College Basketball Nation: Oregon Ducks

ESPN.com has decided to rank college basketball’s top coaches. On Monday, Nos. 50-25 were announced. Some might think that a few coaches were too high or too low, and there were some surprises in this batch of rankings.

Here are a few surprises from the initial set of rankings:

[+] EnlargeFerrell/Crean
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesTom Crean has proved he can recruit but has gotten criticism for his in-game coaching.
Tom Crean (unranked): Well, the Indiana coach failed to crack the top 50. And that’s surprising -- maybe. Under Crean, Indiana has reached the Sweet 16 in two of the past three years and won the Big Ten regular-season crown in 2012-13. He’s also responsible for restoring a program that fell short of a lofty legacy as it endured the post-Kelvin Sampson era sanctions. All of that after he led Marquette to the Final Four in 2003. That should count for something. But perception matters, and the perception that Crean has failed to alter is one that sees him as more of a recruiter than an X’s and O’s guy. A 4-15 record overall against Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, one of the game’s great X’s and O’s coaches, only magnifies that notion. Crean had two future top-five NBA draft picks in 2012-13, but he couldn’t advance beyond the Sweet 16 with Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, even though that Hoosiers squad spent a chunk of the season with the No. 1 slot. It exited the Big Dance after shooting 33.3 percent and committing 18 turnovers against Syracuse in the Sweet 16. Last season, Indiana went 7-11 in the Big Ten and failed to reach the NCAA tourney. Yes, Crean had a lot of inexperienced players on that team, but that shouldn’t happen when one of the league’s top athletes (Yogi Ferrell) and a future lottery pick (Noah Vonleh) anchor your roster. Still, Steve Alford has two Sweet 16 appearance in his entire career, and just one since 1999. And Fran McCaffery finally turned Iowa into an NCAA tourney team last season. Not sure how those guys are ranked in the 30s and Crean can’t even crack the top 50. It’s interesting.

Buzz Williams (No. 38): Marquette entered last season as the favorite to win the title in the (new) Big East’s first season. The Golden Eagles fell short of those expectations when they finished sixth and missed the NCAA tournament. Not the best regular season for Williams, who left to fill Virginia Tech’s opening a few weeks ago, but Marquette was coming off a shared league title in a much tougher version of the conference. The Golden Eagles split that 2012-13 crown with a Louisville team that won the national championship that season and a Georgetown team that looked like a Final Four squad before Dunk City ruined those plans in the opening round. Marquette made five consecutive NCAA tourney appearances (2009-2013) under Williams. That run included two Sweet 16 appearances and an Elite Eight run in 2013. Nothing against Colorado's Tad Boyle (No. 34) and Nebraska's Tim Miles (No. 32) -- both good coaches -- but they can’t match that. Seems too low for Williams.

Archie Miller (No. 26): Miller is no longer just Sean Miller’s brother; he has his own legacy now. Last season, he not only led Dayton to its first NCAA tourney appearance since 2009 but also guided the program to its first Elite Eight appearance in 30 years. It was an impressive feat. The Flyers won 26 games as Miller became one of the hottest young coaches in the game with that memorable tournament run. But No. 26 in the rankings? It’s only Miller’s third season as a head coach. Although he's done more in three seasons than other coaches with lengthier résumés have achieved in their careers, longevity has to be a factor, and it’s too early to know whether Miller will continue this success in the coming years. Plus, he has to turn Dayton into a consistent contender for the A-10 crown. He definitely has the tools to get there, but No. 26 might be premature.

John Thompson III (No. 46): Georgetown struggled in the new Big East last season. After losing key pieces from the previous season, the Hoyas finished seventh in league play. Plus, the 2012-13 Georgetown team lost in a major upset to Florida Gulf Coast in the Big Dance. But the program also has won or shared three Big East championships and reached the Final Four in 2007 and the Sweet 16 in 2006 under JTIII. Those achievements seem ancient now, though; Thompson has amassed a 2-5 record in the NCAA tournament since that Final Four appearance. That’s why JTIII barely cracked the top 50 in these rankings. But again, he has a résumé that surpasses what some of the coaches ranked ahead of him have.

[+] EnlargeScoochie Smith and Archie Miller
Rich Graessle/Icon SMIDayton's 2014 NCAA tournament made Archie Miller a bigger name in coaching circles, but now he has to back it up.
Dana Altman (unranked): These rankings emphasize a coach’s overall impact on a program. A few weeks ago, Altman dismissed three key players after a rape investigation. One of those players, Brandon Austin, had been involved in a previous rape investigation at Providence that Altman claimed he had no knowledge of when he recruited Austin. The bottom line is that Altman should have been better informed. Oregon has had four consecutive seasons of 20 wins or more under Altman, but the Ducks also have dealt with a bunch of off-the-court drama that has marred his highs. The revolving pool of transfers also doesn’t convey a sense of stability in Eugene, Oregon. He’s falling. Maybe he shouldn’t be out of the top 50, but he’s definitely falling.

Scott Drew (No. 50, tie): Drew is one of the most polarizing coaches in college basketball. Ask other coaches or media folks about him, and they’ll probably express an extreme view. The people who think he’s a bad coach think he’s a really bad coach. The folks who think those critics are just haters believe that he’s flawless. The truth, as it is with any coach, is somewhere in the middle. But here’s the reality: Drew turned Baylor into a player on the national scene after a major scandal nearly crippled the program before his arrival in 2003. Drew’s talent hasn’t always matched his team’s results. Last season, Baylor began Big 12 play with eight losses in 10 games, but the Bears recovered and reached the Big 12 tournament championship game and the Sweet 16. Drew has guided Baylor to four NCAA tourney appearances and two Elite Eight berths. Baylor had reached the NCAA tournament only four times before his arrival. He’s certainly guilty of missed opportunities and in-game coaching errors, but Tubby Smith (No. 39), Jim Crews (No. 29) and Ed Cooley (No. 41) can’t match his achievements over the past six seasons. An argument, a strong one, could be made that Drew deserves a higher ranking.

3-point shot: Ducks restructuring

May, 23, 2014
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Andy Katz talks about a big get for Oregon, shoots down some rhetoric from the Pac-12 and lauds Stephen F. Austin's big move in Friday's 3-point shot.

3-point shot: SEC/Big 12 Challenge draws

May, 8, 2014
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Andy Katz looks at the SEC/Big 12 Challenge draws for Arkansas and LSU and off-the-field trouble for Oregon.
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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.

Early-entry winners and losers

April, 28, 2014
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The NBA’s early-entry deadline passed Sunday night as Division I coaches were returning from the only April recruiting weekend.

For the first time since the end of the season, the coaches finally know whom they will have and whom they won’t for next season.

Here are the winners and losers after the early-entry deadline. Keep in mind, some teams -- Duke, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Colorado, Arizona State and Tennessee -- knew long ago they would be losing players, so they don’t fit in either category.

Winners

Kentucky: The Wildcats could have been starting from scratch again next season. The players would have had plenty of reason to bolt after making the national title game. But only two did, and the Wildcats can absorb the losses of Julius Randle and James Young. The decisions by Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee to stay, coupled with newcomers Trey Lyles and Karl Towns Jr., give Kentucky a deeper and more versatile frontcourt. The return of guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison means coach John Calipari doesn’t need to restart his perimeter. Kentucky is probably the only program in the country that can be in the winners column by losing two lottery picks because of the NBA draft-level depth of the freshman and sophomore classes.

Wisconsin: The Badgers were within one stop of advancing to the national title game before Aaron Harrison’s 3-point dagger in Arlington, Texas, in the national semifinal. Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky easily could have put their postgame emotions behind them and said goodbye to Madison. But they did not. The return of the two scorers -- one on the wing and one inside and out -- means the Badgers have enough returning to be a Big Ten preseason favorite, a top-five team and a national title contender.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels were in a danger zone. UNC lost James Michael McAdoo, who had been inconsistent at times during his career. It could have seen point guard Marcus Paige and forward Brice Johnson bolt too. But that didn’t happen. Having Paige return is huge for coach Roy Williams. Paige will be the preseason favorite for ACC Player of the Year. His return was a must for UNC to be a conference title contender.

Louisville: The Cardinals had the most electric frontcourt player in the American last season in Montrezl Harrell. Few players could keep him off the backboard when he was going for a flush. The Cardinals continue to reload but don’t need to restart in the ACC sans Harrell. They won’t have to with his return.

Arkansas: The Hogs were a bit of an enigma last season with a sweep of Kentucky and a near-miss overtime loss at home to Florida. But the chances for Arkansas to make the NCAA tournament next season under Mike Anderson would have been reduced considerably if 6-foot-10 Bobby Portis and 6-6 Michael Qualls declared for the draft. Anderson was pleased to report Sunday that they did not.

Nebraska: The goodwill created by the Huskers’ run to the NCAA tournament could have been snuffed out if Terran Petteway was romanced by the good fortune and declared for the NBA draft. But he chose against it, and as a result Nebraska should be in the top six in the Big Ten and competing for a bid again.

West Virginia: The Mountaineers had moments last season when they looked like an NCAA tournament team. They should be next season with the decision by point guard Juwan Staten to return to Morgantown. He averaged 18.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. He will enter the season with a strong case to be considered for Big 12 Player of the Year honors.

Oregon: The Ducks are constantly in transition but needed some sort of consistency from one season to another with a key transfer. Joseph Young had the goods to declare. But he’s coming back to give them a legitimate scorer going into next season and an all-Pac-12 player in the quest to return to the NCAA tournament.

Utah: Larry Krystkowiak has the Utes on the verge of being an NCAA tournament team. That plan could have easily been derailed if Delon Wright took the bait of being a possible first-round pick. Wright’s return means the Utes will be an upper-half Pac-12 team and a preseason pick to make the NCAA tournament.

Losers

UCLA: The Bruins found out late Saturday night that Jordan Adams was gone. He joins Kyle Anderson and Zach LaVine. That means four of five starters are not back from the Pac-12 tournament champs. Steve Alford has a stellar recruiting class, but this team will be extremely young.

Michigan: The Wolverines are a prisoner of their own success. Nik Stauskas was hardly a two-year player when he was signed. But he matured into a Big Ten Player of the Year. He jumped with Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, who had no choice after a one-year ban because of a failed drug test for marijuana during the NCAA tournament. The Wolverines will enter a new era under John Beilein.

Syracuse: Tyler Ennis was probably more of a two-year point guard when he was signed. But he was one of the best players in the country as a freshman and capitalized on his success by leaving for the lottery. Jerami Grant's departure means the Orange will look quite a bit different in their second year in the ACC.

Missouri: The Tigers lost coach Frank Haith to Tulsa and their two best players in Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown. They will be pushing a restart button next season.

Xavier: The Musketeers had one of the most dynamic players in the Big East last season in Semaj Christon. Xavier is never down, but this presents yet another challenge for Chris Mack.

New Mexico: Alex Kirk was a potential early entrant. Add his departure to the known exits of Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams and the Lobos are rebuilding under Craig Neal.

Clemson: The Tigers had serious momentum with a strong finishing kick led by K.J. McDaniels. Brad Brownell always finds a way to keep his teams competitive. He’ll need to reinvent the team again with the loss of McDaniels.

Oregon State: The Beavers had a real gem in Eric Moreland, if he came back to work on his skills. He is tantalizing with his length and athleticism for the NBA, but he leaves the Beavers as a raw product when he and Oregon State could have benefited from his return.

Indiana: The Hoosiers have recruited at a high level the past four years under Tom Crean. Noah Vonleh is the latest to bolt. The problem for the Hoosiers is that he left a year too early, before he could have a full effect on the program with an NCAA berth.

NC State: The Wolfpack made a remarkable late surge to the NCAA tournament and won a game in the First Four before a late-game loss to Saint Louis in the round of 64. They had the ACC Player of the Year in T.J. Warren. The Wolfpack were supposed to be rebuilding last season and at times looked the part. But the run to the tournament changed the narrative. Now, with Warren gone, the rebuild might be underway.

UNLV: The Runnin’ Rebels were a disappointment last season even with Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith. Now they’re both off to the NBA draft, putting more pressure on Dave Rice to keep the Rebels chasing San Diego State, among others, next season.

Ohio State: The Buckeyes lost their best defensive player and leader in Aaron Craft. Now one of their top scorers is gone, too, with LaQuinton Ross' decision to declare.

Push

Arizona: The Wildcats lost Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson -- two significant body blows. But the return of Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski, coupled with another elite recruiting class led by Stanley Johnson, means the Wildcats will be the pick to win the Pac-12.

UConn: The Huskies could afford to lose DeAndre Daniels with the addition of transfer Rodney Purvis but couldn’t handle the loss of Ryan Boatright. His return gives Kevin Ollie a lead guard to run the offense and jump-start the defense. No one will pick the defending champs to win the title again, but that’s exactly how UConn likes the odds.

LSU: Johnny Jones knew he was likely going to lose Johnny O’Bryant III, but there were questions about whether he would be without freshmen bigs Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin. He got them both back, and the Tigers should be in contention for the NCAA tournament.

Michigan State: The Spartans weren’t surprised Gary Harris left after two seasons. But Michigan State would have taken an even deeper dip if Branden Dawson had jumped at the chance for the NBA. Dawson wasn’t a lock for the first round. He took the advice and stayed.

3-point shot: Tough Pac-12 schedules

April, 25, 2014
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Andy Katz looks at the impressive schedules for Arizona and UCLA and transfers at Oregon.

Look back, look ahead: Pac-12

April, 25, 2014
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Sean Miller seemed to have every tool necessary for the Arizona Wildcats to make a push for the national title as the 2013-14 season approached. His talent pool was so rich that Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, a former McDonald’s All-American, was a reserve most of the season.

But Arizona, a team so well-rounded that it reached the Elite Eight without NBA prospect Brandon Ashley’s services in the final two months of the season, wasn’t the best measurement of the conference.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Ashley
Christian Petersen/Getty ImagesBrandon Ashley's return from a foot injury should keep Arizona in contention in the Pac-12.
For that, go to Salt Lake City, where Larry Krystkowiak began the season as a campus crime-fighter and continued his heroics by enhancing Utah’s program. This past season, the Utes finished 9-9 in conference play a year after going 5-13 in the Pac-12. They also added six wins compared to last season.

The Utes were one of nine Pac-12 squads that finished .500 or better in league play. Oregon State, 10th in the league, finished 16-16 overall. Only two teams in the Pac-12 finished with sub-.500 overall records.

Arizona and UCLA were the only two squads that separated themselves from the rest of the league, and that can be viewed in two ways: The Pac-12 was packed with a bunch of solid programs, or it was plagued by mediocrity.

The league’s postseason finish -- six NCAA tourney teams, three in the Sweet 16 and one in the Elite Eight -- suggests the former.

What we saw this season: On Feb. 1, the national title race changed. That night, Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury in a loss to Cal, Arizona’s first loss of the season. How important was Ashley?

Well, the Wildcats were still a powerhouse that maintained its position as the top-rated team in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency rankings. And they maintained enough mojo to win the Pac-12’s regular-season crown and reach the Elite Eight, but they really needed Ashley’s versatility and length in their loss to Frank Kaminsky and Wisconsin in the NCAA tourney.

At UCLA, in Steve Alford’s first season, he found the best position for Kyle Anderson -- playmaker -- and shaped the Bruins into a top-50 defensive unit. After some early bumps, the Bruins finished 11-4 in the final weeks of the season after suffering a four-point loss at Oregon State on Feb. 2. That run included a Pac-12 tourney title and a Sweet 16 appearance.

Both Johnny Dawkins at Stanford and Herb Sendek at Arizona State were on the hot seat entering the season. That wasn’t a secret. Both Dawkins and Sendek bought more time with NCAA tourney appearances. Dawkins reached the Big Dance with the help of a few ambitious and hungry upperclassmen (Chasson Randle, Dwight Powell), and the Cardinal’s rally to the Sweet 16 was a stunning development in the NCAA tournament. It was a big win for Dawkins, whose athletic director had demanded improvement before the season. Sendek, meanwhile, signed Penn State transfer Jermaine Marshall, a reputable Robin to Jahii Carson’s Batman, but the Sun Devils lost six of their final eight games.

Oregon’s 2-8 stretch midseason didn’t define its season. Transfers Joseph Young and Mike Moser led Dana Altman’s program to 24 wins. The Ducks were ahead by 12 at halftime against Wisconsin before losing in the third round of the tournament.

Colorado’s dreams were deferred when Spencer Dinwiddie suffered a season-ending injury in January. The Buffaloes were never the same without him, and a 29-point loss to Pitt in the opening round of the tourney was the final blow in a rough season for Tad Boyle’s crew. Washington finished 9-9 in league play, but that record features more highs and lows. The Huskies, much like the rest of the conference, couldn’t win on the road.

California failed to maintain the swagger it had in that upset win over Arizona in February and ended up in the NIT. Oregon State, Washington State and USC all finished at the bottom of the conference, which wasn’t surprising.

The story of the Pac-12 in 2013-14? The limited separation within the league.

What we expect to see next season: The future is uncertain for a league that could have had an unprecedented seven tournament bids in 2014-15.

Eleven ESPN 100 prospects will enter the league in 2014-15. And the rich will get richer, so the landscape shouldn’t change much.

[+] EnlargeAlford
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsSteve Alford will bring a top-10 recruiting class to UCLA.
Miller lost Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, but McDonald’s All-American forward Stanley Johnson is a versatile beast who leads the league’s top recruiting class. Plus, Ashley will return from his foot injury along with T.J. McConnell, Kaleb Tarczewski and Hollis-Jefferson. The Wildcats will contend for the national championship next season, although that would be an easier argument to make if Johnson had decided to return.

Anderson and Zach LaVine left Los Angeles, but Alford adds elite big man Kevon Looney (No. 12 recruit in 2014 class, per RecruitingNation) and 6-foot-11 Californian Thomas Welsh (36th). They’re more talented and athletic than the Wear twins, but Anderson’s departure and the fact that Alford doesn’t have a clear point guard right now makes it difficult to assess UCLA’s potential. A strong nucleus returns, however.

There are questions in Eugene, too. The Ducks return one of the most talented backcourt trios (Young, Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis) in America. Without Mike Moser, what will they do inside, though?

Stanford is in a position to rise in the league after its Sweet 16 run. Reid Travis (27th overall prospect) leads Dawkins’ most fruitful recruiting class, and three of his top five scorers from last season, including Randle, will return. Utah could surge, too. Krystkowiak had only one senior on the Utes’ roster last season.

Things looked brighter for Colorado before Dinwiddie entered the NBA draft. But Boyle will still have a strong group returning, and point guard prospect Dominique Collier could evolve into the young floor leader his program needs.

Cuonzo Martin replaces Mike Montgomery at Cal. The good news? A strong group of players are back. The bad news? He won’t have Justin Cobbs and top rebounder Richard Solomon.

Andy Enfield signed a top-25 recruiting class, but his USC squad, which finished last in the Pac-12 last season, also lost its top two scorers (Byron Wesley will transfer and Pe’Shon Howard graduated). Former Oregon coach Ernie Kent will attempt to change the culture of a Washington State squad that finished 3-15 in Pac-12 play.

Nigel Williams-Goss made the right decision to return to Washington for his sophomore season, but that alone won’t be enough to make Washington a contender in the league. Arizona State could also struggle next season without Carson, Marshall and Jordan Bachynski.

There’s talent coming, but more is leaving.

Although the Pac-12 will boast a handful of teams that will warrant NCAA tourney consideration, it won’t be as deep as it was this past season.

MILWAUKEE -- The machine is consistent, reliable and unflappable. Bo Ryan's Wisconsin team operates on autopilot, humming along, a monotone of winning.

But basketball games, particularly those in the NCAA tournament, require teams to respond to emotional beats. When the season is at stake, it's going to get emotional. When you're down 12 points at halftime in a building 80 miles away from your campus, it's going to get very emotional.

The Wisconsin basketball machine is decidedly unemotional. But there the Badgers were in the closing minutes Saturday night, flapping their arms to incite Kohl Center East, the arena formerly known as the Bradley Center, which roared in approval. There were chest-bumps and fist-pumps and hugs and primal screams. After defeating Oregon 85-77 to advance in the West regional, Wisconsin players waited for Ryan to finish his television interview and then encircled him in a hybrid mosh pit/dance party near center court.

[+] EnlargeBen Brust
Benny Sieu/USA TODAY SportsBen Brust, who came up big for the Badgers with a late 3, moved the ball against Oregon's Damyean Dotson.
There will be more significant games in this tournament than Wisconsin-Oregon. There might be better ones, although Saturday's will be hard to eclipse in dramatic swings. There won't be a more emotional atmosphere.

"It was literally like a home game," Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. "At this time of the year, that's not what you're expecting as a player. That doesn't happen. For us to be playing in Milwaukee and have all our fans there, supporting us and acting like the Kohl Center, I'm speechless about that."

Emotion characterized the game throughout, but it worked against the Badgers in the first half. So did Oregon, which delivered an offensive performance -- 49 points, 55.6 percent shooting, 14 of 15 from the foul line, 19 fast-break points -- to break the machine. Joseph Young had 17 and Jason Calliste had 14, not missing from either the field (3-for-3) or the foul line (7-for-7).

The officiating also rankled Wisconsin players, coaches and fans. The final 117 seconds were miserable, as a 5-point deficit swelled to 12, thanks in part to a technical foul on Ryan.

"I probably wasn't behaving," Ryan said. "So we had to pay."

At halftime, Ryan asked players how they wanted to feel on the bus ride back to Madison. Hard work, especially with transition defense, could result in a happy bus. Anything less, and the hourlong ride would feel like days.

Ryan had one final question before excusing the players for second-half warm-ups: Who is the best defensive player in the room?

"I'm the best defensive player in the room," he told the team. "I got a technical. They made their 14th straight free throw or 13th and then they missed the second one. I'm the only guy that got them to miss. I think some of the guys looked at me like, 'Did he just say that?'

[+] EnlargeWisconsin Celebration
AP Photo/Morry GashSam Dekker showed some emotion in Wisconsin's win.
"I said that to loosen them up. Maybe it did."

No maybe about it.

The machine isn't programmed to allow 49 points in a half. It's also not programmed to erase a 12-point deficit in 6 minutes, 34 seconds.

Wisconsin reclaimed the lead before the second media timeout and hit 12 of its first 16 shots, including four 3-pointers. Like Young and Calliste in the first half, Badgers standouts Frank Kaminsky, Ben Brust and Gasser couldn't miss.

"We used the energy of the crowd, the energy that each other gave, and we harnessed it into the right energy," Brust said.

The shots eventually stopped falling but Wisconsin's signature defense returned. Oregon scored just 28 points in the second half, none on fast breaks.

But thanks to Young, Oregon still led 75-74 when Wisconsin, the Big Ten's second-worst offensive rebounding team, grabbed three offensive boards on one possession. The second allowed Ryan to call timeout and sub in Brust, who had been out with four fouls.

"Those were more spirited efforts to the glass than you'd seen," assistant coach Lamont Paris said. "We have times where we're talking about making a first and second move to the glass. We had four or five guys make three different moves to the offensive glass.

"They channeled the emotion, and they put it into action in a positive way.”

After Sam Dekker corralled a Kaminsky miss, Traevon Jackson found Brust on the right elbow for a 3-pointer.

"Ben's gonna hit that," Dekker said. "He hits the big shots. He loves the big moment."

Brust's 228th career 3-pointer gave him the team record. It also gave Wisconsin the lead for good.

"It was a special moment," Brust said. "I'm just happy we got the win. I want to keep going. I don't want this to end."

The Badgers earned the chance to keep going to the Sweet 16 for the third time in five years. They'll face Creighton or Baylor for the chance to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since 2005.

Is Thursday's game more important? No doubt. Will the atmosphere match Saturday's? Not a chance.

"You have to be in their shoes to know that feeling, and know I was feeling it," Ryan said. "I was pretty pumped up, too. That's a lot of emotion for our guys to show."

The machine bared its soul Saturday night. It left the court humming a different tune: On Wisconsin.
MILWAUKEE -- Both Michigan and Wisconsin had their share of defensive doubters entering the NCAA tournament. The two Big Ten representatives silenced them, at least for a day, by effectively making one of the baskets disappear at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

[+] EnlargeTony Wroblicky
Benny Sieu/USA TODAY SportsWisconsin easily bottled up American's offense but will have more difficulty with up-tempo Oregon.
But the skeptics will stir again as Saturday's tipoffs approach. And they should. The Wolverines and Badgers still must validate themselves on the defensive end against No. 7 seeds -- Oregon and Texas -- that will stretch them to the max.

"Our defense," Michigan forward Glenn Robinson III said, "is going to make us or break us."

Defense pushed Robinson and his teammates into the round of 32 after their normally fluid offense zigged and zagged against Wofford. The Wolverines made just one-third of their field goal attempts in the second half but allowed just 20 points, the same total they allowed in the first 20 minutes.

Wisconsin, a program famous for stifling defense -- but one that hasn't always delivered it this season -- was even better at keeping American off the scoreboard. The Badgers allowed only 13 points in the second half -- the fewest in a half for a Badgers opponent in any modern-era NCAA tournament game -- and just 18 points in the final 29 minutes, 17 seconds.

"Obviously, we were very good," Badgers assistant Greg Gard said, "but it will be a totally different challenge [Saturday]. It goes from a test of your discipline and your focus for 30 seconds, to the shot clock might not even get to 30 at times for Oregon."

Dana Altman might not be college basketball's Chip Kelly, but his team, unlike American, is all about pushing the tempo. Oregon led the Pac-12 and ranked 11th nationally in scoring offense, reaching 90 points in nine games and 100 points in four. Offensive threats are everywhere, from the starters to the bench, which needs 18 more points to reach 1,000 for the season.

The Ducks showcased their scoring speed and prowess Thursday against BYU, tallying 87 points on 50 percent shooting. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan wondered aloud whether any tournament team will face a bigger contrast in opponents than his Badgers.

"It's crazy," said junior guard Josh Gasser, Wisconsin's top defender. "They are just completely opposite. Their philosophies, what they're trying to do, even their personnel. But we've played teams that like to slow it down, we've played teams that like to push it in transition.

"We're pretty much used to anything by now."

The Badgers have seen shades of Oregon in Big Ten foes like Iowa and Michigan State. Their defense hasn't been bad -- 63.7 points per game allowed, 42.9 percent opponent shooting percentage -- but it hasn't always met the Ryan standard, in part because of a stronger, quicker offense and a new-look front line.

Oregon is mostly perimeter-oriented but could target the post more with veteran Mike Moser and Elgin Cook, who had a career-high 23 points against BYU in his Milwaukee homecoming.

"We're attacking from every direction," Ducks point guard Johnathan Loyd said. "Anybody can go get 20 on any given night. It's just tough to defend. ... [Opponents] kind of start bickering with each other, like, 'Hey, you should have been there! Nah, I had this guy!'

"That's when you know our offense is really clicking."

Michigan faces much bigger post problems with Texas. Longhorns center Cameron Ridley and forward Jonathan Holmes combined for 483 rebounds during the regular season, including 187 offensive boards.

[+] EnlargeCameron Ridley
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCameron Ridley's size in the low post could cause problems for Michigan's defense.
Texas' final four baskets Thursday against Arizona State came on second chances, as Ridley and Holmes cleaned up down low.

"We're a good rebounding team," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "They're a great rebounding team."

Texas isn't Wofford, which started no players taller than 6-foot-7 and went 1-for-19 from 3-point range.

"I don't think that's going to happen again," Michigan forward Jon Horford said, "so we have to be realistic about defensive expectations but still bring that emphasis into every game."

Longhorns players liken Michigan's perimeter-oriented style to Iowa State, a team it split with during the regular season.

"I look to attack more," Ridley said. "This is an opportunity for me and Jon, Prince [Ibeh] and Connor [Lammert] to show how good we are and exploit the advantage we might have."

Michigan is one of the more efficient offensive teams in the country, but its defense has slipped at times, including late in the regular season. Beilein unveiled some 2-3 zone during the Big Ten tournament as a changeup from the team's standard man-to-man or 1-3-1 zone looks.

The Wolverines geared their defense against Wofford toward stopping guard Karl Cochran, the team's offensive catalyst. Texas, meanwhile, has four players who average in double figures and six who reached the mark against BYU.

"We have to vary our defensive coverages," Michigan assistant Bacari Alexander said, "whether that be man-to-man or trapping or zones, and see if we can get them off rhythm."

Even if the Wolverines succeed at forcing missed shots, Texas could still make them pay.

"Any time you can get offensive rebounds, it breaks their back," Holmes said. "Another 35 seconds of defense is never fun."

Michigan and Wisconsin had plenty of fun on defense Thursday. Both teams must dig in to keep the good times going.

Video: Oregon forward Elgin Cook

March, 20, 2014
Mar 20
6:37
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Oregon forward Elgin Cook talks about his career performance and Milwaukee homecoming in the NCAA tournament against BYU.

Tournament preview: Pac-12

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
11:00
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The Pac-12 has followed the script for the most part.

Entering this season, anyone could recognize Arizona’s perch atop the conference with McDonald’s All American Aaron Gordon joining one of the nation’s best frontcourts.

Steve Alford, meanwhile, had come to Los Angeles to save UCLA.

Oregon, Colorado, Stanford, Arizona State and Cal all looked like potential NCAA tourney teams.

But even though we knew that about this league, no conference is teetering on a bigger platform of uncertainty right now. Maybe this is a three-bid league. Maybe it’s a six- or seven-bid league.

The Pac-12 picked the perfect city, Las Vegas, for this toss-up conference tournament.

[+] EnlargeArizona/Oregon
Scott Olmos/USA TODAY SportsRondae Hollis-Jefferson's versatility has helped Arizona move forward in the absence of Brandon Ashley.
What’s at stake?

On Feb. 1, Brandon Ashley suffered a season-ending foot injury that changed Arizona’s season and program. Ashley, a sophomore, stretched the floor in ways that few big men can.

But Sean Miller’s recruiting spoils in recent years have been a godsend to the program. Freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson gives the starting five a true small forward and creates a mismatch nightmare for every frontcourt that faces Hollis-Jefferson, Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski.

Everything is pointing to Nick Johnson, the Pac-12 player of the year, and the Wildcats earning a top seed and a place in Anaheim. But what could mess that up? A loss to Washington or Utah -- a pair of sub-50 teams in the RPI -- in Thursday’s quarterfinals wouldn’t help.

A quarterfinal loss to Oregon State (if the Beavers were to get past Oregon in the first round) could demote UCLA, too. And it’s not like the Bruins are hot right now (2-3 in their past five games).

But neither has much to worry about right now, it seems. They’re dancing.

As for the rest of the league? Well, that’s not necessarily the case.

Oregon, Stanford, Arizona State, Colorado and Cal are all fighting to lock up berths in the NCAA tournament. Oregon, which defeated Arizona over the weekend, is probably the safest member of the group. The Ducks likely feel secure after defeating the Wildcats, but that buzz will die fast if they lose to Oregon State on Wednesday.

Stanford is searching for its first NCAA tournament berth under Johnny Dawkins. An NIT bid for Arizona State, which enters the conference tourney after suffering back-to-back road losses to Oregon State and Oregon, would be disappointing. The Sun Devils and Cardinal could be matched up on Thursday in a quarterfinal game with high stakes.

Colorado continues to deal with the question, "Who are the Buffs without Spencer Dinwiddie?" Including its Jan. 12 loss to Washington when Dinwiddie suffered his season-ending knee injury, Tad Boyle’s program is 7-8 without the previously projected first-round pick in next summer’s NBA draft. Colorado has a chance to prove it would still be a respectable addition to the field and a solid seed with a run this week. Its overtime road loss to Cal over the weekend didn’t help.

Team with the most to gain

On Feb. 1, Justin Cobbs drove off a pick and connected on a 17-footer that beat the buzzer and then-No. 1 Arizona. Cal fans stormed the court and all seemed well for Mike Montgomery’s program.

That thrill, however, didn’t last. Cal has gone 4-5 since then but enters the conference tournament following a weekend overtime victory over Colorado.

Cal is still alive. The Bears are currently in Joe Lunardi’s "First Four Out" grouping. So a couple wins, beginning with a potential matchup against Colorado in Thursday’s quarterfinals, could be the difference for Cal.

It’ll be interesting to see how the Pac-12 tourney affects the league’s pool of at-large berths once they’re announced on Selection Sunday.

It could be bigger than that, though. Few leagues have faced as much speculation about coaches who might be on the hot seat. This might be a pivotal tourney for Dawkins, Arizona State's Herb Sendek, Washington State's Ken Bone and Oregon State's Craig Robinson.

3-point shot: Tough season for Terps

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
8:26
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Andy Katz discusses Maryland's struggles, Oregon's bubble status and the selection committee's seeding criteria.

After Arizona’s narrow win over Oregon on Thursday night, Sean Miller stepped to his customary place in front of the postgame television cameras to answer questions posed by ESPN reporter Jeff Goodman. The second question was the universal one, the same thing everyone has been asking since Arizona lost its first game of the season and its starting power forward Brandon Ashley on the same night Saturday: How would the Wildcats -- and new starter Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, more specifically -- respond? Was Miller ever worried?

“Not at all,” he said. “He’s a stud.”

As postgame analyses go, that was an easy one. But no less accurate for it.

Indeed, Hollis-Jefferson’s impressive starting debut in the Wildcats’ 67-65 win over the Ducks hardly qualifies as a surprise. The less-touted of Arizona’s two insanely athletic freshmen forwards (Aaron Gordon being the other, perhaps you’ve heard of him), Hollis-Jefferson had nonetheless already put together an excellent year as Miller’s sixth man before he was elevated to the focal point in Ashley’s wake. But he was great Thursday -- all attacking, angular energy -- and his four buckets late in the second half were crucial to Arizona’s mini-comeback effort.

[+] EnlargeArizona/Oregon
Casey Sapio/USA TODAY SportsRondae Hollis-Jefferson, left, and guard Gabe York, two of the Wildcats with new roles, battle Oregon's Ben Carter.
Hollis-Jefferson finished with 14 points (on 6-of-10 shooting), 10 rebounds (four of them offensive), three assists, two blocks and a steal. And Arizona escaped its own gym with a win because of it.

So, hey, there’s one item crossed off the list. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is indeed good at basketball. Check and check.

The rest of the picture is slightly less clear.

The Wildcats’ conundrum in replacing Ashley was never a simple matter of plug-and-play. Miller’s team, for all its immense strengths, hasn’t gone much deeper than seventh man Gabe York all season. So the task for Miller was to get the stuff out of Hollis-Jefferson (the rim-runs, the transition baskets, the motor) that makes him special over a longer stretch, while maintaining that significant size advantage that Arizona so ruthlessly wields.

The Wildcats’ unique size is written all over their per-possession numbers: They’ve shot it really well inside the arc, and OK outside it. They don't shoot 3s often, though -- just 25.9 percent of their field goal attempts are 3s, which ranks 323rd in the country -- and they play at a slow-ish pace, which has helped accentuate the strengths of Ashley, Gordon, Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski around the rim. It also helped minimize that lack of depth in the backcourt. The Wildcats rarely had their shots blocked. And when they missed, they got their own rebound 39 percent of the time.

Ashley was key in all of this, and he did something no other Arizona big man could: He made jumpers, and thus spaced the floor, without losing any of the interior productivity in the exchange.

On Thursday night, Miller unveiled a decidedly smaller team. York, a good standstill shooter who has attempted 81 3s and just 41 2-pointers all season, took on the sixth-man responsibilities and played 24 minutes. Guard Elliott Pitts, who had played in just nine games all season (and averaged about a point in less than five minutes) was called up for 12 minutes of spot duty. He attempted three 3s, made one and grabbed three rebounds. He acquitted himself well. But Pitts’ presence is the long tail of Ashley’s injury, and the clearest sign that Arizona will end up smaller in the future out of sheer necessity.

And then there is Gordon. If you squint, Gordon’s night -- five shots, six points, eight rebounds -- was fine. If you even casually glance, you should notice the 2-for-11 performance from the free throw line. This is another weakness Ashley’s loss exacerbates: Gordon is a 42 percent shooter from the free throw line, and he has the second-highest free throw rate on the team.

Translation: He’s leaving a ton of points on the board. Ashley was a 76 percent free throw shooter. Hollis-Jefferson shoots 62.8 percent. The Wildcats’ ability to absorb fouls from desperate, overmatched defenses took a major hit with Ashley’s loss, one without a clear fix at the ready.

In the end, Thursday night’s 67-65 win doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what Arizona Version 2.0 will really look like. The Ducks don’t have much of an interior themselves -- their closest thing to a reliable “center” is probably 6-foot-8 tweener wingman Mike Moser -- and, oh yeah, they arrived in Tucson on Thursday losers of six of their past eight. A litmus test this was not. Miller will need more time to tinker, to tweak, to find new ways of maximizing the still-considerable talent on the floor. All precincts have not reported.

“Clearly, [Hollis-Jefferson’s] role changes a little bit,” Miller said. “But he’ll grow, he’ll get better. And we’ll just stay with it.”

At the very least, though, Thursday served notice that Hollis-Jefferson will take on his new role with gusto. Where Arizona goes from here is still an open question.


3-point shot: Ducks back on track

January, 29, 2014
Jan 29
8:40
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Andy Katz discusses Oregon's much-needed win, Syracuse's shot at reaching No. 1 and DeAndre Kane's assessment of fellow Wooden Award candidate Doug McDermott.

3-point shot: More Buffaloes woes

January, 15, 2014
Jan 15
9:37
AM ET

Andy Katz discusses Colorado's latest injury, Oregon's recent struggles and North Carolina's succession plan after Roy Williams eventually retires.

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