College Basketball Nation: Pittsburgh Panthers
Does “clutch” exist?
Most advanced statisticians say no. Time and again, when the data is compiled and collated, the numbers tell us that in “clutch” situations, most players perform roughly as well as at any other point in the game. Sometimes, the players we know are clutch — Kobe Bryant is the most notable example — are even worse than normal. Science tells us no, clutch isn’t a thing. But then how do you explain Tyler Ennis?
Here’s another question: Was Syracuse supposed to beat Pittsburgh on Wednesday night?
The Orange trailed the entire game — they were never behind by more than a bucket or two, sure, but they were never in command, either. They were outrebounded by huge ratios on both ends of the floor. The offense was frequently stagnant.
In the closing moments, they traded toe-to-toe go-ahead free throws, but they were on the wrong side of that exchange with four seconds and zero timeouts and the ball out of bounds on their own baseline. The only shot they could get was a 35-foot heave from their freshman point guard as the buzzer expired. You’re not supposed to win that game, are you?
Sometimes, clutch does exist.
Yes, folks, Syracuse is 24-0, still rolling, still discovering new and more nail-biting ways to win games, still unbeaten two full weeks into February. The latest escape, a 58-56 win at Pittsburgh, came courtesy of Ennis — who else? — who recused the Orange from a hard-fought first loss of the season with a stunning 35-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer.
How does this keep happening? Ennis didn’t just make the game-winner, after all; he cooly knocked down two free throws a possession earlier to put the Orange ahead for the first time. It was only after Pitt forward Talib Zanna repaid the favor on the other end that some truly silly last-second heroics were required.
But that’s what Ennis has done all season. According to ESPN Stats and Info — and these are crazy numbers, so it’s probably best to be seated — in one-possession games in the final five minutes of regulation and overtime games this season, Ennis is 8-of-9 from the field and 14-of-14 from the free throw line with six assists and zero turnovers. On “game-tying or go-ahead plays,” he is 4-of-4 from the field and 8-of-8 from the line. Against Duke, he made the free throws that would have sealed the game in regulation, before Rasheed Sulaimon’s buzzer-beating 3. In overtime of that game, he went 4-of-4 from the stripe.
Most NBA veterans don’t have this gift of self-assured cool. Ennis is a freshman in college.
That said, chalking it all up to Ennis’ brilliance would do the rest of the Orange a disservice, just as claiming Syracuse didn’t deserve to win Wednesday would belie the strength of their performance, and their opponent’s.
Pitt won the interior battle against one of the longest, toughest teams in the country. It grabbed 47 percent of its own misses and 76 percent of Syracuse’s, and it blocked 25 percent of available shots on its own end. Syracuse was held to just three second-chance points. Save their two meetings with Pitt, the Orange have scored at least eight in every other game this season.
On offense, the Panthers poked and prodded the Syracuse zone with relative efficiency, using Lamar Patterson’s brilliant feel (and years of Big East experience) to break down the middle of the zone. The final Pitt free throws happened exactly that way — Patterson got the ball into the middle of the lane and dropped off a little pass to Zanna, who drew the foul. It was hardly the first time that strategy worked Wednesday night. Zanna finished with 16 points and 14 rebounds, Patterson with 14 points, four rebounds and four assists.
All of which made it possible for Ennis to do his thing at the end. Which he promptly did.
It’s hard to overstate how disappointing the loss is for Pittsburgh. On the one hand, there’s no shame in losing to Syracuse. On the other hand, after playing the Orange close on the road early in the year, after home losses (the latter a similar heartbreaker) to Duke and Virginia two weeks ago, and after near-upsets to Miami and Virginia Tech on the road in the past seven days, Dixon’s struggling team had a victory over the top team in the country right in its grasp.
One might conclude that paragraph by saying Pitt let the game “slip away.” That Pitt should have won, that Syracuse should have lost. That this was the night Ennis’s unmistakable clutchness would fall in line with scientific understanding. That Wednesday night the Orange were finally supposed to lose.
Instead, Ennis kept making everything, from free throws to last-second 35-foot floaters, with the clock ticking down and the game on the line. And Boeheim’s team kept winning.
How better to describe the 24-0 Syracuse Orange? “Supposed to” does not apply.
Just two minutes and 12 seconds after Duke and Pittsburgh tipped off as ACC opponents for the first time, Pittsburgh ran its first play designed to get Lamar Patterson a bucket. It worked: Patterson rubbed shoulders with two pin-down screens, got free at the top of the key, and coolly stuck one of his beautiful jumpers.
A minute later, Patterson collected a defensive rebound, dribbled up court, crossed Duke guard Tyler Thornton into another dimension, and earned a trip to the line.
The message seemed clear: Duke was in town, and the best offensive player in the country not named Doug McDermott -- one coming off an imperious 28-7-7-4 on 14 shots in Pitt’s win at Maryland Saturday -- was locked in. If you edged forward in your chair, you had the right idea. Patterson was going to put on a show.
How, exactly, did this happen? How did Duke -- barely two weeks removed from a 72-59 loss at Clemson -- stop one of the nation’s most efficient offensive threats?
A rewind of Patterson’s 22 possessions, powered by Synergy scouting data, offers the answers -- and showcases a Duke defense so vastly improved from November and December as to be almost unrecognizable.
This was evident in simple, fundamental things, things Blue Devils defenses almost always do but haven’t done for much of the 2013-14. On Patterson’s third possession -- after Rasheed Sulaimon aggressively denied him an initial pass to the wing -- the Pitt forward circled, took another wing screen, and forced Duke guard Andre Dawkins into a switch. Dawkins got caught overplaying, and Patterson beat him left him with ease. For most of the season, Duke would have missed this rotation and Patterson would have had a layup. But Josh Hairston’s awareness forced Patterson to stop short at the block. He turned the ball over.
Duke’s progress was just as evident as in its specific executions of Mike Krzyzewski’s game plan. At the nine minute mark in the first, Duke forward Rodney Hood -- who drew Patterson for most of the evening, and did an excellent job -- nearly deflected the first pass. Quinn Cook denied Patterson his attempt to send the ball back to point guard James Robinson at the top of the key. So Pittsburgh does what it usually does, and sent a ball-screen for Patterson … and as soon as it did Marshall Plumlee, the screen defender, went barreling at Patterson to trap him on the sideline. Patterson turned it over again.
This play, and almost all of Patterson’s possessions (save the handful that came late in the game after the outcome was effectively settled), showcased Coach K’s downright virtuosic game plan. Duke denied everything on the perimeter and stretched itself into every passing lane. It turned an occasional weakness -- its glut of guards, its lack of size -- into a strength.
On the lion’s share of his offensive trips, this strategy turned Patterson into a mid-range player. The mid-range has always been the one place Pitt’s star -- a lights-out shooter from 3 and a 65-percent finisher around the rim -- is merely human. According to hoop-math.com, Patterson shoots just 40 percent on 2-point jump shots. It’s also where he is least comfortable, and most likely to cough it up.
The help defense kept Patterson from getting to the rim, and the overplay kept Patterson from catching the ball cleanly. Nor could he restart the Panthers’ sets when he ran into trouble. He was boxed in. Duke was everywhere.
Clearly, Coach K had a few wrinkles prepared. No surprise there. But since when has Duke been able to follow through on them so perfectly?
The Blue Devils weren’t perfect, of course. Patterson had a couple of clean looks from 3 that he just plain missed. And Pitt’s typically stout defense was as much a culprit: Duke scored 80 points in 65 possessions, and even a commanding offensive performance wouldn’t have changed that. But still, Duke’s win at Pitt Monday night was the culmination of two weeks of drastically improved defensive play. Not only are the Blue Devils doing all the little things good defenses must do as a baseline, but they’re good enough now to hit the next level -- the place where you can carry out your legendary coach’s schemes on the road against one of the best players in the country.
The improvement is staggering, and the implications are clear: If Duke guards like this the rest of the season, don’t count the Blue Devils out of the national title hunt just yet.
“This,” as we now know, is the best individual campaign waged by any player not named Doug McDermott. In Saturday’s victory at Maryland, Pitt’s star forward poured in 28 points on 14 shots with seven rebounds, seven assists and four steals. It was a helpful microcosm of his peerless season in whole. To date, Patterson is averaging 17.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.4 steals per game. He uses 28 percent of his team’s possessions, and he is ruthlessly efficient with them, whether he’s scoring (he shoots 56.6 percent from 2 and 42.9 percent from 3) or distributing (where 32.8 percent of his possessions end in assists). As a helpful bonus, Patterson manages to contribute to Pitt’s elite defense by rebounding and racking up those steals, all while committing just under two fouls per 40 minutes.
He also has one of the prettiest jump shots in recorded human history. So there’s that.
This is a daunting ask of any team. It is especially so given the Blue Devils’ season-long defensive struggles. Even factoring for Duke’s recent strides — the Blue Devils played their best defensive game of the season Saturday against Florida State and held NC State and Miami to 106 points in 127 possessions before that — the sheer matchup implications are frightening. Patterson is a walking, talking, sweet-shooting, 6-foot-8 matchup nightmare. Do you dare expose Rodney Hood to that? Can you ask Jabari Parker to turn into a lockdown defender overnight? Do you really want either player chasing Patterson off screens all night?
No. To have any hope, Duke will have to defend Patterson as a team. Phase One of any such plan means never, ever losing him on the wing. More than 23 percent of Patterson’s possessions to date have come via spot-up shots, according to Synergy, when he averages 1.28 points per possession. Nearly 40 percent of Patterson’s overall possessions are 3s, per hoop-math.com. You can’t let him shoot, plain and simple. If you do, Phase Two is prayer.
If you don’t, Phase Two of the stop-Patterson plan means turning hard close-outs into good team recoveries. When Patterson puts the ball on the floor, he wants to get to the rim, where he shoots nearly 70 percent. Rotating and forcing him to stop short -- coaxing him into mid-range jumpers, where he shoots just 40 percent -- is your best chance of a missed shot.
The brings us to Phase Three: Owning the top of pick and rolls. Dixon puts Patterson into pick and rolls on 19.5 percent of his possessions. Sometimes, these possessions come from designed plays — fluid little multi-pick rollout sets that get multiple defenders chasing screens before the pivotal pick for Patterson is set. Sometimes, these possessions come from breakdowns — Pitt’s offense will work the shot clock to a stalemate then pull out, set Patterson alone in space, and let him figure it out.
Overall, Patterson averages 0.81 points per possession as the ball-handler on pick and rolls. That’s good (synergy actually describes it as “good,” so you know it’s … OK, sorry) but stoppable. For all of his gifts, Patterson is still a 6-8 forward handling the ball more than ever before. He wants to shoot over the top of those screens, and if he can’t, he wants to get to the rim, score, get fouled, or both. Good defenses — such as Clemson, which switched athletic bigs and forced two turnovers* and two misses in Patterson’s five pick and roll plays — can hassle him into mistakes. (*Worth noting: The first turnover was a travel Patterson committed a split-second before burying a 3. Also worth noting: Pitt blew Clemson out of its own building anyway.)
If a defense can siphon Patterson into that awkward middle area between his silky jumper and his powerful interior finishes, it can do a job. If.
We might not have seen Patterson coming, but Coach K will. It is safe to assume Mike Krzyzewski, who notched his 900th Duke victory Saturday, knows all of this already. Whether his team can execute it Monday night will determine whether he gets win No. 901.
- They average 1.18 points per possession.
- They allow just .94.
- The Panthers’ average margin of victory in 2013-14 is 17.2 points.
- They have 16 wins.
- They have one loss.
- This week, when Ken Pomeroy unveiled his 2013-14 player of the year rankings (his “kPOY”), senior Pitt forward Lamar Patterson was the highest-ranked player on the list not named Doug McDermott.
- According to the qualitative terms used by Synergy to describe its percentile data, there is no offensive play type or setting in which Pitt, relative to the rest of college basketball, isn't at least "very good." (Usually, as on the offensive glass, they are "excellent.")
ESPN.com’s RPI calculator ranks Pitt’s overall strength of schedule No. 1 … in the country. (True story.)
Despite all of these pieces of information, Pittsburgh has spent almost all of 2013-14 season outside the top 25. Few have cited Jamie Dixon's team as an ACC contender in its first season in the league; fewer have called it a national title contender. Instead, Pittsburgh has floated along under the radar for nearly six weeks, because no one has any idea what to make of Pitt, because Pitt's schedule has been awful.
After this season, we need to give Dixon a lifetime achievement award in the area of RPI exploitation brilliance. According to tempo-free statistics (not to mention most viewers’ accurate descriptions), Pittsburgh’s overall schedule ranks somewhere near the 200 range; its nonconference schedule is even worse. According to the RPI, the Panthers have played the toughest schedule in the country to date. Too funny.
Down here in the real world, save a Thanksgiving-week game in Brooklyn against Stanford, the only time the Panthers popped their heads up from their dour nonconference minnow-feast was in December, when Cincinnati (which is regarded more highly now than it was then) escaped Pittsburgh with a 44-43 win … in 48 possessions. Good defense, bad offense, or both, the Panthers were easy to dismiss: Their wins a product of their schedule, their impressive efficiency numbers a product of malevolent computers.
Since then, Pittsburgh has kept winning, and usually in impressive fashion. Really, a 58-46 New Year’s Eve sleepwalk against Albany was the last time Dixon’s team wasn’t in obvious command of its situation. The only problem is that even the front end of Pitt’s ACC schedule — it has played NC State, Maryland, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest, which run the gamut from “transitioning” to “rebuilding” to “disappointing” — has left it without an opportunity to once and truly prove themselves.
Saturday -- a road trip to play unbeaten No. 2 Syracuse in the Carrier Dome -- is that chance.
In one sense, it’s unfair to ask Pittsburgh to prove its viability by beating Syracuse in Syracuse; that’s like asking me to prove the viability of my legs by running a marathon. (I’m good, thanks.) In another sense, it’s completely fair. Dixon’s canny (and rather hilarious) gaming of the RPI will likely hold Pitt in good stead on Selection Sunday, but for now the gulf between efficiency statistics, RPI and eye-test perception has fueled a very public gap about the merits of the Panthers themselves. Saturday could reconcile all of that.
Duke's BPI game score in its six-point loss against Arizona (ranked No. 4 in BPI) was higher than two of its wins (vs East Carolina, vs Vermont). Other than its wins over No. 40 Michigan and No. 63 Alabama, Duke doesn't have any other wins over teams ranked in the top 180.
Duke has the best adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, but its adjusted defensive efficiency ranks 101st.
Is Wisconsin the best team in college basketball?
The Wisconsin Badgers rank No. 1 in BPI after starting 12-0 with five wins over top-50 BPI teams -- St. John's, Florida, Saint Louis, West Virginia and Virginia. Their five wins against top-50 teams are the most by any team. Kansas and Davidson are the only other teams that have even faced five top-50 teams.
Wisconsin has the 11th-most difficult schedule according to BPI. Seven of their 12 wins are against top-100 opponents and none of them are against teams outside the top 175.
The Badgers have been successful playing a slow pace (17th-fewest possessions per game). Two of their three worst BPI game scores this season have come in the two games in which they played at the fastest pace (at Green Bay, vs North Dakota).
Michigan State barely cracks the top 25
The Michigan State Spartans, previously ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll, come in at No. 24 in BPI. The Spartans only have one loss, but it was by far their worst BPI game score and it came against their second-best opponent (No. 23 North Carolina).
Why else is Michigan State's BPI lacking? The Spartans have five wins against teams ranked outside the BPI top 100. Three of those wins are by 15 points or fewer, including two by single digits, and one of the five wins is against No. 338 McNeese State. Also, they haven't played a single true road game yet.
Welcome to the top 10, Saint Mary's
The undefeated Saint Mary's Gaels are ranked No. 8 in BPI, and it's not due to any wins over top-notch opponents. The Gaels haven't faced a single top-50 team yet, but five of their eight wins came against top-100 opponents and six of their eight wins are by double digits.
Saint Mary's has performed well against top-100 teams, posting a BPI game score higher than 95 in four of those five wins.
Why isn't Pittsburgh ranked yet?
The Pittsburgh Panthers are ranked No. 9 in BPI but aren't in the top 25 in the AP Poll. The Panthers are 10-0 with each of those 10 wins coming by at least nine points and nine of the wins coming by at least 17 points.
Pitt doesn't have any top-50 wins, but the Panthers do have two wins against teams just outside the top 50 (No. 51 Penn State, No. 55 Stanford). Their three best BPI game scores came against their three best opponents -- Penn State, Stanford and Texas Tech (No. 110).
Pitt is one of seven teams ranked in the top 20 in both adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, along with Louisville, Oklahoma State, Arizona, Wisconsin, Kansas and North Carolina.
Why I am even asking this question? Because in 2013, for the first time ever, the NCAA's date before which teams cannot participate in full practice was moved two weeks up the calendar -- technically, it began Friday. Some teams celebrated their Midnight Madness events this weekend, but many more have chosen to wait. And so the big, all-encompassing Midnight Madness explosion we grew so fond of in the past has been replaced by a slow, excruciating trickle. If the rule change didn't make so much obvious sense, I would probably be a little sad.
The upside, of course, is that the new Midnight Madness landscape doesn't preclude America's college basketball coaches from participating in a tradition unlike any other: dressing up as a ridiculous cultural reference in the hopes of making college kids laugh.
On Saturday morning, at Pittsburgh's "Morning Madness" -- scheduled to precede the Pitt football tailgate -- coach Jamie Dixon kicked off the fun. And by "kicked off the fun," I mean he donned the garb of a person named "Uncle Si," from a reality television show about a colorful group of people who made tons of money selling duck calls. Yes, Dixon a character from "Duck Dynasty." He even did the accent and everything.
All told, according to Pittsburgh, more than 4,000 people showed up for the event, which, as you can see above, also included quirky introductions, slam dunks, trivia, and more slam dunks. All in all, it appears to have been a massive success. And Pitt has an ace up its sleeve when it comes to costumed coaches: Dixon "appeared and performed in a variety of commercials" as a kid in Southern California, and "is a card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild," according to a school release. "Uncle Si" appears to have been a method performance. Impressive stuff.
All of which is to say: Your move, Izzo.
2. Practice starts next Friday in college basketball and teams are looking for creative ways to get fans interested early. Duke will host an open practice next Saturday from 10 to noon. But my favorite is Pitt. The Panthers had a successful late-night event on campus. This time, the Panthers are hosting an event in advance of Pitt playing Virginia in football near Heinz Field. So the morning madness next Saturday at 10:30 a.m. will try to get Panthers fans jazzed. There will be a special guest, though. Check him out here.
3. BYU coach Dave Rose is home and resting after having cancerous spots removed. But he is well enough to host recruits this weekend. If anything, the recruits should see the courage and fight in Rose that should provide quite a sales pitch to play for someone who is going through something much harder than they would ever dream about while playing at BYU. The plan is still for Rose to be ready to go for the start of practice on Oct. 7. The Cougars are choosing to wait a week to start.
2. Tyler Roberson isn’t listed on the Syracuse website roster yet, but he has been cleared to play. And that’s great news for Syracuse and the attempt to unseat ACC favorite Duke in the first year of being in the league. "He’s obviously a good player," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim of the 6-7 forward from Union, N.J. "He gives us some depth at forward with C.J. [Fair] and Jerami [Grant]. It gives us three athletic, quick forwards. We’re excited about that." Boeheim said the news Roberson is eligible has bigger ramifications. "Long-range, that’s the key," said Boeheim of a replacement for Fair once he’s done with his eligibility in the spring of 2014. "Next year, he’ll be really, really good by then. He’s a really good player. He’s pretty quick."
3. Utah State has a rarity of hosting two schools from power conferences in USC (Pac-12) and Mississippi State (SEC) in Logan this season -- the first for the Aggies in the Mountain West. The series with the Bulldogs is a two-for-one that coach Stew Morrill wasn’t thrilled with but will do. The Aggies went out to Starkville in 2012 (lost by two), get the Bulldogs in Logan this season after the series took a year off under new coach Rick Ray and will go back next season. The USC game was as a result of the Aggies going to USC -- Sept. 21 -- in football. "My AD (Scott Barnes) asked that if we do that could we get a home and home in basketball," said Morrill. The series was supposed to start last season in Logan but former USC coach Kevin O'Neill said he needed to put it off a year but then would play the opener this season. O’Neill then got fired. "I told him there was a hefty buyout to move it back a year and that the buyout doubled," said Morrill. "Andy (Enfield) got the job, and there was a $150,000 buyout on this game." Utah State opens up with USC at home Nov. 8 and will return the game next season. "People have no idea how hard it is to get games," said Morrill. Utah State has kept the BYU series in Salt Lake City on a neutral court. Utah has put off playing Utah State and Morrill said he would only play the Utes in a home-and-home situation.
Makes total sense.
Thus, as we unveil our list of the 10 worst nonconference schedules in the country among the big boys, I can totally understand why a coach such as Mississippi State’s Rick Ray or TCU’s Trent Johnson devised a relatively weak slate. Others such as Mike Anderson at Arkansas and Jamie Dixon at Pittsburgh have no excuse.
Whatever the context, all of the schools on this list are high-major programs from the nine conferences that were part of this package and all 10 could’ve done better by at least adding another marquee game or two (schools listed in alphabetical order).
Toughest: Colorado (Nov. 30)
Next-toughest: Richmond (Nov. 27)
The rest: vs. Army (Nov. 8 in Lexington, Va.), vs. Citadel/VMI (Nov. 9 in Lexington, Va.), Jackson State (Nov. 14), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Nov. 17), Colorado Christian (Nov. 20), South Dakota (Dec. 5), Western State (Dec. 9), UC Riverside (Dec. 14), at UC Davis (Dec. 21)
Give the Falcons credit for scheduling a pair of quality opponents at home in Colorado and Richmond. But there really isn’t much else to get excited about here. Air Force’s only true road game is a Dec. 21 tilt at UC Davis. The rest of the schedule is abysmal, but Dave Pilipovich’s squad is in rebuilding mode, so this is actually a smart slate for this particular team.
Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27)
Next-toughest: SMU (Nov. 18)
The rest: SIU-Edwardsville (Nov. 8), Louisiana (Nov. 15), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 3), Clemson (Dec. 7), Savannah State (Dec. 12), Tennessee-Martin (Dec. 19), South Alabama (Dec. 21), High Point (Dec. 28), Texas-San Antonio (Jan. 4)
This is one of the more embarrassing schedules on this list. If I'm ranking the top 10, Arkansas would probably be No. 2 or No. 3. Other than the Maui Invitational (the Razorbacks open against Cal and then play either Minnesota or Syracuse), there is not a single noteworthy game on this list. Arkansas is known for its tremendous fan support. Yet the best home game Mike Anderson can schedule for the Razorback faithful is a tilt with SMU? Inexcusable.
Toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24), at Arkansas (Dec. 7)
Next-toughest: South Carolina (Nov. 17)
The rest: Stetson (Nov. 8), Delaware State (Nov. 13), Coastal Carolina (Nov. 29), South Carolina State (Dec. 3), Furman (Dec. 14), at Auburn (Dec. 19), VMI (Dec. 30)
The Tigers will likely enter ACC play with a gaudy record, but they won’t have many quality wins on their résumé. Other than maybe a road tilt at Arkansas, there isn’t one noteworthy game on this schedule. Unless, of course, you count the Charleston Classic, but it doesn't have a particularly strong field this season. Brad Brownell’s team opens up with Temple and will face either Georgia or Davidson the following day. This is an incredibly weak slate. Luckily Clemson has a big-time football team that will hold fans’ attention until January.
Toughest: Legends Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Next-toughest: at Texas A&M (Dec. 4)
The rest: Texas State (Nov. 8), at UT-Pan American (Nov. 11), UT-San Antonio (Nov. 14), Lehigh (Nov. 17), Howard (Nov. 21), Texas-Corpus Christi (Nov. 30), San Jose State (Dec. 7), Alcorn State (Dec. 9), Louisiana-
Lafayette (Dec. 14), Rice (Dec. 21)
Four players on the Cougars' roster were ranked in the Top 100 of their respective high school class. In other words, there is way too much talent on Houston’s roster to be playing a schedule this weak. Playing Stanford (and either Pittsburgh or Texas Tech) at the Legends Classic is fine. But if UH wants to be taken seriously on a national level, it needs to add a few marquee games to its slate starting next season. The Cougars -- who won 20 games last season -- are in a big-boy conference now. They need to start scheduling like it.
Toughest: at Utah State (Nov. 23), Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 19)
Next-toughest: Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)
The rest: Prairie View A&M (Nov. 8), Kennesaw State (Nov. 14), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 19), Jackson State (Nov. 27), Loyola-Chicago (Dec. 1), TCU (Dec. 5), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 13), Florida A&M (Dec. 17), Maryland Eastern Shore (Jan. 2)
The Bulldogs’ program was in shambles when Rick Ray took over prior to last season -- and things got even worse during the year thanks to a long list of suspensions and injuries. It got so bad that Ray had to use a graduate assistant in practice, until he tore his ACL. Somehow, Ray kept his players’ spirits up, and they managed to win a few games (including one against NCAA tournament team Ole Miss) near the end of the season. It was a phenomenal coaching job by Ray, but make no mistake, this program is still in full rebuilding mode, which is why this schedule makes sense. Whoever thought that Florida Gulf Coast would be the No. 1 home opponent on the nonconference schedule of a team from a major conference?
Toughest: vs. Cincinnati (Dec. 17 in New York)
Next-toughest: Legends Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
The rest: Savannah State (Nov. 8), Fresno State (Nov. 12), Howard (Nov. 17), Lehigh (Nov. 20), Duquesne (Nov. 30), Penn State (Dec. 3), Loyola Marymount (Dec. 6), Youngstown State (Dec. 14), Cal Poly (Dec. 21), Albany (Dec. 31)
The Panthers aren’t doing much to prepare themselves for their first season in the ACC, which will easily be the nation’s toughest conference. When your marquee nonconference game is against Cincinnati -- and this is the only thing close to a marquee game on this schedule -- then you know you’ve got problems. The only other semi-decent opponents are Penn State in early December and then Texas Tech in the Legends Classic, with a game against either Stanford or Houston the following night. Pittsburgh lost some key players to graduation (Tray Woodall) and the NBA draft (Steven Adams). And J.J. Moore transferred to Rutgers. So this may be the perfect year for a weak slate. Still, considering how good Pitt has been over the years, this could be the worst schedule in America.
Toughest: Coaches vs. Cancer (Nov. 22-23 in New York)
Next-toughest: at Rutgers (Dec. 8)
The rest: Niagara (Nov. 9), Kent State (Nov. 13), at Mercer (Nov. 16), Monmouth (Nov. 18), Fairleigh Dickinson (Dec. 1), LIU Brooklyn (Dec. 5), NJIT (Dec. 10), St. Peter’s (Dec. 14), Eastern Washington (Dec. 22), Lafayette (Dec. 27)
My colleague, Dana O’Neil, said it best about the Pirates in her analysis of nonconference schedules in the Big East: “If the Pirates beat Oklahoma in the Coaches vs. Cancer, they might face Michigan State. Or they might not. And that’s about all there is to like about this schedule.”
Toughest: vs. SMU (Nov. 8 in Dallas), at Washington State (Nov. 24)
Next-toughest: Great Alaska Shootout (Nov. 27, 29-30), at Mississippi State (Dec. 5)
The rest: Longwood (Nov. 12), Abilene Christian (Nov. 19), Texas Pan-American (Dec. 15), Grambling State (Dec. 19), Tulsa (Dec. 21), Texas Southern (Dec. 29)
This would be a terrible schedule for a program that was experiencing a moderate amount of success. But considering TCU won just two Big 12 games last season, this is the perfect slate for the Horned Frogs as they try to rebuild. Second-year coach Trent Johnson didn’t schedule the type of Top 25 squads that will shatter his team's confidence. But he also didn't produce a schedule so weak that it wouldn’t challenge his team as it continues to grow. SMU could contend for an NCAA tournament berth and, even though Washington State has struggled in recent seasons, Pullman is a difficult place to play. Tulsa and Texas Southern are both solid teams, and Mississippi State was making huge strides at the end of last season.
Toughest: Corpus Christi Challenge (Nov. 29-30), vs. Oklahoma (Dec. 21 in Houston)
Next-toughest: Buffalo (Nov. 8)
The rest: Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 11), Rice (Nov. 15), Prairie View A&M (Nov. 19), Sam Houston State (Nov. 24), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Nov. 26), Houston (Dec. 4), McNeese State (Dec. 14), North Texas (Dec. 31), UTPA (Jan. 4)
I’m a little surprised that Billy Kennedy didn’t put together a tougher schedule for his third season. Granted, the Aggies lost two of their top players (Elston Turner and Ray Turner), so this team may take a small step back. But there’s not a single true road game on the nonconference schedule. The Aggies’ most daunting nonleague game is against an Oklahoma squad that probably won’t make the NCAA tournament. And their most appealing home contest is against Houston. Yay.
Toughest: at Boise State (Dec. 3), BYU (Dec. 14)
Next-toughest: Fresno State (Dec. 7)
The rest: Evergreen State (Nov. 8), UC Davis (Nov. 15), Grand Canyon (Nov. 21), Lamar (Nov. 22), Savannah State (Nov. 23), Ball State (Nov. 27), Idaho State (Dec. 10), Texas State (Dec. 19), St. Katherine (Dec. 28)
After struggling for most of the season, Utah won four of its final five games last spring and entered the offseason full of enthusiasm about the 2013-14 campaign. Reaching the NCAA tournament, however, will be darn near impossible with a schedule that includes just one true road game (at Boise State) and only two contests against likely tourney-bid contenders (Boise State and BYU). Playing a weak schedule the past two seasons made sense. But the Utes should’ve stepped it up a bit this season.
Toughest: 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 21-22), at Purdue (Dec. 4), vs. VCU (Dec. 28 in Brooklyn), at Harvard (Jan. 1)
Next-toughest: at Providence (Nov. 8), vs. UMass (Nov. 10 at TD Garden, Boston)
The rest: Toledo (Nov. 14), Florida Atlantic (Nov. 17), Sacred Heart (Nov. 26), at USC (Dec. 8), vs. Philadelphia (Dec. 15), at Auburn (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 — The differences between Boston College's 2012-13 schedule and its slate in 2013-14 mirror the differences in the two squads' expectations. Last season's Eagles were young and still very much rebuilding; this year's group, led by Ryan Anderson and Olivier Hanlan, has serious sleeper potential. We'll get to see just how much in late November, when Steve Donahue's team takes on UConn and then either Indiana or Washington in Madison Square Garden, followed by a trip to Purdue, a New Year's date at Harvard, and what should be a fascinating nonconference sojourn to New York City to play VCU.
Toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24), at Arkansas (Dec. 7)
Next-toughest: South Carolina (Nov. 17)
The rest: Stetson (Nov. 8), Delaware State (Nov. 13), Coastal Carolina (Nov. 29), South Carolina State (Dec. 3), Furman (Dec. 14), at Auburn (Dec. 19), VMI (Dec. 30)
Toughness scale (1-10): 2 — I'm not sure whether it's possible to hand out a zero in these nonconference rankings. I'm pretty sure it's never been done. And I haven't seen every schedule in the country yet, I admit. But still: Clemson's schedule is … not great. It is possessed of exactly one interesting event -- the Charleston Classic, aka "a bunch of so-so teams and New Mexico" -- and, save a trip to Arkansas (if that), nothing else. (This isn't actual criticism, by the way. Clemson looks as if it's in the process of a big rebuild, and you wouldn't expect it to schedule hard in advance of this loaded ACC. But still. Ick.)
Toughest: vs. Kansas (Nov. 12 in Chicago), NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 27-29), Michigan (Dec. 3), vs. UCLA (Dec. 19 in New York City)
Next-toughest: Davidson (Nov. 8)
The rest: Florida Atlantic (Nov. 15), UNC Asheville (Nov. 18), East Carolina/Norfolk State (Nov. 19), Vermont (Nov. 24), Gardner-Webb (Dec. 16), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 28), Elon (Dec. 31)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 — The Blue Devils rarely overdo it with their schedules, but just as rarely make it to ACC season without at least a handful of solid results on their docket. So it is again in 2013-14, if slightly tougher than the norm. That's true for a few reasons: Duke drew high-powered Michigan in its ACC/Big Ten matchup; Duke plays Kansas, which landed uber-recruit Andrew Wiggins this summer, in the Champions Classic in November; the Blue Devils look likely to get Arizona in the NIT Season Tip-Off; and UCLA could be formidable if the leftover talent from Ben Howland's tenure jells under Steve Alford. But all of these games are safely within the Blue Devils' sphere of influence. Somehow, Coach K managed to get two of the West Coast's marquee programs without going any farther west than Chicago. Same as it ever was.
Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24), at Florida (Nov. 29)
Next-toughest: at Minnesota (Dec. 3)
The rest: Jacksonville (Nov. 8), at UCF (Nov. 13), UT-Martin (Nov. 17), Jacksonville State (Dec. 8), Charlotte (Dec. 17), vs. Massachusetts (Dec. 21 in Sunrise, Fla.), Charleston Southern (Dec. 30)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 — Florida State's season would have looked much different if two freshmen -- Wiggins, who looked hard at his parents' alma mater before choosing to go to Kansas instead; and Xavier Rathan-Mayes, a top-50 recruit who did not get through the NCAA clearinghouse this spring -- had joined up. Without them, star forward Okaro White has a daunting challenge ahead of him all season, beginning with a really good field in Puerto Rico (with first-round opponent VCU, plus Michigan, Georgetown, Kansas State in the mix), followed by road trips to Florida and Minnesota in close succession.
Toughest: Barclays Center Classic (Nov. 29-30), Illinois (Dec. 3)
Next-toughest: at Georgia (Nov. 15), Dayton (Nov. 20) The rest: Presbyterian (Nov. 8), Delaware State (Nov. 11), North Carolina A&T (Nov. 24), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 26), East Tennessee State (Dec. 7), Kennesaw State (Dec. 16), at Vanderbilt (Dec. 21), at Charlotte (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 — The Yellow Jackets don't have a ton here, but what they do have is solid enough, given where the program is sitting (probably best described as "getting better, if slowly") under third-year coach Brian Gregory. The Barclays Center Classic is a better-than-you-think event, with Ole Miss (and Marshall Henderson, which should be fun) followed by Penn State or St. John's, both of which should be improved over 2012-13. Illinois is the other notable nonconference game, a rematch of last season's 75-62 loss in Champaign, Ill.
Toughest: UConn (Nov. 8 in Brooklyn), at Ohio State (Dec. 4)
Next-toughest: Oregon State (Nov. 17), Paradise Jam (Nov. 22-25)
The rest: Abilene Christian (Nov. 13), Morgan State (Nov. 29), at George Washington (Dec. 8), Florida Atlantic (Dec. 14), Boston University (Dec. 21), Tulsa (Dec. 29), North Carolina Central (Dec. 31)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 — The Terrapins won't get much in the way of RPI boost out of their early-season tournament; La Salle, Providence and maybe Northern Iowa appear to be the only reasonable challengers in the Virgin Islands. But the Terps do have a good opening night date with UConn in Brooklyn, similar to last year's near miss against Kentucky, and the Big Ten-ACC Challenge sends them to Ohio State, which is guaranteed to be a win on the RPI sheet no matter what happens on the floor.
Toughest: Wooden Legacy (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)
Next-toughest: La Salle (Dec. 22)
The rest: St. Francis (Nov. 8), Georgia Southern (Nov. 11), Texas Southern (Nov. 14), at Charleston (Nov. 18), UCF (Nov. 21), Nebraska (Dec. 4), at Savannah State (Dec. 19), Loyola-Md. (Dec. 30)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 — After a thoroughly euphoric 2012-13 season marked by an ACC regular-season and tournament title, a No. 2 tournament seed, and a first-round draft pick (point guard Shane Larkin), the Hurricanes are due for a serious hangover in 2013-14. Fortunately, their nonconference schedule shouldn't be too punishing. Other than the Wooden Legacy -- a quality field featuring Creighton, Marquette, San Diego State and Arizona State -- La Salle is the one real opponent of note, and the Explorers have to come to Coral Gables.
Toughest: Hall of Fame Tipoff (Nov. 23-24), at Michigan State (Dec. 4), Kentucky (Dec. 14)
Next-toughest: Texas (Dec. 18)
The rest: Oakland (Nov. 8), Holy Cross (Nov. 15), Belmont (Nov. 17), at UAB (Dec. 1), UNC Greensboro (Dec. 7), Davidson (Dec. 21), Northern Kentucky (Dec. 27), UNC Wilmington (Dec. 31)
Toughness scale (1-10): 9 — The usual North Carolina scheduling partners are all here. There's that trip to Michigan State (this time thanks to the ACC/Big Ten Challenge), the home-and-home with Texas, the huge mid-December date with Kentucky -- it's all there. This year, UNC even adds to that with the Hall of Fame Tipoff tournament, which, if expectations hold, will put the Tar Heels up against defending national champion Louisville in Uncasville, Conn. (after an opening game against Richmond). That means the Heels are likely to face the preseason No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 teams in the country before the middle of December. Not too shabby.
Toughest: at Cincinnati (Nov. 12), at Tennessee (Dec. 18)
Next-toughest: Missouri (Dec. 28)
The rest: Appalachian State (Nov. 8), Campbell (Nov. 16), North Carolina Central (Nov. 20), Florida Gulf Coast (Nov. 26), Eastern Kentucky (Nov. 30), Northwestern (Dec. 4), Long Beach State (Dec. 7), Detroit (Dec. 14), East Carolina (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- NC State's young but promising batch of talent might surprise some people this season, particularly if the Wolfpack are ready for those key road dates at Cincinnati and Tennessee. It's hard to know what to expect from Missouri this season, but that could end up being a quality chance for a nonconference win in Raleigh. A two-loss nonconference run -- or better -- would have folks jumping aboard the T.J. Warren bandwagon just in time for ACC play.
Toughest: at Iowa (Dec. 3), vs. Ohio State (Dec. 21 in New York)
Next-toughest: vs. Indiana (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis, Ind.)
The rest: Miami (Ohio) (Nov. 8), Stetson (Nov. 10), Indiana State (Nov. 17), Santa Clara (Nov. 22), Army (Nov. 24), Cornell (Dec. 1), Delaware (Dec. 7), Bryant (Dec. 9), North Dakota State (Dec. 11), Canisius (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- Notre Dame's official welcome to the ACC doesn't come in January but rather in the first week of December, when the Irish travel to Iowa for their first ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup. At any point in the past few years, that would have been a perfectly manageable game, but the ascending Hawkeyes are one of the best defensive teams in their league, and Carver-Hawkeye is close to full, rollicking buy-in once more. The Crossroads Classic draw against Indiana is interesting, if not as intimidating as last season, and the Gotham Classic will match Mike Brey's team with the stifling Ohio State defense in Madison Square Garden just before Christmas break.
Toughest: vs. Cincinnati (Dec. 17 in New York)
The rest: Savannah State (Nov. 8), Fresno State (Nov. 12), Howard (Nov. 17), Lehigh (Nov. 20), Legends Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Brooklyn), Duquesne (Nov. 30), Penn State (Dec. 3), Loyola Marymount (Dec. 6), Youngstown State (Dec. 14), Cal Poly (Dec. 21), Albany (Dec. 31)
Toughness scale (1-10): 1. In recent seasons, few coaches have proved as good at gaming the Rating Percentage Index as Jamie Dixon. This is not a criticism; the NCAA's current system is made to be gamed, and, by this point, coaches who don't at least try to use the faulty system to their advantage are leaving potential seed-line improvements on the table. So I'm guessing that, by the end of the season, Pitt's RPI will be in solid shape. (And maybe the new-look ACC will take care of that on its own.) But that aside, this is a straight-up awful basketball schedule. Just … ugh. Cincinnati in Madison Square Garden is the only "marquee" game on the list, and that's a generous application of the term. The Legends Classic features an opening game against Texas Tech and a second-round matchup against either Stanford or Houston. None of those teams is truly awful -- same goes for Penn State on Dec. 3 -- but they're hardly inspiring opponents, either.
Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27), Indiana (Dec. 3)
Next-toughest: Villanova (Dec. 28), at St. John's (Dec. 15)
The rest: Cornell (Nov. 8), Fordham (Nov. 12), Colgate (Nov. 16, St. Francis-N.Y. (Nov. 18), Binghamton (Dec. 7), High Point (Dec. 20), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 31)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- This score is awarded mostly for the Maui Invitational, which boasts a typically deep, if not vintage, field (Gonzaga, Baylor, Minnesota, Cal, Dayton, Arkansas, Chaminade). But it's worth noting that Indiana game at the Carrier Dome, which will be more of a test for the young Hoosiers, sure, but is nonetheless a big rematch of Syracuse's dominant Sweet 16 win in March. There are also two fixtures against former Big East foes Villanova and St. John's. The former is an improving, defensive group that took down the Orange in Philly last season; the latter is a road game against a talented but disjointed Red Storm.
Toughest: VCU (Nov. 12), Wisconsin (Dec. 4), at Tennessee (Dec. 30)
Next-toughest: Northern Iowa (Dec. 21)
The rest: James Madison (Nov. 8), vs. Davidson (Nov. 16 in Charlotte), Navy (Nov. 19), Liberty (Nov. 23), Hampton (Nov. 26), Corpus Christi Challenge (Nov. 29-30), at Green Bay (Dec. 7), Norfolk State (Dec. 23)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- VCU and Virginia don't have much of a historical basketball rivalry because why would they? But now that Shaka Smart's program has become the state's most notable, it makes sense for Tony Bennett to schedule the Rams, whose pressure defense will be a huge stylistic test for the slow-and-steady Cavaliers in Charlottesville. Wisconsin, which lost to Virginia in Madison last season, won't be that but will be a tough home date in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, and a road trip at Tennessee rounds out the slate. UVa missed the tournament last season mostly thanks to (a) a bad noncon schedule and (b) a bunch of really bad noncon losses. This slate should help nullify both concerns.
Toughest: Coaches vs. Cancer (Nov. 22-23), vs. VCU (Dec. 21 at Richmond Coliseum)
Next-toughest: West Virginia (Nov. 12)
The rest: USC Upstate (Nov. 9), Western Carolina (Nov. 15), VMI (Nov. 18), Furman (Nov. 26), Radford (Nov. 29), Winthrop (Dec. 3), UNC Greensboro (Dec. 28), Maryland-Eastern Shore (Dec. 31)
Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- The Coaches vs. Cancer event at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn features a first-round game against Michigan State and a matchup against either Oklahoma or Seton Hall, and the home date against VCU at the Richmond Coliseum is really more like a road game. And honestly, that's probably good enough for the Hokies right now. Virginia Tech was a bit of a mess in James Johnson's first season, and that was with guard Erick Green, who submitted one of the best, most efficient all-around offensive seasons of the past half decade or so. Without him, it's going to get ugly.
Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30), at Xavier (Dec. 28)
Next-toughest: Richmond (Dec. 7)
The rest: Colgate (Nov. 8), VMI (Nov. 12), Presbyterian (Nov. 15), Jacksonville (Nov. 18), The Citadel (Nov. 21), Tulane (Dec. 4), St. Bonaventure (Dec. 17), UNC Greensboro (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 — Even if Xavier still isn't back to Top 25-level hoops by late December, the Cintas Center is a brutal place to play. But the main feature of this nonconference schedule is Wake's trip to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis, where it will play Wiggins and Kansas in the first round (which, good luck with that), followed by USC or Villanova, with Iowa, Tennessee, UTEP and Xavier lurking on the other side of the bracket. This is a crucial year for maligned coach Jeff Bzdelik and his boss, athletic director Ron Wellman. The Deacs absolutely have to show some signs of progress early on.
All 12 Big Ten teams and 12 of the 15 ACC schools will participate in the 2013 Challenge, including the three newest ACC members (Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse). Clemson, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest will not play in this year's event.
The ACC and Big Ten split last year’s Challenge with six wins each. In the event of a tie, the Commissioner’s Cup remains with the conference that won the previous year, which was the Big Ten in 2011. The ACC holds a 10-3-1 Challenge record, winning the first 10 events (1999-2008) before the Big Ten won the next three (2009-2011).
For an analysis of this year's matchups, check out Eamonn Brennan's take from back in May. As for the times and networks, here they are ...
Tuesday, Dec. 3 (all times ET)
7:15 - Indiana at Syracuse (ESPN)
7:15 - Illinois at Georgia Tech (ESPN2)
7:30 - Penn State at Pittsburgh (ESPNU)
9:15 - Michigan at Duke (ESPN)
9:15 - Notre Dame at Iowa (ESPN2)
9:30 - Florida State at Minnesota (ESPNU)
Wednesday, Dec. 4 (all times ET)
7:00 - Maryland at Ohio State (ESPN or ESPN2)
7:00 - Wisconsin at Virginia (ESPN or ESPN2)
7:30 - Northwestern at NC State (ESPNU)
9:00 - North Carolina at Michigan State (ESPN)
9:00 - Boston College at Purdue (ESPN2)
9:30 - Miami at Nebraska (ESPNU)
A few notes on this year's matchups:
- Seven of the 12 games will mark first-time Challenge matchups: Michigan-Duke, Maryland-Ohio State, Miami-Nebraska and Boston College-Purdue, plus the debut of the three new ACC members Syracuse (vs. Indiana), Notre Dame (at Iowa) and Pitt (vs. Penn State).
- In addition to first-time Challenge games, several of the teams are infrequent opponents: Nebraska holds a 3-1 record against Miami; Purdue won both previous meetings against BC; Ohio State and Maryland last played in 1985 with OSU three out of the five all-time games; and Notre Dame will play Iowa for the first time since 1990 and holds a 8-5 series record.
- Old Pennsylvania rivals Pitt and Penn State will meet for the first time since 2005. The Panthers have won the past five contests.
- Illinois/Georgia Tech and Wisconsin/Virginia will follow their first-time Challenge meetings in 2012 with a rematch in the 2013 event. The Illini and Cavaliers won last year's matchups.
- Best Three Out of Five: North Carolina/Michigan State and Minnesota/Florida State will meet in the Challenge for the fifth time. Both series are 2-2.
- Rubber Match: Northwestern and NC State will square off in the Challenge for the third time. Northwestern won in 2009 and NC State in 2002.
- Syracuse and Indiana have met five previous times in non-Challenge games, with the Orange winning the past four, including last season’s Sweet 16 matchup.
When and where: Nov. 25-26 at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Semifinal schedule for the Legends Classic:
Nov. 25: Pittsburgh vs. Texas Tech (7:30 p.m., ESPN2); Stanford vs. Houston (9:30, ESPN2)
Nov. 26: Consolation game (7 p.m., ESPN3); Championship game (9:30, ESPNU)
Initial thoughts: Three of these four programs are in a state of flux. Texas Tech is in its first season under Tubby Smith. Houston -- although it won 20 games last season -- is still attempting to work its way back into relevancy. And Pittsburgh is dealing with the loss of four of its top players (Steven Adams, Tray Woodall, Trey Zeigler and J.J. Moore). Stanford appears to be on solid footing, as it returns virtually all of the key pieces from a 2012-13 squad that showed flashes of brilliance but could never develop any consistency. It will be a disappointment if the Cardinal doesn't make the NCAA tournament this season.
Matchup I can’t wait to see: Stanford vs. Houston. Don’t sleep on the Cougars. Even though standout shooting guard Joseph Young transferred to Oregon, Houston is hardly short on talent. TaShawn Thomas is a beast down low and wing Danuel House -- a former top-25 recruit -- should make huge strides as a sophomore. Houston's coaching staff is crossing its fingers that Baylor transfer L.J. Rose, a point guard, will receive a waiver from the NCAA that would allow him to play immediately. It will be interesting to see how the Cougars fare against a veteran Stanford team led by 6-foot-10 forward Dwight Powell and guard Chasson Randle.
Five players to watch:
Jaye Crockett, Texas Tech: Crockett is the leading returning scorer (11.9) and rebounder (6.5) for a Red Raiders squad that went just 11-20 last season. The 6-foot-7 forward shot 49.8 percent from the field. The third-year starter will have to perform even better this season for Texas Tech to take a significant step. Junior Jordan Tolbert is just as big of a threat down low.
Lamar Patterson, Pittsburgh: Patterson, who averaged 10 points last season, is the Panthers’ leading returning scorer. The 6-foot-5 small forward attempted nearly half of his shots (111 of 248) from 3-point range. He’ll be the go-to guy on a squad that’s incorporating a lot of new parts.
Dwight Powell, Stanford: Powell averaged 14.9 points and 8.4 rebounds last season on a balanced team. The versatile big man has a nice touch on his shot -- he made 80 percent of his free throws -- that allows him to score from almost anywhere. And he possesses a nice arsenal of moves in the paint.
Chasson Randle, Stanford: The guard averaged 13.6 points per game last season but shot just 40 percent from the field and only 36 percent from 3-point range. His shot selection isn’t always the best, but Randle is one of the most dangerous players in the Pac-12 when he’s “on.”
TaShawn Thomas, Houston: The 6-foot-8 forward was one of the most underrated big men in the country in 2012-13. He averaged 16.9 points and 9.8 rebounds and eclipsed the 20-point barrier on 12 occasions. He could do even better as a junior thanks to an improved supporting cast.
Title game prediction: Stanford over Texas Tech.
The Red Raiders will give Tubby Smith his first signature win with a victory over Pittsburgh in the semifinals. But Texas Tech won’t be able to get past a veteran Cardinal club that should be high on chemistry and cohesion. Powell, Randle, Josh Huestis and Aaron Bright will be too much for the Red Raiders.
Who others are picking:
Eamonn Brennan: Pittsburgh over Stanford
Jeff Goodman: Stanford over Pittsburgh
Seth Greenberg: Stanford over Pittsburgh
Andy Katz: Stanford over Pittsburgh
Myron Medcalf: Pittsburgh over Stanford
Dana O'Neil: Pittsburgh over Stanford
Take Butler. Last summer, when the Bulldogs left the Horizon League to join the limited-offer-one-time-only 16-team Atlantic-10, the immediate reaction -- that it would have to evolve to keep up with its purportedly bigger, more athletic, more monied leaguemates -- was born of a notion that Butler's success was of a piece with its longtime conference home. Instead, in what would be Brad Stevens' final season at the helm, with zero lead time to allow for said evolution, the Bulldogs went 11-5 in league play, 27-9 overall and finished ranked No. 45 in the Pomeroy efficiency ratings. In Stevens' five previous seasons, from 2008 to 2012, Butler finished, in order, ranked No. 32, No. 45, No. 12, No. 41 and No. 110. Throw out the outliers and 2013 was a perfectly normal Butler year. The conference changed. The results did not.
This is why tempo-free analytics -- particularly those that bake competition strength into their formula -- make us better observers of the game. There are always outside factors to consider, sure, and if Butler had been moving to the Big Ten, the story would have been different. But in general, when a league and a team come together to form a mutually beneficial union, it's because the calculus is going to be simple. If Butler was good enough to finish in the top 50 in adjusted efficiency while in the Horizon League, it was good enough to do the same in the A-10. And so it did.
In other words, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame shouldn't spend too much time stressing this season's long-awaited move from the old Big East to the new ACC. Indeed, they should spend even less time worrying than Butler -- or any of its conference-climbing brethren -- ever did.
That might be the most important point: The Orange, Panthers and Irish didn't leap to the ACC because it was a better basketball league. All three are well-established, successful programs to varying degrees, and all three leapt for drastically different reasons than your average mid-major social climber.
Indeed, it can be argued that all three do more for the ACC than the ACC does for them. Whether the league will be the best in college hoops history, as Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is so fond of saying, is up for endless debate. One thing's for sure: When all three arrive this fall, the ACC is not merely going to get better. It's also going to get more consistent.
Notre Dame is easily the least impressive of the new ACC additions entering the league in 2013-14. Before Notre Dame fans stop studying their color-coded football depth charts long enough to register anger at the previous sentence, they should know it says more about their fellow travelers than it does about the Irish.
Indeed, before Mike Brey arrived in 2000, the Irish spent the 1990s under Digger Phelps successor John MacLeod, who averaged a whopping 13.3 wins a season from 1991 to 1999. The fact that MacLeod averaged 13.3 wins a season and lasted for eight seasons tells you everything you need to know about where basketball ranked among the sporting priorities in South Bend, Ind. (I'd place it roughly between Interhall Football and Saturday morning consumption gymnastics.)
Brey has changed that. Since 2003, the Irish have ranked no lower than No. 48, and no higher than No. 15, in Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings. They posted just two sub-.500 conference records in that span, have gone to nine NCAA tournaments in Brey's tenure and have never advanced past the Sweet 16. They've been a top-50 efficiency defense just twice. They've ranked lower than No. 22 offensively the same number of seasons. The highs are never too high, the lows never too low. Notre Dame basketball stays in its lane.
Expect the same in 2013-14. The Irish will have to compensate for the loss of the country's best rebounder, Jack Cooley, but returns essentially everyone else (notably senior backcourt Jerian Grant and Eric Atkins, intriguing rising sophomore Cameron Biedscheid, and sophomore shooter Pat Connaughton) from a 2012-13 team that did what Notre Dame does: 25 wins, an 11-7 Big East record, top-20 offense, mediocre defense, culminating in an early tournament exit at the hands of Iowa State.
Brey is desperate to get the Irish deeper into the tournament, and understandably so, but the baseline he has set is admirable in and of itself. For better or worse, Notre Dame is a model of reliability. Relative to the topsy-turvy recent editions of the ACC, the program is a rock -- and a near-lock for a top-half finish next spring.
When you look closely, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame share a swath of similarities.
Both programs languished in the 1990s before a rejuvenation in the aughts. Neither program recruits surefire NBA prospects on a yearly basis, preferring to develop overlooked preps into cohesive four-year veterans. The Irish are always at their best on the offensive end; with rare exceptions, so is Pitt. The Irish always play so slowly they earn an undeserved reputation for defense from the tempo-free-averse; Pitt always plays so slowly people assume it's a great defensive team whether it deserves it or not. (And sometimes the Panthers do.) The Irish habitually stall out early in the NCAA tournament; Pitt has advanced past the Sweet 16 only once since 2004.
There is one main difference, however. Under Mike Brey, Notre Dame has been consistently Notre Dame. Under Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh has been consistently great.
That greatness hasn't always translated to single-elimination March success, but there's no denying what Dixon has built since he took over for Ben Howland in the spring of 2003. The Panthers have averaged 26.2 wins per season during his tenure, notched two Big East regular-season trophies and one conference tournament title and missed the NCAA tournament only once (in 2012, when they ranked No. 151 in adjusted defensive efficiency, only the second time Dixon's team finished outside the top 40 defensively). In those nine tournament appearances, the Panthers' average seed is No. 4.
Plus, it's not as though Dixon's teams don't deserve their hard-nosed reputation. They are almost always very good, and occasionally excellent, defensively. But they're really at their best -- and, yes, most consistent -- on the offensive glass. In 10 seasons, the Panthers have grabbed 40.2 percent of their available misses. They've ranked in the top five nationally in offensive rebounding rate in four of the past five seasons. It's not hard to figure out why Dixon's teams have earned a reputation for defense: They're slow and they don't shoot the ball well. Chalk it up to defensive intensity, right? Sometimes, maybe, but more often than not Pittsburgh excels on the offensive end because it outworks opponents for second chances on every possession.
This is going to be the case in the ACC from the opening tip in January. In 2012-13, only three ACC squads (Maryland, UNC and NC State) were among the nation's 100 best on the offensive boards, and only four (Virginia, Maryland, Georgia Tech and Miami) ranked higher than 120th in preventing opponents from grabbing second chances. The Panthers lost senior guard Tray Woodall to graduation and freshman center Steven Adams to the NBA draft, but return their typical panoply of high-motor frontcourt players and add No. 15-ranked freshman power forward Mike Young to the mix.
Whether Pittsburgh will be talented enough on both ends of the floor to win a conference title is an open question, but it will absolutely be the best rebounding team in the ACC. That should be more than sufficient to push for a top-five finish -- and maybe more.
Syracuse's greatest gift to the ACC might well be its putative and cabbie-trumpeted status as "New York's College Team." But let's be real: The addition on the court is just as big a get. The Orange are the fifth-winningest basketball program of all time. In 36 years under coach Jim Boeheim -- the second-winningest coach in college hoops history -- Syracuse has been staggeringly consistent: 34 20-win seasons, 29 NCAA tournament bids, 10 Big East titles and on down the line.
There's no reason to expect less in 2013-14. The Orange lost a significant talent load (Michael Carter-Williams, James Southerland, Brandon Triche) from their Final Four run in March, but, as is tradition, they will have plenty of talent to take their place. Boeheim has three top-100 players -- guard Tyler Ennis and forwards Tyler Roberson and B.J. Johnson -- arriving this fall. Ennis, the No. 5-ranked point in the 2013 class, is a lock to get big minutes, if not start. (Meanwhile, don't forget former Indiana signee Ron Patterson, a talented Indianapolis shooting guard who returned to prep school after failing to keep his grades up at IU last summer.) Returning senior C.J. Fair turned down the NBA draft in favor of another collegiate season of doing just about everything well. Sophomores Jerami Grant, Trevor Cooney and DaJuan Coleman -- the latter missed much of 2012-13 following knee surgery, and may be the brightest talent here -- will have big roles to play. Baye Keita is a horrifyingly long rim protector who blocked 8.2 percent of available shots last season. Rising sophomore Rakeem Christmas is even better (11.0 block rate).
That's what has made Syracuse so consistently good for nigh on 40 years: Even when the Orange are just OK offensively, Boeheim's strategic clarity, and his ability to recruit the right mix of players to play within it, have made Cuse a reliable defensive juggernaut.
Boeheim has been at this since 1976, three years before Dave Gavitt founded the original Big East. He has won 920 games since. The Orange may have a new conference logo patched onto those iconic uniforms, and Boeheim will have to search Yelp for a new Denny's for his pregame meals. But other than that, why would we expect anything to change?
2. Indiana coach Tom Crean said he’s already looking at how the Hoosiers will play next season without Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller, Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford. He said he still wants to push the tempo and fully expects this team to be offensively effective like last season when the Hoosiers were one of the nation’s best. He’s banking on Will Sheehey continuing to lead and show his work ethic to the young Hoosiers. Expect Yogi Ferrell to team up with Sheehey and newcomer Noah Vonleh as well as Troy Williams as some of the top producers. The player who may surprise more than any other could be Luke Fischer, a 6-9 forward who is considered the most efficient newcomer by the staff and Stanford Robinson, who will add to the depth on the perimeter. Crean said the speed of the game has to be high for the Hoosiers yet again. Look for Jeremy Hollowell and Hanner Mosquera-Perea to be one of the more intriguing early-season battles for Zeller time. The Hoosiers are still looking for one more nonconference game. The Hoosiers are in the 2K Classic in NYC with the likely matchup pitting Indiana against Boston College or Washington to ensure the Hoosiers and UConn are on opposite sides of the bracket. IU plays at Syracuse in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and Notre Dame in Indianapolis.
3. Arizona released its nonconference schedule Thursday and for what should be a top-10 ranked Wildcats team there are a number of challenges: at San Diego State (Nov. 14), hosting UNLV (Dec. 7) and New Mexico State (Dec. 11) and at Michigan (Dec. 14). But the headline event should end up being the NIT Season Tip-Off where Duke is the other primary host with Arizona. Alabama and Rutgers are also hosts. If the home teams hold serve, which doesn’t always happen in the only nonconference neutral-site tournament where you still have to earn a spot with two wins, then a potential Arizona-Duke matchup over Thanksgiving would be the top-10 game the NIT has desperately craved for years. Duke is also playing another high-profile Pac-12 team in New York when it plays UCLA in December.