A quick college basketball primer for those of you just joining us in March
Close your eyes. Now, a quick show of hands if you haven’t given college basketball the attention it deserves yet this season. Be honest. You won’t be penalized for this on the final exam. Open your eyes and look around. Wow, a lot more folks than you thought. There’s no shame to be had here; this is a judgment-free zone.
Every year, a big group of people come on board the college basketball train at the beginning of March. Conference tournaments are coming up, and everyone needs to do their research for their bracket pools, unless of course you’re going with the tried and true color or mascot methods.
Football is long in the rearview mirror, winter is letting up a bit, spring training has drawn the baseball crowd back into life, golf and racing are here again, and the NBA/NHL still have what feel like six months left in the season. Now’s the perfect time to get caught up, and since there isn’t a DVR or College Basketball On Demand option, here are 10 storylines to get you up to speed as we enter the madness.
1.Freshmen reign supreme. This year, like many others, the crop of talented newcomers has pretty much taken over. Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis has a knack for keeping calm in late-game situations and is a big part of the reason why the Orange started the year 25-0. Jabari Parker lived up to the hype after a short lull in January and has Duke in a good position to earn a two-seed as of now. First-year guys dominate at both Kansas (wing Andrew Wiggins, center Joel Embiid) and Kentucky (forward Julius Randle, guards James Young, brothers Aaron and Andrew Harrison). Arizona’s Aaron Gordon has played beyond his years for a big majority of the season and has a high future ceiling. These guys could be future stars in the NBA, but they’re here now playing at a high level. Get to know them.
2. The Big Ten is a beautiful mess. Trying to make sense of the Big Ten in 2014 is like attempting to understand all the symbolism and allusions in a Thomas Pynchon novel. Just pick up what you can and enjoy “riding across the country in a bus driven by a maniac bent on suicide.” Each time we’ve thought we had a grasp on who was going to wrest control away from the rest of the conference, Northwestern would beat Wisconsin or Penn State would beat Ohio State (twice!) or Indiana would beat Iowa. Basically, the top is a cast of five — Iowa, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin — and you’ll want to focus on them. Minnesota and Nebraska are fun, but we don’t have time. Iowa plays with frenzy and chaos. Michigan State has the Izzo factor. Ohio State actually isn’t as good as its name would suggest and is a prime early-round exit target. Michigan is super athletic but very volatile. Wisconsin played some of its best ball in February after losing to the Buckeyes on the first day of the month. You’ll try to pick the best Big Ten team, and you’ll probably be wrong. Don’t get angry. Embrace the allure of randomness and blind chance.
3. Conference realignment is still a thing. If you’re confused as to why Xavier is no longer in the A-10 or why Notre Dame is playing in the ACC (but not technically in football) or who the heck is in the WAC now, settle down. Take a deep breath. We’re going to get through this. Notre Dame, Pitt and Syracuse are in the ACC. This is a thing, get used to it. Louisville will be in the ACC next year but is still in the AAC. The Big East is a few regular Big East teams — basically the ones who didn’t bolt when the football conference collapsed — along with Butler, Xavier and Creighton. The A-10 is kind of a mixture of some old (Dayton, Saint Joseph’s, Richmond, Saint Louis, etc.) and some new (VCU, George Mason). The WAC and the C-USA are pretty much completely different. There are plenty of articles where you can catch up, but keep an open mind. Things are going to be weird for awhile, but it’ll all be okay.
4. Remember Wichita State from last year? It has had a pretty good season. Actually, if you’re just joining us this season, you’ve missed one of the most annoying debates in recent memory: The old “Who have they played????” conversation that typically dominated college football in the BCS era. Wichita State — yes, the same team that made the Final Four last year—is 30-0. The campaign speeches and soapboxing and handwringing haven’t stopped since the Shockers became the only unbeaten after Syracuse lost to Boston College on Feb. 19. Ignore the look-at-me-fingers-placed-firmly-in-ears-feet-stomping of college basketball analysts and focus on the actual team. A few guys from that Final Four team are still big contributors — Cleanthony Early, Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet, Tekele Cotton — and they’ve gotten more efficient on offense and defense as a whole. Sure the strength of schedule has taken a dip. Yeah, there are arguments to be made that the Shockers didn’t exactly seek out premier non-conference competition. At the end of the day, they’re built for a deep run, whether they ultimately earn a one-seed or not.
5. Doug McDermott is still in college. I know, I’m as shocked as you are. But Doug McBuckets is still tearing it up in this his
seventh senior season. He’s averaging 26 points per game and close to seven rebounds on 52-percent shooting (44.3 percent from beyond the arc). This kid isn’t a “mid-major darling” or a “small school player;” he’s arguably the player of the year in college basketball. Creighton is for real. The move to the Big East proved that. Don’t underestimate the ‘Jays — or McDermott — come tournament time.
6. Surprise! Most of the teams you thought were ranked will likely be high seeds. If you Rip Van Winkled the past 10 years, you’d think you were way behind the times. You really wouldn’t be. The usual suspects are still there: Duke, UNC, Gonzaga, Louisville, Villanova, Arizona, Florida, Kentucky, Syracuse, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Kansas, UConn, Cincinnati and Ohio State are all going to be right there at the top of the tournament field. But a few others to consider are in the fold. Both Iowa and Iowa State are dangerous (no, really!). SMU, coached by that Larry Brown, is right there. VCU commands respect. And Texas … no one’s really sure what to make of Texas, but treat a Rick Barnes team with the same caution you always would.
7. Don’t forget about the West Coast. East Coast Bias is a real problem. It’s maybe trickled into the middle of the country, too (shout out Big 12), but it never fails to burn even the most cautious basketball fans. Repeat after me: There are good teams in the west. Say it again. Say it in front of a mirror, if you have to, with your hands on your hips. This is important. You’ll be tempted to discount Arizona because you weren’t awake to see them play much or because your buddy told you the Pac-12 isn’t all that great. San Diego State, Arizona State and Gonzaga play extremely good basketball. UCLA is a wildcard (but Steve Alford’s shaky tournament record is still in play). Colorado, New Mexico and BYU are sneaky. Don’t let prejudice get in the way of a good bracket.
8. There are Cinderellas out there. A few have been mentioned already, although you can’t consider VCU, Creighton, Wichita State or Gonzaga mid-majors anymore. Saint Louis is on the cusp, but the Billikens have been doing this for years now. Look a bit deeper, yes, even past the Aztecs and the Lobos. I’m talking teams like Belmont, Iona, North Dakota State, Southern Miss, Stephen F. Austin (which is 26-2!), Green Bay, Harvard or Louisiana Tech. Obviously conference tournaments can throw this into a bit of upheaval, but watch how teams are playing down the stretch. If they’re on a hot streak, they’ve got a couple good non-conference wins on their resume and they have a go-to scorer (or a few experienced veterans), they could bust some brackets.
9. Smile, Georgetown probably can’t hurt you this year. We’ve all been there. “I know Georgetown’s burned us in the past, but they’ve changed. They mean it this time. They’re poised and experienced.” Blammo, first-round exit. Never fear: After making a run in early February, the Hoyas (16-12, 7-9 Big East) have dropped three of their last four and are currently on the wrong side of the bubble. There’s always a chance they could play their way in, but at least you know better now. Right? Right?
10. KenPom is your friend. Resist the urge to say stats are for nerds. They aren’t. Predictive models and advanced statistics aren’t going away. They’re only getting stronger and being used more often. It’s about how you filter them that matters. Ken Pomeroy’s site (and this is nothing new, mind you) is one of the best at organizing a big stream of data and making a cheat sheet out of it. Need strength of schedule info? Want to know if this team is any good at rebounding? How they defend the three? It’s all right there. Pay the nominal fee and get smarter.