Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Some Thoughts On U-19 World Championships

If you weren't aware, the FIBA U-19 World Championships were played over the past few weeks. The US team was dropped in the quarterfinals by Russia, which led them to only a fifth place finish, though I wouldn't draw too much from that result. I don't even think it's fair to blame head coach Paul Hewitt, even though I've talked in the past about how his teams always underachieve their talent.

The fact is that the biggest names (Harrison Barnes, Terrence Jones, Jared Sullinger and others) chose not to go, so the talent disparity wasn't that great. You also have the issue of a one-and-done tournament situation. Lithuania romped through the knock-out stages to win the tournament, yet the US team actually beat them during the group stages. Their loss in the knockout stages to Russia was a bit of a statistical fluke, with the Russians shooting 12-for-29 behind the arc and the Americans 0-for-9.

But there was an opportunity to look at some up-and-coming college players. It's a mistake to draw too many conclusions from such a small sample size, and such a different game environment from regular season college basketball, but it was at least a glimpse at some players. Below is a list of a few players who stood out either for their good or bad performances for Team USA:

Jeremy Lamb (UConn) - He was the unquestioned star of the American team, and the go-to scorer. He sparked the team in their big win over Lithuania with 35 points, even outpacing Jonas Valanciunas (30 points), the 5th pick in the NBA Draft a few weeks ago and the MVP of the tournament. Shabazz Napier had been seen as the heir apparent to Kemba Walker at UConn, because of his similar size, playing style and attitude (fearless, sometimes out of control and over-confident), but Lamb looks like he'll be the team's best player this coming season. He'll start at shooting guard and should be their leading scorer. I do still think UConn is overrated (see my 2011-12 Big East preview), but Lamb should be one of the best players in the Big East and should have the team in the 3-4 seed range.

Doug McDermott (Creighton) - McDermott was probably the break-out star for the US team, simply because as a freshman at Creighton this past season he just wasn't known to casual college basketball fans. But despite being the son of the head coach his playing time at Creighton certainly wasn't due to nepotism. In fact, he wasn't just the Missouri Valley Freshman of the year - he made First Team All-MVC. He's an outstanding scorer with enough size (6'7", 210 pounds) that he's a quality rebounder. Creighton was a better team than their record would indicate this past season (only 10-8 in MVC play and relegated to the CBI, but both Sagarin and Pomeroy rated them as one of the Top 100 teams in the nation), and they have a really nice young core going forward, not just with McDermott but also with Gregory Echenique and Jahenns Manigat. And that young core doesn't include Antoine Young just because he's not young (he will be a senior in 2011-12), and Young is one of the best pure point guards in the MVC (2.38 A/TO ratio, named 2nd Team All-MVC). I don't think there's any question that Creighton will be the best offensive team in the MVC next season, and I feel even more confident in my pick of Creighton to win the conference outright.

Patric Young (Florida) - The dominant inside force for Team USA at U-19 Worlds. He was explosive on both sides of the floor - playing well against bigs like Jonas Valanciunas, and putting together a highlight reel of dunks. Young was a hyped 2010 recruit for Florida and was fairly invisible early in his freshman season, but came on strong late and I already liked him to be a powerful force for Florida next season. I picked Florida to finish 2nd in the SEC East based on the assumption that Young would be back and would be able to neutralize any opponent's top big (I know, I know: the SEC is getting rid of the divisions... that hadn't been announced yet back in April). Kentucky is going to be the heavy favorite in the SEC next season, but I do believe that Florida will be the second best team in the conference, and could potentially contend for a 2 or 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Joe Jackson (Memphis) - He led the U-19 team at Worlds in assists, and scored a lot, but overall his reviews were negative. He did a poor job handling the point, and his assist-to-turnover ratio (37-to-30) was bad. In key moments he deferred to the team's top scorers, like Jeremy Lamb. Jackson won't need to be a true point guard for Memphis next year, as they have a slew of explosive perimeter scorers (Will and Antonio Barton, Charles Carmouche, Chris Crawford, etc). And I didn't even include Adonis Thomas, a 6'6" wing who is the jewel of Josh Pastner's 2011 recruiting class. But the biggest problem Memphis had last year was that they were basically an AAU team - their offense consisted of a rotation of very athletic players trying to take their men one-on-one. They could really use a true point guard and floor leader who can foster a coherent offensive philosophy. It doesn't appear that Jackson is any closer to filling that void. Memphis is still the heavy favorite in Conference USA, but I don't get all the Top 10/15 hype they're getting. They're a borderline Top 25 team at best, in my opinion. I've got them in the 7-9 seed range for the NCAA Tournament.

Tony Mitchell (North Texas) - Arguably the best athlete on the whole team. He originally signed with Missouri as part of their 2010 class, but couldn't qualify academically and ended up at North Texas. Obviously academics are a concern for him, and there's always a chance that if he gets his grades in order he'll just jump to a bigger school, but he'll be a dominant force as a freshman for North Texas in 2011-12 if he plays. The team is in rebuilding mode with six seniors graduating from their 2010-11 regular rotation, and they won't find a better player to build around than Mitchell.

Meyers Leonard (Illinois) - The 7-footer played sparingly as a freshman in 2010-11. He had the size, of course, but his offense was horrid (48.3% shooting, 3.8 TO/40 Min). He showed much nicer offensive skill at U-19 Worlds (63.4% shooting, 2.7 TO/40 Min). Illinois loses every regular from their 2010-11 front line (Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis, Jereme Richmond, Bill Cole), which turns things over to lesser-used bench players Leonard and Tyler Giffey. Nnanna Egwu and Mike Shaw are highly touted bigs from the Illini's 2011 recruiting class, but it will make Bruce Weber happy to see the improvement that Leonard has shown. I'd expect him to start at center for Illinois next season. Illinois will be strong in the backcourt with the return of Brandon Paul, DJ Richardson and Crandall Head (and the loss of Demetri McCamey, who you can argue is a bit of addition by subtraction), as well as 2011 recruits Tracy Abrams, Mycheal Henry and Devin Langford. I picked Illinois to finish sixth in the Big Ten, which would very likely be good enough for an NCAA Tournament bid. I don't think that Leonard's performance will cause me to push them higher than sixth right now, but I feel better about picking them as an at-large team.

Jahii Carson (Arizona State) - He struggled to get on the court, and did appear to not yet be quite ready for prime time. He has several months to get ready for his freshman season, of course, but I think Arizona State fans should temper some of the immediate expectations on this kid (ASU's most hyped recruit since James Harden in 2007). The team is decimated by graduations and I picked them finish in 11th place in the Pac-12, and in serious contention for the cellar. It's very unlikely that the Sun Devils will be playing for much next season, so they will be best off developing Carson, and letting him progress at his own pace. He obviously has a ton of raw talent, and there's no reason to think that he won't someday be a star.

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