Until this past weekend, at no point in his life had Niko Medved been part of a team that won its first 10 games. The same is true of Todd Golden. Now they are. Medved's Colorado State Rams sit at 10-0 and are ranked 23rd in this week's AP Top 25, the school's first ranking since 2014. Golden's San Francisco Dons are also 10-0 -- best start since the 1970s -- but not yet ranked, though sit 32nd at KenPom, six spots ahead of CSU.
The Dons haven't made the NCAAs since 1998. Colorado State's last appearance was 2013. Two mid-major Cinderella candidates come March. How'd they get here? I spoke with Medved and Golden this week to find out. Let's start with CSU.
"I've never once seen this team come to a practice and have a mentality like, 'Oh, we've arrived,'" Medved said. "There's not jumping around for joy because we're 10-0 and 23rd in the country."
Here's how it goes behind the scenes every April, May and June: some schools outside the power conferences develop a reputation that they will be good to the level of being dangerous. Many head coaches at power-conferences schools have little-to-no interest playing dangerous mid-majors. So teams like Colorado State find themselves in scheduling hell.
"Thank god for Randy (Bennett) and Saint Mary's," Medved said. "That's the only chance we had to play in those [quality] nonconference games at our place."
The Rams hosted Saint Mary's on Dec. 4 and won 74-58. It was validation of their preseason reputation. Away from home, CSU got Mississippi State on Saturday at a neutral-court event in Fort Worth, Texas. November's Virgin Islands MTE offered up Creighton; the win over the Bluejays (8-3) is aging decently for now. Normally CSU is good for a game against in-state big brother Colorado. Tad Boyle couldn't have it this season. That would have been a likely Quad 2 road opportunity for the Rams. So Medved wanted one more tough game against a good team. Alabama came calling, looking for an upper-echelon mid-major for its annual game in Birmingham. Medved tried to get Bama on a return in Denver in 2022. No dice. Still, he took the standalone.
"We have nothing to lose by playing," Medved said of next Tuesday's tilt vs. the No. 6 Crimson Tide. He's mostly right. A loss there isn't going to be all that damaging, while a win would set up Colorado State as a superb at-large candidate heading into league play. All of this is a point of emphasis after the way the Rams narrowly missed the 2021 NCAA Tournament.
"Our mentality after last year, there was so much -- fair or unfair -- that was out of our control," Medved said. "I tried to look for as many opportunities as we could to build a strong schedule. I owed that to this team."
He even agreed to open the season at home against an Oral Roberts team fresh off a Sweet 16 run. Many mid-majors in that spot would not chance such a game. CSU won by 29.
Colorado State ranks first nationally in 3-point accuracy (43.8%). It remains elite from the foul line, fourth overall (81.8%). Medved said CSU's splits through the first 18 games last season were closer to this year's numbers. Then there was a three-week COVID pause due to outbreaks with other teams.
"For whatever reason after that pause we didn't play as well at the end of the season," he said. "Even into the NIT we did not shoot as well."
The Rams made the NIT semifinals anyway, a positive omen.
The Rams are 10-0 because most everyone returned from a borderline tournament team that got glimpses of its ceiling last winter. On Jan. 2, CSU rallied from a 26-point deficit at league bully San Diego State and won by three, giving the program the largest come-from-behind win in Mountain West history. Nineteen days later, with fans in the stands, CSU won at Utah State just two days after losing by 19 in the same building. When COVID ravaged the league, CSU got the short end of the stick and was forced to play four games in seven days to end the regular season. The last of those four was a buzzer-beating loss at Nevada.
"Had we won that game, we were probably in," Medved said. "To see your team come up as the second team left out, it's really painful."
The offseason brought no drama. Nobody went into the portal, and conversations about what was next were short and clear. Everyone wanted to be back and to make school history. Now the Rams are playing more guys than ever under Medved. CSU is 10-deep, something Medved said "can be very difficult to do." Seniors like Adam Thistlewood -- who goes so far back with Medved he committed to play for him at Drake -- who would've otherwise been expecting a minutes hike are instead sacrificing without any gripes.
Leading the charge is David Roddy and Isaiah Stevens, the top two targets of Medved's second recruiting class. Roddy had a football future if he wanted it; CSU recruited vs. the likes of Northwestern and Minnesota and won out because they sold him 100% on basketball. Stevens had a wider net of schools courting him but CSU was as consistent and heavy as any school, whereas others were hot and cold. Now he's among the best point guards in college hoops. The two have become close friends, and that dynamic has been the centerpiece of a winning locker room and optimistic culture.
"They're terrific human beings, really competitive, love basketball, are very smart and are really good students who are about the right things," Medved said.
Colorado State is 10-0 because it never gets too high or too low. Always remembering how close it was last season. It's easy to read something like this on a screen and think of it as normal how-they-got-here stuff in college basketball, but the truth is what happened at CSU in April isn't commonplace. There was essentially no ego in the gym and everyone wanted to play with each other again and to give back in whatever way, because making school history (CSU has never won a regular season Mountain West title) became the paramount goal. Something unusual is percolating in Fort Collins.
San Francisco's start has been part of a larger story. The West Coast Conference's top four teams (Gonzaga, USF, BYU and Saint Mary's) are a combined 36-6. The league has never sent four to the NCAAs, but this could be the season -- and so this should be the best one in the 69-year history of the WCC.
"I'm not naïve to how difficult it is," Golden said. "Randy (Bennett)'s done it, Mark (Pope)'s started to do it, and then there's [Mark Few]. But outside of the top three, outside of my senior in 2008 (at Saint Mary's), USF went in '98 as a 5-seed and ran the table. It hasn't happened, a true at-large outside of BYU and Saint Mary's in … ever, basically. For us to be where we are right now, it's a path. Not an easy path, but a path to go to the NCAA Tournament as an at-large."
After a brutal and bumpy ride last season -- the team was sideswiped by COVID -- things have turned up. The Dons had to play eight games in an 18-day span to start, but because so many home opportunities from last season were lost, they were able to bulk up the schedule with home dates in 2021-22.
"We paid the price for it last year, going to Bubbleville, Oregon, Las Vegas, Cal Poly," Golden said. "We had one home game in nonconference last season."
Golden, 36, is an unabashed numbers-head who uses as many statistical leverages to his advantage as possible -- be it in how he plays his guys or how he builds the schedule.
"We look at every single metric," Golden said. "This is a vision. I was sitting there after this COVID pause and really did a deep dive in our program and personnel. We finished poorly but I thought we had some good pieces, but knew we had to add the right guys. In our league we weren't big enough, weren't strong enough. We made a calculated effort to get bigger and stronger through the portal. And at the same time we finished 1-6, so it wasn't where we had a situation where these guys felt they earned all these minutes. There's wasn't a lot set in stone."
The message was essentially: If you're not comfortable with that, then this isn't the program for you.
It's been seamless to this point in the season because USF's players who returned knew the team had to bring in more in order to pull off the greatest campaign in 50-plus years at that school. The Dons are led by Jamaree Bouyea, a super-senior from Salinas, California, 90 minutes south of San Francisco. He was all of 6 feet, 150 pounds when Golden recruited him on a whim as an assistant under former USF coach Kyle Smith. He had no Division I offers.
"Bouyea is one of, if not the most complete, point guards in the country," Golden said. "He's a two-way guard who leads the team every night and has the most difficult matchup in the backcourt defensively. He's coachable, selfless and humble. Those qualities in a 22-year-old at this point are everything. Jamaree Bouyea is what our program is about."
He's been the WCC player of the week the past two weeks and has become an NBA prospect (his style is similar, at the college level, to Dennis Schröder and Bones Hyland). The other key guard, Khalil Shabazz, is a former Division II player who Golden found and enrolled before anyone at the D-I level had real interest. Now those two have combined with San Diego transfer Yauhen Massalski to create a dynamic offensive attack that's different from most mid-majors.
When Golden and the staff brought on five transfers, they spent the summer doing activities every Wednesday that had nothing to do with basketball. Yoga in Golden Gate Park, Wiffle Ball battles between coaches and players, escape-room challenges.
"We have guys from the Netherlands and Slovenia that have no fricking clue about Wiffle Ball," Golden said. "But it made sure guys like Jamaree and Yauhen were cool off the court before they're competing came on the court in the fall. We're able to hold ourselves more accountable that way."
USF has four top-100 KenPom wins. This weekend it will get tested on back-to-back days, playing against Grand Canyon in Phoenix and at Arizona State. Two more, and it's feasible USF will move into the top 20 of the NET by Monday.
"I consider us the underdogs," Golden said. "We're middle of the pack in our league in terms of resources. We have a young staff and a bunch of players that weren't recruited very high, but our program and our team this year is a good example of what can happen when people continue to put the team in front of themselves."
The WCC has been waiting for someone new to truly crash the party atop the league. The Dons will be that team in 2022.
Houston-Bama ending prompts debate on goaltend reviews
Saturday night closed with controversy. Alabama defeated Houston 83-82 after two put-back attempts by the Cougars' Fabian White fell awry, the second of which was subsequently swatted by JD Davison and coincided with time expiring. While some believed it was goaltending, the debatable infraction was technically basket interference.
To the dismay of Houston's staff and Cougars fans, the play was not reviewed. That's the rule. And it's likely to remain that way going forward. Had a whistle blown for interference on the floor, then the call would have been reviewable. No whistle, no review. The NCAA made this specific rule change in 2019; it was prompted by an LSU win over Kentucky earlier that year when LSU won via an illegal touch that wasn't reviewable. Now any goaltending or interference call made only the final two minutes (and overtime) can be reviewed.
"The reason we went to that point, as opposed to any time they want, is otherwise the officials will never call goaltending and always go to the monitor," NCAA coordinator of officials J.D. Collins said. "We need them refereeing out of instinct, skill and judgment. So the only time we're going to allow it is when we make a call on the floor and go to confirm it or reverse it."
Collins added allowing refs to subconsciously fall back on monitor reviews for non-calls would lead to sloppier officiating.
"They will stop refereeing the play and spend more time at the monitor, which is something none of us want to see," Collins said.
While there could be an argument to be made that this rule could, or should, have an exception on a game's potential final play -- if an outcome hangs in the balance -- Collins posited, "At what point do we draw that line? Is it last second, is it the last 10 seconds, last minute, last two minutes? The reality is all of them matter."
There are also the unintended consequences of having a goaltending review go wrong in this respect: on plays like the one that ended the Houston-Alabama game, no team possesses the ball. The rule mandates the possession arrow determines who gets the ball on a mix-up. You'd inevitably have situations when Team A goes to make a shot, a goaltend is called on Team B -- then review shows it wasn't a goaltend. No basket. But now you must award possession. By rule you can't give the ball back to Team A automatically because there's no telling which team would have snared the loose ball. So, there would be instances in which Team B would have the possession arrow, get the ball, and by function of the rule penalize Team A for doing nothing wrong.
Ultimately we are relying on officials to make split-second decisions -- the correct ones -- in an effort to not bog down the final minutes of games with reviews, which is already a plague of sorts on the sport.
Gonzaga willing, wanting to edit schedule in-season
Mark Few found himself with more time on his hands than he wanted in recent days. Gonzaga's game vs. Washington last weekend was canceled on account of the Huskies missing a third game due to COVID. The No. 5 Zags are now slated for a 29-game season, instead of the 31 allowed. Few told me he's searching/hoping to get at least one more added.
"It's not going to be as easy as last year," he said. "I'm going to try like crazy. We're down another game because our MTE was only two games instead of three, so we have some wiggle room. We'll have to see what presents itself. We do have a couple of byes in the league and have to see if we can work within those parameters."
Basically, Gonzaga is going to have to wait on a team that finds itself in the same situation -- wanting a game and having an open spot after losing a date due to COVID. No guarantee of that, but COVID is starting to wreak havoc across sports again. Penn State and Seton Hall, on Thursday morning, became the latest to announce COVID pauses, so an opportunity could arise.
I also spoke to Few about the recent news with his appointment to serve as an assistant under Steve Kerr on the U.S. Men's National Team. He'll be with Team USA for the World Championships in 2023 and in Paris for the 2024 Olympics.
"Outside of the Hall of Fame, I think it's the biggest thing you can get as a college guy," Few said. "It's an awesome group to work with. I was around Steve this past summer when we were prepping [for the Olympics] and (Eric) Spoelstra working together with the Select Team. All these dudes are so good about wanting to learn and they're not close-minded to anything and are really good people. I've heard nothing but awesome things about Monty Williams. And Grant Hill is a stud of a human, just a really good person."
Few has been involved with Team USA Basketball for years, having been assistant in 2012 for the U18 squad, then coached the 2015 U.S. Pan-American team before serving as an assistant this summer with the Select Team.
"Having been all the way close to it," said Few, "there's something that's different in doing the Team USA stuff. This is my life and my heart and soul's fully into this game."
The Court Report's mailbag! Find me on Twitter, toss a question and I'll answer some each week.
Which teams are definitely championship contenders right now?— Tortuga (@TortugaHawk) December 15, 2021
If we started a 68-team tournament tonight, these are the teams I'd seriously consider to win six: Baylor, Purdue, Kansas, Gonzaga, Arizona, USC, UCLA, Duke.
If PAC12 is a 3 bid league, and ACC is a 3 bid league, does that mean Big East gets 11?— Count Villan V (@NovaCountVillan) December 12, 2021
Cute, but no. Mark me down for eight combined bids between the Pac-12 and ACC. I'll go six for the Big East.
A reminder to subscribe to our podcast's YouTube page, where you can watch every episode live or on-demand. An 8-2 North Carolina team being unranked isn't unreasonable. No. 21 Kentucky shouldn't be ranked either. Providence (10-1) and San Francisco (10-0) should be; that's where the voting collective slipped up again this week.
We all know the Big 12 is going to be grueling this year, would 7 conference wins get Iowa State in the dance?— FieldsSZN (@bobstewart66) December 15, 2021
The No. 11 Cyclones are going to get to 12-0 before league play starts. Seven more would be 19 wins for Iowa State. I'm not sold that it would be enough (pre conference tournament) because three of the the four noncon wins of note (Memphis, Creighton, Iowa) are foggy forecasts. Go 8-10, don't lose to Mizzou at home in late January, and that should be enough.
Whats is Xavier's ceiling? They have a sneaky good resume with three quad 1 wins already. 5 players have scored 20+ in a game.— Dboichillin (@dboichillin) December 15, 2021
You're talking to one of the few who had Xavier as No. 2 in the Big East. When fully healthy, X's ceiling is 27 wins and a No. 3 seed. Villanova's been spotty enough that, although I'm still picking VU to win the league, I can see a scenario in which it ties with Xavier or UConn atop the ledger.
• The NCAA in-season bracket reveal will be one week later than usual due to the NFL schedule bloating by one week, therefore pushing back the Super Bowl. This means the top-16 show will air on CBS Saturday, Feb. 19 -- 22 days before Selection Sunday.
• The devastation across western Kentucky and the surrounding region (caused by tornados) has been heart-rending. College basketball's community has been huge in stepping up to help. Activism prompted by coaches, players and media personalities has raised more than $3 million. How inspiring sports can be to rally our communities and uplift our humanity.
• Nebraska AD Trev Alberts took to Twitter Tuesday to downplay message board rumors about the Huskers under Fred Hoiberg and whether the NCAA was sniffing around on recruiting violations. I'm told there's still more to come to light, though.
• Elsewhere in coaching unease, Pitt is 3-7 with home losses to the Citadel, UMBC and Monmouth. Jeff Capel is in his fourth season and it's looking bleak to see how he makes it to a fifth.
• Startling: Maryland's 70-68 win Sunday over Florida was its first over a ranked nonconference team since Nov. 25, 2014. I understand a bit more why fans were fidgety under Mark Turgeon.
• Indiana and Kansas have scheduled a home-and-home that will start a year from now in Lawrence, the first on-campus meeting between the two since 1994. There are about a dozen men's programs that have true national appeal no matter when they play, and getting those schools playing each other in home venues as often as possible is significant for viability in November and December. Good on IU and KU for this. Relatedly: Gonzaga and Kansas have been working for years to make a home-and-home work, but best I can tell, the IU news means that's now years away from materializing.
• Tulane and Cleveland State recently became the sixth and seventh programs to hit pause because of COVID this season, joining Abilene Christian, Georgia State, Nevada, Wagner and Washington. There will soon be more, I'm afraid.
• Las Vegas will now host the 2024 Super Bowl. My suspicion is the Final Four won't be far behind. Mark me down for 2028 being the year the men's championship is decided in Sin City. The next batch of men's and women's Final Four sites is for 2027-31 and will be announced next fall.
• Someone systematically separated all 358 Division I logos and the results are my kind of geekery. Click here to see the entire thread.
I used Gower distances and Partitioning Around Medoids (PAM) to sort the 358 Division I basketball logos into 25 groups and graphed them using the t-Distributed Stochastic Neighbor Embedding (t-SNE) technique. Follow the thread to find your school's group! pic.twitter.com/sGnDSBBG0g— Todd Whitehead (@CrumpledJumper) December 11, 2021