Previewing Texas vs. North Carolina

Posted by Taylor Erickson & Lathan Wells on December 18th, 2013

(Ed. note: news released on Wednesday afternoon that UNC’s Leslie McDonald has been cleared to play as soon as tonight’s game. This post was written prior to that release.)

On Wednesday night, Texas will head to the Dean Dome for a showdown with what suddenly looks like one of the better teams in the nation in North Carolina. North Carolina has had its struggles early this season with losses to UAB and Belmont, but has righted the ship with perhaps the best collection of wins in the country after knocking off Louisville, Michigan State, and Kentucky – the top three teams in the preseason AP rankings. Texas has opened the season with a 9-1 record itself, but has yet to see the type of talent that the Tar Heels will roll out. ACC correspondent Lathan Wells and the Big 12′s Taylor Erickson decided to discuss some key topics heading into the contest in the hopes of providing some insights to watch for as the game plays out.

Can Marcus Paige continue his hot streak against Texas on Wednesday? (Scott Muthersbaugh / The Times News)

Can Marcus Paige continue his hot streak against Texas on Wednesday? (Scott Muthersbaugh / The Times News)

Taylor:  So I have to start with the obvious question: North Carolina has three of the best wins in non-conference play, but also has puzzling losses to UAB and Belmont. Which Tar Heels team are we going to see on Wednesday night?

Lathan: Prior to the Kentucky game, that would continue to be the prevailing question. But after their third marquee non-conference win of the season, it appears that UNC is starting to find some consistency. The players appear to be more comfortable in their roles. The fact that Texas has taken four of the last five since Roy Williams took over in Chapel Hill may be motivation enough. Speaking of adapting to roles, how has Texas been able to have such a solid start with a team that entered the season in the midst of major transition?

Taylor: The 9-1 start for Texas has certainly been refreshing to Longhorns fans, but when dissecting the schedule in more detail, it becomes apparent that most of those wins have come against clearly inferior teams. According to CBSSports.com, Texas’ strength of schedule to this point ranks 100th in the nation, 91 spots behind what North Carolina (ninth) has faced. If Rick Barnes’ squad is truly improved, it will have a chance to prove it with tonight’s game followed by one against Michigan State in a span of three days this week. That said, Texas has gotten solid contributions from big man Cameron Ridley, who went for 22 points and 10 rebounds in his last outing. After the way North Carolina handled the talented front line of Kentucky, is there any reason to believe the Heels will struggle to do the same with the Longhorns’ frontcourt?

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Previewing Kentucky’s Visit to Chapel Hill

Posted by Lathan Wells & Matt Patton on December 14th, 2013

Today’s match-up between North Carolina and Kentucky in Chapel Hill looks a bit different than it did on paper at the start of the season. Some Kentucky fans talked up a perfect 40-0 record before reality set in with losses to a veteran, talent-laden Michigan State team and a more physical, driven Baylor squad. Neither loss is a bad one, of course, but both brought the Wildcats back to the realization that this year would not be a simple strut to the national championship game. North Carolina, meanwhile, has suffered puzzling losses to Belmont at home and UAB in a winnable game on the road, but also stunned then-#1 Michigan State in East Lansing and defending national champion Louisville on a neutral floor. No one seems to know what to make of this Tar Heels squad, especially with PJ Hairston and Leslie McDonald still swimming in NCAA limbo. Today marks the renewal of the rivalry after a one-year hiatus between these goliath programs, each with plenty of question marks at this early stage of the season. RTC ACC microsite columnists Lathan Wells and Matt Patton break down the game in point/counterpoint style below.

How will North Carolina slow down Julius Randle? (M. Zerof/USA Today)

How will North Carolina slow down Julius Randle? (M. Zerof/USA Today)

Lathan: Kentucky’s strength obviously lies in its overall athleticism, but it seems that its dominance in the paint early has been the key to their victories. Do you see them overwhelming North Carolina there, or do the guards have to be the difference?

Matt: Kentucky has to get something from its guards, as North Carolina is one of the few teams in the country with the size to match up against the Wildcats in the frontcourt. That said, Willie Cauley-Stein and Julius Randle are tough for anyone to stop. Randle’s strength and athleticism makes him an impossible match-up, but the real key is that Kentucky has to play good defense. It’s no coincidence that Kentucky’s two losses have come during the only two times opponents have topped 1.1 points per possession against them. But I’ll ask a similar question. No one on North Carolina, apart from Marcus Paige, has shown the ability to make a three, and Kentucky has the second best two-point field goal defense in the country. Which will give first: Kentucky’s defense or North Carolina’s offense?

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Who Won The Week? Shabazz Napier, Memphis and Villanova…

Posted by Kenny Ocker on December 6th, 2013

Who Won the Week? is a regular column that will outline and discuss three winners and losers from the previous week. The author of this column is Kenny Ocker (@KennyOcker), a Spokane-based sportswriter best known for his willingness to drive (or bike!) anywhere to watch a basketball game. But he’s not biking anywhere with a sub-zero wind chill. 

WINNER: Shabazz Napier

UConn guard Shabazz Napier can claim two things after a buzzer-beating winning shot against Florida: Being America's top player, and being Who Won The Week's top winner.

UConn guard Shabazz Napier can claim two things after a buzzer-beating winning shot against Florida: Being America’s top player, and being Who Won The Week’s top winner.

The stellar UConn guard and his team only played one game last week, matching up against a ranked Florida squad. And Napier stole the show. Including the buzzer-beating free-throw-line fadeaway for the 65-64 win, the junior guard finished Monday night’s game in Storrs with 26 points on 9-of-15 shooting and a game-high three steals. It’s impressive to think that Kemba Walker’s backup backcourt mate during the Huskies’ 2011 title run has a solid case in being judged the best player in college basketball this season. If he keeps playing at his current level – the senior guard averages 16.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game – he could solidify that claim by the end of the year. Of course, some more luck coming his team’s way couldn’t hurt; including Monday’s game, three of the Huskies’ eight wins have come by a single point.

LOSER: Florida

Already down the services of Eli Carter for the year and freshman five-star recruit Kasey Hill for a couple more weeks due to injuries, Billy Donovan’s Gators could ill afford to lose another point guard. Bad news in Gainesville: Starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin is expected to be out indefinitely after sustaining a similar injury with three minutes left in Florida’s aforementioned loss to UConn. Wilbekin, who already missed five regular-season games due to an offseason suspension, was tough enough to replace as the starting point guard when Florida’s second and third options at the position were healthy. Instead, the Gators face an onslaught of Kansas and Memphis back-to-back on the next two Tuesdays.

To give credit where it’s due, the 67-66 home win over rival Florida State last week is nothing to sneeze at, though Wilbekin did have seven points, eight assists and five steals in that match-up.

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ACC M5: 12.05.13 Edition

Posted by Matt Patton on December 5th, 2013

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  1. Raleigh News & Observer: The story of the night was North Carolina dismantling Michigan State in East Lansing. Roy Williams has owned the Spartans since taking the helm in Chapel Hill, and his team flat outplayed Izzo’s in every respect. But James Michael McAdoo‘s struggles continued, as he finished 3-of-11 from the floor, 2-of-6 from the free throw line, and grabbed only four rebounds. It’s starting to look like Brice Johnson (14 points on 11 shots) and Kennedy Meeks (15 points on eight shots) will see more of McAdoo’s playing time. To be fair to McAdoo, his game isn’t suited for the three position (where a lot of his minutes are coming thanks to North Carolina’s thin roster on the wing), but with the way the current frontcourt is playing, it’s hard to argue that the Tar Heels would be better off with him back at power forward.
  2. Raleigh News & Observer: Nearly all the talk from Duke’s rout of Michigan Tuesday night was about the Blue Devils’ newfound toughness, defense and rebounding (probably all correlated), and that was certainly the biggest story from the game. But a sidenote to the game was that Rasheed Sulaimon earned the old DNP (coach’s decision). Afterwards Tyler Thornton cut straight to the point: “As a man, he has to step up and accept what he needs to do,” Thornton said. “We need him. That’s all I can really say about that.” However, I was struck watching the game that Sulaimon needs to step up quickly not because Duke needs him but precisely the opposite. If he’s in some proverbial Coach K dog house, it doesn’t help for Matt Jones and Tyler Thornton to piece together Duke’s best wing defense of the season (with Andre Dawkins providing his patented spark off the bench). Still, Thornton is right in that Duke needs Sulaimon on the court to achieve its potential this season.
  3. Sports Illustrated: CJ Fair is quietly filling the “go-to” guy role for Syracuse this year — at least, that’s the perception (largely thanks to some clutch shooting against Baylor in Maui). And don’t get me wrong, Fair’s athleticism and mid-range game still make him one of the best players in the conference (and he’s Syracuse’s most important offensive player not named Tyler Ennis). But he’s the least efficient Orange starter by a significant margin thanks to his proclivity to turn the ball over. Part of that is due to the offense Fair often runs (high-risk isolations), and there’s no question he makes his teammates better. But he needs to cut down on his turnovers, or running the offense through him will ultimately prove an error in judgment.
  4. Charlottesville Daily Progress: Looks like the quest-for-40 joke yesterday wasn’t such a joke after all. Virginia lost to Wisconsin at home despite holding the Badgers to under 29 percent shooting from the field. Only one player eked his way into double figures (Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser with 11). The Cavaliers didn’t hit a field goal during the last nine minutes of regulation nor the first 8:42 of the second half. That’s right, Virginia made a grand total of three field goals in the second half (all in a span of just over two minutes). That’s downright abysmal. Toss in a nearly 10-minute field goal drought in the first half and it’s amazing Tony Bennett’s team kept the game as close as it did.
  5. Soaring to Glory: If December really is make-or-break for Boston College, it’s looking like a break. I guess winning the ACC Tournament is always possible, but more and more that looks like the only way the Eagles will earn a ticket to the Big Dance. Boston College got beat by a not so great Purdue team on Wednesday night. Speaking of guys in the dog house, Patrick Heckmann got all of four minutes against the Boilermakers. Steve Donahue has said Heckmann isn’t hurt, which is confusing to say the least (during his freshman year before contracting mononucleosis, Heckmann was the team’s leading scorer).
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It’s a Love/Hate Relationship: Volume III

Posted by Jesse Baumgartner on December 4th, 2013

Jesse Baumgartner is an RTC columnist. His Love/Hate column will publish each week throughout the season. In this piece he’ll review the five things he loved and hated about the previous seven days of college basketball.

Five Things I Loved This Week

I LOVED…. Arizona‘s balance. So far, this year has been all about the fantastic freshmen and the individual talents that have really driven early-season interest in the college game. But I have yet to see a team that looked as consistently balanced across the floor as the Wildcats did against Duke last Friday night, particularly down low with stud freshman Aaron Gordon and veterans Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski. That tripod of length, skill and athleticism spells two things — high quality shots in the paint, and rebounds galore. And it’s really cleaning the glass that will be toughest on opponents in March and April, as we saw with Louisville’s run last season.

I LOVED…. a reasonable contract extension. Dana Altman has done a great job at Oregon, no question about it — he’s brought the Ducks back into the national picture, won NCAA Tournament games, and really put an exciting roster on the floor in Eugene (and hey, let’s just assume for argument’s sake that he had absolutely nothing to do with that horrific floor design). But while it seems like we see so many contracts these days that give out too much money/years on just a season or two of success, Altman’s three-year extension seems just right. Good job, here’s a cookie, and more to come as the program keeps growing.

Dana Altman Remains One of the Most Quietly Effective Coaches in the Country

I LOVED…. UMass back in the AP rankings for the first time in 15 years. You know, just another one of those programs John Calipari hit and ran on. Somewhere, someplace, Dr. J is smiling.

I LOVED…. seeing Villanova put in a solid performance in the Bahamas to outlast Kansas. I’ve always liked Jay Wright as a coach, and it seems like he’s nearing the point where he needs a solid NCAA Tournament run to reinforce that the program isn’t too far removed from the 2009 Final Four squad. For Kansas, that game seems to just reaffirm what is true for so many of these uber-talented, uber-young teams — any given night they can go down.

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North Carolina’s Collapse Against Belmont Exposes Lineup Problems

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on November 18th, 2013

Brad Jenkins is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report after Sunday afternoon’s North Carolina vs. Belmont game from Chapel Hill. 

Normally when a small school like Belmont wins a road game against a traditional power like North Carolina, it is deemed a major upset. But the Bruins’ 83-80 victory in Chapel Hill Sunday afternoon did not look like a big surprise. This statement has more to do with North Carolina’s team right now than it does with Belmont. After a lackluster win over a lightly-regarded Holy Cross on Friday night, RTC ACC microsite columnist Lathan Wells pointed out that North Carolina was suffering from an offensive identity crisis. As of Sunday, the Tar Heels are still looking for answers.

Roy Williams is Searching for Answers

Roy Williams is Searching for Answers in Chapel Hill

The story of the first half was certainly the pathetic 9-of-28 free throw performance by North Carolina, leaving the Heels behind by seven points at the half. They were better from the charity stripe in the second half but still finished a dismal 22-of-48 for the game. For a team with only one perimeter shooting threat in Marcus Paige, attacking the basket aggressively against the smaller Bruins would appear to be a sound strategy. The problem was that the two guys repeatedly getting fouled are both bad free throw shooters. J.P. Tokoto and James Michael McAdoo were a combined 15-of-35 from the free throw line on Sunday, but that’s not a total shock given their history: McAdoo shot 58% last year and Tokoto managed to make only 38.5% of his free throws. So maybe that strategy isn’t so great after all. The only real effective thing North Carolina did on the offensive end was hit the glass. The Heels collected 21 of their misses out of a possible 43, for a phenomenal offensive rebound rate approaching 50 percent.

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Sights & Sounds: Top Four Dunks, Season’s First RTC, & Cliff Alexander’s Fake-Out

Posted by rtmsf on November 18th, 2013

Another full weekend of college hoops is in the books, and although it didn’t hold the same level of excitement of the opening weekend, there were plenty of memorable moments. Here’s a collection of sights and sounds — buzzer-beaters, top dunks, and of course, the season’s first RTC — from the last three days. Enjoy.

Hilton Magic. The season’s first RTC took place on November 17, perhaps the earliest we’ve ever seen when Iowa State beat Michigan. Was it justified?


#4 Dunkdafied. Marshall’s Elijah Pittman got way, way up, and-one, for this lob against Morehead State on Sunday.


Buzzer-Beating. Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison hit a 75-footer right before the halftime buzzer versus Robert Morris, but unfortunately, he traveled before he released it. No bucket.


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Preseason ACC Microsite Awards: Joe Harris Preseason POY

Posted by Matt Patton on November 9th, 2013

The ACC microsite is happy to announce our preseason Player of the Year and all-ACC teams, as selected by the five writers contributing this season.

Preseason All-ACC

Some Notes:

  • Seven of 15 teams had at least one selection to the teams. Virginia and North Carolina led the way with two selections each.
  • Virginia’s Joe Harris received three of five votes for preseason ACC Player of the Year. Jabari Parker and CJ Fair received one vote each.
  • Harris and Fair were unanimous selections for the first team.
  • Duke’s Rodney Hood actually tied Virginia’s Akil Mitchell for votes, but Mitchell’s one first-team vote put him over the top in a tie-breaker.
  • Ryan Anderson, Quinn Cook, Travis McKie, Rasheed Sulaimon and Okaro White each received one second-team vote.
  • The first team has two seniors (Harris and Fair), two sophomores (Olivier Hanlan and TJ Warren) and one freshman (Parker).
  • The second team has more experience than the first team with three juniors and two seniors.
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20 Questions: Will PJ Hairston’s Eligibility Make or Break UNC This Season?

Posted by Bennet Hayes on November 9th, 2013

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When the Tar Heels left Coral Gables last February 9 as victims of a violent Miami beatdown, an NCAA Tournament bid was far from a certainty. NIT discussion had grown ever-real for one of college basketball’s flagship programs, and the aimless Heels headed north still seeking an identity. Enter P.J. Hairston. Roy Williams inserted his sixth man into the starting lineup four days later, playing the 6’5” Hairston as a de facto power forward in a small-ball lineup. The new look Heels would lose a tight one to Duke in Cameron that night, but they went on to win eight of their last 10 contests, comfortably earning an NCAA Tournament bid in the process. That lineup undoubtedly assisted in creating an identity on the court for UNC, but it’s no reach to say that P.J. Hairston was the key to salvaging the Carolina season.

UNC Will Miss The Spark That P.J. Hairston Supplies

UNC Will Miss The Spark That P.J. Hairston Supplies

Oh, what a difference an offseason can make. The headlines have come fast and furious all summer: a speeding ticket, an arrest for marijuana and gun possession, reckless driving, illegal benefits in the form of a rental car. All were transgressions attached to Hairston in the past six months, which has left his eligibility in a case of serious limbo right now. While we hope Hairston can get everything together for his own sake, it also leaves Roy Williams’ bunch in a tricky predicament heading into this season. We don’t know when (or if) Hairston will be back; will the man who saved the Heels’ season a year ago be needed to avoid disappointment this time around?

It’s pretty obvious that UNC will be a worse team without Hairston on the court. Not only did his insertion into the starting lineup set off that impressive end of year run, but his production was phenomenal throughout the year. He made 49 percent of his two-point field goals, 40 percent of three-point attempts, and 78 percent from the free throw line — shooting splits that helped give birth to an Offensive rating of 120.3, the 63rd best total in the nation. The most surprising element of efficiency in Hairston’s game last season, given his erratic reputation on (and now off) the court, was a minuscule turnover rate of 10.7 percent. It’s a metric that catch-and-shoot players (who rarely have to handle the ball) often shine in, and while Hairston does his fair share of spotting up, his dribble-drive game is used often enough for this percentage to really impress. Hairston may not always be the most willing defender (despite having all the necessary tools), but there really is no weakness in his offensive game.

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Roy Williams’ Two-Point Guard Lineup Not a Return to Small Ball for UNC

Posted by Lathan Wells on October 23rd, 2013

When Roy Williams stated on Tuesday that he is “convinced” that he will play both of his point guards (incumbent starter Marcus Paige and freshman Nate Britt) on the floor at the same time in the season opener against Oakland on November 8, North Carolina fans undoubtedly had immediate and mixed emotions. Last season’s UNC squad stumbled out of the gates by attempting to run a conventional five-man starting lineup, clearly not possessing enough refined talent in the post to stick with that brand of personnel. So at mid-season when Williams finally opted for a four-guard lineup that fans had been calling for, inserting P.J. Hairston into the lineup as an undersized four and moving James Michael McAdoo to the center position, the team won six straight after a close road loss to Duke and finished third in the conference, going so far as to advance to the ACC Tournament championship game.

Nate Britt will be paired at times this season with Marcus Paige in the UNC Backcourt.

Nate Britt will be paired at times this season with Marcus Paige in the UNC Backcourt.

All of that was great, Tar Heels fans would readily admit, but this is not a program that hangs its hat on regular season or even ACC Tournament success. This is a blue-blood basketball factory, and one that is supposed to reap its greatest rewards in the Big Dance. It was there that UNC ran into a Kansas team with size and experience in the frontcourt that their smaller lineup could not match, and the Jayhawks ended North Carolina’s season in the NCAA Tournament’s second round. For many, the season was not a success despite the encouraging uptick in play when the four-guard lineup was instituted.

This season is not last season, however, at least in terms of personnel and the way Williams expects to employ it. The Tar Heels’ 2013 recruiting class included forwards Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, talented freshmen big men who are expected to contribute immediately. UNC also expects substantially more consistent sophomore campaigns from returnees Joel James and Brice Johnson. James’ offseason has been spent making his game more refined to go along with his prodigious size in the middle, while Johnson conversely has been trying to beef up in order to be able to more successfully bang with opponents down low. Each showed flashes last year, and assistant coach Steve Robinson has long been lauded for his ability to maximize the potential from big men as they move from their freshmen to sophomore campaigns (see: John Henson). With the return of McAdoo for his junior season as well as the presence of steady if unspectacular reserves Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons, the Tar Heels can suddenly point to the frontcourt as their greatest area of depth.

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ACC M5: 10.17.13 Edition

Posted by Matt Patton on October 17th, 2013

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  1. Syracuse Post-Standard: This article isn’t new, but it’s relevant with Midnight Madnesses kicking off the college basketball season in earnest this week. Donna Ditota took the time to compile the start dates, Midnight Madness dates and exhibition games for all 15 ACC schools. This year eight teams will be participating in the late night festivities (including Pittsburgh, which has a “Morning Madness”). Notably, ESPNU will cover Duke and Syracuse specifically (along with seven other schools) this Friday night.
  2. Raleigh News & Observer: Duke dominated the media’s preseason ACC poll, receiving 50 of 54 first place votes. This is a bit surprising, as Duke has a significantly more challenging conference schedule than Syracuse – another top-10 team. Roy Williams reminded everyone of the absurdity of the preseason rankings: “‘I can only guarantee one thing,’ Roy says, holding up [the] preseason media ballot. ‘That crap ain’t happening.’”
  3. Winston-Salem Journal: Dan Collins writes longingly for the days when the best players stayed in school longer. Up until 1990 the only ACC player of the year to depart for the NBA was Michael Jordan (who left as a junior). That’s an unreal statistic in today’s age, where so few elite players even make it to their junior season. But Collins ignores the incentives that players now have to go pro, as NBA salaries boomed in the 1990s. The average player salary was $330,000 in 1984-85, Jordan’s first year in the league. Now it’s $5,200,000. Even after inflation, that’s a huge difference.
  4. Baltimore Sun: Mark Turgeon thinks that his team might be able to use its imminent departure from the ACC as motivation for a great season. I think this sentiment is a little trumped up. Maryland‘s upcoming journey to the Big Ten almost certainly played a role in the Terrapins avoiding Duke or North Carolina at home this season. That said, I’m not sure players will feel the same fire that the fans do. Now does that mean I think Maryland will sit back and take a beating in their last match-up with Duke? Definitely not.
  5. State of the U: Jerry Steinberg is a little generous with his rankings, but does a good job assessing the big men around the ACC. I think the two most interesting teams to watch in the post will be Florida State with its army of seven-footers, and North Carolina. I want to go on record that Boris Bojanovsky will become a very good offensive player by the end of his career. Maybe not this year, but he has a lot of upside for Leonard Hamilton. The Tar Heels have a ton of talent down low, but everyone seemed at least a year away last season. Between James Michael McAdoo, Joel James, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, Roy Williams has plenty of frontcourt talent at his disposal.
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RTC 2013-14 Post-NBA Draft Deadline Top 25

Posted by KDoyle on April 30th, 2013

Although we are less than a month removed from Louisville’s win over Michigan in the National Championship game, it certainly isn’t too soon to look ahead to what the 2013-14 season has in store. With this past Sunday the deadline to declare for the June NBA Draft, we now have a much better idea who the top teams in the country should be once the ball is tipped again in November. In looking at the top of our Post-NBA Draft Deadline Top 25, there are three teams bunched together separated by just three votes — in fact, Louisville and Michigan State are knotted together at the top. It isn’t all too often that a team wins it all, graduates its starting point guard, has its best frontcourt player leave for the NBA, and is still perhaps the top team in the nation, but that’s the case for Rick Pitino and his Cardinals. With Russ Smith and Chane Behanan returning, Louisville will be the early favorites to win the AAC — the ACC, keep in mind, doesn’t come for UofL until 2014. Michigan State received good news on Sunday when Adreian Payne announced he would be returning to East Lansing for his senior season. Payne’s return, coupled with the return of Gary Harris — the Big Ten Freshman of the Year — and Keith Appling, make the Spartans a legitimate championship contender next season. Lastly, there’s Kentucky. Did you really think Cal & Co. weren’t going to be up there? They may not be ranked #1 at this point, but with a downright scary recruiting class incoming boasted by the Harrison twins and Julius Randle — perhaps the top Class of 2013 recruit — the Wildcats’ expectations are sky high. Despite not finishing in the Top 25 and losing at Robert Morris in the NIT, Kentucky will enter 2013-14 as a top three team in the RTC .

The usual Quick ‘n Dirty after the jump…

2013-14 RTC Top 25

Quick n’ Dirty:

Whether it is through an exceptional recruiting class, or an impressive finish to the 2012-13 season coupled with a strong nucleus returning, the following four teams surged upward — and for good reason.

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