College Basketball Nation: Anthony Bennett

1. The USA's World University Games team will go down as a disappointment for failing to medal in Kazan, Russia. But the intent was to put together a team, not a collection of all-stars. That's exactly what was done in forming the squad. The staff of Bob McKillop (Davidson), Frank Martin (South Carolina) and John Beilein (Michigan) -- a collection of three of the more successful coaches -- will have to decide if they put the players in the right spots after the tournament. But some of the players will also return to the states needing to reassess their season after a subpar performance. A few of them were undecided about whether to declare for the NBA draft or go back to school. Like Adreian Payne of Michigan State, Cory Jefferson of Baylor and Doug McDermott of Creighton. All of three are vital to their team's success next season and McDermott enters as one of the favorites for the national player of the year. The player who deserves the most praise on the team is Louisville's Luke Hancock, who is playing well and through incredible grief after losing his father, William, in late June. Through six games, Hancock was second on the team in scoring and in making 3-pointers. Hancock's play in the WUG and Montrezl Harrell for the gold-medal U-19 FIBA championship team is yet another reason why the Cardinals should be feeling good about being title contenders yet again.

2. Canada's WUG team was undefeated through six games, including a win over the Americans. The play of Brady Heslip (Baylor), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State) and Jordan Bachynski (Arizona State) should bode well for their respective teams and Canada's future. Remember the best Canadians are in the NBA now and will be coming next season too. Consecutive Canadians could be drafted No. 1 from Anthony Bennett to Kansas' Andrew Wiggins. Kelly Olynyk performance for the Celtics in the summer league adds to the depth of this national team. Heslip had a disappointing season a year ago but should be ready to assume more of a leadership role for the Bears. Pangos will be the focal point for the Zags. Ejim is a major player for the Cyclones and Bachynski has to be the interior scorer for the Sun Devils. The front-running school for former Kentucky forward Kyle Wiltjer has always been Gonzaga and playing with Pangos should be a reason to suspect the Zags will get Wiltjer. Of course, Wiltjer could still decide to come back to Kentucky and either play or redshirt.

3. The freak fractured right ankle for Shane Larkin doesn't mean he didn't make the right decision to leave for the NBA. Larkin suffered the injury while practicing with his Dallas Mavericks team in preparation for the Las Vegas Summer League. Larkin is out for three months with the best-case scenario being that he returns in time for training camp in October. Dallas coach Rick Carlisle was positive about Larkin's return and what he could mean for the Mavericks once healthy. Larkin was a first-round pick and will get serious minutes once he is ready next season. Had he returned to Miami for his junior season then he would have been back for a team that relied too much on him. Larkin wouldn't have been simply a playmaker, he would have had to make the majority of plays and that isn't who he will, or should, be in the NBA. Meanwhile, his injury has likely opened up a chance for Ricky Ledo to earn some time. Ledo left Providence after not being eligible in his one season on campus. Ledo was a long shot to be eligible to play in college and probably made the best decision for his career to leave.

Podcast: UNLV coach Dave Rice

June, 28, 2013
6/28/13
4:00
PM ET
UNLV coach Dave Rice discusses whether he was surprised that the Cleveland Cavaliers selected Anthony Bennett with the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, how Bennett can improve and more.http://proxy.espn.go.com/blogadmin/collegebasketballnation/wp-admin/edit.php?page=statusPage
1. UNLV lost another player over the weekend. The latest to depart is Katin Reinhardt, who apparently had issues with the way he was being used by coach Dave Rice and wants to play the point more than shooting guard, Rice told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Reinhardt will have to see if Andy Enfield plays him at the point if ends up at USC, as the Review-Journal reported is a likely destination. Reinhardt shouldn't play immediately (I feel like I have to say that now with everyone getting waivers) and can use the redshirt year to become a point if that's his chosen position. The Runnin' Rebels already lost Anthony Bennett to the NBA draft after one season, and then Mike Moser graduated and transferred to Oregon to play immediately. (UNLV was also set to lose seniors Justin Hawkins and Anthony Marshall.) The Rebels will be scrapping with San Diego State to catch New Mexico and maybe Boise State in the Mountain West. But Rice shouldn't be worried. He needs players who want to be in Las Vegas, and the Rebels have replacements. Bryce Dejean-Jones can play shooting guard. UConn transfer Roscoe Smith had a year to better understand the game and how to play power forward. Depth is available with Carlos Lopez-Sosa and Kendall Smith, who can play either the point or the two for the Rebels. Khem Birch is eligible for a full year and can try to be more assertive offensively and dominant defensively. This team will be in flux, but the pieces are still in play to be an NCAA team.

2. Players don't necessarily have the allegiances that fans do. That's why Antonio Barton has no issues going from Memphis to rival Tennessee. The Vols desperately needed another guard after losing Trae Golden. And of course the Vols are now a beneficiary of the new free agency in college basketball. "It's safe to say kids are more concerned with the best opportunity,'' Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said about players holding rivalry grudges. As for picking up players on the fly, Martin said, "Free agency, it's a tough call. We're on the good side of free agency. I think a lot of mid-major programs are affected by the market.'' Martin used to be the coach at Missouri State and knows all too well about life at a lower level.

3. Former Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. said on our college basketball podcast Friday that Caris LeVert is ready for a breakthrough season in 2013-14. Hardaway heaped high praise on LeVert. Meanwhile, Kansas coach Bill Self hit on a number of topics, including Ben McLemore, a recruiting class that he said had tremendous promise even before Andrew Wiggins signed, and coaching Wiggins next season. You can listen to the podcast here.
1. Oregon is now one-year U. The Ducks under Dana Altman have made a habit of finding players for one season who can make an impact. UNLV's Mike Moser is the latest to choose Oregon in this situation, picking the Ducks over Washington and Gonzaga. Moser, who will be at his third school in his college career after starting out at UCLA, follows Devoe Joseph (Minnesota), Olu Ashaolu (Louisiana Tech) and Arsalan Kazemi (Rice), who all flourished in their one season in Eugene. Adding transfers with more than one year left is also fair game -- the Ducks have taken in Wake Forest's Tony Woods. But credit the Oregon staff, led by Altman, for filling needs. The Ducks have needed mostly big men as their young guards develop; losing E.J. Singler and Kazemi off last season's NCAA team left a glaring opening for a rebounder and a potential inside scorer. If Moser can return to being one of the best on the boards in the country, as he was two seasons ago (an elbow injury slowed him this past season), the Ducks will have the complement needed to young guards Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson. Meanwhile, Memphis' Tarik Black was on campus Tuesday and will leave Wednesday for visits to Georgetown, Kansas and Duke, according to a source with direct knowledge -- so the Ducks could add even more to the stable of one-year transfers. As one assistant coach who has recruited these type of players said, the one-year player at the end of his college career is in high demand because he can make more of an impact than an average freshman.

2. The NCAA rules committee, men's basketball tournament selection committee and the National Association of Basketball Coaches board met Tuesday in Indianapolis as one group to discuss the NCAA tournament and any potential rules changes. The rules committee should have a decision on any changes sometime Thursday. NCAA vice president Dan Gavitt and West Coast Conference commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, who is on the selection committee, were both present; according to sources, neither has shown signs that his selection as the next commissioner of the new Big East is imminent -- though sources said the new league's presidents are close to a decision. If that is the case and it's not Gavitt, a former Big East associate commissioner, or Zaninovich, a favorite of many in the league, it could be someone from outside the league. That list is broad but could include Tim Brosnan, a Major League Baseball executive. Someone like Brosnan would make sense considering that the new Big East has partnered with Fox, which has a strong relationship with MLB. A few administrators would prefer a strong person in the NCAA membership who has already been a commissioner. But the new Big East presidents -- who also selected former CBS executive Mike Aresco as commissioner of the old Big East, now the American Conference -- were looking for someone with strong television connections. The new Big East needs to get a commissioner soon, with the clock ticking toward fall sports starting and an office, championships, bylaws, scheduling and compliance still to be determined.

3. Next week's NBA draft combine in Chicago could be one of the most intriguing camps because of the parity in the draft and the unknowns beyond some of the top players. The injuries to Nerlens Noel, Anthony Bennett and Alex Len mean there are even more questions than answers heading into the event. There is hardly a consensus beyond the top three of Noel, Bennett and Ben McLemore. Team workouts will be even more important for so many players who could play their way not just into the first round but into the late lottery. This will be even more of a need draft for teams picking after the top five and looking for a specific position. Which player is the best available will be highly debatable since you could ask 10 people at a given spot and receive 10 different answers.
1. Anthony Bennett's decision to leave for the NBA was expected. The UNLV freshman forward will contend for a top five position in the draft. But Bennett is not the norm in this season's class of possible draft picks. A number of players are making decisions to leave without any guarantee of position in the first round, let alone the second. The NCAA has given this new draft date rule a go and it's a failure. Having players make up their mind within a week after the Final Four (this year April 16) gives players no chance for a real read on their status without the chance to play in Chicago at the draft camp or for teams. The NBA's deadline of two weeks later is the one that holds real meaning. Still, international players can withdraw from the draft up until 10 days prior to the draft in June. Why shouldn't American college players be given the same chance? The ACC started this mess by pushing this rule to help coaches fill roster spots in the spring. Well, the talent level is hardly equal at this time of the year. The end product for the NBA and the college game would be better served with a more informed decision by any of the players considering leaving.

2. Tubby Smith's decision to go to Texas Tech should go down as one of the most surprising recent moves. I was convinced Smith would either take some time off after he was fired at Minnesota or maybe go back to the mid-Atlantic area to coach -- even if it were at a lower level. Smith can coach at any spot. But I wasn't sure he would want to take on another rebuild. Texas Tech will always have a hard climb in men's basketball in the Big 12. The Red Raiders have facilities but drawing has been an issue and the program hasn't resonated as much within the state. Texas Tech hasn't shied away from brand names with Bob Knight and now Smith. Smith has had to face plenty of challenges in his career. Clearly, he isn't ducking another chance at a point when he could have sought a softer landing. He'll need to ensure he's got a solid staff that is as energized for this tall task as much as he must be to take on getting the Red Raiders out the bottom of the Big 12.

3. As Chris Collins gets ready to take over Northwestern officially Tuesday, remember that coaching wasn't the issue with the Wildcats. Bill Carmody performed well in coaching Northwestern, as expected. The issue for Northwestern was unfortunate injuries and a few late-game plays/decisions on the court that cost them a chance to go to the NCAA tournament in each of the last three seasons. This past season never got off right due to the loss of three starters at various points of the season. Collins will provide positive energy and give Northwestern the youthful voice it now craves. Collins shouldn't have an issue recruiting, either. Players will want to sign up for the challenge of playing for him and getting the Wildcats to its first-ever NCAA tournament. Collins has a positive vibe about him and an ability to connect to any age group. This program was on the doorstep of breaking through. Carmody got them to that point. There's no reason Collins won't bust that door down. Finishing in the top eight in the eventual new 14-team Big Ten is more than palatable for Northwestern every few seasons. And the Big Ten should be in contention for eight bids on a yearly basis with Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Illinois and then a rotation from the rest, including 2014 newcomer Maryland, taking turns at No. 7 and No. 8.

Cal zone thwarts Bennett, UNLV

March, 21, 2013
3/21/13
11:41
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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Sun Tzu, surely laboring over his NCAA tournament bracket, once observed that "He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious."

Mike Montgomery has been coaching basketball in some form or fashion since 1974. He's seen a lot of things. And he knows sometimes you have to surrender to win.

He did that against UNLV in the second round of the East Regional at HP Pavilion.

Montgomery is mostly a man-to-man coach. But he's run more zone this season, particularly late in the season. Further, he saw what Running Rebels meaty super-frosh Anthony Bennett did to his Bears' man defense in December. Bennett trashed it, scoring 25 points on 9-of-17 shooting and grabbing 13 rebounds. All of that counted in a last-second, one-point loss in Berkeley.

So in the rematch, Montgomery ran a zone. It worked. The Bears held Bennett to 4-of-11 shooting, and UNLV as a whole to 32.2 percent from the field in a 64-61 victory that was that close only because Cal was awful from the free throw line down the stretch.

"I think the zone bothered them," Montgomery said.

It did, though things got tense at the end.

Cal held a seemingly safe 60-53 lead with 47 seconds left, but it then decided to make just four of its next 10 free throws, including missing the front end of two 1-and-1s. That was not good. It gave UNLV an opening that it almost slipped through.

[+] EnlargeCal v UNLV
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsAllen Crabbe, with 19 points and nine rebounds, put an exclamation point on Cal's upset of UNLV.
Pac-12 Player of the Year Allen Crabbe, while not exempt from the late-game bumbles, nonetheless led the way, scoring a game-high 19 points and grabbing nine rebounds. He also added four assists and two steals for the 12th-seeded Bears (21-11). In his battle of team stars with Bennett, who scored a quiet 15 points with 11 boards, Crabbe was victorious in round two.

Cal started both halves fast, jumping to a 7-0 lead to start the game and opening up with a 9-3 run in the second half. Neither team built a double-digit advantage, but Cal was up by nine with 6:57 remaining.

Justin Cobbs, Robin to Crabbe's Batman, played one of his worst games of the season in the first matchup with UNLV. He scored 13 points and dished six assists this go-around, but his hitting 3-of-3 from 3-point range was crucial for the Bears' offense. Another offensive key: Forward Robert Thurman. The senior averaged just 4.5 points per game this year, but scored 12 in 19 minutes against the fifth-seeded Rebels (25-10). All six field goals were dunks.

UNLV hit just 1-of-9 3-pointers in the second half after a fast start from long range. Montgomery pointed out that he would have abandoned the zone if the Rebels had stayed hot from behind the arc.

UNLV becomes just the third team to lose four consecutive games in the round of 64 as the better seed, joining Clemson (four games from 1998 to 2010) and BYU (four from 1995 to 2009). The Mountain West is now 5-29 in the NCAA tournament against the Power 6 conferences.

Meanwhile, the Pac-12 improves to 3-0 in this year's tourney, with Colorado and UCLA yet to play. Perhaps the much-maligned conference deserved less maligning?

"It shows you that our conference is tough, top to bottom," Cobbs said. "Maybe the bad press we were getting before wasn't true."

Said Montgomery, "It's the only thing you can do to prove you're a good conference."

That would be winning. While the Bears' effort wasn't always pretty, the end result is a tournament victory, which always is. That probably makes any residual pain from a last-second home loss to UNLV in December disappear.
We’ve had a few hours to analyze the bracket. So many tough calls to make. No need to waste time, though. Here are a few bold predictions for the 2013 installment of the NCAA tournament.

  1. Kansas will not reach Atlanta -- The Jayhawks are certainly a No. 1 seed. I’m not sure they’re the second overall No. 1 after Louisville, but they’ve earned that slot. Their path to Atlanta is not that imposing. But I have bad news for Kansas fans: Don’t book those trips for the Final Four because the Jayhawks will not be there. I have the Jayhawks losing to a Georgetown team that will wear them down in the Elite Eight. But they could fall earlier to either VCU or Michigan. Florida might be the most complete team in the South Region, and they could give Kansas a fight, too. KU is hot right now. But at some point in the Big Dance, the Jayhawks will need their star, Ben McLemore, to shine in a big moment. And I’m not sure the redshirt freshman is ready for that. The bottom line is that KU’s NCAA tourney experience will end prior to the festivities in the Peach State.
  2. Big Ten national title drought will continue -- To date, the Big Ten has won the “best conference in America” argument. That league was a gauntlet in the regular season. Proof? Indiana, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan State are all in the field. That’s seven of 12 teams. The volume, however, puts more pressure on the league’s participants to win their first national title since 2000. Won’t happen. I think three or four Big Ten squads in the field could make a run to the Final Four. Indiana will probably be listed as the national champion in many brackets. The Hoosiers are certainly capable of that, but Louisville is so strong right now. Georgetown, Miami, Duke and Kansas are, too. The Atlantic 10’s best are also tough. The Big Ten’s physicality will prove beneficial when its members face squads from leagues that don’t play that rugged style. But they’re also going to encounter teams with more athleticism, speed and star power, too. The drought will continue.
  3. [+] EnlargeMarshall Henderson
    Don McPeak/USA TODAY SportsOle Miss' Marshall Henderson is a charismatic guard who isn't afraid to show his emotions.
    Marshall Henderson's performance won’t match his mouth -- In the days leading up to Ole Miss’ opening-round matchup against Wisconsin, Rebels star Henderson will be the subject of TV packages, front-page stories and web columns. He’s going to be who he is, and that’s great for the media. I can’t wait for the quotes and sound bites. Wisconsin will say little because that's just not the Badgers’ style. Their “style” involves quieting critics and silencing playmakers. They’re not only equipped to beat Ole Miss, they’ll pressure Henderson (20.0 PPG) into one of the worst performances of his career. Henderson's theatrics will be the story as the matchup approaches, but don’t believe the hype. That talk won’t lead to much action against the Badgers.
  4. Middle Tennessee will prove that it’s the best team in Tennessee, reach Sweet 16 -- The Blue Raiders remind me of the VCU team that made a run to the Final Four in 2011. Their inclusion in the field of 68 has been questioned by some, mostly because of their conference (Sun Belt) and lack of big wins. But they’ll be prepared for March Madness because they played one of the toughest nonconference slates in America (sixth in nonconference SOS, per Daily RPI on ESPN.com). The Blue Raiders are a veteran group that crashes the glass (30th in offensive rebounding rate, per Ken Pomeroy) and defends for 40 minutes (21st in adjusted defensive efficiency). I think MTSU will beat Saint Mary’s in the First Four to set up a meeting with Memphis in the next round. Vandy and Tennessee missed the tournament and I think Belmont has a tough draw in Salt Lake City. So bragging rights will be on the line when the Tigers and Blue Raiders meet. And with wins over Saint Mary’s, Memphis and the Michigan State/Valpo winner in the round of 32, the Blue Raiders will not only prove that they belong, they’ll also earn “best in the state of Tennessee” honors and a trip to the Sweet 16.
  5. Bill Self versus Roy Williams won’t happen -- The second-round matchup possibility between North Carolina and Kansas is intriguing. Williams against his former team. Again. I’m sure TV execs are salivating over the possibility. But I think Villanova will spoil those blue-blood plans with a round of 64 win over the Tar Heels. The Wildcats have defeated better teams within the past month (Georgetown, Marquette). Plus, they have a 6-foot-7, 260-pound bruiser named JayVaughn Pinkston who could be a problem for North Carolina’s small (quick) lineup. It’s a great storyline, Williams versus Self, given the history. Too bad we won’t see it.
  6. The Pac-12 will go 0-5 in the first (second) round -- Immediately after the 68 teams were announced, the Twitterverse was filled with chatter about the Pac-12’s seeding. Oregon’s slot as a 12-seed, despite its second-place finish in the Pac-12 and a tourney title, was the most puzzling placement. The league can prove its worth with a strong showing in the NCAA tournament. But I think it’ll do the opposite and struggle throughout its brief stay in March Madness. I could see the Pac-12 losing its five first-round matchups. Yep. Sounds crazy, I know. But Minnesota has the athleticism and strength inside to upset UCLA. I don’t think Oregon is better than Oklahoma State. I think Anthony Bennett will lead UNLV to a win over Cal, even though the game will be played in San Jose. Illinois will get hot and torch Colorado. And Belmont is a tough mid-major that won’t be intimidated in its upset over Arizona. That’s an 0-5 tally for that league.
  7. [+] EnlargeTrey Burke
    Jerry Lai/USA TODAY SportsJohn Beilein, guard Trey Burke and the rest of the Wolverines will have their hands full in the South.
    Michigan won’t reach the Sweet 16 -- What a daunting path for the Wolverines. They open the NCAA tournament with a matchup against a dangerous South Dakota State squad that’s led by NBA prospect Nate Wolters. And then they have to go against a VCU team (assuming the Rams beat Akron) that forces turnovers on 28.7 percent of its opponents’ possessions (first in the nation, per Pomeroy). That’s a rough path for the Wolverines. Trey Burke is a very talented athlete. And he’s surrounded by young standouts. But that Michigan defense has been a concern all season. It’s going to be magnified as the Wolverines struggle in the opening weekend.
  8. Florida Gulf Coast will push Georgetown to the brink of an upset -- I’m not saying the Eagles will win the game. Save the emails. But they’ll come close. I think the Eagles have the talent, including guard Sherwood Brown, to contend with the Hoyas in the first round. They’ve played some of the top teams in the country, so they won’t be concerned with Georgetown’s seeding or the NBA scouts tracking Otto Porter Jr. They have a win over Miami, too. Again, the Eagles won’t win. Georgetown, however, should be very concerned about this game.
  9. Indiana will win every game, prior to the Final Four, by double digits -- I think the Hoosiers are a Final Four team. I also think they deserved the second No. 1 seed. But they were rewarded with a favorable path, in my opinion, to the national championship. Miami, Syracuse and Marquette could be their toughest tests in the East Region. But I think the Hoosiers will have few problems with their opposition. They’re talented enough to beat every team in the East Region by double digits. The Final Four will not be as easy, but I think Indiana will breeze through its region on its way to Atlanta.
  10. We’ll see multiple 40-point performances in the opening rounds -- We have so many players who are capable of just “going off” in the first two rounds. Doug McDermott, Wolters, James Southerland, Porter, Shane Larkin, Ryan Kelly, McLemore and more. Usually, the game slows down in the NCAA tournament because possessions are so precious. So teams are more cautious. But there’s so much parity that star power could be the separator in the early matchups. Get your popcorn ready. I think we’ll see multiple 40-point individual performances in the first weekend.
LAS VEGAS -- A few quick thoughts from New Mexico's 63-56 victory over UNLV in the championship game of the Mountain West Conference tournament Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Overview: Tony Snell scored 21 points and Kendall Williams added 12 points and seven assists to lead New Mexico past UNLV in front of 18,500 fans. The Lobos led 34-32 at intermission and used an outstanding defensive effort to run away with the game in the second half.

Snell accounted for all of his team's points during a 10-2 run that ended with New Mexico leading 56-47 with about three minutes remaining. UNLV made just one basket during a nearly 10-minute span in the second half.

Still, the Rebels gave themselves a chance when back-to-back 3-pointers by Bryce Dejean-Jones shaved New Mexico's cushion to 56-53. UNLV forced a turnover on New Mexico's next possession and got the ball to Katin Reinhardt in transition. But Reinhardt missed a wide-open 3 -- a wiiiidddeee-open 3 -- from the right wing. New Mexico responded with a 3 from Snell that made it 59-53 with 1:06 remaining. That was basically the ballgame.

Reinhardt is typically one of UNLV's top shooters, but he suffered through a brutal Saturday, making just 4 of his 16 field goal attempts, including a handful of crucial misses that would have either given UNLV the lead or, at the very least, the momentum. Somehow, he was named to the all-tournament team.

Dejean-Jones scored 19 points in a losing effort while Anthony Bennett added 15. Bennett scored 13 of his team's first 15 points but was quiet after that. UNLV shot just 33.9 percent as a team and only 29 percent from 3-point range.

New Mexico, meanwhile, played an unselfish brand of basketball from start to finish. It's easy to see why the Lobos won the MWC regular-season title by two games. Sixteen of their 23 baskets Saturday came off assists, including seven from Williams and five from Hugh Greenwood.

By winning Saturday, New Mexico avenged a 64-55 loss to UNLV at the Thomas & Mack Center on Feb. 9. The Lobos were aided by some incredible fan support. There were at least as many -- if not more -- New Mexico fans in attendance as UNLV fans. At times it felt like a Lobos home game, especially during the postgame court-storming.

What's next: New Mexico will take a 29-5 record into the NCAA tournament, which begins next week. UNLV is 25-9.

Mike Moser is UNLV's X factor

March, 13, 2013
3/13/13
8:23
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LAS VEGAS -- UNLV coach Dave Rice looked at the stat sheet Wednesday and immediately thought of Dec. 9.

Three months ago, in a victory at Cal, Runnin’ Rebels forward Mike Moser had suffered one of the more gruesome injuries Rice had ever witnessed, a dislocated elbow that left Moser unable to extend his arm for nearly a month.

All of a sudden, a preseason All-American who had opened his junior season on magazine covers was on the end of UNLV’s bench in street clothes, wondering if his career would ever be the same.

“Dec. 9 was a difficult day for all of us,” Rice said. “I wasn’t sure if Mike would play for us again.”

That’s why Rice couldn’t help but smile as he glanced at the box score from Wednesday’s 72-56 victory over Air Force in the opening round of the Mountain West Conference tournament. Now back in the starting lineup, Moser snared 10 rebounds and scored nine points in a victory that propelled the Rebels into Friday’s semifinal against Colorado State.

“I feel like I’m getting back into a flow, back into a rhythm,” said Moser, who missed seven games because of his injury and has been less than 100 percent the past two months.

“My injury set us back. It kept us from peaking. This tournament is a chance for us to figure out exactly who we are.”

[+] EnlargeMike Moser
Steve Conner/Icon SMIMike Moser, still not fully back from an elbow injury, had nine points and 10 rebounds vs. Air Force.
Indeed, Moser is the X factor for the Runnin’ Rebels, the difference between first-weekend loss in the NCAA tournament and a trip to the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight.

That was evident Wednesday.

Anthony Bennett finished with a game-high 23 points and Bryce Dejean-Jones added 12, but it was the tone Moser set with his energy and leadership that energized UNLV the most.

“To look at his elbow on Dec. 9 and then see him playing like that out there today,” Rice said. “It’s unbelievable.”

Rice said Moser still isn’t 100 percent. He said he can’t extend his reach on rebounds as he did in the past, and often has trouble finishing plays above the rim. But that's certainly a far cry from where he was back in January, when Moser begged his way back onto the court before he was ready.

“I was playing one-handed, in a sense,” Moser told ESPN.com Wednesday. “I couldn’t even catch the ball. I didn’t want to stick my hand into tussles or go get rebounds, like I used to. It was really tough. But I just really, really wanted to play.”

Moser said the “mental hurdle” was the toughest obstacle he faced in his recovery. He’d lost the confidence and aggression that had made him such a force as a sophomore, when he averaged 14 points and 10.5 rebounds.

“I was remembering all the things I did before I got hurt, and my injury wasn’t allowing me to those things anymore,” he said. “I was wearing this big sleeve over my elbow, and it was as a reminder that I was injured. Once I took that off, things started to change.”

In his first 13 games back, Moser scored in double figures only once and had just one game in which he snared double-digit rebounds. In his past five games, though, Moser is averaging 11.6 points and 8.2 boards.

Rice recently inserted Moser back into the starting lineup alongside Bennett, a national freshman-of-the-year candidate who averages 15.9 points. Mix in forward Khem Birch -- the MWC Defensive Player of the Year -- off the bench, and UNLV’s frontcourt becomes one of the best in the country.

Rice said Moser’s leadership and ability to push the ball in transition makes UNLV a more cohesive unit. Moser is just thankful to be able to make an impact again.

“It’s been a test, it’s been trying,” Moser said of his junior campaign. “There were times we lost a couple of games I thought we could’ve won if I would’ve been able to contribute more.

“But overall, this season has still been a blast. It’s never not been fun. That’s because of my teammates. I can’t wait to keep it rolling.”

As excited as they are about the present, UNLV fans have been buzzing lately about Moser’s future with the program.

The speculation is that Moser will leave UNLV one year early and enter the NBA draft. Moser has been in college four years now. He played sparingly as a freshman at UCLA and then sat out a season after transferring to UNLV. He isn’t getting any younger. It might be time for a new challenge.

“I’ve definitely got a decision to make,” Moser said. “It’s something I think about, just because of how the season went. I was a preseason All-American and I got hurt. It makes you re-evaluate things.

“Who knows, though? The season isn’t over. We’ve got a chance to do some really special things before the end of the season. We’re just now getting back to who we are.”

Kind of like Mike Moser.
This conversation seemed improbable, at best, two months ago when conference play started.

Did the player of the year race look wide open? Sure -- and at the time, it was. The candidates, though, have gone through an almost complete overhaul.

Faded away are Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Duke’s Mason Plumlee, the preseason player of the year and the leader of the first player of the year straw poll, respectively. Inserted in their place is a group which has risen from almost unknown to part of a five-player free-for-all in the final weeks of the regular season to nab at least one of the four major player of the year awards.

Such is the way of Georgetown’s Otto Porter, Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo, none of whom entered the conversation until the beginning of February.

Over the past month, they have joined Michigan guard Trey Burke, the leader for the third consecutive poll, and Creighton’s Doug McDermott in this five-spot of talented and diverse players.

Oladipo made a strong entry into the race in the third poll of the season after three straight standout performances -- including one against Burke and Michigan on Feb. 2 -- from the end of January to early February. Olynyk also received votes for the first time in that poll.

Two weeks later, Olynyk made a move to fifth place; Porter started receiving votes for the first time in the Feb. 21 edition. The past two weeks, though, have seen a surge of attention for Porter, who received two third-place votes in the previous poll.

Two days later, he scored 33 points on national television against Syracuse and followed that up four days later with 22 points and a game-winner in double overtime against Connecticut. Porter now sits in second place in the latest poll, behind Burke.

How will this shake out?

Tough to say, in part due to the way this season has gone -- with insanity taking over more often than not. Add in the component of staggered deadlines for the various award votes, and it is anyone’s for the taking.

The Robertson Award, given out by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, requires its ballots be submitted by Sunday evening. The Associated Press wants its ballots on Selection Sunday. The Wooden Award wants ballots by March 25, after the first weekend of NCAA tournament games, and the Naismith Award has the latest deadline -- April 6, the Saturday of Final Four weekend.

What can happen between now and then? A lot. Just look at Porter.

Tracking the contenders

Burke: Preseason -- T-11th; first regular-season poll -- 2nd; second regular-season poll -- 2nd; third regular-season poll -- 1st; fourth regular-season poll -- 1st; fifth regular-season poll -- 1st.
Porter: Preseason -- NR; first regular-season poll -- NR; second regular-season poll -- NR; third regular-season poll -- NR; fourth regular-season poll -- T-10th; fifth regular-season poll -- 2nd.
Oladipo: Preseason -- NR; first regular-season poll -- NR; second regular-season poll -- NR; third regular-season poll -- 4th; fourth regular-season poll -- 2nd; fifth regular-season poll -- 3rd.
McDermott: Preseason -- 2nd, first regular-season poll -- 3rd, second regular-season poll -- 1st, third regular-season poll -- 2nd; fourth regular-season poll -- 3rd; fifth regular-season poll -- 4th.
Olynyk: Preseason -- NR; first regular-season poll -- NR; second regular-season poll -- NR; third regular-season poll -- T-10; fourth regular-season poll -- 5th; fifth regular-season poll -- 5th.

Poll analysis
  • Last-chance saloon for a lot of the candidates in terms of the Robertson: Porter and Georgetown play Syracuse on national television Saturday. Oladipo and Burke face off against each other Sunday. McDermott and Olynyk have their conference tournaments. Something could shake loose out of these games.
  • Shane Larkin and Erick Green depart the poll after making their debuts two weeks ago. Anthony Bennett and Jeff Withey both made a return in this poll.
  • How wide open is this race? The leader, Burke, was left off of 15 ballots. Burke, though, led every region but the Far West, where he had one vote, and Porter led. Also, other than Burke in the Midwest, no player led his “home” region. Porter was second in the Mid-Atlantic. Oladipo was second in the Midwest. McDermott was third in the Southwest, and Olynyk was second in the Far West.
  • Reminders: The poll is at the mercy of the voters. I send out emails seeking input from multiple voters in every region; it is up to them to respond. Ballots were due at 5 p.m. ET Wednesday, before Michigan’s game at Purdue and Georgetown’s game at Villanova. The structure for the poll is three points for a first-place vote, two for a second-place vote and one for a third-place vote.
A few observations from another exciting Saturday evening in college basketball ...

Let’s talk about Alex Len: The 7-foot-1 sophomore from Ukraine got paid Saturday. Settle down, NCAA. No runners were involved. But the young man clearly elevated his NBA draft stock with his grown-man performance in Maryland’s 83-81 victory over No. 2 Duke, a crucial victory for the Terrapins' at-large résumé. Seth Allen's late free throws sealed the win after a furious late push by the Blue Devils turned Maryland’s 80-72 lead into an 81-all tie in the final seconds. But Len’s performance was the difference. He was a star (19 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocks), while Duke counterpart Mason Plumlee (4 points, 2-for-7) struggled.

The Terrapins don’t have any postseason guarantees right now. It’s a soft bubble but they’re still on it. Right now, the Terps are on Joe Lunardi’s “First Four Out” list, but every game on their remaining ACC slate is winnable. Maryland, however, needs this Len every night. He had failed to crack double figures in three previous losses. But on Saturday, he showcased the talent that has fueled the NBA lottery buzz that currently surrounds him. If he gives the Terps that juice over the next six games, they might not lose again in the regular season.

[+] EnlargeEvan Gordon
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsEvan Gordon knifes in to give Arizona State the OT win at Colorado with this buzzer-beater.
Arizona State stays in the Pac-12 race with crazy win: The Pac-12 has given college basketball fans multiple exciting finishes this season. And the conference did not disappoint Saturday, when both Oregon-Washington State and Arizona State-Colorado were decided in overtime. The latter matchup ended on Evan Gordon's buzzer-beating layup. The Sun Devils’ 63-62 road win was significant in their pursuit of the Pac-12 crown.

Freshman Jahii Carson (18 points, 4 assists) can take Herb Sendek’s program there. It won’t be easy, especially since the Sun Devils have road games against UCLA and Arizona in the coming weeks. But at least they’ll face two of the Pac-12 teams slotted ahead of them in the standings. Arizona State just made the Pac-12 race more interesting.

UNLV needed this one: The Runnin’ Rebels were desperate Saturday. They’re now 6-5 in the Mountain West, three games behind first-place New Mexico. But a lot can happen over the next five games, especially in a volatile league such as the MWC. A loss Saturday, however, would have certainly removed the Runnin’ Rebels from the conversation. And their so-so at-large résumé would have taken another hit, too.

They played like a team that understood the stakes in the 72-70 victory over San Diego State. Khem Birch blocked Jamaal Franklin's shot in the final seconds as UNLV preserved the win, completed a sweep of the Aztecs and maintained a place in the Mountain West race. Anthony Bennett (21 points, 12 rebounds) and Birch (16 points) could lead the Rebels to a strong finish and help the team solidify a bid. The latter seems far more reasonable and feasible. I don’t think I would have felt that way about either if UNLV had lost.

Kansas State recovers: On Monday, the Wildcats went to the Phog and suffered a 21-point loss to archrival Kansas. On Saturday, they beat Baylor by 20 points. No better way for a team to clear its head after a tough loss. I think the 81-61 win says a lot about Kansas State’s mental makeup.

Sure, Baylor has been inconsistent all season. But the Bears also are one of the Big 12’s top defensive teams. The 81 points they surrendered to Kansas State were the most they’d given up in Big 12 play this season. Angel Rodriguez led the Wildcats with 22 points and 10 assists. Four Wildcats recorded double figures in a game that helped K-State remain in the Big 12’s three-way tie for first place (Kansas and Oklahoma State both won Saturday, too). And it helped the program move past Monday’s lopsided loss to the Jayhawks.

Memphis? I think the Tigers have the athleticism and talent to compete with other top-25 teams at neutral sites. Their problem is they don’t have many opportunities to show it right now due to the limited competition in Conference USA. Much like Gonzaga or Florida, the only way for the Tigers to prove their value nationally is to stomp opponents in league play.

To their credit, they’ve won three games by 13 or more in February. They returned to the national rankings last week based on that dominance. They beat Marshall (71-59) on Saturday. There were highlights for the Tigers. But there also were a few confusing moments.

Like the fact that Memphis scored 43 points in the first half but just three points in the first 10 minutes of the second half in a matchup against a Marshall squad that is at the bottom of C-USA and had lost five of its previous seven entering the game.

The Tigers might have the skill to make noise in March. That ugly second half, however, didn’t convert anyone.

On the Horizon: Detroit and Valparaiso might have played the best game of the night. Detroit was down by 15 points with 10 minutes remaining in its road game against the Crusaders. But the Titans launched a 17-2 run over the next five minutes. They eventually won by 10 points, 84-74, and now they’re a half-game behind Valpo in the Horizon League standings. Nick Minnerath and Jason Calliste scored 21 points apiece, while Ray McCallum Jr. added 15 points, 5 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals. In the first meeting between the two teams, Detroit led by 18 at halftime and 11 with three minutes to play -- but lost by one. Sweet revenge tonight.

3-point shot: Kentucky's seeding slides

February, 15, 2013
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1. Kentucky's NCAA tournament fate is probably closely related to what happened to Purdue in 2010, when the Boilermakers were headed toward a No. 1 seed before Robbie Hummel tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a late-February game at Minnesota. The Boilermakers ended up dropping to a No. 4 seed. Kentucky isn't that high, but the seeding, more than an actual selection, is probably going to take the biggest hit following Nerlens Noel's season-ending knee injury. Selection committee chair Mike Bobinski said earlier in the week that there was still plenty of time to evaluate the Wildcats. He also said you can't eliminate what Kentucky has done, either, since the committee looks at the body of work. The Wildcats still have a victory at Ole Miss that isn't going to go away. They can make this all moot with a strong finish in their remaining seven regular-season games, including visits from Missouri and Florida. This has been John Calipari's most challenging season at Kentucky and now it will test him even more.

2. Connecticut's Kevin Ollie should be the Big East coach of the year. But the national honor is likely going to Miami's Jim Larranaga, barring a late-season collapse. The Hurricanes started unranked and are headed for a No. 1 seed-type season -- the hoops version of what Notre Dame did in college football in going from unranked to the national title game. Wisconsin's Bo Ryan would have to be in the conversation as well, as should Indiana's Tom Crean. The freshman-of-the-year chase has to be one of the most competitive, featuring Kansas' Ben McLemore, Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, UNLV's Anthony Bennett and Arizona State's Jahii Carson, among others.

3. Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon made a great point Thursday about low scoring in college basketball. Dixon said that teams attempting more 3-pointers has led to more zone defenses and using up more of the shot clock. Of course, he added that teams are defending better and more fouls aren't being called. There are a lot of theories out there about low scoring, but perhaps the most important might be the lack of some fundamental shooting.
videoVictor Oladipo arrived at Indiana as part of the rebuilding process, a player with a ton of athleticism but who needed vast improvement in the nuance of basketball.

The potential was there, but Oladipo needed to hone it.

Indiana coach Tom Crean saw Oladipo’s desire from when he arrived in Bloomington, Ind. Now he’s seeing the results, too, as Oladipo has become one of the biggest impact players for the Hoosiers.

“My freshman year, it was kind of like I wanted to, but I wasn’t capable,” Oladipo told reporters recently. “I started growing my sophomore year and now my junior year, I have to bring it every night on both ends of the floor.”

It took one big matchup on a national stage against then-No. 1 Michigan -- and player-of-the-year candidate Trey Burke -- for Oladipo to reach the latest growth step: Consideration as one of the best players in the country.

Burke overtook Creighton’s Doug McDermott to take a slight lead in the third ESPN.com Player of the Year poll, but Oladipo made the biggest move. He entered the poll for the first time and sits in fourth place. His performance, especially defensively against Michigan, helped.

“He eats up space and keeps his hand out,” Burke said. “He moves his feet really well. He’s very athletic, so you really don’t have time to play around with him.”

Oladipo’s defensive ability goes back to his athleticism. On defense, it shows with his ability to shut down and close out opponents. On offense, it comes with his overall ability -- and was on display during a missed alley-oop dunk against the Wolverines when he caught the ball one-handed in the air and just missed finishing it off.

The 6-foot-5 junior from Upper Marlboro, Md., has affected the game on offense, where he averages 14 points, and on defense, where he averages 5.8 rebounds and 2.5 steals.

“He can guard two actions at one time, the screen and the man, and it is rare you see that. His recovery time, because of his lateral quickness, is exceptional,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “And there’s a lot of people who are very athletic like that, but they don’t want it like he does. He wants to be a good defender.

“That makes a big difference.”

Enough to put Oladipo in the race to be the country’s top player.

Tracking the contenders
Burke: Preseason -- T-11th; first regular-season poll -- 2nd; second regular-season poll -- 2nd; third regular-season poll -- 1st.
McDermott: Preseason -- 2nd, first regular-season poll -- 3rd, second regular-season poll -- 1st, third regular-season poll -- 2nd.
Plumlee: Preseason -- NR; first regular-season poll -- 1st; second regular-season poll -- 3rd; third regular-season poll -- 3rd.
Oladipo: Preseason -- NR; first regular-season poll -- NR; second regular-season poll -- NR; third regular-season poll -- 4th.
Zeller: Preseason -- 1st; first regular-season poll -- 4th; second regular-season poll -- 4th; third regular-season poll -- 5th.

Poll analysis
  • A reminder: Players get three points for a first-place vote, two for a second-place vote and one for a third-place vote. Every voter is an actual voter for at least one of the Wooden, Naismith, Associated Press or Robertson awards. Voters have been granted anonymity to participate in this poll, which is conducted every two weeks.
  • For the fourth consecutive poll -- including the preseason -- there is a new leader. Cody Zeller led the preseason poll, Mason Plumlee the first regular-season poll, Doug McDermott the most recent poll and now Burke nudging ahead of McDermott in this edition.
  • While there is still time left for someone, perhaps Oladipo, to make a run, this appears to be shaping up as a good two-man race between McDermott and Burke.
  • Two obligatory notes: Polls were due at 5 p.m. Wednesday, before Wednesday night’s games. Also, as mentioned in the last poll, the poll is somewhat at the mercy of the pollsters and once again, voters from the Far West have not responded to our queries. Once again, we will try to figure out a way to get more people in the Far West involved.
  • Louisville’s Russ Smith and UNLV’s Anthony Bennett both departed the poll this week.

Olynyk made Wooden case in January

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Kelly Olynyk has been among the nation’s best players in January. On Thursday, he’ll close out the month as the Gonzaga Bulldogs travel to Los Angeles to take on the Loyola Marymount Lions (ESPN2, 11 p.m. ET).

Olynyk started the season shuttling between the bench and the starting lineup. Since he became a full-time starter Dec. 28, he has averaged 21.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. During that span, he is shooting 64.8 from the field and has made 4-of-8 attempts from behind the arc.

So far in January, he is in the top 10 in the nation in scoring, at 22.0 ppg, and field-goal percentage, at 64.3 percent.

Olynyk is averaging 18.2 points per game this season while averaging only 25.4 minutes on the court. Among Division I players, only Creighton’s Doug McDermott averages more points per 40 minutes.

For the season, Olynyk is shooting 65.8 percent from the floor. The only Wooden Award winners to make more than 65 percent of their shots were Blake Griffin in 2009 and Larry Johnson in 1991.

The last player to average 28 points per 40 minutes while shooting at least 62.5 percent from the field was Arkansas' Corliss Williamson during the 1993-94 season. He lost out on the Wooden Award to Glenn Robinson of Purdue, but no player is having a Big Dog-caliber season in 2013.

Olynyk is fifth in the nation in effective field goal percentage. The last two Wooden finalists with a higher eFG were Johnson in 1991 and Hakeem Olajuwon in 1984.

When you factor in free-throw shooting, it’s even more impressive. Olynyk moves up to third in the nation at 71.7 percent, trailing only Indiana’s Victor Oladipo and Belmont’s Ian Clark.

The last Wooden finalist with a true shooting percentage over 70? That would be Johnson.

Olynyk is part of a wave of Canadian talent playing collegiately in the United States. Consider the following squad of Canadian players:
  • Center Jordan Bachynski (Arizona State): tied for third in Division I with 4.3 blocks per game.
  • Forward Olynyk (Gonzaga): third in Division I with 71.7 true shooting percentage.
  • Forward Anthony Bennett (UNLV): second among freshmen with 18.1 points per game.
  • Guard Nik Stauskas (Michigan): top 10 in nation with 49.5 3-point field goal percentage.
  • Guard Myck Kabongo (Texas): preseason All-Big 12 (currently ineligible).
  • Sixth man Kyle Wiltjer (Kentucky): The dual Canadian-American citizen scored a career-high 26 points off bench Tuesday.
Every season, there has usually been one. Whether the player has ended up winning the award or comes close, at least one player from a mid-major league usually enters the player-of-the-year conversation by the middle of the season.

Some, such as BYU’s Jimmer Fredette two years ago, have ended up leading the poll at the end of the year and sweeping the four big player-of-the-year awards. Others, such as Stephen Curry from Davidson in 2008-09, come close.

Creighton junior Doug McDermott was in the conversation for player of the year last season, finishing fourth behind Anthony Davis, Thomas Robinson and Draymond Green. Now, in the second in-season poll of the 2012-13 basketball season, McDermott has ascended to the top spot of our Player of the Year poll, just ahead of Michigan sophomore Trey Burke.

In the five-year history of the poll, the only season in which a non-BCS candidate did not garner serious consideration was in 2009-10, when Fredette made a late charge and showed up way down on the list during the final poll.

This season, two non-BCS players are receiving major attention in McDermott and UNLV freshman Anthony Bennett; a third, Nate Wolters from South Dakota State, is also receiving a vote.

McDermott, who was third two weeks ago in the initial in-season POY poll, leapt over Burke and the leader of the first poll, Duke senior Mason Plumlee, to take the lead.

There is a long way to go, though, between now and when awards ballots start to come due in March. McDermott and Burke, as you’ll see below, are not separated by much. Plumlee is still hanging around, and the players below them could all make a charge in this balanced race.

A common thread among the non-BCS candidates is usually making some noise the year before -- either in the NCAA tournament, in the case of Curry, or through a high-scoring regular season the year before, in the cases of Fredette and now McDermott.

For those who don’t remember, the poll consists of actual voters from the four major player-of-the-year awards -- the Wooden, Naismith, Associated Press and Robertson -- and each voter is asked to give his top three vote-getters, anonymously. A first-place vote garners three points, a second-place vote two points and a third-place vote one point.

Notes
  • A note on the polling: I poll voters from every region, but the poll is unfortunately at the mercy of those pollsters who respond, hence the lack of response from the Far West region. The majority of potential pollsters from the Far West -- and even Southwest -- regions have not responded at the same clip as those in other regions. Understand, too, that national writers and broadcasters are listed in the states in which they live, not as national writers, which could help explain some of the regions being more populated than others. That said, the poll is going to make a concerted effort for more West Coast pollsters in two weeks when the third poll is released.
  • The nine players are an all-time low for the poll, but that is actually not so surprising considering the way the race has been shaping up. There is no one true breakaway candidate, but rather a logjam of three candidates hanging out at the top. This probably means fewer players will get one or two votes since those top candidates -- with guys such as Carter-Williams, McLemore and Zeller hanging around, too -- are starting to separate themselves.
  • The nine players are from seven different conferences -- the ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Missouri Valley, Mountain West and Summit.
  • McDermott and Burke essentially split regions, with the Creighton forward winning the northeastern part of the country, Burke taking the South and the middle of the nation and McDermott seeing an advantage out west. In the first poll, Plumlee led every region but the Far West (McDermott) and Midwest (Burke).
  • A host of players -- Kansas senior Jeff Withey, Santa Clara senior Kevin Foster, Notre Dame senior Jack Cooley, UNC sophomore James Michael McAdoo, UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad and Bucknell senior Mike Muscala all departed from the last poll. The only new addition to the poll was Syracuse sophomore Michael Carter-Williams.
  • Votes were due by 5 p.m. on Wednesday.

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