College Basketball Nation: Kevin Jones

For more on Missouri's four incoming transfers, click here. In the meantime, a look at some other transfers set to begin play at their new schools in 2012-13.

Malcolm Armstead, Wichita State (from Oregon): The point guard will be a huge boost to a Shocker backcourt that loses leading scorer Joe Ragland and Toure' Murry. Armstead, who played two seasons at Chipola College under Wichita assistants Greg Heiar and Dana Ford, will be a senior. He averaged 8.6 points and 4.4 assists in his last season with the Ducks (2010-11).

Khem Birch and Bryce Jones, UNLV (from Pittsburgh and USC): Birch, the former McDonald’s All-American, scorched a path from Pittsburgh to Las Vegas, lambasting his former team on the way out the door. Now he’s got a more up-tempo style and a ready-made scoring partner in the form of Mike Moser. Jones, who left USC with similar ill will after reports of an altercation with a teammate followed him out of town, is already a proven scorer -- he averaged 11 points per game before his minutes dropped following the addition of Jio Fontan.

Rotnei Clarke, Butler (from Arkansas): For a Bulldog team that struggled to score and shoot, Clarke is like a Christmas present. Arguably one of the best perimeter shooters in the game, he averaged 15 points and shot 44 percent from the arc before leaving Arkansas. Butler shot a woeful 28 percent from the 3-point line last season.

Will Clyburn and Korie Lucious, Iowa State (from Utah and Michigan State): Fred Hoiberg’s Ellis Island recruiting methods paid huge dividends this past season as the Cyclones' coach was able to meld a group of transfers into an NCAA tournament team. Now it’s time for more tinkering with the additions of Clyburn and Lucious. Lucious, a true point guard, brings two Final Four berths and an early dismissal from Michigan State to Ames. Clyburn left Utah as the team’s leading scorer (17.1 points) and rebounder (7.8).

Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Taran Buie, Hofstra (from UConn and Penn State): If the risks reap the rewards, then Mo Cassara could right Hofstra’s downward blip quickly. The Pride won just three CAA games this past season, but with Coombs-McDaniel and Buie, he now has two high-caliber players and two terrific scorers on the bench. Both, however, need to embrace real change at Hofstra. Coombs-McDaniel left UConn in search of more playing time, but also after being arrested for marijuana possession. Buie, the most highly ranked recruit to land at Penn State, was suspended indefinitely in his final year there for a violation of team rules.

Larry Drew II, UCLA (from North Carolina): One of the most talked about transfers in recent memory, the Tar Heels' former piñata gets his do-over at Westwood. Certainly he has good timing. After a dismal and fractured season for UCLA, the Bruins landed top recruit Shabazz Muhammad, who, along with the Wear twins, give Drew plenty of options. Just how he handles them, and whether he can cut down on his turnovers, will be the biggest question mark -- one no doubt watched by folks in Los Angeles and Chapel Hill, with marked curiosity.

Luke Hancock, Louisville (from George Mason): The Cardinals rode their defensive tenacity all the way to the Final Four this past season -- mostly because their offense couldn’t take them out of Kentucky. Bringing in Hancock will help change that. He’s not a bona fide superstar, but he’s a solid and efficient scorer who most will remember for the 3-point dagger he dropped on Villanova two seasons ago in the NCAA tournament.

Ryan Harrow, Kentucky (from NC State): Harrow’s addition will go largely unnoticed amid the celebratory din with the arrival of Nerlens Noel, but Harrow could be the most critical part of the Wildcats’ rebuilding. Kentucky went 4-for-4 in recruiting -- four players signed, four ESPNU Top 100 players -- but none of those guys are point guards. Harrow is. More important, he’s a point guard with major minutes under his belt, having started 10 of his final 15 games at NC State.

Colton Iverson, Colorado State (from Minnesota): You have to feel for a kid like Iverson, who opted for Colorado State a year ago in part because Tim Miles recruited him out of high school. Now Miles is gone, off to Nebraska, and Iverson, with one season of college basketball left, has a new coach to adjust to in Larry Eustachy. Eustachy should be thrilled, of course, to have Iverson, a solid big man who averaged 5.4 points and 5.0 boards despite sharing time with Ralph Sampson III in his final season at Minnesota.

Wally Judge, Rutgers (from Kansas State): A former McDonald’s All American who chafed under Frank Martin, Judge gets a second chance with Mike Rice. He’s another feather in Rice’s recruiting cap, but will need to play hard without the disciplinary issues that rendered him ineffective at Kansas State. The Scarlet Knights could use a big body with experience like Judge’s in the Big East wars.

Aaric Murray and Juwan Staten, West Virginia (from La Salle and Dayton): Bob Huggins made no secret about his frustration with his young Mountaineer team this past season, bemoaning after they lost to Gonzaga in March about the team’s lack of defensive pride and offensive ability. And that was before Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant left. Murray and Staten could change that. Murray, a highly touted prospect out of high school, averaged 15.2 points and 7.7 rebounds for La Salle. Staten, meantime, is a solid, tough-minded point guard who averaged 5.4 assists in his one season at Dayton.

D.J. Newbill, Penn State (from Southern Miss): Here’s why Newbill is huge for coach Patrick Chambers: He’s from Philly. If Chambers is going to turn the Nittany Lions around, he has to make recruiting inroads in the state’s biggest city. Newbill helps with that. The fact that he’s also talented -- averaging 9.2 points and 6.2 rebounds in his one season with Eustachy -- is a huge bonus for a Penn State team in dire need of skill infusion.

J.J. O’Brien and Dwayne Polee, San Diego State (from Utah and St. John’s): O’Brien, who elected to leave Utah after Jim Boylen was fired, is a solid scorer who averaged 6.4 points despite missing nine games with a broken foot. Polee, a gifted athlete, started 27 games for Steve Lavin as a freshman, but he was on the wrong coast. Polee is from Los Angeles, and the pull to be closer to home, where his mother has an undisclosed illness, was too much to overcome. Now Steve Fisher, who already had an impressive would-be mulligan season, has even more talent to keep the Aztecs moving forward.

Stacey Poole, Georgia Tech (from Kentucky): Poole, whose playing time headed south as the Wildcats brought in more talented freshmen, made the smart decision to head elsewhere where he will be needed. And Georgia Tech needs him. Poole, a top-50 player out of high school, will help Brian Gregory turn Tech in the right direction. An added plus: Poole’s younger brother, Solomon, 25th in the ESPNU top 60, has the Yellow Jackets on his short list.

Eric Wise, USC (from UC Irvine): Wise was looking to up his future stock, and Southern Cal, to up its future. Call this a match made in heaven. Wise averaged 16.3 points and 8.1 rebounds for the Anteaters, and will be a much welcomed shot in the arm for the Trojans, who averaged an offensive 53 points in winning one Pac 12 game all season.

PITTSBURGH -- The month of March can be like a great big tub of aloe, here to cure all that ails you, make you forget everything that went wrong in the regular season.

And surely a lot went wrong for Gonzaga this season, or at least by the Zags’ incredibly high standards.

For the first time since 1997, Gonzaga won neither the West Coast Conference regular-season nor tournament titles. Worse, the Zags ceded both to rival Saint Mary’s.

It was not an entirely illogical result, considering this is a Gonzaga team heavily dependent on freshmen at key spots, but a tough pill to swallow nevertheless.

Two weeks later, and suddenly those things seem like ancient history.

Gonzaga, the original mid-major gone big-time, rolled over home favorite West Virginia 77-54, putting together arguably its most complete game of the season.

“We played pretty well against BYU in the [WCC] tournament, too, but yeah, this might have been our best,’’ coach Mark Few said.

The Zags flew 2,000 miles to play this game, compared to the 75-mile bus ride the Mountaineers took from Morgantown.

Somehow West Virginia looked jet-lagged.

The Mountaineers were never in it, trailing by 18 at the break and then merely playing out the clock from there, handing coach Bob Huggins his worst loss in NCAA tournament play since West Virginia's 21-point defeat to Duke in the Final Four in 2010.

Gonzaga did what it wanted on offense, shooting at 56 percent from the floor, and locked down WVU on the other end. Never a good shooting team, the Mountaineers were positively dreadful Thursday, clanking to the tune of 32 percent from the floor and a woeful 3-of-17 from the arc.

“The truth of the matter is, this is really a microcosm of our season,’’ Huggins said. “This is the worst defensive team I’ve had in 30 years. We don’t get the help, we don’t get the loose balls, we don’t do the things we’ve done for years and years and years. A lot of it is because we’re so inept offensively. They get breakouts. We throw the ball around, throw the ball to them. That adds to it.’’

Robert Sacre came to Pittsburgh hoping he would finally get a taste of some Big East beefcake basketball. It never really happened. The Zags doubled Kevin Jones every time he touched the ball and Jones, who does a lot of his damage on the offensive glass, was fairly innocuous. He scored 13 but had just 4 rebounds and, more, only 2 offensive rebounds, as the Zags were able to match the Mountaineers’ effort on the glass, something Few had emphasized all week.

“I just want to go out with a bang,’’ Sacre said. “Coach always says, ‘Play like Rob, have a lot of energy, have passion, have fun.' That’s what I’m trying to do. That’s what the results are.’’

He’ll have another chance on Saturday, against either Ohio State or Loyola, and perhaps a little more of a soothing balm, too.
PITTSBURGH -- Quick thoughts on Gonzaga's 77-54 victory over West Virginia on Thursday in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Overview: West Virginia traveled 75 miles for its second-round NCAA tournament game, Gonzaga 2,000. That was about right for the cruising speed for the teams, too.

While Gonzaga zipped, zigged and zagged, the Mountaineers looked like they were anchored to the court.

The Zags ate West Virginia up offensively, shooting 56 percent from the floor and a blistering 53 from behind the arc. They were also smothering defensively, forcing WVU out past the arc, from where the Mountaineers could hit only 3-of-17.

It was nothing less than a clinic from a team that, like West Virginia, is young, but is blessed with the one thing the Mountaineers have lacked all season -- decent shooting.

Senior forward Kevin Jones scored only 13 points -- and that’s not going to win many games for WVU.

Turning point: Approximately 16 seconds in. The Mountaineers led 2-0 ... and that was about the end of the highlights for West Virginia. By the end of the half, Gonzaga owned a 40-22 margin, completely dominating and outplaying the Mountaineers. It didn’t get better after that.

Key player: Robert Sacre came to Pittsburgh salivating at the chance to play some East Coast power ball. The Gonzaga forward didn’t really get that game, but he was important nonetheless, contributing 14 points and six rebounds. He got the outside part of the inside-outside compliment from Kevin Pangos (13) and Gary Bell Jr. (14).

Miscellaneous: The 23-point loss marked the worst for West Virginia coach Bob Huggins since a 21-point defeat to Duke in the Final Four in 2010, and nearly matched the 24-point beating Illinois handed his Cincinnati team in 2004. … This is the third year in a row Gonzaga has won its opening game in the NCAA tournament. ... These are two of the younger teams in the country. Gonzaga has three freshmen and four sophomores on its roster; West Virginia has seven freshmen.

Next game: Gonzaga faces No. 2 seed Ohio State, setting up a couple of terrific battles Saturday — between Pangos and Aaron Craft at the point and Sacre, who has been begging for more physical games, against Jared Sullinger.

Previewing Pittsburgh: Evening games

March, 14, 2012
No. 10 West Virginia (19-13) vs. No. 7 Gonzaga (25-6), 7:20 p.m. ET

When the bracket came up and Gonzaga players saw they were traveling 2,000 miles across the country to play a team that had a simple bus ride up the highway, they didn’t groan.

Frankly, they didn’t even react.

They’re used to it.

“I feel if you’re at Gonzaga, you come into this tournament, you’re guaranteed to have a backyard team,’’ Robert Sacre said. “You always have to go somewhere else, in someone else’s backyard, no matter if you’re a higher seed.’’

Lest anyone think he’s just a West Coast whiner, consider 2008, when Gonzaga was the No. 7 seed and was slated to play Davidson in North Carolina. The Zags lost. In 2010, Gonzaga was the No. 8 seed and met up with top-seeded Syracuse in Buffalo in Round 2.

And now the Zags, seventh again, are but a stone’s throw away from West Virginia’s Morgantown address.

Conspiracy theory, anyone?

“The one thing we try to impart on our guys is control what you can control,’’ coach Mark Few said. “We don’t have any control of when and where.’’

Few, this season, is at least blessed with a young roster that doesn’t know any better. Gonzaga has five freshmen on the roster, all making their NCAA tournament debut.

They, Few said, were just happy to see their name on the screen.

Not that playing so close to home is easy. Bob Huggins has a season-ticket holder base of 8,000 and 500 tickets to share.

That’s bad math. But the coach has faith in his Mountaineers fans’ craftiness and fully expects they’ll find a way to wrangle some tickets for the game.

Meanwhile, he’s just happy he made it.

“They were talking about flying 2,000 miles,’’ Huggins said. “I said, ‘They’ve never rode with our bus driver. I’m stressed from the time I get in the bus.'’’

Who to watch:

Gonzaga’s Sacre: The Zags’ forward said he was "salivating" for the chance to play some East Coast-style basketball, where power is valued more than finesse. He’ll get his chance against the Mountaineers’ Kevin Jones. Jones can score down low and on a turnaround but he is especially lethal on the boards, where he averages 11 rebounds per game.

West Virginia’s Truck Bryant: The point guard ought to have the edge against the Zags’ younger backcourt, but it’s more than ballhandling Bryant has to take care of. It’s shooting. He’s been this side of terrible much of the season, shooting just 36.2 percent from the floor. That inefficiency puts way too much pressure and responsibility on Jones. Bryant needs to score.

What to watch: The inside game. Sacre wants a challenge? He and teammate Elias Harris are going to get one from Jones and Deniz Kilicli. Rebounding will be critical for both teams, but especially for the Mountaineers, who don’t exactly throw it in with any frequency from outside.

No. 15 Loyola (24-8) vs. No. 2 Ohio State (27-7), 9:50 p.m. ET

Jimmy Patsos won the news conference.

Can he win the game?

The affable Loyola coach, as expected, had the gathered media in stitches, cracking jokes and telling stories. He’s enjoying a mini reunion here, what with so many of Gary Williams' old staff assembled in Pittsburgh -- Patsos, Billy Hahn, an assistant at West Virginia, and Dave Dickerson, now on the Ohio State staff -- and he played it all up perfectly.

That left Buckeyes coach Thad Matta to play the straight man, explaining where Ohio State, still viewed by many as a football school, fits on the national consciousness and how difficult it is to continue success in the age of one-and-done.

It was earnest and honest and not nearly as entertaining as Patsos, who at one time joked his biggest failure was sticking so hard to Williams’ coaching philosophies.

“Gary Williams has had assistants like Rick Barnes, Fran Fraschilla, all these guys,’’ he said. “I shouldn’t say this, but they’re probably more successful because they didn’t run all his stuff so much.’’

But in between the jokes, Patsos admitted to a little secret: He isn’t afraid to dream. His team will be wild underdogs against the Buckeyes, but that doesn’t mean he’s about to cede victory.

“When you have a [16-seed] against a 1, there are no numbers,’’ Patsos said. “A 15 and 2, it happens once every two or three years. I don’t see it as a long shot. It’s 40 minutes, 10 four-minute segments. We have to win six of them. We stole that from Thad, by the way. He used to do that at Xavier.’’

Patsos invoked other 15-2 upsets for his Greyhounds, reminding them that in the old Igloo, the downtown Pittsburgh arena currently being torn down across the street from the Consol Energy Center, Coppin State took down South Carolina in 1997.

That, of course, is ancient history to the Greyhounds, mere toddlers back then.

“I remember George Mason went on a run and beat a lot of good teams,’’ Dylon Cormier said.

Who to watch:

Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger: This is simple. Loyola doesn’t have a player with Sullinger's size or ability. If the Buckeyes can get the ball to him consistently, they will easily win.

Loyola’s Erik Etherly: The MAAC tournament's most outstanding player, Etherly led his team in scoring and rebounding for the title. The junior has been good all season, averaging 13.5 points and 7.5 rebounds but he has never faced anyone quite like Sullinger. Etherly may not win the war, but he’s got to be able to hold his ground.

What to watch: The pace. Loyola wants to go; Ohio State wants to grind. If the Greyhounds can make like their namesake, they could potentially wear down the thin Ohio State bench. If not, this could be a long game for the MAAC champions. “If we can get the game going fast, we have a chance,’’ Patsos said. “If they put us in the meat grinder and go slow, Sullinger goes to work, you can call me at the 410 [area code]. I’ll be in Baltimore Friday by noon.’’
Well, it’s early, but that doesn’t mean we have to wait to make predictions. And in my opinion, you don’t waiver. You make statements and projections and you stand by them, regardless of what happens in the coming weeks. Hold me to the following bold predictions about the NCAA tournament:

  1. No Big East team will reach the Final Four: Another big haul for the Big East. Nine of its teams will participate in this season’s edition of the NCAA tournament. But I don’t think the conference will send any teams to New Orleans. I think Syracuse, a team that’s vulnerable due to its challenges on the glass, has a tough path in the East with Ohio State and a pair of hot squads (Florida State and Vandy) standing in its way. Georgetown, Cincy and UConn could lose in the first round. Marquette has to get through Missouri. I just don’t see it. No Big East in the Big Easy.
  2. [+] EnlargeKim English
    Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireKim English and the Tigers could be one of two teams representing the Big 12 in New Orleans.
    The Big 12 will send two squads to New Orleans: Among the 2-seeds, Missouri has the easiest path to New Orleans. The Tigers’ speed and perimeter versatility will pose matchup problems for every team in the West Region, including No. 1 seed Michigan State. Kansas losing in the first round to Detroit? Nah. The Jayhawks will beat every team in the Midwest, including the Tar Heels if they face them in the Elite Eight.
  3. Vanderbilt will reach the Final Four: I know it’s the sexy pick following its win over Kentucky in the SEC tournament title game. But the Commodores shouldn’t be judged by that victory. And they shouldn’t be dismissed because of premature exits in past years. They have veterans. And they’ve built momentum down the stretch, a la Connecticut a year ago. They’ve hit nearly 40 percent of their 3s this season. The East Region is stronger than it looks with teams such as Syracuse, Ohio State, Florida State and Wisconsin in the mix. But the Commodores can emerge with their senior leadership and shooting. Plus, they have the confidence that comes from beating Kentucky, a team that they challenged in two previous meetings, too.
  4. Iona will win two games: I don’t agree with the Gaels’ inclusion. Washington and Drexel had stronger arguments. But just because many don’t believe they belong doesn’t mean that they won’t prove critics wrong. I think the Gaels, who own the No. 1 scoring offense in the country (83.3 ppg), are dangerous. To reach the third round in the West Region, the Gaels will have to get through BYU in Dayton and Marquette in Louisville. Mark it down. The Gaels are playing a pair of shaky defensive teams. They have three NBA-level talents in Scott Machado, Michael Glover and Lamont “Momo” Jones. As much I thought Iona didn’t have a case for a slot in the field of 68, I think the Gaels can show doubters that they’re worthy.
  5. The Badgers will go home early: I’m picking Montana over Wisconsin in the 13/4 matchup in the East Region. Wisconsin’s offense has stalled multiple times in recent weeks. Even though the Badgers are capable of neutralizing any offense, they’ve had problems capitalizing due to their own inconsistent offense. Montana will be ready. The Grizzlies beat their Big Sky rivals Weber state by 19 points in the conference’s tournament title game, their 14th consecutive victory. Plus, Will Cherry (16.0 ppg) can match Jordan Taylor. Grizzlies will advance.
  6. Long Beach State is a Sweet 16 team: Numerous NCAA tournament teams have hungry veterans. But few upperclassmen have gone through the things that T.J. Robinson, Larry Anderson and Casper Ware have throughout their careers. The seniors missed the past two NCAA tournaments after losing in the conference tournament title game to UC Santa Barbara twice. But this season they earned the Big West’s automatic bid. If Anderson’s not ready (knee injury), then that will change Long Beach State’s March Madness potential. But even without Anderson, the league’s defensive player of the year, this is a talented team that’s played the top nonconference schedule in the country. The 49ers will not be intimidated. They’ll beat New Mexico and Louisville on their way to the Sweet 16.
  7. [+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
    AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziCreighton's Doug McDermott may meet up with former high school teammate Harrison Barnes of North Carolina.
    Michigan State will be the first No. 1 seed to fall: Call me crazy. But I think Memphis’ athleticism will create problems for the Spartans in the third round. I understand the “How will the Tigers guard Draymond Green?” question. But what about Will Barton and Joe Jackson? In the Big Ten, the Spartans didn’t play teams that possessed the raw athleticism that’s anchored Memphis’ roster. The Spartans will be tougher than the Tigers in this East Region matchup, but the latter has an element that Michigan State hasn’t faced since its season-opening to loss to North Carolina.
  8. Doug McDermott will outplay Harrison Barnes on Sunday: I expect North Carolina and Creighton to advance and set up a Sunday matchup in the Midwest Region between former high school teammates Doug McDermott and Harrison Barnes, who earned two state titles together at Ames High School in Ames, Iowa. The Tar Heels will win the game, but McDermott will be the star. Both guys have talked about this potential matchup in the past. The McDermott vs. Barnes buildup will be immense. But McDermott will outperform his prep teammate in their first collegiate meeting, albeit in a loss.
  9. The VCU/Wichita State winner is headed to the Sweet 16: It’s unfortunate that this game will eliminate a potent mid-major. Wichita State and VCU, a Final Four team last year, are two of the best in the country. I predict that the winner of this game will end up facing Kentucky in the Sweet 16. They’re both tough, physical defensive teams that will pressure Indiana in the round of 32. The Hoosiers have struggled outside of Bloomington. And whether they face the Shockers or the Rams, they’ll be in for a battle, one that I expect them to lose.
  10. The West Coast Conference won’t win one game: BYU will lose to Iona. Saint Mary’s will go down against Purdue. West Virginia will beat Gonzaga. I thought the WCC would turn the corner this year with the way BYU, Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga fought for the WCC title. But all three have looked vulnerable in recent weeks. I just don’t think they’re going to advance. Plus, tough matchups for all three teams in their first games. Iona is very talented. The Boilermakers are tough, too. Kevin Jones will lead the Mountaineers to a win over the Bulldogs.
1. Stan Heath has had quite a run in his career. He was at Kent State for one season and went to the Elite Eight. He landed a big money job in Arkansas and when he got run out of Fayetteville, he landed on his feet at South Florida. It appeared he could be on shaky ground, but now the Bulls are on the verge of a getting a possible NCAA berth. He was named Big East coach of the year Tuesday after winning 12 conference games. The Bulls better beat Villanova Wednesday to ensure the selection committee doesn’t leave out USF.

2. Marquette coach Buzz Williams was genuinely giddy about Jae Crowder being named Big East player of the year. Williams fully grasped the value and all-around play of Crowder as he was the most consistent player for the Golden Eagles. Kevin Jones had a phenomenal season for West Virginia. But it’s hard to give Jones the award since the Mountaineers finished much lower in the standings.

3. It’s odd how some times these seasons come full circle. Detroit was the preseason favorite in the Horizon League but fumbled its way through the season. But Tuesday night, Ray McCallum and his son, Ray McCallum Jr., led the Titans to a convincing road win at Valparaiso to earn the NCAA’s automatic berth. Valpo will at least go to the NIT after winning the regular season. It has been quite a season for Valpo coach Bryce Drew and his family, as his parents Homer and Janet battled cancer. Drew has done a tremendous job coaching that team and deserves plenty of praise for doing so under emotional duress.

National POY Straw Poll: The final tally

March, 6, 2012
Robinson/DavisUS PresswireKentucky's Anthony Davis, left, and Kansas' Thomas Robinson remain locked in a virtual dead heat for player of the year honors.
With ballots already due or with deadlines within the next week, the National Player of the Year race remains way too close to call.

Kentucky freshman forward Anthony Davis and Kansas junior Thomas Robinson are still in a virtual tie in the final Player of the Year poll. Robinson led the first three straw polls and was overtaken in the fourth by Davis.

The latter increased his lead -- barely -- in the final poll, which is composed of actual POY voters. After a three-point lead in last week’s vote, Davis now leads Robinson by seven points, 134-127.

The rules for the poll are a first-place vote gets three points, a second-place vote gets two points and a third-place vote gets one vote.

Davis and Robinson, who were named on all 53 ballots received for the final poll, are separated by nine first-place votes. But considering there are four different awards that have four different due dates, it still means there is a better-than-decent chance there is either a split in Player of the Year awards or the award is shared in some instances.

The Robertson ballots were due Sunday. The Naismith is due Friday and Associated Press this coming Sunday. The Wooden ballots are due following the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

In 2002-03, there was a split award when Xavier’s David West won the Robertson and Associated Press Player of the Year awards and Texas guard T.J. Ford won the Naismith and Wooden.

The Naismith and Wooden awards haven’t been split since 1994-95, when Maryland’s Joe Smith won the Naismith and AP and UCLA’s Ed O’Bannon won the Wooden and Robertson. The only time a major award was shared was in 2005-06, when Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison and Duke’s J.J. Redick shared the Robertson Award.

So depending what happens over the next two weeks, there still could be enough fluctuation for ballots to change.

That said, here’s a look at the 53 ballots that comprise the closest POY race in recent memory:

Poll Analysis:

-- Davis continued inching ahead of Robinson, but not by much. Green solidified himself in the No. 3 position and the Big Ten Player of the Year is a likely All-American.

-- The final poll had a season-low nine players listed. Those nine players were from six conferences -- ACC, Big East, Big 12, Big Ten, Missouri Valley and SEC. One team, Kentucky, had two players mentioned on the final ballot.

-- This ballot was the first all season that did not have a single guard listed.

-- Six players from the fourth ballot dropped off before the final one -- Murray State guard Isaiah Canaan, Marquette guard Darius Johnson-Odom, UNLV forward Mike Moser, Duke guard Austin Rivers, Iona guard Scott Machado and Missouri guard Marcus Denmon. Two players, Kidd-Gilchrist and Jones, made a return to the final ballot after falling off prior ones.

-- The top five vote-getters in the final poll were listed on every poll this season and were the top five vote-getters in the past two polls.

Tuesday recap: Keep up with the Joneses

February, 29, 2012
Player of the Night – Bryce Cotton
Providence trailed Connecticut by 14 points with 12:30 to go, but rallied for a 72-70 win. Cotton was the key to the comeback with 16 points in the final 11 minutes. He’s averaging 19 points per game in Providence’s 15 wins compared to 10 points in 15 losses.

Stat Sheet Stuffer – Kevin Jones
Jones had 22 points and 16 rebounds on senior night, as West Virginia picked up a much-needed 92-75 win over DePaul. He’s on track to be the third player in Big East history to lead the conference in scoring and rebounding, joining Walter Berry and Troy Murphy. Only Berry, Billy Owens and Luke Harangody have averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds, as Jones is set to do.

Bench Star – Verdell Jones III
With 12 points, Jones provided a crucial lift off the bench as Indiana took down Michigan State 70-55. Compare that to what the Spartans got from their reserves: 7 points on 16 percent from the field.

Ugly Stat Line (Player) – Tu Holloway
Xavier needed a win to gain some tournament traction, but fell to Saint Louis 70-59. Holloway was nowhere to be found, scoring 4 points on 1-for-6 from the field. That matches his second-fewest points over the past two seasons. After averaging 20 points per game as a junior, Holloway is down to 16 points this season.

Ugly Stat Line (Team) – Weber State Wildcats
Montana and Weber State squared off on Tuesday with the top seed in the Big Sky on the line. Montana came away with a 66-51 win, as Weber State shot just 30 percent from the field and 12 percent from beyond the arc. Damian Lillard, the nation’s top scorer, was held to 19 points.

Casting our ballots: Big East

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

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

Player of the year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coach of the year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conference Power Rankings: Big East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inside Notre Dame's eight-game win streak

February, 22, 2012

Matt Cashore/US PresswirePat Connaughton and the Irish will try and make it nine straight wins when they host West Virginia.

In mid-December, most Notre Dame fans probably were counting the days until spring football practice.

The Fighting Irish had lost senior star Tim Abromaitis to a knee injury a few weeks into the season and were stumbling through their non-conference schedule with an 8-5 record.

But the Irish have rebounded from their early-season slump, and currently are riding an eight-game win streak after starting 3-3 in Big East play. Once ticketed for the bottom of the league standings, Notre Dame now is in prime position to earn one of the top four seeds in the Big East Tournament.

Ranked 18th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches' Poll, Notre Dame hosts a West Virginia team Wednesday (7 ET on ESPN2) that is desperate for a win, having dropped five of its last seven games.

Let's take a look at how the Irish have turned their season around as they prepare for the Mountaineers:

Slow It Down
The most tangible on-court difference over the last eight games is that the Fighting Irish are forcing opponents to play at a much slower pace, using the "burn" offense to run as much time off the clock in their offensive sets before attempting a shot.

Their average number of possessions per game has dropped from 64 to 60, and the Irish have doubled their field-goal attempts per game with four seconds or less left on the shot clock.

The ability to dictate tempo will be important against the Mountaineers, who average 67 possessions per game, ranking sixth in the Big East.

Catch-and-Shoot Efficiency
The slower tempo has allowed Notre Dame to become much more efficient on catch-and-shoot jumpers in its half-court offense, and the extra passes in their offensive sets have given the Irish shooters more open looks.

Notre Dame should be able to take advantage of a West Virginia squad that has not defended catch-and-shoot plays well, ranking 10th in points per play allowed and 12th in field goal percentage defense among Big East teams.

The Cooley Factor
Jack Cooley has led the Fighting Irish on offense during their eight-game win streak, averaging a double-double (16.1 PPG, 11.6 RPG). He's done most of his damage down low, scoring 40 percent of his points around the basket in the last eight games and shooting 70 percent on post-ups.

If Cooley is defended by Kevin Jones tonight, he'll be challenged to put up similar numbers in the post. Jones has thrived as the on-ball defender on post-ups, allowing his opponent to hit just 7-of-31 shots (22 percent) this season.

Defending The Arc
The Irish have struggled to contain teams in transition most of the season, but they've really improved their half-court defense during this recent win streak. Most notably, Notre Dame has done a much better job extending its perimeter defense. Opponents are making just a quarter of their 3-point attempts in the half-court over the last eight games, compared to 35 percent during the first 19 games.

West Virginia does not appear to have the firepower to counter Notre Dame's tough 3-point defense. The Mountaineers rank 14th in the Big East in shooting from beyond the arc and have shot under 20 percent in two of their last three games.

Player of the year straw poll update

February, 15, 2012
With a month left before the NCAA tournament begins, there is a legitimate race for the National Player of the Year.

Kansas junior Thomas Robinson, the leader in the first two National POY straw polls, is getting a major challenge from Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis.

And in the Year of the Versatile Forward, it makes sense. College basketball hasn’t seen a year of top big men like this since 2009, when the top three finishers for the Wooden Award and the top four for the Naismith Award were all forwards and centers.

In that year, Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin ran away with both awards, blowing by Pittsburgh’s DeJuan Blair, Connecticut’s Hasheem Thabeet and the 2008 Wooden Award winner, North Carolina’s Tyler Hansbrough. The top college guard that season, Davidson’s Stephen Curry, had a standout season but his team ended up in the NIT.

That season did have a lot of talented, well-known guards, led by Curry, UNC’s Ty Lawson, Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks, Memphis’ Tyreke Evans and Arizona State’s James Harden. All were in the final ballot of that season's straw poll.

As for this season, the top six vote-getters in this week’s poll were forwards, and 12 of 17 players mentioned by the 54 pollsters who responded were forwards or centers. Players like Michigan State’s Draymond Green and West Virginia’s Kevin Jones, now among the best players in the nation, were freshmen during that 2009 season and are now in this straw poll as seniors.

For those who missed the first two polls, here’s a recap of how it all works: Each pollster sends us their top three. A first-place vote is worth three points, a second-place vote worth two and a third-place vote worth one. Every voter is granted anonymity. Every voter has a voice in at least one of the four major college basketball player of the year awards: Wooden, Naismith, Associated Press or Robertson (the USBWA award).

Poll analysis:

-- For the third straight ballot, 17 players were represented. They come from 11 conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Sky, Big Ten, MAAC, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, Ohio Valley, SEC and West Coast). Just one school, Missouri, had multiple players on the ballot -- Denmon and Ratliffe.

-- Four players are making their first ballot of the season -- Johnson-Odom, Canaan, Anosike and Rob Jones. Five players dropped off from the second ballot: UNC’s Harrison Barnes, Vanderbilt’s John Jenkins, Maryland’s Terrell Stoglin, Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Miami (Ohio)’s Julian Mavunga. In addition, the poll had its first returning player after being knocked off the ballot. Denmon was in the first poll, off the second and returns for the third.

-- The biggest mover was Davis, who jumped from fourth to second. Even more so, he went from being on 16 ballots to 47 ballots and from 30 points to 112 points. He also went from four first-place votes to 20. McDermott had the biggest drop, falling from second to fourth and from 70 points to 15.

-- In what is shaping up as a two-man race, only Robinson and Davis received first-place votes. On the second ballot, seven players received first-place votes: Robinson, McDermott, Sullinger, Davis, Kevin Jones and two players completely off this poll -- Barnes and Jenkins.

-- Player on the poll who should be getting more attention: Scott. This is the second poll I’ve mentioned this. His statistical numbers might not be as strong as others, but he consistently faces opponent double-teams and the exceedingly slow pace the Cavaliers play at limits Scott’s possessions to put up huge numbers.

-- Three players not in the poll who should get more attention: Iona guard Scott Machado, who continues to be one of the nation’s top passers, averaging 10 assists a game. Iowa State forward Royce White, while not putting up monster numbers, has been the key cog to the Cyclones' attempt to make a run at the NCAA tournament and is a matchup nightmare for any team facing him. Syracuse guard Dion Waiters, who while being the Orange’s sixth man, has been a major reason for their success averaging 12.2 points, 2.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists in just 23.7 minutes -- minutes much lower than any other contender. Three of the four players mentioned here two weeks ago ended up in this poll. The other was Seton Hall’s Herb Pope.

So what comes next? Here is a look at the next two weeks for the main contenders.

-- Sullinger has three marquee games that could give him one last push. He’ll be on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET Saturday against rival No. 19 Michigan, then faces elite big man Meyers Leonard and Illinois on Feb. 21 and No. 17 Wisconsin on Feb. 26.

-- Davis faces Ole Miss on Saturday, goes to Mississippi State on Feb. 21 and then faces Vanderbilt on Feb. 25.

-- Robinson has a major statement game on Feb. 25 against Missouri as well as three games against three teams at the bottom of the Big 12: Texas Tech (Saturday), Texas A&M (Feb. 22) and Oklahoma State (Feb. 27).

Wooden Watch: Jason King's POY ballot

February, 8, 2012
With one month remaining in the regular season, the battle for the Wooden Award appears to be a two-man race between Kentucky’s Anthony Davis and Kansas’ Thomas Robinson. Right now I’m leaning toward Davis, the projected No. 1 pick in this summer’s NBA draft. But you could definitely make an argument for Robinson, too. There are still plenty of opportunities for each to impress -- or regress. Here’s how I’d vote if the season ended today.
  1. Anthony Davis, Kentucky - The 6-foot-10 Davis averaged 19 points, 7 rebounds and 6 blocks in the Wildcats’ most recent victories over South Carolina and Florida. He shot a collective 17-of-23 from the field in those two games. Davis’ presence alone affects the game on the defensive end.
  2. Thomas Robinson, Kansas - Robinson had 20 points and 17 rebounds in a victory over Oklahoma before erupting for 25 and 13 in Saturday’s 74-71 loss at Missouri. When he’s playing his best, Robinson might be the toughest player in the country to stop in the paint. He’ll be tested Wednesday by Baylor’s Quincy Acy and Perry Jones III.
  3. Kevin Jones, West Virginia - The senior forward continues to post gaudy stats - he’s scored 20 or more points in nine consecutive games - but his team is struggling. The Mountaineers have lost three of their past four contests, with the only victory coming in overtime against Big East bottom-feeder Providence. Impossible as it might seem, West Virginia may need Jones to do even more.
  4. Jared Sullinger, Ohio State - The versatile Buckeyes forward averaged 21 points and 8 rebounds in victories over Wisconsin and Purdue. College basketball fans - and Wooden Award voters - have grown used to seeing Sullinger post impressive stat lines. It’d be a shame if they started taking him for granted.
  5. Doug McDermott, Creighton - The Bluejays sophomore has averaged 21.3 points and 8.3 rebounds in the three games since the last Wooden Award ballot was released. Creighton, though, lost back-to-back contests at Northern Iowa and Evansville during that span. The setbacks certainly aren’t McDermott’s fault — but it’s definitely on him to make sure they don’t become a trend. Saturday’s home game against Wichita State is huge.
On the cusp:

Isaiah Canaan, Murray State - The leader of the nation’s only undefeated team had 32 points in last week’s victory over Southeast Missouri State. Canaan averages 18.9 points and shoots 47.1 percent from the field.

Draymond Green, Michigan State - Playing on basically one leg, the senior forward matched Michigan on the boards all by himself Sunday. Green had 16 boards while the Wolverines snared a collective 16.

John Henson, North Carolina - The junior had 17 points and 12 boards in Saturday’s victory over Maryland. Henson is averaging a double-double (14.3 points, 10 rebounds) on the season.

Perry Jones III, Baylor - Jones has scored 15 or more points in each of his past four games, but he’ll need to be more assertive than ever if the Bears have any hope of defeating Kansas in Waco, Texas, on Wednesday.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky - The freshman had 13 points and 13 rebounds in Tuesday’s win against No. 7 Florida. He’s one of the main reasons Kentucky is regarded as the nation’s best team.

Damian Lillard, Weber State - The guard had 40 points in Thursday’s win over Portland and 35 in a victory over Northern Colorado two days later. Lillard leads the nation with 25.5 points per game.

Scott Machado, Iona - The nation’s assists leader dropped 23 dimes and combined for 32 points in victories over Manhattan and Canisius. Machado leads the country with an average of 10 assists per game.

Arnett Moultrie, Mississippi State - Moultrie’s presence - he averages 17 points and 11.1 boards - has taken some pressure off of highly scrutinized forward Renardo Sidney. As a result, both players have flourished.

Mike Scott, Virginia - The senior forward scored 16 points in Saturday’s 58-55 road loss at Florida State. He’s shooting an impressive 58.8 percent from the field on the season. Scott could burst onto the national scene with an impressive performance at North Carolina on Saturday.

Tyler Zeller, North Carolina - Most people are obsessed with Zeller’s younger brother, Cody, a standout freshman for Indiana. Tyler, though, has been equally impressive. He averaged 20 points and 12.5 rebounds last week.

Roundtable: Four burning questions

February, 2, 2012
Editor’s note: writers Eamonn Brennan, Jason King and Myron Medcalf are joined by ESPN Insider John Gasaway to discuss four burning questions in college basketball.

Seems everywhere you look, there's a jumbled conference race. Which one intrigues you the most?

Eamonn Brennan: The Pac-12. And I’m not kidding. Unlike most leagues, this one is wide-open. Sure, Cal is the favorite, but Washington is coming on strong and Oregon is hanging around. Plus, none of the top teams in the conference are so good that they can't be upset by any of the dregs on any given night ... AND there's a legitimate possibility these guys will end up fighting for, what, one at-large bid? It's downright fascinating.

[+] EnlargeMike Scott
AP Photo/Andrew ShurtleffMike Scott and Virginia have made the chase for the ACC crown an interesting one.
John Gasaway: The ACC this year intrigues me. No league's been dominated by two teams the way this one’s been dominated by a certain two teams. But in 2012 we have two feisty newcomers in the form of Florida State and Virginia. In the standings and in terms of per-possession performance, all four teams are more or less equal right now. This shapes up as an epic confrontation between traditional haves and have-nots, and it's going to be a jewel of a conference race. And in closing, I wish to offer a subliminal message: Mike Scott for ACC POY. That is all.

Jason King: The Big 12 race intrigues me most. It’s a three-team affair, and I honestly can’t decide which is better between Baylor, Missouri and Kansas. I thought it was the Tigers, but then they lost to a dreadful Oklahoma State team. Then I switched to the Jayhawks, but then they were upset by Iowa State. Baylor has already lost to both schools, but there’s no shame in falling at Allen Fieldhouse, and the Bears have bounced back nicely from the Mizzou defeat by winning three straight. Baylor is clearly the most talented team, but I’m not sure that even matters. I expect there to be a three-way tie for first when Kansas visits Waco on Feb. 8.

Myron Medcalf: The Big 12. Kansas, Missouri and Baylor are all set to battle over the next week or so. Then you have this Iowa State team that’s been gold at home and played its way into the conversation. So many teams struggling on the road. I think there will be a lot of movement in the Big 12 standings in the coming weeks. Should be fun.

In order, who would make up your top three right now in national coach of the year voting?

Brennan: Steve Fisher immediately and unflinchingly replaced one first-round NBA draft pick, three senior starters and the heart of last year's team, and look at the Aztecs just one year later. Remarkable. Then let’s go with Steve Prohm. The first-year coach has done a brilliant job guiding Murray State through its as-yet undefeated campaign, with all the unique motivational challenges and solutions that kind of quest entails. I’ll take John Calipari at third. Maybe it’s more of a statement inclusion than anything else, but every year we expect Kentucky to be good (for good reason), but we tend to underrate the job Calipari does not only in recruiting these players but in getting them to play stifling team defense together from Day 1. Managing stars is hard enough when you've got one or two. Calipari manages entire teams of All-Americans and future lottery picks and does it better than anyone year in and year out.

Gasaway: Thad Matta at No. 1. This is the best team he's had in Columbus, even if no one realizes it yet. John Calipari: This is the best team he's had in Lexington, and as good as this visually spectacular defense is, the offense is even better. Then Randy Bennett at Saint Mary’s. If I had to choose one D-I coach to take a randomly selected group of five D-I players and score the most points per possession, I would take a long look at Bennett.

King: Right now I’d rank them in this order: Frank Haith (Missouri), Tom Crean (Indiana) and Bill Self (Kansas). There’s usually a transition period with a first-year coach, but that hasn’t been the case in Columbia. Despite a flurry of offseason controversy and the loss of one of his top players to a knee injury, Haith has turned the Tigers into legitimate Final Four contenders. Crean’s team has struggled of late, but touts victories over Kentucky and Ohio State. Not many teams in the country lost as much as Self’s Jayhawks, who returned just one starter from last year’s squad. The Jayhawks are as thin as they’ve ever been under Self, yet somehow he has them back in the top 10 and in position to win an eighth straight Big 12 title.

Medcalf: Steve Fisher is No. 1. Look at what he lost and look and what he’s done with that Aztecs program. I’d go with Frank Haith at No. 2. His Missouri team has no size or depth and he might just win the Big 12 anyway. Murray State’s Steve Prohm is my third. A first-year coach who’s undefeated heading into February despite losing three starters? Impressive stuff.

Which currently unranked team would you NOT want to face off with in March?

Brennan: West Virginia doesn't look like much fun, I'll tell you that. Kevin Jones can bury you before you know it. And despite the Huskies' struggles, I doubt too many teams want to see UConn in an elimination game. And I would happily take a pass on Middle Tennessee State, which plays hard-nosed pressure defense and forces a lot of turnovers, and could be an absolute beast to deal with in a neutral-court situation in March.

[+] EnlargeGarrett Stutz, Chris Hines
AP Photo/Mary AltafferDon't be surprised if Garrett Stutz and Wichita State pull off an upset or two in March.
Gasaway: The best team in the country outside the Top 25 right now is Wichita State. The Shockers have dropped a couple of games in Missouri Valley play and, unlike a certain Valley rival of theirs, they don't have a high-scoring star whose name can be effortlessly linked to a smash hit single. (Teach me how to Garrett Stutz!) All Gregg Marshall's team does is combine outstanding offense with punishing defense. You do not want to see this team in your bracket. The Shockers were born to be badly under-seeded, and people will yell at you incorrectly when you lose to them.

King: I feel sorry for the No. 3- or No. 4-seeded school that draws Long Beach State in the NCAA tournament. The 49ers are one of the top 30 or 40 teams in the country. Dan Monson’s squad has traveled all over the country and faced Kansas, North Carolina, Louisville, Kansas State, Xavier and Pittsburgh. It won’t be intimidated by anyone.

Medcalf: Iowa State, although the Cyclones should be ranked next week. They have experienced transfers (Chris Allen has played in two Final Fours). And they have college basketball’s enigma in Royce White. Who do you put on a guy who’s 6-foot-8, 270 pounds and can play point guard? Kansas and Kansas State are witnesses.

Because of some high-profile misses, the perception is that officiating has been awful this season. What's your take?

Brennan: It hasn't been universally awful, but it's been bad more often -- and more glaringly -- than not. The good news, I think, is that the restricted area has made it easier for officials to call the block/charge, which is always the most difficult and most maddening play in the game. But beyond the high-profile bad calls and the usual complaints, the real issue this year has been the way referees manage games. Now, after NCAA officials coordinator John Adams sent last week's memo, I fear we'll see a marked rise in technical fouls as the officials' needle swings back in the other direction. What a thankless gig, huh?

Gasaway: The officiating this year has been no more or less awful than customary. True, the missed goaltending call in the West Virginia-Syracuse game was both blatantly obvious in real time and unusually decisive. It occurred in the closing seconds, and it had the net effect of deducting two points from one team in what was then a two-point game. I think people reacted to that decisiveness, and I don't blame them. That being said, in any given year human-based officiating is what it is.

King: I think the officiating has been noticeably bad. In the last week, I’ve seen three really bad calls that affected the outcome of games. West Virginia got hosed against Syracuse, as we all know. Texas’ Myck Kabongo was clearly hacked on a game-winning shot attempt against Missouri as time expired. And moments before Iowa State’s Royce White hit a game winner to beat Kansas State, Wildcats guard Rodney McGruder was knocked from his feet as he attempted a shot from the free throw line on the other end. What’s even more frustrating is when refs call ticky-tacky fouls to make up for missing the hard ones.

Medcalf: I don’t think the problem is with officiating. The problem is with the limitations of instant replay. Coaches and officials need more flexibility -- not unlimited review power -- to fix the wrongs. I think officiating has been fine. The late-game blunders have made things look worse than they really are.

Wednesday recap: Mavunga goes 19-19-8

February, 2, 2012
Player of the Night: Julian Mavunga
The senior carried Miami (Ohio) to a 62-57 overtime win over Eastern Michigan, leading all players with 19 points, 19 rebounds and eight assists. Both his rebound and assist totals are career-highs.

No player in the nation is relied upon more than Mavunga. Even though he’s not even in the top 50 in scoring, he’s put up 30.8 percent of the RedHawks' points. That’s fourth most in the nation according to

Mavunga also has 39.0 percent of Miami’s rebounds, which ranks second in the nation. The only other player who is even in the top 20 in both categories is West Virginia’s Kevin Jones.

Lofty Comparison: Thomas Robinson = Blake Griffin
Leading by just three points at halftime, Kansas pulled away in the second half to beat Oklahoma, 84-62. Once again, Robinson was huge with 20 points and 17 rebounds, numbers that would be eye-popping if he wasn’t doing it so consistently. Robinson now has four games this season with at least 19 points and 17 rebounds. No one else has three such games. The last major conference player with four 19-17 games in a season? Blake Griffin, who did it 10 times in 2008-09.

Bench Star: God’sgift Achiuwa
It’s hard to believe St. John’s could win a road game when Moe Harkless goes 2-for-15 from the field, but that’s just what happened Wednesday at DePaul. The Redmen got a career-high 29 points from D’Angelo Harrison. But the biggest boost came from Achiuwa, who scored 15 points in 18 minutes off the bench, hitting all seven of his shots. It was the best shooting performance for a Big East player off the bench this season.

Road Show: Evansville
The Aces put on an offensive display in a 93-62 win at Bradley. Not only did they shoot 60.3 percent from the field, but also combined on 31 assists -- 18 more than Bradley. (Colt Ryan and Denver Holmes combined for 47 points and 20 assists.) The last time a team had more assists in a true road game? UCF in February 2003.

Ugly Stat Line of the Night: Connecticut (except Andre Drummond)
The Huskies’ offense came up empty in a 58-44 loss at Georgetown. It was the fewest points for the Huskies since scoring 42 against Syracuse in 1999. Connecticut has failed to score 50 points in back-to-back games for the first time since 1964. Drummond went 9-for-12 from the field, but the rest of the Huskies combined to shoot 18.8 percent (9-for-48).