College Basketball Nation: College Basketball
If you have a big, physical, bruising team, one that dominates the offensive glass and gets easy putbacks around the rim, you don't necessarily need 2005-era Steve Nash running the show. Likewise, for a team full of athletic, penetration-prone wings, spacing is arguably more important than passing. If your players can get to the rim by themselves, why complicate things?
If you're neither of those things -- if your players, and thus your system, aren't the isolate-and-go types -- then you'd better make the most of Dr. Naismith's original ball-advancement mandate. You'd better be able to pass.
Below are three teams likely to be among the best passing outfits in the country in 2014-15 -- and a couple that could rank among the worst. The question is: Can they score anyway?
Teams to watch
Wisconsin: On one level, the Badgers aren't the most obvious passing exhibition in the country. In 2013-14, for example, they recorded an assist on 50.5 percent of their made field goals. That number ranked 197th in the country. Plenty of much worse overall offenses recorded higher A/FGM stats.
In reality, that has less to do with Wisconsin than it does the way official scorekeepers keep scores. In reality, the entire core of Wisconsin's top-five efficiency offense -- and the swing-motion system Bo Ryan has perfected in more than a decade in Madison -- is defined by passing. If Wisconsin's offense was a book, passing would be its spine.
For example: Last season, 27 percent of the Badgers' possessions ended in what Synergy's scouting data defines as spot-ups. That's an overwhelming number within Wisconsin's offense -- the other leaders in the clubhouse are "isolations" (15 percent), post-ups (11.3 percent), pick-and-rolls (8.3 percent) and transition baskets (8.1 percent). Simply put, you don't create that many spot-ups, and convert them at better than a point per possession, without first creating them with pinpoint movement and timely passing. The swing offense is designed such that, even when an assist isn't recorded (as can often be the case on post-ups and isolations), two or three passes probably led to the opportunity in the first place.
Last season, even as Wisconsin increased its tempo, it still turned the ball over on just 12.7 percent of its possessions -- second fewest in the country. This has always been the case under Ryan at Wisconsin; the Badgers simply do not turn the ball over. The 2014-15 version of the Badgers, the one returning almost everyone (including versatile big men Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker) from a Final Four run, will have all these characteristics and then some. It might be Ryan's best team yet.
Villanova: To refresh oneself on the 2013-14 Villanova Wildcats' offensive statistics is to kick yourself for missing out. For most of the season, defense was the most eye-catching part of Villanova's makeup. Save two demolitions by Creighton's Doug McDermott, the Wildcats were among the best defensive teams in the country. Less heralded was Jay Wright's offense. For whatever reason, it just didn't jump out -- even as it was playing an almost idealistically unselfish, and downright fun, brand of basketball.
Last season, the Wildcats had assists on 60.4 percent of their made field goals. They also shot a ton of 3s -- 44.8 percent of their overall field goals, in fact. This was perfect for Wright's personnel, which was short on true big men. Just one rotation player, center Daniel Ochefu, was listed as taller than 6-foot-7. Everyone else in the ostensible frontcourt -- especially James Bell, Darrun Hilliard and Josh Hart -- was carved from the "tweener swingman" mold. These guys guarded and rebounded, sure, but they were also comfortable with the ball in their hands on the perimeter. And so point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, the team's leading assist man, found them. The ball was always moving, the shots were always flying.
If you missed it the first time around, don't feel bad: I watched Villanova a lot last season, and I totally missed it, too. The good news is Bell is the only piece departing from a roster that should be just as good on the wing as it was a season ago -- a roster that has long since left the selfish, ugly offense of the 13-19 2011-12 season behind it.
Pittsburgh: The Panthers are the most intriguing, and maybe the most unlikely, team of the bunch.
For starters, they're losing their best player from a season ago. Lamar Patterson wasn't just one of the nation's best and most versatile scoring threats. He was also a genuinely gifted passer. Patterson found an assist on 30 percent of his possessions, which is great in and of itself. When you consider that he also took nearly 30 percent of his team's shots, it looks genuinely crazy. Unfortunately, he couldn't pass the ball to himself.
Still, though, Jamie Dixon's team has the look. James Robinson, Josh Newkirk, Cameron Wright and even Durand Johnson all posted plus-15 percent assist rates (with Robinson at nearly 25 percent and Newkirk at 19), and Pittsburgh might have to be even more pass-reliant after losing offensive rebounding force Talib Zanna along the front line. Last season, Pitt ranked seventh in the nation in A/FGM at 62.9 percent. With Patterson gone, a repeat performance is almost a requirement.
Teams that could struggle
Syracuse: In the past five seasons, the Orange's assists-to-field goals ratio has intermittently declined. In 2009-10, Syracuse baskets were the result of an assist nearly 65 percent of the time, one of the top figures in the country. A year later, that number was 60.5 percent. From there, it went to 56.1 (in 2011-12) to 55.8 (in 2012-13) to 49.1 (in 2013-14). Now the Orange are losing Tyler Ennis, the freshman point guard who accounted for a huge portion of their assists last season. It stands to reason that in 2014-15, Syracuse won't be a particularly productive passing team.
Again, the question is this: Does it matter?
The answer is some version of "probably not." After all, despite a disappointing finish to the season, Syracuse was still a very good team in 2013-14. The Dion Waiters 2011-12 team wasn't a scion of precise passing, but it won 34 games. Two seasons ago, Michael Carter-Williams was arguably the best passer in the country, but the Orange didn't really uncork their potential until they ratcheted up the pressure in their 2-3 zone and crushed otherwise stellar offensive teams.
The makeup of the 2014-15 squad, which will be without workhorse C.J. Fair as well as Ennis, is uncertain. But Jim Boeheim's teams are always at their best when turning defensive excellence into easy points on the offensive end, getting a handful of 3s from a lights-out shooter (in this case, Trevor Cooney) and pounding the ball to the rim offensively. There's no reason to expect that Syracuse can't do that in 2014-15. This could be a truly bad passing team that is nonetheless quite good at winning basketball games.
San Diego State: The same goes for San Diego State, albeit in far more extreme fashion.
Last October, the Aztecs looked like the classic off-year reload group; they were seen as a fringe NCAA tournament team at best. Instead, they played stingy, top-10 defense while senior point Xavier Thames had a massive, sustained campaign as the lone offensive centerpiece. The combination was good enough to beat Kansas at Kansas, win 31 games and a Mountain West title and take Arizona to the wire in the NCAA tournament.
Still, what made Thames' season so impressive wasn't just his much-needed scoring. He was also the Aztecs' primary distributor. He also never turned it over; with a usage rate of nearly 29 percent, Thames assisted on 25 percent of his possessions and coughed it up on just 10 percent. (Reminder: He was really good.) And even then, the Aztecs got just 39 percent of their field goals via assists. They ranked 350th in Division I.
If there's one thing we learned last season, it's to never undersell a San Diego State team. It might be ugly. But if Steve Fisher's group maintains its defense, it won't have to pass the ball all that well. There's more than one way to put wins on the board.
Defense truly does win games, if not championships, especially in college basketball.
As we impatiently suffer through the summer doldrums and await the arrival of the 2014-15 season, here are three teams that have that critical defensive piece of the puzzle in place and two more that might need some help to achieve their goals:
Teams to watch
Arizona -- Selfish Wildcats fans can be forgiven for being happy to have Brandon Ashley back in the fold. The forward’s injury last season was a big speed bump for Arizona and devastating to Ashley, but his return means big things for the Wildcats, especially on defense.
Coach Sean Miller likes his teams to play physical, blue-collar D, and he has two guys who personify that: Ashley and center Kaleb Tarczewski.
The Wildcats lose a little of their inside presence given Aaron Gordon's departure for the NBA, but Rondae Hollis-Jefferson was a terrific player off the bench last season and ought to slide in seamlessly.
In the backcourt, point guard T.J. McConnell is relentless on the ball, but someone else will have to fill in for do-everything guard Nick Johnson.
All of that and we haven’t even mentioned a freshman class, led by Stanley Johnson, that ranks seventh in the nation.
The Wildcats weren’t always great offensively last season, but with a defense that allowed only 58.6 points per game, they didn’t need to be. Don’t expect much to change this season.
Virginia -- Welcome back to the dental chair, college basketball. The Cavaliers will make life like a root canal once again.
Virginia frustrates the bejeezus out of opponents, squeezing out dribble-penetration opportunities and essentially taking teams out of any offensive rhythm they hope to generate.
That’s not changing anytime soon, not with Tony Bennett in charge.
Maybe it's not aesthetically pleasing to the offensive-minded in the game, but it works. Last season, Virginia won the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, sweeping the hardware in a league that includes Duke, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.
With five of eight regulars back, Bennett won’t have to explain his system or educate guys on the fine art of defense. It’s already ingrained in their Wahoo DNA.
Last season, Virginia allowed 55.7 points per game. And that was with a decent offensive weapon in the form of Joe Harris.
Imagine this season? Those 55.7 points might look like a high-water mark.
Louisville -- Montrezl Harrell’s decision to return to college ranked as one of the bigger surprises in the pre-draft season and upped the expectation meter in Louisville more than a few notches.
It also makes the Cardinals, always a good defensive team, potentially a very good one. Harrell and Mangok Mathiang will be a rather imposing pair to handle for any team looking to score inside.
But they aren’t the only weapons for Rick Pitino.
The coach counts heavily on his guards, especially on defense. He works his players like track athletes, allowing them to swarm, annoy and pester opponents like full-court gnats.
Point guard Chris Jones didn’t prove as adept defensively last season at that, but you can bet Pitino will make sure Jones improves in that department. With Russ Smith gone, Jones will get the full laser focus of the coach’s attention.
His backcourt mate, Terry Rozier, proved last season to be an adept defender already.
Even after losing so much experience, the Cards could be even better than the squad that gave up just 61.1 points last season and ranked fourth in defensive efficiency.
Teams that might struggle
Florida -- Last season, the Gators were downright stingy, allowing 57.8 points per game, third-fewest in the country.
But that was one of the most veteran teams in the country. Now coach Billy Donovan essentially goes for a wholesale swap and will field one of the least-experienced teams in the nation.
Young players and defense don’t generally go hand in hand.
This group -- Kasey Hill, Chris Walker, Dorian Finney-Smith, Michael Frazier and transfer Alex Murphy -- reads at least on paper as an offense-first unit, which is fine. But to avoid the pratfalls of Donovan’s other go-around with youth (post-championship run), he will need to coerce at least average D out of the Gators.
Kentucky -- It will take some digging to find a real weakness on this loaded Wildcats team, but since the sky is the limit and the expectations are somehow even higher, it’s fair to look for a potential stumbling block.
And for Kentucky, it will be defense, specifically perimeter defense.
The Wildcats were vulnerable there last season, allowing opponents to connect on 32 percent of attempts beyond the arc. The Harrison twins struggled to stretch themselves, so coach John Calipari will need big improvement from them this season.
Kentucky has enough frontcourt players to field a B team of rim protectors, but how the Cats’ backcourt defends will go a long way toward determining just how successful this team will be.
This is not a legacy measure.
For all of the different ways our 45 ESPN Forecast college hoops panelists might have weighed their scores of the nation's top 50 -- and there are all sorts of ways individual emphases can come into play -- this was the defining criterion. These rankings were never meant to be about the aggregate work of a coach's lifetime. They are meant to cover current performance. It's a broadly limited term.
We've repeated that reminder as much as possible these last few weeks. Really, we can't stress it enough. And it's as important as ever now, as the countdown bears in on the top 10, and the names we so closely associate with tenure and legacy are revealed through this intentionally short-sighted prism.
Having said that: Is Jim Boeheim at No. 12 too low?
Given the lofty company, the panel is probably right. And No. 12 is hardly an insult.
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It begins again each year. Ed McLaughlin anticipates the frenzy that will commence once Virginia Commonwealth’s season ends.
Powerful programs will contact Shaka Smart -- the courtesy calls between athletic directors is a practice of the past -- and attempt to lure the 37-year-old coach to a school with more money in the bank and more eyeballs locked onto their teams via lucrative TV deals.
“[Smart] really feels like he can win here,” McLaughlin said. “I know we've invested a lot. … I'm with him every day. That relationship is so important.”
The postseason pursuit of rising stars and proven veterans on the collegiate coaching circuit is often viewed as a one-sided effort. Some major-conference college or NBA franchise promises a multimillion-dollar contract and an opportunity to work with the best players in the country. The employers who await their decisions often seem slighted within the conversation and powerless in the process. But many have channeled their inner Joni Mitchell and reminded tempted coaches about the things they'd leave behind.
Jamie Pollard, athletics director at Iowa State, doesn't want to lose Fred Hoiberg. Pollard also knows, however, that Hoiberg won’t find an NBA city that will show him the love that Ames, his hometown, does all year. And what pro team will match his 10-year contract? Eric Sexton understands that Gregg Marshall will be courted. That's why Wichita State's AD puts Marshall's team on charters to games and continues to increase his pay (Marshall makes $1.75 million). Everything about Marshall's gig is high-major.
A few months ago, Tennessee reportedly chased Louisiana Tech's Michael White. But the school's commitment to White and the program -- the university recently converted an old gym into a practice facility -- made it hard to leave for Knoxville, especially after a 29-win season suggested that the Bulldogs could snatch their first NCAA tourney bid since 1991 nine months from now.
“The reality is that the money is at such a different level [for some high-major jobs] that at some point, you can't compete,” said Tommy McClelland, Louisiana Tech's athletics director. “But we want him to be here. He's wanted. He's truly wanted here. There's something to be said about being wanted.”
Added White: “I've had some tough decisions to make but as we all know, the grass isn't always greener on the other side.”
Money in the NBA is plenty green, and both the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers wanted Tom Izzo. Michigan State AD Mark Hollis couldn't compete with the money. But the NBA can't match Izzo's relationships on the East Lansing campus.
That's why the underdogs have won so many fights for top candidates.
“It's really about having a vision for having the first-class student-athlete experience and providing coaches with all of the tools that they need, from their perspective, to accomplish what they want to do in an environment that is conducive to them being successful,” Sexton said. “That's what we want to do is provide as many tools as we can, understanding that we're not a BCS school … [but] most of our coaches would say they want for very little.”
Every season, McLaughlin deals with rumors about Smart. But rather than stress, he focuses on the efforts that VCU has made to keep him in Richmond.
Last year, Smart rejected UCLA's overtures, even though the Bruins, it seems, have everything that any college coach would crave.
You can recruit in one of America's richest talent pools. You have access to a strong fan base and a collection of wealthy boosters. Big salaries and an even bigger spotlight. But Smart said no -- or yes, depending on your perspective.
McLaughlin views Smart's choice to stay as an affirmation of the assets he has at VCU. Under Smart, the Rams have gone from mid-major player to perennial Atlantic 10 contender with solid national TV exposure and a fleet of high-level recruits. In March, the school announced plans for a 60,000-square foot practice facility with a $25 million price tag.
“It shows [Smart] how invested we are,” McLaughlin said.
And they must be. Facility upgrades are no longer luxuries. Schools without them are missing a key element that affects both the team and its recruiting efforts.
“To be able to keep a coach of that class and recruit athletes, you're going to have to have a facility that matches what he needs to get it done,” Sukup said.
Hoiberg has fans that fill Hilton Coliseum every winter and open their wallets when necessary. He's the most popular man in town and he recently received a $600,000 raise -- more than the university's president makes in a year -- as part of a 10-year deal. Pollard, however, isn't foolish. He believes, like everyone else, that Hoiberg will ultimately leave Ames to take an NBA job. Right now, he just wants to make sure his coach has everything he wants and needs.
“Do I think he would coach in the NBA? I think yes, at some point he will,” Pollard said. “Just look at how he runs our team. He runs it like it's an NBA team. I think he's wired to do that but at this stage in his life with his young kids and his family situation, I think he's in the right place for him personally at this point and time. So I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it.”
Izzo is in a similar situation in East Lansing. He's just the second head coach that the program has had since 1976. Signs of the adoration that Spartans supporters have for Izzo? Take your pick. There was the pep rally in a Detroit mall that was packed with Spartans fans prior to a 2009 Final Four run. And the news conference when Izzo chose to stay at MSU after he was entertained by the Cleveland Cavaliers a few years ago turned into more of a celebration.
Hollis knows that Michigan State can't keep Izzo from the NBA if it's just about money. But it's about much more for Izzo.
“In college, a coach has the potential to have a bigger impact on individuals than you do in pro ball,” said Hollis, who was Izzo's college roommate. “That's something that drives him. The college game is better suited for that type of personality. … Tom is remarkable at pushing and loving at the same time. That's a trait that's very good for college basketball.”
They are not na´ve. They know that they can't stop destiny. If a coach really wants another job, he'll take it. There's not much they can do about that.
But they can continue to build their respective programs and make their decision more difficult.
“It certainly makes the week after the NCAA tournament,” McLaughlin said, “busy.”
The 2009-10 season, when Butler was one banked-out heave from the most storybook national title maybe ever, was Brad Stevens' third as a head coach. One of the many accomplishments that accompanied that run -- one rightly mentioned far less than "nearly beat Coach K in the national title game" -- was Stevens' overall wins tally. Earlier that season, when Butler beat Siena in the BracketBusters (pour out your liquor now), Stevens tied the record for most wins by a coach in his first three years.
Guess who held the record when Stevens broke it?
If you guessed Mark Few ... well, actually, you get no points, because this article is about Mark Few, so the answer was probably pretty obvious. (If you guessed Mark Few and then-Nevada coach Mark Fox, who tied it in 2007, we'll be more impressed.) Anyway, it's true: Few set that record back in 2002. It stood unbroken for nearly a decade. When it finally was, it took the current coach of the Boston Celtics, nothing less than a once-in-a-generation coaching talent, to do so.
Of course, that's just one of the many mind-blowing statistics about Few's 15-year tenure at Gonzaga.
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On Monday, Thad Matta's spot at No. 20 came with another reminder of the guidelines voters were provided in this ranking system, and the importance of recent results in the ESPN Forecast panel's voting. In short, it was impossible to look at Matta's spot and not think he would have been much higher -- maybe even top 10 -- if not for Ohio State's subpar-for-him 2013-14 season.
Jay Wright is a similar case, but in the exact opposite way. For Wright, 2013-14 was all about redemption.
Last December, in the midst of Villanova's impressive 11-0 start, Wright sat down with ESPN's Dana O'Neil for what she called "a fascinating and introspective conversation, offering a rarely seen glimpse of the complications of success and the lessons of failure." Wright had seen both: After landing the Wildcats job as a hungry up-and-comer at Hofstra, Wright launched to textbook success at Villanova. By the fourth year of his rebuild, the Wildcats were in the Sweet Sixteen. A year later, they won a share of a loaded Big East and got to the Elite Eight. From there, Wright's work was steady: The Wildcats won in their league, they recruited good classes, they always went to the tournament. Rinse, repeat.
But then things got weird.
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Last week, we revealed the first 30 coaches in our ESPN Forecast Top 50 rankings -- a list we devised by asking almost 50 ESPN college hoops writers, editors, broadcasters and analysts to vote on coaches' overall current performance in every facet of their job. And it went pretty well! There were some surprise omissions and a few under- and over-ranked names, but, as the person responsible for presenting the list to the reading public, things weren't so crazy as to be awkward. The wisdom of the crowd has thus far proved, well, wise.
If there is one overriding criterion that has defined the rankings, it is recency. Confusing as that has been for some readers, it was also by design. This isn't a legacy list. We're not ranking coaches on their careers. We're ranking these guys based on how well they're performing right now, and how well they've primed their programs for the season(s) to come.
This preamble bears repeating, if only for purposes of clarification. But it's also especially relevant today, in regard to the No. 20-ranked coach on our list: Ohio State's Thad Matta.
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams told ESPN's Jay Bilas that he was in "shock" and "disbelief" when he learned former guard Rashad McCants had told "Outside the Lines" that tutors wrote his term papers, he rarely went to class for about half his time at UNC, and he remained able to play largely because he took bogus classes designed to keep athletes academically eligible.
In a 35-minute, on-camera interview Saturday that was attended by 11 former basketball players as a show of support, Williams said the experiences McCants shared did not match what he knows about his players' academic efforts and records and the basketball program he oversees.
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Rashad McCants, the second-leading scorer on the North Carolina basketball team that won the 2004-05 national title, told ESPN's "Outside the Lines" that tutors wrote his term papers, he rarely went to class for about half his time at UNC, and he remained able to play largely because he took bogus classes designed to keep athletes academically eligible.
McCants told "Outside the Lines" that he could have been academically ineligible to play during the championship season had he not been provided the assistance. Further, he said head basketball coach Roy Williams knew about the "paper-class" system at UNC. The so-called paper classes didn't require students to go to class; rather, students were required to submit only one term paper to receive a grade.
McCants also told "Outside the Lines" that he even made the Dean's List in Spring 2005 despite not attending any of his four classes for which he received straight-A grades. He said advisers and tutors who worked with the basketball program steered him to take the paper classes within the African-American Studies program.
McCants' allegations mirror and amplify many of those first made public in 2011, when the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer began to report about widespread academic fraud at UNC. The scandal has centered on the African-American Studies classes that many athletes took in order to remain eligible. The newspaper reported in December 2012 that basketball players on the national championship team accounted for 15 enrollments in the classes. A UNC internal investigation found that 54 classes in the department of African and Afro-American Studies were either "aberrant" or "irregularly" taught from summer 2007 to summer 2011. That investigation only went back to 2007, according to the school's review, because the two senior associate deans who conducted the probe were told by Karen Gil, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to focus on that time frame.
The NCAA sanctioned the football program for improper benefits and academic misconduct involving a tutor, but the athletic department's sports programs largely emerged from the academic scandal penalty-free.
In a statement to "Outside the Lines" on Thursday, UNC athletics director Bubba Cunningham said: "It is disappointing any time a student is dissatisfied with his or her experience. I welcome the opportunity to speak with Rashad McCants about returning to UNC to continue his academic career -- just as we have welcomed many former student-athletes interested in completing their degrees.
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