College Basketball Nation: Three Big Things

Three Big Things: UNLV

October, 5, 2012
In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: UNLV.

1. Are the Runnin' Rebels officially back? Yes, I'd say so -- and I mean that literally.

After all, for all the solid success of the Lon Kruger era, his teams were more about defense, and keeping turnovers low, and substance over style. His squads didn't get up and down; they worked best in the half court. Which is all well and good. No judgments here, man. But UNLV fans, those raised on the high-flying Jerry Tarkanian glory days (when amazing posters like this were not only en vogue but truthful) grew up with higher expectations. They want a little style, too.

That's what first-year coach Dave Rice -- a product of the Tarkanian era -- brought in 2011-12. Or tried to, anyway. Last season's UNLV team was good, not great, with an offense that ranked No. 71 in the country in adjusted efficiency, per The defense was better (No. 33), and the Rebels had a pretty solid season. They finished the regular season 26-9, went 9-5 in conference play, and bowed out of the NCAA tournament after a Round of 64 loss to a hot Colorado team.

What was most interesting about last year's Rebels is how much Rice sped them up. This was a promise he made at his introduction last spring, and he kept it. In 2011, UNLV's adjusted tempo was 67.8 possessions per game. In 2012, Vegas averaged 70 possessions exactly. That was the difference between being ranked No. 110 in the country (which was actually somewhat high for the Kruger era) and No. 29.

And when the Rebels ran, they ran well. According to Synergy Sports scouting data, 20.3 percent of the team's possessions came in transition. (The only plays more frequent were those that ended in spot-up shots.) When the Rebels did run, they scored 1.147 points per possession. It was the only category in which they ranked as "excellent." So, yes, even if it wasn't always pretty, Rice laid the foundation for a new, uptempo era in Sin City. As far as the Runnin' goes, I'd say the Rebels are back.

[+] EnlargeMike Moser
Zuma Press/Icon SMIHow Mike Moser adjusts to being a pure small forward will be a big thing indeed for UNLV.
2. The question is where they go from here, particularly in 2012-13, particularly because the strength of this team isn't going to be an array of lightning-quick guards stretching the floor from basket to basket. Instead, the strength of this team is going to be its frontcourt, which might just be the most talented in the country.

It will start with returning Mike Moser, a 6-foot-8 junior whose length, quickness and versatile array of skills basically make him the prototypical NBA small forward. It continues with Pittsburgh transfer Khem Birch, the No. 1-ranked center in the class of 2011 who never figured it out at Pitt, and never showed us what he was truly capable of, who will be available after Christmas. And then there's Anthony Bennett, the No. 1-ranked power forward in this year's class (and No. 7-ranked player overall), a supremely athletic and skilled 6-foot-8 big man with the ability to score inside and out. By all accounts, Bennett is an immediate impact player at the collegiate level. That would be a fearsome prospect even if he were not being sandwiched between two other supremely talented players. With Moser and Birch in the same frontcourt, the Rebels could outright dominate folks on the inside.

Bennett seems like a sure thing, but there are a couple of questions worth asking here. The first (which was raised rather incisively by the Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy all the way back in May) is whether Moser can adjust to being a pure small forward, and the matchup issues -- positive and negative -- that creates. The other is whether Birch can actually play. Or whether he wants to play. It's hard to trust a guy who so quickly and unceremoniously left a school he spent the better part of four years selecting. He has much to prove moving forward.

3. The same goes for UNLV's backcourt. Oscar Bellfield and Chace Stanback, 2011's key senior guards, are gone. In their place are Anthony Marshall and Justin Hawkins, now seniors in their own right -- along with USC transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones, who will have plenty of impact at the 2. Marshall may assume the primary ballhandling responsibilities, but he will have to push the pace without committing quite so many turnovers (he posted a 22.9 percent turnover rate) when he does.

Another talented recruit, No. 8-ranked shooting guard Katin Reinhardt, is a very intriguing player here. Reinhardt is known first and foremost for (A) a lights-out outside shot and (B) a flashy handle and a desire to express creativity on the court. I like the sound of all of that, even if leads to the occasional turnover, because it sounds like the kid is going to be very fun to watch.

He might also be key to whether the Rebels can stick to Rice's run-and-gun blueprint. Good shooting in transition and the secondary break will allow Vegas to spread the floor and keep things moving. But it'll be interesting to see if it makes more sense to Rice to slow his guys down a bit -- to use the superior size and athleticism to dominate opponents on the low block, rather than attempt to beat them up and down the floor.

In any case, this team is going to be loaded with talent up front. Few teams in the country -- never mind the Mountain West -- are going to be able to match up man for man. What Rice does with that talent, how he uses it to the Rebels' stylistic and substantive advantage, are going to be fascinating to see. Whatever the outcome, I bet the Rebels will be fun. Just a hunch.

Three Big Things: Wisconsin

October, 4, 2012
In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Wisconsin.

1. Wednesday's topic was Kansas, and the topic within the topic was the remarkable consistency the Jayhawks have shown -- what with eight straight Big 12 titles and counting -- under coach Bill Self. At this point, it's impossible to talk about the current state of the Jayhawks and not talk about that consistency.

It's the same deal with Wisconsin.

Sure, the Badgers haven't won a national title under Bo Ryan, and they haven't approached KU's elite status. But the sheer year-in-year-out success of Wisconsin is almost equally noteworthy. Since Ryan became the coach at Wisconsin in 2001, none of his teams has finished worse than fourth in the Big Ten. That's an oft-quoted statistic in these parts, but for good reason: It's impressive. There have been some so-so years in the mix, recordwise, but his teams have never failed to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament.

Here are some less crude measures, via Ken Pomeroy -- a list of Wisconsin's overall adjusted efficiency ranks at the end of each season since 2003:

[+] EnlargeSam Dekker
AP Photo/Andy ManisIncoming freshman forward Sam Dekker might be Wisconsin's X factor.
2012: No. 5
2011: No. 7
2010: No. 9
2009: No. 29
2008: No. 5
2007: No. 8
2006: No. 48
2005: No. 16
2004: No. 5
2003: No. 11

Whatever you think of KenPom statistics (they inform a great deal of my work, but are hardly infallible, as Wisconsin's 2012 ranking proved), taken as a whole, that is a remarkably consistent record of success. You know a few things about the Badgers almost regardless of personnel: They'll play very slow, possession-grinding basketball; they'll defend; and they'll be one of the best three or four teams in the Big Ten. At this point, it's a guarantee.

2. Which is good (if not particularly surprising) news for Wisconsin fans because, in 2012-13, the Badgers are going to be replacing one of their most important players in recent memory: point guard Jordan Taylor.

Because Taylor wasn't absolutely brilliant (more like merely very very good) in his senior season, it might be easy to forget just how good he was throughout his entire career. But he was as efficient as any guard of the past decade as a junior, when he often seemed to carry Wisconsin's offense on his back. For the first time in (essentially) three years, UW is going to be running its offense without Taylor at the helm. Given his propensity for credulity-defying efficiency, his knack for taking those 35-second shot clocks to the brink just before delivering, this is going to require a major adjustment on the Badgers' part.

Wisconsin won't have a dominant, turnover-averse ball handler like Taylor in the lineup next season. What it will have are guards Josh Gasser and Ben Brust, both of whom emerged as more than capable players last season. Gasser is a lights-out shooter who made 45.2 percent of his 3s last season, and Brust provided solid perimeter presence and defended well without fouling. Neither has Taylor's talent level, but, in Wisconsin's system, they should be plenty capable in their own styles.

3. However, for the first time since Taylor became a star, Wisconsin's real strength won't necessarily be in its backcourt. In 2012, the nexus of the Badgers' strength -- which will still very much rely on its defense -- will come from the frontcourt and on the wings.

It will start with forward Jared Berggren, who developed into a very consistent post and midrange presence in 2012. Forward Ryan Evans is a long and athletic defensive specialist who rebounds exceptionally well on the defensive end. Small forward Mike Bruesewitz is a well-rounded glue guy who does a bit of everything well.

And then there's the X factor: freshman small forward Sam Dekker.

With rare exceptions (Devin Harris comes to mind) Wisconsin isn't known for bringing in high-impact freshmen -- five-star players, guys with clear NBA futures from the moment they step on campus. Dekker is an exception to all of those rules. Ranked No. 4 at his position in the Class of 2012, Dekker is a 6-foot-7 wingman who "has great size and skill for a perimeter player ... is a good athlete and excellent scorer ... can score inside with his back to the basket or facing [and] ... can put the ball on the floor and can knock down the open three," according to ESPN's recruiting experts. By all accounts, he is a matchup nightmare, and he should prove exciting to watch.

With all due respect, these are not the sorts of things we typically say about Wisconsin basketball players. Typically, Wisconsin's success is borne of experience, consistency, development, and various other unexciting but nonetheless fitting terms. And it works. The system clearly works. Now we get to see whether Dekker can provide an immediate boost of natural skill within that system, and, if he can, whether that can make up for the considerable loss of Taylor.

Three Big Things: Kansas

October, 3, 2012
In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." We'll have Five Questions with someone from each team and I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Kansas.

1. The Big 12 belongs to the Kansas Jayhawks. Obvious as it may be, this seems like the most important item in any analysis of the upcoming KU season: That for the past eight years, under the guidance of Bill Self, Kansas has won at least a share of the Big 12 regular-season title.

We've discussed this before, but it's totally worth a refresher. In February, after Thomas Robinson and Co. sealed the deal, I wrote the following:
Saturday's win sealed Kansas's share of the 2012 Big 12 regular-season title. This feat marks the eighth straight time Kansas has won at least a share its conference regular-season championship. After Saint Mary's strong finish in the West Coast Conference, which felled Gonzaga's bid at an 11th straight WCC title, KU's mark is now the longest active win streak in the country. Per ESPN Stats & Information, the next-longest are, or were, Xavier's five-year run in the A-10 (which is coming to an end this week) and Murray State and Belmont's three-year runs in the OVC and A-Sun, respectively.

The Atlantic 10 is a good league. The OVC and A-Sun occasionally berth a challenger or two. Saint Mary's has pushed Gonzaga for years. But none of those leagues are as consistently deep or talented or difficult to navigate as the Big 12.

I mean, just think about that. It's insane.

The Atlantic 10 is a mostly high-major league with a few mid-major members. The OVC and A-Sun are mid-majors in the purest sense (which, as always, is financial). So is the WCC, even if St. Mary's (and now BYU) compete with the Zags at a high-major level. None of them is the Big 12, with its score of deep-pocketed foes and NBA-talent rich rosters.

Many times in his tenure -- probably most glaringly in the past three years -- it has seemed as though Kansas' reign of dominance had to be on the wane. In 2010, Self lost Xavier Henry, Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, but the Jayhawks bounced back to win another title the following season. In 2011, Self waved farewell to the Morris twins and highly touted (if disappointing) guard Josh Selby, as well as senior guards Tyrel Reed, Brady Morningstar and Mario Little. And, of course -- despite a serious challenge from a brilliant Missouri team -- Kansas won the Big 12 title once more.

At this point, almost regardless of competition (see: 2010 Kansas State), it doesn't make sense to predict the Jayhawks to do anything other than win their conference title and finish the season with a top NCAA tournament seed.

The Kansas Jayhawks are the Apple of college basketball. Every quarter, every season, they deliver.

[+] EnlargeKansas' Jeff Withey
Kevin Jairaj/US PRESSWIREKansas' Jeff Withey averaged 9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game last season.
2. So, how do the Jayhawks deliver this season? It starts, as it often has during Self's run at the school, with returning players who begin as role players and blossom into stars.

We saw as much with Tyshawn Taylor (albeit in more meteoric fashion) and Thomas Robinson last season. Now both players are gone. The good news is that the other three 2012 starters -- center Jeff Withey, guard Elijah Johnson, and swingman Travis Releford -- return.

Releford is arguably the least intriguing of the three, which doesn't sound like a compliment, but actually kind of is: He's an elite wing defender who executes on his offensive possessions (spot-up shots) very well, gets to the free throw line at a solid rate, and rarely commits turnovers in the process. His ceiling may not blow your mind the way Robinson's (or even Taylor's) did, but with Releford you know what you're going to get. He'll be a valuable asset yet again.

Withey and Johnson are, however, intriguing, particularly because both now have a chance to shine. Withey was one of the best shot-blockers in the country last season -- his block percentage of 15.3 percent was the highest in the country (and yes, that's the same country Anthony Davis was a part of). He rebounds the ball well on both ends of the floor. The final addition to his game, and one that could make him come full circle this season, is a reliable low-post game over both shoulders. With his height and ability to set up shop on the low block, Withey could go from supporting player to a force to be reckoned with.

Johnson, meanwhile, will be called upon to handle the ball even more frequently than he did last season. He may not need to be as much of a pure shooter -- more on that below -- but he will take a larger role in the offense nonetheless. Self has a tradition of taking little-used guards and morphing them into thoroughly steady ball-swinging perimeter presences by their senior years, and Johnson appears to be the next player in line.

3. Still, even with those three players back, this will be a decidedly young Jayhawks team. Sophomore point guard Naadir Tharpe played limited minutes in last season's rotation; in 2012-13, he'll be a much bigger part of the plan. But the real boost of youth will come from Tharpe's partial qualifying classmate Ben McLemore -- one of the country's top shooting guards in the Class of 2011, who missed last season thanks to NCAA academic ineligibility. With a year of practice under his belt, McLemore will jump into the Kansas lineup right away and -- by all accounts of his play this summer -- could be an immediate star.

And then there are the actual freshmen. Chief among them is Kansas native Perry Ellis, the No. 9-ranked power forward in the incoming class, who will contend for a starting spot alongside Withey (as well as returners Kevin Young and Justin Wesley) in the frontcourt. Small forward Andrew White and power forward Landen Lucas are fellow four-star arrivals.

Were this almost any other program in the country, I would currently be writing about how many questions there are about this team. I would be counting the reasons for uncertainty -- the former glue guys who will now take on leading roles, the readiness of the newest faces, if McLemore is worthy of his considerable hype. I would be scanning the Big 12 and maybe even arguing that Baylor is the more talented team, and thus the more likely Big 12 title contender.

And none of that would be wrong, specifically. But it wouldn't be right, either.

Because it would be glossing over one simple fact: This program absolutely owns the Big 12. And that as long as Self is around -- which will be a very long time -- you can't predict anything for Kansas except success.

Three Big Things: Kentucky

October, 2, 2012
John CalipariRichard Mackson/US PresswireWill John Calipari be able to reload and take Kentucky back to the Final Four?
In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." We'll have Five Questions with someone from each team and I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Kentucky.

1. I'll never forget it.

It was just a few minutes after the 2011-12 Kentucky Wildcats had finished their season -- a dominant, borderline unheard-of season -- with a national title. Like many of my fellow media members, I was crowding around Kentucky on the court at the Superdome, grabbing quick interviews and soaking it up, when the net-cutting celebration finished and the Wildcats and coach John Calipari started to walk down from the court back to the locker room. Before they got there, just as Calipari was set to disappear from the floor and into the lower concourse tunnel, a woman in a royal blue shirt leaned over the corner railing and unleashed the following:

Wooo! Coach Cal! Win it again next year, Coach! WIN IT AGAIN!

Calipari was just minutes removed from cutting down the nets in New Orleans. He had just overseen the orchestration of an insanely talented and insanely balanced team's run to a 38-2 record, a sure-handed romp through six NCAA tournament wins to the sport's highest achievement. He hadn't addressed the media yet or gone back in the locker room to spray celebratory Gatorade around; he'd barely gotten through his "One Shining Moment."

If there is a better distillation of the essence of Kentucky Wildcats fans -- of the year-round intensity with which the program's die-hard supporters approach the team -- I'm not sure I've seen it.

But then again, perhaps Calipari has himself to blame, too. After all, these are the expectations he's created: that he can, on an annual basis, turn over the most important pieces of his team -- or even all of it -- and still recruit and coach well enough to compete for a national title a year later. After three Kentucky seasons and three legitimate title runs, there's little reason to expect anything different in Year 4.

2. At almost any program except Kentucky, that fan's request would be wildly unreasonable.

This is, after all, a team that just sent six players to the NBA draft, four of which were selected in the first round. It's a team that had an otherworldly, once-in-a-generation talent at center (Anthony Davis). It had an insanely competitive-beyond-his-years leader at small forward (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist). Both were so unselfish they ranked fourth and fifth in shot percentage, respectively. They were drafted No. 1 and No. 2 overall in June. For all the talk about how Calipari's success exploits the one-and-done system, the point was somewhat moot. Teams such as this don't come around every year. Insert your own lightning-in-a-bottle reference here.

So, no, the 2012-13 Wildcats are not going to be the 2011-12 team. It seems unfathomable. But what is far easier to envision is still a very good team capable of challenging the best in the country in March.

That is due to Calipari's recruiting, which saw him land the No. 2 class in the country in 2012 -- the first time in his Kentucky tenure that his class didn't rank No. 1 overall. But that's a pointless distinction because what matters is the haul. Calipari landed the No. 1 player in the country in center Nerlens Noel, a raw but intimidating force many believe is already a better pure shot-blocker than Davis.

He also signed Alex Poythress, the No. 13-ranked player in the country, a 6-foot-7 small forward prized for his athleticism and rebounding in space. Shooting guard Archie Goodwin is the 15th-ranked player, an Arkansas native who can't shake constant Joe Johnson comparisons. Goodwin's game is already well-honed, save for his shooting, but there aren't going to be many players at his position he won't be able to take off the dribble. The final addition -- center Willie Cauley-Stein -- is the No. 11-ranked player at his position and the No. 40-ranked player overall. He'll be able to provide depth and length on the block as early as this season.

And then there are the old(er) faces. Sophomore Kyle Wiltjer was essentially a spot-shooting role player as a freshman. Calipari's fearsome rotation just didn't have enough minutes for him. Wiltjer shot 43 percent from 3-point range as a freshman and could break out into a devastating offensive threat, particularly when paired with Noel (who can handle most of the bruising and rebounding) on the inside. Point guard Ryan Harrow, an NC State transfer, will give Calipari the luxury of having talent and experience at arguably the most important position in his dribble-drive motion offense. The learning curve won't be steep.

3. Is this group good enough to win a national title? I don't know!

That's kind of the point. Nearly everyone is new, so we don't quite know what they are yet. Has Wiltjer expanded his game? Is Harrow a worthy successor at the point, someone capable of breaking down defenses and spreading the ball around and maintaining Kentucky's vaunted balance? Arguably the biggest questions are about Noel, who has been the subject of some not-so-promising rumblings in the scoutosphere this summer (notably from Draft Express' Jonathan Givony, who was underwhelmed by Noel at the adidas Nations). But Noel has never been touted as either (a) a polished offensive player (he isn't, not yet) or (b) the transformative talent that was Davis. Comparisons like that are harsh. It's like asking every good wing player to be Kevin Durant.

Still, there are questions, and the questions are fair. This is a whole new team, a whole new ballgame, and before all is said and done, Calipari might have the Wildcats playing a whole new offensive style. It would hardly come as a surprise.

What I do know is this: Calipari teams always defend. Every season, he gets his group of freshmen and a few veterans together, and every season, he drills them into playing elite-level defense. We've been over this before. Per Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency, since 2006, Calipari hasn't fielded a defense at either UK or Memphis ranked outside the nation's 15 best. Only twice (the 2011 Wildcats and the 2007 Tigers) has his defense ranked outside the top 10.

It's a remarkable accomplishment, and it makes projecting this program pretty easy: The 2012-13 Wildcats are going to guard. It's a lock. Take it to the bank.

If you guard like UK guards under Calipari, you're going to give yourself a chance to win the title. You don't have to be a majestically balanced, beautiful offensive team -- and you don't have to have a generational basketball alien (hint: I'm talking about Davis) -- to win a championship. Which is why the 2012-13 Wildcats can be a mere fraction of their 2011-12 selves and still compete at the sport's highest level.

It's also why that fan's insane Superdome demands seem silly only at first. Knowing UK these days, they might even be realistic.

Three Big Things: Memphis

October, 1, 2012
In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Memphis.

1. The 2011–12 Memphis Tigers were better than you think.

They began the season with what appeared to be a disappointing outing in Maui; in retrospect, losses to Michigan and Georgetown (and a near-loss to Tennessee) don’t look all that bad. The rest of their nonconference losses -- Murray State, Louisville, and Georgetown a second time -- were, based on what we know now, entirely forgivable. Memphis finished the C-USA season 13–3, its three losses (away to Central Florida and Southern Miss, at home to UTEP) came by a grand total of six points. The NBA-bound Will Barton was one of the best players in the country, and Memphis finished ranked No. 8 in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency ranks, thanks in large part to a top–15 defensive effort.

But because the Tigers lost eight games in the regular season, and because C-USA wasn’t particularly impressive, and because Memphis didn’t get any of its marquee nonconference wins when it had the opportunities -- and hey, being efficient is great, but at some point you’ve got to win the games -- Memphis received a No. 8 seed in the NCAA tournament. It played another efficient and dramatically underseeded team in St. Louis. Coach Rick Majerus took the Tigers to church. Memphis was bounced in its first tourney game.

If that outcome is all you remember of a college hoops season -- if a dramatic, early win-or-go-home tournament finish is the only sample you take from the year -- then, yes, the 2012 Memphis Tigers had a disappointing season. But if you look at the entire breadth of the season, and you take each data point for what it is, what you end up with -- even if you’re unwilling to be generous -- was a team that didn’t close out games particularly well, and struggled early in the year, but was nonetheless a force the majority of the time it spent on the basketball court and one of the top 15 or 20 teams in the country by the end of the season.

Which is why, despite losing Barton to the NBA draft, and despite the disappointing finishes, Memphis’ forecast is bullish. Now all the Tigers need is to break through.

[+] EnlargeJosh Pastner
Spruce Derden/US PresswireNo doubt, Josh Pastner's energy has helped him become one of the nation's top recruiters.
2. Josh Pastner has done an excellent job with this program. It’s easy to forget that sometimes. It’s easy to wonder -- especially if you’re the kind of Memphis fan who lives and breathes the team, and dies a little bit with each loss (which is basically every Memphis fan, far as I can tell) -- if Pastner isn’t merely a great recruiter who wasn’t ready to be a head coach at the collegiate level when he replaced John Calipari three years ago. The “Josh Pastner question” was indirectly posed last week by the Memphis Commercial Appeal’s Kyle Veazy, who asked his Twitter followers which statistic meant more to them: That Pastner was No. 2 in the country in 2013 recruiting ranks or 0–2 in the NCAA tournament?

Veazey received plenty of responses, and many seemed reasonable, but the Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy brought people some valuable historical perspective and reminded people just what was left when Calipari left the job to head to Kentucky in 2010:
There is no correct answer, of course. If people want to have unreasonable expectations regarding the athletic teams they follow, that certainly is their right.

The logical answer is that the recruiting matters so much more at this point. Pastner is building a program. He was left with a great tradition and magnificent support but no elite players and few serviceable ones.

However, when forward Kuran Iverson of Waynesboro, Va., announced Tuesday he would join the Tigers’ 2013 class, this became the third time in four years in which a top–30 prospect from outside the Memphis area said yes to Pastner (following Will Barton and Jelan Kendrick in 2010, Shaq Goodwin in 2012).

Perhaps Calipari made that seem routine, but it’s almost unheard of in the history of Memphis basketball, which long drew nearly all of its best talents from area high schools. Pastner has been able to succeed in recruiting beyond the backyard while still landing the majority of elite Memphis players, including current Tigers Joe Jackson, Tarik Black, Chris Crawford and Adonis Thomas and 2013 prospect Nick King.

If you can’t tell, I agree. Pastner may not be a seasoned coach yet -- he may get his strategic clock cleaned by the Rick Majeruses of the world for a few years. But it’s not like he’s the first coach to take it on the chin from Majerus, or from another peer. It happens. (Michigan State fans didn’t all freak out when Rick Pitino outcoached Tom Izzo in the Sweet 16, did they? Very different situation, obviously, but you get the point.)

But what has really mattered these past three years is the foundation Pastner has built -- and/or maintained -- in the wake of Calipari’s departure. When Calipari left, Memphis could have receded into the shadows. But Pastner was hired to land the best talent from the Memphis area and beyond, and over three years, he has done that as well as any coach in the country not named John Calipari. In every way other than the NCAA tournament, his tenure to date has been a success.

3. Eventually, if your players are good enough, that success will come. The question is whether it can come this year, and there is reason to guess at the affirmative: Even without Barton around, there is a lot of talent on this team.

That fact was essentially sealed when -- despite serious indications he could have played his way into the draft lottery -- freshman forward Adonis Thomas decided to return for his sophomore year. That should give the versatile forward a chance to shine on his own, without the likes of Barton playing in front (or beside him), with a group of players that will otherwise remain largely unchanged. Guards Chris Crawford and Antonio Barton, and Joe Jackson will be back, while forward Tarik Black returns to the low block. Jackson and Black are particularly important. Both are insanely talented -- Jackson breaks down defenses with lightning-quick handles and Black is a beast on the low block -- and both have had occasionally up-and-down careers on the court thus far, their talent occasionally outstripping their real production. (Jackson’s issues have been long-range shooting and turnovers; Black’s bugaboo is foul trouble.)

And, as the passage from DeCourcy noted above, the Tigers again will be joined by a top recruit in the class of 2012, forward Shaq Goodwin. Goodwin made a major name for himself in the spring of 2010, when he finally “put it all together,” according to ESPN Recruiting Nation. Our scouts see Goodwin as a major difference-maker, particularly on the offensive glass, which is exactly what the Tigers -- who relied on Barton for all non-Black offensive glasswork in 2012, and finished No. 230 in offensive rebounding percentage because of it -- need. Goodwin doesn’t have to flash a polished offensive game right away. But if he can come in and contribute defensively, take pressure off Black and Thomas on that end of the floor, and just go run at the rim when Jackson is weaving the ball through traffic, he could be the absolute perfect addition.

Because make no mistake: Despite the optics of last season, Memphis had a very good year. It is just as talented, if not more so, in 2012–13. The question is whether the Tigers can finally make that next step, and whether that description will apply to their young coach, too.

Three Big Things: Creighton

September, 28, 2012
In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Creighton.

1. Yesterday's Three Big Things covered the Duke Blue Devils. In case you didn't read it, or are addicted to Reddit and prefer summaries on anything longer than 150 words, your TL;DR on the Dukies was pretty straightforward: The 2011-12 Blue Devils scored the ball at a high rate, but -- uncharacteristically for Coach K teams -- were merely so-so on defense. That imbalance held them back from being truly elite and made them vulnerable to their eventual (if still shocking) first-round upset at the hands of Lehigh.

But as offense-defense efficiency imbalances go, Duke had nothing on Creighton.

The Bluejays were the fifth-most efficient offensive team in the country last season. Yep. True story. Only Missouri, Kentucky, Florida and Indiana (in that order) put the ball in the basket in a more efficient manner than did Greg McDermott's team. And that, being a Pomeroy adjusted efficiency ranking, is, you know, adjusted. It wasn't a product of a soft non-conference schedule, or a forgiving Missouri Valley Conference (which wasn't the case anyway). The Bluejays were that good.

2. The complete offensive explosion of forward Doug McDermott had much to do with the Bluejays' scorching offensive work. After a good freshman season, McDermott went nuts, well, brace yourself for numbers: He averaged 22.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game on 48.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc and 63.2 percent shooting inside it. His effective field goal percentage (65.4) and true shooting percentage (67.8) were the sixth- and third-best in the country, respectively. McDermott took (get this) 33.3 percent of his team's available shots, but that didn't hurt his efficiency one lick: He still put up a 123.5 offensive rating, second-best (behind Weber State's Damian Lillard) of any player in the country with a usage rate higher than 28 percent.

[+] EnlargeGrant Gibbs
Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireThe passing of Grant Gibbs, right, was crucial in feeding Creighton scoring machine Doug McDermott.
He was, in a word, crazy good. All right, that's two words. Whatever. You get the point. (The point is that Doug McDermott gets buckets. You did get that, right?)

Which is not to say McDermott didn't have his fair share of help on the offensive end. Guard Grant Gibbs, besides having excellent taste in Ghostface Killah verses, frequently worked inside-out with McDermott when McDermott posted and isolated and re-posted on the block. As Luke Winn pointed out during the MVC tournament in March, Gibbs' sublime bounce-passing from the wing helped McDermott get easy looks, in the process earning Gibbs the highest assist rate (27.4 percent) on his team. Big-bodied forward Gregory Echenique was a force on the glass, particularly on the offensive end, and point guard Antoine Young kept everything in sync from the point guard spot.

Young is the only Creighton regular not returning this 2012-13 season. Even if McDermott can't keep his insane scoring pace -- and I think he can, even if it is a lot to ask -- there's little reason reason to expect this offense to do anything but dominate. There will be points. Lots and lots of points.

3. The only problem with everything I just wrote: None of it has much to do with the defensive end. And that side of the floor will determine -- perhaps more for the Bluejays than for any other highly touted team this season -- what the Bluejays are eventually able to accomplish.

Because Creighton wasn't like Duke; it wasn't merely defensively mediocre. The Bluejays were actually ... kind of bad. They ranked No. 178 in Division I in adjusted defensive efficiency; on average, they yielded more than a point per trip over the entire season. They allowed opposing teams to average 49.7 percent effective shooting, good for 204th in the country. They were one of the very worst teams in the country (seriously: they ranked No. 343) in their rate of turnovers forced, and weren't much better blocking shots or ripping steals or defending teams beyond the arc.

There was some good news here. Greg McDermott's squad protected its own glass very well, and it traded a lack of turnovers for a lack of fouls.

But at the end of the day, the positives of Creighton's defense were outweighed by the negatives. For a team so very elite on the offensive end, the defense didn't even come close.

That makes this analysis, like Duke, pretty straightforward. Creighton is bringing back the heart -- including a hyper-efficient preseason All-American scoring star -- of a team that was already good despite playing substandard defense. To meet or exceed last season's already-high standards, the Bluejays don't need to suddenly become Alabama (even if they did that briefly in the NCAA tournament). If they can maintain their offensive pace and just play better on the defensive end -- if they can lower that adjusted efficiency to, say, a point per trip -- they have a huge opportunity to improve.

And really, at the end of the day, this team's prospectus is about the NCAA tournament. This is a very good bunch; Creighton will get back with ease in 2013.

Now it's about what the Bluejays can do when they get there, when the intensity goes up and possessions seem more valuable and opponents are more athletic and one game -- one 48-hour scouting session by a highly paid coaching staff scheming to shut your vaunted offense down -- is what stands between you and advancement. You have to get stops.

Three Big Things: Duke

September, 27, 2012
In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Duke.

1. For roughly 98 percent of the nation’s college basketball programs, Duke’s 2012 season would be considered a general success. The Blue Devils prevailed in a stacked Maui Invitational field, finished 27–7 overall and 13–3 in the ACC, ranked among the nation’s top 20 teams in adjusted efficiency, and defeated a strongly favored North Carolina team in Chapel Hill thanks to one of the greatest comebacks/finishes -- and one of the greatest games -- in the history of the storied hatefest that is the Duke-UNC rivalry. And for good measure, it landed yet another player, guard Austin Rivers, in the NBA draft lottery. Not a bad year, all things considered.

But by Duke’s lofty standards -- grading on Coach K’s typically steep curve -- the 2011–12 campaign was a B-minus at best.

Offense was never the problem. The Blue Devils finished the season ranked No. 11 in Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings. They were a solid shooting team that spaced the floor, worked from the perimeter, rebounded the ball well and got to the free throw line at the 13th-highest rate in the country.

[+] EnlargeDuke's Mike Krzyzewski
Bob Donnan/US PRESSWIREMike Krzyzewski can point to his defense as the reason for a disappointing finish by Duke standards.
No, the problem was defense -- a defense that was, by Duke’s standards, downright bad.

2. The Blue Devils finished the year ranked No. 70 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Again: In a vacuum, that’s not all that bad. It’s better than about 270 other Division I basketball teams, after all. But here’s a quick look at where Duke finished in adjusted defensive efficiency every year since 2003:

2011: No. 8
2010: No. 4
2009: No. 20
2008: No. 9
2007: No. 5
2006: No. 13
2005: No. 1
2004: No. 4
2003: No. 15

Every year in the past decade, the Blue Devils have been one of the best 20 defensive teams in the country. More often than not, they’re among the best 10. Simply put, Coach K defenses don’t perform like the one we saw in 2011-12. It never happens. But it did last year.

The primary reason for the defensive deficiency was the defensive perimeter. The Blue Devils were poor at pressuring opposing guards; they ranked No. 251 in opponent turnover rate (which isn’t an exact measure of perimeter defense, but it’s pretty close) and No. 213 in steal rate. They weren’t much better at protecting the boards, either, ranking No. 165 in defensive rebounding rate. But the defensive perimeter was the primary problem, and the reason the Blue Devils, despite all their strengths on the offensive end, were left vulnerable to the fate that befell them in the first round of the NCAA tournament -- when C.J. McCollum and No. 15-seeded Lehigh shocked the world and upset the No. 2-seeded Dukies.

3. With the exception of Rivers, Miles Plumlee and Andre Dawkins, who will take a somewhat surprising redshirt season, Duke is bringing essentially the same team as in 2012. Seth Curry will be a sharpshooter from deep and a capable ballhandler on the wing, while Quinn Cook should emerge in his sophomore year as a more seasoned and convincing presence. Junior guard Tyler Thornton is still around, and will still have a role off the bench to play. Ryan Kelly will still spread the floor. Forwards Josh Hairston and the youngest Brother Plumlee, Marshall, could emerge to play next to Mason Plumlee along the front line.

For all his natural abilities and his high professional ceiling, Rivers’ departure doesn’t feel like one that should set this team back a ton. And Miles Plumlee, while solid and physical in the paint, was never a particularly large part of Duke’s offensive attack.

And there is some help on the way. Both members of Duke’s two-player recruiting class should be immediate impact players. Rasheed Sulaimon is the No. 3-ranked shooting guard in the class. Amile Jefferson is the No. 4-ranked power forward. Scouts say Sulaimon is a natural scorer, and has the physical ability to develop into a lockdown defender on the perimeter. They point to Jefferson’s length and versatility; potentially, he could be the kind of athletic forward Duke hasn’t had in years, even in seasons when it guarded well.

The main focus for the newcomers, and for Duke’s coaching staff, will be repairing the relatively shoddy defense the Blue Devils played in 2011-12. Sulaimon could make an impact here right away, but freshmen are always unpredictable. No, this restoration will require a total team effort.

That’s a coaching buzz phrase, but one that is nonetheless applicable here. The offense will be there. Bank on it. Now everyone on this team, from the perimeter in, has to get better on the defensive wing and on the defensive glass.

If the Blue Devils want to live up to their typically high expectations -- which means competing for a national title, and nothing less -- then that’s the key. It really is that simple.

Three Big Things: Syracuse

September, 26, 2012
In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Syracuse.

1. Jim Calhoun’s friend and longtime adversary, Jim Boeheim, is inextricably tied to the former Huskies coach. He’s a similarly brusque Big East icon. He and Calhoun battled in the Big East for nearly 30 years, were inducted into the Hall of Fame together in 2005, and were Kasparov-level opponents in one of the greatest games of all time. With Calhoun retiring and Syracuse now embarking on its final year in the Big East, one of the sport’s most recognizable eras is ending.

What I’m saying here -- bear with me, Cuse fans, the point is coming -- is that there are obvious through lines between these two giants of the sport, if you’re interested in drawing them. But I can’t help notice the one big difference.

Over the final years of his career, Calhoun often seemed to be struggling against its end by sheer force of will. Lately, his teams ranged from predictably dominant to suddenly rebuilding, from unlikely national champions to ineligible to compete in the NCAA tournament. Even when he was on top, Calhoun was scratching and clawing, refusing to go gently into that good night. From afar, Calhoun made the process of coaching at the collegiate level -- of keeping up on recruiting, of pushing players to be their best, of defending every inch of success he’d earned -- look daunting, even brutal.

By contrast -- after more than 30 years and nearly 900 wins and an altogether amazing career -- Boeheim’s outfit is cruising. Well-oiled. Smooth. He hasn’t a lost a step.

Frankly, he makes this thing look easy.

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Richard Mackson/US PresswireSyracuse coach Jim Boeheim makes success look easy.
Last season, Boeheim had yet another loaded Syracuse team, which lost exactly one game in the entire regular season. It failed to reach the Final Four, but it was an unquestionably excellent (34–3, to be exact) year.

Then, in the offseason, Syracuse lost four starters -- arguably its four most important players -- to graduation and the NBA draft. For most programs, this would be time to recalibrate expectations, a time for rebuilding and restoration. Not at Syracuse. Not under Boeheim. Instead, Boeheim is likely to have one of the two or three best teams in the Big East, with NBA talent all over the floor, and the potential to reach the Final Four.

On a day-to-day basis, Boeheim no doubt works as hard as any coach in the country. But as a program, Syracuse is humming, and Boeheim hardly seems to be breaking a sweat.

2. Which is not to say the Orange don’t have their work cut out for them in 2012–13. Of course they do. Replacing the combination of talent and experience lost in the departures of Scoop Jardine, Dion Waiters, Kris Joseph and Fab Melo -- a four-year guard, a top-five NBA draft pick, a versatile swingman and one of the best shot-blockers in the country, respectively -- is no easy task.

But the point of No. 1’s lengthy preamble was to hammer home how just well positioned Syracuse is to do just that.

Point guard duties will be handled by senior Brandon Triche, who, with Jardine’s absence, will be allowed for the first time in his career to play the score-second point guard role which has always suited him best. Likewise, Syracuse has a bevy of returning wingmen ready to take on larger offensive roles, while maintaining the impenetrability of Boeheim’s trademark 2–3 zone. The 6-foot–8 C.J. Fair is excellent in mid-range space, and could be one of the Big East’s breakout forwards with more touches and minutes. James Southerland is a 6-9 inside-out threat who posted a 121.0 offensive rating in 2011–12. Baye Keita is 6-10, moves really well for his size, and blocked 9.2 percent of opponents’ available shots last season.

Which brings us to Rakeem Christmas and DaJuan Coleman. Christmas was a highly touted recruit in the 2011 class; Coleman is one of the best players at the center position in the class of 2012. Both players should make an immediate impact. Christmas is a big-time sophomore breakout candidate. Coleman’s combination of size and skills is beloved by scouts. The only concern with the freshman is maintaining an ideal weight. But by all accounts, both Christmas and Coleman have transformed their bodies this offseason; Christmas has become more mobile and added muscle to his upper body, and Coleman has dropped his body fat percentage to its lowest point since he was in eighth grade.

Despite so much roster turnover this offseason, this Syracuse team still has a host of players -- lanky, athletic, versatile, skilled, even bruising on the low block -- to keep the Orange in fine shape on both ends of the floor.

3. And then there’s Michael Carter-Williams.

The No. 21-ranked player in the class of 2011, Carter-Williams played only 18.2 percent of his team’s available minutes in 2011–12. Jardine and Triche were locked-in starters, and Waiters was a dynamic force off the bench; it’s hard to play with those three guys in front of you. Now that Jardine and Waiters are gone, there will be plenty of minutes and plenty of shots for a shooting guard who ranked behind only three players at his position in the class of 2011: Austin Rivers, Bradley Beal, and P.J. Hairston.

Everything I’ve heard, read and been told about Carter-Williams is that he has star potential, that he may morph from a relatively unknown and little-used prospect to an absolute star in his second season. We’ll have to wait to see what Carter-Williams can do in extended action before we go crowning anybody, but at this point it has become difficult not to believe the hype.

And now we’ve come full circle: The fact that Boeheim has a player like Carter-Williams waiting in the wings -- a guy who arguably would have started for all but three or four teams in the country last season -- is a testament to what Boeheim continues to maintain at Syracuse.

Year after year, he throws a mass of talented bodies at overwhelmed Big East (and soon ACC) opponents, year after year they run that vaunted 2-3 zone, and year after year Orange fans are treated to teams that pile up wins en route to realistic runs at national championships.

This kind of streamlined success can't be simple. But even in the twilight of his brilliant career, Boeheim almost always makes it seem that way.

[Correction: An original edition of this post called DaJuan Coleman the son of former NBA and Syracuse star Derrick Coleman. They share no relation. I apologize for the error. -- Eamonn]

Three Big Things: Indiana

September, 25, 2012
In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Indiana.

1. In the past, oh, six months, many barrels of digital ink have been spilled about the Indiana Hoosiers' remarkable turnaround. After win totals of six, 10 and 12 in his first three seasons, coach Tom Crean’s team got much better all at once. The Hoosiers truly announced their return with last December’s last-second win over Kentucky. By the time Crean’s offense went toe-to-toe with eventual national champion Kentucky in the Sweet 16, it was old news.

As far as I could tell, that loss wasn’t remotely disappointing for Indiana fans. Instead, it was encouraging -- a sign of the insane difference one season can make and a harbinger of much bigger things to come.

[+] EnlargeCody Zeller, Tom Crean
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireTom Crean and Cody Zeller are looking to make it further than last season's Sweet 16 finish.
Entering the 2012–13 season, the Hoosiers will be ranked among the top three teams in the country. (For what it’s worth, I think either Indiana or Louisville should be ranked No. 1, and it’s sort of splitting hairs to argue. I also remain very skeptical of UCLA). Surefire Preseason All-American forward Cody Zeller is back with a full summer of offseason workouts and rather funny tweets under his belt. Alongside Zeller is essentially every player of note from last season's team. Joining him is the No. 11-ranked recruiting class in the country, including No. 3-ranked guard Yogi Ferrell.

There might be a team or two out there with a higher concentration of pure talent in their starting lineups. There might be teams with more future pros or more athleticism on the front line. But no team will be as deep as this one.

When you combine that depth with the towering force that is Zeller, well, no wonder Indiana fans are thinking national title.

2. The only problem? There are only 40 minutes in a college basketball game. And if it’s possible to have too many bodies on a college basketball team -- I'm torn -- Indiana does.

And many of them can, and probably will, play. Besides Zeller, forward Christian Watford, point guard Jordan Hulls and wingmen Victor Oladipo and Will Sheehey all commanded significant minutes last season. Forward Derek Elston came off the bench and occasionally scored in bunches, and guard Remy Abell looked promising in limited action. Then there’s guard Maurice Creek, a promising player from two years ago who is seeking to return after 24 months ruined by one injury after the other. Had Creek never been injured, he would probably be considered among this team’s major stars. At the very least, he deserves a chance to redeem his career.

But where will Crean find the minutes? Even if the above players were the only Hoosiers to speak of, Creek would face stiff backcourt competition from Hulls (a lights-out shooter), Oladipo (the team’s best defender), Sheehey (a versatile and sneakily athletic swingman) and even Watford (who at this point is really more of a small forward than a power forward).

And then there are the freshmen. Ferrell, a McDonald’s All-American and the No. 3-ranked point guard in the class of 2012, appears set to start. As Crean said in early September: “I probably wouldn’t put it in the Sharpie pen just yet, but I might use a fountain pen that we’re probably going to start a freshman." This creates a somewhat fascinating conundrum. Crean has also hinted he’ll seek to keep Hulls in the starting lineup -- when you shoot 49.3 percent from the 3-point line, you have to play -- but will have to figure out how to do so without losing Oladipo’s defensive energy (Hulls’ lack of size makes him a major defensive liability). But then what of Abell? What of Creek, of Austin Etherington, of freshman small forward Jeremy Hollowell, a four-star prospect out of Indianapolis? Let’s not forget Sheehey or Watford, players who’ll get big minutes. Let’s also throw in big and athletic freshmen forward Hanner Mosquera-Perea -- and let’s not forget Elston -- and Indiana’s rotation could theoretically go 11, maybe 12 deep.

This is not how most college hoops teams usually work. Usually, coaches don’t like to go much deeper than seven or eight rotation players, and often fewer once February and March roll around. But Crean might be better off deciding to play to his strengths. Maybe he already has: At the same student function where Crean made the Sharpie comment, he said Ferrell will be a big part of the team’s desire “to run a lot more this year.”

If that’s the case, we could see a lot more of the Hoosiers we saw score 90 points in 72 possessions against Kentucky in March -- a team that turns its depth into waves upon waves of bodies. This could be a fascinating thing to watch.

3. Of course, Indiana didn’t win that Sweet 16 game against Kentucky. It lost, because even though it scored 1.25 points per possession, Kentucky scored 1.41. This was partly a function of just how good Kentucky was -- 102 points in a 40-minute, neutral-court, Sweet 16 game is crazy any way you slice it -- but also a function of where Indiana’s defense was at the end of the season.

Which is to say, it was all right. Certainly not as bad as it had been in 2008 or 2009 or 2010, but still not an elite unit. The Hoosiers finished No. 4 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom, but they ended the season ranked No. 64 on defense. Again, that is not bad. But it is not the kind of defense that typically gets a team through the rigors of the NCAA tournament, when shooting can go cold and nerves can take over and games can grind to a stop.

For all the progress Indiana made on defense last season, it still has a ways to go. This is where those waves of bodies -- particularly the athletic freshmen, who should cover up some of the holes on the perimeter and at the power forward position -- should come in handy. Maybe the Hoosiers will be able to play so fast they’ll run inferior teams off the court. But for a team with designs on a national title, the defense has to be there when it counts.

And so those are the big questions about this team: How Crean manages the minutes, and whether the Hoosiers defend well enough to justify their national title aspirations.

Because make no mistake, this season is nothing like 2011-12. Indiana has a bona fide star in Zeller and a mess of talented players around him. No one will miss the Hoosiers in the rear view; they’re not sneaking up on anybody.

This year isn’t about happy surprises or quantum leaps. This year is about setting high expectations and delivering on them. That’s what Indiana basketball used to be. Crean has a chance to make it so once more.

Three Big Things: Florida

September, 24, 2012
In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Florida.

1. Do not sleep on Kenny Boynton.

You would think a statement like this would be superfluous, given the rather remarkable offensive season Boynton put together in 2011-12. But Boynton was overshadowed on the brightest stage by the 2012 NBA draft’s No. 3 overall pick, Bradley Beal. Beal struggled at times in his one-and-done season at Florida, particularly early in his career. Unlike in his high school days, when Beal dominated the ball and played a pure (and totally dominant) scoring guard, Florida coach Billy Donovan needed him to act in more of a small forward role. He needed Beal to work off the ball, spot up on the wing and chase down offensive rebounds from the outside in. This allowed the Gators to keep all their best players -- including Boynton and senior point guard Erving Walker -- on the floor at the same time.

[+] EnlargeKenny Boynton
Christopher Hanewickel/US PresswireFlorida's offense will stay elite with the return of senior Kenny Boynton.
By the time the Gators reached the NCAA tournament, Beal became more far more demanding. In short, he took over. This had the effect of preserving his position as one of the top players in the 2012 draft, and deservedly so. (That 8-for–10 shooting performance against Marquette basically sealed the deal.)

But Beal’s late emergence also had the effect -- right when many casual fans (and NBA people) pay the most acute attention to the college game -- of obscuring just how good Boynton was throughout the entire 2012 season. And he really was remarkable. He averaged 15.9 points per game on a team with balanced scoring (five Florida players averaged double figures). He launched 270 3-pointers, and made 40.7 percent of them. He made nearly 50 percent of his 2-pointers. According to Synergy scouting data, Boynton scored 1.2 points per possession on spot-up opportunities, among the best in the country, and he placed in top efficiency percentiles in transition, on isolation plays, and in pick-and-roll sets. He rarely turned the ball over. Despite pretty frequent usage, much of it from distance, Boynton ended the season with a 121.8 percent offensive rating.

The moral of the story: Boynton had a great offensive season. This marked a major departure from his first two years at Florida, when he (not unlike Walker) probably fairly earned the reputation as an inconsistent chucker. That reputation was completely and utterly demolished last season. He was a beast.

There’s little reason to expect anything less this season. Despite losing one of the best pure talents in the country to the NBA draft, Florida’s offense should again finish in the top five in overall efficiency. Boynton, once so frustrating and mercurial, is the biggest reason.

2. The rest of the Gators’ lineup is less of a sure thing. It is also, forgive the alliteration, tantalizingly talented.

Arguably the biggest question is how forward Patric Young will progress into his junior season in Gainesville. To say Young is a physical specimen requires understatement. He is 6-foot-9 with the torso of an NFL running back and the vertical leap of a much smaller, less muscled human. The laws of physics say Young shouldn’t exist, yet he does. But he was often overlooked by his teammates in Florida’s attack last season; with so many guards on the perimeter, Young couldn’t get touches even when he established good post position. Will that change this season? Will Young polish his offensive game to the point that it’s impossible for Florida to ignore his raised hand on the low block? Even if the offense doesn’t suddenly flow through him, can his interior rim protection finally match his bewildering size?

How will former Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario -- a pure scorer who came off the bench last season, and who will surely take on a larger role this year -- fit into that larger role?

For the first time in four years, Florida’s offense won’t be initiated by point guard Erving Walker. Instead, Wilbekin will take on some of the responsibilities, and freshman point guard Braxton Ogbueze -- the No. 7-ranked point guard in the 2012 class, and the No. 50-ranked player overall -- will almost certainly play a big role from the start of the season. But scouts say Ogbueze excels at scoring, particularly from long range. I would argue the one thing Florida needs (at least on offense) is a pure distributor, not another scorer. How does that all work?

3. There may be some hiccups along the way, but with Boynton back, and Young likely to improve, I’m not worried about Florida’s offense. It will be just fine.

The real uncertainty with these Gators will come on the defensive end. For all their offensive wizardry in 2012, they couldn’t get over the hump -- whether against Kentucky in the SEC, or in the NCAA tournament, when Louisville came from behind to topple them in the Elite Eight -- because the Gators couldn’t get stops on a truly consistent basis. Much like Indiana, they weren’t necessarily bad; they finished ranked No. 71 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. But they weren’t elite, especially in regard to turnover creation, where they ranked No. 223 in the country.

Perhaps more minutes for Wilbekin, the arrival of Ogbueze and the departure of the diminutive Walker can lead to better perimeter ball pressure. Maybe Boynton, having figured out the offensive side of the game last season, will turn his attention toward defense. Maybe Young will morph into a mini-Dwight-Howard-like force.

Still, none of these things are certain. Florida has a high ceiling in 2012–13; even without Beal, the Gators remain a talented outfit. But they’ll have to become a more complete team -- not just an offensive juggernaut but a credible defensive squad, too -- if they want to meet or exceed last season’s Elite Eight visit.

Three Big Things: Gonzaga

September, 21, 2012
In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Gonzaga.

1. I can be wordy. It’s an affliction. So when Brett Edgerton and I were tossing around ideas for how to structure this series of preseason preview analyses, we decided that hitting on some small number of major points would be the best way to go. We could focus on the key statistics, themes or ideas we have about each team’s upcoming season, while maintaining some space for me to, you know, be wordy. I think it’s gone pretty well thus far.

But I’ll admit: When I sat down to write today’s edition, I found it remarkably difficult to pick out just three things worth highlighting about the 2012-13 Gonzaga Bulldogs. And guess what? I blame Gonzaga.

Why? Because from this distant vantage point, still six weeks removed from the start of the 2012-13 season, Mark Few’s team appears to be one of the most balanced squads on the West Coast -- if not the country.

The Bulldogs finished ranked in the top 35 in both offensive and defensive efficiency in 2011–12, per Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency metrics. They return four starters (Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell, Jr., Mike Hart and Elias Harris) and, in the place of center Robert Sacre, will add one of the most promising emerging big men in the country in versatile forward Sam Dower. With the exception of Hart, all of those players posted offensive ratings higher than 110.0 in 2011-12. The Zags shot the ball well from both inside and outside the arc, and got to the free-throw line at the seventh-highest rate in the country.

There’s little reason to expect anything different in 2012-13. As a baseline, this team will again be one of the best on the West Coast, the favorite to win the West Coast Conference, and a near-lock to get back to the NCAA tournament.

[+] EnlargeKevin Pangos
Charles LeClaire/US PresswireAfter a big freshman season, guard Kevin Pangos is poised to lead Gonzaga on a deep run in 2013.
2. So where’s the intrigue? To me, it’s comes from the question of how far this team can go -- how much more than that baseline it can achieve.

There are a few reasons to believe that’s possible. The first is sophomore guard Pangos, who announced his presence in November with a breakout debut, and followed it up with a season in which he led his team in available minutes played, posted a 119.0 offensive rating, a true shooting mark of 60.5 percent, and a 21.7 assist rate, while making 40 percent of his 197 3-point field-goal attempts. It’s difficult to fathom Pangos having a better offensive season than that, but he was just a freshman. If he improves, he’ll be one of the best guards in the country -- and if there’s one thing we know about the NCAA tournament, it’s that having a great lead guard never hurts.

Another reason is senior forward Harris. Harris was one of the most highly touted recruits Few ever landed, and he might not have planned on being a four-year veteran when he first arrived in Spokane. As a freshman, Harris was borderline brilliant, but his sophomore campaign found him overweight; last summer, the native German (understandably) blamed that on his difficult adjustment to our horrendous American portion sizes. As a junior, Harris was good. Not great, but good. His best work came on the defensive glass, where he finished with a 24.4 percent defensive rebounding rate. With one last go at a deep tournament run, does Harris have one last star-turn campaign left in him?

One more is Dower, who will step into Sacre’s rather large sneakers in Gonzaga's frontcourt. Sacre was a big, plodding strongman, a guy who never quite found his offensive polish but was nigh immovable when around the rim. Dower is an entirely different proposition, a smooth spot-shooting forward with range out to 20 feet. Dower showed flashes of brilliance in his junior season -- I saw him torch Xavier on New Year’s Eve -- and his offensive versatility is a major weapon yet to be fully unleashed. If he can help Harris anchor the middle of the defense, while keeping that offensive touch alive, he could be in line for a major breakout season.

3. Then again, he may not have to. Which brings us to the biggest wild card -- the biggest reason this always-solid program might be due for a deep tournament run -- in an otherwise seemingly easy-to-read offseason. His name is Przemek Karnowski.

Wait … who?

Funny -- that’s the exact reaction I had when Karnowski committed to the Zags this summer. Karnowski wasn’t highly sought after stateside, or a big-time name on most recruiting boards. But almost immediately after he announced his decision, the Polish 7-footer was showered with praise by the folks who know the foreign recruiting scene better than most. Draft Express’ Jonathan Givony called him a “McDonald’s All-American-type recruit.” ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla -- who spends more hours watching tape of European players than I spend playing "Civilization V" (hint: that’s a lot) -- said Karnowski was fashioned in “the Marc Gasol mold.”

Maybe Karnowski is still a bit raw. Maybe he’ll need time to adjust to the American game. But if he’s everything he’s cracked up to be, he could be a dominant center not just in the dominant-center-free WCC, but relative to the rest of the country as well. However you slice it, there is major upside there.

Even if the rest of the Zags' lineup performs much as it did in 2011-12 -- which, just to review, was quite good -- the addition of a 7-foot force in the middle could be enough to put Few’s team over the top.

We know Gonzaga will duel with Saint Mary’s and BYU for top WCC honors (and, this year, probably win them), and we know it will be back in the NCAA tournament. But Bulldogs fans are hoping for something more this season. Frankly, it’s hard to call those expectations unfounded.

Three Big Things: Michigan

September, 20, 2012
In the buildup to Midnight Madness, Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that "Three Big Things." (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Michigan.

1. Is this the best backcourt in the country? Maybe other squads will compete for sheer depth, and maybe other teams will have a bit more flash, but you’ll have a tough time finding another surefire one-two guard punch like this one.

I’m speaking, of course, about Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., the twosome at the heart of Michigan’s 2011-12 rebirth. Both were excellent -- and absolutely crucial -- last season, and the numbers plainly back it up. Burke and Hardaway played 89.2 percent and 84.5 percent of their team’s available minutes, respectively. Burke posted a usage rate of 26.8 percent and a shot percentage of 25.8; Hardaway’s usage was 25.6, his shot rate 26.6. No other Michigan player broke the 21.0 percent usage barrier. Hardaway was slightly less efficient overall, and he made just 28.3 percent from beyond the arc, but he and his backcourt mate were easily the most dynamic part of Michigan’s attack.

And Burke was merely a freshman, the co-Big Ten freshman of the year. After a mostly unheralded recruitment, he burst onto the scene early in 2011-12, and he never really slowed down throughout the season. He was smart, composed, consistent and timely. Much of his best stuff -- particularly late in shot clocks, or down the stretch -- isn’t the kind of thing that jumps off the statistical page. He was great when it counted, and he can still smooth off some of the rough edges.

Which is why it’s perfectly fair to expect Burke to make the customary sophomore improvement. In the offseason, Burke made it clear that he sees his team as a national title contender. After his freshman season, I’m loathe to question him.

2. Whether or not Michigan really is that good will hinge in large part on its new personnel, and the impact that personnel will have on both the offensive and defensive inputs and outputs in John Beilein’s system.

OK, deep breath. I’ll explain.

Let’s take offense first: Michigan finished the 2012 season ranked No. 22 in the country in offensive efficiency. Among its four factors -- the specific stats tempo-free guru Dean Oliver long ago established as having the strongest correlation to success -- the Wolverines finished ranked No. 22 in the country in shooting and No. 37 in turnover rate. They also finished ranked No. 276 in offensive rebounding rate and No. 331 in free throw rate.

That is the portrait of a perimeter-oriented team, one that rarely ventured into the low post to get its offense, and which preferred to launch from the perimeter whenever possible. The Wolverines' percentage of 3-point field goals to overall shots was 44.2, the eighth-highest mark in the country. According to Synergy scouting, 26.3 percent of Michigan’s offensive possessions were dedicated to spot-up shooting. (The next-highest play type was the pick-and-roll.) This is what Beilein teams do, and last season’s team was well-built for that purpose.

[+] EnlargeMitch McGary
Mark L. Baer/US PresswireHow recruit Mitch McGary (33) fits in offensively and defensively will play a major role in how far Michigan goes.
Now, three of the players who excelled in that perimeter-oriented offense -- Stu Douglass, Zack Novak and Evan Smotrycz -- have transferred or graduated. That’s the bad news. The good news? Replacing them is a highly ranked recruiting class, which includes top-25-level players Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary. Efficient forward Jordan Morgan is also back, as is the previously injured Jon Horford.

Both Robinson (a small forward) and McGary (a power forward) could be revelatory forces for this team. Beilein hasn’t had overall talent like this in his tenure at Michigan. But he also hasn’t really had a team that might be better served with a more interior offensive focus, from McGary to Morgan to Horford. How will that work, exactly? Will a perimeter-dominant team suddenly be able to turn itself inward? And if it does, can it maintain -- or even improve -- on last season’s efficient performance?

I don’t know. It could go either way. We’ll just have to see.

3. Which brings us to the second half of the above breakdown, an area where I’m just slightly more optimistic: defense. The Wolverines were a slightly above-average defensive team in 2012-13, and nothing more. They did a nice job not fouling their opponents -- they were decidedly above average in that regard -- but in every other regard, they were mostly just OK.

This is where Michigan could show the most improvement. McGary and Robinson are bigger, stronger and more athletic than Novak (who admirably matched up against opposing power forwards more often in his career than he ever should have) and Smotrycz could ever hope to be. They may not be fully polished on the offensive end right away, McGary in particular. But if they can come in and guard people -- force them to shoot over extended hands, keep them off the offensive glass, and maybe even force a few turnovers here and there -- Michigan could be a much trickier matchup for the rest of the Big Ten.

Is this team good enough to win the Big Ten title? Sure. And I tend to agree with Burke: If everything goes well, this is a national title contender. But so much hinges on how Beilein incorporates an unusual influx of talent and size into what, until this season, was a team that generally thrived on outshooting opponents. That transition is the new story of this program, and it, more than any other factor, will determine whether Burke’s bold offseason analysis proves true.

Three Big Things: Ohio State

September, 19, 2012
In the buildup to Midnight Madness, Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that "Three Big Things." (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Ohio State.

1. Unlike Tuesday’s "Three Big Things" subject, the Ohio State Buckeyes are a team in transition. For the past two years, this program has essentially belonged to forward Jared Sullinger, who dominated as a freshman, returned to lead his team to a Final Four as a sophomore, and was an All-American caliber player both seasons. The departure of senior William Buford, despite struggles in his final season, ends another career. It was one less glorious than Sullinger’s but marked by a quiet, even underrated, all-around quality.

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AP Photo/Elise AmendolaDeshaun Thomas ranked second in PPG last season on a talented Ohio State team.
Between those two, and the 2011 losses of shapshooter Jon Diebler and glue guy all-timer David Lighty, the 2012–13 season begins at something like the end of an era for Ohio State basketball. The question is what comes next?

With the exception of Aaron Craft and Deshaun Thomas the answer is, as usual with Ohio State coach Thad Matta, another wave of highly regarded talent. But the Buckeyes aren’t adding notable recruits in the class of 2012. Instead, they’ll be relying on the loaded class of 2011 -- most of which were role players last season -- to emerge in place of the (relatively) old guard.

That includes guard Shannon Scott, who will be featured in the backcourt much more frequently this season. It also includes junior Lenzelle Smith, who was an occasionally sporadic but usually efficient two-guard in 2011–12, and sophomore LaQuinton Ross, who had plenty of hype coming out of high school. Sophomore small forward Sam Thompson is crazy athletic, and has the potential to be one of the best above-the-rim finishers in college hoops. And rarely used center Amir Williams -- which forced Sullinger to play center more than he probably would have preferred -- arrived in Columbus with a good deal of hype last season, and will need to make good on it this season to give the Buckeyes a viable low-post presence.

There are a lot of question marks here, which is why it’s fair to expect Ohio State to take a step back in the coming season. After all, Sullingers don’t grow on trees, and they can’t stay out of the NBA draft forever. A “step back” is what happens when you lose a borderline transcendent two-year centerpiece. Until we see the young guys step into a tough Big Ten landscape, ambivalence about this team’s chances is entirely fair to have.

2. But as Heath Ledger’s Joker once croaked, you’ve got to have an ace in the hole. Matta has two – one for either side of the floor.

The offensive ace is, obviously, Thomas. As a freshman, Thomas was one of the nation’s most ready shooters; he didn’t get many minutes, but when he did, he made sure to get his shots. Last season, Thomas was a regular, and he was excellent, posting a 122.1 offensive rating and a 57.4 effective field goal percentage while committing very few turnovers and rebounding nearly 10 percent of opponents’ available misses.

But behind Sullinger and Buford, Thomas was still the 2011–12 Buckeyes’ second, or even third, option. This season, there are no questions about who Ohio State’s No. 1 offensive option will be. Will that hurt his productivity? Will defenses be able to key on him, and him alone? (One reason that may not work is because Thomas is so versatile; he appears just as comfortable facing up from 20 feet as he does pivoting on the low block.)

One thing’s for sure: Thomas is going to get his points. Whether he does so efficiently, or with volume, will have a lot to do with the lethality of his newly crucial teammates. But there will be no conscience at work here. Whatever the end result, it’s going to be thrilling to see Thomas -- a born scorer if ever there was one -- fully unleashed.

3. In the meantime, point guard Craft will still be Craft, which is to say he’ll be the best perimeter defender in the game, hands down. SI’s Luke Winn spent the entire 2011–12 season tracking (among many other things, obviously) Craft’s impact on the defensive end. What he found was a player who actively creates more opposition turnovers -- steals, charges taken, moving screens drawn, and good old-fashioned uncredited turnovers.

It’s easy for players like Craft, who are almost ritually slapped with the “gritty” label early and often in their careers, to become victims of analyst-driven mythology. But what Luke’s close watch revealed only buttressed the reality we all were already seeing (if not accurately quantifying): Craft was the most impactful perimeter defender in the game. Everything he does -- the steals, the charges drawn, the screens relentlessly fought through, the hips subtly bumped (so as to knock opponents off balance but avoid fouls), all of the little tips and tricks -- added up to an absolute nightmare for opposing scorers.

Craft will need to be his nightmarish self again for the Buckeyes in 2012–13, and he almost certainly will. Perhaps more interesting to track will be his offensive progress, an already arguably overlooked portion of his game. Craft posted a solid 111.4 offensive rating in 2012–13. He made 23 of his 64 3-point field goal attempts (good for 35.9 percent). He got to the line at a surprisingly high rate.

But he still coughed the ball up too often (23.8 percent turnover percentage), and really, Craft wasn’t asked to do much on the offensive end in the first place. With the non-Thomas portions of this attack in flux, Matta may have to ask Craft to do more -- to shoot more frequently and more accurately, to collapse defenses when he can -- in order to give the Buckeyes some added punch.

In all, Ohio State has two sure things in Craft and Thomas, a nice role player in Smith, and a bunch of talented question marks surrounding them. This isn’t the rosy prospectus of the past two seasons. Sully isn’t walking through that door. But those sure things are so sure that just about any coach in the country would absolutely love to have them. We’ll see if that can be enough.

Three Big Things: Louisville

September, 18, 2012
In the buildup to Midnight Madness, Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that "Three Big Things." (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Louisville

1. With the possible exception of Indiana, there is no team in the country we know more about -- who they are and where they’ll excel -- than Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals. That’s what happens when you go on a magical March run, first through the Big East tournament, then to the Final Four, just before falling short to that insane Kentucky team (not that there’s any shame in that). That's what happens when the lion’s share of that team returns the following season. If Indiana isn’t ranked No. 1 to begin the season, Louisville will be. Because there’s nothing preseason rankers like better than continuity.

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith
Bob Donnan/US PresswireRuss Smith is just one of many of last seasons starters that will return for Louisville.
And we know this cast of characters well. Peyton Siva will reprise his role as the lightning-quick point guard. Russ Smith will be back in his trademark erratic-but-somehow-effective combo-guard spot. Gorgui Dieng is the intimidating defensive presence in the middle of the floor (who might be the nicest guy in the country off it). Chane Behanan is the slightly flashier power forward with more than a few go-to post moves. Even sophomore shooting guard Wayne Blackshear, who spent much of the 2012 season injured and really only emerged during the NCAA tournament, is a relatively known entity.

For any Cardinals fans worried the postseason run was just a trick of small sample size, the good news in all this lack of turnover is that all of these players can still improve. Blackshear could be a big-time offensive force on the wing. Siva and Smith, who both posted offensive ratings in the low 90s, could both become much more efficient scorers. Dieng is still barely scratching the surface of what he can do on both ends of the floor, but especially on offense. And Behanan is a potential star in the making.

Usually, when teams return this many veteran players, I’m inclined to believe that they are what they are. (See: 2010–2012 Vanderbilt Commodores). In Louisville’s case, that baseline is already incredibly high. Even scarier is the thought that all of these well-known returners could still get better.

2. Here’s another 2012–13 Louisville Cardinals certainty: This team is going to defend like crazy. Per Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency metrics, the 2011–12 Cardinals’ 84.0 defensive efficiency rating was the lowest in the country (coincidentally, the first time in three years Florida State didn’t own that distinction), and the Cards only got more difficult to break down as the season entered its most crucial stage. Here’s a fun stat: From Feb. 23 to March 23, Louisville didn’t allow a single opponent to score more than a point per possession. That includes the tail end of the Big East season, the entire Big East tournament, and the first three rounds of the NCAA tournament. Not until Florida (when Bradley Beal went nuts) and Kentucky (and, well, it was Kentucky) did Louisville yield more than a point per trip to an opposing team. That’s ... kind of insane.

Louisville’s defense could be complicated at times. Pitino switched his defensive schemes throughout the tournament, which particularly befuddled Draymond Green’s No. 1-seeded Michigan State Spartans. But for the most part, the blueprint was simple: Siva and Smith would relentlessly pressure the ball, everyone would pressure shooters, and Dieng and Behanan would protect the rim at all costs. It worked. And it will work again in 2012–13.

3. Louisville’s offense was, and is, a different story. More stats: The Cardinals finished ranked No. 103 in the country in efficiency last season, No. 243 in effective field goal percentage, No. 211 in turnover rate and No. 177 in free throw rate. You get the idea. With the exception of the offensive glass where they ranked No. 51, this was a mediocre offensive team at best.

Smith, bless his wacky soul, had a lot to do with that. Despite that 91.5 offensive rating and a 30.6 3-point field goal percentage, Smith led the Cardinals by a wide margin -- and finished in the top 10 nationally -- in both usage rate and his percentage of Louisville’s available shots. Smith made the shots when it counts, and Pitino has long since embraced the one he calls Russdiculous, but there’s no question Smith will have to become more efficient if he plans on hoisting so frequently in 2012–13. Siva, Louisville’s second-most-used player, will have to do the same. (The Cardinals run a ton of high pick-and-rolls for Siva, but there’s little reason for defenders to fight through the screen, rather than playing under; Siva is not a frequent or accurate 3-point shooter.)

But again, there is reason to expect improvement. Behanan will take on a larger role in the offense. If Dieng’s low-post game becomes merely passable, he’s a weapon unto himself. And Blackshear, a top recruit who rarely got to show his ability thanks to injury as a freshman, has a chance to emerge as one of the best sophomores in the country.

The expectations are high. Louisville will begin the season ranked No. 1 by many, and No. 2 or No. 3 by others. Offensive improvement would justify that ranking; balance would make this team utterly lethal. But even if you’re bearish on the Cardinals’ 2012–13 offense, you should be bullish overall. That defense has already shown the way.

Three Big Things: North Carolina State

September, 17, 2012
In the buildup to Midnight Madness, Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that "Three Big Things." (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: NC State.

1. Is this the year C.J. Leslie puts it all together? NC State fans are certainly hoping so, and with good reason. Leslie is by far the Wolfpack’s most talented returning player, an athletic and versatile 6-foot–8 big man who can score with either hand on the low block, and who cleans up on the defensive glass. But there’s reason to think Leslie is still just scratching the surface of his ability. There were times in 2011–12 -- which was a good season for Leslie individually, and a decent one for his team in general -- in which he still looked less than fully engaged on both ends of the floor.

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AP Photo/Jay LaPreteHow well NC State does next season will depend largely on their big man C.J. Leslie.
When he’s on, he’s a force, particularly in the paint. According to Synergy scouting data, 24.4 percent of Leslie’s possessions came in the post, where he can score over his left shoulder or over his right shoulder, and where he oftentimes pivots and faces up against his defender before diving toward, and finishing at, the rim. And that’s just in the half court. Because he’s so athletic, Leslie was a major target for NC State in transition, where the Wolfpack played nearly 20 percent of their possessions, and finished ranked No. 87 in the country in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo. Leslie’s second-most-frequent play types were transition finishes.

Still, despite having so many weapons in his offensive arsenal, Leslie finished the 2011-12 season with a just-above-average offensive rating of 102.1. Until a late push in February and through the ACC tournament, Leslie was often hit-or-miss. Now, as a junior, there are no questions about his talent, and about the role he'll be asked to play on an NC State team with designs on its first ACC regular-season title since 1989. The question is whether he can bring a high and efficient level of play not just game-to-game, but possession-to-possession. Because if he does, there are only a handful of players who can impact a game the same way. He'll be a star.

2. Will Rodney Purvis play? NC State coach Mark Gottfried brought in three talented prospects in his 2012 recruiting class: No. 5-ranked shooting guard Rodney Purvis, No. 8-ranked small forward T.J. Warren, and No. 5-ranked point guard Tyler Lewis. Warren and Lewis can be immediate contributors, most likely off the bench. But Purvis is the star of the class, a super-athletic slasher who can get “wherever he wants on the court, whenever he wants,” according to ESPN Recruiting Nation’s scouting report. The only problem? He may not qualify. Purvis’ high school, North Carolina’s Upper Room Christian Academy, is a new institution that hasn’t yet cleared all of its core classes through the NCAA Eligibility Center. That’s why Purvis -- who the NCAA has allowed to practice with the team and attend classes, but who hasn’t been cleared for competition -- may end up missing all of his freshman season as a partial qualifier.

As Gottfried has said this offseason, not only is Purvis a high-quality player -- he’s a high-quality player at a position where the Wolfpack don’t have much depth. What the NCAA eventually rules will have a big impact on the season, one way or the other.

3. If Purvis is cleared to play, NC State is the prohibitive favorite to win the ACC. North Carolina is just as talented, and Duke is just as experienced, but neither team would combine the two like the Pack. If Purvis’ arrival is delayed by a year? Well sure, it’s a blow, but I’d argue -- for whatever a preseason notion is worth (hint: not much) -- NC State still belongs at the top of the preseason heap.

Lorenzo Brown will provide savvy senior guard play (35 percent assist rate). Scott Wood is a lights-out shooter (124.9 offensive rating, 62.8 percent true shooting, 41 percent from 3). Forward Richard Howell is a beast on the glass, particularly on the offensive end (15.8 percent offensive rebound percentage, the 15th best in the country). The aforementioned Leslie has set a high baseline, one he could very well exceed (and then some) as a junior. And the non-Purvis freshmen, Warren and Lewis, do provide the backcourt depth that could be lost with Purvis’ absence.

This is a team that took its sweet time figuring it out last season, but did so just in time to (A) sneak in the NCAA tournament and (B) make an impressive run while there. Purvis or no Purvis, it is adding top-100 talent to an experienced core, with a bona fide star at its center. The future -- long-term and immediate -- is decidedly bright.

Update, 3 p.m. ET: On Monday afternoon, NC State coach Mark Gottfried told that Purvis had been fully cleared by the NCAA Eligibility Center. Huge news for the Wolfpack, huge news for their fans. It's going to be a big year.