Winners & Losers from the beginning of college basketball's off-season
It wasn’t too long ago that there were four seasons in college basketball: preseason, regular season, postseason and recruiting season. Since the bulk of recruiting took place in summer, the calendar provided a nice, long respite between the end of the March Madness and the beginning of July Madness.
That, however, is no longer the case. The events that unfurl during the weeks after the Final Four are as critical as anything that occurs during the year. There are four areas of mass change. The first two are familiar—coaching hires and firings, and NBA draft declarations. Then there are the player transfers, which have spiked dramatically in the last five years. According to ESPN.com’s Jeff Goodman, who does heroic work each spring tracking the transactions, more than 600 players decided to switch schools this spring. And you wonder why so many coaches are going bald.
This year, a brand new sea change emerged—namely, the inordinate number of elite high school players who waited until the spring to reveal their college choice. I don’t know if this is the start of a new trend or a one-year aberration, but it flies in the face of how recruiting has worked for the last two decades, when earlier was believed to be better. Perhaps these talented teenagers are getting more savvy about the upsides of waiting. That way, they can see where all the dominoes fall before making such an important decision.
Now that the dust has mostly settled, your resident Hoop Thinker is on hand to do a little spring cleaning. Herewith, my top 10 winners and losers from a frenetic few weeks:
1. California. One year ago, Cuonzo Martin left Tennessee largely because he no longer wanted to put up with the harsh treatment he received from Vols fans, some of whom circulated an online petition calling for his firing; it garnered nearly 40,000 signatures. Martin’s first team in Berkeley looked awful at times as it slogged its way to a 18-15 record, but he pulled off the two biggest recruiting coups of the spring by landing 6’7” forward Jaylen Brown and 6’9” forward Ivan Rabb. They are ranked No. 3 and No. 7, respectively, in the Class of 2015 by Rivals.com. Brown’s commitment was especially shocking given that he lives in Georgia and was considering powerhouse programs like Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina. Moreover, Martin didn’t start recruiting him until very late in the process.
Martin also dodged a bullet when 6’5” guard Tyrone Wallace, the Bears’ leading scorer, decided to bypass the NBA draft and return for his senior season. As a result, Cal went from being a borderline NCAA tournament team next season to a likely preseason top-15 ranking. That’s what you call a few good weeks.
2. Mississippi State. MSU athletic director Scott Stricklin pulled off the most impactful coaching hire of the spring when he convinced former UCLA and Pittsburgh coach Ben Howland to leave Santa Barbara and begin anew in Starkville. Howland, in turn, nailed down the program’s most significant recruit in decades when he got a commitment from Malik Newman, a 6’3” scoring guard from Jackson, Miss. Newman’s father, Horatio Webster, played for Mississippi State from 1996-98, but even he was surprised that his son chose to play there instead of Kansas or Kentucky. Newman’s announcement validated Howland’s decision to pluck assistant coach Korey McCray, who used to work for Howland at UCLA, from LSU’s staff. McCray had been recruiting Newman for LSU since Newman was in the ninth grade. Newman will likely only be in Starkville for one season, which is hardly long enough to turn the program around, but Howland will be staying for much longer. In a very short time, he has served notice that he intends to make Mississippi State basketball relevant again.
3. Maryland. One of the biggest questions surrounding Maryland’s move to the Big Ten was whether it would hurt the basketball program’s ability to recruit. Mark Turgeon answered it emphatically when he won a commitment from the nation’s top high school center in Diamond Stone, a Milwaukee native who was also considering Wisconsin. For Turgeon to go into the heart of Big Ten country and beat out one of its most prominent coaches to land the best prospect Maryland has had in years is a victory that will reverberate for quite some time.
A week later, Maryland got more good news when freshman point guard Melo Trimble turned down the chance to be a first-round draft pick. Junior forward Jake Layman also decided to come back to College Park. With Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter set to become eligible next season, the Terps are looking at a top-10 preseason ranking. It will not be easy coaching amidst such sky-high expectations, but that is a problem Turgeon will gladly welcome.
4. Duke. It is pretty remarkable the Blue Devils made the winners list considering they lost four starters, including three freshmen, from their NCAA championship team. But Mike Krzyzewski worked an impressive inside straight when he convinced Derryck Thornton, a 6’1” point guard from California who has spent his last two years playing for Findlay Prep in Nevada, to reclassify as a Class of 2015 player and join the Blue Devils this fall. Krzyzewski followed that up by landing a commitment from another consensus top-10 recruit in Brandon Ingram, a 6’8” scoring machine from Kinston, N.C. The Ingram commitment was especially sweet because Duke beat out North Carolina for an in-state player, which is unusual. Krzyzewski also added Antonio Vrankovic, a 6’11”, 240-pound center from Florida, and 6’8” forward Justin Robinson, the son of NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson.
And yet, Duke’s most important win this spring (besides the championship, of course) was associate head coach Jeff Capel’s decision to turn down Arizona State. Capel’s prowess on the recruiting trail has provided this program a steady flow of elite talent, and when it comes to planning and managing a game, Krzyzewski trusts Capel as much as any assistant he has ever had.
5. Indiana. None of IU’s underclassmen were projected to be first-round draft picks, but lots of players have turned pro over the years without a first-round guarantee. So Indiana caught a break when junior point guard Yogi Ferrell, freshman guard James Blackmon and sophomore forward Troy Williams all decided to return to Bloomington. On the recruiting front, Indiana landed the quality big man it lacked last season in Thomas Bryant, a 6’10” power forward from Rochester, N.Y. Remember, it was just two months ago that the speculation over Tom Crean’s job security was so pitched that athletic director Fred Glass felt the need to issue a public endorsement. Now, the Hoosiers are looking like a top-15 team heading into 2015-16. Funny how that ball bounces.
6. North Carolina. The Tar Heels lost an underclassman to the NBA draft, but it wasn’t one of the losses they feared. Junior forward J.P. Tokoto decided to make that leap even though he is unlikely to be drafted. Tokoto is an electric finisher as well as a versatile defender and passer, but he is not as valuable to this team as junior Marcus Paige. Paige declined to enter the draft, as did 6’8” freshman Justin Jackson, who would have been a tantalizing prospect. It must have stung Roy Williams to lose Ingram to Duke, but he still added a quality recruit in Kenny Williams, a 6’2” combo guard from Virginia.
7. Wichita State. It was a nervous few days for Shockers fans as Gregg Marshall flirted with Alabama, but he elected to stay put in Wichita. The fact that the school came up with $3 million to keep him speaks volumes of their commitment to success, not to mention their incredible fortune at being bankrolled by the Koch brothers. Marshall’s decision to stay made it easier for Wichita State’s dynamic backcourt tandem of Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker to resist the lure of the NBA. Both of those players will warrant All-America consideration, and the Shockers will once again spend most of next season near the top of the rankings. The spring season might not be so kind a year from now, when VanVleet and Baker will both graduate and Marshall will once again likely have tempting offers from Power Five programs.
8. Gonzaga. The Zags were already graduating their veteran backcourt tandem of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, but they were in danger of losing their entire frontcourt to the NBA as well. Yet, Kyle Wiltjer, Przemek Karnowski and Damontas Sabonis all decided to return. Wiltjer transferred in from Kentucky two years ago, and Mark Few once again landed the best player on the transfer market in former Washington point guard Nigel Williams-Goss. Williams-Goss won’t be eligible until the fall of 2016, but he will spend next season working his way into the program and making the starters better in practice.
9. Kansas. It wouldn’t be springtime if the Jayhawks didn’t lose players to the NBA draft. This time around it was two freshmen, forwards Kelly Oubre and Cliff Alexander, although Alexander’s exodus was not-so-helpfully pushed along by the NCAA. Still, all the other fence-sitters (most notably junior forward Perry Ellis) decided to return, and Bill Self landed another elite frontcourt prospect in 6’9” Cheick Diallo, who hails from Mali. As a result, the Jayhawks will be favored to win their 12th consecutive Big 12 championship.
10. UNLV. This could have been a disastrous spring for Dave Rice after 6’6” freshman guard Rashad Vaughn and 6’11” sophomore forward Christian Wood turned pro, but Rice was rescued by Stephen Zimmerman, a 6’11” McDonald’s All-American and Las Vegas native who chose stay home instead of playing for Arizona, Kansas, Kentucky or UCLA. That had major symbolic significance because it indicates this program still has enough juice in the recruiting world to lose good players and remain consistently competitive. That’s a win.
1. Florida. Neither Michael Frazier, a 6’4” junior guard, nor 6’10” sophomore forward Chris Walker has any chance of being a first-round pick, yet both entered the NBA draft anyway. The Gators are also losing 6’2” junior guard Eli Carter, who said he will transfer. Carter is on track to get his undergraduate degree and is thus eligible immediately. (Incidentally, Carter transferred to Florida from Rutgers. Welcome to college hoops in 2015.) Yet, those developments pale in comparison to Billy Donovan’s decision to leave Gainesville after a stellar 19-year run to coach the Oklahoma City Thunder. Not only did Florida lose a future Hall of Famer, but Donovan’s decision came too late for athletic director Jeremy Foley to make a run at Shaka Smart, Donovan’s former assistant, who had already taken the Texas job. Foley found a capable replacement for Donovan in former Louisiana Tech coach Mike White, but his job got harder this week when Donovan’s highest-rated recruit, 6’2” guard KeVaughn Allen, asked to be released from his commitment. Donovan turned Florida into a great job, and White has a tough act to follow.
2. Kentucky. It may be odd seeing the Wildcats here considering they will still be a preseason top-five team, but it has been a weird and unsettling few weeks in Lexington. Seven underclassmen from last year’s team entered the NBA draft, but with so many quality high school players still available, it was safe to assume that John Calipari would re-stock his cupboard. Yet, Calipari uncharacteristically missed out on all seven of his primary targets. The string of strikeouts was so, well, striking that Calipari took to his Facebook page to explain that he no longer wants to use the platoon system he deployed for the first half of last season. Kentucky did sign Mychal Mulder, a well-regarded shooter and junior college transfer from Vincennes University, but Calipari is still hoping to land Thon Maker, a raw, talented and well-traveled 7-foot forward who grew up in Sudan and has lived in Australia and Virginia before settling in Canada. Maker is in the midst of reclassifying, so he will not be able to enroll in college until mid-December.
3. Virginia. The Cavaliers proved to be vulnerable without Justin Anderson at full strength towards the end of last season. The 6’6” junior swingman was never the same after he returned in March from a four-week absence due to a broken finger and appendectomy. Many people, myself included, were ready to tap Virginia as the preseason No. 1 team heading into the 2015-16 season, but Anderson’s decision to turn pro knocked the Cavs from that perch. Moreover, Tony Bennett lost out on his top spring target, Kenny Williams, who committed to North Carolina. Fortunately, 6’5” junior guard Malcolm Brogdon resisted the temptation to turn pro. Otherwise, the spring could have been truly disastrous.
4. Kansas State. The Wildcats had a rough, drama-filled winter, so it was no surprise that their spring has been dicey as well. On March 24, Wildcats coach Bruce Weber dismissed his once-promising guard, 6’2” sophomore Marcus Foster, from the program. Foster, an unknown recruit out of Wichita Falls, Texas, was one of the revelations of the 2012-13 season, but he and Weber butted heads for most of last year. Weber also dismissed two freshmen, 6’5” guard Tre Harris and 6’7” forward Malek Harris, while sophomore guards Nigel Johnson and Jevon Thomas decided to transfer. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s five departed players who were supposed to form the nucleus of Kansas State’s teams in the near future. With senior forward Thomas Gipson and Nino Williams having graduated, that leaves Weber with just five scholarship players and a nondescript six-man recruiting class on the way.
5. VCU. Shaka Smart had turned down many lucrative opportunities, but it was only a matter of time before he departed Richmond. His decision to succeed Rick Barnes at Texas was followed four weeks later by the announcement that VCU’s talented freshman forward Terry Larrier wanted to transfer. This week, we learned that 6’6” sophomore forward Mo Alie-Cox has been charged with misdemeanor assault against a woman.
6. Washington. The Huskies did not lose any underclassmen to the NBA, but they did lose their best player when sophomore point guard Nigel Williams-Goss, a former McDonald’s All-American, transferred to Gonzaga, Washington’s in-state rival. Some will try to spin this as positive for Washington by attributing the Huskies’ disappointing season to Williams-Goss’ leadership (or lack thereof), but that will be hard to do considering Williams-Goss was the program’s first academic All-America. Two other players, 7’0” junior center Gilles Dierickx and 6’5” sophomore guard Darin Johnson, are also transferring, which means Lorenzo Romar will have just four returning scholarship players next season. (Six freshmen are due to arrive in the fall.) Romar also lost his top assistant and best recruiter, T.J. Otzelberger, to Iowa State.
7. Arizona. Stanley Johnson’s defection to the draft was expected, since he is probably a lottery pick. However, Sean Miller had reason to believe that 6’9” junior forward Brandon Ashley and 6’7” sophomore forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson would be back. And even with their departures, Miller was hopeful that Ivan Rabb would land in Tucson. Rabb did, after all, play for the Oakland Soldiers, which has basically served as a feeder program for Arizona. The only good news was that another fence-sitter, 7’0” junior center Kaleb Tarczewski, is coming back, so the Wildcats should still be a top-25 team. But it appears they will take a step down from where they’ve been the last two seasons.
8. Missouri. The Tigers did not lose any underclassman to the draft after their difficult 9-23 season, but they did lose their leading scorer and rebounder, 6’9” sophomore forward Johnathan Williams, to a transfer. Moreover, the school sullied itself by putting unethical restrictions on Williams’s potential destinations. It is common (albeit regrettable) for schools to decline to release transfers to a school within its conference, but Missouri also blocked Williams from transferring to any Big 12 school as well as Illinois and Arizona. The reasoning was that Missouri did not want Williams to play for a school on its schedule. But the Big 12 justification is specious because that league plays in a challenge series with the SEC. Kim Anderson’s recruiting class for next season does not include a single player who is ranked in the top 140 of the senior class by Rivals.com. His treatment of Williams will not do much to persuade future prospects that he and his athletic department will have their best interests at heart.
9. Seton Hall. There weren’t many reasons to get excited about Seton Hall last season, but the play of Sterling Gibbs was one of them. The 6’2” junior guard led the Pirates in points (16.3) and assists (3.8), but he has decided to transfer. Gibbs is due to graduate this spring so he will be eligible to play next season—perhaps at Pittsburgh, where his older brother, Ashton, played.
10. Murray State. I was hoping against hope that Cameron Payne, the Racers’ dynamic 6’2” sophomore point guard, would resist the temptation to enter the NBA draft so he could come back to Murray State and be next year’s Jimmer Fredette/Doug McDermott. Alas, Payne took the leap, and he will probably be a mid first-round pick. It isn’t often that a program like Murray State lands an unheralded talent like Payne, so losing him hurts. On the flip side, while Racers coach Steve Prohm made no secret of his interest in filling the vacancy at Alabama, Prohm’s alma mater, Murray State got a break when Alabama opted for Avery Johnson instead.