Ben McLemore is just a freshman. A rather old freshman at 21, but still a freshman nonetheless. However, as anyone who follows college basketball knows, McLemore isn’t simply another youngster maneuvering his way through his collegiate years.
Blessed with lightning-quick speed, explosive leaping ability only rivaled by the NBA’s elite and a silky smooth jump shot, McLemore has asserted himself as the probable first selection in June’s NBA draft.
Despite this, it was the fact that he was a merely a freshman that impeded his ability to lead his Kansas Jayhawks to the Elite Eight. Playing on a team filled with upperclassmen, McLemore consistently deferred to his elder teammates down the stretch in last Thursday’s loss to Michigan, barely factoring into the game during its waning minutes and overtime.
But McLemore was not the only top NBA prospect who failed to lead his team deep into the NCAA tournament. In fact, of the projected top 10 picks in the draft listed on NBAdraft.net, only one of them, Trey Burke of Michigan, is still playing basketball this late in March.
So why, in basketball—the one sport in which a single player can completely take over and dominate a game—have none of the most talented NBA prospects been successful in the NCAA tournament?
First—a conclusion that many will jump to—is that this is a fairly weak draft class and none of the top prospects are actually that good.
McLemore may have the talent to be an NBA superstar one day, but his game is still raw. Nerlens Noel, the projected No. 2 selection, is a defensive force but lacks the offensive skill set to be an impact player on that end. Marcus Smart might be the most polished of the projected top three, but he lacks a true position and it takes innovative strategies to get the most out of his talent.
However, as much as this theory makes practical sense, I find it hard to believe. While these players might not stack up favorably compared to stars of other draft classes, they are still the most outstanding players in the land.
Projected No. 9 selection Cody Zeller of Indiana might not ever be an NBA All-Star, but he is still a great collegiate player. Yet even with the help of Victor Oladipo, another likely top-10 selection, he couldn’t pull the Hoosiers past the Sweet 16.
The true reason this has happened is the vast difference between the NBA and the collegiate game and the stubbornness of NCAA coaches to adjust their systems to the players they have.
For example, several rules in the college game limit the ability one player has to take over the game. Without a defensive three-second violation as in the NBA, collegiate teams can sit their best shot-blocker in the middle of the paint and negate driving lanes for perimeter players. Also, with a shorter three-point line, the key becomes more crowded, shrinking the space players have to work one-on-one.
These two factors undoubtedly hurt an individual player’s ability to impact a game by himself, making the collegiate game far more of a full team competition than its professional counterpart.
Despite this, though, collegiate coaches have taken the team component too far, consistently taking the ball out of their best players' hands and not allowing them to take over the game.
I went over the Kansas example earlier, but this is a constant theme across college basketball.
Ben Howland was enticing enough to convince premier recruit Shabazz Muhammad to attend his school, but then somehow forgot how good Muhammad was once he got there. Throughout the season, Howland never gave Muhammad enough touches, and in the end it led to UCLA’s first-round demise, Muhammad never reaching his potential at the collegiate level and Howland’s firing.
Victor Oladipo of Indiana, mentioned earlier along with Cody Zeller, is another example. He emerged this season as one of the most dynamic scorers in the country, yet Tom Crean never made a total effort to get him nearly the amount of opportunities a player of his talent deserves.
I understand that coaches like running a system they can replicate and use year after year, but great coaches build their systems around the players they have, too. If you’re going to recruit NBA-prototype scorers, it is then your duty as a coach to maximize their talent and help your team win.
None of the coaches described above did that, and therefore their teams will not be participating in this weekend’s Final Four. Next year, two of the most hyped NBA prospects in years, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, will enter the college basketball landscape, and for the sake of sport, I hope that their coaches don’t make the same mistake.