With the Kentucky juggernaut showing no signs of stopping, the most intriguing matchup in the Final Four is between Kansas and Ohio State, both led by a 6'9 first-team All-American at the power forward position. But while Thomas Robinson and Jared Sullinger have had exemplary collegiate careers, subtle holes in each player's game suggest NBA stardom isn't necessarily in the cards.
The history of the NBA Draft is littered with players who were overvalued because of a strong showing in the NCAA Tournament. Players are often judged individually for what is really a team accomplishment: Sullinger and Robinson didn't "get it done." Kansas and Ohio State did.
Bill Self and Thad Matta are two of the best coaches in the country, not only in terms of in-game tactical adjustments but overall program construction. The Jayhawks and the Buckeyes are perennial Final Four contenders not just because they have elite talent, but because their coaches deploy their personnel in a way that maximizes their strengths and minimizes their weaknesses.
Two years ago, Matta surrounded Evan Turner with shooters (David Lighty, William Buford, Jon Diebler), letting him dominate the ball as a 6'7 point forward. With an excellent college team built completely around him, Turner became the National Player of the Year and No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 Draft. In contrast, Greg Monroe was plagued by whispers about his intensity at Georgetown, with a first-round upset loss to Ohio cementing the idea that he "didn't get it done."
As a result, Monroe slipped to the No. 7 overall spot in the 2010 Draft, which I thought was crazy at the time. And while Monroe has developed into a 16/10 6'11+ power forward in Detroit, Turner has struggled playing off the ball for a Philadelphia team that needs perimeter defense and shot-making (his two biggest weaknesses) next to Andre Iguodala and Jrue Holiday.
Of course, neither Sullinger nor Robinson even plays the same position as Turner, but I suspect their flaws are being similarly hidden on well-coached teams stocked with NBA talent.
Sullinger's problems start on the defensive side of the ball: at 6'9 260 pounds, he's too short to guard NBA centers and too slow to defend NBA power forwards. Because most rookies struggle defensively, physical shortcomings like Sullinger's lack of lateral quickness and leaping ability are too often hand-waved away, but his 0.8 career block average is a pretty good indicator that he can't protect the rim at the next level.
To be fair, many of the same things were said about Kevin Love, so I'll give Sullinger this: if he can simultaneously turn himself into a Three-Point Shootout champion while becoming one of the most dominant rebounders in a generation, he'll be a very successful NBA player. Love, if anything, is the exception that proves the rule, as there's no one else in the NBA with his unique combination of skills.
What makes Sullinger such a special college player is his advanced low post game but, without any lift in his legs, that's not going to work at the next level. The quality of interior defense is the biggest difference between the NBA and the NCAA; next year, Sullinger will go from facing 6'10+ athletes once every few weeks to every single night. Just try to envision him scoring over Tyson Chandler in an isolation situation.
Robinson, meanwhile, is almost the inverse of Sullinger: an elite athlete with a rudimentary offensive skill-set. He gets a lot of his points on hustle plays and pure strength and athleticism, but can struggle to create his own shot against NBA-caliber frontlines like NC State (7-17 shooting) and UNC (6-16).
The biggest red flag was his game against Kentucky earlier this season, where he scored 11 points on 5-12 shooting and was generally an offensive non-factor. When he couldn't bulldoze his opponents and dunk on their heads, there wasn't much left.
Like Sullinger, a good portion of his collegiate dominance has come against teams that can't physically match up with him. His ability to go 11-17 against Missouri, a team without a single scholarship player taller than 6'9, is nice, but it's irrelevant when evaluating his NBA potential.
Even more worrisome for a player with his athletic ability is his lack of shot-blocking, as Robinson's career block average is only 0.7. Robinson's athleticism and rebounding should translate immediately to the NBA, so there's little chance he will be a bust, but I would have a hard time drafting a power forward in the top 5 who couldn't protect the rim or create his own shot, especially in one of the deepest drafts of the last decade.
College stardom is no guarantee of professional success, so when Robinson and Sullinger face off on Saturday as the faces of two of the premier programs in college basketball, don't let their ability to dominate on the biggest stage in the NCAA blind you. There's a good chance this weekend is as good as it's ever going to be for both.