College Basketball Nation: Louisville Cardinals
The third week of Wooden Watch (or as I like to call it, "Wooden Watch 3: The Watchening") brings with it more tumult than its preceding editions.
From sheer math alone, this makes sense. The Thanksgiving schedule pushed last week's Watch up to Tuesday, which has given us a nine-day stretch of uninterrupted basketball on which to base our way-too-early national player of the year prospectus. But pound-for-pound, those nine days were, I'd argue, every bit as good and every bit as tumultuous as any stretch that came before. Word to North Carolina.
The losses suffered by top teams -- and players on the POY contention short list -- do shake things up a bit, but it's important not to go too far. One loss does not a Wooden campaign ruin. (You're thinking of the Heisman.) We've been couching these early rankings with all sorts of disclaimers about just how early in the season it is, and that remains true -- even as we barrel headfirst into December. Let's see where we are, shall we?
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: After a brilliant start, Smart's first regression of the season came in Kissimmee, Fla., at the Old Spice Classic last weekend. Smart had 17 points and eight rebounds in a shaky 69-67 semifinal win over Butler, but the five turnovers he committed on Friday foreshadowed the five he would commit Sunday. That game, against Memphis, saw Smart stifled by a suddenly coherent Tigers perimeter scheme, and while Smart finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, he missed all five of his 3-point attempts. And yet, he retains his spot atop this list. Why? For one, Smart was clearly sick. I'm not offering excuses (nor taking credit away from Memphis, because the Tigers were great), but I am acknowledging realities. Second, well, it's one game. It's fine. Dude's really good. Moving on.
Russ Smith, Louisville: The North Carolina loss might have thrown people off Louisville's scent, but now that Michigan State is the latest to get a front-row seat to the Tar Heels' ongoing Jekyll and Hyde performance piece, let's go ahead and remind everyone that Louisville is playing top-10 offense and top-three defense, and that Smith, while maintaining his high usage and shot rates, has thus far pumped his assist rate to 37.5 percent (from 21.1 a year ago), shot 58.2 percent from 2-point range and kept his steals rate (4.1 percent) totally steady.
Doug McDermott, Creighton: I'm not willing to get too worked up about McDermott's one loss, either. Yes, I know Creighton fell to San Diego State and George Washington this week, but only one of those losses should be an indictment. Against San Diego State, Creighton was, well, Creighton: McDermott scored 30 points and shot 6-of-10 from 2 and 5-of-8 from 3, and the Bluejays' porous defense cost them the game anyway. Three years on, that's what you sign up for with the Bluejays -- same as it ever was. George Washington was a different story: McDermott was stifled by the Colonials in wholly unexpected fashion (seven points, 2-of-12 from the field, a tidy 54.0 offensive rating -- yikes). But, well, it's one game. It's fine. Dude's really good. Moving on.
Jabari Parker, Duke: I downgraded Parker's status last week because of Duke's putrid defense, but now that the Blue Devils have submitted two slightly better defensive performances -- one in a 72-66 loss to Arizona on Friday, the other in a 79-69 win (in 67 possessions) against Michigan on Tuesday -- it's time to elevate Parker once more. The ironic part? These last two games have been his worst offensively, the first two in which he failed to score at least 20 points (and less efficiently, too). But Parker is gobbling up defensive rebounds for a team that desperately needs him to be a stud on both ends of the floor, and he'll get his points, rest assured.
Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle hasn't been quite as efficient as he was at the start of the season, but he is still plugging along, dominating
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: The nice thing about Napier's player of the year candidacy is that it need not rest on a fuzzy term like "clutch" alone. Napier has been ruthless late in games, to be sure: His late winner against Florida on Monday required plenty of luck, but you knew he was going to ice that second chance as soon as the ball bounced to him. But you can also build Napier's case on the breadth of his point guard play, which has been as comprehensive as any guard's to date.
Casey Prather, Florida: In March, Billy Donovan may look back at the Gators' injury-riddled November and thank his lucky stars, for that was the month that Prather turned into a star. Prather makes his first appearance here this week, but it probably should have come sooner. In eight games to date, he's registered a 121.5 offensive rating while using 30.1 percent of his team's possessions; he's shot nearly 64 percent from the field; and he's rebounded 10.6 percent of Florida's available misses. Watching Prather, a three-year glue guy, slice defenses with Euro-steps and quick-twitch offensive rebounds has been an alternately confusing and thrilling process. Either way, he doesn't look like he's slowing down.
Nick Johnson, Arizona: Aaron Gordon gets all the attention, and he'll surely be on this list more than any Wildcat this season. But Arizona feels as much like an ensemble cast as any elite team in the country, and Nick Johnson is perhaps their most indispensable player -- the lone true shoot, drive or pull-up, all-court-style threat who makes Arizona more than a collection of impressive bigs.
Keith Appling, Michigan State: Appling can stay, despite Wednesday night's home loss to UNC, because, well, again: It's one game. Before Wednesday, Appling had been peerless, and he wasn't that bad Wednesday night, either. The current line is 57.1 percent from 2, 48.3 percent from 3, a 28.4 assist rate to just 13.0 turnover percentage, and more generally, an engaged, comfortable and balanced player on both ends of the floor.
Jahii Carson, Arizona State: Carson had his first comedown of the season at Miami on Sunday, when he somehow went 0-for-10 from inside the arc. That, plus Arizona State's sub-Duke defense, is reason for slight downgrade this week. (If this were a list of the most entertaining players, Carson would probably be No. 1 every week. He's fun to watch miss.)
Honorable mentions: Marcus Paige (UNC), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Gary Harris (Michigan State), Joseph Young (Oregon), Anthony Drmic (Boise State), Chaz Williams (UMass), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Tim Frazier (Penn State), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Roberto Nelson (Oregon State), Kendall Williams (New Mexico), Caris LeVert (Michigan), Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), LaQuinton Ross (Ohio State), T.J. Warren (NC State)
Happy holidays, and happy early Wooden Watch. This Tuesday edition of what will for the rest of the season be a Thursday update is brought to you by pumpkin pie, stuffing and the rest of our quirky turkey traditions. You'll be eating and watching football Thursday. So will I, if the weather cooperates. So let's check in on the running Wooden list a couple of days early.
What's changed in five days? Honestly ... not a whole lot. That goes for last week's disclaimer, too: Since we're just now rounding the corner into December, the order of the list below is not really of primary concern. This is a window to the landscape, not a definitive hierarchy, for at least the next few weeks. And with that said:
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: If the season ended today, Marcus Smart would be my 2013-14 national player of the year. You likely saw what he did to Memphis last week; you've no doubt heard the ever-more-impressive stories about his leadership and work ethic. But my favorite Smart moment may have come Monday night at South Florida, when he and the Cowboys utterly eviscerated the Bulls with a gusto typically reserved for games against Kansas. Smart scored 25 points with four assists and four steals. He finished inverse post alley-oops, set up Cowboys wings for thundering finishes and even splashed down a 65-foot-or-so buzzer-beater at halftime. It looked like someone in the South Florida crowd had said something to Smart along the way: He was unusually talkative, and even threw up a "shush" sign. And, well, a word to wise fans on the Cowboys' road schedule: Don't do that.
Doug McDermott, Creighton: Another week, another chapter in my book, "Doug McDermott is hilariously efficient," available at all reputable bookstores (note: not really). McDermott has posted a 124.1 offensive rating on 31.9 percent usage and a 37.9 shot rate, the second highest in the country. He's hitting 50 percent from 3, drawing fouls at the usual rate and rebounding the defensive glass as steadily as ever. (Oh, and last week's catch-shoot winner at St. Joe's, which I criminally failed to mention Thursday, is worth watching over and over and over.)
Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle had his first "off" night against Cleveland State on Monday night, but he still finished with 15 points and 15 rebounds, and his passing out of the block was key to the last-ditch 3-point flurry that helped the Wildcats escape with a win. Good teams will double and triple Randle until UK proves it can knock down 3s consistently, but even if that never happens, he is as dominant a force as any in the game.
Jahii Carson, Arizona State: Save Marcus Smart, no guard has had a better start to the season than Carson, who followed up last week's 40-point effort in a win at UNLV with Monday's 23-point, five-assist performance in ASU's thrilling win against Marquette. There might be two or three defenders in the country capable of keeping Carson out of the lane. If that.
Jabari Parker, Duke: The order of this list isn't a big deal right now, remember, but I went ahead and downgraded Parker a bit this week anyway. But why? Isn't he still pouring in points? Yes. And thrillingly so. But Parker and Rodney Hood's issues on the defensive end for Duke have contributed to the Blue Devils' No. 176-ranked efficiency defense, and Duke gave up 90 points in 65 possessions to Vermont at home Sunday. Russ Smith, Louisville: Louisville took a tough and totally surprising loss to North Carolina on Sunday afternoon; the Tar Heels, especially guard Marcus Paige, looked better than anyone could have expected. But it's hardly time to panic on Smith. He was great individually Sunday, and he'll be great in the weeks to come, too.
Keith Appling, Michigan State: Gary Harris' spot last week is now occupied by Appling, and that says far more about Appling's performance than it does Harris'. The Michigan State point guard has done everything right as a senior thus far: He's shooting far less, and more accurately (57.1 percent from 3, 55.3 percent from 2); he's assisting teammates on nearly 30 percent of his possessions; and he isn't turning it over -- or suffering the long, disengaged stretches of a season ago. What a start.
Aaron Gordon, Arizona: Arizona's team is so balanced, and playing so much more unselfishly on the perimeter with the addition of T.J. McConnell, that it's tempting to give some love to one of the other Wildcats -- McConnell himself, perhaps, or peerless senior shooting guard Nick Johnson. But Gordon remains the focal point on offense, and his athleticism is just flabbergasting.
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Early in his fourth season at UConn, Napier officially has every tool in the tool box. Tom Crean talked about this at length after Indiana's close loss to UConn in New York last weekend, and it's totally true: Napier is lights-out on the perimeter whether catching and shooting or off the dribble; he puts defenders in blenders with his ball-handling and versatility; and he keeps the ball moving and his teammates involved. Oh, and he's a blast to watch. A+++ -- would DVR again.
Early honorable mentions: C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Gary Harris (Michigan State), Joseph Young (Oregon), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Anthony Drmic (Boise State), Chaz Williams (UMass), Yogi Ferrell, (Indiana), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Tim Frazier (Penn State), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Roberto Nelson (Oregon State), Kendall Williams (New Mexico), Caris LeVert (Michigan), Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), Marcus Paige (North Carolina) and Casey Prather (Florida)
The most controversial selection, if that's even possible, will be Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins. The last time a freshman -- Harrison Barnes in 2010-11 -- was named to the first-team list, it was a nod to the way the one-and-done freshman had changed the sport. When Barnes struggled ("failed to totally dominate" is probably a better way to put it) in his first season, the whole notion of anointing freshmen came under intense fire. If Wiggins has similar issues -- doubtful, but you never know -- expect the preseason selection to be used as a rhetorical cudgel in every hot sports take on the topic for months to come.
Arguably more surprising is the inclusion of Michigan forward Mitch McGary. McGary's place makes sense: No one played better in March, when McGary finally unleashed the talent that made him a top-five player in his recruiting class for all but his senior season of high school. But the five months before McGary's explosion was mostly pedestrian; even with the tournament thrown in, McGary played just 48.8 percent of his team's available minutes. As late as Michigan's final regular-season game against Indiana, he was being used for little more than a body to absorb (and provoke) contact from Indiana center Cody Zeller. He's bound to regress from his dazzling postseason display. The real question is: How much? (Another reason the selection is surprising: McGary wasn't even the Big Ten's preseason player of the year. That honor went to Michigan State's Gary Harris.)
Louisville guard Russ Smith's inclusion might also be a tad bit startling, but it shouldn't be: Smith was arguably the best player in the country last season, certainly the best and most productive two-way guard, to say nothing of that whole "winning the national title" thing. (Oh, that.) But even then, Smith was just a third-team selection at the end of last season, and he still seemed to be shaking off his reputation as a goofy gunner. It's good to see folks taking Russdiculous seriously.
And then there are the obvious choices. Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart and Creighton forward Doug McDermott's chances of not being on the preseason list were roughly as good as my chances of earning honorable mention. No further explanation required.
Taken as a whole, the five honorees paint a revealing picture of the season to come. We expect dominance from a lauded, loaded freshman class; we know what we're going to get from established veteran stars; and, as always, we allow perceptions formed during the NCAA tournament to override the months of regular season, and dozens of games, that came before.
These are defining characteristics of any college hoops season, but they are turned up to 11 in 2013-14. If you weren't already aware, this mix of preseason All-Americans should drive the point home. This is going to be a fascinating season.
We’ve officially judged and juried every nonconference schedule.
Kudos to the teams that had the nerve to schedule bravely. Your just rewards could come in March, when the selection committee recognizes the merits of playing tough opponents, even if there’s a risk of a loss.
And shame on those who scheduled meekly. Enjoy the NIT.
Now, it’s time to play Armchair Scheduler -- or King/Queen of the Basketball Universe, whichever title floats your boat -- and offer up 15 nonconference games that won’t be played this year, but we wish would be:
Kansas vs. Missouri: Let’s just file this under an annual request. One of the greatest rivalries in college basketball ought to be played this year, next year and every year. We don’t care who left what conference. We don’t care who’s angry. This is like two divorcing parents sparring over the china with the kids stuck in the middle. Here the two schools’ fan bases and fans of the game in general are the kids. So hire a good mediator, work this out and play ball.
Georgetown vs. Syracuse: See Kansas-Missouri argument above. The two teams here at least have agreed that continuing the rivalry at some point is a good idea and it appears a multiyear contract is imminent, but there’s nothing yet on the schedule. Let’s fix that. Soon.
Kentucky vs. Indiana: Ibid. Or is it op. cit.? Whatever, reference the Kansas-Missouri, Georgetown-Syracuse arguments cited above. Two states separated by a river. Great rivalry. Lousy excuses. Figure it out.
North Carolina vs. Raleigh News & Observer: The Tar Heels’ crimes, misdeeds and lack of punishment have been well documented in the news media, but nowhere as thoroughly and as well as at the local newspaper. The staff at the N&O has been relentless and thorough in its coverage. We suggest a game of H-O-R-S-E (with the African-American studies department excused from judging) at the Newseum to settle this once and for all.
Harvard vs. Duke: Smart school versus smart school. Mentor versus mentee. Easy storylines for reporters. What’s not to like about this matchup? Not to mention it would feature two top-25 teams and give the Crimson a chance to show how good they really are.
Kansas vs. Kentucky: Yes, we will get to enjoy Kansas (Andrew Wiggins) versus Duke (Jabari Parker) in Chicago, but we’re selfish. We’d like to see Wiggins go up against Kentucky, one of the schools he spurned. Not to mention it might be fun witnessing what could essentially be a freshman All-American game, with Wiggins, the Harrison twins, James Young, Julius Randle and Joel Embiid together on one floor.
Florida Gulf Coast vs. Georgetown: Let’s see if the slipper still fits when last season’s Cinderella goes rematch against its Madness victims, the Hoyas. Georgetown doesn’t have Otto Porter anymore and Greg Whittington is hurt, but hey, Dunk City lost its drum major when Andy Enfield headed to USC. Seems about even.
Michigan vs. Notre Dame: No one would dare call Mike Brey a chicken, would they? The two schools called the football rivalry quits this year amid acrimony and an endgame Wolverine chicken dance, but maybe the basketball schools can extend the olive branch and play for the first time since 2006.
Michigan State vs. Duke: Tom Izzo may not want to see the Blue Devils very often -- he’s 1-7 against Duke in his tenure -- but this game never disappoints. The two schools have met nine times and only twice, in 2003 and in 1958, has it been a blowout. The two have gone head-to-head over top recruits, including Jabari Parker, and come into the season as top-10 locks.
Memphis vs. Arizona: Josh Pastner revisits his coaching roots in a game that will answer the biggest question facing the Wildcats -- how good is point guard T.J. McConnell? If the Duquesne transfer can handle the Tigers’ onslaught of Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson, Chris Crawford and Michael Dixon, he can handle everything.
Louisville vs. Oklahoma State: You like good guard play? Imagine this one. Russ Smith, Chris Jones, Terry Rozier (and maybe Kevin Ware) against Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and incoming freshman Stevie Clark. The coaches would be miserable -- with Rick Pitino going up against his own beloved point guard, Travis Ford -- but the rest of us would enjoy it tremendously.
Oregon vs. Creighton: This game stacks up on merit, not just on the storyline of Dana Altman facing his old squad. With Doug McDermott back in the fold, the Bluejays are legit. Their schedule is less so, a sort of meandering plunder of nonconference nothingness. Adding the Ducks, a team Altman has reconstructed, and his impressive backcourt would be helpful. And OK, old coach/old school is fun.
New Mexico vs. Florida: The Gators already have a pretty impressive nonconference slate, but hey, what’s one more? This one would be a nice tussle between pretty skilled, albeit different, big men in Alex Kirk and Patric Young. Kirk enjoyed a breakout season last year, but facing Young would be a real test of the 7-footer’s abilities.
By the time his career is over -- and in some ways this is already the case -- Rick Pitino will be mentioned among the greatest college basketball coaches of all time. What separates him is how winding his path has been. The coaches we maintain as the game's greatest almost universally built their legacies on decadeslong, storied tenures at blue-blooded schools. They become institutions synonymous with their programs.
John Wooden at UCLA, Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, Bob Knight at Indiana, Dean Smith at North Carolina, Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, Jim Calhoun at Connecticut -- these are men who, as I wrote already Wednesday morning, built their basketball Valhallas in their own image and settled in for a lifetime. Pitino left his own Valhalla -- Kentucky -- in 1997, at the height of his powers -- only the most memorable and notable fork in a career full of them.
Here is a look at some of Pitino's defining moments -- some good, some bad, all of a piece with his story.
1. "The Untouchables": For all the twists and turns that would come before, and all the strange and florid detours that would follow, Rick Pitino's defining moment as a coach will always be the 1995-96 season, when he achieved something like Pitino Basketball Nirvana. After the better part of a decade spent resurrecting Kentucky's proud but bruised program in the wake of the post-Eddie Sutton sanctions, Pitino's beautiful Wildcats machine morphed into its ideal form in 1995-96, when Pitino led a team that eventually would send 11 players to the NBA draft to a 34-2 season, a national title and a place at any "best college basketball team of all time" table.
That season wasn't special just because the Wildcats were so talented. That was part of it, sure, but only the baseline. It was the fact that Pitino managed to unleash that many future NBA players within a style -- his up-tempo, high-pressure, defensively masterful style -- he had been working toward his entire career. He realized it fully, with a team deep enough and balanced enough to utterly dominate with it, in one of those just-about-perfect seasons every coach sees when he closes his eyes at night. Imagine how it must have felt. I'll use the phrase again: In 1995-96, Pitino achieved Basketball Nirvana. It was beautiful to watch.
Also, it happened in these uniforms. Which is pretty great, as bonuses go.
2. The Redeem Team: The decades since Pitino descended from Valhalla were less kind. By the late 2000s, Pitino's personal and professional reputation had been thoroughly bruised, while his old personal rival, Kentucky coach John Calipari, was rapidly turning Pitino's former program into a constant national title contender perennially stocked with the type of pro talent few programs in history have been able to boast. But in 2011-12, Pitino's Louisville group made a surprise run to the Final Four, and all of a sudden a seemingly mediocre team had the look of a national title contender. In 2012-13, that batch of seemingly ragtag guys -- a barely recruited guard best known for biting his nails and no-no-YES shot-selection, a Senegalese center who didn't understand why everyone took basketball so seriously, a point guard who couldn't shoot, an undersized sophomore power forward, and a slow, tweener George Mason transfer -- morphed into a dominant two-way force, a modern update of Pitino's old pressing style capable of seamlessly shifting into any tune their emphatic sideline conductor demanded.
After Luke Hancock, Peyton Siva, & Co. outlasted Michigan in a classic finale, Pitino became the first man in college basketball history to win national titles at two different programs. In April, the lasting shot -- of Pitino and his family drenched in confetti on the Georgia Dome floor, of Louisville's players staring in awe at a cheesy old tradition -- marked Pitino's redemption after years of personal and professional struggle.
3. And everything that went with it: How far had the karmic balance swung back in Pitino's favor this spring? Not only did he win a national title -- which surely would have been more than enough -- within a handful of days at the Final Four, he also 1) congratulated his 30-year-old son on being hired as the head coach at Minnesota, 2) was informed that his horse had won the Santa Anita Derby and qualified to run in the Kentucky Derby, and 3) learned he was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. A few weeks later, he reveled in simultaneous horse and hoops heaven at the Kentucky Derby -- unofficial king of all he surveyed. Forget coaches; from March to September, few people anywhere had quite as much fun as Pitino. Even fewer changed the tone of their public-facing lives quite so jubilantly.
4. The Shot: Before Pitino really got his Kentucky machine humming, he had to reform UK out of the rubble of the late-'80s sanctions. That process appeared to come to a symbolic head in 1992 when Sean Woods led the Wildcats to what appeared to be a win over a star-studded Duke team -- just 2.1 seconds before Christian Laettner made the most famous shot in college basketball history. This past March, in advance of Pitino's Elite Eight rematch with Duke, both Pitino and Krzyzewski explained their shared membership in the rarest, most unlikely club. "I think when the basketball gods deem you worthy enough to put you in a great moment, sometimes you're placed in that moment as a winner, and sometimes you lose," Coach K said. "But sometimes the loser shines more than the winner. I thought how [Pitino] reacted and has reacted since made him shine."
"Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they're going to be gray and old. What we are is young, exciting, hardworking, and we're going to improve. People don't realize that, and as soon as they realize those three guys are not coming through that door, the better this town will be for all of us because there are young guys in that (locker) room playing their asses off. I wish we had $90 million under the salary cap. I wish we could buy the world. We can't; the only thing we can do is work hard, and all the negativity that's in this town sucks. I've been around when Jim Rice was booed. I've been around when Yastrzemski was booed. And it stinks. It makes the greatest town, greatest city in the world, lousy. The only thing that will turn this around is being upbeat and positive like we are in that locker room ... and if you think I'm going to succumb to negativity, you're wrong. You've got the wrong guy leading this team."
Had Pitino turned his struggling Celtics teams around, that March 1, 2000, speech might have gone down as a turning point. At worst, it would have been forgotten. (Landing Tim Duncan in the 1997 draft after a league-worst 15-67 season would have helped, too.) Instead, as Celtics head coach, GM, CEO and president of basketball operations, Pitino's failure in Boston was total, and the "Fellowship of the Miserable," Pitino's name for the Celtics' infamously intense fans, quickly turned.
If there was one bright spot (besides "Fellowship of the Miserable," which is amazing), it was when Pitino gave Sports Illustrated the definitive Kenny Anderson quote: "Celtics coach, after hearing that point guard Kenny Anderson has hired a track coach to improve his speed and conditioning: 'Who's he going to hire to run for him?'"
6. Say hello to Billy the Kid: Before the New York Knicks, Kentucky, Boston and Louisville, Rick Pitino earned his national reputation as an upstart coach who turned Providence around from an 11-20 outfit the year before his arrival to a Final Four team in a matter of two seasons. He did so in large part thanks to the arrival of Billy Donovan. Then better known as "Billy the Kid," thanks to Pitino's shameless marketing savvy (Pitino made Donovan dress up like a cowboy on the cover of the Providence season program), he transformed from an overweight, unused sophomore reserve to a star. In 1986-87, Donovan's senior year and the first with a collegiate 3-point line, the Kid posted arguably the most statistically impressive individual season (20.6 points, 7.1 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game, and 41 percent from 3) of any Pitino player while leading the Friars to the program's second Final Four. It would be the first of Pitino's seven trips -- and counting.
7. Sept. 11, 2001: One of the most profound tragedies in American history was a personal nightmare for Pitino and his family. Pitino's brother-in-law and best friend, Billy Minardi, was working as a bond trader for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the north World Trade Center tower when the planes hit. Processing that senseless loss has taken Pitino and his family years, and the coach has talked (and written) openly about that struggle -- and the familial bonds it forged.
8. Karen Cunagin Sypher: A decade later, those bonds were tested in the most public way possible. In early 2009, Pitino announced that he was the victim of an extortion attempt, and a week later Karen Cunagin Sypher, the wife of Louisville equipment manager Tim Sypher, was arraigned in federal court on charges of extortion and lying to federal agents. The details of the case -- in which Pitino admitted he had sexual relations with Sypher in a Louisville restaurant, and that he paid Sypher $3,000 when she said she did not have health insurance for an abortion -- were not only embarrassing, they drew Pitino, an avowed family man and devoted Catholic, in a dismal light.
9. The tattoo: Save the family portrait moment at the Final Four in April, perhaps the sharpest contrast to that ugly period in Pitino's life came a few weeks later, in a downtown Louisville tattoo parlor. After his team won the national title, Pitino revealed that, after Feb. 9's five-OT loss at Notre Dame, he had promised his players that if they won the national title, he would get a tattoo. His players proved giddy about the idea (no surprise there) and held up their end of the bargain. Which is essentially how a 60-year-old multimillionaire with a horse-racing hobby and suits that make Sinatra look like a hobo came to stroll into a place called Tattoo Salvation in downtown Louisville, where he obtained his first-ever tattoo.
10. And now, the Hall of Fame: It takes a special career to earn Hall of Fame induction by the age of 60, and Pitino's, for better or worse, has most certainly been that. Now that he seems to be having more fun than ever, how much longer will Pitino coach? How many more games -- how many more titles -- can he win? Whatever the final number, the journey will be just as interesting as the destination. That much is a guarantee.
There are coaching trees and then there is the forest birthed by Rick Pitino. Imagine crossing a redwood with a sequoia. And then adding the Rockefeller Christmas tree on top for good measure.
That gets you maybe a quarter of the way up the branches of Pitino’s tree. No fewer than 13 of his ex-assistants and/or players currently serve as college head coaches (Mick Cronin, Scott Davenport, Billy Donovan, Travis Ford, Marvin Menzies, Richard Pitino, Kareem Richardson, Steve Masiello, Herb Sendek, Tubby Smith, Reggie Theus, Kevin Willard, Sean Woods). And if you stretch the list to include former head coaches or current assistants, it goes on for miles.
Between them, Pitino’s disciples have four national championships of their own (two for Donovan, one each for Smith and Davenport). So trying to pick the best of this family tree is like trying to pick your favorite uncle. Highly subjective.
Consider this attempt just that, then -- an attempt to amass a list of the most successful ... with an out clause list of others who were left off.
1. Billy Donovan: Before he won two national titles at the University of Florida, Donovan was Billy the Kid, the feisty point guard who led Providence and Pitino to the Final Four in 1987. Two years later, Donovan and his mentor reconnected at the University of Kentucky, where Donovan cut his coaching teeth as an assistant until 1994. Embarking on his own as a head coach, first at Marshall and now at Florida, Donovan has rolled up 13 NCAA tournament bids and has been to at least the Elite Eight in five of the past six appearances.
2. Tubby Smith: Smith had the unenviable job of following in Pitino’s well-heeled footsteps at Kentucky, when Pitino’s one-time assistant returned to Lexington as head coach in 1997. Smith picked up right where his old boss left off, leading the Wildcats to their seventh national championship in his first season. Smith would go on to reach the 100-win mark faster than any other UK coach not named Adolph Rupp and collect five SEC titles. The former head coach at Tulsa and Georgia went on to Minnesota and is now at Texas Tech.
4. Jim O’Brien: The son-in-law of one Hall of Famer (Jack Ramsay), O’Brien would begin working alongside a future Hall of Famer in 1994, when he joined Pitino at Kentucky. Long a college coach in his own right, O’Brien helped Pitino usher the glory years back to Lexington and when Pitino jumped to the Boston Celtics, O’Brien went with him. Little did he know it was the beginning of his own career. It was O’Brien who would take over in Boston after Pitino epically flamed out, twice leading the Celtics to the playoffs. He’d then go on to two more NBA head-coaching jobs, with Philadelphia and Indiana, before retiring at the end of last season.
5. Herb Sendek: The master of his own pretty heavily limbed coaching tree, Sendek got his start under Pitino. The western Pennsylvania native joined the Providence staff as a graduate assistant before moving up to assistant coach. When Pitino left PC for Kentucky, Sendek went with him, spending four seasons with the Wildcats before launching his own head-coaching career. Sendek has gone from Miami (Ohio) to NC State to Arizona State and now has 20 years of head-coaching experience. He has made seven NCAA tournaments and has three conference coach of the year awards.
6. Frank Vogel: No one can trace their roots directly to Pitino quite as thoroughly as the Indiana Pacers head coach. After meeting Pitino at Five-Star camp in Pittsburgh, Vogel, then a student at Juniata College, decided he was transferring on the spot to Kentucky. He had no promise of anything from Pitino but after loitering around the gym for weeks, he got a two-week trial period helping out assistant Jim O’Brien. A year later he was a student manager, and after graduation served as a video coordinator. The coach was so impressed with Vogel’s abilities that when Pitino went on to the Boston Celtics, he brought Vogel with him, hiring him as the team’s video coordinator. Vogel would outlast Pitino in Boston, staying on as an assistant coach under O’Brien. Six years later, when O’Brien was fired at Indiana, Vogel was named the Pacers’ interim coach. This past season under Vogel, the Pacers made their first Eastern Conference finals appearance since 2004.
7. Mick Cronin: The son of a head coach counts his father and Pitino as his two biggest mentors. He joined Pitino at Louisville in 2001 after five seasons at the University of Cincinnati under Bob Huggins. Eventually becoming Pitino’s right-hand man and associate coach, Cronin was lauded for his recruiting savvy and eventually parlayed that into a head-coaching job at Murray State. He led the Racers to two Ohio Valley titles and NCAA tourney appearances before leaving to lead his alma mater, Cincinnati. Cronin has been credited with reviving the Bearcats, who had just one returning player when he arrived on campus.
8. Ralph Willard: One of Pitino’s closest friends and confidants, Willard worked alongside the Hall of Famer in three different stretches -- first as an assistant with the Knicks (1987-1989), then later at Kentucky (1989-90) and finally, at Louisville (2009-2012). In between, Willard forged his own impressive career, serving as head coach at Holy Cross, Pittsburgh and Western Kentucky. He had his best success at his alma mater, Holy Cross, leading the program to four NCAA tournament berths and amassing a 192-117 record at the Patriot League school.
9. Travis Ford: The beloved Kentucky point guard started his career at Missouri but transferred to his home state school because he liked the style of its head coach. That would be Rick Pitino. Ford, fashioned in the same spitfire image of Billy Donovan, would take the Wildcats to three NCAA tournaments. With all that UK love and his coach’s endorsement, Ford landed his first head-coaching gig at the tender age of 26, taking over at NAIA Campbellsville. That led to a job at Eastern Kentucky -- and EKU’s first NCAA berth in 25 years -- which led to a job at Pitino’s alma mater, UMass (and an Atlantic 10 title) and now to Oklahoma State.
10. Scott Davenport: Maybe not as well known as others on this list, Davenport is every bit as successful. In his eighth season at Division II Bellarmine, Davenport has taken a program that was sub-.500 before he arrived all the way to a national championship in 2011. The former high school coach made the jump to the college game in 1996, joining Denny Crum’s staff at Louisville. When Pitino came aboard in 2001, Davenport stayed on staff, working with Pitino until 2005, when he moved on to Bellarmine.
11. Marvin Menzies: As a longtime assistant coach, Menzies' resume went on for pages before he joined Pitino at Louisville in 2005. Menzies’ career had hopscotched from the high school ranks to junior college to San Diego State to USC to UNLV. After just two seasons alongside Pitino, Menzies was a head coach, taking over at New Mexico State. He has since led the Aggies to three WAC titles and three NCAA tournament berths.
Others to be considered: Cal State Northridge head coach Reggie Theus (Louisville assistant, 2003-05); Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard (Louisville assistant, 2001-07); Florida assistant coach John Pelphrey (played at Kentucky); former NBA executive vice president Stu Jackson (Providence and New York Knicks assistant).
Coaches are the stars of the college basketball show. Fans identify with these guys not only because they look and act like fans on the sidelines, but because they got to that place through an entirely relatable pathway: They were smart, and they worked hard.
Very few people can play the game at a level worth dreaming about. There probably aren't very many more capable of coaching it that well, either, but that's not the point. The point is we all like to think we can.
Which brings us to today's argument, one of the college game's classic prompts for exactly the reasons listed above: All else being equal, including talent, resources, venue and crowd, which coach is the college game's best? "Best," in this instance, removes recruiting and season-long development, which are the two most important factors in any coach's success.
This is the thought experiment: Say you had two generic, identical teams set to play this Saturday. A coach gets between now and then to prepare his team. He coaches from the sideline throughout. The players in this scenario are essentially chess pieces sitting on a life-sized board. Your job is to pick a Grandmaster. Whom would you choose?
I've been having some version of this argument with friends and fellow fans since I was 10 years old, and I'm pretty sure there is no right answer. But here are a few nominees:
That might be true more often than not; Duke does take in more than its fair share of All-Americans every year. But for all of the borderline militaristic discipline Krzyzewski evinces, the fact is there has never been a better basketball coach in the sport's history at adapting his tactics to his talent and his matchups every season -- even every game.
The past decade of Duke basketball tells the story: The Blue Devils have played very fast (2006, 2008), very slow (2010) and at an average pace. They've created offense through spread-floor shooting, iso pick-and-roll attacking and brutish offensive rebounding (see: Zoubek, Brian). They've slapped the floor and created tons of turnovers, or sunk into a rebound-obsessed defensive shell. Often, these philosophical changes happen from one year to the next.
And all the while, Coach K has posted some of the most consistent after-timeout efficiency numbers in the sport, according to Synergy scouting data. A sample: 0.91 points per possession in 2009-10, 0.974 in 2010-11, 0.93 in 2011-12, 0.976 in 2012-13. Whatever impact coaches have on games between whistles, it is felt most acutely when they have spent the previous 60 seconds (or three minutes) with the clipboard in their hands. Coach K has been one of the best -- maybe the best -- then, too.
In other words, don't overthink it. Dude really is that good.
Rick Pitino, Louisville: This is slightly trickier. That's not to say Pitino isn't an immensely good game coach. Indeed, there is no more entertaining sideline presence in the sport, and I'm not talking about anguished facial expressions and bulging eyes. Pitino is entertaining because he's the one coach in the game that can genuinely convince you he has Jedi powers. His amorphous defense shifts between ball pressure and trapping seamlessly, and sometimes it looks like Pitino is genuinely moving players with his mind -- the closest thing to the chess metaphor college basketball has. Then he snaps his fingers, and on cue his team traps that hapless opposing point guard into a turnover and a score. It's strange and oddly beautiful in a way.
The only concerns here might arise from the fact that Pitino's personnel typically fits a certain type. He is at his best when he has put together talented, deep teams with guards quick enough to press and shot-blockers dominant enough to change shots when the dribble is allowed past Louisville's outer layer; it is not easy to put these kinds of teams together.
But Pitino is so good on short prep and with halftime adjustments that I'm not sure, for our purposes, the personnel stuff really matters. Go back to the 2012 West Regional, when the Cardinals pressed Michigan State into oblivion and changed their whole defense for a second-half rally against Florida. No matter who you put in the laundry, that guy is going to figure something out.
Has some of the luster worn off? Not really, even if he would have to admit Pitino outscouted and outcoached his No. 1-seeded Spartans in 2012. The argument against Izzo is not about his output -- it was just a few years ago that Michigan State made back-to-back Final Four runs, after all -- but about the fact that his greatest strength is his ability to pace his team's development throughout the season. By March, MSU is (usually) firing on all cylinders. That's not a coincidence.
That concern aside, though, let's be real: If you go to that many Final Fours in a relatively short period of time, you clearly have a special knack not only for building your team all season long but for short scout turnarounds and on-the-fly adjustments. You can't not. It's how the Spartans' coach earned his reputation 15 years ago, and it remains as viable as ever.
So those are probably my top three -- with a special nod to former Butler coach Brad Stevens, who would have made it a top four, and an emphasis on "probably." There are a handful of others worthy of honorable mention: Marquette's Buzz Williams hasn't missed a Sweet 16 in the past three years, and uses advanced stats in his game preps more fluently than any coach in the country. John Calipari was long dogged as an all-talent, no-chops recruiting wizard, and while I wouldn't put him in the same space tactically as Coach K or Pitino, he's about eight bajillion times better than a lot of people still seem to think. Bill Self may have a few tournament hiccups on his otherwise sterling résumé, but after-TO data reveals a consistently high rate of in-game success (plus there is, you know, all of the wins). And I'll be interested to see what Syracuse fans (or others) will say about Jim Boeheim, whose greatness is undeniable, even if his coaching style doesn't typically involve constant adjustments. (It's more like: Hey, here's our zone. See if you can score against it. Probably not.) Billy Donovan? Shaka Smart? Fred Hoiberg?
Of course, there are plenty of less-heralded but very smart guys out there, even at major programs -- people like Dana Altman, Gregg Marshall and Lon Kruger -- and dozens upon dozens of more in the mid-majors and lower divisions. But I can't name them all. Even if I could, the argument would rage on forever. We all might think we can be the head coach, but it's surely just as much fun to argue from a distance.
Louisville’s head coach was recalling a story back in the day when he was Boston University’s head coach and was passed over for the Penn State job.
It was an attempt to put what Balado had endured over the previous couple of weeks in perspective, to make the now-unemployed assistant coach feel at peace with his current situation.
“I had no idea where he was going with it,” Balado said. “It was a great story, but I had no idea how it related.”
Balado was all set to go to Minnesota with Richard Pitino after spending last season on his staff at Florida International. Balado wasn’t certain of his role, but the 37-year-old had a standing offer to join the Gophers in some capacity -- most likely as the director of basketball operations. Balado even went to Minnesota for nearly a week, but he was still being pursued by FIU athletic director Pete Garcia to remain in the program with new coach Anthony Evans.
Then came a late-night meeting with Evans the night before his introductory news conference. Balado was under the impression that he had a job offer to remain at FIU as a full-time assistant, and he even informed Pitino that he would be returning to FIU and the Miami area, where he’d spent the majority of his life, and therefore wouldn’t need to uproot his family.
However, after failing to hear anything from Evans for a couple of days, he became concerned and called the younger Pitino in hopes he could still have the director of basketball operations spot. The only issue was that Pitino had moved quickly and already filled the opening with Steve Goodson, a holdover from the Tubby Smith regime.
That’s when Balado had to tell his wife, Alicia, that he was in limbo without a D-I job.
“I was kicking myself for not staying at Minnesota,” Balado said.
“A coach's life is a roller-coaster ride,” Alicia Balado said. “You know what you sign up for, and it’s not always fun. It’s crazy, but I believe in Mike and knew that whatever happened, we’d be fine.”
Balado and his wife have 4-year-old twins. He’s been in the business for about 15 years, with stops at Nova Southeastern, Miami Dade Junior College, Florida Atlantic, High Point and, most recently, FIU.
However, now he was on the verge of taking an assistant job at Division II Barry University in Miami for $18,000 a year and also having to supplement his income as a personal trainer at the local YMCA.
“I was distraught,” Richard said. “It was the most difficult thing I’ve gone through since I’ve gotten into the business.”
So Rick Pitino called Balado and asked him to make the drive to Pitino's Miami home early one April morning.
“I knew what was going to happen,” Richard said. “I just know my dad.”
But Balado and his wife had no clue.
That’s when Pitino began reciting the story, the one in which former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno wooed a young Pitino way back in the early 1980s -- only to be disappointed when he didn’t get the job.
Finally, Pitino got to the point, telling Balado how it all worked out, and how shortly after being spurned by Penn State, Pitino was brought into the NBA by Hubie Brown as an assistant with the New York Knicks.
“Some things happen for a reason,” Pitino told Balado. “Good things sometimes come from misfortune.”
Then he pulled out a trio of $100 bills from his wallet and handed them to Balado, insisting he take his wife out for a nice dinner after the brutal few weeks the couple had recently endured.
Balado politely declined, having too much pride to take charity.
“You can afford it now,” Pitino said. “You’re an assistant coach at Louisville.”
Balado still couldn’t process what Pitino was saying. Here he was on the verge of having to struggle to make ends meet -- and now he was being hired as a full-time assistant with the defending national champions, earning a salary in excess of $200,000.
Balado broke down in tears before calling his wife, a high school teacher.
“I don’t think he thought it was real,” Alicia Balado said.
“He was crying like a baby,” Richard Pitino recalled. “He went from Barry University to Louisville.”
“It was great to be able to do it for someone,” Rick Pitino said. “But I did it because he was the type of person I wanted to hire. I like Mike a lot and know he’s going to be a very good coach at Louisville.”
So instead of spending the July recruiting period trying to identify and persuade Division II players to sign, Balado went on the road to watch high school stars who could help keep Louisville in national title contention.
“I feel like the luckiest guy in the world,” he said. “I’m not naive. I know a lot of people are a lot more qualified than me.
“But I’m going to prove to Coach Pitino every single day that he made the right choice to hire me."
The only downside, I'd wager, is the risk of injuring yourself during what ultimately amounts to one big exhibition. This weekend, two important players -- Indiana's Will Sheehey and Louisville's Montrezl Harrell -- had their respective weeks at the Nations cut short by that risk. Fortunately, it doesn't look like their either player's season will be affected.
The good news: Both injuries were minor. Sheehey had a moderate ankle sprain (to the same ankle he has injured in the past), but is expected to return to practice and workouts in a couple of weeks, according to Draft Express's Jonathan Givony, who spoke with Sheehey at the event.
Harrell's injury initially looked far more serious, but after an MRI in Louisville the forward responded to a Twitter question from former NC State and UConn guard Rodney Purvis assuring his fellow hoopster he was going to be just fine:
@rpurvis5 I'm good nothing bad just a tough sprain— Montrezl Harrell (@MONSTATREZZ) August 5, 2013
Harrell also updated his Instagram account with a photo of his knee resting in a big blue brace, accompanied by a caption that should quickly ease Cardinals' fans fears:
No worries people I'm in the ville I told you I'm going to be fine all I have is a sprain nothing is going to keep me down an out an keep me out the court this year I love this game an I have a family to take care of I'm highly blessed #blessed #grateful #thankful #hardworkbeatstalent #whentalentdoesntworkhard
Normally, I would dock Harrell a couple of points for committing the grave sin of overhashtagging, but given his infectious relief, I'll let it slide.
The upshot is Sheehey's injury shouldn't set his summer back much, if at all, as he prepares for a star senior turn on a young IU team that desperately needs his experience and versatility on the court. Harrell might spend a bit more time getting right, which is in and of itself a bummer. Louisville needs its 6-foot-8 freak of nature (see Harrell's dunk just before halftime of the national title game for evidence to this effect) to sand off the rougher edges of his game and to rely less on sheer athleticism on both ends of the floor. But considering the ugly assumptions associated with knee injuries, the fact that Harrell got out of a freak bump against another camp counselor's leg without having to miss time during the season actually feels like a bonus. Or, if you prefer, a #blessing.
Anyway, good news all around -- relatively speaking, at least.
But it’s still interesting to discuss the short list of players who might own the “fastest player in college basketball” title.
Per Doug Haller of AZCentral.com, Arizona State’s Jahii Carson might own that belt:
Not long ago, I was at the Weatherup Center, talking with Arizona State coach Herb Sendek about point guard Jahii Carson. “We have the fastest point guard in college basketball,” Sendek said. “Who’s faster than him?”
“Do you remember that play last season at Oregon State,” I asked. “When he went the length of the court off a made free throw?”
Said Sendek: “Oh, I’ll never forget it.”
Carson starts sprinting after taking the inbounds near the opposing free throw line. And then … Usain Bolt. He’s gone. Just 3.4 seconds later, he scores on a layup.
It does look like Carson has elite speed. But the fastest point guard in the game? Maybe. He’s certainly in a small group.
We can’t forget Oregon’s Johnathan Loyd, who returned five kicks for touchdowns as a senior return man at his high school in Nevada. And then there’s Memphis point guard Joe Jackson. Penn State's Tim Frazier was definitely on this list prior to his ACL injury. If he’s healthy, he’ll be a headache for perimeter defenders all season.
If I’m picking one player, however, to go coast to coast in college basketball, there’s really no debate. It has to be Louisville’s Russ Smith. I think Smith is the fastest player in college basketball and I’m not sure it’s even close. But he’s not a true point guard.
Again, this isn’t college football so speed isn’t measured the same way. But it’s still an interesting debate.
When and where: Nov. 23-24 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn.
Semifinal schedule for the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-Off:
Nov. 23: North Carolina vs. Richmond (noon ET, ESPN3); Louisville vs. Fairfield (2 p.m. ET, ESPN3)
Nov. 24: Championship game (1 p.m. ET, ESPN); Consolation game (3 p.m. ET, ESPN3)
Initial thoughts: Smart move by Mohegan Sun. The casino, already home of a popular WNBA franchise, wisely has opened its doors to some of the college game’s best. Louisville and North Carolina would be headliners anywhere, and their presence here turns Uncasville into a destination getaway in late November. Odds of an upset are slim, but never count out Richmond. The Spiders always are well-coached.
Matchup I can’t wait to see: North Carolina versus Richmond. If an upset is going to happen here, this is the game. The Spiders return four of their top five scorers, and with P.J. Hairston’s status very much in question, they could give the Tar Heels a handful.
Potential matchup I’d like to see: Were you expecting to see Richmond-Fairfield here? Seriously, a Louisville-North Carolina matchup in late November is a pretty nice little early-season tilt for college hoops. The defending national champion Cardinals return the core if not the heart (that would be Peyton Siva) of their title-winning team, while the Tar Heels -- with James Michael McAdoo back, and possibly Hairston (depending on criminal charges he’s currently facing), are expected to make big jumps this season. Louisville likes to defend; UNC likes to score. Not a bad combo.
Five players to watch:
James Michael McAdoo: The talented but somewhat enigmatic player surprised some by coming back for his junior season after averaging 14.4 PPG and 7.3 RPG. He hasn't exactly been the alpha dog the Tar Heels have so desperately needed the past couple of years. Is now the time?
Cedrick Lindsay, Richmond: The senior finished second on the team in scoring, but really got good late. He averaged 16.5 points per game in his last 11 games.
Maurice Barrow, Fairfield: On a rebuilding squad that lost all-everything guard Derek Needham, last season's second-leading scorer will need to have a step up in production. If the Stags are going to compete in the MAAC, the 6-foot-5 forward will have to play a large role.
Chris Jones, Louisville: Just how good the Cardinals will be this season ultimately falls into the point guard’s hands. Literally. The highly touted juco transfer is replacing Siva -- no easy task, but he comes to campus with serious praise from Rick Pitino.
Title-game prediction: Louisville over North Carolina. Everyone will be trying to upset the king this year, so the road won’t be easy for the Cardinals. But Louisville is just too loaded with experience, even for a very good Tar Heels team.
Who others are picking:
Eamonn Brennan: Louisville over North Carolina
Jeff Goodman: Louisville over North Carolina
Seth Greenberg: Louisville over North Carolina
Andy Katz: Louisville over North Carolina
Jason King: Louisville over North Carolina
Myron Medcalf: Louisville over North Carolina
But it might have the best team.
Louisville -- which will compete in the conference for just one season before bolting for the ACC -- returns three starters and nearly every key reserve from the squad that cut down the nets in Atlanta in April.
Considering most pundits call the Cardinals a threat to repeat as NCAA champion, it seems like a foregone conclusion that Rick Pitino’s team will win its own league. In fact, of all the major conferences in the country, the American seems to have the most obvious shoo-in champ in Louisville.
Not that the rest of the league members are ready to admit it.
As potent as Russ Smith, Chane Behanan, Luke Hancock, Montrezl Harrell and the rest of the Cards appear, there are plenty of other schools in the league that feel more than capable of challenging the defending champion.
Here’s a quick look at the teams that could alter Louisville’s quest for a league title in its only year in the American Athletic Conference.
Memphis: After dominating Conference USA for years -- including a 16-0 finish last season -- the Tigers will be eager to test themselves against higher-level competition during league play. Adonis Thomas, D.J. Stephens and Tarik Black are gone from last season’s 31-5 squad, but there is hardly a shortage of talent on the roster. Memphis’ biggest strength will be its backcourt, which should be among the best in the country and No. 1 in the conference. Point guard Joe Jackson, a three-year starter who averaged 13.6 points last season, is back along with standout shooters Chris Crawford and Geron Johnson, an energy guy. The biggest key, though, centers on the eligibility status of former Missouri player Michael Dixon, who will be Memphis’ top overall guard if the NCAA grants him a waiver that would allow him to play. If Dixon is eligible, the Tigers could employ a four-guard lineup at times. Coach Josh Pastner is counting on sophomore Shaq Goodwin to make significant strides in the paint after averaging 7.4 points in 20.2 minutes last season. Power forward Austin Nichols and small forward Kuran Iverson are freshmen who are expected to make an immediate impact for a program that nearly upset Louisville in nonconference action last season.
Connecticut: Speaking of strong backcourts, Connecticut will also have one of the best thanks to the return of guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, who combined to average 33.5 points and nine assists last season. Double-digit scorers DeAndre Daniels (12.1 points) and Omar Calhoun (11.1) also return. The biggest concern with UConn is its lack of depth in the paint. The Huskies ranked second-to-last in the Big East last season in rebounding. Overall, though, Kevin Ollie’s first season at Connecticut was deemed a success. He did an excellent job under difficult circumstances. The Huskies -- who were banned from postseason competition -- had nothing to play for but went 20-10. Here’s betting that Ollie’s second season will be defined by even more success.
Cincinnati: The Bearcats took a hit when underrated point guard Cashmere Wright graduated, but optimism for Mick Cronin’s squad is still high thanks to the return of second-team All-Big East selection Sean Kilpatrick, who averaged 17 points as a junior and 14.6 points as a sophomore. Kilpatrick has been one of the top players for Team USA in this summer’s World University Games in Russia. Forward Titus Rubles also returns after averaging 5.9 points and 5.9 rebounds as a junior. In all, Cincinnati returns seven players who averaged double-digit minutes for a team that went 22-12 and lost in the NCAA tournament to Creighton. Expect power forward Jermaine Lawrence -- the 35th-ranked recruit in the Class of 2013 by ESPN.com -- to play a big role as a freshman.
SMU: Could the Mustangs earn their first NCAA tournament berth since 1993 one season after finishing 15-17? Enough help is on the way to make it a possibility. 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 Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown gets this group to jell quickly, this could be the best season for Mustangs basketball in recent memory. SMU is also nearing completion on a renovation project of about $50 million to Moody Coliseum, which is scheduled to reopen in December.
Temple: The Owls lost their top three players in Khalif Wyatt, Scootie Randall and Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson. Still, Temple will be considered a threat as long as Fran Dunphy is the coach. Dunphy has led Temple to six straight NCAA tournament berths and at least 24 wins in each of the past four seasons. The Owls will be sparked by leading returning scorer and rebounder Anthony Lee, a forward who averaged 9.8 points and 6.8 boards last season. Starting guard Will Cummings is also back after averaging 5.8 points and 1.9 assists.
Houston: James Dickey’s squad won 20 games last season but went just 7-9 in Conference USA. There are enough returning pieces to make the 2013-14 season a success, even with the transfer of leading scorer Joseph Young. Houston brings back standout forward TaShawn Thomas (16.9 points, 9.8 rebounds) and athletic wing Danuel House, who should make tremendous strides after averaging 12.4 points as a freshman. The Cougars also will add Danrad “Chicken” Knowles, a 2012 signee who was academically ineligible last season. House was the 19th-ranked player in the Class of 2012 ESPN 100; Knowles was No. 51. Dickey also is crossing his fingers that Baylor transfer L.J. Rose is granted a waiver that would allow him to play immediately. Rose was the ninth-ranked point guard in the Class of 2012 (No. 63 overall) but played sparingly as a freshman at Baylor last season as a backup to Big 12 scoring leader Pierre Jackson.
It strikes me, as we head into the home stretch of our Realignment Reality week, that college basketball fans could relate. (Stay with me.)
We fans like to think of sports as essentially pure, free from the messy and confusing nature of day-to-day life, a world apart from the distressing politics and economics that dominate our lives from birth until death. They are not. They are as beholden to money as anything else. If the past three years of conference realignment have taught us anything, it is this: When the fight card pits nostalgia versus cash, cash always wins in a knockout.
Once you can wrap your head around this fact, it's a lot easier to shrug at the casual manner in which realignment has gutted some of the most enjoyable, most heated, most psychologically-invested rivalries of the past 50 years. Money always wins.
Beyond spending as much time as possible watching the actual basketball itself -- my favorite remedy for just about everything, with the possible exception of "The Big Lebowski" -- the best we can do, I'd wager, is to try to look on the bright side. There are always new rivalries to be formed.
In that spirit, let's see if we can scout out a few worth watching in the years to come:
Duke vs. Syracuse
This one is awesome enough on its face: Duke and Syracuse are both really good at basketball. Now that they're in the same league, they're guaranteed to play at least once a season, and any combination of familiarity and excellence is a guarantee to produce healthy, thrilling distaste.
There's much more to it than that. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is the winningest coach in the history of college hoops. Syracuse's Jim Boeheim ranks No. 2. The men are friends, frequent USA Basketball colleagues, cheap dinner companions, and fellow enthusiasts of acerbic wit. But they are also obsessive competitors, and you can bet that for however long both of them have the chance to coach against each other in the coming years -- Boeheim is 68, Coach K 66 -- there will be a little something extra on the line.
The men might be similar, but the schools are vastly different. Syracuse is a private research institution that nonetheless feels like a state school,* and plays its hoops in a cavernous football arena; Duke is an elite private institution with the world's best boutique gym. Syracuse feels (from afar, at least) tightly woven into the culture of the community around it; Duke's looming Gothic facades might as well be Hogwarts. About 40 percent of Syracuse's 2010 class hailed from New York state; roughly 90 percent of Duke students come from somewhere that isn't North Carolina. These are the kinds of sociocultural and perceptual differences that breed hatred beyond basketball. They are fuel for the rivalry flame.
There is also the matter of regional rivalry. That seems weird to say, given that one school is 45 minutes from the Canadian border and the other is 350 miles south of the Mason-Dixon Line. But there is a reason Duke is sure to schedule at least one nonconference game in the New York/New Jersey area every season: There are a lot of Blue Devils alumni in the Northeast. In the past five years, Syracuse has made a concerted effort to market itself as "New York's college team."
If it were just as simple as "two really good programs suddenly in the same conference," then we could just as easily look forward to the North Carolina-Syracuse rivalry. But a great rivalry has to be about much more than that. Duke-Syracuse has all the makings.
Memphis vs. Cincinnati
Another benefit to conference realignment: rivalries reborn! The Millennials among us might not remember it too well (OK, guilty as charged), but in 1991-92 Memphis and Cincinnati joined UAB, DePaul, Marquette and Saint Louis as charter members of the Great Midwest Conference. (That's just a a fantastic name, by the way. I've been giving the new American Athletic Conference a tough time lately, but the more I think about it, the more I've come to believe that pretty much any conference nomenclature sounds completely silly if you think about it for longer than five seconds.) The six-member GMC was short-lived; it merged with the Metro Conference in 1995, which both Memphis and Cincinnati had left in the first place, to form Conference USA. Ah, realignment. Never change.
Anyway, it was in the early '90s, in the GMC, when Memphis and Cincinnati managed to pack in some truly rivalry-worthy stuff. In 1991-92 the Tigers, led by Anfernee Hardaway and David Vaughn, met the Bearcats in the inaugural GMC tournament and again during their thrilling Elite Eight run, losing to a sublime Nick Van Exel both times. Hardaway and Van Exel met again in 1993, when Memphis upset the No. 4-ranked Bearcats 68-66 to notch the program's 1,000th win. The fact that there is no video of this game on the Internet is a shocking crime against humanity. In 1995, Memphis clinched the final GMC regular-season title over the Bearcats (thanks to 33 points from Michael Williams) on the road, and the rivalry continued on into Conference USA.
If you think either of those basketball-obsessed cities forgot about any of that, you'd be wrong. That bodes well for the future, by the way: Memphis and Cincinnati are large metropolitan areas that, despite having professional sports franchises, nonetheless eat, breathe and sleep college hoops.
Memphis vs. Louisville
OK, so this doesn't really count: The return of the Memphis-Louisville rivalry -- exponentially more heated than Memphis-Cincinnati -- will last just one year in the American before Louisville sets off for the ACC. But I had to mention it anyway, because before we all wept for Kansas-Missouri and Syracuse-Georgetown, the Cardinals' departure from C-USA last decade put a hold on a blood feud dating back to 1967. Fortunately, these two teams put each other on their nonconference schedules the last couple of seasons, and it's likely we'll see that again going forward. But still, it will be fun to add a little intraconference hatred to the mix.
UCF vs. South Florida
Neither of these programs are likely to excite basketball fans individually. Historically, neither has been very good, or even all that concerned with trying to be good, at this funky roundball thing. Maybe that's just a fact of life. But the new American Conference configuration should keep them both in the same digs for a while to come. Here's hoping that the rise of collegiate basketball in Florida in the past decade, the inherent regional familiarity and state-school ties, and the massive student bodies (nearly 110,000 enrollees between them) make for an increased focus on the basketball side of things -- and, as a result, increased success.
Butler vs. Xavier
This one isn't totally new -- the Bulldogs did enjoy a one-year stopover in the Atlantic 10 before both teams jumped to the new Big East this summer -- but it has the potential to be awfully good. For one, there is a bit of shared coaching history: Ohio State coach Thad Matta left Butler in 2000 to move to Xavier, and his eventual successors (new Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, Arizona coach Sean Miller) moved on to become immensely successful in their own right. They really are natural enemies. Alongside Gonzaga and Memphis, Butler and Xavier are the marquee non-Power Six programs of the past decade, and they're poised just a couple of hours apart on I-74. Now both affiliated with something that looks like a power conference if you squint hard enough, they will no doubt be prospecting in many of the same talent-rich areas of Indiana. This could be a thing.
Pittsburgh vs. Virginia
Pittsburgh and West Virginia don't exactly get along. Never have. Why not extend that to West Virginia's eastern cousin? Sure, the geographic intensity might not be as immediate -- Morgantown sits just south of the Pennsylvania border, while Charlottesville is a five-hour drive -- but with Pittsburgh such a consistent hoops force, and UVa on the rise under Tony Bennett, who's to say what the relationship might become? At the very least, the slow-paced Cavaliers look best poised to prevent Pitt from totally grinding an otherwise finesse-first ACC on the glass in seasons to come.
Oakland vs. Detroit
Oakland's move from the Summit League to the Horizon is a step up in general, but it also lays the groundwork for a sneaky-fun city-suburbs dispute in the greater Detroit area.
Pacific vs. Saint Mary's and/or Gonzaga
Think it's going to be tough for Butler to move to the Big East without Brad Stevens? Imagine being Pacific, which just waved farewell to the greatest coach in its history (and one of the sport's most annually underrated), 25-year veteran Bob Thomason, on the eve of a move from the Big West to the West Coast Conference. The good news? If Pacific can rise a notch or two to the level of its best WCC competition, it will be not only a perfect fit for the WCC, but also an excellent candidate to form rivalries with Saint Mary's to its west and Gonzaga to its north.
It might be a stretch, but that's the case with a few of the entries on this list. But hey, if conference realignment can toss rivalries aside so easily, who's to say new ones can't grow just as rapidly in their wake? Let's hope so, anyway.
[*Correction: An earlier version of this post described Syracuse as a state school, not a private institution. My mistake. -- EB]