Here's something horrifying: Next season, Kentucky is going to be even taller.
On Wednesday, UK sophomore forward Alex Poythress announced his decision to return to school for his junior season. The decision makes sense: Save some startling highlights and solid toolbox defense in the tournament, Poythress failed to distinguish himself much in his sophomore season, especially on the offensive end. NBA scouts still aren't quite sure what he is, how he could develop, where he fits at the pro level. (Or, if they do know, "a 6-foot-8 small forward who can't shoot or handle, but rebounds his position and guards relatively well" isn't getting them excited.)
- They are going to be old.
- They are going to be massive.
The first one is a relative term, of course. At Kentucky, where John Calipari just played seven freshmen in a Final Four game (and got the highest percentage of minutes from freshmen in said game since the Michigan Fab Five), "old" is having experienced players, period. But along with Willie Cauley-Stein's return, Poythress' decision ensures that Calipari will have two juniors with plenty of minutes under their belts in potential starting (or starting-minutes-level) roles for the first time since the Darius Miller-DeAndre Liggins-Josh Harrelson combo in 2010-11. Against all odds, a coach once determined to turn over his roster every season suddenly is peppering his lineups with hundreds of returning minutes.
The second one was a done deal no matter what Dakari Johnson decided. Then, on Wednesday afternoon, Johnson dropped the size bomb: He decided to come back to school, too.
A 7-foot center whose combination of size and athletic gifts made him a low-post force in the tournament (especially alongside Julius Randle), Johnson is one of those big men who is both preternaturally athletic and still growing into his body. He has the proverbial "baby fat" scouts love to minimize in their imaginations. Either the NBA now or a year in school (and then the NBA) would have probably worked out equally well for him. A decision to return creates a crowded frontcourt situation for Kentucky, one that should terrify anyone outside Big Blue Nation's border territories.
Calipari already has two 7-footers back for next season in Johnson and Cauley-Stein. He has Marcus Lee (6-10 and maybe the most athletic player in the country) and 6-11 freshman Karl Towns as a potential backup frontcourt. Or vice versa. Or some mix therein. Poythress is a 6-8 small forward. Oh, and then there's Trey Lyles, the No. 6 overall player in the 2014 class. He is a power forward with real post moves and 17-foot range who also happens to be 6-10. That's at least two, and maybe three, waves of NBA size.
A handful of teams will have one player that big. Maybe two, if they're lucky. Calipari could create a real-life edition of Jon Bois' NBA Y2K series with no player shorter than 6-10 in his starting lineup -- if he really wanted to. (We'd highly recommend it.)
In the real world, unfortunately, someone has to play guard. The question is whether that will still be Aaron and Andrew Harrison -- who seem to be finding out for the first time in their lives that they are not necessarily first-round NBA draft picks, and possibly adjusting their plans -- or two more five-star Calipari recruits (shooting guard Devin Booker and point guard Tyler Ulis. Booker is 6-5.
If the 6-6 Harrisons are back, Kentucky will still have one of the tallest backcourts in the country. But even if they aren't, Calipari will unleash one of the biggest teams in recent college hoops history on a now-entirely-suspecting hoops populace.
The 2014-15 Kentucky Wildcats will be older and wiser, sure. But they'll be bigger, too. Much, much bigger.
The Crimson have arrived as a regular.
The Crimson have won the automatic berth three years in a row, winning a tournament game the past two seasons as a 14-seed and a 12-seed, beating New Mexico and Cincinnati, respectively.
Harvard coach Tommy Amaker is in the renaissance of his career. He has transformed the sport on campus. He has made it cool to come to the games, to follow the team and alumni are relishing being able to travel to NCAA tournament games.
Amaker could have left for Boston College. Cal too, if he wanted the job. But the Crimson are working on a new contract and trying to take care of him. Harvard works at a glacial pace at this sort of thing, because it’s not used to competing for coaches the way in which it does for faculty. The commitment, however, is there. There are even plans to upgrade facilities.
And being the coach who put Harvard into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1946 and kept it there has enchanted Amaker enough to stay in Cambridge for the foreseeable future.
The normalcy of being a double-digit seed that wins has even been overshadowed.
"People forget we were a 14- and a 12-seed," Amaker said. “And it was the first time in 30 years that a team had won games in the NCAA tournament from the Ivy in back-to-back years. I was stunned when I saw that."
But breaking down barriers for Harvard is nothing new on campus and now in the Ivy.
This is the new normal. And Harvard will be the favorite again.
What we saw this season: The Ivy League had its best postseason run in its 58-year history. Five teams went to the postseason with Harvard (NCAA), Princeton (CBI) and Brown, Columbia and Yale (CIT), and the league had eight postseason wins.
Putting multiple teams in the postseason occurred for the fourth time in five years.
The last team to win consecutive NCAA tournament games was Princeton in 1983 and ’84.
Harvard won a school-record 27 games and a school-high 13 games in the Ivy League as well as the first undefeated road record in the Ivy in the school’s history.
Yale made it to the CIT title game before losing to Murray State. It was the first time an Ivy League team played for a postseason title since 1975, when Princeton played for the NIT title.
These tournaments might not resonate nationally, especially the CIT, but the results matter. The Ivy League is showing dramatic improvement, and the stronger it gets, the more its champ gets challenged, giving it a legitimate shot to advance in the NCAAs.
"We're trying to be a top-10 league next year," Columbia coach Kyle Smith said. "Watch out WCC, Missouri Valley and Horizon.
"We had five postseason teams, an 8-5 postseason record, Kenpom had us as the 13th-best league, Columbia had a buzzer-beater at Valpo, Harvard and Columbia played a double-overtime game at Columbia which was the best game in 2014 and only 3,200 people witnessed."
Harvard will be picked as the favorite, even with the departure of Brandyn Curry, Kyle Casey and Laurent Rivard.
The Crimson return a strong core of Wesley Saunders, Siyani Chambers and Steve Moundou-Missi, with the likely emergence of Zena Edosomwan, Corbin Miller, Agunwa Okolie, Jonah Travis and a healthy Kenyatta Smith.
"Their inside game will be very formidable," Smith said of the Crimson. Chambers should be the top guard in the league, too.
Yale will likely be the No. 2 pick behind Harvard with the return of Justin Sears, Javier Duren, Armani Cotton, Brandon Sherrod, Nick Victor, Matt Townsend and Jack Montague.
Dismissing Princeton would be a mistake. Tigers coach Mitch Henderson said this team has something to prove, and seven returners, a strong finish to the season and a commitment to defense mean this team has a real shot to be a contender.
Smith said he envisions a bunched-up group in the middle of the pack with any number of teams emerging. Columbia and Brown are the most likely teams to pop out of this group with Alex Rosenberg, Maodo Lo, Cory Osetkowski, Steve Frankoski and Grant Mullins leading the Lions, while Cedric Kuakumensah and Rafael Maia should be the focus for Brown.
Dartmouth, Penn and Cornell are unknowns at this point, but the Quakers rarely stay down for long. The Ivy doesn’t have a postseason tournament, but Amaker has said it's a 14-game tournament with every game counting as much as the next. The chances of getting multiple bids in the NCAA tournament -- which has never happened -- rests solely on whether a second team can win quality nonconference games and push the Crimson to a playoff. It's not crazy to consider.
"Our league will be incredibly balanced and strong next year," Amaker said. "Our league will be very underrated."
The conference, done in by realignment, has the reputation of being a way station or purgatory instead of a landing place.
All of those chronically shifting sands certainly don’t help create stability. But even more, it creates the image of a league in constant flux and, consequently, a talent pool that also is hard to judge.
Memphis is no longer around to carry the league’s water. The teams in its stead, while good, just don’t have that name cache. The NCAA tournament selection committee says it judges each team on its annual merit, not past performance, but the committee is made up of human beings, too, and human nature does what it does.
While the Atlantic 10 pushed six teams into the NCAA tournament, C-USA managed just one -- the second year in a row it has been shut out of an at-large bid. Southern Miss, with an RPI of 33 and 27 wins, probably deserved a bid. Louisiana Tech, another 27-game winner with a bubblier RPI of 59, deserved consideration.
It didn’t happen.
Coaches are already on record about boosting their nonconference schedules next season to guard against such disappointment, and with an 11-33 record against teams in the top 50 RPI, that’s a good idea. But until Conference USA can settle on its members and then work to build up its stock, the perception will dog its teams as much as the records.
*Answer: Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Louisiana Tech, Marshall, Middle Tennessee, North Texas, Old Dominion, Rice, Southern Miss, UAB, UTEP, UTSA and Western Kentucky.
What we saw this season: What it might have lacked in predictability, C-USA made up for in competition. Four teams finished in a tie for first place, with UTEP a mere game behind.
Trouble was, with such a gargantuan league (16 members) it was impossible to play anything near a round-robin schedule.
Worse still, the league settled on a schedule that included just one repeat opponent per team, creating a wildly unbalanced schedule that was nearly impossible to judge. Was Southern Miss’ 13-3, with Tulane as a repeat, better or worse than 13-3 Louisiana Tech, which played Rice twice? Or better or worse than 13-3 Middle Tennessee, which played Rice two times? Or better or worse than 13-3 Tulsa, two-time opponent of North Texas?
Ultimately the Golden Hurricane won the conference tourney and, with it, the golden ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Southern Miss and Louisiana Tech were relegated to the NIT.
On numbers alone, the Golden Eagles probably deserved a bid, but a deeper scrub of their schedule unveils a team that lacked real quality wins to bolster an at-large bid. Southern Miss beat DePaul, Georgia State and North Dakota State and got its doors blown off by Louisville. An 18-point loss to Louisiana Tech in the C-USA tourney, wasn’t the lasting impression to help its cause, either.
Tulsa, meanwhile, got hot and stayed that way, winning 11 in a row before its second-round loss to UCLA in the tourney.
Two weeks later, it lost its coach, Danny Manning, to Wake Forest.
What we expect to see next season: TBD … Tulsa, the reigning champ, now departs for the American Athletic Conference along with East Carolina and Tulane, creating yet more turnover for Conference USA.
More needed new blood comes in the way of former VCU associate head coach Mike Rhoades, hired at woebegone Rice, and ex-Pistons coach Michael Curry, who takes over for Mike Jarvis at Florida Atlantic. The league’s bottom-feeders need an energy injection and these two could provide it.
Presumably, Marshall eventually will get around to replacing Tom Herrion, too. Rumor has it now Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni is on the wish list. Point guard Kareem Canty, however, is already out. He plans to transfer.
Of course, coaching changes have been part of the league’s problem too. One day after breathing a sigh of relief when Louisiana Tech coach Mike White opted to stay with the Bulldogs instead of bolt for Tennessee, the league still lost a coach to the Volunteers.
Donnie Tyndall takes over for Cuonzo Martin, putting Southern Miss back on the coaching market. Tyndall, who won 56 games in two seasons, spent just two years in Hattiesburg after taking over for Larry Eustachy.
Southern Miss has been one of the more reliable Conference USA programs and the hire now will be critical to maintain that consistency.
But Tyndall’s replacement also will be the ninth new coach in the past two years in the conference. That’s significant turnover in a league in desperate need of more stable waters.
Some coaches are in similar positions. In their case, most would be wise to stay in school.
That doesn’t stop the speculation, though.
More rumors about college coaches potentially turning pro emerged Monday when Minnesota Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman announced his retirement. Various reports have pegged Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg, Florida's Billy Donovan and Michigan State's Tom Izzo as possible targets.
ESPN NBA reporter Marc Stein tweeted earlier today: “Been discussing Izzo/Hoiberg for some time as candidates to replace Adelman, but here's a new name I'm told interests Wolves: Billy Donovan.”
That’s not surprising.
All three coaches have been tied to the NBA in the past. Izzo famously rejected the Cleveland Cavaliers’ offer a few years back following an extensive courtship. Before Hoiberg returned to lead his alma mater, he was an executive with the Minnesota Timberwolves and an NBA veteran. Donovan accepted the Orlando Magic job a few years ago, and then he changed his mind days later.
They’re all intriguing candidates who may or may not have any interest in the opening. Being “pursued” doesn't mean you're really “linked” to a job; you might ask Kate Upton out, but that doesn't mean you're dating her.
But there’s certainly interest from Minnesota.
The challenge, of course, in pursuing any of those three is convincing one of them to leave their veritable college kingdoms to take over an NBA team whose franchise player has only a year to go on his contract.
The coach Minnesota ultimately hires is supposed to help the Wolves sway Kevin Love to stay. But how do you convince the likes of Donovan to leave Florida -- or a full-fledged emperor like Izzo at Michigan State -- to make the jump to the NBA without assurances that Love will stick around for the long haul?
Wolves president of basketball operations and minority owner Flip Saunders and Izzo are tight. Hoiberg is a former Wolves player and executive. They will surely listen when the call comes. And so, too, will Donovan. They will give the Wolves an opportunity, at the very least, to make a determined pitch.
It’s OK to say no, especially since the grass is often greener in college.
Sure, this Minnesota job -- and any NBA opening -- will come with perks. There’s a chance Love will stay in Minnesota and give the next coach a chance to build around him. Plus, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor just bought one of America’s largest newspapers because he felt like it. What will he spend on his next coach?
But Donovan, Izzo and Hoiberg -- and other college coaches like them -- enjoy something that’s rarely replicated in the NBA: long-lasting appreciation.
In the NBA, they love you and then they leave you. Calipari and Louisville's Rick Pitino know that. Two years ago, Mike Woodson led the New York Knicks to the playoffs after a 54-win season. On Monday, new team president Phil Jackson fired him.
Former Butler coach Brad Stevens could turn things around in Boston. But the Celtics will need a bunch of young players and future draft picks to develop so he can build off a 25-57 record in his first season. And if things don't change in the next two or three years, Stevens will be on the hot seat, too.
College basketball isn't immune to that attitude, either. This is a multibillion-dollar business. Administrators want to win. Now.
But there are more jobs that provide legitimate security, although they might not pay as well. Some college coaches are still living off achievements from a decade ago.
Once you're on a perch in college basketball, you can stay there as long as you'd like.
You can't say that about every college team. There are enough leaders in the game, however, who won't leave their posts until they want to leave.
The three coaches mentioned as possible targets for the Timberwolves job are in the aforementioned group.
Izzo complained about a lack of appreciation in East Lansing, Mich., when he danced with the Cavs. But when he announced his return, he was surrounded by players, fans, administrators and boosters at an elaborate press conference that felt like a wedding. How many times have you seen that kind of “Welcome Back” ceremony in the NBA?
Donovan must deal with the gravitational pull of Florida football each season. He has won multiple national titles and guided the Gators to the Elite Eight four consecutive seasons. But Gainesville will always be a football town, so maybe he’ll think about the Minnesota gig if it’s offered to him.
But the No. 2 slot in a sports-crazed community is much better than being fourth or fifth in a major market that features four pro teams and Division I basketball/football.
In the NBA, you can be forgotten. Quickly. Or just relentlessly ridiculed. See: the Knicks in 2013-14.
If you’re good, you can become a legend. There are more casualties than heroes, though. Many college coaches who’ve chased NBA cash or prestige have failed and lost the success and comfort they’d previously enjoyed in college.
Yes, there’s often more green in the NBA.
And there’s a lot of blue for the coaches who make the wrong decisions, too.
Sometimes it’s best to just stick with a good thing. The NBA isn’t always a good thing.
There was no denying the Big Ten had its share of great teams, with Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa and Ohio State all ranking in the top 10 at some point in 2013-14. But the league finished yet another season without having the best team in the nation. The Big Ten’s national championship drought added another year of distance since its last glory year, when the Spartans cut down the nets in 2000.
As an indication of the conference's depth, Minnesota brought home the NIT championship.
What we saw this season:
Michigan seemingly reinvented itself during the course of the season. Mitch McGary was expected to play a big role for the Wolverines, but he was hampered by a back injury that eventually sidelined him for the last half of the season. Nik Stauskas helped shoot them out of disappointment as they captured the league’s regular-season title.
Wisconsin abandoned the methodical style that had come to define it during Bo Ryan’s tenure, and became a team with enough offensive weapons to outscore its opponents. Despite losing five of six during a stretch in conference play, the Badgers bounced back to reach their first Final Four since 2000 and the first under Ryan.
Michigan State was arguably the best team in the nation before injuries sabotaged its national title hopes. The Spartans battled through those injuries and were again a popular pick as a No. 4 seed to win it all when the NCAA tournament began. They were eliminated by eventual national champion UConn in the Elite Eight. It marked the first time a group of seniors who stayed four years under coach Tom Izzo did not appear in a Final Four.
And what team proved to be more resilient than Nebraska? The Cornhuskers, picked to finish 12th in the conference’s preseason media poll, started conference play 1-5. Coach Tim Miles held his team together and guided it to an 11-4 record -- with wins over Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State -- to close out the season. The Cornhuskers finished fourth in the league standings and earned their first NCAA tournament berth since 1997-98.
Iowa and Ohio State went from hot to not and fizzled down the stretch. The Hawkeyes had problems stopping opponents, and the Buckeyes had trouble scoring. Ultimately both fizzled out of the NCAA tournament without winning a game.
Minnesota’s Richard Pitino and Northwestern’s Chris Collins, a pair of first-year coaches, gave a possible glimpse of what is to come. Pitino rejuvenated the Gophers in leading them to the NIT championship. Collins led the Wildcats to a pair of upsets over ranked teams in Wisconsin and Illinois.
What we expect to see next season:
The Big Ten title could be Wisconsin’s to claim. The Badgers again have a chance to be a special team, returning all of their key players except guard Ben Brust. Center Frank Kaminsky will be a household name in college basketball circles thanks to his NCAA tournament performance. Rising sophomore forward Nigel Hayes is poised for a breakout season in what should be an expanded role.
Wisconsin will hang with the nation’s elites next season, but not many others in the Big Ten will be considered very highly -- at least, that will be the case early on.
Michigan State and Michigan both took big hits with departing players. The Wolverines lost both Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III to the NBA draft. McGary still has until April 27 to decide if he’ll join them in turning pro. If he leaves, the Wolverines won’t have any starters from their 2012-2013 team that played in the national title game. They won’t be devoid of talent, with Caris Levert and ever-improving Derrick Walton Jr., returning, but they will be rebuilding.
The Spartans will face a similar retooling after Gary Harris announced he would forgo his final two seasons and enter the draft. Branden Dawson could have made it a devastating loss, but he will be back for his senior season. And Izzo will be welcoming new talent, such as point guard Lourawls Nairn.
Iowa and Minnesota are positioned to make a move into the league’s upper echelon, as both are expected to return key rotation players. Illinois brings back one of the league’s best scorers in Rayvonte Rice. Nebraska will be out to prove this past season was no fluke. The Huskers return Terran Petteway, who led the Big Ten in scoring with 18.1 points per game.
Indiana returns arguably the league’s best point guard in Yogi Ferrell and will add a couple of big scorers to its mix, led by James Blackmon Jr.
There will be plenty of new names to usher in next season across the Big Ten. Ohio State welcomes a recruiting class -- led by guard D'Angelo Russell -- ranked fifth by ESPN.com Recruiting Nation that could thrust it back into the Top 25.
It will be a bit of an adjustment seeing Maryland and Rutgers count as Big Ten conference games next season, as both teams will be making their league debut.
In Season 6, Episode 7 ("The Post-it Always Sticks Twice," which is par for the terrible SatC title course) Carrie, our heroine, receives news of a break-up with boyfriend Berger via a post-it note. It reads: "I can't. I'm sorry. Don't hate me."
In 2003, this was a shocking and comedic state of affairs. To break-up via a few short words, without personal contact? Even the jaded, seen-it-all-New York women of SatC's world were positively scandalized. A decade later, in our Tinderized world, a post-it note almost feels almost quaint.
Missouri athletic director Mike Alden can identify.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Dave Matter, former Mizzou coach Frank Haith called Alden on Thursday morning to tell him that Tulsa had offered him a seven-year deal worth roughly $1.85 million per year. Then, on Friday morning, Haith informed Alden he would accept the position. And how? Via text message.
We don't know what the text actually said, but Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger's guess seems about right:
Mike, OMG, gone to Tulsa:)! Pleez tell players. Sorry about the Miami stuff and last 2 yrs LOLz:( #yolo— Sam Mellinger (@mellinger) April 18, 2014
The break-up analogy is an easy one. For the past decade, as technology has made communication easier, the world has also fretted that ease would translate into weightlessness -- that being able to break up with someone via text message would suddenly cause everyone to start doing so.
Anecdotally, anyway, this prophecy hasn't come to pass. Big break-up conversations are still in-person ordeals. People at least make a phone call. A text message is about as weak as it gets. End it via text, and you're liable to end up on Lulu. Be forewarned.
A more direct analogy is your own job: Can you imagine, in a million years, telling your current boss that you had accepted a new position via text message? Unacceptable, right? And yet in Haith's world, this is just how business is done. At least Berger said he was sorry.
Well this suddenly is interesting.
Until this week, the coaching carousel was a pretty mundane kiddie ride. Coaches most everyone expected to be handed pink slips did, in fact, get their walking papers, and no huge seismic shifts came with their replacements.
And then in the span of three days, the universities of Tennessee and Missouri were rejected like jilted bridegrooms by their coaches.
Cuonzo Martin, unappreciated by both his fan base and administration, left Tennessee for Cal, a good job but certainly not as good as the one in Knoxville. He had done well by most folk’s standards -- a winning record and Sweet 16 berth this year -- but was never able to escape his predecessor's shadow -- figuratively and literally. Bruce Pearl's NCAA tournament success loomed over Martin, who needed three years to return the Vols to the tourney, and his Knoxville address didn’t make things any easier.
He made no bones about his dissatisfaction, eyeing the gig at Marquette before leaving for Berkeley this week.
Frank Haith, meantime, was never viewed as an inspiring hire by Mizzou people. After Mike Anderson left for Arkansas, the general consensus on Haith, who had an OK but not hugely successful run at Miami, could be best summed up by a friend of mine who squeaked, "Frank Haith?" when the hiring was announced.
When the coach subsequently was implicated in the Miami NCAA scandal, it didn’t exactly help. Neither did an NCAA tournament upset as a 2-seed at the hands of 15-seed Norfolk State after a 30-win season two years ago.
The strange thing is, the Missouri administration expressed its faith in Haith amid the NCAA scrutiny, but after a disappointing NIT berth this year, most folks figured the coach was headed to a Show-Me year in the Show-Me State in 2014-15. He merely got ahead of the posse, it seems, by leaving for Tulsa.
Now, neither fan base is exactly crying in their coffee over the departure of either coach, with both groups convinced they can get a coaching upgrade.
Arms race, anyone?
Fair or not (and mostly not), these two hires will be compared to one another -- for initial impact, and more than likely, for long-term success. The schools and the programs are too similar, the timing too close for it to be otherwise.
In SEC hoops, there is Kentucky, there is Florida and there is everyone else jockeying for third.
There aren’t many teams that can lay claim to that bronze-medal position but count Tennessee and Missouri among the group that can. Both could open their wallets if they wanted to, with the backing of fervent and well-funded boosters; each has decent facilities and most of all, a history that is not covered entirely in dust.
The Volunteers went to six consecutive NCAA tournaments under Pearl and returned this year under Martin. The old coach had a 2010 Elite Eight berth to show for his efforts; the new coach, this year’s Sweet 16.
Missouri, meantime, had five consecutive NCAA tourney berths on its resume and a regional final run in 2009.
In other words, there’s plenty to work with for a new coach.
But who will those new coaches be? Already both sides are clamoring for the home run hires -- Shaka Smart or Gregg Marshall (the real winners here, by the way? Smart and Marshall's agents), but the reality is, right now winning the news conference has to be the least of these two school's concerns.
Whatever their individual reasons, Martin and Haith lasted only three short seasons. That’s not long enough, not in a top-heavy league such as the SEC, where gaining ground on the front-runners usually requires wading through quicksand.
Athletic directors Mike Alden at Missouri and Dave Hart at Tennessee each need to hire for stability more than headlines and find coaches that fit.
It's never an easy job, leading a coaching search, especially when everyone is watching.
And no doubt, comparing.
We saw dozens of changes to collegiate basketball's conference structure in the past five years. As they happened, it felt too fast to catalog -- too cluttered among the theories and contingencies and rumors of the periphery. But after deals were finalized and publicly announced, it took years for schools to leave their former leagues -- for this chaotic mess slowly to morph into some recognizable form. The process became tectonic.
Conference realignment was fast and slow at the same time. It was super weird.
Take the old Big East. In September of 2011, Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame announced they would leave the old Big East for the ACC. Between then and now, the "old" Big East has seen 14 schools announce departures for other conferences and 15 new schools join. It saw seven of its founding members leave and take the name, $10 million from league coffers, and rights to Madison Square Garden with it. It rebranded itself as the American. It had a pretty stellar first season. One of its flagship schools (UConn) won the national title in its conference's first year of existence. And it still isn't done realigning: This summer, Louisville leaves for the ACC.
The new Big East skipped this process. In December of 2012, the Catholic schools decided to break off from the now-American. On March 5, 2013, they learned they controlled the Big East marks and records grab-bag. On March 15, ESPN reported that Butler, Xavier and Creighton would join the new conference. On March 20, the new conference, with its new TV deal, was announced. In June, it became official.
Unlike nearly every other entity in college basketball, realignment's creation of the "reconfigured" Big East felt fast because it actually was fast.
Just 13 months after it was announced, the Big East already has one season in the books. How did that go?
There's no official count here, but it's safe to say we've never written as many words about any player as we've written about McDermott. That is by far the least impressive of his statistics. The most impressive: McDermott finished his career fifth all-time in scoring, with 3,150 points. One could go further here -- could rattle off the list of mind-bending statistics McDermott accomplished this season. But we did that so much this season we have very little left to say. It's probably better if you just go to his Basketball-Reference page and see for yourself. It's the same feeling you get when you look at Barry Bonds' numbers, minus a mental image of a gigantic head.
Anyway: After two seasons of genius in the Missouri Valley, McDermott's brilliance got a full and proper airing in the Big East this season. From the numbers to the moments -- including two demolitions of Villanova that rank among the greatest 80 minutes of offensive basketball we've ever seen -- he didn't disappoint.
What we expect next season: Of course, there were other noteworthy stories in the Big East last season. Not least of which was the return of Villanova to the ranks of the elite.
Save for those two free Creighton clinics, Jay Wright's team was among the nation's best defensive groups for most of the season. The Wildcats finished the regular season 29-3, with losses to the Bluejays and Syracuse. Their third-round defeat to UConn was disappointing, though less so in hindsight, but either way the immediate future is very bright. The Wildcats return four starters from last season's team (Ryan Arcidiacono, Darrun Hilliard II, JayVaughn Pinkston and Daniel Ochefu) and promising rising sophomore Josh Hart, who posted a 126.8 offensive rating this season, looks primed to take a bigger role. Oh, and there are two top-100 players (forward Mikal Bridges and guard Phil Booth) arriving, arguably giving Wright even more depth and versatility to play with even without star senior James Bell.
For these reasons, Villanova could not look like a more surefire Big East favorite. There are others. McDermott is gone; Creighton will take an obvious step back. Bryce Cotton, who averaged nearly 40 minutes a game (almost all of them thrilling, too) has graduated from Providence and left a big spiritual hole in Ed Cooley's lineup. Georgetown has a top-10 recruiting class on the way -- and, man, did it need one -- but John Thompson III may still be a year away from title contention. Xavier is intriguing,
It was that last move that caused some to wonder about the fate of the reconfigured Big East. Did Williams decide that a league without football wasn't the place to be? Maybe, maybe not; his move probably had just as much to do with personal and individual reasons as anything else. But the question is nonetheless in the air: Can the new Big East survive? How good will this conference be? Its first season was dominated by one of the game's greatest-ever offensive players. Next season it'll have its work cut out.
As a freshman at UCLA in 2013-14, guard Zach LaVine averaged 9.4 points on 7.8 shots, 2.5 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 24.4 minutes per game. In late March, after Florida ended UCLA's season in the Sweet 16, LaVine's father, Paul LaVine, told the Los Angeles Daily News that his son -- a too-thin backup guard who scored 11 points in his final five games -- would be one-and-done.
People mostly laughed.
“Every year he spends at UCLA after this one is a waste,” Carter said. “It really is.”
LaVine, for all of his obvious potential, was not exactly Kansas' Andrew Wiggins, so all of this stuff was pretty funny. Others saw something more sinister: The NBA and its agents tempting a player who wasn't ready with the promise of freedom and riches. The 19-year-old age limit rearing its ugly head once more to the detriment of all involved.
The problem with all of the jokes is that LaVine's family was right: LaVine has as good a chance to develop in the NBA as he did as a college basketball player.
To insist he didn't was to insist that college basketball owns a monopoly on player development. The scoffs stemmed from the idea that a player must be ready to play in the NBA from the moment he steps into the league to have any hope of long-term success, that development stops at the draft decision. Much as the collective college hoops consciousness may like to think this is the case, it's not.
Just ask Duke's Jabari Parker:
Ultimately, I boiled my decision down to two simple questions:
Which environment -- college or the NBA -- offers me the best opportunity to grow as a basketball player?
Which environment -- college or the NBA -- offers me the best opportunity to grow and develop off the court?
The answer to both questions is undeniably the NBA.
That was Parker, writing with Jeff Benedict for Sports Illustrated Thursday, announcing his decision to turn pro. The announcement is about as unsurprising as draft decisions get: Parker is practically guaranteed to be a top-three pick in the 2014 NBA draft, and top-three picks almost never turn down the draft.
Still, if there was any player for whom such a decision may have made sense, it was Parker. He's a thoughtful dude with a genuine desire to earn a degree. He played for Mike Krzyzewski, arguably the greatest college basketball coach ever and a two-time Olympic gold-medal winner. Duke has world-class facilities and fan support. There are few better places in the world for a teenage college basketball player to develop on or off the court.
Plus, as Parker wrote, a loaded 2014 Duke class is led by his "good friend," center Jahlil Okafor, the No. 1 player in the country. If Parker had returned, Duke would have been favored to win the national title from now until next March. (That starting lineup -- some combination of Quinn Cook, Tyus Jones, Rasheed Sulaimon, Parker and Okafor -- is terrifying even as a hypothetical.)
And none of it was enough to keep Parker in college.
There are good financial arguments for the NBA, of course, and Parker is good enough that he doesn't have to take the short-term risk that, say, LaVine might. Parker is an obvious NBA talent with a decade of potential to mine until his peak. LaVine is all risk-reward. But the larger point remains: Parker had about as good a collegiate situation as any player could ever ask for, and was nonetheless convinced that the NBA was the better place for him to "grow and develop" in every facet of his life.
Whatever new NBA commissioner Adam Silver eventually proposes to replace the current age limit -- and all signs are that Silver would very much like to make a change -- this is a key consideration for folks on the college side to understand. The argument has always been framed much differently. College basketball was the place to develop. The NBA was the place to get paid. How long until those distinctions blur entirely?
But the Big 12 fought for that perch in 2013-14. The league featured an impressive lineup, one that only the Big Ten rivaled. Realignment’s winds took more from the league (Colorado, Nebraska and Missouri) than they added (West Virginia) in recent years. Seven squads from the conference, however, earned invites to this year’s NCAA tournament, the ultimate barometer of a conference’s success. There are only 10 teams in the Big 12, so you can definitely call it college basketball’s pound-for-pound king this past season.
Few thrived, though. Iowa State and Baylor were the only Big 12 teams in the Sweet 16, and neither advanced beyond that stage. However, the 2013-14 campaign was still a strong one for the league, excluding its lukewarm results in the tournament. The latter shouldn’t be -- can’t be -- ignored in the final assessment of the conference, but it’ll be back in 2014-15.
The Big 12 hit the reset button. An influx of top recruits and transfers is coming, so next year might be even better.
What we saw this season: In 2004, the iPhone hadn’t been introduced to the public yet. Dwight Howard was an NBA rookie. And Georgia Tech -- yes, Georgia Tech -- lost to Connecticut in the national championship.
That was also the last time Bill Self failed to win a Big 12 title (the Jayhawks finished second) during his time at Kansas. It was his first season. His reign continued last season, when he led the Jayhawks to their 10th consecutive conference crown following a rocky nonconference season. Andrew Wiggins wasn’t LeBron James, but he didn’t have to be. The freshman’s numbers -- 17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.0 blocks and 1.2 steals per game -- were as remarkable as the poise he displayed while he dealt with intense scrutiny throughout the season. His team’s round of 32 loss to Stanford in the Big Dance was a stunner, but Embiid’s late-season back injury certainly affected the program.
DeAndre Kane was able to lead Iowa State to wins over opponents such as Michigan, Iowa, Baylor and Kansas. Melvin Ejim, however, was the league’s player of the year. Georges Niang's foot injury suffered during the NCAA tournament was an unfortunate development for the program, but Fred Hoiberg proved again that it’s possible to add new pieces each season and develop chemistry. His formula works.
Marcus Smart's most memorable matchup had nothing to do with basketball. That shoving incident in Lubbock, Texas, prompted a three-game suspension, the worst of a series of lows for Travis Ford’s team. Everything that could go wrong for Oklahoma State went wrong. Season-ending injuries. Arrests. Suspensions. But Smart and the Pokes recovered to make a run to the Big Dance. Baylor found similar magic late. Cory Jefferson and Co. started 2-8 in league play but finished with a furious push that ended in the Sweet 16.
Oklahoma and Texas had successful stretches, too. But neither could maintain that mojo. The Sooners and Longhorns, however, made the Big 12 gauntlet even tougher.
Tubby Smith couldn’t get Texas Tech out of the conference’s lower tier even after a 5-3 midseason spurt -- ultimately an anomaly -- that included wins over Baylor, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma. West Virginia couldn’t find the quality wins necessary to be considered for an at-large slot on Selection Sunday, and a lopsided loss to Texas in the first round of the Big 12 tourney didn’t help. But the Mountaineers were the eighth Big 12 squad that finished in the RPI’s top 100.
Meanwhile, coach Trent Johnson has to be on the hot seat after TCU finished 0-18 in conference play.
Still, the Big 12 had a big season. Everything that preceded March suggested the league would have a solid showing in the Big Dance. That didn’t happen. And that took some of the luster off the regular season.
But it won’t be easy.
Hoiberg won’t stop. Niang will recover from the foot injury. Monte Morris, Dustin Hogue and Naz Long are back, too. Former Marquette recruit Jameel McKay will be eligible next season, and Hoiberg just landed former UNLV star Bryce Dejean-Jones. And there’s always a chance that he’ll add another top transfer before next season.
Oklahoma returns four standouts from last year’s NCAA tourney team. Losing Smart and Markel Brown hurts Oklahoma State, and Le'Bryan Nash could leave, too. But Phil Forte, Brian Williams, Kamari Murphy and Michael Cobbins (once healthy) will help the Cowboys compete for a berth in the tourney. A pair of ESPN 100 recruits (Joe Burton and Jared Terrell) will also be in the mix.
Kansas State youngster Marcus Foster will be the Big 12 player of the year in 2014-15. And overall, four of Kansas State’s top six scorers from last season will return next year.
Baylor is somewhat of a mystery. No great recruiting class. Jefferson, Brady Heslip and Gary Franklin were seniors, and Isaiah Austin is likely to enter the draft. So there will be a lot of pressure on Kenny Chery and Royce O'Neale next season. How will they handle that?
There's good news in Morgantown. Bob Huggins didn’t have one senior on his roster last season. Juwan Staten (18.1 points per game) and Co. are talented enough to compete with Kansas, Iowa State and Oklahoma for the conference crown.
Texas will contend, too. Rick Barnes’ starters from last year, including underrated standout Jonathan Holmes, will return. And Jordan Barnett, ranked No. 86 in the 2014 class by RecruitingNation, will add more depth.
Texas Tech and TCU will have a hard time emerging from the basement in this tough field.
The Big 12 could end 2014-15 as the best conference in America. Again.
However, the only thing that increased was disappointment in the league’s overall showing.
Expanding to 15 teams did little to affect the ACC’s reach in the NCAA tournament. Six teams received bids -- and that likely would have been just five until NC State’s late push (including its upset of Syracuse in the ACC tournament).
North Carolina and Duke both failed to advance into the NCAA tournament’s second weekend for the first time since 1979. The Blue Devils were upset by Mercer in the second round. The Tar Heels lost to Iowa State in the third round. The ACC has long depended on the bluebloods to carry the league’s baton, and this season did little to change that narrative.
Only Virginia, which earned a No. 1 seed by winning the league title, advanced to the Sweet 16. The Cavaliers were then eliminated by Michigan State.
The league should improve next postseason thanks in part to Carolina's and Duke's potential to have powerhouse squads.
Freshmen Tyler Ennis (Syracuse) and Jabari Parker (Duke) proved to be not only among the best players in the conference, but in the nation -- regardless of class.
Many ACC teams had outstanding individual talents -- NC State’s T.J. Warren (won the league’s player of the year award), Duke’s Rodney Hood, North Carolina’s Marcus Paige, Clemson’s K.J. McDaniels to name a few -- but those teams were heavily flawed. Opponents who stopped Lamar Patterson essentially stopped Pittsburgh. Syracuse had trouble scoring. Duke had a thin frontcourt. Carolina was limited by its shooting from the perimeter.
Syracuse started the season strong -- winning its first 25 games -- but faded down the stretch losing six of its last nine games, as its offense went on hiatus. The Orange did provide two classics sure to be talked about in ACC lore. Their first meeting with Duke was a thrilling 91-89 overtime win in the Carrier Dome and their 66-60 loss at Duke featured Jim Boeheim’s first ejection in a regular-season game.
As has long been a problem since the league expanded to 12 teams, the ACC failed to develop a strong second tier of added depth. The conference continued to be top-heavy as Florida State, Maryland, Clemson and Notre Dame never quite became teams to fear.
Three of the bottom four teams in the standings played poorly enough to end the season with their coaches being fired. Boston College arguably had the most disappointing seasons of them all relative to its talent level. The Eagles pulled it together long enough to hand Syracuse its first loss, which was the highlight of their season.
What we expect to see next season: More of the nation’s top freshmen. Duke’s recruiting class is considered tops in the land and is led by center Jahlil Okafor, who is ranked No. 1 overall in the ESPN 100, and Tyus Jones, the No. 1 point guard who is fourth overall. North Carolina also snagged two top-10 recruits in Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson and is ranked third as a class by ESPN.com.
Newcomers are great and all, but let’s also appreciate what we won’t see in the ACC for the first time in its existence. Maryland, a charter member of the conference started in 1953, will begin competing in the Big Ten. Let’s pause to remember the good times.
Long enough? OK.
Louisville obviously doesn’t compare to the tradition Maryland had within the league, but it could be considered an upgrade otherwise. With three national titles and a Hall of Fame coach currently on its sideline, the Cardinals fit the league’s basketball pedigree.
Their addition, plus Virginia’s returning most of its ACC title squad, should help the league become closer to the juggernaut many of its coaches expected this past season.
For all the hand-wringing over a change of guard in the ACC, the Blue Devils and Tar Heels look primed to re-establish their stranglehold on the top of the league standings. Regardless of how Parker’s NBA draft decision falls on Wednesday, Duke will have a good blend of experience (Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson) and young talent (Okafor, Jones, Justise Winslow, Grayson Allen) at Mike Krzyzewski’s disposal.
Carolina returns the likely front-runner for preseason player of the year in Paige. Forward Brice Johnson and center Kennedy Meeks give the Heels an inside offensive scoring punch that will be hard to contain.
Because of those teams at the top, a trio of new coaches could face a harsh inaugural season in the league. Buzz Williams shocked many by leaving Marquette to take the reins at Virginia Tech, replacing James Johnson. Jim Christian (after a stint at Ohio) takes over Boston College, replacing Steve Donahue. And Danny Manning returns home to Tobacco Road to rebuild Wake Forest, replacing Jeff Bzdelik.
It could all add up and help the ACC live up to its own expectations as the best basketball conference in the nation.