College Basketball Nation: Connecticut Huskies

Top stats to know: UConn vs. Kentucky

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
2:30
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The seven-seed Connecticut Huskies and eight-seed Kentucky Wildcats are set to meet in the men’s basketball National Championship Monday. It’s the highest combined seeds ever in a National Championship.

UConn is trying to become the first seven seed to win the National Championship and the only team to be 4-0 in National Championship games. Kentucky is trying to become the second eight seed to win it, matching 1985 Villanova as the lowest seed to win the title.

Here are some of the top statistical storylines heading into Monday night's National Championship.

Performing in the clutch
Kentucky is plus-21 in the NCAA Tournament when the score is within three points in the final three minutes, after being minus-16 in that situation during the regular season.

Kentucky is shooting 60 percent on field goals, including 5-of-6 on 3-pointers, when the score is within three points in the final three minutes in the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats shot 29 percent on field goals in those situations in the regular season.

The Wildcats are holding opponents to 25 percent field goals, including 0-for-8 on 3-pointers, in those situations in the NCAA Tournament.

The Harrisons
Led by Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Kentucky could be the first team to play seven freshmen in a National Championship game.

Kentucky is plus-34 in the NCAA Tournament when the Harrison twins are both on the court together, and minus-16 when at least one of them is on the bench.

Aaron Harrison is shooting 56 percent on 3-pointers in the NCAA Tournament after shooting 31 percent on 3-pointers in the regular season.

The Tweak
Kentucky's offense has improved since John Calipari's "tweak" entering the SEC Tournament. Since then, Kentucky is averaging three more points per 100 possessions, shooting 10 percentage points better on 3-pointers, and playing at a slower pace -- six fewer possessions per game.

The difference is even more drastic in the last four games -- 12 more points per 100 possessions, 12 percentage points better on 3-pointers, seven fewer possessions per game, compared to the first 35 games.

53 percent of Kentucky's points have been in the paint over the last four games, compared to 46 percent in its first 35 games.

Pick-and-roll
UConn is shooting 60 percent on pick-and-roll ball-handler plays in the NCAA Tournament (pick-and-rolls in which the guard makes a play).

UConn is the most efficient team on pick-and-roll ball-handler plays among teams that have played at least three games in the NCAA Tournament.

The Huskies are averaging 11.2 points per game on pick-and-roll plays (18 percent of their half-court offense) in the NCAA Tournament.

Kentucky ranks 55th of 68 teams in points per play allowed on pick-and-roll ball-handler plays in the NCAA Tournament.

Shabazz Napier is shooting 56 percent on pick-and-roll plays in the NCAA Tournament and is creating 13.4 points per game (including passes) on such plays.

A battle down low
Kentucky is scoring 37 points per game in the paint, which makes up 52 percent of the points it has scored, in the NCAA Tournament.

UConn is allowing 24 points per game in the paint, which makes up 36 percent of the points it has allowed in the NCAA Tournament.

The Wildcats rank second in offensive rebound percentage this season, grabbing 42 percent of their missed shots, whereas UConn ranks 206th in offensive rebound percentage (30.5 percent).

The Huskies rank 247th in defensive rebound percentage (67 percent) this season.

Top stats to know: Final Four games

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
3:00
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The Final Four is finally here, and to get you ready we have broken down the key matchups in each of Saturday’s games.

Florida Gators vs Connecticut Huskies
You can expect a low-scoring, low-possession game, as both these teams rank in the top 10 adjusted defensive efficiency and are in the bottom third in adjusted tempo, according to kenpom.com.

Both teams have played well against slower teams, too, with UConn going 10-1 this season against teams that rank outside the top 200 in adjusted tempo and Florida winning 17 of 19 games against those teams.

One key in this game is how UConn will handle Florida’s press defense. Florida utilizes a press defense on 17 percent of its defensive plays, and holds opponents to 38 percent shooting against its press.

The Huskies have been able to score efficiently against the press this season, leading the American Athletic Conference with 46 percent shooting in those situations.

Another important matchup is how Florida will defend All-American Shabazz Napier. Nearly a third of Napier’s plays this season have involved a ball screen, and his 210 points scored as the pick and roll ball handler this season rank fourth in Division I.

Against Michigan State in the Elite 8, Napier either scored or went to the line on all four of his pick and roll plays, totaling nine points including free throws.

Both Scottie Wilbekin and Kasey Hill have struggled to defend the pick and roll. Opponents have made 46 percent of their shots when defended by either Wilbekin or Hill, scoring nearly a point per play as the ball handler on these screens.

Wisconsin Badgers vs Kentucky Wildcats
Much has been written about the mystery “tweak” that John Calipari made just before the SEC tournament. No one knows for sure what that cryptic remark means, but what is real is the fact that Kentucky’s perimeter shooting is much improved.

Since the start of the SEC tournament, the Wildcats have made 41.2 percent of their 3-pointers, nearly 10 percentage points better than their performance during the regular season.

Aaron Harrison has found his range in the NCAAs for Kentucky, making 14 of 27 long-distance shots, after entering the tourney as a 33 percent 3-point shooter.

Wisconsin held opponents to 33 percent on 3-point attempts in its first 30 games but is allowing opponents to shoot 38 percent on 3-pointers in its last seven games.

Perhaps the most important matchup in this game will be the ability of Wisconsin to keep Kentucky off the offensive glass. Kentucky ranks first in the country in offensive rebound percentage, grabbing 42.5 percent of its missed shots.

Wisconsin counters with a defensive rebound percentage that ranks 12th in the country, and is 8-1 this season against teams ranked in the top 50 in offensive rebound percentage.

One other stat to keep in mind: Wisconsin and Kentucky both have faced Florida, Baylor, Michigan and Michigan State this season. Wisconsin is 4-2 against those teams, while Kentucky is 1-5 against those teams.

Katie Sharp contributed to this post

Keys to victory: UConn 60, Michigan St. 54

March, 30, 2014
Mar 30
6:07
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Connecticut is headed back to the Final Four, and once again it will be there in unlikely fashion.

The Huskies are the second No. 7 seed ever to reach the national semifinals. Virginia made it in 1984 and lost to Houston.

What were the keys to the win on Sunday?

Star Watch: Napier reminiscent of Walker
The last two players to lead their team to a Final Four while scoring or assisting on at least 45% of their team’s points in the tournament are Shabazz Napier and Kemba Walker, both from Connecticut.

Napier scored 25 points and was 9 for 9 from the free-throw line. The last player to score that much and shoot that well at the free throw line was Christian Laettner for Duke against Kentucky in the game in which Laettner was perfect from the field and free throw line and hit the buzzer-beating game-winner.

Huskies limit Spartans in the paint
Michigan State scored six points in the paint, 14 fewer than its previous season low and the second fewest for any team in the last five Men’s Basketball Championships (Butler scored two vs Connecticut in 2011).

The Spartans’ eight field-goal attempts in the paint are the fewest for any team in the last five tournaments.

Branden Dawson scored two points in the paint on 1-of-2 shooting. Entering Sunday, he was leading the tournament with 48 points in the paint.

Michigan State’s half-court offense did not have a good day. . In half-court offense, the Spartans had four more turnovers than they had field goals.

Huskies make their free throws
Connecticut was 21 for 22 from the free-throw line, including 7 for 7 in the final five minutes.

For the tournament, the Huskies are 55 for 60 (92 percent) at the free throw line in the final 5 minutes of the second half/overtime.

Connecticut is currently 81-92 (88 percent) from the free throw line in the tournament. The team record for free-throw percentage in a single NCAA tournament (minimum three games) is 87 percent by St. John's in 1969.

Top stats to know: Friday's Sweet 16

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
11:45
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The Sweet 16 continues tonight with four games. Here are some of the statistical storylines we’ll be following.

(11) Tennessee vs (2) Michigan
The Wolverines are trying to reach a second straight Elite 8 (lost in title game last year to Louisville). Tennessee has been to just one Elite 8 in its history, when it lost to Michigan State in 2010.

Michigan's hot outside shooting has carried the team in its first two wins. The Wolverines are 21 of 45 from beyond the arc and have made 50 percent of their jump shots, second-best among tournament teams.

Over its last nine games (during which it has gone 8-1) Tennessee has held its opponents to just 26.6 percent shooting on 3-pointers and 27 percent on jump shots.

(8) Kentucky vs (4) Louisville
Get ready for another epic showdown of these Bluegrass state rivals. This is the fourth time in NCAA Tournament history that the previous two national champions will play against each other in the NCAA Tournament.

In each of the three previous occurrences, the defending champion has defeated champion from the previous season.

There will be two key matchups to watch in this game.

The first one is on the offensive glass. The Wildcats rank second in the country in offensive rebound percentage and average 15.6 second-chance points per game, the best among major conferences.

Louisville is not a great defensive rebounding team, ranking 241st in the nation, and was outscored 17-6 in second-chance points by Kentucky in their meeting on Dec. 28.

The other key matchup is whether Kentucky can handle Louisville's pressure defense, which forces 17.4 turnovers per game, the second-most in the country. Louisville is 19-0 this season when forcing 17 or more turnovers; Kentucky is 16-2 when committing 11 or fewer turnovers.

(7) Connecticut vs (3) Iowa State
The only other time these two teams met in the NCAA Tournament was in a Round of 64 win by the Cyclones in 2012. That was Jim Calhoun's final game.

With Georges Niang out for Iowa State and Connecticut lacking a dominant post offense, this game could come down to who executes better on the perimeter.

Iowa State ranks in the top 25 in 3-point attempts per game and 3-pointers made per game this season, while UConn ranks 22nd in the country in 3-point field goal percentage.

Both teams allow their opponents to make more than a third of their shots from beyond the arc, though the Huskies do a better job of limiting 3-point attempts (18.3 per game) than the Cyclones (21.2).

(4) Michigan State vs (1) Virginia
Virginia is hoping to avoid the fate of another recent first-place ACC squad. Last year Miami was the regular-season and postseason ACC champs, and they lost in the Sweet 16 vs Marquette.

The Michigan State seniors are trying to avoid making history as well. Every four-year player under coach Tom Izzo has reached the Final Four, and this is the last chance for Adreian Payne and Keith Appling to make it.

The key matchup to watch in this game will be whether Virginia can slow down the Spartans' fastbreak offense.

Transition makes up 21.9 percent of Michigan State’s offensive plays, the eighth-highest rate in the country, and the Spartans average 18.9 transition points per game, 14th-most in the nation. Virginia allows 7.4 transition points per game, third-fewest in the nation, and only 10.9 percent of Virginia’s defensive plays are transition, the fifth-lowest rate in the country.

Top 10 biggest upsets of this year's tourney

March, 24, 2014
Mar 24
1:00
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March Madness certainly lived up to its name during this first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, with exciting finishes and surprising winners. We rank the 10 biggest upsets according BPI pre-game win probability, starting with number 10...

10. Harvard (41.0% chance to win) over Cincinnati
Harvard picked up an NCAA tournament win for the second straight season with its win over the fifth-seed Bearcats. The Crimson are the first Ivy League team to win an NCAA Tournament game in back-to-back seasons since Princeton in 1983-84.

9. Kentucky (40.5%) over Wichita State
Kentucky ended Wichita State’s perfect season, handing the Shockers their first loss in 36 games. Did you know: the previous two teams that were unbeaten entering NCAA Tournament were eliminated by the eventual national champion (1979 Indiana State by Michigan State; 1991 UNLV by Duke).

8. Baylor (34.6%) over Creighton
Baylor routed Creighton by 30 points, the third-largest margin of victory by a 6 seed in NCAA Tournament history. The Bluejays, who got just 15 points from Doug McDermott in his final collegiate game, fell to 0-8 all-time in Round of 32 games, the worst record by any team.

7. Connecticut (33.6%) over Villanova
Connecticut advanced to its first Sweet 16 since 2011, which is also the last time the Huskies won the National Championship. After early foul trouble, Shabazz Napier led the Huskies down the stretch, scoring 21 of his game-high 25 points in the second half.

6. Dayton (30.6%) over Ohio State
Dayton started the Madness with the upset win over Ohio State on Thursday afternoon, in a game that featured eight ties and 15 lead changes. The Flyers scored 20 transition points against an Ohio State team that had allowed a Big Ten-best 10.1 transition points per game this season.

5. North Dakota State (30.4%) over Oklahoma
North Dakota State earned its first-ever NCAA Tournament win, shooting 52.9 percent from the field. North Dakota State outscored Oklahoma by 22 points in the paint, including 6-0 in overtime.

4. Dayton (28.1%) over Syracuse
Dayton advanced to its first Sweet 16 since 1984 with an upset of the third-seeded Orange. Syracuse made 1 of 19 shots from outside the paint, while Dayton made nearly half its shots from outside the paint.

3. Stanford (24.8%) over Kansas
Stanford reached its first Sweet 16 since 2008, holding Kansas to just 28 percent shooting against its zone defense. The Jayhawks entered the game shooting a Big 12-best 47.8 percent against zone defenses.

2. Stephen F. Austin (21.7%) over VCU
Stephen F. Austin extended its win streak to 29 games in the win, notching its first-ever NCAA Tournament victory in its second appearance. The Lumberjacks turned the ball over just once in overtime against VCU’s “Havoc” defense.

1. Mercer (12.6%) over Duke
Mercer outscored Duke by 16 points in the paint, holding the Blue Devils to a season-low 10 paint points. Duke became the first team in NCAA Tournament history to have five losses to double-digit seeds as a top-3 seed.
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A Big East meeting was assembled here this weekend, bringing back the band for one final set.

Tom Odjakjian, the league’s vice president, is here.

Ditto John Paquette, the conference’s longtime public-relations man.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Mark Konezny/USA TODAY SportsCoach Jim Boeheim's third-seeded Syracuse squad went 14-4 in its first season in the ACC.
Jim Boeheim and Jay Wright will coach in games on Saturday. Jim Calhoun won’t coach, but he’s here, surreptitiously stealing everyone else’s thunder with news that maybe he wouldn’t mind trying this coaching thing again.

Of course, Wright and Paquette are the only ones still in the Big East. The rest are ex-employees, reshuffled in the dissolution and recreation of the league.

But they’re all here, Odjakjian and Calhoun with UConn and the American Athletic Conference, Boeheim with the ACC -- a strange bedfellow of a reunion party.

So is Dayton, survivor of the Atlantic 10 reorganization that was supposedly going to doom the league to the basketball basement.

Which begs a simple question: Did any of it matter? The handwringing, the fretting, the shouting into the wind about the end of loyalty and the beginning of the end of college athletics?

It all made perfect sense for football, which is why it all happened, but did it really make the dire impact on basketball that everyone suspected?

Those four teams are all wearing different logos on the back of their uniforms now, but they’re all still here, in the NCAA tournament, the ultimate barometer of a team’s success.

No. 3 seed Syracuse will meet No. 11 seed Dayton in one third-round game, with No. 2 seed Villanova and No. 7 seed UConn in the other.

"It’s a little different in basketball," Boeheim said. "There are enough players now where everybody is able to be good, so you can survive as a basketball team no matter what conference. Where it matters is for the athletic department and for football, but basketball is different."

It’s a message certainly that is delivered with emphasis at this time of year, when upsets are commonplace. On Friday, one of the most storied programs of all time lost to a team that hadn’t been in the NCAA tournament since 1985. And No. 14 seed Mercer didn’t beat No. 3 seed Duke with a miracle shot; the Bears mostly dominated the game.

The Atlantic Sun now moves on to the third round for the second season in a row; the Blue Devils of the mighty ACC head home after one game for the second time in three seasons.

Which would be akin to Georgia State and the Sun Belt beating Alabama and the SEC in football.

Impossible in one sport, unlikely but possible in another.

Because, in part, of what Boeheim said. You only need five players in hoops, the right five to be good.

But in basketball, you can also control your own destiny a little more. A 30-plus game schedule offers a few more opportunities than 12.

So teams in lesser leagues can beef up their chances by scheduling well.

"It matters more for football," Boeheim said. "You always need a place for football. For basketball, it’s good for the stability. You need stability, but you can make it. Of course, if a league keeps losing teams, it’s to be determined."

That, of course, is the rub. Conference stability takes the guessing out of the equation, as UConn might find out soon. The Huskies, the last pick in conference dodgeball, have managed to stay afloat in the new American, but the future is less than certain. Louisville moves on to the ACC next season, leaving UConn, Memphis, Cincinnati and SMU to keep things afloat.

The league this season felt the sting of its top-heavy and bottom-light rankings. The Mustangs were left out of the NCAA field, Louisville docked with a 4-seed.

Meantime the A-10, more established, pushed six into the tourney -- even if Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski didn’t agree.

A good league does buoy a team’s schedule strength. Maybe lessens the need for a murderer’s row nonconference schedule, too.

"We’re building a program," Dayton coach Archie Miller said. "This is where we want to be, and we have to build around our league. I think, right now, the great thing is we can build a schedule around an at-large bid league."

No one, of course, did it better than the old Big East, using its brand-name teams and its brand-name conference to gobble up at-large bids.

The conference mattered because it had history and tradition but mostly because it always retained its relevance.

“There’s just something very special about the Big East," Wright said. "So conference means a lot when it comes to the Big East, the old Big East."

But the Big East died and was reborn, and the world didn’t crumble. Teams that stuck around and teams that moved on are still tasting success, the disastrous consequences turning out not to be so disastrous after all.

It’s nice that all those folks are here. They can talk about the old days, rehash the "30 for 30" "Requiem for the Big East" documentary, but that’s about all there’s left to do.

Boeheim, ever the romantic, probably put it the best.

"You’ve got to move on," Boeheim said. "It’s like, you don’t ask questions about someone’s ex-wife, do you? There’s a good reason for that. You can only get in trouble with answering that question if you’re married again."

Things change.

And we all live to talk about it.

BPI Talk: Villanova ranked among elite

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
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Who had the Villanova Wildcats pegged in the preseason as one of the elite teams in college basketball? The 11-0 Wildcats are ranked No. 2 in BPI.

Villanova and North Carolina are the only teams with two wins against teams ranked in the BPI top 15. Villanova has defeated Kansas (No. 6 BPI) and Iowa (No. 13).

The Wildcats' seven wins against teams ranked outside the BPI top 100 are each by at least 15 points. Their average margin in those games is 23 points.

The Wildcats have been the third-most consistent team in the country, in relation to variance in BPI game score.

Their best BPI game score was a 30-point win against No. 84 Saint Joseph's. Their worst performance of the season was a four-point win against Delaware, a team also ranked in the top 100.

UConn tends to play close games
Connecticut is ranked No. 15 in the AP Poll but No. 38 in BPI.

UConn has faced four top-100 teams and is 3-1 against those teams, including a two-point loss to No. 44 Stanford last week. Each of the Huskies' three wins against top-100 teams have been by one point.

The Huskies have seven wins against teams outside the BPI top 150, and three of those wins are performances that hurt their BPI (their three worst BPI game scores):

-A win by 10 points against No. 294 Loyola (MD)
-A two-point win against No. 190 Boston College
-A 27-point win against No. 348 Maine

There's nothing wrong with beating any team by 27 points, but doing so against the team with the fourth-lowest BPI doesn't help UConn's BPI.

Unlike RPI, BPI takes margin into account, and it recognizes that UConn has not performed its best against its toughest opponents. Sure, the Huskies are 3-1 against the top 100, but with each of those three wins by one point, they're lacking a "convincing" win against a quality opponent.

UMass stays consistent
Massachusetts lost to Florida State on Saturday, but the Minutemen -- ranked No. 2 in BPI entering Saturday's game -- are still No. 5 in BPI.

The Minutemen have played the second-toughest schedule according to BPI, and they've been quite successful against that schedule. They're 7-1 against the BPI top 100, including 4-1 against the top 50. Only Wisconsin has more top-50 wins this season, with five.

UMass has faced three teams outside the BPI top 100, each of which ranks between 150 and 200, and has defeated each of those teams by at least 13 points.

UMass ranks as the fourth-most consistent team in the country in terms of variance, in relation to variance in BPI game score.

Is Baylor overrated?
Baylor is No. 11 in the AP Poll, but the Bears are No. 53 in BPI.

Why so low?

The Bears have two games against non-D-I opponents -- Chaminade and Hardin-Simmons -- that don't help their BPI. Additionally, they have three close wins against lower-ranked opponents -- a two-point win against No. 131 South Carolina, a five-point victory against No. 192 Charleston Southern, and a seven-point overtime win against No. 203 Northwestern State.

Holy Toledo
Toledo is one of nine remaining unbeaten teams, but the Rockets are the only unbeaten not ranked in the AP Top 25. The Rockets have the fifth-most votes of teams outside the AP Top 25, but do they deserve that much consideration?

Toledo hasn't faced a team in the BPI top 100, and nine of its 11 games have been against teams outside the top 150.

The Rockets have faced seven top-200 teams, and five of those wins have been by four points or fewer. Against their two top-150 opponents -- No. 105 Cleveland State and No. 139 Stony Brook -- they won each game by four points.

BPI Rankings

Brennan's Wooden Watch: Week 3

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
1:00
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The third week of Wooden Watch (or as I like to call it, "Wooden Watch 3: The Watchening") brings with it more tumult than its preceding editions.

From sheer math alone, this makes sense. The Thanksgiving schedule pushed last week's Watch up to Tuesday, which has given us a nine-day stretch of uninterrupted basketball on which to base our way-too-early national player of the year prospectus. But pound-for-pound, those nine days were, I'd argue, every bit as good and every bit as tumultuous as any stretch that came before. Word to North Carolina.

The losses suffered by top teams -- and players on the POY contention short list -- do shake things up a bit, but it's important not to go too far. One loss does not a Wooden campaign ruin. (You're thinking of the Heisman.) We've been couching these early rankings with all sorts of disclaimers about just how early in the season it is, and that remains true -- even as we barrel headfirst into December. Let's see where we are, shall we?

Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: After a brilliant start, Smart's first regression of the season came in Kissimmee, Fla., at the Old Spice Classic last weekend. Smart had 17 points and eight rebounds in a shaky 69-67 semifinal win over Butler, but the five turnovers he committed on Friday foreshadowed the five he would commit Sunday. That game, against Memphis, saw Smart stifled by a suddenly coherent Tigers perimeter scheme, and while Smart finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, he missed all five of his 3-point attempts. And yet, he retains his spot atop this list. Why? For one, Smart was clearly sick. I'm not offering excuses (nor taking credit away from Memphis, because the Tigers were great), but I am acknowledging realities. Second, well, it's one game. It's fine. Dude's really good. Moving on.

Russ Smith, Louisville: The North Carolina loss might have thrown people off Louisville's scent, but now that Michigan State is the latest to get a front-row seat to the Tar Heels' ongoing Jekyll and Hyde performance piece, let's go ahead and remind everyone that Louisville is playing top-10 offense and top-three defense, and that Smith, while maintaining his high usage and shot rates, has thus far pumped his assist rate to 37.5 percent (from 21.1 a year ago), shot 58.2 percent from 2-point range and kept his steals rate (4.1 percent) totally steady.

Doug McDermott, Creighton: I'm not willing to get too worked up about McDermott's one loss, either. Yes, I know Creighton fell to San Diego State and George Washington this week, but only one of those losses should be an indictment. Against San Diego State, Creighton was, well, Creighton: McDermott scored 30 points and shot 6-of-10 from 2 and 5-of-8 from 3, and the Bluejays' porous defense cost them the game anyway. Three years on, that's what you sign up for with the Bluejays -- same as it ever was. George Washington was a different story: McDermott was stifled by the Colonials in wholly unexpected fashion (seven points, 2-of-12 from the field, a tidy 54.0 offensive rating -- yikes). But, well, it's one game. It's fine. Dude's really good. Moving on.

Jabari Parker, Duke: I downgraded Parker's status last week because of Duke's putrid defense, but now that the Blue Devils have submitted two slightly better defensive performances -- one in a 72-66 loss to Arizona on Friday, the other in a 79-69 win (in 67 possessions) against Michigan on Tuesday -- it's time to elevate Parker once more. The ironic part? These last two games have been his worst offensively, the first two in which he failed to score at least 20 points (and less efficiently, too). But Parker is gobbling up defensive rebounds for a team that desperately needs him to be a stud on both ends of the floor, and he'll get his points, rest assured.

Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle hasn't been quite as efficient as he was at the start of the season, but he is still plugging along, dominating unsuspecting helpless interior defenses and gobbling double-doubles like some sort of mystical Norse basketball god. UK's 79-65 win over Providence on Sunday was Randle's first game of the season -- eight games in -- without a double-double. He had 12 points and eight boards. Even Thor must rest sometimes.

Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: The nice thing about Napier's player of the year candidacy is that it need not rest on a fuzzy term like "clutch" alone. Napier has been ruthless late in games, to be sure: His late winner against Florida on Monday required plenty of luck, but you knew he was going to ice that second chance as soon as the ball bounced to him. But you can also build Napier's case on the breadth of his point guard play, which has been as comprehensive as any guard's to date.

Casey Prather, Florida: In March, Billy Donovan may look back at the Gators' injury-riddled November and thank his lucky stars, for that was the month that Prather turned into a star. Prather makes his first appearance here this week, but it probably should have come sooner. In eight games to date, he's registered a 121.5 offensive rating while using 30.1 percent of his team's possessions; he's shot nearly 64 percent from the field; and he's rebounded 10.6 percent of Florida's available misses. Watching Prather, a three-year glue guy, slice defenses with Euro-steps and quick-twitch offensive rebounds has been an alternately confusing and thrilling process. Either way, he doesn't look like he's slowing down.

Nick Johnson, Arizona: Aaron Gordon gets all the attention, and he'll surely be on this list more than any Wildcat this season. But Arizona feels as much like an ensemble cast as any elite team in the country, and Nick Johnson is perhaps their most indispensable player -- the lone true shoot, drive or pull-up, all-court-style threat who makes Arizona more than a collection of impressive bigs.

Keith Appling, Michigan State: Appling can stay, despite Wednesday night's home loss to UNC, because, well, again: It's one game. Before Wednesday, Appling had been peerless, and he wasn't that bad Wednesday night, either. The current line is 57.1 percent from 2, 48.3 percent from 3, a 28.4 assist rate to just 13.0 turnover percentage, and more generally, an engaged, comfortable and balanced player on both ends of the floor.

Jahii Carson, Arizona State: Carson had his first comedown of the season at Miami on Sunday, when he somehow went 0-for-10 from inside the arc. That, plus Arizona State's sub-Duke defense, is reason for slight downgrade this week. (If this were a list of the most entertaining players, Carson would probably be No. 1 every week. He's fun to watch miss.)

Honorable mentions: Marcus Paige (UNC), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Gary Harris (Michigan State), Joseph Young (Oregon), Anthony Drmic (Boise State), Chaz Williams (UMass), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Tim Frazier (Penn State), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Roberto Nelson (Oregon State), Kendall Williams (New Mexico), Caris LeVert (Michigan), Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), LaQuinton Ross (Ohio State), T.J. Warren (NC State)

Brennan's Wooden Watch: Week 2

November, 26, 2013
11/26/13
12:20
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Happy holidays, and happy early Wooden Watch. This Tuesday edition of what will for the rest of the season be a Thursday update is brought to you by pumpkin pie, stuffing and the rest of our quirky turkey traditions. You'll be eating and watching football Thursday. So will I, if the weather cooperates. So let's check in on the running Wooden list a couple of days early.

What's changed in five days? Honestly ... not a whole lot. That goes for last week's disclaimer, too: Since we're just now rounding the corner into December, the order of the list below is not really of primary concern. This is a window to the landscape, not a definitive hierarchy, for at least the next few weeks. And with that said:

Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: If the season ended today, Marcus Smart would be my 2013-14 national player of the year. You likely saw what he did to Memphis last week; you've no doubt heard the ever-more-impressive stories about his leadership and work ethic. But my favorite Smart moment may have come Monday night at South Florida, when he and the Cowboys utterly eviscerated the Bulls with a gusto typically reserved for games against Kansas. Smart scored 25 points with four assists and four steals. He finished inverse post alley-oops, set up Cowboys wings for thundering finishes and even splashed down a 65-foot-or-so buzzer-beater at halftime. It looked like someone in the South Florida crowd had said something to Smart along the way: He was unusually talkative, and even threw up a "shush" sign. And, well, a word to wise fans on the Cowboys' road schedule: Don't do that.

Doug McDermott, Creighton: Another week, another chapter in my book, "Doug McDermott is hilariously efficient," available at all reputable bookstores (note: not really). McDermott has posted a 124.1 offensive rating on 31.9 percent usage and a 37.9 shot rate, the second highest in the country. He's hitting 50 percent from 3, drawing fouls at the usual rate and rebounding the defensive glass as steadily as ever. (Oh, and last week's catch-shoot winner at St. Joe's, which I criminally failed to mention Thursday, is worth watching over and over and over.)

[+] EnlargeJabari Parker
AP Photo/Charles Rex ArbogastJabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins are two of four freshmen to make our Wooden Watch top 10 this week.
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas: After the Nov. 19 86-66 win over Iona, one Iona player -- who will remain nameless here, because am I not merciful? -- called Wiggins overrated. Bold words after a 20-point loss, and also incorrect: Wiggins may not be a pure scorer, but he is good at everything and great at more things than not.

Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle had his first "off" night against Cleveland State on Monday night, but he still finished with 15 points and 15 rebounds, and his passing out of the block was key to the last-ditch 3-point flurry that helped the Wildcats escape with a win. Good teams will double and triple Randle until UK proves it can knock down 3s consistently, but even if that never happens, he is as dominant a force as any in the game.

Jahii Carson, Arizona State: Save Marcus Smart, no guard has had a better start to the season than Carson, who followed up last week's 40-point effort in a win at UNLV with Monday's 23-point, five-assist performance in ASU's thrilling win against Marquette. There might be two or three defenders in the country capable of keeping Carson out of the lane. If that.

Jabari Parker, Duke: The order of this list isn't a big deal right now, remember, but I went ahead and downgraded Parker a bit this week anyway. But why? Isn't he still pouring in points? Yes. And thrillingly so. But Parker and Rodney Hood's issues on the defensive end for Duke have contributed to the Blue Devils' No. 176-ranked efficiency defense, and Duke gave up 90 points in 65 possessions to Vermont at home Sunday.

Russ Smith, Louisville: Louisville took a tough and totally surprising loss to North Carolina on Sunday afternoon; the Tar Heels, especially guard Marcus Paige, looked better than anyone could have expected. But it's hardly time to panic on Smith. He was great individually Sunday, and he'll be great in the weeks to come, too.

Keith Appling, Michigan State: Gary Harris' spot last week is now occupied by Appling, and that says far more about Appling's performance than it does Harris'. The Michigan State point guard has done everything right as a senior thus far: He's shooting far less, and more accurately (57.1 percent from 3, 55.3 percent from 2); he's assisting teammates on nearly 30 percent of his possessions; and he isn't turning it over -- or suffering the long, disengaged stretches of a season ago. What a start.

Aaron Gordon, Arizona: Arizona's team is so balanced, and playing so much more unselfishly on the perimeter with the addition of T.J. McConnell, that it's tempting to give some love to one of the other Wildcats -- McConnell himself, perhaps, or peerless senior shooting guard Nick Johnson. But Gordon remains the focal point on offense, and his athleticism is just flabbergasting.

Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Early in his fourth season at UConn, Napier officially has every tool in the tool box. Tom Crean talked about this at length after Indiana's close loss to UConn in New York last weekend, and it's totally true: Napier is lights-out on the perimeter whether catching and shooting or off the dribble; he puts defenders in blenders with his ball-handling and versatility; and he keeps the ball moving and his teammates involved. Oh, and he's a blast to watch. A+++ -- would DVR again.

Early honorable mentions: C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Gary Harris (Michigan State), Joseph Young (Oregon), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Anthony Drmic (Boise State), Chaz Williams (UMass), Yogi Ferrell, (Indiana), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Tim Frazier (Penn State), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Roberto Nelson (Oregon State), Kendall Williams (New Mexico), Caris LeVert (Michigan), Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), Marcus Paige (North Carolina) and Casey Prather (Florida)

Nonconference analysis: American

September, 10, 2013
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This week, ESPN.com is breaking down the nonconference schedules of each team in nine of the nation's top leagues. Next up: the American Athletic Conference.

CINCINNATI

Toughest: at New Mexico (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: NC State (Nov. 12), Xavier (Dec. 14), Pittsburgh (Dec. 17 in New York), Nebraska (Dec. 28)
The rest: North Carolina Central (Nov. 8), Appalachian State (Nov. 16), Campbell (Nov. 20), UMass Lowell (Nov. 26), Kennesaw State (Nov. 29), Middle Tennessee State (Dec. 21), Chicago State (Dec. 23)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- This schedule could turn out better than it's currently ranked, but that will depend on how the unknown quantities of Pittsburgh and NC State turn out. For now it’s relatively toothless, especially because the Bearcats play just twice outside of Cincinnati.

CONNECTICUT

Toughest: Florida (Dec. 2), Harvard (Jan. 8 )
Next toughest: Maryland (Nov. 8 in Brooklyn, N.Y.), 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 22), at Washington (Dec. 22)
The rest: Yale (Nov. 11), Detroit (Nov. 14), Boston University (Nov. 17), Boston College (Nov. 21 in New York), Loyola (Nov. 26), Maine (Dec. 6), Stanford (Dec. 18), Eastern Washington (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- The Huskies come back from postseason purgatory with a bang this season and have a pretty decent schedule for a showcase. The Gators will be a top-15 team and Harvard ought to be (no, that’s not sarcasm). Throw in the 2K Sports, where UConn will open with improved BC and then either Indiana or Washington, and the Huskies have plenty to sink their teeth into.

HOUSTON

Toughest: Legends Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Next toughest: at Texas A&M (Dec. 4)
The rest: Texas State (Nov. 8), at UT-Pan American (Nov. 11), UT-San Antonio (Nov. 14), Lehigh (Nov. 17), Howard (Nov. 21), Texas-Corpus Christi (Nov. 30), San Jose State (Dec. 7), Alcorn State (Dec. 9), Louisiana-Lafayette (Dec. 14), Rice (Dec. 21)

Toughness scale (1-10): 2 -- Conference commissioner Mike Aresco might want to let the Cougars know that playing every directional university in the state of Texas does not a good schedule make. Playing Stanford at the Legends (and then either Pitt or Texas Tech) is OK, but if Houston is serious about stepping up its class, it has to beef up its schedule.

LOUISVILLE

Toughest: Hall of Fame Classic (Nov. 23-24 in Uncasville, Conn.), at Kentucky (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: Western Kentucky (Dec. 14)
The rest: Charleston (Nov. 9), Hofstra (Nov. 12), Hartford (Nov. 19), Cornell (Nov. 15), Southern Miss (Nov. 29), UMKC (Dec. 4), Louisiana-Lafayette (Dec. 7), Missouri State (Dec. 17), at Florida International (Dec. 21)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- More than likely, the Cardinals will face North Carolina at Mohegan Sun. That game, partnered with the Kentucky grudge match in Lexington, makes for two pretty sensational games. Beyond those two headliners, though, this top-5 team doesn’t have a whole lot of games to turn your head.

MEMPHIS

Toughest: at Oklahoma State (Nov. 19), Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in Orlando, Fla.), Florida (Dec. 17 in New York), Gonzaga (Feb. 8)
Next toughest: N/A
The rest: Austin Peay (Nov. 14), Nicholls State (Nov. 23), Northwestern State (Dec. 7), Arkansas-Little Rock (Dec. 13), Southeast Missouri State (Dec. 21), Jackson State (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- With the addition of Michael Dixon, Josh Pastner could have the best backcourt in the country. This schedule offers more than enough to test that theory. Along with the Gators and the semi-annual date with the Zags, the Tigers could run headlong into Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State for a second time in two weeks in the Old Spice Classic final.

RUTGERS

Toughest: NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 18-19, Nov. 27-29 in New York)
Next toughest: at George Washington (Dec. 4), Seton Hall (Dec. 8)
The rest: Florida A&M (Nov. 8), at UAB (Nov. 11), Yale (Nov. 14), William & Mary (Nov. 23), UNC-Greensboro (Dec. 14), Army (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- It’s honestly hard to judge this schedule, as the NIT Season Tip-Off schedule isn’t entirely set. The Scarlet Knights theoretically could run into Duke, Arizona or Alabama. Aside from that, the rivalry game against Seton Hall is good to see on the schedule.

SOUTH FLORIDA

Toughest: Oklahoma State (Nov. 25), Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)
Next toughest: at George Mason (Dec. 4), Alabama (Dec. 7), Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 17)
The rest: Tennessee Tech (Nov. 9), Bethune-Cookman (Nov. 12), at Bowling Green (Nov. 15), Stetson (Nov. 22), Detroit (Nov. 30), Florida A&M (Dec. 19), at Bradley (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 with the potential for a 7 -- The potential boost comes in Las Vegas. If the Bulls can get past Mississippi State, they’d likely take on host UNLV. Regardless, any schedule that features Marcus Smart and Dunk City isn’t too shabby.

SOUTHERN METHODIST

Toughest: at Arkansas (Nov. 18), Corpus Christi Challenge (Nov. 29-30)
Next toughest: at Wyoming (Dec. 20)
The rest: TCU (Nov. 8 at American Airlines Arena), Rhode Island (Nov. 11), Arkansas Pine Bluff (Nov. 24), Sam Houston State (Nov. 26)

Toughness scale (1-10): Incomplete -- The Mustangs are in the process of finalizing their nonconference schedule. As of right now, Larry Brown’s squad does get a nice ACC bump against Virginia in Corpus Christi, and playing at Arkansas always carries bonus points.

TEMPLE

Toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24), Villanova (Feb. 1)
Next toughest: Saint Joseph’s (Dec. 4), La Salle (Jan. 18 at the Palestra)
The rest: at Penn (Nov. 9), Kent State (Nov. 11), at Towson (Nov. 14), Texas (Dec. 7), Texas Southern (Dec. 18), LIU-Brooklyn (Dec. 21 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)

Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The rebuilding Owls will have their hands full here, especially in Charleston. Temple faces a similarly reconstructing team in Clemson in the first game, with a potential matchup with New Mexico looming. And then there is the Big 5. Never easy and getting harder, what with the re-emergence of La Salle and and improving Penn.

UCF

Toughest: Florida State (Nov. 13), at Miami (Nov. 21)
Next toughest: at Valparaiso (Nov. 26)
The rest: Tampa (Nov. 8), Bethune-Cookman (Nov. 17), at Florida Atlantic (Dec. 3), Stetson (Dec. 7), Howard (Dec. 11), Jacksonville (Dec. 17), Rio Grande (Dec. 21), Valparaiso (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- A home and home with Valpo? In the same season? That’s … interesting. Otherwise, Central Florida is getting Florida State and Miami a year too late. Both will still be a challenge for the Knights, no doubt, but they won’t be what they were a year ago.

3-point shot: Arizona has gem in Gordon

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1. Arizona coach Sean Miller has quite a gem in incoming freshman forward Aaron Gordon, who had a breakout summer playing for the USA FIBA U-19 gold-medal winning team in the Czech Republic in July. Miller said this about Gordon, "Aaron's greatest talent lies in his mind -- highly competitive, intelligent, plays to win, great teammate. He combines this with exceptional athletic talent and physical gifts. It's this combination that makes his future so bright. He also is very young [just turned 18], which is one reason why I believe he continues to improve at a rapid pace.'' Arizona is a legit Final Four contender and should enter the season as a top-six team. Meanwhile, the Wildcats still don't know the bracket for the NIT Season Tip-Off. The four hosts -- Arizona, Duke, Rutgers and Alabama -- have to win two games to get to New York for Thanksgiving. Arizona and Duke will be on opposite sides, but the question will be which teams they each play to get to a potential final.

2. The A-10 put out its conference schedule last week. The league got the late-season rivalries right to draw interest from new member George Mason at George Washington on March 2 to VCU at Richmond on March 6 to La Salle at Saint Joseph's on the final day on March 9. A league needs to have games that matter for schools as much as possible late in the season. And there is a good chance that all of those games, save maybe the battle of Mason and GW, should have A-10 top seeding possibilities. Saint Louis, one of the favorites in the A-10, has quite a finish with two of three on the road at VCU on March 1 and closing the season at UMass on March 9. Earlier in the conference season, the game of the month of January may be VCU at La Salle on Jan. 25. The A-10 should have five to six schools in contention for bids, with likely four or so earning berths in March.

3. This comment from UConn coach Kevin Ollie speaks volumes after Tyler Olander was suspended for his DUI when asked about how this affects the Huskies' frontcourt: "I don't care about what's going on with our bigs rotation but do care about Tyler as a person.'' Ollie is proving his personal character is transferring over to his coaching. He isn't going to compromise. Meanwhile, Ollie said guard Omar Calhoun isn't cleared yet for five-on-five after offseason hip surgery but is working out at full speed with the coaching staff. Ollie added that Shabazz Napier is "looking great. Wow.'' Napier has a real shot to be an All-American, let alone one of the top contenders for American Athletic Conference player of the year.
1. The NCAA has lacked consistency on granting waivers, whether for an ill relative, in the wake of a coaching firing, following an NCAA violation or any other issue. But the national office cannot, rationally, be inconsistent on waivers when it deals with the same case. If a former Rutgers player is eligible immediately at a new school (Mike Poole at Iona and Vincent Garrett at Green Bay) because he fled the reign of former coach Mike Rice, then a new player (Kerwin Okoro or J.J. Moore) should be granted the same treatment and be allowed to play at Rutgers immediately. Okoro's case, involving the loss of his brother and father, has been well documented -- he clearly has a sympathetic reason to be granted a waiver. But there is a fairness issue for Rutgers that should come into play if departed players are getting a better deal. Two more -- Derrick Randall at Pitt and Eli Carter at Florida -- may also get immediate eligibility. The only break the Scarlet Knights got was when Jerome Seagears was not penalized after he came back to Rutgers from Auburn two months after announcing he would transfer. New Rutgers coach Eddie Jordan said Wednesday there is another appeal coming for Okoro, with a different set of eyes and ears to evaluate the grievances. He said he's hopeful there will be a sensible conclusion.

2. Connecticut announced its schedule but not locations for all home games. That's because the Huskies still don't have a deal with their Hartford home, the XL Center. But, UConn athletic director Warde Manuel said, "because of timing of transition of management of XL, we are finalizing terms for this year and we will talk long-term arrangement in the near future. We will continue to play games at XL.'' The Huskies have a strong home schedule. UConn hosts headline teams Florida (Dec. 2), Stanford (Dec. 18), Harvard (Jan. 8), Louisville (Jan. 18), Temple (Jan. 21), Memphis (Feb. 15) and Cincinnati (March 1). The only home game on this list that has a designated home court is the Louisville game, at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, because it has been tabbed for ESPN's "College GameDay" and the Saturday prime-time slot.

3. With teams returning from their foreign excursions, follow-up reports are trickling in. Vanderbilt, during its time in Greece and Italy, found out just how much it will rely on guard Dai-Jon Parker; the Commodores were also able to reinforce a pre-trip theory that Tulsa transfer Eric McClellan will be the primary point guard. The staff was also high on the impact of 6-foot-10 center Damian Jones and expects him to be one of the better first-year posts in the SEC (he'll need to be, with players like Kentucky's Julius Randle coming into the league). There is now a chance James Siakam can play power forward, allowing Rod Odom to play his more natural small forward. The hope is that Odom can take care of mismatches at power forward.; Siakam will need to be the glue guy, and can provide the necessary energy. The Commodores have only nine players on scholarship, so this trip was a must to create bonds and give them a head start on what could be a challenging season. Expectations are low, giving Vandy and coach Kevin Stallings plenty of head room to be a surprise in what is a wide-open SEC beyond Kentucky and Florida.
1. Kentucky coach John Calipari said he can already tell who his leaders may be for the upcoming season. Calipari said freshman Julius Randle and the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew, "are going to be the leaders." He said Randle has already proven in summer workouts just how much of an impact he'll have for the Wildcats. Calipari added freshman center Dakari Johnson has been the surprise so far and is producing at a higher clip than the Wildcats thought. What does this mean? "[Sophomore] Willie [Cauley-Stein] is going to have work for it," Calipari said about his returning big man getting challenged for minutes. Meanwhile, the other high-profile returnee, forward Alex Poythress isn't being asked to be a leader for Kentucky. "I just need him to play," said Calipari, "just play. He's not going to be a guy who stands up and tells people where to go. He's not that vocal. He just needs to play. Our leadership will come from one of those freshmen." Calipari said he's been impressed with the overall chemistry of this group, meshing quicker than he imagined.

2. New Big East commissioner Val Ackerman said the Big East is a few weeks away from finishing the conference schedule. The old Big East was traditionally one of the last conferences to get their schedule out because of pro commitments in arenas. The Big East and Fox Sports 1 teased the schedule in late June with the announcement of a five-game, New Year's Eve lineup starting at noon with St. John's at Xavier; followed at 2:30 p.m. with Seton Hall at Providence and then DePaul at Georgetown at 5 p.m., followed by Villanova at Butler at 7:30 p.m. and then closing with a headliner of Marquette at Creighton at 10 p.m. EST. Ackerman said she is still looking to make a significant number of hires, especially a full-time person to deal with television relationships. Former Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe continues to act as a consultant for the league and has helped in championship planning. Ackerman is working from a makeshift office in Manhattan but is still searching for long-term office space.

3. Angie Cretors was a creative hire by UConn athletic director Warde Manuel and one that will certainly help the continuing stabilization of the Huskies' athletic department. Cretors, named the school's Senior Associate Athletic Director, was respected by a number of Division I coaches while she was in NCAA enforcement. She had a presence at the Final Four and was not seen as intimidating at all, but rather a source of counsel for coaches to bounce things off of in dealing with compliance. Cretors built relationships which should bode well for her at UConn. Manuel's decision of hiring from the NCAA isn't new (Kentucky hired Rachel Newman Baker), but is yet another example of schools shoring up their own compliance departments and athletic department staff with people who know what the NCAA is looking for and how to handle any kind of issues which may arise. The continued attrition at the NCAA headquarters maybe weakening the home office but it's strengthening the membership.
Only in today’s age of one-and-done -- and, perhaps, only at Kentucky -- could a team go from losing to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT to winning the NCAA title the following season.

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.
Now that realignment is behind us, rosters are mostly finalized, and freshmen are getting used to living in dorm rooms (oh, to be reborn at summer orientation), we're spending the week looking ahead at some of the more interesting players and storylines we expect to track in 2013-14. Next up: players facing crucial senior seasons, both individually and for their teams.

(Important note: This is not a list of the best seniors, or even necessarily the most important or most indispensable). It is a list of seniors -- some who have underachieved to date -- that need to, once and for all, make good on their star potential in their final year in the college game. Make sense? Cool.)

10. C.J. Fair (Syracuse): Fair's career to this point has been characterized by admirable consistency. In his first two campaigns he maintained similarly promising offensive ratings (109.5 and 114.6) while averaging a 17.3 percent usage rate, while blending in quality defense, rebounding and stellar work on the offensive glass. Fair's usage jumped slightly as a junior (to 20.5 percent of available possessions), and he grew far more comfortable wielding his outside shot, but the rock-solid fundamentals of his game remained mostly the same. As a senior, even on a team with plenty of oncoming talent, Fair may yet be expected to do even more. If he can expand his game further on the perimeter and provide go-to scoring in the midrange without losing the things that have made him so solid for so long, the Orange should make a massive impression in their first year in the ACC, and Fair should do the same for NBA scouts.

[+] EnlargeKevin Ollie, Shabazz Napier
John Woike/Hartford Courant/MCTGuard Shabazz Napier has taken on a leadership role under coach Kevin Ollie.
9. Shabazz Napier (Connecticut): Napier has had one of the most up-and-down careers of any player in recent college hoops memory. You can make the argument that he got where he needed to be as a junior. Not only did he have his best year by far statistically (he posted a 115.3 offensive rating on 24.3 percent usage and a 54.4 effective field goal percentage, shot 39 percent from 3 and created plenty of steals) but also, under new coach Kevin Ollie, assumed the leadership role denied him by that apathetic 2011-12 team. The only problem? UConn was ineligible for the NCAA tournament. With a full batch of returning players and that APR-induced postseason ban behind the Huskies, Napier is in position to make his biggest impact since Kemba Walker was on campus.

8. Tim Frazier (Penn State): As promised above, some of the guys on this list have underachieved for most of their careers; it's not fair to lump Frazier into that group. There are two reasons he isn't already a household name: Penn State and injuries. When Frazier was healthy for his true junior season in 2011-12, he led the Big Ten in assists (and posted the nation's second-highest assist rate, higher than either Kendall Marshall or Scott Machado), averaged 18.2 points per game (second in the Big Ten), created four steals per 100 possessions and drew an average of six fouls per game, while playing 92.8 percent of his team's available minutes. Thanks to a medical hardship waiver -- the 2012-13 campaign was derailed by a brutal ACL injury Achilles tear in just the fourth game of the season -- 2013-14 will provide Frazier with his last chance to earn the kind of individual national attention that gets scouts to raise an eyebrow. If he can also pull Penn State over the rebuilding hump, hey, all the better.

7. Aaron Craft (Ohio State): You couldn't say Craft has underachieved in his career. Quite the opposite. During his prep days, Craft was seen as a merely respectable but hardly a program-changing recruit, provided your head coach didn't lie to NCAA investigators about having him over for a barbecue. (Ba-dum-ksh.) Craft has long since exceeded those expectations. As a freshman, he seized a starting role in Thad Matta's very good veterans-plus-Jared Sullinger-led lineup, and he has maintained his spot by cementing the respect of teammates and coaches and, most noticeably, playing the best, peskiest perimeter defense in the country. That's his calling card, and it won't go anywhere, but one can't help wondering whether Craft still has more to pick up on the offensive end. Can he be a leading scorer? A more confident 3-point shooter off the dribble? Is that even possible, given the tireless work Craft does on the defensive end? (Related: Can Shannon Scott, who morphed into a deadly defender late last season, take on some of that burden?) Losing Deshaun Thomas means Ohio State has to replace a large chunk of scoring one way or the other; more incisive stuff at the point of attack would be a good place to start.

[+] EnlargeMike Stobe/Getty Images
Mike Stobe/Getty ImagesCory Jefferson was a force during Baylor's NIT run.
6. Cory Jefferson (Baylor): It is never wise to project too much based on the disproportionately weighted sample of a few postseason games in March. This is especially true when the postseason in question was the NIT. So yes, you can expect Jefferson's 21.2 points per game in the Bears' NIT title run -- which ended with a 74-54 vivisection of a very good Iowa defense -- to earn him his fair share of prospective love this fall. But Jefferson was good long before March. He posted a 128.1 offensive rating on 19.1 percent usage -- and shot 61.8 percent from inside the arc, leading the Big 12 in overall field goal percentage (61.0) in the process -- in 2012-13. Could he approximate that effort with more of a lead role as a senior? We'll see.

5. Marshall Henderson (Ole Miss): Here's another question: Did Henderson already max out his talent? After a season in which he took 394 3s (which is insane!) and made 35 percent of them (less insane, but pretty good), it's hard to imagine Henderson somehow finding a way to take more shots. It's even harder, given the volume involved, to picture him finding a way to improve that 113.5 offensive rating. According to Synergy scouting data, 38.2 percent of Henderson's possessions ended with off-ball screen action; no other play type came remotely close to that sort of frequency. (No. 2? Spot-ups, with 17.2 percent, trailed by transition offense and hand-off plays -- all of which screams "not allowed to put it on the floor.") With a less experienced frontcourt, there are only so many screens the Rebels can set. There are only so many shots Henderson can take.

So the premise for improvement is twofold. To dig an even better senior season out of his madcap heart, Henderson needs to become a better ball handler, distributor and scorer off the dribble -- less a gunner than a capable combo guard. He also, obviously, has to get to the court in the first place, which will be no small feat given the substance abuse issues that put his status at Ole Miss in jeopardy this month. Henderson appears to be taking that stuff seriously -- which he clearly wasn't at first -- and that's a good thing. It is also crucial for his career. If Henderson has any shot of making his NBA dreams a reality, he has to adjust his skill set and quell any and all concerns about his life away from basketball. It won't be easy.

4. Kendall Williams (New Mexico): It is hardly fair to tie one's assessment of a player to one particularly bonkers scoring night, but I know what I saw, and what I saw was Williams score 46 points in 33 minutes against a good Colorado State team on the road. It's not like he had a bad season otherwise -- 13.3 points and 4.9 assists per game is perfectly respectable -- but it was impossible to watch him that night and not think there was something more below the surface. Truth is, Williams hasn't really improved statistically in his college career. He was a better passer and drew more fouls as a junior, but his freshman season remains his most efficient. His 3-point accuracy fell to 34.8 percent, down from the 42.6 percent mark he posted two years prior. Without newly minted Chicago Bull Tony Snell in the backcourt, it's fair to wonder whether the Lobos will have the same defensive chops that anchored their excellent 2012-13 season. Williams will have to work more efficiently alongside emerging star Alex Kirk to find another gear going forward.

[+] EnlargePatric Young
Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/MCT/Getty ImagesPatric Young may see more opportunities in the post this season.
3. Patric Young (Florida): Young has always felt a bit disappointing. That's rarely been his fault. During his first two seasons at Florida, he frequently languished on the low block while Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton fired away from 25 feet. As a junior, the calculus changed somewhat and Young began to get more genuine post touches in a strikingly balanced edition of the Gators' spread attack. Still, he remains the college game's greatest physical specimen for three years running; you can't look at him and not expect him to dominate everyone in his vicinity. He got closer on the defensive end last season. Overall, he still isn't there. This may be the year. Boynton, shot-magnet Mike Rosario and fellow four Erik Murphy are all gone. Scottie Wilbekin is not an aggressive attacker by nature. Freshman phenom Chris Walker's status remains up in the air. Odds are, Young may finally get the chance to go to work on the low block, even if by default. The question is whether he's ready.

2. Keith Appling (Michigan State): When Appling first popped up as a freshman at Michigan State, he was a breath of fresh air. That 2010-11 team was one of the few -- honestly, maybe the only -- in Tom Izzo's tenure to genuinely underachieve. Delvon Roe fought admirably through career-ending injuries, and a young Draymond Green pointed toward a bright future, but the team's three lead guards (Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, and Korie Lucious), so key in bright back-to-back Final Four runs, proved to be corrosive, selfish influences. Appling quickly provided a contrast. His offensive game was tentatively promising, and his tenacious defense earned him Izzo's immediate respect. Here was a young, willing guard coached by a guy who made a career out of turning the Keith Applings of the world into Spartan legends. He was as sure a bet as the sport had to offer.

Remind me not to start a career oddsmaking business. Three years on, Appling's offensive game hasn't really improved. As a junior, he averaged 46.4 percent from inside the arc and 32 percent outside it. Turnovers are not uncommon to Izzo's teams, but Appling's inability to get his turnover rate down -- it was still 18.6 percent in 2012-13, just two points lower than his 20.6 percent assist percentage -- has compounded the effects of mediocre shooting. Last season, he went whole games, even whole weeks, when he would either (A) disappear, or (B) play so poorly (or at best, so tentatively) that Spartans fans would wonder whether option A wasn't preferable.

Appling has never been bad, per se. His perimeter defense hasn't gone anywhere. He has battled injuries with characteristic toughness, battled his slumps with determined accountability. You never hear bad things about him; he's been a reliable, hardworking presence within the program. But he has also never developed into what his coach once so convincingly proclaimed he would be.

This season is his final chance. The Spartans will be loaded again, with the Big Ten Freshman of the Year Gary Harris set for a monster sophomore season and forward Adreian Payne still blossoming into a devastating talent. Appling doesn't have to morph into a turnover-free replicate. He merely has to do what he does already and shoot the ball a bit better. If he does, there won't be many teams in the country capable of matching Michigan State man for man. If he doesn't, the Spartans will still be good -- but they, like Appling himself, risk leaving something on the table.

1. Joe Jackson (Memphis): Fortunately, Memphis won an NCAA tournament game in 2013. Getting that monkey off coach Josh Pastner's back meant knocking back at least some of the steadily growing "But can he actually coach?" talk in the Bluff City (and reinforcing a personal pet peeve about tournament sample size). It also meant less pressure on the player that has, for both better and worse, defined Pastner's tenure at the school.

Like many of the very best players Pastner has recruited in his tenure, Jackson is a local product, one of the first Pastner landed, who was unafraid to place his hometown's hopes -- and its uniquely provincial baggage -- on his back. He has also been emblematically frustrating. Hugely confident but too sensitive to criticism. Talented but too inconsistent. At times, he has been Memphis' best player. Just as often, he has moped his way to the bench.

Give Jackson credit for this much: He's still here. Many of Jackson's teammates have been fellow Memphis natives, and by many accounts the dynamic around the program has often resembled a youth team writ large, with whole neighborhoods and high school sets standing in for bickering parents arguing on behalf of one player or another. Rumors of intrasquad squabbles have been just as common. Jackson could have transferred, cordoned himself away from the local intensity, but despite all the struggles he remained. As a junior, he was much improved. His improved third season -- more unselfish and efficient than either of the two that preceded it -- built an excellent foundation for his senior campaign, but there is much more to be accomplished -- a deep tournament run chief among it.

When he arrived four years ago, Jackson embraced the unique pressure of his situation. As he told our own Dana O'Neil:

"I want to be remembered," Jackson said. "I want to be a legend. I want to be a hero. I want old people to see me on television and say, 'Look at that kid. He made it. He did it. That's who I want you to be like.'"

His performance has never quite matched that ambition. He has one more chance to close the gap.

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