College Basketball Nation: Fran McCaffery

Now that Iowa has last Sunday’s win at Ohio State out of the way, we can officially say farewell to the Hawkeyes' well-earned narrative -- that they didn’t know how to finish games -- and get down to the much more enjoyable business of appreciation. And not a moment too soon.

If Iowa had made it this deep into its immensely promising season without a marquee victory, everyone would still be focusing on the results, fretting about when and how the Hawkeyes would get the wins they needed to guarantee an NCAA tournament berth. That win in Columbus (to say nothing of Sunday’s 94-73 drilling of Minnesota) gives us license to stop exclusively grading results and instead enjoy a face-first swan dive into Fran McCaffery’s glorious process.

[+] EnlargeAdam Woodbury
Ryan Young/Getty ImagesAfter being relegated to the NIT last season due to an inability to finish close games, this season's Hawkeyes have plenty to smile about.
Last season, when a swath of close Big Ten losses really did resign a statistically impressive Hawks team to the NIT, Iowa made its transition from “rebuilding” to “hold on, Iowa might be pretty good!” primarily on the strength of its defense. That Iowa team shot abysmally from 3-point range and not much better inside the arc; it was a medium-tempo squad that played stout perimeter defense, not unlike most of the Big Ten.

This Iowa team, the 2013-14 version, is like a fever dream by comparison. The Hawkeyes average 73 possessions per game, according to kenpom.com, with an average offensive possession length of 14.3 seconds. That’s the third fastest in the country and the fastest of any high-major team. (Only BYU and Northeastern play at a faster pace.) This is head-turning stuff in any league. In the traditionally slow-paced Big Ten, it’s unheard of.

Still, pace is just speed. There’s no point to playing fast if all you’re doing is hustling up bad shots. Iowa is not that. Iowa, believe it or not, also happens to be one of the most efficient offensive teams in the country. These Hawkeyes shoot the ball vastly better than a year ago, they don’t turn it over often, they rebound their own misses and they draw fouls. Frankly, there isn’t an area of offensive basketball where they don’t excel.

And even with all of that said, the most impressive and surprising factor in Iowa’s offensive renaissance is its sheer strength in numbers. Guard Roy Devyn Marble uses 27.9 percent of possessions and takes 30 percent of Iowa’s shots; he’s the obvious featured weapon. But the Hawkeyes also have inside-out forward Aaron White, sharpshooter Zach McCabe, rebounding machine Melsahn Basabe, savvy point guard Mike Gesell and sophomore forward Jarrod Uthoff, the former Wisconsin transfer whose offensive rating of 129.4 trails only White (132.6) in the internal race for maximization of touches.

And those are just the starters. (Slight correction here: Woodbury actually starts, though Uthoff plays more minutes.) Center Adam Woodbury and forward Gabriel Olaseni are interior anchors off the bench, while Peter Jok and Anthony Clemmons provide a change of pace at guard. Even occasional fan punching-bag Josh Oglesby, now freed from the burden of more than a handful of minutes per game, has seen his offensive rating leap from 93.6 to 131.9 in the matter of just one season.

When McCaffery arrived at Iowa four years ago, he did so in the wake of the dreary Todd Lickliter disaster, and he promised a spiritual return to classic up-tempo Iowa teams of old. The Hawkeyes would run, he said, and they’d give fans something to cheer for. Plenty of coaches say the same thing in the early stages of a rebuild when there is little to lose by being less hard on the eyes. Few follow through on it quite so heartily.

The result is a team that can become almost impossible to plan for. For Michigan, where Iowa travels in search of another quality win Wednesday night, the hopes of slowing the Hawks down and playing a half-court game are barely more preferable (if at all) to the idea of getting into a perimeter footrace with one of the most willfully speedy teams in the country.

If Iowa goes another unlikely month without a marquee win, we can recommence the narrative nail-biting. But for now, just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Game Plan is our Monday morning primer designed to give you everything you need to know about games that were and the games that will be in college hoops this week. Send us feedback and submissions via email and Twitter.

There’s a great detail in the Associated Press recap of San Diego State’s 61-57 win over Kansas on Sunday, the Jayhawks’ first nonconference home loss in more than seven years and almost certainly the biggest win in SDSU basketball history. How, exactly, did the Aztecs end KU’s 68-game home nonconference streak? What set them apart from so many who came before?

"Our coach never gets rattled," San Diego State forward Winston Shepard said. "He's always even-keeled. … After every timeout, he tells us to take a good thought out there."

"He just tells you to think something positive, whether it's basketball, family, whatever. Think something positive," guard Xavier Thames said. "I think that really helps."

Think happy thoughts. It is brilliant and endearing in its simplicity, a testament to the work Steve Fisher has done -- is doing -- with yet another of his irrepressible San Diego State teams.

[+] EnlargeBill Self
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelBill Self didn't like what he saw against San Diego State on Sunday.
It is also, let’s face it, a timely prescription for Kansas fans.

If Sunday night was a bellwether in the long-term arc of Fisher’s program, it was also a noteworthy status update on the compressed short-term development of Bill Self’s 2013-14 Jayhawks. Back in November, we noted that this season would be the first in a decade in which Self would have to work with a team almost entirely composed of inexperienced players, freshmen or both.

There are no classic Self-ian four-year projects made good on this team, no one who’s had the intricacies of the high-low motion offense burrowed into his head every day for four years. Instead, there is talent. So compressed is the key word: Could Self get this team where it needed to be in a few months’ time?

On Sunday night, the answer was a resounding “not yet, anyway.” Rarely has so much talent been such an inconsistent viewing experience: When the Jayhawks unleash Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, as they did against New Mexico and Georgetown in the three weeks since that Dec. 10 loss at Colorado, the result can be thrilling. But just as often, they look like they did Sunday night: stagnant, predictable, easy to guard.

Shooting remains the issue: The Jayhawks are one of the nation’s most efficient teams around the basket but are merely sub-mediocre from the perimeter. Against inferior opponents, this doesn’t matter; Kansas gets points anyway. But against elite defenses with intelligent game plans that sink in and destroy KU’s spacing, the whole thing slows to a crawl. Twitter keeps telling Wiggins to “take over” and “be more assertive” without noticing the cluster of defenders standing between him and the rim.

Still, context is key. Kansas is in no risk of disappointing in any severe way; we’re talking about a would-be national title contender reaching its true potential (or not). These young Jayhawks have played the nation’s most unforgiving nonconference schedule and acquitted themselves fairly well. The upside potential is, to use an old NBA draft joke, tremendous. And, hey: When someone breaks your 68-game nonconference home win streak, it means you won that many games in the first place.

See? Happy thoughts.

ICYMI: TOP STORIES

1. Wisconsin 75, Iowa 71. You wouldn’t like Fran when he’s angry (VIDEO): “What I feel bad about is getting the second one. The first one, I think it’s safe to say I kind of went after that one a little bit. The second one -- I’m not so sure about that.” That was Iowa coach Fran McCaffery after Sunday night’s 75-71 loss at Wisconsin. Late in the second half, McCaffery received two technical fouls in quick succession -- the latter of which he received after crossing midcourt and bumping into an official. The four points Wisconsin got at the free throw line were equal to the game’s final margin, which, of course they were. The narrative gods must be sated. The real takeaway, barring any discipline from the Big Ten office, is that two years on, this Iowa team keeps losing important, close, hard-fought and very winnable games.

2. Wake Forest 73, UNC 67: Signs of life in Winston-Salem. The past three years have been about as bad as it gets for basketball fans in Winston-Salem. Fans hated coach Jeff Bzdelik, then turned ire toward Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman, then moved to some weird hybrid of pity, apathy and depression, and I’m not sure which is worst. You know the fastest way to cure all of that? Beating North Carolina, of course! Bzdelik got his first big win as Wake’s head coach and moved to 11-3 on the season; Wellman got his first real sign of progress from a coach on whom his reputation is staked. Big, big win.

3. Southern Illinois: Mother Nature’s Boys: How much of a mess is the entire upper Midwest right now? Southern Illinois spent the night on I-57 in Illinois stranded on its team bus. Also, it was 50 below in Minnesota. That’s how messy.

STAT OF THE WEEK: Colorado was so good in its 100-91 win over Oregon on Sunday -- the first loss of the Ducks’ season, by the way -- that the Buffaloes turned the ball over on nearly 22 percent of their possessions and still scored 100 points on 75 possessions. They shot 57 percent from the field, 42 percent from 3 and went 33-of-36 from the free throw line. They scored 56 points in the second half. Forget it: This entire box score is your stat of the week.

THE GAMES YOU NEED TO SEE

Tuesday: Ohio State at Michigan State, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: January is kind of the worst for a whole lot of reasons (again: 50 degrees below zero!); college basketball is not one of them. This is a massive game, the Big Ten’s two clear favorites squaring off in the Breslin Center, made more so by the fact that it feels like the first calling-card conference road game of the season. I love January.

Baylor at Iowa State, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: For all of Baylor’s lanky, NBA-bound talent, the Bears actually play shockingly methodical basketball -- through Sunday they averaged 63.3 possessions per game, 339th in the country. Iowa State, on the other hand, likes to churn possessions as quickly as any team in the country. The stylistic matchup here is good in and of itself; when you throw in the talent and a Big 12 up for grabs, it’s a no-brainer.

Thursday: Memphis at Louisville, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: An old C-USA rivalry from when the C-USA was still a thing. Let’s hope these two pick things back up next season, when Louisville is a member of the ACC. In the meantime, Louisville fans are still smarting from that loss at Kentucky, while Memphis was outclassed by Cincinnati on its own floor Saturday afternoon. Both have much to prove.

Arizona at UCLA, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: The Bruins have shown zero signs that they can put together a 40-minute defensive effort good enough to stop the best team in the country. But Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams are playing thrilling offensive basketball, and if the Bruins can get hot on their own end, the smattering of fans in the Pauley Pavilion might actually, like, applaud or something.

Saturday: North Carolina at Syracuse, noon ET, ESPN: Can someone explain the North Carolina Tar Heels? No? OK. For now, just know that they’ve beaten Louisville on a neutral court and Michigan State in East Lansing and, as of Sunday, lost to UAB, Belmont, Texas and Wake Forest. So obviously they could win at Syracuse.

PHOTO OF THE WEEK

Steve FisherRich Sugg/Kansas City Star/MCT/Getty Images"Coach, help! I'm out of happy thoughts!" "OK, Winston: Remember how we thought the 'Assassin's Creed' series was over for us forever after III? Assassin's Creed IV is amazing, son. You're a pirate and you sail around and --" "Thanks, Coach. I got this."

MADISON, Wis. -- He defended the costly, ill-timed tirade. That’s what players do.

The leader knew what he was doing, he said.

The coach just wanted to change the vibe, he said.

The man on our sideline is always right, he said.

“It got us riled up,” Iowa point guard Mike Gesell said. “Got us excited as a team. I wouldn’t say it was a negative thing or anything like that. We all trust in Fran. We all trust in what he’s doing. And we know that everything he does is for the best.”

He’s wrong. That wasn’t best for the team.

Fran McCaffery’s outburst and subsequent ejection in No. 22 Iowa’s 75-71 loss at No. 4 Wisconsin on Sunday night disrupted the Hawkeyes as they pursued the best win of their head coach’s tenure.

After the game, McCaffery implied that the first technical foul was a deliberate attempt to jolt his program. But his team had the lead against an undefeated Badgers team when he decided to lose it.

He could’ve used that energy to outcoach Bo Ryan -- he did that in a first half that ended with Iowa leading by 11 -- down the stretch. Instead, McCaffery unleashed a soon-to-be-viral wrath of anger that led to a pair of technical fouls and an ejection midway through the second half.

Wisconsin made five of its six free throws -- four attempts for the two technical fouls, two for a foul against Gabriel Olaseni -- and seized an advantage that it never relinquished.

McCaffery denied that he had made contact with an official and did not expound on the incident in his postgame news conference. But Big Ten officials in Chicago will have the final word on that.

The tantrum after the tantrum was even worse than the initial eruption. Earning the first technical foul might have been a scripted attempt to energize his team. But the display that resulted in the second technical foul was an exorcism.

An uncontrollable McCaffery had to be restrained by assistant Andrew Francis as he charged toward officials multiple times before he ultimately left the floor.

After the game, McCaffery expressed some remorse, although he refused to discuss specifics.

“I can’t address that, as much as I would like to,” he said.

“I think what I feel bad about is getting a second one. I think the first one, I think it’s safe to say that I kind of went after that one a little bit. The second one, I’m not so sure about that.”

Iowa didn’t need that.

McCaffery has worked hard to mold this program since his arrival in 2010. The Hawkeyes have the pieces to contend for the program’s first NCAA tournament berth in years. He has an 11-man rotation.

Former Wisconsin forward Jarrod Uthoff, a double-digit scorer most nights, comes off his bench. Peter Jok, the top recruit in the state of Iowa last year per RecruitingNation, didn’t even play against the Badgers.

There were no guarantees that Iowa would have left Madison with a win if McCaffery had managed to avoid an ejection. But we’ll never know.

And that’s not fair to Iowa or Wisconsin.

The Badgers deserve praise for their second-half turnaround. The same team that registered 24 points in the first half and began the game with a 1-for-13 clip, somehow outscored the Hawkeyes 51-36 after halftime. The Badgers won by four, even though they were outscored 36-12 in the paint. They went 6-for-9 from the 3-point line in the second half. And Iowa couldn’t stop Ben Brust, who scored all 19 of his points after halftime.

This resilient bunch might be the best squad in the Big Ten.

But McCaffery’s temper wouldn’t allow the Hawkeyes to prove that they’re contenders, too.

It was not the first time that McCaffery’s emotions had been problematic. He slammed a chair during a loss to Michigan State in 2012. As Siena’s coach, he was ejected from a game against Hofstra in 2006. His wife, Margaret, was kicked out of the game, too.

If 100 is the emotional threshold that warrants a technical foul, McCaffery certainly coaches in the 90s most games. And he’s not alone in that.

Fiery coaches are plentiful throughout college basketball. And sometimes the nose-to-nose, technical-foul worthy productions are viewed as necessary tactics that inspire players.

That’s part of the problem.

Coaches are called strategic when they draw technical fouls. Players are immature when they do the same thing.

If McCaffery were a significant Iowa player who’d been ejected with his team holding the lead in a crucial Big Ten road game, he’d be called a hothead. He’d be blamed. And probably disciplined.

Maybe he’d be benched by his head coach. Maybe he’d have to wake up early and run laps.

But what recourse does a player have when his coach deserves the scolding and punishment?

“It helped us out, so I’m not complaining,” guard Josh Gasser said after the game.

In the final seconds, Gesell dribbled into Wisconsin’s web and nearly lost the ball.

He seemed rushed and uncertain. But he recovered.

The Hawkeyes were down by four points then. And Gesell missed an unnecessary 3-pointer from the corner with 1:15 to play.

Sam Dekker drew a foul and scored -- Iowa failed to sprint to the other side of the floor -- and stretched Wisconsin’s lead to seven points.

Somewhere in the bowels of the Kohl Center, McCaffery found a TV and watched his best Iowa team fall short on the road.

He had coached his players to play smart basketball.

He had instructed them to stay tough on the road against a talented, relentless team.

They had obviously listened. They had the unblemished Badgers on the ropes. They had won the first nine rounds of this Big Ten bout.

But then, McCaffery left the floor.

He didn’t invigorate the Hawkeyes, though.

He abandoned them.

Video: Iowa coach loses cool

January, 5, 2014
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Iowa basketball coach Fran McCaffery was ejected in his team's game against Wisconsin.

The state of the Big Ten

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In recent years, the Big Ten has boasted an assembly of athletes who have boosted the league to the top of college basketball’s conference rankings.

Players who could’ve turned pro returned and granted the league a lineup of experienced players who carried their respective squads for multiple seasons. Evan Turner, Trey Burke, Cody Zeller, Draymond Green, Deshaun Thomas, Jared Sullinger, JaJuan Johnson, Tim Hardaway Jr. and others had opportunities to sign NBA contracts a year or two earlier than they did. Instead, they stayed and strengthened their teams and subsequently, the entire conference.

Prior to changes at Minnesota and Northwestern this past offseason, only four of the 12 Big Ten schools (Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Penn State) had changed head coaches in the previous five seasons. That continuity has fueled immense success for a league that has earned 20 total bids in the last three NCAA tournaments.

There are, however, more questions now.

Other than Michigan State, the Big Ten’s membership enters the season possessing promise but also dealing with a rare uncertainty. Michigan and Ohio State return elite talent, but you can’t ignore what both lost from last season. Indiana could blossom behind some youngsters, but how many teams improve after a pair of top-five picks turn pro? A fleet of seniors have left Madison. Iowa is still a “maybe” to many.

Illinois and Purdue? They’ll either surprise or spend the year at the bottom of the league.

Even with four teams cracking the Associated Press’ Top 25 preseason poll, the Big Ten is somewhat of a mystery as this weekend’s tipoff to the 2013-14 season approaches. Still, there’s plenty of hope for many squads in this league.

There’s just a lot we don’t know (yet) about the Big Ten.

The Contenders

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
AP Photo/Andy ManisTom Izzo has a Michigan State team with enough talent to return to the Final Four.
Michigan State: Tom Izzo has another capable crew in East Lansing this season. Adreian Payne and Keith Appling anchor the Big Ten favorite and national title contender. Gary Harris is a future lottery pick who could campaign for All-American honors. Whenever Izzo has this much talent and experience, his teams usually reach the Final Four.

Michigan: The answer is no. No, the Wolverines won’t replace Wooden Award winner Burke no matter how productive Derrick Walton Jr. is in his freshman season. But John Beilein’s pillars -- Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary -- and his stellar recruits should give Michigan a serious shot at the Big Ten crown.

Ohio State: Somehow, Aaron Craft is still eligible and available to squash the dreams of perimeter players throughout the country. Without Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes will probably spread the ball around more than they did last season. But LaQuinton Ross -- assuming we see the same player who lit up the Big Dance a few months ago -- might be the star Thad Matta needs to make a postseason run and snatch another Big Ten crown.

The (Possible) Contenders

Indiana: If exhibitions are to be believed, then Yogi Ferrell has become a more dangerous threat from the field since registering a 45.4 effective field goal percentage last season. That matters, but not as much as the maturation of the rest of the roster does (will). How much production will Noah Vonleh and a bunch of inexperienced youngsters give Tom Crean? We’ll find out soon.

Wisconsin: Say it with me three times: “I will not doubt Wisconsin, I will not doubt Wisconsin, I will not doubt Wisconsin.” Once again, however, there are a few reasons to doubt the Badgers, simply because they’re entering the season without a trio of seniors (Mike Bruesewitz, Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren) who made a major difference last season, and they’re depending on a point guard who's returning from a serious knee injury (Josh Gasser). Sam Dekker and Co. will probably maintain Bo Ryan’s streak of 20-win seasons (10 in a row) and top-four finishes in the Big Ten.

Iowa: The rebuilding phase is over, folks. The Hawkeyes return every meaningful player from a team that won 25 games and finished 9-9 in conference play during the 2012-13 season. It’s time for Iowa to finally make some noise in the Big Ten race and get back to the NCAA tourney. Fran McCaffery has the pieces to achieve both.

The Questionable

Purdue: The last thing Matt Painter needed was a bout of early drama involving young star A.J. Hammons. But that’s exactly what he’s facing after Hammons was recently suspended for three games after violating team rules. If Hammons gets his act together -- it’s always if with him -- the Boilermakers could sneak into the at-large mix.

Illinois: Same for John Groce’s squad. Groce adds eight new faces to the program. This is a much different team compared to the one that reached the NCAA tournament last year. But if Groce can help transfer Rayvonte Rice become the star he was at Drake two seasons ago, Illinois might make a case for another berth.

The Bottom

Minnesota: Richard Pitino has his father’s last name and hair, but nothing resembling the players Rick Pitino used to win the national title with Louisville in April.

Northwestern: Chris Collins is already making strides in recruiting, but he doesn’t have the beef inside to compete in the Big Ten yet.

Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have a new arena, but Tim Miles’ squad has the same problems.

Penn State: Tim Frazier will have to carry a very heavy load. Again.
Prepare yourself: In the next five months, you are going to hear a lot about the Iowa Hawkeyes.

This is for good reason. Iowa was a bubble team in 2012-13, which in itself was a drastic improvement over the post-Todd Lickliter rebuilding years, but "bubble team" sells the Hawkeyes short. Iowa didn't make the tournament largely thanks to its ugly schedule and its lack of marquee wins. But the Hawkeyes' failures in attention-grabbing bubble games were usually of the heartbreakingly close variety, the bane of a good young team that couldn't quite get over the hump. An even cursory glance at Iowa's advanced analytics -- where it finished No. 22 in adjusted defensive efficiency, and No. 24 overall -- revealed an underrated group that did battle with the best conference in the country and survived to tell the tale. Now, with basically everyone back, the Hawkeyes look like a lock to finish in the top half of the Big Ten. Title contention is not out of the question.

[+] EnlargeFran McCaffery
Reese Strickland/USA TODAY SportsIowa coach Fran McCaffery knows that his team won't be short on talent next season.
There's just one thing missing: Three-point shooting! The Hawkeyes shot just 30.5 percent overall from 3 last season, and were dead last in the Big Ten at 28.5. Shooting accuracy was a general issue -- Iowa finished at 47.0 percent from inside the arc, which is hardly burning up the gym -- but nowhere were the Hawkeyes worse than when they launched from behind the arc (which they did on 31.5 percent of their field goals).

As you might imagine, coach Fran McCaffery and his staff just so happened to notice the wall of bricks lining the Carver-Hawkeye Arena floor, and they're going to go ahead and ask that everyone shoot a little bit better this time around. From the Iowa City Press Citizen (hat tip: Eric Angevine):
“I would be surprised if we didn’t shoot better from 3 (in 2013-14),” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “Because we have multiple guys who can shoot 3s. It starts with Mike Gesell and Josh Oglesby. And guys like Zach McCabe, Peter Jok, Jarrod Uthoff and Anthony Clemmons. We’ve had so many games where there are multiple guys making 3s. I think Aaron White is going to be better. He’ll get to where he’s above 33 percent. Now that changes everything. Now you have seven guys that make 30 or more 3s in a season.”

(That sound you hear is Iowa fans groaning at McCaffery's nod to Oglesby. My Hawkeyes-obsessed buddy has told me once a week how important it is that Oglseby's minutes are limited. The collective angst isn't quite at Russell Byrd levels, but it's closing in.)

Anyway, even with all of those returning players -- rising sophomore center Adam Woodbury might be the most promising, but White is still a bit underrated, and Roy Devyn Marble is a unique scoring talent -- the biggest cogs in the long-range effort might well be newcomers. Jok was not a highly touted recruit (he's the No. 41-ranked small forward in the 2013 class), but he will arrive as a lights-out shooter whom opposing defenses should have to track right away.

And then there's Uthoff. You remember Jarrod Uthoff, right? The former Wisconsin player whose bumbled transfer process made Bo Ryan the unlikely target of antipathy toward the inherent balance of power between players and schools? Right. With the whole "being a symbol of a larger philosophical debate about the inequity of amateurism" behind him, Uthoff has been, you know, playing basketball -- and impressively so, apparently:
Uthoff can stretch the floor as a big man with a mid to long-range jump shot and improved ball-handling skills. Uthoff also has the size and athleticism to score from the blocks through tip-ins or dunks, and he can defend multiple positions.

"Jarrod has been playing really well this summer. He can hit outside shots, and obviously he creates matchup problems for those post guys inside,'' Iowa senior forward Zach McCabe said. "He was always working on his game, just getting ready. Just talking to him, he's sick of sitting out. He wants to play.''

With Woodbury, White and senior forward/rebounding specialist Melsahn Basabe, Iowa suddenly has a glut of forwards capable of competing in the Big Ten. Uthoff will be a factor in that mix, too, particularly as the Hawkeyes look to maintain the defensive excellence that served them so well in 2012-13 and, when possible, make a few 3s, too. Even if the "let's shoot better" plan doesn't come to fruition, Iowa is almost certainly going to be a tournament team. But if deep range becomes a part of the arsenal, a tourney berth will soon seem like a quaint afterthought.

Baylor blows out Iowa, wins NIT

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Baylor BearsJoe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsThe Baylor Bears celebrated the Big 12's first NIT championship win at Madison Square Garden.
Baylor made history in New York.

The Bears became the first Big 12 team to win the NIT, soundly defeating the Iowa Hawkeyes 74-54 on Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

"I’m proud of these guys," Baylor coach Scott Drew said. "Really proud of their heart and determination, and they’ll always be remembered. Whenever you make history -- you don’t get a lot of chances to do that."

Baylor led 27-22 at halftime, and Iowa cut the deficit to 28-27 early in the second half. But the game turned into a rout from there. Pierre Jackson, the Bears' leading scorer (19.9 PPG), heated up, scoring 13 of his 17 points after intermission. He also collected 10 assists, giving him a fourth consecutive double-double, and was named the tournament's most outstanding player.

"In the second half, they were getting some good screens for me to get to the paint," Jackson said, "and I got to the right spots and knocked down shots."

"They’re a terrific offensive team," said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. "They had us spread out. They were moving the ball, and they’ve got a lot of weapons, and Jackson is tremendous."

Iowa, on the other hand, had a nightmarish game on offense. The Hawkeyes shot just 18-for-69 (26.4 percent) from the field and 5-for-24 (20.8 percent) from beyond the arc. They missed open looks on the perimeter and several chippies around the rim, clearly bothered by the presence of 7-foot-1 center Isaiah Austin (15 points, 9 rebounds, 5 blocks) and 6-foot-9 forward Cory Jefferson (23 points, 7 rebounds).

[+] EnlargePierre Jackson
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsPierre Jackson was named NIT tournament MVP.
Roy Devyn Marble, who had scored 21 or more points in each of Iowa's first four games in this tournament, finished with just six, shooting 3-for-12 from the field.

"[It] seemed like we just kept missing easy shots," McCaffery said. "The stat that jumps out at me is we had 20 offensive rebounds against this team. That’s effort. That’s special. That should have equated to more success offensively."

Baylor (23-14) was ranked No. 19 in the country in the preseason, so ending up in the NIT was a disappointment. But the Bears certainly finished the season strong.

"You look at most teams in the NIT, they probably lost a lot of close games, and with our team, we lost some close games," Drew said. "And the common denominator was when we shot over 70 percent from the free throw line, we won, and when we shot in the 50s and 60s, we lost. That’s with a young front line."

Drew will lose his starting backcourt of Jackson and A.J. Walton, both seniors. But if the talented post players return, Baylor will be dangerous next season.

Iowa (25-13) had its NCAA tournament bubble burst Selection Sunday but gained valuable experience by playing five more games. Senior swingman Eric May departs, but everyone else should be back, and the Hawkeyes should go dancing next season, for the first time since 2006.

"There’s just no substitute for experience," McCaffery said. "Come to Madison Square Garden, the greatest venue in sports, and play twice against two really good teams, win one, lose one, learn from that -- it can only make us better."
Well, well, well. Apparently, a few teams want to go to the tournament after all.

OK, so of course everyone wants to play in the NCAA tournament. But watching the past week or so of college hoops, you could have been convinced otherwise. Why, it was just last Saturday that basically every SEC bubble team lost a bad game, while Arizona State, St. John's, Iowa State, Indiana State and Akron, just to name a few, suffered the kind of losses that can cost you a bid in the tournament.

The weekdays since haven't been much better. Virginia spent all week undoing the résumé boost earned with its victory over Duke. Kentucky lost at Georgia. Baylor flopped against Texas. It got so bad we had to begin considering the fringiest of the fringe -- Southern Miss, Iowa, Providence, Maryland -- even though it was almost physically painful to imagine most of those teams in the tournament.

And then, finally, mercifully, some of these teams started acting like they wanted to play meaningful basketball in March. Kentucky, Tennessee, Boise State and Baylor all got huge wins at home. Iowa State held on at West Virginia. Even Cincinnati, which had been quietly slipping toward the bubble in recent weeks, avoided a brutal loss to South Florida.

It wasn't all good news. Oklahoma lost at TCU. Arizona State fell flat at Arizona. Xavier, Providence and St. John's all missed chances to get somewhere near reality in this thing. There were, as there always are, a handful of head-scratchers -- how Louisiana Tech goes three months without losing once and then drops back-to-back games in the matter of two days is beyond this humble bubbleologist.

But the end effect is clear: The bubble is just a little more firm than it was at the start of the day, a little tougher to crack. Good things happen when players play like they actually care about making the tournament. Who knew?

WINNERS

Kentucky: The biggest bubble story of the day, and almost certainly the most impactful, Kentucky's win over Florida put the Wildcats back on the right side of the bubble in their final regular-season opportunity. Considering where Kentucky was after its loss at Georgia this week -- all self-recrimination and disbelief -- it was a bit remarkable to stand up at the last possible moment, once and for all.

I won't spend a whole lot of time here, because you can read my reaction from this afternoon here. Long story short: UK is no lock to make the tournament, and it still has to navigate a tangle of prospective bad losses in the SEC tournament, but right now, compared to much of the rest of the bubble, the Wildcats are closer to being in than not.

Baylor: I am not above making a tired and dumb bodysnatchers joke -- see pretty much anything I've tweeted about Keith Appling for the past three weeks -- but rare is the opportunity to do so in regards to a team that plays inexplicably well. Today, Baylor is that team.

I mean, how else do you explain the Bears not just beating Kansas in Waco, Texas, but blowing Kansas out? When in the past seven days we've seen a) Baylor lose at home to K-State on one of the most heartbreaking (and poorly executed) final seconds of the season and b) lose 79-70 at Texas? That team -- a team that was admittedly still playing hard but looking utterly lost in doing so -- turned around and beat the Jayhawks by 23 points in the penultimate game of the regular season. How does that happen?

Complete shock aside, the bad news for the Bears (sorry) is that they're just 2-10 against the RPI top 50, 5-10 against the top 100, and still have a prohibitively high RPI (No. 73 entering Saturday). As nice as Saturday's win was, and for as much as it helped the Bears, the damage they did in recent weeks isn't so easy to overcome in one fell swoop. They still need more -- and a first-round Big 12 tourney shot against Oklahoma State is an awfully good place to start.

Boise State: In case you're not up to speed on the Broncos -- and no, they don't play their home games on blue hardwood -- they established their potential tournament case all the way back on Nov. 28, when they shocked Creighton (then the No. 11 team in the country) on its home floor. (Eight days earlier, they had pushed Michigan State 74-70, and we all wondered what was wrong with the Spartans. Go figure.) Since then, they've trucked along in the Mountain West in almost exactly the fashion you'd expect: They've beaten some of the league's toughest teams (UNLV, Colorado State) at home and fallen to some of the league's lesser squads (Air Force isn't a bad loss; Nevada is) on the road. In other words, today's win over San Diego State wasn't exactly revolutionary; it was a realistic get, and the Broncos got it. The one thing really setting Jeff Elorriaga & Co. apart from the rest of the bubble dregs is their quality wins. Add one more.

Tennessee: What is it with Tennessee and late-season boosts? The Volunteers did this last season, too, when they turned a brutal first two months into a 10-6 SEC performance and a late desperate push to get into the NCAA tournament. It didn't happen then, but after Saturday's home win over Missouri -- a thank-you card addressed to Phil Pressey is currently in the mail - it looks very much like it's happening now.

I'm not saying that a home win over Missouri is this huge bubble landmark. It's at least a degree or four below a win over Florida. Missouri's only true road wins all season came at Mississippi State and South Carolina. Road warriors these Tigers are not, but combined with UT's other work -- eight wins in its past nine games, including a 30-point demolition of Kentucky and its own victory over Florida -- the résumé is now right in the middle of the bubble picture. Like Kentucky, or really any of these SEC teams, anything can happen going away. But for now, the news is good.

Iowa State: Of any of these bubble winners, Iowa State should be in the best shape. For one, the Cyclones are easily the best team in this group; even a cursory glance at their efficiency numbers (especially when contrasted with the rest of these teams) reveals one of the best offenses in the country and a top-35-ish team overall. I also happen to think the committee will go outside its nitty-gritty sheets and delve into Iowa State's two losses to Kansas, both of which came in overtime, the latter of which was ripped from them thanks to some truly diabolical officiating. Anyway, I wouldn't be able to say any of this had Iowa State lost at West Virginia on Saturday. It didn't, and so I can.

Ole Miss: The Rebels won by 14 at LSU. Were they in better position to start the day -- had they not lost to Mississippi State last week, perhaps -- I might have stuck them down in the "Survivors" category. As it is, they remain in the picture, but have a ton of work to do in the SEC tournament. One win won't get it done.

LOSERS

Arizona State: The Sun Devils are basically done. It's not just a loss at Arizona -- that is obviously forgivable, even if the Wildcats aren't nearly as good as we thought they'd be this season -- it's the four losses in a row (to Washington, UCLA and USC, the latter two of which were on the road, before today's loss at Arizona) as well as an RPI in the 90s, the 283rd-hardest schedule, and so on. Credit Herb Sendek and Jahii Carson for getting this program back in the mix in short order, but it's hard to see an at-large here.

La Salle: The Explorers aren't in bad shape, relatively speaking, and you can hardly fault any team for taking one on the chin at Saint Louis, which they did today. But La Salle has been sort of quietly sliding toward the bubble in the past couple of weeks, and losing 78-54 at this point in the season is hardly the best way to impress the committee. Definitely worth keeping an eye on right now.

Oklahoma: Oklahoma has been in great tournament shape for the majority of the past month -- the Sooners have been playing solid hoops, and their RPI and SOS figures are great -- but it nonetheless entered Saturday outside the comfort of lockdom. And then the Sooners lost to TCU. That probably isn't enough to put Oklahoma below a score of the teams you see here, but when you really dig in to its résumé, there's not much about it that screams "lock." A first-round loss to Iowa State next week could have the Sooners wavering by Selection Sunday.

Colorado: This week's Bubble Watch included a little homily on how the Buffaloes' résumé wasn't all that much different from UCLA's, but Colorado was frequently a No. 10 seed while the Bruins were most often placed on the No. 6 line. That was wrong, I wrote. Naturally, Colorado proceeded to lose at home to Oregon State. Like Oklahoma, the Buffaloes are still in better shape than, say, Baylor, but their regular-season finale was enough to introduce some serious questions going forward.

[+] EnlargeKerron Johnson
AP Photo/Wade PayneAfter forcing OT, Kerron Johnson won the OVC title and an NCAA bid for Belmont by hitting this shot.
Louisiana Tech: Before this week, La. Tech's last loss was at McNeese State all the way back on Dec. 12. This week, the Bulldogs lost two in a row, and whatever slim chance they had of getting an at-large look is now officially gone.

Minnesota: How do you follow up a win against Indiana? If you're Minnesota, you lose at Nebraska and Purdue. I don't really understand how that works, but I don't understand anything about this Gophers team. I don't think Tubby Smith does, either. The good news is Minnesota is still in much better shape than almost anyone on this list, thanks to its batch of top-50 wins and some pretty peerless computer numbers (RPI: 20; SOS: 2). But the Gophers did just finish the Big Ten season at 8-10, and what if they fall in the first round of the Big Ten tournament? You have to at least consider them to be on the bubble right now, right?

SURVIVORS

Alabama: The Crimson Tide scraped out a three-point home win over Georgia on Saturday. That is the definition of bubble survival: A loss probably would have knocked Anthony Grant's team totally out of the conversation. As it is, it's still a bit of a long shot -- the Tide were Joe Lunardi's last team among the first four out Saturday evening -- with absolutely zero good wins on its docket. Just a totally uninspiring résumé.

Southern Miss: Speaking of totally uninspiring résumés: the Golden Eagles, everyone! To be honest, it sort of baffles me that Southern Miss is even in the conversation; its best wins are at Denver and a sweep of East Carolina. But the Golden Eagles are hanging around the very fringes of the bubble, and Saturday's home victory over UCF preserved that ungainly status.

Iowa: If Iowa doesn't make the tournament -- and right now it looks very much like Iowa is not going to make the tournament -- Fran McCaffery will really only have himself to blame. The Hawkeyes' nonconference schedule was that of a team still in rebuilding mode, looking for some forgiving opponents and early-season wins. It didn't help that Northern Iowa wasn't as good as advertised, but still, the overall nonconference schedule rank of 308 looks like it is going to keep this .500 Big Ten team -- which would normally be a worthy distinction -- from serious bubble consideration, barring a big push in Chicago next week.

Cincinnati: What if Cincinnati had lost to South Florida on Saturday? That would have been the Bearcats' seventh loss in their past nine games, would have put them at 8-10 in Big East play and, worst of all, would have been a loss to South Florida, which has been just flat-out bad all season long. Fortunately, Cincinnati didn't lose to South Florida. Mick Cronin's team held on 61-53 and should be in solid shape moving forward.

Belmont: This sort-of-kind-of doesn't count, because Belmont won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament in thrilling fashion Saturday, and its Dance status is now of the automatic variety. But had they lost, it's entirely possible the Bruins would have missed the tournament altogether.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Xavier: Two weeks ago, despite the young Musketeers' growing pains, it was impossible to look at Xavier's schedule and not have your saliva glands start working a little overdrive. Chris Mack's kids would get VCU, Memphis, UMass and Saint Louis all at home, and then they'd finish the season with a trip to Butler. The Cintas Center is a difficult place to play; a 4-1 record was entirely believable, and could have been a season-changing stretch. Instead, Xavier went 2-3 -- it lost at Butler on Saturday 67-62 -- and its tournament credentials look about as so-so as they did back in mid-February. Alas.

Providence: An even bigger long shot than better-than-you-think brothers-in-arms Iowa at this point, at least Providence, which would close the season at Connecticut, had the best chance of notching an impressive road victory on the final weekend of the season. Instead, UConn held on 63-59. Keep an eye on the Friars going forward; like McCaffery at Iowa, Ed Cooley has them playing better basketball than anyone expected this early in his tenure. But a tournament bid will have to wait.

St. John's: After suspending D'Angelo Harrison, sitting Sir'Dominic Pointer for a one-game fighting suspension and losing three in a row, St. John's looked totally cooked coming in to the weekend, both on the bubble and on the court. But the Red Storm didn't roll over. Instead, they gave Marquette a genuine test, forcing guard Vander Blue to make a last-second running layup to win and secure Buzz Williams a share of the Big East title. It was an impressive showing by the Red Storm, albeit one that came up just short. No chance this team gets in the tournament now.
1. Highly-touted freshman forward Sam Dekker will be a major factor for Wisconsin. But he's not the player who has wowed coach Bo Ryan during the first 10 days of official practice. Sophomore center Frank Kaminsky is the player who has caught Ryan's eye more than any other. "He's one of the most improved guys I've ever coached,'' said Ryan of Kaminsky, who averaged 1.8 points in 7.7 minutes a game last season. "He's really doing some nice things. It's going to be hard to keep him off the floor. He moves his body, he know how to move. He has a good feel for passing as a big and he's knocking down the 3-pointer like crazy. He's a big that can stretch and in the post he's developed more than last year.'' Somehow no one should be surprised that Ryan has found yet another big that developed and will suddenly be on the Big Ten radar two years into his career.

2. Iowa is a legitimate sleeper in the Big Ten. I had a question tweeted to me that Iowa coach Fran McCaffery answered on our ESPNU college basketball podcast Monday. The question was simple: Can Iowa win the Big Ten? McCaffery's answer was direct. "I do think it's possible,'' he said. "Can you win the Big Ten with a freshman point guard? Aaron Craft (Ohio State) did. And last year nobody was talking about Trey Burke at Michigan except for me. We're going to beat each other up but we can't lose games by four. At some point we have to win the close games. Michigan did that last year with a freshman point guard. We'll have to do that with a freshman point guard.'' McCaffery is referring to freshman Mike Gesell, who will be the point guard. Meanwhile, Michigan did have a freshman point guard in Burke and the Wolverines finished in a three-way tie for first with Ohio State and Michigan State last season.

3. One of the reasons I have long speculated about why Tubby Smith has stayed at Minnesota is how much he enjoys working with his son Saul on the staff. I spent time with them two years ago and saw how rich their relationship had become professionally with Saul on the staff. Saul's arrest for suspicion of a DUI and subsequent suspension has to be a crushing blow to Tubby. The Minnesota experiment has not been smooth since Day One and this is yet another major obstacle. But this is personal and it will be very interesting to see the long-term effects on the father if Saul doesn't come back to the bench.
PHILADELPHIA -- Andrew Francis sat in a hotel meeting room this past April, one of a handful of young assistant coaches assembled for a seminar. Sitting in the audience was another top assistant, a guy with a reputation as an outstanding recruiter.

“He couldn’t get a job," Francis said.

Francis, an Iowa assistant, was retelling this story from his bleacher seat on the first day of July recruiting. In front of him loomed the long hot month that most every basketball coach calls the "lifeblood" of his program. Like everyone else, Francis would spend the next weeks crisscrossing the country, hoping to lure the great players to Iowa City.

There was a time when acing this and only this part of the job was enough to skyrocket a top assistant up the success ladder.

Francis insists that time has passed.

“You have to be able to recruit, there’s no question,’’ he said. “But you don’t want to be known as just a recruiting guy anymore. There’s almost a negative to it. People want to know that you can get good players, but you also have to know what to do with them. You have to know how to run a program and represent a university.’’

The business of coaching, much like the business of sport, has changed dramatically. The fiscal responsibility entrusted to a top coach turns him into a CEO as much as an X’s and O’s guy, and rare is the university president willing to entrust his multimillion-dollar business to a man who can only do one aspect of the job.

That’s why groups like Villa 7, the consortium designed as a networking organization for young assistants, have prospered and why people like Francis spend as much time sitting in seminars as they do in bleachers.

“Schools want people who know how to talk to recruits, yes, but also to donors, to alums, who they can entrust to run their program and not embarrass their university,’’ Francis said. “Let’s be honest. There’s an awful lot of money in this job these days, so it has to be the right person for the right reason.’’

The challenge is how to distinguish yourself from the pack. Landing players, growing a reputation as a guy who could bring top talent to a roster used to be the golden ticket to instant head coaching.

Now it’s a lot harder. The job market is more crowded than ever and, because of the pressure and expectations, good jobs are tougher to come by.

Francis has followed the old-fashioned route, starting as a volunteer assistant coach at Concordia College, before joining Jay Wright’s staff at Villanova as an administrative assistant and video coordinator. After two years, Philadelphia native Fran McCaffery hired him as an assistant at Siena and after helping to build the Saints into a mid-major winner, made the jump to the Hawkeyes.

And so the natural progression on Francis’ career arc would be to become a head coach if he helps McCaffery steer Iowa in the right direction.

But the vicious cycle is tricky. To get Iowa on track, you need players and to get players you have to be a great recruiter, but being a great recruiter isn’t enough anymore.

“Without question, this is a huge part of my job,’’ Francis said. “There are a lot of great coaches out there, but if you can’t get great players, it doesn’t matter. You can’t win. Still I think the bigger issue is if you get those great players, what will you do with them? Will you make them better players and better men who represent your school well? If you can do all of that, then you’re ready to be a head coach.’’

Best-case/Worst-case: Big Ten

July, 20, 2012
7/20/12
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As part of our Summer Shootaround series, here are the best- and worst-case scenarios for the Big Ten:

Illinois

Best-case: No one's expecting much from Illinois in 2012-13, and the reasons are obvious: With zero in the way of fresh blood entering the program this season, this is essentially the same team that lost 12 of its final 14 games last season (necessitating the firing of coach Bruce Weber) only without its best player, center Meyers Leonard. I get it. But there hasn't been a mass exodus at the program. Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson will be senior guards capable of blowing up at any time (Paul especially). The supporting cast has its holes, but harnessed correctly that's a backcourt that could give plenty of Big Ten teams trouble -- at the very least.

Worst-case: What happens when you add a dearth of young talent, experienced players who pretty much gave up on their last leader and a new coach asked to bring it all together? There is no one answer. Frankly, anything is possible, and while that includes the aforementioned revival from Paul and Richardson, it could just as easily lead to Paul looking around, deciding he's the best player on his team by a lot (not that he would be wrong) and posting yet another incredibly inefficient, borderline-greedy offensive season. I don't think Illinois will totally bottom out this season, but that's only if coach John Groce can convince everyone, Paul included, that's no way to spend a year on the hardwood. If he doesn't, this could get ugly in a hurry.

Indiana

Best-case: Don't look now, Indiana fans, but I'm going to do it: IU's best-case scenario is the NCAA collegiate men's basketball national championship. I know. Crazy, right? What's even crazier is that it doesn't require a huge stretch of the imagination. After all, Indiana will feature the best returning player in college basketball in Cody Zeller, who was dominant as a freshman and (according to every dispatch out of Bloomington this summer) is only beginning to showcase his newfound core strength, defense and versatility. The Hoosiers have a coterie of scorers around Zeller: stretchy wing Christian Watford, rim-attacking guard Victor Oladipo, sharpshooting floor general Jordan Hulls and do-everything Will Sheehey, not to mention a recruiting class that features at least one sure-fire immediate rotation player in point guard Yogi Ferrell. This team is deep and well-rounded and scores like crazy, and it's going to be a lot of fun to see where Zeller & Co. can go.

Worst-case: To go where they really want to be, the Hoosiers are going to have to play better defense. It's just that simple. Indiana improved some last season, but where it really excelled was offense: Tom Crean's team ranked fourth in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency but just 64th on the defensive end (IU's 102-90 tournament loss to Kentucky was thrilling evidence of this disparity). Hulls' size disadvantage makes him unreliable at the point of attack; Zeller and Watford must become better rim protectors; and in general Indiana must find some trait to sustain itself on that end of the floor. At some point in the tournament, everybody goes cold. Eventually, your D has to carry you through.

Iowa

Best-case: It's Year 3 of coach Fran McCaffery's rebuilding cycle, and everything seems to be going according to plan. Iowa has made strides in each of his first two seasons. Now with two talented freshmen from the Iowa-Nebraska border (center Adam Woodbury and point guard Mike Gesell), this could be the year the Hawkeyes officially emerge from their post-Todd Lickliter morass. Other than the freshmen, the keys are rising sophomores Aaron White and Josh Oglesby and junior Melsahn Basabe, who took the Big Ten by storm as a freshmen but fell off a bit last season. If there is a collective step forward and the freshmen prove productive in a hurry, this is an NCAA tournament team waiting to happen. Right on schedule.

Worst-case: Let's not forget, of course, that senior guard Matt Gatens was by far this team's most efficient scorer, not to mention its senior leader -- the guy who almost single-handedly shot Iowa into the tournament last season. His loss is a crucial one. Just as crucial is defensive improvement. In 2011-12, the Hawkeyes were a top-35 offensive team but ranked No. 180 in defensive efficiency and No. 278 in opponents' effective field-goal percentage (eFG%). There is plenty of reason for optimism here, but if Iowa doesn't guard someone, it won't be dancing yet.

Michigan

Best-case: Just last week, Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Year Trey Burke told the media he saw his team as a national title contender. That's a very optimistic best-case scenario, sure, but in such a wide-open hoops landscape, I'm inclined to agree. Burke is one of the nation's best lead guards, and he's complemented well by Tim Hardaway Jr.'s outside-in game. The Wolverines also have a pair of top 25-ranked freshman to fawn over. Like Hardaway, Glenn Robinson III comes equipped with NBA genes, while just last summer forward Mitch McGary was once considered one of the best five prospects in the class of 2012. This is unquestionably the most talented Michigan team in a decade, and if the freshmen excel early, Burke's opinion won't seem farfetched.

Worst-case: It's hard to see this team, which is indisputably more talented and almost certain to be more dynamic, somehow not being in Big Ten title contention by the end of next February. But if somehow the Wolverines are merely above average in 2012-13, it could be because they carry over last season's just-OK defensive effort (No. 60 in adjusted defensive efficiency). Or because they lack the breadth of reliable 3-point shooters (Evan Smotrycz transferred, while Zack Novak and Stu Douglass graduated) who have come to define coach John Beilein's two-guard front offense, which relies on 3-point shooting to stretch the floor. I think Beilein will make it work, and I think Michigan will be very tough to beat. But increased success is far from guaranteed.

Michigan State

Best-case: As good as Michigan's backcourt is, could Michigan State's actually be better? If Gary Harris, the No. 2-ranked shooting guard (and No. 11-ranked player overall) in the Class of 2012 lives up to his considerable hype, it's a distinct possibility. But for seniors Draymond Green and Austin Thornton (and one-year graduate rental Brandon Wood), the Spartans return everybody from last year's 29-8 redeem team, including big-bodied forward Derrick Nix, still-blossoming athletic freak Adreian Payne and impressive freshman Branden Dawson, who should recovery from an ACL tear in time to join the team for the Big Ten season. But the key to it all is point guard Keith Appling. If Appling is a star -- and I would bet he will be -- the Spartans will be right back near the top of the Big Ten, same as usual.

Worst-case: I brushed over Green's departure casually in the above paragraph, but there's really no way to overstate just how important Green was to Michigan State in 2011-12. Not only was he the team's tireless vocal leader, he was its best scorer, rebounder and passer. Without Green to solidify everything the team did, it's not unfathomable to see Michigan State take a step back into respectable but not great territory.

Editor's note: ESPN.com’s Summer Shootaround series is catching up on the offseason storylines for each conference. For the rest of the best- and worst-case scenarios for the Big Ten, click here.
In two years at Iowa, Fran McCaffery's overall record is 29-37. His Big Ten record is 12-24. His only postseason appearance to speak of is the NIT. Yet Tuesday, Iowa announced it had signed McCaffery to a major contract extension, extending the coach's deal by seven years and increasing his salary to a minimum average of $1.66 million per season.

That's a lot of money for a coach with a sub-.500 record. It might give rise to the question: Why?

A better question would be: Why not?

[+] EnlargeFran McCaffery
Mike Carter/US PresswireFran McCaffery is 29-37 as Iowa's coach, 12-24 in the Big Ten.
McCaffery inherited an utter mess when he left Siena for the Hawkeyes in 2010, thanks to the residue of Steve Alford's flame-out and, more importantly, former coach Todd Lickliter's failed tenure. Lickliter damaged the Hawkeyes not only on the floor, but at will call, where already blasÚ Iowa fans were turned off by ugly, slow-paced basketball that came with no payoff. McCaffery has taken the program in the complete opposite direction. He realized early that even if his teams couldn't match up piece for piece, they would play hard, and they would play fast, and they would refuse to sit back and let the Big Ten's slogging behemoths dictate the style of the game. That style has kept McCaffery's teams competitive despite often being outmatched, and more importantly it has given Iowa fans something exciting to cheer for again.

Of course, the past two seasons were just about foundation, about constructing the program's parameters and goals. Now, as he approaches Year 3, a next step -- a move out of the Big Ten cellar, into real competition for an NCAA tournament bid -- is within reach. McCaffery will lose two starters from last season's team, Matt Gatens and Bryce Cartwright, but retains the rest of a young, developing squad. Melsahn Basabe was a beast in the paint as a freshman before suffering a drop-off as a sophomore in 2011; if he reverts to form as a junior, a big year could await. Aaron White was a promising forward presence as a freshman last season. Freshman guard Josh Oglesby posted a 114.5 offensive rating, with a squeaky-clean 8.5 percent turnover rate, in his first year with the team. There is some talent here -- raw but intriguing, and most importantly young.

Even better, the Hawkeyes are adding some legitimate in-state talent to the roster this season. Sioux City, Iowa native Adam Woodbury is the No. 10-ranked center in the class of 2012, and he's joined by the No. 13-ranked point guard, Mike Gesell, a native of the Nebraska side of Sioux City (a detail which I, as an Iowa native, am required to distinguish). Both players are capable of getting big minutes -- and delivering contributions, if not star turns -- as freshmen. Perhaps most important is their origin: Every fan base wants to recruit and cheer for its provincial homegrown talent, and Iowa fans are no different. McCaffery's proven his ability to lure such players, and that no doubt had much to do with the big contract boost Iowa negotiated for its coach this week.

McCaffery's new deal puts him among the top half of salaries in the Big Ten. That little fact tells you all you need to know about Iowa's basketballing ambitions. The Hawkeyes don't expect a Big Ten title every year. They just want to be in the mix.

Thus far, with the possible exception of extreme chair abuse, the former Siena coach has done nothing but hint that he's the man to get them there. Indeed, the best is yet to come.
Consider, for a moment, the kind of week Iowa guard Matt Gatens just had.

On Sunday, he set a then-career high in points, scoring 30 in a 78-66 win over Indiana. Four days later, Gatens scored 33 -- yes, another career high -- in a 67-66 win over Wisconsin. Taken as a whole, Gatens was 22-of-36 from the field, including a scorching 14-for-20 from 3-point range. On Thursday night, he hit two free throws with 3.6 seconds remaining, enough to hold off Wisconsin's final push.

"My teammates are like, 'What's gotten into you, man?'" Gatens told ESPN.com by phone Friday. "It's just one of those things. It feels good. It's all been clicking. It's great."

Wherever the hot stretch came from, its timing couldn't be better. That's true of the Hawkeyes, who are suddenly, desperately clawing their way toward fringe NCAA tournament consideration.

[+] EnlargeMatt Gatens
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallMatt Gatens and the Hawkeyes must win out to have a shot at making the NCAA tournament.
Few people are lucky enough to know what they want to do in ninth grade. Gatens was one of them. That's when Gatens, a top-100 recruit in the class of 2008, committed to then-Iowa coach Steve Alford. This may have been the least surprising commitment of all time. Gatens was born and raised in Iowa City. His father, Mike Gatens, played at Iowa in the 1970s. His mother, Julie, is a former Hawkeyes cheerleader.

Gatens remembers visiting practices as a kid, watching Tom Davis' old teams, idolizing point guard Andre Woolridge -- whose No. 5 jersey Gatens adopted as a child (and still wears today) -- lead the Hawks on the break in front of a rocking Carver-Hawkeye Arena crowd. Back when Carver-Hawkeye used to rock.

Since he was born, Gatens has bled black and gold. If only he'd been born at a different time.

"When I came to Iowa, my goal was to get to NCAA tournaments and compete on a national level," he said. "We obviously haven't done that."

Gatens couldn't have known it at the time, but his commitment would be followed by one of the more fallow periods in Iowa hoops history. Before 2006-07, Alford's final year with the program, the Hawkeyes had reached the NIT or NCAA tournament in 24 of the past 28 seasons. This dated back to Lute Olson's tenure in the late 1980s and early '90s. Alford resigned at Iowa after the 2006-07 season, just one year before Gatens was set to enter the program.

He was replaced by former Butler coach Todd Lickliter, whose tenure at the school might charitably be described as a "disappointment." "Disaster" is probably a better word. Lickliter went 38-57 overall and 15-39 in the Big Ten in three seasons. His final season, a grating 10-22 campaign, pushed football-obsessed Iowa fans away. In 2010, Lickliter was replaced by former Siena coach Fran McCaffery, and Gatens faced the prospect of playing for the program's third coach in five years.

Through no fault of his own, the hometown kid who only ever wanted to play for Iowa found himself caught in a vicious rebuilding cycle. He was a talent, perhaps Iowa's only talent, capable of scoring in bunches -- Gatens has averaged double-digit points in each of his four seasons -- but not quite good enough to carry a program on his back. The easy thing to do -- what many college players do, and understandably so -- is transfer. But Gatens never gave it a thought, never wavered on his teenage commitment. Why?

"I grew up loving the Hawkeyes," Gatens said. "It was always my dream to play here. Iowa fans have a saying: 'Once a Hawkeye, always a Hawkeye.'"

In McCaffery's second season, the Hawkeyes are still rebuilding. McCaffery has two ESPN top-100 recruits, both Iowa natives, on board for 2012. Which is all well and good, Gatens said, but as a senior with just a few more weeks left in his career, he isn't content to go down without a fight. Frankly, he's running out of time.

"I'm just trying to get this program back to where it deserves to be," he said. "We've got a lot of young guys here. The program is going to be fine. But we seniors want to go out and create our own memories for the fans too.

"You just want to get everything you can out of it. We want to get the tournament. We haven't done it, but if we keep playing the way we are down the stretch, I think we can get into that conversation."

It isn't going to be easy. Iowa, which is 2-8 away from Carver-Hawkeye this season, will travel to Illinois and Nebraska for two of its final three games. Both are must-wins, and they're followed by a home date against bubble team Northwestern in the March 3 season finale. After wins over Indiana and Wisconsin, the Hawks' at-large résumé is much better than it was, but their bad RPI (No. 126) and ugly nonconference strength of schedule (No. 305) mean they have to win out (for a 10-8 Big Ten record) and possibly make a run in the Big Ten tournament to get within striking distance of at-large consideration.

It's a long shot, sure, but it's one that didn't even exist before Gatens dropped 63 points and 14 3s on two ranked teams this week. As his career winds down, and the prospect of life after Iowa basketball comes into stark focus, Gatens is trying to be remembered as more than the hometown kid whose career came at the worst possible time.

"Hopefully the fans will remember me as a guy who loved Iowa, whose dream it was to play here, a guy that remained loyal to the fan base through good times and the bad," he said. "But hopefully, they'll remember me as someone who went out on a higher note. Hopefully they can remember me a winner too."
On Jan. 10, the Hawkeyes were in a tough spot. Michigan State was doing what Michigan State often does to teams like Iowa -- defending like crazy and scoring at will and blowing the Hawks off the floor in East Lansing, Mich. -- and by the 11-minute mark in the second half, with MSU leading 69-41, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery had seen enough.

You've seen what happened next: McCaffery lost it. He directed his ire first at the referees, for which he received a technical foul, and he was arguably lucky not to be thrown out of the game. A minute later, he turned his anger inward, gesticulating wildly during a timeout before picking up a padded MSU bench chair and slamming it forcefully down on the Breslin Center court.

[+] EnlargeFran McCaffery
Mike Carter/US PresswireFran McCaffery was able to turn a negative incident into something positive for Iowa athletics.
McCaffery's actions were met by the Big Ten with something less than enthusiasm. League commissioner Jim Delaney said the conference "communicate[d] its concern" to Iowa's athletics department about McCaffery's outburst, and Iowa athletic director Gary Barta had to walk the line between supporting his coach and agreeing that the chair toss was slightly over the line. When asked about the incident, McCaffery was largely defiant, saying he wasn't going to sit on his hands and watch his players get blown out by 40 points without "fighting" and "coaching with passion." All in all, the chair-slam ended up being less controversial than funny, the subject of more amused ("Ha, look at McCaffery lose it! And here comes the chair! Bam!") reactions than outrage. Really, the whole thing seemed premeditated: McCaffery was trying something, anything, to snap his team out of its doldrums.

And that was the last of it, or so we thought. Turns out, McCaffery's infamous chair found another use this weekend: fundraising.

Per Iowa communications director Matt Weitzel, the chair was sold Sunday at an auction/steak fry (mmm, steak fry) benefiting the Iowa baseball program. The chair included McCaffery's signature and two handwritten messages: "Go Hawks!" and "Coach with passion!" The going price? $2,100. You can see a large image here.

Really, it's a win-win: Iowa raises a bit of cash, McCaffery turns his follies into a benefit for his athletics program, and some lucky fan with moderately deep pockets adds a rather hilarious memento to his rumpus room collection. In the meantime, McCaffery's signed message -- "Coach with passion!" -- may just become his trademark calling card. Given McCaffery's typically demure demeanor, perhaps that's the biggest surprise of all.

(Hat tip: The fine folks at Midwest Sports Fans)

Conference Power Rankings: Big Ten

February, 6, 2012
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How many NCAA tourney bids will the Big Ten receive? Five seem safe at this point, but beyond that is anyone's guess -- especially after Illinois' home loss to Northwestern on Sunday.

1. Ohio State: The Buckeyes went to Madison and beat the Badgers at their own plodding game Saturday. Thad Matta's squad isn’t just the best team in the Big Ten right now. It’s arguably the top squad in the country based on the way it’s played during its five-game winning streak. The Buckeyes could really pull away from the rest of the field with a win against Michigan State Saturday.

2. Michigan State: Spartans fans can exhale now. Draymond Green scored 14 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in a 64-54 win over Michigan Sunday, days after leaving the team’s road loss at Illinois with a knee injury. The Spartans get a shot at Ohio State Saturday in Columbus. And they possess the physical style to stifle the Buckeyes.

3. Wisconsin: Can’t knock the Badgers for putting up a 40-minute fight against an Ohio State team that’s been the league’s best squad for weeks. A few late mistakes cost the Badgers. Their challenges from the 3-point line (18.5 percent against the Buckeyes) continue to hurt a team without an inside force. But they’re going to challenge every team in the Big Ten with their stingy defense.

4. Michigan: Yes, the Wolverines had their fourth conference loss of the season Sunday against Michigan State. No, they’re not out of the Big Ten title race. The Wolverines get Ohio State, Purdue and Illinois at home in the coming weeks. And they play Nebraska, Illinois, Northwestern and Penn State on the road. The Wolverines, however, continue to suffer inside with their limited frontcourt depth.

5. Indiana: The Hoosiers have won three of their past five games. Saturday’s 78-61 win at rival Purdue served two crucial purposes for Tom Crean’s program. It saved Indiana from a 5-7 Big Ten record and it snapped its four-game road losing streak in conference play. Only two of Indiana’s final seven games will be played outside of Bloomington.

6. Illinois: The Illini followed Tuesday’s 42-41 home win over Michigan State with a 74-70 loss to Northwestern Sunday … in the same arena, Assembly Hall in Champaign. Really? You try to figure out this up-and-down Illini team because I can’t.

7. Purdue: The Boilermakers have lost three of four. And they play Ohio State, Illinois, Michigan State and Indiana in their last eight Big Ten games. Why are those opponents significant? Because they all have the inside threats that can expose Purdue’s void in the paint.

8. Minnesota: The Gophers have won five of their past seven games. After losing their best player, Trevor Mbakwe, to a season-ending knee injury in November, they could easily be at the very bottom of the Big Ten standings.

9. Iowa: The Hawkeyes are 3-2 at home in 2012. Fran McCaffery’s team has won two in a row. That’s certainly an accomplishment for this rebuilding team.

10. Northwestern: The Wildcats entered the season amid ongoing hope that this would be the first time the program makes the NCAA tournament. That’s not going to happen this season.

11. Penn State: The Nittany Lions have the worst record in the Big Ten at 2-9. But there’s just something about State College. Big Ten teams always seem to encounter trouble when they play there. Plus, Tim Frazier (18.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg and 6.3 apg) is one of the top players in the league. That’s why they avoided the No. 12 slot.

12. Nebraska: The Cornhuskers’ introduction to the Big Ten hasn’t been a smooth one. And that’s too bad because Bo Spencer (15.3 ppg and 3.5 apg) is a special player and he deserves more praise.

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