College Basketball Nation: 122713 weekend homework

Weekend Homework: Zags' thin margin

December, 27, 2013
There are lots of ways to play offense in the game of basketball, countless characteristics on which to hang one's proverbial hat. Few are as pure and pleasurable as Gonzaga's.

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.

Weekend Homework: NC State's turnaround

December, 27, 2013
The excuses early in the season for NC State are now legitimate.

The results back up the reasoning.

The Wolfpack weren't whole. They were out of sync. And they played two teams -- albeit at different levels -- that were primed to take down a lost squad. Cincinnati was no slouch and will chase an NCAA bid out of the American. North Carolina Central will be a player in the MEAC, and has a scorer in Jeremy Ingram (29 versus the Wolfpack) and the ability to get to the line (41 out of 45 against State) that will help it in late February.

Jordan Vandenberg was out with an ankle sprain for the first four games -- these two losses included -- which forced the Wolfpack to play forwards out of position.

"We weren't ready,'' said NC State coach Mark Gottfried. "We were out of rhythm. Now with Jordan and Anthony Barber in the starting lineup we're better. We had to play a lot of younger players earlier. But we're so much better today than we were after the Cincinnati and Central games. We're a different team a month later.''

Now, it's suddenly time to take NC State seriously again -- for a possible run toward an NCAA berth.

NC State plays No. 25 Missouri on Saturday in Raleigh (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2) with a chance to help the ACC after some disappointing nonconference games by its non-brand-name schools. The contest can also help NC State start to become a player in the league. The Wolfpack open conference play against beatable ACC newcomer Pitt, then visit a Notre Dame team that will have to reinvent itself after the academic ineligibility of Jerian Grant -- meaning NC State has a real shot to begin the conference slate an impressive 2-0.

How did this happen?

NC State has won seven in a row, including the Big Ten/ACC Challenge game against Northwestern and a road game at Tennessee. OK, so that might not move the selection-committee meter. But the reason for the renewed optimism lies with the play of one player -- sophomore forward T.J. Warren.

While the rotation was out of whack early, Warren was not.

He is having an All-America season, averaging 23.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He lit up East Carolina for 32 points in his most recent outing, scored 21 at Tennessee and 29 against Detroit.

"He's as good as anybody I've ever coached," said Gottfried, who saw plenty of high-level talent while an assistant at UCLA and a head coach at Alabama before coming to NC State in 2011. "He's becoming more complete, which is what I like. He's not having defensive lapses. He's rebounding for our team. He's scoring the ball at an amazing pace."

Warren will be the focus for Mizzou.

"It's a big challenge," said Missouri coach Frank Haith, whose Tigers are coming off a 65-64 loss to rival Illinois in St. Louis last Saturday, Mizzou's first defeat of the season. "Our transition D will be key. We have to get back and set our defense. T.J. is a major problem and we'll need to have great defense on him."

The Wolfpack, meanwhile, will need to deal with the Tigers' perimeter attack, led by Tulsa transfer Jordan Clarkson, who is averaging a stellar 19.9 points a game alongside Jabari Brown (18.2).

"Their perimeter players score well and do a great job with ball screens,'' said Gottfried. "Clarkson is really getting good. They'll be tough to guard, but they'll have to guard us, too."

The ACC schedule starts right after a brief trip to play North Carolina Greensboro at the site of the ACC tournament. A victory over Mizzou at home and a solid start to the ACC could give the Wolfpack a chance to emerge from a muddled middle.

Weekend Homework: Skip Prosser Classic

December, 27, 2013
The fourth installment of the Skip Prosser Classic finds Wake Forest and Xavier both riding four-game winning streaks into Saturday’s meeting after stumbling through the Battle 4 Atlantis last month.

Wake lost games to Kansas and Tennessee while Xavier fell to Iowa, Tennessee and USC during the Bahamas tournament. On the bright side, neither the Musketeers (9-3) nor Demon Deacons (10-2) have lost on U.S. soil. That, of course, will change Saturday.

The Deacs haven’t played the most imposing schedule. Their venture into the Cintas Center in their final nonconference game before ACC play represents their first true road game.

People outside of Winston-Salem don’t expect much from Wake, which was picked to finish 13th in the ACC's preseason media poll. Then again, many inside the city don’t either -- that’s why there were growing rumblings to fire coach Jeff Bzdelik last season. The Deacs' quick start has silenced those voices for the moment.

Wake boasts four players averaging double-figure scoring. Sophomore guard Codi Miller-McIntyre averages 17.5 points and 4.0 assists, both of which are nearly double his freshman season stats.

A win over Xavier would be Wake's best victory of the season and signify Bzdelik is making some progress.

The Musketeers earned a confidence-boosting road win at Alabama last week after a satisfying triumph over rival Cincinnati the week before. Those wins put coach Chris Mack in position to earn a milestone 100th career victory should Xavier beat Wake Forest on Saturday.

Mack has the depth he lacked last season and has the Musketeers blending at the right time before beginning their first season in the new Big East. Along with Villanova and Creighton, who may just be a notch above the rest of the league, Xavier can establish itself in the league’s upper tier.

The Musketeers are getting solid leadership from leading scorer Semaj Christon and forward Matt Stainbrook, who leads the team in rebounds and blocked shots. Freshman Myles Davis has been an offensive spark off the bench, averaging 9.5 points while shooting 47 percent from 3-point range.

Prosser coached at Xavier for 15 years, including a stint as head coach from 1994 to 2001, and was head coach at Wake from 2001 until his untimely passing in 2007. He used to relish the chance to turn a team that was overlooked into a contender.

This year’s matchup, the fourth in a 10-year contract, will determine which team best fits that category.

Weekend Homework: Tough times for Tide

December, 27, 2013
Alabama had the makings of an NCAA tournament team after a 23-win season in 2012-13. The Crimson Tide, however, failed to secure an NCAA tourney bid. But with his top seven scorers returning and a few talented incoming freshmen on the way, Anthony Grant had the tools for a solid SEC squad with postseason potential in 2013-14.

And then, it all fell apart.

Trevor Lacey transferred to NC State. Devonta Pollard left the team following a bizarre kidnapping case.

Grant also lost big man Moussa Gueye.

And now Trevor Releford, a senior, is left to carry a greater burden.

He’s handling it well as his team prepares to face UCLA on Saturday in Los Angeles. And he’s not doing it alone. Levi Randolph and Nick Jacobs have been vital, too. Sophomore Retin Obasohan has been a bright spot for the program.

But Alabama could have excelled with Lacey, Gueye and Pollard, a former McDonald’s All American, in the mix. Instead, Grant’s program is 5-6. Four of those losses were by five points or less. One or two players could have made a difference.

Alabama is just one example of a program that has been damaged by unfortunate circumstances. And the team is also an example of the fragility within college basketball.

One injury (see the shoulder surgery that sidelined Providence standout Kris Dunn for the season), one transfer (ask Texas), one off-court issue (Notre Dame recently lost Jerian Grant due to academic problems), one decision to turn pro (Maryland misses Alex Len) and everything can change.

The most difficult component to maintain in college basketball is continuity. And that principle encompasses more than the exaggerated transfer epidemic. So many mishaps can shatter stability that coaches and players attempt to build.

And that’s when challenges, such as the one that Alabama is facing this season, arise.

A few months ago, Bama was a program with a chance to elevate its national profile.

That might happen in the coming weeks. Grant has veterans and some young talent that continues to mature.

But the team’s ceiling is lower now, proof that things at this level can change quickly.

Weekend Homework: Cuse vs. Nova again

December, 27, 2013
On the bus for a USA Basketball game a few years back, Jim Boeheim sat down next to Jay Wright and whispered a little secret. The Hall of Famer had gotten the drop on the Big East schedule, which by then was a convoluted mess thanks to the league’s gargantuan size.

Neither coach loved playing the other twice a season, but somehow the folks in Providence, R.I., usually conspired to make that happen, and Boeheim had just learned the two would tango twice yet again.

“You ought to call the league and complain,’’ Boeheim told Wright.

“And I’m like, ‘You’re in the Hall of Fame. You call,’” Wright said recently, recounting the story.

That Big East is no more, yet Villanova-Syracuse continues, this time because Boeheim and Wright wanted the game.

But what once looked like nothing more than just a nostalgic trip down the defunct conference’s Memory Lane is now something far more sizable. Saturday's 2 p.m. ET game at the Carrier Dome was supposed to be the undercard, the warmup to Louisville at Kentucky.

Instead, it’s the main attraction.

The Philadelphia Wildcats and the Orange, not the Kentucky Wildcats and Cardinals, are both in the top 10; Villanova and Syracuse each bring undefeated records, not the past two national championships.

Eighth-ranked Villanova might be the most unlikely top-10 team in the country, a squad picked to finish fourth in its brand-new league. But Villanova has earned its way to its ranking, not just on the backs of wins against Kansas and Iowa but by summarily dismissing everyone else. Throw out those two games (one won by four, the other by five in overtime) and Villanova is beating its opponents by an average of 21.7 points.

Still, understandably, questions linger, with folks curious if the Wildcats merely caught some Bahamian magic to win in Atlantis. And with the strength of the new Big East still uncertain -- no one else is ranked, though the teams do have pretty hefty RPI numbers -- those questions might not go away easily.

The date with Syracuse will help. While the No. 2 Orange may not have a litany of big wins -- Baylor and Indiana rank as the best -- anyone who has seen them play knows Boeheim has another special team. Tyler Ennis isn’t mentioned among the best freshmen in the country, but he ought to be. The point guard is nothing shy of superb, and has a terrific supporting cast in C.J. Fair, Trevor Cooney and Jerami Grant to help make him look good.

Yet what will make this game especially fun is that, unlike most nonconference opponents that go into the orange haze of 20,000-plus in the Carrier Dome like deer in headlights, Villanova won’t be intimidated.

The less-experienced, more-unsure Wildcats nearly knocked off the then-No. 3 Orange last season, and when, in 2006, the entire town of Scranton, Pa., joined the city of Syracuse to laud Gerry McNamara in his final game, it was Villanova spoiling the party, winning by 10.

“It’s going to be a test, another chance to show what we can do,’’ said Nova senior James Bell. “But it’s nothing new.’’

No, but then again this isn’t just another stroll down Memory Lane, either.