College Basketball Nation: Wisconsin Badgers
If you have a big, physical, bruising team, one that dominates the offensive glass and gets easy putbacks around the rim, you don't necessarily need 2005-era Steve Nash running the show. Likewise, for a team full of athletic, penetration-prone wings, spacing is arguably more important than passing. If your players can get to the rim by themselves, why complicate things?
If you're neither of those things -- if your players, and thus your system, aren't the isolate-and-go types -- then you'd better make the most of Dr. Naismith's original ball-advancement mandate. You'd better be able to pass.
Below are three teams likely to be among the best passing outfits in the country in 2014-15 -- and a couple that could rank among the worst. The question is: Can they score anyway?
Teams to watch
Wisconsin: On one level, the Badgers aren't the most obvious passing exhibition in the country. In 2013-14, for example, they recorded an assist on 50.5 percent of their made field goals. That number ranked 197th in the country. Plenty of much worse overall offenses recorded higher A/FGM stats.
In reality, that has less to do with Wisconsin than it does the way official scorekeepers keep scores. In reality, the entire core of Wisconsin's top-five efficiency offense -- and the swing-motion system Bo Ryan has perfected in more than a decade in Madison -- is defined by passing. If Wisconsin's offense was a book, passing would be its spine.
For example: Last season, 27 percent of the Badgers' possessions ended in what Synergy's scouting data defines as spot-ups. That's an overwhelming number within Wisconsin's offense -- the other leaders in the clubhouse are "isolations" (15 percent), post-ups (11.3 percent), pick-and-rolls (8.3 percent) and transition baskets (8.1 percent). Simply put, you don't create that many spot-ups, and convert them at better than a point per possession, without first creating them with pinpoint movement and timely passing. The swing offense is designed such that, even when an assist isn't recorded (as can often be the case on post-ups and isolations), two or three passes probably led to the opportunity in the first place.
Last season, even as Wisconsin increased its tempo, it still turned the ball over on just 12.7 percent of its possessions -- second fewest in the country. This has always been the case under Ryan at Wisconsin; the Badgers simply do not turn the ball over. The 2014-15 version of the Badgers, the one returning almost everyone (including versatile big men Frank Kaminsky, Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker) from a Final Four run, will have all these characteristics and then some. It might be Ryan's best team yet.
Villanova: To refresh oneself on the 2013-14 Villanova Wildcats' offensive statistics is to kick yourself for missing out. For most of the season, defense was the most eye-catching part of Villanova's makeup. Save two demolitions by Creighton's Doug McDermott, the Wildcats were among the best defensive teams in the country. Less heralded was Jay Wright's offense. For whatever reason, it just didn't jump out -- even as it was playing an almost idealistically unselfish, and downright fun, brand of basketball.
Last season, the Wildcats had assists on 60.4 percent of their made field goals. They also shot a ton of 3s -- 44.8 percent of their overall field goals, in fact. This was perfect for Wright's personnel, which was short on true big men. Just one rotation player, center Daniel Ochefu, was listed as taller than 6-foot-7. Everyone else in the ostensible frontcourt -- especially James Bell, Darrun Hilliard and Josh Hart -- was carved from the "tweener swingman" mold. These guys guarded and rebounded, sure, but they were also comfortable with the ball in their hands on the perimeter. And so point guard Ryan Arcidiacono, the team's leading assist man, found them. The ball was always moving, the shots were always flying.
If you missed it the first time around, don't feel bad: I watched Villanova a lot last season, and I totally missed it, too. The good news is Bell is the only piece departing from a roster that should be just as good on the wing as it was a season ago -- a roster that has long since left the selfish, ugly offense of the 13-19 2011-12 season behind it.
Pittsburgh: The Panthers are the most intriguing, and maybe the most unlikely, team of the bunch.
For starters, they're losing their best player from a season ago. Lamar Patterson wasn't just one of the nation's best and most versatile scoring threats. He was also a genuinely gifted passer. Patterson found an assist on 30 percent of his possessions, which is great in and of itself. When you consider that he also took nearly 30 percent of his team's shots, it looks genuinely crazy. Unfortunately, he couldn't pass the ball to himself.
Still, though, Jamie Dixon's team has the look. James Robinson, Josh Newkirk, Cameron Wright and even Durand Johnson all posted plus-15 percent assist rates (with Robinson at nearly 25 percent and Newkirk at 19), and Pittsburgh might have to be even more pass-reliant after losing offensive rebounding force Talib Zanna along the front line. Last season, Pitt ranked seventh in the nation in A/FGM at 62.9 percent. With Patterson gone, a repeat performance is almost a requirement.
Teams that could struggle
Syracuse: In the past five seasons, the Orange's assists-to-field goals ratio has intermittently declined. In 2009-10, Syracuse baskets were the result of an assist nearly 65 percent of the time, one of the top figures in the country. A year later, that number was 60.5 percent. From there, it went to 56.1 (in 2011-12) to 55.8 (in 2012-13) to 49.1 (in 2013-14). Now the Orange are losing Tyler Ennis, the freshman point guard who accounted for a huge portion of their assists last season. It stands to reason that in 2014-15, Syracuse won't be a particularly productive passing team.
Again, the question is this: Does it matter?
The answer is some version of "probably not." After all, despite a disappointing finish to the season, Syracuse was still a very good team in 2013-14. The Dion Waiters 2011-12 team wasn't a scion of precise passing, but it won 34 games. Two seasons ago, Michael Carter-Williams was arguably the best passer in the country, but the Orange didn't really uncork their potential until they ratcheted up the pressure in their 2-3 zone and crushed otherwise stellar offensive teams.
The makeup of the 2014-15 squad, which will be without workhorse C.J. Fair as well as Ennis, is uncertain. But Jim Boeheim's teams are always at their best when turning defensive excellence into easy points on the offensive end, getting a handful of 3s from a lights-out shooter (in this case, Trevor Cooney) and pounding the ball to the rim offensively. There's no reason to expect that Syracuse can't do that in 2014-15. This could be a truly bad passing team that is nonetheless quite good at winning basketball games.
San Diego State: The same goes for San Diego State, albeit in far more extreme fashion.
Last October, the Aztecs looked like the classic off-year reload group; they were seen as a fringe NCAA tournament team at best. Instead, they played stingy, top-10 defense while senior point Xavier Thames had a massive, sustained campaign as the lone offensive centerpiece. The combination was good enough to beat Kansas at Kansas, win 31 games and a Mountain West title and take Arizona to the wire in the NCAA tournament.
Still, what made Thames' season so impressive wasn't just his much-needed scoring. He was also the Aztecs' primary distributor. He also never turned it over; with a usage rate of nearly 29 percent, Thames assisted on 25 percent of his possessions and coughed it up on just 10 percent. (Reminder: He was really good.) And even then, the Aztecs got just 39 percent of their field goals via assists. They ranked 350th in Division I.
If there's one thing we learned last season, it's to never undersell a San Diego State team. It might be ugly. But if Steve Fisher's group maintains its defense, it won't have to pass the ball all that well. There's more than one way to put wins on the board.
It’s not always that simple, but it’s that simple.
Connecticut was barely in the positive in rebounding margin (plus-0.4) for the overall season, but outrebounded both Florida and Kentucky in the Final Four en route to its fourth national championship.
As we look ahead to the 2014-15 season, here are a few potential chairmen of the boards:
Teams to watch
The Longhorns ranked 10th last season in rebounding margin, averaging seven more boards per game than their opponents. Not only do they return their entire roster, including leading rebounders Cameron Ridley (8.2 RPG) and Jonathan Holmes (7.2 RPG), but they add 7-footer Myles Turner to the mix. Turner was ranked No. 2 in the 2014 class by RecruitingNation.
Rebounding should easily be the strength of the team because seemingly everyone in the rotation contributes. Reserve forward Connor Lammert averaged 5.2 rebounds. Even 6-foot-2 guard Demarcus Holland averaged 4.7 boards.
Nearly 45 percent of reserve center Prince Ibeh's rebounds were on the offensive end; he helped Texas rank third nationally in offensive rebounds (15.0 per game).
Rebounding is an unspoken barometer in Chapel Hill. In the four seasons Carolina averaged fewer than 40 rebounds per game under coach Roy Williams, it has been bounced from the NCAA tournament in the first weekend, including last season. Conversely, in six of the seven seasons the Tar Heels averaged more than 40 boards, they advanced at least to the Elite Eight and claimed national titles in 2005 and 2009.
Neither forward Brice Johnson nor center Kennedy Meeks averaged 20 minutes of playing time last season, yet each averaged 6.1 rebounds. Both are likely starters this season and should see their rebound totals expand with their added playing time.
Small forward J.P. Tokoto, who averaged 5.8 boards last season, leads a group of talented wings that includes freshmen Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson, who should help the Heels get back above 40.
Add the Wildcats to the short list of teams that lost their top rebounder from last season yet should be better at rebounding. Julius Randle's 10.4 rebounds per game accounted for a quarter of the Cats' per-game total. Now that Randle is rebounding for Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers, two freshmen -- forward Trey Lyles and center Karl Towns Jr. -- should more than account for his absence. Lyles and Towns were both ranked in the top 10 by RecruitingNation.
Coach John Calipari will again have a frontcourt imposing in both its size and depth. UK won’t lose much going from starter to reserve with 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein (the leading returning rebounder at 6.1 boards last season), 6-10 Dakari Johnson, 6-9 Marcus Lee and 6-8 Alex Poythress.
Throw in their oversized backcourt of 6-6 guards Andrew Harrison and Aaron Harrison, and it’s hard to imagine UK not getting every meaningful rebound.
Forward Markus Kennedy is clearly the best rebounder on the team, leading the Mustangs with 7.1 per game last season. Kennedy had 16 games with eight or more boards, and Yanick Moreira was the only other player who registered double-digit rebounds in a game. That, however, doesn’t mean SMU is lacking. Because coach Larry Brown uses up to 11 players in his rotation, only Kennedy stood out. But the Mustangs are good as a team on the boards because they have so many contributors. They enjoyed a plus-4.8 advantage on the boards last season and return 81 percent of their rebounding.
The Wildcats ranked in the top 20 in rebounding margin the past two seasons. They outrebounded opponents by 7.1 per game last season -- the largest margin of Sean Miller’s tenure -- despite using a smaller lineup for virtually the entire second half of the season. Yes, Arizona lost leading rebounder Aaron Gordon (8.1 RPG) and guard Nick Johnson (4.0 RPG). But the Cats will regain forward Brandon Ashley, who suffered a foot injury and missed the final 16 games of last season. Sophomore Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who averaged 5.7 rebounds last season, appears ready to assume a larger role now that Gordon is gone. And freshman forward Stanley Johnson aims to have an immediate impact.
Teams that might struggle
Expectations have risen for the Cornhuskers, and rightfully so after their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998. In order to live up to their potential, though, they have to improve in the rebounding category. The Huskers ranked 256th nationally last season with a minus-1.9 rebounding margin.
Their tendency to go with a three-guard lineup often left them undersized, especially against opponents with girth. The one player bulky enough to throw his weight around, reserve forward Leslee Smith (6-8, 255 pounds), suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee last week and is out indefinitely.
The Badgers were an average rebounding team -- just a plus-1.4 rebounding edge overall -- except for the games when their backcourt made it a priority. In their NCAA tournament win against the Baylor Bears, who ranked 12th nationally in rebounding margin, Wisconsin guards Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser chipped in eight rebounds apiece as Wisconsin won the battle of the boards 39-33. The Badgers will need a more consistent effort next season. Increased playing time for sophomore forward Nigel Hayes should help, as will the ever-expanding game of center Frank Kaminsky, who led the team with an average of 6.3 rebounds last season.
Starting with point guard, ESPN.com will examine those quiet battles on a position-by-position basis this week while also promising we will never use the phrase "iron sharpens iron" to describe the competition.
In places such as Michigan State, the chance to replace a graduating senior was anticipated and planned. In places such as Oklahoma State, the vacancy opened up unexpectedly. The job was likely going to Stevie Clark, but his February dismissal means the Cowboys will rely on freshman Tyree Griffin or junior college transfer Jeff Newberry. And in many cases, the position comes down to choosing between a returnee or a talented newcomer.
Unlike other sports, even the players who lose their respective battles will still have a chance to shine. But winning could be the difference between a starring role and being a footnote.
Here are point guard battles to keep an eye on:
Duke: Quinn Cook vs. Tyus Jones
Cook too often allowed his overall game to be shaped by his makes and misses and was replaced in the starting lineup the final 10 games of the season by Rasheed Sulaimon. Jones’ arrival in the Blue Devils heralded recruiting class means Sulaimon can move back to his natural position off the ball and sets up this showdown. Jones was rated No. 4 overall and the top point guard in the 2014 class by ESPN.com. Praised for his court vision and ability to run a team, Jones is arguably the better facilitator. Cook is a much better defender who has the added advantage of knowing the system.
SMU: Nic Moore vs. Emmanuel Mudiay
Moore had a solid year for the Mustangs leading the team in scoring, assists and 3-point shooting while starting every game. He was first team all-conference in the American. Yet here comes Mudiay, who might be the most important recruit -- he’s certainly the highest ranked -- in SMU history. The 6-foot-5 Mudiay was ranked fifth overall by ESPN.com, and his time in Dallas could be limited to one season before he’s in the NBA. Point guard is the toughest position to play under coach Larry Brown, and Moore has had the luxury of learning his expectations for two years. Mudiay’s talent is so undeniable that the Mustangs might find a way to play both in the lineup.
Kansas: Frank Mason vs. Conner Frankamp vs. Devonte Graham
Naadir Tharpe’s decision to transfer opened up what was already a position begging to be solidified. The Jayhawks haven’t had stability at point guard in two seasons and it threatens what could again be a top-10 team. Mason was third on the team in assists as a freshman and briefly supplanted Tharpe in the starting lineup. Frankamp, also a rising sophomore, played in enough games as a freshman to season him for extended time this season. Graham just signed this month out of prep school, but is considered a true playmaker.
Michigan State: Travis Trice vs. Lourawls Nairn
Trice proved his value at point guard running the Spartans when Keith Appling was sidelined by injury this past season. If Nairn shows the ability to play right away, the two could likely be used in the same lineup with Denzel Valentine at small forward and Branden Dawson at power forward. Should coach Tom Izzo opt for Valentine at shooting guard, Trice would probably be the starter at point. Nairn, a 5-foot-10 freshman, will have to develop his perimeter shooting, but his toughness and leadership skills already mesh into the Izzo mold.
Wisconsin: Traevon Jackson vs. Bronson Koenig
It seems absurd that Jackson, a rising senior who started every game on a Final Four team, could see his minutes diminished by a reserve, but it speaks to Koenig's great potential. Jackson showed a penchant for making the big shot. Koenig is arguably the better scorer with his ability to get to the rim. The rising sophomore proved he’s ready for a bigger role during the Badgers’ loss to Kentucky in the national semifinals. Entrusted to run the team with Jackson in foul trouble, Koenig scored 11 points in 16 minutes during the first half.
Syracuse: Kaleb Joseph vs. Michael Gbinije
Coach Jim Boeheim has proven the past two seasons that he’s unafraid to play an untested point guard. As he did with Michael Carter-Williams two seasons ago and Tyler Ennis this past season, Boeheim could again put the ball in the hands of a player with little point guard experience in his system. Gbinije, a 6-foot-7 junior, filled in at times for Ennis, although he’s more of a combo guard than a point. Joseph, a true freshman, will be a part of the guard rotation that includes shooting guard Trevor Cooney. Don’t be surprised if Joseph ends up like Ennis in the starting lineup early.
Memphis: Rashawn Powell vs. Dominic Magee
It’s been a while since Memphis didn’t have an heir awaiting the starting duties at point guard. Coach Josh Pastner looks to replace five senior guards with a three freshmen who can all play point. Powell and Magee are the likely front-runners as pure point guards. Powell is as much of a wild card as the true freshman Magee. He didn’t qualify last season and was not allowed to practice, but was enrolled in school. Pastner will have a third option in Markell Crawford, who redshirted last season, who has the leadership skills to step in and run the team.
North Carolina: Nate Britt vs. Joel Berry
Thank Kendall Marshall for this battle. Marshall’s injury in the 2012 NCAA tournament sabotaged a team built for a national title run, and coach Roy Williams vowed he’d never be in that position again. In past years, Williams probably would not have added a point guard in this class considering Marcus Paige will ultimately run the show. This battle won’t be as detrimental to team success as others, but is intriguing nonetheless. Berry, the freshman, will challenge Britt, the sophomore, and the time-old notion in Chapel Hill that seniority wins out.
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.
For the first time since the end of the season, the coaches finally know whom they will have and whom they won’t for next season.
Here are the winners and losers after the early-entry deadline. Keep in mind, some teams -- Duke, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Colorado, Arizona State and Tennessee -- knew long ago they would be losing players, so they don’t fit in either category.
Kentucky: The Wildcats could have been starting from scratch again next season. The players would have had plenty of reason to bolt after making the national title game. But only two did, and the Wildcats can absorb the losses of Julius Randle and James Young. The decisions by Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee to stay, coupled with newcomers Trey Lyles and Karl Towns Jr., give Kentucky a deeper and more versatile frontcourt. The return of guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison means coach John Calipari doesn’t need to restart his perimeter. Kentucky is probably the only program in the country that can be in the winners column by losing two lottery picks because of the NBA draft-level depth of the freshman and sophomore classes.
Wisconsin: The Badgers were within one stop of advancing to the national title game before Aaron Harrison’s 3-point dagger in Arlington, Texas, in the national semifinal. Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky easily could have put their postgame emotions behind them and said goodbye to Madison. But they did not. The return of the two scorers -- one on the wing and one inside and out -- means the Badgers have enough returning to be a Big Ten preseason favorite, a top-five team and a national title contender.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels were in a danger zone. UNC lost James Michael McAdoo, who had been inconsistent at times during his career. It could have seen point guard Marcus Paige and forward Brice Johnson bolt too. But that didn’t happen. Having Paige return is huge for coach Roy Williams. Paige will be the preseason favorite for ACC Player of the Year. His return was a must for UNC to be a conference title contender.
Louisville: The Cardinals had the most electric frontcourt player in the American last season in Montrezl Harrell. Few players could keep him off the backboard when he was going for a flush. The Cardinals continue to reload but don’t need to restart in the ACC sans Harrell. They won’t have to with his return.
Arkansas: The Hogs were a bit of an enigma last season with a sweep of Kentucky and a near-miss overtime loss at home to Florida. But the chances for Arkansas to make the NCAA tournament next season under Mike Anderson would have been reduced considerably if 6-foot-10 Bobby Portis and 6-6 Michael Qualls declared for the draft. Anderson was pleased to report Sunday that they did not.
Nebraska: The goodwill created by the Huskers’ run to the NCAA tournament could have been snuffed out if Terran Petteway was romanced by the good fortune and declared for the NBA draft. But he chose against it, and as a result Nebraska should be in the top six in the Big Ten and competing for a bid again.
West Virginia: The Mountaineers had moments last season when they looked like an NCAA tournament team. They should be next season with the decision by point guard Juwan Staten to return to Morgantown. He averaged 18.1 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game. He will enter the season with a strong case to be considered for Big 12 Player of the Year honors.
Oregon: The Ducks are constantly in transition but needed some sort of consistency from one season to another with a key transfer. Joseph Young had the goods to declare. But he’s coming back to give them a legitimate scorer going into next season and an all-Pac-12 player in the quest to return to the NCAA tournament.
Utah: Larry Krystkowiak has the Utes on the verge of being an NCAA tournament team. That plan could have easily been derailed if Delon Wright took the bait of being a possible first-round pick. Wright’s return means the Utes will be an upper-half Pac-12 team and a preseason pick to make the NCAA tournament.
UCLA: The Bruins found out late Saturday night that Jordan Adams was gone. He joins Kyle Anderson and Zach LaVine. That means four of five starters are not back from the Pac-12 tournament champs. Steve Alford has a stellar recruiting class, but this team will be extremely young.
Michigan: The Wolverines are a prisoner of their own success. Nik Stauskas was hardly a two-year player when he was signed. But he matured into a Big Ten Player of the Year. He jumped with Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary, who had no choice after a one-year ban because of a failed drug test for marijuana during the NCAA tournament. The Wolverines will enter a new era under John Beilein.
Syracuse: Tyler Ennis was probably more of a two-year point guard when he was signed. But he was one of the best players in the country as a freshman and capitalized on his success by leaving for the lottery. Jerami Grant's departure means the Orange will look quite a bit different in their second year in the ACC.
Missouri: The Tigers lost coach Frank Haith to Tulsa and their two best players in Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown. They will be pushing a restart button next season.
Xavier: The Musketeers had one of the most dynamic players in the Big East last season in Semaj Christon. Xavier is never down, but this presents yet another challenge for Chris Mack.
New Mexico: Alex Kirk was a potential early entrant. Add his departure to the known exits of Cameron Bairstow and Kendall Williams and the Lobos are rebuilding under Craig Neal.
Clemson: The Tigers had serious momentum with a strong finishing kick led by K.J. McDaniels. Brad Brownell always finds a way to keep his teams competitive. He’ll need to reinvent the team again with the loss of McDaniels.
Oregon State: The Beavers had a real gem in Eric Moreland, if he came back to work on his skills. He is tantalizing with his length and athleticism for the NBA, but he leaves the Beavers as a raw product when he and Oregon State could have benefited from his return.
Indiana: The Hoosiers have recruited at a high level the past four years under Tom Crean. Noah Vonleh is the latest to bolt. The problem for the Hoosiers is that he left a year too early, before he could have a full effect on the program with an NCAA berth.
NC State: The Wolfpack made a remarkable late surge to the NCAA tournament and won a game in the First Four before a late-game loss to Saint Louis in the round of 64. They had the ACC Player of the Year in T.J. Warren. The Wolfpack were supposed to be rebuilding last season and at times looked the part. But the run to the tournament changed the narrative. Now, with Warren gone, the rebuild might be underway.
UNLV: The Runnin’ Rebels were a disappointment last season even with Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith. Now they’re both off to the NBA draft, putting more pressure on Dave Rice to keep the Rebels chasing San Diego State, among others, next season.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes lost their best defensive player and leader in Aaron Craft. Now one of their top scorers is gone, too, with LaQuinton Ross' decision to declare.
Arizona: The Wildcats lost Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson -- two significant body blows. But the return of Brandon Ashley, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski, coupled with another elite recruiting class led by Stanley Johnson, means the Wildcats will be the pick to win the Pac-12.
UConn: The Huskies could afford to lose DeAndre Daniels with the addition of transfer Rodney Purvis but couldn’t handle the loss of Ryan Boatright. His return gives Kevin Ollie a lead guard to run the offense and jump-start the defense. No one will pick the defending champs to win the title again, but that’s exactly how UConn likes the odds.
LSU: Johnny Jones knew he was likely going to lose Johnny O’Bryant III, but there were questions about whether he would be without freshmen bigs Jordan Mickey and Jarell Martin. He got them both back, and the Tigers should be in contention for the NCAA tournament.
Michigan State: The Spartans weren’t surprised Gary Harris left after two seasons. But Michigan State would have taken an even deeper dip if Branden Dawson had jumped at the chance for the NBA. Dawson wasn’t a lock for the first round. He took the advice and stayed.
There was no denying the Big Ten had its share of great teams, with Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State all ranking in the top 10 at some point in 2013-14. But the league finished yet another season without having the best team in the nation. The Big Ten’s national championship drought added another year of distance since its last glory year, when the Spartans cut down the nets in 2000.
As an indication of the conference's depth, Minnesota brought home the NIT championship.
What we saw this season:
Michigan seemingly reinvented itself during the course of the season. Mitch McGary was expected to play a big role for the Wolverines, but he was hampered by a back injury that eventually sidelined him for the last half of the season. Nik Stauskas helped shoot them out of disappointment as they captured the league’s regular-season title.
Wisconsin abandoned the methodical style that had come to define it during Bo Ryan’s tenure, and became a team with enough offensive weapons to outscore its opponents. Despite losing five of six during a stretch in conference play, the Badgers bounced back to reach their first Final Four since 2000 and the first under Ryan.
Michigan State was arguably the best team in the nation before injuries sabotaged its national title hopes. The Spartans battled through those injuries and were again a popular pick as a No. 4 seed to win it all when the NCAA tournament began. They were eliminated by eventual national champion UConn in the Elite Eight. It marked the first time a group of seniors who stayed four years under coach Tom Izzo did not appear in a Final Four.
And what team proved to be more resilient than Nebraska? The Cornhuskers, picked to finish 12th in the conference’s preseason media poll, started conference play 1-5. Coach Tim Miles held his team together and guided it to an 11-4 record -- with wins over Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State -- to close out the season. The Cornhuskers finished fourth in the league standings and earned their first NCAA tournament berth since 1997-98.
Iowa and Ohio State went from hot to not and fizzled down the stretch. The Hawkeyes had problems stopping opponents, and the Buckeyes had trouble scoring. Ultimately both fizzled out of the NCAA tournament without winning a game.
Minnesota’s Richard Pitino and Northwestern’s Chris Collins, a pair of first-year coaches, gave a possible glimpse of what is to come. Pitino rejuvenated the Gophers in leading them to the NIT championship. Collins led the Wildcats to a pair of upsets over ranked teams in Wisconsin and Illinois.
What we expect to see next season:
The Big Ten title could be Wisconsin’s to claim. The Badgers again have a chance to be a special team, returning all of their key players except guard Ben Brust. Center Frank Kaminsky will be a household name in college basketball circles thanks to his NCAA tournament performance. Rising sophomore forward Nigel Hayes is poised for a breakout season in what should be an expanded role.
Wisconsin will hang with the nation’s elites next season, but not many others in the Big Ten will be considered very highly -- at least, that will be the case early on.
Michigan State and Michigan both took big hits with departing players. The Wolverines lost both Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III to the NBA draft. McGary still has until April 27 to decide if he’ll join them in turning pro. If he leaves, the Wolverines won’t have any starters from their 2012-2013 team that played in the national title game. They won’t be devoid of talent, with Caris Levert and ever-improving Derrick Walton Jr., returning, but they will be rebuilding.
The Spartans will face a similar retooling after Gary Harris announced he would forgo his final two seasons and enter the draft. Branden Dawson could have made it a devastating loss, but he will be back for his senior season. And Izzo will be welcoming new talent, such as point guard Lourawls Nairn.
Iowa and Minnesota are positioned to make a move into the league’s upper echelon, as both are expected to return key rotation players. Illinois brings back one of the league’s best scorers in Rayvonte Rice. Nebraska will be out to prove this past season was no fluke. The Huskers return Terran Petteway, who led the Big Ten in scoring with 18.1 points per game.
Indiana returns arguably the league’s best point guard in Yogi Ferrell and will add a couple of big scorers to its mix, led by James Blackmon Jr.
There will be plenty of new names to usher in next season across the Big Ten. Ohio State welcomes a recruiting class -- led by guard D'Angelo Russell -- ranked fifth by ESPN.com Recruiting Nation that could thrust it back into the Top 25.
It will be a bit of an adjustment seeing Maryland and Rutgers count as Big Ten conference games next season, as both teams will be making their league debut.
Another NCAA tournament is in the books, and before we get too sad over saying goodbye to college basketball for six months, let's review what we just witnessed:
One player can carry a team: It's particularly true if that player happens to be a guard. UConn's Shabazz Napier proved that point -- like Kemba Walker before him -- by leading the Huskies to the national championship.
One player can't carry a team: Particularly if his team relies on outscoring its opponents. For all the scoring records Creighton's Doug McDermott broke, the Blue Jays defense was ultimately picked apart by Baylor, and one of the great college basketball careers of the past decade ended in the first weekend of the tournament.
Freshmen can carry a team: Kentucky was only the second team to start five freshmen in the title game. After many stumbles during the regular season, the youthful Wildcats put it together at the right time.
Seeding is an inexact science: Louisville as a 4? Kentucky as an 8? The selection committee’s favorite phrase is "whole body of work," which is understandable, but it doesn’t take into account a team that's playing its best late, such as the Cardinals; or a team clearly better than its record, such as the Wildcats.
Brackets aren't fair, but such is life: The biggest example was having No. 1 seed Wichita State pitted against No. 8 Kentucky in the round of 32. The game had an Elite Eight feel for a reason -- it probably should have been played in the later rounds.
A 12-seed beating a 5-seed is no longer an upset: The 12-seeds nearly -- and probably should have -- completed a full sweep of the 5-seeds. No. 12 seeds Harvard, Steven F. Austin and North Dakota State all advanced and North Carolina State was positioned to join them but missed 9 of 17 free throws before blowing a late eight-point lead to Saint Louis. It was the second game in three days for the Wolfpack, who had to play their way in by beating Xavier.
The 16-seeds are getting closer (incrementally, maybe, but closer): For those counting, the No. 1 seed is 120-0 against No. 16 seeds, but the gap is closing. Coastal Carolina led Virginia by 10 in the first half and by five at halftime before losing. Albany and Weber State also gave Florida and Arizona tougher than expected games.
Four-point plays do exist: And for Stephen F. Austin it happened at the best possible moment. Desmond Haymon drew a foul on VCU's JeQuan Lewis and his four-point play tied the score with three seconds left in regulation before the Lumberjacks won in overtime.
Big shots: Whether true buzzer-beaters such as Cameron Ridley's putback in Texas' win over Arizona State or simply big shots in closing seconds such as North Dakota State's Lawrence Alexander forcing overtime against Oklahoma with a 3-pointer, we love seeing a game-changer. Kentucky's Aaron Harrison made the most of his big shots, taking down Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin in the process.
Shots not fired: With 2.3 seconds left, Arizona's Nick Johnson took one dribble too many and failed to get a shot off before time expired. The Wildcats' loss to Wisconsin in the Elite Eight proved the shot that's not taken hurts most.
Check the monitor (Shots not fired Part II): Then again, it might hurt more to lose the game after an officials' conference. Officials didn't see North Carolina coach Roy Williams signaling for a timeout with 1.6 seconds left immediately after Iowa State's DeAndre Kane scored the go-ahead basket. The ball was inbounded but the clock operator started it late, allowing Carolina a timeout after the ball was advanced to half court. The officials checked the monitor, huddled and determined that time had expired before the timeout was granted.
We still never figured out the block/charge call: It didn’t outright decide the outcome of any game, but it came close. Tennessee's Jarnell Stokes was called for a charge with six seconds left in a one-point game. Michigan's Jordan Morgan sold the call and the Wolverines advanced.
Conferences might want to rethink who earns the automatic bid: Milwaukee had a losing record in the Horizon, yet beat regular-season champ Green Bay in the league tournament en route to earning their NCAA bid. Cal Poly had a losing record overall and finished tied for sixth in the Big West, yet earned the bid and beat Texas Southern before getting pummeled by Wichita State. Mount St. Mary's also had a losing record overall before winning the Northeast tournament title. All those upsets, of course, led to NCAA tournament seeds.
Seniors matter: Obviously the shining example was Napier carrying UConn to the title and Florida reaching the Final Four by starting four seniors. But the common thread in nearly every early-round upset was that schools such as North Dakota State, which had five seniors in its rotation, and Mercer, which had seven seniors, played a lot of experienced players.
Conference affiliation doesn't: The Big 12 had the most teams in the tournament with seven, but they flamed early. Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma lost their first games, only Baylor and Iowa State made it to the Sweet 16.
Michigan State starting over: One of the best streaks came to an end this season when the Spartans lost to UConn. Keith Appling and Adreian Payne are the first players who stayed four years under coach Tom Izzo but did not play in a Final Four.
Pay more attention to the Atlantic Sun: From the conference that gave us Florida Gulf Coast last season, Mercer came out of the league this year. The Bears beat Duke in a game they were positively poised and confident they would win.
THE University of Dayton made a statement: A headline in the Dayton Daily News poked a little fun at Ohio State, but the way the Flyers were embraced after beating the Buckeyes, Syracuse and Stanford showed just how much March can unite a community.
Kevin Canevari can dance: Moments after Mercer topped Duke in the tournament’s biggest upset, Canevari provided arguably the tournament’s best celebration dance by doing the Nae Nae in front of the Bears' fan section.
Grudges last: Napier blasted the NCAA for keeping the Huskies out of the tournament last season because of their APR. That means SMU, which beat UConn twice, is on the clock for next season with some hard feelings of its own. The Mustangs missed the NCAA tournament and finished runners-up in the NIT. With most of their starters back, and adding arguably the best point guard from the 2014 recruiting class, Larry Brown's crew will be a force next season.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- He didn't want the ball. He needed it.
Aaron Harrison clapped to get his twin Andrew Harrison's attention as the latter drove through a bunch of Badgers and sought refuge in the final seconds. Andrew could see the smirk on his twin's face. It was a good sign.
Josh Gasser pursued. Aaron hesitated.
"I didn't know how much time was on the clock," said Aaron, who nailed the game-winning 3-pointer with 6 seconds to play in Kentucky's 74-73 win over Wisconsin in Saturday's national semifinal at AT&T Stadium. "I just wanted to get a little look at it. So I just rose up and took the shot."
Kentucky coach John Calipari refused to call a timeout. But throughout this tourney, he's dared his young players to create plays that feature Harrison -- his freshman sharpshooter. This is the same young man who ended Michigan's dreams with a 3-pointer in the final seconds of an Elite Eight victory somewhere on the arc with the ball in his hands. So his brother gave it to him.
"I just knew he was, like, smiling when he was dribbling the ball," Andrew said. "He's crazy. I don't understand him."
It's nothing new for those who know Aaron. He's a 19-year-old without a conscience. Some players run from that pressure. Aaron chases it.
Read the rest of this story here.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The scene in the Wisconsin locker room was as somber as any I can recall in more than a decade. Josh Gasser embraced teammate Evan Anderson with both players crying uncontrollably. Frank Kaminsky was unable to raise his head as he sat before his locker in disbelief of what had just transpired.
The Badgers had just watched Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison crush their national championship dreams with his latest dagger, a 3-pointer with 5.7 seconds left over Gasser that sent Wisconsin home.
Devastating. Crushing. Brutal. Pick your adjective.
This Wisconsin team was just 5.7 seconds away from playing seventh-seeded UConn Monday night with a chance to win the national title.
“It sucks,” Kaminsky said ... over and over. But the sentiment is more permanent for some of the Badgers than others.
To continue reading about what the future holds for the Badgers, click here.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Wisconsin got the shot it wanted with time winding down against Kentucky on Saturday night.
Traevon Jackson created some space off the dribble, stepped back and got a good look inside the 3-point arc with the game on the line.
“Once it was out of my hands, I thought it had a chance to go in,” Jackson said.
But the buzzer sounded as the ball bounded off the glass, off the rim and out.
“He got in his favorite position,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “I felt pretty good that he was able to get to that spot where he’s hit shots before. It just didn’t go.”
The fact that it came down to that final shot is a testament to Wisconsin’s resilience.
Wisconsin, as it has shown throughout this entire tournament, is not like most teams. It's not like Kentucky, either. Kentucky is faster. The Wildcats are longer. They have more depth. And they’ve got more players ready to put on suits and shake the NBA commissioner’s hands at the draft soon, too.
But the Wildcats needed all of it to pull off a 74-73 victory over a pesky and tough Wisconsin team making its first Final Four appearance since 2000. But the big run wasn’t the reason Kentucky is going to play UConn on Monday night for the national championship. Kentucky is in that game because it made the critical shot at the end --– an NBA-range 3-pointer from Aaron Harrison, a player whom big games always seem to find -- and the Badgers didn’t.
“They did everything they were supposed to do to win the game and we hit a ridiculous shot,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “And the shot they took -- if it banks in, they win. It was a heck of a game.”
No question about that. But the final sequence didn’t go the Badgers’ way, leaving Ryan to console his team.
“I really loved coaching this team,” Ryan said. “I knew there was something in there, and getting it out of them was sometimes a challenge, but they answered it. They answered everything, and that’s how we got here.”
What they didn’t have an answer for on Saturday was how to get forward Frank Kaminsky more involved. The 7-foot junior was dominant in the Badgers’ road to Arlington. He had 19 points against Oregon and Baylor and then poured in 28 points and 11 rebounds in the overtime win over Arizona. His play earned him the NCAA West region’s most outstanding player award.
Calipari’s plan was to run a lot of different players at Kaminsky in hopes of slowing him down. It worked. Kaminsky had just eight points in 32 minutes and attempted only seven shots.
Kentucky had Dakari Johnson on him most of the time but also had Alex Poythress and Julius Randle battling with him to give him some different looks.
Kentucky used its size down low, penetrating inside and trying to dump the ball in to Randle and others whenever possible. Wisconsin, as Ryan pointed out, tried to get bodies in front of those cutting to the hoop. But if a foul wasn’t called in their favor, it meant the Badgers weren’t in position to box out and get rebounds.
“That’s why they had all those second-chance points,” Ryan said.
It was 23, to be exact. Kentucky was so intent on playing the game inside that it didn’t attempt but five 3-pointers the entire game, making just two of them. In fact, they were 1-for-2 in the second half, with Harrison’s winning shot -- Calipari called him the “assassin, making the shot that is the dagger shot” -- the only one the Wildcats made from behind the arc.
Calipari was visibly relieved to still be playing on Monday after another close game, and Wisconsin must deal with the reality that a season that included a streak of five of six losses in February and then a run of 13 wins in the final 16 games, ends in the Final Four.
“I’m extremely proud of these guys,” said Ryan, who was making his first Final Four appearance with the Badgers. “When it comes down to a one-possession game, the last possession always seems so magnified. We just came up one short. We’ve been on the other end of those. We know that it’s like. It’s hard. It means we’re done playing for the year.”
1. Aaron Harrison did it again. By "it" we mean a last-second 3 25 feet from the rim from the left wing with a defender in his face. Kentucky trailed 73-71 with 15 seconds to play, and when Andrew Harrison's baseline drive stalled, the Wildcats swung the ball to the sideline to Aaron Harrison. Harrison sized up the defense, glanced at the clock -- there were eight seconds left, then seven -- and let it fly. It went in. Of course it went in.
Harrison ran back down the floor waving his arms, nodding his head, as if to say exactly that: Yep. Again.
Wisconsin had a great look to win -- Traevon Jackson stepped back for a wide-open jumper -- a shot he has made with the buzzer running out a handful of times already in his career -- and it looked good off the glass. It rimmed in and out. Jackson stood in disbelief. Bo Ryan reached to console him and then walked to shake John Calipari's hand.
2. Kentucky shut down Frank Kaminsky -- for most of the game. Kentucky's strategy against Kaminsky -- who had carried the Badgers offensively throughout the tournament, and especially in UW's Elite Eight win over Arizona -- worked. The Wildcats double- and triple-teamed Kaminsky, forcing him to kick the ball and refusing to give him any easy layups. With 90 seconds to play, Kaminsky had six points. His offensive rebound and putback with 1:15 was, to that point, the most important play of the game. It brought Wisconsin back into a tie, but it wasn't enough at the end.
3. Kentucky's offensive rebounding was too much -- for most of the game. For all of the big plays down the stretch, Wisconsin spent most of the game being overwhelmed by the Wildcats' relentless offensive rebounding. It's the same story every game with Kentucky: Calipari's team pummels its way to the rim and bullies its way to the offensive boards, getting easy putbacks. Through the first half and the first five minutes of the second, Julius Randle & Co. were grabbing 48 percent of their missed shots. It wasn't until Wisconsin made its second-half surge that the Badgers finally slowed the Big Blue brawlers down.
4. And Wisconsin did weather that inevitable Wildcats run. Near the end of the first half, after Randle finished a feathery spin-move hook around Kaminsky, he turned and told his team, "We're taking this." The first 10 minutes of the second half bore that confidence out: Kentucky came right at Wisconsin, driving at the Badgers' chests, gobbling up offensive rebounds and locking in on the defensive end. Within six minutes, Kentucky's 15-0 run turned a seven-point UW lead into a 51-43 deficit. The Badgers were in that familiar danger zone, in which a couple more misses or turnovers can turn into a sudden blowout.
But then, on Wisconsin came: With 14:34 to play, Duje Dukan got an easy layup on a gorgeous backdoor pass from Nigel Hayes. Dukan hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to three. Ben Brust responded to Andrew Harrison's layup with a 3 of his own. Two possessions later, Brust's free throws tied the game at 53-53. Or 0-0. The national semifinal would hang in the balance until the final buzzer.
5. That was a classic. If you watched, you don't need us to tell you, but let's make sure to reiterate it anyway: That was a massive 40 minutes of Final Four basketball. Both teams shot the ball well, both teams executed, both teams scored well above a point per possession (about 1.20 each), both teams had huge, and hugely loud, fan followings. Both teams traded big basket after big basket, one crucial play after the next.
And it ended as it felt destined to: With Harrison making that same unlikely 3 from that same spot, sending these same suddenly unstoppable Wildcats through to the next NCAA tournament challenge. Again.