Coming out of high school, neither Anthony Bennett (No. 7) nor Marcus Smart (No. 10) was ranked in the top five in the class of 2012. But while many of their peers struggled with the transition to college, Bennett and Smart emerged as likely top five picks this season. On Thursday, their college careers came to premature ends at the hands of lower seeds, with Oklahoma State falling to Oregon and UNLV losing to Cal.
I had Bennett as the No. 1 prospect in the East Region and Smart as the No. 1 prospect in the Midwest, but I can't say I'm all that surprised by their early exits. As I talked about in the previews for each region, UNLV's disorganized half-court offense and shot-hungry guards often resulted in Bennett being frozen out of the offense while Oklahoma State's inability to execute in the half-court has been their Achilles heel all season.
In March, if you don't play as a team, it doesn't matter how much talent you have. It's a lot easier for a less talented team to win in college basketball, with a 35-second shot clock, a closer three-point line and two 20-minute halves, than it is in the NBA. To win in March, you've got to be able to consistently execute in the half-court. That means being able to run a half-court set in order to exploit a specific mismatch and then playing off that mismatch to find the open man.
For most of the season, the Cowboys' best offense has been giving Smart the ball and getting out of the way. Plan B? Isolating LeBryan Nash. Plan C? Markel Brown. It was all 1-on-1 moves with very little ball movement, which leads to a lot of ball watching and stagnant offense, which in turns creates turnovers. No one on Oklahoma State was getting easy shots on Thursday, in stark contrast to the free-flowing offense being played by Dana Altman's team.
For the Rebels, the problem on Thursday was even more basic. Mike Montgomery put his players in a zone for most of the day, keeping multiple defenders on Bennett and daring UNLV's guards to beat them over the top. Unfortunately for Dave Rice, Katon Reinhardt and Bryce Desean-Jones were more than happy to accept the invitation. Those two combined to go 9-28 from the field with only 3 assists and 6 free throw attempts. That's a whole lot of possessions ending with the ball in their hands and nothing positive coming out of it.
Unless you are a blue-blood school like Kentucky, guys like Bennett and Smart don't come around too often, which is why this loss must really sting for Oklahoma State and UNLV fans. As a Texas fan who watched Kevin Durant lose in the second round, I'm well aware of their pain. There's no guarantee those programs will get back to where they were this season in the near future.
And while Bennett and Smart will feel the sting of their losses for some time, a multi-million dollar payday in a few month's time is a pretty good consolation. NBA scouts have watched them play enough times against high-level competition that they've got a pretty good feel for the strengths and weaknesses of their game. Neither had all that much to prove in March, a sharp contrast to low-major stars like Nate Wolters (South Dakota State) and Mike Muscala (Bucknell), both of whom missed out on their chance for "One Shining Moment".
You can't argue with the stats Wolters and Muscala put up this season. Wolters stuffed the stat sheet (22 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists) while being hyper-efficient from the floor (shooting percentages of 49/39/81). Muscala, meanwhile, nearly averaged 20/10 while blocking more than 2 shots a game, extremely impressive numbers for a center.
What you can argue is how they got those stats, namely the level of competition in the Summit League and the Patriot League, respectively. That's why the NCAA Tournament was so important for Wolters and Muscala, as they had the chance to prove they could dominate against high-major players. You don't want to over-react too much to one 40-minute sample, but neither did much to quiet their skeptics on Thursday.
Most of the questions about Wolters centered around his defense, but he actually held up surprisingly well against Trey Burke. As a PG, Wolters did a great job managing the tempo of the game and keeping South Dakota State from getting sped up in the half-court, but he could not get any individual offense going. The Jackrabbits star couldn't beat Burke or Tim Hardaway Jr. off the dribble and had to take a lot of really difficult contested jumpers, finishing with 10 points on 3-14 shooting.
Muscala was even worse against Butler. He looked physically overwhelmed by the Bulldogs rough-and-tumble frontline, who moved him off his spots and kept him from ever getting comfortable offensively. One moment that really stood out to me came in the second half, when Muscala had the ball in the high post and Roosevelt Jones just took it from him. That's not something you want to have happen with your center.
In general, I'm really leery about low-major centers, especially the ones who make their names on the offensive side of the ball. A 6'11 guy who can play is just going to dominate at that level of basketball, but that doesn't mean he's an NBA player. I went back and looked at Muscala's schedule -- he didn't face a single NBA-caliber center all season. Everyone points to his 25-point, 14-rebound performance against Missouri, but they were (paper) Tigers all year, as they showed in getting whipped by Colorado State on Thursday.
Both will have a chance to improve their draft stock during the pre-draft season, but the opportunity cost of losing early will be hard to make up. A strong run in March would have given Wolters and Muscala the chance to fight their way into the first round. Right now, they're going to have to fight their way back into the second.
Who to watch for on Friday
Otto Porter and Ben McLemore will be in action, but Georgetown and Kansas aren't expected to be seriously tested. Instead, the spotlight will be on UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad, who has a very interesting matchup with a Minnesota team that was briefly ranked in the top 10 this season. Rodney Williams, the Gophers 6'7 small forward, is one of the longest and most athletic players in the country. Will Shabazz be able to score over, through or around him? If he can't, the Bruins could be in a lot of trouble, especially with Jordan Adams out.
Lower down the food chain, the most intriguing match-up is the 7/10 game in the South, where Colorado and Illinois have guys who can make themselves a whole bunch of money this weekend. Brandon Paul, one of the most explosive scorers in the country, will be going up against Spencer Dinwiddie, one of the best perimeter defenders in the Pac-12 at 6'6 and 200 pounds. Andre Roberson, meanwhile, will have the chance to dominate the glass against an underwhelming Illini front-line.