Here's my NCAA tournament prediction: I have no clue
It is time for everybody to predict the NCAA tournament, and I don't mind telling you this is the best prediction column you will read all week. Normally, you have to wait three weeks to realize the columnist had no clue who would win. I tell you up front: I have no clue who will win. I'm hoping this moves me up to the top of the Kenpom.com columnist efficiency rankings.
In the meantime, a question.
We have all heard that that college basketball is a farm system for the NBA.
What happened to that?
No. 1 overall seed Florida probably does not have any 2014 first-round picks on its roster. Neither does No. 1 seed Wichita State, which went undefeated. Neither does No. 1 seed Virginia, which won ACC regular-season and tournament titles. It is very possible that the only player on a No. 1 seed who will go in the first round this year is Arizona's Aaron Gordon -- and Gordon looks like a solid NBA player, not a star.
If there is a player who can carry his team to a championship, like Carmelo Anthony in 2003 or Danny Manning in 1988, it is Creighton's Doug McDermott, an under-recruited senior who gets his points in the flow of his team's offense.
Meanwhile, Kentucky has several potential first-round picks who have impressed scouts by dribbling into five defenders and committing extremely athletic turnovers. Kentucky is 230th in the country in assist-to-turnover ratio (likely second-round opponent Wichita State is 40th) and 259th in the country in assists, though most Kentucky assists appear to be unintentional. I like to think of them as FATs: Failed Attempted Turnovers. As I mentioned, I have no clue who will win this thing, but it won't be Kentucky.
This is the risk that John Calipari took when he decided to recruit a new team of AAU All-Stars every year. You can call Calipari all sorts of names, even if you aren't Rick Pitino, but that is not the point here. I'm not bashing Calipari. (Really!) This is not an ethical or moral question. It's a practical one: Calipari's one-and-done approach has proven that for every Anthony Davis, there is a Harrison twin ... OK, technically there are TWO Harrison twins. Cal needs to tweak his recruiting approach if he wants to win another national title. Otherwise he will end up with more teams like this one, and at Kentucky, more teams like this one can get a man fired.
As Kentucky has accidentally shown, and the top seeds confirm, college basketball remains a team game. That's why the most telling night of this season occurred last fall in Chicago, when Kentucky, Michigan State, Kansas and Duke played in the same building on the same night. It felt like March in November. It turned out to be far more revealing in retrospect.
Duke's Jabari Parker put on a show against Kansas that night, then sat in the locker room afterward and gave himself a "C-minus," partly for defensive lapses but mostly because the Blue Devils lost. Duke's season has provided great lessons in what Parker can do (he is even better than his hype, and a future NBA All-Star) and what he can't (Duke went 26-8, is only a No. 3 seed, and was not even the best team in its league).
Kansas's Andrew Wiggins asked to defend Parker in the second half that night, which was admirable, but a few months later, we realize that a) Wiggins, a wonderful player, might be the second-best prospect on his own team, behind center Joel Embiid, and b) even with both Wiggins and Embiid on the floor, Kansas is very beatable. Embiid has a stress fracture in his back, and we will find out soon if he can really return for the NCAA tournament, or if Kansas just said that to protect its seed. The selection committee was more likely to downgrade Kansas if it knew Embiid was done for the year.
Then there was Michigan State. The Spartans beat Kentucky, and my sense at the time was that they had to be better than Kentucky in November, because Kentucky was full of freshmen and would probably improve more by the end of the season. Whoops! (Did I mention I have no clue?) All of Michigan State's top players were injured at some point or another this season, but the Spartans are mostly healthy now (except point guard Keith Appling, who remains limited because of a wrist injury) and are apparently everybody's favorite or co-favorite to win this tournament.
It could happen, as I wrote last Friday. But the rush to pick MSU is a bit strange. The Spartans are a 4 seed, and top-three seeds have won 23 of the last 24 tournaments. (The lone exception: Fourth-seeded Arizona in 1997.) Now, as in November, Michigan State only has one potential lottery pick: sophomore Gary Harris, who will be a terrific pro but struggled as he tried to carry the load of his injured team this season.
Analysts are flocking to Michigan State because the Spartans are finally healthy, just whipped Big Ten regular-season champ Michigan in the Big Ten tournament title game, and mostly because the Spartans are a well-coached veteran team with talent that plays well together. Michigan State may or may not win this, but a team like Michigan State surely will. That's my only prediction. But as you may have heard: I have no clue.