The Biggest Lesson Learned About Each Top 25 NCAA Basketball Team in 2013-14
When we're making our preseason college basketball predictions, we think we know the teams and players we're projecting. We try to find our favorite breakout candidates, overhyped stars with bust potential and teams that'll come out of the woodwork to succeed.
And sometimes, the players and teams show us something different.
This week's Associated Press Top 25 teams have each shown us something over the course of the past three months. Some are reinforcing widely held truths, some have been major revelations, and some have just made us scratch our heads.
These lessons and storylines have all made the smart fan pay attention to teams nowhere near his or her geographic area, and when that happens, it's good for the game.
Stats and rankings accurate through games of March 5. All KenPom.com links should be assumed to require subscription.
Kentucky: Accountability Applies to Coaches Too, Not Just Players
John Calipari looks angry in this picture, doesn't he? That was a steadily recurring condition during Kentucky's loss to South Carolina, and the anger boiled over into an ejection with 10 minutes left.
Calipari has denied that the ejection was a motivational gambit, but his team did rally from 16 points down and cut the lead to one before succumbing. The ejection seemed to galvanize the Wildcats in a way that no amount of foot-stomping and screaming could.
Where Coach Cal fell short of his obligation was in failing to appear at the postgame press conference, sending assistant John Robic in his stead. Yahoo's Pat Forde authored a scathing indictment of Calipari for skipping out on the media, calling him on every grandiose statement he made over the course of the season to stoke outsized expectations in Big Blue Nation.
As the new week dawned, accountability became a theme. In a Monday press conference reported on by the Louisville Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker, Calipari said, "One thing I know being a coach: If you don’t hold guys accountable, you lose your team." Meanwhile, Calipari's critics wonder where the accountability lies for the coach who didn't bother to face reporters after an embarrassing loss.
Those who love seeing coach and program squirm are enjoying the state of things in Lexington right now. Meanwhile, Kentucky fans are busy finding other uses for their "40-0" T-shirts.
Iowa: Marble Chases Awards...And That's OK
In a climate where we still expect players to give blood, sweat and tears for little more than the good of the team, it's almost refreshing to hear a player admit he's motivated by the chase for individual honors.
Iowa's Roy Devyn Marble wasn't named to the preseason All-Big Ten team, a snub which seems daft with the benefit of hindsight. He freely admits it has stoked his competitive fire this season.
“Of course (it fuels me),” Marble said to the Cedar Rapids Gazette's Scott Dochterman. “People felt there were a lot of people better than me coming into the season."
In the offseason, Marble set first-team All-Big Ten as a goal. That motivation has carried him through a strong season of 17.1 points per game. “I feel like I’m the best player in this conference," Marble told Gazette columnist Mike Hlas.
Marble's load is heavy on an Iowa team that asks him to play three different positions and guard the opponent's most dangerous scorer. He handily outscored Michigan's Nik Stauskas 26-10 in their most recent meeting, with a similar 21-9 result in his matchup with Michigan State's Gary Harris.
Marble may not win the Big Ten Player of the Year honor, but he's almost certain to be named to that all-conference first team. That's an honor that his father Roy—Iowa's all-time leading scorer—never managed to attain.
Oklahoma: Lon Kruger Doesn't Get Proper Respect
When this season began, the top three scorers were gone from last year's Oklahoma roster, and coach Lon Kruger was left to sculpt the remaining pieces. A mid-table finish was predicted in the Big 12 standings, due to a young rotation with only three upperclassmen.
The Sooners were unable to push for a conference title, but that group of underclassmen came together to form one of the nation's most exciting offenses, averaging over 82 points per game.
The run-and-gun approach is a departure from Kruger's typical defense-oriented style, but both coach and team have adjusted well. Sophomore forward Ryan Spangler—in his first year of action after transferring from Gonzaga—told the Kansas City Star's Kellis Robinett, "He’s such a good coach that you can’t help but work hard and play hard for him."
Last season's Sooners made Kruger the first coach to take five different schools to the NCAA tournament. (He's previously been there with Kansas State, Florida, Illinois and UNLV.) Needless to say, this season he'll become the first to reach the tournament multiple times with five different schools. Neither is a feat to sneeze at.
If Kruger can make a deep run or two while he's at Oklahoma, Hall of Fame support should begin to stir. That is, if it hasn't already.
Read more here: http://www.kansascity.com/2014/02/21/4840940/lon-kruger-up-to-usual-tournament.html#storylink=cpy
Michigan State: Even Injured Players' Struggles Can Be Contagious
You're all tired of reading about it, just the same as we're tired of writing about it, but none of that changes the dark cloud that has hovered over the Michigan State basketball team this season. Injuries have come on a too-frequent basis, and many have lingered long enough to more than wear out their welcome.
The latest long-term issue has plagued point guard Keith Appling, who's been back for four games after missing three with a wrist injury that's nagged him since December. The 13.2 PPG scorer has averaged only 3.5 since his return to the lineup, missing six of eight attempts at the foul line and only attempting 12 shots from the floor. That's a normal single game pre-injury.
The whole team acquitted itself poorly in losses to Nebraska and Illinois, shooting only 36.5 percent in the two games.
Appling admitted he's "babying" the wrist, according to the Detroit Free Press' Joe Rexrode. Coach Tom Izzo, for his part, has also conceded that he's considering greater minutes for backup Travis Trice if Appling can't shake that mental block.
Whatever it takes for the Spartans to reach maximum efficiency by tournament time, it needs to happen quickly.
New Mexico: Two Big Dogs Can Eat Together
New Mexico senior power forward Cameron Bairstow has broken out as a scorer, leading the Mountain West at 20.3 points per game. The Lobos had two players chosen to the Wooden Award's preseason watch list, and Bairstow wasn't one of them. That speaks volumes about how much of a breakout season Bairstow is enjoying.
Junior center Alex Kirk was one of those Wooden candidates, but he's largely deferred offensively. While Bairstow's getting his baskets on a rapidly expanding array of post moves, Kirk is making his bones on putbacks and the occasional three-pointer.
And he's OK with that.
"Every coach is going to say, 'Hey, this kid is the hardest worker in the country.' But they're lying," Kirk told the Associated Press (h/t Fox News). "Cameron Bairstow is the hardest worker and he's proving it right now."
The two combined for 53 points and 16 rebounds in a dominating win over Nevada. If they can produce similar games in March, Lobo fans can finally get the sour taste of last year's round-of-64 loss to Harvard out of their mouths.
Memphis: Josh Pastner Can Win a Big One Once in a While
Trailing by eight points in the final five minutes of an important American game against Louisville, Memphis coach Josh Pastner wasn't too concerned.
"I just told the guys that we're winning this game," Pastner told CBS Sports' Gary Parrish. His Tigers had plenty of reason to believe him. After all, they've dug out of several similar holes this season.
A nine-point deficit against Gonzaga, eight against LSU, six points in the final five minutes of the first round against the Cardinals: Memphis found a way to rally from each.
The Tigers' four senior guards provide the kind of veteran poise the program has lacked in recent seasons. Dotted by players leaving early for the NBA or simply getting dismissed, Memphis has sought something resembling this year's cohesion, even if that quality has been fleeting.
Memphis fans are prepared for a team to play in the NCAA tournament's second weekend, something that hasn't happened since John Calipari left five seasons ago. They'll get to assess these Tigers in a tournament setting up close and personal, as the American tournament will be played at the FedEx Forum.
And perhaps a Sweet 16 trip will help rehabilitate Pastner's reputation a bit. A guy who has a better career winning percentage than Bill Self, Jim Boeheim or Rick Pitino catches a lot of flak for not helping that percentage much in March. The "only March matters" crowd might have fewer stones to throw Pastner's way after this year's tournament.
UConn: Size Isn't Everything, but It Sure Helps
A 6'1" point guard leading your team in rebounding is a sign that you have an impressive point guard. It's also a sign that you have an anemic crop of big men.
UConn star Shabazz Napier pulls six rebounds in 35.8 minutes per game. Sophomore Phillip Nolan (6'10") and freshman Amida Brimah (7'0", pictured) combine for 5.7 in 29.2. The sensational all-around versatility reflected in Napier's stat line bolsters his case for All-American honors, but it certainly doesn't engender a ton of confidence in the Huskies' NCAA tournament prospects.
The Huskies have won the rebounding battle in only two of seven meetings with fellow American leaders Memphis, Louisville, SMU and Cincinnati. They carry a 3-4 record against those opponents, losing to SMU despite a 36-31 rebounding margin.
No team with Napier in tow can ever be counted out, as Florida found out on a now-classic buzzer-beating shot. Still, Napier's experience—which includes a national title as a freshman—can only do so much to make up for the inexperience the Huskies carry in the post. Players like Nolan and Brimah will be keys to any lengthy March run UConn hopes to make.
SMU: Players Produce When They Earn Their Spots
When Larry Brown took over at SMU, he was blunt with his message. If Brown didn't think a player was of the right caliber to win and win quickly, he sent that player packing. The cuts were controversial, but without them, Brown would have never landed the crop of transfers that now form the nucleus of SMU's first tournament team since 1993.
Point guard Nic Moore joined from Illinois State. Forward Markus Kennedy came in from Villanova. Forward Shawn Williams started his college career at Texas, while guard Nick Russell left Kansas State.
No one came in with guaranteed minutes or starting spots. Freshman Keith Frazier is a stark example of that. The first McDonald's All-American in SMU history, Frazier cited Brown's blunt style as a major reason he chose to become a Mustang.
“He told me: ‘We’re going to be good with or without you,’” Frazier said to the Washington Post's Kent Babb. “That kind of just humbled me, and maybe I can be part of something special. I was like, ‘Why not?’ I just figured I would take a chance.” Frazier plays 15 minutes per night and hasn't started a game, a situation that none of his McDonald's teammates can relate to, nor one that most would accept.
The discipline Brown has instilled in the group he's assembled, plus the fact that 10 players average at least 12 minutes per game, make SMU a team that nobody should want to play this month. The Mustangs have all had to work hard for their minutes, and they don't want to stop any time soon.
Saint Louis: Eventually You Have to Hit Shots
In Saint Louis' 12-0 start against Atlantic 10 foes, the Billikens posted a higher effective field-goal percentage than their opponents 10 times. Those percentages weren't always pretty (44.2 vs. Fordham, for example), but the opposition wasn't getting anything better.
Now, SLU is in the throes of a three-game losing streak that's put the conference title in some doubt. In those games, the Billikens have shot 41.8 percent from the floor. Not great, but not disturbingly bad, either. What's disturbing is the 24 percent St. Lou has made from beyond the arc.
The Billikens are in the bottom 100 nationwide in three-point percentage, according to KenPom, making them a scary team to put much faith in when the NCAA brackets are announced.
Living on defense has worked for SLU most of the season, with the team allowing only five opponents to shoot better than a 50 percent effective percentage. Strangely, four of those five games were against A-10 strugglers Duquesne and George Mason, and it was Duquesne that ended St. Louis' unbeaten streak.
Defense is wonderful and all, but the object of the game is to score points yourself. Three-point shooting has been a weakness all season long, and leaning on it too much has contributed to the losing streak.
Iowa State: Hoiberg Fills Holes Like a Golf Course Groundskeeper
Every year that Fred Hoiberg has been in charge at Iowa State, he's had to replace more than half of the scoring from the previous season's roster. All he's done in that span is win 84 games and reach two NCAA tournaments, soon to be three.
ISU's culture of second chances, epitomized by the abundance of transfers Hoiberg has welcomed from other Division I schools, has started a trend. Schools such as Oregon, George Washington and Villanova have been spurred to solid seasons by multiple transfers, while Arizona and Duke are led by prominent individual stars T.J. McConnell and Rodney Hood, respectively.
Ex-Marshall point guard DeAndre Kane and junior college forward Dustin Hogue represent a slow year on the transfer market for Hoiberg, in quantity if not quality. Kane is playing at an All-American level, while Hogue has been one of the Big 12's top newcomers.
Hoiberg's scouting and player personnel background during his time with the Minnesota Timberwolves has made him a keen judge of talent, but his judgment of character has proven most impressive.
Transfers are occasionally players who left their previous institutions under a cloud—Kane being a prime example—but of the 14 D-I and JUCO transfers Hoiberg has welcomed to Ames, none have proven difficult, and nearly all have been productive. Few coaches in America have proven as effective at rebuilding a program year to year as "The Mayor."
Cincinnati: Even Great Defenses Can't Survive the Offense's Turnovers
Cincinnati has seemingly had to fight and claw for every basket this season, but at least it's made its opponents do the same. In wins over Houston and UCF, the Bearcats committed a combined 10 turnovers. Over the following two games, Louisville and UConn forced a total of 33 turnovers, leading to 34 points. It should go without saying that Cincinnati lost the latter two games by a total of seven points.
Bearcat coach Mick Cronin was perceptibly angry after the UConn game. "There’s zero excuse in the world to turn the ball over 20 times against a team that doesn’t press when you have three senior starters," Cronin said in his postgame news conference, as reported by the Cincinnati Enquirer's Bill Koch.
Louisville and UConn both had terrible offensive games themselves, but UC gave plenty of gifts. The Huskies scored 20 points off of Cincinnati's 20 turnovers, a major deal in a six-point decisio