Can Branden Dawson do it all?

August, 28, 2014
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For Michigan State, last season was The Season. I mean, just look at that starting five.

Gary Harris, one of the nation's best freshmen in 2012-13 -- a truly one-and-done-level shooting guard who stayed for Year 2 -- was playing better on both ends of the floor. After morphing from an athletic shot-blocker into a perimeter threat late in 2012-13, Adreian Payne lived up to all expectation: He was the best all-around big man in the country. Keith Appling, a senior point guard with three tumultuous, character-building years at his back, was posting the most efficient offensive numbers of his life. Tom Izzo had flexibility in his fifth starter/subs spots, with guards Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine and forward Matt Costello. And Branden Dawson was doing what he does best: Rim-running, rebounding, cleaning everything up.

[+] EnlargeBranden Dawson
Steve Dykes/Getty ImagesTo reach its usual lofty standards in 2014-15, Michigan State will need Branden Dawson to shine.
That was the Michigan State we saw early in the season, the one everybody thought could and would win the national title. You know what happened next. Appling winced through a shoulder injury that grounded his early efficiency into dust. Payne battled a foot problem that kept him off the court for six of his team's first eight Big Ten games. On Jan. 23, near the end of Payne's convalescence, Dawson, angry with himself during a team tape session, slammed his hand into a table. The hand broke, and Dawson missed the next nine games as it healed.

On Feb. 1, Michigan State went to Madison Square Garden to play a late-season nonconference game against Georgetown. The Spartans lost 64-60 to a mediocre Hoyas group; they couldn't have looked less like the November ideal.

The situation improved by March. Everyone was back on the floor, and the Spartans were a popular national title pick. But Appling never got back to the slick stuff he flashed early in the season. The Spartans fell prey to Connecticut's chaotic backcourt attack in the Elite Eight. With all that talent and experience, it was hard to feel like bad luck -- injuries, in other words -- caused the Spartans to miss their shot.

The disappointment might make it easy to forget why, even after an injury-plagued season, with at least three key players still recovering from issues so late into the year, so many people took Michigan State to win the title anyway. It's exactly what makes the 2014-15 campaign a fascinating one for Michigan State: Branden Dawson was awesome.

After returning from injury -- with a cast still on his hand -- Dawson played the best and most consistent basketball of his career. In MSU's six postseason games before the Connecticut loss, including three in their victorious Big Ten tournament run, Dawson shot 100-of-138 from the field. He grabbed just over eight rebounds per game. His average offensive rating was 152.3. Against Harvard, in the third round of the NCAA tournament, he scored 26 points on 12-of-15 from the field. Against Virginia, he had 24 on 9-of-16, and shot 6-of-8 from the line. Michigan State couldn't have won either game without him.

This is the kind of postseason production that gets you on the cover of regional college sports preview magazines. It's the kind that gets you onto the preseason All-Big Ten team. Keep that up, the thinking goes, only do a lot more of it. Presto: You're a star.

The only problem? Dawson's production came from within a well-populated galaxy of talent. His usage rate rarely climbed above 20 percent. Plays were almost never called for him. To wit: According to Synergy, Dawson's top three possession types -- the kinds of situations in which he would end Michigan State's possessions with a shot -- came on cuts (23.2 percent), transition (23.2 percent) and offensive rebounds/put backs (22.1 percent). His total number of post-ups all of last season … actually, wait, take a guess. You ready? Thirty-two.

Which brings us to 2014-15, and why Michigan State is fascinating in both the positive and negative sense of the term. By sheer fact of personnel attrition, Dawson now inherits the go-to mantle on a team that, at its best, could spread the ball between at least three reliable one-on-one scorers last season. Meanwhile, the team around him now is totally different. Trice and Valentine will take the backcourt responsibilities, and Costello will likely take over a primary frontcourt role.

Trice is a great shooter, and Valentine might be the best -- or at least the most entertaining -- passer in the country. But make no mistake: Dawson will have to be one of the nation's best players for the 2014-15 Spartans to reach their typically high standards for success.

He's done it before, on a team with so much talent an Elite Eight appearance felt like a letdown. Can Dawson do it in 2014-15, under drastically different circumstances? And if he doesn't, how good can Michigan State really be?

3-point shot: Examining ACC schedule

August, 28, 2014
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Andy Katz looks at the final week of the ACC schedule, the showdown in the A-10 and the update on UCLA's Pauley Pavilion.
Glancing over the many challenges of North Carolina’s schedule prompted coach Roy Williams to say, “This one may be a little off the charts.”

The Tar Heels face a nonconference slate that’s highlighted by the Battle 4 Atlantis with a field that could lead to potential matchups against Oklahoma or UCLA and Florida or Wisconsin. The marquee games continue at home against Iowa in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and the CBS Sports Classic in Chicago’s United Center against Ohio State.

Both of those games are sandwiched around a trip to Lexington to face Kentucky on Dec. 13.

In a released statement, Williams said the advantages of being successful against a tough nonconference schedule can be “enormous.”

“If you have some success, you can say that I am more prepared than just about anybody to get into conference play and that’s what we are trying to do,” Williams said. “In the pre-conference, get ready for conference play, but also to play some of those national-type games to measure yourself to see how you can do outside the league as well. It is planned to try and get better, get better, get better so that you are hopefully playing your best basketball at the end of the season, when it’s the most important.”

North Carolina opens against its other Durham rival, N.C. Central. The Eagles are coming off their first NCAA tournament appearance last season.

The “All in the Family” portion of the schedule includes dates against former Carolina players or coaches. It starts at home on Dec. 7 against East Carolina, coached by Jeff Lebo, who lettered from 1985-89; Dec. 16 versus UNC Greensboro, coached by Wes Miller, who lettered from 2004-07; Dec. 27 against UAB, coached by Jerod Haase, who played for Williams at Kansas and served on his UNC staff when he arrived in 2003 until 2012; Dec. 30 against William and Mary, coached by William Shaver, who lettered from 1972-75.

The ACC schedule is highlighted by a tough, five-game stretch that entails four road games including at Louisville, Pittsburgh and Duke. The Heels haven’t had a stretch like that since Dean Smith’s final season in 1997. It will mean 19 days away from home between facing Virginia on Feb. 2 and Georgia Tech on Feb. 21. The silver lining during that span is that the Heels have a week off between the Boston College and Pitt road games.

The Heels play Louisville, NC State, Georgia Tech and Duke twice in league play. Their road-only games are Clemson, Wake Forest, Boston College and Miami. Their home-only opponents are Florida State, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech and Syracuse.

North Carolina landed a top-five recruiting class and, with the return of national player of the year candidate Marcus Paige, will likely be ranked in the preseason Top 10. The season begins, in earnest, on Oct. 3 with the team’s annual “Late Night with Roy” celebration.

At least 20 of the Tar Heels’ regular-season games will be televised on the ESPN family of networks.

“The season is a long journey,” Williams said. “… We are going to have some incredible opportunities or incredible challenges; it depends on the way you want to look at it.”
Earlier this year, Kansas announced that Naadir Tharpe had chosen to transfer to another school for personal reasons. And a promising preseason for a team that has won or shared the last 10 conference titles was pre-empted by the perennial point guard drama that’s become the norm in Lawrence.

The Jayhawks have a point guard situation? Yeah, and the sun came up and Beyonce just won another award and the Cubs are struggling and another Kevin Hart movie will hit theaters soon. What’s new?

Nothing, really.

The race remains open. It’s always open.

And that’s the problem. And that should be the fear in Lawrence.

[+] EnlargeFrank Mason
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesFrank Mason has experience but Kansas is likely to explore different combinations of players at point guard.
Sure, there’s Frank Mason. He’s experienced and a solid leader for a Jayhawks squad that will boast a robust roster of future NBA draft picks, including Cliff Alexander, Kelly Oubre, Wayne Selden Jr. and Perry Ellis. Last season, Mason was 10th in the Big 12 in assist rate, per KenPom.com. But he logged only 16.2 minutes per game. It’s unclear how the sophomore will perform with extended action this year.

Freshman Devonte' Graham, a late signee, will compete for the slot, too.

“I think Devonte’ will be an immediate-impact guy for us,” Bill Self said via the press release that accompanied Graham’s signing. “We certainly solidified our situation in the backcourt by bringing in a quality guy, and I think Devonte’ is one of the premier point guards in the country.”

There’s also the Conner Frankamp conundrum. The sophomore can play both guard spots, but his defense could be a challenge for Self’s scheme. Frankamp shot only 31 percent on 3-pointers last season, but if he regains the stroke that made him a prep star in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas, Self will have to use the guard.

That’s not the country’s most appealing crop of point guards, especially in comparison to the other top-10 teams. Duke will be led by Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook. Arizona has T.J. McConnell. Kentucky has Andrew Harrison and Tyler Ulis. Fred VanVleet is still at Wichita State. The road to the Final Four will be paved with elite PGs.

Still, Self cobbles together point guards the way MacGyver made explosives from a toothbrush, napkin and cheeseburger wrapper. The coach will figure it out.

In recent seasons, Tyshawn Taylor, Elijah Johnson and Tharpe all played the position for the Jayhawks. But their sometimes erratic efforts and sloppiness were a problem. They weren’t fits for Self’s system. That didn’t stop the Jayhawks from manhandling the Big 12 or advancing in the NCAA tournament.

But it kept them from their peak performance during some of those seasons.

Once again, KU is in a situation that features so much potential yet so many potential problems if Self can’t find the right point guard.

Johnson and Taylor weren’t pure point guards. But they could create shots and push the ball and run the break. They were playmakers.

With Mason, Graham or Frankamp, Kansas won’t have that. Not to that degree. There’s enough talent on the roster, however, to capture the Big 12 title without dynamic point guard play. And there’s still a chance that Self will use Graham and Mason together.

But they need a point guard who's comfortable in that role and a team that’s comfortable with that player embracing that role, too.

The Jayhawks never seemed at peace with Tharpe at point guard last season. When a Joel Embiid-less Jayhawks team came undone (14 turnovers) in its third-round loss to Stanford in the NCAA tournament, there were clearly some leadership and ballhandling problems that contributed to that loss.

Kansas will be favored to win another Big 12 title. The Jayhawks will crack the preseason top 10 again, and they’ll be equipped with a squad that should compete for Self’s second national title.

That’s assuming the staff reaches some conclusion, some solution, at point guard. Mason, Graham and Frankamp are all options. They aren’t stars. And they’re all young.

But someone usually emerges for Self. You don’t win 10 consecutive Big 12 crowns without a serviceable point guard.

Yet Kansas’ season centers on what happens there. Will it be Mason, Frankamp or Graham? What if Selden has to move over and help? What if these young Jayhawks don’t find a point guard they trust?

Well, they’ll eventually figure it out.

Unless they don’t.

If that happens, Kansas might be left behind come March.

3-point shot: Wyoming's Nance recovering

August, 27, 2014
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Andy Katz gives an update on Wyoming's Larry Nance Jr. and the August trips by Memphis and Cincinnati.

3-point shot: Final Four sites

August, 26, 2014
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In Tuesday's 3-point shot, Andy Katz looks at the potential sites for future Final Fours, First Fours and the issues with the NIT Season-Tipoff.
What worries me most about the 2014-15 college basketball season? To be totally honest, it’s that I won’t be able to get a reservation at St. Elmo Steak House in Indianapolis during Final Four weekend. If you’ve been there and seen the size of the shrimp in the shrimp cocktail, you understand the worry.

Aside from my stomach’s fear that it will have to suffer with second-rate steak, there is no shortage of big questions for the upcoming season. That’s always the case. If we had all the answers, we’d just hand out a trophy and a pair of scissors and station the ladder under the net.

[+] EnlargeJohnson
Robin Alam/Icon SMIWill McDonald's All-American Stanley Johnson take the reins as Arizona's go-to scorer in 2014-15?
But if you want to quantify the big ones -- the worries that might really impact this season -- you need to go to the top.

Which is why I’m wondering who Arizona will turn to for reliable scoring.

There’s a caveat to this worry. I believe the Wildcats are good -- top-5 good, potential Final Four good, and yes, even potential national champion good -- so file this under more mildly concerned than all-out panic.

But it’s still a legit question.

There aren’t many point guards in the country more reliable than T.J. McConnell. A healthy Brandon Ashley, mixed with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Kaleb Tarczewski, gives the Wildcats a terrific frontcourt in a year that looks to be loaded with terrific frontcourts.

But here’s the but. When the game is on the line and Arizona needs a bucket, who does coach Sean Miller go to?

The Wildcats aren’t built to win with offense. With defense and offensive rebounding as good as theirs, that’s fine. You do, however, still need to score in this sport, especially in key situations.

That used to be Nick Johnson's role. The junior not only led Arizona in scoring, averaging 16.3 points, but he was The Guy -- the one who could make a shot or create a shot when the Wildcats needed it most. His decision to jump to the NBA early leaves a void that, in some ways, is almost as big (if not bigger) than the one left by lottery pick Aaron Gordon.

The leader in the clubhouse to replace Johnson is freshman Stanley Johnson. Ranked seventh in his class by ESPN, Johnson averaged 25 points at Santa Ana (California) Mater Dei High School. He’s often described as a "man among boys," which is great when you’re among high school boys. Just how his dominance translates into the college game is the question.

It’s asking a lot of a freshman, any freshman, to carry the offensive weight of a team on his shoulders.

My guess is this will be done by committee. Arizona will beat you in all directions instead of just one, which is a fine solution to the problem. Still, there will be those moments when all eyes will turn to one player. The question is, who will that player be for the Wildcats?

3-point shot: Charleston's coaching search

August, 25, 2014
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Andy Katz looks at the College of Charleston coaching search, USF's Orlando Antigua leading the Dominican Republic to the FIBA World Cup and former Big East teams interested in playing Georgetown.

3-point shot: Utes, Loveridge emerging

August, 22, 2014
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In today's 3-point shot, Andy Katz reports on Utah's Jordan Loveridge and the Pac-12 all-stars' trip to China, Davidson's big conference move and a possible intriguing matchup of Heartland powers in Hawaii.
On Thursday night, Michigan announced that it will face Wisconsin in Ann Arbor on Jan. 24 after the Big Ten released its schedule. That announcement came with a challenge ...



Calipari
One rule in talk radio? Don’t knock the guy who just left your show because he probably hasn’t exited the building yet.

On Wednesday, John Calipari appeared on WFAN on Mike Francesa’s popular radio show. After he left, Francesa questioned Calipari’s coaching ability.

What followed was one of the most fascinating exchanges you’ll hear all year today after Calipari called into the show as “John from Kentucky.”

“Well, I think the guy is a great coach [in his best grandmother’s voice] … This is John Calipari,” the coach said. “What are you saying I can’t coach? What are you saying I can’t coach? Why didn’t you say it when I was sitting there next to you?”

Oooo. Them's fightin’ words.

“Come back up, come back up,” Francesa said.

Calipari chuckled and continued.

“You know what they call me?” he said. "The Magician. Cal The Magician.”

We should call Calipari "The Magician” for the rest of his coaching career. This must happen.

And this isn’t new. Calipari’s coaching has been questioned for years based on the idea that he just recruits great players and pushes play. But Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Billy Donovan, Tom Izzo and others have all had elite rosters in recent years, yet their collective coaching prowess hasn’t endured the same scrutiny.

Cal is the best recruiter in the game, but he’s a good coach, too.

Francesa, however, seems to disagree, and he’s not alone.

Now, Cal will unleash his squadron of Marvel characters onto the college basketball scene to prove him wrong.

Here’s the full audio.

I'm excited to see: the ACC

August, 21, 2014
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Before we talk about the upcoming season, let's first glance back to 2010-11.

Back when the Big East Conference lived up to that "Beast" nickname. Back when a record 11 of 16 league teams received NCAA tournament bids.

Half of the Big East finished ranked in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll that season.

Connecticut, which finished just .500 in the league and ninth in the standings, did not lose a game outside of conference play the entire season en route to capturing the 2011 national championship.

Think about that a minute: from ninth-best in the Big East to national champions.

I'm excited to see whether the ACC has that kind of depth this season.

It could.

The league could have three teams ranked in the preseason top 10 and at least four in the top 15. (Duke, North Carolina, Louisville and Virginia.) That last happened 10 seasons ago when Wake Forest, Duke, Carolina and Maryland achieved the feat in the 2004-05 campaign.

Having four potential heavyweights at the top of the standings is fun in and of itself -- especially with Louisville making for a new rival as it replaces a Maryland program that had become stagnant.

But just having four contenders is not why the league should be so competitive this season. The strength comes in the teams that should be fighting in the middle tier:

Syracuse: I don't expect Kaleb Joseph to simply step in and do what Tyler Ennis did at point guard last season. But if he can at least stabilize the position, coach Jim Boeheim will have enough talent around him. Fellow freshman Chris McCullough could make an immediate impact at power forward, and Tyler Roberson is ready for an expanded role with C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant gone.

Pittsburgh: It's time the ACC got used to what the Big East knew: Coach Jamie Dixon always finds a way to have the Panthers in the mix. Cameron Wright and James Robinson form an experienced backcourt, and, if forward Durand Johnson comes back strong from his knee injury, Pitt will again prove to be a tough out.

Notre Dame: Guard Jerian Grant led the team in scoring and assists before being sidelined after just 12 games because of academic issues. Grant's return gives the Irish instant credibility. Pat Connaughton and Demetrius Jackson will help make them one of the best 3-point-shooting teams in the league.

NC State: Could have one of the better backcourts in the league with sophomore Anthony Barber and Alabama transfer Trevor Lacey. There's no way to replace T.J. Warren, but coach Mark Gottfried signed a solid class with three top-100 recruits led by power forward Abdul-Malik Abu.

Miami: It might seem odd to expect the Canes to make a leap with just three players and 15 percent of their scoring returning from last season. But transfers Angel Rodriguez (Kansas State) and Sheldon McClellan (Texas) will help them get better in a hurry, not to mention redshirt freshman guard Deandre Burnett, a four-star recruit who was sidelined with a wrist injury last year.

Florida State: The Seminoles could be the sleeper of the league. They return six of their top nine players from last season, including leading scorer Aaron Thomas. Coach Leonard Hamilton's teams are always tough defensively, and, with a trio of 7-foot rim protectors, they'll be tough to score on again.

Wake Forest: The Demon Deacons return their leading scorer (Codi Miller-McIntyre) and leading rebounder (Devin Thomas). Now, if first-year coach Danny Manning can just get them to win on the road, where they have been just 2-32 against league opponents the past four seasons, he'll have them turned in the right direction.

Even Clemson, which lost K.J. McDaniels to the NBA but returned almost everyone else of note, could pull off a few surprises.

North Carolina and Duke have carried the mantle for the ACC for far too many years. This season there will be plenty more teams that can shoulder the load.
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ACC

3-point shot: UConn's lineup and schedule

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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Andy Katz previews the Connecticut Huskies' upcoming season and schedule. He also talks about Cincinnati Bearcats coach Mick Cronin's interesting strategy for their trip to the Bahamas.

3-point shot: Pitt pleased with Bahamas trip

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
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Andy Katz says Pitt coach Jamie Dixon is pleased with the team's Bahamas' tour, where Joseph Uchebo impressed. He also takes a look at the Big Monday schedule which will often feature Virginia and Iowa State this season.
At first glance, Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari has two problems with his 2014-15 roster:

  1. He has too much size.
  2. He has too many players.

That's the closest you can come to criticizing the 2014-15 Wildcats, which should tell you everything you need to know about Kentucky under Calipari. These are not real criticisms of actual problems. They're godsends any coach in college basketball -- or in the NBA, or in your local under-30 league -- would happily sign on for. Wait: You're telling me my team is too good?

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesAs the season approaches, fans are left wondering how Wildcats coach John Calipari will find playing time for nine McDonald's All-Americans.
Still, UK's embarrassment of roster riches does pose a tricky question for the inventive man in charge: How can everybody play?

First, we should remind you who "everybody" is. Last spring, fresh off a run to the national title game, Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress all decided to return to Lexington for another season. If those players had left, Kentucky would still have been fine. That's because, as is tradition, four five-star players arrived this summer. They are: Trey Lyles, Karl Towns Jr., Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis. Respectively, they rank Nos. 6, 9, 18 and 25 in the 2014 ESPN 100. In any other year, they would form the backbone of another freshmen-led Wildcats lineup. In 2014-15, on a team with nine McDonald's All-Americans, they'll be fighting for playing time.

Which brings us back to the original question. There are, after all, only so many minutes to go around. Lineup calculus can be the most difficult, nuanced knot a coach must untie; NBA franchises spend god-knows-how-much on advanced plus-minus metrics alone. Simple tweaks can produce surprising results. Who play well with whom, and why, are the enduring mysteries of modern basketball.

In Lexington, Calipari has at least 10 potential starters. Of them, five of the most talented -- Cauley-Stein, Johnson, Lee, Towns and Lyles -- are forwards taller than 6-foot-10. Seriously: How on earth do you get everyone on the court?

Last week, during Kentucky's exhibition run in the Bahamas, Calipari unveiled his answer: the platoon. It is an obvious but still mind-blowing idea -- an Alexandrian solution for the modern college hoops empire. And it's really, really exciting.

On Sunday, when the Courier-Journal's Kyle Tucker asked him whether the two-platoon system could really work, Calipari said:
"I think so. I think so. There may be games it's difficult to win [doing that]. The only ones that are the most important to win are those last six. So, yeah. And I think what happened here was, the greatest thing is everyone had a chance to show they should be playing more or less, they should be playing or not playing. You can't say, 'Well, I've never had an opportunity.'"

He continued:
"I also think that when you two-platoon and you have guys playing 20 minutes, which is plenty of time, the reality of it is three or four more minutes a half [in a normal rotation]. Just play harder. You get more done, you're more efficient. So playing 20 minutes a game, everybody had their time. And I think every guy shined."

The Wildcats finished their Bahamas trip 5-1 overall. After five mostly convincing blowouts, they took a late and exhausted loss to the Dominican Republic on Sunday. They managed that without Cauley-Stein and Lyles, who both sat out to nurse minor injuries. The mood was appropriately light, and the reviews of just about every player in the Wildcats' orbit -- all the way down to Ulis, who is 5-foot-9 and thus an oddity on an extremely tall team -- were positive. These were exhibitions, which means it is worth withholding sweeping conclusions.

And even so: At this early date, it's clear Kentucky really does have 10 totally starting-spot-worthy players on its roster. Back in April, the idea was more like a funny concept for a video-game simulation. It couldn't actually work in the real world, at a conventional Division I (read: not Grinnell) college basketball program, with genuine NBA talent. Eventually, Calipari would settle on a starting lineup, because that's what you do. You try to untangle the knot. We should have known better.

"Who gets to platoon?!" ESPN's Jay Bilas said to a Kentucky radio station last week. "You just don't do that. [Calipari] can legitimately platoon and not take a drop off at all."

So yeah, as of mid-August, that's what I'm most excited to see in 2014-15: a real, legitimate five-in-five-out platoon, a team so big and talented that its coach can split it into two discrete groups and still almost always have the five best players on the court.

Too much size? Too many players? Why untie a knot when you can slice it in half?

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