Last summer, I chased Australian wonder Dante Exum around a college gym in Long Beach for about an hour, looking to get an interview. It was like an episode of Scooby-Doo, except there was no unmasking, and I never actually caught up to him. At one point, as if to taunt me, he and a few of his teammates found their way up to the top-deck bleachers, right next to my friends, directly above press row and out of my line of vision. I had all of my questions lined up: Is getting an American college scholarship a priority for you? Did your dad (Cecil Exum) share any juicy tales of his days at North Carolina when he was Michael Jordan’s teammate? While you were in L.A., did you manage to go to In-N-Out and get an animal-style double-double? Did you like it? I didn’t get to ask any of them. It’s a shame. I really wanted to get his thoughts on In-N-Out.
Dante then was a 17-year-old point guard playing at the Adidas Nations Global Championship. He was just a month removed from playing in the final game of the FIBA Under-17 World Championship in Lithuania, where he was a force, averaging 17.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 3.5 assists. He was skinny, but extremely long, resembling a 6-foot-4 Nicolas Batum. At Adidas Nations, Team Australia was getting demolished by a more talented American squad in the third-place game, but he still brought his fellow Aussies over for impromptu huddles to work harder on defense, even when their defeat was a foregone conclusion. He led by example, and on one possession, he pressured the backcourt and with his combination of length, anticipation, and pure speed was almost nonchalant in grabbing a steal. He was something special then, but tempering my enthusiasm was probably the way to go. Plenty of prodigies veer off course.
Amid the buzzer-beaters, heartbreak, and drama in the NCAA tournament, NBA teams are using college basketball’s biggest stage to fine-tune their evaluations of some of the league’s future stars. For someone like Ben McLemore of Kansas or Marcus Smart of Oklahoma State, a brilliant stretch in March will allow them to stake their claim as the no. 1 overall pick in next year’s draft. Regardless of where they are selected, both McLemore and Smart — should they declare — will move on from successful college programs to teams in the professional ranks that aren’t exactly synonymous with winning. During the past two seasons, no team has represented this perennial lottery dweller quite like the Charlotte Bobcats.
After a historically bad season that was partially obscured by a lockout-shortened schedule, the team has continued its futility again this year. In 11 of its past 13 games, Charlotte has been blown out by 14 or more points, an embarrassing stretch that has helped make the team owners of the league’s worst record. Or, in other words, things are going exactly as planned in Charlotte.
Welcome to life in the NBA, where every spring brings not only the excitement of the playoffs, but the unsavory notion of tanking. In a league that rewards losing and incompetence with valuable high draft picks, it pays to be bad. So with organizations like Charlotte, Orlando, and even Portland actively looking to avoid respectability, it’s time to restart the conversation about what tanking does to the competitive nature of the league.
The Big Ten Road Trip, with all its local comforts, is over, and now it's time to plunge back into the chaos of the national scene. A huge part of college basketball analysis is projecting what will happen in the postseason. It makes sense, because the sport is defined by a few crazy days in March, but I always get a fleeting sense of regret around this time of year. I wish conference tournaments meant more, and I especially wish regular-season conference championships meant more.
I love March Madness as much as anyone, but the truth is it's one of the worst postseasons in terms of crowning the actual best team. That's why it's great; you have to win on a given day, and the small sample size allows for the upsets and anomalies that give the tournament its character. In fact, of the six major American professional and college sports, I'd argue that college hoops is at the bottom of the postseason reliability spectrum. Here are my rankings, from most to least reliable:
If you read Friday's column, you know there's a big gray elephant in the room, and we might as well recognize it right off the bat. So, here you go:
Yes, I was right about Pittsburgh beating Syracuse, Miami beating NC State, Oklahoma State playing well against Kansas, and Florida blowing out Ole Miss.
Does that make me some kind of basketball genius? You tell me. I hate throwing words like "genius" around, because I'm not into labels and I know that as long as people perceive me as someone who knows more about basketball than any other human, it doesn't matter what title they choose, whether it's "genius" or "virtuoso" or "wunderkind" or
AHHHH ALL RIGHT ALL RIGHT ALL RIGHT, DAMN YOU! STOP LOOKING AT ME! I GOT INDIANA-MICHIGAN ALL WRONG. IS THAT WHAT YOU WANTED TO HEAR, YOU SAVAGE CUTTHROATS?
Remember that period in college basketball history when the last two weeks of December were the worst of the season? When exam time and cupcake schedules made for a miserable, dormant period leading up to the excitement of conference play? That epoch lasted from 1891, when James Naismith invented basketball, to 2011, when Kansas beat Toledo A&M 145-6 on December 31.* But it all came to an end in 2012, because, holy sweet Moses, we were treated to some spectacular action in the last two weeks of 2012. (I want you all to know how hard it was for me not to swear in that sentence. Right now, looking back, I can spot nine different places where an f-bomb would've felt really good.) It started with three exciting games on Saturday the 22nd, when Temple upset Syracuse, Kansas beat Ohio State, and Missouri out-gunned Illinois, and continued all the way to New Year's Eve and Gonzaga's road win over Oklahoma State. Hardly a day passed without a great game, or at least an interesting one. Our fan cups ranneth over.**
*Some liberty is taken with historical facts.
**My fan cup has a magazine photo of Coach K steam-pressed onto the side.
It felt like I should've been there for you guys, writing something smart, but instead I just gorged on cookies and pie at my mom's house for two weeks. In the end, I think I made the right choice. (You don't know heaven until you've dipped a snickerdoodle into pumpkin pie and then poured milk all over yourself just because it's not your furniture and you've always wondered what that would be like.) But to atone for my absence during that solid stretch of hoops, I've put together a few videos of the most amusing/heartbreaking/theatrical moments of the year-end frenzy, and I'll include them along with the top 10 games of the weekend.
The most interesting part of the Puerto Rico Tipoff championship game, which ended with a 76-56 Oklahoma State upset over no. 6 NC State, was always going to be the point guard duel: Wolfpack junior Lorenzo Brown vs. Cowboy freshman Marcus Smart. Brown emerged as one of the most exciting point guards at the end of last season, and was a first-team All-ACC preseason pick. Smart has earned some recognition as one of the top freshmen in his class, but has routinely been overshadowed by players at high-profile programs like Nerlens Noel and Shabazz Muhammad. But after Sunday's game, when Smart spent 40 minutes embarrassing one of the best point guards in the country on his way to earning a tournament MVP, that should no longer be a problem.
Predicting which freshmen will succeed in a given college basketball season is an inexact science. The rookies have only ever played in high school — except for the home-schooled players, and you can't really trust their stats — and for every Anthony Davis, there's a Shavlik Randolph waiting around the corner, chewing on a piece of straw and grinning in a super infuriating way. But in this age of increased visibility, with beady-eyed, camera-toting men traversing the country to produce frighteningly detailed reports on every prospect from Maine to New Mexico, it's possible to make an educated guess about which youngsters will thrive. With that in mind, it's time to unveil the 2012-13 Grantland All-Freshman Teams.