College Basketball Nation: VCU Rams
While he's made a habit of out-recruiting high-major programs in recent years, that was hardly the case when he first arrived at VCU, and in the case of senior guard Briante Weber, it was anything but the case.
Weber may be the reigning two-time defensive player of the year in the Atlantic 10 and a preseason pick for the league's all-conference team, but he didn't have a single Division I scholarship offer to his name when he finished his senior season at Great Bridge High School in Chesapeake, Virginia.
1. Virginia Commonwealth is the unanimous pick to win the Atlantic 10 this season.
That doesn’t hold a lot of sway with the Rams’ coach, who, when congratulated on the honor, quickly pointed out that his team was picked to win it last season.
And then Shaka Smart recalled a scene from the end of last season. His team was watching Saint Louis play UMass. If UMass wins, the Rams get a share of the Atlantic 10 regular-season crown. If the Bilikens win, they win the league outright.
“As one of our guys said, ‘And then Jordair Jett happened,'" Smart said. “I think we learned a valuable lesson from that, and it’s that you don’t want to depend on someone else to determine your fate."
That, more than the fuel from the NCAA tournament loss to Stephen F. Austin, is what will drive the Rams this season.
The Rams deserve to be picked to win the league. They deserve their Top 25 preseason ranking. But they also know that how you start in October really doesn’t matter much. It’s how you finish in March.
“I remember when I coached with Keith Dambrot at Akron, he’d always find a way to be mad," Smart said. “If you picked him first, it’s because the other teams wanted to put pressure on him. If you picked him too low, it’s because you disrespected them. I know everyone has to do all of these preseason prognostications, but really, no one remembers any of it."
2. It’s only been three years since Mike Lonergan arrived at George Washington, and in that short time, he’s elevated the Colonials from a 10-win team to an NCAA tournament game-winner.
From the outside, that’s a pretty quick turnaround. From the inside? Not so much.
“I think that first year, I gained 20 pounds," Lonergan said. “As a coach you get used to winning, and then you only win 10 games and it’s hard. I thought I could come right in and change the culture here, and I couldn’t. Now you look back and people say it’s only been three years, but I have to tell you, there are times it feels closer to five."
But Lonergan, whose team is picked to finish second, has found a smart and familiar recipe for quick success. He’s pounded the recruiting trail hard, butting up against his D.C. neighbors in Maryland and Virginia, but he’s also extended second chances to transfers.
He, like most coaches, is hardly a fan of the transfer rage plaguing college basketball, but -- there’s always a but -- in this case, transfers at times are the quickest means to an end, as Lonergan has learned. Last season, Villanova transfer Isaiah Armwood and Indiana’s Maurice Creek helped elevate the Colonials. This season, Tyler Cavanaugh, who comes to GW by way of Wake Forest, could be that guy.
“I don’t like the transfer thing, but you have to be able to take advantage of it when you can," Lonergan admitted. “Sometimes it’s a perfect fit, something that we need and they need and it can add up to an immediate impact."
3. When asked how good sophomore E.C. Matthews can be, Rhode Island coach Dan Hurley started out by saying, "Without putting too much pressure on a 19-year-old kid ..."
And then he continued.
“He has a chance to be one of the premier guards in college basketball before he finishes his career."
So much for no pressure.
But the truth is, Matthews is that good. He didn’t make the Atlantic 10 preseason first team (he was second team) and isn’t even a regional -- let alone a household -- name. But that’s more a byproduct of Rhode Island’s growing pains than Matthews’ abilities. As a freshman, the league’s rookie of the year averaged 14.3 points per game overall and 16.6 in league play, but the Rams won just 14 games.
All of that could very well change this season. With Matthews -- the top returning scorer in the league -- back, much more is expected of Rhode Island.
Hurley already has counseled his sophomore on what he expects will be an impending media glare and even on the agents he fully expects to come sniffing around.
That could swell plenty of people’s egos.
“If there’s a kid you can keep all of that away from, this is the kid," Hurley said. “When we sat down on his home visit, we told him everything we thought he could accomplish, and it’s coming to fruition. He knows there’s no need to change."
4. One look at DeAndre Bembry and you automatically think this must be a guy with a huge, oversized personality.
But the player who sports perhaps the best afro in college basketball is nothing like what you might think. In fact, he’s the opposite.
“If you hooked him up to a heart machine, it would be like this," said Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli, motioning a flat line.
Martelli is counting on that even keel as he steers a young Hawks team this season. The team that won the A-10 tournament last season, down three of their top four scorers, will rely heavily on Bembry, a first-team preseason pick who averaged 12.1 points and 4.5 rebounds per game last season.
And Martelli thinks Bembry is more than up for the challenge.
“He’s unusual. He’s an old head with an old spirit," Martelli said. “And he’s actually grown since last year."
5. Some dribbles ... Smart considers himself a pancake expert. With time to kill (thanks to an early flight arranged by his punctual sports information director, Scott Day), the VCU coach stopped in a nearby diner for a bite to eat. He deemed the pancakes only a 4. When it was suggested that pancakes are too simplistic to be rated and that, in fact, all pancakes are mostly created equal, Smart scoffed. “They can be thin, thick," he said. “There’s definitely a difference." For the record, he prefers his flapjacks thin. ... Martelli made like Tiny Tim, hobbling around on a single crutch. The Saint Joe’s coach tore the meniscus in his knee and had surgery last week. ... Line of the day went to Richmond’s Chris Mooney. Mooney, the chair of the league’s coaches’ committee, was selected to give remarks at the luncheon, deadpanning that the practice where lunch was held was "not where they take coaches who have been kicked out of games at the Barclay Center." Mooney was ejected two years ago during an A-10 tournament game against Charlotte. He and his team were hit with three technicals (and eight Charlotte free throws) in 4.7 seconds.
It begins again each year. Ed McLaughlin anticipates the frenzy that will commence once Virginia Commonwealth’s season ends.
Powerful programs will contact Shaka Smart -- the courtesy calls between athletic directors is a practice of the past -- and attempt to lure the 37-year-old coach to a school with more money in the bank and more eyeballs locked onto their teams via lucrative TV deals.
“[Smart] really feels like he can win here,” McLaughlin said. “I know we've invested a lot. … I'm with him every day. That relationship is so important.”
The postseason pursuit of rising stars and proven veterans on the collegiate coaching circuit is often viewed as a one-sided effort. Some major-conference college or NBA franchise promises a multimillion-dollar contract and an opportunity to work with the best players in the country. The employers who await their decisions often seem slighted within the conversation and powerless in the process. But many have channeled their inner Joni Mitchell and reminded tempted coaches about the things they'd leave behind.
Jamie Pollard, athletics director at Iowa State, doesn't want to lose Fred Hoiberg. Pollard also knows, however, that Hoiberg won’t find an NBA city that will show him the love that Ames, his hometown, does all year. And what pro team will match his 10-year contract? Eric Sexton understands that Gregg Marshall will be courted. That's why Wichita State's AD puts Marshall's team on charters to games and continues to increase his pay (Marshall makes $1.75 million). Everything about Marshall's gig is high-major.
A few months ago, Tennessee reportedly chased Louisiana Tech's Michael White. But the school's commitment to White and the program -- the university recently converted an old gym into a practice facility -- made it hard to leave for Knoxville, especially after a 29-win season suggested that the Bulldogs could snatch their first NCAA tourney bid since 1991 nine months from now.
“The reality is that the money is at such a different level [for some high-major jobs] that at some point, you can't compete,” said Tommy McClelland, Louisiana Tech's athletics director. “But we want him to be here. He's wanted. He's truly wanted here. There's something to be said about being wanted.”
Added White: “I've had some tough decisions to make but as we all know, the grass isn't always greener on the other side.”
Money in the NBA is plenty green, and both the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers wanted Tom Izzo. Michigan State AD Mark Hollis couldn't compete with the money. But the NBA can't match Izzo's relationships on the East Lansing campus.
That's why the underdogs have won so many fights for top candidates.
“It's really about having a vision for having the first-class student-athlete experience and providing coaches with all of the tools that they need, from their perspective, to accomplish what they want to do in an environment that is conducive to them being successful,” Sexton said. “That's what we want to do is provide as many tools as we can, understanding that we're not a BCS school … [but] most of our coaches would say they want for very little.”
Every season, McLaughlin deals with rumors about Smart. But rather than stress, he focuses on the efforts that VCU has made to keep him in Richmond.
Last year, Smart rejected UCLA's overtures, even though the Bruins, it seems, have everything that any college coach would crave.
You can recruit in one of America's richest talent pools. You have access to a strong fan base and a collection of wealthy boosters. Big salaries and an even bigger spotlight. But Smart said no -- or yes, depending on your perspective.
McLaughlin views Smart's choice to stay as an affirmation of the assets he has at VCU. Under Smart, the Rams have gone from mid-major player to perennial Atlantic 10 contender with solid national TV exposure and a fleet of high-level recruits. In March, the school announced plans for a 60,000-square foot practice facility with a $25 million price tag.
“It shows [Smart] how invested we are,” McLaughlin said.
And they must be. Facility upgrades are no longer luxuries. Schools without them are missing a key element that affects both the team and its recruiting efforts.
“To be able to keep a coach of that class and recruit athletes, you're going to have to have a facility that matches what he needs to get it done,” Sukup said.
Hoiberg has fans that fill Hilton Coliseum every winter and open their wallets when necessary. He's the most popular man in town and he recently received a $600,000 raise -- more than the university's president makes in a year -- as part of a 10-year deal. Pollard, however, isn't foolish. He believes, like everyone else, that Hoiberg will ultimately leave Ames to take an NBA job. Right now, he just wants to make sure his coach has everything he wants and needs.
“Do I think he would coach in the NBA? I think yes, at some point he will,” Pollard said. “Just look at how he runs our team. He runs it like it's an NBA team. I think he's wired to do that but at this stage in his life with his young kids and his family situation, I think he's in the right place for him personally at this point and time. So I don't spend a lot of time worrying about it.”
Izzo is in a similar situation in East Lansing. He's just the second head coach that the program has had since 1976. Signs of the adoration that Spartans supporters have for Izzo? Take your pick. There was the pep rally in a Detroit mall that was packed with Spartans fans prior to a 2009 Final Four run. And the news conference when Izzo chose to stay at MSU after he was entertained by the Cleveland Cavaliers a few years ago turned into more of a celebration.
Hollis knows that Michigan State can't keep Izzo from the NBA if it's just about money. But it's about much more for Izzo.
“In college, a coach has the potential to have a bigger impact on individuals than you do in pro ball,” said Hollis, who was Izzo's college roommate. “That's something that drives him. The college game is better suited for that type of personality. … Tom is remarkable at pushing and loving at the same time. That's a trait that's very good for college basketball.”
They are not na´ve. They know that they can't stop destiny. If a coach really wants another job, he'll take it. There's not much they can do about that.
But they can continue to build their respective programs and make their decision more difficult.
“It certainly makes the week after the NCAA tournament,” McLaughlin said, “busy.”
Aside from Butler fans, maybe no one was more upset when Brad Stevens left for the Boston Celtics than Shaka Smart. Stevens and Smart were the dynamic duo of coaching rumors, up for every high-level position that opened in the past few years. Stevens’ departure put Smart directly in the crossfire. Thank heavens for Gregg Marshall.
Smart has leveraged all of that success into bigger salaries for himself and his staff, a better budget and recently announced plans for a $25 million practice facility for men’s and women’s basketball.
What would it take?
Already Smart has been rumored to be involved with openings at Minnesota, USC and UCLA and has yet to jump.
A self-described creature of habit who admits candidly he’s not real fond of change, Smart would need almost a sure thing to move, and that doesn’t mean just a place where he could win games.
Smart believes strongly in the top-down approach and would need to be assured that another school’s administration not only is committed to basketball but also shares the same vision that he has.
But the winning does matter, too, and not just winning on a national scale but also within a conference. In order to be perceived as successful and be successful, Smart knows that a team has to win its conference battles, and a team that is mired at the bottom of a conference that continues to get tougher -- the ACC, for example -- would offer little attraction for a man who already is top dog in a very good basketball league.
Possibilities: Think big or go home: Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and perhaps even a good NBA gig.
In 2003, a young man from Akron, Ohio, excelled during his rookie season in the NBA (20.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.6 SPG) and crushed philosophies about specific roles and positions in 21st century basketball. Stat hub basketball-reference.com lists LeBron James as a shooting guard his first season, a small forward the next eight years and a power forward from 2012 to the present. That might be a typo. But James does everything. He pushes the ball, he flows in the midrange, he rebounds, he posts up and he guards wings and big men. What can’t he do?
Top returnees to watch
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona: As a reserve and occasional starter in the final weeks of the season, Hollis-Jefferson blossomed on one of the most talented rosters in the country. And that’s not easy to do, especially for a freshman. He averaged 9.1 PPG, 5.7 RPG and 1.1 BPG in just 25.3 MPG. He also accrued a 113.1 offensive rating. He’ll be even more pivotal for the Wildcats next season, now that Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson have departed. The NBA prospect has All-America ability.
Sam Dekker, Wisconsin: With the key pieces returning from Bo Ryan’s first Final Four team, the Badgers will compete for the national championship in 2014-15, and Dekker is a significant component in the quest. The 6-foot-8 NBA prospect had a solid sophomore season, when he logged more minutes (29.8 MPG compared to 22.3 as a freshman) and improved his defense. His 3-point shooting numbers were down in 2013-14 (33 percent compared to 39 as a freshman), but Dekker also finished with 12.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG and 1.4 APG in a system that demands balance. Next season, Dekker could take the next step as he continues to evolve into an elite talent.
Treveon Graham, VCU: As a junior, Graham earned first-team all-Atlantic 10 honors last season after averaging 15.8 PPG, 7.0 RPG and 2.0 APG. Even though the Rams lost Rob Brandenberg and Juvonte Reddic, this will be Shaka Smart’s most talented VCU squad. It will also be Smart’s deepest VCU squad now that he has added the top recruiting class of his tenure. There were offensive issues all season for a program that averaged 75.4 PPG but finished 107th in adjusted offensive efficiency (per Ken Pomeroy), but Graham, the team’s top scorer, wasn’t the issue. He ended the year with a 111.2 offensive rating, No. 1 among A-10 players with a minimum 24 percent usage rate (per Pomeroy).
Branden Dawson, Michigan State: Dawson considered the NBA but ultimately returned to East Lansing, where he’ll be Michigan State’s featured act next season. The forward missed nearly a month of action last season with a hand injury, but he found a rhythm shortly after he returned. He wasn’t as effective as he could have been in Michigan State’s loss to Connecticut in the Elite Eight (1-for-3, five points, eight rebounds). But in the six previous games, he averaged 17.5 PPG and 8.1 RPG. If he brings that game into 2014-15, the Spartans will still be viable contenders in the Big Ten, despite losing Adreian Payne and Gary Harris.
Anthony Drmic, Boise State: The Broncos did not meet expectations last season. Although the anchors of an NCAA tourney squad, Drmic and Derrick Marks, returned to Leon Rice’s program, Boise State failed to earn a bid to the Big Dance. But Drmic and Marks are back again. And in a Mountain West that has absorbed many blows since the conclusion of the 2014-15 campaign, Drmic (111.2 offensive rating) could lead the Broncos back to March Madness, especially if he duplicates last season’s impressive numbers (15.9 PPG, 34 percent from the 3-point line).
Top newcomers to watch
Stanley Johnson, Arizona: One day, Johnson will explain how he and his 6-6, 225-pound NFL tight end frame found their way to a basketball court instead of a football field. This freshman is built like Colossus. He’s a physical player who embarrassed the boys in high school who tried to contain him. Things won’t be that easy at the college level, but Johnson, the No. 7 recruit in the 2014 class, will play early and often for Sean Miller.
Theo Pinson, North Carolina: Maybe he’ll end up playing more of a true wing role, but the 6-6 small forward is the type of explosive athlete that Roy Williams will need to compete in a conference that will add Louisville next season. Pinson, the No. 10 recruit in the 2014 recruiting class per RecruitingNation, is a fearless youngster who could crack the Tar Heels’ starting rotation early.
Kelly Oubre, Kansas: Andrew Wiggins is gone, but Oubre, a McDonald’s All-American, could be the next one-and-done small forward at Kansas.
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.
- 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!Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesJohn Calipari will have a roster full of future NBA players, as usual, next season. And this one will have experience.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.[+] EnlargeSteve Dykes/Getty ImagesMichigan State shouldn't slide back too far with Branden Dawson returning.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
SAN DIEGO -- The most compelling element of the NCAA tournament -- the thing that other sports, amateur or professional, can’t duplicate with the same authenticity -- is its capacity to create stars.
In the final five minutes of the most thrilling game of the day, Desmond Haymon was just another dude from a small program in Texas. And then he recorded a four-point play -- a 3-pointer with five seconds to play in regulation, a foul by VCU freshman JeQuan Lewis and the subsequent free throw -- during Stephen F. Austin’s 77-75 overtime victory against VCU on Friday.
“Well, miracles truly do happen,” Stephen F. Austin coach Brad Underwood said after the game.
By the time Haymon returned to his team’s locker room after the game, national radio outlets were calling and journalists were huddling nearby. Sportswriters were scrambling for media guides and rosters. Spectators, on both sides, were trying to shut their mouths. Coaches, on both sides, were wrestling with their emotions.
If we’re honest about it, how many of us knew that Stephen F. Austin sits in Nacogdoches, Texas? Wherever that is. How many Southland Conference games have we seen this season? Why are they even called the Lumberjacks?
The seemingly meaningless had become meaningful as a result of Haymon’s heroics.
Just. Like. That. Stephen F. Austin had exploded.
The shot. The foul on Lewis. The free throw.
The cold blood.
“Thomas [Walkup] was driving down the court and made a great move, and the defense came in and I called his name and [I was] shot-ready, and with God’s grace, the shot went up and I shot it with confidence,” Haymon said. “I shot it with confidence. [Lewis] closed on me kind of hard, and I stayed there with my follow-through and he knocked me down.”
That shot threw Viejas Arena into chaos. People who’d purchased tickets to support other teams had suddenly become Stephen F. Austin fans.
And the Lumberjacks, who entered the game riding a 28-game winning streak, were reborn. After they secured a 40-30 lead early in the second half, Shaka Smart freed his Rams, and a 26-5 run turned the game in VCU’s favor.
Haymon, the team’s top scorer all season, didn’t have a great outing. He was 1-for-3 in the first half. He missed most of his shots in the second half, too. But the one that sent the game into overtime, when Stephen F. Austin outscored VCU 10-8 and got its first NCAA tourney win in the program’s history (the Lumberjacks lost to Syracuse in the opening round of the 2009 NCAA tournament), changed everything and extended Stephen F. Austin’s West Coast trip.
And now, the Lumberjacks will advance to the next round on Sunday.
Haymon helped the Lumberjacks do that. And his family was in town to see it.
His father, Joe Haymon, flew for the first time just to see his son play in the NCAA tournament. His mother, Debra Haymon, hadn’t been on a plane in 20 years.
But they came, and they brought his sister, too.
Only one, though.
During his freshman season, Haymon’s other sister, Portia, died after a bout with cancer. It was a devastating blow for the young man, who also broke his wrist that same year. But he relied on his faith and his team as he ultimately became a veteran on a team that broke a few brackets Friday but also made many smile.
“Coach told us to dream big, and that’s been our motto,” said Lumberjacks forward Jacob Parker, who scored a game-high 22 points.
If Haymon had missed that shot at the end of regulation, however, he’d just be another guy for a mid-major program. The NCAA tourney loves its heroes but dismisses its losers without much sympathy. Players are forgotten. Quickly. The freight train that leads to the Final Four is too robust to stop and reflect.
This game can be superficial like that.
But we know Haymon now. He matters. His team matters.
One shot made us care about the young man from a small town in Mississippi.
That’s the power of the Big Dance.
Smart recently spoke with ESPN.com about VCU’s season, Selection Sunday and his Final Four team.
Smart: Well, I think we made some progress on the defensive end. We take more pride in some of the details that go into being a good defensive team. But I think the biggest difference between last time we played Saint Louis and this time we played Saint Louis was one was at home and one was there.
How much different are the two, the road and home, in a league like the Atlantic 10?
Smart: Well, I think in college basketball, it’s just a huge factor. I remember reading, last year, a quote by Buzz Williams that I actually used with my team. I thought it was really good. He says after Valentine’s Day, to win on the road, the only way to do it is to overwhelm the other team, and I think he gave a few examples of how you can do it. But if you don’t overwhelm the other team, just with the advantages that the home team has with energy and crowd and, sometimes, the officials his point was, you’re not winning on the road in your league that late in the year. I think that’s what you see playing out in our league and other leagues.
Your team faced some early struggles this season. How much of that was tied to the loss of veterans (Troy Daniels and Darius Theus both graduated)?
Smart: The biggest challenge was the toughest schedule we ever had, and that’s nonconference and conference combined, especially the road games we’ve played. If you look at the 11 road games in our regular season, I believe 10 of them are top-100 games and the majority of them are top 50 (RPI). Those are going to be challenges for anybody, and it just so happened in our league that we got the tough end of the stick in terms of who we had to go see on the road. In terms of our team and our guys, I think leadership is something that has continued to evolve, something we’ve gotten better at over the course of the year. We need to continue getting better at it. We lost our emotional leader off last year’s team. We lost three guys that were the most unselfish guys on our team. That’s been an adjustment, replacing those guys and the intangibles they’ve brought.
What do you want to see from your team in the days leading up to the NCAA tournament?
Smart: Well, really, with the risk of sounding overly simplistic, it’s just getting better. Obviously the teams that play the best basketball in the month of March, those are the teams that survive and advance. Those are the teams that can make runs. When we have had success in March, it’s because we’ve really gotten better in late February and early March. ... Now we just have to continue improving. We can’t lose sight of any of the details.
What’s the greatest intangible that your Final Four team possessed in 2011, and does this team have it?
Smart: Confidence was definitely the best intangible for those guys. It was odd because a lot of people didn’t think we even belonged in the tournament. We had a losing record in the month of February, but those guys never wavered in their belief and themselves and each other and our team. It was what allowed them to take the floor against a team like Kansas that had, I think, six pros and not bat an eye for a second. So does this team have that? I don’t think on the level that we did in 2011. We have some other things better than that team. I’d say if you add up our personnel, if you added the pieces together, this is probably better. Joey Rodriguez wouldn’t want to hear that. ... Going into the challenging games that we’ll have in March, we’re going to have to have a level of confidence against whoever we’re playing to be able to say we’re better than these guys and we can take them out.
Well, Wichita State stayed undefeated after securing a win over Northern Iowa, but most predicted that.
Larry Brown is in the national coach of the year conversation nearly 30 years after winning the national title with Kansas. That SMU win over Cincinnati was a major step for Brown’s program.
I was surprised by Iowa’s stand against Michigan. Memphis came from behind and then stayed strong late against a Gonzaga team that stopped playing defense in the last five minutes. Traevon Jackson hit a game winner for Wisconsin against Michigan State.
Just the typical mid-February chaos.
This weekend, however, is a bit more difficult to assess.
But I’ll do my best.
Last week: 4-1
VCU at No. 12 Saint Louis, 2 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Remember VCU? Well, the Rams got lost on the national scene for a few reasons. They didn’t get off to the dazzling start many had anticipated with the talent that Shaka Smart brought back, including leading scorer Treveon Graham. The Rams still wreak havoc on defense (no team in America forces more turnovers per possession than VCU, according to Ken Pomeroy). But this is one of America’s most mysterious offensive groups. Smart’s squad has shot 41.3 percent from the field in conference play (11th in the league). The Rams have the Atlantic 10’s top scoring offense (77.3 PPG), but they’re 101st in adjusted offensive efficiency (according to Pomeroy). Saint Louis is much easier to figure out. Jim Crews’ squad has been flawless since a Dec. 1 home loss to 26-0 Wichita State. The Billikens are third in adjusted defensive efficiency. Dwayne Evans and Jordair Jett are a potent pair on both ends of the floor, but they haven’t faced an offense like this.
Prediction: VCU 60, SLU 56
No. 3 Florida at No. 14 Kentucky, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: For weeks, Florida has looked like a bored team just itching to play an opponent that can truly give it a fight for 40 minutes. The Gators have won 16 in a row and are 7-2 against the BPI’s top 50. Since a December stretch that included a loss to Connecticut and wins over Memphis and Kansas, however, they’ve played only two teams in the BPI’s top 50 (Missouri and Tennessee) and zero in the top 25. Florida is playing as well as anyone in the country right now, but Billy Donovan’s program hasn’t been tested in a month. Literally. That’s not its fault. The SEC is bad. The Gators can’t control that, but this is a sharp turn from what it has dealt with in league play. Fighting on the road against a Kentucky team that has that next-level ability when it’s focused -- and I assume John Calipari’s team will be focused for a huge matchup -- will not be an easy affair. Plus, the Wildcats have the edge in offensive rebounding rate (43.2 percent to 37.5 percent) and free throw rate (54.8 percent to 45.5 percent), per ESPN Stats & Info. Turnover rate, however, will be more important. The last time Florida (24th in defensive turnover rate) played a young, athletic team with ballhandling challenges (Kentucky is 113th nationally in offensive turnover rate), Kansas left Gainesville. Fla., with a loss. Expect the same result in Lexington, Ky., on Saturday.
Prediction: Florida 87, Kentucky 84
No. 20 Memphis at No. 24 UConn, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN: In the first meeting, DeAndre Daniels was a monster. He finished with 23 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in UConn’s 83-73 win in Memphis. Shaq Goodwin scored 10 points (4-for-9) in that game. The rematch will once again focus on the two big men inside. Both programs field comparable backcourts. Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Lasan Kromah can play with any backcourt in the country, but Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford and Michael Dixon Jr. can, too. Any of the aforementioned guards could go big and carry his respective squad to the win, but Daniels and Goodwin could be the difference-makers. Will be the difference-makers. If Goodwin doesn’t match Daniels and contain him with stingy defense, then the veteran big man will have another huge night for UConn. But Goodwin learned from that game. He’s been fearless in recent weeks, the sign of a young player who recognizes his significance to Josh Pastner’s plans.
Prediction: Memphis 75, UConn 70
No. 6 Villanova at No. 18 Creighton, 5 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1:
On Thursday night, the wonderful minds at ESPN Stats & Info distributed an email titled "A Complete Breakdown of Doug McDermott's Scoring (Through Feb. 13)" shortly after the national player of the year frontrunner -- and it’s not close right now -- scored 26 points (11-for-19) and hit a late 3-pointer in Creighton’s 68-63 win at Butler. That memo included stats like this one: "Doug McDermott has 2,824 career points, 15th all time in Division I history. He is averaging a career-high 25.3 points per game this season." By the end of this season, McDermott should be one of the 10 greatest scorers in Division I history. Think about that. But he wasn’t the guy who torched Villanova in the first game. Ethan Wragge was 9-for-14 from the 3-point line in a 96-68 win over Villanova last month. He’s a 49 percent shooter from beyond the arc, but he’s made eight of 22 since that breathtaking display, so maybe Creighton’s 21 conference record-setting 3s against Villanova last month were an anomaly. The problem is that Creighton (39 percent from the 3-point line) gets hot often and Villanova just hasn’t done a great job of defending against the Bluejays’ best weapon (Big East teams shooting 38 percent from the 3-point line against Villanova). Another loss for Jay Wright’s crew in Omaha, Neb.
Prediction: Creighton 77, Villanova 72
No. 21 Wisconsin at No. 15 Michigan, 1 p.m. ET, CBS: This is an interesting game for so many reasons. It’s a battle between a Michigan team that’s tied with Michigan State atop the Big Ten and a Wisconsin team that has to build momentum for a strong finish to keep Bo Ryan’s streak of top-four finishes in the league alive. In recent weeks, both teams have shown some of their flaws. Michigan is an offensive turbo-engine (No. 3 in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy) that’s 18-2 when it registers a 105.0 offensive rating, according to ESPN Stats & Info. But, Big Ten player of the year candidate Nik Stauskas struggled during a recent 1-2 stretch for Michigan. Wisconsin has always been a stubborn defensive team, and the Badgers have gone from the 90s to the 40s in recent weeks in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. But they were No. 1 last season. Both teams are regaining their stride entering this game. Wisconsin, however, will stumble on the road.
Prediction: Michigan 64, Wisconsin 60
The deal wasn’t officially done then, so McGlade could only talk in hypotheticals, and even as the commissioner insisted it would all be just fine, it was hard not to think hers was merely pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking.
Sans the Bulldogs and Musketeers, the A-10 looked to be left with VCU and a bunch of teams whose latest and greatest were at least a decade earlier.
And then on one Saturday night, George Washington routed Fordham to improve to 19-4, Saint Louis survived a buzzer-beater to beat La Salle and run its record to 22-2, Dayton beat St. Bonaventure in Olean and is now 16-8, and Saint Joseph’s upset VCU to go to 16-7.
And we haven’t discussed UMass, off on Saturday but sitting at 18-4.
The dean of A-10 coaches, Martelli has seen the conference through its inevitable ebbs and flows and he knows what people were saying and thinking when October rolled around.
He also knows what they’ll be saying come March.
"Nobody is going to want to see an Atlantic 10 name pulled in the first round of the NCAA tournament," he said.
The only way the Atlantic 10 was going to survive was if teams that kept promising and threatening to become relevant actually did it.
Like St. Joe’s, which had run together 10 years of empty promises.
It’s been a decade since Jameer Nelson and Delonte West worked their magic here, and nine of those years resulted in an NCAA drought.
A year ago, things looked good. The Hawks were picked to win the conference but instead finished a disappointing 18-14.
They stumbled out of the gate again this season, 9-4 through December, but now suddenly have won six of their past eight, including signature victories against UMass and now VCU.
St. Joe’s might still be on the bubble, but at least it’s finally on the right side of it.
"The thing with this league, when you go on the road especially, if you don’t play your best game or close to it, you’re not going to win," said VCU coach Shaka Smart, who watched his team take a good half to light a fire and create havoc, let alone HAVOC. "There’s more depth now."
Fair or unfair, the Atlantic 10 and the Big East are destined for a lifelong run of comparisons. Northeast-based, basketball centric, they are a mirror image of one another, one just has a little more name cache and a bigger TV contract.
It is hard to ignore the irony in the year one side-by-side. The Big East, the league that attracted the detractors, has two NCAA locks in Creighton and Villanova, and two big maybes in Providence and Xavier.
The picked apart carcass of the A-10? It could be looking at as many as five or six bids.
"A lot of sages were taking the train to New York [for the A-10 tournament], wondering what was going to happen to us," Martelli said.
No one is wondering anymore.
On Holiday is College Basketball Nation's daily rundown of the holiday tournaments, complete with previews, recaps and links to all of the early-season tournament info you'll need in the weeks to come.
College football was more exciting Saturday, and I don't love college football: "On a slow Saturday for college basketball, there just weren’t many gems. North Carolina struggled with Richmond but eventually pulled away to win 82-72. Louisville dismissed Fairfield 71-57, which set up a marquee Sunday matchup against the Tar Heels. Winless Tulsa gave Creighton a scare. But overall, it certainly wasn’t the game’s sexiest Saturday. But there were a variety of under-the-radar and mid-major programs that offered some impressive individual efforts." -- Myron Medcalf, ESPN.com
COACHES V. CANCER: Michigan State "got punched, almost KO'd' by Oklahoma; wins Coaches' title 87-76 anyway: "The Sooners came out with something to prove. The Spartans did not. They won anyway, 87-76, despite falling behind by double digits midway through the first half in the finals of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. And despite building an 18-point second-half lead, only to fritter it away with turnovers and missed free throws. … They might not have were it not for Keith Appling, whose 3-pointer in the first half ignited a run for MSU and whose three-point play in the second half stopped a run for Oklahoma. That driving layup and ensuing free throw began a run of seven consecutive points for Appling. He finished with 27 -- a career high. He scored many of them down the stretch, driving into the lane, tossing acrobatic floaters." --Shawn Windsor, Detroit Free Press
**HALL OF FAME TIP-OFF: No. 3 Louisville, No. 24 North Carolina survive in semis, give us marquee title game -- with one caveat: The tournament organizers at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT could rest easy Saturday afternoon. Defending national champs Louisville handled Fairfield 71-57 and continued to look impressive. North Carolina, on the other hand, was a little bit shakier against Richmond -- a more solid, healthier Richmond than in recent seasons, but Richmond all the same.
Strong recap from C.L.: "Erase for a minute everything you’re used to assuming about a North Carolina basketball team under coach Roy Williams. The No. 24 Tar Heels are not that team." -- C.L. Brown, ESPN.com.
They're also not last season's team, in one very obvious way. The Tar Heels still won't have last season's leading scorer, P.J. Hairston, against Louisville on Sunday, though that is not exactly new news. What is new, now, is the open question of whether Hairston might ever come back for North Carolina. To put it simply, if Williams and UNC are worried that Hairston's summertime dalliances with convicted felon Haydn "Fats" Thomas (and the rental cars Hairston was driving that led back to Thomas's payment info and addresses at rental vendors), then he can't play. If he did, and the NCAA ruled against Hairston or UNC in the future, every game it played in the time being -- whether Richmond or Louisville or wherever -- would be in dispute.
For the first time since Hairston was pulled over, North Carolina officials -- down to Williams himself -- aren't evincing optimism about his return.
— Will Williams ever coach Hairston again? "I think I will," he said. "There's no doubt in my mind that I think I will. But I don't know." To understand the weight of that quote you need to understand that Williams would never rule anything out until it's officially ruled out. He's forever positive and hopeful. But it should be noted that even the Hall of Fame coach has changed his position since the preseason. Back then, Williams admittedly seemed unsure about how much time Hairston might miss, but he never publicly entertained the idea that Hairston would not play for the Tar Heels again. Now, Williams acknowledges he just doesn't know, and that public uncertainty can be interpreted as serious doubt. … But the prevailing theory among sources around the North Carolina program is that Hairston might not have been completely honest with investigators about the extent of his use of rental cars connected to a convicted felon named Haydn 'Fats' Thomas that were seemingly occupied by Hairston in violation of NCAA bylaws." -- Gary Parrish, CBS
Oh, also: Louisville: It would be a shame to allow the ongoing North Carolina psychodrama to blot out Russ Smith and the Cardinals. Sure, Saturday represents Louisville's first test against quality competition -- besides Fairfield, the Cardinals have treated College of Charleston, Hofstra, Cornell and Hartford like a bored housecat with a mouse. But two things stand out about Louisville thus far:
- Much like VCU, it is still turning people over at the same rate as in 2012-13 despite the new handchecking rules.
- The Cardinals are not turning the ball over themselves. They finished No. 77 in turnover rate in 2012-13 -- coughing up on 18.3 percent of their trips. This season, with Chris Jones installed in place of departed senior Peyton Siva, the Cardinals are turning it over just 11.3 percent of the time.
The small sample size disclaimer applies here. Actually, make that a double disclaimer -- small sample size and poor competition. Jones is unlikely to make things look this easy all season. But the juco transfer junior hasn't missed a step in his first season in Louisville, Smith is even better offensively thus far, and the Cardinals are rolling as a result.
Paradise Jam (updated bracket) semifinal rounds: Seeds mostly held on Day 1 of the Paradise Jam, which I think we should abbreviate to "PJ," even if support among my colleagues remains tepid. Northern Iowa and Maryland square off at 7 p.m. ET, and La Salle gets Providence at 9:30 ET in the winners' half of the bracket.
Puerto Rico Tip-Off (updated bracket): Will Act III be as crazy as the first two? Georgetown-VCU sounds like a pretty solid November nonconference game, right? By March, it might be possible for both teams to have fully shaken off the reasons why they played on the final day of Puerto Rico; they may have improved so much by then we'll look back on today's consolation -- yes, consolation -- in a whole different context.
Today, however, it's a product of the unpredictability of the week in Puerto Rico -- where Florida State manhandled VCU and probably should have beaten Michigan late; where Northeastern made Georgetown look like a fellow CAA team, and not a very good one; where Charlotte, a seemingly nondescript program at this point, finds itself in today's 6:30 p.m. ET title game in Bayamon, PR.
With all due respect to the 49ers, the Florida State game may well have hardened Michigan in crucial ways. The Wolverines were physically dominated and just straight-up played badly and still, thanks to some timely, late heroics, managed to dispatch Leonard Hamilton's team and progress to the title game. It's hard to see them losing to Charlotte now.
Then again, we've been wrong before -- which is how we got Georgetown and VCU in the 2 p.m. ET consolation game in the first place. VCU was the favorite coming in to Puerto Rico, but FSU did a number on the Rams in Round 1, and Long Beach State kept that crucial turnover number startlingly low in VCU's win in Round 2. Georgetown has not protected the ball particularly well to date. The Hoyas turn it over on 18.0 percent of their offensive possessions. And their one clear personnel advantage -- massive center Josh Smith -- may not be able to stay on the court in an uptempo affair.
And that's it: There are other tournaments out there, but only so much space on the Internet to discuss them. Enjoy the Sunday of hoops everyone.