College Basketball Nation: Ivy
SPOKANE, Wash. -- Most teams that will be playing in the NCAA tournament next weekend know what and who they are. If they’ve been playing together long enough and they’re playing together in March, there’s a general trajectory for their play, and, though there might be outliers throughout a game, their identity is pretty much settled.
Then there’s Michigan State.
Certainly, there’s individual talent there -- Adreian Payne dropped 41 in the second-round win over Delaware, and Branden Dawson scored a season-high 26 in their 80-73 win over Harvard on Saturday to help advance the Spartans to the Sweet 16. Keith Appling and Gary Harris have taken over games and been leaders. Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine keep elevating their games.
But with injuries galore and players constantly being shuffled in and out of the rotation, this team remains one that’s still learning how to play together. It might be coach Tom Izzo’s 12th Sweet 16 team in 17 seasons, but he might know this one’s identity the least.
"We played good enough that you’d say 'That team’s capable of getting to the Final Four,' and we played bad enough that you could say 'That team should’ve been out of the tournament,'" Izzo said. "Maybe it’ll be a little learning lesson for a couple of those guys who got complacent."
It’s the only use this game is to Michigan State at this point. The Spartans can’t take back the near embarrassment or the way that a team without a single athletic scholarship flustered them.
So what can they learn?
Michigan State blew a 12-point halftime lead against a smaller, less physical team. They got out-executed at times and out-hustled at others. Combined, that created an interesting stretch in which it appeared that the Ivy League might be making a Sweet 16 appearance instead of the team that the president chose to win it all.
After the Spartans accounted for 11 assists and just one turnover in the first 20 minutes, the wheels fell off the train. The Spartans gave the ball away 10 times in the second half, with quite a few of those resulting in dunks and breakaway layups for the Crimson.
And yet, even with all that and the entire arena turning its support to the underdog, this team that’s still figuring out what it is knew what it needed to do.
"The greatest thing that happened for me is we did enough bad things but we found a way to bounce back and win," Izzo said. "It’s always a better learning experience when you win and do some things that will maybe get their attention now in the film session tomorrow night."
Michigan State will take on the winner of Virginia-Memphis in the Sweet 16, but it’ll still be a few days before the Spartans even think about that.
With how little this group has practiced together because of injuries, it’ll spend a lot of Sweet 16 prep in Spartan focus mode -- building chemistry with each other, working on their timing. It’s the stuff every other team has mainly figured out at this point in the season, but it has been a season of catching up for Izzo.
He has been saying the whole season that this team had the potential to make it this far (and further) if it can figure out the pieces and where they fit. This Harvard game will act as that next piece for the Spartans. They’ve gained a ton of exposure in the past few weeks as they’ve won the Big Ten tournament and put up huge performances, but they can’t get complacent.
If Izzo’s team picks up as quickly as he thinks it can, the Spartans won’t make this same mistake against Memphis, Virginia or anyone else down the road.
"I hope [this experience] makes you smarter," Izzo said. "I don’t think we need to be stronger. We need to be smarter. We didn’t do some things that were very smart in that stretch. Hopefully, this will be a learning experience. Whenever you can learn with a win, that’s a valuable lesson."
The true value of this win won’t be decided until next weekend, when the Spartans travel to New York. If it’s a learning experience the Spartans can put into practice, it’ll be pretty valuable. If they don’t put it to use, they’ll have to wait until next season.
But Izzo knows that those lessons taste sweeter when they come with a win, specifically one that would come on April 7.
"When you can learn and win, that’s a hell of a day," Izzo said. "That’s a hell of a day."
It was a familiar sight for the veteran coach. Cheerleaders warming up. The band playing. Fans settling into seats, clad in their team colors.
This was Friday night in the Ivy League in March. This was Harvard-Yale at John J. Lee Amphitheater with an NCAA berth on the line.
For any team playing its oldest, bitterest rival in unkind country, some display of nerves is understandable.
The Crimson displayed none. With a raucous, mostly blue-clad crowd bearing down on them, the visitors scored the game's first nine points and sprinted out to leads of 16-2, 20-7 and 36-23 in the first half.
"We talked about how important it was gonna be to get off to a good start here on the road," Amaker said. "We knew how challenging it was gonna be."
Justin Sears led all scorers with 28, but Harvard had three players in double digits and led by as many as 18 in the second half on its way to postseason play for the third straight season. With the 70-58 win, the Crimson claimed the Ivy League title outright and earned the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
"For us to win the outright title, and I guess we've been told we're the first team that's officially in the NCAA tournament," Amaker said, "it means a great deal. And for the right reasons. For us to represent a great conference, for us to represent our institution and the way these guys have played and put their heart and souls on the line all season.
"I think we've shown that we've been the best team in our league. And that's saying something because we know how tough this league is night in and night out."
Harvard has indeed been the Ivy League's best all season long. Coming into Friday's game, the only blemish on the Crimson's Ancient Eight résumé was a home loss to these same Bulldogs.
So while Harvard-Yale typically doesn't require extra fuel for the competitive fire, the Crimson said that loss added some.
"We were very disappointed in what led to that weekend for us," Amaker said. "And we talked about it, our preparation and our work in practice. I thought we made a concerted effort to regroup and respond. And we've been on a mission since then to prepare the right way.
"We talk about a lot of people want to win, but how many people are gonna really prepare to win. I think we have embraced that, and ran with it."
"We had been talking about 'We have gotta seize the moment, because it's right there,'" Brandyn Curry said. "It was in our control and the only thing we had to do was just keep being us. Just don't be impostors or anything like that. Just play our game, and that starts with defense."
Both teams had forgettable nights in some facets, with Harvard going 14-for-32 (43.8 percent) on free throws and Yale going 0-for-14 on 3-pointers.
But from the floor, things were much more memorable for the Crimson. The visitors shot 56.8 percent for the night, while holding the hosts to just 36.0 percent.
"My message to the team before the game was 'Don't let the moment be too big, do your job and play within the lines,'" Yale coach James Jones said. "We did a poor job of that."
For Curry, the Ivy title and NCAA berth meant a little something extra this season. The senior co-captain sat out the 2012-13 season after being one of more than 100 Harvard students implicated in an academic cheating scandal. So he wasn't around for the historic upset of New Mexico in the Big Dance.
When asked what the win Friday night meant to him, Curry got a little choked up.
"It -- " he started, then stopped. "It means a lot. After going through everything last year, if you could ask us if this is how you wanted to win it, you couldn't ask for much better.
"Especially since three years ago we lost to Princeton here [in the Ivy League tiebreaker game] on the Doug Davis buzzer-beater with 2.8 seconds. So that was the toughest loss. That was the last time we were here playing for a championship. And we lost. So it definitely means a lot to come back and win here."
We’ve officially judged and juried every nonconference schedule.
Kudos to the teams that had the nerve to schedule bravely. Your just rewards could come in March, when the selection committee recognizes the merits of playing tough opponents, even if there’s a risk of a loss.
And shame on those who scheduled meekly. Enjoy the NIT.
Now, it’s time to play Armchair Scheduler -- or King/Queen of the Basketball Universe, whichever title floats your boat -- and offer up 15 nonconference games that won’t be played this year, but we wish would be:
Kansas vs. Missouri: Let’s just file this under an annual request. One of the greatest rivalries in college basketball ought to be played this year, next year and every year. We don’t care who left what conference. We don’t care who’s angry. This is like two divorcing parents sparring over the china with the kids stuck in the middle. Here the two schools’ fan bases and fans of the game in general are the kids. So hire a good mediator, work this out and play ball.
Georgetown vs. Syracuse: See Kansas-Missouri argument above. The two teams here at least have agreed that continuing the rivalry at some point is a good idea and it appears a multiyear contract is imminent, but there’s nothing yet on the schedule. Let’s fix that. Soon.
Kentucky vs. Indiana: Ibid. Or is it op. cit.? Whatever, reference the Kansas-Missouri, Georgetown-Syracuse arguments cited above. Two states separated by a river. Great rivalry. Lousy excuses. Figure it out.
North Carolina vs. Raleigh News & Observer: The Tar Heels’ crimes, misdeeds and lack of punishment have been well documented in the news media, but nowhere as thoroughly and as well as at the local newspaper. The staff at the N&O has been relentless and thorough in its coverage. We suggest a game of H-O-R-S-E (with the African-American studies department excused from judging) at the Newseum to settle this once and for all.
Harvard vs. Duke: Smart school versus smart school. Mentor versus mentee. Easy storylines for reporters. What’s not to like about this matchup? Not to mention it would feature two top-25 teams and give the Crimson a chance to show how good they really are.
Kansas vs. Kentucky: Yes, we will get to enjoy Kansas (Andrew Wiggins) versus Duke (Jabari Parker) in Chicago, but we’re selfish. We’d like to see Wiggins go up against Kentucky, one of the schools he spurned. Not to mention it might be fun witnessing what could essentially be a freshman All-American game, with Wiggins, the Harrison twins, James Young, Julius Randle and Joel Embiid together on one floor.
Florida Gulf Coast vs. Georgetown: Let’s see if the slipper still fits when last season’s Cinderella goes rematch against its Madness victims, the Hoyas. Georgetown doesn’t have Otto Porter anymore and Greg Whittington is hurt, but hey, Dunk City lost its drum major when Andy Enfield headed to USC. Seems about even.
Michigan vs. Notre Dame: No one would dare call Mike Brey a chicken, would they? The two schools called the football rivalry quits this year amid acrimony and an endgame Wolverine chicken dance, but maybe the basketball schools can extend the olive branch and play for the first time since 2006.
Michigan State vs. Duke: Tom Izzo may not want to see the Blue Devils very often -- he’s 1-7 against Duke in his tenure -- but this game never disappoints. The two schools have met nine times and only twice, in 2003 and in 1958, has it been a blowout. The two have gone head-to-head over top recruits, including Jabari Parker, and come into the season as top-10 locks.
Memphis vs. Arizona: Josh Pastner revisits his coaching roots in a game that will answer the biggest question facing the Wildcats -- how good is point guard T.J. McConnell? If the Duquesne transfer can handle the Tigers’ onslaught of Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford and Michael Dixon, he can handle everything.
Louisville vs. Oklahoma State: You like good guard play? Imagine this one. Russ Smith, Chris Jones, Terry Rozier (and maybe Kevin Ware) against Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and incoming freshman Stevie Clark. The coaches would be miserable -- with Rick Pitino going up against his own beloved point guard, Travis Ford -- but the rest of us would enjoy it tremendously.
Oregon vs. Creighton: This game stacks up on merit, not just on the storyline of Dana Altman facing his old squad. With Doug McDermott back in the fold, the Bluejays are legit. Their schedule is less so, a sort of meandering plunder of nonconference nothingness. Adding the Ducks, a team Altman has reconstructed, and his impressive backcourt would be helpful. And OK, old coach/old school is fun.
New Mexico vs. Florida: The Gators already have a pretty impressive nonconference slate, but hey, what’s one more? This one would be a nice tussle between pretty skilled, albeit different, big men in Alex Kirk and Patric Young. Kirk enjoyed a breakout season last year, but facing Young would be a real test of the 7-footer’s abilities.
Toughest: Iowa State (Nov. 20), CBE Hall of Fame Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Kansas City, Mo.)
Next toughest: at Stanford (Nov. 11), vs. UMass (Dec. 7 in Springfield, Mass.), at Oregon (Dec. 21)
The rest: Weber State (Nov. 8), Mount St. Mary's (Nov. 15), vs. Utah State (Nov. 30 in Salt Lake City), North Texas (Dec. 3), Prairie View A&M (Dec. 11), Utah (Dec. 14)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- With Tyler Haws back, BYU could steal the WCC crown from Gonzaga. The Cougars certainly will be prepared for the task. A home game against the Cyclones will be an early test for the program. The pot of gold in the Hall of Fame Classic could be a matchup against Final Four participant Wichita State (if BYU gets past Texas). Games against UMass and Oregon in December could be the kind of matchups that pull Dave Rose's team off the bubble on Selection Sunday, if they're successful.
FLORIDA GULF COAST
Toughest: at North Carolina State (Nov. 26)
Next toughest: at Nebraska (Nov. 8), Iona (Dec. 1)
The rest: Hartford (Nov. 12), at Furman (Nov. 15), Eckerd (Nov. 18), Ave Maria (Nov. 23), at FIU (Dec. 7), Samford (Dec. 14), at South Florida (Dec. 17), at Mississippi State (Dec. 19), Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Florida Gulf Coast's athleticism and acrobatics enhanced the NCAA tournament experience for everyone, as "Dunk City" became a national slogan. Well, FGCU's nonconference slate belies its playmaking ability. The Eagles' toughest matchups should be road games against a Nebraska team that finished at the bottom of the Big Ten last season and an NC State squad that lost most of its impact players. The trip to Vegas yields games against Florida A&M and either Radford or Sacred Heart. And it gets worse. You'll have to Google "Eckerd" and "Ave Maria." The dunks can't make up for this disappointing schedule.
Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27), at West Virginia (Dec. 10), at Memphis (Feb. 8)
Next toughest: vs. Kansas State (Dec. 21 in Wichita, Kan.)
The rest: Bryant (Nov. 9), Colorado State (Nov. 11), Oakland (Nov. 17), Washington State (Nov. 21), Coppin State (Dec. 1), New Mexico State (Dec. 7), vs. South Alabama (Dec. 14 in Seattle)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- The Zags must recover from the loss of talented frontcourt duo Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk. But they're still talented enough to maintain their reign in the WCC. There will be little doubt if they succeed in the Maui Invitational. Matchups against Baylor and Syracuse could follow Gonzaga's opening round game against Dayton. A loaded Memphis squad could be a problem for the Bulldogs in February. Kansas State is less interesting because Angel Rodriguez and others transferred this offseason. The potential at the Maui Invite boosts this slate, however, especially because there's a strong chance we'll see those matchups.
Toughest: at Colorado (Nov. 24), at UConn (Jan. 8)
Next toughest: Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 28-30), Boston College (Jan. 1)
The rest: vs. Holy Cross (Nov. 10 in Boston), MIT (Nov. 12), Howard (Nov. 15), Bryant (Nov. 20), at Northeastern (Dec. 4), at Boston University (Dec. 7), Vermont (Dec. 21), at Fordham (Dec. 28), at Rice (Jan. 4), at Florida Atlantic (Jan. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Tommy Amaker has one of the best rosters in Harvard history. He has the key players from last season's NCAA tourney squad. Plus, Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey are returning from last season's suspensions. We'll know more about the program's ceiling after it travels to Boulder to face Tad Boyle's talented Colorado squad. Harvard will encounter one of America's best backcourts when it goes to UConn in January. Not much beyond that. The Great Alaska Shootout features one of the weakest holiday tournament fields in the country. Nothing else in this lineup that would really interest the selection committee.
Toughest: at Notre Dame (Nov. 17), at Saint Louis (Dec. 18)
Next toughest: Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 27-30)
The rest: Ball State (Nov. 9), at Belmont (Nov. 14), Truman State (Nov. 22), at Eastern Illinois (Dec. 7), at Missouri-Kansas City (Dec. 14), IUPUI (Dec. 21), Belmont (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The Sycamores are Wichita State's biggest challenger in the Missouri Valley Conference now that Creighton has moved on to the new Big East. Jake Odum and three other starters return. They'll have to get comfortable off campus. Road matchups against Notre Dame and Saint Louis will be their toughest nonconference games. The Sycamores play five true road games before MVC play begins, and that does not include the Great Alaska Shootout. The latter features a subpar field, but Indiana State could get Harvard in the title game at least. The program might regret two nonconference meetings with Belmont once Selection Sunday arrives.
Toughest: at Kansas (Nov. 19)
Next toughest: at Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 1), at Dayton (Dec. 19)
The rest: at Cleveland State (Nov. 9), Wofford (Nov. 16), George Mason (Nov. 23), St. Bonaventure (Dec. 14), at Nevada (Dec. 22), at Northern Iowa (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- Tim Cluess' program has reached the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons. And despite losing Momo Jones, the Gaels could return. Most of their starters from last season are back. Their nonconference slate, however, features few opportunities to boost their at-large resume. They'll play Andrew Wiggins and Kansas in Lawrence in November. George Mason, Florida Gulf Coast and Northern Iowa are all matchups they could lose. But even if they win all three, they'll probably need more quality wins to get some help on Selection Sunday.
LONG BEACH STATE
Toughest: at Arizona (Nov. 11), Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24), Creighton (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: at Kansas State (Nov. 17), at Washington (Nov. 30), at NC State (Dec. 7), at Missouri (Jan. 4)
The rest: Hawaii-Pacific (Nov. 9), Loyola Marymount (Nov. 14), USC (Dec. 19), Montana State-Billings (Dec. 21), at Nevada (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- Dan Monson's program dismissed standouts Kaela King and Tony Freeland in the offseason. But the 49ers still can win the Big West, especially with former UCLA guard Tyler Lamb becoming eligible after the first semester. They'll need everyone to step up to deal with this strenuous nonconference schedule. The program will face national title contender Arizona on the road in early November. The 49ers open the Puerto Rico Tip-Off with a matchup against Michigan, another national title contender. The tourney also includes VCU and Georgetown. Big East title favorite Creighton travels to the West Coast for a matchup in early December. The slate ends with a matchup against Missouri in Columbia. Now that is a nonconference schedule.
Toughest: vs. Oklahoma State (Dec. 14 in Oklahoma City)
Next toughest: at Saint Mary's (Nov. 8), at Oklahoma (Dec. 30)
The rest: Centenary (Nov. 13), Central Arkansas (Nov. 20), Gulf Coast Showcase in Naples, Fla. (Nov. 25-27), at Jackson State (Dec. 1), UL-Lafayette (Dec. 4), Southern (Dec. 7), Northwestern State (Dec. 11), McNeese State (Dec. 17), at UL-Monroe (Dec. 22), Longwood (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- Last season, Louisiana Tech won 27 games and cracked the AP's top 25 poll. The Bulldogs didn't reach the tournament, but they're still a potential favorite to win Conference USA in their inaugural season in the league. But they'll probably enter conference play with an inflated record. Their mid-December game against national title contender Oklahoma State is the only one that stands out. Road games against Saint Mary's and Oklahoma could be factors if Louisiana Tech is on the bubble at the end of the season. The Bulldogs' lack of quality nonconference wins hurt them last season. They at least have a shot at a few decent ones this season.
Toughest: at Ole Miss (Dec. 22)
Next toughest: at Texas (Nov. 8), at Oklahoma (Dec. 2)
The rest: Reinhardt (Nov. 13), Seton Hall (Nov. 16), at Evansville (Nov. 18), Johnson & Wales (North Carolina) (Nov. 20), Yale (Nov. 23), at Ohio (Nov. 26), at Valparaiso (Nov. 29), Denver (Dec. 7), Alcorn St. (Dec. 16), St. Andrews (Dec. 27)
Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- Mercer brings back four starters from a team that won the Atlantic Sun's regular-season crown in 2012-13. That's the good news. But it's usually a bad sign when you have to Google some of the names featured on a team's nonconference slate. Yes, Johnson & Wales is a real school. Yes, Mercer is playing a bunch of high majors, too. But they're only high majors in name as 2013-14 approaches. Ole Miss should be its toughest game and the Bears have had success against the SEC in recent years. Texas has lost everyone, and Oklahoma has to replenish, too. Those three teams are not expected to contend for the title in their respective conferences. And then, there's Johnson & Wales.
Toughest: at Boise State (Dec. 14), Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25)
Next toughest: Louisiana Tech (Nov. 8)
The rest: Akron (Nov. 12), North Dakota State (Nov. 14), Drake (Nov. 16), Alcorn State (Nov. 24), Murray State (Nov. 30), Eastern Washington (Dec. 8), American University (Dec. 19)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- This is actually better than some recent Saint Mary's nonconference lineups. But it's still so-so, even for a Gaels program that must reboot after losing star Matthew Dellavedova. A road game against Mountain West title contender Boise State is probably Saint Mary's toughest game. The Gaels could see the Broncos again if they beat South Carolina in the opening round of the Diamond Head Classic. Iowa State might be waiting in the championship game. Louisiana Tech could win the Conference USA crown in its first season, so that November matchup should be meaningful. But the Gaels have just one true road game.
Toughest: at Florida (Nov. 18), at Arizona (Dec. 19)
Next toughest: at Marquette (Nov. 8), at Baylor (Dec. 22)
The rest:, at Middle Tennessee State (Nov. 10), Tulane (Nov. 13), at North Florida (Nov. 16), Arkansas-Little Rock (Nov. 22), Blue Mountain College (Nov. 25), at Denver (Dec. 3), at Louisiana Tech (Dec. 7), Dillard (Dec. 14), Champion Baptist College (Dec. 30)
Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- The squad that nearly upset No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament last season is ready to play the role of David again. Southern, a team that returns star Malcolm Miller, could ruin a few nonconference seasons for some of the country's best teams. The Jaguars kick off the year at Marquette. They'll face Florida in Gainesville a few weeks later. Then, they have back-to-back road matchups against Arizona and Baylor in December. That November game against Blue Mountain College is actually an anomaly on this challenging nonconference schedule. You taking notes, SEC?
Toughest: at Saint Louis (Dec. 1), vs. Tennessee (Dec. 14 at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan.)
Next toughest: CBE Hall of Fame Classic (Nov. 25-26), at Alabama (Dec. 17)
The rest: Emporia State (Nov. 9), Western Kentucky (Nov. 12), at Tulsa (Nov. 20), Oral Roberts (Dec. 7), North Carolina Central (Dec. 22), Davidson (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- The Shockers have elevated expectations after last season's Final Four run. With so much talent returning, a trip to Arlington in April seems feasible. Wichita State will get an early test against reigning Atlantic 10 champ Saint Louis, and then it will host SEC sleeper Tennessee a few weeks later. The Vols beat the Shockers in Knoxville last season. They could face BYU if they beat DePaul in the first round of the Hall of Fame Classic. Games against Bama and Davidson shouldn't be overlooked, either. But this slate lacks the power players you'd like to see a Final Four team encounter prior to conference play.
But that will be the expectation in Lexington.
And considering the Wildcats’ top-ranked recruiting class, it’s hardly far-fetched.
No other team in the country is expected to make as big of a leap in 2013-14 as the Wildcats, but there are still plenty of squads who are projected to be considerably improved when the season tips off in November.
Here’s a list of the programs I think will make the biggest strides. And remember, this ranking is based on how significantly a team will improve, not on how good it’s expected to be, how many games it will win or how far it may go in the postseason. For instance, do I think SMU will be able to beat Oklahoma State? No, but I think the upgrades the Mustangs make will be more dramatic than the ones we see in Stillwater, where the Cowboys made the NCAA tournament last season.
Get the drift? Great. Here’s the list:
10 (tie). Arizona State: A year ago at this time, Sun Devils coach Herb Sendek was rumored to be on the hot seat. That’s hardly the case these days, though, as Arizona State is primed for its best season since the days of James Harden. The biggest reason for optimism in Tempe is point guard Jahii Carson, who bypassed the NBA draft to return for his sophomore season. Carson averaged 18.5 points and 5.1 assists in 2012-13 and likely would’ve won national freshman-of-the-year honors if Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart hadn’t had such an impressive season. Also back for ASU is 7-foot-2 center Jordan Bachynski (3.4 blocks) and forward Jonathan Gilling (9.7 points, 6.1 rebounds). The Sun Devils took a hit during the offseason when guard Evan Gordon transferred to Indiana. But they countered that by adding Jermaine Marshall, who will be eligible immediately after averaging 15.3 points at Penn State last season.
10 (tie). Boise State: The Broncos finished 21-11 last season and lost to LaSalle in the NCAA tournament's First Four. Still, the tourney appearance -- Boise State’s first since 2008 -- was a huge step for the program, and even better things could be in store in 2013-14. Eight of the Broncos’ top nine players return. That includes leading scorers Anthony Drmic (17.7 points) and Derrick Marks (16.3). Marks shot 42 percent from 3-point range and averaged nearly 4 assists. Mikey Thompson (7.9 points) is also back along with top rebounder Ryan Watkins. With a handful of the Mountain West Conference's top teams expected to take minor steps back, this could be a special season for the Broncos.
9. Connecticut: The Huskies weren’t eligible for the postseason in 2013, so somewhat overshadowed was the excellent job first-year coach Kevin Ollie did under incredibly difficult circumstances after taking over for Jim Calhoun. Connecticut had nothing to play for but still managed to go 20-10. Considering they return nearly all of their key pieces, the Huskies should be even better in 2013-14. The backcourt of Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier should be one of the best in the country. The twosome combined to average 32.5 points and 9 assists last season. And remember, Napier was a starter on UConn’s 2011 NCAA championship team. Small forward DeAndre Daniels made huge strides as a sophomore, when he upped his scoring average by nearly 10 points per game. Connecticut ranked second-to-last in the Big East in rebounding last season, so Ollie’s team must get better in the paint, where it often appeared undermanned.
8. Oklahoma State: Three months later, I’m still stunned that standout guard Marcus Smart bypassed an opportunity to be a top-five draft pick to return for his sophomore season. Smart’s decision -- coupled with the return of Le'Bryan Nash, another NBA prospect -- means that the Cowboys will be a legitimate threat to end Kansas’ string of nine consecutive Big 12 titles. Some might even consider Travis Ford’s squad the league favorite. Smart is one of the toughest, most versatile players in all of college basketball. As a freshman, he led Oklahoma State in points, assists and steals and ranked second in rebounds. Still, while Smart is the face of the program, he’s just one of many threats on the Cowboys roster. Nash, a small forward, averaged 14 points per game last season, while wing Markel Brown chipped in 15.3. In some ways, Brown strikes just as much fear into opponents as Nash and Smart. Phil Forte and Michael Cobbins cannot be taken lightly.
7. Harvard: The Crimson might seem out of place this list. After all, Tommy Amaker’s squad was pretty darn good last season, when it won the Ivy League title before knocking off No. 3 seed New Mexico in the second round of the NCAA tournament. What made those feats so impressive was that Harvard played the entire season without its two top players. If Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey return as expected, the Crimson will likely have their best team in recent history. Wesley Saunders, Siyani Chambers and Laurent Rivard were all double-figure scorers last season, and Curry and Casey will likely post similar or better point totals in 2013-14. If Harvard makes a tourney run this season it won’t be nearly as big of a surprise. This is a top-25-caliber team.
6. LSU: The Tigers have been to the NCAA tournament just once since 2006, but could make an appearance in 2014 thanks to the return of several key players and a huge addition down low. LSU brings back leading scorer and rebounder Johnny O'Bryant (13.6 points, 8.7 boards) along with standout guard Anthony Hickey, who ranked second in the country in steals (2.9) while chipping in a team-high 3.8 assists and 11.2 points. The Tigers also add a standout forward in Jarrell Martin, the No. 11-ranked player in the class of 2013. Johnny Jones’ squad took a hit when high-profile recruit Jordan Mickey was declared ineligible, but there are still enough parts here to make the upcoming campaign a successful one. LSU went 19-12 last season and won nine of its final 14 games.
5. Iowa: Even though they missed the NCAA tournament, the Hawkeyes still had to feel good about the strides they made last season. Iowa finished 9-9 in the Big Ten, the nation’s toughest conference, and made it to the NIT championship game, where it lost to a deeper, more athletic Baylor squad. Don’t be surprised if 2013-14 is the season when Iowa really turns the corner. Every key player returns from last year’s 25-13 squad. Included in that mix are leading scorers Roy Devyn Marble (15 points) and Aaron White (12.8), who also averaged a team-high 6.2 rebounds. The Hawkeyes also have an excellent -- and, in my opinion, underrated -- coach in Fran McCaffrey, who appears to have this program on an upswing. With Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin all losing a number of key players, I wouldn’t be surprised if Iowa finished as high as third in the Big Ten while earning its first NCAA tournament berth since 2006.
4. Tennessee: The Volunteers barely missed out on the NCAA tournament last season -- mainly because of some key losses early in SEC play, where they dropped four of their first six games. By March, though, Cuonzo Martin’s squad was one of the most improved teams in the conference, and there are plenty of reasons to think the Vols will build on that momentum. The frontcourt should be loaded with Jarnell Stokes, who averaged 12.4 points per game last year, and Jeronne Maymon, who averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds two years ago before missing last season with an injury. Incoming freshman Robert Hubbs should give the Vols a boost at small forward, and leading scorer Jordan McRae (15.7 PPG) returns at shooting guard. Point guard Trae Golden was dismissed from the team during the offseason, but Tennessee should be fine at that position with either Antonio Barton, a Memphis transfer, or freshman Darius Thompson.
3. SMU: I’m not ready to say the Mustangs will end an NCAA tournament drought that dates back to 1993, but I definitely think they’ll at least be on the bubble in late February and early March. That’d be a huge jump for a program that finished 15-17 in Larry Brown’s first season, but SMU has added enough quality pieces to make it possible. Illinois State transfer Nic Moore, who redshirted last season, was named to the Missouri Valley Conference all-freshman team in 2011-12. Signee Yanick Moreira was the top-ranked junior college big man in the nation, and incoming freshman Keith Frazier will become the first McDonald’s All American ever to suit up for SMU, which also returns three double-digit scorers in Nick Russell, Jalen Jones and Ryan Manuel. If Brown gets this group to jell quickly, this could be the best season for Mustangs basketball in decades.
2. St. John’s: Sportswriters are expected to make bold predictions from time to time, so here’s mine: St. John’s will spend most of the upcoming season ranked in the Top 25 and will challenge Marquette and Creighton for the Big East title. This team is loaded. Jakarr Sampson was one of the country’s most underrated freshmen in 2012-13, when he averaged 14.9 points and 6.6 rebounds. Imagine how much better he’ll be this season after bypassing the NBA draft. I’m also expecting even more out of D'Angelo Harrison, who was averaging a team-high 17.8 points before being suspended at the end of last season for disciplinary reasons. Chris Obekpa, who ranked second in the country with 4.0 blocks per game, is back along with bruising forward God'sgift Achiuwa, who redshirted last season. Two other important pieces will be incoming freshman Rysheed Jordan, the No. 3-ranked point guard in the class of 2013, and Orlando Sanchez, a 24-year-old forward who wasn’t deemed eligible by the NCAA until late February. He’ll be able to compete for only one season, but Sanchez could end up being the top player on the Red Storm roster.
1. Kentucky: John Calipari has been regarded for years now as the top recruiter in college basketball. But he might have outdone himself this time, as Kentucky welcomes what may be the greatest signing class in college basketball history. The haul includes five players (Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and James Young) ranked among the nation’s top-10 prospects by ESPN.com. The question is whether the young Wildcats will jell and, if so, how quickly. Calipari is the best in the country at coaching players who only plan to spend a year or two in college. Kentucky, which also returns potential lottery picks Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, will likely open the season as the No. 1-ranked team in America. That’s a lot of pressure for any squad, especially one with so much youth. Last year’s Wildcats crumbled under the spotlight. Kentucky’s latest batch of freshmen, though, are rumored to be much tougher, both on the court and between the ears. We’ll find out soon enough.
Especially in the NCAA tournament.
In three of the past four seasons, a team from a non-power conference has advanced to the Final Four and more than held its own upon arrival.
The most recent example is Wichita State, which defeated the likes of Pittsburgh, Gonzaga and Ohio State en route to a showdown with Louisville in the national semifinals. The Shockers lost to the eventual NCAA champs 72-68, but Gregg Marshall’s team certainly made its presence felt in a game that wasn’t decided until the final minute. Along with earning a ton of national respect (if it hadn't done so already), Wichita State’s postseason march was surely inspiring to teams from similar leagues hoping to accomplish the same feat this season.
I’m not predicting that any of these programs will pull a Wichita State and make the Final Four, but here are some schools from non-power conferences that could make some noise in March.
10. Southern -- Florida Gulf Coast became the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16 last season, but Southern nearly accomplished something even more impressive when it almost upset Gonzaga before falling 64-58. A victory would’ve made the Jaguars the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1. Southern should be a scary team again in 2013-14. Four of its top five scorers return including 6-foot-6 wing Malcolm Miller, who averaged 15.8 points and a team-high six rebounds. Javan Mitchell (9.5 points) and Jameel Grace (9.2) posted impressive numbers, as well. The Jaguars, who defeated Texas A&M in a nonconference game last season, will likely be challenged in the SWAC by Mike Davis’ Texas Southern squad. Texas Southern won last season’s SWAC title with a 16-2 record (compared to 15-3 for Southern) but was ineligible for the postseason.
9. Towson -- The Tigers pulled off the biggest turnaround in NCAA history by going 18-13 one season after finishing 1-31. Pat Skerry’s squad could be in for even better things, thanks to the return of four starters. The best of the bunch is former Georgetown forward Jerrelle Benimon, who ranked third in the nation in rebounding last season with 11.2 a game. Benimon, who also averaged a team-high 17.1 points, may be even tougher this season thanks to the arrival of 3-point standout Four McGlynn, a Vermont transfer who will be a welcome addition to a team that ranked 258th in the country in 3-point shooting. Small forward Marcus Damas should be the team’s top defender for the second straight season, while Timajh Parker-Rivera has the edge on replacing departed senior Bilal Dixon at power forward. Towson will be playing in a new arena, and the CAA tournament is in Baltimore. It couldn’t be happening at a better time for the Tigers, whose last NCAA tournament appearance was in 1991.
8. Florida Gulf Coast -- It wasn’t long after last season’s surprising march to the Sweet 16 that Eagles coach Andy Enfield was poached by USC. The interest in Enfield hardly came as a surprise, as FGCU was one of the most fascinating stories of the NCAA tournament. Even though Enfield and his “Dunk City” style are gone, the Eagles likely won't take a huge step back. Longtime Kansas assistant Joe Dooley was hired as a replacement and with his pedigree, FGCU may not miss a beat. It’d be a mistake to assume the Eagles will play a completely different style under Dooley, who retained two of Enfield’s top assistants (Marty Richter and Michael Fly). FGCU returns four of its top five scorers: Bernard Thompson, Chase Fieler, Brett Comer and Eric McKnight. And the Eagles add a pair of transfers in Jamail Jones (Marquette) and Nate Hicks (Georgia Tech).
7. Louisiana Tech -- A lot of people forgot about the Bulldogs because they didn’t make the NCAA tournament. Still, finishing 27-7 overall and 16-2 in any conference (yes, even the WAC) is no small feat. Neither is making an appearance, albeit brief, in the Top 25 poll for the first time since 1985. It will be interesting to see if Louisiana Tech can experience similar success during its first season as a member of Conference USA. The Bulldogs certainly have enough pieces for a great season. Leading scorer Raheem Appleby (14.9 points) returns along with Cordarius Johnson (7.9) and Alex Hamilton (7.8), who ranked second and third on the team in scoring, respectively. Leading rebounder Michale Kyser (5.3) is also back. Louisiana Tech lost its final two regular-season games last spring, then fell to UT-San Antonio in the first round of the WAC tournament, which meant it had to settle for an appearance in the NIT, where it beat Florida State and then lost to Southern Miss. It has the potential to make the NCAA tournament in 2013-14. That hasn’t happened since 1991.
6. Boise State -- The Broncos finished 21-11 last season and made the NCAA tournament for just the second time since 1994. Even though they lost to La Salle in the “First Four,” the season was still deemed a huge success, especially considering Boise State played in the Mountain West, easily one of the nation’s toughest conferences. The Broncos have to feel good about their chances for another good season in 2013-14. Four of their top six players return, including leading scorers Anthony Drmic (17.7 PPG) and Derrick Marks (16.3 PPG). Marks shot 42 percent from 3-point range and also averaged nearly four assists. Mikey Thompson (7.9 points) is back, as is leading rebounder Ryan Watkins. With a handful of the conference's top teams expected to take minor steps back, this could be a special season for the Broncos.
5. La Salle -- Last season’s run to the Sweet 16 (which included victories over Boise State, Kansas State and Ole Miss) earned Dr. John Giannini a contract extension, and rightfully so. Before last season the Explorers had won just one NCAA tournament game in 30 years and hadn’t even made the field since 1992. The Explorers are confident their success will continue in 2013-14. Leading scorer Ramon Galloway is gone, but La Salle returns three other double-digit scorers in Tyreek Duren (14.3 points), Tyrone Garland (13) and Jerrell Wright (10.8), who also led the team in rebounds with 6.8 per game. Starting guard Sam Mills, who averaged 33 minutes per game, is also back. Replacing Galloway certainly won’t be easy. He led the team in points, assists and steals. And his on-court swagger set the tone for a team that relied on toughness. Still, with confidence soaring following last season’s 24-10 finish, the Explorers have an excellent chance of returning to the NCAA tournament.
4. Harvard -- Tommy Amaker’s squad pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the NCAA tournament last season by upending No. 3 seed New Mexico. And let’s not forget, it was somewhat surprising that Harvard was even in the field. Harvard played the entire season without its two best players but still managed to win the Ivy League. If Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey return, as expected, the Crimson likely will have their best team in recent history. Wesley Saunders, Siyani Chambers and Laurent Rivard were all double-figure scorers last season, and Curry and Casey likely will average similar or better point totals in 2013-14. If Harvard makes a postseason run this season, it won’t be nearly as big of a surprise. This is a Top 25-caliber team.
3. Saint Louis -- Some publications tabbed Jim Crews as the national coach of the year after he led the Billikens to the Atlantic 10 title last season. Crews had stepped in for Rick Majerus, who left the team in the fall for health reasons and passed away in December. SLU named Crews the full-time coach after the season, and it’s not unreasonable to think SLU could be just as salty in 2013-14. Guard Kwamain Mitchell is gone, along with A-10 sixth man of the year Cody Ellis. But the Billikens return every other starter from a squad that also won the league tournament title while setting a school record for wins (28). Leading the way will be forward Dwayne Evans, who led last season's team in points (14) and rebounds (7.7). Jordair Jett is back after being named to the A-10’s all-defensive squad. So is Mike McCall Jr., whose 47 3-pointers ranked second on the team. The battle between SLU, La Salle and VCU for the A-10 title should be a good one.
2. VCU -- There were times last season when VCU looked like a top-10 team. Even when VCU went 1-2 at the Battle 4 Atlantis, losing to Duke and Missouri, the Rams showed glimpses of becoming a team that could make the Final Four. No one would be surprised if Shaka Smart’s squad accomplished that feat this season, especially if VCU establishes a little more consistency. The Rams will likely open the season ranked in the top 15. All but two key players (Troy Daniels and Darius Theus) return from last season's squad. Included in that group are double-digit scorers Treveon Graham (15.1 points), Juvonte Reddic (14.6) and Rob Brandenberg (10.1), along with defensive standout Briante Weber, who ranked fifth in the country in steals with 2.7 per game. VCU will continue to play its relentless full-court defense, which is hard to prepare for in a tournament setting because of the quick turnaround. On offense the Rams will score a ton of points in transition. This, once again, will be a fun team to watch -- and a difficult one to play.
1. Wichita State -- Can the Shockers make it to the Final Four two years in a row? Heck, why not? There’s a strong chance that this year’s team could be even better than the unit that lost to Louisville. Losing bruising forward Carl Hall and court leader Malcolm Armstead will hurt, but Marshall’s team returns all of its other key parts. Cleanthony Early, who had 25 points and 10 rebounds against Louisville, is an NBA-caliber small forward. Ron Baker ignited the Shockers’ NCAA tournament run with his prowess from beyond the arc, and point guard Fred VanVleet logged valuable minutes as a freshman backing up Armstead. Tekele Cotton is a returning starter who helps set the tone defensively, and standout shooter Evan Wessel is back after redshirting last season. Look for 6-foot-9 Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Kadeem Colby to replace Hall in the paint. Colby spent the past season working out with the Shockers and Marshall couldn’t be more impressed. Chipola (Fla.) College transfer Earl Watson also will be in the mix down low. It should be another great season in Wichita.
Bonus team: Butler -- I goofed up in an earlier version of this blog by including the Bulldogs on this list. The things that Butler accomplished as a mid-major -- advancing to the NCAA title game in 2010 and 2011 -- made Brad Stevens’ players the poster boys for non-power conferences. But things are different now. Butler is in the Big East -- and it made the move without Stevens, who was hired earlier this month as head coach of the Boston Celtics. His replacement, Brandon Miller, faces the tough task of carrying on the tradition established by Stevens and his predecessors. Miller left coaching altogether a few seasons ago when he resigned after six years as an assistant at Ohio State. He got back in the game last year as a special assistant to Illinois coach John Groce before Stevens brought him back to Butler as an assistant a few months before his departure. Miller inherits a team that lost its top two scorers in Rotnei Clarke and Andrew Smith.
But standouts Khyle Marshall and Roosevelt Jones (the hero of last season’s dramatic win over Gonzaga) return along with Kellen Dunham, one of the country’s top shooters. The biggest issue will be at point guard, where there is no clear front-runner for the starting spot. Jackson Aldridge has yet to establish himself after two seasons, and Devontae Morgan hardly saw the court last year as a freshman. Walk-on Alex Barlow is also a candidate. The Bulldogs certainly don’t have the look of a Final Four team, but if Miller does half as good of a job as Stevens, it would be foolish to count the Bulldogs out.
2. The U.S. World University Games team will have its hands full with Canada during the competition, set for July 6-17 in Kazan, Russia. The Canadian roster, released Tuesday, isn't as loaded but boasts plenty of major-college talent. Boston College's Olivier Hanlan, the ACC freshman of the year, is joined by headline players Kyle Wiltjer (Kentucky), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), Dwight Powell (Stanford), Brady Heslip (Baylor), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Laurent Rivard (Harvard) and Jordan Bachynski (Arizona State). Each of these Canadians will have a significant role on his respective team, with all of them starting the season in position to make a run at an NCAA bid. Ejim may be the most intriguing of the lot, with a real shot to be even more of a breakout player in the Big 12. Pangos will have more scoring next season. Powell led the Cardinal last season. Rivard will be a fixture on a stacked Crimson. Wiltjer has to adjust his role with the newcomers at Kentucky but can still be a matchup problem. Heslip must be more consistent. Bachynski has to absorb some of Carrick Felix's numbers after his departure. And Hanlan will be responsible for leading the Eagles higher in the ACC.
3. Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg has taken plenty of transfers his first few years in Ames. He has had success stories mixed in with quality newcomers. I'll be very interested to see if he can maximize the talent of DeAndre Kane, who was a disappointment for Marshall after starting last season with such promise. Kane was essentially asked to leave Marshall by coach Tom Herrion; they weren't going to mesh for one more season. Now Kane has to be in step with Hoiberg if his final year in college is going to be productive. Kane originally was looking to go to Pitt, but that didn't work out, either. He pursued Iowa State and the Cyclones were receptive. It's in everyone's best interest that this works for next season so the Cyclones can be relevant come March for a third consecutive season.
In five months, the 2013-14 college basketball season will begin.
It’s always tough to make projections in the weeks following any season. But the dust has settled.
The following list highlights sophomores who will be asked to carry more weight next season. Some of these young men might have to carry an entire team.
- Javan Felix (Texas) – Felix entered 2012-13 as a freshman who expected to play minimal minutes in Rick Barnes’ rotation. Then Myck Kabongo was suddenly suspended for receiving impermissible benefits and lying to the NCAA about it. Enter Felix, who started 23 games at point guard (6.8 PPG, 4.1 APG) for the Longhorns. Barnes lost his top three scorers from a team that failed to make the NCAA tournament, so Felix will assume a leadership role again. This time, however, he’ll guide an even younger and more inexperienced bunch than last season’s crew. But his invitation to this summer’s USA Basketball U19 training camp is a testament to his performance under pressure last year.
- Sam Dekker (Wisconsin) – Few question Dekker’s ceiling. His 116.7 offensive rating was fifth in the Big Ten per KenPom.com (among players who’d used at least 20 percent of their team’s possessions). In a reserve role (22.3 MPG), the freshman averaged 9.6 PPG and 3.4 RPG. He also shot 39 percent from the 3-point line. It was an impressive debut. He certainly seems capable of handling more next year for Bo Ryan. He doesn’t have a choice. Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans are gone. Josh Gasser will return from an ACL injury, so Dekker won’t have to lead alone. But he’ll have to help in more ways.
- Siyani Chambers (Harvard) – Tommy Amaker had a roster that was fully capable of retaining its Ivy League crown as the 2012-13 campaign approached. Then top performers Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry abruptly left the program before the season amid an academic scandal. So Amaker turned to this freshman who had few Division I offers. Chambers embraced his new responsibilities as the starting point guard for Harvard, averaging 12.4 PPG, 5.7 APG and 1.5 SPG. He also hit 81 percent of his free throws and 42 percent of his 3-point shots. The Crimson return the heart of a squad that upset New Mexico in the second round of the NCAA tournament in March, so this team will be favored to win the Ivy League again. Amaker knows he has a point guard he can trust.
- Yogi Ferrell (Indiana) – The Hoosiers are the most mysterious team in the Big Ten, perhaps America. Yes, they’ve lost Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller, Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls. But Tom Crean signed another stellar recruiting class, led by Noah Vonleh. Then there’s Hanner Mosquera-Perea & Co., part of Indiana’s previous recruiting crew that collectively provided inconsistent production. Ferrell (7.6 PPG. 4.1 APG), who ended last season as the apparent leader of the future, will be the key to the new chemistry in Bloomington. He walked into a fortified situation his freshman season. It’s not exactly clear what sort of situation he’ll encounter this fall. But it won’t work without him.
- Georges Niang (Iowa State) – Fred Hoiberg wanted to win on Day 1. He couldn’t wait for young players to blossom two or three years down the road. He needed guys who could play immediately. So he signed a bunch of Division I transfers and junior college prospects in his first few seasons on the job. The results? Back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. But Hoiberg can build in the coming years around Niang, a 6-foot-7 wing with the tools to mature into a high-level talent in 2013-14. He averaged 12.1 PPG and 4.6 RPG last season and made 39 percent of his 3-point attempts. The Cyclones lost four of their top six scorers from last year’s squad. Next season’s squad, which will feature four new junior college transfers, will be one of the most inexperienced teams in Hoiberg’s tenure. So Niang has to improve on last year’s production and prove that he’s a go-to guy in the locker room too.
- Perry Ellis (Kansas) – Well, a lot has changed in recent weeks for Kansas. The Jayhawks ended last season with question marks. They’d lost all five starters once Ben McLemore declared for the NBA draft. So perhaps the Big 12 title streak – nine in a row – would be in jeopardy entering the 2013-14 season? That was then. Andrew Wiggins signed with Bill Self’s program and squashed all doubts. The addition of Tarik Black certainly helps too. But Kansas has historically benefited most from depth. And they have that inside now. Ellis is in a great position as the projected starter at power forward. He’s surrounded by playmakers, so he just has to continue to be the efficient threat he was in 2012-13 (5.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 48 percent from the floor, 13.6 MPG). Kansas has suddenly become a national title contender again. Self’s freshman class is uncanny now, and Black is an instant boost for the program. If Ellis is as potent as his prep accolades suggested he’d be at this level, KU will be in a position to reach Arlington next April.
- Montrezl Harrell (Louisville) – Kentucky might be favored to win the national crown next season. But Louisville deserves consideration too. The Cardinals lost Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng. But Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear return. Harrell could have an expanded role in Rick Pitino’s system too. Louisville lost size when Dieng decided to turn pro. But now the Cardinals have a bunch of versatile forwards who will continue to cause matchup problems for opponents. Harrell fits that formula. The 6-8 North Carolina native had his moments last season, including a 4-for-4 performance against Wichita State in the Final Four. He averaged 5.7 PPG last season, and he’s capable of more in 2013-14.
- Kyle Anderson (UCLA) – Welcome to the Steve Alford Era. It begins a year after Ben Howland signed the nation’s top recruiting class, a class that -- without an injured Jordan Adams -- was dismissed from the second round of the NCAA tournament by Minnesota. But with the exception of Shabazz Muhammad, that heralded class will return. Adams must regain his strength after suffering a season-ending foot injury. Tony Parker’s minutes will increase if he’s in better shape and more focused. Anderson is as critical as any returnee on the roster. The 6-9 athlete averaged 9.7 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 3.5 APG and 1.8 SPG. Anderson entered 2012-13 as a lengthy point guard with a unique skill set. By the end of the season, however, we really weren’t sure what position he played for the Bruins. That’s what Alford must decide. Anderson can pass and handle the ball. His shooting must improve (21 percent from the 3-point line). But he’s usually a mismatch. Still, he needs a position.
- Fred Van Vleet (Wichita State) – Gregg Marshall’s squad will enter next season as the clear favorite to win the Missouri Valley Conference. Ron Baker, Cleanthony Early and Van Vleet return to a program that surprised the nation with a run to the Final Four in April. With point guard Malcolm Armstead gone, Van Vleet steps into his slot as starting point guard. Van Vleet (4.3 PPG, 2.3 APG) flourished in spurts last season. But his effort against Ohio State in the Elite Eight (4-for-8, 12 points, 2 steals, 3 rebounds and 2 assists) provided evidence that the young guard will not be intimidated with a more significant role next season. His postseason experience made him more confident. The latter is crucial, especially for a young point guard.
- Chris Obekpa (St. John’s) – On Dec. 8, Obekpa recorded a school-record 11 blocks against Fordham. He’s a true rim protector. He was second in the nation with 4.1 BPG, and he led the nation with a 15.8 block percentage, per KenPom.com. He’s the defensive anchor for a young St. John’s squad, and the 6-9 big man was also a solid rebounder (6.2 RPG). Now … the other things about his game. His offense was limited to dunks and garbage points. He’s a phenomenal athlete, so he has the potential to make strides on that end of the floor. And if that happens, watch out. With improved shooting and a better post game, Obekpa could evolve into one of the nation’s most complete players.
2. Harvard made my early-season Top 25 and with good reason. The Crimson beat New Mexico in the round of 64. The assumption was the two best players -- who were suspended for the year with a number of other students from the general student body over an academic scandal -- would be returning next season. Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said Wednesday that Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey will be back as expected. That was always the plan but there could have been a hiccup with neither player being on campus during the past year. Harvard has a few high-profile games next season with the series continuing against UConn and a return games against UMass and Boston College. The Crimson are in the Great Alaska Shootout, a tournament that has waned in importance recently. But the 2013 field is decent with a few teams that could end up in the NCAAs in 2014 like Iowa, Denver, Indiana State and Tulsa. TCU, Pepperdine and host Alaska-Anchorage are the other three in the field.
3. Miami coach Jim Larranaga said he'll know in a few weeks who might be his replacement for Shane Larkin at the point. But he now knows who will be the lead guard in the fall of 2014 with the arrival of Kansas State transfer guard Angel Rodriguez. There's always a chance Rodriguez will appeal to play immediately since he wanted to be closer to his family in Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, Georgia coach Mark Fox said he has the player ready to take over for his early-entrant sophomore and leading scorer Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Fox said freshman Kenny Gaines, who averaged 3.7 points or almost 15 fewer than Caldwell-Pope, would take over. "He had many solid nights as his backup (last year)," said Fox. "He's a good player."
Though it may seem like it happens in an instant, history is made slowly.
So when the buzzer sounded in Salt Lake City and the Harvard Crimson flooded onto the court to celebrate the school's first NCAA tournament victory, they had indeed made history. But they didn't just magically appear on that stage at the Big Dance, didn't just magically turn into Ivy League contenders and then champions.
Harvard has traveled a long road to this point, a years-long journey that isn't over yet.
The journey started six years ago, when the school decided to make a fresh commitment to the program, on and off the court, and chose Tommy Amaker as its next coach.
Building toward history
It's hard to overstate just what a historic achievement No. 14 seed Harvard's 68-62 victory over No. 3 seed New Mexico really is.
Amaker is the 17th coach in Harvard's long basketball history, which stretches all the way back to 1900 (though Harvard didn't field teams from 1909 to 1920). Entering the 2012-13 season, the Crimson had played 2,268 games (winning 1,015 and losing 1,253) but had never won a postseason game of any kind (0-2 in the NCAA tournament, 0-1 in both the NIT and the CollegeInsider.com tournament).
Of course, before Amaker took the 2009-10 team to the CollegeInsider.com tourney following a buzzer-beating loss to Princeton for the Ivy League's automatic NCAA bid, only one Harvard team had even played in a postseason tournament.
And that was in 1945-46.
What Amaker found by the Charles was a program that needed major upgrades both on and off the court. It needed better locker rooms, it needed better facilities and it needed more on-court talent.
But asked Friday about his "vision" for the Harvard program, Amaker said he didn't have to do anything special to make it a reality.
"I love the word 'vision,' first of all, and we use that a lot because that was real and truthful from day one of what I felt in my heart about Harvard. It's an incredible brand. It's a magical name, and that's not a knock to any other wonderful place or institution or university," Amaker told reporters in Salt Lake City. "I just think that it speaks for itself in so many ways of being considered the very best.
"I didn't have to overcome, or we didn't have to try and feel like we were overcoming anything. What we tried to do is present a vision and present Harvard as an option, as an opportunity. I never used the word 'sell.'"
Amaker did inherit some talent, including a point guard named Jeremy Lin, but otherwise the cupboard was close to bare early. (Lin, of course, went on to star in the Ivy League and then bounced around the NBA before bursting onto the scene with the Knicks last season. Lin now plays for the Houston Rockets.)
With Lin and a first recruiting class that included players like Oliver McNally and Keith Wright, who would become stalwarts and two-year co-captains as juniors and seniors, Amaker set about building a winning culture in Cambridge.
That was a big deal, because while the Crimson have had success in other sports, before Amaker arrived the men's basketball program never had.
The success the Crimson have had this season is surprising for a number of reasons, the most obvious being all the talent they lost after last season. McNally and Wright graduated, and their would-be senior co-captain replacements also left before the 2012-13 season began.
Kyle Casey, the do-it-all forward and former Ivy Rookie of the Year, and Brandyn Curry, the steady, speedy point guard, both chose to withdraw from school after being implicated in an academic cheating scandal that involved more than 100 students.
Their abrupt departure could have submarined the season. Where there should have been two experienced, knowledgeable and talented hands at the helm, suddenly there were none.
But that was only true briefly.
"The facts are what they are, and it wasn't anything that any of us would prefer to have happen at our school across the board with so many kids and families and folks involved in something like that, which is somewhat from what I've seen," Amaker said Friday.
"But I think our guys have been able to adjust just like I would expect most young kids to be able to do. They've done it exceptionally well. I've been very impressed with how they have been able to do that."
After losing Casey and Curry, Amaker turned to senior Christian Webster and junior Laurent Rivard. The duo would have to lead, and hope youngsters like Wesley Saunders, Steve Moundou-Missi and Kenyatta Smith (all sophomores) and Siyani Chambers (a freshman) would follow.
At first, the sudden added responsibility was jarring.
"Of course [the loss of Casey and Curry] was a big blow to our team," Rivard said during a conference call with reporters Monday, "but the coaching staff was quick to tell us that it was an incredible opportunity for the team and for each of us individually.
"We embraced that role and we did what we could to get the team to where it's at now."
Webster, who had 11 points against New Mexico to cross the 1,000-point mark for his career, said they've grown into their roles as the season's gone on.
"If you look at us from earlier in the season to now, it's like a change in worlds," Webster said. "It's gotten so much better."
Rivard, a native of Saint-Bruno, Quebec, played a big role in the upset of the Lobos. The sharpshooting guard was 5-for-9 from behind the arc, including three big 3s in the first half, to help the Crimson build a lead first and later come back after the Lobos had rallied to take the lead.
His 17 points was only one off the team lead (Saunders had 18), and without his consistent ability to slip free of his defender, mostly New Mexico forward Cameron Bairstow, and hit open shots Harvard almost certainly would have lost.
And while Rivard was only a two-star recruit coming out of Northfield Mount Hermon -- the prep school in Gill, Mass., that he transferred to in order to increase his recruiting profile -- that doesn't mean the shooter wasn't coveted.
After Rivard helped Harvard beat Boston College during his freshman season, Steve Donahue was asked if the marksman had taken the Eagles by surprise.
"I know Laurent very well," Donahue said that day in January 2011, after Rivard scored a game-high 23 points in a 78-69 Harvard win in Conte Forum, "we recruited him very hard at Cornell. Terrific basketball player."
But as is becoming more and more common, the recruit chose to go to Harvard instead. And that's made all the difference.
"I think the back-to-back games in the Ivy League is going to help us a lot," Rivard said Friday of Harvard's preparation for Arizona. "It's a little different here now. I guess we have a day off in between.
"But during the Ivy League season, we would win or lose on Friday night and we had to turn the page whether we felt good about how we played or not, but we had to turn the page and focus on the next opponent. That's what we're doing today. We have practice right now. We're going to start focusing on Arizona, and I think it's going to help us."
Since 2010, the Crimson have added more three-star recruits (five) than the rest of the Ivy League combined (three, two for Yale and one for Penn), according to ESPN Recruiting Nation. And that total doesn't even include the 2012-13 Ivy Rookie of the Year, the first freshman to be voted first team All-Ivy, Chambers (a two-star recruit).
Next season, the Crimson lose only the senior Webster and should not only add another solid recruiting class -- including coveted prospect Zena Edosomwan, who turned down the likes of California, USC, Wake Forest, Washington, UCLA and Texas to commit to Harvard -- but also welcome back Casey and Curry (assuming the cheating scandal is settled).
So after winning a third straight Ivy League title, making a second straight NCAA appearance and capturing the first postseason victory in school history, all in a season in which it was supposed to be weakened, Harvard will likely be even better in 2013-14.
Just imagine the history that Crimson team could make.
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.
He dreamed of leading his team on an NCAA tournament run ... someday.
The fact that someday is today?
“Amazing," the 6-foot Ivy League rookie of the year said Friday, less than 24 hours after 14th-seeded Harvard knocked off No. 3 New Mexico for the program’s first NCAA tournament victory.
That word could describe his development, too.
It’s a role the 19-year-old ball handler never expected, at least not this soon, when he arrived on Harvard’s campus less than a year ago. First recruited by Crimson coach Tommy Amaker when he was in the eighth grade, Chambers decided pretty quickly that he wanted to play for the former Duke guard because of what he could learn.
But Chambers also thought he would have some time to be a pupil, while playing behind Brandyn Curry, a Cousy award candidate last season. That is, until September, when Curry and fellow senior Kyle Casey withdrew from Harvard following an academic scandal.
When the freshman heard the news, his head spun. “I was definitely nervous -- very, very nervous," Chambers said. “All of a sudden, it’s your first year, you’re coming in trying to learn the whole process about everything: playing, dealing with school and basketball.”
To persevere, he said, he leaned on his teammates -- and they leaned back, looking for the vocal freshman to glue together a team whose chances of winning the Ivy League all of a sudden seemed precarious, at best.
But Minnesota’s Mr. Basketball exceeded expectations probably because he had no other choice, gaining confidence (and his team’s confidence in him) by becoming a steady assist man and scorer early; he even hit the game-winning basket with four seconds left against Boston University on Dec. 11.
“He’s a special kid, and certainly he plays basketball in a special way, and I think you get excited when you watch him play," Amaker said. “I know when we recruited him, we wanted him to play in that manner; sometimes I thought he held himself back a little bit, and I told him if you ever come to play for us ... we want you to be dazzling because you’re capable of it.”
His season stats -- 12.6 points and 5.8 assists per game -- were dazzling enough to make him the first freshman named first-team All-Ivy League.
But the way he melded his team dazzled, too. Sophomore Wesley Saunders emerged as a go-to scorer (16.5 PPG). Rivard became a scary outside threat (five 3s against the Lobos on Thursday). Kenyatta Smith and Steve Moundou-Missi improved in the post. Harvard finished the regular season 19-9, winning the Ivy League.
So maybe it was fitting that as the seconds ticked down on Harvard's historic upset Thursday, Chambers was the one with the ball in his hands, grinning and carefully watching the clock. That moment is a feat the Crimson hope to repeat against another bigger, more heralded team Saturday.
And one Chambers never imagined when he thought about his goals a year ago.
“I just wanted to come in and learn as much as possible, so when it was my time I could step in and be able to contribute to the game," he said, remembering. “... When I first decided to come here, I did not think this is what I would be stepping into.
“But I’m glad I came here, and I’m glad this happened.”
SALT LAKE CITY NEWS AND NOTES
SAFETY FIRST: One teammate compared Wichita State sophomore Tekele Cotton to a strong safety. Shockers coach Gregg Marshall? He thinks the guard is more like a free safety.
Whatever the football analogy, you get the picture: The 6-2, 202-pound athlete is hard-nosed, hard-bodied and hard-focused on making stops. And if he can stymie a certain Gonzaga player like he did Pittsburgh guard Tray Woodall on Thursday (the senior was brought to tears after his 1-for-12, two-point performance), Cotton knows his team has a better chance to upset the No. 1 team in the country.
“I look forward to being that guy, to chase around their player like I did yesterday," said Cotton, who is also averaging 6.3 points and 3.9 rebounds per game this season. “So I look forward to chasing around Kevin Pangos. I have no problem with it; I enjoy it.”
Pangos, the Zags’ standout sophomore guard, is averaging 11.6 points per game this season and scored the final five points in top-seeded Gonzaga’s six-point survival against 16th-seeded Southern on Thursday. He said the key to competing with a physical team such as the ninth-seeded Shockers is to be physical right back.
“We don’t shy away from that; our team is tough," Pangos said. “We don’t back down from that at all.”
This should be an interesting matchup. The Shockers held Pitt to 35.2 percent shooting from the field -- and just 5.9 percent on 3-pointers. The Zags are third in the nation in field-goal percentage, making 50.4 percent of their shots.
NO ALARM HERE: Zags coach Mark Few wasn’t particularly rattled that the game against Southern went down to the wire; a win is a win is a win right now.
“At this point of the year, I don’t think we need to worry about aesthetics or, you know, differences," he said. “I know it’s cliché, ‘survive and advance,’ but there really is no other alternative. We’re not getting style points and we’re not getting graded -- you know, you either win or your season is over.”
QUOTE-WORTHY: “We know we’re in for a fight, especially the confidence that they have. When you win a game like that, it doesn’t just all of a sudden leave you; many times it carries through for the rest of the weekend. For us, it’s not about being consumed with Harvard, as much as it is about being consumed with ourselves, making sure we’re ready to go.” -- Arizona coach Sean Miller
SALT LAKE CITY -- A year ago, Harvard guard Laurent Rivard was in awe just seeing the midcourt NCAA logo; after all, the Crimson hadn’t made the tournament in six decades.
So helping the program to its first tournament victory -- a 68-62 win over No. 3 New Mexico that marked the biggest seed upset of all time by an Ivy League team?
That, he said, was indescribable. Although he tried: “You imagine it … it’s something everyone dreams about,” Rivard said after scoring 17 points and going 5-for-9 from 3-point range, “but it’s a different feeling when it actually becomes real.”
The win seemed improbable for a plethora of reasons: The Lobos (29-6) were bigger (7-footer Alex Kirk finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds), and more seasoned by playing in a conference many considered one of the nation’s toughest. Heck, some even thought UNM was robbed by the tournament committee when it didn’t earn higher than a No. 3 seed.
But Harvard countered with a four-guard lineup that was sharpshooting (52.4 percent overall, including 8-for-18 from 3-point land) and that frustrated Lobos leading scorer Kendall Williams into a forgettable, 1-for-6 night. Led by their tallest starter, 6-foot-8 Kenyatta Smith, the Crimson also aggressively banged with Kirk and 6-9 Cameron Bairstow (15 points, nine rebounds).
And they were, particularly down the stretch.
New Mexico, trailing for most of the game, took a 53-52 lead with 6:26 left on yet another Kirk inside move. But Harvard, even with its three bigger guys in foul trouble, countered with a 7-0 run -- beginning with another 3 from Rivard and including a jumper from guard Wesley Saunders (18 points) -- to rebuild its cushion. The Lobos never got closer than four after that.
“For me to see the composure that we had is meaningful to me as a coach,” Harvard’s Tommy Amaker said. “We had the lead. We lost the lead. We had to make plays and to have an answer each time when things got really tight there. We had to make pressure free throws. … But we didn’t wilt or cave in.”
Somehow, the Crimson (20-9) didn’t seem to feel the pressure of being a No. 14 seed on the brink of making history.
“I was just playing in the moment, enjoying the moment,” freshman point guard Siyani Chambers said. “… It felt like, just getting here, was our night.”
Indeed, not long ago it seemed like a long shot that the Crimson would make the tournament at all -- much less advance to the round of 32.
First there were the offseason academic problems that led the team’s co-captains -- Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry -- to withdraw from school.
And although those departures gave Chambers (5 points, 7 assists in 40 minutes Thursday) the opportunity to develop more quickly, the team wasn’t quite the runaway favorite it might have been to dominate the Ivy League -- as evidenced by back-to-back road losses at Princeton and Penn in early March.
Yet the Crimson endured. And prevailed.
And forget about last year’s awe-inspiring NCAA logo. Now, there’s a new daydream: the Sweet Sixteen.
“Before this, we wanted to be the Cinderella story,” Smith said. “And I guess now, we kind of are.”
2. Since seeding began in 1979, the 46-point victory by 5-seed Virginia Commonwealth over No. 12 Akron was the largest margin of victory ever by any team seeded lower than 2. That record lasted for about an hour. Syracuse, a 4-seed, broke it with a 47-point win over Montana.
3. Southern's six-point loss against Gonzaga was the closest by a No. 16 seed against a No. 1 seed since 1996, when Western Carolina lost by two against Purdue. Southern is only the fifth No. 16 seed in the past 20 years to come within single digits of a 1-seed.
4. Vander Blue's go-ahead layup with one second remaining against Davidson was the first game-tying or go-ahead shot made in the final 10 seconds of a game in the past two NCAA tournaments. Prior to Blue's shot, players missed the previous 22 attempts in those situations, dating back to the 2011 NCAA tournament.
5. With Butler's win over Bucknell, Brad Stevens is now 12-4 in the NCAA tournament. Stevens is the seventh coach to win at least 12 of his first 16 NCAA tournament games, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The only coaches with a better record in their first 16 NCAA tournament games are Tom Izzo and Steve Fisher.
6. Russ Smith had eight steals for Louisville in its win over North Carolina A&T, matching the most in any NCAA tournament game (steals became official in 1986). The last player with eight steals in a game was North Carolina's Ty Lawson in the 2009 national championship game.
7. With its loss to No. 12-seed California, UNLV, a No. 5 seed, became the third team ever to lose four consecutive games in the round of 64 as the higher seed, joining Clemson (1998-2010) and BYU (1995-2009).
With that result, the number of perfect brackets went from 26,300 (after the Missouri-Colorado State game) to 1,339.
Mike Muscala (Bucknell) -- The Muscala Monster is a dangerous creature. The Bison are capable of upsetting Butler in the second round Thursday in Lexington because they’re led by one of America’s most underrated stars. He scored 25 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in a two-point loss to Missouri in January. Muscala (19.0 PPG, 11.2 RPG) dropped 18 points in a win against NCAA tourney participant La Salle in December. He’s finished with 25 points or more in 10 games. He also has the strength of 10 men. Not really, but he’s legit and more than prepared to help Bucknell ruin brackets worldwide.
Will Cherry (Montana) -- Damian Lillard is arguably the top player in the NBA’s rookie class. When he was a Big Sky star at Weber State, Cherry was his top adversary. The senior is known for his defensive prowess (1.9 SPG), but he’s a talented offensive player, too. Cherry is averaging 13.9 PPG for a Montana team that will face Syracuse in San Jose on Friday. The Grizzlies don’t have top scorer Mathias Ward, who is out for the season with a foot injury. But Cherry is a proven leader. He’s tough, too. He missed a few games in early March after aggravating a foot injury that cost him the first few months of the season. But he hasn’t shown any signs of regression since his return.
Siyani Chambers (Harvard) -- The West Region is probably the easiest region. With Gonzaga as the 1-seed, it just seems more wide open than the other three. So expect the unexpected. Harvard could spur some madness in its second-round matchup against New Mexico in Salt Lake City on Thursday. The Lobos are the better team. But the Crimson have overcome adversity to reach this point. Stars Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry left the team prior to the season because of an academic scandal. Chambers (12.9 PPG, 5.8 APG, 44 percent from the 3-point line), just a freshman, helped Tommy Amaker’s squad recover from those losses and earn another automatic berth with its second straight outright Ivy title.
Matthew Dellavedova (Saint Mary’s) -- The senior was a member of the Australian national team in the London Olympics. He’s struggled in his past two games, but Dellavedova will be ready for the NCAA tourney. The Gaels will face Middle Tennessee in Dayton in the First Four on Tuesday night. If they get past the Blue Raiders, they’ll see Memphis in the next round. Dellavedova (15.8 PPG, 6.4 APG, 38 percent from the 3-point line) is not just recognized as a mid-major star. He’s one of the best point guards in America, regardless of level. He’s talented and experienced. And he might help the Gaels nullify your bracket.
Jamal Olasewere (LIU Brooklyn) -- I don’t think we’ll see the first 16-over-1 upset. But if it is to happen, I pick the Blackbirds to pull off the feat. Why? Because Olasewere (18.9 PPG, 8.5 RPG) is a tough matchup for any team in the country. The 6-foot-7 forward is active inside, and he’s efficient in transition. The Blackbirds must get through James Madison in the First Four in Dayton on Wednesday. If they do, they’ll see Indiana on Friday in Dayton. If something crazy happens, Olasewere will certainly be involved.
Ryan Broekhoff (Valparaiso) -- The 6-7 forward from Australia cracked ESPN's "SportsCenter" recently when his buzzer-beating 3-pointer knocked UW-Green Bay out of the Horizon League tournament. He’s one of the top mid-major players in the country. Broekhoff is averaging 15.9 PPG and 7.3 RPG for a Crusaders squad that will face Michigan State on Thursday in Auburn Hills. The atmosphere will favor the Spartans, but Valpo will be tough. The Crusaders are a versatile team with an offense that’s ranked 44th in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. And Broekhoff is the key to that success.
Doug McDermott (Creighton) -- The Bluejays might be the most dangerous 7-seed in the field. They certainly hit a few bumps during Missouri Valley Conference play. Overall, however, they’ve been one of the top mid-major programs in the country. They have wins against Wisconsin, Arizona State, Akron and Cal. They lead the nation with a 50.8 percent clip from the field. Their defense is suspect (78th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). But McDermott, their leader, is a legit star. He’s averaging 23.1 PPG and 7.5 RPG. He could really go off in the Big Dance. First, he has to lead his team through a tough opening-round matchup against Cincinnati in Philly on Friday. Creighton is definitely a sleeper in the Midwest Region.
Ian Clark (Belmont) -- On paper, there’s a lot to like about Belmont. The Bruins are a strong squad that’s faced some of the best teams in the country in nonconference matchups. Belmont can beat Arizona in the second round Thursday in Salt Lake City. And a Sweet 16 run isn’t a crazy concept for this veteran squad. Clark (18.1 PPG, 46.3 percent from beyond the arc) is just one of the weapons that the Wildcats will have to neutralize when the two teams meet. He’s a stud who could really disrupt brackets throughout the country.