College Basketball Nation: Memphis Tigers
The wrong statistic can hang around your neck. Josh Pastner knows better than most.
As the head men's basketball coach at Memphis, Pastner has, by any rational standard, been about as successful as anyone could or should have hoped when he was hired five years ago. He has landed almost uniformly excellent recruiting classes. His Tigers have been to the NCAA tournament in three out of four seasons. He has averaged a tidy 27 wins a season. (Twenty-seven wins while playing in the limping Conference USA, but still: 27 wins.) This is what basketball success typically looks like.
But for a couple of years now, a pair of oh-fers have hung around Pastner's neck like anvils. He exorcised the first last season, when he got his first NCAA tournament win as a head coach. The other -- a far more valid, and less circumstantial, bit of evidence: Pastner's 0-13 record against top 25 teams -- mercifully ended in Orlando, Fla., against No. 5 Oklahoma State on Sunday night.
And that's not all: Memphis's 73-68 win in the Old Spice Classic provided was a massive boost, both internally and outwardly, for a team that was embarrassed by the Cowboys in Stillwater on Nov. 19.
You probably remember that Nov. 19 game. Even if you didn't watch it, you surely caught some of the highlights. Marcus Smart scored 39 points in a performance that set the tone for what will be an ongoing player of the year award chase. He shot 11-of-21 from the floor and hit five 3-pointers. He helped put the Cowboys up by 36 points in the second half; they would eventually finish with 101. Smart launched heat-checks and tossed lobs to teammates. He turned the whole thing into a laugher, a pre-coronation for America's favorite college player, and the only thing more noticeable than his greatness was just how disjointed, apathetic and -- let's just come right out and say it -- soft Memphis looked in repose.
For a team with a deep and experienced core of guards, and huge preseason expectations in and outside hoops-obsessed Memphis itself, the Stillwater showing was nothing less than disaster. All of the old complaints came roaring back onto the radio: Pastner was a nice guy, and sure everyone was cheering for him, but he couldn't coach. His teams didn't get it. They gave up. They always underachieve. They can't win the big game. The abbreviation for Amateur Athletic Union, as cutting a coaching epithet as there is, was sprinkled liberally throughout.
It's a little bit difficult to translate how much better Memphis was Sunday, just 12 days after that 101-80 caning. They were better in all of the obvious, technical ways, namely on defense, where they played Oklahoma State's ball-screens and side-to-side movement actions almost immeasurably better than they did in Stillwater. Two weeks ago, Memphis sat back and let Smart do whatever he wanted. On Sunday, they were active on the first touch, denying possession when possible, playing through and over and around screens, and communicating to keep the ball in less damaging places. The number of clean touches Smart got at the top of the key in space Sunday was low, if it wasn't zero.
He was still awfully good. The first half ended on a pair of brilliant Smart drive-and-dishes, when he exploited angles and found open teammates for easy lay-ins. Oklahoma State bounced off a precocious Memphis start and opened up a 10-point lead at halftime, 42-32, and it was hard to picture Memphis keeping up with the unbeaten Cowboys for 20 more minutes.
But the aforementioned Tigers defense held Oklahoma State to just eight points in the first nine minutes of the second half. They were better on offense, too: Better spaced and more cohesive and sharper in every way. Former Missouri transfer Michael Dixon provided that same quick-twitch scoring he perfected for those other Tigers; Joe Jackson grabbed eight rebounds from the guard spot; and, most impressively, Shaq Goodwin was at once a reliable scorer, rebounder, interior passer and energy source for Memphis for all 39 of his minutes Sunday.
Smart was clearly sick in the first half; Memphis may have caught a break there. But so what? On a night they started in a deep perception hole -- just another Memphis team full of talented guys who won't reach their maximum potential, or whatever the nightmare description in the Tigers' otherwise successful basketball community these days -- Memphis came away with a defensively oriented victory against one of the best teams, and probably the best player, in the country.
And Pastner, for his part, got out from under a rather heavy piece of statistical jewelry. Memphis finally punched back.
She and he got it. pic.twitter.com/9oRdGMPei0— L. Jason Smith (@TheCAJasonSmith) December 2, 2013
Jason King: Steve Alford, UCLA
In some ways, it doesn’t make much sense to say that Steve Alford has something to prove. In his six years at New Mexico, Alford averaged 25.8 victories and won five Mountain West Conference titles. There’s no question the man can coach. Alford, though, will be operating under a whole new set of circumstances at UCLA, where expectations will be unreasonably high. This, after all, is a school that in March fired a coach who had been to three Final Fours and was weeks removed from winning the outright Pac-12 title. That might cut it at some programs, but it didn’t do Ben Howland any good in Westwood, where sub-30-win seasons are considered a failure.
Alford won’t have the grace period that most coaches are extended during their first season. He inherited a team that returns a likely first-round NBA draft pick in Kyle Anderson and a trio of proven forwards in David and Travis Wear and Jordan Adams. Arizona may be the clear-cut favorite in the Pac-12, but UCLA will be expected to at least make the race interesting. If the Bruins don’t, Alford will endure a boatload of criticism, especially considering the lukewarm reception to his hiring by fans and media. Alford’s lack of NCAA tournament success -- and his mediocre performance on the recruiting trail thus far -- has prompted some concerns about his ability to return UCLA to its days of dominance. And his often prickly personality may make it tough to win over fans. As a player at Indiana, Alford grew used to being in the spotlight. But never during his coaching career has he encountered what lies ahead during his first season at UCLA.
Myron Medcalf: John Calipari, Kentucky
It’s odd for a man with a national championship and Final Four appearances in two of the past three seasons to have something to prove. But that’s the position John Calipari is in after assembling the greatest recruiting class in college basketball history. Sure, there’s no guarantee this class will live up to the hype. But no group -- ever -- has warranted this much hoopla and excitement. He has six McDonald’s All Americans, and that’s just the freshmen. In all, Calipari boasts eight players who might be first-round picks in next summer’s NBA draft.
So what could go wrong? Well, last season, another talented young crew in Lexington lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. Was that a fluke? There’s immense pressure on Calipari and this Kentucky squad to prove that it was. He’s always been a premier recruiter, but recruiting alone, as we learned last year, is not the only quality that breeds success within the coaching ranks. Developing talent is critical. Calipari did that when he won a national title in 2012 with a squad that was led by freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The same result will be anticipated by Big Blue Nation in 2013-14. Yet the stench of last season’s tumult remains. The only relief will be a rally that ends in Texas with a Final Four appearance. Many will expect -- demand -- a national title. That’s what happens when a coach brings so many stars together. But can Calipari lead an inexperienced yet advanced group of young players to the championship again? Anything short of that could be considered a disappointment.
Dana O'Neil: Josh Pastner, Memphis
The news that Michael Dixon would be eligible immediately at Memphis turned the Tigers’ already terrific backcourt into arguably one of the best in the nation. It also upped the ante for the team overall, which means even higher expectations for Josh Pastner. The fifth-year coach has some questions on the inside, namely can Shaq Goodwin continue to make strides to help replace Adonis Thomas. But he’s got awfully good answers on the perimeter. Dixon, Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford are all different but all very good and, more important, all seniors. If Pastner can steal a page from Jay Wright’s four-guard handbook, he’s got the makings of a pretty good team.
Pastner has done a more-than-admirable job since taking over for Calipari. In three of his four years, the Tigers have made the NCAA tournament and last season won their first NCAA game in his tenure, beating Saint Mary’s before losing to Michigan State to finish 31-5. The trouble is, before Pastner arrived, winning an NCAA tournament game was a foregone conclusion. Calipari’s last four teams went Elite Eight, Elite Eight, national title game, Sweet 16. It’s an absurdly high bar. It’s frankly unfair to measure a team by its NCAA success only. Matchups and injuries can alter so many fates, but it is definitely Pastner’s reality. The folks of Memphis love their coach and love their Tigers, but they want to see the tourney's second weekend again.
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.
Toughest: at New Mexico (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: NC State (Nov. 12), Xavier (Dec. 14), Pittsburgh (Dec. 17 in New York), Nebraska (Dec. 28)
The rest: North Carolina Central (Nov. 8), Appalachian State (Nov. 16), Campbell (Nov. 20), UMass Lowell (Nov. 26), Kennesaw State (Nov. 29), Middle Tennessee State (Dec. 21), Chicago State (Dec. 23)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- This schedule could turn out better than it's currently ranked, but that will depend on how the unknown quantities of Pittsburgh and NC State turn out. For now it’s relatively toothless, especially because the Bearcats play just twice outside of Cincinnati.
Toughest: Florida (Dec. 2), Harvard (Jan. 8 )
Next toughest: Maryland (Nov. 8 in Brooklyn, N.Y.), 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 22), at Washington (Dec. 22)
The rest: Yale (Nov. 11), Detroit (Nov. 14), Boston University (Nov. 17), Boston College (Nov. 21 in New York), Loyola (Nov. 26), Maine (Dec. 6), Stanford (Dec. 18), Eastern Washington (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- The Huskies come back from postseason purgatory with a bang this season and have a pretty decent schedule for a showcase. The Gators will be a top-15 team and Harvard ought to be (no, that’s not sarcasm). Throw in the 2K Sports, where UConn will open with improved BC and then either Indiana or Washington, and the Huskies have plenty to sink their teeth into.
Toughest: Legends Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Next toughest: at Texas A&M (Dec. 4)
The rest: Texas State (Nov. 8), at UT-Pan American (Nov. 11), UT-San Antonio (Nov. 14), Lehigh (Nov. 17), Howard (Nov. 21), Texas-Corpus Christi (Nov. 30), San Jose State (Dec. 7), Alcorn State (Dec. 9), Louisiana-Lafayette (Dec. 14), Rice (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 2 -- Conference commissioner Mike Aresco might want to let the Cougars know that playing every directional university in the state of Texas does not a good schedule make. Playing Stanford at the Legends (and then either Pitt or Texas Tech) is OK, but if Houston is serious about stepping up its class, it has to beef up its schedule.
Toughest: Hall of Fame Classic (Nov. 23-24 in Uncasville, Conn.), at Kentucky (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: Western Kentucky (Dec. 14)
The rest: Charleston (Nov. 9), Hofstra (Nov. 12), Hartford (Nov. 19), Cornell (Nov. 15), Southern Miss (Nov. 29), UMKC (Dec. 4), Louisiana-Lafayette (Dec. 7), Missouri State (Dec. 17), at Florida International (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- More than likely, the Cardinals will face North Carolina at Mohegan Sun. That game, partnered with the Kentucky grudge match in Lexington, makes for two pretty sensational games. Beyond those two headliners, though, this top-5 team doesn’t have a whole lot of games to turn your head.
Toughest: at Oklahoma State (Nov. 19), Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in Orlando, Fla.), Florida (Dec. 17 in New York), Gonzaga (Feb. 8)
Next toughest: N/A
The rest: Austin Peay (Nov. 14), Nicholls State (Nov. 23), Northwestern State (Dec. 7), Arkansas-Little Rock (Dec. 13), Southeast Missouri State (Dec. 21), Jackson State (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 -- With the addition of Michael Dixon, Josh Pastner could have the best backcourt in the country. This schedule offers more than enough to test that theory. Along with the Gators and the semi-annual date with the Zags, the Tigers could run headlong into Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State for a second time in two weeks in the Old Spice Classic final.
Toughest: NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 18-19, Nov. 27-29 in New York)
Next toughest: at George Washington (Dec. 4), Seton Hall (Dec. 8)
The rest: Florida A&M (Nov. 8), at UAB (Nov. 11), Yale (Nov. 14), William & Mary (Nov. 23), UNC-Greensboro (Dec. 14), Army (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- It’s honestly hard to judge this schedule, as the NIT Season Tip-Off schedule isn’t entirely set. The Scarlet Knights theoretically could run into Duke, Arizona or Alabama. Aside from that, the rivalry game against Seton Hall is good to see on the schedule.
Toughest: Oklahoma State (Nov. 25), Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)
Next toughest: at George Mason (Dec. 4), Alabama (Dec. 7), Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 17)
The rest: Tennessee Tech (Nov. 9), Bethune-Cookman (Nov. 12), at Bowling Green (Nov. 15), Stetson (Nov. 22), Detroit (Nov. 30), Florida A&M (Dec. 19), at Bradley (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 with the potential for a 7 -- The potential boost comes in Las Vegas. If the Bulls can get past Mississippi State, they’d likely take on host UNLV. Regardless, any schedule that features Marcus Smart and Dunk City isn’t too shabby.
Toughest: at Arkansas (Nov. 18), Corpus Christi Challenge (Nov. 29-30)
Next toughest: at Wyoming (Dec. 20)
The rest: TCU (Nov. 8 at American Airlines Arena), Rhode Island (Nov. 11), Arkansas Pine Bluff (Nov. 24), Sam Houston State (Nov. 26)
Toughness scale (1-10): Incomplete -- The Mustangs are in the process of finalizing their nonconference schedule. As of right now, Larry Brown’s squad does get a nice ACC bump against Virginia in Corpus Christi, and playing at Arkansas always carries bonus points.
Toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24), Villanova (Feb. 1)
Next toughest: Saint Joseph’s (Dec. 4), La Salle (Jan. 18 at the Palestra)
The rest: at Penn (Nov. 9), Kent State (Nov. 11), at Towson (Nov. 14), Texas (Dec. 7), Texas Southern (Dec. 18), LIU-Brooklyn (Dec. 21 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The rebuilding Owls will have their hands full here, especially in Charleston. Temple faces a similarly reconstructing team in Clemson in the first game, with a potential matchup with New Mexico looming. And then there is the Big 5. Never easy and getting harder, what with the re-emergence of La Salle and and improving Penn.
Toughest: Florida State (Nov. 13), at Miami (Nov. 21)
Next toughest: at Valparaiso (Nov. 26)
The rest: Tampa (Nov. 8), Bethune-Cookman (Nov. 17), at Florida Atlantic (Dec. 3), Stetson (Dec. 7), Howard (Dec. 11), Jacksonville (Dec. 17), Rio Grande (Dec. 21), Valparaiso (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- A home and home with Valpo? In the same season? That’s … interesting. Otherwise, Central Florida is getting Florida State and Miami a year too late. Both will still be a challenge for the Knights, no doubt, but they won’t be what they were a year ago.
Those topics have been discussed ad nauseam the past four months. Plenty of other things, however, have occurred during the offseason that could have a huge impact on the 2013-14 campaign. Here are 10 storylines that aren’t receiving nearly enough attention as the season inches closer.
1. Key eligibility issues: Three of the nation’s top programs are waiting on the NCAA to rule on the eligibility status of players who could change the course of their respective seasons. The most high-profile case involves Florida forward Chris Walker, an incoming freshman whose academic standing is in question. Walker, the country’s No. 12 recruit according to ESPN.com, is not listed on the Gators’ roster. The Gainesville Sun reported Monday that Walker may have to wait until December to take the court, if it happens at all. At Memphis, the Tigers’ backcourt will be one of the best in the country if Michael Dixon is deemed eligible. Dixon was forced to leave Missouri’s program in November following allegations of sexual misconduct. Dixon, however, was never arrested or even questioned by police. He is arguably one of the top 10 players at his position and would likely provide the leadership the Tigers have been lacking. At Oregon, coach Dana Altman is crossing his fingers that Houston transfer Joseph Young will be able to play immediately. Young, a wing, averaged 18 points per game last season. He could form one of the nation’s top perimeter trios along with Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis.
3. Tarik Black transfers to Kansas: The addition of No. 1 overall recruit Andrew Wiggins has dominated the headlines in Lawrence, and rightfully so. But Black, a senior who played his first three seasons at Memphis, could play a crucial role for the Jayhawks, too. Black, who started off and on for three seasons with the Tigers, brings some much-needed experience and leadership to a KU squad that could count as many as eight freshmen and sophomores among its top 10 players. And at 6-foot-9, 262 pounds, Black gives the Jayhawks the rugged, physical presence in the paint they may have otherwise been lacking. Don’t be surprised if Black ends up starting for a squad vying for its 10th straight Big 12 title.
4. Steve Alford under the microscope at UCLA: For some reason the decision to replace Ben Howland with Alford didn’t go over all that well, both nationally and in Westwood. I’m not sure I understand why. All Alford did at New Mexico the past five seasons was average 26.2 victories and win four MWC titles. Yes, he has struggled in the NCAA tournament, but his day will come. I’ve never been a fan of judging a coach based on one game or one loss. Either way, there are plenty of people rooting for Alford to fail. He’ll receive an immense amount of scrutiny this season and it will be interesting to see how he responds. UCLA returns a good amount of talent with players such as Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson, David Wear and Travis Wear. Anything less than a top-three finish in the Pac-12 will be a disappointment.
5. New leagues look strong: The new Big East may no longer have schools such as Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Louisville. But its inaugural season should be entertaining. Marquette, Creighton, Georgetown and St. John’s should provide an exciting race for the conference title. The American Athletic Conference also will be worth watching, as Memphis, Connecticut and Louisville are all top-15-caliber teams. And don’t sleep on Cincinnati, Houston or SMU, which has added some nice pieces under second-year coach Larry Brown.
6. Butler loses Roosevelt Jones: A junior, Jones suffered torn ligaments in his wrist during the Bulldogs’ August trip to Australia and will miss the entire 2013-14 season. Losing Jones is a huge setback for a team that also will have to adjust to the departure of Stevens to the Boston Celtics. Jones, a versatile 6-4 wing, averaged 10.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists last season. The job of new coach Brandon Miller is suddenly a lot tougher as he prepares to guide Butler into the Big East.
8. Will the Mountain West regress?: Five league schools -- Colorado State, San Diego State, Boise State, UNLV and New Mexico -- earned NCAA tournament berths last spring. But only two of those schools (SDSU and CSU) won their opening game. This season may be more of a struggle. New Mexico will be good again despite the loss of coach Steve Alford and small forward Tony Snell. And Boise State returns most of its key pieces. But Colorado State (Colton Iverson), San Diego State (Jamaal Franklin) and UNLV (Anthony Bennett) lost their top players -- and some other good ones, too -- and should take a step back.
9. St. John’s as a sleeper: I’m a little surprised more people aren’t talking about the Red Storm as a contender for the Big East title along with Marquette, Creighton and Georgetown. When it comes to pure talent, Steve Lavin’s squad should be the top team in the league. St. John’s returns three double-digit scorers in D’Angelo Harrison (17.8 PPG), JaKarr Sampson (14.9) and Phil Greene (10.1). Forward God'sgift Achiuwa is back after redshirting last season. He averaged 9.4 points in 2011-12. Center Chris Obekpa also returns after averaging a national-best 3.9 blocks. And the Storm add two players -- point guard Rysheed Jordan and forward Orlando Sanchez -- who should have an immediate impact. Jordan was ranked as the third-best point guard in the Class of 2013. The 6-9 Sanchez, who will be eligible for only one season, is regarded as a future pro. If Lavin finds a way to meld all of this talent, St. John’s could be a Top-25 mainstay by midseason.
10. Josh Gasser is back at Wisconsin: The point guard missed all of the 2012-13 season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The Badgers still won 23 games and made the NCAA tournament without him, but his return to the lineup could spark the squad to even greater success this year. Gasser, who has been cleared to play in an exhibition tour of Canada that begins this week, will likely become more of a combo guard thanks to the emergence of Traevon Jackson. He could even end up playing some at forward because of Wisconsin’s lack of depth in the paint. The 6-3 Gasser averaged 7.6 points and 4.2 rebounds two seasons ago.
There’s nostalgia, a chance at history, a few classic rivalries and a couple of meetings that could determine the hierarchy in top conferences.
The schedule, released by ESPN on Wednesday morning, is a tantalizing one for college basketball fans.
This is a stacked card without any filler, beginning with the Jan. 18 kickoff featuring La Salle vs. Temple at the Palestra. It should be a strong opening for GameDay, which will position its high-tech gadgets and cameras throughout a building that was constructed in the 1920s for the Big 5 rivalries in Philly. Perfect blend of the past and present. And that’s what preserves this game’s traditions.
Also, Digger Phelps, who is now healthy after a battle with bladder cancer, will be back with Rece Davis, Jay Bilas and Jalen Rose to enjoy this travel schedule:
2014 College GameDay Schedule
Jan. 18: Morning Show – Temple vs. La Salle (The Palestra); Evening - Louisville at UConn
Jan. 25: Michigan at Michigan State
Feb. 1: Duke at Syracuse
Feb. 8: Gonzaga at Memphis
Feb. 15: Florida at Kentucky
Feb. 22: Two options: Arizona at Colorado OR UCLA at Stanford
March 1: Kansas at Oklahoma State
March 8: North Carolina at Duke
Well, where should we begin? Here are a few thoughts on the GameDay schedule …
-- I think the most interesting game on the slate is the one that could shatter an NCAA record. Syracuse-Duke on Feb. 1 in the Carrier Dome should be a great welcome party for the Orange in its inaugural year in the ACC. And if the prognosticators are correct, it could break a record for on-campus attendance – assuming officials finalize plans to move the court to the center of the dome for the matchup. Officials: Please make this happen. Thanks.
Syracuse’s matchup against Georgetown in February, the final Big East meeting between the two teams, established the current NCAA on-campus attendance record (35,012).
But this goes beyond history. Both squads could be ranked in the top 10 entering the 2013-14 season. Multiple NBA prospects will be on the floor, including C.J. Fair, Jerami Grant, Rasheed Sulaimon and Jabari Parker. And Coach K vs. Boeheim doesn’t hurt the matchup’s appeal.
-- There’s been a lot of offseason trash talk between Michigan and Michigan State fans. On Jan. 25, the two national title contenders will begin to settle things when they compete at the Breslin Center in East Lansing. The Wolverines reached last season’s national title game. Michigan State will return the bulk of its team from last season. On paper, they’re even, in my opinion. Can’t wait to see this war.
-- And defending national champ Louisville will get a slot in a game at Connecticut on Jan. 18, the second matchup of GameDay’s opening slate. It will also be Louisville’s first and last appearance as a member of the new American Athletic Conference, which will soon become its former league as it moves to the ACC in 2014.
-- Andrew Wiggins, are you ready for GameDay? The crew will be in Stillwater, Okla., March 1 for Kansas at Oklahoma State. If these two teams live up to the hype, this game could play a pivotal role in the Big 12 title race. Same for Florida at Kentucky on Feb. 1 in the SEC. Yes, the Wildcats have the best recruiting class in history. But the Gators could snatch the crown, especially if Chris Walker is eligible.
-- Gonzaga will attempt to boost its 2-5 record against Memphis when the teams meet on Feb. 8. This has turned into a fun series over the past decade and the basketball-rabid fans of Memphis will have the FedExForum roaring for GameDay.
-- Ah yes, and the slate ends with one of the greatest rivalries in sports, North Carolina at Duke on March 8.
College GameDay just dropped the mic.
Feel free to get excited.
(Important note: This is not a list of the best seniors, or even necessarily the most important or most indispensable). It is a list of seniors -- some who have underachieved to date -- that need to, once and for all, make good on their star potential in their final year in the college game. Make sense? Cool.)
10. C.J. Fair (Syracuse): Fair's career to this point has been characterized by admirable consistency. In his first two campaigns he maintained similarly promising offensive ratings (109.5 and 114.6) while averaging a 17.3 percent usage rate, while blending in quality defense, rebounding and stellar work on the offensive glass. Fair's usage jumped slightly as a junior (to 20.5 percent of available possessions), and he grew far more comfortable wielding his outside shot, but the rock-solid fundamentals of his game remained mostly the same. As a senior, even on a team with plenty of oncoming talent, Fair may yet be expected to do even more. If he can expand his game further on the perimeter and provide go-to scoring in the midrange without losing the things that have made him so solid for so long, the Orange should make a massive impression in their first year in the ACC, and Fair should do the same for NBA scouts.
8. Tim Frazier (Penn State): As promised above, some of the guys on this list have underachieved for most of their careers; it's not fair to lump Frazier into that group. There are two reasons he isn't already a household name: Penn State and injuries. When Frazier was healthy for his true junior season in 2011-12, he led the Big Ten in assists (and posted the nation's second-highest assist rate, higher than either Kendall Marshall or Scott Machado), averaged 18.2 points per game (second in the Big Ten), created four steals per 100 possessions and drew an average of six fouls per game, while playing 92.8 percent of his team's available minutes. Thanks to a medical hardship waiver -- the 2012-13 campaign was derailed by a brutal
7. Aaron Craft (Ohio State): You couldn't say Craft has underachieved in his career. Quite the opposite. During his prep days, Craft was seen as a merely respectable but hardly a program-changing recruit, provided your head coach didn't lie to NCAA investigators about having him over for a barbecue. (Ba-dum-ksh.) Craft has long since exceeded those expectations. As a freshman, he seized a starting role in Thad Matta's very good veterans-plus-Jared Sullinger-led lineup, and he has maintained his spot by cementing the respect of teammates and coaches and, most noticeably, playing the best, peskiest perimeter defense in the country. That's his calling card, and it won't go anywhere, but one can't help wondering whether Craft still has more to pick up on the offensive end. Can he be a leading scorer? A more confident 3-point shooter off the dribble? Is that even possible, given the tireless work Craft does on the defensive end? (Related: Can Shannon Scott, who morphed into a deadly defender late last season, take on some of that burden?) Losing Deshaun Thomas means Ohio State has to replace a large chunk of scoring one way or the other; more incisive stuff at the point of attack would be a good place to start.
5. Marshall Henderson (Ole Miss): Here's another question: Did Henderson already max out his talent? After a season in which he took 394 3s (which is insane!) and made 35 percent of them (less insane, but pretty good), it's hard to imagine Henderson somehow finding a way to take more shots. It's even harder, given the volume involved, to picture him finding a way to improve that 113.5 offensive rating. According to Synergy scouting data, 38.2 percent of Henderson's possessions ended with off-ball screen action; no other play type came remotely close to that sort of frequency. (No. 2? Spot-ups, with 17.2 percent, trailed by transition offense and hand-off plays -- all of which screams "not allowed to put it on the floor.") With a less experienced frontcourt, there are only so many screens the Rebels can set. There are only so many shots Henderson can take.
So the premise for improvement is twofold. To dig an even better senior season out of his madcap heart, Henderson needs to become a better ball handler, distributor and scorer off the dribble -- less a gunner than a capable combo guard. He also, obviously, has to get to the court in the first place, which will be no small feat given the substance abuse issues that put his status at Ole Miss in jeopardy this month. Henderson appears to be taking that stuff seriously -- which he clearly wasn't at first -- and that's a good thing. It is also crucial for his career. If Henderson has any shot of making his NBA dreams a reality, he has to adjust his skill set and quell any and all concerns about his life away from basketball. It won't be easy.
4. Kendall Williams (New Mexico): It is hardly fair to tie one's assessment of a player to one particularly bonkers scoring night, but I know what I saw, and what I saw was Williams score 46 points in 33 minutes against a good Colorado State team on the road. It's not like he had a bad season otherwise -- 13.3 points and 4.9 assists per game is perfectly respectable -- but it was impossible to watch him that night and not think there was something more below the surface. Truth is, Williams hasn't really improved statistically in his college career. He was a better passer and drew more fouls as a junior, but his freshman season remains his most efficient. His 3-point accuracy fell to 34.8 percent, down from the 42.6 percent mark he posted two years prior. Without newly minted Chicago Bull Tony Snell in the backcourt, it's fair to wonder whether the Lobos will have the same defensive chops that anchored their excellent 2012-13 season. Williams will have to work more efficiently alongside emerging star Alex Kirk to find another gear going forward.
2. Keith Appling (Michigan State): When Appling first popped up as a freshman at Michigan State, he was a breath of fresh air. That 2010-11 team was one of the few -- honestly, maybe the only -- in Tom Izzo's tenure to genuinely underachieve. Delvon Roe fought admirably through career-ending injuries, and a young Draymond Green pointed toward a bright future, but the team's three lead guards (Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, and Korie Lucious), so key in bright back-to-back Final Four runs, proved to be corrosive, selfish influences. Appling quickly provided a contrast. His offensive game was tentatively promising, and his tenacious defense earned him Izzo's immediate respect. Here was a young, willing guard coached by a guy who made a career out of turning the Keith Applings of the world into Spartan legends. He was as sure a bet as the sport had to offer.
Remind me not to start a career oddsmaking business. Three years on, Appling's offensive game hasn't really improved. As a junior, he averaged 46.4 percent from inside the arc and 32 percent outside it. Turnovers are not uncommon to Izzo's teams, but Appling's inability to get his turnover rate down -- it was still 18.6 percent in 2012-13, just two points lower than his 20.6 percent assist percentage -- has compounded the effects of mediocre shooting. Last season, he went whole games, even whole weeks, when he would either (A) disappear, or (B) play so poorly (or at best, so tentatively) that Spartans fans would wonder whether option A wasn't preferable.
Appling has never been bad, per se. His perimeter defense hasn't gone anywhere. He has battled injuries with characteristic toughness, battled his slumps with determined accountability. You never hear bad things about him; he's been a reliable, hardworking presence within the program. But he has also never developed into what his coach once so convincingly proclaimed he would be.
This season is his final chance. The Spartans will be loaded again, with the Big Ten Freshman of the Year Gary Harris set for a monster sophomore season and forward Adreian Payne still blossoming into a devastating talent. Appling doesn't have to morph into a turnover-free replicate. He merely has to do what he does already and shoot the ball a bit better. If he does, there won't be many teams in the country capable of matching Michigan State man for man. If he doesn't, the Spartans will still be good -- but they, like Appling himself, risk leaving something on the table.
1. Joe Jackson (Memphis): Fortunately, Memphis won an NCAA tournament game in 2013. Getting that monkey off coach Josh Pastner's back meant knocking back at least some of the steadily growing "But can he actually coach?" talk in the Bluff City (and reinforcing a personal pet peeve about tournament sample size). It also meant less pressure on the player that has, for both better and worse, defined Pastner's tenure at the school.
Like many of the very best players Pastner has recruited in his tenure, Jackson is a local product, one of the first Pastner landed, who was unafraid to place his hometown's hopes -- and its uniquely provincial baggage -- on his back. He has also been emblematically frustrating. Hugely confident but too sensitive to criticism. Talented but too inconsistent. At times, he has been Memphis' best player. Just as often, he has moped his way to the bench.
Give Jackson credit for this much: He's still here. Many of Jackson's teammates have been fellow Memphis natives, and by many accounts the dynamic around the program has often resembled a youth team writ large, with whole neighborhoods and high school sets standing in for bickering parents arguing on behalf of one player or another. Rumors of intrasquad squabbles have been just as common. Jackson could have transferred, cordoned himself away from the local intensity, but despite all the struggles he remained. As a junior, he was much improved. His improved third season -- more unselfish and efficient than either of the two that preceded it -- built an excellent foundation for his senior campaign, but there is much more to be accomplished -- a deep tournament run chief among it.
When he arrived four years ago, Jackson embraced the unique pressure of his situation. As he told our own Dana O'Neil:
"I want to be remembered," Jackson said. "I want to be a legend. I want to be a hero. I want old people to see me on television and say, 'Look at that kid. He made it. He did it. That's who I want you to be like.'"
His performance has never quite matched that ambition. He has one more chance to close the gap.
Tournament bracket for the Old Spice Classic
When and where: Nov. 28-Dec. 1 at the HP Field House at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, Orlando, Fla.
Initial thoughts: The Old Spice Classic field has rarely, if ever, approached the density or strength of the Maui Invitational (historically) or the Battle 4 Atlantis (more recently). It typically, though, has plenty by which to recommend it, and in 2013 more than most. Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart will lead a Cowboys team determined to unseat Kansas at the top of the Big 12 into the Wide World of Sports Complex as the undeniable favorite, but Memphis won't be that far away.
Meanwhile, we'll get a very early look at whether new Butler coach Brandon Miller will be able to field a tournament-ready team just a few months after Brad Stevens' departure to the NBA's Boston Celtics. We'll see if Purdue can bounce back from an ugly (but in many ways promising) 2012-13 season. Will Saint Joseph's' band of returning seniors be ready to make the leap everyone anticipated and gave up on a season ago? LSU has an intriguing rebuilding group that might push the top half of the SEC. We'll also see if Washington State, after losing seniors Brock Motum and Mike Ladd, is going to be so bad as to put coach Ken Bone on the proverbial hot seat. There are a variety of things worth watching in this bracket, and that includes the hoop.
The Hawks were everyone's vogue pick to win the Atlantic 10 last season, based primarily on the assumption that 2011-12's cadre of sophomores -- the Hawks returned all five starters -- would improve and coalesce as juniors. Instead, the Hawks became merely the latest example of why the muddy mix of "returning players" and "experience" and "chemistry" doesn't always translate into improvement. But Phil Martelli still has a good chunk of those players back for another go at this, and if he can coax better defense from everyone, then Saint Joseph's might transform its narrative yet again.
Meanwhile, LSU probably wasn't as bad as you think in 2012-13. The Tigers weren't great, of course, but they finished in the top 100, and they bring in a surprisingly talented recruiting class. Johnny Jones got "yes" answers from three ESPN 100 players, including No. 3-ranked power forward Jarrell Martin -- the program's best recruit since Glen Davis.
Potential matchup I’d like to see: Oklahoma State versus Memphis. When it comes to early-season tournaments, there is very little reason to root for anything but the best basketball. Every now and then there's a backstory baked into the proceedings, like an old rivalry given a random renewal in November. But, for the most part, our desires can be expressed in the simplest of terms: good basketball. That's the case here. This early before the start of the season, Memphis appears to be the second-best team in this bracket, and its backcourt (Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford, both excellent offensive players) should be a fascinating matchup for Smart and running mate Markel Brown. Recently, Memphis has often stumbled out of the gate before otherwise-solid seasons, which has cost the Tigers valuable lines on their NCAA tournament seed in March. Reversing that trend isn't as important in their first season in the American Athletic Conference, but quality nonconference wins are still utterly crucial, and it's going to be hard to find better chances than this.
Five players to watch:
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: NBA scouts really like Smart's game, but they're in love with the intangibles -- his work ethic, his drive and his desire to succeed. Those qualities have earned raves from coaches as long as Smart has played basketball, and they helped transformed Oklahoma State from the defensively soft 2011-12 group into one of the nation's best defenses last season. Smart turned down a shot at being a top-five pick to return to Stillwater. If he has developed the skills to go from "really good" to "frighteningly dominant" -- slightly better ballhandling and much better shooting -- they'll be on display at the Old Spice Classic.
Shaq Goodwin, Memphis: Goodwin's freshman season wasn't quite as good as his recruiting hype foretold, but there were tantalizing bits littered throughout. Now with Memorial Never-Got-There Club member Tarik Black having transferred and Adonis Thomas having left for the NBA draft, the keys to the Memphis frontcourt are decidedly in Goodwin's hands.
A.J. Hammons, Purdue: The Boilermakers weren't the easiest team in the country to watch last season. When they were good, it was usually because they were guarding, not because they were setting the scoreboard alight. But Matt Painter has one thing most coaches don't: a legitimate 7-foot NBA prospect. Hammons is that guy, and it's not just because he's big. He's also athletic for his size, with good ball skills and footwork. If he returns from the summer with a bit less big-man baby fat and a bit more low-post polish, well, look out.
Jarrell Martin, LSU: As mentioned above, Martin is the No. 3-ranked power forward prospect in the class of 2013. What wasn't mentioned is he is also the No. 11 overall talent. In many incoming classes, this would be worth noting, but little more. With the 2013 class regarded as the deepest and most talented in a decade, if not longer, it is something more. In fact, Martin is the highest-ranked 2013 prospect to not choose Kentucky, Duke, Arizona or Kansas. His situation at LSU will be different and arguably more interesting for it. Can the long-dormant Tigers rise again?
Kellen Dunham, Butler: Former coach Brad Stevens earned the reputation for not needing talent -- that he almost had to find unsung players and mold them for his system to work. That's probably true in general, but there were already signs before his departure to the Celtics that Butler's recruiting had gone up a notch or two since the back-to-back title-game runs in 2010 and 2011. For one, Indiana forward Cody Zeller listed the Bulldogs as among his final three recruiting options (North Carolina being the third). For another, he landed Dunham. Sure, Dunham wasn't Zeller, but he was an ESPN Top 100 player, and he was solid and efficient in big minutes as a freshman. Dunham will have to be even more efficient in even bigger minutes as a sophomore, particularly from 3-point range from which he ended up shooting just 34.5 percent, but he's capable.
Title-game prediction: Oklahoma State over Memphis.
As I wrote above, you just root for good basketball in these things, and Memphis' backcourt (especially if Michael Dixon is able to play) by far looks like the most interesting challenge to Smart and Co. in the Old Spice. But I don't think it would be much of a challenge. Jackson can really put the ball on the floor, and Crawford is a lights-out shooter (even off the dribble), but Smart and Brown look like they're going to lock down pretty much everyone in the sport this season. The Tigers included. Cowboys win.
Who others are picking:
Andy Katz: Oklahoma State over Memphis
Jeff Goodman: Memphis over Purdue
Seth Greenberg: Oklahoma State over LSU
Jason King: Oklahoma State over Memphis
Myron Medcalf: Oklahoma State over Memphis
Dana O'Neil: Oklahoma State over Memphis
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]
2. Providence College coach Ed Cooley said he called as many schools as possible and could not schedule a home-and-home game out of the region. Providence has consistently had issues trying to get games, regardless of who their head coach is. There have been a few series with schools like Alabama and Texas, due to the connection of former coach Rick Barnes. PC also had one with Wichita State. That's why Cooley had to think out of the box with the new 18-game, round-robin Big East schedule. The Friars play Boston College at home, go to UMass (because Cooley said he was convinced the Minutemen would be a high RPI game), play Kentucky at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and have the annual series with Rhode Island (this time in Kingston). They will also play in the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, against Vanderbilt and with La Salle as a possibility in the second round (Explorers play Morgan State). Maryland is on the other side of the bracket (with Northern Iowa as another player on that side). The Friars reached the NIT quarterfinals before losing to Baylor. Kris Dunn and Bryce Cotton give the Friars a shot to get back to the postseason and Cooley did a solid job of building a legitimate schedule to make the Friars potentially matter in March.
3. Memphis coach Josh Pastner knew when he took over for John Calipari he had to manage his staff as effectively as he did the team. He hired veteran head coach Willis Wilson. He later added former teammate Luke Walton during the lockout and also hired Damon Stoudamire. Stoudamire left and Pastner went back to his alma mater and hired former teammate Jason Gardner, who had been an assistant at Loyola. Gardner was on the 2001 national runnerup Wildcats and was one of the most competent four-year point guards in the last 14 years. He should immediately help the youthful backcourt for the Tigers. He's a winner and was a tough, rugged point guard. Meanwhile, Missouri coach Frank Haith added former Drake coach Mark Phelps on his staff. That gives Haith another former head coach on his veteran staff to go along with former DePaul and Virginia coach Dave Leitao.
Top Five NBA Draftees Since 1989
- Penny Hardaway (1993)
- Derrick Rose (2008)
- Tyreke Evans (2009)
- Lorenzen Wright (1996)
- Elliot Perry (1991)
The rest: Elliot Williams, Robert Dozier, Joey Dorsey, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Rodney Carney, Shawne Williams, Antonio Burks, Dajuan Wagner, Cedric Henderson, David Vaughn
Why they're ranked where they are: Star power. Guard power. Stard power? Whatever weird phrase you'd like to try to coin to describe it -- and hopefully you can do better than "stard power," yeesh -- Memphis has it, plain and simple. No other team ranked below them in this top 20 can say the same.
Rose was the MVP of the National Basketball Association at the ripe old age of 22, and you surely don't need me to tell you why his inclusion dramatically boosts Memphis' pro pedigree. Rose suffered a major setback with his anterior cruciate ligament tear in the 2012 playoffs, and his standing among Bulls fans was hurt by his inability (or unwillingness, or any of the other motives the city of Chicago ascribed to a dude taking the long view of his sure-to-be-brilliant career, as though this was a bad thing) to come back in time to face the Miami Heat in the 2013 stretch run. But Rose is one of the game's brightest young stars and, barring injury, will be an MVP-level player at the point guard spot for the next decade.
The key phrase, of course, is "barring injury." Just ask the top player on the list.
Despite the injuries -- chief among them a 1997 knee injury -- that eventually derailed what would have been a surefire Hall of Fame career, Hardaway went on to play 14 seasons in the league. Even if he hadn't, his early brilliance would have been enough. I know what I saw.
The rest of this list, as you might expect, is just sort of blah. Evans gets the nod at No. 3 because he has been a very productive player in his first four seasons, even if he's done so for one of the NBA's worst franchises (Sacramento) and earned a huge heaping of scorn for his seeming unwillingness to get teammates involved. Wright is a name you might best recall thanks to his mysterious 2010 disappearance and death, but, before that, the beloved Tiger had a nice 13-season NBA career. Perry did pile together 10 years in the league, but is listed fifth mostly because of that grotesque list of the rest, almost none of which has made any impact in the NBA. (To be fair, one-time uber-prospect Dejuan Wagner would've almost certainly cracked this top 5 had he not been beset by a series of scary medical ailments.)
Why they could be ranked higher: Because Hardaway was the aforementioned truth? Because Rose is currently the truth? Because you believe Evans is misunderstood or in a bad situation and could be a brilliant player in a system that knew how to use him (or in any system at all, which isn't possible when you fire coaches as frequently as the Kings)? Any of these arguments is permissible, but none is particularly convincing. On the other other hand
Why they could be ranked lower: As much as it pains me to say this, we have no idea if Rose is ever going to be Rose again. With the possible exception of Russell Westbrook, no player in the NBA -- certainly no star -- relies as much on sheer athletic genius as Rose. He cuts, he bumps, he flies, he finishes, and when he's hitting jumpers, he's basically unguardable. What if all those cuts are a little less crisp? What if he can't do the same things he used to do physically? What does that mean for his career?
We could also argue that Hardaway, for as good as he was, was essentially a six-year player -- from 1993 to 1999 there were few guards in the game not named Michael Jordan as good as Penny. But after Hardaway's body betrayed him, he was a shell of his former self, doomed to wander the NBA wilderness until limping home with a 3.8-points-per-game season in his final year with the Heat. Don't get it twisted: I love me some Penny Hardaway. But he wasn't exactly a pillar of longevity.
Likewise, Evans is arguably trending downward. As a rookie, he averaged 20.1 points per game; he's declined in each subsequent season, from 17.8 to 16.5 to 15.2. These are not the best numbers by which to judge a young player's career, and Evans did shoot his highest field goal percentage (albeit on fewer attempts) in 2012-13. But after four seasons, Evans still lacks a consistent outside jumper, doesn't find teammates as often as he should and has too many character-related questions to project much added upside.
What’s ahead? Barton's career will be interesting to watch. A two-year player under Josh Pastner at Memphis, Barton was criminally underrated (much like the Tigers) in 2011-2012, his final season at the school, in which he finished with a 115.7 offensive rating on 25.6 percent usage. Despite putting up these All-America-level efficiency numbers, the 6-foot-6 guard was passed over until the Portland Trail Blazers selected him in the second round. Barton, who had an OK rookie season, has to improve his perimeter skills if he wants to stick as a conventional 3 in the league, but there's no reason he can't be a Kawhi Leonard type for the right team one day.
In the meantime, Pastner's program continues to recruit as well as any program in the country. Adonis Thomas killed his draft stock with an awful sophomore season, but he has the size and talent to stick in the league. D.J. Stephens is a freak of nature. Down the line, keep an eye on rising sophomore Shaq Goodwin and top freshman small forward Nick King.
Final thoughts: For a program that spent the entire aughts coached by John Calipari, Memphis suffers from a distinct lack of depth when it comes to its pro pedigree since 1989. (Where have you gone, Dajuan Wagner? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.) But at the top end, the players the Tigers have produced are undeniably stellar. Hardaway was a 6-foot-7 to whom God gifted the keys to Magic Johnson's tall-triple-double-machine legacy; only the whims of fate could slow him down. Rose, meanwhile, is still at the dawn of his career and already has one MVP -- in a LeBron James-owned league, and during a season in which Dwight Howard was insanely good -- under his belt. Even with the ACL tear, the long-term prognosis is pointing toward the Hall of Fame. Evans is divisive even within his own locker room, and his stock has taken a drastic hit, but there's no escaping the fact that he was the first player since James, Jordan and Oscar Robertson to average 20, 5 and 5 in his rookie season. That's still in there, somewhere.
Where Memphis' shot at the top 10 in this list falls apart is in the huge drop between that top three and the rest of its products since 1989. Look for Pastner to change that in the coming years. Until then, No. 15 feels right.
2. The U.S. World University Games team will have its hands full with Canada during the competition, set for July 6-17 in Kazan, Russia. The Canadian roster, released Tuesday, isn't as loaded but boasts plenty of major-college talent. Boston College's Olivier Hanlan, the ACC freshman of the year, is joined by headline players Kyle Wiltjer (Kentucky), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), Dwight Powell (Stanford), Brady Heslip (Baylor), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Laurent Rivard (Harvard) and Jordan Bachynski (Arizona State). Each of these Canadians will have a significant role on his respective team, with all of them starting the season in position to make a run at an NCAA bid. Ejim may be the most intriguing of the lot, with a real shot to be even more of a breakout player in the Big 12. Pangos will have more scoring next season. Powell led the Cardinal last season. Rivard will be a fixture on a stacked Crimson. Wiltjer has to adjust his role with the newcomers at Kentucky but can still be a matchup problem. Heslip must be more consistent. Bachynski has to absorb some of Carrick Felix's numbers after his departure. And Hanlan will be responsible for leading the Eagles higher in the ACC.
3. Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg has taken plenty of transfers his first few years in Ames. He has had success stories mixed in with quality newcomers. I'll be very interested to see if he can maximize the talent of DeAndre Kane, who was a disappointment for Marshall after starting last season with such promise. Kane was essentially asked to leave Marshall by coach Tom Herrion; they weren't going to mesh for one more season. Now Kane has to be in step with Hoiberg if his final year in college is going to be productive. Kane originally was looking to go to Pitt, but that didn't work out, either. He pursued Iowa State and the Cyclones were receptive. It's in everyone's best interest that this works for next season so the Cyclones can be relevant come March for a third consecutive season.
Just two weeks ago, Kansas was the team losing all five of last season's starters, among them four seniors and one freshman top-five draft pick. Left in their wake was an unusually young team. Sophomore Perry Ellis would have to be a star. Naadir Tharpe would have to develop into a less erratic distributor. A crop of promising freshmen would have to step up right away.
Those were the days, weren't they? Of course, that was before Kansas landed arguably the best young prospect in the past decade in Andrew Wiggins, and also before Monday evening's news that Memphis senior Tarik Black had chosen to play his final year of collegiate eligibility -- available immediately via the graduate transfer exemption -- in Lawrence, Kan.
Black's decision is more icing than cake. Whereas Wiggins was a revolutionary addition, by all accounts the type of player who could have lifted an 18-16 Florida State team into ACC title contention, Black is merely a nice bonus. Which is not to say he isn't talented. He is, and always has been. But after arriving as a highly touted prospect, he was disappointing in three seasons at Memphis, primarily thanks to his inability to stay out of foul trouble. Over three seasons, Black averaged 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes. His lowest rate, 5.1 as a sophomore in 2011-12, also coincided with his most efficient performances. His 68.9 effective field goal percentage was the second-highest in the country that season.
Whether or not Black will be able to stay on the court long enough to put his combination of skills and size to work is an open question, but it's almost beside the point. Kansas needed another big body, not a star, and preferably a veteran. Black should be able to play 20-25 effective minutes, when he can take some pressure off the nation's top-ranked incoming center, Joel Embiid. That's a baseline expectation KU coach Bill Self would surely be happy with. Anything else is, again, a bonus.
In any case, any thoughts you might have had about the Jayhawks two weeks ago are essentially irrelevant. Kansas is still young, sure, but not as young as it was. It is more talented than ever now, with the exact thing it lacked -- a veteran in the frontcourt -- signed up for the ride. The end result is another KU team that will enter the season as the Big 12 favorite and a national title contenders. Same as it ever was.