College Basketball Nation: WCC
The Bulldogs play fast, decisive, intelligent offensive basketball. Their possessions are short, and usually effective. Their sets place a primacy on spacing, on the exploration of angles. Their personnel -- led by guards Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, two of the most efficient offensive players in the country -- averages 42.2 percent from 3 and 54.8 percent from 2-point territory. The Zags don't dominate on the offensive glass, and they're not at all reliant on fouls to create points.
What results is a just-as-effective alternative to the kind of ruthlessly physical basketball that the NCAA has so famously attempted to discourage this season: fluid movement, sharp passing, lights-out shooting, few stoppages. When Mark Few's team is in possession of the ball, it is -- and this is not an exaggeration -- beautiful.
That's the good news. You already know what comes next.
On Saturday, Gonzaga, for all its rhythmic offensive beauty, will begin West Coast Conference play with exactly zero impressive wins. (Depending on your thoughts about Arkansas, anyway. I'll stick with "exactly zero" for now.)
It will also begin with two rather rough losses. The first, an 84-79 loss to Dayton in Maui, cost the Zags a chance to play Baylor and/or Syracuse; what looked like an emergent Dayton team at the time since has lost to Illinois State and USC. The latter, last Saturday's 72-62 loss to Kansas State in Wichita, Kan., came to a struggling Wildcats bunch with a season-opening home loss to Northern Colorado and a neutral-court defeat to Charlotte on its docket.
What those losses say about those teams, and what price those results respectively will exact in March, is a matter of muddy educated guessing. But they do say something unequivocal about Gonzaga: The Zags don't guard all that well. Dayton scored 1.18 points per possession in its win, Kansas State 1.20. The Flyers were (are) a good offensive group, but even after K-State's outburst the Wildcats still are just the nation's 198th most efficient offense.
That fact is probably best explained by the same things that make Gonzaga's offense so thrilling. Few has plenty of guards and, in forward Sam Dower, an old-school step-out big man. But he has just one true interior defender, center Przemek Karnowski. Karnowski is an excellent defensive rebounder and a good shot-blocker, but he is the only player even attempting the latter, and he's averaging five fouls every 40 minutes. Combine that personnel imbalance with the Zags' inability to force turnovers, long defensive possessions, and second-chance woes (Gonzaga opponents have scored 1.26 points per possession on offensive rebounds to date, per Synergy), and you end up with a very average defense. (And, it should be noted, one that suited Kansas State's style just fine.)
Such are the causes behind Gonzaga's current predicament: Opening conference play Saturday against Santa Clara (8 p.m. ET, ESPNU) with one of its softer nonconference résumés in recent seasons. The WCC isn't what it was back in the Zags' post-Cinderella, budding-hegemon days. But it is still riddled with potential bad losses around every corner, with only Saint Mary's and BYU to even slightly bolster the résumé. A few slips here and there, and it's possible -- not probable, but possible -- that the 2013 No. 1 seed could miss the tournament entirely for the first time since 1998. The Zags are worth watching, for all kinds of reasons.
Kansas isn’t the only team in America that’s struggling right now.
Here are five other squads that might stumble into conference play due to some early problems.
- Notre Dame (7-3): The Fighting Irish entered the season ranked 21st in the Associated Press preseason poll. And that’s where the hype stopped for this new ACC member. Notre Dame’s upset loss to North Dakota State in South Bend, Ind., on Wednesday night was the team’s third of the year. In each loss, opponents have made at least 48 percent of their shots against Mike Brey’s squad (48 percent for Indiana State, 56.9 percent for Iowa and 51 percent for North Dakota State).
- BYU (8-3): The Cougars entered the week averaging 89.9 ppg, sixth in the country. They put up 112 points against Stanford, 90 against Iowa State and 96 against UMass. Tyler Haws and Matt Carlino comprise one of the best offensive combos in college basketball. But BYU’s poor defense could ruin its chances of snatching the West Coast Conference title from Gonzaga. The Cougars entered the week with the 318th-ranked scoring defense after giving up 80.4 ppg in their first 10 matchups. That’s a problem.
- Marquette (5-4): The Golden Eagles were picked as the Big East favorites prior to the start of the season. But they’re having a lot of trouble on offense. The backcourt that led Buzz Williams’ program to the Elite Eight last season is gone. And Marquette, 83rd in adjusted offensive efficiency per KenPom.com, just can’t score consistently. The Golden Eagles scored just 35 points in a November loss to Ohio State. They’ve failed to break 60 points three times this season. They have three players averaging double figures (Jamil Wilson, Davante Gardner and Todd Mayo) but they haven’t been consistent.
- UNLV (3-4): Most teams suffer after losing key players. But the Runnin’ Rebels’ problems are a combination of departures -- Anthony Bennett was the No. 1 pick in last summer’s draft and Mike Moser transferred to Oregon -- and limited cohesiveness due to a multitude of new faces. Bryce Dejean-Jones (13.3 ppg) is one of just three UNLV players who logged 5.0 mpg or more last year. Dave Rice’s program is 260th in adjusted offensive efficiency. That’s what happens when a team loses more than 50.0 ppg of production.
- Temple (4-4): Even without last year’s star Khalif Wyatt (20.5 ppg), the Owls appeared to be potential contenders for the inaugural American Athletic Conference crown before the season started. But Temple has a multitude of problems. The Owls are shooting just 43.7 percent from the field, 211th overall. They’ve also given up 74.8 ppg, the ninth-ranked scoring defense in the American thus far. And they’re also at the bottom of the conference in 3-point shooting (30.3 percent from beyond the arc). Where should Fran Dunphy begin? The list of problems is lengthy and it grew after Saturday’s overtime loss to Texas.
They called him Goldieblocks.
Well, at least some folks on social media created the impromptu and fitting nickname for Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein against Boise State. The 7-foot center debuted his newly dyed blonde hair cut in the shape of a “Bobby Brown” style from the '80s, blocking nine shots during the Wildcats’ 70-55 win.
Cauley-Stein, who tied his career high for blocks, led a defensive effort for the No. 11 Wildcats that was night-and-day better than their performance in Friday’s loss to Baylor.
The Broncos (8-1) ranked second in the NCAA in scoring with a 91.9 points per game average coming in. Prior to the game, Kentucky coach John Calipari said they ran the dribble-drive offense better than many of his teams in the past.
Boise State kept on attacking the lane, but Cauley-Stein’s versatility and quickness eliminated many advantages it gained from penetration. He could guard on switches from the perimeter on in, which is how he got to so many shots.
As much as Calipari used the Baylor loss as motivation, he could use the Boise win as a building block. The Broncos returned all of their starters from last season and are poised to be an NCAA tournament team.
The Broncos played a de-facto zone defense the way they sagged so much in their man-to-man. That look caused the Wildcats major problems against Baylor, but UK guard James Young helped loosen up the lane with his perimeter shooting in the first half.
Young scored 14 of the Cats' first 28 points and finished with a game-high 21 points. More importantly for UK, he added nine rebounds.
Rebounding was just one of UK's shortcomings against Baylor that was corrected at home against the Broncos. Julius Randle, who scored 17 points, led the way with 11 boards as Kentucky held a plus-16 rebounding advantage. The Bears beat UK, who was without forward Marcus Lee due to a stomach illness, on the boards by 15.
Boise got its leading scorer Anthony Drmic back into the lineup after he missed last week’s game with an undisclosed illness. Drmic scored 13 of his team-high 18 points in the first half, but was held to just 1-of-8 shooting after halftime.
Boise shot just 8-of-35 in the second half en route to its first loss of the season.
UK left with some positives defensively, but its ballhandling is still cause for concern. The Cats had 19 turnovers, which helped the Broncos outscore them 18-7 in points off turnovers.
UK also had just seven assists on its 27 made field goals, which suggests it’s still relying on individual talent to score.
Nevertheless, a win against an experienced team will bode well for the Wildcats, just like a win on the road will help springboard Gonzaga.
The No. 20 Bulldogs looked to be headed to a loss in Appalachia against West Virginia. Tuesday was the Bulldogs' only true road game during their nonconference schedule, and they faced every bit of adversity before pulling out an 80-76 win.
West Virginia, like Kentucky, lost both of its marquee games entering tonight and needed a win to build some confidence. Guard Eron Harris lit up the Zags with 18 points in the first half.
Unlike their losses to Wisconsin and Missouri, in which they fell behind big early, all was going well at home for the Mountaineers against Gonzaga as they ran out to a 10-point second-half lead. When the Bulldogs had a spurt, Terry Henderson seemed to suppress it when he converted a four-point play with 8:16 left.
That’s when the Zags, not known for being defensive stoppers, clamped down.
Harris couldn’t find the same open shots he had during his hot start. He made just 2-of-5 attempts in the second half, including one 3-pointer after nailing four in the first half.
The Mountaineers shot just 37 percent, which marked just the third game this season the Bulldogs held a team to less than 40 percent shooting. That allowed them to hold West Virginia without a field goal for a seven-minute stretch and regain the lead.
Kevin Pangos, who had 18 points, hit three straight 3-pointers during a 13-0 run that gave the Zags the lead for good at 74-66 with 2:18 left.
While Pangos finished the Mountaineers off from the outside, it was the inside play of center Przemek Karnowski that powered Gonzaga throughout the game. Karnowski played perhaps his best game of the season, recording a season-high 19 points and a career-high-tying 13 rebounds.
Sports fans love predictions. Well, sports fans love to tell you when your predictions are wrong. I would know.
I’ve made a few predictions during my time at ESPN.com. Some right. Some wrong.
Why stop now? Throughout the rest of the 2013-14 college basketball season, I’ll make predictions (winner and score) about five prominent weekend matchups. I’ll tally up my results each week so you all can see how well -- or poorly -- I’m doing overall.
Here we go again …
Prediction: Baylor 78, Kentucky 76
Marquette at No. 8 Wisconsin, 2:15 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network: The biggest issue for Marquette right now? Consistent offense. The Golden Eagles, like their intrastate rivals, are one of the nation’s top defensive squads (both Wisconsin and Marquette are top-25 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings). But Marquette just can’t score. Consistently. Last spring, Buzz Williams lost a veteran backcourt that registered 30.3 PPG. That didn’t help his offense. And now his program will face a Wisconsin team that held Virginia to just 38 points -- yes, 38 points -- on Tuesday. Plus, Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky are pick-and-pop nightmares for Marquette. The Golden Eagles need this one. But they won’t get it.
Prediction: Wisconsin 58, Marquette 48
No. 6 Kansas at Colorado, 3:15 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Last weekend was a rough one for Kansas, which lost to Villanova in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis. Andrew Wiggins couldn’t find a rhythm. And the Jayhawks continued to struggle from the 3-point line (2-for-11 against the Wildcats). But Bill Self recently announced that he will give freshman Joel Embiid, who leads the nation in block percentage, more minutes in the coming weeks. The fluid NBA prospect will be critical in a matchup against a Colorado squad that’s won eight in a row and held five of its last eight opponents to 65 points or less.
Prediction: Kansas 69, Colorado 65
BYU at No. 21 UMass, 1:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network: Tyler Haws (23.6 PPG, 40 percent from the 3-point line) leads an offense that’s averaging 89.2 PPG (ninth in the country). The Cougars scored 112 points in a win over Stanford and put up 90 in a loss to nationally ranked Iowa State. They’ve also been successful this year because they’re careful (ninth in offensive TO percentage per KenPom.com). But Chaz Williams (15.4 PPG, 6.4 APG, 1.3 SPG) leads a fast attack that balances UMass’ defensive pressure. The Minutemen will challenge BYU inside and outside. And the emerging Cady Lalanne (17.0 PPG, 11.4 RPG and 2.7 BPG) will be a problem in the post for BYU.
Prediction: UMass 80, BYU 74
No. 18 UCLA at Missouri, 12:30 p.m. ET, CBS: The Bruins have one of the Pac-12’s strongest backcourts with Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and freshman Zach LaVine. Sophomore Tony Parker has slimmed down, which is one of the reasons he’s averaging 21.6 MPG this year. The Bruins’ defense is relatively mediocre (65th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy), but it’s tough enough to suppress a Missouri squad that hasn’t played any notable opponents yet. Plus, the Tigers are committing turnovers on 18.6 percent of their possessions per KenPom.com (176th nationally). Jabari Brown, Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson and Co. will struggle in their first matchup with a Top 25 team this season.
Prediction: UCLA 71, Missouri 65
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Get to know Tyler Haws.
You can hardly blame folks for overshadowing the play. I mean, look at what came after it. When BYU fell to Saint Mary's on Matthew Dellavedova's last-second desperation runner, the Cougars were victimized by what might have been the shot of 2012-13 season. Even worse? The play before it -- a face-meltingly beautiful wrong-footed floater by BYU guard Tyler Haws -- should have given the Cougars the win. It was an incredible shot and, nine times out of 10, the winning one. I doubt many people remember it.
There are few more fitting anecdotes to apply to Haws' 2012-13 season. Haws, a prized recruit out of high school and a solid freshman performer in 2010, returned from his two-year Mormon mission to a college basketball landscape that had largely forgotten his existence. He didn't go entirely unnoticed all season, but relative to Gonzaga's No. 1-seed storm, the emergence of Kelly Olynyk and Dellavedova's heroics at Saint Mary's, BYU's lack of nonconference wins and second-tier WCC run kept it from engaging a wider audience. Frankly, the Cougars weren't good enough.
So Haws did his work away from the spotlight, and what work it was: Haws averaged 21.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.3 steals. He set several BYU records for sophomores, including most total points (780), best scoring average (21.7) and most games with 20 or more points (25), records made doubly impressive by the fact that this guy had played there just two years ago. He shot 51 percent from the field, 38 percent from 3 and 87.7 percent from the free throw line. He drew fouls at a high rate, kept his turnovers low and finished with a 115.7 offensive rating despite taking 30.7 percent of his team's shots. Haws not only did a lot; he did a lot well.
Whether Haws can do more is up for debate, as is a more important question: Does he need to? Saint Mary's lost Dellavedova to graduation this past spring, while Gonzaga waved farewell to Olynyk and seniors Elias Harris and Mike Hart, the former an excellent frontcourt scorer, the latter the best glue guy in the country. Gonzaga will be just fine; coach Mark Few still has his probing backcourt (Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell) and a pair of potential NBA bigs (Sam Dower, Przemek Karnowski). But if the Cougars can tighten things up defensively, Haws and fellow captains Matt Carlino (a former UCLA transfer) and Kyle Collinsworth (back from his own two-year church mission) will put points on the board at a more than workable rate.
That's probably the best-case scenario. The defense is no guarantee. But even the worst case -- really great spread up-tempo offense, with Haws leading the way -- will absolutely be worth watching this season. Haws, at a minimum, is one of the game's great attractions -- a smooth, versatile, lights-out scorer. Don't make the same mistake twice.
Gonzaga was on the national radar before his arrival, but his long hair, visible passion and scoring ability gave the Bulldogs a more prominent position in college basketball’s hierarchy.
And throughout the 2005-06 season, he was the antagonist to Duke’s J.J. Reddick, another great college player.
The final image of Morrison’s college career features the devastated wing on the floor after a come-from-behind loss to UCLA in that season’s Sweet 16.
He was the third overall pick in that summer’s draft. The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 11.8 points per game as a rookie with the Charlotte Bobcats, but things went downhill from there. Injuries didn’t help.
Morrison exited the league and played overseas after a stint with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009-10, but he never found his way back.
Now, Morrison is a student assistant on Mark Few’s staff. His father was a coach, so it’s a natural transition.
What’s surprising, however, is his attitude about his pro career. He’s been ridiculed for years as a draft bust. But he doesn’t subscribe to that view.
During an interview with the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., Morrison said he’s happy with his accomplishments and excited to tutor young players in his new role:
Morrison, 29, is basically a scholarship student-athlete again, back in class with his education paid for by the university but with different duties on the court.
“A lot of people when they first heard said, ‘Why?’ ” Morrison said. “I said, ‘Why wouldn’t you want to further your education and I get a chance to coach here. I’m the lucky one. I’m getting experience in a great program. I get to come back to the university I played for. I get to stay at home. And if everything goes right, then doors open up for me.”
He's at peace with the end of his playing career:
“There was a time in the past it was really upsetting,” he said. “It was a combination of things. I didn’t play well my first year and then I had a knee injury. Then there was a new coach and I got traded to a very good team. So that part is frustrating, but at the same time I had so many life experiences, made so many friends and did so many things that other people have never had had the opportunity to do. I had a good career leading up to that and I’m settled with it.”
It was time to move on.
“I made that decision the day I got cut by Portland,” he said. “As good as I played in summer league and then I couldn’t even get a half-guarantee [contract] or a make-good [contract]. I went to Europe and played well. Then I came back and had a good summer league and if I can’t make it, then I’m not going to be one of those guys that beats my head against the wall. Sometimes you have to look at yourself in the mirror.”
It’s an honest view.
It’s easy to criticize Morrison for what he didn’t achieve during his time at Gonzaga and in the NBA. He obviously didn’t live up to the hype attached to a top-three draft pick.
But he’s not moping about the things that didn’t work out. He’s moving on.
He was aided by his realistic view of his position in the NBA. He said that he simply wasn’t good enough to latch onto another squad.
He didn’t bash coaches or teammates or owners or the media or the world.
That’s rare. And refreshing.
Toughest: Iowa State (Nov. 20), CBE Hall of Fame Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Kansas City, Mo.)
Next toughest: at Stanford (Nov. 11), vs. UMass (Dec. 7 in Springfield, Mass.), at Oregon (Dec. 21)
The rest: Weber State (Nov. 8), Mount St. Mary's (Nov. 15), vs. Utah State (Nov. 30 in Salt Lake City), North Texas (Dec. 3), Prairie View A&M (Dec. 11), Utah (Dec. 14)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- With Tyler Haws back, BYU could steal the WCC crown from Gonzaga. The Cougars certainly will be prepared for the task. A home game against the Cyclones will be an early test for the program. The pot of gold in the Hall of Fame Classic could be a matchup against Final Four participant Wichita State (if BYU gets past Texas). Games against UMass and Oregon in December could be the kind of matchups that pull Dave Rose's team off the bubble on Selection Sunday, if they're successful.
FLORIDA GULF COAST
Toughest: at North Carolina State (Nov. 26)
Next toughest: at Nebraska (Nov. 8), Iona (Dec. 1)
The rest: Hartford (Nov. 12), at Furman (Nov. 15), Eckerd (Nov. 18), Ave Maria (Nov. 23), at FIU (Dec. 7), Samford (Dec. 14), at South Florida (Dec. 17), at Mississippi State (Dec. 19), Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Florida Gulf Coast's athleticism and acrobatics enhanced the NCAA tournament experience for everyone, as "Dunk City" became a national slogan. Well, FGCU's nonconference slate belies its playmaking ability. The Eagles' toughest matchups should be road games against a Nebraska team that finished at the bottom of the Big Ten last season and an NC State squad that lost most of its impact players. The trip to Vegas yields games against Florida A&M and either Radford or Sacred Heart. And it gets worse. You'll have to Google "Eckerd" and "Ave Maria." The dunks can't make up for this disappointing schedule.
Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27), at West Virginia (Dec. 10), at Memphis (Feb. 8)
Next toughest: vs. Kansas State (Dec. 21 in Wichita, Kan.)
The rest: Bryant (Nov. 9), Colorado State (Nov. 11), Oakland (Nov. 17), Washington State (Nov. 21), Coppin State (Dec. 1), New Mexico State (Dec. 7), vs. South Alabama (Dec. 14 in Seattle)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- The Zags must recover from the loss of talented frontcourt duo Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk. But they're still talented enough to maintain their reign in the WCC. There will be little doubt if they succeed in the Maui Invitational. Matchups against Baylor and Syracuse could follow Gonzaga's opening round game against Dayton. A loaded Memphis squad could be a problem for the Bulldogs in February. Kansas State is less interesting because Angel Rodriguez and others transferred this offseason. The potential at the Maui Invite boosts this slate, however, especially because there's a strong chance we'll see those matchups.
Toughest: at Colorado (Nov. 24), at UConn (Jan. 8)
Next toughest: Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 28-30), Boston College (Jan. 1)
The rest: vs. Holy Cross (Nov. 10 in Boston), MIT (Nov. 12), Howard (Nov. 15), Bryant (Nov. 20), at Northeastern (Dec. 4), at Boston University (Dec. 7), Vermont (Dec. 21), at Fordham (Dec. 28), at Rice (Jan. 4), at Florida Atlantic (Jan. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Tommy Amaker has one of the best rosters in Harvard history. He has the key players from last season's NCAA tourney squad. Plus, Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey are returning from last season's suspensions. We'll know more about the program's ceiling after it travels to Boulder to face Tad Boyle's talented Colorado squad. Harvard will encounter one of America's best backcourts when it goes to UConn in January. Not much beyond that. The Great Alaska Shootout features one of the weakest holiday tournament fields in the country. Nothing else in this lineup that would really interest the selection committee.
Toughest: at Notre Dame (Nov. 17), at Saint Louis (Dec. 18)
Next toughest: Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 27-30)
The rest: Ball State (Nov. 9), at Belmont (Nov. 14), Truman State (Nov. 22), at Eastern Illinois (Dec. 7), at Missouri-Kansas City (Dec. 14), IUPUI (Dec. 21), Belmont (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The Sycamores are Wichita State's biggest challenger in the Missouri Valley Conference now that Creighton has moved on to the new Big East. Jake Odum and three other starters return. They'll have to get comfortable off campus. Road matchups against Notre Dame and Saint Louis will be their toughest nonconference games. The Sycamores play five true road games before MVC play begins, and that does not include the Great Alaska Shootout. The latter features a subpar field, but Indiana State could get Harvard in the title game at least. The program might regret two nonconference meetings with Belmont once Selection Sunday arrives.
Toughest: at Kansas (Nov. 19)
Next toughest: at Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 1), at Dayton (Dec. 19)
The rest: at Cleveland State (Nov. 9), Wofford (Nov. 16), George Mason (Nov. 23), St. Bonaventure (Dec. 14), at Nevada (Dec. 22), at Northern Iowa (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- Tim Cluess' program has reached the NCAA tournament in back-to-back seasons. And despite losing Momo Jones, the Gaels could return. Most of their starters from last season are back. Their nonconference slate, however, features few opportunities to boost their at-large resume. They'll play Andrew Wiggins and Kansas in Lawrence in November. George Mason, Florida Gulf Coast and Northern Iowa are all matchups they could lose. But even if they win all three, they'll probably need more quality wins to get some help on Selection Sunday.
LONG BEACH STATE
Toughest: at Arizona (Nov. 11), Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24), Creighton (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: at Kansas State (Nov. 17), at Washington (Nov. 30), at NC State (Dec. 7), at Missouri (Jan. 4)
The rest: Hawaii-Pacific (Nov. 9), Loyola Marymount (Nov. 14), USC (Dec. 19), Montana State-Billings (Dec. 21), at Nevada (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- Dan Monson's program dismissed standouts Kaela King and Tony Freeland in the offseason. But the 49ers still can win the Big West, especially with former UCLA guard Tyler Lamb becoming eligible after the first semester. They'll need everyone to step up to deal with this strenuous nonconference schedule. The program will face national title contender Arizona on the road in early November. The 49ers open the Puerto Rico Tip-Off with a matchup against Michigan, another national title contender. The tourney also includes VCU and Georgetown. Big East title favorite Creighton travels to the West Coast for a matchup in early December. The slate ends with a matchup against Missouri in Columbia. Now that is a nonconference schedule.
Toughest: vs. Oklahoma State (Dec. 14 in Oklahoma City)
Next toughest: at Saint Mary's (Nov. 8), at Oklahoma (Dec. 30)
The rest: Centenary (Nov. 13), Central Arkansas (Nov. 20), Gulf Coast Showcase in Naples, Fla. (Nov. 25-27), at Jackson State (Dec. 1), UL-Lafayette (Dec. 4), Southern (Dec. 7), Northwestern State (Dec. 11), McNeese State (Dec. 17), at UL-Monroe (Dec. 22), Longwood (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- Last season, Louisiana Tech won 27 games and cracked the AP's top 25 poll. The Bulldogs didn't reach the tournament, but they're still a potential favorite to win Conference USA in their inaugural season in the league. But they'll probably enter conference play with an inflated record. Their mid-December game against national title contender Oklahoma State is the only one that stands out. Road games against Saint Mary's and Oklahoma could be factors if Louisiana Tech is on the bubble at the end of the season. The Bulldogs' lack of quality nonconference wins hurt them last season. They at least have a shot at a few decent ones this season.
Toughest: at Ole Miss (Dec. 22)
Next toughest: at Texas (Nov. 8), at Oklahoma (Dec. 2)
The rest: Reinhardt (Nov. 13), Seton Hall (Nov. 16), at Evansville (Nov. 18), Johnson & Wales (North Carolina) (Nov. 20), Yale (Nov. 23), at Ohio (Nov. 26), at Valparaiso (Nov. 29), Denver (Dec. 7), Alcorn St. (Dec. 16), St. Andrews (Dec. 27)
Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- Mercer brings back four starters from a team that won the Atlantic Sun's regular-season crown in 2012-13. That's the good news. But it's usually a bad sign when you have to Google some of the names featured on a team's nonconference slate. Yes, Johnson & Wales is a real school. Yes, Mercer is playing a bunch of high majors, too. But they're only high majors in name as 2013-14 approaches. Ole Miss should be its toughest game and the Bears have had success against the SEC in recent years. Texas has lost everyone, and Oklahoma has to replenish, too. Those three teams are not expected to contend for the title in their respective conferences. And then, there's Johnson & Wales.
Toughest: at Boise State (Dec. 14), Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25)
Next toughest: Louisiana Tech (Nov. 8)
The rest: Akron (Nov. 12), North Dakota State (Nov. 14), Drake (Nov. 16), Alcorn State (Nov. 24), Murray State (Nov. 30), Eastern Washington (Dec. 8), American University (Dec. 19)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- This is actually better than some recent Saint Mary's nonconference lineups. But it's still so-so, even for a Gaels program that must reboot after losing star Matthew Dellavedova. A road game against Mountain West title contender Boise State is probably Saint Mary's toughest game. The Gaels could see the Broncos again if they beat South Carolina in the opening round of the Diamond Head Classic. Iowa State might be waiting in the championship game. Louisiana Tech could win the Conference USA crown in its first season, so that November matchup should be meaningful. But the Gaels have just one true road game.
Toughest: at Florida (Nov. 18), at Arizona (Dec. 19)
Next toughest: at Marquette (Nov. 8), at Baylor (Dec. 22)
The rest:, at Middle Tennessee State (Nov. 10), Tulane (Nov. 13), at North Florida (Nov. 16), Arkansas-Little Rock (Nov. 22), Blue Mountain College (Nov. 25), at Denver (Dec. 3), at Louisiana Tech (Dec. 7), Dillard (Dec. 14), Champion Baptist College (Dec. 30)
Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- The squad that nearly upset No. 1 seed Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament last season is ready to play the role of David again. Southern, a team that returns star Malcolm Miller, could ruin a few nonconference seasons for some of the country's best teams. The Jaguars kick off the year at Marquette. They'll face Florida in Gainesville a few weeks later. Then, they have back-to-back road matchups against Arizona and Baylor in December. That November game against Blue Mountain College is actually an anomaly on this challenging nonconference schedule. You taking notes, SEC?
Toughest: at Saint Louis (Dec. 1), vs. Tennessee (Dec. 14 at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kan.)
Next toughest: CBE Hall of Fame Classic (Nov. 25-26), at Alabama (Dec. 17)
The rest: Emporia State (Nov. 9), Western Kentucky (Nov. 12), at Tulsa (Nov. 20), Oral Roberts (Dec. 7), North Carolina Central (Dec. 22), Davidson (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- The Shockers have elevated expectations after last season's Final Four run. With so much talent returning, a trip to Arlington in April seems feasible. Wichita State will get an early test against reigning Atlantic 10 champ Saint Louis, and then it will host SEC sleeper Tennessee a few weeks later. The Vols beat the Shockers in Knoxville last season. They could face BYU if they beat DePaul in the first round of the Hall of Fame Classic. Games against Bama and Davidson shouldn't be overlooked, either. But this slate lacks the power players you'd like to see a Final Four team encounter prior to conference play.
- Craig Neal (New Mexico): The Lobos should be the favorites to retain their Mountain West crowns. Neal, a former assistant for Steve Alford, guaranteed continuity and stability for a squad that brings back conference player of the year Kendall Williams and center Alex Kirk. The Lobos lost Tony Snell, a first-round draft pick by the Chicago Bulls, but they’ve added a recruiting class that includes top-100 prospect Cullen Neal (the coach's son), who should be available at some point next season after a recent health scare during the team’s trip to Australia.
- Joe Dooley (Florida Gulf Coast): “Dunk City” lost its maestro when Andy Enfield switched coasts to take the USC gig. But Dooley, a former Kansas assistant, inherits a roster that features four of the top five scorers from last season. That returning crew includes point guard Brett Comer (8.0 PPG, 6.6 APG), a star throughout FGCU’s Sweet 16 run in March. Plus, transfers Jamil Jones (Marquette) and Nate Hicks (Georgia Tech) will be available in 2013-14. Dooley’s program is in good shape as it prepares for the upcoming season.
- Steve Alford (UCLA): His messy exit from New Mexico only compounded the surprise surrounding the hire. But he’s the Bruins’ $18.2 million leader now. And even though he seized a roster that features just six scholarship players from last season, Alford commands a UCLA squad that could compete for the Pac-12 title it won in 2012-13. Kyle Anderson, David Wear, Travis Wear, a slimmer Tony Parker (he’s lost 20 pounds this offseason) and top-100 point guard Zach LaVine will anchor Alford’s first UCLA squad. There’s plenty of talent to utilize in his first season.
- Robert Jones (Norfolk State): Jones was given the interim coaching title hours after Anthony Evans left to fill the opening at Florida International. That “interim” label, however, shouldn’t stick. Norfolk State, the reigning MEAC regular-season champion, is stacked entering next season. Pendarvis Williams, last season’s conference player of the year, is one of four starters from last season returning in 2013-14. Jones’ rise from assistant to interim head coach was unexpected, but he has the pieces to be successful in his first season. Norfolk State didn't lose a game in conference play last season. That streak could continue under Jones.
- Bobby Hurley (Buffalo): The former Duke star left his brother Danny’s staff at Rhode Island to take his first head-coaching job. Buffalo finished 7-9 in the MAC and 14-20 overall last season. But six of the Bulls’ top seven scorers from last season are back. And with Javon McCrea (18.0 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 2.6 BPG) and Will Regan (11.1 PPG, 4.4 RPG) inside, Hurley’s squad will boast one of the league’s top frontcourts. Last year wasn’t a great one for the program, but Hurley has the building blocks to make immediate improvements.
- Ron Verlin (Pacific): Verlin, a longtime assistant under Bob Thomason, will guide Pacific as it returns to the West Coast Conference. Three of his top five scorers return, including Sama Taku (8.1 PPG, 38 percent from the 3-point line). Brazilian center Gabriel Aguirre could help, too. Pacific finished second to Long Beach State in the Big West last season, and the Tigers could make noise in the WCC, too. The league’s hierarchy is undefined, with Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s losing key players. So there’s a chance for multiple teams to rise. Pacific could be one of them.
- Brad Underwood (Stephen F. Austin): The new Lumberjacks coach took a hit when he lost three of his top five scorers and four seniors total. But the reigning Southland champions can build around senior Desmond Haymon (10.6 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 37 percent from beyond the arc) and junior Jacob Parker (7.2 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 41 percent from the 3-point line). Junior college transfers Tanner Clayton and Sharife Sergeant, a pair of 6-foot-9 athletes, will give Underwood some size inside. If the Lumberjacks are tough on defense again (12th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy, last season), they should be a threat to win the Southland again.
- G.G. Smith (Loyola-Md.): Tubby Smith’s son took over when former coach Jimmy Patsos accepted the Siena job. In the program’s first season as a member of the Patriot League, the Greyhounds should be players in their new conference. Dylan Cormier (16.4 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.8 SPG) is the obvious star for a squad that lost three senior standouts. Plus, Jordan Latham (1.2 BPG) and freshman Nick Gorski should help the Greyhounds fill the gaps. Smith is in a solid place for a first-year head coach.
- Matthew Graves (South Alabama): Augustine Rubit (All-American honorable mention by The Associated Press last season), Mychal Ammons and Antoine Allen combined to average nearly 40 points per game in 2012-13. Graves, a former Butler assistant, will rely on the trio as the Jaguars make a push in the Sun Belt. In his first news conference, Graves told team supporters that he intends to compete for a league championship in his first season. And with the talent his team returns and Sun Belt powerhouse Middle Tennessee’s move to Conference USA, it’s not a crazy thought.
- Chris Casey (Niagara): The bad news is that Juan'ya Green and Ameen Tanksley followed former Niagara coach Joe Mihalich to Hofstra, and T.J. Cline transferred to Richmond. The good news is that top scorer Antoine Mason is back. And that’s a big return. Mason averaged 18.7 PPG last season. He’ll face even more pressure to score now that three of the team’s top five scorers from last season are gone. But Marvin Jordan (8.2 PPG) and a number of new faces will have to back Mason in Casey’s first season. He could do worse, however, than coaching a team that’s led by the MAAC’s top returning scorer.
The best thing about the college basketball offseason is that it ends. The second best thing about the college basketball offseason is that when it ends, it ends so quickly and so exhaustively that within a few days you have to remind yourself that there was ever an offseason in the first place. By mid-November, it's impossible to imagine life without basketball.
We have the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon to thank for that. Hey, it might still be warm outside and the campus dorms are mostly empty here in the dog days of August. But exactly three months from now, college hoops will be back in full force with the Marathon, which will include more than a dozen games in more than 24 consecutive hours of basketball in what has become a great annual excuse to call into work sick.
At 7 p.m. ET on Nov. 11, the Marathon begins with an ESPN2 women's doubleheader (Stanford-UConn; then Tennessee-North Carolina) and an ESPNU men's doubleheader (Kent State-Temple; then Colorado State-Gonzaga). At 7:30 p.m. ET on Nov. 12, the Marathon ends with a Champions Classic doubleheader that very well might match up four of the nation's top five teams (Kentucky-Michigan State; Kansas-Duke).
In between, starting at 11 p.m. ET on the 11th, there's a run of men's games that will keep the hardcore fans up all night and morning and begging for caffeine by lunchtime. Who will be participating in those games? Well, stick with us here in the Nation blog. We'll be revealing each of the Marathon matchups at the corresponding time they'll be taking place three months from now. Keep this page open and refresh every two hours and you'll get a new game, along with an early analysis of the matchup. Starting with ...
BYU at Stanford, 11 p.m. ET, ESPN2: The Cougars and Cardinal will not only get the Marathon party started late on Nov. 11, they also provide a handy reminder that the earliest parts of the season mean just as much as what happens in February and March. In recent years, the NCAA tournament selection committee has de-emphasized recent results in its selection, instead emphasizing performance in the nonconference as much (or more) than any other single selection criterion. What happens on Nov. 11 matters, in other words, and that's especially true for both BYU and Stanford. The Cougars have quality players in Matt Carlino and Tyler Haws; Stanford is a quality defensive team with solid guard play from Chasson Randle. Neither team looks like a top-25 group, but they do look like they could be in the mix on Selection Sunday. So both will need as many quality nonconference wins as they can get to avoid languishing on the tournament bubble for months at a time. That process will begin immediately.
Akron at Saint Mary’s, 3 a.m. ET, ESPN2: This midnight local tip -- you know, were it not for time zones, this whole Marathon thing would be a lot harder to pull off -- features two of the best mid-major programs of the past decade. You're likely already familiar with Saint Mary's, which has crept up on (and even briefly unseated) Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference in recent years. But Akron coach Keith Dambrot has taken the Zips to the tournament in three of the past five seasons, including as a 12-seed in 2012-13. Recovering from the loss of super-efficient center Zeke Marshall won't be easy (to say nothing of the Alex Abreu ordeal), but Akron has almost everyone else back and is ready to push toward another postseason berth, and then some.
New Mexico State at Hawaii, 5 a.m. ET, ESPN2: There are many, many benefits to being in Hawaii and its time zone is typically not high on that list. But the Warriors' unique geography also makes them a yearly inclusion in the Marathon. At this point, 5 a.m. ET might as well be called the "Hawaii Slot." This year's edition of the Hawaii Slot features one of the more consistently successful and frequently slept-on mid-majors in New Mexico State, where Marvin Menzies has won 50 games over the past two seasons (and has been to back-to-back NCAA tournaments). Expect to hear a lot about Sim Bhullar, who is not your average NMSU player: He's a 7-foot-5 Canadian-born son of Indian parents whose unique background (and sheer size) won him cross-cultural hype from the New York Times before he played a minute of college ball. The good news? Bhullar was good as a freshman, when he shot 62.1 percent from the field and grabbed 12.8 percent of available offensive rebounds. The dude can play, and you can see him do so live -- as long as you can get up early (or stay up that late).
Hartford at Florida Gulf Coast, 7 a.m. ET, ESPN2: There's something immensely fun about the early-morning Marathon entries. The schools involved are typically small enough that the very idea of being included in the event (and on ESPN) is enough to draw a raucous A.M. crowd, especially in the student section. Expect things to go up a notch or two in 2013. The folks at Florida Gulf Coast are riding as high as the sport allows these days. March's "Dunk City"-defined run to the Sweet 16 put the tiny 22-year-old school and its pristine beach dorms in front of every sports fan in the country. Merchandise flew off the shelves; enrollment (almost certainly, given precedent) spiked. It's safe to assume the party will be still be raging come November.
LSU at Massachusetts, 11 a.m. ET, ESPN2: Typically, LSU fans devote more time to the mechanics of Les Miles' grass-chew habit than they do basketball, and in recent seasons it's been hard to argue with that order of priorities. The Tigers simply have not been very good. That may be changing. Johnny Jones' team returns four starters from a better-than-you-remember 19-12, 2012-13 group. But the biggest piece of news is the arrival of Jarrell Martin, the No. 11-ranked overall player in a stacked incoming recruiting class. The Baton Rouge native took to basketball later than most, but he's already developed into an imposing (if somewhat raw) presence. If his development curve continues to do its best hockey stick impression throughout the rest of the summer, look out for the Tigers. Oh, and don't sleep on UMass -- one of the most stylistically entertaining teams in the country, with a solid returning core -- either. This could be one of those games that looks huge once bubble talk ramps up.
West Virginia at Virginia Tech, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN: Virginia Tech got off to a great start last season, its first under new coach James Johnson. But by the end of the year, about the only thing the Hokies had going for them was senior guard Erick Green, who managed to post a 120.0 offensive rating on 31.7 percent usage, which ranked him behind only Nate Wolters, Kelly Olynyk, Doug McDermott and Trey Burke on the list of players who managed to be efficient despite using so many of their team's possessions. Green was great, but now he's gone, which leaves Johnson facing a classic, long-haul rebuilding scenario. West Virginia isn't quite there, but Bob Huggins' team had a decidedly un-Huggins season in 2012-13, when they played some of the ugliest, most disjointed offense the college game had to offer (which, last season, was saying something). After essentially sending talented, but troubled, forward Aaric Murray away, Huggins will have to cull some semblance of a rotation from a smattering of pieces that never congealed last year. Incoming four-star power forwards Devin Williams and Elijah Mason should help.
South Carolina at Baylor, 3 p.m. ET, ESPN: Despite taking a massive L.J. Peak-induced recruiting gut-punch this summer, Frank Martin's Gamecocks have already made more progress in his one year at the school than in the 10 before it. Martin has a six-player class arriving this fall, led by No. 7-ranked shooting guard Sindarius Thornwell. A few years down the road, the talent level in Columbia is going to be unrecognizably high. Baylor fans could lend some experience on this front. Now entering his 11th season, Scott Drew has taken the Bears from the untouchable site of shocking scandal into one of the most consistently talented programs in the country. This season, the Bears are adding two top-100 talents (Ishmail Wainright, Allerik Freeman) to a group that already includes 7-footer Isaiah Austin and a score of rising youngsters and/or reliable veterans, including forwards Cory Jefferson and Rico Gathers and guards Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin -- the list goes on and on. After an NIT title in March, Baylor should be after much more this season.
"College GameDay" from Chicago, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: I don't need to preview College Gameday for you, do I? You already know how awesome College Gameday is. Let's move on.
VCU at Virginia, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN2: It's almost unfair to pit the ESPN2 primetime games against the Champions Classic. They're bound to look pale by comparison. But on any other night of the season, VCU-Virginia (and its 9 p.m. ET follow-up, about which more below) would be must-see stuff. The basketball is good in and of itself. Under Shaka Smart, Virginia Commonwealth has morphed 2011's shock Final Four run into a burgeoning outfit that plays one of the most recognizable systems -- a constantly turnover-hawking pressing style -- in the country. UVa, meanwhile, has steadily improved under fifth-year coach Tony Bennett, who has adopted many of the pack-line defensive principles that his father Dick Bennett developed long ago at Wisconsin-Green Bay. The contrast of speed and style couldn't be more pronounced here, and if a hearty quasi-cultural, in-state rivalry doesn't exist between these two very different schools already, it shouldn't take long.
Michigan State vs. Kentucky in Chicago, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: And so we arrive at the jewel of the ESPN Tip-Off Marathon: The Champions Classic. In its first two years, the Champions Classic has done exactly what it set out to do -- provide mutually beneficial marquee college hoops scheduling at the start of the season -- and then some. It even offered an early national title preview (Kentucky vs. Kansas) in 2011-12.
This year's edition might be the best yet, and that starts with Michigan State-Kentucky. The Spartans are the prohibitive Big Ten favorite (or co-favorite with Michigan, your mileage may vary), and bring back about as solid and imposing a core -- senior guard Keith Appling, still-improving senior forward Adreian Payne, Big Ten freshman of the year Gary Harris -- and will begin the season in the top 5 because of it.
After the 2012 national title, Kentucky coach John Calipari probably didn't expect to be on the losing side of a first-round NIT game a year later (and in his hometown, no less), but even as Robert Morris fans stormed the court in March, Calipari could take solace knowing he assembled what is by all accounts the best recruiting class since the Fab Five, and maybe ever. With Julius Randle, Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Dakari Johnson, James Young and Marcus Lee, Calipari landed five of the top nine players in the class and six of the top 25. Oh, and he'll have Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein -- clearly talented players who struggled as freshmen, but should be more effective with more experience and more minimized roles -- back, too. The whole prospect is terrifying: For as good as UK was in 2011-12, this team might be better. What better early test than a veteran, Tom Izzo-coached Michigan State?
Florida at Wisconsin, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2: See? This is another really good college basketball game that most people probably won't watch live, because you're not going to miss the beginning of what I have already imagined will be a Bird-Magic-esque Wiggins-Parker rivalry in Duke-Kansas. But the doubleheader on ESPN2 isn't too far behind. No coach in the country is as consistent as Bo Ryan, and this year very little should change. The only exception is the star power offered by sophomore forward Sam Dekker, a rare top-20 recruit for the Badgers who shined in an introductory role as a freshman, and will be asked to do loads more as a sophomore. Speaking of consistency, Florida has participated in the last three Elite Eights, and the Gators appear to be as capable of that feat as ever in 2013-14. No. 2-ranked freshman point guard Kasey Hill should start and star immediately alongside forward Patric Young, and if the Gators can get equally touted freshman power forward Chris Walker academically eligible, they'll have plenty of firepower to bring to the Kohl Center.
Kansas vs. Duke, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN: Yes, UK-MSU is awfully good, and the teams are probably better overall. But for sheer intrigue, it's hard to top Duke versus Kansas. On one side is the No. 1 player in the class, Andrew Wiggins, who is not merely your average top-ranked recruit but considered by pretty much every scout you talk to as the best prospect since Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, if not LeBron James. Which is funny, considering that's the same thing Sports Illustrated once plastered on its cover next to a photo of four-time Illinois state champion, No. 2-ranked Jabari Parker. There is already a bit of a LeBron James-Carmelo Anthony thing going on here. Wiggins is the world-destroying athletic freak with the intuitive all-court game; Parker is the smooth, natural scorer. In 2003, Anthony and James entered their rookie seasons having only ever met on the AAU circuit. In 2013, Parker and Wiggins will meet each other on one of the first nights of the season, following Kentucky's Julius Randle, who is good enough to steal the eventual No. 1 overall pick out from under both.
In other words, the three reasons why you'll hear so much about NBA teams tanking in the next 12 months are all playing on the same United Center night in mid-November, and two of them are playing each other. Man, the Champions Classic is awesome. Did I mention that already? We covered that part, right?
So get your remote control handy; get your DVR game tight. That's good advice for the primetime doubleheader, but it works for the whole Marathon, too. By the time it's over, you won't even remember the offseason existed. I can't wait.
Top 10 teams that will tumble in 2013-14:
10. Gonzaga: For the first time in school history, the Zags recorded a No. 1 ranking and a top seed in the Big Dance. Their early tournament exit ended their season on a sour note, but the program reached new heights in 2012-13. Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk comprised one of the toughest frontcourts in America. Harris (14.6 PPG, 7.4 RPG) was a rugged forward who had finesse and power. Olynyk (17.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG) was the best combo forward in America. He had an underrated post game too. The duo created matchup problems for every team they faced last season. And now both players are gone. Kevin Pangos and multiple members of a respectable backcourt are back, but that Olynyk-Harris combo was special. There’s still enough talent in Spokane to win the WCC and reach the NCAA tournament, but the Zags won’t be the national title contenders they appeared to be through the 2012-13 campaign.
9. Cincinnati: Coach Mick Cronin had one of the nation’s top backcourts last season. Now, two members of a trio that anchored his 22-win NCAA tournament team -- JaQuon Parker and Cashmere Wright -- are gone. Sean Kilpatrick, the team’s leading scorer, returns. But a Cincinnati squad that struggled with consistent scoring benefited from Parker’s and Wright’s ability to stretch the floor. Both shot better than 36 percent from behind the 3-point line. Kilpatrick could be a one-man show in 2013-14, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The toughest void for the Bearcats (14th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) could be the defensive deficit created by the departure of Cheikh Mbodj (2.6 BPG). There are holes everywhere for this Bearcats squad.
8. Detroit: Ray McCallum Jr. turned down offers from powerhouse programs to play for his father, Ray McCallum Sr. With McCallum at point guard, Detroit reached the NCAA tournament in 2012 after the Titans won the Horizon League tournament. But he’s gone now. And he’s not the only key player that Detroit will miss. The Titans have lost their top four scorers from last season. Somehow, Detroit must find respectable offensive contributors who can make up for the loss of McCallum (18.7 PPG), Nick Minnerath (14.6 PPG), Jason Calliste (14.4 PPG) and Doug Anderson (12.1 PPG). McCallum could face his toughest season as a head coach in 2013-14.
7. San Diego State: It’s fair to say that San Diego State underachieved last season. The Aztecs finished in a tie for fourth in the stacked Mountain West Conference. Then they were stopped in the third round of the Big Dance by Florida Gulf Coast. Not a shameful showing, but their potential suggested that they had a higher ceiling. Well, that ceiling is lower now with the loss of four of the team’s top six scorers from last season. Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley were two of the Aztecs’ top defenders too. Franklin wasn’t the game’s most efficient player (3.4 TPG, 28 percent from the 3-point line), but he was the guy with the ball in his hands when the Aztecs needed a big play. Whom will they turn to next year? Steve Fisher seems to have more questions than answers right now.
6. Butler: Rotnei Clarke (16.9 PPG) and Andrew Smith (11.3 PPG) have moved on. That’s a challenge for the program because they formed a potent inside-outside combo. But Roosevelt Jones, Khyle Marshall and Kellen Dunham remain. So Butler can find buckets in 2013-14. The Bulldogs are on this list, however, because Brad Stevens will not be on the sideline next season. Brandon Miller has a strong pedigree. I don’t doubt his coaching acumen. But Stevens is making millions in the NBA because he has the rare ability to extract every ounce of talent from his players. At Butler, they were devoted to him and his system. That combination of buy-in and strategy led to amazing highs in recent years. Even though Miller is in the Butler family, this is still a transition. And it’s a transition without the mastermind who made Butler a household name. The Bulldogs may fall before they establish their footing under Miller.
5. Georgetown: First, Otto Porter turned pro. Then Greg Whittington tore an ACL, jeopardizing his status for next season. Yes, three starters from last season's squad return, and former UCLA standout Josh Smith will join the team at midseason. And that helps. Markel Starks' presence is a major boost for the program too. But who will create offensive opportunities for a team that registered just 64.6 PPG (247th nationally) with a lottery pick running the show? That number doesn’t tell the full story of Georgetown basketball in 2012-13. The Hoyas were fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. But Porter’s versatility eased the defensive responsibilities of his teammates. With a healthy Whittington, however, the latter will be a minimal concern for John Thompson III’s program. But there’s no guarantee that Whittington will be ready in time to help Georgetown in 2013-14. And that’s a problem.
4. Indiana: Yogi Ferrell is back. That’s the good news for Tom Crean. The bad news? Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo are in the NBA. Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls are gone too. Although Indiana entered last season as a preseason pick by many to win the national title, similar hype will not follow the Hoosiers into the 2013-14 season. They have three top-100 kids, including five-star recruit Noah Vonleh, in their incoming class. And multiple players who contributed in spurts last season will earn more minutes. So there’s enough talent in Bloomington to register another NCAA tournament bid. But the Hoosiers were the No. 1 team in America in multiple stretches last season. I can’t imagine the young program rivaling that effort next season.
3. Temple: Remember when Khalif Wyatt dropped 31 points in Temple’s win over NC State in the NCAA tournament? Remember when he did it again versus Indiana two days later? Wyatt’s offensive explosiveness helped Temple beat teams that were more talented than the Owls last season. He scored 33 points in his team’s win over Syracuse in December. He recorded 30 points when the Owls defeated VCU in early March. Now, Wyatt and sidekick Scootie Randall have left the stage. That’s a combined average of 31.8 PPG, 2.7 SPG and 6.1 APG.
2. Minnesota: Can a team that went 8-10 in the Big Ten tumble? Yep, especially if that team is implementing a new system with a limited talent pool. Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins could be all-Big Ten performers next season, but the void created when Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams exhausted their eligibility will be a challenge for new coach Richard Pitino. Plus, Joe Coleman transferred from a team that reached the Big Dance and beat UCLA in the second round. Pitino’s fast-paced, pressure system could work in the Big Ten, but he needs the right pieces to make that happen. He just doesn’t appear to have them yet.
1. Miami: Last season, Miami had it all. The hoopla that followed the surging Hurricanes included courtside appearances by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. It was a great ride for the program. But a new reality will soon take hold as Miami coach Jim Larranaga attempts to replace Shane Larkin, Julian Gamble, Kenny Kadji, Reggie Johnson, Trey McKinney Jones and Durand Scott. Those veterans were responsible for one of the ACC’s and the nation’s top defensive attacks (28th in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com). His rebuilding effort will commence in a league that will add Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame next season. Hard times ahead for the Hurricanes.
2. Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said he is confident Tennessee transfer Trae Golden can get eligible immediately. Gregory said as important as when he will play, is what he brings to the program next season. "He adds value to our team because he brings experience,'' said Gregory, whose Yellow Jackets need to start climbing upward in the 15-team ACC. "Currently he's the only perimeter player who has more than one year of playing experience and proven scoring ability. In this league, you need high quality guards and multiple ball handlers who can handle pressure, score and create. Trae's versatility should help address that need.''
3. USA Basketball is capitalizing on the fantasy camp marketplace this week by hosting a three-day $7,500 adult basketball camp with all-star coaches. The camp coincides with USA basketball's minicamp in Las Vegas and the coaches participating are a who's who from college basketball. According to the USA Basketball website, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Kentucky's John Calipari, Florida's Billy Donovan, Gonzaga's Mark Few, Villanova's Jay Wright, Miami's Jim Larranaga, Washington's Lorenzo Romar and Grand Canyon's Dan Majerle are the coaches with former college and NBA coach and current ESPN analyst P.J. Carlesimo serving as camp director. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has a highly successful adult fantasy basketball camp and other coaches are getting into the mix as well. There is a market out there for this and USA basketball has found its spot to potentially get a piece as well. The camp does cut into a few days of the last recruiting period, but with the camp in Las Vegas the college coaches can simply stay in the city and evaluate at the various high school tournaments.
Tournament bracket for the EA Sports Maui Invitational
When and where: Nov. 25-27 at the Lahaina Civic Center in Maui, Hawaii
Initial thoughts: The 2012 EA Sports Maui Invitational will be tough to top.
Chaminade’s stunning annihilation of Texas ... Rotnei Clarke’s buzzer-beater to lift Butler past Marquette ... North Carolina’s uncharacteristic display of mediocrity ... Illinois players hoisting the championship trophy after winning three games by an average of 23.3 points. Each game brought a new storyline.
This year’s event could provide similar drama. Although there is only one preseason top-10 team (Syracuse) in the bracket, the 2013 field is far from weak. Gonzaga spent time as the nation’s No. 1 team last season, Cal and Minnesota made the NCAA tournament, and Baylor won the NIT championship.
Each of those teams (with Baylor being the possible exception) should take a small step back this season, but all of them will still be solid and contend for NCAA tournament berths. In other words, there’s not a dud in this bunch, which leads me to believe that almost every game in this year’s event will be entertaining and competitive.
Potential matchup I’d like to see: Baylor vs. Gonzaga. Baylor shouldn’t have any problems beating Chaminade in the opening round and advancing to the semifinals against either Gonzaga or Dayton. The Flyers are always pesky, but I still think Gonzaga wins that game. Baylor and Gonzaga have faced off in two of the past three seasons, with Gonzaga winning both times by single digits. But I’d pick the Bears in this one. The Zags lost their top two post players (Kelly Olynyk and Elias Harris), and Baylor’s strength is in the paint with Cory Jefferson, Isaiah Austin, Ricardo Gathers, Taurean Prince and Royce O’Neale. Gonzaga boasts one of the country’s top point guards in Kevin Pangos while Baylor is searching for a replacement at that position following the graduation of Big 12 scoring leader Pierre Jackson. Still, Baylor’s overall depth in the backcourt is strong with experienced players such as Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin there to guide newcomers like Ishmail Wainright, Kenny Chery and Allerik Freeman.
Five players to watch
Justin Cobbs, Cal: Transfers are hit and miss, but things couldn’t have worked out any better when Cobbs left Minnesota for Cal a few years ago. The athletic guard averaged 15.1 points and 4.8 assists a game as a junior last season. He’ll be asked to do even more following the departure of leading scorer Allen Crabbe to the NBA.
Tyler Ennis, Syracuse: Returning standouts C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant are more recognizable names, but no player in the Maui Invitational will be under as much scrutiny as Ennis, the freshman point guard who has been tabbed to replace NBA lottery pick Michael Carter-Williams. How Syracuse fares in the ACC and, ultimately, the postseason will depend heavily on how Ennis performs in his first season of college basketball.
Andre Hollins, Minnesota: Hollins led the Gophers in scoring last season with 14.6 points per game. His 41-point effort in a victory over Memphis in the Battle 4 Atlantis was one of the top performances in college basketball all season. He should combine with Austin Hollins (no relation) to give Minnesota one of the more formidable backcourts in the Maui field. The biggest issue for the Gophers will be finding scoring down low.
Cory Jefferson, Baylor: The Bears power forward is fresh off a breakthrough season in which he averaged 13.3 points and eight rebounds a game. Jefferson was particularly effective in the postseason, when he averaged 21.2 points over a five-game stretch to lead Baylor to the NIT championship. The freakishly athletic Jefferson will combine with the 7-foot Austin and a bruiser in Gathers to give Baylor one of the nation’s top frontcourts.
Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga: A point guard, Pangos ranked third on the Zags in scoring last season with 11.9 points per game and averaged a team-high 3.3 assists. He shot just 42 percent from the field, a number that will need to increase this season. The loss of leading scorers Olynyk and Harris (who combined to average 32.4 PPG) means that Pangos will likely be asked to score at a higher rate.
Title game prediction: Syracuse over Baylor
Baylor has the size, depth, talent and experience to hang with Syracuse, and winning the championship of such an elite tournament would be a huge momentum boost for a squad loaded with potential. Syracuse, though, is an incredibly difficult team to prepare for on short notice because of its unorthodox style. Even though they lost Carter-Williams, James Southerland and Brandon Triche, the Orange aren’t short on experience, depth or talent either. Fair averaged a team-high 14.5 points and seven rebounds a game for a team that reached the Final Four last spring. Grant showed flashes of brilliance when his minutes increased during Southerland’s suspension, and DaJuan Coleman, Rakeem Christmas and Baye Keita are poised for breakthrough seasons. They’ve proved they can excel at the highest level. Look for Syracuse to win an entertaining championship game.
Who others are picking:
Eamonn Brennan: Baylor over Syracuse
Jeff Goodman: Gonzaga over Syracuse
Andy Katz: Syracuse over Gonzaga
Myron Medcalf: Syracuse over Baylor
Dana O'Neil: Syracuse over Baylor
When and where: Nov. 25-26 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.
Semifinal schedule for the CBE Hall of Fame Classic:
Nov. 25: Texas vs. BYU (7:30 p.m., ESPNU); Wichita State vs. DePaul (10, ESPN3)
Nov. 26: Consolation game (7:30 p.m., ESPNU); Championship game (10, ESPN2)
Initial thoughts: Wichita State couldn’t have picked a better year to travel three hours northeast on Interstate 35 for a game in Kansas City. The Shockers, who have a large alumni base in the area, are riding high after last season’s Final Four appearance. And no one would be surprised if Gregg Marshall’s squad is even better this season. Wichita State returns three starters (Ron Baker, Cleanthony Early and Tekele Cotton) along with its top reserve (point guard Fred VanVleet) from its 30-win team. ... DePaul was a massive disappointment in 2012-13, when it won just 11 games. But the Blue Demons could be on the cusp of a breakthrough season thanks to the return of leading scorers Cleveland Melvin and Brandon Young. ... BYU has reason for optimism as well. Led by Tyler Haws, the Cougars return nearly every key piece from the squad that won 24 games and reached last year’s NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden. ... Texas went 16-18 last season and failed to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time in Rick Barnes’ tenure. Things could get even worse in 2013-14. The Longhorns lost their top three scorers and signed a lackluster recruiting class compared to past seasons.
Potential matchup I’d like to see: Wichita State vs. BYU. These are clearly the best two teams in the field, so it’d be fitting for them to end up in the title game. The Cougars averaged 76.5 points per game last season, a mark that ranked 18th in the country, but it will be interesting to see how they fare against an aggressive Wichita State squad that is known for its toughness and intensity on defense.
Five players to watch
Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: The top NBA prospect in this field averaged a team-high 13.9 points per game last season and ranked second on the squad in rebounds (5.4). The 6-foot-8 small forward is an incredibly difficult matchup because he spends most of his time outside the paint. Early scored 24 points against Louisville in the NCAA semifinals and was named to the All-Final Four team.
Tyler Haws, BYU: The guard averaged 21.7 points a game last season -- dropping 42 on Virginia Tech -- and 28.8 points in the NIT. Haws is a volume shooter who hoisted 15.9 attempts per game in 2012-13. He connected on 48 percent of his attempts, so for the most part he’s taking quality shots. He’s the type of guy who can beat a team by himself.
Cleveland Melvin, DePaul: The rising junior has hinted on Twitter that the 2013-14 season could be his last before entering the NBA draft. Melvin has certainly posted some head-turning numbers. He averaged 16.6 points a game as a sophomore last season along with a team-high 6.8 boards. Melvin, who is 6-foot-8, averaged 17.5 points and 7.4 rebounds a game as a freshman in 2011-12.
Ioannis Papapetrou, Texas: The 6-8 small forward was one of the few bright spots for Texas last season, when he averaged 8.3 points per game, which makes him the Longhorns’ leading returning scorer. He also snared 4.4 boards per contest. Along with producing on the court, Texas needs Papapetrou to assume more of a leadership role in 2013-14.
Fred VanVleet, Wichita State: The sophomore point guard will be under a lot of scrutiny early in the season as he moves into the starting lineup to replace graduated senior Malcolm Armstead. VanVleet certainly shouldn’t have any jitters. He averaged 16.2 minutes per game last season and logged 23 minutes in Wichita State’s NCAA semifinal loss to Louisville. VanVleet’s transition into a starting role needs to be seamless if the Shockers hope to avoid taking a step back.
Title game prediction: Wichita State over BYU
Along with the confidence gained from last season’s Final Four appearance, the Shockers will have something else going for them in the CBE Classic: home-court advantage. Wichita State already had a lot of supporters in the Kansas City area before last season. That number probably doubled following its magical postseason run. Still, even though the Shockers return four key players, they’ll also be incorporating some new pieces. This is a game BYU can win, especially because of the Cougars’ ability to score and the presence of a marquee player such as Haws. This should be a great game between two strong programs led by two of the country’s most underrated coaches (Wichita State’s Marshall and BYU’s Dave Rose). The Shockers are the slight favorite.
Who others are picking:
Eamonn Brennan: Wichita State over BYU
Jeff Goodman: Texas over Wichita State
Andy Katz: Wichita State over Texas
Myron Medcalf: Wichita State over BYU
Dana O'Neil: Wichita State over BYU
Tournament bracket for the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.
When and where: Dec. 22-23, 25 in Honolulu.
Initial thoughts: I like this field. No, it doesn’t feature any powerhouse programs. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle won’t be here. But I think this might be one of the most balanced brackets among the early tournaments. That’s why I’m intrigued.
Boise State is stacked. About 92 percent of the team’s offensive output from last season returns. The Broncos squad that reached the NCAA tournament last season only had one senior. Leon Rice’s program could be (should be) the favorite to win the Mountain West in 2013-14. And the Broncos are certainly a strong contender to win the Diamond Head Classic title. They have a clear path to the championship game. Hawaii returns two of its top three scorers from a 17-15 squad that couldn’t defend anyone last season (262nd in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com). Saint Mary’s enters the “Life After Matthew Dellavedova” era. Frank Martin’s 2013 recruiting class at South Carolina is a promising addition and a sign of progress, but it might take some time to fit all of the pieces together and that might not be enough to help a Gamecocks team that went 4-14 in the SEC in 2012-13. Boise State stands tall on this side of the bracket.
Iowa State, however, could be potent, too. Fred Hoiberg just signed a 1,000-year extension. So he’s going to be the coach in Ames forever. There’s stability now. And he has a true pillar in Georges Niang. The sophomore is a combo forward who will showcase his full arsenal in 2012-13. He can lead the Cyclones to their third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. A pair of ESPN top-100 recruits, Matt Thomas and Monte Morris, will be in the mix, too. And former Marshall guard DeAndre Kane (15.1 PPG and 7.0 APG 2012-13) will be eligible to compete next year after recently graduating. But Sherrod Wright and George Mason will put up a fight against the Cyclones. The Patriots, who are moving to the Atlantic 10, were second in the CAA in 3-point defense (31.6 percent allowed) last year. Iowa State led the nation in 2012-13 with 878 3-pointers. Oregon State is my sleeper pick to win the championship. Eric Moreland, the team’s top rebounder, returns along with Craig Robinson’s top three scorers from last year (Roberto Nelson, Devon Collier and Angus Brandt). The Beavers will open the tournament against an Akron team that lost shot-blocking savant Zeke Marshall and could be without suspended point guard Alex Abreu, who pled guilty to one count of felony drug trafficking last month.
But I’m intrigued by the parity and possibilities.
Matchup I can’t wait to see: Well, Isaac Fotu's afro is just one of the reasons I can’t wait to see the opening-round contest between Hawaii and Boise State. This will be one the first times Boise plays under the pressures that come with expectations. Last year, the Broncos surprised the country. Now, success is expected. The bulk of last year’s tourney squad is back. And now, the team could enter the season as top dog in the Mountain West. But squads unprepared for the spotlight have stumbled early in the past. Perhaps Hawaii will catch BSU at the right time and score a major upset in this game.
Five players to watch:
Georges Niang, Iowa State: You might not know him yet. But you will soon. Last year, he averaged 12.1 PPG and 4.6 RPG and also made 39 percent of his 3-pointers. And Hoiberg is convinced he’s capable of more in 2013-14. He won’t have a choice. The Cyclones lost four of their top six scorers from last season. Niang has to deliver.
Roberto Nelson, Oregon State: His achievements were buried last year due to his team’s struggles. Although Oregon State lost 14 Pac-12 games, Nelson averaged 17.8 PPG. The 6-3 guard also made 40 percent of his 3-pointers. Can’t get too excited about a squad that struggled the way that Oregon State did a year ago. But Nelson is a star.
Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks, Boise State: Both Drmic (17.7 PPG) and Marks (16.3 PPG) cracked the Mountain West’s all-conference second team last year as sophomores. The two guards fueled a Boise State attack that was No. 33 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. The explosive duo could carry Boise State to another NCAA tournament appearance.
Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina: Frank Martin promised two things when he accepted the South Carolina job last year: more love for Pitbull and an upgraded recruiting pool. Thornwell -- ranked 41st among ESPN’s top-100 recruits in the 2013 class -- represents change at South Carolina. He anchors an incoming crew that’s ranked 23rd nationally by ESPN.com. The 6-5 guard could be the young stud that Martin needs to truly build the South Carolina program.
Title game prediction: All signs point to Boise State and Iowa State meeting in the championship. They’re clearly the most talented teams in the field. But the Cyclones might need some time to build chemistry, especially with Kane possibly seizing the starting point guard role. Boise State has the benefit of continuity. And the Broncos’ offensive attack is deep and versatile. I expect to see a close game because Iowa State is legit. But I think Boise State will win the title.
Who others are picking:
Eamonn Brennan: Iowa State over Saint Mary's
Jeff Goodman: Boise State over Oregon State
Andy Katz: Boise State over Iowa State
Jason King: Iowa State over Boise State
Dana O'Neil: Iowa State over Saint Mary's
It strikes me, as we head into the home stretch of our Realignment Reality week, that college basketball fans could relate. (Stay with me.)
We fans like to think of sports as essentially pure, free from the messy and confusing nature of day-to-day life, a world apart from the distressing politics and economics that dominate our lives from birth until death. They are not. They are as beholden to money as anything else. If the past three years of conference realignment have taught us anything, it is this: When the fight card pits nostalgia versus cash, cash always wins in a knockout.
Once you can wrap your head around this fact, it's a lot easier to shrug at the casual manner in which realignment has gutted some of the most enjoyable, most heated, most psychologically-invested rivalries of the past 50 years. Money always wins.
Beyond spending as much time as possible watching the actual basketball itself -- my favorite remedy for just about everything, with the possible exception of "The Big Lebowski" -- the best we can do, I'd wager, is to try to look on the bright side. There are always new rivalries to be formed.
In that spirit, let's see if we can scout out a few worth watching in the years to come:
Duke vs. Syracuse
This one is awesome enough on its face: Duke and Syracuse are both really good at basketball. Now that they're in the same league, they're guaranteed to play at least once a season, and any combination of familiarity and excellence is a guarantee to produce healthy, thrilling distaste.
There's much more to it than that. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is the winningest coach in the history of college hoops. Syracuse's Jim Boeheim ranks No. 2. The men are friends, frequent USA Basketball colleagues, cheap dinner companions, and fellow enthusiasts of acerbic wit. But they are also obsessive competitors, and you can bet that for however long both of them have the chance to coach against each other in the coming years -- Boeheim is 68, Coach K 66 -- there will be a little something extra on the line.
The men might be similar, but the schools are vastly different. Syracuse is a private research institution that nonetheless feels like a state school,* and plays its hoops in a cavernous football arena; Duke is an elite private institution with the world's best boutique gym. Syracuse feels (from afar, at least) tightly woven into the culture of the community around it; Duke's looming Gothic facades might as well be Hogwarts. About 40 percent of Syracuse's 2010 class hailed from New York state; roughly 90 percent of Duke students come from somewhere that isn't North Carolina. These are the kinds of sociocultural and perceptual differences that breed hatred beyond basketball. They are fuel for the rivalry flame.
There is also the matter of regional rivalry. That seems weird to say, given that one school is 45 minutes from the Canadian border and the other is 350 miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But there is a reason Duke is sure to schedule at least one nonconference game in the New York/New Jersey area every season: There are a lot of Blue Devils alumni in the Northeast. In the past five years, Syracuse has made a concerted effort to market itself as "New York's college team."
If it were just as simple as "two really good programs suddenly in the same conference," then we could just as easily look forward to the North Carolina-Syracuse rivalry. But a great rivalry has to be about much more than that. Duke-Syracuse has all the makings.
Memphis vs. Cincinnati
Another benefit to conference realignment: rivalries reborn! The Millennials among us might not remember it too well (OK, guilty as charged), but in 1991-92 Memphis and Cincinnati joined UAB, DePaul, Marquette and Saint Louis as charter members of the Great Midwest Conference. (That's just a a fantastic name, by the way. I've been giving the new American Athletic Conference a tough time lately, but the more I think about it, the more I've come to believe that pretty much any conference nomenclature sounds completely silly if you think about it for longer than five seconds.) The six-member GMC was short-lived; it merged with the Metro Conference in 1995, which both Memphis and Cincinnati had left in the first place, to form Conference USA. Ah, realignment. Never change.
Anyway, it was in the early '90s, in the GMC, when Memphis and Cincinnati managed to pack in some truly rivalry-worthy stuff. In 1991-92 the Tigers, led by Anfernee Hardaway and David Vaughn, met the Bearcats in the inaugural GMC tournament and again during their thrilling Elite Eight run, losing to a sublime Nick Van Exel both times. Hardaway and Van Exel met again in 1993, when Memphis upset the No. 4-ranked Bearcats 68-66 to notch the program's 1,000th win. The fact that there is no video of this game on the Internet is a shocking crime against humanity. In 1995, Memphis clinched the final GMC regular-season title over the Bearcats (thanks to 33 points from Michael Williams) on the road, and the rivalry continued on into Conference USA.
If you think either of those basketball-obsessed cities forgot about any of that, you'd be wrong. That bodes well for the future, by the way: Memphis and Cincinnati are large metropolitan areas that, despite having professional sports franchises, nonetheless eat, breathe and sleep college hoops.
Memphis vs. Louisville
OK, so this doesn't really count: The return of the Memphis-Louisville rivalry -- exponentially more heated than Memphis-Cincinnati -- will last just one year in the American before Louisville sets off for the ACC. But I had to mention it anyway, because before we all wept for Kansas-Missouri and Syracuse-Georgetown, the Cardinals' departure from C-USA last decade put a hold on a blood feud dating back to 1967. Fortunately, these two teams put each other on their nonconference schedules the last couple of seasons, and it's likely we'll see that again going forward. But still, it will be fun to add a little intraconference hatred to the mix.
UCF vs. South Florida
Neither of these programs are likely to excite basketball fans individually. Historically, neither has been very good, or even all that concerned with trying to be good, at this funky roundball thing. Maybe that's just a fact of life. But the new American Conference configuration should keep them both in the same digs for a while to come. Here's hoping that the rise of collegiate basketball in Florida in the past decade, the inherent regional familiarity and state-school ties, and the massive student bodies (nearly 110,000 enrollees between them) make for an increased focus on the basketball side of things -- and, as a result, increased success.
Butler vs. Xavier
This one isn't totally new -- the Bulldogs did enjoy a one-year stopover in the Atlantic 10 before both teams jumped to the new Big East this summer -- but it has the potential to be awfully good. For one, there is a bit of shared coaching history: Ohio State coach Thad Matta left Butler in 2000 to move to Xavier, and his eventual successors (new Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, Arizona coach Sean Miller) moved on to become immensely successful in their own right. They really are natural enemies. Alongside Gonzaga and Memphis, Butler and Xavier are the marquee non-Power Six programs of the past decade, and they're poised just a couple of hours apart on I-74. Now both affiliated with something that looks like a power conference if you squint hard enough, they will no doubt be prospecting in many of the same talent-rich areas of Indiana. This could be a thing.
Pittsburgh vs. Virginia
Pittsburgh and West Virginia don't exactly get along. Never have. Why not extend that to West Virginia's eastern cousin? Sure, the geographic intensity might not be as immediate -- Morgantown sits just south of the Pennsylvania border, while Charlottesville is a five-hour drive -- but with Pittsburgh such a consistent hoops force, and UVa on the rise under Tony Bennett, who's to say what the relationship might become? At the very least, the slow-paced Cavaliers look best poised to prevent Pitt from totally grinding an otherwise finesse-first ACC on the glass in seasons to come.
Oakland vs. Detroit
Oakland's move from the Summit League to the Horizon is a step up in general, but it also lays the groundwork for a sneaky-fun city-suburbs dispute in the greater Detroit area.
Pacific vs. Saint Mary's and/or Gonzaga
Think it's going to be tough for Butler to move to the Big East without Brad Stevens? Imagine being Pacific, which just waved farewell to the greatest coach in its history (and one of the sport's most annually underrated), 25-year veteran Bob Thomason, on the eve of a move from the Big West to the West Coast Conference. The good news? If Pacific can rise a notch or two to the level of its best WCC competition, it will be not only a perfect fit for the WCC, but also an excellent candidate to form rivalries with Saint Mary's to its west and Gonzaga to its north.
It might be a stretch, but that's the case with a few of the entries on this list. But hey, if conference realignment can toss rivalries aside so easily, who's to say new ones can't grow just as rapidly in their wake? Let's hope so, anyway.
[*Correction: An earlier version of this post described Syracuse as a state school, not a private institution. My mistake. -- EB]