College Basketball Nation: Big South

You Gotta See This: Big South

October, 1, 2013
10/01/13
9:15
AM ET
Rodney GlasgowAP Photo/David SmithIf you are a fan of up-tempo basketball, then you are a fan of VMI.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: the noble speed freaks of Virginia Military Institute.

Let's be clear from the start: Stylistically speaking, there is no right or wrong way to play the game of basketball. There are only wins and losses. Everything else -- from a coach's philosophy to aesthetic preference to good old-fashioned matchup strategy -- is only so much interior detail.

In other words, up-tempo basketball does not equal winning basketball. Or vice versa. There are strategic advantages and disadvantages, and personnel is the key, but no system is so good it can succeed of its own merits alone. For fans, everything is subjective. Some people really love slow, deliberate, physical basketball. Others saw their hoops holy grail in Phoenix in 2005 and walk the Earth like Jules from "Pulp Fiction," casting about desperately for anything that might vaguely approximate it.

I'll admit it: I am in the latter camp. For every magnificent fiber of this sport, college basketball in 2013 can be too slow, too plodding, too careful -- smothered by helicopter coaches deathly afraid of leaving their livelihoods to chance. When a coach openly defies this trend, it's worth taking notice. When a coach does so, and then doesn't win all that much, and then keeps on doing it anyway -- well, that's when you've really got my attention.

That coach exists. His name is Duggar Baucom. He coaches the Virginia Military Institute Keydets. And his teams play fast. Always. Win or lose. That's all you really need to know.

Just in case, let's demonstrate: Since 2005-06, when Baucom came from Division II Tusculum College, VMI has finished outside the top 10 nationally in adjusted tempo only once, in his first season. To the right is a list of VMI's adjusted tempo figures -- and their won-lost records -- since.

In the past seven seasons, as part of Baucom's strategy, VMI has focused its efforts on turning opponents over and attempting to win the game on offense. This always leads to two things. The first is awful defense; the Keydets have finished a season ranked higher than 300th defensively only twice in the past eight years. The second? Thoroughly entertaining basketball!

In fact, that's the real marvel here. VMI has a system. That system is a joy to watch, but it does not yield consistent victories. VMI's coach has stuck with that immensely enjoyable system even as it has failed to bear consistent fruit -- and risked becoming a sideshow -- because he thinks it’s the best way his team can play basketball.

Which is exactly why you've got to, got to, got to see VMI. The Keydets may not always be successful, even in the forgiving context of the Big South. But they are guaranteed to thrill -- for better and for worse.
Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. On Tuesday, it's the First Four in Dayton, Ohio.

No. 16 North Carolina A&T vs. No. 16 Liberty, 6:40 p.m. ET, truTV

Here’s the bad news. The winner of this First Four matchup will face Louisville, the top overall seed in the tournament, on Thursday in Lexington, Ky. So it’s like, “Hey, you win!” quickly followed by, “And you kind of lose, too.” But a win is a win. And both teams can snap their lengthy droughts in the NCAA tournament.

Neither team has ever won an NCAA tournament game. So tonight will be a first for one of these squads. North Carolina A&T has been to the Big Dance nine times but not since 1995. Liberty has gone twice (1994, 2004).

So history is certainly on the line.

Liberty will represent the Big South even though the Flames finished the regular season with a 6-10 conference record. They’ve lost 20 games. But they won the conference tourney. And that’s what matters. John Caleb Sanders has one of the best names in the entire tournament, and he leads the Flames with 14.2 PPG.

The Aggies of North Carolina A&T are on a four-game winning streak. They’ve forced turnovers on 23.7 percent of their opponents’ possessions per Ken Pomeroy, 20th in the country. But that number is inflated by the level of competition the Aggies have faced in the MEAC. But their defensive aggression could be the difference in this matchup.

No. 11 Saint Mary’s vs. No. 11 Middle Tennessee, 9:10 p.m. ET, truTV

Some people questioned the Blue Raiders’ inclusion in the field of 68. They lost two games in the weak Sun Belt conference and they failed to win their conference tournament. But they’ve also won 28 games. That includes a win over SEC tourney champion Ole Miss.

They’re ranked 20th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy.

And the Blue Raiders have the poise, experience and talent to pull off a VCU-like run in the NCAAs. Plus, they’re going to play with a chip on their shoulder because so many folks have doubted them.

But advancing past Saint Mary’s won’t be easy. If Gonzaga were in a different league, the Gaels would be the undisputed kings of the West Coast Conference. The Zags have defeated Saint Mary’s three times this season. The Gaels also have losses to Pacific, Georgia Tech and Northern Iowa. A BracketBusters win over Creighton was impressive.

The jury is still out, however, on the Gaels. Is this a program that’s just been misjudged based on its losses to the No. 1 team in America? Or is this a squad that’s as average as its nonconference losses suggest that it is?

We’ll find out soon. Matthew Dellavedova (15.8 PPG, 6.4 APG) is a magician with a basketball. But the Blue Raiders’ pressure could make the Australian star and his teammates disappear.

Yes, that was corny. I know. Enjoy the tournament.

Video: 20-loss Liberty headed to tourney

March, 10, 2013
3/10/13
4:13
PM ET


John Caleb Sanders scored 27 point to help Liberty beat Charleston Southern and win the Big South Conference tournament.
Tags:

Big South

Saturday's conference-clinching scenarios

March, 2, 2013
3/02/13
11:25
AM ET
Here are the scenarios today for teams that have a chance to clinch their regular-season conference title outright. For conferences with two divisions, we use the terminology “will clinch best record” instead of “will clinch conference outright.”

Akron: Will clinch best record in MAC with win at Buffalo and Ohio loss at Bowling Green
Belmont: Will clinch best record in Ohio Valley with win vs. Jacksonville State or Eastern Kentucky loss at Tennessee State
Charleston Southern: Will clinch best record in Big South South Division with win vs. Coastal Carolina
High Point: Will clinch best record in Big South North division with win vs. Campbell
Long Beach State: Will clinch Big West outright with win at UC Irvine or Pacific loss at UC Riverside
Louisiana Tech: Will clinch WAC outright with win vs. San Jose State and Denver loss vs. New Mexico State
Memphis: Will clinch Conference USA outright with win at UCF or Southern Miss loss vs. East Carolina
Mercer: Will clinch Atlantic Sun outright with win at Stetson or Florida Gulf Coast loss vs. Kennesaw State
Miami: Will clinch ACC outright with win at Duke
New Mexico: Will clinch Mountain West outright with win vs. Wyoming and Colorado State loss at Boise State
Niagara: Will clinch MAAC outright with win vs. St. Peter's
South Dakota State: Will clinch Summit League outright with Western Illinois loss vs. South Dakota
Texas Southern: Will clinch SWAC outright with win vs. Alcorn State
Valparaiso: Will clinch Horizon League outright with win at Green Bay or Detroit loss at Illinois-Chicago
Wichita State at Creighton: Winner clinches Missouri Valley outright

Mid-Major Report: Power Rankings

February, 28, 2013
2/28/13
10:24
AM ET
Here are the latest mid-major power rankings for ESPN.com as voted upon by our national panel. I also vote in this poll, which does not include teams from the Atlantic 10, Conference USA or Mountain West.

A quick look at the panel:

Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) covers Horizon League basketball for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

Richard Kilwien (@smcgaels) is the associate athletic director for external affairs at Saint Mary's College.

Leslie Wilhite (@Leslie_Wilhite, @MT_MBB) is in her second season as an assistant director of athletic communications at Middle Tennessee.

Dusty Luthy Shull (@DustyLuthyShull) covers Murray State athletics for The Paducah (Ky.) Sun.

John Templon (@nybuckets) writes about New York City and East Coast mid-major college basketball for his website, nycbuckets.com.

Thomas Chen (@thomasmchen) is in his third year as director of athletic communications at Stony Brook University.

Terry Vandrovec (@terryvandrovec) covers South Dakota State basketball for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Mid-Major Power Rankings: Week 10
  1. Gonzaga (27-2, 14-0 WCC). Future NBA big man Kelly Olynyk has led the Zags to the top of the WCC.
  2. Middle Tennessee (25-4, 17-1 Sun Belt). The Blue Raiders have defeated their past two opponents by 35 points and 41 points, respectively.
  3. Akron (23-4, 13-0 MAC). The Zips cracked the latest coaches’ poll. They haven’t lost since Dec. 15.
  4. Saint Mary’s (25-5, 13-2 WCC). Saturday’s win over Creighton enhanced the Gaels’ at-large profile.
  5. Belmont (23-6, 13-2 Ohio Valley). The Bruins’ three-game winning streak includes a lopsided win over Ohio last weekend.
  6. Bucknell (24-5, 11-2 Patriot League). The Bison sealed the Patriot League regular-season crown with their three-game winning streak.
  7. Creighton (23-7, 12-5 MVC). Wednesday night's victory over Bradley sets up a huge showdown with Wichita State on Saturday.
  8. Wichita State (24-6, 12-5 MVC). Shockers can secure a No. 1 seed in the MVC tourney with a win over Creighton.
  9. Louisiana Tech (24-3, 14-0 WAC). The Bulldogs, who haven’t lost since Dec. 12, earned the No. 25 slot in the latest AP poll.
  10. Stephen F. Austin (23-3, 13-2 Southland). The Lumberjacks control the Southland but they’ll need a league tourney title to get an NCAA bid.
  11. Valparaiso (23-7, 12-3 Horizon). The Crusaders are a game ahead of Detroit with one regular-season contest to play.
  12. Davidson (22-7, 16-1 Southern). The Wildcats have won 13 in a row and they defeated Montana in overtime on Saturday.
  13. Stony Brook (21-6, 12-2 America East). The Seawolves have four players who are averaging at least 8.8 points per game.
  14. BYU (20-9, 9-5 WCC). The Cougars have lost three of their past five games.
  15. Ohio (20-8, 11-2 MAC). The Bobcats have lost two in a row, including a heartbreaker in overtime against Akron Wednesday night.
Team of the Week: Prior to its recent success, Evansville had lost four of its past five games. But the Aces have finished strong. They won their third consecutive game 59-56 Wednesday night at Wichita State. The victory also ensures they’ll end the regular season with a .500 record (or better) in conference play. That’s a solid turnaround for this program.

Player of the Week: Delaware’s Devon Saddler, a 6-foot-2 junior guard, has led the Fightin’ Blue Hens to a top-three finish in the CAA with his efforts in their past three games, all close contests. Last week, he scored 31 points in a 73-71 double-overtime win against Drexel. He followed that performance with 24 points (10-for-20 from the field) in a 79-78 win at UNC-Wilmington on Saturday. And Wednesday night, he scored 19 points in a 57-56 victory at Hofstra.

Notes
  • Montana’s Big Sky tourney plans may have changed with recent injuries to top contributors Mathias Ward and Will Cherry. Cherry re-injured the foot he broke prior to the start of the season in last weekend’s BracketBusters loss to Davidson. And Ward suffered a sprained arch in his left foot in a win over Idaho State during the previous weekend. Both could be unavailable or limited in the postseason.
  • North Dakota State’s Taylor Braun, the program’s top scorer, was rusty Tuesday night, going 0-for-4 in 18 minutes of a 63-56 win over Utah Valley State. It was his first game back after missing 10 games with a foot injury. The Bison are a game behind South Dakota State for first place in the Summit League. If the Jackrabbits get past Omaha-Nebraska on Thursday night, they’ll win the league title. But North Dakota State, with the conference’s best defensive unit (34th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy) could be the favorite to win the conference tourney now that Braun has returned.
  • Dan Monson has done it again. Long Beach State (13-2 in conference play) is in command of the Big West with three games to play (Pacific is 3.5 games behind the 49ers). This team is not as fluid as last season's veteran crew. But with transfers Keala King (Arizona State) and James Ennis (17.1 ppg), the 49ers are certainly skilled as they prepare for another run at the Big West tournament title and the league’s automatic bid.

Mid-Major Report: Power Rankings

February, 14, 2013
2/14/13
11:15
AM ET
Here are the latest mid-major power rankings for ESPN.com as voted upon by our national panel. I also vote in this poll, which does not include any teams from the Atlantic 10, Conference USA or Mountain West.

Another quick look at the panel:

Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) covers Horizon League basketball for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

Richard Kilwien (@smcgaels) is the associate athletic director for external affairs at Saint Mary's College.

Leslie Wilhite (@Leslie_Wilhite, @MT_MBB) is in her second season as an assistant director of athletic communications at Middle Tennessee State University.

Dusty Luthy Shull (@DustyLuthyShull) covers Murray State athletics for The Paducah (Ky.) Sun.

John Templon (@nybuckets) writes about New York City and East Coast mid-major college basketball for his website, nycbuckets.com.

Thomas Chen (@thomasmchen) is in his third year as director of athletic communications at Stony Brook University.

Terry Vandrovec (@terryvandrovec) covers South Dakota State basketball for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Mid-Major Power Rankings: Week 8
  1. Gonzaga (23-2, 10-0 WCC) – Zags face their last true conference test in a road matchup at Saint Mary’s on Thursday night.
  2. Saint Mary’s (21-4, 10-1 WCC) – The Gaels will have a lot to prove when they face the WCC kings tonight.
  3. Middle Tennessee State (22-4, 14-1 Sun Belt) – The Blue Raiders are ranked 21st in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy, and they’ve won 11 in a row.
  4. Belmont (20-5, 11-1 OVC) – Saturday loss at Murray State damaged Bruins’ (RPI: 24) at-large potential.
  5. Akron (20-4, 11-0 MAC) – The Zips are still winning. Their 16-game winning streak is the nation’s longest.
  6. Bucknell (21-4, 8-1 Patriot League) – The Bison’s 46.1 percent clip from the field is 47th nationally.
  7. Wichita State (21-5, 10-4 MVC) – The Shockers’ dreams of an at-large bid have certainly been affected by a stretch that has included three losses in five games.
  8. Creighton (20-6, 9-5 MVC) – The Bluejays are a mystery. Just a few weeks ago, they were the kings of the conference, but they’re riding a three-game losing streak right now.
  9. Stephen F. Austin (20-2, 11-1 Southland) – The Lumberjacks are ranked third in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy.
  10. Louisiana Tech (21-3, 12-0 WAC) – The Bulldogs have not lost a game since Dec. 12.
  11. Lehigh (18-5, 8-1 Patriot League) – On Monday, the Mountain Hawks will host Bucknell in a matchup that could determine the Patriot League’s regular-season title.
  12. Murray State (18-5, 9-2 OVC) – The Racers have won three in a row, a stretch that includes a five-point win against Belmont. Isaiah Canaan is averaging 21.0 PPG.
  13. Ohio (18-6, 9-1 MAC) – The Bobcats have won three in a row since suffering a Feb. 2 loss at Akron.
  14. Valparaiso (20-6, 10-2 Horizon League) – The Crusaders have gradually separated themselves from the rest of the league with four consecutive wins. They’ll host Detroit (second place in the Horizon League) on Saturday.
  15. BYU (18-8, 8-4 WCC) – After losing three of their past six, the Cougars have probably played their way out of the WCC title chase.
Team of the Week: Murray State enters Thursday night’s game at Southern Illinois-Edwardsville riding a three-game winning streak. That run includes a 79-74 victory against Belmont on Feb. 7. The Racers possess the Ohio Valley Conference’s top scoring defense (61.5 PPG allowed in conference play). And Canaan (21.0 PPG) is ninth nationally in scoring. Although Belmont has a better record, Murray State’s win against the Bruins suggests that the Racers are not only the kings of the West Division, but also kings of the entire league.

Player of the Week: Illinois State forward Jackie Carmichael is the catalyst for the Redbirds’ surge up the Missouri Valley Conference standings. He finished with 27 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks in a 79-59 win against Bradley on Wednesday night. He had 16 points, 6 rebounds and a pair of steals when Illinois State upset Creighton in Omaha, Neb., on Saturday with a 75-72 win. The Redbirds have won seven of their past eight. With Carmichael playing like this, Illinois State can outplay any team in the league.

Notes
  • The Summit League title chase added another contender over the weekend when Oakland defeated South Dakota State 88-83 on Saturday. It was the fifth consecutive with for the Golden Grizzlies (8-4), who are two games behind first-place Western Illinois (10-2) with five games remaining on their conference slate.
  • Remember when the Missouri Valley Conference looked like a three-bid league? Doesn’t look that way right now. The recent chaos at the top of the league has threatened its status as a potential multiple-bid conference. Based on RPI and their shaky resumes, Wichita State (41), Creighton (55) and Indiana State (58) are all bubble teams right now.
  • Montana established a Big Sky record by earning its 25th consecutive conference win, a 78-58 victory against North Dakota on Saturday. The Grizzlies have won 14 consecutive games. Now let’s look at the top upcoming mid-major matchup: Saturday's game between Wichita State and Illinois State.

 

Mid-Major Report: Power Rankings

January, 31, 2013
1/31/13
9:00
AM ET
Here are the latest mid-major power rankings for ESPN.com as voted upon by our national panel. I also vote in this poll, which does not include any teams from the Atlantic 10, Conference USA or Mountain West.

Another quick look at the panel:

Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) covers Horizon League basketball for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

Richard Kilwien (@smcgaels) is the associate athletic director for external affairs at Saint Mary's College.

Leslie Wilhite (@Leslie_Wilhite, @MT_MBB) is in her second season as an assistant director of athletic communications at Middle Tennessee State University.

Dusty Luthy Shull (@DustyLuthyShull) covers Murray State athletics for The Paducah (Ky.) Sun.

John Templon (@nybuckets) writes about New York City and East Coast mid-major college basketball for his website, nycbuckets.com.

Thomas Chen (@thomasmchen) is in his third year as director of athletic communications at Stony Brook University.

Terry Vandrovec (@terryvandrovec) covers South Dakota State basketball for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Mid-Major Power Rankings: Week 7
  1. Gonzaga (19-2, 6-0 WCC) -- Can any team in the West Coast Conference stop the Zags right now?
  2. Creighton (19-3, 8-2 MVC) -- The Bluejays are locked into a three-team battle for the MVC title.
  3. Belmont (17-4, 8-0 OVC) -- The Bruins are the best in the OVC, and they’re undefeated in 2013.
  4. Wichita State (19-3, 8-2 MVC) -- Tuesday home loss to Indiana State was proof that MVC is legit.
  5. Saint Mary’s (18-4, 7-1 WCC) -- The Gaels have won six consecutive games.
  6. Middle Tennessee (18-4, 10-1 Sun Belt) -- The Blue Raiders are 28th in the nation in defensive efficiency.
  7. Bucknell (18-4, 5-1 Patriot) -- Hit a shot with 0.8 of a second to go to beat American on Wednesday.
  8. BYU (16-6, 6-2 WCC) -- Tyler Haws (20.5 ppg) is one of the best players in the country right now.
  9. Akron (16-4, 6-0 MAC) -- The Zips have won 12 consecutive games and will face Ohio on Saturday.
  10. Indiana State (14-7, 7-3 MVC) -- The Sycamores crashed the MVC race with upset at Wichita State.
  11. Lehigh (15-5, 5-1 Patriot) -- The same team that won at Bucknell lost to Lafayette by 21 at home?
  12. Ohio (15-5, 6-0 MAC) -- Undefeated Ohio at undefeated Akron on Saturday. You should watch.
  13. Stephen F. Austin (17-2, 8-1 Southland) -- Suffered first loss in nearly two months on Saturday.
  14. Louisiana Tech (18-3, 9-0 WAC) -- The Bulldogs are the dominant team in the WAC these days.
  15. Murray State (15-5, 6-2 OVC) -- The Racers hit 22 percent of their 3s in a loss to Jacksonville State.
Team of the Week: Indiana State changed the Missouri Valley Conference championship race with its 68-55 win at No. 15 Wichita State on Tuesday night. Consider the odds that were against the Sycamores. They hadn’t defeated the Shockers on the road in nearly a decade. Wichita State had won 19 in a row at home. Creighton couldn’t win there. But the Sycamores played tough in a hostile venue. They limited the Shockers to 27 percent shooting from the field. They attacked Carl Hall, who dealt with foul trouble all night. The bottom line is that Indiana State enhanced its at-large hopes and changed the MVC title hunt with one thrilling performance.

Player of the Week: Eastern Washington freshman Venky Jois scored 20 points, grabbed 13 rebounds, recorded 5 assists and blocked 3 shots in his team’s 76-65 win over Portland State on Monday. It was the 6-foot-7 Australian’s ninth double-double this season, the top mark for all freshmen.

Notes
  • Montana’s Will Cherry missed the start of the season with a foot injury. He needed a few games to shake the rust off, but he’s been a critical leader for a Montana team that’s 10-0 in the Big Sky Conference. Against Weber State on Saturday, Cherry finished with 28 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 4 steals in a 76-74 victory for the Grizzlies.
  • Wright State won its first four Horizon League games. But the Raiders have gone 1-4 since. The good news for the program is that the other Horizon League contenders have failed to separate themselves from the rest of the field. Valpo lost at Youngstown State on Wednesday. Detroit has won two in a row but just three of its past six. Both UW-Green Bay and Youngstown State have won five league games. This race is far from over.
  • What happened to Bucknell? Once C.J. McCollum of Lehigh suffered a serious foot injury, most figured the Bison would dominate the Patriot League. But that hasn’t happened. Last week, they lost to Lehigh (without McCollum) at home. And on Wednesday night, Mike Muscala’s bucket with 0.8 of a second to play saved them against American. Is this the same team that beat Purdue on the road and nearly upset Missouri in Columbia? Doesn’t seem like it.
  • If I had to pick the Summit League champ right now, I’d probably go with Western Illinois. The Leathernecks lead the conference with a 38.4 percent mark from the 3-point line. But watch out for South Dakota State. After a few shaky weeks, the Jackrabbits finally look like the team that beat New Mexico on the road last month. Nate Wolters has scored 23 points or more in six of the team’s past nine games. Unless Taylor Braun makes an early return from a foot injury, I don’t see North Dakota State finishing higher than third. This is a good race to track in the coming weeks.

Now let’s look at the top upcoming mid-major matchup: Saturday's matchup between Akron and Ohio.

Mid-Major Report: Power Rankings

January, 24, 2013
1/24/13
9:00
AM ET
Here are the latest mid-major power rankings for ESPN.com, as voted upon by our national panel. I also vote in this poll, which does not include any teams from the Atlantic 10, Conference USA or Mountain West.

Another quick look at the panel:

Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) covers Horizon League basketball for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.

Richard Kilwien (@smcgaels) is the associate athletic director for external affairs at Saint Mary's College.

Leslie Wilhite (@Leslie_Wilhite, @MT_MBB) is in her second season as an assistant director of athletic communications at Middle Tennessee State University.

Dusty Luthy Shull (@DustyLuthyShull) covers Murray State athletics for The Paducah (Ky.) Sun.

John Templon (@nybuckets) writes about New York City and East Coast mid-major college basketball for his website, nycbuckets.com.

Thomas Chen (@thomasmchen) is in his third year as director of athletic communications at Stony Brook University.

Terry Vandrovec (@terryvandrovec) covers South Dakota State basketball for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Mid-Major Power Rankings No. 6:
  1. Gonzaga (17-2, 4-0 WCC) -- Zags will face BYU Thursday after tough loss at Butler last weekend.
  2. Wichita State (18-2, 7-1 MVC) -- Carl Hall's return elevates the Shockers’ ceiling.
  3. Creighton (17-3, 6-2 MVC) -- The Bluejays have lost two consecutive tough games.
  4. Belmont (15-4, 6-0 OVC) -- The Bruins are ranked 34th in adjusted offensive efficiency.
  5. Saint Mary’s (15-4, 4-1 WCC) -- The Gaels have won seven of their past eight games.
  6. Bucknell (16-4, 3-1 Patriot League) -- Suffered a three-point loss to rival Lehigh on Wednesday.
  7. BYU (15-5, 5-1 WCC) -- A win at Gonzaga would change the WCC title conversation.
  8. Middle Tennessee (16-4, 8-1 Sun Belt) -- The Blue Raiders are 31st in the nation in defensive efficiency (among nearly 350 schools).
  9. Lehigh (14-4, 4-0 Patriot) -- Without star senior C.J. McCollum, Lehigh beat Bucknell to ascend to first place in the conference.
  10. Stephen F. Austin (16-1, 7-0 Southland) -- The Lumberjacks haven’t lost since Dec. 5.
  11. Murray State (14-4, 5-1 OVC) -- Defensive gaps could prove to be problematic going forward.
  12. Akron (14-4, 5-0 MAC) -- Zips have four players averaging 9.0 points per game or more.
  13. North Dakota State (16-4, 7-1 Summit) -- Bison still fighting without injured star Taylor Braun.
  14. Valparaiso (16-5, 6-1 Horizon) -- The Crusaders are in first place after winning six in a row.
  15. Utah State (14-3, 5-2 WAC) -- Crucial injuries will make Aggies’ pursuit of a WAC title difficult.
Team of the Week: So many possibilities. Wichita State knocked off Creighton in a major Missouri Valley Conference showdown. And Drake, a squad that hasn’t even amassed a .500 record, dropped the Bluejays on Wednesday night. But I’ll go with Lehigh, which proved that it’s still a contender in the Patriot League by knocking off Bucknell 65-62 on Wednesday night. A few weeks ago, the Mountain Hawks lost talented guard C.J. McCollum, a serious NBA prospect who led the program to an upset over Duke in last season’s NCAA tournament, to a broken foot. Early reports suggest that the program would be lucky to have him back in late February/early March. McCollum, however, may also decide to enter the draft without playing another minute for Lehigh. The bottom line is that Lehigh won’t have its star in Patriot League play. So a road win over its top threat in the conference was a major victory for a program that is still fighting for the title. B.J. Bailey led Lehigh (10-for-18 from beyond the arc) with 18 points. Mike Muscala finished with 16 points, eight rebounds and six blocks for Bucknell (2-for-14 from beyond the arc). The Mountain Hawks have won five in a row without McCollum.

Player of the Week: Corey Hawkins, a sophomore guard at UC-Davis, registered 40 points (8-for-9 from beyond the arc), 12 rebounds, two assists and a steal in a 93-82 win at Hawaii on Sunday. He recorded 17 points, six rebounds, five assists, four steals and a block during a 74-71 victory at CS Northridge on Jan. 17.

Notes
  • The WAC race has changed. Recent injuries to Preston Medlin (fractured wrist) and Kyisean Reed (torn ACL) were serious blows to a Utah State program that looked like the league favorite entering league play. Reed is out for the season but Medlin might return. By then, however, New Mexico State or Louisiana Tech may have control of the conference.
  • Give Drake full credit for Wednesday night’s win over No. 17 Creighton. Yes, Creighton star Doug McDermott got sick at halftime and struggled in the second half. But he scored 17 points in the first half, which ended with Drake leading 44-28.
  • On Saturday, two teams that represent statistical extremes will battle in the Southland. Stephen F. Austin, which owns the nation’s top scoring defense in the country at 49.4 PPG allowed, will travel to face Northwestern State, No. 1 nationally in scoring offense (85.0 PPG).

Mid-Major Report: Power Rankings

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
10:25
AM ET
Here are the latest mid-major power rankings for ESPN.com, as voted upon by our national panel. I also vote in this poll, which does not include any teams from the Atlantic 10, Conference USA or Mountain West.

Another quick look at the panel:

Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) covers Horizon League basketball for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
Richard Kilwien (@smcgaels) is the associate athletic director for external affairs at Saint Mary's College.
Leslie Wilhite (@Leslie_Wilhite, @MT_MBB) is in her second season as an assistant director of athletic communications at Middle Tennessee State University.
Dusty Luthy Shull (@DustyLuthyShull) covers Murray State athletics for The Paducah (Ky.) Sun.
John Templon (@nybuckets) writes about New York City and East Coast mid-major college basketball for his website, nycbuckets.com.
Thomas Chen (@thomasmchen) is in his third year as director of athletic communications at Stony Brook University.
Terry Vandrovec (@terryvandrovec) covers South Dakota State basketball for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D.

This week’s poll (team’s listed without conference records have not commenced league play):
  1. Gonzaga (15-1, 2-0 WCC) – There’s a big gap between the Zags and the rest of the WCC.
  2. Creighton (15-1, 4-0 MVC) – Wichita State is its only real competition in the MVC, it seems.
  3. Wichita State (15-1, 4-0 MVC) – The Shockers have won six in a row without injured senior Carl Hall.
  4. Bucknell (13-3) – The Bison went down fighting in a weekend loss at No. 10 Missouri.
  5. Saint Mary’s (12-3, 1-0 WCC) – Gaels can make a huge statement with a Thursday win at Gonzaga.
  6. Utah State (13-1, 4-0 WAC) – Aggies haven’t lost since Nov. 15 (67-58 vs. Saint Mary’s).
  7. Belmont (11-4, 2-0 OVC) – Belmont continues to assert itself in its new league.
  8. BYU (12-4, 2-0 WCC) – Cougars anxious to prove that Zags, Gaels not only contenders.
  9. Middle Tennessee (12-4, 4-1 Sun Belt) – Arkansas State handed MTSU first league loss last week.
  10. North Dakota State (13-3, 4-0 Summit) – The Bison have won five in a row.
  11. (Tie) Murray State (11-4, 2-1 OVC) – Racers suffered home loss to Eastern Kentucky Wednesday. Stephen F. Austin (12-1, 3-0 Southland) – Seven-game winning streak includes ‘W’ over Oklahoma.
  12. Lehigh (10-4) – This squad can only hope that C.J. McCollum is ready for Patriot League tourney.
  13. Santa Clara (12-4, 1-1 WCC) – The Broncos have won seven of their last nine games.
  14. (Tie) Eastern Kentucky (13-3, 3-0 OVC) – The Colonels crashed the OVC race with an upset at Murray State. Akron (10-4, 1-0 MAC) – The Zips, who’ve won six straight, will battle Ohio for MAC’s east title.
Player (s) of the Week: That honor goes to two players this week. Holy Cross guard Justin Burrell and forward Dave Dudzinski scored a total of 60 points in the Crusaders’ 78-69 win against Columbia Tuesday. Burrell finished with 29 points and Dudzinski led the program with 31 points. They combined to go 19-for-27 from the field. And their collective effort established a high mark for a duo in 2012-13.

Team of the Week: Eastern Kentucky is 13-3 overall and 3-0 in the Ohio Valley Conference after picking up a tough 77-65 road win at Murray State Wednesday night. Corey Walden and Mike DiNunno finished with 20 points apiece in a victory that changes the conversation about the OVC’s race in the East division. The Colonels have won four of their last five games.

Notes

-- C.J. McCollum’s foot injury is obviously a devastating blow for the Mountain Hawks. But there’s a chance that McCollum, an NBA prospect, will return in time for the Patriot League tournament. Until then, however, Lehigh will need its entire roster to step up as it deals with the void. Junior Mackey McKnight scored 25 points for Lehigh in a win over North Texas last month. But the guard has been inconsistent this season. He’s certainly a player that Dr. Brett Reed will identify as someone who has to give the Mountain Hawks a more consistent contribution.

-- Please help me figure out the Horizon League. Wright State is 3-0 in league play. Valparaiso has started 2-1 (loss to Loyola-Illinois) and my pick to win the conference, Illinois-Chicago, is 1-2. Detroit, however, is 2-0. The Titans have won four consecutive games, a streak that followed a four-point loss at Syracuse Dec. 17. That effort clearly boosted their confidence.

-- Kudos to Gregg Marshall and Wichita State for returning to the Associated Press poll this week. The Shockers deserve the honor. They’ve won six consecutive games without senior Carl Hall, who suffered a thumb injury last month. I still say that the Shockers will need Hall to compete with Creighton for the Missouri Valley title. But they’ve handled the early portion of their conference slate well, while anticipating his return.

Now let’s take a look at the top upcoming mid-major matchup: Thursday night’s tussle between Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga (11 ET, ESPN2):

Mid-Major Report: Power Rankings

January, 3, 2013
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Here are the latest mid-major power rankings for ESPN.com, as voted upon by our national panel. I also vote in this poll, which does not include any teams from the Atlantic 10, Conference USA or Mountain West.

Another quick look at the panel:

Rob Demovsky (@RobDemovsky) covers Horizon League basketball for the Green Bay Press-Gazette.
Richard Kilwien (@smcgaels) is the associate athletic director for external affairs at Saint Mary's College.
Leslie Wilhite (@Leslie_Wilhite, @MT_MBB) is in her second season as an assistant director of athletic communications at Middle Tennessee State University.
Dusty Luthy Shull (@DustyLuthyShull) covers Murray State athletics for The Paducah (Ky.) Sun.
John Templon (@nybuckets) writes about New York City and East Coast mid-major college basketball for his website, nycbuckets.com.
Thomas Chen (@thomasmchen) is in his third year as director of athletic communications at Stony Brook University.
Terry Vandrovec (@terryvandrovec) covers South Dakota State basketball for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Mid-Major Power Rankings No. 3

1. Gonzaga (13-1) -- A 69-68 win at No. 22 Oklahoma State was the fourth in a row for the Zags, who are 5-0 against the Big 12 and finished in a first-place tie in this week's poll.

1. Creighton (13-1) -- The Missouri Valley won’t be easy for Creighton, which squeezed by Illinois State on Wednesday and has a stiff challenge from Indiana State next.

3. Wichita State (13-1) -- Down three starters, this team still rocked Northern Iowa. The Shockers will compete for the MVC title if Carl Hall gets healthy soon.

4. Bucknell (13-2) -- The Bison have won eight of nine and face No. 12 Missouri on Saturday, a real chance for Mike Muscala to shine in the national spotlight.

5. Middle Tennessee (11-3) -- The Blue Raiders have beaten Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Central Florida and certainly have to be considered the favorites in the Sun Belt.

6. Saint Mary’s (11-3) -- The Gaels, who have won three straight after rallying against Harvard, are the only WCC team that might challenge the Zags.

7. Belmont (9-4) -- The Bruins have won four of their past six and look like the Ohio Valley's best team, although the next team will have something to say about that.

8. Murray State (9-3) -- The Racers might disagree, but two consecutive losses after six straight wins has brought them back to earth a bit.

9. Lehigh (9-3) -- A stunning 80-79 loss to Bryant on Saturday was the team’s first since mid-November. Not something you'd expect from a team with the nation's leading scorer.

10. Utah State (11-1) -- Hard to tell with USU. The Aggies have faced a mediocre nonconference schedule, so the WAC will be the real test.

11. BYU (10-4) -- Tyler Haws (20.9 ppg) has led BYU to five wins in their past six games and scored 41 against Virginia Tech.

12. North Dakota State (11-3) -- NDSU earned credibility with Saturday's win versus rival South Dakota State. The Summit League race with the Jackrabbits will be a dog fight.

13. Stephen F. Austin (10-1) -- After a strong start, the Lumberjacks (who own a win at Oklahoma) are the favorites to win the Southland.

13. Indiana State (9-4) -- Three-game winning streak includes a Christmas Day win against Miami at the Diamond Head Classic. That came after a victory over Ole Miss.

15. Santa Clara (12-3) -- The Broncos have won seven of their past eight and gave Duke all they could handle over the weekend.

Now that we've gone over the best of the best, here's my take on the top game this weekend involving mid-major teams ...

Freshman Rankings: Who made the cut?

December, 20, 2012
12/20/12
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Every other week in these parts, we'll unveil our list of the nation's top 10 freshmen. As with first-year players, this list is bound to be fluid throughout the season. So if you don't see your favorite player on these initial rankings today, check back with us for later editions. Or you can just leave us an angry comment in this one.

Without further ado, here are the choices (followed by a notable player from the past who put up similar numbers as a freshman):

[+] EnlargeAnthony Bennett
Jaime Valdez/USA TODAY SportsAnthony Bennett's size and perimeter ability break the mold of the traditional power forward.
1. Anthony Bennett, UNLV -- 19.4 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 54.7 FG pct
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina (2005-06)

As the most consistent and most prolific freshman in the nation, Bennett has distanced himself from the pack. He’s the top freshman scorer (19.4) and ranks fifth in rebounds (8.6). His 19-8 averages were achieved by only four freshmen over the previous 10 seasons: Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Kris Humphries and Carmelo Anthony. Pretty good company. Forget freshman honors, Bennett’s in the conversation for national player of the year.

2. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State -- 12.7 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 5.2 APG, 2.6 SPG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Jason Kidd, California (1992-93)

Statistically, the last freshmen to fill up the score sheet like Smart were Jason Kidd and Penny Hardaway. On top of lockdown defense, he’s averaging 12.7 points, 6.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 2.6 steals. Arguably the top freshman in November, Smart’s production has waned a bit this month. His turnovers are high and he’s shooting only 35 percent from the field on the season. With those caveats aside, there’s really no one like him.

3. Jahii Carson, Arizona State -- 17.9 PPG, 5.3 APG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Jerryd Bayless, Arizona (2007-08)

Three of the top 20 recruits in the nation enrolled at Arizona this year, but there’s little question that the most impressive freshman in the state plays in Tempe. Carson (17.9 ppg) trails only Bennett is scoring, while also ranking in the top five in assists (5.3). It has been 16 years since a freshman averaged 17 and 5 (Seton Hall’s Shaheen Holloway in 1996-97). On a team picked to finish 11th in the Pac-12, it’s no surprise that the Sun Devils are leaning heavily on Carson. If he turns ASU into a conference contender, he might lock up this award. But keep in mind that the last USBWA Freshman of the Year to miss the NCAA tournament was Eddie Griffin in 2000-01.

4. Ben McLemore, Kansas -- 15.9 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 2.3 APG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Courtney Lee, Western Kentucky (2004-05)

Kansas is the only team in the top 20 with a freshman leading the team in scoring. McLemore (15.9 PPG) is on track to break Danny Manning’s freshman scoring record, while joining Brandon Rush as the only freshmen to lead the Jayhawks in scoring over the past 30 years. An interesting side note: Both McLemore and Carson are redshirt freshmen, who were ineligible last season. They were ranked back-to-back (at 49th and 50th, respectively) in the ESPN 100 for the Class of 2011.

5. Archie Goodwin, Kentucky -- 15.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 4.4 APG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Tyreke Evans, Memphis (2008-09)

Goodwin is putting up numbers eerily similar to another John Calipari freshman sensation, albeit from his pre-Kentucky days. Like Goodwin, Tyreke Evans was pressed into point guard duty for Memphis in 2009, finishing the season at 17.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG and 3.9 APG. Through 10 games, Goodwin is averaging 15.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG and 4.4 APG. Just like John Wall and Brandon Knight did as freshmen, he leads the Wildcats in points and assists.

6. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky – 10.7 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 3.9 BPG, 2.8 SPG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Tyrus Thomas, LSU (2005-06)

In the span of a month, Noel went from overrated to overlooked. That’s what expectations will do for you. Maybe he won’t be the next Anthony Davis, but his numbers on the defensive end are worthy of praise. Noel leads all freshmen in steals (2.8), ranks second in blocks (3.9) and fourth in rebounds (9.0). He’s the only player, regardless of class, ranked in the top 50 in steals and blocks. Even if his offense doesn’t come around, Noel will remain among the most impactful freshmen.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Muhammad
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsUCLA's Shabazz Muhammad has been stellar since becoming eligible this season.
7. Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA -- 17.8 PPG, 4.8 RPG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Rashad McCants, UNC (2002-03)

While Muhammad missed the first three games of the season, Jordan Adams exploded out of the gate. But Muhammad has been the Bruins' most consistent player since becoming eligible. He’s up to 17.8 ppg, the fifth-highest scoring average among freshmen. A week ago, he wouldn’t have been on this list. But after totaling 46 points over the past two games, Muhammad is coming on strong. Apart from Kevin Love, no one has been a bigger threat to Don MacLean’s school freshman scoring record (18.6 ppg).

8. Semaj Christon, Xavier -- 14.7 PPG, 5.2 APG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: Dominic James, Marquette (2005-06)

Cramps limited Christon to 23 minutes against Cincinnati, blocking him from a potential statement game. On a team that lost its top six scorers, he has thrown the Musketeers on his back with the fifth-highest usage percentage of any freshman. He’s on track to be Xavier’s second-leading freshman scorer of all time behind Byron Larkin (17.0 in 1984-85). All that’s missing is the deep threat. Christon is 2-for-11 from 3-point range.

9. Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke -- 12.7 PPG, 2.7 APG, 3.6 RPG
Freshman Statistical Comparison: E’Twaun Moore, Purdue (2007-08)

While most of his brethren dominate lesser competition, Sulaimon is getting it done against the nation’s elite. With 17 points against Ohio State and 14 against Louisville, he’s a big reason that the Blue Devils are unbeaten and No. 1 in the nation. He doesn’t have the flashiest numbers, but Sulaimon is third on Duke in points, rebounds, assists and steals.

10. Nik Stauskas, Michigan -- 13.2 PPG, 54.7 3-pt FG pct
Freshman Statistical Comparison: John Jenkins, Vanderbilt (2009-10)

The least heralded recruit on this list, Stauskas was ranked 76th in the ESPN 100 coming out of St. Mark’s in Southborough, Mass. But the Canadian has been just the deep threat that John Beilein needed at Michigan, shooting 54.7 percent from 3-point range. That puts him on pace to break Jay Edwards’ 25-year-old record for 3-point percentage by a freshman (53.6).

Just Missed: T.J. Warren (NC State), Isaiah Austin (Baylor), Jordan Adams (UCLA)
Rising: James Robinson (Pittsburgh), Jakarr Sampson (St. John’s), John Brown (High Point)
Falling: Brandon Ashley (Arizona), James Woodard (Tulsa), Dewayne Russell (Northern Arizona)

Video: Gonzaga 74, Campbell 52

December, 20, 2012
12/20/12
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Elias Harris scored 11 points and dished out 6 assists as No. 14 Gonzaga downed Campbell 74-52.

Video: Ohio State 65, Winthrop 55

December, 18, 2012
12/18/12
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No. 7 Ohio State held off Winthrop 65-55 behind 21 points and 9 rebounds from Deshaun Thomas.

King's Saturday observations

December, 16, 2012
12/16/12
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Nearly 12 hours after Butler topped Indiana 88-86 in overtime in arguably the best game of the college basketball season thus far, Arizona ended the day with an even more exciting victory over Florida. The Wildcats rallied from a six-point deficit with less than two minutes remaining and won 65-64 on Mark Lyons’ layup with 7.1 ticks left. Here are a few random thoughts from a memorable Saturday in college hoops.


It’s time to stop thinking of Brad Stevens as one of the best mid-major coaches in college basketball. He’s simply one of the game’s top coaches, period. Seriously, if you had to rank the top 10 coaches in the game -- not by their overall résumé, but just on how good they are right now -- Stevens would have to be in the top 10, if not the top five. As if leading Butler to the NCAA title game in two of the past three seasons wasn’t enough, this year’s team already touts wins over Big Six heavyweights Marquette, North Carolina (in a blowout) and top-ranked Indiana.


Speaking of Saturday’s Butler-Indiana game, the Bulldogs’ victory also did a lot to legitimize Illinois. The Illini defeated Butler 78-61 in the championship game of the Maui Invitational last month. Still, in the ensuing weeks, the common refrain surrounding John Groce’s squad was that it “hadn’t beaten anyone.” Illinois silenced some doubters by defeating Gonzaga in Spokane last week. After Saturday, it’s evident the Butler team the Illini whipped in November was pretty darn good. Illinois plays Eastern Kentucky on Sunday before hitting the road for next Saturday’s game against No. 12 Missouri in St. Louis.


I’ll be interested to see where unranked Butler ends up -- and how far Indiana falls -- in the next Associated Press poll. My guess is that Butler makes its debut in the Nos. 14 to 18 range. I’d pencil Indiana in somewhere between No. 4 and 6. Duke, Michigan and Syracuse will probably occupy the top three spots. Each has yet to lose.


Arizona’s freshmen big men received a ton of offseason hype, but make no mistake: The most important pieces of this team are still its less-ballyhooed veterans. Solomon Hill (18 points), Nick Johnson (15) and Lyons (14) all played more than 31 minutes and were the only players other than senior Kevin Parrom (7 points) to sniff double figures against Florida. The win should provide a huge momentum boost for Arizona, and it will go a long way toward enhancing the national perception of the Wildcats, who hadn’t been tested by a quality team before Saturday. The win was also good for the Pac-12, which didn’t experience a victory of this magnitude all last season.


Johnson, a sophomore shooting guard, is averaging 17.3 points in his past four games and has gone 9-of-16 from 3-point range during that span.


Even in a loss, I was impressed with the way Florida played in a hostile road environment. Well, at least until the final minute, when the Gators were clearly rattled and unnerved to the point where they couldn’t even get the ball inbounds after a made basket by Arizona. That’s uncharacteristic of a Billy Donovan team, especially one with so many veterans. Florida lost despite outrebounding Arizona 27-21 (including 11-4 on the offensive end) and going 10-of-18 from beyond the arc. I’d still rank Florida no lower than No. 7 in next week’s poll.


I’m still not sure what to make of North Carolina. The Tar Heels led East Carolina by 16 points at intermission, but the Pirates got back in the game by scoring 61 second-half points. Read that again: East Carolina scored 61 points in a single half against North Carolina in the Dean Dome. That’s just hard to fathom. It was a four-point game with 30 seconds remaining, but the Tar Heels held on for a 93-87 victory. Roy Williams spent most of the game red-faced and screaming, and who could blame him? It’s hard to feel good about a team that defends that poorly.


Kentucky’s Kyle Wiltjer broke out of his shooting slump by going 7-of-9 from 3-point range in the Wildcats’ 88-50 win over Lipscomb. Wiltjer had made just 10 of his 38 attempts from long range before Saturday, when he was replaced in the starting lineup by point guard Ryan Harrow. Beneficial as his points might have been, it was Wiltjer’s rebounding -- he snared a career-high 12 boards -- that impressed Kentucky coach John Calipari the most.


One other thought on Kentucky: Calipari is doing everything he can to instill confidence in Harrow, who had difficulty early in the season dealing with Calipari’s tough-love approach. Harrow, who missed four games in November because of flu-like symptoms and an undisclosed family issue, played 31 minutes Saturday and attempted a team-high 13 shots. He made six of them and finished with 12 points.


I learned from a television commentator Saturday that Louisville’s Russ Smith weighed only 137 pounds when he showed up on campus as a freshman. Two years and 30 pounds later, Smith is averaging a team-high 20.3 points for a team that rallied from a 16-point deficit to defeat Memphis, 87-78. Smith performance was particularly inspiring considering he suffered an ankle sprain that appeared to knock him out of the game for good midway through the second half. Smith returned, though, and finished with 19 points, and 12 of them came from the free throw line, where he didn’t miss a shot.


I think Louisville has a chance to be the best team in the country when center Gorgui Dieng returns from a wrist injury next month. Louisville -- along with Kansas and Arizona -- is among a handful of top-10 teams that haven’t come anywhere close to reaching their ceiling. Besides winning in a tough road environment, the most encouraging thing about Saturday was a 22-point effort from forward Chane Behanan, a sophomore who entered the game averaging just 8.8 points. If Rick Pitino can get Behanan and Wayne Blackshear to play at a high level consistently, the Cardinals will be capable of winning it all.


I heard a bunch of boos from the Memphis crowd as the final seconds ticked away Saturday, and while a lot of them were probably aimed at an officiating crew that sent Louisville to the foul stripe 46 times (compared to 20 for Memphis), I’m sure a lot of them were directed at Memphis coach Josh Pastner. Hired when he was 31 to replace John Calipari, Pastner won more games in his first three seasons (75) than any coach in school history. But he’s yet to win an NCAA tournament game and is 0-11 against ranked teams. You have to wonder if Memphis will make the NCAA tournament this season if it doesn’t gain the automatic bid by winning the Conference USA tournament. Memphis’ best win is against Northern Iowa, and the Tigers don’t have a ranked team left on the their schedule. To me, this team looks so much better than the one I watched lose 2 of 3 games in the Bahamas last month. But that might not matter to the selection committee -- or to fans.


Two other thoughts about Memphis, which I thought played extremely hard: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a player jump as high, consistently, as D.J. Stephens. And I love the energy junior college transfer Geron Johnson brings to the court. In the past, the Tigers had a tendency to take plays off and go through the motions, to the point where they often appeared disinterested. Johnson keeps them revved up. Well, most of them. Shaq Goodwin definitely needs to play with more fire. He’s capable of so much more.


I’m not ready to predict that Oklahoma will make the NCAA tournament, but the Sooners are the most improved team in the Big 12. Other than Kansas and maybe Oklahoma State, there isn’t a team in the league that has separated itself from the rest of the pack. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Lon Kruger’s squad finish second, third or fourth in this abysmal league. Oklahoma defeated Texas A&M 64-54 on Saturday.


Back-to-back wins over Colorado and Belmont -- two NCAA tournament-caliber teams -- would’ve been impressive enough. Kansas, though, didn’t just beat those schools. It crushed them. One week after thumping Colorado 90-54, Kansas thumped Belmont 89-60 on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse. With the Big 12 struggling, Belmont might have been the toughest home game remaining on KU’s schedule. The Jayhawks host Richmond on Tuesday before taking on Ohio State in Columbus on Saturday.


Jeff Withey and Ben McLemore have been commanding most of the headlines, and rightfully so. But one of the biggest reasons for Kansas’ 8-1 start is senior guard Travis Releford, who is blossoming into the on-court leader KU so glaringly lacked when it opened the season. Releford entered Saturday’s game averaging 12.8 points. Even more importantly, he’s embracing his role as the Jayhawks’ defensive stopper. No KU player improved as much during the offseason as Releford.


Virginia Tech continues to backslide after a 7-0 start. The Hokies fell to Georgia Southern 78-73 at home Saturday. Erick Green had 28 points in a losing effort. Green has scored 20 points in each of his team’s 10 games.


If you’re an AP voter, it’s time to put VCU in the Top 25. Heck, I might even put the Rams in the top 20. Shaka Smart’s team annihilated Alabama 73-54 on Saturday to improve to 7-3. VCU’s only losses are to Wichita State (53-51 in the second game of the year), No. 1 Duke (67-58) and No. 12 Missouri (68-65). I was in attendance for those final two defeats at the Battle 4 Atlantis and I can honestly say that, even in a losing effort, the Rams were among the top 20 teams I’ve seen all year. Along with their trademark, suffocating defense, VCU is a dangerous 3-point shooting team that poses huge matchup problems when it employs its four-guard lineup.


Two hot teams that were brought back down to earth Saturday: SMU and Nebraska. Larry Brown’s Mustangs were manhandled 72-50 by a Rhode Island squad that was just 2-7. Oregon defeated Nebraska and first-year coach Tim Miles, 60-38. Ouch. Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi had 10 points, 17 rebound and 4 steals for Oregon.


It’s tough to take much from Ohio State’s 90-72 blowout of UNC-Asheville, but one thing that’s obvious is that the notion that the Buckeyes lack scorers beyond DeShaun Thomas is false. Evan Ravenel, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson all reached double figures Saturday along with Thomas. Point guard Aaron Craft had 8 assists and no turnovers. Ohio State’s offense is incredibly efficient, which is a credit to Craft and coach Thad Matta. Scoring won’t be a problem because players are getting high-quality shots.


The race for the Cousy Award, which is given annually to the nation’s top point guard, is going to be as competitive as it’s been in years. Two of the leading candidates made major statements Saturday. Michael Carter-Williams of Syracuse had 14 assists in a win over Canisius. He’s averaging 12.8 assists in his past four games. That’s almost unheard of. Michigan posted an 81-66 victory over West Virginia thanks, in part, to Trey Burke, who had 27 points and 8 assists -- and no turnovers.

Live chat: 2012 College Hoops Draft

November, 6, 2012
11/06/12
10:00
AM ET
In a few days, the 2012-13 college basketball season will begin, seven months after Kentucky cut down the nets in New Orleans. ESPN.com will christen the moment with its first-ever college basketball draft.

The rules are simple.

Each participant -- ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla, bracketologist Joe Lunardi and ESPN.com writers Eamonn Brennan and Myron Medcalf -- will select five starters, one reserve, a head coach and a venue. There is no set order for their picks. They can take a head coach in the first round if they want. Or they can load up on talent first. When will the first home court be selected? How much value will be placed on securing an elite-level point guard?

We'll tip things off at 1 p.m. ET and the group will offer commentary as each selection is made. We're looking forward to your comments and questions as well. Let the fun begin!

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