College Basketball Nation: Oklahoma State Cowboys
- Country music star Garth Brooks has launched a new world tour. His first show was at the AllState Arena in Rosemont, Illinois, on Friday night.
- Brooks is not, in fact, retired from making music, but has been performing on the weekends in Las Vegas for several years. On Sept. 3, in advance of his new tour and impending double album, he released a new single: "People Loving People."
- Kansas coach Bill Self attended Brooks' first shows -- Brooks played two in one night -- in Rosemont Friday.
- Self is not merely an admirer of Brooks' music, but a longtime friend. The two former Oklahoma State student-athletes -- Brooks was on a partial track scholarship -- lived in the Iba Hall athletic dorm in the early 1980s. According to the Lawrence Journal-World, Self used to "encourage" Brooks' musical ambitions around the dorm and would attend his early shows at clubs in the Stillwater area.
- The two "played together on the same softball team for seven years," Self told the Arlington Heights Daily Herald.
- Brooks frequently hosts charity basketball events for local kids in the areas where he's touring. On Saturday, Self worked with 150 youths from the Boys and Girls Club and Salvation Army at the charity basketball camp.
- Self's wife, Cindy, graduated from the same high school -- Yukon (Oklahoma) High -- as the country music star, who starred at quarterback.
- Other than the Beatles, Brooks has sold more albums than every other musical act in history -- more than 130 million worldwide.
- In 1999, after a decade of diamond-album dominance, at the height of his popularity and power, Brooks released an experimental concept album by "Chris Gaines," a gothy alter-ego character with bangs and a soul patch. It did not go well.
- "People Loving People" is not better than you'd think. It's actually probably worse.
But still, Bill Self goes way back with Garth Brooks. Who knew?
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
The Tar Heels have the best BPI since Feb. 1. In each of the previous two seasons, the team with the best BPI between Feb. 1 and Selection Sunday went on to win the national championship –- Kentucky in 2012 and Louisville last year.
UNC is one of four teams with five wins against the BPI top 25 this season. The others are Wisconsin (7), Michigan (5) and Duke (5).
The Tar Heels are the only team with three wins against the BPI top 15 this season, having defeated Kentucky, Louisville and Duke.
Blind résumés: Pick your No. 1 seed
Let’s play a game called “blind résumés.” Take a look at the graphic to the right with three candidates for a No. 1 seed. Which team would you select?
Team A has the No. 1 RPI and No. 3 BPI with 11 top-50 wins, 17 top-100 wins and no bad losses against a very tough schedule that ranked No. 1 in nonconference play.
Team B and Team C have comparable BPI and RPI ranks, significantly lower than Team A's. Team B has just three top-50 wins and seven top-100 wins but had a fairly tough nonconference schedule.
Team C has eight top-50 wins and 16 top-100 wins but has a bad loss and played a nonconference schedule that doesn’t even rank in the top 100.
It seems as if Team A is the obvious choice, right?
That doesn’t seem to be the case. Team A is the Kansas Jayhawks, a No. 2 seed in Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracketology. Team B –- the Wichita State Shockers –- and Team C -– the Syracuse Orange –- are both No. 1 seeds.
If Syracuse and Wichita State both get No. 1 seeds after being ranked outside the top eight in RPI, it would be the first time since 2000 that two No. 1 seeds were ranked No. 9 or worse in RPI.
That year was the only year in the past 20 seasons in which a team ranked outside the top eight in RPI earned a No. 1 seed over the team with the No. 1 RPI. The reason? The Cincinnati Bearcats were No. 1 in RPI and lost Kenyon Martin for the season with a broken leg in the Conference USA tournament.
Is Oklahoma State’s résumé underrated?
The Oklahoma State Cowboys have had quite the turbulent season. After losing seven straight, they’ve rebounded by winning two straight since Marcus Smart returned from suspension.
With Smart out (from Feb. 9 to Feb. 21), the Cowboys ranked No. 133 in BPI.
With Smart playing (all other days this season), Oklahoma State is ranked No. 18 in BPI.
The Cowboys are right on the bubble, according to Lunardi.
Oklahoma State doesn’t have a single loss outside the BPI top 100. The Cowboys also have three top-50 wins and seven top-100 wins.
Their biggest flaw on their résumé is nine losses against the BPI top 50.
Of teams currently ranked in the BPI top 100, only three teams have more than nine top-50 losses: Maryland, Texas Tech and West Virginia. Maryland is the only other top-50 team with at least nine losses against the BPI top 50.
Despite all of the losses, the Cowboys are still ranked No. 20 in BPI, although they're No. 47 in RPI. Why? They have eight losses by six or fewer points, two of which were in overtime.
Two of Oklahoma State’s losses –- against Kansas and Iowa State by a combined three points –- rank as two of the top 15 BPI game scores among losses in college basketball this season. No other team has two losses with BPI game scores that high.
ESPN.com reporters Eamonn Brennan, Myron Medcalf and Dana O’Neil joined host Chantel Jennings to check in on undefeated Syracuse and the status of Oklahoma State’s tournament hopes. It’s also time to preview Duke’s delayed tilt with suddenly hot North Carolina.
Syracuse is No. 1 in the AP Poll, but that is based on the subjective votes of media members.
Arizona is No. 1 in BPI and Kansas is No. 1 in RPI. But those metrics are based on formulas that factor in a team’s performance through the entire season.
The more insightful question is: Which team is the best with the roster we think each team will have in the NCAA Tournament?
For most teams, that's their current roster, but there are a few exceptions.
To evaluate that, we'll use each team's BPI with all of its key players. Those key players are defined as the five players who average the most minutes per game among players who have played at least half of the team's games. Games in which a key player played less than 10 minutes due to injury or foul trouble or any other reason are not included.
Florida reigns supreme
Based on this metric, the Florida Gators are the best team in college basketball.
With their current roster -- with Scott Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Michael Frazier II, Patric Young and Dorian Finney-Smith in the lineup together -- they are 17-1, with their only loss coming by one point to UConn on a buzzer-beater by Shabazz Napier.
Undefeated Syracuse comes in at No. 2, followed by Kansas at No. 3.
A healthy Michigan State is dangerous
Michigan State is expected to have Branden Dawson back for the NCAA Tournament. Based on Dawson’s returning, the Spartans would rank fourth with their full squad.
That's a significant jump from their overall No. 15 BPI rank. They've lost four of seven games since Dawson went out.
In their two games with all of their key players except Dawson, the Spartans have a 61.1 BPI (win against New Orleans, loss to Nebraska), which would rank well below any team expected to get an at-large bid. That’s how important a healthy Dawson could be to their chances of going deep in the NCAA Tournament.
Is Iowa a top-5 team?
Based on this metric, the Iowa Hawkeyes are No. 5. They're 18-4 with their full squad.
Jarrod Uthoff has played at least 10 minutes in all but two games (at Michigan and against Ohio State). Iowa lost both.
Arizona isn't top 10 without Brandon Ashley
The Arizona Wildcats have been a much different team without Brandon Ashley, who is expected to miss the rest of the season.
Based on this metric, the Wildcats are No. 13. They're 2-2 without Ashley. That includes losses at California and at Arizona State and a two-point home win against Oregon.
Arizona has the No. 1 BPI with Ashley in the lineup, but it's a different story without him. Ashley could be the difference between Arizona being the National Championship favorite and not even contending for a Final Four berth.
What about Oklahoma State and North Carolina?
Although Michael Cobbins isn't among the top-five Oklahoma State players in minutes per game, the Cowboys are a much different team without him. Their BPI without Cobbins but with Marcus Smart ranks 33rd in this metric among teams currently in the BPI top 40.
Oklahoma State is 4-6 without Cobbins and with Smart, with two wins against West Virginia and home wins against Texas and TCU.
North Carolina's current roster includes Leslie McDonald, who was ruled eligible Dec. 18 after he missed the first nine games of the season. Since then, the Tar Heels' current roster has the worst BPI of any team currently in the BPI top 40.
The Tar Heels are ranked No. 32 overall in BPI, but their three best wins of the season -- against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky -- came without McDonald.
Since McDonald returned, they have losses to Wake Forest and Miami (FL) and didn't have a BPI top-50 win before Saturday's victory against Pittsburgh.
We’re a long way from March. So I’m sure I’ll miss a bunch.
But in last week’s picks, I was accurate on every game except Iowa-Iowa State. That Cyclones-Hawkeyes matchup was one of the best games of the season. Great finish between a pair of talented teams.
This weekend’s slate is stacked, too.
Last week: 4-1
No. 7 Oklahoma State vs. No. 20 Colorado (Las Vegas), 11:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2: Colorado has already upset one Big 12 contender (Kansas). Will Oklahoma State be next? Well, maybe. Colorado hasn’t lost since suffering its season-opening 72-60 loss to Baylor and have knocked off Harvard and Kansas during this 10-game winning streak. But Oklahoma State will be a different test for Colorado. Marcus Smart, Markel Brown, Le’Bryan Nash and Co. can’t match the size of a team that’s fourth in offensive rebounding percentage per Ken Pomeroy, but Oklahoma State’s speed, athleticism and sheer star-power will push Colorado’s bigs out of their comfort zones. It’d be easier to believe in Colorado’s chances to win what I expect to be a tight game if it weren’t one of the Pac-12’s worst 3-point shooting teams (32 percent).
Prediction: Oklahoma State 80, Colorado 76
No. 5 Michigan State at Texas, 4 p.m. ET, CBS: The Spartans picked a bad time to play the Longhorns in Austin. Rick Barnes’ squad is filled with confidence after upsetting North Carolina in Chapel Hill -- in Chapel Hill?!? -- on Wednesday night. Barnes’ team was projected to finish at the bottom of the Big 12 standings after losing its top four scorers from last season. But Javan Felix, Demarcus Holland, Jonathan Holmes and Isaiah Taylor comprise a legit unit that anchors, somehow, a Big 12 sleeper. But Michigan State won’t squander the opportunities that North Carolina -- the same North Carolina that beat Michigan State earlier this month -- missed against the Longhorns, although the Spartans are struggling from the free throw line (68.2 percent), too. The Spartans will definitely be ready for the Longhorns on Saturday. One problem, though. Texas will be ready, too.
Prediction: Texas 78, Michigan State 74
Notre Dame vs. No. 3 Ohio State (New York City), 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2: The Fighting Irish began the year as a nationally ranked team. That status made sense with Jerian Grant and some of the key contributors returning from a Notre Dame team that reached the NCAA tournament last season. But Notre Dame’s defensive gaps have been its downfall so far this season (125th in adjusted defensive efficiency). The Fighting Irish, however, were better last week in a win over Indiana in Indianapolis when Yogi Ferrell went 5-for-14, but Ohio State is on another level. The Buckeyes are a defensive force (first in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) and they possess one of the nation’s most-balanced scoring attacks.
Prediction: Ohio State 73, Notre Dame 63
Georgetown at No. 18 Kansas, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN: When he was a pro wrestler, the Rock (Dwayne Johnson) would say, “Finally, the Rock has come home to …” whenever he’d enter an arena. The Jayhawks probably feel that way entering their first game in Lawrence, Kan., since Nov. 22 (88-58 win over Towson). The roller coaster that they’ve been on for the last month has changed early projections about a team that might boast the top two NBA prospects in next summer’s draft (Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins). It should be a pleasant homecoming. Josh Smith will struggle against Wiggins, Embiid and Perry Ellis inside. And the Hoyas will face a variety of defensive matchup problems against the Jayhawks in their first true road game of the season. Kansas has been criticized for its recent mishaps. But Saturday should be another positive mark for the program.
Prediction: Kansas 69, Georgetown 65
No. 22 UMass vs. Florida State (Sunrise, Fla.), 2 p.m. ET, No TV: The Minutemen continue to fly under the radar, but at this rate, they might be college basketball’s last undefeated team. They’ll be tested in the Atlantic 10, but will face Saint Louis and VCU, their toughest A10 opponents, in Amherst. A favorable schedule is certainly a plus for Derek Kellogg’s squad. But Saturday’s game against Florida State could be its toughest matchup of the year to date. Ian Miller is the star of a strong backcourt. The Seminoles can also play big inside with Okaro White and Boris Bojanovsky. Massachusetts can match that size with Cady Lalanne, Maxie Esho, Raphiael Putney and Sampson Carter. And the Minutemen will push the pace beyond what Florida State experienced in a recent 10-point loss at Minnesota. Chaz Williams, however, has to be calm and careful because turnovers have been an issue all year for the Minutemen. But they’ll maintain their unblemished record. Barely.
Prediction: UMass 76, FSU 74
Actually, emerged isn't the word. "Existed" is more like it. Because while Smart soaked up all of the attention, and deservedly so, Oklahoma State guard Markel Brown, without whom the Cowboys would have been moribund on offense, flew disproportionately under the radar.
Let's not repeat that mistake.
This has a lot to do with simple perimeter shooting. As a freshman, Brown shot 26.2 percent from 3-point range. As a sophomore, 31.9. Last season, as a junior, with nearly double the attempts (143) over the previous season (72), Brown boosted his percentage to 36.4. This season, he has shot 42.9 percent. That kind of leap in 3-point percentage might seem like an outlier for most players. But Brown's entire career 3-point shooting chart has comprised almost exactly that sort of year-over-year improvement. If he keeps it up, don't be surprised.
That accuracy has made Oklahoma State's offense go. Phil Forte and suspended freshman Stevie Clark have shot the ball better, yes, but neither player presents the kind of choice Brown, in his wiry and athletic frame, forces defenses into. He can spot up and shoot on the wing -- and he often does, frequently when the ball is swung from a penetrating Smart; 26 percent of Brown's possessions come from spot-ups, per Synergy data. But if the defense closes out, Brown can put it on the floor and get to the rim, or pull up, and his field goal percentage doesn't suffer no matter what he decides.
Combine that with his athleticism in transition and with his defense -- Brown is blocking more shots this year than ever before, too -- and you could quite easily argue that Brown has been better than his fêted point guard to date. (Not "more important," necessarily. "Better?" I can swish that around.)
Of course, paying attention to Brown might distract from another unsung piece of Oklahoma State's success, junior forward Le'Bryan Nash, currently having his most fulfilling season since arriving as a star prospect three years ago.
But that's homework for another weekend. As Oklahoma State prepares for Saturday night's 11:30 p.m. ET start against Colorado's big, physical perimeter at the MGM Grand, pay close attention to Brown -- he, more than any Cowboy save Smart, makes Travis Ford's team go.
And they aren't from Oklahoma State.
Nope, not Memphis, either.
But Louisiana Tech is not entirely different from either team, and while Saturday's game against the Bulldogs doesn't jump off the Oklahoma State schedule game like the two dates with the Tigers, it could prove every bit as difficult.
It's not so much a trap as it is a legitimately tough game.
The Bulldogs, if you recall, put together a 27-win season and a regular-season conference title in 2012-13 before stumbling down the stretch to miss out on a coveted NCAA tournament bid.
From that team, four starters and 11 players return, including most critically Raheem Appleby and Kenneth "Speedy" Smith. Appleby takes care of much of the scoring -- he's averaging 15.6 points -- and Smith, a defensive specialist, probably will be charged with the task of handling Marcus Smart. He's a pesky point guard who excels equally as a setup man (averaging 5.9 assists per game) and a swiper (2.83 steals).
Handling Smart is no small task, for certain, and will easily be the toughest assignment Smith faces all season, but if he can limit Smart's shots, this game could become very interesting.
The Bulldogs play the same uptempo style as Memphis and might even be a little more in control. Louisiana Tech averages 85 points and ranks sixth in the nation in steals, yet commits only 11 turnovers.
This is the biggest game Louisiana Tech will play this season. The Bulldogs jumped to Conference USA this season, and while an upgrade from the WAC, it still won't offer a lot of opportunities to impress the selection committee.
This one will.
And a year after a less-than-meaty schedule denied Louisiana Tech an NCAA bid, don't think the Bulldogs and their fans won't be all in when Oklahoma State pulls in to town.
The third week of Wooden Watch (or as I like to call it, "Wooden Watch 3: The Watchening") brings with it more tumult than its preceding editions.
From sheer math alone, this makes sense. The Thanksgiving schedule pushed last week's Watch up to Tuesday, which has given us a nine-day stretch of uninterrupted basketball on which to base our way-too-early national player of the year prospectus. But pound-for-pound, those nine days were, I'd argue, every bit as good and every bit as tumultuous as any stretch that came before. Word to North Carolina.
The losses suffered by top teams -- and players on the POY contention short list -- do shake things up a bit, but it's important not to go too far. One loss does not a Wooden campaign ruin. (You're thinking of the Heisman.) We've been couching these early rankings with all sorts of disclaimers about just how early in the season it is, and that remains true -- even as we barrel headfirst into December. Let's see where we are, shall we?
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: After a brilliant start, Smart's first regression of the season came in Kissimmee, Fla., at the Old Spice Classic last weekend. Smart had 17 points and eight rebounds in a shaky 69-67 semifinal win over Butler, but the five turnovers he committed on Friday foreshadowed the five he would commit Sunday. That game, against Memphis, saw Smart stifled by a suddenly coherent Tigers perimeter scheme, and while Smart finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, he missed all five of his 3-point attempts. And yet, he retains his spot atop this list. Why? For one, Smart was clearly sick. I'm not offering excuses (nor taking credit away from Memphis, because the Tigers were great), but I am acknowledging realities. Second, well, it's one game. It's fine. Dude's really good. Moving on.
Russ Smith, Louisville: The North Carolina loss might have thrown people off Louisville's scent, but now that Michigan State is the latest to get a front-row seat to the Tar Heels' ongoing Jekyll and Hyde performance piece, let's go ahead and remind everyone that Louisville is playing top-10 offense and top-three defense, and that Smith, while maintaining his high usage and shot rates, has thus far pumped his assist rate to 37.5 percent (from 21.1 a year ago), shot 58.2 percent from 2-point range and kept his steals rate (4.1 percent) totally steady.
Doug McDermott, Creighton: I'm not willing to get too worked up about McDermott's one loss, either. Yes, I know Creighton fell to San Diego State and George Washington this week, but only one of those losses should be an indictment. Against San Diego State, Creighton was, well, Creighton: McDermott scored 30 points and shot 6-of-10 from 2 and 5-of-8 from 3, and the Bluejays' porous defense cost them the game anyway. Three years on, that's what you sign up for with the Bluejays -- same as it ever was. George Washington was a different story: McDermott was stifled by the Colonials in wholly unexpected fashion (seven points, 2-of-12 from the field, a tidy 54.0 offensive rating -- yikes). But, well, it's one game. It's fine. Dude's really good. Moving on.
Jabari Parker, Duke: I downgraded Parker's status last week because of Duke's putrid defense, but now that the Blue Devils have submitted two slightly better defensive performances -- one in a 72-66 loss to Arizona on Friday, the other in a 79-69 win (in 67 possessions) against Michigan on Tuesday -- it's time to elevate Parker once more. The ironic part? These last two games have been his worst offensively, the first two in which he failed to score at least 20 points (and less efficiently, too). But Parker is gobbling up defensive rebounds for a team that desperately needs him to be a stud on both ends of the floor, and he'll get his points, rest assured.
Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle hasn't been quite as efficient as he was at the start of the season, but he is still plugging along, dominating
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: The nice thing about Napier's player of the year candidacy is that it need not rest on a fuzzy term like "clutch" alone. Napier has been ruthless late in games, to be sure: His late winner against Florida on Monday required plenty of luck, but you knew he was going to ice that second chance as soon as the ball bounced to him. But you can also build Napier's case on the breadth of his point guard play, which has been as comprehensive as any guard's to date.
Casey Prather, Florida: In March, Billy Donovan may look back at the Gators' injury-riddled November and thank his lucky stars, for that was the month that Prather turned into a star. Prather makes his first appearance here this week, but it probably should have come sooner. In eight games to date, he's registered a 121.5 offensive rating while using 30.1 percent of his team's possessions; he's shot nearly 64 percent from the field; and he's rebounded 10.6 percent of Florida's available misses. Watching Prather, a three-year glue guy, slice defenses with Euro-steps and quick-twitch offensive rebounds has been an alternately confusing and thrilling process. Either way, he doesn't look like he's slowing down.
Nick Johnson, Arizona: Aaron Gordon gets all the attention, and he'll surely be on this list more than any Wildcat this season. But Arizona feels as much like an ensemble cast as any elite team in the country, and Nick Johnson is perhaps their most indispensable player -- the lone true shoot, drive or pull-up, all-court-style threat who makes Arizona more than a collection of impressive bigs.
Keith Appling, Michigan State: Appling can stay, despite Wednesday night's home loss to UNC, because, well, again: It's one game. Before Wednesday, Appling had been peerless, and he wasn't that bad Wednesday night, either. The current line is 57.1 percent from 2, 48.3 percent from 3, a 28.4 assist rate to just 13.0 turnover percentage, and more generally, an engaged, comfortable and balanced player on both ends of the floor.
Jahii Carson, Arizona State: Carson had his first comedown of the season at Miami on Sunday, when he somehow went 0-for-10 from inside the arc. That, plus Arizona State's sub-Duke defense, is reason for slight downgrade this week. (If this were a list of the most entertaining players, Carson would probably be No. 1 every week. He's fun to watch miss.)
Honorable mentions: Marcus Paige (UNC), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Gary Harris (Michigan State), Joseph Young (Oregon), Anthony Drmic (Boise State), Chaz Williams (UMass), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Tim Frazier (Penn State), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Roberto Nelson (Oregon State), Kendall Williams (New Mexico), Caris LeVert (Michigan), Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), LaQuinton Ross (Ohio State), T.J. Warren (NC State)
The wrong statistic can hang around your neck. Josh Pastner knows better than most.
As the head men's basketball coach at Memphis, Pastner has, by any rational standard, been about as successful as anyone could or should have hoped when he was hired five years ago. He has landed almost uniformly excellent recruiting classes. His Tigers have been to the NCAA tournament in three out of four seasons. He has averaged a tidy 27 wins a season. (Twenty-seven wins while playing in the limping Conference USA, but still: 27 wins.) This is what basketball success typically looks like.
But for a couple of years now, a pair of oh-fers have hung around Pastner's neck like anvils. He exorcised the first last season, when he got his first NCAA tournament win as a head coach. The other -- a far more valid, and less circumstantial, bit of evidence: Pastner's 0-13 record against top 25 teams -- mercifully ended in Orlando, Fla., against No. 5 Oklahoma State on Sunday night.
And that's not all: Memphis's 73-68 win in the Old Spice Classic provided was a massive boost, both internally and outwardly, for a team that was embarrassed by the Cowboys in Stillwater on Nov. 19.
You probably remember that Nov. 19 game. Even if you didn't watch it, you surely caught some of the highlights. Marcus Smart scored 39 points in a performance that set the tone for what will be an ongoing player of the year award chase. He shot 11-of-21 from the floor and hit five 3-pointers. He helped put the Cowboys up by 36 points in the second half; they would eventually finish with 101. Smart launched heat-checks and tossed lobs to teammates. He turned the whole thing into a laugher, a pre-coronation for America's favorite college player, and the only thing more noticeable than his greatness was just how disjointed, apathetic and -- let's just come right out and say it -- soft Memphis looked in repose.
For a team with a deep and experienced core of guards, and huge preseason expectations in and outside hoops-obsessed Memphis itself, the Stillwater showing was nothing less than disaster. All of the old complaints came roaring back onto the radio: Pastner was a nice guy, and sure everyone was cheering for him, but he couldn't coach. His teams didn't get it. They gave up. They always underachieve. They can't win the big game. The abbreviation for Amateur Athletic Union, as cutting a coaching epithet as there is, was sprinkled liberally throughout.
It's a little bit difficult to translate how much better Memphis was Sunday, just 12 days after that 101-80 caning. They were better in all of the obvious, technical ways, namely on defense, where they played Oklahoma State's ball-screens and side-to-side movement actions almost immeasurably better than they did in Stillwater. Two weeks ago, Memphis sat back and let Smart do whatever he wanted. On Sunday, they were active on the first touch, denying possession when possible, playing through and over and around screens, and communicating to keep the ball in less damaging places. The number of clean touches Smart got at the top of the key in space Sunday was low, if it wasn't zero.
He was still awfully good. The first half ended on a pair of brilliant Smart drive-and-dishes, when he exploited angles and found open teammates for easy lay-ins. Oklahoma State bounced off a precocious Memphis start and opened up a 10-point lead at halftime, 42-32, and it was hard to picture Memphis keeping up with the unbeaten Cowboys for 20 more minutes.
But the aforementioned Tigers defense held Oklahoma State to just eight points in the first nine minutes of the second half. They were better on offense, too: Better spaced and more cohesive and sharper in every way. Former Missouri transfer Michael Dixon provided that same quick-twitch scoring he perfected for those other Tigers; Joe Jackson grabbed eight rebounds from the guard spot; and, most impressively, Shaq Goodwin was at once a reliable scorer, rebounder, interior passer and energy source for Memphis for all 39 of his minutes Sunday.
Smart was clearly sick in the first half; Memphis may have caught a break there. But so what? On a night they started in a deep perception hole -- just another Memphis team full of talented guys who won't reach their maximum potential, or whatever the nightmare description in the Tigers' otherwise successful basketball community these days -- Memphis came away with a defensively oriented victory against one of the best teams, and probably the best player, in the country.
And Pastner, for his part, got out from under a rather heavy piece of statistical jewelry. Memphis finally punched back.
She and he got it. pic.twitter.com/9oRdGMPei0— L. Jason Smith (@TheCAJasonSmith) December 2, 2013
Happy holidays, and happy early Wooden Watch. This Tuesday edition of what will for the rest of the season be a Thursday update is brought to you by pumpkin pie, stuffing and the rest of our quirky turkey traditions. You'll be eating and watching football Thursday. So will I, if the weather cooperates. So let's check in on the running Wooden list a couple of days early.
What's changed in five days? Honestly ... not a whole lot. That goes for last week's disclaimer, too: Since we're just now rounding the corner into December, the order of the list below is not really of primary concern. This is a window to the landscape, not a definitive hierarchy, for at least the next few weeks. And with that said:
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: If the season ended today, Marcus Smart would be my 2013-14 national player of the year. You likely saw what he did to Memphis last week; you've no doubt heard the ever-more-impressive stories about his leadership and work ethic. But my favorite Smart moment may have come Monday night at South Florida, when he and the Cowboys utterly eviscerated the Bulls with a gusto typically reserved for games against Kansas. Smart scored 25 points with four assists and four steals. He finished inverse post alley-oops, set up Cowboys wings for thundering finishes and even splashed down a 65-foot-or-so buzzer-beater at halftime. It looked like someone in the South Florida crowd had said something to Smart along the way: He was unusually talkative, and even threw up a "shush" sign. And, well, a word to wise fans on the Cowboys' road schedule: Don't do that.
Doug McDermott, Creighton: Another week, another chapter in my book, "Doug McDermott is hilariously efficient," available at all reputable bookstores (note: not really). McDermott has posted a 124.1 offensive rating on 31.9 percent usage and a 37.9 shot rate, the second highest in the country. He's hitting 50 percent from 3, drawing fouls at the usual rate and rebounding the defensive glass as steadily as ever. (Oh, and last week's catch-shoot winner at St. Joe's, which I criminally failed to mention Thursday, is worth watching over and over and over.)
Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle had his first "off" night against Cleveland State on Monday night, but he still finished with 15 points and 15 rebounds, and his passing out of the block was key to the last-ditch 3-point flurry that helped the Wildcats escape with a win. Good teams will double and triple Randle until UK proves it can knock down 3s consistently, but even if that never happens, he is as dominant a force as any in the game.
Jahii Carson, Arizona State: Save Marcus Smart, no guard has had a better start to the season than Carson, who followed up last week's 40-point effort in a win at UNLV with Monday's 23-point, five-assist performance in ASU's thrilling win against Marquette. There might be two or three defenders in the country capable of keeping Carson out of the lane. If that.
Jabari Parker, Duke: The order of this list isn't a big deal right now, remember, but I went ahead and downgraded Parker a bit this week anyway. But why? Isn't he still pouring in points? Yes. And thrillingly so. But Parker and Rodney Hood's issues on the defensive end for Duke have contributed to the Blue Devils' No. 176-ranked efficiency defense, and Duke gave up 90 points in 65 possessions to Vermont at home Sunday. Russ Smith, Louisville: Louisville took a tough and totally surprising loss to North Carolina on Sunday afternoon; the Tar Heels, especially guard Marcus Paige, looked better than anyone could have expected. But it's hardly time to panic on Smith. He was great individually Sunday, and he'll be great in the weeks to come, too.
Keith Appling, Michigan State: Gary Harris' spot last week is now occupied by Appling, and that says far more about Appling's performance than it does Harris'. The Michigan State point guard has done everything right as a senior thus far: He's shooting far less, and more accurately (57.1 percent from 3, 55.3 percent from 2); he's assisting teammates on nearly 30 percent of his possessions; and he isn't turning it over -- or suffering the long, disengaged stretches of a season ago. What a start.
Aaron Gordon, Arizona: Arizona's team is so balanced, and playing so much more unselfishly on the perimeter with the addition of T.J. McConnell, that it's tempting to give some love to one of the other Wildcats -- McConnell himself, perhaps, or peerless senior shooting guard Nick Johnson. But Gordon remains the focal point on offense, and his athleticism is just flabbergasting.
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Early in his fourth season at UConn, Napier officially has every tool in the tool box. Tom Crean talked about this at length after Indiana's close loss to UConn in New York last weekend, and it's totally true: Napier is lights-out on the perimeter whether catching and shooting or off the dribble; he puts defenders in blenders with his ball-handling and versatility; and he keeps the ball moving and his teammates involved. Oh, and he's a blast to watch. A+++ -- would DVR again.
Early honorable mentions: C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Gary Harris (Michigan State), Joseph Young (Oregon), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Anthony Drmic (Boise State), Chaz Williams (UMass), Yogi Ferrell, (Indiana), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Tim Frazier (Penn State), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Roberto Nelson (Oregon State), Kendall Williams (New Mexico), Caris LeVert (Michigan), Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), Marcus Paige (North Carolina) and Casey Prather (Florida)
The most controversial selection, if that's even possible, will be Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins. The last time a freshman -- Harrison Barnes in 2010-11 -- was named to the first-team list, it was a nod to the way the one-and-done freshman had changed the sport. When Barnes struggled ("failed to totally dominate" is probably a better way to put it) in his first season, the whole notion of anointing freshmen came under intense fire. If Wiggins has similar issues -- doubtful, but you never know -- expect the preseason selection to be used as a rhetorical cudgel in every hot sports take on the topic for months to come.
Arguably more surprising is the inclusion of Michigan forward Mitch McGary. McGary's place makes sense: No one played better in March, when McGary finally unleashed the talent that made him a top-five player in his recruiting class for all but his senior season of high school. But the five months before McGary's explosion was mostly pedestrian; even with the tournament thrown in, McGary played just 48.8 percent of his team's available minutes. As late as Michigan's final regular-season game against Indiana, he was being used for little more than a body to absorb (and provoke) contact from Indiana center Cody Zeller. He's bound to regress from his dazzling postseason display. The real question is: How much? (Another reason the selection is surprising: McGary wasn't even the Big Ten's preseason player of the year. That honor went to Michigan State's Gary Harris.)
Louisville guard Russ Smith's inclusion might also be a tad bit startling, but it shouldn't be: Smith was arguably the best player in the country last season, certainly the best and most productive two-way guard, to say nothing of that whole "winning the national title" thing. (Oh, that.) But even then, Smith was just a third-team selection at the end of last season, and he still seemed to be shaking off his reputation as a goofy gunner. It's good to see folks taking Russdiculous seriously.
And then there are the obvious choices. Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart and Creighton forward Doug McDermott's chances of not being on the preseason list were roughly as good as my chances of earning honorable mention. No further explanation required.
Taken as a whole, the five honorees paint a revealing picture of the season to come. We expect dominance from a lauded, loaded freshman class; we know what we're going to get from established veteran stars; and, as always, we allow perceptions formed during the NCAA tournament to override the months of regular season, and dozens of games, that came before.
These are defining characteristics of any college hoops season, but they are turned up to 11 in 2013-14. If you weren't already aware, this mix of preseason All-Americans should drive the point home. This is going to be a fascinating season.
Now that you know what you need to watch in every conference in the country in 2013-14, we turn our attention to the theme of change -- from coaching swaps to player development to good old-fashioned rules, and anywhere in between. Today: How does Marcus Smart get better?
It's hard to remember now, and for good reason: His freshman season lifted Oklahoma State out of its NIT doldrums, his return to college basketball was universally celebrated, USA Basketball made him the lone non-NBA player to receive an invite to team USA minicamp in July, and his own coach, Travis Ford, is running short on new ways to praise.
It was January, to be more precise. Smart, despite making Oklahoma State demonstrably better (particularly on the defensive end), was struggling from the field just as demonstrably. As of Dec. 6, he'd made just 45 percent of his 2s and 23 percent of his 3s. ESPN Insider's John Gasaway, in his first edition of his 2012-13 freshman rankings, listed Smart 14th. Sporting News Hall of Famer Mike DeCourcy (among many others) found said ranking to be laughable, and said so; DeCourcy had Smart as the best player in the country freshman or otherwise to that point because of all the things the statistics didn't say. The debate had all the makings of a knock-down, drag-out analytics v. eyeballs slobberknocker. The Court of Ken Tremendous nearly called an unprecedented emergency session.
That conflict was ultimately avoided. Smart's shooting crept into far more respectable territory, Oklahoma State kept winning, and everyone could officially agree to something they had already agreed upon in the first place -- that Marcus Smart was good at basketball.
That example isn't just a fond trip down memory lane. It's actually a helpful reference point. Because while everyone is rightly singing Smart's praises in advance of what promises to be a monster sophomore season, it's worth nothing that Smart has a chance to be not just a devastating defender and lauded leader of men, but a legitimately frightening offensive player too, provided he can do the one thing that held his individual play back last season: shoot.
Smart didn't shoot 23 percent from 3 for the whole season, for example, but his final tally -- 29 percent, or 38 of his 131 3s, which somehow looks worse when you spell it out -- wasn't particularly flattering. Nor was Smart's 46.5 percent mark from inside the arc. Smart drew enough fouls last season, and dished enough assists, to post a 102.2 offensive rating by the end of the year, but his 21.1 percent turnover rate combined with the poor shooting to keep what was otherwise a peerless freshman year from being an exquisite one.
I'm not as worried about the turnovers, and anyway, ballhandling (as a discrete skill) is much more difficult to improve on a year-over-year basis than shooting. Slightly tweaked mechanics and sheer workout repetition -- or even the former without the latter -- can produce better, smoother, more confident perimeter shooting. In July, Ford told the Oklahoman that was his biggest emphasis to his star point guard this offseason, that Smart had "really worked on it." Given the already legendary stories about Smart's work ethic, it is safe to assume he has shot somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 million 3s this summer.
Which presents the Big 12 with a frightening prospect: A Marcus Smart who is not only a big, physical point guard, an immensely smart player who stomps through the lane and draws contact and rebounds and forces a ton of steals and makes his teammates better in every regard … but one who can do all of those things and then force you to worry he's going to step back and hit a 3. What do you even do against that? Is there anything to do?
I hope Marcus Smart doesn't change a thing, save the one, because I would very much like to find out the answer.