College Basketball Nation: Oakland Golden Grizzlies
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: a speed injection in the Horizon.
In the 2010 and 2011 NCAA tournaments, when America received its introduction to the Butler Bulldogs, they got a lot in the exchange: a feel-good underdog story two years running; an up-close view of the most impressive young coach (Brad Stevens) in the sport; proof that belief, guile and luck were sometimes enough; and proof that a mid-major really could win the whole enchilada one day, with the right breaks, or just a few more inches of backboard.
Whether basketball fans realized it or not, or even cared to, they also got a primer on Horizon League basketball. The Bulldogs won in the NCAA tournament two years running because they ran smart, focused offense and lockdown defense. One couldn't work without the other, and the pace was deliberate -- it allowed Butler to grind more talented and more athletic opponents into second-half dust, but it also kept opposing teams from using their athleticism on the break. Butler always beat you back on defense.
This is, by and large, the way the rest of the Horizon League has traditionally played its basketball. Deliberate, defensive. Last season, the Horizon League was its usual self -- except for Detroit, which cracked the vaunted 70-possessions-per-game mark, and Youngstown State, which finished at around 67 per. Five teams averaged fewer than 64 possessions per game. Six fell below 65, and Valparaiso finished at 65.4. This is not a fast league. Could it become one?
The question is worth asking thanks to, you guessed it, realignment. This season is former Summit member Oakland's inaugural campaign in the Horizon, and there are several reasons why this is an exciting change. For starters, it sets up the possibility of a fantastic local rivalry with Detroit (Oakland is in Rochester, Mich.). It adds another quality mid-major program, full stop -- Greg Kampe's team has been the toast of the Summit League for most of the last half-decade. But more than anything, the Grizzlies bring speed. Over the last four seasons, Kampe's teams have averaged 71.03 possessions per game. Oakland is a different kind of team than the usual Horizon squad, with a different philosophy. If Detroit plays just as fast this season (and it might not, having lost point guard Ray McCallum Jr. to the NBA draft), the rising possession tide could lift all HL boats. If not, then Oakland will be a singularly speedy oddity in an otherwise homogenous conference. Either option could prove interesting.
The Horizon League is in an interesting place now. Butler got so good it outgrew its old denizens, moving to the A-10 and now the new Big East, but according to Ken Pomeroy's conference rankings, the league was still the 11th-best top-to-bottom last season, just behind a now-decimated Conference USA. What Oakland can do for that overall league strength, and for the nightly entertainment value, is entirely worth watching.
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]
Here are Blue Ribbon's in-depth previews of all eight Summit teams:
North Dakota State
South Dakota State
2. Horizon League commissioner John LeCrone now has to do what Tom Yeager is attempting for the CAA: find a high-profile replacement. Yeager will attempt to woo Davidson and/or Charleston out of the Southern; LeCrone has to find a team in the Midwest to replace Butler. I can’t see a MAC school like Ohio going to the Horizon. Oakland makes more sense since it’s near Detroit. The Grizzlies have been a solid program under Greg Kampe. Simply put, the Horizon won’t or can’t replace Butler, but will have to make a serious attempt to come even half as close -- and sooner than later.
3. Iowa State’s decision to reward Fred Hoiberg with a new eight-year contract is a win-win for both parties. Hoiberg has shown no desire to run back to the NBA and has made a commitment to restoring the Cyclones to relevancy. He took a major step this past season in leading them to the NCAA tournament. Iowa State desperately needed consistency and a face of the program at a time when the Big 12 is navigating a new era. Iowa State can’t afford to fall behind, and it won’t under Hoiberg. Hoiberg has the right demeanor to take in transfers, as if he is creating an NBA roster of free agents, to make Iowa State competitive.
Part of the reason it's so hard to definitively describe the where we are in the realignment process is because Stage 1 remains alive and well. Conference realignment isn't Harold Hill. It doesn't stop by one conference, convince university presidents they need a bigger television deal, and then skip town when the con is up. Conference realignment is a virus. It infects cells one by one, but remains thriving in its previously infected hosts, even as it spreads further and further outward. We're almost two years past the Big Ten's opening moves, and the Big East is still flailing, the Big 12 is still looking, and UConn is still trying to get into the ACC. ("Come on, Boston College, let's bury the hatchet!")
"I still think there are other changes that will occur, and it's all linked,'' said Sun Belt Conference commissioner Karl Benson, himself a realigned leader, having dashed from the fading WAC to the Sun Belt in March. "If the Big 12 does something, the Big East will react. If the Big East does something, Conference USA will react. If Conference USA does something, we'll react. You're already seeing the Colonial, Horizon and Atlantic 10 with changes, conferences that had been untouched through all of this. I think there's still a lot of movement that will occur.''
To wit: On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that Oakland, the dominant Summit League team of the past five seasons, is openly pushing for an invitation to the Horizon League. Long-time Oakland coach Greg Kampe tried to make the push a decade ago, but the University of Detroit, skeptical of sharing the Detroit market with an in-conference foe, kept the Golden Grizzlies at bay. From the AP:
"I know that's a fact because I called the athletic director then, Brad Kinsman, and he told me," Kampe said.
Kinsman said Wednesday that Kampe's recollection is accurate.
"The feeling back then was that it didn't make sense to share this market with another school in the same conference," said Kinsman, who retired in 2006. "Times have changed, coaches have changed, but I don't know what the thinking is now."
From a sheer performance standpoint, Kampe's desire is hardly outlandish. The Golden Grizzlies would have been near the top of the Horizon League in the past three seasons in attendance and RPI, which is what really matters. In terms of actual on-court performance, the Golden Grizzlies' Ken Pomeroy average adjusted efficiency rank over the past four seasons is 116.5; that would have put them right in the thick of last season's Horizon League, whose average KenPom rank was 174.6 and had only four teams rank higher than the Grizzlies overall. (In 2011, Oakland's best season in decades, Kampe's team ranked No. 66 in efficiency. Only Butler, at No. 41, ranked higher.)
Plus, there are good common sense reasons why it could work. Kampe cites the travel footprint as beneficial; teams could play Oakland and Detroit within two days' time and "wouldn't even have to change hotels." And then there's the potential of a budding rivalry:
"I think an Oakland-Detroit rivalry would be huge in southeast Michigan," he said. "When we played, there would be full houses, we'd be on the front page of the Detroit News and Free Press. There also would be television exposure that would help both schools and the Horizon. I don't see how it would be a negative for Detroit to have us in the same league."
I admit I'm not as familiar with the dynamics of the Detroit college hoops scene as some; would an Oakland-Detroit rivalry really generate front page local interest? That seems a little ambitious, right? (Commenters, please enlighten us). But even if Kampe is overstating the case, the points are valid. Oakland almost feels like a Horizon League already. This makes sense.
But the point of this isn't the suspense -- oh, the suspense! -- of a possible Oakland-to-Horizon move. It is, as Dana wrote, that realignment is no longer merely about the big boys. It is not longer just about football. Football is still a major concern, of course, but now that conferences large and small are doing everything in their power merely to survive as leagues, the doors are opening and closing everywhere. Basketball is a concern. In many cases, it is the only concern.
I don't know what we call this stage of realignment. The "technology adoption lifecycle," originally developed by three researchers studying agricultural innovation patterns at Iowa State University, produced the Rogers' bell curve, which looks like this. Maybe we're in the "late majority" stage? Or maybe agricultural innovation adoption has nothing to do with conference realignment, and this entire paragraph was pointless?
Maybe so. But rest assured, no school and no league wants to end up labeled a "laggard." No one -- and for what seems like the first time since this whole thing started, I mean no one -- wants to risk being left behind. Everyone is moving; everyone is looking. The question is: Where do we stop?
Note of the Day
Six teams had three or fewer turnovers Saturday. Entering the day, only eight teams had had a game with three or fewer giveaways.
George Mason 54, Old Dominion 50
George Mason won despite shooting 27.7 percent from the field and committing 21 turnovers. The only other team to win a game this season despite shooting less than 30 percent and committing at least 20 turnovers was Kentucky on Dec. 31 against Louisville.
North Carolina 83, Maryland 74
North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall had 16 assists Saturday, matching the highest single-game total by any player this season. He had nine more assists than the entire Maryland team. That nine-assist margin is the highest this year by one player over the opposing team.
Indiana 78, Purdue 61
Purdue lost despite turning the ball over only three times. It’s the second time the Boilermakers have lost a game with three or fewer turnovers; all other Division I teams have combined to do it only four times on the year.
Valparaiso 63, Wright State 54
The Crusaders won despite registering just one offensive rebound. Only six teams this year have had a game with no more than one offensive rebound, and Valpo has done it twice. Those six teams are a combined 6-0 in those games.
Morehead State 56, Eastern Illinois 55
Morehead State attempted only 30 field goals in the win, the lowest number of field goal attempts by a team this season. The next-lowest total was achieved Saturday as well, as Valparaiso attempted only 32 shots in its win over Wright State.
Oakland 74, Western Illinois 70 (2 OT)
Oakland’s Lucas Laval-Perry did not score a point in 41 minutes of action, matching the longest scoreless appearance by any player this season.
Cal State Fullerton 99, UC Santa Barbara 86
Cal State Fullerton hit 17 of 26 3-pointers (65.4 percent), the highest percentage by any team in a game this season, minimum 25 attempts.
Drexel 65, Towson 57
Drexel’s Frantz Massenat made all 15 of his free throw attempts Saturday, one shy of the most free throw attempts without a miss by any player this season. Massenat has now made his last 33 attempts from the charity stripe.
BYU 79, Portland 60
BYU attempted 53 free throws Saturday at Portland, five more than any other road team in a game this season.
Davidson 88, Chattanooga 61
Davidson attempted 40 3-pointers in the win, only the second time since Jan. 1 that a team has attempted that many 3s. The other instance in 2012 happened Thursday in Chattanooga’s prior game, in which Western Carolina attempted 41 from long range.
It was supposed to be a battle between Reggie Hamilton and Nate Wolters. But Bader stole the show in Oakland's 92-87 win against South Dakota State. He came off the bench to hit a school-record 10 three-pointers to finish with a career-high 37 points. He's the third Division I player with 10 threes in a game this season, and second to do it coming off the bench, joining Iona's Sean Armand. Bader's 37 points are the most off the bench since Lamar's Mike James went off for 52 last season.
Stepping Up - Tyler Zeller
Zeller went for 21 points and 17 rebounds as North Carolina topped NC State, 74-55. He's the first Tar Heel with a 21-17 game since Tyler Hansbrough in 2008. Zeller is now averaging 17.0 PPG and 12.0 RPG in conference play. The win gave the Tar Heels 11 straight against NC State, matching their longest streak in the history of the rivalry.
Filling Up the Stat Sheet – Nate Wolters
South Dakota State came up short, but Wolters again put up some eye-popping numbers. He had 21 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds. Wolters is now averaging 21.0 PPG, 6.2 APG and 5.0 RPG. Going back to 2000, only four players have maintained a 20-5-5 average over a full season: Norris Cole, Evan Turner, Ricky Minard and Speedy Claxton.
Breakout Game - Tevin Svihovec and Emmanuael Addo
Northern Colorado lost in double overtime to Idaho State, 99-94, but just getting that far was something of an accomplishment. The Bears' top two scorers combined for six points. That meant others picked up the load. Svihovec (30) and Addo (28) combined for 58 points even though they were averaging just 16.4 PPG coming into this one.
Ugly Stat Line of the Night - Butler Bulldogs
Apart from last year's National Championship Game, Butler had its worst offensive showing of the past 15 years. The Bulldogs shot just 28.1 percent in a 53-42 loss to UW-Milwaukee. Butler missed its first 12 three-pointers, and finished 1-16 from three-point range. Its starting lineup finished 0-12 from long range.
Missouri walked all over Oklahoma in an 87-49 win. The 38-point margin of victory is the Tigers’ largest over Oklahoma since a 66-22 win back in 1922. It stands as Oklahoma’s worst Big 12 loss ever, and the Sooners largest margin of defeat since a 45-point loss to UCLA in January 1975.
Ohio State with another Big Ten blowout
In their first meeting as conference foes, Ohio State dominated Nebraska, 71-40. Together with a 33-point win over Northwestern, both of Ohio State’s conference wins have been by 30 or more points. Those make up two of Ohio State’s four largest margins of victory in Big Ten games over the past 15 years. The last time the Buckeyes had 30-point Big Ten wins in the same season was 1960-61.
Armand on fire off the bench
Iona’s Sean Armand came off the bench to score 32 points on 10-19 shooting from three-point range. That set a school record for threes in a game, as well as a MAAC record for threes in a conference game. He’s the first player with double-digit threes off the bench against a D-I opponent since Portland’s Jared Stohl had 10 in December 2009. Armand’s 32 points are the third most off the bench this season. Coming off an eight-game road trip, the Gaels beat Siena, 95-59.
Oral Roberts can’t miss
Oral Roberts shot 66.7 percent (including 68.8 percent from three-point range) in an 89-80 win over Oakland. In the second half, the Golden Eagles couldn’t miss, shooting 77.8 percent and hitting eight of nine three-pointers. Oakland’s loss snapped a 31-game conference home win streak.
Historically speaking, this has been a good town in which to launch a big tournament performance. In five previous NCAA tourneys in Tulsa, four teams have started their Final Four run: Houston in 1982, Notre Dame in 1978, Louisville in 1975 and Kansas in 1974.
The Jayhawks, here as the No. 1 seed in the Southwest Region, certainly hope that history repeats, as opposed to their catastrophic NCAA history elsewhere in the state. Kansas was shocked in the second round last year in Oklahoma City, and in the first round by Bucknell in 2005.
A brief breakdown of the two day games Friday:
No. 13 seed Oakland (25-9) vs. No. 4 seed Texas (27-7), 12:15 p.m. ET (CBS)
What to watch: This will be a primo interior matchup, and the winner in the paint may win the game. The Golden Grizzlies have one of the best big men in the country in 6-foot-11 Keith Benson, the Summit League Player of the Year who averages 18 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.6 blocked shots. But he’s going up against the Longhorns’ array of physical postmen, led by freshman Tristan Thompson (13.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.2 blocks). Texas might be the best interior defensive team in the nation.
Who to watch: The most talented player on the floor will be Texas forward Jordan Hamilton, a versatile scorer who at 6-foot-7 is a matchup nightmare. Most importantly for the Longhorns, Hamilton appeared to get his shooting stroke back at the Big 12 tourney in Kansas City, where he made 48 percent of his shots. In the previous six games, half of them losses, Hamilton made just 31 percent of his field goals. If Hamilton is hot, it will be tough for Oakland to win.
Why to watch: This has upset potential. Oakland is a very talented offensive team that got valuable NCAA tourney experience last season and played a rigorous non-conference schedule to prepare for this moment. Texas is a national title contender -- but is also not invincible. And if Thursday afternoon showed us anything, anyone can be beaten -- or at least taken down to the wire.
What they’re saying: “I don’t think we’re scared,” Benson said. “We’re coming in with the mindset of getting the upset.” … Thompson, on Texas’ late-season struggle: “To be honest, we totally forgot about that. We’re not focused on what happened in the past. Situations happen, and we got the losses and that’s good for us to experience those heartaches. But now it’s tournament time. We know it’s a lose-or-go-home situation, so now we’ve got to pull up our socks and it’s time to grind.” (It is assumed the freshman meant win-or-go-home, but that was the quote.) … Oakland coach Greg Kampe, on seeing President Barack Obama pick Texas in his bracket for ESPN: “I didn’t vote for him either, so I guess we’re even now.”
Of note: The Grizzlies have played seven teams in this tournament and went 1-6 against them. The victory was at Tennessee. The losses were against Illinois, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and West Virginia. Texas is 8-5 against the NCAA field. … Oakland has won eight straight and averaged more than 90 points in that span. In other words, it would love to turn this game into a shootout. … Texas has advanced to 12 straight NCAA tournaments, and has won at least one game in eight of those.
No. 12 seed Memphis (25-9) vs. No. 5 seed Arizona (27-7), 2:45 p.m. ET (CBS)
What to watch: Which green group handles the pressure of the tournament best? The Wildcats have only two players who played meaningful minutes in Arizona’s previous NCAA tournament game -- Kyle Fogg and Jamelle Horne combined to play 57 minutes and scored five points in a Sweet 16 blowout against Louisville in 2009. Not a single current Tiger played in Memphis’ previous tournament game, a Sweet 16 loss to Missouri in ’09. The Tigers’ coach, Josh Pastner, has never led a team into a Big Dance game either.
Who to watch: The best player on the floor is Arizona forward Derrick Williams, a 19-point, 8-rebound guy who can get his points efficiently -- and from anywhere. He’s a 62 percent shooter, a crazy 60 percent from 3-point range and 74 percent at the line, where he takes 8.5 foul shots per game. Memphis has some size in Tarik Black and Will Coleman, but the question is whether either can check Williams all over the court.
Why to watch: To see which traditionally powerful program is on the rebound fastest. Both missed the Big Dance last season after coaching changes, and both now have taken steps back to national contender status. Arizona (four Final Fours, one national title) won the Pac-10 regular-season title this year to re-establish itself in Year 2 under Sean Miller. Memphis (three Final Fours, no titles) had to earn its bid by winning the Conference USA title on UTEP’s home court in Year 2 under Josh Pastner.
What they’re saying: Coleman, on the youth of the Tigers: “We’re all goofy. We’re a goofy bunch of guys that just like to have fun, and there is nothing wrong with that."
Williams, on choosing Arizona over Memphis in recruiting: “That’s all I did is ate barbecue the whole time (on his official visit to Memphis). It was a great time, a great experience for me. … Pastner did recruit me very hard. Like I said, I couldn’t go wrong either way whether I chose Arizona or Memphis, but I’m glad I chose here.”
Pastner, on the feeling of winning the C-USA tournament Saturday and seeing Memphis in the field the following day: “Those 40 hours, it was probably the greatest 40 hours of just adrenaline, of emotion, of just being happy that you can experience. If somebody came to me today and wanted to give me $100 million to trade for that, I wouldn’t. I mean that.”
Of note: Tulsa is a Memphis-friendly location. The city is only about a six-hour drive, so expect a fair amount of Tiger blue in the stands. … Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said he spoke with Miller earlier this week and that Miller has “zero interest” in other jobs, most notably North Carolina State, where he was a former assistant coach.
Orlando Johnson, UC Santa Barbara: He is one of the best athletes you haven't heard of, but take one look at any highlight film and you'll see the run-and-jump ability and sweet-shooting stroke. Johnson was last season's Big West Player of the Year and backed it up this season as the nation's 15th-leading scorer (21.1 ppg). Florida will have a challenge in front of it trying to defend him.
Noah Dahlman, Wofford: He's a special player in that he's 6-foot-6 and doesn't dunk. His shots come off layups and putbacks, yet he still averages 20 points per game. He's sixth in the nation shooting 61.2 percent from the field. All this makes Dahlman exactly the type of guy who can do damage with a BYU frontcourt missing Brandon Davies and still struggling to find its rhythm. The Cougars' Noah Hartsock has quite a challenge ahead of him in limiting Dahlman.
Kenneth Faried, Morehead State: He leads the nation in rebounding, averaging a whopping 14.5 per game while carrying the scoring load as well, averaging 17.6 points per game. He has double-doubles in 12 of his past 13 games. This 6-foot-8 beast is exactly the kind of player that could give Louisville trouble in the first game, especially with the Cardinals losing Rakeem Buckles for the rest of the season.
Keith Benson, Oakland: He's won back-to-back Summit League Player of the Year awards for a reason. After nearly forgoing his senior year for the NBA draft, Benson is back in the NCAA tournament and looking to give Texas problems in the opening round with his 6-foot-11 presence. He averages a double-double (18 ppg, 10 rpg) and even added a 3-point shot to his game this year. Benson is a scary player for the Longhorns to face and has the ability to carry his team.
Julian Boyd, Long Island: He's one of the season’s best stories, coming back from sitting out a full season due to a heart condition and then leading his school to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 14 years. Could he now help 15-seed LIU give mighty North Carolina problems? Boyd does a little bit of everything, as the former NEC Rookie of the Year averages 12.9 points, 8.8 rebounds, shoots 52 percent from the field and provides a shot-blocking presence. While it might not be enough against the Tar Heels' front line, Boyd should give UNC a cause for concern.
Top choices to win a game or more
The common theme for these three teams is that they present matchup problems and they are expertly coached.
Belmont spreads the floor while spreading the wealth; there is no star on this team. The Bruins are hard to plan against because of their diverse scoring. Ian Clark leads the team in scoring at 12.4 ppg, while nine other players on their roster average between five and 10 points a game.
Plus, Rick Byrd is simply one of the best coaches in the country. He won as an NAIA coach at Belmont and now has built the Bruins into one of the most respected mid-major programs in the country. Remember, it was Belmont that nearly knocked off Mike Krzyzewski and his second-seeded Duke Blue Devils before bowing out in a classic 71-70 first-round scare in 2008. Expect more of the same competitiveness from these Bruins, who are better than that '08 team and now face fourth-seeded Wisconsin. The Bruins’ four losses this season came to teams from their home state of Tennessee (UT twice, Vanderbilt and Lipscomb). They are 26-0 against other states.
Reggie Hamilton gives the Grizzlies a full-court roadrunner who can score (17.4 ppg) and distribute (5.4 apg), while shooting 38 percent from 3-point range. This team played an extremely tough schedule, with losses to West Virginia, Purdue, Michigan State, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio State. Even through all that, Oakland managed to hold it together and upset Tennessee in Knoxville 89-82 in December behind Benson’s 26 points and 10 rebounds . Watch out for the Grizzlies.
Old Dominion has a coach who is as good as any in the country in my view. Blaine Taylor has the talent to execute his recipe for success. ODU can rebound with anyone, as Frank Hassell leads five Monarchs who average between 5.0 and 9.6 rebounds per game. The Monarchs are a high-major rebounding team, and their length, athleticism and grit make this a team worth watching for multiple rounds in the tournament. Ben Finney is a “silent assassin,” as Taylor described to me earlier this season. Kent Bazemore has great range and accuracy from behind the arc. Add Taylor’s physical and stingy defense and you have the recipe for the Monarchs to win a couple of games in the NCAA tournament.
Three more to watch
The common thread for these three teams is big guys inside who can really produce:
Morehead State has one weapon that no one else has in Kenneth Faried. The last time Faried went up against high-major competition was in December, when he dropped 20 points and 18 rebounds on Florida and Gators coach Billy Donovan compared him to Dennis Rodman. Faried took on Jared Sullinger and the Ohio State Buckeyes a few days later and came away with 15 points and 12 rebounds. Sullinger finished with eight points and eight rebounds in that contest. In addition to Faried, Demonte Harper gives the Eagles a nice No. 2 guy who averages 16 ppg and shoots 40 percent from 3.
Wofford can be a real challenge to guard, because the Terriers have an inside scorer in Noah Dahlman (20 ppg, 61 percent shooter) who is surrounded by sharpshooters on the perimeter. Wofford’s personnel creates space for everyone else, and collectively the Terriers create headaches for opposing coaches, as they did for coach Bo Ryan last year in a tight first-round loss to Wisconsin. Cameron Rundles is a volume 3-point shooter with accuracy (40 percent from beyond the arc). Three other Terriers are connecting on between 36 to 42 percent of their 3-point attempts, as Wofford shoots 40 percent from deep as a team. This is team that can advance if its inside-out game flows.
Utah State is a team built with parts that all connect and allow coach Stew Morrill to turn the Aggies into a transformer. This is a team that can defend and rebound well enough to win on off-shooting nights. It is also a team that can score well enough to win on off-defensive nights. But when all of the moving parts come together, it can create the Optimus Prime of mid-major basketball. Tai Wesley is the inside working part for the Aggies. He is the leader of this bunch. Wesley brings a maturity, competitiveness and an in-the-paint, dirty-work mentality that drives the Aggies.
1. What you need to know about Arkansas-Little Rock -- Derek Fisher might be UALR’s most famous alum, but it was another guard who led the Trojans to their lone NCAA tournament win. In 1986, the 14th-seeded Trojans shot 62.3 percent on their way to a win over Digger Phelps’ Notre Dame squad. Pete Myers led all scorers with 29 points. He went on to a career with the Chicago Bulls, most famously replacing Michael Jordan at shooting guard after his retirement following the 1992-93 season.
2. What you probably don’t need to know about Oakland -- David Hasselhoff attended Oakland University’s Academy of Dramatic Art for a semester. Sadly, the Hoff was indeed hassled. He left after just six months. "I was too young, too immature at the time and I felt very intimidated by everything," he told OU Magazine in 1991. On an entirely unrelated note, there were 18 D-I players from Germany this season, but none on Oakland. Germans, in case you didn’t know, love David Hasselhoff.
3. Fifteen years ago today -- Georgetown and Connecticut tip off at noon ET on ESPN, and it just happens to be 15 years to the day that those two met in the Big East title game. In 1996, Ray Allen and Allen Iverson, both soon-to-be top-five picks, did battle at Madison Square Garden. The Hoyas had led by 11 with under five minutes to play, but didn’t score a point the rest of the way. Allen’s off-balance shot with 13 seconds left put Connecticut ahead 75-74 in one of the most exciting Big East Tournament finals ever. Watch the end here.
4. The Sky’s the limit? -- In just its fourth season in Division I, Northern Colorado goes for its first-ever NCAA tournament berth tonight. The Bears face off against Montana in the Big Sky title game (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2). Last year, only two teams made the Dance for the first time: Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Wofford. The Bears’ hopes rest on Devon Beitzel, who has emerged as one of the nation’s elite scorers. In his past eight games, Beitzel is averaging 26.5 ppg. Here’s one thing working against Northern Colorado. Of the 11 conference tournaments completed so far, only two No. 1 seeds (Belmont and Oakland) have won the title.
- Gonzaga gets its much-needed win. Forget an NCAA tournament at-large bid. For now, Gonzaga just needed to see something positive happen on the basketball court. The Zags have been battered and bloodied by their brutal non-league schedule, going 5-5 in their first 10 games and losing to basically every competent opponent they have played. So this was a huge win, not only because it helps salvage Gonzaga's flagging at-large tourney hopes, but because sometimes you just need to see the ball go in the basket. With Steven Gray sidelined by back cramps, Gonzaga got a neutral-court win over an unbeaten and athletic top-10 team. Quality stuff, and just in time.
- Illinois falls to ... wait, is that scoreboard right? You can be forgiven for not believing your eyes on this one, but there it is, plain as day: The 14th-ranked Fighting Illini did indeed fall to the 4-7 University of Illinois-Chicago Flames at the United Center on Saturday. It's rather remarkable, actually, because this UIC team is not a sleeper NCAA squad, or an undefeated-but-hard-to-gauge foe like Cleveland State. The Flames have a host of bad losses to their name, including one to Northern Illinois earlier this week. The Illini were, to this point, rolling right along. There were few causes for long-term concern regarding Bruce Weber's team before Saturday, though one involved the Illini's penchant for long two-point jumpers, statistically the least efficient shot on the court. Illinois needed to shoot more 3-pointers. The problem against UIC wasn't the attempts (18) but the makes (a mere four). I'm not sure you want to worry too much about Illinois going forward, because, hey, bad losses happen. But the Illini do have plenty of offensive improvements to make to ensure bad teams like UIC can't keep up with them on neutral floors this season.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Charles CherneyThe UIC flames upset No. 14 Illinois Saturday as the Illini managed a paltry 18-for-55 on the night.
- Who's worried about the Kansas State Wildcats? No one likes Chicken Little, so I'll reserve the whole sky-is-falling routine for more dire circumstances. But it's probably time to be at least somewhat concerned with Kansas State's slow start. Against a Florida team that also had not proved much early in the season, the Wildcats stormed out to an early lead in Sunrise, Fla., only to follow it with one of the worst second-half performances you'll see all season. After halftime, the Gators shot 60 percent (15-for-25 from the field), which would have been nice enough on its own. But when you cause your opponent -- or your opponent causes itself, or some combination therein -- to shoot 6-for-28 and score a mere 21 points in 20 minutes, 60 percent shooting might as well be 100. Frank Martin's team led 23-8 at one point and then totally broke down in this one. At this point you have to wonder whether K-State isn't just playing poorly, but whether it's not nearly as good as we all assumed this offseason. There's still plenty of time to figure all this out, and plenty of time for the Wildcats to change their season's trajectory again. But for now, games like Saturday's are disconcerting.
- Everyone wins in Greensboro. How does everyone win in a basketball game, exactly? When the better team wins, but both teams compete at a high level, show noticeable improvement and improve their standing in front of an eager college hoops public. Both Texas and North Carolina performed as such Saturday. The young and talented Longhorns got what was essentially a road win in a hostile environment. The young and talented -- but oftentimes confused -- Tar Heels played a quality opponent to the wire, got key contributions from Harrison Barnes (especially a pretty last-minute 3 to tie the game, just before Cory Joseph's jumper gave Texas the win) and Kendall Marshall. Marshall's big play is especially encouraging for a team that has lacked consistency at the point guard spot. At this point, though he may do so like a reluctant father buying his teenage son a car, Roy Williams needs to the keys over to Marshall and see whether he's ready to drive. That may or may not be a mixed metaphor. The important part is that it's true. When he does so, UNC appears to be the second-best team in the ACC, and we would not have said as much two weeks ago.
- Other games and performances of note: Michigan handled that tough Oakland team in Ann Arbor. We might need to start giving the Wolverines a little more attention as a potential NCAA tournament team out of the Big Ten ... Jared Sullinger again went nuts, scoring 30 points and grabbing 19 rebounds in a performance that caused our own Doug Gottlieb to call Sullinger the best player in the country. At this point, who else has done more? ... BYU lost its unbeaten record, falling to UCLA at the Wooden Classic in Anaheim, as the Bruins' thus far schizophrenic season took another strange (but encouraging) turn ... Georgetown shot 78 percent (!) in the first half against Loyola (Md.) ... Josh Selby's first game as a Jayhawk was a tempered success: Selby scored with ease and hit big shots down the stretch, but his style seemed to clash with KU's pass-heavy system in a tight home win over USC ... UCF stayed unbeaten with a win over Miami, and it's officially time to start calling the Knights a NCAA-tourney candidate ... and Cleveland State, playing in its first "Are they real or not?" game of the season, was dealt a loss at West Virginia, but the Vikings acquitted themselves well until the Mountaineers pulled away in the second half. Their games against Butler in the Horizon League will be fun to watch.
Upset? Of course. Miracle in Knoxville? Not exactly.
Sure, Tennessee has had one of the most impressive starts in the country. Sure, the Volunteers, having just rolled to a win at Pittsburgh, entered the game ranked No. 1 in the nation in RPI. Sure, there is a Lake St. Clair-sized gulf between each school's respective athletics budget expenditures. No matter. Oakland is just plain tough.
How, exactly, did Oakland pull it off? Start with center Keith Benson, who bolstered his already worthy NBA credentials with a 26-point, 10-rebound, 2-block effort Tuesday night. (And Benson had 20 of those points in the first half; he missed a large portion of the second due to injury.) Throw in a pair of efficient performances from Oakland's supporting cast -- 17 points on 5-of-9 shooting from Will Hudson; 19 points on 6-of-9 shooting from guard Larry Wright -- and Oakland did more than enough on offense to get the win.
Tennessee didn't shoot the ball particularly well -- that helped too. The Vols were 4-of-18 from beyond the arc and 24-of-45 inside it. They also suffered a pair of major second-half scoring droughts. A three-minute drought that started at the 13:08 mark cost UT its 64-53 lead. Tennessee built an eight-point lead in the following minutes, but after Scotty Hopson hit a free throw with 7:18 left, the Volunteers didn't score again until the 1:59 mark. In the meantime, Oakland went on a 14-0 run, and the next time the Vols got a bucket, the game was the Grizzlies' to win.
What does this say about each team? Nothing we don't already know. Sure, you might want to tweak your perception of Tennessee a bit, but everyone has off nights. Good teams lose all manner of games, and the season is too long to downgrade the Vols based on one home loss. As for Oakland? Well, if you didn't know, now you know.
If there's any larger statement to be made, it might have to do with scheduling and the RPI. Bruce Pearl -- and plenty of other coaches, too -- have adopted a rather intelligent scheduling strategy in recent years: They schedule good but beatable mid-majors, the kinds of teams that can win their conference and go to the NCAA tournament but that aren't major upset threats on any given night.
The strategy is smart, but it also requires a tradeoff. The upside? You get to pile up wins while helping your RPI in the process. (Tennessee's RPI has been stellar in recent years for precisely this reason. John Calipari has used this strategy at Memphis, and now at Kentucky, with similar results.) The downside? Some of those mid-majors can play, and no one likes to lose to Summit League teams at home.
Still, Oakland doesn't look much like your typical Summit League team. Last week, the Golden Grizzlies hinted at that potential. On Tuesday night, finally, they broke through.
In other words, call it an upset. But don't call it a shocker.