The start of the 2014-15 College Basketball season is upon us. For most of America College Basketball is a niche sport. It’s a game that most sports fans only pay attention to from “Selection Sunday” until the first weekend of April when the nets are snipped and a new champion is crowned. As for the rest of us who dwell within the niche, well, College Basketball is life. To us it’s the greatest sport in the world with the greatest method of determining a champion.
The NCAA tournament is a true meritocracy. It’s a place where Davids have a puncher’s chance against Goliaths. The underdog stories play out in front of us every year, and every year a new Cinderella captures our imaginations. True as this may be the clock almost never fails to strike midnight for America’s newfound March sweetheart.
Only twice since 1986 when the 3 point line was introduced has an NCAA champion not come from an upper tier league like the ACC, Big10, SEC, PAC12, Big 12, or Big East. It happened once in 1990 when the enigmatic Jerry “The Shark” Tarkanian led a UNLV squad with 5 NBA players to a title out of the Mountain West Conference. It happened again last year when UConn came out of the AAC to cut the nets in Dallas; but, the Huskies were still loaded with talented players (like Shabazz Napier) who had made names for themselves in the old Big East.
It’s a trend that has been on the brink several times over the last few years with teams like Butler and Wichita State crashing the party. But, with the exception of a few outliers, that horse drawn carriage always turns back into a pumpkin. Don’t look for the trend to stop this year either. The prevailing thought among many students of the game is that this year’s Final Four in Indianapolis will be a group of power house programs. With that in mind, here’s a look at 6 teams you might see playing in a regional final for one of the coveted four slots.
This high profile program has been a lightning rod for attention every year since John Calipari arrived to take over from Billy Gillispie. Love’ em or hate’ em, and it’s usually one or the other with Big Blue, this team is going to be an absolute juggernaut in 2014. There are at least 9 players on this roster who are already showing up on virtually every mock draft board you can find for 2015 and 2016.
In the NCAA tournament you normally see a Goliath fall for one of several reasons. They get worn down, they get into foul trouble, they let another team dictate a style of play that they’re not comfortable with, or sometimes the shots just aren’t falling. With a wealth of diverse talent at his disposal, it’s hard to see how any of these tripping points will cause the Wildcats to stumble come March.
Another thing working in Kentucky’s favor in 2014 is that they return six players who made it to the championship game last season. That’s a lot of tournament experience and a lot of guys on a mission to finish a job they fell just shy of completing a year ago. Four of the last five National Champions have had players who climbed their way to the summit only to be struck down short of the mountain top.
It’s hard to pick a “key player” on a team filled with so many studs, but if there’s one to be found for this team it would be Willey Cauley-Stein. Stein is an extremely versatile big man. A true seven footer who can effectively guard the pick and roll against much smaller guards who would normally blow past a five-spot on the switch. He’s also a big time shot blocker, a junior, and because of an injury last year he wasn’t able to play in the Championship game against UConn. Again, Kentucky is 10 deep, so picking a key player seems almost laughable. If the Wildcats aren’t playing when the first week of April rolls around it will be because somewhere along the line a team packed their defense into the paint and UK just couldn’t hit outside shots (a la Calipari’s first team at UK with Wall, Cousins, and Bledsoe). But don’t count on it.
Much like Kentucky, the fighting Bo Ryans return the bulk of a group that made it to Dallas last year. Two of those Badgers are currently showing up on Mock Draft boards. Ryan’s teams play a style of basketball that frustrates almost every team they face. The Badgers are slow and deliberate in their execution of the “swing” offense; they move the ball with precision, and almost never take a bad shot. Ryan runs an inverted version of the swing with his big men on the perimeter. The idea is to draw the other team’s shot blockers and rebounders away from the rim with bigs who can shoot the ball or pass it to cutting guards and forwards. They are always a hardnosed group on the defensive end and they do an excellent job of keeping other teams from getting out in transition for easy buckets.
Like Kentucky, Wisconsin also has a versatile seven footer in big man Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky. This kid is the perfect big man for a Bo Ryan squad. The Tank shot a more than respectable 38% from deep last year, but don’t let the smooth taste fool you. At 235 pounds Kaminsky is a big body who can bang down low with the best of them. He has a variety of post moves at his disposal which he used to shoot nearly 53% from the field in last season. He also draws a lot of fouls; and he knocks down his free throws at a 76% clip when he gets to the line.
Wisconsin will be a tough out for any team that draws them in their bracket. They have a lot of experienced players and they will be determined to prove that last year was no fluke. You’re just not going to out-execute them and you’re not going to out-tough them either. If they don’t make it back to final four this year it will most likely be because they ran into a team with better athletes and one-on-one play makers.
The Arizona Wildcats come into 2014 on the heels of an impressive 35-3 outing last year. This is a roster that lost legit superstars in Pac12 player of the year Nick Johnson and #4 overall pick Aaron Gordon. However, one could make the argument that outside of John Calipari no one is recruiting at a higher level than Sean Miller. Since 2012 Miller has added a slew of five star talent to his program. In 2014 Stanley Johnson, the #1 Small Forward in the nation, will join fellow blue-chippers Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caleb Tarczewski, and Brandon Ashley. Throw in T.J. McConnell and Sean Miller will field a team with five players listed on the next two NBA draft boards.
Miller’s teams have developed a well-earned reputation for their defensive intensity. With elite athletes at every position that trend will not be bucked in 2014. Playing great defense in college basketball is always going to be a winning formula for coaches. This is because unlike in the NBA not every team you face will have multiple high level scorers who can bail out an offense late in the shot clock.
The caveat for hanging your hat on defense is that you have to be able to rebound a missed shot. Nothing is more demoralizing for a college team than playing great defense for 34 seconds only to give their opponent another possession by not coming up with a loose ball. This will not be a problem for Arizona in 2014. The Wildcats will be well positioned to dominate the glass this year with a true seven footer in Tarczewski and a pair of NBA ready bodies in 6’ 7” Jefferson and 6’ 8”Ashley.
The key player for this team will be Hollis-Jefferson. Arizona looked like the best team in the nation last year until Jefferson went down with an injury mid-season. He is a high level defender with a big motor and a 7’ 1” wingspan that he uses to terrorize passing lanes. He’s strong enough to bang with taller players down low and athletic enough to guard multiple positions.
If Arizona isn’t playing in the Elite 8 this year it will probably be because they had a cold shooting night, a really cold shooting night. Kind of like the one they had against Wisconsin in last year’s tournament when they managed just 39% from the field in a one point overtime loss. They won’t see a more talented team unless they’re playing Kentucky.
Duke is coming off a campaign that saw them drop two games in a row to end the last season. That’s not a crazy stat for a lot of teams; but, if you’re Duke it means you lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament to a significant underdog. The 2 seeded Blue Devils lost to 15 seed Mercer. That’s a colossal upset. This year will be different for the Dookies, baby.
Coach K lost Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood to the NBA draft last year but he will not find himself wanting for able bodies in 2014. There are currently four Blue Devils being listed in mock drafts around the internet. Tyus Jones, Justice Winslow, and Rasheed Sulaimon are all legitimate NBA prospects, but Jahlil Okafor is a kid who has scouts salivating. At 6’ 11” and 260 pounds Okafor comes into Durham with an NBA ready body and is projected to be the top overall pick by more than one prognosticator.
Duke, as always, will play a beautiful brand of basketball on the offensive end of the floor. Krzyzewski’s 3-out 2-in motion offense is simplistic in nature. If executed properly it’s effective against both man and zone defenses. This offense runs at optimal efficiency when there is a dominant post player who can pin his man and accept a simple entry pass to get things going. This easily makes Okafor the key player for Duke in 2014. With able shooters on the perimeter, as long as Okafor lives up the hype, the Blue Devil offense will be humming by the time March rolls around.
Offense shouldn’t be the problem for Duke this year. Hell, offense hasn’t been their problem for the last several years. Failing to consistently get stops, especially in crucial moments, has been their downfall over the last few seasons. This is a talented team but it’s also one that will rely on a lot of young players buying into the system and being as good as advertised. If you don’t see the Blue Devils playing for a trip to Indianapolis late in March it’s probably going to be because they ran into team that could score at a high level and they were unable to slow them down.
Last year Bill Self lost two freshmen to the first three picks of the NBA draft when Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid walked across the stage in NYC and shook Adam Silver’s hand. Much like Arizona there was a stretch last year when Kansas looked like the best team in the land, and then Joel Embid went down with a back injury. Kansas still managed to win the Big12 for the tenth year in a row but they limped into the tournament and lost in the second round to 10 seed Stanford. Well, the cupboard is restocked and there’s no reason to believe that the Jayhawks won’t win the Big12 for the eleventh year in a row and contend for trip to Indy.
There are currently seven players on the Kansas roster making appearances on NBA draft boards, and they are all high level NBA prospects. The headliners are a pair of freshmen: 6’ 7” small forward Kelly Oubre and 6’ 9” power forward Cliff Alexander. Like Duke, Kansas runs a variation of the 3-out 2-in “high-low” motion offense. Also, like Duke, this offense can only be run to perfection with big a big man who is a threat to score in the post and get the offense moving. Alexander should facilitate the offense well for the Jayhawks.
Kansas’ problem for the last few seasons, aside from the Embiid injury last year, has been point guard play. You can have loads of talent in the post, but if you don’t have a steady hand in the tournament to control the pace and trigger the offense then you’re not going to go far. Last year’s point guard experiment in Lawrence, Nadir Tharp, transferred during the offseason. With NBA talent everywhere else this makes the key players for Bill Self’s squad Devonte Graham and Frank Mason. Graham is a four star freshman and Mason is a sophomore who backed up Tharp last season. This duo will split time at the 1 until one or the other takes the job.
Kansas always has NBA talent in the pipeline. That’s probably truer this year than most. To make a deep run they only need their point guard to be serviceable on offense and play hard on defense. If you don’t see them playing in a regional final this year it’ll probably be because there was another dumpster fire at the point guard spot.
In Russ Smith Louisville lost a one man scoring machine to the NBA draft last year. The good news is that the Cardinals return the bulk of a team that manhandled eventual National Champion UConn three times on their way to 31 wins last season. Expectations are once again high for Pitino’s team as they enter the season as the only program to win 30+ games in each of the last three years.
A large reason for those high expectations revolve around power forward Montrezl Harrell’s decision to return for his junior campaign. Rick Pitino hauled in the nation’s #6 recruiting class to go along with a talented and experienced core of returning players. The Cardinals will enter their inaugural season in the ACC as one of the preseason favorites to win the league.
Louisville is expected to have one of the nation’s best guard tandems in Terry Rozier and Chris Jones. Harrell was viewed as a lottery pick for this year’s draft as soon as he announced that he would return for the 2014 season. While Jones is seen as a mid-second round prospect, backcourt-mate Terry Rozier made a name for himself on the Adidas Nation’s summer circuit during the offseason. So much so that he is also widely regarded as a lottery pick heading into 2014.
Louisville runs the same “high pick and roll” offense that you see virtually every NBA team utilizes with the bulk of their possessions. It’s the full court press that Pitino teams use to frustrate the opposition. The Cardinals rode that press to a National Championship two years ago. Once opposing teams break the press Louisville will typically fall back into a matchup zone where they switch between the zone and man-to-man defenses (depending on certain keys from the opposition). Be that as it may, this year’s Louisville team will press but it won’t be the same 94 feet/ 40 minute trapping press that Cardinal fans have become accustom to over the last several years.
There are no “key players” for the Louisville Cardinals this year. Pitino’s starting five will be very good and full of experience; but, his bench will be full of freshmen. There are six newcomers to the program. They are a talented group of youngsters, but until they come along you can expect Louisville to take some lumps. What’s the old saying? “A zebra can’t change its stripes.” To contend for a Final Four spot in 2014 Louisville will need a couple of last year’s freshmen to take a big step forward. Not unheard of in Pitino’s program. In fact, the leap from the first to the second year under Pitino is usually substantial for the kids who put in the work from April to October.
Rick Pitino has an incredible knack for bringing his teams along to their peak when March rolls around. There’s a reason why the Hall of Fame coach is the only man in the game to hold the distinction of guiding three different schools to the Final Four. He’s also the only coach to ever win a title at two different programs. If the Cardinals are playing in a regional final late in March of next year, it’s probably because their bench developed the way Pitino hoped it would.