College Basketball Nation: Jim Crews

A conversation with Jim Crews

December, 16, 2013
12/16/13
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Two years ago, Saint Louis coach Jim Crews joined Rick Majerus’ squad as an assistant. A year ago, everything changed when Crews was promoted to interim head coach as a result of Majerus’ health challenges and eventual death in December 2012.

Crews was promoted to head coach this season, and his Billikens are 9-2 just a few weeks prior to the start of Atlantic 10 play. Crews recently spoke with ESPN.com about the 2013-14 season and the legendary coach with an undeniable impact on the Saint Louis program and college basketball.

[+] EnlargeJim Crews
AP Photo/Mary AltafferSaint Louis' Jim Crews has the Billikens off to a 9-2 start in his first season as the full-time head coach.
ESPN: How have the new rules affected your team this season?

Crews: I think the biggest one is the block-charge because they’re calling like 95 percent of them blocks, it seems to me, because they’ve changed the rules. So if they err, they’re going on the block side. Actually, we’ve called a bunch of coaches to see what they’re doing to make adjustments and I haven’t really heard anyone who has a definite answer on that situation. I guess you just gotta get there earlier.

ESPN: What did your team take away from those tough losses to Wisconsin and Wichita State?

Crews: [Saturday] night we played against Wofford, who really doesn’t have a great record and is not a national name or anything. But I think this is where college basketball is. But they are as tough-minded as you can be. They run great stuff. Everything was very, very difficult. I thought our team grew [Saturday] night. I thought we really stayed the process. ... So when you play the teams like Wisconsin, Wichita State, it just kind of tells you where you are and what you have to improve on. Every possession is a really important possession. And when you can get a team mentally tough that has a purpose each and every time down the floor, the better you are. So you’re trying to get a consistency with it. If you’re inconsistent with things, then you’re going to get hurt at this level.

ESPN: How much does it help you as coach when your team is anchored by veterans such as Mike McCall Jr., Jordair Jett, Dwayne Evans and Rob Loe?

Crews: Tremendously. I think their knowledge of the system that Rick put in is impeccable. So as a coach, I kind of lean on them. ... We’re always talking in terms of ‘What do you guys see and what do you guys think?’ Sometimes we think they’ve got a better answer, sometimes we don’t. That’s what makes it enjoyable because they’ve invested and they understand why things work and don’t work instead of just doing whatever the dumb coach says. They understand the bigger picture. That’s a great thing. That’s a really great thing.

ESPN: A year ago, Coach Majerus passed away. How difficult was that period for you and your program?

Crews: The emotions, when you have so many people affected by it, I mean we all came to Saint Louis because of Rick -- the coaches and the players. And so all the young guys were affected in different ways because to some he was a father figure and to all he was a great coach and the older guys he was a friend to. And then from us coaches, he was a friend-type situation and a peer situation because some of us had been in the coaching profession a long time with him. It’s kind of like a family. Everyone goes through their emotions at different times. You don’t know when your emotions are going to hit. So it’s not like a three-day process or a week process. Some guys are affected a month later. Some guys are affected right off the bat earlier. Since we were all going through it, that was the common denominator. We were all very affected by it. That was the negative of his death. The positive part of going through that process is we were all doing it at the same time and it just didn’t affect one group or the other. It makes the game, and I think the vision became very clear, that it’s just a basketball game. It’s not life or death. And I think our guys really enjoy playing basketball, which it should be. We all take it seriously. But sometimes we all take it a little bit too seriously.

[+] EnlargeRick Majerus
Matt A. Brown/Icon SMILeading the Saint Louis program after Rick Majerus' death was an emotional time for Crews and the Billikens.
ESPN: How difficult was it to serve as the interim head coach in that situation?

Crews: I actually think the interim, it might have worked to an advantage. The only reason I was there was because I wanted to be there. ... We were there to help in any way we could, try to put the players in a position to be successful on and off the court. And Rick was always a big proponent of it’s the kids’ program, it’s their team, it’s their season and we’re there to serve them. It’s their time. They only get to go through college once. We had a collection of guys who were very mature. Those were big advantages for us.

ESPN: Coach Majerus had a great sense of humor. What’s your favorite funny story about him?

Crews: We played two years ago at Rhode Island and I think it was the next-to-last game of the year and if we would’ve won, we would’ve had a chance at the championship. We got off to a good lead and our kids wanted to beat them bad, not that they wanted to beat them bad, but just so it was over with and wasn’t close. ... They got too anxious. Anyways, they beat us. So I’m sitting out in the hallway, Rick had already addressed the team and everything. So about 20 minutes later, we get in the car, the team gets on the bus, another assistant is driving (the car) and Rick gets in the front seat and I’m in the back seat. Rick doesn’t even turn around and he goes, ‘I bet you’re glad you’re not the head coach.’ And I just start laughing because that’s exactly what I was thinking. I said, ‘That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking for the last 20 minutes.’ We just started laughing. It was good, it was good.

ESPN: What does Saint Louis have to do to compete for the Atlantic 10 title this year?

Crews: Probably consistency. I always say to win championships you’ve gotta be awfully good and you’ve gotta catch some breaks. ... Just consistency. I think that’s been our strength the last few years. That’s hard. It’s a long season. It’s up and down. A lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of emotion. You’re lining up every three days and you’re playing someone good.
When people rail against the inequities of the NCAA, they're typically talking about money. A college basketball coach can make $10 million in a year because he generates that much value for his university, but also because that money has to go somewhere, and it certainly isn't going to the players. This strikes most as unfair, because it is. It's also obvious.

Less obvious, at least to the layman, are all of the little injustices. Players have to be amateurs or the purity of the games would be corrupted; it's totally cool if coaches are professionals. Players have to sit out a year if they want to leave a school; coaches can hop in and out of contracts whenever they need.

[+] EnlargeJared Drew
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsForward Jared Drew redshirted his first season at Saint Louis, and now is looking for a place to continue his basketball and academic careers.
And then there are the scholarship structures, which allow things like this -- via the Indianapolis Star -- to happen:
Jared Drew was planning to take his last final exam on Tuesday, come home for a few days, then return to Saint Louis on Sunday for the start of summer school.

Instead, Drew said, he received a text that the coaching staff wanted to meet with him. At the meeting, Drew said coach Jim Crews told him the school was not going to renew his scholarship for next season.

“I was completely blindsided,” said Drew, a 2012 Cathedral graduate who redshirted last season. “I don’t believe they handled that situation as well as they could have. [Crews] basically told me I’m not the right fit for what he’s trying to do. I’m moving on, though.”


Reminder: Scholarships are not guarantees of a four-year stay. They are one-year, renewable, merit-based documents subject to review after each season. If a coach or athletic director decides to tell a player he is no longer welcome, all he has to do is not renew the player's scholarship. Then, that player has to transfer. Often, the player has to sit out a season in doing so.

Drew told the Star he was planning on appealing that rule, so he can play right away for whatever team ends up taking him on. Here's hoping his appeal is granted.

But this is just the latest example. The point is not just that this is allowed, but that it happens all the time, often in much quieter and more obscure fashion than this. (That's why, save instances in which a player or parent expresses outrage, it's tough to tell how often runoffs happen. Rarely is it quite this blatant.) The same men who preach loyalty and maturity -- who sit in families' living rooms and promise the world to teenagers, who make millions of dollars while their players get classes and a dorm room -- are all too willing to cut a player loose for no reason other than he is no longer a "good fit," which usually means his scholarship is being given to someone more talented. And Drew is supposed to sit out a season?

It's wrong. It needs to change. Apparently, being both embarrassing and counterproductive -- Crews and his staff should be embarrassed by this, and if I'm a prospect's parent, I'm taking any and all Billikens promises with a fat grain of salt -- isn't enough to eradicate the practice. Apparently, the change will need to be imposed, rather than organic to the market. The NCAA needs to make a rule. Who else isn't holding their breath?

Dotson leads hot Ducks to easy win

March, 23, 2013
3/23/13
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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Age is just a number. Or in college sports, it's a designation. Same with a seed in the NCAA tournament. It's just a number. Like age, it doesn't define you. How you act defines you. What a team does on the scoreboard defines it.

Take Oregon guard Damyean Dotson. He's a true freshman. But there's no reason he can't score 40 points in his first two tournament games, including a career-high 23 in a dominant 74-57 "upset" victory over Saint Louis.

And there's Dotson's team, Oregon. You might have heard the selection committee put a "No. 12" by it, and controversy ensued: "Bad seed!" just about every one said.

Yet that number -- 12 -- is now merely a curiosity. The one that now truly matters is 16, as in "Sweet." The Ducks, who improved to 28-8, are headed to Indianapolis to face top-seeded Louisville. If Dotson and his teammates play like they did in HP Pavilion, Rick Pitino and the Cardinals should be nervous.

Dotson entered the NCAA tournament averaging 10.8 points per game, which ranked third on his team. He was named to the Pac-12 all-tournament team as the Ducks rolled to the title, averaging 14.7 points. And he's ramped things up even further in do-or-die tourney situations when he and his teammates have been doing a lot of doing.

Damyean Dotson
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports Damyean Dotson had his biggest game of the year, scoring a season-high 23 points and adding three rebounds and two steals.
Dotson hits the 3s -- he was 5-of-6 from long range against No. 4 seed Saint Louis -- and his teammates play aggressive defense and crash the boards. The Ducks won the rebounding battle 37-23 against the Billikens after winning it 44-30 against Oklahoma State on Thursday. That effort was led by senior Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi, who essentially split 33 rebounds between the two games. Karemi had seven offensive rebounds against Saint Louis, which had three total offensive rebounds.

As for Dotson, Oregon folks don't seem very surprised he's taken a step up during the postseason. While the foot injury to fellow freshman guard Dominic Artis grabbed headlines during the Ducks' late-season swoon, Dotson also got banged up and his play suffered.

He seems pretty healthy now.

"Dot has made great progress all year and I'm telling you, there's so much more there," coach Dana Altman said. "He and [Artis], they've got so much upside, we're fortunate to have some of those guys, because they've got a lot of upside."

The Ducks grabbed control in the first half with a 21-4 run and took a 35-19 lead into the locker room. They never yielded after the break. They built their advantage to 24 with 6:28 left and coasted home.

When Saint Louis briefly looked to be within striking distance -- four times in the second half the Billikens narrowed the margin to 11 -- Dotson ripped a pair of treys. Fair to say they were deflating to the Billikens.

Dotson was the key player for Oregon in the stat of the game: 3-point shooting. The Ducks hit 8-of-11 3-pointers, while the Billikens were 3-for-21 from behind the arc, hitting just one of their first 17. The Ducks shot well overall, while the Billikens didn't. Nuff said.

"I'm just trying to stay aggressive, offense and defense, and just do whatever Coach tells me," Dotson said. "He tells me to shoot the catch-and-shoots, and that's what I've been doing."

Said Saint Louis coach Jim Crews, whose team finished 28-7, the most wins in program history: "[Dotson is] a good athlete -- he's got great touch. We didn't get him off of shot spots like we wanted to. And sometimes it looked like we had pretty good pressure on him. He's long and really has a good lift on it, which is a little unorthodox, but you can't complain with the results if you're an Oregon fan."

Nope. Nor will many Oregon fans continue to fret that ole 12th seed.

The Ducks last reached the Elite Eight in 2007. To get there again, they need to eclipse No. 1.

Hey, it's just a number.
SAN JOSE -- On Thursday, three teams playing second-round games in the NCAA tournament in HP Pavilion turned in poised, dominant efforts. They acted, so to speak, like they'd been there before. One of them, Syracuse, has. A lot. The other two, Saint Louis and Oregon, have not.

If Saint Louis, the fourth seed in the Midwest, beats No. 12 Oregon, it will play in the program's first Sweet 16. The Ducks' pedigree, despite winning the first NCAA tourney in 1939, isn't much better, at least not lately. The Ducks had an Elite Eight run in 2007 but hadn't won a tournament game since. Their regular-season record from 2009-10 and 2010-11 was 32-33.

So this is mostly unexplored territory for these players and programs.

[+] EnlargeJim Crews
AP Photo/Mary AltafferJim Crews took over as Saint Louis' coach when the Billikens lost Rick Majerus.
Saint Louis junior Dwayne Evans, the Billikens' leading scorer and rebounder, took a leap of faith three years ago that Rick Majerus was going to lead the program away from prolonged mediocrity.

"Saint Louis basketball really wasn't on the map, even [in] Saint Louis," he said.

The compelling angle, of course, is that Saint Louis has posted its greatest season after tragedy, as Majerus took a medical leave from the program in August and then died of heart failure on Dec. 1. Jim Crews took over. After a meandering start, the Billikens got hot. Their 28 wins is the most in program history. They entered the tournament ranked 13th in both major polls, having been in the polls for four consecutive weeks, which hadn't happened since 1993-94.

Saint Louis beat Memphis in the second round last year before falling to Michigan State. And, unlike Oregon, this is a veteran team that's seen a lot of action together.

"Last year, we were kind of wide-eyed and just kind of there for the experience, and obviously we were taking on the No. 1 seed, Michigan State. I think there were some nerves there," Evans said. "But this year we're a confident, veteran team. We know how good we can be. And we have bigger goals than making it to the round of 32."

Of course, the Ducks played like a cohesive, veteran unit while upsetting Oklahoma State and All-American guard Marcus Smart. While the Ducks start a pair of freshmen and are transfer heavy, they're a hot, confident team, coming off an impressive run through the Pac-12 tournament.

The Ducks, notorious for their baffling 12th seed, still have something to prove. A Sweet 16 run would prove it.

"Yeah, that would be huge for us, to get more respect," senior center Tony Woods said. "A lot of people didn't predict us to win the game last night. That was big for us, getting respect. We never cared about the 12-seed, we're just happy to be here, happy to stay alive and keep playing."

In order to keep playing, one team will need to dictate the tempo. Oregon likes to run in transition. Saint Louis can run but prefers more half-court sets. Saint Louis isn't very good at rebounding but protects the ball. Oregon is prone to turnovers but is fantastic on the boards. Both teams play good defense. Neither team is terribly good behind the 3-point arc.

Saint Louis will like its chances if the Billikens keep the game low-scoring. Oregon would like to inject a bit of frenzy into the evening.

"They do not give up easy baskets. They know what they want from every possession," Oregon coach Dana Altman said. "It's about as veteran a team as we played. The most veteran team we've played all year ... They have a little better idea what they want out of a possession. So we've got to try to get a few more possessions going. We've got to try to open the floor a little bit. I think at some positions our athletes can make a difference, if we can get them out in the open court."

Both teams are on the cusp of a special season for their program. But they need to win Saturday to make it happen.

SAN JOSE NEWS & NOTES

  • California point guard Justin Cobbs was asked about how the Bears can beat Syracuse's notorious zone defense: "Just try not to get stagnant. Usually in zone it's easy to get stagnant and just pass the ball around the perimeter, and not get in the interior of the defense. Just as a point guard, try to penetrate the zone. Obviously in their 2-2-1 or 2-3, whatever you want to call it, the middle is going to be open. They trap the corners and things like that. So try to just get in the interior, try to get the ball to the high post and find shooters like Allen [Crabbe], and try to break the zone from the inside out."
  • California coach Mike Montgomery has long been a coach who preferred man-to-man defense, but the Bears used a zone almost exclusively in their win over UNLV. He said, "Ours is more of a 3-2 zone. We started off trying to play a 2-3 zone. And I played 2-3 primarily for years and years and years. And we had the rules down, knew exactly who had what coverage. But we weren't able to get our forwards and center to do what we wanted to do. And a lot of times we weren't able to get our guards to continue to run out and switch the forward down and so forth and so on. So we decided to try the 3-2 zone because Crabbe at the top gave us a 6-6 long-arm guy that was able to do a little bit more than some others."
  • Suffice it to say, the subject of zone defense was a big one during the news conferences Friday, as was the friendship between Montgomery and Syracuse's Jim Boeheim. That led to this when Boeheim was asked about Montgomery's newfound love of zone defenses: "Well, he once asked my wife if I was wearing a skirt [when playing zone defenses]," Boeheim said. "So when we were watching last year I think it was, we texted immediately when he was playing zone to see if he was wearing a skirt, as well. But I guess he was. He's a man-to-man coach, he always has been. But I think you see really almost everybody play some zone now, teams that coaches that have never played zone play zone."
  • Playing in San Jose means California is practically playing a home game. But Syracuse senior forward James Southerland downplayed that as an issue. He said, "This is California, so the team from the University of California are going to have about 90 percent of their fans here. I feel like it's not going to be much of a problem for us. It shouldn't be because we played in great games like Arkansas, and Louisville and pulled out a win with a No. 1 team. So we are just going to focus on what we need to do."
  • Syracuse is leaving the Big East for the ACC next season. Boeheim was asked if he felt like he was representing the Big East or the ACC. He said, "That's a good question. Yeah, you know, right now we're still members of the Big East, and we're representing the Big East right now. But it's kind of, it's a real gray area, there, I think, as well. I think really when we get to this stage that we're representing Syracuse at this stage."
NEW YORK -- For years, the debate has raged over whether or not conference tournaments are really a good idea. And, sure, if you have a league that plays a home-and-away round robin -- like the Big 12, Missouri Valley or West Coast -- you'd think that your regular season has already supplied some really good information. A conference like that doesn't want to see its regular-season last-place team waltz into the conference tourney and steal the automatic bid. (Certainly bubble teams from other leagues don't want to see that happen.) I get that.

But what if your conference has 16 members, and each team plays just 16 league games? Such was the case with the Atlantic 10 this season, and I'll be honest. Based on that small smattering of regular-season basketball, I wasn't sure what to expect when I arrived at the Barclays Center to watch the A-10 semifinals.

So this particular conference tournament was absolutely a good idea. I know much more about the two winners, Virginia Commonwealth and Saint Louis, than I did before. Nothing like March basketball on a neutral floor to add some clarity. Here's what I learned. (I mean besides the fact that the VCU band is really, really good.)

Havoc happens

If Rams coach Shaka Smart were a brand manager for a Fortune 500 company, he'd deserve a big promotion. The fact that you already know all about the brand of basketball played by a mid-major that until this season was a member of the Colonial Athletic Association is something of a tribute to Smart and the success he's enjoyed in Richmond.

That style is branded as "Havoc," of course, and its purpose is to get the other team to commit turnovers. This season in A-10 play, VCU's opponents gave the ball away on 27 percent of their possessions, easily the highest such number in the league. I knew all about the style, naturally, and all about that remarkable number before I saw Smart's team beat Massachusetts 71-62 in the second semifinal Saturday afternoon.

But until you've seen it in person, it's hard to appreciate Havoc's ability to make the other team's game plan and preparation more or less useless. UMass actually took good care of the ball for the game's first eight minutes or so -- Smart would say afterward he thought his team was "sluggish" early -- but that soon changed dramatically. By the time the dust had settled and the Rams had emerged with their nine-point win, the Minutemen had given the ball away 24 times in a 75-possession game. In light of the fact that Derek Kellogg's team committed a turnover on fully 32 percent of its possessions, it's fairly amazing UMass kept the game as close as it was.

[+] EnlargeDwayne Evans
Anthony Gruppuso/USA TODAY SportsDwayne Evans goes up for two of his 24 points in Saint Louis' semifinal win over Butler.
Speaking of amazing, if you're a VCU opponent, the truly insidious thing about Havoc is what it does to you even on possessions where you don't give the ball away. Take Kellogg's team. In theory, UMass should like a fast tempo. This was, after all, the fastest-paced team in A-10 play this season (69 possessions per 40 minutes). But in practice, going fast against the Rams did not work well at all. For long stretches of the second half, the Minutemen were sped up to the point where they would take the first shot they got -- very often a bad shot -- simply to get an attempt off before the next (inevitable) turnover.

This offense needs a cool name, too

For all the acclaim that Havoc has won, the truth that is VCU's offense is better than its defense. Much better. During A-10 play, Smart's team scored 1.13 points per possession, while no other team topped 1.08. Granted, that kind of excellence wasn't evident against UMass, but you can bet Saint Louis head coach Jim Crews knows what's Smart's offense can do, and is preparing accordingly ahead of Sunday's tournament final.

Treveon Graham has put together an excellent season, but on a day when he went 1-of-12 from the floor, it was Troy Daniels who got the Rams over the hump. The 6-foot-4 senior hit 6 of 9 3s on his way to 20 points. Yet even in a game when Daniels' teammates were off with their shooting, VCU's biggest advantage was that it committed just eight turnovers. The Rams are almost as good at avoiding turnovers on offense as they are at forcing them on defense, and the truly enormous turnover margin that results has fueled much of this team's success.

Now the scary part: Saint Louis may be even better than VCU

In the other semifinal at Barclays, the Billikens beat Butler 67-56. If you read Dana O'Neil's piece on the Billikens, you know that no less an observer than Butler coach Brad Stevens was very impressed by SLU. "They're a legitimate contender to win the whole thing," Stevens said after the game. "I believe that wholeheartedly."

What I saw Saturday certainly backs up that assessment. Crews' team boasts the best defense in the A-10, and proved it against the Bulldogs, holding Stevens' squad to 56 points in a 70-possession game. "They are men," BU's coach marveled afterward.

One of those "men" is Dwayne Evans, he of the 24-point, 11-rebound double-double against the Bulldogs. Start saying Evans' name now, and chances are you will look very smart in a couple weeks. The 6-5 junior plays in a balanced offense for an A-10 team, so his isn't what you'd call a household name. All Evans has is the ability to go off against a higher-seeded major-conference opponent in the very near future. You heard it here first.

In the first meeting between Saint Louis and VCU, the Billikens played on their home court and refused to be drawn into any kind of Havoc, committing just eight turnovers in a 56-possession game. SLU won that game easily 76-62. After the semifinal at Barclays, I asked Smart about that earlier game and what his team needs to do to beat the Billikens. "Play better," he told me.

What his answer might have lacked in length, it more than made up for in accuracy. Smart's exactly right. VCU's "normal" game won't be enough against Saint Louis in the A-10 finals. And most teams' "normal" games likely won't be enough against either the Rams or the Billikens in the NCAA tournament. Field of 66 other teams, you've been warned. The A-10's big two are very good at what they do.
NEW YORK -- If you’re looking for a sleeper pick for your NCAA tournament pool (for fun purposes only, of course), I have a guy who has a team for you.

His name is Brad Stevens, and he’s got some good insider knowledge on this sort of thing.

I mean, if you think back-to-back Final Fours out of Butler give you any insight.

[+] EnlargeJim Crews
AP Photo/Mary AltafferSaint Louis and coach Jim Crews beat Butler in the Atlantic 10 semifinals 67-56.
“I’ve said all year to anyone who would listen to me, and even people who wouldn’t, how good Saint Louis is," the Butler coach said. “They’re a legitimate contender to win the whole thing. I believe that wholeheartedly."

Here on Selection Sunday Eve, plenty of teams are still sweating out their spot and fretting the bubble.

By Sunday night, some poor sap will be sweating his first game against the Billikens, and some potential Round of 32 foe will suddenly find himself a big fan of the poor sap.

Because Stevens is right.

Saint Louis is that good. The Billikens beat Butler in the Atlantic 10 semifinals 67-56, advancing to their first A-10 tourney final and what ought to be a pretty good seed in the NCAA tournament.

Whatever they get, wherever they go, the Billikens will carry with them the story that has trailed them all season -- one that pulls on your heartstrings, unless you’re the Tin Man.

In December, the Billikens served as pallbearers at the funeral of their former coach, Rick Majerus.

A week later, they resumed the business of basketball.

But this feel-good story is more than a good story, and this is not a warm and fuzzy basketball team. The Billikens beat Butler, for the third time this season, in a way that was clinically and physically cruel.

They outmuscled and overpowered the Bulldogs in a way that doesn’t necessarily show up on the stat sheet but was plenty evident for anyone watching.

Afterward, Butler’s Roosevelt Jones marveled at Dwayne Evans. Evans doesn’t look like much when he’s standing in front of you, but Jones, no slouch in the tough-guy department, nonetheless labeled Evans "the most physical guy I’ve played in my life."

Jones’ coach stretched that compliment to the entire Saint Louis team, calling Billikens the most physical team Butler has faced all season.

This from a guy whose nonconference schedule included Indiana and Gonzaga, two teams that could end up as No. 1 seeds on Sunday night.

“On pure strength, there’s no one better than these guys," Stevens said. “I know everyone is going to be chasing Indiana in the tournament, but Saint Louis is old. They’ve been through it, they’ve done it, and they are men. They are men."

But Saint Louis is hardly a team of hockey goons that simply beats up anyone who gets in its way. The Billikens are smart, efficient and experienced, a combination that is lethal and increasingly rare in this era of one-and-done turnstile basketball.

The roster includes eight juniors and seniors, guys who not only know one another but genuinely like one another. They have been through an emotional roller coaster that no one else can appreciate, and while it sounds incredibly trite, it has brought them closer together.

“We’re not a big stat team," Billikens interim coach Jim Crews said. “These guys have tremendous wisdom, and that doesn’t show up in the stats. We like that."

There will be plenty of folks who like Saint Louis starting next week, I’m guessing. That’s always dangerous -- to be anointed the hot team by the masses.

But the Billikens aren’t exactly the type to have their heads turned. They’ve been through too much and are far too smart to get caught up in their own wonderfulness.

If by some slim chance they do, Crews will be there to knock them down to reality.

He was hilariously disinterested in biting on what to make of his program and what Saint Louis might do in the NCAA tournament.

Asked if his team was a mid-major, Crews said he wasn’t going to worry about "what some guy in Idaho said" about the Billikens.

Pushed to explain how tough it would be to prepare for his team on a short turnaround, he shrugged and offered insight Yogi Berra would envy.

“Sometimes if you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t turn it over and you don’t take bad shots, they don’t know what you’re doing either," Crews said.

Nice try, Coach.

The secret is out on Saint Louis.

A certain insider has let the cat out of the bag.
One man’s observations from another eventful Saturday afternoon of college basketball …

1. I don’t trust Florida anymore. Sometimes, the numbers lie. Sometimes, a team with dazzling stats fails to justify the analytic mechanisms that elevate it. That could be the case with Florida. The BPI, the RPI, Ken Pomeroy and Sagarin all love the Gators. Per the film, however, I see problems. The same Florida team that amassed a plus-18.8-points-per-game scoring margin in SEC play entering Saturday’s 61-57 loss at Kentucky (more on that soon) and crushed Marquette and Wisconsin in November has suffered four road losses in February alone. The Gators were outplayed by Arizona and Kansas State off campus in the nonconference portion of their schedule. Sure, they’ve spent of a chunk of the season punching teams in the mouth, but they’re 0-5 in games decided by six points or fewer and haven't beaten a single top-50 RPI team in a road game. And we really haven’t seen that dominant version of Florida, which began SEC play with historic margins of victory, in a month. Who are the Gators now? Well, the final minutes of the Kentucky loss told their story. They’re balanced and talented, but they fumbled in the last stretch of that loss because they couldn’t find that catalyst, that Ben McLemore/Marcus Smart/Doug McDermott/Trey Burke, to lead them beyond the funk that ruined the moment. They did not score in the last seven-plus minutes of the second half. They were the veterans, but they played like freshmen. It’s tough to believe in this program’s postseason potential when it continues to suffer road losses against hungry SEC opponents that don’t match them on paper. Guess what they’ll have to do to advance in the NCAA tournament? Beat hungry underdogs outside Gainesville. Yes, Kentucky re-entered the bubble convo with this win, but Florida did little to prove that it’s worthy of its statistical hype. Again.

2. Marcus Smart and the national/Big 12 POY conversation. Listen, I think Trey Burke deserves national player of the year, but I might change my mind if Victor Oladipo outplays him tomorrow. Here’s the general Burke argument -- and it’s a convincing one -- that circulates within college basketball media circles: “If you take him off that team, there’s no way they’re top 10 and competing for a Big Ten title.” And that’s accurate. I can’t argue against that. Here’s another one to consider: “If you take Marcus Smart off Oklahoma State’s roster, you probably have the team that finished 7-11 in league play last season and not the 13-5 team that’s competed for the Big 12 title in 2012-13.” Smart is the Big 12 player of the year. I like McLemore, Jeff Withey and Rodney McGruder, but Smart deserves the honor following his performance (21 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals) in Saturday’s 76-70 win over Kansas State, a victory that jeopardized the Wildcats’ hopes of winning a Big 12 title. He should be a legit candidate for national POY, too.

3. The sad conclusion to Georgetown-Syracuse. Following his team’s 61-39 loss at Georgetown on Saturday, Jim Boeheim told reporters, “I’m pretty much ready to go play golf someplace. If I was 40 years old, I would be real upset. I’m not 40 years old. That should be obvious.” That comment and his team’s lackluster finish to the regular season (1-4 in its last five) will continue to fuel the retirement speculation that’s surrounded Boeheim for years. John Thompson III might have won national coach of the year honors with his team’s Big East title-sealing win. But the lopsided effort -- the Hoyas’ largest margin of victory against Syracuse since 1985 -- offered a melancholy ending to this classic rivalry. Georgetown will join the Catholic 7, and Syracuse will move to the ACC next season. The two may reconnect in the future, but their battles won’t be regulated by league affiliation. So this could be the end, and as a college basketball fan, I wanted to see drama, overtime, controversy in the final seconds, a buzzer-beater, a comeback … something. This rivalry deserved that. Instead, we were treated to the sight of one impressive squad smashing an opponent that failed to show up for the conclusion of this storied series.

4. Marquette wins its most crucial bizarre game of the year. The Golden Eagles love the theatrics that tend to define college basketball in March. Their 69-67 win at St. John’s was their fourth overtime game of the season in Big East competition. It was their third conference win by three points or less. Marquette hasn’t forged the prettiest path to the Big East title, but it earned a share of the crown with another gritty victory Saturday. St. John’s launched an impressive comeback in the final minutes that sent the game into overtime. Buzz Williams just smiled as his team prepared for the extra period; he’d been in that position multiple times this season, so his squad didn’t panic. With the game on the line, Vander Blue drove into the lane and beat the buzzer with the layup. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. This is what Marquette does. A team that was picked to finish in the middle of the standings earned a share of the Big East title. Wow. The Golden Eagles are clearly tough enough to make noise in the NCAA tourney, too.

[+] EnlargeJim Crews
AP Photo/Bill BoyceJim Crews guided a hurting Saint Louis squad to a share of the Atlantic 10 regular-season title.
5. Jim Crews for national coach of the year. Last season, I covered Saint Louis’ NCAA tournament appearance in Columbus, Ohio. Once Rick Majerus left the podium for a pregame media session, it took him 30 minutes to re-join his team. Fans wanted to talk to him. Other coaches wanted to talk to him. Friends wanted to talk to him. Reporters wanted to talk to him. He was an icon for that program and the entire sport. So when he took an indefinite leave of absence from the team in the months prior to his death in December, the Billikens had lost so much more than a coach. Sure, they had promise, but Crews didn’t have an easy task on his plate. He had to gain the trust of this talented group (he was an assistant in 2011-12) as it prepared for a battle in an Atlantic 10 beefed up by the additions of Virginia Commonwealth and Butler. He didn’t have one of his key players (Kwamain Mitchell injured his foot last fall) for the first two months of the season. But Crews overcame those obstacles. On Saturday, the Billikens secured a share of the conference crown with a 78-54 victory over La Salle. They’ve won 12 of their past 13. Their balance, defense (22nd in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy) and experience could lead to a deep run in March. Sounds like a national coach of the year effort to me.

6. Meet Derrick Marks. In the final seconds of a 69-65 win that might have pushed his Boise State squad into the field of 68, Marks made a split-second decision to contest Xavier Thames' layup with 21 seconds to go. If Thames had made that shot, the Aztecs would have cut Boise State’s lead to one point. But Marks made plays like that all afternoon. The sophomore guard is just one of the reasons that the Broncos could win a game or two in the NCAA tourney -- I’m putting them in the field, although I’m not so sure about San Diego State anymore. Leon Rice’s program is healthy now (eight guys earned minutes against the Aztecs). The Broncos possess an offense that’s ranked 24th in adjusted offensive efficiency per Pomeroy, and they’ve won five of their past six games. Watch out for the Broncos in the coming weeks. Huge victory for that team.

7. Get ready for drama in Nashville. Next week, the SEC tournament will take place in Nashville. This league is packed with bubble squads, and I think that will add to the drama in what could be the most exciting conference tournament of them all. Proof? On Saturday, Alabama beat Georgia on a half-court buzzer-beater, Tennessee overcame a late deficit to secure a key win over Missouri and Kentucky kept its NCAA tournament dreams alive with a victory over Florida. The chaos will continue in Nashville.

8. Florida Gulf Coast becomes first team to dance. The Eagles earned the field’s first automatic NCAA tournament berth with an 88-75 victory over Mercer in the Atlantic Sun tourney championship. This is an Eagles squad that finished 8-10 (tied for sixth) in the conference last season, but their first victory of the 2012-13 season came against a top-10-bound Miami team. Kudos to Andy Enfield’s program.

9. Creighton-Wichita State III. The two Missouri Valley Conference power players split their season series this season. Despite their respective struggles, they were still the league’s top two programs. Their most recent matchup, which the Bluejays won, determined the regular-season champion. Creighton’s 64-43 victory over Indiana State and Wichita State’s 66-51 win over Illinois State in Saturday’s semifinals of the MVC tournament guaranteed a third matchup between the league’s top two teams in Sunday afternoon’s final.

10. Louisville makes statement without five overtimes. So the rematch between Louisville and Notre Dame didn’t match the hoopla of the first game. We didn’t get five overtimes. We didn’t even see one. But the Cardinals continued to support the notion that they’re going to be a very dangerous program in the NCAA tournament with a 73-57 victory over Notre Dame. It was the seventh consecutive victory for a team that’s ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. As a team, the Cardinals shot 51 percent from the floor against the Fighting Irish, and Gorgui Dieng registered 20 points (8-11 FG) and 11 rebounds. The Cards are playing like a Final Four team.
Well, Atlantic 10 fans, it's that time: The final conference power rankings of the season. I know, I know. You're sad. I'm sad, too. It's hard to say goodbye. It's hard to let go. All we can do is remember all of the times we shared, all of the laughs, and the tears we shed -- usually because of Temple -- and take those experiences with us as we fan out to take on whatever the world holds for us next. I love you all.

Let's begin:

1. Saint Louis. Saint Louis has come a long way.

I was being jokingly dramatic in the introduction, so I feel the need to make it clear that what follows actually isn't facetious at all. This week, this desk ran my colleague Dana O'Neil's typically excellent feature on Saint Louis, which details how Jim Crews and a devastated group of players -- all of whom seemed to really love Rick Majerus the way Brian Conklin loved Rick Majerus -- came together and fought through the emptiness of their coach's death to forge something positive. It hasn't been easy, on or off the court. On the court, Saint Louis stumbled in November against Santa Clara and Washington, and then later at the start of A-10 play; off the court, the Billikens learned of Majerus's death, and then served as pallbearers at his funeral. But it has all come together these past six weeks. Crews told O'Neil he never said the players needed to "honor" their departed coach with a successful season, or basketball in any form. Instead:
"We told them three things," Crews said. "First we told them to pray, have your prayers for Rick and his family. Number two, honor his lessons and laugh at the memories. And three, we said to do like Coach did: Live your life forward. Live your life forward. That's all you can do, guys."

I'm not sure there's a better or more impressive story in college basketball this season.

2. Virginia Commonwealth. VCU's total demolition of Butler last Saturday was a frustrating meta-watch, because it was the subject of a lot of gross overreaction. Yes, Butler got worked, and yes, VCU looked great. But the one-sided nature of the game was more a product of matchups: Butler doesn't handle the ball well (its point guard, Rotnei Clarke, is after all not really a point guard), and VCU absolutely shreds teams that can't take care of the ball. Hence the blowout. This is what makes VCU so dangerous, but also slightly unnerving in your bracket: If the Rams come up against a team that takes care of the ball at all costs, they haven't really proved they can get stops in a traditional way. Even so, having a style that dictates to your opponents more often than the reverse is a major advantage in the NCAA tournament. Plus, they're really fun to watch. That helps, too.

In the meantime, this conference race will come down to the final weekend. Saint Louis hosts La Salle on Saturday; VCU travels to Temple on Sunday. That is definitely the tougher assignment, but one the Rams can surely handle.

3. Butler. See above. Butler has its fair share of flaws -- too many turnovers, an inability to set up a preventative half-court defense because of them -- and all of them were exponentially exploited by VCU last Saturday. And honestly? Butler was pretty overrated for a while. Blame the victories over Indiana and Gonzaga, blame the benefit of the doubt, but the Bulldogs currently sit at No. 60 in the KenPom.com adjusted efficiency rankings. I don't know that they're that bad, either, and I can guarantee you no coach in the country wants to see them on their side of the NCAA tournament bracket. But there are definite issues here, issues VCU blew up and magnified for the whole world to see.

4. La Salle. The bad news for La Salle? The Explorers are only barely in the NCAA tournament bracket at this point; they're currently sitting on Joe Lunardi's No. 12 line. The good news? Everyone else on the bubble keeps falling apart. Also: La Salle's only remaining game, Saturday's trip to Saint Louis, is a no-lose situation. The selection committee won't judge La Salle too harshly if it falls to the Billikens on the road, and a decent showing in the Atlantic-10 tournament should be enough to seal the deal. Failing that, maybe Kentucky can keep losing bad games? Hey, whatever works.

5. Temple. Let's give it up for the Owls. I know, I know, I threw a shot at them in the introduction, but it was deserved -- Temple was the Atlantic 10's most sporadic team in 2012-13, which would put it high in the running for most sporadic worldwide. The Owls were capable of beating Syracuse in the Garden and losing to Canisius and Duquesne at home, and anything in between; they played five one-point games in a row, which is where luck meets insanity. But they've started to pull something reliable out of the rubble: Temple has won its past six games, many of those results not of the one-point-margin variety, and gets to close the season with a shot at VCU at home. Their bad losses have kept the Owls very much on the bubble, but you can't fault the recent work. It has been almost -- gasp -- consistent.

6. Xavier. The notion that Xavier could sneak into the NCAA tournament has seemed ridiculous for most of the season, given some of the really ugly losses and various growing pains this rebuilding (rebuilt?) Musketeers team has endured. But the late spate of home-schedule love always offered the chance for an outside push, and the Musketeers managed to split those games, dropping Memphis and Saint Louis but losing to VCU and UMass. Last on the docket is a trip to Butler, where a victory is not only a reasonable proposition but would be disproportionately attractive to the selection committee. So don't shut the front door just yet.

7. Massachusetts. Speaking of opportunities against Butler, the Minutemen had one Thursday night, and they let it get away. It has been an occasionally frustrating season for UMass fans, no doubt, because entering the season this had the look of a tournament team. If the Minutemen can't get in on this soft bubble, you'd have no choice but to call this a decent but ultimately disappointing season. But I will award some credit for style of play: In a sport dominated by slow-paced lurches, UMass has played some of the fastest basketball in the country all season long. From a purely stylistic standpoint, I salute it.

8. Saint Joseph's. I was awfully tempted to go back through every week of these power rankings and make a compendium of the times I used Saint Joe's to make the point that teams don't automatically improve just because they have a lot of returning players, but honestly, these poor Hawks fans don't need to hear it anymore. And besides, I think I've made my case. The people rest, your honor.

9. Richmond. A couple of tough losses down the stretch for the new, less-banged-up Spiders, the first at Dayton last Saturday, the latter at VCU on Wednesday. It was no surprise to see Richmond buck up for its crosstown rival, of course, but it was nice to see a relatively full-strength Spiders team showcase the efficient offense that made it such an intriguing proposition in November and December. Chris Mooney will lose senior guard Darien Brothers to graduation, but everyone else should be back, and if that's the case, the Spiders just need to play a bit better defense and they could be a tournament-type factor very soon.

10. Charlotte. Speaking of disappointing seasons, or at least disappointing finishes, how about Charlotte? The 49ers were on the very far-flung fringes of the bubble conversation even a few weeks ago. Then they lost four in a row, including home games to Dayton and Temple and the worst, Saturday's 104-83 loss at St. Bonaventure, before an 89-87 overtime escape at Duquesne on Wednesday. The upshot is that while Charlotte won't be dancing, Alan Major definitely took a couple of major steps forward with this program this season, and you can't help but think the long-term trajectory is positive.

11. Dayton. Speaking of defensively challenged teams, in the past two weeks the Flyers have won three straight. Those wins came against Charlotte, Richmond and St. Bonaventure, but still -- they showed off an offense that now ranks second in the A-10 on a per-possession basis (1.11 points per possession). That's about the highest praise I can bestow, because Dayton has had a bit of a disappointing season, too; the Flyers looked like one of several of this league's potential sleepers before the season began. Back to the drawing board this summer.

12. St. Bonaventure. If any one loss keeps UMass out of the NCAA tournament, it might be the one they suffered to the Bonnies on Feb. 20. Playing spoiler is never really where you want to be in late February and early March, but that doesn't make it any less fun once you do.

13. George Washington. The Colonials have had a really tough stretch to close the season, losing four straight against Saint Joseph's, Richmond, Saint Louis and La Salle -- and only one of those games, against Saint Louis, was in GW's own building. Give George Washington this much credit: Mike Lonergan's team defended well and got after it on the offensive glass, ranking No. 1 in the A-10 in offensive rebounding rate, and at the very least gave itself an identity as a difficult team to play. It's a start.

14. Rhode Island. Just a really nice season from the Rams and first-year coach Danny Hurley. You may look at their 8-20 record and wonder what on Earth I'm talking about. But look closer: Not only did the Rams beat Saint Louis on its own floor, they played really well in a lot of losses, giving obviously superior teams real runs for their respective monies almost every time out. A first season at a hollowed-out crater of a program like Rhody is a matter of setting a tone, of building the proverbial and much-lauded foundation, and I think Hurley and his staff can safely say they managed that much this season. Onward and upward from here.

15, 16: Duquesne, Fordham. If these final A-10 power rankings are like a high school commencement ceremony, Duquesne and Fordham are the two kids you didn't talk to or even really notice a whole lot unless they did something weird, like beat Temple on its own floor. They're also the kids upon whom you look back and wonder: I wasn't mean to them, was I?

I really hope I wasn't. It was a tough season all around, but one that wouldn't have been complete without Duquesne and Fordham along for the ride. So thanks, guys. And thanks to all of you for reading. When I said I loved you, I was only half-kidding.

Podcast: Saint Louis coach Jim Crews

February, 28, 2013
2/28/13
6:12
PM ET
Saint Louis coach Jim Crews discusses his team's success this season, his path to returning to coaching, the death of former Billikens coach Rick Majerus and more.

Podcast: Talking with Crews, Pastner

February, 25, 2013
2/25/13
1:05
PM ET
Andy Katz and Seth Greenberg talk to ESPN’s Flip Saunders, Saint Louis head coach Jim Crews and Memphis head coach Josh Pastner.
1. Saint Louis and Jim Crews are respecting the season and not making the next head coach a distraction. This season has been about this team and the late Rick Majerus. It is a selfless act by Crews, who has filled in for Majerus exceptionally well and deserves consideration for national coach of the year. According to Saint Louis, there isn't a rush to push for the naming of a permanent head coach. I respect that decision. But let's not dismiss what Crews has done under extraordinary circumstances. He had to take over a team not knowing if Majerus would return in the summer, only to learn he was gravely ill and then be there for his funeral. Crews was a moderately successful coach but just at tough locations in Evansville and Army. I'm not sure too many people could have handled this situation any better than he has done. The entire staff gets credit. If he wants the full-time coaching job, and at the appropriate time after the season, then this search should be done.

2. Ryan Kelly is now doing individual workouts, according to the Duke staff, but not contact drills. There is growing optimism that Kelly will return before the end of the regular season. Duke has a monster week with games at Virginia and hosting Miami, giving the Blue Devils a legitimate shot to still catch the first-place Hurricanes, whom they trail by two games. But that isn't the real issue here. If Kelly comes back for the ACC tournament and the NCAA tournament and is at least somewhat effective in creating attention for the defense and take some pressure off Mason Plumlee then the Blue Devils have to be considered one of the contenders for the national title.

3. I love that Indiana coach Tom Crean constantly is looking for outside sources of support and teaching from other sports. He has had Tony LaRussa speak to his team and in years past sought out advice on how franchises are built across all sports, including tradition-rich ones like the Montreal Canadiens. Of course, he has a great resource in the family in his two brother-in-laws. So it was of no surprise that when Jim Harbaugh, the coach of the 49ers, was in Indianapolis he stopped by for practice last week and spent time with IU point guard Yogi Ferrell and talking to him about court vision, much like a quarterback. Crean said the talk was beneficial.
After last week's incredibly controversial eight-way tie at sixth place, and after a week full of results as close to predictable as this league -- and, frankly, this sport -- is going to get, I come to you with a more streamlined, (hopefully) less insane version of the Atlantic 10 power rankings. Ahoy:

1. Butler. Rhode Island remains a tough out more often than not in league play, and the Rams gave Butler a real go at Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday. But Butler held firm, winning 75-68, and followed that up with a more comfortable romp over St. Bonaventure on Wednesday night. Same deal remains with the Bulldogs: This is a good team, and one no one will want to play in March, but it still needs to get better on the defensive end to really justify its currently lofty ranking come tourney time.

In the meantime, the Indianapolis Star's David Woods has a really sad, but ultimately heartwarming story on Butler reserve Erik Fromm, whose father Leonard Fromm, an associate dean at Indiana University law school for 33 years, recently lost a battle with cancer just before Fromm's 21st birthday.

2. La Salle. Other than last Saturday's game at George Washington, this was a bit of an off-week for La Salle -- tomorrow's home date with Fordham included. But the Explorers should be commended for handling the Colonials, who'd won their previous three (close games at UMass and Rhode Island and an absolute thrashing of Charlotte) and were starting to look like a mid-table dangerous insurgent, particularly on the defensive end.

3. Virginia Commonwealth. The Rams haven't played their best basketball over the past month or so -- back-to-back losses to Richmond and La Salle made that clear enough -- primarily because their vaunted defense, one of the best and most entertaining in the country in November and December, has allowed 1.01 points per trip in A-10 play, seventh-fewest in the league. VCU's only game in the past week came at home against Fordham, which is a nice way to get your defense back on track. In sum: Saturday's trip to Charlotte should be very interesting.

4. Saint Louis. For as many seeds of doubt as the Billikens planted (at least in my brain; your synaptic mileage may vary) in the first two weeks of A-10 play, after five consecutive victories it would appear that things are coming along just fine in Arch-land. (Ha, no one calls Saint Louis that.) After a home overtime loss to Rhode Island on Jan. 19, Jim Crews' squad demolished Butler and Dayton at home and handled business in three potentially tricky road games against RPI landmines. The most important trend? Defense. Saint Louis struggled in this regard for weeks, but it has since established itself as the stingiest per-possession defense in the Atlantic 10, and that should help the Billikens avoid setbacks on the road as they seek to bolster that NCAA tournament resume.

5. Temple. It's genuinely hard to know what to make of Temple's latest win, an 89-88 home victory over Charlotte. Why? Because Charlotte, the 15th-best offense in the Atlantic 10, should never score 88 points on anyone, anywhere -- home, away, on Mars, anywhere. I know, I know: Temple got out of there with the W, which is what really matters. But 88 points in 74 possessions? Really? To Charlotte? Just another data point in a baffling Owls season, I guess.

6. Massachusetts. I suppose you could say I'm coming around on UMass. Or you could say I'm very rapidly transitioning from my role as someone who allows tempo-free statistics to aid much of my fickle eyeballs' analysis into someone who must acknowledge the cold realpolitik of NCAA tournament qualification. (It is kind of what I do around here.) Either way, the fact of the matter is that for as utterly mediocre as UMass' per-possessions numbers tell me the Minutemen are, and for as rarely as I've been impressed when I've watched them this season, their at-large profile is such that they have a pretty good chance of getting into the NCAA tournament. It's pretty strange: This is a team that isn't truly bad at anything (save 3-point shooting) but excels at nothing (save perhaps field-goal defense, and UMass has gotten more more and more stops in A-10 play). But its RPI and schedule numbers and lack of truly bad losses have it in position to lay claim to a bid if it can see this thing through. In a league full of confusion, there is something to be said for that.

7. Xavier. Without (god forbid) going into the whole eight-way tie thing again -- and again, you should not be freaking out about these ranks at this point -- this is where the validity of ranking any one A-10 outfit over the other starts to go a bit sideways. I like Xavier, and Chris Mack has done some nice things with a young team, particularly on the glass; the Musketeers out-board the rest of the league on both the offensive and defensive ends. But they don't appear likely to break out of this soft middle anytime soon.

8. Charlotte. Strangely enough, even despite the loss, you have to be encouraged by Charlotte's 88-point outburst in that 74-possession game at Temple. The 49ers' biggest issue (understatement!) all season has been their brutal offense, and seeing them put up an efficient performance like that on the road is at least a step in the right direction.

9. George Washington. The Colonials have been one of the hottest teams in the conference for much of the past month, and they could have really made waves if they'd dropped La Salle last Saturday. Even so, they're 4-1 in their past five games.

10. Dayton. Not unlike many of the teams in this range in the league right now, Dayton does some things well and other things really poorly. In the Flyers' case, they can really shoot it from distance, and score efficiently … provided they're not turning it over, which they do at a higher percentage than any team in the A-10.

11. Saint Joseph's. Same old stuff with Saint Joe's. The Hawks are not bad bad, and their talent remains tantalizing, but as long as they're allowing more points per trip in conference play (1.067) than they're scoring (1.057) … well, you don't need to be Watson (the computer, not Sherlock Holmes' ambiguous assistant) to figure out why that might limit a team's chances for success.

12. Richmond. Same goes for Richmond: The Spiders have shown plenty of flashes on offense this season (see: Jan. 24 versus VCU), but they're still playing with a negative efficiency margin in conference play and at this point not even scoring particularly well, either.

13. St. Bonaventure. I've gone back and forth on the Bonnies here and there, particularly after they notched consecutive wins at Temple and Saint Joe's, but the deeper we get into the season the clearer it becomes that these defensive woes (1.13 PPP allowed) aren't going anywhere.

14. Rhode Island. If you don't follow the A-10 closely, and if all you do is look at efficiency numbers, then you might not be aware of how well Dan Hurley is doing in his first year at Rhode Island. But even after five consecutive losses, I'm kind of impressed, because with the exception of Wednesday's defeat at UMass, all of those losses have been in close games after credible performances. It's a long slog, but these are all positive signs.

15. Fordham. In a league full of pretty questionable defensive teams, Fordham's defense might be the worst.

16. Duquesne. Except for maybe Duquesne.
Another week of Atlantic-10 power rankings, another week spent reading through the kind words of my adoring readers. Let's do this, guys!

1. Virginia Commonwealth. In my experience, Butler fans are not only some of the nicest people around, there's also eminently reasonable. By and large, each week I've ranked VCU above the Bulldogs, Butler fans have typically (not always, but typically) responded with some version of "I'm a Butler fan, but that's cool. That VCU team is good."

Call it the Pax Atlanta: This year, this league's two teams (at least to date) are also its two newest, recent products of conference realignment, 2011 mid-major Dance-crashing brothers in arms, with mutual respect for each other's young star coaches and greatly contrasting styles of play. That's the vibe I'm picking up, anyway, and it has been refreshing to see -- even after that victory over Indiana -- Bulldogs fans take a step back and look at just what this VCU team is doing and say, "Yeah, you know? They're really good too."

Because they are: After their latest offensive explosion against East Tennessee State -- in which guard Troy Daniels made 11-of-20 from 3, for 33 points and 10 rebounds -- this year's Rams team is mixing its typically fantastic ball-hawking defense (VCU forces both turnovers and pure steals at the highest rate in the country) with efficient, balanced, long-range offense. It has been a lot of fun to watch, and with A-10 play picking up, it's only going to get better.

2. Butler. What's most interesting about this Butler team to date is not that the Bulldogs are good. I expected that, and I was hardly alone. What's interesting is how Butler is good. To wit:


See? Butler has made a sudden and drastic shift, from a putrid offense with a stubborn defense to much more efficient scoring with a much more forgiving defense. The obvious culprits -- not that this is a bad thing, because man was Butler hard to watch last season -- are the additions of sharpshooting Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham in place of defensive specialist Ronald Nored and frustrating shooting guard Chrishawn Hopkins. But Andrew Smith has also taken his game to another level, Roosevelt Jones is a great glue type, and Butler is actually shooting the ball disproportionately better inside the arc than outside it. Perhaps the threat of Clarke and Dunham launching from range is as important as the execution. Whatever it is, it's working.

3. Temple. We discussed Temple -- or, rather, the reaction to Temple's Dec. 22 road win over Syracuse -- in great detail last week, so we won't spend too much time breaking the Owls down this week. Instead, a heads up: On Sunday, Temple travels to Kansas. If they win there, I will put the Owls No. 1 in next week's rankings. I don't think that's going to happen, but still, it would be awesome to see -- especially because it would give Canisius transitive-property bragging rights over both Syracuse and Kansas. I sense a great disturbance in the force.

4. Saint Louis. New Year's Eve was big for the Billikens in a couple of different ways. For one, guard Kwamain Mitchell made just his second appearance of the season after returning from a November injury, and with 29 minutes Monday was his first return to full-time duty. Oh, and there's this: Saint Louis beat New Mexico at home, 60-46. The game came just a couple of days after New Mexico fought hard for a win at Cincinnati (before Cincinnati went to Pittsburgh and got what might end up as one of the most impressive road wins of the season), so you could forgive UNM for being a little worn out with the road trip by the time they passed under the Arch. But no matter, that's a really nice home win for Jim Crews' bunch, one that should stand the test of time as it pertains to the NCAA tournament at-large picture. With Mitchell healthy, this team is a real A-10 title challenger. But we knew that already.

5. Saint Joseph's. The Hawks move back into the top five almost by default this week thanks to some of the second-tier teams' performances, but their own struggles (in addition to Xavier's) appear to have made the Atlantic 10 not quite as elite-deep as it appeared to be back when everyone was jocking St. Joe's in the offseason. The Hawks' issues have primarily come by being a bit soft on defense -- they neither force turnovers nor protect their own glass -- and their offense hasn't been good enough.

6. La Salle. After a second-half collapse, La Salle took an L at Miami on Wednesday, which isn't an incriminating loss: Even without injured forward Reggie Johnson, the Hurricanes are really tough at home. So if you're willing to forgive La Salle its Nov. 18 home loss to Central Connecticut State (and I am, because it was Nov. 18) and are willing to dive into some of the Explorers' tempo-free numbers (you know it), you'll find an above-average offense led by senior Ramon Galloway, which is thus far carrying a below-average defense that gets, according to Synergy scouting services, absolutely shredded by opponents' pick-and-rolls. That play set has dragged down the Explorers' entire half-court defense (they do a nice job in transition, partially because they don't turn the ball over often on the other end of the floor), and could be one fruitful adjustment to make to start the A-10 season.

7. Dayton. So, I'm a little bit torn on Dayton's latest result. That result? A 63-61 overtime loss at USC. Why am I torn? Because on the one hand, USC is pretty objectively bad. On the other hand, USC has played a brutal nonconference schedule, Kevin O'Neill's USC teams have tended to pick up steam (especially defensively) as the season goes along, and you get the feeling that Dayton won't be the only team held to .79 points per trip on USC's floor this season.

8. Charlotte. Charlotte is shooting 28.3 percent from beyond the arc this season. The good news? Charlotte rarely attempts 3-pointers. So at least the 49ers are self-aware. Unfortunately, this has made their offense a bit one-dimensional, and despite the gaudy 12-2 record Alan Major's team is still barely scoring more than a point per trip overall this season. Meanwhile, its victory at Davidson remains the only real sign that this team is considerably better than it was last season. The A-10 campaign will tell us much.

9. Xavier. It will be interesting to see how we look back on Xavier's four-game late-December losing streak. Will it become part of a young-team-comes-together narrative? There's still plenty of time for that, after all, and no A-10 fan is willing to count out the Musketeers before conference play even begins. But my hunch is that this team just isn't all that good, at least not yet; it doesn't have any area of the game in which it really excels.

10. Richmond. The Spiders, on the other hand, have an identity: They score the basketball. Richmond's offense is still top-40 good, efficiency-wise, and the Spiders get after people on the defensive end, forcing opponents into a turnover on 24.4 percent of their possessions. But the defense is suspect in all of the other important factors, and while you can sing the praises of an efficient offense all you want, Richmond hasn't beaten anyone even remotely good (including George Mason and Davidson, the latter a home loss).

11. Massachusetts. Thus far this season, Massachusetts has scored .983 points per trip. It has allowed .990. This is obviously not a sustainable winning formula. But the Minutemen do have one thing in their favor: pace. Per KenPom.com, Massachusetts crams the third-highest number of possessions (adjusted for competition) into 40 minutes in the country: 74.6. You can see, with a guard as quick as Chaz Williams, why coach Derek Kellogg would want to get out and run. The problem is that UMass hasn't really guarded anybody, and shoots a lot of 3s despite knocking down just 30.2 percent to date. UMass fans seem convinced this team is drastically underrated here, but I'm not seeing it, at least not yet.

12. St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies, at least, can knock down shots. Indeed, at 7-5 this may be one of the sneaky-underrated teams in the league right now. The Bonnies have three efficient senior guards going right now (Demitrius Conger, Chris Johnson and Eric Mosley, who comes off the bench and has the highest offensive rating on the team) and 6-foot-8 junior forward Marquise Simmons has been especially effective on the glass, too. Last week, I made the comment that Mark Schmidt's team was especially generous to opposing 3-point shooters, and that at some point we had to consider that a flaw; as one commenter corrected me, that might not actually be the case. If opponents cool off a little bit, this team's defense won't look so questionable.

13. George Washington. George Washington is the opposite of St. Bonaventure: The Colonials' offense is ugly (.967 points per trip) but its defense is actually a top-50 unit, allowing just .899 points per trip thus far. I'll be interested to see if GW can steal a win at a bad Georgia team Friday night, and if so, whether our perception of the Colonials as a total low-end A-10 also-ran this season ought to change.

14. Duquesne. Back-to-back road losses are no big deal. Back-to-back road losses at Louisiana-Lafayette and Penn State mean you're probably not very good. (Anyone who has seen Penn State play is nodding his or her head while reading this.)

15. Rhode Island. The Dec. 27 game at Saint Mary's was never going to be a win, so it's not like the opinion of the Rams has changed much. And conference season is going to be tough. But it was good to see first-year coach Dan Hurley coax a few wins out of his rebuilding squad before league play begins.

16. Fordham. In a league that features Rhode Island and Duquesne, Fordham seems to pretty clearly be the worst team on offer.

Withey sparks Kansas to victory over SLU

November, 21, 2012
11/21/12
2:27
AM ET


KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Win or lose, Kansas’ Bill Self is almost always good for a postgame wisecrack -- even if it comes at the expense of one of his own players.

So it was easy to sense that a punchline was on the way when someone mentioned that KU center Jeff Withey appeared to be “muscling up” in the paint during Tuesday’s 73-59 thumping of Saint Louis at the Sprint Center.

Self smirked.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard the word ‘muscle’ used when speaking about Jeff,” Self said. Everyone in the room snickered.

All joshing aside, the observation was an accurate one.

A 7-foot-1 senior, Withey entered the season with a reputation as one of the country’s top shot-blockers. But after Tuesday, it’s clear he has been working on his offensive game, too.

The soft-spoken Withey tied a career high with 25 points in a victory that clinched the first-place trophy for the 12th-ranked Jayhawks in the CBE Classic. After the game Withey drew praise for the way he fought for position deep in the paint, which made it easier for him to finish plays.

Withey also blocked seven shots for the 4-1 Jayhawks, but the strides he made on offense are what impressed his coach the most.

“We’ve been on Jeff about not scoring the ball,” Self said, “and tonight we played through him. He’s so unselfish and he’s such a good passer. He just needs to get touches.”

Especially if the Jayhawks have ambitions of reaching the Final Four for the second consecutive season.

The early departure of Thomas Robinson to the NBA left a scoring void for Kansas in the paint. Withey averaged an admirable nine points a game playing alongside Robinson last season, but most of his buckets came on put-backs or easy baskets after Robinson had drawn a double-team.

To maintain Kansas' elite status, Self said, Withey would have to develop an arsenal of post moves to complement his defensive game. Self said Withey’s offense would be particularly important during the first few months of the season as freshman forward Perry Ellis adapts to playing at the college level.

[+] EnlargeJeff Withey
Denny Medley/US PresswireKansas wanted more offense from center Jeff Withey, and he responded with a career-high 25.
Self couldn’t have been more encouraged by what he saw from Withey on Tuesday.

“He worked himself in there pretty [deep] and caught the ball with both feet in the paint a couple of times,” Self said. “Really, he made some good post moves. He caught the ball on the perimeter one time and put it down and up-and-undered a guy.”

Withey also showed that he can score over his left shoulder, the importance of which his coach stressed during the offseason. Fifteen of Withey’s points came during the second half as the Jayhawks staved off Saint Louis’ rally attempt. For the game, Withey connected on 7 of his 12 field goal attempts and was 11-of-14 from the foul stripe.

Withey said KU’s performance from the 3-point line -- the Jayhawks connected on 7 of their 13 attempts -- help open up things for him down low.

“[Saint Louis] was so worried about our guards because they were shooting 3s and knocking down shots,” Withey said. “It made it easy for me in the second half to go one-on-one.

“They were throwing the ball [to me] perfect. All I had to do was catch it and go up.”

A 21-6 scoring run early in the first half gave the Jayhawks a 28-10 lead. The Billikens never threatened again.

“We came out flat,” SLU forward Cody Ellis said. “Against a good team like Kansas, you can’t do that. They’re going to step on your throat.”

Kansas City native Travis Releford, who played high-school ball just a few miles down the road from the Sprint Center, was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.

Releford scored 21 of his 23 points in the decisive first half -- mainly because Saint Louis backed off of him and dared him to shoot. Releford had missed all 11 of his 3-point attempts before the CBE Classic. He went 4-of-7 from beyond the arc Tuesday.

“Of course,” said Releford, when asked if he was offended by the cushion the Billikens gave him on the perimeter. “Any player who is defended that way should feel disrespected. They played off of me, and my coaches and teammates told me to continue to shoot it.”

Impressed as he was with Releford, it was obvious after the game that Saint Louis coach Jim Crews thought the MVP trophy should’ve gone to Withey.

“We were trying to get help from different positions, but they’ve got good players all over the place,” said Crews, whose team fell to 2-2. “When you plug [one] hole, another one opens up.”

Withey’s intimidating presence in the paint was one of the main reasons SLU shot just 34.6 percent from the field. The Billikens missed 11 of their first 13 attempts from 2-point range.

Forward Dwayne Evans entered the game averaging a team-high 17 points, but he managed just five field-goal attempts against Kansas -- and he wasn’t even the player Withey was guarding.

“Some shot-blockers are good on the ball, some are better off the ball,” Crews said. “[Withey] seems to have a knack for doing both and staying out of foul trouble. I certainly salute him on that.”
The Saint Louis team I saw in Columbus, Ohio, eight months ago looked like a contender for the Atlantic 10 title and a squad that was capable of making a run in this season’s NCAA tournament. I had no doubts about the Billikens’ top-25 status entering 2012-13, after they reversed Memphis’ late-game lead to advance to the third round of the NCAA tournament and then, pushed top-seeded Michigan State to the brink in a tough loss two days later.

That was then. Clearly, things have changed.

The program missed the top-25 but received 46 votes in the Associated Press preseason poll, a demotion connected to its insertion of former Evansville coach Jim Crews as interim head coach and announcement that Rick Majerus would take a leave of absence due to a health issue.

Saint Louis’ challenges didn’t end there. Last month, Kwamain Mitchell -- who scored 35 points in the team’s two NCAA tourney games in March -- fractured his foot in practice. The injury could sideline the Billikens star for two more months.

From Tom Timmermann of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
"Being forced to watch practice kills me,” [Mitchell] said. “I’m taking it one day at a time but every practice, it hurts me inside. But I don’t tell the coaches and teammates that because we’ve still got one thing we’re searching for, that’s a conference championship. … I’ll be on the sideline, chatting and cheering like I wasn’t injured. I’ve got to keep their spirits up and my spirits up.”

Guard Mike McCall will run the team in Mitchell’s absence.

“It hurts any player to be out,” McCall said. “Kwamain hurts to be out because he loves to be on court, but he tries not to show it because he doesn’t want to bring the team down. He wants us to go out and play hard and get better.”

In a season of high expectations for SLU, Mitchell’s injury is the big question mark, probably bigger than how the team will perform without coach Rick Majerus, who’s on season-long medical leave.

Those unexpected and crippling developments turned the external expectations for the program.

Projections had to be adjusted without Majerus. Another tweak was necessary when Mitchell suffered his foot injury.

But Saint Louis is not a team to ignore.

Crews will maintain Majerus’ emphasis on its superb defense (10th in defensive efficiency last season). Veterans McCall, Dwayne Evans, Cody Ellis and Jordair Jett can lead the Billikens through a manageable nonconference schedule.

And if Mitchell’s foot heals on time, then the talented player could return prior to the start of Atlantic 10 play.

Majerus can’t be replaced. But Crews has the personnel to contend in conference play and beyond. The Billikens succeeded last year because they were disciplined and scrappy, a common trait for Majerus’ teams. They should play with the same grit in 2012-13.

It’s not possible to assess Saint Louis according to the program’s achievements in March. It will play without Majerus. It won’t have Mitchell for a few months. And last year’s leader, Brian Conklin, is gone, too.

But this is still a program that shouldn’t be dismissed. Not in the Atlantic 10 or nationally.

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