video
At Rucker Park in New York, people sat on rooftops and climbed trees to watch Julius Erving play. In Louisville, Kentucky, Artis Gilmore would pull up in his fancy car, still wearing his fancy suits, and just ball. Kevin Durant first measured the worth of his game on the D.C. playgrounds, and Arthur Agee chased his hoop dream in Chicago. The Philadelphia outdoor courts once boasted a who's who of the city's best ballers, and in Los Angeles, playground legends with names such as Beast, Iron Man and Big Money Griff played on the same concrete as Magic and Kobe.

That was then, a then that wasn't all that long ago.

Now? Now the courts are empty, the nets dangling by a thread. The crowds that used to stand four deep are gone, and so are the players. Once players asked "Who's got next?" Now the question is "Anyone want to play?" And the answer seems to be no, at least not here, not outside.

Playground basketball, at least as we knew it, is dying.

To continue reading this story, click here.

Also see:
The New York Times headline could hardly have been more dramatic were it written in 1942 atop Ernie Pyle's byline. It read, "Brandon Jennings Sends Home a Warning from Europe." It sounded dire.

“I’ve gotten paid on time once this year,” Brandon Jennings, the No. 1 prospect in the 2008 class and the first player of the one-and-done era to eschew college basketball in favor of an overseas contract, said in an email to The Times. “They treat me like I’m a little kid. They don’t see me as a man. If you get on a good team, you might not play a lot. ... I don’t see too many kids doing it. It’s tough man, I’ll tell you that. It can break you.”

[+] EnlargeEmmanuel Mudiay
Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY SportsGuard Emmanuel Mudiay, the fifth-ranked player in the Class of 2014, announced July 14 that he will play a year overseas. He's headed for China.
Jennings ended his lone season with Lottomatica averaging just 7.6 points, 1.6 assists and 20 minutes per game in the Euroleague, and just 5.5 points in 17 minutes per game in Italy's Serie A. He declared for the NBA draft, and when it came around, the top prospect in the 2008 class didn't even show up on time. No one wants to be Brady Quinn.

At which point, of course, Jennings was promptly drafted 10th overall. He showed up to the draft late and blew kisses to the crowd. In his first season, he scored 55 points in one game, tying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's single-game rookie scoring record. Last summer, he signed a three-year, $24 million contract with the Detroit Pistons.

On July 14, SMU commit Emmanuel Mudiay, the fifth-ranked player in the Class of 2014, announced that he would forgo the college hoops search for a one-year gig overseas instead. According to multiple media outlets, Mudiay will play in China.

The question is: What took so long?

From 2008 until last week, years in which anti-amateurism rhetoric has become deafening, only one notable prospect, then-17-year-old Jeremy Tyler, followed Jennings' path, skipping his final year of high school to play the 2009-10 season in Israel. He lasted 10 games before coming home. Every other top American high school prospect in the one-and-done era has rejected the Jennings model. Even "rejected" feels too strong: You can't reject something if you never consider it in the first place.

But why not?

"The competition in Europe right now is so high-level," ESPN resident international basketball expert Fran Fraschilla said. "The top clubs in Europe are so good. And the coach's job is to win. It's not to develop talent. It's not like it used to be, where we'd just send the American guy over and he's automatically the best guy on the court. Those days are over."

From a distance, the effects of globalization -- both in the world at large and basketball specifically -- would seem to work in the American prospect's favor. There are more clubs and leagues around the world than ever before. In Spain and Italy, top clubs invest in developmental programs at a level near their soccer counterparts. Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia surface a handful of prodigies every year. Formerly poor countries, like Russia and China, have emerged as economic powerhouses willing to spend big on Western athletic attractions.

The world is smaller and more interconnected. You can Skype with your family and run into NBA scouts at the regional airport. There is no risk of getting lost overseas. If you can play, scouts will find you. They have been watching you since you were 15, anyway.

In reality, these trends have worked against the adventurous American teenager. Top Euroleague clubs field teams full of hardened veterans. Even homegrown phenoms have a tough time cracking the lineup. (FC Barcelona 19-year-old Mario Hezonja, a 6-foot-8 Croatian small forward projected as a top-10 pick in the 2015 NBA draft, averaged just 6.1 minutes in Euroleague competition last season.) The best European teams are more talented and well-organized than ever, and their leagues have risen with the sport's popularity.

But there are also more leagues, period, than ever before. And many of them still fit the old hinterlands stereotype: poor coaching and sketchy organizations situated in some of the more imposing parts of the world. The classic horror stories -- delayed checks, riot police, questionable living arrangements -- are still plentiful.

Which makes for a difficult paradox: The clubs a young American prospect and his family would feel the safest signing with are also the ones with much bigger fish to fry. The places where he could play right away -- and maybe have a chance to be a star -- are scary to old heads, let alone teenagers.

What then? The key, Fraschilla said, is to find a "sweet spot." A club where the competition is good, but not too good. Where the coaches need talent, even if it's just there for one season. Where the player can actually develop his skills and make some money without hating every minute of his life. Such places do exist. France might be the most notable candidate. But the choices are intimidatingly vast.

Whatever the reasons for Mudiay's decision -- and his family has insisted it has nothing to do with his questionable post-Prime Prep eligibility status, though that seems increasingly unlikely -- such is the challenge he and his family now face. And that quest comes prepackaged with all of the obvious risks: injury, poor performance, emotional and cultural isolation and, after it all, declining draft stock.

"Sure, people may know you already," Fraschilla said. "But you can't go overseas and be horrendous either."

Six years ago, Jennings proved the international path was both possible and prohibitively daunting. He made it out, but not before he warned everyone else to stay home. Prospects have diligently heeded his advice.

Mudiay is the next test. Can he find the sweet spot?

UPDATE: This post was published a few minutes before Tuesday's news broke on Mudiay's decision to accept a one-year, $1.2 million contract with the Chinese Basketball Association. (How's that for timing?)

So: Is China the sweet spot? There is upside, besides the tidy $1.2 million deal, to the idea. For starters, Mudiay will dominate most of his competition. The Chinese league is flush with cash (and enthusiasm) but short on talent. Whether it's the best place for actual development is another issue. China's coaching and infrastructure are widely seen as far below the American and European standards, and they are frequently characterized as suspicious of imported basketball thought. How much does that matter, if it all? Will Mudiay's coach push him in the right ways? Will he be treated as a sideshow? And what about the sociocultural dynamic? The language barrier? Will any of that matter?

Mudiay found playing time and money in China. That's a scarce combination in international basketball, for all of the reasons outlined above. But China is a daunting, almost impressive journey for an 18-year-old to embark on. Stay tuned.
By the time Florida's Chris Walker was cleared to play last season, it was difficult for the freshman to have any sort of real impact. Walker played in just 18 games and didn't even average five minutes.

He's still being projected as a lottery pick for the 2015 NBA draft.

That's why he's all wrong for this particular list of sophomores to watch. Much time is spent following the most talented players and their journey to the pros; consider this equal time tracking the players most likely to develop while staying around a few seasons.

These 12 sophomores should make big improvements from their freshmen seasons -- just not substantial enough to leap right to the NBA. The players were all ranked in the top 100 of the 2013 class by RecruitingNation, but played less than 10 minutes per game as freshmen. (The one exception was Marc Loving, who averaged 10.9 minutes.) Most important, these players will likely all be back as juniors:

[+] EnlargeLuke Fischer
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsAfter transferring from Indiana, 6-foot-11 center Luke Fischer will be eligible to play Dec. 14.
Luke Fischer, forward/center, Marquette. First-year coach Steve Wojciechowski must be plenty glad Fischer got homesick after just 13 games at Indiana and decided to transfer. Fischer will be eligible in December, which can't come soon enough for the Golden Eagles, who lost their top three rebounders and lack the size that the 6-foot-11 Fischer brings.

Tre'Shaun Fletcher, guard/forward, Colorado. Fletcher suffered a knee injury and missed 14 games as a freshman. When healthy last season, he proved to be a reliable reserve and his role should expand next season.

Conner Frankamp, guard, Kansas. The Jayhawks are looking for the stability at point guard they never seemed to get last season. Frankamp could provide it, not to mention add another shooter to the lineup. He'll have his chance to start at point if he can beat out Frank Mason and Devonte Graham.

Anton Gill, guard, Louisville. Gill's offensive skills weren't questioned, but as strictly a shooting guard, he wasn't versatile enough to work his way into the backcourt rotation. He still figures to be coming off the bench, with Terry Rozier and Chris Jones starting, but Gill will make an impact this season.

Isaiah Hicks, forward, North Carolina. Hicks appeared in every game as a freshman for the Tar Heels, but mainly played out of position at small forward. This season he should be returning to power forward, where he should establish himself as the Heels' top frontcourt reserve.

Kuran Iverson, forward, Memphis. At this point, he may be best known for being related to Allen Iverson. That claim to fame should change next season, when the Tigers no longer have such a guard-centric lineup. Iverson could help make the wings the strongest position on the team.

Matt Jones, guard, Duke. Coach Mike Krzyzewski believed in him enough to start him four times, but Jones has to rediscover his confidence after shooting just 29 percent from the floor. If he doesn't, he could find himself buried in a roster that just got a lot deeper with the incoming freshman class.

Marcus Lee, forward, Kentucky. Lee showed how effective he could be with his 10-point, eight-rebound performance in just 15 minutes in the Elite Eight game against Michigan. But his toughest competition is arguably the Wildcats' crowded frontcourt. It's hard to envision how he'll get enough playing time to stand out.

Marc Loving, forward, Ohio State. LaQuinton Ross' decision to turn pro left the Buckeyes sorely lacking in scorers. Here's where Loving will have a chance to make a big leap from his freshman season average of 4.4 points. He'll likely find himself in the starting lineup after appearing in all 35 games last season but starting none.

Elliott Pitts, guard, Arizona. Even with the departure of Nick Johnson, the Wildcats will still have a crowded backcourt. Pitts proved to be a 3-point threat from off the bench last season, shooting 39 percent from deep. That and his 6-foot-5 frame could help him crack the rotation more next season.

Tyler Roberson, forward, Syracuse. Playing behind C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant meant Roberson had to wait his turn. His lone start last season came when Grant was injured. But after averaging 2.2 points in 8.1 minutes per game, Roberson will be needed to help the Orange solve their scoring woes.

Ish Wainright, guard/forward, Baylor. The Bears lost three of their top four scorers, including 3-point sharpshooter Brady Heslip. Wainright doesn't have the same range that Heslip had, but his size and length bring versatility to the lineup. At 6-foot-5, he can play multiple positions and has the potential to be a lockdown defender.
Fans with tattoos commonly get their favorite team's logo or maybe its mascot, but rarely do they tattoo an image of the head coach on their body.

But that's exactly what 28-year-old Richard Miner asked for Wednesday when he walked into Tymeless Tattoo in Baldwinsville, New York, and had tattoo artist Kyle Proia ink his best Jim Boeheim on Miner's leg.

"I'm a lifelong Syracuse fan," said Miner, a chef at a barbecue restaurant in Syracuse. "He's done remarkable things for the program for more than four decades."

To continue reading, click here.
Tags:

ACC

3-point shot: Early-entry draft process

July, 18, 2014
Jul 18
9:26
AM ET
video
Andy Katz talks about changing the NBA early-entry process, using a 30-second shot clock, and making transfers sit out for a year.

3-point shot: Phil Martelli's idea

July, 17, 2014
Jul 17
9:00
AM ET
video
Andy Katz discusses how Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli would like to shake things up for the NIT Season Tip-Off.

3-point shot: Preseason NIT shuffling

July, 16, 2014
Jul 16
10:00
AM ET
video
Andy Katz talks about the ramifications of a reduced Preseason NIT field and more Emmanuel Mudiay fallout.

3-point shot: Mudiay spurns SMU

July, 15, 2014
Jul 15
9:00
AM ET
video
Andy Katz discusses Emmanuel Mudiay's decision to spurn SMU for overseas basketball, Georgia's roster and George Washington's nonconference schedule.
video
A season ago, Southern Methodist was good. Not great, but pretty good. It was, first and foremost, the product of Larry Brown's coaching -- a cohesive collective on the defensive end, yet another display of the trademark defensive groups Brown had produced almost nonstop at the NBA level for two decades. The Mustangs were always in the right position. They never made anything easy.

Despite the 17th-best per-possession defense in the country, the Mustangs missed out on the NCAA tournament. The reason was fairly straightforward: Their offense didn't travel.

In seven losses to fellow American teams -- one of which was a first-round tournament loss to Houston -- Brown's team managed better than a point per trip just once (at South Florida, when it scored 71 points in 70 trips). Only one of those losses was at home. On their home floor, the Mustangs could occasionally be thrilling. When they traveled, even to the neutral conference tourney confines of Memphis, they were devoid of creativity and edge.

Emmanuel Mudiay was going to be that guy. Not anymore.

On Monday, Yahoo! Sports reported that Mudiay was considering moving overseas to begin a professional career right away. Later Monday, ESPN's Jeff Goodman confirmed that Mudiay's decision was already made. A source also told Goodman that the decision was bolstered by a concern about his amateur status.

"The NCAA is on him," the source told Goodman. "And he's worried."

In a statement to SI.com, Mudiay said the decision was about beginning his professional career, and ending his mother's struggles, as early as possible.

"I was excited about going to SMU and playing college basketball for Coach Brown and his staff and preparing for the NBA, but I was tired of seeing my mom struggle," Mudiay said via a statement his brother, Stephane, provided to SI.com. "And after sitting down with Coach Brown and my family we decided that the best way for me to provide for my mom was to forgo college and pursue professional basketball opportunities. I am grateful for Prime Prep coach [Ray] Forsett for developing me into the player and man that I am and I am also grateful for Coach Brown's guidance and his support. This has nothing to do with my eligibility in any way."

It's a strange turn of events, given the relatively late date. And because of Mudiay's decision, he no longer needs to prove anything to the NCAA, which in turn means we may never know the extent of the NCAA's inquiries into his status.

What we do know is this:

1. It's an incredibly difficult thing for a teenager to try to make it abroad as a professional basketball player, but it is hardly impossible. Brandon Jennings is the obvious example, but as new World Cup fans may have learned these past few weeks, much of the world's elite soccer talent make the same trips at much earlier ages. Likewise, few question Mudiay's talent. Brown, in fact, called him "the most special point guard I've ever seen at that age." It's surprising more players this good don't choose this path, whatever the actual impetus.

2. This is a huge blow for SMU.

In our Way Too Early 2014-15 Top 25, we -- and many other outlets -- listed the Mustangs as the No. 11 team in the country. That had to do with the talent Brown had returning this season, which includes pretty much every key player from a squad that played deep into the NIT. But the real reason was the opportunity to combine that talent with Mudiay, a preternaturally gifted, hugely physical scoring point guard. The Mustangs had worked tirelessly the past few seasons to shore up their hometown star; he was the recruit who would make good on the expensive hiring of Brown three years ago.

Now? SMU will still be good. It should be better. But a top-10 team? Top 15?

There will be plenty of questions, and plenty of think pieces, about this talented young person deciding to forgo college for the Wild West of international basketball. We'll get to all of that eventually, I guess. Where pure college basketball is concerned, it's a massive blow to SMU. It needed offense. It needed a star. Brown needed a college edition of Allen Iverson. Mudiay might have been that. Now we'll never know.

3-point shot: Johnny Dawkins' contract

July, 14, 2014
Jul 14
10:15
AM ET
video
In today's 3-point shot, Andy Katz discusses Johnny Dawkins' contract situation at Stanford, Minnesota having second thoughts about the preseason NIT and the College of Charleston needing to make a decision on coach Doug Wojcik.

Georges Niang disputes Hield's prediction

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
3:42
PM ET
On Friday, while everyone was busy talking about an obscure professional athlete returning to his hometown team, Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield -- who was at the LeBron James Skills Academy this week, fittingly enough -- dropped a rather bold prediction about the 2014-15 Big 12.

"We're gonna win the Big 12," Hield told CBS' Jeff Borzello. "I'm saying it right now, we're gonna win the Big 12."

Iowa State forward Georges Niang disagreed:

One can only assume Niang was so incredulous because he assumes, like the rest of us, that Kansas is going to win the Big 12. (Kansas always wins the Big 12.)

3-point shot: NIT format good for St. John's

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
8:00
AM ET
video

Andy Katz discusses how potential changes to the preseason NIT format would aid St. John's, Nebraska's loss of Leslee Smith and Wichita State is still looking for two more games.
Finally, it seems North Carolina Tar Heels guard Marcus Paige will enter a season where things are exactly how he expects them to be.

That didn't happen when he signed out of high school. Paige thought he'd play backup to Kendall Marshall at point guard and slowly make the transition to the college game. Instead Marshall bolted for the NBA, which sent Paige into the starting lineup from the opening tip.

It didn't happen as a sophomore. P.J. Hairston figured to be the Tar Heels go-to scorer on the floor, but was never reinstated after receiving impermissible benefits. That forced Paige to take over the scoring burden.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Paige
AP Photo/Eric GayMarcus Paige, who led the Tar Heels with 19 points, hit some big shots down the stretch against Providence.
For the nine games Leslie McDonald was ineligible, Paige was the Heels' only 3-point threat. For the entire season, he was the only player UNC fans felt comfortable seeing at the free throw line.

"There were some things that happened in the offseason that obviously shook up our team a little bit -- a lot of bit -- and just kind of changed the whole dynamic of leadership, of scoring options all that stuff," Paige said. "This year we haven't any of that. Our roster has been set. Everybody is good to go. It's been a lot more relaxing from that standpoint. I'm more at ease with what's going on."

Entering his junior season, Paige is burden-free. And that may actually mean he does less next season as the Tar Heels accomplish more.

Paige became the first player to lead the Heels in both scoring (17.5) and assists (4.2) since Jeff McInnis (16.5 ppg, 5.5 apg) in 1995-96. But with the offensive weapons added to the roster, he doesn't think he'll have to score as much next season.

"Our scoring will be more balanced this year, there's guys that are ready to make leaps, especially offensively," Paige said.

Starting with sophomore center Kennedy Meeks, who has dropped nearly 50 pounds from where he arrived on campus and is down to 271. Meeks' conditioning will allow him to stay on the court longer. He showed snapshots of his potential last season including his 13-point, 12 rebounds and seven assists in the win over Louisville.

Paige pointed to forwards Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto as having bigger roles and he said the freshmen trio of Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson were all talented scorers as well. He said it should amount to the Heels not having as much trouble scoring in halfcourt as they did last season.

"I expect to shoot a higher percentage from the floor and from the 3-point line," Paige said. "I shouldn't have to take as many tough shots as I had to take last year at times to try to create points. We struggled to score a lot in the half court last year against tough defensive teams. I think I won't have to do that as much."

But for the times he will have the ball and the Heels need a basket, Paige said he's been working this summer on scoring in isolation and creating his own shot.

Paige doesn't expect a repeat of last season's tendency to have quiet starts offensively before erupting in the second half.

"Coach [Steve] Robinson told me to set the tone with my intensity and my aggressiveness and if they have to scale me back they'll do that," Paige said. "That's kind of the mindset I'm going to have going in, but I wouldn't expect to average 20 [points] a game or anything this year because we're too talented for that."

Paige could again find himself playing off the ball for portions of the game with either sophomore Nate Britt or Berry running point. He could also see a lineup when he is at point guard and joined by the 6-foot-6 Pinson or 6-foot-8 Jackson at shooting guard.

That's the kind of versatility that gives Paige high hopes for the coming season.

"I don't think there's any team that I'm looking at like, 'We can't beat them,' or 'we don't have the talent to matchup with them,'" Paige said. "We'll definitely have our tests with our schedule, but I think that will help us out and I think we're a legitimate Final Four contender if we can put all our pieces together."

Paige was asked about the ESPN.com college basketball coach poll that ranked UNC's Roy Williams 16th: "That's kind of ridiculous honestly. There's no chance that's remotely close. I may be biased, but, no way."

3-point shot: Crossing the line

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
10:20
AM ET
video

Andy Katz discusses what constitutes crossing the line in college coaching.

Best passing teams in 2014-15

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
10:00
AM ET
There is no one correct way to put points on the board. Basketball, and specifically college basketball offense, comes in many flavors, which is a big part of why it's so interesting in the first place.

If you have a big, physical, bruising team, one that dominates the offensive glass and gets easy putbacks around the rim, you don't necessarily need 2005-era Steve Nash running the show. Likewise, for a team full of athletic, penetration-prone wings, spacing is arguably more important than passing. If your players can get to the rim by themselves, why complicate things?

If you're neither of those things -- if your players, and thus your system, aren't the isolate-and-go types -- then you'd better make the most of Dr. Naismith's original ball-advancement mandate. You'd better be able to pass.

Below are three teams likely to be among the best passing outfits in the country in 2014-15 -- and a couple that could rank among the worst. The question is: Can they score anyway?

Teams to watch

Wisconsin: On one level, the Badgers aren't the most obvious passing exhibition in the country. In 2013-14, for example, they recorded an assist on 50.5 percent of their made field goals. That number ranked 197th in the country. Plenty of much worse overall offenses recorded higher A/FGM stats.

In reality, that has less to do with Wisconsin than it does the way official scorekeepers keep scores. In reality, the entire core of Wisconsin's top-five efficiency offense -- and the swing-motion system Bo Ryan has perfected in more than a decade in Madison -- is defined by passing. If Wisconsin's offense was a book, passing would be its spine.

For example: Last season, 27 percent of the Badgers' possessions ended in what Synergy's scouting data defines as spot-ups. That's an overwhelming number within Wisconsin's offense -- the other leaders in the clubhouse are "isolations" (15 percent), post-ups (11.3 percent), pick-and-rolls (8.3 percent) and transition baskets (8.1 percent). Simply put, you don't create that many spot-ups, and convert them at better than a point per possession, without first creating them with pinpoint movement and timely passing. The swing offense is designed such that, even when an assist isn't recorded (as can often be the case on post-ups and isolations), two or three passes probably led to the opportunity in the first place.

Last season, even as Wisconsin increased its tempo, it still turned the ball over on just 12.7 percent of its possessions -- second fewest in the country. This has always been the case under Ryan at Wisconsin; the Badgers simply do not turn the ball over. The 2014-15 version of the Badgers, the one returning almost everyone (including versatile big men Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker) from a Final Four run, will have all these characteristics and then some. It might be Ryan's best team yet.

Villanova: To refresh oneself on the 2013-14 Villanova Wildcats' offensive statistics is to kick yourself for missing out. For most of the season, defense was the most eye-catching part of Villanova's makeup. Save two demolitions by Creighton's Doug McDermott, the Wildcats were among the best defensive teams in the country. Less heralded was Jay Wright's offense. For whatever reason, it just didn't jump out -- even as it was playing an almost idealistically unselfish, and downright fun, brand of basketball.

Last season, the Wildcats had assists on 60.4 percent of their made field goals. They also shot a ton of 3s -- 44.8 percent of their overall field goals, in fact. This was perfect for Wright's personnel, which was short on true big men. Just one rotation player, center Daniel Ochefu, was listed as taller than 6-foot-7. Everyone else in the ostensible frontcourt -- especially James Bell, Darrun Hilliard and Josh Hart -- was carved from the "tweener swingman" mold. These guys guarded and rebounded, sure, but they were also comfortable with the ball in their hands on the perimeter. And so point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, the team's leading assist man, found them. The ball was always moving, the shots were always flying.

If you missed it the first time around, don't feel bad: I watched Villanova a lot last season, and I totally missed it, too. The good news is Bell is the only piece departing from a roster that should be just as good on the wing as it was a season ago -- a roster that has long since left the selfish, ugly offense of the 13-19 2011-12 season behind it.

Pittsburgh: The Panthers are the most intriguing, and maybe the most unlikely, team of the bunch.

For starters, they're losing their best player from a season ago. Lamar Patterson wasn't just one of the nation's best and most versatile scoring threats. He was also a genuinely gifted passer. Patterson found an assist on 30 percent of his possessions, which is great in and of itself. When you consider that he also took nearly 30 percent of his team's shots, it looks genuinely crazy. Unfortunately, he couldn't pass the ball to himself.

Still, though, Jamie Dixon's team has the look. James Robinson, Josh Newkirk, Cameron Wright and even Durand Johnson all posted plus-15 percent assist rates (with Robinson at nearly 25 percent and Newkirk at 19), and Pittsburgh might have to be even more pass-reliant after losing offensive rebounding force Talib Zanna along the front line. Last season, Pitt ranked seventh in the nation in A/FGM at 62.9 percent. With Patterson gone, a repeat performance is almost a requirement.

Teams that could struggle

Syracuse: In the past five seasons, the Orange's assists-to-field goals ratio has intermittently declined. In 2009-10, Syracuse baskets were the result of an assist nearly 65 percent of the time, one of the top figures in the country. A year later, that number was 60.5 percent. From there, it went to 56.1 (in 2011-12) to 55.8 (in 2012-13) to 49.1 (in 2013-14). Now the Orange are losing Tyler Ennis, the freshman point guard who accounted for a huge portion of their assists last season. It stands to reason that in 2014-15, Syracuse won't be a particularly productive passing team.

Again, the question is this: Does it matter?

The answer is some version of "probably not." After all, despite a disappointing finish to the season, Syracuse was still a very good team in 2013-14. The Dion Waiters 2011-12 team wasn't a scion of precise passing, but it won 34 games. Two seasons ago, Michael Carter-Williams was arguably the best passer in the country, but the Orange didn't really uncork their potential until they ratcheted up the pressure in their 2-3 zone and crushed otherwise stellar offensive teams.

The makeup of the 2014-15 squad, which will be without workhorse C.J. Fair as well as Ennis, is uncertain. But Jim Boeheim's teams are always at their best when turning defensive excellence into easy points on the offensive end, getting a handful of 3s from a lights-out shooter (in this case, Trevor Cooney) and pounding the ball to the rim offensively. There's no reason to expect that Syracuse can't do that in 2014-15. This could be a truly bad passing team that is nonetheless quite good at winning basketball games.

San Diego State: The same goes for San Diego State, albeit in far more extreme fashion.

Last October, the Aztecs looked like the classic off-year reload group; they were seen as a fringe NCAA tournament team at best. Instead, they played stingy, top-10 defense while senior point Xavier Thames had a massive, sustained campaign as the lone offensive centerpiece. The combination was good enough to beat Kansas at Kansas, win 31 games and a Mountain West title and take Arizona to the wire in the NCAA tournament.

Still, what made Thames' season so impressive wasn't just his much-needed scoring. He was also the Aztecs' primary distributor. He also never turned it over; with a usage rate of nearly 29 percent, Thames assisted on 25 percent of his possessions and coughed it up on just 10 percent. (Reminder: He was really good.) And even then, the Aztecs got just 39 percent of their field goals via assists. They ranked 350th in Division I.

If there's one thing we learned last season, it's to never undersell a San Diego State team. It might be ugly. But if Steve Fisher's group maintains its defense, it won't have to pass the ball all that well. There's more than one way to put wins on the board.

SPONSORED HEADLINES