College Basketball Nation: Kwamain Mitchell

One man’s observations from another eventful Saturday afternoon of college basketball …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10. Louisville makes statement without five overtimes. So the rematch between Louisville and Notre Dame didn’t match the hoopla of the first game. We didn’t get five overtimes. We didn’t even see one. But the Cardinals continued to support the notion that they’re going to be a very dangerous program in the NCAA tournament with a 73-57 victory over Notre Dame. It was the seventh consecutive victory for a team that’s ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Pomeroy. As a team, the Cardinals shot 51 percent from the floor against the Fighting Irish, and Gorgui Dieng registered 20 points (8-11 FG) and 11 rebounds. The Cards are playing like a Final Four team.
Another week of Atlantic-10 power rankings, another week spent reading through the kind words of my adoring readers. Let's do this, guys!

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16. Fordham. In a league that features Rhode Island and Duquesne, Fordham seems to pretty clearly be the worst team on offer.
Thanks to finals week, there hasn't been a ton of action in the Atlantic 10, and thus not much movement in the overall rankings. Anyway, you know … enjoy while it lasts. It appears we've reached Peak A-10. Where we eventually go is anyone's guess.

1. Virginia Commonwealth: The Rams took over the top spot in these rankings last week, and their only action since was a victory at Old Dominion, which is an uncharacteristically bad team this season. But it does appear -- as it did during VCU's impressive run in the Battle 4 Atlantis -- that this athletic, hassling headache of a team is the best in the conference both with and without the ball.

2. Butler: The nation will have another high-profile chance to check out the Bulldogs this weekend, when they take on No. 1 Indiana in the Crossroads Classic, but it would be unwise to sleep on their tidy victory at Northwestern last Saturday. A road win at a Big Ten foe (even one as inconsistent as the Wildcats) is nothing to sneeze at, which is why I've given them the slight nod over Saint Joseph's and Temple. Let's see what they cook up for IU on Saturday.

3. Temple: Sure, Temple got smoked by Duke on Saturday, 90-67, but are we really supposed to punish a team for losing to the Blue Devils in East Rutherford, aka Durham North? I say no. And while Temple's schedule hasn't given us a great opportunity to evaluate the Owls otherwise, Khalif Wyatt and Scootie Randall did handle Villanova at Villanova, which is more than we can say for the next team in the rankings.

4. Saint Joseph's: Tuesday's loss to Villanova hurt. It hurt not only because it was a loss to Villanova, the Hawks' hated Holy War rival, though that would be enough. It hurt not only because of the now-infamous Halil Kanacevic double-bird (and subsequent two-game suspension). It also hurt because it was an entirely winnable game against a just-OK Villanova team, and all of a sudden that 29-point blowout at Creighton and neutral-court loss to since-exposed Florida State are not painting a very flattering portrait.

5. Charlotte: Nothing new here. I bumped Charlotte a handful of spots not only because its fans had been clamoring for love, but also because the 49ers deserved it -- a 9-0 start with a win at Davidson is good stuff, even if the other eight wins are decidedly blah. But the most significant test of the season comes Friday night at Miami. Ultimately, I'm reserving judgement until we see those 40 minutes (and anything less than a complete blowout won't change my opinion much). You can't knock the work to date.

6. Saint Louis: Nothing new for St. Louis since we last convened. I think the Billikens are better than sixth in this league when all is said and done -- first things first: get Kwamain Mitchell back on the court -- and they're already playing some of the best per-possession defense in the league. They'll be fine.

7. Xavier: The Musketeers' 7-2 record has both high and low points. There was the home drubbing of Butler, followed shortly by a neutral-court loss to Pacific. There was the victory at Purdue, followed immediately by a home loss to Vanderbilt. Xavier bounced back with a win over Kent State on Sunday, and I have long since learned to never, ever, ever count this program out of an A-10 or NCAA-tourney bid race, but Xavier just isn't defending all that well right now -- its defense ranks No. 138 in the country, per KenPom. If that doesn't improve we could see inconsistency all season.

8. Dayton: Did somebody say inconsistency? Hey-oh! That's the recurring theme of Dayton over the past few seasons (and in the first few weeks of these power rankings) -- weirdly enough, both before and after Archie Miller was hired -- and it has played out that way thus far this season. How a team loses to Weber State at home seven days before winning at Alabama, I'll never know. Anyway, the Flyers handled Miami (Ohio) at home last Saturday and should rack up another win over Florida Atlantic this Saturday. But then again, you never know.

9. La Salle: La Salle is a bit difficult to judge at this point. They snuck out of Northeastern with a 66-64 win on Saturday, which was an escape as much as a hard-fought road victory, and they've played some promising offense thus far. Ramon Galloway is still the star, but sophomore D.J. Peterson boasts a 141.6 offensive rating on just 9.1 percent usage -- he needs more touches. This weekend's trip to play Mike Muscala at Bucknell is the big one.

10. Richmond: Three years ago, a home win over Wake Forest would have been totally laudable thing. Alas, it is not three years ago. Now, a win over Wake means just another unimpressive win on your resume. The Spiders are playing some really efficient offense, but until they get a win against an identifiably good opponent, we can't be sure.

11. Duquesne: Against my better instincts, I happen to think West Virginia is a good team -- or, rather, that within a few weeks it is going to be good. There is too much talent to believe otherwise, despite the lack of evidence to date. Which is why Duquesne gets a boost here for knocking off (ha, "knocking off") the Mountaineers at home Tuesday night. Credit where it's due, you know?

12. Massachusetts: UMass hasn't played since last week's rankings, so nothing much new to report here. Saturday's home tilt against Elon won't help us sort much. Next Wednesday, when Ohio comes to town, we'll see if this team can beat solid-to-good opponents, or if it destined for a 17-win-ish sort of season.

13. St. Bonaventure: A three-point loss on the road is always hard to judge harshly -- it is hard to win on the road, almost regardless of the situation. But a three-point loss at Arkansas State is something of an indictment, particularly for a team that looked like it was going to struggle anyway. Cleveland State comes to town Saturday.

14. George Washington: Three consecutive losses for the Colonials since Dec. 4: at Bradley, versus Kansas State, at Rutgers. Not horrible, but not great, considering that 4-6 record also includes losses to Youngstown State and Mount St. Mary's. The Colonials actually defend pretty well -- they're No. 68 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency -- but they can't score. Alas.

15. Rhode Island.

16. Fordham.

Nothing new on either Rhody or Fordham -- Rhode Island is 2-7, Fordham is 1-8 (with a tough schedule, but still) -- and until either team springs a big win or rips off a couple in a row, we'll keep this last bit brief.

Conference Power Rankings: A-10

December, 7, 2012
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1. Virginia Commonwealth. It's another edition of the much-requested Atlantic 10 conference power rankings, and we already have a new rightful heir to the throne. The margin between VCU and St. Joe's is slim, in my opinion, and it feels tough to drop the Hawks based off a loss at Creighton … but all of VCU's losses were close, tight games against good teams. More than anything, though? With that top-15 ranking efficiency defense and the brutal-as-ever HAVOC system wreaking, well, you know, on opposing guards, I just think VCU's better.

2. Saint Joseph's. Which is not to say St. Joe's isn't good. If you're ranked this high in this year's A-10, you're pretty good. But all of a sudden that neutral-court loss to Florida State isn't looking so flattering, and neither was Saturday's 80-51 blowout at Creighton. Tuesday brings a game at Villanova, which will be pretty fascinating, but more important than anything is that C.J. Aiken breaks out of this 4-for-24 long-range slump he's on to start the season.

3. Temple. Despite my eyeballs' love of this Temple team -- I was hooked from the first moments of the Tip-Off Marathon game, bleary though I was -- I was hesitant to place the Owls above Butler last week simply because they hadn't really beaten anyone good. This week, Temple won by 15 at Villanova, and while Jay Wright's team isn't what I'd classify as "good," a 15-point win is a kind of statement. On Saturday, Temple gets Duke in East Rutherford, N.J., where the crowd will be largely Duke partisans. That, my friends, is going to be interesting.

4. Butler. Nothing new on the Bulldogs, really. Since they got back from Maui, they've been teeing off on guarantee wins (IUPUI was the latest victim Wednesday night), but Saturday -- when Butler travels to Evanston, Ill., to face Northwestern -- is a decidedly trickier challenge. It's hard to know what to make of the feast-or-famine Wildcats, so this game might not give us a reliable impression. But it will be interesting to see how Rotnei Clarke and Co. handle a true road test and some solid size on the interior.

5. Charlotte. OK, Charlotte fans. Here you go. After seven season-opening wins, it was easy to dismiss the 49ers as a mere product of their totally awful schedule. But the wins were getting better -- Oral Roberts, Northeastern and East Carolina are various shades of not-horrible -- even before Charlotte won at Davidson, 73-69, Wednesday night. That is an indisputably quality win, and, as such, I am giving the 49ers the "love" their fans seem to so desperately crave. And understandably so. It has been a long road back to relevance, and there is much more basketball to play -- and I tend to doubt Alan Major's bunch will be ranked this high more often than not -- but Charlotte appears to be a top-half A-10 team and a potential tournament squad. Who knew?

6. Saint Louis. The Billikens have not had the most emotionally easy week -- the death of former coach Rick Majerus hit hard -- but a day after they found out Majerus had passed, they got a 13-point home win over Valpo, a defensive win Majerus himself would have loved. Wednesday's victory over North Texas was nice, too, even if the Tony Mitchell-led Mean Green have underperformed expectations thus far this season. As long as the Billikens tread water until the return of Kwamain Mitchell, you have to like their prospectus.

7. Xavier. The Musketeeers had a mixed bag of a week, the kind of week you expect to see from a team this young. To wit: Last Saturday, Xavier went to Purdue (another young, inconsistent, promising team) and came away with a win, no small feat in front of that crazy Mackey Arena crowd. Then, Thursday night, Xavier lost at home to Vanderbilt. Last year, that would have been a totally acceptable loss. This year, Vandy's looking pretty rough. I still the Musketeers are to be reckoned with in the A-10 race, but it might take a little time to work out all the youthful kinks.

8. Dayton. Ahhh, Dayton. Never change. Last week, I said Dayton appeared set for another baffling and frustrating season; one commenter, "whitegrb," described it as "Get some big wins against BCS conference opponents, lose some bad games against 1-bid-mid-major conference teams." You know what's funny? That was before Dayton won at Alabama on Wednesday! That is the same good Alabama team, by the way, that nearly took down an even better Cincinnati team on its home floor Saturday. On Nov. 28, Dayton lost at home to Weber State. I'm not sure how to square any of this analytically, and I'm not sure it's possible. (Matchups? Inconsistency? Dayton fans, please help?) But I do know this: If you win at Alabama, you move up in the power rankings. That part's easy.

9. La Salle. La Salle feels destined to stay under the radar in the A-10 this season, but it remains a real sleeper, and fortunately it has made a decent impression thus far. The latest came Wednesday night, when Ramon Galloway and the Explorers absolutely blitzed an overwhelmed Penn State group 81-57 at the Palestra. An away game at (a very good) Bucknell on Dec. 15 will be this team's next best chance at a marquee nonconference win.

10. Richmond. Like La Salle, it feels a little like Chris Mooney's team is being slept on, because from an efficiency standpoint their offense is pretty great. In fact, it is the 37th-most efficient offense in the country through nine games, per KenPom.com. The Spiders have more issues on defense, and it's hard to go head over heels for a team that has beaten a lot of ugly opponents and lost to Minnesota and Ohio by a combined score of 40 points.

11. Massachusetts. Last Saturday, the Minutemen had a tailor-made opportunity to impress, when Miami -- fresh off a home upset of Michigan State -- came to Amherst for a true road game. UMass lost by 13. The wins over Harvard and Providence were nice season-openers, but since then UMass has been soundly beaten by the only teams anyone would be impressed if UMass beat. I'm torn, but let's give them time.

12. St. Bonaventure. It's a little bit crazy that we can go this deep in the Atlantic 10 and still not be willing to write off the team you're discussing from eventual NCAA tournament competition. Which is not to say the Bonnies are good; they've played a horrific schedule thus far. But their only losses (Canisius, Ohio) came on the road, and they really haven't been that bad, considering the loss of Andrew Nicholson this offseason.

13. Duquesne. Say this much for Duquesne: It is adept at preventing opponents from going to the free throw line. And three of the Dukes' four losses (Georgetown, Pittsburgh, and North Dakota State, which is better than you think) are nothing to scoff at. But this team is pretty miserable at the offensive end, and the defense hasn't been much better, either.

14. George Washington. The Colonials gave Bradley a real run on the road Tuesday, and it's always nice to see a team really contend on the road, even if Bradley isn't likely to be a Missouri Valley Conference power. Thus far, George Washington has defended relatively well. But the Colonials have been really bad on the offensive end, because they give up the third-highest rate of steals in the country and, as such, are constantly turning it over.

15. Rhode Island. For as bad as Rhode Island is supposed to -- OK, is going to -- be, you have to tip your cap for its work in the three games before Thursday's 72-57 loss at Providence. The Rams beat Auburn in double overtime on Nov. 25, lost at home to a just-OK George Mason team by three, and then beat Vermont by 10 Saturday. Before that stretch, they played Ohio State to within 11, Seton Hall to within five, and Loyola-Maryland to a four-point overtime loss. Let's be clear: Rhode Island is not good. But first-year coach Dan Hurley has the Rams playing hard, and they could spring a few upsets as they rebuild.

16. Fordham. It's going to be a rough season at Fordham. Tom Pecora's team has played a brutal schedule so far -- the Rams have had exactly one true home game in eight games to date -- and it doesn't get any easier with trips to St. John's, Princeton (in Brooklyn) and Connecticut on the immediate horizon.

Rapid Reaction: Kansas 73, Saint Louis 59

November, 20, 2012
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A quick look at Kansas' 73-59 victory over Saint Louis in the championship game of the CBE Classic at the Sprint Center.

Overview: Five games into the season, it's still tough to get a read on the Kansas basketball team. It's certainly not the Jayhawks' fault. They played admirably in a 67-64 loss to Michigan State, but other than that, Bill Self's squad hasn't exactly faced top-notch competition.

That was certainly the case Tuesday at the Sprint Center. One night after beating Pac-12 bottom-feeder Washington State by 37 points, 12th-ranked Kansas cruised to an easy victory against an overmatched Saint Louis squad that's trying to adapt to life without its coach (Rick Majerus) and top player (injured guard Kwamain Mitchell).

Turning point: Kansas used a 21-6 scoring run early in the first half to blow the game open. Travis Releford scored 17 points during the march, which gave the Jayhawks a 28-10 lead and momentum they would never relinquish.

Key player: Releford earned tournament MVP honors. The Kansas City native finished with a game-high 23 points on 7-of-13 shooting. Twenty-one of Releford's points came in the decisive first half. Releford also performed well against Washington State on Monday, when he led KU with 17 points.

Key stat: Kansas center Jeff Withey is picking up where he left off last season in terms of blocked shots. Withey is averaging 6.0 blocks in his past three games. He swatted seven shots Tuesday. Withey likely would've been named tournament MVP if the ballots weren't picked up with 10 minutes remaining, as Withey closed the game in dominating fashion.

Miscellaneous: Kansas point guard Elijah Johnson continues to struggle. Johnson had only eight points against Washington State and finished with just five on Tuesday. There is obviously a tremendous amount of pressure on Johnson, who moved from shooting guard to point guard to replace graduated senior Tyshawn Taylor. … Cody Ellis had 19 points for Saint Louis but missed 14 of his 20 field-goal attempts. … Along with Most Outstanding Performer Releford, these players were named to the CBE Classic all-tournament team: Withey, KU's Ben McLemore, Saint Louis' Dwayne Evans and Texas A&M's Elston Turner, who hit a 3-pointer with 2 seconds remaining to give the Aggies a 55-54 victory over Washington State in the third-place game.

Up next: Saint Louis hosts Southern Illinois on Saturday. Kansas hosts San Jose State on Monday.
The Saint Louis team I saw in Columbus, Ohio, eight months ago looked like a contender for the Atlantic 10 title and a squad that was capable of making a run in this season’s NCAA tournament. I had no doubts about the Billikens’ top-25 status entering 2012-13, after they reversed Memphis’ late-game lead to advance to the third round of the NCAA tournament and then, pushed top-seeded Michigan State to the brink in a tough loss two days later.

That was then. Clearly, things have changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Saint Louis is not a team to ignore.

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

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

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

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

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

3-point shot: Another blow for Billikens

October, 16, 2012
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1. Saint Louis is already dealing with a fragile state of affairs as Jim Crews takes over for Rick Majerus while he deals with a major heart issue. Now, the potential Atlantic 10 favorite Billikens will start the season without their top guard in Kwamain Mitchell (broken foot). The good news for the Billikens is that they are deep in the backcourt with Mike McCall Jr. and Jordair Jett. But the Billikens will find out now if freshman Keith Carter is ready for prime time out of the gate. Majerus said in the summer that Carter could be the best lead guard he had recruited since Andre Miller at Utah. Crews wasn’t ready to buy into that just yet. But Carter now has to play and do well earlier in the season. The most important game that Mitchell might miss is possibly against Kansas in a likely finals matchup in the CBE Classic Nov. 20. SLU has a tough stretch a week later at Washington and at home against Valparaiso and North Texas.

2. Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin couldn’t vote for his own player, but said on our ESPNU College Basketball podcast that he voted for Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng as Big East preseason player of the year. He also said he fully expects that he has two all-Big East players on this roster in Sean Kilpatrick and Cashmere Wright.

3. The Battle 4 Atlantis is trying to put together another high-profile field in 2013. So far the event in Nassau, Bahamas, has Kansas, USC, Villanova, Xavier, Wake Forest and Tennessee and UTEP, according to teams committed. Illinois was initially in the mix, but now instead it could be Michigan State or Ohio State. This season’s field is loaded with Louisville, Duke, Memphis, VCU, Minnesota, Northern Iowa, Stanford and Missouri.


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Before he wiped the floor -- he actually grabbed the sweeper from a ball boy in the final minutes of Michigan State’s 65-61 victory over Saint Louis on Sunday at Nationwide Arena to erase a wet spot -- Draymond Green cleaned up the locker room.

Since the Spartans reached Nationwide Arena last week, they’d hinted at past distress. They were even instructed not to discuss the 2010-11 season. Senior guard Austin Thornton admitted, however, that “guys had minds elsewhere,” during one news conference.

The cause behind that fall from back-to-back Final Fours to a one-and-done program in the 2011 NCAA tournament wasn’t as simple as injuries and a bad night. The Spartans had issues.

But Green’s leadership eliminated yesteryear’s drama and fueled the team’s run to the Sweet 16.

In one crucial play against the Billikens, this squad illustrated its renewed bond and his role in it.

With three minutes to go, Tom Izzo gave Green the ball. He’d struggled to get comfortable in the paint in the second half -- proof that Rick Majerus still has it -- so Izzo told his 6-foot-7, 230-pound forward (everything?) to run point.

“I did go up to him and I said, 'Look, I’m going to put the ball in your hands the last three minutes because we can’t get it to you down low, but you’ve got to make good decisions,'" Izzo said.

Green scored 16 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and recorded 2 steals.

But his greatest moment came after Izzo turned him into a point guard. The Billikens had cut Michigan State’s 11-point lead midway through the second half to two with 3:18 to go on Kwamain Mitchell’s layup.

Green nailed a 15-footer. Then, he blocked Cory Remekun’s shot on the other end. And on his team’s next possession, he channeled Magic Johnson.

[+] EnlargeDraymond Green
Greg Bartram/US PresswireDraymond Green's move to the point down the stretch helped Michigan State hold off Saint Louis.
He drove toward the rim in traffic. And as a national-player-of-the-year candidate and the best player on the floor, he had every right to take that shot.

But Green is a star who doesn’t care about that status. He had a greater goal in mind.

Instead, he moved toward the bucket, drew Billikens and found Keith Appling wide open in the corner.

Appling connected on the 3-pointer and put the Spartans ahead 58-51 with 1:37 remaining on the game clock, one of his six assists on Sunday.

Prior to that play, Green had encouraged Appling to get loose.

“We got in the huddle in one of our timeouts, Draymond instilled some confidence in me, told me I was a 41 percent 3-point shooter last year, so shoot the ball,” Appling said.

Green was actually the first option on that critical sequence, but deferred to his teammate.

“All night, I was begging him to shoot, too,” he said.

Late free throws sealed Michigan State’s trip to the Sweet 16, where it will face Louisville in Phoenix. But Green’s continued emphasis on unity ensured that this program would not unravel in the clutch moments it navigated against Saint Louis.

On Twitter, some commented that Green’s decision to wipe up the floor late in the game was an example of the senior “trying too hard” to show off his leadership and selflessness.

An entire locker room of young men who call him a brother would disagree.

Travis Trice said he admires Green because he invites the team’s freshmen over to his house in East Lansing, Mich. It’s not a random occurrence but a consistent effort by Green to include everyone in the program.

One staffer said Green just “gets it.” He shows up early for meetings. He treats the trainers -- not just his teammates and coaches -- with respect.

Derrick Nix said Green's dish to Appling showcased that humility. His teammate makes those plays often, Nix said, because he’s interested in the success of the entire program, not his own numbers.

“Draymond’s one of those pass-first guys. Little do a lot of people know, he’s going to pass it before he takes a shot because he’s so unselfish when he should be selfish at times,” Nix said.

The same man who’s helped the Spartans connect on and off the floor with his personality is the same person who will jump on a player if he’s out of order.

“Barking,” players called it during the NCAA tournament.

At halftime Sunday, players argued over the effort level in the first half. Green was vocal during the exchange.

“He is our head on this team, him and Keith," Nix said. "If it’s something going on, they’re going to know about it and address it."

Players accept Green’s praise and criticism because they respect him.

It’s easy to see why.

As much as he oozes confidence, Green admitted that he’s prone to mistakes. He’s not the perfect player/kid/friend/son/teammate he appears to be.

He said the pressures of garnishing attention for earning Big Ten player-of-the-year honors and being mentioned as a candidate for national honors were tough to handle.

“I still have times where I struggle and I go in to Coach behind closed doors and talk to him," Green said. "Nobody may know about it. My teammates may not know about it."

It’s that genuine persona and vulnerability that have anchored Michigan State’s undeniable chemistry.

Yes, Green is one of the best players in America. But according to those around him, his leadership is equally significant for the program and its potential to reach New Orleans.

“If he wanted to he could go off and say, 'Screw you guys, I’m going to get my numbers. I’m going to do what I can to get my numbers,'” Thornton said. “He sacrifices to make the team better.”


COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Instant analysis of Michigan State's 65-61 win over Saint Louis.

Overview: This matchup featured two of the top coaches in the game.

Rick Majerus and Tom Izzo were at their best Sunday, when the Spartans earned a victory over the Billikens at Nationwide Arena.

In the first half, the Spartans capitalized off their size advantage and earned a 12-4 edge in the paint. They shot 48 percent from the field before halftime. Saint Louis struggled (23.8 percent from the field in the first half, 2-for-11 from beyond the arc).

But the Spartans squandered possessions with nine first-half turnovers. They had a 26-21 lead at halftime.

Then they started rolling in the second half.

A Keith Appling layup gave the Spartans a 45-34 lead with 11:42 to play.

Game over, right? Wrong.

Majerus’ squad never quit.

A 12-4 run closed the gap. Jordair Jett hit a pair of free throws with 5:34 to go cut Michigan State’s lead to three points (49-46). Suddenly, the atmosphere at Nationwide Arena changed dramatically as Billikens fans started believing again.

A Kwamain Mitchell layup with 3:18 to play resulted in a 53-51 deficit for Saint Louis.

But the Spartans never lost their composure.

Draymond Green hit a jump shot and then blocked Cory Remekun’s layup on the other end. Appling drained a 3-pointer off a Green assist. Austin Thornton hit a pair of free throws and just like that, the Spartans had a seven-point advantage with 1:15 to play.

Saint Louis never stopped fighting. A 3-pointer with 8 seconds to go left the Billkens with a 64-61 deficit to overcome. But Thornton hit 1 of 2 free throws and Mitchell missed a 3-pointer with 1.6 seconds to go.

Turning point: That 12-4 run in the second half changed the game. Saint Louis had a legitimate chance to pull off the upset, but the Billikens shouldn’t be disappointed. They lost to a team that’s looked as good as every team in the field thus far, other than Kentucky.

Key player: Take a guess. Starts with Draymond. Rhymes with “mean.” Yes, Green did it again. The All-America forward had 16 points, 13 rebounds and 6 assists. Appling scored a game-high 19 points.

Key stat: Saint Louis shot 35.3 percent from the field. The Spartans committed two turnovers after halftime.

Miscellaneous: In the second half, Green played point guard in stretches. He even wiped up a wet spot on the floor. Why can’t he play in the NBA? … Majerus did some amazing things with this Saint Louis team this year. One of the best in the business.

What’s next: Michigan State will face Louisville, a 4-seed, in the Sweet 16 in Phoenix.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Taking a look at Sunday's games in Columbus.

No. 11 NC State (23-12) vs. No. 3 Georgetown (24-8), 12:15 p.m. ET

NC State is an 11-seed and Georgetown is a 3-seed. But Sunday’s matchup at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, doesn’t feel like a 3/11 game.

The Wolfpack have the length and athleticism to challenge a Georgetown team that enjoys the same tools and uses them to its advantage, too.

C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell just attacked and attacked against undersized San Diego State as NC State scored the “upset” against the Aztecs on Friday. Lorenzo Brown shot well from outside with SDSU’s bigs trying to close up the lane.

The Wolfpack were dominant. But they also had a clear size advantage in that matchup.

That won’t be the case against Georgetown, a team that utilizes 6-foot-10 Henry Sims and 6-8 Otto Porter in the frontcourt. The Hoyas have the top 3-point defense in America. Jason Clark is a versatile guard who carved up Belmont.

Georgetown showcased its versatility in its win over Belmont. The Hoyas went to a zone that frustrated one of the top 3-point shooting teams in America.

They can throw multiple defensive looks at the Wolfpack. They can go man-to-man because they have the size, or they can revert to that tough zone.

Georgetown beat NC State 82-67 last season, when the Hoyas separated from a young Wolfpack team with a 15-0 run in the second half. The Wolfpack made just 23.5 percent of their 3-point attempts in that game.

This season, the Wolfpack are ranked 82nd in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo ratings. Georgetown is 299th. NC State’s players said Georgetown’s ability to control the speed of the game affected the outcome last year.

“I know the one thing I can remember, it was very frustrating playing them, because they’re the type of team who doesn’t want to score 80 or 90 points,” Howell said. “They don’t want to get up and down the floor. They just want to play a very slow, a very slow-paced game. That’s something we don’t want to do. We want to get up and down.”

The Hoyas resent the notion that they can’t run, but they also recognize the role that tempo could play in Sunday’s game.

“They have pretty much the same players on the team. They’re a very athletic team,” Clark said. “They like to get out and score in transition. They’re a very good team.”

No. 9 Saint Louis (26-7) vs. No. 1 Michigan State (28-7), 30 minutes after Game 1

You don’t need the actual scouting reports to know Saint Louis’ game plan against Michigan State. The Billikens, ranked 304th in Pomeroy’s tempo ratings, want to make the Spartans play slower than their norm.

But it’s more complicated than that, which is why the matchup between the two guys on the sidelines takes precedence.

This is Saint Louis vs. Michigan State, but it’s also Rick Majerus vs. Tom Izzo.

Majerus has amassed a 517-215 record and made 12 NCAA tourney appearances. He led Utah to the NCAA title game in 1998, the highlight of a head-coaching career that started at Marquette during the 1983-84 season.

Izzo was a longtime assistant under Jud Heathcote before taking over the program during the 1995-96 campaign. He has a 384-161 record. He won the national title in 2000 and he’s reached the Final Four six times.

This is a matchup of two of the top coaches in the game. Both Izzo and Majerus showcased their acumen during round of 64 victories in Columbus.

The Spartans didn’t impose their will in the first half against LIU-Brooklyn the way they could have and led by just five points at the break.

Izzo said he was disappointed the Spartans didn’t take great shots early in that game. He scolded his squad for not sticking to the game plan and attacking inside. The Spartans responded with an impressive effort after halftime.

Izzo has molded this program into one of the most focused and connected teams in the country, one that’s capable of reaching New Orleans.

But Majerus is a master game-planner, too.

By Saturday afternoon, less than 24 hours after his team’s win over Memphis in the second round, Majerus seemed capable of writing a thesis about Green and his teammates.

“I can beat Rick. I can get him up and down the court for sure,” Izzo joked. “The job he does with his team, his teams are always tough, well-disciplined. They don’t make a lot of mistakes. They don’t beat themselves. They’re very solid and fundamental. And the post players are as fundamental as anybody in the country.”

Memphis, the Billikens' first-round opponent on Friday, was supposed to have the same advantages in size and athleticism that Michigan State appears to have entering Sunday’s game. That didn’t matter when Saint Louis and Memphis took the floor, though. Saint Louis slowed the game down and didn’t panic when the Tigers took an eight-point lead midway through the second half.

Kwamain Mitchell hit big shots. Brian Conklin proved that a 6-6, 235-pound forward can hold his own in the paint against a more athletic, longer opponent.

But Michigan State has beef in the post that Memphis lacked. Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne have stepped up in the postseason.

Majerus, however, faced similar circumstances Friday and came out on top.

The former Utah coach’s experience will play a role in Sunday’s matchup. He’s one of the best in the business at breaking down opponents and finding their weaknesses.

He’ll try to do it again against a coach that he respects.

“I respect Izzo because he’s a self-made coach. He was with Heathcote all those years. He’s demanding. He’s fair,” Majerus said. “His players really like him. And he loves the game. He’s a guy that you could get together with and talk ball.”

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Instant analysis from St. Louis' 61-54 win over Memphis.

Overview: St. Louis dictated the pace of the game early, something the Billikens said they had to do prior to Friday’s game. Memphis loves to run. The Tigers are one of the best transition teams in the nation. And the Billikens were clear that they had to force the Tigers to play half-court basketball.

At halftime, St. Louis and Memphis were tied, 23-23. By then, the tempo favored the Billikens in their matchup against a Tigers team that had scored only 60 points or fewer two times this season.

But the Tigers, who shot 1-for-8 from the 3-point line in the first half, launched an 11-2 run that put them ahead 37-29 with 11:54 to play. The Billikens’ offense had stalled and then, Kwamain Mitchell arrived. The junior scored 22 points and led St. Louis to a win in its first NCAA tourney appearance since 2000.

Turning point: The Billikens were down by eight points midway through the second half. But St. Louis responded to Memphis’ run with a 16-5 rally of its own that turned the game.

Key player: Mitchell was hot, especially in the second half. He scored 22 points on 9-for-14 shooting. He was 6-for-9 after halftime. Brian Conklin added 16 points.

Key stat: Memphis went 2-for-15 from beyond the arc.

Miscellaneous: Memphis initially adjusted well to the slower tempo. But a late eight-minute stretch in which the Tigers recorded two field goals turned the game and showcased St. Louis’ defensive pressure. … Will Barton was the only Memphis player who recorded double figures. He scored 16 points.

What’s next: St. Louis will face top seed Michigan State on Sunday.

76 preview: Saint Louis vs. Oklahoma

November, 27, 2011
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Breaking down the 76 Classic final:

Saint Louis was supposed to be a contender for the 76 Classic final.

Oklahoma was not. But New Mexico never got out of the first round against Santa Clara to even face the Sooners.

The Billikens were projected to be an Atlantic 10 title contender. Oklahoma wasn’t supposed to be close to being in contention in the Big 12.

Maybe the Sooners will now.

The 76 Classic didn’t have a stellar field, but the winner of Sunday night’s final between Saint Louis and Oklahoma at the Anaheim Convention Center will have significant momentum going forward.

SLU already made its mark on this young season with a huge home win against Washington. Dispatching a rebuilding Villanova -- which is sure to be in the mix somewhere in the Big East -- elevates the SLU resume, too.

Oklahoma took down a subpar Washington State and a middling Santa Clara out of the WCC.

Saint Louis should win. The Billikens should be a Top 25 team.

But if Lon Kruger’s Oklahoma team continues this upward trajectory, there is plenty of room for the Sooners to make a move in the Big 12. Missouri is the class of the league so far this season, with Baylor and Kansas chasing the Tigers. Texas A&M will be in the mix as well. Texas is young. Oklahoma State hasn’t found itself yet. And it’s hard to tell what to make of Kansas State or Iowa State just yet. Oklahoma has room to grow and can make a play for a top-five finish.

Oklahoma is playing much better defense than it did a year ago. The Sooners have an emerging star in junior Steven Pledger, who is averaging 20 points a game and will be a chore to shut down for the Billikens. Juniors Romero Osby (11.5 ppg, 9 rpg) and Andrew Fitzgerald (9.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg) have excelled early in the season.

But the Sooners haven’t faced a defense like Saint Louis'. The Billikens, as is the norm with a Rick Majerus-coached team, have been stingy. Opponents are averaging just 52.4 points a game against the Billkens. SLU scored 24 points off 12 Villanova turnovers and forced Boston College to turn the ball over 20 times Thursday. Washington, which likes to run, scored 23 points fewer than its average. And in the season opener, Tennessee State scored a meager 37 points against SLU.

The diversity of scorers in Jordair Jett (how can you not like that name?), Cody Ellis, Brian Conklin and Kwamain Mitchell give SLU a different look. The Billikens made 14 3-pointers in their win against Villanova.

Kruger has made his mark in Norman in a short amount of time. He’s an experienced coach who has excelled no matter where he has coached. He won the 76 Classic a year ago while at UNLV. Majerus was a few minutes away from a national championship at Utah in 1998. He has gone through quite a personal trial with his health and in rebuilding this once-proud program.

Beat Oklahoma, win the 76 Classic and the Billikens will be ranked. But that’s not all. SLU will be even more of a threat to challenge Xavier and Temple for the A-10 title and make the NCAA tournament.

It is only November. But the impression SLU is leaving in California is one that can’t be ignored. And for the Big 12, Oklahoma’s awakening is also a reason to pay attention to the Sooners when there was no reason to consider them a factor a month ago.

Saint Louis dodges bullet on serious injury

August, 29, 2011
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Saint Louis guard Kwamain Mitchell's 2010-11 season was a lost one. Legal issues landed him in hot water with the school, and after being readmitted and serving a suspension, it became so late in the year that he simply redshirted. The Billikens went on to win only 12 games without their leading scorer.

So it was with a sigh of relief that the back injury Mitchell suffered on Friday did not appear to be a serious one after he fell backward into metal bleachers. He spent Friday night in a hospital in Ottawa and the exhibition game against Carleton University was called off with 3:13 left. Doctors found no structural or bone damage on Mitchell, who was scheduled to fly back from the preseason tour of Canada with the team on Sunday.

Mitchell, who as a sophomore led the Billikens by averaging 15.9 points, figures to be an important part of a team that hopes to improve on its tied-for-10th finish in the A-10.

Saint Louis will have a chance to make some noise in the 76 Classic, going up against Boston College in the first round. The Billikens will also play at New Mexico to start a home-and-home series, giving coach Rick Majerus an opportunity to go back to The Pit.

Majerus also had his own health issue before the trip when he underwent a heart procedure, but seemed to be having a good time in Canada.

"I love Canadians," he told Western Ontario's team website. "They're so friendly. Since I've been here, I've always been asked 'what can we do for you? Can I get you anything?' That's why I always love coming to Canada."

Aside from the injury, Mitchell enjoyed himself, along with the rest of the team as can been seen after he was handed a flip cam to document the trip.

Final: Rhode Island 63, Saint Louis 47

March, 12, 2010
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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Some final thoughts as No. 5 Rhode Island beat No. 4 Saint Louis in quarterfinal play in the A-10 tourney here at Boardwalk Hall. Up next for the Rams (23-8) is a semifinal matchup on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET against top seed Temple (27-5).

    [+] EnlargeLamonte Ulmer
    AP Photo/Rich SchultzLamonte Ulmer added 12 of his 16 points in the second half.
  • URI was led by forward Lamonte Ulmer who finished with 16 points (6 of 9 FG) and 5 rebounds after only having 4 points and 1 rebound in the first 20 minutes. The Rams also had two other players in double figures as Akeem Richmond, who was a first-half spark, had 13 points and Orion Outerbridge had 10 points to go along with 5 rebounds.
  • The Rams were dominant on the glass, owning a 38-26 advantage. More impressive was the 17 offensive rebounds by URI, which almost equaled SLU’s 19 defensive boards.
  • Once Rhode Island got out to a double-digit lead it was too much for Saint Louis to recover from. The Billikens were challenged on the offensive end all afternoon. Kwamain Mitchell led SLU with 18 points on 7-of-11 shooting. The rest of the team was 12-of-32 from the floor.
  • Jim Baron’s club can play with Temple. Yes, the Rams went 0-2 against the Owls this season but one of the games was a four-point loss in overtime. And URI has some similarities to Temple in that it is long and has some versatility in how it chooses to play.
  • Saint Louis finishes the regular season at 20-11. And Rick Majerus’ team of 11 underclassmen head back to Missouri and wait to find out if their season continues in the NIT. If it does expect the Billikens to spend time in practice working on protecting the basketball. SLU finished with more turnovers (13) than assists (10). Ouch.

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