College Basketball Nation: Andre Drummond

NBA draft's biggest surprises

June, 29, 2012
6/29/12
11:15
AM ET
Andre DrummondJerry Lai/US PresswireThe Pistons drafted Andre Drummond with the No. 9 overall pick, mostly based on potential.
For college hoops/NBA nerds like me, the NBA draft is an event.

Chinese food. High-def TV. A comfortable chair. An iPad/laptop to follow Chad Ford’s “Matrix”-like draft coverage. (When I logged off, he was teasing his 2025 mock draft, which will likely feature the children of D-Wade and LeBron.)

I anticipated more trades. And I had no idea David Stern would take on the hostile crowd the way he did. Fascinating stuff.

And there were certainly some surprises with the various selections. Some good. Some bad. Some baffling.

The Good ...

Jared Cunningham to Dallas at No. 24: I think Cunningham is a major sleeper. It’s nice to see a guy get credit for defensive prowess. He’s a versatile guard. His defensive skills (2.5 spg) will make him a valuable player on Day 1. He’s big (6-foot-5), too. This pick may have turned a few heads, but Cunningham is legit. Nice sleeper.

Royce White to Houston at No. 16: I figured some team was hiding its interest in White, a high-level passer and ball handler trapped in a power forward’s body. Some called his anxiety disorder a red flag prior to the draft. But the concern was so over-the-top, I started to think that some NBA squad probably wanted that. Let everyone assume he’s not top-20 and then grab him. The Rockets did that. He has NBA strength right now. And the best part about White’s game is he’ll facilitate an offense and not worry about buckets. Just wants to win.

Austin Rivers to New Orleans at No. 10 : Some booed this pick. Rivers couldn’t escape the haters at Duke. He either did too much or too little. Here’s the thing. He played within an offense that didn’t have a true point guard. He had to run the offense and create shots. Now, he can focus on the latter. Rivers has an NBA game. He’s not going to face the zones and traps that teams needed to lock him up his freshmen season. He’ll have the freedom to roam. This is how he learned the game. The son of Boston Celtics and former NBA standout Doc Rivers will be a different player at the next level. Might not make sense right now. But give it a year.

The Bad ...

[+] EnlargeDion Waiters
Mark Konezny/US PresswireDion Waiters, a guard drafted by Cleveland, averaged 12.6 points per game at Syracuse last season.
Dion Waiters to Cleveland at No. 4: So NFL officials aren’t the only ones who fall for athletes after one or two workouts. Based on reports, Waiters had a few amazing auditions in Vegas and the Cavs fell in love with him. The former Syracuse star is a great athlete who attacks the rim. He’ll push the pace and get buckets in transition. But Harrison Barnes is more polished. Thomas Robinson, too. Big risk for the Cavs here. And Barnes and Robinson could have better careers.

Andre Drummond to Detroit at No. 9, Meyers Leonard to Portland at No. 11: Plenty of potential with both players. Drummond has the gift to form a potent frontcourt with Greg Monroe. In stretches, Leonard was a stud. One of his biggest challenges at Illinois was the limited touches he received. They didn’t feed him enough.

But I can’t justify taking these two over North Carolina’s duo of Tyler Zeller and John Henson. Henson blocked 2.9 shots per game last season with few fouls (1.6). So many knocks against his limited strength. How about the fact he’s a pure shot-blocker who plays the ball and not the body? Few possess that skill. Milwaukee should be happy with that pick. Zeller, who was traded to the Cavs, was the ACC’s player of the year. He averaged 16.3 ppg, 9.6 rpg and 1.5 bpg. He’s 7 feet tall. Both Drummond and Leonard have had some motor issues. Can’t say that about Zeller and Henson. Drummond and Leonard were drafted on potential. Zeller and Henson produced. I just don’t get it.

Miles Plumlee to Indiana at No. 26: Over Draymond Green? Over Arnett Moultrie? Over Perry Jones III? At this point, you’re not necessarily drafting according to need. You just want a good player. Plumlee is big (7-foot), but he averaged just 6.6 ppg and 7.1 rpg as a senior at Duke. I just think Indiana had a chance to pick multiple players with more talent and higher ceilings.

More surprises ...

• Barnes fell to No. 7, but he might average 15.0 ppg for the next decade. Might not be a star, but he could have the most consistent career in the entire draft.

• I don’t know about Jared Sullinger’s back. But if he’s healthy, he’ll be one of the best players in this draft. He faced bigger, more athletic players in college. High school, too. Yet he keeps winning. That should count for something, too.

• Perry Jones III slipped all the way to 28th? Just ... wow. Read more of my take on this here.

• Not sure why so many teams passed on Draymond Green, who fell all the way to No. 35. He played point guard in the NCAA tournament. He’s a strong rebounder. Knows how to be a leader. Not the most athletic forward in the draft, but he’ll surprise people next season. The Warriors made the right move when they took him in the second round.

• Maurice Harkless is very athletic. Not to mention he was one of the best athletes in the draft. I’m just not sure what else he has to offer Philly right now. He might develop into a stud (15.3 ppg for St. John’s). But there’s a lot of work to do.

• I think the Grizzlies made a great pick at No. 25 when they grabbed Tony Wroten (16.0 ppg last season). The confines of college basketball were not suited for this guard’s strengths. He’s a free spirit on the floor. And the NBA’s flow will really enhance his game. He’ll be a different (better) player at the next level.

• This isn’t surprising, but it’s ironic. The Minnesota Timberwolves picked Purdue’s Robbie Hummel at No. 58. Two years ago, Hummel tore his ACL for the first time during a matchup against the Gophers in Minneapolis. That was the beginning of a tough road for Hummel, who tore his ACL again about eight months later. I wouldn’t count him out. He could stick with the Wolves and earn a spot in next year’s rotation.
Thomas Robinson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist & Andre DrummondUS PresswireWhere will Thomas Robinson (left), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Andre Drummond end up?
That headline ought to be fairly self-explanatory. Here are the 10 things I'm most intrigued to see in Thursday night's NBA draft:

1. Who goes No. 1 overall?

(Kidding. I hope I have your attention now.)

2. OK, seriously, who goes No. 2?

Now this is an intriguing question, one we've argued before in this space. With Anthony Davis such an obvious No. 1 pick, this is really the only top-two suspense in this draft, made all the more so by the simple fact that the Bobcats could pick just about anybody and become immediately better. Under "needs," the Bobcats have listed "a basketball team." They could trade their pick. They could draft Thomas Robinson and shoot for the stars, or take Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and try to work on a winning culture, or do something crazy and take Andre Drummond. Whatever they do, it will be fascinating to see the implications for the other teams in the top five, and the players they select.

3. Will someone reach for Andre Drummond?

If I was a general manager, I'd be horrified to take Drummond. I'd also be horrified to not take him. There's all that physical talent. There's that apparent basketball apathy. The only time I remember seeing Drummond openly enjoying basketball as a freshman was that tip-dunk against Syracuse (just YouTube it). Being able to do that to wide-open tip-dunks would bring a smile to my face, too. Battling with NBA bigs? Not as much fun!

Austin Rivers
Mark Dolejs/US PresswireWhere will Austin Rivers, the talented yet polarizing guard from Duke, end up?
4. Who loves (or hates) Austin Rivers?

A year ago, I randomly polled some of the NBA scouts at the Nike Skills Camps in Chicago for their opinions of Rivers, the incoming Duke guard. A few loved his crossover and his swagger; others had big lingering questions about what he was (A 2-guard? A point? A combo scorer? Monta Ellis?) at the next level. Even then, he was polarizing.

That didn't change much during his one-year stopover at Duke. Rivers struggled early, had big moments (remember this?), never totally put it all together, and Duke went out in the first round to 15-seeded Lehigh. It's clear it hasn't changed at all since the NBA draft process began.

Resident draft expert Chad Ford does not like Rivers one bit, and plenty of NBA scouts have told him why: "However, here's my knock on Rivers. He thinks he's Kobe. He's not. He doesn't have the length, the height, nor the athletic ability. Take those things away from Kobe, and he's Ricky Davis -- an irritating ball hog no one wants to play with and who isn't good enough to warrant the diva act."

On the other hand, Rivers has the best dribble moves in the draft, a well-respected coach-father who knows everything about how to be a pro in the league, and a shooting mechanic ripe for improvement. I'm just as torn as everyone else. I can't wait to see where he lands, and how the franchise that takes him will affect his development.

5. More trades! Please?

On Wednesday night, my buddy Phil asked me if the draft was on. When I told him it was Thursday night, he said, "Oh. I just can't care about the NBA draft." Phil is not an NBA fan. I am. Which is why I am fascinated by the slew of trade rumors out there already, from the Houston Rockets' play for Dwight Howard to the Lakers dangling Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace. Always one of the best parts of the draft, at least for me. Your mileage may vary.

6. Which late first-round team will be smart and take Draymond Green?

I realize the dude's 22. He's definitely a tweener and there are 20 players in the draft with more enticing measurables. But Day-Day is about as versatile as any player in this draft, and he's a winner. He won't be an All-Star, but he will be a perfect fit on any already-good team looking for a solid rotation piece and a great teammate to boot. And he'll get a chance to play for a good team right away. I think that's a huge blessing in disguise.

7. How far will Jared Sullinger slide?

Get this: The guy who spent two years dominating the Big Ten, whose freshman season statistically most closely resembled Kevin Love's, who earned All-American honors and led his team to a Sweet 16 and a Final Four, might actually fall out of the first round. I get the back issues scaring people slightly, but come on! He was a top-five pick last year! NBA GMs, get it together!

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireHow far will Jared Sullinger fall on Thursday night?
8. Speaking of Sullinger ... what will this draft say about staying in school?

More often than not in the one-and-done era, players promised top-10 draft picks left after just one season in school. It just made too much sense. Last year's lockout changed that calculus, and college basketball was better for it. We got to see sophomore seasons from Sullinger, Harrison Barnes, Terrence Jones and Perry Jones, all of whom could have been top-five picks in last year's draft. This June, only Barnes has retained his top-five status. Terrence Jones is coming off being a top rotation player on a national title team, while Perry Jones came back and improved, though only marginally. Both are borderline lottery picks, according to most mock drafts. Will things go even further south Thursday night? And if so, what will that say to elite prospects considering a sophomore season in the future?

9. Will the Bulls get Will Barton?

That's what Ford has in his latest mock draft, and as a Chicago resident, let me just say: Yes, please. I think Barton could be a real steal. He had a thoroughly excellent (and underrated) season in 2012 -- he finished behind Green, Davis and Sullinger in Ken Pomeroy's final player of the year efficiency calculations. Barton definitely needs to add things to his game (more strength and girth, a more consistent outside shot) but he is already a very versatile player who could conceivably play a 2 or a 3 in the NBA for years to come. Also, he's bouncy. I like him. It would be a great pick for the Bulls, but really for any team at that level of the draft. We'll see.

10. Whose suit will be most on point?

I'm not sure anyone in this class has the chops to pull off the Joakim Noah swagger (sorry, but that suit was and is amazing, almost as amazing as this photo). Unfortunately, based on most of the personalities in this class, I don't think most of these guys will go the wacky route, either. I hope I'm wrong. Nominate in the comments.
In case you missed it -- or, as we say on Twitter, "ICYMI" -- Monday brought the third annual edition of the College Basketball Production-Only Mock Draft, which has an entirely silly name but is nonetheless a yearly treat to write. It tries to gauge the most productive college players in the NBA draft, and order them based on how they would be selected if their college careers -- individual production, contributions to wins, and so on -- were the only qualities scouts care about.

Of course, these are not the only qualities NBA scouts care about. They care about much more: body type, athletic ability, measurables, and most of all that unquantifiable gut feeling of potential, that vague notion that a player has only scratched his surface, that hope that one day he may make his general manager look like a genius. This is not an easy job.

So, in contrast to Monday's piece, here's a quick look at five of the most potential-driven players in the current NBA draft. These players are the antithesis of Monday's production-only mock draft; they're the players who didn't produce much in college, but whom nonetheless are responsible for mass quantities of NBA saliva in advance of Thursday night's 2012 NBA draft. (For reference's sake, I consulted Chad Ford's latest mock draft update, which is available here.)

[+] EnlargeAndre Drummond
AP Photo/Jessica HillUConn big man Andre Drummond has the athletic ability that NBA scouts adore.
Andre Drummond, center, Connecticut: Drummond is this year's king of potential. Like all of the players on this list, it's not hard to see why NBA types are freaked out -- in a good way -- by his size and sheer athleticism. Athletes that can get up and down the floor typically don't come at this size, and it's not like he was all bad in his lone season with Connecticut. He did average 10 points and 7.6 rebounds in 28.6 minutes per game, with a good offensive rebounding rate (14.2 percent) and block percentage (9.9 percent), both of which ranked among the top 30 players in the country.

But Drummond just as often looked lost, even out of shape, in the Huskies frontcourt. Meanwhile Connecticut, despite having two potential lottery picks in this year's draft, barely made the NCAA tournament, was bounced in the second round and submitted some of the least inspiring play we saw from any team last season, let alone one this talented.

It's not hard to see why Drummond is a potential top-10 pick. (Chad currently lists him being selected at No. 7 by the Warriors.) He's incredibly athletic for his size; he has all the physical gifts; he has the potential to be a true center in a league bereft of them. Those factors make him difficult to pass up for any general manager. But until he proves otherwise, Drummond will be a huge question mark for anyone who watched him play at UConn.

Meyers Leonard, center, Illinois: At the risk of categorizing everyone in typical draft cliches, Leonard is this year's late draft bloomer. His sudden rise up the NBA draft boards came in large part thanks to a stellar performance at the Chicago pre-draft camp, and it's been fascinating to see how quickly he has apparently become a surefire lottery pick. Some of that has to do with size -- Leonard is a legitimate 7-footer who also happens to be built like one of those aggressive alien dudes from "Prometheus" -- as well as a unique batch of ball skills more advanced than the typical 7-footer. Unlike Drummond, Leonard was an efficient offensive player in 2012 (that is when Brandon Paul, Illinois's undisputed usage champion, allowed him to touch the basketball).

Leonard was also a key part of a team that essentially quit on its coach. Illinois lost 10 of its last 12 games in 2012, resulting in Bruce Weber's eventual dismissal at Illinois. Leonard doesn't deserve all (or even most) of the blame for that breakdown, probably, but it is disconcerting nonetheless. And when you compare the way Jared Sullinger treated the Big Ten for two years to what Leonard did in his time in Champaign, it's kind of hard to fathom, even with Sullinger's supposed back problems in the mix, why Leonard would be so much more highly regarded by NBA scouts.

Actually, come to think of it, no it isn't. He's taller, and he has more untapped potential. And there you have it.

Moe Harkless, forward, St. John's: Harkless was without question the highlight of his freshman-filled team at St. John's last season. He scored 15.3 points and grabbed 8.6 rebounds, and showed much promise. Those counting stats look impressive, and they are, but Harkless failed to crack the 100.0 offensive rating barrier thanks in large part to the 79 3s he launched, of which he made just 17.

Meanwhile his team finished 13-19 overall, truly limping through a challenging year that began with coach Steve Lavin's battle with prostate cancer and ended without even a trip to the NIT. You wouldn't dare blame Harkless for any of that, and I do think he's a promising player. But a potential lottery pick? From a 13-19 team? It feels like a bit of a stretch.

[+] EnlargeHarrison Barnes
AP Photo/Nick WassCan North Carolina's Harrison Barnes drive to the rim regularly in the NBA?
Harrison Barnes, small forward, North Carolina: Don't get me wrong: Harrison Barnes was not an unproductive college player. He has an NBA body and a more developed mid-range game than most players his age. But he has remained in the top five of the projected draft -- Ford has him at No. 4 to the Cavaliers, ahead of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist -- and I can't help but think that has to do with how well he tested in the pre-draft combine this summer.

My question is this: If Barnes is so athletic, why did he so frequently struggle to create his own shot in two years at North Carolina? And if he will struggle to create his own shot, and is not an NBA-range 3-point shooter (yet), is he really worthy of a top-five pick? Or is the Promise of Harrison Barnes -- the long-held idea that the next great mid-range wing was waiting to arrive from Ames, Iowa, ready to take the world by storm -- still swaying over NBA GMs? You wouldn't think Barnes would belong in a list like this, because again, he was a solid college player. He could be a solid NBA small forward for 15 years. But a ceiling much higher than that seems foolhardy, doesn't it?

Tony Wroten, Jr., guard, Washington: I have to forgive the scouts for this one. My first experience with Tony Wroten, Jr. came at last summer's Nike Skills Camps, and with the possible exception of Thomas Robinson and the obvious exception of Anthony Davis, Wroten may have been the most impressive player I saw that summer. When he's out on the break, finding teammates as talented as him, you're wowed by the smooth passing touch and athleticism in a big point guard frame. I saw Wroten for an afternoon or two, and I was.

So yeah, I get it. Wroten can really dish the ball. Only two problems: He turns the ball over, and he can't shoot. Wroten posted a sub-100 offensive rating as a freshman at Washington last season, thanks in large part to a 45.3 percent effective field goal percentage and a 9-of-56 mark from 3. He also posted a 21.7 percent turnover rate, which nearly equalized his solid assist tallies. These were among the reasons Washington never got it together in a historically bad Pac-12 last season, despite the presence of Wroten and fellow projected first-round pick Terrence Ross.

If some NBA team can fix Wroten's shot, then he can be an effective pro. But that's a pretty big if, isn't it? And if it doesn't happen, will Wroten really be able to beat NBA defenders off the dribble? The potential is most definitely there. Like the rest of this list, the tangible results -- at least relative to draft position -- are not. At least not yet.

(One extra production note: I assumed Perry Jones III would belong on this list; for two years, he's been the fulcrum of the potential vs. production debate. He just oozes talent, the type of talent -- long, lanky, ball skills, "Kevin Garnett type", all the buzzwords apply -- that burns scouts more frequently than any other. But then I saw that Jones was ranked at the edge of Chad's lottery, where the Houston Rockets are projected to take him at No. 14. Say what you want about Jones' two years in college, but he wasn't that bad. If you want to take him in the top five, I'd urge caution. If you can get him at No. 14 -- the same spot the Rockets got Marcus Morris last year, hello -- you definitely roll the dice.)
1. Kentucky coach John Calipari took a brief break from coaching the Dominican National team to come home to Lexington and work out with his newcomers under the new NCAA rule allowing summer workouts if players are in school. It might as well be spring training for Calipari. He’s giddy about what is ahead despite returning only one player who contributed significant minutes in Kyle Wiltjer. The latest player to raise Calipari’s expectations is the least heralded of the four freshmen -- 6-10 center Willie Cauley. “He’s so skilled, real skilled,’’ Calipari said Wednesday night. “I was stunned how good he was.’’ Calipari is already considering playing Cauley, as well has heralded 6-10 recruit Nerlens Noel together on a frontline with 6-7 Alex Poythress rotating in, as well. “Noel is so good he could guard a three man, too,’’ Calipari said. Kentucky has had four workouts so far with the team.

2. Ron Hunter was upset over Georgia State’s omission from the CAA tournament due to an existing bylaw. But he’ll get over it quickly. This summer, Hunter is once again heading to Africa to put shoes on children who are lacking basic footwear in South Africa as part of his annual humanitarian work for Samaritan’s Feet. The former IUPUI coach has taken his passion for helping this organization to Georgia State and will lead his team on an enriching excursion later this summer.

3. UConn coach Jim Calhoun said that Andre Drummond should be the second player selected in the NBA draft since he has the potential to be the second-most productive player outside of Anthony Davis. “You’re going to get a great athlete for his size at 6-9, 279 pounds and a great kid,’’ Calhoun said. “The one thing you don’t have to do any work on is his character. Three or four years down the road you’ll see Andre’s incredible potential.’’ Drummond likely starts at No. 5 Sacramento with No. 6 Portland also a likely scenario. He could go higher. But he is almost certainly not going to fall below No. 7 Golden State.

Take Three: Who should go No. 2?

June, 19, 2012
6/19/12
11:18
AM ET
There is no debate about No. 1 in the upcoming NBA draft. Anthony Davis has that one locked up. But who should go No. 2? Three of our writers weigh in on which player they'd take if they were drafting second overall:

[+] EnlargeKentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Mark Cornelison/Getty ImagesMichael Kidd-Gilchrist has proven he can play and win, qualities general managers should be after.
Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Dana O'Neil)

The NBA draft has confounded me for years, with general managers and scouts selecting players on upside and potential, imagining what a player might someday be instead of considering what he already is. To me, it should boil down to two simple, easily answered questions: Can he play and does he win?

With Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the answer to both is an emphatic yes. That’s why I’d take him with the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft.

As much as Anthony Davis dazzled through Kentucky’s national championship run, I believed it was Kidd-Gilchrist’s tenacity, especially through the slow grind of the regular season, that kept the Wildcats going. He was a freshman who never played like one, using his energy and toughness to lead vocally and by example.

Davis was the star, Darius Miller the veteran, but I believed MKG was Kentucky’s heart. He has the things you can’t teach -- relentless rebounding skills, a swarming defensive presence and a never-let-you-lose toughness -- and he's just 18 years old, so he can refine the rest. Yes, his jump shot would make most shot doctors’ "don’t" lists, but surely someone in the NBA can help clean that up.

I get the questions. I get that he doesn’t fit in neatly with the NBA’s checklist. He’s not an obvious No. 2 pick because he’s not exactly the right size for any one position and he’s not exactly an offensive player and he’s not exactly a slasher.

I’ve also never heard anyone wax poetic through the NBA Finals about a player’s wingspan and how it’s won a team games. The Charlotte Bobcats are in dire need of a lot -- an intervention, perhaps, at the top of the list -- but above all else, they need two things: They need guys who can play basketball and guys who know how to win.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist knows how to play and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist knows how to win.

Sometimes you just don’t need to make things more complicated than that.

[+] EnlargeBradley Beal
Jeff Blake/US PresswireA spectacular March put Bradley Beal in the conversation for the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft.
Florida's Bradley Beal (Myron Medcalf)

A former college standout once told me that regular-season performances proved little. “When the lights come on” in March and April, however, the true talents emerge, he said.

I respect that mantra. Former Florida Gator Bradley Beal lived it. The freshman earned instant street cred as a key piece in UF's run to the Elite Eight.

Beal looked like a top-10 prospect in the first three months of his first and only season of Division I basketball. And then March happened.

During an SEC tournament loss to Kentucky, Beal scored 20 points. He also finished with eight rebounds and five assists. He connected on 4 of 7 from beyond the arc.

But he didn’t stop there. Beal averaged 15.8 points per game and connected on 42 percent of his 3-point attempts during the NCAA tournament. A youngster who’d entered the Big Dance as a possible lottery pick had thrust himself into the “What if he’s the second-best player in this draft?” conversation.

Thomas Robinson might make more sense for the Bobcats at No. 2. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has a near-perfect build for an NBA small forward. Hard to argue against either of those guys.

But Beal deserves that slot based on his versatility and potential. He’s a 6-foot-4 guard who can play point and wing. He has range (34 percent from 3-point range). He’s athletic. And he commits to the little things, such as rebounding and defense.

In recent weeks, Beal has been compared to Ray Allen, Dwyane Wade and Eric Gordon. He’s a tough guard who can extend defenses with the 3-ball or crash the lane as a penetrator. He's definitely worth the gamble at No. 2.

[+] EnlargeThomas Robinson
Bob Donnan/US PresswireThomas Robinson has the potential to be an All-Star power forward in the NBA.
Kansas' Thomas Robinson (Eamonn Brennan)

The NBA draft is often about extremes, about choices between two disparate sets of needs. Do you draft for production or potential? Do you want a player with a limitless ceiling, or one who will deliver immediate results? Put more topically, do you want Andre Drummond or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist?

Perhaps no player in the 2012 NBA draft (other than Anthony Davis, of course) bridges these divides quite like Kansas forward Thomas Robinson. His projected competitors in the top five, players like MKG and Drummond and Brad Beal, will, regardless of position, force GMs to make some sort of underlying choice.

With Kidd-Gilchrist, you know what you're going to get. With Drummond and even Beal, you are assuming the player's potential will vastly eclipse his production as a freshman. (Beal seems like the much sounder bet here, but it is nonetheless a bet.) That might be right. It might not. Robinson presents the best of both worlds: Already a very good player -- the consensus runner-up for 2012 national player of the year -- T-Rob still has tons of room to improve.

Robinson's past two seasons (a sophomore campaign backing up the Morris twins and a breakout junior year) offer evidence of both. In 2012, the Kansas forward posted a rebounding rate of 30.5 percent, the highest mark in the nation in a skill that typically translates well to the NBA. Robinson's offensive rebounding rate fell to 11.5 percent last season from 18.8 percent in 2011, but that had as much to do with his new role as KU's go-to scorer as anything else.

Bottom line: At the very least, Robinson will do what every NBA power forward must do: He will rebound. He has the athleticism and tangible production to back that prediction. Worst case, if he ends up becoming a more-skilled Kenneth Faried, well, which NBA coach wouldn't sign up for that?

But Robinson's evolution from a rebound machine/energy backup to go-to guy is still a work in progress, one that should make most NBA scouts salivate. T-Rob is still building his offensive skills away from the rim, still finding a midrange-to-18-foot jumper, still working on post moves over both shoulders, still refining many of the offensive and defensive fundamentals that separate the best post players from the merely mediocre.

Robinson is not a finished product by any means. If this finishing process goes well, he could be an All-Star power forward one day. Even if you're being conservative, maybe he becomes a more athletic, above-the-rim version of Utah Jazz-era Carlos Boozer. Again: We're dealing with a high ceiling here.

There are players with more potential, and there are players who offer a stronger predictive picture without the ceiling to match. But other than Davis, I'm not sure there is a top-five-level player with equal measures of both. Less risk, more potential. If I'm an NBA GM and I can't take Davis, that calculation sounds pretty good to me.

3-point shot: As Connecticut turns

March, 28, 2012
3/28/12
5:00
AM ET
1. UConn officials are waiting to see if they will win a waiver to be eligible for the 2013 NCAA tournament. But sophomore Jeremy Lamb and freshman Andre Drummond probably will make up their minds before a decision is rendered. Nothing is official, but a source with knowledge said the UConn coaching staff expects Lamb to declare and stay in the NBA draft since he’s a likely lottery pick. Drummond might not bolt, though. The source said the staff isn’t so sure Drummond will leave even if the Huskies can’t play in the NCAA tournament. The reason is that Drummond may see the need to continue to improve his game in college to be better prepared for the transition.

2. Meanwhile, UConn junior forward Alex Oriakhi, who was a major piece of the 2011 national-title team, is attracting a number of interested parties. Duke, Kentucky and Florida so far have sought Oriakhi; others will likely follow. Oriakhi is expected to win an appeal to play immediately if the Huskies can’t participate in the NCAA tournament. Oriakhi would be a major addition to any of these schools if they were able to land him.

3. Baylor coach Scott Drew said he is giving Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller a week to decompress before discussing whether or not they’ll declare for the NBA draft. Both players could bypass the April 10 NCAA deadline and just wait to see where they would land by the April 29 NBA early-entry deadline.
1. The departure of UConn junior forward Alex Oriakhi is not a surprise. The Huskies may not win the appeal to play in the 2013 NCAA tournament. The UConn staff expects freshman Andre Drummond and sophomore Jeremy Lamb to decide here soon about declaring for the NBA draft. The Huskies face an uphill climb to win an appeal for the 2013 tournament. The NCAA may adjust the Academic Progress Rate penalty to go only over a two-year period instead of four, but that probably won’t affect this penalty. It would be hard for the NCAA to justify overturning UConn since it would send a message of favoritism. But if you think these hurdles will push Jim Calhoun out, think again. Calhoun will retire only if he thinks he doesn’t have the drive or his health fails. He’s hardly a coach who shies away from a challenge and clearly doesn’t want to leave the Huskies' program gutted.

2. Nebraska is one of the toughest jobs in the Big Ten. But the Huskers have the money to make a serious play for a candidate to replace Doc Sadler. If the Huskers could lure Oregon’s Dana Altman back to the state they would. If not, then according to sources, the other two candidates that are high on the Huskers’ list are Colorado State’s Tim Miles and Ohio’s John Groce. The Huskers couldn’t go wrong with any of these choices. All have a history of building winners and would give the Huskers a chance to rise in the Big Ten.

3. VCU athletic director Norwood Teague said he did bump up Shaka Smart’s salary a bit -- as well as a few other things, like more chartered trips. But Smart didn’t get more years on his deal. Smart showed incredible loyalty by staying true to the Rams. Teague said the clause that a prospective school would have to play VCU two years in a row will remain if Smart leaves at any time during his contract for another job.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Looking for something interesting in the Thursday night session at the KFC Yum! Center? Well, we've got the NCAA Tournament's No. 1 overall seed and the defending national champions each playing and possibly charting a collision course toward one another. Is that something you might be interested in?

Here's a closer look at the two late games here in Louisville:

No. 1 seed Kentucky (32-2) vs. No. 16 Western Kentucky (16-18), 6:50 p.m. ET

What to watch: Western Kentucky was 9-18 on Feb. 18. Now the Hilltoppers have an NCAA tournament win under their belts and will face the No. 1 overall seed in what also happens to be an in-state rivalry. So they're playing with house money and can give Kentucky their best shot with no pressure on their backs. The Wildcats will open up in front of an extremely friendly crowd, but they need to shake off the disappointing loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament final.

Who to watch: Player of the year candidate Anthony Davis begins his first and only NCAA tournament, and the Wildcats will likely go as far as he can carry them. Western Kentucky's Teeng Akol, a rail-thin 6-foot-11 junior, has the unenviable task of trying to contain Davis. Don't be surprised to see the Hilltoppers play a lot of zone, as Vanderbilt did with great success. Do be surprised if they come close to approaching the 53-30 rebounding edge they held over Mississippi Valley State in Round 1.

Why to watch: Kentucky is the commanding favorite in this tournament, but don't forget this team starts three freshmen who have never experienced March Madness as players. They'll need to work out the butterflies early. Western Kentucky has manufactured two ridiculous comebacks, first just to get to the NCAA tournament and then in erasing a late 16-point deficit in Tuesday night's win. If the Hilltoppers find a way to upset the Wildcats and become the first No. 16 seed to oust a No. 1, the city of Bowling Green may never stop partying.

What they're saying: "It was a very intense practice. We don't like losing. Coach Cal doesn't like losing, so we tried to pick it up a little bit. We tried to get focused on what we need to do going into this tournament. That has been our main goal all year." -- Kentucky guard Darius Miller on the mood of the team after the Vanderbilt loss.

"You don't want to start out the game bad against a team like this because ... it's kind of like horse racing. When you're racing a really big horse, you don't want to get behind too much because the race is only so long." -- Western Kentucky forward Vinny Zollo.

Of note: Kentucky's Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Western Kentucky leading scorer Derrick Gordon were high school teammates and close friends at St. Patrick in New Jersey. "It's like a dream come true for both of us," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I can't wait to play them." Kidd-Gilchrist will likely be assigned to defend Gordon. ... Zollo committed to Kentucky as a high school freshman but dropped his pledge after Billy Gillispie was fired in 2009. ... The two schools haven't played since Western Kentucky upset then-No. 4 Kentucky 64-52 in November 2001.

No. 8 seed Iowa State (22-10) vs. No. 9 seed UConn (20-13), approximately 9:20 p.m.

What to watch: UConn is the defending national champion, but Iowa State is actually the higher seed. And don't discount the Cyclones, who were good enough to beat Kansas, Baylor and Kansas State this season. The Huskies, who needed to win two games in the Big East tournament last week to feel secure about getting here, have looked indifferent at times this season, especially in their perimeter defense. That could spell trouble against an Iowa State team that was one of the most prolific 3-point shooting clubs in the country while making nearly nine treys per game.

Who to watch: Iowa State forward Royce White is the only player in the country to lead his team in scoring, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. So, yeah, he can do it all. But can the 6-foot-8 Royce do it all effectively inside against UConn shotblocker Andre Drummond?

Why to watch: The Huskies begin their title defense, and with Jim Calhoun back on the bench they have to be taken seriously. This is still a talented team with two future pros in Drummond and Jeremy Lamb, though the chemistry has seemed off most of the season. Iowa State is better than many think. Whoever wins this game has a chance to cause No. 1 Kentucky some problems in the next round.

What they're saying: "I mean, Kemba Walker's not coming back, is he? Obviously, we know Connecticut is one of the most storied programs in all of college basketball. We know they're the defending national champs. [But] we feel like we earned our way to be here, too. We respect them, but I don't think there's like a fear factor with them at all." -- Iowa State guard Scott Christopherson.

"You definitely hear it from the fans. They definitely want to see the UConn-Kentucky matchup. We're just trying to beat Iowa State and then play Saturday." -- Connecticut forward Alex Oriakhi.

Of note: Calhoun is 16-1 all time in the first round, with a 2008 loss to San Diego his only blemish. ... The Huskies haven't been seeded this low since they were ninth in the 1992 tournament. ... Iowa State scores 36.4 percent of its points from 3-point range, the fifth-highest among power six conference teams. Connecticut is allowing its opponents to score 33.9 percent of their points from 3-point range, the second-highest rate among power six conference teams.


NEW YORK -- Three seats in on the bench, Scoop Jardine jumped around like a little kid -- high-fiving Michael Carter-Williams, motioning to his teammates on the court to get back on defense or to slow down the tempo.

In other words, Jardine acted like a happy scrub.

Only Jardine isn’t exactly accustomed to being a spectator. He’s a senior, with at most eight more games left in his collegiate career. He’s a guy who averaged 30 minutes a game last season.

And there he was, logging all of three minutes in the second half.

Smiling.

“I know a lot of people would say that this is hurting my future or whatever, but if we win, everybody will get noticed," Jardine said. “Of course I’d rather be out there, but this is about winning a national championship. If I’m having a bad game, Dion [Waiters] can pick me up. If Dion is having a bad game, Brandon [Triche] can pick him up. If it’s not Brandon, it’s me. We’re all on the same page. We’ve got each other’s back."

All season, everyone has pointed to Syracuse’s depth as a reason it could win a national championship.

Lost in translation of the definition of depth: unselfishness. This hockey-line rotation that coach Jim Boeheim can call on wouldn’t work if starters were pouting when they're yanked or subs were crabby that they aren’t starters.

[+] EnlargeSyracuse's Scoop Jardine
Jim O'Connor/US PRESSWIRE"If we win, everybody will get noticed," Scoop Jardine said of playing only three second-half minutes.
That's why guys like Jardine can sit back and enjoy the show while others run it. Syracuse is now 31-1 and in the Big East tournament semifinals courtesy of a 58-55 win against Connecticut.

“They’ve all bought into the fact that this is what they have to do to win games," Boeheim said. “I’m sure they don’t always like it. I know Scoop doesn’t like sitting out like that, but they want to win."

In a lot of ways, the Orange defy the modern-day standard for championships. There is no obvious future NBA star on this team, no current lottery pick.

There’s no collegiate star, for that matter.

In a typically tight game against Connecticut, Syracuse won on the deft shooting of James Southerland, who scored only 10, but each of those points was critical -- including a 3-pointer that cut a onetime Huskies lead of eight to one, a jumper that gave Cuse a six-point cushion and two free throws to ice the victory.

Forgive UConn coach Jim Calhoun if he didn’t concentrate his scouting on the junior.

Southerland hadn’t hit double digits in scoring since the Notre Dame loss on Jan. 21. In between, he’s tossed up three goose-egg games.

“It felt really great out there, especially being at home and all," said the Queens, N.Y., native. “The first one I felt was good; the second was kind of rushed. It’s good my teammates are here for me. They’re not giving up on me just because I missed two shots, and it feels good."

That the Orange have so many choices was especially obvious against Connecticut, which hasn’t been able to develop a consistent third scorer all season. Shabazz Napier tried to do too much, taking ill-advised forced 3s or driving to the hoop with too much recklessness, and shot 5-of-17.

Jeremy Lamb didn’t do enough, finishing with only 10 points.

And aside from Andre Drummond, no one else did much of anything.

Now the Huskies will wait to see whether they did enough as a team to merit an NCAA tournament bid.

“We probably have as many quality wins as anybody in our position," Calhoun said. “I am not going to make a pitch for it. I trust the basketball committee, and there’s no doubt in my mind they will look at it, and if what they say is true, that they want you to play good people, I think 22 out of 32 top 100 teams is probably a pretty good schedule."

Syracuse, of course, has no worries. At this point, there is no imaginable scenario that would keep the Orange out of a No. 1 seed with ticketed dates in Pittsburgh and Boston.

Before that, of course, Syracuse has business to finish in New York. The Orange have not won a Big East tournament title since 2006, when Gerry McNamara worked his Garden magic.

“We want to win," Jardine said. “It’s that simple."

And if that means being head cheerleader instead of leading scorer, the Orange to a man are just fine with that.

NEW YORK -- Kemba Walker might not be walking through the Madison Square Garden doors again for UConn, but his mother already has.

And for UConn fans looking for a reason to believe Huskies lightning can strike twice in New York, that’s like finding a lucky rabbit's foot in a field of four-leaf clovers.

A year ago, Andrea Walker was as easy to spot as her son’s megawatt smile, sitting front and center on the baseline in Kemba’s jersey.

New year, no Kemba, but there was Andrea, standing around a concession-area table with other UConn parents.

She was wearing Kemba’s jersey.

And so far the Huskies, a team that had all the rhythm of a polka played on an electric guitar in the regular season, are 2-for-2 in this tournament. They beat West Virginia 71-67 in overtime on Wednesday to advance to the quarterfinals against top-seeded Syracuse.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Napier
Cal Sport Media/AP PhotoShabazz Napier had a team-leading 26 points and six assists in UConn's win over West Virginia.
Coincidence? We shall see.

For now, UConn is busy rewriting its seasonal script.

There is no better cure for what ails a horrific season than March, the ultimate redo for teams who shoulda and coulda their way through the regular season but didn’t. That’s exactly what coach Jim Calhoun charged his team to do this week: Erase the slate.

Before every new game, Huskies coaches put up a number, counting off the season’s games.

On Tuesday, Calhoun reset the number to one.

"I said, 'Look around, new season. The old one is done,'" Calhoun said. "Yesterday was No. 1, today was No. 2 and tomorrow is No. 3. This is the wild, wild West and you all know how crazy it can be."

So crazy that a team that looked like it was going to be eaten alive on the offensive glass can instead win by blocking shots in the end.

West Virginia had nearly as many offensive rebounds (21) as the Huskies had total boards (30). Yet in the end, it was blocks from Alex Oriakhi and Andre Drummond that preserved the victory and should, once and for all, remove the Huskies from the bubble and into the NCAA tournament.

"I'm not going to politic," said Calhoun, who then went on and did just that, arguing that despite just now getting their 20th win, the Huskies have "played some people, folks."

Bob Huggins wasn’t so shy about his stance.

The West Virginia coach minced no words when asked if he thought his team belonged in the Big Dance. "We’ve done all they've asked us to do," he argued, pointing out that the Mountaineers won nine games against teams with an RPI of 50 or better and eight more against the top 100.

One more, of course, would have helped.

Instead, the Mountaineers, in their final game as a Big East member institution, blew what was once an 11-point lead to go down their John Denver country road from New York to Morgantown for the last time.

Thanks to an $11 million buyout, WVU, Huggins, his warm-up shirt and the rifle-shooting Mountaineer will debut next season in the Big 12.

"It's been a good run, most of it anyway," said Huggins, who after defeat doesn’t traffic so much in nostalgia. "There’s nothing like coming to the Garden."

[+] EnlargeJim Calhoun
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesJim Calhoun's Huskies are trying to atone for a lackluster regular season with another run through the conference tournament.
Certainly, UConn can attest to that. Though the Huskies are anxious to pen a new storyline here, it is impossible to not make the connection to last season as the week wears on.

Here’s the difference: These Huskies are technically more talented. Remember, this is a team that was a preseason top-five pick based not on last season's results but this season’s expectations. They added Drummond late and Ryan Boatright later, in conjunction with returning stars Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb. This team, at least on paper, is as talented a team as you’ll find in the conference.

What has been missing has been chemistry and gumption and, as Napier memorably called out midseason, heart.

The Huskies who took the floor against West Virginia showed flashes of all that. It wasn’t constant. The first 30 minutes, Oriakhi and Drummond got beat up; the middle 15, Lamb disappeared.

But it was there. There when Napier channeled his inner Kemba, scoring nine of UConn’s final 13 points to force overtime. And there again in overtime, after Napier fouled out, when the missing Lamb popped off a screen and, without blinking, drained a 3-pointer from the wing that sealed the win.

"You know we’ve been through a lot this season, not having Coach, not really understanding the chemistry, not really understanding the leadership, and sometimes we questioned our heart and how we played," Napier said. "At the end of the day, Coach told us we’ve got to lock up this game. We have nothing to lose, so why not go out there and give it your all?"

If you had asked people in November about a potential Syracuse-UConn matchup in the Big East tournament, they would have relished such a game.

For the final.

Instead when the two meet in Thursday’s quarterfinal, the Huskies will be the sizable underdog -- in deference to both UConn’s underachievement and the Orange’s success.

But is the impossible really impossible?

Perhaps not.

"It’s not impossible," Napier grinned, "because we did it."

Andrea Walker can attest. She was there.

And here she is again.

NEW YORK -- A first-round Big East tournament win against DePaul shouldn’t change anyone’s mind about Connecticut.

It was, after all, DePaul, the No. 16 seed in the Big East tournament.

But there was something different about the Huskies on Tuesday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, their second game with Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun back on the bench.

Their spirit was back, and there was energy among all the players that had been noticeably absent during recent games. It might not translate into a repeat of last season’s historic run, when the Huskies won five games in five days to win the title, but at least they have a chance.

As for Calhoun, back on the bench for the second game after missing a month after having back surgery, two consecutive wins have eased some of the pain and discomfort he’s still feeling. Calhoun was in such a good mood after the Huskies’ 81-67 win that he actually thanked the media for the way in which it handled his absence.

“When you see a team, and you see them lose five games by whatever we lost by, in every sort of possible way, then I think if you feel you can do anything, maybe just being a fresh voice coming back, whatever, with these guys, then I owed it to them if I could get back,’’ Calhoun said. “And I did, and obviously the last two games have been very fulfilling.’’

Kemba Walker is in the NBA. Without him, expecting a similar sprint through the tournament isn’t fair. The closest thing the Huskies have to Walker returning was the presence of his mother, Andrea, behind one of the baskets near the UConn bench. She said Kemba told her to show up and support the Huskies, so she did. She said she has a ticket for all five days after coming up from her new home in Charlotte, N.C., back to her old spot in the Bronx.

Walker’s inspired play wasn’t needed Tuesday. But to advance deeper in the tournament, the Huskies must have Jeremy Lamb be a dominant presence. Lamb scored 17 in 19 first-half minutes, finishing with 25.

“I’m not trying to be Kemba,’’ Lamb said. “Everybody wants to lead their team to a championship, but I’m trying to do what’s best for this team.’’

The Huskies won despite Shabazz Napier being in foul trouble. That allowed Ryan Boatright to flourish a bit more as a playmaker. Roscoe Smith, Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi had their moments at both ends of the court. They will all have to raise their game against West Virginia in the next round if they want to ensure a meeting with top seed Syracuse in the quarterfinals.

When asked what it meant to be back on the bench, Calhoun was reflective.

“It’s my love,’’ Calhoun said of coaching the Huskies. “That’s why I came back to my basketball team, because I felt I owed them something.’’

Calhoun didn’t feel the same discomfort as he did after Saturday’s win against Pitt. He took Sunday off, but was at practice Monday. He said he would take it easier Tuesday afternoon. But he’ll be back at it Wednesday.

“It’s sore, but nothing like a win or two wins now to make that [go away],’’ said Calhoun.

“Coach came back,’’ said Lamb. “So there are a lot of things that go into it. But yeah, I can say we’re getting momentum.’’
Connecticut beats DePaul in the first round of the Big East tournament, 81-67:

Overview: Connecticut (19-12, 8-10 Big East), the No. 9 seed in the Big East tournament, picks up a much-needed win for its NCAA tournament résumé -- a loss to last-place DePaul (12-19, 3-15) could have knocked the Huskies out of the field of 68.

It wasn't quite as easy as some may have expected, but UConn advances to the second round on Wednesday.

Turning point: DePaul hung around for most of the first 20 minutes, but a 6-0 UConn run to end the first half gave the Huskies their largest lead at that point, 46-33, at intermission.

Then UConn opened the second half on a 15-4 spurt, capped off by a Roscoe Smith trey, and the outcome was essentially no longer in doubt. UConn took its foot off the gas pedal, and DePaul actually winnowed the deficit all the way down to nine, 70-61. But that was as close as the Blue Demons got.

Key player: Jeremy Lamb, who was really impressive in last year's Big East tournament as a freshman, got off to a great start in this one as well, finishing with 25 points, five rebounds and four assists. Lamb shot 10-for-17 from the field and 3-for-6 from 3-point range. UConn will need more of that from Lamb to continue to advance.

Miscellaneous: There are some games, like this one, where you watch UConn and it's hard to believe the Huskies were only 18-12 in the regular season -- particularly with their size on the front line. ... UConn's freshmen stepped up in this game as well. Ryan Boatright was huge, with 19 points, seven assists and five rebounds off the bench. Andre Drummond also chipped in 12 points. ... Give DePaul a lot of credit for not packing it in when it fell behind so big early in the second half. Backup guard Moses Morgan, who played just nine minutes in the first half and scored three points, erupted for 16 points in the second half, making five of his six 3-point attempts from 3-point range. ... Cleveland Melvin, an All-Big East honorable mention selection, also scored 19 points for the Blue Demons.

What’s next: UConn will square off against No. 8 seed West Virginia on Wednesday at noon. The winner of that game will get the pleasure of facing top-seeded Syracuse in Thursday's quarterfinals.

Can UConn run the table again here in New York? The Huskies' epic five-wins-in-five-days-run last year began with a win against DePaul in the first game of the entire tournament.

DePaul's season, on the other hand, is over. The Blue Demons still have won only one Big East tournament game since joining the conference.
About five weeks ago, following back-to-back losses at Seton Hall and Rutgers, UConn guard Shabazz Napier was candid. He knew his team needed leadership. He was doing his best to provide it. But he couldn't escape the feeling that while his teammates sometimes gave him a chance to lead, "sometimes they don't." The picture was one of frustration and disunion and Napier's desperate attempts to correct.

It is now Feb. 20, just 21 days from Selection Sunday, and little has changed. UConn is still losing in rather dispiriting fashion. After Saturday's home loss to Marquette, the Huskies have dropped seven of their last nine. Since Jan. 3, their first game in calendar year 2012, the Huskies are 4-9. They've been outworked, blown out, even, at times, embarrassed; despite all that talent, they've looked nothing like the potential national title contender they were once slated to be.

Napier, always a candid interview, was no different after Saturday's loss. In fact, he was more frank than ever:
"Sometimes we look like we're coming over the hump and then we face a good team and we all let up," said Napier, a co-captain. "One thing I hate to say is, I've got to question a lot of these guys' hearts."

Napier was particularly upset with the way the Big East game ended, as a defenseless UConn allowed easy baskets. The Huskies (16-10, 6-8) went from trailing by eight to losing by 15 in the final four minutes.

"It just looked out there like we gave up at the end," Napier said. "It's tough to say it because we're a great team. For those words to come out of mouth is just horrendous. … When push comes to shove, it's who's out there and who's going to give it back. ... We get punched and some guys throw pillows back. You're not supposed to throw pillows back. You're supposed to go get a three-pointer and lock up on defense and do the necessary things to get a win and right now we're not doing that."

Strong as Napier's comments are, he's not wrong. It's impossible to watch UConn's immensely talented players -- Andre Drummond (and less often, but often enough, Jeremy Lamb) in particular -- and not think too many of this team's key players just don't really care. Maybe they do. But their body language and performances seem to indicate otherwise. If I was a Huskies fan, I'd take solace in knowing that at least Napier (as well as forward Alex Oriakhi) isn't prepared to stand by quietly as a once-promising season turns into a lifeless, jumbled mess.

The question, then, is whether Napier's comments will matter. They should. It should be an incredible insult to have your heart questioned publicly by your teammates. It should make you want to prove otherwise. It should make you angry and eager to prove otherwise. Whether it will at this point in the season, however, seems doubtful. The Huskies have had months to examine, diagnose and solve their problems; said problems are nothing new. They haven't figured them out yet, and now it's Feb. 20. Is it already too late?

Transfer keeps Marquette rolling along

February, 18, 2012
2/18/12
6:37
PM ET


HARTFORD, Conn. — Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom are Marquette's two best players and they were at it again Saturday in the Golden Eagles' 79-64 win at Connecticut. Crowder scored 29 points and grabbed 12 boards, while Johnson-Odom scored 24 and made four 3s.

Both players are invaluable, but the impact of Jamil Wilson shouldn't be overlooked. His presence as the lone post player has saved Marquette, which has now won 10 of its last 11 since scuffling around New Year's.

Wilson, a one-time Oregon player who transferred back to his native state, allows the Golden Eagles to go small. They are faster. They are more efficient. And they are now more dangerous in the open floor, especially after a made basket.

“We run the ball faster,’’ Crowder said of the impact of Wilson, who scored nine points, had six boards, blocked a shot and played 39 minutes against UConn.

Marquette needs every contribution it can get from the 6-7 redshirt sophomore. The reason? The Eagles lost big man Chris Otule to a season-ending injury after just eight games. Third-leading scorer and rebounder Davante Gardner is out at least for the next two weeks with a knee injury.

But MU is 4-1 in Gardner’s absence and Wilson is a big reason why.

“The thing about it is he’s so versatile, he’s really smart and he defends every possession for us,’’ Marquette associate head coach Tony Benford said. “He understands where everybody is supposed to be offensively. He rebounds the basketball. The knock on him was that he wasn’t tough enough. But he got tougher going against Jimmy Butler last summer. He’s buying in and doing a lot of different things to help this team win.’’

Wilson was involved in a number of scoring plays in the first half against the Huskies. He pulled his defender all over the court, forcing him to chase. He took 3s and missed them both, but it was enough to force a defender to think about chasing him outside the lane.

Wilson had to defend the UConn bigs like Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi. His length was an issue for both.

“We prepped to play like this in the preseason,’’ Wilson said. “This smaller lineup can help us out run a lot of people. We can get a lot of layups on transition. It’s like we’re playing five guards out there.’’

The coaching staff said Gardner may not come back until the Big East tournament. And Marquette coach Buzz Williams said he may not force the issue because he doesn’t want to mess with the rhythm of this crew.

Regardless, Wilson said his role won’t change at all.

“I’ll just continue what I’m doing,’’ he said. “When we’re moving like this, teams have a hard time staying with us.’’

Marquette finishes up with Rutgers at home, road games at West Virginia and Cincinnati and then back at home against Georgetown. None will be easy. Marquette could easily go 2-2 or 1-3. But the personnel is in place to go 4-0 and continue this roll.

The smaller lineup is a good watch, seems to run smoothly and will work well in March. Gardner will help in halfcourt games, but having Wilson in the lineup means the Golden Eagles will be even tougher to defend and harder to eliminate in March.

Katz: Games to track this weekend

February, 10, 2012
2/10/12
10:00
AM ET
For full coverage of the Michigan State-Ohio State matchup, click here.

Friday

Iona at Loyola (ESPNU, 7 p.m. ET): Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos was peeved that his squad was left out of the TV BracketBusters games. Well, this one is on TV and it’s a shot for the Greyhounds to let the rest of the country know that the more publicized Gaels aren’t the only team in the MAAC. The teams are tied atop the league. This should be the MAAC tournament final, with one of the two earning the bid in Springfield, Mass., next month.

Saturday

Louisville at West Virginia (ESPN, noon ET): The Cardinals are rolling while the Mountaineers haven’t been the same since losing to Syracuse and failing to get that goaltending call on Jan. 28. If West Virginia doesn’t stop Louisville in transition, the Mountaineers are in serious trouble. But you have to expect WVU will get this win at home.

Virginia at North Carolina (ESPN3, 1 p.m. ET): The Cavaliers can disrupt the Tar Heels and control the tempo. The key will be how the Heels respond to their disheartening loss Wednesday to Duke. UNC is the more talented team, but are the Tar Heels mentally tough enough to bounce back and beat a disciplined Cavs squad?

Miami at Florida State (ESPN3, 1 p.m. ET): The Seminoles had to take care of business against the bottom of the ACC. But they didn’t for the second time when they were stunned at Boston College on Wednesday. Miami comes in on a roll after following up its win Sunday over Duke with a victory over Virginia Tech on Thursday. This could be one of the most evenly matched ACC games -- not involving Duke or Carolina -- the rest of the conference season.

Connecticut at Syracuse (1 p.m. ET): The Huskies need to show some pride and play well at Syracuse. Orange coach Jim Boeheim wasn’t at all pleased with his team’s effort Wednesday against Georgetown. UConn, meanwhile, is coming off a brutal performance Monday at Louisville. The Orange have more talent, depth and experience. UConn needs to create havoc on the defensive end to have a shot and Andre Drummond and Alex Oriakhi better play one of their best games to control the post.

Baylor at Missouri (ESPN3, 1:30 p.m. ET): The Bears got worked over by Kansas at home; Missouri is coming off a gritty victory at Oklahoma after beating Kansas in Columbia last Saturday. Separation has occurred in the Big 12, with Missouri and Kansas a game ahead of Baylor. The Bears had better find a way to defend. Missouri already proved it can win against a taller set. If Missouri wins, Baylor would not have beaten Mizzou or Kansas this season.

VCU at Old Dominion (2 p.m. ET): This should come as no surprise: VCU is on a roll and atop the CAA with Drexel and George Mason. ODU is a game behind after losing last week at Mason. If the Monarchs want a shot at the CAA title, they probably have to win this game. ODU gets one more shot at one of the leaders, hosting Drexel to end the season. All four are postseason teams, but only one might be in the NCAAs.

Wyoming at New Mexico (3:30 p.m. ET): The Lobos won where UNLV could not -- at Wyoming. New Mexico has quietly put together a potential MWC title season. UNM is tied with UNLV and a game behind San Diego State. This is another chance to stay in stride with the Rebels and Aztecs.

San Diego State at UNLV (4 p.m. ET): The Aztecs knocked off the Rebels in the final second Jan. 14 at Viejas Arena. Each has suffered a surprising road loss since, at Colorado State and Wyoming, respectively. Thomas & Mack will be rocking. The key will be if the Aztecs can again keep the Rebs off the backboards in key moments.

Wichita State at Creighton (ESPN2, 5 p.m. ET): The Bluejays are reeling, by their Missouri Valley standards, after losing two straight. Wichita State lost at home to Creighton on Dec. 31, and if the Shockers want to win the Valley regular-season title, they need to win this game. Don’t be surprised if this ends up being game two of three between these two Valley favorites. A meeting in St. Louis seems inevitable.

Kentucky at Vanderbilt (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET): The Wildcats have reached the toughest part of their road schedule -- at Vandy, at Mississippi State and at Florida before the end of the regular season. The Commodores certainly have the talent, experience and some beef to deal with Kentucky. But can they finish against UK, or any elite team? Vandy isn’t going to win the SEC. But this is a huge confidence game for the NCAAs.

Xavier at Temple (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET): The Musketeers have been erratic. Temple hasn’t always been healthy. The Owls appear to be the front-runners in the A-10 -- at least at this point -- but X can upstage Temple with a victory in Philadelphia. This could be a decisive win for the Owls in their quest to win the league outright.

SPONSORED HEADLINES