College Basketball Nation: Tennessee Volunteers
(11) Tennessee vs (2) Michigan
The Wolverines are trying to reach a second straight Elite 8 (lost in title game last year to Louisville). Tennessee has been to just one Elite 8 in its history, when it lost to Michigan State in 2010.
Michigan's hot outside shooting has carried the team in its first two wins. The Wolverines are 21 of 45 from beyond the arc and have made 50 percent of their jump shots, second-best among tournament teams.
Over its last nine games (during which it has gone 8-1) Tennessee has held its opponents to just 26.6 percent shooting on 3-pointers and 27 percent on jump shots.
(8) Kentucky vs (4) Louisville
Get ready for another epic showdown of these Bluegrass state rivals. This is the fourth time in NCAA Tournament history that the previous two national champions will play against each other in the NCAA Tournament.
In each of the three previous occurrences, the defending champion has defeated champion from the previous season.
There will be two key matchups to watch in this game.
The first one is on the offensive glass. The Wildcats rank second in the country in offensive rebound percentage and average 15.6 second-chance points per game, the best among major conferences.
Louisville is not a great defensive rebounding team, ranking 241st in the nation, and was outscored 17-6 in second-chance points by Kentucky in their meeting on Dec. 28.
The other key matchup is whether Kentucky can handle Louisville's pressure defense, which forces 17.4 turnovers per game, the second-most in the country. Louisville is 19-0 this season when forcing 17 or more turnovers; Kentucky is 16-2 when committing 11 or fewer turnovers.
(7) Connecticut vs (3) Iowa State
The only other time these two teams met in the NCAA Tournament was in a Round of 64 win by the Cyclones in 2012. That was Jim Calhoun's final game.
With Georges Niang out for Iowa State and Connecticut lacking a dominant post offense, this game could come down to who executes better on the perimeter.
Iowa State ranks in the top 25 in 3-point attempts per game and 3-pointers made per game this season, while UConn ranks 22nd in the country in 3-point field goal percentage.
Both teams allow their opponents to make more than a third of their shots from beyond the arc, though the Huskies do a better job of limiting 3-point attempts (18.3 per game) than the Cyclones (21.2).
(4) Michigan State vs (1) Virginia
Virginia is hoping to avoid the fate of another recent first-place ACC squad. Last year Miami was the regular-season and postseason ACC champs, and they lost in the Sweet 16 vs Marquette.
The Michigan State seniors are trying to avoid making history as well. Every four-year player under coach Tom Izzo has reached the Final Four, and this is the last chance for Adreian Payne and Keith Appling to make it.
The key matchup to watch in this game will be whether Virginia can slow down the Spartans' fastbreak offense.
Transition makes up 21.9 percent of Michigan State’s offensive plays, the eighth-highest rate in the country, and the Spartans average 18.9 transition points per game, 14th-most in the nation. Virginia allows 7.4 transition points per game, third-fewest in the nation, and only 10.9 percent of Virginia’s defensive plays are transition, the fifth-lowest rate in the country.
KANSAS vs STANFORD
Stanford is the third-most efficient team in the country on pick-and-roll, ball handler plays, averaging more than a point per play on those plays.
Kansas ranks 221st in points per play allowed while defending pick-and-roll, ball handler plays.
That could be a big factor with Joel Embiid not there to protect the rim on pick-and-roll plays.
WICHITA STATE vs KENTUCKY
Kentucky ranks second in offensive rebound percentage (42.1%) and scores 9.4 points per game on offensive rebound putbacks, fifth-most in the country.
Wichita State ranks fifth in the country in defensive rebound percentage (74.2%) and only allows 4.3 points per game on offensive rebound putbacks, 17th-fewest in the country.
IOWA STATE vs NORTH CAROLINA
Iowa State relies heavily on 3-point shooting. The Cyclones rank in the top 25 in 3-point attempts and 3-pointers made per game.
North Carolina is holding teams to 30 percent 3-point shooting in its last 14 games. The Tar Heels have held 13 of their last 14 opponents below 40 percent on 3-point shooting. They're only allowing 5.4 3-pointers per game in their last 14 games.
TENNESSEE vs MERCER
Mercer's opponents are attempting 23.1 3-pointers per game in its last 10 games. Mercer is 9-0 when its opponents attempt at least 24 3-pointers (12-1 when they attempt at least 23), including a win over Duke (37 attempts).
Tennessee hasn't had more than 24 3-point attempts all season. They average 17.1 3-point attempts per game.
UCLA vs STEPHEN F. AUSTIN
UCLA ranks in the bottom 20 of the country in turnover percentage. The Bruins only turn it over on 14.9 percent of their possessions.
Stephen F. Austin forces 16.2 turnovers per game, eighth-most in the country. However, SFA is only forcing 11.6 turnovers per game in its last five games.
CREIGHTON vs BAYLOR
Creighton is 23-1 this season when shooting at least 35 percent on 3-pointers (4-6 when shooting less than 35 percent). Creighton is 15-1 when making at least 11 3-pointers (12-6 when making 10 or fewer).
Baylor's opponents are shooting 38.5 percent on 3-pointers in its last 10 games. Baylor has allowed higher than 40 percent 3-point shooting in five of its last 10 games and at least eight 3-pointers in six of its last 10 games.
VIRGINIA vs MEMPHIS
Memphis ranks second in the country in transition offense with 21.2 points per game. The Tigers rank 21st in transition field goal percentage (59.3%).
Virginia excels in transition defense. The Cavaliers allow seven transition points per game, second-fewest in the country. Virginia also ranks in the top 25 in field goal percentage defense in transition.
Pace will be a factor, as well. Virginia has the third-slowest pace (60.7 possessions per game), while Memphis ranks 34th in pace (71.2 possessions per game).
ARIZONA vs GONZAGA
Gonzaga is very efficient on offense, ranking in the top 10 in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage.
Arizona ranks third in defensive efficiency, allowing 89.5 points per 100 possessions. The Wildcats are 15-0 this season when allowing fewer than 90 points per 100 possessions.
Gonzaga hasn't faced a single team all season that ranks in the top 30 in offensive efficiency.
The national scene is beginning to take shape.
Last Saturday was proof. Kansas dismissed Oklahoma State with ease. Syracuse outplayed a good Pitt team down the stretch in the Carrier Dome. Wichita State remained perfect with a victory over Indiana State. And Louisville topped UConn.
My Tennessee over Kentucky pick looked solid for a chunk of the first half. But the Wildcats just had too many weapons for a Vols squad that's still looking for a signature win.
Let's see what happens this weekend. I mean, let's see what happens with college basketball.
Not the Grammys. But I can predict that, too.
Album of the Year? "Random Access Memories," Daft Punk. Best Country Album? "Based on a True Story," Blake Shelton. Best Rap Album? "Good Kid, M.A.A.D City," Kendrick Lamar. Sorry, Kanye.
Back to college basketball.
Remember, this is just one man's take. And I've been wrong before. Many times.
Disclaimer: Myron Medcalf’s views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of other ESPN.com staffers, especially with regard to that ridiculous thing he said about Syracuse being better than Arizona last weekend.
Last week: 4-1
No. 21 Michigan at No. 3 Michigan State, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: I’m a big boxing fan. I love the hype that builds up a big fight. The biggest letdown, however, is when one fighter suffers a cut or some other injury that ruins the match. It’s deflating. And that’s how I feel about this heavyweight bout between the Big Ten’s best teams. Both Michigan and Michigan State have proved that they can overcome significant injuries. The Spartans haven’t been healthy all season and now there’s a strong chance that they’ll enter Saturday’s game without Adreian Payne (foot) or Branden Dawson (broken hand). Michigan has played most of the season without preseason All-American Mitch McGary. But the Wolverines are not wrestling with their identity. McGary is not coming back. And they’ve adapted to that on their way to becoming an elite team as Nik Stauskas, Caris LeVert and Glenn Robinson III have formed a potent trio. Michigan State remains a team in flux. Tom Izzo’s program has overcome injuries thus far in Big Ten play. But they’ll be costly Saturday when the Spartans suffer their first conference loss of the year. I’ll stick with this pick even if Payne miraculously returns to the floor.
Prediction: Michigan 79, Michigan State 72
Tennessee at No. 6 Florida, 4 p.m. ET, ESPN: In a weird way, Florida is flying under the radar. The Gators are the best team in the SEC. And they haven’t lost since Dec. 2. But there’s a bigger spotlight on some of the other top-10 teams right now. The Gators are clearly dangerous, especially with Wooden Award candidate Casey Prather healthy. Billy Donovan’s program hasn’t been complete for most of the season. And premier recruit Chris Walker is still unavailable because of eligibility issues. But they have the pieces to compete for a national title. The Gators have forced turnovers on 21.9 percent of their opponents’ possessions, 24th in the nation per Ken Pomeroy. They’ll face a desperate Tennessee team that held its own against Kentucky for a half last weekend but couldn’t finish. The Vols need quality wins. But the SEC won’t provide many opportunities to acquire them. They’ll still be searching after Saturday.
Prediction: Florida 74, Tennessee 66
No. 22 Kansas State at No. 16 Iowa State, 1:45 p.m. ET, ESPN3.com/WatchESPN: Bruce Weber could ultimately be in the running for national coach of the year. His best player is a freshman (Marcus Foster). But the Wildcats are 4-2 in the Big 12 after playing some of the best defense in the league (15th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy). But it will be tough to get a win against an Iowa State team that has a chance to end its three-game losing streak in Ames. The Cyclones, however, are connecting on just 28 percent of their 3-point attempts in conference play. That’s a challenge for a program that has taken 40 percent of its overall field goal attempts from beyond the arc in its first five league games. It seems like a matter of time before the 3-ball becomes a more effective weapon for Iowa State again. And that’s vital. This upcoming stretch will make or break its waning Big 12 title dreams.
Prediction: Iowa State 80, Kansas State 79
Florida State at No. 18 Duke, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN: There are a lot of things that make Duke an intriguing team. The Blue Devils have an offense (second in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy) that’s led by a young man who could be a top-three draft pick this summer. And Jabari Parker is joined by steady offensive contributors Rodney Hood and Quinn Cook. But a unit that’s ranked 73rd in adjusted defensive efficiency by Ken Pomeroy can’t be trusted. Although it might not matter against a Florida State squad that has held opponents to a 42.6 effective field goal percentage, sixth in the nation. But Leonard Hamilton’s squad has big, strong guards, plus 6-foot-9 Okaro White could be a tough matchup for a Duke team that has struggled against good big men all season. This won’t be an easy game for Duke.
Prediction: Florida State 73, Duke 70
Texas at No. 24 Baylor, 1:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3.com/WatchESPN: Baylor has been up and down. It’s a confusing cycle for Scott Drew’s program. The Bears have wins over Kentucky and a healthy Colorado. But they’ve lost four of their first five Big 12 games. What’s wrong with Baylor? It isn't playing defense. All of those athletic weapons -- Isaiah Austin, Cory Jefferson and Rico Gathers. But the Bears ranked 103rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. It’s a waste of talent. Baylor should be better. And maybe this game against Texas will allow it to reverse this messy start. But Texas is rolling. The Longhorns are coming off wins against Kansas State and Iowa State. Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley are bullying teams inside. Javan Felix has really matured. It's a bad time to face Texas.
Prediction: Texas 78, Baylor 74
Here are previews for each team in the SEC:
Alabama Crimson Tide
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Ole Miss Rebels
South Carolina Gamecocks
Texas A&M Aggies (FREE)
1. Kentucky: There may be a lonely faction out there in the Internet hinterlands who would assume this argument is about John Calipari. Sorry, but no: Calipari has nothing to prove. Yeah, Robert Morris in the NIT, I know, I know, but come on: We're not even two full years removed from Kentucky's national title. Remember that? When Calipari got the top two picks in the NBA draft to happily settle for the fourth- and fifth-highest percentage of their team's shots en route to a 38-2 championship season? You remember that, right? Clearly, Calipari can mesh a class of hyper-talented freshmen with a mix of almost-equally-talented returners and win a national title, which is the be-all goal of Kentucky's 2013-14 campaign. That exact thing just happened!
No, this designation is about Kentucky's players. Forget Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist; forget John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins; forget Derrick Rose. Calipari has had a lot of crazy recruiting classes in his career, but none of them have come close to this kind of hype. In March, less than 15 hours after the Wildcats' embarrassing loss to Robert Morris, Julius Randle committed to Kentucky. A few hours later, ESPN.com recruiting guru Dave Telep wrote that Calipari's class was the best ever -- better even than Michigan's Fab Five, "the standard bearer for recruiting classes."
So, yeah, Randle and his classmates -- No. 5 ranked Andrew Harrison, No. 7-ranked Dakari Johnson, No. 8-ranked James Young, No. 9-ranked Aaron Harrison, and No. 25-ranked Marcus Lee -- have something to prove. That goes double for disappointing sophomore holdovers Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein. The ceiling here is unfathomable -- like, undefeated-season-unfathomable -- and it's almost impossible to envision Calipari presiding over another disaster. Not with this talent. But it is incumbent upon a very confident, cocksure group to come together, to sublimate their individual desires for the good of the team — all of that boring, cliche stuff. The inverse of "best recruiting class ever" is "most disappointing recruiting class ever," and that's a legacy no one wants to leave behind.
2. Creighton: Doug McDermott's shot to become the first player since Wayman Tisdale and Patrick Ewing to win three straight first-team All-Americans is -- well, it's a lot of things. It's fantastic shorthand for the evolution (devolution?) of college basketball in the past 20 years. It's a fascinating footnote in the narrative of a player whose father didn't even recruit him to play at Iowa State. And, of course, it's testament to McDermott's consistent individual brilliance. What it is not is a sign of Creighton's collective national success. McDermott has been must-watch viewing these past two seasons, and his teams have been just as brilliant offensively -- free-flowing, smart, up-tempo, fun. But because the Bluejays have never quite built a solid defense on the other end of the floor, they've been limited -- unable to get big stops when they need them in the NCAA tournament. This year, individual brilliance and offensive aesthetics will be old hat. This year, Creighton is expected to do even more. First, they have to prove they can guard.
3. Tennessee: Last fall, when myself, Myron Medcalf, Fran Fraschilla and Joe Lunardi convened for our first-ever college basketball draft, I got lost in the Jarnell Stokes hype. A young freshman who joined Tennessee a semester early in 2011-12, Stokes had helped the Vols surge late in a previously nondescript season, and looked poised to dominate the low block all season in 2012-13. Not so much. Part of that was Stokes' fault -- his desire to prove his power forward bonafides to NBA scouts took him away from the basket, which is a bad idea -- and part of it was the injury to senior forward Jeronne Maymon, who redshirted thanks to a knee injury. After a brief, well-reasoned dalliance with the NBA this spring, Stokes is back, as is Maymon, as is leading scorer and All-SEC first-teamer Jordan McRae -- there's a huge year ahead in Knoxville, Tenn. Now the Vols have to make good on it.
4. Memphis: A lot of this comes down to Joe Jackson. We've discussed this in depth before this offseason, in our list of seniors facing the most pivotal seasons of their careers. (I also discussed that at more length on ESPN Radio in Memphis back in July.) Jackson was No. 1 on that list. But Memphis isn't limited to just one beleaguered-but-still-promising would-be hometown hero. After getting the NCAA tournament win monkey off Josh Pastner's back, this season the Tigers return a veteran backcourt and a massively talented frontcourt and should, by all accounts, be capable of a deep tournament run. (Oh, and there's the new league: The American may not be the old Big East, but it's not recent-vintage Conference USA, either.)
5. VCU: Word out of Richmond is that this may well be Shaka Smart's most talented team, which is something considering the Rams (A) went to the Final Four in 2011 and (B) finished the 2012-13 season ranked No. 16 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings and (C) lost seniors Darius Theus and Troy Daniels. In some ways, the Rams have very little to prove: They have a young, in-demand coach who has quickly morphed an OK basketball program into a very good one; a unique, effectively branded defensive style ("HAVOC"); and a pretty great pep band. So why are they here? Because last season, HAVOC got a little bit gimmicky. That's fine, in so far as it works; I want to go on record saying how much I love watching VCU chase hapless guards around the park. But in 2012-13, the Rams became so dependent on turnovers on the defensive end (and were so bad at checking opposing shooters and chasing down rebounds) that good teams with good point guards -- see, Michigan; Burke, Trey -- could dismantle them with relative ease. This season, the goal is to meld all that HAVOC with some good old-fashioned convention.
6. Virginia: The Cavaliers, like the team directly below them, were a very good team in 2012-13 whose results -- specifically their performance against a dreadful nonconference schedule -- doomed them to the NIT. That can't happen this season, not with Joe Harris shooting 42.5 percent from 3 and looking like a sleeper candidate for ACC Player of the Year, not with senior Akil Mitchell doing quality work on the block, not with all the returning players so expert at Tony Bennett's grinning Wisconsin-style flavor. It's tournament or bust for Virginia, and even that bar is probably too low.
7. Iowa: The Hawkeyes are your other obvious breakout candidate of 2013-14, for many of the same reasons as Virginia: A bad nonconference schedule and a series of brutally close losses during Big Ten play kept an otherwise worthy team (which finished with a top-25 efficiency defense) from gaining widespread national acclaim. Now the hype has turned, and everyone is spending less time talking about the Hawkeyes vis-a-vis the NCAA tournament than their status as a Big Ten title contender. I'm not sure if I'd go that far, but it's clear Iowa has a huge opportunity here. Fran McCaffery finally has a deep, experienced group peppered with genuine high-level collegiate talents, and a defense that will give most of the Big Ten fits. Carver-Hawkeye, so quiet for so much of the past decade, is reaching peak rowdiness levels again. It's time to seal the deal.
8. Boise State: The Broncos did manage to get into the tournament last season, albeit it as a play-in team that failed to survive Dayton. But the appearance was an accomplishment in itself for third-year coach Leon Rice, who has assembled an impressive group of previously unheralded players -- all of whom are back this season. Derrick Marks is an inconsistent but genuinely gifted scorer; Anthony Drmic is a versatile wing with deep 3-point range; Jeff Elorriaga is an even better shooter who made 44.7 percent of his 3s last season; and on down the line. It's the kind of talent that makes any celebration of a No. 12 seed feel quaint. This group is capable of ascending much more notable heights.
9. Oklahoma State: OK, OK, so everyone agrees that Marcus Smart is good at basketball. Smart's decision to return to college despite his Freshman of the Year award-worthy campaign, and the lofty opinions of him at the highest echelons of USA Basketball, have put the Cowboys on the short list of the teams you absolutely need to see this season. Trust me, I'm excited too. But that excitement shouldn't overshadow the fact that Oklahoma State had some issues on the offensive end last season, or the fact that it was summarily stumped by Oregon in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Le'Bryan Nash was the highly touted savior before Smart arrived; he has to live up to his potential. Markel Brown needs to make his overlooked contributions impossible to ignore. And Travis Ford's team needs to find some shooting somewhere -- Phil Forte? Brown? Bueller? -- to compete in the same space as Kentucky, Michigan State, Kansas and
10. Louisville: Yes, Louisville is on this list. Weird, right? I know! But hear me out. Last spring, after four months of (almost) uninterrupted dominance, the Louisville Cardinals won the national title. Soon thereafter, their best player -- arguably the country's best player, period -- announced his intentions to return to school. So did the power forward who put up 15 and 12 in the national title game. So did the swingman who made 12 of his 17 3s, and scored 42 total points, in two Final Four games. This team, by the way, is also adding a universally heralded point guard prospect and two other ESPN 100 recruits. And despite all that, this team is probably not going to start the season ranked No. 1 overall. Even worse? Their rivals, the Kentucky Wildcats, probably will. How's that for something to prove?
Toughest: NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 18-19, Nov. 27/29), Wichita State (Dec. 17), at UCLA (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: vs. Oklahoma (Nov. 8 in Dallas), Xavier (Dec. 21)
The rest: Texas Tech (Nov. 14), North Florida (Dec. 4), at South Florida (Dec. 7), Charleston Southern (Dec. 14), Robert Morris (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- Trevor Releford will have to carry a lot of weight for Anthony Grant’s program this season, even though the Crimson Tide will add a couple of top-100 recruits. His backcourt mate Trevor Lacey transferred to NC State during the offseason. So the turbulence could come early for this program. The NIT Season Tip-Off presents a variety of challenging possibilities. Final Four contender Wichita State will be a handful even though the Shockers travel to Tuscaloosa in mid-December. A road game against Pac-12 contender UCLA in renovated Pauley Pavilion will be difficult for this rebuilding program, too. And the matchups with Oklahoma and Xavier could also be interesting challenges for Bama.
Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27)
Next toughest: SMU (Nov. 18)
The rest: SIU-Edwardsville (Nov. 8), Louisiana (Nov. 15), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 3), Clemson (Dec. 7), Savannah State (Dec. 12), Tennessee-Martin (Dec. 19), South Alabama (Dec. 21), High Point (Dec. 28), Texas-San Antonio (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Arkansas could have been an SEC contender, but BJ Young and Marshawn Powell turned pro. Now, the program will rely on a roster that lost 35.1 PPG from last season. The Razorbacks are young and could feel the fire early. But not often. The Razorbacks open the Maui Invitational against Cal. From there, they could play Syracuse, Baylor or Gonzaga. But it’s more likely that they’ll be matched up against Minnesota in the second round and Dayton or Chaminade on the final day of the tournament. There’s really nothing else here. Larry Brown is building something at SMU, but the Mustangs probably aren’t ready for the Big Dance yet. Only thing holding up this nonconference schedule are a few unlikely matchups in Hawaii.
Toughest: at Iowa State (Dec. 2)
Next toughest: Illinois (Dec. 8), Boston College (Dec. 22)
The rest: Nicholls State (Nov. 8), Northwestern State (Nov. 15), Jacksonville State (Nov. 19), Murray State (Nov. 23), Tennessee State (Nov. 26), Clemson (Dec. 19), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Dec. 30), Florida A&M (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Did a bunch of SEC teams get together and wager on who could assemble the ugliest nonconference schedule? Seems like it. Tony Barbee’s program certainly doesn’t have the worst nonconference slate in the league, but it’s still not great. It’ll be tough to get out of Ames with a win when the Tigers travel to Iowa State in early December and Illinois is rebuilding but John Groce’s team should be tough in his second season. The matchup against Boston College in December will be interesting. Maybe. Auburn is not expected to be a top-half team in the SEC. So perhaps this nonconference arrangement makes sense. To someone.
Toughest: at Wisconsin (Nov. 12), at UConn (Dec. 2), Kansas (Dec. 10), Memphis (Dec. 17)
Next toughest: Florida State (Nov. 29)
The rest: North Florida (Nov. 8), Arkansas-Little Rock (Nov. 16), Southern (Nov. 18), Middle Tennessee (Nov. 21), at Jacksonville (Nov. 25), Savannah State (Dec. 9), Fresno State (Dec. 21), Richmond (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- This nonconference schedule is a beast. Billy Donovan’s program might be the only legitimate obstacle in Kentucky’s path to the SEC crown and the Gators will face a variety of contenders before they collide with Kentucky and the rest of the league. The Kansas matchup could move Florida into a top-five ranking or higher if it gets the win. And it won’t be much fun to play at UConn, a team that boasts one of the nation’s top backcourts. Josh Pastner reloaded at Memphis. And Wisconsin and Middle Tennessee shouldn’t be overlooked in another difficult nonconference slate for a national title contender.
Toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-24)
Next toughest: at Colorado (Dec. 28)
The rest: Wofford (Nov. 8), Georgia Tech (Nov. 15), Appalachian State (Nov. 29), Chattanooga (Dec. 2), Lipscomb (Dec. 14), Gardner-Webb (Dec. 19), Western Carolina (Dec. 21), at George Washington (Jan. 3)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- If Georgia beats Davidson in the opening round of the Charleston Classic, the Bulldogs could move on to face Temple then New Mexico in the championship. But that’s far from a guarantee for a team that lost lottery pick Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to the NBA. The possibility, however, certainly helps. A road game against a Colorado squad that could steal the spotlight from Arizona and UCLA in the Pac-12 will be a challenge for Mark Fox’s squad in late December. Georgia Tech (Nov. 15) returns most of its top players from last season. Not exactly a gauntlet but enough challenges for a team hoping to stay out of the SEC’s basement.
Toughest: vs. Michigan State (Nov. 12 in Chicago), at North Carolina (Dec. 14), Louisville (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: Baylor (Dec. 6 in Arlington, Texas), vs. Providence (Dec. 1 in Brooklyn, N.Y.), Boise State (Dec. 10)
The rest: UNC-Asheville (Nov. 8), Northern Kentucky (Nov. 10), Robert Morris (Nov. 17), Texas-Arlington (Nov. 19), Cleveland State (Nov. 25), Eastern Michigan (Nov. 27), Belmont (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- Is there a rating higher than 10? John Calipari is not going to bring his highly touted recruiting class to Division I basketball with an easy introduction. Just the opposite, in fact. If Kentucky gets through this slate, then the Wildcats will more than justify the hype. They’ll face Michigan State, a team that’s certainly in the national title preseason conversation, in Chicago in early November. They play at Chapel Hill in mid-December. And then, the reigning champ, Louisville, comes to Lexington on Dec. 28. Oh, Baylor and Boise State -- who should both be in the preseason top 25 -- will be thirsty for an upset. The only knock against this lineup is that it features only one true road game. Still, good luck, youngsters.
Toughest: Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)
Next toughest: at UMass (Nov. 12)
The rest: Northwestern State (Nov. 16), New Orleans (Nov. 19), Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 22), UL-Monroe (Dec. 14), at Texas Tech (Dec. 18), UAB (Dec. 21), McNeese State (Dec. 28), Rhode Island (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- In his first season, Johnny Jones went 19-12 with an LSU squad that should be much better this season. Johnny O’Bryant III (15 double-doubles) is back and nationally ranked recruits Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey will give the Tigers one of the best frontcourts in the SEC and, possibly, the nation. LSU’s opening slate, however, is only so-so. Too many subpar opponents. The Old Spice Classic, however, could change that. The Tigers could face both Memphis and Oklahoma State if they get past Saint Joseph’s in the opening round. But those matchups aren’t guaranteed. A road game against Atlantic 10 contender UMass in early November is worth mentioning. The rest of the nonconference schedule? Not so much.
Toughest: at Utah State (Nov. 23), Florida Gulf Coast (Dec. 19)
Next toughest: Las Vegas Classic (Dec. 22-23)
The rest: Prairie View A&M (Nov. 8), Kennesaw State (Nov. 14), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 19), Jackson State (Nov. 27), Loyola-Chicago (Dec. 1), TCU (Dec. 5), Southeastern Louisiana (Dec. 13), Florida A&M (Dec. 17), Maryland Eastern Shore (Jan. 2)
Toughness scale (1-10): 3 -- Last season, Rick Ray’s program was so depleted by injuries, suspensions and departures that he had to use a graduate assistant in practice. And then, the G.A. tore an ACL. It was an unlucky debut for the rookie head coach. Well, the Bulldogs’ early challenges will be limited in 2013-14. A December meeting with last season’s Cinderella, Florida Gulf Coast, could be their toughest nonconference game. It’s never easy to steal a win on the road against Utah State and UNLV might be waiting for the Bulldogs -- if they beat South Florida in the first round -- in the Las Vegas Classic. Not breathtaking but that might be the right fit for this program as it prepares for another challenging season.
Toughest: UCLA (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Illinois (Dec. 21), at NC State (Dec. 28)
The rest: Southeastern Louisiana (Nov. 8), Southern Illinois (Nov. 12), Hawaii (Nov. 16), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 23), IUPUI (Nov. 25), Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 28-29), West Virginia (Dec. 5), Western Michigan (Dec. 15), Long Beach State (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- Frank Haith’s program lost four key players from last season’s underachieving squad, including point guard Phil Pressey. Once again, Haith’s team will have to rebuild chemistry with veterans (Earnest Ross, Jabari Brown) blending with newcomers (a nationally ranked recruiting class). Well, they won’t face much adversity early in the process. Their toughest nonconference opponent, UCLA, travels to Columbia. Rival Illinois will enter 2013-14 with a brand-new roster and limited experience. Other than that? Not much. Games against Northwestern and Nevada in the Las Vegas Invitational are lackluster. Perhaps NC State’s young studs will make a Dec. 28 clash against the Tigers interesting. Not much to get excited about, though.
Toughest: Oregon (Dec. 8 )
Next toughest: Barclays Classic (Nov. 29-30 in Brooklyn, N.Y.), at Kansas State (Dec. 5)
The rest: Troy (Nov. 8), at Coastal Carolina (Nov. 16), Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 22), North Carolina A&T (Nov. 26), Middle Tennessee State (Dec. 14), Louisiana-Monroe (Dec. 18), Mercer (Dec. 22), at Western Kentucky (Dec. 30), Dayton (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- Ole Miss’ offseason has been all about Marshall Henderson, who was suspended indefinitely for reportedly failing a drug test. He could return at some point this season, and if he does, he might have to be better than he was a year ago with Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner gone. The good news for the Rebels is that they won’t have many tests before SEC play. Oregon is probably their toughest nonconference matchup and the Ducks have to replace some talented players from last season. Games against Georgia Tech and (potentially) St. John’s in Brooklyn probably won’t help much on Selection Sunday and a road game against Kansas State would be more interesting if Angel Rodriguez hadn’t transferred to Miami.
Toughest: at Baylor (Nov. 12), Oklahoma State (Dec. 6)
Next toughest: Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25)
The rest: Longwood (Nov. 9), at Clemson (Nov. 17), Florida International (Nov. 24), Manhattan (Dec. 17), USC Upstate (Dec. 19), Akron (Dec. 28), Marshall (Dec. 30), South Carolina State (Jan. 3)
Toughness scale (1-10): 7 -- When he’s not listening to the latest Pitbull hit, Frank Martin is trying to enhance the South Carolina program. That task seemed nearly impossible prior to his arrival, but he’s building. The Gamecocks will take a multitude of losses with seven freshmen on the roster in 2013-14, but a year from now, they could surge up the SEC standings. As for this season a road game against Baylor could be an unpleasant “Welcome to college basketball” moment for South Carolina’s youngsters. Oklahoma State might beat Martin’s squad by 30 or more in early December. The Diamond Head Classic features some talented potential opponents (Iowa State, Boise State), but the Gamecocks might not move past Saint Mary’s in the opening round.
Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30), at Wichita State (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: at Xavier (Nov. 12), NC State (Dec. 18), Virginia (Dec. 30)
The rest: USC Upstate (Nov. 16), The Citadel (Nov. 18), Tennessee State (Nov. 22), Tennessee Tech (Dec. 7), Morehead State (Dec. 23), Tusculum (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Cuonzo Martin will guide one of the league’s -- and nation’s -- sleepers in 2013-14. Yes, the Vols could contend for the SEC title. But a win over something called Tusculum in early January won’t prove much. Ditto for matchups against The Citadel and USC Upstate. But the Vols could meet Kansas in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game. To get there, however, they’ll have to go through UTEP and then they’ll have to beat either Xavier or fellow sleeper Iowa. They’ll also travel to Xavier prior to the tournament. And it’s never easy to get a win over the Musketeers in Cincy. Virginia is stacked. And a road game against a Wichita State squad seeking revenge from a loss in Knoxville last season will be a major challenge for Martin’s program.
Toughest: Corpus Christi Challenge (Nov. 29-30), vs. Oklahoma (Dec. 21 in Houston)
Next toughest: Buffalo (Nov. 8)
The rest: Mississippi Valley State (Nov. 11), Rice (Nov. 15), Prairie View A&M (Nov. 19), Sam Houston State (Nov. 24), Arkansas Pine-Bluff (Nov. 26), Houston (Dec. 4), McNeese State (Dec. 14), North Texas (Dec. 31), UTPA (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 1 -- This is just bad. Again. The Aggies didn’t have many obstacles during their nonconference season in 2012-13. That trend will continue in 2013-14. Ugh. An Oklahoma squad that probably won’t make the NCAA tournament is their toughest scheduled nonconference game. No. 2? Probably a matchup against a Buffalo team that will be led by new coach Bobby Hurley. Sure, the Aggies -- who lost standouts Elston Turner and Ray Turner -- could earn a game against Virginia in the Corpus Christi Challenge if they survive an opening-round meeting with Missouri State. That, however, is not enough to save this disappointing nonconference slate.
Toughest: Saint Louis (Dec. 30)
Next toughest: at Butler (Nov. 19), Paradise Jam (Nov. 22-25), at Texas (Dec. 2)
The rest: Georgia State (Nov. 12), Lipscomb (Nov. 15), Marshall (Dec. 5), Austin Peay (Dec. 17), Georgia Tech (Dec. 21), Northeastern (Jan. 4)
Toughness scale (1-10): 6 -- The bad news is that Vanderbilt is a mess right now. Top scorer Kedren Johnson and three other players from last season’s squad will not be available for the 2013-14 season. Even worse? The Commodores could enter the SEC campaign with multiple losses and little confidence. Atlantic 10 contender Saint Louis could do a lot of damage when it visits in late December. Butler has a new staff and no Roosevelt Jones, but Hinkle Fieldhouse will still be a crazy atmosphere that the Commodores will be asked to overcome in mid-November. They’ll open the Paradise Jam against Providence and subsequent matchups against La Salle and Maryland/Northern Iowa are possible. Texas lost a chunk of its roster, too. But the Longhorns can certainly beat this incomplete Vandy team at home. This could be an ugly nonconference season for Kevin Stallings’ program.
But that will be the expectation in Lexington.
And considering the Wildcats’ top-ranked recruiting class, it’s hardly far-fetched.
No other team in the country is expected to make as big of a leap in 2013-14 as the Wildcats, but there are still plenty of squads who are projected to be considerably improved when the season tips off in November.
Here’s a list of the programs I think will make the biggest strides. And remember, this ranking is based on how significantly a team will improve, not on how good it’s expected to be, how many games it will win or how far it may go in the postseason. For instance, do I think SMU will be able to beat Oklahoma State? No, but I think the upgrades the Mustangs make will be more dramatic than the ones we see in Stillwater, where the Cowboys made the NCAA tournament last season.
Get the drift? Great. Here’s the list:
10 (tie). Arizona State: A year ago at this time, Sun Devils coach Herb Sendek was rumored to be on the hot seat. That’s hardly the case these days, though, as Arizona State is primed for its best season since the days of James Harden. The biggest reason for optimism in Tempe is point guard Jahii Carson, who bypassed the NBA draft to return for his sophomore season. Carson averaged 18.5 points and 5.1 assists in 2012-13 and likely would’ve won national freshman-of-the-year honors if Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart hadn’t had such an impressive season. Also back for ASU is 7-foot-2 center Jordan Bachynski (3.4 blocks) and forward Jonathan Gilling (9.7 points, 6.1 rebounds). The Sun Devils took a hit during the offseason when guard Evan Gordon transferred to Indiana. But they countered that by adding Jermaine Marshall, who will be eligible immediately after averaging 15.3 points at Penn State last season.
10 (tie). Boise State: The Broncos finished 21-11 last season and lost to LaSalle in the NCAA tournament's First Four. Still, the tourney appearance -- Boise State’s first since 2008 -- was a huge step for the program, and even better things could be in store in 2013-14. Eight of the Broncos’ top nine players return. That includes leading scorers Anthony Drmic (17.7 points) and Derrick Marks (16.3). Marks shot 42 percent from 3-point range and averaged nearly 4 assists. Mikey Thompson (7.9 points) is also back along with top rebounder Ryan Watkins. With a handful of the Mountain West Conference's top teams expected to take minor steps back, this could be a special season for the Broncos.
9. Connecticut: The Huskies weren’t eligible for the postseason in 2013, so somewhat overshadowed was the excellent job first-year coach Kevin Ollie did under incredibly difficult circumstances after taking over for Jim Calhoun. Connecticut had nothing to play for but still managed to go 20-10. Considering they return nearly all of their key pieces, the Huskies should be even better in 2013-14. The backcourt of Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier should be one of the best in the country. The twosome combined to average 32.5 points and 9 assists last season. And remember, Napier was a starter on UConn’s 2011 NCAA championship team. Small forward DeAndre Daniels made huge strides as a sophomore, when he upped his scoring average by nearly 10 points per game. Connecticut ranked second-to-last in the Big East in rebounding last season, so Ollie’s team must get better in the paint, where it often appeared undermanned.
8. Oklahoma State: Three months later, I’m still stunned that standout guard Marcus Smart bypassed an opportunity to be a top-five draft pick to return for his sophomore season. Smart’s decision -- coupled with the return of Le'Bryan Nash, another NBA prospect -- means that the Cowboys will be a legitimate threat to end Kansas’ string of nine consecutive Big 12 titles. Some might even consider Travis Ford’s squad the league favorite. Smart is one of the toughest, most versatile players in all of college basketball. As a freshman, he led Oklahoma State in points, assists and steals and ranked second in rebounds. Still, while Smart is the face of the program, he’s just one of many threats on the Cowboys roster. Nash, a small forward, averaged 14 points per game last season, while wing Markel Brown chipped in 15.3. In some ways, Brown strikes just as much fear into opponents as Nash and Smart. Phil Forte and Michael Cobbins cannot be taken lightly.
7. Harvard: The Crimson might seem out of place this list. After all, Tommy Amaker’s squad was pretty darn good last season, when it won the Ivy League title before knocking off No. 3 seed New Mexico in the second round of the NCAA tournament. What made those feats so impressive was that Harvard played the entire season without its two top players. If Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey return as expected, the Crimson will likely have their best team in recent history. Wesley Saunders, Siyani Chambers and Laurent Rivard were all double-figure scorers last season, and Curry and Casey will likely post similar or better point totals in 2013-14. If Harvard makes a tourney run this season it won’t be nearly as big of a surprise. This is a top-25-caliber team.
6. LSU: The Tigers have been to the NCAA tournament just once since 2006, but could make an appearance in 2014 thanks to the return of several key players and a huge addition down low. LSU brings back leading scorer and rebounder Johnny O'Bryant (13.6 points, 8.7 boards) along with standout guard Anthony Hickey, who ranked second in the country in steals (2.9) while chipping in a team-high 3.8 assists and 11.2 points. The Tigers also add a standout forward in Jarrell Martin, the No. 11-ranked player in the class of 2013. Johnny Jones’ squad took a hit when high-profile recruit Jordan Mickey was declared ineligible, but there are still enough parts here to make the upcoming campaign a successful one. LSU went 19-12 last season and won nine of its final 14 games.
5. Iowa: Even though they missed the NCAA tournament, the Hawkeyes still had to feel good about the strides they made last season. Iowa finished 9-9 in the Big Ten, the nation’s toughest conference, and made it to the NIT championship game, where it lost to a deeper, more athletic Baylor squad. Don’t be surprised if 2013-14 is the season when Iowa really turns the corner. Every key player returns from last year’s 25-13 squad. Included in that mix are leading scorers Roy Devyn Marble (15 points) and Aaron White (12.8), who also averaged a team-high 6.2 rebounds. The Hawkeyes also have an excellent -- and, in my opinion, underrated -- coach in Fran McCaffrey, who appears to have this program on an upswing. With Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin all losing a number of key players, I wouldn’t be surprised if Iowa finished as high as third in the Big Ten while earning its first NCAA tournament berth since 2006.
4. Tennessee: The Volunteers barely missed out on the NCAA tournament last season -- mainly because of some key losses early in SEC play, where they dropped four of their first six games. By March, though, Cuonzo Martin’s squad was one of the most improved teams in the conference, and there are plenty of reasons to think the Vols will build on that momentum. The frontcourt should be loaded with Jarnell Stokes, who averaged 12.4 points per game last year, and Jeronne Maymon, who averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds two years ago before missing last season with an injury. Incoming freshman Robert Hubbs should give the Vols a boost at small forward, and leading scorer Jordan McRae (15.7 PPG) returns at shooting guard. Point guard Trae Golden was dismissed from the team during the offseason, but Tennessee should be fine at that position with either Antonio Barton, a Memphis transfer, or freshman Darius Thompson.
3. SMU: I’m not ready to say the Mustangs will end an NCAA tournament drought that dates back to 1993, but I definitely think they’ll at least be on the bubble in late February and early March. That’d be a huge jump for a program that finished 15-17 in Larry Brown’s first season, but SMU has added enough quality pieces to make it possible. Illinois State transfer Nic Moore, who redshirted last season, was named to the Missouri Valley Conference all-freshman team in 2011-12. Signee Yanick Moreira was the top-ranked junior college big man in the nation, and incoming freshman Keith Frazier will become the first McDonald’s All American ever to suit up for SMU, which also returns three double-digit scorers in Nick Russell, Jalen Jones and Ryan Manuel. If Brown gets this group to jell quickly, this could be the best season for Mustangs basketball in decades.
2. St. John’s: Sportswriters are expected to make bold predictions from time to time, so here’s mine: St. John’s will spend most of the upcoming season ranked in the Top 25 and will challenge Marquette and Creighton for the Big East title. This team is loaded. Jakarr Sampson was one of the country’s most underrated freshmen in 2012-13, when he averaged 14.9 points and 6.6 rebounds. Imagine how much better he’ll be this season after bypassing the NBA draft. I’m also expecting even more out of D'Angelo Harrison, who was averaging a team-high 17.8 points before being suspended at the end of last season for disciplinary reasons. Chris Obekpa, who ranked second in the country with 4.0 blocks per game, is back along with bruising forward God'sgift Achiuwa, who redshirted last season. Two other important pieces will be incoming freshman Rysheed Jordan, the No. 3-ranked point guard in the class of 2013, and Orlando Sanchez, a 24-year-old forward who wasn’t deemed eligible by the NCAA until late February. He’ll be able to compete for only one season, but Sanchez could end up being the top player on the Red Storm roster.
1. Kentucky: John Calipari has been regarded for years now as the top recruiter in college basketball. But he might have outdone himself this time, as Kentucky welcomes what may be the greatest signing class in college basketball history. The haul includes five players (Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and James Young) ranked among the nation’s top-10 prospects by ESPN.com. The question is whether the young Wildcats will jell and, if so, how quickly. Calipari is the best in the country at coaching players who only plan to spend a year or two in college. Kentucky, which also returns potential lottery picks Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, will likely open the season as the No. 1-ranked team in America. That’s a lot of pressure for any squad, especially one with so much youth. Last year’s Wildcats crumbled under the spotlight. Kentucky’s latest batch of freshmen, though, are rumored to be much tougher, both on the court and between the ears. We’ll find out soon enough.
The SEC -- especially in terms of depth -- has lagged significantly behind other power conferences, such as the Big East and the Big Ten, in the past few seasons. The lull has made it easy to forget just how much NBA talent the league has churned out during the past two decades.
Here’s a look at the 10 SEC products who have enjoyed the most successful pro careers since 1989, the year the NBA draft was whittled down to two rounds.
1. Shaquille O’Neal, LSU: This pick was easy, as O’Neal is one of the most dominant centers to ever play the game. The 7-foot-1, 325-pounder won four NBA titles during his 19-year career and was named to the All-Star team 15 times. O’Neal averaged 23.7 points and 10.9 rebounds in the NBA, including a career-high mark of 29.7 points in 1999-2000, when he was named league MVP with the Los Angeles Lakers. O’Neal retired after the 2010-11 season.
3. Latrell Sprewell, Alabama: The volatile guard was suspended 68 games for choking Golden State coach P.J. Carlesimo during practice in December 1997. The incident overshadowed a productive NBA career in which Sprewell averaged 18.3 points and four assists in 12 seasons. Sprewell was named first-team All-NBA in 1994. In 1999, he helped the No. 8 seed New York Knicks reach the NBA Finals. He retired in 2005 after refusing a three-year, $21 million offer from Minnesota.
4. Allan Houston, Tennessee: After leaving UT as the SEC's second all-time leading scorer, Houston averaged 17.3 points during his 11-year NBA career and was one of the top 3-point shooters in the NBA until a knee injury forced him to retire. Along with Sprewell, Houston helped the Knicks reach the 1999 NBA Finals and was a member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic team that won the gold medal in Sydney, Australia. Houston is now the assistant general manager for the Knicks.
5. Joe Johnson, Arkansas: A forward, Johnson has averaged 17.6 points in 11 NBA seasons -- and he’s not finished yet. Johnson averaged 16.3 points in 2012-13 as a member of the Brooklyn Nets. He contributed a career-high 25 points per game for Atlanta in 2006-07. Johnson was a six-time NBA All-Star from 2007 to '12 and was named to the All-NBA third team for the 2009-10 season.
6. Antoine Walker, Kentucky: A three-time All-Star, Walker averaged 12.2 points for a Miami Heat squad that won the NBA title in 2006. He averaged 17.5 points and 7.7 rebounds in 11 NBA seasons, including some monster seasons with the Celtics. Walker played his final season in 2007-08 for Minnesota. Several comeback attempts failed and Walker filed for bankruptcy in 2010, largely because of gambling problems and a series of bad investments.
7. Jamal Mashburn, Kentucky: Mashburn averaged 19.1 points and 5.4 rebounds in 10 NBA seasons. He was an NBA All-Star in 2003, the same season he earned third-team all-league honors. Mashburn averaged 20 or more points in six of his 10 seasons, including a career-high 24.1 points for Dallas in 1994-95. Mashburn retired in 2006 after missing the previous two seasons with knee problems.
8. Antonio McDyess, Alabama: The forward averaged 12 points and 7.5 rebounds in 15 NBA seasons. His best season came in 1998-99, when he averaged career highs in points (21.2), steals (1.5) and blocks (2.3). McDyess was a member of the All-Star team in 2001 and was named third-team All-NBA for the 1998-99 season. He was also part of the 2000 Olympic team that won the gold medal in Sydney, Australia. McDyess' last season was 2010-11.
9. Tayshaun Prince, Kentucky: Prince recently completed his 12th NBA season by helping the Memphis Grizzlies to the Western Conference finals, where they lost to San Antonio. Prince played the previous 11 seasons in Detroit, where his strong defensive play and 3-point shooting helped the Pistons win the 2004 NBA championship. Prince averaged a career-best 14.7 points the following season.
10. Al Horford, Florida: Horford -- who led Florida to back-to-back NCAA titles in 2006 and '07 -- is quickly developing into one of the top power forwards in the NBA. The Atlanta Hawk averaged career highs in points (17.4) and rebounds (10.2) in 2012-13 and should continue to improve (and move up this list) as his career progresses. He was an NBA All-Star in 2010 and 2011.
Other notables: All of these players have excelled in the NBA, including a few who almost cracked the top 10 (names in alphabetical order).
Derek Anderson, Kentucky
Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (Chris Jackson), LSU
Robert Horry, Alabama
David Lee, Florida
Ron Mercer, Kentucky
Mike Miller, Florida
Joakim Noah, Florida
Gerald Wallace, Alabama
Mo Williams, Alabama
Corliss Williamson, Arkansas
On the cusp: These guys haven’t been in the league long enough to make the top 10, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if any of them were there soon (names in alphabetical order).
Bradley Beal, Florida
DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky
Anthony Davis, Kentucky
Alonzo Gee, Alabama
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky
Tobias Harris, Tennessee
Brandon Knight, Kentucky
Chandler Parsons, Florida
Marcus Thornton, LSU
John Wall, Kentucky
*Note: Of the 30 total names on these lists, 11 are from Kentucky, six are from Alabama, six are from Florida, three are from LSU, two are from Arkansas and two are from Tennessee.
2. Players don't necessarily have the allegiances that fans do. That's why Antonio Barton has no issues going from Memphis to rival Tennessee. The Vols desperately needed another guard after losing Trae Golden. And of course the Vols are now a beneficiary of the new free agency in college basketball. "It's safe to say kids are more concerned with the best opportunity,'' Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said about players holding rivalry grudges. As for picking up players on the fly, Martin said, "Free agency, it's a tough call. We're on the good side of free agency. I think a lot of mid-major programs are affected by the market.'' Martin used to be the coach at Missouri State and knows all too well about life at a lower level.
3. Former Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. said on our college basketball podcast Friday that Caris LeVert is ready for a breakthrough season in 2013-14. Hardaway heaped high praise on LeVert. Meanwhile, Kansas coach Bill Self hit on a number of topics, including Ben McLemore, a recruiting class that he said had tremendous promise even before Andrew Wiggins signed, and coaching Wiggins next season. You can listen to the podcast here.
That's what happened to Bruce Pearl, whose crime was less about having then-prospect Aaron Craft at his house for a barbecue then lying about it to NCAA enforcement staff, which is the biggest single no-no in the NCAA's long and rich-mahogany-scented no-no tomes. It was serious stuff, not only earning Pearl what amounts to a three-year ban on his ability to coach college basketball, but uprooting him from a program he had built into a consistent winner while also squandering the long and arduous climb Pearl made after a decade spent in coaching purgatory. Honestly, it was kind of sad.
Outside of the context of the NCAA, though, all of this stuff can seem kind of funny? A barbecue? A sneaky photograph? What is this, "Columbo?" When someone who is primarily an NBA fan hears about all of this, they scoff incredulously. Serious though it may be in one context, to many the NCAA just seems funny.
Which is why I found Pearl's son, Steven Pearl's, radio ad below for a local Knoxville barbecue joint to be so utterly hilarious. It includes such excellence as "If there’s one thing we Pearls know, it’s how to throw a barbecue" and "Just remember, my two rules for legendary backyard barbecues … 1) Get your food from Calhoun’s and 2) Absolutely no photography" before closing with a gem of a legal disclaimer: "Offer not available to Aaron Craft." Amazing.
At this point, apparently the Pearl family can not only joke about the fateful barbecue, but can do so to their own financial gain. It's a sign of the mostly forgiving attitude most UT fans still have toward the Pearls that Steven Pearl could have a local radio show in the first place, let alone get paid to reference what was at the time a really baffling and traumatic series of events for Vols fans. And it totally works! Impressive, right?
Of course, the elder Pearl has never been shy about making jokes at his own expense. In 2011, as he waited for the NCAA hammer to fall, he participated in a United Way event that cast him in the role of celebrity gas-pumper. As he said at the time: "In coaching, you always need to have a profession you need to fall back on if you don't win enough games, so I'm just here practicing."
This is the story of Tennessee guard Trae Golden, whose release Tuesday was sudden and short:
"I had a great three years here at Tennessee, but I plan to play my senior year somewhere else this fall," Golden said in a news release. "I really appreciate the staff and all the great support from Vol fans. I'm definitely going to miss my teammates. I want them to have nothing but success in the future."
"We want nothing but the best for Trae," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said in the statement. "Everyone associated with our program wants to see him be successful, and we wish him well."
Of course, it's not weird to see a fourth-year player pursue a graduate transfer, as Golden will, which will likely allow him to play right away this year if his academics are in order. That's happening a lot these days, after all. But usually this sort of decision is made earlier in the offseason, as players typically prefer to take as much time as possible to find a new school and still leave themselves enough time to move and pick up summer workouts with their new teammates. This isn't too late, logistically speaking. But it is noticeably late.
As Mike writes:
Tennessee will field one of the nation’s most powerful frontcourts next winter, with Jeronne Maymon returning from injury to rejoin Jarnell Stokes, as well as developing scoring star Jordan McRae in the backcourt. All of that offensive talent will be of less value if the playmaker in charge of the team either can’t or won’t get those guys the ball.
There’s some debate regarding which category best describes Golden, but it’s one of the two. Although he only 38.3 percent from the field last season, he tried eight more shots than Stokes. Although Golden shot only 29.5 percent from 3-point range, he still attempted 95. He produced 12 games of two or fewer assists as a junior, including none in the Vols’ embarrassing NIT home loss to Mercer. Decision-making has not been the strongest area for Golden.
Allow me to halfheartedly defend Golden: No, he shouldn't be taking more shots than Stokes, but what other perimeter options did Tennessee have? Other than McRae, a 35.5 percent 3-point shooter, no Vol who played even remote minutes was a credible perimeter threat. Assuming Martin didn't tell his guards to never shoot 3s -- which would be analytically counterproductive -- 95 3s from your starting point guard at a 30 percent clip isn't terrible. Besides, it's not like Golden shot UT into a different style. The Vols finished 222nd in the nation in their ratio of 3-point attempts to overall field goals. They were an interior group.
And by the way: Golden finished the season with a totally respectable 29.0 assist rate, by far the highest on the team, and a 107.2 offensive rating, which was just barely less efficient than the still-unconvincing Stokes (107.4). I'm not saying Golden was Magic Johnson, but clearly the ball was getting to the right places pretty frequently and Golden drew enough fouls to compensate for his abysmal shooting.
The numbers aren't everything, of course. Martin and the words "hard-nosed" are frequently used in conjunction, but UT was actually at its worst on the defensive end last season, and that began with Golden's total lack of pressure at the point of attack. And intangibles do matter, everything from leadership to confidence to the little timing-ticks when a point guard swings the ball and runs the offense and establishes that zen-like flow -- or in brutish UT's case, lack thereof -- and whether his teammates all respond.
So, sure, you can see why some Vols fans, or even Martin himself, might be saying good riddance. But you can also see why others would be puzzled, because when you drill down into the things Golden does, he's not a bad player. Just flawed. And certainly better than anyone Tennessee has waiting in the point guard wings, because, you know, there is no one waiting. (The best option would seem to be incoming shooting guard recruit Robert Hubbs, who, according to our ESPN recruiting analysts, has yet to develop the decision-making skills to make him anything more than a scorer. Maybe Jordan McRae could move over and play some at the point? Maybe the Vols are confident late commit Darius Thompson is ready from Day One? Plenty of questions here.)
Facing a potential lineup gap like this, there must be some onus on the coach to mold his point guard into a more viable piece, right? Did that effort fail so miserably that Martin genuinely thinks his team will be better without its only point guard, a senior who assists teammates on a third of his possessions? Isn't that a huge risk? Or did Golden simply decide to leave the program? And if not, how much criticism, if any, will Martin deserve for running off a senior starter? Or is it something else entirely? Academic issues?
We don't know. But I do know this: Golden's is the strangest transfer of the offseason to date, and he hasn't even picked a destination. Stay tuned.
Say this for the NCAA: When it expanded the tournament to 68 teams, it accomplished at least one thing.
It made your argument invalid.
Once the province of outrage and disgust, the post-tournament bracket digestion process has become downright serene. The bubble is soft. It is really, really soft.
The opportunities were there. If your favorite high-major team didn't make the tournament, it's probably because it missed numerous chances for big wins. If your mid-major squad didn't get in, it's probably because its league was bad and it didn't prove anything outside conference play.
It's hard to feel much sympathy for any of these teams. If your team was good, it would have gotten in the field. If it didn't, it wasn't. Simple enough.
That said, the bubble is always a matter of relativity. And relatively speaking, a handful of teams will be able to lodge legitimate complaints against the 2013 NCAA tournament selection committee. These are their stories:
What their fans would say: We're not too far from Middle Tennessee State, and we've seen them play, and frankly, we're better. The Sun Belt is terrible! Saint Mary's beat one good team the whole season! We beat Florida, Wichita State and Missouri! But seriously ... we went 9-2 down the stretch. All of our nonconference losses were to good-to-great teams.
What the committee would say: We respect the Vols' above-average nonconference schedule, and the nine top-100 wins were more than many bubble teams. But the schedule wasn't that good, and Tennessee had a ton of opportunities -- Oklahoma State, Virginia, Georgetown, Memphis — to prove it was anything more than another thoroughly mediocre SEC outfit. It never did.
What their fans would say: We have a good team! Pretty much every advanced metric smart people use to discern teams' relative qualities says that Virginia is at least one of the best 40 teams in the country, if not better (KenPom.com's efficiency system ranks the Cavaliers No. 27). You say you want teams to perform on the road in the nonconference? We won at Wisconsin. We also beat Duke, UNC and NC State. Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell are two of the best players in the ACC.
What the committee would say: Most of what you just said is ... well, it isn't irrelevant, exactly, but it's only tangentially related to what we look for when we're selecting and seeding the field. We are impressed by the top-50 wins, especially at Wisconsin, but are we impressed enough to overlook the (count 'em) seven losses to teams ranked below the RPI top 100? Or that 3-10 road-neutral record, where you lost to Georgia Tech, Boston College, Wake Forest, George Mason, Old Dominion and Clemson? Were you so good that we could pretend we haven't spent the last half-decade telling everyone how important we think it is that teams schedule tough in the nonconference, and pretend your nonconference strength of schedule wasn't ranked No. 299 in the country? No, no, no and no.
What their fans would say: We beat Duke twice! It's been nearly 20 years since a team did that and didn't make the tourney. Look, that's two wins over the No. 1-ranked RPI team in the country. We have a lottery center on our team! That's more than Middle Tennessee State! What is Middle Tennessee State, anyway? Seriously, how are we not in the tournament?!?
What the committee would say: Those two Duke wins are excellent, no doubt. Unfortunately, the season is more than two games, and the rest of the year you went 5-11 -- 5-11! -- against the RPI top 150. Your nonconference schedule rated out worse than Virginia's, but honestly we didn't even get that far with you. You were 5-11 against the RPI top 150. You have no argument.
What their fans would say: What I can't seem to wrap my head around, [PAWWWWWL], is why on Earth y'all wouldn't invite the Alabama Crimson Tide Football Winter Diversion Program to the NCAA tournament, if only on the off chance that Coach Nick Saban will grace y'alls weird shootin' hoops game with his magisterial presence. Roll Tide?
What the committee would say: Anyway ... while we admire the Tide's willingness to go on the road in spots in nonconference play, they went 0-6 against the RPI top 50 and lost four games below the RPI top 100 line. Either of those things are automatic disqualifications, especially if you lack elite strength of schedule numbers. There was never much here.
What their fans would say: In addition to referencing the Golden Eagles' tidy RPI figure (34), I'd imagine their case would sound something like coach Donnie Tyndall's: “I don’t want to become a lobbyist, but the bottom line is, that’s a borderline Final Four-type team we just lost to,” Tyndall said of the Tigers. “We need to be in the NCAA tournament. We deserve to be in, and I feel like if we get in, we can win a game or two. I really believe that."
What the committee would say: We believe that you believe that, and you may well be right. The problem is you had all season to prove it, one way or another, and while it's not your fault the rest of Conference USA was atrocious, it is your fault you lost to Memphis three times and that you finished the season with just three top-100 wins. That's just not good enough.
What their fans would say: [Silently watch 2012 Kentucky commemorative DVDs while wearing 2012 Kentucky commemorative sweatshirt; toss all evidence of 2012-13 into burning barrel in corner of room.]
What the committee would say: Kentucky still had a chance to get in the tournament after the injury to Nerlens Noel, even as late as the SEC tournament, and if we're being 100 percent honest, all things equal, we probably would have given the benefit of the doubt to a blue blood program coming off a national title. But then Kentucky laid an infamous egg against Vanderbilt in the SEC tourney -- you guys weren't even competitive against a 10-seed in the awful SEC, c'mon -- and adding that to an already blah profile was just about all we needed to see.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- All Tennessee can do now is sit and wait for Sunday’s NCAA tournament selection show.
It will be an agonizing wait for the Vols, who sit ever so precariously on the proverbial bubble.
But while the Vols wait, Alabama plays on after slugging out a 58-48 victory Friday over cold-shooting Tennessee to move into the SEC tournament semifinals Saturday against top-seeded Florida at Bridgestone Arena.
“We didn’t come into this tournament worrying about what we had to do to get into the NCAA tournament,” said Alabama junior guard Trevor Releford, who scored 14 points and got the best of his Tennessee counterpart, Trae Golden, who was held to two points on 1-of-7 shooting.
“All we control is what we do here, and then it’s automatic if we win [the SEC tournament]. We don’t have to worry about anybody giving us a bid. We’re not going to settle. We just wanted to come out and win basketball games.”
“The only thing we were worried about was what was right in front of us,” Releford said. “That’s winning this championship.”
Alabama was among the “next four out” in ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s latest projection of the NCAA tournament field. Tennessee was among the “last four in” heading into Friday's game.
But whereas Alabama played with a sense of urgency -- and held steady when Tennessee made a mini run to pull within four points with 5:27 to play -- the Vols played tight and looked a little leg-weary in the second half. They also jacked up 23 3-point shots and made just five.
The Crimson Tide pressed most of the game and dropped back into a zone defense that gave the Vols fits. Jordan McRae, who had been brilliant down the regular-season stretch for Tennessee, was held to nine points and shot just 3-of-13 from the field.
Combined, Golden and McRae shot 4-of-20 from the field. Josh Richardson led the Vols with 16 points.
“They did a good job of pressuring the ball the whole game, and shots were hard to come by,” Richardson said.
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said following the 64-62 win over Missouri to close the regular season that he thought the Vols had done enough to get into the NCAA tournament.
Unfortunately for his Vols (20-12), he won't be the one making the call.
He reiterated his belief Friday that he felt like Tennessee was an NCAA tournament team and added that it would be an “insult” to the SEC if the league didn’t get more than four teams in the field.
Either way, it’s going to be close. It probably helped Tennessee that both Virginia and LaSalle, two other bubble teams, lost Friday in their conference tournaments. The Vols also wouldn’t mind if Kentucky and Ole Miss both lost later Friday night in their SEC tournament games.
Alabama had even more work to do than Tennessee entering the SEC tournament, which made Friday’s contest as must-win as a must-win game could be.
The Crimson Tide don’t own a lot of marquee wins this season, and that makes Saturday’s shot at the Gators crucial.
“When you’re at this point in the season, they all count the same,” Releford said. “You better play every game like it's your last.”
LAST FOUR BYES
LAST FOUR IN
Boise State (back in, replacing UVa)
La Salle (last in for now, despite loss)
FIRST FOUR OUT
Virginia (drops out of field with loss)
NEXT FOUR OUT
LAST FOUR BYES
LAST FOUR IN
Virginia (moves in with win)
FIRST FOUR OUT
Tennessee (moves down to Virginia's spot)
NEXT THREE OUT