College Basketball Nation: St. John's Red Storm

3-point shot: NIT format good for St. John's

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
8:00
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Andy Katz discusses how potential changes to the preseason NIT format would aid St. John's, Nebraska's loss of Leslee Smith and Wichita State is still looking for two more games.

3-point shot: A tough transfer

June, 30, 2014
Jun 30
11:30
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Andy Katz reports on why Dominic Artis isn't headed to St. John's, how Louisiana-Lafayette plans to springboard off Elfrid Payton's NBA lottery status, and the upcoming first days in new conferences for Louisville, Maryland and Rutgers.

Tournament preview: Big East

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11
9:30
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In the coming weeks, the Associated Press will make Doug McDermott a member of its All-America first team. The senior star, who topped 3,000 points with a 45-point effort in a win over Providence on Saturday, will become the first player to earn that honor in three consecutive seasons since Wayman Tisdale and Patrick Ewing did it in the 1980s.

When McDermott announced that he was returning for his senior season, most expected him to put up big numbers and make Creighton a contender for the championship in the new Big East. And that’s exactly what happened.

The rest of the season? Mostly unexpected.

Marquette was the preseason pick to win the conference but Buzz Williams’ crew (79th in the RPI) finished in the middle of the pack and will need a conference tournament championship to earn a bid a year after reaching the Elite Eight.

Villanova might warrant a No. 1 seed after surprising the country with its rise to the top of the conference. And a bunch of teams are on the bubble.

It’s all a great setup to a tournament for a league that’s already had its share of drama.

What’s at stake?

During the Big East’s media day in New York in October, commissioner Val Ackerman announced plans to turn the conference into a power league. But she wasn’t speaking of the future. Ackerman expected early results.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsWhile Doug McDermott and Creighton are a slam dunk for a high seed in the NCAA tournament, Georgetown resides on the bubble.
“We’re going to make this basketball conference a force,” she said.

The Big East won’t be judged by the postseason alone, but conference tournaments are significant platforms, especially for leagues seeking more national relevance. Plus, the Big East tournament will be played at Madison Square Garden. That helps. Or hurts. It depends on what happens.

While it’s still too early to fully assess the Big East, sending two or three teams to the NCAA tournament wouldn’t exactly make the immediate splash that Ackerman anticipated and desired.

A Creighton-Villanova title game is probably the most appealing matchup to TV folks. It’s not, however, the most significant game in the field.

The Bluejays and Wildcats are playing for higher seeds, not berths.

But Xavier could remove all doubts about its postseason destination with a win over Marquette in Thursday’s quarterfinals. There wouldn’t be any concerns about Chris Mack’s Musketeers if they topped Creighton for the second time this season in the semifinals Friday.

Xavier isn't the only nervous team in this mix, though.

St. John’s, Providence and Georgetown are on the bubble, too. All three are ranked in the 50s of the RPI.

St. John’s is 1-7 against the RPI’s top 50 teams. Georgetown is 5-6 and Providence is 2-6.

Thursday’s quarterfinal matchup between St. John’s and Providence could be a win-or-go-to-the-NIT game.

The Big East tournament has always been entertaining. The reconfigured Big East doesn’t possess the same potency as the former version. That doesn’t mean, however, that this group won’t put on a show.

“There’s no doubt the eyes of the basketball world and the eyes of others in college sports are definitely on the Big East,” Ackerman said in New York during the league’s media day. “I think everybody in our league uses that as a source of motivation.”

Team with the most to gain

Georgetown owns the No. 9 strength of schedule. Plus, the Hoyas have wins over Kansas State, VCU and Michigan State. That helps.

But an 8-10 record in conference play and a nonconference loss to Northeastern (11-21) does not. Same goes for two losses to Seton Hall (6-12 in the Big East). Markel Starks & Co. have the most to gain and lose in the Big East tournament.

If the Hoyas lose to DePaul in the first round, they’ll probably warrant an invitation … to the NIT. But a win over DePaul would set up a matchup with Creighton in Thursday’s quarterfinals.

This is a tournament of extremes for John Thompson III’s program. So much is on the line.
PHILADELPHIA -- St. John’s is certainly one of the best 68 teams in the country, but it’ll have to do more to prove it.

The Red Storm could have practically punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament Saturday, but they came up just short against No. 9 Villanova, losing 57-54 in front of 17,124 at the Wells Fargo Center.

"I’m proud of our team’s ability in a hostile environment to continue punching and counterpunching for 40 minutes," St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said. "Disappointed that we weren’t able to come out with the win."

It was there for the taking despite St. John’s being without second-leading rebounder Orlando Sanchez, who missed the game after the birth of his daughter on Friday. The Red Storm were down one at intermission (28-27), never trailed by more than six in the second half and had the ball with 34 seconds remaining down 55-53.

[+] EnlargeD'Angelo Harrison, Tony Chennault, JayVaughn Pinkston
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsSt. John's squandered its opportunity to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee Saturday.
D'Angelo Harrison had a step on his defender near the top of the key but passed to an open Phil Greene in the paint, and Greene was whistled for traveling with 14.1 seconds left.

"I came off the screen, and he was wide open," Harrison said. "He pitched the ball back up to me and they called travel. We can’t control that."

St. John’s had another opportunity to tie the game after Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono made just one of two free throws, making it 56-53. But with 3.2 seconds on the clock and inbounding underneath the Villanova basket, Marc-Antoine Bourgault threw a pass to Harrison in the paint.

"We were trying to get a 3-pointer, but they had good coverage for the 3," Harrison said, "so I cut to the basket to try to get an and-1, but I couldn’t."

Harrison was fouled, sank the first free throw and missed the second on purpose, but Rysheed Jordan was charged with a lane violation. Villanova’s Josh Hart made one of two free throws with 1.5 ticks left, making it 57-54, and Jordan’s half-court heave was off the mark (and waved off by the referees anyway).

St. John’s shot just 19-for-59 in the game (32.2 percent) and just 1-for-10 in the final seven minutes, 59 seconds.

"We were getting stops. We were playing great defense," forward JaKarr Sampson said. "We just couldn’t make a shot. Sometimes, that happens."

Sampson had a double-double, with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Harrison scored a team-high 15 points but shot just 4-for-15 from the field. Jordan, playing his first college game in his hometown, added 13 points but shot just 6-for-15 and committed an uncharacteristic five turnovers.

"Rysheed was emblematic of our entire team," Lavin said. "We competed and gave ourselves an opportunity to win, but when you’re on the road in a tough environment, you have a razor-thin margin for error."

Center Chris Obekpa returned to the lineup ahead of schedule, just five days after suffering a sprain and bone bruise in his right ankle. Obekpa started, played 24 minutes and made his presence felt at the defensive end but finished with modest numbers -- one point, two rebounds and two blocked shots.

"He’s not 100 percent," Lavin said. "But with some more treatment and with some more rest, I think we can get Chris back close to 100 percent. And then, of course, Orlando will be back when his wife and child go home from the hospital, so we expect him to be back in the fold by tomorrow."

St. John’s (18-10, 8-7 Big East) had won six games in a row and nine of 10 -- and a three-point loss to Villanova (24-3, 12-2), on the road, is far from embarrassing.

But it is a missed opportunity. The Red Storm are now just 1-5 against ranked opponents and won’t face another one the rest of the regular season.

Their RPI ranking is pretty good (53 entering Saturday), and they entered ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi’s projected NCAA tournament bracket earlier this week. But they are surely back on the bubble after this loss.

"St. John’s is, without a doubt, a tournament team," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "Not because I say so. Not because of their record. They’re just good enough -- they’re gonna be good enough to win a lot of games."

But they better win at least two of their final three -- versus Xavier, DePaul and at Marquette -- and at least one game in the Big East tournament for good measure.

St. John’s has proven it can play with some of the best teams in the country, but it hasn’t proven it can beat them, with one exception.

The Red Storm belong in the Big Dance, but their fate is still to be determined.
NEW YORK -- March Madness is a month away, and St. John’s just might crash the party.

Left for dead after a disastrous 0-5 start in conference play, the Red Storm are suddenly among the hottest teams in the country. And they finally broke through against a Top 25 opponent Sunday, knocking off No. 12 Creighton, 70-65, at Madison Square Garden.

[+] EnlargeOrlando Sanchez
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY SportsSt. John's win over No. 12 Creighton could signal a happy Selection Sunday for the Red Storm.
“It feels great, to get it out the way,” said St. John’s swingman Sir’Dominic Pointer. “I think we’re just taking off. I think we’re finding our own little swag, in our groove right now. We’re hard to beat if we play like this.”

St. John’s came up just short against Wisconsin in early November, against Syracuse in mid-December, against Villanova in early January and against this same Creighton club 12 days ago. The Red Storm didn’t let this one slip away, however, instead seizing the victory in the final minutes.

The Red Storm led 40-36 at halftime, but trailed 63-62 with 2:18 remaining after a made free throw by the Bluejays’ Austin Chatman. On the ensuing possession, St. John’s guard D’Angelo Harrison got the ball on the left wing and didn’t waste any time. With his defender giving him some breathing room early in the shot clock, Harrison hoisted a long 3-point attempt -- nothing but net.

Nine seconds after trailing, St. John’s had the lead for good.

“D’Angelo relishes having the ball in his hands in crunch time,” St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said.

The Red Storm dodged a couple bullets in the final two minutes. Both Grant Gibbs and Jahenns Manigat had good looks from beyond the arc that would have put Creighton back in front. But neither shot went down, and Harrison put the game away by making five of six free throws after that.

Creighton, on the other hand, made just 14 of its 25 free throws in the game (56 percent). And the Bluejays, who led the nation in 3-point shooting coming in (42.5 percent), made just five of 22 attempts (22.7 percent) Sunday night.

“Obviously some of that credit goes to St. John’s,” said Creighton coach Greg McDermott. “Their length certainly impacts your ability to shoot the basketball and get clean looks at the basket.”

[+] EnlargeSt. John's
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports The Johnnies now have "gravitas" according to head coach Steve Lavin.
But the biggest stat of them all involved McDermott’s son, Doug, the second-leading scorer in the country (25.3 PPG) and leading candidate for national player of the year. Doug poured in a season-high 39 points against St. John’s two weeks ago in Omaha, including the game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds.

Doug reached his season average Sunday (25 points), but he had to work very hard to do so. And he scored his last points with nearly nine minutes remaining in the game. In fact, he did not take a shot in the final eight minutes and 41 seconds of play -- thanks in large part to the smothering defense of Jakarr Sampson, who played in front of him and had a hand in seemingly every passing lane.

“They did a great job of taking me away,” Doug said. “I thought they did a great job of switching whenever I came off screens, they were really disciplined a lot more down the stretch there, so you gotta give them a lot of credit.”

Harrison (19 points) was the star on offense, and Sampson on defense -- but make no mistake, this was a total team effort, at both ends of the floor. Eight St. John’s players got 10 or more minutes, and all eight scored.

Chris Obekpa didn’t have a blocked shot, but he did have 11 points and six rebounds, his fourth strong game in a row. Pointer and Phil Greene IV each chipped in nine points, Sampson scored eight and Jamal Branch had seven. Rysheed Jordan only scored five, but had a team-high seven assists.

It marked Lavin’s 200th career win as a head coach, but Lavin was much more interested in talking about his players after the game.

“It’s significant because this particular group has worked so hard from the halftime of that Georgetown game [on Jan. 4] forward,” Lavin said. “I’m as proud of this group as any I’ve coached in terms of ... resiliency, gumption, fight back, character.

“There’s a gravitas to this group -- it’s like a developing gravitas. It wasn’t there earlier in the year, but as we get deeper into the season I think we’ve found ourself though struggle, adversity, hardship. And as a result, like a muscle, it’s getting stronger with each game. And that part reminds me a lot of my first year here.”

Lavin’s first team at St. John’s, back in 2010-11, had beaten a ranked team by early January, and didn’t dig itself nearly as big a hole in the Big East. But it went 7-0 in conference play in February en route to an at-large NCAA tournament bid.

This St. John’s team is 3-0 in February, with five more games to play this month and five more weeks before Selection Sunday.

There’s still a lot of work to be done. But all of a sudden, the possibilities seem endless.

“I feel like we can beat anybody we play right now, the way we’re playing,” Sampson said.

And he just might be right.
Some quick thoughts on St. John's 70-65 win over No. 12 Creighton on Sunday at Madison Square Garden:

What it means: St. John's finally has a win over a ranked opponent, and is suddenly back in the NCAA tournament picture.

The Red Storm had been 0-4 against Top 25 teams, but their resume suddenly looks significantly better. After an 0-5 start in the Big East, they've won six of their past seven games. St. John's improves to 15-9 overall, 5-6 in the conference.

Creighton falls out of first place in the Big East with the loss. The Bluejays are now 19-4 overall, and 9-2 in the conference.

The turning point: Creighton jumped out to a quick 10-3 lead, but St. John's had things tied up by the midpoint of the first half. The Red Storm took their largest lead of the half, 40-33, on a pair of D'Angelo Harrison free throws with 1:27 remaining. But the Bluejays' Austin Chatman buried a 4-pointer in the final seconds to make it 40-36 at intermission.

St. John's pushed the lead back to seven early in the second half, 46-39, but that didn't last long -- Creighton scored eight points from there to retake the lead. The rest of the game was tight. Harrison hit the biggest shot of the game, a 3-pointer with 2:14 left to put St. John's back in front 65-63. Creighton's Grant Gibbs and Jahenns Manigat had good looks from beyond the arc in the final 90 seconds, but couldn't knock 'em down. Harrison put the game away at the foul line.

Star watch: Eight of the nine St. John's players who got into the game scored. Harrison finished with a team-high 19 points, and Chris Obekpa chipped in 11. This was a total team effort, at both ends.

Creighton's Doug McDermott, the second-leading scorer in the country (25.3), hit his average (25 points). But he had to work very hard to get there. And Creighton couldn't get him the ball in crunch time.

Number crunch: Creighton shot just 14-for-25 from the foul line (56 percent). That's a killer.

What's next: St. John's plays at Seton Hall on Thursday. Creighton plays at Butler on Thursday.

BPI Talk: Duke is not a top-25 team

December, 17, 2013
12/17/13
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The Duke Blue Devils came into the season as a preseason Final Four contender, but after losses to Kansas and Arizona and a one-point win over Vermont, the Blue Devils are ranked No. 31 in BPI.

Duke's BPI game score in its six-point loss against Arizona (ranked No. 4 in BPI) was higher than two of its wins (vs East Carolina, vs Vermont). Other than its wins over No. 40 Michigan and No. 63 Alabama, Duke doesn't have any other wins over teams ranked in the top 180.

Duke has the best adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, but its adjusted defensive efficiency ranks 101st.

Is Wisconsin the best team in college basketball?

The Wisconsin Badgers rank No. 1 in BPI after starting 12-0 with five wins over top-50 BPI teams -- St. John's, Florida, Saint Louis, West Virginia and Virginia. Their five wins against top-50 teams are the most by any team. Kansas and Davidson are the only other teams that have even faced five top-50 teams.

Wisconsin has the 11th-most difficult schedule according to BPI. Seven of their 12 wins are against top-100 opponents and none of them are against teams outside the top 175.

The Badgers have been successful playing a slow pace (17th-fewest possessions per game). Two of their three worst BPI game scores this season have come in the two games in which they played at the fastest pace (at Green Bay, vs North Dakota).

Michigan State barely cracks the top 25

The Michigan State Spartans, previously ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll, come in at No. 24 in BPI. The Spartans only have one loss, but it was by far their worst BPI game score and it came against their second-best opponent (No. 23 North Carolina).

Why else is Michigan State's BPI lacking? The Spartans have five wins against teams ranked outside the BPI top 100. Three of those wins are by 15 points or fewer, including two by single digits, and one of the five wins is against No. 338 McNeese State. Also, they haven't played a single true road game yet.

Welcome to the top 10, Saint Mary's

The undefeated Saint Mary's Gaels are ranked No. 8 in BPI, and it's not due to any wins over top-notch opponents. The Gaels haven't faced a single top-50 team yet, but five of their eight wins came against top-100 opponents and six of their eight wins are by double digits.

Saint Mary's has performed well against top-100 teams, posting a BPI game score higher than 95 in four of those five wins.

Why isn't Pittsburgh ranked yet?

The Pittsburgh Panthers are ranked No. 9 in BPI but aren't in the top 25 in the AP Poll. The Panthers are 10-0 with each of those 10 wins coming by at least nine points and nine of the wins coming by at least 17 points.

Pitt doesn't have any top-50 wins, but the Panthers do have two wins against teams just outside the top 50 (No. 51 Penn State, No. 55 Stanford). Their three best BPI game scores came against their three best opponents -- Penn State, Stanford and Texas Tech (No. 110).

Pitt is one of seven teams ranked in the top 20 in both adjusted offensive efficiency and adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com, along with Louisville, Oklahoma State, Arizona, Wisconsin, Kansas and North Carolina.

BPI Rankings
NEW YORK -- Two longtime adversaries began a new chapter in their rivalry Sunday, with a familiar result.

Syracuse is no longer a member of the Big East, but it remains a bigger draw at Madison Square Garden than St. John's, and a better team, as evidenced by its No. 2 ranking and 68-63 victory in front of a matinee crowd of 16,357.

The Orange got a strong challenge from the Red Storm, who erased a 12-point halftime deficit to take the lead with eight minutes and change remaining. But Syracuse made all the big plays down the stretch, while St. John's, to put it bluntly, self-destructed.

[+] EnlargeSteve Lavin
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY Sports St. John's coach Steve Lavin was upset with his team's "atrocious" play at the end of the game against Syracuse.
St. John's coach Steve Lavin did not mince words about his team's performance in the final minutes. "At the end of the game we were atrocious," Lavin said. And he's right.

But first, the first half must be discussed. The Red Storm trailed by as many as 14 before Rysheed Jordan's layup at the buzzer made it 39-27 at intermission. St. John's shot just 10-for-29 (34.5 percent) in the first 20 minutes, was uncharacteristically sloppy (seven turnovers) and allowed Syracuse to shoot 14-for-25 (56 percent).

It's certainly not the first time this team has come out sluggish. This has been a pattern throughout the young season.

Lavin was as perplexed as the rest of us. "I couldn't understand how they could be paralyzed or stymied or tentative," he said, "because this is as good as it gets -- being at Madison Square Garden, playing on national TV, a Sunday, packed house, the energy was palpable."

"I told them, I don't even recognize you," Lavin added. "It's like 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers' -- who are you guys? I recruited all of you the last three-plus years, what's going on?"

Lavin challenged his squad to be more aggressive in the second half, and they answered his call. D'Angelo Harrison led the way, scoring from all over the floor, finishing with a team-high 21 points, 14 after halftime. And Jordan played his best game yet, chipping in 13 points, nine after the break.

Harrison's pull-up jumper with 8:26 left put St. John's in front for the first time all day, at 55-54, and the Red Storm had all the momentum on their side.

But then they melted down in the final four minutes.

It started with JaKarr Sampson's two missed free throws with 3:12 to play, which would have tied the game at 62. At the other end, Syracuse senior C.J. Fair (21 points) knocked down a jumper to make it 64-60.

Harrison made just one of two free throws with 2:01 left. Then Fair drained another jumper to make it 66-61, putting St. John's on the ropes.

The knockout blow was self-inflicted, too. After not turning the ball over in the first 18 minutes of the second half, St. John's committed two critical turnovers in the final 82 seconds, giveaways by Sampson and Orlando Sanchez.

"I didn't think we showed the precision or the purpose in terms of finding the open man, trusting one another, and we tried to do it more individually," Lavin said.

[+] EnlargeD'Angelo Harrison
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY SportsD'Angelo Harrison scored a team-high 21 points.
"That last four minutes just showed that we still need to grow up," said St. John's swingman Sir'Dominic Pointer.

Pointer's comment is a little startling, considering he and most of his teammates are sophomores and juniors with plenty of minutes under their belts from the past season or two.

That being said, Pointer, Harrison and Sampson -- the three players in the team's postgame news conference -- shared the same mature outlook after the game. They were very subdued, despite the fact they'd nearly knocked off the No. 2 team in the country, knowing they have enough talent to beat them.

"Our group, the way we are, we're not into moral victories," Harrison said. "But we did see that once we played the way we're supposed to play, we went up. So if we'd have done that for two halves, it would have been a different kind of ballgame."

Lavin, too, was far from satisfied. "No, I'm not encouraged," he said. "I would say that we came in expecting to win the game, so we're disappointed we didn't win. This is our home court. And I like our personnel, I like this group, we had a great week of preparation."

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim actually offered the most positive comments about the Red Storm.

"I think St. John's is a much improved team," Boeheim said. "They're more mature, there are more veterans. I think they've got really good players and I think they're going to have a good year."

The season is only five weeks old, but this was St. John's last opportunity to impress in nonconference play. Up next are homes games against San Francisco, Youngstown State and Columbia, followed by an 18-game Big East slate that currently features just one ranked opponent, Villanova.

St. John's needs to figure out how to start fast, and finish. Despite failing in both of those areas, the Red Storm almost pulled off a stunning victory.

3-point shot: Outlook for Colorado, more

November, 5, 2013
11/05/13
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Andy Katz discusses the early outlook for Colorado, Notre Dame and St. John's.

Impressions: Big East media day

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
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NEW YORK CITY -- Val Ackerman believes the Big East is still the Big East.

In her opening address during the league’s media day event at Chelsea Piers on Wednesday, the Big East commissioner told reporters that she expects the conference to possess the same strength that it had in the pre-realignment years.

Ackerman, the former president of the WNBA, turned into a boxing promoter while she hyped the league as it prepares for its new beginning.

[+] EnlargeVal Ackerman
AP Photo/Craig RuttleBig East commissioner Val Ackerman said the conference isn't looking to expand from 10 teams.
“We’re going to make this basketball conference a force,” she said.

This league is obviously different. A summer split with the previous version of the Big East resulted in seven former Big East squads linking up with Creighton, Xavier and Butler to form the new conference.

She acknowledged that the conference feels some pressure to prove that it’s still a power league in its inaugural year.

“There’s no doubt the eyes of the basketball world and the eyes of others in college sports are definitely on the Big East,” she said. “I think everybody in our league uses that as a source of motivation.”

There are, however, no immediate plans to expand. Ackerman said the conference will be “very selective” if it ever decides to add teams.

“Ten is a good number,” she said.

I think the Big East recognizes that it is not the same league, now that former powers Louisville, Syracuse, UConn, Pitt and Notre Dame are gone. But the new members certainly believe in the Big East’s ability to maintain a slot as one of college basketball's power conferences this season.

The overall success of league favorites Marquette, Georgetown and Creighton will certainly be pivotal in that aspiration.

Other impressions and notes:
  • Doug McDermott, a strong contender for national player of the year honors, said Creighton’s transition to the Big East was a major factor in his decision to come back for his senior season. “If it was the Missouri Valley, I don’t know if I would’ve come back,” he said. “This is just a new challenge.” That shows that McDermott still believes he has more to prove. He is not running from the new spotlight that he and his program are under now. He’s embracing it.
  • John Thompson III doesn’t seem too worried about the loss of standout Greg Whittington, and maybe he shouldn’t be. The team played without him for a chunk of the 2012-13 season when he was suspended midyear due to academic issues. Whittington could miss the entire 2013-14 season due to an ACL injury he suffered in June. “Greg played in, I think, one conference game last year and we won the conference,” Thompson said. “We have a group of guys that do not have to make the adjustment to playing without Greg.”
  • Villanova’s Jay Wright is one of multiple Big East coaches who have some concerns about the new handchecking rules. How do you play tough defense with the new rules that will be implemented this season? Coaches, although excited about the impact the rules could have on offense, aren’t completely sure. “That’s going to be interesting in the Big East because we’ve all taken pride in our defense,” he said. “And the three teams that are coming in are the same way. ... I think you’re going to see some ugly games early.”
  • When a teary-eyed Brad Stevens walked into their locker room, his former players were nervous. When he told them he was leaving, they were lost. But, Khyle Marshall said, players weren’t mad when Stevens announced that he was taking a job with the Boston Celtics. “Once he said the Boston Celtics, I was like, ‘I completely understand,'" Marshall said. Marshall and new coach Brandon Miller didn’t dwell on the past Wednesday. They’re ready to move forward. “I can only be like myself,” Miller said when asked about following Stevens.
  • St. John’s is the league’s most difficult team to project. Steve Lavin’s squad, which finished 17-16 last season, is arguably as talented and athletic as any team in the Big East. But it needs leaders to emerge. Lavin said D'Angelo Harrison, the team’s leading scorer who was suspended late last season, is staying on track to have a productive season. He said the talented junior underwent counseling to help him deal with some of his anger issues this offseason. “We sat down when he was dismissed and developed a road map where he could earn his way back the old-fashioned way,” Lavin said. “That checklist ... he’s taken care of.”
This week, ESPN.com is breaking down the nonconference schedules of each team in nine of the nation's top leagues. Next up: the Big East.

BUTLER

Toughest: Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in Orlando, Fla.), Purdue (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis)
Next toughest: Princeton (Nov. 16)
The rest: Lamar (Nov. 9), Vanderbilt (Nov. 19), at Ball State (Nov. 23), North Dakota (Dec. 7), Manchester (Dec. 9), at Evansville (Dec. 21), NJIT (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- This isn’t an overwhelming schedule for first-year coach Brandon Miller, but it’s not a complete cakewalk either -- especially since Roosevelt Jones is out for the year. The Old Spice Classic gives the Bulldogs some pop, with a potential date with Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State in the second round (with Washington State as the opener) or Memphis down the road.

CREIGHTON

Toughest: Wooden Legacy (Nov. 28-Dec.1 in Fullerton and Anaheim, Calif.)
Next toughest: at Saint Joseph’s (Nov. 16), California (Nov. 22), at Long Beach State (Dec. 3), Nebraska (Dec. 8)
The rest: Alcorn State (Nov. 8), UMKC (Nov. 11), Tulsa (Nov. 23), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Dec. 17)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- The hefty Wooden Legacy gives the Bluejays a challenge. There’s a first-round date with Arizona State and Jahii Carson then possibly San Diego State and a potential matchup with either Marquette or Miami on the other side. But for a loaded lineup like Creighton has, I would have hoped to see a little more meat in the nonconference schedule.

DEPAUL

Toughest: CBE Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Kansas City, Mo.), Arizona State (Dec. 6)
Next toughest: at Northwestern (Dec. 27)
The rest: Grambling State (Nov. 9), Southern Miss (Nov. 13), Wright State (Nov. 16), at Milwaukee (Nov. 19), Oregon State (Dec. 1), Florida Atlantic (Dec. 12), Chicago State (Dec. 15), Houston Baptist (Dec. 18), at Illinois State (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- If this is the year the Blue Demons turn the corner, they will have earned their stripes. This is a decent schedule, thanks largely to an opening date with Final Four participant Wichita State in the semis of the CBE Classic. (Texas and BYU are on the other side.) Tussles with Arizona State and Northwestern also add some muscle.

GEORGETOWN

Toughest: Oregon (Nov. 8 in Seoul, South Korea), at Kansas (Dec. 21), Michigan State (Feb. 1 in New York)
Next toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24)
The rest: Wright State (Nov. 13), Lipscomb (Nov. 30), High Point (Dec. 5), Colgate (Dec. 7), Elon (Dec. 17), Florida International (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- Short of matching up with Kentucky in Kabul, I’m not sure how John Thompson III could have made his schedule much more daunting. From South Korea to Lawrence, with a date with Michigan State for added fun, that’s literally anyone anywhere. There’s also a pretty decent Puerto Rico Tip-Off field, with VCU, Michigan, Kansas State and Florida State.

MARQUETTE

Toughest: Ohio State (Nov. 16), New Mexico (Nov. 21), at Wisconsin (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Arizona State (Nov. 25), Wooden Legacy (Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in Fullerton and Anaheim, Calif.)
The rest: Southern (Nov. 8), Grambling State (Nov. 12), New Hampshire (Nov. 21), IUPUI (Dec. 14), Ball State (Dec. 17), Samford (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- Love when a good team plays a good schedule. Buzz Williams has a delicious mix, traipsing across leagues (Big Ten, Pac-12 and Mountain West) and mixing in a decent tourney as well. The only oddity is that the Wooden Legacy title game might merely be a Big East preview, with Creighton and Marquette seemingly headed toward each other.

PROVIDENCE

Toughest: Kentucky (Dec. 1 in Brooklyn)
Next toughest: Boston College (Nov. 8), Paradise Jam (Nov. 22-25 in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands), UMass (Dec. 28)
The rest: Brown (Nov. 13), Marist (Nov. 16), Vermont (Nov. 18), Fairfield (Nov. 29), at Rhode Island (Dec. 5), Yale (Dec. 17), Maine (Dec. 21)

Toughness scale (1 to 10): 4 -- Yes, Kentucky is on the schedule, which is big, but one game does not a schedule make. The Paradise Jam is a bunch of meh, with Maryland and La Salle the only intriguing opponents available. The rest of the Friars’ schedule is just a trip through New England.

SETON HALL

Toughest: Coaches vs. Cancer (Nov. 22-23 in New York)
Next toughest: at Rutgers (Dec. 8)
The rest: Niagara (Nov. 9), Kent State (Nov. 13), at Mercer (Nov. 16), Monmouth (Nov. 18), Fairleigh Dickinson (Dec. 1), LIU Brooklyn (Dec. 5), NJIT (Dec. 10), St. Peter’s (Dec. 14), Eastern Washington (Dec. 22), Lafayette (Dec. 27)

Toughness scale (1 to 10): 2 -- If the Pirates beat Oklahoma in the Coaches vs. Cancer, they might face Michigan State. Or they might not. And that’s about all there is to like about this schedule.

ST. JOHN’S

Toughest: Wisconsin (Nov. 8 in Sioux Falls, S.D.), Syracuse (Dec. 15)
Next toughest: Bucknell (Nov. 19), Barclays Center Classic (Nov. 29-30 in Brooklyn)
The rest: Wagner (Nov. 15), Monmouth (Nov. 22), Longwood (Nov. 26), Fordham (Dec. 7), San Francisco (Dec. 18), Youngstown State (Dec. 21), Columbia (Dec. 28), Dartmouth (Jan. 18)

Toughness scale (1 to 10): 6 -- The Red Storm’s top two games are pretty good, and bonus points for playing the Badgers in Sioux Falls. After Penn State in Brooklyn, they face a decent test from either Ole Miss or Georgia Tech. The rest isn’t much to look at.

VILLANOVA

Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30 in the Bahamas), at Syracuse (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: at Saint Joseph’s (Dec. 7), La Salle (Dec. 15), at Temple (Feb. 1)
The rest: Lafayette (Nov. 8), Mount St. Mary’s (Nov. 13), Towson (Nov. 17), Delaware (Nov. 22), Penn (Dec. 4), Rider (Dec. 21)

Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- To understand this ranking, you have to understand the Big Five. Even when the Philly schools are down, the games are brutal, and with La Salle, Penn and St. Joe’s on the uptick, the city series is a beast. Now mix in a Battle 4 Atlantis that opens with USC and then likely Kansas (with Tennessee, Iowa or Xavier as likely third opponents) plus a visit to the Carrier Dome and you have a solid slate for Jay Wright’s crew.

XAVIER

Toughest: Tennessee (Nov. 12), Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30 in the Bahamas), Cincinnati (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: Alabama (Dec. 21)
The rest: Gardner-Webb (Nov. 8), Morehead State (Nov. 18), Miami (Ohio) (Nov. 20), Abilene Christian (Nov. 25), Bowling Green (Dec. 7), Evansville (Dec. 10), Wake Forest (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Like Villanova, the Musketeers get a nice boost from playing in Atlantis, taking on a good Iowa team in the opening round. An on-the-rise Tennessee offers bonus points (and they could face the Vols for a second time in the Bahamas), as does the annual Crosstown Classic with the Bearcats.
Brad Stevens left Butler for the Boston Celtics, P.J. Hairston’s future is in jeopardy at North Carolina and the ACC is bigger and better than ever thanks to the addition of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame.

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.

[+] EnlargeRick Barnes
Scott Sewell/USA TODAY SportsWill losing his top three scorers mean another frustrating season for Rick Barnes at Texas?
2. Rick Barnes’ future at Texas: The Longhorns went just 16-18 last season and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in Barnes’ 14-year tenure. Even worse, Texas has advanced to the second weekend of the tournament only once in the past seven years. With its top three scorers all departing the program (Myck Kabongo entered the NBA draft and Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis transferred), UT could struggle again this season. That could mean trouble for Barnes -- and, perhaps, a new opportunity for someone else. Should it come open, the Horns job would be one of the most coveted in the country. The pay is great, the recruits are plentiful and there aren’t many cities in the country better than Austin. There’s no reason Texas shouldn’t be battling Kansas every year for the Big 12 title. I could see Marquette’s Buzz Williams and Memphis’ Josh Pastner being in the mix if the Longhorns make a change.

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.

[+] EnlargeLaQuinton Ross
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsLaQuinton Ross shined for Ohio State during last season's NCAA tournament.
7. Ohio State seeks new go-to guy: The Buckeyes would likely be dubbed as an NCAA title contender if leading scorer DeShaun Thomas hadn’t left school early for the NBA draft. Thomas averaged 19.8 points as a junior and would’ve been a first-team All-American candidate this year. Ohio State returns its other four starters from a squad that went 29-8 and lost in the Elite Eight. But it’s still unclear who this team’s key offensive player will be. It will be tough for point guard Aaron Craft to play much better on the defensive end than he did last season, but he can certainly become a more efficient shooter. Lenzelle Smith Jr., Sam Thompson and Shannon Scott all averaged more than 20 minutes per game last season. Forward LaQuinton Ross is a tough matchup who contributed 15 points per game during the NCAA tournament. Perhaps OSU’s next offensive star will come from that group. This will be a good team no matter what. But a great one? We’ll see.

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.
Only in today’s age of one-and-done -- and, perhaps, only at Kentucky -- could a team go from losing to Robert Morris in the first round of the NIT to winning the NCAA title the following season.

But that will be the expectation in Lexington.

And considering the Wildcats’ top-ranked recruiting class, it’s hardly far-fetched.

No other team in the country is expected to make as big of a leap in 2013-14 as the Wildcats, but there are still plenty of squads who are projected to be considerably improved when the season tips off in November.

Here’s a list of the programs I think will make the biggest strides. And remember, this ranking is based on how significantly a team will improve, not on how good it’s expected to be, how many games it will win or how far it may go in the postseason. For instance, do I think SMU will be able to beat Oklahoma State? No, but I think the upgrades the Mustangs make will be more dramatic than the ones we see in Stillwater, where the Cowboys made the NCAA tournament last season.

Get the drift? Great. Here’s the list:

10 (tie). Arizona State: A year ago at this time, Sun Devils coach Herb Sendek was rumored to be on the hot seat. That’s hardly the case these days, though, as Arizona State is primed for its best season since the days of James Harden. The biggest reason for optimism in Tempe is point guard Jahii Carson, who bypassed the NBA draft to return for his sophomore season. Carson averaged 18.5 points and 5.1 assists in 2012-13 and likely would’ve won national freshman-of-the-year honors if Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart hadn’t had such an impressive season. Also back for ASU is 7-foot-2 center Jordan Bachynski (3.4 blocks) and forward Jonathan Gilling (9.7 points, 6.1 rebounds). The Sun Devils took a hit during the offseason when guard Evan Gordon transferred to Indiana. But they countered that by adding Jermaine Marshall, who will be eligible immediately after averaging 15.3 points at Penn State last season.

10 (tie). Boise State: The Broncos finished 21-11 last season and lost to LaSalle in the NCAA tournament's First Four. Still, the tourney appearance -- Boise State’s first since 2008 -- was a huge step for the program, and even better things could be in store in 2013-14. Eight of the Broncos’ top nine players return. That includes leading scorers Anthony Drmic (17.7 points) and Derrick Marks (16.3). Marks shot 42 percent from 3-point range and averaged nearly 4 assists. Mikey Thompson (7.9 points) is also back along with top rebounder Ryan Watkins. With a handful of the Mountain West Conference's top teams expected to take minor steps back, this could be a special season for the Broncos.

9. Connecticut: The Huskies weren’t eligible for the postseason in 2013, so somewhat overshadowed was the excellent job first-year coach Kevin Ollie did under incredibly difficult circumstances after taking over for Jim Calhoun. Connecticut had nothing to play for but still managed to go 20-10. Considering they return nearly all of their key pieces, the Huskies should be even better in 2013-14. The backcourt of Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier should be one of the best in the country. The twosome combined to average 32.5 points and 9 assists last season. And remember, Napier was a starter on UConn’s 2011 NCAA championship team. Small forward DeAndre Daniels made huge strides as a sophomore, when he upped his scoring average by nearly 10 points per game. Connecticut ranked second-to-last in the Big East in rebounding last season, so Ollie’s team must get better in the paint, where it often appeared undermanned.

8. Oklahoma State: Three months later, I’m still stunned that standout guard Marcus Smart bypassed an opportunity to be a top-five draft pick to return for his sophomore season. Smart’s decision -- coupled with the return of Le'Bryan Nash, another NBA prospect -- means that the Cowboys will be a legitimate threat to end Kansas’ string of nine consecutive Big 12 titles. Some might even consider Travis Ford’s squad the league favorite. Smart is one of the toughest, most versatile players in all of college basketball. As a freshman, he led Oklahoma State in points, assists and steals and ranked second in rebounds. Still, while Smart is the face of the program, he’s just one of many threats on the Cowboys roster. Nash, a small forward, averaged 14 points per game last season, while wing Markel Brown chipped in 15.3. In some ways, Brown strikes just as much fear into opponents as Nash and Smart. Phil Forte and Michael Cobbins cannot be taken lightly.

7. Harvard: The Crimson might seem out of place this list. After all, Tommy Amaker’s squad was pretty darn good last season, when it won the Ivy League title before knocking off No. 3 seed New Mexico in the second round of the NCAA tournament. What made those feats so impressive was that Harvard played the entire season without its two top players. If Brandyn Curry and Kyle Casey return as expected, the Crimson will likely have their best team in recent history. Wesley Saunders, Siyani Chambers and Laurent Rivard were all double-figure scorers last season, and Curry and Casey will likely post similar or better point totals in 2013-14. If Harvard makes a tourney run this season it won’t be nearly as big of a surprise. This is a top-25-caliber team.

6. LSU: The Tigers have been to the NCAA tournament just once since 2006, but could make an appearance in 2014 thanks to the return of several key players and a huge addition down low. LSU brings back leading scorer and rebounder Johnny O'Bryant (13.6 points, 8.7 boards) along with standout guard Anthony Hickey, who ranked second in the country in steals (2.9) while chipping in a team-high 3.8 assists and 11.2 points. The Tigers also add a standout forward in Jarrell Martin, the No. 11-ranked player in the class of 2013. Johnny Jones’ squad took a hit when high-profile recruit Jordan Mickey was declared ineligible, but there are still enough parts here to make the upcoming campaign a successful one. LSU went 19-12 last season and won nine of its final 14 games.

5. Iowa: Even though they missed the NCAA tournament, the Hawkeyes still had to feel good about the strides they made last season. Iowa finished 9-9 in the Big Ten, the nation’s toughest conference, and made it to the NIT championship game, where it lost to a deeper, more athletic Baylor squad. Don’t be surprised if 2013-14 is the season when Iowa really turns the corner. Every key player returns from last year’s 25-13 squad. Included in that mix are leading scorers Roy Devyn Marble (15 points) and Aaron White (12.8), who also averaged a team-high 6.2 rebounds. The Hawkeyes also have an excellent -- and, in my opinion, underrated -- coach in Fran McCaffrey, who appears to have this program on an upswing. With Indiana, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin all losing a number of key players, I wouldn’t be surprised if Iowa finished as high as third in the Big Ten while earning its first NCAA tournament berth since 2006.

4. Tennessee: The Volunteers barely missed out on the NCAA tournament last season -- mainly because of some key losses early in SEC play, where they dropped four of their first six games. By March, though, Cuonzo Martin’s squad was one of the most improved teams in the conference, and there are plenty of reasons to think the Vols will build on that momentum. The frontcourt should be loaded with Jarnell Stokes, who averaged 12.4 points per game last year, and Jeronne Maymon, who averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds two years ago before missing last season with an injury. Incoming freshman Robert Hubbs should give the Vols a boost at small forward, and leading scorer Jordan McRae (15.7 PPG) returns at shooting guard. Point guard Trae Golden was dismissed from the team during the offseason, but Tennessee should be fine at that position with either Antonio Barton, a Memphis transfer, or freshman Darius Thompson.

3. SMU: I’m not ready to say the Mustangs will end an NCAA tournament drought that dates back to 1993, but I definitely think they’ll at least be on the bubble in late February and early March. That’d be a huge jump for a program that finished 15-17 in Larry Brown’s first season, but SMU has added enough quality pieces to make it possible. Illinois State transfer Nic Moore, who redshirted last season, was named to the Missouri Valley Conference all-freshman team in 2011-12. Signee Yanick Moreira was the top-ranked junior college big man in the nation, and incoming freshman Keith Frazier will become the first McDonald’s All American ever to suit up for SMU, which also returns three double-digit scorers in Nick Russell, Jalen Jones and Ryan Manuel. If Brown gets this group to jell quickly, this could be the best season for Mustangs basketball in decades.

2. St. John’s: Sportswriters are expected to make bold predictions from time to time, so here’s mine: St. John’s will spend most of the upcoming season ranked in the Top 25 and will challenge Marquette and Creighton for the Big East title. This team is loaded. Jakarr Sampson was one of the country’s most underrated freshmen in 2012-13, when he averaged 14.9 points and 6.6 rebounds. Imagine how much better he’ll be this season after bypassing the NBA draft. I’m also expecting even more out of D'Angelo Harrison, who was averaging a team-high 17.8 points before being suspended at the end of last season for disciplinary reasons. Chris Obekpa, who ranked second in the country with 4.0 blocks per game, is back along with bruising forward God'sgift Achiuwa, who redshirted last season. Two other important pieces will be incoming freshman Rysheed Jordan, the No. 3-ranked point guard in the class of 2013, and Orlando Sanchez, a 24-year-old forward who wasn’t deemed eligible by the NCAA until late February. He’ll be able to compete for only one season, but Sanchez could end up being the top player on the Red Storm roster.

1. Kentucky: John Calipari has been regarded for years now as the top recruiter in college basketball. But he might have outdone himself this time, as Kentucky welcomes what may be the greatest signing class in college basketball history. The haul includes five players (Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson and James Young) ranked among the nation’s top-10 prospects by ESPN.com. The question is whether the young Wildcats will jell and, if so, how quickly. Calipari is the best in the country at coaching players who only plan to spend a year or two in college. Kentucky, which also returns potential lottery picks Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, will likely open the season as the No. 1-ranked team in America. That’s a lot of pressure for any squad, especially one with so much youth. Last year’s Wildcats crumbled under the spotlight. Kentucky’s latest batch of freshmen, though, are rumored to be much tougher, both on the court and between the ears. We’ll find out soon enough.
UNC, TexasBrendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsThrust into a leadership role as a freshman, Javan Felix will carry a bigger load for Texas next season.

In five months, the 2013-14 college basketball season will begin.

It’s always tough to make projections in the weeks following any season. But the dust has settled.

The following list highlights sophomores who will be asked to carry more weight next season. Some of these young men might have to carry an entire team.

  1. Javan Felix (Texas) – Felix entered 2012-13 as a freshman who expected to play minimal minutes in Rick Barnes’ rotation. Then Myck Kabongo was suddenly suspended for receiving impermissible benefits and lying to the NCAA about it. Enter Felix, who started 23 games at point guard (6.8 PPG, 4.1 APG) for the Longhorns. Barnes lost his top three scorers from a team that failed to make the NCAA tournament, so Felix will assume a leadership role again. This time, however, he’ll guide an even younger and more inexperienced bunch than last season’s crew. But his invitation to this summer’s USA Basketball U19 training camp is a testament to his performance under pressure last year.
  2. Sam Dekker (Wisconsin) – Few question Dekker’s ceiling. His 116.7 offensive rating was fifth in the Big Ten per KenPom.com (among players who’d used at least 20 percent of their team’s possessions). In a reserve role (22.3 MPG), the freshman averaged 9.6 PPG and 3.4 RPG. He also shot 39 percent from the 3-point line. It was an impressive debut. He certainly seems capable of handling more next year for Bo Ryan. He doesn’t have a choice. Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans are gone. Josh Gasser will return from an ACL injury, so Dekker won’t have to lead alone. But he’ll have to help in more ways.
  3. Siyani Chambers (Harvard) – Tommy Amaker had a roster that was fully capable of retaining its Ivy League crown as the 2012-13 campaign approached. Then top performers Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry abruptly left the program before the season amid an academic scandal. So Amaker turned to this freshman who had few Division I offers. Chambers embraced his new responsibilities as the starting point guard for Harvard, averaging 12.4 PPG, 5.7 APG and 1.5 SPG. He also hit 81 percent of his free throws and 42 percent of his 3-point shots. The Crimson return the heart of a squad that upset New Mexico in the second round of the NCAA tournament in March, so this team will be favored to win the Ivy League again. Amaker knows he has a point guard he can trust.
  4. Yogi Ferrell (Indiana) – The Hoosiers are the most mysterious team in the Big Ten, perhaps America. Yes, they’ve lost Victor Oladipo, Cody Zeller, Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls. But Tom Crean signed another stellar recruiting class, led by Noah Vonleh. Then there’s Hanner Mosquera-Perea & Co., part of Indiana’s previous recruiting crew that collectively provided inconsistent production. Ferrell (7.6 PPG. 4.1 APG), who ended last season as the apparent leader of the future, will be the key to the new chemistry in Bloomington. He walked into a fortified situation his freshman season. It’s not exactly clear what sort of situation he’ll encounter this fall. But it won’t work without him.
  5. Georges Niang (Iowa State) – Fred Hoiberg wanted to win on Day 1. He couldn’t wait for young players to blossom two or three years down the road. He needed guys who could play immediately. So he signed a bunch of Division I transfers and junior college prospects in his first few seasons on the job. The results? Back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. But Hoiberg can build in the coming years around Niang, a 6-foot-7 wing with the tools to mature into a high-level talent in 2013-14. He averaged 12.1 PPG and 4.6 RPG last season and made 39 percent of his 3-point attempts. The Cyclones lost four of their top six scorers from last year’s squad. Next season’s squad, which will feature four new junior college transfers, will be one of the most inexperienced teams in Hoiberg’s tenure. So Niang has to improve on last year’s production and prove that he’s a go-to guy in the locker room too.
  6. Perry Ellis (Kansas) – Well, a lot has changed in recent weeks for Kansas. The Jayhawks ended last season with question marks. They’d lost all five starters once Ben McLemore declared for the NBA draft. So perhaps the Big 12 title streak – nine in a row – would be in jeopardy entering the 2013-14 season? That was then. Andrew Wiggins signed with Bill Self’s program and squashed all doubts. The addition of Tarik Black certainly helps too. But Kansas has historically benefited most from depth. And they have that inside now. Ellis is in a great position as the projected starter at power forward. He’s surrounded by playmakers, so he just has to continue to be the efficient threat he was in 2012-13 (5.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 48 percent from the floor, 13.6 MPG). Kansas has suddenly become a national title contender again. Self’s freshman class is uncanny now, and Black is an instant boost for the program. If Ellis is as potent as his prep accolades suggested he’d be at this level, KU will be in a position to reach Arlington next April.
  7. Montrezl Harrell (Louisville) – Kentucky might be favored to win the national crown next season. But Louisville deserves consideration too. The Cardinals lost Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng. But Russ Smith, Luke Hancock, Chane Behanan and Wayne Blackshear return. Harrell could have an expanded role in Rick Pitino’s system too. Louisville lost size when Dieng decided to turn pro. But now the Cardinals have a bunch of versatile forwards who will continue to cause matchup problems for opponents. Harrell fits that formula. The 6-8 North Carolina native had his moments last season, including a 4-for-4 performance against Wichita State in the Final Four. He averaged 5.7 PPG last season, and he’s capable of more in 2013-14.
  8. Kyle Anderson (UCLA) – Welcome to the Steve Alford Era. It begins a year after Ben Howland signed the nation’s top recruiting class, a class that -- without an injured Jordan Adams -- was dismissed from the second round of the NCAA tournament by Minnesota. But with the exception of Shabazz Muhammad, that heralded class will return. Adams must regain his strength after suffering a season-ending foot injury. Tony Parker’s minutes will increase if he’s in better shape and more focused. Anderson is as critical as any returnee on the roster. The 6-9 athlete averaged 9.7 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 3.5 APG and 1.8 SPG. Anderson entered 2012-13 as a lengthy point guard with a unique skill set. By the end of the season, however, we really weren’t sure what position he played for the Bruins. That’s what Alford must decide. Anderson can pass and handle the ball. His shooting must improve (21 percent from the 3-point line). But he’s usually a mismatch. Still, he needs a position.
  9. Fred Van Vleet (Wichita State) – Gregg Marshall’s squad will enter next season as the clear favorite to win the Missouri Valley Conference. Ron Baker, Cleanthony Early and Van Vleet return to a program that surprised the nation with a run to the Final Four in April. With point guard Malcolm Armstead gone, Van Vleet steps into his slot as starting point guard. Van Vleet (4.3 PPG, 2.3 APG) flourished in spurts last season. But his effort against Ohio State in the Elite Eight (4-for-8, 12 points, 2 steals, 3 rebounds and 2 assists) provided evidence that the young guard will not be intimidated with a more significant role next season. His postseason experience made him more confident. The latter is crucial, especially for a young point guard.
  10. Chris Obekpa (St. John’s) – On Dec. 8, Obekpa recorded a school-record 11 blocks against Fordham. He’s a true rim protector. He was second in the nation with 4.1 BPG, and he led the nation with a 15.8 block percentage, per KenPom.com. He’s the defensive anchor for a young St. John’s squad, and the 6-9 big man was also a solid rebounder (6.2 RPG). Now … the other things about his game. His offense was limited to dunks and garbage points. He’s a phenomenal athlete, so he has the potential to make strides on that end of the floor. And if that happens, watch out. With improved shooting and a better post game, Obekpa could evolve into one of the nation’s most complete players.
1. The NBA’s one-and-done rule gets plenty of attention in the spring as players decide to leave college after one season. But the post-grad rule is turning every spring into free agency. UNLV’s Mike Moser is the latest to create a buzz. Moser is going on his third set of recruiting visits in his career. He was at UCLA and then transferred to UNLV. He's now a free agent after earning his degree. He’s looking for a one-year deal to finish his college career at his third school. He was at Gonzaga this weekend and into Monday. He was already being pursued by Washington and Oregon. A healthy Moser is an instant hit for three teams in the Northwest that are in need of a veteran rebounder. All that’s missing is for Moser to get paid in this deal since he’s a one-year rent-a-player. Nothing illicit here for any of the programs in pursuit. This is the new norm.

2. San Diego State built a schedule to go with a possible Big West conference slate. But then the Aztecs were able to stay in the NCAA tournament-bid rich Mountain West. This means coach Steve Fisher felt he had to dial back his schedule a bit. Fisher has asked Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin to put off a road game in Cincinnati for a year. The problem is the Bearcats have to agree and will only do so if Cincinnati can find an appropriate alternative at home. UC can’t just give up a quality home game without finding a replacement. The Aztecs are already playing home games against Arizona and Washington. They go to Kansas and they have the rivalry game with San Diego. They are also in the Anaheim Classic with Big East favorites Marquette and Creighton as well as possible Pac-12 sleeper team in Arizona State. The MWC will have 18 conference games with the additions of Utah State and San Jose State.

3. St. John’s coach Steve Lavin is confident about the momentum in the offseason. Lavin listed these facts: Orlando Sanchez got a year of eligibility for next season, they won a close game in the NIT, point guard Rysheed Jordan signed, Jakarr Sampson decided to stay instead of leaving for the NBA, a total of 14 players will return when redshirts and walk-ons are included, and the anticipation that the Red Storm will make a major step forward in the new Big East. The safe picks to push for bids are Marquette, Creighton, Georgetown, Villanova, Butler and Xavier. But St. John’s may be a better pick than Providence if there is going to be a team pushing the above six for a spot in 2014.

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