College Basketball Nation: You Gotta See
College basketball has had a fascinating decade. In the last seven years alone, we've lived through the NBA age limit, watched the NFL become a dominant cultural force, tracked college football's exploding popularity, rubbernecked as the NCAA's power and prestige melt away, and witnessed a massive shift in conference affiliations and priorities. We've seen the sport slow to a crawl (and scoring tallies descend) even as offenses became more efficient. We've marked how one-and-dones have changed the game. We've marveled at the rise of the mid-major. We've celebrated this new world (Butler!) and recoiled at it (53-41?!). We've been forced to admit that, yes, in a lot of ways, college basketball ain't what it used to be. Different, at least. But still so very good.
Honestly? It's been weird. The NBA's vibrant parallel growth -- built on stars, but also on a more entertaining, open game -- has made talking about college basketball a matter of sensitivity. Say the college game needs to pick up a few stylistic tips from the NBA and college fans go nuts. Say the college game is struggling, and could probably fix a few things schedule-wise or rules-wise or anything-else-wise, and sit back as the defensive Twitter mentions roll in. That game was won on a buzzer-beater! What do you mean it wasn't exciting?! Go watch the NBA then!
That's the hope anyway, but it's well-founded. For starters, the new hand-checking, armbar and charge-call rules approved by the NCAA this summer are part of a major push to open the floor and get rid of brutally physical play. It may mean a lot of free throws in the first few weeks, but if officiating coordinator John Adams executes across the entire sport -- no easy feat, that -- we should see the effects right away. Even something as seemingly subtle as the charge call change (where a defender is no longer allowed to move into position after an opponent begins his upward motion) is a massive step in the right direction. The game should be more entertaining, more like Louisville and Michigan's gift of a national title contest than the historically low-scoring season before it.
Then there are the teams. Oh, the teams! You know how some analysts like to make a habit of proclaiming that there are no "great" teams anymore? This season, there are at least five candidates out of the gate, all of them marquee programs with national name recognition. Tom Izzo has his most well-rounded and talented Michigan State team since ... well, maybe ever. Duke might play its most beautiful basketball ever. Louisville is coming off a national title and, even with Chane Behanan suspended until who-knows-when, returns the best two-way player in the country last season in Russ Smith. Kentucky could be one of the best college basketball teams ever, period. And the ranks below them are loaded with great players (Marcus Smart, Doug McDermott), intriguing programs (VCU, Wichita State) and loads of stylistic diversity.
And then there is Kansas. And then there is Andrew Wiggins.
If all of the above were true, and Wiggins wasn't so naturally gifted at the game of basketball, I'd still hold the highest of hopes for the coming season. But his presence, like Batman's, changes things. It has sent, and will send, NBA franchises racing to the bottom. It brings everyone to the table: NBA fans fostering obsessions; causal observers who'd normally just wait for March; that dude you know who only watches the NBA when LeBron James is playing; GIF enthusiasts; people who don't care about basketball at all. You name it. College basketball can often be confused for a niche sport. Sometimes it is. Not this season. Not with Wiggins. If the monoculture still exists, it will be watching.
What that means for Wiggins himself -- a shy, reserved kid who seems equal parts bemused and exhausted by all the attention -- is yet to be seen. As Smart said recently, the burden of proof is impossibly high. But if Wiggins is even 60 percent of what everyone who has ever watched him play the game says he is, then he is the marquee attraction in a sport suddenly chock full of them.
At worst, it is going to be a very fun year. At best, it's the dawn of a new era. How's that for expectation?
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season — from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Kentucky. Obviously.
It is always tempting, writing a series like this, to intentionally eschew the obvious. It is especially tempting in the 2013-14 SEC.
Last week's media days in Birmingham, Ala., revealed a league, and a press corp, doing some understandable introspection. Last season, the SEC sent just three teams to the NCAA tournament. Florida was its lone national title contender. Kentucky was down. The league as a whole contained much mediocre dross even among its tourney-bid hopefuls, to say nothing of its cellar. It was probably the seventh-best league in the country — which not only stood in stark contrast to ESS EEE SEE FOOTBALL WOOO, but, for a putative member of the "power six," was just plain awkward. For a hoops nerd who spends most of his January, February and March thinking about scheduling, the ensuing questions — Would the SEC's collective scheduling push help? When is a down year just a down year? — were fascinating.
So are many of its least-obvious teams. At full strength, Florida is national title-talented, but the Gators don't remotely resemble "full strength." Missouri, full of fresh faces, is led by a coach who just narrowly escaped potentially career-ending NCAA trouble. Ole Miss has Marshall Henderson; maybe you've heard of him. LSU, already much improved in 2012-13, adds one of the most exciting freshman in the country. Tennessee should (repeat: should) be really good.
There are stories here, in other words. But to spend this space on them would mean to ignore the gigantic royal blue elephant in the room, and hey, guess what? Giant blue elephants are obvious.
Let's just be real: The one thing you've got to see in the SEC this season is Kentucky.
This is frequently true, especially since John Calipari arrived in Lexington. But at the risk of digging myself into an end-of-history fallacy, Calipari's entire tenure has been building toward 2013-14. How so? Over five years, Coach Cal has managed to mold the rational self-interest of constantly feted 18-year-old stars into system-level buy-in, and he's messaged the whole thing so well that the cycle — recruit top kids, get them drafted, win along the way, recruit more top kids — is practically self-sustaining. This season, Calipari didn't just land top players at every position (ho-hum). He managed to convince players who would compete against each other (and Kentucky's returners) to sign up anyway. Calipari's always been a good recruiter, but this is something else.
The upshot, in 2013-14, was the greatest recruiting haul of all-time. Five of the top nine players in the stacked 2013 class committed to Kentucky. With power forward Marcus Lee accounted for, make that six of the Top 25. Julius Randle, UK's star freshman power forward, has already been named preseason SEC player of the year; he might be the best candidate to unseat Andrew Wiggins at the top of the 2014 NBA draft. NBA scouts are likewise raving about small forward James Young. The Harrison Twins are a devastating backcourt combo. The whole thing is just … I mean, it's crazy.
Back at SEC media day, Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said Kentucky would be the "best team he's ever coached against." And he hasn't even played them yet. Such are the stakes for this Kentucky group: Not just an SEC title but a dominant one, not just a national title but a 40-0 campaign. Meanwhile, 2012-13 reminded us that Calipari's cycle is far from infallible. Nothing feels guaranteed.
Which is how we go from first-round NIT loss to Robert Morris to open talk of an undefeated season. It's how Calipari can vacillate from humility to "We don't play college basketball — we are college basketball" at Big Blue Madness. Kentucky has a chance to be one of the best college basketball teams ever assembled. It may fall short, and maybe drastically so. Either way, you're buying a ticket on that ride.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Duke's latest wardrobe change.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski can seem like a pretty hard dude. There's the West Point background, the time spent under Bob Knight, the controlled sideline prowling, but there's also that glare -- the narrowed brow, drill instructor, are-you-bleeping-kidding-me-you-just-did-that glare. That glare has probably vaporized at least one disappointing guard in at least one 20-second timeout at some point during Coach K's career. We don't have a record of it happening, but how do we know Krzyzewski didn't vaporize the records, too, man? Open your eyes, sheeple. It's scary stuff.
And yet despite that face-melting generalissimo effect, one surprising quality underpins Coach K's decades of success: stylistic flexibility.
We've covered this before. Great coaches typically live and die by their systems. Knight treated zone defense like an affront to his manhood. Syracuse icon Jim Boeheim wouldn't play man against Grinnell. You won't see Bo Ryan's Wisconsin Badgers break the 70-possession barrier anytime soon.
Coach K, on the other hand, changes his style whenever his personnel warrants it. These aren't week-to-week tweaks; they move roughly as fast as Krzyzewski's personnel changes. But they're there: Per Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency metrics, the spread-floor Blue Devils averaged 73.0 possessions per game in 2007-08, 16th-most in the country. Two years later, Duke won a national title averaging 65.5 trips per game, good for 249th. The changes are not limited to pace, either. K will drastically redraw his team's offense, installing new sets to fit new lineups, whenever the facts on the ground call for it.
The 2013-14 season is one of those times.
This spring, Duke waved farewell to seniors Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly, all crucial contributors. With hyper-touted recruit Jabari Parker and top transfer Rodney Hood joining up, sharpshooter Andre Dawkins returning from a personal year away from the team, and a perfect talent-experience backcourt in Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon, the Blue Devils might actually be more talented.
But it's not the level of talent I care about, because I don't care if Duke is better or worse than in 2012-13. It's the kind of talent. And the talent Coach K has at his disposal now is the kind of talent in which 73 possessions a game might be the best possible way for Coach K to maximize all of it. Krzyzewski has hinted as much already, telling reporters this offseason that he was adapting the offensive style employed during his time with USA Basketball -- when LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Love would routinely share the court -- for repeat use in Durham. That style, at least on paper, would both accentuate Duke's strengths (perimeter-oriented scoring) and minimize its weaknesses (deep-post frontcourt depth). It makes perfect sense.
It's hard not to picture a starting lineup of Cook, Sulaimon, Dawkins, Parker and Hood playing beautiful, athletic, crisp, up-tempo, spread secondary offense. It's even harder to avoid squealing at the thought. For all of the other intrigue in the ACC this season, for how good Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame will make the league, the chance Krzyzewski might flip the aesthetic switch up to 11 -- win or lose -- is too good to miss.
You have to feel for the Big Ten. After decades of punchlines -- 10 losses in its first 10 ACC-Big Ten Challenges, groaningly slow basketball, and a dearth of NCAA tournament success -- last season the Big Ten finally ascended to the conference-hierarchy throne.
Its reign lasted about as long as Robb Stark's.*
When the ACC officially added Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame this summer, it became the de facto top league by sheer force of acquisition. But even in a status-quo alternate universe, the Big Ten wasn't a guarantee to maintain its exalted position in 2013-14. This is less an argument about conference strength than a way into a summary of the league's individual parts: This season, uncertainty is the one true king.
Nowhere is this crystallized more clearly than in Bloomington, Ind. The Hoosiers, now fully rebuilt by coach Tom Crean, waved farewell to two top-five picks (Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller) and two dependable four-year seniors (Jordan Hulls, Christian Watford) this spring. What remains might be as talented as any group in the Big Ten this season: Sophomore point guard Yogi Ferrell, sophomore wingman Jeremy Hollowell, highly recruited freshman forwards Noah Vonleh and Luke Fischer, top-100 small forwards Troy Williams and Stanford Robinson. But save senior guard Will Sheehey, the Hoosiers will look totally different when you see them in November. With all that talent and capable guard play, they might be very good. But no one can know for certain.
You don't have to squint too hard to see this trend elsewhere in the league. Iowa is looking to make a leap from sneaky-good to just plain good. Purdue has a potential lottery-pick center in A.J. Hammons, but what else? Northwestern will be playing modern basketball for the first time in 13 years. With Tim Frazier back, Penn State has a chance to be legitimately
Perhaps the only sure things are that a) Michigan State will compete for the national title, and b) Wisconsin will finish no lower than fourth.
That seems like a lot of things to know about the 2013-14 Big Ten. It's really only one thing: We don't know that much about the 2013-14 Big Ten. It could be great. It could be meh. There's only one way to find out.
* The North remembers.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Can Arizona put it all together?
Is Arizona the most fascinating story in the 2013-14 Pac-12? Probably not! Indeed, the travails of the UCLA Bruins and new coach Steve Alford surely offer more pure intrigue. Alford will step into a breach occupied by the insane subconscious expectations of UCLA fans, who were already in somewhat of an open revolt against their entire athletics program before they were miffed by the hire. Alford has a gigantic, inexplicable contract buyout, so he's not going anywhere anytime soon, and how he handles his first season -- when he will have as talented a roster as he's ever coached -- will set the tone for the next five.
It's interesting stuff, and yet I can't help but feel that UCLA -- like brilliant Arizona State point guard Jahii Carson, like Dana Altman's steadily improving Oregon Ducks, like Mike Montgomery's quiet solidity at Cal -- are mere bit players in this production. In the 2013-14 Pac-12, Arizona's name is the one in lights.
In four seasons at Arizona, Sean Miller's teams have had one defining characteristic: talent. No one on the West Coast has recruited elite prospects as well as Miller. But this season feels different. This season doesn't include a productive but ultimately makeshift option (Mark Lyons) at point guard. It isn't staking its season on a freshman such as Josiah Turner. (Remember him?) It isn't mixing in maybe one too many young forwards with seniors (Solomon Hill) who have to play. This season Arizona doesn't feel like a collection of really good pieces; it feels like a really good team.
Rest assured: There will still be talent. Even without forward Grant Jerrett, who made a surprise move to the NBA this past spring, the Wildcats have one of the deepest and most talented frontcourts in the country. Sophomores Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley are star-level talents willing to bang on the low block, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is the fifth-ranked small forward in the class of 2013. And then there's Aaron Gordon. Go ahead and type his name into the YouTube search field now. The Blake Griffin comparisons are non-stop at this point; Gordon isn't talked about as much as Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle or Jabari Parker, but he has a chance to be better than all three.
But what really separates this year's Arizona team from slightly underachieving groups of the recent past is the backcourt. Last season, Miller turned to Lyons, his former recruit at Xavier, after Lyons' relationship with Chris Mack broke down; that meant putting all that frontcourt talent (along with Hill) on the floor with a point guard whose game would never be described as "pass-first." And don't get me wrong: Lyons had a good season, as did the Arizona offense. But one couldn't watch the Wildcats' fourth-place Pac-12 finish and not feel like much had been left on the table, like everything didn't quite fit.
Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell, who will take over at the point this fall, should snap into place immediately. And his backcourt mate, junior Nick Johnson, is probably the most polished player on the team -- an ideal outside-in college two.
That's why Arizona is (or should be) a top-five team in just about every poll despite losing Lyons, Hill, Jerrett and Kevin Parrom: Because the product of Miller's years of recruiting success are finally taking shape in more ways than mere acquisition. This could be the best team in the country. At the very worst, there will be lots and lots of lobs. Either prospect is worth the price of admission.
Two seasons ago, I wrote a column called Bottom 10. It was a weekly file firmly dedicated to poking light, polite fun at college hoops' most bemusedly bad teams (or performances, or games, or whatever). There was never a shortage of material, as you can imagine, but there were a few teams so historically bad they became weekly fixtures.
There was no avoiding it: In 2011-12, the Towson Tigers were one of the worst teams in college basketball. They finished 1-31, which is kind of as deep as you need to go, analysis-wise. It wasn't long before sarcastic jabs at the Tigers felt downright mean. Frankly, I was cheering for them. Most basketball people get sick at the idea of ending a meaningless pickup run without a win; the thought of winning one of 32 Division I contests was, like, incomprehensible. How could you not empathize?
And then, in 2012-13, something equally incomprehensible happened: Towson started winning.
The Tigers got everyone's attention in late December with an upset win over Oregon State, but anyone who looked closer noticed the Tigers had (a) already won a handful of games to that point and (b) improved statistically in just about every way.
By the time Towson put a bow on its 13-win, second-place CAA campaign, and crowned double-double machine Jerrelle Benimon the Colonial Player of the Year, coach Pat Skerry had engineered the widest turnaround -- a full 17-game swing -- in the history of college basketball.
Hard as it is to believe, here's where Towson now stands: Benimon is returning alongside three fellow starters. South Florida graduate transfer Mike Burwell will bring additional presence on the perimeter. Meanwhile, Skerry is adding one of the better transfers at any level, former Vermont and America East ROY Four McGlynn. McGlynn's all-around shooting brilliance is surpassed only by his enthusiasm for facial hair. He's as viable a CAA MVP candidate as Benimon or anyone else. Most Colonial observers seem to agree: Towson is the team to beat in the CAA.
Some of that has to do with the CAA itself. The Colonial ranks alongside the WAC, C-USA and American as outfits most decimated by the past two years of conference shifts. In 2010-11, the Colonial sent three teams to the NCAA tournament. In 2006 and 2011, it was represented at the Final Four. Now George Mason, Old Dominion and VCU are all gone, and the league's top-to-bottom quality has suffered accordingly.
But crediting a softer CAA would do Towson a deep disservice. It doesn't matter what league you're in: When you go from 1 win to 18 wins in the matter of 12 months, you deserve every single shred of praise that comes your way.
Nor is Towson likely to go away. With a perfectly realistic shot at a CAA title and NCAA tournament bid on deck, plus investment in refurbished facilities at his back, Skerry is building the Tigers into a lasting, viable mid-major entity.
Towson's story could end this season and still be worth a "30 for 30," but Skerry and his team aren't interested in being a heartwarming turnaround tale. The comedy genre is out of the question, too. No one is laughing at the Tigers now.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: The top-heavy Southland.
Our ongoing theme of conference realignment doing weird things to small leagues continues today with the Southland, which is now a 14-team league (would-be super conferences of the world, eat your heart out) that scrapped together the likes of Houston Baptist, New Orleans, Abilene Christian and Incarnate Word (OK, maybe not). The latter two in that that group were actually Division II teams last season, and, as an aside, it is this writer's humble opinion that Incarnate Word is an awesome name for a school. So there's that.
In truth, the really interesting realignment shake-up in the Southland happened last summer, when Oral Roberts completed its move from the Summit League. The Golden Eagles had been among the Summit League's most consistent competitors before their move; it was generally assumed the same would be true in their new digs. Not so. Oral Roberts finished third behind Stephen F. Austin and Northwestern State last season. The former was one of the country's best defensive teams at any level; the latter finished 15-3 in league play and won the Southland automatic bid with a 68-66 win over SFA at the conference tournament in March.
Scott Sutton's team is even younger this season, but it is still talented: Former Utah transfer Shawn Glover is back for his senior season, Western Illinois transfer Obi Emegano has been earning Sutton's raves, and freshman forward Corbin Byford (who had a stellar prep career but took a medical redshirt last season) is ready to jump in, too. Stephen F. Austin lost three seniors -- including star forward Taylor Smith, who shot 69.4 percent from the field last season -- that could be most difficult to replace on the defensive end.
Only Northwestern State seems to have the combination of returning personnel and previous success to edge ahead in the search for a new Southland favorite. The Southland may not be the toughest pound-for-pound mid-major league in the country; it may have needed to add something called Incarnate Word to boost its membership this offseason. But at its highest levels, among conference contenders, the basketball is better than ever -- and more than good enough to challenge your favorite high-major team come March.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Norfolk State didn't go anywhere.
Norfolk State's story was supposed to end. That's what happens when tiny Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference schools make unlikely runs to the NCAA tournament and then upset the No. 2-seed that was supposed to crush them: The story ends. The round of 32 (or 16, or whatever) loss finishes it. The star player goes pro. The coach leaves for a vacant job elsewhere. We all kindly thank Cinderella for the memories, take a picture for the scrapbook and move on.
A good portion of that archetype held true for the Spartans. After their upset of No. 2 Missouri in the 2012 NCAA tournament -- which came on the same afternoon as Lehigh's upset of No. 2 Duke; that was a really fun day -- breakout star forward Kyle O'Quinn graduated and entered the NBA draft. (O'Quinn currently plays for the Orlando Magic.) But coach Anthony Evans didn't leave. He returned, and one year after Norfolk's moment in the sun, he led the Spartans to an accomplishment few teams in any league can boast: an undefeated conference record.
You may not have heard about this, and there are some obvious reasons why. For one, the MEAC is among the least-monied conferences in all of college basketball. If the term "low-major" is still workable, it certainly applies. But the main reason you probably don't remember hearing about this is Norfolk State didn't make the NCAA tournament. Instead, it suffered a surprise loss in the first round of the MEAC tournament, a 70-68 overtime heartbreaker to Bethune-Cookman.
This summer, Evans capitalized on his success at Norfolk, replacing former Florida International coach Richard Pitino when he left for Minnesota. Interim coach Robert Jones was placed in charge of the transition, and the upshot is immensely bullish.
The Spartans return four starters from last season, all seniors, including star Pendarvis Williams -- a 6-foot-6 wing who shot 50.0 percent from 2, 40.6 percent from 3 and 81.4 percent from the free throw line last season.
In other words, there is every reason to expect Norfolk State to win the MEAC in tidy fashion again this season and just as much reason to expect it to get back to the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years. Standing in its way are North Carolina Central, Morgan State and Savannah State, which defended at a top-30 rate (per adjusted efficiency rankings) last season, an unusual height for a MEAC team to reach.
Then there is the risk of the conference tournament. In the MEAC, there is no such thing as an automatic bid. All it takes is one weird night in March. After all, Norfolk would know.
When UAB fired Mike Davis in March 2012, it was reasonable to assume Davis would take some time off.
The past 12 years couldn't have been easy. In 2000, Davis was the poor soul charged with keeping Indiana's players on board after the school fired iconic coach Bob Knight. Like most internal post-icon replacements, Davis probably would have been let go within a year or two but for one problem: For the first few years of his tenure, Indiana was good. The same players exhausted by Knight's rigid motion offense thrived in Davis' spread pro system. In 2002, Jared Jeffries led the hot Hoosiers all the way to the national title game. There would be no replacing Davis now.
That runner-up run was as much a curse as a blessing. Davis, never before a head coach at the college level, was suddenly the man, and as his teams' success dwindled and top recruits (too few of whom came from Indiana, by fans' lights) failed to reach their potential, Indiana embarked on a full-fledged existential crisis. Davis, through no fault of his own, found himself at its center.
When Indiana finally accepted Davis' resignation in 2006, UAB happily snapped him up, eager to see what the high-profile and well-worn Alabama recruiting connections could produce at a program recently elevated by Mike Anderson. He had some success -- three NIT trips and an NCAA tournament bid in 2010-11. But UAB fans were put off. Attendance declined. The program saw an "increase in fan empathy," as athletic director Brian Mackin said at the time. Weeks before he was let go, the Birmingham News asked Davis about his job security. He was defiant: "For someone to speculate on that is an insult to me as a coach," Davis said in 2012. "My body of work speaks for itself. I would think. No one could have gone through what I've gone through the way I've stood up." UAB fans disagreed.
That is why, in the spring of 2012, Davis seemed like the perfect candidate for a year off. Instead, he took a job. At Texas Southern. In the SWAC.
It's an easy punchline. From Indiana to SWAC in less than 15 years. I'm sure I've made it before. But to reduce Davis' trajectory to "one-time successor to Bobby Knight, now coach in a league whose athletics departments often struggle to keep air in the basketballs" does a disservice to everyone involved, Davis especially. The man didn't need the Texas Southern job. If he cared about status, he probably wouldn't have. But to take on a job like Texas Southern -- let alone to lift the Tigers from No. 287 in Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings in 2011-12 to No. 140 in 2012-13 -- requires much more than any surface motivation. If anyone deserved some R and R last year, it was Mike Davis. If anyone could have gotten used to the perks, it's Mike Davis. Instead, he just keeps coaching.
If that's supposed to be a joke, we all need a better sense of humor.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: What The American really means.
The conference realignment wave that hit these past few years left a lot of detritus in its wake. It turned athletic directors and universities into pimply high school kids approaching their would-be prom dates. It proved that football is an unstoppable entertainment force. It cemented the skyrocketing status of live sports in the current marketplace. It left hundreds of schools scrambling to find shelter. It terraformed the college basketball landscape in profound ways. But its crowning achievement -- the one result that says just about everything you need to know about just how fungible these silly collegiate athletics really are -- is the American Athletic Conference.
The American, as it's abbreviated, is not to be confused with that middling George Clooney movie from a few years back (even if Google disagrees). It is instead the conference -- or "conference-like" substance -- derived equally from Big East leftovers.
No one seems particularly happy about it. "Cincinnati and Connecticut, I know, aren't leaving, but they tried like hell to leave just like us," Louisville coach Rick Pitino told ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil Tuesday, and he's right: Bearcats' and Huskies' brass are saying all the right things now, but they wanted out of the American long before that name was focus-grouped. Memphis and Temple eagerly signed up for admission into something like the old Big East, where the "Catholic 7" -- the schools that broke off to form their own basketball-centric league with Butler, Creighton and Xavier -- would have still made the league a truly formidable basketball entity. Louisville is leaving. Rutgers, too.
Which would make it easy to poke fun at the American -- if the sight of a once-proud league split and stripped to the bone wasn't so sad.
And yet, for a league hastily constructed to ward off the impending doom of a football status downgrade, the American provides plenty of basketball interest, at least this season. Louisville is a national title contender. Memphis and UConn are both immensely talented, veteran teams led by good young coaches. Temple is Temple, which is to say it's a consistently strong program under Fran Dunphy; the same goes for Cincinnati under Mick Cronin. The Cincinnati-Memphis-Louisville triumvirate carries over some fun regional rivalry familiarity from the golden days of Conference USA, and the rest of the league around it -- up-and-comers at Houston and SMU, a marquee UConn program, etc. -- is a step up from the C-USA in nearly every way. It's not hard to conceive of a world in which the American was a long-standing, viable basketball league. It certainly will be this season. Why not?
Because Louisville doesn't see it that way. Neither do many of its current members, public pledges of allegiance excepted. These are huge questions about the future viability of the league, and what happens next.
The only certainty -- and it should make UConn fans feel a lot better -- is that in 2013, conference affiliation is barely half the battle. You don't have to be from the ACC or Big Ten to get to the tournament every season. Ask West Coast Conference member Gonzaga. Ask Xavier. Ask Wichita State. Ask Memphis! For as much as we debate which league is strongest every year, conference identity is still a secondary concern in college hoops. There may be more movement ahead; I have no idea what the American will look like in five years' time. That doesn't change how many top-50 wins Memphis needs to get to the tournament this season. There's solace in there somewhere.
Let's take a moment to consider the past two seasons of Harvard Crimson men's basketball. In 2011-12, after a couple of seasons spent knocking on the door and a few more than that spent getting the Crimson to ever-so-slightly nudge their still-brutal academic restrictions in the direction of player accessibility, Tommy Amaker's work in Boston paid off. Harvard won the Ivy League and visited its first NCAA tournament since 1946.
Not a bad starting point, but arguably not even as crazy as what came next: In late August 2012, Harvard revealed one of the largest academic scandals in school history, which, considering Harvard was founded in 1636, is saying something. Over 100 students were accused of academic dishonesty, and dozens of them were forced to endure a year's suspension before they could return to their degrees.
Unfortunately for Amaker, not only did two of his players end up involved, it was his two senior captains for 2012-13: guard Brandyn Curry and forward Kyle Casey. They, too, were forced to serve a one-year academic suspension. It is a testament to the depth Amaker has built that most people accurately assumed Harvard would win the Ivy League last season (despite a 20-10 overall record). No one expected what happened in March, when the Crimson toppled No. 3 seed New Mexico, their first modern-format NCAA tournament win. "Bonus" doesn't really begin to describe it.
Now Curry and Casey are back. They'll join a team that worked hard in their absence last season: Rising junior Wesley Saunders and sophomore guard Siyani Chambers both played more than 92 percent of their team's available minutes last season and were in the top 10 in that category nationally. Senior wingman Laurent Rivard shot 40.2 percent from 3 in 2012-13 (and played 87.4 percent of his available minutes). Steve Moundou-Missi was a beast on the glass. And while it's still in a different galaxy from the Kentuckys and North Carolinas of the world, Amaker is nonetheless a lock to add to his team every summer in a way Harvard never has before.
The end result is a team that is deep, young, talented and now, strangely enough, experienced -- a team that has every reason to be just as good as the Crimson were in 2012, when they broke that 60-year-old Ivy League streak for the first time. Frankly, they should be better. Now Harvard has a different sort of streak going. Not bad for a couple years work, eh?
The first time Long Beach State made real national noise under Dan Monson, it was in the lead-up to the 2011-12 season. The prospectus on LBSU was bullish, and for good reason: The 49ers returned four seniors, all of them starters, two of them (Casper Ware and Larry Anderson) out-and-out stars.
But back in the fall of 2011, what really caught the eye about Dan Monson's team was its schedule. Fearing that the Big West would be a significant drag on his team's RPI (and chances at an at-large bid), and seeking to avoid the thin conference tournament margin for error that punishes so many otherwise deserving mid-majors every season, Monson scheduled like a madman. At Pitt, at San Diego State, at Louisville, at Kansas, at North Carolina, vs. Kansas State and Xavier in Hawaii, at Creighton for the BracketBusters. It was crazier before the season started (and Pitt and Xavier disappointed), sure, but the end result was nonetheless the top nonconference schedule in the country, perhaps the most oft-cited selection committee criterion of the past five seasons. It ended up not mattering: LBSU won the Big West tourney anyway.
The 49ers' hard-earned trip to the 2012 NCAA tournament ended after just one game with a loss to fifth-seeded New Mexico, and Ware and his three senior counterparts called an end to their era, too. But even with a whole new set of young, inexperienced starters stepping in, Monson kept his schedule strategy constant. That resulted in the 49ers playing at USC, at Arizona, vs. North Carolina, at Syracuse, at Ohio State and at UCLA. Long Beach finished strong in league play, and even won the outright title at Pacific (which took the at-large bid a week later) on the road in the final game of the regular season.
There is yet more turnover to account for this season, only this time it wasn't planned: In May, Monson dismissed Tony Freeland and Keala King, both transfers from high-major outfits (DePaul and Arizona State, respectively). The good news? UCLA transfer Tyler Lamb becomes eligible at the end of the fall semester and can contribute immediately, and rising junior guard Mike Caffey and senior forward Dan Jennings are both still in the mix.
And, of course, the schedule is still crazy: at Arizona, at Kansas State, vs. Michigan (in the first round of Puerto Rico Tip-Off, which also includes potential games against VCU and Georgetown), at Washington, vs. Creighton, at NC State, vs. USC, at Nevada, at Missouri. You get the feeling Monson is going to keep scheduling like this forever: It's good for the RPI, and it's great for recruiting. (How many mid-majors can tell recruits they can play at that many marquee college hoops venues?) But that's the lofty, fuzzy stuff. On the court and in those airplanes, Long Beach State's nonconference schedule is a brutal grind. Fortunately for us, watching Monson's latest bunch take one road upset shot after another has become perhaps the Big West's most noteworthy attraction. All it takes is one.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Get to know Tyler Haws.
You can hardly blame folks for overshadowing the play. I mean, look at what came after it. When BYU fell to Saint Mary's on Matthew Dellavedova's last-second desperation runner, the Cougars were victimized by what might have been the shot of 2012-13 season. Even worse? The play before it -- a face-meltingly beautiful wrong-footed floater by BYU guard Tyler Haws -- should have given the Cougars the win. It was an incredible shot and, nine times out of 10, the winning one. I doubt many people remember it.
There are few more fitting anecdotes to apply to Haws' 2012-13 season. Haws, a prized recruit out of high school and a solid freshman performer in 2010, returned from his two-year Mormon mission to a college basketball landscape that had largely forgotten his existence. He didn't go entirely unnoticed all season, but relative to Gonzaga's No. 1-seed storm, the emergence of Kelly Olynyk and Dellavedova's heroics at Saint Mary's, BYU's lack of nonconference wins and second-tier WCC run kept it from engaging a wider audience. Frankly, the Cougars weren't good enough.
So Haws did his work away from the spotlight, and what work it was: Haws averaged 21.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.3 steals. He set several BYU records for sophomores, including most total points (780), best scoring average (21.7) and most games with 20 or more points (25), records made doubly impressive by the fact that this guy had played there just two years ago. He shot 51 percent from the field, 38 percent from 3 and 87.7 percent from the free throw line. He drew fouls at a high rate, kept his turnovers low and finished with a 115.7 offensive rating despite taking 30.7 percent of his team's shots. Haws not only did a lot; he did a lot well.
Whether Haws can do more is up for debate, as is a more important question: Does he need to? Saint Mary's lost Dellavedova to graduation this past spring, while Gonzaga waved farewell to Olynyk and seniors Elias Harris and Mike Hart, the former an excellent frontcourt scorer, the latter the best glue guy in the country. Gonzaga will be just fine; coach Mark Few still has his probing backcourt (Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell) and a pair of potential NBA bigs (Sam Dower, Przemek Karnowski). But if the Cougars can tighten things up defensively, Haws and fellow captains Matt Carlino (a former UCLA transfer) and Kyle Collinsworth (back from his own two-year church mission) will put points on the board at a more than workable rate.
That's probably the best-case scenario. The defense is no guarantee. But even the worst case -- really great spread up-tempo offense, with Haws leading the way -- will absolutely be worth watching this season. Haws, at a minimum, is one of the game's great attractions -- a smooth, versatile, lights-out scorer. Don't make the same mistake twice.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Denver finds a home in the Summit.
If you've been keeping up with You Gotta See This or are particularly attuned to the business of college sports in general, you already know the story of the Western Athletic Conference -- a long-standing, proud mid-major league decimated by recent conference realignment. We spent most of our time these past two years chronicling the quixotic travails of high-major programs (and leagues) trying to keep their heads above the football-cash-clogged water. But no one got it worse than the WAC.
You can imagine the anxiety this caused in Denver. After all, it was just three years ago that the Pioneers eagerly accepted, and joyfully celebrated, their new Western Athletic Conference membership. Denver had wriggled free from its geographically senseless Sun Belt membership, and it was thrilled, trumpeting the storied old mid-major conference and its legacy of success in the Rockies.
Two years later, DU athletic director Peg Bradley-Doppes was telling local reporters, "it became an issue where we were fortunate the Summit wanted DU." What changed? Losing seven members and football will do that to a league.
Is the Summit a better fit for Denver? Maybe. Insofar as the Summit makes sense on a map -- it comprises two teams from Indiana, one from Illinois, one from Nebraska and three from the Dakotas -- it makes sense for Denver. From a long-term basketball perspective, where recruiting is so key, well, who knows? The only thing that seems clear right now is this: Denver is the immediate favorite to win the Summit in 2013-14, and that's a baseline expectation.
Because while the Pioneers' brass was frantically dealing with a disintegrating new conference, the players and coaches, led by top man Joe Scott, have been quietly building one of the best mid-majors in all of college hoops. Star wingman Chris Udofia & Co. finished ranked No. 44 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings last season; only two teams, Creighton and Belmont, shot the ball more accurately.
There are precisely two losses to deal with: Senior guard Chase Hallam graduated, while sophomore Royce O'Neale transferred to Baylor. But everyone else, including Udofia, is back. With Oral Roberts now gone, no team in the current Summit League configuration comes close to matching that kind of talent.
What does the future hold for Denver? More realignment could change things at any time. If the basketball program's success continues, it could receive any number of membership offers in the years to come. But whether 2013-14 is the start of a long, productive relationship with the Summit League or a mere layover before something else, the Pioneers on the court right now should more than command your attention.
Eighteen years. It's hard to believe it has been that long, but it really has: In 1995, before the American Athletic Conference was even a glint in Mike Aresco's eye, the Metro Conference and Great Midwest Conference got together. They had one thing in common: No Division I football sponsorship. They named their baby Conference USA.
The generic, all-inclusive nomenclature might make C-USA seem like a spiritual forefather to the American, but it was really closer to the Big East in intent. There was good basketball happening in the Great Midwest and the Metro, but there would be better basketball, plus football, in numbers.
For a decade, things went swimmingly: Cincinnati, Louisville and Memphis worked on their regional rivalries, DePaul and Marquette had a home that made sense for their unique situations (non-East Coast, Division I, non-football schools), and C-USA settled into a rather comfortable space just outside the power six and just above true "mid-major" leagues.
It looks nothing like that today.
The 2005-06 realignment was the first serious shift. In one fell swoop, Conference USA lost Cincinnati, Louisville, DePaul, Marquette and South Florida to the Big East. Saint Louis and Charlotte dove at the Atlantic-10. With just five original members remaining (we'll count Houston, which joined in 1996 when C-USA began sponsoring football), the league had to add inventory, and quickly. So it snapped up UCF, SMU, Tulsa, Marshall, Rice and UTEP. While regionally consistent, these were hardly one-for-one trades; C-USA was never the same basketball league again.
Now, after two years of wide-ranging realignment at nearly every level of the sport, the C-USA looks nothing like its charter configuration. It has been decimated. Just two original members, Southern Miss and UAB, remain, while six teams -- Memphis, Tulane, Houston, East Carolina, Central Florida, SMU and Tulsa -- are joining the newly formed American either this year or next. In response to the exodus, the league again has had to replenish its ranks, only with slimmer pickings. Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Old Dominion, UTSA, Western Kentucky.
These are good schools, to be sure; there are some interesting additions in there. But let's keep it 100 here: Conference USA is unrecognizable. It's a shell. Even in recent years, when many devotees argued the league was overlooked during Bubble Watch season, it still had Memphis as a draw. But John Calipari's success grew the Tigers out of Conference USA years ago; there simply wasn't enough yearly competition. Now, the thought of Memphis playing a 16- or 18-game schedule in the C-USA looks laughable.
You can scan high and low throughout the sport: Over the past 15 years, no conference has been more adversely affected by conference realignment than C-USA. Maybe, like Tony Soprano, it was just born too late. Maybe the middle ground between mid-major and power-six (or whatever) is unsustainable. There are probably lot of different reasons, and we could debate them for a while, but it doesn't change what Conference USA is today, in 2013. Where does it go from here? That's the question.