College Basketball Nation: Gonzaga Bulldogs
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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"Yes, there's going to be some competition," Randle said at the NBA draft combine in Chicago. "But Coach [John Calipari] will figure it out."
Randle wasn't going to return next season. He was a one-and-done player from the moment he arrived, looking like a chiseled NBA veteran. He was the one big man who didn't need seasoning. But the rest did. Toss in newcomer Karl Towns Jr., and the Wildcats have as many bigs as any team assembled recently.
Randle's favorite to replace his low-post ability? He's leaning toward sophomore to-be Dakari Johnson.
"He's very good in the low post," Randle said. "He's got a nice touch. It's hard to move him down there."
Randle should know. He had to tussle with Johnson in the low block in practice every day. Now, Johnson will take Randle's role as the player whom the others try to knock off in the post -- for position and, possibly, playing time.
ESPN.com is examining position battles this week. Here are some center battles to keep an eye on:
Kentucky: Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein, Marcus Lee versus Karl Towns Jr.: Yes, there are veterans -- three of them -- returning against the young pup. Calipari could figure out how to play all four of them at some point during a game. Johnson, Cauley-Stein and Lee all had their moments in which they shined. Johnson has the best chance to be in the low post, Cauley-Stein can be the top shot-blocker and Lee is a bit of an X factor among the group. Now, enter the newcomer. Towns can do a bit of everything, but he doesn't need to be the primary option. That's key for him and rare for a high-profile Kentucky player. This isn't even mentioning Trey Lyles and Alex Poythress, who are more positioned to play smaller forward positions next to the bigs. This team is loaded.
North Carolina: Kennedy Meeks versus Brice Johnson. Meeks is much more of a physical specimen. He can be immovable at times in the low post. Johnson has more finesse to his game. The two of them can play together, but they could take turns sharing the focal point in the middle, depending on the opponent or the flow of the game. They have a chance to both average double figures and nearly seven or eight rebounds per game. If that happens, the Tar Heels could be a force in the ACC and beyond.
Texas: Cameron Ridley versus Myles Turner. Ridley made himself into a real threat last season. He was nearly a double-double player (he averaged 11.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game). Ridley could progress even more next season. The Longhorns nabbed a late-recruiting season coup in Turner. Turner is too good, too effective to not be on the court. The key for coach Rick Barnes will be whether he can play the two as a tandem. If he can't, then who is on the court when the game matters most is more of a competition than the overall minutes. Regardless, both players can help Texas take a huge leap next season.
Gonzaga: Przemek Karnowski versus Kyle Wiltjer. Karnowski is the traditional post player. He can be difficult to move around, and his offensive game continues to develop. Wiltjer can certainly play with Karnowski because he's slender and is much more of a face-up player. The two can be an effective high-low tandem, but if there is a need to see who is on the floor late, then that is also, like with Texas, where the real competition begins. Wiltjer had a year to get stronger, but he won't turn out like Kelly Olynyk. Wiltjer is still going to be skill first, strength last. Karnowski needs to be the opposite for the Zags to find the right balance.
LSU : Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey versus Elbert Robinson. The Tigers have a chance to make the NCAA tournament because of the decisions of Martin and Mickey. The two were effective double-figure scorers last season playing with Johnny O'Bryant III. Now, toss in the newcomer Robinson. He'll need to find minutes as well. Coach Johnny Jones can't play all three together, but the minutes will need to be divided up. These are good problems to have, and with 15 fouls to expend among the three, the Tigers are one of the few teams in the SEC with the numbers to hang with Kentucky's frontcourt.
Arizona: Kaleb Tarczewski versus Brandon Ashley. Tarczewski was one of the most improved players in the country last season. Give him another summer and he should really be a regular to score in the post. But he has to command the ball even more next season without the presence of Aaron Gordon. Ashley is coming off a foot injury that sidelined him for the second half of the Pac-12 season. He will play with Tarczewski, but if there is any question who would demand more minutes, then that can be a highly competitive battle in practice. It might be moot for coach Sean Miller since the two can coexist, but dividing up the frontcourt minutes will still be an interesting decision for the staff.
Starting with point guard, ESPN.com will examine those quiet battles on a position-by-position basis this week while also promising we will never use the phrase “iron sharpens iron” to describe the competition.
Here are some power forward battles to keep an eye on:
Kentucky: Trey Lyles vs. Alex Poythress vs. TBD
Exactly who factors into this battle in Lexington will come down to how coach John Calipari divvies up positions. With so many frontcourt players, he has a numbers crunch that could mean guys play more hybrid positions or even out of position. Will he slide Poythress to small forward? Will he turn Willie Cauley-Stein or Marcus Lee into more of a power forward than a center? Where does Derek Willis fit in? Lyles, one of the best in the Class of 2014, will be a factor one way or another. The good news is that Calipari has options. The interesting thing will be to see how they all play out.
Kansas: Cliff Alexander vs. Perry Ellis
Ellis has spent the better part of his career waiting his turn. Now here he is, a junior, and he’s got a whippersnapper like Alexander to battle. The two come at their position from different but equally effective ways. Alexander is the more typical power forward, a rebounding machine who muscles his way to success. Ellis can rebound and battle with the best of them, but he also has some finesse to his game. Odds are that coach Bill Self will find a way to use both at the same time -- Alexander likely at the 5 -- to form a pretty formidable backcourt.
North Carolina: Jackson Simmons vs. Isaiah Hicks
Or who will back up Brice Johnson? Caught in a numbers crunch, neither saw much playing time last season, but somebody will have to contribute for coach Roy Williams this coming season. Hicks, a sophomore to be, played out of position for most of last season, sliding over to the small forward spot. Meanwhile, Simmons (who will be a senior) has spent the better part of his career biding his time. It will come down to whether Williams leans on the more veteran Simmons or the more talented Hicks.
Wichita State: Who will replace Cleanthony Early?
That’s the unenviable battle. Shaquille Morris, who stopped traveling with the Shockers in February so he could work on his weight training and get in shape, has a chance if he proves he’s up to the task. Freshman Rashard Kelly, out of Hargrave Military, is also an option. He averaged 19.6 points and 10.4 boards in his senior season. The truth is that no one can replace Early alone, but coach Gregg Marshall at least needs to find some committee members up to the task.
Florida: Dorian Finney-Smith vs. Alex Murphy vs. Devin Robinson vs. Jon Horford
Finney-Smith, who likes to rebound, likely will get the nod here, but this could be a fluid position for coach Billy Donovan as the season progresses. Once Murphy, the Duke transfer, becomes eligible in mid-December, things could change. And if Robinson, a highly regarded freshman, develops well, it could change again. Horford, who can play immediately after finishing up his degree at Michigan, will likely get lots of minutes between the 4 and 5 spot, and Finney-Smith will float among small forward, power forward and even in the middle at times.
Gonzaga: Kyle Wiltjer vs. Domantas Sabonis
Wiltjer, the sharpshooting transfer from Kentucky, will likely get the edge here thanks to experience, but the Lithuanian Sabonis is an intriguing guy for coach Mark Few. The son of former NBA star Arvydas Sabonis, Domantas excelled in the FIBA Under-18 World Championships, averaging 14 points and 11.4 rebounds per game.
But that is no longer the case. Suddenly, centers are plentiful.
And while 5-men today must be able to score facing the basket, the centers this past season and the top prospects coming in aren't afraid to get physical. The low post is no longer a toxic area.
Top returnees to watch
Kaleb Tarczewski, Arizona: Tarczewski was one of the most improved players in the country. He easily could have left for the NBA draft, but he chose to stay to continue to improve his overall game. The 7-footer was an anchor inside, balancing out the length, athleticism and flash of Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and (when he was healthy) Brandon Ashley. Tarczewski averaged 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds and has the potential to be a double-figure scorer and perhaps a 10-rebound per game performer. He was honest in his own appraisal that he wasn't ready as a freshman and knew he needed to develop and mature. The soon-to-be junior did that, and he is one of the main reasons Arizona will be tabbed as a favorite in the Pac-12.
Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga: The Zags pulled off a coup when they landed the 7-1 Polish national two years ago. But he was still a work in progress, and it showed as a freshman. While trying to find his footing in the American game, Karnowski averaged 5.4 points and 2.6 rebounds. He made a significant jump from his freshman to sophomore season, when he averaged 10.4 points and 7.1 rebounds, and was able to use his immense frame to be more than a space-eater. The Zags are expecting to have a team capable of making a deep run next season, and if that happens, Karnowski must be an immovable force on a regular basis. Karnowski could have taken the bait to play professionally overseas, but he realized he still has work to do.
Josh Scott, Colorado: Scott is the Buffaloes' top returning scorer since Spencer Dinwiddie decided to enter the NBA draft. The Buffaloes might shift their emphasis even more and take advantage of Scott's inside prowess. He was a coup of a recruit when Tad Boyle signed him two years ago, and Scott's development has been a real plus for the Buffaloes' coaching staff. Scott averaged 14.1 points and 8.4 rebounds last season, and those numbers could climb steadily as the Buffaloes feed him even more in the post. If the Buffaloes get back to the NCAA tournament, it will be largely due to Scott.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: Cauley-Stein didn't play in his final three games due to a foot injury suffered against Louisville in the Sweet 16, but when healthy, he can be a game-changer. He will block, distract and alter shots. Cauley-Stein easily could have bolted for the NBA, but he didn't want to leave without making a major contribution. The Wildcats are loaded up front next season, and Cauley-Stein won't be the big man on campus, but he'll be even more important than he was this past season. With Julius Randle gone, Cauley-Stein must be the experienced big man who can finish.
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: Kaminsky is the prototype fade-up 5-man. He can score in a variety of ways and was the difference in Wisconsin's run to the Final Four. Kaminsky easily could have gone to the NBA, but he wanted to stay to enjoy the college experience, diversify his game, and become even more forceful. He still needs to become more aggressive inside. He's a tough matchup on the perimeter but is even harder to guard when he drags a big out to the top of the key or the corners. He will be one of the toughest matchups at his position next season.
Top newcomers to watch
Myles Turner, Texas: Rick Barnes picked up the last elite recruit in the Class of 2014 when Turner, who is from Texas, stayed home. Like Coach K, Barnes adapts. He isn't set in his ways and can go inside when needed. He will have multiple options in the post. The Longhorns will have the deepest frontcourt in the league and should challenge for Big 12 title.
Karl Towns Jr., Kentucky: Towns played for John Calipari on the Dominican Republic national team. Once that happened, it was likely a lock he would land with the Wildcats. The return of Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress means Towns can find his footing as a freshman, develop and be allowed to make mistakes without serious consequences or pressure to produce immediately.
In 2008, Jamie Zaninovich became the commissioner of the West Coast Conference. At the time it would have been just as easy, and only slightly less accurate, to call Zaninovich the boss of "whatever league Gonzaga plays in."
By 2008, the Zags had won 11 of the past 14 regular-season conference titles. They didn't lose once between 2001 and 2008 -- and wouldn't lose again until 2012. Under Dan Monson and then (largely) Mark Few, Gonzaga leveraged its Cinderella NCAA tournament status into year-over-year dominance. Name recognition followed. And annually, Gonzaga's conference slate was an all-risk, no-reward proposition for the Zags -- three months of obligatory bad-loss dodging to get through between the nonconference and March.
Shortly thereafter, Pacific joined the league. Last season, San Francisco had its best season in decades. In March, when Zaninovich announced his move to the Pac-12, the WCC looked as well-rounded as it had in decades. When Gonzaga and BYU were its only two tournament teams, there was no celebrating a two-bid season. Suddenly, the WCC expects more.
What we saw last season: Can 29 wins possibly be a down season? Gonzaga fans might say yes. The Zags' yearly play -- which rose to its highest level ever in a No. 1-seeded 2012-13 campaign -- has been so good, and so consistent, that when Gonzaga failed to win a notable nonconference game and wound up as a No. 8 seed in March's bracket, it really did feel like a down season.
The same might be said of BYU. The Cougars entered the season with Tyler Haws highly touted, along with a strong returner in Kyle Collinsworth and an experienced point guard in Matt Carlino. Haws was a potential All-America candidate. BYU looked like a lock to get back to the dance. And the Cougars did, eventually, but only barely -- and their trip came just days after Collinsworth tore his ACL in the WCC tournament. It was a successful season, in one simple way. It was also kind of a bummer.
San Francisco, on the other hand, will probably just feel good: With a lineup comprising mostly sophomores and juniors, the Dons had their most successful season to date under coach Rex Walters. Saint Mary's failed to generate much in the way of tournament bubble interest, but it was solid enough in its own right. Given the recruiting fiasco Randy Bennett's program had to pay penance for all season (notably on the recruiting trail), things probably could have been worse.
What we expect next season: And yet, for all of the strides this league has taken toward greater competitive equity -- toward, in franker terms, a league that can finally stand up to big bad Gonzaga -- Zaninovich's first year out of the conference leadership is shaping up to be a classic Bulldogs march.
Haws is back at BYU, and he could put up some monster numbers. Mostly, that's because he's an awesome scorer with glorious midrange touch. But he may just have to: Sophomore Eric Mika left for his LDS mission. Collinsworth will be coming back from that ACL tear. And Matt Carlino used the graduate exception to transfer to Marquette and play right away. BYU has players, sure, but enough to contend? To get back to the tournament?
Portland has a chance to improve; it showed in a milestone upset of the Zags in January. Saint Mary's looks likely to rebuild. But San Francisco is in the emergent class, with a bunch of returning players and one key guy (Cole Dickerson) gone, with a pair of juniors (Avry Holmes and Mark Tollefsen) who should be among the best in the country.
And still not one of the above looks ready to take on the Zags. Gonzaga will have both Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell in the backcourt once more. It will have Kyle Dranginis on the wing. It will have Przemek Karnowski -- who morphed into a beast throughout his sophomore season -- shaping up as one of the nation's best big men at center. And it will have Kentucky transfer and former five-star recruit Kyle Wiltjer -- who played 11 minutes per game for the Wildcats' 39-2 2012 national title team -- stepping in as a perfect outside-in forward. Oh, and the No. 10 point guard (Josh Perkins) and a 6-foot-10 Lithuanian forward Domantas Sabonis. At age 17, Sabonis played 10 minutes per game for Unicaja Malaga in the Spanish ACB, the second-best pro hoops league in the world. He didn't receive compensation, so he's eligible to play right away. Recruiting Nation calls him the equivalent of a top-50 domestic recruit.
Guys, Gonzaga is going to be good.
Another year of surprise-surprise from the Zags doesn't negate the impressive long-term improvement (and expansion) throughout the WCC. The league is better now than when Zaninovich arrived. It will keep getting better, too. Folks will catch up, or at least close in.
But as 2014-15 looks likely to demonstrate, there is a lot of catching up to do. Gonzaga had a decade's head start. Even now, the Bulldogs are still setting the pace.
At 11:59 p.m. ET Sunday night, the NBA's early-entry draft deadline came and went. No key college hoops offseason date has so much, or so widespread, an impact on the landscape to come. And, for the fledgling offseason rankings writer, no consideration is trickier. Without question, that's the hardest part about the Way Too Early Top 25, which we published with confetti still on the keyboard just after UConn's national championship earlier this month. Until draft decisions are in, you're just making guesses. Educated guesses, sure. But guesses all the same.
Now that we know which players are staying and which are going, it's time to offer an edited addendum to this offseason's first attempt at a 2014-15 preseason top 25. How did draft decisions change the list?
In short, not a whole lot. But we do have a new No. 1. It will surprise nobody.
- Kentucky Wildcats: Kentucky was our No. 3 in the Way Too Early rankings back when we were almost certain the Harrison twins, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, and maybe even Dakari Johnson would be headed to the NBA. In the end, Kentucky kept all five, and add two of the best big men in the country (Trey Lyles, Karl Towns) in the incoming class to form a team that is surprisingly experienced, mind-bendingly tall (Calipari has three 7-footers and two 6-10 guys, all of whom are likely to play in the NBA), and every bit as loaded on natural talent as ever. Kentucky is losing Julius Randle and James Young to the draft, and will probably be better next season. Kind of insane!Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesJohn Calipari will have a roster full of future NBA players, as usual, next season. And this one will have experience.
- Duke Blue Devils: Nothing less than a Jabari Parker return could have moved Duke beyond Kentucky and into the No. 1 spot at this point in the season, and Parker is heading to the NBA, as expected. Even so, the Blue Devils are in great shape, mixing the nation's best recruiting class with a really solid group of veteran, tried-and-tested role players.
- Arizona Wildcats: The tentative No. 1 back when Nick Johnson was still weighing the proverbial options, Arizona takes the deep, chasmic plummet all the way to No. 3. In less sarcastic terms: Sean Miller has Arizona so well-oiled that it can lose its two best players (Aaron Gordon and Johnson) and still be a national title contender next season.
- Wisconsin Badgers: Frank Kaminsky almost made this more work than it had to be; after a breakout postseason, Kaminsky saw scouts' interest skyrocket. But he held off in the end, which means the Badgers are still only losing one player -- senior guard Ben Brust -- from last year's excellent Final Four group.
- Wichita State Shockers: Nothing to report here: The Shockers are still losing Cleanthony Early and still keeping Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet. Will they go unbeaten until late March again? No, but they'll be awfully good.
- North Carolina Tar Heels: Point guard Marcus Paige played well enough in 2013-14 to earn a fair amount of NBA discussion by the time the season was over. Brice Johnson was just as promising, even in more limited minutes. But both players were always likely to come back, and now that they have, Roy Williams has more talent and experience at his disposal than at any time in the past five years.
- Virginia Cavaliers: The Cavaliers are still a relatively predictable bunch going forward. Losing Akil Mitchell and Joe Harris will hurt, but Tony Bennett's team will still be led by Malcolm Brogdon and a very solid returning core.
- Louisville Cardinals: Montrezl Harrell was probably a lottery pick, making his decision to stay in Louisville for another season one of the most surprising of the past month. It's also worth a big boost to Louisville's 2014-15 projections.
- Florida Gators: Probably the biggest boom-or-bust team on this list, Florida's 2014-15 season will hinge on the development of point guard Kasey Hill and raw-but-gifted big man Chris Walker. Jon Horford, a graduate transfer from Michigan, will add size and stability.
- Kansas Jayhawks: Bill Self's team won't have Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid in the fold next season, which was always a foregone conclusion (even if Embiid waited just long enough to make us wonder). But the players Self does have returning, plus another solid batch of arrivals, should make for another Big 12 regular-season title, the program's 11th in a row. Ho-hum.
- Connecticut Huskies: DeAndre Daniels' pro turn is a little bit surprising, given how quickly Daniels rose from relative obscurity in the NCAA tournament, but it is far less damaging than Ryan Boatright's return is helpful. And transfer guard Rodney Purvis, eligible this fall, will help, too.
- Southern Methodist Mustangs: An already good team (and one that probably deserved to get in the NCAA tournament over NC State, but oh well) gets almost everyone back and adds the No. 2 point guard in the 2014 class (Emmanuel Mudiay) to the mix, coached by Larry Brown. This should be interesting.
- Villanova Wildcats: Before Jay Wright's team lost to Seton Hall in the Big East tournament and UConn in the round of 32, it lost exactly three games all season. Four starters and an excellent reserve (Josh Hart) return, and Wright's program should remain ascendant.
- Virginia Commonwealth Rams: Shaka Smart has a lineup full of his prototypical ball-hawking guards, with the best recruiting class of his career en route this summer.
- Gonzaga Bulldogs: As Kentucky prepares for another season in the spotlight, a player who helped the Wildcats win their last national title -- forward Kyle Wiltjer -- re-emerges at Gonzaga, where he'll be the perfect stretch 4 in a devastating offensive lineup.
- Iowa State Cyclones: By and large, the Cyclones are what they were when their season ended: Seniors Melvin Ejim and DeAndre Kane are off to the Association, but Fred Hoiberg still has a lot of interesting, interchangeable pieces at his disposal.
- Texas Longhorns: The recently announced transfer of Maryland forward Shaquille Cleare won't help the Longhorns until 2015-16, when Cleare becomes eligible, but with everybody back, the Longhorns have a chance to make a real leap right away.
- Michigan State Spartans: Our first offseason ranking of Michigan State essentially assumed that Gary Harris would leave, which he did. Branden Dawson's return is crucial, and if Denzel Valentine has a big year, Tom Izzo's team might not take as big a step back as everyone is predicting.[+] EnlargeSteve Dykes/Getty ImagesMichigan State shouldn't slide back too far with Branden Dawson returning.
- Oklahoma Sooners: Same story here: a very good offensive team with most of its major pieces back that needs to get a bit better defensively to really make a move into the elite.
- San Diego State Aztecs: The team that should have been on our first list anyway gets here now in large part as a function of its competition. But that's not an insult: Even losing Xavier Thames, the Aztecs are going to defend really well again, with a group of exciting young West Coast players on the way.
- Syracuse Orange: The Orange took not one, but two big-time hits in the draft-decision window. The first was point guard Tyler Ennis; the second, forward and sixth man Jerami Grant. Ennis was the most crucial, as it leaves Syracuse without an obvious point guard replacement.
- Oregon Ducks: Now that UCLA's Jordan Adams switched his decision and will leave for the NBA (with little time to spare, too), Oregon's combination of Joseph Young, Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson looks like the second-best Pac-12 team.
- Kansas State Wildcats: Freshman star Marcus Foster was one of the pleasant surprises of the 2013-14 season; he should be even better as a sophomore.
- Michigan Wolverines: The worst-case scenario for Michigan fans came true: Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary all left for the NBA draft. That said, Caris LeVert is on track for a major season, and while Michigan won't have the firepower of the past two seasons, it's fair to assume the Wolverines will still put up a ton of points.
- Iowa Hawkeyes: The argument for Iowa still stands: Fran McCaffery can reasonably replace Roy Devyn Marble and Melsahn Basabe with Jarrod Uthoff and Gabriel Olaseni and still get the kind of offense that fueled the pre-collapse Hawkeyes last season.
SAN DIEGO -- Here are five observations from Arizona’s 84-61 win over Gonzaga in the third round of the NCAA tournament on Sunday night at Viejas Arena in San Diego:
Aaron Gordon is ridiculous: Yes, the freshman is a highlight machine. In the first half of Sunday’s win, he hit a 3-pointer and on his next possession, he caught a reverse alley-oop. It all seemed so easy for the 6-foot-9 forward. But those weren’t necessarily his most impressive feats. Those came on defense. How many 6-foot-9 forwards can guard a point guard like Kevin Pangos? Well, Gordon (18 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals) did that on multiple possessions. Gordon’s versatility has been vital in Arizona’s run to the Sweet 16. The program’s future was somewhat cloudy after it lost Brandon Ashley for the season due to a foot injury he sustained in early February. Gordon, however, has given the Wildcats an extra push. He’s a special player.
Arizona can win it all: Yes, you know that already. The Wildcats are the last team standing in many brackets, and they’re just as dangerous as Florida and the other contenders right now. They proved that this weekend. They’re still No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy data. They have size and athleticism and they’re capable of competing against any style. The biggest concern for the Wildcats was the possibility that the Zags would come out firing 3-pointers and stretch the floor. But Arizona was tough on Pangos & Co. but didn’t neglect their interior defense as they held the Zags to a 40 percent clip from the field. On offense, they just attacked the rim. They’re relentless and talented enough to win the national championship in Arlington, Texas.
Game says more about Arizona than Gonzaga: So, Mark Few might face questions about his legacy after this loss. This is a program that hasn’t made an Elite Eight run since 1999, and the Zags haven’t advanced to the Sweet 16 since 2009, but Sunday’s loss shouldn’t be used to critique the state of the program or Few’s tenure. Gonzaga is a good team that lost to a squad that might be better than every program in the country right now. There’s a strong chance that any remaining team would have fallen in Viejas Arena on Sunday. The Wildcats shot 49 percent against a Gonzaga team that was ranked top 20 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency numbers. They outscored the Zags 48-28 in the paint and recorded 31 points off their opponent’s 21 turnovers. That’s ridiculous.
Nick Johnson’s leadership: T.J. McConnell and Johnson are the leaders on this team. McConnell seems to lead by orchestrating Sean Miller’s offensive and defensive schemes. Johnson obviously helps with that, too, but he’s also the vocal leader for this team. He’s surrounded by young guys, and throughout his team’s two wins in San Diego, you could see him talking to his teammates and reassuring them. That might seem trivial, but many programs would love to have a player who leads with voice and his game.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson matters: The freshman isn’t hidden anymore. But his standout performance against Gonzaga (18 points, five rebounds, five assists, four blocks and a steal) was another reminder of how important he is to this team and its NCAA national title hopes.
"I think the police escort is pretty cool," Parker said Saturday. "Me and Thomas [Walkup] were talking in the room [about it] the other day. The Gatorade and the water in the locker room is nice."
The school’s operating budget for athletics is $14 million, or nearly $70 million below Sunday opponent UCLA’s athletics operating budget, according to the government’s Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act database.
Sunday’s matchups at Viejas Arena illustrate the line between the game’s haves and have-nots. Top-seeded Arizona, a Pac-12 school with a rich basketball history, will face Gonzaga, an 8-seed. And Stephen F. Austin will attempt to upset UCLA, a 4-seed competing a few hours from Los Angeles.
If these games were drag races, they’d pit a pair of Porsches against a couple of Corollas, on the surface, at least. But this isn’t college football.
A legit conversation about separating the top football programs from the rest of the Division I teams has reached new levels in recent years. It’s a valid discussion.
But the line in college basketball is murkier. Sunday’s games in San Diego prove as much.
There’s talent everywhere. The top programs might have the inside track to the nation’s best preps, but the one-and-done culture is not prevalent at the mid-major level, so, often, players stay and develop. That’s how a Stephen F. Austin, a team led by upperclassmen, wins 29 games in a row and earns a slot in the round of 32.
Gonzaga’s Sam Dower, Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell Jr. and Przemek Karnowski didn’t enter school with the same prep accolades as Arizona’s top players, and they don’t have the same NBA hopes, either. But Aaron Gordon & Co. will have a tough time against an experienced Gonzaga team that hurts opponents inside and outside.
There are obvious differences between the programs, though.
Freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson said the practice facility factored into his decision to attend Arizona.
"It was pretty great to see that practice facility, to know 24 hours you can go in there and work out whenever you want," he said. "I thought that was a big step for me, and I knew if I wanted to be great, I knew I had to spend countless hours in there, so I thought that was pretty big."
Coach Sean Miller said the practice facility -- once considered a trinket for select programs -- is an essential component for a Division I squad today. But the former Xavier coach also suggested that the chasm between schools from the top and middle tiers of college basketball is shrinking.
"I think, sometimes, you almost categorize college football and college basketball as if it’s the same when we all know it’s different," Miller said. "Places like Xavier and Gonzaga, they’re not mid-major. Dayton is not. The way they travel, the talent level they have on their team, their coaches. Those universities put all their eggs in that basketball [basket] to be as good as they possibly can be."
Although there’s a $46 million gap between the operating budgets for athletics at Arizona and Gonzaga, according to the EADA website, the West Coast Conference’s perennial champ has access to a practice facility inside the McCarthy Athletic Center, which was completed in 2004.
Gonzaga might not have Arizona’s brand, but the Bulldogs, who’ve made more NCAA tournament appearances than the Wildcats in the past 10 seasons, possess a product with a strong track record.
"I don’t know that there is any difference in the resources, especially when it comes to recruiting," coach Mark Few said about Arizona. "I think they’re able to draw, you know, off the traditions maybe of the national championship and Final Fours and the pro players they’ve had. They’ve done a nice job with that. And, obviously, sometimes league affiliation comes into play, but we fight like crazy to dispel that and try to get guys to look at the program as a whole. Resource wise, more seats in their building but not a big deal. Everything is probably pretty close."
Stephen F. Austin coach Brad Underwood subscribes to a similar philosophy as his program prepares to face a UCLA team that features multiple NBA prospects.
On Saturday, UCLA coach Steve Alford told reporters that NBA scouts have attended 88 of his team’s 100 practices this season. The Bruins have 11 national titles. Stephen F. Austin just won the first NCAA tournament game in the program’s history.
The Lumberjacks thrive in Nacogdoches, Texas, a city of 35,000, and UCLA exists in Los Angles, the West Coast’s metropolis.
"The brand and who UCLA is about, it’s obviously a very special brand," Alford said.
Yet, the Lumberjacks are still alive.
They don’t have the resources that the other programs in this pod have utilized to build their programs, but they’ve advanced in the NCAA tournament while power players like Duke and Syracuse have already been sent home.
Buildings and budgets don’t tell the full story about the hierarchy within college basketball.
"I can do everything at Stephen F. Austin that I need to do to be successful," Underwood said. "And whether I get on a commercial airline or whether I get on a [Learjet], I don’t need to do that. We’re fine going to an Outback [Steakhouse]."
If the Lumberjacks win Sunday, they’ll need a police escort to get there.
SAN DIEGO -- In a matter of months, it all crumbled. More like the brick exterior of an old church than a cookie. A gradual but obvious decline.
Marcus Smart returned to Oklahoma State to rid his program of the lingering stench that arose in the weeks that followed last season’s opening-round loss to Oregon in the NCAA tournament. He wanted to refine his skills in hopes of securing a lengthier future in the NBA, too.
But Smart had the chance to take a top-three slot in the draft a year ago. He came back to help his teammates -- his brothers -- make a run in March. To pursue a national championship.
Seconds later, it was over. And then, Smart walked off the court.
“It’s very difficult,” said Smart, who finished with 23 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, 6 steals and 1 block. “This team has been through a lot this season, a lot of downs and a lot of ups, and it’s especially difficult for me -- Markel [Brown] being a senior -- words can’t explain it right now.”
It was likely Smart’s last collegiate game, as most expect him to turn pro. He refused to discuss his future in detail after the game, but he suggested that the loss wouldn’t change that plan.
But the game, an 85-77 loss for No. 9 seed Oklahoma State, was also the conclusion of a bizarre season for the program. The Pokes entered the season tied with Syracuse in eighth place in the Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll.
That position seemed solid. With Smart, Brown and Le’Bryan Nash anchoring the team, Oklahoma State had the look of a Big 12 and national title contender.
From there, calamity ensued. Big man Michael Cobbins suffered a season-ending injury in late December. In early February, Stevie Clark was dismissed by coach Travis Ford following an arrest. Smart shoved a Texas Tech fan shortly after that and earned a three-game suspension and national scrutiny. Plus, the team endured a seven-game losing streak.
And it was over, it seemed.
But somehow, the Pokes fought back and became just the second team since 1985 to secure an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament after suffering a seven-game losing streak, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And that’s notable, considering their challenges.
“In a sense, you could say that because 64 teams make it to this point and to be considered one of those teams is always an accomplishment, to be a part of this tournament,” said Brown, who finished with 20 points. “We fell short of our goals, but it’s always a positive when you get into the NCAA tournament.”
They could not escape their past in San Diego, though. Without Cobbins, the Cowboys were futile in their attempt to contain 7-foot-1 big man Przemek Karnowski (15 points, 10 rebounds). They couldn’t stop Gary Bell Jr. (17 points) or Kevin Pangos (26 points, 12-for-14 from the charity stripe), either.
Smart played 38 minutes even though he picked up four fouls. Nash, the team’s best threat inside, played just 17 minutes due to foul trouble.
The postgame news conference for the Cowboys felt like a funeral. Brown fought off tears from the podium. Phil Forte III buried his head in his hands.
Coaches, team officials and trainers stood along the concrete wall outside the locker room in silence.
But Smart told the press that he had no regrets about returning for his sophomore season. A day earlier, he’d discussed the bond that developed within the team as it endured the drama. And even though Oklahoma State fell short of its dreams, Smart said he was proud of its effort Friday and throughout the season.
“I definitely think I left it all out there,” Smart said. “This team left it all out there.”
And that’s not debatable. Oklahoma State’s determination cannot be questioned.
But the season will end in mystery. The Cowboys left it out there, but how much more would they have left right now if everything had come together instead of fallen apart midway through the season?
We’ll never know because it’s over.