An Early Guide to the 2014-15 College Basketball Season: From A to Z
The calendar is about to turn to November, which means we've almost made it through the long offseason and college basketball is nearly back.
Practice began Oct. 3 and the first games are set for Nov. 14, with almost daily action until the championship game in Indianapolis next April. In between will no doubt be an endless supply of great games, highlight-reel players and individual performances that will go down in history books.
To help get you primed and ready for the 2014-15 season, we've put together an A-to-Z list of things to be aware of and look out for.
A Is for Atlantis
There are no shortages of preseason college basketball tournaments to help get us into the swing of the 2014-15 season, but none of them has nearly as good an overall field as the one that's going to be held inside a converted ballroom at an island resort in the Bahamas.
The Battle 4 Atlantis has quickly risen to the top of the invitational list since starting up in 2011 at the Atlantis Resort in Nassau. Two years ago the field took a big step forward in prominence with Duke and Louisville meeting in the final, and last season saw Villanova take out Iowa for the title after downing Kansas in the semifinals.
This year's field, though, is the best of the lot, as it features a pair of national semifinalists in Florida and Wisconsin as well as three other teams (North Carolina, Oklahoma and Wisconsin) that made the NCAA tournament. The field is rounded out by Butler, Georgetown and UAB.
First-round games are Nov. 27, with the championship set for Nov. 29.
B Is for Bruce
Bruce Pearl is quite colorful, and we're not just talking about the orange jacket he wore on the sidelines when coaching at Tennessee.
Pearl returned to the coaching ranks in March when he was hired by Auburn, despite the fact he was still serving a three-year show-cause penalty from the NCAA because of recruiting violations that ultimately led to his dismissal from Tennessee in 2011 after six seasons.
Pearl's hiring was one of the most notable during the offseason, and he's wasted little time trying to get Auburn's program back to a level of relevancy. The Tigers went 14-16 and finished 12th in the SEC last season under Tony Barbee, and they haven't had a winning record since 2009 or made the NCAA tourney since 2003.
Among the things Pearl has done since getting back into the game include jumping into a mosh pit of fans who greeted him shortly after the hire, making huge recruiting inroads both for this season and in the 2015 class and recently crashed a marketing class at Auburn as a way to draw interest to his team's Midnight Madness celebration on Oct. 30, which of course is called "Pearl Jam."
C Is for Connecticut (and Champions)
Connecticut is the reigning national champion, having gone on a magical run during last season's NCAA tournament to win its second title in four seasons. A few Huskies finished up their college careers with two rings, including star guard Shabazz Napier.
Now comes the next step for UConn, trying to defend that title.
UConn lost Napier, DeAndre Daniels and Niels Giffey from that team, but returns guard Ryan Boatright and center Amida Brimah and gets the use of guard Rodney Purvis after he sat out last season following his transfer from North Carolina State. The Huskies begin the season ranked 15th in the preseason coaches' poll, with Kevin Ollie back at the helm after flirting with the Los Angeles Lakers about their opening.
D Is for Double-Doubles
Guys who can score get a lot of publicity. Those who can rebound the ball effectively are also well-regarded, because they can either keep a possession going or help start a new one by grabbing a missed shot from the opponent.
But those who do both well? Those guys are a rare breed, especially when it comes to being able to average double digits in both key statistical categories.
Last season there were 70 players who managed at least 10 such double-doubles, with Kentucky freshman Julius Randle leading the nation with 24. Northeastern senior Scott Eatherton is the top returning double-double man, with 19, followed by Louisiana-Lafayette junior Shawn Long (18) and UCSB senior Alan Williams (16).
E Is for Effective Shooting Percentage (and Other Advanced Statistics)
To describe how good a player or team is in college basketball, it used to be common for writers and broadcasters to discuss scoring and rebounding averages as well as rank how they fared in other categories like turnovers, blocked shots and in terms of field-goal and free-throw percentages.
Now we have player efficiency, offensive and defensive win shares and effective and true shooting percentages. These fall under the umbrella of advanced statistics, metrics and data that are meant to dig deeper into a player or team's performance to see who truly is better than the other.
Stat gurus like Ken Pomeroy have helped pioneer these numbers, which are slowly filtering into articles written by mainstream college basketball writers and discussed on college hoops radio and TV shows. They're also starting to get a lot of recognition from coaches, with Kentucky's John Calipari hiring a director of statistical analytics to help understand what these advanced stats mean.
As a result, when reading about or watching a game this season you might hear mention that Northwestern State's Zikiteran Woodley shot 61.7 percent from the field as a freshman but in terms of effective field-goal percentage he was second in the country at .635.
F Is for Fans
Several hundred college basketball games will be shown on national television this season, and plenty of others will be shown on local TV or streamed online, making it very easy for fans to track teams from the comfort of their couches.
But nothing substitutes for experiencing the real thing, in person. And if you don't believe us, see how into the games the fans get when watching those games on TVs or laptops.
Not surprisingly, the most rabid of fans at games are the students, as most schools play their games on campus and have ample areas of seating reserved for students who work together to create a crazy environment that helps their team and attempts to distract the opponent.
Earlier this summer we ranked the best student sections in the country, with San Diego State's "The Show" (above) taking top honors. Check out the whole list here, then look for their antics on TV this season.
G Is for Gonzaga
Is this Gonzaga's year?
Ever since bursting onto the scene in the late 1990s, thanks to some deep NCAA tournament runs, Gonzaga has been considered the poster child for mid-major programs hoping to join the elite. What the Bulldogs have accomplished has enabled the likes of Butler, Virginia Commonwealth and Wichita State to become nationally known programs.
Yet while Gonzaga has made 16 straight NCAA tourneys, tied with Wisconsin for the fourth-longest active streak and the seventh-longest all time, its results in March have left something to be desired. It hasn't made it out of the opening weekend of the tourney since 2009, and when it was a No. 1 seed in 2013 it was knocked out in the third round by Wichita, a result that looked to symbolize the passing of the torch from the Bulldogs to the Shockers.
But with a loaded roster this season, bolstered by transfers from Kentucky (6'10" forward Kyle Wiltjer) and USC (6'4" guard Byron Wesley) as well as holdovers Kevin Pangos, Gary Bell and Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga is ranked 13th in the preseason coaches' poll. The Bulldogs' nonconference schedule will once again be loaded, featuring games against Arizona, Memphis, SMU and UCLA, giving us plenty of chances to see if this is the team that returns the program to the top of the mid-major power rankings.
H Is for Harrell
With the frequency in which the best players at the college level leave early to pursue a professional career, it's getting to the point that we've got to make the most of the stars when they're here since we don't know how long they'll be around.
Last year's NBA draft featured 28 players with eligibility remaining, including nine "one-and-done" freshmen. Projections for the 2015 draft paint a similar picture, as NBADraft.net predicts six of the first 18 players taken are current college freshmen.
With all that being said, when a player expected to jump to the pros early decides to stick around it should be lauded. That's why Louisville power forward Montrezl Harrell should be one of the most fun players to watch this season, as he was widely expected to leave the Cardinals after last season but chose to stick around for another year.
As a sophomore, the 6'8", 240-pound Harrell averaged 14 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting 60.9 percent from the field. And with Louisville trending younger due to the graduation of veteran guard Russ Smith, Harrell will be the team's focal point this season.
Expect a big year from this future NBA player, and enjoy it while it lasts.
I Is for Izzo
The lead-up to the 2014-15 college basketball season is a long one, as the Final Four was played in early April and was followed by a seven-month offseason. Action started ramping up on Oct. 3 when teams could start practicing, and since then many have put together elaborate "Midnight Madness" events to get fans hyped about the upcoming season.
We've listed some of the most notable happenings from those Midnight Madness celebrations here, but that published before Michigan State's Tom Izzo once again showed why he's one of the most devoted and committed coaches in the game.
Izzo, entering his 20th season with the Spartans, has developed a reputation of getting very into Midnight Madness. Past antics have included rappelling from the ceiling, getting shot out of a cannon and dressing as Iron Man, but he outdid himself on Friday when he came out dressed as a member of Kiss.
If only he could do that during games, too.
J Is for Job Security
Think being a college basketball coach is a swanky, cushy job, one with lots of stability? Think again.
Of the 351 Division I teams, 44 of them have new coaches this season. Another 48 have coaches in their second year on the job. And only 132 schools have coaches who been in their current position for five or more seasons.
This massive turnover is both a product of the increasing competitiveness in college hoops and coaches' desires to move up the ladder. A handful of coaches get fired, resign or retire each offseason (and sometimes during the season), but the frequent move by schools to hire an existing coach from another program sets into motion what's known as the coaching carousel.
To illustrate this, look at some of the more notable coaching changes this past spring. After Boston College fired Steve Donahue, it tabbed Ohio's Jim Christian as his replacement. Ohio responded by plucking Saul Phillips from North Dakota State, not long after he led the Bison to an upset of Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament.
Wake Forest parted ways with Jeff Bzdelik and hired Danny Manning from Tulsa, which then surprisingly landed Missouri's Frank Haith. And after Mike Montgomery retired from California, the school lured Cuonzo Martin away from Tennessee, which in turn snatched up Southern Mississippi's Donnie Tyndall.
The carousel went on so long that the last hire (Earl Grant to College of Charleston) didn't come on until early August. It was a wild ride, and we'll expect nothing less the next time it gets going.
K Is for Krzyzewski
The name isn't easy to spell—but that's what cutting and pasting is for—and not much easier to pronounce. But there are few names more recognizable in college basketball than Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke head coach who is the Division I all-time wins leader with 983.
At Duke since 1980, the 67-year-old Krzyzewski has won four national championships and made 11 Final Fours, reaching the NCAA tournament every season since 1996 and winning 30 or more games 13 times.
He's also produced dozens of NBA stars, and since 2006 has coached the U.S. men's national basketball team.
And don't feel bad if you have trouble saying or writing his name. Coach K works just fine.
L Is for Lucas Oil Stadium
The ultimate destination of every college basketball team is the Final Four, which this year will be played in Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on April 4 and 6. This will be the second time the Final Four is played there, also hosting the 2010 version that was won by Duke over local school Butler.
The site has hosted the Midwest Regional each of the previous two seasons, with Kentucky coming out there last year and eventual national champion Louisville winning in Indianapolis in 2013.
M Is for Marathon
The first official games of the 2014-15 season are set for Nov. 14, a Friday that features 157 games and is highlighted by a matchup between Louisville and Minnesota (coached by father Rick Pitino and son Richard Pitino, respectively) in Puerto Rico.
But the real action gets going on Nov. 17, when ESPN gives us college hoops junkies a nearly 30-hour fix of consecutive action during its seventh annual College Hoops Tip-Off Marathon.
Beginning at 7 p.m. ET on Nov. 17 with Florida hosting Miami (Florida) and ending with a pair of games set to tip at 9:30 p.m. ET on Nov. 18, in between there will be at least one game at all times shown on ESPN, ESPN2 or ESPNU. This includes games played in the middle of the night, such as St. Mary's hosting New Mexico State at 3 a.m. ET and Hawaii hosting High Point at 5 a.m.
Other notable games include Wichita State and Memphis facing off in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, San Diego State hosting Utah and the State Farm Champions Classic doubleheader in Indianapolis featuring Duke against Michigan State and Kansas against Kentucky.
N Is for NJIT
The New Jersey Institute of Technology's nickname is the Highlanders. It might as well be the Nomads, as they are the only Division I program not part of a conference and thus forced to play all over the country against whoever will have them.
NJIT has played at the Division I level in men's basketball since 2006, and spent a few years in the now-defunct Great West Conference before most of the teams in that league joined the Western Athletic Conference. Last year NJIT went 13-16 playing against teams from the Ivy League, Big East, Atlantic 10 and several other leagues.
This season the Highlanders open at St. John's, and also visit Marquette, Michigan and Villanova.
O Is for Oregon's Offseason
Though this piece is meant to be a look ahead to the 2014-15 season, we touch on a handful of incidents and issues that happened last year or during the offseason that could impact what goes on this upcoming year.
In the case of Oregon, its offseason was about as chaotic and tumultuous as any team has ever experienced.
Not long after the Ducks were knocked out by Wisconsin in the third round of the NCAA tournament, their roster almost ceased to exist because of graduation, transfers and the dismissal of three players implicated in an alleged sexual assault investigation. That trio included key contributors Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson, who along with Brandon Austin were not charged but were still booted from the team because their conduct was "not fitting of a University of Oregon athlete," Ducks athletic director Rob Mullens told GoDucks.com.
All told, Oregon saw 10 players from last year's team leave the program, with only one starter (Joseph Young) and three other players who combined to average just 9.1 points per game.
The Ducks were picked by Pac-12 Conference media to finish eighth this season.
P Is for Platoon
Too many cooks can spoil the broth, while too much talent can translate into playing time problems.
Nearly every Division I college basketball player was one of the better, if not the best, players on their high school or junior college teams. But once they sign and are on scholarship, the battle to get onto the court and be the star is much tougher.
Kentucky has been dealing with this on a near-annual basis since John Calipari came to Kentucky. The Wildcats routinely have one of the best recruiting classes each year, and as a result that collection of superstars have to learn to be part of a team instead of a group of individual standouts.
This has led to national titles, as well as teams flaming out and missing the NCAA tournament altogether.
Calipari's solution this year, when he has a roster that includes nine former McDonald's All-Americans, is a two-platoon system. The plan is to have two separate groups of five players work together in games, something that's never really been done before in the college game. It's an intriguing concept, and one that could become a trend if Kentucky's experiment produces great results.
Q Is for QJ Peterson
Some of the most memorable names in sports can simply be recalled by their initials, like MJ and OJ.
It's unlikely QJ Peterson will ever reach that level of notoriety, but by the time he's done in college he could end up being one of the most prolific scorers in Division I history.
As a true freshman last season, the 6'0" Peterson led VMI in scoring at 19 points per game. His 664 points were the second-most of any freshman in 2013-14, just six behind Duke phenom Jabari Parker, and only five players who had more points last season than Peterson return this fall.
VMI is a scoring machine, having led Division I at 88.3 points per game last season. The Keydets had three players average at least 18.9 points on a team that went 22-13, but Peterson is the only one returning. That means his production could go way up this season, and over a four-year career could give him a chance to finish high on the all-time scoring list.
His freshman year numbers would have him finish just outside the top 25, if he remained on the same pace. But former Creighton scorer Doug McDermott, who ended his career in March as the No. 5 scorer with 3,150 points, had only 584 as a freshman.
R Is for Realignment
There are 351 men's basketball teams in Division I, and they're spread across 32 conferences. Yet knowing where a school is located, or even consulting its past results, can't ensure you know what league they play in. Not with the realignment craze that began with football a few years ago and has completely reshaped the hoops landscape.
The latest batch of conference movement went into effect in July, and compared to other years wasn't that significant at the power-league level. Louisville moved from the American to the ACC, while Maryland (ACC) and Rutgers (American) jumped to the Big Ten.
The rest of the moves were at the mid- and low-major level, with 16 schools shifting around. Most won't matter to the casual fan when the NCAA tourney happens in March, since few of the schools that were on the move figure to be in the Big Dance anyways.
S Is for Storming the Court
When the home team gets a big win, the fans celebrate. In most cases, this involves clapping, cheering and shouting out well-wishes of praise to the players and coaches who just got the job done.
It also often involves those fans rushing onto the court to join in the players' celebration, turning what moments before had been a civilized event into chaos and mayhem.
Depending on who you talk to, there are unwritten rules for when it is appropriate to storm the court. According to Ty Duffy of USA Today's The Big Lead blog, the main criteria includes the rank of the losing team (as well as that of the winning one), whether it's a rivalry game and whether court-storming is a frequent occurrence for that team's fans. Exceptions include buzzer-beaters and, hilariously, beating Duke.
Last season we saw some rather odd court-stormings, such as when Clemson beat Belmont in the NIT quarterfinals. We also saw our first real glimpse of when things can go horribly wrong in an on-court celebration, as was the case in February when a fight broke out as fans rushed the court following Utah Valley's win over New Mexico State (see above).
T Is for Transfers
When college basketball players sign their national letter of intent, they're giving their pledge to play for a school for as many as five years and are awarded with a full-ride scholarship. Yet the situations don't always work out for players at the school they pick, which results in players transferring to other programs in hopes of a fresh start or a better opportunity.
This is a scenario that affects all college sports, but in men's basketball it's reached epidemic proportions. Just look at the exhaustive list that ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman has painstakingly compiled to try to track all of the transfers that happened during and after the 2013-14 season.
Whether it be a student-athlete who's graduated from one school and is taking advantage of the ability to go to another if his existing school doesn't offer a grad program that he wants, or players just searching for a better fit for their skills, transfers reached a fevered pitch this past offseason. Most of the players who switched schools won't be eligible in 2014-15, because of the NCAA rule requiring them to sit out a season, but many earned a waiver to be able to play right away or were able to do so because of the graduate transfer rule.
Some of the most impactful players this season will be ones who play for teams they didn't originally sign with out of high school. This includes Gonzaga's Byron Wesley (above), who transferred to the Bulldogs after leading USC in scoring in 2013-14.
U Is for Upsets
Like death and taxes, upsets are a guarantee in college basketball. And it's one of the many reasons we love this sport.
Even the best of the best get knocked off by a surprise opponent every once in a while, no matter how much of an advantage the favorite seemed to have on paper. Statistics and advanced metrics can't always account for the craziness that comes with college hoops, whether it be during an early-season nonconference game or in the thick of the league schedule.
Remember, Syracuse was 25-0 and No. 1 in the nation, playing at home against lowly Boston College in mid-February. When all was said and done, the 6-19 Eagles pulled off the shocking upset, which served as the beginning of a late-season tailspin for Syracuse that ended with a third-round departure from the NCAA tournament.
Speaking of the NCAA tourney, that's the most fertile breeding ground for upsets. If this wasn't the case, why would so many fans know that the most common lower seed to pull tourney upsets is the No. 12?
V Is for Virginia's Basketball Teams
The state of Virginia might not have the best overall collection of basketball teams in America, but it's up there. What the commonwealth does have going for it, though, is a lot of intrigue associated with its 14 Division I programs.
Well, really only with a few of them. But you get the drift.
Virginia was the surprise winner of the Atlantic Coast Conference last season, both the regular-season and conference tournament titles, and reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1995. Virginia Tech made one of the splashiest hires of the offseason, plucking Buzz Williams from Marquette to try to revitalize a program that hasn't made the NCAA tourney since 2007.
There's also VCU, home of Shaka Smart's "Havoc" defense, and let's not forget VMI, which led the nation in scoring last season at 88.3 points per game.
W Is for Wisconsin
With so many schools playing Division I basketball, it's hard to really declare one as America's team. Reddit went the opposite direction earlier this year, putting together a map of every state's most-hated college team, but when it comes to determining a favorite there's just too much diverse fandom to be accurate.
But if there's a team that might best identify with the casual college hoops fan, it might be Wisconsin. The Badgers ooze that blue-collar work ethic that is so representative of the American Midwest, and with a veteran team playing together rather than as individuals they reached their first Final Four since 2000 last year.
Wisconsin brings back four starters, including 7'0" center Frank Kaminsky, and will again be a force this season. And, not surprisingly, nearly every one of the Badgers' games will be on national television.
X Is for X-Factor
There are a lot of buzz words and cliches in sports, and college basketball is no different. As a way to help describe the action, and provide expert analysis, us writers and other media members often fall back on these common phrases to help explain things.
None is probably more sports-centric than X-factor, as vague a term as you'll ever find. What does it mean, exactly? That's up for debate, but what isn't debatable is that it's used all the time to try to evaluate which players and/or teams have an advantage in a future matchup.
Don't believe us? Then check out this exhaustive list from NBC Sports' Rob Dauster of the biggest X-factors that will impact the entire 2014-15 college basketball season.
Y Is for Youth
With very few exceptions, at some point this season nearly every Division I team is going to have its hopes rest on the play of a true freshman player.
Gone are the days of youngsters getting slowly worked into the rotation. Many teams will feature at least one freshman starter during 2014-15 as coaches become more and more reliant on inexperienced players to make up for the lack of veteran leadership. Early departures to the NBA, as well as player transfers and other factors, have made it so being a sophomore almost qualifies a player as a grizzled vet in college.
And the youthful talent is quite spread out, not just limited to a handful of power programs. Of the 22 players listed by 247Sports as being a 5-star prospect from the 2014 recruiting class (not including Emmanuel Mudiay, who opted to play overseas instead of playing for SMU), those future stars are spread across 14 different schools from seven different conferences.
A total of 64 schools landed at least one player rated as 4-star are better, and the vast majority of those should be key contributors in their first season of college.
Z Is for Zero Losses
The last time we had a team go unbeaten en route to an NCAA title was in 1976, when Indiana went 32-0.
Since then, there have been a few close calls—including Wichita State's 35-0 start last season before falling to Kentucky in the third round of the NCAA tournament—but because of the parity that has come to college basketball as well as the increase in games played, we may never see another one.
You'll hear talk of teams trying to go 40-0 this season, which would be the best possible record if a school played 31 regular-season games, won three in its conference tournament and then ran the table in the NCAA tournament. Kentucky's fans snapped up shirts with this goal on it before last season, and then the Wildcats lost their third game of the season and ended with 11 losses.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.