College Basketball Nation: Chris Collins

Big Ten, ACC deadlocked once again

December, 5, 2013

The 15th annual Big Ten-ACC Challenge ended with no resolution to conference supremacy. For the second straight season the clash ended in a 6-6 tie, leaving the ACC with a 10-3-2 advantage.

We know which teams really won the night though: North Carolina, for sure, with its upset over No. 1 Michigan State. No. 8 Wisconsin, which like the Tar Heels won on the road, beating Virginia. And No. 5 Ohio State, which is on a steady ascent up the polls.

On the surface the Buckeyes' win doesn't look that big, as they had unranked Maryland at home. But the way they controlled the game from start to finish and gave the Terrapins a harsh introduction to the league they'll join next year.

Defensively, Ohio State dissected everything the Terps wanted to do. Maryland shot just 39 percent from the field and gave up 25 points off 14 turnovers. That included the final sequence of the first half, when Aaron Craft dove to the floor for a steal and passed ahead to Sam Thompson for a buzzer-beating basket.

[+] EnlargeSam Thompson
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesSam Thompson's highlight-reel dunks capped off a dominating night for No. 5 Ohio State.
The Buckeyes basically beat the Terps like a ranked team should at home. They never let the lead dip below 10 the entire second half and once up 25 turned the game into one long highlight reel for Thompson.

Columbus discovered the alley-oop Wednesday night as Thompson slammed down lobs on four different occasions.

And those shooting woes that threatened to drag down OSU seem to be a thing of the past too. The Buckeyes shot 52 percent from the field, powered by LaQuinton Ross' 7-of-13 performance. Ross finished with a game-high 20 points.

Ohio State honored former coach Gary Williams prior to the game. Williams coached the Buckeyes from 1986-89 before leaving Columbus for College Park, where he would win the 2002 national title at Maryland. Williams then had to sit through the Terps being handled by the Buckeyes.

Chris Collins also returned to familiar territory, as the Northwestern coach returned to ACC country for the first time since taking the Wildcats job in the offseason. Collins, who played for Duke and also spent 13 years as an assistant coach under Mike Krzyzewski, knows Northwestern's opponent Wednesday, NC State, well. But his intimate knowledge didn’t help the Wildcats muster a win.

Collins’ welcome-back package included a technical foul and 22 points from T.J. Warren, as the Wolfpack cruised to a 69-48 win.

Purdue matched NC State for the biggest margin of victory in the challenge with its 88-67 victory over Boston College. The Boilermakers, led by a season-high 18 points from Terone Johnson, have quietly won five straight in the challenge.

Nebraska salvaged the night for the Big Ten by beating Miami 60-49 in Lincoln. The Cornhuskers held the Canes to a frigid 24 percent shooting performance in the first half en route to a season-low 13 points at the break.

Michigan State didn’t hit new lows against the Tar Heels, it simply didn’t hit back at all.

Most expected Northwestern, Boston College and Miami to have a hard time winning on the road. No one expected the Spartans to lack the fight generally accepted as the norm from Tom Izzo’s team. Even though they bounced back from a 12-point deficit in the first half to tie the game at intermission, they never seemed to bring the fight to the Tar Heels.

MSU’s punchless night could be summed up in one second-half exchange. Branden Dawson seemingly had a clear path to the rim and was poised to give Sparty its first lead of the game, breaking a 38-38 tie. But J.P. Tokoto rotated in time to block the shot and start a fast break that ended with Marcus Paige completing a three-point play.

Carolina never trailed afterward and Michigan State literally hobbled through the rest of the game.

Senior forward Adreian Payne kept cramping up, at one point during the middle of a play, he literally stood on one leg while grabbing his other foot behind him to stretch. Gary Harris, who sat out Michigan State's win over Mount St. Mary’s with an ankle injury, seemed to lack some of his explosiveness. Keith Appling suffered an apparent hip injury late in the first half and shot 5-of-15 from the field.

Virginia joined Michigan State as a big loser from Wednesday night. The Cavs have made quite the acquaintance with the NCAA bubble and missed possibly their last chance for a statement win before conference play begins.

Both of the Cavaliers' losses have come at home to ranked teams, and the common thread is that they haven’t mustered much offense either time.

UVA, which lost to VCU 59-56 on a last-second shot, scored its lowest point total in 20 years against Wisconsin. The Cavs managed only 18 points in the second half, and their total of 38 was the lowest output since losing to UConn 77-36 in 1993.

So while the challenge ended in a tie, the winners and losers Wednesday were clearly defined.

The state of the Big Ten

November, 5, 2013

In recent years, the Big Ten has boasted an assembly of athletes who have boosted the league to the top of college basketball’s conference rankings.

Players who could’ve turned pro returned and granted the league a lineup of experienced players who carried their respective squads for multiple seasons. Evan Turner, Trey Burke, Cody Zeller, Draymond Green, Deshaun Thomas, Jared Sullinger, JaJuan Johnson, Tim Hardaway Jr. and others had opportunities to sign NBA contracts a year or two earlier than they did. Instead, they stayed and strengthened their teams and subsequently, the entire conference.

Prior to changes at Minnesota and Northwestern this past offseason, only four of the 12 Big Ten schools (Iowa, Nebraska, Illinois, Penn State) had changed head coaches in the previous five seasons. That continuity has fueled immense success for a league that has earned 20 total bids in the last three NCAA tournaments.

There are, however, more questions now.

Other than Michigan State, the Big Ten’s membership enters the season possessing promise but also dealing with a rare uncertainty. Michigan and Ohio State return elite talent, but you can’t ignore what both lost from last season. Indiana could blossom behind some youngsters, but how many teams improve after a pair of top-five picks turn pro? A fleet of seniors have left Madison. Iowa is still a “maybe” to many.

Illinois and Purdue? They’ll either surprise or spend the year at the bottom of the league.

Even with four teams cracking the Associated Press’ Top 25 preseason poll, the Big Ten is somewhat of a mystery as this weekend’s tipoff to the 2013-14 season approaches. Still, there’s plenty of hope for many squads in this league.

There’s just a lot we don’t know (yet) about the Big Ten.

The Contenders

[+] EnlargeTom Izzo
AP Photo/Andy ManisTom Izzo has a Michigan State team with enough talent to return to the Final Four.
Michigan State: Tom Izzo has another capable crew in East Lansing this season. Adreian Payne and Keith Appling anchor the Big Ten favorite and national title contender. Gary Harris is a future lottery pick who could campaign for All-American honors. Whenever Izzo has this much talent and experience, his teams usually reach the Final Four.

Michigan: The answer is no. No, the Wolverines won’t replace Wooden Award winner Burke no matter how productive Derrick Walton Jr. is in his freshman season. But John Beilein’s pillars -- Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary -- and his stellar recruits should give Michigan a serious shot at the Big Ten crown.

Ohio State: Somehow, Aaron Craft is still eligible and available to squash the dreams of perimeter players throughout the country. Without Deshaun Thomas, the Buckeyes will probably spread the ball around more than they did last season. But LaQuinton Ross -- assuming we see the same player who lit up the Big Dance a few months ago -- might be the star Thad Matta needs to make a postseason run and snatch another Big Ten crown.

The (Possible) Contenders

Indiana: If exhibitions are to be believed, then Yogi Ferrell has become a more dangerous threat from the field since registering a 45.4 effective field goal percentage last season. That matters, but not as much as the maturation of the rest of the roster does (will). How much production will Noah Vonleh and a bunch of inexperienced youngsters give Tom Crean? We’ll find out soon.

Wisconsin: Say it with me three times: “I will not doubt Wisconsin, I will not doubt Wisconsin, I will not doubt Wisconsin.” Once again, however, there are a few reasons to doubt the Badgers, simply because they’re entering the season without a trio of seniors (Mike Bruesewitz, Ryan Evans and Jared Berggren) who made a major difference last season, and they’re depending on a point guard who's returning from a serious knee injury (Josh Gasser). Sam Dekker and Co. will probably maintain Bo Ryan’s streak of 20-win seasons (10 in a row) and top-four finishes in the Big Ten.

Iowa: The rebuilding phase is over, folks. The Hawkeyes return every meaningful player from a team that won 25 games and finished 9-9 in conference play during the 2012-13 season. It’s time for Iowa to finally make some noise in the Big Ten race and get back to the NCAA tourney. Fran McCaffery has the pieces to achieve both.

The Questionable

Purdue: The last thing Matt Painter needed was a bout of early drama involving young star A.J. Hammons. But that’s exactly what he’s facing after Hammons was recently suspended for three games after violating team rules. If Hammons gets his act together -- it’s always if with him -- the Boilermakers could sneak into the at-large mix.

Illinois: Same for John Groce’s squad. Groce adds eight new faces to the program. This is a much different team compared to the one that reached the NCAA tournament last year. But if Groce can help transfer Rayvonte Rice become the star he was at Drake two seasons ago, Illinois might make a case for another berth.

The Bottom

Minnesota: Richard Pitino has his father’s last name and hair, but nothing resembling the players Rick Pitino used to win the national title with Louisville in April.

Northwestern: Chris Collins is already making strides in recruiting, but he doesn’t have the beef inside to compete in the Big Ten yet.

Nebraska: The Cornhuskers have a new arena, but Tim Miles’ squad has the same problems.

Penn State: Tim Frazier will have to carry a very heavy load. Again.

Collins builds buzz around NU hoops

August, 27, 2013
The first NCAA tournament was held on Northwestern's campus in 1939. It is the closest the Wildcats have ever been to it.

Bill Carmody managed a few close calls during his 12-year tenure, but he was fired after the 2012-13 season. In comes Chris Collins, a Chicagoland native with a Duke pedigree.

He would seem to be an excellent fit. Collins played for Mike Krzyzewski and coached alongside him. He understands academic rigors. He has seen how to win at the highest level. He has maintained recruiting ties in fertile areas of Illinois.

But this is Northwestern. If Collins is looking for a challenge, he has found it. Read what's Eamonn Brennan has to say about the new coach and his chances here.

On July 4, while you were grilling meats and hanging out with family and friends and doing other awesome things we Americans do on the Fourth of July, something profoundly strange happened: Northwestern landed a top-75 recruit.

No, seriously: Northwestern landed a top-75 recruit.

[+] EnlargeVictor Law
Kelly Kline/Getty ImagesVictor Law is the first top-75 recruit slated to join Northwestern in 20 years.
His name is Vic Law, he's the No. 66-ranked player in the class of 2014, per the ESPN 100. Law hails from South Holland, Ill., and he's a 6-foot-6 athlete with versatile skills -- he can rebound, handle, start the break, finish in traffic, knock down open jumpers, and defend multiple positions, according to our Recruiting Nation scouting report. And the news of his signing, almost surely thanks to the timing, passed us all by, at least until Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn examined the Law signing, and what it means for Northwestern, in a Wednesday column:
One four-star commitment can't change a program, and there are higher-impact players than Law in the class of 2014, but in terms of need and momentum, his pledge will go down as one of the biggest of the summer. Collins was used to pulling in elite players as a Duke assistant, but Northwestern? Zero-NCAA-bids-ever Northwestern? Its last top-75 recruit was center Evan Eschmeyer -- in 1993. Three months into Collins' tenure at NU, he ended that 20-year drought by selling the promise of a turnaround. "He just needed one person to believe in him," Law said. "And I believe. I know we're going to win."

It's difficult to overstate just how important Law's signing is to Northwestern. For more than a decade under Bill Carmody, the Wildcats never recruited a player as talented as Law. Under Carmody, Northwestern's rosters were always assemblages of misfit toys -- talented but tiny guards, lights-out shooters who couldn't slide their feet and forward "projects." When Wildcats fans asked why their teams always looked like the baby day-care room in "Toy Story 3," they were given, whether directly or indirectly, a maxim to repeat: Because it's Northwestern. Of course NU couldn't recruit. Of course the facilities weren't attractive. Of course the academic standards were too limiting. Of course recruiting meant plucking leftovers and unknowns. The roster would always look like a market inefficiency experiment taken too far, because ... well, because it was Northwestern.

Now, just a couple months into the job, new coach Chris Collins has made that maxim obsolete. How? Law provides a handy case-study, as Luke writes:
Law Sr. can explain [why his son didn't like Northwestern before Collins was hired]; he recently retired from the Chicago Police Department after 27 years, part of that time spent as a homicide detective on the city's troubled South Side, and is not one to mince words. "When we went up there to visit [sophomore year]," Law Sr. said, "Carmody came across as arrogant -- like that the university would sell itself, and either you want to come here or you don't. And I'm saying to myself, 'You haven't won anything!' You had a sour taste in your mouth when you left, and to be honest with you, had Carmody still been there, we never would have considered Northwestern. Not ever. That's how bad it was for us."


Now, that's probably not the sole reason Carmody struggled to recruit, or even the most important one. Nor is Collins going to suddenly turn into John Calipari 2.0. But for the biggest signing in the past two decades of Northwestern basketball, the difference really was that simple. Attitude. Salesmanship. Belief. You know, oh, what's the word? Oh, right: recruiting.

You know that scene in "Pleasantville" when Joan Allen sees the stained glass in vivid color for the first time? Remember the look on her face? That's your average Northwestern fan right now. Law may or may not revolutionize Evanston, Ill., in the next five years, and Collins will surely face his share of struggles. But the new coach has, in remarkably short order, sent a clear signal to beleaguered fans: Their program doesn't have to be bad. What a concept.
1. In two weeks, the draft will be over and it will be easy to assess by reviewing the draft to see who made a mistake by coming out too soon from college. Late second-round picks usually don't get guaranteed money and not getting drafted means the player will have a harder time having to earn a spot. So much can change in the next two weeks but two players whose decisions appeared questionable may have been well-advised on their decisions after all. North Carolina's Reggie Bullock has the size and the quick shooting ability to make the transition. In watching him work out, he has solid first-round ability. He still needs to work on his ballhandling but can more than hold his own in a comparable position battle. The same could be true of New Mexico's Tony Snell. Bullock seems to be a lock for the first while Snell is making his case to be chosen late in the first round, too. There will be others who missed and some who surprise even more. But these two look like they made the right call.

2. Former Holy Cross and Seton Hall coach George Blaney retired Thursday at UConn after serving in a top assistant role for Jim Calhoun and then for Kevin Ollie in his first season as a head coach. Blaney was an unheralded person for the Huskies but a key behind the scenes during the rise to a title and then navigating through difficult times. Calhoun's health problems and suspension could have steered the program off course. But Blaney was always there as the sage adviser. Blaney had great command of his team, was well versed on the league and had a competent, realistic grasp on the current team. He was able to calm Calhoun down, offer respected advice and mentor the younger coaches on the staff. He should feel proud that he served the school well.

3. Northwestern coach Chris Collins said as a young head coach he wanted someone with experience to help him out. Hiring his former Glenbrook North High School coach Brian James, a longtime NBA assistant, who had worked with his father Doug, was a mature and intelligent move. Collins has played and coached, as an assistant, in high-pressure moments at Duke. But he had never been in those situations where the onus is on him to make the decision. Having James on his side will be a huge plus. Memphis coach Josh Pastner hired Willis Wilson in this capacity when he first got his job. Not every first-time coach makes the right decisions on a staff. There has to be trust and familiarity to make it work. This one should prove to be smart for Northwestern and Collins.
1. The NCAA's random date of April 16 to declare for the NBA draft isn't pressuring a number of players into making quick decisions. Coaches are now savvy to the date as being meaningless. That's why Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk may wait to decide until the NBA's own early-entry deadline of April 28. Olynyk is probably going to be the same player in the NBA whether he declares next season or this. He is a Wooden All-America and, if he were to return, would be one of the contenders for player of the year. Missouri's Phil Pressey is also weighing a similar decision over the next few weeks. A number of players haven't outlined their intentions but have plenty of time, like Miami's Shane Larkin, Kansas' Ben McLemore, Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, Georgetown's Otto Porter, Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas, Syracuse's C.J. Fair and Michael Carter-Williams, Louisville's Russ Smith as well as Indiana's Cody Zeller. Cal's Allen Crabbe joined the list of draftees earlier Wednesday. I fully expect Indiana's Victor Oladipo, Louisville's Gorgui Dieng, UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad and Michigan's Trey Burke to declare soon. No official word out of Connecticut, but the staff is anticipating -- at this point -- that guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright will return (smart move if it happens, since they don't have an NBA home to go to next season).

2. The Big Ten suddenly got incredibly younger with this week's two coaching hires -- Northwestern announcing Chris Collins and Minnesota tabbing Richard Pitino. The under-40 club will give the league a new look. The two take over programs that are striving for consistency, but both desperately need an upgrade in facilities to hang with the big boys. Collins and Pitino will need to use their youthful enthusiasm to build momentum since the dollars aren't in place for facilities they were used to -- Collins was at Duke and Pitino at Louisville and Florida before his stop at Florida International. Northwestern had been looking at Collins for quite some time. But Pitino was clearly a new name for Minnesota in the past week as athletic director Norwood Teague looked for an off-the-grid-type hire like he made at Virginia Commonwealth. Pitino got off to an impressive start in his coaching career at FIU with the upset of Middle Tennessee in the Sun Belt tournament and a chance to earn the league's automatic NCAA tournament berth. Now he'll face his toughest challenge of his career. He has a brand name in basketball, which carries weight, but will need to put together a strong staff to quickly earn the trust of his players this spring and summer. This can work at both places. Memphis, for example, has been a soaring success under Josh Pastner. Pastner led the Tigers to conference titles and NCAA tournament appearances as a young, vibrant assistant-turned-head-coach of a major program. Collins was a fit at Northwestern so there's no issue there. But give Pitino a chance to see if this could work.

3. Old Dominion looked like it was set to go to former Western Kentucky and Georgia coach Dennis Felton before the Monarchs and athletic director Wood Selig tabbed American's Jeff Jones. This hire came out of left field, but might end up being one of the better fits. Jones played and coached at Virginia and should be able to recruit well in the fertile Tidewater area. Jones had made American a consistent Patriot League contender, which isn't easy to do in a conference where Bucknell and Lehigh are the anchors. ODU knows who it is and wanted to gravitate toward a coach that made sense. This hire does.
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.
1. Tubby Smith and his staff had no idea they were about to be fired Monday morning as they sat in a staff meeting at 10 a.m. going over recruiting, offseason workout plans and evaluations of the Gophers' loss to Florida the previous day. Members of the Minnesota staff said they were sitting in the meeting when they started receiving text messages from coaching colleagues telling them they had been fired. Smith told them that he had to meet with the administration at 1 p.m. It was then, according to the staff, that Smith and ultimately the staff found out they had been fired. Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague obviously has the right to fire Smith and the staff. But he should have handled this differently. This was akin to how Seth Greenberg and his staff found out he was being fired a year ago at Virginia Tech. Greenberg was unaware that a decision had already been made. A news conference had been called but Greenberg wasn't informed of the details of the event. ADs need to make sure the staff knows before the public. That's called common courtesy.

2. Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips is expected to name a coach to replace Bill Carmody by the end of the week, according to a source. I'll be surprised if it's not Chris Collins of Duke. The Duke associate head coach has been interested in this job for years. The timing is right for him to leave Duke and forge his own path. He'll energize the program. But he'll need to have an experienced staff to deal with going against coaches like Tom Izzo and Bo Ryan. Collins shouldn't fret about being in crazed environments. He's done that his whole playing and coaching career at Duke.

3. I don't understand why schools are releasing that players are checking out the draft process but will make up their mind by April 16, the arbitrary NCAA deadline. There is no need to go public when all they're doing is seeking an opinion from the NBA advisory committee, which players do every year through their college coaches. There is no more testing the waters. And even if a player decides or states publicly he's coming back on April 16, he still has two weeks to tell the NBA he's in the draft. The NBA's deadline is the only one that matters for entering the NBA draft.

3-point shot: Howland over Altman

March, 15, 2013
1. Oregon's Dana Altman got the Pac-12 coach-of-the-year award, but the honor should have gone to UCLA's Ben Howland. Howland has done his best coaching job since he has been at UCLA -- and that includes the three consecutive Final Four runs. Consider this: UCLA won the Pac-12 outright despite losing two rotation players, had to deal with eligibility and injury issues with Shabazz Muhammad and pieced together a team that had a mix of transfers and freshmen to win the conference. Howland was able to get Larry Drew II to play to his potential in his last season in college. Howland had to alter the way he coached. And he did all of this under the pressure and scrutiny that accompanied a perception that his job was in jeopardy. The Bruins had their moments of hard-to-fathom losses like Cal Poly early and at Washington State late -- but they still found a way to win the conference and are a real threat to make a run in March.

2. The reason the new Big East might not start out with 12 schools in the fall instead of 10 is the lack of consensus among the seven schools forming the new league. The best-case scenario would be for the new Big East to start fresh with a dozen. But if there isn't agreement on the schools beyond 10, they will wait for another year. Butler and Xavier are the locks to get first invites, with a debate raging among different factions over Creighton and Dayton for No. 10. Saint Louis is the other school that could ultimately be in the group. Having a primarily basketball-driven conference isn't a new concept. It's called the Atlantic 10. Georgetown coach John Thompson III wasn't being sentimental about the end of the Big East on Thursday. He said the Big East isn't going anywhere and neither is the tournament. He's technically right.

3. Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips has to make a decision on the fate of coach Bill Carmody in the coming week. Carmody hasn't been able to get Northwestern in the NCAA tournament, but then no one has in Evanston. Carmody has had tremendously bad luck and is a well-respected coach for a reason. He has poured all his energy into trying to get the Wildcats into the NCAA tournament. Northwestern should be able to make a cameo every so often, like Stanford. The Wildcats are always going to be in a better position than most to earn quality wins due to the strength of the Big Ten, and probably just have to finish sixth to be in the chase for a bid. That will become more difficult with 14 teams, but still doable. If Northwestern were to go in another direction, I don't see how how Duke associate head coach Chris Collins, a native of the northern Chicago suburbs, doesn't get the first call. Carmody deserves a chance to state his case for what he has done to make the Wildcats competitive and what he can still achieve.

Observations from Thursday night

March, 8, 2013
John Calipari has tried numerous tactics in recent weeks to light a spark within his Kentucky basketball team. One afternoon, he even staged an impromptu dodgeball game to loosen the mood and improve chemistry.

Nothing has worked.

Thursday’s 72-62 loss at Georgia marked the fourth defeat in the past seven games for the Wildcats, who will probably need to beat Florida in Saturday’s regular-season finale to have any shot of making the NCAA tournament.

Center Willie Cauley-Stein shrugged his shoulders when he was asked what Kentucky could do to turn things around.

“Have faith?” he said. “Go to church? Maybe that’s what we need to -- go to church as a team and pray for each other.”

Even divine intervention might not be enough to help the Wildcats at this point. If Kentucky can’t beat Arkansas and Georgia, there is no reason to believe it can get past a Florida squad many pundits have tagged as a Final Four contender.

The Gators defeated Calipari’s team 69-52 in Gainesville on Feb. 12. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky’s best player, tore his anterior cruciate ligament in that contest and UK hasn’t been the same since. Granted, even before Noel’s injury, the Wildcats weren’t very good. Kentucky’s résumé includes very few quality wins -- and a bunch of bad losses.

“I’m mad,” guard Archie Goodwin told reporters after Thursday’s loss. “There’s no way we should lose to Georgia. There’s no way we should lose to Arkansas.

“When we play like we’re supposed to, there’s not anyone in the country we can’t beat. When we play like this, when we play soft as a team, anyone can beat us.”

Calipari, to his credit, said he is to blame for his squad’s collapse.

“I’m so disappointed in the job I’ve done with this team,” he said Thursday night. “I’ve never had a team not cohesive at this time of year. Every one of my teams ... cohesive. Every one of them had a will to win. Every one of them had a fight.

“If this team doesn’t have that, that’s on me.”

[+] EnlargeJosh Scott
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsJosh Scott and Colorado outmuscled an Oregon team that could've nabbed a share of the Pac-12 title.
Here are a few other observations from Thursday’s games:

1. Does anyone want to win the Pac-12?

UCLA and Oregon entered the week tied for first in the conference standings with two games to play. Somehow, though, UCLA lost to last-place Washington State in Pullman on Wednesday, which meant Oregon could’ve clinched at least a share of the league's regular-season crown by beating Colorado on Thursday.

The Ducks responded by losing 76-53 in Boulder. And the Buffs didn’t even have Andre Roberson, who missed the game with a viral illness. Each team has one game remaining. UCLA plays at Washington on Saturday; Oregon takes on Utah in Salt Lake City the same day.

Whatever happens, no one can argue that the parity in the Pac-12 is greater than any conference in the country. Next week’s league tournament should be fun.

2. I loved the shot of Michigan State coach Tom Izzo jumping up and wrapping his arms around the neck of 6-foot-10 forward Adreian Payne during a timeout in the Spartans’ 58-43 victory over Wisconsin. Payne had just taken a hard fall under the basket after missing a dunk, but he eventually popped back up. Izzo loved seeing that toughness and resiliency -- not just from Payne, but from his entire team.

Michigan State entered the game toting three consecutive losses, all by single digits and all against ranked opponents. But by winning Thursday, Michigan State put itself in a position to clinch a share of the Big Ten title. Indiana sits atop the conference standings at 13-4. Three other teams (Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State) are 12-5.

If Michigan defeats Indiana on Sunday in Ann Arbor, four teams will finish in a tie for first. That’s assuming, of course, that Michigan State and Ohio State take care of business in their regular-season finales against Northwestern and Illinois, respectively.

Whatever happens, Michigan State should feel good about itself entering the Big Ten tournament following Thursday’s dominating victory over an excellent Wisconsin squad.

3. I’ve got to think Northwestern’s loss to Penn State on Thursday marked Bill Carmody’s final home game as the Wildcats’ head coach. Northwestern has never made the NCAA tournament and it won’t get there this year under Carmody, who is in his 13th season. Losing to the Big Ten’s worst team on Senior Night is about as bad as it gets. Duke assistant Chris Collins has been mentioned as a possible replacement. Another coach who would be a good fit: Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew.

4. Michael Snaer’s ability to come through in the clutch continues to amaze me. The Florida State guard scored on a left-handed runner in traffic with 4 seconds remaining to propel the Seminoles past Virginia 53-51. Snaer was fouled on the play, and he made the ensuing free throw.

The game winner was the fourth for Snaer this season and his sixth over the past two.

Virginia, which had fought back from an 11-point deficit to take the lead, has now lost four of its past six games. The Cavaliers are on the NCAA tournament bubble.

3-point shot: VCU-Richmond heats up

January, 25, 2013
1. There is still hope among the new alignment moves to create or enhance rivalries. If Virginia Commonwealth and Richmond stay in the Atlantic 10 for the foreseeable future, this city rivalry could become one of the marquee events in the conference. The chances Butler stays in the A-10 aren't high if the Catholic 7 come calling in the near future -- the Bulldogs are likely to bolt to join Georgetown, St. John's, Marquette and Villanova, so it's hard to plan on the Butler-VCU game every season. But the chances VCU and Richmond are taken aren't as high. VCU and Richmond were in the Colonial Athletic Association together from 1996-2001. After Richmond went to the A-10, the two schools played once a season from 2001-11. Thursday marked was the first time both were in the A-10, the first of two games in a home-and-home series. Richmond won in overtime 86-74 after making a seven-point comeback in the last 40 seconds, finished off by a Darien Brothers 3-pointer with 1.5 seconds remaining. Richmond was playing without second-leading scorer Derrick Williams. VCU hosts Richmond on March 6. This should be the conference's marquee rivalry series to promote. Butler and VCU only play once this season -- March 2 -- and unless the league is ready to commit to the two schools playing twice every season, it won't be a series, but rather the single biggest game of the conference season. "It's a great rivalry with two sellouts,'' Spiders coach Chris Mooney said late Thursday night. "The local media is focusing on the A-10 race only. The build up to the game was bigger than ever.''

2. Duke suffered an embarrassing 27-point loss to Miami Wednesday night as the top-ranked team. The Blue Devils were "bad in all facets,'' according to associate head coach Chris Collins. "We couldn't score, which then affected our defense. We missed layups and open 3s. We've got to be much sharper on both ends.'' The Blue Devils are still missing Ryan Kelly, who is now on crutches with a foot injury. Duke still has a daunting schedule, with two games each against Maryland (the first one at home Saturday) and North Carolina, return games against both NC State and Miami and games at Florida State and Virginia, both tough stops. Mason Plumlee's offensive execution has also dipped, shooting 35 percent or below in three of the past five games. Obviously, if Seth Curry goes 0-for-10 as he did against the 'Canes, the Blue Devils are likely not going to win.

3. Midway through the season, there are two players in two conferences who are on track to be league player of the year but weren't projected as such in the preseason. Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk, who was a perfect 9-for-9 for 26 points (8-of-8 at the line) in Thursday's victory over BYU, is the clear favorite to win the West Coast Conference player of the year. Olynyk is averaging 18 points and 6.8 rebounds a game. Meanwhile, Ole Miss' Marshall Henderson, who scored 28 points in a win over Tennessee on Thursday, is averaging 18.9 points a game and may be the leader in the clubhouse for SEC player of the year, as the Rebels are in a tussle with Florida for the SEC regular-season title.
1. Ole Miss desperately needs to get out of the Diamond Head Classic this weekend in Honolulu with two quality wins. Rebels coach Andy Kennedy said he tried to schedule up but wasn't able to, and didn't get a quality game in the SEC/Big East Challenge with Rutgers on the slate. The Rebels have a real shot to pick up resume victories with games against San Diego State in a potential semifinal and then Miami or Arizona if the favorites hold in a third game. San Diego State, Arizona and Miami have all made their mark so far; the Rebels need to get on a similar stage. This is their chance. They will have opportunities in the SEC, but the Rebels need momentum heading into conference play. This has the potential to be one of the better semifinal days of any pre-conference tournament.

2. The Big East is expected to update the remaining schools about television negotiations after the first of the year. The Big East has a football contract for 2013, but not a basketball contract. The membership -- save Notre Dame -- is set for next season in basketball. Louisville and Rutgers can't get out before 2014 since the Big Ten isn't taking Maryland out of the ACC until then. The seven Catholic schools can't form a new league that quickly. Notre Dame could pay its way to the ACC early. The new members coming in are Memphis, Temple, Houston, SMU and Central Florida in all sports, Boise State and San Diego State for football. So, is there any way the Big East could offer up a one-year deal to one of the networks for next basketball season, since it doesn't know about membership for 2014-15 or 2015-16 yet? A few league sources said nothing would surprise them because they aren't sure how they'll get a long-term deal at this juncture without knowing the membership.

3. There is a reason Duke assistants Chris Collins and Steve Wojciechowski can be so selective in going after head-coaching jobs: They are at a program that consistently is challenging for the national title. Duke's additions of Jabari Parker and Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood should put the Blue Devils in the discussion again next season. The NBA draft could be the weakest ever -- meaning some players could leave school out early who shouldn't really consider it for themselves. But if Kentucky keeps a core group of players with the top recruiting class, the 2013-14 season could see a traditional power tussle for the title. Collins withdrew from the Illinois State search and Wojciechowski pulled himself out of the Dayton search two seasons ago. The Duke connection will open doors -- but the Blue Devils' continuous haul means there is no reason to flee.
1. The Kentucky-Indiana series contract is over and the two sides are discussing renewing. But the two schools are at a major impasse. Indiana coach Tom Crean said Friday that he wants to play the series as a home-and-home. Kentucky coach John Calpari said Friday that he wants it to be a neutral-site game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis with tickets split down the middle. The series was last played at a neutral site in 2005 (prior to meeting in the Sweet 16 in Atlanta). “We can do it in Louisville, Lucas Oil, both teams benefit," Calipari said. Crean rebutted saying, "It's got to be a two-way street and taking it off campus isn’t anything that people here are excited about or behind."

2. If Illinois State moves past Duke associate head coach Chris Collins then one of the leading candidates for the coaching job will be Vanderbilt assistant coach Dan Muller. Gonzaga assistant Ray Gicacoletti will be in the mix as well as would Indiana assistant coach Steve McClain. Vandy coach Kevin Stallings is a former head coach at Illinois State. Muller had a high-level run as a player with the Redbirds and is going all out for this gig -- as well he should.

3. The litany of names being tossed around for Virginia Tech to replace Seth Greenberg continues. But a number of coaches -- NC State associate head coach Bobby Lutz, Loyola (Md.) Jimmy Patsos, Murray State’s Steve Prohm -- haven’t had an interview with Hokies athletic director Jim Weaver as of Sunday. Wofford’s Mike Young and former Virginia Tech assistant and current Clemson assistant James Johnson as well as Davidson’s Bob McKillop have also been bandied about as possible candidates.

3-point shot: Rivers given green light

February, 10, 2012
1. If Duke needed any indication of who the go-to guy was on the team then the Blue Devils got the answer Wednesday night at North Carolina. There was some question whether or not it was Austin Rivers. Well, associate head coach Chris Collins confirmed that there is no more hesitation. If the Blue Devils need a late-game bucket then there will no longer be any hesitation -- Rivers has the green light.

2. NC State coach Mark Gottfried landed three McDonald’s All-Americans in his first full season recruiting for the Wolfpack. The announcements were made Thursday night with point guard Tyler Lewis (Oak Hill Academy, Va.), shooting guard Rodney Purvis (Upper Room Christian Academy, N.C.), and small forward T.J. Warren (Brewster Academy, N.H.) all making the squad. Gottfried said Thursday night he was excited and proud of nabbing three. He added he’d like a fourth. There are five undecided players on the list.

3. Baylor coach Scott Drew said he’s hoping the Bears will learn from being punched in the mouth by Kansas at home. He said the Bears are upset by the performance. He is rationalizing the Bears, saying they don’t have a bad loss this season. But they need to be better prepared when facing similar teams in the NCAA tournament. The Bears could end up getting swept by Kansas and Missouri if the Tigers beat the Bears in Columbia Saturday.
It's frustrating enough when your star freshman, in the midst of a potential player-of-the-year-type season, gets injured. It's even more frustrating when that injury is so out of left field that it defies diagnosis or understanding. That's where Duke is with Kyrie Irving. Weeks after Duke's win over Butler, when Irving injured his toe performing an otherwise nondescript baseline cut, Duke still doesn't have a go-to explanation for what Irving's injury is, how bad it might be, and when its star freshman might be back. The closest thing is this interview with Duke associate head coach Chris Collins, who spoke with the Fayetteville Observer's Dan Wiederer today. Warning: lengthy blockquote ahead:
“It’s a combination of things,” Collins said. “There’s a ligament and some bone in there that have been damaged. And from what we’ve seen, it’s a very unique injury. It’s a form of turf toe but it’s a little more severe than that. It’s been hard to explain in layman’s terms. But because it’s in the ball of his foot, that’s a really dicey area. That’s where you do all your cutting and your jumping. And that’s where you do all of your pushing off from. That’s what’s made this all the more delicate. I don’t know that the injury has an exact label. If it has a name, I don’t know what it is. But it’s something that we need to make sure gets healed correctly before Kyrie even thinks about playing. Because otherwise he could have more problems down the road.” So what’s the best-case scenario for Irving? “If we can avoid surgery, that’s the best-case scenario,” Collins said. “But what that means as far as a timetable for his return is hard to say. It’s such a delicate thing and it’s not an injury that’s very common and that we’ve seen before. It’s not like where if you break your foot, you can say ‘OK, we know in six-to-eight weeks, he’ll be back.’ This is truly a unique case where you have to go by feel. And that’s made it hard to say, ‘Hey, if all goes perfectly, he’s back in a month or six weeks.’ We just don’t know. That’s why we’re always talking about having the toe reevaluated. Every week we’re checking it out, seeing what the progress is. And the main thing right now is that we’re on a course that’s non-surgical. And as long as we see good progression, we’ll stay with that.”

In other words: No one knows how long Irving will be out. No one knows exactly what to call his injury. (I'm going to with "super-evil turf toe" until someone suggests something better.) No one knows whether he'll need surgery or not. Basically, no one knows.

Help us, Save Kyrie's Toe. You're our only hope.