Titus’s Triangle NCAA All-Stars: Second Bananas EditionGluekit
This week, Grantland did what Grantland does best, by getting America to vote on something that seemed dumb at first but quickly became THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IN THE WORLD HOW IS KEL MITCHELL NOT EVEN IN THE SECOND BANANA BRACKET ARE YOU SHITTING ME???1 Much like this year’s NCAA tournament will likely be, this was a contest that reached an inevitable and obvious conclusion when George “T-Bone” Costanza was crowned champion.
Because I’m a team player who is all about #synergy, I figured we should keep Second Banana Week rolling by giving some props to the best second-best college basketball players in the country. Before we get to the list, I should mention that it consists only of guys who are teammates with an obvious “face of the franchise” player. I took it a step further by deciding that not only does the first banana in these examples have to be a household name, but he also has to be on the Wooden Award top-20 watch list. These is why Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Kansas, Villanova, Gonzaga, Arizona, and other good teams don’t have representatives on the Second Banana All-Stars, even though some might think there are obvious picks from those teams.
Got it? Cool. Here are your Second Banana All-Stars.
Quinn Cook (Duke)
First banana: Jahlil Okafor
Quinn Cook is making history right now and nobody seems to care. Seriously, can anyone name another instance of the most-hated Duke player becoming semi-likable by the end of his career? This has never happened, right?
I know what you’re thinking, and let me stop you right there. Cook has changed. If you continue to hate him just because he plays for Duke, I can’t help you. But the truth is, he’s gone from a way-too-cocky role player to a mature senior who is quietly playing as well as any guard in America. I pin this transformation on two things. First, Cook has moved to shooting guard after playing the point for most of his Duke career. Part of what made it easy to hate Cook was that he wasn’t that good. A lot of fans believe that players have to first become stars before they can get demonstrative on the court. Until this season, Cook was nothing more than an up-and-down point guard on forgettable Duke teams. Now that Tyus Jones is running the point, Cook is playing off the ball and benefiting from double-teams on Jahlil Okafor, and he’s playing well enough to get away with that swagger.
The second — and most important — factor in Cook’s likability is that he’s rocked a baby Afro all season. If you think this doesn’t matter, look at this.
That’s the Cook everyone hated. That’s the face people all over America wanted to put their fists through. But check out how Cook’s cockiness looks now.
He’s … kinda cool now, right? Shoot, even when Cook tries to make his stank face now, it’s hard to get upset about it.
Some might say that Cook seems less cocky now because he actually is more reserved. They’ll say he’s a senior who hasn’t had the success that most four-year players at Duke have, that he recognizes time is running out and that this Duke team is good enough to make a special tournament run, and that he’s taking a more grown-up approach to this season because of that. I’m sticking with the baby-Afro theory. Either way, it’s cool to watch a senior improving his legacy at the end of his career. Last week against North Carolina, Cook played all 45 minutes, hit six 3s, and tied with Jones to lead Duke in scoring, which is impressive enough. But he was also one of the few players on the court committed to defense, as he shut down preseason All-American Marcus Paige. Wednesday at Virginia Tech, Cook again played 45 minutes and hit six 3s, but this time he finished with 26 points, including the clutch 3 toward the end of overtime that put the Hokies away for good.
The evolution of Quinn Cook isn’t getting as much attention as it should, mostly because Cook isn’t even the best player on his team. Still, his consistent excellence all season and his toned-down demeanor are why he’s the captain of the Second Banana All-Stars. They are also why I find myself actually rooting for him now, which works out well, because Cook is currently playing the best basketball of his life.
Sam Dekker (Wisconsin)
First banana: Frank Kaminsky
Mike McGinniss/Getty Images
Sam Dekker put the buzz in “Buzzcut” when he arrived in Madison, as he was probably the most-hyped Wisconsin recruit since the Polar Bear himself, McDonald’s All American Brian Butch, came to UW in 2003. Some of that hype can be blamed on Bo Ryan setting the bar so low, because of his habit of recruiting only farm kids who don’t show up on ranking lists. The rest of the hype comes from Dekker being an in-state recruit who ended his high school career in heroic fashion.
Dekker’s critics are quick to point out that he hasn’t lived up to this hype and that the idea of the player Dekker should be is much greater than the player he really is. But let’s also consider some context: Dekker plays for an old-school, “wait your turn” coach who preaches fundamentals and placing the team above everything else. Dekker wasn’t necessarily selfish when he arrived at Wisconsin, but he was an immensely talented player looking to prove what he could do. Naturally, it took him a while to adjust to Bo Ryan’s culture. There were times during those first two years and even this season when Dekker looked as if he were begging Ryan, Come on, Coach! Please, please, please let me dribble behind my back and throw up an off-balance one-handed fadeaway! I promise I’ll make it and it’ll only be just this once!
For so long, it was painfully obvious that Dekker wanted to spread his wings and fly, but Ryan wouldn’t allow it. And if stylistic differences weren’t challenging enough, Dekker’s status as THE MAN at Wisconsin was put on hold by the emergence of Frank Kaminsky. Even if Dekker had finally settled into Ryan’s system, Kaminsky had developed into one of the best players in the country, turning Dekker, the projected lottery pick, into a second option on his own team. This had to have messed with his head. It was a long road for Dekker to finally get comfortable playing for the Buzzcuts, and even now I’m not sure if he’s all the way there.
But he’s certainly playing as if he’s comfortable. Since getting healthy after dealing with a bum ankle at the start of the season, Dekker has been on a tear. He’s had only one bad shooting night in almost two months, and he’s averaging 13.1 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in Big Ten play. Remember, he’s putting up those numbers with the national player of the year front-runner taking plenty of rebounds and offensive touches away from him. Dekker could still be better on defense, which is why I’m hopelessly optimistic that he’ll return for his senior season to put the finishing touches on his game, and then hit the ground running when he goes to the NBA. Of course, this is just another way of saying I want him back because I want to see what he can do as a first banana.
Brandon Taylor (Utah)
First banana: Delon Wright
Gene Sweeney Jr./Getty Images
Brandon Taylor is as perfect of a second banana as there is in college basketball. He’s an energetic and pesky defender who can pour in points and direct an offense. But it’s his mentality that makes him so great. Taylor is good enough to take over games, and he isn’t afraid to rise to the occasion when necessary, but he’s also smart enough to know that the Utes are Delon Wright’s team. Taylor has figured out how to perfectly maintain this balance of maximizing his talents without stepping on Wright’s toes, which is why he kind of reminds me of UConn’s Ryan Boatright from last year.
Second bananas in college basketball are like copilots on road trips. Every now and then, the pilot drops his phone in between his seat and the center console, and he needs the copilot to take the wheel as he digs it out. The good second bananas keep the car moving smoothly. And when the pilot gets his phone and asks for the wheel back, the best ones know just how much of a fight to put up. They hold onto the wheel long enough to tell the first banana, “I need you to know that I can drive this thing too.” But they also don’t hold on so long that it leads to a power struggle. They toe the line between “healthily competitive” and a toxic situation, and they get as close to it as they can without crossing over.
Taylor is like this. There have been many times this season when Taylor has been Utah’s best player. When these moments arise, he even carries himself like the best player. He’s got a hop to his step and a confidence about him, as if he’s the sole reason the Utes are as good as they are. But during games when Taylor isn’t needed as much, he’s fine with turning off his swagger and vacating the spotlight. This makes him a great second banana, and Taylor’s play is a huge reason the Utes are three wins away from their first-ever major conference championship.
Pat Connaughton (Notre Dame)
First banana: Jerian Grant
Grant Halverson/Getty Images
Pat Connaughton is one tough sumbitch. Notre Dame fans are surely as annoyed with the talk about his size as they are with the constant reminders that he signed a contract with the Baltimore Orioles. But it truly is remarkable for a 6-foot-5, 214-pound man to start at power forward in the ACC and lead a top-10 team in rebounding. Can you imagine having to guard players five inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than you? Shoot, there are players all over the country who can’t even guard opponents their own size. As someone who is essentially the same size as Connaughton, let me go on record as saying that the thought of guarding ACC power forwards is more frightening than watching Robert Stack narrate Unsolved Mysteries while home alone at 2 a.m.
More often than not, Notre Dame has looked like a Final Four threat this season. Hardly anyone expected the Irish to be this good, and the obvious explanation for their excellence is that Jerian Grant, who was suspended last year, apparently used his downtime to obtain superpowers. But Connaughton’s willingness to do whatever the team needs him to do is just as important for its success as Grant’s spectacular play. Connaughton is one of the best shooting guards in college basketball — and he plays power forward for Notre Dame. His ability to play multiple positions and match up against bigger opponents is an enormous deal for a team that doesn’t have much size. If Connaughton weren’t so hard-nosed, the Irish would be like Indiana, playing nothing but small ball and jacking 3s to make up for their inability to get anything done within 10 feet of the basket. Connaughton’s ability to mix it up down low makes the Irish less gimmicky and more adaptable.
Which brings us back to the endpoint of every Pat Connaughton discussion: He’s a pitcher for the Orioles? If his basketball career is any indication, wouldn’t it make more sense for him to be a utility man?
Kyle Collinsworth (BYU)
First banana: Tyler Haws
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
No offense to Gonzaga fans, but I reeeealllly hope BYU beats the Zags Saturday — only because I want to see the Cougars in the NCAA tournament. I want to see what kind of magic Tyler Haws and Kyle Collinsworth can pull off. OK, fine: They’ve had plenty of opportunities to pull off magic so far this season, and they’ve turned those opportunities into a 22-8 record and a season sweep at the hands of Pepperdine. And I know they had their shot in the tournament last year and blew it by getting smoked by Oregon. But dammit — this year will be different! Are we really going to relegate a team with a 2,600-point scorer and a triple-double machine to the NIT? Shoot, BYU should get an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament just for bringing back that amazing Sailor Coug logo.
I haven’t watched enough BYU this season to explain why the Cougars aren’t as good as they should be.2 I just know that Haws is good enough to single-handedly win multiple NCAA tournament games. I also know that Collinsworth has five triple-doubles this season, which is nothing short of mind-blowing. Seriously, do you have any idea how hard it is to get ONE triple-double in college basketball? There are like six possessions in an average game. Several starters on high-major teams probably haven’t put up even five triple-singles this season. Meanwhile, Collinsworth has put up five triple-doubles while sharing the ball with one teammate who shoots 15 times and another who shoots 10 times per game. That’s all you need to know about him.
Wait, I lied. You also need to know that he used to rock a mullet.
Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports
So yeah. BYU has to beat Gonzaga or do something else spectacular to earn a tournament berth. I don’t care that even if the Cougars do make the tourney, they might lose the play-in game by 15. BYU’s potential for excitement is off the charts. In my head, I see Haws channeling his inner Jimmer, Collinsworth bringing back the mullet and turning into Magic Johnson, and the Cougs putting up 110 points per game. I see casual fans rejoicing as BYU “saves” college basketball from the clutches of defense-first teams like Virginia, Louisville, Virginia, and Virginia. So come on, Gonzaga — throw me a bone here and take a dive this weekend. You know you don’t want the pressure that comes with a 1-seed anyway.
Honorable mentions: Anthony Brown (Stanford), Michael Qualls (Arkansas), Devin Williams (West Virginia), Isaiah Cousins (Oklahoma). Also, Kris Dunn of Providence deserves a shout-out even if his first banana (LaDontae Henton) isn’t a Wooden Award candidate.
Filed Under: Second Banana, NCAA Basketball, College Basketball, Mark Titus's Triangle NCAA All-Stars, Quinn Cook, Duke Blue Devils, Sam Dekker, Wisconsin Badgers, Brandon Taylor, Utah Utes, Pat Connaughton, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Kyle Collinsworth, Brigham Young Cougars