College Basketball Nation: Butler Bulldogs
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: a speed injection in the Horizon.
In the 2010 and 2011 NCAA tournaments, when America received its introduction to the Butler Bulldogs, they got a lot in the exchange: a feel-good underdog story two years running; an up-close view of the most impressive young coach (Brad Stevens) in the sport; proof that belief, guile and luck were sometimes enough; and proof that a mid-major really could win the whole enchilada one day, with the right breaks, or just a few more inches of backboard.
Whether basketball fans realized it or not, or even cared to, they also got a primer on Horizon League basketball. The Bulldogs won in the NCAA tournament two years running because they ran smart, focused offense and lockdown defense. One couldn't work without the other, and the pace was deliberate -- it allowed Butler to grind more talented and more athletic opponents into second-half dust, but it also kept opposing teams from using their athleticism on the break. Butler always beat you back on defense.
This is, by and large, the way the rest of the Horizon League has traditionally played its basketball. Deliberate, defensive. Last season, the Horizon League was its usual self -- except for Detroit, which cracked the vaunted 70-possessions-per-game mark, and Youngstown State, which finished at around 67 per. Five teams averaged fewer than 64 possessions per game. Six fell below 65, and Valparaiso finished at 65.4. This is not a fast league. Could it become one?
The question is worth asking thanks to, you guessed it, realignment. This season is former Summit member Oakland's inaugural campaign in the Horizon, and there are several reasons why this is an exciting change. For starters, it sets up the possibility of a fantastic local rivalry with Detroit (Oakland is in Rochester, Mich.). It adds another quality mid-major program, full stop -- Greg Kampe's team has been the toast of the Summit League for most of the last half-decade. But more than anything, the Grizzlies bring speed. Over the last four seasons, Kampe's teams have averaged 71.03 possessions per game. Oakland is a different kind of team than the usual Horizon squad, with a different philosophy. If Detroit plays just as fast this season (and it might not, having lost point guard Ray McCallum Jr. to the NBA draft), the rising possession tide could lift all HL boats. If not, then Oakland will be a singularly speedy oddity in an otherwise homogenous conference. Either option could prove interesting.
The Horizon League is in an interesting place now. Butler got so good it outgrew its old denizens, moving to the A-10 and now the new Big East, but according to Ken Pomeroy's conference rankings, the league was still the 11th-best top-to-bottom last season, just behind a now-decimated Conference USA. What Oakland can do for that overall league strength, and for the nightly entertainment value, is entirely worth watching.
Toughest: Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in Orlando, Fla.), Purdue (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis)
Next toughest: Princeton (Nov. 16)
The rest: Lamar (Nov. 9), Vanderbilt (Nov. 19), at Ball State (Nov. 23), North Dakota (Dec. 7), Manchester (Dec. 9), at Evansville (Dec. 21), NJIT (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- This isn’t an overwhelming schedule for first-year coach Brandon Miller, but it’s not a complete cakewalk either -- especially since Roosevelt Jones is out for the year. The Old Spice Classic gives the Bulldogs some pop, with a potential date with Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State in the second round (with Washington State as the opener) or Memphis down the road.
Toughest: Wooden Legacy (Nov. 28-Dec.1 in Fullerton and Anaheim, Calif.)
Next toughest: at Saint Joseph’s (Nov. 16), California (Nov. 22), at Long Beach State (Dec. 3), Nebraska (Dec. 8)
The rest: Alcorn State (Nov. 8), UMKC (Nov. 11), Tulsa (Nov. 23), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Dec. 17)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- The hefty Wooden Legacy gives the Bluejays a challenge. There’s a first-round date with Arizona State and Jahii Carson then possibly San Diego State and a potential matchup with either Marquette or Miami on the other side. But for a loaded lineup like Creighton has, I would have hoped to see a little more meat in the nonconference schedule.
Toughest: CBE Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Kansas City, Mo.), Arizona State (Dec. 6)
Next toughest: at Northwestern (Dec. 27)
The rest: Grambling State (Nov. 9), Southern Miss (Nov. 13), Wright State (Nov. 16), at Milwaukee (Nov. 19), Oregon State (Dec. 1), Florida Atlantic (Dec. 12), Chicago State (Dec. 15), Houston Baptist (Dec. 18), at Illinois State (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- If this is the year the Blue Demons turn the corner, they will have earned their stripes. This is a decent schedule, thanks largely to an opening date with Final Four participant Wichita State in the semis of the CBE Classic. (Texas and BYU are on the other side.) Tussles with Arizona State and Northwestern also add some muscle.
Toughest: Oregon (Nov. 8 in Seoul, South Korea), at Kansas (Dec. 21), Michigan State (Feb. 1 in New York)
Next toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24)
The rest: Wright State (Nov. 13), Lipscomb (Nov. 30), High Point (Dec. 5), Colgate (Dec. 7), Elon (Dec. 17), Florida International (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- Short of matching up with Kentucky in Kabul, I’m not sure how John Thompson III could have made his schedule much more daunting. From South Korea to Lawrence, with a date with Michigan State for added fun, that’s literally anyone anywhere. There’s also a pretty decent Puerto Rico Tip-Off field, with VCU, Michigan, Kansas State and Florida State.
Toughest: Ohio State (Nov. 16), New Mexico (Nov. 21), at Wisconsin (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Arizona State (Nov. 25), Wooden Legacy (Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in Fullerton and Anaheim, Calif.)
The rest: Southern (Nov. 8), Grambling State (Nov. 12), New Hampshire (Nov. 21), IUPUI (Dec. 14), Ball State (Dec. 17), Samford (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- Love when a good team plays a good schedule. Buzz Williams has a delicious mix, traipsing across leagues (Big Ten, Pac-12 and Mountain West) and mixing in a decent tourney as well. The only oddity is that the Wooden Legacy title game might merely be a Big East preview, with Creighton and Marquette seemingly headed toward each other.
Toughest: Kentucky (Dec. 1 in Brooklyn)
Next toughest: Boston College (Nov. 8), Paradise Jam (Nov. 22-25 in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands), UMass (Dec. 28)
The rest: Brown (Nov. 13), Marist (Nov. 16), Vermont (Nov. 18), Fairfield (Nov. 29), at Rhode Island (Dec. 5), Yale (Dec. 17), Maine (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale (1 to 10): 4 -- Yes, Kentucky is on the schedule, which is big, but one game does not a schedule make. The Paradise Jam is a bunch of meh, with Maryland and La Salle the only intriguing opponents available. The rest of the Friars’ schedule is just a trip through New England.
Toughest: Coaches vs. Cancer (Nov. 22-23 in New York)
Next toughest: at Rutgers (Dec. 8)
The rest: Niagara (Nov. 9), Kent State (Nov. 13), at Mercer (Nov. 16), Monmouth (Nov. 18), Fairleigh Dickinson (Dec. 1), LIU Brooklyn (Dec. 5), NJIT (Dec. 10), St. Peter’s (Dec. 14), Eastern Washington (Dec. 22), Lafayette (Dec. 27)
Toughness scale (1 to 10): 2 -- If the Pirates beat Oklahoma in the Coaches vs. Cancer, they might face Michigan State. Or they might not. And that’s about all there is to like about this schedule.
Toughest: Wisconsin (Nov. 8 in Sioux Falls, S.D.), Syracuse (Dec. 15)
Next toughest: Bucknell (Nov. 19), Barclays Center Classic (Nov. 29-30 in Brooklyn)
The rest: Wagner (Nov. 15), Monmouth (Nov. 22), Longwood (Nov. 26), Fordham (Dec. 7), San Francisco (Dec. 18), Youngstown State (Dec. 21), Columbia (Dec. 28), Dartmouth (Jan. 18)
Toughness scale (1 to 10): 6 -- The Red Storm’s top two games are pretty good, and bonus points for playing the Badgers in Sioux Falls. After Penn State in Brooklyn, they face a decent test from either Ole Miss or Georgia Tech. The rest isn’t much to look at.
Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30 in the Bahamas), at Syracuse (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: at Saint Joseph’s (Dec. 7), La Salle (Dec. 15), at Temple (Feb. 1)
The rest: Lafayette (Nov. 8), Mount St. Mary’s (Nov. 13), Towson (Nov. 17), Delaware (Nov. 22), Penn (Dec. 4), Rider (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- To understand this ranking, you have to understand the Big Five. Even when the Philly schools are down, the games are brutal, and with La Salle, Penn and St. Joe’s on the uptick, the city series is a beast. Now mix in a Battle 4 Atlantis that opens with USC and then likely Kansas (with Tennessee, Iowa or Xavier as likely third opponents) plus a visit to the Carrier Dome and you have a solid slate for Jay Wright’s crew.
Toughest: Tennessee (Nov. 12), Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30 in the Bahamas), Cincinnati (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: Alabama (Dec. 21)
The rest: Gardner-Webb (Nov. 8), Morehead State (Nov. 18), Miami (Ohio) (Nov. 20), Abilene Christian (Nov. 25), Bowling Green (Dec. 7), Evansville (Dec. 10), Wake Forest (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Like Villanova, the Musketeers get a nice boost from playing in Atlantis, taking on a good Iowa team in the opening round. An on-the-rise Tennessee offers bonus points (and they could face the Vols for a second time in the Bahamas), as does the annual Crosstown Classic with the Bearcats.
Those topics have been discussed ad nauseam the past four months. Plenty of other things, however, have occurred during the offseason that could have a huge impact on the 2013-14 campaign. Here are 10 storylines that aren’t receiving nearly enough attention as the season inches closer.
1. Key eligibility issues: Three of the nation’s top programs are waiting on the NCAA to rule on the eligibility status of players who could change the course of their respective seasons. The most high-profile case involves Florida forward Chris Walker, an incoming freshman whose academic standing is in question. Walker, the country’s No. 12 recruit according to ESPN.com, is not listed on the Gators’ roster. The Gainesville Sun reported Monday that Walker may have to wait until December to take the court, if it happens at all. At Memphis, the Tigers’ backcourt will be one of the best in the country if Michael Dixon is deemed eligible. Dixon was forced to leave Missouri’s program in November following allegations of sexual misconduct. Dixon, however, was never arrested or even questioned by police. He is arguably one of the top 10 players at his position and would likely provide the leadership the Tigers have been lacking. At Oregon, coach Dana Altman is crossing his fingers that Houston transfer Joseph Young will be able to play immediately. Young, a wing, averaged 18 points per game last season. He could form one of the nation’s top perimeter trios along with Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis.
3. Tarik Black transfers to Kansas: The addition of No. 1 overall recruit Andrew Wiggins has dominated the headlines in Lawrence, and rightfully so. But Black, a senior who played his first three seasons at Memphis, could play a crucial role for the Jayhawks, too. Black, who started off and on for three seasons with the Tigers, brings some much-needed experience and leadership to a KU squad that could count as many as eight freshmen and sophomores among its top 10 players. And at 6-foot-9, 262 pounds, Black gives the Jayhawks the rugged, physical presence in the paint they may have otherwise been lacking. Don’t be surprised if Black ends up starting for a squad vying for its 10th straight Big 12 title.
4. Steve Alford under the microscope at UCLA: For some reason the decision to replace Ben Howland with Alford didn’t go over all that well, both nationally and in Westwood. I’m not sure I understand why. All Alford did at New Mexico the past five seasons was average 26.2 victories and win four MWC titles. Yes, he has struggled in the NCAA tournament, but his day will come. I’ve never been a fan of judging a coach based on one game or one loss. Either way, there are plenty of people rooting for Alford to fail. He’ll receive an immense amount of scrutiny this season and it will be interesting to see how he responds. UCLA returns a good amount of talent with players such as Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson, David Wear and Travis Wear. Anything less than a top-three finish in the Pac-12 will be a disappointment.
5. New leagues look strong: The new Big East may no longer have schools such as Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Louisville. But its inaugural season should be entertaining. Marquette, Creighton, Georgetown and St. John’s should provide an exciting race for the conference title. The American Athletic Conference also will be worth watching, as Memphis, Connecticut and Louisville are all top-15-caliber teams. And don’t sleep on Cincinnati, Houston or SMU, which has added some nice pieces under second-year coach Larry Brown.
6. Butler loses Roosevelt Jones: A junior, Jones suffered torn ligaments in his wrist during the Bulldogs’ August trip to Australia and will miss the entire 2013-14 season. Losing Jones is a huge setback for a team that also will have to adjust to the departure of Stevens to the Boston Celtics. Jones, a versatile 6-4 wing, averaged 10.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists last season. The job of new coach Brandon Miller is suddenly a lot tougher as he prepares to guide Butler into the Big East.
8. Will the Mountain West regress?: Five league schools -- Colorado State, San Diego State, Boise State, UNLV and New Mexico -- earned NCAA tournament berths last spring. But only two of those schools (SDSU and CSU) won their opening game. This season may be more of a struggle. New Mexico will be good again despite the loss of coach Steve Alford and small forward Tony Snell. And Boise State returns most of its key pieces. But Colorado State (Colton Iverson), San Diego State (Jamaal Franklin) and UNLV (Anthony Bennett) lost their top players -- and some other good ones, too -- and should take a step back.
9. St. John’s as a sleeper: I’m a little surprised more people aren’t talking about the Red Storm as a contender for the Big East title along with Marquette, Creighton and Georgetown. When it comes to pure talent, Steve Lavin’s squad should be the top team in the league. St. John’s returns three double-digit scorers in D’Angelo Harrison (17.8 PPG), JaKarr Sampson (14.9) and Phil Greene (10.1). Forward God'sgift Achiuwa is back after redshirting last season. He averaged 9.4 points in 2011-12. Center Chris Obekpa also returns after averaging a national-best 3.9 blocks. And the Storm add two players -- point guard Rysheed Jordan and forward Orlando Sanchez -- who should have an immediate impact. Jordan was ranked as the third-best point guard in the Class of 2013. The 6-9 Sanchez, who will be eligible for only one season, is regarded as a future pro. If Lavin finds a way to meld all of this talent, St. John’s could be a Top-25 mainstay by midseason.
10. Josh Gasser is back at Wisconsin: The point guard missed all of the 2012-13 season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The Badgers still won 23 games and made the NCAA tournament without him, but his return to the lineup could spark the squad to even greater success this year. Gasser, who has been cleared to play in an exhibition tour of Canada that begins this week, will likely become more of a combo guard thanks to the emergence of Traevon Jackson. He could even end up playing some at forward because of Wisconsin’s lack of depth in the paint. The 6-3 Gasser averaged 7.6 points and 4.2 rebounds two seasons ago.
2. Injuries can and do occur on these trips. USC's season was altered two years ago when Jio Fontan suffered a season-ending ACL injury on a trip to Brazil. Roosevelt Jones tore his wrist ligaments on Butler's trip to Australia last week. Butler at least has plenty of time to adjust to the absence of Jones. The Bulldogs are going through a transition period with its move to the new Big East and a new regime led by Brandon Miller. It's not a one-year deal like the A-10. This is its new home, and Butler has time to become a player in the league. Expect the new Big East to have teams take their turn atop the conference -- maybe more so -- than any other league. No one should be shocked if each season a different team is tabbed as a favorite. The balance should be strong from 1-8 to start and eventually to 10 if DePaul and Seton Hall can carry its own.
3. The NCAA still hasn't reviewed the case for whether or not Oregon's Joseph Young, a transfer from Houston, should be granted immediate eligibility. This is yet another example of how overloaded the home office is when it comes to waivers. There should be divisions that just deal with certain sports. But winter sports get backed up behind the fall sports. So, a team that is expecting a huge addition from a new player may not know for a while, while a volleyball or soccer player is getting his or her eligibility reviewed. Oregon has options with Damyean Dotson playing the wing instead of Young. But if Young is eligible, the Ducks can play both together and have one of the top producing backcourts in the West.
The 2011 Final Four sealed the deal: Pregame media days, shootarounds, practices -- there was always a swarm of fans and media members crowding around Blue II, taking cell phone photos and posing with him in the frame. Needless to say, he took it all in in high style:
Since then, "Blue II" -- which is to say, his caretakers -- have fostered an online persona second to none in college sports. Forget mascots: Most coaches don't get Twitter like Blue II gets Twitter. You almost feel like you know the little guy.
Which is why it's so sad to hear that Blue II -- as "he" wrote in his blog Thursday -- is seriously ill. The first issue was Cushing's Disease, which causes a tumor on the pituitary gland to send misplaced signals to the body, causing skin lesions. After receiving treatment, doctors discovered an unreleated and even more serious illness: heart failure.
I’ve lived a transparent life, both on social media and out and about in the public eye for nine years. I figure there’s no reason to stop that now. So it’s with a heavy, slightly compromised, but still ticking heart that I tell you that I’ve been diagnosed with dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM), affecting both the left and right side of my heart.
To put it bluntly, I have heart failure (no connection to the Cushing’s Disease). It’s maybe a bit ironic for a dog that’s been all-heart over the last nine years to develop heart disease, but then again, it’s probably no coincidence that my heart has been maxed out.
As our coaches often say to the Butler student-athletes, “Leave it all on the field!” I certainly left it all on the field and frankly, I wouldn’t change a thing. In fact, I’m not certain there’s ever been a dog to live a life as charmed as mine.
Sad stuff. Fortunately, despite a "grim" prognosis, Blue II still has some time left to "be on Twitter/social media, around to give my kid brother, Trip, a hard time, eating all of the ice cream that is allowed, and of course, going for rides in my most prized possession, that Burley Trailers Tail Wagon." Oh, and this:
Relaxing Friday at home w/ Mom & Master Everett. Thx to all for your kind words. Feeling loved. http://t.co/wzeLP8ylob
— Butler Blue II (@ButlerBlue2) August 2, 2013
Enjoy it, Blue II. Good dog.
Top 10 teams that will tumble in 2013-14:
10. Gonzaga: For the first time in school history, the Zags recorded a No. 1 ranking and a top seed in the Big Dance. Their early tournament exit ended their season on a sour note, but the program reached new heights in 2012-13. Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk comprised one of the toughest frontcourts in America. Harris (14.6 PPG, 7.4 RPG) was a rugged forward who had finesse and power. Olynyk (17.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG) was the best combo forward in America. He had an underrated post game too. The duo created matchup problems for every team they faced last season. And now both players are gone. Kevin Pangos and multiple members of a respectable backcourt are back, but that Olynyk-Harris combo was special. There’s still enough talent in Spokane to win the WCC and reach the NCAA tournament, but the Zags won’t be the national title contenders they appeared to be through the 2012-13 campaign.
9. Cincinnati: Coach Mick Cronin had one of the nation’s top backcourts last season. Now, two members of a trio that anchored his 22-win NCAA tournament team -- JaQuon Parker and Cashmere Wright -- are gone. Sean Kilpatrick, the team’s leading scorer, returns. But a Cincinnati squad that struggled with consistent scoring benefited from Parker’s and Wright’s ability to stretch the floor. Both shot better than 36 percent from behind the 3-point line. Kilpatrick could be a one-man show in 2013-14, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The toughest void for the Bearcats (14th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) could be the defensive deficit created by the departure of Cheikh Mbodj (2.6 BPG). There are holes everywhere for this Bearcats squad.
8. Detroit: Ray McCallum Jr. turned down offers from powerhouse programs to play for his father, Ray McCallum Sr. With McCallum at point guard, Detroit reached the NCAA tournament in 2012 after the Titans won the Horizon League tournament. But he’s gone now. And he’s not the only key player that Detroit will miss. The Titans have lost their top four scorers from last season. Somehow, Detroit must find respectable offensive contributors who can make up for the loss of McCallum (18.7 PPG), Nick Minnerath (14.6 PPG), Jason Calliste (14.4 PPG) and Doug Anderson (12.1 PPG). McCallum could face his toughest season as a head coach in 2013-14.
7. San Diego State: It’s fair to say that San Diego State underachieved last season. The Aztecs finished in a tie for fourth in the stacked Mountain West Conference. Then they were stopped in the third round of the Big Dance by Florida Gulf Coast. Not a shameful showing, but their potential suggested that they had a higher ceiling. Well, that ceiling is lower now with the loss of four of the team’s top six scorers from last season. Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley were two of the Aztecs’ top defenders too. Franklin wasn’t the game’s most efficient player (3.4 TPG, 28 percent from the 3-point line), but he was the guy with the ball in his hands when the Aztecs needed a big play. Whom will they turn to next year? Steve Fisher seems to have more questions than answers right now.
6. Butler: Rotnei Clarke (16.9 PPG) and Andrew Smith (11.3 PPG) have moved on. That’s a challenge for the program because they formed a potent inside-outside combo. But Roosevelt Jones, Khyle Marshall and Kellen Dunham remain. So Butler can find buckets in 2013-14. The Bulldogs are on this list, however, because Brad Stevens will not be on the sideline next season. Brandon Miller has a strong pedigree. I don’t doubt his coaching acumen. But Stevens is making millions in the NBA because he has the rare ability to extract every ounce of talent from his players. At Butler, they were devoted to him and his system. That combination of buy-in and strategy led to amazing highs in recent years. Even though Miller is in the Butler family, this is still a transition. And it’s a transition without the mastermind who made Butler a household name. The Bulldogs may fall before they establish their footing under Miller.
5. Georgetown: First, Otto Porter turned pro. Then Greg Whittington tore an ACL, jeopardizing his status for next season. Yes, three starters from last season's squad return, and former UCLA standout Josh Smith will join the team at midseason. And that helps. Markel Starks' presence is a major boost for the program too. But who will create offensive opportunities for a team that registered just 64.6 PPG (247th nationally) with a lottery pick running the show? That number doesn’t tell the full story of Georgetown basketball in 2012-13. The Hoyas were fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. But Porter’s versatility eased the defensive responsibilities of his teammates. With a healthy Whittington, however, the latter will be a minimal concern for John Thompson III’s program. But there’s no guarantee that Whittington will be ready in time to help Georgetown in 2013-14. And that’s a problem.
4. Indiana: Yogi Ferrell is back. That’s the good news for Tom Crean. The bad news? Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo are in the NBA. Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls are gone too. Although Indiana entered last season as a preseason pick by many to win the national title, similar hype will not follow the Hoosiers into the 2013-14 season. They have three top-100 kids, including five-star recruit Noah Vonleh, in their incoming class. And multiple players who contributed in spurts last season will earn more minutes. So there’s enough talent in Bloomington to register another NCAA tournament bid. But the Hoosiers were the No. 1 team in America in multiple stretches last season. I can’t imagine the young program rivaling that effort next season.
3. Temple: Remember when Khalif Wyatt dropped 31 points in Temple’s win over NC State in the NCAA tournament? Remember when he did it again versus Indiana two days later? Wyatt’s offensive explosiveness helped Temple beat teams that were more talented than the Owls last season. He scored 33 points in his team’s win over Syracuse in December. He recorded 30 points when the Owls defeated VCU in early March. Now, Wyatt and sidekick Scootie Randall have left the stage. That’s a combined average of 31.8 PPG, 2.7 SPG and 6.1 APG.
2. Minnesota: Can a team that went 8-10 in the Big Ten tumble? Yep, especially if that team is implementing a new system with a limited talent pool. Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins could be all-Big Ten performers next season, but the void created when Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams exhausted their eligibility will be a challenge for new coach Richard Pitino. Plus, Joe Coleman transferred from a team that reached the Big Dance and beat UCLA in the second round. Pitino’s fast-paced, pressure system could work in the Big Ten, but he needs the right pieces to make that happen. He just doesn’t appear to have them yet.
1. Miami: Last season, Miami had it all. The hoopla that followed the surging Hurricanes included courtside appearances by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. It was a great ride for the program. But a new reality will soon take hold as Miami coach Jim Larranaga attempts to replace Shane Larkin, Julian Gamble, Kenny Kadji, Reggie Johnson, Trey McKinney Jones and Durand Scott. Those veterans were responsible for one of the ACC’s and the nation’s top defensive attacks (28th in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com). His rebuilding effort will commence in a league that will add Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame next season. Hard times ahead for the Hurricanes.
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.
The IU-UK series, a hated border rivalry waged for much of the past century on both campuses and neutral courts, was dying. Indiana wanted to play on campus; Kentucky wanted to play on neutral floors. In his blog post, Calipari indirectly explained why: "When we schedule, I want to create experiences," he wrote. "Not just games."
Coach Cal went on to describe the various steps his Wildcats would take to do just that: This season's men's/women's Cowboys Stadium doubleheader vs. Baylor; negotiations for a traveling annual series against Duke; a preference for the higher-profile North Carolina series over the obvious border rivalry. Convincing and well-argued though it was, plenty of folks bristled at the strategy. For fans, at least, when the choice is between awesome, organic home environments and sterilized NFL-owned football stadiums, well, is there really a choice at all? Can we at least nod at the former before subsuming it into the latter? Like it or not, Calipari, per the usual, seemed to be on the vanguard of a new, ever more brand-obsessed reality. "Events" were paramount, and if another program -- even a program like Indiana -- didn't want to get on board, well, too bad. Kentucky, like Duke, could schedule who it wanted, when it wanted.
All of which is a preamble to this: On Monday, Purdue's athletics website announced that the Crossroads Classic -- an annual nonconference meeting of Indiana, Butler, Purdue and Notre Dame in Indianapolis -- would continue (at least) through 2016:
The highly successful Crossroads Classic will continue through 2016, the athletics directors at the four participating schools announced today. One of college basketball's premier non-conference events will continue to be played at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The additional dates and matchups are Dec. 19, 2015 (Purdue vs. Butler and Notre Dame vs. Indiana) and Dec. 17, 2016 (Purdue vs. Notre Dame and Butler vs. Indiana). Purdue will serve as the host school in 2015, with Indiana doing so in 2016.
Usually, a reporter's first reaction to a press release that leads with "The highly successful ..." is an unmitigated eye roll. In this case, that would be incorrect.
By any measure, the Crossroads Classic -- announced in 2010 by the athletic directors of the four participating schools, and first renewed in May 2012 -- has indeed been highly successful. Almost 19,000 fans comprising all four schools have packed Bankers Life Fieldhouse in each of the first two events. Administrators and program staffers have publicly and privately raved about the ease of behind-the-scenes negotiations and logistics. Unlike most nonconference events, no third party organization is in charge of hosting the event; the four schools teamed up to handle the logistics -- and rake their respectively tidy paydays -- themselves. (Coincidentally, tournament coordination by these four natural rivals was eased by casual circumstance: Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke and Indiana AD Fred Glass both grew up in the same Northwest Indianapolis neighborhood, and both attended Brebeuf Jesuit prep school, and Glass and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick once worked together as attorneys at Indy law firm Baker & Daniels.) Oh, and the basketball was good, too -- particularly in the 2012 edition, when Butler walk-on Alex Barlow sank then-No. 1 Indiana in overtime.
More than anything, though, the Crossroads Classic is a promising way forward. Make no mistake about it: It is a capital-E Event. But unlike many such events, it has genuine roots beyond your cable box (the old Hoosier Classic ran from 1948 to 1951 and 1957 to 1960) and is waged in a genuine basketball arena, not a cavernous football edifice. It draws on what defines the state's relationship with basketball -- communal obsession, the sporting event as a public gathering, hoops memories as cultural shorthand -- and updates it with a modern sheen. When Indiana fans show up on the Jumbotron, everyone else boos. It is the perfect blend of the modern form with the generational investment that makes college basketball so great in the first place.
There's nothing wrong with events in and of themselves, obviously. (I bet that Kentucky-Baylor game is going to be really fun.) But if events are where the sport's elite are indeed going, let's hope the Crossroads Classic truly is a replicable model for the future -- something that provides brand equity, sure, but also something with stakes beyond "gee, that stadium sure is big!"
Losing rivalries and classic home gyms in November and December isn't preferable, but if the brave new "Classic" future is inevitable, perhaps our best hope is that it winds up more Crossroads than Carrier.
Tournament bracket for the Old Spice Classic
When and where: Nov. 28-Dec. 1 at the HP Field House at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, Orlando, Fla.
Initial thoughts: The Old Spice Classic field has rarely, if ever, approached the density or strength of the Maui Invitational (historically) or the Battle 4 Atlantis (more recently). It typically, though, has plenty by which to recommend it, and in 2013 more than most. Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart will lead a Cowboys team determined to unseat Kansas at the top of the Big 12 into the Wide World of Sports Complex as the undeniable favorite, but Memphis won't be that far away.
Meanwhile, we'll get a very early look at whether new Butler coach Brandon Miller will be able to field a tournament-ready team just a few months after Brad Stevens' departure to the NBA's Boston Celtics. We'll see if Purdue can bounce back from an ugly (but in many ways promising) 2012-13 season. Will Saint Joseph's' band of returning seniors be ready to make the leap everyone anticipated and gave up on a season ago? LSU has an intriguing rebuilding group that might push the top half of the SEC. We'll also see if Washington State, after losing seniors Brock Motum and Mike Ladd, is going to be so bad as to put coach Ken Bone on the proverbial hot seat. There are a variety of things worth watching in this bracket, and that includes the hoop.
The Hawks were everyone's vogue pick to win the Atlantic 10 last season, based primarily on the assumption that 2011-12's cadre of sophomores -- the Hawks returned all five starters -- would improve and coalesce as juniors. Instead, the Hawks became merely the latest example of why the muddy mix of "returning players" and "experience" and "chemistry" doesn't always translate into improvement. But Phil Martelli still has a good chunk of those players back for another go at this, and if he can coax better defense from everyone, then Saint Joseph's might transform its narrative yet again.
Meanwhile, LSU probably wasn't as bad as you think in 2012-13. The Tigers weren't great, of course, but they finished in the top 100, and they bring in a surprisingly talented recruiting class. Johnny Jones got "yes" answers from three ESPN 100 players, including No. 3-ranked power forward Jarrell Martin -- the program's best recruit since Glen Davis.
Potential matchup I’d like to see: Oklahoma State versus Memphis. When it comes to early-season tournaments, there is very little reason to root for anything but the best basketball. Every now and then there's a backstory baked into the proceedings, like an old rivalry given a random renewal in November. But, for the most part, our desires can be expressed in the simplest of terms: good basketball. That's the case here. This early before the start of the season, Memphis appears to be the second-best team in this bracket, and its backcourt (Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford, both excellent offensive players) should be a fascinating matchup for Smart and running mate Markel Brown. Recently, Memphis has often stumbled out of the gate before otherwise-solid seasons, which has cost the Tigers valuable lines on their NCAA tournament seed in March. Reversing that trend isn't as important in their first season in the American Athletic Conference, but quality nonconference wins are still utterly crucial, and it's going to be hard to find better chances than this.
Five players to watch:
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: NBA scouts really like Smart's game, but they're in love with the intangibles -- his work ethic, his drive and his desire to succeed. Those qualities have earned raves from coaches as long as Smart has played basketball, and they helped transformed Oklahoma State from the defensively soft 2011-12 group into one of the nation's best defenses last season. Smart turned down a shot at being a top-five pick to return to Stillwater. If he has developed the skills to go from "really good" to "frighteningly dominant" -- slightly better ballhandling and much better shooting -- they'll be on display at the Old Spice Classic.
Shaq Goodwin, Memphis: Goodwin's freshman season wasn't quite as good as his recruiting hype foretold, but there were tantalizing bits littered throughout. Now with Memorial Never-Got-There Club member Tarik Black having transferred and Adonis Thomas having left for the NBA draft, the keys to the Memphis frontcourt are decidedly in Goodwin's hands.
A.J. Hammons, Purdue: The Boilermakers weren't the easiest team in the country to watch last season. When they were good, it was usually because they were guarding, not because they were setting the scoreboard alight. But Matt Painter has one thing most coaches don't: a legitimate 7-foot NBA prospect. Hammons is that guy, and it's not just because he's big. He's also athletic for his size, with good ball skills and footwork. If he returns from the summer with a bit less big-man baby fat and a bit more low-post polish, well, look out.
Jarrell Martin, LSU: As mentioned above, Martin is the No. 3-ranked power forward prospect in the class of 2013. What wasn't mentioned is he is also the No. 11 overall talent. In many incoming classes, this would be worth noting, but little more. With the 2013 class regarded as the deepest and most talented in a decade, if not longer, it is something more. In fact, Martin is the highest-ranked 2013 prospect to not choose Kentucky, Duke, Arizona or Kansas. His situation at LSU will be different and arguably more interesting for it. Can the long-dormant Tigers rise again?
Kellen Dunham, Butler: Former coach Brad Stevens earned the reputation for not needing talent -- that he almost had to find unsung players and mold them for his system to work. That's probably true in general, but there were already signs before his departure to the Celtics that Butler's recruiting had gone up a notch or two since the back-to-back title-game runs in 2010 and 2011. For one, Indiana forward Cody Zeller listed the Bulldogs as among his final three recruiting options (North Carolina being the third). For another, he landed Dunham. Sure, Dunham wasn't Zeller, but he was an ESPN Top 100 player, and he was solid and efficient in big minutes as a freshman. Dunham will have to be even more efficient in even bigger minutes as a sophomore, particularly from 3-point range from which he ended up shooting just 34.5 percent, but he's capable.
Title-game prediction: Oklahoma State over Memphis.
As I wrote above, you just root for good basketball in these things, and Memphis' backcourt (especially if Michael Dixon is able to play) by far looks like the most interesting challenge to Smart and Co. in the Old Spice. But I don't think it would be much of a challenge. Jackson can really put the ball on the floor, and Crawford is a lights-out shooter (even off the dribble), but Smart and Brown look like they're going to lock down pretty much everyone in the sport this season. The Tigers included. Cowboys win.
Who others are picking:
Andy Katz: Oklahoma State over Memphis
Jeff Goodman: Memphis over Purdue
Seth Greenberg: Oklahoma State over LSU
Jason King: Oklahoma State over Memphis
Myron Medcalf: Oklahoma State over Memphis
Dana O'Neil: Oklahoma State over Memphis
It strikes me, as we head into the home stretch of our Realignment Reality week, that college basketball fans could relate. (Stay with me.)
We fans like to think of sports as essentially pure, free from the messy and confusing nature of day-to-day life, a world apart from the distressing politics and economics that dominate our lives from birth until death. They are not. They are as beholden to money as anything else. If the past three years of conference realignment have taught us anything, it is this: When the fight card pits nostalgia versus cash, cash always wins in a knockout.
Once you can wrap your head around this fact, it's a lot easier to shrug at the casual manner in which realignment has gutted some of the most enjoyable, most heated, most psychologically-invested rivalries of the past 50 years. Money always wins.
Beyond spending as much time as possible watching the actual basketball itself -- my favorite remedy for just about everything, with the possible exception of "The Big Lebowski" -- the best we can do, I'd wager, is to try to look on the bright side. There are always new rivalries to be formed.
In that spirit, let's see if we can scout out a few worth watching in the years to come:
Duke vs. Syracuse
This one is awesome enough on its face: Duke and Syracuse are both really good at basketball. Now that they're in the same league, they're guaranteed to play at least once a season, and any combination of familiarity and excellence is a guarantee to produce healthy, thrilling distaste.
There's much more to it than that. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is the winningest coach in the history of college hoops. Syracuse's Jim Boeheim ranks No. 2. The men are friends, frequent USA Basketball colleagues, cheap dinner companions, and fellow enthusiasts of acerbic wit. But they are also obsessive competitors, and you can bet that for however long both of them have the chance to coach against each other in the coming years -- Boeheim is 68, Coach K 66 -- there will be a little something extra on the line.
The men might be similar, but the schools are vastly different. Syracuse is a private research institution that nonetheless feels like a state school,* and plays its hoops in a cavernous football arena; Duke is an elite private institution with the world's best boutique gym. Syracuse feels (from afar, at least) tightly woven into the culture of the community around it; Duke's looming Gothic facades might as well be Hogwarts. About 40 percent of Syracuse's 2010 class hailed from New York state; roughly 90 percent of Duke students come from somewhere that isn't North Carolina. These are the kinds of sociocultural and perceptual differences that breed hatred beyond basketball. They are fuel for the rivalry flame.
There is also the matter of regional rivalry. That seems weird to say, given that one school is 45 minutes from the Canadian border and the other is 350 miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But there is a reason Duke is sure to schedule at least one nonconference game in the New York/New Jersey area every season: There are a lot of Blue Devils alumni in the Northeast. In the past five years, Syracuse has made a concerted effort to market itself as "New York's college team."
If it were just as simple as "two really good programs suddenly in the same conference," then we could just as easily look forward to the North Carolina-Syracuse rivalry. But a great rivalry has to be about much more than that. Duke-Syracuse has all the makings.
Memphis vs. Cincinnati
Another benefit to conference realignment: rivalries reborn! The Millennials among us might not remember it too well (OK, guilty as charged), but in 1991-92 Memphis and Cincinnati joined UAB, DePaul, Marquette and Saint Louis as charter members of the Great Midwest Conference. (That's just a a fantastic name, by the way. I've been giving the new American Athletic Conference a tough time lately, but the more I think about it, the more I've come to believe that pretty much any conference nomenclature sounds completely silly if you think about it for longer than five seconds.) The six-member GMC was short-lived; it merged with the Metro Conference in 1995, which both Memphis and Cincinnati had left in the first place, to form Conference USA. Ah, realignment. Never change.
Anyway, it was in the early '90s, in the GMC, when Memphis and Cincinnati managed to pack in some truly rivalry-worthy stuff. In 1991-92 the Tigers, led by Anfernee Hardaway and David Vaughn, met the Bearcats in the inaugural GMC tournament and again during their thrilling Elite Eight run, losing to a sublime Nick Van Exel both times. Hardaway and Van Exel met again in 1993, when Memphis upset the No. 4-ranked Bearcats 68-66 to notch the program's 1,000th win. The fact that there is no video of this game on the Internet is a shocking crime against humanity. In 1995, Memphis clinched the final GMC regular-season title over the Bearcats (thanks to 33 points from Michael Williams) on the road, and the rivalry continued on into Conference USA.
If you think either of those basketball-obsessed cities forgot about any of that, you'd be wrong. That bodes well for the future, by the way: Memphis and Cincinnati are large metropolitan areas that, despite having professional sports franchises, nonetheless eat, breathe and sleep college hoops.
Memphis vs. Louisville
OK, so this doesn't really count: The return of the Memphis-Louisville rivalry -- exponentially more heated than Memphis-Cincinnati -- will last just one year in the American before Louisville sets off for the ACC. But I had to mention it anyway, because before we all wept for Kansas-Missouri and Syracuse-Georgetown, the Cardinals' departure from C-USA last decade put a hold on a blood feud dating back to 1967. Fortunately, these two teams put each other on their nonconference schedules the last couple of seasons, and it's likely we'll see that again going forward. But still, it will be fun to add a little intraconference hatred to the mix.
UCF vs. South Florida
Neither of these programs are likely to excite basketball fans individually. Historically, neither has been very good, or even all that concerned with trying to be good, at this funky roundball thing. Maybe that's just a fact of life. But the new American Conference configuration should keep them both in the same digs for a while to come. Here's hoping that the rise of collegiate basketball in Florida in the past decade, the inherent regional familiarity and state-school ties, and the massive student bodies (nearly 110,000 enrollees between them) make for an increased focus on the basketball side of things -- and, as a result, increased success.
Butler vs. Xavier
This one isn't totally new -- the Bulldogs did enjoy a one-year stopover in the Atlantic 10 before both teams jumped to the new Big East this summer -- but it has the potential to be awfully good. For one, there is a bit of shared coaching history: Ohio State coach Thad Matta left Butler in 2000 to move to Xavier, and his eventual successors (new Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, Arizona coach Sean Miller) moved on to become immensely successful in their own right. They really are natural enemies. Alongside Gonzaga and Memphis, Butler and Xavier are the marquee non-Power Six programs of the past decade, and they're poised just a couple of hours apart on I-74. Now both affiliated with something that looks like a power conference if you squint hard enough, they will no doubt be prospecting in many of the same talent-rich areas of Indiana. This could be a thing.
Pittsburgh vs. Virginia
Pittsburgh and West Virginia don't exactly get along. Never have. Why not extend that to West Virginia's eastern cousin? Sure, the geographic intensity might not be as immediate -- Morgantown sits just south of the Pennsylvania border, while Charlottesville is a five-hour drive -- but with Pittsburgh such a consistent hoops force, and UVa on the rise under Tony Bennett, who's to say what the relationship might become? At the very least, the slow-paced Cavaliers look best poised to prevent Pitt from totally grinding an otherwise finesse-first ACC on the glass in seasons to come.
Oakland vs. Detroit
Oakland's move from the Summit League to the Horizon is a step up in general, but it also lays the groundwork for a sneaky-fun city-suburbs dispute in the greater Detroit area.
Pacific vs. Saint Mary's and/or Gonzaga
Think it's going to be tough for Butler to move to the Big East without Brad Stevens? Imagine being Pacific, which just waved farewell to the greatest coach in its history (and one of the sport's most annually underrated), 25-year veteran Bob Thomason, on the eve of a move from the Big West to the West Coast Conference. The good news? If Pacific can rise a notch or two to the level of its best WCC competition, it will be not only a perfect fit for the WCC, but also an excellent candidate to form rivalries with Saint Mary's to its west and Gonzaga to its north.
It might be a stretch, but that's the case with a few of the entries on this list. But hey, if conference realignment can toss rivalries aside so easily, who's to say new ones can't grow just as rapidly in their wake? Let's hope so, anyway.
[*Correction: An earlier version of this post described Syracuse as a state school, not a private institution. My mistake. -- EB]
2. The 2013-14 season will be crucial for the Atlantic 10's efforts to continue the momentum it built last season with La Salle's run to the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16 from the First Four. The top three teams return in Virginia Commonwealth, Saint Louis and La Salle, though the league loses Xavier and Butler. The A-10 will need that top three to stay on top, with a deeper second tier in Richmond, Saint Joseph's and Massachusetts. George Mason is the wild card in its first year in the league (Davidson joins in 2014-15). Dayton, Rhode Island, St. Bonaventure are all more than capable of cracking the aforementioned crew. The A-10 gets overshadowed by the Big East and might at times by the American. That's why this is an important year for the A-10 to re-establish its foothold in the East.
3. USC made it official with the transfer of UNLV's Katin Reinhardt. As with Darion Clark, transferring from Charlotte, Reinhardt will have to sit out next season. The Trojans, meanwhile, are trying to get Maryland transfer Pe'Shon Howard eligible immediately. Don't be surprised to see this kind of roster-building under Andy Enfield. He'll have to balance transfers, those who can play immediately and players he can stash for a year in his effort to create balanced classes. Oregon has made this an art in the Pac-12. Arizona State has gotten into the mix in attempting to climb up faster. Enfield is well-versed in compiling a roster in a variety of ways. To ensure USC is a viable player over the next two seasons, the Trojans will have to take some gambles.
2. Smart also discussed Brad Stevens' stunning move from Butler to the Boston Celtics. Smart, like Stevens and Gonzaga's Mark Few, have been the immovable coaches recently, not fazed by any wooing of perceived higher-level schools. All have felt comfortable in their current situations, enjoy their lives and superiors. The three have discussed their futures at different times and Few has been the one who has advised more coaches in this situation than others based on his experience. Smart was in Prague when he heard Stevens was leaving. "Brad had mentioned his interest in the NBA before,'' Smart said on the podcast. "I'm not shocked there was interest. The Boston Celtics are quite possibly the best franchise, maybe second to the Yankees, in sports. It's terrific for Brad. There were some people who said it was bad for college basketball. I just think it's an unbelievable opportunity for Brad. It's a new opportunity for Brandon Miller (at Butler) and he'll continue the tradition.''
3. A year ago, the U-19 coaching staff couldn't stop raving about Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart and his ability to win. The intangibles Smart possesses were praised during the gold medal win in Brazil for the U-18 team. Smart was not the dominant presence on this team as Gordon and Montrezl Harrell were more of the focus. Shaka Smart said the OSU lead guard had a more complicated situation. He said Smart, no relation, was under the microscope more but he was still able to help the Americans win. "He always has the team in mind,'' VCU's Smart said. "He was OK with less minutes. He had a good tournament, not great. But the game was called much tighter there.'' Smart averaged 9.6 points on the team (20 assists, 13 turnovers and 22 steals), behind Gordon, Harrell and the two high school seniors Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow. Smart is still considered one of the top players next season, possible All-American candidate as well as a likely top five pick if he were to come out in June of 2014.
Just ask every jazz artist who succeeded Miles Davis, John Coltrane or Thelonious Monk. Survey the handful of rappers who tried to fill the gaps left by Biggie Smalls and Tupac in the late 1990s, one of the worst eras for the genre. Or check on every teenager who thought he was the next LeBron James until he realized he wasn’t.
In sports, the challenge is magnified due to the nonstop attention that’s given to the person who is next in line for a prestigious position or role.
And that’s why I’m worried about Brandon Miller, Butler’s new head coach.
The school kept it in the family because this program believes in familiarity. Its past four coaches have been former assistants.
So Miller is not walking onto a foreign platform.
"I am confident that Brandon will carry on the Butler University basketball tradition of excellence, especially as we make the transition to the Big East Athletic Conference,” Butler athletic director Barry Collier said in the school’s Saturday press release that announced the hire. “As a player, assistant coach, and person, Brandon has exemplified the Butler Way and brings a blend of energy, talent and integrity to this role. With Brandon's leadership, Butler is well positioned to expand upon the success of the last few years."
The Butler Way will provide a buffer from some of the pressure Miller will face as he guides the Bulldogs beginning in 2013-14. But it won’t alleviate the full brunt of the pending scrutiny.
He’s coming after a man who led a mid-major program to multiple national title game appearances and unrivaled prominence. Butler is in the new Big East because Brad Stevens carried the team to that league, that stage.
And he didn’t need five-star athletes to get there -- just tough players who bought into his basketball philosophy and a staff that embraced his obsession with advanced stats.
Now the world knows Butler. Stevens did that.
All by the time he was 36. That’s why the Boston Celtics hired him on Wednesday.
Miller is 34. That doesn’t help. Stevens, Shaka Smart, John Groce and other 30-something success stories are anomalies in this game.
Many young coaches struggle. That, however, won’t stop the comparisons.
Miller is young. Stevens was young when he accepted the job too. Stevens was in the Butler family when he was hired. Miller was too.
But Stevens revolutionized a program. His accomplishments can’t be Miller’s mirror.
Sure, the new coach inherits a basketball culture and climate that Stevens (and his forefathers) solidified. But he’s not Stevens.
It might take some time for Miller to put his mark on the Butler program. It might take a few seasons to convince quality kids that they can win in Indianapolis even though Stevens is gone. And it might take Miller a few months, or even years, to convince the masses that he’s the right guy for the job.
Let’s give him that time.
Yes, he has to win. That’s the standard for every coach. He doesn’t deserve a pass if he’s unable to win and help Butler remain relevant in the postseason.
But he ain’t Stevens.
Miller can’t turn water into wine. Stevens -- with the right analytics -- probably could.
At least it always seemed that way.
So don't take the shock and surprise of Stevens' move to the NBA's iconic franchise in Boston as a sign of disrespect.
His peers and colleagues are simply in awe by the timing, not by the move.
"The best young coach I have seen in my time,'' said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. It's high praise for Stevens, who coached in consecutive national title games in 2010 and '11.
For Andy Katz's full story, click here.