness even more impressive is that he's able to come up with so many clean steals without fouling.
4. Pierre Jackson's speed and quickness: The 5-10 Baylor point guard can be erratic at times, often turning the ball over or taking ill-advised shots. But baseline to baseline, he's as fast with the ball as any player in college basketball. In a half-court offense, he is incredibly explosive off the bounce and great at drawing fouls. "He's small, but he's so hard to guard," an NBA scout said. "He's so quick and he's always moving. He never stops. He's moving up draft boards, probably a late first-rounder or early second-rounder at this point."
5. Phil Pressey's vision: The Missouri junior has the ability to make highlight-reel passes that can be rivaled only by NBA All-Stars. His court vision and feel for his teammates' tendencies are second to none. Pressey is one of the few players at his position with a "wow" factor. His mediocre shooting ability and his knack for wilting in the final minutes of big games will keep him off of most All-American teams, though.
6. Trey Burke's poise: The Michigan sophomore averages 18.2 points, 7.0 assists and only 1.9 turnovers -- phenomenal numbers considering he plays in one of the most competitive conferences in recent memory. Burke never seems to lose his cool, never tries to do too much, and never gets too high or too low. His on-court temperament has been infectious on a Wolverines squad that was ranked No. 1 earlier this season.
My ideal shooting guard would have
1. Ben McLemore's athleticism: Let's be clear. McLemore would probably rank at the top of this list in several categories. He has one of the prettiest jump shots in the country, is calm under pressure, and can score from just about anywhere. But I've got to spread the love, so let's focus on McLemore's speed, burst, quickness, length and chiseled 6-5, 200-pound frame that may make him the No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft. "He's the most enjoyable guy in the country to watch play," an NBA scout said, "because you can sit there and marvel at how graceful he already is and, at the same time, you can think about all he can still become."
2. Tim Hardaway Jr.'s fearlessness: Taking the big shot in a close game is one thing. Wanting to take the big shot is something different, and make no mistake, Hardaway wants the ball in his hands with everything on the line. The Michigan junior went 10-of-17 from 3-point range against Indiana, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Nine of those 3s came in the second half or overtime.
3. Archie Goodwin's handle: So many people think of shooting guards as guys who attempt shots only from 3-point range. But it's the players who can put the ball on the court and penetrate who are truly dangerous. That describes Goodwin, the Kentucky freshman who can get into the lane with the best of them. "I'm sure he drives [John] Calipari crazy at times," one SEC coach said. "But he's got a confidence about him when he has that ball in his hands. He thinks he's the best player on the court."
4. Shabazz Muhammad's versatility: The UCLA freshman is projected to be selected anywhere from No. 1 to No. 6 in this year's NBA draft, and there are plenty of reasons why. "He shoots 3s, he scores from midrange, he drives and spots up," one NBA scout said. "He's a very balanced player. There are no glaring weaknesses." Muhammad isn't quite as explosive an athlete as McLemore and is probably 10 to 15 pounds heavier. But he is every bit as skilled, has a better handle and is more aggressive.
5. Ian Clark's stroke: The Belmont senior is shooting 51.2 percent from beyond the arc. That's almost tough to fathom. It's not as if Clark has a small number of attempts, which could increase his chances of a high percentage. Clark is attempting 6.6 3-pointers per game. He's made five or more shots from long range seven times this season and made nine 3s against Northeastern. That's not easy to do, folks.
6. Michael Snaer's short memory: One of the biggest keys to a shooter's success is to never lose confidence. Bad game last night? So what. Pretend as if it never happened. Snaer has been able to do that time and time again at Florida State, where he's rarely had two poor shooting performances in a row. That's why Snaer -- more than any player in the nation -- is the guy you want with the ball in his hands in the waning seconds of a close game. He hit two game-winning shots in recent weeks in victories over Clemson and Maryland. Last season, he made buzzer-beaters to topple Duke and Virginia Tech.
My ideal small forward would have
1. Otto Porter's frame: The 6-8, 205-pound Georgetown sophomore is a matchup nightmare for opposing small forwards. He's got long, lanky arms and legs that make him a menace to drive by or score over, so it's no surprise that he averages two steals and a block per game. Porter also possesses a nice shooting touch that makes him effective under the basket, from midrange and beyond the 3-point arc. Porter shoots 50 percent from the field and 44 percent from beyond the 3-point arc, phenomenal numbers for a player of his size who does a ton of scoring outside of the paint. "He's shot up our [draft] board more than anyone the past few weeks," a scout said.
2. Deshaun Thomas' offensive arsenal: Every team needs a player who can create his own shot and score when everything else breaks down. And it helps when that player stands 6-7 like Ohio State's Thomas, who is as pure a scorer as there is in America. Thomas averages 20.1 points a game and is shooting 40 percent from 3-point range, but he's at his best when he's slashing toward the basket or pulling up from midrange. He's among a small handful of players who have the ability to take over a game.
3. Solomon Hill's presence: The Arizona senior is the ultimate glue guy, which has been huge for a squad that's had to incorporate a handful of freshmen into its rotation, not to mention a new point guard, Xavier transfer Mark Lyons. Need Hill to guard the opponent's top player in crunch time? No problem. Need him to take the big shot? Pass him the ball. Need him to calm everyone down in the huddle? Not many Pac-12 players boast the poise of Hill, who has led Arizona to a 20-3 record, one season after the Wildcats failed to make the NCAA tournament.
4. Isaiah Sykes' rebounding: Whether it's in YMCA ball, high school, college or pro, most players will go a lifetime without ever posting a triple-double. Central Florida's Sykes has done it twice this season. One of the main reasons is his willingness to get into the paint and mix it up on the glass. He's averaging 7.1 rebounds, which is impressive considering the Knights feature another player, Keith Clanton, who snares 9.2 boards per contest. "People forget about Central Florida because they're ineligible for the postseason," a Division I coach said, referring to the NCAA's sanctions over recruiting violations. "But they've got a really, really nice team. Sykes and Clanton could play for just about anyone."
5. Carrick Felix's defense: The best small forwards are athletic enough to defend four positions -- everyone from the opposing point guard to power forward. That definitely describes Arizona State's Felix. Just ask Cal standout Allen Crabbe, who went just 6-of-14 from the field and 2-of-8 from 3-point range while being defended by Felix in last week's loss to the Sun Devils. Washington State's Brock Motum (3-of-13) and Washington's C.J. Wilcox (2-of-11) also struggled against Felix. Freshman Jahii Carson gets most of the credit for Arizona State's turnaround, but anyone close to the program will tell you that Felix (14.4 points, eight rebounds) has been the catalyst for the 18-6 Sun Devils. "They'd have a losing record without him," a Pac-12 coach said.
6. Victor Oladipo's energy: You need to watch Oladipo play in person to truly appreciate just how good he is. It won't take long for you to realize why he's among the leading candidates for the Wooden Award. Simply put, the guy never stops, never tires. Whether he's diving for a loose ball, blocking someone's shot, forcing his way into the passing lane or leading a two-on-one break that ends with a dunk, the 6-5 junior is always in the center of the action. I'm not sure any player in the nation has come further in the past few years.
My ideal power forward would have
1. Trevor Mbakwe's fire: Going up against Mbakwe in the post looks like it'd be downright scary. He's relentless on the boards -- especially on the offensive end -- and seems to play better when there's contact. Mbakwe plays with such a mean streak that you half-expect smoke to come out of his nose and ears when things don't go his way. That kind of grit and toughness can rub off on teammates, and that's certainly been the case with Minnesota, which is regarded as one of the more physical teams in the Big Ten. Mbakwe is the kind of guy you don't want to meet in a dark alley -- or the paint.
2. D.J. Stephens' lift: The only thing missing from the Memphis senior's uniform is a cape. Seriously, in all my years of covering college basketball, I don't think I've ever seen a player consistently jump as high as Stephens, who probably would be averaging more than 6.5 rebounds if nagging injuries weren't limiting him to 22 minutes per game. Stephens still has managed four double-digit rebounding efforts, and his leaping ability has allowed him to block 2.3 shots per contest. Other great leapers: Tony Mitchell of North Texas and Rodney Williams of Minnesota.
3. Doug McDermott's basketball IQ: Being the son of a head coach certainly has helped McDermott, a junior who is excellent at using angles to put himself in a position to take high-percentage shots. At 6-8, McDermott can score from anywhere -- he is averaging 23.3 points and shooting 48 percent from 3-point range -- and rarely attempts a bad shot or makes a foolish pass. "It'd help if he were a little bigger, maybe a little more athletic," one NBA scout said. "But, really, there's not a lot not to like. He does just about everything really, really well."
4. Anthony Bennett's strength: The UNLV forward is one of the leading candidates for national freshman of the year, and one of the reasons is because of the aggression he shows on offense. Bennett hardly has the frame of a teenager. His 6-8, 240-pound stature enables him to absorb and play through contact, which can be deflating to an opposing defender. What's even more encouraging is that Bennett, who is projected as a top-five pick in this year's NBA draft, still has room to grow physically, as this is his first season working with a professional strength coach. He's averaging 18.3 points and 8.6 rebounds.
5. Ed Daniel's motor: A handful of coaches and basketball analysts who attended the LeBron James camp this summer said Daniel, the Murray State forward, was the best big man on the court. Not so much because of his skill level (which certainly isn't poor) but because of his bounce, instincts and energy -- especially when it comes to rebounding. Knowing that, it shouldn't come as a surprise that Daniel ranks among the country's leaders with 10.8 boards per contest. Murray State hasn't generated quite as much buzz as last season, but that has nothing to do with Daniel or standout point guard Isaiah Canaan, both of whom have gotten better. The team around them just isn't as good.
6. Isaiah Austin's skill set: Numerous NBA scouts believe Austin, a freshman, has the most upside of anyone in the draft. The 7-footer can handle the ball on the perimeter, score from 3-point range, back his way into the paint, and score over both shoulders. Austin has been a terror on the boards lately, averaging 13.8 rebounds in Baylor's past four games. "The biggest issue with him is going to be strength," an NBA scout said. "He's incredibly skinny and very weak, and that's obvious when he tries to play defense. He's not ready to go [to the NBA yet] but he probably will. He needs to get stronger. Talent-wise, though, he's off the charts."
My ideal center would have
1. Kelly Olynyk's touch around the basket: I have no shame in admitting that I'm high, high, high on Olynyk. If the season ended tomorrow, I'd vote the 7-footer from Gonzaga as a first-team All-American. I'm not sure he has a weakness. His footwork is great, he's an aggressive rebounder who plays with a mean streak, he passes well out of the post, and his court temperament is phenomenal for a guy who continually gets pounded and hacked, as most big men experience. The thing that impresses me the most, though, is his soft shooting touch. What seems like an easy 5-foot shot can be tough for players of Olynyk's size, but the junior has it down to a science. He also can score much farther away from the basket and can adjust if a defense closes in. Olynyk is averaging 17.7 points and shooting 65.2 percent from the field. He also shoots 80 percent from the free throw line, which is almost unheard of for a 7-footer.
2. Alex Len's sturdy base: Some think Len, the 7-foot-1 Maryland sophomore from Ukraine, could be a top-five pick in the upcoming draft. It's amazing how far he's come in a year. No one ever questioned Len's skill set and basketball IQ, which have always been among his best traits. Instead, it was his lack of strength and aggression that left some scouts in wait-and-see mode. That's certainly not a concern these days, as Len added a ton of muscle during the offseason and is now a solid 255 pounds. The last thing anyone is going to do is push Len around in the paint, where he establishes position and works for a high-quality shot.
(Editor's Note: After this story was originally published, Kentucky announced that Nerlens Noel has a torn ACL and will miss the remainder of the season.)
3. Nerlens Noel's instincts: Noel suffered a knee injury in Tuesday's loss to Florida that could end his season. Still, the Kentucky freshman is among the candidates to be selected No. 1 overall in this summer's NBA draft. While Noel's offensive game is far from a finished product, he was arguably the top all-around defender in the nation before his injury. Much of that is because of his uncanny instincts, his ability to see a play before it happens and put himself in position to block a shot or force a pass. Noel is averaging a national-best 4.5 blocks -- Anthony Davis averaged 4.6 last season -- along with 10.6 points and 9.6 rebounds.
4. Cody Zeller's speed: Zeller is projected as a top-10 pick in this year's draft, and one of the main reasons is because of the 7-footer's ability to run the court. Zeller may not be as fast as Indiana's guards, but he's not that far behind. Because of it, the younger brother of NBA forwards Tyler and Luke Zeller has been able to make a ton of buckets in transition for an Indiana squad that is ranked No. 1 in the country.
5. Mason Plumlee's bounce: The Duke senior is one of the leading candidates for the Wooden Award. No player was as good early in the season as Plumlee, who led the Blue Devils to victories over Louisville, VCU, Kentucky and Ohio State. Plumlee's springiness, bounce and overall athleticism are some of the main reasons for his success. He has quick-twitch reflexes that, combined with his length, make him a pest on the defensive end and allow him to get to rebounds before anyone else. Plumlee had a few mediocre games in early January but has been back to his old self lately. He's averaging 18.2 points and 10.7 boards.
6. Jeff Withey's timing: Withey became Kansas' all-time blocks leader in Monday's victory over Kansas State and is just one away from breaking the Big 12 record. His 4.1 blocks per game are even more impressive considering he averages just 1.7 fouls. Much of that is because of the timing Withey developed growing up as a beach volleyball player in San Diego. He rarely jumps too early or too late. Other than Noel, there may not be a better defensive force in all of college basketball.
A: Tom Izzo -- While fans and analysts have spent the past two months fawning over Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State, Izzo has quietly assembled what may be the best team in the nation's best conference. Michigan State is 10-2 in the Big Ten and atop the league standings following Tuesday's 75-52 annihilation of Michigan at Breslin Center. Don't ever count out Izzo and the Spartans.
B: Stanford -- A text from a Pac-12 administrator earlier this week read: "I don't know how Stanford lost nine games. They're the third-best team in our league right now." Hey, better late than never for the Cardinal, who are 15-9 overall and 6-5 in conference play. Johnny Dawkins' squad has won four of its past five contests, the only loss a seven-point setback at Arizona. It's not too late to start thinking about Stanford in the NCAA tournament.
C: Welcome back Myck -- Texas welcomes back point guard Myck Kabongo Wednesday night following the point guard's 23-game suspension by the NCAA for illicit dealings with an agent. The scenario will be an interesting one in Austin, where freshman Javan Felix has started all season for what is easily Rick Barnes' worst team. Barring a victory in the title game of the Big 12 tournament, Texas has no shot at making the NCAA tournament. Will Kabongo start from the get-go? How rusty will he be? Will his addition help or hurt team chemistry? Tune in.
D: Missouri on the road -- The Tigers looked like a top-10 team while dismantling Ole Miss 98-79 on Saturday. But that game was in Columbia, where Frank Haith's squad has been good all season. Away from home, though, Missouri is a totally different team. The Tigers have yet to win a true road game all season. They're 0-5 in such contests, with losses to schools such as LSU and Texas A&M. The Tigers need to fix the problem in a hurry, as four of their next five games are on the road beginning with Wednesday night's tilt at Mississippi State.
F: Injuries -- It always sickens me to watch good players and good kids go down with season-ending injuries, especially this close to the postseason. Since the weekend, we've seen Kentucky's Nerlens Noel, Oklahoma's Buddy Hield, Northwestern's Jared Swopshire and Memphis' Antonio Barton all suffer injuries that either will end their season or at the minimum keep them out for the rest of the regular season (or at least until the NCAA tournament, NIT and CBI).
THIS WEEK'S POLL
Predicting league champions
Note: The five panelists were ask to project the top three finishers in each conference. Three points were awarded for a first-place vote, two for a second-place vote and one for a third-place vote. First-place votes are in parentheses. (voters: Eamonn Brennan, Andy Katz, Jason King, Myron Medcalf, Dana O'Neil)
1. Miami - 15 (5)
2. Duke - 10
3. Virginia - 3
4. (tie) NC State and North Carolina - 1
1. Syracuse - 15 (5)
2. Louisville - 7
3. Pittsburgh - 5
4. Georgetown - 4
1. Indiana - 13 (3)
2. Michigan State - 11 (2)
3. Michigan - 5
4. Wisconsin - 1
1. Kansas - 14 (4)
2. Oklahoma State - 8 (1)
3. Kansas State - 7
4. Iowa State - 1
1. Arizona - 15 (5)
2. (tie) Oregon and UCLA - 5
4. (tie) Colorado and Stanford - 2
6. Arizona State - 1
1. Florida - 15 (5)
2. Kentucky - 8
3. (tie) Missouri and Ole Miss - 3
5. Alabama - 1
1. Butler - 13 (3)
2. VCU - 12 (2)
3. Saint Louis - 3
4. LaSalle - 2
1. Creighton -14 (4)
2. Indiana State - 9
3. Wichita State - 7
1. Colorado State - 12 (3)
2. New Mexico - 11 (2)
3. San Diego State - 6
4. UNLV - 1
Each week, I'll pick the top five players -- and three reserves -- ever to play for a high-profile coach. Disagree with my selections? Let me hear about it.
Villanova's All-Jay Wright team
G: Randy Foye -- Utah Jazz guard was Big East Player of the Year in 2005-06
G: Kyle Lowry -- Toronto Raptors guard became first-round pick after sophomore year
G: Scottie Reynolds -- Nova's second all-time leading scorer led team to 2009 Final Four
F: Dante Cunningham -- averaged 16.1 points, 7.5 rebounds for 2008-09 Final Four squad
F: Curtis Sumpter -- averaged between 14 and 17 points in final three seasons
G: Allan Ray -- averaged 18.6 points, named first-team All-Big East in 2005-06
G: Mike Nardi -- part of the four-guard lineup that led Wildcats to a No. 1 seed in 2006
F: Will Sheridan -- three-year starter (2003-07) was big on rebounding, hustle plays
Best dance: The Harlem Shake
Worst dance: The hideous boxing shimmy by Missouri's Alex Oriakhi before a near-tussle with Ole Miss' Reginald Buckner
Good quote: "It's not always who you play, but when you play them. We caught them at the wrong time." -- Kansas State coach Bruce Weber after Monday's 21-point loss to revved-up Kansas
Funny quote: "I'm healthy, my wife's healthy and our trainer is in great shape. Other than that, we've got problems. We are extremely beat-up right now." -- Michigan State's Tom Izzo on the Spartans' rash of injuries
Dumb quote: "Our bad years are not that bad. Take a school like Missouri. Our bad years are better than their good years." -- Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds
Needs a hug: Elijah Johnson, Kansas
Needs a kick in the rear: Russ Smith, Louisville
Seat warmers on: Tubby Smith, Minnesota
Seat warmers off: Herb Sendek, Arizona State
How in the world were they ever 7-0: Virginia Tech Hokies
How in the world were they ever 0-6 (in league play): Illinois State Redbirds
Freshman on the rise: Mitch McGary, Michigan
Will blossom as a sophomore: Kaleb Tarczewski, Arizona
Got better with an interim coach: USC
Still bad with an interim coach: Texas Tech
Best postgame celebration: Wisconsin players dancing to Ke$ha after beating Michigan
Worst postgame celebration: Oklahoma fans rushing the court after beating a Kansas team that had lost three straight
at Duke 82, North Carolina 69: The Tar Heels' defense has been lacking all season -- especially on the road, where UNC has been embarrassed by teams such as Miami, Texas and Indiana. Look for it to happen again Wednesday.
at Colorado State 64, San Diego State 58: The Rams hope to avenge the Jan. 12 overtime loss to San Diego State. A victory would make Larry Eustachy's squad the favorite to win the MWC title.
at Memphis 72, Central Florida 65: There are two really good teams in Conference USA besides Memphis. The Tigers defeated one of them (Southern Miss) on the road Saturday. Now they get Keith Clanton and the Knights at FedEx Forum. Memphis (20-3 and 9-0) hasn't lost since Dec. 15.
at Saint Mary's 75, Gonzaga 72: The Zags may have the more talented team, but everyone knows things like that don't always matter in rivalry games. A victory by the Gaels would mean a tie for first place between the two schools in the WCC standings.
at Colorado 68, Arizona 65: Think the Buffaloes won't be motivated for this one after last month's Replay Gate in Tucson? I'm guessing the atmosphere at Coors Events Center will be as good as it's been in years. Arizona looks vulnerable after Sunday's home loss to Cal.
Pittsburgh 56, at Marquette 53: The Panthers have won seven of their past eight since falling to Marquette in overtime on Jan. 12. The Golden Eagles, meanwhile, are coming off a 63-55 loss Saturday to Georgetown. This should be one of the more intense, exciting games of the day Saturday.
Baylor 64, at Kansas State 60: Give K-State credit. While teams across America are losing in upsets every day, the Wildcats have yet to drop a game they're not supposed to lose. Baylor, though, has far superior talent. And the Bears are due for a road win after close calls at Iowa State and Oklahoma State. Baylor won in Manhattan last season.
at Wisconsin 58, Ohio State 55: Ohio State already lost road games to Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State. Kohl Center is a tougher venue than any of them. Wisconsin is ticked it's not being mentioned more in discussions about the Big Ten title, and will play like it on Sunday.
QuikTrip hot dogs, various locations: As if the speedy cashiers and the nation's largest selection of fountain drinks weren't enough, the massive gas station/convenience store chain has added some new bells and whistles to its résumé. Most notably, the hot dog bar. QuikTrip always served up some of the best on-the-run dogs you'll find anywhere. Always hot, always fresh, always guaranteed to make you feel like a sloth after inhaling a few. But now customers have the option of dressing their dogs with sport peppers, sauerkraut, jalapenos, pico de gallo, bright green relish, pickles, tomatoes and celery salt at no additional charge. Yep, QuikTrip went gourmet on us, and that's a good thing. Two dogs for two bucks. Can't beat it.
Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia: My world gets thrown into a tizzy whenever I'm standing in the middle of a food court at a mall or airport. It's not uncommon for me to spend 20 minutes walking in circles and staring behind counters, trying to decide where to eat. You can imagine, then, the choices I encountered at Reading Terminal Market, an indoor facility in downtown Philly that features 100-plus vendors selling everything from freshly made cheesesteaks, gyros and pastrami sandwiches to homemade ice cream and thick chocolate chip cookies. It truly is a sight to behold for food lovers. Just make sure to take plenty of Lipitor -- and money -- as you'll definitely want to sample the fare from more than one vendor.