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Is NCAA Tournament Success an Indicator of Future NBA Success?

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Everyone loves March Madness, and the 2011 edition didn’t disappoint, delivering upsets, buzzer-beaters, and everything else that makes the NCAA tournament the most exciting three weeks in sports. But with the tournament at an end, what will now become of its stars? Success in the tournament does not always translate to pro success. For every Carmelo Anthony, there’s a Christian Laettner; for every Dwyane Wade, a Tony Delk. How will teams view fringe prospects like Joey Rodriguez, VCU’s 5-foot-10 sparkplug point guard, or Matt Howard, Butler’s 6-foot-8 forward, who nonetheless produced during the intensity of March? I’m going to take a look at the NCAA tournament from 2004-2008 to see how that year’s top players fared in the NBA, and, conversely, how the top NBA players from that draft class fared in the tournament.

Note: I have omitted the 2009 and 2010 tournaments, as I’d like to have at least three NBA seasons to look at in order to properly evaluate a player. In addition, All-Tournament teams are somewhat helpful in that they point out the main players on the top teams—but they are heavily weighted towards teams that played in the championship game, so one must keep that in mind when looking at them from year to year. Players who have appeared in at least one All-Star Game are in bold.


Final Four (champion listed first, runner-up listed second): Kansas, Memphis, UCLA, North Carolina

All-Tournament team (Most Outstanding Player in italics): Mario Chalmers, Kansas; Darrell Arthur, Kansas; Chris Douglas-Roberts, Memphis; Derrick Rose, Memphis; Brandon Rush, Kansas

Other stars of the tournament: Stephen Curry, Davidson; Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina; D.J. Augustin, Texas; Drew Neitzel, Michigan State; Russell Westbrook, UCLA; Kevin Love, UCLA

Other notable NBA players who were drafted in 2008: O.J. Mayo, USC; Eric Gordon, Indiana; Brook Lopez, Stanford; JaVale McGee, Nevada

NBA Stars

Each future NBA All-Star found success in 2008, the first tournament to feature four #1 seeds in the Final Four. In fact, all three All-Stars were on the court in the same game when Memphis met UCLA in the national semi-final. It turns out that this season, the tournament was a very good indicator of success, as among the top five picks in the draft that year, (in order: Rose, Michael Beasley, Mayo, Westbrook, and Love), Rose, Westbrook, and Love all made the Final Four and have become stars, while Beasley and Mayo’s teams were both bounced in the first weekend. Mayo’s USC team lost to Beasley’s Kansas State in the first round before KState was steamrolled by Wisconsin, 72-55, in Round 2.

Tournament Stars

Chalmers, the MOP after hitting the game-tying three with 2.1 seconds left in regulation in the championship game, has struggled in his three NBA seasons, unable to establish himself as the Heat’s point guard despite minimal competition. Darrell Arthur has had a solid but unspectacular career as a backup big man for the Grizzlies, while Brandon Rush is fulfilling a similar role on the Pacers. Chris Douglas-Roberts’ poor mechanics have been exposed in the NBA, and the guard, now with the Bucks, is shooting just 44% FG and 29% 3FG in the league as opposed to 54% FG and 37% 3FG in his three years at Memphis. Curry has not had the same problems, finding a perfect home in Golden State’s offensive system (it helps that his shot is a lot cleaner than Douglas-Roberts’). Augustin has yet to fulfill expectations in Charlotte, while Hansbrough, who, like Curry, waited until 2009 to come out, has steadily improved this season in Indiana. Neitzel, whose Spartans were eliminated in the Sweet 16 by Memphis, was deemed to unathletic to succeed in the league and is currently playing overseas in Germany.

Other notable NBA Pros:

As previously noted, Mayo’s Trojans lost in the first round to Kansas State. Gordon was held to just 8 points on 3-15 shooting as his Hoosiers lost to Arkansas in the first round, 86-72. McGee’s Nevada team didn’t even gain a bid to the NIT, losing in the first round of the CBI to Houston.


The 2008 tournament has thus far shown to be a very good indicator of each player’s NBA success. Love, Westbrook, and Rose all looked great not only in the tournament, but the regular season as well, and each of them have continued to progress upon ascending to the NBA. Likewise, Curry, who single-handedly carried his Davidson squad to within two points of the Final Four, is shooting the lights out in the NBA. The bottom line in 2008 was that every top NBA player had success in the tournament, while not every top tournament player went on to have success in the NBA.


Final Four (champion listed first, runner-up listed second): Florida, Ohio State, Georgetown, UCLA

All-Tournament team (Most Outstanding Player in italics): Corey Brewer, Florida; Mike Conley Jr., Ohio State; Al Horford, Florida; Lee Humphrey, Florida; Greg Oden, Ohio State.

Other stars of the tournament: Joakim Noah, Florida; Arron Afflalo, UCLA; Aaron Brooks, Oregon; Roy Hibbert, Georgetown; Jeff Green, Georgetown; Acie Law, Texas A&M

Other notable NBA players who were drafted in 2007: Kevin Durant, Texas; Thaddeus Young, Georgia Tech; Glen Davis, LSU

NBA Stars

The stud here is obviously Durant, even though his Longhorns exited ignominiously in the second round, 87-68 to USC. Durant tore up college basketball in 2006-07, but his 30 points and 9 rebounds were not enough against the Trojans. Horford, while not as good a pro as Durant, was surrounded by much more talent at Florida, and he helped the Gators repeat as champions with 18 points and 12 rebounds in the title game versus Ohio State, both team highs. These two qualify as the only legitimate “stars” from this draft; while there are several other usable players, none are on the level of Horford or Durant (though Noah fits his role perfectly for the Bulls).

Tournament Stars

Brewer has had a middling NBA career thus far after suffering through three-and-a-half seasons in the NBA wasteland that is Minnesota. A trade to Dallas midway through this season gives him a better situation in terms of winning ballgames, but his minutes are going to fall precipitously (he’s averaged under nine per contest in his seven games for Dallas). Not truly surprising, as he was never viewed as a dominant player on that Florida team, merely a very good defender who meshed well with the Gators’ other parts. Humphrey was always viewed as the fifth guy on those Florida teams, and unsurprisingly went undrafted in ’07. While a knockdown shooter during the tournament, he did not show enough for NBA teams to take a chance on him, but he still plays professionally in the German league. Conley, Oden’s high school teammate, declared at the perfect time, knowing that, without Oden, his draft stock would drop precipitously in ’08. Instead he cashed in, as the Grizzlies reached for him with the #4 pick. Though Conley ran the offense with aplomb in the tournament, it was clear that Oden was the centerpiece of a team that would not even make the tournament in ’08 following his departure. Oden abused Florida’s once-in-a-generation frontline of Noah and Horford to the tune of 25 points and 12 rebounds on 10-of-15 shooting in the title game, but received little help behind Conley as the Buckeyes could not overcome an 11-point halftime deficit. Oden had all the makings of a franchise center, but the Blazers could not foresee his knee issues, which have limited him to just 82 games in four NBA seasons.

Afflalo, Brooks, Hibbert, and Green have all shown flashes of greatness from time-to-time, but none have been able to take the leap to the next level. They’ve all had decent careers so far, pretty much in line with the expectations following their tournament exploits. The one outlier in the group is Law, who has bounced around to five teams in four seasons and is now in his second stint with the Warriors. Law led the Aggies to within a point of the Elite Eight, but he has failed to produce after the Hawks selected him with the 11th pick in that year’s draft.

Other notable NBA Pros:

Young, a solid member of a developing Sixers squad, was bounced in the first round as his Yellow Jackets fell to UNLV, 67-63. Young had just 8 points on 3-12 shooting. Davis could not repeat his heroics of the previous spring, as LSU struggled to a 17-15 (5-11 SEC) record, missing the tournament. Since moving on to the NBA, Davis has shown that his 2006-07 season at LSU was not indicative of his strengths as a player, but rather showed how truly awful the Tigers were (they would finish 13-18 and fire head coach John Brady the following year).


Durant’s success has come as no surprise to anyone who watched him that season—despite failing to advance deep into the tournament, his regular season was so spectacular that pro success was assured. But the same could have been said for Oden, who dominated to the same degree and played great in the tournament. The Blazers will be forever questioned for failing to fully pursue Oden’s medical history, since that was the only thing separating Oden from succeeding to the same degree as Durant. Florida had three main draft prospects—Noah, Horford, and Brewer—and though all had success in the tournament at different times, no one knew quite how they would fare on their own. Noah and Horford landed in better situations and have put their experience to use—Noah particularly has become a leader on the East’s top team—while Brewer has struggled with the T-Wolves. In general, most of the future pros in the ’07 tournament had good but not great tournaments, making it difficult to tell which ones were best suited for NBA success. Meanwhile the one truly dominant player in the tournament, Oden, is the one who has had the worst (or most snakebitten) career so far.


Final Four (champion listed first, runner-up listed second): Florida, UCLA, LSU, George Mason

All-Tournament team (Most Outstanding Player in italics): Joakim Noah, Florida; Corey Brewer, Florida; Taurean Green, Florida; Lee Humphrey, Florida; Jordan Farmar, UCLA

Other stars of the tournament: J.J. Redick, Duke; LaMarcus Aldridge, Texas; Adam Morrison, Gonzaga; Randy Foye, Villanova; Rudy Gay, Connecticut; Jai Lewis, George Mason; Tyrus Thomas, LSU; Glen Davis, LSU; Patrick O’Bryant, Bradley

Other notable NBA players who were drafted in 2006: Brandon Roy, Washington; Rajon Rondo, Kentucky; Paul Millsap, Louisiana Tech; Kyle Lowry, Villanova

NBA Stars

Roy had a decent tournament, taking Washington to the Sweet 16, where the Huskies would lose in overtime to another set of Huskies from UConn. Roy scored 20 points in that game, but spent crucial minutes down the stretch in the second half on the bench with four fouls after an altercation with Gay. Rondo posted impressive rebounding numbers (10 in Kentucky’s first round win over UAB, 8 in the second round against UConn), but his Kentucky team underperformed in the tournament. The year before, the Wildcats lost a double-OT thriller to Michigan State in the Elite Eight to just miss the Final Four. Aldridge has just recently broken out as an elite player, but he had a very up-and-down tournament in ’06. He had 26 points and 13 rebounds in the Longhorns’ Sweet 16 win over West Virginia, but his poor performance in the regional final (an OT loss to LSU) was the difference between a Final Four bid and an early exit for Texas. Glen Davis bullied Aldridge, as the future Blazer was held to just four points on 2-of-14 shooting in the game. Overall, a fairly unimpressive tournament for future stars, somewhat surprising given that the 2006 draft was one of the weakest in years.

Tournament Stars

Perhaps because the talent pool was so weak in ’06, teams drafted a lot of tournament stars early—the first ten collegians drafted all made it to at least the Sweet 16. Chicago, picking second, selected Aldridge, while Portland, picking fourth, took Tyrus Thomas. At the time, both players were drafted more on potential than performance, though Aldridge was the more polished player. The two were traded for each other on draft night, and since then, their careers have gone in very different directions.

Aldridge has developed as planned, and is now the go-to guy in Portland. Thomas never reached the potential he flashed during those three weeks in March and was deemed expendable by the Bulls as they were building a winning nucleus (they traded him to Charlotte at last year’s deadline). Gay’s NBA career has been much like his tournament in ’06: high expectations that haven’t really led anywhere (Gay’s #1-seeded UConn team lost to #11 seed George Mason in the Elite Eight). Most of the other tournament stars have been misses, though the point bears repeating that the overall talent level in the ’06 draft was very low. Even though players such as Adam Morrison (3rd overall), Randy Foye (7th) and Patrick O’Bryant (9th) didn’t pan out because, despite tournament success, can you blame executives for being swayed by a few good performances in March when there simply isn’t anyone else available? The players who succeeded in the tournament are those such as J.J. Redick and Glen Davis, who were able to assume complimentary roles on established teams, instead of being forced to carry a big load on a bad ballclub (see Morrison).

Other notable NBA pros:

There are only two other NBA starters from this draft that haven’t been mentioned yet: Millsap, and Kyle Lowry, who was the third-best guard on his Villanova team, behind Foye and Allan Ray. Millsap’s Louisiana Tech team finished just 20-13 and lost in the first round of the NIT, despite Millsap leading the nation in rebounding for the third consecutive year.


This was a tough year to judge talent, especially after several top players, including champion Florida’s entire starting five, chose to stay in school. Rondo and Millsap, two of the top five players in the draft, were chosen 21st and 47th, respectively; the tournament just didn’t do a good job sorting out talent in ’06, as most of the key prospects were all eliminated around the same time (Sweet 16, Elite Eight), and all had inconsistent tournaments. As might be expected, most of these guys didn’t end up panning out after failing to dominate in a weak year for talent.

Part 2 coming tomorrow


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