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.
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 decision.
Cincinnati had turned the ball over 13 or more times in six games through Feb. 6, but had won all six. Surprisingly, that included a victory at Louisville. Since Feb. 8, however, the Bearcats have suffered three rough losses, averaging 17.3 giveaways per game. They cannot afford games like that against any NCAA tournament opponent unless star shooting guard Sean Kilpatrick is getting a lot of support.
North Carolina: Foul Shooting Is 90 Percent Half Mental
Anyone can hit their free throws in practice. Just ask North Carolina coach Roy Williams.
Williams estimates that his players sink approximately 80 percent of the shots they attempt in practice. In games, however, the Tar Heels make a mere 62.1 percent, among the 10 worst figures in America.
“I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I’m not the dumbest either," Williams said after last weekend's victory over Virginia Tech, as reported by Andrew Carter of the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer. "If you can fix it, I would have already fixed the thing.”
“In practice, everybody shoots just fine,” said forward J.P. Tokoto, who is shooting 51.1 percent on the season. “It’s just the game, I guess. And like I’ve said, it’s just the mental aspect of it.”
The three most recent wins in UNC's 12-game streak have come against ACC minnows NC State, Virginia Tech and Notre Dame. Combined victory margin: seven points. North Carolina's free-throw success: 52.1 percent. These issues are related, but whatever you do, don't offer Coach Williams advice on making things better.
“We’ve gotten a lot of people saying, ‘Oh, well I can do that,’” he said. “Well, they can’t do it in front of 21,750 people and a few million watching on TV. So I just ignore them.”
Creighton: Sometimes There's a Good Reason Not to Play Defense
Creighton's offense borders on juggernaut level, recording the highest adjusted efficiency figure (124.9 points per 100 possessions) in the history of KenPom.com.
Its defense, not so much. The Bluejays surrender more than a point per possession and carry a triple-digit national ranking for a reason. Creighton's rotation features only one player bigger than 6'8" and 225 pounds. That size disadvantage is difficult to counteract on defense, but it comes in handy when the offense needs to spread the floor.
It's difficult for star forward Doug McDermott to be a major factor on the defensive end, because any foul trouble he encounters will hobble the offense. McDermott accounts for 32 percent of Creighton's points.
In the Jays' six losses this season, McDermott has scored at least 20 points five times and shot 50 percent or better four times. The defeats are more a function of a lack of support than any failing on McDermott's part.
Opponents with skilled forwards would be well served to take the ball right at McDermott and force the All-American to make stops. Otherwise, it's a race to 80 points, and the Jays are well-equipped to get there in a hurry, usually three points at a time.
Michigan: John Beilein Is Among the Nation's Elite Coaches
Michigan was supposed to be good this season, but Big Ten champion good?
Coach John Beilein's offense wasn't expected to be as good without national Player of the Year Trey Burke running it, but nearly every metric Pomeroy tracks has improved this season.
As if the success of the offense isn't impressive enough through the raw numbers, the results speak for themselves just as loudly. The Wolverines have claimed a rare trifecta of road wins at Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin en route to their 14-3 conference record, beating those three tournament-quality teams by a combined 22 points.
It takes superb preparation to win on the road in any conference, let alone against the elite of the always rugged Big Ten. Beilein should be a shoo-in for Big Ten Coach of the Year, and votes for the national honor wouldn't be wasted on him, either.
Louisville: College Basketball's Wildman Can Be Tamed
Louisville point guard Russ Smith has evolved over the past year to make his game fit that title. His NBA prospects hinged on whether he could become a playmaker who created for others, rather than a scorer who focused on getting his own look on every possession.
"The pros want to see a different Russ," Cardinals coach Rick Pitino said last April, per Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated. "They want to see ten more pounds of muscle. They want to see better shot selection, a higher assist-turnover ratio."
Smith is still a slight 165 pounds and will likely never weigh much more. As for the other two mandates, check and check. His field-goal percentage has risen five points from last season, and his three-point success rate has gone up nearly seven to a highly respectable 39.6.
His assist percentage has risen 10 points, per StatSheet.com, and that assist-to-turnover ratio is up from 1.1 to 1.7. Smith's become much more of a creator, and he's happy about it. As he told CBS Sports' Jeff Borzello:
"I'm efficient, I'm getting guys the ball, I'm averaging five assists, having the best assist-to-turnover ratio of my life. I'm good. I could care less about who they think is better than me. Guys have to do more on other teams, I have to do less. All I have to do put guys in the position to do good, and that's what I'm doing."
Smith may be a marginal pro prospect according to executives Mannix talked to for SI, but his Cardinal contributions will be absolutely pivotal until his final buzzer.
San Diego State: Winston Shepard's Growing Up
"Bust" alarms were sounding midway through Winston Shepard's freshman season at San Diego State. As U-T San Diego's Mark Ziegler detailed, Shepard arrived as a top-25 Rivals.com prospect and ended the season as a sulking malcontent who struggled through a lack of playing time, his own battered ego, an NCAA suspension and a citation for marijuana possession on campus.
After a soul-searching offseason, Shepard has returned a changed man and better player, more than doubling his scoring average, shooting five points better and becoming a consistent double-digit scorer. He put up only six double-figure games as a freshman, but he's done it 22 times so far this year.
Shepard's most recent success came in crunch time of a rare Aztec win at UNLV. Seven of his 13 points came in the game's final 2:34, including a key three-pointer that made the game a two-possession affair. The triple was only his sixth of the season.
Shepard's body language is better, his practice disposition has improved, and he's become one of coach Steve Fisher's more reliable options on the court.
“Some time went by and I got older and more mature," Shepard told Ziegler. "I’m not perfect. But I know I’ve got a lot better since last year." If the Aztecs are to make the deep tournament run their ranking suggests they're capable of, Shepard will need to keep producing in the clutch just like he did in Vegas.
Wisconsin: More Than Just Defense
In 11 of the past 12 seasons, Wisconsin's defense has ranked among Pomeroy's top 60 nationwide. Six of those 11 finished in the top 20. While the offense was similarly efficient, with five top-20 rankings, it was often the end of the floor where UW came up short in the postseason.
All 12 of coach Bo Ryan's Badger teams have reached the NCAA tournament but have bowed out with some ignominious whimpers. Wisconsin has averaged a mere 60.9 points in its tournament defeats, only one of which occurred in the Elite Eight.
This year's Badgers have shown the ability to get up and down the court when needed, scoring 75 or more points 15 times this season. The 2010-11 team boasted Ryan's most efficient offense, but it only scored 75-plus on 11 occasions. And it lost to eighth-seeded Butler in the Sweet 16.
The 2013-14 UW team is posting some uncharacteristic offensive figures across the board. Here is where this year's club ranks among Ryan's teams since 2003:
These Badgers may not be quite as prone to getting run out of the gym as past incarnations have been. Three of Ryan's last seven teams have failed to play up to their tournament seeding, but this one may be equipped to avoid that fate—even if it shows up on the bracket with a "No. 1" beside its name.
Kansas: Don't Bet Against Self
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Kansas' string of 10 straight Big 12 regular-season titles is this: Three of those championships were achieved after coach Bill Self was forced to replace the prior season's entire starting lineup.
Like the 2005-06 team, this year's Jayhawks rolled to the title with three freshmen in the starting lineup, although Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush and Julian Wright combined didn't generate the sheer avalanche of hype that followed Andrew Wiggins to Lawrence.
This season's performance may be Self's best, despite Sports Illustrated's Brian Hamilton stumping for the 2008-09 club. While that season's recruiting class boasted future pros like the Morris twins and Tyshawn Taylor, this season's class featured three of RSCI's top 16 prospects, and veterans and newcomers alike knew they'd need to coalesce around Wiggins.
Oklahoma State brought back plenty of star quality in Marcus Smart, Markel Brown and Le'Bryan Nash, spurring predictions that the Cowboys would be able to end KU's streak. Injuries and misconduct caused the Pokes to stumble their way through the conference season, while Kansas simply hummed along, losing only three league games—all on the road and by a total of 22 points.
Bill Self offered another exhibit this season to show us that he kinda knows what he's doing. Don't put your money down on the Big 12 title anytime soon, because Kansas won't get you very good odds, and we're unlikely to see a Jayhawk collapse coming until it actually happens.
Syracuse: Teams Can Only Survive so Many Close Games
Close wins against solid opposition can galvanize a team and prepare it for anything a tournament setting can throw at it.
But what about close home wins against the likes of Miami and Notre Dame, never mind home losses to Boston College and Georgia Tech?
Syracuse has dropped four of its last five games, including the aforementioned home flops. Before that string, the Orange survived a last-second win against Pitt and a mental choke-job by NC State.
While the nation sounds the alarm, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim isn't doing much panicking at all. After the Boston College loss ended the Orange's unbeaten run, Boeheim told the Syracuse Post-Standard's Chris Carlson, "You're just not going to win all these games. I'm not sure exactly how we've won some of the games we've won."
Four of SU's past six wins have been by a single possession. Injuries have mounted. Shooting guard Trevor Cooney has made only seven of 37 three-pointers in the past five outings. For those more metaphysically inclined, luck simply runs out.
If Jerami Grant's back heals and Cooney's shooting eye returns, the Orange are still very much a Final Four threat. After all, last year's team ended the regular season on a 1-4 skid itself.
And for those orange-blooded believers in karma, maybe the basketball gods have taken their pound of flesh now.
Villanova: Some Players Need Those Four Years
When James Bell came to Villanova, he was a top-70 RSCI recruit, the kind of guy who wasn't expected to be an early-entry pro, but the potential was there. He was ranked ahead of names like Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb of UConn, Cal's Allen Crabbe, Syracuse's C.J. Fair and New Mexico center Alex Kirk, to lend some perspective.
Injuries plagued him starting in high school, and the issues lingered into his first two seasons at Villanova. This year, with a clean bill of health, he'd be a leading candidate for Big East Player of the Year if only the league hadn't invited that McDermott guy and Creighton. Bell is averaging 15.1 PPG and shooting almost 40 percent from the arc.
Both Bell and his team needed that time for him to grow into the veteran presence VU needs to make a tournament run worthy of its national ranking.
“I’ve been here four years, and seen it all and I have the coaching staff and coach’s confidence,” Bell said to Mike Angelina of PhilaHoops.com. “It just allows me to explain that to the team. They look at me as the older brother, and I take that role. Everything is on me, good or bad, and I think they respect me for that and it makes us a better team.”
Bell still has some pro potential in him, even if scouts currently view him as a bench shooter. Tyler Ricky Tynes of Villanova blog VU Hoops quoted an NBA executive as saying, "He has made a case for himself with his shooting...in this league, you only need one team to like you."
Bell may not have been a guy who expected to leave early, but a lot of incoming freshmen do carry that mentality. If some schools paid more attention to recruiting high-character four-year players instead of hoarding McDonald's All-Americans (those schools know who they are), their fortunes might be just a bit less volatile.
Virginia: Splashy Recruits May Be Overrated
Speaking of four-year character guys, observe what Tony Bennett has built at Virginia. Among the current Cavaliers, only four guys were RSCI top 100 prospects. None were ranked higher than forward Justin Anderson, who clocked in at No. 48 in 2012.
Bennett has claimed an ACC championship over schools like North Carolina and Duke, who collect McDonald's All-Americans like most of us go through that world-famous chain's cheeseburgers. Despite the lack of notoriety trailing Bennett's recruits out of high school, Virginia's eight-deep rotation still boasts five underclassmen, four of whom average at least 6.8 PPG.
Seniors Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell are the only players left from Bennett's original six-man recruiting class, and their loyalty resonates with the coach. "There's nothing more gratifying for me than to see the players who have stuck with it get to see that and be part of turning something around," Bennett told USA Today's Nicole Auerbach. "I'm very thankful they're experiencing it."
The players appreciate what they've got in Charlottesville, even if the mainstream media were slow on the uptake. "We’re overlooked because we don’t play the flashy game with the highlights on ESPN," sophomore guard Malcolm Brogdon said to ESPN.com's Anna Katherine Clemmons. "But that’s not really a bad thing."
Players learn to check their egos when they walk through Tony Bennett's door, knowing they're unlikely to score 20 PPG and that they're joining a team that wins with defense. It's not a system for everybody in the entitled AAU culture. But Bennett's proving to the nation at large that not every team needs to cater to coddled superstars to win and win big.
Duke: Sometimes the Freshman Wall Comes Early
Over Duke freshman Jabari Parker's first four ACC games, fans didn't recognize the guy who had dazzled with 27 points and nine rebounds against Kansas or 23 and 10 in a win over UCLA. This new Parker stumbled his way to 10.5 PPG on 30 percent shooting. He settled for jumpers rather than attacking the basket and got foes in foul trouble.
Sports Illustrated's Jeff Benedict chronicled the early days of Parker's career in which those first four ACC games read like a player hitting the freshman wall. Not in a physical sense, but more in the shape of a mental block. Parker came off as a player concerned about his teammates perceiving him as selfish.
Since those first four conference tilts, Parker has put up a solid 18.8 PPG on 47.7 percent shooting. Over the 13 games, he's hoisted 29 three-pointers, or one fewer than he put up in his first nine non-conference games. Utilizing his body much more, Parker has become much more of an interior scoring threat, as well as working the glass like a beast. He's pulled 10 or more rebounds in nine of his last 12 games.
Physically, Parker looks no more tired than one might expect from a guy whose team was forced to play four games in eight days. If he and his teammates stay fired up during the postseason gauntlet, opponents will face a stiff test slowing Duke's arsenal of offensive weapons.
But if you're a fan banking on Parker running out of gas, that wall may have already been demolished.
Arizona: Sean Miller Undersold His Backcourt
Sometimes, even the most defense-oriented coach has to make concessions to field a team that can put points on the board. Arizona coach Sean Miller initially tightened up the D after forward Brandon Ashley went down with a broken foot, starting junkyard-dog forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson in Ashley's spot.
In Hollis-Jefferson's three starts, the Wildcats averaged only 70.7 PPG, winning two games before losing 69-66 to in-state rival Arizona State. After that, Miller changed up his starting five, inserting guard Gabe York to generate more shooting.
It's worked. York has drilled 12 of 26 threes in the Cats' last five games, averaging 9.2 points for a team scoring 79 per night. UA scored 88 in a win at Colorado and 87 four days later against Cal. York didn't score much in either game, but his 10 rebounds against the Buffaloes and his five rebounds and five assists against Cal showed an improving player learning how to impact a game without shooting.
Point guard T.J. McConnell has embraced the aggression on both ends, dropping 6.8 assists and 2.6 steals per game in the last five. Freshman Elliott Pitts started picking up some minutes in relief of York, and he knocked down four threes in three games.
Dragging defenses out to the perimeter has made life easier for bigs Aaron Gordon and Kaleb Tarczewski, not to mention the games being more aesthetically pleasing for fans who like seeing points on the board.
For fans wondering where this kind of production was through three months, it's possible that not even Miller knew. "We have a more clear direction of what our team needs to be the best we can," Miller said after the Colorado win, per The Sporting News. "I believe we still can get better. We haven’t had a lot of time without Brandon, and the more time we have the more sure of ourselves I think we become.”
Wichita State: Some People Are Never Satisfied
Wichita State is just as polarizing as Gonzaga was last season. Both teams crushed most—or in the Shockers' case, all—of the opposition in front of them, but said opposition wasn't up to snuff, according to strength-of-schedule numbers or armchair skeptics.
Gonzaga's haters were proven right when the Bulldogs were dropped in the round of 32 by, of all teams, Wichita State en route to the Final Four. Anti-Shocker pundits accredited and otherwise anticipate another flameout by WSU. Wichita Eagle columnist Bob Lutz memorably took CBS Sports analyst/card-carrying skeptic Doug Gottlieb to the woodshed here, via The Kansas City Star.
No college basketball team has ever run through a 30-0 regular season. UNLV stood 34-0 when it reached the 1991 Final Four. St. Joseph's was only 27-0 when it fell in its 2004 Atlantic 10 tournament opener.
WSU's schedule currently ranks 135th in the nation, according to Pomeroy. Of the teams whose schedules ranked 135th in each season of KenPom.com's history, only 2007-08 Kent State made the NCAA tournament. Five of the other 11 finished with losing records. Needless to say, nobody went undefeated, even through those easy schedules.
Undefeated is undefeated, whether it's done in the Missouri Valley, Big West or Big Ten. There's not much Wichita State can do about all of the schools that refuse to play them. It's hard for a Final Four school from a mid-major conference to find big games, especially when it brings back most of its starters from said Final Four team.
If WSU doesn't get back to the Final Four, it still has 30-0 to cement its place in the record books. The Shockers are very capable of getting there, but the burden of proof will be enormous. The chorus of "I told you so" from skeptics will be deafening if State falls short, but the silence will be equally so if it doesn't.
Florida: A Career Can Come Back from the Brink
Florida was bringing noted studs Jacob Kurtz and Dillon Graham off the bench in its opener, while the real story surrounded the guys who weren't playing. Dorian Finney-Smith was suspended. Fellow forward Will Yeguete was still recovering from an offseason surgery. Freshman Chris Walker was stuck in NCAA purgatory as his transcripts were scrutinized.
Perhaps most difficult was the suspension of senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, whose career was in serious jeopardy. After all, this was the second straight season he'd spent the opening games in street clothes.
Wilbekin missed the first five games of the season, but returned to service with coach Billy Donovan calling it "his last chance," as reported by the Florida Alligator. He ranks in the SEC's top six in both assists and steals while scoring 12.9 PPG.
A six-game stretch in February saw Wilbekin hit a major groove, averaging 18.7 points and 4.3 assists, shooting 41.5 percent from the floor and 82.7 from the foul line. Wilbekin has always been among the nation's fiercest perimeter defenders, but he's often been a non-factor offensively. This season, not so much.
Skeptics will always question a player's sincerity when he returns from a suspension with a promise that he's changed. For Wilbekin, that doesn't appear to be possible. His college career survived a near-death experience, he knows it, and he's playing like a man who wants to go out on his terms, not anyone else's.
In this game, that usually involves hoisting a trophy on the first Monday in April, a possibility that now seems closer than ever for the Gators.
For more from Scott on college basketball, including links to his new podcast, check out The Back Iron.
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