College Basketball Nation: 2012 NCAA tournament

Wildcats, Zags make statement

December, 11, 2013
12/11/13
1:21
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They called him Goldieblocks.

Well, at least some folks on social media created the impromptu and fitting nickname for Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein against Boise State. The 7-foot center debuted his newly dyed blonde hair cut in the shape of a “Bobby Brown” style from the '80s, blocking nine shots during the Wildcats’ 70-55 win.

Cauley-Stein, who tied his career high for blocks, led a defensive effort for the No. 11 Wildcats that was night-and-day better than their performance in Friday’s loss to Baylor.

The Broncos (8-1) ranked second in the NCAA in scoring with a 91.9 points per game average coming in. Prior to the game, Kentucky coach John Calipari said they ran the dribble-drive offense better than many of his teams in the past.

Boise State kept on attacking the lane, but Cauley-Stein’s versatility and quickness eliminated many advantages it gained from penetration. He could guard on switches from the perimeter on in, which is how he got to so many shots.

[+] EnlargeWillie Cauley-Stein
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesIt wasn't just the early-1990s Bobby Brown hairdo that dazzled for Willie Cauley-Stein, who blocked nine shots in Kentucky's victory over Boise State.
It was a bit of a relief for the young Cats, who surely wanted to avoid a two-game losing streak with games against No. 18 North Carolina and No. 6 Louisville looming in two of their next three games.

As much as Calipari used the Baylor loss as motivation, he could use the Boise win as a building block. The Broncos returned all of their starters from last season and are poised to be an NCAA tournament team.

The Broncos played a de-facto zone defense the way they sagged so much in their man-to-man. That look caused the Wildcats major problems against Baylor, but UK guard James Young helped loosen up the lane with his perimeter shooting in the first half.

Young scored 14 of the Cats' first 28 points and finished with a game-high 21 points. More importantly for UK, he added nine rebounds.

Rebounding was just one of UK's shortcomings against Baylor that was corrected at home against the Broncos. Julius Randle, who scored 17 points, led the way with 11 boards as Kentucky held a plus-16 rebounding advantage. The Bears beat UK, who was without forward Marcus Lee due to a stomach illness, on the boards by 15.

Boise got its leading scorer Anthony Drmic back into the lineup after he missed last week’s game with an undisclosed illness. Drmic scored 13 of his team-high 18 points in the first half, but was held to just 1-of-8 shooting after halftime.

Boise shot just 8-of-35 in the second half en route to its first loss of the season.

UK left with some positives defensively, but its ballhandling is still cause for concern. The Cats had 19 turnovers, which helped the Broncos outscore them 18-7 in points off turnovers.

UK also had just seven assists on its 27 made field goals, which suggests it’s still relying on individual talent to score.

Nevertheless, a win against an experienced team will bode well for the Wildcats, just like a win on the road will help springboard Gonzaga.

The No. 20 Bulldogs looked to be headed to a loss in Appalachia against West Virginia. Tuesday was the Bulldogs' only true road game during their nonconference schedule, and they faced every bit of adversity before pulling out an 80-76 win.

West Virginia, like Kentucky, lost both of its marquee games entering tonight and needed a win to build some confidence. Guard Eron Harris lit up the Zags with 18 points in the first half.

Unlike their losses to Wisconsin and Missouri, in which they fell behind big early, all was going well at home for the Mountaineers against Gonzaga as they ran out to a 10-point second-half lead. When the Bulldogs had a spurt, Terry Henderson seemed to suppress it when he converted a four-point play with 8:16 left.

That’s when the Zags, not known for being defensive stoppers, clamped down.

Harris couldn’t find the same open shots he had during his hot start. He made just 2-of-5 attempts in the second half, including one 3-pointer after nailing four in the first half.

The Mountaineers shot just 37 percent, which marked just the third game this season the Bulldogs held a team to less than 40 percent shooting. That allowed them to hold West Virginia without a field goal for a seven-minute stretch and regain the lead.

Kevin Pangos, who had 18 points, hit three straight 3-pointers during a 13-0 run that gave the Zags the lead for good at 74-66 with 2:18 left.

While Pangos finished the Mountaineers off from the outside, it was the inside play of center Przemek Karnowski that powered Gonzaga throughout the game. Karnowski played perhaps his best game of the season, recording a season-high 19 points and a career-high-tying 13 rebounds.

People sometimes panic during the first few days of the college basketball season.

Kinks and flaws are magnified, even though the sample size is far too small to be used as evidence to produce a realistic conclusion about any program. That doesn’t stop us, however, from making assumptions.

From worrying.

From anticipating doom.

Think Virginia Tech’s fans care that the Hokies’ 64-63 loss to South Carolina Upstate on Saturday was just the first of many games? Think defending ACC champ Miami’s supporters feel calm after Friday night’s 66-62 loss to St. Francis (N.Y.)?

At least those teams had problems that were easily identifiable in the offseason.

Louisville, the defending national champion and No. 3 squad in the Associated Press preseason poll, probably prompted jitters within its fan base after its sloppy start against a bold Charleston program that was down just 49-45 with 6 minutes, 41 seconds to play Saturday at the KFC Yum! Center. A late run finished the Cougars.

But don’t believe the 70-48 final score. Charleston was tougher than that.

For a chunk of the matchup, Louisville was inefficient and ineffective. Missed layups and jump shots. Squandered fast-break opportunities.

Charleston forwards Adjehi Baru and Willis Hall combined for 15 points and 13 rebounds against Louisville. They were probably more comfortable than they would have been with 6-foot-6 forward Chane Behanan, currently serving a suspension, available for the Cardinals. Plus, Luke Hancock was injured.

[+] EnlargeMontrezl Harrell
AP Photo/Timothy D. EasleyMontrezl Harrell played 33 minutes in Louisville's season opener and had 10 points and eight rebounds.
Still, Louisville launched a 21-3 rally in the final 6:41 that was created by the full-court pressure that has killed the dreams of many Cardinals opponents in recent years. They were brilliant down the stretch.

So what was the problem before that run?

Well, this is not last season's Cardinals squad. That’s obvious, I know.

But Louisville in 2013-14 is different from the team that won the national championship trophy in April. No Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng.

Other players have accepted new roles. Wayne Blackshear goes from young reserve to critical piece in Rick Pitino’s rotation. Montrezl Harrell will play center at times this season when Louisville uses a smaller lineup. He averaged 16.2 minutes per game last season. He played 33 on Saturday.

Chris Jones, the highly touted junior college transfer, was solid in a Division I debut (12 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals) that justified the hype that preceded his arrival. Russ Smith (21 points) struggled from the field (1-for-5 from the 3-point line), but he helped the Cardinals finish strong.

Smith played the last three seasons with Siva next to him. He and Jones could be one of America’s best combos, but they’ll also play some rough basketball -- they certainly did Saturday -- as they continue to learn each other’s tendencies.

Until the Cardinals pulled off that impressive run in the final minutes, a loss seemed possible.

Blackshear, Jones and Smith were 15-for-44 from the field. The Cardinals made 22 percent of their 3-point attempts and 61 percent of their free throws. Not their best day.

But that effort shouldn’t serve as an exhibit for critics. The Cardinals are good. They’re versatile, athletic and relentless on defense. Charleston committed 21 turnovers.

They’re also a team in transition as new faces join old ones and players adapt to new individual expectations. And it showed throughout their first game of the season.

Louisville reached the Final Four in back-to-back seasons with a group that had learned from its experience in 2012 and used that to its advantage in 2013.

Although some of the same players from those teams are on this season's roster, the Cardinals lack continuity. A big part of that change involves Louisville’s switches at key positions (point guard and center) and its reliability on new players.

But the Cardinals can still build a similar level of chemistry. It will take time, though. Behanan and Hancock will return. Harrell and Blackshear will become more comfortable as starters. Freshmen Mangok Mathiang (seven points, 10 rebounds, one block) and Terry Rozier will grow.

But this isn’t last year.

That doesn’t mean Louisville can’t match that team’s achievements, because it can.

Moving forward after losing key players and asking others to assume different roles, however, is never an easy adjustment. Even for a national champion.

That rocky stretch in Saturday’s game proved as much.

And that’s all it proved.

Perfection is possible in 2013-14

November, 1, 2013
11/01/13
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John Calipari has assembled one of the most talented recruiting classes in college basketball history. Perhaps the best ever.

[+] EnlargeAlex Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsAlex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein will be joined by what might be the best recruiting class ever.
That's no exaggeration. With six McDonald's All-Americans and returning vets/NBA prospects Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky should be the favorite to win the national title.

There's even talk of a possible undefeated season.

And that's not a crazy thought. Multiple teams have come close to perfection in recent years. But they've all stumbled at some point.

We haven't had an undefeated college basketball squad since Indiana pulled off the feat in 1975-76. Will Kentucky or another title contender repeat the feat in 2013-14? We'll see.

But here's a list of the squads that nearly achieved perfection in recent years:

Kentucky (2011-2012), 38-2: Anthony Davis and Co. were clearly the nation's top team throughout the 2011-12 season. The Wildcats won the national championship with a team that featured six picks in that summer's NBA draft.

And they nearly finished that season without a loss. They won their first eight games before Indiana knocked them off their No. 1 perch with a 73-72 loss on Christian Watford's buzzer-beating 3-pointer in their ninth game of the year. Later that year, the Wildcats lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament. By then, however, they'd earned a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. But their rally in 2011-12 proved that an undefeated season is not a pipedream.

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Canaan
Joshua S. Kelly/USA TODAY SportsIsaiah Canaan and the Racers opened the 2011-12 season 23-0 before falling to Tennessee State.
Murray State (2011-12), 31-2: The Wildcats weren't the only team in Kentucky pushing for an undefeated campaign that year. Isaiah Canaan and Murray State nearly achieved that feat the same year that Kentucky won the national title.

The Racers won their first 23 games. And then, Tennessee State ended their streak with a 72-68 victory on Feb. 9, 2012. Canaan had 31 points that night, but it wasn't enough to help Murray State maintain its streak. Steve Prohm's squad won its next eight games but ultimately lost to Marquette in the third round of the NCAA tournament. It was a great ride, though.

Memphis (2007-08), 38-2: For Memphis, the 2007-08 season ended on the wrong side of "Mario's Miracle," after former Kansas star Mario Chalmers hit a crucial 3-pointer in the Jayhawks' national championship game victory over the Tigers. But it's easy to forget how good Calipari's team was that season.

Memphis was 26-0 before suffering a four-point loss to rival Tennessee on Feb. 23, 2008, that ended its 47-game home winning streak. Derrick Rose had 31 points in that game, and Tennessee star Chris Lofton struggled in a 2-for-11 effort, but the Vols still earned the win and ruined Memphis' bid for perfection. The Tigers won their next 12 games before their national title overtime loss against Kansas.

Illinois (2004-05), 37-2: What a heartbreaking season for Illinois. Bruce Weber's squad had everything any coach would want in a national title contender. Dee Brown and Deron Williams formed one of the nation's top backcourts. On March 6, 2005, Illinois possessed a 29-0 record. And then Matt Sylvester happened. The Ohio State reserve hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds of the Buckeyes' upset of Weber's squad that day.

Illinois won its next eight matchups and reached the national championship game, where it faced a stacked North Carolina squad. Sean May scored 26 points, and the Tar Heels shot 52 percent from the field in a win. Illinois wasn't perfect. But it was close.

Saint Joseph's (2003-04), 30-2: Phil Martelli's squad landed on the national radar when a pair of NBA prospects (Jameer Nelson, Delonte West) led Saint Joseph's on one of the most captivating runs of the last 10 years. Saint Joseph's won its first 27 games of the 2003-04 season.

But on March 11, 2004, the same Xavier squad the Hawks had defeated earlier that season shocked the program with an 87-67 victory in the Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinals. Critics suggested that the loss proved Saint Joseph's wasn't worthy of a top seed in the Big Dance. In the NCAA tournament, however, the Hawks defeated Liberty, Texas Tech and Wake Forest before suffering a two-point loss to Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight. The Hawks were good, just not perfect.
Somehow, college basketball practice will begin this week.

We can credit a new NCAA rule that allows teams to start practice two weeks earlier than past seasons.

It’s a great step. The earlier, the better. Throws off the traditional Midnight Madness schedule a bit, but we’ll adjust.

There are obviously a million storylines.

Here’s one of many: Every Final Four team from last season will feature a new point guard this year.

I don’t know. I think that’s interesting.

It’s even more intriguing when you consider the strength of the foursome. Louisville, Wichita State, Michigan and Syracuse all boast the talent to make another trip to the Final Four.

That potential, however, is tied to the performances of their new floor leaders.

Louisville: Peyton Siva to Chris Jones -- There’s a lot of buzz about Kentucky, but rival Louisville might be the best team in America. Chane Behanan, Luke Hancock, Wayne Blackshear, Russ Smith and Montrezl Harrell are all back. But Siva will not be easy to replace. He was Pitino on the floor, a point guard who manned the position for four seasons. Chris Jones doesn’t have that Division I experience. But he might be more talented. Jones, the consensus No. 1 junior college player in the country last year, should step in and help the Cardinals by giving the program a versatile and skilled point guard. Plus, he’ll have Smith in the backcourt next to him. That should make life easier on him. But his voice on the court and in the locker room will both be significant. Those are the traits that will be the most difficult for Pitino to replace.

Michigan: Trey Burke to Derrick Walton Jr. -- There are shoes to fill. And then, there are craters. The latter is closer to the situation that Walton will enter in his freshman season. Walton, ranked 30th in the 2013 class, is following Trey Burke. He doesn’t have to be Trey Burke. He can’t be. Burke won the Wooden Award last year and authored one of the most impressive performances in NCAA tournament history when he led Michigan over Kansas in the final minutes of a come-from-behind win in the Sweet 16. But Walton will still face pressure as the probable point guard for a Michigan squad that shouldn’t fall far in 2013-14. Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III are both potential lottery picks. They’re backed by talented veterans and freshmen. Let’s see how Walton adjusts to this grand role in his first season at the collegiate level.

Syracuse: Michael Carter-Williams to Tyler Ennis -- Jim Boeheim has a few holes to fill. But the Orange also possess a solid crew anchored by C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant. The biggest question centers on the point guard spot. Carter-Williams was a big point guard who created matchup problems on both ends of the floor. He could slash to the rim with ease. And he was the perfect player for the 2-3 zone. Ennis, a Canadian star in this summer’s U19 world championships, is expected to start at point guard for the Orange. The early praise is high for the 6-doot-2 guard. And he definitely has the pieces around him to guide Boeheim’s program deep into the tourney.

Wichita State: Malcolm Armstead to Fred Van Vleet -- Armstead, who transferred from Oregon, was a veteran leader who was physical and aggressive for Gregg Marshall’s squad. He was a strong defender. And he had no problem penetrating and willing his way to the rim when necessary or desirable. But he was also a leader in the locker room. All of those components helped the Shockers on their way to the Final Four last year. This is a team that was just a few plays away from upsetting Louisville in Atlanta. And some of the best players from that team return. Van Vleet, a former top-100 recruit, is not a new face. He will accept more responsibility, however, during his sophomore season. He might not be the scorer that Armstead was. But the Shockers could be more fluid with him running the show.

Nonconference analysis: Best of the rest

September, 11, 2013
9/11/13
11:55
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This week, ESPN.com has been breaking down the nonconference schedules of each team in nine of the nation's top leagues. Now let's take a look at the slates of a dozen of the top teams outside of those conferences.

BYU

Toughest: Iowa State (Nov. 20), CBE Hall of Fame Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Kansas City, Mo.)
Next toughest: at Stanford (Nov. 11), vs. UMass (Dec. 7 in Springfield, Mass.), at Oregon (Dec. 21)
The rest: Weber State (Nov. 8), Mount St. Mary's (Nov. 15), vs. Utah State (Nov. 30 in Salt Lake City), North Texas (Dec. 3), Prairie View A&M (Dec. 11), Utah (Dec. 14)

Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- With Tyler Haws back, BYU could steal the WCC crown from Gonzaga. The Cougars certainly will be prepared for the task. A home game against the Cyclones will be an early test for the program. The pot of gold in the Hall of Fame Classic could be a matchup against Final Four participant Wichita State (if BYU gets past Texas). Games against UMass and Oregon in December could be the kind of matchups that pull Dave Rose's team off the bubble on Selection Sunday, if they're successful.

FLORIDA GULF COAST

Toughest: at North Carolina State (Nov. 26)
Next toughest: at Nebraska (Nov. 8), Iona (Dec. 1)
The rest: Hartford (Nov. 12), at Furman (Nov. 15), Eckerd (Nov. 18), Ave Maria (Nov. 23), at FIU (Dec. 7), Samford (Dec. 14), at South Florida (Dec. 17), at Mississippi State (Dec. 19), Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)

Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Florida Gulf Coast's athleticism and acrobatics enhanced the NCAA tournament experience for everyone, as "Dunk City" became a national slogan. Well, FGCU's nonconference slate belies its playmaking ability. The Eagles' toughest matchups should be road games against a Nebraska team that finished at the bottom of the Big Ten last season and an NC State squad that lost most of its impact players. The trip to Vegas yields games against Florida A&M and either Radford or Sacred Heart. And it gets worse. You'll have to Google "Eckerd" and "Ave Maria." The dunks can't make up for this disappointing schedule.

GONZAGA

Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27), at West Virginia (Dec. 10), at Memphis (Feb. 8)
Next toughest: vs. Kansas State (Dec. 21 in Wichita, Kan.)
The rest: Bryant (Nov. 9), Colorado State (Nov. 11), Oakland (Nov. 17), Washington State (Nov. 21), Coppin State (Dec. 1), New Mexico State (Dec. 7), vs. South Alabama (Dec. 14 in Seattle)

Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- The Zags must recover from the loss of talented frontcourt duo Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk. But they're still talented enough to maintain their reign in the WCC. There will be little doubt if they succeed in the Maui Invitational. Matchups against Baylor and Syracuse could follow Gonzaga's opening round game against Dayton. A loaded Memphis squad could be a problem for the Bulldogs in February. Kansas State is less interesting because Angel Rodriguez and others transferred this offseason. The potential at the Maui Invite boosts this slate, however, especially because there's a strong chance we'll see those matchups.

HARVARD

Toughest: at Colorado (Nov. 24), at UConn (Jan. 8)
Next toughest: Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 28-30), Boston College (Jan. 1)
The rest: vs. Holy Cross (Nov. 10 in Boston), MIT (Nov. 12), Howard (Nov. 15), Bryant (Nov. 20), at Northeastern (Dec. 4), at Boston University (Dec. 7), Vermont (Dec. 21), at Fordham (Dec. 28), at Rice (Jan. 4), at Florida Atlantic (Jan. 21)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Tommy Amaker has one of the best rosters in Harvard history. He has the key players from last season's NCAA tourney squad. Plus, Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey are returning from last season's suspensions. We'll know more about the program's ceiling after it travels to Boulder to face Tad Boyle's talented Colorado squad. Harvard will encounter one of America's best backcourts when it goes to UConn in January. Not much beyond that. The Great Alaska Shootout features one of the weakest holiday tournament fields in the country. Nothing else in this lineup that would really interest the selection committee.

INDIANA STATE

Toughest: at Notre Dame (Nov. 17), at Saint Louis (Dec. 18)
Next toughest: Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 27-30)
The rest: Ball State (Nov. 9), at Belmont (Nov. 14), Truman State (Nov. 22), at Eastern Illinois (Dec. 7), at Missouri-Kansas City (Dec. 14), IUPUI (Dec. 21), Belmont (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The Sycamores are Wichita State's biggest challenger in the Missouri Valley Conference now that Creighton has moved on to the new Big East. Jake Odum and three other starters return. They'll have to get comfortable off campus. Road matchups against Notre Dame and Saint Louis will be their toughest nonconference games. The Sycamores play five true road games before MVC play begins, and that does not include the Great Alaska Shootout. The latter features a subpar field, but Indiana State could get Harvard in the title game at least. The program might regret two nonconference meetings with Belmont once Selection Sunday arrives.

IONA

Toughest: at Kansas (Nov. 19)
Next toughest: at Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 1), at Dayton (Dec. 19)
The rest: at Cleveland State (Nov. 9), Wofford (Nov. 16), George Mason (Nov. 23), St. Bonaventure (Dec. 14), at Nevada (Dec. 22), at Northern Iowa (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- Tim Cluess' program has reached the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons. And despite losing Momo Jones, the Gaels could return. Most of their starters from last season are back. Their nonconference slate, however, features few opportunities to boost their at-large resume. They'll play Andrew Wiggins and Kansas in Lawrence in November. George Mason, Florida Gulf Coast and Northern Iowa are all matchups they could lose. But even if they win all three, they'll probably need more quality wins to get some help on Selection Sunday.

LONG BEACH STATE

Toughest: at Arizona (Nov. 11), Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24), Creighton (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: at Kansas State (Nov. 17), at Washington (Nov. 30), at NC State (Dec. 7), at Missouri (Jan. 4)
The rest: Hawaii-Pacific (Nov. 9), Loyola Marymount (Nov. 14), USC (Dec. 19), Montana State-Billings (Dec. 21), at Nevada (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- Dan Monson's program dismissed standouts Kaela King and Tony Freeland in the offseason. But the 49ers still can win the Big West, especially with former UCLA guard Tyler Lamb becoming eligible after the first semester. They'll need everyone to step up to deal with this strenuous nonconference schedule. The program will face national title contender Arizona on the road in early November. The 49ers open the Puerto Rico Tip-Off with a matchup against Michigan, another national title contender. The tourney also includes VCU and Georgetown. Big East title favorite Creighton travels to the West Coast for a matchup in early December. The slate ends with a matchup against Missouri in Columbia. Now that is a nonconference schedule.

LOUISIANA TECH

Toughest: vs. Oklahoma State (Dec. 14 in Oklahoma City)
Next toughest: at Saint Mary's (Nov. 8), at Oklahoma (Dec. 30)
The rest: Centenary (Nov. 13), Central Arkansas (Nov. 20), Gulf Coast Showcase in Naples, Fla. (Nov. 25-27), at Jackson State (Dec. 1), UL-Lafayette (Dec. 4), Southern (Dec. 7), Northwestern State (Dec. 11), McNeese State (Dec. 17), at UL-Monroe (Dec. 22), Longwood (Jan. 4)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- Last season, Louisiana Tech won 27 games and cracked the AP's top 25 poll. The Bulldogs didn't reach the tournament, but they're still a potential favorite to win Conference USA in their inaugural season in the league. But they'll probably enter conference play with an inflated record. Their mid-December game against national title contender Oklahoma State is the only one that stands out. Road games against Saint Mary's and Oklahoma could be factors if Louisiana Tech is on the bubble at the end of the season. The Bulldogs' lack of quality nonconference wins hurt them last season. They at least have a shot at a few decent ones this season.

MERCER

Toughest: at Ole Miss (Dec. 22)
Next toughest: at Texas (Nov. 8), at Oklahoma (Dec. 2)
The rest: Reinhardt (Nov. 13), Seton Hall (Nov. 16), at Evansville (Nov. 18), Johnson & Wales (North Carolina) (Nov. 20), Yale (Nov. 23), at Ohio (Nov. 26), at Valparaiso (Nov. 29), Denver (Dec. 7), Alcorn St. (Dec. 16), St. Andrews (Dec. 27)

Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- Mercer brings back four starters from a team that won the Atlantic Sun's regular-season crown in 2012-13. That's the good news. But it's usually a bad sign when you have to Google some of the names featured on a team's nonconference slate. Yes, Johnson & Wales is a real school. Yes, Mercer is playing a bunch of high majors, too. But they're only high majors in name as 2013-14 approaches. Ole Miss should be its toughest game and the Bears have had success against the SEC in recent years. Texas has lost everyone, and Oklahoma has to replenish, too. Those three teams are not expected to contend for the title in their respective conferences. And then, there's Johnson & Wales.

SAINT MARY'S

Toughest: at Boise State (Dec. 14), Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25)
Next toughest: Louisiana Tech (Nov. 8)
The rest: Akron (Nov. 12), North Dakota State (Nov. 14), Drake (Nov. 16), Alcorn State (Nov. 24), Murray State (Nov. 30), Eastern Washington (Dec. 8), American University (Dec. 19)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- This is actually better than some recent Saint Mary's nonconference lineups. But it's still so-so, even for a Gaels program that must reboot after losing star Matthew Dellavedova. A road game against Mountain West title contender Boise State is probably Saint Mary's toughest game. The Gaels could see the Broncos again if they beat South Carolina in the opening round of the Diamond Head Classic. Iowa State might be waiting in the championship game. Louisiana Tech could win the Conference USA crown in its first season, so that November matchup should be meaningful. But the Gaels have just one true road game.

SOUTHERN

Toughest: at Florida (Nov. 18), at Arizona (Dec. 19)
Next toughest: at Marquette (Nov. 8), at Baylor (Dec. 22)
The rest:, at Middle Tennessee State (Nov. 10), Tulane (Nov. 13), at North Florida (Nov. 16), Arkansas-Little Rock (Nov. 22), Blue Mountain College (Nov. 25), at Denver (Dec. 3), at Louisiana Tech (Dec. 7), Dillard (Dec. 14), Champion Baptist College (Dec. 30)

Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- The squad that nearly upset No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament last season is ready to play the role of David again. Southern, a team that returns star Malcolm Miller, could ruin a few nonconference seasons for some of the country's best teams. The Jaguars kick off the year at Marquette. They'll face Florida in Gainesville a few weeks later. Then, they have back-to-back road matchups against Arizona and Baylor in December. That November game against Blue Mountain College is actually an anomaly on this challenging nonconference schedule. You taking notes, SEC?

WICHITA STATE

Toughest: at Saint Louis (Dec. 1), vs. Tennessee (Dec. 14 at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan.)
Next toughest: CBE Hall of Fame Classic (Nov. 25-26), at Alabama (Dec. 17)
The rest: Emporia State (Nov. 9), Western Kentucky (Nov. 12), at Tulsa (Nov. 20), Oral Roberts (Dec. 7), North Carolina Central (Dec. 22), Davidson (Dec. 29)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- The Shockers have elevated expectations after last season's Final Four run. With so much talent returning, a trip to Arlington in April seems feasible. Wichita State will get an early test against reigning Atlantic 10 champ Saint Louis, and then it will host SEC sleeper Tennessee a few weeks later. The Vols beat the Shockers in Knoxville last season. They could face BYU if they beat DePaul in the first round of the Hall of Fame Classic. Games against Bama and Davidson shouldn't be overlooked, either. But this slate lacks the power players you'd like to see a Final Four team encounter prior to conference play.
So ESPN’s College GameDay slate for 2013-14 is a beast.

There’s nostalgia, a chance at history, a few classic rivalries and a couple of meetings that could determine the hierarchy in top conferences.

The schedule, released by ESPN on Wednesday morning, is a tantalizing one for college basketball fans.

This is a stacked card without any filler, beginning with the Jan. 18 kickoff featuring La Salle vs. Temple at the Palestra. It should be a strong opening for GameDay, which will position its high-tech gadgets and cameras throughout a building that was constructed in the 1920s for the Big 5 rivalries in Philly. Perfect blend of the past and present. And that’s what preserves this game’s traditions.

Also, Digger Phelps, who is now healthy after a battle with bladder cancer, will be back with Rece Davis, Jay Bilas and Jalen Rose to enjoy this travel schedule:

2014 College GameDay Schedule

Jan. 18: Morning Show – Temple vs. La Salle (The Palestra); Evening - Louisville at UConn

Jan. 25: Michigan at Michigan State

Feb. 1: Duke at Syracuse

Feb. 8: Gonzaga at Memphis

Feb. 15: Florida at Kentucky

Feb. 22: Two options: Arizona at Colorado OR UCLA at Stanford

March 1: Kansas at Oklahoma State

March 8: North Carolina at Duke

Well, where should we begin? Here are a few thoughts on the GameDay schedule …

-- I think the most interesting game on the slate is the one that could shatter an NCAA record. Syracuse-Duke on Feb. 1 in the Carrier Dome should be a great welcome party for the Orange in its inaugural year in the ACC. And if the prognosticators are correct, it could break a record for on-campus attendance – assuming officials finalize plans to move the court to the center of the dome for the matchup. Officials: Please make this happen. Thanks.

Syracuse’s matchup against Georgetown in February, the final Big East meeting between the two teams, established the current NCAA on-campus attendance record (35,012).

But this goes beyond history. Both squads could be ranked in the top 10 entering the 2013-14 season. Multiple NBA prospects will be on the floor, including C.J. Fair, Jerami Grant, Rasheed Sulaimon and Jabari Parker. And Coach K vs. Boeheim doesn’t hurt the matchup’s appeal.

-- There’s been a lot of offseason trash talk between Michigan and Michigan State fans. On Jan. 25, the two national title contenders will begin to settle things when they compete at the Breslin Center in East Lansing. The Wolverines reached last season’s national title game. Michigan State will return the bulk of its team from last season. On paper, they’re even, in my opinion. Can’t wait to see this war.

-- And defending national champ Louisville will get a slot in a game at Connecticut on Jan. 18, the second matchup of GameDay’s opening slate. It will also be Louisville’s first and last appearance as a member of the new American Athletic Conference, which will soon become its former league as it moves to the ACC in 2014.

-- Andrew Wiggins, are you ready for GameDay? The crew will be in Stillwater, Okla., March 1 for Kansas at Oklahoma State. If these two teams live up to the hype, this game could play a pivotal role in the Big 12 title race. Same for Florida at Kentucky on Feb. 1 in the SEC. Yes, the Wildcats have the best recruiting class in history. But the Gators could snatch the crown, especially if Chris Walker is eligible.

-- Gonzaga will attempt to boost its 2-5 record against Memphis when the teams meet on Feb. 8. This has turned into a fun series over the past decade and the basketball-rabid fans of Memphis will have the FedExForum roaring for GameDay.

-- Ah yes, and the slate ends with one of the greatest rivalries in sports, North Carolina at Duke on March 8.

College GameDay just dropped the mic.

Feel free to get excited.
Need another reason to get excited for the 2013-14 season?

Well, let me help.

On Monday, ESPN.com’s NBA insider Chad Ford released his latest Big Board.Insider

Every year, Ford sifts through the multitude of college and international prospects to give us a sense of what next summer’s NBA draft might look like. It’s an important tool because it’s often difficult to assess the true pro potential of players at this level.

The 6-foot-7 kid with a 20.0 PPG average might look like a legit pro, but in the eyes of NBA scouts he could be a late second-rounder like Deshaun Thomas.

So this Big Board is a great barometer.

This new list, however, is different from the rest. I’ll let Ford explain:
The 2014 NBA draft is going to be epic. Our initial 2014 Big Board is one of the most talent-laden I've ever seen. There are as many as five to eight future All-Stars in this group. A number of teams deliberately gutted their rosters this summer to try to get as high as possible in the 2014 lottery. It's going to be big.

The day after the draft, we debuted our first Top 100 of 2014. The Top 100 is a reflection on the consensus of NBA scouts and general managers about a player's relative value in the draft. The Top 100 debuts each year the day after the NBA draft and is finalized the day of the draft.

The Big Board is different. This is a more detailed look at the top 30 players (essentially the first round of the NBA draft) in our Top 100. It tracks player movement and stock fluctuation and is filled with the latest intel from NBA scouts. The biggest takeaway from the first Board for 2014? Not only is the top of the draft stacked, but Kentucky is unbelievably talented.

We have seven Kentucky players in our Big Board -- something that's never happened before.
Whoa, right? Ford is suggesting that this might be one of the greatest pools of pro talent in league history.

And if that’s the case … what does that mean for the college game? It means that this should be a special year for us, too.

I can’t wait.

Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan all have multiple players on Ford’s Big Board. But check out the other gems on the list. Jarnell Stokes, Montrezl Harrell, Jerami Grant, Sam Dekker and LaQuinton Ross all made the cut, too.

Talented veterans such as Adreian Payne and Rasheed Sulaimon aren’t listed.

Then, there’s Kentucky. Seven possible first-round picks, per Ford. That’s ridiculous and amazing. That’s ridiculously amazing.

I’m not a fan of the NBA’s age limit. I think it’s an injustice to talented kids who should be allowed to make millions immediately following high school if they’re qualified.

But I’m also a big fan of the college game. And the rule is responsible for the fusion of incoming and veteran talent that could make 2013-14 one of the best years in recent college basketball history.

Get your popcorn ready now, folks.
The dust has finally settled in college basketball.

The transfers have transferred. New coaches are in place now. Most freshmen are on campus. So we can take a serious look at the 2013-14 season and the most valuable players in the game as we prepare for another season with this week's Count 'Em Down series in the Nation blog.

Here’s my list of the top 10 most indispensable players in America. Not necessarily the best players. Simply the ones who are most important to the success of their team.

[+] EnlargeMitch McGary
AP Photo/Morry GashAfter a monster NCAA tournament, Mitch McGary returns to the Wolverines.
10. Mitch McGary (Michigan) -- Even without Trey Burke, Michigan has the tools to win the Big Ten and demand an extended stay in the NCAA tournament. Glenn Robinson III, in a more flexible offensive role in 2013-14, could be one of the best wings in America next season. Nik Stauskas is back, too. Plus, John Beilein’s nationally ranked recruiting class features four-star point guard Derrick Walton, who might be a worthy successor to Burke, last season's Wooden Award winner. But McGary has to carry a lot next season. He was vital in Michigan’s run to the national title game in April. In a league that just lost Cody Zeller, Derrick Nix, Jared Berggren and Trevor Mbakwe, life in the Big Ten should be easier for McGary now. And if he’s effective, he’ll clear space for Michigan’s skilled wings and make the Wolverines a more dominant program.

9. Davante Gardner (Marquette) -- Buzz Williams’ squad could win the first championship in the new Big East. Junior Cadougan, Trent Lockett and Vander Blue are all gone, but multiple veterans return and a strong recruiting class will be in the mix, too. It’s all there for the Golden Eagles. So much of this team’s fate, however, will depend on Davante Gardner. He’s a unique player. Few men his size can move the way he does. But Williams doesn’t need the sluggish big man of last season, who would score 15 points one night and five the next. Williams needs the guy who tore up two of the top frontcourts in the country when he scored 14 points (5-for-7) in a win over Miami in the Sweet 16 and 14 points (6-for-9) in a loss to Syracuse in the Elite Eight. If that guy shows up, Marquette could be one of the most complete teams in the Big East and beyond. With the other version of Gardner, Marquette might be in trouble in the season’s late stages.

8. Russ Smith (Louisville) -- Rick Pitino received great news when Smith announced his return. He flirted with the NBA but ultimately decided to rejoin his teammates and make a run at another national title. The Cardinals will enter the season as strong contenders to defend their crown. Luke Hancock, Chane Behanan, Wayne Blackshear and Montrezl Harrell all return for the defending champs. But I can’t see Louisville on the podium again unless Smith competes at an All-American level in 2013-14. “Russdiculous” has been criticized for his mishaps (2.7 turnovers per game). But the Cardinals wouldn’t be the champs without him. The most explosive guard in the country (18.7 PPG, 2.1 SPG) is a two-way catalyst for a team that’s capable of winning its second consecutive championship. Louisville needs him.

7. Alex Kirk (New Mexico) -- Craig Neal’s presence suggests that life without Steve Alford might not be so tough for the Lobos. The former associate head coach offers the program a sense of continuity that is important for any team that suddenly loses a head coach … 10 days after he agrees to a multiyear extension. Neal will have star guard Kendall Williams, but first-round draft pick Tony Snell is gone. A multitude of newcomers and young faces will attempt to fill the void, but their contributions will be less significant than Kirk’s output. The 7-footer is a force when he wants to be. The underrated center scored 22 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in his team’s opening-round loss to Harvard in the NCAA tourney. Team’s attack him early to get him into foul trouble because they know he’s essential for the Lobos. But he’s a matchup problem for most opponents. And he balances the floor and helps New Mexico’s wings roam. The big man could be the key to a Mountain West title run and/or a lengthier stay in the NCAA tournament for the Lobos.

[+] EnlargeWichita State Shockers forward Cleanthony Early
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY SportsWichita State's Cleanthony Early gained national attention with his performance in the Final Four.
6. Cleanthony Early (Wichita State) -- There’s a lot of justified hoopla surrounding another team in Kansas. But Wichita State did reach the Final Four a few months ago. It should not be forgotten. And the Shockers were a play or two away from ruining Louisville’s championship run. But the 2013-14 version of the Shockers will not be the same team that rallied to Atlanta. Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead are gone, but Tekele Cotton, Ron Baker and multiple contributors from that team return. So this team still has a high ceiling entering next season, but only if Early fulfills his potential. Although his team lost a 72-68 war against Louisville in Atlanta, his performance (24 points, 10 rebounds, 2-for-4 from the 3-point line) put the country on alert. The 6-8 combo forward can hurt opponents many ways -- and if he does what he’s capable of doing in 2013-14, the Shockers could make another postseason run. If he’s the inconsistent player who never quite found a rhythm during last year’s regular season, the Shockers might go home early.

5. LaQuinton Ross (Ohio State) -- I initially had a different Ohio State player in this slot. Aaron Craft makes a lot of sense for many reasons. He’s the point guard on an Ohio State team that will demand his leadership. But my editor made me think twice. Right team, wrong player. Who will score for the Buckeyes next season if Ross doesn’t? The minimal draft buzz surrounding Deshaun Thomas made it easy to forget how good and important he was for the Buckeyes throughout his career. There’s a huge hole in the middle of the OSU attack that Ross could (must) fill. His explosion in the Big Dance (17 points against Iowa State in the third round, 17 points against Arizona in the Sweet 16, 19 points against Wichita State in the Elite Eight) proved as much. Thad Matta needs him to build off that effort and consistently provide that output for Ohio State in the future.

4. Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State) -- This one is simple, right? The best point guard in college basketball has to make this list. Yes, the Pokes suffered a messy opening-round exit against Oregon in the NCAA tournament. Without Smart, however, they would not have earned a 5-seed. And if Smart had decided to turn pro this summer, we wouldn’t be talking about Oklahoma State as the possible favorite to win the Big 12 championship. The stellar leader was the only college player who earned an invite to this week’s Team USA basketball minicamp. The core of last season’s Oklahoma State squad returns for 2013-14. And if Smart equals last season (15.4 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 4.2 APG, 3.0 SPG) or – gulp – tops it, then the Cowboys could play their way to Arlington next April.

3. Jahii Carson (Arizona State) -- Arizona State has quietly entered the preseason Top 25 conversation despite a 2012-13 campaign that concluded with four consecutive Pac-12 losses and a second-round exit in the NIT. But Jordan Bachynski is a legit center. And former Penn State standout Jermaine Marshall (15.3 PPG last season) will help the Sun Devils replace Evan Gordon, who transferred to Indiana. But Carson, an all-Pac 12 first-teamer last season, is the difference-maker for a program that will chase its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009. The speedy point guard averaged 18.5 PPG, 5.1 APG and 1.2 SPG last season. Those numbers might result in a preseason All-American nod for the sophomore. But he also averaged 3.5 turnovers per game on an Arizona State squad that was 91st in turnover percentage (18.5) last season per KenPom.com. Herb Sendek can’t afford those mistakes from a player who is vital to a team that has a chance to crash the Top 25 and make noise in the Pac-12 in 2013-14.

2. Doug McDermott (Creighton) -- McDermott is a perennial member of the All-Indispensable Team. I mean, what would Creighton be without him? Give coach Greg McDermott credit for putting the pieces around McDermott that have fueled his impressive run of success. Still, McDermott didn’t just elevate a program. He carried it to a new conference. The Bluejays were enticing to the new Big East because McDermott has made Creighton more nationally relevant over the last three years. Four of the team’s top five scorers from last season, including Grant Gibbs, return. With McDermott leading, Creighton could snatch the inaugural crown in the new Big East.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Wiggins
Cal Sport Media/AP ImagesPrep star Andrew Wiggins makes Kansas a title contender even though the Jayhawks lost some key members of last season's team.
1. Andrew Wiggins (Kansas) -- Let me explain, OK? I know Kansas would be fine without the No. 1 recruit in America. Even if Wiggins had taken his talents to Lexington or Tallahassee, the Jayhawks would have still been relevant in the Big 12. They have Perry Ellis, Memphis transfer Tarik Black and a solid recruiting class. Plus, Bill Self has won nine consecutive conference titles. But the only reason we’re talking about Kansas as a potential national title contender, despite losing two pros (Jeff Withey, Ben McLemore) and three other starters (Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson and Kevin Young), is because Wiggins is in Lawrence. No high school recruit has ever arrived with this much hype. He might not live up to it. If he does, however, it’ll be easy to see why he’s so indispensable.
Somehow, Fred Hoiberg is doing it again.

His method is clear. Since he arrived in 2010, the Iowa State coach has relied on junior college and Division I transfers to build the foundation of his program in Ames.

For many coaches, it either works well or it’s a disaster. There’s rarely any gray. But Hoiberg has turned the Cyclones into a successful hub for transfers. Four of his incoming players are junior college prospects.

The greatest challenge with that format, however, is turnover. Those kids don’t stay long, so you have to find young players who can anchor your program into the future.

And that’s the difference between the 2013-14 roster and Hoiberg’s past crews in Ames.

He has some young talent that could make the difference next season.

Georges Niang, a sophomore, is one of the top players in the Big 12. Iowa State is also adding ESPN top-100 recruits Matt Thomas and Monte Morris.

Plus, former Marshall standout DeAndre Kane (15.1 PPG, 7.0 APG), who is eligible immediately after graduating from his previous school, will be one of the league’s top point guards.

Forward Melvin Ejim is back, too. Even players who were lost in the mix in recent years might contribute next season.

Per Travis Hines of the Ames Tribune, Bubu Palo could be one of those players if his summer pro-am effort is any indication of his potential:
It’s all about the state of mind for Bubu Palo.

And right now, the fifth-year Iowa State senior is in a good spot after a big-time summer league performance.

“I’m in the gym,” he said, “but sometimes you’re in the game and you’re out there, if you’re not confident when you shoot it, you’re not necessarily going to make it as much.”

“My confidence is definitely up, so that’s probably why I’m shooting the ball better.”

Palo became just the second player in Capital City League history to average a triple-double, posting 33.8 points, 11.2 rebounds and 11.3 assists per summer-league game.

He attributed his success to confidence and recognizing there’s a chance for him to play a major part in ISU’s backcourt next season.

"Before, we had so many upperclassmen ever since I was here,” said Palo. “(Diante Garrett), Scott Christopherson, Korie (Lucious), other people they kind of had big expectations, I had a smaller role.

“With all them leaving, I feel like there’s a great opportunity for me, so I’m definitely in the gym trying to expand my game and definitely work on that, because there’s a lot of openings and a lot of good possibilities for me to step up this year.”

Palo looked to be a strong contender to start at point guard next season throughout much of the spring, but the Cyclones reeled in Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane, who is able to play both backcourt spots and will assuredly be in the starting lineup come November.

“I think (he) brings a lot and helps the team a lot more,” Palo said. “Experience, someone who’s been there, who’s seen a lot, who can bring it up the court. He’s got good size, so he can play off the ball, someone who can take the pressure off me to pick up sometimes. It definitely helps us a lot.

There’s a lot of talk about Oklahoma State and Kansas dominating the Big 12 race in 2013-14. And I can’t argue against that notion.

Andrew Wiggins might be the best player in college basketball. He’s surrounded by a talented group in Lawrence, too.

Oklahoma State has Marcus Smart and a collection of players who all underachieved in their early postseason exit a few months ago. But that’s a stacked squad.

But Hoiberg is building again in Ames.

A third consecutive NCAA appearance seems feasible. And if the young pieces contribute and the newcomers jell with the veterans, Hoiberg’s squad could be a serious factor in that Big 12 race.

Don’t forget about the Cyclones.
Editor's Note: Over two days, we're releasing the brackets/matchups for 11 of the top early-season events. A thread of previews and info for all 11 tourneys can be found here.

Tournament bracket for the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.

When and where: Dec. 22-23, 25 in Honolulu.

Initial thoughts: I like this field. No, it doesn’t feature any powerhouse programs. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle won’t be here. But I think this might be one of the most balanced brackets among the early tournaments. That’s why I’m intrigued.

Boise State is stacked. About 92 percent of the team’s offensive output from last season returns. The Broncos squad that reached the NCAA tournament last season only had one senior. Leon Rice’s program could be (should be) the favorite to win the Mountain West in 2013-14. And the Broncos are certainly a strong contender to win the Diamond Head Classic title. They have a clear path to the championship game. Hawaii returns two of its top three scorers from a 17-15 squad that couldn’t defend anyone last season (262nd in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com). Saint Mary’s enters the “Life After Matthew Dellavedova” era. Frank Martin’s 2013 recruiting class at South Carolina is a promising addition and a sign of progress, but it might take some time to fit all of the pieces together and that might not be enough to help a Gamecocks team that went 4-14 in the SEC in 2012-13. Boise State stands tall on this side of the bracket.

Iowa State, however, could be potent, too. Fred Hoiberg just signed a 1,000-year extension. So he’s going to be the coach in Ames forever. There’s stability now. And he has a true pillar in Georges Niang. The sophomore is a combo forward who will showcase his full arsenal in 2012-13. He can lead the Cyclones to their third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. A pair of ESPN top-100 recruits, Matt Thomas and Monte Morris, will be in the mix, too. And former Marshall guard DeAndre Kane (15.1 PPG and 7.0 APG 2012-13) will be eligible to compete next year after recently graduating. But Sherrod Wright and George Mason will put up a fight against the Cyclones. The Patriots, who are moving to the Atlantic 10, were second in the CAA in 3-point defense (31.6 percent allowed) last year. Iowa State led the nation in 2012-13 with 878 3-pointers. Oregon State is my sleeper pick to win the championship. Eric Moreland, the team’s top rebounder, returns along with Craig Robinson’s top three scorers from last year (Roberto Nelson, Devon Collier and Angus Brandt). The Beavers will open the tournament against an Akron team that lost shot-blocking savant Zeke Marshall and could be without suspended point guard Alex Abreu, who pled guilty to one count of felony drug trafficking last month.

But I’m intrigued by the parity and possibilities.

Matchup I can’t wait to see: Well, Isaac Fotu's afro is just one of the reasons I can’t wait to see the opening-round contest between Hawaii and Boise State. This will be one the first times Boise plays under the pressures that come with expectations. Last year, the Broncos surprised the country. Now, success is expected. The bulk of last year’s tourney squad is back. And now, the team could enter the season as top dog in the Mountain West. But squads unprepared for the spotlight have stumbled early in the past. Perhaps Hawaii will catch BSU at the right time and score a major upset in this game.

[+] EnlargeBoise State's Anthony Drmic
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsBoise State's Anthony Drmic averaged 17.7 points for the Broncos last season.
Potential matchup I can’t wait to see: Well, fast forward to Boise State versus Iowa State in the championship game. There’s a lot on the line for both teams. Boise State wants to meet the hype. Iowa State wants to prove that it can continue to build despite losing key veterans. Niang & Co. would make a huge statement with a victory over a Broncos team that might be in the Top 25 of the preseason polls. Boise State, however, would acquire the same momentum with a Diamond Head Classic title. Last season ended with a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament. It just wasn’t the team’s best night. The Broncos could erase that memory with a strong start in 2013-14. And a tournament victory here would be a great step toward achieving that.

Five players to watch:

Georges Niang, Iowa State: You might not know him yet. But you will soon. Last year, he averaged 12.1 PPG and 4.6 RPG and also made 39 percent of his 3-pointers. And Hoiberg is convinced he’s capable of more in 2013-14. He won’t have a choice. The Cyclones lost four of their top six scorers from last season. Niang has to deliver.

Roberto Nelson, Oregon State: His achievements were buried last year due to his team’s struggles. Although Oregon State lost 14 Pac-12 games, Nelson averaged 17.8 PPG. The 6-3 guard also made 40 percent of his 3-pointers. Can’t get too excited about a squad that struggled the way that Oregon State did a year ago. But Nelson is a star.

Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks, Boise State: Both Drmic (17.7 PPG) and Marks (16.3 PPG) cracked the Mountain West’s all-conference second team last year as sophomores. The two guards fueled a Boise State attack that was No. 33 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. The explosive duo could carry Boise State to another NCAA tournament appearance.

Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina: Frank Martin promised two things when he accepted the South Carolina job last year: more love for Pitbull and an upgraded recruiting pool. Thornwell -- ranked 41st among ESPN’s top-100 recruits in the 2013 class -- represents change at South Carolina. He anchors an incoming crew that’s ranked 23rd nationally by ESPN.com. The 6-5 guard could be the young stud that Martin needs to truly build the South Carolina program.

Title game prediction: All signs point to Boise State and Iowa State meeting in the championship. They’re clearly the most talented teams in the field. But the Cyclones might need some time to build chemistry, especially with Kane possibly seizing the starting point guard role. Boise State has the benefit of continuity. And the Broncos’ offensive attack is deep and versatile. I expect to see a close game because Iowa State is legit. But I think Boise State will win the title.

Who others are picking:

Eamonn Brennan: Iowa State over Saint Mary's
Jeff Goodman: Boise State over Oregon State
Andy Katz: Boise State over Iowa State
Jason King: Iowa State over Boise State
Dana O'Neil: Iowa State over Saint Mary's
Editor's Note: Over two days, we're releasing the brackets/matchups for 11 of the top early-season events. Starting Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET, we'll unveil the final six: Charleston, 2K Sports, Diamond Head, CBE, Wooden and Maui. A thread of previews and info for all 11 tourneys can be found here.

Tournament bracket for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Editor's Note: An earlier version of this bracket had a pair of incorrect matchups. We apologize for the mix-up.)

When and where: Nov. 21-22, 24 in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Initial thoughts: The bracket seems to grant Georgetown an easy path to the title game. Northeastern lost its top two scorers -- Joel Smith and Jonathan Lee -- from last season (29.9 PPG combined). And Kansas State is recovering from a tumultuous offseason that included the loss of Angel Rodriguez and Rodney McGruder. Georgetown’s opening-round opponent, Charlotte, had offensive issues last year (187th in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy) and now top scorer Chris Braswell is gone.

A title, however, is not a guarantee. The Hoyas will probably travel to San Juan without Greg Whittington, who recently tore his ACL. And the other side of the bracket is much tougher, even though Long Beach State is depleted after multiple offseason dismissals. Florida State struggled last season but the Seminoles were young so most of their roster returns, although they’ll miss Michael Snaer. Michigan is the obvious favorite. The Wolverines will be led by Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, a pair of players who would have been first-round draft picks last month had they decided to leave school after their team’s national title game loss to Louisville in April. Freshman Derrick Walton will probably follow Trey Burke as the team’s new point guard. He’ll be surrounded by a strong crew. VCU will be tough, too. The HAVOC defense helped VCU acquire the nation’s highest turnover rate last season. The Rams, however, lost point guard Darius Theus and Troy Daniels. Still, they haven’t lost much steam with a solid recruiting class and Florida State transfer Terrance Shannon in the mix now.

Things could get interesting on Friday in this tournament.

Matchup I can’t wait to see: Florida State has a lot to prove. Last season was a mess for Leonard Hamilton, who recently received a contract extension. His program has a chance, however, to make an early statement in the 2013-14 season with a win over a VCU squad that will be a Top 25 program entering the season. But Shaka Smart has some new faces, and his squad must identify a new leader now that Theus is gone.

[+] EnlargeMcGary/Robinson
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsMitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III could have been first-round NBA draft picks following Michigan's run to the national title game.
Potential matchup I can’t wait to see: Can you say rematch? The last time Michigan and VCU met, the Wolverines pummeled the Rams in the third round of the NCAA tournament. That 25-point victory was an embarrassment for a VCU squad that was completely out of rhythm from tipoff. But the Rams are deep again. And the Wolverines have a couple of potential lottery picks running the operation again. I’d love to see these two squads face off again in the semis.

Five players to watch:

Treveon Graham, VCU: The Rams are often praised for their defensive strengths. Last season, however, VCU proved its worth on offense, too -- averaging 78.0 points (11th in the nation). Graham, the team’s top scorer, was a catalyst. He averaged 15.1 PPG and 5.8 RPG. He also hit 36.6 percent of his 3-pointers. Graham doesn’t waste minutes, either. He had the Atlantic 10’s top offensive rating (118.1 per KenPom.com, among players who used at least 24 percent of their team’s possessions). Last season was a breakout campaign for this guy. If VCU reaches its ceiling, the 6-foot-5 guard/forward could earn All-American consideration.

Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, Michigan: After the Wolverines rumbled to the national championship game in Atlanta, many expected McGary and Robinson to take their talents to the NBA. The two youngsters had a chance to turn pro and make millions. But their decision to return means that the Wolverines will enter the season as Big Ten contenders again. There’s a huge gap at PG, a spot that was occupied by Wooden Award winner Trey Burke last season. With McGary and Robinson back, John Beilein has one of America’s top centers and one of the nation’s most versatile wings. This tournament will be an early opportunity for the duo to prove that Michigan is still potent without Burke.

Okaro White, Florida State: There’s a lot of pressure on White right now. Florida State will enter 2013-14 without top scorer and veteran Michael Snaer. Terrance Shannon transferred. And Leonard Hamilton will be forced to rely on some young players again in a league (ACC) that could be the nation’s best conference with the arrival of Pitt, Notre Dame and Syracuse. But White made major strides in his junior campaign. The 6-8 forward averaged 12.4 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.1 blocks. He hit 81.5 percent of his free throws, and he was 10th in the ACC with a 4.13 block percentage (KenPom.com). But can he lead this group? We’ll find out in Puerto Rico.

Markel Starks, Georgetown: Greg Whittington’s torn ACL jeopardizes his entire season and it also jeopardizes the Hoyas’ season. Three other starters from last season return. But it was much easier to view Georgetown as a threat to win the inaugural title in the new Big East when Whittington was healthy. To maintain that hope -- if Whittington can’t return -- Starks has to guide a team that still has some talented pieces from last season and will add UCLA transfer Josh Smith after the first semester. Starks did it all for Georgetown last year (12.8 points, 3.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 41.7 percent from the 3-point line). But the Hoyas might need him to do even more in 2013-14.

Title-game prediction: VCU over Georgetown.

The Hoyas should reach the title game, but I think they’ll face a VCU squad that’s equipped with a multitude of talent and depth. Smart has a rotation that could be 10-11 players deep. And even though he has lost a few veterans, he will gain the services of former top recruits Mo Alie-Cox and Jordan Burgess, two players who were academically ineligible for competition last season. And Shannon, the Florida State transfer, will be available, too. Smart’s HAVOC attack demands talent and depth, and he has both. This is the most skilled squad that he has had at VCU. That’s just too much for Georgetown to overcome, especially with VCU’s interior advantage (see Shannon and 6-9 forward Juvonte Reddic). These Rams will be dangerous. They’ll prove it in San Juan.

Who others are picking:

Eamonn Brennan: VCU over Georgetown
Jeff Goodman: VCU over Northeastern
Seth Greenberg: Michigan over Georgetown
Andy Katz: Michigan over Georgetown
Jason King: VCU over Kansas State
Dana O'Neil: VCU over Kansas State
The 2013-14 season should be a landmark year for ACC basketball. Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pitt will join the league next season. And Louisville will follow a year later in 2014.

The Big Ten has held the “best conference in America” title in recent years. But the ACC could be a juggernaut that overtakes the Chicago-based league next season.

But one of the vital components in the latter scenario involves North Carolina returning to a national perch following last season’s up-and-down campaign. And that possibility is tied to the availability of junior P.J. Hairston (14.6 PPG), the team’s leading scorer in 2012-13.

The details of his arrest earlier this month are still somewhat murky. But this much is clear: police discovered drugs in a rented vehicle occupied by Hairston and two other men, and a gun was found at the scene during the highly publicized stop in Durham, N.C.

On Monday, Roy Williams discussed the situation in a conversation with USA Today. Williams told the publication that he’s awaiting all the facts related to the case. But he also mentioned the he has “some ideas” of a possible punishment for Hairston, who opted to play another year of college basketball after considering the NBA a few months ago.

From Eric Prisbell of USA Today:
"We are doing one thing: We are waiting until all the information comes out," Williams told USA TODAY Sports on Monday. "The good thing is, I don't have to make a decision right now because we're in summer school, fall semester has not started, basketball has not started. We're going to wait and see what happens. I've got some ideas, but right now those ideas are staying in my mind.

"I am waiting until all the facts come in and then I will take care of everything that needs to be taken care of."

Now, I think Williams is right to wait until the facts are revealed. Can’t punish a guy without knowing his true role in the matter.

Midway through June, however, Tar Heels fans still don’t know how the incident will affect one of the most crucial members of a squad that is expected to compete for the ACC crown next year.

So it’s still a waiting game in Chapel Hill.
Editor’s Note: This month, ESPN Insider’s college basketball and recruiting experts are teaming up to examine how 15 of the nation’s best recruiting classes will fit in with their teams in the 2013-14 season. Today's featured program: Marquette Insider, which Dana O'Neil delves more into here. Check out the Nation blog each morning for a corresponding post on the key returnee for each of the 15 teams.

Marquette’s Davante Gardner is listed at 6-foot-8, 290 pounds, but he’s probably hovered above 300 throughout his career.

Despite his big frame, Gardner was a strong presence for Buzz Williams’ squad last season. He averaged 11.5 PPG and made 83.5 percent of his free throw attempts. He was ranked fifth in offensive efficiency (122.4 rating) among players who’d used at least 24 percent of their team’s possessions, per KenPom.com. He shot 59 percent from the floor.

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Jamie Rhodes/US PresswireIf Davante Gardner can stay in shape, he can reach another level with Marquette this season.
Yep, the Golden Eagles were embarrassed in that 55-39 loss to Syracuse in the Elite Eight. But Gardner, who went 6-for-9 and recorded eight rebounds, had 14 points.From Feb. 25 until the end of last season, Gardner shot below 66 percent in just one outing (1-for-4 against Butler in the third round of the NCAA tournament).

Vander Blue’s baffling decision to enter the NBA draft certainly affected projections for Marquette.

Still, Williams’ squad returns Jamil Wilson and Todd Mayo. Chris Otule has applied for a sixth year of eligibility. And Marquette’s incoming freshman class is ranked 11th by RecruitingNation. The reigning Big East tri-champ is not in rebuilding mode, even though Blue’s absence and the graduation of Trent Lockett present voids within the team’s perimeter presence that less experienced players will fill.

But the Golden Eagles will boast one of the nation’s top frontcourts, especially if Otule returns.

Gardner, the program’s most significant returnee, is a critical element in that prediction.We all recognize Gardner’s potential (see 26 points, 7-for-7 from the field, eight rebounds in Feb. 25 win over Syracuse). He was a member of the all-East Region squad in the Big Dance. He earned the Big East’s sixth man of the year honor, too. And he also averaged just 21.5 minutes per game. Consistency was a challenge throughout the year, although he finished forcefully.

This offseason is significant for Gardner. He has a chance to guide Marquette back to the NCAA tournament and the top of new Big East.

But Williams needs the big man to be in great shape so he can log more minutes. It wouldn’t be the first time that a hefty player slimmed down to help himself and his team. Glen “Big Baby” Davis was the size of a small SUV his freshman season at LSU.

By transforming his body and improving his conditioning, however, he’s made millions in the NBA. A similar makeover could lead to comparable strides for Gardner, too.

The demands are far more than physical, though. He’s a senior now, a leader by default in most programs. It’s an important quality for any upperclassman. He will demonstrate leadership with his focus and commitment to his overall game and conditioning this offseason. If he shows up to next season’s first practices in better shape, then I’m sure his teammates will have more respect for him.

That latter adjustment will also magnify his defensive impact because his position features lengthy, agile athletes with the quickness to maneuver around him. Enhanced conditioning will make Gardner a better and more versatile defender.

His rebounding numbers must improve, too. He has to be more explosive.

Let’s say Gardner is the same guy in 2013-14 that he was last year. That’s sufficient. He was one of the Big East’s top big men. He was productive and efficient.

But he hasn’t reached his ceiling.

There’s another level packed inside that large frame. We watched him dominate in stretches last season. He can do that again.

The truth, however, is that he can do much more for Marquette if he’s focused in the coming months.
Coach Mike Krzyzewski makes a lot of money.

That’s not surprising. Compensation for private-school coaches is not disclosed the way salaries are for coaches at public schools due to a bunch of legal stuff that I will not attempt to explain. “Private school” essentially means “we don’t have to tell you anything we don’t want to tell you.”

So although we always assume coaches at private institutions make as much, if not more, than their peers at public universities, we’re never 100 percent sure.

Tax records, however, show all and they’re public -- even for private schools. And by obtaining those documents, USA Today learned that Coach K made $9.7 million in total compensation in 2011.

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Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY SportsAccording to USA Today, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski's $9.7 million in compensation in 2011 is a record for a college coach.
That's not a typo.

That’s Lil’ Wayne money.

That’s a record, according to USA Today:
The amount is the greatest single-year compensation total for a college athletics coach since USA TODAY Sports began tracking the pay of football and men's basketball coaches in 2006. Louisville men's basketball coach Rick Pitino received a little more than $8.9 million in total pay in 2010-11.

Krzyzewski earned more than $7.2 million in the 2010 calendar year, and just less than $4.7 million in 2009.

The new return shows that Krzyzewski received:

  • $1,978,401 in base compensation, nearly the same as in 2010.
  • $5,642,574 in bonus and incentive compensation, nearly $1.9 million more than in 2010.
  • $1,982,097 in retirement and other deferred compensation, a little over $500,000 more than in 2010.
  • $59,616 in other reportable compensation such as family travel.
  • $19,344 in non-taxable benefits.

As a private school, Duke is not required to make public its employment contracts.

Duke Vice President for Public Affairs and Government Relations Michael Schoenfeld, who provided the return in response to a request from USA Today Sports, said the university does not comment on individual contracts.

However, in addressing Krzyzewski's overall compensation, he said: "By any measure, Coach K is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, college coach of all-time. This takes into account his 33 years of service at Duke, his unparalleled success as a head coach -- in 2011 he became the winningest (NCAA Division I) head coach of all-time -- his commitment to the academic achievement of the student-athletes and to Duke University."

Mike Krzyzewski is arguably the greatest coach of all time. He has four national championships and more Division I wins than any coach in history. Under him, the Blue Devils have been national title contenders (or winners) in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. Next season, he’ll have a national-title-contending squad led by Jabari Parker, a McDonald’s All-American and future lottery pick.

That’s an impressive legacy and true longevity.

But that’s a lot of dough, especially the portion that’s based on bonuses and incentives ($5.6 million).

“Hey, Coach K. Thanks for showing up today. Here’s another $100,000 ‘thanks for showing up bonus.’”

It’s still difficult to argue against Coach K’s compensation (nearly $2 million is deferred) if the barometer is based solely on what his peers currently receive.

But the discussion can’t end there.

I was all set to argue that Coach K deserves the cash, and suggest that there’s no reason to be upset about it. And then my man Eamonn Brennan chimed in and reminded me that Parker and his teammates won’t get a slice of that.

It’s a notable contrast.

Coach K makes nearly $10 million and the players who’ve fueled his success -- and escalating income -- get nothing beyond tuition, room and board. And that whole myth about college athletes having all of their expenses paid was challenged by a National College Players Association study, which revealed that the average athlete on a full ride paid more than $3,000 in out-of-pocket expenses to attend college during the 2010-11 school year.

So the debate will persist. It has now reached the courts with former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon leading a lawsuit against the NCAA, which involves compensation for athletes.

Coach K will continue to earn nearly $10 million per year. Probably more in the future. Parker, who will likely stay for just one year, will receive the opportunity to compete for a Division I program. That exposure will be vital in his mission to make a living in the NBA.

Without Parker, however, Coach K and his colleagues would not warrant the seven-figure salaries they currently receive.

So the idea of Coach K earning nearly $10 million and Parker & Co. potentially leaving Duke with debt is not easy to digest.
T.J. WarrenGrant Halverson/Getty ImagesT.J. Warren enters the 2013-14 season as the player under the most pressure for NC State.
An unprecedented buzz greeted NC State as it prepared for the 2012-13 campaign. Following a Sweet 16 run the previous season, the Wolfpack returned the most critical pieces of that rally.

C.J. Leslie decided to take his talents back to NC State. Lorenzo Brown looked the part of an All-American point guard. Richard Howell would anchor the paint. And McDonald’s All-American Rodney Purvis would help, too.

That was the mindset of voters who pegged NC State as the favorite to win the ACC last season.

That didn’t happen.

The Wolfpack finished 11-7 in conference play, good for fourth place. Mark Gottfried’s squad lost to Temple in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

And then, things really fell apart.

Leslie turned pro. Purvis transferred to Connecticut.

In all, Gottfried lost five of his top six scorers.

But the silver lining within the tumult was the return of 6-foot-8 forward T.J. Warren. The former McDonald’s All-American toyed with the idea of playing in the NBA but ultimately decided to return.

He’s the only returning player who averaged double figures in scoring last year.

Last season, Warren was just a young reserve who boosted the talent pool of a team that appeared to have it all.

He’ll enter 2013-14 as the leader of a youthful program facing a sharp turn in projections compared to a year ago.

Warren, a member of the ACC’s all-freshman team (media and coaches), could be the most experienced player in a starting lineup that will be forced to rely on the nation’s 14th-ranked incoming class per RecruitingNation.

Anthony Barber, BeeJay Anya and Kyle Washington are all top-100 kids who will probably start for NC State next season. They’ll look to Warren, a second-year man, for guidance.

It’s a dramatic and unexpected switch for the sophomore. But he’s equipped for it. On the court.

Warren showcased his abilities in multiple matchups last season. He had 31 points and 13 rebounds in a Feb. 19 win against Florida State. He registered 12 points or more in nine of the team’s final 11 matchups.

He shot 52 percent from the 3-point line and 62 percent from the field.

Warren won’t have to carry this program alone.

Veteran guard and LSU transfer Ralston Turner (12.3 PPG in 2010-11) will certainly help.

But this is Warren’s team. The Wolfpack will go as far he takes it.

He’s a durable inside-outside threat that any program would covet. He and his young teammates, however, will enter a gauntlet soon.

The ACC could be the toughest league in America next season. Pitt, Notre Dame and Syracuse will elevate the conference’s profile. But their arrivals also will make life for rebuilding programs such as NC State more challenging.

The grind of ACC play will be a true test for Gottfried’s young crew. And NC State must endure this stretch without much experience.

That’s why Warren’s leadership is just as significant as his production.

An NCAA tournament bid would be considered a surprising success based on the squad’s inexperience.

Warren has to be the anchor. Through everything.

No player in the ACC is facing more pressure right now.

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