Top Storylines for 2013-14 NCAA Basketball Season
We're less than 48 hours from the first tipoff on college basketball's version of Opening Day. In case you're wondering, Eastern Michigan vs. Division III's Albion College gets it all started at noon ET.
As usual, there is no shortage of compelling stories and personalities entering the season. There are many more than most writers could be bothered to detail and more than many readers would have the patience to read.
Feel free to put your own ideas out there in the comments. Until then, here's a sampling of the season's bigger subplots, presented in no particular order.
Which Freshmen Will Survive the Hype?
Kentucky's recruiting class is rubbing shoulders with the greatest of all time, threatening to supplant one that went to two NCAA championship games and spawned three NBA All-Stars.
It seems sufficient time has passed since Harrison Barnes buckled under the pressure of a preseason All-American designation. Writers no longer hesitate to anoint newcomers like Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle, Jabari Parker and Aaron Gordon, all of whom were consensus picks to B/R's preseason team.
In every recruiting class, however, there are hyped prospects who defy conventional wisdom and miss the marks the analysts set for them. Whether through injury, sloth or ego, someone from the 2013 class will fall short of expectations.
It may not be one of the expected superstars above, but someone will underachieve. We won't truly know who until March, when we sift through the results of a season's work.
Can Anyone Play Defense Anymore?
Defending national champion Louisville's first exhibition game against Kentucky Wesleyan seemingly went on forever. Over two-and-a-half hours, 64 fouls were called and five Wesleyan players were disqualified. According to Mike Riley of NewsandTribune.com, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino simply shrugged afterward and said, "That is the way it's going to be called now."
The NCAA is educating coaches and officials on new rule changes for the 2013-14 season. The changes include crackdowns on hand-checking and a modification of the block/charge rule, and the intent is to open up the court for offenses to score more points.
Last season, scoring reached its lowest point since the early 1950s. The game's cumulative three-point percentage was the worst since the line was introduced in 1986. Teams shot fewer than 20 free throws per game (19.76) for only the fifth season in recorded history.
At least one of those statistics should be set to change.
Kansas coach Bill Self is a cautious critic of the new rules, telling ESPN, "More free throws doesn't make the game better."
Consistency will be a concern, because college officials—all 838(!) of them—are independent contractors not under the jurisdiction of any specific coordinator. Leagues known for physical defensive play, such as the Big Ten, may proceed with business as usual or watch their games deteriorate into endless slogs to the foul line.
The new rules may indeed open up the game and make scoring easier, but it will take time. Meanwhile, defenses will find themselves weighing the risks of gambling for steals.
Per Eric Prisbell of USA Today, Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger's glass is already half-empty: "Tons of fouls, a lot of free throws, long, ugly games. Hopefully fans can prepare for that. It is going to be frustrating."
Which New Coaches Will Succeed Quickly?
Many of the new bench bosses will never be heard from again until they migrate from the "new" column to the "former" column in the annual offseason coaching carousel recaps. A few, however, have the pieces in place to succeed, and among those who don't, there are forceful enough personalities to swim upstream and still make progress.
New Mexico returns most of last season's Mountain West championship team, and the players got their wish when veteran assistant Craig Neal was tapped to replace Steve Alford.
Richard Pitino (pictured) parlayed one winning season at Florida International—a feat that should not be downplayed, mind you—into a Big Ten job at Minnesota. If he can generate enough excitement to get his new school to put shovels in the ground on shiny new practice facilities, he'll be affecting change that former NCAA champion Tubby Smith could never provoke.
Dunk City architect Andy Enfield heads from Florida Gulf Coast to the West Coast to coach USC, where his go-go style will play well in cosmopolitan Los Angeles.
Rutgers brought back former hero Eddie Jordan, who took the school to its lone Final Four in 1976. His best feature? He's not Mike Rice. When the Scarlet Knights move to the Big Ten next season, Jordan won't just be swimming upstream, he'll be trying to climb Niagara Falls.
Even Northwestern is showing signs of life under new boss Chris Collins, securing the signature of 2014 top-75 prospect Vic Law.
Watch some of those spaces, because the new men in the big offices may be equipped to make power moves sooner rather than later.
Which Top Programs Need a Coaching Change?
As for the 2014 coaching merry-go-round, another 50 changes seems about right. A few major programs may be in that mix.
Rick Barnes carried on the good work of Tom Penders, who made Texas basketball something worth watching. This was after it spent most of its existence as an afterthought behind Longhorn football, spring football, football recruiting, baseball and everything else short of ice hockey. And yes, Texas has an intramural ice hockey team.
After missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since Penders' final season in 1998, questions are being raised about Barnes. Recruiting misses and losses pile up in direct proportion to each other, meaning a mostly solid resume is being besmirched daily.
Other schools like Stanford, Oregon State and Wake Forest don't have the recent pedigree of Texas, but fans and administrations want that changed immediately. Getting Wake coach Jeff Bzdelik fired has its own website dedicated to the cause. "Fire (OSU coach) Craig Robinson" has its own Facebook group.
It's March Madness or bust for several coaches around the nation. And if Bzdelik survives another 10-win season, Winston-Salem may just implode.
Will Henderson and Hairston Make It Through the Year?
One's previously done 25 days in jail, the other has ties to a man who's been convicted of felonies, but avoided time. Both Marshall Henderson of Ole Miss and North Carolina's P.J. Hairston had offseasons they'd love to forget.
Both will begin the season by missing some time.
Henderson is suspended for three games, but they're not all against the nonconference cupcakes. He'll miss Friday's opener against Troy, but he'll also sit for the first two SEC games in January. (Those are, however, against conference cupcakes Auburn and Mississippi State.)
The Associated Press (via the Houston Chronicle) reported that UNC coach Roy Williams plans to sit Hairston for "games"—plural—and that a decision would come before the season opener against Oakland. That's now less than two days away.
Both have tested their coaches' and schools' tolerances with questionable decision-making, and it may not be hyperbole to expect that one more legal entanglement will end either man's career.
There are 21 "White Girl Wednesdays" between the season opener and the Final Four, in case you're keeping score.
Is Harvard a Sweet 16 Team?
Harvard is listed at No. 22 in The Back Iron's top 25 poll. A team that sent ex-New Mexico coach Steve Alford skulking off to UCLA with a loss in the round of 64 returns nearly everyone. Plus, it adds a pair of former All-Ivy League performers who withdrew from school last season after being implicated in an academic cheating scandal.
The prodigal duo—forward Kyle Casey and point guard Brandyn Curry—were the Crimson's best players in 2011-12, when Harvard went 26-5 and made its first NCAA tournament since 1946. Curry will coexist with rising sophomore star Siyani Chambers, who only became the first freshman in Ivy League history to be named first-team all-conference.
Casey will join a frontcourt rotation featuring juniors Jonah Travis, Kenyatta Smith and Steve Moundou-Missi, who combined for 20 points and 15 rebounds per game last season.
Plus, there's Laurent Rivard, who shoots three-pointers at a 40 percent clip, and stat-sheet stuffer Wesley Saunders, who carded 16.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game as a sophomore.
Coach Tommy Amaker has a roster that could contend for an at-large bid if it played in the Big East. Nonconference foes like Colorado, Denver, Boston College and UConn will need to bring maximum effort to their meetings with the Crimson.
American vs. Big East: Who Ya Got?
The American Athletic Conference and the "new" Big East resemble a divorced couple trying to get on with their separate lives while living in the same apartment building. Occasionally, you're bound to run into each other in the laundry room.
Deciding which conference will have the better season depends on your perspective. Do you prefer a conference that may send seven teams to the NCAA tournament, even if none get past the Sweet 16? Or are you more into a league that could send four teams to March Madness with two or three being Final Four candidates?
In the long term, the outlook is much rosier for the Big East, which has a stable membership for the time being. Next year, the AAC will lose 2013 national champion Louisville to the ACC and likely doormat Rutgers to the Big Ten. It will attempt to replace those schools with Tulsa, Tulane and East Carolina.
Those replacements for Louisville should fare about as well as the guy who tried to fill Peter Weller's Robocop suit.
Is the Pac Back?
The 2011-12 season was a dark one for the newly expanded Pac-12. Only two teams made the NCAA tournament, and regular-season champion Washington was not one of them.
Last season looked much better, with the conference earning five bids and sending two teams to the Sweet 16.
Heading into 2013-14, the respect level has returned to pre-expansion levels, as seven Pac-12 schools received votes in the Associated Press' preseason Top 25. The league appears to sport anywhere from five to eight potential tournament teams.
Oregon returns a talented young backcourt and adds three proven transfers. Arizona adds McDonald's All-American MVP Aaron Gordon to last season's skilled freshmen frontcourt players, plus Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell gives the Wildcats their first true pass-first point guard of Sean Miller's tenure.
UCLA and Colorado appear equipped to carry on without all-conference players Shabazz Muhammad and Andre Roberson. Arizona State is building a solid nucleus around All-American point guard Jahii Carson, and Stanford returns most of the nucleus that won the NIT two years ago. Washington and Cal can thrive if touted freshmen Nigel Williams-Goss and Jabari Bird start their careers quickly.
While the mainstream media swoons over the addition of Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame to the ACC, it's highly possible the Pac-12 will send just as many teams to the Big Dance. Not that most of the country will be awake late enough to watch them.
Will the ACC Dominate Selection Sunday?
As mentioned just a moment ago, the ACC expanded with three of the top programs from the Big East. Adding Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame to the existing nucleus led by Tobacco Road titans Duke and North Carolina, plus a handful of other up-and-coming programs, is a recipe for what could be the best conference ever.
According to Kevin Gorman of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, at ACC media day, commissioner John Swofford said, "This may be the strongest collection of basketball programs ever assembled in one conference—and that is exciting.”
Five ACC teams ranked in the AP Top 25, with another pair drawing votes. Defending conference champion Miami was picked 12th out of the 15 teams in the league's preseason predictions.
Duke, Syracuse and North Carolina can all be considered legitimate Final Four contenders. More sleepers can be found in a deep pool, including Notre Dame, Virginia, Boston College, Pitt, Maryland, NC State and Georgia Tech. The Big East refugees will feel right at home in an NCAA tournament that could include up to nine conference members.
Oh, and Louisville arrives next season. If there were ever a league that would threaten to hog all of the Final Four spots to itself, it'll be the 2014-15 ACC.
Does the Championship Stay in the Commonwealth?
The national championship has spent the past two seasons in the state (excuse me, the Commonwealth) of Kentucky. Two of the AP's top three teams are those national championship schools, even though one crashed out in the first round of the NIT last year.
Louisville's largest question still swirls around junior college point guard Chris Jones' ability to replace the leadership of the departed Peyton Siva. Jones isn't sweating it, though. At the Cardinals' media day before the Red-White scrimmage, he gave the Louisville Courier-Journal a succinct comparison of his game and Siva's:
“I can score more from outside. I can pass the same as him. He’s quicker than me, but we’re the same (speed). I can score better. I shoot better. I can do more stuff on the offensive end and the defensive end than I think he did. ... Really, I don’t have holes in my game.”
The Wildcats' largest advantage is that they are, in fact, large. Jones and All-American shooting guard Russ Smith both measure 6'0" if we're being generous. Meanwhile, UK counters with 6'6" twin titans Andrew and Aaron Harrison, along with similarly built wing James Young.
In the post, Wildcat sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein and freshman Dakari Johnson both stand 7'0", a major advantage over Cardinals post trio Montrezl Harrell (6'8"), Stephan Van Treese (6'9") and the currently suspended Chane Behanan (6'6").
Louisville's been in the spotlight and come out large, winning 16 straight games to end last season. Kentucky seniors Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood are the only scholarship 'Cats with any positive postseason experience.
The December 28 showdown at Rupp Arena could be a prelude to a later title fight. The in-state rivals met at the 2012 Final Four, and we shouldn't be surprised to see it happen again.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron. Now playing: TBI's official Top 25 ballot.