The Five Stories We Will Remember From the 2013-14 Season

Posted by Bennet Hayes on April 10th, 2014

It just so happened that two of the biggest stories from the first night of this college basketball season happened to be the two most prominent narratives on the season’s final evening. Back on November 8, Shabazz Napier’s 18-point, seven-rebound, seven-assist effort propelled UConn to a one-point victory over Maryland, while some 700 miles away, the most decorated and anticipated freshman class in college hoops history debuted at Rupp Arena, blasting UNC-Asheville, 89-57. Almost exactly five months to that night, Napier was again dazzling and the microscope remained firmly fixed on those gifted Kentucky freshmen, except this time they shared the same court at AT&T Stadium – the season’s final stage. Both national title combatants will survive as integral pieces in the memory of this 2013-14 season, but in between opening night and Championship Monday, countless other teams, players, and storylines seized our attention. Below are the five stories (beyond the Wildcats and Huskies) that I will remember most from a college basketball season that was never, ever boring.

The Shockers Were Unable To Author An NCAA Tournament Fit For Their Dream Season, But Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker And Co. Were Still The Story Of This College Basketball Season

The Shockers Were Unable To Author An NCAA Tournament Ending Fit For Their Dream Season, But Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker And Co. Were Still The Story Of 2013-14

5. Pac-12 Revival. We missed you, Pac-12. It’d been a minute since the league summoned up a national title contender, much less a deep and balanced assemblage of teams to chase that front-runner, but the Pac-12 was able to do just that in 2013-14. Even with Brandon Ashley’s mid-January season-ending ACL tear muddying Arizona’s March forecast, the Wildcats put together a regular season worthy of a #1 seed, and entered the NCAA Tournament on the short list of favorites before falling a point short of the Final Four in an Elite Eight loss to Wisconsin. Five other teams from the conference made the field of 68, with both Stanford and a revived UCLA squad (that Steve Alford hiring doesn’t look so bad now) making the Sweet Sixteen. College hoops is officially back on the West Coast.

4. Marcus Smart. He began the season as a presumptive top-five pick and popular leader of a top-10 team, but found his national image devolve into that of a controversial hothead with a soft spot for flopping. On his way out, Smart claimed he still believes he made the right decision in returning to Stillwater for his sophomore season, but Oklahoma State’s disastrous campaign (despite a late-season surge to make the NCAA Tournament and save a tiny bit of face) and his plummeting draft stock should raise suspicions that, perhaps for old time’s sake, Smart staged this final act as a Poke in some place far from reality. It would only make sense, because in 2014, Marcus Smart was nothing if not drama.

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Your Way-Too-Early 2014-15 Pac-12 Power Rankings

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on April 9th, 2014

Another season in the books; another Pac-12 disappointment. We’ve got plenty of time to look back on the 2013-14 season, but it is onward and upward from here as we briefly look ahead to next year. We’re still not entirely sure exactly which of the players we watched this year will move on to greener pastures, and there are sure to be some surprise transfers (both incoming and outgoing) ahead of us, but in the days after the national championship, it is time to start dreaming about the 2015 NCAA Tournament. Below are our way-too-early Pac-12 power rankings.

Arizona's Back In The Familiar Spot of A 1-Seed And An NCAA Favorite (Casey Sapio, USA Today)

McConnell, Hollis-Jefferson, and Tarczewski, Among Others, Make Arizona The Pac-12 Favorite Again (Casey Sapio, USA Today)

  1. Arizona – Sure, Aaron Gordon’s stay in Tucson was brief. And yeah, Pac-12 Player of the Year Nick Johnson may join him in the NBA. But barring some surprises, five of the following six players are going to be comprising Sean Miller’s starting lineup next season: T.J. McConnell, Gabe York, Stanley Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley, Kaleb Tarczewski. Goodness gracious sakes alive, that is a lot of talent. And, the West Regional will not be held in Anaheim next season, so let’s go ahead and pencil Miller and his Wildcats into his first-ever Final Four.
  2. Stanford – Johnny Dawkins and company broke through this year with their first NCAA Tournament appearance under the current regime. And while some important players move on, a returning nucleus of combo guard Chasson Randle, wing Anthony Brown and big man Stefan Nastic is solid. Throw in a recruiting class with four different four-star recruits (as ranked by ESPN) and a bevy of talented returning youngsters and we’ll make the Cardinal the best bet in the league to challenge the Wildcats. Read the rest of this entry »
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What’s Trending: #BBN (again), Tucson “Riots,” Mid-Majority and More…

Posted by Nick Fasulo (@nickfasuloSBN) on March 31st, 2014

What’s Trending is a column examining the week that was in college basketball social media. Nick Fasulo (@nickfasuloSBN) is your weekly host.

Lots, LOTS of incredible moments from the last four days of the NCAA Tournament. Maybe the best collection of regional semifinal and final games in years, and below may be the greatest snapshot of the bunch.

andrew harrison michigan elite 8

Following the Cardiac Cats’ improbable win over Michigan (following equally improbable wins against Wichita State and Louisville… seriously, what a run from these young Wildcats), Coach Cal spoke to the team. He also gave Marcus Lee a hug. Coach Cal loves Marcus Lee.

“Riots” in Tucson

I’ll never understand why fans riot in defeat. This one, after Arizona missed two shots to win with seconds remaining, makes the scene in Tucson from Saturday night even more baffling. Also, this #riotselfie captures the current sad state of our country right now.

Gators Eat Bruins

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Disappointing Endings For Arizona, UCLA, and Stanford, But The Future Is Bright

Posted by AMurawa on March 31st, 2014

Six NCAA Tournament teams, three Sweet Sixteen seasons, one Elite Eight appearance and yet when the final quartet of teams still standing show up at the Final Four next weekend in North Texas, there will not be a Pac-12 team among them. This will now mark the sixth consecutive season (dating back to the last of UCLA’s three straight last decade) where college basketball’s premier weekend will dance away without a Pac-12 partner. So, yeah, Pac-12 fans, in a year where the hope was that the Pac was back, you’re right to feel some disappointment.

Worse yet, along with outgoing seniors like Roberto Nelson and Justin Cobbs and Mike Moser and C.J. Wilcox, the conference has also seen the last of guys like Kyle Anderson and Aaron Gordon and Jahii Carson and Zach LaVine with guys like Nick Johnson, Jordan Adams, Joseph Young, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson still weighing their options. But you know what? These are good things. It hurts to see guys like these go, but such is the nature of the beast. And in the long run, a program like Arizona providing an appealing and welcoming temporary landing spot for a player the caliber of Gordon will make it more likely that future Aaron Gordons will wind up playing for Sean Miller as well. And, in the great circle of life that is college athletics, out goes Gordon, in comes Stanley Johnson; rinse and repeat.

While Aaron Gordon's Time In Tucson Is Short, His Success Will Pay Dividends For the Arizona Program

While Aaron Gordon’s Time In Tucson Is Short, His Success Will Pay Dividends For the Arizona Program

Below, three quick thoughts on the status of the three Pac-12 schools whose seasons ended this past weekend in the NCAA Tournament.

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Zach LaVine: One-And-Done at UCLA

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 28th, 2014

Not only did UCLA fall to Florida on Thursday night, but Friday morning the news broke that freshman guard Zach LaVine would be joining sophomore point guard Kyle Anderson in leaving school early. Anderson was a lock to leave all along, as he had a spectacular season and is in the discussion for a lottery pick in this June’s NBA Draft. LaVine, however, was more of a borderline case. He’s clearly not ready to make an immediate impact in the NBA, but his length, athleticism and deep shooting range have intrigued scouts since November when he made a big splash early in the season. He’ll need to get stronger, develop a game off the bounce, and improve his defense, and these things will likely require time in the NBA’s Developmental League. But you can bet that LaVine’s upside will earn the attention of somebody at some point in the first round of this year’s draft, meaning a guaranteed contract and time to develop. Sure, selfishly, we would have liked to see LaVine’s high-flying game take the next step at the collegiate level, but that became a pipe dream over the course of the year.

Zach LaVine's Athleticism And Shooting Accuracy Have NBA Scouts Intrigued

Zach LaVine’s Athleticism And Shooting Accuracy Have NBA Scouts Intrigued

LaVine’s departure leaves some big questions for UCLA. First, with Anderson and LaVine both gone and with Jordan Adams potentially mulling a similar jump to the NBA, a deep and impactful Bruins backcourt could turn into a weakness next season. Norman Powell will be back for his senior season, and he’s definitely developed into a fine asset for UCLA. Bryce Alford appears to be the point guard in waiting, and he’s a fine player with plenty of upside even if he appears further and further from winning over the UCLA fan base with every game. And four-star combo guard Isaac Hamilton will be eligible next season and figures to have the ball in his hands a lot. Even if Adams doesn’t return, that group of three is solid, even if the Bruins will likely need to go sign another guard for depth. But clearly, the strength of the team will need to shift to the frontcourt, where Tony Parker will return for his junior season and be joined by four incoming freshmen, highlighted by five-star power forward Kevon Looney and a pair of four-star bigs (Thomas Welsh and Jonah Bolden).

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Assessing the Steve Alford Era at UCLA Almost One Year In

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 26th, 2014

It was a year ago this week that the change was made at UCLA. Ben Howland was dismissed after an opening round NCAA loss to Minnesota, and the following week, on Saturday morning of the Elite Eight to be precise, UCLA announced that it would hire New Mexico head coach Steve Alford – who had just recently agreed to a lengthy contract extension with that school after its own untimely exit from the NCAA Tournament – as the 13th head coach in the storied program’s history.

Steve Alford, UCLA

The Steve Alford Era Had A Bumpy Start, But Has Settled Into A Nice Groove (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

Suffice it to say that the beginning of the Alford era in Westwood did not begin smoothly. The hire was greeted with anywhere from an outright disdain for the choice to a more wait-and-see approach, but few if any saw the hire as a home run. (Here, we called it a solid line-drive single, and our response was probably one of the more favorable ones you may have read). From those initial reactions, the temperature dipped dramatically over the next week after an unreceptive opening press conference delved into his handling of a sexual assault case at Iowa 11 years earlier and went downhill from there. A week later Alford finally apologized for his handling of that case and an uneasy truce with the local media began.

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The Pac-12 Season: It’s Been A Wild Ride So Far

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on March 25th, 2014

Well, at long last, after an up-and-down season, we can probably pretty safely say: The Pac is Back! Fully buying into the fact that NCAA Tournament performance alone does not equate to the quality of a conference, it is still fun to have three teams dancing in the second week of the tourney. The last time our fair conference had as many teams in the Sweet Sixteen was back in 2008, when it was still just the Pac-10 and also the last time a conference team made the Final Four (UCLA). Between 2009 and 2012, a total of just three teams made the Sweet Sixteen over that four-year span. Things finally ticked up last year with Oregon and Arizona representing us well, and now, we’re back to the promised land. So, how did we get here? Let’s take a quick look back and see.

Pac-12First, I want to admit that I’ve jumped on and off this bandwagon several times this season. Back in the preseason I made the call of seven Pac-12 teams getting invited to the NCAA Tournament and Stanford advancing to the Sweet Sixteen. The former prediction just missed, but the latter actually came true. Still, no use in me taking credit (or blame, for that matter) for either, because god knows I’ve tried to walk both of those back time and again. In early February, I was sitting through a UCLA blowout of Colorado in Pauley Pavilion and began a post (that I never got around to finishing) writing off the concept of seven Pac-12 NCAA Tournament teams entirely, and making the argument that the conference was closer to winding up with just three teams in the field. So there’s that.

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NCAA Regional Reset: South Region

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 25th, 2014

RTC_tourneycoverage

Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is the NCAA Tournament’s South Region correspondent, which begins Thursday night at FedEx Forum in Memphis with Dayton vs. Stanford followed by UCLA vs. Florida. Look out for the West Regional Reset later today and the East and Midwest Resets tomorrow. Make sure to also follow @RTCSouthRegion for news and analysis from Memphis throughout the week.

As usual, Billy Donovan has his Gators right in the thick of the title chase. (Getty)

Billy Donovan Is On The Verge Of Orchestrating Yet Another Florida Final Four Appearance. Is There A Team Remaining In This South Region That Can Disrupt The Gators’ March To Dallas? (Getty)

New Favorite: #1 Florida. Nothing has changed on this front. The Gators looked as overwhelming as ever in their third round defeat of Pittsburgh, and with only one other top-nine seed remaining in the region, the NCAA Tournament’s #1 overall seed is in fantastic shape to make its way to Dallas. The Sweet Sixteen match-up with UCLA won’t be easy, but more on that later – the Gators are still the South region’s clear favorite.

Horse of Darkness: #11 Dayton. This quadrant offered plenty of candidates for the honor, but with apologies to Stephen F. Austin (only one win) and Stanford (too familiar a brand), the Dayton Flyers advancing to their first Sweet Sixteen since 1984 makes for the South Region’s best Cinderella story. We make loyal Flyer fans pretend like the First Four is a big deal annually – and their love of basketball prevents them from failing in this pursuit – so it’s only fair that they finally get something to cheer about from their own team. On February 1, Archie Miller’s club (1-5 in the Atlantic 10 at the time) wasn’t even one of the top eight teams in their own conference, but after a late-season surge and this unexpected Tourney run, the Flyers will play on Thursday for a chance to be one of the final eight teams left standing in all of college basketball. What. A. Turnaround.

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Rushed Reactions: #4 UCLA 77, #12 Stephen F. Austin 60

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 23rd, 2014

RTC_tourneycoverage

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion, @RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

Kyle Anderson (left), Zach LaVine, and Norman Powell had a lot to celebrate about as the Bruins easily advanced to the Sweet 16. (AP)

Kyle Anderson (left), Zach LaVine, and Norman Powell had a lot to celebrate about as the Bruins easily advanced to the Sweet 16. (AP)

  1. UCLA – Sweet Sixteen. Remember back when this program was absolutely rolling under Ben Howland in the middle of the last decade? That went away fast, sure. But, now for the first time since 2008, the Bruins are back in the Sweet Sixteen, this time under first-year head coach Steve Alford — who himself is back in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1999 at Southwest Missouri State. Picky UCLA fans did not take kindly to Alford upon his hire and they took an even longer time to come around to this fun and exciting young team. But this weekend in San Diego, UCLA fans traveled well, were enthusiastic throughout, and seem to be back on the bandwagon. Their biggest nemesis from the last decade – Florida – is once again in the way. And if things do not go well on Thursday in Memphis, there might be a lot of Bruins’ fans with broken ankles as they jump back off the bandwagon, complaining about an easy path to the Sweet Sixteen and other silliness. But for now, UCLA basketball is cool again.
  2. Stormin’ Norman. Under Alford, Norman Powell found increased minutes, an increased role, and a level of freedom that he clearly enjoys. For a guy who was rumored to be considering transferring at the end of last season, he turned into a difference-maker for the Bruins this season. And in the postseason (including Pac-12 Tournament play), he’s taken his game to a new level. He has regularly harassed his man on defense into off games (today for instance, he held Friday night’s star Desmond Haymon to 3-of-11 shooting), he got nine steals in five games, and he made countless highlight-reel plays. Today’s best was putting the ball behind his back in transition just prior to laying the ball in deftly between a couple of defenders for a hoop. And then, rather than celebrate his play, he got back on defense and knocked a pass out of bounds to kill an SFA transition attempt.
  3. Scrappy ‘Jacks. The Lumberjacks, led by sophomore forward Thomas Walkup, are a team that is hard not to like. The bulk of their team is between 6’3” and 6’6”, but they play bigger than their size, they get after it on defense, they sell out for loose balls and they’re just talented enough (seems like everybody can stroke a jumper and make a pretty pass) to play a little finesse game on offense. Walkup in particular won over quite a few fans this weekend. A 6’4” sophomore forward who plays bigger than his size and older than his age, he does just about everything well. He drew early fouls on the bigger UCLA frontcourt, he grabbed eight boards in the first 11 minutes of action he saw, he defended with passion, he was a facilitator for the squad in the high post, he knocked down jumpers; he did everything but hand out water bottles in the huddle. The ‘Jacks lose three seniors, but expect them to be a force in the Southland going forward. Read the rest of this entry »
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Rushed Reaction: #4 UCLA 76 #13 Tulsa 59

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 22nd, 2014

RTC_tourneycoverage

Rush the Court will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of each of the NCAA Tournament from each of the 13 sites this year. Follow our NCAA Tourney specific Twitter accounts at @RTCeastregion@RTCMWregion,@RTCsouthregion and @RTCwestregion.

Three Key Takeaways.

  1. UCLA Defense. Let’s face it, the star of the show in most UCLA games is going to be the Bruins’ highly efficient offense, currently ranked 13th in the nation. Future pros abound and even those without professional futures are above-average offensive players. But for this team to make a run in this Tournament, they need to be able to improve upon what was a defensive slide late in the regular season. Last week in the Pac-12 Tournament, they took the first steps down that path, and they continued that today. They focused in on Tulsa’s leading scorer and rebounder James Woodard,  making sure that he wouldn’t beat them, and in the deciding second half, they limited him to a single point. Down the stretch, after the Golden Hurricane had pulled to within five points, the Bruins held them to just two points over the next seven possessions and forced three turnovers along the way. The Bruins’ offense is a given; but when they turn up the defense is when they can become special.

    Norman Powell's Defensive Intensity And Transition Explosiveness Are A Key To UCLA's Success (Associated Press)

    Norman Powell’s Defensive Intensity And Transition Explosiveness Are A Key To UCLA’s Success (Associated Press)

  2. Norman Powell. Of all the talented UCLA guards this season, it seems Powell – the team’s third starting guard – has flown under the radar somehow. Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams are all-conference types, Zach LaVine earned plenty of buzz with his phenomenal start to the season; and of course, Bryce Alford has been the subject of plenty of talk. But Powell has been rock solid all year. Maybe the team’s best perimeter defender, he’s a whirlwind in transition and a more-than-capable performer in the half-court offense. And tonight, down the stretch, he was Adams’ running mate, regularly making big-time plays on the way to transition hoops. Most spectacularly, with just over four minutes left and UCLA starting to run away, Powell ran under a long Tulsa pass in the backcourt, like a free safety tracking an errant bomb, corralled the ball, tip-toed along the baseline to remain in bounds, then turned, attacked the rim and finished with the hoop and the harm to put a nail in Tulsa’s coffin. All told, UCLA outscored Tulsa 21-5 on points off of turnovers, a big part of which came off of plays by Powell and Adams. Read the rest of this entry »
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History Lesson: What 2014 UCLA Can Learn From 1994 UCLA’s Loss Against Tulsa

Posted by Andrew Murawa on March 21st, 2014

When UCLA hosts Tulsa this evening in San Diego, the Bruins will be solid favorites over an upstart Golden Hurricane team, much as they were 20 years ago when they lost to a Tubby Smith-coached Tulsa team that advanced to the Sweet Sixteen before eventually losing to national champion Arkansas. Below, we’ll compare a few areas where that 1994 team failed with what this year’s UCLA team needs to do in order to advance to Sunday’s round of 32.

Shea Seals, Here Stealing The Ball From Charles O'Bannon, Helped Tulsa To A First-Round Win Over UCLA in 1994

Shea Seals, Here Stealing The Ball From Charles O’Bannon, Helped Tulsa To A First-Round Win Over UCLA in 1994

Show up ready to play. No offense to that talented Golden Hurricane team of 20 years ago, but it was clear from the start that UCLA did not show up ready to play. The Bruins didn’t take their opponent seriously prior to the game (I believe the quote was: “Tulsa – where’s that?”) and once the game did start, their defensive effort was lackluster at best in the halfcourt, while in transition it was even worse. Priority number one for Steve Alford is to avoid any repeats of games like the regular season finale at Washington State where the team basically confessed that it focused on the task at hand. Roll out tape of the Wazzu game; roll out tape of Tulsa 20 years ago; do what you gotta do, but make sure everybody is focused on this game and this game only. Coming off Saturday afternoon’s emotional Pac-12 Tournament win over Arizona, everybody needs to be able to duplicate that energy and take James Woodard, Rashard Smith, Shaquille Harrison and company as seriously as they took Nick Johnson, Aaron Gordon and T.J. McConnell.

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Bracket Prep: On Wichita’s Draw, the Loaded South and Non-Conference SOS…

Posted by Chris Johnson on March 17th, 2014

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At this point, you’ve probably filled out at least five brackets and torn up a few more. There are some match-ups you can’t wait to see and others you’re not so psyched about. There are trendy upset possibilities you agree with and some you’re staying away from precisely because everyone else seems to be leaning that way. You feel good about two of your four Final Four picks; the other two are toss-ups. If you filled out multiple brackets, there may be 16 teams about which you’ve casually tell your friends and co-workers, “I have them in the Final Four.” Me? I filled out one bracket, but I’m not here today to reveal my picks. That’d be more embarrassing than anything else; over the years I’ve come to learn a painful lesson: Watching and write about college hoops doesn’t make you any more likely to win your bracket pool than your football-obsessed friend who’s taken in two full games all season. What you see below are simply the first four thoughts that coalesced in my mind after I printed and scanned this year’s bracket for the first time, mere minutes after the selection show.

The Midwest region isn't as tough as it seems (Getty).

The Midwest region isn’t as tough as it seems (AP).

Did Wichita State Really Get ‘Screwed’? 

The reaction to Wichita State’s placement in the Midwest region with #2 Michigan, #3 Duke, #4 Louisville and #8 Kentucky was nearly unanimous: The Shockers are toast. This sentiment is understandable. Duke and Michigan are incredibly tough to guard; both rank in the top three in the country in points scored per possession. Louisville ranks second in Ken Pomeroy’s team ratings and has won 12 of its last 13 games, seemingly peaking at the perfect time. And in three SEC Tournament games, Kentucky more closely resembled the juggernaut we all predicted in the preseason – wrongfully, might I add – that would reach the Final Four. None of those teams will be easy to beat. This is a tough region; I’m not disputing that. Wichita State will have its hands full, for sure. But saying Wichita State got ‘screwed,’ or even that it faces a much tougher road to Arlington than, say, Florida, is a bit of a stretch, if you ask me. The most arduous path the Shockers could face is the following: Kentucky in the round of 32, Louisville in the Sweet Sixteen, and Duke in the Elite Eight. The only game out of those three I wouldn’t take Wichita State in is against Louisville, and that one would be a toss-up.

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