College Basketball Nation: 012414 weekend homework

In 1963, a year after he was summarily ejected from a fledgling pop group called The Beatles, drummer Pete Best met his wife, Kathy. More than 50 years later, the two are still married, with two daughters and four grandchildren. Best was a British civil servant for 20 years. In 1995, when a handful of pre-Ringo Starr Beatles recordings were released on "Anthology 1," the sales earned him millions. He was inducted into the Liverpool Music Hall of Fame. In 1988, with decades of bad blood cooled, he and a group of friends (The Pete Best Band) performed at a Beatles fan convention. He even released a record, 2008's "Hayman's Green," that was reasonably well-received.

"I stopped worrying about what the reason for the dismissal was many, many, many years ago," Best said in 2008. "Simply because the fact is, there's more to life than looking back over your shoulder all the time. I think once you understand that, your priorities change and simple things in life become important."

To the world, Best is a historical footnote. His legacy is reduced to rock historian pub trivia. But Best has had a good life -- a simpler, quieter existence than he might have had as a member of the best and most influential rock 'n' roll group in history. He fashioned a life for himself, for better or worse.

The 2013-14 Florida State Seminoles can surely identify.

It’s easy to forget now, but for all but a few weeks of Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins’ recruitment, Florida State seemed the favorite to earn his services. Both of Wiggins’ parents -- Mitchell Wiggins and Marita Payne-Wiggins -- are FSU athletics alumni, and it was considered a matter of recruiting-scene-rumor dogma that both very much wanted their talented son to follow in the family footsteps. Until the final days of Wiggins' well-guarded recruitment, when even Jayhawks coach Bill Self didn't know where he stood, it seemed just as likely Wiggins would take his talents to Tallahassee, Fla., as Lawrence, Kan., or Lexington, Ky.

You know what happened next. And just as quickly and quietly as the decision was announced, Florida State was summarily written off. A bad and suddenly defense-allergic 18-16 team losing its leading scorer, senior Michael Snear, the Noles would be mediocre at best. Nothing to see here.

Leonard Hamilton's team has staunchly defied those expectations. Just as quickly as last season's team departed from the consistent defensive excellence that defined FSU in the past half-decade, the 2013-14 Seminoles have reclaimed it. This season, Florida State, which ranked 190th in adjusted defensive efficiency last season, is allowing just 0.93 points per possession to opponents, No. 16 in the country. Statistically, Florida State has been as good offensively as any good team Hamilton has had since 2007 -- the combination of Okaro White, Ian Miller and Aaron Thomas proving far better than 2011's, which made a Sweet Sixteen run, or 2012's, when FSU finished 12-4 in the ACC and won the conference tournament in March.

The question now: How much of that improvement is real?

Because those overall efficiency numbers don’t accurately describe FSU’s play of late. In November and December, the Seminoles appeared to once again possess their league's best defense. But since ACC play began, Florida State has allowed 1.00 points per trip, a mere fifth-best in the ACC. Its scoring is down slightly too. At times, the Noles have been dominant. At other times, not so much. Thus far -- at 4-2, with both losses coming to Virginia -- the Seminoles' best league win came at Clemson. None of their other opponents (Miami, Maryland, Notre Dame) are likely NCAA tournament teams.

We should get a much better picture Saturday, when Florida State travels to Duke (noon ET on ESPN/WatchESPN). The Blue Devils' defensive woes have been well covered, but Duke is still among the best offensive teams in the country, with one of those other pesky freshman stars (Jabari Parker) producing as frequently and efficiently as any forward scorer in the country not named Doug McDermott. On paper, White is as good and as obvious a defensive matchup for Parker as exists in college basketball. But can the Seminoles control the game? Can they force Duke off the 3-point line? Can they do enough on the offensive end in Cameron Indoor Stadium to leave with a win?

It's a tantalizing strength-on-strength matchup. Or is it? We'll find out Saturday, when Florida State comes to perhaps the key moment of its season to date. Life as a historical footnote need not be so grim.

Weekend Homework: Badgers need defense

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
The Wisconsin bus was making its way to the airport after losing to Minnesota when the gate came down right on the front bumper.

The Badgers were stalled, stuck and now going to be late getting back to Madison.

Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan considered having the players walk across the tarmac to the plane, but the bitter cold made the decision for him. He wasn't cruel.

The moral for Ryan late Wednesday night into Thursday morning was that not everything is going well right now but things are hardly bleak.

The Badgers won 16 in a row before a Big Ten losing streak extended to three in Minneapolis. Purdue is up next Saturday, a team that the Badgers were miles ahead of two weeks ago in perception, ranking and playing progress. But the Boilermakers host the Badgers sporting an identical 3-3 Big Ten record.

"That's why I never got real excited about 16 wins," Ryan said. "In the conference, there are so many things that get erased. Everyone was saying we're the oldest team in the world. We're not. We're pretty young."

Purdue will be ready for Wisconsin after losing an overtime game at Northwestern, a matchup that the Boilermakers had multiple chances to win. The Boilermakers have been a gritty bunch, mimicking Matt Painter's charge.

Ryan looked for one area that has become a concern for him during the losing streak -- front-court defense.

"There are reads we have to make defensively," Ryan said. "That's where we're behind."

Ryan says he fully expects Purdue will get after them defensively, which means the Badgers will have to be even more mindful of their possessions.

"Defensively we've got to have guys step up more," Ryan said. "They know it. It's no secret. I'm not going to lambaste the players. It can be corrected collectively."

The Badgers must get more from the bench, too. Winning on the road at Purdue will only happen if there is some depth and variety of scoring. Ryan says he needs more than Nigel Hayes contributing in any significant manner.

"We don't have another guy who is giving us scoring [other than Hayes] off the bench," Ryan said. "We usually have two. We don't have that second scorer off the bench."

So did the 16-game win streak mask issues? The Badgers legitimately had quality wins over Florida at home, at Virginia and over Saint Louis in Mexico. Wisconsin held on for dear life to beat Iowa. But the magic has been lost in road losses at Indiana and Minnesota and at home against Michigan.

The Badgers don't have to go to Michigan State. But that might not matter in the Big Ten title chase if they don't win a game like Saturday's in West Lafayette.

"If you play 18 games and could pick and choose and move them around, you could win 10 straight games," Ryan said. "But you could also lose eight straight. The schedule always plays out."

Weekend Homework: Clemson-UNC streak

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
It’s one of the most remarkable records in college basketball.


Clemson has never ventured into Chapel Hill and left with a victory over North Carolina (Sunday, 6 p.m. ET on ESPNU/WatchESPN). Most games haven’t been close, either. The Tigers have come within single digits on just eight occasions.

It’s the longest streak of its kind. And every season, the thought becomes that surely it can’t continue forever. At some point, the Tar Heels have to get caught slipping and the bounces have to go Clemson’s way. That’s covered somewhere in the law of averages, right?

Apparently not. Until this point, Carolina has escaped every time the Tigers looked to have the upper hand.

It happened when Rick Barnes, now the coach at Texas, brought a No. 2-ranked Clemson squad to Chapel Hill to face the reeling and young Heels. UNC started off ACC play 0-3 in the 1996-97 season and Barnes seemed poised to make program history.

In what turned out to be coach Dean Smith’s last contribution to extending the streak, the Heels won 61-48 and would eventually end up in the Final Four.

Carolina probably felt the most anxiety about keeping the streak alive in its 8-20 season in 2001-02 -- the only losing season since Smith’s first at the helm in 1961-62. But even that Matt Doherty-coached team closed out Clemson 96-78 on senior day. That win seemed to signal that, even at its worst, UNC was still good enough to beat the Tigers when the Heels were at home.

The teams first met in 1926, and, in the modern era, the Tar Heels have rarely been as vulnerable as they are this season. They’ve already had three losses at the Dean Smith Center, including an 83-80 setback to Belmont.

The Tigers raised eyebrows by upsetting Duke at home, although that enthusiasm was tempered Tuesday after they lost by 33 at Pittsburgh.

Clemson does boast the nation’s top scoring defense, allowing just 53.5 points per game. If the Tigers can keep the game played at a slower pace in the half court, North Carolina has proved that it doesn’t fare well in those situations.

But can the Tigers, who have heard more than they want to hear about the streak, overcome their wretched history in Chapel Hill long enough to complete a victory?

“I’m sure I’ll allude to it,” Clemson coach Brad Brownell told The Charlotte Observer. “I don’t make a big deal out of it. It’s not the center point of your speech, of what you’re trying to do to win the game. ‘Let’s be the first team.’ You’re not doing that.”

Maybe he won’t. But chances are Carolina will. For a team whose effort has sometimes been questioned, the Tar Heels will try to summon a top performance to avoid becoming the first team in school history to lose to Clemson.
Life was good in Ames, Iowa, through the first 15 games of the season. Fred Hoiberg had his most intriguing squad of his tenure.

His point guard, Marshall transfer DeAndre Kane, had snuck into the Wooden Award conversation. The players around him formed a unit that seemed poised to contend for the Big 12 crown. It wasn't crazy at that time to think the Cyclones were the best team in the league, as they'd just crushed Baylor at Hilton Coliseum by 15 points.

They were a top-10 team on the rise with wins over Michigan, Iowa and Baylor.

They're still a nationally ranked team, but they're falling as they prepare for a critical home game against No. 22 Kansas State on Saturday.

What's wrong with the Cyclones?

Iowa State, ranked No. 16, has a variety of challenges. The Cyclones are not strong on the offensive glass (297th in offensive rebounding rate per Ken Pomeroy). They've also been a middle of the pack free-throw shooting team (70.8 percent) in Big 12 play.

But their most important struggle is centered on the 3-point line.

As opposing coaches prep for Hoiberg's squad, they emphasize the quandary presented by the program's lengthy list of 3-point shooters. And they're not all guards.

Georges Niang, Dustin Hogue and Melvin Ejim can all step beyond the arc and hit shots.

Iowa State typically forces opponents to guard every player on the court in space because they're all so versatile.

But the 3-pointer has not been as meaningful for Iowa State in Big 12 play as it was during the nonconference part of the schedule. Through five league games, 40 percent of the team's field-goal attempts have come from beyond the arc. But they're shooting only 28.3 percent on 3-pointers in Big 12 play, ninth in the league. Only 28 percent of their offensive output thus far is credited to 3s, which in large part explains their 2-3 start in conference play.

So much of Iowa State's identity is based on its offensive diversity, as seven players have made at least 34 3-pointers this season.

So its recent problems from deep have been pivotal in its current three-game losing streak. Iowa State's upcoming four-game stretch will be a gantlet with home games against Kansas State and Oklahoma and a pair of road matchups against Kansas and Oklahoma State.

It's an opportunity for Iowa State to get back into a healthy rhythm. But it could also extend the fall.

Iowa State's success at the 3-point line, or lack thereof, could be the element that dictates the path it will take.
The creation of the Big East was predicated on a couple of key concepts:

" Basketball-first, like-minded schools would be better served aligning themselves together than existing as football’s forgotten baggage. Few would argue that point.

" The schools involved, with their name brands and long histories, would give the league instant credibility. That’s where things get a little messy.

No doubt the schools still boast recognizable names, but the real path to legitimacy comes in the win-loss column. Right now, the Big East is struggling in that department. Georgetown, Butler and Marquette, three old reliables, are skidding, while the old guard of St. John’s, Seton Hall and DePaul have little to show but dusty old record books filled with past glory.

That’s why Saturday’s game between Xavier and Providence is so critical. The Big East desperately needs someone to assert themselves besides Villanova and Creighton, and these two are the most likely to do it.

Truth be told, it would be even better for the conference if the Friars won. The Musketeers are a proven commodity thanks largely to their past NCAA tournament experiences, and with quality wins against Cincinnati and Tennessee -- not to mention a hearty RPI of 30 -- Xavier is in good NCAA position. The name resonates; the results bolster the name.

But Providence is a different story. Ed Cooley has worked wonders to rebuild the Friars into a contender. The process has been long and occasionally messy, but Cooley has turned Providence into a respectable program again.

Were it not for a guy named Doug McDermott, Bryce Cotton would be the Big East’s player of the year.

There is a difference between respectable and contender, though, and that’s the step Providence needs to take. That’s the step, frankly, the Big East needs Providence to take. After three dismal losses in a row, the Friars have won four straight, knocking off Georgetown and Creighton in the process. That turns Providence into a curiosity right now -- an "are they really that good?" question mark. A win against Xavier might make that answer a bit more definitive.

It’s been 10 long years since this once-proud program went to the NCAA tournament, and the Friars are more "bubble" than "lock" right now. ESPN's Joe Lunardi put Providence among his last four in this week, and with an RPI of 45, that makes perfect sense.

Beating Xavier won’t make the Friars a lock or automatically bump up the Big East’s image, but it will be a much-needed shot in the arm for both program and conference.