College Basketball Nation: Craig Robinson

Few words in the English language are more confused than "unique." Most of the time, the word is used to mean slightly different or unusual.

In fact, unique means one of a kind. If something is unique, it is unlike anything else in the world. How many things are actually unique? Why do we use the word so commonly?

What we're trying to say is that it feels good to have a chance to use the word appropriately.

In a sport full of patterned trajectories and templated tenures, Craig Robinson's six-year run at Oregon State -- which ended Monday -- was, quite literally, unique. It's right there in the first line of his biography: brother-in-law of President Barack Obama. In the summer of 2008, at the Democratic National Convention, Robinson introduced his sister and future first lady Michelle Obama. He told his own story in his speech. Robinson had been miserable as an investment banker, and his sister encouraged him to rediscover his first love: teaching and coaching.

"And today I'm proud to be the coach of the Oregon State men's basketball team," Robinson continued. "Go Beavs!"

How many coaches get that kind of introduction?

It was a time for unbridled optimism. Robinson's White House ties would usher in a new era of Oregon State basketball. Recruits would flock to Corvallis, Oregon, to play for the president's brother-in-law.

[+] EnlargeCraig Robinson, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama
AP Photo/Eugene TannerThe first lady and president were in attendance for Oregon State's game against Akron at the Diamond Head Classic on Dec. 22, 2013, in Honolulu. Former Oregon State coach Craig Robinson is Michelle Obama's brother.
In the meantime, his first season was a legitimate coaching success. Robinson inherited a team that went 0-18 in the Pac-12 and 6-25 overall in 2007-08. A year later, the Beavers were 18-18 with a 7-11 conference record. Their adjusted efficiency ranking jumped from No. 264 to No. 97. It was a major turnaround, a vindication of Robinson's coaching talent. Just two seasons at Brown (with a 30-28 record) left some wondering if the presidential bump was perhaps the only reason Robinson was hired. His first season quelled those doubts.

And then the Beavers just never got better. They won more than 18 games just once between 2009 and 2014 (going 21-15 in 2011-12). Forget the NCAA tournament; Robinson never took a team to the NIT. That big efficiency boost we just mentioned? Oregon State's metric climbed above 97 only once in the rest of his tenure (No. 94 in 2013). His teams' average KenPom rank: 121.7.

In 2012, Robinson made his second appearance at a national convention. He spoke alongside President Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng -- another of the family introduction/reminder speeches aimed at humanizing politicians. Robinson had more basketball jokes this time. He introduced himself as "Michelle Obama's big brother, father of four and head coach of Oregon State University's men's basketball team" and quickly added: "Any 7-footers out there, give me a call."

"I'm proud of her work to give our children a healthier start in life," Robinson said later, praising the first lady's nutritional initiatives. "And let's face it, Maya: I could use the recruits."

It was a good laugh line, but it wasn't accurate. In 2009, Oregon State had signed Roberto Nelson, the No. 17-ranked shooting guard. In 2010, four-star forward Devon Collier became the second ESPN 100 addition of Robinson's tenure. In 2012, Jared Cunningham became Oregon State's first draft pick in 14 seasons. The 2012 class was deeper and bigger than it appears in retrospect.

When Oregon State fans grew frustrated -- as did notable interested observers, such as SI's George Dohrmann (whose book, "Play Their Hearts Out," tracked Nelson's development from a young age) -- it was not because the Beavers lacked talent. Nelson and Collier both were still in the fold in 2013-14. One Pac-12 coach told ESPN's Jeff Goodman the Beavers had the third-most talent in the league last fall.

The Beavers just never improved. Whatever individual strides players made, the collective would always seem to fall short. In 2013-14, as Nelson and Collier formed a legitimately interesting group on offense, the Beavers suddenly played the worst defense of Robinson's tenure. (Oregon State allowed 1.10 points per trip in conference play. To be clear, that is not good.) It was strange. After years of offensive criticism, Robinson seemed to have finally put a potential tournament team together and the defense promptly crumbled.

[+] EnlargeCraig Robinson
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsRoberto Nelson averaged 20.7 points per game as a senior this past season for Oregon State.
On March 28, Oregon State athletic director Bob De Carolis issued a letter to fans and boosters touting Robinson's accomplishments and asking for patience and support. He had met with Robinson and made a somewhat reasonable case: "Oregon State has been .500 or better four times since 1991 and he has coached his teams to three of those seasons. … Oregon State has won eight conference games three times since 1993, of which he has had two of those seasons. … Oregon State had four wins against top-50 and six against top-100 NCAA basketball programs this past season, including wins over two teams that advanced to the Sweet 16." The letter had a lot of those bullet points. But the best one was the first:

"He is the fourth-winningest coach in Oregon State history with 94 victories and trails only Hall of Famers Slats Gill, Ralph Miller and Bob Hager," De Carolis wrote.

The gist of De Carolis' point was fair: Oregon State hasn't been good at basketball for a long time, and under Robinson, they were better than the average. When you're touting your coach's status as the fourth-winningest coach in the history of the program and he has 94 total wins at the school, you have a problem with your program.

Robinson's 94 wins were accompanied by 105 losses. Five weeks after the letter, Eric Moreland had declared early for the NBA draft, Hallice Cooke decided to transfer, and Challe Barton chose to stay overseas instead of returning to the program this fall -- all in addition to the losses of leading scorers Nelson, Collier and Angus Brandt. So supportive a few weeks ago, De Carolis swallowed Robinson's $4 million buyout Monday.

And so ended Robinson's run at Oregon State. It began with a speech at the Democratic National Convention and continued through three-fourths of his brother-in-law's presidency. It started with one of the most impressive one-season coaching jobs of the past decade and ended with a mass exodus. It took place at a program with little history of success; the boosters eventually had enough anyway.

How's that for one of a kind?
If an indefinite suspension from competition happens when there are no games, does it really happen at all?

That is the philosophical question (I know, but it's late July, give me a break here) that popped to mind Tuesday afternoon, when Oregon State announced indefinite suspensions of forwards Devon Collier and Eric Moreland for an undisclosed violation of team rules. The short statement from Oregon State coach Craig Robinson arrived via email:
"Senior forward Devon Collier and junior forward Eric Moreland are suspended indefinitely from competition for violation of team rules. They will be allowed to participate with the team in summer workouts and strength/conditioning activities while attending summer school classes."

Which obviously leads to the question: If Collier and Moreland can still attend classes and participate in individual workouts, and they have their suspensions lifted before the start of the 2013-14 season in November -- three months-plus is a long time to be suspended, after all -- were they ever really suspended in the first place? Does that punishment have teeth? Is the public announcement prohibitive enough?

The answers: I don't know! The violation of team rules obviously wasn't disclosed, and Oregon State's only addendum to its announcement statement read as follows: "Oregon State officials will have no further comment at this time." There's no telling what Collier and Moreland did, or what kind of punishment such things usually entails. (And where college kids and minor team violations are concerned, not knowing is usually OK by me.)

That said, if either does end up missing games for Oregon State -- provided those games go beyond the time-tested-coach-approved approach of suspending players for early-season cupcakes -- the impact will be immediately noticeable. Collier is one of the best talents of the Robinson era. Moreland is a 6-foot-10 force on the glass, particularly on the defensive boards, where he pulled down a whopping 27.5 percent of available defensive rebounds last season, fifth-best in all of college basketball. Indeed, Moreland might be the biggest concern -- he still has two years of eligibility left at Oregon State, but this is already the second time this year he's been suspended "indefinitely" for running afoul of Robinson's expectations.

Chances are, if Collier and Moreland are not in so much trouble as to be totally removed from summertime activities (or outright dismissed from the team), they will be back before Oregon State's schedule gets too hairy. But if they miss more time -- or if these issues, whatever they are, pop up again -- it could be a major blow in an absolutely pivotal year for Robinson's program.

Conference Power Rankings: Pac-12

March, 8, 2013
Does anyone want to win the Pac-12? The regular-season championship trophy has been dangling in front of the Oregon Ducks, UCLA Bruins and Cal Golden Bears all week, but no one has stepped up and grabbed it.

Cal was manhandled by Stanford -- at home, no less -- on Tuesday. UCLA suffered one of the biggest upsets of the conference season by falling at last-place Washington State on Wednesday. Oregon had a chance to clinch at least a share of the title by beating Colorado on Thursday. Instead, the Ducks were blown out in Boulder.


Name another league where the teams at the bottom are outplaying the teams at the top at the end of the season. The Pac-12 tournament can't get here fast enough.

Here is the final edition of the Pac-12 power rankings. With most of the top teams losing their most recent games, these rankings are based on the entire conference season.

1a. Oregon. Despite the tail-kicking the Ducks received at Colorado on Thursday, it's impossible not to be impressed with the job Dana Altman has done with this squad. Oregon -- which starts two freshmen in its backcourt -- can clinch at least a share of the league title by winning at Utah on Saturday. A Ducks victory and a UCLA loss (at Washington the same day) will give Oregon the title outright.

1b. UCLA. The Bruins have come a long way since losing to Cal Poly early in the season and, for that, Ben Howland deserves credit. Howland's detractors, however, received some extra ammunition Wednesday when UCLA lost to last-place Washington State. Performing that poorly in a game with such high stakes -- UCLA would own a share of the league title already if it had won -- is inexcusable.

1c. Cal. The Golden Bears' regular season is complete. Mike Montgomery's team finished league play 12-6 and can only get a share of the title if both UCLA and Oregon lose Saturday. Much like its counterparts, Cal wilted in a high-stakes game Tuesday when it fell to Stanford 83-70 at home. The Cardinal became the first team in 10 games to reach the 70-point plateau against Cal.

1d. Colorado. With six wins in their past eight games, the Buffaloes are the Pac-12's hottest team. Tad Boyle's squad swept its season series with Oregon and is 4-2 against Top-25 teams. Thursday's 76-53 victory came without the services of Andre Roberson, the nation's leading rebounder, who missed the game with a viral illness. Colorado will close the regular season hosting Oregon State on Saturday.

5. Arizona. The preseason pick to win the league, the Wildcats have been the Pac 12's biggest disappointment. Sean Miller's squad is just 1-5 against the top four teams in the conference. Arizona's highly touted freshmen have been slow to develop, and the Wildcats lack a true point guard.

6. Washington. After a month-long lull in which they lost seven of eight games, the Huskies are getting hot at just the right time. Lorenzo Romar's squad has won four of its past five, with the most impressive victory a 65-57 decision over USC on Wednesday. Washington, which gets 17.1 points per game from C.J. Wilcox, has a chance to spoil UCLA's Pac-12 title hopes Saturday.

7. USC. The biggest news surrounding the Trojans this week has revolved around their head-coaching vacancy. UTEP's Tim Floyd and Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins both have spoken with school officials about the position. Meanwhile, interim coach Bob Cantu continues to do a solid job. USC will finish Pac-12 play 10-8 if it can win at Washington State on Saturday. That's something no one envisioned after head coach Kevin O'Neill was fired in January.

8. Stanford. The Cardinal completed the regular season with an 18-13 overall record and a 9-9 mark in Pac-12 play. Unless it wins the conference tournament, Stanford will miss the NCAA tournament for the fifth consecutive year. That has to be disheartening to Cardinal fans, who had high hopes after winning last season's NIT.

9. Arizona State. The Sun Devils' 20 wins are twice as many as they had all of last season, but they've struggled in recent weeks. A painful overtime loss at UCLA was followed by a one-point setback at USC. Arizona State will have had an entire week off when it takes the court for Saturday's regular-season finale at Arizona.

10. Utah. The Utes ended a four-game losing streak by topping Oregon State on Thursday in Salt Lake City. Utah's four Pac-12 wins are one more than last season's total. The Utes will try to spoil Oregon's conference title hopes Saturday. Oregon beat Utah 73-64 on Feb. 9 in Eugene.

11. Washington State. The Cougars, who have been the victim of bad breaks and bad luck all season, finally tasted success Wednesday by defeating UCLA 73-61 in Pullman. Brock Motum had 20 points and 11 rebounds and Royce Woolridge added 19 points. The victory came despite the absence of second- and third-leading scorers DaVonte Lacy and Mike Ladd, both of whom have knee injuries. Coach Ken Bone said Lacy is out for the season.

12. Oregon State. It has been a nightmare of a season for the Beavers, who have now lost five consecutive games. Coach Craig Robinson appears to be safe for another year, but this team has too much talent to only have three victories in a league that, despite its parity, lacks elite teams.

Conference Power Rankings: Pac-12

January, 18, 2013
Fans of the Pac-12 should plan to be in front of their televisions Saturday for a pair of games featuring four of the league's top five teams. Arizona State hosts Arizona at 2:30 ET. Ninety minutes later, Oregon and UCLA tip off in Westwood. The results of those contests should have a big effect on the conference power rankings. As of now, here's how things stand.

1. Arizona. The No. 7 Wildcats bounced back nicely from their loss at Oregon on Jan. 10 by defeating Oregon State two days later in Corvallis. Sean Miller's squad hasn't played since, which is probably a good thing as it prepares for another tough road test against upstart Arizona State on Saturday. Point guard Mark Lyons is averaging 18.3 points in his past four games.

2. UCLA. The Bruins picked up their 10th consecutive victory Thursday in a 10-point win over Oregon State. UCLA, which hasn't lost since Dec. 1, is getting 8.9 rebounds per game from Kyle Anderson and 18.2 points per game from Shabazz Muhammad, both of whom are freshmen. Oregon will be UCLA's toughest Pac-12 opponent to date.

3. Oregon. E.J. Singler did a little bit of everything to help keep the Ducks undefeated Thursday night. He had 14 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds in a 76-74 victory at USC. Freshman guard Damyean Dotson also had 14 points for Oregon, which could seize control of the Pac-12 race by beating UCLA on Saturday.

4. Washington. Now that everyone is healthy, Lorenzo Romar's squad looks like a completely different team from the one we saw early in the season. The Huskies beat Colorado by 10 points at home Wednesday and should get another W this weekend against last-place Utah. C.J. Wilcox is averaging 26 points in his past two games and 19.4 on the season.

5. Arizona State. The Sun Devils are a good basketball team -- but no one knows how good. Their nonconference schedule was weak and they couldn't beat Oregon in their only marquee Pac-12 game to date. That's why Saturday's tilt with Arizona in Tempe is so pivotal. A victory could enhance Arizona State's national image and do wonders for its resume come Selection Sunday.

6. Colorado. I'm shocked that the Buffaloes are 1-4 in league play. There is too much talent on Colorado's roster for that kind of a mark. Granted, the schedule hasn't been all that kind. The Buffs opened league play on the road against Arizona and Arizona State and also have lost at Washington, which is never an easy place to play. There's no reason they shouldn't win their next four games (against Washington State, Stanford, Cal and Utah).

7. Cal. The Golden Bears haven't played since last weekend's 67-54 win against Washington State. So they should be well-rested for Saturday's road game against rival Stanford. Allen Crabbe is averaging 20.1 points for Mike Montgomery's squad, which plays its next three games away from home.

8. Stanford. The only conference win for the Cardinal thus far came against Washington State on Jan. 9. They performed admirably in a 65-60 loss to league-unbeaten Washington three days later and are now preparing for Saturday's showdown against Cal. Dwight Powell averages 14.8 points and 7.5 rebounds.

9. USC. Even though I think it's ridiculous to fire a coach in the middle of the season, the Trojans certainly looked re-energized Thursday with a different coach calling the shots from the bench. Longtime USC assistant Bob Cantu was named interim coach after Kevin O'Neill's dismissal Monday. His team showed a ton of fight before bowing to Oregon 76-74.

10. Oregon State. Things are getting ugly for Beavers coach Craig Robinson, whose team fell to 0-4 in the Pac-12 following Thursday's loss at UCLA. If Oregon State doesn't bounce back with a win at USC on Saturday, Robinson's job security will no doubt come into question. Improvements have been made in the program, but unfortunately it's not showing up on the scoreboard.

11. Washington State. The Cougars picked up their first conference win Wednesday against Utah, but they could really turn some heads by beating Colorado on Saturday. A victory certainly isn't out of the question. The Buffaloes are struggling, and Washington State boasts one of the better home courts in the Pac-12.

12. Utah. The Utes' first three Pac-12 losses came by a combined eight points -- but their last two defeats both have come by double digits. Is Utah regressing? Things won't get any easier Saturday when it plays at red-hot Washington, which has yet to lose a conference game.
More observations from Saturday’s evening slate:

  1. Welcome to the SEC title conversation, Ole Miss: Andy Kennedy’s program was an enigma as SEC play began. The Rebels’ numbers have been impressive (83.7 points per game, top 40 in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive and defensive efficiency ratings) all season. But their nonconference strength of schedule was so mediocre (242nd, per’s RPI) that it was difficult to know if those stats were valid indicators of their potential. Losses to Middle Tennessee State and Indiana State only complicated the assessment process. But Saturday’s 64-49 home victory over No. 10 Missouri was a statement victory for the program. The Rebels are legit. Yes, Laurence Bowers’ absence (knee injury) affected the Tigers, but they lost because Ole Miss’ defense pressured them into costly mistakes (19 turnovers, 2-for-18 from beyond the arc and a season-low 49 points). And they couldn’t stop Murphy Holloway (22 points, 8 rebounds, 4 steals and a block). Ole Miss is officially an SEC contender.
  2. Colorado State overcomes 18-point halftime deficit in overtime thriller: I know No. 16 San Diego State’s 79-72 overtime victory over Colorado State says a lot about its standing in the Mountain West. It’s tough to argue that the Aztecs aren’t the best team in this deep league. They have one of the best defenses in the country (22nd in Pomeroy’s ratings). Plus, Jamaal Franklin leads SDSU’s talented and versatile offense. But I loved this game because of the heart that the Rams showcased. Colorado State was down 41-23 at halftime in this matchup. Colton Iverson (18 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks), however, helped his team close the gap in the second half. He sent this one into overtime with a putback in the final seconds. CSU’s surge was more evidence of the depth in the MWC. And I actually thought this was the game of the day. So much action. Such an amazing comeback.
  3. [+] EnlargeChase Tapley
    Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsChase Tapley scored 12 of his 19 in overtime as San Diego State beat back Colorado State's charge.
  4. Arizona bounces back: I’m not saying this would have changed the outcome, but I’m disappointed that Oregon State’s Eric Moreland (10.8 ppg, 11.1 rpg and 2.7 bpg) did not participate due to a suspension. But I still give the No. 4 Wildcats credit for their 80-70 win in Corvallis, two days after they’d suffered their first loss of the year at Oregon on Thursday. Arizona was not flawless (16 turnovers), but it was too good (47.5 percent from the field) for Craig Robinson’s program, an average Pac-12 team at best. Mark Lyons (16 points) helped the Wildcats put together a performance that should help them put the Oregon loss behind them. Next up: Arizona State and then UCLA, two of the Pac-12's top teams.
  5. Temple wins, but Atlantic 10 still confusing: Before suffering a 64-54 loss at Temple, Saint Louis had won nine consecutive games. The Billikens were rolling entering the matchup, but Temple was aggressive in this crucial victory. Khalif Wyatt (24 points) led an Owls squad that shot 47.9 percent from the floor. Temple, however, lost to Xavier in its A-10 opener. And Saint Louis defeated UMass. So there’s still some confusion about the hierarchy in the Atlantic 10. I think Virginia Commonwealth and Butler are the two best teams in the conference, but what’s the order from there? I believe there are multiple teams in the league that could compete for the league title (VCU, Butler, Temple, Saint Louis, Saint Joseph’s). At this point, though, the sample size is too small to establish a true pecking order. The Owls certainly proved that they’re one of the best teams in the league with the win over the Billikens.
Other notes:

  • Leonard Washington (16 points, 13 rebounds) helped Wyoming rebound from its first loss of the season with a 59-48 victory at Nevada. The Cowboys were coming off a 63-61 loss to Boise State by way of a buzzer-beating 3-pointer on Wednesday.
  • I feel for Buffalo. The Bulls were down 54-33 to Miami (Ohio) before they launched a 24-2 run to take a 57-56 lead, but Allen Roberts’ free throws in the final seconds gave the Redhawks the 58-57 win. Heartbreaking for Buffalo.
  • Need more proof that the Mountain West is legit? Air Force nearly upset No. 24 UNLV in a 76-71 overtime loss in Las Vegas. This league is potent top to bottom.

Ten observations from 2012's final Saturday

December, 29, 2012
Tyler Haws AP Photo/Rick BowmerBYU's Tyler Haws had a Jimmer-esque 42 points in a win against Virginia Tech.

Here are a few things that caught my attention while watching games on Saturday:

1. Saturday’s top performance was turned in by BYU’s Tyler Haws, who did his best Jimmer Fredette impersonation by scoring 42 points in the Cougars’ 97-71 victory over Virginia Tech in Salt Lake City. Haws had 29 points in the first half, when he went 9-of-13 from the field and connected on six of eight 3-point attempts. BYU’s defense also deserves praise for holding Hokies guard Erick Green to 12 points on 4-of-17 shooting. Green entered the game averaging 25.4 points for a Virginia Tech squad (9-4) which has fizzled after a 7-0 start that included a victory against Oklahoma State.

2. I don’t understand the people who say Duke has hit its ceiling and that the Blue Devils aren’t going to get any better. Um, why not? Rasheed Sulaimon is a freshman who has played 12 college basketball games. Sophomore Quinn Cook, who saw limited action last season, is seven weeks deep into his first season as the Blue Devils’ point guard. Why would anyone think those players wouldn’t improve as the season progresses? With Cook and Sulaimon trending upward and with Mason Plumlee increasing his lead in the national player of the year race -- he had 22 points, 13 boards and 5 assists in Saturday’s 90-77 win over Santa Clara -- I think Duke will continue to get better. And that’s scary.

[+] EnlargeLouisville's Russ Smith
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesLouisville's Russ Smith had 21 points, 7 rebounds and 3 assists against rival Kentucky on Saturday.
3. I’m sure most people would agree with me, so this may not be a very bold statement, but if the season ended today, I’d vote Louisville’s Russ Smith as a first-team All-American. And I wouldn’t hesitate. Smith had 21 points, 7 rebounds and 3 steals in Saturday’s 80-77 victory over Kentucky and was especially huge down the stretch. If Smith continues to perform at a high level -- and there’s no reason to believe he won’t -- I think Louisville will be the team to beat in March and April. Chane Behanan is playing like a beast, Gorgui Dieng will be back in rhythm within a week or two, Wayne Blackshear will continue to improve and, defensively, the Cardinals will be as good as any team around. Throw in a Hall of Fame coach on the sideline and one of America’s best floor leaders (Peyton Siva) at point guard and it’s hard to be anything but optimistic about Louisville’s future.

4. Kentucky showed some encouraging signs in Saturday’s loss, mainly at the point guard spot, where Ryan Harrow finished with 17 points on 8-of-15 shooting. He did not commit a turnover in 39 minutes. But he also had just three assists. Even when Harrow is playing well, it’s clear that this UK team doesn’t have much of a shot to repeat as NCAA champions. Even winning an SEC title will be a challenge. The Wildcats don’t have a true scorer in the post, they lack an elite level point guard, have zero depth in the backcourt and don’t have a leader. That doesn’t mean this team can’t be very, very good. I just don’t expect to see Kentucky in Atlanta come March. Enjoy it while you can, Big Blue haters. The Cats won’t be down for long.

5. Nice win for North Carolina against UNLV, but this Tar Heels team still looks soft to me, both physically and mentally. Maybe I'm still having trouble shaking the memories of that Texas loss when the Longhorns made UNC -- particularly its guards -- look foolish.

6. Part of me wants to be excited about Maryland, but good gosh, has anyone looked at its schedule? The Terrapins have won 11 straight since a season-opening loss to Kentucky, but their most impressive victory is either against George Mason or Northwestern, which is the only school from a "power six" conference that Mark Turgeon’s squad has faced. Maryland blew out Delaware State 79-50 Saturday and will now turn its attention to a highly anticipated face off against IUPUI on New Year’s Day.

7. Oregon State pulled off one of the biggest choke jobs of the season Saturday when it blew a 19-point lead at home in a 67-66 overtime loss to Towson. Marcus Damas won it with an 18-foot jumper with eight-tenths of a second remaining. Georgetown transfer Jerrelle Benimon had 20 points and 21 rebounds (the sport's first 20-20 of the season) for Towson, which improved to 5-8. Pat Skerry’s Tigers have made significant strides after going 1-31 a year ago. Oregon State, meanwhile, fell to 9-3 and saw its five-game winning streak end.

8. As bad as the Towson loss was for OSU coach Craig Robinson, who entered the season on the hot seat, it was even more damaging for the Pac-12, whose reputation was in shambles following a 2011-12 campaign so embarrassing that its regular-season champion (Washington) didn’t even get an NCAA tournament bid. As if the Beavers’ meltdown wasn’t bad enough, the conference took another hit Saturday when Cal lost to depleted Harvard. At home. Arizona and UCLA may be better but, overall, this is still a very bad league. Sorry if that stings, but it’s the truth. If the Pac-12 was good, then Cal and Oregon State wouldn’t lose home games to Harvard and Towson, Arizona State wouldn’t get blown out by DePaul, Washington wouldn't lose to Albany and USC wouldn’t lose to UC-Irvine. Utah wouldn’t lose to Cal State Northridge and ... well, you get the picture.

9. On the flip side, the Horizon League had a solid showing Saturday, as Loyola ended DePaul's seven-game win streak and Valparaiso handed Isaiah Canaan and Murray State an extremely rare home loss with a 66-64 victory. Ryan Broekhoff had 18 points for the Crusaders and Jordan Coleman added 10. Valpo outrebounded Murray State 38-25 and forced 17 turnovers.

10. Trey Burke had 22 points, 11 assists and only one turnover in Michigan’s 88-73 victory over Central Michigan. Nearly two months into the season, Burke is my choice as the nation’s top point guard. That could certainly change, of course. Michael Carter-Williams (Syracuse), Phil Pressey (Missouri), Canaan (Murray State), Pierre Jackson (Baylor), Peyton Siva (Louisville) and Matthew Dellavedova (Saint Mary’s) are all having great seasons, but Burke has been the most consistent and well-rounded thus far.

Conference Power Rankings: Pac-12

December, 14, 2012
The Pac-12 has a chance to pick up signature wins Saturday, when Arizona takes on Florida at the McKale Center and Cal hosts Creighton. Otherwise the upcoming weekend is rather humdrum. Here are the latest rankings.

1. Arizona: The No. 8 Wildcats survived their first true test of the season by defeating Clemson on the road, but the Tigers aren’t anywhere close to as good as No. 5 Florida, which defeated its first seven opponents by an average of 25.3 points.

2. Oregon: Much like the downtrodden Big 12, identifying the second-best squad in this conference is tough. Dana Altman’s team gets the nod this week simply because the Ducks are the only school (other than Arizona) that hasn’t suffered an embarrassing loss. Oregon’s only setback came against Cincinnati. Oh, and the Ducks beat UNLV, something Cal couldn’t do.

3. Colorado: OK, so the Buffaloes aren’t as good as we thought. But there’s no way they’re as bad as the team that lost by 36 points to Kansas last weekend. Things just snowballed on them. That can happen at Allen Fieldhouse. I still say this team finishes no worse than fourth in the Pac-12.

4. Cal: The Golden Bears’ performance in a one-point loss to UNLV was actually pretty impressive. This is by no means a great Cal team, but as long as Allen Crabbe keeps playing well, this squad will be able to compete with anyone in the league.

5. Oregon State: Craig Robinson’s team is set to begin a five-game home stretch against a bundle of mediocre opponents. Don’t be surprised if the Beavers enter conference play Jan. 6 against Oregon with an 11-2 record and loads of confidence.

6. UCLA: The Bruins didn’t play great in Saturday’s 65-63 victory over Texas at Houston's Reliant Stadium. But give them credit for showing toughness down the stretch and battling back for a victory. Maybe that was a momentum boost for this team. Shabazz Muhammad will be more effective once he loses 5-10 pounds.

7. Stanford: Chasson Randle and Dwight Powell combined to average 28.9 points for the Cardinal. We’ll know a lot more about Johnny Dawkins’ team after a week that includes road games at NC State and Northwestern.

8. Washington: The Huskies aren’t as talented as they’ve been in the past, but it’s not as if the roster is completely bare. Aziz N'Diaye, Abdul Gaddy, C.J. Wilcox and Scott Suggs are all veterans. And Washington boasts an incredible home-court advantage.

9. Washington State: Two of the Cougars’ four losses (against Gonzaga and Texas A&M) have been in the closing seconds. The return of DaVonte Lacy from a knee injury has given Washington State a huge boost.

10. Utah: The Utes are arguably the most improved team in the Pac-12. They crushed the Boise State team that beat Creighton by 13 points, and Utah lost to BYU by only three points in Provo. On Tuesday, the Utes will try to avenge an earlier loss at SMU when the Mustangs visit Salt Lake City.

11. Arizona State: The Sun Devils fell from No. 6 to No. 11 this week after getting annihilated at home by DePaul, one of the worst teams in the Big East. The game wasn’t nearly as close as the 78-61 score suggests. Even with Arizona State’s 8-2 record, that stomping will be difficult to forget.

12. USC: I don’t believe the Trojans are truly the worst team in the league, but they’ve yet to do anything to deserve a higher ranking. I’m all for playing a tough schedule, but Kevin O’Neill might have overdone it. USC’s past five losses were against Marquette, San Diego State, Nebraska, New Mexico and Minnesota.

Conference Power Rankings: Pac-12

November, 30, 2012
Ranking the Pac-12 is far from the unenviable task it was last season, when the league was filled with mediocre teams that drew minimal interest both locally and nationally. It might be too early to label the current Pac-12 as "strong," but almost every team has made marked improvements, which should make for an entertaining season -- and definitely one worth following. Here's how the conference looks after three weeks.

1. Arizona. Even without an attention-grabbing victory, putting the Wildcats in the top slot was an easy decision -- mainly because UCLA is floundering. Mark Lyons and Solomon Hill each average 14 points, and freshmen forwards Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley are grabbing a collective 13.8 rebounds.

2. Cal. The Golden Bears are 6-0, but we'll find out a lot more about Mike Montgomery's squad in the coming weeks. Cal plays at Wisconsin on Sunday before hosting UNLV (Dec. 9) and Creighton (Dec. 15). Allen Crabbe (22 ppg) and Justin Cobbs (20) have been huge on the offensive end.

3. Colorado. The undefeated Buffaloes may have been a notch higher if they didn't need double overtime to defeat Texas Southern on Tuesday. Forwards Andre Roberson and Josh Scott generate the most headlines, but guards Askia Booker (16.8 ppg) and Spencer Dinwiddie (14.8) lead the team in scoring.

4. Oregon. The Ducks' win over then-No. 18 UNLV was one of the top two victories for the Pac-12 this season, with Colorado’s upset of Baylor being the other. Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi got on track in Thursday’s win over Texas-San Antonio. His line: 20 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 blocks, 5 steals.

5. Stanford. Last season’s NIT champion went 1-2 at the Battle 4 Atlantis, but there were still plenty of reasons to be encouraged. Setbacks against Missouri and Minnesota -- both of whom are ranked -- came by single digits. Guard Chasson Randle averages a team-high 15.4 points but shoots just 35.6 percent from the field.

6. UCLA. Two Bruins players (Tyler Lamb and Josh Smith) left the team during the past week. The departures may actually help the chemistry on a squad that lost to Cal Poly on Sunday before bouncing back with a convincing win over Cal State Northridge on Wednesday. Freshmen Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson combined for 29 points.

7. Arizona State. Sun Devils coach Herb Sendek is known for his slow-paced, low-scoring offenses. But this season Arizona State is pushing the ball thanks to the addition of freshman point guard Jahii Carson, who leads the team in scoring (19 ppg) and assists (5.5). As a team, the Sun Devils are averaging 77.2 points and own a nice win over Arkansas.

8. Oregon State. Could this be the year the Beavers make the NCAA tournament? Craig Robinson’s squad boasts quality wins over Purdue and New Mexico State, and it came within three points of Alabama. Ahmad Starks is averaging 14.6 points -- but only 7.3 in his past three games. Oregon State has a huge opportunity to prove itself Friday, when it plays Kansas in Kansas City.

9. USC. The Trojans’ roster is filled with transfers, so it's understandable that the cohesion just isn't there yet. Still, USC's two most recent losses (to Marquette and San Diego State) came by an average of seven points, so it's not as if Kevin O'Neill's squad isn't competitive. This could look like a completely different team in a month.

10. Washington. Last season’s regular-season champion was decimated when two players (Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross) left school early for the NBA draft and showed it in a home loss to Albany. Forward Aziz N'Diaye is averaging a double-double with 11.3 points and 10.5 rebounds. The fact Washington, coming off a quality win over Saint Louis, is No. 10 in these rankings speaks to the competitiveness of the Pac-12.

11. Washington State. The Cougars' season was basically over the day Ken Bone kicked point guard Reggie Moore off the team. Washington State didn't have a replacement. Kansas transfer Royce Woolridge is trying his hardest, but he's averaging just 6.9 points while shooting 35 percent from the field. He should be a role player, not a starter. Bone, though, doesn't have any choice.

12. Utah. The Utes are better than last season, but they're still considered the worst team in the league along with Washington State. Utah lost to Larry Brown's SMU squad 62-55 in Dallas on Wednesday. Dallin Bachynski, a 7-footer from Calgary, averages 11.5 points (second on the team) and 9.0 rebounds (first).
1. Cincinnati has received almost zero preseason buzz and yet Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said he may have his quickest, deepest and one of his most athletic teams since he arrived. The Bearcats will find out if they are a contender or a pretender with this weekend's tournament in Las Vegas with UNLV, Oregon and Iowa State. This is a golden opportunity for Cincinnati to prove itself. Cronin said the Bearcats still need to get more production out of his five spot but he's optimistic that Cincinnati is going to be a player in the national scene here soon.

2. If there is anyone to feel sorry for among the possible alignment moves it is the schedule makers in the conferences. They spend countless hours working on plans for conference schedules only to possibly have the entire format discarded. It happened in the Big East. It may happen to the ACC, to the Big East again, and possibly the Big Ten. There could also be a domino effect in other leagues too.

3. Oregon State suffered a tough blow when Angus Brandt tore an ACL during the Beavers' win over Purdue Friday in New York at the 2K Sports Classic. Brandt had been the Beavers most versatile big man who could be a power player in the post, a stretch four, and probably one of the Beavers' best passers. Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said the Beavers will lose some toughness with Brandt's departure but it does open up more opportunities for some freshmen to get quality minutes.

2K Sports Classic primer

November, 15, 2012
The four-team field of the 2K Sports Classic isn’t populated with superstars. Alabama, Oregon State, Villanova and Purdue aren’t expected to compete for the championships of their respective conferences -- if they reach their ceilings, they might find themselves on the bubble on Selection Sunday. Although there’s limited star power in this tournament, the parity could add to the competition. With so many potential bubble teams in the field, a 2K Sports Classic title could be a separating factor for the selection committee in four months.

The basics: Nov. 15-16 at Madison Square Garden in New York

The set matchups: Alabama vs. Oregon State, 7 p.m. ET; Villanova vs. Purdue, 9:30 p.m. (Both games on ESPN2)

[+] EnlargeTrevor Lacey
Kelly Lambert/US PresswireGuard Trevor Lacey has averaged 19 points in two games for the 2K Sports Classic favorite.
The favorite: Last season, Alabama reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. But JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell, who averaged more than 27 points combined, are gone. Still, Anthony Grant has a team that can compete for a slot in the NCAA tournament. Trevor Lacey, Rodney Cooper, Andrew Steele and Trevor Releford comprise the field’s most talented core. They also have experience that some of the other participants lack. Those features should propel Alabama to a pair of victories and the tournament title.


Trevor Lacey, Alabama -- The 6-foot-3 guard scored 15 points in Bama’s season-opening victory over South Dakota State. He dropped 23 on West Alabama. Grant needed a new playmaker following the departures of Green and Mitchell. And Lacey looks like the player who will fill that role for the Tide in 2012-13.

Ronnie Johnson, Purdue -- Matt Painter uses three Johnsons (Terone, Ronnie and Anthony) in his rotation. And they’re all significant. Freshman Ronnie Johnson (the younger brother of junior Terone; Anthony Johnson is no relation) is the new starting point guard for this young Boilermakers squad. And he has been impressive in his debut. After two games, he’s averaging 10.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists.

Ryan Arcidiacono, Villanova -- The freshman guard has averaged 18.0 points and 5.0 assists through two games, both wins, for Villanova. Arcidiacono, ranked 46th on ESPN Recruiting Nation’s list of the top 100 prospects in the 2012 class, steps into a key role in the backcourt just months after talented guards Maalik Wayns and Dominic Cheek left the program to turn pro. It’s early, but Arcidiacono’s start has been a promising one.

Ahmad Starks, Oregon State -- Craig Robinson’s program lost its best player when Jared Cunningham left school early. But Starks could be the catalyst Robinson needs to produce one of the Pac-12’s best offensive units again. Starks scored 33 points in a win over New Mexico State, and he recorded 18 points in a season-opening victory over Niagara.

Devonta Pollard, Alabama -- Pollard was the gem of Grant’s 2012 recruiting class (28th in Recruiting Nation’s top 100). The 6-7 forward has had his moments early. This tournament -- and the venue -- could bring out the best in Pollard. He received a flurry of high praise during the recruitment process. Expectations are high, even though he has struggled early.


Can Alabama get back to the NCAA tournament?

This tournament will be a good barometer for Grant’s program. Alabama has the talent to win it -- and really, it should. If it doesn’t secure the tournament championship, then any doubts about the Crimson Tide's potential to return to the NCAA tourney will be validated.

How will Oregon State survive without Jared Cunningham?

Cunningham was the 24th pick in the 2012 NBA draft. Losing a first-round pick would hurt any program. But even with Cunningham, Oregon State finished 7-11 in the Pac-12. The Beavers have regrouped and rebuilt. So any early success would give the program a confidence boost.

Which team took the biggest offseason hit?

Every team in this field shares a similar burden: They all lost a significant player(s) from last season’s squad. Villanova (Wayns and Cheek), Alabama (Mitchell and Green), Purdue (Robbie Hummel) and Oregon State (Cunningham) enter 2012-13 without their stars from a year ago. Within that group, the Boilermakers will have the most difficult time replacing the production and leadership of Hummel. But they’ve all been forced to overcome personnel hits.

Is Villanova underrated?

Nova is coming off a 5-13 finish in the Big East. And they lost their two best players in the offseason. But the early production from Arcidiacono suggests that the Wildcats could outperform preseason projections that placed them at the bottom of the league.

Can Purdue compete in the Big Ten?

The Boilermakers are in that second tier of teams in the Big Ten. It’s a mixed bag -- Northwestern, Illinois, Purdue, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa -- that features a multitude of possibilities. With so much depth, a young Boilers squad will have its hands full in league play. And that’s why its nonconference slate is so important. Painter’s youngsters need to prove to themselves that they can compete against high-level opponents.


Semifinals: Alabama over Oregon State; Villanova over Purdue
Championship game: Alabama over Villanova
College basketball is a multibillion-dollar sport. With so much money at stake -- along with the prestige and exposure that comes with consistent success -- there’s always pressure on coaches to win.

The following list doesn’t necessarily include coaches who are on the “hot seat.” Only the athletic directors and insiders privy to the true statuses of these coaches know what’s necessary for each to maintain his current position. From the outside, however, they all appear to be coaches who need to win. Now.

Another lukewarm season might not cost them their jobs. But it certainly won’t help their respective causes.

Here’s my list of 10 coaches who need to win now:

  1. [+] EnlargeSmith
    Bruce Thorson/US PresswireTubby Smith has yet to lead Minnesota to an NCAA tournament victory in five seasons on the job.
    Tubby Smith (Minnesota) -- Smith has reached the NCAA tournament twice in five seasons since he left Kentucky to take the Minnesota gig in 2007. But he hasn’t won a game in the Big Dance during his time with the Gophers. The extension he signed in the offseason will mean little if the Gophers miss the NCAA tournament again. New athletic director Norwood Teague came from Virginia Commonwealth, where Shaka Smart helped that program attain national relevancy. Teague expects the same in Minneapolis. So the pressure continues to rise for Smith, who’s endured multiple off-court incidents during his term. Proof that he’s seeking public support: Smith now allows media in the locker room after games, a first in his tenure.
  2. Ben Howland (UCLA) -- Accomplishments in college basketball are quickly forgotten. That’s why Howland’s back-to-back-to-back run to the Final Four from 2006 to 2008 seems like an ancient feat. Howland’s recent years have been plagued by personnel issues and underachievement. But there’s a strong buzz surrounding his 2012 recruiting class. Howland, once again, has a roster than can make a run in March, assuming Shabazz Muhammad is cleared by the NCAA. The flip side of the hoopla is that UCLA’s fan base will likely bemoan anything less. So the Bruins must reach their potential, it seems, to keep Howland’s seat cool.
  3. Bill Carmody (Northwestern) -- Northwestern is not a football school or a basketball school. It’s a school school, one that places a great emphasis on its broad academic imprint. But there is discontent with the men’s basketball team’s inability to reach the NCAA tournament. It has never happened. The Wildcats have come close in the past three years -- the most fruitful stretch in the program’s history -- but those seasons all ended without a bid. The swell of disappointment has grown with each close call. Athletic director Jim Phillips reportedly considered a change but ultimately gave Carmody, who is entering his 13th season, a vote of confidence after another possible berth slipped away last season. He might not receive the same support in a similar scenario this season.
  4. Travis Ford (Oklahoma State) -- In his first two seasons, Ford led the Cowboys to the NCAA tournament. But the program hasn’t met that bar since 2010. Last year, Ford had an NBA prospect (Le'Bryan Nash) and multiple high-level athletes but still struggled in the Big 12 due to a subpar defense (the Cowboys' 70.8 points per game allowed was the second-highest tally in the league). Oklahoma State continues to invest in basketball. Its latest project, a multimillion-dollar upgrade of the program’s locker room, illustrated its commitment to the sport. But it’s equally interested in winning. And Ford has missed the mark in recent years. He had a young team a year ago, but this season’s group is so talented -- enter Marcus Smart -- that youth won’t be a valid excuse again.
  5. Herb Sendek (Arizona State) -- Few programs endured Arizona State’s offseason shift. Sendek added assistants Eric Musselman and Larry Greer, two men who’ve coached in the NBA, to his staff after finishing with a 10-21 record in 2011-12. Sendek also lost top scorer Trent Lockett (13.0 ppg), who transferred to Marquette to be closer to an ailing mother in Minnesota. The good news: Talented point guard Jahii Carson is eligible. But Carson's presence and the additions to his staff won’t guarantee additional years for Sendek, who was the Pac-12’s coach of the year in 2010. He has to find a way to climb out of the league’s basement in 2012-13.
  6. Craig Robinson (Oregon State) -- President Barack Obama’s brother-in-law has gradually upgraded the talent in Corvallis in his first four years. His best player last year, Jared Cunningham, was a first-round pick in the 2012 NBA draft. But Robinson is still trying to prove that the Beavers are on the rise after finishing seven games under .500 in his first four years (64-71). Last year’s 21-win season was both promising and disappointing. Oregon State had its chances but ultimately finished with a 7-11 mark in Pac-12 play. The loss of Cunningham was a tough one for the program. But its greatest problem last season -- a defense that was ranked 154th in defensive efficiency -- was a collective issue. It’s something Robinson must address in 2012-13.
  7. Kevin Ollie (Connecticut)/Chris Walker (Texas Tech) -- Both Ollie and Walker were placed in similarly uninspiring situations during the offseason. After Jim Calhoun retired, Ollie signed a one-year contract to coach a Huskies team that lost top talents Jeremy Lamb, Andre Drummond, Roscoe Smith and Alex Oriakhi and will not compete in the postseason due to a subpar Academic Progress Rate score. After former head coach Billy Gillispie’s messy offseason exit, Walker inherited a Texas Tech squad that earned one Big 12 victory last season (1-17). Neither Ollie nor Walker is promised anything beyond this season. And their circumstances will limit their abilities to turn their “temporary” tags into permanent ones.
  8. [+] EnlargeJeff Bzdelik
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJeff Bzdelik enters his third year at Wake Forest with just five total ACC victories to his credit.
    Jeff Bzdelik (Wake Forest) -- From 2001 to 2005, the Demon Deacons reached the NCAA tournament. They also secured back-to-back trips in 2009 and 2010. But Bzdelik’s first two seasons were rocky. Under his watch, Wake Forest achieved one ACC victory in 2010-11 and four last year. That’s progress. But is it enough to satisfy a fan base that will watch the neighbors on Tobacco Road (North Carolina State, North Carolina and Duke) enter the season as potential national championship contenders? Bzdelik is on the right track, and Travis McKie and C.J. Harris should help the program move forward in his third season, too. Any movement in the other direction, however, will encourage more scrutiny of Bzdelik’s job status.
  9. Andy Kennedy (Ole Miss) -- Kennedy averaged more than 20 wins in his first six seasons, but his program’s name was never called on Selection Sunday. And close never suffices in college basketball. Kennedy’s legacy won’t be defined by his consistency as much it will be marked by the program’s ongoing NCAA tournament drought and his efforts to end it in 2012-13. That’s crucial for Kennedy, who might have a tough time convincing his superiors to keep him with another respectable finish that doesn’t involve a trip to the Big Dance.
  10. Ken Bone (Washington State) -- Bone’s program returns the Pac-12’s leading scorer, Brock Motum (18.0 ppg last season). But Motum’s presence only intensifies the expectations for the Cougars. Bone hasn’t led the team to the NCAA tournament since replacing Tony Bennett in 2009. The Cougars have been inconsistent. A suspect defense (141st in defensive efficiency last year) hasn’t helped. But this season’s Pac-12 is filled with unknowns. Washington State can rise in the standings if it’s tough on both ends of the floor. Another mediocre year sans an NCAA tournament berth, however, will not help Bone extend his time in Pullman.
1. Nike has special camouflage jerseys for the eight teams participating in the military-themed games on Nov. 9 just like it did last year for Michigan State and North Carolina in the Carrier Classic in San Diego. Michigan State's Draymond Green made an impressive gesture when he led the team to give their jerseys to the troops on the USS Carl Vinson. The camouflage jerseys were a big hit with the players. All eight schools participating in the games are Nike-sponsored schools: Michigan State-Connecticut in Ramstein Air Base in Germany; Syracuse-San Diego State in San Diego; Florida-Georgetown in Jacksonville; Ohio State-Marquette in Charleston, S.C.

2. Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said he has seen the potential for a breakout season from Roberto Nelson during the first two weeks of practice. The Beavers desperately need Nelson to live up to his hype and take over a leadership position after Jared Cunningham opted to leave for the NBA. Meanwhile, Robinson said Angus Brandt has been a surprise in practice with his scoring and rebounding ability. The Beavers have a few chances early in the season to prove if they are a contender or pretender in the Pac-12 by winning the 2K Sports Classic (vs. Alabama and Purdue/Villanova) before a game against Kansas in Kansas City.

3. Missouri may have the best chance to have the most impact of any team joining a new league. The Tigers certainly are being treated with the kind of respect given to a contender. The Tigers were picked third in the SEC with Phil Pressey tabbed as the preseason player of the year. That's a credit to Pressey, but also speaks volumes about the returning talent in the SEC. The league was gutted like no other by the NBA draft last June.

Craig Robinson recruits at DNC

September, 5, 2012
The Democratic National Convention -- the second of our two scripted election-year political gatherings -- is currently taking place in Charlotte, N.C. You may have heard about this once or twice this week. Oregon State head men's basketball coach Craig Robinson is the brother of First Lady Michelle Obama. You may have heard about this once or twice in the past few years.

These two facts came together once more Tuesday night, when Michelle Obama gave a rousing and well-delivered speech* on behalf of her husband's bid for re-election. Robinson was in the building, but his presence wasn't limited to frequent crowd-reaction shots during his sister's speech. As he did at the 2008 DNC, Robinson took the stage -- this time with President Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-ng -- to lobby on behalf of his sister's efforts to support military family initiatives and nutritional programs for American children. And he even snuck in a recruiting pitch:
"I’m Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama’s big brother, father of four and head coach of Oregon State University’s men’s basketball team. Any seven-footers out there, gimme a call! [...]

"[Michelle's] still the kind little sister she always was—now she’s just sticking up for those who stand up for us. And I’m proud of her work to give our children a healthier start in life. Let’s face it, Maya, I’m going to need the recruits!"

Obviously, those references to Robinson's profession were lighthearted and joking; he wasn't actually recruiting on the floor of the DNC. But four years ago, such nods didn't seem so trifling. There was a thought at the time -- back when candidate Obama was globally popular and untarnished by the rigors of the presidency -- that Robinson's family connections could genuinely serve as a recruiting tool. Come to Oregon State, be one phone call away from talking to President Obama. That may or may not be your personal cup of tea, but to 15-year-old recruits, it had to sound pretty cool.

Four years later, Robinson hasn't obviously leveraged that connection, and it's fair to wonder whether he'd even try. (Maybe he just doesn't want to go there. That would be admirable.) In any case, Robinson has won 18, 14, 10 and 21 games in each of his respective seasons at Oregon State, with nary an NCAA tournament bid to show for the marginal, if slow, improvement.

So, no, Robinson's national political visibility does not appear to be an asset to his basketball program. But recruiting is all about finding advantages at the margins, and lighthearted or no, every little bit helps.

*This being a sports concern, I won't make any of my political opinions overt. You don't care anyway. But I will say this: Michelle Obama's dress was pretty fabulous.

Arizona saves best for almost last

March, 10, 2012
LOS ANGELES -- After having come within two points of making the Final Four a year ago, Arizona wasn't going to allow its NCAA tournament hopes to fade away at halftime of the Pac-12 tournament semifinals on Friday at Staples Center.

So despite only hitting one field goal in the final 7:56 of the first half and going into halftime down seven points to No. 9-seeded Oregon State, Arizona knew that its tourney chances weren't remotely close to being done.

“Sometimes as a coach you have a feel that your guys have been through it before, and it's somewhat understated how many postseason games we played in a year ago,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said. “When you're at halftime and you're playing in these elimination games, it certainly helps to have a team of individual players that have done that and been there before.”

That experience was evident in the second half, as No. 4-seeded Arizona buckled down on defense, outscoring the Beavers by 18 points in the second half to roll to a 72-61 victory and a berth in the Pac-12 championship game on Saturday.

After allowing the Beavers (19-14) to shoot 50 percent in the first half, Arizona (23-10) locked down on defense, holding Oregon State to 27.3 percent shooting to turn a 34-27 disadvantage into another step toward its 26th NCAA tournament appearance in 27 seasons. But even though the entire 20 minutes was a clinic, Miller said he was especially impressed by the way his team played in the first four minutes of the second half.

[+] EnlargeJesse Perry, Kyle Fogg
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireJesse Perry, left, and Kyle Fogg combined for 27 points in the second half of Arizona's comeback.
“That four to eight minutes in the second half is some of the best basketball that we played this year,” Miller said. “It would have been easy to go in at halftime and say 'It just doesn't feel right,' but we did just the opposite.”

Seniors Kyle Fogg and Jesse Perry were key cogs in Arizona's second-half push, as Fogg scored 17 of his game-high 22 points in the second half while Perry scored 10 points and pulled down 7 rebounds after halftime, giving him a double-double of 16 points and 11 rebounds for the game.

“He made some big shots,” Miller said of Fogg. “It wasn't an easy 22. He made several plays when it counted the most -- made a lot of plays at the end of the [shot] clock. He's really been doing that, and he had a great game today.”

The entire Wildcats team had a great second half on defense, holding Oregon State to zero field goals and only one point for 6 minutes, 16 seconds, from the 17:48 mark to 11:32 of the second half. Oregon State's only point during that stretch came on a free throw by Jared Cunningham. Cunningham was a symbol of Oregon State's second-half frustration, scoring only 3 points on 1-of-8 shooting in the second half after going off for 11 in the first 20 minutes.

While Oregon State was scuffling, Arizona was making big shots. The biggest of Arizona's 20-3 run to open the second half might have come at the 16:21 mark, when senior guard Brendon Lavender drained a 3-pointer at the top of the key to tie the game at 36-36.

“When Brendon hit that shot, I could sense that we were ready to get it going,” Fogg said. “It seemed to take a little out of them too. It's tough playing three games in three days like they did and it started to catch up to them.”

Oregon State coach Craig Robinson admitted that the Beavers had lost their legs in the second half, as the combination of playing two intense games prior to Friday and the Beavers' frenetic style took its toll.

“I thought we simply ran out of gas,” Robinson said. “We played so hard and so fast for three days that we didn't have anything left in the tank after they made their run at us. With the way we play, I thought it took its toll.”

But Arizona had just as much to do with Oregon State's fatigue than any sort of lag the Beavers felt. Freshman guard Nick Johnson, who put Arizona up for good at 38-36 with 15:59 left on a driving layup, was one player who Miller lavishly praised.

“With Nick, it's not what shows up on the stat sheet,” Miller said. “It's just that he's a playmaker. And he made plays tonight.”

The Wildcats hope that Johnson, as well as the rest of the crew, continue to make plays in Saturday night's Pac-12 championship game and take any question about their tournament status out of the selection committee's hands.

As Washington waits, Beavers believe

March, 8, 2012
Oregon State had one of the Pac-12's best nonconference wins.

And it was over a middling, young Texas team in overtime in New Jersey.

But that sort of summed up the Pac-12. The league was light on nonconference wins and when its teams got into league play, beating each other up only enhanced the perception that the conference wasn’t worthy of elite status.

Well, heading into Friday night’s semifinals, Oregon State has the best win of the Pac-12 tournament too, knocking off top-seeded regular-season champ Washington 86-84 on Thursday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

[+] EnlargeJared Cunningham, Devon Collier
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireJared Cunningham and Devon Collier, right, have the chops to take Oregon State to the Pac-12 final.
“It’s my best win ever, as a coach or as a player when I was at Princeton,’’ Oregon State coach Craig Robinson said late Thursday night by phone. “This team is starting to believe that they’re as good as we thought they were. It’s really nice to see. This is a watershed moment for these guys. Those guys on Washington are really good.’’

The Beavers (19-13) move into the Pac-12 semifinals against Arizona. Oregon State isn’t on the bubble. Arizona is probably a reach, or at least third in line for a possible bid among Washington and Cal on the at-large candidacy list.

Washington, even with the Pac-12 regular-season title, must now sweat out Selection Sunday.

The Huskies’ nonconference resume has nothing to shout about. The worst home loss -- a blowout to South Dakota State -- might look better now that the Jackrabbits won the Summit League title. But that’s still a team from the Summit going into Seattle and cleaning house.

“I’m not in there in the committee,’’ UW coach Lorenzo Romar said during the postgame news conference. “I know we haven’t won as many games as we should have in nonconference as a league. I would think the Pac-12 champion would be able to find a place in the NCAA tournament. We certainly didn’t help ourselves, but I would think we’d be able to find ourselves in there.

“But I am not on the committee. The committee, they’re meeting, and we’re kind of at the mercy of their decision.’’

As for the Beavers, their defense has tightened up in the two Pac-12 tourney games so far, coming back to beat Washington State and Washington on consecutive nights.

The offense is more than capable of beating Arizona and advancing to the title game if Jared Cunningham, Devon Collier and Ahmad Starks make sound decisions.

“These guys are starting to trust each other,’’ Robinson said. “We were hoping that we could play well in the first game. The way we started to come out I thought we could win.’’

In their one meeting this season, Arizona beat Oregon State in overtime in Tucson. There was a minor scuffle at the end of the game. But there is too much on the line in this one to expect any carryover to Friday.

“I like the fact that we lost to them in overtime,’’ Robinson said. “That bodes well for us psychologically. I like our offense. We haven’t had trouble scoring in either game. But it will come down to whether or not we defend well.’’

Oregon State looked like it had floundered a few weeks ago, losing five in a row. But the Beavers then rallied to sweep a homestand with Utah and Colorado heading into the 8-9 game against the Cougars.

“That gave us some momentum,’’ Robinson said. “You sometimes see with veteran teams they’ll play well in a tournament, but we’re doing it with a bunch of freshmen and sophomores and it took them a little while to figure it all out.’’