John Wall announcing his college decision, May 20, 2009 (Courtesy AP)

The NCAA Tournament, Reimagined: What If John Wall Had Picked YOUR School?

It's only been nine months since John Wall picked Kentucky, and it's already clear that it was a decision that changed everything for a number of schools. What if he'd gone somewhere else?

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The NCAA Tournament, Reimagined: What If John Wall Had Picked YOUR School?

With everyone in the throes of March Madness, it's easy to mistake the NCAA Tournament for a self-contained bonanza. And with everyone immersed in their brackets, breaking down 6-11 match-ups and deciding which one seeds are for real, it's easy to forget that if just one detail were changed, this house of 65 cards would look completely different.

That "detail," of course, is John Wall. You've probably heard that name a lot the past few months, and even more the last few days, and the next few weeks will be no different. John Wall John Wall John Wall. He's the best player on one of the best teams, and also the consensus number one draft pick for this June's NBA Draft. John Wall John Wall John Wall. Back before the season began, I had to this to say about him:

Soon enough he's going to be at the epicenter of the basketball universe. It may not happen this year, or even next year, when he gets to the NBA, but sooner or later, we're talking about a guy that has the skills to truly take your breath away as a basketball fan. ... Wall plays a style that's liable to make heads explode. Whether you're a novice or an expert, John Wall does things that'll amaze you. The moments in sports that prompt fans to audibly gasp are rare ... and John Wall will take your breath away more than most.

That published on November 16th. That night, he hit a game-winning shot in his first college game.

And faster than anyone could have imagined, he is at the center of the basketball universe. Not only has he captivated the massive Big Blue Nation that worships at the altar of Rupp arena, but moreso, he's captured the minds of basketball fans everywhere. The hyperbole (this article, for instance) has spawned a good deal of skepticism and reminders that he's not, in fact, superhuman. But even so, college fans, pro scouts, pro players... Nobody wants to miss a game where John Wall's playing.

So, skepticism about his jumpshot aside, it's hard to bring John Wall down to earth. At least once-a-game, he does something completely out of this world, almost like a reminder that he's operating on a different plane. He may be playing college basketball at the moment, but his endgame is very different than Eric Bledsoe's. Ultimately, John Wall will be competing against history, staking his legacy alongside some of the greatest players in history.

For now though, he's creating his magic at Kentucky. Does it get any better than this photo?



But what if John Wall had gone elsewhere? He's the best point guard in the country, and if not for Evan Turner's exploits at Ohio State, he'd be a unanimous choice for Player of the Year. And to anyone that had seen Wall play before this season, there was never a doubt that this would happen. NBA scouts, for one, had pegged Wall as a superstar since his junior year in high school. Before the season, AOL FanHouse's Bethlehem Shoals tweeted the following:


@TeamZiller would be Tom Ziller, the manager of SB Nation's Kings blog and one of the head NBA editors at AOL Fanhouse. So there was no doubt in the minds of pro basketball people that Wall was different. But for some reason, college basketball was eerily quiet about Wall's impending arrival. Nobody expected him to be quite this good, I think.

Every year, there are three or four one-and-done freshman that arrive with outsized hype, and rarely does a kid live up to it completely. Xavier Henry at Kansas and Avery Bradley at Texas have both been impressive, but they're human. So when Wall announced his college choice, he was looked upon like they were. A "good freshman" that's probably "one-and-done," but not necessarily someone who could alter the landscape of college hoops, even if it's just for a year.

Now? Nine months after Wall held a press conference to announce his decision to attend Kentucky—he was one of the last recruits to choose a school last year—we can look back at that decision and say that his choice changed the landscape of college basketball. Not necessarily because he went to Kentucky, but because he didn't go to Kansas, Duke, North Carolina, or Baylor, the other teams in his top five schools.

We usually ask these "What If?" questions in the NBA. For instance, what if Kevin Durant had gone to Portland instead? Or what if Detroit had taken Carmelo Anthony instead of Darko Milicic? But with those, it takes a few years before we can really assess what might have happened. And in college, most of the "What ifs" come when someone asks "what if so-and-so had stayed an four years?" But imagining a team with Kevin Durant, TJ Ford, and Lamarcus Aldridge is useless. None of those players were going to stay longer than a year or two. That's just the way college basketball works.

With Wall, it's been nine months, and we can say definitively that had he chosen a school other than Kentucky—a realistic possibility at various points of his recruitment—it would have completely altered the course of this college basketball season. This is the rarest of instances when recruiting does trump whatever happens on the floor. For a few of the teams that Wall chose from, whether they knew it or not, losing Wall in May sealed their fate in March. This isn't so much a college hoops fantasy, but more, a realistic look at what might have happened had John Wall chosen from one of his other finalists: Duke, Baylor, North Carolina, or Kansas.

With that in mind, let's peer into the past. What would have happened differently?



University of Kentucky

Before we get to the schools Wall might have chosen, we should look at what Kentucky would have looked like without him. And the answer? Not much different. If any team was less in need of superstar talent, it was Kentucky. If they lost him now it would be catastrophic, but losing him in May would have been okay.

This team has adapted to Wall's talents, and relies heavily on his ability to create shots and score in crunch time. If anything, John Wall is a crutch for this Kentucky team. The superstar that allows everyone else to breathe a bit easier, knowing that worst case scenario, they can lean on John Wall to save them. And most of the time, he will.

But without Wall, the rest of the roster would have had to grow up a lot faster than they did. DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe both began to thrive around midseason, but in Wall's absence, they'd have been counted on from day one. Would that make those players better? Maybe not, but it certainly wouldn't make them any worse. Throw in Patrick Patterson as a steadying presence and the team's most consistent player, and Kentucky's lineup would still be pretty damn impressive:

PG Eric Bledsoe

SG Darnell Dodson

SF Darius Miller

PF Patrick Patterson

C  DeMarcus Cousins

Especially if you assume that Bledsoe or Cousins would have progressed further without Wall there to dominate, that's a group that can do some damage. Still, let's not get confused: Wall takes that group from a B+ to an A. Bledsoe and Cousins are talented and Patrick Patterson's a skilled big man, but John Wall gives Kentucky a killer. Someone that can score in bunches, run opposing teams ragged, and even if it's just a spurt of three or four minutes in the second half, completely takeover a basketball game.

That's what a true superstar can do. Turn a two-point lead into a 10-point lead. Come up with a killer block to preserve a win. Hit a ridiculous, leaning three to win an SEC title. Whether John Wall stunted the development of guys like Bledsoe and Cousins is a good debate, but would Kentucky be better of without him? Don't waste your breath.

Duke University

That sound you hear is Duke fans rushing to defend their team and say that, "No no, we totally don't need to John Wall. Can't you see? We're a number one seed without him!" But really, as we covered yesterday, the Duke Blue Devils are a number one seed in name alone. And everything they lack, John Wall has.

Obviously, there's his athleticism. Duke's one of the least athletic good teams in history, and not just because all their stars are white. Nolan Smith is black, but he's just not very good. John Wall changes all of that. Had he gone to Duke, suddenly, they'd have someone that can get into the lane at will, draw extra defenders, and kick to shooters like Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler, Ryan Kelly, and the mediocre pupu platter of Plumlee brothers that Duke uses to fill out the rest of their rotation.


(Wait? There are only two? Seems like there are five different half-decent, 6'10 Plumlee bros on Duke.)

It's not to say the players Duke has are bad, but they're limited. And seriously, one John Wall would change everything for this team. His ability to create and penetrate, much like Jason Williams back in 2002, would open the floor for the rest of Duke's roster to rain threes and drive opponents crazy. The problem with Duke this year is the same problem Duke's had for the past five: they don't have someone like John Wall or Jason Williams.

For whatever reason, Duke has struck out on players of that caliber, and instead they've got a roster full of Plumlees. It earned them a number one seed this year, but it's also the reason a lot of people think they might lose to Louisville in the second round. With John Wall, they'd be a lock for the Final Four.

Baylor University

Baylor wasn't on anyone's radar at the beginning of this season, and even as a third seed in this year's tournament, they're still sort of anonymous. In fact, the most attention Baylor's gotten over the past 12 months came in conjunction with Wall, after they hired one Wall's AAU coaches, Dwon Clifton, as an assistant. It was viewed in the college basketball world as a precursor to Wall's committment to Baylor, as Seth Davis wrote in Sports Illustrated:

No doubt [Baylor head coach Scott] Drew can credibly claim Clifton is qualified for the job. He played at Clemson and UNC-Greensboro before competing professionally for one season in Portugal. Drew can also credibly claim he didn't get an explicit guarantee from Clifton that Wall will sign with Baylor.

Yet, I can also credibly claim two things: First, Clifton would not have been hired had he not had been Wall's summer coach. And second, as surely as the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning, John Wall will be a Baylor Bear.

But can you imagine if he did? Baylor's been one of the most surprising teams in the country this year, and with Wall, you could make a convincing argument that they'd be a legitimate top 5 team. With LaceDarius Dunn scoring nearly 20 points-a-night and Ekpe Udoh anchoring things down low (15 ppg, 10 rpg, 4 bpg), Baylor's already got one of the country's most intriguing cores. With a superstar like Wall, they'd be in another stratosphere.

Also, don't forget: If Wall had gone there, it would have been arguably the most blatant example yet of a college basketball's recruiting loopholes. They hired his AAU coach, for God's sakes! All of which is to say, it would have been one of the more polarizing stories in recent memory, and might have made mainstream media's head explode: "Do we crow about the bankrupt integrity of college sports, or go crazy about Baylor's rags-to-riches story for the ages?"

And to that last point, it would have been really cool to see a team like Baylor in the Final Four. Not as a Cinderella--like they will be if they make it this year--but as a favorite. Without Wall, Baylor might still wind up beating a college basketball blue blood like Duke. But with him? They'd beat that Duke team by 30. And same with nearly anyone else in college basketball.

Memphis did it, but they at least had some past glory to lean on. Baylor has nothing, and Wall could have made them elite in one season.Wouldn't it be cool to see an outsider like Baylor emerge as a favorite? When's the last time that happened? And imagine the Big 12 battles with Kansas!

I gotta stop thinking about this. John Wall should have gone to Baylor. Enough said.

(Though it should be noted: Baylor's three best players are named LaceDarius, Tweety, and Ekpe. If Wall went to Waco, he'd have to change his name. How 'bout... Cranberry Hickson. Good enough?)

University of North Carolina

Maybe the biggest "What If?" of all, and not just because I'm a Carolina fan. This year's Tar Heels missed the tournament for a number of reasons, but it all started with guard play. To be specific, Carolina had none. The presence of All-American caliber big man Ed Davis, along with fellow stars Deon Thompson, Tyler Zeller, John Henson... It all meant nothing. Because college big men are like star wide receivers in football.

If you can't get them the ball, how valuable are they really? So while Carolina had some talent, the weaknesses of their point guard, Larry Drew, manifested themselves among the whole team. When Drew struggled, the Tar Heels struggled. That's the nature of the game in college basketball. You need a point guard. Here's what I wrote when UNC played Kentucky earlier this season:

Carolina's Larry Drew vs. John Wall was like pitting a golden retriever against a cheetah. It's not the dog's fault when that fight turns into a slaughter. It's just... nature.


You think having John Wall in Carolina blue would have changed things a little?

With Drew running point for Carolina, the Tar Heels were slowly eaten alive to start the year, and by the end of the season, the team had completely unraveled. It happens to any program from time to time, and Carolina fans can't really complain. But it wouldn't have happened with Wall. And the kicker? He wanted to go.

After Carolina won the National Championship last April, Roy Williams' first recruiting call was to Wall—a kid from Raleigh, North Carolina—who had previously reached out to the coaching staff and expressed interest in attending UNC. What happened next is muddled in rumor and innuendo from both sides. According to Wall's side, Roy Williams decided he wasn't interested. According to Williams, there were external factors that made Wall a bad fit at Carolina, perhaps referring to Wall's AAU handlers.

In any case, what's done is done. But you can't help but wonder about North Carolina's chances this year if, instead of one of the worst point guards in the ACC, they'd had the best point guard in the country.

Kansas University

Seriously. John Wall was considering Kansas, already the most talented team in the country. Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry, Marcus Morris, Tyshawn Taylor... And John Wall.


Imagine John Wall in that picture. KU lost two games without him. With him, do they go undefeated?

No analysis necessary, just... "What if?"

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