College Basketball Nation: D'Angelo Harrison

PHILADELPHIA -- St. John’s is certainly one of the best 68 teams in the country, but it’ll have to do more to prove it.

The Red Storm could have practically punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament Saturday, but they came up just short against No. 9 Villanova, losing 57-54 in front of 17,124 at the Wells Fargo Center.

"I’m proud of our team’s ability in a hostile environment to continue punching and counterpunching for 40 minutes," St. John’s coach Steve Lavin said. "Disappointed that we weren’t able to come out with the win."

It was there for the taking despite St. John’s being without second-leading rebounder Orlando Sanchez, who missed the game after the birth of his daughter on Friday. The Red Storm were down one at intermission (28-27), never trailed by more than six in the second half and had the ball with 34 seconds remaining down 55-53.

[+] EnlargeD'Angelo Harrison, Tony Chennault, JayVaughn Pinkston
Howard Smith/USA TODAY SportsSt. John's squandered its opportunity to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee Saturday.
D'Angelo Harrison had a step on his defender near the top of the key but passed to an open Phil Greene in the paint, and Greene was whistled for traveling with 14.1 seconds left.

"I came off the screen, and he was wide open," Harrison said. "He pitched the ball back up to me and they called travel. We can’t control that."

St. John’s had another opportunity to tie the game after Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono made just one of two free throws, making it 56-53. But with 3.2 seconds on the clock and inbounding underneath the Villanova basket, Marc-Antoine Bourgault threw a pass to Harrison in the paint.

"We were trying to get a 3-pointer, but they had good coverage for the 3," Harrison said, "so I cut to the basket to try to get an and-1, but I couldn’t."

Harrison was fouled, sank the first free throw and missed the second on purpose, but Rysheed Jordan was charged with a lane violation. Villanova’s Josh Hart made one of two free throws with 1.5 ticks left, making it 57-54, and Jordan’s half-court heave was off the mark (and waved off by the referees anyway).

St. John’s shot just 19-for-59 in the game (32.2 percent) and just 1-for-10 in the final seven minutes, 59 seconds.

"We were getting stops. We were playing great defense," forward JaKarr Sampson said. "We just couldn’t make a shot. Sometimes, that happens."

Sampson had a double-double, with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Harrison scored a team-high 15 points but shot just 4-for-15 from the field. Jordan, playing his first college game in his hometown, added 13 points but shot just 6-for-15 and committed an uncharacteristic five turnovers.

"Rysheed was emblematic of our entire team," Lavin said. "We competed and gave ourselves an opportunity to win, but when you’re on the road in a tough environment, you have a razor-thin margin for error."

Center Chris Obekpa returned to the lineup ahead of schedule, just five days after suffering a sprain and bone bruise in his right ankle. Obekpa started, played 24 minutes and made his presence felt at the defensive end but finished with modest numbers -- one point, two rebounds and two blocked shots.

"He’s not 100 percent," Lavin said. "But with some more treatment and with some more rest, I think we can get Chris back close to 100 percent. And then, of course, Orlando will be back when his wife and child go home from the hospital, so we expect him to be back in the fold by tomorrow."

St. John’s (18-10, 8-7 Big East) had won six games in a row and nine of 10 -- and a three-point loss to Villanova (24-3, 12-2), on the road, is far from embarrassing.

But it is a missed opportunity. The Red Storm are now just 1-5 against ranked opponents and won’t face another one the rest of the regular season.

Their RPI ranking is pretty good (53 entering Saturday), and they entered ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi’s projected NCAA tournament bracket earlier this week. But they are surely back on the bubble after this loss.

"St. John’s is, without a doubt, a tournament team," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "Not because I say so. Not because of their record. They’re just good enough -- they’re gonna be good enough to win a lot of games."

But they better win at least two of their final three -- versus Xavier, DePaul and at Marquette -- and at least one game in the Big East tournament for good measure.

St. John’s has proven it can play with some of the best teams in the country, but it hasn’t proven it can beat them, with one exception.

The Red Storm belong in the Big Dance, but their fate is still to be determined.

Impressions: Big East media day

October, 16, 2013
10/16/13
3:45
PM ET

NEW YORK CITY -- Val Ackerman believes the Big East is still the Big East.

In her opening address during the league’s media day event at Chelsea Piers on Wednesday, the Big East commissioner told reporters that she expects the conference to possess the same strength that it had in the pre-realignment years.

Ackerman, the former president of the WNBA, turned into a boxing promoter while she hyped the league as it prepares for its new beginning.

[+] EnlargeVal Ackerman
AP Photo/Craig RuttleBig East commissioner Val Ackerman said the conference isn't looking to expand from 10 teams.
“We’re going to make this basketball conference a force,” she said.

This league is obviously different. A summer split with the previous version of the Big East resulted in seven former Big East squads linking up with Creighton, Xavier and Butler to form the new conference.

She acknowledged that the conference feels some pressure to prove that it’s still a power league in its inaugural year.

“There’s no doubt the eyes of the basketball world and the eyes of others in college sports are definitely on the Big East,” she said. “I think everybody in our league uses that as a source of motivation.”

There are, however, no immediate plans to expand. Ackerman said the conference will be “very selective” if it ever decides to add teams.

“Ten is a good number,” she said.

I think the Big East recognizes that it is not the same league, now that former powers Louisville, Syracuse, UConn, Pitt and Notre Dame are gone. But the new members certainly believe in the Big East’s ability to maintain a slot as one of college basketball's power conferences this season.

The overall success of league favorites Marquette, Georgetown and Creighton will certainly be pivotal in that aspiration.

Other impressions and notes:
  • Doug McDermott, a strong contender for national player of the year honors, said Creighton’s transition to the Big East was a major factor in his decision to come back for his senior season. “If it was the Missouri Valley, I don’t know if I would’ve come back,” he said. “This is just a new challenge.” That shows that McDermott still believes he has more to prove. He is not running from the new spotlight that he and his program are under now. He’s embracing it.
  • John Thompson III doesn’t seem too worried about the loss of standout Greg Whittington, and maybe he shouldn’t be. The team played without him for a chunk of the 2012-13 season when he was suspended midyear due to academic issues. Whittington could miss the entire 2013-14 season due to an ACL injury he suffered in June. “Greg played in, I think, one conference game last year and we won the conference,” Thompson said. “We have a group of guys that do not have to make the adjustment to playing without Greg.”
  • Villanova’s Jay Wright is one of multiple Big East coaches who have some concerns about the new handchecking rules. How do you play tough defense with the new rules that will be implemented this season? Coaches, although excited about the impact the rules could have on offense, aren’t completely sure. “That’s going to be interesting in the Big East because we’ve all taken pride in our defense,” he said. “And the three teams that are coming in are the same way. ... I think you’re going to see some ugly games early.”
  • When a teary-eyed Brad Stevens walked into their locker room, his former players were nervous. When he told them he was leaving, they were lost. But, Khyle Marshall said, players weren’t mad when Stevens announced that he was taking a job with the Boston Celtics. “Once he said the Boston Celtics, I was like, ‘I completely understand,'" Marshall said. Marshall and new coach Brandon Miller didn’t dwell on the past Wednesday. They’re ready to move forward. “I can only be like myself,” Miller said when asked about following Stevens.
  • St. John’s is the league’s most difficult team to project. Steve Lavin’s squad, which finished 17-16 last season, is arguably as talented and athletic as any team in the Big East. But it needs leaders to emerge. Lavin said D'Angelo Harrison, the team’s leading scorer who was suspended late last season, is staying on track to have a productive season. He said the talented junior underwent counseling to help him deal with some of his anger issues this offseason. “We sat down when he was dismissed and developed a road map where he could earn his way back the old-fashioned way,” Lavin said. “That checklist ... he’s taken care of.”
A once-promising St. John’s season may be over, five days before Selection Sunday.

The Red Storm were eliminated from the Big East tournament on the first full day of action Wednesday, losing their opening game to Villanova, 66-53.

St. John’s was in the NCAA tournament mix as late as the final week of February, but the Red Storm (16-15, 8-10) have lost five games in a row.

"Our goal is always to win the Big East championship and then win the tournament championship," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said. "But you look back, and there's a reason we were picked 12th in the league."

St. John's was actually picked to finish 10th in the conference's preseason poll. But the Red Storm, despite their youth, were tied for third in the conference at 6-3, after finishing off January with five straight wins.

[+] EnlargeSt. John's Steve Lavin
Debby Wong/USA TODAY SportsSt. John's has lost its first Big East tournament game two years in a row, but coach Steve Lavin remains "bold on the future."
The schedule got tougher after that, but the Red Storm were still on the NCAA bubble after beating South Florida on Feb. 20. Things unraveled from there.

The losing streak began with a 63-47 defeat against Pittsburgh, here at the Garden on Feb. 24. But the real turning point came five days later, when Lavin announced he was suspending leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison (17.8 ppg) for the rest of the season for conduct detrimental to the team.

St. John's was already offensively challenged -- one of the worst teams in Division I in 3-point field goals per game, and free throw percentage. Losing Harrison, the fourth-leading scorer in the entire conference, was a crippling blow.

The game against Villanova on Wednesday was typical of the team's play without Harrison. The Red Storm played hard, and were a pain in the neck on the defensive end. But they just didn't have enough firepower on the other end, shooting 35.6 percent from the field (21-for-59) and 2-for-11 from beyond the arc (18.2 percent).

Freshman forward Jakarr Sampson, the only other player on the team averaging in double figures, scored 13 points, but shot just 5-for-18. Sampson didn't get the same looks without Harrison drawing defenders' attention.

"I felt like I had a lot of heat on me," Sampson said.

"They're not as explosive with him [not] on the floor," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "That's a big loss."

St. John's hung tough for a while -- the game was tied at the half, and the Red Storm were still within five with less than seven minutes remaining -- but down the stretch, they just couldn't keep up.

Villanova, which leads Division I in free throw attempts and makes per game, shot 19-for-23 from the foul line. St. John's was just 9-for-14.

"I think the physicality allowed them to get into the bonus and to get to the foul line and convert from there," Lavin said.

The NCAA tournament is clearly out of the question now. Next question: Will St. John's even garner an invitation to the NIT?

After the Red Storm's overtime loss to Marquette last weekend to end the regular season, Lavin said he'd be surprised if they don't get an NIT bid. But a team on a five-game losing streak, and without its top player available, isn't very attractive.

St. John's could also receive an invitation to the lesser-known CBI or CIT. But those tournaments get even less respect than the NIT.

In the bigger picture, St. John's has now been eliminated in its first game of the Big East tournament for the second year in a row. Lavin was hired to return St. John's to prominence and make the Red Storm a perennial NCAA tournament participant. But after a surprising at-large bid in his first season, St. John's has missed the Big Dance the past two years.

Nevertheless, Lavin continues to express confidence in the program.

"I'm bold on the future," Lavin said, "and the fact the whole team is coming back, the group of people, the character, the work ethic, their talent, and we're moving in the right direction."

But Sampson could bolt for the NBA -- he didn't commit to coming back next season after receiving the Big East Rookie of the Year award earlier this week, saying he wanted to weigh his options. Harrison could return -- or he could opt to turn pro as well, or transfer to another school.

In truth, the future of St. John's basketball is very much up in the air, five days before Selection Sunday.

Only one thing's for sure -- the Red Storm won't be dancing this year.

NEW YORK -- A quick look at Villanova's 66-53 victory Wednesday night over St. John's in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden:

What it means: Villanova is headed to the Big East quarterfinals -- and the NCAA tournament. St. John's is headed to the NIT at best.

Villanova (20-12) might not have needed this win, but it should seal an at-large bid to the Big Dance. St. John's (16-15), which was an NCAA bubble team until late February, has now lost five games in a row and is 0-4 since the suspension of leading scorer D'Angelo Harrison.

The turning point: You can divide the first half in two. Villanova jumped out to an 18-6 lead on a JayVaughn Pinkston layup with 9:37 remaining. But St. John's outscored the Wildcats 18-6 the rest of the half, capped off by a Christian Jones lay-in with 32 seconds left. The game was tied at 24 at intermission.

The game remained tight early in the second half. St. John's was still within five, 50-45 with just under seven minutes remaining, after five straight points by Phil Greene. But Villanova responded with seven consecutive points to match its largest lead, 57-45, and put the game away from there. The Red Storm played well defensively, but they just couldn't match the Wildcats at the other end.

Star watch: Mouphtaou Yarou had a big game for Villanova with 18 points, shooting 9-for-10 from the field. Freshman point guard Ryan Arcidiacono scored 15 points but committed eight turnovers. Pinkston had 12 points and nine rebounds.

Greene had 16 points to lead St. John's. Jakarr Sampson, named the Big East Rookie of the Year on Tuesday, had 13 points and nine rebounds but shot just 5-for-18 from the field.

Number crunch: St. John's struggled in the shooting department without Harrison, yet again. The Red Storm were 21-for-59 from the field (35.6 percent), 2-for-11 from deep (18.2 percent) and 9-for-14 from the foul line (64.3 percent). They also uncharacteristically committed 17 turnovers.

What's next: Villanova will play No. 2 seed Louisville on Thursday at 7 p.m.

St. John's goes home and waits to see if it gets invited to the NIT, CBI or CIT.
Well, well, well. Apparently, a few teams want to go to the tournament after all.

OK, so of course everyone wants to play in the NCAA tournament. But watching the past week or so of college hoops, you could have been convinced otherwise. Why, it was just last Saturday that basically every SEC bubble team lost a bad game, while Arizona State, St. John's, Iowa State, Indiana State and Akron, just to name a few, suffered the kind of losses that can cost you a bid in the tournament.

The weekdays since haven't been much better. Virginia spent all week undoing the résumé boost earned with its victory over Duke. Kentucky lost at Georgia. Baylor flopped against Texas. It got so bad we had to begin considering the fringiest of the fringe -- Southern Miss, Iowa, Providence, Maryland -- even though it was almost physically painful to imagine most of those teams in the tournament.

And then, finally, mercifully, some of these teams started acting like they wanted to play meaningful basketball in March. Kentucky, Tennessee, Boise State and Baylor all got huge wins at home. Iowa State held on at West Virginia. Even Cincinnati, which had been quietly slipping toward the bubble in recent weeks, avoided a brutal loss to South Florida.

It wasn't all good news. Oklahoma lost at TCU. Arizona State fell flat at Arizona. Xavier, Providence and St. John's all missed chances to get somewhere near reality in this thing. There were, as there always are, a handful of head-scratchers -- how Louisiana Tech goes three months without losing once and then drops back-to-back games in the matter of two days is beyond this humble bubbleologist.

But the end effect is clear: The bubble is just a little more firm than it was at the start of the day, a little tougher to crack. Good things happen when players play like they actually care about making the tournament. Who knew?

WINNERS

Kentucky: The biggest bubble story of the day, and almost certainly the most impactful, Kentucky's win over Florida put the Wildcats back on the right side of the bubble in their final regular-season opportunity. Considering where Kentucky was after its loss at Georgia this week -- all self-recrimination and disbelief -- it was a bit remarkable to stand up at the last possible moment, once and for all.

I won't spend a whole lot of time here, because you can read my reaction from this afternoon here. Long story short: UK is no lock to make the tournament, and it still has to navigate a tangle of prospective bad losses in the SEC tournament, but right now, compared to much of the rest of the bubble, the Wildcats are closer to being in than not.

Baylor: I am not above making a tired and dumb bodysnatchers joke -- see pretty much anything I've tweeted about Keith Appling for the past three weeks -- but rare is the opportunity to do so in regards to a team that plays inexplicably well. Today, Baylor is that team.

I mean, how else do you explain the Bears not just beating Kansas in Waco, Texas, but blowing Kansas out? When in the past seven days we've seen a) Baylor lose at home to K-State on one of the most heartbreaking (and poorly executed) final seconds of the season and b) lose 79-70 at Texas? That team -- a team that was admittedly still playing hard but looking utterly lost in doing so -- turned around and beat the Jayhawks by 23 points in the penultimate game of the regular season. How does that happen?

Complete shock aside, the bad news for the Bears (sorry) is that they're just 2-10 against the RPI top 50, 5-10 against the top 100, and still have a prohibitively high RPI (No. 73 entering Saturday). As nice as Saturday's win was, and for as much as it helped the Bears, the damage they did in recent weeks isn't so easy to overcome in one fell swoop. They still need more -- and a first-round Big 12 tourney shot against Oklahoma State is an awfully good place to start.

Boise State: In case you're not up to speed on the Broncos -- and no, they don't play their home games on blue hardwood -- they established their potential tournament case all the way back on Nov. 28, when they shocked Creighton (then the No. 11 team in the country) on its home floor. (Eight days earlier, they had pushed Michigan State 74-70, and we all wondered what was wrong with the Spartans. Go figure.) Since then, they've trucked along in the Mountain West in almost exactly the fashion you'd expect: They've beaten some of the league's toughest teams (UNLV, Colorado State) at home and fallen to some of the league's lesser squads (Air Force isn't a bad loss; Nevada is) on the road. In other words, today's win over San Diego State wasn't exactly revolutionary; it was a realistic get, and the Broncos got it. The one thing really setting Jeff Elorriaga & Co. apart from the rest of the bubble dregs is their quality wins. Add one more.

Tennessee: What is it with Tennessee and late-season boosts? The Volunteers did this last season, too, when they turned a brutal first two months into a 10-6 SEC performance and a late desperate push to get into the NCAA tournament. It didn't happen then, but after Saturday's home win over Missouri -- a thank-you card addressed to Phil Pressey is currently in the mail - it looks very much like it's happening now.

I'm not saying that a home win over Missouri is this huge bubble landmark. It's at least a degree or four below a win over Florida. Missouri's only true road wins all season came at Mississippi State and South Carolina. Road warriors these Tigers are not, but combined with UT's other work -- eight wins in its past nine games, including a 30-point demolition of Kentucky and its own victory over Florida -- the résumé is now right in the middle of the bubble picture. Like Kentucky, or really any of these SEC teams, anything can happen going away. But for now, the news is good.

Iowa State: Of any of these bubble winners, Iowa State should be in the best shape. For one, the Cyclones are easily the best team in this group; even a cursory glance at their efficiency numbers (especially when contrasted with the rest of these teams) reveals one of the best offenses in the country and a top-35-ish team overall. I also happen to think the committee will go outside its nitty-gritty sheets and delve into Iowa State's two losses to Kansas, both of which came in overtime, the latter of which was ripped from them thanks to some truly diabolical officiating. Anyway, I wouldn't be able to say any of this had Iowa State lost at West Virginia on Saturday. It didn't, and so I can.

Ole Miss: The Rebels won by 14 at LSU. Were they in better position to start the day -- had they not lost to Mississippi State last week, perhaps -- I might have stuck them down in the "Survivors" category. As it is, they remain in the picture, but have a ton of work to do in the SEC tournament. One win won't get it done.

LOSERS

Arizona State: The Sun Devils are basically done. It's not just a loss at Arizona -- that is obviously forgivable, even if the Wildcats aren't nearly as good as we thought they'd be this season -- it's the four losses in a row (to Washington, UCLA and USC, the latter two of which were on the road, before today's loss at Arizona) as well as an RPI in the 90s, the 283rd-hardest schedule, and so on. Credit Herb Sendek and Jahii Carson for getting this program back in the mix in short order, but it's hard to see an at-large here.

La Salle: The Explorers aren't in bad shape, relatively speaking, and you can hardly fault any team for taking one on the chin at Saint Louis, which they did today. But La Salle has been sort of quietly sliding toward the bubble in the past couple of weeks, and losing 78-54 at this point in the season is hardly the best way to impress the committee. Definitely worth keeping an eye on right now.

Oklahoma: Oklahoma has been in great tournament shape for the majority of the past month -- the Sooners have been playing solid hoops, and their RPI and SOS figures are great -- but it nonetheless entered Saturday outside the comfort of lockdom. And then the Sooners lost to TCU. That probably isn't enough to put Oklahoma below a score of the teams you see here, but when you really dig in to its résumé, there's not much about it that screams "lock." A first-round loss to Iowa State next week could have the Sooners wavering by Selection Sunday.

Colorado: This week's Bubble Watch included a little homily on how the Buffaloes' résumé wasn't all that much different from UCLA's, but Colorado was frequently a No. 10 seed while the Bruins were most often placed on the No. 6 line. That was wrong, I wrote. Naturally, Colorado proceeded to lose at home to Oregon State. Like Oklahoma, the Buffaloes are still in better shape than, say, Baylor, but their regular-season finale was enough to introduce some serious questions going forward.

[+] EnlargeKerron Johnson
AP Photo/Wade PayneAfter forcing OT, Kerron Johnson won the OVC title and an NCAA bid for Belmont by hitting this shot.
Louisiana Tech: Before this week, La. Tech's last loss was at McNeese State all the way back on Dec. 12. This week, the Bulldogs lost two in a row, and whatever slim chance they had of getting an at-large look is now officially gone.

Minnesota: How do you follow up a win against Indiana? If you're Minnesota, you lose at Nebraska and Purdue. I don't really understand how that works, but I don't understand anything about this Gophers team. I don't think Tubby Smith does, either. The good news is Minnesota is still in much better shape than almost anyone on this list, thanks to its batch of top-50 wins and some pretty peerless computer numbers (RPI: 20; SOS: 2). But the Gophers did just finish the Big Ten season at 8-10, and what if they fall in the first round of the Big Ten tournament? You have to at least consider them to be on the bubble right now, right?

SURVIVORS

Alabama: The Crimson Tide scraped out a three-point home win over Georgia on Saturday. That is the definition of bubble survival: A loss probably would have knocked Anthony Grant's team totally out of the conversation. As it is, it's still a bit of a long shot -- the Tide were Joe Lunardi's last team among the first four out Saturday evening -- with absolutely zero good wins on its docket. Just a totally uninspiring résumé.

Southern Miss: Speaking of totally uninspiring résumés: the Golden Eagles, everyone! To be honest, it sort of baffles me that Southern Miss is even in the conversation; its best wins are at Denver and a sweep of East Carolina. But the Golden Eagles are hanging around the very fringes of the bubble, and Saturday's home victory over UCF preserved that ungainly status.

Iowa: If Iowa doesn't make the tournament -- and right now it looks very much like Iowa is not going to make the tournament -- Fran McCaffery will really only have himself to blame. The Hawkeyes' nonconference schedule was that of a team still in rebuilding mode, looking for some forgiving opponents and early-season wins. It didn't help that Northern Iowa wasn't as good as advertised, but still, the overall nonconference schedule rank of 308 looks like it is going to keep this .500 Big Ten team -- which would normally be a worthy distinction -- from serious bubble consideration, barring a big push in Chicago next week.

Cincinnati: What if Cincinnati had lost to South Florida on Saturday? That would have been the Bearcats' seventh loss in their past nine games, would have put them at 8-10 in Big East play and, worst of all, would have been a loss to South Florida, which has been just flat-out bad all season long. Fortunately, Cincinnati didn't lose to South Florida. Mick Cronin's team held on 61-53 and should be in solid shape moving forward.

Belmont: This sort-of-kind-of doesn't count, because Belmont won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament in thrilling fashion Saturday, and its Dance status is now of the automatic variety. But had they lost, it's entirely possible the Bruins would have missed the tournament altogether.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Xavier: Two weeks ago, despite the young Musketeers' growing pains, it was impossible to look at Xavier's schedule and not have your saliva glands start working a little overdrive. Chris Mack's kids would get VCU, Memphis, UMass and Saint Louis all at home, and then they'd finish the season with a trip to Butler. The Cintas Center is a difficult place to play; a 4-1 record was entirely believable, and could have been a season-changing stretch. Instead, Xavier went 2-3 -- it lost at Butler on Saturday 67-62 -- and its tournament credentials look about as so-so as they did back in mid-February. Alas.

Providence: An even bigger long shot than better-than-you-think brothers-in-arms Iowa at this point, at least Providence, which would close the season at Connecticut, had the best chance of notching an impressive road victory on the final weekend of the season. Instead, UConn held on 63-59. Keep an eye on the Friars going forward; like McCaffery at Iowa, Ed Cooley has them playing better basketball than anyone expected this early in his tenure. But a tournament bid will have to wait.

St. John's: After suspending D'Angelo Harrison, sitting Sir'Dominic Pointer for a one-game fighting suspension and losing three in a row, St. John's looked totally cooked coming in to the weekend, both on the bubble and on the court. But the Red Storm didn't roll over. Instead, they gave Marquette a genuine test, forcing guard Vander Blue to make a last-second running layup to win and secure Buzz Williams a share of the Big East title. It was an impressive showing by the Red Storm, albeit one that came up just short. No chance this team gets in the tournament now.
In addition to plenty of just-plain-great games -- Louisville's win at Syracuse, Marquette's big home win over Notre Dame, that amazing Duke-Miami thriller at Cameron Indoor Stadium -- Saturday was also filled with bubble action, from the start of the day to its finish.

That's typical, of course; this is the time of year when NCAA tournament at-large selection very rapidly shifts from the theoretical to the concrete. What isn't so typical is the level of carnage wrought on this Saturday, the sheer number of teams with bubble hopes that suffered losses -- some of them devastating.

How do I know Saturday was a bubble massacre? Your Tennessee Volunteers -- a new bubble entity this week after their victory over Florida -- managed to lose at Georgia (RPI: 142), 78-68, and, according to our own Joe Lunardi, moved into the bracket. Yeah. That happened.

That is one of the things worth remembering about the bubble, of course: It's all relative. We need to get to 68 teams somehow. And if everyone falls apart, maybe, in the end, no one does.

Here is your Saturday Bubble Watch update:

WINNERS

Creighton: For months, Creighton had no place in the bubble conversation. It was assumed, and not unfairly so, that the Bluejays and star forward Doug McDermott would rather effortlessly coast through Missouri Valley Conference play, maybe suffer an upset or two, and not have to worry much or at all about locking up an at-large bid in case Arch Madness proves to be exactly that.

And then things came apart. Creighton dropped a game at Drake. McDermott's scoring dried up in a hard fall at Indiana State, which was followed by a close home loss to Illinois State and a 61-54 upset at Northern Iowa. The Bluejays barely got past Evansville -- a fourth straight loss would have started a major panic -- and last Saturday's trip to Moraga, Calif., for a BracketBusters matchup with Saint Mary's didn't go so well, either. All of a sudden, Creighton, a lock in our Bubble Watch since the month-old first edition, was at semi-serious risk of missing the NCAA tournament.

Its fans can breathe easier now. McDermott's 15-of-18 shooting, 41-point masterpiece led the Bluejays to a 91-79 win over Wichita State -- another surefire tournament team in its own right -- Saturday afternoon. If there was any doubt in the selection committee's mind, having your All-American reclaim his status with a Bill Walton-esque shooting performance over the best competition your league has to offer should just about shore everything up. Finally.

Boise State: Boise State will be just as thrilled about the aforementioned Bluejays' big win -- all season, Boise State's best bubble credential has been its surprising late-November win at Creighton. That win looks much better now.

But Boise State should mostly thank itself, and by "itself," I mean Derrick Marks. Marks had a McDermott-like day: 38 points on 13 of 18 from the field with 5 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals. Most important is he did it in a 78-65 win over Colorado State, a top-20 RPI team and a very good one to boot. (It's worth making a distinction, as teams ranked in the top 20 in the RPI aren't always actually good, but CSU definitely is.) Marks put his team on his back, to steal a phrase from that awesome Marshawn Lynch YouTube video, and the combination of a win over Colorado State and Creighton's big win will put Boise back into the serious at-large conversation -- the fifth team from the nine-team Mountain West to deserve such talk.

Oklahoma: The Sooners snuck up on us this season. It's OK to admit it: No one really expected much in Lon Kruger's second year in Norman, and if there was any expectation at all, it was to keep getting better and maybe surprise a few people in an otherwise-down Big 12. But Kruger's group of unheralded, workmanlike guys has done much more than that. By now, the Sooners have all but locked up an NCAA tournament bid. Sure, sure: There was that loss at Texas earlier in the week, but Oklahoma's convincing win over bubble-stuck Iowa State on Saturday was huge, and the Sooners' computer numbers -- a No. 29 RPI, a No. 9-ranked SOS, a No. 28 nonconference schedule figure -- and big wins over Kansas and Oklahoma State make them impossible to ignore. They have West Virginia and TCU left. If they handle business, they're in.

Massachusetts: It is worth noting, of course, that even after beating Memphis at home this week, Xavier's RPI is still just No. 87. It is also worth noting that the Minutemen's only top-50 win came at La Salle, which, while a decent team, is nobody's idea of a season-defining power. But even after noting all that, we should also note that UMass won at Xavier on Saturday, something the touted Memphis Tigers were unable to do just a few days prior. That definitely counts for something. With a home game against Butler next on the docket, Derek Kellogg's team still has time to make some noise — or at least reverse the damage of last week's loss at St. Bonaventure.

Arkansas: So, what's a home win over Kentucky worth these days, anyway? It's a good question: The Wildcats beat Missouri in their own building just seven days ago, but that's their only top-50 win of the season, and it's safe to say the selection committee won't hold John Calipari's team in vaunted regard with injured forward Nerlens Noel out. So it's hard to know how much this victory can aid Arkansas' late push toward the bubble finish line. But I do know this: It can't hurt. On a day when so much of the rest of the bubble, particularly the SEC versions, seemed intent on imploding, a win over a fellow bubble team counts as a totally positive development. (A win at Missouri on Tuesday would be even better.)

California: Hey, remember when Cal was kind of bad? It happened this season, I swear it did -- it was just Dec. 29 when a depleted Harvard toppled the Bears in Berkeley, after all. You can be forgiven if you don't quite remember, because it hasn't been the case for weeks. On Saturday, Cal rattled off its seventh consecutive win, a 62-46 destruction of visiting Colorado. This stretch began with a win at Arizona and included a home victory over UCLA and a win at Oregon. With no bad losses weighing them down, I'm not sure how the Bears could miss out on the tournament now.

UCLA: The Bruins completed their season sweep of Arizona Saturday night at Pauley Pavilion. UCLA wasn't really on the bubble -- not like some of these other poor, desperate souls -- but even so, it's safe to say sweeping the Wildcats makes you a lock. This file is officially closed.

LOSERS

Kentucky, Tennessee, and — gulp — Ole Miss: Does anyone from the SEC actually want to go to the NCAA tournament? Is everybody already thinking about spring football? What on Earth is going on?

We talked about Kentucky in the Arkansas blurb; the Wildcats remain one of the more intriguing at-large cases for the committee to handle, but I'm not sure their status as a just-above-the-bubble squad was totally damaged by a loss at Arkansas. And Tennessee, as we mentioned in the intro, managed to lose at Georgia and still move into the bracket. Wait, what? Huh? How does that happen?

[+] EnlargeAndy Kennedy
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsAndy Kennedy has seen Ole Miss turn a 17-2 start into a 21-8 mark after Saturday's ugly loss.
The answer brings us to Ole Miss.

On Saturday, Ole Miss lost to Mississippi State. It's a little bit difficult to explain how bad this loss is without sounding a little bit mean to the Bulldogs, but I don't live in the South, so I don't have to couch my insults with the written equivalent of "Bless your heart": Mississippi State is horrible. Awful. The Bulldogs were riding a 13-game losing streak, to no real fault of theirs or their coach's, as -- thanks to injuries and being at the start of a rebuilding process -- Rick Ray has just seven scholarship players at his command this season. Mississippi State's RPI is No. 236. It began Saturday ranked No. 277 in the KenPom.com efficiency rankings, just one spot below mighty Samford. Many fans believe this to be not only the worst Mississippi State team, but the worst Southeastern Conference team of all time.

That team beat Ole Miss on March 2.

Not only is it a disaster for the Rebels, who have lost in recent weeks at Texas A&M and South Carolina and have turned a 17-2 start into a 21-8 mess, it's also a disaster for coach Andy Kennedy, who began the season on the proverbial hot seat and needed this Ole Miss team to be the redeemed group that got back to the NCAA tournament. It looks less likely than ever that is going to happen. And why? Mississippi State. It doesn't get much worse than that.

Arizona State: Speaking of stalled redemption songs, it's been hard to not root this season for the Sun Devils, who soaked up freshman point guard Jahii Carson's dynamic skill like a sponge en route to a very legitimate spot in the at-large conversation, a far cry from the depths of the let's-just-pretend-it-never-happened 2012 campaign. But Herb Sendek's team appears to be fading a bit late: It fell at home to Washington last Saturday, missed a close one at UCLA on Thursday, and suffered an absolutely brutal 57-56 loss at USC on Saturday. The Washington loss was easily the worst, but because USC began the season so poorly (before it fired coach Kevin O'Neill), a one-point loss looks worse for bubble purposes than it actually is (as USC has been playing really good basketball for about a month). Just tough breaks here.

St. John's: This week, the Red Storm suspended D'Angelo Harrison, one of its most gifted and frustrating players. Whether that departure can be blamed for Saturday's loss is questionable; what I do know is a loss at Providence for a team with an already very shaky bubble case is not a good thing. You probably know that, too. Failing two wins in its final two regular-season games -- at Notre Dame, versus Marquette, good luck -- Steve Lavin's team may well miss the tournament.

Iowa State: Poor Cyclones. Really. Sure, Saturday's 86-69 loss at Oklahoma was ugly on the score line, but a) Oklahoma's good, and b) can you really blame Iowa State? After what happened in Hilton Coliseum this week? Being on the receiving end of one of the worst calls of the season -- in a sport that feels ever more infected by awful officiating -- hurts. Not beating Kansas when you should following an emotionally intense performance. Seeing Fred Hoiberg's young child crying on the sideline hurts. Of course, no one in that locker room will be throwing a pity party, nor should they: Iowa State still has a very good chance of getting into the Dance. But the Wednesday home game against Oklahoma State looms large.

Indiana State: Ah, Sycamores. You thrilled us with your win over Miami at the Diamond Head Classic; you dazzled us with victories at Wichita State and against Creighton. Unfortunately, you've now lost five of your past six, including Saturday's loss at Evansville (RPI: 100) and defeats to Missouri State (RPI: 212), Bradley (RPI: 171) and Drake (RPI: 131). Failing a deep run in Arch Madness, the dream appears to be over.

Akron: Before Saturday's shocking loss at Buffalo, a 12-17 team with an RPI of 241, Akron's last loss came on Dec. 15. Hopefully the committee takes that into account, because this really is a good team. But the margin for error for mid-majors like Akron is always razor-thin. You can't lose random league games to bad opponents, and when you do, you should probably pick a team that isn't Buffalo. It'll be really interesting to see how this résumé will be viewed going forward.

SURVIVORS

Temple: Temple had just regained its footing. The Owls had a rough, wild February, wherein they played five consecutive one-point games in conference play, a stretch that included a home loss to Duquesne. But things were looking up: A win at UMass, a home non-one-point-win over La Salle, a double-digit win at Charlotte, and Thursday's solid home victory over Detroit all injected a little life into an at-large profile that included a big win over Syracuse, a nice win over Saint Louis, and not much else. And surely the Owls would take care of things at home against Rhode Island on Saturday, right? Wait … right?

Right. Phew. Temple held on for a 76-70 victory over a Rhode Island team that has played a lot of its Atlantic 10 foes really tight in the past two months; shaking the Rams off is no easy feat. (Just ask Saint Louis, which last lost when Rhody upset the Billikens in Saint Louis. True story.) That Temple was able to do so must have elicited a major sigh of relief from fans, and coach Fran Dunphy, and not necessarily in that order.

Cincinnati: It's hard to say Cincinnati would have been in bubble trouble with a home loss to Connecticut on Saturday, but our eyebrows would have been ever so slightly raised. It would have been Cincinnati's fourth straight loss, after all, albeit to three solid-to-great (UConn, Notre Dame, Georgetown) Big East teams. The Bearcats held on for a five-point win over Kevin Ollie's scrappy guys, and there's little reason to raise eyebrows now.

MISSED OPPORTUNITIES

Alabama: When you're a bubble team in the SEC -- oh god, here we go again -- you don't get many opportunities for marquee wins. Missouri is decent but not great, whether in the RPI or otherwise. Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Ole Miss don't come anywhere close. (Obviously.) Really, your only opportunity to drastically change the perception of your team or the trajectory of your season -- or both -- is to beat Florida. Florida's really good. If you can knock the Gators off, you deserve to be viewed differently. If you can do it at Florida? You should probably get into the NCAA tournament on sheer principle, which is why Alabama's 12-point loss in Gainesville on Saturday, while expected, is still a missed opportunity: Shockingly enough, the Crimson Tide had Florida well within striking distance as late as the final two minutes of regulation. That final score is a mirage; this game was close, and Alabama just couldn't quite get there when it counted.

Baylor: It's been easy to poke fun at Baylor this season. The Bears play a wacky zone defense. They've probably underachieved. Those uniforms. Etc. But I refuse to make fun of Baylor after Saturday's absolutely brutal last-second loss. It would be easier than ever. The Bears did inbound the ball out of bounds over the the full length of the court without touching it with one second left, and then allowed Rodney McGruder to get free and fire a game-winning 3-pointer within that one second on the ensuing baseline out-of-bounds play. That's a borderline-comical way to lose. But it's also incredibly brutal.

That is, of course, in part because Baylor desperately needed a big win to buttress its bubble case; the Bears are directly atop the bubble right now, and the biggest flaw in their résumé is their lack of marquee wins. The visit from Kansas State was a plum opportunity to knock off a really good team with a really good résumé, and Baylor was just that close.

"Ouch" doesn't even begin to describe it.

Conference Power Rankings: Big East

January, 11, 2013
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So this has been an interesting week. The top of the Big East is clear. It’s the rest that’s hard to figure out.

In a week’s worth of horrific losses or surprising wins (depending on your rooting interest), the middle is muddled, and there’s really only one question worth asking: Are the crazy scores the result of competition or mediocrity?

To be determined.

1. Louisville: The Cards can win when Russ Smith is ordinary and Chane Behanan is on the bench. Why? Defense. That’s what helped lift Louisville past Seton Hall. The Cardinals are home against South Florida and at UConn this week. The second could be a little dicey, especially if Behanan is still out.

2. Syracuse: The Orange can win ugly. We know that now. In back-to-back games, Syracuse couldn’t shoot -- first against South Florida and then against Providence -- but won anyway. A little more troublesome is how easily the Friars picked apart the Orange’s zone.

3. Notre Dame: The Irish are the perfect antidote for bereft football fans. They’ve won 12 in a row, and this week they showed they can play fast (scoring 93 against Seton Hall) and slow (just 66 in a win against Cincinnati) depending on what they need. It’s the beauty of a veteran team, which will host Connecticut and travel to St. John’s this week.

4. Marquette: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and most wouldn’t have beheld much from the Golden Eagles’ 49-48 win against Georgetown. But to Buzz Williams, it’s art. Marquette has quietly won four in a row.

5. Connecticut: Here’s where the muddied waters start. The Huskies had a nice, if not unexpected, win against DePaul. But at least they won, which is more than some of their brethren can say. Things get a little trickier this week with a visit to Notre Dame followed by a home game against Louisville.

6. Cincinnati: The Bearcats are making it hard to keep them in the top half of the standings, having lost three of their past four. The way to beat Cincinnati seems to be obvious -- slow the guards down. In the two league losses to St. John’s and Notre Dame, the Bearcats scored 52 and 60.

7. Villanova: The Wildcats probably don’t belong this high, but they have done what others have not -- won their first two league games, albeit against St. John’s and South Florida. We’ll see what Villanova is really about this weekend after it travels to Syracuse.

8. Pittsburgh: Yet another mystery team. The Panthers followed up an ugly loss to Rutgers with a dismantling of Georgetown. That makes no sense. Perhaps this weekend’s game against Marquette will offer some clarity.

9. Rutgers: Maybe Mike Rice’s suspension settled things down for the Scarlet Knights? I’m still not sold on this team, but you have to give the Scarlet Knights their due, as they beat Pittsburgh and St. John’s to improve to 2-1 in the league. We’ll see what happens against Cincinnati on Saturday.

10. Georgetown: The Princeton offense, with its possession control, has been known to slow offenses down. This, however, is the first time it’s actually ground a team to a halt. The Hoyas scored 48 and 45 in their past two games, torturing fans and baffling coach John Thompson III. The only reason Georgetown isn’t further down in these rankings is talent; there’s so much of it, you have to think things will get better.

11. St. John’s: The Red Storm are young, which is about the only way to explain how they can win at Cincinnati one night and lose a home game to Rutgers four days later. We’ll have to see which team shows up against Georgetown. The one thing you can count on this season -- D'Angelo Harrison. He’s been outstanding.

12. Seton Hall: Reality bites. The Pirates built themselves up a pretty snazzy record, 12-2, after beating DePaul in the Big East opener. Along come Notre Dame and Louisville and, well, here we are -- one 19-point loss and one 15-point loss.

13. DePaul: The Blue Demons just can’t get it done. They beat the bottom part of the league (winning against Providence) and get shellacked by the top (losing by 21 to Connecticut). They’ll get a desperate Cincinnati team Tuesday.

14. Providence: The Friars showed some life in their loss to Syracuse, holding a three-point lead at the half. Is it enough to grow on? We’ll see. Providence has the talent to win games in this league. Amid a five-game losing streak, they need to believe that.

15. South Florida: Its defensive prowess is impressive, but at some point you have to score points to win basketball games, and USF simply cannot. It ranks 260th in scoring, averaging a paltry 63.9 points per game.
I just finished watching Murray State’s 72-67 victory over St. John’s in a Charleston (S.C.) Classic semifinal on ESPN3. Great finish on a Friday night. Great finish on any night. The Racers’ experience and maturity helped them maintain their poise and overcome St. John’s double-digit advantage in the first half. But the Red Storm nearly held on for the win.

Here are 10 observations from this Charleston Classic semifinal, a game that set up a Murray State-Colorado matchup for the championship Sunday:

  1. Murray State’s backcourt is fierce: Isaiah Canaan missed eight of his first 10 shots. And the Murray State offense felt his absence from the stat sheet. The Racers were down 32-19 with 2 minutes, 53 seconds to go in the first half. But Canaan (15 points) and Stacy Wilson (23 points), both seniors, led an 11-3 run that cut St. John’s lead to five at halftime. They were the difference-makers for a Murray State team that received a minimal contribution (six points) from its bench.
  2. [+] EnlargeStacy Wilson
    Joshua S. Kelly/US PresswireStacy Wilson led Murray State with 23 points in its comeback victory over St. John's.
    Depth could be a big problem for Murray State: Murray State’s comeback was impressive. It closed strong on defense (St. John’s was just 2-for-10 after Murray State tied the game 59-59 with 6:01 to play). But the Racers were fortunate that Ed Daniel (15 points, 11 rebounds) avoided foul trouble. He had to fend off a talented, athletic St. John’s frontcourt. But how long can he operate alone inside? And will Wilson (4.3 points per game in 2011-12) bail Canaan out every time he gets off to a rocky start? I was impressed with Murray State’s tenacity. But it was also clear that this program has limited depth, especially inside, with the departures of Ivan Aska, Donte Poole, Jewuan Long and Zay Jackson, who was suspended for the season.
  3. Steve Lavin has the leader he needs: The St. John’s coach has a very young team (every starter is an underclassmen). But D'Angelo Harrison is the leader within that group. He’s just a sophomore. But he’s averaging 23.3 ppg for a 2-1 St. John’s squad. He took some tough shots down the stretch against Murray State but even as the Racers charged back, Harrison (game-high 27 points, 9 rebounds) maintained the aggression that made him an offensive catalyst in the first half. And even as he struggled late, he wanted the ball. That’s a good sign for Lavin’s squad.
  4. St. John’s needs more discipline: St. John’s blew an eight-point lead in the second half against Detroit. And it squandered a 13-point advantage Friday against Murray State. In those moments, the Red Storm’s youth was evident. Murray State hit shots from the outside when St. John’s failed to get back in transition throughout the second half. Lavin’s squad also committed 14 turnovers.
  5. But the Red Storm could be a factor in the Big East: Again, it’s early. And that’s why I think there are more positives for this St. John’s squad than negatives. Harrison leads a young nucleus that’s both promising and inconsistent. And help is on the way with transfer Jamal Branch set to join the team in December. Junior-college transfer Orlando Sanchez will help, too, if he’s cleared to play. It’s a raw squad but it’s one that could be dangerous in a few months, assuming it continues to develop and mature. But that’s no guarantee within a program that depends on so many young athletes.
  6. Coaching mattered: Lavin certainly won the coaching duel against Steve Prohm in the first half. St. John’s pressured Canaan and disrupted Murray State’s offense with a zone that relied on its athleticism, speed and length. But Prohm won the matchup in the second half. He exploited St. John’s sloppy transition defense. And he eliminated the easy buckets that St. John’s had feasted on prior to halftime by clogging the lane.
  7. Jakarr Sampson: The St. John’s freshman pulled off multiple impressive dunks. He’s ferocious at the rim. Sampson (14 points, 7 rebounds, 4 turnovers) doesn’t play like a freshman. A lot of potential.
  8. The 3-ball is Murray State’s neutralizer: Again, Murray State’s depth could be a problem. But the Racers (10-for-30) shoot so well from the perimeter that they’ll be a challenge for a lot of teams. Murray State, fifth in the nation last season with a 40.6 percent clip from beyond the arc, missed most of its attempts against St. John’s. But the Racers hit them when they needed them in the second half.
  9. Canaan’s work ethic is the key to his success: The gamers shake things off. And Canaan had to do that after his rough start. The early shots didn’t fall for the All-American. But it didn’t impact his confidence. He hit a huge 3-pointer to put the Racers ahead 64-59 with 4:41 to go. That was a dagger.
  10. Chris Obekpa’s block tally: Through three games, the freshman has 15 blocks. He established a school record with eight blocks against Detroit. He had one against Charleston and six more against Murray State. It’s early, so we can’t get too excited … Forget that. This youngster is one of the nation’s top shot-blockers. Impressive start for Obekpa.

Charleston Classic primer

November, 15, 2012
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It doesn’t boast the tradition of the Maui Invitational or a field stocked with Final Four contenders like the Battle 4 Atlantis. Still, don’t be surprised if the Charleston Classic turns out to be one of the most entertaining preseason tournaments of them all. Only one ranked squad (No. 16 Baylor) is featured in the eight-team bracket. But there aren’t any patsies, either.

Murray State lost just two games last season and returns a preseason All-American in Isaiah Canaan. This year’s Colorado team is even better than the one that upset UNLV in the NCAA tournament. St. John’s touts one of the most athletic rosters in the country, while Dayton should be greatly improved under second-year coach Archie Miller.

Expect a lot of exciting games and close scores this week.

The basics: Nov. 15-16, 18 at TD Arena in Charleston, S.C.

The set matchups: Dayton vs. Colorado, 12:30 p.m. ET; Baylor vs. Boston College, 3 p.m.; St. John’s vs. Charleston, 5:30 p.m.; Murray State vs. Auburn, 8 p.m.

(For the full bracket, click here.)

The favorite: Baylor. The Bears have the best chance of any team to end Kansas’ string of eight straight Big 12 titles. Point guard Pierre Jackson is a Wooden Award candidate, and 7-foot-1 freshman forward Isaiah Austin may be, too, after a few more weeks. Austin, Cory Jefferson and Ricardo Gathers may form an even better frontcourt than the unit that had three players (Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy and Quincy Miller) drafted last season. And the Jackson-led backcourt is six deep. Baylor went 30-8 last season and reached the Elite Eight. This team may be even more dangerous.

[+] EnlargeBaylor's Isaiah Austin
Kevin Jairaj/US PRESSWIREBaylor's 7-foot-1 freshman Isaiah Austin can do it all when he's healthy, but may be limited by an ankle sprain.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

Isaiah Austin, Baylor: Austin may have more upside than any player in college basketball. How many other 7-footers can bring the ball up the court, swish a 3-pointer on one possession and then drive to the basket for a dunk on the next? Physically, Austin needs to gain weight and strength. Still, despite being a bit frail, he’s one of the most unique players in college basketball.

Isaiah Canaan, Murray State: Big-school coaches have been kicking themselves the past two years for not recruiting Canaan, who may be the best point guard in America. Canaan has the green light to take shots from 5 or 6 feet beyond the 3-point arc, and his strength makes him tough to stop when he’s slashing to the basket. Canaan averaged 19 points for a Racers squad that went 31-2 last season.

Andre Roberson, Colorado: Roberson may be the best pure rebounder in the country -- and he’s only 6-foot-7. That didn’t stop the Buffaloes forward from averaging 11.1 boards per contest last season along with 11.6 points. Roberson may be even more productive this season thanks to the presence of standout freshman center Josh Scott, who will make it difficult for opponents to double-team Roberson.

Andrew Lawrence, College of Charleston: Lawrence was one of just two current college players to compete in the 2012 Olympics in London, where he represented his native Great Britain. A point guard, Lawrence averaged 13 points and 5.5 assists as a junior last season. He’s hoping to lead the Cougars back to the NCAA tournament under first-year coach Doug Wojcik.

D'Angelo Harrison, St. John’s: Harrison averaged a team-high 16.8 points for the Red Storm last season -- and he was only a freshman. Impressed as Steve Lavin was with his performance, the head coach wants Harrison to improve his shot selection, as he connected on just 37 percent of his field goal attempts in 2011-12. Harrison scored 22 points in Tuesday’s victory over Detroit.

FIVE BIG QUESTIONS

Who else steps up for Murray State?

Everyone knows about Canaan, but the senior point guard can’t do it all by himself. The Racers lost three starters from last season’s team, leading some to believe they won’t be nearly as dangerous in 2012-13. Head coach Steve Prohm is confident seniors such as forwards Ed Daniel and Stacy Wilson will flourish in increased roles.

Will Austin play for Baylor?

The freshman sprained his ankle midway through the second half of the Bears’ season-opening victory over Lehigh and was held out of a game against Jackson State two days later. Baylor coaches were hopeful Austin could return for today’s game against Boston College. The Bears don’t need Austin to beat the Eagles, but his presence will be vital in the semifinals and final.

How much has Dayton improved?

The Flyers won 12 of their first 16 games in Archie Miller’s first season but then fizzled down the stretch. A few key returnees -- especially senior Kevin Dillard -- will make Dayton dangerous in 2012-13, but if the Flyers don't notch a quality win or two in Charleston, they’ll still be regarded as a middle-of-the-pack Atlantic 10 team.

Can Auburn compete?

The Tigers haven’t reached the NCAA tournament since 2003, but strides are definitely being made. Other than Kenny Gabriel, Auburn returns virtually every key piece from a squad that went 15-16 last season. Tonight’s opening-round game against Murray State will be tough, but look for Tony Barbee’s squad to play some tight games in the consolation rounds.

Can anyone in this field beat Baylor?

Absolutely. The Bears may have looked like one of the top teams in college basketball last weekend, but it’s not as if they don’t have kinks to work out. Jackson can be careless with the ball, sharpshooter Brady Heslip is in a funk from 3-point range and it appears Austin won’t be 100 percent. Personnelwise, Colorado would appear to have the best chance of upsetting the Bears. The Buffaloes will certainly be motivated, as Baylor beat Colorado in last season’s NCAA tournament.

THE PICKS

First round: Colorado over Dayton; Baylor over Boston College; St. John’s over Charleston; Murray State over Auburn

Semifinals: Baylor over Colorado; Murray State over St. John’s

Championship game Baylor over Murray State
What it means: Steve Lavin is back, and his team is off to a promising start.

After missing almost all of last season while recovering from prostate cancer, Lavin officially made his return to the sideline Tuesday afternoon. And St. John’s won its regular-season opener against Detroit, 77-74, at Carnesecca Arena.

Three highly touted freshmen made their St. John’s debuts -- forwards Jakarr Sampson and Christian Jones, and center Chris Obekpa. All three made positive contributions -- particularly Obekpa. But the key to the victory was the play of three returning sophomores -- D’Angelo Harrison, Phil Greene and Amir Garrett (see below).

The skinny: This game was very tight for most of the first half. The score was tied at 25 when Detroit first took control, reeling off nine straight to make it 34-25. The Titans led 37-29 at intermission.

Trailing 60-53 in the second half, St. John’s went on a 14-2 run, retaking the lead for the first time since the opening half with just under five minutes remaining. Down the stretch, a more experienced Detroit team unraveled, while the younger St. John’s squad showed poise and resilience.

St. John’s did get a scare in the game’s final sequence. Detroit scored a bucket, St. John’s gave the ball away, and Detroit’s Juwan Howard Jr. suddenly had a 3-point shot that would have tied the game. But the shot was off.

Star watch: Harrison, St. John’s leading returning scorer, came off the bench -- he was benched entirely for the team’s second exhibition game last week because the coaching staff felt he was having trouble controlling his emotions. Harrison looked lethargic when he first entered the game, but ratcheted up the intensity after halftime, when he scored 15 of his team-high 22 points.

Greene finished with a career-high 20, displaying an improved perimeter shot. Garrett had a double-double, with 15 points and 11 rebounds. And Obekpa had 7 points, 11 rebounds and 8 blocked shots. (That's a St. John's single-game record, breaking the previous mark of seven, set by Robert Werdann in 1989.)

Number crunch: St. John’s struggled on the glass, giving up 19 offensive rebounds and 20 second-chance points. But the Red Storm had 12 blocked shots as a team. Obekpa is going to be a game-changer on defense.

What's next: St. John’s heads to South Carolina to participate in the Charleston Classic. The Red Storm will play the host team, College of Charleston, on Thursday at 5 p.m. ET. They’ll play two more games there as well, on Friday and Sunday.

Video: St. John's guard D'Angelo Harrison

October, 18, 2012
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Kieran Darcy talks with St. John's guard D'Angelo Harrison at Big East media day in New York.

Bracket reveal: Charleston Classic

July, 26, 2012
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Tournament bracket for the 2012 Charleston Classic presented by Foster Grant

When and where: Nov. 15-16, 18 at TD Arena in Charleston, S.C.

Initial thoughts: This could turn out to be one of the better nonconference tournaments. ... Baylor advanced to the Elite Eight last season, Murray State went 31-2 and returns the bulk of its team and Colorado beat UNLV in the NCAA tourney and has plenty of momentum under Tad Boyle. ... Some of the country’s top freshmen post players will be in action. Baylor’s Isaiah Austin is projected as a top-five pick in next summer’s NBA draft. His teammate, Ricardo Gathers, was a top-40 recruit along with Colorado’s Josh Scott. ... It will be good to see St. John’s coach Steve Lavin back on the sideline. Lavin missed almost all of last season while recovering from prostate cancer. ... Archie Miller won 20 games in his first season as Dayton’s head coach in 2011-12. Will be interesting to see how the Flyers follow up. ... It also will be interesting to see what kind of improvements -- if any -- have been made at Auburn, which is regarded as one of the worst programs in the SEC but has recruited well lately. ... After the retirement of Bobby Cremins, College of Charleston has a new coach in Doug Wojcik, who spent the past seven seasons at Tulsa.

Matchup I can't wait to see: Dayton vs. Colorado. Of the four first-round games, this is probably the only one where both teams have the potential to earn NCAA tournament at-large berths. Colorado touts a potential lottery pick in forward Andre Roberson, who ranked fourth in the country in rebounding last season with 11.1 boards per game. Dayton returns three of its top five scorers, including Josh Benson, who missed the second half of last season with a knee injury.

[+] EnlargePierre Jackson
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireBaylor's Pierre Jackson, one of the nation's quickest point guards, has some sizeable help down low.
Potential matchup I'd like to see: Baylor vs. Murray State. Event organizers -- and college basketball fans -- would certainly be pleased with a championship game featuring two of the top five point guards in the nation. Pierre Jackson (Baylor) and Isaiah Canaan (Murray State), both Cousy Award finalists a year ago, would put on a hell of a show. The game, however, would likely be decided in the frontcourt. Murray’s Ed Daniel is poised for a breakthrough season, but the Racers might have trouble matching Baylor’s overall size and depth down low.

Five players to watch

Isaiah Austin, Baylor: The 7-foot freshman has a unique skill set. On offense, Austin is hardly limited to the paint. He has a nice touch from mid-range and can also handle the ball on the perimeter and swish 3-pointers. Austin is also expected to be one of the nation’s top shot-blockers.

Isaiah Canaan, Murray State: There may not be a better all-around point guard in the nation. Canaan shoots from long range, slashes to the basket with ferocity and generally makes good decisions. He averaged 19.0 points last season for a squad that went 31-2.

D'Angelo Harrison, St. John’s: As painful as it was to lose Maurice Harkless to the NBA draft, the Red Storm couldn’t be more excited about the return of Harrison, a shooting guard who averaged a team-high 16.8 points last season. Harrison, though, shot just 37 percent from the field, a number that will have to improve in 2012-13.

Pierre Jackson, Baylor: The 5-foot-10 junior-college transfer changed the culture of Baylor’s entire program last season by bringing swagger to a squad that was often criticized for being soft. Jackson averaged a team-high 13.8 points and 5.9 assists. There might not be a quicker point guard in America.

Andre Roberson, Colorado: The 6-7 Roberson may be a bit undersized in the paint, but that hardly showed last season when he averaged 11.6 points, 11.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks for a team that won the Pac-12 tournament before upsetting UNLV for its first NCAA victory in 15 years. Roberson will likely be a first-round pick in next summer’s NBA draft.

Title-game prediction

Baylor over Murray State: Isaiah Austin, Ricardo Gathers, Cory Jefferson and J’Mison Morgan will be too much for the Racers down low.

Whom others are picking:

Eamonn Brennan: Baylor over St. John's
Andy Katz: Baylor over Murray State
Myron Medcalf: Baylor over Murray State
Dana O'Neil: Murray State over Colorado

Big East's most important players

July, 23, 2012
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Editor's note: ESPN.com’s Summer Shootaround series catches up on the offseason storylines for each conference. For more on the Big East, click here.

The most important player for each team in the conference ...

Cincinnati: Titus Rubles
The juco transfer hasn't played a minute for Mick Cronin, but he could be the coach's most vital cog. A former guard who grew up and out since graduating high school, the 6-foot-8 Rubles has the heft and the ability to play a more power game as well. The Bearcats have plenty of experience in the backcourt but they need help replacing Yancy Gates. Rubles could offer it.

[+] EnlargeOtto Porter
AP Photo/Eugene TannerOtto Porter will carry a heavy load this season as the Hoyas' leading scorer is gone and Porter's on deck.
Connecticut: Ryan Boatright
The NCAA delayed Boatright's debut but when he finally played, he made the Huskies immediately better. He'll have to do the same this year, now that UConn is without Jeremy Lamb, Alex Oriakhi, Andre Drummond andRoscoe Smith. Much of the Huskies' success will depend on how Boatright and Shabazz Napierplay.

DePaul: Cleveland Melvin
You have to feel for Melvin. He has been a terrific player for DePaul for two seasons with little in the way to show for it in terms of results. Melvin averaged 17.5 points a season ago, upping his numbers from 14.3 as a freshman … and still won just three Big East games. Eventually, someday, somehow the Blue Demons will turn it around. If it is anytime soon, Melvin will be the reason.

Georgetown: Otto Porter
Much will be expected from the Hoyas' unexpected star of a year ago. The sophomore to be averaged 9.7 points and 6.8 rebounds for a Georgetown team that, like Porter, surprised more than a few. But leading scorer Jason Clark is gone from that crew, putting Porter squarely in the mix for a key role as both a leader and a scorer.

Louisville: Russ Smith
This is Peyton Siva's team but there's no question that the Cardinals' sparkplug is the enigmatic, mercurial (insert quirky adjective here) Smith. Pitino loved his fearless guard, even though he didn't necessarily always love Smith's fearlessness. With a loaded lineup that should help Cardinals cure last season's offensive woes, Smith won't have to do quite so much this season but he will still be the catalyst for what could be another Final Four run.

Marquette: Vander Blue
A team in the best sense of the word, Marquette won collectively instead of individually -- and that was with Jae Crowder edging out teammate Darius Johnson-Odom for conference player of the year honors. Amid the collection of unheralded superstars was Blue, a gifted player who has the ability to shine and now, with Crowder and Johnson-Odom gone, will have the opportunity, as well.

Notre Dame: Jerian Grant
Sure, Jack Cooley will garner much of the attention for the Irish, but really Mike Brey's team will go as far as Grant takes it. He was terrific as a sophomore last season, turning heads with his 12.3 points and 5 assists per game and will have plenty to work with again this year. Notre Dame loses just Tim Abromaitis, who only played two games a year ago.

Pittsburgh: Tray Woodall
The point guard missed 11 games last season with a groin/abdominal injury and while the Panthers were bad with him in the lineup, they were a bona-fide disaster without him. It was Woodall's return that sparked a brief bit of life in Pitt midseason and it is Woodall's presence that will make the Panthers go this season. There is plenty on Jamie Dixon's roster to make last season nothing but a bad memory, but to make things work, Dixon needs Woodall and his dribble penetration to get the offense working.

Providence: Vincent Council
Despite all the hoopla (much deserved) surrounding Ed Cooley's incoming freshman class, the Friars remain very much Council's team. A terrific point guard, Council led his team in assists and scoring this season and with a better surrounding cast, could be due for a breakout season.

Rutgers: Eli Carter
Carter was sensational in his freshman season, averaging 13.8 points per game for Mike Rice's squad. And while he and Myles Mack were arguably the Scarlet Knights' two most reliable players, losing Gilvydas Biruta (to Rhode Island) will put even more pressure on Carter's shoulders.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Collins
Anthony Gruppuso/US PresswireSouth Florida and guard Anthony Collins are primed to go far this upcoming season.
Seton Hall: Fuquan Edwin
The best news for Kevin Willard: Edwin is already a terrific defensive player. Now if he continues to grow his offensive game (he averaged 12.5 points per game), the Big East can officially be put on notice. The big question for Edwin, though, is can he be The Guy? Herb Pope andJordan Theodore are gone, so the attention will be squarely on his broad shoulders.

South Florida: Anthony Collins
The Bulls were one of the best defensive teams in the country and one of the worst offensively. Equaling out that ratio falls squarely in the lap of Collins, the point guard who was great defensively but made too many foolish mistakes on offense to get the Bulls in rhythm. He's a terrific talent and part of the reason that big things are once again expected for Stan Heath's team.

St. John's: D'Angelo Harrison
Truth be told, the most important player might just be Steve Lavin, the head coach who missed last season while recovering from prostate cancer. But since Lavin is on the bench instead of on the court, we'll go with Harrison. The freshman averaged 16.8 points per game, and along with Moe Harkless, was one of the few steadying presences in a crazy season for the Red Storm. His return is huge for Lavin but Harrison will have to perform without his sidekick, Harkless, who left for the NBA.

Syracuse: Michael Carter-Williams
The point guard who couldn't get through the backcourt logjam a season ago will be asked to carry the load for Syracuse this season. Highly touted out of high school, plenty who watched Carter-Williams practice thought he was more than ready for the spotlight. Now the chance has come. Brandon Triche will be there to lend an experienced hand, but how Carter-Williams plays will determine how Syracuse does.

Villanova: Tony Chennault
The last time a displaced player landed on Jay Wright's doorstep, it turned out pretty well. Scottie Reynolds, orphaned by Kelvin Sampson at Oklahoma, led the Wildcats to the Final Four. Now it's Chennault, the Wake Forest transfer who was granted a hardship waiver to be near his family. The Philadelphia native, who averaged 9.0 points in his sophomore season at Wake, is a much-needed boost for a Villanova team that struggled mightily.

Casting our ballots: Big East

February, 29, 2012
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Editor’s Note: To see our expert picks for each of the nation’s 12 top conferences, click here. To cast your vote in these races, visit SportsNation.

A quick look at the player and coach of the year races in the Big East:

Player of the year

Syracuse is far and away the best team in the Big East Conference.

Which is great when it comes to winning games, but a real problem when you’re trying to sort out player of the year trophies.

Usually you can at least find one obvious candidate from the best team in the conference. With the Orange, that’s impossible. Together they are unbeatable, but individually they almost cancel one another out. Is Scoop Jardine more valuable than Kris Joseph? Does Joseph do more than Fab Melo? How about Dion Waiters, the guy who comes off the bench to rank second on the team in scoring?

[+] EnlargeJohnson-Odom
Howard Smith/US PresswireMarquette's Darius Johnson-Odom's 18.4 points per game could earn him player of the year honors in the Big East.
All four will get and deserve votes but Syracuse is truly a sum-of-its-parts squad, one where every piece is critical but none more than the others. Someone on this team could win Big East POY -- and if we were voting, we’d lean Waiters -- but it’s not likely.

So who are the obvious candidates? There are two front-runners – Marquette’s Darius Johnson-Odom and West Virginia’s Kevin Jones.

Johnson-Odom has been terrific for a team that has been rock steady all year. Second in the Big East (behind Jones) in scoring, he averages 18.4 points per game. He’s scored in double figures in every game he’s played in save one -- suspended for the first half against West Virginia, he had nine.

Jones, in the meantime, had to be great for coach Bob Huggins’ young team to survive -- and the senior forward has been great. Along with leading the league in scoring and rebounding (20 points and 11 boards), he’s put up 18 double-doubles this season.

Some other long shots to consider: Marquette's Jae Crowder, Notre Dame’s Jack Cooley, Georgetown’s Jason Clark and Seton Hall’s Herb Pope. St. John’s freshmen D’Angelo Harrison and Moe Harkless have been terrific but there’s another newcomer award for them.

It’s a tough pick between the two favorites and I waffle daily but I’d probably lean Johnson-Odom because he has not only been sensational, his team has been, too.

Coach of the year

Interesting test case here -- do you reward the guy who has steered the loaded roster to near perfection or do you celebrate coaches who have had surprising success?

[+] EnlargeJim Boeheim
Mark Konezny/US PresswireJim Boeheim has coached Syracuse to near perfection. But does he deserve to be the Big East coach of the year?
Jim Boeheim is one trip to South Bend away from perfection, achieving such rarefied air despite dealing with the fallout from the Bernie Fine scandal in December. Outsiders might argue that a kindergartener could coach a team with so much depth and talent. What looks easy, though, isn’t always. Managing a team -- especially in this day and age, when premier players come in with premier egos -- is not easy.

And Boeheim hasn’t steered a team to near perfection in any old league. He’s done it in the Big East.

Mike Brey and John Thompson III, meantime, took the opposite run to success. Neither is supposed to be here.

The Irish were picked ninth in the league, and that was before Tim Abromaitis blew out his knee. After that? No one figured Brey’s team to be of any consequence.

But Brey, who memorably retooled his team two years ago after Luke Harangody’s injury, has done it again. Notre Dame is 12-5 in the league, vying for a top-four finish. Brey, who won coach of the year honors last year, has imbued his team with confidence, handing over the keys to the sophomore backcourt of Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant, and letting them run the show.

Thompson’s year at Georgetown has been equally impressive and equally surprising. The Hoyas were picked 10th in the preseason coaches’ poll after losing Chris Wright and Austin Freeman to graduation.

Instead, Georgetown is knotted with Notre Dame at 12-5. Henry Sims has been an eye-opener, the ideal point-center for the Hoyas’ Princeton style, and Otto Porter is arguably among the top freshmen in the conference.

Outsider choices: Mike Dunlap and Stan Heath. Dunlap is supposed to be an assistant, helping Steve Lavin. Instead, while Lavin recuperates from prostate cancer surgery, Dunlap has been running the show at St. John's, and running it with a roster stuffed to the gills with freshmen. Heath, meantime, has pulled himself off the hot seat and the Bulls into the conversation, taking South Florida to its best finish since joining the Big East.

This is another can’t-go-wrong choice. And hey, could you argue with Marquette's Buzz Williams winning it too? Not me.

My pick: Boeheim. The name of the game is winning, and no one in the league has done that better this year than the Syracuse coach.

Conference Power Rankings: Big East

February, 27, 2012
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Syracuse put a bow on its nearly perfect Big East run, sewing up the conference’s regular-season honors. But there’s still much jockeying to be done in the final week -- for bubble positions and, more immediately, for seeding positions for the Big East tournament. The top four earn the double bye.

1. Syracuse: The Orange clinched the regular-season crown with a win that might have been more impressive than the other 15. Syracuse needed to stave off UConn for a victory that made up in grit what it lacked in style points.

2. Marquette: Not even the absence of four starters for a half could keep the Golden Eagles down or Buzz Williams from dancing. Marquette’s rally from an 11-point halftime deficit at West Virginia proved this is a very good team.

3. Georgetown: You almost had to feel for Villanova. The Hoyas went and got inexplicably clobbered by Seton Hall. Someone was going to pay. The Wildcats were the victim, sliced and diced by 21.

4. Notre Dame: Nothing lasts forever, not even the Irish’s luck. Notre Dame’s nine-game streak ended at the hands of St. John’s and an awful 4-of-31 performance from beyond the arc. The Irish need to fix that or their Big East tournament visit won’t last long, either.

5. Louisville: The Cardinals are among the teams pushing to grab that last top-seed position. To get it, they’ll need to win two tough ones -- against equally hungry South Florida and at Syracuse.

6. South Florida: The Bulls will be among the most watched teams all the way through Selection Sunday. South Florida is 11-5 in the league after beating Cincinnati but still needs a signature win. The Bulls have a chance at Louisville and then with a home game against fellow bubble resident West Virginia.

7. Cincinnati: Most folks believe the Bearcats are in the Dance. But they certainly don’t want to make it easy. Cincinnati scored 45 points against South Florida’s defense and now has to finish up against Marquette and Villanova. A loss to the Wildcats isn’t how Cincinnati wants to finish the season.

8. Seton Hall: The Pirates giveth; the Pirates taketh away. A hugely impressive win against Georgetown proved why Seton Hall deserves NCAA consideration. A home overtime loss to Rutgers negated some of the good. How the Hall finishes will be critical.

9. Connecticut: The Huskies showed more in defeat than they have all season, finally displaying some energy, hustle and feistiness in their loss to Syracuse. The question is: Was it too late? UConn absolutely cannot lose to Providence or Pitt to finish the season.

10. West Virginia: Kevin Jones might be the best player in the conference, but his team is trying to dull his star and keep him out of the NCAA tournament. The Mountaineers are fading, losing four of their past five. Jones struggled with foul trouble against Marquette, and no one picked up the slack.

11. St. John’s: Technically, Madison Square Garden is a home-court advantage for the Red Storm. The way this young team is playing, it just might take advantage of it. Moe Harkless and D’Angelo Harrison, perhaps as good a one-two punch as there is in the league, led St. John’s to its upset of Notre Dame, its third win in a row.

12. Rutgers: There’s nothing like a win against your rival to cure what ails you. And we’ll see whether that’s the case for the Scarlet Knights, who ended a six-game skid by upsetting Seton Hall. Now it’s up to Rutgers to use the momentum well against Villanova and St. John’s.

13. Pittsburgh: Saddled with injury and illness, the Panthers came up short on an upset bid against Louisville. That’s five losses in a row, a streak the Panthers need to end to gain some confidence heading into New York.

14. Villanova: Maalik Wayns returned. JayVaughn Pinkston turned his ankle during pregame warm-ups. That about sums up the Wildcats’ season, which is limping -- quite literally -- to a merciful finish.

15. Providence: At this point of the season, the Friars are latching onto any good news: Blowing a 17-point lead yet still beating DePaul thanks to Vincent Council’s late heroics qualifies.

16. DePaul: The promise of a new beginning for the Blue Demons in the Big East has faded to the same result. DePaul will need to beat both West Virginia and Seton Hall to crawl out of their regular conference-basement seat for the Big East tournament.

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