College Basketball Nation: San Diego State Aztecs
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Who believes that they will win?
There are no shortage of interesting storylines in the Mountain West this season. Boise State's breakout. The post-Steve Alford era at New Mexico. The intriguing talent at UNLV. Wyoming's emergence under Larry Shyatt. Another Larry, Larry Eustachy, and his first real rebuilding year at Colorado State. When a league has been this good, pound for pound, in recent years, it is bound to offer plenty to talk about.
And yet, despite the bevy of options at hand, Utah State's arrival is my favorite -- for all the reasons you expect, and one you might not.
First, the basics: This season marks the Aggies' first in the MWC, the product of a realignment move away from the decimated WAC. The Mountain West spent a solid portion of the past few years sweating out realignment in the Pac-12, Big 12 and Big East; there were some scary moments here and there. But it emerged relatively intact, and with a couple of traditionally strong hoops newcomers to boot. The first, Nevada, joined the league last season. The second, and by far the most exciting, was Utah State. (San Jose State arrives this season too, but that's a slightly different discussion.)
Why? Because Utah State has, in 15 seasons under Stew Morrill, become one of the country's most reliable, least heralded mid-major attractions. The past two seasons have been tough, pockmarked by personnel transitions and injuries, but before that the Aggies rattled off four straight WAC regular season crowns (in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011). Utah State went to the NCAA tournament six times in the past 10 years, and that number would probably be higher if Morrill's teams (and the WAC's RPI) didn't scare away so many putative high-major scheduling partners. That's a big part of why Utah State's move is so exciting: The Mountain West will give Morrill a full slate of quality opponents for the final two months of each season, sunsetting his scheduling woes once and for all. It's a major development.
It also sets up what might become the best pure student-section rivalry in all of college basketball. Let me explain. At Utah State, fans chant "I I believe I believe that we will win." It's genuinely rousing. For a minute there, it was sort of the Aggies' thing. But then The Show, San Diego State's famously raucous student section, appropriated it. Or maybe they had it first. Either way, the Aztecs' higher profile has made the chant synonymous with SDSU, and I've had both fan bases email me claiming to own the thing.
Never mind that the chant actually began at Navy. (Womp womp.) At some point this season, San Diego State fans and Utah State fans are going to be in the same building. At some point, whether it's in Logan, Utah, or Viejas Arena, one fan will start with "I I believe " I have no idea what will happen after that. I just know there's going to be a showdown, and I bet it will be really funny when it happens.
So, yes: Utah State's move is exciting on pure basketball terms. But it is also exciting because two shouting groups of people supporting different sports teams will now be forced to confront their shared use of a really cool chant. Chaos is bound to ensue.
Toughest: Colorado (Nov. 30)
Next toughest: Richmond (Nov. 27)
The rest: vs. Army (Nov. 8 in Lexington, Va.), vs. Citadel/WMI (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)
Toughness scale (1-10): 2 -- As in the Falcons get two points for playing Colorado and Richmond at home. Those are nice home games for Air Force. The rest of the slate is weak, but that's OK considering that coach Dave Pilipovich has a rebuilding team. So this schedule matches the current team.
Toughest: at Kentucky (Dec. 10)
Next toughest: Utah (Dec. 3), Saint Mary's (Dec. 14), Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25 in Honolulu)
The rest: UT-Arlington (Nov. 8), Simpson (Nov. 15), Seattle (Nov. 19), at New Orleans (Nov. 23), Portland State (Nov. 29), Carroll (Dec. 5)
Toughness scale: 5 -- Boise State has a one-way ticket to Kentucky, and that's enough to warrant a decent grade. The Broncos, likely picked second in the MWC, needed to test themselves. The home games against Saint Mary's and Utah will certainly push them as well. Boise State is the potential favorite in Hawaii but will have to get past the hometown Warriors, which is no easy task. Iowa State is a possible finalist on the other side of the bracket. But this tourney could be Boise's breakout heading into the MWC, short of upsetting Kentucky at Rupp.
Toughest: at Gonzaga (Nov. 11)
Next toughest: at UTEP (Nov. 19), New Mexico State (Nov. 30), Colorado (Dec. 3)
The rest: UCCS (Nov. 8), Weber State (Nov. 16), Northern Colorado (Nov. 22), Prairie View A&M (Nov. 25), Bethune-Cookman (Nov. 27), Southwestern Oklahoma State (Dec. 7), Denver (Dec. 11), UIC (Dec. 23), Lamar (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 5 -- The Rams will have quite a chore winning at Gonzaga and UTEP. These are two quality games for Larry Eustachy. Getting New Mexico State and Colorado at home is a huge plus for a team rebuilding after an NCAA tournament run last March. The rest of the slate is fine, considering the inexperience at a number of key positions.
Toughest: vs. Florida (Dec. 21 in Sunrise, Fla.)
Next toughest: at Pittsburgh (Nov. 12), at Utah (Dec. 7), at Cal (Dec. 14)
The rest: at UC Irvine (Nov. 8), Cal State Northridge (Nov. 16), Cal Poly (Nov. 20), San Diego Christian (Nov. 25), Drake (Nov. 29), CSU Bakersfield (Nov. 30), Northern Arizona (Dec. 1), UC Merced (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 6 -- The Bulldogs are still in rebuilding mode, but Rodney Terry put together a rough schedule to get to MWC play. Florida is an elite team. Going on the road to Pitt, Utah and Cal would be tough for most clubs, regardless of what rebuilding stage they were in. The pressure will be on the Bulldogs to clean up the rest at home to ensure there is some momentum going into the conference.
Toughest: Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 28-29)
Next toughest: at Cal (Dec. 10), Iona (Dec. 22)
The rest: Montana Tech (Nov. 4), Pacific (Nov. 8), at Cal Poly (Nov. 12), at San Francisco (Nov. 15), at CSU Bakersfield (Nov. 18), Chattanooga (Nov. 22), Morehead State (Nov. 24), at UC Davis (Dec. 7), Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 14), Long Beach State (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 5 -- The Wolf Pack were stuck at the bottom of the MWC last season, so this is a critical year for David Carter. Nevada has three high-level games, all away from Reno, with two of them in Vegas against Missouri and UCLA. No one would expect the Pack to win any of them, but Carter will test his team with those three. There are plenty of other potential hiccups -- even at home with games like Pacific, Iona and Long Beach State.
Toughest: vs. Kansas (Dec. 14 in Kansas City), vs. Marquette (Dec. 21 in Las Vegas)
Next toughest: Cincinnati (Dec. 7), Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24), at New Mexico State (Dec. 4), New Mexico State (Dec. 17)
The rest: Alabama A&M (Nov. 9), Charleston Southern (Nov. 17), San Diego (Nov. 30), Grand Canyon (Dec. 23)
Toughness scale: 9 -- The Lobos did an exceptional job of getting quality games away from home like Kansas, Marquette, Cincinnati and the rivalry home-and-home games with the Aggies. If the Mountain West favorites play up to expectations, the Lobos will be well-prepared for the MWC and for an NCAA tourney run. The Charleston Classic also offers a possible power-rating game with UMass in the semifinals, assuming they meet.
SAN DIEGO STATE
Toughest: Arizona (Nov. 14), at Kansas (Jan. 5)
Next toughest: Wooden Legacy (Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in Fullerton and Anaheim, Calif.), Washington (Dec. 8)
The rest: UC Riverside (Nov. 8), San Diego Christian (Nov. 20), Southern Utah (Dec. 18), McNeese State (Dec. 21), St. Katherine College (Dec. 27)
Toughness scale: 8 -- This is a quality schedule for Steve Fisher's club. Going to Kansas is as tough a game as any team can get on the schedule. Arizona has become a rivalry game for the Aztecs, and the Wildcats will be one of the best teams in the country. The Wooden Legacy provides elite competition, too, with either Creighton or Arizona State -- two high-level teams -- on the second day. Washington has upper-level Pac-12 talent as well.
SAN JOSE STATE
Toughest: at Santa Clara (Nov. 12)
Next toughest: at Houston (Dec. 7)
The rest: Milwaukee (Nov. 15 in DeKalb, Ill.), at Northern Illinois (Nov. 16), James Madison (Nov. 17 in DeKalb, Ill.), at Pepperdine (Nov. 20), Cal State Fullerton (Nov. 23), at Portland (Nov. 27), at Weber State (Nov. 30), UC Davis (Dec. 18), Westminster (Dec. 21), Pacifica (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 2 -- Going to Santa Clara, an upstart in the WCC, and Houston out of the American will be tall tasks for the Spartans. The first-time MWC member clearly tried to tone down the slate a bit in advance of conference play. But the chances of San Jose State getting high-profile home games is highly unlikely.
Toughest: at Arizona (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Arizona State (Nov. 19), Illinois (Nov. 26)
The rest: Portland State (Nov. 8), UC Santa Barbara (Nov. 12), Nebraska-Omaha (Nov. 15), Tennessee-Martin (Nov. 30), at Southern Utah (Dec. 14), Radford (Dec. 18), Sacred Heart (Dec. 20), vs. Santa Clara (Dec. 22 at Orleans Arena), vs. Mississippi State/South Florida (Dec. 23 at Orleans Arena)
Toughness scale: 5 -- The Runnin' Rebels probably made up this schedule before all of the attrition on the roster. Still, UNLV has a multitude of quality games, with only the Arizona game being away from home. If UNLV wants to make a run in the MWC, it needs to take care of business at home with a schedule that is overwhelmingly prejudiced toward the Thomas & Mack Center.
Toughest: BYU (Nov. 30 in Salt Lake City)
Next toughest: USC (Nov. 8), Mississippi State (Nov. 23)
The rest: Southern Utah (Nov. 12), at UC Santa Barbara (Nov. 16), at Weber State (Nov. 26), Pacific (Dec. 7), Utah Valley (Dec. 14), Western Illinois (Dec. 19), UC Santa Barbara (Dec. 20), Troy (Dec. 21), San Diego Christian (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 4 -- The Aggies get loads of credit for making more of an effort to upgrade the schedule in their first year in the league. Coach Stew Morrill is usually not willing to go places, but he does have the rivalry game against BYU as well as USC at home. Mississippi State is the return of a home-and-home series.
Toughest: at Colorado (Nov. 13), at Ohio State (Nov. 25)
Next toughest: at Denver (Dec. 15), SMU (Dec. 20)
The rest: Tennessee-Martin (Nov. 8), Western State (Nov. 10), Arkansas State (Nov. 16), Jackson State (Nov. 18), South Dakota (Nov. 22), Montana State (Nov. 30), Black Hills State (Dec. 2), Northern Colorado (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale: 4 -- The Cowboys are going on the road to Ohio State, something that is not the norm for Larry Shyatt, who has always worked the schedule to his advantage and not played a high number of upper-level games. The rivalry game with Colorado is always a difficult one. Going to Denver may be close, but the Pioneers have become one of the better squads out West. SMU returns on the back end of a home-and-home series, but this time the Mustangs are much more formidable.
Top 10 teams that will tumble in 2013-14:
10. Gonzaga: For the first time in school history, the Zags recorded a No. 1 ranking and a top seed in the Big Dance. Their early tournament exit ended their season on a sour note, but the program reached new heights in 2012-13. Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk comprised one of the toughest frontcourts in America. Harris (14.6 PPG, 7.4 RPG) was a rugged forward who had finesse and power. Olynyk (17.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG) was the best combo forward in America. He had an underrated post game too. The duo created matchup problems for every team they faced last season. And now both players are gone. Kevin Pangos and multiple members of a respectable backcourt are back, but that Olynyk-Harris combo was special. There’s still enough talent in Spokane to win the WCC and reach the NCAA tournament, but the Zags won’t be the national title contenders they appeared to be through the 2012-13 campaign.
9. Cincinnati: Coach Mick Cronin had one of the nation’s top backcourts last season. Now, two members of a trio that anchored his 22-win NCAA tournament team -- JaQuon Parker and Cashmere Wright -- are gone. Sean Kilpatrick, the team’s leading scorer, returns. But a Cincinnati squad that struggled with consistent scoring benefited from Parker’s and Wright’s ability to stretch the floor. Both shot better than 36 percent from behind the 3-point line. Kilpatrick could be a one-man show in 2013-14, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. The toughest void for the Bearcats (14th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) could be the defensive deficit created by the departure of Cheikh Mbodj (2.6 BPG). There are holes everywhere for this Bearcats squad.
8. Detroit: Ray McCallum Jr. turned down offers from powerhouse programs to play for his father, Ray McCallum Sr. With McCallum at point guard, Detroit reached the NCAA tournament in 2012 after the Titans won the Horizon League tournament. But he’s gone now. And he’s not the only key player that Detroit will miss. The Titans have lost their top four scorers from last season. Somehow, Detroit must find respectable offensive contributors who can make up for the loss of McCallum (18.7 PPG), Nick Minnerath (14.6 PPG), Jason Calliste (14.4 PPG) and Doug Anderson (12.1 PPG). McCallum could face his toughest season as a head coach in 2013-14.
7. San Diego State: It’s fair to say that San Diego State underachieved last season. The Aztecs finished in a tie for fourth in the stacked Mountain West Conference. Then they were stopped in the third round of the Big Dance by Florida Gulf Coast. Not a shameful showing, but their potential suggested that they had a higher ceiling. Well, that ceiling is lower now with the loss of four of the team’s top six scorers from last season. Jamaal Franklin and Chase Tapley were two of the Aztecs’ top defenders too. Franklin wasn’t the game’s most efficient player (3.4 TPG, 28 percent from the 3-point line), but he was the guy with the ball in his hands when the Aztecs needed a big play. Whom will they turn to next year? Steve Fisher seems to have more questions than answers right now.
6. Butler: Rotnei Clarke (16.9 PPG) and Andrew Smith (11.3 PPG) have moved on. That’s a challenge for the program because they formed a potent inside-outside combo. But Roosevelt Jones, Khyle Marshall and Kellen Dunham remain. So Butler can find buckets in 2013-14. The Bulldogs are on this list, however, because Brad Stevens will not be on the sideline next season. Brandon Miller has a strong pedigree. I don’t doubt his coaching acumen. But Stevens is making millions in the NBA because he has the rare ability to extract every ounce of talent from his players. At Butler, they were devoted to him and his system. That combination of buy-in and strategy led to amazing highs in recent years. Even though Miller is in the Butler family, this is still a transition. And it’s a transition without the mastermind who made Butler a household name. The Bulldogs may fall before they establish their footing under Miller.
5. Georgetown: First, Otto Porter turned pro. Then Greg Whittington tore an ACL, jeopardizing his status for next season. Yes, three starters from last season's squad return, and former UCLA standout Josh Smith will join the team at midseason. And that helps. Markel Starks' presence is a major boost for the program too. But who will create offensive opportunities for a team that registered just 64.6 PPG (247th nationally) with a lottery pick running the show? That number doesn’t tell the full story of Georgetown basketball in 2012-13. The Hoyas were fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. But Porter’s versatility eased the defensive responsibilities of his teammates. With a healthy Whittington, however, the latter will be a minimal concern for John Thompson III’s program. But there’s no guarantee that Whittington will be ready in time to help Georgetown in 2013-14. And that’s a problem.
4. Indiana: Yogi Ferrell is back. That’s the good news for Tom Crean. The bad news? Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo are in the NBA. Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls are gone too. Although Indiana entered last season as a preseason pick by many to win the national title, similar hype will not follow the Hoosiers into the 2013-14 season. They have three top-100 kids, including five-star recruit Noah Vonleh, in their incoming class. And multiple players who contributed in spurts last season will earn more minutes. So there’s enough talent in Bloomington to register another NCAA tournament bid. But the Hoosiers were the No. 1 team in America in multiple stretches last season. I can’t imagine the young program rivaling that effort next season.
3. Temple: Remember when Khalif Wyatt dropped 31 points in Temple’s win over NC State in the NCAA tournament? Remember when he did it again versus Indiana two days later? Wyatt’s offensive explosiveness helped Temple beat teams that were more talented than the Owls last season. He scored 33 points in his team’s win over Syracuse in December. He recorded 30 points when the Owls defeated VCU in early March. Now, Wyatt and sidekick Scootie Randall have left the stage. That’s a combined average of 31.8 PPG, 2.7 SPG and 6.1 APG.
2. Minnesota: Can a team that went 8-10 in the Big Ten tumble? Yep, especially if that team is implementing a new system with a limited talent pool. Andre Hollins and Austin Hollins could be all-Big Ten performers next season, but the void created when Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams exhausted their eligibility will be a challenge for new coach Richard Pitino. Plus, Joe Coleman transferred from a team that reached the Big Dance and beat UCLA in the second round. Pitino’s fast-paced, pressure system could work in the Big Ten, but he needs the right pieces to make that happen. He just doesn’t appear to have them yet.
1. Miami: Last season, Miami had it all. The hoopla that followed the surging Hurricanes included courtside appearances by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. It was a great ride for the program. But a new reality will soon take hold as Miami coach Jim Larranaga attempts to replace Shane Larkin, Julian Gamble, Kenny Kadji, Reggie Johnson, Trey McKinney Jones and Durand Scott. Those veterans were responsible for one of the ACC’s and the nation’s top defensive attacks (28th in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com). His rebuilding effort will commence in a league that will add Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame next season. Hard times ahead for the Hurricanes.
2. UConn and Florida have locked in a home-and-home series that will start at UConn on Dec. 2 and end with the Huskies returning the game during the 2014-15 season. The Huskies have one of the best nonconference schedules and adding the Gators makes it even tougher. The Huskies could end up playing brand names from the SEC, Pac-12 (Stanford), ACC (Maryland) and possibly the Big Ten (Indiana). Meanwhile, the Gators have a stellar slate too with a road game at Wisconsin (Nov. 12), Florida State (Nov. 29), at UConn (Dec. 2), Kansas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge (Dec. 10) and against Memphis in the Jimmy V Classic (Dec. 17).
3. San Diego coach Bill Grier had told his staff he was thrilled that he did not have to coach against Tulane's Josh Davis anymore after facing him in consecutive seasons. But then Davis transferred to San Diego State, and the Aztecs plays USD every year. Davis will be immediately eligible and Grier said Monday he couldn't believe he will have to face him again. San Diego State also plays host to Arizona, Washington, plays at Kansas and goes to the new Wooden Legacy tournament in Fullerton and Anaheim. SDSU coach Steve Fisher said he put off playing a game at Cincinnati for next season to the following season in 2014-15.
UNLV’s Dave Rice can sell prospects on the possibility of becoming the next Larry Johnson or Shawn Marion. New Mexico’s Craig Neal and Fresno State’s Rodney Terry can brag about the accomplishments of first-round draft picks Danny Granger and Paul George.
Nevada has three players (Luke Babbitt, Ramon Sessions and JaVale McGee) in the NBA and Jason Smith has given folks a reason to hope at Colorado State.
Here’s a look at the 10 MWC products who have enjoyed the most successful pro careers since 1989, the year the NBA draft was whittled down to two rounds.
[Editor's note: The Mountain West didn't begin play until 1999-2000, but we are counting any draftee who has played at a current MWC school since 1989. The departed schools aren't totally forgotten, though. Any player who participated in Mountain West league play is eligible for this list, regardless of whether their alma mater has since departed the conference.]
1. Larry Johnson, UNLV -- The No. 1 pick in the 1991 draft had a solid pro career, but back problems kept Johnson from becoming the perennial All-Star as so many expected after he led UNLV to the 1990 NCAA title and 1991 Final Four. Johnson averaged 16.2 points and 7.5 rebounds in 10 NBA seasons. He was named Rookie of the Year in 1992, when he averaged 19.2 points and a career-high 11 rebounds. Johnson retired in 2001.
3. Danny Granger, New Mexico -- A small forward, Granger was named the NBA’s Most Improved Player after averaging 25.8 points for Indiana in 2008-09. He averaged 21.2 points over the next three seasons before knee problems limited him to five games in 2012-13. The No. 17 pick in the 2005 draft is averaging 18.1 points in seven NBA seasons. Granger was a two-time All-MWC selection at New Mexico.
4. J.R. Rider, UNLV -- His on-court success was often overshadowed by legal problems, but still, Rider’s NBA career certainly had its share of bright moments. He averaged 16.7 points in nine NBA seasons, including 19 or more points four times. He made the All-Rookie team in 1994 and posted a career-best scoring average of 20.4 points the following season. He was waived in November 2001 after playing 10 games for Denver.
5. Paul George, Fresno State -- The 6-foot-8 small forward just completed his breakout season, averaging 17.4 points and 7.6 rebounds for the Indiana Pacers in his third year as a pro. Even more impressive is that George averaged 19 points in the playoffs to lead his team within one game of the NBA Finals. No one will be surprised if the third-team All-NBA selection is an All-Star for years to come.
6. Andrew Bogut, Utah -- Bogut became the first Australian-born player to be selected No. 1 overall when Milwaukee made him the first pick in the 2005 draft. The 7-foot center now plays for Golden State. Bogut has averaged a double-double in three of his seven NBA seasons and is averaging 12.2 points and 9.2 rebounds for his career. He also swats an average of 1.7 shots. He was third-team All-NBA in 2010.
7. Rafer Alston, Fresno State -- A second-round draft pick in 1999, Alston struggled in his first four NBA seasons before finding his groove with the Miami Heat in 2003-04. He averaged 10.2 points and 4.5 assists that season and would average 30-plus minutes a game for the next five years. His best season came in 2003-04, when he averaged 14.2 points and 6.4 assists for Toronto. Alston played his final NBA game in 2010.
8. Kenny Thomas, New Mexico -- A first-round pick in 1999, Thomas averaged 9.3 points and 6.9 rebounds in 11 NBA seasons. He scored 14.1 points per game for Houston in 2001-02 and posted a career-high 10.1 rebounds in 2003-04 while playing for Philadelphia. That season he was one of 11 NBA players to average a double-double. Thomas played his last game in 2010.
9. Stacey Augmon, UNLV -- “Plastic Man” enjoyed a long NBA career after leading UNLV to the NCAA title. He played in 1,001 games in 15 NBA seasons but averaged only eight points. Augmon averaged five points or fewer in his final 10 seasons, but his defensive prowess kept him on NBA rosters. Augmon was a three-time winner of the NABC’s National Defensive Player of the Year award at UNLV.
10. Greg Anthony, UNLV -- The point guard for UNLV’s 1990 championship squad was an NBA journeyman who played for five teams in 11 professional seasons. An average outside shooter but an excellent assists man and defender, Anthony averaged four assists and 1.2 steals over the course of his career. His best season came in 1995-96, when he averaged 14 points and 6.9 assists for Vancouver.
Five more notables (names in alphabetical order):
Keon Clark, UNLV
Luc Longley, New Mexico
JaVale McGee, Nevada
Theo Ratliff, Wyoming
Ramon Sessions, Nevada
Too soon to tell: These guys haven’t been in the league long enough to make the top 10, but might get there soon enough (names in alphabetical order).
Jimmer Fredette, BYU
Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State
Greg Smith, Fresno State
2. San Diego State built a schedule to go with a possible Big West conference slate. But then the Aztecs were able to stay in the NCAA tournament-bid rich Mountain West. This means coach Steve Fisher felt he had to dial back his schedule a bit. Fisher has asked Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin to put off a road game in Cincinnati for a year. The problem is the Bearcats have to agree and will only do so if Cincinnati can find an appropriate alternative at home. UC can’t just give up a quality home game without finding a replacement. The Aztecs are already playing home games against Arizona and Washington. They go to Kansas and they have the rivalry game with San Diego. They are also in the Anaheim Classic with Big East favorites Marquette and Creighton as well as possible Pac-12 sleeper team in Arizona State. The MWC will have 18 conference games with the additions of Utah State and San Jose State.
3. St. John’s coach Steve Lavin is confident about the momentum in the offseason. Lavin listed these facts: Orlando Sanchez got a year of eligibility for next season, they won a close game in the NIT, point guard Rysheed Jordan signed, Jakarr Sampson decided to stay instead of leaving for the NBA, a total of 14 players will return when redshirts and walk-ons are included, and the anticipation that the Red Storm will make a major step forward in the new Big East. The safe picks to push for bids are Marquette, Creighton, Georgetown, Villanova, Butler and Xavier. But St. John’s may be a better pick than Providence if there is going to be a team pushing the above six for a spot in 2014.
PHILADELPHIA -- A quick look at Florida Gulf Coast's 81-71 win over San Diego State on Sunday.
Overview: Not too long ago San Diego State was a sort of Cinderella. Back in 2002, Steve Fisher led the Aztecs to their first NCAA tournament game in 17 years, and just two seasons ago, SDSU signaled its arrival with a Sweet 16 bid.
But there are Cinderellas and then there is Florida Gulf Coast, as improbable a story as you might ever see in college basketball. The university only admitted its first student 16 years ago, only transitioned into Division I two seasons ago.
And yet the Eagles, a team that finished second in the Atlantic Sun, is now the first No. 15 seed to make it to the Sweet 16.
FGCU is now officially America’s team, but the Eagles are no fluke. They are talented, with high-flying, energy-soaring ability and a confidence that belies their severely low-major status.
San Diego State was in a game … and then all of a sudden, it wasn’t. The Aztecs got run over much like Georgetown did on Friday, and by the time they looked up it was too late.
FGCU was packing for Dallas.
Turning point: Taking a page out of its opening-game handbook, FGCU busted loose at the start of the second half. The Eagles found their gas pedal and their style of play, using a 10-2 run -- many off turnovers and fast-break points -- to take the game out of the Aztecs' hands.
Key player: Brett Comer. The point guard who is equal parts savvy and daring completely controlled the tempo and the game for the Eagles. A game after dishing out 10 assists to two turnovers against Georgetown, the sophomore handed out 14 with just three miscues. His passes were simple at times and oh-my-goodness amazing at others. And the 14 doesn't do what he did to the game justice. It was dynamic and overwhelming.
Key stat: San Diego State committed 16 turnovers and that's a killer against a team that feasts off points in transition. The mistakes led to countless runouts and easy buckets for Florida Gulf Coast.
Next: Florida Gulf Coast will play Florida in the Sweet 16 in Dallas. Big brother, little brother and all that.
They went to an NIT game on the Queens campus of St. John’s. Enfield hoped to impress Marcum by taking her out to a nice dinner before tipoff, but when he got to Queens, he realized he didn’t have a clue about where to eat.
He decided to hit the student union, figuring there would be a chain restaurant there. There was.
“The only thing that was open was a Taco Bell,” he said. “I got her a nice little burrito and we sat behind the bench and I figured if she still likes me after Taco Bell and a basketball game ...”
Roommates turned frenemies
“He was just a normal roommate,” Duke’s Ryan Kelly said of Creighton’s Doug McDermott, his bunkmate at Amar’e Stoudemire camp in Chicago this summer. “It was nothing exciting.”
It could be a different story on Sunday, when Duke and Creighton go head-to-head for a shot at the Sweet 16 and Kelly guards one of the nation’s best scorers.
That the two players -- one is from North Carolina and plays in the ACC, the other is from Iowa and plays in the Missouri Valley -- know each other personally speaks to how small the basketball world has gotten.
Between high school summer-league teams traversing the country and all-star camps like the one in Chicago, there’s little anonymity among most of the nation’s top players anymore.
“Ryan was a great roommate -- always reminded me what time we had to leave or be in the lobby,” McDermott said. “I got a chance to pick his brain a little bit because we kind of play similar. When we got to the gym, I saw some of his moves and he taught me some of them. It will be cool playing against him.”
Steve Fisher knows FGCU
While the rest of the world tries to figure out just where Florida Gulf Coast is, San Diego State coach Steve Fisher is already clued in about his round-of-32 opponent.
He actually has a condo in nearby Fort Myers. (Yes, feel free to ask why a man who lives in San Diego needs to have a condo on another beach.) He bought it back when he got his first head-coaching gig and has held onto it since, making at least one visit a year there with friends after the season ends.
Fisher watched the university literally rise from the swamp and even toured the campus.
More important for this NCAA tournament, Fisher knows what the Eagles are all about. He’s thoroughly uninterested in their seed or their underdog status and more interested in their personnel and how they play.
“If we were playing a shirts and skins game with all 64 teams and you brought all the teams out there and watched them warm up, you’d be hard-pressed to say, ‘Well, this is a team that’s not supposed to win,” he said. “They’re good. They’re talented. They’re well-coached and they played terrific last night.”
“We’re not the Yankees. [Seth] Curry doesn’t come back every year. We still don’t have [J.J.] Redick. [Christian] Laettner left a long time ago. If he was Mariano Rivera, we’d still have Laettner.” -- Mike Krzyzewski on comparisons to his team’s dominance -- and perceived national dislike -- with the New York Yankees.
Editor's Note: To read O'Neil's feature on Florida Gulf Coast's Brett Comer, click here.
Boise State is one of them now following Wednesday’s 73-67 loss to San Diego State. Even though the Broncos said they’re confident they’ve done enough to earn a berth, they could still use a little help.
“Hopefully,” Marks said, “the right teams lose.”
Boise State probably wouldn’t be in wait-and-see mode if it had taken care of business in the quarterfinals of the Mountain West tournament Wednesday at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Marks (4-of-22) and Anthony Drmic (7-of-20) combined to make just 11 of their 42 field goal attempts. Each entered the game shooting about 45 percent.
“I don’t know what happened,” Drmic said. “We did the same thing we do before every game. We came in confident, loose. It’s hard putting up a performance like that in a big game. It happens sometimes, but it’s unfortunate that it happened tonight.”
As much as they struggled to find their shooting touch -- Marks missed his first 12 shots --- the Broncos certainly didn’t go down without a battle. Leon Rice's squad trailed 49-36 with 11:48 remaining but fought back to take a 50-49 lead on a pair of foul shots by Drmic.
San Diego State, though, responded with a 6-0 run that gave the Aztecs all the momentum they would need to close out the game. Steve Fisher’s squad made 14 of 15 free throws down the stretch.
Boise State went 1-2 against the Aztecs this season, with the three games being decided by a total of 11 points.
“That’s a really good basketball team we just lost to,” Rice said. “They were dialed in. They played terrific defense and got us a little flustered.”
Especially Drmic and Marks.
“I saw frustration on their faces,” Rice said. “You can’t play like that.”
San Diego State got 17, 18 and 19 points, respectively from Chase Tapley, Xavier Thames and Jamaal Franklin. Still, after the game, the buzz centered on Boise State’s postseason hopes.
“Boise State, without question, deserves to be in the NCAA tournament,” Fisher said. “The league is so good ... if Boise doesn’t get in the tournament, I’m going to demand a revote.”
San Diego State, New Mexico, UNLV and Colorado State are virtual locks to make the 68-team field. Things aren’t as certain when it comes to the Broncos, who are now 21-10. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi dropped Boise State out of the “at-large” field following Wednesday’s loss and now lists the Broncos as the “first team out.”
The move is somewhat understandable.
Boise State’s only head-turning win in nonconference play came against Creighton, but league victories against UNLV, Colorado State and San Diego State give them four high-quality W’s, which is more than some bubble teams can say.
Other highlights that could impress the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee include a close road loss (74-70) at Michigan State and victories in seven of their past 10 games prior to Wednesday.
Rice said he won’t spend the next few days listening to bubble talk and stressing about his team’s postseason hopes.
Asked if he was nervous, Rice said: “No, no. If you look at our résumé with four top-50 wins, I think 16 top-100 games ... we went out and played people. We played people in the preseason. We played on the road at Michigan State and at Creighton. We played at Utah on (Rick) Majerus Night. That was a big night there.
“I think the committee really (considers) that. Did you go out and schedule? Did you play a lot of high-level teams? There are some teams we’re talking about getting in that have one top-50 win. We’ve done everything we could.”
Except beat San Diego State Wednesday.
“Even if you win this one, you never know,” Drmic said. “Anything can happen. We’ve done the best that we could. It’s in the committee’s hands. We’re just going to pray, I guess.”
1. I don’t trust Florida anymore. Sometimes, the numbers lie. Sometimes, a team with dazzling stats fails to justify the analytic mechanisms that elevate it. That could be the case with Florida. The BPI, the RPI, Ken Pomeroy and Sagarin all love the Gators. Per the film, however, I see problems. The same Florida team that amassed a plus-18.8-points-per-game scoring margin in SEC play entering Saturday’s 61-57 loss at Kentucky (more on that soon) and crushed Marquette and Wisconsin in November has suffered four road losses in February alone. The Gators were outplayed by Arizona and Kansas State off campus in the nonconference portion of their schedule. Sure, they’ve spent of a chunk of the season punching teams in the mouth, but they’re 0-5 in games decided by six points or fewer and haven't beaten a single top-50 RPI team in a road game. And we really haven’t seen that dominant version of Florida, which began SEC play with historic margins of victory, in a month. Who are the Gators now? Well, the final minutes of the Kentucky loss told their story. They’re balanced and talented, but they fumbled in the last stretch of that loss because they couldn’t find that catalyst, that Ben McLemore/Marcus Smart/Doug McDermott/Trey Burke, to lead them beyond the funk that ruined the moment. They did not score in the last seven-plus minutes of the second half. They were the veterans, but they played like freshmen. It’s tough to believe in this program’s postseason potential when it continues to suffer road losses against hungry SEC opponents that don’t match them on paper. Guess what they’ll have to do to advance in the NCAA tournament? Beat hungry underdogs outside Gainesville. Yes, Kentucky re-entered the bubble convo with this win, but Florida did little to prove that it’s worthy of its statistical hype. Again.
2. Marcus Smart and the national/Big 12 POY conversation. Listen, I think Trey Burke deserves national player of the year, but I might change my mind if Victor Oladipo outplays him tomorrow. Here’s the general Burke argument -- and it’s a convincing one -- that circulates within college basketball media circles: “If you take him off that team, there’s no way they’re top 10 and competing for a Big Ten title.” And that’s accurate. I can’t argue against that. Here’s another one to consider: “If you take Marcus Smart off Oklahoma State’s roster, you probably have the team that finished 7-11 in league play last season and not the 13-5 team that’s competed for the Big 12 title in 2012-13.” Smart is the Big 12 player of the year. I like McLemore, Jeff Withey and Rodney McGruder, but Smart deserves the honor following his performance (21 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals) in Saturday’s 76-70 win over Kansas State, a victory that jeopardized the Wildcats’ hopes of winning a Big 12 title. He should be a legit candidate for national POY, too.
3. The sad conclusion to Georgetown-Syracuse. Following his team’s 61-39 loss at Georgetown on Saturday, Jim Boeheim told reporters, “I’m pretty much ready to go play golf someplace. If I was 40 years old, I would be real upset. I’m not 40 years old. That should be obvious.” That comment and his team’s lackluster finish to the regular season (1-4 in its last five) will continue to fuel the retirement speculation that’s surrounded Boeheim for years. John Thompson III might have won national coach of the year honors with his team’s Big East title-sealing win. But the lopsided effort -- the Hoyas’ largest margin of victory against Syracuse since 1985 -- offered a melancholy ending to this classic rivalry. Georgetown will join the Catholic 7, and Syracuse will move to the ACC next season. The two may reconnect in the future, but their battles won’t be regulated by league affiliation. So this could be the end, and as a college basketball fan, I wanted to see drama, overtime, controversy in the final seconds, a buzzer-beater, a comeback something. This rivalry deserved that. Instead, we were treated to the sight of one impressive squad smashing an opponent that failed to show up for the conclusion of this storied series.
4. Marquette wins its most crucial bizarre game of the year. The Golden Eagles love the theatrics that tend to define college basketball in March. Their 69-67 win at St. John’s was their fourth overtime game of the season in Big East competition. It was their third conference win by three points or less. Marquette hasn’t forged the prettiest path to the Big East title, but it earned a share of the crown with another gritty victory Saturday. St. John’s launched an impressive comeback in the final minutes that sent the game into overtime. Buzz Williams just smiled as his team prepared for the extra period; he’d been in that position multiple times this season, so his squad didn’t panic. With the game on the line, Vander Blue drove into the lane and beat the buzzer with the layup. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is what Marquette does. A team that was picked to finish in the middle of the standings earned a share of the Big East title. Wow. The Golden Eagles are clearly tough enough to make noise in the NCAA tourney, too.
6. Meet Derrick Marks. In the final seconds of a 69-65 win that might have pushed his Boise State squad into the field of 68, Marks made a split-second decision to contest Xavier Thames' layup with 21 seconds to go. If Thames had made that shot, the Aztecs would have cut Boise State’s lead to one point. But Marks made plays like that all afternoon. The sophomore guard is just one of the reasons that the Broncos could win a game or two in the NCAA tourney -- I’m putting them in the field, although I’m not so sure about San Diego State anymore. Leon Rice’s program is healthy now (eight guys earned minutes against the Aztecs). The Broncos possess an offense that’s ranked 24th in adjusted offensive efficiency per Pomeroy, and they’ve won five of their past six games. Watch out for the Broncos in the coming weeks. Huge victory for that team.
7. Get ready for drama in Nashville. Next week, the SEC tournament will take place in Nashville. This league is packed with bubble squads, and I think that will add to the drama in what could be the most exciting conference tournament of them all. Proof? On Saturday, Alabama beat Georgia on a half-court buzzer-beater, Tennessee overcame a late deficit to secure a key win over Missouri and Kentucky kept its NCAA tournament dreams alive with a victory over Florida. The chaos will continue in Nashville.
8. Florida Gulf Coast becomes first team to dance. The Eagles earned the field’s first automatic NCAA tournament berth with an 88-75 victory over Mercer in the Atlantic Sun tourney championship. This is an Eagles squad that finished 8-10 (tied for sixth) in the conference last season, but their first victory of the 2012-13 season came against a top-10-bound Miami team. Kudos to Andy Enfield’s program.
9. Creighton-Wichita State III. The two Missouri Valley Conference power players split their season series this season. Despite their respective struggles, they were still the league’s top two programs. Their most recent matchup, which the Bluejays won, determined the regular-season champion. Creighton’s 64-43 victory over Indiana State and Wichita State’s 66-51 win over Illinois State in Saturday’s semifinals of the MVC tournament guaranteed a third matchup between the league’s top two teams in Sunday afternoon’s final.
10. Louisville makes statement without five overtimes. So the rematch between Louisville and Notre Dame didn’t match the hoopla of the first game. We didn’t get five overtimes. We didn’t even see one. But the Cardinals continued to support the notion that they’re going to be a very dangerous program in the NCAA tournament with a 73-57 victory over Notre Dame. It was the seventh consecutive victory for a team that’s ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. As a team, the Cardinals shot 51 percent from the floor against the Fighting Irish, and Gorgui Dieng registered 20 points (8-11 FG) and 11 rebounds. The Cards are playing like a Final Four team.
Duke at North Carolina, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN -- No need to prolong the discussion on this one. If you watched college basketball -- ever -- then you know this is a rivalry. One of America’s best, regardless of the sport. Ryan Kelly is back for a Duke team with a renewed vigor. North Carolina has caught fire (six consecutive wins) at the perfect time, and the Tar Heels have finally adjusted to their smaller starting lineup. But that setup is not favorable for a meeting with a squad that will stretch the floor with Kelly on the perimeter.
Prediction: Duke 74, North Carolina 72
Syracuse at Georgetown, noon ET, ESPN -- The Orange were embarrassed in the first meeting. The team had just retired Carmelo Anthony’s jersey. Then it scored 46 points in a home loss to Georgetown on Feb. 23. That was a start of a three-game losing streak that disrupted Cuse’s dreams of securing the Big East title. But Georgetown, locked in a three-way tie for first place, can win a slice of the crown with another victory over Syracuse. The Hoyas should get their scissors ready. Otto Porter Jr. & Co. will cut down the nets Saturday, a fitting conclusion for the end of this rivalry.
Prediction: Georgetown 58, Syracuse 53
Notre Dame at Louisville, 4 p.m. ET, CBS -- In the first meeting, these two squads played the Big East’s longest regular-season matchup. That five-overtime affair was a classic. The Fighting Irish and Cardinals have followed similar paths since Notre Dame earned a win in the game of the 2012-13 season. Louisville is one of three Big East teams that will enter the weekend with a chance to earn a share of the conference crown. Notre Dame can improve its postseason seed with a win. The Fighting Irish (14th in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) have one of the league’s most diverse offensive units. But folks have jumped back on the Louisville bandwagon because its defense (No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency per Pomeroy) is suffocating foes again.
Prediction: Louisville 64, Notre Dame 61
Florida at Kentucky, noon ET, CBS -- Kentucky’s momentum and at-large hopes took a hit when the Wildcats lost at Georgia on Thursday night -- not a strong performance for a bubble team. But Kentucky could secure a bid with a win over the Gators on Saturday. Against the best 3-point shooting team in the SEC, the Wildcats will need strong perimeter defense (SEC opponents shooting 31.1 percent from beyond the arc, fourth in the league) to earn a win. Florida has stumbled a few times this season, but the Gators (plus-18.8 PPG scoring margin in SEC play, No. 1 in the SEC) have been the most dominant squad in the conference. They’ve struggled, however, in road games against desperate teams.
Prediction: Kentucky 65, Florida 64
La Salle at Saint Louis, 1:30 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network -- La Salle might be safe as Selection Sunday approaches, but it’s not wise for any bubble team to make that assumption entering the final weekend of the regular season. The Explorers would end any doubts with a road win over the Billikens. La Salle has held A-10 opponents to a 27.7 percent clip from beyond the arc, first in the conference. It can pull off this upset. They’re capable. There’s just one problem. A very good Saint Louis team is coming off an overtime road loss against Xavier. It wasn’t the Billikens’ best effort. They are back home now and would like to erase that memory. That’s not a good situation for this La Salle squad.
Prediction: Saint Louis 65, La Salle 58
Arizona State at Arizona, 4:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports Net National -- The Pac-12 is a bizarre league, so it makes sense that a four-way tie for first place is a possibility. And it would only make sense that the Wildcats were in the middle of the chaos. Arizona entered the season amid lofty praise and expectations, but it hasn’t been the league’s most dominant team and was swept by UCLA. At least the Wildcats are in the field, though. After five losses in their past seven games, the Sun Devils can’t afford another blemish. Their slim at-large hopes would grow with a win in Tucson. Good luck with that.
Prediction: Arizona 70, Arizona State 63
San Diego State at Boise State, 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC Sports Network -- From mid-January through mid-February, the Broncos struggled. They were 3-6 in that stretch. Then a funny thing happened. Leon Rice’s squad got healthy. Since that rocky chapter, Boise State has won four of its past five games -- a run that has brought the program back into the bubble conversation. The Broncos are shooting 38.2 percent from beyond the arc, first in the Mountain West. The Aztecs have struggled with their perimeter defense, and they’ve lost their past four road games. They’ll lose another road game when they face Boise State.
Prediction: Boise State 74, SDSU 69
Missouri at Tennessee, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN -- This could be a great game for a few reasons. Tennessee is playing for its NCAA tourney future. The Vols might be in; they might be out. A victory over the Tigers would be their eighth win in nine games and minimize any doubt about their status on Selection Sunday. Missouri has really struggled on the road. But the Tigers have won three in a row. They’re rallying late, and Phil Pressey has accepted a role as a distributor (six or more assists in team’s past five games). But Tennessee is facing higher stakes in this matchup. And there’s an old SEC rule that says it’s never a good idea to trust Missouri once it leaves Columbia.
Prediction: Tennessee 70, Missouri 67
Indiana at Michigan, 4 p.m. ET, CBS -- First, the stakes. The Big Ten title is on the line. This game, in the eyes of some voters, could dictate the final outcome for national player of the year honors between Victor Oladipo and Trey Burke. Michigan earned a pair of victories after a surprising loss to Penn State. Indiana has faced criticism following recent losses to Minnesota and Ohio State. But the bottom line is that this is a bad matchup for the Wolverines. The Hoosiers have too many shooters, too much size and too much versatility for this Michigan squad. Burke might win national player of the year, but Oladipo will cut down the net.
Prediction: Indiana 78, Michigan 76
Virginia Commonwealth at Temple, noon ET, CBS -- Shaka Smart’s squad is ranked among the top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency per Pomeroy, but his program’s offensive development hasn’t received as much attention. The Rams have the top scoring offense in the Atlantic 10 (77.7 PPG) and are ranked 15th in adjusted offensive efficiency per Pomeroy. They could take the conference crown with a win over Temple. The Owls have been all over the place this season. They beat Syracuse and then struggled in their first month of conference basketball. But now they’ve won six in a row. That stretch, however, has not featured a team that’s comparable to VCU.
Prediction: VCU 75, Temple 70
On to the final rankings before the selection committee has its say:
1. New Mexico. The Lobos have been the most consistent team from beginning to end. Steve Alford is a legitimate candidate for national coach of the year. UNM got pushed by Nevada in Wednesday's first half, only to find a second gear when it mattered most. The Lobos finish up on the road against pesky Air Force. This won't affect the Lobos' seeding in Vegas, but a loss to the Falcons would ruin any outside shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.
2. UNLV. I'm comfortable putting the Runnin' Rebels back near the top of the MWC, where they were projected in the preseason. UNLV seems to have finally found its rotation and might be peaking at the right time. The Rebels should beat Fresno State at home -- where they'll have the rare treat of remaining for two straight weeks, since UNLV hosts the conference tournament. But that doesn't always translate into a tournament title. UNLV is hardly a lock to cut down the nets.
3. San Diego State. The Aztecs should end up in the third spot. I'm not sold on San Diego State being able to win at Boise State on Saturday, but the Aztecs still have one of the best players in the league in Jamaal Franklin. I still consider San Diego State a tournament title contender and a tough out in the NCAAs. I'm putting a bit more faith in this team by keeping the Aztecs in the top three, where I projected them in the preseason.
4. Colorado State. The Rams have the experience, but have come up short in a few key games of late. CSU needs some momentum going into the NCAAs. The Rams should beat Nevada to close the season and be a tough out in Las Vegas. This team won't get rattled at all. If Colton Iverson can dominate his position, or at the very least hold his own, Colorado State has a chance.
5. Boise State. Last Saturday, Derrick Marks lit up Colorado State with 38 points. The Broncos then nearly beat UNLV on the road. Now they are on the verge of a program-changing win. If Boise State were to beat San Diego State Saturday afternoon, it should be in the NCAA field. If that happens, Leon Rice would have the Broncos way ahead of schedule.
6. Air Force. The Falcons are playing for a possible NIT berth when they host New Mexico on Saturday. Michael Lyons is also looking to secure his spot on the all-conference first team. Air Force should be proud of its efforts. This team overachieved and was in contention throughout the conference race.
7. Wyoming. Injuries and off-court issues have crushed the Cowboys' momentum. Wyoming, which finished its conference season Wednesday, has slid back into the pack, but can still play spoiler in the MWC tournament. Larry Shyatt had this team as one of the last four unbeatens in the country -- but the margin of error was always thin.
8. Fresno State. Rodney Terry has the Bulldogs heading in the right direction. Fresno State has been relevant this season in the conference race. I'll be surprised if this team isn't moving up in the standings in the next two seasons. The key will be for Terry to ensure Save Mart Center is a tough stop for every opponent.
9. Nevada. The Wolf Pack looked as though they were going to get a signature victory against New Mexico but lost 75-62. The problem this season for Nevada has been sustained effort, finding the 40 minutes to finish off games. This has to be addressed.