March Madness is officially in full swing, and NBA prospects are making their presence felt. On the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, surefire lottery picks such as Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Arizona’s Stanley Johnson led their teams to victories. And Kentucky, home to several surefire first-round picks, easily disposed of its two opponents.
But does NBA-level talent always win out in the Big Dance? PointAfter dissects the last dozen NCAA champions and their title-game opponents to determine how often NBA-ready players have carried their teams to the ultimate One Shining Moment.
We start with one of the most successful NCAA-to-NBA stories, which came before the term one and done was an integral part of our basketball lexicon.
Carmelo Anthony always appeared as though he was destined for superstardom — ESPN once televised a high school game between his and LeBron James’ prep schools. But Anthony managed to exceed the lofty expectations confronting him at Syracuse during his freshman year, averaging a double-double (22.2 points, 10.0 rebounds) to lead the Orange to a 36-5 record and their only national title.
Anthony, of course, is now one of the NBA’s most prolific scorers. An eight-time All-Star, Anthony, who also won the 2012-13 scoring title, ranks 39th all-time in career points and ninth among active players.
Anthony wasn’t the only gifted prospect on a 2003 Orange squad that featured seven underclassmen in their rotation. Sophomore forward Hakim Warrick averaged double figures and led the team in rebounding. He was drafted in the first round of the 2005 NBA Draft following his senior year, but his relatively short height for a power forward limited his role in the NBA.
An immensely talented Huskies team helped coach Jim Calhoun notch his second career NCAA championship. It featured six future first-round picks, including two of the top three selections in the 2004 draft in Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon.
Okafor never came close to fulfilling the superstar potential he showed in college. The offensive stats he stacked up at UConn (17.6 points per game in 2003-04) didn’t translate to the NBA, where he was undersized as a center at 6’10” and didn’t even surpass 50 percent shooting during his first two seasons.
Gordon was great for the Bulls during his first five years in the league, logging three-point rates above 40 percent each season. But his productivity collapsed after he signed a free-agent deal with Detroit in 2009, and he hasn’t been the same since.
Former No. 7 overall pick Charlie Villanueva was also a key bench contributor on this Huskies team, and he reunited with Gordon in 2009 on the Pistons after four promising years with the Bucks. His value similarly took a turn for the worse in Detroit, but he’s found a nice second life with the Mavericks this year, posting the second-best PER (17.6) of his career.
North Carolina, 2005
The core of UNC’s first title squad since the Dean Smith era touted the nation’s highest-scoring offense and centered around juniors Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants. Yet Marvin Williams (11.3 points and 6.6 rebounds in 22.2 minutes per game) was considered the team’s best NBA prospect.
That proved to be partially true, as May and McCants were both selected with top-15 picks before flaming out of the league before the end of the decade. But it’d be tough to argue Williams has been a better pro than Felton, a fellow top-5 pick, and it’s laughable to suggest Williams lived up to his billing as the No. 2 overall pick in 2005. Hawks fans still rue the day the franchise decided to draft Williams over Chris Paul, who reportedly wanted to play in Atlanta.
Williams didn’t have a huge impact (eight points, five rebounds and two turnovers in 24 minutes) in the much-hyped championship game against one-loss Illinois, which had a relatively weak frontcourt. Perhaps NBA scouts should have known that disappointment would foreshadow Williams’ NBA career.
Perhaps the last true dynasty in college basketball, the Florida Gators won back-to-back national championships in 2006 and 2007 thanks to the well-rounded core of Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer. The trio earned rings in both their sophomore and junior years, providing a rebuttal to the notion that schools would do better to recruit one-and-done prospects.
They then went on to overcome the odds in the NBA, as all three were top-10 picks in the 2007 NBA Draft and made up half of the upperclassmen selected in the lottery. Noah and Horford have both made multiple All-Star teams, while Brewer has found a niche as a defensive-oriented wing.
Florida coach Billy Donovan, meanwhile, has four Elite Eight appearances but just one Final Four berth since his celebrated trio left Gainesville.
Jayhawks coach Bill Self is occasionally maligned by Kansas fans for his teams’ propensity to be upset in the NCAA tournament — as they were on Sunday by Wichita State — but he should receive a ton of credit for adding a banner to the Allen Fieldhouse rafters in 2008, when his team beat Derrick Rose and a Memphis team coached by John Calipari in the title game despite being devoid of top talent.
The hero of that championship game, Mario Chalmers, is by far the most accomplished NBA player to emerge from Kansas’ roster. The three first-round picks from that squad — Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur and Cole Aldrich (who was a seldom-used freshman in 2008) — haven’t made a big impact in the professional ranks.
North Carolina, 2009
NBA talent won out in 2009. A stacked Tar Heels team featuring five eventual NBA players — Tyler Hansbrough, Danny Green, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Ed Davis — took out a sorely overmatched Michigan State team 89-72 in the NCAA final.
All four North Carolina upperclassmen were drafted in the top 50 of that summer’s NBA Draft, while the only Spartan selected was senior center Goran Suton, who went to Utah at No. 50 overall but never played an NBA minute. Davis, then a freshman, was later picked in the first round of the 2010 draft. Draymond Green also suited up for Michigan State that season as a freshman, but his time in the spotlight hadn't come just yet.
If a casual NBA fan had been asked to pick out the best prospect on the floor during the 2010 NCAA Championship game, they likely would’ve selected a player from Duke. But five years later, it’s clear that Gordon Hayward was the most talented player to emerge from that legendary title game, while Duke’s sum was greater than its parts.
The faces of the Blue Devils that year were Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. Scheyer wasn’t even drafted by an NBA team, and Singler is the only one still on an NBA roster. Plumlee brothers Mason and Miles were frontcourt backups behind seniors Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek.
Both Plumlee brothers, Singler and Thomas receive decent playing time in the NBA today. But, as you look back on a team that featured Hayward and then-sophomore Butler guard Shelvin Mack, Butler might have been the team that was actually upset based on how their NBA talent panned out.
As the clock struck midnight on this Cinderella run, Butler was outclassed in NBA talent and it showed in the championship game. Kemba Walker and Connecticut contained the Bulldogs, this time without Hayward, in a 53-41 defeat. The game featured three future first-rounders, all of whom played for UConn. At one point, Butler trudged through 13 minutes and 26 seconds of the second half and scored just one field goal.
Walker's clutch heroics got all the press during the Huskies’ season-ending 11-game winning streak — and deservedly so. But Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier combined to average 18.9 points for the Huskies during the 2011 season, a stat that served as foreshadowing for their respective breakouts.
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Though Kentucky’s freshman phenom era technically began in 2010 with the arrival of John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins on campus, 2012 marked the realization of coach John Calipari’s plan with Big Blue’s first championship since 1998.
Kentucky’s roster contained four first-round draft picks — including the top two selections in Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — and six players who were taken in 2012 alone. For comparison’s sake, Kansas, their opponents in that year’s title game, played just one future first-rounder in Thomas Robinson.
The five players to receive the most minutes for the Wildcats were all underclassmen, and each averaged double figures in scoring. Doron Lamb and Marquis Teague have yet to find the same professional success as other starters in Kentucky’s fearsome lineup, but this team goes down as one of the most talented championship squads ever.
The 2013 NCAA championship didn’t have nearly as much star power as its predecessors, mirroring a largely underwhelming NBA Draft that summer. The main deterrent? Height.
Louisville’s two top scorers were Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, two guards who might scrape 6’0” in sneakers. Michigan was led by diminutive dynamite Trey Burke, who has shown scoring ability as a top 10 pick of Utah but simply can’t hang with taller guards on defense.
The Cardinals did boast a collection of promising youngsters who could still make their mark in the pros. Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng appears to be part of Minnesota’s long-term plans, and Montrezl Harrell could see his draft stock rise after keeping Louisville alive through the first weekend of this year’s tourney.
Following a one-year absence from the NCAA Tournament due to academic ineligibility, Connecticut returned to the Big Dance with ferocious determination last year. None of the Huskies’ three top players (Shabazz Napier, DeAndre Daniels, Ryan Boatright) were elite prospects, and it’s exceedingly likely that the undersized Napier would not have been chosen in the first round without an endorsement from LeBron James.
Nevertheless, UConn won its fourth title in the last 16 years over a Kentucky team brimming with future lottery picks.
Will they gift Calipari with a historic, undefeated season and his second career national championship? Or is this team destined to be brought back down to earth by a fierce, fearless underdog, like so many favorites before them?
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