Thursday, January 31, 2013

First Major Player Traded as Memphis Deals Rudy Gay to Toronto

Rudy Gay is now a member of the Toronto Raptors after a three-team deal with Memphis. (bleacherreport.com)

Boston. Houston. Milwaukee. Minnesota. Rudy Gay could have been calling any of those places home after news surfaced in December he might be available for the right return, which the Memphis Grizzlies found Thursday in a three-team trade sending the small forward to the Toronto Raptors and netting the Grizzlies the front court duo of Tayshaun Prince and Austin Daye, who leave the Detroit Pistons as point guard Jose Calderon comes in from Toronto.

This trade also lands forward Ed Davis in Memphis along with a second-round pick from Toronto, while Grizzlies reserve center Hamed Haddadi goes to the Raptors.

Memphis is the only true winner in this situation, vacating Gay's contract of nearly $34.4 million over two years and a player-option $19.3 million third year in return for a total of just under $17.7 million (three years of Prince and one of Daye). Including the Davis-Haddadi swap, Memphis net savings is around $15.1 million.

New owner Robert Para is guiding the Grizzlies away from big contracts while trying to maintain the integrity of a franchise that has come on strong over the past three years, making several playoff appearances and currently sitting at fourth place in the Western Conference rankings. It was during one of those playoff runs -- in 2011, when Memphis upset the San Antonio Spurs before battling and eventually being eliminated by the Oklahoma City Thunder -- when Zach Randolph emerged as Gay watched from the bench due to injury. Randolph's ascendance and the continuous high-level player of Marc Gasol, one of the best passing centers in the NBA, made Gay less valuable to the franchise, especially in light of the playoff success the Grizzlies experienced with him in street clothes.

Gay is the first major player to be traded this season, outlasted on the trading block by Pau Gasol and the injured Anderson Varejao. His decreased importance to the Grizzlies allowed Memphis to replace him with a veteran like Prince, who, though aging, can still contribute while the organization develops Daye and Davis to fit its mold, barring any successive trades or buyouts.

The three-team deal also facilitates the long speculated-about flight of Calderon away from Toronto. He becomes a free agent after this season, so his stint in Detroit is likely to be short, placing him in a back-up role behind young point guard Brandon Knight on a roster loaded with reserve guards -- a situation completely different than the swingman-heavy look from which Memphis wanted to move away and Toronto just inherited.

Gay and the Grizzlies can part ways amicably. Gay will be the Raptors' go-to scorer as Toronto continues with a future just slightly less hazy than it had before the deal, facilitating Detroit's move to focus on its core of youthful talent, while the Grizzlies will still be a playoff team and save a few million dollars. All is well that ends well.



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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

NCAA Says No To Akron Twitter Handle On Back Of Jersey

The NCAA said no to Akron having the team's twitter handle on the back of its jerseys Saturday. (theverge.com)

Social media's presence in college athletics, and across the world, continues to grow, but it may have reached its limit within college basketball.

The Akron Zips are having a social media night for their home game against Ohio Saturday in which the team announced Monday it was planning to have its @ZipsMBB twitter handle on the back of each jersey instead of the player's last name. The Zips first checked with the NCAA to see if it would allow the twitter jerseys and the NCAA said no and that it was not allowed. However, the Zips will still be able to show off the handle on their warm-up shirts in front of a nationally televised audience.

Coaches, players and the programs themselves are all over social media pages, and team hashtags are everywhere, even on the courts. In fact, Akron's court on Saturday will feature the hashtags #ZipsGameday and #ThinkBigger. Yet jerseys look to still be untouchable territory for Twitter.

It was a catchy and smart marketing campaign by the university to garner support. Media members such as CBS Sports' Jeff Goodman and ESPN's Jay Bilas even received customized jerseys with their handles on the back.

It was an interesting move by the NCAA to put its foot down, but as Bilas pointed out on Twitter, Akron is receiving even more attention from the NCAA rejecting the move than it would have if it was allowed to keep the jerseys.


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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Charlotte Bobcats Could Reclaim "Hornets" Nickname


Cam Newton totally likes the name "Bobcats," Micheal. Don't worry. (city-data.com)

At the time of publishing this, the New Orleans Pelicans have played zero games in the NBA. The moniker will replace NO’s current Hornets name in 2013-14 at the behest of owner Tom Benson, who purchased the team in April. The name change could alter titles in cities other than New Orleans, as well, as the Charlotte Bobcats are exploring the option of reclaiming their former label. President and Chief Operating Officer Fred Whitfield released a statement addressing the possibility on Jan. 22:

"We are aware of the impending change regarding the team nickname in New Orleans. We are currently in contact with the NBA and conducting our own due diligence relative to this matter. We will not have any further comment until we have completed this process."

Just as Chris Hansen will consider branding the franchise that eventually lands in Seattle as the Sonics or Supersonics, there is at least rudimentary support and reasoning behind the idea of bringing the Hornets back to Charlotte in name. That could be chalked up to nostalgia again, just like the twinges being felt in Seattle — or it could be because "Bobcats" is a weak pseudonym. Fans helped name the team, but with "Charlotte Flight" bringing to mind images of pro-am teams and "Charlotte Dragons" being outright ridiculous, "Bobcats" was the obvious choice. That it happened to tie in with the city's NFL team, the Carolina Panthers, was merely a consolation.

In recent months, Charlotte's team jerseys brandished just the word "Cats" instead of the full name. A franchise in existence just since 2004 should not be so quick to make such a move lest their image be questioned. Oops.

SB Nation's Kevin Zimmerman brings up another point, one which may be the tent pole reason if a name change happens: team owner and Justin Bieber fan Michael Jordan is willing to listen to arguments in favor of a Hornets return to North Carolina. Aggregated from ESPN and Gaston Gazette articles, Zimmerman also notes the old-and-maybe-future nickname is a nod to the state's tenacity during the Revolutionary War, which immediately makes it more intimidating than "Bobcats," which may or may not be a sly reference to the franchise's original owner, Robert Johnson.

A name change does not hinge on one person's opinion, however, and plenty of money has been committed to creating an aura for a team named the Bobcats. Jordan is and has always been his own man, so there is no reason to believe he will follow Benson's whim, but he and the rest of the Bobcats organization must recognize that part of conducting "due diligence" is considering the fan base's take on the matter. Change is not imminent, not should it be, but one thing is certain: Hornets are just a tad less cuddly than Bobcats.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Rajon Rondo's Injury Is The Boston Celtics' Future

Rajon Rondo's torn ACL puts the Celtics' future in jeopardy. (sbnation.com)

One player does not make a team, but with this year's version of the Boston Celtics, Rajon Rondo is the most valuable member of the entire franchise, from the top brass down to the ball boys. He is one of the few players in all of basketball -- let alone in the NBA -- who can change the course of the game with sheer will, so when he went down with an ACL injury against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday, the Celtics' chances of a playoff berth plummeted.

Already a sub-.500 team with Rondo, the Celtics' 21-23 record is unlikely to improve much without him running the show. There was already jabber about the C's potentially missing the playoffs (they are currently in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, 2.4 games ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers) and the market of available point guards is not what one would call "impressive." Even if there were high-caliber guards lurking without a team, there is a strong chance that they still would not be capable of leading the current iteration of the Celtics as Rondo does. You see, he's special. That's why there is always talk about how he controls the "tempo" of the game rather than talk about a vicious first-step or any other attribute that is often assigned to point guards.

This season, though, is a small piece in a much larger puzzle for Boston. Even before the franchise was supposedly shopping Rondo during the last regular season, there was talk of blowing up the team's aging core in order to bring in fresh talent and build a new title contender. Ray Allen exited through free agency this summer; Rondo left in a completely different way on Sunday; and Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce -- a career-long Celtic to this point -- are left to inspire what now looks like a patchwork roster. Both are aging, and Celtics GM Danny Ainge is not shy in expressing his opinion that the famed Boston roster led by Larry Bird was kept intact too long when it could have been utilized to quicken a rebuilding process by trading away the principles when they had higher values. Garnett is playing at an All-Star level and Pierce can almost make the same claim. In this particular scenario, Garnett (age 37) and Pierce (age 35) are better trade bait than they are floor generals for the Celtics. That's no reason to go full-tank mode in Boston, but wear-and-tear will catch up to what's left of this era's original Big Three, and Ainge will have to decide if he's going to repeat history or stick with his gut feeling to move the veterans while he can still get positive returns.

Why stop at Pierce and Garnett, though? There will be calls to see if the Celtics are willing to trade Rondo, even in his current state. He leads the NBA in assists despite sitting out 11 percent of Boston's games to date. Rondo is undeniably talented and, weighing the options, wouldn't a cellar-dwelling team at least consider taking a flyer on him and parting ways with reliable role players (which the Celtics could use to bolster there current line-up) and/or future draft picks (which Ainge would covet, if he could also shop Pierce and Garnett)?

Rondo's ACL injury is bigger news than Allen leaving. The city of Boston -- already sunken from the New England Patriots' second consecutive loss late in the NFL postseason -- must now look into the face of professional basketball's future in Boston to see how long it will be until their proud and storied franchise will be capable of making a return to the NBA Finals.

Villanova's Amazing Week Could Turn Season Around, But There's More Work To Do

After knocking off No. 5 Louisville and No. 3 Syracuse in back-to-back games, Villanova is looking more like a NCAA Tournament team than it did a week ago. (ncaa.com)

Last week wasn’t just a good week for Villanova basketball. It was one of the best weeks they could have asked for in a time when a chance at the NCAA Tournament was falling out of reach.

This was the type of week that can turn around a season. At 11-7 and facing three straight Big East losses, Villanova was sinking to the bottom fast. On Jan. 22 Nova found new life with a 73-64 upset of No. 5 Louisville, whom many have picked to win a national title this year. It was a huge win for the resume, but still in the season as a whole, looked more like luck than what was meant to happen.

Then Saturday came with another matchup with a top-five team in No. 3 Syracuse. It took a little bit of magic in a game-tying 3-pointer by Ryan Arcidacono to send the game into overtime, but again Villanova found a way to win 75-71.

Not many teams even get the chance to play top-five opponents in back-to-back games, let alone come away with two victories. The feat is so impressive many are now asking if the team that lost to Columbia by nearly 20 points earlier this year could now be in the NCAA Tournament.

Coach Jay Wright has won his share of big games with Nova, so it’s a little less surprising to see this happen with him as the coach. He deserves much of the credit for getting his team prepared for such formidable opponents. This is a very young team who might finally be finding its identity. But the work is not over yet.

Last week was the momentum shift, but this week will prove what kind of team Villanova really is. The Wildcats still have 11 Big East games remaining, where they could either spring off this confidence boost or fall back into the losing pattern of the first half of the season. The next test is Wednesday, when Nova travels to No. 24 Notre Dame.

Both of the top-five wins were at home, and the Wildcats have struggled on the road (4-3) thus far. It’s easy to point at those signature wins as evidence, but those will only help if Nova continues to win. Only two currently ranked teams remain on Villanova’s schedule, so the Wildcats can’t afford any bad losses.

It’s a great story if Nova can write it; a young team struggles early, postseason dreams seemingly out of reach before turning it around midway through the season and reaching the NCAA Tournament. But wins over Louisville and Syracuse won’t get the Wildcats to their goal alone.

A road win at Notre Dame would sure help in making this great week evolve into a season Nova fans didn’t think would be possible a week ago.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Friday Roundtable: Is One-And-Done the Right Rule for College Basketball?

Freshman classes like Kentucky's last year can be great while they are in college, but Kentucky is proving it's tough to rebound when they're gone. (claysdaze.com)

BDD's Friday Roundtable is a weekly discussion among three of our writers on a trending NBA or college basketball topic.

This week's question: John Calipari, the maestro of pulling successful performances from freshmen, coached the Kentucky Wildcats to a national championship last spring. With UK (12-6, 3-2 in the SEC) facing a down season and showing flaws in the all-freshmen strategy, is now the time for the NBA to think about changing the one-and-done draft rule?

Kyle Davis: 
The one-and-done rule, even with all of its flaws, would make it seem like it is best for both parties. The NCAA gets a piece of the limelight from the biggest stars, if only for a season, and NBA gets players who are a little more seasoned and won't have to make such an extreme jump in talent level.

It doesn't look to be as positive for the NCAA as the organization may think. The NCAA gets players like Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist winning a championship one year, and Kentucky being on the verge of missing the tournament the next. Players leaving early did the same for UNC, although many of them were sophomores and juniors. This puts the college coaches in a much more difficult situation. They spend an entire season incorporating these great players into their systems and then have to start over the next year when they leave, making it much more difficult to win at a high level for multiple years.

The problem is some special players are talented enough to make the jump from high school to the NBA, but countless more are not and head to the Association before they are ready, damaging their careers. Instead of having a hard one-year rule for everyone, let a player enter the draft out of high school if he is truly ready, but if they do not, make the rule similar to the NFL where players have to be three years out of high school in order to enter the draft. That way the players who truly could be ready can go to the NBA (I actually really like my colleague Alex's idea of having them in the D-League for a year) and the rest of the players will benefit from three years of college or overseas basketball to hopefully prevent them from ruining their careers by leaving before they are physically and mentally mature enough. It will also improve the college game as it may lose out on the occasional Anthony Davis's, but overall this would enhance the playing field as the other great players have three years to awe the college basketball world and learn from great coaches.
 
Alex Skov:

The ball is in the NBA’s court here since the league decides age limits for the draft, though the player’s union could request/pester a reversion to the former high school-to-the-pros standard. From a business standpoint, the answer lies somewhere between one-and-done and the direct route. Rather than requiring a player to spend one year (or any amount of time, for that matter) in the NCAA or with an overseas club, the NBA should allow players to enter the D-League straight out of high school. This not only allows the NBA to enhance the branding of its second tier, theoretically making it more marketable and appealing to some kind of broadcast deal, but it also means the players would be competing at a level between collegiate and professional ball. They would be exempt from call-ups and 10-day contracts, obviously, but would be eligible to enter the draft after one season. Thanks to the NBA-ready coaching they would receive, these young talents would have more refined skills upon entering the selection pool. There are many flaws to this plan (losing the marketing momentum of those with the skills to make a direct jump, missing out on promotion received on the NCAA stage, etc.), but I’m just spitballing here. The Association pays other people to resolve these issues.

Some people are loyal fans of either the college or pro games, while some like me have interest in both. As a member of that demographic, I would love to see a rule that requires a player to be 20 before entering the draft. This would give them A) an undergraduate experience that connects them to a program’s fan base and B) a sizeable amount of time to develop their game under one coach, whom they have had a say in selecting for themselves. It also gives them time to mature personally and from a basketball perspective with progressively serious stakes under typically more experienced coaches at each level.

Champ:


Ever since the one-and-done rule was conceived, there has been a lot of controversy over the rule. There are some good arguments for the rule, but personally I think the rule is a joke.  
It seems the main reason for the rule is to make the player at least try college for a year, but the players rarely do that. In many cases, like Josh Selby at Kansas, they only go to class the first semester and then ignore classes the second semester, since it doesn’t count toward their eligibility.  The rule makes a mockery of higher learning systems.  
The second reason the rule fails is because it makes the game much less exciting. Who wants to watch a final four when you know that all of the players are going to bolt next year? I know this was a problem before the rule, but it is definitely a problem now. The rule should be changed to make the kids go for two years or for none at all. Two years is enough to make the students take some serious classes and help with their maturity. But I also understand that these kids have a freedom of choice and shouldn’t have to go to college if it isn’t necessary. As of right now, the rule is of little benefit to anyone.


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Thursday, January 24, 2013

Owen Groesser's 3-pointer Is The Feel-Good Story The Sports World Needed

Let’s face it, the sports world needed a story like this; a story we could feel good about and one we can cheer for without having to think twice about it.

Forget about Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o for a second, because Owen Groesser deserves your attention more than they do.

Owen is an eighth grader at Van Hoosen Junior High in Michigan who suffers from Down Syndrome. As his father said on ESPN today, Owen had been the manager of the seventh grade team and his coach talked with the opposing coach about letting him play in the final home game of the season. In the final minutes of the first half, Owen got his chance and took full advantage.



It's tough to see from the angle, but that's not just a standard 3-pointer by Owen. He is easily three steps behind the line. The shot is all over the Internet and even made it on Sportscenter's Top Plays. ESPN reported Groesser hit a second three in his two minutes of action giving him six points for the game.

The reaction of the crowd and his teammates shows the beauty of sports. I wasn't there, but I would like to think that was the loudest moment of the game, as it deserved to be.

In an era of cheating and steroids, let's cherish a story where a kid has had to overcome more than everyone else on the court and makes the most of an opportunity when it is presented. Instead of talking about Lance Armstrong, talk about Owen, who looks like he's enjoying just playing basketball and those two minutes of brilliance he had on the court.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Michael Jordan Plus Justin Bieber Equals Heart

"LeBron really does look older than his age" - Biebs (via the Bobcats' Instragram)

Whether it's his timeless style or never-aging game, Michael Jordan is always on-target. Not that he needs consolation, but criticism was almost certainly the last thing on his mind when the beaming Charlotte Bobcats owner met Justin Bieber earlier this week.

Based on circumstantial evidence (namely, the caption offered by Bobcats digital media services), Biebs did not deem the Fightin' Charlotte Jordans worthy enough for him to attend a game. Though he probably wasn't bragging about going to any recent Lakers games, he found time in his schedule to meet Jordan before performing at Time Warner Cable Arena.

Perhaps the most important thing to repeat is that this happened before Bieber's concert, meaning there's a strong chance that Jordan took in the show. I wouldn't put it past him. He looks way more excited to meet the pop star/2011 All-Star Celebrity Game MVP than Biebs looks about the encounter. My guess is the only reason we don't see some swooped hair peeking out from under that hat is because Jordan knows that's soooooo 2010.

(H/t to Dan Devine at Ball Don't Lie and Seth Rosenthal at SB Nation)


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Ranking The Top 5 College Basketball States in 2012-13

Kansas and Kansas State have led the way for Kansas to be the most successful state in college basketball. (espn.com)

CBS Sports' Matt Norlander recently published a story examining the best college basketball state of the modern era. The answer may surprise you, but the argument is very much a sound one. This got me to thinking about what other great college basketball states are out there right now. This is not of all-time, but strictly this season. Only looking at the best three Div. I teams in the state (sorry Juco studs), we ranked the top five college basketball states of the 2012-13 basketball season to date. Agree with it? Thank you. Don't agree, let us know your top five.

No. 5 Florida
Florida could have been even higher on the list if Florida State would have been able to carry over the success of last season when they won the ACC Tournament. But the Seminoles have dropped off to a 10-7 record this season and can't seem to win the big games. FSU still has a meeting with Duke and two games against NC State to find a signature win. Miami has been a better surprise, working its way into the top 25 and at the top of the ACC at 4-0 (prior to the Hurricanes game against Duke Wednesday night). Still, the Florida Gators are the best of the state and a legitimate top-10 team who look to be the easy favorite to win the SEC.

State record: 37-12

No. 4 Kentucky
It still feels strange to say that the University of Kentucky is currently holding the state back in our rankings, but a defending national champion is not used to going 12-6 to start the following season. John Calipari has talent, but it's very young talent who still have a lot to learn. Louisville isn't helping matters either, dropping two straight in a talented Big East, but the Cardinals are still a Final Four contender. Murray State has also been down by last year's standards, starting 14-4. The Racers 5-1 in conference play and shouldn't lose too many more before the tournament. Last year the state of Kentucky was stronger with two Final Four teams and all three making the tournament and it should be expected for that level of play to return sooner than later. But right now the state is struggling, by it's standards, which still means two good team and a very good team.

State record: 42-13  

No. 3 North Carolina
This state had by far the most potential at the start of the year. Where Kentucky had two teams who were expected to hang out in the top 10 all year, North Carolina could have potentially had three comfortably in the top 25. Duke lived up to its end as the No. 1 team, but North Carolina's youth and inexperience has made for a tougher path than expected. Roy's boys have rebounded with two straight ACC wins after starting conference play 0-2, but five losses at this point in the season is unfamiliar territory for the Tar Heels. NC State, while still in the top 25, already has four losses and have lost two of three after upsetting Duke. These are still three dangerous tournament teams, but two have a lot yet to accomplish.

State record: 43-10  

No. 2 Indiana
Indiana is synonymous with basketball (enter Hoosier's reference here). But it's the mid-major (if you can even call them that) of the state is actually keeping this basketball powerhouse state ranked so high. Butler's 16-2 start and No. 9 ranking has them talked about the with best of college basketball. The Bulldogs already have wins over UNC, Indiana and most recently Gonzaga. The Hoosiers are one of the favorites to win the Big Ten, although the brutal conference schedule could hurt Indiana's record and ranking. Notre Dame's dismissal from the top 25 after losing three of four games is keeping Indiana from the No. 1 spot.

State record: 47-8  

No. 1 Kansas
Kansas probably wouldn't have been your first guess, right? But the Sunflower State is playing basketball better than anyone. All three Div. I teams are ranked in the top 20 and are showing no signs of slowing down. Kansas has won 16 games in a row while K-State's only loss in the last nine game came at the hands of the Jayhawks Tuesday (this includes a neutral-site win over Florida). Wichita State knocked off Creighton last weekend and is making a claim for a Missouri Valley Conference title and is tied with Creighton for the conference lead. All three teams are practically no-brainers to make the NCAA Tournament and don't be surprised if one or more makes a deep run.

State record: 49-6 

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

BDD's All-Bench All-Stars

JaVale McGee poses with the All-Bench All-Star mascot. (via JaVale)

NBA All-Star voting concluded last week and, no matter your opinion on the process, the starting line-ups have been decided and announced. The East and West rosters are littered with the usual names. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and so on and so forth.

But what about the little guys? ("Little" being relative to league-wide acknowledgement and not stature, since these are professional athletes and all.) Here at BDD, we try to champion the overlooked and under-appreciated. With that in mind, I dwelled on the following question: what would All-Star rosters look like if they were comprised only of bench players? Maybe more important, though, is which reserves would get their chance to be starters.

The criteria for selecting BDD's All-Bench All-Star team starters required players to have been substitutes for at least 50 percent of their respective teams' games. The eyeball test was taken into account and from there, standard and advanced statistics were analyzed to find deserving candidates, though some looked to be obvious selections. Since fan voting did not delineate from the "guard-guard-forward-forward-center" designations under this year's new "back court" and "front court" format, we differentiated each member of the squad by normal position. Sorry if this rocks your world too much, but without further ado, here are the inaugural BDD All-Bench All-Stars, complete with short explanations for their inclusion.


Eastern Conference

PG: Ramon Sessions, Charlotte Bobcats - Sessions is averaging 14.2 points and 4.0 assists per game. He's not being pressed to be a major play-maker with the presence of Kemba Walker, and although his team is not thriving with a 10-30 record, Sessions has found a bit of sanctuary in Charlotte after a rough-and-tumble time with the Los Angeles Lakers last year.

SG: J.R. Smith, New York Knicks - Part of All-Star Weekend's allure is that is offers plenty of opportunities for highlights, and Smith has supplied those in spades this season whether he's hitting buzzer-beaters or making improbable dunks. His resume was solidified by the fact that he's averaging more points (24.8 per game) than any player who has come of the bench for any number of games in 2012-13, aside from John Wall. It didn't hurt that he has highest efficiency rating (15.2) of any eligible player, according to NBA.com's statistics.

SF: Mike Dunleavy, Milwaukee Bucks - For a team with two ball-dominant guards, Dunleavy's presence is an invaluable asset for the Bucks, so much so that he is on two of Milwaukee's three most winningest line-ups. Given ample opportunities to spot-up, Dunleavy is currently shooting the best percentage of his career (.438) from behind the arc. His Win Shares per 48 minutes boosted significantly during his first season with the franchise and he's on pace to top that this year. Dunleavy's success may be due partially to the Bucks' offensive system, but he could find his shots in this hypothetical game playing alongside assist magician a guard like J.R. Smith.

PF: Amir Johnson, Toronto Raptors - Here's something crazy: the Raptors gain a net of 14.4 points per 100 possessions when Johnson steps onto the hardwood. The 6'9" forward is part of 11 of Toronto's top 20 five-man units. Of those units, only three have winning percentages of 50 or below. Without getting into individual stats, that should say something. Loudly. It didn't hurt his chances of selection that he's averaging 12.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per 36 minutes. Maybe head coach Dwane Casey should think about nudging Johnson's 25.1 minutes of nightly play up a bit.

C:  Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons - The Pistons employ Drummond in three line-ups that make opponents avoid the paint, choosing to take more than 70 percent of their shots further from the rim rather than approach the rookie center. Through 40 games, Drummond has logged a blazing .209 WS/48, putting him slightly behind Tony Parker for seventh in the NBA. It's a small sample size, but he could carry on his teammate Greg Monroe's legacy of actually playing defense on the All-Star court.


Western Conference

PG: Eric Bledsoe, Los Angeles Clippers - Golden State's Jarrett Jack could have stolen this spot with better per-game stats, but closer inspection shows that Bledsoe is more productive per 36 minutes. His "Mini-LeBron" nickname and status as heir to the best-blocking-guard-since-Dwyane Wade throne is warranted with 1.3 blocks per 36 and his defensive work extends to 3.0 steals and 5.6 rebounds per 36 (compared to Jack's zero blocks and one steal). Jack's true shooting and effective field goals percentages are better, but prorated to starter's minutes, Bledsoe is better. Add 5.1 assists per 36 and that's a body of work that gets him the nod.

SG: Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers / Kevin Martin, Oklahoma City Thunder - For all the hype around the season Crawford's having in Los Angeles (and make no mistake, he's playing phenomenal ball) and James Harden's leadership that's led him to an All-Star game, Kevin Martin is having his own quietly fantastic season playing in the film surrounding Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook highlights. He's averaging 1.5 points and 0.1 steals less per game than Crawford's 16.5 ppg and 1.1 spg while nabbing more boards and committing fewer turnovers. Martin's .161 WS/48 dwarfs Crawford's above-average .125. Martin is surely benefiting from the attention paid to his team's stars, a la Dunleavy in Milwaukee, and that is allowing him to be efficient from the field (.442 field goal percentage, .431 three-point percentage). The Thunder are +3.8 net points per possession with Martin on the court while the Clippers are +5.0 with Crawford in the line-up. Statistically, Martin deserves this spot, but stylistically, Crawford's crossovers and array of ankle-breaking moves are the things All-Star viewers relish.

SF: Matt Barnes, Los Angeles Clippers - For all the talking Barnes does on the court and as much as that may irk some people, he's putting in the work to back it up this year. He is putting up career numbers in points, blocks and steals while nearly matching his career high for assists per game, as well. Barnes' WS/48 of .184 is nearly double the league average of .100, which leads all but 17 players in the league and second only to Chris Paul on the Clippers.

PF: Ryan Anderson, New Orleans Hornets -Barely sneaking in (and narrowly edging out Golden State's Carl Landry) with 23 games off the bench, Anderson continues to be what everyone knew him to be during his breakout season in Orlando. Shooting a sub-.400 percentage from three isn't exactly what was expected of him, but the threat of leaving Anderson open allows him to assist seven percent of his team's field goals when he's in the game, plus he's putting up 18.9 points per 36 minutes and cleaning the glass (Anderson's grabbing 17.2 percent of available defensive rebounds).

C: JaVale McGee, Denver Nuggets - A) McGee's beginning to capitalize on the potential that made Wizards fans salivate when the franchise drafted him, posting the best WS/48 (.154) mark of his career, due in part to averaging 19 points and 3.6 blocks per 36 minutes. B) He's shooting 100 percent from three-point land this season (1-1, baby! Shout out to Lamar Odom's defense!) C) There's plenty of room for a personality like Pierre's in a lightweight affair like an All-Star game.


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VIDEO: High School Senior Aaron Gordon With Monster One-Handed Alley-Oop

High School sophomore Victor Dukes caught the nation's attention earlier this year by dunking over and on a defender (literally, as he used the defender's torso as a takeoff ramp).

Dukes has been overthrown by Archbishop Mitty (Calif.) senior and No. 6 Rivals 2013 recruit Aaron Gordon at the Hoopshall Classic last weekend.


What makes this play so difficult is that it started from a baseline out-of-bounds play. The 6-foot-8 Gordon received a perfect pass, grabbed the ball with one hand and threw it down, as well as the defender. Gordon showed tremendous strength absorbing the contact from the defender and finishing the play with force.

Arizona and Kentucky are among the finalists to land Gordon and must already be picturing him produce the same level of skill and power at the next level. If his stock wasn't already so high, that is the kind of play that turns heads and makes a player known.

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Saturday Proved College Basketball Excitement Starts Long Before March Madness

Hinkle Fieldhouse erupted as Butler defeated Gonzaga on a buzzer-beater Saturday night. (themonitor.com)

It's a common misconception that the college basketball season doesn't really get exciting until tournament time.

Saturday helped disprove this notion with a full day of drama. Out of the 13 games featuring a top-25 team, nine of those games were decided by single digits and seven of those games were decided by five points or less. The NCAA Tournament is one of the most dramatic and exciting postseasons in all of sports, but the great games start long before March, as Saturday showed. Saturday afternoon was like a three-course meal with each course better than the last.

Appetizer
Texas had Kansas on the ropes midway through the second half with an 11-point lead. Texas had a similar lead against West Virginia last week, but was unable to hang on. Saturday was deja vu for the Longhorns. KU continued to chip away at the lead until finally going ahead 54-53 with 4:29 remaining. It was a one-point game for the next three minutes until KU broke free for good with a huge dunk by Ben McLemore to extend the lead to five with 1:14 left. Texas' youth showed through in the end as the momentum continued to swing in the Jayhawks favor, but the Longhorns were clearly not intimidated by the No. 4 next to the Kansas name.

Main Course
Remote controls were getting a work out. With about a minute of game time between them, Wichita State was trying to hold on to a home win against No. 12 Creighton while No. 6 Syracuse was giving No. 1 Louisville all they could handle at the Yum! Center in Louisville. WSU superbly defended National Player of the Year candidate Doug McDermott, who was unable to convert on the final Creighton possessions as the Shockers held on to win 67-64.

At the same time, Louisville saw its lead slip away with a steal and emphatic dunk by Syracuse's Michael Carter-Williams gave the Orange a lead they would not give up with 23 second left.


That highlight will be shown in March, but wasn't even the best play of the day. That was fittingly saved for primetime. Leading up to the final game on the night, Oregon hung on to knock off UCLA in Pauley Pavilion and Michigan State closed out a 59-56 nail-biter against Ohio State.

Dessert
Like most great meals, you are already full and content entering the dessert round. Saturday would have been one of the best college basketball days of the season after Ohio State, Michigan State, but the best was still to come.

The matchup was set for a great finish. No. 8 Gonzaga versus No. 13 Butler in historic Hinkle Fieldhouse. The battle of mid-major juggernauts battling on the court where the Hoosiers once captivated the world. The atmosphere could have been a Final Four, and the caliber of teams was just as strong as the surroundings.

After a back-and-forth battle, Gonzaga looked to have the game wrapped up. Kelly Olynyk hit two big free throws to take a 63-62 lead in the final 10 seconds. Butler was then called for traveling on the next possession, with 3.5 seconds left, nearly sealing their fate. But then the "magic" of Hinkle Fieldhouse, which looked very real Saturday, began to work. On the inbounds play, a miscommunication between Gonzaga's David Stockton, who was inbounding the ball, and Olynyk led to a steal by Butler's Roosevelt Jones. What happens next was scripted for March.


Fans had to be exhausted after seven hours of lead changes, nail-biters and plays that will live on highlight reels long after this.

March is supposed to be the exciting time of year for college basketball. But take a look at the games this month and realize the drama begins long before the tournament. We can only hope March is as exciting as Saturday was.

Friday, January 18, 2013

In Light of Manti Te'o, The Top 5 College Hoops Scandals

Manti Te'o flexes after a Notre Dame dunk. Not pictured: his girlfriend. (GIF via @cjzero)

Anyone tuned into the world of sports should know the story by now: Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, the heart of the team during the Irish's recent run to the BCS National Championship, was bombarded by personal tragedy this season, playing through major stress after the death of his terminally ill girlfriend. Deadspin did a wonderful job breaking the story, adding one minor detail — that the girlfriend never existed. While nothing like this has ever happened in the realm of college basketball, which has been afflicted with numerous point-shaving incidents throughout the decades, there have been plenty of non-points, non-spousal scandals in NCAA hoops. Here are the top five:

5a. Georgia's "A" Students
5b. Memphis Knows the Rules
Neither of these is akin to Te'o's imaginary girlfriend and both are far more in-line with the usual NCAA violations than everything else on this list, but neither is a flat-out payment to a player, agent or any other party. Granting players automatic A's while they skip class, as former Georgia head coach Jim Harrick's son did, is an institutional issue that separates it from the norm. The fact that Harrick's son, also an assistant coach for the basketball team, did so in a class about basketball strategy is laughable since the Bulldogs could have probably breezed through the curriculum. The Memphis Tiger who had someone else take the SAT in order to be academically eligible is a product of the one-and-done system perpetuated by John Calipari (then the maven of Memphis hoops), if that player was Derrick Rose went on to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft after leading the Tigers to a national championship runner-up.

3. Larry Eustachy's Frat Party
With a contract extension in 2001, Larry Eustachy became the highest paid state employee in Iowa after leading the Iowa State Cyclones to consecutive Big 12 titles. Whether or not that played a part in Eustachy's popularity with coeds at frat parties on opposing schools campuses (or if that popularity came from pre-party Cyclone losses) is unknown, but his presence at such parties — let alone his drinking, fraternizing and being photographed all the while — violated a clause in his contract, even if it was within the bounds of the law. As Eustachy himself said, he was a "functional alcoholic" and the actions tied to that title led to Eustachy losing his job. He has since recovered, led Southern Mississippi to the NCAA tournament and earned Colorado State's head coaching job.

2. Rick Pitino's Off-Court Indiscretion
Rick Pitino's affair with a Louisville equipment manager's wife in the bathroom of a local restaurant was not an example of sound decision making, but it blew up further when Karen Cunagin Sypher, the woman in question, claimed to be pregnant and received $3,000 from Pitino in order to make sure things stayed quiet, to put it gently. In spite of the media's immense reporting on the story, Louisville retained Pitino as head coach. He has continued to bring inspired performances from his Louisville players, but Sypher was found guilty of extortion in the summer of 2010.

1. The Baylor Basketball Murder
Make no mistake: this is the clear-cut number one. It's not only the worst incident on this list, it very well may be the worst scandal in the history of college basketball, if not all college sports. Everything else on the list — and Te'o's hoax — is minor in comparison.

In the summer of 2003, Patrick Dennehy was preparing to play his first season in the Baylor front court after transferring from New Mexico and sitting out one year as a redshirt. One of his closest friends from the Bears was fellow transfer forward Carlton Dotson. Both had expressed concerns about their safety and purchased firearms in order to protect themselves, but the danger came from an unexpected party when Dotson shot and killed Dennehy during an argument that arose as the two were practicing firing the weapons.

The timeline for this terrible incident stretches more than two years, from June 14, 2003 (when the shooting presumably occurred) to June 15, 2005, when after being declared mentally incompetent, spending time in a mental facility and being declared competent once more Dotson received a 35-year sentence for Dennehy's murder. The sentence was handed down after Dotson unexpectedly pleaded guilty a mere five days before his trial was set to begin.

Dennehy's death was one of many incidents that plagued Baylor basketball that year and, along with the uncovering of drug use and improper payments, it led to many sanctions for the program, including a 10-year show/cause penalty on resigned coach Dave Bliss, essentially exiling him from the NCAA. Although the Bears didn't exactly thrive during Bliss' tenure, he only had two losing seasons during his four years at Baylor, which was better than the following years, as Baylor didn't record another winning season until 2008. Other penalties such as loss of scholarships and recruiting visits, being put on probation until 2010, and a ban from non-conference play for the 2005-06 season — made this one of the harshest overall decisions handed down in NCAA history.


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Friday Roundtable: Who Should Be The NBA Midseason MVP?

Our roundtable panel discusses if LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Durant would be our midseason NBA MVP. (sportsnet.ca)

BDD's Friday Roundtable is a weekly discussion among three of our writers on a trending NBA or college basketball topic.

This week's question: Who would be the NBA midseason MVP?

Kyle Davis: 
Nike's ad campaign tries to convince you that Kevin Durant is not nice, but his game sure is. This is really a three-horse race between Durant, Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James, but I think Durant is the close winner, and if I had a ballot, that would be my order. Durant has really evolved from being a pure shooter to a complete scorer. His post game has improved, he is great in transition and he is the best shooter out of the three. Durant is also continuing to improve in all other aspects of his game as well. His numbers this year are higher than his career numbers in rebounding, assists, blocks, steals, field goal percentage and 3-point percentage. Not bad. And remember, he's only 24 years old. These numbers could get even better.

James is still the most complete player in the game and Anthony probably would have been my pick after the first month of the season, but has battled injuries that are keeping him out of games. Neither player has been able to get their team to where the Thunder are right now, which always plays a factor in MVP voting (which is why Kobe Byrant is not in this conversation, and the fact he's needing too many shots to get his points). The Thunder look to be on a clear path back to the NBA Finals with Durant scorching opponents along the way. 
 
Alex Skov:
Kevin Durant, already an All-Star and scoring champion, has taken his play to new levels since the Oklahoma City Thunder traded their vaunted sixth-man to Houston. Carmelo Anthony, too, has put together impressive an impressive case for himself with his usual array of offensive weapons (he's second in points per game at 29.3, fifth in total points with 878) and by finally improving the other aspects of his game (his new willingness to pass and play defense have helped him get to fourth in the league in Player Efficiency Rating). Even Chris Paul is worth of candidacy for midseason MVP, having turned the Los Angeles Clippers into a freight train, but he plays relatively few minutes each night (he's outside the top 20 in mpg) and LA's excellent bench makes his impact less apparent when he leaves the floor.

LeBron James is more important to his team than all of those stars and he's still playing at a level competitive to or exceeding them. He's doing it playing the third fewest nightly minutes of his career, too. Miami's Big Three is not Dwyane Wade, a Mega-Pippen and Chris Bosh. It's not even James and two Pippen-type sidekicks. The Big Three is LeBron; an aging and, because of nagging injuries and a loss of explosiveness, often ineffective Wade; and an inconsistent Bosh playing center.

With the weight of three big contracts on his shoulders, James is ranked 10th in assists, 13th in defensive rebounds and tenth in field goal percentage, the latter being a category where Durant barely cracks the top 20 and Anthony is not in the field. Though James may be trailing Durant in other statistical fields (points, Win Shares, Win Shares per 48 minutes), he is the league leader in PER. Part of reason Miami is viewed as "struggling" with a 26-12 record is because of the big names on its roster and the intense speculation that LeBron draws, but he is also the reason this isn't a just-over-.500 team right now.

Shawn Deegan:
My midseason MVP has to go to Kevin Durant. Despite moving James Harden this past offseason, the Thunder have improved again this season, boasting the best record in the NBA. This is in no small part due to Durant’s performance this season. Durant is shooting a blistering 52 percent from the floor so far this year and is again in the top three in points scored per game with nearly 29. He also has raised his game from behind the arc, hitting 40 percent of his shots from downtown, his best since his sophomore season. He has a career high in assists per game and is still rebounding very well. I seriously considered picking Lebron James or Carmelo Anthony. ‘Melo is having a career year, and Lebron is as good as he’s ever been. However, neither has been able to propel his team to where Durant has the young Thunder squad. Durant has been a leader for the Thunder since before the team ever moved to Oklahoma City and it’s showing up this season more than ever. All these components are why Durant is my pick for midseason MVP.


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Thursday, January 17, 2013

Saturday Feast: Breaking Down The Five Matchups Between Top-25 Teams

No. 6 Syracuse vs. No. 1 Louisville is one of five matchups between top-25 teams Saturday. (usatoday.com)
Conference play is in full force, which means no November games where Duke plays a local junior college team with no player taller than 6-foot-6. Conference play means rivals and legitimate match-ups. Saturday is giving us five games between top-25 teams that are sure to produce exciting moments. This will probably end up being a weekly feature, so don't worry about the brilliant analysis only being limited to five games. Here's the breakdown:

No. 6 Syracuse vs. No. 1 Louisville
This Syracuse team isn't the same without James Southerland (Fab Melo 2.0), who is ruled ineligible for academic reasons, which means guys like Brandon Triche and Michael Carter-Williams will have to carry even more of the load. Louisville is proving to have one of the top defenses in the country and it will be put to the test against Syracuse's scorers. What makes this more exciting is the coaching match-up. Jim Boeheim has more than 900 wins and Rick Pitino has a white suit, and, you know, is also a great, future hall-of-fame coach.

L'Ville's Russ Smith (18.9 ppg) has proven his great play is less fluke and more Wooden Award candidate and is living up to the nickname Pitino gave him, "Russdiculous." So to sum up the game in Pitino speak: Russdiculous will have to play great against Boeheim's Zonediculous defense while Pitino yells from the sideline hopefully wearing his Whitediculous suit. Should be fun I mean, ridiculous.

No. 8 Gonzaga vs No. 13 Butler
Cinderella fans are about to explode with excitement over this one. Smart move by ESPN starting the College Gameday series at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse as darling Butler takes on the original mid-major darling Gonzaga. And it's a battle of the Bulldogs. What else do you need?

It was almost perfect. ESPN officials were beaming with pride at this scheduling. The only downside, and it's a fairly large one, is Butler will be without top scorer Rotnei Clarke, who suffered a neck injury against Dayton last Saturday. (Dayton just ruined its chance of getting any games on ESPN this year.) The loss of Clarke is probably too much for Butler to overcome. Scoring could be tough to come by with the absence of his 16.3 ppg average and Gonzaga has too many weapons. But don't count out the magic of Hinkle (oh, hey Indiana) and coach Brad Stevens. Butler won't give up without a fight.

No. 17 Missouri vs No. 10 Florida
I know Missouri well from growing up as a fan of the Big Eight-turned-Big 12 and living within a close proximity of part of their fan base. The feeling I got from them at the beginning of the season (once Kentucky started losing) was Florida was good, but they had a legitimate shot at a SEC title. This is still the case, if Mizzou stops losing to teams like Ole Miss. I know, I know, Mizzou didn't have Laurence Bowers, and that's looking to be a big blow, but you still can't score only 49 points against a team like the Rebels who hadn't played a ranked team all year.

Florida not only has the home-court advantage, but they can score in bunches. The Gators are averaging 77 ppg in their last four games. Bowers being out does hurt the Tigers, especially from a scoring aspect. Mizzou is still looking for that signature win to announce its welcome into the SEC, in football and basketball, and this is the type of win that would send a big message to the conference.

No. 11 Ohio State vs. No. 18 Michigan State
Coming off a big home upset of then-No. 2 Michigan on Sunday, Ohio State can't afford a let-down against rival Michigan State. But will they again rise to the challenge? Who knows. The Big Ten might as well be a lottery drawing. Just when we think we've kind of got the conference sorted out, Bo Ryan and Wisconsin come in and destroy everything we once thought. Maybe Illinois is what we originally thought and isn't a title contender? Maybe Michigan runs away with the title? Maybe Iowa wins 12 straight conference games and shocks everyone? Maybe we find out Aaron Craft's red cheeks give him superpowers that suddenly stop working in big games? Truly anything could happen with this conference.

All I know is Michigan State really needs a big conference win for the resume and this is the time to get one. The Buckeyes have been unstable and unable to play a complete game. Now is Michigan State's chance to strike and get a signature win to start a brutal conference stretch.

No. 21 Oregon vs. No. 24 UCLA

Oregon has been a great rebuilding story that reached its height with an upset win over then-undefeated Arizona last Thursday. UCLA has a coach, Ben Howland, on the hot seat and a group of freshmen still learning to play together. Both the Ducks and Bruins come into this game undefeated in conference play, both trying to convince the public that the hype (UCLA's came at the beginning of the season, Oregon's is now) is deserving.

UCLA has more big-name stars in Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson, but don't overlook the balance of Oregon. UCLA gets the advantage playing at Pauley Pavilion, so it just depends which Bruins team shows up: the one that scored 97 against Missouri or the one that scored 57 against Utah.



St. Mary's Dellavedova With Amazing Buzzer-Beater

For those of you with early bedtimes, you missed the shot of the night, and probably the year. St. Mary's defeated BYU in West Coast Conference play with a beautiful near-half-court shot at the buzzer by senior Matthew Dellavedova.

If you don't know Dellavedova's name, you should make a note now. He's been hitting big shots since he stepped on St. Mary's campus. This one was one of his biggest. Down by two with 2.5 seconds left, Dellavedova only needs one dribble to go about 20 feet and weave around a defender in order to get off the running shot.


Keep an eye on Dellavedova in March, because if St. Mary's can sneak into the NCAA Tournament, this is the guy who can end a team's dreams with one shot.



Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson Is Fighting To Keep Kings

Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson has until March 1 to propose a counteroffer in the hopes of keeping the Kings. (usatoday.com)

Reports came out last week from Adrian Wojnarowski at Yahoo! Sports that the Sacramento Kings owners were nearing a deal to sell the team to Seattle. Wojnarowski again reported Monday the NBA relocation committee and the league had a conference call to mark out deal points for the move and sale.

BDD wrote back in September that Seattle was moving forward with an investor group and funding for a new arena with the hopes of again drawing an NBA franchise. Seattle deserves another team after what happened with the now Thunder, but what was Seattle's gain is Sacramento's loss.

It sure looks, or looked, like Seattle is the easy frontrunner for the Kings. That is, unless Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson doesn't ruin Seattle fans' dreams. Johnson said Tuesday that NBA Commissioner David Stern has given him permission to make a proposal and counter-offer, which could keep the Kings in Sacramento, by the March 1 deadline.

Johnson has twice before kept the Kings from leaving Sacramento, so he knows what it takes to keep a team, but this time it will be more difficult with another prominent bidder in the open. Johnson addressed this at a State of Downtown event Tuesday, mentioning successful efforts to keep the team in the past, saying, "We want this to be the final act of a saga that's gone on for far too long."

"We have a city and a community that have done every single thing that is required," Johnson said Tuesday. "I hope Seattle gets another team. They deserve another team. They didn't deserve to lose a team in the first place. It just won't be the Sacramento Kings if we have anything to do with it."

As a former NBA player, Johnson has the unique perspective combining the mindset of a professional athlete and that of a public servant. This allows him to see multiple sides of the issue, unlike the Kings' current ownership group, which has largely floundered about when it comes to making forward progress for the franchise and has seemed disinterested in continued ownership on multiple occasions.

That Johnson is once again attempting to retain his city's professional basketball team is no surprise, although his dedication should not have to be tested (again) solely because the whims of the Maloof family are swaying against Sacramento. The city and fans of Sacramento deserve better than the Maloofs have given them. If Sacramento does lose the Kings, there is only one place to point the fingers, and it won't be on Johnson.

The fans suffer most when a city loses a franchise, but it feels worse for fans to know the city didn't do all it could to keep it around. It may be a long shot, but Johnson fighting for the team gives the people of the city the comfort of knowing if the team leaves for Seattle, it wasn't for lack of trying.

Alex Skov contributed to this story


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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Rise of the JUCO Transfer

Cleanthony Early has been integral to Wichita State's success this season. (Peter G. Aiken/USA TODAY Sports)

I am a fan of exposition. Some people want the one-sentence explanation and prefer to move on as quickly as possible, but I have no problem with taking time to get to a destination. My writing has a tendency to veer into wordy territory and I am constantly critiqued for the speed at which I eat, do work around the house and so on.

Before we get into the meat of this entry — about how the addition of traditionally non-blue-chippers, lacking five-star and often four-star ratings as high school seniors, can drastically change the on-court presence of a Division I basketball program during their relatively short stay — let me share a brief anecdote.

Following four years in high school that yielded a good cumulative GPA in spite of effort that was often lacking, I made the decision to stay close to home and enrolled at Cowley County (Kan.) Community College (now Cowley College, for what it's worth). The same attitude paired with adequate work allowed me to float through classes while committing a majority of my time on campus to work on the student newspaper as co-editor of the sports section, eventually assuming the title of Managing Editor heading into sophomore year.

Soon, that "majority" of time spent on publication duties topped 85 percent of all school-related activities, though I found time to intern at a local radio station and parlayed that opportunity into a color commentary position with the college's basketball teams. My single season as an on-air personality during Cowley Tigers broadcasts coincided with the year of Steve Eck's arrival as head coach of the men's team. With Eck came five sophomore transfers, mostly from his former institution. It was apparent early on that they were all very good basketball players — a fact that was not lost on a group of my friends who once found themselves in a pick-up game with the most physically domineering of transfers — and this obviousness continued when all five were granted scholarships by Division I schools at the season's end.

The clear leader of these five young men was Montrell McDonald, a transfer from George Washington University. He fit the prototypical profile of a junior college player, having a scoring prowess but with a problem that offset this talent (in McDonald's case, a temper that often led to fouls). He was also lanky; a bit under-muscled, if you will. But what separated him from the two-year pack was that he was a great defender. McDonald, without hyperbole, is one of the best shot-blockers I have ever seen. His positioning and anticipation of an opponent's movements allowed him to sag a bit on defense, letting the other player get confident and attempt a shot that, inevitably, McDonald would swat, sometimes — literally — over several rows of spectators.

Before the Cowley season even began, McDonald was being recruited by several major programs including Kansas and Kansas State, fresh off Michael Beasley being the No. 2 overall pick in the 2007 draft. In the end, McDonald's next step led him to join the Arkansas Razorbacks, playing in four games before being suspended indefinitely. During the suspension, McDonald was also barred from practicing with the team by then-coach John Pelphrey. McDonald was a Razorback for a total of eight games before leaving the program.

Pierre Jackson plays for his juco. (Drew Nash/Times-News)
He entered the 2010 NBA Draft and went unselected, but McDonald's story is common among the ranks of junior college basketball players. Just as usual, if not more so, are the juco players who can't find an in with a program, D-I or otherwise.

That's what makes a player like Cleanthony Early so special. The 6'8" forward spent two years at Sullivan County (N.Y.) Community College before transferring to Wichita State University, racking up averages of 24.2 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game on his way to to being named a NJCAA Division III All-American last season. So far in 2012-13, Early is averaging 15.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg and 0.9 bpg for the Shockers and keeping the team afloat despite a rash of injuries to other important players. WSU is 15-2, boasting a 4-1 conference record that includes Early's 39-point firecracker in a six-point win over Southern Illinois on Jan. 9.

Just as Early's jump from a small junior college to a NCAA Division I school was supposed to be much harder than it now looks, Wichita State's was slated to endure a season in which they fell from their usual spot near the top of the Missouri Valley Conference to middling or even bottom-rung status after the departure of a group of seniors who were responsible for much of the Shockers' recent success. Head coach Gregg Marshall was seemingly prepared, having steadily brought in a slew of junior college recruits to provide veteran leadership in just such a scenario. Currently, six of the 15 players rostered by WSU are juco transfers. Impact players like forwards Carl Hall (a first-team NJCAA All-American at Northwestern Florida State College in 2010-11) and Chadrack Lufile, guards Nick Wiggins and Malcolm Armstead, and center Ehimen Orukpe all played at two-year schools before being clad in WSU's black-and-yellow gameday attire.

Early and his teammates are not the most well-known players to formerly play in the NJCAA, though. That distinction belongs to Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson, another former NJCAA All-American. Voted onto the preseason All-Big 12 Team and selected as the conference's preseason player of the year, Jackson is the undeniable leader of a Bears team that, instead of making the national noise expected from a squad ranked inside the top 20 before the season tipped off, has struggled to an 11-5 record. Going 3-1 to this point in conference play will help Baylor's regard as a team, but Jackson has been the one consistent bright spot for fans in Waco.

Jackson has yet to dip under double-digits in scoring this season while leading the Bears in minutes played (he's 75 ahead of head coach Scott Drew's second most-used player, freshman center Isaiah Austin). Maybe not surprisingly because of his position and night-in-night-out numbers, Jackson leads the Bears in assists (98) and scoring, hits the glass often enough to be the team's fifth-leading rebounder, and is three steals away from leading the team in that statistic, as well.

For all intents and purposes, Jackson is the essence of Baylor basketball at this point in time. It is only his second year with the program, which, given past success, could have found a fresh-faced high school senior to come in and run the show last season.

Steve Forbes — who began coaching at NWFS just before Hall left the school to become a Shocker — summed up Jackson's experience best in a tweet after the Bears upset Kentucky, 64-55, in Rupp Arena, ending the Wildcats' 55-game home court winning streak.

You see, Forbes knows what it's like to manage a basketball program that does not have the financial luxuries afforded to a Kentucky or a Duke. So do Early and Jackson, and so did I, as as college sophomore sitting at watching tape from the back of a bus as Eck called his Cowley players out for miscues and celebrated them for instances of excellence. Montrell McDonald knows that after a game — win or lose — juco players get off the bus and line up to get food served with the purpose of speed instead of quality.

For every player that finds themselves under the lights in crunch time, surrounded by a roaring crowd, there exists a McDonald. But, with the likes of Early and Jackson propelling their respective teams to meaningful victories, junior college transfers are steadily becoming a more important facet of recruiting to Division I programs big and small.

USC Fires O'Neill, Who Shows Class In Departure

USC fired head coach Kevin O'Neill after a 7-10 start to the season. (sbnation.com)

USC's Kevin O'Neill has been the first college basketball coach fired this season, as he was told of the decision Monday.

This wasn't a huge surprise to anyone who has even vaguely kept up with the program. O'Neill and the Trojans are 7-10 this season in the coach's fourth year at the school after going 6-26 a season ago and only winning one game in PAC-12 play.

It may have been O'Neill's undoing by relying on a group of transfers to turn the program around this season with the coach already on the hot seat. It's difficult to get the chemistry meshed well early in the season, and although the team showed improvement from last year, it wasn't enough.

O'Neill didn't get the program turned around like some expected, but O'Neill handled a situation that was difficult from the start with class. It couldn't have been easy replacing Tim Floyd, who left in 2009 after NCAA violation allegations. With hardly any recruits, O'Neill still got the Trojans to a winning record, and then a NCAA Tournament appearance the next year.

He could have easily felt like he didn't have enough time or that this wasn't his fault. Starting your tenure in that situation doesn't give a lot of room for immediate improvement. Maybe he thought he should have been given the rest of the season to see what these transfers could do. He may have thought it, but O'Neill didn't lash out or criticize his new former employer. In an interview with ESPN.com Monday, O'Neill said:

"I have nothing but great things to say about the university. It's a great place."

"It's disappointing any time you don't win enough. That's what it comes down to in this business, winning enough. I'm disappointed I couldn't do a better job for the players."

These quotes may sound standard, but don't take them for granted. Too often sports figures, and everyone else for that matter, look to publicly place the blame on others and leave on worse terms than are necessary. O'Neill understands the business and what the job entails, that much is certain. He wasn't feeling sorry for himself, like some would, instead he was feeling sorry for the players by not being able to get the job done. It may not be how he truly feels, but handling himself in this manner will probably help him get back on his feet.