College Basketball Nation: Missouri Tigers
After enough intrigue to satisfy a daytime soap opera cliffhanger, Missouri on Monday announced that Kim Anderson would be its next men's basketball coach.
Anderson could very well be a fine hire. He won at the Division II level, leading Central Missouri to the 2014 national championship, and leaves the school with an impressive 274-94 record. There are more than a handful of guys who toil in the shadows at the Division II and III levels who are every bit as talented and qualified as their spotlight-hogging Division I peers, but just don’t get a chance.
He’s also a Mizzou guy, a former assistant and player from the glory days under Norm Stewart. He gets the nuances of the place. Better that the place gets him, so a fan base that did not regard warmly the most recent coach should warmly welcome Anderson.
So this is not to mock the choice.
This is to question the twisted, unnecessary, cloak-and-dagger process that got to this choice.
Coaching searches bring out the silly in everyone. Twice during the Missouri waiting game, reporters, following tail numbers on private planes, went to the airport. Jay Wright turned out to be a bunch of weekend golfers. Anderson turned into a literal and figurative fishing expedition.
But Mizzou has managed to add to the level of absurdity here.
Athletic director Mike Alden hired Collegiate Sports Associates Executive Search and Consulting and, according to The Kansas City Star, paid the search firm $42,500 plus expenses to find Anderson.
Who is in the school’s alumni directory.
And whose Central Missouri offices are a little more than 90 miles away from Columbia.
Alden didn’t need a search firm. He needed a telephone and a full tank of gas.
Or Dora the Explorer. She would have done it for $25,000, I bet, so long as she had her handy-dandy backpack and friend, Map.
But hiring search firms is what college athletic directors do now -- apparently because hiring coaches isn’t what they do anymore.
And so the university shelled out more than $40,000 to find one of its own, a man whose background it presumably knew and did not need to check, and a guy who was always going to be more than happy to take the job.
Maybe the search firm was part of the Gregg Marshall litmus test, but Alden didn’t really need a search firm for that, either.
A banker would have been more useful. Or a loan officer.
It’s not that $42,500 is a big hit to the budget of a Power 5 conference school, but rather than just hire a search firm because everyone’s doing it, why not see if you can hire the Division II guy down the street on your own?
Odds are, you probably can.
Of course, the search firm offered the priceless bonus of plausible deniability so that both school and coach could deny having contacted or been contacted by one another up until the moment Anderson was hired.
Even though everyone knew Anderson had been contacted and would take the job if offered.
This was the equivalent of a middle school girl's secret crush. The only one who thinks it’s a secret is the girl involved.
Which leads us to the other bit of sheer goofiness -- the total subterfuge in which Missouri handled the announcement.
On Friday, the board of curators called an emergency meeting for Monday. Most everyone presumed it was to endorse a new coach.
That meeting ended at about 3:30 p.m. ET, with the curators saying there would be no official announcement.
Except for the official announcement naming Anderson as the coach that came at 4 p.m. ET.
Now, a school has a right to control its own message and, after losing control and face in the whole Matt Painter tap dance during the previous coaching search, it’s reasonable that this school in particular wanted to control its message.
But for all of that mystery and secrecy, you half-expected Mizzou to announce it had rebirthed a cryogenically frozen form of John Wooden to be its coach.
Or at least Marshall.
Instead, all of this drama led to the otherwise anonymous Division II guy most everyone figured would get the job, anyway. So what was the point of the secret society stuff?
This was a soap opera whodunit ending with some bit-part character actor as the murderer.
Of course, the goal is to hire the right guy.
Maybe Missouri did just that and if Anderson turns out to be a winner, no one will remember how he got here, even if the mad method of Mizzou seems mighty memorable right now.
ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) measures how well each team performs based on game result, margin, pace of game, location, opponent strength and the absence of any key players.
Using BPI, we are able to project the chances for each team to win its major conference tournament. The probabilities take into account the matchups in each bracket based on each team’s BPI. The team with the best BPI isn’t necessarily always the favorite if that team has much tougher matchups than other teams in the tournament.
According to BPI, the Arizona Wildcats have the best chance of any team in one of the seven major conferences (American, ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) to win its tournament. They have a 63 percent chance of winning the Pac-12 tournament.
Arizona has more than a six times better chance of winning the Pac-12 tournament than any other team. The UCLA Bruins have the second-best chance at 10 percent.
Pac-12 best chances: Arizona 63 percent, UCLA 10 percent, Oregon 10 percent, Arizona State 5 percent, Stanford 4 percent
The Florida Gators are the prohibitive favorites in the SEC tournament with a 57 percent chance to win it. The Kentucky Wildcats (25 percent) are the only other SEC team with better than a 7 percent chance. The No. 9 seed Missouri Tigers have a slightly better chance to win the SEC tournament than the No. 3 seed Georgia Bulldogs.
SEC best chances: Florida 57 percent, Kentucky 25 percent, Tennessee 7 percent, Arkansas 3 percent, Missouri 2 percent
American & Big East
The Louisville Cardinals (American) and Villanova Wildcats (Big East) are both close to 50 percent in terms of their chances of winning their respective conference tournaments.
The Memphis Tigers have an edge playing on their home court in the American Tournament, but they still have a significantly worse chance than Louisville and Cincinnati. Memphis does, however, have a greater probability of winning the tournament than higher-seeded teams Southern Methodist and Connecticut. With its home-court advantage, Memphis would be a favorite against any team in the tournament other than Louisville.
American best chances: Louisville 49 percent, Cincinnati 18 percent, Memphis 14 percent, SMU 12 percent, Connecticut 8 percent
No team other than Villanova or Creighton has better than a 6 percent chance to win the Big East tournament. There’s a 44 percent chance that Villanova and Creighton meet in the Big East championship game.
Big East best chances: Villanova 48 percent, Creighton 31 percent, Xavier 6 percent, St. John’s 6 percent, Providence 4 percent
Perhaps the most interesting conference tournament is the ACC, where the No. 3 seed Duke Blue Devils are the favorites at 27 percent. The No. 1 seed Virginia Cavaliers (25 percent) and No. 2 Syracuse Orange (23 percent) are close behind.
ACC best chances: Duke 27 percent, Virginia 25 percent, Syracuse 23 percent, Pittsburgh 12 percent, North Carolina 7 percent
Another interesting conference tournament is the Big Ten, where four teams have between a 17 percent and a 26 percent chance of winning the tournament. The No. 2 seed Wisconsin Badgers are the favorites at 26 percent, while the No. 1 seed Michigan Wolverines are only the third favorites.
Big Ten best chances: Wisconsin 26 percent, Ohio State 19 percent, Michigan 19 percent, Michigan State 17 percent, Iowa 11 percent
The Kansas Jayhawks have a 37 percent chance to win the Big 12 tournament, but their path isn’t easy. They could face the teams with the fourth- and second-best chances of winning the tournament in the quarterfinals and semifinals.
The No. 8 seed Oklahoma State Cowboys, with a 10 percent chance of winning it, could face Kansas in the quarterfinals. The No. 4 seed Iowa State Cyclones, with an 18 percent chance, could face Kansas in the semifinals. Both teams have a 35 percent chance of beating Kansas, according to BPI.
Big 12 best chances: Kansas 37 percent, Iowa State 18 percent, Oklahoma 16 percent, Oklahoma State 10 percent, Baylor 6 percent
Here are previews for each team in the SEC:
Alabama Crimson Tide
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Ole Miss Rebels
South Carolina Gamecocks
Texas A&M Aggies (FREE)
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.
In a sports world full of clumsy, inane analogies to armed conflict, the Border War -- the centurylong rivalry between Kansas and Missouri -- legitimately deserved its designation. The Jayhawks and Tigers first met on the gridiron in 1891, just 36 years after a perfectly real, horribly violent border war broke out between pro-slavery Missouri and abolitionist Kansas, as The New York Times recounts:
In 1855, Missourians crossed the border in droves to vote in the first Kansas election, and 6,000 votes were somehow cast by a total voting population of 2,905 to elect a proslavery government. New Englanders opposed to slavery organized to send settlers, money and guns to the antislavery residents there. Amos Lawrence, a New England textile magnate whose name was given to the city where the University of Kansas now stands, helped ship hundreds of rifles to aid the fight against the “border ruffians” from Missouri and the proslavery settlers in Kansas.
It did not take long for violence to erupt. On May 21, 1856, parts of Lawrence were destroyed when Missourians marched on the town with five cannons in tow. A day later, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was beaten almost to death on the floor of the United States Senate by a Southern congressman upset by Sumner’s speech, “The Crime Against Kansas.” A week later, John Brown and several abolitionists hacked five proslavery Kansans to death with swords.
Today, when you check in to a hotel in Kansas City, those senseless horrors are impossible to fathom. But the up-close-and-personal violence -- neighboring cities burning, rival bands of "Jayhawkers" fighting to the death, dignitaries beaten to a pulp on the Senate floor -- is really only a handful of generations removed from present day. People still remember. They just express themselves differently.
For example: In April 2012, the morning of Kansas' national title showdown with Kentucky, the morning announcements at an elementary school in tiny Lee's Summit, Mo. -- a 20-minute drive from the Kansas border -- included the Jayhawks' fight song. In roughly 99 percent of the country, that would be seen as a small, token gesture toward regional sporting spirit. In Lee's Summit, it was a slap in the face:
“As a parent of two and a taxpaying resident of the Lee’s Summit R–7 School District, I am shocked and disappointed that there was an apparent attempt to indoctrinate Lee’s Summit school children to be KU fans at Trailridge Elementary this week,” said Brian Yates, a former state representative and graduate of the University of Missouri, at the time. “Playing the KU fight song or any college fight song over the intercom in a publicly funded elementary school is unacceptable.”
Indoctrinate! Another example: In 2011, the town of Osceola, Mo., passed a citywide resolution condemning the Jayhawks' nickname, which it saw as a "celebration of this murderous gang of terrorists by an institution of ‘higher education’" in a "brazen and malicious manner."
A couple of weeks ago, apropos of nothing, a Lawrence resident who had stumbled upon that old school-announcements chestnut sent me an email. He felt obligated to explain:
People that have not grown up in this area have no real understanding of this rivalry between MU and KU. To quantify it with words just diminishes the intensity of it.
This was never a sports rivalry. This was hatred that is taught and bred into the youth on both sides of the border. […] The memories are vivid and each side has their version of what "really" happened.
People along the border communities of Kansas and Missouri murdered each other at will. Bands of men from Missouri would ride into Kansas and indiscriminately kill men, women and children and so did bands of men from Kansas as well as Union forces into Missouri. This didn't happen once or twice. This occurred regularly for 8 years before the Civil War and then throughout the Civil War. It doesn't matter which side won, the Union or the Confederacy. For us it never ended.
We don't like them and they don't like us. That's the way it was, is, and will be.
In 2012, after more than 120 years of expressing their fans' intense distaste for the Kansas Jayhawks at least once a year, the Missouri Tigers left the Big 12 for the SEC. The two played three more times in the 2011-12 season, each game more thrilling than the last. And then, just like that, it was over. Kansas basketball coach Bill Self, his blue-blooded program having been made suddenly vulnerable by Big 12 turmoil, loudly proclaimed that he didn't see the need to play Missouri anymore.
"I will say this," Self said in 2011, when Missouri announced its impending move. "The media is not going to dictate who we play. I’ll dictate who we play as long as I’m coaching here. I have no ill will toward Missouri at all, but to do something at a time that could be so damaging and hurtful to a group, I can’t see us just taking it and forgetting."
The two schools haven't played since. There are no future plans to do so. The Border War, at least for basketball purposes, is dead. How powerful is conference realignment? That's how.
Syracuse and Georgetown never shared that kind of immense historical baggage. (Thankfully, because sheesh.) The SU-GU distaste was sparked in purely sporting terms: When John Thompson Jr. "closed" Manley Field House in 1980, ending the Orangemen's 57-game win streak in the last game in the building, Syracuse fans boiled over. Their hatred of Georgetown might not have been preceded by a decade of Civil War-era violence, but it is a product of shared cultural memory. No one talks about Manley Field House like that.
In the 30 years since, both programs have won titles and been consistent national powers. Thompson's mid-'80s teams brimmed with "Hoya Paranoia"; Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone made him the second-winningest coach of all time; and the rivalry blossomed into the Big East's best and most reliable fixture, the marquee matchup in the country's marquee hoops attraction.
In 2013, those two teams played their last game as co-members of the Big East. Syracuse was headed to the ACC, set to be part of a new marquee basketball league; Georgetown had found refuge in the new Big East, a smaller, basketball-only assemblage. For the most part, conference realignment avoided drastic changes to the status quo. It hasn't been as bad, or as crazy, as we all thought. But it did kill the Border War. Now, it had taken Syracuse-Georgetown, too.
That's why this news is so very exciting. Syracuse and Georgetown are in talks to keep their rivalry alive, with the most prominent option being a 10-year, rotating home-and-home contract being enthusiastically pushed by Boeheim and Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross. There are still plenty of details to iron out, of course. Georgetown still needs to accept and hasn't commented. There are modern, real-world concerns to attend to: Will the logistics of each team's schedule line up? Does Georgetown get as much out of the game as Syracuse, which very much enjoys the chance to play in downtown Washington, one of the hottest recruiting hotbeds in the country?
But all of that stuff is minor, even petty. The fact is, Syracuse and Georgetown have a chance to do what Missouri and Kansas couldn't: keep a storied, cherished rivalry alive in the face of shifting conference allegiances. They have a chance to set a precedent for what appears to be a future of pretty much nonstop conference changes. League affiliations might come and go, but rivalries deserve to stand the test of time.
Kansas and Missouri had that once. Syracuse and Georgetown, thankfully, are doing their best not to lose it.
Toughest: NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 18-19, Nov. 27/29), Wichita State (Dec. 17), at UCLA (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: vs. Oklahoma (Nov. 8 in Dallas), Xavier (Dec. 21)
The rest: Texas Tech (Nov. 14), North Florida (Dec. 4), at South Florida (Dec. 7), Charleston Southern (Dec. 14), Robert Morris (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- Trevor Releford will have to carry a lot of weight for Anthony Grant’s program this season, even though the Crimson Tide will add a couple of top-100 recruits. His backcourt mate Trevor Lacey transferred to NC State during the offseason. So the turbulence could come early for this program. The NIT Season Tip-Off presents a variety of challenging possibilities. Final Four contender Wichita State will be a handful even though the Shockers travel to Tuscaloosa in mid-December. A road game against Pac-12 contender UCLA in renovated Pauley Pavilion will be difficult for this rebuilding program, too. And the matchups with Oklahoma and Xavier could also be interesting challenges for Bama.
Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27)
Next toughest: SMU (Nov. 18)
The rest: SIU-Edwardsville (Nov. 8), Louisiana (Nov. 15), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 3), Clemson (Dec. 7), Savannah State (Dec. 12), Tennessee-Martin (Dec. 19), South Alabama (Dec. 21), High Point (Dec. 28), Texas-San Antonio (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Arkansas could have been an SEC contender, but BJ Young and Marshawn Powell turned pro. Now, the program will rely on a roster that lost 35.1 PPG from last season. The Razorbacks are young and could feel the fire early. But not often. The Razorbacks open the Maui Invitational against Cal. From there, they could play Syracuse, Baylor or Gonzaga. But it’s more likely that they’ll be matched up against Minnesota in the second round and Dayton or Chaminade on the final day of the tournament. There’s really nothing else here. Larry Brown is building something at SMU, but the Mustangs probably aren’t ready for the Big Dance yet. Only thing holding up this nonconference schedule are a few unlikely matchups in Hawaii.
Toughest: at Iowa State (Dec. 2)
Next toughest: Illinois (Dec. 8), Boston College (Dec. 22)
The rest: Nicholls State (Nov. 8), Northwestern State (Nov. 15), Jacksonville State (Nov. 19), Murray State (Nov. 23), Tennessee State (Nov. 26), Clemson (Dec. 19), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Dec. 30), Florida A&M (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Did a bunch of SEC teams get together and wager on who could assemble the ugliest nonconference schedule? Seems like it. Tony Barbee’s program certainly doesn’t have the worst nonconference slate in the league, but it’s still not great. It’ll be tough to get out of Ames with a win when the Tigers travel to Iowa State in early December and Illinois is rebuilding but John Groce’s team should be tough in his second season. The matchup against Boston College in December will be interesting. Maybe. Auburn is not expected to be a top-half team in the SEC. So perhaps this nonconference arrangement makes sense. To someone.
Toughest: at Wisconsin (Nov. 12), at UConn (Dec. 2), Kansas (Dec. 10), Memphis (Dec. 17)
Next toughest: Florida State (Nov. 29)
The rest: North Florida (Nov. 8), Arkansas-Little Rock (Nov. 16), Southern (Nov. 18), Middle Tennessee (Nov. 21), at Jacksonville (Nov. 25), Savannah State (Dec. 9), Fresno State (Dec. 21), Richmond (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- This nonconference schedule is a beast. Billy Donovan’s program might be the only legitimate obstacle in Kentucky’s path to the SEC crown and the Gators will face a variety of contenders before they collide with Kentucky and the rest of the league. The Kansas matchup could move Florida into a top-five ranking or higher if it gets the win. And it won’t be much fun to play at UConn, a team that boasts one of the nation’s top backcourts. Josh Pastner reloaded at Memphis. And Wisconsin and Middle Tennessee shouldn’t be overlooked in another difficult nonconference slate for a national title contender.
Toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24)
Next toughest: at Colorado (Dec. 28)
The rest: Wofford (Nov. 8), Georgia Tech (Nov. 15), Appalachian State (Nov. 29), Chattanooga (Dec. 2), Lipscomb (Dec. 14), Gardner-Webb (Dec. 19), Western Carolina (Dec. 21), at George Washington (Jan. 3)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- If Georgia beats Davidson in the opening round of the Charleston Classic, the Bulldogs could move on to face Temple then New Mexico in the championship. But that’s far from a guarantee for a team that lost lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the NBA. The possibility, however, certainly helps. A road game against a Colorado squad that could steal the spotlight from Arizona and UCLA in the Pac-12 will be a challenge for Mark Fox’s squad in late December. Georgia Tech (Nov. 15) returns most of its top players from last season. Not exactly a gauntlet but enough challenges for a team hoping to stay out of the SEC’s basement.
Toughest: vs. Michigan State (Nov. 12 in Chicago), at North Carolina (Dec. 14), Louisville (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: Baylor (Dec. 6 in Arlington, Texas), vs. Providence (Dec. 1 in Brooklyn, N.Y.), Boise State (Dec. 10)
The rest: UNC-Asheville (Nov. 8), Northern Kentucky (Nov. 10), Robert Morris (Nov. 17), Texas-Arlington (Nov. 19), Cleveland State (Nov. 25), Eastern Michigan (Nov. 27), Belmont (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- Is there a rating higher than 10? John Calipari is not going to bring his highly touted recruiting class to Division I basketball with an easy introduction. Just the opposite, in fact. If Kentucky gets through this slate, then the Wildcats will more than justify the hype. They’ll face Michigan State, a team that’s certainly in the national title preseason conversation, in Chicago in early November. They play at Chapel Hill in mid-December. And then, the reigning champ, Louisville, comes to Lexington on Dec. 28. Oh, Baylor and Boise State -- who should both be in the preseason top 25 -- will be thirsty for an upset. The only knock against this lineup is that it features only one true road game. Still, good luck, youngsters.
Toughest: Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)
Next toughest: at UMass (Nov. 12)
The rest: Northwestern State (Nov. 16), New Orleans (Nov. 19), Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 22), UL-Monroe (Dec. 14), at Texas Tech (Dec. 18), UAB (Dec. 21), McNeese State (Dec. 28), Rhode Island (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- In his first season, Johnny Jones went 19-12 with an LSU squad that should be much better this season. Johnny O’Bryant III (15 double-doubles) is back and nationally ranked recruits Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey will give the Tigers one of the best frontcourts in the SEC and, possibly, the nation. LSU’s opening slate, however, is only so-so. Too many subpar opponents. The Old Spice Classic, however, could change that. The Tigers could face both Memphis and Oklahoma State if they get past Saint Joseph’s in the opening round. But those matchups aren’t guaranteed. A road game against Atlantic 10 contender UMass in early November is worth mentioning. The rest of the nonconference schedule? Not so much.
Toughest: at Utah State (Nov. 23), Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 19)
Next toughest: Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)
The rest: Prairie View A&M (Nov. 8), Kennesaw State (Nov. 14), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 19), Jackson State (Nov. 27), Loyola-Chicago (Dec. 1), TCU (Dec. 5), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 13), Florida A&M (Dec. 17), Maryland Eastern Shore (Jan. 2)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Last season, Rick Ray’s program was so depleted by injuries, suspensions and departures that he had to use a graduate assistant in practice. And then, the G.A. tore an ACL. It was an unlucky debut for the rookie head coach. Well, the Bulldogs’ early challenges will be limited in 2013-14. A December meeting with last season’s Cinderella, Florida Gulf Coast, could be their toughest nonconference game. It’s never easy to steal a win on the road against Utah State and UNLV might be waiting for the Bulldogs -- if they beat South Florida in the first round -- in the Las Vegas Classic. Not breathtaking but that might be the right fit for this program as it prepares for another challenging season.
Toughest: UCLA (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Illinois (Dec. 21), at NC State (Dec. 28)
The rest: Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 8), Southern Illinois (Nov. 12), Hawaii (Nov. 16), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 23), IUPUI (Nov. 25), Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 28-29), West Virginia (Dec. 5), Western Michigan (Dec. 15), Long Beach State (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- Frank Haith’s program lost four key players from last season’s underachieving squad, including point guard Phil Pressey. Once again, Haith’s team will have to rebuild chemistry with veterans (Earnest Ross, Jabari Brown) blending with newcomers (a nationally ranked recruiting class). Well, they won’t face much adversity early in the process. Their toughest nonconference opponent, UCLA, travels to Columbia. Rival Illinois will enter 2013-14 with a brand-new roster and limited experience. Other than that? Not much. Games against Northwestern and Nevada in the Las Vegas Invitational are lackluster. Perhaps NC State’s young studs will make a Dec. 28 clash against the Tigers interesting. Not much to get excited about, though.
Toughest: Oregon (Dec. 8 )
Next toughest: Barclays Classic (Nov. 29-30 in Brooklyn, N.Y.), at Kansas State (Dec. 5)
The rest: Troy (Nov. 8), at Coastal Carolina (Nov. 16), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 22), North Carolina A&T (Nov. 26), Middle Tennessee State (Dec. 14), Louisiana-Monroe (Dec. 18), Mercer (Dec. 22), at Western Kentucky (Dec. 30), Dayton (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Ole Miss’ offseason has been all about Marshall Henderson, who was suspended indefinitely for reportedly failing a drug test. He could return at some point this season, and if he does, he might have to be better than he was a year ago with Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner gone. The good news for the Rebels is that they won’t have many tests before SEC play. Oregon is probably their toughest nonconference matchup and the Ducks have to replace some talented players from last season. Games against Georgia Tech and (potentially) St. John’s in Brooklyn probably won’t help much on Selection Sunday and a road game against Kansas State would be more interesting if Angel Rodriguez hadn’t transferred to Miami.
Toughest: at Baylor (Nov. 12), Oklahoma State (Dec. 6)
Next toughest: Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25)
The rest: Longwood (Nov. 9), at Clemson (Nov. 17), Florida International (Nov. 24), Manhattan (Dec. 17), USC Upstate (Dec. 19), Akron (Dec. 28), Marshall (Dec. 30), South Carolina State (Jan. 3)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- When he’s not listening to the latest Pitbull hit, Frank Martin is trying to enhance the South Carolina program. That task seemed nearly impossible prior to his arrival, but he’s building. The Gamecocks will take a multitude of losses with seven freshmen on the roster in 2013-14, but a year from now, they could surge up the SEC standings. As for this season a road game against Baylor could be an unpleasant “Welcome to college basketball” moment for South Carolina’s youngsters. Oklahoma State might beat Martin’s squad by 30 or more in early December. The Diamond Head Classic features some talented potential opponents (Iowa State, Boise State), but the Gamecocks might not move past Saint Mary’s in the opening round.
Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30), at Wichita State (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: at Xavier (Nov. 12), NC State (Dec. 18), Virginia (Dec. 30)
The rest: USC Upstate (Nov. 16), The Citadel (Nov. 18), Tennessee State (Nov. 22), Tennessee Tech (Dec. 7), Morehead State (Dec. 23), Tusculum (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Cuonzo Martin will guide one of the league’s -- and nation’s -- sleepers in 2013-14. Yes, the Vols could contend for the SEC title. But a win over something called Tusculum in early January won’t prove much. Ditto for matchups against The Citadel and USC Upstate. But the Vols could meet Kansas in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game. To get there, however, they’ll have to go through UTEP and then they’ll have to beat either Xavier or fellow sleeper Iowa. They’ll also travel to Xavier prior to the tournament. And it’s never easy to get a win over the Musketeers in Cincy. Virginia is stacked. And a road game against a Wichita State squad seeking revenge from a loss in Knoxville last season will be a major challenge for Martin’s program.
Toughest: Corpus Christi Challenge (Nov. 29-30), vs. Oklahoma (Dec. 21 in Houston)
Next toughest: Buffalo (Nov. 8)
The rest: Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 11), Rice (Nov. 15), Prairie View A&M (Nov. 19), Sam Houston State (Nov. 24), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Nov. 26), Houston (Dec. 4), McNeese State (Dec. 14), North Texas (Dec. 31), UTPA (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 1 -- This is just bad. Again. The Aggies didn’t have many obstacles during their nonconference season in 2012-13. That trend will continue in 2013-14. Ugh. An Oklahoma squad that probably won’t make the NCAA tournament is their toughest scheduled nonconference game. No. 2? Probably a matchup against a Buffalo team that will be led by new coach Bobby Hurley. Sure, the Aggies -- who lost standouts Elston Turner and Ray Turner -- could earn a game against Virginia in the Corpus Christi Challenge if they survive an opening-round meeting with Missouri State. That, however, is not enough to save this disappointing nonconference slate.
Toughest: Saint Louis (Dec. 30)
Next toughest: at Butler (Nov. 19), Paradise Jam (Nov. 22-25), at Texas (Dec. 2)
The rest: Georgia State (Nov. 12), Lipscomb (Nov. 15), Marshall (Dec. 5), Austin Peay (Dec. 17), Georgia Tech (Dec. 21), Northeastern (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The bad news is that Vanderbilt is a mess right now. Top scorer Kedren Johnson and three other players from last season’s squad will not be available for the 2013-14 season. Even worse? The Commodores could enter the SEC campaign with multiple losses and little confidence. Atlantic 10 contender Saint Louis could do a lot of damage when it visits in late December. Butler has a new staff and no Roosevelt Jones, but Hinkle Fieldhouse will still be a crazy atmosphere that the Commodores will be asked to overcome in mid-November. They’ll open the Paradise Jam against Providence and subsequent matchups against La Salle and Maryland/Northern Iowa are possible. Texas lost a chunk of its roster, too. But the Longhorns can certainly beat this incomplete Vandy team at home. This could be an ugly nonconference season for Kevin Stallings’ program.
When and where: Nov. 28-29, Orleans Arena
Schedule for the Las Vegas Invitational:
Nov. 28: UCLA vs. Nevada (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3); Missouri vs. Northwestern (10:30, ESPNU)
Nov. 29: Missouri vs. Nevada (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3); UCLA vs. Northwestern (11:30, ESPN2)
Initial thoughts: This is the only "tournament" on our docket that's not really a tournament -- hence the name invitational.
The problem is UCLA and Missouri are already scheduled to play this season in Columbia, Mo., so once the two teams were slated to play in this event, they couldn't be put together in a four-team event. That's why the matchups are set.
The bigger question is which team will come out of the event 2-0, or will both Missouri and UCLA sweep through the two games against Nevada and Northwestern to build up some momentum going into their game and into the rest of the nonconference slate?
Each of the four "primary" teams has major questions.
Missouri needs to settle on a replacement for Phil Pressey at the point. The Tigers actually have fewer transfers this season and are looking to re-establish themselves as SEC challengers.
Nevada must find a way to be relevant in the Mountain West Conference. Last season was a major disappointment. The Wolf Pack never should have been the league doormat. Playing neutral-court games against UCLA and Missouri are golden opportunities for the Pack.
Northwestern is being led by first-time coach Chris Collins. The former Duke associate head coach has been looking at this gig for quite some time. The Wildcats were successful under Bill Carmody but could never quite win the right games late in the season. Collins' goal is to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. It might not happen in Year 1, but getting off to a great start would help.
Matchup I can't wait to see: I am interested to see how Collins' crew handles the stage against UCLA on Nov. 29. Regardless of who is coaching the Bruins, the brand matters. Northwestern will be looking to make its mark early in the season by knocking off one of the best in the Pac-12, and a win over UCLA would do wonders for Collins. The top teams in the Big Ten will be more talented, but the Wildcats might be sneaky good.
Potential matchup I'd like to see: Well, we'll get the Missouri-UCLA matchup on Dec. 7 at Mizzou Arena. So that one is covered.
Five players to watch:
Jordan Adams, UCLA: Adams was arguably the Bruins' top player (yes, even over Shabazz Muhammad) at the end of the season. He scored 24 points in a Pac-12 tournament semifinal win over Arizona, but broke his foot in that game and was unable to play against Oregon in the title game or against Minnesota in the NCAA tournament. If Adams is healthy, the Bruins can begin the season with one of the top talents out West.
Kyle Anderson, UCLA: Anderson is a versatile player but hasn't found his natural spot. The Bruins considered putting him at the point but they already had Drew. Now, Alford has to decide if Anderson can play the position or go with a collection of other players, including his son, Bryce.
Jabari Brown, Missouri: The one-time Oregon player was a solid contributor last season for the Tigers with 13 points a game. But with such high turnover on the roster, especially on the perimeter, Brown will become even more of a focal point. Brown hasn't had to be the go-to player in his brief career; he has done an admirable job as a complementary player. Now he must take on more of a leadership role. How he handles that could determine the Tigers' fate.
Drew Crawford, Northwestern: Collins got a gift when Crawford decided to finish his career with the Wildcats and play for the first-year coach. Crawford only played in 10 games last season due to a torn right labrum. Had he played for Carmody, the Wildcats could have been in position to make a real run at the NCAA tournament. Crawford gives Collins an experienced Big Ten guard to jump-start his career as a head coach.
Deonte Burton, Nevada: Burton has been a consistent scorer for the Wolf Pack, but he hasn't had enough help recently. He may not get more next season. Burton has the chance to make a name for himself nationally by producing significant numbers against UCLA and Missouri. If he is going to be a key player in the Mountain West, then he has to do it on a regular basis before conference play begins.
Prediction: There's no title game in this one, but my prediction is that UCLA and Missouri will get out of Las Vegas 2-0. That's what they need to do for some momentum heading into the heart of the nonconference schedule. But Northwestern may be able to upset the projected headliners. Don't sleep on the Wildcats.
2. Colorado athletic director Mike Bohn handed in his resignation, and while the football program has struggled, Bohn hit a home run on his basketball hire. Bohn took a chance when he hired Tad Boyle, a former Kansas player, from nearby Northern Colorado. Boyle coached the Bears for four years, reaching the CIT in his final year. The big state schools don't usually look to a lesser-known state school to raise a program's profile -- yet Boyle has turned the Buffs into a major player in the West and in the Pac-12. The Buffs have gone to the NIT semifinals, won a Pac-12 tournament and a game in the NCAA tournament, then got back to the NCAAs last season. Basketball is a happening in Boulder now. The buzz is real. So while Bohn might have had his faults and the football program can be put atop the list, he got basketball right and should be given credit for taking a chance on Boyle. Boyle returned the loyalty by staying in Boulder this past spring when he could have pursued other opportunities.
3. Missouri coach Frank Haith took in Baylor transfer Deuce Bello for two years; the guard must sit out a year before playing. The Tigers have found a way to benefit from being in Big 12 territory but playing in the SEC. Missouri can be a home for wayward transfers who don't want to leave the area but can still play in a different conference. It will be interesting to track how often Missouri gets a transfer from the Big 12. Haith has gone with transfers quite a bit since taking over in Columbia two years ago. He'll likely continue on that path, with transfers complementing high school recruits.
2. Murray State coach Steve Prohm was in Chicago at the pre-draft combine to watch Isaiah Canaan, his veteran point guard who is sure to be a first-round lock and has the potential to be the next Damian Lillard -- a lower-profile school gem who stars in the league. But Prohm said he has a replacement set -- Zay Jackson. The suspended guard is cleared to join the Racers and be the starting point guard next season. Jackson served 49 days in jail after hitting a man with his car in a Walmart parking lot on Sept. 10. Prohm said Jackson practiced with the team once he was released from jail. He said there wasn't a judicial review board and that the decision for Jackson to come back was made by the athletic department. Prohm said Jackson had a 2.75 grade-point average and has not been an issue since he returned. The Racers will have depth at the position with the eligibility in December of Clemson transfer T.J. Sapp. Prohm isn't pushing the schedule in this transition year and will simply play 29 games without a tournament.
3. Missouri has another solid schedule to sell with nonconference games against Illinois (St. Louis), UCLA, at NC State, West Virginia in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge and Long Beach State. They are also in a tournament in Las Vegas where Missouri has been promised, according to Haith, since it wouldn't face UCLA because the Bruins and Tigers are already scheduled. The other two teams are Nevada and Northwestern. If this were the case then the Las Vegas Invitational can easily manage this by having UCLA and Missouri play Northwestern and Nevada, just alternating.
2. The Big Ten suddenly got incredibly younger with this week's two coaching hires -- Northwestern announcing Chris Collins and Minnesota tabbing Richard Pitino. The under-40 club will give the league a new look. The two take over programs that are striving for consistency, but both desperately need an upgrade in facilities to hang with the big boys. Collins and Pitino will need to use their youthful enthusiasm to build momentum since the dollars aren't in place for facilities they were used to -- Collins was at Duke and Pitino at Louisville and Florida before his stop at Florida International. Northwestern had been looking at Collins for quite some time. But Pitino was clearly a new name for Minnesota in the past week as athletic director Norwood Teague looked for an off-the-grid-type hire like he made at Virginia Commonwealth. Pitino got off to an impressive start in his coaching career at FIU with the upset of Middle Tennessee in the Sun Belt tournament and a chance to earn the league's automatic NCAA tournament berth. Now he'll face his toughest challenge of his career. He has a brand name in basketball, which carries weight, but will need to put together a strong staff to quickly earn the trust of his players this spring and summer. This can work at both places. Memphis, for example, has been a soaring success under Josh Pastner. Pastner led the Tigers to conference titles and NCAA tournament appearances as a young, vibrant assistant-turned-head-coach of a major program. Collins was a fit at Northwestern so there's no issue there. But give Pitino a chance to see if this could work.
3. Old Dominion looked like it was set to go to former Western Kentucky and Georgia coach Dennis Felton before the Monarchs and athletic director Wood Selig tabbed American's Jeff Jones. This hire came out of left field, but might end up being one of the better fits. Jones played and coached at Virginia and should be able to recruit well in the fertile Tidewater area. Jones had made American a consistent Patriot League contender, which isn't easy to do in a conference where Bucknell and Lehigh are the anchors. ODU knows who it is and wanted to gravitate toward a coach that made sense. This hire does.
After the appearance ended in a loss, he was off to a more nationally relevant job at Colorado State.
Eustachy had no idea what he was getting into in Fort Collins. He knew this CSU team had experience and had made a cameo in the NCAA tournament in 2012.
What he couldn’t have figured was how much this team needed him, and he them.
On Thursday night, the two formed the perfect coach-team union for a clinic on how to stay composed on the big stage. The eighth-seeded Rams were an offensive juggernaut against No. 9-seeded Missouri, shooting nearly 50 percent from the field, exactly 50 percent from 3-point range, and absolutely embarrassing the Tigers on the boards (42-19) in an 84-72 victory that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated.
How much did the Rams’ unique experience of starting five seniors play into this victory?
“I think it’s huge,’’ said Eustachy, who was stoic on the postgame podium but didn’t hide his euphoria by fist-pumping to the strong contingent of CSU fans at Rupp Arena.
“We intended on winning this game and I think that’s a big difference. Our mindset was terrific, and you couldn’t do that with freshmen. It took men to get that mindset into them, and they bought into everything I’ve talked about.’’
The Rams were led by Dorian Green, who was the much less heralded lead guard on the court next to Phil Pressey, but was the better player Thursday in the way he managed the game. Pressey had to hold together a mishmash of transfers that never seemed to be in sync, certainly not away from Columbia. Mizzou coach Frank Haith said he was proud of the team’s ability to make the NCAA tournament with only one player who played in the Tigers’ loss to Norfolk State a year ago.
A year ago, Haith took over a team assembled by Mike Anderson and was named national coach of the year.
This year, Eustachy took over a ready-made team that immediately embraced him.
“With Coach and the staff, their specialty is what we lacked the most, so I think it was just a perfect fit for us,’’ Green said. “We got a little bit tougher and our defensive rebounding is where we lacked last year. So I think it was just the perfect fit. We couldn’t ask for anything better.’’
Eustachy called the victory over Missouri historic for the school. The Rams' last NCAA win was in 1989.
“This is why we came here, to put this program on the map and make this an expected thing each year,’’ said Green, who like the rest of the seniors was recruited by current Nebraska coach Tim Miles. “This is what we set out to do when we got on campus, and it’s great to see the hard work pay off.’’
The Tigers (23-11) admitted that the Rams were the more aggressive team. They were. It wasn’t close. They were also the more disciplined squad. In order to knock off No. 1 overall seed Louisville -- and Eustachy’s close friend and former high school-mate, Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich -- the Rams (26-8) will have to handle the pressure, and the basketball, Saturday.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere, something that we’ll remember forever,’’ Green said. “We have to enjoy it, come out and play hard for 40 minutes and be aggressive from the opening tip. We’ve just got to seize the opportunity and love the atmosphere and compete.’’
Tennessee fell flat on its face and so did Kentucky, both double-digit losses that were major blows to their respective NCAA tournament hopes.
With just more than 13 minutes to play in the final SEC tournament game of the day at Bridgestone Arena, Ole Miss found itself in a similar predicament.
The Rebels were down 13 points to Missouri, and the NIT was calling their name.
“We’ve been down so many times this season, but we fight back. That’s what we do,” Ole Miss junior guard Marshall Henderson said. “We’re not dumb. We watched ESPN all day and saw all those other teams lose.
“We were like, ‘Dang, let’s just come here and take what was ours.'"
Henderson, the SEC’s pre-eminent lightning rod, poured in a game-high 27 points for the Rebels. But it was freshman guard Derrick Millinghaus who was the hero. His floater in the lane with 1.1 seconds to play capped a furious Ole Miss rally and lifted the Rebels to an emotional 64-62 victory over the Tigers.
“He made a New York point guard play, splitting those defenders and floating it above 6-[foot-]9 guys trying to swat it out clear to the bleachers,” said Henderson, who dumped the ball off to Millinghaus after being doubled on the play.
“I play with that emotion all the time, but we wanted that game,” Henderson said. “We knew that was a huge game for us. That was a huge message we sent out to the rest of the country.”
Obviously, the only guarantee will be if the Rebels (24-8) can win two more games and gain the automatic NCAA bid by winning the SEC tournament. Still, it’s difficult to see them not getting an at-large bid at this point regardless of what happens in Nashville the next two days. They face Vanderbilt on Saturday in the semifinals.
In his latest projection, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Ole Miss as one of the “last four in.” The Rebels have won five of their past six games.
“I know the NCAA tournament doesn’t officially start until next [Tuesday], but we just gave you a precursor,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “That was a first-round NCAA game between two NCAA tournament teams.”
Millinghaus was filling in for starting guard Jarvis Summers, who suffered what Ole Miss officials think was a concussion during the game. Millinghaus’ game winner wasn’t his only big shot. He drained a 3-pointer with 31 seconds to play to tie the game at 62-62 after Phil Pressey had put Missouri ahead with a 3-pointer just seconds earlier.
Millinghaus scored all 11 of his points in the final 6½ minutes of the game.
“I just wanted to win. That’s what I wanted to do,” Millinghaus said.
Missouri (23-10) again found a way to lose a game away from home, which has been a recurring theme for the Tigers this season. They made just two baskets in the final 8:49.
No play, though, was any more costly for Missouri than an errant inbounds pass by Laurence Bowers, giving the ball back to Ole Miss with 27 seconds remaining and setting the stage for Millinghaus’ game winner.
“We were on death row, and in order to get off death row, you’ve got to make a play,” Kennedy said. “We were fortunate to make one at the end.”
Henderson said the Rebels aren’t taking anything for granted and want to take the decision out of the selection committee’s hands. Ole Miss last went to the NCAA tournament in 2002 and has never been under Kennedy despite winning 20 or more games six times.
“We’re still not done,” Henderson said. “There are no guarantees. We’re Ole Miss. Everyone likes to hate on Ole Miss. We know it’s difficult at Ole Miss to get something done, so we need to come back in here tomorrow and play with the same energy and same aggression.”
That’s never a problem for Henderson, who was still screaming in the hallways as he strolled to the postgame news conference. He never quits talking on the court, either, and revels in taunting fans and players.
A couple of different times Friday he was warned by officials, and Missouri assistant coaches were incensed when he gestured to the Tigers bench heading to a timeout.
“I’m a manipulator of sorts and love messing with people’s minds,” said Henderson, who has scored 20 or more points 16 times this season. “It’s pretty funny to mess with people like that. It’s a freakin’ game, and people take it so seriously. It’s funny for a little white guy like me to come around and talk trash to people in the stands.”
He was still chirping after the game -- and accused most of the Missouri players of not shaking the Ole Miss players’ hands.
“We didn’t expect it. We hate each other,” Henderson said. “I think we just created a really big rivalry in the SEC between Ole Miss and Missouri. That’s good.”
1. I don’t trust Florida anymore. Sometimes, the numbers lie. Sometimes, a team with dazzling stats fails to justify the analytic mechanisms that elevate it. That could be the case with Florida. The BPI, the RPI, Ken Pomeroy and Sagarin all love the Gators. Per the film, however, I see problems. The same Florida team that amassed a plus-18.8-points-per-game scoring margin in SEC play entering Saturday’s 61-57 loss at Kentucky (more on that soon) and crushed Marquette and Wisconsin in November has suffered four road losses in February alone. The Gators were outplayed by Arizona and Kansas State off campus in the nonconference portion of their schedule. Sure, they’ve spent of a chunk of the season punching teams in the mouth, but they’re 0-5 in games decided by six points or fewer and haven't beaten a single top-50 RPI team in a road game. And we really haven’t seen that dominant version of Florida, which began SEC play with historic margins of victory, in a month. Who are the Gators now? Well, the final minutes of the Kentucky loss told their story. They’re balanced and talented, but they fumbled in the last stretch of that loss because they couldn’t find that catalyst, that Ben McLemore/Marcus Smart/Doug McDermott/Trey Burke, to lead them beyond the funk that ruined the moment. They did not score in the last seven-plus minutes of the second half. They were the veterans, but they played like freshmen. It’s tough to believe in this program’s postseason potential when it continues to suffer road losses against hungry SEC opponents that don’t match them on paper. Guess what they’ll have to do to advance in the NCAA tournament? Beat hungry underdogs outside Gainesville. Yes, Kentucky re-entered the bubble convo with this win, but Florida did little to prove that it’s worthy of its statistical hype. Again.
2. Marcus Smart and the national/Big 12 POY conversation. Listen, I think Trey Burke deserves national player of the year, but I might change my mind if Victor Oladipo outplays him tomorrow. Here’s the general Burke argument -- and it’s a convincing one -- that circulates within college basketball media circles: “If you take him off that team, there’s no way they’re top 10 and competing for a Big Ten title.” And that’s accurate. I can’t argue against that. Here’s another one to consider: “If you take Marcus Smart off Oklahoma State’s roster, you probably have the team that finished 7-11 in league play last season and not the 13-5 team that’s competed for the Big 12 title in 2012-13.” Smart is the Big 12 player of the year. I like McLemore, Jeff Withey and Rodney McGruder, but Smart deserves the honor following his performance (21 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals) in Saturday’s 76-70 win over Kansas State, a victory that jeopardized the Wildcats’ hopes of winning a Big 12 title. He should be a legit candidate for national POY, too.
3. The sad conclusion to Georgetown-Syracuse. Following his team’s 61-39 loss at Georgetown on Saturday, Jim Boeheim told reporters, “I’m pretty much ready to go play golf someplace. If I was 40 years old, I would be real upset. I’m not 40 years old. That should be obvious.” That comment and his team’s lackluster finish to the regular season (1-4 in its last five) will continue to fuel the retirement speculation that’s surrounded Boeheim for years. John Thompson III might have won national coach of the year honors with his team’s Big East title-sealing win. But the lopsided effort -- the Hoyas’ largest margin of victory against Syracuse since 1985 -- offered a melancholy ending to this classic rivalry. Georgetown will join the Catholic 7, and Syracuse will move to the ACC next season. The two may reconnect in the future, but their battles won’t be regulated by league affiliation. So this could be the end, and as a college basketball fan, I wanted to see drama, overtime, controversy in the final seconds, a buzzer-beater, a comeback something. This rivalry deserved that. Instead, we were treated to the sight of one impressive squad smashing an opponent that failed to show up for the conclusion of this storied series.
4. Marquette wins its most crucial bizarre game of the year. The Golden Eagles love the theatrics that tend to define college basketball in March. Their 69-67 win at St. John’s was their fourth overtime game of the season in Big East competition. It was their third conference win by three points or less. Marquette hasn’t forged the prettiest path to the Big East title, but it earned a share of the crown with another gritty victory Saturday. St. John’s launched an impressive comeback in the final minutes that sent the game into overtime. Buzz Williams just smiled as his team prepared for the extra period; he’d been in that position multiple times this season, so his squad didn’t panic. With the game on the line, Vander Blue drove into the lane and beat the buzzer with the layup. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is what Marquette does. A team that was picked to finish in the middle of the standings earned a share of the Big East title. Wow. The Golden Eagles are clearly tough enough to make noise in the NCAA tourney, too.
6. Meet Derrick Marks. In the final seconds of a 69-65 win that might have pushed his Boise State squad into the field of 68, Marks made a split-second decision to contest Xavier Thames' layup with 21 seconds to go. If Thames had made that shot, the Aztecs would have cut Boise State’s lead to one point. But Marks made plays like that all afternoon. The sophomore guard is just one of the reasons that the Broncos could win a game or two in the NCAA tourney -- I’m putting them in the field, although I’m not so sure about San Diego State anymore. Leon Rice’s program is healthy now (eight guys earned minutes against the Aztecs). The Broncos possess an offense that’s ranked 24th in adjusted offensive efficiency per Pomeroy, and they’ve won five of their past six games. Watch out for the Broncos in the coming weeks. Huge victory for that team.
7. Get ready for drama in Nashville. Next week, the SEC tournament will take place in Nashville. This league is packed with bubble squads, and I think that will add to the drama in what could be the most exciting conference tournament of them all. Proof? On Saturday, Alabama beat Georgia on a half-court buzzer-beater, Tennessee overcame a late deficit to secure a key win over Missouri and Kentucky kept its NCAA tournament dreams alive with a victory over Florida. The chaos will continue in Nashville.
8. Florida Gulf Coast becomes first team to dance. The Eagles earned the field’s first automatic NCAA tournament berth with an 88-75 victory over Mercer in the Atlantic Sun tourney championship. This is an Eagles squad that finished 8-10 (tied for sixth) in the conference last season, but their first victory of the 2012-13 season came against a top-10-bound Miami team. Kudos to Andy Enfield’s program.
9. Creighton-Wichita State III. The two Missouri Valley Conference power players split their season series this season. Despite their respective struggles, they were still the league’s top two programs. Their most recent matchup, which the Bluejays won, determined the regular-season champion. Creighton’s 64-43 victory over Indiana State and Wichita State’s 66-51 win over Illinois State in Saturday’s semifinals of the MVC tournament guaranteed a third matchup between the league’s top two teams in Sunday afternoon’s final.
10. Louisville makes statement without five overtimes. So the rematch between Louisville and Notre Dame didn’t match the hoopla of the first game. We didn’t get five overtimes. We didn’t even see one. But the Cardinals continued to support the notion that they’re going to be a very dangerous program in the NCAA tournament with a 73-57 victory over Notre Dame. It was the seventh consecutive victory for a team that’s ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. As a team, the Cardinals shot 51 percent from the floor against the Fighting Irish, and Gorgui Dieng registered 20 points (8-11 FG) and 11 rebounds. The Cards are playing like a Final Four team.