It's remarkable that during this NCAA season, one replete with one-and-done NBA prospects on young, freshman-laden teams, the gods have worked together to create a top-five matchup between Michigan State and Ohio State...but that is exactly what is going to happen when the Buckeyes and Spartans take the floor tonight in East Lansing.
How did both of these teams get here? The answer is age, specifically within their guard play. As most of the young, one-and-done teams across the nation have faltered due either a lack of experienced guard play or just the general inconsistency of 18 and 19 year-olds, the Spartans and Buckeyes have continued to rise to the top.
For Michigan State, Keith Appling and Gary Harris were both McDonalds All-Americans that decided to go against the grain and stay in school. Appling, a senior, is one of only six 2010 All-Americans to still be playing college ball. Harris, a sophomore, eschewed the draft last season, despite being a projected lottery pick. Together, these two have steadied Michigan State. They're combining to average 33.8 points, 7.5 assists, and and 7.8 rebounds per game, and to top it off, they've both improved as defenders under Tom Izzo's stewardship.
Ohio State's guards are also responsible for setting the tempo for their team, but they combine to do it in a different way. As Thad Matta preaches defense above all else, Aaron Craft and Shannon Scott combine to create the most lethal defensive guard tandem in the NCAA. Craft was a non-top 100 recruit that, by most scouting services, was the fifth best player in their 2010 recruiting class. He quickly outperformed that, and has been a meaningful contributor for the Buckeyes ever since. Scott was a -- rather dubious, given that he was barely a top 40 recruit and was rated 7th among point guards by 247Sports composite ranking -- McDonald's All-American that has improved by leaps and bounds since his freshman year, where he was a turnover machine that couldn't shoot and didn't know how to rotate defensively. He's now become a smart player that makes the right pass and forces offenses to adjust to his defensive skill.
Freshmen guards become sophomores become juniors become seniors. Every year, we hear coaches say that's the best part of a young guard's development. It's never been more prevalent than in 2013-14. This year, we've seen numerous examples of young guards trying to lead loaded teams, but failing. Kentucky and Kansas may be the two most talented teams in the country, but their guard play has been entirely substandard either in distribution or ball-protection. Louisville is still struggling to replace the steadying hand and full-court defensive intensity of Peyton Siva. Michigan has fallen from the ranked because Derrick Walton isn't ready to step into Trey Burke's rather large shoes. In the top ten right now, the only team that doesn't feature veteran guard play is Syracuse, but that's only because Tyler Ennis is already a demigod, and he's one of the smartest distributors in the NCAA. All of the biggest early season surprises so far -- Iowa State, Villanova, Baylor, and San Diego State -- have gotten there via veteran guard play (and in most cases, veteran transfers).
I'm all for young players going to get their money when they can (if they're good enough to get paid to do it, then they should), but there is something to be said for recruiting kids that will be with your program over the long haul. Ohio State has had their fair share of one-and-done guys (Oden, Conley, Koufos), but that's not how they have built a consistent program. They have built their program on the contributions of guys like Sullinger, Thomas, Lighty, and Craft. Michigan State has done the same with players like Cleaves, Green, Neitzel and Payne. Speaking of Payne, even the big men on these two teams have shown what can happen when guys stick around for more than a year.
Both Adriean Payne and Amir Williams were big-time recruits that largely disappointed early in their careers. Payne seemed to struggle during his underclass years with his ADHD, and focused a lot of his efforts on being eligible. His basketball probably suffered a little bit because of it. He's now an excellent student though, and has improved literally every facet of his game to the point where he is a widely projected first-round pick. Williams also seemed to have mentality issues that made him struggle a bit with his consistency on the floor. He's now one of the most important pieces on a Buckeye team that lacks any sort of interior presence outside of him. I could continue to list guys on both rosters -- Lenzelle Smith Jr. (always the forgotten man in pieces like this, but he doesn't deserve to be), Branden Dawson, Travis Trice, Sam Thompson, etc. -- that have continued to grow throughout their collegiate careers.
The word or phrase that best exemplifies this NCAA season so far shouldn't be "one-and-done," "upside," or "potential." The key word through the early part of the NCAA season is "maturity." From teams like Arizona with T.J. McConnell to Iowa State with DeAndre Kane, the squads with experience are winning and unseasoned, still wet-behind-the-ears teams are struggling.
That is no better epitomized than in Ohio State and Michigan State, two of the most experienced, mature and skilled teams in the NCAA.