College Basketball Nation: Illinois Illini

AUSTIN, Texas -- The one-time, small-time coach is back in the big time.

Jim Larranaga, who last made a significant NCAA tournament run at George Mason in 2006, has led the second-seeded Miami Hurricanes to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2000 with a 63 -59 win over No. 7 Illinois at the Frank Erwin Center Sunday.

Overview: In a game that went back and forth throughout the second half, Miami found just enough offense from Shane Larkin to pull away late. With Miami down one, Larkin hit a step-back 3-pointer to put the Hurricanes ahead for good with one minute left.

Turning Point: Illinois had the chance to go up by two inside of two minutes and possibly put some pressure on Miami but Tracy Abrams missed the second of two free throws, allowing the Hurricanes some measure of comfort as they went down the floor for what was the game-winning shot.

Key Player: Larkin not only hit the big shot at the end of the game but proved his value as a point guard all night. The sophomore was consistently able to penetrate, draw and dish to his teammates. And when the Illini didn't cut off the lane Larkin was comfortable finding his shot among taller players. He finished with 17 points and five assists.

Key Stat: The Illini were able to hang in the game because they kept the Hurricanes off the offensive glass. In fact it was Illinois that thrived, getting 19 second-chance points to Miami's eight. Nnanna Egwu led the way with 12 boards for Illinois.

Next Up: Miami will play No. 3 Marquette in the Sweet 16 in Washington, D.C., on Friday.

Wooden Watch: Jason King's POY ballot

December, 20, 2012

The preseason watch list for the Wooden Watch featured 50 players. In a little more than a week, voters will be asked to trim the list of names down to 25.

It’s not going to be easy.

Duke’s Mason Plumlee and Creighton’s Doug McDermott have, in my opinion, established themselves as the clear-cut leaders for the award. But after that, there are probably 35 to 40 players who could make a case to be on the list of midseason finalists.

Selecting 25 of them will be tough, but picking 15 is even more difficult. Here is my best attempt.
  1. Mason Plumlee, Duke -- The No. 1 Blue Devils played their first game in 11 days Wednesday and whipped Cornell 88-47. Plumlee, a forward, had 18 points and nine boards and is now averaging 19.1 and 11.1 on the season. Plumlee has occupied the top slot for the entire season.
  2. Doug McDermott, Creighton -- The versatile junior averaged 28.5 points during a four-game stretch before being brought back down to earth a bit in Wednesday’s 71-54 victory over Tulsa, when he finished with 16 points. McDermott is shooting 55 percent from the field.
  3. Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse -- The identity of the nation’s best point guard seems to fluctuate from week to week, simply because there are so many good ones. Carter-Williams, though, is putting up numbers that can’t be ignored. He leads the nation in assists (10.7) and ranks third in steals (3.4).
  4. Trey Burke, Michigan -- The No. 2-ranked Wolverines would be merely average if not for Burke, whose 18 points and seven assists per game have helped keep Michigan undefeated. Burke shoots 53.5 percent from the field and combines with Tim Hardaway Jr. (15.7 points) to form arguably the nation’s top backcourt.
  5. Jeff Withey, Kansas -- No team in the country has been as impressive in recent weeks as the Jayhawks, who have won their past three games by an average of 31 points. Withey is one of the main reasons. The 7-foot center receives most of his acclaim for his 5.4 blocks per game. But he’s also averaging 14.1 points and 8.1 rebounds.
On the cusp:

Anthony Bennett, UNLV -- No freshman in America is having as good of a season as Bennett, who averages 19.4 points and 8.6 rebounds for the 10-1 Runnin’ Rebels.

Laurence Bowers, Missouri -- The senior forward, who missed last season with a knee injury, has overtaken Phil Pressey as the Tigers’ top player. He averages 16.3 points.

Isaiah Canaan, Murray State -- The Racers are 9-1 thanks to Canaan, a preseason All-American who averages 21 points and shoots 43 percent from 3-point range.

Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State -- Franklin is the definition of versatility. He leads the No. 18 Aztecs in points (18.6), rebounds (9.7) and assists (3.1).

Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati -- The junior guard isn’t afraid to shoot it, as evidenced by his 27 field goal attempts in Wednesday’s win against Xavier. Kilpatrick averages 19.8 points and 6.3 rebounds.

Victor Oladipo, Indiana -- Not many players in the country do as much for their team as Oladipo, who is one of America’s most improved players with averages of 13.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.7 steals and 2.5 assists.

Brandon Paul, Illinois -- Paul had 17 points and nine rebounds against Eastern Kentucky on Sunday. He’ll probably need to play one of his best games of the season for the Illini to beat Missouri Saturday in St. Louis.

Russ Smith, Louisville -- The underappreciated guard and team scoring leader (19.6 points) played through an ankle sprain against Memphis last week and scored 19 points in a come-from-behind victory.

Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State -- The Buckeyes’ leading scorer (20.4 points) will be involved in the biggest game of the weekend when Ohio State hosts Kansas Saturday.

Cody Zeller, Indiana -- The sophomore is averaging 15.7 points. Last season he averaged 15.6. His rebounding numbers (6.6 to 8.3) have noticeably improved.
Coastal Carolina forward Sam McLaurin is a four-year senior seeking a one-year stay at a new college under the guise of the NCAA's graduate transfer exemption. McLaurin chose to transfer to Illinois.

This news is entirely mundane. Sure, it's nice that new Illinois coach John Groce got a capable forward from a decent mid-major program to help out in his first season on the job, but let's be real: This is not the kind of news that gets anyone, even Illinois fans, out of bed in the morning.

So why am I writing about this? Because McLaurin announced his decision in perhaps the single greatest way possible: On Twitter, profanely, at 2:20 a.m. ET on Thursday morning. ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers has the story:
McLaurin tweeted in the early morning hours of Thursday: "F--- it im going to Illinois #illinination"

He tweeted at about 1:15 p.m. ET: "Hey everyone sorry about my language last night. I was just extremely excited to be apart of #illinination"

That may not be the single greatest tweet of all time -- I'm still partial to the very first tweet, "inviting coworkers," made by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey in March 2006 -- but it's up there. It is, far as I can remember, the single greatest college commitment-related tweet in modern human history. Who knows what led McLaurin to throw caution to the wind and announce in that manner, but I'm glad he did.

3-point shot: Illinois in a free fall

February, 20, 2012
1. Illinois coach Bruce Weber said Friday he wasn’t going to quit on this team and the players hadn’t either. Weber still hasn’t stopped coaching. But the team clearly isn’t responding to his voice. The complete meltdown at Nebraska was a strong indicator. Illinois is in sudden free fall and it looks like it will be increasingly difficult to stop the slide and avoid a $3.9 million change. If this happens, then first on the list for athletic director Mike Thomas will likely be VCU’s Shaka Smart, who would be wise to consider one of the plum jobs in the country. And if this domino falls, then a Valley school should welcome back Weber with open arms.

2. The more I watch Isaiah Canaan of Murray State, the more I see Kemba Walker-like characteristics. That doesn’t mean Murray State is going to win the national title or even come close. But Canaan has similar leadership skills that can lead the Racers to a few good wins in the NCAA tournament. Remember, Walker didn’t have the best shooting percentage and made some overly aggressive penetrating turnovers, too. Canaan should be a good watch in March.

3. I hope the selection committee was paying attention Saturday. If you watched Long Beach State, Creighton, Drexel and Wichita State you would agree that these are four tournament-level teams that could win games in the NCAAs. And this will be the problem going forward if a few were on the bubble (I don’t see the Shockers in that predicament). You can’t tell me that you’re more impressed watching Seton Hall or Connecticut of late (especially against Louisville) more than these four. These four teams will make the tournament a better watch and shouldn’t be out if they continue to take care of business ahead.
Here are some quirks, oddities and unintentional humor from the humorless Gene Smith and the 2011 NCAA tournament selection committee.

Is there such a thing as a Weekend Pass?
We all have become very familiar with the BYU Honor Code this year thanks to the suspension of Brandon Davies. It should be interesting to see how that plays in New Orleans, which is where the Cougars will go if they make it to the Sweet 16. I’m pretty sure the Bourbon Street Code reads a little differently.

Don’t I know you from somewhere?
A year ago, Kentucky’s Final Four train was unexpectedly derailed in the Elite Eight when Joe Mazzulla, hampered much of the season by an injured shoulder, started for the first time and dropped 17 on the unsuspecting Wildcats to lead West Virginia to the Final Four.

Fast forward to this season’s bracket. If Kentucky gets past Princeton in its first game, and if the Mountaineers beat either Clemson or UAB, the two will meet up again.

Reunion Arena
[+] EnlargeIllinois coach Bruce Weber
(AP Photo/Andy ManisIllinois coach Bruce Weber may face a former Illini coach or two in the tournament.
We like to think the Selection Committee is as serious as the Warren Commission, but there’s no way the crew couldn’t have snickered a little bit when they saw what they had put together. Former chair Gary Walters once referred to the unintended matchups as the “serendipity of the tournament itself.”

There are several interesting twists in this year’s field but how about this one in particular: Illinois coach Bruce Weber will face former Illinois coach Lon Kruger in the second round when the Illini take on UNLV. If the former is successful, he is likely to face another “former” when Weber and Co. would see Kansas and Bill Self, who coached the Illini prior to Weber’s arrival in Champaign.

Another interesting matchup is Memphis coach Josh Pastner facing off with Arizona, his alma mater and the school where he got his first shot at coaching under Lute Olson.

Spell that, please
When Kentucky readied to square off against Cornell a year ago, DeMarcus Cousins scored the quip of the week when asked about facing the Ivy League champion.

“We’re here to play basketball. It’s not a spelling bee,’’ he said.

It was funny then and it’s downright ironic now.

This year the committee paired the Wildcats with the latest Ivy League champ, Princeton.

Fear the B
It’s wildly improbable but the last two times Kansas lost in the first round it was to B-lettered universities. In 2005, Bucknell took down the Jayhawks and in 2006, it was Bradley. This year’s opponent is Boston University.

What’s the Matta?
The committee did Thad Matta no favors, putting two coaches with national championships (Jim Boeheim and Roy Williams) and four more with Final Four (John Calipari, Bob Huggins, Jim Larranaga and Jay Wright) between him and Houston.

Other fun facts

  • Princeton is a 13 seed. The last time the Tigers were a 13, they beat defending national champ UCLA in 1996. By the way, Princeton's last (and only win) over Kentucky came in 1926.
  • Marquette (11 seed) and Kentucky (4 seed) could meet in the East Regional final. These two teams have met 10 times in the NCAA tournament, most all-time.
  • The last time Florida was a 2 seed was in 2003. The Gators played in Tampa in the first two rounds just like this year. They lost in the second round to Michigan State by 22, a team they could play in the second game against if the Spartans beat UCLA.
  • The last time St. John's faced Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament was 2000. The Johnnies were the 2 seed and Gonzaga was the 10. The Bulldogs pulled off the upset.
  • Louisville faces in-state foe Morehead State in the first round. Morehead's last NCAA appearance was in 2009, when it also played the Cardinals.

Rapid Reaction: Michigan 60, Illinois 55

March, 11, 2011
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Michigan Wolverines are definitely dancing. Their comeback from a 12-point second-half deficit against Illinois assuredly moves them off the bubble and into the field of 68. Illinois will be in as well, but this probably hurts its seeding.

Star of the game: Darius Morris had 17 points and seven assists for Michigan, but it was freshman Tim Hardaway Jr. who made the biggest shots for the Wolverines. Hardaway's 3-pointer with 1:42 left gave Michigan its first lead since early in the game, and his two free throws in the final minute helped keep them in front. He finished with 16 points.

Turning point: Down 51-42, Michigan's defense held Illinois without a point for the next five-and-a-half minutes while hitting several timely 3s of their own. By the time the Illini scored again, they were in a dogfight.

Key stat: Michigan had clutch shooters, hitting 46 percent from 3-point range and 82 percent from the line.

What's next: The Wolverines will get a third shot at Ohio State tomorrow, and the thin Buckeyes are coming off an overtime game in which Jared Sullinger played all 45 minutes. Upset alert is on. Illinois goes home to see what its seeding, destination and opponent will be in the NCAAs Sunday.

Big Ten tournament preview

March, 11, 2011
INDIANAPOLIS -- Three things I can't wait to see in Northwestern-Ohio State:
  • Can Michael Thompson continue his roll? The spunky little Northwestern guard set a Big Ten tournament scoring record with 35 points against Minnesota Thursday. Theoretically, he'll be facing a tougher defense against the Buckeyes, so it will be difficult for a 5-foot-10 guard to dominate a game. But Thursday he very much looked the part of a senior who is driving to extend his career as long as possible, so we'll see what carries over to Friday.
  • Can Jon Diebler continue his roll? The Ohio State senior sharpshooter has been ridiculous of late, making 17 of 20 3-point shots in the Buckeyes' last two games. Four words for Northwestern: get a hand up. And even that might not be enough.
  • Can Northwestern shock the world? You may not remember, but the Wildcats just about had Ohio State beaten in Evanston in late January before letting it get away. Northwestern had the ball in a tie game in the last 20 seconds before turning it over, then fouling Jared Sullinger with three seconds remaining. He made one free throw for the victory. With that as a backdrop, Northwestern doesn't go into this game lacking hope the way most of us probably think it should.
Three things I can't wait to see in Michigan-Illinois
  • Can the Wolverines sew up a bid? Actually, I think they probably already have, but with fellow bubble-dwellers such as Colorado, Boston College and Georgia winning, Michigan would enhance its peace of mind with a victory today. Nobody wants to spend all day Sunday dithering about whether they're playing in the Big Dance or the NIT.
  • Does Illinois have a run in it? The likelihood of the Illini making a major statement in this tournament seems remote, because they haven't won consecutive games since early January. But even though they're seemingly in the NCAA tournament, there needs to be some reason for Illinois fans to expect something noteworthy next week. Time to give them some hope.
  • Which guard shines brighter, Tim Hardaway Jr. or Demetri McCamey? Hardaway has been on fire lately, averaging more than 20 points per game in his last six -- and his famous father is in Indy to watch him this weekend. As for McCamey, the senior for Illinois has had a fairly disappointing senior season but has shot a higher percentage in the last four games -- he's 27-of-49 from the field in that span. In fact, McCamey's 18 points in Illinois' two-point victory last month triggered his return to form.
Three things I can't wait to see in Michigan State-Purdue
  • Can the Spartans walk, much less play? Point guard Kalin Lucas had an ice pack on his right ankle Thursday night after re-injuring it against Iowa. Power forward Delvon Roe had ice on his chronically problematic right knee, and playing back-to-back games will be tough for him. The Spartans don't have the bodies to endure a lot of injuries, especially in the backcourt.
  • Does Purdue bounce back? The Boilermakers have had a great season, but they ended the regular schedule with a brutal two-point loss at Iowa. A lot of people, including the NCAA selection committee, will be watching to see if that was a blip or the beginning of a negative trend. Getting a No. 2 seed could depend on the showing today.
  • How Purdue-intensive is the crowd? With Indiana having a terrible year and already being eliminated from the tournament, will Conseco Fieldhouse be an ocean of old gold and black? It will be tough to rattle veteran Michigan State, but having the fans behind you never hurts.
Three things I can't wait to see in Penn State-Wisconsin
  • Will Talor Battle ever sit down? The Nittany Lions point guard has played 238 of a possible 240 minutes in his last six games, including the full 40 Thursday night against Indiana. It will be tough to maintain that pace in Indy against a fresh Badgers team.
  • Will Jordan Taylor ever get sloppy with the ball? The Badgers point guard leads the nation in assist-to-turnover margin, and his numbers in that area have only gotten better in recent weeks. He has 24 assists and three turnovers in his last five games.
  • Can Penn State upset Wisconsin again? The Nittany Lions beat the Badgers in State College in late January and split the season series. Given their motivation level to keep winning and get into the NCAA tournament, expect the best that Penn State can bring to the table.
Saturday was not the most enticing day of college hoops we've seen this season. Saturday night's "College GameDay" feature, a 9 p.m. ET tilt between No. 11 Kentucky and No. 23 Florida, is the only matchup of two ranked teams on the schedule. But I'm not complaining. Why? Two reasons:

1. You should never complain about a full Saturday of college hoops. The offseason is way too long. You have to appreciate this stuff while it lasts. It'll be July (ugh) soon enough.

2. Saturday's games have actually been pretty solid. We've had a handful of shocking upsets (I'm looking at you, Washington), a menagerie of one-possession squeakers, and most noticeably -- especially for the first Saturday of February, which still feels too early to spend too much time worrying about the bubble just yet -- a variety of important long-term ramifications for a variety of teams on all sides of the bubble.

So, no, I'm not complaining. Instead, I'm recapping, analyzing and enjoying. Below is a look at some of the more intriguing bubble-oriented games of the day. Join me, won't you?

Baylor 76, No. 16 Texas A&M 74: Just when you thought the Bears were done for good, they go and do something like this ... and totally redeem themselves! OK, so not totally; Baylor still has plenty of work to do to build a solid NCAA tournament résumé. But the Bears' huge win at Texas A&M this afternoon does salvage what appeared to be an all-but-cooked NCAA tournament at-large candidacy after they lost an ugly game at Oklahoma Wednesday.

So how did Baylor get this win? Two obvious areas of the game stick out. The first is pure shot conversion: The Bears made 51.8 percent from the field, 43.8 percent from the 3-point line, and notched an effective field goal percentage of 58.0 percent. A&M, on the other hand, went 42.9 percent from the field, 34.8 percent from 3, and 50 percent eFG, a product of Baylor's length and athleticism in Scott Drew's preferred zone defense. The second advantage area for Baylor? Rebounding. The Bears rebounded a higher percentage of theirs and the Aggies' misses on both ends of the floor. This is the way to beat A&M -- a very good rebounding team -- at home.

That's how Baylor got its two crucial buckets of the game, both of which came in overtime. The first came off a Perry Jones rebound and putback with just a minute left in the game. The second came with 3.1 seconds remaining, when Anthony Jones grabbed an offensive board and scored a layup to give Baylor the decisive bucket late.

For Texas A&M, the loss caps a brutal week. The Aggies lost at Nebraska last Saturday and were blown out at home by Texas Monday before this disappointing defeat. A&M appears to be backsliding; if they do, it's possible this win won't mean quite as much for Baylor down the stretch as it does Saturday. But no matter. The Bears desperately needed something resembling a marquee win, and they got one here.

Northwestern 71, No. 24 Illinois 70: Speaking of apparent backslides, Bruce Weber's Illini have now lost five of their past seven games, including a loss at Indiana and, now, Saturday's ugly performance at Northwestern. The Illini have a whole host of problems, some of which have been year-long bugaboos -- poor shot selection, lack of an interior presence, Demetri McCamey's inexplicable passivity, soft perimeter defense -- and all of which showed up in the loss to the Wildcats. If there's anything we know about college basketball, it's that you don't want to overreact to road conference losses; they happen to every team regardless of relative superiority. But given their recent results, this loss feels like an especially pertinent one for Illinois. It seemed the Illini were set to turn things around after a convincing win over Penn State this week. Instead, suddenly, the talented team that entered the season with Big Ten title hopes finds itself slowly, but surely, looking like yet another bubble candidate. If Illinois fans aren't already engaging in much wailing and gnashing of teeth (and I'm pretty sure they are), then now is the time to start.

George Mason 62, Old Dominion 45: How about some love for the George Mason Patriots? Entering the season, most observers pegged Old Dominion and Virginia Commonwealth as the Colonial's two main title contenders. Jim Larranga's team rarely got that sort of love. But after Saturday's double-digit home win over ODU, Mason is now 11-2 in league play, good enough to tie VCU for the Colonial lead to date. (VCU got a solid win at James Madison Saturday to move to 11-2, too.) That's especially impressive considering the unusual depth we're seeing in the Colonial this season. VCU, ODU, Mason, Hofstra and even Drexel are all solid, and more than one of them could eventually warrant consideration for an at-large berth by the time the season is over. If the past week -- which, besides Saturday's game, featured a 21-point win over Hofstra -- is any indication, Mason just might be the toughest of the bunch.

Oregon 81, No. 19 Washington 76: At the risk of encroaching on Bill Raftery's well-established choke hold on the "Sleepless In Seattle" pun market, let's just say Huskies fans are about to start having some serious REM-cycle issues. What appeared for much of the season to be the Pac-10's best team -- not to mention one of the most underrated and efficient teams in the country -- Washington suffered its second straight disaster in Oregon. Thursday's loss to Oregon State cost UW its spot at the top of the Pac-10 standings. Saturday's loss throws the whole conference title picture into whack. But it also does something worse: It casts doubt on this Washington team, which appeared to be rolling after the loss of Abdul Gaddy and the transition of Isaiah Thomas to the point guard spot. Clearly, that's not the case. Even worse, Washington, like Illinois above, is suddenly in frightening bubble territory, with no notable nonconference wins to speak of. (And we need to give some love to these Ducks, too, specifically coach Dana Altman. This team has no business beating Washington State and Washington in back-to-back games, but that's exactly what Altman and Co. just did. Impressive.)

Butler 73, Cleveland State 61: Has Butler found its defense? Brad Stevens will be hoping so, at least. Stevens' disappointing bunch has scored at a high rate -- but yielded points far too easily -- throughout the 2010-11 season, and the result has been a mediocre Horizon League record, a handful of ugly losses (including Thursday's loss at 8-14 Youngstown State) and a steep fall from the national title-type heights they scaled during the previous season. This game won't put Butler back on the good side of the bubble -- sorry, but no team with five Horizon losses is going to be an at-large candidate anytime soon -- but it does do two things. First, it damages Cleveland State's already tenuous at-large hopes. Second, in holding the Vikings to a point per possession on the road, Butler has provided some hope that it can still find ways to defend with something resembling previous season's tenacity. That has been missing all season. But if Butler finds it, and slots it in next to that super-efficient offense, the Bulldogs might not be dead yet.

Kansas State 86, Iowa State 85: Before this season started, you can bet Kansas State coach Frank Martin wasn't circling a Feb. 5 date at Iowa State as a likely "must win." But that's actually what this game was for the Wildcats. Or, perhaps more accurately, it was a "must not lose" game. A loss might have officially doomed Martin's team to the sub-bubble scrap heap. With a win over the scruffy and surprisingly tough Cyclones, Kansas State's bubble hopes -- which are buoyed by a strong computer profile and a few solid wins here and there -- remain alive. The next step? Seeing if Jacob Pullen's 17-point second-half explosion and game-winning last-second layup can key a return to the preseason All-American's formerly high-flying form.

Memphis 62, Gonzaga 58: And, finally, the loss that officially broke the Gonzaga at-large berth camel's back. (In case you're wondering, yes, every team has a camel, and every loss is a straw, and ... ah, nevermind. Dumb metaphor. Let's move on.) Gonzaga was already on supremely shaky NCAA tournament territory after its lost weekend in the Bay Area Jan. 20-22, when the Bulldogs lost at Santa Clara and at San Francisco. The Bulldogs have some good wins but nothing truly great, and they just lost a home game to a Memphis team that is fully on the bubble itself. Whether the Tigers get a boost here is up for debate. What seems certain is that if Gonzaga plans on extending its 12-year NCAA tournament appearance streak, it's probably going to have to win the WCC tourney to do so.

Other notables from the afternoon:
The drill, you know it. Here are five things I can't wait to see in the Big Ten this season:

1. How -- and whether -- Purdue recovers

At the risk of overplaying the Robbie Hummel story (he was, after all, the story of Big Ten media day, too), I'm going with this at No. 1. To me, there is no greater intrigue in the league this season than in finding out just what effect Hummel's ACL tear will have on his team in 2010-11. We know from last year's injury that the forward added far more to Purdue's offense than to its defense. Purdue's offensive efficiency drastically declined after Hummel's first ACL tear last February (thanks in large part to a couple of 40-point stinkers in games against Michigan State and Minnesota, the latter of which saw the Boilermakers score 11 points in the first half), but there was some sign Purdue had righted the points-per-possession ship during their run to the Sweet 16. Defensively, the Boilers were not only fine, they were better with Hummel out; coach Matt Painter changed his team's style, focusing less on offensive rebounds demanding his team get behind the ball with all five players. With Chris Kramer still patrolling the perimeter, and a much more careful Boilermakers team on the floor, Purdue ended the season with the third-most efficient defense in the country.

The problem is that not all of Hummel's contributions, even on the offensive end, are quantifiable. Hummel's versatility as a point forward with 3-point range opened the lane for JaJuan Johnson and made it difficult to impossible to double the big man on the elbow and short post. Hummel drew a high number of fouls, distributed the ball well without turning it over, and was in many ways a glue guy who played with the efficiency of a star. Kramer's defense (and sneaky good, fourth-option-type offense) is also a major loss. Painter is a more than capable coach with more time than last year to figure out how to replace Hummel (and now Kramer), and he has a large amount of depth to utilize in that process. But it's hard to imagine these Boilermakers being as good as last year's pre-ACL version.

[+] EnlargeKalin Lucas
Matthew O'Haren/Icon SMIThe return of a healthy Kalin Lucas makes the Spartans one of the nation's most talented teams.
2. A healthy Kalin Lucas

It's no wonder Michigan State is ranked just behind Duke in just about everyone's preseason top 25. The Spartans went to their second-straight Final Four in 2009-10 without the help of their best player, guard Kalin Lucas, who was a contender for Big Ten Player of the Year until an Achilles tear forced him to the sidelines for the remainder of the season. The 2010-11 version gets Lucas -- and everyone not named Raymar Morgan and Chris Allen -- back. Toss in a talented recruiting class with at least one likely contributor (freshman Keith Appling) already in the mix, and you get a loaded, experienced team as talented as any in the country. The real draw, though, is Lucas -- how he recovers, how he leads, and how he closes his Michigan State career after being forced to watch from the sidelines during last year's triumphant and unexpected finish.

3. Bruce Weber's best team in years

Even in down years, Bruce Weber's teams did one thing. They defended. Weber is a defensive coach, and his ability to get his players to play stifling man-to-man defense out to 30 feet has been one reason why a lack of talent in the post-Deron Williams era hasn't gotten him in more trouble with his fan base. But no such problem exists this season: Illinois returns all five starters from last year's team. Three seniors, including All-Big Ten preseason pick Demetri McCamey, are back. Last year's two highly touted freshman -- Brandon Paul and Big Ten freshman of the year D.J. Richardson -- will look to make the freshman-to-sophomore leap. And another big-time recruiting class, including forward Jereme Richmond, the No. 23-ranked player in the class of 2010, shouldn't need much time to make an impact. There is no small amount of expectation surrounding this team: The Big Ten's media picked Illinois to finish fourth behind Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue, and the Illini are ranked No. 13 in the AP preseason poll. That's a big jump in expectations for a defensively mediocre team that limped to an NIT finish last season, but it's a warranted one. Now Weber just has to remember how to get his guys to play defense. With all that talent, the offensive end -- and an NCAA tournament bid -- should take care of itself.

4. Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger
AP Photo/Terry GilliamJared Sullinger, the No. 2-ranked player in the class of 2010, replaces Evan Turner in OSU's lineup.
Losing a high-usage player of the year like Evan Turner isn't the sort of thing your program is supposed to immediately overcome. But Sullinger, the No. 2-ranked player in the class of 2010, could push the 2010-11 version of the Buckeyes to be even better than last year's team. The four non-Turner starters -- versatile guards William Buford and David Lighty, sharpshooter Jon Diebler, and bruising center Dallas Lauderdale -- return. By plugging Sullinger (not to mention top small forward prospect DeShaun Thomas) in, Ohio State won't have to play four guards this season. They won't lack frontcourt depth when Lauderdale gets in foul trouble. They won't have to play their starters an insane number of minutes. And, if Sullinger plays to expectations, they'll have as effective a low-block scorer as any team in the country. It's hard to pick Ohio State over Michigan State to start the season, but by the end of it, Ohio State could very well deserve that distinction. They might just be the second-best team in the country.

5. Another ho-hum Wisconsin season

And rest assured, denizens of Madison: I mean "ho-hum" in the most complimentary way possible. This is a stat I've written before, but one that bears repeating: In Bo Ryan's tenure, the Badgers have failed to finish worse than fourth in the Big Ten exactly zero times. In nine seasons, the Badgers have failed to win 20 games only twice, and failed to win more than 24 games three times. The man and his program are models of consistency. That consistency hasn't exactly translated into tournament success; Ryan's teams have been past the second round of the NCAA tournament only three times in his tenure, and they've gotten past the Sweet 16 just once. But, still, how good must it feel to be a Wisconsin fan? To know, before the season even starts, that your team is going to be in the Big Ten mix?

That feeling shouldn't change this season. Wisconsin lost guards Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon, but it returned Jordan Taylor and potential Big Ten Player of the Year Jon Leuer, an efficient high-usage forward who rebounds on the defensive end and scores from everywhere on offense. He's perfect for Ryan's slow-swing system, and Ryan's system is perfect for the Big Ten. The Badgers will have to make sure last year's stellar turnover rate stays something near to stellar, and the loss of those experienced guards will be an early challenge, but would you wager, even in a very tough Big Ten, on a Bo Ryan team finishing outside the league's top four? There's no reason to start now.

Big Ten coaches evaluate July

October, 29, 2010
CHICAGO -- The NCAA's Board of Directors gave July recruiting a one-year reprieve on Thursday. Rather than eliminating the July recruiting period, as recommended by the Collegiate Commissioners Association last week, the NCAA decided to commission a one-year study to determine the various pros and cons associated with summer recruiting.

The reason for July's stay of execution? As our own Dave Telep wrote last week, the majority of college programs -- coaches especially -- dislike the idea. Most believe, as Telep wrote, that the rule's potential damage to coaches' scouting abilities outweighs the rule's ability to limit the influence of AAU power brokers, who thrive in July.

Around the same time the NCAA was making their announcement, nearly all of the Big Ten's coaches were fielding questions about the July recruiting period. If there's one thing coaches could agree on in regards to recruiting, it probably came from Michigan State's Tom Izzo.

"Recruiting's the hardest part of our job," Izzo said. "When you go all year long and you get a little bit of time -- and it's the nicest time of the year -- and you're gone almost the entire month, I think that makes it difficult."

Izzo wasn't exactly for or against the July recruiting period, though he did seem rather fond of the idea of getting some extra summer sun. (The Upper Peninsula is beautiful in July, right?) Izzo also made a salient version of the "everyone-plays-with-the-same-ball" line you might hear when someone complains about a basketball at pickup games: If everyone has to follow the same set of rules, they're probably going to get the same kind of kids, whether or not the July evaluation period exists.

More than anything, though, the Michigan State coach was worried about whether AAU summer hoops forces kids to play too many games as their bodies are still developing.

"I'd like to see a study on whether it's affecting our kids when they get in college," Izzo said. "Not only on the energy level and the passion for the game, but on whether or not we're wearing them out too early like sports sometimes do.

"I don't think we're looking at that angle," Izzo said. "Everybody says they'll continue to play. But, boy, if you had a son or a daughter and they're gone for what seems to be like two months of the summer for all these different camps, and you feel obligated to be at them, there is a wear-down factor."

As for the merits of the rule, Izzo's colleagues weren't convinced, though most admitted they didn't have an obvious solution to the agent-related problems the NCAA is trying to solve. A sampling of their thoughts:
  • Ohio State coach Thad Matta: "I don't know if I have a definitive answer. It's kind of like when everyone asks me about the one and done. I don't know what's right, what's wrong. I would think if they were to take July away or cut it back, hopefully they would give us the days throughout the course of the year. ... I understand where they're going. I think that agents -- that to me right now is the biggest thing that's going on. And I love what football is doing. They had a blowup and they took the bull by the horns, and they're getting this thing corrected. And the same thing that goes on in football goes on in basketball."
  • Northwestern coach Bill Carmody: "I'm not too sure what the alternative is. ... I think sometimes in the past with recruiting, there have been some knee-jerk reactions, and then a year later the rules changed. So I think people recognize there's a need to do something here. I just think more thought has to go into what's the best [solution], not just for our conference, but for college basketball. ... I think it's great that we're tossing it about, because certainly there are things about it that have to improve."
  • Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan: "For me, some of the best players that I've coached I saw during the July period, because I've coached at every different level. ... I think some coaches, they can just snap their fingers and get whoever they want. So they probably don't want to be out in July. I don't think you're ever going to eliminate third-party influences by saying you're not going to have July recruiting. I think whoever had that idea definitely hasn't been with us. ... There's stories both ways, I'm sure, but I like to stick with the basketball part of it and what it means to be able to see young men play rather than always talk about the negatives that might surround five kids. So I like July. I don't like it extended."
  • Illinois coach Bruce Weber: "I know it will be a hot topic over the next year, to see what happens with it. There's good and bad. The good is you obviously get to see a lot of kids at one time. The bad is I think sometimes the kids have too much basketball, too much travel, and it's hard on the coaches and players in a tough period. ... I've been doing it for 30-some years, and I've been out every summer. If it would change, it would be a big change for coaches, I know that."
On Friday, Dana discussed Bruce Pearl's past. To review: Before Friday, the most notable interaction Pearl had ever had with seedy side of college recruiting was when he recorded an Illinois recruit saying he had received a car from an Illinois assistant. Pearl turned that tape over to the NCAA, which never agreed with Pearl's claim that the tape revealed wrongdoing but did punish Illinois eventually for lack of institutional control. Pearl's his peers reacted accordingly. Pearl was an outcast; it took him another nine years to receive a Division I coaching offer at Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The rest is history.

Needless to say, Illinois fans do not like Bruce Pearl. They have not forgiven him. Nor, apparently, has Jimmy Collins, the recently retired Illinois-Chicago coach who was the target of Pearl's homebrew investigation as an Illinois assistant in the late 1980s. Quite the contrary. Collins is loving this. From the USA Today:
“What goes around comes around,” Collins, who retired this summer after a 14-year tenure as Illinois-Chicago’s coach, said by phone Sunday. Throughout the NCAA’s investigation of Illinois and afterward, “Bruce was holier than thou,” Collins said. “I knew Bruce and had talked to people about Bruce. Everyone knew what he was about.” [...]

“Now that Bruce got caught doing what he was probably doing all the time, he thinks it’s OK to say, “I made a mistake.’

“If I sound a little angry, I’m not angry anymore. God has taken care of that for me. But for me to say, well, I’m going to take the high road and say I feel bad for Bruce, my nose would start growing like Pinocchio.

“It will be interesting to see what happens to him. I’m watching with a microscope.”

Those are harsh sentiments, but if you ever talk to an Illinois fan, they're pretty much in line with how most fans feel about Pearl. An anecdotal example: My best friend from grade school was an Illinois fan, and so was his father. I've never seen him get so angry so quickly as when I naively asked why his family "hates Bruce Pearl as a matter of principle." (His words.) Even after the Kelvin Sampson-Eric Gordon-Bruce Pearl spat, Pearl remains the Illini's public enemy No. 1.

Now that Pearl has admitted to mistakes too -- to Illinois fans, he's no longer just a fraud; now he's a hypocrite -- the forecast should call for the schadenfreude to reach dangerously high levels in downstate Illinois in the coming weeks. Dress appropriately.
Discussing the onslaught of college hoops TV news is both depressing and exciting. On the one hand, it's a sign that the season is just over the hump, that the games are already there, waiting for us, that it's just a little while longer until we collectively bury ourselves in midseason college hoops bliss. On the other hand, it's just a tease.

These games are still months away. Even the early-season tournaments feel ages into the future. And since both Stephen Hawking and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office won't answer the many messages I've left about potential time machine technology, we have no way to make the interim months go by any faster. It's brutal.

Anyway, that's the feeling I had when I got the 2010-11 "College GameDay"/Saturday schedule, the list of games ESPN will be featuring every Saturday morning and evening with Rece Davis, Hubert Davis, Jay Bilas, Digger Phelps, Bob Knight and the rest of the motley gang. These games are, as we've come to expect, very enticing indeed. They feature big-time rivalries, high-stakes conference games, rabid fan bases, energetic arenas, and the occasional unusual suspect, just for good measure.

The full list of "GameDay" games, with a few random thoughts on each, is below:

2010-11 "College GameDay"/Saturday Schedule
  • Jan. 15: Vanderbilt at Tennessee, 12 p.m. ET; women's matchup to follow at 8 p.m. ET: This is interesting for reasons outside of SEC stakes and in-state rivalry. For the first time, "GameDay" is featuring a men's-women's doubleheader -- just like your high school used to do! -- with the men's game in the afternoon and the women's game to follow in the evening. Tennessee students, prepare thy Red Bulls.
  • Jan. 22: Michigan State at Purdue, 9 p.m. ET: It doesn't take much to figure out why this game will be important. Purdue and Michigan State are your two early Big Ten favorites, and there's a decent chance this game could be a matchup of the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams in the country.
  • Jan. 29: Kansas State at Kansas, 7 p.m. ET: And here are your two Big 12 favorites. Jacob Pullen & Co. have their eyes on their program's first Big 12 title since 1977. Kansas, despite so many key losses this offseason, is Kansas -- a deep and talented team that expects nothing less than a national title. If the Wildcats can pull off a win -- at Allen Fieldhouse, of all places -- they will deserve whatever accompanying hype comes their way. It won't be easy, but it should be intense.
  • Feb. 5: Kentucky at Florida, 9 p.m. ET: The battle for the SEC East will take place under Florida's high-angle shots in Gainesville (I can't be the only one who's noticed that, right?), as a young Kentucky team -- which will be a known entity by early February -- takes on a Gators team looking to do far more than just make the NCAA tournament.
  • Feb. 12: Pittsburgh at Villanova (from the Pavilion), 9 p.m. ET: In Wednesday's Big East Shootaround, Jay Bilas pegged these two as the top teams in the Big East. Watching this Pennsylvania pair try to separate themselves from the chasing pack -- which should include Syracuse, West Virginia and Georgetown -- should be about as exciting as you'd imagine.
  • Feb. 19: Illinois at Michigan State, 9 p.m. ET: Illinois has perhaps its most talented and experienced team since the Deron Williams era, and the Illini have been getting preseason buzz as an outside contender for the Big Ten crown. If Illinois is still in contention, this game could propel them into the league's elite. If Illinois is on the bubble, this game could be a résumé topper. Either way, it will be must-win.
  • Feb. 26: Duke at Virginia Tech, 9 p.m. ET: Seeing Virginia Tech on the "GameDay" schedule is a bit of a surprise. But this could be a gem: Few teams have the ability to pump up an away fan base quite like Duke, and the Hokies will have to take every opportunity they can to make sure they don't just miss the tournament for the third straight year.
  • March 5: Texas at Baylor, 9 p.m. ET: Five years ago, Baylor wasn't getting anywhere near "College GameDay." Now the Bears, one of the Big 12's true contenders, will be hosting the "GameDay" lads at the tail end of what should be another elite season. I have a feeling the Baylor loyalists will be rather excited about this one.
It's the province of the SEC and the Big 12, but, until recently, not the Big Ten: Conference divisions.

Now that the Big Ten has 12 teams -- the most likely number for 2011, unless something crazy happens with Notre Dame or the Big East -- the conference has to decide whether it wants to institute some sort of SEC-esque regional division structure. Is it East/West? North/South? Which configurations work best, and why? And does the Big Ten really need two divisions anyway?

FanHouse's Bruce Ciskie took a look at a few potential geographic divisions. Splitting the conference right down the middle into East and West doesn't quite work, at least not for football; it would shove Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State in the East, leaving a Big Ten West that would look awfully similar to Nebraska's old digs in the Big 12 North.

In the end, it's hard to disagree with NBC's Mike Miller -- the best option is North/South No. 2. That grouping puts Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin in the North and Indiana, Illinois, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State and Purdue in the South. It's not geographically perfect, sure, but it does create a nice bit of competitive balance in both sports, even if the North looks a bit stronger in the football.

But the real issue for hoops fans here is whether or not the basketball side needs divisions at all. And that answer? No. If the conference does decide to use the format, it should make sure the divisional rankings have nothing to do with conference tournament seeding, something the SEC has consistently failed to get right. Hoops divisions are fine and dandy if you want them; just make sure they exist more as a scheduling shortcut than a delineated way to organize the conference competitively. Leave that to football, thanks.
College hoops dollars pale in comparison to the sheer financial largesse of college football -- the most profitable athletic departments in the country tend to also have the most profitable football teams -- but there's no question college basketball is itself a cash cow. Just how fat is the cow? CNN Money crunched the numbers and found that the most profitable program in the country made $16.8 million last year. That program? The Louisville Cardinals.

And the Cardinals weren't just profitable. They were about $4.5 million more profitable than the next program on the list, North Carolina, which netted about $12.3 million in 2009. In third and fourth place are Ohio State and Arizona, which made about $11 million each, followed by Illinois, Wisconsin, Syracuse and Indiana, each ranging from about $8 million to $10 million in descending order.

There are a few interesting inclusions near the top of the list. Arkansas checks in at No. 10, just ahead of Kansas, which is hard to imagine. (Though maybe KU lost some of that money to ticket scalpers along the way. Just joking. Kind of.) Kentucky is all the way down at No. 17, which, given the Wildcats' advantages in attendance and fan interest, is also somewhat peculiar. These might be anomalies, or maybe not, but if they are, CNN might have the explanation:
The comparison between basketball revenues and profits is interesting, but not precise. That's because schools have latitude in their filings with the Department of Education in whether they attribute some expenses and revenues to a specific sport or a more general classification for their entire athletic department. Many schools use that latitude to have revenue and expenses for one sport equal one another rather than show a profit or a loss, a trick of accounting that wouldn't pass muster with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

This is why Duke, your 2009-10 NCAA champion and a hugely successful program by any measure, reported the largest loss of any men's basketball program last year. Duke decided to shift its revenue to a non-sport specific designation, meaning we don't really know how much money Duke's basketball team made in comparison to football or other sports. According to their own accounting, Duke basketball suffered a 17 percent loss last year. Which just sounds wrong.

In other words, congratulations to the Louisville Cardinals for being the most profitable college basketball program in the country. That result is somewhat surprising, but not shocking; the bottom line can't be hurt when you act as a de facto professional franchise for a city with a metropolitan population of about 1.3 million people.

Otherwise, don't get too excited about the list. Somebody -- it helps if you read this next part in former President Bush's cadence -- is cooking the books. Heh.
For now, that is: Illinois' Demetri McCamey and Purdue's JaJuan Johnson will test the NBA waters in the coming months. Both will hold off on hiring agents, leaving them what I think we should officially dub the Luke Harangody Memorial Draft Choice Stratagem; in other words, both players can go check out some camps, work out, see if the draft status begins to look appealing -- and if it doesn't, head back to school for another year of college hoops with no harm done.

The most interesting thing about these two decisions is what happens if the former (an NBA draft selection) and not the latter (a return to college hoops) is the eventual outcome for either. It would change either team's season dramatically, and remake the the Big Ten in ways neither team probably anticipated as their 2009-10 seasons ended.

Johnson's decision is without question the more surprising. Along with Robbie Hummel and E'Twaun Moore, Johnson is part of a trio of juniors -- now seniors -- who arrived at Purdue with high hopes of an NCAA tournament title. The pieces were in place this year. The Boilermakers were humming along, ripe for a No. 1 seed and a clear path to the Indianapolis-hosted NCAA tournament, when, as I'm sure you've heard, Hummel suffered a season-ending knee injury.

So it was expected by most that all three would return for their senior seasons to get one last shot at a prize that could have been theirs before injury struck. Our own Andy Katz, assuming much the same, ranked Purdue No. 1 in his early 2010 preseason rankings. If it sticks, Johnson's decision to leave move Purdue well down that list. The Boilermakers would still be a tough team with Hummel and Moore, but it's hard to overstate how important Johnson's interior scoring, rebounding, and defense boosted an otherwise shallow area of Purdue's club.

McCamey's decision is less surprising, if only because the junior took major steps in his junior year and because he faced some late-season acrimony with coach Bruce Weber. What's more, the Illini largely relied on McCamey for offense in 2009-10 and didn't have a viable second option; along with an NIT finish, that could have been the sort of frustration likely to push any player into the draft.

If McCamey stays, he'd be playing alongside highly touted recruit Jereme Richmond and a set of young Illini guards with another year of experience under their belts. Illinois could be very good. If McCamey does decide to leave -- his best scenario right now is a late second-round pick -- the Illini will still be an intriguing team, but they could face many of the same youth-related issues they dealt with for much of the 2009-10 season.

In other words, both players could be back, but both could also be gone, and the way those decisions line up will either strengthen the Big Ten or remake it in an entirely different light. Let's see how it goes.