College Basketball Nation: Iowa Hawkeyes

3-point shot: Preseason NIT scrambling

July, 9, 2014
Jul 9

Andy Katz discusses potential Preseason NIT scheduling problems and two New York-based tournaments.

For the third time since the ACC/Big Ten Challenge began in 1999, more teams have been added to the mix. The battle for conference supremacy started with just nine games deciding the outcome back when that was the extent of ACC membership.

The league has ballooned to 15 teams and now that the Big Ten expanded too, a slate of 14 games over three consecutive nights from Dec. 1-3 will determine bragging rights.

The ACC was 6-0 when just nine teams played in the Challenge. It was 4-2 after ACC expansion and 11 teams played. Since going to 12 teams the Big Ten won once and the Challenge has ended in consecutive ties.

The ACC still holds an advantage winning 10 of the 15 meetings overall, but it has not won the Challenge since 2008.

Louisville (ACC) and Rutgers (Big Ten) will make their respective debuts in the Challenge this season. Clemson, Wake Forest and Virginia Tech did not participate last season for the ACC. Boston College will sit this one out this season.

As Maryland changes allegiances from ACC charter member to Big Ten expansion team, it becomes the Big Ten team with the most wins. The Terrapins have participated in every challenge and has a 10-5 record, and trails only Duke (13) for most Challenge wins. Five Big Ten teams (Illinois, Minnesota, Ohio State, Purdue, Wisconsin) are tied with seven wins in the series.

From top to bottom, here are the best matchups of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge:

1. Duke at Wisconsin: It just might be an early Final Four preview. On paper, both have the rosters that could be playing the final weekend of the season. The Badgers, led by center Frank Kaminsky, return most of the rotation that got Bo Ryan to his first Final Four during his Wisconsin tenure. Duke restocks with the No. 1 recruiting class led by center Jahlil Okafor and guard Tyus Jones. The Blue Devils were 0-4 versus top 10 teams away from home last season in a year that ended with a NCAA second round flameout against Mercer. Wisconsin will be an early test to see if Duke will write a different narrative this season.

2. Iowa at North Carolina: Expect a high-scoring game because the Hawkeyes and Tar Heels both want to run early and often. Forward Jarrod Uthoff and center Gabriel Olaseni give Iowa a formidable frontcourt duo that will put up points in Fran McCaffery’s system despite their roster losses from last season. The Hawkeyes have never won on the road (0-5) in the Challenge. UNC will be a much more athletic team than it was last season with the addition of freshmen Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson. The game could offer a small bit of redemption back home for guard Marcus Paige, who is a Marion, Iowa, native, after the Heels were bounced by Iowa State in the NCAA tournament.

3. Ohio State at Louisville: The last time Thad Matta squared off against Rick Pitino, Xavier upset the Cardinals in the 2004 NCAA tournament en route to the Elite Eight. It was the run that helped Matta land the Buckeyes job. Matta will learn what he’s working with in an early road test for a young, but talented team. The game will also serve as a homecoming for Ohio State freshman guard D’Angelo Russell, a Louisville native, who had an offer from Louisville. Ironically, next season, the Cards will rely heavily on sophomore guard Terry Rozier, a Cleveland native, who is expected to have a breakout year with the departure of Russ Smith. Montrezl Harrell’s decision to return to school was like a recruiting coup for the Cards.

4. Virginia at Maryland: A new twist to an old rivalry. The two foes have literally played the past 100 years, and as ACC rivals the game had the exalted status of the final regular season game for the better part of the last four decades. It could easily be the most intense game of the Challenge since both teams know each other so well. The backcourt battle pitting Virginia’s London Perrantes and Malcolm Brogdon against Maryland’s Seth Allen and Dez Wells could determine the outcome.

5. Michigan State at Notre Dame: From 1908 to 1979 the Spartans and Irish had a healthy basketball rivalry, meeting 94 times. It’s the first meeting between the schools since MSU beat the Irish in the Elite Eight en route to its 1979 national championship. The Spartans bring back Branden Dawson, who considered turning pro. The Irish welcome back Jerian Grant, who withdrew from school at the start of conference play due to an “academic matter.”

6. Syracuse at Michigan: Think of how great this game would have been with guard Tyler Ennis and forward Jerami Grant still suiting up for the Orange and guard Nik Stauskas, forward Glenn Robinson III and center Mitch McGary playing for the Wolverines. Instead, they form an all-star lineup of NBA early entries. In a rematch of the 2013 Final Four game, only a combined five players (Syracuse: Rakeem Christmas, Trevor Cooney; Michigan: Spike Albrecht, Caris LeVert) remain who played in the game.

7. Nebraska at Florida State: If the Cornhuskers plan on improving on last season's NCAA appearance, they have to learn to win games like this. The Huskers were just 3-8 last season on the road and Tallahassee can be a tough place to play. The Seminoles missed the NCAA tournament last season due to several close nonconference losses, a trend they’ll need to reverse this season.

8. Pittsburgh at Indiana: The Panthers haven’t played the Hoosiers in Bloomington since 1941 and Pitt's experienced guards Cameron Wright and James Robinson won’t be intimidated by Assembly Hall. Noah Vonleh’s decision to turn pro possibly set IU back in its bid to rejoin the nation’s elite. But guard Yogi Ferrell and newcomer James Blackmon Jr. means the Hoosiers' cupboard isn’t bare.

9. Illinois at Miami: The Illini could be a darkhorse in league and an early road win could prove it. Guard Rayvonte Rice will be even harder to stop if he can improve his 3-point shooting from 29.5 percent last season. The Canes return just three players from last season, who accounted for just 15 percent of their scoring. Transfers Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State) and Sheldon McClellan (Texas) should make immediate impact for Miami.

10. Minnesota at Wake Forest: Guards Deandre Mathieu and Andre Hollins give Minnesota backcourt stability. The Deacons counter with their top duo of leading scorer Codi Miller-McIntyre and leading rebounder Devin Thomas, who should help Danny Manning make a smooth transition in his first season as coach.

11. Rutgers at Clemson: The Mack and Jack show is back for Rutgers. Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack were the top two scorers from last season and a formidable duo. Clemson returned everyone of impact except leading scorer and rebounder K.J. McDaniels. Guard Rod Hall will likely expand his scoring role after leading the Tigers in assists.

12. NC State at Purdue: The Boilermakers are the hottest team in the Challenge with five straight wins. Junior 7-footer A.J. Hammons gives Purdue a solid centerpiece to build around. NCSU has the monumental task of replacing 2014 ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren. The Wolfpack's fortunes could rest with talented, yet erratic, point guard Anthony Barber.

13. Georgia Tech at Northwestern: Both teams hope to get a boost from guards lost to injury last season. Tech’s Travis Jorgenson played in just four games before tearing his ACL. Northwestern’s oft-injured guard JerShon Cobb, its leading scorer returning, missed the last five games with a foot injury. The Yellow Jackets have only won once on the road in the Challenge.

14. Virginia Tech at Penn State: The Nittany Lions return most of their rotation that lost eight games by five or fewer points. Senior guard D.J. Newbill, who led the team in scoring, is now the unequivocal leader with Tim Frazier gone. Buzz Williams begins Hokies rebuilding project with a good starting point -- guard Devin Wilson was on both the coaches and media all-ACC freshmen teams and ranked third in the league in assists.

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.

  1. John Calipari
    Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesJohn Calipari will have a roster full of future NBA players, as usual, next season. And this one will have experience.
    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!
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. 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.
  18. [+] EnlargeBranden Dawson
    Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesMichigan State shouldn't slide back too far with Branden Dawson returning.
    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.
  19. 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.
  20. 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.
  21. 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.
  22. 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.
  23. 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.
  24. 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.
  25. 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.

Look back, look ahead: Big Ten

April, 21, 2014
Apr 21
The Big Ten competed with the Big 12 for the mythical "best conference" title throughout the season. It came close to making a historic statement to settle the matter with three teams positioned to reach the Final Four. That would have placed the league beside the 1985 Big East (St. John’s, Georgetown, Villanova) as just the second league to have three of four teams playing on the last weekend. Wisconsin gave the league a Final Four presence for the fifth time in the past six seasons, but Michigan's and Michigan State’s losses in the Elite Eight kept this from being a crowning achievement for the league.

There was no denying the Big Ten had its share of great teams, with Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State all ranking in the top 10 at some point in 2013-14. But the league finished yet another season without having the best team in the nation. The Big Ten’s national championship drought added another year of distance since its last glory year, when the Spartans cut down the nets in 2000.

As an indication of the conference's depth, Minnesota brought home the NIT championship.

What we saw this season:
[+] EnlargeFrank Kaminsky
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY SportsAfter an impressive run to the Final Four this past season, Frank Kaminsky's Badgers may be the team to beat in the Big Ten in 2014-15.
It was defined more than ever by resiliency.

Michigan seemingly reinvented itself during the course of the season. Mitch McGary was expected to play a big role for the Wolverines, but he was hampered by a back injury that eventually sidelined him for the last half of the season. Nik Stauskas helped shoot them out of disappointment as they captured the league’s regular-season title.

Wisconsin abandoned the methodical style that had come to define it during Bo Ryan’s tenure, and became a team with enough offensive weapons to outscore its opponents. Despite losing five of six during a stretch in conference play, the Badgers bounced back to reach their first Final Four since 2000 and the first under Ryan.

Michigan State was arguably the best team in the nation before injuries sabotaged its national title hopes. The Spartans battled through those injuries and were again a popular pick as a No. 4 seed to win it all when the NCAA tournament began. They were eliminated by eventual national champion UConn in the Elite Eight. It marked the first time a group of seniors who stayed four years under coach Tom Izzo did not appear in a Final Four.

And what team proved to be more resilient than Nebraska? The Cornhuskers, picked to finish 12th in the conference’s preseason media poll, started conference play 1-5. Coach Tim Miles held his team together and guided it to an 11-4 record -- with wins over Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State -- to close out the season. The Cornhuskers finished fourth in the league standings and earned their first NCAA tournament berth since 1997-98.

Iowa and Ohio State went from hot to not and fizzled down the stretch. The Hawkeyes had problems stopping opponents, and the Buckeyes had trouble scoring. Ultimately both fizzled out of the NCAA tournament without winning a game.

Minnesota’s Richard Pitino and Northwestern’s Chris Collins, a pair of first-year coaches, gave a possible glimpse of what is to come. Pitino rejuvenated the Gophers in leading them to the NIT championship. Collins led the Wildcats to a pair of upsets over ranked teams in Wisconsin and Illinois.

What we expect to see next season:
The Big Ten title could be Wisconsin’s to claim. The Badgers again have a chance to be a special team, returning all of their key players except guard Ben Brust. Center Frank Kaminsky will be a household name in college basketball circles thanks to his NCAA tournament performance. Rising sophomore forward Nigel Hayes is poised for a breakout season in what should be an expanded role.

Wisconsin will hang with the nation’s elites next season, but not many others in the Big Ten will be considered very highly -- at least, that will be the case early on.

Michigan State and Michigan both took big hits with departing players. The Wolverines lost both Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III to the NBA draft. McGary still has until April 27 to decide if he’ll join them in turning pro. If he leaves, the Wolverines won’t have any starters from their 2012-2013 team that played in the national title game. They won’t be devoid of talent, with Caris Levert and ever-improving Derrick Walton Jr., returning, but they will be rebuilding.

The Spartans will face a similar retooling after Gary Harris announced he would forgo his final two seasons and enter the draft. Branden Dawson could have made it a devastating loss, but he will be back for his senior season. And Izzo will be welcoming new talent, such as point guard Lourawls Nairn.

Iowa and Minnesota are positioned to make a move into the league’s upper echelon, as both are expected to return key rotation players. Illinois brings back one of the league’s best scorers in Rayvonte Rice. Nebraska will be out to prove this past season was no fluke. The Huskers return Terran Petteway, who led the Big Ten in scoring with 18.1 points per game.

Indiana returns arguably the league’s best point guard in Yogi Ferrell and will add a couple of big scorers to its mix, led by James Blackmon Jr.

There will be plenty of new names to usher in next season across the Big Ten. Ohio State welcomes a recruiting class -- led by guard D'Angelo Russell -- ranked fifth by Recruiting Nation that could thrust it back into the Top 25.

It will be a bit of an adjustment seeing Maryland and Rutgers count as Big Ten conference games next season, as both teams will be making their league debut.

2013-14 hoops season in review

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10

Connecticut’s national title as a No. 7 seed provided the conclusive evidence of what we knew early on in the 2013-14 men’s college basketball season. There was no dominant team. Arizona settled down the revolving door of No. 1 teams -- the Wildcats were the third to hold the mantle just six weeks into the polls, and their eight weeks atop the Associated Press poll was the longest of the five teams (Kentucky, Michigan State, Syracuse, Florida) to be ranked No. 1. With the odds of winning the Billion Dollar Bracket already outrageous, parity in college basketball made it downright impossible.

With the book finally written on the season, here are the chapters we’ll remember most:

Freedom of movement: Officials were quick to say this season they weren’t creating new rules, they were enforcing the old ones. College basketball had become too defensive, the critics said. Physical play was ruining the game. The season started with an emphasis on allowing freedom of movement and handchecking was called to the point of being a “touch foul.” Players, coaches and officials alike never came to a consensus of understanding how a block/charge would be called. While scoring on the whole increased slightly, there was no denying that foul calls and free throws had a substantial spike.

Champions Classic: Teams were allowed to begin practice two weeks before the traditional Oct. 15 start date, which in a practical sense meant earlier than ever. It resulted in a November filled with high-quality games beginning with a special night in Chicago. The Champions Classic doubleheader featured Michigan State’s win over Kentucky and Kansas beating Duke and ushered in the season with big-name matchups with budding superstars to get college hoops buzzing even in the midst of the BCS race and the NFL, the overlord of American sports, in the middle of its season.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
AP Photo/Nati HarnikScoring machine Doug McDermott was one of the many seniors to make an impact on this season.
Freshmen focus: The Champions Classic just solidified what was already being said about the 2013 recruiting class. These were not ordinary freshmen. Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins was projected as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft long before ever stepping foot on campus. Those expectations might have skewed his performance this season because it was always in the context of being a top pick instead of simply being a freshman. Duke’s Jabari Parker, Kentucky’s Julius Randle and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon were all expected to be exceptional before the season started. But others like Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis and Kansas center Joel Embiid elbowed their way into the elite conversation with their play.

Senior spotlight: Plenty of seniors weren’t going to let the young guys hog all the spotlight and reminded us of the value of staying four years. No way UConn’s Shabazz Napier was mature enough in his previous three seasons to lead a team to the national title the way he did this season. Creighton’s Doug McDermott returned to school -- as a walk-on no less -- and finished as the fifth leading scorer in Division I history. He was also the first player since Wayman Tisdale (1983-85) and just the sixth ever to have three consecutive seasons scoring 800 points or more. Louisville’s Russ Smith returned and ranked No. 1 in offensive efficiency by for a second straight season.

Conference realignment: With the dust finally settled (we think), and teams shuffled into new leagues, we saw the good and the bad from the new configurations. A record crowd of 35,000-plus at the Carrier Dome watched Syracuse’s 91-89 overtime win against Duke become an instant classic in their first meeting as ACC foes. The future of ACC basketball, which adds Louisville next season, is partly why Maryland’s season-long swan song as a former ACC charter member was overshadowed. Creighton excelled in its new locale, finishing second in the new Big East, even though its move from the Missouri Valley hurt Wichita State. (More on that below.) The brand-spanking new American Athletic Conference truly reflected the nation with its huge disparity between the haves at the top of the league and the have-nots at the bottom. In the end, the national championship trophy resides in the rookie league.

Shockers chase perfection: Wichita State became the first team since St. Joseph’s in 2004 to finish the regular season undefeated. Instead of drawing praise, it drew some skepticism from those who pointed to a weakened Missouri Valley schedule. Still the Shockers plugged along reaching 35-0 -- one game better than the 1990-91 UNLV squad that went 34-1 and lost to Duke in the Final Four -- and grabbing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Their season ended against eventual national runners-up and 8-seed Kentucky in the round of 32.

Coaches behaving badly: The season provided Internet trolls a seemingly endless supply of memes and GIFs to loop. The list was long, including Iowa’s Fran McCaffery slamming chairs against Michigan State, Nebraska’s Tim Miles ending the Cornhuskers’ most memorable season in decades with an NCAA tournament ejection and Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson’s postgame rant that included that his wife, not his players, knows to, “at least shot-fake one time.” But a few stand out. Who can forget the sight of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim nearly losing his jacket while running on the Cameron Indoor Stadium floor to protest a charge with 10 seconds left in a loss at Duke? Boeheim joked after the game that his first trip to Tobacco Road, which resulted in his first regular-season ejection, would be a memorable one. Then there was Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (insert sarcasm font here) who will certainly think twice before throwing a pen toward his bench. Krzyzewski got a technical foul for doing so in the ACC tournament final against Virginia.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/Getty ImagesJim Boeheim's jacket-removing, court-sprinting rant against Duke earned his first regular-season ejection.
Marcus Smart’s split-second snap: Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart earned praise in the preseason for putting off the NBA for a year and returning to school to work on his game. He couldn’t envision how frustrating the year would be. A season that began crumbling came to a boiling point at Texas Tech. With the Cowboys nearing a fourth straight loss, Smart shoved a fan when his momentum from a play carried him to the footstep of the stands. Smart said the fan called him a racial slur. The fan, Jeff Orr, said he called him a “piece of crap.” Regardless, Smart received a three-game suspension.

Safety issues: There were the things out of man’s control like the postponement of Iowa’s game at Indiana due to a pane of the ceiling crashing into the stands. North Carolina and Duke postponed their first meeting when a snow storm left the Blue Devils’ bus unable to safely travel eight miles to Chapel Hill. It was the Tar Heels’ first postponed game since the Gulf War. Court storming continued to be a topic when a fight broke out at the end of Utah Valley’s win over New Mexico State. The incident started when an agitated K.C. Ross-Miller of NMSU hurled the ball at Holton Hunsaker as time expired. Two Aggies were suspended for their roles in the altercation. Thankfully no one was hurt when an alcohol-fused adrenaline rush sent a UC-Santa Barbara student running onto the court during the first half of a game against Hawaii; the fan got close enough to confront Hawaii coach Gib Arnold before players pushed him away and he was escorted out.

Those were the top highlights from the season. Just missing the cut were: how teams turned around their seasons (including Virginia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Kentucky and Tennessee); the impact of transfers (from the spectacular, including Duke’s Rodney Hood; to the cautionary, including Georgetown’s Josh Smith); the Carolina blues (potential All-American P.J. Hairston sat out the first nine games before the school announced it would not seek his reinstatement); and basketball as an emotional outlet (cellar dweller Boston College handed Syracuse its first loss after the passing of longtime BC media relations director Dick Kelley, and Georgia coach Mike Fox winning at Missouri after attending his father’s memorial service).

DAYTON, Ohio -- Count it as the first NCAA tournament victory for Cuonzo Martin or simply earning his first true bid to the Big Dance, it really doesn’t make any difference now.

After spending the season with the shadow of his predecessor seemingly getting larger every day, even popping up on the eve of perhaps the biggest game of his tenure with Tennessee, Martin finally, officially stepped out into some sunlight.

[+] EnlargeStokes
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsJarnell Stokes had 18 points and 13 boards to help Tennessee earn another game in the NCAA tournament.
Maybe the Vols don’t play the prettiest brand of basketball, and certainly a win in the First Four doesn’t measure up to some of the loftier perches the program reached before he arrived. But in a gritty, nasty, 78-65 overtime street fight with Iowa on Wednesday night at UD Arena, Martin claimed a win that at last might have given him a way to silence the skeptics, the petition-signers and the comparisons to Bruce Pearl.

“I don’t deal with criticism,” Martin said. “That’s time and energy wasted.

“What was said? I don’t know. I don’t have that kind of time and energy. I’m consumed with success.”

So are all the orange-clad fans, and after what they had grown accustomed to while going to six straight tournaments under Pearl, they were practically starving for some of that success to arrive after Martin’s first two seasons ended in the NIT.

That brought plenty of ammunition for the Bring Back Bruce Brigade, which put together a petition that was signed by more than 36,000 people, all of them quick to point out Pearl’s record, the No. 1 ranking the team climbed to under his watch and his engaging personality. Pearl couldn’t return to the Vols even if he wanted to now that he has taken over at Auburn, a move which coincidentally was announced about an hour before Martin met with the media on Tuesday on the eve of the first round.

But even when patience might have been wearing at its thinnest over the past couple months in Knoxville, the seeds Martin planted when he arrived in the wake of the NCAA investigation that chased Pearl out of town seemed to be blooming at just the right time.

Toughness? The Vols crave contact so much, they celebrated big plays by shoving each other under the basket.

Hard-nosed defense? The Hawkeyes came into the tournament averaging 82 points per game, and they came up 17 short despite getting an extra five minutes.

Resilience? Tennessee could have easily packed it in after bricking everything it threw up during a scoreless six-minute stretch to open the game as it fell behind by 12, or grown tired of having every second-half run and clutch shot answered by one on the other end by Iowa.

But those pillars Martin has preached since taking over were plain to see as Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon fought in the post for a combined 27 points and 20 rebounds. They were obvious as Tennessee’s guards harassed the Hawkeyes on the perimeter and came up with two steals and forced six turnovers. And all that tireless work eventually wore down Iowa in overtime and allowed the Vols to pull away to leave enough time for the typically stoic Martin to look into the crowd behind the bench and pump his fists a few times.

The celebration grew a little louder as Martin headed toward the tunnel leading to the locker room clapping his hands, and the noise coming from inside it once he arrived was impossible to ignore.

“We tried to stay away from all the criticism that this team has been receiving throughout the year,” Stokes said. “It’s that’s our motivation, then we’re in it for the wrong reason.

“We’re in it for Tennessee, keeping things positive.”

The Vols left no reason for negativity as they packed up in Dayton and prepared to fly to Raleigh, N.C., for a date with sixth-seeded Massachusetts on Friday.

And as for the latter part of Stokes’ equation, Tennessee now looks exactly like Martin intended when he took the reins. Maybe now he can stop hearing about who used to hold them.

Video: Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin

March, 20, 2014
Mar 20

Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin talks about a 78-65 win over Iowa on Wednesday night in the First Four.

3-point shot: A look at the selection process

March, 18, 2014
Mar 18

Andy Katz examines the selection process for the NCAA touranment and the NIT.

Tournament preview: Big Ten

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11

The beautiful chaos in the Big Ten this season didn’t disappoint. Michigan emerged from the rubble despite losing former Wooden Award winner Trey Burke and competing without Mitch McGary for most of the season.

Wisconsin’s streak of top-four finishes and NCAA tourney appearances under Bo Ryan continues. Nebraska might be dancing, too.

The league’s perennial mantra -- there are no easy wins in the Big Ten -- is more than just talk. Penn State swept Ohio State. Northwestern beat Wisconsin in Madison. Illinois went to East Lansing and upset Michigan State.

"As soon as you act like you've arrived, you're going to fall pretty quickly," Illini coach John Groce told reporters after that March 1 victory.

Every team in this league has experienced that to some degree this season.

The highs and lows to date makes this event in Indianapolis the most intriguing conference tourney in the country.

What’s at stake?

[+] EnlargeMichigan
Leon Halip/Getty ImagesJohn Beilein's Wolverines, the top seed in Indy, are playing with confidence.
There was a time when Wisconsin was unraveling. And the crux of the crumble centered on defense, a usually dependable strength for the Badgers. But they couldn’t -- wouldn’t -- defend anyone during that nasty 1-5 stretch.

They’re 55th in adjusted defensive efficiency now, per Ken Pomeroy, but they approached triple digits during that rocky stretch. They recovered, however, with an eight-game winning streak that Nebraska snapped on Sunday.

Now Wisconsin could have an outside shot at a top seed. The Badgers boast a 15-5 record against the RPI’s top 100 and a résumé that includes nonconference wins over Florida, Saint Louis and Virginia. Perhaps a Big Ten tournament championship would be a convincing argument for the selection committee.

But the Badgers might have to get through Michigan State in the semifinals to get there. The Spartans are finally (somewhat) healthy, but the complete Michigan State squad has struggled. Tom Izzo’s team has suffered losses in seven of its past 12 games. It’s hard to imagine Michigan State preserving Izzo’s streak of sending every four-year player he’s ever coached in East Lansing to the Final Four, unless it finds some mojo in Indianapolis.

The field, however, is a gauntlet. Top-seed Michigan was a step above the rest of the conference. John Beilein’s team has that same bravado right now that the Wolverines used to fuel last season's Final Four run.

Nebraska’s win over Wisconsin on Sunday might have sealed its first NCAA tourney bid since 1998. But Tim Miles isn’t preaching guarantees to the underdogs in Lincoln, Neb. Will this ride continue in the Big Ten tournament? It’s certainly possible.

Iowa might have the most to lose. The Hawkeyes’ strength of schedule (21st) has helped them preserve their dreams of earning their first NCAA berth since 2006. But a Thursday loss to Northwestern would be its sixth defeat in seven games. Iowa entered the season as a team that appeared to be capable of winning a few games in the Big Dance. A stumble this week, however, could put the Hawkeyes in a bad spot in their first-round matchup.

Ohio State, second in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy, is still a threat to the field. And Illinois (4-1 in its past five games) is probably the sleeper. And who knows, maybe Yogi Ferrell and a strong showing by Indiana fans will make the festivities interesting for the Hoosiers.

Team with the most to gain

When Richard Pitino took the Minnesota job, folks around the program were talking about its future, not its present.

But the Gophers have the most at stake entering the Big Ten tourney because this could be the difference between an NIT bid and a trip to the NCAA tournament.

Their 6-10 record against the RPI’s top 100 could be a problem they could address with a few quality wins in the Big Ten tournament. They’ve been on the bubble for weeks. But a strong outing in Indianapolis could really help a program that’s living off its No. 5 SOS right now.

Exactly one year ago, Iowa finished its Big Ten regular season 20-11 overall and 9-9 in league play. That record earned the Hawkeyes the No. 6 seed in the Big Ten tournament, where they faced No. 11-seed Northwestern. When they won -- and they did -- they moved on to face the No. 3 seed Michigan State.

Exactly one year later, there seems to have been a glitch in the matrix.

[+] EnlargeFran McCaffery
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallAfter losing five of their last six regular-season games, Fran McCaffery's Hawkeyes face a familiar road in the Big Ten tournament.
The Hawkeyes' 66-63 loss at Illinois on Saturday, the most disappointing of Iowa's five-losses-in-six-games slide, made the Hawkeyes 20-11 overall and 9-9 in the Big Ten. On Thursday, Iowa, the No. 6 seed, will play Northwestern, the No. 11 seed, in the first round of the Big Ten tournament. If Iowa wins, they'll earn a matchup with -- you guessed it! -- No. 3-seed Michigan State.

No statistic could more accurately or hilariously sum up the frustration of Iowa's 2013-14 season than the above. For all of the promise of this season -- for as well as Iowa played for whole swaths of the calendar and for as thrilling and efficient as it often was -- it has, in the end, found itself exactly where it was one year ago. It's not really worth calculating the odds, so don't, but seriously: What are the odds?

The main difference between this season's team and last season's, of course, is that the 2013-14 version is not fighting desperately to earn even an outside shot at an NCAA tournament bid. Even if the Hawkeyes lose to Northwestern on Thursday -- which, given the Wildcats' injuries and nigh-on-historic offensive ineptitude, seems unlikely -- the Hawkeyes will still end up in the NCAA tournament.

Last season, Iowa's insanely bad nonconference schedule (No. 313 in the country) lent itself to an unbiddable (new word!) RPI (No. 78). This season, the Hawkeyes' RPI is in the top 40, and their overall strength of schedule is top 20. Nine of their 11 losses have come against the RPI top 50, seven against the Top 25 and none ranks as a truly bad defeat. There has been plenty of overreaction to Iowa's late-season slide; a reporter even asked coach Fran McCaffery on Saturday if he thought his team was in. (McCaffery told him he didn't know because he wasn't Joe Lunardi.) That's what people do in early March, but come on. Iowa is getting in the tournament.

Still, one need not be an Iowa native to empathize with his home state's particular brand of polite angst. A couple of weeks ago, the Hawkeyes were something like a No. 4 seed, and even then that seemed like a missed opportunity. On a per-possession basis, Iowa rated out as one of the best 10 teams in the country for most of the season. It should have been ranked higher, but its inability to close out wins against top opponents and the RPI's lack of interest in margin of victory, had created a gap between the team's actual performance and its likely seed.

Now the Hawkeyes are hovering down around a No. 8, if not worse, and it's hard to argue with the conclusion. On Feb. 21, Iowa's defense ranked among the best 30 in the country, per adjusted efficiency; now the Hawkeyes rank 105th. They've allowed 1.06 points per trip in conference play, which is a stunning number, given how good Iowa looked on that end of the floor for the first two months of the season. Only Michigan had a wider gap between its offense and its defense, but the Wolverines were so good offensively (1.17 points per possession), they went ahead and won the Big Ten title anyway. Iowa's defensive decline has been far less forgiving.

The question is not whether Iowa will go to the NCAA tournament. That's a done deal. The real questions are how low its seed might be and what sort of artificial ceiling that will set when they do finally limp their way into the tournament next week.

Until then, 20-11, 9-9 Iowa will find itself retracing last season's Big Ten tournament steps. No. 11 seed Northwestern. No. 3 seed Michigan State. It must feel like bad dream.

We’re just two weeks away from the start of the NCAA tournament. And we still have some legitimate questions about a few squads, right?

Well, here are eight teams that you shouldn’t trust yet:

North Carolina: The Tar Heels made some great plays to finish Notre Dame in a 63-61 win on Monday and extend their winning streak to 12 games. But they entered the second half with a 14-point lead against a Fighting Irish team with a 6-12 record in ACC play. That’s just North Carolina basketball. That stretch illustrated their entire season. Always up for the top dogs, always vulnerable against the rest. This team might show up and make a remarkable run in the Big Dance. But don’t be surprised if they don’t get past the first weekend, either.

Texas: The truth about Texas is that Rick Barnes’ program has been overachieving for months. The Longhorns have lost three of their past four, although all three losses came on the road against ranked teams. This is a squad that’s hovering around the 50s in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings. The Longhorns have had issues with turnovers. Javan Felix is enduring a tremendous 16-for-48 slump. Isaiah Taylor looks like a freshman. But Texas has wins over North Carolina, Iowa State and Kansas because it has found ways to play to its potential in tough matchups. Texas is a good team on its best nights and a really sloppy, poor-shooting, turnover-prone assembly on its worst nights.

Oklahoma State: In its past four games, Oklahoma State has been reborn. This four-game winning streak (victories over Texas Tech, TCU, Kansas and Kansas State) has been orchestrated by a desperate team that’s making a strong push for an at-large bid. If the Pokes make the field of 68, they’ll be only the second team since tourney expansion in 1985 to reach the Big Dance after enduring a seven-game losing streak, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Remember that losing streak? Remember the Oklahoma State team that struggled for about three weeks? Maybe everything is different now with Marcus Smart back. Travis Ford’s program has played well in recent matchups. But let’s see if it lasts.

Cincinnati: Cincinnati possesses one of America’s most impenetrable defenses. Only 11 of its 29 opponents thus far have scored 60 or more. There’s just one problem. The Bearcats (129th in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy) can’t score. Sean Kilpatrick is a dynamic player, but it’s clear that he’s also Mick Cronin’s only reliable scoring option in clutch situations. When he’s on, Cincinnati usually finds enough offense to compete with the best teams in the country. When he’s off (18-for-60 in the team’s past three losses), Cincy is an unstable operation. Can the Bearcats beat the best teams in America? Yes, they’ve proven that. But few teams rely so heavily on one player’s production to reach their ceiling.

Wichita State: This is probably unfair. Wichita State’s limited competition in the Missouri Valley Conference and throughout its nonconference slate (BYU, Tennessee and Saint Louis are its best wins), however, demands it. The Shockers were in the Final Four last year, and this team seems equally capable of making another run. Fred Van Vleet is one of America’s best point guards. Gregg Marshall also has Tekele Cotton, Ron Baker, Cleanthony Early and a bunch of glue guys. That’s a good formula for a repeat. But the naysayers can’t be dismissed. Wichita State, in terms of national perception, still has something to prove in the Big Dance. A run in the NCAA tournament would add another layer of validation to Wichita State’s 31-0 record. But beyond that, we need to see Wichita State face an opponent that’s in the top 50 of the RPI because the MVC (Indiana State is 74th) doesn’t have one outside Wichita, Kan.

Iowa: Which Iowa will show up in the NCAA tournament? It’s not clear. Fran McCaffery clearly has his best roster in Iowa City, but he also commands a program that can’t seem to get out of its own way in critical moments. Roy Devyn Marble & Co. have already proven their worth in wins against Ohio State and Michigan, but the Hawkeyes also have looked like the same team that hasn’t been able to finish tight games in recent years. And their defense hasn’t been impressive in weeks. This stretch of three losses in four games has created some suspense about the Selection Sunday fate of a team that should be a unanimous lock for the NCAA tourney by now. The Hawkeyes should get into the field, but they haven’t exactly looked like a squad that will do much if they do secure a berth.

Saint Louis: Jim Crews’ squad has been a defensive force all season. The Billikens are fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. And they’ve only lost four games this season. It’s not like teams are praying that Saint Louis ends up in their region, but in these past two games, losses to Duquesne and VCU, the Billikens have committed 33 turnovers combined. They’ve recorded turnovers on nearly one of five possessions (18.4 percent, 169th, per Ken Pomeroy) this season. For a team with a mediocre offense, its margin for offensive error is slim. And that’s what we’ve learned in the past week about Saint Louis. Definitely a dangerous team. But it’s also a program that could be hindered by its offensive inconsistency and questionable ballhandling.

Kentucky: Well, this didn’t work. Kentucky entered the season as one of the most hyped squads in college basketball history. The Wildcats had everything, it seemed. Julius Randle & Co. were supposed to be another great Kentucky team. Now look at the Wildcats, who lost to South Carolina over the weekend. You definitely can’t trust them. But this is still a team with a bunch of guys who could be NBA millionaires in a matter of months. Yes, a win over Louisville is the only major accomplishment on Kentucky’s resume. The Wildcats are ranked only because they’re the Wildcats. Who have they defeated? And yet, no coach in America wants to play this disjointed group of talent that might figure it out in the Big Dance.

On Thursday, a few teams helped their respective causes. And a few teams continued to miss their potential. See: Kentucky and Iowa.

Wrong direction

Kentucky: Even though the Wildcats suffered their second overtime loss of the season to Arkansas on Thursday night, there’s still hope. Maybe. Kentucky is clearly struggling without any veteran leaders who can help John Calipari’s team maintain -- or discover -- its poise in tight games. And that’s a troubling condition. But a roster that might possess three or four first-round picks always has a chance to put it all together in the final weeks of the season, right? That might not happen for a program with an offense ranked 10th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rankings, but it’s possible. Right?

The problem with Kentucky is that the “What if?” scenarios have all lost their flavor as the regular season nears its conclusion. Doesn’t matter what they could be. We have to look at what they are: good only in spurts. Yes, Kentucky could do a lot of things. But one must consider what it has failed to do, despite boasting eight McDonald’s All-Americans. It’s not working. Not consistently. A 21-7 record would be an achievement for most squads. The Wildcats, however, began the season with one of the best recruiting classes in NCAA history and now they can’t even get through the weak SEC. Other than a December win over Louisville, Kentucky hasn’t done anything to prove that it’s elite and prepared to compete with some of the nation’s best teams in the coming weeks. And that’s never a good thing with March only days away.

[+] EnlargeRoy Devyn Marble, Will Sheehey
AP Photo/Doug McSchoolerIowa couldn't hold onto a lead and lost to Indiana.
Iowa: Last season was filled with missed opportunities for the Hawkeyes. But it was also promising for a team that reached the NIT championship game in 2012-13. Its collection of single-digit losses to Big Ten contenders offered hope that Fran McCaffery’s program would have a chance to compete for the league’s crown and its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006. Right now, however, this just looks like the Iowa of past years. Distancing itself from its potential. Consider how they arrived at Thursday’s loss to Indiana in Bloomington. The Hawkeyes led by seven points with 18:01 to play. And then, Indiana launched a 26-11 run over the next 15 minutes and took over the game.

Yes, the Hawkeyes were on the road. Yes, Indiana is a sub-.500 Big Ten team that counts every game as a chance to salvage its season. But the Hawkeyes were supposed to win these games this season. At least some of them. Instead, their resume is decorated with single-digit losses to Iowa State, Villanova, Wisconsin (twice), Michigan and Michigan State. The Hawkeyes gave up 95 points in a loss at Minnesota on Tuesday and 93 points in a loss at Indiana on Thursday. Their defensive troubles (65th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy, prior to Thursday’s loss) have been a major issue in this three-game losing streak. Iowa should still make the tournament. With the roster it has, however, getting there shouldn’t have been the original goal. The Hawkeyes have the tools to make a run. But that’s meaningless if you don’t prove it. They’re in danger of falling into a low seed and an opening matchup against one of the elite teams that they’ve wrestled with all season.

Right direction

Arkansas: Mike Anderson’s program is doing what the rest of the SEC’s bubble teams can’t seem to do: it’s winning. Arkansas is on a four-game winning streak after completing the season sweep of Kentucky on Thursday night. The Razorbacks are 4-5 against the RPI’s top 50. And they’re 3-1 in their past four road games. Arkansas is doing a great job of positioning itself for an at-large bid with this late push. Proof? According to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, the Razorbacks are in the field of 68 right now.

Louisville: With so many new faces, it took Louisville some time to build chemistry and begin to play the brand of basketball that fueled its rise to the national championship last season. But look at the Cardinals now. They’ve lost one game since Jan. 9. And they avenged that Jan. 30 loss to Cincinnati via Russ Smith’s buzzer-beating game-winner against the Bearcats last weekend. Thursday’s 88-66 win over Temple was its 11th win in 12 games. It’s top 20 in both adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy, numbers enhanced by Smith, arguably the nation’s most versatile player. Louisville is playing some of the best basketball in America.

Weekend Picks: So much popcorn

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
So I usually address five games every Friday. But this weekend is just too stacked for the typical lineup. So I’m going with seven games, all key matchups that you’ll want to see.

I’m even introducing the Popcorn Factor (a scale of 1-10 Bags) to give you an idea of the amount of popcorn you’ll need to get through this weekend.

Now, let’s talk about last weekend.

According to the Internet, the phrase “egg on my face” hails from an ancient theater culture where eggs were thrown at subpar performers. Maybe. I can’t confirm it.

But I had egg on my face after a daring slate of picks went flat by Saturday night.

I had a lot of confidence in Florida prior to its matchup with Kentucky. But that was the only bright spot in the most recent edition of my picks, other than Creighton over Villanova.

Saint Louis topped VCU, Wisconsin beat Michigan and UConn defeated Memphis.

Not a great weekend for my Weekend Picks.

Let’s see how things go this time.

Last week: 2-3

Overall: 37-18


No. 1 Syracuse at No. 5 Duke, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Oh no! The sky is falling in Syracuse, N.Y., and Durham, N.C.! It’s over. … Not even close. I actually think this game is more interesting now with both teams coming off losses. Sure, Boston College beat Cuse. I can’t explain that. But I still think the previously undefeated Orange have an edge here. I know Cuse is on the road, but a few things still stand out from that first matchup. I’ll give Duke credit for fighting in one of the best games of the year on Feb. 1. The Blue Devils survived even after foul trouble put Jabari Parker and other key players on the bench down the stretch. But the Orange scored their final 23 points inside the paint or at the charity stripe in that game, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The Blue Devils had problems keeping North Carolina from the rim on Thursday, too. Plus, did you see how Duke responded to UNC’s zone? Another thriller. Same result.

Prediction: Syracuse 67, Duke 66

Popcorn Factor (9)

No. 4 Arizona at Colorado, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Colorado lost four of five games after Spencer Dinwiddie suffered a season-ending knee injury in a loss at Washington on Jan. 12. It was a sad moment for a program on the rise and a player with legit NBA dreams. But sophomore Xavier Johnson has scored 20 or more four times since Dinwiddie’s injury (he hadn't scored 20 this season before then). He’s stepped up to help a Colorado team that’s won five of its last six while boasting a top-50 adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. But Arizona understands loss, too. On Feb. 1, Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury that changed the dynamics of the program. His midrange game, size and defense were all vital for the nation's former No. 1 team. The Wildcats are not the same without him, but they’re still a viable contender. Why? Because Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is reminding all doubters that Sean Miller’s recruiting classes have brought a bunch of talent to Tucson in recent years. Including the California game (Ashley left the contest after just two minutes of action), Hollis-Jefferson has averaged 12.6 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 1.2 BPG and 1.2 SPG. Yeah, the Wildcats are different. But they’re still good. Just not good enough to knock off this soaring, reinvigorated Colorado squad on the road.

Prediction: Colorado 73, Arizona 71

Popcorn Factor (8)

No. 6 San Diego State at New Mexico, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN2: While most of us have been paying attention to other leagues, the Mountain West has been engaged in a fascinating two-team battle at the top. San Diego State’s achievements (zero losses between Nov. 14 and Feb. 11) have been well-documented. Steve Fisher’s program is ninth in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy, and it’s stacked with a roster full of veterans. But SDSU will face New Mexico twice in the next two weeks. Those meetings will likely determine the final outcome of the Mountain West race. New Mexico has the league’s top scoring offense, and the Lobos don’t commit many turnovers (26th in offensive turnover rate per Ken Pomeroy). Plus, Alex Kirk seems healthy again following a lower-leg injury that affected him in late January. The Pit will be hectic on Saturday night, especially after fans storm the floor following New Mexico’s win. Yes, you’re allowed to storm the floor.

Prediction: New Mexico 70, SDSU 65

Popcorn Factor (10)

No. 11 Louisville at No. 7 Cincinnati, noon ET, CBS: The first game was bizarre. Cincinnati had a 28-20 advantage at halftime and led by as many as 17 points overall. Louisville bounced back, however, and nearly overcame Cincinnati. But Cincy senior guard Sean Kilpatrick (28 points, 11-for-11 from the free throw line) was clutch down the stretch. So what will change on Saturday, especially with Cincinnati at home? Well, this will obviously be another defensive battle between a pair of teams ranked in the top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. But Terry Rozier has been more effective for Rick Pitino in recent weeks, and Mangok Mathiang is growing, too. For Cincy, Shaquille Thomas has matured. Young players on both rosters have stepped up lately, and that could be the key to a game that might again be decided by a few points. Sure, Kilpatrick and Russ Smith will battle, but the victor might be the team that gets the most from a reserve or underclassmen who wasn’t a major factor in the first meeting.

Prediction: Cincinnati 72, Louisville 68

Popcorn Factor (7)

No. 19 Texas at No. 8 Kansas, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU: The last time these two squads met, Texas beat Kansas by 12 points. That was unexpected. But the Longhorns were living off momentum, and Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes had the size to clog the paint against Kansas, which shot just 39 percent from the floor. KU freshman Andrew Wiggins had seven points and eventually fouled out. But Wiggins hasn’t played that poorly since that awful night in Austin. And Joel Embiid, 3-for-9 in the first game against Texas, is coming off an 18-point, eight-rebound, one-block effort in a one-point win at Texas Tech. Ridley has been inconsistent, but the Longhorns are still a difficult team to control. They haven’t looked good on the road, however, since a 14-point win at Baylor last month. This will be their most challenging trip.

Prediction: Kansas 75, Texas 65

Popcorn Factor (6)

Bonus Picks:

No. 16 Wisconsin at No. 15 Iowa, noon ET, ESPN2: The first game might have ended differently if Fran McCaffery had avoided a second-half ejection. The Hawkeyes had outplayed the Badgers to that point and their size on the perimeter was a problem for Wisconsin, which has won four in a row. I think Iowa will finish what it started in early January and get the win.

Prediction: Iowa 70, Wisconsin 68

Popcorn Factor (8)


No. 13 Michigan State at No. 20 Michigan, noon ET, CBS: Michigan State is somewhat healthy. Keith Appling is playing through a wrist injury, Adreian Payne is out there even though he’s still dealing with a foot injury, and Branden Dawson could return from a broken hand as early as this weekend. The Spartans suffered a loss in the first meeting last month, but that came without Payne and Dawson. Even then, the Spartans still had a chance to beat Michigan, which was then undefeated in the Big Ten squad. Different outcome on Sunday.

Prediction: Michigan State 73, Michigan 68

Popcorn Factor (10)

Video: Iowa 82, Penn State 70

February, 15, 2014
Feb 15

Melsahn Basabe scored 16 points as No. 16 Iowa defeated Penn State.
During Roy Devyn Marble’s “He Got Game” moment Saturday, ESPN’s cameras caught him yelling something as his teammates surrounded him following another 3-pointer -- he hit 50 of them, it seemed -- in the middle of No. 17 Iowa’s 85-67 victory over No. 10 Michigan in Iowa City.

It was something about Carver-Hawkeye Arena. There was a word that began with the letter ‘F’ and a mention of a house. The audio was off so viewers had to lip-read.

“This is my frigid house!” Maybe. It is cold this time of year in Iowa City. And four of Michigan’s starters, not named Caris LeVert (6-for-12, 22 points), shot a combined 5 for 19 from the field. Maybe that’s what he was referring to.

Or maybe Marble (22 of 26 points, six 3-pointers in the first half) said, “This is my fortified house!” That would make sense. Carver-Hawkeye has undergone some impressive renovations in recent years.

[+] EnlargeDevyn Marble
Steven Branscombe/USA TODAY SportsIowa guard Roy Devyn Marble scored 26 points on 17 shots in the win over Michigan.
Whatever he said, it was clear that Marble owned the place. Former Big Ten leader Michigan -- the Wolverines are now a half-game behind Michigan State, which will play at Wisconsin on Sunday -- entered halftime down 43-29. Had Saturday’s contest been a UFC fight, Michigan would have tapped and ended the punishment.

The Hawkeyes should celebrate the win. They’d lost three of their last five prior to Saturday, including home losses to Michigan State and Ohio State. They were losing grip on their dreams of making a late run at the Big Ten title and earning a high seed in the Big Dance.

Iowa halted its slide with a fantastic effort. Marble was the catalyst. Everything flows well when he’s in a rhythm.

Melsahn Basabe gets dirty buckets and rebounds (eight points, 10 rebounds, two assists). The floor opens up for Mike Gesell (10 points, eight assists, one turnover, three steals). Aaron White can just be Aaron White (11 points, eight rebounds, two steals and one block). Iowa’s bench (24 points total; nine points, four rebounds, three blocks for Gabriel Olaseni) blossoms, too.

The Hawkeyes benefited from their relaxed demeanor. That’s always more prominent when you’re up by double digits. But it was also the byproduct of Marble’s early success.

Soon, however, coach Fran McCaffery will remind his team that this thing is not finished. Not even close.

Four of Iowa’s final seven Big Ten games are road games. The Hawkeyes will see Wisconsin in Iowa City and Michigan State in East Lansing. They understand the stakes. They've had their hearts broken and broken those of their supporters many times under McCaffery.

But this season should be different. Right now, the NCAA tournament shouldn't be the only prize for the Hawkeyes. Sure, it would be a notable achievement for a program that hasn't participated in March Madness since 2006. Iowa hasn't won an NCAA tourney game since 2001. So a bid would be commendable, considering the history. That shouldn't be the only goal, though. The Hawkeyes can compete with the best teams in America and do more than just smile on Selection Sunday.

They can survive and advance -- if Marble is the assertive, efficient playmaker he was against Michigan.

On Tuesday, Iowa suffered a 76-69 home loss to Ohio State, the same Ohio State team that had lost five of its last seven entering that matchup. Marble went 4-for-11 in that game. He missed his three 3-point attempts. He committed four turnovers and three fouls. On Jan. 22, Michigan secured a 75-67 victory over Iowa in Ann Arbor. Marble recorded 13 points (3-for-9), four turnovers and four fouls.

The same Iowa team that registered just 1.02 points per possession in the first meeting with Michigan recorded 1.32 PPP in the second matchup with the Wolverines. The Hawkeyes made 52.2 percent of its shots outside the paint and outscored the Wolverines 22-8 in transition, according to ESPN Stats & Info. Michigan's Nik Stauskas, a Big Ten player of the year contender, and Glenn Robinson III scored 12 points combined.

So Marble can’t take full credit for Iowa’s win. He had help. A lot of it.

But he can accept the responsibility that the Hawkeyes need him to play with the confidence and aggression he displayed Saturday. That’s the only way that they’ll go as far as they’re capable of going. That’s the only way that they’ll stay in the Big Ten race. That’s the only way that they’ll thrive in the NCAA tournament.

Yes, Carver-Hawkeye -- albeit, right now -- might be Marble’s house. But Iowa is his team. And with that declaration comes the expectation that Saturday’s effort will be closer to the norm than an anomaly throughout the rest of the season.