College Basketball Nation: Pac-12
We’re a long way from March. So I’m sure I’ll miss a bunch.
But in last week’s picks, I was accurate on every game except Iowa-Iowa State. That Cyclones-Hawkeyes matchup was one of the best games of the season. Great finish between a pair of talented teams.
This weekend’s slate is stacked, too.
Last week: 4-1
No. 7 Oklahoma State vs. No. 20 Colorado (Las Vegas), 11:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Colorado has already upset one Big 12 contender (Kansas). Will Oklahoma State be next? Well, maybe. Colorado hasn’t lost since suffering its season-opening 72-60 loss to Baylor and have knocked off Harvard and Kansas during this 10-game winning streak. But Oklahoma State will be a different test for Colorado. Marcus Smart, Markel Brown, Le’Bryan Nash and Co. can’t match the size of a team that’s fourth in offensive rebounding percentage per Ken Pomeroy, but Oklahoma State’s speed, athleticism and sheer star-power will push Colorado’s bigs out of their comfort zones. It’d be easier to believe in Colorado’s chances to win what I expect to be a tight game if it weren’t one of the Pac-12’s worst 3-point shooting teams (32 percent).
Prediction: Oklahoma State 80, Colorado 76
No. 5 Michigan State at Texas, 4 p.m. ET, CBS: The Spartans picked a bad time to play the Longhorns in Austin. Rick Barnes’ squad is filled with confidence after upsetting North Carolina in Chapel Hill -- in Chapel Hill?!? -- on Wednesday night. Barnes’ team was projected to finish at the bottom of the Big 12 standings after losing its top four scorers from last season. But Javan Felix, Demarcus Holland, Jonathan Holmes and Isaiah Taylor comprise a legit unit that anchors, somehow, a Big 12 sleeper. But Michigan State won’t squander the opportunities that North Carolina -- the same North Carolina that beat Michigan State earlier this month -- missed against the Longhorns, although the Spartans are struggling from the free throw line (68.2 percent), too. The Spartans will definitely be ready for the Longhorns on Saturday. One problem, though. Texas will be ready, too.
Prediction: Texas 78, Michigan State 74
Notre Dame vs. No. 3 Ohio State (New York City), 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2: The Fighting Irish began the year as a nationally ranked team. That status made sense with Jerian Grant and some of the key contributors returning from a Notre Dame team that reached the NCAA tournament last season. But Notre Dame’s defensive gaps have been its downfall so far this season (125th in adjusted defensive efficiency). The Fighting Irish, however, were better last week in a win over Indiana in Indianapolis when Yogi Ferrell went 5-for-14, but Ohio State is on another level. The Buckeyes are a defensive force (first in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) and they possess one of the nation’s most-balanced scoring attacks.
Prediction: Ohio State 73, Notre Dame 63
Georgetown at No. 18 Kansas, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN: When he was a pro wrestler, the Rock (Dwayne Johnson) would say, “Finally, the Rock has come home to …” whenever he’d enter an arena. The Jayhawks probably feel that way entering their first game in Lawrence, Kan., since Nov. 22 (88-58 win over Towson). The roller coaster that they’ve been on for the last month has changed early projections about a team that might boast the top two NBA prospects in next summer’s draft (Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins). It should be a pleasant homecoming. Josh Smith will struggle against Wiggins, Embiid and Perry Ellis inside. And the Hoyas will face a variety of defensive matchup problems against the Jayhawks in their first true road game of the season. Kansas has been criticized for its recent mishaps. But Saturday should be another positive mark for the program.
Prediction: Kansas 69, Georgetown 65
No. 22 UMass vs. Florida State (Sunrise, Fla.), 2 p.m. ET, No TV: The Minutemen continue to fly under the radar, but at this rate, they might be college basketball’s last undefeated team. They’ll be tested in the Atlantic 10, but will face Saint Louis and VCU, their toughest A10 opponents, in Amherst. A favorable schedule is certainly a plus for Derek Kellogg’s squad. But Saturday’s game against Florida State could be its toughest matchup of the year to date. Ian Miller is the star of a strong backcourt. The Seminoles can also play big inside with Okaro White and Boris Bojanovsky. Massachusetts can match that size with Cady Lalanne, Maxie Esho, Raphiael Putney and Sampson Carter. And the Minutemen will push the pace beyond what Florida State experienced in a recent 10-point loss at Minnesota. Chaz Williams, however, has to be calm and careful because turnovers have been an issue all year for the Minutemen. But they’ll maintain their unblemished record. Barely.
Prediction: UMass 76, FSU 74
For most, it was just another drive-by example of quintessential NCAA silliness: two players selling their own school-provided Nike basketball shoes for the exact same reason (ahem: money) that Oregon can provide such nice new Nike basketball shoes in the first place.
But when Dominic Artis and Ben Carter were suspended by the NCAA for the first nine games of the Ducks' season, it was something far more tangible in Eugene. It meant beginning a season already defined by turnover and transfers without two rising sophomores, the best of which (Artis) was a crucial cog in Oregon's backcourt a season ago. It was a real thing: Two players whose not-terribly-smart decision made their coach and teammates' lives considerably harder.
And then, just as soon as the season started, it was forgotten. Credit the volume of targets for NCAA criticism. Credit the roving-horde outrage industry that makes up approximately 65 percent of the Internet these days. ("Twerking? Dennis Rodman? 'Affluence?' LOUD NOISES!")
But it has much more to do with the simple fact of Oregon's success. Despite losing Artis and Carter to a nine-game suspension, Dana Altman's team went ahead and started 9-0 anyway -- the latest victory coming Saturday night at Illinois.
Young is probably the player of the year favorite in the Pac-12 right now, a searing and incisive scoring guard shooting 47.5 percent from 3, 58.3 percent from 2 and 81 percent from the line. Young's offensive rating (141.1) is off the charts in 22 percent usage, he almost never turns the ball over and he's managed to draw fouls at a higher rate (6.0 per 40 minutes) than ever in his career.
Moser, meanwhile, has rediscovered what made him so enticing as a sophomore at UNLV in 2011-12, before 2012-13's productivity cliff dive. Moser looks more engaged, to be sure, and there are any number of possible explanations -- fuzzy things about a change of scenery or the attention afforded Anthony Bennett last season at UNLV. But the key difference in Moser's game is shot selection: He is forcing far fewer awkward midrange jump shots than he did a year ago and making more 3s than ever before. And his rebounding is crucial for a team that doesn't have much in the way of "true" post players.
Meanwhile, senior guard Johnathan Loyd has been a revelation. In Artis' absence, Loyd's assist rate is 42.5 percent, sixth highest in the country; he's shooting 45.5 percent from 3 (compared to 31 percent a year ago); and his offensive rating hockey-sticked to 135.4 from last season's 89.3. Those are all insane, unsustainable numbers, but they've held on for nine games, and their sheer existence in the first place will allow Altman to work Artis and Carter into the rotation gradually.
All of which is to say: Those nine-game suspensions are over. Artis and Carter are free to rejoin their teammates on the floor, beginning Tuesday night at home versus UC-Irvine. Artis' quickness and perimeter defense will be an immediate asset even if his offense hasn't progressed much and Carter's 6-foot-8 size is exactly what the Ducks need. Oh, and 6-foot-7 freshman Jordan Bell, now admitted after a trimester in partial-qualifier purgatory, could join the team, too. (He could also redshirt.)
Point is, the same Ducks that began the season 9-0 (with impressive-enough wins over Georgetown, Ole Miss and Illinois, all away from their home court) are getting deeper on the perimeter and bigger on the block, which is exactly what they needed. They're going to be good.
On Tuesday night, the shoe sale mini-scandal will officially, legally become a matter of the past. It is to Oregon's credit that it felt that way already.
It happens. It will continue to happen, I’m sure. I’ll get a few right (maybe) and I’ll miss some. Either way, you all will let me know.
There are a variety of must-see matchups this weekend. Let’s see how many games I can pick correctly in a new round of weekend predictions.
Last week: 3-2
No. 23 Iowa at No. 17 Iowa State, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU: There will be fireworks in Ames on Friday night. Iowa State averages 91.7 points per game (the NCAA's No. 1 scoring offense) and Iowa averages 89.5 (No. 6). This is only the second time that both teams have been ranked during the rivalry’s history. Both teams can obviously push the tempo. But I think the game will be decided at the 3-point line. Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg’s offense is built on the 3-ball (five Cyclones shoot 38 percent or better from beyond the arc). But Iowa’s 6-foot-6 wing Roy Devyn Marble & Co. have held opponents to a 26 percent clip from the 3-point line this year. I think this will be a tight game. But I expect Iowa’s length, depth and ability to defend the 3-point to be the difference Friday night.
Prediction: Iowa 98, Iowa State 97 (OT)
No. 1 Arizona at Michigan, noon ET, CBS: I think we’ll see the best Michigan performance of the year Saturday. The Wolverines will be home and they’re due for an upset. But it still won’t be enough. This is just a terrible matchup for Michigan. I think there’s definitely a chance the Wolverines could get hot from beyond the arc (38.6 percent). But there are so many mismatches against an Arizona team that’s eighth in offensive rebounding percentage per Ken Pomeroy and boasts (arguably) America’s best frontcourt with Aaron Gordon, Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. The Wildcats have held opponents to just 58.0 PPG and a 27.2 percent mark from the 3-point line. That’s a problem for Michigan, even though it’s hosting Arizona.
Prediction: Arizona 73, Michigan 67
No. 11 Kentucky at No. 18 North Carolina, 5:15 p.m. ET, ESPN: Probably the best game of the weekend. I hope. You really don’t know what you’ll get from North Carolina. The Tar Heels have lost to UAB and Belmont and they’ve defeated Michigan State and Louisville. So recent history suggests that they’ll be ready for Kentucky, which will play its first true road game of the season, because this is another big game. Kentucky’s Julius Randle had eight turnovers in his team’s loss to Michigan State last month. He’s averaging 3.5 TPG. That’s significant because he’s such an offensive catalyst for the Wildcats. And North Carolina has the length to frustrate him and force him into mistakes. Marcus Paige will help the Tar Heels harass Andrew Harrison. North Carolina has already defeated two teams that are playing better basketball than Kentucky is right now. The Tar Heels will get another big win on Saturday in Chapel Hill.
Prediction: North Carolina 81, Kentucky 78
Tennessee at No. 12 Wichita State, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Last season, the Vols topped the Shockers 69-60 in Knoxville. But Tennessee has struggled in the first few weeks of the 2013-14 season. Cuonzo Martin has utilized some young players and re-inserted Jeronne Maymon into his rotation after the forward missed last season with a knee injury. The Vols have won three in a row and Maymon is gradually regaining his pre-injury form (15-for-20 in his last three games). But Wichita State is still riding the wave that was created in last year’s Final Four run. And this Shockers team might be even better than last season’s crew. Fred VanVleet is one of America’s top point guards and a healthy Ron Baker has emerged as a star (15.3 PPG). The Shockers recently held BYU (90.8 PPG) to a season-low 62 points. That defense will be tough for Tennessee to overcome.
Prediction: Wichita State 75, Tennessee 67
New Mexico vs. No. 13 Kansas (Kansas City), 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Kansas suffered its third loss in four games Tuesday when it faced Florida in Gainesville. Saturday’s matchup against New Mexico will be Kansas’ sixth consecutive matchup outside Lawrence, Kan. The road has not been kind to Kansas thus far. The Jayhawks had a lot of issues against the Gators. But they showed some fight down the stretch. They’ll have to fight for 40 minutes, however, to beat Mountain West contender New Mexico. The Lobos have a potent trio of Cameron Bairstow, Kendall Williams and Alex Kirk. But they’re facing a wounded animal. Kansas is desperate for a win. And the Jayhawks have the size, skill and athleticism to end this slide.
Prediction: Kansas 78, New Mexico 74
That might be pushing it, I admit. But New Mexico State -- held to just 48 points in 62 possessions in Tucson, Ariz., Wednesday -- is a good team, a good program, the WAC's best of the past five seasons and a three-time tournament team since 2009-10. Arizona treated the Aggies like something out of Division III.
Sean Miller's team was good offensively, of course; you can't really blow out a capable team like that if you're not scoring with ease. (That was never more true than when Rondae Hollis-Jefferson did … well, just watch.) But even as the Wildcats took their time figuring out NMSU's well-conceived, off-kilter defense in the first half, they maintained a mostly comfortable lead by doing what they've done best in 2013-14: playing defense.
This is an easy point to lose amid all of the Aaron Gordon (and Hollis-Jefferson) highlights: The Wildcats are a much better defensive team than they were a year ago. Last season, they hovered around the top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency. In 2013-14, they’re No. 5 overall. Thus far, Arizona is holding opponents to just 40.3 percent shooting from inside the arc and 27.2 percent outside of it, the product of a defensive reorientation that Stan Van Gundy could love.
Van Gundy's Orlando Magic teams were probably the first NBA teams to understand one of the core truths behind offense: midrange scoring is less efficient. The ease of layups and dunks is wiped away; the reward of three points is not a factor. So Van Gundy's best defenses, anchored by Dwight Howard in the middle, obsessively pressured the perimeter, happy to close out a little too hard if it meant giving up an 18-foot jumper instead of a 3.
Kentucky's 2011-12 national championship group was wired similarly. With Anthony Davis blocking everything in sight, UK's perimeter defenders could rush 3-point shooters and force them to put the ball on the floor. According to Hoop-Math.com, that team forced 39.2 percent of opponents' shots to come from midrange. It blocked 20.3 percent of them, which is completely insane, and opponents shot just 26.7.
In a much smaller sample size, the 2013-14 Wildcats have been even better at forcing opponents into inefficient choices. To date, 52.1 percent of shots by Arizona's foes have come in the midrange, and just 32.1 percent of those shots have connected. Arizona allows just 18.9 percent of field goal attempts at or around the rim. Thanks to the arrival of Gordon, as well as improved interior defense from just about everybody, it blocks a high rate of both kinds of attempts.
The development of Nick Johnson has been huge, and the arrival of T.J. McConnell has given the Wildcats a cohesion-minded distributor to help keep everything aligned. If Arizona goes to Ann Arbor, Mich., this weekend and comes away with one of the most impressive nonconference victories of the season, those will be among the storylines. Gordon will be sure to provide highlights since NBA scouts will be in the building.
But the biggest difference between the merely good team of 2012-13 and the national title contender you see now goes beyond the immediately obvious. The real reason Miller's team has been the premier outfit of November and December is defense. The Wildcats are dictating terms.
A year later, Colorado finally got the reversal it deserved. The buzzer-beater it was owed finally, officially counted. The upset it earned was finally recorded as a win.
OK, so it has been more like 11 months. And, OK, the officials didn't have anything to do with it. Colorado's Jan. 3 loss to Arizona -- when Buffaloes guard Sabatino Chen banked in a last-millisecond 3-pointer that looked like it should have counted, but was stunningly reversed -- didn't, say, get an official review from the NCAA that passed just this week. Horrifyingly plausible though that scenario might seem.
No, Colorado's lost upset was remitted karmically. The funds hit the account in Boulder, Colo., on Saturday afternoon just before 5:30 p.m. ET, and boy did they make a splash.
"It felt really good," Booker said just afterward, as he was swarmed by fans, teammates and the ESPN broadcast crew.
He was talking about the release of the shot, not its result, but the phrase surely applies to both. Insane as the final play was, it was preceded by 39 minutes, 57 seconds of efficient, tidy, advantage-seeking basketball from the Buffaloes. Colorado scored 1.17 points per possession, avoiding turnovers on all but 12.5 percent of their offensive trips. They were balanced, too: Four starters finished with either 14 (Xavier Johnson, Josh Scott) or 15 (Booker, Spencer Dinwiddie) points apiece.
Which is not to say they were always pretty. Colorado shot only 41 percent, 31 percent from 3. How, then, did Tad Boyle's manage its efficiency? Not from fluidity, but assertion. Kansas' main defensive weakness to date -- really, its chief weakness as a team -- is its tendency to foul. The Jayhawks were whistled for 26 fouls on Saturday, 13 in each half. One late, key stretch was dominated by fouls: Dinwiddie blew by a Kansas defender and muscled his way to the rim, earning a foul and knocking down two free throws. With 1:44 left, his drive sent Kansas center Joel Embiid to the sideline. The Buffaloes shot 37 free throws. They made only 22, but they were enough.
Kansas' collection of young talent showed plenty of flaws. The Jayhawks are struggling from beyond the arc: They entered Saturday averaging 30.7 percent from 3, and their 5-of-20 night in Boulder won't raise that tally. Kansas' outside shooting woes have helped opposing teams take away its chief strength -- namely, its insane one-on-one talent.
Andrew Wiggins had one of his best games on Saturday. He is the rare player whose games can seem both impressive and oddly quiet at the same time. He finished with 22 points and five rebounds on 7-of-11 shooting.
But it was only occasionally -- as in his late half-court-length drive that ended in an effortlessly improvised left-handed finish. Maybe three players in the country could conceive of putting that play together, and you watch Kansas waiting for more. But because the Jayhawks can't stretch the floor and force teams to guard them man-to-man, Wiggins' lithe frame is often wasted on the perimeter. He floats.
Beyond that? The Jayhawks foul to their own detriment far too often; their high-screen defense was wildly suspect, both at the point of attack and in rotation; and, despite their physical advantages, they were outrebounded on both ends on Saturday. This is Bill Self's youngest team. It shows, subtly and not.
And yet Self, once he has processed the sting of the loss, can probably walk away from Boulder feeling pretty good. Last Saturday, after a limp trip to the Bahamas, Self was openly disappointed in his team's energy, its effort, his coaching, the whole nine. A few days later, his young team executed well down the stretch in an environment far more hostile than the Atlantis casino floor. The game was tied, after all, thanks to his clever play-calling out of a timeout and forward Perry Ellis' decisive finish with 5 seconds remaining. Colorado is a good and well-coached team. The Buffaloes are experienced; Dinwiddie and Booker are excellent. True road games are brutal. And so on.
Self gave his young group the toughest schedule in the country this season for a reason: He'll happily trade a loss or two for learning. He can say as much about Saturday's trip to Boulder, and while he'll hope for a different outcome Tuesday in Gainesville, Fla., against Billy Donovan's Gators, he might acquiesce to the same trade there.
After all, sometimes the game you claw into overtime doesn't get there. Sometimes, some basketball god somewhere owes your opponent a year-old debt, and sometimes that debt is repaid at your expense.
The game owed Colorado a buzzer-beating upset. Saturday, finally, the Buffs got what they deserved.
Sports fans love predictions. Well, sports fans love to tell you when your predictions are wrong. I would know.
I’ve made a few predictions during my time at ESPN.com. Some right. Some wrong.
Why stop now? Throughout the rest of the 2013-14 college basketball season, I’ll make predictions (winner and score) about five prominent weekend matchups. I’ll tally up my results each week so you all can see how well -- or poorly -- I’m doing overall.
Here we go again …
Prediction: Baylor 78, Kentucky 76
Marquette at No. 8 Wisconsin, 2:15 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network: The biggest issue for Marquette right now? Consistent offense. The Golden Eagles, like their intrastate rivals, are one of the nation’s top defensive squads (both Wisconsin and Marquette are top-25 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings). But Marquette just can’t score. Consistently. Last spring, Buzz Williams lost a veteran backcourt that registered 30.3 PPG. That didn’t help his offense. And now his program will face a Wisconsin team that held Virginia to just 38 points -- yes, 38 points -- on Tuesday. Plus, Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky are pick-and-pop nightmares for Marquette. The Golden Eagles need this one. But they won’t get it.
Prediction: Wisconsin 58, Marquette 48
No. 6 Kansas at Colorado, 3:15 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Last weekend was a rough one for Kansas, which lost to Villanova in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis. Andrew Wiggins couldn’t find a rhythm. And the Jayhawks continued to struggle from the 3-point line (2-for-11 against the Wildcats). But Bill Self recently announced that he will give freshman Joel Embiid, who leads the nation in block percentage, more minutes in the coming weeks. The fluid NBA prospect will be critical in a matchup against a Colorado squad that’s won eight in a row and held five of its last eight opponents to 65 points or less.
Prediction: Kansas 69, Colorado 65
BYU at No. 21 UMass, 1:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network: Tyler Haws (23.6 PPG, 40 percent from the 3-point line) leads an offense that’s averaging 89.2 PPG (ninth in the country). The Cougars scored 112 points in a win over Stanford and put up 90 in a loss to nationally ranked Iowa State. They’ve also been successful this year because they’re careful (ninth in offensive TO percentage per KenPom.com). But Chaz Williams (15.4 PPG, 6.4 APG, 1.3 SPG) leads a fast attack that balances UMass’ defensive pressure. The Minutemen will challenge BYU inside and outside. And the emerging Cady Lalanne (17.0 PPG, 11.4 RPG and 2.7 BPG) will be a problem in the post for BYU.
Prediction: UMass 80, BYU 74
No. 18 UCLA at Missouri, 12:30 p.m. ET, CBS: The Bruins have one of the Pac-12’s strongest backcourts with Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and freshman Zach LaVine. Sophomore Tony Parker has slimmed down, which is one of the reasons he’s averaging 21.6 MPG this year. The Bruins’ defense is relatively mediocre (65th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy), but it’s tough enough to suppress a Missouri squad that hasn’t played any notable opponents yet. Plus, the Tigers are committing turnovers on 18.6 percent of their possessions per KenPom.com (176th nationally). Jabari Brown, Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson and Co. will struggle in their first matchup with a Top 25 team this season.
Prediction: UCLA 71, Missouri 65
You'd best believe the Jayhawks have been in the back of the Buffaloes' collective minds all offseason. That’s partly because of the 90-54 beatdown Kansas put on Colorado last season at Allen Fieldhouse. But it’s more about what a win could do for the Buffs this season.
The need for Colorado to play well in this game was only magnified after its season-opening loss to then-No. 25 Baylor in one of those games it would love to have back. The Buffs trailed the entire game, shot just 33 percent and couldn’t pull closer than two possessions in the second half. Whatever traction the Buffs had nationally quickly eroded and bounced them to the periphery.
Now’s their chance to gain it back.
Colorado rides an eight-game winning streak into its meeting with Kansas. That streak was punctuated with a quality win over Harvard.
CU coach Tad Boyle also navigated his team through back-to-back true road games in wins over Air Force and rival Colorado State. Boyle scheduled as tough a six-game nonconference stretch as there is in the country.
The Buffaloes completed the first three unscathed, but the Jayhawks represent a move up in competition level for the next three games. After Kansas, the Buffaloes face Elon and conclude arguably the most difficult portion of their schedule against No. 9 Oklahoma State.
The most notable improvement Colorado has made since its season opener has come defensively. The Buffs rank third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense, allowing just 65.2 points per game. They’re also third in rebounding margin, collecting an average of 11.1 more boards than their opponents.
Colorado is as balanced as it gets, with four players averaging double figures. Guard Spencer Dinwiddie leads the team with 13.8 points per game, which is just a shade less than his 15.3 average a season ago. If the Buffs are to pull off an upset, they’ll likely need Dinwiddie and backcourt mate Askia Booker to play strong.
Or we can keep it this simple: Duke and Arizona are playing each other on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and that's a game you probably should make sure you consume. Pick a bar with TVs. Etc.
We hold these interests to be self-evident, of course. But -- and yes, here comes the annoying "turns out" portion of this post -- all of the obvious reasons can kind of overshadow what makes Sean Miller's team interesting and threatening and insert-your-preferred-adjective here.
Less fuzzily, if you want to understand why Arizona is one of the best five or six teams in the country to date, you have to talk about the Wildcats' backcourt.
You have to talk about Nick Johnson. Remember Johnson as a freshman? He came to school in 2012 with touted point guard Josiah Turner, one of the great recruiting busts of the past five years, and struggled on a not-very-good 22-12 NIT team. He was better in just about every way as a sophomore, but it's this year Johnson truly has made the proverbial leap: an offensive rating of 130.4, an effective field goal percentage of 61.9, 87 percent from the free throw line, 69 percent from two-point range -- you name it, Johnson is doing it, and he's defending better than ever, too. His viability as a perimeter option makes Arizona's offensive attack multifaceted, far less predictable than last season.
Which is (also) where T.J. McConnell comes in. The former Duquesne transfer has, for all intents and purposes, replaced one-year holdover Mark Lyons at the point guard spot this season. The difference has been that McConnell is actually a point guard. Lyons was always an awkward fit in that role; he was always a shoot-first guard and clashed with Xavier coach Chris Mack for exactly those reasons. When he came to Arizona last season, he scored the ball plenty, but his individual tendencies exacerbated the issues a young Arizona team faced. Lyons, in other words, wasn't the right guy to get everyone else involved. And on a team with a lot of talented big guys who wouldn't handle the ball unless it was delivered to them in the right spots, Lyons was an even worse fit.
McConnell is the polar opposite. His 34.1 percent assist rate to date is a nice number to point to, but the passes he is capable of pulling off -- little pocket bounce-passes, parabola-perfect lobs, even something as simple as a post entry -- have turned Arizona's bevy of big men into universally effective weapons.
He is the perfect guard for this system and personnel, and Johnson is the perfect scorer to lead the way. So when you hear the talk about Gordon, don't forget his backcourt. If Arizona is the real deal in 2013-14, it seems the Wildcats will owe it to Johnson and McConnell.
The entertaining, explosive and skilled forward might be the addition that helps the Wildcats win the Pac-12 and make a run in the NCAA tournament. But his presence enhances a frontcourt that boasted two promising pieces before his arrival.
Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski will matter Friday night when Arizona faces Duke in the NIT Season Tip-Off at Madison Square Garden in New York City (6 p.m. ET, ESPN).
The most appealing component in that matchup is the Gordon-Jabari Parker pairing, especially since there's a chance the two will defend one another. An appearance by two of the top freshmen in America who star on nationally ranked teams makes this must-see TV.
But Ashley (10.7 PPG and 7.2 RPG) and Tarczewski (9.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG and 2.0 BPG) could be the difference for Arizona. The 7-foot Tarczewski and 6-foot-8 power forward Ashley could dominate an unproven Duke frontcourt. Amile Jefferson is the only player over 6-9 who has become a regular part of Coach Mike Krzyzewski's rotation.
That's a gap that Arizona must exploit to secure a win against one of America's best teams. The Wildcats need Tarczewksi and Ashley to be aggressive and consistent on offense and defense. With Parker on his roster, I don't think Coach K is focused on Gordon as much as he's worried about Tarczewski and Ashley, who are 42nd and 43rd respectively in Ken Pomeroy's offensive ratings of Pac-12 players.
Per KenPom.com, Arizona is ranked 26th in offensive rebounding percentage and Duke's defense is ranked 173rd in offensive rebounding percentage allowed. Arizona needs Tarczewski and Ashley to be relentless on the glass and earn extra possessions and opportunities for their squad.
But the duo also will be vital as the Wildcats attempt to stay in front of Parker and Duke's other talented wings. The new hand-checking rules have made it more challenging for perimeter defenders to contain elite players such as Parker.
So shot-blocking, shot-altering big men have become more important as teams attempt to limit penetration. Both Tarczewski and Ashley have to make Parker & Co. think twice about attacking the rim.
If those two struggle, Arizona will lose. It's that simple.
All of the buildup for Friday night's top game centers on Gordon and Parker.
But Tarczewski and Ashley might be the most significant players on the floor.
That is not necessarily an indictment of women's basketball. After all, plenty of collegiate events suffer attendance issues, issues that span gender and type. No one would argue that the women's game is "better" than the men's, but it does have plenty of unique, subtle appeal. Unfortunately, far fewer people care. This is the way of the world. Getting butts in seats requires creativity.
Colorado's athletics department has no illusions on the matter. Even more amusing, it has zero compunction about leveraging what it does have -- in this case, a super-hot men's hoops ticket. Which is how Buffs brass arrived at this genius plan:
The claim process for the Kansas men's basketball game, which takes place on Saturday, December 7 at 1:15 p.m., will take place Wednesday, November 20 at the No. 16-ranked women's basketball team's game against Iowa at 8:30 p.m. at the Coors Events Center.
Students will enter through the southeast entrance of the Coors Events Center beginning at 7:30 p.m. You will swipe your Buff OneCard and receive a wristband, which you will need to keep on. Your wristband guarantees you your ticket to the Kansas game. If you leave the Events Center prior to the conclusion of the game, your wristband will be removed.
To get their Kansas tickets, Colorado students have to go to the court immediately following the women's game, where they can exchange their wristband for a ticket. That's brilliant.
Now, if I was a student and a rabid men's basketball fan at Colorado, would I be especially thrilled? Probably not. Being a student is kind of a busy process, and you're telling me that to attend the best men's hoops game of the year -- when old Big 12 rival Kansas and star freshman Andrew Wiggins come to town -- I have to take two-plus hours out of a separate, totally unrelated night? This would make me kind of angry. Maybe I have an exam that week, and it's dumb for me to go. Maybe I blocked off the one Colorado game I want to make it to this season. Likewise, if I was a player for the Lady Buffs, I'm not sure how I'd feel. More students in seats is great, but do you really want to play to a begrudging crowd?
Ah, well, whatever. It's not like Colorado athletics are making students do a 10K run; they have to sit through two hours of a basketball game they probably weren't planning on attending. At least they don't have to dress up.
(Hat tip: Norlander)
As the Wildcats began to unravel in the final minutes -- most of the team’s starters had encountered foul trouble by then -- Sean Miller turned to the freshman. With 82 seconds remaining in the game and the Wildcats up by just four after squandering a double-digit lead, point guard T.J. McConnell threw a lob pass to Gordon on the inbounds.
Perhaps his critics, too.
Before he arrived in Tucson, Ariz., Gordon dismissed assumptions.
At 6-9, 225 pounds, he looks like a power forward. But he doesn’t play like one.
Gordon has been likened to NBA All-Star Blake Griffin for his ferocious dunks -- and probably based on his complexion, too. But Gordon rejected those comparisons prior to the beginning of his first and only season at the Division I level.
"He’s an incredible player; he’s the No. 1 pick," Gordon told Sporting News in July when asked about the Griffin comparisons. "I can’t be too mad if people are comparing me to a No. 1 pick, but I can play point guard."
Point guard? That sounded like the type of crazy talk that this generation of LeBron James wannabes often spews, failing to recognize the difference between doing a bunch of things and doing a bunch of things well.
But Gordon, like his game, was serious.
Against the Aztecs, Gordon auditioned his outside-the-box skill set.
He began the game by dribbling into a trap.
He made few mistakes after that.
Gordon, ranked fourth in the 2013 recruiting class by RecruitingNation, dribbled up the floor solo, pushed toward the rim, stopped and scored early. He hit a couple of 3-pointers, too. There was also a jump shot in the lane.
In the first half of the first half, Gordon had scored 12 points and made all five of his field goal attempts. Just 10 minutes into the game, it was clear that Gordon was on a different level than everyone else on the floor.
On Tuesday night, Gordon’s elite peers in the freshman class anchored one of the biggest events in the history of college basketball’s nonconference slate. During the Champions Classic at the United Center in Chicago, Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle justified the hype with impressive efforts.
If this was Gordon’s coming-out party, it definitely occurred under different circumstances. The Wildcats were playing in a brutal environment for visitors.
The game began at 10 p.m. Eastern, bedtime for many outside the West Coast.
That, however, didn’t make his effort less dazzling. Gordon put on a performance that rivaled those orchestrated by the other future millionaires who were featured on Tuesday night at the United Center.
He’s not a power forward and he’s not a point guard. But he is a combo forward who can be trusted to handle the ball and roam on the perimeter in Arizona’s offense. He’s an excellent passer. He’s also a versatile defender.
Gordon’s athleticism helps him guard multiple positions and smaller players. His movements are fluid.
With less than six minutes to go, SDSU forward JJ O’Brien drove to the rim as Gordon harassed him. Gordon had played cautiously after picking up his third foul, but he tracked O’Brien, and then, he swatted a shot that would have extended a brief SDSU rally.
He finished with 16 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 blocks, 2 assists and zero questions about his potential.
He didn’t win the game alone. Nick Johnson (game-high 23 points) was a catalyst on both ends for the Wildcats. McConnell (six assists, two turnovers) was a leader. Freshman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (seven points, five rebounds) might be a star soon, too.
But Gordon is the game-changer, the talent who could lead Arizona to a Pac-12 championship and so much more.
It’s not easy to leave Viejas Arena with a victory, especially when your team is counting on a freshman to make big plays down the stretch.
Yet Gordon was calm in that moment, his moment. And that was the difference.
Gordon will play multiple games this season that will commence after a chunk of the country has already fallen asleep. And perhaps that will affect his street cred when folks assess the 2013 class.
It’s clear, however, that Gordon belongs in the same conversation as the other three freshman stars who excelled earlier this week in Chicago.
The AP’s No. 1 ranking only magnifies the spotlight on Julius Randle & Co., a group that might face an unattainable level of expectations throughout the year. But this proves that youth was not a deterrent for voters who picked Kentucky over Michigan State (second), reigning national champ Louisville (third) and Duke (fourth). Andrew Wiggins and Kansas are ranked fifth, followed by Arizona, Michigan, Oklahoma State, Syracuse and Florida to round out the top 10.
A few quick thoughts:
Who should be No. 1? You could make a case for Michigan State. Keith Appling, Adreian Payne and Gary Harris comprise one of country’s best trios and have a ton of experience and talent. Louisville adds some talented recruits to a team that lost key pieces, but will still be one of the best squads in the country, especially with Chane Behanan returning at some point this season.
But Kentucky deserves it. I get the arguments. “They haven’t proven anything.” “The Wildcats were hyped last year and lost in the first round of the NIT.” But we've never seen anything such as this. No team has ever entered a year with this much projected NBA talent. These polls are about expectations and they’re certainly high for this Kentucky squad. Even higher than they were for the Kentucky team that won a national title in 2012. These Wildcats have the talent to justify them and a No. 1 ranking.
Biggest surprise? Wichita State at No. 16 and Ohio State at No. 11. Both have lost key players (Malcolm Armstead and Deshaun Thomas, respectively), but the Shockers handled the Buckeyes in the NCAA tournament and then, they nearly knocked off national champion Louisville in the Final Four. I don’t think it’s crazy to give Wichita State top 10 consideration.
Biggest snubs? No mention of a Creighton team that will enter the season as a Big East title contender with All-American Doug McDermott and veteran Grant Gibbs leading the way for the Bluejays. No Tennessee or Indiana, either. All three are certainly in the Top 25 mix.
Too high? Gonzaga might be high at No. 15. That’s the same Gonzaga squad that lost one of America’s top frontcourts when Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris left the scene after last season. That will be difficult to replace.
Too low? The voting deadlines might have preceded the news that Joseph Young will be eligible for Oregon. The Ducks could move up a few spots from No. 19, but this slot isn’t worth a major protest.
Now that you know what you need to watch in every conference in the country, we turn our attention to the theme of change -- from coaching changes to player development to good old-fashioned rules. First up: How quickly can USC get quick?
Ground was broken for the Galen Center, USC's first on-campus basketball arena, in October 2004. A month later, USC hired former Utah coach Rick Majerus. The implication then was clear: After 100 years spent as an afterthought, and half a century in an old municipal gym, a new day had come.
Nine years later, the venue is the only thing about USC basketball that has changed.
Whether former Florida Gulf Coast coach and human meme Andy Enfield can finally change this trajectory is an open question that won't be answered in one season. (For more on Enfield's long-term task, see Dana O'Neil's piece today.) More pressing for our purposes, though, is what Enfield will change right now -- whether he can shape his current players in the image of the thrilling run-and-dunk FGCU team that got him to L.A. this spring.
This looks, at first glance, like an immensely difficult thing to do. In 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12, Kevin O'Neill's USC teams were among the slowest and most risk-averse in the country. They ranked outside the top 300 in adjusted tempo each season. They played truly tough, physical defense and truly putrid, inept offense. The end result was unwatchable.
Enfield won't want his teams to be unwatachable even if said unwatchability was effective. In Year 1 of a rebuild, it's the nightmare scenario. But here's the good news: These Trojans might not be -- or need not be -- as speed-challenged as you think.
Even before O'Neill was fired in mid-January of last season, he was letting USC get up and down the floor in totally uncharacteristic ways; when associate head coach Bob Cantu took over, the Trojans didn't slow. The end result was an adjusted tempo of 67.5 possessions per game -- a drastic increase from 2011-12 (61.4). Meanwhile, FGCU wasn't always blitzing people at breakneck speed: The Eagles averaged 69.1 possessions per game, 42nd most in the country. The easy storyline -- a run-and-gun coach taking over a roster of players used to 55-trip grinders -- isn't as drastic as you might think.
What's more, USC's best returning players, guards J.T. Terrell and Byron Wesley, are comfortable at pace. Per Synergy scouting data, the Trojans ended 15.3 percent of their offensive possessions in transition -- second most of any play type. Of those 365 plays, Terrell and Wesley combined to run on 186 of them. As a duo, they averaged around a point per trip.
This is easily Enfield's best hope of getting the Trojans to at least be entertaining in Year 1. Neither Terrell nor Wesley set the world ablaze on the break last season, but they were better in that context than any other, and this season they will be running not as a matter of disorganization but with an entire philosophy at their backs.
Enfield has plenty of changes to make at the Galen Center. Some are overhauls. Others are tweaks. Believe it or not, the Trojans' transition might be closer to the latter than the former.
Here are previews for each team in the Pac-12:
Arizona State Sun Devils
Oregon State Beavers (Free)
Washington State Cougars