College Basketball Nation: 2010 Summer Buzz

Summer Buzz: Kansas Jayhawks

August, 13, 2010
8/13/10
11:53
AM ET
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject? Kansas. Up next? No one. This is the last buzz of the summer. Stay tuned for more previews from us very soon, though.

Kansas will still be very, very good.

When you think about it, that's kind of insane. After all, Kansas just waved goodbye to its three best players -- the heart-and-soul captain in senior Sherron Collins, one of the most intimidating big men in the country in Cole Aldrich, and a preternaturally smooth scorer in Xavier Henry -- and, even with teams like Kansas State, Baylor and Missouri in hot pursuit, Jayhawks fans still have reason to like their conference title chances.

Last season, commentators sometimes joked that if Kansas only played its second five, it would still be a top 25 team. This year, we get to test that theory for real.

Of course, it's not quite that exact. There's the addition of uber-recruit Josh Selby, who will compete with Duke's Kyrie Irving and Kentucky's Brandon Knight for the John Wall Memorial Freshman Point Guard of the Year award in 2010-11. That is, if Selby plays; the NCAA is still investigating his relationship with Carmelo Anthony's business manager and hasn't yet indicated whether Selby will be able to play by the time the season starts.

Kansas also has the benefit of keeping a pair of starters -- guard Tyshawn Taylor and forward Marcus Morris -- who have been resigned to role player positions for much of their careers. This season, both could prove their stardom.

Morris is perhaps the better candidate. He was the No. 56-ranked player in the country in offensive rating last season; his 120.7 was far and away Kansas' best. At 6-foot-8, Morris isn't the intimidating defender or shot blocker that Aldrich was, but he's far more skilled on the offensive end, and his outside touch has extended almost to the three-point line in recent seasons.

Taylor, for his part, isn't the offensive player Collins or Henry was, even in limited possessions. But he does have two major advantages: Speed and defense. Taylor can get to the rim on the break as quickly as any guard in the country, and his steal rate of 3.2 in 2009-10 counted as a major defensive contribution.

In many ways, Kansas is better prepared to deal with the loss of Cole Aldrich -- last season's most dominant interior defensive player -- than their personnel would indicate. That's because Kansas was already guard-dominant, even with Aldrich in the lineup. Assuming Selby gets eligible, Kansas will have a coterie of guards -- Taylor, Brady Morningstar, newcomer Royce Woolridge -- with it they can push the pace. With Morris' range, transitioning to a faster, more diverse Jayhawks attack team might be the only way forward.

The biggest hole to fill, then, will be Aldrich's defensive presence. The center blocked 12.97 percent of his opponents' shot attempts in 2009-10, the fifth-highest rate in the country. Even with Marcus' taller brother Markieff Morris sliding into a starting role, the Jayhawks are not going to be able to recreate Aldrich's dominant shot-blocking ability. That's tough ... but it's also where better defensive ball pressure and depth at the guard positions can come into play. Since 2005-06, a Bill Self-coached Kansas team has never finished outside of the top 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency; even with Aldridge gone, that statistic seems unlikely to change in 2010-11.

In other words, Kansas will look remarkably different in 2010-11, but the results, if not quite as impressive as last season's, should look similar.
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject? Kansas State. Up next? Kansas.

About three weeks ago, I hosted a chat right here on the ESPN.com Interwebs. One chatter asked me to guess at four 2010-11 Final Four teams. So I did: Duke, Michigan State, Purdue and Kansas State. You might notice a trend here. All four teams are stocked with veterans who excelled in 2009-10. Guessing at the next freshman phenom is always difficult; if you're going to force me to pick the Final Four eight months before the tournament starts, I'm going with what I know.

Interestingly enough, chatters questioned but one team in that group. That team was Kansas State.

To be fair, most of the doubters were Kansas fans. One even asked me if Kansas State gave me a "free farming class," an inter-Kansan insult I didn't quite get. (In the comments, a Kansas State fan called the angry Kansas fans "beakers." Total burn!)

But, in-state rivalry aside, the Kansas fans did raise some interesting questions. Whether Kansas State can answer them could determine the Big 12 title, a Final Four bid, and, if all goes well, a national title, too.

The questions are as follows: Can Kansas State make up for the loss of lightning-quick point guard Denis Clemente without losing its offensive edge? And can Frank Martin find a defensive stopper to replace the here-today-transferred-tomorrow Dominique Sutton?

The answers -- well, the answers are tougher. Despite returning six of its seven leading scorers, Clemente's loss will remake Kansas State in significant ways. Jacob Pullen, the team's leading scorer and one of the few carryover candidates for best guard in the country, will have to handle the ball even more. Rather than benefit from Clemente's pace-pushing fast breaks, Pullen will be the one setting the tempo. And, by the way, he'll still need to score.

It's quite an assignment, but if anyone's up for it, Pullen is. The bearded one was one of the country's best offensive players last season; his three-point range is seemingly unlimited, and on the rare times when his shot isn't falling, he's quick enough to get by his defender and draw a foul. (Pullen drew 6.5 fouls per 40 minutes last season.) Clemente's skills were worthwhile -- score on the fast break, distribute to teammates, don't turn the ball over -- but Pullen's skill set mirrors them nicely.

The only problem with all of this is whether Kansas State's attack can be as potent as 116.6 points per 100 possessions if Pullen is pulling double combo-guard duty -- not to mention drawing extra help defenders in the process. That could either go really well ... or, yeah, not so much.

Meanwhile, down on the block, forward Curtis Kelly ought to be licking his lips. Kelly proved he could handle a major scoring load in Kansas State's legendary Sweet Sixteen win against Xavier this spring, and with Clemente out of the mix, that means even more touches for the talented big man. At the Deron Williams/Amar'e Stoudamire Nike Skills Camps this summer, the guards and forwards played a ton of pick and roll, and it's not hard to envision Kelly and Pullen -- both camp attendees -- putting those lessons toward a revamped 2010-11 Kansas State attack.

There's also the small matter of replacing Dominique Sutton. Sutton, who decided to transfer to North Carolina, was his team's designated defensive stopper last season, and it's not exactly clear if the Wildcats have anyone who can approximate his versatile lockdown ability. As good as Kansas State was on offense last season -- No. 13 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency -- it was nearly as good on the defensive side (No. 17). Martin will have to hope a pair of athletic and defensively touted small forward recruits -- Shane Southwell and Nino Williams -- can keep the Wildcats' perimeter defense taking a Sutton-less step back.

In the end, there's very little reason to doubt that Kansas State is a Final Four team. By January, maybe that prediction will look silly, but for now, few teams combine this level of star power with experienced, veteran talent. Actually, there are four of those teams. And one of them is Kansas State.

Summer Buzz: Gonzaga Bulldogs

August, 11, 2010
8/11/10
11:40
AM ET
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject? Gonzaga Insider. Up next? Kansas.

When you think of Gonzaga basketball, what do you think of first?

Is it plodding, physical post play? Guard-oriented efficiency? White dudes with floppy hair?

[+] EnlargeMatt Bouldin
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesHow will Gonzaga fare this season without Matt Bouldin and his hair?
OK, so that was too easy. Of course you think of white dudes with floppy hair. Gonzaga basketball players have given more to the curly overgrown dude-bro hairstyle -- which reached its popularity peak right around when I was in high school, I think -- than any school in the modern history of college hoops. The contribution is lasting and timeless. Never forget.

As it concerns basketball, though, it's not that far off. Those floppy-haired gents have also been some of the best Gonzaga players in recent memory. Dan Dickau, Adam Morrison, and Matt Bouldin -- you may recall them for their hair (and, in Morrison's case, that questionable quasi-mustache) but you also remember them for the way they've defined Gonzaga basketball in the program's decade-plus surge into the national hoops consciousness. Sharpshooting guards have made Gonzaga what it currently is.

After the 2009-10 season, Gonzaga bid farewell to Bouldin, the latest in that series. The loss is significant for more than hair: Bouldin leaves a team that now lacks a significant guard presence. So, can the Bulldogs change their style? Can the become the dominant interior force their personnel requires?

The good news is, they may not need to. Bouldin's main statistical contributions -- alongside all of his leadership qualities, which brought an unquantifiable stability to the Bulldogs in the past four years -- were his high assist rate and his solid outside shooting. The former will be hard to replicate. The latter should be easier: Breakout freshman forward Elias Harris demonstrated an underused ability to hit the 3 in 2009-10, and fellow freshman Mangisto Arop shot 47 percent from behind the line in limited use last year.

(Of course, there's also guard Steven Gray, who I somehow left out of the original version of this post. Bad mistake. After all, Gray shot better from inside the arc than did Bouldin in 2009-10, and though he wasn't as proficient a 3-point shooter, he did post a slightly better effective field goal percentage. It will be interesting to see what Gray does with a bigger role -- and presumably more shots from beyond the arc -- assuming Bouldin's departure opens things up in the backcourt.)

But the 2009-10 Zags proved something even more interesting: They may not need to hit 3s in the first place. Gonzaga ranked No. 309 in their rate of 3-point attempts to field goal attempts last season; they were able to succeed even as Bouldin was the only one willing to fling from deep. It's generally bad strategy to eschew the 3-pointer entirely, but if you can win without it, maybe it's best to go with what works.

In 2010-11, what works will most often be in the paint. Harris and his 7-foot center counterpart Robert Sacre from a truly effective front line. Harris can score in the post, but has the versatility to spread the floor and score facing the basket, too. Sacre, meanwhile, won't be moved off the block. Once he gets the ball there, he usually gets fouled: Sacre's free-throw rate was 73.9 percent, the 36th-highest in the entire country.

Unless Gonzaga finds some hot-shooting tendencies in its incoming players -- not out of the realm of possibility, given coach Mark Few's past two recruiting classes -- this should be the new Bulldog strategy. Harris must dominate the ball, and when he draws extra attention, he needs to dump to Sacre in the post. Why fight what you can do best?

Much of this hinges on Harris' ongoing development, on his impending ability to stretch his game even further out on the floor. Otherwise, it will be easy for teams to pack a zone and tell Gonzaga to do their worst. But there are far worse personnel places to be than where Gonzaga currently is.

Summer Buzz: Washington Huskies

August, 10, 2010
8/10/10
12:55
PM ET
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject? Washington Insider. Up next? Gonzaga.

The 2009-10 Washington Huskies were always there. We just didn't quite notice them.

It was easy to write off a team that, at times throughout the Pac-10 season, seemed no better than much of its mediocre conference competition. After early-season losses to Texas Tech and Georgetown, the Huskies lost five of their first eight Pac-10 matchups, including losses to Oregon, Arizona, UCLA and USC, all teams in the midst of rebuilding (or, in Oregon's case, deconstructing).

But the Huskies weren't bad. They were just inconsistent. A look down their tempo-free game stats throughout the season proves as much: When they were on, the Huskies showed flashes of the consistent, high-octane offensive play that got them to a somewhat unexpected Sweet 16 berth. When they weren't, they lost. It was pretty much that simple.

That offensive inconsistency came down to one key stat: shooting. As a talented, veteran UW team looks to take the next step in 2010-11, it'll have the same challenge to overcome. Can Washington shoot well enough to win?

That will require some new contributions. In 2009-10, the Huskies posted a 49.7 effective field goal percentage, ranking them No. 128 in the country. It was their one sub-standard offensive stat. Washington rebounded well (36.6 offensive rebounding percentage), prevented turnovers (17.5 turnover percentage, good for a No. 34 overall rank) and got to the free throw line (40.9 percent free throw rate) at a reasonable clip. But they didn't always shoot well, and that could be troublesome given the personnel losses the Huskies will have to deal with. Cue Quincy Pondexter.

Pondexter, like the Huskies, flew under the radar for much of the season, but he was a ruthlessly effective offensive player. He posted an offensive rating of 122.2; that was the 44th-best mark in the country and the No. 3 ranking among all players who used at least 24 percent of their team's possessions. Pondexter shot well (54.7 percent eFG), didn't turn the ball over (12.7 percent turnover rate), cleared the offensive glass (10.2 percent offensive rebounding percentage) and drew plenty of fouls (5.9 per 40 minutes, to be exact) from opposing teams. He registered national KenPom rankings in all of those statistics. Frankly, he did it all, and he did it all well.

Pondexter is gone, of course, which begs the question of just who can replace his offensive efficiency. The answer is discouragingly unclear.

The obvious if somewhat questionable solution is the backcourt. Guards Isaiah Thomas and Venoy Overton had the second- and third-most Huskies possessions in 2009-10, respectively, and while their offensive ratings weren't nearly as high as Pondexter's, both players have scoring ability. Washington fans will also expect more from sophomore Abdul Gaddy, who showed occasional flashes of brilliance as a freshman but finished with pedestrian per-possession numbers (84.1 offensive rating, 42.8 eFG, and a much-too-high 30.8 percent turnover rate). Gaddy will have to improve his consistency in 2010-11 if he wants to assert himself on a veteran team. He certainly has the talent.

Meanwhile, senior Matthew Bryan-Amaning -- whose nickname is MBA, which I learned today, and which is totally awesome -- will have to recreate some of Pondexter's low-post proficiency. He might not be the scorer Pondexter was, but MBA has already proven himself as an offensive rebounder. A bigger role could mean bigger contributions.

And, of course, there are the recruits, too: 6-foot-6 small forward Terrence Ross is an athletic wing Insider with a proficient jump shot. There's also 7-foot junior college transfer Aziz N'Diaye that will give the Huskies their first legitimate size in years. Pondexter, after all, was the team's best rebounder at 6-foot-6, and Bryan-Amaning is a mere 6-foot-9. (Which is still very tall, but you get the point.) Adding a 7-foot center to the mix, even if his main contribution comes on the glass, will surely help the Huskies match up against taller, more physical teams.

In the end, though, the 2010-11 hopes for Washington hoops come down to a simple equation: Who will replace Pondexter's offense? If the Huskies can get better, more efficient guard play, and young talent like Gaddy and Ross can score consistently at the collegiate level, U-Dub could be just as good as 2009-10. If not, expect more inconsistency and a less effective team.

Last season, Northwestern basketball had a funny little team motto, one that eschewed the typically dramatic coach-speak fluff you find on college fan T-shirts. Those shirts merely read: make shots. The 2010-11 Huskies would be wise to take Bill Carmody's advice. Above all, Washington needs to make shots. Whether they can do so without Pondexter will be the great challenge of their season.

Summer Buzz: UCLA Bruins

August, 9, 2010
8/09/10
12:43
PM ET
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject? UCLA. Up next? Washington.

The good news for UCLA? There's nowhere to go but up.

It's a testament to UCLA coach Ben Howland's ability that last season's 14-18 performance was so shockingly bad. After all, every program has its occasional slides. But even last fall, as the Bruins entered the season with a young and unproven roster, most expected them to hover on the margins of the top 25 for much of the season. They wouldn't be a Final Four team -- like the three that Howland took from 2006-2008, a remarkable stretch by any measure -- but maybe they could still compete for a Pac-10 title.

Not so much. In an especially weak Pac-10, UCLA somehow managed to struggle. The Bruins finished in a tie for fifth place with an 8-10 conference record. Finishing fifth in an uncharacteristically bad season shows just how awful the 2009-10 Pac-10 truly was. UCLA's season was punctuated by early, tone-setting losses -- to Cal-State Fullerton, Portland (a 74-47 loss, by the way), and Long Beach State -- and, later, by defections and dismissals. Talented but frustrating sophomore Drew Gordon transferred to New Mexico; disappointing 6-foot-10 center J'mison Morgan was dismissed for team rules violations.

All of which adds up to a tough pill for Westwood die-hards to swallow. It leaves UCLA with that most un-UCLA goal for 2010-11: rebuilding. But rebuild the Bruins must.

There is plenty of on-court ugliness to rebuild. Let's start with, well, everything. Defensively, Howland's typically stout teams gave way to a No. 138-ranked adjusted defensive efficiency last season; the notoriously man-to-man-prone Howland actually resorted to zone for a while there. The bad news: Most of the players from last season's lackluster effort return in 2010-11. The good news? They'll be one year older and -- theoretically, anyway -- one year smarter on the defensive end.

Offensively, the Bruins weren't much better, scoring 1.058 adjusted points per possession, good for No. 108 in Division I. There was some good news here, too. The Bruins shot pretty well, posting a team effective field goal percentage of 52.6, the 39th-best mark in the country. Unfortunately, that bit of skill was drowned out by sloppy play everywhere else: UCLA was among the worst teams in the country on the offensive glass (No. 270, to be exact), rarely got to the free throw line (No. 202 in free throw rate) and turned the ball over far too much (21.6 percent of their possessions, good for No. 240 in the country). It doesn't matter how well you shoot when you're that bad at everything else.

Much of the Bruins' improvement will hinge on whether Howland's recruiting class can figure these things out quickly enough to make a positive impact. The most talented of Howland's newcomers is 6-foot-9 power forward Josh Smith, a near-300-pounder with surprisingly soft hands, quick feet, and and intuitive knack for the game. Smith, the No. 20 overall player in ESPNU's class of 2010, is currently working out three times a day with UCLA training staff in an attempt to get him in the best shape of his life. If Smith can improve the Bruins' offensive rebounding even marginally, that'll be contribution enough.

Likewise, shooting guard Tyler Lamb, the No. 28-ranked player in 2010 class, will be expected to contribute right away. At 6-foot-4, Lamb adds depth and polish to the Bruins backcourt. If Lamb can help relieve some pressure off would-be shooting guard Malcolm Lee -- forced to handle point guard responsibilities after Jrue Holiday left the program for the NBA earlier than expected -- he can send a positive ripple effect far beyond his own statistical contributions.

That said, though Howland's recruiting class is good, it's not sudden turnaround-good. The Bruins are, in all likelihood, facing another rebuilding season. In 2011, North Carolina transfers David and Travis Wear will become eligible; last year's crop of confused sophomores will be 2011's experienced seniors, and if Howland can work some 2011 recruiting mojo, he'll have another fresh batch of talent to add to a balanced, skilled team.

That's in 2011. In 2010, the Bruins need to focus on the little things: Improving man-to-man defense, attacking the offensive glass, preventing turnovers, and so on. Wins and losses will matter far less than just getting better. If Ben Howland has a whiteboard (of course he does), he should be writing that down in permanent marker. Just get better.

UCLA fans aren't accustomed, historically or under Ben Howland, to rebuilding seasons. Given last season's disaster, that's what 2010-11 is going to be. If another 2009-10 happens, this could take a while. But if the Bruins embrace it, they could be back sooner than most.

Summer Buzz: Florida Gators

August, 6, 2010
8/06/10
2:14
PM ET
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject? Florida. Up next? UCLA.

The 2010-11 Florida Gators are an interesting proposition.

Kenny Boynton
Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMIKenny Boynton averaged 14 points per game for the Gators last season.
In many ways, this is the same team that had an improved 2009-10 season. Last year's Gators were better than recent incarnations, and their season culminated with the program's first appearance in the NCAA tournament since the Joakim Noah-led glory years.

But that improvement, while real, was merely marginal. The Gators were a bubble team for most of the season, and they weren't especially impressive on either side of the ball. Florida ranked No. 32 in adjusted offensive efficiency (112.6 points per 100 possessions) and No. 67 in adjusted defensive efficiency (94.9 allowed).

Nor were the Gators at all deep. Four players -- Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton, Chandler Parsons, and Alex Tyus -- played more than 70 percent of the Gators' available minutes last season, and all four used more than 21 percent of their team's possessions. All four are back in 2010-11.

In other words, if you're trying to project the 2010-11 Florida Gators' season, you'd do well to start in 2009-10. This year's Gators are going to look a lot like last year's.

That doesn't mean fans should necessarily expect the same season, however. For one, Boynton is taking the freshman-to-sophomore leap that can oftentimes yield a player's greatest stretch of improvement. Boynton is a skilled scorer who can get his shot against anybody; if his jumper becomes more efficient, he could have a big-time sophomore season.

It's also worth noting that, you know, sometimes veteran cores with years of experience playing together just ... get better. It's much harder to quantify than pace or adjusted efficiency, of course. But it is something.

Also, Chandler Parsons is (somehow) getting taller. So there's that, too.

More than anything, though, the Gators' chances of improving will rest largely on the contributions they get from yet another talented Billy Donovan recruiting class -- on the defensive end, specifically. The Gators will welcome 6-foot-9 forward Patric Young, the No. 13-ranked player in the 2010 class, as well as the No. 35-ranked Casey Prather, a 6-foot-6 small forward. ESPNU's recruiting analysts have raved about both players' defensive abilities, calling Young "the best all-around post defender" in the 2010 class. Prather, meanwhile, is "one of the top on-ball defenders in this class nationally."

That qualifies as very good news for the Gators. Florida was efficient enough on offense last season, but it was merely mediocre on defense. In fact, were it not for a very impressive ability to keep its opponents away from the free throw line -- Florida was the No. 13-ranked team in opponents' free throw rate -- the Gators would have been downright bad.

Adding two players of Young and Prather's skills -- especially Prather, who can add defensive skill and depth to Florida's backcourt in one fell swoop -- is exactly what the Gators need.

If those recruits can blend into what is already a well-defined Florida core, and that core improves as it should, Florida could have its first legitimate postseason run since the title years. Last year was nice, but the 2010-11 Gators -- much the same, but, as Florida fans will hope, a little different, too -- ought to be worth the watch.

Summer Buzz: Tennessee Volunteers

August, 5, 2010
8/05/10
12:24
PM ET
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject? Tennessee. Up next? Florida.

(Oh, and sorry for the late start this morning, folks. Yours truly caught a bad batch of something yesterday. Let's not get into detail.)

Remember when Tennessee was supposed to go away?

Tyler Smith was booted from the team. Melvin Goins, Brian Williams and Cameron Tatum were suspended, perhaps indefinitely. The Volunteers had hit that terrible midseason obstacle -- losing your best player -- from which most teams never recover. After New Year's Day, Tennessee was supposed to fade.

Yeah, that didn't happen. Instead, the Vols responded to the Jan. 1 Smith incident with a thrilling home upset against No. 1 Kansas on Jan. 10, handing the Jayhawks one of just three losses all season. Even then, though, it was hard to see how this Tennessee team -- without its best scorer and most important interior player -- was going to do much more than merely hang around for the rest of the college basketball season.

Well, UT did more than just hang around. It stayed in the thick of things until March, when, after beating the No. 2-seeded, Evan Turner-equipped Ohio State Buckeyes, it was just a handful of possessions away from taking Michigan State's spot in the Final Four in Indianapolis.

And how did Tennessee do it? Defense.

This isn't much of a mystery, but any discussion of the Volunteers from 2009-10 -- and how the 2010-11 version will live up -- starts and ends with defensive ability. Tennessee allowed 88.5 adjusted points per 100 possessions last season, which gave it the 11th-best defense in the country. By contrast, the Vols' offense was anemic: 108.9 points per 100 possessions wasn't even top-50 in the country. But it was more than enough to break away from opponents who flailed about when Tennessee put the defensive pressure on.

There is reason to believe the Vols won't be able to rely so heavily on their defensive chops in 2010-11. For one, there's Bruce Pearl's statistical history: 2009-10 was the best defensive team of Pearl's Tennessee career by a long shot. With the exception of that loaded 2007-08 team, which was ranked No. 22 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, the Volunteers have always been far more proficient on the offensive end.

There's also the loss of Tennessee's two best defensive players, J.P. Prince and Wayne Chism. Prince was the steal artist and lockdown perimeter defender, swiping 3.5 percent of his opponents' possessions and creating havoc for guards with his 6-foot-7 size. (The Sweet 16 game was one of the few times all season that Evan Turner looked like he met his match. Naturally, his line was still insane.)

Chism manned the paint. Without Smith, the Volunteers didn't have many bigs to fall back on, so Chism's performance as a defender -- leading his team in block percentage (5.7) while guarding each opponent's best big man and grabbing plenty of rebounds, too (21.5 defensive rebounding percentage) -- was a major reason why they could afford to keep so many combo-guard-forward types on the floor at one time.

Without those two players, the Vols will miss a little bit of offense. They'll miss a lot of defense.

You've already heard the good news, though. Pearl's teams don't need to be the best defensive team in the country. Last year's transformation was more from necessity than desire. The Volunteers have always thrived on offense. Which means the return of Scotty Hopson, a sophomore whose tempo-free offensive numbers (his offensive rating was a mere 96.6 last year, which isn't very good) belie his incredible talent. Hopson has had an impressive summer. He'll need to carry it into the season.

It will also be interesting to see what kind of contribution ESPNU 2010 No. 6 overall prospect Tobias Harris can make. His high school numbers are enticingly gaudy. A quick rundown from today's Buzz: "Here's what Harris managed in his final two seasons as the top prep product in the state of New York: Mr. Basketball and Gatorade Player of the Year honors as a senior after averaging 25 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks, leading Half Hollow Hills West (Dix Hills, N.Y.) to the Class AA state championship game. As a junior, he averaged 25 points and 12 rebounds, leading Long Island Lutheran to a Class A state title."

I think it's safe to say Harris has offensive talent.

Throw in a couple of other athletic recruits -- Jordan McRae and Trae Golden -- as well as Brian Williams, who impressed in Tennessee's tournament run, and it's not hard to see the Vols reverting back to their high-flying offensive ways in short order.

Of course, it's always hard to predict what recruits will add or detract from a team's performance. Whatever the new batch of Volunteers does, though, it is easy to predict that Pearl will coach them very well. Last season was a testament to Pearl's tenure in Knoxville thus far. It showcased his ability to motivate players in the face of adversity, his willingness to change his tactics, and his unique tournament savvy.

Whether the Vols go back to their offensive ways or find a way to remain one of the country's best defensive teams -- or, hey, maybe both -- you can bet it will be by design.

Summer Buzz: Villanova Wildcats

August, 4, 2010
8/04/10
5:26
PM ET
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject? Villanova Insider. Up next? Tennessee.

Throughout former All-American Scottie Reynolds' tenure at Villanova, the Wildcats had a familiar defensive tendency. They fouled. Correction: They fouled a lot.

[+] EnlargeJay Wright
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesVillanova's 2010-11 team might be Jay Wright's most balanced team ever.
The thing is, for the first three years of Reynolds' tenure, it didn't seem to matter. In 2006-07, 2007-08, and 2008-09, Villanova always ranked below the Division I average -- including two seasons far below it -- in opponent free throw rate. But those same three years saw the Wildcats post adjusted defensive efficiency rankings of Nos. 18, 34, and 15, respectively. How? By taking care of the other three defensive factors (opponents' offensive rebounding percentage, effective field goal percentage, and turnover percentage) well enough that a few free throws here and there didn't make much difference.

Then, in 2009-10, the wheels came off. Villanova's defense wasn't abysmal, but in allowing 94.0 points per 100 possessions it ranked No. 62 in the country. For much of the season, we assumed Villanova would compete for a Final Four spot. Even during a late-season swoon, most assumed 'Nova was better than they were playing. In the end, though, maybe they weren't. Maybe their defensive deficiencies were just too much to overcome. The offense, after all, was pretty darn good.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying this much: Scottie Reynolds might be gone, and the Wildcats will usher in a new wave of talented players, but the foul woes that plagued Villanova are likely to remain.

After all, the Wildcats were fouling long before Reynolds arrived. (And Reynolds, to his credit, had the lowest fouls committed per 40 minutes mark of anyone on 2009-10's team.) Only once since 2004-05 has a Jay Wright-coached team ranked in the top 200 in opponents' free throw rate. That year was 2005-06; Villanova ranked No. 198. There may be something systematic at work here.

More pertinent, though, is the increased visibility of a suite of Villanova players who committed their share of fouls last season. There's Corey Fisher (3.7 fouls committed per 40 minutes) Antonio Pena (4.9), Maalik Wayns (4.9), Mouphtaou Yarou (6.3) and Maurice Sutton (7.8 [!]). Isiah Armwood gets a pass for his limited usage last season, but even he committed 6.6 fouls per 40. Read together, those tallies look less like foul averages and more like the collective GPAs of valedictorian candidates at one of those high schools that gives extra GPA credit for A+ grades and advanced placement classes. ("What was your high school GPA?" "7.4!" Uh, what?)

The point is, there are still plenty of foul-prone players on this team. Some of them have major roles already. Some of them will be expected to step in. Either way, they're likely to keep committing fouls.

Naturally, that doesn't doom Villanova's season. Quite the contrary: If Villanova has shown one ability in Wright's tenure, it's that his teams are often able to overcome their willingness to send opponents to the line so frequently.

There is plenty of good news about this Villanova team, too. With a glut of big men ready to step in and take on larger roles -- especially senior forward Pena -- the Wildcats could be as balanced as any team Wright has ever coached. They might not need to rely on stellar guard play. They might not need the individual brilliance of a player like Reynolds.

And perhaps most importantly, a bigger and more balanced Villanova lineup -- one that can score without playing three or four guards -- could help the Wildcats cut down on those fouls. The Big East is a big conference; being bigger can only help. That goes for shoring up the defensive glass, too.

Whatever the improvements, though, it's hard to imagine a young team that commits as many fouls as the 2009-10 Wildcats did getting anywhere near the Final Four. Villanova remains talented. They might be more balanced than ever. But unless they morph into the nation's best offense (unlikely given Reynolds' offensive efficiency) or figure out a way to create more turnovers (possible, I guess), or learn to keep opponents of the glass (doable, especially with more size and depth), they're on track to suffer through the same issues as 2009-10's impressive but ultimately disappointing team.

Summer Buzz: Georgetown Hoyas

August, 3, 2010
8/03/10
12:34
PM ET
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject? Georgetown. Insider Up next? Villanova.

The Georgetown Hoyas will miss Greg Monroe. That much is easy.

[+] EnlargeGreg Monroe
AP Photo/Nick WassGreg Monroe's departure will hurt the Hoyas more on defense than on offense.
After all, it's not every day you send a surefire lottery pick to the NBA draft. Monroe was a unique player, a center-sized lefty with small forward skills who created off the high block in John Thompson's offense with preternatural vision. With few viable candidates ready to take his place immediately -- Greg Monroes are tough to find -- Georgetown will suffer from his departure. Duh.

There is good news and bad news for Georgetown here. The good news: The Hoyas will still be a very good offensive team without their talented center. The bad news: What about defense?

Since John Thompson III took over at Georgetown, his teams have played with a specific identity. Thompson likes to slow the game down, wear opposing defenses down, and bank on the fact that his team will be able to create good looks from a half court set. Thompson's best teams have complemented that style with defensive rigor. The Jeff Green- and Roy Hibbert-led 2006-07 team played at a glacial pace -- 59.9 possessions per game -- but had the second-best adjusted offensive efficiency in the country and the 20th-best adjusted defensive efficiency. A year later, Georgetown's defense was its primary strength. A year after that, the same rule applied (though Georgetown lacked the hyper-efficient offense to go along with it.)

In 2009-10, Georgetown's defense slipped. The Hoyas were very good on the offensive end, scoring 1.17 adjusted points per possession, good for a No. 9 national ranking in the category. But their defense, which gave up .926 adjusted points per possession, was the worst it's been since 2004-05, Thompson's first year with the program.

Naturally, Monroe had plenty to do with Georgetown's offensive success. He played a ton of minutes and took a lot of shots, and his ability to score from inside gave the Hoyas an inside-out combo most teams spend years trying to put together.

But Monroe's absence stands to hurt Georgetown's offense far less than it hurts their defense. Consider the players staying in D.C. There's guard Austin Freeman, who had one of the Big East's highest offensive ratings (119.7) among players with at least 20 percent of his team's possessions used. Freeman was among the best shooters in the country last year.

There's guard Chris Wright, whose offensive rating was five points higher than Monroe's (111.7 to 106.2). And there's guard Jason Clark, the team's best shooter, who ranked No. 34 nationally in effective field goal percentage.

Is this a case of Monroe creating opportunities for players to get wide open looks? Or of Monroe's offensive capability being slightly overrated?

Meanwhile, back on the defensive end, the Hoyas were merely average for a couple of reasons. For one, they rarely forced opponents into turnovers. But perhaps more importantly, they allowed offensive rebounders to grab 32.1 percent of their misses, which put them just above average in all of Division I. Why does this matter? Because Monroe accounted for 25.2 percent of those available defensive rebounds, the 26th-best personal mark in the country. No one else on the Hoyas even came close.

Georgetown was always going to be a guard-heavy team in the wake of Monroe's departure; he was their featured big man, and with the possible exception of a few recruits, there isn't anyone capable of filling his large shoes.

But even without Monroe, Georgetown still returns huge chunks of its offensive skill in 2009-10. Where they'll miss Monroe is where they need him most: defense. If Georgetown can recalibrate its defensive style -- maybe utilize a four-guard lineup and press out to 35-feet, which would hopefully force more turnovers -- they could possibly escape last year's fate.

As it stands, the Hoyas seem primed for another season of offensive mastery complimented by just-OK defensive play. Which could be worse, considering last year's season. But without Monroe, "could be worse" could quickly devolve into "just OK," and few Georgetown fans would be quite so happy with that.

Summer Buzz: Syracuse Orange

August, 2, 2010
8/02/10
2:21
PM ET
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subjects? Butler and Syracuse. (For today's take on Butler, click here.) Up next? Georgetown.

2009-10's Syracuse season opened with a whimper. It ended with a Sweet Sixteen loss to Butler. But between those low lights -- an exhibition loss to the mighty LeMoyne Dolphins and an offensively dormant upset at the hands of an elite Butler defense -- the Orange were as consistently good as any team in the country.

A few months removed from that brilliant effort, it's easy to forget that most people didn't project Syracuse as a top 25 team, let alone a national title contender. The departures of Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendorf and Paul Harris made most onlookers assume the Cuse would go through the typical big-program standby year while coach Jim Boeheim's talented recruits figured out the Big East for themselves.

Of course, that's because we didn't know about Wes Johnson, the Iowa State transfer whom Boeheim oh-so-accurately predicted as a top 10 draft pick back when the rest of us were bleating, "Wes who?" Boeheim was right. Johnson was that good. And combined with the strong interior play of Arinze Onauku and Kris Joseph, the deadly accurate shooting of Andy Rautins, and the always-tricky 2-3 zone, Syracuse was very much a member of the elite.

With Johnson, Rautins, and Onauku gone, Syracuse loses its second Big Three in two years. But this time, most college hoops fans shouldn't be so eager to write the Orange off.

Why? Because the 2010-11 Orange could do the same thing the 2009-10 Orange did: Absorb talented, veteran losses, incorporate newcomers seamlessly, and enjoy yet another year at the top of the college hoops dogpile.

Much of that will come down to the play of Boeheim's much-touted newcomers. Seven-foot, 274-pound Brazilian Fabricio Melo -- heretofore and forever known as "Fab," which is about as awesome a nickname as you can ask for -- is the No. 1 center in the class of 2010. At this point in his development, Melo specializes in low-post scoring, meaning he could be the perfect replacement for the efficient Onauku.

Whether Syracuse can weather the loss of Johnson on the defensive end -- who led the Cuse in defensive rebounding rate last season and posted a 5.7 percent block percentage, second only on the team to bench forward Rick Jackson -- will hinge on whether Melo can shorten his learning curve considerably and use his size to dominate the middle of Syracuse's zone in year one.

Melo has been getting much of the Syracuse-related recruiting attention, but there's also Dion Waiters, the No. 2 shooting guard in the incoming class. According to ESPNU's scouts, Waiters is already an elite offensive threat who attacks the rim with impressive explosion and body control.

There are a few key stats the Orange must approximate if they want to have a repeat of last year's season. The biggest is shooting: With a team effective field goal percentage of 57.6, Syracuse was the second-best shooting team in the country in 2009-10. It wasn't hard to see why: Johnson and Rautins were hyper-efficient shooters from the perimeter, while Onauku and Kris Joseph pounded the ball inside and scored from under the hoop. (I'd love to see a highlight reel of baskets from four feet or less by Syracuse last year. Sometimes, watching the Cuse play felt like watching that reel.) That dynamic attack made Syracuse the eighth-most efficient offense in the country.

Melo should help where the latter is concerned. For the former, Syracuse's ability to stay versatile from the wing -- and to make a few buckets from beyond the arc -- will have to come by committee. Brandon Triche and Mookie Jones both shot a higher FG percentage than Johnson last season; Jones actually shot better than every other Orangeman save Onuaku. (Yes, including Rautins.) Triche and fellow backcourt mate Scoop Jardine appear poised to start together, with Jardine at the point and Triche in the Rautins-esque shooting combo role. If Waiters can provide shooting of his own, Syracuse should be able to keep their jump-shooting game in the same ballpark as last season's impressive effort.

There's no getting around the fact that Syracuse lost much of its attack this spring. Johnson was an NBA-ready talent with versatility to spare. Rautins, though prone to turnovers, was a hot shooter who kept the Syracuse offense humming. Onuaku made the most of his touches in the lane. All three did different things; all three contributed in big ways to the team's success.

But there's a sneaky little fact about Syracuse's efficiency profile: Three of the team's top four possession contributors return in 2010. Those three are Jardine, Triche, and Jones. All three will feature prominently in the new look Cuse, and all three have skill sets that can combine to make up what Syracuse lost in the backcourt departures of Rautins and Johnson.

Factor in a pair of top-level recruits, including one that should help shore up the loss of Onuaku in the post, and it would almost be surprising if Syracuse didn't succeed in the coming season. They may not be as good as last year's team. We might not be fitting Syracuse for a No. 1 seed come March. But none of Syracuse's personnel losses are devastating or irreplaceable, especially not on a team this deep and talented.

The Big Three is gone -- again -- but Syracuse can adapt. Boeheim's program is humming. Warning to the college hoops minds of the world: Don't leave Syracuse out of your top 25 this time.

Summer Buzz: Butler Bulldogs

August, 2, 2010
8/02/10
11:10
AM ET
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subjects? Butler and Syracuse. (Syracuse will be posted later this afternoon.) Up next? Georgetown.

In retrospect, we should have seen Butler coming.

Sure, hindsight is 20/20. And sure, the Bulldogs lost a few early-season nonconference games (to Minnesota, Clemson, Georgetown, and UAB) that made their torrid undefeated run through the hapless Horizon League difficult to evaluate. Still, teams with defenses as efficient as Butler's -- which ranked No. 5 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency by the end of the season, a mark that improved as the team worked through its brilliant bracket run -- don't come along all that often.

Butler's methodical march to the precipice of a remarkable national title was a great story off the court. On the floor, it was less surprising. Even when it struggled to find points, Butler's stifling team defense was just that good. We should have seen it coming.

[+] EnlargeHayward
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesNot only will Butler miss Gordon Hayward's scoring, but the Bulldogs need to replace his defensive production as well.
Will we make the same mistake in 2010-11? Will Butler be good enough to give us a chance? Or, with the losses of Gordon Hayward and Willie Veasley, did Brad Stevens and company leave their best chance at a national title in Indianapolis?

Simply enough, those answers will depend on how well Butler can cope with the aforementioned losses, how Butler's remaining core -- a formidable one -- can collectively recreate Hayward's considerable offensive and defensive production.

And make no mistake: Hayward's contributions came all over the floor. While not a dominant player in any statistical category, the athletic 6-foot-8 forward was blatantly good at some things and subtly good at others. The blatantly good: Shooting (52.7 effective field goal percentage) and scoring (112.7 offensive rating), drawing fouls (5.5 fouls drawn per 40 minutes) and getting to the free throw line (57.9 percent free throw rate).

But Hayward, perhaps less blatantly, was also a major factor in Butler's defensive excellence. His block rate of 2.8 percent helped shore up Butler's interior defense, and he had by far the best defensive rebounding rate -- 23.3 percent, ranking him 67th in the country in the tally -- of anyone in Butler's often undersized lineup. The team's next-highest defensive rebounding percentage, 16.5, belonged to Matt Howard.

That last stat is notable for more than proving Hayward's versatility. In fact, Hayward's contributions on the defensive glass were the one thing holding Butler back from being a truly vulnerable defensive team. The Bulldogs' only real weakness in 2009-10 came on the defensive boards: Butler allowed its opponents to rebound 27.8 percent of its misses, the 18th-highest figure in the country. With Hayward gone, it's unclear who can help Butler shore up that already-exposed area of an otherwise stalwart defense.

Howard is the obvious candidate, but thanks to chronic foul trouble, Howard played few key minutes during Butler's tournament run. That will have to change; Howard will have to find a way to guard bigger, stronger opponents without taking himself out of the game for key stretches.

Another likely candidate is sophomore Andrew Smith. The 6-foot-11 forward has played limited minutes in his freshman season but was forced into action in the tournament by Howard's foul-prone habits. Smith is a big body, and playing him alongside Howard could alleviate the pressure on Butler's former Horizon League player of the year both in guarding and blocking out fellow big men.

Butler also has a pair of sneaky-good recruits that Stevens will hope can combine to approximate some form of the versatility lost with Hayward and Veasley's absences. Khyle Marshall, a 6-foot-6 small forward with a wealth of athleticism, was the No. 22-ranked small forward in the 2010 class. There's also 6-foot-9 Indiana native Eric Fromm, a power forward who's shown a penchant for defensive rebounding and an ability to start the break on the dribble. Some combination of those players -- mixed in with relative newcomer Smith -- could help Butler avoid the obvious pitfalls of losing Hayward's defensive contributions.

Butler will still be very good elsewhere. Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored are two of the best perimeter defenders in the country. Mack is good enough to handle an increased offensive scoring load. Howard, provided he can figure out how to stay on the floor, will be as solid and productive as ever. Butler was never particularly lethal on offense in 2009-10 -- even Hayward had his noticeable offensive flaws -- but they didn't have to be.

Whether that equation changes will have everything to do with whether Butler's newcomers can make up for the less noticeable things Hayward did for his team on the defensive end. If the Bulldogs can find a way to keep their only subpar area -- defensive rebounding -- from becoming an even greater liability in Hayward's absence, the Bulldogs won't be a surprise to anybody. They'll just be good.

If so, we'll see them coming before our brackets are completely busted. That much we know for sure.
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject: Purdue. Up next? Butler.

It's the existential basketball question: Can you win a title with stars alone? Or does it require more?

Thanks to Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and some other dude, most NBA fans have been asking themselves that question all summer. The consensus answer, long codified in the NBA, is yes: If your stars are that good, it doesn't matter who else fills in.

College basketball isn't quite the same game, of course, and the Purdue trio isn't exactly LeBron-Wade-Bosh, but it's fair to ask a similar question of the 2010-11 Purdue Boilermakers. Will a three-headed monster of Robbie Hummel, E'Twaun Moore, and JaJuan Johnson be enough to win an NCAA title?

It's also fair to answer with a resounding yes.

Which is not to say the Boilermakers will win the title. Merely that they can. (It's far too early for such bold proclamations. I'm a wimp.) Why? Because Hummel, Moore and Johnson are the rarest of college basketball trios -- a group of seniors with four years of collective experiences, accomplishments and disappointments alike. It's hard to quantify, but that sort of connectedness rarely happens for college basketball teams anymore, and it counts as a major plus. It's like going to college and playing in an open gym with your high school friends against a random pickup team. Even if you're less talented, you have an innate advantage. (You never want to play against that team in open gym. It's the worst.)

Purdue's three stars aren't likely to be the less talented team too often this season. Hummel is a bonafide do-everything wing, Moore is a silky perimeter threat, and Johnson is a consistently underrated presence on both ends of the floor. Together, they subsume a huge percentage of Purdue's offensive possessions, and Purdue coach Matt Painter wouldn't have it any other way.

That's not to say Purdue won't have to make some adjustments from last season's successful-until-the-Hummel-injury campaign. The main challenge for Purdue will be in replacing senior guard Chris Kramer, arguably the best perimeter defender in the country last season. Kramer's defensive contributions -- harassing every Purdue opponent's best player with all-out man defense for 40 minutes and forcing steals at a league-leading rate -- are a big part of why Purdue finished No. 3 overall in adjusted defensive efficiency last season. When Hummel was injured, the Boilermakers' offensive efficiency plummeted. (Remember that Minnesota game? Blech.) It's indicative of just how good Kramer was that the defense didn't face a similar fate.

But weirdly enough, replacing Kramer on defense might be the easiest part of the transition. Sophomore guard Lewis Jackson, who will step into Kramer's shoes, has the chops to approximate some of his former teammate's defensive ability. Painter will also look for Kelsey Barlow, freshman Terone Johnson, and 6-foot-8 sophomore Patrick Bade to fill Kramer's crater-sized shoes.

It's on offense that Kramer made his most underrated plays: Believe it or not, Kramer took the highest percentage of shots (62.4 percent) of any Purdue player in 2009-10, and his effective field goal percentage (58.5 percent) made him one of the more efficient scorers on the team. Jackson's eFG percentage in 2009-10 was, by contrast, 35.0 percent. It remains to be seen whether any of Purdue's newcomers or sophomores can do much better.

Still, there are reasons to be bullish about the Boilermakers, and they're not hard to find. Hummel, Moore, and Johnson are this team's core. They take the majority of its possessions -- that figure should increase in 2010-11 -- make the majority of the big plays, and they're as experienced as any group in the country. There's no reason, save maybe for Kramer's absence, to expect anything different in 2010-11.

Can three stars win you a national championship? Sure. Can they win Purdue one? We're about to find out.
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject: Illinois. Up next? Purdue.

What happened to the Illinois defense?

For all the ups and downs of Bruce Weber's tenure at Illinois, there has always been one thing the Illini do well: defend. Weber's teams aren't hard to figure out, but they've always been consistent. They play tenacious man-to-man defense out to 30 feet. They lock down perimeter threats and hedge ball screens before rotating, recovering and forcing the offense to start all over again. They don't give you anything easy.

[+] EnlargeBruce Weber
AP Photo/Robert K. O'DaniellBruce Weber's defense last season wasn't what it has been in recent years.
There's no junk involved, and very little zone. Weber's teams are defensively simple. They're also simply ruthless.

To wit, here are the defensive efficiency numbers of Weber's teams since his first season in Champaign (calculated as opposition's points per 100 possessions; tempo-free numbers courtesy of Ken Pomeroy):

  • 2003-04: 92.1. Rank: 35. Record: 26-7.
  • 2004-05: 87.4. Rank: 11. Record: 37-2.
  • 2005-06: 90.5. Rank: 21. Record: 26-11.
  • 2006-07: 84.7. Rank: 3. Record: 23-12.
  • 2007-08: 89.9. Rank: 21. Record: 16-19.
  • 2008-09: 86.5. Rank: 4. Record: 24-10.

Then, in 2009-10, something funky happened:

  • 2009-10: 92.7. Rank: 49. Record: 21-15.

The Illini went from the fourth-ranked defense in 2008-09 to the 49th, in the process posting Weber's worst defensive coaching season in his seven-year Illinois career.

This can't be blamed on a dearth of talent. In the past, Weber's teams haven't needed talent to defend; those 16-19 Illini from 2007-08 may have been horrifically inept with the ball in their hands, not to mention one of the least athletic teams in the Big Ten, but they still held opponents to fewer points per possession than last year's squad.
"Demetri [McCamey] went to the Deron Williams Skills Academy and the LBJ Skills camp and he heard the same thing I told him all last season: you need to start guarding people," says Weber.

Illinois' perimeter defense was perhaps its weakest component last year -- the Illini didn't turn anyone over, and opposing teams scored 33.3 percent of their baskets against Illinois from beyond the arc. Some of that is surely McCamey's fault. As one of Illinois' veterans and a supposed team leader, McCamey had his fair share of disagreements with Weber throughout the season, and perhaps a lack of effort on the defensive end was one of the causes.

It also didn't help that Weber had to rely on two talented but inexperienced freshmen -- Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson -- at backcourt positions for much of last season. Both players can score, but neither was a particularly adept defender; if you looked for it, you could see that confused "But I was helping over here!" look on walks back to timeouts pretty much every game. A year later, both players should be much better.

There is more talent on the way, too. Weber has long been criticized by some Illinois fans as an X's and O's guy who can't recruit, one who could coach up a group of second-tier players but couldn't land the talented in-state recruits Illinois churns up each and every year. No more. Paul and Richardson were big first steps. The coup de grace comes in the form of Jereme Richmond, the No. 4 small forward in the class of 2010. Richmond is known as a polished scorer who needs to add strength, but his length and athleticism should make an immediate impact on the defensive side of the ball.

Same goes for Meyers Leonard, a 7-foot center ranked No. 4 at his position in 2010, whose name sounds like a big four accounting firm. (That's not just me, right?) Leonard will be the strongest player on his team, and his sheer size should help bolster Illinois' interior and defensive rebounding.

What it all adds up to is a talented, experienced Illinois team adding a potentially elite scorer and some much needed interior girth. So, yeah, Illinois should be better at putting points on the board in 2010-11. That's always a bonus.

But where the Illini's season will really be made -- or broken -- is whether they can correct last year's ugly team defense. That answer will come down to this: Were the 2009-10 Illini a statistical outlier? Or simply a group that isn't all that good at playing defense, no matter how good their coach might be at teaching it?

If it's the latter, Illinois will be pretty good, but that's it. If it's the former, then Michigan State and Purdue won't be the only legitimate contenders for the Big Ten title. We'll see.
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject: Ohio State Insider . Up next? Illinois.

It's still too early to make 2010-11 season predictions. Instead, allow me to make a prediction about the 2010-11 preview season: In every single season preview written about the Ohio State Buckeyes, you are going to hear one name over and over: Evan Turner.

[+] EnlargeEvan Turner
Robin Alam/Icon SMIThad Matta helped Evan Turner's career at Ohio State.
Why wouldn't you? Turner was the Buckeyes in 2010-11. Watching Ohio State play was to watch Turner dominate in the way most talented sixth-graders dominate: consistently and comprehensively. Turner was on the ball at all times. He played point guard, even though he's a 6-foot-7 wing player, mostly because it seemed like the easiest way to get him the ball. Ohio State head coach Thad Matta coached Turner and the Buckeyes the exact way you or I would coach the aforementioned talented sixth-grader: "OK, guys, let's keep it simple. Evan, go score. On three, win!"

And why not? It worked. Turner was the consensus national player of the year, Ohio State won a share of the Big Ten title, and the Buckeyes were a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament before falling short in the Sweet Sixteen.

So, naturally, the impulse when previewing the Buckeyes is to wonder: What happens now? Who scores all those points? (Turner scored 20.4 points per game.) Who handles the ball? (Turner had the third highest possession percentage in the NCAA.) Who rebounds so well from the guard position? (Turner grabbed 9.2 rebounds per game; his defensive rebounding rate ranked him No. 65 in the country.) Who finds sharpshooting teammates for wide-open looks? (Turner's assist rate of 37.4 was the eighth-highest in the country.)

Who replaces Evan Turner?

The answer, of course, is nobody. But if the Buckeyes can recalibrate their lineup well enough -- and get big contributions from much-hyped incoming forward Jared Sullinger -- that answer could very well be: everybody.

After seeing Sullinger play at the Nike Skills Camp earlier this summer, I wrote that it was easy to see the Buckeyes completely changing their style in 2010-11. That means a menagerie of players have to chip away at what Turner did all by his lonesome.

The point guard spot is still up for grabs, and Matta is hesitant to turn over the reins to freshman recruit Aaron Craft. So why not slide guard William Buford and Jon Diebler into combo-guard roles and have both split some semblance of point responsibilities in the wake of Turner's absence? This could work: Buford turned the ball over on only 13 percent of his possessions in 2009-10, while Diebler, who gave it away at a rate of 11.3 percent, was even better. The addition of Deshaun Thomas, the No. 3 small forward in the class of 2010, means Buford and Diebler can afford to play even further from the basket.

Likewise, with Sullinger and Thomas entering the fold -- joining veteran big man Dallas Lauderdale under the hoop -- the Buckeyes shouldn't need a do-everything guard to clean up on the defensive glass. Their bigs should be able to handle that responsibility in more conventional fashion: block-out, rebound, outlet, run.

Offensively, Ohio State should be more balanced. Post looks for Sullinger and Lauderdale should lead to open shots for Buford, Diebler and senior guard David Lighty. No one player needs to dominate the ball, and no one player needs to take a majority of shots. The Buckeyes' look and feel should be totally different -- less guard-heavy, less reliant on a handful of similar talents, more plodding, bigger, stronger, deeper.

It will be very, very difficult to replace the impact Evan Turner had on the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2009-10. It would be impossible to do so with one player. But if the Buckeyes can mix the unconventional (the Buford-Diebler hybrid point guard setup) with the conventional (a greater focus on interior play, and better rebounding in the post) they might find a way to replace Turner's 34.7 percent possession rate by committee. In fact, it's the only way.
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject: Michigan State Insider. Up next? Ohio State.

How unlikely was the Spartans' 2009-10 NCAA tournament run? The Spartans were the only team in the Final Four ranked outside the top 20 in overall adjusted efficiency. Tom Izzo's team wasn't dominant on either end of the floor, but they were a Tom Izzo team through and through. They rebounded well on both ends of the floor, they guarded well enough to force opponents' misses, they kept their opposition off the free throw line, and they found ways to win close games. And somehow, with Kalin Lucas stuck on the sideline thanks to injury, the Spartans made it back to the precipice of another NCAA title. It was, all things considered, a remarkable run.

[+] EnlargeKorie Lucious
Bob Donnan/US PresswireKorie Lucious and the Spartans must work on reducing turnovers.
2010-11 is a different story. Lucas will be back from injury, as will pretty much everyone on the team not named Raymar Morgan. The Spartans will add top talent in the form of a No. 10-ranked recruiting class. This year, a Final Four wouldn't just be a nice bonus. It's a legitimate expectation.

Whether or not the Spartans can replicate their late-season success in 2010-11 might come down to a stat that has haunted Michigan State teams in the past five years: turnovers.

Last year, the Spartans gave the ball away far too frequently. Michigan State gave the ball away on 21.3 percent of their possessions, good enough to rank them in the bottom half of all Division I teams in turnover percentage. On the defensive side of the ball, Michigan State was even worse; MSU opponents turned the ball over on 18.7 percent of their possessions in 2009-10.

This has become something of a pattern for recent Michigan State teams, even good ones. 2005 was the last year the Spartans had a turnover rate that ranked them in the top 100 of all Division I teams. Since then, Michigan State has been plagued by the turnover bug -- or, on defense, the lack thereof -- in varying forms each year.

With Lucas returning in 2010-11, the Spartans should improve. Lucas' turnover rate in 2009-10 was 18.4 percent. After his injury, Lucas was replaced by backup point guard Korie Lucious, who gave the ball away 27.7 percent of the time. Lucious was a capable backup in a variety of ways, but his proclivity for turning the ball over played right into the Spartans' main weakness.

Lucious will have to improve individually if he wants to split time with Lucas, and the Spartans as a whole will have to get better, lest an incredibly promising season be derailed by the one deficiency that seems to come back and haunt Izzo's teams each and every year. The 2010-11 Spartans are loaded -- they have veteran experience, returning talent and should be able to make up for the loss of Raymar Morgan (an underrated player in his own right, especially on the defensive end) without missing a beat. The makings of a great team are all in place. Now they just have to cut down on those turnovers.

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