Imagining an 8-Team Tournament with NBA Players Sorted by Their College Programs
Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, UCLA and Arizona each has at least a dozen players in the NBA, but would any of them stand a chance against Kentucky in an alumni basketball tournament?
With the NBA Draft Combine and lottery-drawing taking place this week, there has been a lot of hubbub about which teams various players could be suiting up for in 2017-18. But we decided to flip the script by trying to determine which schools are already the most well-represented in the pros.
Rather than just coming up with a starting five or trying to put together a full 15-man roster, we settled on eight players per team: a traditional starting five (if possible), a backcourt reserve, a frontcourt reserve and one final flex bench player.
Only 11 schools currently have eight players in the NBA—two of which (LSU and Michigan State) aren't able to make anything close to a legitimate basketball lineup. To get down to an eight-team tournament, we also had to cut Syracuse, which has no frontcourt presence and little to offer beyond Carmelo Anthony and Dion Waiters.
What follows are the remaining eight teams, listed in ascending order of overall supremacy. After meeting the teams and discussing their strengths, weaknesses and MVPs, it's on to the tournament, where we're going with the NBA's best-of-seven format rather than the NCAA's wildly unpredictable single-game elimination tournament.
8. Arizona Wildcats
PG: T.J. McConnell
SG: Andre Iguodala
SF: Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
PF: Channing Frye
C: Aaron Gordon
Reserves: Stanley Johnson, Solomon Hill and Richard Jefferson
Biggest Strength: Perimeter Size
Though the Wildcats lack a go-to scorer, they are loaded with tall wings who have three-point range. With the exception of T.J. McConnell, everyone on the roster is at least 6'6", including 6'11" Channing Frye, who might be the most dangerous perimeter shooter of the bunch. They wouldn't be favored in any games, but the team-wide ability to both shoot and rebound could lead to an upset.
Biggest Weakness: True Big Men
With slashing guards and three-point shooting centers, Arizona is at the forefront of the positionless basketball revolution at the collegiate level. Thus, it's no surprise that their alumni roster is McConnell and a slew of small forwards. Unfortunately, the lack of a legitimate center means the Wildcats would be eaten alive in the paint by most of the teams in this tournament.
MVP: Aaron Gordon
A few years ago, this would've been a toss-up between Andre Iguodala, Richard Jefferson and Jason Terry. But with each of those guys well into the denouement of their respective careers, it's up to Aaron Gordon to lead the way. He's the only player on the roster who averaged double figures in 2016-17 (12.7 PPG), and he would be the one responsible for trying to slow down opposing centers, for better or worse.
7. Florida Gators
Biggest Strength: Frontcourt Depth
In David Lee, Al Horford and Joakim Noah, Florida has three big men who have averaged a double-double in the NBA in at least one of the last five seasons. Moreover, Marreese Speights has become a 6'10" three-point shooting phenom of a reserve, averaging better than 20 points and 10 rebounds per 36 minutes over the past three years. With the exception of Kentucky, you're looking at the best frontcourt in the tournament.
Biggest Weakness: Point Guard
Though the Gators have centers for days, they don't have anyone to get them the ball. Horford actually recorded more assists in 2016-17 (5.0 APG) than any other player on the roster. They have no choice but to make Bradley Beal the primary ball-handler, even though the shooting guard averaged about 6.7 points per assist this year.
MVP: Bradley Beal
He probably isn't the answer at point guard, but there's no question Beal is Florida's primary offensive weapon. Averaging 23.1 per game, he scored more points this season (1,779) than Florida's second- and third-leading scorers combined (1,663). If the Gators are going to knock off one of the top seeds in this thing, he needs to put on a show.
6. North Carolina Tar Heels
PG: Ty Lawson
SG: Wayne Ellington
SF: Harrison Barnes
PF: Marvin Williams
C: John Henson
Reserves: Raymond Felton, Brandan Wright, Vince Carter
Biggest Strength: Veteran Leadership
While most of the teams on this list are relying on at least one young guy relatively fresh out of college, every single member of North Carolina's eight-man rotation is a former first-round pick with at least eight years of experience between college and the NBA. And with the exception of Vince Carter and maybe Raymond Felton, they're each still young enough that we're not forced to wonder whether they'd have the gas left in the tank to compete in this tournament.
Biggest Weakness: Frontcourt Prowess
Marvin Williams is a respectable power forward, but he's not the type of big man who can anchor a championship run. The same goes for John Henson, who has maxed out at 19.4 minutes per game and 14.9 points per 36 minutes in the past three years. They might hold their own against the likes of Arizona or UCLA, but it's tough to go deep without a dominant giant.
MVP: Harrison Barnes
Barnes came to be viewed as one of the weakest links among Golden State's primary players in recent years, but he was the star in Dallas this season, averaging close to 20 points per game. The combo forward would also play an important role as a secondary rebounder on this roster, particularly given the aforementioned question marks in the frontcourt.
5. Kansas Jayhawks
PG: Mario Chalmers*
SG: Andrew Wiggins
SF: Marcus Morris
PF: Markieff Morris
C: Joel Embiid
Reserves: Kelly Oubre, Tarik Black, Ben McLemore
*Chalmers didn't appear in a game in 2016-17 due to a torn Achilles, but we're still including him as an active player.
Biggest Strength: Frontcourt Size
Between the Morris twins, Joel Embiid and Tarik Black, Kansas has a quartet of legitimate contributors who each measures in at a minimum of 6'9" and 235 pounds. The MVP here lies elsewhere on the roster, but this is the first team we've encountered thus far on the list with at least three players who can carry the scoring load from time to time.
Biggest Weakness: Guard Play
Kansas has about a dozen big men in the pros, but where are the guards? Andrew Wiggins averaged 2.3 assists per game this past season, which was enough to serve as the most willing passer for the Jayhawks. Nos. 2-4 on the total assists list were Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris and Embiid. Kansas is lucky we were willing to stretch the rules to include Mario Chalmers, or it would be devoid of ball-handlers.
MVP: Andrew Wiggins
The No. 1 overall draft pick in 2014 has only gotten better with age, averaging 23.6 points per game in his third season in the Association. He has had the luxury of playing alongside a generous point guard (Ricky Rubio) and a dominant big man (Karl-Anthony Towns), but he still shines through as an elite small forward who can lead a team.
4. Duke Blue Devils
PG: Kyrie Irving
SG: J.J. Redick
SF: Brandon Ingram
PF: Jabari Parker
C: Mason Plumlee
Reserves: Austin Rivers, Jahlil Okafor, Seth Curry
Biggest Strength: Quality Depth
With 22 players currently in the NBA, Duke would gladly take part in an alumni tournament with full 15-man rosters. As it is, the last guy off the Blue Devils bench (Seth Curry) averaged 12.8 points per game this season. They aren't loaded with all-stars, nor do they have a ton of professional experience. But at least there aren't any blatant holes in their rotation.
Biggest Weakness: Big Men
With Elton Brand and Carlos Boozer both now out of the league, Duke's list of frontcourt assets in the NBA is slim. Mason Plumlee has been a pleasant surprise, but he's not an all-star center. Jabari Parker has been an impactful power forward, but his young career has already been marred by injuries. Beyond that, it's Jahlil Okafor or bust, and he's looking like more of the latter after two seasons.
MVP: Kyrie Irving
Were it not for the point guard who played one-third of one season in Durham, Duke would barely qualify for the top eight. But thanks to Kyrie Irving, the Blue Devils are a contender to win this tournament. The four-time NBA all-star has averaged 21.6 points per game in his career and is one more round away from helping guide the Cleveland Cavaliers to a third straight NBA Finals appearance.
3. UCLA Bruins
PG: Russell Westbrook
SG: Jrue Holiday
SF: Zach LaVine
PF: Trevor Ariza
C: Kevin Love
Reserves: Darren Collison, Matt Barnes, Shabazz Muhammad
Biggest Strength: Small Ball
With more than 5,000 combined career made three-pointers, these eight Bruins would be more than content with being the run-and-gun team of the tournament. In fact, the two frontcourt guys (Trevor Ariza and Kevin Love) have accounted for more than 2,000 of those triples, meaning all five starters are plenty capable of teeing it up from deep. It would be fun to watch them put all five guys on the perimeter to open up the lane for Russell Westbrook to do his thing.
Biggest Weakness: Power Forward/Center
Love is the only true frontcourt player on the roster, and he is hardly a defensive stopper in the lane. He and Westbrook will corral plenty of defensive rebounds, but an opponent committed to pounding the paint could be a problem. It would then become a matter of whether the Bruins can drain enough triples to make up for their inability to prevent deuces.
MVP: Russell Westbrook
This one goes without saying, right? Westbrook just averaged a triple-double for the entire season and arguably should be voted the 2017 NBA MVP.
2. Texas Longhorns
Biggest Strength: The Forwards
The one-two punch of Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge is the best small forward and power forward combo by far. It'd be hard to argue that there was a better player to come out of either the 2006 or 2007 drafts than these Longhorns who were selected No. 2 overall in their respective years. The Myles Turner and Tristan Thompson duo at center is swell, too.
Biggest Weakness: Point Guard
In fairness to Cory Joseph, he has shown marked improvement as an offensive facilitator in each of his six seasons in the NBA. But he's still a part-time starter who has averaged less than 5.0 assists per 36 minutes each year. At any rate, compared to the other teams that would be favored to reach the semifinals, there's no question that Texas is at a massive disadvantage at point guard against Duke (Kyrie Irving), UCLA (Russell Westbrook) and Kentucky (John Wall).
MVP: Kevin Durant
Much like Russell Westbrook at UCLA, this one is a no-brainer. Durant only appeared in 62 games and scored fewer points per game than in any season since he was a rookie, yet he still outscored every other Texas alumnus by at least 300 points in 2016-17. Aldridge, Turner and Avery Bradley will be major contributors, but the Longhorns aren't going anywhere if Durant struggles.
1. Kentucky Wildcats
PG: John Wall
SG: Devin Booker
SF: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
PF: DeMarcus Cousins
C: Anthony Davis
Reserves: Eric Bledsoe, Karl-Anthony Towns, Julius Randle
Biggest Strength: The Paint
This is a downright ridiculous trifecta of big men. We're bringing Karl-Anthony Towns off the bench solely because DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis have seniority, but it's impossible to go wrong. There were only three players taller than 6'9" who averaged at least 23.0 points per game in 2016-17: Davis (28.0), Cousins (27.0) and Towns (25.1). And Julius Randle (13.2 PPG, 8.6 RPG) is no slouch of a fourth frontcourt option for the Wildcats.
Biggest Weakness: Small Forward
Though Kentucky currently has 24 players in the NBA, only two are listed as small forwards: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Alex Poythress. You could make the case for a dual combo-guard backcourt of John Wall and Eric Bledsoe with 6'6" Devin Booker at small forward, but the fact remains that Kentucky has limited options on the wing.
MVP: John Wall
As great as the big men on this roster are, they have appeared in a combined total of four playoff games, almost exclusively putting up big numbers for teams with losing records. But Wall is a perennial all-star and the leader of a Washington Wizards team that has become a legitimate force in the Eastern Conference. He is playing better than ever before and would likely be the MVP of this tournament.
No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 8 Arizona
The only area where the Wildcats from Tucson might have an advantage over the ones from Lexington is in the battle of the hyphenated small forwards. But even if Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has a better series than Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky would basically have a permanent lay-up line with DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns going up against Aaron Gordon.
Maybe Arizona takes one game if Andre Iguodala and Channing Frye both catch fire on the same night, but a sweep seems almost inevitable.
Projection: Kentucky in four
No. 2 Texas vs. No. 7 Florida
This matchup isn't any prettier than the previous one. Both the Longhorns and the Gators share a common biggest strength (frontcourt depth) and biggest weakness (point guard), but Texas holds a significant edge in both categories.
Though Cory Joseph is far from the best point guard in this tournament, at least he has experience running an offense, unlike Bradley Beal. And while David Lee, Al Horford and Marreese Speights are nice assets for Florida, they don't hold a candle to the Texas brigade led by Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge.
Projection: Texas in four
No. 3 UCLA vs. No. 6 North Carolina
Lack of conventional big men will eventually be a major problem for UCLA in this tournament but not in the first round. UNC's Marvin Williams and John Henson fare better against the Bruins than they would against the frontcourts of Texas or Kentucky, but it's not nearly enough to overcome the barrage of three-pointers from UCLA's entire rotation.
The Tar Heels find a way to protect the Dean Dome in games three and four, but they eventually succumb to the dominance of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love.
Projection: UCLA in six
No. 4 Duke vs. No. 5 Kansas
If this series goes the distance, they might as well play game seven in a hospital ward. Mario Chalmers didn't play this year due to injury, and neither Joel Embiid nor Jabari Parker appeared in a game in the final two months of the regular season. As a result, it's tough to gauge what would happen if these rosters were put on the court today.
However, limited options at guard would figure to be an issue for the Jayhawks on both ends of the floor. Duke isn't the team best suited to stop the Morris twins and Joel Embiid in the paint, but Mason Plumlee and company would do a better job of slowing down those guys than Kansas' guards would do on Kyrie Irving, J.J. Redick, Austin Rivers and Seth Curry. The friendly rims at Cameron Indoor play the deciding factor in Duke's three-point attack.
Projection: Duke in seven
No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 4 Duke
For as much as we would love to see this become an annual showdown at the collegiate level, the battle of alumni for these blue bloods isn't much of a fair fight.
Working position by position through the lineups, things start out innocently enough. At point guard, it's the No. 1 pick in the 2010 draft (John Wall) against the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft (Kyrie Irving) in what is the most intriguing head-to-head matchup of the tournament. At shooting guard, J.J. Redick and Devin Booker would likely take turns catching fire. And Brandon Ingram and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at small forward would possibly play to a draw.
But Jabari Parker and Mason Plumlee against DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns?
Duke steals one game at home, but the series is never in doubt.
Projection: Kentucky in five
No. 2 Texas vs. No. 3 UCLA
It's Kevin Durant against Russell Westbrook in what is arguably the most marketable pair of adversaries in the NBA today. But there's a huge difference from what would happen if their current NBA teams were to meet in the playoffs. In this fictitious tournament, it's Westbrook who is surrounded by teammates adept at making it rain from three-point land.
As advertised on its team slide, Texas has the worst point-guard situation among the four teams in the semifinals, and it's not even close. In that area of the game, the Bruins would simply decimate the Longhorns. Cory Joseph and D.J. Augustin are nothing close to a match for Westbrook, Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday.
But could Texas close that gap with its frontcourt dominance? Westbrook and his pals would have a field day against Texas' guards, but the same goes for LaMarcus Aldridge, Myles Turner and Tristan Thompson having their way with Kevin Love and Trevor Ariza.
There's also the not-so-minor problem of UCLA trying to figure out how to deal with Durant, which ends up making the difference in this one. Zone defense becomes the best friend of the Longhorns in this series, provided the Bruins are unable to shoot at least 50 percent from beyond the arc four times in seven games.
Projection: Texas in seven
No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 2 Texas
At long last, we have a legitimate challenger to Kentucky. Sort of.
Thus far in the tournament, the Wildcats have breezed through their opposing frontcourts. Heck, we could have combined Arizona and Duke into one 34-man roster and it still wouldn't have offered any resistance to Kentucky's freight train of big men.
This was to be expected long before fully investing in the research, though. No team could possibly hold an advantage over Kentucky's front line of DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and Julius Randle.
But Texas might be able to at least make things interesting with LaMarcus Aldridge, Myles Turner, Tristan Thompson, P.J. Tucker and Kevin Durant.
The bigger problem for the Longhorns is they have no answer for John Wall. Even if they manage to play to a draw in the paint, he is going to run circles around Cory Joseph and D.J. Augustin; circles that Durant can't make up for with his edge over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Texas puts up more of a fight than any other team would, but it's kind of hard to win an alumni battle against a program that has produced 21 first-round draft picks since 2010.
Projection: Kentucky in six
Kerry Miller covers college football and college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.