College Basketball Nation: Syracuse Orange

Best passing teams in 2014-15

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
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There is no one correct way to put points on the board. Basketball, and specifically college basketball offense, comes in many flavors, which is a big part of why it's so interesting in the first place.

If you have a big, physical, bruising team, one that dominates the offensive glass and gets easy putbacks around the rim, you don't necessarily need 2005-era Steve Nash running the show. Likewise, for a team full of athletic, penetration-prone wings, spacing is arguably more important than passing. If your players can get to the rim by themselves, why complicate things?

If you're neither of those things -- if your players, and thus your system, aren't the isolate-and-go types -- then you'd better make the most of Dr. Naismith's original ball-advancement mandate. You'd better be able to pass.

Below are three teams likely to be among the best passing outfits in the country in 2014-15 -- and a couple that could rank among the worst. The question is: Can they score anyway?

Teams to watch

Wisconsin: On one level, the Badgers aren't the most obvious passing exhibition in the country. In 2013-14, for example, they recorded an assist on 50.5 percent of their made field goals. That number ranked 197th in the country. Plenty of much worse overall offenses recorded higher A/FGM stats.

In reality, that has less to do with Wisconsin than it does the way official scorekeepers keep scores. In reality, the entire core of Wisconsin's top-five efficiency offense -- and the swing-motion system Bo Ryan has perfected in more than a decade in Madison -- is defined by passing. If Wisconsin's offense was a book, passing would be its spine.

For example: Last season, 27 percent of the Badgers' possessions ended in what Synergy's scouting data defines as spot-ups. That's an overwhelming number within Wisconsin's offense -- the other leaders in the clubhouse are "isolations" (15 percent), post-ups (11.3 percent), pick-and-rolls (8.3 percent) and transition baskets (8.1 percent). Simply put, you don't create that many spot-ups, and convert them at better than a point per possession, without first creating them with pinpoint movement and timely passing. The swing offense is designed such that, even when an assist isn't recorded (as can often be the case on post-ups and isolations), two or three passes probably led to the opportunity in the first place.

Last season, even as Wisconsin increased its tempo, it still turned the ball over on just 12.7 percent of its possessions -- second fewest in the country. This has always been the case under Ryan at Wisconsin; the Badgers simply do not turn the ball over. The 2014-15 version of the Badgers, the one returning almost everyone (including versatile big men Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker) from a Final Four run, will have all these characteristics and then some. It might be Ryan's best team yet.

Villanova: To refresh oneself on the 2013-14 Villanova Wildcats' offensive statistics is to kick yourself for missing out. For most of the season, defense was the most eye-catching part of Villanova's makeup. Save two demolitions by Creighton's Doug McDermott, the Wildcats were among the best defensive teams in the country. Less heralded was Jay Wright's offense. For whatever reason, it just didn't jump out -- even as it was playing an almost idealistically unselfish, and downright fun, brand of basketball.

Last season, the Wildcats had assists on 60.4 percent of their made field goals. They also shot a ton of 3s -- 44.8 percent of their overall field goals, in fact. This was perfect for Wright's personnel, which was short on true big men. Just one rotation player, center Daniel Ochefu, was listed as taller than 6-foot-7. Everyone else in the ostensible frontcourt -- especially James Bell, Darrun Hilliard and Josh Hart -- was carved from the "tweener swingman" mold. These guys guarded and rebounded, sure, but they were also comfortable with the ball in their hands on the perimeter. And so point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, the team's leading assist man, found them. The ball was always moving, the shots were always flying.

If you missed it the first time around, don't feel bad: I watched Villanova a lot last season, and I totally missed it, too. The good news is Bell is the only piece departing from a roster that should be just as good on the wing as it was a season ago -- a roster that has long since left the selfish, ugly offense of the 13-19 2011-12 season behind it.

Pittsburgh: The Panthers are the most intriguing, and maybe the most unlikely, team of the bunch.

For starters, they're losing their best player from a season ago. Lamar Patterson wasn't just one of the nation's best and most versatile scoring threats. He was also a genuinely gifted passer. Patterson found an assist on 30 percent of his possessions, which is great in and of itself. When you consider that he also took nearly 30 percent of his team's shots, it looks genuinely crazy. Unfortunately, he couldn't pass the ball to himself.

Still, though, Jamie Dixon's team has the look. James Robinson, Josh Newkirk, Cameron Wright and even Durand Johnson all posted plus-15 percent assist rates (with Robinson at nearly 25 percent and Newkirk at 19), and Pittsburgh might have to be even more pass-reliant after losing offensive rebounding force Talib Zanna along the front line. Last season, Pitt ranked seventh in the nation in A/FGM at 62.9 percent. With Patterson gone, a repeat performance is almost a requirement.

Teams that could struggle

Syracuse: In the past five seasons, the Orange's assists-to-field goals ratio has intermittently declined. In 2009-10, Syracuse baskets were the result of an assist nearly 65 percent of the time, one of the top figures in the country. A year later, that number was 60.5 percent. From there, it went to 56.1 (in 2011-12) to 55.8 (in 2012-13) to 49.1 (in 2013-14). Now the Orange are losing Tyler Ennis, the freshman point guard who accounted for a huge portion of their assists last season. It stands to reason that in 2014-15, Syracuse won't be a particularly productive passing team.

Again, the question is this: Does it matter?

The answer is some version of "probably not." After all, despite a disappointing finish to the season, Syracuse was still a very good team in 2013-14. The Dion Waiters 2011-12 team wasn't a scion of precise passing, but it won 34 games. Two seasons ago, Michael Carter-Williams was arguably the best passer in the country, but the Orange didn't really uncork their potential until they ratcheted up the pressure in their 2-3 zone and crushed otherwise stellar offensive teams.

The makeup of the 2014-15 squad, which will be without workhorse C.J. Fair as well as Ennis, is uncertain. But Jim Boeheim's teams are always at their best when turning defensive excellence into easy points on the offensive end, getting a handful of 3s from a lights-out shooter (in this case, Trevor Cooney) and pounding the ball to the rim offensively. There's no reason to expect that Syracuse can't do that in 2014-15. This could be a truly bad passing team that is nonetheless quite good at winning basketball games.

San Diego State: The same goes for San Diego State, albeit in far more extreme fashion.

Last October, the Aztecs looked like the classic off-year reload group; they were seen as a fringe NCAA tournament team at best. Instead, they played stingy, top-10 defense while senior point Xavier Thames had a massive, sustained campaign as the lone offensive centerpiece. The combination was good enough to beat Kansas at Kansas, win 31 games and a Mountain West title and take Arizona to the wire in the NCAA tournament.

Still, what made Thames' season so impressive wasn't just his much-needed scoring. He was also the Aztecs' primary distributor. He also never turned it over; with a usage rate of nearly 29 percent, Thames assisted on 25 percent of his possessions and coughed it up on just 10 percent. (Reminder: He was really good.) And even then, the Aztecs got just 39 percent of their field goals via assists. They ranked 350th in Division I.

If there's one thing we learned last season, it's to never undersell a San Diego State team. It might be ugly. But if Steve Fisher's group maintains its defense, it won't have to pass the ball all that well. There's more than one way to put wins on the board.

3-point shot: Preseason NIT scrambling

July, 9, 2014
Jul 9
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Andy Katz discusses potential Preseason NIT scheduling problems and two New York-based tournaments.
Editor's note: For five weeks, we are revealing the top 50 coaches in college basketball as decided by our ESPN Forecast panel. Today we unveil No. 12: Syracuse's Joe Boeheim. On Friday, we release No. 11.

This is not a legacy measure.

For all of the different ways our 45 ESPN Forecast college hoops panelists might have weighed their scores of the nation's top 50 -- and there are all sorts of ways individual emphases can come into play -- this was the defining criterion. These rankings were never meant to be about the aggregate work of a coach's lifetime. They are meant to cover current performance. It's a broadly limited term.
We've repeated that reminder as much as possible these last few weeks. Really, we can't stress it enough. And it's as important as ever now, as the countdown bears in on the top 10, and the names we so closely associate with tenure and legacy are revealed through this intentionally short-sighted prism.

Having said that: Is Jim Boeheim at No. 12 too low?

Given the lofty company, the panel is probably right. And No. 12 is hardly an insult.

To read more, click here.

3-point shot: What Pearl is selling

June, 12, 2014
Jun 12
11:40
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Andy Katz discusses what Bruce Pearl is selling at Auburn, Utah's strong nonconference schedule and Jim Boeheim's thoughts on graduation rates in the latest edition of the 3-point shot.

3-point shot: Georgetown scheduling

June, 11, 2014
Jun 11
1:00
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Andy Katz discusses Georgetown's nonconference scheduling, Syracuse hoping to play former Big East rivals in the future and Washington, D.C., as a tournament destination in the latest edition of the 3-point shot.

3-point shot: Potential rules changes

May, 21, 2014
May 21
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Andy Katz discusses Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim's thoughts on the 30-second shot clock experiment and the NBA draft age limit, as well as Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins eventually succeeding Boeheim.

Position battles: Point guards

May, 12, 2014
May 12
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Some of the best 1-on-1 matchups will take place before the 2014-15 season tips off. They will come in the form of position battles within a team to determine a starter, which will in some cases shape an entire lineup.

Starting with point guard, ESPN.com will examine those quiet battles on a position-by-position basis this week while also promising we will never use the phrase "iron sharpens iron" to describe the competition.

In places such as Michigan State, the chance to replace a graduating senior was anticipated and planned. In places such as Oklahoma State, the vacancy opened up unexpectedly. The job was likely going to Stevie Clark, but his February dismissal means the Cowboys will rely on freshman Tyree Griffin or junior college transfer Jeff Newberry. And in many cases, the position comes down to choosing between a returnee or a talented newcomer.

Unlike other sports, even the players who lose their respective battles will still have a chance to shine. But winning could be the difference between a starring role and being a footnote.

Here are point guard battles to keep an eye on:


Duke: Quinn Cook vs. Tyus Jones

Cook too often allowed his overall game to be shaped by his makes and misses and was replaced in the starting lineup the final 10 games of the season by Rasheed Sulaimon. Jones’ arrival in the Blue Devils heralded recruiting class means Sulaimon can move back to his natural position off the ball and sets up this showdown. Jones was rated No. 4 overall and the top point guard in the 2014 class by ESPN.com. Praised for his court vision and ability to run a team, Jones is arguably the better facilitator. Cook is a much better defender who has the added advantage of knowing the system.

SMU: Nic Moore vs. Emmanuel Mudiay

Moore had a solid year for the Mustangs leading the team in scoring, assists and 3-point shooting while starting every game. He was first team all-conference in the American. Yet here comes Mudiay, who might be the most important recruit -- he’s certainly the highest ranked -- in SMU history. The 6-foot-5 Mudiay was ranked fifth overall by ESPN.com, and his time in Dallas could be limited to one season before he’s in the NBA. Point guard is the toughest position to play under coach Larry Brown, and Moore has had the luxury of learning his expectations for two years. Mudiay’s talent is so undeniable that the Mustangs might find a way to play both in the lineup.

Kansas: Frank Mason vs. Conner Frankamp vs. Devonte Graham

Naadir Tharpe’s decision to transfer opened up what was already a position begging to be solidified. The Jayhawks haven’t had stability at point guard in two seasons and it threatens what could again be a top-10 team. Mason was third on the team in assists as a freshman and briefly supplanted Tharpe in the starting lineup. Frankamp, also a rising sophomore, played in enough games as a freshman to season him for extended time this season. Graham just signed this month out of prep school, but is considered a true playmaker.

Michigan State: Travis Trice vs. Lourawls Nairn

Trice proved his value at point guard running the Spartans when Keith Appling was sidelined by injury this past season. If Nairn shows the ability to play right away, the two could likely be used in the same lineup with Denzel Valentine at small forward and Branden Dawson at power forward. Should coach Tom Izzo opt for Valentine at shooting guard, Trice would probably be the starter at point. Nairn, a 5-foot-10 freshman, will have to develop his perimeter shooting, but his toughness and leadership skills already mesh into the Izzo mold.

Wisconsin: Traevon Jackson vs. Bronson Koenig

It seems absurd that Jackson, a rising senior who started every game on a Final Four team, could see his minutes diminished by a reserve, but it speaks to Koenig's great potential. Jackson showed a penchant for making the big shot. Koenig is arguably the better scorer with his ability to get to the rim. The rising sophomore proved he’s ready for a bigger role during the Badgers’ loss to Kentucky in the national semifinals. Entrusted to run the team with Jackson in foul trouble, Koenig scored 11 points in 16 minutes during the first half.

Syracuse: Kaleb Joseph vs. Michael Gbinije

Coach Jim Boeheim has proven the past two seasons that he’s unafraid to play an untested point guard. As he did with Michael Carter-Williams two seasons ago and Tyler Ennis this past season, Boeheim could again put the ball in the hands of a player with little point guard experience in his system. Gbinije, a 6-foot-7 junior, filled in at times for Ennis, although he’s more of a combo guard than a point. Joseph, a true freshman, will be a part of the guard rotation that includes shooting guard Trevor Cooney. Don’t be surprised if Joseph ends up like Ennis in the starting lineup early.

Memphis: Rashawn Powell vs. Dominic Magee

It’s been a while since Memphis didn’t have an heir awaiting the starting duties at point guard. Coach Josh Pastner looks to replace five senior guards with a three freshmen who can all play point. Powell and Magee are the likely front-runners as pure point guards. Powell is as much of a wild card as the true freshman Magee. He didn’t qualify last season and was not allowed to practice, but was enrolled in school. Pastner will have a third option in Markell Crawford, who redshirted last season, who has the leadership skills to step in and run the team.

North Carolina: Nate Britt vs. Joel Berry

Thank Kendall Marshall for this battle. Marshall’s injury in the 2012 NCAA tournament sabotaged a team built for a national title run, and coach Roy Williams vowed he’d never be in that position again. In past years, Williams probably would not have added a point guard in this class considering Marcus Paige will ultimately run the show. This battle won’t be as detrimental to team success as others, but is intriguing nonetheless. Berry, the freshman, will challenge Britt, the sophomore, and the time-old notion in Chapel Hill that seniority wins out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/Getty ImagesLittle did Jim Boeheim know at the time that this jacket would sell for $14,000 two months later.
Boeheim was hosting his annual gala, the Jim and Juli Boeheim Basket Ball (great name!). He was officiating the gala's auction, to be more precise, an auction that featured a wealth of Syracuse and Syracuse-basketball-related items. One of these items was The Jacket -- the same navy blazer Boeheim was wearing just before he earned the first real (non-exhibition) ejection of his 38-year career in Syracuse's first visit to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Feb. 22.

And yes, The Jacket deserves proper-noun status. When you help inspire the greatest Boeheim meme of all time, your place in history is secured.

Despite this, it seems Boeheim didn't quite know how desirable The Jacket would eventually be. He taunted the bidders. He offered to wear it to the winner's house. When bidding began, Boeheim egged on the hopefuls. Little did Boeheim know -- as Syracuse Post-Standard reporter Donna Ditota found out -- winning bidder Neil Gold needed no urging.
Because opposing bids happened at the opposite end of Turning Stone's Event Center ballroom, Gold wasn't sure what kind of financial firepower he was up against.

All Gold knows is that the bidding "went on for a while." Boeheim, at one point, promised to wear the jacket to the winner's house, Gold said.

"He called me out during the bidding, saying I was the No. 1 fan," Gold said. "He goaded me a little bit. Little did he know that I was fully intending to get that."

The bidding ended on Gold's $14,000 pledge. Gold's attendance at the Duke game, where he sat directly behind the Orange bench and witnessed the SU coach strip off the very jacket he now possesses, makes the purchase more precious.

The spoils in photograph form. We can confirm that this is, in fact, a navy blue blazer:


But wait: $14,000?! Before you get all worked up about that bonkers price, first know that Gold is a massive Syracuse fan with a horseradish empire and an entire second house devoted to Orange memorabilia. To that dude, that much money doesn't really feel like that much money.

Most important, though, is that the Jim and Juli Boeheim Foundation sends all gala proceeds to benefit cancer research and local children's groups. Gold's purchase was really more like a donation with a bonus. A really expensive, niche-obsession-level bonus -- one the original owner didn't really seem to understand. But a bonus all the same.


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
Apr 28
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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.

Look back, look ahead: ACC

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
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A basketball-related expansion -- an anomaly during the entire conference realignment shuffle -- was supposed to culminate by making the Atlantic Coast Conference rise above other conferences. The league was supposed to be the biggest and baddest of the major conferences thanks to its first season with Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame as league members.

However, the only thing that increased was disappointment in the league’s overall showing.

Expanding to 15 teams did little to affect the ACC’s reach in the NCAA tournament. Six teams received bids -- and that likely would have been just five until NC State’s late push (including its upset of Syracuse in the ACC tournament).

North Carolina and Duke both failed to advance into the NCAA tournament’s second weekend for the first time since 1979. The Blue Devils were upset by Mercer in the second round. The Tar Heels lost to Iowa State in the third round. The ACC has long depended on the bluebloods to carry the league’s baton, and this season did little to change that narrative.

Only Virginia, which earned a No. 1 seed by winning the league title, advanced to the Sweet 16. The Cavaliers were then eliminated by Michigan State.

The league should improve next postseason thanks in part to Carolina's and Duke's potential to have powerhouse squads.

[+] EnlargeMike Krzyzewski
Tyler Smith/Getty ImagesWith a stellar recruiting class, Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils may be the ACC's best in 2014-15.
What we saw this season: The Cavaliers returned to prominence by winning their first outright ACC regular-season title since 1981. Criticism followed since the Cavs, who only played Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina once each and two of those games were in Charlottesville. It took winning the ACC tournament for Virginia to erase those doubts.

Freshmen Tyler Ennis (Syracuse) and Jabari Parker (Duke) proved to be not only among the best players in the conference, but in the nation -- regardless of class.

Many ACC teams had outstanding individual talents -- NC State’s T.J. Warren (won the league’s player of the year award), Duke’s Rodney Hood, North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, Clemson’s K.J. McDaniels to name a few -- but those teams were heavily flawed. Opponents who stopped Lamar Patterson essentially stopped Pittsburgh. Syracuse had trouble scoring. Duke had a thin frontcourt. Carolina was limited by its shooting from the perimeter.

Syracuse started the season strong -- winning its first 25 games -- but faded down the stretch losing six of its last nine games, as its offense went on hiatus. The Orange did provide two classics sure to be talked about in ACC lore. Their first meeting with Duke was a thrilling 91-89 overtime win in the Carrier Dome and their 66-60 loss at Duke featured Jim Boeheim’s first ejection in a regular-season game.

As has long been a problem since the league expanded to 12 teams, the ACC failed to develop a strong second tier of added depth. The conference continued to be top-heavy as Florida State, Maryland, Clemson and Notre Dame never quite became teams to fear.

Three of the bottom four teams in the standings played poorly enough to end the season with their coaches being fired. Boston College arguably had the most disappointing seasons of them all relative to its talent level. The Eagles pulled it together long enough to hand Syracuse its first loss, which was the highlight of their season.

What we expect to see next season: More of the nation’s top freshmen. Duke’s recruiting class is considered tops in the land and is led by center Jahlil Okafor, who is ranked No. 1 overall in the ESPN 100, and Tyus Jones, the No. 1 point guard who is fourth overall. North Carolina also snagged two top-10 recruits in Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson and is ranked third as a class by ESPN.com.

Newcomers are great and all, but let’s also appreciate what we won’t see in the ACC for the first time in its existence. Maryland, a charter member of the conference started in 1953, will begin competing in the Big Ten. Let’s pause to remember the good times.

Long enough? OK.

Louisville obviously doesn’t compare to the tradition Maryland had within the league, but it could be considered an upgrade otherwise. With three national titles and a Hall of Fame coach currently on its sideline, the Cardinals fit the league’s basketball pedigree.

Their addition, plus Virginia’s returning most of its ACC title squad, should help the league become closer to the juggernaut many of its coaches expected this past season.

For all the hand-wringing over a change of guard in the ACC, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels look primed to re-establish their stranglehold on the top of the league standings. Regardless of how Parker’s NBA draft decision falls on Wednesday, Duke will have a good blend of experience (Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson) and young talent (Okafor, Jones, Justise Winslow, Grayson Allen) at Mike Krzyzewski’s disposal.

Carolina returns the likely front-runner for preseason player of the year in Paige. Forward Brice Johnson and center Kennedy Meeks give the Heels an inside offensive scoring punch that will be hard to contain.

Because of those teams at the top, a trio of new coaches could face a harsh inaugural season in the league. Buzz Williams shocked many by leaving Marquette to take the reins at Virginia Tech, replacing James Johnson. Jim Christian (after a stint at Ohio) takes over Boston College, replacing Steve Donahue. And Danny Manning returns home to Tobacco Road to rebuild Wake Forest, replacing Jeff Bzdelik.

It could all add up and help the ACC live up to its own expectations as the best basketball conference in the nation.

Defying odds, Dayton in Sweet 16

March, 22, 2014
Mar 22
11:57
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BUFFALO -- The fourth loss in a row came on a banked 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds left, which would be about the time most teams look around and cry uncle.

Sometimes, after all, it’s just not your year.

Instead of heading to the showers, gathering their stuff and shuffling outside, the Dayton players sat at their lockers and talked.

The consensus they arrived at?

“We got this,’’ said Matt Kavanaugh.

Which makes absolutely no sense and all sorts of sense when it comes to these Flyers.

Dayton is an odds-defying miracle of a basketball team, a group that looked as good as dead back in January, that instead won 12 of its next 14; a squad that, in one marvel of an NCAA tournament weekend, survived a buzzer-beater attempt from one of the game’s most reliable seniors in Aaron Craft, and another from one of the game’s most reliable freshmen in Tyler Ennis.

And most important, an 11 seed that not only upset Syracuse 55-53, but also sent a heavily partisan Orange-clad crowd onto the New York Thruway rather than into the Buffalo watering holes to celebrate.

“Nah, I’m not surprised at all,’’ coach Archie Miller said. “They are the most oblivious group I’ve ever been around. That’s partly a curse and partly what makes them so special. They don’t know you’re not supposed to do what they did. They’ve got no baggage, no worries about the NBA or who’s going to score what. They just play.’’

When the Flyers beat Ohio State on Thursday afternoon, they made the requisite celebratory March pile-up to swarm Vee Sanford, who hit the game-winner.

[+] EnlargeJordan Sibert
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SportsDayton's Jordan Sibert drives past Syracuse's Trevor Cooney.
Two days later when Ennis’ open 3 clanked off the back of the rim, they chest bumped a little, ran over to jump in front of their fans and then abruptly turned to get in line and shake hands.

“We just thought, ‘Why not us?’’ Devon Scott said. “I mean, why not us?’’

It’s a valid question, especially in this topsy-turvy, up is down NCAA tournament but one you wouldn’t expect the Flyers necessarily to ask.

Why not Dayton? Well, besides that January swoon, there is the fact that the Flyers aren’t terribly experienced -- Devin Oliver is a senior, Sanford and Kavanaugh redshirt seniors, the bulk of the roster made up of sophomores and freshmen.

And they aren’t really experienced in this postseason thing. They played one game in the NIT two years ago and sat out every postseason tourney last year.

Heck, forget these players, the last time Dayton was in the NCAA tournament was 2009; the last Sweet 16 was 1984.

Archie Miller was 5.

So that’s the why not them.

But here’s the why.

Call it oblivious, as Miller did, or use the players’ preferred adjective of resilient. Either way what you’ve got is a team that has a serious sense of self. They sat in that locker room after Saint Joseph's guard Langston Galloway banked in the 3 to beat them and decided they would do something about it.

And they did. Not with fanfare or excitement, just methodically.

“That just shows the character of this team,’’ Oliver said. “We didn’t start the conference season the way we wanted to but just told each other, that’s OK. We’ll win them all. And we almost did.’’

Syracuse was almost heading the opposite direction heading to Buffalo. The Orange, winners of 25 in a row to start the season, stumbled into the NCAA tournament, losing five of their last seven.

Still, when Syracuse dismantled Western Michigan in the second round, it was hard not to believe that the Orange had solved what ailed them.

Turns out that was just fool’s gold. The same team that struggled offensively down the stretch was woeful against Dayton. The Orange failed to connect on a single 3-pointer, Ennis’ last-second miss sealing Syracuse’s fate at 0-for-10.

A team that looked ripe for another Final Four run maybe a month ago instead takes the early bus back home.

“Overall it’s hard to win making layups,’’ Jim Boeheim said. “At some point in time you need to knock something down from the perimeter, and we didn’t. It was just not a good offensive game for us.’’

It wasn’t exactly a thing of beauty for Dayton. Following the pattern of the early Saturday game rock fights, the Flyers shot 34.8 percent to the Orange’s 30 for a 20-18, needles-in-the-eye first half.

Yet Dayton, with no experience, never got rattled. The Flyers all but squandered a six-point lead midway through the second half. Ennis started to drive to the basket almost at whim, pushing the Orange to within three with 40.5 left.

And then Oliver clanked the front end of a one-and-one off the rim and Ennis followed up by getting a foul and sinking his two chances to make it 52-51, Dayton with 24.8 seconds left.

Dyshawn Pierre was fouled on the inbounds. He’s a 67 percent free-throw shooter.

“At first I was thinking, ‘I have to make these free throws,'’’ he said. “But then I just didn’t think about it. I just wanted to do it for my team. That’s all that mattered.’’

Naturally he sank both.

Still Ennis with the ball, pushing up the court, well that’s a vision that people have seen before. The freshman made the exact same play against Pittsburgh earlier this year

“My heart was in the bottom of my stomach,’’ Oliver said. “I remember that Pitt game.’’

But that would have been the sensible finish.

Dayton doesn’t do the sensible or the obvious.

The Flyers have their own way of doing things, a blissfully oblivious, illogical logical path that now is headed for Memphis.

3-point shot: Saturday storylines

March, 22, 2014
Mar 22
10:30
AM ET

Andy Katz previews games between Dayton and Syracuse and North Dakota State and San Diego State, and talks about Tommy Amaker's future at Harvard.

Wolfpack riding on Warren

March, 14, 2014
Mar 14
11:32
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GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Syracuse had the ball with 21 seconds left and shot after potentially game-tying 3-point shot kept missing.

And missing.

And missing.

When Trevor Cooney’s 3-pointer sailed out of bounds with 0.4 seconds remaining it finally sealed No. 7 seed North Carolina State’s 66-63 upset win over the No. 2 seed Orange in the ACC quarterfinals on Friday.

That final possession brought four 3-point attempts that actually began with a Tyler Ennis miss at the rim and Jerami Grant’s failed attempt to dunk it off the rebound. Six shots in all and every one brought out a different kind of fear for NC State, which lost its regular-season meeting with the Orange in agonizing, last-second fashion.

NC State guard Tyler Lewis admitted he felt the doubt creep through his mind with every heave.

“Just don’t make it, just don’t make it, I swear,” Lewis said. “The ball bounced our way today. Normally you don’t always have that but today was our kind of luck.”

[+] EnlargeT.J. Warren
Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesT.J. Warren had 28 points for NC State on Friday.
The Wolfpack are feeling lucky these days, but it has little to do with superstitions. Their faith comes from knowing they have T.J. Warren, the ACC’s player of the year, on their roster.

“We realize that T.J. is the best player on our team, we realized that since Day 1,” Pack freshman center Beejay Anya said. “When T.J.’s scoring the chances of us winning go higher and higher. … We know he can’t do it by himself but at the same time we look for him more because we know he’s going to deliver if we get him the ball.”

The Pack feel like a serious contender because T.J. Warren finally realized he’s the best player.

Since their loss at North Carolina on Feb. 1, coach Mark Gottfried told Warren he had to be more assertive for the Wolfpack to win games. Warren responded with six games of 30 or more points in the 11 games since -- he had four in the first 21 games of the season. Warren always had the capability to post 41 and 42 points like he did in consecutive games against Pittsburgh and Boston College. Until Gottfried’s talk, he never would have tried to keep scoring.

“Coach Gottfried, he’s been pushing me to take tough shots and have the ball in my hands at the right time,” Warren said. “My teammates do a great job of finding me. It’s pretty cool being able to lead this team.”

Warren had 28 points against the Orange. He led the league in scoring and is likely to become just the sixth player in league history to lead it in field goal percentage for consecutive seasons.

But it was his defense that had Gottfried singing his praises. Warren matched up with Syracuse leading scorer C.J. Fair and held him to just nine points on 3-of-16 shooting.

“T.J. gets a lot of praise for his offense and he is a great offensive player, but I thought tonight T.J. Warren locked in defensively and made every shot that C.J. took tough,” Gottfried said. “Every single one of them. I don’t know that he had an easy shot all night long.”

State certainly didn’t make winning easy. The Pack squandered a 10-point lead and watched the Orange go ahead 59-57 with 3:41 left. It was starting to feel like their 55-54 loss at the Carrier Dome when an Anthony Barber turnover led to Fair’s game-winning layup with 12 seconds left.

But the Pack held firm this time despite whatever mistakes they made down the stretch.

Barber took an ill-advised layup when the Pack could have been running out more clock with 35 seconds left, but it was his free throws that had earlier tied the game at 59-59.

Ralston Turner gave State the lead for good when he banked a 3-pointer from about 25 feet. Turner joked that he called glass “in his mind.”

Gottfried said it took the Pack a while this season to figure things out, especially because they lost so much from last year and dealt with injuries early. Now they feel like they have a successful formula for March. Warren is going to score baskets and garner all the attention. The remaining players have to be prepared to fill in when they can.

“T.J. is a great player, he does what he does,” Turner said. “The main thing for the rest of us is we just need to help him making plays in whatever way we can to help the team, and tonight we did that.”

It’s given NC State the confidence that it can win the whole thing on the back of Warren.

“We grew as a team, we’ve got the ACC Player of the Year,” Barber said. “People are not expecting us to do what we’re doing. We just stay together no matter what to push forward to get to that next level, that next game.”

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