College Basketball Nation: Iowa Hawkeyes
That statement is hedged with a question mark because this is a gut feeling, and not a clear-eyed, data-driven survey; I'll get to that soon enough, I suppose. But in two weeks of deep Bubble Watch dives to date, I haven't noticed many obvious gaps between what the strange and outdated Ratings Percentage Index says teams are and what those team's actual reality-based performance tells us.
Unfortunately, "fewer" doesn't mean "none." This is where Iowa comes in.
According to Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency metrics, the Iowa Hawkeyes are one of the 10 best teams in the country. They've employed the nation's fourth-most efficient offense to date and its 30th-best defense. In Big Ten play, the Hawkeyes are averaging 1.13 points per possession and allowing 1.0. This aligns fairly nicely with what your eyes will tell you when you watch Iowa play. The Hawkeyes are not a flawless team by any stretch of the imagination -- they can go whole stretches where their up-and-down style causes them to forfeit their defensive core, for example -- but they are a very good one. Top 10? Maybe. Top 15? Almost certainly.
The problem, of course, is that the metrics the men's basketball committee uses to select and seed its marquee competition see things differently. The Hawkeyes rank 30th in the RPI. Most bracket projections, including our own Joe Lunardi's, slot Iowa as a No. 5 seed. That's not terrible, of course, but it feels a little low, given how good Iowa has been for most of this season and how many of its losses have come in tight games against top competition. The RPI agrees on that front -- Iowa's lowest-ranking RPI loss was the Jan. 28 home defeat to No. 19 Michigan State -- because, again, there are fewer gaps. But because the Hawkeyes played a couple too many uber-low RPI squads in the nonconference (No. 348 Maryland-Eastern Shore, No. 340 Abilene Christian, yikes), and because the RPI totally ignores margin of victory, the facts of Iowa's actual performance risk getting lost in the mix. Overtime in the Bahamas to Villanova. By three points on the road at Iowa State. By two at home to the Spartans, thanks to Russell Byrd. By four at Wisconsin after Fran McCaffery was ejected. These are four of Iowa's six losses, and sure, some of this is self-imposed. But some of it is luck.
This is why Saturday's return game against Wisconsin in Iowa City is so very important. McCaffery's team is at no real risk of missing out on the tournament at this point. But a loss, close or not, would solidify its seed ceiling, and make its last four regular-season games -- at Minnesota, versus Purdue, at Michigan State, versus Illinois -- as much a matter of seed maintenance as anything else.
No one wants to be a No. 5 seed. Iowa's close losses and the RPI's quirks have put them there, in spite of the thousands of possessions that tell us they deserve higher. Can the Hawkeyes close the gap?
Syracuse is No. 1 in the AP Poll, but that is based on the subjective votes of media members.
Arizona is No. 1 in BPI and Kansas is No. 1 in RPI. But those metrics are based on formulas that factor in a team’s performance through the entire season.
The more insightful question is: Which team is the best with the roster we think each team will have in the NCAA Tournament?
For most teams, that's their current roster, but there are a few exceptions.
To evaluate that, we'll use each team's BPI with all of its key players. Those key players are defined as the five players who average the most minutes per game among players who have played at least half of the team's games. Games in which a key player played less than 10 minutes due to injury or foul trouble or any other reason are not included.
Florida reigns supreme
Based on this metric, the Florida Gators are the best team in college basketball.
With their current roster -- with Scott Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Michael Frazier II, Patric Young and Dorian Finney-Smith in the lineup together -- they are 17-1, with their only loss coming by one point to UConn on a buzzer-beater by Shabazz Napier.
Undefeated Syracuse comes in at No. 2, followed by Kansas at No. 3.
A healthy Michigan State is dangerous
Michigan State is expected to have Branden Dawson back for the NCAA Tournament. Based on Dawson’s returning, the Spartans would rank fourth with their full squad.
That's a significant jump from their overall No. 15 BPI rank. They've lost four of seven games since Dawson went out.
In their two games with all of their key players except Dawson, the Spartans have a 61.1 BPI (win against New Orleans, loss to Nebraska), which would rank well below any team expected to get an at-large bid. That’s how important a healthy Dawson could be to their chances of going deep in the NCAA Tournament.
Is Iowa a top-5 team?
Based on this metric, the Iowa Hawkeyes are No. 5. They're 18-4 with their full squad.
Jarrod Uthoff has played at least 10 minutes in all but two games (at Michigan and against Ohio State). Iowa lost both.
Arizona isn't top 10 without Brandon Ashley
The Arizona Wildcats have been a much different team without Brandon Ashley, who is expected to miss the rest of the season.
Based on this metric, the Wildcats are No. 13. They're 2-2 without Ashley. That includes losses at California and at Arizona State and a two-point home win against Oregon.
Arizona has the No. 1 BPI with Ashley in the lineup, but it's a different story without him. Ashley could be the difference between Arizona being the National Championship favorite and not even contending for a Final Four berth.
What about Oklahoma State and North Carolina?
Although Michael Cobbins isn't among the top-five Oklahoma State players in minutes per game, the Cowboys are a much different team without him. Their BPI without Cobbins but with Marcus Smart ranks 33rd in this metric among teams currently in the BPI top 40.
Oklahoma State is 4-6 without Cobbins and with Smart, with two wins against West Virginia and home wins against Texas and TCU.
North Carolina's current roster includes Leslie McDonald, who was ruled eligible Dec. 18 after he missed the first nine games of the season. Since then, the Tar Heels' current roster has the worst BPI of any team currently in the BPI top 40.
The Tar Heels are ranked No. 32 overall in BPI, but their three best wins of the season -- against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky -- came without McDonald.
Since McDonald returned, they have losses to Wake Forest and Miami (FL) and didn't have a BPI top-50 win before Saturday's victory against Pittsburgh.
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.
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.
What we're reading as we make our list of preparations for a Friday night spent in front of ESPNU. Hy-Vee Chinese, anyone? Submit links via Twitter.
- This isn't a link, but if you'll allow me … I've written about it already, and been asked about it a bunch this week, both professionally and as a civilian, and I have to say: I can't remember a bigger night for college basketball in the state of Iowa in my lifetime. Sure, the state at large has had some good teams, some great seasons, some fun matchups and some tournament upsets. But I can't remember when both of the state's premier programs, both of which fans openly loathe the other (at least as much as any Iowan can openly loathe anything before retreating into a redoubt of general good cheer) have been this good together. Things usually alternate: A Tom Davis team there, a Tim Floyd era here, a Steve Alford era there. The last half-decade, if not longer, has been depressingly bad for everyone involved. Now, when you throw in the underrated rivalry with the newfound quality of both teams, and mix it with my personal nostalgia for Friday nights spent in basketball gyms in Iowa, you start to get why I'm so irrationally excited for tonight's 9:30 p.m. tip. Now, if I could just some Happy Joe's delivered …
- Black Heart Gold Pants, as good a team-specific blog as there is anywhere, has an immensely insightful scouting report on the Cyclones' and Hawkeyes' collective styles: "Iowa State boasts the nation's top-scoring team, and the formula for getting there has been fairly simple: Dominate the defensive glass, push constantly in transition, and take as many shots as possible. Iowa State is the nation's best defensive rebounding team, pulling down 78 percent of opponent misses. The Cyclones are seventh nationally in tempo (Iowa is 43rd) and run the fifth-shortest possessions in college basketball so far this season (Iowa is third). The tempo statistics belie the fundamental difference between the two teams, a difference that could prove crucial Friday night. Iowa runs in transition and takes extremely fast shots, but forces opponents into long possessions on the other end through the half-court trap and matchup zone: Iowa's opponents spend more time with the basketball per possession than all but six teams nationally, which is the only reason why the Hawkeyes' tempo stat is in the mid-40s. Iowa State has no such qualms about defensive tempo. They play man-to-man defense but don't force many turnovers or commit many fouls, they contest every shot, and they grab every rebound to feed the transition game. It's a simple formula, and it works."
- The formula is hugely reliant on the versatile play of Iowa State guard DeAndre Kane, yet another of the crucial transfer stars that have fueled Iowa State's rebirth under Fred Hoiberg. As CBS's Jeff Borzello wrote this week, Kane's path to Iowa State involved not only a tumultuous, angry, oft-derided career at Marshall, but also, in February of 2012, the sudden death of his father.
- "Cyclone Fanatic's Chris Williams had Iowa State assistant coach, Matt Abdelmassih, on his radio show the other night and Abdelmassih spent a good amount of time raving about how well Iowa pushes the ball up floor … he said this might be a game where Iowa State actually tries to turn it into a half-court battle to limit Iowa's transition opportunities." -- Interesting tidbit from Wide Right and Natty Lite's Cardinal-filtered preview.
- "Dustin Hogue is looking like a juco gem for the Cyclones. The 6-7 forward had a three-star rating from Rivals.com coming out of Indian Hills Community College, where he didn't exactly show signs that he'd be this good in D-I. Hogue averaged 10.5 rebounds per 40 minutes, according to the NJCAA's site. At Iowa State, he's pulled down 14.6 rebounds per 40
and had double-doubles in wins over Auburn (22 points, 16 boards) and Northern Iowa (17 and 14) last week. He's producing at the level of a four- or five-star high school recruit." -- Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn on the surprising success of ISU's Dustin Hogue, just one 16th of the national insight on offer in Luke's weekly power rankings.
1. Kentucky: There may be a lonely faction out there in the Internet hinterlands who would assume this argument is about John Calipari. Sorry, but no: Calipari has nothing to prove. Yeah, Robert Morris in the NIT, I know, I know, but come on: We're not even two full years removed from Kentucky's national title. Remember that? When Calipari got the top two picks in the NBA draft to happily settle for the fourth- and fifth-highest percentage of their team's shots en route to a 38-2 championship season? You remember that, right? Clearly, Calipari can mesh a class of hyper-talented freshmen with a mix of almost-equally-talented returners and win a national title, which is the be-all goal of Kentucky's 2013-14 campaign. That exact thing just happened!
No, this designation is about Kentucky's players. Forget Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist; forget John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins; forget Derrick Rose. Calipari has had a lot of crazy recruiting classes in his career, but none of them have come close to this kind of hype. In March, less than 15 hours after the Wildcats' embarrassing loss to Robert Morris, Julius Randle committed to Kentucky. A few hours later, ESPN.com recruiting guru Dave Telep wrote that Calipari's class was the best ever -- better even than Michigan's Fab Five, "the standard bearer for recruiting classes."
So, yeah, Randle and his classmates -- No. 5 ranked Andrew Harrison, No. 7-ranked Dakari Johnson, No. 8-ranked James Young, No. 9-ranked Aaron Harrison, and No. 25-ranked Marcus Lee -- have something to prove. That goes double for disappointing sophomore holdovers Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein. The ceiling here is unfathomable -- like, undefeated-season-unfathomable -- and it's almost impossible to envision Calipari presiding over another disaster. Not with this talent. But it is incumbent upon a very confident, cocksure group to come together, to sublimate their individual desires for the good of the team — all of that boring, cliche stuff. The inverse of "best recruiting class ever" is "most disappointing recruiting class ever," and that's a legacy no one wants to leave behind.
2. Creighton: Doug McDermott's shot to become the first player since Wayman Tisdale and Patrick Ewing to win three straight first-team All-Americans is -- well, it's a lot of things. It's fantastic shorthand for the evolution (devolution?) of college basketball in the past 20 years. It's a fascinating footnote in the narrative of a player whose father didn't even recruit him to play at Iowa State. And, of course, it's testament to McDermott's consistent individual brilliance. What it is not is a sign of Creighton's collective national success. McDermott has been must-watch viewing these past two seasons, and his teams have been just as brilliant offensively -- free-flowing, smart, up-tempo, fun. But because the Bluejays have never quite built a solid defense on the other end of the floor, they've been limited -- unable to get big stops when they need them in the NCAA tournament. This year, individual brilliance and offensive aesthetics will be old hat. This year, Creighton is expected to do even more. First, they have to prove they can guard.
3. Tennessee: Last fall, when myself, Myron Medcalf, Fran Fraschilla and Joe Lunardi convened for our first-ever college basketball draft, I got lost in the Jarnell Stokes hype. A young freshman who joined Tennessee a semester early in 2011-12, Stokes had helped the Vols surge late in a previously nondescript season, and looked poised to dominate the low block all season in 2012-13. Not so much. Part of that was Stokes' fault -- his desire to prove his power forward bonafides to NBA scouts took him away from the basket, which is a bad idea -- and part of it was the injury to senior forward Jeronne Maymon, who redshirted thanks to a knee injury. After a brief, well-reasoned dalliance with the NBA this spring, Stokes is back, as is Maymon, as is leading scorer and All-SEC first-teamer Jordan McRae -- there's a huge year ahead in Knoxville, Tenn. Now the Vols have to make good on it.
4. Memphis: A lot of this comes down to Joe Jackson. We've discussed this in depth before this offseason, in our list of seniors facing the most pivotal seasons of their careers. (I also discussed that at more length on ESPN Radio in Memphis back in July.) Jackson was No. 1 on that list. But Memphis isn't limited to just one beleaguered-but-still-promising would-be hometown hero. After getting the NCAA tournament win monkey off Josh Pastner's back, this season the Tigers return a veteran backcourt and a massively talented frontcourt and should, by all accounts, be capable of a deep tournament run. (Oh, and there's the new league: The American may not be the old Big East, but it's not recent-vintage Conference USA, either.)
5. VCU: Word out of Richmond is that this may well be Shaka Smart's most talented team, which is something considering the Rams (A) went to the Final Four in 2011 and (B) finished the 2012-13 season ranked No. 16 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings and (C) lost seniors Darius Theus and Troy Daniels. In some ways, the Rams have very little to prove: They have a young, in-demand coach who has quickly morphed an OK basketball program into a very good one; a unique, effectively branded defensive style ("HAVOC"); and a pretty great pep band. So why are they here? Because last season, HAVOC got a little bit gimmicky. That's fine, in so far as it works; I want to go on record saying how much I love watching VCU chase hapless guards around the park. But in 2012-13, the Rams became so dependent on turnovers on the defensive end (and were so bad at checking opposing shooters and chasing down rebounds) that good teams with good point guards -- see, Michigan; Burke, Trey -- could dismantle them with relative ease. This season, the goal is to meld all that HAVOC with some good old-fashioned convention.
6. Virginia: The Cavaliers, like the team directly below them, were a very good team in 2012-13 whose results -- specifically their performance against a dreadful nonconference schedule -- doomed them to the NIT. That can't happen this season, not with Joe Harris shooting 42.5 percent from 3 and looking like a sleeper candidate for ACC Player of the Year, not with senior Akil Mitchell doing quality work on the block, not with all the returning players so expert at Tony Bennett's grinning Wisconsin-style flavor. It's tournament or bust for Virginia, and even that bar is probably too low.
7. Iowa: The Hawkeyes are your other obvious breakout candidate of 2013-14, for many of the same reasons as Virginia: A bad nonconference schedule and a series of brutally close losses during Big Ten play kept an otherwise worthy team (which finished with a top-25 efficiency defense) from gaining widespread national acclaim. Now the hype has turned, and everyone is spending less time talking about the Hawkeyes vis-a-vis the NCAA tournament than their status as a Big Ten title contender. I'm not sure if I'd go that far, but it's clear Iowa has a huge opportunity here. Fran McCaffery finally has a deep, experienced group peppered with genuine high-level collegiate talents, and a defense that will give most of the Big Ten fits. Carver-Hawkeye, so quiet for so much of the past decade, is reaching peak rowdiness levels again. It's time to seal the deal.
8. Boise State: The Broncos did manage to get into the tournament last season, albeit it as a play-in team that failed to survive Dayton. But the appearance was an accomplishment in itself for third-year coach Leon Rice, who has assembled an impressive group of previously unheralded players -- all of whom are back this season. Derrick Marks is an inconsistent but genuinely gifted scorer; Anthony Drmic is a versatile wing with deep 3-point range; Jeff Elorriaga is an even better shooter who made 44.7 percent of his 3s last season; and on down the line. It's the kind of talent that makes any celebration of a No. 12 seed feel quaint. This group is capable of ascending much more notable heights.
9. Oklahoma State: OK, OK, so everyone agrees that Marcus Smart is good at basketball. Smart's decision to return to college despite his Freshman of the Year award-worthy campaign, and the lofty opinions of him at the highest echelons of USA Basketball, have put the Cowboys on the short list of the teams you absolutely need to see this season. Trust me, I'm excited too. But that excitement shouldn't overshadow the fact that Oklahoma State had some issues on the offensive end last season, or the fact that it was summarily stumped by Oregon in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Le'Bryan Nash was the highly touted savior before Smart arrived; he has to live up to his potential. Markel Brown needs to make his overlooked contributions impossible to ignore. And Travis Ford's team needs to find some shooting somewhere -- Phil Forte? Brown? Bueller? -- to compete in the same space as Kentucky, Michigan State, Kansas and
10. Louisville: Yes, Louisville is on this list. Weird, right? I know! But hear me out. Last spring, after four months of (almost) uninterrupted dominance, the Louisville Cardinals won the national title. Soon thereafter, their best player -- arguably the country's best player, period -- announced his intentions to return to school. So did the power forward who put up 15 and 12 in the national title game. So did the swingman who made 12 of his 17 3s, and scored 42 total points, in two Final Four games. This team, by the way, is also adding a universally heralded point guard prospect and two other ESPN 100 recruits. And despite all that, this team is probably not going to start the season ranked No. 1 overall. Even worse? Their rivals, the Kentucky Wildcats, probably will. How's that for something to prove?
Toughest: at UNLV (Nov. 26), vs. Oregon (Dec. 14 in Portland, Ore.), vs. Missouri (Dec. 21 in St. Louis)
Next toughest: at Georgia Tech (Dec. 3)
The rest: Alabama State (Nov. 8), Jacksonville State (Nov. 10), Valparaiso (Nov. 13), Bradley (Nov. 17), Chicago State (Nov. 22), IPFW (Nov. 29), vs. Auburn (Dec. 8 in Atlanta), Dartmonth (Dec. 10), UIC (Dec. 28 in Chicago)
Toughness scale: 6 -- It's hard to really give the Illini a solid schedule grade, because it's hard to know just how good Illinois' best opponents really are. For example: It is never easy to win in the Thomas & Mack Center, but still-unproven center Khem Birch is the most certain thing about the Rebels' personnel in 2013-14; it looks like Dave Rice's team will be a quality road opponent, but impossible to make a guarantee to this effect. The same goes for Oregon and Missouri, both of whom should be solid at the very least, either of which could completely disappoint if their respective transfers don't pan out. A six feels fair to me, but it's an educated guess.
Toughest: 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 21-22), at Syracuse (Dec. 3), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis)
Next toughest: N/A?
The rest: Chicago State (Nov. 8), LIU Brooklyn (Nov. 12), Samford (Nov. 15), Stony Brook (Nov. 17), Evansville (Nov. 26), North Florida (Dec. 7), Oakland (Dec. 10), Nicholls State (Dec. 20), Kennesaw State (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale: 5 -- Two years since the collapse of its long-standing annual date with Kentucky, the Hoosiers have yet to find a home-and-home or even a neutral-court partnership to replace the strength they lost when the rivalry went awry. As such, Indiana's marquee nonconference games have been reduced to their participation in events: The 2K Sports Classic, where they'll play Washington and then either Boston College or Connecticut; the Crossroads Classic, where they'll play Notre Dame in front of a predominantly crimson crowd in downtown Indianapolis; and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The good news, at least as it pertains to schedule strength, is that this season's ACC/Big Ten draw sends IU to Syracuse, where they'll face a rabid Orange crowd and another very good Jim Boeheim team just months removed from their season-ending loss to the Cuse in March.
Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30), Notre Dame (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: at Iowa State (Dec. 13)
The rest: UNC-Wilmington (Nov. 8), Nebraska-Omaha (Nov. 10), Maryland Eastern Shore (Nov. 14), Abilene Christian (Nov. 17), Penn (Nov. 22), vs. Drake (Dec. 7 in Des Moines, Iowa), Farleigh Dickinson (Dec. 9), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale: 6 -- Last season, the ahead-of-schedule Hawkeyes played some of the best defense in the Big Ten, finished top 20 in the Pomeroy adjusted efficiency rankings and made a deep run in the NIT. They were easily one of the best 60 teams in the country, but their nonconference schedule was so weak it precluded Fran McCaffery's squad from serious tournament consideration even as it played tight games with the best teams in the Big Ten every night. That shouldn't be as much of a problem this season, when Iowa will benefit from participation in the Battle 4 Atlantis (they'll face Xavier in the first round, and either Tennessee or UTEP in the second, maybe Kansas in the final?) and a much better opponent (Notre Dame) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They also get Iowa State -- which lost much of last season's excellent offensive group, but retained rising sophomore Georges Niang and that insane Hilton Coliseum home court -- in a quality true road fixture. This slate still isn't a murderers' row, but it shouldn't hold the Big Ten's most fashionable title sleeper back, either.
Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24), at Duke (Dec. 3), Arizona (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: at Iowa State (Nov. 17), vs. Stanford (Dec. 21 in Brooklyn)
The rest: UMass-Lowell (Nov. 8), South Carolina State (Nov. 12), Coppin State (Nov. 29), Houston Baptist (Dec. 7), Holy Cross (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 9 -- The 2012-13 national runners-up, and 2013-14 Big Ten co-favorites, will play a nonconference schedule befitting their newly elevated aspirations. The Puerto Rico Tip-Off, with VCU and Georgetown lurking, ranks among the best tournament events of November. The trip to Duke for the ACC/Big Ten needs little in the way of explanation. (Man, that is going to be a fun game.) The trip to Iowa State is no laughing matter, for reasons outlined in Iowa's blurb; the trip to Brooklyn to face defensive-minded Stanford will be a challenge, too. But the X factor in this schedule comes Dec. 14 when Sean Miller's loaded Arizona group arrives in Ann Arbor for a good old-fashioned campus nonconference tilt. Those kinds of games are rare in our modern, neutral court-dominated landscape, and neither program needed to schedule this one. But I'm happy to speak for most college basketball fans when I say how glad I am that they did.
Toughest: vs. Kentucky (Nov. 12 in Chicago), North Carolina (Dec. 4), vs. Georgetown (Feb. 1 in New York City)
Next toughest: Coaches vs. Cancer Classic (Nov. 22-23), at Texas (Dec. 21)
The rest: McNeese State (Nov. 8), Columbia (Nov. 15), Portland (Nov. 18), Mount St. Mary's (Nov. 29), Oakland (Dec. 14), North Florida (Dec. 17), New Orleans (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 8 -- Most of Michigan State's schedule strength is derived from that monster Champions Classic matchup with potential preseason No. 1 Kentucky, John Calipari's most laughably-loaded group of talented freshmen ever -- which, two years removed from the 2012's 38-2 national title run, is saying something. The Dec. 4 home date against North Carolina won't be easy, but if the Tar Heels are without leading scorer and noted rental car enthusiast P.J. Hairston, the Spartans will be obvious favorites in the Breslin Center. Best-case scenario in the Coaches vs. Cancer (a win over Virginia Tech and a matchup with Oklahoma) still isn't much. The real pivot point comes in late December at Texas. For much of the past decade, that has been a brutal road test having less to do with Texas' crowds (sleepy) than with its teams (defensively brutal). If Barnes' team rebounds from last season's struggles and gets back to its usual spot in the top third of the Big 12, Tom Izzo's schedule looks a good sight harder. If not, it really comes down to that Kentucky game -- and what a game it will be. (Update: My first dig into the Spartans' schedule missed their Feb. 1 Super Bowl Sunday game against Georgetown in Madison Square Garden. The Hoyas are a bit of an unknown quantity without Otto Porter, but that's almost guaranteed to be a tough win to come away with, so I bumped them from seven to eight.)
Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27),
Next toughest: at Richmond (Nov. 16), Florida State (Dec. 3)
The rest: Lehigh (Nov. 8), Montana (Nov. 12), Coastal Carolina (Nov. 19), Wofford (Nov. 21), New Orleans (Dec. 7), South Dakota State (Dec. 10), Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 20), Texas A&M Corpus Christi (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 4 -- The Gophers have at least one true standout game on their schedule: Their first-round Maui Invitational matchup with Syracuse, the best the 2013 Maui field has to offer. Which is not to say their trip to Richmond will be easy; indeed, after an injury-plagued 2012-13 season, Chris Mooney's program looks ready to pop back into tourney-bid contention this season. But that's basically it, besides a decent second Maui game with either Arkansas or Cal. Without would-be freshmen Andrew Wiggins (who chose Kansas instead) and Xavier Rathan-Meyes (who chose FSU, but wasn't cleared academically by the NCAA), the Seminoles could be in for another sub-.500 campaign, and from there it's all home cupcakes befitting a transitioning group -- which, under first-year coach Richard Pitino, is exactly what the Gophers are.
Toughest: at Creighton (Dec. 8), at Cincinnati (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-22)
The rest: Florida Gulf Coast (Nov. 8), Western Illinois (Nov. 12), South Carolina State (Nov. 17), Northern Illinois (Nov. 30), Miami (Dec. 4), Arkansas State (Dec. 14), The Citadel (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale: 5 -- The signs of second-year coach Tim Miles' tepid forward progress are evident not only in the impending opening of Nebraska's new $300 million arena, or in his signing of impressive New Zealand native Tai Webster (who will immediately be the Cornhuskers' best player when he takes the court against Dunk City in early November), but also in Nebraska's schedule. The Charleston Classic could yield a matchup with New Mexico (not to mention first-round opponent UMass), the Dec. 28 trip to Cincinnati is a perfectly respectable road trip, and Dec. 8's visit to Creighton -- the one program whose success can be said to have played a role in Nebraska's newfound commitment to hoops -- has a chance to put the Cornhuskers on the radar before Big Ten play commences. Miles & Co. are still a year or two away, but there are green shoots all over the place here, and the slightly improved schedule is just one more piece of evidence.
Toughest: Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 28-29), at NC State (Dec. 4)
Next toughest: at Stanford (Nov. 14)
The rest: Eastern Illinois (Nov. 9), Illinois State (Nov. 17), UIC (Nov. 20), IUPUI (Nov. 22), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 25), Western Michigan (Dec. 7), Mississippi Valley State (Dec. 16), Brown (Dec. 22), DePaul (Dec. 27)
Toughness scale: 6 -- First-year coach Chris Collins is the first person to admit that his rebuilding project will be a multiyear affair. The immediate future will be just as challenging: Collins has to get a group of players recruited to play former coach Bill Carmody's very specific (some would say gimmicky) style to update their entire philosophy toward a modern and more conventional approach. But Collins does have some players at his disposal in Year 1 -- fifth-year medical redshirt Drew Crawford, post-suspension junior JerShon Cobb, promising sophomore center Alex Olah -- set to play a nonconference schedule that helpfully avoids the softness that plagued the Wildcats' nascent tournament hopes in recent seasons. Two true road noncon games at Stanford and NC State complement a solid pair of back-to-back fixtures (Missouri, UCLA) in the Las Vegas Invitational. The point of all this? Northwestern has the schedule to compete for a tournament bid in Year 1. Whether it will have the results to get there -- and make Collins a lionized, conquering hero in 12 months’ time -- will be fascinating to see.
Toughest: at Marquette (Nov. 16), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 21 in New York City)
Next toughest: Maryland (Dec. 4)
The rest: Morgan State (Nov. 9), Ohio (Nov. 12), American (Nov. 20), Wyoming (Nov. 25), North Florida (Nov. 29), Central Connecticut State (Dec. 7), Bryant (Dec. 11), North Dakota State (Dec. 14), Delaware (Dec. 18), Louisiana-Monroe (Dec. 27)
Toughness scale: 4 -- Save a trip to Duke, the Buckeyes' early schedule in 2012 was so gentle as to make their quality difficult to gauge. It took until February, when Shannon Scott, Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson congealed into a monster on the defensive perimeter, for the Buckeyes took on the look of a national title contender. (And they would have gotten to the Final Four, too, if it wasn't for those meddling
Toughest: at Pittsburgh (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: La Salle (Nov. 19), Barclays Center Classic (Nov. 29-30 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
The rest: Wagner (Nov. 9), Bucknell (Nov. 13), Longwood (Nov. 24), Monmouth (Nov. 26), Marshall (Dec. 7), Princeton (Dec. 14), Mount St. Mary's (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale: 4 -- Like Nebraska, Penn State's schedule is improved over recent seasons, and with D.J. Newbill returning and 2011-12's do-everything star Tim Frazier back from a season-ending Achilles tear, the Nittany Lions should improve along with it. It might be unfair to La Salle to keep them off that top line; the Explorers could still be a very dangerous team even without senior guard Ramon Galloway. The Barclays Center Classic offers a game against St. John's and a matchup with either Georgia Tech or Ole Miss, and putting a trip to Pittsburgh on the schedule doesn't only help coach Pat Chambers build his program's brand in a local recruiting zone, it also gives the Nittany Lions a real-deal road game against one of the nation's most consistent (and consistently RPI-friendly) programs.
Toughest: Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)
Next toughest: Boston College (Dec. 4), vs. Butler (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis), at West Virginia (Dec. 22)
The rest: Northern Kentucky (Nov. 8), Central Connecticut State (Nov. 13), Rider (Nov. 17), Eastern Illinois (Nov. 20), Siena (Nov. 24), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 7), Maryland Eastern Shore (Dec. 17)
Toughness scale: 5 -- The Boilermakers have one of those schedules that doesn't necessarily look great from this vantage point, but stands a reasonable chance of looking tougher and tougher as the season rolls on. How so? For starters, there's at least one really good game here -- the first-round Old Spice matchup with Oklahoma State and star point guard Marcus Smart. But a trip to West Virginia is never easy, and it's hard to imagine Bob Huggins' team repeating last season's monumental struggles. Boston College is a fringe ACC sleeper. And if Butler is better than most expect -- the Boilermakers could play the Bulldogs twice, if the two teams meet at the Old Spice in Orlando -- Matt Painter's team could benefit from a slate that proves better than the sum of its parts.
Toughest: Florida (Nov. 12), at Virginia (Dec. 4), Marquette (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Cancun Challenge (Nov. 26-27), vs. St. John's (Nov. 8 in Sioux Falls, S.D.)
The rest: at Green Bay (Nov. 16), North Dakota (Nov. 19), Bowling Green (Nov. 21), Oral Roberts (Nov. 23), Milwaukee (Dec. 11), Eastern Kentucky (Dec. 14), Prairie View A&M (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 9 -- The Badgers' schedule is tough enough in the abstract. It's even tougher when you consider how quickly Bo Ryan will throw his team into the fire. The geographically baffling season opener against St. John's in Sioux Falls is one thing, but that game is followed by a visit from Florida just four days later. In late November, the Badgers will be the likely favorite in the two-game Cancun Challenge, but will have to get by both Saint Louis and (probably) West Virginia to come away with two wins. Then it's off to Charlottesville for a revenge game against Virginia, just three days before Marquette comes to the Kohl Center for another edition of Wisconsin's best basketball rivalry. Merely listing these games out doesn't quite do the schedule justice. You need to see the chronology to get the full, brutal picture.
Correction: An earlier version of this post substituted Temple coach Fran Dunphy for Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. It also neglected to list Michigan State's Feb. 1 game vs. Georgetown in Madison Square Garden, which is a pretty awesome game. Eamonn regrets the errors, and is now atoning via self-flagellation.
In 2002 Pierce, a star guard under Steve Alford at Iowa, was charged with sexual assault when a woman accused him of forcing himself on her (and holding her mouth, stopping her from screaming) at a party in Iowa City. Alford publicly defended Pierce at the time, but he went further -- allowing Athletes in Action campus representative (and unofficial team chaplain) Jim Goodrich to arrange an informal "prayer meeting" with Pierce and the victim. As the university report later stated, "The female student's reaction to this contact was concern that the University was improperly involving itself in trying to resolve the matter," a contact that "confirmed her fears that the University would act to protect its athlete," at which point "her response was to pursue criminal charges." The meeting itself seemed seedy enough, but the religious invocation put it over the top -- and when Pierce was charged again in 2005, this time for allegedly choking, forcibly stripping and threatening his ex-girlfriend with a knife, it marked the beginning of the end of Alford's tenure.
A decade later, when Alford was introduced as the new head coach at UCLA, his role in the Pierce sleaze-fest was among the first questions he faced. When he answered it as poorly as possible -- he blamed the Iowa administration and lawyers for his marching orders, and said he "did everything that I was supposed to do at the University of Iowa in that situation ... I followed everything that I was told to do" -- an already unimpressed L.A. media noticed UCLA basketball just long enough to register its immense disapproval.
Alford may have thought turning New Mexico into a perennial winner and landing one of the most coveted jobs in college basketball would be enough to put the Pierce baggage away once and for all. He was wrong.
But hey, that's a coach, right? A person. Not a school. Iowa has no association with Pierce, and by and large the university -- particularly the community of protesters that sprung up around the situation -- acquitted itself fairly well. When Pierce left the school to serve his 11 month prison sentence, a chapter of Iowa hoops history was closed, one the resurgent Hawkeyes program and its re-engaged fan base would vastly prefer to forget.
All of which is why Monday night was so very, very awkward.
What happened Monday? The Hawkeyes were in Toulon, France, just one more picaresque stop on their summer exhibition tour of England and France, and they were preparing to play Hyeres-Toulon, an LNB Pro B (second-division) French club Monday afternoon, when Pierce tweeted the following:
Playing my former college tonight in a friendly #hawkeyes
— Pierre Pierce (@pierre_pierce) August 19, 2013
Which is exactly what happened. Iowa media relations director Steve Roe told the Cedar Rapids Gazette that the Hawkeyes didn't schedule the teams themselves (such schedules are usually drafted by outside agencies arranging the trips) and weren't aware of Pierce's affiliation; you get the feeling they would have done just about anything to avoid it.
But the game went on, and not only did Pierce play against his former college, he led his team with 19 points in 35 minutes. He also handed the Hawkeyes their first loss with a game-winner in the closing moments of overtime.
Yep. That happened:
Felt pretty good hitting my first game winner today lol wish the #hawkeyes best of luck this season and safe travels back
— Pierre Pierce (@pierre_pierce) August 19, 2013
Needless to say, the hilarious Iowa die-hards at Black Heart Gold Pants are still processing this trauma:
Maybe what happened was inevitable from the moment when the perverse cosmic screenwriter crafting this tale decided to throw Pierre Pierce, one of the most notorious and reviled figures in Iowa basketball history, into this yarn. If you're going to drop a bomb like that, it might as well explode in spectacular fashion, right? Pierce had played for H-T in the past (in December 2012, specifically), but he hadn't played there in months; of course he would make his return to that team for their exhibition game against Iowa. Of course Pierce would go 7/14 from the field and 4/7 from long range, scoring a game-high 19 points. And of course Pierce would not just play well against his former team, but he would hit the game-winning shot, to boot. [...]
The fates are cruel. The whole story is so improbable, so implausible, so Hack Screenwriting 101, it's almost impossible to believe that it's true. The whole situation is like a direct-to-DVD sports movie -- or, rather, a Bizarro version of a direct-to-DVD sports movie, since the villain ends up winning in this story.
BHGP called it the "most memorable Iowa hoops exhibition game in recent memory," which is like saying Jamaal Franklin dunked that basketball pretty well that one time. They also raise a valid point, a more positive takeaway: At least Iowa was challenged for the first time on its Eurotrip, giving the players some experience in a tight (and even emotionally fraught?) game in regulation and overtime.
Which, hey, sure! That is a positive. Is it enough to outweigh losing to Pierre Pierce on a game-winning overtime shot? I'm going go ahead and say no.
(HT: The Dagger)
2. UCLA coach Steve Alford said during our ESPNU college basketball podcast Monday that he was willing to play his old team, New Mexico, and best friend Craig Neal sometime in the future. But Alford wouldn't commit to a year. Alford should get the game done while his son Bryce and Neal's son Cullen are still in school. The two had a budding rivalry to go along with their close friendship when they were Albuquerque scoring studs. This is a new era out West. In the past, UCLA wouldn't play New Mexico for fear it wasn't a quality game. But now the Lobos are as much of a high-profile game as any game beyond the traditional powers. Playing New Mexico at the Pit -- where Alford said he would be willing to play for a true home-and-home -- would be arguably a better game for the Bruins then their recent series with Missouri. Playing UCLA for the Lobos would be a big deal and another sign the program has arrived on a larger stage.
3. The Super Tuesday schedule was released with two interesting side notes: The amount of exposure for LSU in the SEC and Iowa in the Big Ten. LSU got two high-profile home games against Tennessee (Jan. 7) and Kentucky (Jan. 28). This is a golden opportunity for the Baton Rouge faithful to show their true spirit and ensure the Tigers are a feared road spot. LSU enters the season as a bit of a sleeper in the SEC. Win one or both of those home games on a night when it will be the featured game could give the Tigers shelf-life NCAA-type wins. Iowa is a trendy pick in the Big Ten and was rewarded with three games -- two at home against Michigan State (Jan. 28) and Ohio State (Feb. 4) and one on the road at Indiana (Feb. 18). Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said he has an NCAA team. The Hawkeyes won't be short chances with an opportunity to produce advantageous home crowd situations against a few of the top teams in the league.
All 12 Big Ten teams and 12 of the 15 ACC schools will participate in the 2013 Challenge, including the three newest ACC members (Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse). Clemson, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest will not play in this year's event.
The ACC and Big Ten split last year’s Challenge with six wins each. In the event of a tie, the Commissioner’s Cup remains with the conference that won the previous year, which was the Big Ten in 2011. The ACC holds a 10-3-1 Challenge record, winning the first 10 events (1999-2008) before the Big Ten won the next three (2009-2011).
For an analysis of this year's matchups, check out Eamonn Brennan's take from back in May. As for the times and networks, here they are ...
Tuesday, Dec. 3 (all times ET)
7:15 - Indiana at Syracuse (ESPN)
7:15 - Illinois at Georgia Tech (ESPN2)
7:30 - Penn State at Pittsburgh (ESPNU)
9:15 - Michigan at Duke (ESPN)
9:15 - Notre Dame at Iowa (ESPN2)
9:30 - Florida State at Minnesota (ESPNU)
Wednesday, Dec. 4 (all times ET)
7:00 - Maryland at Ohio State (ESPN or ESPN2)
7:00 - Wisconsin at Virginia (ESPN or ESPN2)
7:30 - Northwestern at NC State (ESPNU)
9:00 - North Carolina at Michigan State (ESPN)
9:00 - Boston College at Purdue (ESPN2)
9:30 - Miami at Nebraska (ESPNU)
A few notes on this year's matchups:
- Seven of the 12 games will mark first-time Challenge matchups: Michigan-Duke, Maryland-Ohio State, Miami-Nebraska and Boston College-Purdue, plus the debut of the three new ACC members Syracuse (vs. Indiana), Notre Dame (at Iowa) and Pitt (vs. Penn State).
- In addition to first-time Challenge games, several of the teams are infrequent opponents: Nebraska holds a 3-1 record against Miami; Purdue won both previous meetings against BC; Ohio State and Maryland last played in 1985 with OSU three out of the five all-time games; and Notre Dame will play Iowa for the first time since 1990 and holds a 8-5 series record.
- Old Pennsylvania rivals Pitt and Penn State will meet for the first time since 2005. The Panthers have won the past five contests.
- Illinois/Georgia Tech and Wisconsin/Virginia will follow their first-time Challenge meetings in 2012 with a rematch in the 2013 event. The Illini and Cavaliers won last year's matchups.
- Best Three Out of Five: North Carolina/Michigan State and Minnesota/Florida State will meet in the Challenge for the fifth time. Both series are 2-2.
- Rubber Match: Northwestern and NC State will square off in the Challenge for the third time. Northwestern won in 2009 and NC State in 2002.
- Syracuse and Indiana have met five previous times in non-Challenge games, with the Orange winning the past four, including last season’s Sweet 16 matchup.
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.
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.
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.
Still, a large chunk of Big Ten standouts who have entered the professional ranks have fared quite well.
Here’s a look at the 10 Big Ten products who have enjoyed the most successful pro careers since 1989, the year the NBA draft was whittled down to two rounds.
2. Deron Williams, Illinois: Currently one of the NBA’s top point guards, Williams has averaged a double-double in four of his seven NBA seasons and boasts career marks of 17.8 points and nine assists per contest. His numbers are even more impressive in the postseason, when he has stepped up to average 21 points and 9.4 assists in 51 playoff games with Utah and Brooklyn. Williams has been on three All-Star squads and was named second-team all-league in 2008 and 2010. He also was a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic squad that won a gold medal.
3. Zach Randolph, Michigan State: With career averages of 17.2 points and 9.3 rebounds, Randolph is currently one of the top power forwards in the NBA. This season, he led Memphis to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history. Randolph was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player in 2004 and was named third-team All-NBA in 2011. Randolph has averaged a double-double in seven of his 11 NBA seasons, and he’s averaged more than 20 points five times. In his one season at Michigan State in 2000-01, Randolph led the Spartans to the Final Four.
4. Glenn Robinson, Purdue: In his junior year at Purdue, “The Big Dog” averaged 30.3 points and 11.2 rebounds, making him the first Big Ten player since 1978 to lead the league in both categories. The No. 1 pick in the 1994 NBA draft averaged 20.7 points and 6.1 rebounds in 11 NBA seasons. He made the All-Star team in 2000 and 2001 and made four playoff appearances with Milwaukee (three times) and San Antonio (once). Robinson’s best year came in 1997-98 when he averaged 23.4 points for the Bucks. He played his last NBA game in 2005.
5. Glen Rice, Michigan: By the time he retired in 2004, Rice had played 846 games for six teams in 15 NBA seasons. The forward averaged 18.9 points during that span and shot 85 percent from the foul stripe. The fourth overall pick in the 1989 draft played in three All-Star games and earned the game's MVP honors in 1997 -- the same year that he was named second-team All-NBA. That was also the year Rice averaged a career-high 26.8 points. Known for his long-range prowess, Rice was a 40 percent career 3-point shooter.
6. Michael Redd, Ohio State: After proving himself against top players such as Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson in practice, Redd became a star for the Milwaukee Bucks. He averaged more than 21 points for six straight seasons (2003-2009) and was a third-team all-league selection in 2004. Redd also was a member of the 2008 U.S. Olympic team. He’s currently the NBA record holder for 3-pointers made in one quarter (eight). Redd averaged 19 points in 12 NBA seasons.
7. Juwan Howard, Michigan: Howard has had the longest career of any member of “The Fab Five.” He’s played in 1,257 games in 18 NBA seasons and boasts career averages of 13.4 points and 6.1 rebounds. Howard’s best season came in 1995-96 when he averaged 22.2 points and 8.1 boards. Following that season, he was named third-team All-NBA. Last season, as a seldom-used reserve, he earned an NBA title as a member of the Miami Heat.
8. Jason Richardson, Michigan State: The current Philadelphia 76er has posted a double-digit scoring average in each of his 12 NBA seasons. His best year came in 2005-06 when he scored 23.2 points a game for Golden State. Richardson is averaging 17.3 points for his career and 17.1 points in the playoffs. Known as one of the NBA’s top high-flyers, Richardson won the NBA Slam Dunk title in 2002 and 2003. Richardson was the fifth overall pick in the 2001 NBA draft.
9. Michael Finley, Wisconsin: A small forward, Finley averaged 15.7 points during his 15 NBA seasons. Nine of those were spent with the Dallas Mavericks, including his best season in 1999-2000 when posted career highs in both scoring (22.6) and rebounding (6.3). Finley was selected to the NBA All-Star team in 2000 and 2001, and he won an NBA title in 2007 as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. He averaged 11.2 points in the playoffs that season. Finley retired in 2010.
10. Steve Smith, Michigan State: The standout guard averaged 14.3 points in 14 NBA seasons, including 20.1 points in both 1996-97 and 1997-98. He was strong in the postseason, where he averaged 14.9 points in 90 games. Smith played in the 1998 All-Star game and was a member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic team. He won an NBA title with the Spurs in 2003, though he received little playing time that season. He is one of just three players in league history to drain seven 3-pointers in a single quarter.
Ten more notables: All of these players have excelled in the NBA, including a few who almost cracked the top 10 and/or could be there soon (names in alphabetical order).
Nick Anderson, Illinois
Mike Conley, Ohio State
Jamal Crawford, Michigan
Ricky Davis, Iowa
Kendall Gill, Illinois
Eric Gordon, Indiana
Devin Harris, Wisconsin
Jim Jackson, Ohio State
Brad Miller, Purdue
Jalen Rose, Michigan
Too soon to tell: These guys haven’t been in the league long enough to make the top 10, but all appear to have bright futures (names in alphabetical order).
Draymond Green, Michigan State
Meyers Leonard, Illinois
E’Twaun Moore, Purdue
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
Evan Turner, Ohio State
*Note: Of the 25 names on these lists, five are from Michigan, five are from Ohio State, four are from Illinois, four are from Michigan State, three are from Purdue and two are from Wisconsin. Indiana and Iowa boast one player each.
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).
"[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."
NEW YORK -- Quick thoughts on Baylor's 74-54 victory over Baylor in Thursday's NIT title game at Madison Square Garden:
What it means: Baylor is your 2013 NIT champion -- the first Big 12 team ever to win this tournament.
Baylor (23-14) had a disappointing regular season. The Bears were ranked No. 19 in the country in the preseason, coming off a berth in the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight a year ago. They didn't even make the Big Dance this time around but finished the season on a high note.
Iowa (25-13) was on the bubble on Selection Sunday and didn't make the NCAA cut, but collected four wins and some valuable experience the past couple of weeks.
The turning point: After Iowa's Roy Devyn Marble scored the first bucket of the game, Baylor scored nine consecutive points and led the rest of the first half. It took the Bears' leading scorer, Pierre Jackson, almost 15 minutes to collect his first point. But Baylor still led 27-22 at intermission. The Hawkeyes shot just 7-for-28 (25 percent) in the first half and committed eight turnovers.
Iowa cut the deficit to one early in the second half, 28-27, thanks to five quick points by Eric May. But Baylor answered with seven points in a row to reassert control, and soon turned the game into a rout. The Bears pushed the lead past 20 for the first time on a Cory Jefferson two-hand slam with 7:04 remaining. The rest was garbage time.
Star watch: Jackson scored just four points in the first half, shooting 1-for-6. The second half was a different story. The senior finished with 17 points and 10 assists, and was named the tournament's most outstanding player. Jefferson scored a game-high 23 points, and Isaiah Austin added 15.
Mike Gesell scored a team-high 13 points off the bench for Iowa, while Aaron White chipped in 12. Marble finished with just six points.
Number crunch: It just wasn't Iowa's night offensively. The Hawkeyes missed open shots from the perimeter, and several chippies around the rim -- they were clearly bothered by the presence of the 7-foot-1 Austin (five blocked shots) in the paint. For the game, Iowa shot 18-for-69 from the field (26.4 percent), including 5-for-24 from beyond the arc (20.8), while Baylor shot 26-for-48 (54.2 percent).
What's next: That's the final college basketball game of the season at Madison Square Garden. Enjoy the Final Four, and we'll see you next year.