College Basketball Nation: Texas Longhorns

Recruit and return: Texas Longhorns 

March, 19, 2015
Mar 19
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videoTo return to the NCAA tournament, a team needs contributions from both returning players and incoming recruits. Here's a look at Texas and its chances of dancing again in 2016. Quick references: 2014-15 roster 2015 recruiting Possible 2015-16 starting five G: Isaiah Taylor G: Demarcus Holland G: Kendal Yancy F: Connor Lammert C: Cameron Ridley

Texas looks to bounce back at West Virginia

February, 24, 2015
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Seth Greenberg and Jay Williams examine the keys to Tuesday's Big 12 clash between Texas and No. 20 West Virginia.

It wouldn't have been an upset. Not in Storrs, Connecticut. Not with Texas guard Isaiah Taylor still sidelined by a wrist injury. Not with Ryan Boatright running the show. At home, under these conditions, the Huskies had at least a 50-50 chance against the No. 7 team in the country Sunday, and maybe better than that. They were never really underdogs.

For most of that game's final 12 minutes, the Huskies looked like outright favorites. The defending national champions were going to slide into one of those casual, gradual, by-the-numbers Sunday afternoon home victories, the kind you can sense even when the outcome is mathematically in doubt. Not a blowout, but not as close as the score. Late fouls and desperation heaves and game-sealing free throws coming in almost preordained sequence. Time to flip back to football.

Texas was 4.4 seconds from finishing the aforementioned sequence, scrambling through yet another disjointed, fruitless offensive possession, when Rick Barnes called a timeout. What was supposed to happen next? A well-defended inbounds play, a defensive rebound, some UConn free throws. What actually happened: Boatright got tangled up on a sideline flare screen, suddenly leaving Texas forward Jonathan Holmes in miles of space on the baseline corner. Holmes almost leaned in to his 3, like he knew he short-armed it, but it splashed anyway.

UConn never got another shot, and the Longhorns left Gampel Pavilion with a 55-54 victory that was anything but routine.

The same might be said of the day's hoops slate more generally: While you were preoccupied with the NFL, we were treated to a raucous little afternoon of hoops.

To wit: Right as Holmes and Texas were stunning Gampel into silence, Kansas and Michigan State were scrapping in the final of the Orlando Classic. This was not, as play-by-play crew Jon Sciambi and Dick Vitale were happy to point out, a pretty game. Neither team broke the point-per-possession barrier. Kansas shot 37.2 percent from the field (including 3-of-14 from 3); Michigan State shot 32.2 percent (including 13-of-42 from 2). But it was a good game all the same, full of hard-fought rebounding battles and tight defensive rotations, and it wasn't truly decided until the final minute.

That's when Michigan State, which had struggled to score for much of the game, unveiled some of its worst possessions of the season. Some credit is due to Kansas' defense, which hedged every screen hard, and Branden Dawson did get clear of his defender on a post flash that would have cut Kansas' lead to 1 only to miss the layup (and the putback, too). But there were also too many possessions in which the Spartans -- particularly Travis Trice, who finished 3-of-14 -- floated aimlessly on the perimeter before launching an ill-advised jump shot.

This is the Spartans' chief offensive problem: If they don't make shots, they struggle to score. That sounds reductive. It's really just simple. Michigan State entered Sunday shooting 43.0 percent from 3-point range and 57.2 percent from inside the arc, traits that masked their high turnover rate and infrequent trips to the foul line. If that shooting goes away, so does much of the Spartans' offense. And Sunday, against a Kansas team that might not need to shoot the ball well to win, MSU's accuracy went away.

In previewing Sunday's action, we joked that Kansas-Michigan State was something of a Champions Classic consolation round. In their first big tests, both the Jayhawks and the Spartans were roundly dismissed by Kentucky and Duke, although Michigan State put up a vastly better fight. Now, seeing the two struggle against each other felt suggestive: Neither looks close to national title contention at this point in the season.

For further proof, and right on cue, you could flip to ESPN2, where Kentucky was utterly dismantling Providence.

[+] EnlargeWillie Cauley-Stein
AP Photo/James CrispWillie Cauley-Stein and Kentucky busted out of their cage in the second half against Providence.
That wasn't the case all game, mind you. In fact, the Friars played Kentucky close throughout the first 20 minutes and some distance into the second. Ed Cooley's plan to milk every possession for as long as possible worked for the most part, forcing Kentucky into a settled, half-court game. At halftime, the score was 26-22. The Wildcats weren't getting easy buckets, but they weren't going crazy, either. At the under-12 timeout in the second half, UK led 35-29. Cooley must have felt great.

That was precisely the point at which Kentucky went nuts. The official play-by-play log from the next two minutes is hilarious: block, rebound, missed jumper, offensive rebound, tip-in, steal, missed layup, offensive rebound, missed layup, offensive rebound, missed layup, offensive rebound, made jumper. Providence turnover, Devin Booker 3. Providence miss, UK layup. In exactly two minutes and 10 seconds of elapsed game time, Kentucky extended its lead to 14 while Providence barely registered a touch. The Friars scored just nine points in the final 10 minutes of the game.

Remember the scene in "Jurassic Park" where the park guards are holding the cage door back against the velociraptors? "Shoot her! SHOOT HER!" (Of course you remember. That scene is incredible.) For the first 30 minutes, Providence was those guards. The goal was to keep Kentucky restrained, keep it from playing a normal Kentucky basketball game, and it worked, even if the Friars would have lost that game, too. But then Kentucky brute-forced its way out of that door and uncoiled that beautiful and terrifying attack.

No team in the country has been as impressive as Kentucky to start the season. But other than Duke and Louisville and (maybe) Wisconsin, Texas looks like the next-closest thing. The Longhorns have thrived despite the wrist injury that Taylor, their starting point guard, suffered in a Nov. 20 victory over Iowa, thanks to three things: defense, size and Jonathan Holmes. In hindsight, maybe the Hawkeyes and Cal weren't the most daunting opponents, but the ease with which Texas rolled them was still impressive. Now the Longhorns have one of the best true nonconference road victories of any team thus far this season.

Texas is tall, talented and multifaceted. On Friday, they travel to Lexington, Kentucky, to take on the aforementioned Wildcats. Expecting them to win in Rupp Arena is silly. But if any team can pull it off right now -- if any team can push the Wildcats out of their usual routine, and then do just enough to win the game at the end -- well, why wouldn't it be Texas?

Roundtable: Analyzing the early signing period 

November, 12, 2014
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College basketball's early signing period begins Wednesday, and while 78 of the ESPN 100's prospects have committed to schools across the country, it's time to put pen to paper. Our RecruitingNation analysts break down what they expect to see before the signing window closes on Nov. 19.


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Best rebounding teams in 2014-15

July, 9, 2014
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Control the boards, control the outcome.

It’s not always that simple, but it’s that simple.

Connecticut was barely in the positive in rebounding margin (plus-0.4) for the overall season, but outrebounded both Florida and Kentucky in the Final Four en route to its fourth national championship.

As we look ahead to the 2014-15 season, here are a few potential chairmen of the boards:

Teams to watch

Texas

The Longhorns ranked 10th last season in rebounding margin, averaging seven more boards per game than their opponents. Not only do they return their entire roster, including leading rebounders Cameron Ridley (8.2 RPG) and Jonathan Holmes (7.2 RPG), but they add 7-footer Myles Turner to the mix. Turner was ranked No. 2 in the 2014 class by RecruitingNation.

Rebounding should easily be the strength of the team because seemingly everyone in the rotation contributes. Reserve forward Connor Lammert averaged 5.2 rebounds. Even 6-foot-2 guard Demarcus Holland averaged 4.7 boards.

Nearly 45 percent of reserve center Prince Ibeh's rebounds were on the offensive end; he helped Texas rank third nationally in offensive rebounds (15.0 per game).

North Carolina

Rebounding is an unspoken barometer in Chapel Hill. In the four seasons Carolina averaged fewer than 40 rebounds per game under coach Roy Williams, it has been bounced from the NCAA tournament in the first weekend, including last season. Conversely, in six of the seven seasons the Tar Heels averaged more than 40 boards, they advanced at least to the Elite Eight and claimed national titles in 2005 and 2009.

Neither forward Brice Johnson nor center Kennedy Meeks averaged 20 minutes of playing time last season, yet each averaged 6.1 rebounds. Both are likely starters this season and should see their rebound totals expand with their added playing time.

Small forward J.P. Tokoto, who averaged 5.8 boards last season, leads a group of talented wings that includes freshmen Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson, who should help the Heels get back above 40.

Kentucky

Add the Wildcats to the short list of teams that lost their top rebounder from last season yet should be better at rebounding. Julius Randle's 10.4 rebounds per game accounted for a quarter of the Cats' per-game total. Now that Randle is rebounding for Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, two freshmen -- forward Trey Lyles and center Karl Towns Jr. -- should more than account for his absence. Lyles and Towns were both ranked in the top 10 by RecruitingNation.

Coach John Calipari will again have a frontcourt imposing in both its size and depth. UK won’t lose much going from starter to reserve with 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein (the leading returning rebounder at 6.1 boards last season), 6-10 Dakari Johnson, 6-9 Marcus Lee and 6-8 Alex Poythress.

Throw in their oversized backcourt of 6-6 guards Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison, and it’s hard to imagine UK not getting every meaningful rebound.

SMU

Forward Markus Kennedy is clearly the best rebounder on the team, leading the Mustangs with 7.1 per game last season. Kennedy had 16 games with eight or more boards, and Yanick Moreira was the only other player who registered double-digit rebounds in a game. That, however, doesn’t mean SMU is lacking. Because coach Larry Brown uses up to 11 players in his rotation, only Kennedy stood out. But the Mustangs are good as a team on the boards because they have so many contributors. They enjoyed a plus-4.8 advantage on the boards last season and return 81 percent of their rebounding.

Arizona

The Wildcats ranked in the top 20 in rebounding margin the past two seasons. They outrebounded opponents by 7.1 per game last season -- the largest margin of Sean Miller’s tenure -- despite using a smaller lineup for virtually the entire second half of the season. Yes, Arizona lost leading rebounder Aaron Gordon (8.1 RPG) and guard Nick Johnson (4.0 RPG). But the Cats will regain forward Brandon Ashley, who suffered a foot injury and missed the final 16 games of last season. Sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who averaged 5.7 rebounds last season, appears ready to assume a larger role now that Gordon is gone. And freshman forward Stanley Johnson aims to have an immediate impact.

Teams that might struggle

Nebraska

Expectations have risen for the Cornhuskers, and rightfully so after their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998. In order to live up to their potential, though, they have to improve in the rebounding category. The Huskers ranked 256th nationally last season with a minus-1.9 rebounding margin.

Their tendency to go with a three-guard lineup often left them undersized, especially against opponents with girth. The one player bulky enough to throw his weight around, reserve forward Leslee Smith (6-8, 255 pounds), suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last week and is out indefinitely.

Wisconsin

The Badgers were an average rebounding team -- just a plus-1.4 rebounding edge overall -- except for the games when their backcourt made it a priority. In their NCAA tournament win against the Baylor Bears, who ranked 12th nationally in rebounding margin, Wisconsin guards Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser chipped in eight rebounds apiece as Wisconsin won the battle of the boards 39-33. The Badgers will need a more consistent effort next season. Increased playing time for sophomore forward Nigel Hayes should help, as will the ever-expanding game of center Frank Kaminsky, who led the team with an average of 6.3 rebounds last season.

3-point shot: Preseason NIT scrambling

July, 9, 2014
7/09/14
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Andy Katz discusses potential Preseason NIT scheduling problems and two New York-based tournaments.

3-point shot: Under-18 buzz

June, 16, 2014
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In today's 3-point shot, Andy Katz reports about the four players who are looking like the stars on the U-18 team for Team USA, Myles Turner's potential impact at Texas and a 2016 prospect who is turning heads.

3-point shot: Myles Turner's big week

June, 10, 2014
6/10/14
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Myles Turner's opportunity, Danny Manning and the U-18 team and Michigan State's schedule are in the latest edition of Andy Katz's 3-point shot.

Position battles: Centers

May, 16, 2014
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CHICAGO -- Julius Randle is gone, but he wouldn't mind watching the Kentucky big men battle in the fall.

"Yes, there's going to be some competition," Randle said at the NBA draft combine in Chicago. "But Coach [John Calipari] will figure it out."

Randle wasn't going to return next season. He was a one-and-done player from the moment he arrived, looking like a chiseled NBA veteran. He was the one big man who didn't need seasoning. But the rest did. Toss in newcomer Karl Towns Jr., and the Wildcats have as many bigs as any team assembled recently.

Randle's favorite to replace his low-post ability? He's leaning toward sophomore to-be Dakari Johnson.

"He's very good in the low post," Randle said. "He's got a nice touch. It's hard to move him down there."

Randle should know. He had to tussle with Johnson in the low block in practice every day. Now, Johnson will take Randle's role as the player whom the others try to knock off in the post -- for position and, possibly, playing time.

ESPN.com is examining position battles this week. Here are some center battles to keep an eye on:

Kentucky: Dakari Johnson, Willie Cauley-Stein, Marcus Lee versus Karl Towns Jr.: Yes, there are veterans -- three of them -- returning against the young pup. Calipari could figure out how to play all four of them at some point during a game. Johnson, Cauley-Stein and Lee all had their moments in which they shined. Johnson has the best chance to be in the low post, Cauley-Stein can be the top shot-blocker and Lee is a bit of an X factor among the group. Now, enter the newcomer. Towns can do a bit of everything, but he doesn't need to be the primary option. That's key for him and rare for a high-profile Kentucky player. This isn't even mentioning Trey Lyles and Alex Poythress, who are more positioned to play smaller forward positions next to the bigs. This team is loaded.

North Carolina: Kennedy Meeks versus Brice Johnson. Meeks is much more of a physical specimen. He can be immovable at times in the low post. Johnson has more finesse to his game. The two of them can play together, but they could take turns sharing the focal point in the middle, depending on the opponent or the flow of the game. They have a chance to both average double figures and nearly seven or eight rebounds per game. If that happens, the Tar Heels could be a force in the ACC and beyond.

Texas: Cameron Ridley versus Myles Turner. Ridley made himself into a real threat last season. He was nearly a double-double player (he averaged 11.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game). Ridley could progress even more next season. The Longhorns nabbed a late-recruiting season coup in Turner. Turner is too good, too effective to not be on the court. The key for coach Rick Barnes will be whether he can play the two as a tandem. If he can't, then who is on the court when the game matters most is more of a competition than the overall minutes. Regardless, both players can help Texas take a huge leap next season.

Gonzaga: Przemek Karnowski versus Kyle Wiltjer. Karnowski is the traditional post player. He can be difficult to move around, and his offensive game continues to develop. Wiltjer can certainly play with Karnowski because he's slender and is much more of a face-up player. The two can be an effective high-low tandem, but if there is a need to see who is on the floor late, then that is also, like with Texas, where the real competition begins. Wiltjer had a year to get stronger, but he won't turn out like Kelly Olynyk. Wiltjer is still going to be skill first, strength last. Karnowski needs to be the opposite for the Zags to find the right balance.

LSU : Jarell Martin, Jordan Mickey versus Elbert Robinson. The Tigers have a chance to make the NCAA tournament because of the decisions of Martin and Mickey. The two were effective double-figure scorers last season playing with Johnny O'Bryant III. Now, toss in the newcomer Robinson. He'll need to find minutes as well. Coach Johnny Jones can't play all three together, but the minutes will need to be divided up. These are good problems to have, and with 15 fouls to expend among the three, the Tigers are one of the few teams in the SEC with the numbers to hang with Kentucky's frontcourt.

Arizona: Kaleb Tarczewski versus Brandon Ashley. Tarczewski was one of the most improved players in the country last season. Give him another summer and he should really be a regular to score in the post. But he has to command the ball even more next season without the presence of Aaron Gordon. Ashley is coming off a foot injury that sidelined him for the second half of the Pac-12 season. He will play with Tarczewski, but if there is any question who would demand more minutes, then that can be a highly competitive battle in practice. It might be moot for coach Sean Miller since the two can coexist, but dividing up the frontcourt minutes will still be an interesting decision for the staff.

Players to watch: Centers

May, 9, 2014
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Traditional centers were once a fading fad. It was almost as if they weren't growing that way anymore.

But that is no longer the case. Suddenly, centers are plentiful.

And while 5-men today must be able to score facing the basket, the centers this past season and the top prospects coming in aren't afraid to get physical. The low post is no longer a toxic area.

[+] EnlargeGonzaga Bulldogs
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsPrzemek Karnowski (24) has steadily improved his game in two seasons at Gonzaga.
This class of traditional big men could be the deepest college basketball has seen in the past few years. It might not have top NBA draft picks, but there is plenty of experience and potential, with players who can decide their team's fate. No team is as loaded with centers, both returnees and newcomers, as Kentucky. The Wildcats aren't the norm, but having one center a coach can trust to anchor the post is at least plausible for a number of national contenders.

Top returnees to watch

Kaleb Tarczewski, Arizona: Tarczewski was one of the most improved players in the country. He easily could have left for the NBA draft, but he chose to stay to continue to improve his overall game. The 7-footer was an anchor inside, balancing out the length, athleticism and flash of Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and (when he was healthy) Brandon Ashley. Tarczewski averaged 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds and has the potential to be a double-figure scorer and perhaps a 10-rebound per game performer. He was honest in his own appraisal that he wasn't ready as a freshman and knew he needed to develop and mature. The soon-to-be junior did that, and he is one of the main reasons Arizona will be tabbed as a favorite in the Pac-12.

Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga: The Zags pulled off a coup when they landed the 7-1 Polish national two years ago. But he was still a work in progress, and it showed as a freshman. While trying to find his footing in the American game, Karnowski averaged 5.4 points and 2.6 rebounds. He made a significant jump from his freshman to sophomore season, when he averaged 10.4 points and 7.1 rebounds, and was able to use his immense frame to be more than a space-eater. The Zags are expecting to have a team capable of making a deep run next season, and if that happens, Karnowski must be an immovable force on a regular basis. Karnowski could have taken the bait to play professionally overseas, but he realized he still has work to do.

Josh Scott, Colorado: Scott is the Buffaloes' top returning scorer since Spencer Dinwiddie decided to enter the NBA draft. The Buffaloes might shift their emphasis even more and take advantage of Scott's inside prowess. He was a coup of a recruit when Tad Boyle signed him two years ago, and Scott's development has been a real plus for the Buffaloes' coaching staff. Scott averaged 14.1 points and 8.4 rebounds last season, and those numbers could climb steadily as the Buffaloes feed him even more in the post. If the Buffaloes get back to the NCAA tournament, it will be largely due to Scott.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: Cauley-Stein didn't play in his final three games due to a foot injury suffered against Louisville in the Sweet 16, but when healthy, he can be a game-changer. He will block, distract and alter shots. Cauley-Stein easily could have bolted for the NBA, but he didn't want to leave without making a major contribution. The Wildcats are loaded up front next season, and Cauley-Stein won't be the big man on campus, but he'll be even more important than he was this past season. With Julius Randle gone, Cauley-Stein must be the experienced big man who can finish.

Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: Kaminsky is the prototype fade-up 5-man. He can score in a variety of ways and was the difference in Wisconsin's run to the Final Four. Kaminsky easily could have gone to the NBA, but he wanted to stay to enjoy the college experience, diversify his game, and become even more forceful. He still needs to become more aggressive inside. He's a tough matchup on the perimeter but is even harder to guard when he drags a big out to the top of the key or the corners. He will be one of the toughest matchups at his position next season.


Top newcomers to watch

[+] EnlargeKarl Towns Jr
Sam Forencich/Getty ImagesKarl Towns Jr. will be part of a deep and talented frontcourt at Kentucky.
Jahlil Okafor, Duke: With Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood leaving for the NBA, Okafor will flourish for the Blue Devils. Duke needed another star and got one in Okafor. Mike Krzyzewski has traditionally adjusted his coaching style and system to his personnel. The Blue Devils didn't have the frontcourt to lean on last season, but with Okafor, they will next season.

Myles Turner, Texas: Rick Barnes picked up the last elite recruit in the Class of 2014 when Turner, who is from Texas, stayed home. Like Coach K, Barnes adapts. He isn't set in his ways and can go inside when needed. He will have multiple options in the post. The Longhorns will have the deepest frontcourt in the league and should challenge for Big 12 title.

Karl Towns Jr., Kentucky: Towns played for John Calipari on the Dominican Republic national team. Once that happened, it was likely a lock he would land with the Wildcats. The return of Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress means Towns can find his footing as a freshman, develop and be allowed to make mistakes without serious consequences or pressure to produce immediately.

The pairings for the 2014 SEC/Big 12 Challenge were announced Wednesday afternoon.

In the event’s second year, it will again offer a variety of intriguing matchups. The Big 12 won the first Challenge last year by a 7-3 margin, and the Big 12, a league that sent seven teams to the NCAA tourney last season compared to the SEC’s three, has the edge again.

Here’s a ranking of the 10 games in this year’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge (Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Alabama and Georgia will not participate this season):

1. Texas at Kentucky: Call your friends. Get your popcorn ready. This will be phenomenal. Well, at least it appears that way right now. When Myles Turner, the nation's No. 2 prospect in the 2014 ESPN 100, picked Texas, he transformed the Longhorns into a Big 12 title contender and potential national power. The Longhorns had a solid stable even before Turner's decision. Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes helped the Longhorns orchestrate one of the most surprising runs to the NCAA tourney in the country last season, considering all the departures from the previous season’s team. It’s fitting that Texas' ridiculous frontcourt will face the “Voltron” of college basketball frontcourts. Kentucky will be a problem for the rest of the country. Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee would form the nation’s top frontcourt without any help. Add blue-chip recruits Trey Lyles and Karl Towns Jr. and, well, you can see this is a rare pool of NBA prospects in one frontcourt. Plus Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison are back. And a couple McDonald’s All Americans will come off the bench. Is Texas a legitimate contender? Is Kentucky the top team in America and the national title favorite? This matchup could answer both questions.

2. Florida at Kansas: Bill Self just lost two players, Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, who could be the top two players selected in this summer’s NBA draft. But this is Kansas. Hit reset and continue to win Big 12 titles. That’s just what they do in Lawrence. The Jayhawks will reload with Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre, a couple McDonald’s All Americans who will fill the voids. Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis and a starting-point-guard-to-be-determined will be on the floor too. Point guard is not an issue for the Gators with Kasey Hill returning. They have lost the senior crew that helped the Gators beat the Jayhawks in Gainesville during last season’s Challenge, though. That is an issue. But this is a good barometer for both programs, which will each rely on youth. Billy Donovan’s 13th-ranked recruiting class, per RecruitingNation, will have to mature fast and help Dorian Finney-Smith, Michael Frazier II, Chris Walker and the rest of the roster challenge Kentucky at the top of the SEC next season. Walker will have to be a primary piece of the offense, not a sub at the end of the bench. But Kansas’ edge in experience and overall talent could be the difference. Look for Selden to have an All-America moment or two in this matchup.

3. Arkansas at Iowa State: Fred Hoiberg signed former UNLV star Bryce Dejean-Jones to play for the Cyclones. Add him to a squad that also features Monte Morris, Naz Long, Dustin Hogue and Georges Niang and the Fighting Hoibergs should be Big 12 contenders again. Arkansas swept Kentucky last season, but the Razorbacks struggled on the road. And Hilton Coliseum gets rowdy. Can Arkansas handle that environment? Bobby Portis is one of three top scorers from last season returning for the Razorbacks. Four-star point guard Anton Beard could make an immediate contribution too. This should be a solid matchup, especially as both squads are figuring things out early in the season.

4. LSU at West Virginia: Prior to last season, both LSU and West Virginia looked like programs that would turn the corner in 2013-14. Although both improved, they still missed expectations. So this is a statement game. If they are serious about securing NCAA tourney bids, then they have to win games like this. Juwan Staten anchors a West Virginia team that returns most of the talent from a season ago. On the other side, Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey will be joined by four-star recruit Elbert Robinson in a strong frontcourt that must carry LSU this season. This is one of those matchups that might mean a lot more on Selection Sunday than it will in December.

5. Oklahoma State at South Carolina: Travis Ford and Frank Martin are in similar positions. They both need one player on their respective rosters to have a breakout season. The Cowboys are deeper than the Gamecocks, but there is a lot riding on Le'Bryan Nash. If South Carolina plans to make a move in 2014-15, talented sophomore Sindarius Thornwell will have to orchestrate that evolution.

6. Baylor at Vanderbilt: Two teams with interesting outlooks. Scott Drew lost every meaningful member of last season's Sweet 16 squad other than Kenny Chery, Rico Gathers and Royce O'Neale, and he didn’t sign a stellar recruiting class. But he does have a bunch of reserves who have been waiting to prove themselves. For Vanderbilt, Kevin Stallings will get Kedren Johnson, who missed a year due to suspension, back in the mix and add a recruiting class ranked 28th nationally by RecruitingNation. This could be the season Vandy rises in the SEC. Johnson vs. Chery will be one of the best matchups in the Challenge.

7. Missouri at Oklahoma: Ryan Spangler and three other starters return for Lon Kruger’s Oklahoma squad. Plus, he will add a couple top-100 recruits. New Missouri coach Kim Anderson will need youngsters Johnathan Williams III and top recruit JaKeenan Gant to step up after the Tigers lost their top three scorers from last season.

8. Kansas State at Tennessee: Marcus Foster should be the early favorite to win Big 12 player of the year honors. He’s the reason Bruce Weber’s team shouldn’t be dismissed as a threat in the conference. Donnie Tyndall doesn’t really have a roster right now, so this one is difficult to gauge. But if the young men who have requested releases from their scholarships come back to Knoxville, then this one will be more intriguing than it appears to be right now.

9. Auburn at Texas Tech: This game won’t feature the most talent from either league. But this will be Bruce Pearl’s first season at Auburn, where he’s blessed with great facilities and an administration that seems determined to make a stand in the SEC. Tubby Smith didn’t turn the Red Raiders into world beaters during his first season in Lubbock, but a few surprises -- upsets over Baylor, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas -- were promising. Nothing wrong with a matchup between a couple of veteran coaches who are trying to rebuild in unique locations.

10. TCU at Ole Miss: The Marshall Henderson era is over, so Andy Kennedy will try to rebuild around Jarvis Summers, incoming young players and junior college transfers. TCU coach Trent Johnson lost talented guard Jarvis Ray. Both squads will start at the bottom and probably stay there all season. This isn’t the Challenge’s sexiest matchup.

3-point shot: Horns, Doc and Bo

May, 1, 2014
5/01/14
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Andy Katz looks at Texas’ upcoming high-profile schedule, breaks down how Doc Sadler ended up at Southern Miss and offers a few notes on Bo Ryan and the Wisconsin Badgers.


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.

Look back, look ahead: Big 12

April, 17, 2014
4/17/14
10:30
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In recent years, the Big Ten has been -- arguably -- college basketball’s best conference.

But the Big 12 fought for that perch in 2013-14. The league featured an impressive lineup, one that only the Big Ten rivaled. Realignment’s winds took more from the league (Colorado, Nebraska and Missouri) than they added (West Virginia) in recent years. Seven squads from the conference, however, earned invites to this year’s NCAA tournament, the ultimate barometer of a conference’s success. There are only 10 teams in the Big 12, so you can definitely call it college basketball’s pound-for-pound king this past season.

[+] EnlargeJoel Embiid
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsAn injury to Kansas center Joel Embiid did not help the Big 12's tournament showing.
Kansas competed for a top seed in the tourney and probably would have seized one had Joel Embiid remained healthy down the stretch. Iowa State won the conference tourney title and made a run to the Sweet 16, where it lost to eventual national champ Connecticut. Oklahoma, Oklahoma State (just the second team since tourney expansion in 1985 to secure an at-large berth after enduring a seven-game losing streak during its season), Kansas State, Baylor and Texas were all in the field, too.

Few thrived, though. Iowa State and Baylor were the only Big 12 teams in the Sweet 16, and neither advanced beyond that stage. However, the 2013-14 campaign was still a strong one for the league, excluding its lukewarm results in the tournament. The latter shouldn’t be -- can’t be -- ignored in the final assessment of the conference, but it’ll be back in 2014-15.

The Big 12 hit the reset button. An influx of top recruits and transfers is coming, so next year might be even better.

What we saw this season: In 2004, the iPhone hadn’t been introduced to the public yet. Dwight Howard was an NBA rookie. And Georgia Tech -- yes, Georgia Tech -- lost to Connecticut in the national championship.

That was also the last time Bill Self failed to win a Big 12 title (the Jayhawks finished second) during his time at Kansas. It was his first season. His reign continued last season, when he led the Jayhawks to their 10th consecutive conference crown following a rocky nonconference season. Andrew Wiggins wasn’t LeBron James, but he didn’t have to be. The freshman’s numbers -- 17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.0 blocks and 1.2 steals per game -- were as remarkable as the poise he displayed while he dealt with intense scrutiny throughout the season. His team’s round of 32 loss to Stanford in the Big Dance was a stunner, but Embiid’s late-season back injury certainly affected the program.

DeAndre Kane was able to lead Iowa State to wins over opponents such as Michigan, Iowa, Baylor and Kansas. Melvin Ejim, however, was the league’s player of the year. Georges Niang's foot injury suffered during the NCAA tournament was an unfortunate development for the program, but Fred Hoiberg proved again that it’s possible to add new pieces each season and develop chemistry. His formula works.

Marcus Smart's most memorable matchup had nothing to do with basketball. That shoving incident in Lubbock, Texas, prompted a three-game suspension, the worst of a series of lows for Travis Ford’s team. Everything that could go wrong for Oklahoma State went wrong. Season-ending injuries. Arrests. Suspensions. But Smart and the Pokes recovered to make a run to the Big Dance. Baylor found similar magic late. Cory Jefferson and Co. started 2-8 in league play but finished with a furious push that ended in the Sweet 16.

Oklahoma and Texas had successful stretches, too. But neither could maintain that mojo. The Sooners and Longhorns, however, made the Big 12 gauntlet even tougher.

Tubby Smith couldn’t get Texas Tech out of the conference’s lower tier even after a 5-3 midseason spurt -- ultimately an anomaly -- that included wins over Baylor, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. West Virginia couldn’t find the quality wins necessary to be considered for an at-large slot on Selection Sunday, and a lopsided loss to Texas in the first round of the Big 12 tourney didn’t help. But the Mountaineers were the eighth Big 12 squad that finished in the RPI’s top 100.

Meanwhile, coach Trent Johnson has to be on the hot seat after TCU finished 0-18 in conference play.

Still, the Big 12 had a big season. Everything that preceded March suggested the league would have a solid showing in the Big Dance. That didn’t happen. And that took some of the luster off the regular season.

[+] EnlargeNiang
Denny Medley/USA TODAY SportsGeorges Niang and Iowa State should be back in contention for a Big 12 title next season.
What we expect to see next season: Even if Myles Turner, the No. 2 prospect in the 2014 ESPN 100, chooses another school, Kansas will still be stacked. Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis and Naadir Tharpe return. Plus, Cliff Alexander (the top power forward in the 2014 class per RecruitingNation, and fellow McDonald’s All American Kelly Oubre are on their way to Lawrence, Kan. The Jayhawks should contend for their 11th consecutive Big 12 crown under Self.

But it won’t be easy.

Hoiberg won’t stop. Niang will recover from the foot injury. Monte Morris, Dustin Hogue and Naz Long are back, too. Former Marquette recruit Jameel McKay will be eligible next season, and Hoiberg just landed former UNLV star Bryce Dejean-Jones. And there’s always a chance that he’ll add another top transfer before next season.

Oklahoma returns four standouts from last year’s NCAA tourney team. Losing Smart and Markel Brown hurts Oklahoma State, and Le'Bryan Nash could leave, too. But Phil Forte, Brian Williams, Kamari Murphy and Michael Cobbins (once healthy) will help the Cowboys compete for a berth in the tourney. A pair of ESPN 100 recruits (Joe Burton and Jared Terrell) will also be in the mix.

Kansas State youngster Marcus Foster will be the Big 12 player of the year in 2014-15. And overall, four of Kansas State’s top six scorers from last season will return next year.

Baylor is somewhat of a mystery. No great recruiting class. Jefferson, Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin were seniors, and Isaiah Austin is likely to enter the draft. So there will be a lot of pressure on Kenny Chery and Royce O'Neale next season. How will they handle that?

There's good news in Morgantown. Bob Huggins didn’t have one senior on his roster last season. Juwan Staten (18.1 points per game) and Co. are talented enough to compete with Kansas, Iowa State and Oklahoma for the conference crown.

Texas will contend, too. Rick Barnes’ starters from last year, including underrated standout Jonathan Holmes, will return. And Jordan Barnett, ranked No. 86 in the 2014 class by RecruitingNation, will add more depth.

Texas Tech and TCU will have a hard time emerging from the basement in this tough field.

The Big 12 could end 2014-15 as the best conference in America. Again.


Another NCAA tournament is in the books, and before we get too sad over saying goodbye to college basketball for six months, let's review what we just witnessed:

One player can carry a team: It's particularly true if that player happens to be a guard. UConn's Shabazz Napier proved that point -- like Kemba Walker before him -- by leading the Huskies to the national championship.

One player can't carry a team: Particularly if his team relies on outscoring its opponents. For all the scoring records Creighton's Doug McDermott broke, the Blue Jays defense was ultimately picked apart by Baylor, and one of the great college basketball careers of the past decade ended in the first weekend of the tournament.

Freshmen can carry a team: Kentucky was only the second team to start five freshmen in the title game. After many stumbles during the regular season, the youthful Wildcats put it together at the right time.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Napier
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesShabazz Napier took over the tournament and was a dominant force in UConn's run to the title.
Freshmen can’t carry a team: Kansas played without its talented freshman center Joel Embiid in the tournament. Its other highly touted freshmen starters, Andrew Wiggins and Wayne Selden Jr., combined to shoot 2-for-11 and score six points as the Jayhawks were eliminated by Stanford. Wiggins might still prove to have Carmelo Anthony-type talent in the NBA, but he didn’t come close to matching Anthony's NCAA tournament legacy.

Seeding is an inexact science: Louisville as a 4? Kentucky as an 8? The selection committee’s favorite phrase is "whole body of work," which is understandable, but it doesn’t take into account a team that's playing its best late, such as the Cardinals; or a team clearly better than its record, such as the Wildcats.

Brackets aren't fair, but such is life: The biggest example was having No. 1 seed Wichita State pitted against No. 8 Kentucky in the round of 32. The game had an Elite Eight feel for a reason -- it probably should have been played in the later rounds.

A 12-seed beating a 5-seed is no longer an upset: The 12-seeds nearly -- and probably should have -- completed a full sweep of the 5-seeds. No. 12 seeds Harvard, Steven F. Austin and North Dakota State all advanced and North Carolina State was positioned to join them but missed 9 of 17 free throws before blowing a late eight-point lead to Saint Louis. It was the second game in three days for the Wolfpack, who had to play their way in by beating Xavier.

The 16-seeds are getting closer (incrementally, maybe, but closer): For those counting, the No. 1 seed is 120-0 against No. 16 seeds, but the gap is closing. Coastal Carolina led Virginia by 10 in the first half and by five at halftime before losing. Albany and Weber State also gave Florida and Arizona tougher than expected games.

Four-point plays do exist: And for Stephen F. Austin it happened at the best possible moment. Desmond Haymon drew a foul on VCU's JeQuan Lewis and his four-point play tied the score with three seconds left in regulation before the Lumberjacks won in overtime.

Big shots: Whether true buzzer-beaters such as Cameron Ridley's putback in Texas' win over Arizona State or simply big shots in closing seconds such as North Dakota State's Lawrence Alexander forcing overtime against Oklahoma with a 3-pointer, we love seeing a game-changer. Kentucky's Aaron Harrison made the most of his big shots, taking down Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin in the process.

Shots not fired: With 2.3 seconds left, Arizona's Nick Johnson took one dribble too many and failed to get a shot off before time expired. The Wildcats' loss to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight proved the shot that's not taken hurts most.

Check the monitor (Shots not fired Part II): Then again, it might hurt more to lose the game after an officials' conference. Officials didn't see North Carolina coach Roy Williams signaling for a timeout with 1.6 seconds left immediately after Iowa State's DeAndre Kane scored the go-ahead basket. The ball was inbounded but the clock operator started it late, allowing Carolina a timeout after the ball was advanced to half court. The officials checked the monitor, huddled and determined that time had expired before the timeout was granted.

We still never figured out the block/charge call: It didn’t outright decide the outcome of any game, but it came close. Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes was called for a charge with six seconds left in a one-point game. Michigan's Jordan Morgan sold the call and the Wolverines advanced.

[+] EnlargeMercer Bears
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsAn upset of Duke sent Mercer's Kevin Canevari into his version of the Nae Nae.
Location. Location! Location? Wisconsin doesn’t rally to beat Oregon had the partisan crowd in Milwaukee not helped turn the momentum of that game. UConn might not get past Michigan State had it not been in the familiar confines of Madison Square Garden. Then again, Syracuse lost to Dayton in Buffalo, N.Y., and Duke lost to Mercer in Raleigh, N.C. Maybe location doesn’t matter as much as we think.

Conferences might want to rethink who earns the automatic bid: Milwaukee had a losing record in the Horizon, yet beat regular-season champ Green Bay in the league tournament en route to earning their NCAA bid. Cal Poly had a losing record overall and finished tied for sixth in the Big West, yet earned the bid and beat Texas Southern before getting pummeled by Wichita State. Mount St. Mary's also had a losing record overall before winning the Northeast tournament title. All those upsets, of course, led to NCAA tournament seeds.

Seniors matter: Obviously the shining example was Napier carrying UConn to the title and Florida reaching the Final Four by starting four seniors. But the common thread in nearly every early-round upset was that schools such as North Dakota State, which had five seniors in its rotation, and Mercer, which had seven seniors, played a lot of experienced players.

Conference affiliation doesn't: The Big 12 had the most teams in the tournament with seven, but they flamed early. Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma lost their first games, only Baylor and Iowa State made it to the Sweet 16.

Michigan State starting over: One of the best streaks came to an end this season when the Spartans lost to UConn. Keith Appling and Adreian Payne are the first players who stayed four years under coach Tom Izzo but did not play in a Final Four.

Pay more attention to the Atlantic Sun: From the conference that gave us Florida Gulf Coast last season, Mercer came out of the league this year. The Bears beat Duke in a game they were positively poised and confident they would win.

THE University of Dayton made a statement: A headline in the Dayton Daily News poked a little fun at Ohio State, but the way the Flyers were embraced after beating the Buckeyes, Syracuse and Stanford showed just how much March can unite a community.

Kevin Canevari can dance: Moments after Mercer topped Duke in the tournament’s biggest upset, Canevari provided arguably the tournament’s best celebration dance by doing the Nae Nae in front of the Bears' fan section.

Grudges last: Napier blasted the NCAA for keeping the Huskies out of the tournament last season because of their APR. That means SMU, which beat UConn twice, is on the clock for next season with some hard feelings of its own. The Mustangs missed the NCAA tournament and finished runners-up in the NIT. With most of their starters back, and adding arguably the best point guard from the 2014 recruiting class, Larry Brown's crew will be a force next season.

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