College Basketball Nation: SEC
How important is a college basketball game? More important than whatever 50 or so Gainesville Regional Airport passengers were planning on doing Sunday afternoon.
At least, that was the message conveyed at the Delta Air Lines terminal in Gainesville Sunday, when, according to the Gainesville Sun, a maintenance issue in the charter plane Florida planned to take to Storrs, Conn., for its Monday night game against Connecticut grounded the Gators. In response, Delta cancelled a commercial flight, delaying its paid passengers, and let the Gators take the aircraft instead:
A passenger who was supposed to be on the flight to Atlanta before it was canceled and did not want to be identified told The Sun passengers were told there was a mechanical difficulty, but some of them noticed the Gators basketball team boarding the plane meant for them out the window.
People were upset as they scrambled to rearrange their travel schedules and some had to be driven to airports in Jacksonville, Orlando and Tampa to catch other flights, she said. A passenger who was moving from Salt Lake City to New Jersey was going to miss the moving truck, so he had to find someone else to meet the driver instead. A student's father had to drive her to Atlanta so she wouldn't miss an event she needed to make. Another passenger missed a funeral.
A Delta spokesman, who also apologized, told the Gainesville Sun "passengers from flight 5059 were accommodated on other flights and given vouchers valid for use through Delta for future trips." Florida's team spokesman said the program had no idea of the situation, and that "any decision on plane use would be made by Delta."
Outrage about this situation would not be hard to muster. Some passengers -- who planned to leave at 3:30 pm Sunday -- were stuck waiting for a flight as late as Monday. Besides, everyone's had their fair share of airport rage. In this instance, at least, you could forgive the angered travelers. Everybody just wants to get home.
More than likely, though, Delta's decision came down to a charter agreement between the airline, the Gainesville Regional Airport, and the University of Florida. Such agreements can include provisions and requirements in regards to timely departures, because, after all, that's kind of the whole point of flying a charter aircraft: avoiding the vagaries and hassle of commercial flight. It would make sense for Florida to have such an agreement. Its teams can't show up late to games. Rest assured it pays for the privilege.
Still, the portrait of a basketball team sneaking on an aircraft while outraged commercial passengers know they're being lied to does not exactly provide the optics any school or airline is hoping for. The least the Gators could have done was win.
Before we go any further, let's get one very cliché thing straight: Wins are wins.
In three months, none of us will much remember, or much care, that Kentucky spent most of Feast Week Monday wobbling behind Cleveland State in Rupp Arena. It won't matter that the Wildcats trailed 54-44 with 7 minutes, 30 seconds left in the second half to a team with losses to San Francisco and Eastern Michigan already under its belt. We won't bring up the fact that UK couldn't get more than a point or two of separation from the Vikings until there were two minutes left, when the Wildcats did something -- make a 3-point shot being that something -- they had mostly failed to do for the previous 38.
And yet, Monday night's win in Lexington, Ky. — much like Duke's 91-90 survival of Vermont a night before -- provided perfect examples of why the sport's two most high-profile programs in this season or any other are, despite all their talent, nowhere near deep-tourney guarantees when the aforementioned big fish hit the proverbial March pan. Both games showed the issues Duke and Kentucky face, where their weaknesses currently lie, and how those weaknesses, if left untended, could become crippling.
Let's start with Kentucky. The Wildcats' talent is immense; Julius Randle remains a force to behold. But, when the opponents are more than mere lambs to slaughter, when they can play good transition defense and sink into double- and triple-teams on Randle, the Wildcats have very little by way of response.
If Kentucky had a flow chart of offensive woe, it would go a little something like this:
1. The opposing defense sprints back, prevents Kentucky's secondary break (or worse), and induces the Wildcats into a half-court set.
2. Randle gets the ball.
Usually, this is as far as it needs to go. Randle has the whole unstoppable-force thing down pat; there isn't much need for a plan B. But when Kentucky does need another option -- as it did in the first half against Michigan State on Nov. 12, or Monday, when Randle shot just 3-of-10 from the field and needed 9-of-11 from the free throw line to score 15 points against Cleveland State -- you get to the part where opposing defenders sink deep into the lane and dare Randle to kick to the perimeter. Which brings us to number …
3. Kentucky shoots a long-range jumper.
This is, to date, the Wildcats' Achilles' heel. Before Monday, Kentucky ranked No. 19 in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage, but just 213th from 3. The Cats haven't shot a ton of 3s -- around 30 percent of their overall field goal attempts are from deep -- but it is nonetheless a weakness, one that gives defenses some semblance of hope in what would otherwise be a hope-free proposition on the low block.
Will this change? I'd bet on yes. John Calipari is fond of calling freshman wing James Young the best shooter in the country. That may be patently untrue -- more to do with confidence-building than Young (who is more useful when attacking the rim anyway) actually being better than, say, Brady Heslip or Doug McDermott -- but it is fair to expect him to shoot better than the 13-for-42 mark he's put up thus far. Aaron Harrison was also a much better shooter in high school than he's showcased thus far; were it not for his game-sealing 3 on Monday night, he and brother Andrew would have combined to go 0-for-7 from deep.
No, really, it genuinely is just that simple. I could probably just tell you that the Blue Devils gave up 90 points in 65 possessions to Vermont at Cameron Indoor; that should drive things home. But let's dig in.
The Blue Devils are the nation's most potent offense to date, averaging 1.21 points per possession. They make 60.6 percent of their 2s; they average about 71 possessions per game; they feature Jabari Parker, perhaps the most purely talented offensive player in college basketball since Kevin Durant. They're a joy to watch.
They also rank -- brace yourself -- 176th on defense. That's Ken Pomeroy's adjusted opponent math (as are the numbers you see above, as always) but let's list those opponents anyway: Davidson, Kansas, Florida Atlantic, UNC Asheville, East Carolina and, of course, Vermont. Nothing about what Duke does defensively, save guarding 3s, is above average relative to the rest of college basketball -- from team 1 to team 345. The convenient thing about these numbers is they merely highlight what you see when you watch Duke play defense: Awful ball-screen hedges, too many switches, late rotations, late help, no interior -- you name it.
Two years ago, the Blue Devils ended the season ranked 81st defensively. That was the worst Coach K-coached defense in a decade, and probably much longer than that. If the season ended today, this group, for all its offensive brilliance, might go down as the worst defensive team of Mike Krzyzewski's career.
Fortunately for both Duke and Kentucky, the season doesn't end today. There is still more than enough of time to iron this stuff out. In a few months, we might not remember any of it. We might not even remember just how close both teams came to back-to-back home upsets in late November. The wins will be just that. Wins. But if these teams do have issues for any extended period of time, they will be for the same reasons you saw Sunday and Monday nights. Stay tuned.
Unexpected losses can sap the machismo of any individual or team, especially those that seem untouchable. And Kentucky’s roster of future NBA standouts had that allure entering Tuesday night’s matchup with Michigan State.
The Wildcats were outplayed, outworked and outhustled. The good news, however, is that they were only playing their third game of the season. And if they excel over the course of the next four months, the blemish will mean little.
That recovery begins on Sunday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN) with a matchup against a Robert Morris squad that defeated them in that embarrassing opening round matchup in last season’s NIT.
I want to see how Kentucky responds to everything it has experienced over the last week. We all know that the Wildcats will be the most talented team on the floor.
This is not the same Robert Morris squad -- three starters from last season are gone. And this is definitely not the same Kentucky squad.
But the Wildcats are now on a path to rebuild their mojo after the Spartans roughed them up in Chicago earlier this week. They’re not shattered. It was just one game.
They do, however, have some things to correct.
Youth wasn’t their only obstacle. Their lack of chemistry and communication was a problem, too.
I’d like to see if this group can use this weekend’s matchup against Robert Morris to play together. To talk to each other. To jell.
There was talk of Julius Randle and Co. going undefeated. And that wasn’t a crazy thought, considering the fact that the program lost just two games on its way to the 2012 national title. And coach John Calipari has more talent than he had then.
But that’s obviously no longer a possibility. Kentucky, however, can still be a great team that ends the season with the ultimate prize. That pursuit will demand a short memory and more cohesiveness for this program.
The Wildcats will be the overwhelming favorite against Robert Morris.
Let’s see if they’re more of a unit on Sunday.
Much has been made of the impact of the Champions Classic, of the "importance" -- for lack of a better term -- of four teams this good, this talented, and this high-profile meeting so early in the college hoops calendar. And rightfully so: Tuesday night at the United Center might comprise the best non-Final Four event in the game in a decade. Maybe more.
Then again, it might not. For all of the pre-lionization you've heard these past few weeks, in the end the Champions Classic will be remembered well only if its actual basketball manages to measure up. With all of the fuzzy hype stripped away, what should you expect Tuesday night in Chicago? Let's dig in.
Note: Part two of the breakdown -- on Kansas versus Duke -- will come later this morning.
No. 1 Kentucky vs. No. 2 Michigan State, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Can Kentucky's offense do enough? Kentucky coach John Calipari and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo have spent the past week congenially faux-sparring over one key question: Which feted coach with the massively talented roster has the tougher lot Tuesday night? Is it Calipari, with his crazy-young, crazy-gifted, hard-to-scout group of McDonald's All Americans? Or is it Izzo, commanding his most complete roster in a decade, in charge of veterans with long resumes and reels of scoutable tape?
The answer matters. The answer doesn't matter. All at the same time.
Which is why this game might well come down to one question: Is the Wildcats' offense good enough?
Calipari, by his own admission, devoted most of his preseason practice to offense. He wanted his players to absorb the dribble-drive motion intuitively, to learn to unleash their individual skills without hesitation, and in their 140 possessions thus far -- in blowout wins over UNC Asheville and Northern Kentucky -- Kentucky has pumped in 182 points.
That is very good. The question is whether it is beat-Michigan State good. The Spartans are not Northern Kentucky; they are not UNC Asheville. They will have the two best pure defenders on the floor, point guard Keith Appling and forward Adreian Payne. Not only that, but they are perfectly suited for Kentucky's stars specifically. Appling and shooting guard Gary Harris are excellent at preventing penetration. And Payne? That brings us to our next question ...
Can Adreian Payne shut down Julius Randle? With the possible exception of Jabari Parker, Randle has been the most impressive offensive force thus far in this young season -- and not in the ways you might expect. Billed as a low-block banger throughout high school, Calipari has rewired Randle's role in Lexington, Ky. Randle often begins UK possessions much farther away from the basket, where he can catch, drive, gain an unstoppable head of steam, spin (if necessary) and finish with contact at the rim. There are maybe three or four players in the sport that look physically capable of defending him, and that's a generous estimate.
Payne, it just so happens, is the leading candidate. Rangy and long and a constant shot-blocking threat since his arrival in East Lansing, Payne earned raves last season for expanding his offensive toolbox out to 20 feet. But nestled in that perimeter expansion was a player who could defend in space as well as at the rim, someone who could check smaller players out to the 3-point line and recover to the glass with a stride and a leap. That is exactly what you need to defend Randle: Someone who can stop his momentum early, force him to give the ball to a guard, force the Wildcats to play conventionally, and, if/when the Wildcats miss, keep Randle off the offensive glass.
In two games, Randle has been UK's most-used player and its most efficient. According to Synergy scouting data, Randle has used 20.6 of UK's possessions, averaging a team-best 1.34 points per. Sixteen of those possessions have been offensive rebounds and putbacks. Just six have been traditional post-ups. You need a unique defender to guard Randle's unique attack. You won't find a better fit than Payne.
Where experience matters. Why focus so much on what happens when the Wildcats have the ball? Because that's what they've done for the better part of a month. In this accelerated, unusual development cycle, Calipari might momentarily have delayed his traditional coaching strength -- form-fitting elite defenses from the precious freshmen metals. We know UK has the talent to put points on the board, but we don't know whether the Wildcats are ready to play total team defense against a team as smart and as cohesive and as talented as the Spartans for 40 intense minutes.
We know all that, and much more, about Michigan State. Advantage Izzo? We'll find out Tuesday night.
A funny thing happened in Lexington, Ky., these last few months. To most of the outside world, Julius Randle, the gem of coach John Calipari's probably-best-ever recruiting class, has been the chief Wildcat to watch. He was named preseason SEC player of the year on the strength of that reputation; if Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Duke's Jabari Parker aren't chosen No. 1 overall in next June's NBA draft, it will be because Randle stole the show.
That may all be true, but inside Kentucky's practices, a different narrative has emerged. Calipari has tasked Randle with playing higher in the key than he ever had to in high school, and the adjustment period has caused some struggles. Meanwhile, pretty much every media member or NBA scout who was visited UK in the past four weeks has come away far more impressed by 6-foot-7 wing James Young.
This is not exactly the upset of the century. Young might not have been the No. 3-ranked player in the loaded 2014 class, but he was No. 8. At almost any other program, he'd be the big man on campus; we're not exactly talking (with all due respect) about Jarrod Polson here. Young is tall, athletic and, unlike most such players, possessed of reliable shooting touch. He is an NBA scout's dream.
Or at least he was, before the play above happened.
That's a clip from Kentucky's humdrum exhibition win over Montevallo Monday night, and yes, that's Young racing to the sideline in an attempt to save the ball -- which he does, directly into his own hoop.
There are two ways to look at this. The glass-half-full version is that Young is "so locked in," as one Kentucky radio announcer put it, that he can't help but throw the ball in the net even when he doesn't mean to. The glass-half-empty version is that Young callously and egregiously hurt his own team, and by golly, I just don't know if NBA scouts can trust a player with that much disregard for the entire object of the game.
The less-silly version of this dichotomy is that Young made a great hustle play that he immediately undermined by throwing the ball at his own rim. If there is a teachable moment here, that's probably it. When you save the ball back under your own rim, bad things tend to happen. Just usually not this quickly.
In any case, we now have our first crazy Kentucky highlight of the season. Expect many more to come.
Before, when John Calipari was still turning Memphis into an annual national title contender, he earned a weird, paradoxical reputation: To casual fans (or "haters"), Calipari was just some clever salesman who recruited talented players and rolled the balls out. In reality, the offensive system that reinforced this reputation -- the freedom-based, talent-reliant, dribble-drive motion offense adapted in the mid-aughts from then-obscure junior college coach Vance Walberg -- was totally, radically innovative. Calipari, as usual, was years ahead of his time.
And now it's back.
Calipari brought the dribble-drive to Kentucky, of course, but he never has leaned on it the way he did at Memphis. (Calipari's adaption of Walberg's system was less radical than Walberg's itself in the first place; Calipari added the "motion" himself.) The John Wall-Eric Bledsoe-Demarcus Cousins-Patric Patterson group had the right two-guard perimeter to pull it off (and often did) but was just as often better served simply banging the ball down low. The next season, with Brandon Knight at the helm, Calipari worked in even more of his traditional (both for him and for his profession) motion offense. In 2011-12, the national champs blended some of the spacing and penetration principles of the dribble-drive (as did last year's less successful edition), but just as often relied on more conventional pin-downs and high screens.
This season, though, Calipari has steadfastly promised more dribble-drive, for two very good reasons:
- He has the best talent in the country.
- He has the most dribble-drive-ready talent he's ever had at UK.
You can read more about the actual system all over the Internet, naturally; wonky primers are available here and here. In sum, the system relies on spacing two point guards or combo guards at the top, with two athletic shooters/wings in the corners, and a dominating, skilled presence on the low block.
That group alone is frightening to conceive. The interesting part is the frontcourt, and how Calipari ends up balancing minutes for Poythress, Willie Cauley-Stein, freshman center Dakari Johnson, and preseason SEC POY Julius Randle. Calipari has been putting Randle at the free-throw line for many of his possessions in practice, which provides an interesting wrinkle; Calipari probably will play Cauley-Stein and Randle together pretty frequently.
The more conventional motion wrinkles Calipari has run in recent seasons still will be present, dependent on the personnel on the floor at any given time. But with all of that skill and all of that length and all of those options, Calipari can open things up, spread his lineups out and give his players freedom to simply be better than their opponents -- which is exactly what the dribble-drive is designed to do.
It won't be Walberg's system in toto; it won't even be Walberg's system distilled. But what UK does in 2013-14 will be more dribble-drive-oriented than at any time in Calipari's years in Lexington. For opponents, this should be terrifying. For the rest of us, it sounds like a lot of fun to watch.
There's even talk of a possible undefeated season.
And that's not a crazy thought. Multiple teams have come close to perfection in recent years. But they've all stumbled at some point.
We haven't had an undefeated college basketball squad since Indiana pulled off the feat in 1975-76. Will Kentucky or another title contender repeat the feat in 2013-14? We'll see.
But here's a list of the squads that nearly achieved perfection in recent years:
Kentucky (2011-2012), 38-2: Anthony Davis and Co. were clearly the nation's top team throughout the 2011-12 season. The Wildcats won the national championship with a team that featured six picks in that summer's NBA draft.
And they nearly finished that season without a loss. They won their first eight games before Indiana knocked them off their No. 1 perch with a 73-72 loss on Christian Watford's buzzer-beating 3-pointer in their ninth game of the year. Later that year, the Wildcats lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament. By then, however, they'd earned a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. But their rally in 2011-12 proved that an undefeated season is not a pipedream.
The Racers won their first 23 games. And then, Tennessee State ended their streak with a 72-68 victory on Feb. 9, 2012. Canaan had 31 points that night, but it wasn't enough to help Murray State maintain its streak. Steve Prohm's squad won its next eight games but ultimately lost to Marquette in the third round of the NCAA tournament. It was a great ride, though.
Memphis (2007-08), 38-2: For Memphis, the 2007-08 season ended on the wrong side of "Mario's Miracle," after former Kansas star Mario Chalmers hit a crucial 3-pointer in the Jayhawks' national championship game victory over the Tigers. But it's easy to forget how good Calipari's team was that season.
Memphis was 26-0 before suffering a four-point loss to rival Tennessee on Feb. 23, 2008, that ended its 47-game home winning streak. Derrick Rose had 31 points in that game, and Tennessee star Chris Lofton struggled in a 2-for-11 effort, but the Vols still earned the win and ruined Memphis' bid for perfection. The Tigers won their next 12 games before their national title overtime loss against Kansas.
Illinois (2004-05), 37-2: What a heartbreaking season for Illinois. Bruce Weber's squad had everything any coach would want in a national title contender. Dee Brown and Deron Williams formed one of the nation's top backcourts. On March 6, 2005, Illinois possessed a 29-0 record. And then Matt Sylvester happened. The Ohio State reserve hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds of the Buckeyes' upset of Weber's squad that day.
Illinois won its next eight matchups and reached the national championship game, where it faced a stacked North Carolina squad. Sean May scored 26 points, and the Tar Heels shot 52 percent from the field in a win. Illinois wasn't perfect. But it was close.
Saint Joseph's (2003-04), 30-2: Phil Martelli's squad landed on the national radar when a pair of NBA prospects (Jameer Nelson, Delonte West) led Saint Joseph's on one of the most captivating runs of the last 10 years. Saint Joseph's won its first 27 games of the 2003-04 season.
But on March 11, 2004, the same Xavier squad the Hawks had defeated earlier that season shocked the program with an 87-67 victory in the Atlantic 10 tournament quarterfinals. Critics suggested that the loss proved Saint Joseph's wasn't worthy of a top seed in the Big Dance. In the NCAA tournament, however, the Hawks defeated Liberty, Texas Tech and Wake Forest before suffering a two-point loss to Oklahoma State in the Elite Eight. The Hawks were good, just not perfect.
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.
On Tuesday, Ole Miss threw the book at Henderson. A three-game suspension for incidents in the postseason and his behavior late last season -- a penalty that will cost Henderson the team’s first two SEC games.
The opponents in those league matchups? Auburn and Mississippi State.
But it’s typical.
Throughout the offseason, there has been more smoke than fire with regard to possible suspensions of significant players. The punishments will ultimately prove to be meaningless because players involved probably won’t miss a significant chunk of the season or contests that will matter much on Selection Sunday.
In July, North Carolina’s P.J. Hairston was cited for reckless driving weeks after an arrest for marijuana possession and driving without a license. Roy Williams promised “serious consequences” after Hairston was suspended indefinitely following his July citation. But Hairston will return.
He was the star of North Carolina’s “Late Night with Roy” preseason event last week. During the team’s media day earlier this month, Williams told reporters that he’s still undecided on Hairston’s punishment but earlier reports confirmed that he will play at some point in 2013-14.
“He’s been assigned some things that he has to do,” Williams told reporters. “He’s achieved some of those already -- he’s got some more -- and I promise everybody we’re not going to go in on game night and say, ‘Oh yeah, P.J., you’re not playing tonight.’ We’ll make an announcement before that, but right now he’s still going through the process, we’re going through the process and we’ll wait and see what happens.”
Rick Pitino seemed furious at Louisville standout Chane Behanan when he recently announced that the forward had been suspended indefinitely and that the earliest he’d return would be early December. He also said that it was “not probable” that the junior would rejoin the defending national champions. That was mid-October. About a week later, Pitino announced that Behanan would return “in a short period of time.”
Purdue’s A.J. Hammons, a Big Ten player of the year candidate, will miss two exhibitions and the season opener against Northern Kentucky due to a suspension for misconduct. Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin was suspended for the second time in seven months in June, but he’s back practicing with the Gators.
A memo to the mischievous: If you’re going to mess up, do it during the offseason.
Offseason problems give college coaches the ability to chastise players privately because there are no games for them to miss and there’s less overall chatter about the sport. The timing of the issues allows them to reprimand players without putting them in situations that require them to miss meaningful games. And they can shroud the entire process under the “rules violation” and “internal punishment” tags.
The players involved in some of the offseason’s high-profile mischief haven’t necessarily escaped punishment.
Perhaps Hairston has to run to Charlotte every week and Behanan has to do pushups outside the KFC YUM! Center with the national championship trophy on his back to make amends.
We’ll most likely never know the extent of the chastisement for them or other players in similar situations.
But they’ve avoided predicaments that would have potentially forced them to miss significant matchups had their challenges occurred in the middle of the season.
The offseason fuss has exceeded the actual aforementioned penalties thus far -- although we’re still not clear on the fate of Behanan and Hairston.
Overall, it seems as though the punishments won’t do a lot of damage to the programs that have disciplined key players.
Missing time against the Northern Kentuckys of the college basketball world is trivial.
The suspensions all warranted headlines when they were announced. But come March, we’ll barely remember them if the players return and thrive during the season without creating additional drama.
Seems to work out for everyone involved.
Here are previews for each team in the SEC:
Alabama Crimson Tide
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Ole Miss Rebels
South Carolina Gamecocks
Texas A&M Aggies (FREE)
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season — from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Kentucky. Obviously.
It is always tempting, writing a series like this, to intentionally eschew the obvious. It is especially tempting in the 2013-14 SEC.
Last week's media days in Birmingham, Ala., revealed a league, and a press corp, doing some understandable introspection. Last season, the SEC sent just three teams to the NCAA tournament. Florida was its lone national title contender. Kentucky was down. The league as a whole contained much mediocre dross even among its tourney-bid hopefuls, to say nothing of its cellar. It was probably the seventh-best league in the country — which not only stood in stark contrast to ESS EEE SEE FOOTBALL WOOO, but, for a putative member of the "power six," was just plain awkward. For a hoops nerd who spends most of his January, February and March thinking about scheduling, the ensuing questions — Would the SEC's collective scheduling push help? When is a down year just a down year? — were fascinating.
So are many of its least-obvious teams. At full strength, Florida is national title-talented, but the Gators don't remotely resemble "full strength." Missouri, full of fresh faces, is led by a coach who just narrowly escaped potentially career-ending NCAA trouble. Ole Miss has Marshall Henderson; maybe you've heard of him. LSU, already much improved in 2012-13, adds one of the most exciting freshman in the country. Tennessee should (repeat: should) be really good.
There are stories here, in other words. But to spend this space on them would mean to ignore the gigantic royal blue elephant in the room, and hey, guess what? Giant blue elephants are obvious.
Let's just be real: The one thing you've got to see in the SEC this season is Kentucky.
This is frequently true, especially since John Calipari arrived in Lexington. But at the risk of digging myself into an end-of-history fallacy, Calipari's entire tenure has been building toward 2013-14. How so? Over five years, Coach Cal has managed to mold the rational self-interest of constantly feted 18-year-old stars into system-level buy-in, and he's messaged the whole thing so well that the cycle — recruit top kids, get them drafted, win along the way, recruit more top kids — is practically self-sustaining. This season, Calipari didn't just land top players at every position (ho-hum). He managed to convince players who would compete against each other (and Kentucky's returners) to sign up anyway. Calipari's always been a good recruiter, but this is something else.
The upshot, in 2013-14, was the greatest recruiting haul of all-time. Five of the top nine players in the stacked 2013 class committed to Kentucky. With power forward Marcus Lee accounted for, make that six of the Top 25. Julius Randle, UK's star freshman power forward, has already been named preseason SEC player of the year; he might be the best candidate to unseat Andrew Wiggins at the top of the 2014 NBA draft. NBA scouts are likewise raving about small forward James Young. The Harrison Twins are a devastating backcourt combo. The whole thing is just … I mean, it's crazy.
Back at SEC media day, Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said Kentucky would be the "best team he's ever coached against." And he hasn't even played them yet. Such are the stakes for this Kentucky group: Not just an SEC title but a dominant one, not just a national title but a 40-0 campaign. Meanwhile, 2012-13 reminded us that Calipari's cycle is far from infallible. Nothing feels guaranteed.
Which is how we go from first-round NIT loss to Robert Morris to open talk of an undefeated season. It's how Calipari can vacillate from humility to "We don't play college basketball — we are college basketball" at Big Blue Madness. Kentucky has a chance to be one of the best college basketball teams ever assembled. It may fall short, and maybe drastically so. Either way, you're buying a ticket on that ride.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- I like my team. That's the first line of any coach's typical media day script. On Thursday, Florida coach Billy Donovan tossed that script into the shredder.
It's not that Donovan went rogue. Nor was he particularly negative. On Day 2 of the SEC's media days, Donovan merely acknowledged reality: His 2013-14 Gators team, though undoubtedly talented, is so beset by injuries and personnel issues that there isn't much of a team for Donovan to like in the first place.
As a result, Donovan -- a two-time national champion and perennially successful recruiter -- has found himself running practices with just seven scholarship players. He admits he has no idea what to expect.
"We have a lot of unknowns," Donovan said, "with our injuries, not having a full complement of players. ... I'd tell you today, if we had [all our players available] and we could start Oct. 11 fully healthy, then I'd tell you we have a chance to be really good. Hopefully we can get there as the season goes on. But we're not there right now."
That adversity has led Florida's players to adopt an incongruous new slogan for the 2013-14 season: "S.W.A.G." But it's not just about confidence or flash (or slightly outdated tween lingo).
"It means 'Strengthen When Adversity Grows,'" senior forward Patric Young said. "We need to strengthen as adversity gets more and more in our face. We need to stay together and be connected."
Donovan was willing to praise his team on that front. He said his players were forming a "different bond and different connected-ness."
For now, it seems, chemistry is the least of the Gators' numerous worries.
Other notes from SEC media days:
- When coaches weren't being asked about Kentucky's loaded incoming class, they were answering questions about the SEC's overall strength (or lack thereof). Uncertainty reigns. Even Kentucky, the surest bargain in the bunch, has earned that status despite most of its players never having played a collegiate game. "As soon as they play a real top team," Young said, "they're going to see it's not just a walk in the park. One-and-done is not for everybody."
- There was at least one thing every SEC coach could agree on: The NCAA's new rules, designed to eliminate handchecks, arm bars and shaky charge calls, are good for the game -- with one caveat. The referees must remain consistent.
- Not all teams will be affected equally by the new contact rules. Teams that thrive on physical, lane-clogging defense or that lead with a press will have to adjust their style this season. Case in point: Last season, Arkansas forced opponents into turnovers at one of the highest rates in the country. It also ranked No. 316 in the country in opponent free throw rate. "I've got a task on my hands," Arkansas coach Mike Anderson said.
- South Carolina coach Frank Martin would like to clarify one thing: He's not as scary as you think. "There might 30 10-second snippets of me in a foul mood," Martin said. "I can promise you, that's [the only] 300 seconds out of a whole year that I'm in a foul mood. I love people. I love to laugh. I love to make people laugh. And if you asked anyone who knows me, they'd say you can't find anyone in the world more loyal than I am. ... So I'm not the big grizzly bear I'm always made out to be." Martin did not disclose whether he does, or does not, dance like no one's watching.
You could blame it on basketball's second-fiddle status in SEC country, or the down 2013-14 expectations for many teams. But the more likely cause -- Kentucky having its own media day earlier this week -- kept most of the Wildcats faction home.
Don't let the cognitive dissonance fool you. All eyes remain very much focused on Kentucky.
This is usually the case, but never more so than this season. Just a few months after a first-round NIT loss to Robert Morris, and two seasons after a dominant national title run, Kentucky coach John Calipari has reloaded with what most believe is the best group of freshmen ever. Nor is Calipari interested in keeping expectations in check. Many coaches would never come close to mentioning even the remote thought of the possibility of the inkling of going undefeated. On Tuesday in Lexington, Ky., Calipari was happy to discuss it.
But that doesn't mean he's predicting an undefeated season. Indeed, the outsized hype surrounding the Wildcats was belied by many of Calipari's comments Wednesday. Though he cited the huge number of NBA scouts at UK practices this fall -- over 40 to date, he said -- he just as quickly admitted that he is still installing the bare-bones basics of his offensive scheme. Forward Julius Randle, selected by the SEC media as the preseason player of the year, is playing slightly out of position in practice; the whole team is still adjusting to the system's improvisational imperatives. The process is intense enough that the topic of defense -- where Calipari has been the most consistently effective with his young teams in the past decade -- hasn't even been broached.
"The practices have been pretty good," Calipari said. "Very competitive. High energy ... We're not a good defensive team right now. We're not a good rebounding team. We haven't worked on it.
"We're scrimmaging three-quarters of our practices right now. It's controlled, but it's scrimmaging. What I'm saying is 'fail fast.' It means, play uncomfortable. Go harder, so we can correct you, so you can feel what works and doesn't work now. ... We're all offense, because I'm trying to build their confidence. No defense. And it shows. No rebounding stuff right now, and it shows. But they pick [things] up."
The result of Calipari's unconventional developmental process is almost as much of a question as what kind of league the Cats will be attempting to win when SEC play begins in January.
The 2012-13 season was nobody's idea of a banner season. Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency metric tracks and ranks conferences based on overall, pound-for-pound strength; last season the SEC ranked seventh, behind its traditional power conference brethren and the Mountain West. It earned just three tournament bids.
Those struggles caused no small measure of soul-searching in the league's Birmingham offices this offseason. When Wednesday's media day queries didn't revolve around Kentucky's incoming class or Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson (which was rare), they focused on the current state of the SEC.
One measure designed to alleviate the SEC's at-large issues last season is this summer's collective agreement, spearheaded by commissioner Mike Slive and consulted on with former NCAA basketball operations VP Greg Shaheen, on nonconference scheduling. Collectively, the league is working with coaches and administrators on scheduling tougher in November and December in the hopes of boosting everyone's RPI come March.
"It's a responsibility for all of us," Calipari said. "We can all be about our own programs and we'll all go down one by one. Or we can be about each other. You gotta bury the jealousy. Let's go."
Most coaches seem to be in favor of the effort, at least where applicable. Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said it's important that members realize the impact they have on each other, but wasn't totally convinced SEC coaches needed to start scheduling like Long Beach State.
"I told this to an administrator the other day: 'If your team is bad, you're bad,'" Stallings said. "All conferences have ebbs and flows to them. Last year might not have been our best year, but don't be surprised if this year is dramatically, dramatically different than that. If we get six or seven teams in the tournament this year, which will not surprise me in the least, nobody will be talking about that anymore."
However strong the rest of the SEC ends up being, Kentucky is sure to improve. The question is how much better the Wildcats will be, whether Calipari's high expectations -- his "dream" of coaching an undefeated team before he retires -- make the man at the center of it all look prescient, or silly.
Our reporters are in place and ready to bring you the latest, so keep this page open throughout the day as we bring you tweets, quotes, pictures and more from Charlotte (ACC), Memphis (American Athletic), New York (Big East) and Hoover, Ala. (SEC).
It all began back on Sept. 27, at Michigan State's Midnight Madness event, when students in attendance tweeted a choice fire 'em up line from Izzo about the team's practices to date: "We're working to kick Kentucky's [butt]." Considering the Spartans' only game before the Nov. 12 matchup with UK is a home warm-up against McNeese State (2012-13 KenPom rank: No. 308), this was a pretty innocuous thing for Izzo to say. Of course that's what Michigan State was doing. With all due respect to McNeese State … well, come on.
But John Calipari being John Calipari, it didn't take long for Izzo's otherwise ho-hum declaration to catch on. In a luncheon for UK's Greater Louisville Alumni Club Monday, Calipari gently fired back, but really spent most of his time on the topic spinning Izzo's five-word admission into another ingenious way to sell his program:
And let me say this about this team: Our third game is against Michigan State. That’s going to be hard. They’re already a veteran team. They’ve already made comments that their practices are about beating Kentucky. But I say this to you: If I ask my team when we play Florida, they’re not going to know. North Carolina (they don’t know). I’m going to do it today, because as I thought about it, they don’t know. You think they know when we’re playing Louisville? They don’t know. They want to know if there is a meal tonight. They don’t know. Now, I ask you this: Does everyone on our schedule know when they’re playing Kentucky? Oh, they know. And it’s on their locker, it’s on their ceiling of their bedroom. You’ve got to deal with that. That’s part of being at Kentucky. You know what I tell them? Not only do they want to beat Kentucky, they want to beat you as individual player. You want to know why? They wanted that scholarship that you got and they want to prove they’re better than you, not just their team is better than Kentucky. So that’s the challenge that we have. But would you want it any other way? I don’t. Bring it. Let’s go – as long as I’ve got a good team. (Laughter). Bring it, let’s go.
See what I mean? He's a genius.
I know, I know: It gets really old reading that. But what else are you supposed to say? The same guy who has turned the one-and-done rule into his personal annual NBA talent showcase, who coined "players first" and repeated it approximately once every five minutes for four years straight, who got Drake and Jay-Z on board with a program from Lexington, Ky. -- this is a man who knows marketing.
And so when Izzo says his team is working on beating Kentucky in its first non-cupcake game of the season, it's not merely a chance to say "well, good for them; we're doing the same." Oh, no. No, no, no. This is a branding opportunity, a chance for Calipari to sing from the high heavens about how prestigious Kentucky hoops is (it is) and about how teams circle their Kentucky date in bright red ink because a) it's Kentucky, and b) scholarship envy, or something. Do Adreian Payne and Gary Harris sit around thinking about their once-upon-a-time offers to play at UK? Doubtful. Is Kentucky Michigan State's second game of the season? Again: yes.
But in Calipari's world, no chance at a positive spin may go wasted. Dude is never not on-message. Which is precisely why he's so good.