College Basketball Nation: Bruce Weber

Monday upsets showcase Big 12's depth

February, 11, 2014
Feb 11
12:27
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A league should be judged according to its depth, not its best.

Florida can’t mask the SEC’s flaws. And San Diego State’s excellent season doesn’t change the decline of the Mountain West.

Depth is the barometer.

And if that’s the universal yardstick, then West Virginia’s 102-77 win over No. 11 Iowa State on Monday was a statement about the Big 12. Kansas State’s 85-82 victory over No. 7 Kansas a few hours later was pivotal to the league’s image, too. This conference is stacked. And you only had to watch a pair of Big Monday games to see it.

Yes, some of the league’s expected contenders have stumbled in recent weeks. Baylor is struggling. Oklahoma State was sliding before Marcus Smart shoved a fan and earned a three-game suspension. Texas just suffered a lopsided loss to Kansas State over the weekend.

That’s one way to look at the conference. But it’s also important to note that Texas Tech secured its second top-25 win of the season Saturday in Tubby Smith’s first year. Oklahoma has fallen out of the Associated Press top 25 rankings, but the Sooners shouldn’t be ashamed of recent road losses to Iowa State and West Virginia.

Maybe the recent tumult within the Big 12 is the result of day-to-day competition in what might be America’s best league pound-for-pound.

The Big Ten has a strong case for that claim. Northwestern and Nebraska have defeated teams that have been in the top-third of the league at some point this season. So when coaches in that conference say, “There are no easy games” in the Big Ten, they’re not lying.

[+] EnlargeJuwan Staten
AP Photo/Andrew FergusonJuwan Staten and West Virginia made short work of Iowa State on Monday, another showcase of WVU's resurgence.
The Big 12, however, is a gauntlet, too. Sure, a matchup against TCU (0-10 in the Big 12) means a probable victory. But where are the other “easy” wins in this conference?

Joe Lunardi’s latest bracketology report features six Big 12 teams. And West Virginia is mentioned on his “Next Four Out” list -- pre-Monday night, of course. Even Baylor (63 BPI) could get back into the mix with a rally down the stretch. There were seven Big 12 squads among the BPI’s top 50 entering Monday.

Even a game against Baylor still involves a matchup against a team full of elite athletes. Iowa State has seen better days but the Cyclones still have wins over Big Ten contenders Michigan and Iowa. Bruce Weber’s Kansas State program is clearly a handful for any squad in the conference. And Kansas is the best team in the league although the Jayhawks have been vulnerable, as Monday proved. But it’ll never be easy to face a team that might have the top two picks in this summer’s NBA draft.

And then there’s West Virginia, one of the key orchestrators of this Big 12 chaos. Some preseason publications listed the Mountaineers as the ninth-best team in the league, which seemed reasonable.

They won just 13 games last season and missed the postseason. Aaric Murray, Jabarie Hinds and Deniz Kilicli all departed. But Juwan Staten (18.3 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.3 SPG) has been unstoppable. If he wore a Kansas or Kentucky jersey, he’d be more popular. His numbers, however, show the college basketball world that he’s one of the best players in the game.

With Eron Harris (17.5 PPG), who was ejected on Monday night after committing a flagrant foul 2, and Terry Henderson next to Staten, the Mountaineers have one of the best backcourts in the country.

Their 4-1 record in their past five games (wins over Baylor, Oklahoma, Kansas State and Iowa State) is no fluke.

Kansas State is legit, too. Weber is making a run at Big 12 coach of the year. He lost his top scorer (Rodney McGruder) and point guard (Angel Rodriguez) from last season, but he has positioned the Wildcats to make another trip to the NCAA tournament. Monday night’s victory will certainly help.

The narrative within the Big Ten has been that prominent members, such as Wisconsin and Ohio State, have endured bad stretches in part because the league is just that tough.

Well, the Big 12 boasts the same storyline.

On one night, West Virginia beat a top-25 team by 25 points and Weber’s squad upset the Jayhawks, a team that has looked Final Four-good at times in recent weeks. Now, Kansas State is just two games behind Kansas for first place. Texas Tech and Oklahoma State are both 4-6 in league play. Oklahoma, Iowa State and Texas are obviously tough. Baylor isn’t completely dead.

If you put the Big 12 and Big Ten in one gym, I don’t know which league would be left standing. But I’m certain that the Big 12 would put up a fight.

Upset win no surprise for La Salle

March, 22, 2013
3/22/13
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- La Salle coach John Giannini refused to let his players hang their heads.

His team had just followed up a loss to Saint Louis in the regular-season finale with a setback against Butler in the Atlantic 10 tournament. Instead of chastising the Explorers, Giannini smiled and delivered a simple message.

“I told them not to feel bad,” Giannini said, now in his ninth year as head of the Explorers. “I told them, ‘You’re far better prepared for the [NCAA] tournament than you realize. You just lost to two Final Four teams.

“You’re not going to play against anyone in this tournament that’s tougher than Saint Louis or Butler.”

Or VCU or Temple, for that matter.

It might not be a part of the "power six" conferences, but the Atlantic 10 has proved over the past 48 hours that it's as tough as any league in the nation. The A-10 is 6-0 in tournament games so far, and no win was as head-turning as La Salle’s 63-61 victory over Kansas State on Friday at the Sprint Center.

[+] EnlargeLaSalle/Kansas State
Ed Zurga/Getty ImagesRamon Galloway had 19 points to go along with four rebounds and four assists in La Salle's upset win over Kansas State.
The victory was the second in three days for the No. 13 seed Explorers, who defeated Boise State in a First Four match Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio. It's La Salle's first NCAA tournament since 1992, and it now faces No. 12 seed Ole Miss on Sunday at the Sprint Center.

“Part of the reason you see these scores is because everyone takes basketball seriously,” Giannini said. “People have made great commitments. Whether it’s salaries, budgets, facilities ... people want to be where we are right now, and people [are] willing to invest to make that happen.”

Indeed, Friday’s victory over the Big 12 co-champion Wildcats hardly seemed like an upset. A day before the game, someone joked with K-State coach Bruce Weber that "No. 13 seeds aren’t what they used to be."

“No kidding,” Weber said. “Did you watch them play Boise State? Wow.”

Talent-wise, there wasn’t much of a difference between the two teams. At some positions, La Salle was simply better. La Salle led by as many as 19 points in the first half and was ahead 44-26 at intermission.

Even more impressive about La Salle’s performance is that it came in front of approximately 18,000 purple-clad K-State fans in Kansas City. Make no mistake: This was a road game for La Salle -- and a tough one at that.

“It was by far the best arena I’ve ever played in,” La Salle guard Ramon Galloway said. “The crowd was great. They were quiet in the first half because we had a lead. But when the game got tough, when [the Wildcats] were making their run, they made sure we heard them.”

Kansas State went on a 31-12 march in the second half and took a 61-60 lead on a free throw by Jordan Henriquez with 2:25 remaining. The score remained the same until the waning seconds, when Rodney McGruder missed a 3-pointer with 31 seconds remaining. Jerrell Wright snared the rebound and was fouled by Henriquez. Wright swished both free throws to put La Salle ahead 62-61.

A 60 percent foul shooter, Wright had gone 1-for-5 in Wednesday’s win over Boise State.

“There were no butterflies,” Wright said. “Coach just told me every time I shoot a free throw to have the same form and to keep my focus.”

Henriquez missed a short hook shot on K-State’s next possession, and again, Wright grabbed the rebound and was fouled. He made his first free throw and missed the second, giving KSU a chance to either tie or win with 9 seconds remaining and with La Salle leading 63-61.

Point guard Angel Rodriguez, however, failed to put up a quality shot -- he ended up taking a baseline jumper in traffic -- as time expired. Weber was screaming for a timeout but he either was ignored or wasn’t heard.

“I yelled it as loud as I could,” Weber said, “but we couldn’t get the call. La Salle ... that was a hard No. 13 to play, to be honest. Somewhere along the line they probably had some inconsistency that led them to be [a No. 13 seed].

“We can’t complain. We had the advantage of an extra day off and of playing in Kansas City. Sometimes things just aren’t meant to be.”

And sometimes they are.

That was certainly the vibe in La Salle’s locker room following Friday’s “upset” victory. The Explorers watched two years ago as VCU went from the First Four to the Final Four.

They don’t see any reason they couldn’t do something similar.

“Why not?” guard Sam Mills said. “Why not?"
DAYTON, Ohio -- True story: The La Salle Explorers used to be a basketball power.

You probably weren't born yet, and even if you were you might not be able to remember it, but in 1954 -- the same year Edward Murrow began investigating Joe McCarthy and Bill Haley & His Comets recorded "Rock Around The Clock," and one year before the Philadelphia Big 5 series, the sport's most unique old-school city competition, staged its first meeting -- the Explorers won the national title.

With that most cherished of college hoops qualities -- tradition -- established, La Salle maintained an off-but-mostly-on relationship with basketball success throughout the next four decades. It participated in NCAA tournaments in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and in 1989-90, went 30-2 thanks in large part to national player of the year Lionel Simmons -- the third-leading scorer in NCAA history.

Simmons and Michael Brooks, the 1980 player of the year, are both among the top 30 scorers of all time, and La Salle is one of only two programs (along with Houston) to boast such a circumstance. Duke and Ohio State are the only schools to field more national players of the year in college hoops history. Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, NBA Hall of Famer Tom Gola, Tim Legler, Rasual Butler and Gary Neal are alumni.

[+] EnlargeLa Salle's Ramon Galloway
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsRamon Galloway's 21 points against Boise State helped 13 seed La Salle earn a shot at No. 4 Kansas State.
This knowledge is likely news to most college hoops fans, casual or otherwise, not to mention pretty much anyone born after 1980. And it is useful in understanding why La Salle's players talk -- as they did after Wednesday night's 80-71 First Four victory over Boise State -- about their first NCAA tournament berth in 21 years as not as the consummation of their efforts, but the start of something bigger.

"We're actually making a statement," senior guard Ramon Galloway, who finished with 21 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists on 8-of-13 shooting. "We didn't just get selected. We want to make a run. We want to show everybody La Salle can play with the best teams in the country."

They'll have the chance Friday. Wednesday night's win put La Salle in the bracket proper and headlong into a matchup with No. 4 seed Kansas State, which enters the tournament 27-7 with a Big 12 title share to its name.

And yet, there are reasons to expect the Explorers can make a push. La Salle's strength -- its four-guard lineup, its floor spacing, its penetration and deep shooting -- are what helped it finish 31-for-49 in a commanding offensive performance against Boise State, and it is not unreasonable to think Galloway and company could at least approximate that effort against a Wildcats defense that allowed a lenient 1.02 points per trip in conference play, fifth among Big 12 teams. Nor will the Wildcats have an obvious height advantage over a team whose "center," forward Jerrell Wright, is just 6-foot-8. K-State coach Bruce Weber has height on his bench, but has given the most minutes to Rodney McGruder, Angel Rodriguez, Will Spradling, Martavious Irving and Shane Southwell. The tallest, Southwell, is 6-foot-6.

Win or lose Friday -- and as much as they might deny it -- the mere appearance (and through at-large bid at that) in the NCAA tournament marks a return to some form of past relevance La Salle and its fans have been desperate to reclaim for decades.

On Wednesday night (the 59th anniversary of the school's national title victory by the way), La Salle coach John Giannini told reporters he had received texts from Legler, Butler, and former star Doug Overton. And the legendary Simmons watched the win in person. There will be much more attention if the No. 13 seed knocks off the No. 4 Friday. But for now, it's a start.

"People have tended to forget what a basketball power La Salle was for over four decades," Giannini said. "It's a big deal to re-establish that. It's a big deal for people who attended La Salle and love La Salle, who had great basketball, and certainly they've longed for that. So it's big."
1. Highlights from Tuesday's Katz Korner show on ESPNU: Kentucky coach John Calipari didn't hold back his feelings about the SEC tournament. Calipari said the tournament is for the fans and noted a number of UK fans at the SEC tournament don't normally get to Rupp. He said the conference tourney is just a prep for the next (NCAA) tournament. "I don't like this,'' he said. "Three games in three days does nothing to prepare you for anything. I wish none of us had these tournaments.'' ... Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said in reaction to this being the Irish's last Big East tournament that the Big East, "made me in my coaching career.'' He said it was odd to tell his team Tuesday morning at breakfast that this would be their last Big East tournament. ... Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said it's hard to explain his past year: from being fired at Illinois to Big 12 coach of the year. He said his daughter pointed out that "I lost my job on March 9 and then it was March 9 this year that we won an unexpected Big 12 championship and the first one here since 1977.'' ... VCU coach Shaka Smart offered this advice for bubble coaches heading to the First Four in Dayton next week after the Rams started their Final Four run their in 2011, "Be aggressive confident and loose. You want to be an attacking team, no matter what style of play.''...Michigan's Trey Burke said the Wolverines will be looking forward to playing teams in the NCAA tournament not from the Big Ten, "It's a well-scouted conference, once we get outside of the conference, conference tournament, we'll be able to play at a higher level because those teams won't be scouting us each other day.''

2. One of the best decisions the NCAA/NIT made was ensuring the regular-season champs had a postseason home. A number of teams that won their leagues in the regular season weren't able to win the conference tournament: Northeastern (CAA), Robert Morris (NEC), Mercer (Atlantic Sun), Charleston Southern (Big South), Niagara (MAAC) and Middle Tennessee State (Sun Belt). Middle Tennessee State is the only school that has a chance to make the NCAA tournament out of this group as an at-large. But the NIT has to guarantee bids to all of them. The regular-season title should have meaning and guarantee a postseason berth.

3. Montana coach Wayne Tinkle had quite a championship week -- in his family. His Grizzlies won the Big Sky for the second-straight season. His son, Tres, won the Montana AA high school title and was the most valuable player. His daughter, Joslyn, a senior at Stanford won the Pac-12 title and his youngest daughter, Elle, a freshman at the Gonzaga, won the WCC title. "How blessed are we?'' Tinkle said. But he said the real MVP of the family is his wife, Lisa, a member of the Montana Hall of Fame for "all the miles she logged.'' The Grizzlies will attempt to get back to the NCAA tournament but will likely have a challenge from nemesis Weber State. Montana hosts the Big Sky tournament in Missoula and gets a bye to the semifinals, while Weber State, the No. 2 seed, has to play two games to get to the finals since there are only seven teams in the field.

Podcast: Kansas State coach Bruce Weber

March, 6, 2013
3/06/13
5:31
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Kansas State coach Bruce Weber discusses the Wildcats' close win against Baylor, gives some insight into his strategy at the end of games, and says the chemistry he has with the players on this season's team is special.
1. Gonzaga will be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, barring something odd occurring in the next week. That will be the highest the Zags have been seeded in the NCAA tournament. Gonzaga’s NCAA run since the 1999 Elite Eight should be applauded not scorned just because the Zags haven’t been able to get to the Final Four. Sure, there will be more pressure this season with the top seed, but five Sweet 16s since 1999 is nothing to dismiss. The Zags haven’t lost to a lesser team in the past four NCAAs, falling to Ohio State, Jimmer and BYU, Syracuse and North Carolina. The Zags also lost in two thrilling games -- a Sweet 16 loss to UCLA in 2006 and Arizona in double overtime in 2003. Gonzaga has had disappointing exits, losing to Wyoming in the first round in 2002 in Albuquerque and Nevada in round two in Seattle in 2004. “From our point of view, we have fared really, really well,’’ said Few. “I’ll give you [Dan] Dickau’s and [Blake] Stepp’s senior years (against Wyoming and Nevada, respectively).’’ The Zags have a Final Four caliber team. But this team and program has hardly been built on title or bust. They are consistently good every year and in the NCAA tournament with a legitimate chance to advance every season. That has plenty of merit. There is no pressure to do more in Spokane from the administration or the fan base, and ultimately, that’s how the program is judged.

2. Baylor fell to Texas Monday night. Barring a win over Kansas this weekend and a deep run to the Big 12 title game the Bears will miss the NCAA tournament after an Elite Eight run. Baylor coach Scott Drew has had an odd four-year run with two Elite Eights and possibly two missed NCAAs. This team had the backcourt with Pierre Jackson and Brady Heslip, but the shooting was never the same as a year ago. The frontcourt was as long and as athletic as any in the country with Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson. But this team missed Perry Jones III and more than anyone else, the anchor and enforcer Quincy Acy in the post. Now the chore will be to see if Austin and Jefferson stay so there can be growth in the frontcourt from one year to the next the way there was from 2011 to 2012 with Jones III and Acy. There is no reason why Baylor can’t be back in the mix in the upper half of the Big 12 in 2014.

3. Kansas State coach Bruce Weber has quite the emotional year. Just think a year ago he was coaching Illinois toward the end of the season and knew that his job was likely over in Champaign. A year later, Kansas State is tied with Kansas in the loss column atop the Big 12 with a game against TCU at home Tuesday and at Oklahoma State Saturday. The Wildcats would lose a tiebreaker to Kansas if the two teams are tied at the end of the weekend since KU swept Kansas State. Still, regardless of what occurs in the seeding or race for first and second, it has been quite a turnaround for Weber. I can’t remember a coach who has gone from one extreme to another in just one season. Weber’s coaching was never in question. The Illini needed a new voice and he needed a fresh start. This couldn’t have worked out any better for him. He has only coached in small college towns so moving to Manhattan was no problem. Weber wouldn’t have done as well being idle for a year. He got an opportunity and made sure it was maximized.

Wooden Watch: Jason King's POY ballot

February, 28, 2013
2/28/13
11:00
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With less than two weeks remaining in the regular season, Indiana’s Victor Oladipo is still considered the leading candidate to win the Wooden Award, given annually to the nation’s top player. The race, however, is far from over.

Players such as Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk, Michigan’s Trey Burke and Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart will all garner heavy consideration. And so will Georgetown’s Otto Porter, who might be the biggest threat of all to Oladipo.

Or at least that’s how it seems this week.

A 6-foot-8 forward, Porter is averaging 15.9 points on the season, but that number rises to 19.2 points in his past 13 games. As a result, Georgetown sits alone atop the Big East standings with a 12-3 conference record. Porter has been particularly impressive during the past week. You can read about that -- and more -- in the ballot below.
  1. Victor Oladipo, Indiana: I’m just not sure there’s a player out there that does more for his team than Oladipo. The one possibility could be Oklahoma State freshman Marcus Smart, who could be an even better leader. But right now I think Oladipo is more polished as a player. And it helps that he plays for the No. 1-ranked team in the country.
  2. Otto Porter, Georgetown: Porter sparked the Hoyas to their 10th consecutive victory by scoring 21 of his 22 points after intermission in Georgetown’s 79-78 double-overtime win at Connecticut. Porter’s layup with 9.5 seconds remaining proved to be the game-winner. Five days earlier he scored 33 points in a win at then-No. 8 Syracuse.
  3. Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga: A victory at BYU on Thursday could well give the Zags the first No. 1 ranking in school history. Olynyk is one of the main reasons. The 7-foot junior averages 17.7 points and 7 rebounds -- and he’s playing just 25.4 minutes per game for a squad that has blown out most of its West Coast Conference opponents.
  4. Trey Burke, Michigan: The sophomore point guard has been phenomenal for the Wolverines, averaging 18.9 points, 6.9 assists and only 1.8 turnovers. But Michigan, which was ranked No. 1 less than a month ago, has lost four of its past seven games, including a 23-point setback to Michigan State and an embarrassing defeat Wednesday at Penn State, previously winless in the Big Ten. It’s hard to keep a player -- particularly a point guard -- at the top of this list when his team is struggling so mightily.
  5. Doug McDermott, Creighton: McDermott had 32 points and 11 rebounds in Wednesday’s win over Bradley. Saturday’s game against Wichita State in Omaha will be for the regular-season title of the Missouri Valley Conference.
On the cusp (listed alphabetically):

Isaiah Canaan, Murray State: The preseason All-American is averaging 21.2 points and 4.2 assists while shooting 43.2 percent from the field. Canaan hasn’t been surrounded by the same kind of hype he received as a junior, mainly because this Racers squad isn’t as good as the one that lost only a single regular-season game a season ago.

Shane Larkin, Miami: The point guard helped the Hurricanes get back on track Wednesday by scoring 22 points and dishing out six assists in a victory over Virginia Tech. A bigger test will come Saturday when Miami travels to Durham to face a Duke squad it embarrassed 90-63 on Jan. 23.

Rodney McGruder, Kansas State: If they win the rest of their games, the Wildcats can claim a share of the Big 12 title for the first time since 1977. McGruder (14.8 points, 5.4 rebounds) is the main reason K-State is in this position. His senior leadership has been invaluable during coach Bruce Weber’s first season.

Mason Plumlee, Duke: The senior is averaging 17.5 points and 10.7 rebounds for a Duke squad that has a huge game this weekend against Miami. Plumlee has proven himself over and over against some of the top competition in the country.

Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: The freshman guard is one of the best leaders in the country and has completely revitalized the Cowboys’ struggling program. Unfortunately he’s made just nine of his past 32 attempts from the field.

Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State: The scoring machine finally dipped below the 20-point barrier and is averaging 19.9 points on the season. His 14 points in Sunday’s victory over Michigan State marked his second-lowest output of the season. Thomas had made just 24 of his past 66 field-goal attempts (36.3 percent).

Kendall Williams, New Mexico: Williams’ 46-point effort in Saturday’s victory over Colorado State has landed him a spot on this list. It was arguably the most impressive showing by a player all season. Williams averages a team-high 14.4 points for a Lobos squad that’s on pace to win its fourth Mountain West Conference title in the past five seasons.

Jeff Withey, Kansas: If the Jayhawks win the league title, Withey will get my vote for Big 12 Player of the Year. He averaging 13.5 points and 8.5 rebounds on a very balanced team and ranks third in the country in blocks with 3.8 per game.

Nate Wolters, South Dakota State: The senior guard ranks third in the country in scoring with 22.9 points per game. He also contributes 5.6 rebounds and 5.5 assists. Wolters had a 53-point game against IPFW on Feb. 7. He shoots 49.9 percent from the field and 41.5 percent from 3-point range.

Cody Zeller, Indiana: The sophomore averages team highs in points (16.3) and rebounds (8.1) for the No. 1-ranked Hoosiers. But he had a poor showing in a nine-point, seven-rebound effort in Tuesday’s loss at Minnesota. Zeller is having a solid season, but I’ll be surprised if he is named first-team All-America.

Kansas State gets back on track

February, 16, 2013
2/16/13
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MANHATTAN, Kan. -- Twenty-four hours before its most impressive win of the Big 12 season -- an 81-61 victory over Baylor -- Bruce Weber kicked his Kansas State basketball team out of practice.

Loafing through drills, snickering during dead balls, not paying attention as they were being given the scouting report. The Wildcats were doing it all -- and Weber had had enough. Using words that aren’t fit for print, he told his players to go home.

There was one problem.

The Wildcats refused.

“He was like, ‘Get out of here! Get out!’” guard Rodney McGruder told ESPN.com. “I was holding the ball, and he came up and tried to yank it away from me, but I put it behind my back.”

McGruder paused.

“As a leader on this team, as a senior, I wasn’t going to let that happen,” McGruder said. “It was my job to make sure we finished that practice on a high note.”

One night later, it paid off.

The Wildcats are still tied for first place in the Big 12 standings following Saturday’s shellacking of the Bears. McGruder was far from the star of the game with 10 points, but the stance he took during Friday’s practice clearly helped to focus a handful of his teammates.

Point guard Angel Rodriguez scored 22 points, dished out 10 assists and, more importantly, forced Big 12 leading scorer Pierre Jackson into his first single-digit scoring game of the season.

[+] EnlargeJordan Henriquez
Scott Sewell/USA TODAY SportsJordan Henriquez's work against Cory Jefferson and Baylor's burly front line was key for K-State.
Just as vital was the play of 7-foot center Jordan Henriquez, who had 10 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks against Baylor’s imposing front line of Isaiah Austin, Ricardo Gathers and Cory Jefferson.

A senior, Henriquez was brilliant at the end of last season but has been inconsistent in 2012-13. He entered the game averaging just 4.6 points and 4.2 rebounds. Weber was asked after the game if Henriquez’s performance could be a turning point in his season.

“I hope and pray,” Weber said. “He likes playing against bigger teams, bigger players. He definitely responded to the challenge tonight.”

Of course, Weber could’ve said that about his entire team.

Just five days earlier, the Wildcats suffered what could’ve been a deflating loss in a 21-point setback to Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. Weber, though, reminded his squad it was still tied with KU and Oklahoma State for first place in the Big 12 standings. He pointed out that the Wildcats could claim their first conference title since 1977 by winning the rest of their games.

“We control our own destiny,” Weber told his players.

KSU is now 20-5 overall and 9-3 in conference play. Kansas and Oklahoma State both won Saturday as well, meaning there’s a three-way tie in the league race. Baylor is now 16-9 and 7-5.

“Kansas State showed why they are the 10th-ranked team in the nation,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “They really dominated and imposed their will.”

Baylor trailed by as many as 14 points early in the second half before using a flurry of Brady Heslip 3-pointers to pull within two points, 43-41. K-State, though, was hardly fazed.

Weber’s squad responded with a 16-4 run that made it 59-45, basically putting the game out of reach.

“We didn’t hang our heads,” Rodriguez said. “Right when we got into the huddle we said, ‘They punched us. We’ve got to punch them back.’”

That type of resiliency is why the Wildcats’ chances at that elusive Big 12 title are looking more and more realistic.

Four of KSU’s remaining games are against Big 12 bottom-feeders West Virginia, Texas Tech, TCU and Texas. The matchup against the Longhorns could be tricky considering it’s on the road and Texas has welcomed back standout point guard Myck Kabongo from a 23-game suspension. There are also dangerous road tilts ahead with Baylor (March 2) and Oklahoma State (March 9).

Still, while the entire college basketball season has been defined by wacky, out-of-nowhere scores, Kansas State is one of the few teams that has managed to avoid upsets. Its only losses are to Kansas (twice), Michigan, Gonzaga and Iowa State (on the road). There is no shame in any of those setbacks.

“All of our goals are still in reach,” McGruder said. “We have a chance to do a lot of great things.”

Especially after what happened Saturday night in Manhattan.

And Friday night, too.
More often than not, people don't play Kansas well in Kansas' own building. Sure, I know this season's been a little different -- Oklahoma State toppled the Jayhawks, and Iowa State and Temple took them to the wire -- but I'm talking about the past decade or so, and the dominance with which Kansas has protected its historic home floor.

It should be no surprise, then, that the following stat -- from Kellis Robinett of The Wichita Eagle -- applies to Kansas State's most recent trips to rival KU's domicile: Since 2006, K-State's six straight losses in Lawrence have come by an average of 19.3 points.

Why? As Robinett points out, the key culprit has been slow starts. So first-year coach Bruce Weber decided to deviate from the usual plan. He brought his team to town early, let them get settled in, and organized an early nighttime shootaround after team dinner.
“Initially we thought of just coming over this morning, but with all the hype for the game we just felt we needed to get the guys away,” Weber said during the Big 122s weekly teleconference on Monday. “Some of them expressed an interest in shooting at Allen Fieldhouse. We did a quick walk-through yesterday and ate dinner. Then we came over to Lawrence and shot a little bit and got the guys focused on the task at hand.”

The only missing element there is that Weber apparently didn't get out a tape measure and make Angel Rodriguez measure the height from the floor to the basket. I have no idea if any of this stuff actually works, if there actually is any psychological benefit involved here. But it can't hurt, right?

Saddle Up: Can Kansas figure it out?

February, 11, 2013
2/11/13
10:00
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Saddle Up is our semi-daily preview of the night's best basketball action. It was really weirded out by Taylor Swift.

No. 24 Marquette at No. 20 Georgetown, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN

This wasn't supposed to be a vintage year in the Big East. Vintage, in this usage, is basically synonymous with "brutal"; it harkens to 2009, when the league dominated the landscape for months, staged an utterly awesome Big East tournament, and placed three No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament bracket. This wasn't supposed to be that year. This year, the Big East was supposed to be tame.

In some ways, that's true; this league isn't going to be placing three teams on the top seed line come mid-March, that's for sure. But in other ways, the Big East has been much better than anyone expected. Alongside Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, Marquette and Georgetown are the reasons why.

This is primarily because while both teams lost veterans, they've both managed to stay not only relevant but dangerous. Georgetown waved farewell to brilliant passer Henry Sims and fellow senior Jason Clark; Marquette bid adieu to not one but two Big East player of the year candidates in Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom. Both teams were expected to fall off, at least slightly. Instead, both are in the Top 25, and both are playing the type of high-quality basketball that should provide for a fascinating game tonight.

That's because that basketball poses a battle of strengths. Marquette is an offensive team. The Golden Eagles aren't as fast as they were a year ago, but they're playing the most efficient offense in the Big East to date, making 52 percent of their 2s and scoring 1.09 points per trip. Center Davante Gardner in particular has been a revelation. The spread-perimeter offense of a year ago has been rebuilt around the big fella. Georgetown, meanwhile, has frequently played some of the ugliest offense you'll ever see, but they back it up with the type of stifling athletic D that keeps them in games all the season. Forward Otto Porter might be the ideal Georgetown player under John Thompson III; he does everything well.

Whatever the outcome, it is important to recognize that these teams, along with a still-underrated Pitt and a steady Cincinnati have formed a really nice second-tier group in the putatively "down" Big East. It's not all about Louisville and Syracuse anymore.

No. 13 Kansas State at No. 5 Kansas, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN

I am not a grizzled veteran of this college hoops writing game. I am actually still kind of young, to the point where there has never been a point in my career wherein I didn't, at least on some level, take Bill Self's Kansas teams for granted.

Last year was the real wake-up call: That's when Self coached his eighth straight KU team to at least a share of the Big 12 title, a streak unmatched not only in other "power six" conferences but in every other college hoops league full stop. The Big 12 is a good league! It has had a lot of pros -- Kevin Durant, Michael Beasley, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Acie Law, Tristan Thompson, James Anderson, Tony Allen, D.J Augustin -- stop by during Self's tenure. And every year Self has won.

That's why it has been so baffling to see these current Jayhawks struggle so mightily. Let's keep it in perspective. In this case, struggling mightily means losing three games in a row, one of which came to a good team at home, one of which came to a good team on the road, while the one in the middle, the loss at TCU, was the product of the worst offensive performance in the history of Kansas basketball. (With the possible exception of Dr. James Naismith's early games against the Topeka YMCA, according to Self's hilarious postgame news conference). Most coaches at most programs see three losses as the occasional unfortunate cost of doing business. At Kansas under Self, three straight losses is cause for a full-fledged existential meltdown.

Is it really that bad? I actually don't think so. Yes, the Jayhawks have had their struggles on the offensive end, and senior guard Elijah Johnson is in a major shooting slump, one that seems to have caused a crisis of confidence. But as SI's Luke Winn pointed out last week, Johnson always slumps this time of year before turning it on in the spring. He'll probably be fine. The offense was atrocious when it played against Kansas State in January, but that felt like more of an aberration than anything else.

If anything, the biggest cause for concern is on the defensive end. The Jayhawks scored 1.11 PPP against Oklahoma State and 1.0 against Oklahoma; they allowed 1.18 to the Cowboys and 1.09 to the Sooners. That's the bigger problem. The Kansas defense is always been its biggest strength this season, and if it suddenly becomes porous for any reason, the Jayhawks suddenly become -- gasp -- vulnerable.

That's why you can't consider a win at Allen Fieldhouse automatic against Kansas State. The Wildcats defend and rebound and grind with the best of them, but in Big 12 play they've actually been the league's best offense, scoring 1.09 points per trip. Bruce Weber goes deep into his bench and spreads minutes around, and all the pieces -- Angel Rodriguez's perimeter ballhandling, Rodney McGruder's scoring, Thomas Gipson and Jordan Henriquez's interior strength -- fit together. You watch K-State play long enough and you start to think of them as a strictly defensive team, but they can really score. And if Kansas wants to avoid a fourth straight loss, and a real statewide freakout, it will have to stop that offense Monday night.

It's going to be a good one.

Elsewhere: I wonder if TCU and Oklahoma are going to get together before the game and swap stories about beating Kansas. Maybe they can make a burn book or something. … The CAA and MAAC are in action, but the real team to keep an eye on is Weber State. Even with former point guard Damian Lillard tearing it up for the Portland Trail Blazers, Weber State is actually better. Does the Ewing Theory apply to the NBA draft?
Don’t change the channel. Ever.

In this sport, one last-minute switch could cost you. You might miss something epic, monumental. A classic.

I nearly did. Notre Dame had lost after all. Or so I thought. We all thought.

[+] EnlargeJerian Grant
Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY SportsA 12-point flurry in the final minute by Jerian Grant, right, got Notre Dame into OT with Louisville.
Right as I grabbed the remote, though, Fighting Irish wing Jerian Grant grabbed his cape.

After going 0-for-6 from the field up to that point, he scored 12 points in the final 47 seconds of regulation. Beast mode.

So a first overtime. And then another. And another. And another. And another.

The first five-overtime game in college basketball in four years. Notre Dame was down by eight points with 50 seconds to play and yet the Irish won 104-101 in five overtimes.

My observation? Wow. That’s my observation. Should be yours, too.

Two teams battled and battled and battled. They fouled out. Eight of them in fact. Notre Dame lost Jack Cooley and Grant. Peyton Siva and Gorgui Dieng eventually fouled out for Louisville.

Reserves who hadn’t played had to play. Grab the media guide. “Who’s that guy?” Garrick Sherman isn't a complete unknown, but he had scored just six combined points in ND's last five games. He didn't play a second in regulation tonight, but still finished with 17 points and 6 rebounds. That's about all you need to know about this one.

But just in case you want some more fun facts:

  • Louisville and Notre Dame combined to shoot 97 free throws (48 for UL and 49 for ND).
  • The teams had the same amount of 3-point attempts (25) and offensive boards (19).
  • The two teams took a total of 158 shots and 10 players scored in double figures.
  • It was the longest game in Big East regular-season history.
  • Eight players fouled out, but six players played 50-plus minutes.

I’m excited, thrilled and exhausted. I can’t imagine how the combatants in both locker rooms feel right now.

Both groups deserve kudos because we all won.

Some other observations from Saturday night’s games:

  1. Bruce Weber deserves more buzz as a national coach of the year candidate. I remember Weber’s final news conference at Illinois. His former team had just lost in the Big Ten tournament. Weber stood among a fleet of reporters and tried to hold back tears. He was unsuccessful. It was certainly one of the most emotional postgame press events I’ve ever attended. He was terminated a few days later. But how do you like Bruce Weber now? In a matter of months, he’s gone from the guy who couldn’t elevate the Fighting Illini to a level that appeased administrators and supporters to a man who’s guided Kansas State to first place (8-2) in the Big 12. The No. 13 Wildcats’ 79-70 victory was a gritty win -- their fourth in a row -- against an Iowa State squad that’s played its way into the at-large conversation. The Cyclones looked like a tourney team (49 percent from the field, 44 percent from behind the 3-point line). But the Wildcats played like champs, hours after Kansas suffered its third consecutive loss. They forced 18 turnovers and went 9-for-18 from beyond the arc. Rodney McGruder and Angel Rodriguez combined to score 42 points in the perfect setup for Monday’s rivalry game at Kansas.
  2. Steven Adams’ development is the most important development in the Big East race. I’m not sure we solved anything within the Big East on Saturday. We know that the conference has a bunch of good teams. Notre Dame and Louisville settled things in five overtimes. Marquette beat DePaul. Georgetown defeated Rutgers. But there’s not much separation at the top. With weeks remaining in the regular season, I wouldn’t be surprised if three or four squads finished with the title. That’s why I think Adams’ offensive development could be a major factor in the title hunt. On Saturday, Pittsburgh's freshman 7-footer finished with 13 points and four blocks. He was an offensive and defensive presence for the No. 23 Panthers, who held No. 17 Cincy to a 30.8 percent clip in a 62-52 win. In a league with a group of teams that are so close to one another, Adams' offensive growth is a factor. Pitt is good enough to win the rest of its games, especially with its final three matchups against squads (Villanova, South Florida and DePaul) that have combined to win eight conference games.
  3. I don’t trust New Mexico. The Lobos are ranked 19th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. They’re second in the Mountain West in scoring defense (59.2 points per game). They have wins over Cincy, UNLV and Connecticut. But they’re also very unpredictable. They scored just 23 points in the first half of a 64-55 road loss to UNLV. The loss wasn’t that surprising given the Runnin’ Rebels’ diminished hopes of a MWC title. They were hungry. But every time I watch the Lobos, I see a different team. One night, I watch a program that justifies its first-place standing in the league. The next night, they seem disinterested. With seven or eight games left for the teams in the conference, I still don’t have a favorite. But I think the Lobos have the most complete squad, the team that should win it. But their inconsistent effort and execution makes it hard to latch onto that notion.
  4. Michigan State finally looks like a Tom Izzo team. Road wins are scarce, even among the top 25. So the Spartans’ 78-65 victory at Purdue wasn’t insignificant. But Michigan State was tough in a hostile venue. And it held on. When I saw MSU in Minneapolis on Dec. 31, the Spartans just didn’t display the toughness that I’d witnessed with past Izzo teams. They just weren’t feisty enough. I had my doubts. But they’ve matured. The veterans have stepped up. And they’re playing the physical style that’s fueled past success within the program. With that attitude, these Spartans can win the Big Ten championship.
  5. What’s happening in the Missouri Valley? Good question. Remember when No. 16 Creighton looked like the favorite for the conference title? Well on Saturday, the Bluejays lost 75-72 at home to Illinois State. The same Illinois State team that lost its first six MVC games. Indiana State beat Southern Illinois by one. Wichita State snapped a three-game losing streak with a 29-point win over Missouri State. Wichita State, Indiana State and Creighton are locked in a three-way tie for first place (each have 9-4 MVC records). Another wacky weekend for this league. Wow.


MANHATTAN, Kan. -- With the game still in question and a sellout crowd of 12,528 fans cursing and hissing at him from all angles, Elijah Johnson stepped to the free throw line with 5 seconds remaining at Bramlage Coliseum, looked at the Kansas State student section to his left … and smirked.

"Watch this," the Kansas guard mouthed.

Moments later, with one flick of the wrist, Johnson swished a foul shot that provided the final scoring in KU's 59-55 victory. The Wildcats' quest to upset the No. 3 Jayhawks had failed.

Again.

Johnson winked toward his hecklers after making the free throw and then blew kisses at the crowd as he trotted off the court. For the 23rd time in 25 years, K-State fans left Bramlage Coliseum enraged about another loss to their in-state rival.

Only they shouldn't have been.

Not this time. Not this year.

Frustrating as it may have been, Tuesday's setback should be more encouraging than disheartening to Wildcats supporters. Ten months after the departure of popular coach Frank Martin to South Carolina, Kansas State's program hasn't lost a beat.

In some ways, it may be even better.

For that the Wildcats can thank Bruce Weber -- or at the very least John Currie, the athletic director who drew criticism for hiring Weber just weeks after he was fired by Illinois last March.

To read Jason King's full story, click here.

MANHATTAN, Kan. -- A few quick thoughts from Kansas' 59-55 victory over Kansas State on Tuesday at Bramlage Coliseum.

Overview: Kansas' domination of Kansas State continues. Travis Releford scored 12 points, and Jeff Withey added 11 points and 10 rebounds to lead the No. 3 Jayhawks past the 11th-ranked Wildcats in Manhattan. The victory upped KU's record to 23-2 at Bramlage Coliseum, an amazing feat considering the boisterous crowds that always show up in hopes of seeing K-State upset its nemesis.

At 17-1 overall and 5-0 in league play, Kansas is now the lone unbeaten team in Big 12 play. Kansas State, which saw its eight-game winning streak snapped, fell to 15-3 and 4-1.

The victory was the first for KU against K-State since Bruce Weber took over for Frank Martin in Manhattan last spring. Weber and Kansas' Bill Self have a history, as Weber took over for Self at Illinois after Self was hired at KU in 2003. Weber led a team comprised mainly of Self's former players to the NCAA title game in 2005. He was fired at Illinois after last season.

Kansas State trailed by as many as 10 after intermission, but the Wildcats made it a one-possession game on a steal and coast-to-coast layup by Shane Southwell. The basket made it 56-53 with 38 seconds remaining. The Wildcats then fouled KU's Naadir Tharpe with 22.6 seconds left. Tharpe, a reserve guard, made both free throws to put KU back up 58-53. Kansas State turned the ball over on its next possession, and it was all but over after that.

Turning point: KU led 39-30 early in the second half, but the Wildcats continued to claw. A basket by Southwell pulled K-State within five, 48-43, but KU's Ben McLemore (11 points) made back-to-back shots -- a 3-pointer and an 18-footer -- to give the Jayhawks a 53-43 lead with 6:50 left. Kansas State never could quite recover.

Star of the game: Kansas' Withey. K-State's Southwell led all scorers with 19 points. Rodney McGruder (13 points) and Angel Rodriguez (12) also scored in double figures for the Wildcats.

Key stat: K-State took a season-high 29 shots from beyond the 3-point line Tuesday, connecting on only nine of them. Five of the makes were by Southwell.

Observations: I've said this before and I'll say it again. Bramlage Coliseum, which is also known as the Octagon of Doom, is one of the toughest places to play in the country when it's full. The students are seated at midcourt, across from the team benches, and rarely do you see any of them on their behinds. They basically go ballistic for the entire game -- and so do many of the "adults" in the crowd. Kansas will not face a more difficult road environment in its quest for a ninth straight Big 12 title. If K-State continues to draw this kind of support at home, there's no reason it can't finish second in the conference standings and get a high seed in the NCAA tournament.

Up next: Kansas State plays at Iowa State on Saturday. The Wildcats have won five of their past six games in Ames, but the past five contests have been decided by four points or fewer. Kansas hosts Oklahoma.
The last time Brandon Paul played Ohio State at home, he didn't have just a career game -- he had anybody's career game.

That night, Jan. 10, 2012, Paul scored 43 points on 15 shots, including 8 of 10 from beyond the arc. More than a few of those shots were patently ridiculous -- a contested fallaway 3 from the corner, a bank shot from 20 feet, step-backs from every angle -- and they let you know pretty early on that Paul was just having one of those nights. Stand back and enjoy.

Despite all that efficient brilliance, Illinois still only barely toppled the Buckeyes, 79-74. In the end, the game was a weirdly telling sign of things to come: Paul went back to his usual inefficient self and Illinois lost 12 out of its last 14 games, turning a 15-3 start into a 17-15 finish that got its coach, Bruce Weber, summarily canned.

This time around, the home victory over Ohio State couldn't have been more different. Illinois didn't have to summon its very best; Paul didn't have to go off. He just needed to do what he's been doing all season. He just needed to be consistent.

[+] EnlargeIllinois guard Brandon Paul
AP Photo/Darrell HoemannBrandon Paul credits the freedom new Illinois coach John Groce has given him for his steadier play.
"I really do just think it's about consistency," Paul told ESPN.com via phone following Saturday's 74-55 cruise over No. 8-ranked Ohio State. "I'm a lot more consistent this year than I've been in the past."

It's simple but true. Last season, Paul's crazy 43-point breakout was an aberration in an otherwise choppy season. On Saturday, his 19 points on 12 shots (with 7 rebounds and 3 assists) was still one of the best performances on the floor (Illinois center Nnanna Egwu had 16 points on 10 shots, with 8 rebounds), and it was more in line with what we've come to expect from Paul this season. Last season, the guard still used 28 percent of his team's possessions -- the same as in 2012-13 -- but his offensive rating was a mere 95.2. Before Saturday's game, his 2012-13 mark was 111.4.

Paul's senior year has thus far been the best of his career, and it isn't even close. He's not only more "consistent," he's better, and so is his team.

How? Paul gives a lot of the credit to coach John Groce, who did a major set renovation on Illinois' offense in his first offseason with the team. Doing away with much of Weber's three-out, two-in motion, Groce instead spaced the floor. He frequently plays a four-guard lineup, runs much more high screen-and-roll, and allows 6-foot-9 forward Tyler Griffey to spot up from 3, where he's shooting 45 percent on the season.

All of this has helped Paul feel like he has more space to operate on offense -- he can take a screen or two, read the defense, attack the rim or dish to one of several perimeter options. But Groce has also done something much more basic: He has made his star guard feel trusted.

"He's given me, and continues to give me, more freedom," Paul said. "He knows if I make a strong decision with the ball he doesn't really have to worry about bad shot selection. We've all done a better job this year with bad shot selection, myself especially.

"He's given me the option to control the team, to control the game," Paul said. "He says to go at my pace, and make sure everyone else is on the same page. That definitely helps."

To be sure, Paul got plenty of other help in Saturday's victory. His teammates put in a balanced scoring effort -- Egwu picked up an off Griffey down low, while Tracy Abrams went 5-of-7 from the field and Joseph Bertrand added 12 points off the bench. It also helped that Ohio State went just 4-of-19 from 3. Deshaun Thomas needed 21 shots to get his 24 points, and the rest of his teammates combined for just 31 points on 28.2 percent shooting, easily the ugliest performance of the season from a typically good offensive team, albeit one that has yet to notch a marquee victory, and will have its doubters in droves. And 11th-ranked Illinois cleaned up all those misses on the glass, something the Illini struggled to do in Wednesday's Big Ten-opening loss at Purdue.

Illinois' victory also highlighted the sheer strength of the Big Ten, and just how difficult it will be to steal wins on the road in league play.

"You can't take one game off," Paul said. "You have to compete no matter where you're at. It's going to be like every year in the Big Ten -- there are going to be a lot of ups and downs."

Rarely was that more true than for the 2011-12 Illini, who went from an upset of a Final Four team and a classic 43-point performance to 17-15 with a fired coach. This season, the Illini have set about making those downs less down, even if the ups are never quite as high. In a word: consistency.

"We had balanced scoring, guys in double digits, guys were getting a lot of gang rebounds," Paul said. "I love these types of games."

Podcast: Colorado, Weber, Groce and more

January, 4, 2013
1/04/13
11:45
AM ET
Andy Katz and Seth Greenberg discuss the controversial call in the Colorado-Arizona game . Plus, they talk to Kansas State coach Bruce Weber and Illinois coach John Groce.

Also, Colorado lost to Arizona in overtime on Thursday after a potential game-winning 3-pointer was reversed on replay. Did referees make the right call? SportsNation wants your thoughts.

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