College Basketball Nation: 2011 Summer Buzz

Summer Buzz: VCU Rams

August, 26, 2011
8/26/11
11:58
AM ET
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 preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: Virginia Commonwealth.

Yesterday, Jay Bilas took his Twitter game to a whole 'nother level. The usually Jeezy-obsessed analyst posted two photos of himself (and his dog!) wearing the infamous "Whatchu talkin' bout Bilas?" t-shirts that circulated after VCU made its deep, defiant run in the NCAA tournament and proved Bilas -- and basically everyone else in college hoops -- that they truly belonged. Today, Jay wrote that he believes the Rams are primed to join Butler, Gonzaga, Xavier and George Mason as mid-major royalty. It's difficult to disagree.

Shaka Smart
Brad Miller/US PresswireWith coach Shaka Smart at the helm, who's to say the VCU Rams won't make it back to the Final Four?
After all, as unlikely as VCU's 2011 Final Four appearance was -- and it was really, really, really unlikely -- the Rams didn't exactly come from nowhere. Before Shaka Smart was hired in 2009, his predecessor, Anthony Grant, took VCU to the NCAA tournament in two of his three seasons, the most memorable of which saw the Rams upset Duke thanks to the last-second heroics of guard Eric Maynor. Before that, former Oklahoma coach and now-Duke assistant Jeff Capel earned his job with the Sooners by building a solidly competitive program in Richmond.

Now, after a national profile boost and an underdog story to tell the grandkids, VCU has the chance to earn its spot among the perennial mid-major darlings. As well it should.

Just as difficult as denying VCU's rise, however, is figuring out just how good this team can be in 2012. Why? Because I'm still not sure how good they were in 2011.

If data is your guide, VCU's performance in the NCAA tournament -- when they became a giant-killing, lights out offensive behemoth -- was the exception to the team's rule. For much of the season, VCU struggled. Even after they rolled through Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas on their way to the Final Four, the Rams still ranked just No. 52 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings. Before the NCAA tournament, VCU was 59th in offense and 143rd in defense in Pomeroy's respective tallies. After the tournament, they ranked No. 32 and No. 86. There's a reason this team was in the First Four, a reason so many criticized their selection, and a reason Bilas got a t-shirt in his honor. This thing was crazy.

To further muddy the prospectus, VCU lost its three most important players in the tournament run -- leading scorer Jamie Skeen and guards Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozell -- to graduation this spring. Among the returners, hoops fans will almost immediately recognize Bradford Burgess, whose lights-out shooting gave the Rams another major weapon in their constant March onslaught. Other than that, VCU is starting from scratch.

Smart gave ESPN Insider's Eric Angevine the skinny on the newcomers, and there are some encouraging appraisals in there. But as expected, none of VCU's 2011 recruits are high-profile, top-100 players. Moreover, none of them looks likely to fill the team's biggest need: a guard that can mimic Rodriguez's ability to attack defenses off the dribble and find open shooters around the perimeter.

In other words, in the short term, the safe bet is that VCU is going to struggle. Even if the NCAA tournament was the "real" VCU, and not some random, stars-aligned miracle of the heavens, that's what happens when you lose this many key players and when you haven't had quite enough time to reap the recruiting benefits a trip to the Final Four ought to yield.

But the short-term is only one portion of this picture. The biggest takeaway for VCU fans this offseason came not from the new arrivals on campus but from the most important returner: Coach Smart himself.

It's not that Smart didn't have tantalizing offers. Georgia Tech, Missouri, NC State -- any of these quality high-major programs would have loved to welcome the charismatic coach into their basketball offices. But Smart, much like Richmond coach Chris Mooney, pulled a Brad Stevens. He didn't jump at the first big opportunity. He didn't search for the largest paycheck out there. He decided to stay put and continue to build on the success he had carved out in his first two seasons.

That he did so at all says something. That he decided to do so despite the loss Skeen, Rodriguez and Rozell is another commentary entirely. Smart is not afraid of the challenge, and he isn't looking for an easy way up the coaching ladder. He wants to win at VCU. Given what we saw from his team in 2011, and given how well Smart guided them throughout their remarkable rise, that desire is the most important positive factor toward ensuring Bilas's prediction of VCU's arrival as mid-major royalty.

The results may not come this season. VCU may be in for a bit of rebuild. But as long as Smart is around, showing anger-inspiring videos and defiantly challenging the media doubters, the Rams' long-term prospects look just fine.

Then again, who's to say VCU can't make waves this season? Remember what happened the last time we doubted the Rams? Right. Lesson learned.

Summer Buzz: George Mason Patriots

August, 25, 2011
8/25/11
11:54
AM ET
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 preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: George Mason.

[+] EnlargePaul Hewitt
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireNew George Mason coach Paul Hewitt inherits a team with better shooters than he had at Georgia Tech.
A coach can do a lot of things to improve his team's chances to win. He can drill and prepare. He can recruit the right kind of players. He can instill values that drive those players to get better, to work as a collective, to bind together over a common cause. He can call the right kind of plays, scout opponents to a T, and put his players in position to succeed.

But a coach can't play the games. More specifically: He can't make the shots.

In his tenure at Georgia Tech, Paul Hewitt often drew the ire of Yellow Jacket fans. Were players improving up to their potential? Why weren't top prospects (like, say, Derrick Favors) as effective as previously advertised? Why did Hewitt's offenses seem to struggle? Was it tactics? Personnel? Some combination therein?

Eventually, despite a massive $7 million buyout, those questions and the losses that caused them cost Hewitt his job. But it wasn't long before Hewitt was offered a chance at redemption at George Mason, a job surprisingly vacated by the Miami-bound (ouch) Jim Larranaga. This transition presents an interesting test case: What will Hewitt do with a team that can actually shoot?

In his past three seasons in Atlanta, Hewitt's teams did not comprise gifted marksmen. From 2009-2011, Georgia Tech averaged 32.7 percent from beyond the arc. In 2011, the Yellow Jackets made just 29.9 percent of their 3s -- and ranked No. 328 in the country in doing so.

George Mason suffered no such problems. Rather, the Patriots -- a team stocked with effective 3-point shooters, veterans and newcomers alike -- were among the most accurate teams in the country from beyond the arc. As a team, they shot 39.5 percent from beyond the arc, good enough for the No. 11 rank in all of college hoops. Individually, six Patriots made 36 percent or more of their 3s, and four players averaged 40 percent or better. Larranaga's team was an offensive joy, a team full of willing passers that swung the ball around the perimeter, worked for open looks and buried their chances with ruthless efficiency.

Some of those players are now gone. Senior Cam Long, the team's leading scorer, shot 43 percent from 3. He graduated. So did Isaiah Tate, a reserve guard who made good on 28 of his 68 shots from long range. Luke Hancock, the team's third-leading scorer (and a 36 percent 3-point shooter in his own right) decided to transfer to Louisville when Larranaga left this spring. Those are significant losses in statistical production, shooting accuracy and leadership. They're not easy to overcome.

That said, Hewitt does have some marksman left over from the Larranaga era. Ryan Pearson didn't take many 3s last season, but he made 40 percent of the ones he took and was Mason's second-leading scorer in the process. But Pearson isn't a 3-point specialist. He's really a versatile, do-everything small forward, a guy who can rebound, attack the rim, draw fouls -- he drew 5.9 fouls in every 40 minutes he played in 2011 -- and, yes, hit open jumpers when the situation calls for it. Pearson posted an offensive rating of 114.0 last season. Whether that increases or decreases will have much to do with whether teammates like Vertrail Vaughns, Andre Cornelius and Mike Morrison can make up for the offensive losses Long and Hancock's absences represent.

And these are all the players Hewitt had before he even arrived on campus. (Just look at George Mason's team page on KenPom.com. There are so many good offensive players on this team, and some of them haven't even had a chance to truly shine.) As Georgia Tech fans can attest, Hewitt's true strength as a coach has always been recruiting. This is where things get especially interesting.

Almost as soon as he was hired this spring, Hewitt landed the No. 6 center in the class of 2011, a 95-rated, four-star prospect named Erik Copes, who de-committed from George Washington after Karl Hobbs was fired. Needless to say, this type of recruiting runs antithetical to the typical image of George Mason as a scrappy underdog fighting its way to success against bigger, more powerful foes.

For one, Copes' commitment gives Hewitt an athletic, high-motor competitor with size and athleticism, if not polish. But more importantly, it signifies that Hewitt could use his recruiting prowess to lure some of the talent that Beltway-area schools like Maryland and Georgetown will spend the next 10 years battling for. Even if the returns are modest, they'll almost certainly result in a talent boost. In the long term, that has to make Mason fans feel quite optimistic.

As for 2011-12, though, Hewitt's challenge is to adapt his style to conform the multifaceted, offensively gifted group of players he will inherit in his first season. If he can introduce some of his solid defensive chops, all the better.

But for the first time in years, mostly thanks to chance, Hewitt will coach a team of players that can hit shots from all over the floor. After three seasons spent watching his teams chuck brick after brick, that will have to feel like a relief.

Summer Buzz: Xavier Musketeers

August, 24, 2011
8/24/11
11:17
AM ET
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 preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: Xavier.

[+] EnlargeTu Holloway
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesXavier's Tu Holloway averaged 19.7 points last season and will be a primary option again this season.
Last season, a streak ended. The Xavier Musketeers failed to reach the Sweet 16.

XU's run of three straight appearances in that distinct tournament group from 2008 to 2010 was both a trivial oddity -- "quick, name the only teams to do the following ..." -- and a testament to how strong the program had become. Thad Matta passed the reins to Sean Miller, who passed the reins to Chris Mack. It didn't matter. The Musketeers just kept rolling, a quasi mid-major that took its hoops very seriously and expected everyone else to do the same.

Xavier didn't have that kind of season in 2010-11. It was hardly a bad season; the Musketeers finished 15-1 in the Atlantic 10 and 24-7 overall before losing to eventual Sweet 16 member Marquette in the first round of the NCAA tournament. But the Muskies weren't quite their rough-and-tumble selves from the 2008-2010 years. They finished No. 41 in the country in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings, the program's lowest ranking since 2006. They were good but not great. For most programs, that's OK. For Xavier, higher goals are in mind.

Which is why 2011-12 could be a very fun season.

Put simply, these Musketeers are loaded. Nearly everyone of note from last season's team -- including the team's top three scorers -- Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons and Kenny Frease -- are back in the fold. Junior reserve Jeff Robinson is ready to step into a featured role. And a solid crew of recruits, not least of which is Dezmine Wells, the No. 14-ranked small forward in the class of 2011, will jump in and provide depth and talent to an already intriguing lineup.

There's almost no way to write this without it seeming like an understatement, but Xavier's most important returning player is Holloway. After a breakout 2011 campaign -- Holloway averaged 19.7 points, 5.4 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game -- the guard briefly tested the NBA waters. When he found himself slotted among the mass of undersized guards ranked near the bottom half of the draft pool, he wisely decided to return to school. And X fans everywhere got very excited.

Holloway was brilliant in a variety of ways last season. His versatility is made apparent in his statistics, and his dependability -- he played the sixth-highest percentage of available minutes in the country in 2011 -- made him as reliable as any player in the country. But Holloway's real contribution is of a rarer sort: He can be almost unstoppable with the ball in his hands and a teammate running toward him.

According to Synergy scouting data, Holloway was the primary ballhandler in pick-and-roll sets on 53.5 of his possessions last season. On the 321 possessions in which Holloway received a ball screen, he scored or assisted to the tune of 328 points. That mark ranked him among the best screen-and-roll players in the country last season despite having 50 more attempts than the next closest player, South Dakota State's Nate Wolters.

Most of the players as efficient as Holloway in these sets handled the ball far less frequently, or were far less dynamic. (One good example is Ohio State's Jon Diebler.) But no player used pick-and-roll opportunities nearly as much as Holloway, and even so, few players were better.

This makes him incredibly difficult to stop. (One of the only teams to do so all season, in fact, was Marquette, whose coach Buzz Williams consulted the scouting data and constructed his entire stop-Holloway strategy in time to get the Golden Eagles that NCAA tournament win.) Holloway has the green light to attack whenever he sees daylight, and those possessions often ended with a trip to the free throw line and a pair of almost-guaranteed points from an 87 percent free throw shooter.

But Holloway was a point guard before he was a scorer. His assist rate in 2010-11 was 30.4 percent. When met with defenders, he found the open man. When teams stayed home on help, he scored or got to the free throw line. And so a 20-points-per-game scorer was born.

Remember what I said about the whole understatement thing? Exactly.

But as we saw last season, Holloway can't do it alone. He has to have help.

That help should come in a few forms. For one, Xavier's defense could stand to improve; it finished ranked No. 59 in the country in 2011, and its best player (at least statistically) was Holloway, who expends most of his energy making things happen on the offensive end.

On offense, the Musketeers -- who shot 32.9 percent from 3 last season -- could use some outside shooters. Lyons, Holloway's backcourt mate, is best operating in space off the dribble, but he wasn't a particularly good 3-point shooter last season (to the tune of 34 percent from beyond the arc). That's not horrible, but in an ideal world, Holloway would have at least one go-to sharpshooter hovering around the arc to find for open looks when the defense rotates to defend the screen-and-roll. Not having that player feels like a missed opportunity.

If Lyons doesn't significantly improve that portion of his game -- and Robinson might have room to grow here as well -- perhaps the Musketeers can find such a player among the three entering the program this fall. Xavier has been lauded for finding a gem in Wells, a versatile and athletic forward who drew scouts' raves for his intensity, defensive motor, and willingness to attack opponents off the dribble.

Darwin Davis, the No. 28-ranked point guard in the class, projects to be a lightning-quick point guard. Neither of these players is known for their 3-point shot -- in fact, both players' scouting reports list that as one of their weaknesses -- but any extra perimeter presence would surely be a plus.

Even if those prospects need a year or two before they become more than role players, the 2011-12 Xavier Musketeers remain a deep, veteran team with a bonafide star at the helm. Mack might have to find more creative ways to get Holloway his offense. He'll be hoping Lyons and Frease (the team's massive 7-foot center) make leaps beyond their previous contributions. But if things break down, the Holloway option -- someone set a screen for Tu; Tu, you go make something happen -- will always be there.

That's what happens when you have a special player: More often than not, you get special teams. It will be up to the rest of the Musketeers, veteran and rookie alike, to build the required parts around him.

If it comes together, a return trip to the Sweet 16 will be the least of Xavier's ambitions.

The streak is dead. Long live the streak.

Summer Buzz: UNLV Rebels

August, 23, 2011
8/23/11
12:37
PM ET
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 preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: UNLV. Insider

Few coaches hold as much sway over their old programs as former UNLV icon Jerry Tarkanian. It's difficult for an outsider to understand just how much soft power Tark has wielded in the days since he left the bench in 1992, but the HBO documentary film "The Runnin' Rebels of UNLV" helped hammer it home this spring. Tark the Shark built the Rebels into a national brand, gave the city of Las Vegas the nearest possible thing to a pro basketball team, and created a sense of communal identity that made him as locally beloved as he was nationally controversial.

[+] EnlargeDave Rice
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonThe Rebels keep it in the family by hiring former UNLV standout and longtime assistant Dave Rice.
So when Lon Kruger left the Rebels to take on the difficult job at Oklahoma and it was time to select a coach to replace him, Tarkanian made clear who his preference was: former late 70s star Reggie Theus. He was part of the UNLV family, had pro coaching experience, and now it was time to bring him home and let him usher in a new era of Rebel greatness.

Only one problem: It wasn't clear Theus was the best candidate for the job. So UNLV athletic director Jim Livengood made a rather brilliant compromise: He hired Dave Rice instead.

Rice, unlike Theus, is a longtime college assistant with experience at UNLV, Utah State and BYU. He knows the ins and outs of basketball in the West. He's recruited for the Rebels and their immediate competitors. He wants his teams to play with the style and pressure of Tarkanian's legendary squads. And, best of all, as a member of the 1990 national champions, he just so happens to be a member of the family, too. Eventually, Tark gave Rice his blessing.

If all of this seems incidental to how good UNLV will be in the Dave Rice era -- who cares if a former coach likes the hire, right? -- then it's possible you're missing something about how UNLV basketball works. In some ways, Runnin' Rebel fans are like any other: They remember the good old days, and they want to get them back.

But there's something unique about their fandom. It thrives on success and glamor, or at least it did when the best Vegas teams were running their opponents off the floor. UNLV needs the raucous support of its occasionally transient community. When the Rebels are winning and things are good, those fans can turn the Thomas and Mack Center into one of the country's most exciting places for college hoops. But if the program struggles, well, I can think of a lot of other things to do in Las Vegas on a Saturday night.

The good news is Kruger left the program, and fans' interest therein, in seemingly good shape. The Rebs finished No. 23 in the country in average attendance last season [PDF] with 13,253 fans per game. Considering the cost of tickets, parking and concessions, and all of the distractions created by the city surrounding it -- it would be easy to see UNLV games as just another thing to do in Las Vegas -- it has to be some kind of victory to know that the program's fans are very much of the die-hard variety.

In other words, the program's off-court fundamentals are strong. That's the first item of business. Here's more good news: In 2011-12, this conference is ripe for UNLV's picking.

This has as much to do with UNLV's team as it does with the loss of fellow competitors. BYU bolted for the West Coast Conference, so that's one perennial contender out of the way. San Diego State lost the majority of its stellar 2011 team to graduation and the NBA draft, and while the Aztecs will still compete, they won't be near the powerhouse we saw last season.

That leaves New Mexico, which has slowly stocked up on talent in recent seasons, to challenge a strong, deep and veteran Rebels team for the conference title. So for Rice, success could be immediate.

There are hurdles to climb. The loss of guard Tre'Von Willis removes a dynamic scoring threat from UNLV's offense. Senior forward Chace Stanback, who was arrested on suspicion of DUI earlier this year, may have to miss games due to disciplinary action. But in all, as Diamond ran down today:
UNLV returns four of its top five scorers, including Chace Stanback. The team also adds potential impact transfers in forward Mike Moser and guard Reggie Smith (eligible in December), and is welcoming back top 3-point shooter Kendall Wallace after a torn anterior cruciate ligament forced him to redshirt last season. The Rebels are stacked.

Indeed they are. Just as exciting for UNLV fans is the news that they're about to play like UNLV, too.

It's not that Kruger always played particularly slow. In 2010-11, his team's adjusted tempo was 67.8 possessions per game, good for No. 110 in the country. But more often than not in his tenure at UNLV, Kruger preferred to grind games to a halt and rely on his defense to take over. The Rebels may have been effective, but they were never a particularly entertaining team. (Last season, when they shot a collective 33.0 percent from beyond the arc, they could be downright ugly.)

Rice's hope is to recreate the Tark days by being both effective and entertaining. In June, he told Diamond he planned to install a run-on-every-possession style offense befitting a team with the word "runnin'" in its nickname. And he's even bringing the "Jaws" theme back:
Rice already has promised that the Runnin' Rebels will indeed run on every possession, and playing a fast-paced brand of basketball isn't the only tradition from the Tark the Shark era that he hopes to revive. Rice, who won a national championship playing for Tarkanian, also said the program is considering bringing back the theme music from "Jaws," which used to fire up the Thomas & Mack Arena as the team came onto the court.

The old Tarkanian days are one model for how UNLV could play. But a possibly more relevant example could be the team Rice has coached in recent seasons, Brigham Young. Under his former boss Dave Rose, the Cougars have consistently been one of the fastest teams in the country. They play ordered, secondary-break offense, one that looks for early-clock shots but is willing to pull the ball-out, reset, and then reload the attack.

Of course, BYU also had some dude named Jimmer Fredette, and it's a lot easier to play really good offensive basketball when Fredette is in your backcourt. But the basic principles could just as easily apply to UNLV. Anthony Marshall, Oscar Bellfield and Justin Hawkins are all guards capable of handling the ball in space, scoring when available, and finding open teammates for easy looks. (Marshall and Bellfield posted solid assist rates, while Hawkins limited his turnover percentage to a mere 14.8.)

Meanwhile, Stanback could be the perfect featured player in an uptempo team. He has the size (6-8) to present matchup problems, he can stretch the floor with his outside shooting (he made 36 percent from 3 in 2010-11), and he has a capable mid-range game that would look awfully good taking soft little pull-ups on 4-on-3 fast-break opportunities.

UNLV may not look exactly like the Tark teams of old right away. They aren't going to dominate, that's for sure. But Rice has quite a bit going for him. A solid group of veterans is back for another run at a conference title. The fans are locked in. The conference is wide open. The "Jaws" theme is coming back.

All that's left is the new uptempo offense. If Rice succeeds in installing it, no one -- not even the Tarkfather himself -- will be able to question the hire.

In many ways, family and all, it's already looking like the perfect fit.

Summer Buzz: Butler Bulldogs

August, 22, 2011
8/22/11
12:14
PM ET
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 preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: Butler.

Why do we love college basketball?

[+] EnlargeBrad Stevens
Howard Smith/US PresswireCoach Brad Stevens must again mold Butler into a team that is better than the sum of its parts.
It's not just because crazy things can happen in the NCAA tournament. After all, crazy things can happen in every sport, and if the only reason you love college hoops is unpredictability -- if that love has nothing to do with the squeak of a sneaker on a freshly waxed floor or a well-oiled swing pass to a wide-open corner shooter -- then you can just as easily get your jollies from, say, roulette.

But insanity does play its role. As we saw in 2011, the craziness of March Madness -- in which not one, but two good-but-far-from-great mid-major squads somehow found themselves squaring off in the Final Four -- can out-crazy just about anything else in modern sports.

Consider the trajectory of Butler's 2010-11 season: The Bulldogs were essentially left for dead on Feb. 3, when a loss to laughingstock Youngstown State, the team's third in a row, made them 14-9 overall and 6-5 -- 6-5! -- in the Horizon League. Then, naturally, Butler ripped off 15 straight wins, including its first five NCAA tournament games.

For the second straight season -- this time much more miraculously than the first -- Butler got to the national championship game. Then, naturally, the Bulldogs put up one of the worst shooting performances in college hoops history and lost a stinker of a finale to Connecticut (a surprising national champion in its own right). Looking back, nothing about Butler's season, from the early struggles to the late tourney run to the composition of the Final Four -- Virginia Commonwealth! -- to the unfortunate and ugly final performance, was remotely predictable.

In other words, it's difficult to predict where Butler goes from here. Can Brad Stevens build his team's recent postseason shockers into lasting national status? Or is the inequality between schools from mid-major and BCS conferences too much to overcome? Will Butler maintain its excellence despite the loss of its three best players from the past two seasons? Or are the two-time national runners-up consigned to life as a historical footnote?

In the immediate future, it seems the Bulldogs are likely to struggle. But that doesn't mean we should write an ending to Butler's section in the college basketball almanac just yet.

Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack and Matt Howard -- the alternating cornerstones behind the past two seasons' March glories -- are gone. We already saw how difficult Butler's life was in the post-Hayward era; without him the Bulldogs lacked a player that could consistently score against more athletic, taller defenders like UConn's.

Things will only get tougher without Howard and Mack. Howard was especially excellent as a senior. He expanded his outside game, cut down on his fouls and posted one of the more efficient seasons of any big man in college hoops. Mack took on the majority of Butler's scoring load, especially on the perimeter, and he was at his best in the most important spots, where lesser players would allow shooting woes or other struggles to consume their appetite for the ball. Howard was consistent and workmanlike; Mack was cold-blooded and brutal. And both were far more important than their numbers reveal.

Howard won't be easily replaced, but the Bulldogs do have some frontcourt pieces that could come close. First is center Andrew Smith, who shone in his sophomore season with a brilliantly efficient performance in limited attempts. He will have to get better at creating his own offense in the post, not being able to rely on weak-side defenders who collapsed on Howard. But his size (6-foot-11) and interior skills give him a huge advantage in the Horizon League, which often lacks true centers with Smith's frame.

The other is sophomore forward Khyle Marshall, who entered Butler last season as one of the highest-ranked recruits ever to choose Butler. Marshall is a 6-7 forward with an array of talents, chiefly his athleticism. He could be a breakout star as soon as this season. Whether you play in the Horizon League or the Big Ten, that frontcourt tandem is an enviable quality. (Just ask, say, Indiana.)

Butler's backcourt transition could prove much more difficult. Mack is gone, as are solid senior contributors Shawn Vanzant and Zach Hahn. Senior guard Ronald Nored is back, which is good news on two fronts. First, Nored is a great defender, one of the best perimeter defenders in the nation. Second, Nored is a born leader, and his continuity could be crucial for a team that lost so much at the top when Howard and Mack moved on.

Still, there is no obvious replacement for Mack. Junior guard Chase Stigall is an interesting offensive player, but his game is mostly of the spot-up variety (and even then Stigall only made 32 percent of his 3s in 2011). And, in terms of returners, that's pretty much it: Mack, Vanzant, Hahn, Nored and Stigall were basically Butler's only backcourt players last season (at least when Howard wasn't facing up around the perimeter). Who fills that gap?

That brings us to recruiting, the best indicator of whether Butler has turned the past two seasons into a pathway toward long-term excellence. But the 2011 class wasn't a major statement in either direction. There are some intriguing players here, but no one as good as Marshall. The best prospect in the class is probably small forward Roosevelt Jones, who is ranked No. 33 at his position.

Things are looking better for 2012-13, as Stevens landed Arkansas transfer Rotnei Clarke and has already received a commitment from ESPNU top 100 player Kellen Dunham. And Butler has had a hand in high-profile recruitments like that of Indiana commitment Cody Zeller. But the Bulldogs haven't experienced a recruiting revolution just yet. There might be a springboard effect at work eventually, but right now, its impact appears to have been limited.

That means, in 2011-12 at least, Stevens will be doing ... exactly what he's been doing throughout his tenure at the school, actually. He'll be charged with taking a group of talented but not elite players, molding them into a team over the course of the nonconference and Horizon League season, and then out-scouting and out-smarting everyone with more talent along the way.

After all, Butler's recent rise wasn't just luck. It came thanks to Stevens' brilliant work preparing his teams in the past two NCAA tournaments. As we saw last year, it's a mistake to count Butler out. Major pieces have gone, and replacing them won't be easy. But no coach -- frankly, no program -- in the country is better at forging a capital-T Team built to exceed the sum of its parts.

Then you get in the NCAA tournament. Howard makes a last-second tip-in, Nasir Robinson suffers a mental brain fart at the worst possible time, and the next thing you know, you're right back in the Final Four.

The surprising underdog isn't the only reason we love college hoops, but it's definitely one of them. Butler might not be the next Duke -- let's wait a few years before we render that final judgement. In 2011-12, though, merely being Butler ought to be enough.

Summer Buzz: Texas Longhorns

August, 19, 2011
8/19/11
12:04
PM ET
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 preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: Texas. Insider

It's safe to say Texas fans did not see this offseason coming.

During the NCAA tournament, forward Tristan Thompson made a convincing case that he indeed planned on returning to school. Small forward Jordan Hamilton followed suit. Let's take a trip down memory lane:

"I'm coming back another year," Thompson said repeatedly in the Texas locker room at BOK Center, where the team was going to practice in preparation for its Sunday round-of-32 game against Arizona. "I've already signed up for summer classes."

"I'm coming back next year," Hamilton told the Austin American-Statesman. "I think we will have a great team."

Texas officials cautioned that one or both of the players could change their minds and opt to enter the draft.

[+] EnlargeMyck Kabong
Henny Ray Abrams/McDonald'sThe Longhorns are looking to Myck Kabong, the No. 2 point guard in the 2011 class, to help replace players who left early for the NBA.
Those Texas officials sure were prescient. When Thompson found himself rocketing up draft boards, he quietly reversed his decision and entered the NBA draft. When Hamilton saw that a handful of highly ranked players -- Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger and Perry Jones would all have been selected well ahead of the Longhorns sophomore -- decided to stay in school, Hamilton leapt at the chance to boost his draft stock.

In retrospect, these decisions weren't shocking. Players say what they say during the season, but when the NBA comes calling, you have to listen. Fair enough.

No, the true shocker came when guard Corey Joseph -- a solid but unspectacular point guard who had a solid but unspectacular freshman season -- declared his intentions to join Thompson and Hamilton in the NBA draft. Even more shocking? It worked out. (Which is to say, it worked out until the NBA lockout got so serious. Sigh.) Joseph was drafted by the best franchise in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs, and Texas coach Rick Barnes added another three first-round picks to his long résumé of Texas-borne pro talent.

(One quick fun fact: Hamilton and Joseph's selections marked the first time two Canadians had been selected in the first round of the same NBA draft.)

But happy as he surely was to see his three players achieve their lifelong dreams, Barnes couldn't celebrate for long. Hamilton was right: If everyone came back, the Longhorns would have had a great team. But everyone didn't come back. Basically, everyone left. And that has made life suddenly quite difficult for Barnes and his staff.

Of course, it's not as if the Longhorns won't be talented. Texas is a recruiting powerhouse, and the arrival of Myck Kabongo, the No. 2-ranked point guard in the class of 2011, will immediately make up for (and perhaps eclipse) the loss of Joseph to the NBA. J'Covan Brown will be an excellent scoring two-guard, and incoming freshman shooting guard Sheldon McClellan should be able to contribute minutes right away. In other words, the Longhorns' backcourt should be just fine.

The frontcourt is an entirely different story. The loss of Thompson and Hamilton was exacerbated by the graduation of forward Gary Johnson. Together, Hamilton, Thompson and Johnson were Texas' three leading scorers and rebounders; they combined for 43.2 points and 22.3 rebounds per game. Their combined length and athleticism were among the major reasons for Texas' brilliance on the defensive end, where the Longhorns allowed the third-lowest opponents' effective field goal percentage in the nation last season.

Making matters worse, there are no clear replacements -- or even a replacement -- waiting in the wings. Alex Wangmene, a 6-foot-7 senior, is the only returning forward in the Longhorns' lineup, and he averaged a mere 9.6 minutes per game in 2011. The recruiting class has a couple of promising prospects -- especially No. 10-ranked power forward Jonathan Holmes -- but no one in the class has the sort of dominating one-and-done potential it would take to fully replace Thompson, Johnson and even Hamilton.

That means Texas will almost certainly have to switch things up. The Longhorns have been heavily reliant on the post in the past two seasons; that won't work in 2011. Kabongo and Brown will have to take the majority of the scoring load while Barnes brings along Wangmene, Holmes, and the host of other movable parts that could earn time in various lineup configurations. Picking up the pace and spreading the floor couldn't hurt, either.

But this isn't just about offense. Defense was where the Longhorns truly excelled in 2011; were it not for a late-season slide, they could have gone down as one of the best defensive teams in modern hoops history. It's unclear whether this new batch of talent can come anywhere close to matching that performance. The loss of senior guard Dogus Balbay -- one of the true perimeter defensive stoppers in all of college hoops -- especially hurts.

That doesn't mean the Longhorns are in for a truly "down" season. They should remain competitive in the Big 12, and the Kabongo-Brown combination might just be enough to keep them in the hunt for a conference title.

But unless Wangmene and the rest of the untested frontcourt surprises everyone in 2011, the Longhorns are going to have some holes. Usually, Barnes' personnel challenges come from having too much talent and too few roster spots. For the first time in years, the opposite may be true.

Summer Buzz: Baylor Bears

August, 18, 2011
8/18/11
10:35
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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 preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: Baylor.

In retrospect, there were three real candidates in the contest for 2010-11's Most Disappointing Team. (Believe it or not, there is no ESPY for this. But there should be.) Those candidates were Michigan State, Kansas State and Baylor. To me, the winner is Baylor, and I'm not sure it's even close.

Michigan State was mediocre, but at least the Spartans rallied in time to keep Tom Izzo's NCAA tournament appearances streak alive. Kansas State was massively disappointing on and off the court, but Jacob Pullen caught fire late in the season, the Wildcats easily secured a tournament bid, and Frank Martin's team fought to a valiant, prideful end in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Loss or no, Pullen and Co. could walk off the floor with heads held high.

Baylor, on the other hand, never got there. For all the expectations and talent -- the Bears were a popular preseason Final Four pick thanks to the arrival of touted recruit Perry Jones and the return of star guard LaceDarius Dunn -- Scott Drew's team just never seemed to sort it out.

[+] EnlargePerry Jones
AP Photo/Jerry LarsonPerry Jones (5) averaged 13.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game last season.
Earlier this year, during the glorious height of Bubble Watch -- my body still hasn't recovered from the circadian disruptions -- my editor Brett and I would frequently get on the phone and hash things out. Who deserved to drop off? Who deserved to stay on? Why or why not? Each week, it seemed, brought some measure of discussion about Baylor. Every week, we kept waiting for the Bears to give us a reason -- besides the general softness of the bubble -- to warrant serious bid consideration. Every week, Baylor disappointed.

It was a weird, frustrating experience. I can only imagine how Baylor fans felt. Eventually, the Bears mercifully dropped off The Watch, finishing 18-13 and underperforming even the most bearish (sorry) analysts' preseason predictions.

Why? Why was a team so talented also so very mediocre? The answer is actually pretty simple: point guard play.

For all of the talent at Baylor last season, the Bears never recovered from the loss of former point guard Tweety Carter, who helped lead the team to the 2010 Elite Eight appearance that so inflated 2011's expectations. With Dunn and forward Ekpe Udoh garnering most of the headlines for that run, Carter's excellent point guard play often went unnoticed. With Dunn back, Jones arriving, and forward Quincy Acy preparing to take a larger role, it was assumed that sophomore point guard A.J. Walton would be able to pick up right where Carter left off, that the Bears' vaunted high-flying offense would just keep putting points on the board.

That didn't happen. Oh, did it ever not happen. Walton struggled, and that's putting it nicely. He posted one of the highest turnover percentages in the country in 2011, coughing up the ball on 32.1 percent of his possessions. In 2010, Baylor's turnover rate was 20.2 percent -- not great, not bad, right in the meat of the curve.

In 2011, with Walton at the helm, that team turnover rate jumped to 23.4 percent, one of the highest figures in all of college hoops. (Team rank: No. 322. Ouch.) Walton was, to put it bluntly, a turnover machine, and those turnovers contributed in a big way to Baylor's overall offensive mediocrity. Throw in Walton's shaky shooting, and the Bears' offense lost much of its dynamism, especially on the perimeter.

Per Ken Pomeroy, in 2010, the Bears ranked No. 3 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency. In 2011, they ranked No. 92. More than anything else, turnovers were the reason.

Of course, it would be unfair to lay all of the blame at Walton's feet. For one, Baylor's defense wasn't nearly as good as it had been the previous season. Most assumed Jones would make up for the loss of Udoh; instead, the touted freshman came along slowly, a prototypically gifted athlete who hadn't quite figured out how to turn his talents into dominance. That was especially true on the defensive end, where Udoh's shot-blocking -- not to mention the presence of 7-foot banger Josh Lomers -- was sorely missed. The drop-off in adjusted defensive efficiency wasn't quite as pronounced as the offensive side, but the Bears suffered a major dip all the same.

Now, as 2012 approaches, how does Baylor avoid a similar fate? Dunn is gone, but Jones and Acy are back, and they're joined by another elite talent in incoming freshman Quincy Miller, the No. 3-ranked power forward in the class of 2011. Deuce Bello, a touted small forward prospect, is also arriving this fall. The Bears will have another supremely long and athletic team, one most experts will pick to contend for the Big 12 title and a spot in the second weekend of the NCAA tournament. But can they get the offense back on track?

Again, the answer is point guard play. A major improvement by Walton in his junior season is one option. But there is another: In April, Baylor inked point guard Pierre Jackson, one of the top junior college players in the country. When asked why he chose Baylor, Jackson gave his appraisal of the BU personnel to the Magic Valley Times-News:
"What Baylor has coming back next year - the front line is crazy," said Jackson. "... They got a couple NBA-caliber front-line players and they've got a couple freshmen coming in that are NBA caliber already on a couple mock drafts."

"Baylor needed a point guard pretty bad last year," said Jackson [...]. "I guess I was the perfect guard for that situation."

He's not wrong: Baylor desperately needed a point guard last year. If Jackson is even so-so -- as long as he doesn't cough the ball up too frequently -- he could be the piece that puts Baylor over the top.

Of course, as above, there are other issues. The Bears have to get better defensively. Jones has to turn all that talent -- the dude is 6-foot-11 with silky guard skills, for goodness' sake -- into star-level productivity. Miller and Bello have to be ready to contribute immediately, and Acy has to be even better on the glass.

College hoops is not the place for magic bullets. Things aren't as simple as plugging in one player for the other. There are rarely magic bullets. But Baylor, perhaps more than any team in the country, had a singular, obvious problem in 2011. If Drew can correct it -- whether with Walton or Jackson or some combination therein -- he might have a very scary team on his hands.

If he can't, the Bears are almost sure to improve. But they won't be nearly as good as they should be. Sound familiar?

Summer Buzz: Kansas Jayhawks

August, 17, 2011
8/17/11
3:15
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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 preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: Kansas.

This is the second straight year we've had reason to doubt whether Kansas should be the Big 12 favorite. Considering the Jayhawks' run of success in the conference -- seven straight regular-season conference titles, four of which were won just before KU took the conference tournament title, not to mention that 2008 national championship -- this seems somewhat silly.

Last summer, we had our reasons -- namely the projected ascent of a Jacob Pullen-led Kansas State team. This year, the reasons have less to do with the rest of the conference's makeup (though there is plenty of talent out there) and more to do with the massive personnel losses Kansas suffered this past spring.

[+] EnlargeTyshawn Taylor
Mark D Smith/US PresswireTyshawn Taylor is Kansas' only returning starter heading into this season.
The Morris twins are in the NBA. Senior guards Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed graduated. Josh Selby, the highly touted freshman who never got his game on track -- and thus caused Kansas fans to hope he wouldn't make a premature leap to the NBA -- made that leap anyway. Mario Little, a handy reserve guard, is gone, too.

Meanwhile, KU's incoming recruiting class is good but not great. Of course, most programs would love to land the No. 22-ranked class in the country. But for Kansas, which has had few peers on the recruiting trail in recent seasons -- perhaps only Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke have matched coach Bill Self's efforts among elite players -- it's just sort of solid.

So what does all this mean? After seven years of dominance, are the Jayhawks due for a downgrade?

I'm not so convinced.

It's not that there isn't good Big 12 competition out there. Missouri returns all five starters from last season's solid squad. Baylor has NBA lottery prospect Perry Jones, potential one-and-done Quincy Miller and a host of other athletic, talented players. Texas A&M (provided the Aggies haven't defected to the Texas shadow-free EuroLeague by the time this piece is published) could compete for the conference title. Texas, as always, is talented and intriguing.

But Kansas should still be really good, too. That's the thing about recruiting multiyear players who don't need to jump to the NBA immediately: When players leave, expected or otherwise, you don't have to land the No. 1 class in the country to compete for trophies. Instead, you can do what the Hawks did last offseason. They didn't rebuild. They reloaded.

Pardon the cliche, but it works. In 2010-11, Kansas lost its three best players: Cole Aldrich, Sherron Collins and Xavier Henry. Self tweaked his lineup, put Markieff Morris and the senior guards on the floor, and changed his offense to feature much more side-to-side motion and face-up work from the Morris brothers. KU's offense betrayed it in the Elite Eight loss to VCU, but for the 37 games before it, the Jayhawks were brilliant to watch. If they weren't quite as good as 2010's version, they were still very, very good.

It's fair to expect a similar recalibration this season, and Self again has promising young talent -- several of whom were merely reserves in 2011 -- to work with. Chief among them is forward Thomas Robinson. Robinson was one of the nation's best rebounders last season, and he did so in limited minutes. This year, he'll be much more important to the Jayhawks' chances. He'll have to generate his own offense in the post, deal with double-teams and weakside help, and still crash the glass and patrol the lane with the same gusto he achieved last season in limited minutes. Judging by Robinson's performance at the Nike Skills Camps this summer, he's more than capable of that kind of season.

Perhaps the biggest key to Kansas' success this season will be its lone returning starter, point guard Tyshawn Taylor. Taylor has had a roller coaster of a career in Lawrence. He's been a key contributor for three seasons, no small feat considering the talent that has passed through the Jayhawks' backcourt during that time. But he's also run afoul of Self several times. Those issues have come on the court (Taylor forcing things, playing out of control, trying to carve a larger role) and off (Taylor's infamous involvement in the fight with football players, his Facebook posts, etc.).

To his credit, Taylor was better in nearly every area in 2011. He was KU's lone backcourt starter who could consistently create offense off the dribble. But he still committed far too many turnovers. Taylor's 27.4 percent assist rate was nearly eclipsed by the 26.7 percent of possessions in which he coughed it up. That has to change. Suddenly, Taylor finds himself the wise, old sage in a rather young backcourt. Now it's his turn to lead.

Among the guards Self can plug and play with are juniors Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson, both of whom negated Selby's disappointing season in 2011 by shooting the lights out when called upon. (Releford made 38 percent of his 3s, Johnson 40 percent.) Self could choose to start both players alongside Taylor, Robinson and center Jeff Withey, and his team would look theoretically similar to the one that scored so easily in 2011.

Meanwhile, freshman small forward Ben McLemore could warrant an immediate insertion into the lineup. McLemore played in the post for much of his high school career, but he impressed scouts with his ability to step outside and knock down shots, and he could fit KU's two-in, three-out style as a wing while bringing some added athleticism, too.

More likely than not, the Jayhawk newcomers -- McLemore included -- will slide into the reserve roles played by Releford, Johnson, Robinson and Withey. There are no one-and-dones in this class, no personnel panaceas guaranteed to take Kansas to the next level. But I'm not sure this should be discouraging news for KU fans. The Jayhawks faced arguably worse personnel losses last summer, and the little-used reserves from that team stepped up and became ruthlessly efficient starters on the one that followed it. The talent is still there, isn't it? So why can't a similar process happen again?

Forget the one-and-done prospects, the top-five recruiting classes. Kansas has that kind of talent on its roster already. Winning seven straight Big 12 titles isn't always just about landing elite players. (Of course, that doesn't hurt.) It's also about recruiting really good players who are willing to wait a year or two before their time comes. No program in the country has done that better in the past decade than Kansas.

That puts the Jayhawks in a unique position: Even without an elite recruiting class, and even with four of their five starters now gone, Kansas could be every bit as good as it was last year. There are no guarantees -- the Jayhawks have a lot to put together before the Maui Invitational comes calling in November -- but I'm loathe to doubt a Self-coached reload.

Aren't you?

Summer Buzz: Arizona Wildcats

August, 16, 2011
8/16/11
1:54
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Our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. Insider For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: Arizona.

Derrick Williams finally got his due.

Williams was arguably the best player in the country during the 2010-11 season. He was, with the exception of Hofstra's Charles Jenkins, the most efficient star in all of college hoops. Nobody but Jenkins took as many shots while simultaneously maintaining Williams' otherworldly efficiency. His effective field goal percentage (65.0) and true shooting percentage (69.0) ranked him sixth and fourth in the country, respectively.

[+] EnlargeDerrick Williams
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelArizona will have to make up for the loss of Lamont Jones (left) and Derrick Williams.
And Williams didn't just score. He also rebounded on both ends of the floor, drew fouls on opponents at one of the highest rates in the nation, and contributed length and athleticism on the defensive end.

For a variety of reasons -- a lack of national profile heading into the season, the whole West Coast/Pac-10 TV thing, and so on -- casual college hoops fans (and NBA scouts, for that matter) spent much of the season sleeping on Williams. It took a torrid run through the postseason (including a pretty much flawless 32-point, 13-rebound performance in a dominating win over No. 1-seed Duke in the Sweet 16) and a spate of talented forwards deciding to stay in school, for Williams to finally rocket up draft boards.

Fortunately for Williams, the final appraisal was the best one. The dude was a monster. He was drafted accordingly. The end.

Unfortunately for Arizona, the Wildcats now face the prospect of replacing their hyperefficient scoring and rebounding machine, and they have to do so in one fell swoop. Traditional stat lines can be deceiving -- you can't control for tempo in a box score, duh -- but this one is not. Go ahead, click on it. It's Arizona's 2011 statistics, and if you take even a cursory glance, you'll notice that no single Wildcat averaged even half the points per game Williams did. The closest was Lamont "MoMo" Jones. If you double Jones' points per game (9.7), you get one tenth of a percentage point less (19.4) than Williams's (19.5). This is not the most scientific piece of data ever unearthed, but you get the point.

Making this worse, of course, is Jones' decision to transfer to Iona this offseason. He said he wanted to transfer home to New York to be closer to family, and he couldn't go to St. John's because of an NCAA rule prohibiting players from playing for their old AAU coaches. But his transfer likely had something to do with Arizona's incoming backcourt and the star power Sean Miller is hoping two freshmen can immediately bring.

The first is Josiah Turner, the No. 3-ranked point guard in the class of 2011. The second is Nick Johnson, the No. 5-ranked shooting guard. Landing either one of these two would have been a boon to Arizona's long-term project (which, after an Elite Eight appearance, can hardly be qualified as "rebuilding"). Landing both of them gives the Cats what should be the best freshman guard tandem in the country. Having Jones around would have helped -- veteran presence is always nice, right? -- but it's not clear he's better than either of Miller's incoming talents.

The rest of the team won't be quite so young, but youth is still the defining characteristic. The rest of Arizona's seventh-ranked recruiting class includes two intriguing power forwards, Angelo Chol and Sidiki Johnson, both of whom are power forwards, and both of whom are ESPNU top 100 prospects. Neither is likely to have the same immediate impact as Turner or Johnson, but both should compete for minutes early in their careers and, at the very least, provide some depth to an obviously depleted frontcourt.

The rest of that frontcourt comprises returning role players who played off Williams last season. The most likely breakout candidate is 6-foot-6 forward Solomon Hill, whose athleticism allows him to overcome size disadvantages in the low block. Hill could feasibly transition to a more traditional small forward role; he isn't a great shooter, but he's capable -- he made 17 of his 48 3-point attempts last season -- and his potential defensive versatility is an asset against bigger guards and/or smaller forwards.

There are other returners here. Kyle Fogg is solid at the 2. Seven-foot center Kyryl Natyazhko and 6-11 forward Alex Jacobson both bring valuable size (which could come in handy against, say, UCLA's bruising front line). Junior small forward Kevin Parrom is the best shooter on the team; he posted an offensive rating of 122.5 in 2011. Guard Jordin Mayes and big man Jesse Perry are also back for their second seasons in Tucson.

Miller can choose between these, and a handful of other minor contributors last season, as he begins to fill out the 2011-12 Arizona lineup. Whatever configuration of players he chooses -- some mix of old and new, experience and talent, and so on -- two things are certain:

One: Derrick Williams isn't walking through that door. Arizona's offense may be very good again. But if it is, it will look entirely different from the 2011 version. It is likely to be more perimeter-oriented, more varied, and less interior-oriented.

And two: Arizona will either be good or great this season. But even if "good" is the end result, the future -- with this top-notch 2011 class and another brilliant one on the way in 2012 -- is looking very bright.

Williams is gone, and he'll be impossible to replace. But Arizona basketball is in very good shape. On that point, there seems to be little debate.

Summer Buzz: UCLA Bruins

August, 15, 2011
8/15/11
12:57
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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 analytic fun. Today's subject: UCLA.

When Jerime Anderson got himself indefinitely suspended for allegedly stealing a fellow student's MacBook Pro, he didn't just put his entire season in jeopardy. He also underscored the issues facing his coach, Ben Howland, as he looks to build on last season's surprisingly solid success.

Those issues come down to this: frontcourt excellence, backcourt transience. Or, put another way, UCLA has a lot of exciting forwards to choose from. Almost too many. But could the backcourt hold the Bruins back? Can Howland bridge the gap? How?

If only the Wear twins were guards.

[+] EnlargeBen Howland
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireBen Howland has some holes to fill in his backcourt entering this season.
One glance at UCLA's prospective personnel reveals the dichotomy at work here. The program lost guards Malcolm Lee and Tyler Honeycutt to the NBA draft. Anderson is indefinitely suspended. The rest of the Bruins' likely backcourt contributors are either unspectacular role players (Lazeric Jones), little-used reserves (Tyler Lamb) or promising but unproven recruits (shooting guard Norman Powell, the No. 15-ranked prospect at his position in the class of 2011).

Meanwhile, the Bruins' frontcourt can only be described as "loaded." Sophomore center Joshua Smith, who used his soft hands and gigantic body to overpower defenders in his first collegiate season, is back. So is forward Reeves Nelson, who was an efficient scorer and one of his conference's best rebounders, particularly on the defensive end. In and of itself, this is a really big frontcourt, and I mean that both literally and figuratively.

Then there are the Wear twins.

The former UNC commits left Chapel Hill and returned to the West Coast to sit out a year before becoming eligible to take the court this fall. Here's the thing about these guys right now: It's possible many of us have overrated the impact the Wears will have, or focused a bit too much on the results of their dual transfer in a news-bereft offseason. The UCLA partisans at Bruins Nation (somewhat cattily) make this argument here, and they're right: Right now, the Wears are backup forwards. That's it.

Sure, David and Travis Wear were ranked among the top 10 forwards in the class of 2009, and the fact that there's two of them adds intrigue in and of itself. But right now, the brothers provide depth. That's their role. It might be the best frontcourt depth in the country, if you believe both can contribute at the collegiate level right away, but it's still merely depth all the same. Nelson and Smith are the biggest factors in this frontcourt. That doesn't seem likely to change anytime soon.

Which is why it would be so nice if David and Travis Wear were not 6-foot-9, 220-pound power forwards but rather 6-4, 180-pound combo guards. Because what UCLA needs is guards. The Bruins have to find a way to replace Malcolm Lee's capable point guard play. They have to deal with the loss of Honeycutt, an emerging scoring threat with the length to guard multiple positions on the defensive end. They have to find someone in the backcourt that can occasionally hit an open 3. (In 2011, the Bruins shot 32.6 percent from beyond the arc, which ranked No. 253 in the country.)

Perhaps most importantly, they have to find backcourt players that can initiate the offense in ways that maximize Smith and Nelson's respective abilities.

Howland's style has always been rugged. His teams thrive on slow tempo, defensive brilliance and physicality. Things aren't pretty on the offensive end, but they don't have to be. They just have to be effective. In this case, "effective" means "good enough to score more points than your opponent, who probably won't score that many, because you're UCLA and your defense is usually pretty awesome." (Effective is probably a more efficient way of saying that, but oh well.)

Howland has the pieces he needs in the post. His team will be big, physical and strong. Smith's 300-plus pounds are more than a handful in the low block, and he's still miles from maxing out on his potential. Nelson is a rebound-and-putback machine. Both players will use their size and strength to patrol the defensive end, and with the Wears available to back them up, UCLA won't have to worry about either player tiring too quickly.

Still, UCLA's backcourt could undermine that. Jones is a key; as a senior, this is his team to control. But he can't do it alone. Barring Anderson's return, perhaps Powell can make an immediate impression. Lamb is a promising candidate, too.

Until we get to, say, December, we won't really know how this backcourt development is coming along. (We also won't know whether Anderson will be allowed to play or not.) If last year's season is any indication, there will be early struggles. Slowly but surely, the Bruins just kept getting better in 2011. Eventually, they just got it.

It's fair to predict that much for the Bruins of 2012. At the very least -- Wear twins or no -- the post will be this team's favorite place on the floor. Whether the perimeter can complement it effectively is the crucial question. I hate to say it, but here it comes: We'll see. At this point, anything else is just a guess.
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 analytic fun. Today's subject: Mississippi State.

Renardo Sidney stayed in school.

At a glance, this should have been a no-brainer. Since arriving at Mississippi State, Sidney has been in trouble and out of shape. He spent his entire freshman season awaiting eligibility clearance from the NCAA. Then, when he was granted that eligibility, he was forced to sit out 11 games of his sophomore year. Then, when he finally did get on the court, Sidney -- one of the most sought-after recruits in the 2009 class (at least until the NCAA started sniffing around the Sidney family's living arrangements) -- was consistently underwhelming. Also, he got in a public fight with a teammate. So, yeah, things did not go well.

[+] EnlargeRenardo Sidney
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisIs this the season Renardo Sidney finally lives up to his potential?
In other words: Of course Sidney should have stayed in school. But given all the bad decisions he's made in the past, and his apparent desire to get to the NBA as quickly as possible, it was a legitimate surprise to see Sidney make the prudent decision to return to school this spring.

And that's not all: Sidney has spent much of his summer working out in Houston with former NBA veteran and personal trainer John Lucas. The forward checked in with Lucas at 320 pounds earlier this summer, and last we heard, he's already lost about 25 pounds on the way to a desired playing weight of 270. Sidney has apparently been so dedicated to these workouts that he decided to skip Mississippi State's exhibition trip to Europe; he found it more worthwhile to stay in Houston and keep working out. That may not be the best move for team chemistry, but if it helps Sidney show up to campus ready to contribute in major ways to the Bulldogs, it might have been the right move after all.

However you choose to view it, one thing is certain: If the talented forward wants to live up to his hype and realize his NBA dream, he needs to contribute now. No more excuses. No more public fights. No more suspensions, no more arguments with coaches, no more weight gain, no more mess. For Mississippi State to reach its collective potential -- which could include a run at SEC contention and a spot in the NCAA tournament -- Sidney has to maximize his individual play. It's really just as simple as that.

Which is not to say there aren't other talented players in Rick Stansbury's team. Guard Dee Bost -- who famously entered the 2010 NBA draft only to return to school claiming he didn't understand the new draft withdrawal deadline -- decided to skip that noise in 2011 and come straight back to the school. Bost was one of the country's best distributors in 2011, when he posted a 38.8 percent assist rate, the 14th-highest mark in college hoops. Fellow backcourt mate Brian Bryant posted a 21.4 percent assist rate in 2011; he's back for his senior season, too. That gives the Bulldogs a solid, experienced backcourt, one that very much prefers to find teammates before looking for its own shots.

There's more good news on the way, too, as former UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie becomes eligible to play this fall. Moultrie's addition might be the most important non-Sidney factor for this team's success in 2011-12. Why? Because Moultrie defends. The last time we saw him in action -- during UTEP's impressive 2010 season -- the 6-foot-11 forward earned national ranks in block rate, steal rate, and defensive rebounding percentage. He was a major contributor to a UTEP defense that ranked No. 21 in Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency (a rank that would have been even higher had that Miners team not been so frustratingly prone to foul).

If there's anything Mississippi State needs, it's defense. The Bulldogs ranked No. 170 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency in 2011. They were good at one thing: not fouling. They were bad at everything else, particularly forcing turnovers, where they ranked No. 336 in all of Division I. Moultrie can add length, physicality and toughness, which is exactly what the Bulldogs need.

His entrance is important for another reason too: it offsets the pressure Sidney will face. Despite the disappointing performances we saw from a physically winded Sidney last season, he did use those limited minutes to flash the talent that got scouts excited about him in the first place. His advanced shooting percentages were solid. His defensive rebounding rate came in at 24.2 percent, the highest of any Bulldog. He drew about five fouls per 40 minutes. His posted a 3.4 percent block rate. There's clearly some ability here.

What Sidney hasn't had, at least thus far, is the physical stability to turn those flashes into sustainable success. Assuming he'll be able to do that this year is a fool's errand, because we heard much the same about his physical transformation last summer, and we all saw how that went.

But if he can get in shape and can stay on the floor, Moultrie's presence alongside him can be huge. Moultrie can draw the lion's share of the interior defensive responsibilities while Sidney helps on the weak side, disrupting shots and crashing the glass. It also gives him more breathing room -- literally and figuratively -- on the offensive end. Mississippi State's guards will be willing to find their big men in the paint, and having Moultrie offset Sidney in low-post possessions seems like a viable, consistent offensive strategy.

But all of it relies on Sidney. If he's the Renardo Sidney we've seen so far, then Mississippi State is a decent team with little chance of making waves in the SEC. If Sidney is what he was expected to be -- if he's even close -- the Bulldogs will be considerably more formidable. Will the real Renardo Sidney please stand up? Has he already?

We'll find out in 2011-12. Sidney's a junior now, believe it or not. If he wants to get to the NBA after all -- and make his team a contender in the process -- the time for youthful indiscretion is long since over.

Summer Buzz: Tennessee Volunteers

August, 11, 2011
8/11/11
11:52
AM ET
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 analytic fun. Today's subject: Tennessee. Insider

When your program's most successful basketball coach in history lies to NCAA investigators, a few things tend to happen:

  1. Your program becomes subject to wills of the NCAA Committee on Infractions.
  2. You fire that coach. (You might wait an entire season in the vain hope things work out. But eventually, yeah, you fire that coach.)
  3. You look for a new coach, one who doesn't mind inheriting a post-sanctions quagmire.
  4. You hope that coach knows what he's doing.

By all accounts, Tennessee succeeded on the fourth count. Cuonzo Martin wasn't hired only because he was one of the few rising college hoops coaches who still had his hand up when former coach Bruce Pearl, now a hot commodity on the D-League circuit, brought the Volunteers crashing down around him. Willingness is one thing, and Tennessee was probably just fine finding someone who actually wanted to come to Knoxville.* But willing and able? When you're in UT's situation, that's another issue entirely.

(*I remember reading a Tennessee fan forum post during the Vols' coaching search. The discussion was centered on plausible coaching candidates, and at one point, a poster exclaimed that he expected the Vols to pursue Butler's Brad Stevens and VCU's Shaka Smart, among others. This was funny, but it was also kind of sad.)

[+] EnlargeMartin
Jeff Curry/US PresswireCuonzo Martin may have to deal with sanctions, loss of future scholarships, and the possibility of a postseason ban.
Considering the circumstances, Martin might have been the best possible hire. He has big-time recruiting experience in the Big Ten, a familiarity with high-major hoops, and his most recent coaching expedition, the one that earned him national buzz, saw him transform a struggling Missouri State program into a team that won the school's first MVC regular-season title and at various times looked like an NCAA tournament at-large contender.

That's the able part. As for the willingness, well, Martin's there. He wanted the job. And as has been written more than once in this space and others, the coach who grew up on the rough streets of East St. Louis and survived a mid-20s bout with cancer probably scoffs at the idea that rebuilding a major college hoops program constitutes "adversity." When you think about it that way, it does seem sort of silly.

Within the context of college basketball, though, Tennessee's future is looking plenty adverse.

For one, there's the looming likelihood of NCAA sanctions. We're not sure what the Committee on Infractions will eventually hand down to the Volunteers, but we do know that the men's basketball and football programs are being investigated simultaneously, and the NCAA almost certainly has concerns about the school's ability to, in the NCAA's terms, foster an atmosphere of compliance.

We also know that the NCAA is slowly but surely ramping up its penalties for violations; harsher penalties have been a cornerstone of new NCAA president Mark Emmert's talking points on enforcement all the way through this week's presidential retreat in Indianapolis.

Neither bodes well for the Vols. The penalties are likely to be severe. Before the fall arrives, Martin may lose future scholarships. He may face recruiting restrictions. He might even be confronting the possibility of a postseason ban. I don't need to page ESPN recruiting expert Dave Telep to confirm that these things are not exactly boons to recruiting. If the penalty is severe enough, it may be years before Martin can recruit with a full toolbox.

The other reason Tennessee's future is looking dim -- and this is more to the point of the Buzz series, which is ostensibly a look at the year to come -- is that Pearl didn't leave a lot of experienced talent behind. Freshman standout Tobias Harris left for the NBA, as did inconsistent-but-talented guard Scotty Hopson. Senior stalwarts Melvin Goins and Brian Williams, alongside useful reserves like Steven Pearl, John Fields and Josh Bone, have all graduated.

To make things worse, both of Pearl's ESPNU 100 recruits for the class of 2011 ditched the Vols when the former coach was fired. What remains is a class that looks more like a pretty good mid-major one. The best player in the group is small forward Josh Richardson, a three-star talent ranked No. 40 overall at his position.

The rest -- point guard Wesley Washpun, shooting guard Quinton Cheivous and center Yemi Makanjuola -- are less heralded players unlikely to make major impacts at the collegiate level. At the very least, the class is a far cry from what Tennessee fans grew accustomed to in the Pearl years. Expectations must change accordingly.

The good news, at least for the immediate future, is that a few players from Pearl's last class on campus are still, in fact, on campus. The most promising of these is sophomore guard Jordan McRae, who arrived in Knoxville as the No. 10-ranked shooting guard in the class of 2010. McRae didn't make an impact in his freshman season -- heaven forbid Hopson didn't get his shots up -- but with so much lost in the Pearl debacle, McRae now has a chance to earn the spotlight at the next level. (And fellow sophomore shooting guard Trae Golden should get some decent run, too.)

Meanwhile, the lone starter returning to Tennessee is 6-foot-6 forward Cameron Tatum, a role player in 2011 that will have to become far more aggressive -- and, if possible, much more efficient -- in 2012. There are some junior college players and little-used reserves plugging the holes here, too; newcomer Dwight Miller, who spent time at Pittsburgh before transferring to Midland College in Texas, was one of the 10 or so best Juco prospects in the country this season and could play big minutes right away.

Former Marquette transfer Jeronne Maymon is still in the mix. Renaldo Woolridge -- who retired his rap moniker "Swiperboy" this week -- played a key role for Tennessee when the scandal involving Tyler Smith and others threatened to derail the Volunteers' 2009-10 season. Forward Kenny Hall and guard Skylar McBee are names you might recognize, though neither player has been a standout in limited minutes thus far in his career.

During the Pearl era, Tennessee thrived on uptempo basketball, a free-flowing, don't-worry-just-shoot-it offense and a tenacious press. Prepare for something new under Martin. At Missouri State, Martin's teams were distinctly slow: In 2011, the Bears ranked No. 309 in the nation in adjusted tempo. (They were faster than that in 2009 and 2010, but not by much.)

That sloth was a product not only of Martin's own style and coaching background at Purdue, but also of the typically slow MVC. In 2011, the Bears were the kind of team that deliberates on offense, works for a quality shot and makes those shots count, especially on the perimeter. (Missouri State made 37.6 percent of its 3s in 2011. Rank? No. 40.) This style couldn't possibly contrast more from the 2010-11 Vols, who were in many ways undone by rushed offense, bad shot selection and good old-fashioned bad shooting. (UT made 30.0 percent of its 3s in 2011. Rank? No. 323.)

Martin's first item of business, then, is to play the hand he's been dealt and, like any willing gambler, make the most of it. Or, to use a Bob Knight catchphrase, he has to make chicken salad out of chicken ... well, you know. But it could work: Teams with less talent are usually better off slowing things down anyway, and if Martin can limit his team's possessions and find the right combination of shooters, he might be able to keep Tennessee in games when the Vols' talent is clearly inferior to its opponent's.

This, really, is the best hope for Tennessee in 2011-12. The Volunteers have a long slog ahead of them, one that will only be made worse by the NCAA sanctions set to arrive shortly.

So long term, the Vols needed someone both willing and able, and they did well to find it in Martin. Long term, the program should survive. Short term -- and this includes next season -- it's going to be a struggle. Pretending otherwise is wishful thinking.

But that's what happens when your most successful coach in school history lies to NCAA investigators. Now it's up to Martin to pick up the pieces.

Summer Buzz: Arkansas Razorbacks

August, 10, 2011
8/10/11
11:41
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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 analytic fun. Today's subject: the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Arkansas got its man.

[+] EnlargeMike Anderson
Steve Dykes/US PresswireNew Arkansas coach Mike Anderson is a throwback to the Nolan Richardson years.
That kind of phrasing often is used when new hires are revealed to the public, and it can mean anything from "wow, good hire" to "well, at least it's over." In Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long's case, though, it means exactly what it says. No school with a vacant coaching position this spring did better than Arkansas; former Missouri coach Mike Anderson -- Nolan Richardon's right-hand man throughout the Razorback glory days -- was exactly what this program needed on and off the court.

On the court, Anderson religiously runs Richardson's famed "40 Minutes of Hell" system, a pressing, fast-breaking style that Arkansas fans will immediately remember from Richardon's hugely successful run in the late 1980s and early-to-mid 1990s. (Arkansas, as you might remember, went to the Final Four in 1990, won the national title in 1994 and returned to the national championship game in 1995.)

Off the court, Anderson represents the healing process Arkansas fans and their former coach Nolan Richardson -- who was dismissed in 2002 amid claims that he was being mistreated because he was black -- so desperately seemed to need. Anderson is a prodigal throwback to the Richardson years, a longtime disciple who set out from Fayetteville to forge his own path at UAB and Missouri, and who now returns as his own impressive coaching entity.

Arkansas fans might be the most underrated hoops heads in the country. Or maybe, after a decade of post-Richardson malaise, they're just the most dormant. However you want to look at it, they now have every reason -- strategic and symbolic -- to make the once-raucous Bud Walton Arena rock again. Does it get any better than that?

Actually, yes: The Razorbacks could win a few basketball games. Bridging the past with the future is nice, and it gives guys like me an easy way to ruminate on the state of fandom and all that, but symbolism doesn't put points on the board. Players do. Fortunately for Anderson, he just so happens to have a few.

Before Pelphrey was fired this spring, he did his outgoing program a solid, landing the No. 9-ranked recruiting haul in 2011. It was a desperately needed infusion of talent, and though it came too late for Pelphrey -- Long decided to dispense with his coach despite the recruits, always a tricky proposition -- it came at the perfect time for Anderson, who managed to keep all of its players in place despite the coaching transition. (One of those players, small forward prospect Aaron Ross, could not qualify academically to play in 2011-12 thanks to a shaky ACT score. Instead, he'll attend prep school and hopes to join the Hogs in 2012-13.)

Those players include the No. 4-ranked point guard in the class of 2011, B.J. Young, as well as No. 11-ranked shooting guard Ky Madden and No. 8-ranked power forward Hunter Mickleson. Given the talent drain in Fayetteville in recent seasons -- which was accelerated by guard Rotnei Clarke's decision to transfer to Butler and guard Jeff Peterson's defection to Florida State in June -- all three players are likely to start and/or play big minutes for Anderson immediately.

That's because there really isn't all that much talent left over. That's what you'd expect after an 18-13 season and a coaching change, of course, but still. Junior guard Julysses Nobles has one of the best names in college hoops; he also has the distinction of being the only Razorbacks' backcourt starter that didn't transfer this spring. He struggled in 2011, posting a 91.9 offensive rating thanks to meager shooting and an ugly turnover rate of 25.4. Arkansas' most frequently used player, Marshawn Powell, was a slightly above-average scorer in terms of efficiency, but his conversion ability left plenty of room for improvement in what will be his third year at the school in 2011-12.

No, Anderson will be relying on those touted freshmen right away. They're recruits, so there's no Ken Pomeroy data here, nor can we scout them using Synergy Sports data. What we do know is that Anderson will play fast, pressing basketball, that he'll rely on his guards to do the heavy lifting, and that those guards are likely to be Young and Madden. Of course, there are concerns to be had about any freshman entering Anderson's system. Can said freshman adjust to the intensity 40 Minutes of Hell requires? Can he master such the quirky system? Will he be able to handle the non-stop effort over 30-plus games?

Again, we don't know. But former Razorback Ronnie Brewer seems to think so. So that's good.

In all seriousness, we can project how Anderson's first Arkansas team will play. Uptempo, pressing, all that. But we can't come anywhere close to an accurate projection of how well they'll play. That will have much to do with the development of Nobles and Powell, but it will be determined by how well Young and Madden and Mickelson adjust to life under their new coach and his unusual system. At Missouri, Anderson's teams often seemed to outperform expectations, based on the talent available, so maybe a similar expectation applies here. Or maybe it'll take a year or two before this machine really starts humming.

Either way, Arkansas fans can feel optimistic again. Its school made a pitch-perfect hire. That hire retained talent the team so desperately needs. At some point, the Razorbacks will be back.

If it happens in 2011-12, great. If it doesn't, oh well. Bottom line? Hoops fans in Fayetteville have reason to cheer again. After all, they got their man.
Off the court, Anderson represents the healing process Arkansas fans and their former coach -- who was dismissed in 2002 amid claims that he was being mistreated because he was black -- so desperately seemed to need.
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 analytic fun. Today's subject: the Vanderbilt Commodores.

Make no mistake: The 2011-12 Vanderbilt Commodores have a chance to be the best team in school history.

At some schools, this is a massive statement. At others, it's merely bold. At Vandy, it feels more like sober statement of fact, one based equally in the school's meager hoops tradition -- the Commodores have never gone to the Final Four, and have won their conference or conference tournament title only five times -- and, of course, in the potential of the current players on this roster.

In fact, in assessing the chances of this team being the best in program history, that -- potential -- is the key word. Do the Commodores have room to grow? Or are they the same team we saw last season?

[+] EnlargeJeffery Taylor
Chris Humphreys/US PresswireJeffery Taylor has been working on his perimater shooting in the offseason.
As far as the names on the roster, well, yes, this is the same team you saw last season. All five starters are back for the new campaign. Four of those starters -- Jeffery Taylor, Festus Ezeli, Brad Tinsley and Lance Goulbourne -- will be seniors. One of the starters -- John Jenkins -- will be a junior.

Often, in preseason polls and offseason predictions, we hoops pundit types focus too intently on returning starters. We assume, often without thinking about it, that a team that returns all of its best players for another season will reap the rewards not only of increased team cohesion or "veteran presence," but of the disparate individual improvements each of those returning players makes. Just as often, we overrate these teams. In the end, the team we see a year later is about as good as the one we saw the year before.

Is Vanderbilt one of these teams? Is the Commodores' early-preseason buzz -- for example, our own Dick Vitale ranked them No. 5 overall in his preseason top 40 -- coming almost by default?

Actually, I don't think so. While I'm not sure the Dores are the fifth-best team in the country, there's also reason to expect Vanderbilt will be a good bit better in 2012 than they were in 2011. (And despite the first-round NCAA tournament loss, 2011 was a very solid season.)

The first reason to expect as much is Taylor, Kevin Stallings' versatile and athletic 6-foot-8 wing. Taylor is already an effective player -- he's especially good when he's attacking the rim with gusto -- but his game still has room to develop, a fact Taylor acknowledged at the Nike Skills Camps in Chicago in June.

For one, Taylor needs to be a much better perimeter shooter. He shot 34.5 percent on his 113 3-pointers as a junior. The NBA scouts I talked to at the camp seemed optimistic about the prospect of Taylor's improvement, as he (a) already has textbook release mechanics and (b) has already improved by leaps and bounds since his freshman season, when he shot 9-of-41 from beyond the arc. If Taylor is even marginally better from distance, VU's offense can open up even more, and that's good news for everyone.

It would certainly be good news for Ezeli, one of the more underrated big men in college game last season. Ezeli's game is all strength and girth; he muscles opponents around the rim in a way few college forwards can manage. But he too has room to improve, namely on his face-up game and his touch around the rim.

It's also fair to expect Jenkins -- the star of last season's team -- to get a bit better, too. There isn't much room for improvement on offense, frankly; Jenkins is already one of the most efficient offensive players in the country. What he (and for that matter, Tinsley) can most readily improve is his perimeter defense.

Frankly, Vanderbilt was a soft defensive team last season. The Commodores ranked No. 88 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings and were especially weak on the perimeter, where they turned opponents over on a mere 17.5 percent of possessions (national rank: No. 308) and recorded a steal on only 7.5 percent of defensive possessions (rank: No. 304). Vandy doesn't suddenly have to start turning opponents over like Ohio State, but a mere uptick in the category would represent a major step toward making life just a little bit more difficult for opponents on the perimeter.

Even better -- and this is not something Vanderbilt fans have come to count on -- the Commodores have a new batch of talent that might be ready to contribute to this improvement immediately. Stallings landed two ESPNU 100 recruits in the 2011 class: Dai-Jon Parker, the No. 10-ranked shooting guard, and Kedren Johnson, the No. 16-ranked point guard. Parker is touted as an elite shooter; Johnson as an elite ballhandler. Both have one thing in common: physicality. That was a key ingredient missing from Vanderbilt's backcourt in 2011. If the duo can give Stallings solid minutes off the bench, especially on the defensive end, well, there's some more improvement too.

In 1965, a 6-foot-10 forward named Clyde Lee got the Commodores as close to a Final Four as they've ever been. In what we'd eventually come to call the Elite Eight, Lee's Vanderbilt team seemed to win on a last-second shot, only to be whistled for a travel in an 87-85 loss to Michigan. (After the game, coach Roy Skinner summed it up: "The referees cheated us.")

The Commodores have been chasing the ghost of the Final Four with minimal proximity ever since. The 2011-12 version will carry that history with them, but they'll also carry their own foibles: In three of the past four seasons, the Commodores have been upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament by a team with a double-digit seed.

The 2011 version was better than that finish. The 2012 version will be, too. But how much better? Elite Eight? Final Four? All of that depends on how much this team -- with all of its veteran upperclassmen and known entities -- can find ways to improve on the margins. We know what this team is. We're not sure quite what it can be.

If I'm a Vanderbilt fan, maybe I'm a little skeptical of the preseason hype. But I'm awfully excited, too.

Summer Buzz: Kentucky Wildcats

August, 8, 2011
8/08/11
12:23
PM ET
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 analytic fun. Today's subject: the Kentucky Wildcats

[+] EnlargeTerrence Jones
Mark Zerof/US PresswireThe return of forward Terrence Jones adds to a Kentucky lineup that was already imposing.
Of all the elite freshmen who decided to come back to school this spring -- a group that includes UNC's Harrison Barnes, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Baylor's Perry Jones -- perhaps Terrence Jones had the toughest decision of all.

Why? A few reasons. One, Jones was practically a guaranteed lottery pick, and his desirability only improved when the aforementioned trio of forwards decided to stay in school. Two, and perhaps most important, was the potential for Jones to lose minutes or (at the very least) shots to John Calipari's stellar 2011 recruiting class.

Jones is sort of a combo forward, one who feels comfortable on the perimeter but is probably best used near the rim. That description also fits Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 3 player in the class of 2011, and Anthony Davis, the No. 1 player overall. Throw in the touches that have to be divvied between the No. 1 point guard in the class, freshman Marquis Teague, and holdovers like Doron Lamb and Darius Miller (not to mention touted freshman forward Kyle Wiltjer) and it felt like Jones might well have been missing an opportunity by not getting in the draft when the getting seemed so very good.

A few months later, as the NBA lockout threatens the entire 2011-12 season, it's impossible to say Jones made a bad decision. (Whatever news he was hearing about the lockout appears to have been much more accurate than the info Derrick Williams was getting, to name just one example.) But his return does present a strange sort of problem, one more coaches would like to have: Are the Wildcats too talented?

By which I mean to say: Are there enough touches to go around? Will Kidd-Gilchrist and Davis expect to be stars immediately? Will Jones consider their entrance a threat to any perceived star status? How, exactly, is this Kentucky team going to work?

After a few months of thought, here's my guess (and yes, I'm sure Big Blue fans will leave their own suggestions in the comments): Yes. This Kentucky thing will "work" just fine.

In fact, the Wildcats' frontcourt lineup might not overlap as much as you'd think. It's hard to say as much definitively now, because we haven't seen what Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist will look like on the collegiate level. But it's not difficult to imagine a UK starting lineup of Teague, sophomore sharpshooter Lamb, Kidd-Gilchrist, Jones and Davis. Davis is far from a true center; he's more like a really tall small forward. But his sheer size and freakish athleticism should be enough to rebound and score over shorter defenders. What Davis lacks in strength -- and that's a lot right now -- should be compensated for by Jones and Kidd-Gilchrist, both of whom can exert their will on defenders with sheer physicality.

Jones and Kidd-Gilchrist might be interchangeable parts, and I mean that in a good way. Kidd-Gilchrist's main weakness is 3-point shooting. As a freshman, Jones was more than willing to step outside, even if his shot wasn't always Kentucky's best option. Either player seems capable of playing the 3 or the 4, and Kidd-Gilchrist has drawn rave reviews for his un-superstar-esque willingness to do the little things it takes to win.

Really, though, this should work because under Calipari, players don't have to be the "3" or the "4" or the "5." One of the great advantages of the dribble-drive motion offense -- besides its obvious boost to recruiting -- is positional flexibility. The Wildcats aren't going to run much traditional offense; why worry about traditional positions? Put your best talent on the floor, let them run at the rim, and see what happens. It doesn't have to be so complicated.

There might be some growing pains on offense, but it'll come. The truly scary bit is what the Cats appear capable of doing on defense. Of course, Calipari-coached teams always defend; since 2006, only two of his squads have finished lower than No. 10 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. (Those years were 2007, when Memphis ranked No. 11, and 2011, when Kentucky ranked No. 15.) Calipari has a rare coaching talent, one that's often overshadowed by what Basketball Prospectus writer Kevin Pelton once dubbed his "Calipari-ness." The dude can coach defense. More accurately, Calipari might be the best coach in the country at getting the talented stars of the AAU circuit -- he inherits a new batch of elite freshmen every year, especially at UK -- to buy in on the defensive end.

Now throw in the this particular team's personnel: Kidd-Gilchrist is already renowned for his defensive effort, hardly a necessary virtue for a player as universally touted as he. Jones was one of the best all-around defenders in the country last season; he generated steals and blocks, which is no easy feat. Teague is lightning-quick, as fast as any guard in the country, which makes him a strong candidate to play stifling on-ball defense. Meanwhile, Davis will patrol the middle, his massive wingspan and athleticism lurking to reject (or at least affect) any penetration near the rim.

If Calipari gets all these pieces together on the defensive side of the ball -- and nothing in his history tells us he won't -- the Wildcats will be fearsome no matter what the offense looks like. Of course, the offense will come together eventually; it's hard to imagine this many talented players struggling to put the ball in the basket. But the Big Blue will be able to fall back on their defense. That's where their proverbial bread will be buttered.

Terrence Jones' decision might have been a tough one at the time, but let's not get too bogged down in positional semantics. Where it counts -- on defense -- Kentucky will be just as good as it's been since Calipari waltzed into Lexington three years ago. Maybe even better.

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