I THE LIMITS OF FRESHMEN
This is an article from the Nov. 18, 2013 issue
ONE OF THE Great Moments in Freshman Hubris happened in Lexington, Ky., and would you believe that a John Calipari team had nothing to do with it? The Patterson Ballroom is located on the street level of the Hyatt Regency that is attached to Rupp Arena. It was there, on March 28, 1992, the day after Michigan had beaten Oklahoma State in the Sweet 16 of the Southeast Regional—and the same day Kentucky got Laettnered in the East Regional—that the members of the Wolverines' Fab Five had their first joint press conference. Michigan's starters were asked, "Do any of you really expect to win four national championships in a row?"
Four quick yeses were delivered, left to right on the dais, by Jalen Rose, Jimmy King, Juwan Howard and Ray Jackson. The last and most Fab frosh, Chris Webber, paused as if he might hedge, and then said, "Yes! What do you think I was gonna say?"
This was the starting lineup of a No. 6 seed saying it expected to four-peat, nine days before Duke rolled them by 20 in the national title game. After that loss a teary Webber said, "There will never be another freshman class to do this." The Fab Five never won a championship, but that team did set the standard for dependence on freshmen. The Fab Five played 68.5% of Michigan's minutes that season. The closest a major-conference NCAA tournament team has come since then is Texas, which hit the 67.8% mark in 2006--07 but didn't advance past the second round. (Those Longhorns exuded youth: Future NBA alpha dog Kevin Durant was once observed walking to a press conference after a loss to Villanova holding his mother's hand.) Kentucky's 2012 title team made history with its one-and-done core (three of its freshmen would be selected in the first round of the NBA draft), but it received underacknowledged contributions from veterans. Freshmen played "only" 54.0% of the team's minutes.
This season the Wildcats will take aim at the Fab Five's legacy. Calipari has assembled the first recruiting class that, on paper, trumps the quintet of top 100 players that Steve Fisher brought to Michigan in the fall of 1991. Kentucky has the No. 1--ranked freshman at four positions—6'6" Andrew Harrison at point guard; his 6'6" twin, Aaron, at shooting guard; 6'9" Julius Randle at power forward; and 7-foot Dakari Johnson at center—and two more McDonald's All-Americans, 6'6" swingman James Young and 6'9" power forward Marcus Lee. With those six players as well as 6'9" freshman Derek Willis in a nine- or 10-man rotation this season, the Wildcats could allocate 70% of their minutes to freshmen while making a run at a national title.
It's unlikely Calipari will make the symbolic move of starting five freshmen, mostly because the team's best option at center is 7-foot sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein, a top 40 recruit who passed on entering the NBA draft last spring. "The best thing for my team would be two to three veterans [starting] and the other freshmen coming off the bench," Calipari says, "but I'll go with who deserves to be out there the most." Coming off a season during which a young and flawed Kentucky team was embarrassed in the first round of the NIT by Robert Morris, Calipari's practice mantra for the freshmen has been to let loose and "fail fast, so we can correct quickly."
This year's freshmen have already won over Kentucky's most jaded evaluator of talent. Fifth-year senior Jon Hood, who came to Lexington at the same time as John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, says, "I've seen so many guys come through that you hear, 'The No. 1 recruiting class is arriving,' and your reaction is just [he shrugs], 'Same as last year.' " The 6'7" Hood does not follow recruiting news, so his introduction to Randle, a strong candidate to be the NBA's next No. 1 pick, came at UK's practice facility in June.
"He looked like [Dallas Cowboys defensive end] DeMarcus Ware, only taller," Hood says of Randle. They played one-on-one, and Randle was so physical and mobile that it was impossible for Hood to score. And when other UK alums who are now in the NBA, such as Cousins, Patrick Patterson and Josh Harrellson, dropped in for off-season pickup games, they all walked away telling Hood the same thing: Julius Randle can really play.
Randle was recruited out of Dallas, and Kentucky's likely starting guards, the hypercompetitive Harrison twins, came out of Houston, where they worked out with John Lucas's stable of pros and had reputations for not exactly being in awe of their elders. On a 2010 visit to Kentucky they both suggested that they could already take then point guard Brandon Knight, and in a 2012 appearance at the Reebok Breakout Camp in Philly, they talked trash with former No. 1 pick John Wall while he watched one of their games. Yet Aaron, who was born in 1994 and only knows about the Fab Five thanks to an ESPN documentary, reveres his forebrothers in brashness. "It's amazing not just what they did on the court but how they were a part of pop culture," he says, in reference to their trendsetting long shorts and black socks. "It was brave for them to do what they did. They knew people wouldn't like it at first, and they did it anyway."
II THE LIMITS OF STAR POWER
WHILE YOUTH is being served in Lexington, seniors—21-year-old Doug McDermott, a two-time All-America, and 24-year-old Grant Gibbs, a two-time redshirt—are being served in Omaha. The Creighton teammates are dining on $8.29 breakfast skillets at the city's oldest brunch spot, Lisa's Radial Cafe, and contemplating a bill they cannot believe is $17,225. That's the fall-semester tuition for the only walk-on in the nation who's projected to be a first-round NBA draft pick.
McDermott has the e-check receipt on his iPhone screen. After paying it in September, he texted a photo of the bill to Gibbs, who had unexpectedly received a sixth year of eligibility and then needed a scholarship Creighton had already filled. That's what prompted McDermott's shift to paying-student status this off-season. Gibbs has no reason to feel guilty, though, considering that McDermott's father, Greg, makes $1.37 million per year as Creighton's coach and has said that keeping the exceptional 6'5" point forward in the lineup "is worth more than what we're paying."
And so Gibbs, who has known Doug since they were both prospects on top Iowa AAU teams and enjoys antagonizing him, spins it like this: "Everyone was like, Doug gave up his scholarship; what an awesome guy!—but when you whittle it down, it's pretty much your dad paying for mine."
Gibbs argues that McDermott is benefiting from the arrangement by getting to live in a new, off-campus apartment while Creighton's scholarship athletes must remain in on-campus housing. That McDermott, a 6'8" hybrid forward who can score from anywhere, benefits from having Gibbs around is beyond debate. He assisted on 83 of McDermott's 284 field goals last season, when the All-America averaged 23.2 points and took 34.8% of the Bluejays' shots during his time on the floor. Of his 284 field goals last season, 83 came on assists from Gibbs. This is the team's inaugural season in the Big East, and it will be Creighton's best chance to make it past the NCAA tournament's opening weekend for the first time. To do so the Bluejays may have to test the limits of how much a team can depend on one shooter.
Since statistician Ken Pomeroy began tracking shot percentage in 2004, the list of teams who've made deep NCAA tournament runs while allocating more than 35% of their field goal attempts to one player (during his time on the floor) is short. BYU reached the 2011 Sweet 16 with Jimmer Fredette at 38.1%, Gonzaga went to the '06 Sweet 16 with Adam Morrison at 36.5%, and Davidson made the '08 Elite Eight with Stephen Curry at 36.0%. The highest shot percentages for the focal points of national title teams belong to UConn's Kemba Walker (32.9% in '11) and Louisville's Russ Smith (32.7% last season), but Smith's share should decline in '13--14 due to the arrival of scoring-minded guard Chris Jones. To McDermott, the notion that he already takes a higher percentage of shots than Smith, a frenetic, volume-dribbling guard, is hard to fathom.
"Maybe the way Russ plays is just a little more loud," McDermott says. "I'm not putting it on the floor, shaking dudes. That's just weird to think about."
"It doesn't seem like you take many, because the ball's just not in your hands that much," Gibbs says. "Jimmer's percentage was 38? Because he had the ball in his hands 80% of the game, it was loud, but [Doug], you'll run off a bunch of screens and flip up a shot, and the ball's in your hand for, like, point-seven seconds."
McDermott scores quietly, mostly because Gibbs and point guard Austin Chatman remain constantly aware of their Doug-feeding options. There's the early post-seal on the fast break, often fed by a low bounce pass from the elbow. There's the trailer three in transition, the down screens, the pick-and-pops, the spot-ups and the late-clock isolations. There are the mid-post moves, among which is a perfected, turnaround fadeaway J, and the quick low-post moves. "From there," Greg says of Doug, "sometimes he doesn't even really catch it—he just redirects it." McDermott's Synergy Sports Technology portfolio from last season is well-diversified: 33.7% of his possessions came on post-ups, 11.3% on spot-ups, 9.3% off screens, 8.8% off cuts, 8.4% in transition, 7.8% in isolation and 5.8% in pick-and-rolls.
McDermott's 1.213 points scored per possession made him the nation's third-most-efficient volume scorer, behind only South Dakota State's Nate Wolters and Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk, both of whom are now in the NBA. The fact that McDermott operated at peak efficiency while taking 14.4 attempts per game makes him the ideal candidate to test the limits of star-focused offenses. When you make 57.3% of your twos and 49.0% of your threes and you're paying 17 grand for the right to suit up, can anyone question your right to more shots?
III THE LIMITS OF THE THREE
IN THE SPRING of 1974, a full decade before Bo Ryan landed his first head-coaching job in Division III basketball, he was an assistant who moonlighted as the head baseball coach at Dominican College in Racine, Wis. It was only a one-year gig—Dominican closed that summer due to financial troubles—but the analytical aspect of baseball appealed to him. "We weren't very talented," he says, "but we played a lot of percentages." He had slap hitters who put a high rate of balls in play, pressuring defenses whose fielding practice was limited by cold weather. They set a school record for wins, and Ryan was named the WCIS coach of the year. He's still proud of that certificate.
Thirty seasons into his hoops career, Ryan is still playing percentages. He's made the NCAA tournament in all 12 of his years at Wisconsin with teams that value possessions and consistently have among the nation's lowest turnover rates. Lately his Badgers have been making an interesting percentage play based on Ryan's view of the value of the three.
Wisconsin's defensive strategy has revolved around preventing opponents from attempting threes. The Badgers ranked second nationally (24.1%) in 2011--12 and seventh last season (24.9%) in lowest percentage of field goal attempts allowed from beyond the arc. During those same two seasons Wisconsin's offense has been launching treys at the highest rates of the Ryan era, ranking 20th (41.3%) and 31st (40.1%) in three-point attempts.
The Badgers are testing the extremes of how much a team can simultaneously rely on—and limit—the three. The strategy has been remarkably efficient, leading to top 15 rankings on kenpom.com in each of the last two seasons, but it has not led them to advance deep into the NCAA tournament. As a No. 4 in 2012, they were bounced by No. 1 Syracuse in the Sweet 16, and as a No. 5 in '13, they were upset by No. 12 Ole Miss in the round of 64—games in which Wisconsin had a 57--24 advantage in three-point attempts.
The postseason success of teams that attempt more than 40% of their shots from long range has not been great. Of the 385 teams that have been at or above 40% since 2003, just 61 have made the NCAAs, and only two have cracked the Final Four: '05 Louisville, at 42.1%, and '11 VCU, at 41.2%. From '03 to '12, John Beilein coached nine straight teams at West Virginia and Michigan that exceeded the 40% mark. Only when he decreased the Wolverines' long-range reliance to 34.2% last season did he reach the national title game.
Wisconsin could very well take 45% of its shots from deep now that 6'6" swingman Ryan Evans, an offensive centerpiece who specialized in two-point jumpers, has graduated. The new starting lineup could feature four capable three-point shooters in guards Ben Brust and Josh Gasser and forwards Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky. Brust attempted a team-high 203 threes last season and has the greenest light. "Coach tells me," he says, "to let it rip when I think it's right."
Ryan's coaching strategy is based on his view of the right and wrong types of treys. Longtime Badgers assistant Gary Close will joke that Brust likes to shoot it from Janesville, a former General Motors factory town 40 miles from Madison, but Wisconsin cares less about distance than it does about situation. There's an efficiency gap between the threes Wisconsin wants to take (squared-up, catch-and-shoot attempts, especially on kick-outs from post-ups or offensive rebounds) and those it is willing to let opponents take (the on-the-move or challenged variety). A basketball coach, like a baseball manager, cannot control for luck in the postseason. But the Badgers believe that the more they control the quality and volume of the highest-value shot, the more the odds will be in their favor.
IV THE LIMITS OF IGNORING THE POST-UP
THE 2013 NCAA tournament was a referendum on the necessity of having a back-to-the-basket offense. According to Synergy Sports Technology, post-ups accounted for an average of 8.9% of teams' possessions in 2012--13. The two No. 1 seeds that relied on an above-average amount of post-ups, Gonzaga (15.5%) and Kansas (12.7%), were upset in the third round and Sweet 16, respectively, while the biggest success stories came from the other end of the spectrum.
The Cinderella darling from Dunk City—Florida Gulf Coast—posted up on only 3.3% of its possessions, the 12th lowest in the nation last season. Louisville won the national title with a post-up rate of 4.9%, Syracuse reached the Final Four with a rate of 4.2%, and Michigan answered the question of how rarely a team could post up and still have the nation's most efficient offense. Just 1.9% of the Wolverines' possessions were post-ups, the lowest rate in all of D-I.
This was by design. Beilein is one of the game's top offensive innovators, and his Two-Guard Offense typically starts far from the basket, with two guards high above the key, two guards/forwards on the wings and a five man at the free throw line. The Wolverines' starter at the five, 6'10" Mitch McGary, was one of the breakout stars of the NCAA tournament and could be an All-America as a sophomore if he continues to thrive in a nontraditional big-man role. Beilein uses McGary as a passer in side-to-side ball rotation, as a dribble handoff guy and as a screen-and-roller. (This was his specialty with national player of the year and point guard Trey Burke.) Many of McGary's rolls are what Beilein calls "half-dives" into the open space at the elbow, where he can face up and drive, attempt a midrange jumper or pass to a cutter or spot-up shooter.
Beilein isn't opposed to the back-to-the-basket game—in his original version of the Two-Guard, at D-II Le Moyne College his center from 1987 to '91, Len Rauch, led the team in scoring and did plenty of work on the blocks. But the coach believes that McGary's best work is done from the elbows. "Mitch is very natural in his high-post actions," Beilein says. McGary still gets plenty of point-blank opportunities by crashing the offensive glass; as a freshman, according to Synergy, he had more than four times the amount of putback attempts (70) as he did post-ups (17).
In the short turnaround between the Final Four and the national championship game last April, Louisville's cram-session scouting of McGary focused on what he would do away from the basket. Cardinals assistant Kevin Keatts says they implored their guards to fight over McGary's screens so that center Gorgui Dieng wouldn't have to help on Burke. That allowed Dieng to square up between McGary and the rim, warding off his dives. Post-ups figured to be irrelevant to the outcome of the title game, and they were: In a thriller with 130 possessions between the two teams, Synergy credited Michigan with three post-ups (McGary had one) and Louisville with six. "The kind of player who does a lot of that," Keatts says, "is pretty much extinct now in college."
During a frenetic first half that was heavy on pick-and-rolls and transition attempts, CBS's cameras panned to a section of the Georgia Dome crowd where four-fifths of the Fab Five was sitting. From left to right there was Howard, King, Jackson and Rose, who was wearing a plastic, maize-striped Wolverine head atop his own dome. Webber, who in 2003 was forced to disassociate with Michigan for 10 years due to the Ed Martin scandal and is no longer close with his former teammates, arrived separately, wearing a Michigan beanie, and sat in a luxury box.
It was the closest the Fab Five would get to a full public reunion. They watched the young Wolverines lose to a veteran champion. The outcome was the same as it had been in 1992, but the game was stylistically different. Cue up footage from that Michigan-Duke final—the NCAA offers the whole game in its online vault—and you'll see a preponderance of post-ups. Webber backing down Christian Laettner on the blocks. Howard backing down Grant and Thomas Hill. Post-up, shoot, repeat. Even to a viewer with years of acclimation to college hoops' one-and-done age, the Fab Five of April '92 still look young. The way they were trying to score, though? That looks old.
The Wildcats didn't get all the top freshmen. Download the tablet version of SI, free to subscribers, at SI.com/activate to see where Chris Mannix's draft predictions for the best one-and-done players.