The coaching fire still burns in Brown. (USAT)
Still recuperating from your midweek bar crawl? Are you nostril deep in term paper research? Have no fear, fellow bracketeers. As a companion to the Bracket Big Board, the I.D. is here to highlight all the college hardwood action from the week that was and preview the most pivotal matchups of the weekend. Unlike McLovin’s fake Hawaiian driver's license, there's nothing fake about this I.D. …
Restless, well-traveled, legendary – Larry Brown is a modern-day Marco Polo.
The Basketball Hall of Famer, 73 years young and in his fourth gig at the collegiate level, is hoping to again get wrapped up in the madness of March, a feeling he last experienced when Danny Manning and the Jayhawks captivated the college sports world in 1988. It wouldn’t be surprising if he was still calling shots at North Carolina, UCLA or Kansas, but the esteemed coach is undergoing a renaissance in the unlikeliest location: Dallas.
And no, it’s not Mark Cuban’s team.
When casual sports fans hear "SMU", thoughts of corruption, scandal and harsh punishment associated with the football program from the mid-70s to 1986 are instantly conjured. Though the death penalty levied by the NCAA Infractions Committee was decades ago, the ghosts associated with it still haunt the once proud school.
In recent years under June Jones, football has achieved modest success appearing in four marginal bowl games in the past five years. However, it’s the university’s usually unremarkable basketball team, which hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since Snow (Yes, THAT Snow) was thumping tape decks in 1993, could propel the Mustangs back onto the national scene.
Credit the grizzled explorer.
In less than two years, Brown has transformed a yearly laughing stock into a legitimate AAC contender. He’s scored prized local recruits, enhanced the offensive performance of inherited upperclassmen and imparted his defensive wisdom on a talented group of freshmen and sophomores. Still young in mind, he truly believes SMU’s sudden resurgence is only the beginning. From ESPN Dallas:
"I want to do what John Thompson did at Georgetown and what John Calipari did at UMass," Brown said. "I want to have what all those great coaches at Butler created and what they've done at Xavier. I don't see any reason why we can't. I really think we can be special. I know it's a challenge, but I believe everything's in place. We've just got to do the job."
So far, he’s executed.
Midway through the conference season, Brown’s efforts have yielded a bumper crop of wins, most notably a nine-point triumph over Connecticut, and a place among statistical giants. Thanks to the stellar inside-outside combination of Markus Kennedy and Nic Moore, the ‘Stangs have raced out to a 5-3 record in league play, netting 1.101 points per possession on the season. In their last win, a 75-68 declawing of the Houston Cougars, the untamable pair totaled 43 points going 12 for 20 from the floor.
SMU’s offense is noteworthy, but its stifling defense is what really drives the club. Attempt to attack the bucket and chances are you’ll leave empty handed. Opponents have scored a mere 40.0 percent of their attempts inside the arc against it, the second lowest two-point percentage surrendered in the country. Additionally, the Mustangs rank top-30 nationally in block percentage, defensive rebound percentage, points per possession allowed and effective field-goal percentage defense. Suffice it to say, you have better odds driving lanes on Chris Christie's George Washington Bridge than doing the same on the Mustangs.
Despite their meteoric rise, Brown’s bunch, like every team, has experienced a few bumps in the road. Junior center Yanick Moreira has missed seven-straight games with a sprained MCL in his right knee. A key cog on defense, the big man is hoping to return to action just in time for the stretch run. Meanwhile, freshman guard Keith Frazier reportedly could be in hot water over an academic issue. An internal investigation by the Dallas Independent School District revealed a teacher’s assistant at Frazier’s high school allegedly changed a failing grade to passing in order to solidify the guard’s collegiate eligibility. If shelved, it would be a significant blow to this year's team and beyond.
On the court, SMU isn’t completely out of the woods either. Its overall record stands out (16-5), but with only one quality win on its résumé, additional signature victories are needed. Upcoming home matchups against Memphis and Cincinnati present perfect opportunities. Assuming the Mustangs finish with 2-3 RPI top-50 wins and handle business against meek competition – Tuesday's embarrassing loss at South Florida didn't help – a No. 11 or slightly better seed is likely. Throw in their defensive stiffness, Moreira’s probable return and the dynamite play of Moore and Kennedy, and they are a supreme sleeper capable of advancing to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
Brown, in his 13th head-coaching stop, has carved a long, winding road. However, in likely his last go-round, he could leave a permanent mark on a SMU program desperate to dance.
Rehearse your choreographed moves one last time. Get into costume. And press "play" on your boombox. It's time for an Interpretive Dance …
Here are this week’s biggest bracket bulls and bears:
DA BULLS (MOVING UP)
With the Final Four in Dallas and Rick Barnes rumored to be on the hot seat, the juvenile 'Horns have grown up fast. After an 0-2 start in conference play, they've reeled off five straight, scoring crucial wins against Iowa St., Kansas St. and fading Baylor. Netting just 32.8 percent from downtown and 65.8 percent at the charity stripe, Texas remains a work in progress on offense. But its uptempo style, stout interior play and unyielding defense (rank No. 25 in defensive efficiency nationally) explain the sudden about face. Paint patrollers Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes have played marvelously, protecting the glass and denying guard penetration. If the 'Horns hook Kansas Saturday in Austin, the sky's the limit. A win, and they will have a strong argument as a No. 5 seed or better. Barnes, whose tenure at Texas was thought to be on life support entering the season, has done a magnificent job with the sixth-youngest team in college basketball.
Boomer Sooner has officially staked its claim in the Big 12. Monday, in a Bedlam battle with Oklahoma St., Lon Kruger's very young bunch matured, dominating the undersized Cowboys inside while drilling eight threes. Ryan Spangler was an angry ogre in the post, grabbing 17 rebounds while chipping in 15 points. Now with three marquee wins on their résumé, a top-12 strength of schedule and in the thick of the Big 12 race, the Sooners deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as bracket darlings Iowa, Louisville and Cincinnati. OU's No. 121 defensive efficiency rank is a cause for pause, but its breakneck style and smoothness on offense may continue to mask its problems. With road matchups against Iowa St., Kansas and Oklahoma St. and a home clash against Texas remaining, the Sooners are slated to run the gamut, but as Kruger has shown time and time again the man can flat out coach.
Since taking over the lead reins in 2011, Ed Cooley has slowly rebuilt a Friars program characterized by consistent mediocrity during the Tim Welsh and Keno Davis eras. Last year's NIT quarterfinal appearance was the first step. This year's likely NCAA tournament berth is the next. Spearheaded by net-burner Bryce Cotton, who's scored at least 20 points in 11 of his past 13 games, PC has quietly cleaned up in the reconfigured Big East. Riding high after beating Creighton, Butler and Xavier at home, it currently stands at 5-2 in league play, just 1.5 games behind the Swishing McDermotts. Solid defensively, excellent on the boards and terrific at the free-throw line, the Friars should remain in the upper-third of the division. However, with four of their next five on the road, they will be tested. If they emerge from the trip relatively unscathed, they will undoubtedly lace up their dancing shoes for the first time in a decade.
Also Flaming: North Dakota St., Creighton, Arizona St.
DA BEARS (MOVING DOWN)
The Panthers are the Criss Angels of the ACC – masters in the art of deception. With only three losses on the season and playing in a well-known conference, most would believe they are worthy of a top seed. However, peel back the curtain and a team hardly different from Summit frontrunner North Dakota St. is revealed. Monday's misstep against Duke was a humongous opportunity blown. Many predicted, including Vegas which slated Pitt a four-point favorite, Jamie Dixon's club would net its first marquee victory of the season. Unfortunately, Jabari Parker's dominating first-half performance combined with Andre Dawkins' torrid shooting off the bench dashed that dream. Still sans a RPI top-50 win on the season, the Panthers are an extremely difficult team to seed. Its top-15 KenPom and Sagarin rankings are a spoof. Sensational on the glass and possessing one of the nation's most efficient scorers in Lamar Patterson, Pitt has the statistical profile of a Sweet Sixteen team. But with only 10 regular season games remaining, it must beef up its at-large résumé to secure a respectable postseason seed. Going 2-2 against Virginia, North Carolina, Syracuse and Florida St. would do exactly that.
Comment: Losers of five of their last seven, the Bears are one more L away from the taxidermist. Sadly, that's bound to happen. Baylor's next three games are brutal – at Oklahoma St, home versus Kansas and at Oklahoma. Scary. Considering the returning talent on roster, its rapid fall from grace is a bit perplexing. The interior play of stalwarts Isaiah Austin, Rico Gathers and Cory Jefferson coupled with Brady Heslip's smooth outside stroke were thought to be a recipe for success. The Bears are the best rebounding team in the Big 12, but rank at or near the bottom in just about every other category. Turnovers, substandard shooting and generous defense are responsible for their ruin. With a conference record of 1-6, it must right the ship immediately. If not and even the NIT could be out of reach.
Comment: Minus leading scorer Spencer Dinwiddie, the Buffaloes are out to pasture. Since losing the star guard to a torn ACL Jan. 12 at Washington, Tad Boyle's club has dropped three of its last four, including a 21-point drubbing at the hands of Arizona St. At .500 in conference, three winnable home games upcoming (Washington, Washington St. and Utah) and a standout non-conference win against Kansas under its belt, all hope isn't completely lost. However, freshman Jaron Hopkins must alleviate pressure on Askia Booker by filling the massive void at shooting guard. Averaging a pedestrian 5.0 points per game over the last five, he's failed in that quest thus far. For Colorado, the sands of the hourglass are thinning.
Also Laming: Ohio St., Wisconsin, BYU
This segment sifts through the bountiful weekend slate to highlight five titanic games that will bear the greatest impact on a team's "Bracket Big Board" standing.
1. Kansas at Texas
Much will be made about the matchup second on this list, but, in terms of seeding, KU/UT offers oodles of intrigue. The 'Horns, preseason projected to be a back-half finisher in the loaded Big 12, have greatly exceeded expectations. Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes are superb defenders who command the glass, but Joel Embiid is an immovable skyscraper whose presence alone thwarts coaching strategy. However, in arguably the most meaningful game to hit Austin in years, Kansas' susceptibility to turnovers will prove to be the difference.
Prediction: Texas 80 Kansas 77
2. Duke at Syracuse
The rafters will be packed to the gills at the Carrier Dome. Orange faithful have looked forward to this game since 'Cuse announced its leap to the ACC nearly two years ago. Off a 15-point spanking of Pittsburgh at The Zoo, Coach K has the Devils clicking. In conference play, they've surrendered a mere 0.994 points per possession. But unless Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker are dropping trey-bombs from Buffalo, 'Cuse's length and trademark 2-3 zone suffocates.
Prediction: Syracuse 69 Duke 64
3. Kentucky at Missouri
Mizzou, clinging to postseason hopes, desperately needs another signature win. Despite a laudable overall record (16-4), its résumé lacks meat (RPI: 46, SOS: 101). Kentucky is starting to coalesce, fluidly distributing the ball around the perimeter and into the post to future lottery pick Julius Randle. The Tigers, particularly Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross, make their hay along the perimeter and at the charity stripe. If the duo drive with marked success and induce fouls on Randle, they have a chance. However, don't bank on it. Missouri has shot a ghastly 42.8-percent inside the arc in SEC play.
Prediction: Kentucky 74 Missouri 68
4. Arizona St. at Stanford
Many Sun Devil fans have called for Herb Sendek's head. Over eight tepid years in Tempe, he's guided ASU to the NCAA tourney only once. However, with a respectable computer ranking across myriad sources (No. 38 composite) and key wins against Marquette and Colorado, the Devils may soon dance. Still, with only one marquee win on a neutral or road floor, emerging victorious in Palo Alto would go a long way to securing an at-large bid. Unfortunately, that likely won't be the case. The Devils and Cardinal shoot the ball extraordinarily well from outside, but look for Stanford to control tempo, squeeze the orange and score a win against the Grand Canyon State.
Prediction: Stanford 68 Arizona St. 63
5. Michigan at Indiana
If the Big Ten has any hope of sending seven teams to the NCAA tournament, Indiana must spring an upset or two along the way. Sunday's showdown with unblemished Michigan is one such opportunity. Led by all-world talent Nik Stauskas, the Wolverines have done a 180. At 6-4 in mid-December and sans Mitch McGary, they were on the fast track to Suck City. But Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III and especially Caris LeVert elevated their games. In conference play, the Mighty Maize has netted 1.192 points per possession, tops in the Big Ten. The Hoosiers are a young, scrappy bunch brimming with talent, but costly turnovers, foul trouble and poor outside shooting have hampered them. Expect that to continue against the seemingly unstoppable Wolverines.
Prediction: Michigan 76 Indiana 70
Other Notable Games: Ohio St. at Wisconsin, Arizona at Cal, George Washington at Dayton, Oklahoma at Iowa St., Toledo at Ohio, Richmond at VCU, Memphis at SMU, Virginia at Pittsburgh
What underrated player earned his bust?
What high-profiled player took a long, embarrassing walk home?
Each week, per your tweets, the Noise will attempt to get inside the mind of Selection Committee chairman Ron Wellman.
@YahooNoise what does Tennessee have to do ROS to make it in tourney?
— Seth Crabtree (@sethc33) January 28, 2014
Considering Tennessee has lost seven games, three of which were against RPI slackers UTEP, North Carolina St. and Texas A&M, many would believe I have better odds of convincing Scarlett Johansson to accept my advances than the Vols do making the NCAA tournament. However, Cuonzo Martin and company are holding a trump card. They own notable non-conference wins over Xavier and Virginia and, most importantly, dispatched fellow Bubbleville residents LSU, Arkansas and Mississippi in league play.
Split against Missouri, handle business against the dregs of the SEC keg and play Florida tough Feb. 11 in Knoxville, and the Vols should cut rug in short order. Its RPI standing (49) isn't on the firmest ground, but, remember, the Selection Committee uses several other measurements when vetting the field, including KenPom. Ranked inside top 25 according to that rating system, they are in a solid position to attract an at-large bid.
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