It's go time.
All the chatter, all the predictions, all the speculation, all the much-ado-about-nothing debates ... it's all getting ready to be about something. The 2013-14 college basketball season tips off tonight. And not a moment too soon.
College basketball has an unusually long offseason; nearly seven months have passed since the Louisville Cardinals cut down those nets in Atlanta. Answers may be hard to come by until the games actually begin, but titillating questions abound. So as a service to my fellow Hoop Thinkers, I here present my 10 Burning Questions for our sport as we open the gift of a brand new season. So pull up a chair and feel the heat.
1. Will offense be less offensive?
Let's hope so. The decline in offensive performance has been drip-drip-dripping during the last two decades, but in 2012-13, it hit rock bottom. College basketball teams combined for the lowest scoring average (67.5) since 1951-52. The overall 34.1 three-point percentage was the lowest since the line was introduced in 1986-87. Teams averaged their fewest assists in two decades. The reason was clear: College basketball got too slow and too physical, thanks to coaches who were too controlling and referees who were too permissive.
Fortunately, the NCAA's men's basketball rules committee reacted accordingly. Though there has been much overreaction about these rules changes, most of them weren't technically changes. The committee simply moved language that had already been in place from the back of the rulebook to the front. The upshot is that there should be a lot less physical contact by defenders this season. If a defender impedes another player's progress at all -- using his body, his hands, an arm bar, whatever -- then the ref is supposed to blow his whistle. That will also be the case regarding the long-tolerated instances of bumping cutters and setting illegal screens.
One rule that the committee did explicitly change is the block/charge rule. This has gotten far less attention, but I predict it will have a greater impact. In the past, all the defender had to do was establish his position before the offensive player left the ground. Now that position will have to be established before the offensive player begins his upward motion. Think about different that is.
Yes, I've heard the complaints that games will devolve into foul fests, but I don't buy them. First, even if that is the case, that is a small price to pay for a better, cleaner game. Second, I don't think that's going to happen. The coaches and players will adjust. The refs won't -- and shouldn't.
2. Which teams will benefit from the new standards? And which will be hurt by them?
Okay, so that's two questions. But you have to admit, they're pretty hot.
Teams with small lineups that play drive-and-kick basketball stand to benefit the most. Memphis leaps immediately to mind. The Tigers are going to play a four-guard senior lineup, which will be a lot more effective if those guards are permitted to drive into open spaces. Duke, which lacks a bona fide, conventional center, is also going to reap a free-throw windfall (and no doubt launch a thousand conspiracy theories). UConn also lacks an inside presence, but the Huskies have three quick, experienced guards in Shabazz Napier, Ryan Boatright and Omar Calhoun. The new standards will be a big help.
As for teams that will be hurt by these changes, I look for two types: those that play physical defense, and those that love to press. You know Louisville is going to be at a disadvantage because Rick Pitino has complained as much as anyone. I haven't seen Shaka Smart complain, but you've got to believe it's going to be harder for his Havoc fullcourt press to be effective. If nothing else, VCU's players can't be quite as aggressive in setting traps, because if they put two hands on the dribbler, it is an automatic foul.
As for the physical types, I'm thinking that the coaches at Pittsburgh, Marquette, Purdue, South Florida, Virginia and Wisconsin have spent a lot of extra time during the preseason teaching their players to adjust to the new style of defense. And that's not such a bad thing.
3. Will youth be served in Lexington?
Regardless of whether you think the Kentucky Wildcats are the best team in the country -- for the record, I ranked them second on my AP ballot behind Michigan State -- they are unquestionably the most interesting. Unlike the 2012 champs, who relied heavily on a trio of experienced players, including senior sixth man Darius Miller, this Kentucky team is freshmen or bust. John Calipari does have two sophomores at his disposal in 6-foot-8 forward Alex Poythress and 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein, but he has better, younger players at each position to push those guys for playing time.
This raises an interesting conundrum. Does Cal start an all-freshman lineup, which could disrupt team chemistry? Or does he give the benefit of the doubt to older players and wind up with a less-talented quintet on the floor? Obviously, Calipari prizes winning above all (as he should), but all of his guys have lofty, immediate NBA aspirations. Deciding whom to play and for how long is not that simple.
Personally, I hope Calipari settles into an all-freshman lineup as soon as possible, because it will be that much more fun to see if these kids can win a title. Yes, the Fab Five made the NCAA championship game as freshmen in 1991, but that was a long time ago -- and they didn't win.
4. Whither Wiggins?
As long as we're on the subject of freshmen -- and it's a wonderful subject, because there are lots of really good ones out there -- let us address the two schools of thought concerning Kansas' newest toy, Andrew Wiggins. The first says that Wiggins will be the best player in the country, the best Kansan since Wilt, and the best 19-year-old since LeBron James.
The second school says that Wiggins will be the third-best freshman on Kansas.
I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that Wiggins will wind up somewhere in between. To be sure, you're going to be wowed by his highlight-reel plays. Wiggins is that rare athlete who doesn't jump; he floats. He also has a pretty outside stroke. So his physical tools are considerable.
The bigger question is whether Wiggins has the personality to assert himself, especially since he is surrounded by so many talented teammates. Wiggins is not naturally competitive. I saw him play about a dozen AAU games while he was in high school, and in eight of them, I barely noticed he was out there. Yes, he has a tendency to rise to the occasion (his showdown against Kentucky's Julius Randle at a Nike event in Georgia is Exhibit A), but Wiggins is still facing a major challenge in transitioning from high school to college. Wiggins is going to have some memorable games this season, but don't be surprised if he has many more that leave you scratching your head.
5. Which NBA prospect made the Smartest choice to return to college?
Yes, this is a beaten-to-death wordplay referring to Oklahoma State sophomore point guard Marcus Smart, who turned down the chance to be a top-three NBA draft choice. That decision ignited one of the silliest debates I can remember. Everyone wanted to know: Was it a good choice or a bad choice? My answer: It was his choice. That should be all that matters.
There is no downside whatsoever to playing another year of college basketball. None. Even if Smart is picked a few spots lower next spring (which he probably will be, given the strength of the draft class), he will still be better prepared to have an impact in the NBA. Plus, he will have the memories of another year in college playing ball with his best friends. What price can you put on that?
I'm heartened that so many young players understand that their draft position matters far less than their ability to stick in the NBA. Besides Smart, the list of potential first-round picks who returned to school includes Louisville guard Russ Smith, Baylor forward Isaiah Austin, Creighton forward Doug McDermott, Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein, Michigan forwards Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III, and Michigan State guard Gary Harris and forward Adreian Payne.
The returnee who I believe made the smartest decision is North Carolina junior forward James Michael McAdoo. At 6-9, 230 pounds, McAdoo certainly looks like an NBA player. And after averaging 14.4 points and 7.3 rebounds as a sophomore, he would have given general managers plenty to think about it. But McAdoo has a disquieting soft streak, and last season he couldn't even take the Tar Heels into the NCAA tournament's second weekend. He may have been a first-round pick, but he wasn't ready to be a pro. Kudos to him for recognizing that.
6. Who is this year's Wichita State?
It might be Wichita State. Yes, the Shockers lost three starters from their Final Four squad, but they still return a veteran corps headed by 6-8 senior forward Cleanthony Early, who had 24 points and 10 rebounds in the loss to Louisville. And remember the name Kadeem Coleby. He's a 6-9 251-pound senior who sat out last year after transferring from junior college. Coleby is a big, strong athlete who will do a great job protecting the rim and finishing alleyoops.
We are looking at one of the most appealing crop of mid-major teams in years. Shaka Smart has his best team at VCU, and that includes the one that made the Final Four two years ago. (Treveon Graham, a 6-6 junior guard in the Randy Foye mold, is on the short list of candidates to be my official man crush this season.) Creighton -- and more specifically, Doug McDermott -- is going to be must-see TV. And even though Gonzaga doesn't have the individual star power it has had in the past, it is still a top-20 team and is bound to break through and get to the Final Four at some point.
But the team I'm pumping to the hilt this preseason is Harvard. Here are the three basic facts you need to know about the Crimson: They return seven of their top eight players from the team that beat New Mexico in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Their two best players from the 2011-12 season, senior point guard Brandyn Curry and 6-7 senior forward Kyle Casey, are back after missing last season because of an academic cheating scandal. And the Crimson brought in a stellar freshman class headed by 6-9 forward Zena Edosomwan, who turned down offers from USC, UCLA and Texas.
It's odd to say about Harvard, but this team has genuine Final Four potential. If the Crimson is able to stay healthy and get a few lucky bounces, it could set off a celebration that will make Linsanity seem like a garden party.
7. How long will Marshall Henderson last?
College basketball's favorite bad boy is back -- or at least, he will be back after he serves his three-game suspension. (Two of those will be served at the start of SEC play.) Henderson, last season leading scorer in the SEC, had three run-ins with police in Oxford, Miss., this offseason, the last of which included police officers finding trace amounts of marijuana and cocaine in his car. This was disturbing because Henderson has a long history of substance abuse and law-breaking. He even served 25 days in prison for violating his probation several years before he came to Ole Miss. And yet, despite all that, and despite his repeated embarrassing antics of poor sportsmanship, the school suspended him for a lousy three games. Pretty disappointing.
I recognize that substance abuse is a very sad and powerful thing, and I am very much rooting for this young man to turn his life around. But Ole Miss is doing Henderson a great disservice by levying such a light penalty. Athletic director Russ Bjork said he didn't care whether Henderson played another game because he is just trying to help him, but Ole Miss could have kept Henderson on scholarship for any number of reasons without letting him back onto the team. Let's be real: This isn't about a school trying to help a player. This is about a school trying to help a player who helps the school win games. I hope Henderson has a drama-free senior season, but there is not a whole lot of reason to believe that is in the offing.
8. Which new face in a new place will have the hardest time saving face?
It was a relatively quiet spring on the coaching carousel. The two biggest dominos fell in Los Angeles, where Ben Howland was booted from UCLA and Kevin O'Neill (as well as his interim replacement, Bob Cantu) was shown the door at USC. It would be easy to say that Howland's replacement, Steve Alford, will face the most pressure of any new coach because that job is so unique, but Alford has a long-term, lucrative contract and a pretty good team. He is also temperamentally well-suited for the job.
O'Neill's replacement, Andy Enfield, is also walking into a good situation because he faces zero expectations. Ditto for Richard Pitino, who follows Tubby Smith at Minnesota, and Chris Collins, who takes over for Bill Carmody at Northwestern. Alford's replacement at New Mexico, Craig Neal, spent six seasons there as Alford's top assistant. The Lobos return all but one starter from a team that won 29 games. He is set up to succeed.
So which new coach is in the toughest spot? No contest: It's Butler's Brandon Miller. Even under the best of circumstances, it would be hard following Brad Stevens. Miller will have to do so with a diminished roster in a challenging new league. Not only did Butler lose three starters from the team that finished third in the Atlantic 10 last season, it also lost its top returning player, 6-4 junior guard Roosevelt Jones, to a broken wrist suffered during the summer. Jones will be out the entire season.
Miller is plenty familiar to Butler fans. He played for the Bulldogs from 2000-03, and he served one season as an assistant coach there under Thad Matta. Miller rejoined Butler's coaching staff last April, and three months later he was tapped as Stevens' replacement. During the Big East's preseason media day, the league's coaches picked Butler to finish ninth out of 10 teams. They may have done Miller a favor by setting such low expectations, but if the team fulfills them, he could be in for a mighty cold winter.
9. Will conference realignment prove be a scourge, a boon, or no big deal?
Remember the carping and caterwauling that greeted all the conference shuffling? Well, things sure have quieted down. And now that the shifts are done, a dirty little secret is about to emerge: Realignment is going to inject some fresh energy into college basketball.
Yes, it's a shame to lose traditional rivalries like Kansas-Missouri, but the changed landscape is going to be reinvigorating. You'll see what I mean on Feb. 1, when Duke plays its first-ever game at Syracuse's Carrier Dome. North Carolina's trip to Notre Dame on Feb. 8 will likewise be lots of fun. I can't wait to see Creighton play at Georgetown on March 4 with a potential Big East regular season title on the line. The Atlantic 10 took a hit during realignment, but it did well to scoop up George Mason. The Patriots' game at VCU on Jan. 9 will be appointment viewing in the commonwealth of Virginia.
Memphis and Louisville have historically been intense rivals, and this year they play not once but twice in the AAC. Of course, Louisville will bolt for the ACC next year, which will create another wave of excitement in that league. And though many Maryland fans will bemoan losing those ACC contests against the North Carolina schools, believe me, when Michigan State or Indiana come to College Park next season, there will be lots of buzz.
10. What's the matter with Texas?
The eyes of the world will be on Texas in April when the Final Four comes to Cowboys Stadium. In the meantime, let's hope the world doesn't look too closely.
Check out the Big 12 coaches' preseason poll: The bottom three teams are Texas, Texas Tech and TCU. Texas A&M was picked to finish ninth in the SEC. SMU and Houston were picked to finish sixth and seventh, respectively, in the AAC. UTEP will contend in Conference USA, but Rice is projected to be in the bottom tier. Texas-Pan American was picked to finish seventh in the WAC. Five of the 12 teams in the Southland Conference are in Texas, but the league race is likely to come down to Northwestern State and Oral Roberts. Even UT-Arlington, which sits just a few miles from where the 2014 champ will be crowned, was picked to finish seventh out of ten teams in the Sun Belt.
In all, there are 21 Division I schools in the state of Texas, and as far as I can tell there is only one -- Baylor -- that is likely to make the NCAA tournament. I realize this will always be football country, but it's still a shame. Contrary to what you may have heard, there are lots of hard-core basketball fans in the state of Texas. They are going to have a blast at the Final Four, but is it too much to ask for them also to have a little fun along the way?