By: Nate Gatter, KCOU Sports
It’s the first week of November and a world full of pick and rolls, half-court heaves, defensive rotations, no-look passes, and buzzer-beaters is about to return. Players will pivot, travel, and fade away while sinking all manner of finger-rolls, floaters, and baby hooks. Coaches will motivate, moan, and, maybe, show off their post-game dance moves. Gus Johnson will scream at every basket, Jay Bilas will rant against the NCAA, and Dick Vitale will spontaneously combust in giddy excitement. College basketball is 40 minutes of unencumbered adrenaline laced with the passion of players, coaches, and fans. Sit back and enjoy every moment.
Before each game during his tenure at Saint Louis University, Rick Majerus would write the same message in the team’s locker room: “To win: Defend, Rebound.” The late coach Majerus spent his entire career coaching college basketball, most notably reaching the 1998 NCAA championship game with the University of Utah, before he passed away on Dec. 5, 2012. Majerus’s influence reached far and wide: He was a mentor to thousands of young men during his career. Some of those young men, including me, he never met.
Rick Majerus does not know my name, yet it was through him that I fell in love with basketball in its purest form, as Majerus coached it and SLU played it. There were no 30-point individual performances, no rim-rattling dunks, and no alley-oops. Instead, SLU basketball fans came to love defensive rotations, unselfish ball movement, and charges galore. If that sounds boring, blame modern basketball and the National Basketball Association, not Rick Majerus and the Saint Louis University Billikens.
But this column is not about me, Rick Majerus, or Saint Louis University; it is about basketball. It is a realization that excitement is not necessarily beauty. It is a realization that basketball is a team game, a game most purely and beautifully played by a true team. Majerus’s Billikens were that true team, a group of men committed to one goal: winning games.
Is defense boring? No, not if you understand the level of dedication and commitment required to play team defense perfectly. The competitiveness of man-to-man matchups, the strategy of schematics, and the camaraderie of defensive rotations are team sports confined to half of a basketball court.
Some say there is no glory in defense. Perhaps not in the media or public perception, but few coaches would have anything but praise for the program Rick Majerus built at Saint Louis University. The extent to which young men put the team and the program ahead of themselves illustrates the basketball genius of Majerus while also demonstrating his ability to connect with young men. Majerus’s players defined playing for the name on the front of the jersey before the name on the back, as basketball is meant to be played.
You might not find SLU players among national top 10s in individual statistics, but on Feb. 17, 2013, the day coach Majerus would have turned 66, you could find each and every one of them in the Associated Press top 10. Yes, all 12 names are there, you just don’t recognize them. They’re spelled “Saint Louis University.”
I do not mean to simply praise SLU basketball or Rick Majerus, although both deserve every word. The Billikens are a microcosm of what is possible in college basketball. Even teams from “mid-major” conferences, such as the Atlantic-10, can compete with the top teams in the country by committing themselves to the understanding that “exciting” basketball does not equate to “good” basketball. Often, it simply a façade that hides many inner flaws. Teams like SLU are beloved because they do not win on talent alone. They win on work ethic, heart, dedication, unselfishness, and commitment. If that’s boring, I have no interest in being exciting.
Now it’s time to preview the 2014-15 college basketball season and, fair warning, my affinity for team defense, experience, and consistency over talent will manifest itself more than once. Continue at your own risk.
Preseason Top 10:
The Badgers return all but one member of last season’s starting lineup, most notably first team All-Big Ten honoree Frank Kaminsky (13.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and junior forward Sam Dekker (12.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg). Senior guards Traveon Jackson and Josh Gasser add even more veteran leadership to a backcourt that averaged fewer turnovers per game than any other team in the nation last season. If you don’t know the name Bronson Koenig, watch a few Wisconsin games. Koenig is an All-American in the making. His fellow sophomore, last year’s sixth man Nigel Hayes, will also look to build off a successful freshman campaign. Bo Ryan’s teams might not look flashy, but experience and toughness abounds on the Wisconsin roster, a squad that looks destined for a return to the Final Four.
After being ousted from last year’s tournament by Wisconsin in the Elite Eight, the Wildcats look stronger than ever. Despite losing stars Nick Johnson and Aaron Gordon to the NBA, much of Arizona’s core remains intact. Center Kaleb Tarczewski (9.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and athletic forwards Brandon Ashley (11.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (9.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg) return to form the best frontcourt trio in the country, while dependable senior point guard T.J. McConnell (8.4 ppg, 5.3 apg) anchors the backcourt. In addition, coach Sean Miller added top recruit Stanley Johnson, a projected lottery pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. Arizona’s length and athleticism in the frontcourt will give opposing offenses fits near the rim, and the team boasts a multitude of offensive weapons. Expect the ’Cats to make the Final Four this time around.
John Calipari has never been afraid to take chances and do things his way. This season more so than ever, Calipari and Kentucky will be swimming against the current. With the Harrison twins returning, the Wildcats have more “veteran” presence than ever before in the Calipari era, and expectations are sky-high (when aren’t they?) in Lexington. It’s a watershed season for the Wildcats; Calipari’s revolutionary plan to platoon two six-man groups is a dramatic chance to take, especially considering the high level of ambition on the Kentucky roster. If the entire group commits to a team-first approach, UK could start a new trend in college basketball.
Despite losing explosive guard Russ Smith to graduation, Louisville returns junior forward Montrezl Harrel (14.0 ppg, 8.4 rpg), senior swingman Wayne Blackshear (8.4 ppg in 19.7 minutes per game), and senior point guard Chris Jones (10.2 ppg, 2.9 apg). Smith and Luke Hancock combined to take 785 shots last season, meaning there is room for Louisville’s returners to expand their roles. Sophomores Mangok Mathiang (3.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and Terry Rozier (7.0 ppg) are the keys to the Cardinals reaching their full potential. If Mathiang has the endurance to run the court for 25 to 30 minutes per game and Rozier can pick up some of Smith’s vacated scoring load, Louisville will be a national championship contender once again.
One of the hottest young coaches in America, Tony Bennett brought his Virginia Cavaliers into the national spotlight last season with a defense-first mentality that won games in the loaded Atlantic Coast Conference. Even after the losses of Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, this year’s Virginia looks primed for another deep NCAA tournament run. Junior guards Malcolm Brogdon (12.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Justin Anderson (7.8 ppg) join junior forward Anthony Gill (8.6 ppg) in taking on leadership roles for the Wahoos this season in the dominant ACC.
As is typical, Bill Self has not struggled to retool the Jayhawks’ roster after the departure of the 2014 NBA Draft’s top pick, Andrew Wiggins. With forward Perry Ellis (13.5 ppg, 6.7 rpg), guard Wayne Selden Jr. (9.7 ppg, 2.5 apg), and guard Frank Mason (5.5 ppg, 2.1 apg) returning, there are only so many holes for Self to fill. This year’s Jayhawks look stronger and deeper overall, with the additions of forward Cliff Alexander and swingman Kelly Oubre Jr., both McDonald’s All-Americans. Guard Devonte Graham, ranked No. 34 in the 2014 class by Rivals, is also joining KU. If Self can solidify each player’s role while helping his freshmen gel with returners quickly, there is little keeping Kansas from making a deep tournament run.
7.) Wichita State
The loss of Cleanthony Early, one of the best players in the country, undoubtedly hurts, but coach Gregg Marshall and the Shockers have plenty of firepower left. Wichita State returns one of the best backcourts in the country, featuring junior point guard Fred VanVleet (11.6 ppg, 5.4 apg), junior shooting guard Ron Baker (13.1 ppg, 3.1 apg), and senior small forward Tekele Cotton (10.3 ppg, 2.4 apg). All three can shoot well from the perimeter and share the ball. The spacing they create will be especially important as senior forward Darius Carter (7.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg) tries to fill the gaping void left by Early. If Carter can provide 12 points per game, or more, from the post, the Shockers will be well on their way to another high seeding in the tournament.
It’s a big year in Austin for coach Rick Barnes. After spending their last few seasons mired in mediocrity, the Longhorns have a roster that looks capable of making Texas a Big 12 contender again. UT returns nearly every major contributor from a year ago and added prized recruit Myles Turner in the offseason. Turner joins senior forward Jonathan Holmes (12.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg), junior forwards Cameron Ridley (11.2 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and Connor Lammert (5.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg), junior guard Javan Felix (11.6 ppg, 2.8 apg), and sophomore guard Isaiah Taylor (12.7 ppg, 4.0 apg). The ’Horns can surround Turner with experience and appear to be an offensive juggernaut in the making. Barnes seems to have found the balance between young talent and veteran presence that every coach in college basketball is searching for; anything less than a trip to the Elite Eight will be a disappointment for Texas.
Experienced backcourts are a coach’s best friend. Jay Wright has a glut of experience in his locker room this year, filling out a team that certainly appears to be the class of a lackluster Big East. Of the nine players to appear in every game for the Wildcats last season, seven return to ’Nova for the 2014-15 campaign. Senior guards Ryan Arcidiacono (9.9 ppg, 3.5 apg) and Darrun Hilliard II (14.3 ppg, 2.6 apg) man the backcourt in a lineup that also features junior forwards JayVaughan Pinkston (14.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and Daniel Ochefu (5.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg). In many ways, Villanova is constructed similarly to a traditional mid-major: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Expect the ’Cats to roll through the Big East and have success in the tournament; a berth in the Sweet 16 should be the worst-case scenario.
I don’t trust Duke. To make that statement five years ago would have been ridiculous. What’s not to trust about Mike Krzyzewski? If there were a word to describe the 2009-10 Duke Blue Devils, a team that featured Nolan Smith, Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler, Brian Zoubek, and Mason Plumlee, it would be trustworthy. But the 2014-15 Dukies are a far cry from the tried-and-true Krzyzewski method of developing young players into dependable upperclassmen. This year’s roster is loaded with unproven, although talented, underclassmen, a roster construction becoming increasingly necessary in the “one-and-done” era. But it has yet to work for Coach K. Duke returns only one elite player: senior point guard Quinn Cook (11.6 ppg, 4.4 apg). Two other key players, junior guard Rasheed Sulaimon (9.9 ppg, 2.4 apg) and junior forward Amile Jefferson (6.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg), are returning, but Krzyzewski will rely heavily on two highly touted freshmen, guard Tyus Jones and forward Jahlil Okafor. The Blue Devils are ranked 10th on talent and potential alone; don’t be surprised if they sputter in the early going and suffer another early exit from the tournament in March.
11.) North Carolina
13.) Ohio State
14.) Michigan State
15.) Virginia Commonwealth
First Team All-America:
F – Frank Kaminsky, Senior, Wisconsin
F – Montrezl Harrel, Junior, Louisville
G/F – Juwan Staten, Senior, West Virginia
G – Quinn Cook, Senior, Duke
G – Marcus Paige, Junior, North Carolina
Second Team All-America:
F – Jahlil Okafor, Freshman, Duke
F – Georges Niang, Junior, Iowa State
G/F – Branden Dawson, Junior, Michigan State
G – Caris LaVert, Junior, Michigan
G – Fred VanVleet, Junior, Wichita State
Third Team All-America:
F – Perry Ellis, Junior, Kansas
F – Terran Petteway, Junior, Nebraska
G/F – Jerian Grant, Senior, Notre Dame
G – Ron Baker, Junior, Wichita State
G – T.J. McConnell, Senior, Arizona
Player of the Year: Juwan Staten, Senior, West Virginia
Defensive Player of the Year: Briante Weber, Senior, Virginia Commonwealth
Freshman of the Year: Jahlil Okafor, Freshman, Duke
Coach of the Year: Bo Ryan, Wisconsin
Counting down the 10 most compelling non-conference games of the season:
Opening Night Bonus Game: Louisville @ Minnesota (Nov. 14)
It’s the Richard Pitino Bowl on opening night at Williams Arena as the younger Pitino’s upstart Golden Gophers take on his father’s Cardinals. This matchup figures to be up-tempo and exciting, as both teams like to run in transition. Keep an eye on the Gophers’ Andre Hollins. After the departure of his brother, Austin Hollins, Andre is poised for a big senior season.
10. Duke vs. Michigan State (Nov. 18)
In only Duke’s third game of the season, Krzyzewski’s star freshmen will be thrown onto the big stage against a more experienced Michigan State team. Tom Izzo is one of the top coaches in the country in his own right, and he will be prepared to take advantage of the Blue Devils’ youth. If Duke is going to contend for a national championship, Okafor and Jones will need to perform on big stages like this one.
9.) Syracuse @ Villanova (Dec. 20)
Old Big East foes meet in Philly in a “non-conference” matchup that will carry plenty of lingering bitterness. The experience of Villanova’s backcourt should pay off in a big way against the frustrating Syracuse zone.
8.) Gonzaga @ Arizona (Dec. 6)
Gonzaga faces the annual challenge of proving itself on the national stage, and a road trip to Arizona will provide an opportunity to do just that. Kevin Pangos returns to lead the Bulldogs, and gains forward Kyle Wiltjer, a three-point marksman, who becomes eligible after transferring from Kentucky before last season. If Mark Few and his Bulldogs want serious consideration for a high seed from the committee, a good showing in this game is imperative.
7.) Texas @ Kentucky (Dec. 5)
Kentucky’s talent will be pitted against Texas’ experience, with a side of Myles Turner. Additionally, the full force of Kentucky’s platoons could be realized against a very talented Texas squad that might only be vulnerable in its lack of depth. Expect Kentucky to appear the more rested side in the second half.6.) Virginia @ VCU (Dec. 6)
A budding in-state rivalry features two of college basketball’s brightest young coaches, Tony Bennett of UVA and Shaka Smart of VCU, both trying to overcome key losses from last year’s squads. Both teams pride themselves on a defense-first mentality, but the “Havoc” defense played by the Rams could not look more different from Virginia’s disciplined half-court approach. Keep your eye on Rams senior guard Briante Weber; the catalyst of “Havoc” averaged 3.5 steals per game a season ago.
5.) Florida @ Kansas (Dec. 5)
Billy Donovan and Bill Self, two of the nation’s premier coaches, face similar challenges in blending their few returners with talented underclassmen. This tilt will be an early measure of which coach is doing the better job.
4.) North Carolina @ Kentucky (Dec. 13)
Roy Williams’ Tar Heels have been plagued by inconsistency and an inability to play their best in big games over the past few years, but have an early opportunity to prove this season’s squad has turned the page. For Kentucky, it’s another test on a rigorous non-conference slate.
3.) Kentucky @ Louisville (Dec. 27)
Perhaps the best non-conference rivalry in college basketball, Louisville’s experience in big games should help it, although Aaron Harrison will be yearning to prove he didn’t leave his knack for making big shots in last year’s Final Four.
2.) Kentucky vs. Kansas (Nov. 16)
Kentucky is all over this list, a testament to Calipari’s willingness to schedule tough non-conference opponents. This neutral site matchup will be the first big test for both teams and the first national showcase of Calipari’s potentially revolutionary plan to platoon. Questions abound as to how Kentucky’s star-studded group will cope with the virtually equal distribution of playing time, and whether Calipari will alter his strategy in the second half of a close game.
1.) Duke @ Wisconsin (Dec. 3)
One of the most underrated atmospheres in all of college basketball, the Kohl Center will receive some much-deserved time in the national spotlight when Wisconsin and Duke meet. With this year’s Duke roster looking more youthful than ever, this showdown suddenly pits Bo Ryan’s traditional approach against the increasingly common practice of building rosters around inexperienced freshmen. Coach K needs to prepare his young guns for high-level competition quickly, or the Badgers will expose both him and his team in Madison.
If you’ve been excited by college football’s tendency to surprise and confuse, you’ll be enthralled by the 2014-15 college basketball season. Competing recruiting ideologies collide as top NBA prospects playing only one year in college will compete with seasoned rosters stocked with players two and three years their senior, while the styles of play remain as varied as ever. There is no atmosphere quite like college basketball; allow the pride and passion to wash over you. Soak it all in. If you happen to be wearing a hat, promptly grab hold of it. Things are about to get wild.