April 7, 2014

Starting five: Talent rises, Maryland scores

THE RIVALS150: Class of 2014 - Class of 2015

The national title game matchup of Kentucky and UConn was a stunner when observed within the framework of both teams' regular seasons and NCAA seedings. Never before had two teams with such low seedings, UConn as a No. 7, Kentucky as a No. 8, met for the title. But when you look at the talent each team had on its roster, maybe it wasn't so shocking after all. This week, we'll look at the national finalists, Maryland's newest addition, last weekend's Dick's National High School Tournament and a few other subjects.

Tons of talent in Arlington

Both Kentucky and Connecticut played at an incredibly high level during their tournament runs. Looking at where their players were ranked coming out of high school, the cream rose to the crop at just the right time.

Between the two teams, a total of six five-stars, two four-stars, one ranked three-star and one non ranked player -- because he was a European recruit -- are among the teams' starting fives.

We'll start with the Wildcats, because they feature the most "ranked" talent. John Calipari has pulled in the top ranked recruiting class every year he has been at Kentucky and the results speak for themselves. There was a slipup in 2012-13, when the Wildcats didn't make the NCAA Tournament. Other than that, his teams have made the Elite 8 in 2010 and the Final Four three times in the past four years.

Each member of the Kentucky starting lineup is a five-star prospect from the class of 2013. Power forward Julius Randle ranked No. 2. Point guard Andrew Harrison ranked No. 5. Shooting guard Aaron Harrison ranked No. 7 while center Dakari Johnson and small forward James Young checked in at No. 9 and No. 11. The Wildcats are so loaded that 2012's No. 8 player, Alex Poythress, comes off the bench, and their lowest ranked regular Willie Cauley-Stein (No. 40 in 2012) has seen much of his production replaced by 2013's No. 19 player Marcus Lee during recent games.

At this point, it is pretty much impossible to argue that Calipari's never ending parade of five-star and one-and-done prospects has produced anything but satisfactory results.

Kevin Ollie's Huskies don't have near as much ranked talent as Kentucky, but they aren't without players that were highly regarded coming out of high school. The Huskies' highest ranked player is small forward DeAndre Daniels, who ranked No. 10 in the class of 2011. In the backcourt, the Huskies feature a pair of four-star prospects. Junior Ryan Boatright ranked No. 42 in the class of 2011 while star senior point guard Shabazz Napier ranked No. 98 in the class of 2010 and has clearly outplayed his ranking. Starting in the middle is sophomore Phillip Nolan, who ranked No. 118 coming out of high school while senior Niels Giffey is the only unranked starter because he came to UConn from Germany and was never evaluated by Rivals.com as a high schooler.

Interestingly enough, UConn's two highest ranked bench players Omar Calhoun (No. 39 in 2012) and Kentan Facey (No. 66 in 2013) have hardly even played during the Huskies' run to the title game. Instead they have relied mostly on uranked three-star freshman Amidah Brimah, 2013's No. 118 player Terrence Samuel, unranked senior three-star senior Tyler Olander and a fifth-year transfer Lassan Kromah, who was never evaluated by Rivals.com as a high schooler.

The national championship game matchup isn't the ultimate argument-ender for whether or not rankings matter, but the fact that two teams that featured lots of highly ranked talent reached the final says plenty about the value of high school player rankings.

Maryland lands high Euro player

Anybody who has been following spring recruiting knows the class of 2014 has been incredibly picked over. Only Myles Turner remains as an unsigned five-star, while the next two biggest names on the market are wing Elijah Stewart and point guard Devonte Graham. Both Stewart and Graham are current three-stars who will be elevated to four-star status when final rankings are completed in two weeks, but the point remains that the pickings are slim.

Given how little talent is available, what Maryland pulled off Monday is even more impressive. Spearheaded by the recruiting efforts of assistant coach Dustin Clark, the Terps went overseas and nabbed seven-footer Michal Cekovsky out of the Canarias Basketball Academy.

A native of Slovakia, Cekovsky is a high four-star prospect who most college coaches had written off to a pro future in the Euro leagues. However, Maryland stuck with him and can now reap the benefits.

Though Cekovsky is a bit on the slender side, he is very skilled and should be ready to make an instant impact as part of a strong 2014 recruiting class. He runs the floor well, finishes with either hand, is a skilled offensive player with easy range to 15 feet who passes extremely well out of the high and low post.

Once the final Rivals150 for the class of 2014 is released, team rankings will get a refresh. The addition of Cekovsky to a class that already includes McDonald's All-American combo guard Romelo Trimble, shooters Dion Wiley and Jared Nickens along with raw seven-footer Trayvon Reed should keep the Terps' class in the national top 10 range.

Thoughts from Dick's National Tournament

This year, Dick's Sporting Goods took over sponsorship of the National High School Tournament. With each game televised on one of ESPN's networks, it was a good chance to check out some high-level competition from the comfy confines of my living room. I was able to watch most of the games and have a few thoughts.

First of all, I couldn't have been more impressed with the play of 2015's No. 5 player Ben Simmons of champion Montverde (Fla.) Academy. The LSU commit from Australia took his already impressive game up another notch from where he was during the high school season. Simmons has always shown good skill and athleticism, but the level of physicality that he played with and his contribution on the defensive end and glass were good to see. Simmons looks to have embraced that he is a power forward and is at his best working 15 feet and in. He showed again that he has the skill to ultimately get himself into the conversation for the No. 1 spot in 2015 if he keeps improving at his current rate.

There won't be as much separation between runner-up Mouth of Wilson (Va.) Oak Hill's 6-foot-6 twins Caleb Martin and Cody Martin in the final 2014 Rivals150 as their currently is. At the moment, Caleb ranks much higher at No. 59 than his brother Cody, who checks in at No. 106. Both are fine athletes who thrive in transition and they can each play good perimeter defense. Cody has a much more blue-collar approach, crashes the boards and seems to have a better feel for his strengths and weaknesses. On the other hand, Caleb settles far too much for deep jumpers. Like his currently lower ranked brother, he is much better in transition, attacking the rim and getting on the glass. Caleb made only 8 of the 25 threes he attempted in three games and was outrebounded by his brother 24-13 over that span. That doesn't mean Caleb shouldn't take any jumpers -- he has proven in the past that he can make some. However, he's not a player that should be taking eight threes per game and would be more productive if he matched his brother's commitment to crashing the glass. Likely, they will end up ranked very close to one another in the final rankings.

Three players -- Rashad Vaughn, Kelly Oubre and D'Angelo Russell -- went straight from the McDonald's All-American game to play with their high school teams. Of the three, Oubre looked the best and had some very nice moments. Oubre's teammate at Henderson (Nev.) Findlay Prep, Vaughn looked tired and nothing like he did during the four previous days in Chicago, where he lit up the McDonald's workouts. Russell won a title with Montverde and finally started to look like himself on day four.

Stewart can play

A 6-foot-5 senior at Los Angeles Westchester, Elijah Stewart is getting a release from the letter of intent he signed with Loyola Marymount and he should become an extremely heavily recruited player. This won't be a case of a guy looking good because there just isn't much left. Stewart is a player.

Currently a three-star prospect, Stewart will absolutely be a four-star prospect when the final Rivals150 is updated and it is now just a matter of how high he will debut in the rankings. He is an electric athlete, has the size to play the small forward and skill to be a big shooting guard at 6-foot-5. Stewart defends, crashes the glass and just seems to be getting a handle on how good he can be down the road.

He can play pretty much anywhere in the country and any high major program that feels like they need help on the wing should make a strong run at Stewart.

Reworking the rankings

I'm always thinking about how rankings could be tinkered with and there is one change that I would ultimately like to see. Rather than rank kids with their high school class, I think it might be wise to start ranking them they way they are ranked in Europe and that's by the year they are born.

In today's landscape, it is entirely possible that there could be current seniors, juniors and sophomores that were born in the same year. Trying to figure out how players who are either quite old or quite young for their graduating class rank has always been a tough question to tackle and there are several ways of looking at it.

For now, ranking prospects by graduating class remains the most effective way to rank them because not every birthdate is available and they are going to college at different times. However, at some point, we need to take a much longer look at ranking players according to their birth year instead of the current system.

Eric Bossi is the national basketball recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. You can click here to follow him on Twitter.




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