Mike Waters gets out in front of the story

I appreciate the fine work that Post-Standard reporters Mike Waters and Donna Ditota do on a day to day basis. They work hard, and they do an excellent job of bringing us the immediate story and up-to-the-minute info. But the fact is both are generally too busy to write up the kind of long-form, reflective, analytical articles that I crave. They have to worry about game reports, injury updates, player and coach quotes, game previews, etc., as well as editor-imposed word count limitations and nightly deadlines. Thus I don’t generally look to the Post-Standard for the kind of obsessively long, intensively researched, reflective and illuminating pieces that guys like Andy Katz (or any of the uber-nerds covering baseball for ESPN) have the time and flexibility to write. And, frankly, that’s OK — because it’s exactly this resource and time limitation at the Post-Standard that opens up the space for bloggers like us to fill a void and meet a demand. Brent Axe, of course, is the bridge between the two, and I like his work a lot, even though he necessarily has a limit to his edginess.

But I digress. My point here is that a couple days ago Mike Waters wrote one of the best, most useful, most illuminating articles he’s written in a long time, and I want to give him some props. It’s the kind of thing I wish he had more time to write. It was called “Unheralded recruits gel for No. 3 Syracuse University basketball team“, and in my opinion it lays out what will eventually be the national narrative about this team.

When SU won it all in 2003, several themes emerged, and several trends followed. The one everyone remembers now is the Carmelo Anthony story, and the concept of a one-and-done superstar who can bring home a championship in his only shot. This theme led to the perennial media search for “the next Carmelo” each preseason, and the Carmelo Factor became an ever-present element in the debate about the pros and cons of one-year players. But there was another theme that year as well: the validation of the zone defense as a championship-caliber tool. Before 2003 there were still a lot of national commentators who delighted in theorizing that a team that played primarily zone could never win the Tournament. But as Syracuse made its run, conventional wisdom flipped, and the zone suddenly was perceived as not only credible, but a potentially deadly secret weapon. What followed is now largely forgotten, but it had as big an impact on national coaching strategy as the Carmelo effect: the zone defense became a hot commodity. All of a sudden Beoheim was fielding calls from coaches all over the country, asking for his advice. Teams that had been religiously man-to-man for their entire history were suddenly trying to install a zone option. Some teams even switched entirely. Jimmy ended up as an assistant coach on the national team, specifically to help Coach K figure out how to attack international zone defenses and to teach NBA stars how to play one themselves.

The Carmelo story (temptation?) and the rejuvenation of the zone defense both had profound effects on college basketball after the 2003 season. Both caused a fundamental change in perspective and opinions. Both shifted the weight of historical evidence on very hot topics. What I would like to predict today is that Mike Waters has hit on the story that will have a similarly profound effect on the national scene in the event that Syracuse wins it all again this year. In case you haven’t read his article yet, here’s the thesis statement, if you will:

Five of Syracuse’s 10 scholarships players were not in Scout.com’s top 100 players in their respective classes and none of the current Orange men was in Scout.com’s top 50.

Let that statement sink in, and then think about the impact that it would have on the national scene if SU brings home the trophy this year. A national championship by the 2009-2010 Orange would cause just as much hang-wringing and paradigm displacement as the Carmelo-led team did. Just as Carmelo made a lot of people rethink the possibilities associated with one-and-done superstars, this current Orange team could shift the entire theory behind recruiting and team-building. And, ironically, that shift would be in a direction diametrically opposite to where Carmelo led the world of national recruiting.

Needless to say, Syracuse has no former McDonald’s All-Americans on its roster. According to Waters, the last team to win a title without a single McDonald’s All-American recruit was the 2002 Maryland squad. He doesn’t go into detail, but I seriously doubt that Terp team was as unheralded as SU’s current crop. Consider: Mookie Jones is the most highly rated player on the Syracuse roster based on recruiting service rankings. Mookie Jones. (On a side note, this may help explain why Mookie has at times struggled to accept his extremely limited role — he’s the only guy who came to campus with an inflated view of his own importance and the weight of high expectations.)

It’s not just that SU doesn’t have any McDonald’s All-Americans; it doesn’t have anyone who was remotely close to that level. Arinze Onuaku: ranked 182. Brandon Triche: ranked 155. Andy Rautins: ranked 751 (!!!). Wes Johnson: N/A. Yes, N/A! So far off the radar, dude was N/A. And the story is similar for the rest of the team. Yet here we sit, 22-1 and ranked #3/4.

If we make the Final Four, you can credit this Mike Waters article for the relentless typecasting that will be inflicted on SU by every commentator that weekend. Some of of these analysts will draw the proper lessons from it, and some will not. If we win the whole thing, you can expect several years of misguided discussions about the relative merits of “building a team” with “unheralded” “role-players” that pay their dues, buy into the team concept, and overwhelm less humble, less mature teams that might have higher-profile talent. That discussion will partially miss the point, of course. Savvier commentators will realize that the secret to this Syracuse team has nothing to do with under-talented “role players”, and everything to do with a genius coach who knows a crap ton more about spotting and developing basketball talent than the guys at the recruiting services do. But one element of the discussion will be spot-on: under the radar guys may very well be hungrier, more coachable, more team-oriented, and more willing to learn and grow into a system.

Those two issues together, I think, will be the Carmelo-esque, zone-esque legacy of the 2010 team:

1) Recruiting services have no real accuracy past the top 50-75 players; more of a premium should be paid to the opinion of coaches who consistently find stars in the lower ranges; and serious fans, reporters, and recruiting services should spend more time compiling coaches’ success rates for this kind of thing. [Not that I intend this post to be an attack on rating services, I just think that they set out to do a job that's impossible and that we should all accept their limitations. There are certain kids that these analysts spend a lot of time watching, and those are the players that tend to be consensus top 50 or top 100 recruits. Ratings at that level tend to be accurate: a McDonald's All-American is almost assuredly going to be a very good -- and maybe great -- college player.  And someone with a ranking of 42 is probably accurately ranked as well. But when you see the number 751 next to a high school players name (in this case Andy Rautins), we all need to accept that it means nothing. In fact, a responsible rating service would not even assign numbers that low because it's absurd for them to pretend that they have the time and resources to sufficiently observe 1000 high school basketball players from all over the country in such a way as to provide that degree of accuracy. Dave Telep does not have the Eye of Sauron in his office; Clark Francis is not omniscient. When Francis ranked Andy Rautins #751 he clearly had absolutely no idea whether Andy was any good or not.  We need to start giving Boeheim and other great coaches more benefit of the doubt, even when they pull in recruiting classes that don't include players anointed by the recruiting gurus.]

2) Given the reality of issue #1, is the quickest route to a title really to spend so much time, energy, and frequent flier mileage recruiting one or two McDonald’s kids when instead you could bring in a whole pile of Kris Joseph’s, Andy Rautins’, Rick Jacksons’, and Arinze Onuaku’s for half the effort? This second point is the one that’s going to keep coaches and fans up at night in the event that SU wins it all. Because if this really is paradigm shifting new wisdom, how do you apply it?

It’s fun that the take-home lesson here is the opposite of the Carmelo Anthony lesson. I love that fact because it shows the world that Beoheim is even more of a genius than people already thought (especially if this team gets to the Final Four, or better). He’s already universally respected and in the HOF, but a title this year would make him a national legend. People looking at 2003 can say: sure he won the big game, but he had a once-in-a-generation mega-talent in Carmelo and a once-in-a-generation leader in Gerry McNamara. That team was the epitome of star-driven. The 2009-2010 team is the complete opposite, and if Jimmy gets the ring — or even if he just gets to the Final Four — it’ll show that he’s capable of achieving greatness with a team that relied considerably more on coaching, strategy, recruiting savvy, and player development. 2003 was Carmelo’s team, but this year is Jimmy’s team. And what’s so impressive is that although the two squads couldn’t be more different, both took completely different routes to greatness than the standardized UNC/Duke/Kansas/Kentucky one-size-fits-all strategy of throwing 19 McDonald’s All-American on the floor and hoping for the best. 2003 changed a lot of people’s minds about a lot of received wisdom, and this team has a chance to do the same thing again.

Damn this is fun.

4 Comments

  1. Mike Waters
    Posted February 8, 2010 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I had to write and say thanks for the very nice things you had to say in the review/analysis of my article from last Friday’s Post-Standard.

    You are correct when you say that it’s the kind of story that Donna and I generally don’t have the time to put together. It’s something we’re trying to change as a department.

    Anyway, just wanted to say thanks.

    Mike

  2. Daz
    Posted February 8, 2010 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

    Another reason good, lower ranked, coachable players may be advantagous to recruit: They stick around…or in WJ’s case, they come later in life and bring with them more maturity, physical and otherwise.

  3. Posted February 9, 2010 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mike, thanks for reading! Keep up the good work.

  4. Posted February 10, 2010 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    Just started watching the UConn game and the first thing Fran Frischilla says during the pre-game chat:

    “Not one of the SU players was ranked in the top 50″

    The media narrative hath begun.

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