- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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Diversity might be college basketball's greatest asset. No other major American sport comprises 351 teams ostensibly competing for the same championship. Few competitions span so broad a range of talent, money and institutional support.
And yet, for some reason, the sport's systemic diversity doesn't always translate into stylistic variety. Most offenses run the same variations on the same foundations; most defenses work from the same core set of principles. Once-exotic X's-and-O's revolutions -- like the dribble-drive offense or the pack-line defense -- are eventually co-opted, assimilated and normalized. Most coaches look for the same kinds of players, filling the same kinds of roles. In the past decade, most teams have gotten slower, more careful, less likely to press, less likely to run, and more often than not, better as a result. Homogeneity pervades.
Personally? We like the outliers. We prefer teams with extreme styles and stubborn philosophical devotion. We like coaches who aren't afraid to take risks. We like players who can't be pigeonholed into a prescribed position. We like rosters that don't quite make sense.
A long time ago, in an Internet far far away, we would have summed these ineffable preferences as "FreeDarko." For now, let's just call them watchable. Below is a sample of 2015-16 outfits that fit this vague description.
These teams may be good. They may be bad. But they're almost guaranteed to be different -- the kind of different that makes college basketball so fun to watch in the first place.
Here's a fun fact: In 2014-15, Johnny Jones' team averaged 69.7 possessions per game -- 14th most in the country. Playing that fast was arguably counterproductive, at least offensively. It probably unduly stressed LSU's dual-NBA-prospect frontcourt and almost certainly worsened its guards' penchant for turnovers. In the end, the Tigers underachieved.
Lesson learned? Let's hope not. The 2015-16 Tigers are an entirely different, um, animal, and one that should absolutely play fast. That begins with No. 1 overall prospect Ben Simmons. At 6-foot-10, Simmons is a preternaturally skilled passer, ball handler and open-court threat who can reasonably dabble in all five positions at the college level. His two classmates -- Antonio Blakeney and Brandon Sampson -- are both highly touted score-first perimeter players in their own right. Jarrell Martin and Jordan Mickey are gone. Most of the backcourt rotation has returned. In other words, Jones has a glut of guards, no conventional forwards and this dude.
Profound roster imbalance. Multipositional talent. Up-tempo offense. Extreme boom-or-bust potential. The 2015-16 LSU Tigers: Where do we sign?
From a watchability standpoint, the best thing to happen to Indiana this summer -- the arrival of freshman center Thomas Bryant -- might actually be the worst. The 2014-15 Hoosiers registered record readings on the Weirdly Watchable Scale. An utter lack of frontcourt bodies and a surfeit of shooters forced Tom Crean to play super-small, super-quick and super-spread; the 6-foot-6 Collin Hartman, a 48 percent 3-point shooter, often started at "center." The resulting attack was fast and efficient; the resulting defense was an unsustainable disaster. For IU fans, 2014-15 was an inconsistent mess. For us, it was glorious.
Now, we're worried. Even with the core of the 2014-15 team back, there is some risk that Bryant's addition (and that of four-star power forward Juwan Morgan) will, in the process of making the Hoosiers better, also make them less fun. Our vote: Keep Bloomington weird.
Iowa State fans will primarily remember the Fred Hoiberg half-decade as one of competitive restoration. We'll remember it as proof that entertaining and unusual basketball need not be mutually exclusive from wins. Hoiberg is gone now, of course, but his best roster is largely intact. Georges Niang is still about that herky-jerky point-forward life. Most crucially, nothing about new coach Steve Prohm's final year at Murray State, when the Racers played fast, guard-reliant, efficient offense, suggests stylistic diversion in the near future. The legacy lives on.
Cuonzo Martin's 2015 recruiting coup put an 18-15 team into immediate Pac-12 title contention. It also put Martin into perhaps the most fascinating coaching situation of his life.
On paper, there is plenty of positional overlap among Martin's best five players. Cal's best returners are all guards. So is blue-chip prospect Jaylen Brown, who has the body of a power forward but the game of a combo guard. Meanwhile, despite his ongoing Super Soldier serum transformation, it's probably unfair to ask 6-foot-11 freshman Ivan Rabb to anchor the frontcourt on his own. Watching Martin sort this out -- and seeing whether he can unlock the Bears' upside with nifty small-ball configurations -- is as much of a draw as Cal's talent.
There is a certain particularly annoying brand of "NBA2K" online player. Before the game, they set their team's "fast break" and "crash the boards" sliders to 100 percent. They run up the floor, never pass and take the quickest shot they can. They always press, trap with four people and quit when you pass midcourt. It's not very fun.
The 2014-15 West Virginia Mountaineers were a more realistic, more effective, less childish version of That "NBA2K" Guy. They didn't chuck attention-deficit shots and they didn't quit on defense. But they did press like madmen. Despite their frequent size disadvantages (hence Bob Huggins' sudden interest in the press), they relentlessly crashed the offensive boards.
This rare mash-up of styles made every possession a frantic struggle, every game a breathless affair. The Mountaineers forced opponents to play fast whether they liked it or not. In a few months, Huggins turned an overstuffed but inexperienced roster into his greatest asset, and found a viable -- and thrillingly different -- bridge to 2015-16 and beyond.