College Basketball Nation: Kenny Frease

Rapid Reaction: Baylor 75, Xavier 70

March, 23, 2012
3/23/12
9:41
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ATLANTA -- A quick look at Baylor's 75-70 win over Xavier in a Sweet 16 matchup at the Georgia Dome.

Overview: If you had turned off the television or left the Georgia Dome five minutes into the game, you would have thought Baylor should just cut down the nets in New Orleans. The Bears had one of the more impressive starts in the NCAA tournament, getting off to a 14-2 lead to begin the game.

Baylor can look incredibly impressive when it’s out in the open floor. Quincy Acy is a force when he can get to the basket, especially on a dunk. Pierre Jackson runs a fluid game, and Brady Heslip is one of the better complementary role players with his shooting in the field.

But the Bears don’t put teams away. Xavier fought back by going inside to Kenny Frease and was within two scores a number of times in the second half. The Musketeers couldn’t make enough 3s, and that ultimately might have been their undoing.

Baylor survived and advanced to the Elite Eight. Just think about that. Baylor is in its second Elite Eight in three seasons. Baylor. That should speak volumes about how far this program has come under Scott Drew.

Key player: Quincy Acy. The Bears desperately need a physical force. They have tremendous length, but they don’t always use that size and strength to their advantage. Acy was a man among boys at times Friday. His ferocious dunks should be made into freeze-frame posters to hand out at the Georgia Dome. Acy allowed the Bears to settle down when they got a little too wild, and finished with 15 rebounds and 20 points. If Acy continues to play this way, the Bears have a legitimate shot to hang with Kentucky and, perhaps, pull off an upset.

Key stat: The Musketeers’ 3-point shooting was a woeful 3-for-15. Justin Martin made two 3s in the game. If the Musketeers were going to come all the way back from a 14-2 deficit, they were going to need to make 3s. Xavier did a fine job of getting the ball inside to Frease during a 13-0 run late in the first half. But the scoring droughts from Tu Holloway in the second half didn’t help. The Musketeers did get the lead down to six with a little more than a minute left -- on that second 3-pointer by Martin. Holloway hit his first 3-pointer of the game with just less than 20 seconds left to cut Baylor’s lead to 71-68. Heslip then converted four free throws to help the Bears to a 75-70 final.

Turning point: Perry Jones III has been rather quiet throughout the NCAA tournament. But Jackson made sure he was assertive and helped snuff out a mini Xavier run that seemed to be turning momentum. Following an Anthony Jones 3-pointer, Jones III received two lobs -- the first from Jackson -- and hit a face-up jumper, pushing the Bears to a nine-point lead. The Musketeers didn’t go away quietly and had it down to five points. But Jones’ assertiveness definitely helped shift momentum back to the Bears at a critical time.

What’s next: No. 3-seeded Baylor will take on No. 1-seeded Kentucky on Sunday at the Georgia Dome. This will be Baylor’s second Elite Eight in three seasons. The Bears have Final Four potential. The problem is that they’re in Kentucky’s bracket. Put Baylor in the West bracket, and it’s not close which team would be the favorite.

South preview: Xavier vs. Baylor

March, 22, 2012
3/22/12
10:30
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ATLANTA -- Perry Jones III doesn’t have to be dominant for Baylor to advance to the Elite Eight.

All he has to do is stay on the floor.

The 6-foot-11 Jones has been much-maligned this season. There are times when he looks like a top-10 NBA draft pick. There are other times when he’s just another lanky, athletic big from Baylor.

But his presence is enough to warrant plenty of attention -- and that can end up meaning buckets inside for Quincy Acy or Anthony Jones, and certainly open 3s for Brady Heslip.

If Jones were playing hockey, he’d get plenty of assists from his passes that lead to the pass for the score.

Jones hasn’t had a breakthrough scoring game since his 31 against Kansas State in the Big 12 tournament. The sophomore's numbers have dipped recently, and he has a combined nine points in the first two NCAA tournament games. But he did have 11 boards in a win over South Dakota State and four in the win over Colorado.

[+] EnlargePerry Jones III
Richard Mackson/US PresswirePerry Jones III is showing that he doesn't have to score in bunches to be a factor for Baylor.
His offense wasn’t needed in either game. But he did make the opposing teams pay attention.

“Sometimes my shot is not falling,’’ Jones said Thursday in advance of Friday night’s game against Xavier in the Sweet 16 at the Georgia Dome. “I shy away from keeping shooting the ball. Sometimes it’s not my night. I mean, it doesn’t bother me at all if we’re winning the game. I feel like I help my team in other ways.’’

Xavier will need to find Jones throughout the game Friday night.

“The best thing I can do is try to get the ball to whoever’s hot in the game,’’ Jones said. “If my shot’s not falling, I’d rather go 1-for-7 than 1-for-20-something and then we lose. I just try to do something, just try to rebound, maybe get offensive rebounds, do whatever I can to help my team.’’

Jones may have hurt his NBA draft stock a bit. But not much. You can’t take away his length and athleticism. He still oozes potential. The goal in Atlanta is to ensure he’s on the scouting report for the Musketeers.

And he will be.

“The best thing I can do is move forward and help our team break through for the next couple of games,’’ Jones said.

If Baylor gets a chance to face Kentucky, Jones will need to be a factor against Anthony Davis and friends.

“You’ve got to have balance and that’s the strength of our team,’’ Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “We have unselfish players. Perry Jones wasn’t making some shots the last two games that he normally does, but to his credit, a lot of times because of the help-side defense, he was making the hockey assist out, which led to baskets.

“Statistically, it doesn’t show up, but at the end of the day, wins and losses are the most important thing. Without the front-line play, we definitely don’t get two wins.’’

Who to watch

Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons, Xavier: The Xavier guards were the reason that some of us, notably me, picked the Musketeers to get to the Final Four in November.

The season has been a bit erratic, to say the least. But if this team advances, Holloway and Lyons will still be the reason. Holloway scored 21 points and made four 3s in the win over Lehigh in the third round. Lyons wasn’t as productive, but he still made his presence felt.

Holloway was even more dominant in the win over Notre Dame. He scored 25 points and made an efficient 10 of 15 shots.

Brady Heslip, Baylor: Heslip made nine 3s in the win over Colorado on Saturday. But the Musketeers are certainly going to defend him a bit tighter than the Buffs. Heslip still can deliver a dagger if he’s open. The key will be to not play off him at any point.

“Any guy that can score 27 points in the NCAA tournament without dribbling, he’s a really good player,’’ Holloway said. “He’s a great player. We have a lot of respect for not only him, but the Baylor team.’’

“We have to make him take tough shots, because if he gets open, it’s more than likely going to go down,’’ Lyons said. “You’ve got to be ready to chase him.’’

What to watch

Kenny Frease vs. the Baylor bigs: Frease will have his hands full Friday night. The Xavier center has to stay out of foul trouble. He’ll get some help from forward Andre Walker, but Frease must keep Perry Jones III, Quincy Acy and Anthony Jones off the offensive backboard.

If the Musketeers are going to have a chance to win, they must get second shots, too.

“We know the guards are going to be able to help us from the top, but we’ve got to take that responsibility on ourselves to try to contain [Jones] as much as possible,’’ Frease said. “He’ll pose a lot of problems for us, but it will depend on how we handle them.’’


Six bold Sweet 16 predictions

March, 20, 2012
3/20/12
11:10
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Kentucky basketballChris Graythen/Getty ImagesAnthony Davis (No. 23) and the Wildcats haven't forgotten their regular-season loss to Indiana.
Let’s try this again.

My first set of “bold” predictions didn’t exactly last through the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. But I’m not alone.

How many reconfigured their brackets after the Fab Melo news developed? Missouri losing to Norfolk State? I’d like to see a notarized “first” bracket as evidence that you picked that one.

Second time’s a charm though, right?

  1. Kentucky will beat Indiana by 15 or more -- Vengeance is coming. On Dec. 10, Indiana defeated the Wildcats on a Christian Watford buzzer-beater. The shot stamped Indiana’s revival as “official.” But the Hoosiers aren’t playing that Kentucky team this weekend. The Wildcats have evolved. I think Indiana has matured, too. But Kentucky will make a statement in this matchup. Think “Scarface.” These players have had to watch that game, that shot, all season. They’ve lost only twice, but they’re reminded of the defeat in Bloomington often. I think we’ll see the most impressive effort from the Wildcats that we’ve watched all season. They’re not going to beat the Hoosiers. They’re going to crush them. Indiana gets full credit for the December win over Kentucky, but you can’t overlook the fact that Anthony Davis picked up early fouls and the Hoosiers surged past the Wildcats when the freshman of the year was on the bench. That was one of the few games in which Davis suffered from foul trouble. Won’t happen again. And Davis will be a constant force. And the Wildcats will avenge that earlier defeat with a “someone throw in the towel” assault of the Hoosiers.
  2. Keith Appling will be the most valuable player for the Spartans in the Sweet 16 -- The sophomore guard scored 19 points and hit a crucial 3-pointer in the final minutes of Michigan State’s win over St. Louis. He’s a talented guard who will be called upon to navigate Louisville’s twisted zone (if the Cardinals use it) and help the Spartans fend off Florida’s 3-point attack or Marquette’s running game. The Spartans have never missed the Final Four as a No. 1 seed. This season won’t be any different. But Appling will emerge as Robin to Draymond Green’s Batman. Green will continue to excel, but he’ll face pressure on all sides. St. Louis stuffed the lane so well that Tom Izzo had to move Green to point. The Spartans need a Scottie Pippen right now to help them reach New Orleans. And after watching the Spartans in Columbus, I’m convinced Appling will enter New Orleans as a star.
  3. Jordan Taylor hits a big shot to beat Syracuse -- Hard to peg this one. Both teams like to dictate the tempo. Wisconsin will work the shot clock and try to slow the game down. Syracuse is one of the best transition teams in the country. The Orange force turnovers with that stubborn, lengthy zone and they run. It’s a great contrast in styles by two programs who’ve found ways to force teams to play at their preferred pace. This will be a tug-of-war. A battle for 40 minutes. And at the end of the day, it’s going to come down to crucial plays in the final minutes because I expect a tight game. Taylor struggled at the start of the season as he tried to adjust to life without Jon Leuer. But he’s certainly looked like an All-America candidate recently. Taylor will play hero again against the Orange with a game-winning shot. It was easy to forget how good he was last season during this year’s trials. But Taylor has regained that old swagger. Look for the big shot against the Orange.
  4. Thomas Robinson averages 28 points/12 rebounds against NC State/North Carolina -- I still have Kansas in New Orleans. The Jayhawks didn’t look great against Purdue in the round of 32, but going to St. Louis and the Edward Jones Dome will feel like home with the numerous Kansas fans that will flood that facility. But environment alone can’t affect this outcome. The Jayhawks will need the best Robinson can give to get past NC State (a Sweet 16 sleeper that could pull off the upset) and North Carolina, even if the latter doesn’t have Kendall Marshall. And I believe Robinson will put together a string of performances that will define his career at Kansas. He’ll average 28.0 points and 12 rebounds. He recorded only 16/13 and 11/13 in wins over Detroit and Purdue. That won’t get the job done in the Sweet 16. Robinson will step up and take the Jayhawks to New Orleans with the kind of outings that are expected from national player of the year candidates in March.
  5. Xavier, not Baylor, will play Kentucky in the Elite Eight -- Baylor has the length and athleticism to cause matchup hell for Xavier. Perry Jones & Co. against Kenny Frease seems unfair. Brady Heslip is on fire from outside. But the Musketeers will do more than make this a game. They’ll be tougher than a Baylor Bears squad that’s failed to match more physical teams in multiple matchups this season. Jones has scored nine points combined in his team’s two NCAA tournament games. As impressive as Heslip was against Colorado (nine 3-pointers), it’s unlikely that he’ll match that output against Xavier. Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons will pressure Baylor on the perimeter. The Cincinnati-Xavier brawl has not defined the season for either squad. This is one of those games in which the personnel certainly favors the Bears. But Xavier will push Baylor to the brink and ultimately score a 10/3 upset. The health of Dezmine Wells’ toe, however, will certainly play a major role in this prediction.
  6. Ohio won’t be represented in New Orleans -- One of the best storylines of the tournament unfolded over the weekend. Four Ohio schools (Xavier, Cincinnati, Ohio State and Ohio) reached the Sweet 16. But I don’t think we’ll see any of them in New Orleans. Even if Marshall can’t go, the Tar Heels have far too much athleticism and size for Ohio. I’m picking Cincinnati over Ohio State. I like the Yancy Gates-Jared Sullinger battle and the Bearcats’ athleticism on the perimeter. But I don’t think Cincy gets past Wisconsin, the team I’m picking to beat Syracuse. I think the Musketeers can defeat Baylor in the Sweet 16, but they’re not going to beat Kentucky. It’s a great accomplishment for one state to send four schools to the Sweet 16. But it won’t have any reps in New Orleans even though the numbers favor it right now. Sorry, Ohio.

State of Ohio well-represented in Sweet 16

March, 19, 2012
3/19/12
3:21
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Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCincinnati is heading to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001, one of four Ohio teams still alive in the NCAA tournament.
Teams from the state of Ohio make up one-fourth of the schools in the Sweet 16 this season after Cincinnati and crosstown rival Xavier won their games. The Bearcats and Musketeers join the Ohio Bobcats and Ohio State Buckeyes in the next round.

It's the first time in NCAA tournament history that four schools from a single state have advanced to the Sweet 16 in the same season.

East Region
(6) Cincinnati 62, (3) Florida State 56
The Bearcats will be making their sixth Sweet 16 appearance and first since 2001. Cincinnati went on a 12-6 run over the final minute and a half of the game, which began with a Dion Dixon steal and dunk.

Sean Kilpatrick led the Bearcats with 18 points and Cincinnati recorded 13 steals to just five for Florida State. Florida State fails to reach consecutive Sweet 16s for the first time since 1992-93.

Cincinnati now takes on No. 2 seed Ohio State in the Sweet 16 Thursday. These schools met twice for the National Championship in 1961 and 1962 with the Bearcats winning both times.

South Region
(10) Xavier 70, (15) Lehigh 58
Another team from Cincinnati, Xavier, will be making its sixth Sweet 16 appearance as well. Kenny Frease scored a career-high 25 points shooting 84.6 percent (11-13) from the floor and also grabbed 12 rebounds. He's the first player to record those numbers in a NCAA tournament game since Blake Griffin in 2009.

Lehigh which scored 19 points in transition versus Duke on Friday scored just seven against Xavier. The Mountain Hawks entered the tournament averaging nearly 16 points per game in transition, which ranked in the top 25. Lehigh's loss brings No. 15 seeds to 0-6 all-time in the Round of 32.

Xavier next takes on No. 3 seed Baylor on Friday.

(2) Kansas 63, (10) Purdue 60
After a late scare, Kansas is headed to its 19th Sweet 16 and fifth in its past six seasons. Thomas Robinson scored 11 points and 13 rebounds for his 25th double-double of the season, which ties Drew Gooden's school record in 2002. The Jayhawks scored 17 points in transition including their final six points.

Robbie Hummel ends his Boilermakers career scoring a team-high 26 points as Purdue loses in the Round of 32 for the second straight year.

Kansas faces No. 11 seed North Carolina State on Friday hoping to advance to the Elite Eight for the second straight season. The Wolfpack have not been to the Regional Finals since 1986.

Through the Round of 32, no games in this year's Men's Basketball Championship have gone to overtime. It's the first time since seeding began in 1979 that there hasn't been a single overtime game in the Round of 64 and Round of 32.

Frease leads Xavier past Lehigh

March, 18, 2012
3/18/12
11:41
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GREENSBORO, N.C. - It didn't take Xavier long to realize center Kenny Frease was the biggest man on the court in Sunday night's South Region third-round game against No. 15-seed Lehigh.

Frease, a 7-foot, 270-pound senior from Massillon, Ohio, was 3 inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than any of the Mountain Hawks' post players.

"I'm just a lot bigger than those guys," Frease said.

The Musketeers kept feeding Frease the ball and he kept shooting, scoring 25 points on an 11-for-13 effort to lead No. 10-seed Xavier to a 70-58 victory at Greensboro Coliseum. Xavier advances to the Sweet 16 for the fourth time since 2008 and will play No. 3 seed Baylor in Atlanta's Georgia Dome on Friday.

"When you've got your back against the wall and it could be your last game ever, you get a little fire," Frease said. "I just got in position to score and my teammates did a great job of getting me the ball."

Frease went 6-for-6 from the floor in the first half, but the Musketeers still trailed by as many as 15 points. Xavier closed the half with a 17-8 run and scored the first seven points of the second half to take its first lead.

[+] EnlargeKenny Frease
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonXavier's Kenny Frease bullied his way through Lehigh's undersized front line for 25 points.
Over the final 10 minutes, Xavier's backcourt put the clamps on Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum, the Patriot League Player of the Year. After the Mountain Hawks tied the score at 50 on McCollum's jumper with 10:35 to play, Lehigh scored only one basket over the next 9 1/2 minutes.

McCollum, who scored 30 points in Lehigh's 75-70 upset of 2-seed Duke on Friday night, scored 14 points on 5-for-22 shooting.

"It was a team plan," said Xavier guard Tu Holloway, who marked McCollum for most of the night. "I had him one-on-one, but I just wanted the guys to be there when he went around me and came off a ball screen. He's a great player. His shots just didn't fall tonight."

McCollum had several 3-pointers rim out and never seemed to find his rhythm after missing much of the first half with two fouls.

"I'm not one to make excuses," McCollum said. "I just wasn't making shots. I'm not going to blame picking up two fouls with shooting a basketball; it has nothing to do with it. I just missed some shots tonight and offense is going to come and go. We still have to get stops on defense and we didn't do that tonight."

Lehigh was attempting to become the first 15-seed to advance to the Sweet 16. After Norfolk State lost to Florida earlier Sunday, 15-seeds fell to 0-6 when playing in their second games of the NCAA tournament.

"It's a amazing high note to be here," Lehigh guard Mackey McKnight said. "It was an amazing honor to play Duke. It's just basketball and we love it. It's a dream come true to be here. It's a dream come true to even beat Duke and to even to play Xavier and even to lose to them. I think we just enjoyed every single moment of it and we'll always remember this. We'll never forget it."

Xavier, the team college basketball seemed to forget after it was involved in an ugly fight with rival Cincinnati early December, will continue its postseason run in the Sweet 16.

"People forget we were No. 8 in the country and 9-0 (actually 8-0)," Frease said. "We all knew in our hearts that we were capable of doing it."
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Here’s a quick rundown of what to look for in Friday’s evening games in Greensboro.

No. 15 Lehigh (26-7) vs. No. 2 Duke (27-6), 7:15 p.m. ET

If there’s one constant in the NCAA tournament -- other than Duke and North Carolina playing really close to home -- it’s the Blue Devils winning their opening-round games.

Under coach Mike Krzyzewski, the Blue Devils have won 25 of their 27 opening-round games and they’ve taken most of them by lopsided scores. Duke won 14 of the past 15 by an average of 26.9 points, including an 87-45 rout of No. 16 seed Hampton in the 2011 NCAA tournament.

“At Duke, our coaches are great at preparing us for games,” Blue Devils forward Miles Plumlee said. “Regardless of the opponent, we respect each and every one, and we’re just ready to play the game.”

Krzyzewski and his assistant coaches are working a little harder to prepare the Blue Devils for Friday night’s South Region second-round game against No. 15 seed Lehigh at Greensboro Coliseum.

The Blue Devils will probably be without starting forward Ryan Kelly, the team’s third-leading scorer (11.8 points per game) and rebounder (5.4), for the third consecutive game. Kelly, a 6-foot-10 junior from Raleigh, N.C., still hasn’t fully recovered from a sprained right ankle he suffered in practice March 6.

Without Kelly in the ACC tournament, the Blue Devils defeated Virginia Tech 60-56 and lost to Florida State 62-59 in the semifinals at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.

“He will not be able to play like any type of rotation minutes,” Krzyzewski said. “In other words, you’re not going to see a Plumlee go out and Kelly come in. He might be available for some spot duty and we’ll know more about that [Friday]. Like an end-of-game situation, end of half or some type of specialty thing, but no more than that for this game.”

Kelly has become especially valuable because he’s a big man who shoots 40.8 percent on 3-pointers.

“It’s not a shooter,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s the fact that he’s a big guy who can shoot. We can put another shooter out there, but then we’re real small. So it does have an impact because you might get a few more open looks or a little bit more time to shoot the ball. There’s more space. There are a variety of things that happen as a result of him being out there.”

Kelly’s injury has also left Duke’s bench even thinner. Against the Seminoles, only three Duke reserves combined to play 47 minutes and were outscored 18-9 by their FSU counterparts.

“They would all love Ryan to be able to play,” Krzyzewski said. “But we’re fine. You play with who you got and you play; there’s no excuses for anything. Our guys are ready to go. We love to have Ryan because when he comes into ballgames, he’s different than the other two [big men, brothers Miles and Mason Plumlee]. It makes the other team have to adjust more during the course of a game.”

Who to watch:

Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum: The junior was the country’s sixth-leading scorer with 21.9 points per game. He was named MVP of the Patriot League tournament, scoring 29 points with five assists and three steals in the Mountain Hawks’ 82-77 victory over Bucknell in the championship game.

Duke’s Miles Plumlee: With Kelly sidelined with a sprained ankle, Miles Plumlee -- the oldest of three Plumlee brothers from Warsaw, Ind. -- will have to shoulder an even bigger load. The 6-foot-10 forward scored nine points on 3-for-6 shooting in the FSU loss. He was Duke’s leading rebounder over the past nine games, averaging 10.8 boards.

Duke’s Austin Rivers: Rivers, a freshman from Winter Park, Fla., and son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers, was sensational in his first season, leading the Blue Devils with 15.4 points per game. He was named ACC Rookie of the Year and is adept at driving to the basket for points, or kicking the ball back out to his teammates for open shots on the perimeter.

What to watch: Duke’s shooting. The Blue Devils tend to live or die by the perimeter shooting and they struggled in their last three games, making only 16 of 67 3-point attempts (23.8 percent). Rivers made only 3 of 20 3-point attempts in his past four games. Top reserve Andre Dawkins, a career 40.4 percent shooter on 3-pointers, was 1-for-12 in the past five games, after a 6-for-9 performance in a 74-66 victory at FSU on Feb. 23. If the Blue Devils are going to advance beyond this weekend, Rivers, Dawkins and guard Seth Curry are going to have to heat up again.

No. 10 Xavier (21-12) vs. No. 7 Notre Dame (22-11), 9:45 p.m. ET

About the time Xavier was trading punches with Cincinnati in the most frightening moment of the college basketball season, Notre Dame was just beginning to fight through its own troubles.

In mid-January, neither team looked like an NCAA tournament contender. On Friday night, the Fighting Irish and Musketeers will play in a South Region second-round game at Greensboro Coliseum.

“I don’t know if some people seem to have memories of elephants, that they don’t want to ever forget that,” Xavier coach Chris Mack said. “But for our kids it is a chance to go out on the biggest stage of college basketball and advance. And I truly believe that the only games that people remember are the ones you play in March.”

For a while, it seemed like neither the Fighting Irish nor Musketeers would be playing in March.

The Musketeers, who were ranked No. 8 in the country when they routed the Bearcats 76-53 on Dec. 10, lost five of six games after four of their players were suspended for their roles in an ugly brawl in the closing minutes of the Crosstown Shootout. After an 85-72 loss at Temple on Feb. 11, Xavier was 16-9 overall, 7-4 in the A-10.

“If I was being very, very honest, it was extremely difficult,” Mack said. “I don’t think there’s a manual for a coach, for a program, for your players, in how you respond. But the one thing I never questioned about our kids is their desire to compete and want to get better. We stepped in a lot of venues where we heard about the incident, but Xavier basketball is much bigger than 10 bad minutes on a Saturday. This program has done so much good for so many years that we can define ourselves with who we truly are.”

Xavier senior center Kenny Frease, whose face was left bloodied from the fight, said the aftermath of the brawl seemed to bring the Musketeers closer together.

“It was difficult just because of the pressure that was put on us from the outside world,” Frease said. “I think that as a team we always knew that if we were able to come together that we would be where we are today. And in the locker room it really brought us closer together just having gone through that type of adversity. The adversity that you’re going to see in the NCAA tournament, we have been through all that. We have been through a lot more than that. So I think that as a team we’ll be ready for anything we see.”

The Fighting Irish had their share of adversity, too. Notre Dame started 4-2, but then lost senior forward Tim Abromaitis to a season-ending knee injury in practice Nov. 25. Without him, the Irish lost six of their next 13 games and were 11-8 after a 65-58 loss at Rutgers on Jan. 16.

“I feel like it was two different seasons almost before Tim got hurt, and the way we prepared, and the way we game planned and stuff,” Notre Dame guard Scott Martin said. “And then after Tim, we kind of had to figure things out again and regroup and go from there. So I think it was just a lot of hard work and dedication out of us that paid off.”

After the loss at Rutgers, Notre Dame won nine consecutive Big East games (the longest conference winning streak in school history), including a 67-58 upset of then-No. 1 Syracuse on Jan. 21.

“You have to have great, great leadership,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “I don’t know if I have been more proud of a captain like Scott Martin. Because his partner in leading was supposed to be Tim Abromaitis and he kind of lost him. So for him to lead through a crisis early in the season, I think really helped us. And we had our young guys we committed to them and got them playing time. They needed to play, they needed to get reps. Even if we’re losing games, they needed to get in there and get reps and I think they grew from that.”

Both teams will find out how much they’ve matured Friday night.

Who to watch:

Xavier’s Tu Holloway: Holloway, a senior, led the Musketeers in scoring (17 points per game) and assists (5.1) and was the only Atlantic 10 player in the top five in both scoring and assists. He also leads Xavier in steals (1.5) and foul shooting (86.6 percent). Holloway averaged 19.7 points and 5 rebounds in three Atlantic 10 tournament games.

Notre Dame’s Jack Cooley: Cooley, a bruising 248-pound forward, averaged 12.4 points and 9 rebounds. Cooley, from Glenview, Ill., had a career-high 27 points with 17 rebounds in a 75-69 victory over Providence on March 2, one of his seven double-doubles in the past 10 games.

Xavier’s Mark Lyons: A junior guard from Schenectady, N.Y., Lyons averaged 15.5 points with 2.7 assists. A third-team All-Atlantic-10 selection, Lyons is a potent 3-point shooter, making 39.6 percent of his attempts.

What to watch: Defense. Notre Dame turned its season around with defense, limiting opponents to only 59.2 points per game, which was second-fewest in the Big East. Notre Dame held its opponents to 60 points or fewer in 15 games, including 11 against conference foes. Five opponents were held to fewer than 50 points by the Irish.
Click here to read our afternoon recap. Now back to the lecture at hand, which comes in three parts:

The Rivalry

No. 2 Syracuse 71, Connecticut 69: One of the many things to love about this Syracuse team -- besides its great zone defense and incredible depth and talent and length and pretty much everything besides defensive rebounding -- is how well it handles close games. Since the Jan. 21 loss at Notre Dame, Syracuse has taken respective best shots from Cincinnati, West Virginia, Georgetown, Louisville, South Florida and now at UConn, and each time the Orange have either pulled away late or made the key stop down the stretch to preserve the narrow win. It's a real skill, and it isn't entirely intangible; when you have a defense this good, you tend to get a lot of stops, and there's no reason why that wouldn't be true in the final minutes of any given game, too. But however you quantify it, the Orange win close games. Such traits tend to come in handy in March.

As for Connecticut? While the Huskies didn't get the win, they appear to be rounding into form, or at least starting to figure a few things out. UConn had its fair share of issues with Syracuse's zone, and there were plenty of bad shots to be had, but the Huskies were much more balanced (four players finished in double figures, while Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier combined for 13 assists) and competent on both ends of the floor in the second half. Unless it suddenly begins shooting the ball from outside at a much higher clip, this team probably has a ceiling. But there are plenty of realistic improvements to be made. Even better, many of them appear to be in progress. Let's not bury this team just yet.

The Upsets

Purdue 75, No. 13 Michigan 61: When Purdue guard Ryne Smith was asked what he thought about guard Kelsey Barlow's dismissal from the team last week, he was direct, even curt: "Addition by subtraction," Smith said. Apparently he was right. Whatever the reason, Purdue played its best game of the season Saturday at the most important time, containing Michigan's outside shooters and slowly stretching a second-half lead thanks to the heady play of point guard Lewis Jackson, forward Robbie Hummel and, most importantly, guard Terone Johnson, who scored a career-high 22 points and made a handful of key plays down the stretch, including two big and-1 finishes around the rim. Purdue is an unconventional team with no true post presence; the Boilermakers rely on Hummel's outside-in versatility and an extended, guard-oriented style. This makes them a great matchup for Michigan, and, in their own way, a dangerous team.

In any case, Purdue can now feel entirely safe about its at-large NCAA tournament chances. Beating Michigan at home -- the Wolverines' first home loss of the season -- is most definitely a signature victory. And it couldn't have come at a better time.

TCU 83, No. 21 New Mexico 64: Let's hear it for TCU! A round of applause is most definitely in order. At this time in 2011, the Horned Frogs were in the midst of a season-ending 13-game losing streak, en route to an 11-22 finish. This season is an entirely different story: TCU is playing its best basketball down the stretch, having won four of its past five (and eight in a row at home) and toppling ranked UNLV and New Mexico and a good Colorado State squad in the process. The key: great 3-point shooting. The Horned Frogs lead the league in long-range makes in conference play, and they're undefeated at home as a result. What a difference a year makes.

In the meantime ... um, what happened to New Mexico? Last Saturday, we watched in near-awe as the Lobos thoroughly dominated UNLV, which came just a few days after a 10-point win at San Diego State. Steve Alford's team, once a relatively unheralded efficiency darling with few good wins to show for it, looked set to run away with the Mountain West and make a deep run into March. Since then, the Lobos are 0-2 and are now in a three-way tie. A loss at Colorado State makes some sense; we know the Rams are tough, particularly at home. And this is not to take away from TCU, which (as you just read above) is giving everyone more than they bargained for in February, particularly in their own building. But a 19-point blowout loss? Isn't this the team that just rolled UNLV in the Pit and moved to 8-2 in the league? It's kind of weird, right?

Georgia 76, No. 11 Florida 62: This is an upset, of course, but I'm not sure we should be all that surprised. Frankly, I'm not sure if a Florida loss should ever truly catch us off guard. Don't get me wrong: The Gators are good. But they're a specific kind of good. When their steady diet of 3s are falling, they can shoot opponents off the floor before said opponents even have a chance to catch their breath. But if the shots aren't going down, Florida has no Plan B. Patric Young is the only true post presence, and his offensive game is still a work in progress (and he's still underutilized as a scoring threat to boot). The Gators' defense -- which ranks fifth in opponents' points per possession in SEC play, No. 10 in opponents' 3-point field goal percentage and No. 10 in block rate -- still isn't good enough to hold opponents in check when the shots clanging off the iron and the opponents start turning long rebounds into secondary breaks and easy buckets. Florida might yet get there on the defensive end, but it isn't yet. If this UF team has a lower ceiling than it should, well, that's why.

The Bubble Specials

Alabama 67, Mississippi State 50: It was instinctively easy to write off the Crimson Tide when coach Anthony Grant suspended Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green; it was easy to predict a late collapse, even a fall off the bubble, for a team whose two leading scorers would be missing such important games down the stretch. Instead, the Crimson Tide keep, well, rolling. They've now won three in a row and prevented any hint of a collapse. Mississippi State, on the other hand, appears to be doing exactly that: The Bulldogs are collapsing. This is the Bulldogs' fifth consecutive defeat, a stretch that has included some good basketball (in the near-miss vs. Kentucky this week) but also some baffling losses (the loss at Auburn especially). It's no stretch to say Mississippi State -- which for much of the season looked like a tourney near-lock -- could wind up missing the tournament after all. The Bulldogs are, after all, 6-8 and tied with rival Ole Miss in the SEC standings. Ouch.

[+] EnlargeJohn Shurna
Rob Christy/US PresswireJohn Shurna's free throws pushed Northwestern past Penn State -- and kept an NCAA bid in sight.
Northwestern 67, Penn State 66: Breathe a big ol' sigh of relief, Northwestern fans: In the chase for their first NCAA tournament appearance in school history, the Wildcats remain very much alive. Senior forward John Shurna made the game-winning free throws with just 2.6 seconds remaining, giving Bill Carmody his first win in State College since 2002. Big challenges still lie ahead: Ohio State comes to town on Wednesday, followed by next weekend's season-ender at Iowa, a team that just knocked off Indiana and Wisconsin in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. But for now, some minor rejoicing is in order. Northwestern's tourney hopes are still very real.

Rutgers 77, Seton Hall 72 (OT): Let's not take Seton Hall off the bubble just yet, eh? The Pirates got a great win over Georgetown this week, one that could have firmed up a previously shaky at-large profile. All Seton Hall needed to do the rest of the way was avoid bad losses. Well, losing to a young, 13-16 Rutgers team at home is just that. Next weekend, the Hall travels to DePaul. If the Pirates lose there, all the good vibes from the emphatic Georgetown victory will have almost entirely faded from the picture.

VCU 89, George Mason 77: First things first: Thanks to Drexel's one-point win at Old Dominion on Saturday afternoon, VCU's win over George Mason won't give them a share of the CAA title this season. Bummer, sure, but the Rams would surely settle for a spot in the NCAA tournament, something to which they're at least a little closer after this victory today. As a league, the Colonial's top teams (Drexel, VCU and GMU) didn't get quality nonconference wins (VCU's best came against South Florida, for example), so any at-large consideration will have to come from separation at the top and perhaps a pair of deep runs for both Drexel and VCU in the CAA tournament. A win here was a must, and Shaka Smart's team got it, behind Bradford Burgess' career-high 31 points.

Dayton 76, UMass 43: A home loss to UMass can't be called "bad," but for a team like Dayton -- which is desperately scrapping for a spot in the NCAA tournament -- it could have been disastrous. Instead, the opposite happened: UD won, and won big, looking very much like one of the A-10's best teams and a squad worthy of a tourney bid in the process. We'll see how the Flyers finish up, but if they're one of the last four in, they might just be one of the play-in game candidates, which are held in -- you guessed it -- Dayton!

Saint Joseph's 82, No. 22 Temple 72: Speaking of somewhat fringe Atlantic 10 tournament hopefuls, the A-10 can't offer a bubble team a better shot at a marquee win than Temple on its own floor late in the season, but the Hawks still had to overcome Fran Dunphy's typically peerless bunch, which had won its previous 11 games and 13 in the 15-game stretch beginning with its Jan. 4 victory over Duke. Phil Martelli's team is now 9-6 in the league and 19-11 overall, and it added the one thing it desperately needed to its profile: A legitimate top-25 RPI win. Temple is most definitely that.

Penn 55, Harvard 54: Just when you think it's time to plan a long-awaited Harvard hoops coronation, Penn's Zack Rosen comes along, scores 20 points, makes a huge jumper down the stretch and ices two game-winning free throws in the final 30 seconds. And all of a sudden the Ivy League race is legitimately up for grabs with both of these teams having two losses. (Another one-game playoff for the Crimson? Oh boy.) As an at-large entity, Harvard is still in decent shape, but its profile isn't so strong that it can afford to lose at either Columbia or Cornell in its final two games, lose out on the Ivy auto-bid, and still feel safe about being picked to join the group of 37 at-large teams. Big days ahead for Tommy Amaker's team.

Washington 59, Washington State 55: For the first 10 or so minutes of the first half, it looked like Wazzu was going to hand its in-state opponent the type of loss that would severely damage Washington's at-large chances. But the Huskies fought back and, as the AP report notes, won the game's most important battle -- at the charity stripe: "Ultimately, the game came down to free throws. WSU (14-14, 6-10) went 11 of 12 to keep the game tied at 28-all despite shooting 27 percent in the first half. In the second half, the Cougars shot 6 of 20 from the free throw line, while the Huskies, who only went 2 of 5 in the first half, finished 17 of 24." The win keeps Washington on the right side of the bubble for now, but UW's marginal profile might not be able to survive a loss at either USC or UCLA going away.

Xavier 65, Richmond 57: Kenny Frease's season highs in both points (19) and rebounds (14) helped carry Xavier to an ugly but ultimately victorious Saturday. A loss here would have kicked Xavier off the bubble for good and almost certainly, barring an upset in the A-10 tournament, ended Chris Mack's 100 percent NCAA tournament hit rate in his XU tenure. Instead, the Musketeers live to fight another day.

No. 21 San Diego State 74, Colorado State 66: The Rams pass at least two NCAA tournament bubble tests: The RPI/SOS numbers are great, and they sure do look like a tournament team. But will that be enough? A win in Viejas Arena would have provided a tidy bookend to this week's huge victory over New Mexico, but the loss isn't a huge deal. Colorado State, which is undefeated at home in Mountain West play, hosts UNLV in Fort Collins in just three days' time. Win that one and the Rams are probably set.


CINCINNATI -- Rick Majerus didn’t make much out of his team’s 73-68 win over Xavier, passing if off as nothing more than a good night in a very long season.

The truth is, the Billikens’ win is nothing less than the latest tectonic shift in an Atlantic 10 that is undergoing serious seismic shakes.

In the A-10, there were always a few guarantees: Fran Dunphy’s mustache, Xavier winning at home and X marking the spot at the top of the conference.

The first disappeared in October, the result of a lost bet between the Temple coach and Dionte Christmas.

Saint Louis erased the second on Wednesday night, ending Xavier’s six-year home win streak against Atlantic 10 opponents, a run that extended across 43 games.

Could the third be far away?

That’s the question that most everyone is asking these days in one way or another: what’s wrong with Xavier? Can the Musketeers, a team that has won or shared five consecutive league titles, regroup?

The answer is once again TBD, now that a team that looked like it had righted itself just a week ago has lost back-to-back games.

Asked if he knew what was ailing his team, Tu Holloway shook his head.

“Not really,’’ he said. “I really can’t say. We’re all looking for answers.’’

So is Chris Mack.

The coach looks like he’s trying to plug 57 holes in the dam, fixing one only to find another one blow open.

He benched starters Kenny Frease and Mark Lyons to start the game. Mack thought his team lacked toughness in a loss at rival Dayton on Saturday and so decided instead to reward players who ‘go at it’ in practice.

[+] EnlargeRick Majerus
Frank Victores/US PresswireRick Majerus looks to have shaped Saint Louis into an A-10 contender, if later than expected.
It worked to a point. The Musketeers didn’t get outmuscled against the Billinkens. In fact they showed some serious resolve, clawing back into a game they looked completely out of for 20 minutes.

Only problem, with the toughness riddle solved, Mack was handed a new one: an inattention to detail, evidenced by 17 turnovers.

“We have to become a better basketball team,’’ Mack said. “No one is going to feel sorry for us. Just the opposite. There’s not going to be a lot of nice things said about us and that’s OK, as long as we stay together and we are.’’

The catch is, it’s not as easy to fix an ailing team in the A-10 as it used to be. The middle and the bottom are gaining ground this season and a five-minute brain cramp against anyone can easily turn into a loss.

Certainly, at least part of what was ailing Xavier on this night was Saint Louis. Since Majerus was hired five years ago, folks have been waiting for the Billikens to make some noise. Last season looked like the arrival date, but the year spiraled out of control under the weight of off-court suspensions.

Now it looks like Saint Louis is arriving, just a little later than expected. Theirs has not been a smooth ride. The Billikens jumped out to a hot nonconference start, beating Washington, Villanova and Oklahoma, but have struggled since the A-10 season started. Saint Louis exchanged losses and wins in the first four games.

Now on a three-game ride, the Billikens stand tied atop the murky conference standings with Dayton, UMass, LaSalle and St. Bonaventure (whoever had those teams on the leader board for late January ought to head to Vegas immediately).

This is your typical Majerus team, about as much fun to play against as a double root canal. Saint Louis does not make mistakes, plays incredibly hard defense and can beat you in all sorts of ways thanks to a wily coach who has an answer for every riddle.

Against Xavier, the Billikens started out by winning behind the arc, sinking 7 of 14 3-pointers in the first half to roll to a 41-29 lead. When Xavier adjusted, as Majerus knew it would, they pounded the ball inside to Brian Conklin. After X tied the game at 50, Conklin either scored or was fouled on five of Saint Louis’ next seven possessions.

“He’s pretty good in the low post,’’ Majerus said. “He’s been playing better and he’s a confident scorer. We had been shooting the three-ball early but when they took that away, we were able to spread them out and went to Conklin.’’

Conklin delivered to the tune of 19 points, enough to help the Billikens’ hold off a late push by the Musketeers and end a run of dominance that Majerus said he didn’t know about but his players surely did.

“It’s just a jumping board for us,’’ Conklin said. “It feels great. That 43-game streak, with me being a senior, my last year, we’ve been so close so many years and not been able to get it done, so to come in here and hit free throws, it’s great. We’re first in the conference right now. It’s ours to win or ours to lose. We definitely want it to be ours to win.’’

It certainly could be the case.

Disorder is the new order of the day in the Atlantic 10.

Down is up, X is down and Fran Dunphy is clean shaven.
Xavier center Kenny Frease's listed height is 7-feet. He weighs 270 pounds. His physical presence was imposing before he acquired the shiner on his right eye, the lingering effects from the infamous right-hand blast he received from Cincinnati forward Yancy Gates in the crosstown rivals' ugly Dec. 10 brawl. With the shiner, Frease looks like a UFC heavyweight. If you gave him an earpiece and a black t-shirt, he could be the most intimidating bouncer in the greater Cincinnati area.

[+] EnlargeKenny Frease
David Kohl/US PresswireGonzaga's Sam Dower looks to shoot against Xavier's Kenny Frease on Saturday.
But Saturday night, as Frease hunched toward his news conference microphone in the Cintas Center media room, I couldn't help but think the big man looked like he needed a hug.

Frankly, he sounded like it, too.

"I guess they just wanted it more than us, " Frease said, sighing and searching for answers just minutes after his team's 72-65 loss to Gonzaga, in which the Musketeers had been pounded on the offensive glass to the tune of the Bulldogs' 38.9 percent offensive rebounding rate. "I don't know. I really don't know any other explanation. It's not like they were bigger and stronger than us. We just weren't blocking them out."

When a reporter asked the necessary follow-up -- "How could they want it more than you?" -- Frease dug even deeper.

"I really don't know," he said. "Myself included. We all made mistakes tonight. We've got to figure out whatever it was we had before all this stuff went down. Whatever we lost, we've got to figure it out. We've got to get it back."

Frease did most of the talking for himself and teammate Tu Holloway on Saturday night, who stared distantly at a flatscreen TV tuned to Washington's late-night Pac-12 matchup with Oregon. Holloway was in no mood to discuss his team's struggles. He and Frease almost looked shellshocked.

Neither had seemed to notice one rather salient fact about Xavier's loss: The Musketeers shot 3-18 from beyond the arc. Forget rebounding. Forget desire. When you shoot the ball like that, well, it's almost impossible to win. Considering Xavier never went away Saturday, and had a chance to draw close throughout the second half -- in which the Zags made big shot after big shot, many with the shot clock nearly expired -- maybe the outlook needn't be entirely negative. Maybe it was just one of those nights.

Of course, Frease didn't want to hear it.

"There's no comfort in losing," Frease said. "I don't know. There's nothing good that comes from a loss, in my opinion. We have to figure it out. We've got to be ready. We've got conference season coming up. We've got to figure it out."

Frease's analysis is the obvious, easy one. It's tempting to look at Xavier's play in the past three weeks and see the much-ballyhooed (and rightfully so) Cincinnati brawl as an invisible line of demarcation. Before the brawl, Xavier was 8-0 and ranked No. 8 in the country. Since the brawl, the Muskeeters are 1-4. It doesn't take a crack hoops analyst to examine the differences before and after Dec. 10 and concur with Frease's analysis -- to believe this Xavier team is shaken, that it is feeling some form of what David Foster Wallace once called "the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing." Toughness. Resolve. Confidence. Whatever that infinite, intangible quality was, the Musketeers could be certainly be accused of having lost it.

That line of analysis is enticing in its simplicity. It's also -- at least partially -- wrong.

Indeed, Xavier has looked out of sorts since the Dec. 10 brawl, but it has had reason to. Its first four games after the brawl included a trip to Hawaii for the Diamond Head Classic, which Xavier opened against a very good mid-major team in Long Beach State. It's possible the 49ers would have won that game against a full-strength Musketeers squad, much less one without shooting guard Mark Lyons and freshman swingman Dez Wells, both of whom were still serving their post-brawl suspensions.

Why? Because the undefeated Musketeers have never been quite as good as advertised this season. The flaws have been obvious, particularly on offense. Xavier barely managed a point per possession in its 66-60 win against Miami (Ohio) on Nov. 18. It needed late comebacks and last-minute heroics from Holloway to steal an otherwise-ugly overtime win at Vanderbilt, and turn around what appeared for 30 minutes to be a blowout home loss to Purdue.

Without those 10 or 15 minutes of inspired, come-from-behind play, the Musketeers lose two early nonconference games, and the distinction between the pre- and post-brawl Musketeers squads becomes far more difficult to draw.

"Everybody that follows our program knows that we weren't perfect at 8-0," Xavier coach Chris Mack said. "But we took our foot off the gas pedal on the defensive end, for whatever reason -- self-inflicted problems, whatever."

If Frease's Saturday proclamations were dire, his coach's were cool-headed and rational. To him, the difference was simple: His team hasn't played the same style of defense as in its first eight games. Why? The brawl-borne distractions and resulting suspensions certainly didn't help, of course, but the defensive downturn isn't wholly attributable to some intangible loss resulting from the overwhelmingly critical response to Xavier's crosstown fisticuffs.

"I told my guys over the time we spent in Hawaii, we lost some things defensively," Mack said. "We went from being a team that was really hard to score against to a team that didn't have it on the defensive end -- for a variety of reasons. [...] When you let habits slip, for a week or two weeks, you're trying to get things back that aren't consistently in place that need to be."

Of course, Mack is hardly thrilled with the slippage. He was also less than pleased with Xavier's offensive intelligence Saturday night, something it struggled with in Hawaii as well. Mack chided unnamed players for trying to "summer league their way" through offensive possessions, resulting in incoherent possessions and unexpected shots. He also took solace in the fact that Xavier, for all of its struggles Saturday night, had merely lost to a good, ranked Gonzaga team. Gonzaga had to make those big shots, after all.

In other words, there are shades of gray here. Has Xavier struggled after the brawl? Absolutely. Were they as good as advertised before Dec. 10? No. Many of the problems Xavier faced Saturday night, or even in those disappointing losses in the Diamond Head (most notably to a bad Hawaii team), were evident long before Gates cracked Frease in the eye, before Lyons and Holloway gave their unrepentant postgame quotes, before Holloway earned (arguably misplaced) scorn for using phrases like "gangsters," "thugs" and the t-shirt-worthy "zip 'em up."

And the season, as Mack said Saturday night, is "a lifetime." Xavier is still the clear favorite to win the Atlantic 10 this season, and as the Musketeers open league play against a conference with few obvious challengers -- Saint Louis being the most notable to date -- it's not hard to envision this team rattling off a few early wins and leaving all this nebulous "What happened to Xavier?" talk in the rearview mirror.

In fact, Xavier did as much in 2010-11, when it started the season 8-5 in nonconference with losses to Old Dominion, Miami (Ohio), Gonzaga, Florida and Cincinnati before rattling off seven straight wins en route to an A-10 title and 15-1 regular season record.

Sure, the comparative post- and pre-brawl records don't look good. But there's much more there -- early struggles in wins, suspensions and distractions, and a plain old ugly shooting night in their fourth loss in give games -- than immediately meets the eye.

"I told the kids in the locker room, the stuff that doesn't kill you only makes you stronger," Mack said. "The only people that I have to worry about my kids believing in is me and vice versa. I have a belief in every single one of my players on both ends of the floor.

"I've got a lot of faith in this program," Mack said. "I don't care who doesn't have faith in this program. I know my kids have it in the locker room, and we'll be fine. [People] were saying the same thing a year ago, if you can remember that. Because I can. I can remember that."
I'll admit it: If my face looked the way Xavier forward Kenny Frease's face looked after Cincinnati's Yancy Gates sucker-punched him Saturday, I would not be quick to forgive. Frease's welt was major. The left side of his face looked like Antonio Margarito after the Manny Pacquiao fight. Plus, Frease almost got stomped when he was on the ground. It was really bad.

[+] EnlargeKenny Frease
Frank Victores/US PresswireKenny Frease walks off with a swollen left eye after the Dec. 10 game against Cincinnati.
Of anyone in the arena during the Cincy-Xavier brawl, Frease is perhaps most deserving of some retribution. But he isn't having it. He's simply not interested. Instead, as the Associated Press reported yesterday, Frease was one of the main reasons Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters did not seek to press charges against Gates or any other player in the wake of the brawl.

Frease spoke about his decision to the Cincinnati Enquirer, which was preceded by a text message exchange he had with Gates this week. Frease reached out in the spirit of reconcilation and to let him know he didn't want to press charges; Gates thanked Frease and apologized for his actions. In all of it, you can't help but be impressed by the big Xavier forward's maturity:
“I just wanted to let him know that … I mean, I saw a lot of the stuff coming out about how the police and stuff were looking into it and I just wanted him to know that anything that was coming from that wasn’t from my end. I never wanted to press charges against him,” Frease said Wednesday at Cintas Center.

“People make mistakes in the heat of battle. I’ve made mistakes in my life in emotional situations. I don’t think that’s a reason … especially in a basketball game. Obviously there’s no room for that in a basketball game. But to pursue somebody criminally for something that happens in something that’s that competitive -- it seemed immature to me. And I didn’t want him to be punished for something for his whole life because of something that he did in a game that is that emotional.”

Frease also told the Enquirer's Shannon Russell he wasn't sure if Gates would know it was him, or if he would assume it was a fake or a troll or one of the thousands of people that had been bombarding Frease's phone throughout the week. But he got through, connected with the man who nearly destroyed his left eye, and initiated what must be the most diplomatic gesture we've seen since this whole thing began.

It feels a bit like the end of "Rocky 4." If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change! And I'm not being sarcastic, either. Frease deserves a huge amount of credit here. In a situation that featured so many otherwise good kids allowing themselves to be pulled lower than they are -- all for the sake of that precious fake toughness -- Frease, the guy with seven stitches in his eye, is the first to act like the bigger man. After such a punchy day, finally, here's a sign of maturity and understanding. If both schools can move on and move forward from Saturday, this is why.

A-10: Five Things I Can't Wait To See

October, 17, 2011
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Here are five things I can't wait to see in the Atlantic 10 this season.

1. The year of Tu Holloway

[+] EnlargeTu Holloway
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesXavier's Tu Holloway averaged 19.7 points last season and will be a primary option again this season.
Xavier is a big-time program and expectations are always high. But the 2011-12 Musketeers have a buzz around them like few teams in the program's history. There is talk of a deep NCAA tournament run, one that could end with a Final Four appearance. In other words, the stakes are high. And that's mostly thanks to Tu Holloway.

Holloway is one of the best and most versatile scorers in the country, an incisive penetrator and consistent shooter whose early years as a true point guard left him with an ability to create plays nearly as well as he finishes them. He's a bonafide national player of the year candidate even in what should be one of the most talent-rich college hoops seasons in the last decade.

The only question is whether Holloway can actually be better as a senior. If he is, he could lead X to the justification of all those buzzy expectations -- and then some.

2. How much time will Kenny Frease miss?

On Friday, Xavier announced that senior center Kenny Frease had been suspended indefinitely by coach Chris Mack for failing to "fulfill all the responsibilities of a Xavier basketball player." The questions are legion: What did Frease do? How much time will he miss? And what does that do to the team's chances? Frease was the Musketeers' third-leading scorer (11.7 ppg) and second-leading rebounder (7.1 rpg) last season, and if his absence is extended for more than a few games, it could be a serious setback for an otherwise balanced, experienced, and talented Musketeers team.

3. Temple tries to take the next step

For all the talk of Xavier's consistency -- well-deserved though it may be -- it's easy to forget that Temple coach Fran Dunphy has turned the Owls into a year-in-year-out force in the Atlantic 10, too. TU got off the tournament schneid with its win over Penn State last season; the next step is a deep run into March.

Can it happen in 2011-12? There is good reason to be bullish, particularly because Dunphy returns basically every player of note in his backcourt, including Scootie Randall, Ramone Moore and Juan Fernandez. The only significant loss is forward Lavoy Allen, an athletic lockdown defender and rebounder who also contributed on the offensive end. If the Owls can weather that loss and keep things rolling, they have the opportunity to best last season's tournament appearance.

4. Can Saint Louis return to relevance?

SLU has never been mistaken for a basketball powerhouse, but there was a time when the Billikens did have a certain niche in the college basketball world. That hasn't been the case for years, but there is reason to believe Rick Majerus' program is on the rise.

Saint Louis has a deep team full of returning players, but one return -- that of junior guard Kwamain Mitchell -- is the most noteworthy. Mitchell was suspended for the 2010-11 season thanks to off-court issues that cost him and teammate Willie Reed their entire season. Mitchell was readmitted by the school last season and is eligible to participate again this fall. With Mitchell back and the rest of the Billikens in the fold, SLU could flirt with conference title contention and a spot in the NCAA tournament.

5. Archie Miller gets going at Dayton

Dayton fans are excited about new coach Archie Miller, who replaced now-Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory at the school this spring. It's no mystery: Miller has already landed two talented recruits in the class of 2012, and if Miller is half as successful as quickly as his brother has been at Arizona, the Flyers will be competing for A-10 titles soon enough. The near term is a slightly less optimistic, if only because the roster turnover -- especially the transfer of touted recruit Juwan Staten, whose freshman season flashed tons of promise -- may be tough to overcome so soon. But if Dayton is vastly improved in just a few years' time, don't be surprised. It would appear those Millers can coach.

Summer Buzz: Xavier Musketeers

August, 24, 2011
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Our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: Xavier.

[+] EnlargeTu Holloway
Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesXavier's Tu Holloway averaged 19.7 points last season and will be a primary option again this season.
Last season, a streak ended. The Xavier Musketeers failed to reach the Sweet 16.

XU's run of three straight appearances in that distinct tournament group from 2008 to 2010 was both a trivial oddity -- "quick, name the only teams to do the following ..." -- and a testament to how strong the program had become. Thad Matta passed the reins to Sean Miller, who passed the reins to Chris Mack. It didn't matter. The Musketeers just kept rolling, a quasi mid-major that took its hoops very seriously and expected everyone else to do the same.

Xavier didn't have that kind of season in 2010-11. It was hardly a bad season; the Musketeers finished 15-1 in the Atlantic 10 and 24-7 overall before losing to eventual Sweet 16 member Marquette in the first round of the NCAA tournament. But the Muskies weren't quite their rough-and-tumble selves from the 2008-2010 years. They finished No. 41 in the country in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings, the program's lowest ranking since 2006. They were good but not great. For most programs, that's OK. For Xavier, higher goals are in mind.

Which is why 2011-12 could be a very fun season.

Put simply, these Musketeers are loaded. Nearly everyone of note from last season's team -- including the team's top three scorers -- Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons and Kenny Frease -- are back in the fold. Junior reserve Jeff Robinson is ready to step into a featured role. And a solid crew of recruits, not least of which is Dezmine Wells, the No. 14-ranked small forward in the class of 2011, will jump in and provide depth and talent to an already intriguing lineup.

There's almost no way to write this without it seeming like an understatement, but Xavier's most important returning player is Holloway. After a breakout 2011 campaign -- Holloway averaged 19.7 points, 5.4 assists and 5.0 rebounds per game -- the guard briefly tested the NBA waters. When he found himself slotted among the mass of undersized guards ranked near the bottom half of the draft pool, he wisely decided to return to school. And X fans everywhere got very excited.

Holloway was brilliant in a variety of ways last season. His versatility is made apparent in his statistics, and his dependability -- he played the sixth-highest percentage of available minutes in the country in 2011 -- made him as reliable as any player in the country. But Holloway's real contribution is of a rarer sort: He can be almost unstoppable with the ball in his hands and a teammate running toward him.

According to Synergy scouting data, Holloway was the primary ballhandler in pick-and-roll sets on 53.5 of his possessions last season. On the 321 possessions in which Holloway received a ball screen, he scored or assisted to the tune of 328 points. That mark ranked him among the best screen-and-roll players in the country last season despite having 50 more attempts than the next closest player, South Dakota State's Nate Wolters.

Most of the players as efficient as Holloway in these sets handled the ball far less frequently, or were far less dynamic. (One good example is Ohio State's Jon Diebler.) But no player used pick-and-roll opportunities nearly as much as Holloway, and even so, few players were better.

This makes him incredibly difficult to stop. (One of the only teams to do so all season, in fact, was Marquette, whose coach Buzz Williams consulted the scouting data and constructed his entire stop-Holloway strategy in time to get the Golden Eagles that NCAA tournament win.) Holloway has the green light to attack whenever he sees daylight, and those possessions often ended with a trip to the free throw line and a pair of almost-guaranteed points from an 87 percent free throw shooter.

But Holloway was a point guard before he was a scorer. His assist rate in 2010-11 was 30.4 percent. When met with defenders, he found the open man. When teams stayed home on help, he scored or got to the free throw line. And so a 20-points-per-game scorer was born.

Remember what I said about the whole understatement thing? Exactly.

But as we saw last season, Holloway can't do it alone. He has to have help.

That help should come in a few forms. For one, Xavier's defense could stand to improve; it finished ranked No. 59 in the country in 2011, and its best player (at least statistically) was Holloway, who expends most of his energy making things happen on the offensive end.

On offense, the Musketeers -- who shot 32.9 percent from 3 last season -- could use some outside shooters. Lyons, Holloway's backcourt mate, is best operating in space off the dribble, but he wasn't a particularly good 3-point shooter last season (to the tune of 34 percent from beyond the arc). That's not horrible, but in an ideal world, Holloway would have at least one go-to sharpshooter hovering around the arc to find for open looks when the defense rotates to defend the screen-and-roll. Not having that player feels like a missed opportunity.

If Lyons doesn't significantly improve that portion of his game -- and Robinson might have room to grow here as well -- perhaps the Musketeers can find such a player among the three entering the program this fall. Xavier has been lauded for finding a gem in Wells, a versatile and athletic forward who drew scouts' raves for his intensity, defensive motor, and willingness to attack opponents off the dribble.

Darwin Davis, the No. 28-ranked point guard in the class, projects to be a lightning-quick point guard. Neither of these players is known for their 3-point shot -- in fact, both players' scouting reports list that as one of their weaknesses -- but any extra perimeter presence would surely be a plus.

Even if those prospects need a year or two before they become more than role players, the 2011-12 Xavier Musketeers remain a deep, veteran team with a bonafide star at the helm. Mack might have to find more creative ways to get Holloway his offense. He'll be hoping Lyons and Frease (the team's massive 7-foot center) make leaps beyond their previous contributions. But if things break down, the Holloway option -- someone set a screen for Tu; Tu, you go make something happen -- will always be there.

That's what happens when you have a special player: More often than not, you get special teams. It will be up to the rest of the Musketeers, veteran and rookie alike, to build the required parts around him.

If it comes together, a return trip to the Sweet 16 will be the least of Xavier's ambitions.

The streak is dead. Long live the streak.

Ho-hum: Xavier just keeps winning

February, 16, 2011
2/16/11
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PHILADELPHIA -- The black cloud didn’t so much hover over Chris Mack’s head as it parked there.

Step to the right, there was the doom. Sashay to the left, run smack into the gloom.

In the span of one month, Mack himself had to have three vertebrae fused together. Then the Xavier coach lost his best outside shooter to a torn ACL and learned his top recruit wouldn’t qualify academically.

Other than that, everything was just rosy.

“It definitely deflated us,’’ junior center Kenny Frease said. “I mean, all of that was pretty tough.’’

For most teams, what Xavier has done then would be remarkable: from the ashes to the top of the Atlantic 10.

But this is Xavier and really, does anything the Musketeers do surprise anyone anymore?

Seems like every season people presume this, that or the other will do in the Musketeers. Stars graduate, Sean Miller leaves, Jordan Crawford moves on and this, everyone insists, will be the year X slips.

Except it doesn’t happen. Ever. Only two teams have made at least the Sweet 16 in each of the past three NCAA tournaments: Michigan State and Xavier.

Only 12 teams have earned NCAA bids in five consecutive seasons. One of them is Xavier.

[+] EnlargeXavier's Mark Lyons
AP Photo/Tom MihalekMark Lyons scored 24 points in Xavier's 20-point win at Saint Joseph's on Wednesday.
“We’re used to it,’’ guard Mark Lyons said. “It doesn’t matter to us. Every year we set the same goals.’’

Perhaps this year it is finally time to give the Musketeers their due. With its 74-54 ho-hum humbling of Saint Joseph’s on Wednesday night, X has won 11 of its past 12. Now 10-1 in the A-10 and a road battle with Duquesne in the rearview mirror, the Musketeers are poised to continue their league domination. Xavier has won at least a share of the past four regular-season conference crowns and appear well on its way to a fifth.

Xavier has done it with the leanest of lean benches -- of the Musketeers’ 1,805 points scored this season, the starters have accounted for 1,624 of them. They have done it without a real 3-point threat -- XU has taken only 159 treys this season. And yet the Musketeers mounted their climb at the exact same time everyone counted them out.

On Jan. 6, they lost to Cincinnati 66-46 in the always heated crosstown shootout, a humbling dismantling that stood as the most lopsided in the past nine years of the rivalry. The loss dropped the Musketeers to a pedestrian 8-5.

Yet when Mack reassembled his team after that game, he saw exactly the same thing he saw back in October.

Nothing. No reaction.

“The kids never hit the panic button,’’ he said. “They knew it wasn’t acceptable to lose the way we did. That doesn’t always mean you’ll right the ship, but they took that lesson, came to practice, listened to the coaches and got better. They didn’t want to go out like that.’’

Some things did change, though. Lyons, a roadrunner of a sophomore who led his team with 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting on Wednesday night, learned to temper his motor, to slow down to sub-Autobahn speeds and play more in control. The Musketeers rediscovered their roots and upped the defensive pressure. Since that Cincinnati game, only three teams have scored more than 70 points against them.

But they also had a lot of what they needed.

Lost in the laundry list of what Xavier didn’t have were the two critical things the Musketeers did have.

Experience, for starters. That minute-lugging starting lineup consists of two seniors, two juniors and one sophomore.

And the other: Tu Holloway. The renamed guard (he changed from Terrell to his long-used nickname during the offseason) belongs in this season’s pantheon of first-name only players: Jimmer, Kemba and Tu.

In 25 games, he has never played less than 33 minutes, has scored at least 20 in 15 games and is one of five players in the country to average 20 points and five assists per game.

Since that Cincinnati loss, when he was a woeful 2-of-13 and finished with five points, Holloway has reached double figures in every single game.

His motivation is simple.

While the rest of the world waits for his team to slip up, he welcomes the burden of winning.

“Whenever we’re in the Cintas Center, we look up and see those banners,’’ Holloway said. “Coach always says, ‘What’s next year’s going to read? Is it going to have a number up there or just be vacant?’ None of us want to be remembered as the guys that didn’t get it done. I’m not going to let people say, ‘Tu is the guy who didn’t get it done.’ No way.’’

No, it certainly doesn’t look that way.

Wrapping up Saturday's action

January, 30, 2011
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The story Saturday wasn't about Jimmer Fredette.

He scored 32 points, but BYU lost a tough conference road game at New Mexico.

No, the stories that should headline the night deal with four players: Holloway scored 33 points, making all 17 of his free throws attempts in Xavier’s stunningly easy 85-62 win at Richmond. Holloway has found a way to get fouled and is making 86 percent of his free throws. Holloway should be the favorite for A-10 Player of the Year. And while Duquesne is the surprise at 6-0 in conference play, Xavier’s Chris Mack should be the coach of the year with the Musketeers at their rightful spot atop the standings. Mack has coached XU to a 7-0 mark despite a plethora of early-season injuries and issues. He’s maximizing the talent of big man Kenny Frease as well, who is averaging 12.4 points and 6.9 rebounds a game. He’s scoring 14.1 points and shooting 63.8 percent in the A-10. “We’ve got competitive kids,’’ Mack said Saturday night. “We kept working. We’ve made no excuses. Holloway and our inside game has been great.’’

[+] EnlargePeyton Siva
David Butler II/US PresswirePeyton Siva's clutch performance helped Louisville top Kemba Walker and the Huskies.
Siva led a comeback against West Virginia earlier in the week that helped keep Louisville on track for a possible second-place finish in the Big East. And Siva was the best player in Storrs on Saturday. That’s right. He was the best player on the court on this day. Siva made big shot after big shot, including a bucket to essentially win the game after slicing through UConn’s defense. Siva finished with 19 points and seven boards. Kemba Walker, the favorite for Big East Player of the Year and one of the three likely finalists for national player of the year, scored 20 points, but missed -- for what seems like the first time this season -- a game-winning shot.

Barnes had quite a week. He hit the game-winning 3-pointer to beat Miami on the road and then dusted off NC State with 25 points. Barnes was a controversial preseason first-team All-America pick. He struggled to lead -- which is natural for a freshman -- and suddenly was deemed a disappointment. Maybe he just needed time to mature, like the rest of his team. And it's starting to like the blowout loss at Georgia Tech was more of a fluke than anything else. If there is a second-best team in the ACC this week, it’s North Carolina and a lot of that has to do with Barnes.

No one had a worse week in college basketball than Robinson. The Kansas Jayhawk lost his mother, Lisa, at age of 43. That left him and his 7-year-old sister Jayla without their mom. His grandparents had both passed away within the past month. Robinson missed the Colorado game earlier in the week and then was with his teammates and coaches in Washington D.C. for his mother’s funeral. He returned to the team Friday and after writing an emotional letter of thanks to the fans, coaches and teammates, he played Saturday and scored 17 points and grabbed nine rebounds in a resounding win over Kansas State in Lawrence. Here are thoughts on the rest of Saturday’s action:

  • Penn State has turned into one of the toughest outs in the Big Ten after beating Michigan State, Illinois and now Wisconsin at home. The Nittany Lions nearly beat Ohio State, losing with 46 seconds left, and lost at Purdue on a last-second shot. PSU coach Ed DeChellis said late Saturday his team just need to keep defending and rebounding and they will get that breakthrough road win. The Nittany Lions have the look of an NCAA-tourney team, but it would help their cause if they could beat Ohio State at home March 1 or steal a key road win.
  • NC State got drilled at North Carolina. Last week, Wolfpack coach Sidney Lowe said after losing to Duke that he thought the team could turn the corner on the season. The Pack then found a way to beat Miami at home by two, but since then lost by 10 at Clemson and 20 at North Carolina. “One, we’re not shooting the ball well," Lowe said Saturday night. "Tonight we had four starters go 5-for-25. The other thing is our bigs aren’t defending.’’ That will have to change if the season is going to be salvaged. The Wolfpack need to get on a roll or the pressure will mount.
  • [+] EnlargeNate Lubick
    AP Photo/Matt SlocumNate Lubick and the Hoyas knocked off Villanova in a close road win.
    Georgetown finally got its signature Big East win, on the road at Villanova. The Hoyas had won three straight against Rutgers, Seton Hall and St. John’s. That’s not going to do much for the NCAA tournament committee. Winning at Villanova is a different matter.
  • Baylor and Colorado played and looked like a pair of NIT teams. The Bears won, but they are going to have to do more to get on the board. I jumped too fast on the Buffaloes as an NCAA tourney team.
  • Texas Tech coach Pat Knight has turned this season around a bit with a few wins, including knocking off Oklahoma State in overtime on Saturday. The loss is a crushing defeat for the Cowboys, who are now reeling.
  • Valparaiso beat Butler 85-79 in overtime at home for a two-game lead over the Bulldogs. Butler likely now has to win the Horizon League tournament for a chance at another magical tourney run.
  • Texas A&M lost at Nebraska. Winning on the road in a conference match is never an easy chore. But the Aggies are probably going to settle where they were projected, somewhere in the 3 to 5 range of the Big 12 but still in the NCAA tourney picture. Meanwhile, Doc Sadler's Huskers continue to play above expectations in their final year in the Big 12.
  • Purdue beat Minnesota by a dozen in what was probably the lock of the day. There was no way the Boilermakers were going to blow this home game after getting humbled at Ohio State on Tuesday.
  • Ohio State didn’t have to go against John Shurna since he was out for Northwestern with a concussion. Yet the game came down to free throws in the final seconds as Jared Sullinger made the decisive shot. Ohio State is 22-0 with road games still left at Minnesota, Wisconsin, Purdue and Penn State if you’re looking for a possible loss.
  • Have to credit Auburn’s Tony Barbee for making the Tigers competitive. Beating South Carolina by 15 is a huge win for the growth of his program and respect within the SEC.
  • Davidson coach Bob McKillop was down when I talked to him earlier in the week. He has to be jazzed after knocking off Southern Conference favorite College of Charleston, 75-64.
  • Florida State is offensively challenged. The Seminoles can’t win when Chris Singleton scores just eight points. Losing by 18 at Clemson makes no sense, but watch out for the Tigers in the second half of the ACC season. Brad Brownell will have Clemson in the mix.
  • Portland is a tough team at home and perhaps it was only natural to expect Saint Mary's to have a bit of a letdown after its monumental last-second win at Gonzaga on Thursday. But seeing the Gaels on the wrong end of a 27-2 run to the start the second half was rather shocking.
  • Florida lost at Mississippi State, but the Gators are 3-1 in four SEC road games (wins at Georgia, Tennessee and Auburn). Florida coach Billy Donovan will take that.
  • Tennessee won again with Tony Jones as the acting coach, this time running away in the second half at Ole Miss. Should Bruce Pearl return? Seriously, the Vols are playing as well in the SEC as anyone else at this point in the season. Hard to explain how the Rebels have struggled so much.
  • Kentucky avenged a loss to Georgia. The Wildcats ultimately should win the SEC East, right? Trey Thompkins was a non-factor. Georgia can’t win if that happens.
  • How does Vanderbilt lose at home to Arkansas?
  • Hofstra had a bad week and doesn’t look like a CAA contender any more. The Pride lost at VCU and then to Drexel.
  • The shot of the night belongs to Weber State's Scott Bamforth, who hit a buzzer-beater from just inside the halfcourt line to beat a Northern Colorado team that was previously unbeaten (7-0) in the Big Sky.
  • Texas beat Missouri 71-58 at home, which is enough for me to maintain the notion that the Longhorns are still the second-best team in the country at the moment.

Inside Wednesday's box scores

February, 18, 2010
2/18/10
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There is something about Jimmer Fredette that must like getting out of Utah -- either that or he feeds off of opposing crowds. Fredette scored 36 points in BYU’s 92-70 win at Colorado State. It was Fredette’s third 35-plus point game this season, tied with Seton Hall’s Jeremy Hazell for most in the nation. At 26.3 points per game in road games (compared to just 17.8 at home), Fredette is the nation’s top scorer on the road.

To say that Xavier won the battle of the boards against St. Joe’s would not do it justice. The Musketeers held a 53 to 17 rebounding edge over the Hawks. The plus-36 edge was the largest in school history. In 17 minutes, Kenny Frease came off the bench to grab nine rebounds, equaling the total of the entire opposing starting lineup. Xavier had more offensive rebounds (18) than St. Joe’s had total rebounds. Perhaps most embarrassing of all, Xavier’s 53 rebounds eclipsed St. Joe’s point total of 52. Not surprisingly, the Hawks are tied (with 1-26 Alcorn State!) for the sixth-worst rebounding percentage in the nation.

Samardo Samuels scored a career-high 36 points in Louisville’s double-OT win over a Luke Harangody-less Notre Dame team. It’s the most points for a Cardinal since Reece Gaines had 37 in 2002. Samuels is just the second player this season with 10-plus field goals and 15-plus free throws in a game, joining Nicholls State’s Anatoly Bose. Perhaps the most overlooked improvement that Samuels has made this season is staying out of foul trouble. He logged 45 minutes Wednesday while committing only three fouls. Last season, Samuels had four or more fouls 14 times. This season, that is down to only four instances, despite logging almost four more minutes per game.

After beating Holy Cross 83-30, Navy has won four of its last five and sits in a tie for second in the Patriot League. A big reason has been the improved play of point guard O.J. Avworo, who finished with 14 points and 13 assists on Wednesday. Avworo, who started his college career at Idaho, has reached double-digit assists in each of the last four wins for the Midshipmen. In conference play, he is putting up 7.1 APG, second in the nation behind Illinois’ Demetri McCamey.

On paper, Wednesday appeared to be a pretty good matchup for Iowa State’s 6’10” center Craig Brackins. Oklahoma State features only one player over 6’7” and ranks 330th in the nation in average height according to KenPom.com. However, the Cowboys came out physical and Brackins connected on just three of 17 shots. Over the last three games, the Cyclones’ leading scorer is shooting just 26.9 percent. On the season, Brackins is shooting just 37.9 percent in the Cyclones’ 13 losses.

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