The Story of the 2014-15 College Basketball Season: Unwatchability

Posted by Bennet Hayes on April 13th, 2015

Every college basketball season supplies its share of moments to remember, and in that regard, 2014-15 was no different. We’ll always have the epic regional final between Notre Dame and Kentucky. Coach K’s 1,000th victory at the Garden won’t soon be forgotten, and Peter Hooley’s bid-delivering buzzer-beater for Albany perfectly encapsulated the madness of Championship Week… even before we learned about his emotional story. There was, without a doubt, plenty to cheer about… but those tremendous moments do not mean everything was hunky-dory in college basketball this season. As the game neared its March climax, critics of college basketball’s decreased scoring and slogging tempos found their numbers growing and voices amplified. Despite record-breaking ratings for the Final Four and March Madness, the “watchability” of college hoops was called into question unlike ever before.

Virginia Was One Of Many Slow-Tempo Teams To Thrive In 2014-15 (AP)

Virginia Was One of Many Slow-Tempo Teams to Thrive in 2014-15. (AP)

“You’ve got three kids passing on the perimeter. With 10 seconds on the shot clock, they try to make something happen and two other kids stand around. They don’t look for anything and then run back on defense, so there’s no transition game because two out of five or three out of five or in some cases four out of five kids aren’t involved in the play. It’s uglier than ugly, and it’s evidenced by the scoring going down.”

— Mark Cuban, Owner – Dallas Mavericks, April 8

The Mavericks’ outspoken owner was just one of the most prominent – and recent – voices to lament the current state of the college game, but he was far from alone – and with fair reason: Putting points on the scoreboard proved to be a universally excruciating task. Teams averaged a smidgen over 67 points per contest this season – the lowest team scoring average in over 60 years. The nation’s leader scorer – Eastern Washington’s Tyler Harvey – averaged 23.1 points per game; no national scoring leader had averaged fewer than 25.0 points per game since 1949. The six most efficient offensive teams in college basketball averaged 63.7 possessions per game; if those six merged into one unit, it would be the 233rd-fastest playing group in the land. Recent rule changes intended to enhance offensive freedom, quicken tempos and improve overall efficiency have quite clearly flopped. Points are at an all-time premium, with tempos nearing historic lethargy.

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Sleeping on a Darling From a March Past

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 19th, 2015

The return to anonymity was as swift as the introduction had been sudden. When Ali Farokhmanesh unleashed his ill-advised three-point attempt with 36 seconds to play in a 2010 round of 32 match-up with Kansas, Northern Iowa was a little known Missouri Valley outfit that had scrapped its way to 29 wins. But seconds later, after the brave long distance attempt found the bottom of the net and the Panthers were done toppling top-seeded Kansas, Ben Jacobson‘s team was a national sensation. It didn’t matter that his team’s season would end six days later against Michigan State — with that one shot, Northern Iowa had suddenly become the story of the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

Seth Tuttle May Be College Basketball's Most Unassuming Star. His Northern Iowa Panthers are now 25-2. (Photo: Associated Press)

Seth Tuttle May Be College Basketball’s Most Unassuming Star. His Northern Iowa Panthers are now 25-2. (Photo: Associated Press)

The Panthers’ 15 minutes of fame extended a bit beyond March that year – they won ‘Best Upset’ at the 2010 ESPYs several months later – but it wasn’t too long before most of the world (and this includes the segment that eats, sleeps and breathes college basketball) had forgotten about them. They won no more than 21 games in any of the four seasons that followed, with a 2012 first-round NIT loss standing as the most successful postseason run since ‘the shot.’ Like so many March darlings before them, they had been forced back to their post in the obscure outer regions of college hoops.

They’re now back. Most college basketball fans have taken note of this season’s Northern Iowa renaissance, but lets take a full inventory of what they have done to this point. After Wednesday night’s 58-39 victory at Loyola (IL), Jacobson’s team has won 14 in a row and sits at 25-2 on the season. On January 31, the Panthers handed Wichita State its worst loss (70-54) in over six years. Their two losses came in double-overtime at VCU and by three points at Evansville. They rank in the top 25 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, and the AP poll and Ken Pom’s rankings list them as the 11th best team in the country. Things are not going badly for this group.

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College Basketball Loses a Legend: On Dean Smith’s “Carolina Way”

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 9th, 2015

After years of failing health, Dean Smith passed away Saturday night at the age of 83. The tributes flowed in all day Sunday: Michael Jordan remembered his “second father”; Roy Williams reflected on his mentor and former boss; and media members across the country (including SI‘s Seth Davis and Alexander Wolff) shared their memories of one of college basketball’s greatest head coaches. Smith’s 879 wins, 11 Final Fours and two National Titles all found frequent mention yesterday, but equally conspicuous was praise of Dean Smith, the human being. In 1969, it was Smith who ended segregation in the ACC when he offered a scholarship to Charlie Scott, an eventual two-time All-American for the Heels (and later, father of current Ohio State guard Shannon Scott). To reveal the injustices of the American prison system, Smith brought his players to witness death row first-hand and meet some of the prisoners. Perhaps most valuably, he is widely credited as being the first to cultivate a true sense of family within his basketball program. It’s why Jordan viewed him as more than just his coach. It’s also become the elusive ideal that every program in college basketball now aspires to create.

College Basketball Lost One Of Its All-Time Greatest Leaders On Saturday

College Basketball Lost One Of Its All-Time Great Leaders On Saturday

“The Carolina Way” may sound like a snippet of cheesy propaganda, but those three words would come to define Smith’s coaching methodology. More than anything, they represented the fact that if you were a Dean Smith guy, you would care about accomplishments and lessons that couldn’t be defined by a simple ‘W’ or ‘L’. Other programs and coaches have successfully constructed programs that stand for that family ideal – with Smith’s old Tobacco Road and ACC rival Mike Krzyzewski still existing as the clearest current example at Duke – but for every program that successfully accomplishes the feat, countless others will try and fail. In a contemporary college basketball era where coaches are under more pressure than ever to win, players are offered more opportunities than ever to defect (either by transfer or to the NBA), and increasingly little is private, creating and sustaining a college basketball program with a clear ethos is difficult. By being a human and father figure first and a coach second, Dean Smith built the template on how to create a program – not just a basketball team – that’s built to last.

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Dear Santa: Conference Season is Beginning, Please Bring Help

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 25th, 2014

The man in the red suit is a busy guy right about now, but more than a few college basketball teams should be hoping Santa has time to swing by campus before his work is done. No milk and cookies were left fireside in Lexington, KY, or Durham, NC (reinforcements not needed), and some programs need seek only a stocking stuffer or two (hey there, Virginia and Wisconsin). But most teams have wish lists that stretch far longer. Conference play is here, and the blissful ignorance of the non-conference season? Long gone. In its place arrive true days of reckoning – grinding tests against peers that won’t allow deficiencies to go unpunished any longer. With conference season looming, we take a look at a handful of college basketball teams in desperate need of a gift this Christmas.

Which College Basketball Teams Will Receive A Visit From Santa This Year? (Photo Credit: AP)

Which College Basketball Teams Will Receive A Visit From Santa This Year? (Photo Credit: AP)

Iowa: Last Season’s Shooting Touch

Shoddy defense destroyed the Hawkeye’s promising start a season ago, but things have changed this winter. The defense has been much improved (22nd nationally in defensive efficiency), but a sputtering offense has left Iowa just 9-4 heading into conference play. All eight of the Hawkeye returnees have seen their three-point percentage drop this year (team: 259th nationally in three-point percentage), while only Gabriel Olaseni has improved upon his 2013-14 two-point field goal percentage (team: 232nd nationally in two-point percentage). The widespread nature of the shooting epidemic would seem to indicate some sort of systemic explanation. No Roy Devyn Marble? A lack of comfort with a quicker tempo? A coaching staff that has lost its players? Any or all of these questions could be a dig at the root cause, but even if they are, expecting some reversion to the more efficient levels of 2013-14 is entirely fair. The defense has been there; can Santa bring back the Hawkeyes’ shooting strokes?

Arkansas: Road Victories

For most of Mike Anderson’s tenure at Arkansas, the New Year (and conference play) has brought two things in bunches: home wins, and road losses. The Razorbacks are well positioned to earn their first Tournament appearance under Anderson after a 9-2 start, even if old habits die hard. The Hogs are undefeated on the home hardwood (8-0) and less perfect on the road: Both of the Hogs’ losses (Iowa State and Clemson) have come in enemy arenas. A November win at SMU should not be overlooked, but Arkansas needs to prove they can win games away from Bud Walton Arena in 2015. A depleted SEC should play the role of enabler.

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Announcement of 2016 Field a Reminder that Maui is Still King

Posted by Henry Bushnell on November 25th, 2014

December 23, 1982. It’s a date etched in college basketball folklore, and with good reason. You’ve probably heard the tale before, perhaps many times: the tale of big, bad Ralph Sampson towering above his opponents; the tale of the tiny gym, of the mysterious aura; the tale of mighty Virginia being confounded and eventually upset by plucky Chaminade, an embryonic NAIA squad in just its eighth season of competition.

A Game 32 Years Ago Set the Maui Invitational in Motion

A Game 32 Years Ago Set the Maui Invitational in Motion

In fact, every November, the Maui Invitational serves as a convenient reminder of that day nearly 32 years ago, because it was in the wake of Chaminade’s shocking win that the tournament was born. What began as a four-team event soon expanded to eight, and pretty soon, it was attracting the top teams from around the country. Michigan made its first trip in 1985, Kansas (along with Stanford, Villanova and Illinois) followed in 1987, UNLV came in 1988, North Carolina debuted in 1989, Duke visited in 1992, and Arizona in 1993. As big time programs flocked to Maui, it became the pinnacle of November college basketball, and built quite the reputation. For at least two decades, it was one of the kings of early season tournaments.

It wasn’t the undisputed king though. Alongside Maui had always been the Preseason NIT, now known as the NIT Season Tip-Off, and the Great Alaska Shootout, both of which also drew the bluebloods. Recently though, given the resounding success of Maui in particular, even more competition began to sprout up in the form of other holiday tournaments. Organizers realized that with school temporarily out of session for Thanksgiving break, teams would love to travel to desirable locations and test themselves against other top national contenders. In 1995, the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic was founded. Following the turn of the century, the CBE Classic (2001), Old Spice Classic (2006, now the Orlando Classic), and Legends Classic (2007), plus others, joined the fray, and suddenly, it was no longer Maui, NIT or bust. Elite programs had options aplenty, and it may have even seemed as if the exclusivity and uniqueness of Maui had been watered down.

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Win And They Will Come: ESPN’s College GameDay Finally Shifts to Flex Scheduling

Posted by Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) on October 8th, 2014

While it’s doubtful we will bear witness to Katy Perry flinging corn dogs around Cameron Indoor Stadium this winter, the basketball spin-off of college football’s wildly popular College GameDay might finally gain a foothold of its own. The series is, at LONG last, moving to a flexible schedule that will allow the network to select the game and venue capable of supplying college basketball fans maximum intrigue. What’s more, Jay Williams and Seth Greenberg will join Rece Davis and Jay Bilas in a reconfigured lineup of on-air talent for the series. The duo should provide a welcome respite from the aimless rhetoric of Digger Phelps and Jalen Rose, the two men they will be replacing. GameDay has never felt like a requisite watch on winter Saturdays; might that begin to change in January 2015?

Seth Greenberg And Jay Williams Will Join The College GameDay Crew In 2015

Seth Greenberg And Jay Williams Will Join The College GameDay Crew In 2015

Last year’s slate of games actually played out nicely for the folks over at the Worldwide Leader, as even the sites saddled with underachieving hosts (Colorado, Oklahoma State) were accompanied by plenty of surrounding drama (thanks Marcus Smart!) when the crew came to town. In 2014, there were no trips to sub-.500 Missouri Valley schools (Southern Illinois, 2008), battles between SEC also-rans (Florida vs. Tennessee, 2009), or match-ups of NIT squads (Washington vs. Arizona, 2012). The flex schedule should ensure that none of the above – or anything remotely close to them – occurs in 2015, either. But the new schedule should do far more than simply ensure quality match-ups. Site selection now becomes something for fan bases to win each weekend; we’ve seen the fall travel itineraries of Chris Fowler and the football crew become a weekly news story as college towns battle for hosting rights. Basketball sites of years past have often failed to generate the local red carpet treatment afforded the football gang, but this new, more spontaneous selection process should have fans excited and cities better prepared to enjoy a weekend with GameDay.

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It’s About Time Wichita State and Kansas Play Each Other

Posted by Chris Johnson on January 6th, 2014

It’s easy to see why Kansas and Wichita State should play each other. They are two of the three best basketball programs in a basketball-obsessed state. They are physically separated by less than 200 miles. They have played each other 14 times, most recently for a short run between 1989-93, and the Shockers are far better now than the teams that fell to the Jayhawks by at least 20 points in each of those meetings. Their histories – one a cultural monolith and longtime juggernaut; the other a historically mediocre Division I program – make for an excellent in-state, big brother-little brother dynamic that’s unique in college basketball. There are politicians who want these teams to play each other so badly that one went as far as to introduce a bill, later defeated, that would have forced them to play. Many others have tried to fan the flames of what could be one of the best rivalries in college basketball. Wichita State fans are vehement: They want nothing more than for their Shockers to get a shot at the Jayhawks. For crying out loud, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall once called Kansas the “chickenhawks”. I could go on, but instead of laying out the obvious, sensible reasons why Kansas and Wichita State should play each other, I’ll get into the more timely question of whether the two teams are any closer to actually playing each other.

It's clear Marshall wants Kansas and Wichita State to play each other (Getty Images).

It’s clear Marshall wants Kansas and Wichita State to play each other (Getty Images).

Sadly, it seems that they are not. Bill Self has long held that a game against Wichita State would not benefit Kansas, and that his program schedules games solely that are in its best interests. He argues that a potential match-up with Wichita State – despite all the seemingly logical reasons listed above – just isn’t worth it. “This isn’t knocking Wichita State,” Self told The Kansas City Star on December 17. “But if it was best for our program, I would reach out to them about scheduling them. But it’s not. I’ve heard a lot of talk about them wanting to play us so bad; Gregg Marshall’s never contacted me about playing.” Marshall reportedly reached out to Kansas officials to propose a three-game series that would comprise one meeting at Allen Fieldhouse, one at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, and one at Intrust Bank Arena in downtown Wichita (not Wichita State’s home court). Whether Marshall has spoken directly with Self about the proposed series is beside the point, because Self doesn’t seem like he’s willing to budge. He simply doesn’t want this game to happen.

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The Best Of 2013 In College Basketball

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 31st, 2013

With 2013 winding to a close, it’s time to take a look back at the year that was in college basketball. There were too many memorable moments to recount ‘em all, but here’s our honor roll for the last calendar year — a list laced with games, plays, and performances that will long struggle to escape our memory banks.

Best Game: Michigan vs. Kansas, NCAA Tournament, Sweet Sixteen

Trey Burke's Last-Gasp Sweet-16 Heroics Will Surely Be One Of 2013's Prevailing Memories

Trey Burke’s Last-Gasp Sweet-16 Heroics Will Surely Be One Of 2013’s Prevailing Memories

Gonzaga-Butler may have given us the best final seconds of regulation (see below), and Louisville-Notre Dame definitely donated the most riveting 25 minutes of action after regulation, but when talking games of the year, Michigan vs. Kansas was simply unmatched when it came to elevated stakes and elite talent. We won’t soon forget Trey Burke’s comeback-capping, game-tying three to force overtime, but it would be a shame if that’s all that lived on from this classic. Sweet Sixteen match-ups between national title contenders don’t come around every March; would you have bet against Kansas to get to Championship Monday if Burke’s three hadn’t found the bottom of the net on that Friday night?

Honorable Mention: Gonzaga at Butler, Louisville at Notre Dame.

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Previewing a Sneaky Good Saturday of Basketball on Tap

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 21st, 2013

This Saturday’s schedule may not shimmer like last week’s did – the face-off between Oklahoma State and Colorado stands as the only game featuring two ranked teams – but dig a little bit and you may like what you find. Or better yet, let us do the digging: Here are four storylines to keep an eye on during this sneaky-good Saturday of college hoops.

Phog Allen Fieldhouse Has Hosted Quite A Few Visitors Over The Years, But Never The Georgetown Hoyas. That Will Change On Saturday.

Phog Allen Fieldhouse Has Hosted Quite A Few Visitors Over The Years, But Never The Georgetown Hoyas. That Will Change On Saturday.

Two Storied Programs Meet In Rare Clash

Kansas and Georgetown may have both inhabited the upper reaches of college basketball’s hierarchy for quite some time now, but that doesn’t mean the two programs know each other especially well. Saturday’s meeting at Phog Allen Fieldhouse (12 PM EST, ESPN) will be just the third time the two schools have faced off, although the latest Hoya-Jayhawk matchup was quite recent, coming just two seasons ago at the Maui Invitational. Needless to say, the cast of characters (on both sides) has seen a massive overhaul since that game. While this one is worth watching for the pure novelty of the Hoyas’ maiden voyage to Allen Fieldhouse, there’s more at stake here than just a new twist on history. Kansas seeks to maintain the momentum gained in last weekend’s win over New Mexico, while the Hoyas, firmly off the national radar for the past month, find themselves with a nice opportunity to quell some doubts after a shaky first month. Rock Chalk meets Hoya Saxa – quite a way to kick off the weekend.

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Gonzaga Churns Out Another Victory; Could These Bulldogs Be Different Come March?

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 11th, 2013

First things first: Gonzaga’s 80-76 win over West Virginia on Tuesday night will not go down as any sort of victory for the ages. Heck, it may not even count as a “good win” come March. But before we strip away all its value, with say, a game of “name a Mountaineer”, let’s also give the Zags a little credit. Grabbing a road victory, in a hostile environment, over a competitive power conference team is never an easy task. Every Big 12 team – Oklahoma State and Kansas included – will be happy if they leave Morgantown with a win this season. Signature victory it is not for Mark Few’s team, but with another “taking-care-of-business” performance in the books, the Zags look poised to hang around the top of the polls for yet another season. Of course, that upward November to March trajectory has ended in a Tournament nose-dive too often for almost anyone to take the Zags seriously these days — no matter how good a regular season they may register. The familiar question begs: Is this Gonzaga team built to win in March?

Kevin Pangos And The Zags Can Score The Basketball (Just Ask West Virginia), But Will That Offensive Efficiency Finally Equate To March Success? (AP)

Kevin Pangos And The Zags Can Score The Basketball (Just Ask West Virginia), But Will That Offensive Efficiency Finally Equate To March Success? (AP)

Let’s hold off for a moment on evaluating Tournament potential, and first admit that the Zags are pretty good at picking up wins in the months leading up to March. Down eight with eight minutes left, and with Ken Pom’s win probability graph suggesting just a 15% chance of a Gonzaga win, this game long looked like one that might not support the above thesis. But in those final eight minutes the Zags did what they do best: score the basketball. The nation’s most efficient offense pumped in 24 points before the buzzer sounded, with a trio of Kevin Pangos threes serving as Coliseum-silencers along the way. Gonzaga has now scored at least 79 points in every game this season; this despite playing at a tempo that ranks below the national average. Just like last year’s 32-3 team, who finished second nationally in offensive efficiency, these Bulldogs can really score. Read the rest of this entry »

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Do Yourself a Favor: Watch UCLA Freshman Zach LaVine Play

Posted by Chris Johnson on December 11th, 2013

Anyone who watched Missouri beat UCLA last Saturday probably came away impressed with the Tigers’ backcourt trio of Jordan Clarkson, Earnest Ross and Jabari Brown. The three guards combined for 63 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists, and attacked UCLA’s defense from inside and out, on the break and in the half-court, on spot-ups and dribble penetration. The Tigers were impressive, so it was no surprise to see them ranked no. 24 in the AP Poll released on Monday. If you watched Missouri beat the Bruins, you might even be inclined to argue that the Tigers deserve a higher ranking. I was impressed with Missouri. I think it was underrated heading into the season. Now that coach Frank Haith is done serving a suspension that – if we’re being totally honest – should have kept him away from the sidelines far longer than five games, the Tigers are in position to climb the rankings in the coming weeks, and maybe even challenge Tennessee and LSU for the de-facto SEC regular season bronze medal (i.e., the team that inevitably finishes behind Kentucky and Florida for third place). But what really struck me about Saturday’s game had nothing to do with Missouri. Near the end of the first half, Bruins freshman Zach LaVine pounced on a Tigers turnover just beyond his team’s three-point line, dribbled the length of the court, took off from one step inside the paint and flushed home a ferocious, one-handed windmill dunk.

This wasn’t the first time I had heard of LaVine. I knew coming into the season he was one of the nation’s better freshmen – though one who was more overlooked than he otherwise would have been in most years because of how loaded this freshman class is. I knew he was a good athlete, someone who could score, someone who could give the Bruins another scoring threat behind guards Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson. But this – one of the most impressive breakaway dunks I’ve seen from any player at any level – was something I wasn’t quite prepared for. So I spent some time looking around on YouTube, found this clip, rewound each of LaVine’s dunks at least three times and quickly came to the conclusion his jam against Missouri was downright mediocre by comparison.

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One Month In: Where Are All the Great Teams?

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 9th, 2013

This week will see a new team take its turn at the top of the polls, but like their predecessors in the rankings’ top slot, the Arizona Wildcats will seize the reins just days after a performance in which they hardly resembled the best team in the country. The pesky Columbia Lions — also known as the team that nearly ended Michigan State’s reign atop the polls before it even began — may be significantly less talented than the UNLV outfit that gave Arizona fits at the McKale Center on Saturday afternoon, but that shouldn’t provide Sean Miller’s team a free pass on their underwhelming effort. The Runnin’ Rebels, disappointing as they have been, really aren’t that bad (temporarily forgetting the 21-point home loss to UCSB as I write that), and close losses do happen, but there is a presumption that the #1 team in the country will take care of business in a manner befitting an elite unit. Upcoming games against New Mexico State and Michigan will offer the Wildcats a quick chance to validate their lofty ranking, but even with a pair of victories this week, are we really ready to call Arizona truly elite? And if we aren’t ready to offer that declaration for the #1 team in the polls, might we be faced with a college basketball season devoid of a profoundly great unit?

T.J. McConnell And The Wildcats Are The Nation's New #1, But The Wildcats Still Have Plenty To Prove

T.J. McConnell And The Wildcats Are The Nation’s New #1, But Like Many Other Top Teams, The Wildcats Still Have Plenty To Prove

To the point, Arizona’s ascent to the top spot in the polls has had as much to do with the failings of the five preseason teams ahead of them as it has the Wildcats’ own success. True, that preseason top-five grouping has been a bit cannibalistic (Kentucky fell to Michigan State; Duke dropped one to Kansas), but no member of the quintet has yet shown an ability to be consistently great. The new pieces have struggled to fit at Kentucky and Kansas — each team has two losses; while Louisville and Michigan State failed to do something that Belmont and UAB accomplished – beat North Carolina. And Duke, vanquished by the pollsters newest #1 team 10 days ago at the Garden, just picked up its first quality win of the season when the Blue Devils defeated Michigan last week at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

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