College Basketball Nation: UCLA Bruins
As a freshman at UCLA in 2013-14, guard Zach LaVine averaged 9.4 points on 7.8 shots, 2.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 24.4 minutes per game. In late March, after Florida ended UCLA's season in the Sweet 16, LaVine's father, Paul LaVine, told the Los Angeles Daily News that his son -- a too-thin backup guard who scored 11 points in his final five games -- would be one-and-done.
People mostly laughed.
“Every year he spends at UCLA after this one is a waste,” Carter said. “It really is.”
LaVine, for all of his obvious potential, was not exactly Kansas' Andrew Wiggins, so all of this stuff was pretty funny. Others saw something more sinister: The NBA and its agents tempting a player who wasn't ready with the promise of freedom and riches. The 19-year-old age limit rearing its ugly head once more to the detriment of all involved.
The problem with all of the jokes is that LaVine's family was right: LaVine has as good a chance to develop in the NBA as he did as a college basketball player.
To insist he didn't was to insist that college basketball owns a monopoly on player development. The scoffs stemmed from the idea that a player must be ready to play in the NBA from the moment he steps into the league to have any hope of long-term success, that development stops at the draft decision. Much as the collective college hoops consciousness may like to think this is the case, it's not.
Just ask Duke's Jabari Parker:
Ultimately, I boiled my decision down to two simple questions:
Which environment -- college or the NBA -- offers me the best opportunity to grow as a basketball player?
Which environment -- college or the NBA -- offers me the best opportunity to grow and develop off the court?
The answer to both questions is undeniably the NBA.
That was Parker, writing with Jeff Benedict for Sports Illustrated Thursday, announcing his decision to turn pro. The announcement is about as unsurprising as draft decisions get: Parker is practically guaranteed to be a top-three pick in the 2014 NBA draft, and top-three picks almost never turn down the draft.
Still, if there was any player for whom such a decision may have made sense, it was Parker. He's a thoughtful dude with a genuine desire to earn a degree. He played for Mike Krzyzewski, arguably the greatest college basketball coach ever and a two-time Olympic gold-medal winner. Duke has world-class facilities and fan support. There are few better places in the world for a teenage college basketball player to develop on or off the court.
Plus, as Parker wrote, a loaded 2014 Duke class is led by his "good friend," center Jahlil Okafor, the No. 1 player in the country. If Parker had returned, Duke would have been favored to win the national title from now until next March. (That starting lineup -- some combination of Quinn Cook, Tyus Jones, Rasheed Sulaimon, Parker and Okafor -- is terrifying even as a hypothetical.)
And none of it was enough to keep Parker in college.
There are good financial arguments for the NBA, of course, and Parker is good enough that he doesn't have to take the short-term risk that, say, LaVine might. Parker is an obvious NBA talent with a decade of potential to mine until his peak. LaVine is all risk-reward. But the larger point remains: Parker had about as good a collegiate situation as any player could ever ask for, and was nonetheless convinced that the NBA was the better place for him to "grow and develop" in every facet of his life.
Whatever new NBA commissioner Adam Silver eventually proposes to replace the current age limit -- and all signs are that Silver would very much like to make a change -- this is a key consideration for folks on the college side to understand. The argument has always been framed much differently. College basketball was the place to develop. The NBA was the place to get paid. How long until those distinctions blur entirely?
(6) Baylor vs. (2) Wisconsin
Both teams can score a lot of points, so this game could come down to which team defends better.
Against elite offenses, Baylor appears to have the more efficient defense: Baylor has allowed 105.1 points per 100 possessions in four games against teams ranked in the top 25 in defensive efficiency; Wisconsin has allowed 109.7 points per 100 possessions in eight games against those same teams.
Matchup to watch: Baylor plays zone on 57 percent of its defensive plays. Wisconsin has the most efficient zone offense in the country, averaging 1.20 points per play.
(11) Dayton vs. (10) Stanford
Dayton-Stanford is the second 10 vs 11-seed matchup ever. The other was in 2011 when 11-seed VCU beat 10-seed Florida State, 72-71.
Both of these teams dominated defensively against their first two opponents, allowing fewer than 60 points in each game.
The Flyers defensive strength has been on the perimeter, holding their opponents to a tournament-best 15 percent shooting outside the paint. Stanford, on the other hand, has shut down its opponents inside. Kansas shot just 38 percent around the basket in the Cardinal's upset win.
With its dominant defense down low, the key to beating Stanford is by making outside shots. Stanford is 5-9 this season when its opponents shoot at least 36 percent on 3-pointers. The Cardinal are 17-3 when their opponents shoot less than 36 percent on 3-pointers.
Dayton is shooting 40.3 percent on 3-pointers in its last seven games.
(4) UCLA vs. (1) Florida
This should be a familiar matchup for fans of both teams. Florida is 3-0 all-time in tournament games against UCLA, with all three meetings occurring in the last eight seasons.
The matchup to watch in this game is UCLA’s transition offense vs Florida’s transition defense.
The Bruins score a Pac-12 best 19.7 points per game and shoot 57 percent in transition. Florida’s defense allows only 9.0 transition points per game, fewest in the SEC, and holds opponents to 43 percent shooting on the break.
(4) San Diego State vs. (1) Arizona
Three times a charm, right? This is the third time that Arizona is a 1-seed in a regional in Anaheim. The Wildcats won their Sweet 16 game here in 1998 and 2003, but lost in the Elite 8 both years.
The first to 50 points might win this game. San Diego State and Arizona rank first and third, respectively, in fewest points per 100 possessions allowed in the nation.
San Diego State excels with its press defense. The Aztecs have the fourth-most efficient press defense of any team that presses on at least 10 plays per game. Arizona ranks 29th in the country in points per play against press defense.
Arizona has been at its been defending the interior, holding its first two opponents to a tournament-best 32 percent shooting around the basket. San Diego State has attempted a total of just eight shots around the basket in its first two games, the second-fewest of any team.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- On Oct. 17, Billy Donovan arrived at his 18th SEC media day -- an event expressly designed for coaches and players to talk about their teams -- not knowing what to say.
After three straight Elite Eight appearances, and with a veteran team and a typically high-octane recruiting class at his disposal, Donovan found himself in front of the media day scrum unable to tell reporters exactly what he thought about his team, because he genuinely didn't know. He was almost apologetic.
"I'd tell you today, if we had [all our players available] and we could start Oct. 11 fully healthy, then I'd tell you we have a chance to be really good," Donovan said then. "Hopefully we can get there as the season goes on. But we're not there right now."
Donovan was running practices with six or seven scholarship players. When freshman Kasey Hill suffered an early-season injury, Wilbekin still wasn't back; on Nov. 21, the Gators played Middle Tennessee without a point guard.
"Our team was in complete shambles and disarray when we came back to school in August," Donovan said.
It was the kind of mess that might panic a younger, less experienced, less secure coach -- one still concerned with proving himself as equal to his peers. What if we lose too many nonconference games? Do I need to end suspensions early? What will this season say about me?
After 34 wins (including a school-record 28 straight), an unbeaten SEC run, a No. 1 overall seed, a fourth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance and a contract extension raising his pay to $3.7 million over its final six years, it was clearer than ever that Donovan is no longer that guy. Five months later, on a much larger dais, the 48-year-old coach again sat in front of reporters, able to reflect on process without fretting much about outcome.
"When you're a young coach, you're always in a position where you're trying to prove yourself," Donovan said. "I don't think it's any different for anybody in any job. You get a job when you're young and you get a promotion and you're going to want to prove that you can do the job and do it well.
"But I think, as I've gotten older -- we all want to win. But for me, there's a lot I've learned as it relates to life and as it relates to the drama of the NCAA tournament. What are these guys going to take from this experience, and how equipped are these guys to take the next step in their life?"
The process vs. outcome dichotomy is not a new one. But it may be the defining argument in modern sports. In a micro sense, it's about the merit of running good stuff and getting a statistically efficient shot and living with the result versus, say, lionizing a difficult play for the sheer fact that it ended well. In the macro, it's about knowing your team improved each and every game, that your players came together, that you got the most out of each game over a 35-game sample.
But it's easier said than done -- especially when you're a young coach clawing your way up the ladder. Outcome is what gets you the promotion, and the respect, and the money, in whatever order Tony Montana prescribed.
On May 30, nearly two months after the NCAA tournament concludes, Billy Donovan will be 49 years old. The short-cropped sides of his widow's peak are run through with gray. He's seven years removed from the second of his two national titles (2006, 2007) and 14 years past his first national title run (2000). He's weathered the comedown years, and the brief NIT blips, and now practically has the Gators in a self-sustaining state. They play UCLA on Thursday at 9:45 ET.
They are always good, because of course they are.
Still, a younger, more assailable coach -- a younger, less gray Donovan, even -- might view a 34-2 season and a No. 1 overall seed as a must-win, can't-fail, life-changing opportunity. Instead, the Florida coach can look back on where his team was in October, and appreciate how far it has come. He is, after nearly two decades in Gainesville, Fla., among the select handful of his colleagues with the luxury of a wider perspective. No matter what happens next.
"To me, to see what those kids have done in terms of trying to come together as a team -- that stuff to me is really what it's about, more so than just the end result of winning," Donovan said.
"We all want to win, and I hope we go all the way through, I'd love that. But I have a lot more appreciation for that stuff now than I did when I was younger."
KANSAS vs STANFORD
Stanford is the third-most efficient team in the country on pick-and-roll, ball handler plays, averaging more than a point per play on those plays.
Kansas ranks 221st in points per play allowed while defending pick-and-roll, ball handler plays.
That could be a big factor with Joel Embiid not there to protect the rim on pick-and-roll plays.
WICHITA STATE vs KENTUCKY
Kentucky ranks second in offensive rebound percentage (42.1%) and scores 9.4 points per game on offensive rebound putbacks, fifth-most in the country.
Wichita State ranks fifth in the country in defensive rebound percentage (74.2%) and only allows 4.3 points per game on offensive rebound putbacks, 17th-fewest in the country.
IOWA STATE vs NORTH CAROLINA
Iowa State relies heavily on 3-point shooting. The Cyclones rank in the top 25 in 3-point attempts and 3-pointers made per game.
North Carolina is holding teams to 30 percent 3-point shooting in its last 14 games. The Tar Heels have held 13 of their last 14 opponents below 40 percent on 3-point shooting. They're only allowing 5.4 3-pointers per game in their last 14 games.
TENNESSEE vs MERCER
Mercer's opponents are attempting 23.1 3-pointers per game in its last 10 games. Mercer is 9-0 when its opponents attempt at least 24 3-pointers (12-1 when they attempt at least 23), including a win over Duke (37 attempts).
Tennessee hasn't had more than 24 3-point attempts all season. They average 17.1 3-point attempts per game.
UCLA vs STEPHEN F. AUSTIN
UCLA ranks in the bottom 20 of the country in turnover percentage. The Bruins only turn it over on 14.9 percent of their possessions.
Stephen F. Austin forces 16.2 turnovers per game, eighth-most in the country. However, SFA is only forcing 11.6 turnovers per game in its last five games.
CREIGHTON vs BAYLOR
Creighton is 23-1 this season when shooting at least 35 percent on 3-pointers (4-6 when shooting less than 35 percent). Creighton is 15-1 when making at least 11 3-pointers (12-6 when making 10 or fewer).
Baylor's opponents are shooting 38.5 percent on 3-pointers in its last 10 games. Baylor has allowed higher than 40 percent 3-point shooting in five of its last 10 games and at least eight 3-pointers in six of its last 10 games.
VIRGINIA vs MEMPHIS
Memphis ranks second in the country in transition offense with 21.2 points per game. The Tigers rank 21st in transition field goal percentage (59.3%).
Virginia excels in transition defense. The Cavaliers allow seven transition points per game, second-fewest in the country. Virginia also ranks in the top 25 in field goal percentage defense in transition.
Pace will be a factor, as well. Virginia has the third-slowest pace (60.7 possessions per game), while Memphis ranks 34th in pace (71.2 possessions per game).
ARIZONA vs GONZAGA
Gonzaga is very efficient on offense, ranking in the top 10 in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage.
Arizona ranks third in defensive efficiency, allowing 89.5 points per 100 possessions. The Wildcats are 15-0 this season when allowing fewer than 90 points per 100 possessions.
Gonzaga hasn't faced a single team all season that ranks in the top 30 in offensive efficiency.
ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) measures how well each team performs based on game result, margin, pace of game, location, opponent strength and the absence of any key players.
Using BPI, we are able to project the chances for each team to win its major conference tournament. The probabilities take into account the matchups in each bracket based on each team’s BPI. The team with the best BPI isn’t necessarily always the favorite if that team has much tougher matchups than other teams in the tournament.
According to BPI, the Arizona Wildcats have the best chance of any team in one of the seven major conferences (American, ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC) to win its tournament. They have a 63 percent chance of winning the Pac-12 tournament.
Arizona has more than a six times better chance of winning the Pac-12 tournament than any other team. The UCLA Bruins have the second-best chance at 10 percent.
Pac-12 best chances: Arizona 63 percent, UCLA 10 percent, Oregon 10 percent, Arizona State 5 percent, Stanford 4 percent
The Florida Gators are the prohibitive favorites in the SEC tournament with a 57 percent chance to win it. The Kentucky Wildcats (25 percent) are the only other SEC team with better than a 7 percent chance. The No. 9 seed Missouri Tigers have a slightly better chance to win the SEC tournament than the No. 3 seed Georgia Bulldogs.
SEC best chances: Florida 57 percent, Kentucky 25 percent, Tennessee 7 percent, Arkansas 3 percent, Missouri 2 percent
American & Big East
The Louisville Cardinals (American) and Villanova Wildcats (Big East) are both close to 50 percent in terms of their chances of winning their respective conference tournaments.
The Memphis Tigers have an edge playing on their home court in the American Tournament, but they still have a significantly worse chance than Louisville and Cincinnati. Memphis does, however, have a greater probability of winning the tournament than higher-seeded teams Southern Methodist and Connecticut. With its home-court advantage, Memphis would be a favorite against any team in the tournament other than Louisville.
American best chances: Louisville 49 percent, Cincinnati 18 percent, Memphis 14 percent, SMU 12 percent, Connecticut 8 percent
No team other than Villanova or Creighton has better than a 6 percent chance to win the Big East tournament. There’s a 44 percent chance that Villanova and Creighton meet in the Big East championship game.
Big East best chances: Villanova 48 percent, Creighton 31 percent, Xavier 6 percent, St. John’s 6 percent, Providence 4 percent
Perhaps the most interesting conference tournament is the ACC, where the No. 3 seed Duke Blue Devils are the favorites at 27 percent. The No. 1 seed Virginia Cavaliers (25 percent) and No. 2 Syracuse Orange (23 percent) are close behind.
ACC best chances: Duke 27 percent, Virginia 25 percent, Syracuse 23 percent, Pittsburgh 12 percent, North Carolina 7 percent
Another interesting conference tournament is the Big Ten, where four teams have between a 17 percent and a 26 percent chance of winning the tournament. The No. 2 seed Wisconsin Badgers are the favorites at 26 percent, while the No. 1 seed Michigan Wolverines are only the third favorites.
Big Ten best chances: Wisconsin 26 percent, Ohio State 19 percent, Michigan 19 percent, Michigan State 17 percent, Iowa 11 percent
The Kansas Jayhawks have a 37 percent chance to win the Big 12 tournament, but their path isn’t easy. They could face the teams with the fourth- and second-best chances of winning the tournament in the quarterfinals and semifinals.
The No. 8 seed Oklahoma State Cowboys, with a 10 percent chance of winning it, could face Kansas in the quarterfinals. The No. 4 seed Iowa State Cyclones, with an 18 percent chance, could face Kansas in the semifinals. Both teams have a 35 percent chance of beating Kansas, according to BPI.
Big 12 best chances: Kansas 37 percent, Iowa State 18 percent, Oklahoma 16 percent, Oklahoma State 10 percent, Baylor 6 percent
BPI No. 1 Arizona fell 64-57 at Oregon on Saturday and lost 0.7 in its BPI rating. But the Wildcats had enough of a cushion over No. 2 Florida that they maintained the hold on the top spot. Similarly, No. 9 Wisconsin, which lost at Nebraska on Sunday, maintained its ranking despite a 1.0 drop in BPI.
Kansas falls after Shockers’ victory
A 92-86 loss at West Virginia brought Kansas’ BPI rating down 0.7, and the Jayhawks kept their No. 3 BPI ranking after Saturday’s games.
After Wichita State won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship game Sunday, the Shockers got a bump of 0.2 in their BPI – a small bump, but large enough for Wichita State to move from No. 4 to No. 3 in the rankings, leapfrogging Kansas. The Jayhawks, who have the toughest schedule among BPI Top 15 teams, are No. 3 in the NCAA’s RPI rankings but fell from eighth to 10th in the weekly Associated Press poll.
Of the BPI Top 10 teams that lost, only Virginia (a 75-69 overtime loser at Maryland on Sunday) dropped in the rankings immediately after the defeat, from No. 7 to No. 8.
Pac-12 climber and faller
Oregon, in its BPI rating, gained less than Arizona lost after their game Saturday but climbed four spots in the rankings Sunday to No. 16. The Ducks have won seven games in a row (earning a BPI Game Score of at least 90 in five of them) and exceeded a 90 Game Score in its loss at Arizona on Feb. 6. The NCAA’s RPI has Oregon at No. 25, and the Ducks have the third-most votes among teams finishing out of the top 25 in the AP poll.
The biggest faller in BPI rankings among the Top 50 was UCLA. The Bruins lost 73-55 at No. 175 Washington State on Saturday and fell from 11th to 21st. UCLA earned a Game Score of 10.6 against Washington State, 10 points lower than any other game score for a team currently ranked in the BPI Top 25.
In the eye of the beholder
BPI and other team ranking systems weigh different factors, which explains why teams such as Michigan and Louisville can be regarded so differently.
Michigan is eighth in the AP poll, ninth in RPI and a No. 2 seed in Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology. In BPI, however, Michigan is 22nd. Of the Wolverines’ seven losses, four have been by at least 10 points; of their wins, seven have been by five points or fewer. Also, Michigan is 8-1 with an 88.7 BPI against opponents missing at least one of their top five players (in terms of minutes per game), and BPI de-weights those games.
Louisville rose from 11th to fifth in the AP poll, but the Cardinals are a projected No. 4 seed in Bracketology and are 22nd in RPI. BPI ranks the Cardinals fifth. All five of Louisville’s losses have been to BPI Top 50 teams and have been by an average of six points, whereas its five wins against Top-50 opponents have come by an average of 13.4 points.
Here’s the story I remember: My high school friend John, a Notre Dame freshman, had extra tickets for that game versus Kentucky, so my roommate Jason and I made the trek to South Bend, Ind., to watch the Irish take on Gerald Fitch, Chuck Hayes and Kelenna Azubuike. I distinctly remember the halftime celebration, the dimming of the lights, the rapture in the audience as the final two minutes of that fabled upset played on the Joyce Center scoreboard, the thunderous applause for the players arranged side by side at midcourt. And I swear that a Wildcats fan near us made fun of all the hubbub -- something about the Irish getting more mileage out of one game than any program before or since. I remember laughing.
Here’s the problem: John doesn’t. Remember, that is. The best he could do to verify, he said in an email, was “50-50.” And Jason? Jason wasn’t even on the trip. That was a different trip, he explained. Facebook was no help either; I didn’t create my profile until the fall of 2004. This game I’m so sure I attended was one of the last moments of my life that wasn’t recorded for posterity on the Internet. But I remember it! It happened! Right?
That was just 10 years ago, three full decades after the legend of the Digger Phelps-engineered upset of No. 1 UCLA was born. Imagine what tricks memory can pull in 40 years, what details can be lost in translation, how much harder it gets with each passing annum to identify with the way things once were.
And yet “Notre Dame 71, UCLA 70” has stood firm against the sands of time. It is crystallized in the sport’s collective memory, and not just because one team scored 12 unanswered points in the final two minutes or because the Irish had eerily bookended the 88-game winning streak that preceded it. Notre Dame 71, UCLA 70 will live forever precisely because it, more than any other game, connects us to an era in college basketball so utterly alien from our own.
No fact demonstrates this better than one that is often lost in casual remembrances: Notre Dame was ranked No. 2 in the country. In the matter of a decade, the thought of a No. 2-ranked team beating No. 1 on its home floor would sound like nothing more than an exciting, high-quality game of hoops, a sportwide shift that more or less exists intact to this day. In 1974, against John Wooden’s UCLA, it was something like history.
These facts are well-known and oft-repeated, but they never lose their power. And the 1974 Bruins were the most powerful of them all. From Jan. 23, 1971, when ND’s Austin Carr scored 46 points in an 89-81 win, until almost three years later to the day, UCLA won 88 straight college basketball contests. The Bruins' average margin was 23.5 points. Bill Walton, the indomitable force as those teams’ literal and figurative center, had not lost a game since his prep career at Helix High in San Diego. “By various accounts,” The New York Times recalled in 2010, “his personal winning streak had reached 139 or 143 games, the victories rolling up like miles on an odometer.” Wooden, with the help of local businessman and devoted booster "Papa" Sam Gilbert, concentrated more talent in Westwood than any program before or since. When Wooden combined that talent with the freedom and trust of his philosophy, an aura of enlightened invincibility was born.
Such was that aura that Notre Dame -- again, the No. 2 team in the country, playing on its own floor -- required intense psychological motivation to believe it could down the Bruins trailing by nine points with less than three minutes left. Before the game, Phelps forced his self-conscious kids to rehearse cutting down the nets. The final timeout speech Phelps delivered to his charges -- which the documentary “88 and 1” will detail Sunday night on ESPN2 -- practically force-fed the Irish’s belief.
Phelps also had two unlikely advantages.
Walton arrived in South Bend, Ind., injured. Twelve days earlier, the center broke two bones in his back when, as he later told the San Diego Union-Tribune, he was undercut on a rebound. He played brilliantly against Notre Dame, making 12 of his first 13 shots while wearing a restrictive back brace. But the film betrays Walton’s pain. When Irish center John Shumate stole UCLA’s high inbounds pass -- just seconds after scoring on Walton in the post -- Walton winced at the jump, hesitating for a brief second, glancing at the ground, while Shumate cut the lead to seven.
The other advantage? Wooden’s philosophy was so celebrated that it was already widely available in book form, where Phelps read that Wooden typically refused to call timeouts late in games. The serene Bruins legend preferred to let his players self-actualize their way through hiccups. He was adamant in his philosophy that coaching was for practice, that if players weren’t prepared for anything by game time, he had failed. So when Phelps’ team suddenly pressed and the turnovers piled up, UCLA never took a timeout to adjust. A miraculous 12-point comeback ensued.
To this day, UCLA players dispute that version of the facts. They insist that they, not their coach, lost the game. (Guard Pete Trgovich told the Times in 2010 that “Anybody who knows basketball can’t put [Phelps and Wooden] in the same breath. It had nothing to do with Coach’s decision not to call a timeout.”) Forty years later, there is still bad blood, still some jockeying for control of the narrative, still some attempt to write the history of one of the most incredible upsets in college basketball history.
Still, 40 years later, the result itself remains unchanged, fully formed, an artifact of a bygone era. It is no longer possible for one program to be so dominant that a loss to No. 2 at home would immediately go down in history.
But it was possible then, and it is that context that makes Notre Dame 71, UCLA 70 so special. It is a basketball memory too strong to fade.
Jason King: Steve Alford, UCLA
In some ways, it doesn’t make much sense to say that Steve Alford has something to prove. In his six years at New Mexico, Alford averaged 25.8 victories and won five Mountain West Conference titles. There’s no question the man can coach. Alford, though, will be operating under a whole new set of circumstances at UCLA, where expectations will be unreasonably high. This, after all, is a school that in March fired a coach who had been to three Final Fours and was weeks removed from winning the outright Pac-12 title. That might cut it at some programs, but it didn’t do Ben Howland any good in Westwood, where sub-30-win seasons are considered a failure.
Alford won’t have the grace period that most coaches are extended during their first season. He inherited a team that returns a likely first-round NBA draft pick in Kyle Anderson and a trio of proven forwards in David and Travis Wear and Jordan Adams. Arizona may be the clear-cut favorite in the Pac-12, but UCLA will be expected to at least make the race interesting. If the Bruins don’t, Alford will endure a boatload of criticism, especially considering the lukewarm reception to his hiring by fans and media. Alford’s lack of NCAA tournament success -- and his mediocre performance on the recruiting trail thus far -- has prompted some concerns about his ability to return UCLA to its days of dominance. And his often prickly personality may make it tough to win over fans. As a player at Indiana, Alford grew used to being in the spotlight. But never during his coaching career has he encountered what lies ahead during his first season at UCLA.
Myron Medcalf: John Calipari, Kentucky
It’s odd for a man with a national championship and Final Four appearances in two of the past three seasons to have something to prove. But that’s the position John Calipari is in after assembling the greatest recruiting class in college basketball history. Sure, there’s no guarantee this class will live up to the hype. But no group -- ever -- has warranted this much hoopla and excitement. He has six McDonald’s All Americans, and that’s just the freshmen. In all, Calipari boasts eight players who might be first-round picks in next summer’s NBA draft.
So what could go wrong? Well, last season, another talented young crew in Lexington lost to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT. Was that a fluke? There’s immense pressure on Calipari and this Kentucky squad to prove that it was. He’s always been a premier recruiter, but recruiting alone, as we learned last year, is not the only quality that breeds success within the coaching ranks. Developing talent is critical. Calipari did that when he won a national title in 2012 with a squad that was led by freshmen Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The same result will be anticipated by Big Blue Nation in 2013-14. Yet the stench of last season’s tumult remains. The only relief will be a rally that ends in Texas with a Final Four appearance. Many will expect -- demand -- a national title. That’s what happens when a coach brings so many stars together. But can Calipari lead an inexperienced yet advanced group of young players to the championship again? Anything short of that could be considered a disappointment.
Dana O'Neil: Josh Pastner, Memphis
The news that Michael Dixon would be eligible immediately at Memphis turned the Tigers’ already terrific backcourt into arguably one of the best in the nation. It also upped the ante for the team overall, which means even higher expectations for Josh Pastner. The fifth-year coach has some questions on the inside, namely can Shaq Goodwin continue to make strides to help replace Adonis Thomas. But he’s got awfully good answers on the perimeter. Dixon, Joe Jackson, Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford are all different but all very good and, more important, all seniors. If Pastner can steal a page from Jay Wright’s four-guard handbook, he’s got the makings of a pretty good team.
Pastner has done a more-than-admirable job since taking over for Calipari. In three of his four years, the Tigers have made the NCAA tournament and last season won their first NCAA game in his tenure, beating Saint Mary’s before losing to Michigan State to finish 31-5. The trouble is, before Pastner arrived, winning an NCAA tournament game was a foregone conclusion. Calipari’s last four teams went Elite Eight, Elite Eight, national title game, Sweet 16. It’s an absurdly high bar. It’s frankly unfair to measure a team by its NCAA success only. Matchups and injuries can alter so many fates, but it is definitely Pastner’s reality. The folks of Memphis love their coach and love their Tigers, but they want to see the tourney's second weekend again.
But none of those pieces is as intriguing, or as pivotal, as Kyle Anderson.
He would up a secondary figure instead. Anderson is a lanky 6-foot-9 guard who doesn't check his man particularly well but gobbles up defensive rebounds; who can hook-shot mismatches to death but seems to hate playing with his back to the basket; who is probably best-used as a point-forward distributor type at the top of the key, even though he can't shoot 3s. See what I mean? It's all very weird.
In 2012-13, UCLA never really found a place for that strange blend of skills. Howland had Larry Drew II handle the ball. Muhammad and Adams did most of the work on the perimeter; the Wear twins played on the block. Often, Anderson just sort of floated. He was lost.
But even then you could see it: The things that made it so difficult for Anderson to star in his first collegiate season are also the things that put a glint in NBA scouts' eyes. His blend of size and ball skills is unusual, and his desire to stand back and distribute -- his clear belief that his best skill is his passing -- is immediately attractive. Who wouldn't take a chance on a 6-9 pass-first point guard? Who wouldn't want to develop a guy with that combination of skills?
Which is why Monday's news wasn't really all that surprising, at least not in and of itself. From ESPN's Jeff Goodman:
"Kyle has made great strides in his mental approach to the game and his work ethic since being at UCLA," his father, Kyle Anderson Sr., told ESPN.com. "The major deficiencies in his overall game are his lack of strength, quickness and explosion, and inconsistent shooting. We feel that both of which can be addressed more efficiently with more time and repetition. It's more than likely that it will be time for Kyle to move on at the end of this college season."
As Jeff notes, the 2014 draft is brutal, particularly at the top, and particularly for small forwards and power forwards. Depth at those positions is going to be crazy; Anderson doesn't really look like a lottery pick. Given all that, you might be wondering why Anderson's family would be so willing to project the end of his college career. What if this season doesn't go as planned? What if he has to come back? This isn't exactly Marcus Smart we're dealing with, after all.
Then again, so what? Anderson can always change his mind; it's not like UCLA won't have him back if he does. And, as with Smart, I tend to see this sort of open-book move as a positive for everybody involved. Why cloak your ambitions anyway? Why pay exhaustive lip service to your school, fans, program, coach, etc. when everyone already knows the score? Remember when Howland was chided for saying (before Muhammad could) that his star was definitely leaving for the 2013 draft? Every year, it's like everyone in the sport agrees to pretend that everyone else wants to be exactly where they are, and this illusion must be maintained until the season is over, at which point you are free to admit that you one day want to achieve your dream of making millions of dollars for playing a game you love. Huh? Why? It's completely silly.
No, the pertinent question is not whether Anderson should set a deadline for his college career. Whatever. The real question is whether he can close the deal in time. Can he showcase some improved shooting? Can he be more than a matchup-based change of pace at point guard, and be a viable, collected team leader at the position instead? Can he leverage his size for more than surface impressions? Can he guard? Can he be a two-way threat? Can he combine his skills into an effective package -- can he be more than the sum of his own individual parts?
These are the questions that will define Anderson's second, and apparently last, season in Westwood. The clock is officially ticking.
2. BYU coach Dave Rose is expected to be released from the hospital Monday after last week's surgery to remove cancerous spots. Rose will have to take it easy the next few weeks, but the Cougars' staff expects him to be ready for the start of BYU practice Oct. 7. Teams are allowed to start practicing on Sept. 27. But the new rule is for 30 practices within 42 days of a team's first game, so schools can manage the start time to their schedule. That means there will be staggered practice days from Sept. 27 with not every team practicing on the same days.
3. No one should be surprised by former UTEP signee Isaac Hamilton ending up at UCLA. Hamilton's family made it clear that he wanted to be at USC or UCLA once he told UTEP he wasn't going to attend so he could be closer to his ailing grandmother. According to Hamilton's father, Greg, Isaac can be on a scholarship but without being released from his national letter of intent, he cannot play this season. UCLA cannot comment on Hamilton's arrival until all his paperwork is in to the school. UCLA coach Steve Alford is on the lookout for talent that can produce from Southern California. The onus will be on Hamilton to be a force in the fall of 2014 by using this ineligible season to his advantage.
Toughest: at San Diego State (Nov. 14), NIT Season Tip-Off (Nov. 27-29 in New York), at Michigan (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: UNLV (Dec. 7)
The rest: Cal Poly (Nov. 8), Long Beach State (Nov. 11), New Mexico State (Dec. 11), Southern (Dec. 19), Northern Arizona (Dec. 23)
Toughness scale: 9 -- The Wildcats will go to one of the toughest spots in the Big Ten and in the Mountain West within a month of each other. The NIT Season Tip-Off is on the top line because it seems Arizona and Duke have a pretty clear path to the NIT final at MSG. If that occurs, then the Cats would have three premier games away from home. Playing UNLV and NMSU in Tucson will hardly be a cakewalk, either. This team can handle the chore, though, since it's got top-10 talent.
Toughest: at UNLV (Nov. 19), Marquette (Nov. 25), Wooden Legacy (Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in Fullerton and Anaheim, Calif.)
Next toughest: at DePaul (Dec. 5)
The rest: UMBC (Nov. 8), Miami-Ohio (Nov. 12), Idaho State (Nov. 15), Bradley (Nov. 22), Grambling (Dec. 14), Texas Tech (Dec. 21), UC Irvine (Dec. 28).
Toughness scale: 7 -- The Sun Devils play a number of teams that might not move the meter but are all high-level NCAA-bound squads. Marquette will be as tough a team to face as any on the slate and going to UNLV will be one of the hardest road stops. Opening with Creighton in the Wooden Legacy should be one of the top first-round games of any tournament (and with a win, San Diego State likely awaits). The road game at DePaul has to be taken seriously after the Blue Demons stunned the Sun Devils last season in Tempe. This is a quality schedule for a team that has NCAA expectations.
Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27), at Creighton (Dec. 22)
Next toughest: at UC Santa Barbara (Dec. 6)
The rest: Coppin State (Nov. 8), Denver (Nov. 12), Oakland (Nov. 15), Southern Utah (Nov. 18), UC Irvine (Dec. 2), Nevada (Dec. 10), Fresno State (Dec. 14), Furman (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 5 -- The game at Creighton is by far the toughest for the Bears. The question is who does Cal eventually get in Maui? If the Bears get past Arkansas, Syracuse is next and the schedule toughness goes up. If the draw is Minnesota, then it’s not as bad. Playing Baylor or Gonzaga on Day 3 would also help the schedule strength. This is a Bears' team that will get ripe with age in the season, so not overloading it early was the smart move.
Toughest: vs. Baylor (Nov. 8 in Dallas), Harvard (Nov. 24), Kansas (Dec. 7), vs. Oklahoma State (Dec. 21 in Las Vegas)
Next toughest: Wyoming (Nov. 13), at Air Force (Nov. 30), at Colorado State (Dec. 3), Georgia (Dec. 28)
The rest: UT Martin (Nov. 10), Jackson State (Nov. 16), Arkansas State (Nov. 18), UCSB (Nov. 21), Elon (Dec. 13)
Toughness scale: 9 -- The Buffaloes get major props for going out and scheduling one of the most difficult slates of any potential NCAA team. The toughest category above has four teams that should take turns in the top 25 and in the case of KU and OSU in the top five. Going to CSU is as tough a rivalry game as anyone will play. There are two more quality rivalry games at Air Force and against Wyoming and an improving Georgia coming west. Colorado might be more ready than any other Pac-12 team for conference play.
Toughest: vs. Georgetown (Nov. 8 in South Korea), at Ole Miss (Dec. 8), vs. Illinois (Dec. 14 in Portland)
Next toughest: BYU (Dec. 21)
The rest: Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Nov. 13), Utah Valley (Nov. 19), San Francisco (Nov. 24), Pacific (Nov. 29), North Dakota (Nov. 30), Cal Poly (Dec. 1), Morgan State (Dec. 29).
Toughness scale: 7 -- The Ducks will test themselves with the trip to Camp Humphreys in Seoul and Georgetown is a tough team to play no matter the location. But this will be a hard game to deal with, based on the location and logistics. The Rebels will likely be at full strength when the Ducks come calling in December. Illinois is rebuilding a bit but is always a tough out, even in a Duck-leaning site in Portland. BYU is a sleeper game on this schedule with the Cougars owning a legitimate shot to pull off the upset.
Toughest: at Maryland (Nov. 17), Diamond Head Classic (Dec. 22-25)
Next toughest: at DePaul (Dec. 1), Towson (Dec. 18)
The rest: Coppin State (Nov. 10), Portland (Nov. 13), SIU Edwardsville (Nov. 26), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Dec. 7), Maryland Eastern Shore (Dec. 15), Quinnipiac (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale: 4 -- The Beavers are still dealing with the suspensions of Eric Moreland and Devon Collier. So a schedule that is too tough wouldn't have made sense for them. Going on the road to Maryland early in the season could be a wake-up call. A road game at DePaul is hardly going to be easy for the Beavers. The Diamond Head Classic could be intriguing if the Beavers beat Akron and get Iowa State on Day 2.
Toughest: at UConn (Dec. 18), vs. Michigan (Dec. 21 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Next toughest: BYU (Nov. 11), Legends Classic (Nov. 25-26 in New York)
The rest: Bucknell (Nov. 8), Northwestern (Nov. 14), at Denver (Nov. 17), Texas Southern (Nov. 21), South Dakota State (Dec. 1), UC Davis (Dec. 14), Cal Poly (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale: 6 -- The Cardinal get plenty of credit for going east -- twice. Stanford will be ready for the road in the Pac-12 after November and December. The UConn-Michigan swing in the tri-state area is as tough a nonconference road trip as any team has from the West Coast. Washington tried this two years ago with Marquette and Duke in New York City and went home winless. The Legends Classic could turn out to be Stanford's event if the Cardinal can get by Houston and then an anticipated matchup with Pitt. BYU in the opener will wake up this team, too.
Toughest: at Missouri (Dec. 7), vs. Duke (Dec. 19 in New York)
Next toughest: vs. Northwestern (Nov. 29 in Las Vegas), Alabama (Dec. 28)
The rest: Drexel (Nov. 8), Oakland (Nov. 12), Sacramento State (Nov. 18), Morehead State (Nov. 22), Chattanooga (Nov. 24), vs. Nevada (Nov. 28 in Las Vegas), UCSB (Dec. 3), Prairie View A&M (Dec. 14), Weber State (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale: 6 -- The Bruins didn't hide from playing Duke in New York City, a virtual home game for the Blue Devils. The return game at Mizzou will be as rocking a road game for UCLA as it will have during the season. The rest of the slate is more than manageable. There is always room to stumble and the Bruins have at home recently. So let's see if Steve Alford wins the games he's supposed to at Pauley.
Toughest: at Utah State (Nov. 8), Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30 in the Bahamas)
Next toughest: Boston College (Dec. 8), at Long Beach State (Dec. 19), at Dayton (Dec. 22)
The rest: Cal State Northridge (Nov. 12), Northern Arizona (Nov. 15), Cal State Fullerton (Nov. 19), West Alabama (Nov. 21), CSU Bakersfield (Dec. 15), Howard (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale: 7 -- The Trojans are going to places few Pac-12 schools would choose to go. No teams from power conferences, outside of Mississippi State this season, go to Utah State. The trip to Logan to open the season will be a bear for new coach Andy Enfield. The Atlantis tournament might not be kind to the Trojans, either, with a possible second-round game against Kansas (after opening with Villanova). BC is much improved and will test USC at home. The road games to Long Beach State and Dayton are two other stops not normally found on a high-major nonconference road schedule.
Toughest: at Boise State (Dec. 3), BYU (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: Fresno State (Dec. 7)
The rest: Evergreen State (Nov. 8), UC Davis (Nov. 15), Grand Canyon (Nov. 21), Lamar (Nov. 22), Savannah State (Nov. 23), Ball State (Nov. 27), Idaho State (Dec. 10), Texas State (Dec. 19), St. Katherine (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 3 -- The Utes play one true road game in the nonconference. Boise State should be the second pick in the Mountain West, so that will be a tough one. The BYU rivalry game is at home this season, a plus for the Utes. But the rest of the schedule is weak. That's OK, considering Utah is trying to rebuild under Larry Krystkowiak. But they can't expect much of a postseason chance off this schedule.
Toughest: 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 21-22 in New York), at San Diego State (Dec. 8), UConn (Dec. 22)
Next toughest: N/A
The rest: Seattle (Nov. 10), UC Irvine (Nov. 14), Eastern Washington (Nov. 17), Montana (Nov. 26), Long Beach State (Nov. 30), Idaho State (Dec. 14), at Tulane (Dec. 17), Mississippi Valley (Dec. 27), Hartford (Dec. 29)
Toughness scale: 6 -- Washington has some renewed energy and is a team that should be on the radar as a possible NCAA tourney squad. That means the games against the Aztecs, home against UConn and then in New York against Indiana and either BC or UConn will carry significant weight as to how UW is judged as tourney worthy or not in March. I like this schedule as a legitimate prep for the Pac-12 to gauge where the Huskies will be later in the season.
Toughest: at Gonzaga (Nov. 21), Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in Orlando)
Next toughest: TCU (Nov. 24), UTEP (Dec. 21)
The rest: CSU Bakersfield (Nov. 8), Lamar (Nov. 16), Pepperdine (Dec. 15), at Idaho (Dec. 7), vs. San Francisco State (Dec. 18 in Kennewick, Wash.), Mississippi Valley State (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale: 4 -- The Cougars play two of their rivalry games on the road at the Zags and in Moscow, Idaho. The Old Spice Classic could be a breakthrough for Wazzu with a rebuilding Butler team in the first round. Get that win and it's a likely shot at Oklahoma State in Round 2. The TCU home game could be a sneaky spot on the schedule, wedged in between Gonzaga and the Orlando trip.
In 2002 Pierce, a star guard under Steve Alford at Iowa, was charged with sexual assault when a woman accused him of forcing himself on her (and holding her mouth, stopping her from screaming) at a party in Iowa City. Alford publicly defended Pierce at the time, but he went further -- allowing Athletes in Action campus representative (and unofficial team chaplain) Jim Goodrich to arrange an informal "prayer meeting" with Pierce and the victim. As the university report later stated, "The female student's reaction to this contact was concern that the University was improperly involving itself in trying to resolve the matter," a contact that "confirmed her fears that the University would act to protect its athlete," at which point "her response was to pursue criminal charges." The meeting itself seemed seedy enough, but the religious invocation put it over the top -- and when Pierce was charged again in 2005, this time for allegedly choking, forcibly stripping and threatening his ex-girlfriend with a knife, it marked the beginning of the end of Alford's tenure.
A decade later, when Alford was introduced as the new head coach at UCLA, his role in the Pierce sleaze-fest was among the first questions he faced. When he answered it as poorly as possible -- he blamed the Iowa administration and lawyers for his marching orders, and said he "did everything that I was supposed to do at the University of Iowa in that situation ... I followed everything that I was told to do" -- an already unimpressed L.A. media noticed UCLA basketball just long enough to register its immense disapproval.
Alford may have thought turning New Mexico into a perennial winner and landing one of the most coveted jobs in college basketball would be enough to put the Pierce baggage away once and for all. He was wrong.
But hey, that's a coach, right? A person. Not a school. Iowa has no association with Pierce, and by and large the university -- particularly the community of protesters that sprung up around the situation -- acquitted itself fairly well. When Pierce left the school to serve his 11 month prison sentence, a chapter of Iowa hoops history was closed, one the resurgent Hawkeyes program and its re-engaged fan base would vastly prefer to forget.
All of which is why Monday night was so very, very awkward.
What happened Monday? The Hawkeyes were in Toulon, France, just one more picaresque stop on their summer exhibition tour of England and France, and they were preparing to play Hyeres-Toulon, an LNB Pro B (second-division) French club Monday afternoon, when Pierce tweeted the following:
Playing my former college tonight in a friendly #hawkeyes
— Pierre Pierce (@pierre_pierce) August 19, 2013
Which is exactly what happened. Iowa media relations director Steve Roe told the Cedar Rapids Gazette that the Hawkeyes didn't schedule the teams themselves (such schedules are usually drafted by outside agencies arranging the trips) and weren't aware of Pierce's affiliation; you get the feeling they would have done just about anything to avoid it.
But the game went on, and not only did Pierce play against his former college, he led his team with 19 points in 35 minutes. He also handed the Hawkeyes their first loss with a game-winner in the closing moments of overtime.
Yep. That happened:
Felt pretty good hitting my first game winner today lol wish the #hawkeyes best of luck this season and safe travels back
— Pierre Pierce (@pierre_pierce) August 19, 2013
Needless to say, the hilarious Iowa die-hards at Black Heart Gold Pants are still processing this trauma:
Maybe what happened was inevitable from the moment when the perverse cosmic screenwriter crafting this tale decided to throw Pierre Pierce, one of the most notorious and reviled figures in Iowa basketball history, into this yarn. If you're going to drop a bomb like that, it might as well explode in spectacular fashion, right? Pierce had played for H-T in the past (in December 2012, specifically), but he hadn't played there in months; of course he would make his return to that team for their exhibition game against Iowa. Of course Pierce would go 7/14 from the field and 4/7 from long range, scoring a game-high 19 points. And of course Pierce would not just play well against his former team, but he would hit the game-winning shot, to boot. [...]
The fates are cruel. The whole story is so improbable, so implausible, so Hack Screenwriting 101, it's almost impossible to believe that it's true. The whole situation is like a direct-to-DVD sports movie -- or, rather, a Bizarro version of a direct-to-DVD sports movie, since the villain ends up winning in this story.
BHGP called it the "most memorable Iowa hoops exhibition game in recent memory," which is like saying Jamaal Franklin dunked that basketball pretty well that one time. They also raise a valid point, a more positive takeaway: At least Iowa was challenged for the first time on its Eurotrip, giving the players some experience in a tight (and even emotionally fraught?) game in regulation and overtime.
Which, hey, sure! That is a positive. Is it enough to outweigh losing to Pierre Pierce on a game-winning overtime shot? I'm going go ahead and say no.
(HT: The Dagger)
Those topics have been discussed ad nauseam the past four months. Plenty of other things, however, have occurred during the offseason that could have a huge impact on the 2013-14 campaign. Here are 10 storylines that aren’t receiving nearly enough attention as the season inches closer.
1. Key eligibility issues: Three of the nation’s top programs are waiting on the NCAA to rule on the eligibility status of players who could change the course of their respective seasons. The most high-profile case involves Florida forward Chris Walker, an incoming freshman whose academic standing is in question. Walker, the country’s No. 12 recruit according to ESPN.com, is not listed on the Gators’ roster. The Gainesville Sun reported Monday that Walker may have to wait until December to take the court, if it happens at all. At Memphis, the Tigers’ backcourt will be one of the best in the country if Michael Dixon is deemed eligible. Dixon was forced to leave Missouri’s program in November following allegations of sexual misconduct. Dixon, however, was never arrested or even questioned by police. He is arguably one of the top 10 players at his position and would likely provide the leadership the Tigers have been lacking. At Oregon, coach Dana Altman is crossing his fingers that Houston transfer Joseph Young will be able to play immediately. Young, a wing, averaged 18 points per game last season. He could form one of the nation’s top perimeter trios along with Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis.
3. Tarik Black transfers to Kansas: The addition of No. 1 overall recruit Andrew Wiggins has dominated the headlines in Lawrence, and rightfully so. But Black, a senior who played his first three seasons at Memphis, could play a crucial role for the Jayhawks, too. Black, who started off and on for three seasons with the Tigers, brings some much-needed experience and leadership to a KU squad that could count as many as eight freshmen and sophomores among its top 10 players. And at 6-foot-9, 262 pounds, Black gives the Jayhawks the rugged, physical presence in the paint they may have otherwise been lacking. Don’t be surprised if Black ends up starting for a squad vying for its 10th straight Big 12 title.
4. Steve Alford under the microscope at UCLA: For some reason the decision to replace Ben Howland with Alford didn’t go over all that well, both nationally and in Westwood. I’m not sure I understand why. All Alford did at New Mexico the past five seasons was average 26.2 victories and win four MWC titles. Yes, he has struggled in the NCAA tournament, but his day will come. I’ve never been a fan of judging a coach based on one game or one loss. Either way, there are plenty of people rooting for Alford to fail. He’ll receive an immense amount of scrutiny this season and it will be interesting to see how he responds. UCLA returns a good amount of talent with players such as Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson, David Wear and Travis Wear. Anything less than a top-three finish in the Pac-12 will be a disappointment.
5. New leagues look strong: The new Big East may no longer have schools such as Pittsburgh, Connecticut, Notre Dame and Louisville. But its inaugural season should be entertaining. Marquette, Creighton, Georgetown and St. John’s should provide an exciting race for the conference title. The American Athletic Conference also will be worth watching, as Memphis, Connecticut and Louisville are all top-15-caliber teams. And don’t sleep on Cincinnati, Houston or SMU, which has added some nice pieces under second-year coach Larry Brown.
6. Butler loses Roosevelt Jones: A junior, Jones suffered torn ligaments in his wrist during the Bulldogs’ August trip to Australia and will miss the entire 2013-14 season. Losing Jones is a huge setback for a team that also will have to adjust to the departure of Stevens to the Boston Celtics. Jones, a versatile 6-4 wing, averaged 10.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.4 assists last season. The job of new coach Brandon Miller is suddenly a lot tougher as he prepares to guide Butler into the Big East.
8. Will the Mountain West regress?: Five league schools -- Colorado State, San Diego State, Boise State, UNLV and New Mexico -- earned NCAA tournament berths last spring. But only two of those schools (SDSU and CSU) won their opening game. This season may be more of a struggle. New Mexico will be good again despite the loss of coach Steve Alford and small forward Tony Snell. And Boise State returns most of its key pieces. But Colorado State (Colton Iverson), San Diego State (Jamaal Franklin) and UNLV (Anthony Bennett) lost their top players -- and some other good ones, too -- and should take a step back.
9. St. John’s as a sleeper: I’m a little surprised more people aren’t talking about the Red Storm as a contender for the Big East title along with Marquette, Creighton and Georgetown. When it comes to pure talent, Steve Lavin’s squad should be the top team in the league. St. John’s returns three double-digit scorers in D’Angelo Harrison (17.8 PPG), JaKarr Sampson (14.9) and Phil Greene (10.1). Forward God'sgift Achiuwa is back after redshirting last season. He averaged 9.4 points in 2011-12. Center Chris Obekpa also returns after averaging a national-best 3.9 blocks. And the Storm add two players -- point guard Rysheed Jordan and forward Orlando Sanchez -- who should have an immediate impact. Jordan was ranked as the third-best point guard in the Class of 2013. The 6-9 Sanchez, who will be eligible for only one season, is regarded as a future pro. If Lavin finds a way to meld all of this talent, St. John’s could be a Top-25 mainstay by midseason.
10. Josh Gasser is back at Wisconsin: The point guard missed all of the 2012-13 season because of a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. The Badgers still won 23 games and made the NCAA tournament without him, but his return to the lineup could spark the squad to even greater success this year. Gasser, who has been cleared to play in an exhibition tour of Canada that begins this week, will likely become more of a combo guard thanks to the emergence of Traevon Jackson. He could even end up playing some at forward because of Wisconsin’s lack of depth in the paint. The 6-3 Gasser averaged 7.6 points and 4.2 rebounds two seasons ago.
2. UCLA coach Steve Alford said during our ESPNU college basketball podcast Monday that he was willing to play his old team, New Mexico, and best friend Craig Neal sometime in the future. But Alford wouldn't commit to a year. Alford should get the game done while his son Bryce and Neal's son Cullen are still in school. The two had a budding rivalry to go along with their close friendship when they were Albuquerque scoring studs. This is a new era out West. In the past, UCLA wouldn't play New Mexico for fear it wasn't a quality game. But now the Lobos are as much of a high-profile game as any game beyond the traditional powers. Playing New Mexico at the Pit -- where Alford said he would be willing to play for a true home-and-home -- would be arguably a better game for the Bruins then their recent series with Missouri. Playing UCLA for the Lobos would be a big deal and another sign the program has arrived on a larger stage.
3. The Super Tuesday schedule was released with two interesting side notes: The amount of exposure for LSU in the SEC and Iowa in the Big Ten. LSU got two high-profile home games against Tennessee (Jan. 7) and Kentucky (Jan. 28). This is a golden opportunity for the Baton Rouge faithful to show their true spirit and ensure the Tigers are a feared road spot. LSU enters the season as a bit of a sleeper in the SEC. Win one or both of those home games on a night when it will be the featured game could give the Tigers shelf-life NCAA-type wins. Iowa is a trendy pick in the Big Ten and was rewarded with three games -- two at home against Michigan State (Jan. 28) and Ohio State (Feb. 4) and one on the road at Indiana (Feb. 18). Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said he has an NCAA team. The Hawkeyes won't be short chances with an opportunity to produce advantageous home crowd situations against a few of the top teams in the league.