Comparing college big men

The NBA Draft is a long way off but there is already plenty of buzz surrounding the top pick. More specifically, many college and professional basketball fans alike want to know who is going to be the first selection in the 2015 draft. There are a couple of talented athletes expected to hear their names called early on in the draft. The talk of number one though has been mostly eaten up by Duke center Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky center Karl-Anthony Towns. Both of these highly recruited freshmen are expected to make the jump to the NBA following the close of the college season. One of them could very well be hoisting a national championship trophy come April but that a discussion for another blog post. I want to compare these two centers and come to a conclusion of which one of them should be selected first.

With how well both Okafor and Towns have played, both look NBA ready. Each, in his own right, is full of potential. They have shown that they truly look like men among boys playing against other college players. Comparing these two via statistics can be a little tricky though due to the wide gap in average minutes played per night. However, I will calculate them per 36 minutes (roughly what an NBA starter plays every night) to level the playing field. It should be noted though, right away, that Towns plays on 20 minutes per game, while Okafor plays 31.

Both players have been incredibly efficient this season. Okafor has hit an unreal 66.5 percent of his shots this season while attempting 11 shots per game. Towns, despite taking 5 fewer shots per game, is only hitting 55.3 percent of his attempts so far this season. Those stats are unaffected by the amount of time players spend on the floor each night. On top of that, Okafor matches up with much better than Towns does. The Duke center has played against 7 ranked opponents, including 6 against the top 15. Towns has only played four games against ranked teams, but 3 of them were against top 6 programs. However, Towns is the far superior free throw shooter, knocking down 79 percent of his shots at the line, compared to Okafor’s 54 percent conversion rate.

Examining the per 36 minutes stats turned out to be an interesting comparison. Towns averages 16.5 points while Okafor tallies 21.3 points per 36 minutes of action. That is a pretty large gap in points per night translated to a theoretical NBA level. Granted, it is not exactly fair to assume that both players will produce at the NBA level; in terms of what they are capable of now as scorers, Okafor has a clear upper hand. Both kids are above average rebounders as well. Towns snags 11.4 boards per 36 minutes while Okafor reels in 11.2.

Defensively, Towns clearly has the edge. Okafor only averages 1.62 blocks per 36 minutes, which is a nice number. However, Towns swats roughly 4.26 shots per 36 minutes of play, blowing away Okafor’s numbers. Towns clearly has immense value as a defensive centerpiece, meanwhile Okafor has shown that he has a lot of work to do defending in the paint. That statement is almost funny when you consider that they are the same height but Okafor actually outweighs Towns by about 20 pounds.

So here is my assessment on both. Okafor is an elite offensive big man. He hits an absurd percentage of his shots and scores at a high level. He cleans up the boards well, using his frame to box out opponents for rebounds. He needs to improve defensively and his free throw shooting. He is not a liability by any means but his play as the man in the middle will need to step up at the NBA level. As for the free throw shooting, we’ve seen what teams have done with guys like Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan, who are notoriously poor from the line.

For Towns, there is a lot of athleticism that can be turned into offensive prowess. He has not reached the point yet where he is a top scorer. He also has proven to be a good rebounder, capable of using his size to shield the opposition from the ball. On the defensive end of the floor though, Towns is a force to be reckoned with. His skills as a rim protector make him invaluable to a lot of teams at the next level. Towns knows how to position himself to force opponents to put up difficult shots and does an excellent job of contesting them as they are released. His impressive free throw shooting also keeps him from being the same liability Okafor could be at the next level.

Who to pick? This is a tough call. Okafor is much more pro-ready. Towns is slightly more of a project, but likely has more potential. His athleticism gives him the opportunity to morph into another Kentucky product that came before him, Anthony Davis. I am not saying he will reach that level, but I do believe he has that potential. The concerns for me are the low number of minutes leaving what Towns can do in more minutes a major question mark. Okafor also has the bonus playing more games against better opponents, erasing a lot of the questions that still remain for Towns. The Duke big man has also demonstrated a type of maturity that his Kentucky counterpart has yet to unlock. Either way, I am almost certain you will be hearing one of these two names called when Adam Silver walks to the podium this June. If I had to make a pick, I am likely going with Okafor. As a GM, you cannot argue with production, and he certainly has plenty of that.

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Coach K wins 1K with Klass

This is the first time I am featuring a guest writer on Second Look Sports. His name is Matt Luppino. He is a good friend of mine as well as a student athlete at Duke University. He wanted to weigh in on the greatness that Duke Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski has brought to the program and what it means for Coach K to earn win number 1000.

by Matt Luppino, Proud Cameron Crazie

Krzyzewski is pronounced Shĭ-SHĔSS-kī. If you do not know that at Duke, you will be properly taught how to say it, guaranteed. Because Mike Krzyzewski is the head coach of our perennial powerhouse men’s basketball team. But we just call him Coach K to make it easier on everyone.

Yesterday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, the Duke Blue Devils defeated the St. Johns Red Storm by a score of 77-68. With the victory, Coach K accumulated his 1,000th win as a head coach, the first men’s coach in NCAA history to accomplish the feat (Tennessee Lady Volunteers’ Pat Summitt holds the record with 1,098, though she is now retired due to her battle with Alzheimer’s disease). Through it all, Krzyzewski has proven himself to be one of the best coaches in the history of the sport by setting himself apart.

Think of the best coaches in college basketball history and what they are known for. John Wooden was one of the first coaches to every play the zone press defense, and it led to unrivaled success at UCLA. Jim Valvano (most notably of NC State) and Bob Knight (most notably of Indiana) were known as intense competitors and motivators, with matching electric personalities. Jim Boeheim of Syracuse is renowned for his use of the 2-3 zone on defense. Louisville’s Rick Pitino employs the full court press. John Calipari is a master recruiter, bring the best recruits in the country to Kentucky, making them contenders, watching them leave for the NBA after a year, then do it all over again.

As for Coach K, well, he is not a devout disciple of any particular styles of basketball. However, it is the manner in which Coach K goes about his business that makes him special. Michael William Krzyzewski comes from humble beginnings in the Polish quarter of Chicago. He and his friends played basketball there. When no one at their school wanted to coach them, Mike became player/coach. He went on to play point guard at United States Military Academy in West Point from 1966-1969 under Bob Knight, whom he would eventually surpass as the winningest coach in men’s basketball history. Following a tour of service and a one-year stint as an assistant coach under Knight at Indiana, Krzyzewski officially became Coach K, ascending to the top spot at his alma mater in 1975. He coached there for five seasons before moving to Durham, NC, to coach the Blue Devils in 1980. He hasn’t left. Under his tutelage, Duke won their first national title and then 3 more in 13 Final Four appearances. He has piloted the program to 13 ACC Tournament championships as well.

Throughout his various points in life, however, he has always acted the same way—with a class all his own. It is what keeps players loyal to him throughout. Coach K does not just coach basketball here at Duke; he shapes young athletes into men, whether they continue their careers or not. Coach K has always been grounded, downplaying his superstar status; he expects his players to do the same. He emphasizes to his team that they are student-athletes, and being a student comes first; players maintain a full course load during all of their semesters on campus. He also wants them to enjoy their college experience and live the life of normal students when they are away from the bright lights of Cameron Indoor. They study, just like we do. They walk and eat across campus, just like we do. They go out, just like we do. Besides being freakishly tall and athletically gifted, they are still Duke students aspiring to bright futures, whether in the NBA or not, and care deeply about what they are learning and what they intend on doing with their educations.

The most recent players at Duke follow the same mantra that Coach K preaches. Last year’s freshman phenom, Jabari Parker, was the #2 overall pick in last year’s NBA draft, but returned to the university in the summer as he works to complete his degree; Jahlil Okafor, this year’s star and anticipated #1 pick, intends to do the same. Marshall Plumlee is enrolled in Duke’s ROTC program, and contracted this past Friday to join the army following his graduation next year. Quinn Cook, this year’s captain, has already completed his degree in marketing and intends to pursue a career in entrepreneurship should he not enter the NBA after this season.

Coach K is also very ingrained with the university as a whole. Multiple times, he was offered positions in the NBA, most recently in 2011 with the Minnesota Timberwolves, but his heart is here in North Carolina. He assists the university in many ways, often speaking at events on campus. He recently helped to fund the building of a new academic center for the school’s student-athletes, acting as a study hall and counseling hub for athletes of every sport, not just his own, which is why the K Center is named in his honor.

The game yesterday was vintage Coach K. The team, for the first 30 minutes of play, was being outhustled by the sharpshooting Red Storm and struggled to find rhythm on the offensive end. With 8:15 remaining in the second half and the score 61-51, Coach K called a timeout. He was not screaming his head off like many coaches would have in this situation. Under the mounting pressure of the national media on his team for the pending milestone, there was the Hall of Fame coach, cool as a cucumber, patiently devising a way to get his team back on track. When all was said and done, the Blue Devils outscored St. Johns 26-7 over those 8 minutes.

In the middle of it all was Coach K, orchestrating his team through the tumult while visibly cheering them on and getting excited when the team turned the ship around. And once the final horn blared, a touch of relief exuded from him. But because he got the win, not because it was number 1000. That is the way Coach K is: it is all about his team winning. Doesn’t matter how, whether it’s a total drubbing or a missed buzzer beater, as long as Duke scored more points than the other guys. That is why the T-shirts celebrating Coach K say “1000 Wins And Counting…”, because he is not done yet.

It might not seem it, but Mike Krzyzewski is a unique basketball coach tailor-made to be successful. He knows how to coach his men on and off the court in order for them to succeed, and he cares just as much about this school as his team. He is gritty, unwavering and passionate, yet humble. He is probably one of the most unassuming basketball coaches out there, with his small stature and high eyebrows, but his brain and heart are stronger than anyone out there. He is classy, for sure, but he does it his way, and he’s good at what he does.

All in all, there is only one Coach K, and now he stands alone at 1K wins.

Congratulations, Coach. You’ve earned every single one of them.

What does the Alex Poythress injury mean for Kentucky?

Thursday brought some terrible news to the number one ranked Wildcats. The team learned that junior forward Alex Poythress was lost for the rest of the season with a torn ACL. Poythress sustained the injury without contact in practice on Thursday will shooting a lay-up. It will go down as a freak injury for Kentucky’s oldest starter. The question is can Kentucky shake off this injury and continue to play as the best team in the nation?

It will be a tough task but my initial thought is no. Poythress was a valuable cog in the system John Calipari runs which features two different lines of players that Coach Cal rotates in throughout the game. The two usually get mostly equal playing time. So when looking at Poythress’ numbers, it doesn’t look like Kentucky is missing much with him gone. The forward was only averaging 5.5 points and 3.8 rebounds per game. When you factor in that he was only playing about half of every game, those numbers start to count a bit more. That becomes a chunk of that platoon’s effectiveness. This blow to the starting line hurts more than the numbers will show.

So that would be that, except then you look at Kentucky’s remaining schedule. The Wildcats only have two games remaining against ranked opponents. Coach Cal’s squad plays a UNC team on Saturday that has been struggling recently to score points. Kentucky has one of the nation’s best defenses and has routinely blown out opponents who cannot find a way to keep pace. The country’s top team then will travel to fourth-ranked Louisville for the battle of Kentucky in late December. That could be the only game Kentucky loses all year in the regular season. After that, they begin SEC play and the SEC does not have a single ranked team outside of the Wildcats. The only other difficult games on this schedule would be in a week against a high-scoring UCLA team or in early February when Kentucky travels to Gainesville to take on Florida. The Gators have lost a couple of close games early in the year but will be tough to beat on its home court.

Looking at this, the loss of Poythress definitely hurts the Wildcats but I still think college basketball’s deepest team will be a top-four team come Selection Sunday in March, earning a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. I think this team is still the safest bet to make the Final Four. I don’t know if Kentucky is all but a lock to win a National Championship anymore. The games coming up in the next two weeks will let us know how well Kentucky can adjust to not having Poythress. I think this team has enough talent to make up for it. Now we just have to wait and see.

Month of Madness

March is easily one of the most famed months of the entire year in the world of sports. It marks the beginning of free agency in the NFL, the start of spring training for baseball, the return of the MLS and stretch runs for both the NBA and NHL as the playoffs approach. However, there is the legendary event that has been going strong for decades. The NCAA Tournament, bringing along with it what the United States calls March Madness.

Besides being incredibly exciting and keeping fans on the edge of their seat for about 2 straight weeks, the tournament is one of the most ingenious inventions in all of sports. It creates a do or die match up for the top 68 teams in the country in a winner takes all tournament. It has spawned the craziness over brackets, inspired many an office pool and redefined the word cinderella.

Back to the excitement aspect though, this year’s tournament seems poised to be entertaining. Many consider the Mid-West region of this year’s bracket to be stacked with a host of top teams. Some of the big names include Big 10 powerhouse Michigan, reigning AAC Champion Louisville, the undefeated Wichita State, the ACC battle tested Duke Blue Devils, and the freshmen loaded Kentucky Wildcats. It is truly anyone’s guess as to who will make it out of the the Midwest and play in the Final Four. If I had to choose one team though that I think will pull off the run, it would be Louisville. This is a team with incredible coaching, good depth and a scoring machine in Russ Smith. The erratic senior has bailed out Louisville again and again in big games this year. If he can stay hot, Louisville has got a shot at the title.

Staying with the theme of the Midwest, I want to address what I have heard a lot of fans complaining about recently. Many people feel that Wichita State was not given a fair shake (nor was anyone else in that region) for having such a stacked line of games. Wichita is deserving of their #1 seed but it seems that the selectors were not very fond of the idea of them going very far. Assuming they win in the first round, Wichita would then have to face either Kansas State or Kentucky, two teams capable of beating anyone if they are running on all cylinders. Next would follow a game with likely red hot Louisville or the defensive fortress of Saint Louis. A win there would pit them against a highly talented Michigan team and it simply seems that Wichita has no chance of making the Final Four. Even if they did, it begs the question of whether they would have enough gas left in the tank to even compete against another Final Four team. I personally think that the selectors made a mistake with this region, giving Wichita, the only undefeated team in the college game, the toughest road to Orlando.