College Basketball Nation: Boise State Broncos
“We knew we had some great early-season tests,” said coach Fred Hoiberg, who is 70-39 in four seasons at his alma mater. “They’ve handled adversity well. That’s been a key to our early-season success.”
For “The Mayor” to become King of Diamond Head, his horses will have to deliver. His main thoroughbred is 6-foot-6 senior forward Melvin Ejim, the conference’s second-leading scorer (18.7 ppg) and sixth-leading rebounder (7.7 rpg), who has starred despite hyperextending a knee at the end of preseason.
Versatile 6-7 sophomore forward Georges Niang (14.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.1 apg) and senior point DeAndre Kane (14.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg and 5.8 apg) also are key pieces.
ISU is fast and unselfish offensively, leading the conference in scoring, 3-point baskets and assists. The Cyclones also lead in rebounding and field goal defense, and are second in three-point field goal defense. Although the favorite, Hoiberg is wary of the competition.
“It’s a great field,” he said. “Top to bottom … any team can beat any other in the field.
Here's a look at the rest of the field competing in the Diamond Head Classic:
What's at stake? The Zips, back-to-back MAC champions, need to replace key pieces, including center Zeke Marshall. They’ll look to gain momentum heading into conference play.
Who's hot? Demetrius "Tree" Treadwell is taking root in the middle, averaging 13.3 points and 8.0 rebounds and a block a game.
Who is the surprise? Sophomore big Pat Forsythe has shot 52 percent from the field, blocked a shot per game and been tough on the offensive glass.
Projection: There’s time to pull it together and battle for the MAC -- the Zips might not have that luxury in Honolulu.
Boise State (8-2)
What's at stake? The Broncos’ 8-0 start was the best in school history, before it lost at Kentucky. High-octane Boise wants to prove it can run with the big boys.
Who's hot? The junior tandem of Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks averages north of 36 points a game. Drmic, a 6-6 wing from Australia, averages 18.6 ppg, while Marks, a 6-3 guard from Chicago, shoots 48.4 percent from the field and 82.8 percent from the free-throw line.
Who is the surprise? Senior guard Jeff Elorriaga has been a surprise for how hot he’s shooting -- 62.3 percent from the field, 60 percent from behind the arc.
Prediction: Boise State needs to keep the pace fast and hit 3s to prove its fast start wasn’t a product of its schedule.
George Mason (5-4)
What's at stake? Occasionally offensively challenged, the Patriots have a tough draw, starting with Iowa State.
Who’s hot? Senior forward Bryon Allen has shot almost 40 percent from 3-point range this season, hitting a career-best four 3-pointers against South Florida.
Who is the surprise? Sophomore forward Marko Gujanicic, the 6-8, 224-pound forward from Serbia, scores 11.4 ppg, more than double last season’s output.
Prediction: It’ll be a grind as uptempo opponents will test George Mason’s defensive principles and take the Patriots out of their comfort zone.
What's at stake? The Big West-leading Rainbow Warriors are 7-2 for the second time in coach Gib Arnold’s four seasons. Are they a well-kept secret or a result of their schedule?
Who’s hot? Senior forward Christian Standhardinger, 6-8 and 220 pounds, leads UH and ranks among Big West leaders in scoring, rebounding, blocks and steals.
Who is the surprise? Junior guard Garrett Nevels, a junior college transfer, shoots 55 percent from 3-point range and is second in the conference with 22 3-point field goals made.
Prediction: The Rainbow Warriors can score, but running with the big dogs in this tournament might be too much.
Oregon State (5-2)
What's at stake? The Beavers miss suspended junior forward Eric Moreland and are struggling to find the right formula. Playing Akron, plus Iowa State or George Mason won’t help.
Who’s hot? The outside-inside senior tandem of guard Roberto Nelson and forward Devon Collier rank 1-2 in the Pac-12 in scoring. Nelson (24.7 ppg) hits 1.7 3-pointers per game. Collier is a bucket behind (22.7 ppg).
Who is the surprise? Sophomore Victor Robbins, a 6-7, 197-pound swingman, chips in 7.3 points and 3.1 rebound in 21.4 minutes per game.
Prediction: The Beavers need contributions from the perimeter to keep teams from collapsing on Collier, and a dependable third option.
Saint Mary’s (8-0)
What's at stake? The Diamond Head is the Gaels’ opportunity to prove there is room for two West Coast Conference powers in the Top 25.
Who’s hot? Junior forward Brad Waldow scores a team-high 17.6 ppg (fourth in the WCC) and is second with a 65.1 field goal percentage.
Who is the surprise? Transfer junior guard Kerry Carter supplies instant offense off the bench, connecting on 50 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Prediction: The Gaels are a tournament favorite and, with a game against South Carolina and a rematch from last week with Boise or a contest vs. Iowa State, are a must-watch.
South Carolina (2-4)
What's at stake? Coach Frank Martin’s Gamecocks start two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior and have played mostly on the road. Diamond Head will be an interesting neutral-court test as USC continues to come together heading into the SEC.
Who’s hot? Freshman guard Sindarius Thornwell, a 6-5, 206-pound guard scores 12.7 points per game on 41.7 percent shooting from the 3-point line.
Who is the surprise? Sophomore forward Mindaugas Kacinas, a 6-7, 210-pound player from Lithuania, grabs a team-high 7.8 rebounds per game, almost half off the offensive glass, and scores 7.5 points on 56.3 percent shooting.
Prediction: The Gamecocks are young and talented and go a long way on emotion. Those same things also make them unpredictable and vulnerable.
That's on a normal night. Try to play UK in Rupp after your connecting flight from Chicago is canceled, and you have to take a six-hour bus ride from the Windy City through the heart of Indiana all the way to Lexington, Ky. Impossible, right?
You might think so. Boise State is refusing to agree. The Broncos, according to the Idaho Statesman, were supposed to arrive in Lexington at 3:30 p.m. Monday afternoon. But the winter weather currently flitting through parts of the country caused Boise's connection to be canceled, forced them onto a bus, kept them from arriving until past midnight Tuesday morning and cost them their final practice in advance of Tuesday night's 9 p.m. ET tip. From the Statesman's Dave Southorn:
Without the chance to practice Monday, the team had to get creative -- [Boise State coach Leon] Rice planned a quick walkthrough in the hotel conference room after the bus arrived, and said the team likely would have an extra one at the hotel Tuesday.
“You can’t control everything -- you can’t make Jeff (Elorriaga) 7-foot-2,” junior Anthony Drmic said. “So when you travel, there’s the chance this can happen, and you have to deal with it.”
Strong comedy from Drmic, but I think Rice won the battle of the impressively chill travel jokes:
“They’ve handled it well, and handled it well in the past,” Rice said. “My first year (in 2011), we got caught on Donner Pass on our way to Nevada. We had to eat one of the freshmen.”
I'm sorry, but I have a sincere soft spot in my heart for good-natured gallows humor among beleaguered fellow travelers. What I can't stand -- and what made that Thanksgiving Day Twitter hoax so resonant, and thus possible -- is the legion of people for whom traveling, by definition a communal experience, is all about them: their flights, their plans, their families. As if the rest of us aren't all sitting there in the terminal, too, with friends and plans of our own, waiting for our plane to come.
Contrast that all-too-common occurrence with the Boise State Broncos, who lost their last practice (and had to cram onto a bus) a day before playing Kentucky in Rupp Arena and seem perfectly genial about the whole thing. If you're looking for an example of the real-world lessons sports can reinforce, how about something as simple as this: Worry about the things you can control and ignore the things you can't. That's a good one, right?
As for beating Kentucky at Rupp Arena, well ... you're on your own there.
1. Kentucky: There may be a lonely faction out there in the Internet hinterlands who would assume this argument is about John Calipari. Sorry, but no: Calipari has nothing to prove. Yeah, Robert Morris in the NIT, I know, I know, but come on: We're not even two full years removed from Kentucky's national title. Remember that? When Calipari got the top two picks in the NBA draft to happily settle for the fourth- and fifth-highest percentage of their team's shots en route to a 38-2 championship season? You remember that, right? Clearly, Calipari can mesh a class of hyper-talented freshmen with a mix of almost-equally-talented returners and win a national title, which is the be-all goal of Kentucky's 2013-14 campaign. That exact thing just happened!
No, this designation is about Kentucky's players. Forget Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist; forget John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins; forget Derrick Rose. Calipari has had a lot of crazy recruiting classes in his career, but none of them have come close to this kind of hype. In March, less than 15 hours after the Wildcats' embarrassing loss to Robert Morris, Julius Randle committed to Kentucky. A few hours later, ESPN.com recruiting guru Dave Telep wrote that Calipari's class was the best ever -- better even than Michigan's Fab Five, "the standard bearer for recruiting classes."
So, yeah, Randle and his classmates -- No. 5 ranked Andrew Harrison, No. 7-ranked Dakari Johnson, No. 8-ranked James Young, No. 9-ranked Aaron Harrison, and No. 25-ranked Marcus Lee -- have something to prove. That goes double for disappointing sophomore holdovers Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein. The ceiling here is unfathomable -- like, undefeated-season-unfathomable -- and it's almost impossible to envision Calipari presiding over another disaster. Not with this talent. But it is incumbent upon a very confident, cocksure group to come together, to sublimate their individual desires for the good of the team — all of that boring, cliche stuff. The inverse of "best recruiting class ever" is "most disappointing recruiting class ever," and that's a legacy no one wants to leave behind.
2. Creighton: Doug McDermott's shot to become the first player since Wayman Tisdale and Patrick Ewing to win three straight first-team All-Americans is -- well, it's a lot of things. It's fantastic shorthand for the evolution (devolution?) of college basketball in the past 20 years. It's a fascinating footnote in the narrative of a player whose father didn't even recruit him to play at Iowa State. And, of course, it's testament to McDermott's consistent individual brilliance. What it is not is a sign of Creighton's collective national success. McDermott has been must-watch viewing these past two seasons, and his teams have been just as brilliant offensively -- free-flowing, smart, up-tempo, fun. But because the Bluejays have never quite built a solid defense on the other end of the floor, they've been limited -- unable to get big stops when they need them in the NCAA tournament. This year, individual brilliance and offensive aesthetics will be old hat. This year, Creighton is expected to do even more. First, they have to prove they can guard.
3. Tennessee: Last fall, when myself, Myron Medcalf, Fran Fraschilla and Joe Lunardi convened for our first-ever college basketball draft, I got lost in the Jarnell Stokes hype. A young freshman who joined Tennessee a semester early in 2011-12, Stokes had helped the Vols surge late in a previously nondescript season, and looked poised to dominate the low block all season in 2012-13. Not so much. Part of that was Stokes' fault -- his desire to prove his power forward bonafides to NBA scouts took him away from the basket, which is a bad idea -- and part of it was the injury to senior forward Jeronne Maymon, who redshirted thanks to a knee injury. After a brief, well-reasoned dalliance with the NBA this spring, Stokes is back, as is Maymon, as is leading scorer and All-SEC first-teamer Jordan McRae -- there's a huge year ahead in Knoxville, Tenn. Now the Vols have to make good on it.
4. Memphis: A lot of this comes down to Joe Jackson. We've discussed this in depth before this offseason, in our list of seniors facing the most pivotal seasons of their careers. (I also discussed that at more length on ESPN Radio in Memphis back in July.) Jackson was No. 1 on that list. But Memphis isn't limited to just one beleaguered-but-still-promising would-be hometown hero. After getting the NCAA tournament win monkey off Josh Pastner's back, this season the Tigers return a veteran backcourt and a massively talented frontcourt and should, by all accounts, be capable of a deep tournament run. (Oh, and there's the new league: The American may not be the old Big East, but it's not recent-vintage Conference USA, either.)
5. VCU: Word out of Richmond is that this may well be Shaka Smart's most talented team, which is something considering the Rams (A) went to the Final Four in 2011 and (B) finished the 2012-13 season ranked No. 16 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings and (C) lost seniors Darius Theus and Troy Daniels. In some ways, the Rams have very little to prove: They have a young, in-demand coach who has quickly morphed an OK basketball program into a very good one; a unique, effectively branded defensive style ("HAVOC"); and a pretty great pep band. So why are they here? Because last season, HAVOC got a little bit gimmicky. That's fine, in so far as it works; I want to go on record saying how much I love watching VCU chase hapless guards around the park. But in 2012-13, the Rams became so dependent on turnovers on the defensive end (and were so bad at checking opposing shooters and chasing down rebounds) that good teams with good point guards -- see, Michigan; Burke, Trey -- could dismantle them with relative ease. This season, the goal is to meld all that HAVOC with some good old-fashioned convention.
6. Virginia: The Cavaliers, like the team directly below them, were a very good team in 2012-13 whose results -- specifically their performance against a dreadful nonconference schedule -- doomed them to the NIT. That can't happen this season, not with Joe Harris shooting 42.5 percent from 3 and looking like a sleeper candidate for ACC Player of the Year, not with senior Akil Mitchell doing quality work on the block, not with all the returning players so expert at Tony Bennett's grinning Wisconsin-style flavor. It's tournament or bust for Virginia, and even that bar is probably too low.
7. Iowa: The Hawkeyes are your other obvious breakout candidate of 2013-14, for many of the same reasons as Virginia: A bad nonconference schedule and a series of brutally close losses during Big Ten play kept an otherwise worthy team (which finished with a top-25 efficiency defense) from gaining widespread national acclaim. Now the hype has turned, and everyone is spending less time talking about the Hawkeyes vis-a-vis the NCAA tournament than their status as a Big Ten title contender. I'm not sure if I'd go that far, but it's clear Iowa has a huge opportunity here. Fran McCaffery finally has a deep, experienced group peppered with genuine high-level collegiate talents, and a defense that will give most of the Big Ten fits. Carver-Hawkeye, so quiet for so much of the past decade, is reaching peak rowdiness levels again. It's time to seal the deal.
8. Boise State: The Broncos did manage to get into the tournament last season, albeit it as a play-in team that failed to survive Dayton. But the appearance was an accomplishment in itself for third-year coach Leon Rice, who has assembled an impressive group of previously unheralded players -- all of whom are back this season. Derrick Marks is an inconsistent but genuinely gifted scorer; Anthony Drmic is a versatile wing with deep 3-point range; Jeff Elorriaga is an even better shooter who made 44.7 percent of his 3s last season; and on down the line. It's the kind of talent that makes any celebration of a No. 12 seed feel quaint. This group is capable of ascending much more notable heights.
9. Oklahoma State: OK, OK, so everyone agrees that Marcus Smart is good at basketball. Smart's decision to return to college despite his Freshman of the Year award-worthy campaign, and the lofty opinions of him at the highest echelons of USA Basketball, have put the Cowboys on the short list of the teams you absolutely need to see this season. Trust me, I'm excited too. But that excitement shouldn't overshadow the fact that Oklahoma State had some issues on the offensive end last season, or the fact that it was summarily stumped by Oregon in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Le'Bryan Nash was the highly touted savior before Smart arrived; he has to live up to his potential. Markel Brown needs to make his overlooked contributions impossible to ignore. And Travis Ford's team needs to find some shooting somewhere -- Phil Forte? Brown? Bueller? -- to compete in the same space as Kentucky, Michigan State, Kansas and
10. Louisville: Yes, Louisville is on this list. Weird, right? I know! But hear me out. Last spring, after four months of (almost) uninterrupted dominance, the Louisville Cardinals won the national title. Soon thereafter, their best player -- arguably the country's best player, period -- announced his intentions to return to school. So did the power forward who put up 15 and 12 in the national title game. So did the swingman who made 12 of his 17 3s, and scored 42 total points, in two Final Four games. This team, by the way, is also adding a universally heralded point guard prospect and two other ESPN 100 recruits. And despite all that, this team is probably not going to start the season ranked No. 1 overall. Even worse? Their rivals, the Kentucky Wildcats, probably will. How's that for something to prove?
Toughest: Colorado (Nov. 30)
Next toughest: Richmond (Nov. 27)
The rest: vs. Army (Nov. 8 in Lexington, Va.), vs. Citadel/WMI (Nov. 9 in Lexington, Va.), Jackson State (Nov. 14), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Nov. 17), Colorado Christian (Nov. 20), South Dakota (Dec. 5), Western State (Dec. 9), UC Riverside (Dec. 14), at UC Davis (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 2 -- As in the Falcons get two points for playing Colorado and Richmond at home. Those are nice home games for Air Force. The rest of the slate is weak, but that's OK considering that coach Dave Pilipovich has a rebuilding team. So this schedule matches the current team.
Toughest: at Kentucky (Dec. 10)
Next toughest: Utah (Dec. 3), Saint Mary's (Dec. 14), Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25 in Honolulu)
The rest: UT-Arlington (Nov. 8), Simpson (Nov. 15), Seattle (Nov. 19), at New Orleans (Nov. 23), Portland State (Nov. 29), Carroll (Dec. 5)
Toughness scale: 5 -- Boise State has a one-way ticket to Kentucky, and that's enough to warrant a decent grade. The Broncos, likely picked second in the MWC, needed to test themselves. The home games against Saint Mary's and Utah will certainly push them as well. Boise State is the potential favorite in Hawaii but will have to get past the hometown Warriors, which is no easy task. Iowa State is a possible finalist on the other side of the bracket. But this tourney could be Boise's breakout heading into the MWC, short of upsetting Kentucky at Rupp.
Toughest: at Gonzaga (Nov. 11)
Next toughest: at UTEP (Nov. 19), New Mexico State (Nov. 30), Colorado (Dec. 3)
The rest: UCCS (Nov. 8), Weber State (Nov. 16), Northern Colorado (Nov. 22), Prairie View A&M (Nov. 25), Bethune-Cookman (Nov. 27), Southwestern Oklahoma State (Dec. 7), Denver (Dec. 11), UIC (Dec. 23), Lamar (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 5 -- The Rams will have quite a chore winning at Gonzaga and UTEP. These are two quality games for Larry Eustachy. Getting New Mexico State and Colorado at home is a huge plus for a team rebuilding after an NCAA tournament run last March. The rest of the slate is fine, considering the inexperience at a number of key positions.
Toughest: vs. Florida (Dec. 21 in Sunrise, Fla.)
Next toughest: at Pittsburgh (Nov. 12), at Utah (Dec. 7), at Cal (Dec. 14)
The rest: at UC Irvine (Nov. 8), Cal State Northridge (Nov. 16), Cal Poly (Nov. 20), San Diego Christian (Nov. 25), Drake (Nov. 29), CSU Bakersfield (Nov. 30), Northern Arizona (Dec. 1), UC Merced (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 6 -- The Bulldogs are still in rebuilding mode, but Rodney Terry put together a rough schedule to get to MWC play. Florida is an elite team. Going on the road to Pitt, Utah and Cal would be tough for most clubs, regardless of what rebuilding stage they were in. The pressure will be on the Bulldogs to clean up the rest at home to ensure there is some momentum going into the conference.
Toughest: Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 28-29)
Next toughest: at Cal (Dec. 10), Iona (Dec. 22)
The rest: Montana Tech (Nov. 4), Pacific (Nov. 8), at Cal Poly (Nov. 12), at San Francisco (Nov. 15), at CSU Bakersfield (Nov. 18), Chattanooga (Nov. 22), Morehead State (Nov. 24), at UC Davis (Dec. 7), Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 14), Long Beach State (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 5 -- The Wolf Pack were stuck at the bottom of the MWC last season, so this is a critical year for David Carter. Nevada has three high-level games, all away from Reno, with two of them in Vegas against Missouri and UCLA. No one would expect the Pack to win any of them, but Carter will test his team with those three. There are plenty of other potential hiccups -- even at home with games like Pacific, Iona and Long Beach State.
Toughest: vs. Kansas (Dec. 14 in Kansas City), vs. Marquette (Dec. 21 in Las Vegas)
Next toughest: Cincinnati (Dec. 7), Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24), at New Mexico State (Dec. 4), New Mexico State (Dec. 17)
The rest: Alabama A&M (Nov. 9), Charleston Southern (Nov. 17), San Diego (Nov. 30), Grand Canyon (Dec. 23)
Toughness scale: 9 -- The Lobos did an exceptional job of getting quality games away from home like Kansas, Marquette, Cincinnati and the rivalry home-and-home games with the Aggies. If the Mountain West favorites play up to expectations, the Lobos will be well-prepared for the MWC and for an NCAA tourney run. The Charleston Classic also offers a possible power-rating game with UMass in the semifinals, assuming they meet.
SAN DIEGO STATE
Toughest: Arizona (Nov. 14), at Kansas (Jan. 5)
Next toughest: Wooden Legacy (Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in Fullerton and Anaheim, Calif.), Washington (Dec. 8)
The rest: UC Riverside (Nov. 8), San Diego Christian (Nov. 20), Southern Utah (Dec. 18), McNeese State (Dec. 21), St. Katherine College (Dec. 27)
Toughness scale: 8 -- This is a quality schedule for Steve Fisher's club. Going to Kansas is as tough a game as any team can get on the schedule. Arizona has become a rivalry game for the Aztecs, and the Wildcats will be one of the best teams in the country. The Wooden Legacy provides elite competition, too, with either Creighton or Arizona State -- two high-level teams -- on the second day. Washington has upper-level Pac-12 talent as well.
SAN JOSE STATE
Toughest: at Santa Clara (Nov. 12)
Next toughest: at Houston (Dec. 7)
The rest: Milwaukee (Nov. 15 in DeKalb, Ill.), at Northern Illinois (Nov. 16), James Madison (Nov. 17 in DeKalb, Ill.), at Pepperdine (Nov. 20), Cal State Fullerton (Nov. 23), at Portland (Nov. 27), at Weber State (Nov. 30), UC Davis (Dec. 18), Westminster (Dec. 21), Pacifica (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 2 -- Going to Santa Clara, an upstart in the WCC, and Houston out of the American will be tall tasks for the Spartans. The first-time MWC member clearly tried to tone down the slate a bit in advance of conference play. But the chances of San Jose State getting high-profile home games is highly unlikely.
Toughest: at Arizona (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Arizona State (Nov. 19), Illinois (Nov. 26)
The rest: Portland State (Nov. 8), UC Santa Barbara (Nov. 12), Nebraska-Omaha (Nov. 15), Tennessee-Martin (Nov. 30), at Southern Utah (Dec. 14), Radford (Dec. 18), Sacred Heart (Dec. 20), vs. Santa Clara (Dec. 22 at Orleans Arena), vs. Mississippi State/South Florida (Dec. 23 at Orleans Arena)
Toughness scale: 5 -- The Runnin' Rebels probably made up this schedule before all of the attrition on the roster. Still, UNLV has a multitude of quality games, with only the Arizona game being away from home. If UNLV wants to make a run in the MWC, it needs to take care of business at home with a schedule that is overwhelmingly prejudiced toward the Thomas & Mack Center.
Toughest: BYU (Nov. 30 in Salt Lake City)
Next toughest: USC (Nov. 8), Mississippi State (Nov. 23)
The rest: Southern Utah (Nov. 12), at UC Santa Barbara (Nov. 16), at Weber State (Nov. 26), Pacific (Dec. 7), Utah Valley (Dec. 14), Western Illinois (Dec. 19), UC Santa Barbara (Dec. 20), Troy (Dec. 21), San Diego Christian (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 4 -- The Aggies get loads of credit for making more of an effort to upgrade the schedule in their first year in the league. Coach Stew Morrill is usually not willing to go places, but he does have the rivalry game against BYU as well as USC at home. Mississippi State is the return of a home-and-home series.
Toughest: at Colorado (Nov. 13), at Ohio State (Nov. 25)
Next toughest: at Denver (Dec. 15), SMU (Dec. 20)
The rest: Tennessee-Martin (Nov. 8), Western State (Nov. 10), Arkansas State (Nov. 16), Jackson State (Nov. 18), South Dakota (Nov. 22), Montana State (Nov. 30), Black Hills State (Dec. 2), Northern Colorado (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale: 4 -- The Cowboys are going on the road to Ohio State, something that is not the norm for Larry Shyatt, who has always worked the schedule to his advantage and not played a high number of upper-level games. The rivalry game with Colorado is always a difficult one. Going to Denver may be close, but the Pioneers have become one of the better squads out West. SMU returns on the back end of a home-and-home series, but this time the Mustangs are much more formidable.
But that will be the expectation in Lexington.
And considering the Wildcats’ top-ranked recruiting class, it’s hardly far-fetched.
No other team in the country is expected to make as big of a leap in 2013-14 as the Wildcats, but there are still plenty of squads who are projected to be considerably improved when the season tips off in November.
Here’s a list of the programs I think will make the biggest strides. And remember, this ranking is based on how significantly a team will improve, not on how good it’s expected to be, how many games it will win or how far it may go in the postseason. For instance, do I think SMU will be able to beat Oklahoma State? No, but I think the upgrades the Mustangs make will be more dramatic than the ones we see in Stillwater, where the Cowboys made the NCAA tournament last season.
Get the drift? Great. Here’s the list:
10 (tie). Arizona State: A year ago at this time, Sun Devils coach Herb Sendek was rumored to be on the hot seat. That’s hardly the case these days, though, as Arizona State is primed for its best season since the days of James Harden. The biggest reason for optimism in Tempe is point guard Jahii Carson, who bypassed the NBA draft to return for his sophomore season. Carson averaged 18.5 points and 5.1 assists in 2012-13 and likely would’ve won national freshman-of-the-year honors if Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart hadn’t had such an impressive season. Also back for ASU is 7-foot-2 center Jordan Bachynski (3.4 blocks) and forward Jonathan Gilling (9.7 points, 6.1 rebounds). The Sun Devils took a hit during the offseason when guard Evan Gordon transferred to Indiana. But they countered that by adding Jermaine Marshall, who will be eligible immediately after averaging 15.3 points at Penn State last season.
10 (tie). Boise State: The Broncos finished 21-11 last season and lost to LaSalle in the NCAA tournament's First Four. Still, the tourney appearance -- Boise State’s first since 2008 -- was a huge step for the program, and even better things could be in store in 2013-14. Eight of the Broncos’ top nine players return. That includes leading scorers Anthony Drmic (17.7 points) and Derrick Marks (16.3). Marks shot 42 percent from 3-point range and averaged nearly 4 assists. Mikey Thompson (7.9 points) is also back along with top rebounder Ryan Watkins. With a handful of the Mountain West Conference's top teams expected to take minor steps back, this could be a special season for the Broncos.
9. Connecticut: The Huskies weren’t eligible for the postseason in 2013, so somewhat overshadowed was the excellent job first-year coach Kevin Ollie did under incredibly difficult circumstances after taking over for Jim Calhoun. Connecticut had nothing to play for but still managed to go 20-10. Considering they return nearly all of their key pieces, the Huskies should be even better in 2013-14. The backcourt of Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier should be one of the best in the country. The twosome combined to average 32.5 points and 9 assists last season. And remember, Napier was a starter on UConn’s 2011 NCAA championship team. Small forward DeAndre Daniels made huge strides as a sophomore, when he upped his scoring average by nearly 10 points per game. Connecticut ranked second-to-last in the Big East in rebounding last season, so Ollie’s team must get better in the paint, where it often appeared undermanned.
8. Oklahoma State: Three months later, I’m still stunned that standout guard Marcus Smart bypassed an opportunity to be a top-five draft pick to return for his sophomore season. Smart’s decision -- coupled with the return of Le'Bryan Nash, another NBA prospect -- means that the Cowboys will be a legitimate threat to end Kansas’ string of nine consecutive Big 12 titles. Some might even consider Travis Ford’s squad the league favorite. Smart is one of the toughest, most versatile players in all of college basketball. As a freshman, he led Oklahoma State in points, assists and steals and ranked second in rebounds. Still, while Smart is the face of the program, he’s just one of many threats on the Cowboys roster. Nash, a small forward, averaged 14 points per game last season, while wing Markel Brown chipped in 15.3. In some ways, Brown strikes just as much fear into opponents as Nash and Smart. Phil Forte and Michael Cobbins cannot be taken lightly.
7. Harvard: The Crimson might seem out of place this list. After all, Tommy Amaker’s squad was pretty darn good last season, when it won the Ivy League title before knocking off No. 3 seed New Mexico in the second round of the NCAA tournament. What made those feats so impressive was that Harvard played the entire season without its two top players. If Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey return as expected, the Crimson will likely have their best team in recent history. Wesley Saunders, Siyani Chambers and Laurent Rivard were all double-figure scorers last season, and Curry and Casey will likely post similar or better point totals in 2013-14. If Harvard makes a tourney run this season it won’t be nearly as big of a surprise. This is a top-25-caliber team.
6. LSU: The Tigers have been to the NCAA tournament just once since 2006, but could make an appearance in 2014 thanks to the return of several key players and a huge addition down low. LSU brings back leading scorer and rebounder Johnny O'Bryant (13.6 points, 8.7 boards) along with standout guard Anthony Hickey, who ranked second in the country in steals (2.9) while chipping in a team-high 3.8 assists and 11.2 points. The Tigers also add a standout forward in Jarrell Martin, the No. 11-ranked player in the class of 2013. Johnny Jones’ squad took a hit when high-profile recruit Jordan Mickey was declared ineligible, but there are still enough parts here to make the upcoming campaign a successful one. LSU went 19-12 last season and won nine of its final 14 games.
5. Iowa: Even though they missed the NCAA tournament, the Hawkeyes still had to feel good about the strides they made last season. Iowa finished 9-9 in the Big Ten, the nation’s toughest conference, and made it to the NIT championship game, where it lost to a deeper, more athletic Baylor squad. Don’t be surprised if 2013-14 is the season when Iowa really turns the corner. Every key player returns from last year’s 25-13 squad. Included in that mix are leading scorers Roy Devyn Marble (15 points) and Aaron White (12.8), who also averaged a team-high 6.2 rebounds. The Hawkeyes also have an excellent -- and, in my opinion, underrated -- coach in Fran McCaffrey, who appears to have this program on an upswing. With Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin all losing a number of key players, I wouldn’t be surprised if Iowa finished as high as third in the Big Ten while earning its first NCAA tournament berth since 2006.
4. Tennessee: The Volunteers barely missed out on the NCAA tournament last season -- mainly because of some key losses early in SEC play, where they dropped four of their first six games. By March, though, Cuonzo Martin’s squad was one of the most improved teams in the conference, and there are plenty of reasons to think the Vols will build on that momentum. The frontcourt should be loaded with Jarnell Stokes, who averaged 12.4 points per game last year, and Jeronne Maymon, who averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds two years ago before missing last season with an injury. Incoming freshman Robert Hubbs should give the Vols a boost at small forward, and leading scorer Jordan McRae (15.7 PPG) returns at shooting guard. Point guard Trae Golden was dismissed from the team during the offseason, but Tennessee should be fine at that position with either Antonio Barton, a Memphis transfer, or freshman Darius Thompson.
3. SMU: I’m not ready to say the Mustangs will end an NCAA tournament drought that dates back to 1993, but I definitely think they’ll at least be on the bubble in late February and early March. That’d be a huge jump for a program that finished 15-17 in Larry Brown’s first season, but SMU has added enough quality pieces to make it possible. Illinois State transfer Nic Moore, who redshirted last season, was named to the Missouri Valley Conference all-freshman team in 2011-12. Signee Yanick Moreira was the top-ranked junior college big man in the nation, and incoming freshman Keith Frazier will become the first McDonald’s All American ever to suit up for SMU, which also returns three double-digit scorers in Nick Russell, Jalen Jones and Ryan Manuel. If Brown gets this group to jell quickly, this could be the best season for Mustangs basketball in decades.
2. St. John’s: Sportswriters are expected to make bold predictions from time to time, so here’s mine: St. John’s will spend most of the upcoming season ranked in the Top 25 and will challenge Marquette and Creighton for the Big East title. This team is loaded. Jakarr Sampson was one of the country’s most underrated freshmen in 2012-13, when he averaged 14.9 points and 6.6 rebounds. Imagine how much better he’ll be this season after bypassing the NBA draft. I’m also expecting even more out of D'Angelo Harrison, who was averaging a team-high 17.8 points before being suspended at the end of last season for disciplinary reasons. Chris Obekpa, who ranked second in the country with 4.0 blocks per game, is back along with bruising forward God'sgift Achiuwa, who redshirted last season. Two other important pieces will be incoming freshman Rysheed Jordan, the No. 3-ranked point guard in the class of 2013, and Orlando Sanchez, a 24-year-old forward who wasn’t deemed eligible by the NCAA until late February. He’ll be able to compete for only one season, but Sanchez could end up being the top player on the Red Storm roster.
1. Kentucky: John Calipari has been regarded for years now as the top recruiter in college basketball. But he might have outdone himself this time, as Kentucky welcomes what may be the greatest signing class in college basketball history. The haul includes five players (Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and James Young) ranked among the nation’s top-10 prospects by ESPN.com. The question is whether the young Wildcats will jell and, if so, how quickly. Calipari is the best in the country at coaching players who only plan to spend a year or two in college. Kentucky, which also returns potential lottery picks Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, will likely open the season as the No. 1-ranked team in America. That’s a lot of pressure for any squad, especially one with so much youth. Last year’s Wildcats crumbled under the spotlight. Kentucky’s latest batch of freshmen, though, are rumored to be much tougher, both on the court and between the ears. We’ll find out soon enough.
Especially in the NCAA tournament.
In three of the past four seasons, a team from a non-power conference has advanced to the Final Four and more than held its own upon arrival.
The most recent example is Wichita State, which defeated the likes of Pittsburgh, Gonzaga and Ohio State en route to a showdown with Louisville in the national semifinals. The Shockers lost to the eventual NCAA champs 72-68, but Gregg Marshall’s team certainly made its presence felt in a game that wasn’t decided until the final minute. Along with earning a ton of national respect (if it hadn't done so already), Wichita State’s postseason march was surely inspiring to teams from similar leagues hoping to accomplish the same feat this season.
I’m not predicting that any of these programs will pull a Wichita State and make the Final Four, but here are some schools from non-power conferences that could make some noise in March.
10. Southern -- Florida Gulf Coast became the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16 last season, but Southern nearly accomplished something even more impressive when it almost upset Gonzaga before falling 64-58. A victory would’ve made the Jaguars the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1. Southern should be a scary team again in 2013-14. Four of its top five scorers return including 6-foot-6 wing Malcolm Miller, who averaged 15.8 points and a team-high six rebounds. Javan Mitchell (9.5 points) and Jameel Grace (9.2) posted impressive numbers, as well. The Jaguars, who defeated Texas A&M in a nonconference game last season, will likely be challenged in the SWAC by Mike Davis’ Texas Southern squad. Texas Southern won last season’s SWAC title with a 16-2 record (compared to 15-3 for Southern) but was ineligible for the postseason.
9. Towson -- The Tigers pulled off the biggest turnaround in NCAA history by going 18-13 one season after finishing 1-31. Pat Skerry’s squad could be in for even better things, thanks to the return of four starters. The best of the bunch is former Georgetown forward Jerrelle Benimon, who ranked third in the nation in rebounding last season with 11.2 a game. Benimon, who also averaged a team-high 17.1 points, may be even tougher this season thanks to the arrival of 3-point standout Four McGlynn, a Vermont transfer who will be a welcome addition to a team that ranked 258th in the country in 3-point shooting. Small forward Marcus Damas should be the team’s top defender for the second straight season, while Timajh Parker-Rivera has the edge on replacing departed senior Bilal Dixon at power forward. Towson will be playing in a new arena, and the CAA tournament is in Baltimore. It couldn’t be happening at a better time for the Tigers, whose last NCAA tournament appearance was in 1991.
8. Florida Gulf Coast -- It wasn’t long after last season’s surprising march to the Sweet 16 that Eagles coach Andy Enfield was poached by USC. The interest in Enfield hardly came as a surprise, as FGCU was one of the most fascinating stories of the NCAA tournament. Even though Enfield and his “Dunk City” style are gone, the Eagles likely won't take a huge step back. Longtime Kansas assistant Joe Dooley was hired as a replacement and with his pedigree, FGCU may not miss a beat. It’d be a mistake to assume the Eagles will play a completely different style under Dooley, who retained two of Enfield’s top assistants (Marty Richter and Michael Fly). FGCU returns four of its top five scorers: Bernard Thompson, Chase Fieler, Brett Comer and Eric McKnight. And the Eagles add a pair of transfers in Jamail Jones (Marquette) and Nate Hicks (Georgia Tech).
7. Louisiana Tech -- A lot of people forgot about the Bulldogs because they didn’t make the NCAA tournament. Still, finishing 27-7 overall and 16-2 in any conference (yes, even the WAC) is no small feat. Neither is making an appearance, albeit brief, in the Top 25 poll for the first time since 1985. It will be interesting to see if Louisiana Tech can experience similar success during its first season as a member of Conference USA. The Bulldogs certainly have enough pieces for a great season. Leading scorer Raheem Appleby (14.9 points) returns along with Cordarius Johnson (7.9) and Alex Hamilton (7.8), who ranked second and third on the team in scoring, respectively. Leading rebounder Michale Kyser (5.3) is also back. Louisiana Tech lost its final two regular-season games last spring, then fell to UT-San Antonio in the first round of the WAC tournament, which meant it had to settle for an appearance in the NIT, where it beat Florida State and then lost to Southern Miss. It has the potential to make the NCAA tournament in 2013-14. That hasn’t happened since 1991.
6. Boise State -- The Broncos finished 21-11 last season and made the NCAA tournament for just the second time since 1994. Even though they lost to La Salle in the “First Four,” the season was still deemed a huge success, especially considering Boise State played in the Mountain West, easily one of the nation’s toughest conferences. The Broncos have to feel good about their chances for another good season in 2013-14. Four of their top six players return, including leading scorers Anthony Drmic (17.7 PPG) and Derrick Marks (16.3 PPG). Marks shot 42 percent from 3-point range and also averaged nearly four assists. Mikey Thompson (7.9 points) is back, as is leading rebounder Ryan Watkins. With a handful of the conference's top teams expected to take minor steps back, this could be a special season for the Broncos.
5. La Salle -- Last season’s run to the Sweet 16 (which included victories over Boise State, Kansas State and Ole Miss) earned Dr. John Giannini a contract extension, and rightfully so. Before last season the Explorers had won just one NCAA tournament game in 30 years and hadn’t even made the field since 1992. The Explorers are confident their success will continue in 2013-14. Leading scorer Ramon Galloway is gone, but La Salle returns three other double-digit scorers in Tyreek Duren (14.3 points), Tyrone Garland (13) and Jerrell Wright (10.8), who also led the team in rebounds with 6.8 per game. Starting guard Sam Mills, who averaged 33 minutes per game, is also back. Replacing Galloway certainly won’t be easy. He led the team in points, assists and steals. And his on-court swagger set the tone for a team that relied on toughness. Still, with confidence soaring following last season’s 24-10 finish, the Explorers have an excellent chance of returning to the NCAA tournament.
4. Harvard -- Tommy Amaker’s squad pulled off one of the biggest upsets in the NCAA tournament last season by upending No. 3 seed New Mexico. And let’s not forget, it was somewhat surprising that Harvard was even in the field. Harvard played the entire season without its two best players but still managed to win the Ivy League. If Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey return, as expected, the Crimson likely will have their best team in recent history. Wesley Saunders, Siyani Chambers and Laurent Rivard were all double-figure scorers last season, and Curry and Casey likely will average similar or better point totals in 2013-14. If Harvard makes a postseason run this season, it won’t be nearly as big of a surprise. This is a Top 25-caliber team.
3. Saint Louis -- Some publications tabbed Jim Crews as the national coach of the year after he led the Billikens to the Atlantic 10 title last season. Crews had stepped in for Rick Majerus, who left the team in the fall for health reasons and passed away in December. SLU named Crews the full-time coach after the season, and it’s not unreasonable to think SLU could be just as salty in 2013-14. Guard Kwamain Mitchell is gone, along with A-10 sixth man of the year Cody Ellis. But the Billikens return every other starter from a squad that also won the league tournament title while setting a school record for wins (28). Leading the way will be forward Dwayne Evans, who led last season's team in points (14) and rebounds (7.7). Jordair Jett is back after being named to the A-10’s all-defensive squad. So is Mike McCall Jr., whose 47 3-pointers ranked second on the team. The battle between SLU, La Salle and VCU for the A-10 title should be a good one.
2. VCU -- There were times last season when VCU looked like a top-10 team. Even when VCU went 1-2 at the Battle 4 Atlantis, losing to Duke and Missouri, the Rams showed glimpses of becoming a team that could make the Final Four. No one would be surprised if Shaka Smart’s squad accomplished that feat this season, especially if VCU establishes a little more consistency. The Rams will likely open the season ranked in the top 15. All but two key players (Troy Daniels and Darius Theus) return from last season's squad. Included in that group are double-digit scorers Treveon Graham (15.1 points), Juvonte Reddic (14.6) and Rob Brandenberg (10.1), along with defensive standout Briante Weber, who ranked fifth in the country in steals with 2.7 per game. VCU will continue to play its relentless full-court defense, which is hard to prepare for in a tournament setting because of the quick turnaround. On offense the Rams will score a ton of points in transition. This, once again, will be a fun team to watch -- and a difficult one to play.
1. Wichita State -- Can the Shockers make it to the Final Four two years in a row? Heck, why not? There’s a strong chance that this year’s team could be even better than the unit that lost to Louisville. Losing bruising forward Carl Hall and court leader Malcolm Armstead will hurt, but Marshall’s team returns all of its other key parts. Cleanthony Early, who had 25 points and 10 rebounds against Louisville, is an NBA-caliber small forward. Ron Baker ignited the Shockers’ NCAA tournament run with his prowess from beyond the arc, and point guard Fred VanVleet logged valuable minutes as a freshman backing up Armstead. Tekele Cotton is a returning starter who helps set the tone defensively, and standout shooter Evan Wessel is back after redshirting last season. Look for 6-foot-9 Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Kadeem Colby to replace Hall in the paint. Colby spent the past season working out with the Shockers and Marshall couldn’t be more impressed. Chipola (Fla.) College transfer Earl Watson also will be in the mix down low. It should be another great season in Wichita.
Bonus team: Butler -- I goofed up in an earlier version of this blog by including the Bulldogs on this list. The things that Butler accomplished as a mid-major -- advancing to the NCAA title game in 2010 and 2011 -- made Brad Stevens’ players the poster boys for non-power conferences. But things are different now. Butler is in the Big East -- and it made the move without Stevens, who was hired earlier this month as head coach of the Boston Celtics. His replacement, Brandon Miller, faces the tough task of carrying on the tradition established by Stevens and his predecessors. Miller left coaching altogether a few seasons ago when he resigned after six years as an assistant at Ohio State. He got back in the game last year as a special assistant to Illinois coach John Groce before Stevens brought him back to Butler as an assistant a few months before his departure. Miller inherits a team that lost its top two scorers in Rotnei Clarke and Andrew Smith.
But standouts Khyle Marshall and Roosevelt Jones (the hero of last season’s dramatic win over Gonzaga) return along with Kellen Dunham, one of the country’s top shooters. The biggest issue will be at point guard, where there is no clear front-runner for the starting spot. Jackson Aldridge has yet to establish himself after two seasons, and Devontae Morgan hardly saw the court last year as a freshman. Walk-on Alex Barlow is also a candidate. The Bulldogs certainly don’t have the look of a Final Four team, but if Miller does half as good of a job as Stevens, it would be foolish to count the Bulldogs out.
Tournament bracket for the Hawaiian Airlines Diamond Head Classic.
When and where: Dec. 22-23, 25 in Honolulu.
Initial thoughts: I like this field. No, it doesn’t feature any powerhouse programs. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle won’t be here. But I think this might be one of the most balanced brackets among the early tournaments. That’s why I’m intrigued.
Boise State is stacked. About 92 percent of the team’s offensive output from last season returns. The Broncos squad that reached the NCAA tournament last season only had one senior. Leon Rice’s program could be (should be) the favorite to win the Mountain West in 2013-14. And the Broncos are certainly a strong contender to win the Diamond Head Classic title. They have a clear path to the championship game. Hawaii returns two of its top three scorers from a 17-15 squad that couldn’t defend anyone last season (262nd in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com). Saint Mary’s enters the “Life After Matthew Dellavedova” era. Frank Martin’s 2013 recruiting class at South Carolina is a promising addition and a sign of progress, but it might take some time to fit all of the pieces together and that might not be enough to help a Gamecocks team that went 4-14 in the SEC in 2012-13. Boise State stands tall on this side of the bracket.
Iowa State, however, could be potent, too. Fred Hoiberg just signed a 1,000-year extension. So he’s going to be the coach in Ames forever. There’s stability now. And he has a true pillar in Georges Niang. The sophomore is a combo forward who will showcase his full arsenal in 2012-13. He can lead the Cyclones to their third consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. A pair of ESPN top-100 recruits, Matt Thomas and Monte Morris, will be in the mix, too. And former Marshall guard DeAndre Kane (15.1 PPG and 7.0 APG 2012-13) will be eligible to compete next year after recently graduating. But Sherrod Wright and George Mason will put up a fight against the Cyclones. The Patriots, who are moving to the Atlantic 10, were second in the CAA in 3-point defense (31.6 percent allowed) last year. Iowa State led the nation in 2012-13 with 878 3-pointers. Oregon State is my sleeper pick to win the championship. Eric Moreland, the team’s top rebounder, returns along with Craig Robinson’s top three scorers from last year (Roberto Nelson, Devon Collier and Angus Brandt). The Beavers will open the tournament against an Akron team that lost shot-blocking savant Zeke Marshall and could be without suspended point guard Alex Abreu, who pled guilty to one count of felony drug trafficking last month.
But I’m intrigued by the parity and possibilities.
Matchup I can’t wait to see: Well, Isaac Fotu's afro is just one of the reasons I can’t wait to see the opening-round contest between Hawaii and Boise State. This will be one the first times Boise plays under the pressures that come with expectations. Last year, the Broncos surprised the country. Now, success is expected. The bulk of last year’s tourney squad is back. And now, the team could enter the season as top dog in the Mountain West. But squads unprepared for the spotlight have stumbled early in the past. Perhaps Hawaii will catch BSU at the right time and score a major upset in this game.
Five players to watch:
Georges Niang, Iowa State: You might not know him yet. But you will soon. Last year, he averaged 12.1 PPG and 4.6 RPG and also made 39 percent of his 3-pointers. And Hoiberg is convinced he’s capable of more in 2013-14. He won’t have a choice. The Cyclones lost four of their top six scorers from last season. Niang has to deliver.
Roberto Nelson, Oregon State: His achievements were buried last year due to his team’s struggles. Although Oregon State lost 14 Pac-12 games, Nelson averaged 17.8 PPG. The 6-3 guard also made 40 percent of his 3-pointers. Can’t get too excited about a squad that struggled the way that Oregon State did a year ago. But Nelson is a star.
Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks, Boise State: Both Drmic (17.7 PPG) and Marks (16.3 PPG) cracked the Mountain West’s all-conference second team last year as sophomores. The two guards fueled a Boise State attack that was No. 33 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. The explosive duo could carry Boise State to another NCAA tournament appearance.
Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina: Frank Martin promised two things when he accepted the South Carolina job last year: more love for Pitbull and an upgraded recruiting pool. Thornwell -- ranked 41st among ESPN’s top-100 recruits in the 2013 class -- represents change at South Carolina. He anchors an incoming crew that’s ranked 23rd nationally by ESPN.com. The 6-5 guard could be the young stud that Martin needs to truly build the South Carolina program.
Title game prediction: All signs point to Boise State and Iowa State meeting in the championship. They’re clearly the most talented teams in the field. But the Cyclones might need some time to build chemistry, especially with Kane possibly seizing the starting point guard role. Boise State has the benefit of continuity. And the Broncos’ offensive attack is deep and versatile. I expect to see a close game because Iowa State is legit. But I think Boise State will win the title.
Who others are picking:
Eamonn Brennan: Iowa State over Saint Mary's
Jeff Goodman: Boise State over Oregon State
Andy Katz: Boise State over Iowa State
Jason King: Iowa State over Boise State
Dana O'Neil: Iowa State over Saint Mary's
2. Boise State lost to an unheralded La Salle team in the First Four on Wednesday night. But the Broncos were way ahead of schedule this season. Boise State coach Leon Rice said earlier in the week on ESPNU that he told the administration in the preseason he had no idea how good this team would be by season's end. The Broncos' appearance in the NCAA tournament could be akin to Colorado State's a year ago. The Rams popped up a year early and are back again this season. The Broncos now have to ensure that this season was hardly a fluke -- with the added expectations of repeat NCAA appearance. Rice has done wonders in making Boise State relevant in hoops. There's no reason to believe he won't continue to do so.
3. Two of the biggest winners in this alignment game will ultimately be the fan bases at Creighton and Butler. Just think about the change on the schedule for these two programs. The Bluejays are going from hosting Bradley or Evansville to having Georgetown, Marquette and Villanova come to Omaha, Neb. And within two years, Butler will have gone from hosting Youngstown State to welcoming Georgetown to Indianapolis. Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens said that this will be a challenge for the coaching staffs, which now have to learn new systems and styles on the fly. Butler had to try to figure out the Atlantic 10; now, within a year, the Bulldogs will be in another league, playing a true round-robin schedule.
You probably weren't born yet, and even if you were you might not be able to remember it, but in 1954 -- the same year Edward Murrow began investigating Joe McCarthy and Bill Haley & His Comets recorded "Rock Around The Clock," and one year before the Philadelphia Big 5 series, the sport's most unique old-school city competition, staged its first meeting -- the Explorers won the national title.
With that most cherished of college hoops qualities -- tradition -- established, La Salle maintained an off-but-mostly-on relationship with basketball success throughout the next four decades. It participated in NCAA tournaments in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and in 1989-90, went 30-2 thanks in large part to national player of the year Lionel Simmons -- the third-leading scorer in NCAA history.
Simmons and Michael Brooks, the 1980 player of the year, are both among the top 30 scorers of all time, and La Salle is one of only two programs (along with Houston) to boast such a circumstance. Duke and Ohio State are the only schools to field more national players of the year in college hoops history. Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, NBA Hall of Famer Tom Gola, Tim Legler, Rasual Butler and Gary Neal are alumni.
"We're actually making a statement," senior guard Ramon Galloway, who finished with 21 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists on 8-of-13 shooting. "We didn't just get selected. We want to make a run. We want to show everybody La Salle can play with the best teams in the country."
They'll have the chance Friday. Wednesday night's win put La Salle in the bracket proper and headlong into a matchup with No. 4 seed Kansas State, which enters the tournament 27-7 with a Big 12 title share to its name.
And yet, there are reasons to expect the Explorers can make a push. La Salle's strength -- its four-guard lineup, its floor spacing, its penetration and deep shooting -- are what helped it finish 31-for-49 in a commanding offensive performance against Boise State, and it is not unreasonable to think Galloway and company could at least approximate that effort against a Wildcats defense that allowed a lenient 1.02 points per trip in conference play, fifth among Big 12 teams. Nor will the Wildcats have an obvious height advantage over a team whose "center," forward Jerrell Wright, is just 6-foot-8. K-State coach Bruce Weber has height on his bench, but has given the most minutes to Rodney McGruder, Angel Rodriguez, Will Spradling, Martavious Irving and Shane Southwell. The tallest, Southwell, is 6-foot-6.
Win or lose Friday -- and as much as they might deny it -- the mere appearance (and through at-large bid at that) in the NCAA tournament marks a return to some form of past relevance La Salle and its fans have been desperate to reclaim for decades.
On Wednesday night (the 59th anniversary of the school's national title victory by the way), La Salle coach John Giannini told reporters he had received texts from Legler, Butler, and former star Doug Overton. And the legendary Simmons watched the win in person. There will be much more attention if the No. 13 seed knocks off the No. 4 Friday. But for now, it's a start.
"People have tended to forget what a basketball power La Salle was for over four decades," Giannini said. "It's a big deal to re-establish that. It's a big deal for people who attended La Salle and love La Salle, who had great basketball, and certainly they've longed for that. So it's big."
DAYTON, Ohio -- Quick reaction to La Salle's 80-71 victory over Boise State on Wednesday:
Overview: If the logistics of La Salle's first NCAA tournament berth in 21 years felt a little bit like an audition for the big show, its fans can rest easy. La Salle may be sticking around awhile.
Thanks to a balanced and efficient effort -- including a combined 20-of-25 shooting from supporting players Jerrell Wright, Sam Mills and Tyrone Garland, and an anchor performance from star senior guard Ramon Galloway -- La Salle closed the 2013 First Four by bouncing the fellow 13th-seeded Broncos.
The difference between the two teams wasn't hard to notice: La Salle did what it wanted to on the offensive end, got to the spots it wished to obtain, and knocked down the shots once there. All told, the Explorers finished 31-of-49 from the field; Boise State couldn't find a stop to save its (tournament) life.
Turning point: In a season that has in many ways been defined by tidal comebacks -- in a sport that makes its bacon on insanity -- perhaps the most striking thing about La Salle's win was how ho-hum it felt throughout. The Explorers controlled the game early, and fended off most Boise mini runs, including a late 90-second stretch that saw them increase their lead from 62-54 to 70-58 with two quick 3-pointers and a Wright dunk.
Boise State didn't go down without a scrap: Guard Derrick Marks cut the La Salle lead to just six with 1:51 remaining, and D.J. Peterson's push-off loose-ball foul on the ensuing offensive possession put Boise center Kenny Buckner on the line to shoot a one-and-one. But Buckner missed, Garland hit two, and when a full-court pass to Galloway broke Boise's press, that was that.
Key player: There wasn't an Explorer on the floor who played poorly, at least on the offensive end, but Garland's 22 points on 9-of-11 shooting was not only a huge boost but a huge surprise. Garland has always looked talented this season -- there aren't many defenders he can't break down off the dribble -- but he has been maddeningly inconsistent. On Wednesday night, he was peerless.
Key stat: Let's keep it simple: The Explorers finished 63.3 percent from the field overall and 52.4 percent on their 21 3-point shots, and when a team plays that well on offense -- or, conversely, when a team plays that poorly on defense -- little further explanation is required.
What's next: La Salle (22-9) moves on to Friday's brutally tough "second round" game against No. 4 seed Kansas State in Kansas City, Mo. Boise State finishes a good season -- which included a victory at Creighton and a creditable performance in a very good Mountain West -- 21-11.
But this is also a subjective process, where beauty is in the eye of the computers and still, the beholder. The country will never see eye-to-eye with the decisions made and no matter how many mock brackets the NCAA holds, plenty will still think the fix is on.
Of course, that’s frankly the beauty of Selection Sunday. If it were easy and boring, we wouldn’t be talking about it.
In the next few days we’ll be able to critique the committee’s job more thoroughly, but for now here are a few bracket first impressions:
A field day for conspiracy theorists
The NCAA tournament selection committee chair this year is Mike Bobinski, who is the athletic director (at least until next month when he takes over at Georgia Tech) at Xavier. And, Xavier is in the Atlantic 10 (at least until this week when the Musketeers join the Big East).
The A-10 received five bids (more than the ACC and the SEC): Saint Louis, the league's conference tournament champion, earned a No. 4 seed, VCU a 5, Butler a 6, Temple a 9 and bubble-dwelling La Salle a 13.
Out West, meanwhile, the Pac-12 also received five bids. Except the league’s conference champion, Oregon, was a 12-seed while Arizona and UCLA came in as 6-seeds, Colorado earned a 10 and Cal another 12.
So was this Bobinski strong-arming the committee to give his league its due?
I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the case, as the process truly is set up to avoid such personal favoritism.
So why did we want to be the overall No. 1 seed?
That’s what Louisville has to be thinking right now.
The Cardinals earned the distinction on merit, winning the Big East Tournament in a steamroller of an effort against Syracuse. But Louisville’s reward is a date in the Midwest Region, which apparently was set up by the masochistic dentist who is sidelining on the selection committee.
Yes it’s a nice, easy drive for fans from Louisville to Indianapolis, but they might want to bring some sedatives with them.
The team I believe is the best in the country and the committee tabbed the best in the country has the most difficult road to Atlanta.
In their second game the Cardinals will either get Missouri or Colorado State, two of the best rebounding teams in the country.
Survive that and it’s on to a possible Sweet 16 date with Saint Louis, a team that can match Louisville’s defensive intensity (albeit in a different way) head to head, a team that none other than coach Brad Stevens said could win the whole thing.
Make that, Cards, and congratulations -- you might get Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski in the Elite Eight.
Neither of them know anything about getting to a Final Four, right?
OK, here’s what the committee did right
Enough with the questionable calls, it's time to throw a few rose petals.
Middle Tennessee State, Boise State, La Salle and Saint Mary’s are in the tournament, and that’s a good thing.
Maybe not if you’re a Tennessee or Kentucky fan, but oh well, tough break.
The big-league teams have plenty of chances to prove their worth. Their conferences are set up as NCAA tournament auditions, with brand-name games and RPI-grabbing opportunities weekly. Conjuring up a nonconference schedule isn’t terribly difficult, either.
Try being Middle Tennessee State. You think anyone wants to go to Murfreesboro to play? No. Frankly not too many would be willing hospitable hosts to the Blue Raiders, either. What’s there to gain but a bad loss?
Ditto Boise State. Idaho isn’t on most blueblood’s charter flight patterns.
So what are they to do? How about the best they can, and hope they’re recognized for it.
This year, at least, the committee did just that.
The cruelty of March
Poor Shaka Smart.
When ESPN set up Akron and VCU in a BracketBuster game in 2011, both he and Zips head coach Keith Dambrot prayed it would be the last time.
So much for that.
In Auburn Hills, Mich., Smart and Dambrot will go head-to-head once more and this time it’s a legit bracket buster.
The two are coaching best friends. Smart considers Dambrot a mentor. The two spent three years together at Akron, and Smart was Dambrot’s right-hand man after he was named head coach. Dambrot was even in Smart’s wedding.
Now one will have to beat the other.
“It will be strange for sure," Smart said via text message.
- Michigan’s Trey Burke versus South Dakota’s Nate Wolters in the first round, that’s a nice little point guard matchup.
- Word to the wise for Duke fans. Seven years ago, Albany was a No. 16 seed in Philadelphia and scared the pants off of top-seeded Connecticut for a half, leading by 12 at the break. The Great Danes are back in Philly as a 15 seed, set to face the Blue Devils.
- If Florida and Georgetown meet in the Sweet 16, will they move the game from Washington D.C. to a battleship to make up the cancelled game from November?
- Butler versus Bucknell? Really? We have to pick one? That’s mean.
- How many times will Villanova and North Carolina have to answer questions about the last time they met -- at the 2009 Detroit Final Four? Forget the fact that both teams are considerably, um, different this time around.
- Can someone please set up an on-camera conversation about court decorum and attitude between Bo Ryan and Marshall Henderson?
After the Louisville-Indiana rivalry officially was killed off, Rick Pitino and Tom Crean gave fans -- both local and national -- a little hope when they floated the idea of playing one another next season. It would be a terrific game between two national powers that sit only a short ride from one another.
We very well could get an earlier date.
The two teams that started the season as Nos. 1 and 2 in both polls may be rolling downhill toward a meeting in Atlanta.
Take a look at the tale of the tape in the chart on the right.
Virginia had a significantly worse RPI than Middle Tennessee and Boise State even before its loss to North Carolina State in the ACC tournament on Friday.
Some will argue that Middle Tennessee has played too easy of a schedule. But Virginia's schedule strength is nearly identical to Middle Tennessee's and easier than Boise State's.
Virginia's non-conference strength of schedule is worse than Middle Tennessee's and Boise State's. Middle Tennessee's ranks eighth. Virginia's ranks 299th.
Virginia has fewer victories against teams in the RPI top 25 than Boise State and the same number of RPI top-50 and top-100 wins as Boise State.
Virginia has seven losses outside the RPI top 100. Middle Tennessee and Boise State only have two each.
Virginia has more losses outside the RPI top 150 than Middle Tennessee and Boise State combined.
Virginia is 3-10 away from home. Middle Tennessee is 13-5, while Boise State is 7-9.
No team in the last 20 years has received an at-large with as many losses outside the RPI top 100 as Virginia has this season.
Given these numbers, how can Virginia receive an at-large bid over Middle Tennessee or Boise State?
That's the argument for why Virginia won't receive an at-large bid -- since the NCAA tournament selection committee uses RPI as its primary tool for selection and seeding -- but here's why Virginia should receive an at-large bid based on BPI, which takes more information into account than RPI.
Though Virginia's RPI is a negative compared to Middle Tennessee and Boise State, the Cavaliers' BPI rank (48) is almost identical to Middle Tennessee (49) and Boise State (47). That's because eight of the Cavaliers' 11 losses are by six points or fewer and three of their bad losses came without one of their key players, Jontel Evans.
Also, six of the RPI sub-100 teams Virginia lost to are ranked better by BPI than RPI. Those teams that Virginia lost to have performed better than their RPI indicates.
If you consider “bad losses” to be losses outside the top 150, then Virginia has the same number of bad losses as Middle Tennessee and Boise State according to BPI. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers easily have more top-25 wins, more top-50 wins and more top-100 wins than Middle Tennessee.