College Basketball Nation: Dez Wells

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COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Just two minutes into the second half, Travis Trice's face gave it all away.

Trice was matched up with Maryland guard Melo Trimble, who just had torched the Spartans with five 3s and 21 points (including a crossover step-back beauty at the buzzer that turned Spartans guard Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn into a puddle of human goo) in the first half. Trimble drove left, just a half-step quicker than Trice could match. The Maryland freshman felt a hint of contact, dipped his head, and sold the foul.

Trice turned away from the play. He rolled his eyes and shook his head.

The whistle didn't have a tangible impact. Maryland missed a 3 after the ensuing inbounds play, and anyway Michigan State never got close in UM's thorough 75-59 win. Trice's foul was a minor, forgettable moment. But it said a lot about why the Terps, now 17-2 and 5-1 in the Big Ten, are experiencing the best season of Mark Turgeon's tenure.

[+] EnlargeMelo Trimble
AP Photo/Patrick SemanskyMelo Trimble finished with 24 points, including six 3s, in Maryland's win over Michigan State on Saturday.
 In short? Because their point guard is one of the most reliably perplexing offensive threats in all of college basketball.

"He's the straw that stirs the drink for them, there's no question about it," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

If you want to explain Maryland's success, you have to start with their results on the free throw line. On the season, the Terps attempt 49.1 percent as many free throws as they do field goals, the 10th-highest mark in the country. Most importantly, they knock them down, shooting 75.5 percent as a team.

No one is more adept at this than Trimble: After 19 games, the Maryland freshman's free throw rate is 79.8 percent, the highest on his team and 30th-highest in college hoops. Only a handful of high-major players attempt more free throws than Trimble. Few of them are guards. None of them are freshmen.

On Saturday, the Terps won the free throw line battle once more, earning 22 attempts -- and making 20 -- to Michigan State's 13. Unusually enough, Trimble got to the line just two times. Instead, forward Jake Layman -- currently experiencing a renaissance as a shooting, slashing matchup nightmare on the wing -- led the way with an 11-of-12 night at the line.

Then again, Trimble made success at the free throw line almost beside the point. His first half marked a breakout performance: 21 points, 7-of-11 from the field, 5-of-7 from 3. His one-man demolition of Nairn at the end of the half was sinister, the kind of thing that shuts down public pickup runs. It elevated the Terps to a 40-26 halftime lead.

That first-half barrage also offered a reminder: He's a much better perimeter shooter than he has hinted at in recent weeks. Before Saturday, Trimble had been mired in a major slump. In his first five Big Ten games, the freshman had made just 13 of his 40 attempts from beyond the arc. Despite that, Trimble earned a spot on the Wooden Award midseason Top 25 watchlist -- and Maryland began 4-1 -- precisely because he doesn't need to shoot the ball all that well from the field. At Michigan State on Dec. 30, for example, Trimble went 1-of-8 from 3 … and 12-of-14 from the free throw line. On Jan. 3 against Minnesota, he shot 1-of-8 from 3 again … and went 9-of-13 from the free throw line. His ability to beat defenders off the dribble and force his way into the middle of the lane has kept an otherwise good-but-not-great offense afloat.

There are other factors in Maryland's success, of course, and defense tops that list. Through six games, the Terps are allowing the fewest points per possession in Big Ten play; on Saturday, they held Michigan State to well under a point per trip (until the Spartans knocked down a few shots in garbage time).

There is also the play of Layman, who is having by far his best season in College Park, taking a more assertive role on offense and averaging nearly seven rebounds per game. The Terps have depth and size uncommon to the 2014-15 Big Ten. And though Dez Wells is not Maryland's most efficient offensive threat, he remains a challenging, physical presence in his own right -- and a teammate willing to share a leadership role.

"[I didn't think I would be a leader] coming straight in," Trimble said. "I had to get used to the team. Dez was already on the team, he was basically the leader on the team. Over the summer is where I played dominant point guard, and Dez told me that he was not the own leader on the team, that I was a leader too. And it's starting to become natural for me."

That status is reflected in the Terrapins' play. The ball is always his Trimble's hands; the offense lives and dies by his probing, herky-jerky penetration.

When he's hitting 3s, like he was Saturday, he is borderline unguardable, and his team's offense follows suit. But even when he doesn't make shots, Maryland can rely on its defense and its starting point guard's uncanny ability to make defenders' lives miserable.

"Today, he had one of those games that he's capable of doing," Turgeon said. "Melo will be Melo. And he's going to keep getting better."
What we're watching while we frantically disallow Kanye from entering his zone. Submit links via Twitter, and happy New Year.
  • Did Tom Izzo cost his team its Big Ten opener Tuesday night? SB Nation makes the case in three parts. The first error -- calling a timeout that halted a potentially game-sealing fast break, and ended up with Matt Costello on the line in the final moments of regulation -- is genuinely glaring. The second (calling a timeout to set up his defense, giving the timeout-less Terps a chance to plan on offense) is less so, especially given how well-defended the Terps' last possession was. And the third -- not fouling Dez Wells when ahead by three just before Wells hit the game-tying shot with five seconds to play -- was probably the right call. Sure, Wells is shooting 53 percent from 3 this season, but that's on just 13 attempts; he has never been a prolific long-range shooter. The shot was awkward and tightly guarded and at the end of an absolutely horrific shooting night for the Terps (who finished 2-of-19 from 3-point range). It went in, which makes the result seem questionable in retrospect. But save the first timeout, Izzo can probably live with the process that preceded it. After the game, the coach said he was "open for a lot of criticism," but that he almost never fouled when up three in his career. "They went 2-for-19 from the 3, so I went with my odds," Izzo said. "If I'm criticized for that, that'd be fine."
  • Just under the wire, Gary Parrish submits a Rocky Analogy of The Year Award nominee from Virginia coach Tony Bennett: "OK," Bennett said. "So Apollo trains Rocky in that movie, and he keeps telling Rocky that he wants a favor at the end. So they end up in this little gym at the end, and Apollo wants a rematch because he couldn't live with [the loss to Rocky at the end of the previous film]. And then Apollo says to Rocky, 'You fight great ... but I'm a great fighter.' And it's a little like that for us. We don't look at ourselves as this great team. We look at ourselves as a team that, when things are right, we can play at an excellent level."
  • Wichita State opens its Missouri Valley season at Drake on Wednesday night, but the Shockers had a minor issue en route to Des Moines. On Tuesday evening, WSU's plane was forced to make an emergency landing after a minor sensor malfunction with its landing gear, according to KWCH. Shortly after takeoff, the pilots noticed the issue, rerouted back to Wichita's Mid-Continent Airport, and landed the plane safely with no injuries to anyone on board. Phew.
  • "My belief is that Kentucky's coach has planned, through recruitment and coaching tactics, to build a program that smothers and bullies opponents rather than play basketball the way it should be played. Inevitably, this corruption of college basketball will doom the sport at the college level. No team wants to play that kind of program. I don't understand how Kentucky's players tolerate the loss of athletic play in their present up-and-down routine where true competition is never achieved. The NCAA should reject this corrupted play before other schools reject submitting their programs to participate." That's University of Louisville emeritus professor Michael Cassaro, in a hilarious letter to the editor published by the Louisville Courier-Journal this week. He's wrong, of course -- not about the game itself, because it really was an aesthetic abomination -- but about the underlying causes. You don't need me to explain why. [Louisville's defense is just as smothering, if not more so; Louisville's offense had its share of open shots and made exactly none of them, etc.] This link is here only here because it reminded your author of his own comically overwrought college professors. Ah, memories.
  • If you think Wisconsin's inherent likability comes down to just Frank Kaminsky, think again. Just as they were last season, the Badgers are pretty chill from top to bottom. Today, ESPN.com's Myron Medcalf goes deep on star junior wing Sam Dekker, future first-round pick and local Sheboygan, Wisconsin, hero.

3-point shot: Talking transfer rules

September, 25, 2013
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A few quick hitters from Tuesday's podcast, which you can listen to here:

1. Maryland coach Mark Turgeon is for one transfer rule: either everyone sits or no one sits out a year. Turgeon also said it might have helped Dez Wells if he had sat out last season instead of playing immediately after transferring from Xavier. Wells will have to be the leader on this team. Meanwhile, Turgeon wants to play one game a year at the Terps' former home, Cole Field House. The Terps will host a Midnight Madness-type of event there Oct. 18. But Turgeon would like to set up a game at Cole Field House in late December in future years … Turgeon said he never talks about recruiting to the Big Ten since the Terps are going from one elite league to another.

2. UConn coach Kevin Ollie said Tyler Olander's suspension still is in place after his DUI charge was dropped (still dealing with a guilty plea of driving without a license). Ollie said he couldn't commit as to whether or not Olander would be allowed to practice Friday when the Huskies take the court. Olander still has to prove to Ollie that he can handle himself in a mature manner before he can be reinstated … The Huskies are still awaiting on the eligibility of freshman Kentan Facey. Ollie said he has no idea if he'll be cleared to play this season.

3. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said Josh Gasser hasn't been cleared yet to practice, but he's hopeful the lead guard will be in the next week or so as he comes back from an ACL injury that sidelined him last year. Ryan sees no reason why Gasser and Traevon Jackson can't coexist as two playmakers. Ryan, like Turgeon, is for either all transfers to have to sit or no one sits. He wants uniformity of the rules … Boise State coach Leon Rice said the Broncos are embracing the attention as a possible MWC top two finisher. The Broncos return eight of nine scorers back and Rice said the Broncos are the only NCAA tournament team from last season that returns all five starters.

O'Neil: NCAA’s judge-and-jury precedent

June, 6, 2013
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With Michael Dixon seeking a waiver to play immediately at Memphis, last year's unfortunate judge-and-jury precedent by the NCAA in the Dez Wells appeal leaves the organization with little choice. Dana O'Neil has the story:
This isn't meant to condemn Michael Dixon. This isn't mean to condemn Dez Wells.

This isn't meant to condemn Josh Pastner and Memphis. This isn't meant to condemn Mark Turgeon and Maryland.

Frankly, this isn't meant to condemn anyone. It's just an attempt to wrap my head around a complex issue that the NCAA has made a little too uncomplicated.

Dixon, the former Missouri guard who is transferring to Memphis, will apply for a waiver from the NCAA in the hopes to play immediately and bypass the requisite transfer year. He, along with Memphis, would be wise to argue that his case is no different than that of Wells.

Like Dixon, Wells was accused of sexual assault but never charged for the crime and prosecuted. Xavier dismissed him from school anyway, just like Missouri did with Dixon.

Wells appealed to the NCAA under its hardship waiver and won, earning the chance to play for Maryland last season.

And now here is Dixon, with the same accusations and no charges, asking for the same latitude.

There's no reasonable way the NCAA can deny him a waiver. None.

Read the rest of O'Neil's story here.
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- With less than seven minutes left Friday night -- and his team leading by double figures -- Maryland’s Dez Wells slapped the floor, Duke-style, as he shuffled back on defense.

He said he wasn’t trying to disrespect his opponent, but rather pump up his team.

And that was just one of the many ways he did it during the Terps’ 83-74 quarterfinal victory over the second-seeded, and second-ranked, Blue Devils during the ACC tournament quarterfinals.

Wells, a sophomore wing, scored a career-high 30 points in the victory -- which also marked Duke’s first loss in the quarterfinals since 1997. He made both of his 3-pointers. He got to the bucket with seeming ease. He was 10-for-10 from the free throw line.

[+] EnlargeDez Wells
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportDez Wells swoops past Duke's Ryan Kelly for a pair of his career-high 30 in Maryland's upset.
And in so doing, he put a little oomph back into Maryland’s NCAA tournament hopes.

“I’m just proud of the way my team played … because it’s not how you start the season, it’s how you finish,” said Wells, who saw Maryland's at-large selection hopes sink when it lost three of its final four regular-season games. “Anyone can make the NCAA tournament, and I think we’re peaking at the right time.”

The Terps looked like it against the Devils.

Led by Wells, they were the aggressor from the beginning, as he scored seven points during a 12-2 game-opening run.

Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said his seventh-seeded team looked hungry.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said his squad did not.

“We weren’t the Duke team that’s played most of this season, especially these last couple of weeks,” Krzyzewski said. “So, I’m disappointed in our performance, but also very impressed with the performance of Maryland.”

There was plenty to be impressed by. Duke never led, made only 4 of its 25 3-point attempts, and looked like a different team than the one that had been re-energized by Ryan Kelly’s return from injury earlier this month. Turgeon said the Terrapins' goal was to try to make the Blue Devils beat them inside, and although Duke forward Mason Plumlee finished with 19 points, it wasn’t enough.

Not with Kelly shooting 3-for-11, and Seth Curry going 4-for-10.

“I thought our defense was phenomenal,” Turgeon said. “… You have to be both good and lucky to beat a great team, and we were both.”

Krzyzewski pointed out Wells' importance not just because of Friday’s performance, but because of the player's 21-point outing against Wake Forest in Thursday’s first round, too.

And what it could mean for the Maryland team.

“In these two games he’s elevated himself to really a high level,” Krzyzewski said. “You can bring everybody with you. You start playing with a guy who is doing that, and with that sense of urgency …”

And, well, it’s contagious.

Like hitting big buckets.

And like that team-inspiring floor slap in the second half.

“Being the energy guy, I have to do whatever I can to pump [my team] up,” Wells said. “At that moment, I was just thinking, ‘We have to get a stop.’”

Now, the goal is to continue this postseason run.

Video: Maryland 83, Duke 74

March, 15, 2013
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Dez Wells scored 30 points as Maryland, the No. 7 seed in the ACC tournament, scored an 83-74 victory over Duke, the tourney's second seed and also ranked No. 2.

 
On Wednesday, North Carolina earned a first-day bye in next week’s ACC tournament.

Maryland, meanwhile, took another step closer to saying bye-bye to its NCAA tournament hopes.

Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston combined for 41 points, 20 rebounds and 6 steals to help push UNC’s winning streak to six.

A quick closer look at the Tar Heels’ 79-68 win over the Terps at Comcast Center:

Turning point: Trailing 27-24, UNC ended the first half with a 10-0 run of five different scorers, while the Terrapins went zero for six and committed two turnovers. UNC then extended that breakaway to 15-2 to open the second half, taking a 39-29 advantage on a Bullock 3-pointer.

The Tar Heels led by as many as 16 points, but Maryland cut it to 63-57 with less than six minutes left, at which point it pressed UNC into back-to-back turnovers. Tar Heels point guard Marcus Paige buried a 3-pointer, however, to help his team get its cushion back, and the Terps got no closer.

Player(s) of the game: Hairston finished with 22 points and eight rebounds, and Bullock added 19 points and 12 rebounds, marking his third double-double in his past four games.

Dez Wells led Maryland with 18 points, and Nick Faust added 16, but the Terps shot just three for 23 from the 3-point line and outrebounded UNC by only one despite their size advantage.

What it means for the Tar Heels: More momentum. More confidence. UNC is now 6-1 since it went to a four-guard starting lineup, and although it finished just outside of the Associated Press Top 25 this week, it’s looking more and more like a top-20 team. Because of various possible tiebreakers, the victory secured a top-four finish in the ACC standings -- and thus, an off-day during the league tournament’s first day. That’s important, because no team has ever won four games in four days at the ACC tourney.

What it means for the Terps: Another bounce downward in their yo-yo late season. Maryland looked NCAA tournament-bound not too long ago -- Feb. 16 -- when it upset then-second-ranked Duke. But since then, the Terps are 2-3, with road losses to Boston College and Georgia Tech. With a No. 68 RPI entering this game and now a 2-4 record against teams with a top-25 RPI, Maryland needed this win as a résumé booster. Now, it may have to win the ACC tournament’s automatic bid to become NCAA-bound.

Etc.: UNC got a couple of injury scares early in the second half. With 18:41 left, Hairston’s right leg slid out from under him on a drive to the wing, and he left the game briefly with a strained groin. He returned a couple of minutes later, only to have teammate James Michael McAdoo slip under the basket and land hard on his already-sore back. McAdoo returned shortly thereafter, too, and finished with 10 points.

Next up: The Tar Heels host No. 3 Duke on Saturday in the regular-season finale; the Terps play at Virginia on Sunday.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina junior Reggie Bullock helped the Tar Heels build a first-half cushion Saturday at the Smith Center, and the Tar Heels used it to hang on against Maryland, winning 62-52. A quick look at the game:

Turning point: UNC took its largest lead -- 44-21, on a Marcus Paige shot -- early in the second half. But UNC got sloppy and cold in stages, and Maryland cut its deficit 60-49 on a Dez Wells bucket with about three minutes left. On the Terps' first chance to cut it to single figures, Maryland committed yet another turnover (21 for the game). On the second, Nick Faust missed a shot (Maryland shot 39.6 percent for the game). With 2:05 left, Paige found forward James Michael McAdoo for a bucket in the lane to give the Tar Heels a 62-49 cushion. It was enough.

Key player(s): Bullock was on a tear from the outset, outscoring Maryland 8-0 to begin the game and 21-20 by halftime (when UNC led 42-20). He went scoreless for a long stretch in the second half, but finally set a new career high (24 points) with about five minutes left when he buried a 3-pointer from the top of the arc.

McAdoo added 19 points and 11 rebounds for UNC.

Wells finished with 21 points for Maryland.

Noteworthy number(s): UNC shot 23.5 percent in the second half -- compared to Maryland's 46.2 percent after the break.

Etc.: UNC reserve Leslie McDonald missed his third straight game with a sore right knee (although he did display a few more of his normal moves, in suit, during the pre-tipoff ‘Jump Around’ dance; progress, perhaps?).

Next up: The Terrapins will play Boston College on Tuesday; the Tar Heels play Georgia Tech on Wednesday.


COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- A quick look at Maryland’s 51-50 victory Wednesday over NC State:

Overview: Somewhere, Jim Valvano is stunned.

Alex Len's last-second put-down of Pe'Shon Howard's air ball sealed the win for the Terrapins and was eerily similar to Valvano’s do-you-believe-in-miracles moment.

Only in reverse.

But this was more than just an exciting victory. This was a big one for Maryland, a team that has had a 13-game win streak this season -- yet still little, if any, heft on its résumé to show for it.

This win isn’t enough alone, but it is a step toward getting the Terps back into the NCAA tournament.

As for NC State, it’s not a killer, but the Wolfpack never looked comfortable in this game. A game after beating Duke, NC State knew it would have a target on its back visiting the hungry Terps, but never answered the bell.

Turning point: Let’s go with Len catching Howard’s air ball and putting it down for the game winner with 0.9 seconds left.

Seems like a good one.

Howard was falling out of bounds when he threw the ball up, but Len had position for the drop into the bucket.

Key player: Len only had 10 points, but he kept the Terps in this, stripping Richard Howell and serving up a block on the other end in the final minute to keep Maryland alive for its last-second miracle.

Key stat: 50. That’s how many points NC State had in this game after putting up 41 in the first half of its Saturday upset of Duke. The Wolfpack were plodding and slow, as much a product of Maryland’s defense and style as their own effort. And it made the difference. The Terps weren’t going to win going hoop for hoop with the Wolfpack.

Miscellaneous: A game after scoring 41 in the first half against Duke, NC State could muster just 16 before the break against Maryland and trailed 22-16 at intermission. … A painting of former coach Gary Williams was unveiled at halftime. The painting, part of the NCAA’s celebration of 75 years of March Madness, will be auctioned off beginning tomorrow. The painting of Williams is part of a collection of 75 individual paintings, one for each NCAA-winning coach, from 1939 to 2013. … Dez Wells and C.J. Leslie were high school teammates in Raleigh, N.C. … This was Maryland’s second sellout of the season.

Next game: NC State returns home to face Clemson on Sunday; Maryland travels to meet an increasingly desperate North Carolina on Saturday.

Conference Power Rankings: ACC

January, 11, 2013
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Can we just call places 3 through 6 a tie? After the first week of ACC play, it’s harder than ever to judge the middle of the league pack. But here are this week’s ACC Power Rankings, based on myriad factors, including how teams have performed lately and the foes they've faced:

1. Duke. Still undefeated, still No. 1 after victories over Wake Forest and Clemson. But the Blue Devils will be tested Saturday not only by an NC State team that has won nine in a row, but by playing without senior forward Ryan Kelly, who is out indefinitely with an injured right foot.

2. NC State. The Wolfpack was picked to win the ACC during the preseason by both media and coaches, and Saturday’s home game against the Blue Devils will show if it has what it takes to make that push. Lorenzo Brown, with 21 points against Georgia Tech, was the latest to lead his team in scoring. Who’s next?

3. Miami. The Hurricanes have never started 2-0 in the ACC -- until now. Senior forward Kenny Kadji had 18 points to help break his team’s 10-game losing streak to UNC on Thursday night, and sixth-year senior Julian Gamble (14 points against the Tar Heels) has been filling in admirably for the injured Reggie Johnson.

4. Maryland. Dez Wells had a bad shooting night, Alex Len at times got pushed around, and the Terps saw their 13-game winning streak snapped via a 12-point comeback by Florida State. Whether they bounce back at Miami this weekend could be a good indication of whether they’re a top-tier ACC team.

5. Florida State. Junior forward Okaro White has come up big during the Seminoles’ 2-0 ACC start, averaging 17.5 points and 8 rebounds. And so has his team. "We sat down, the juniors and seniors, with the young guys and told them we have to stop talking, and we have to show them how hard you have to play,’’ White told Tallahassee.com.

6. Virginia. Beat North Carolina, only to lose to Wake Forest? It might be that sort of topsy-turvy season for the Cavs, who should get more and more of a boost as senior guard Jontel Evans, who returned from injury last weekend, gets more and more back in sync with the offense.

7. North Carolina. Coach Roy Williams said his team was stressed in the locker room after losing to Miami on Thursday night. And for good reason: This marks only the fourth time UNC has ever started 0-2 in the ACC, and things won’t get any easier at Florida State on Saturday.

8. Boston College. The Eagles have now won six of their past seven games, and gave NC State a scare in their only loss since Dec. 4. Sophomore Lonnie Jackson has posted double digit points for three consecutive games, including a season-high 22 at Virginia Tech.

9. Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets had a six-game winning streak broken by the start of ACC play. Tech is shooting just 35.2 percent during its 0-2 conference start.

10. Wake Forest. Despite shooting just 26 percent after halftime and failing to score a field goal for the final 10 minutes, the Deacs survived Virginia’s comeback attempt. “We stayed with it,” Wake Forest forward Travis McKie told The Times-News. “I think early in the season we would’ve put our head down and had a pity party. But we stayed with it and continued to fight hard.” Wake has now won five of seven games.

11. Clemson. The Tigers scored only 10 points, on just 12 percent shooting, in the first half at Duke on Wednesday. Yikes. Devin Booker has posted two double-doubles in Clemson’s 0-2 ACC start.

12. Virginia Tech. Already-undermanned Tech was down to six scholarship players during its midweek loss to BC, thanks to illness and injury. Erick Green continues to lead the nation in scoring, but the Hokies have now lost four in a row, and are 0-2 in ACC play.

Rapid Reaction: Maryland 77, N'western 57

November, 28, 2012
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EVANSTON, Ill. -- After a rough first half from both teams, Maryland overpowered host Northwestern to win 77-57 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday night.

Alex Len and Dez Wells each played a big part in dismantling Northwestern in the second half. Wells finished with a game-high 23 points. Len had 13 points, 13 rebounds and 2 blocks.

For the complete Rapid Reaction from ESPNChicago.com, click here.

DIRECTV Classic primer

November, 21, 2012
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Don't be fooled by the name; this is not a new tournament. It is merely a repackaged Anaheim Classic that is no longer leaving naming-rights sponsorship money on the table. This would normally be the part where we criticize soulless corporate sports sponsorship ... but, I mean, it's the Anaheim Classic. Surely we can find a better target for our outrage.

Anyway, let's talk about this basketball tournament, huh?

The basics: Nov. 22-25, Anaheim Convention Center, Anaheim, Calif.

The set matchups (Nov. 22): Pacific vs. Xavier, 2 p.m. ET; Drexel vs. Saint Mary's, 4:30 ET; Rice vs. Georgia Tech, 9 ET; Drake vs. Cal, 11:30 ET.

THE FAVORITE

Xavier: Major caveat alert: I could make a reasonable argument for Saint Mary's, Cal or even a banged-up Drexel, because I'm not really sure there is one clear favorite in this group of teams. But if I have to pick, I suppose I'll take the squad that shut down Butler just one week before Butler beat Marquette and drilled North Carolina in Maui. The transitive property is a fickle siren, but this early in the season it has to mean something.

FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH

Matthew Dellavedova, Saint Mary's: The Australian Olympian and four-year senior is the undispusted leader of this Gaels team in ways both measurable and otherwise, and his offensive output will be (as ever) a huge key to his team's chances of getting out of Anaheim with three consecutive wins.

[+] EnlargeDee Davis
Frank Victores/US PresswireSophomore guard Dee Davis has thus far ably filled holes left by departures at Xavier.
Allen Crabbe, California: One half of Cal's two-headed returning scoring tandem (the other being fellow guard Justin Cobbs), Crabbe is essential to California's hopes of replacing Jorge Guiterrez and Harper Kamp and still making a run at the top of the revamped Pac-12.

Dee Davis, Xavier: It's early yet, but sophomore guard Davis appears to be just the latest in the Musketeers' long line of starter-minutes-ready young players to emerge after former stars depart. Through three games (including the aforementioned Butler romp) Davis is averaging 15.3 points and 6.7 assists, with a 132.2 offensive rating.

Frantz Massenat, Drexel: The Dragons suffered a big-time loss this week when guard Chris Fouch lost the rest of his season to ankle surgery, but the good news is that Massenat -- a versatile point guard who drives, dishes and shoots with near-equal skill -- remains.

Kammeon Holsey, Georgia Tech: When Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory dismissed Glen Rice Jr. in mid-March, he not only made a statement about the importance of attitude and chemistry in his program. He also left Holsey as his only notable returning scorer. Thus far, Holsey has delivered, though this tournament will be the Yellow Jackets' first real test, and we'll see if they'll be more than an ACC punching bag this season.

FIVE BIG QUESTIONS

Is Xavier for real? The Musketeers were written off at the start of this season, and understandably so -- Tu Holloway and Kenny Frease graduated, Dez Wells was (possibly wrongly) kicked out of school, Mark Lyons transferred to Arizona, and what remained were guys most hoops fans had never heard of. So the Musketeers were picked to finish ninth -- ninth! -- despite the fact that this program has missed exactly one Sweet 16 (2011) since 2008. When Xavier tossed Butler around in the Musketeers' home opener, the write-offs looked premature. But now, outside of their own building, the young Musketeers have a real chance to prove they're not going anywhere.

Is Cal a Pac-12 contender? The Pac-12 was bad last season. We've established this ad nauseam (especially for Pac-12 fans, I'm sure) throughout the past 12 months. But for as bad as the league was, on a per-posssesion basis Cal was perfectly respectable (and pretty clearly the best team in its league), even if that respectability didn't always translate into wins. Despite the turnover, would you bet against Mike Montgomery making a run at the top of a still-volatile league this season? I wouldn't.

Does Saint Mary's miss Rob Jones? Jones was a drastically underrated player last season. Not only was he a versatile scorer, but his rebounding anchored the Gaels on both ends of the floor, particularly on defense, where he posted the nation's 16th-best defensive rebounding rate. Forward Brad Waldow is the chief successor to Jones, and will have to have a nice season for Saint Mary's to wrest another West Coast Conference title away from a very good Gonzaga team.

Is Drexel still Drexel? Bruiser Flint's team was brutally close to an NCAA tournament appearance last season, and had a fair quarrel when all was said and done. With all but one starter returning, and a Virginia Commonwealth-less Colonial Athletic Association, this season was set up as a redemption campaign. It has not gone as planned. The Dragons lost their first two games (to Kent State, which is a bad loss, and Illinois State, which is a good one) and then lost Fouch to a season-ending injury soon thereafter. A title run in Anaheim -- or at least a couple of resume wins, beginning with Saint Mary's -- would be a nice way to get this season back on track.

Who's the upset candidate? There are some solid teams in this field, but no truly great ones. Which means we could see a few wacky results. That Rice-Georgia Tech game is anyone's guess, and who knows what happens if either of those teams get hot? What if Drake springs an upset on Cal? In a week in which Texas lost to a Division II team and another dude scored 138 points, I'm not discounting any possibilities.

THE PICKS

First round: Xavier over Pacific; Saint Mary's over Drexel, Georgia Tech over Rice; Cal over Drake.

Semifinals: Saint Mary's over Xavier; Cal over Georgia Tech.

Championship: Saint Mary's over Cal.
Finally, college basketball is here. The 2012-13 season kicked off Friday with some great finishes, high drama and even a pair of cancellations. More on those later.

Here’s a snapshot of the action from Friday night:

Connecticut 66, No. 14 Michigan State 62: The pageantry surrounding college basketball’s opening-day matchup in Europe elevated the first high-profile game of the 2012-13 season. MSU and UConn played at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, home to more than 17,000 servicemen. A year after kicking off the season by playing basketball on a ship, college basketball’s creative minds raised the bar by sending a pair of perennial powerhouse programs overseas. (You know we’re about five years away from a “Let’s play on the moon” conversation.)

The Spartans and Huskies entered this game under different circumstances. Michigan State lost former All-American Draymond Green but regrouped with a talented recruiting class and returning standouts such as Keith Appling and Derrick Nix. Connecticut was banned from postseason play due to subpar Academic Progress Rate scores during the offseason. Then, Jim Calhoun retired and left the program to Kevin Ollie, who has essentially been given seven months to prove that he’s worthy of a long-term contract. They can’t compete for the national title, so what’s their motivation?

And yet, the Huskies played like a determined squad and the Spartans looked flat, going 13-for-33 from the field in the first half. They committed eight turnovers. The Huskies exploited the opening and took a 34-18 lead with 7:46 remaining in the first half after making 11 of their first 12 shots. Michigan State chipped at the deficit and eventually took a lead in the closing minutes.

But the Spartans couldn’t overcome their 15 turnovers or the production of Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier (14-for-28 and 38 points combined). That backcourt duo will challenge any defense. It’s not doomsday for the Spartans, who lost their first two matchups in 2011-12 but finished the year with 29 wins. They clearly need more time to develop chemistry. The game means much more for UConn. The Huskies competed like a team that’s still focused, despite its situation. Ollie’s “10 toes in” philosophy worked Friday. The Huskies came to play in Germany.

No. 3 Kentucky 72, Maryland 69: Earlier this week, former Xavier standout Dez Wells was cleared to play after the NCAA reversed its decision on his initial eligibility. Wells was expelled from Xavier following sexual assault allegations and transferred to Maryland. He lost his first waiver request but won an appeal. That decision enhanced the buzz leading up to Maryland’s matchup against the defending national champions at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Here’s the thing. Wildcats coach John Calipari has found success year-after-after with the same formula. He convinces multiple high-level prospects to compete together. They play good defense and score at will. That’s why he’s achieved so much during his time at Kentucky. The group he’s assembled for 2012-13 is very similar to past teams he’s assembled at Kentucky. They’re young but dangerous and deep. Former walk-on Jarrod Polson scored 10 points and came up with a crucial steal and big free throws down the stretch. The Wildcats seem to have it all. Again.

With Nerlens Noel’s shot-blocking (three swats), Kyle Wiltjer’s 3-pointers and Archie Goodwin’s penetration (16 points), the Wildcats amassed a 53-38 lead midway through the second half (Maryland started the game 2-for-11). Game. Set. Match. Nope.

Maryland bounced back with a 15-0 run that suggested it’s not going to be a pushover in the ACC. Alex Len looked like a lottery pick (23 points, 12 rebounds). Wells (2-for-12), however, struggled. But the Terrapins were tougher than Kentucky (23-12 edge in offensive rebounds). And there multiple moments when the Wildcats looked like a young, inexperienced team. But they were mature enough to hold on for the win. Kentucky led 70-69 with 7.7 seconds to play before Polson hit two free throws. Maryland’s Pe’Shon Howard missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer. Nice game. Jay-Z should be proud.

Here’s what we learned: Len and Wiltjer are stars. Their respective teams will count on their continued production all year. And if they produce at a level comparable to their efforts on Friday, then both programs will thrive. Len takes a lot of pressure off his teammates with his effectiveness inside. Wiltjer is 6-foot-10 with range (4-for-6 from 3-point-line line). How do you guard that?

The aircraft-carrier cancellations: Games on boats make a lot of sense. Until they don’t. This year’s Carrier Classic between Ohio State and Marquette seemed like a great idea. Michigan State and North Carolina started the 2011-12 season on a ship. Why not do it again? And why stop at one ship? The Marquette-Ohio State matchup on the USS Yorktown in Charleston, S.C., was one of a handful of scheduled games on watercrafts.

[+] EnlargeCarrier Classic
AP Photo/Mic SmithCondensation on the court aboard the USS Yorktown made things unsafe for Ohio State and Marquette.
But a condensation problem turned the court into an ice rink. The chaotic scene played out on NBC Sports Network as players, coaches and servicemen used towels to dry the floor. But they couldn’t stop the moisture from resurfacing. Citing the potential safety risk, game officials ultimately canceled the game. It will not be rescheduled.

It was an important matchup for both squads. There are major questions for each team. Marquette lost so much talent from last season and earlier this week, Todd Mayo was deemed academically ineligible. Ohio State was set to compete for the first time with a new nucleus sans Jared Sullinger and William Buford. But now they’ll both wait to play their first games of the year on Sunday, when Marquette plays Colgate and Ohio State faces Albany.

And that was just the first game of the night that was canceled due to condensation. Georgetown’s matchup against No. 10 Florida was called after halftime (the Gators led 27-23) because game officials had similar issues with a slippery floor aboard the USS Bataan in Jacksonville, Fla.

We might have just witnessed the end of the game-on-a-ship era. So if you like outdoor basketball, make sure to savor Syracuse-San Diego State on Sunday.

A few more observations from games that actually did happen on Friday ...

  • During No. 19 Baylor’s 99-77 victory over Lehigh in Waco, Texas, Bears freshman Isaiah Austin, a 7-1 center, scored 22 points in 17 minutes before he was sidelined with an ankle injury. He was 2-for-4 from beyond the arc, too. After the game, coach Scott Drew said the injury wasn’t as severe as it initially appeared. That’s great news for a Baylor team that looked like a legitimate threat to Kansas in the Big 12. Cory Jefferson had 26 points and 13 boards. Pierre Jackson had 12 assists. Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum tried to keep the Mountain Hawks alive with 36 points, but Baylor was too much. The Bears are legit.
  • Last season, No. 25 Florida State beat South Alabama by 41 points. On Friday, the Seminoles lost by five, 76-71, in the biggest upset of the night. The Noles, last season’s ACC tournament champions, lost multiple starters from its 2011-12 team. Yes, they’ll need time to come together with so many new faces joining the program. But a home loss to a Sun Belt squad in the season opener? Wow. FSU committed 17 turnovers (the Jaguars had 19). All-ACC guard Michael Snaer struggled in a 2-for-11 effort. South Alabama’s Antoine Allen scored 21 off the bench. This weekend’s practice should be fun for Florida State.
  • South Dakota State’s Nate Wolters scored 30 points, but they weren’t enough to hold off Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The Jackrabbits led 29-16 with 4:14 to go in the first half. They controlled the game. But a late 11-0 run helped the Crimson Tide regain their footing by halftime. Bama slowly found its confidence and momentum late in the second half, when Trevor Lacey nailed a 3-pointer at the buzzer to seal the come-from-behind victory. Good effort from SDSU. And a nice comeback for Alabama.
  • Sean Woods won his first game for Morehead State in a 77-74 victory over NEC favorite LIU-Brooklyn at the Barclays Center. Woods took the new gig after leading Mississippi Valley State to the NCAA tournament last season. Senior forward Milton Chavis scored 24 points in the win. Nice start for Woods’ program.
  • Other results of note: Nice start for Doug McDermott and Creighton as the All-American contributed 21 points and 11 rebounds in a duel with fellow NBA prospect Tony Mitchell of North Texas. The Bluejays won by 20. ... Huge for George Mason to not only get Virginia to come to Fairfax, but also for the Patriots to pull off the 63-59 victory over a program they'd never beaten before. ... Two other CAA rivals weren't as fortunate: Old Dominion was surprised at home by Holy Cross and league favorite Drexel fell in overtime at Kent State. ... Everyone remember Lehigh beating Duke last season, but few remember that the Mountain Hawks didn't even win the Patriot League regular-season title. Bucknell did. And the Bison opened the new season with a 70-65 win at Purdue. That's going to be quite a conference race in the Patriot.

What I can't wait to see: ACC

October, 19, 2012
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Here are five storylines I look forward to following during the ACC this season.

What I can’t wait to see:

Will North Carolina State live up to the hype?

For the past nine seasons, the conference title has been won by North Carolina or Duke. But this year NC State is the heavy favorite. The Wolfpack are the logical pick thanks to the return of players such as C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown, and the addition of highly touted newcomers like Rodney Purvis. It also helps that Duke and North Carolina each lost most of their key players. Still, let’s not forget that this is a team that finished in a three-way tie for fourth in the ACC last season with a 9-7 record. Mark Gottfried’s squad went on a nice run in the NCAA tournament and almost upset Kansas in the Sweet 16. Is that the Wolfpack team we’ll see this season? Or will we see the squad that was marginal for most of 2011-12? My guess is the former.

How quickly will Duke’s Rasheed Sulaimon adapt to the college game?

The Blue Devils lost guard and leading scorer Austin Rivers to the NBA draft, and Andre Dawkins will redshirt this season. Duke still has Seth Curry -- and it’s confident that sophomore Quinn Cook will take a big leap. Still, the backcourt is thin. As the 12th-ranked prospect in the Class of 2012 by ESPN.com, the 6-foot-4 Sulaimon is skilled enough to get on the court immediately and be a major factor for the Blue Devils. But it takes things other than skill to play for Mike Krzyzewski. How well will Sulaimon defend? How quickly will he pick up Duke’s system? How good a teammate will he be? Thus far the reports out of Durham have been positive.

Can Dez Wells play for Maryland?

Wells is practicing with Terps, but is awaiting a waiver that would allow him to play immediately after transferring during the summer from Xavier, where he was dismissed for a violation of the student code of conduct. Head coach Mark Turgeon is crossing his fingers that the waiver is granted, because the addition of Wells would greatly enhance Maryland’s chances of making the NCAA tournament after a two-year hiatus. Wells averaged 9.8 points and 4.9 rebounds for Xavier last season.

North Carolina will likely take a step back -- but will it be a big one?

The Tar Heels won the NCAA title in 2009 and then lost Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson, Danny Green and others to the NBA. The following year they went 20-17 overall and 5-11 in the ACC. Will North Carolina -- which was one of the top two teams in country last season until Kendall Marshall got hurt -- take a similar slide this season after losing Marshall, John Henson, Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes? The guess here is no. North Carolina might not be as strong as it was in 2011-12, but it still has a roster stacked with talent. James Michael McAdoo, P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock are NBA-caliber players. Dexter Strickland is an experienced guard, and standout recruit Marcus Paige should have a quick impact. The Tar Heels shouldn’t finish any lower than third in the ACC.

Who is the fourth-best team?

Let’s assume North Carolina State, Duke and North Carolina -- and not necessarily in that order -- will occupy the top three slots. Who comes next? Maryland and Miami certainly have to be considered. Nick Faust, James Padgett, Pe'Shon Howard and Alex Len all return for the Terps, who have added a top-flight recruit in 6-foot-9, 270-pound forward Shaquille Cleare. Reggie Johnson, Durand Scott and Kenny Kadji are back for Miami. The coaches of both teams (Turgeon at Maryland and Jim Larranaga at Miami) are in their second season, which means each program should take significant strides. Still, I think the “next best” team outside of the top three will be Florida State. Not only that, but come February, I wouldn’t be shocked if Leonard Hamilton’s squad was in the mix for the ACC title. Year after year, the Seminoles lose good players. And year after year, Hamilton finds a way to keep his team relevant. Not many squads in the country defend as well as Florida State, which returns standout guard Michael Snaer.

3-point shot: Terps waiting on Wells

October, 18, 2012
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1. Xavier transfer Dez Wells has been quite a hit for his new Maryland teammates. Wells is currently practicing with the Terps, but is awaiting a waiver to play immediately for Maryland after being dismissed at Xavier for a violation of the student code of conduct. Wells is NCAA eligible, but under normal rules would have to sit out the season because of transferring. Maryland has sent the waiver to the NCAA, which sent it to Xavier. Xavier officials told ESPN.com last month that the Musketeers wouldn’t fight Wells playing immediately. Wednesday at ACC media day, Maryland’s Nick Faust -- on the possibility of Wells being eligible -- said, “it makes us very stacked at guard. He’s a great talented guy that could really help us if he can play right away."

2. I’m not surprised Davidson is staying put in the Southern Conference instead of going to the Colonial Athletic Association, according to ESPN’s Brett McMurphy. Davidson coach Bob McKillop told me earlier in the summer how important it was for the Wildcats to be in a conference where travel was not as much of an issue. McKillop knows where he fits and is highly successful. Davidson clearly understands this as well. The Wildcats can win or compete for the Southern title every year. That might have been the case in the CAA, too. But there was no need for change, especially since Davidson wasn’t bumping up to a multiple bid league like the A-10. Next to make a move or stay is the College of Charleston.

3. I still don’t get why Cincinnati wasn’t getting the necessary respect in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll released Wednesday. The Bearcats weren’t in the Top 25, falling three spots out. Meanwhile, no A-10 teams were in the preseason poll, though, Saint Louis, VCU, Butler and Saint Joseph’s received votes. That’s probably indicative of the season the A-10 will have in 2013. The A-10 will be as strong as it has been from 25 to 35. The league may not have an elite team but could have five to six teams vying for bids in early March.

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