College Basketball Nation: Big East
Kansas isn’t the only team in America that’s struggling right now.
Here are five other squads that might stumble into conference play due to some early problems.
- Notre Dame (7-3): The Fighting Irish entered the season ranked 21st in the Associated Press preseason poll. And that’s where the hype stopped for this new ACC member. Notre Dame’s upset loss to North Dakota State in South Bend, Ind., on Wednesday night was the team’s third of the year. In each loss, opponents have made at least 48 percent of their shots against Mike Brey’s squad (48 percent for Indiana State, 56.9 percent for Iowa and 51 percent for North Dakota State).
- BYU (8-3): The Cougars entered the week averaging 89.9 ppg, sixth in the country. They put up 112 points against Stanford, 90 against Iowa State and 96 against UMass. Tyler Haws and Matt Carlino comprise one of the best offensive combos in college basketball. But BYU’s poor defense could ruin its chances of snatching the West Coast Conference title from Gonzaga. The Cougars entered the week with the 318th-ranked scoring defense after giving up 80.4 ppg in their first 10 matchups. That’s a problem.
- Marquette (5-4): The Golden Eagles were picked as the Big East favorites prior to the start of the season. But they’re having a lot of trouble on offense. The backcourt that led Buzz Williams’ program to the Elite Eight last season is gone. And Marquette, 83rd in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom.com, just can’t score consistently. The Golden Eagles scored just 35 points in a November loss to Ohio State. They’ve failed to break 60 points three times this season. They have three players averaging double figures (Jamil Wilson, Davante Gardner and Todd Mayo) but they haven’t been consistent.
- UNLV (3-4): Most teams suffer after losing key players. But the Runnin’ Rebels’ problems are a combination of departures -- Anthony Bennett was the No. 1 pick in last summer’s draft and Mike Moser transferred to Oregon -- and limited cohesiveness due to a multitude of new faces. Bryce Dejean-Jones (13.3 ppg) is one of just three UNLV players who logged 5.0 mpg or more last year. Dave Rice’s program is 260th in adjusted offensive efficiency. That’s what happens when a team loses more than 50.0 ppg of production.
- Temple (4-4): Even without last year’s star Khalif Wyatt (20.5 ppg), the Owls appeared to be potential contenders for the inaugural American Athletic Conference crown before the season started. But Temple has a multitude of problems. The Owls are shooting just 43.7 percent from the field, 211th overall. They’ve also given up 74.8 ppg, the ninth-ranked scoring defense in the American thus far. And they’re also at the bottom of the conference in 3-point shooting (30.3 percent from beyond the arc). Where should Fran Dunphy begin? The list of problems is lengthy and it grew after Saturday’s overtime loss to Texas.
This summer, Georgia made one of the stranger and more random offseason personnel announcements in recent college hoops memory. In late July, incoming freshman and Switzerland native Dusan Langura, was injured in an explosion during a military training exercise. Since World War II, Wikipedia soon clarified, all Swiss males between 18 and 50 have been required to enlist in the nation's army and maintain their uniform, weapon, and ammunition in their homes. You know, just in case.
Langura eventually made it to Georgia, but his story was a reminder of a few things. American college basketball is a thoroughly international game, and there are still plenty of places in the world -- even banking powers in the developed world that haven't engaged in armed conflict since 1815 -- where the idea of being a member of the armed services is a mere fact of life.
Israel is one such place, and far more famous for it than the Swiss. At the age of 18, Israeli citizens are required to report for Israeli Defense Forces enlistment and training. Males are required to serve for three years; females for two. As the Star-Ledger's Brendan Prunty reports, one of those males is Seton Hall guard Tom Maayan, whose redeployment to the IDF cut short his basketball career in rather sudden and emotional fashion Tuesday night.
Why so sudden? Maayan was originally ordered into basic training this summer. But through "lobbying and politicking with the Israeli government," Prunty writes, SHU and Maayan's guardian were able to get an exemption to play for the Pirates this season. In November, that exemption was shortened to 120 days. Seton Hall kept up its push, but the reprieve officially ended Tuesday night after the Pirates' win over NJIT. Coach Kevin Willard made the news public after informing an "emotional" locker room.
"I think the yo-yoing was tough for everybody," Willard said after in the hallway of the Prudential Center. "It was tough for him -- those are his teammates, his family. His extended family. Leaving them wasn't easy. It wasn't easy last time and it wasn't easy this time, either. But it is what it is."
"We knew about it, but it was definitely tough," [teammate Sterling] Gibbs said. "Tommy's like a brother to us. It's like losing one of your brothers."
Unlike last time, the departure will end Maayan's career. Maayan didn't speak with the media, but he seemed to take a positive tone on Twitter.
unfortunately It was my last game as a pirate..Love my teamates coaches and the Shu fam! Thanks for all the love! #SHUBB#PIRATE4LIFE— Tom Maayan (@TomMaayan) December 11, 2013
Good luck, Tom.
For most of the season, Providence has been without Dunn, who re-injured a torn labrum in his shoulder during an exhibition game back on Nov. 2. Dunn missed the first three games of the season, returned for four (against Vermont, Vanderbilt, La Salle and Maryland), played a combined 106 minutes, during which he averaged 3.8 points and posted a drastically low 69.8 offensive rating. He clearly looked hurt, in other words, and both player and program seem to be making the prudent decision: repair, heal, take your time.
That decision might be less of a blow to Dunn than the original injury, or these weeks of stop-and-start hope. The sophomore guard arrived at Providence alongside Ricky Ledo, backcourt gems of Cooley's startling 2012 class, and neither player's career has gone as planned. Ledo, a top-five point guard, failed to qualify academically, never played a game in a Providence uniform, and went pro at first opportunity. (There is an argument to be made that Cooley should have known as much and stayed away, and maybe he did. But was the risk not worth taking?) Dunn's ordeal is just plain bad luck: He missed most of his freshman year with the first torn labrum instance last fall, and he still hasn't had a chance to really play healthy, worry-free basketball.
What's worse, this year's promising pair of recruits -- four-star forward Brandon Austin, the No. 12-ranked small forward in the country; and Rodney Bullock, a three-star win -- haven't played a minute between them. Both players were suspended indefinitely by Cooley for team rules violations; they have yet to be given a reprieve.
Fortunately, Cooley has seniors Bryce Cotton and Kadeem Batts, junior LaDontae Henton, and sophomores Tyler Harris and Josh Fortune. Cooley has recruited well, despite the mishaps; he has a quality blend of players. But a Big East title run, or an NCAA tournament berth? Those expectations, like Dunn's injury, might require more patience.
There was a dark period for the Golden Eagles near the turn of the millennium (Marquette missed the NCAA tournament from 1998 through 2001), but they rebooted under Tom Crean and Buzz Williams. The Badgers haven’t missed the Big Dance or a 20-win season under Bo Ryan.
But Marquette still owns a 55-64 record in the series, as the two programs prepare for another intrastate battle on Saturday.
This year, Buzz needs the win more than Bo. Marquette is approaching desperation in its quest for the resume-boosting nonconference victories that will pay off on Selection Sunday.
A series of mishaps in holiday tournaments diminished the Big East’s buzz. The conference’s contenders failed in recent nonconference matchups that would have enhanced their respective NCAA tournament hopes/seeds.
Marquette was pegged as the preseason favorite to win the new Big East. And the Golden Eagles are certainly talented enough to fulfill that prophecy. But they’re struggling right now after losing to Arizona State and San Diego State in two of their last four games.
And they’ll face their toughest and most significant test when they meet the Badgers over the weekend. Both squads feature defenses ranked in Ken Pomeroy’s top 20 for adjusted efficiency.
Wisconsin’s offense has improved (14th in adjusted offensive efficiency) this year, but Marquette can’t find consistent scorers.
The Golden Eagles, 103rd in adjusted offensive efficiency compared to 25th last season, are still searching for offensive continuity following the departures of Vander Blue, Trent Lockett and Junior Cadougan (30.3 PPG combined).
How will they score? On Saturday? In the games after that? During the conference season?
Solving that riddle against a Badgers squad that gave up just 38 points in a win over Virginia in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on Wednesday will be difficult.
The Golden Eagles won’t have a prayer unless they spread the load.
Jamil Wilson (10.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG) and Davante Gardner (14.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG) have done the bulk of the offensive work this season. But they’ve been inconsistent, too. Williams needs more offensive production from a unit that features multiple freshmen. And he needs his team’s stars to be go-to players every night.
This might be the team’s last chance for a meaningful nonconference win.
Saturday’s game might not be a must-win for Marquette. But it’s close.
Inside, the media converged upon the tables that hosted Buzz Williams, Doug McDermott, John Thompson III and Steve Lavin.
Meanwhile, Jay Wright sat across the room, answering a series of questions from a smattering of reporters. At times, his players took out their smartphones to deal with their boredom.
Few seemed anxious to talk to them.
Villanova was not the story at Big East media day. It wasn’t even the sidebar.
But now, the Wildcats are the fairy tale.
In one weekend at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, everything changed for Wright’s program.
Villanova was David when it beat No. 2 Kansas 63-59 on Friday night. By the end of its 88-83 come-from-behind overtime victory over Iowa on Saturday, it looked like the Goliath of the Big East.
Ryan Arcidiacono played cold-blooded basketball in back-to-back nights. The sophomore point guard hit the game-winning 3-pointer in Villanova’s win over Kansas on Friday, and he made a pair of critical buckets in the final minutes of regulation against the Hawkeyes the following day.
James Bell, the tourney MVP, registered 20 points against the Hawkeyes. With JayVaughn Pinkston, Darrun Hilliard, Dylan Ennis, Josh Hart and Arcidiacono, the Wildcats have a sturdy, versatile roster.
They roared back from a 15-point deficit against the Hawkeyes. They held the Jayhawks to a season-low 59 points.
Villanova is ranked sixth in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings. The Wildcats are ranked 22nd in defensive turnover percentage.
In a 24-hour stretch over the weekend, the Wildcats proved that they can rumble in a shootout or apply the vice to one of America’s most efficient offenses when necessary.
Most of the Big East can’t say the same right now.
Georgetown is on a three-game winning streak, which includes an upset of VCU.
But Butler suffered back-to-back heartbreaking losses to Oklahoma State and LSU in the Old Spice Classic. Meanwhile, Greg McDermott needs to call John Calipari and orchestrate a trade for Willie Cauley-Stein after post players for San Diego State and George Washington helped their respective squads toss Creighton out of the Top 25 with a pair of upsets in the Wooden Legacy. Marquette couldn’t topple the Aztecs in the same tourney on Sunday night, either.
Providence won’t see many teams that rival the Kentucky squad that defeated it by 14 points on Sunday, but the Friars’ offense (114th in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom.com) should be a concern.
Villanova, however, is undefeated. Unblemished.
The Wildcats were feisty as they grabbed an NCAA tournament bid a year ago. But their dominance in the Battle 4 Atlantis illuminated the idea that they might be capable of much more this season, including a Big East title.
A lot changed for Villanova and the Big East over the weekend.
I hope Wright is ready for the interview requests that will pour into his office this week.
It’s a fitting change since the Wildcats are the Big East’s headliner now.
The wrong statistic can hang around your neck. Josh Pastner knows better than most.
As the head men's basketball coach at Memphis, Pastner has, by any rational standard, been about as successful as anyone could or should have hoped when he was hired five years ago. He has landed almost uniformly excellent recruiting classes. His Tigers have been to the NCAA tournament in three out of four seasons. He has averaged a tidy 27 wins a season. (Twenty-seven wins while playing in the limping Conference USA, but still: 27 wins.) This is what basketball success typically looks like.
But for a couple of years now, a pair of oh-fers have hung around Pastner's neck like anvils. He exorcised the first last season, when he got his first NCAA tournament win as a head coach. The other -- a far more valid, and less circumstantial, bit of evidence: Pastner's 0-13 record against top 25 teams -- mercifully ended in Orlando, Fla., against No. 5 Oklahoma State on Sunday night.
And that's not all: Memphis's 73-68 win in the Old Spice Classic provided was a massive boost, both internally and outwardly, for a team that was embarrassed by the Cowboys in Stillwater on Nov. 19.
You probably remember that Nov. 19 game. Even if you didn't watch it, you surely caught some of the highlights. Marcus Smart scored 39 points in a performance that set the tone for what will be an ongoing player of the year award chase. He shot 11-of-21 from the floor and hit five 3-pointers. He helped put the Cowboys up by 36 points in the second half; they would eventually finish with 101. Smart launched heat-checks and tossed lobs to teammates. He turned the whole thing into a laugher, a pre-coronation for America's favorite college player, and the only thing more noticeable than his greatness was just how disjointed, apathetic and -- let's just come right out and say it -- soft Memphis looked in repose.
For a team with a deep and experienced core of guards, and huge preseason expectations in and outside hoops-obsessed Memphis itself, the Stillwater showing was nothing less than disaster. All of the old complaints came roaring back onto the radio: Pastner was a nice guy, and sure everyone was cheering for him, but he couldn't coach. His teams didn't get it. They gave up. They always underachieve. They can't win the big game. The abbreviation for Amateur Athletic Union, as cutting a coaching epithet as there is, was sprinkled liberally throughout.
It's a little bit difficult to translate how much better Memphis was Sunday, just 12 days after that 101-80 caning. They were better in all of the obvious, technical ways, namely on defense, where they played Oklahoma State's ball-screens and side-to-side movement actions almost immeasurably better than they did in Stillwater. Two weeks ago, Memphis sat back and let Smart do whatever he wanted. On Sunday, they were active on the first touch, denying possession when possible, playing through and over and around screens, and communicating to keep the ball in less damaging places. The number of clean touches Smart got at the top of the key in space Sunday was low, if it wasn't zero.
He was still awfully good. The first half ended on a pair of brilliant Smart drive-and-dishes, when he exploited angles and found open teammates for easy lay-ins. Oklahoma State bounced off a precocious Memphis start and opened up a 10-point lead at halftime, 42-32, and it was hard to picture Memphis keeping up with the unbeaten Cowboys for 20 more minutes.
But the aforementioned Tigers defense held Oklahoma State to just eight points in the first nine minutes of the second half. They were better on offense, too: Better spaced and more cohesive and sharper in every way. Former Missouri transfer Michael Dixon provided that same quick-twitch scoring he perfected for those other Tigers; Joe Jackson grabbed eight rebounds from the guard spot; and, most impressively, Shaq Goodwin was at once a reliable scorer, rebounder, interior passer and energy source for Memphis for all 39 of his minutes Sunday.
Smart was clearly sick in the first half; Memphis may have caught a break there. But so what? On a night they started in a deep perception hole -- just another Memphis team full of talented guys who won't reach their maximum potential, or whatever the nightmare description in the Tigers' otherwise successful basketball community these days -- Memphis came away with a defensively oriented victory against one of the best teams, and probably the best player, in the country.
And Pastner, for his part, got out from under a rather heavy piece of statistical jewelry. Memphis finally punched back.
She and he got it. pic.twitter.com/9oRdGMPei0— L. Jason Smith (@TheCAJasonSmith) December 2, 2013
Not enough for a player who could have been the No. 1 pick in last summer’s NBA draft. The No. 1 recruit in America can’t be ordinary.
Between the Villanova loss and Saturday's victory over UTEP, (Wiggins had 17 points against Wake Forest on Thursday, I know), the freshman standout went 5-of-17 from the field, committed 5 turnovers, registered a 5-for-11 clip from the charity stripe, scored 16 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
The Jayhawks’ struggles cannot be assigned to Wiggins alone and yes, even the best have bad nights. Kansas was outhustled, outplayed and outworked in three of four halves in its last two games in the Bahamas.
But Wiggins never grabbed his cape.
Jabari Parker doesn’t have that problem. Duke’s superstar is not flawless. He’s not as athletic as Wiggins. And most NBA general mangers would probably admit that Wiggins has a higher ceiling. But Parker is the better player right now. And it has nothing to do with talent.
They’re both talented. But Parker is more assertive, especially on offense.
He knows exactly who he is every time he steps onto the court. Parker assumes that wins and losses rest on his shoulders. That’s not true, but stars think that way.
They accept the reality that they’ll be accused of playing “hero ball” when those instincts emerge and they fumble in clutch situations. They’re just called heroes when those tactics work.
Even in Duke’s losses, Parker (23.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG and 1.8 blocks per game) was relentless. He should be the No. 1 pick right now on the mock draft boards of smart NBA executives.
But that discussion can wait.
I just wonder if Wiggins knows how good he can be if he just turns those flashes of greatness -- see Wiggins splitting the UTEP defense on Saturday with ridiculous agility and explosiveness on one of the prettiest plays of the evening -- into sustained bursts of brilliance. The kind we all expected when he switched graduating classes and topped Parker to become the unanimous No. 1 recruit in 2013.
Kansas won’t reach its potential if Wiggins falls short of his. And so far, he has.
He’s not the player that he could be.
And a lot of that has to do with the adjustment that every freshman must make from high school to college. Wiggins has to figure out his new teammates. He has to learn their tendencies. He has to gain a better understanding of Kansas coach Bill Self’s system.
And it’s not easy to do that -- even for veterans -- a month into the season.
But there’s no excuse for the imbalanced offensive aggression.
To transition into one of those takeover moments.
It never happened.
Self continues to preach Wiggins’ value to his team and the freshman’s ability to make his teammates better. And he’s right. Wiggins’ sheer fluidity and versatility make life easier on the rest of the Jayhawks.
He draws double-teams and frees up space for Perry Ellis and Joel Embiid. Wiggins can handle the ball, which always makes it difficult for opposing coaches to find defenders who can stay in front of him.
He makes an impact. Just not a constant impact.
Kansas wants to win its 10th consecutive Big 12 crown and a national title. But it won’t get there unless Wiggins plays more like Parker.
The critics will ask for mercy on the youngster. They’ll plead for patience as Wiggins matures. He deserves that. All freshmen do. And he’s off to a good start.
No one, however, faces a higher standard.
Wiggins is a very skilled athlete. He has more potential than any player in the country. And he must prove that consistently in the coming months.
That has nothing to do with the race to be the No. 1 draft pick next summer. The NBA will figure that out.
Wiggins has to be more effective and deliberate, because that’s the only way that the Jayhawks will earn a trip to Arlington, Texas, in April and compete for the ultimate crown. It’s that simple.
There is always danger in the sentimental hire.
Just ask NC State. In spring of 2006, after the conspicously unloved Herb Sendek fled Raleigh, N.C., for Arizona State, Wolfpack fans got one of their own: Sidney Lowe, point guard for Jim Valvano's legendary 1983 title team, a man with no shortage of blood-red sportcoats. After a decade bouncing around various NBA jobs, Lowe had come home, and the Wolfpack family was ready to fall back in love.
Five years, 86 wins and zero NCAA tournament berths later, Lowe was fired. Such are the perils of sentiment. The warm and fuzzy hire is not always the right one.
Three years ago, when Iowa State coach Greg McDermott saw the writing on the wall, the Cyclones went sentimental, too. It was fair to raise concerns about Fred Hoiberg. He was an Iowa State legend with a solid NBA track record and zero experience as a college coach. Sound familiar? But Hoiberg has defied any such concerns. Not only have his teams been immediately successful, they've been thrilling, too. Iowa State is as consistently entertaining a program as there is in college basketball; Hoiberg is one of the hottest names in the sport.
Third-year Providence coach Ed Cooley, a hometown kid who struggled in the poverty of South Providence before scratching his way into college basketball -- first as a player then a coach -- appears to sit far closer to the Hoiberg end of the spectrum. Three years in, the jury is leaning that way, but it is still out.
It is this season -- and, in the immediate term, this weekend -- that will tell us much about whether that verdict should stick.
Why this weekend? After three years of suddenly competitive recruiting and steady on-court improvement, Providence has begun its 2013-14 season 4-0. That's all well and good, but the only notable win came on opening night at home against a better-but-hardly-elite Boston College. But this weekend at the Paradise Jam, Providence's mix of impressive seniors (Bryce Cotton, Kadeem Batts) and emerging sophomores (Josh Fortune, Tyler Harris, former top-five guard prospect Kris Dunn, who is still recovering from a shoulder injury) get a mix of totally winnable but nonetheless intriguing tests. The first comes in Friday's opening round against a depleted Vanderbilt, but the especially interesting stuff comes later -- a possible second-round matchup with La Salle, and a shot, if seeds hold, to play Maryland in the title game next week.
A few months ago, you'd have picked Maryland to win the Paradise. But the Terps have stumbled -- they allowed 90 points in a home loss to Oregon State Sunday night -- while Providence has looked like a top-half Big East team or better.
Early as it is, this is one of those prove-it weekends for Friars hoops, and for Cooley generally. Providence should get to the NCAA tournament. It should be better this year. Cooley's resurrection of a proud but long-dormant program should continue. Should the Paradise Jam be a referendum on all of the above? Of course not. But these are the kinds of games you win on the way there.
The Atlantic 10 is again a sneaky deep conference this season -- as UMass proved early with its wins over Boston College and LSU -- and I think the Hawks are a sleeper.
Saint Joseph’s is motivated after losing to Creighton in a big way, 80-51 last season, when the teams met in Omaha, Neb. But Saturday’s meeting could be much different. For starters, it’s in Philadelphia, where the Hawks are always tough.
Plagued by slow offensive starts last season, Saint Joe’s appears to have benefited from taking a foreign tour and playing games in Italy this summer. Guard Langston Galloway may not have picked up Italian, but so far he's been fluent in scoring. The 6-foot-2 senior is averaging 20.5 points and is a major reason why it seems the Hawks’ scoring problems from a season ago are in the past.
Forward Ronald Roberts Jr. is a much better player than he showed in last season's meeting, when he was limited to 1-of-3 shooting and finished with just three points and five rebounds. Roberts is averaging 18.5 points and 9.5 rebounds through two games.
In addition, the Hawks are not likely to repeat their forgettable first half against Creighton last season when they shot just 29 percent from the field, scored 20 points and ended up trailing by 27.
The Bluejays are hovering as the first team in the “others receiving votes" in both the Associated Press and USA Today coaches' polls. A win likely gets them ranked next week. You have to admire coach Greg McDermott for playing a true road game so early in the season, but with his veteran lineup, there’s good reason to take that risk.
Senior forward Doug McDermott manages to make his 28.5 scoring average through two games look mundane. But what’s been a bit surprising is the emergence of Devin Brooks. The 6-2 junior college transfer is a reserve who is averaging 9.5 points and leads the team with 7.5 rebounds per game.
The kind of character that college basketball fans fall in love with each season. The type of young man who gets shout-outs from rap stars on Twitter. A player whom the cameras always monitor because you never know when he’s going to explode, athletically or emotionally.
Maybe they’d start calling him Dougie B-Ball, America’s idol.
Here’s a 6-foot-8 forward who hit nearly half of his 3-pointers last season, when he was second in the nation with a 23.2 PPG average.
On Monday, McDermott scored 37 points -- seven shy of his career-high -- in the first 28 minutes of Creighton’s 96-70 win over UMKC on Monday. He went 15-for-25 from the field, 5-for-10 from the 3-point line.
Sure, he’ll get a "SportsCenter" plug from that effort. Not much else.
McDermott just doesn’t have the persona that will elevate his national profile. He’s a nice kid who lives in Omaha, Neb. And he’s committed the ultimate sin in college basketball: consistency. There’s nothing sexy about that.
He has been embarrassing opponents at all levels for the past three seasons. He even came back for his senior season so he could showcase his skills in the new Big East.
If he has another Doug McDermott-like campaign this season, he might end his career with a national player of the year trophy and a third consecutive first-team All-American honor from The Associated Press. If he achieves the latter, he’d be the first three-time first-team AP All-American since a few guys named Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale did it 30 years ago.
An exclusive club.
Perhaps this will be the season that McDermott receives the credit he deserves for compiling one of the most impressive runs in college basketball history.
The young crop of talent has certainly overshadowed McDermott to date.
Marcus Smart could have been a top-three pick but he returned to Oklahoma State for his sophomore season. John Calipari basically recruited the Boston Celtics. Kentucky’s six McDonald’s All-Americans occupy their own orbit within college basketball’s galaxy.
Andrew Wiggins would have been the No. 1 pick in last summer’s NBA draft. Now he’s a freshman for Kansas in what will certainly be a short stint at this level. Same for Duke’s Jabari Parker.
It’s not McDermott’s fault that this season boasts one of the greatest freshman classes in NCAA history. But that fact makes him easier to overlook in the conversation for national player of the year.
He’s not as athletic as some of the 18- and 19-year-olds who just arrived. He’s not as flashy or dazzling, either.
But that’s not the only thing holding him back from superstardom.
McDermott is a bit ordinary.
I spent some time with him in New York City during Big East media day last month. You wouldn’t believe how he conducted himself during interviews. He was so professional and mature about everything. He didn’t call Georgetown out or say that Creighton would “wipe the floor” with Marquette. He didn’t say that this season is about “my legacy” or “my team” or “my money.”
He wasn’t suspended indefinitely prior to the season. No off-court mischief, which is always easier to avoid when the head coach (Greg McDermott, his father) can legally take your car keys.
So he’s not as interesting as some of the controversial figures who dominated the airwaves and headlines throughout the offseason.
Maybe a little drama -- an NCAA scandal, maybe -- would have helped him garner more national recognition for his accomplishments. More magazine covers. More photo shoots.
McDermott has always maintained a low profile. That’s the way he wants it. Trust me. He doesn’t seek exposure.
But he deserves more of it.
That thing he did on Monday? That was just Doug McDermott being Doug McDermott. Putting up 37 points against an overwhelmed team is not that extraordinary for him.
He’ll do the same against better squads in the Big East. Doesn’t matter whom you put in front of him.
It will always be difficult to stop a 6-8 forward who hits 50 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Yet it’s still possible that McDermott will be undermined in the final discussions about the game’s best players this season.
If only he’d pop his collar more often or tweet criticism about his coach or put the ball between his legs every now and then, maybe he’d become more relevant nationally.
Instead, he’ll just be the high-scoring standout for a Jesuit school in Omaha. Again.
And I know that’s OK with McDermott.
But it’s unfortunate for the rest of us.
McDermott is the kind of player who won’t really be cherished until we’re still waiting for someone to equal his four-year tenure 30 years or so from now.
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.
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.
The AP’s No. 1 ranking only magnifies the spotlight on Julius Randle & Co., a group that might face an unattainable level of expectations throughout the year. But this proves that youth was not a deterrent for voters who picked Kentucky over Michigan State (second), reigning national champ Louisville (third) and Duke (fourth). Andrew Wiggins and Kansas are ranked fifth, followed by Arizona, Michigan, Oklahoma State, Syracuse and Florida to round out the top 10.
A few quick thoughts:
Who should be No. 1? You could make a case for Michigan State. Keith Appling, Adreian Payne and Gary Harris comprise one of country’s best trios and have a ton of experience and talent. Louisville adds some talented recruits to a team that lost key pieces, but will still be one of the best squads in the country, especially with Chane Behanan returning at some point this season.
But Kentucky deserves it. I get the arguments. “They haven’t proven anything.” “The Wildcats were hyped last year and lost in the first round of the NIT.” But we've never seen anything such as this. No team has ever entered a year with this much projected NBA talent. These polls are about expectations and they’re certainly high for this Kentucky squad. Even higher than they were for the Kentucky team that won a national title in 2012. These Wildcats have the talent to justify them and a No. 1 ranking.
Biggest surprise? Wichita State at No. 16 and Ohio State at No. 11. Both have lost key players (Malcolm Armstead and Deshaun Thomas, respectively), but the Shockers handled the Buckeyes in the NCAA tournament and then, they nearly knocked off national champion Louisville in the Final Four. I don’t think it’s crazy to give Wichita State top 10 consideration.
Biggest snubs? No mention of a Creighton team that will enter the season as a Big East title contender with All-American Doug McDermott and veteran Grant Gibbs leading the way for the Bluejays. No Tennessee or Indiana, either. All three are certainly in the Top 25 mix.
Too high? Gonzaga might be high at No. 15. That’s the same Gonzaga squad that lost one of America’s top frontcourts when Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris left the scene after last season. That will be difficult to replace.
Too low? The voting deadlines might have preceded the news that Joseph Young will be eligible for Oregon. The Ducks could move up a few spots from No. 19, but this slot isn’t worth a major protest.
The previous time the ACC expanded -- in a move clearly made to boost football -- the impact on basketball simply equated to scheduling more games. The league didn’t get stronger. In fact, in some ways it appeared to get weaker.
The latest expansion will be different, league coaches and players say. Newcomers Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh -- with Louisville joining in 2014 -- will elevate the ACC back to what some would say is its rightful standing as the nation’s best basketball conference.
“Our league now -- the depth of the league, the tradition, the history, the success that all the programs have had -- is unmatched,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.
As the first expansion proved, depth doesn’t come from merely adding schools to the mix. Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech have combined to win one regular-season league title. On four occasions, one of those teams has finished last in the conference.
The Irish, Orange and Panthers, however, are expected to live in the upper echelon of the conference, as they did in the Big East. Pitt finished fourth or better in the 16-team Big East in three of the past four seasons, including winning the 2011 regular-season title. The team that finished second to Pitt that season was Notre Dame, which placed third or better in two of the past three seasons.
Syracuse and eventually Louisville, both of which have both won national titles and made multiple Final Four appearances, add historically elite-level programs to the league. Syracuse has the potential to immediately loosen Duke and North Carolina’s vise grip on the crown.
“I read a stat as far as Duke and North Carolina -- they’re the only two teams that be winning it,” Syracuse forward C.J. Fair said. “We want to win the ACC and start off right and have bragging rights early.”
The ACC has been shallow for too long, dependent on Duke and North Carolina to carry the league. The pair from Tobacco Road has accounted for at least a share of every conference regular-season title but three since 1997, and 10 of the league’s 13 Final Four appearances in that same span.
Consider that since Georgia Tech appeared in the 2004 national title game, no team from the league outside of the Blue Devils and Tar Heels has reached the NCAA tournament’s Elite Eight, and only five have been to the Sweet 16.
Only four teams from the ACC received NCAA tournament bids last season. That has been closer to the norm than the exception since expanding to 12 teams in the 2005-06 season.
In eight seasons, the league put only four teams in the Big Dance on four occasions. Considering North Carolina and Duke made it in each of those seasons where the ACC had only four teams in the tournament, that means only two other programs were representing the conference.
Compare that to the span of 1992 to 2004, when as a nine-member league, the ACC received six tournament bids on five occasions.
“Those were glory days in the ACC ... But you know what, I think bigger glory days are coming with this thing,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said.
The ACC had its best seasons in 2006-07 and 2008-09, when seven teams received NCAA tournament bids. Brey believes that number will only increase based on how the depth of the Big East bolstered its tournament bids.
“We had years where we were under .500 in the league in early February, but you have enough big games on your schedule where if you get one or two of them, they’re RPI top 50, top 25 wins, all of a sudden you’re 9-9 and you’re on the board,” Brey said. “You’re never dead in a league like this.”
Thanks to the expansion, the ACC will feel alive again.
Now that you know what you need to watch in every conference in the country in 2013-14, we've turned our attention to the theme of change -- from coaching swaps to player development to good old-fashioned rules, and anywhere in between. Today: Is Creighton's defense good enough?
Last October, in the heart of the 2012-13 preview window, the Creighton Bluejays made for an easy diagnosis. The previous season's breakout star, All-American forward Doug McDermott, was set to return for another year, as was point guard Grant Gibbs and a host of other key contributors. The Bluejays, already one of the five or six best offenses in the country, were sure to drench opponents in points in 2012-13. The only question was their defense.
Thirteen months later, the story remains the same.
McDermott eschewed the draft in favor of his senior 2013-14 season, in which he has a chance to become the first three-time All-American since Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale. Gibbs was granted a slightly miraculous sixth year of eligibility, so he returns as well.
The Bluejays still have a host of veteran supporting pieces positioned to execute with maximum offensive efficiency, which they of course already did last season. But still, there is that nagging question: Can Creighton get stops?
It is less of a question than it was last October. Indeed, the Bluejays markedly improved on the defensive end last season, turning a defense that allowed over a point per trip to opponents in 2011-12 into one that held offenses to just .96. The Bluejays kept their key characteristics intact -- they still protected their own glass and eschewed steals in exchange for fewer fouls -- but improved on each.
And still, in the end, it got them exactly as far as they went in 2011-12: the second round of the NCAA tournament. No further.
To be fair, compared to the 1.2 points per possession yielded to North Carolina in March of 2012, the Bluejays' second-round tournament loss in 2013 wasn't a product of bad defense (Creighton held Duke to just 66 points on 64 possessions) so much as bad offense (they scored just 50 of their own). And besides, the NCAA tournament is a crazy place; there is only so much analytical value in those individual results. But the point remains: Creighton will be a very good offensive team this season; so good it will be hard to find much room to improve. (Maybe if McDermott and Ethan Wragge shoot 55 percent from 3 or something, which actually doesn't sound that ridiculous.) But it could still defend better. Not only is leading shot-blocker Gregory Echenique gone, but the Bluejays are moving to the new Big East and facing a much tougher night-to-night conference slate therein.
There is good news: Even if the Bluejays don't change a lick this season, they're going to be good. Gibbs and McDermott are old hands now; they can post, kick, re-post and score in REM sleep. This offense is still going to be excellent, and excellent to watch. But whether Creighton can get to that proverbial next level -- whether it can present itself as a legitimate national title contender befitting of the peerless work of its star -- will still have to come on the defensive end.
In between, Jernstedt earned the respect and admiration of his peers, not always an easy feat for a lifer at NCAA headquarters.
That’s why the Big East’s announcement that Jernstedt would join the league as a senior advisor is a big deal. The new-look Big East is still getting its house in order, trying to figure out where exactly it fits in the college basketball hierarchy, trying to best determine how to maximize its potential.
According to the league, Jernstedt will help commissioner Val Ackerman and other league administrators with officiating, scheduling, postseason play and an entire strategic plan.
Jernstedt can help with all of those things, but more important, his presence gives the Big East instant credibility. The core of the league, the Catholic 7, made the quick move to secede and reform, but since then it’s been slow in filling out the particulars of the conference. Ackerman was named commissioner in June, but the new Big East remains very much in the creation stages.
In addition, just how it will be perceived in college basketball remains to be seen. Jernstedt’s playing days are slightly behind him -- he was a quarterback, anyway -- but he can help the conference navigate through the landmines of what is now very much a power-broker world.
He’s both well versed in basketball and well connected. During his tenure at the NCAA, he negotiated television contracts, marketed the NCAA tourney and worked hand-in-hand with the selection committee. His opinions and thoughts are so valued that he was recently named to the inaugural College Football Playoff selection committee.
A Hall of Famer, Jernstedt spent 38 years at the NCAA headquarters before stepping down in 2010. Though it was announced that he resigned, Jernstedt technically was forced out when Mark Emmert came on board as NCAA president and reconfigured his management team.
"(Jernstedt’s) stature, knowledge, relationships, professionalism and unqualified passion for the game will be of tremendous value to the Big East as we look to make our mark in our first season as a reconstituted league and build our long-term basketball and conference development plan," Ackerman said in a statement.