College Basketball Nation: Larry Drew II

Editor's Note: Over two days, we're releasing the brackets/matchups for 11 of the top early-season events. Starting Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET, we'll unveil the final six: Charleston, 2K Sports, Diamond Head, CBE, Wooden and Maui. A thread of previews and info for all 11 tourneys can be found here.

When and where: Nov. 28-29, Orleans Arena

Schedule for the Las Vegas Invitational:

Nov. 28: UCLA vs. Nevada (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3); Missouri vs. Northwestern (10:30, ESPNU)
Nov. 29: Missouri vs. Nevada (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3); UCLA vs. Northwestern (11:30, ESPN2)

Initial thoughts: This is the only "tournament" on our docket that's not really a tournament -- hence the name invitational.

The problem is UCLA and Missouri are already scheduled to play this season in Columbia, Mo., so once the two teams were slated to play in this event, they couldn't be put together in a four-team event. That's why the matchups are set.

The bigger question is which team will come out of the event 2-0, or will both Missouri and UCLA sweep through the two games against Nevada and Northwestern to build up some momentum going into their game and into the rest of the nonconference slate?

Each of the four "primary" teams has major questions.

[+] EnlargeKyle Anderson and Larry Drew II
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsCan Kyle Anderson, right, fill the big shoes at point guard left behind by Larry Drew II?
UCLA has a new coach in Steve Alford. Jordan Adams is back from a foot injury. Kyle Anderson may have to play more point in absence of Larry Drew II.

Missouri needs to settle on a replacement for Phil Pressey at the point. The Tigers actually have fewer transfers this season and are looking to re-establish themselves as SEC challengers.

Nevada must find a way to be relevant in the Mountain West Conference. Last season was a major disappointment. The Wolf Pack never should have been the league doormat. Playing neutral-court games against UCLA and Missouri are golden opportunities for the Pack.

Northwestern is being led by first-time coach Chris Collins. The former Duke associate head coach has been looking at this gig for quite some time. The Wildcats were successful under Bill Carmody but could never quite win the right games late in the season. Collins' goal is to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history. It might not happen in Year 1, but getting off to a great start would help.

Matchup I can't wait to see: I am interested to see how Collins' crew handles the stage against UCLA on Nov. 29. Regardless of who is coaching the Bruins, the brand matters. Northwestern will be looking to make its mark early in the season by knocking off one of the best in the Pac-12, and a win over UCLA would do wonders for Collins. The top teams in the Big Ten will be more talented, but the Wildcats might be sneaky good.

Potential matchup I'd like to see: Well, we'll get the Missouri-UCLA matchup on Dec. 7 at Mizzou Arena. So that one is covered.

Five players to watch:

Jordan Adams, UCLA: Adams was arguably the Bruins' top player (yes, even over Shabazz Muhammad) at the end of the season. He scored 24 points in a Pac-12 tournament semifinal win over Arizona, but broke his foot in that game and was unable to play against Oregon in the title game or against Minnesota in the NCAA tournament. If Adams is healthy, the Bruins can begin the season with one of the top talents out West.

Kyle Anderson, UCLA: Anderson is a versatile player but hasn't found his natural spot. The Bruins considered putting him at the point but they already had Drew. Now, Alford has to decide if Anderson can play the position or go with a collection of other players, including his son, Bryce.

Jabari Brown, Missouri: The one-time Oregon player was a solid contributor last season for the Tigers with 13 points a game. But with such high turnover on the roster, especially on the perimeter, Brown will become even more of a focal point. Brown hasn't had to be the go-to player in his brief career; he has done an admirable job as a complementary player. Now he must take on more of a leadership role. How he handles that could determine the Tigers' fate.

Drew Crawford, Northwestern: Collins got a gift when Crawford decided to finish his career with the Wildcats and play for the first-year coach. Crawford only played in 10 games last season due to a torn right labrum. Had he played for Carmody, the Wildcats could have been in position to make a real run at the NCAA tournament. Crawford gives Collins an experienced Big Ten guard to jump-start his career as a head coach.

Deonte Burton, Nevada: Burton has been a consistent scorer for the Wolf Pack, but he hasn't had enough help recently. He may not get more next season. Burton has the chance to make a name for himself nationally by producing significant numbers against UCLA and Missouri. If he is going to be a key player in the Mountain West, then he has to do it on a regular basis before conference play begins.

Prediction: There's no title game in this one, but my prediction is that UCLA and Missouri will get out of Las Vegas 2-0. That's what they need to do for some momentum heading into the heart of the nonconference schedule. But Northwestern may be able to upset the projected headliners. Don't sleep on the Wildcats.

LAS VEGAS -- Tears trickled down Larry Drew II's cheeks as he walked through the long corridor leading to UCLA’s locker room Friday. Eventually the Bruins point guard pulled his jersey over his face, shouted a profanity and began to sob.

Trailing a few steps behind, guard Kyle Anderson clasped his hands on top of his head and dropped his jaw. “Oh my god!” he said. “Oh my god!”

Less than a half hour earlier, UCLA had advanced to the title game of the Pac-12 tournament with a 66-64 semifinal victory over rival Arizona. But shortly after leaving MGM Grand Garden Arena court pumping their fists in celebration and waving to the crowd, the Bruins were hit with some sobering news.

[+] EnlargeJordan Adams
Kyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsJordan Adams broke his foot on the last play of the game and will miss the rest of the season.
An X-ray revealed that freshman Jordan Adams, the team’s second-leading scorer, had broken a bone in his right foot on the final play of the game. He will miss the remainder of the season.

UCLA coach Ben Howland received the news from Bruins trainer Laef Morris as he exited a postgame news conference that was also attended by Drew II and Anderson. The players overheard the conversation and immediately became emotional.

Drew swore loudly before reaching the locker room, where Howland informed the rest of the team about Adams’ injury.

Adams, who scored a game-high 24 points, was among the players trying to defend a potential game-tying shot by Wildcats forward Solomon Hill as time expired.

A 6-foot-5 freshman guard, Adams didn’t seem seriously injured as the final buzzer sounded. He hobbled through the handshake line and then retreated to the locker room for X-rays. Soon after, it was revealed that Adams had broken the fifth metatarsal in his right foot. Adams, who left the arena on crutches, suffered a similar injury in high school.

“It doesn’t get worse than this,” forward Travis Wear said.

Adams, who averages 15.3 points, proved how much he means to the Bruins on Friday. In what was arguably his finest performance as a collegian, Adams helped his team rally from an 11-point second-half deficit. The victory marked UCLA’s third triumph this season over the Wildcats.

“We didn’t even celebrate the win,” freshman Shabazz Muhammad said. “It’s just doesn’t seem right for someone to get hurt like that this late in the year.”

The main storyline surrounding UCLA this season has been its resiliency. Bruins fans were calling for Howland’s firing after an early loss to Cal Poly and narrow victories over Cal-Irvine and struggling Texas. Josh Smith and Tyler Lamb transferred from the program before the end of the first semester.

But the Bruins just got tougher.

Despite counting three freshmen (Adams, Anderson and Muhammad) among its top players, UCLA improved at a rapid pace and won the Pac-12 regular-season title.

“It’s been hard for us all year, with the transfers and the little nagging injuries and now this,” Drew II said. “It’s tough. But there’s something about this team. We find ways to make things happen when it seems like all is lost.”

UCLA, however, has not suffered a setback as significant as the loss of Adams this season. The freshman has at times this season played better than Anderson and Muhammad, his more highly touted classmates.

Adams scored 13 straight points during UCLA’s second-half rally Friday. The Bruins trailed 49-38 before staging their comeback. Adams was 6-of-13 from the field and 11-of-13 from the foul stripe.

This injury likely means that backup Norman Powell will slide into a starting role. Powell is already a significant part of the rotation, contributing 21.2 minutes and 5.9 points off the bench.

UCLA’s players said they’re confident Powell will step up to the challenge in Saturday’s Pac-12 tournament title game against Oregon -- and again during the NCAA tournament, which begins next week. The Bruins, 25-8, have won eight of their past 10 games.

“I just know we’ve got tough guys out there -- physically and mentally and psychologically,” Anderson said. “Norman Powell is a really tough player. It’s a terrible loss, but it’s not as bad knowing that we’ve got him coming in to fill that spot.

“It’s going to be tough to go without him, but it’s all part of handling adversity, and that’s something we’ve shown we’re pretty good at.”

3-point shot: Howland over Altman

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1. Oregon's Dana Altman got the Pac-12 coach-of-the-year award, but the honor should have gone to UCLA's Ben Howland. Howland has done his best coaching job since he has been at UCLA -- and that includes the three consecutive Final Four runs. Consider this: UCLA won the Pac-12 outright despite losing two rotation players, had to deal with eligibility and injury issues with Shabazz Muhammad and pieced together a team that had a mix of transfers and freshmen to win the conference. Howland was able to get Larry Drew II to play to his potential in his last season in college. Howland had to alter the way he coached. And he did all of this under the pressure and scrutiny that accompanied a perception that his job was in jeopardy. The Bruins had their moments of hard-to-fathom losses like Cal Poly early and at Washington State late -- but they still found a way to win the conference and are a real threat to make a run in March.

2. The reason the new Big East might not start out with 12 schools in the fall instead of 10 is the lack of consensus among the seven schools forming the new league. The best-case scenario would be for the new Big East to start fresh with a dozen. But if there isn't agreement on the schools beyond 10, they will wait for another year. Butler and Xavier are the locks to get first invites, with a debate raging among different factions over Creighton and Dayton for No. 10. Saint Louis is the other school that could ultimately be in the group. Having a primarily basketball-driven conference isn't a new concept. It's called the Atlantic 10. Georgetown coach John Thompson III wasn't being sentimental about the end of the Big East on Thursday. He said the Big East isn't going anywhere and neither is the tournament. He's technically right.

3. Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips has to make a decision on the fate of coach Bill Carmody in the coming week. Carmody hasn't been able to get Northwestern in the NCAA tournament, but then no one has in Evanston. Carmody has had tremendously bad luck and is a well-respected coach for a reason. He has poured all his energy into trying to get the Wildcats into the NCAA tournament. Northwestern should be able to make a cameo every so often, like Stanford. The Wildcats are always going to be in a better position than most to earn quality wins due to the strength of the Big Ten, and probably just have to finish sixth to be in the chase for a bid. That will become more difficult with 14 teams, but still doable. If Northwestern were to go in another direction, I don't see how how Duke associate head coach Chris Collins, a native of the northern Chicago suburbs, doesn't get the first call. Carmody deserves a chance to state his case for what he has done to make the Wildcats competitive and what he can still achieve.

UCLA establishes new tough identity

March, 14, 2013
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LAS VEGAS -- Long before they were champions of the Pac-12, the UCLA Bruins were dogs. Or at least that was one popular description.

Soft.

Spoiled.

Bums.

Busts.

Prima donnas.

Ben Howland figures his players heard it all in November and December, when a loss to Cal Poly and ugly wins over UC Irvine and Texas prompted fans and pundits to all but give up on the Bruins and their roster of future NBA draft picks. And their coach.

Three months later, look at UCLA now.

One week away from the NCAA tournament, Howland’s team has a new identity, and it’s a far cry from the one that hovered over UCLA’s program earlier this season. There’s a confidence in the locker room, a swagger on the court, a pride in the huddle. The Bruins have always been skilled.

[+] EnlargeBen Howland
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesBen Howland has led a resurgence in Westwood after a rough start to the season.
But now they’re defined by toughness, too.

Just ask Arizona State, which built a 15-point lead in the second half of Thursday’s Pac-12 tournament quarterfinal with UCLA, only to watch the Bruins storm back for an 80-75 victory. The win was the sixth in the past seven games for UCLA, which had five players score in double figures. The Bruins outrebounded Arizona State 36-28.

“We have to play physical to win,” Howland said, “and we did that today.”

So revved up were the Bruins that a few of them (Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson) even got into a little tussle with Arizona State’s Carrick Felix in the game’s closing seconds. Howland certainly won’t approve of any on-court altercations, but he had to have liked the fire.

Howland, who led UCLA to three Final Fours in his first nine seasons in Westwood, said he isn’t surprised by his team’s new-found toughness.

“I never worried about it,” Howland said. “Everybody’s got it that’s in our program. It was our job to bring it out of them.”

It seems almost amusing now that Howland had been rumored to be on the hot seat during a season in which his team won the outright Pac-12 title. UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero can’t fire Howland now.

Heck, he ought to give him an extension.

This is far from Howland’s best Bruins team. It may not even rank among his top five. Still, the job Howland has done with this bunch has been masterful considering how disjointed and lackadaisical UCLA looked in December and January. Long known as a strong defensive coach and game tactician, Howland is clearly a strong motivator, too.

“It’s all about evolving,” Howland said. “Their attitude has been tremendous. It’s always, 'What do we have to do to win, coach?' I haven’t had a better group of guys to coach in my 10 years at UCLA. It’s been absolutely fantastic. They’re coachable, they listen ... it’s been unbelievable. So fun.”

Indeed, there were certainly plenty of smiles following Thursday’s victory, which catapulted the Bruins into Friday’s semifinal against Arizona.

The Bruins grabbed 14 offensive rebounds that led to 15 second-chance points. Six of the offensive boards came from Muhammad, the future top-five draft pick who scored 16 points playing in front of hometown fans in his native Las Vegas.

“We were all just really composed,” Muhammad said. “That’s what happens when you’re composed and relaxed.”

UCLA doesn’t have a true center or a traditional big man, so rebounding is often a struggle. That’s why Howland was so pleased that his team won the battle of the boards against an Arizona State squad that features 7-foot-1 center Jordan Bachynski and standout four-man Felix, who combine to average 14.3 rebounds.

Most of Howland’s praise, however, was reserved for point guard Larry Drew II. A senior, Drew II was highly criticized when he left North Carolina -- where he was starting -- midway through the 2010-11 season and transferred to UCLA. The easy assumption was that Drew II would underachieve in Westwood just as he did in Chapel Hill.

Instead, Drew II has improved as much as any player in America. He scored 20 points on eight-of-10 shooting Thursday and also dished out four assists. Drew II leads the country in assist-to-turnover ratio.

“Larry Drew is so good,” Howland said. “He looks like he’s going to be playing at the next level.

“He’s the best passer in the history of UCLA basketball, including all of [John] Wooden’s teams. I’m talking about great players. He’s the best of all of them. That’s an incredible statement. I couldn’t be happier for the kid, as maligned as he was. He’s improved throughout the year and he’s playing his best basketball of the year.”

So, too, are the Bruins, who knew they had this in them all along. Even if no one else did.

Rapid Reaction: UCLA 74, Arizona 69

March, 2, 2013
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LOS ANGELES -- The UCLA Bruins completed a season sweep of the Arizona Wildcats -- the first for either team in the series since UCLA won both in 2008 -- with a 74-69 victory Saturday at a sold-out Pauley Pavilion. A quick look:

How it happened: Grant Jerrett made consecutive 3-point baskets that got the Wildcats (23-6, 11-6 Pac-12) to within three points at 72-69 with 1:07 to play. But Shabazz Muhammad grabbed a strong rebound with nine seconds to play, then made two free throws to seal the victory for UCLA (22-7, 12-4).

In a game of runs, UCLA had the game's longest, scoring 12 consecutive points in the second half to take a 52-38 lead. They were up 55-41 with 14:26 to play. The Wildcats then responded. They cut the lead to 59-54 before Muhammad stopped the bleeding for UCLA with a 3-pointer that gave the Bruins a 62-54 lead with 8:50 to play. The Wildcats did not get closer than six points until Jerrett's 3-pointer with 1:34 to go.

UCLA had several opportunities to take control of the game in the first half, but the Wildcats kept coming back. UCLA led 13-6, then Arizona tied it at 13-13. The game also was knotted at 29 and 34, but the Wildcats could never take the lead. The Bruins got a layup at the halftime buzzer from Larry Drew II to put UCLA up 40-36.

Muhammad finished with a game-high 18 points, Kyle Anderson had 17 points and seven rebounds and Drew II had 14 points and nine assists. Jerrett led the Wildcats with 14 points and made four of five 3-point attempts.

Player of the game: Muhammad, playing on a sprained ankle, scored UCLA's final five points and eight of their last 15. His clutch one-handed rebound with nine seconds left was something to behold.

What it means: UCLA remains in control of its own destiny in the race for the Pac-12 regular-season title. The Bruins are tied with Oregon for first place and would claim at least a share of the title with wins at Washington State and Washington next week. Saturday’s victory likely locks up an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament for the Bruins, who missed the tournament last season.

Despite the defeat, Arizona seems to be pretty safe as far as the NCAA tournament goes, but the Wildcats have been officially eliminated from the Pac-12 regular-season race and can’t be feeling good with a 3-4 record over the past seven games.

What’s next: UCLA heads to the Northwest to finish the regular season with visits to the Cougars and Huskies. The Bruins play Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in Pullman. Arizona is off until next Saturday at 2:30, when the Wildcats play the in-state rival Arizona State Sun Devils to finish the regular season.
1. Officials work at their craft. They review game tape the next day. They want to get the calls right. They understand the pressure of their job. And they're not immune to making mistakes or admitting them privately to the coordinator of officials or the coaches. Officiating basketball is a very difficult assignment and one that the officials take seriously. But having them respond to a few questions or simply issuing a statement if there is a controversial play or plays -- which will happen in conference tournaments or the NCAA tournament -- is appropriate. Having to wait for the coordinator of officials to make a statement is not. Accountability is critical in all facets of the game. Officials are independent contractors and that's not going to change. But there needs to be more uniformity in how the game is called and how it is administered. John Adams is the NCAA coordinator of officials while the conference coordinators are in charge during the regular season. Everyone knows when a player or coach is suspended. If poor officiating results in a suspension or removal from a conference tournament then that should be made public, too. I've traveled on many a plane with officials. I've seen them in airports. These are men who love their jobs and deal with exhausting travel. But if something egregious occurs then there should be consequences. They know it. The rest of the sport should, too.

2. UCLA coach Ben Howland said Travis Wear is doubtful for Wednesday's game against Arizona State, but he's hopeful that he might be able to play against Arizona on Saturday (9 p.m. ESPN, College Gameday). The Bruins beat USC without Wear (right foot injury) Sunday night. Meanwhile, Howland said he continues to be impressed by the play of freshman Jordan Adams, who is averaging 15.1 points a game. "That's not easy to do for a freshman,'' said Howland. "He's not flashy, he's not a high-flying dunker. He's a great basketball player.'' Shabazz Muhammad, who received most of the attention this season, has had one hurdle after another this season (eligibility and injuries). His most recent situation was pink eye. Howland said Muhammad couldn't wear his contacts for a week until just before the USC game. But the biggest surprise as the Bruins get set for a huge weekend of games against the Arizona schools is the play of Larry Drew II. Drew has a chance to end his one year playing at UCLA by setting the single-season record for assists at UCLA. "That's pretty strong,'' said Howland.

3. The Utah State legislature made a genuine gesture Monday in recognizing the life-saving work of Utah State athletic trainer Mike Williams in saving Danny Berger's life when he collapsed during a Utah State practice Dec. 4. Williams was given the Heartsaver Hero Award by the American Heart Association after he used an AED and performed CPR to revive Berger. Berger later had a pacemaker inserted into his chest and continues to recover. The Utah legislature also passed a bill to purchase $300,000 worth of AEDs for municipal, county or state departments, 7-12 grade schools and higher education institutions. Berger was averaging 7.6 points a game prior to collapsing. He started 25 of 31 games last season. The word hero is used too loosely. Williams was a hero on Dec. 4 and deserves all of this recognition.

Video: College basketball's best passers

January, 29, 2013
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In his Weekly Report, Jay Bilas counts down the six best passers in college basketball.

3-point shot: UCLA looking up

December, 28, 2012
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1. UCLA coach Ben Howland was in a great mood Thursday when talking with us on our ESPNU college basketball podcast. His demeanor has made a complete 180 since the Bruins looked lost and leaderless in Brooklyn last month. The Bruins have won four in a row since losing to San Diego State in Anaheim. Some of Howland's optimism stems from a commitment to defense by point guard Larry Drew II -- on top of his 8.5 assist to 1.6 turnover ratio -- as well as the conditioning improvement of Shabazz Muhammad. He also said Kyle Anderson has become the leader who he recruited. The Bruins host Missouri on Friday night at 10 p.m. (ESPN2) and win or lose you can tell Howland has a much better grasp on the potential of this team in the Pac-12. He's brimming with confidence that this team can be a factor.

2. Butler's nonconference schedule was built to enhance the Horizon League schedule this season. But then the Bulldogs bolted a year early to the A-10. Butler coach Brad Stevens didn't seem to think the Bulldogs would change the philosophy going forward when asked during our podcast Thursday. He said the players come to Butler to play in high-level games, a major exempted tournament and big-time neutral-site games. Butler could afford to dial back on one or two of the games, but I don't get the sense Butler will shrink from playing as many elite games as possible. Butler was in the Maui Invitational (Marquette, North Carolina, Illinois), played at Xavier in a nonconference game, at Northwestern, Indiana in Indianapolis, is at Vanderbilt on Saturday (8 p.m. ESPNU) and still plays host to Gonzaga in January.

3. Creighton starts the Missouri Valley Conference season this weekend by hosting Evansville, a game followed next week with a showdown at Illinois State before a home game with Indiana State. This should be a good test for the polls. Creighton will be the target in every game in the conference. If the Bluejays were to lose at their toughest competitor in Illinois State then it shouldn't be as big a hit. Teams in other conferences are judged differently when they lose a road game to another tough team in the league, even if they're unranked. Creighton is allowed to lose at Illinois State or Wichita State or Indiana State and still shouldn't be judged too harshly. Teams outside the power six are always put on a pedestal that they cannot drop a road game and that is simply an unfair standard.

Writer roundtable: Bracketology discussion

December, 11, 2012
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Joe Lunardi's first bracket of the regular season was published Tuesday, the only Bracketology until the start of its regular rotation in January. After taking a look at the selections, our six staff writers fielded some bracket-related questions.

Which of the 1-seeds in Tuesday’s bracket is least likely to be a 1 on Selection Sunday?

[+] EnlargeBilly Donovan
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsCan coach Billy Donovan and Erik Murphy get the Gators a No. 1 seed come NCAA tournament time?
Dana O’Neil: In my opinion, the team that misses out is Florida, but it’s really not the Gators’ fault. Blame the SEC. The league that annually gives us the best football product gives us a heap of "eh" come basketball season and that will diminish Florida’s 1-seed résumé. Aside from Missouri and Kentucky, there is simply not much to build a credible profile for Florida among the teams it plays twice (Georgia, Mississippi State and Arkansas are the others). Florida has an OK nonconference résumé, with blowouts of Wisconsin, Marquette and Florida State and a big game at Arizona this weekend. But that just isn’t enough to cancel out the average SEC (yes, that cancelled aircraft carrier game against Georgetown works against the Gators, too). Nor is it enough to compare to the other candidates, not while Indiana and Michigan are battling in the stacked Big Ten, and while Duke already has its hefty nonconference slate in the bag. Count on a Big East team -- Syracuse or Louisville the most likely, with Cincinnati and Georgetown lurking as potential outliers -- to steal that last top seed away from the Gators.

What first-round matchup would you pay to see?

Robbi Pickeral: Forget about the actual basketball between two blue bloods -- who could resist the soap opera storyline of No. 5 North Carolina playing No. 12 UCLA in San Jose? Not only did current Bruins point guard Larry Drew II quit the Tar Heels in the middle of the 2010-11 ACC season (leaving town, without telling his teammates, four games after he was replaced by Kendall Marshall in the starting lineup), but that came roughly eight months after twin forwards David and Travis Wear also opted to leave the program (also allowing their dad to make the call to a shocked UNC coach Roy Williams). They, too, are now at UCLA. Drama, anyone?

If you had seen Tuesday’s bracket a month ago, what would’ve surprised you the most?

Andy Katz: That UCLA and North Carolina would be in a 5-12 game. I’m not sure either team deserves to even be in the field at this juncture anyway. A month ago, I would have assumed these two teams would be much higher seeds and not opposite each other. But at this point, both of these disappointing squads need to produce NCAA-worthy résumés in conference play to earn that at-large berth, let alone be in a 5-12 game.

What team not in Joe’s current bracket has the best chance to grab an at-large bid?

Myron Medcalf: Given its history, it’s only fitting that Joe’s first bracket of the year lists Virginia Tech as the first team out. But Virginia Tech could certainly crack the field in March. The Hokies suffered their first loss of the season Saturday at West Virginia. That one-point loss exposed Tech’s defensive issues (10th in the ACC in efficiency per KenPom.com), as the Mountaineers connected on 10 3-pointers. But until that loss, the Hokies had won their first seven games, a stretch that included victories over Iowa and Oklahoma State. Erick Green (24.6 ppg) leads an offense that’s ranked 25th in offensive efficiency. That’s going to be Virginia Tech’s ticket in ACC play. Duke is clearly the best team in that league. But NC State, North Carolina, Florida State, Miami and Maryland aren’t juggernauts. There’s a lot of parity in that conference. The Hokies can finish in the middle of that mix and earn enough solid wins to impress the selection committee along the way.

What’s one team that will take a big jump in seeding come March and one that will go the other direction?

Eamonn Brennan: Notre Dame is already fairly well-positioned at No. 6, but if you see the Irish as a Big East title contender -- and I do -- I find it hard to believe they could get through that kind of conference season and not earn a top-4 seed, and probably higher. (We can also assume that win over Kentucky will look better and better as the season goes along.) The same goes for Pittsburgh. The Panthers' nonconference schedule hasn't been good, but it is typically RPI-friendly, and when Pitt begins to rack up conference wins befitting its talent level and per-possession performance to date, the Panthers will coast past their current No. 8 placement.

Much as I'm willing to give a team with Marcus Paige and James Michael McAdoo the benefit of the doubt, if North Carolina's season turns south in January and February, a No. 5 seed will seem optimistic. And I wonder if No. 7 Colorado won't be able to help being dragged down by a mediocre Pac-12, much like an A-10 favorite could be dragged down by the occasional home loss to George Washington.

We’ll leave the toughest for last. From this bracket, who is your Final Four if the tourney started tomorrow?

Jason King: I'll go with Louisville, Kansas, Duke and Florida. Beating an Indiana squad currently ranked No. 1 in the AP poll would be a monumental feat, but Louisville is one of the few teams that can pull it off because of its defense. Kansas touts the country's top defensive presence in center Jeff Withey, one of the top freshmen in Ben McLemore and arguably the top coach in Bill Self. An Elite Eight game against Michigan would be an interesting matchup. Duke has already defeated Ohio State, Kentucky, Louisville, Minnesota, VCU and Temple. There's no reason to think the Blue Devils won't continue to roll. Florida has been crushing teams. The Gators have played in the Elite Eight the past two seasons. This is the season they break through.

Numbers To Know: Wednesday recap

November, 29, 2012
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Player of the Night – Mason Plumlee
Plumlee scored 21 points and tied a career-high with 17 rebounds as the Duke Blue Devils came back to defeat the Ohio State Buckeyes, 73-68. It’s his second 20-17 game of the season. Over the last 15 years, the only other major conference players with multiple 20-17 efforts before the end of November were Michael Beasley and Blake Griffin.

Over the past four seasons, the only other player with a 20-17 game against a top-five opponent was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist last season against Louisville. The last Duke player with a 20-17 game against a ranked opponent was Shelden Williams in 2004.

Scorer of the Night – Derrick Marks
Marks poured in a career-high 35 points, including 28 in the second half, as the Boise State Broncos upset the Creighton Bluejays, 83-70. During one stretch, he scored 18 straight points for the Broncos.

Creighton had won 42 straight home games in November, a streak that dated back to 1989. This was Boise State’s first road win over a ranked non-conference foe in school history.

Distributor of the Night – Larry Drew II
The UCLA Bruins needed some good news after a pair of transfers and an upset loss to Cal Poly. Drew helped deliver with 13 assists in an 82-56 win against the Cal State Northridge Matadors.

It’s the most assists in a game by a Bruin since Darren Collison had 15 in 2007. Drew fell three assists shy of Earl Watson’s school record set in 2000.

Stat Sheet Stuffer – Jamelle Hagins
The Delaware Fightin Blue Hens fell short of the Lafayette Leopards, 63-60, but Hagins finished with an eye-popping 18 points, 23 rebounds and five blocks. Over the past 15 seasons, only four other players have reached all three of those totals in a game: Cincinnati’s Kenyon Martin (1999), New Mexico State’s Chris Jackson (2003), Louisiana Tech’s Paul Millsap (2006) and Rider’s Jason Thompson (2008).

Freshman of the Night – Olivier Hanlan
Wednesday’s best performance by a freshman was probably Rasheed Sulaimon’s 17 points for Duke. But Hanlan had a more interesting game.

Hanlan went 15-19 from the line on his way to 22 points, as the Boston College Eagles beat the Penn State Nittany Lions, 73-61. That’s the most free throws for an ACC freshman in at least the past 15 years. The second-youngest power conference team, BC’s top six scorers are freshmen or sophomores.

Five questions: UCLA's Larry Drew II

September, 13, 2012
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Editor's Note: In the buildup to Midnight Madness, we are taking an in-depth look at ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi's top five seeds in a series called Countdown To Madness. In addition to the Insider pieces, Eamonn Brennan will offer Three Big Things about each team, and we'll have Five Questions with a player or coach from each squad.

The last time UCLA senior Larry Drew II played in a regular-season game was Feb. 1, 2011. He recorded nine assists at Boston College. He played 19 minutes off the bench. And he was wearing a North Carolina uniform.

[+] EnlargeLarry Drew
Icon SMIUCLA coach Ben Howland said North Carolina transfer Larry Drew II was the Bruins' "most indispensable player.''
Two days later, the demoted starter suddenly left Chapel Hill, N.C., and his father called UNC coach Roy Williams to tell him Drew was transferring. The player returned home to the West Coast, said he didn’t pick up a basketball for at least two months and opted to transfer to UCLA. This season he aims to prove he can lead, make plays and push his talent-stacked new team to NCAA tournament success.

We recently caught up with Drew, who sat out last season per NCAA transfer rules and is both thrilled and anxious to begin his final college basketball season with his new team:

Coach Ben Howland recently told ESPN’s Andy Katz that you will be the starter at point guard this season. Does it feel like you are getting a second chance?

Larry Drew: Definitely, this is my second chance. For a couple of months, I even had my Twitter name as “2ndChance,” because I’m also the second, Larry Drew II. … But it’s definitely a huge blessing, and I’m just thankful for the opportunity to get back to playing the game I love.

How are you a different player than the last time people saw you in a game? What can people expect?

LD: I’m still a playmaker. I’m still all about getting my teammates involved. Obviously this year, with the players we have, we have a lot of offensive firepower, so I think that’s definitely going to work itself out over the course of the season. So I’ve just been constantly working on everything: getting stronger, my jump shot, everything. One thing that’s just different for me, and what people have been telling me: I look like I’m out there having fun again when I play.

You surprised a lot of people when you left Chapel Hill in the middle of the 2010-11 season. What happened?

LD: I’m sure it shocked a lot of people. But what I will say: It wasn’t a [split-second] decision. I had been unhappy for some time. There was a series of things … and finally, I just got fed up. I just decided to take matters into my own hands. … And I’d just like to take responsibility for everything.

But now I’m here, I’m back in L.A., in my home city, and I’ve got a second chance. Some people might say I’m selfish, I’m this or that or whatever. But I had to do what’s best for me in the long run. And I think it played itself out perfect.

Has it been a distraction to the team, not knowing the status of freshmen Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson (who are awaiting amateurism certification from the NCAA)?

LD: There hasn’t been much of a discussion. We’ve just been going with the mindset to do whatever is necessary. [Muhammad] couldn’t go on the China [exhibition] trip, unfortunately, but we still talk to him on a regular basis so that he knows he’s part of the team even though we were without him in China. It’s all about just trying to stay focused on the task at hand, and that’s winning.

What are your goals for your final college season?

LD: To win it -- to win it all. It would be quite an achievement to win two national championships with two different schools. [Editor's note: Drew was a freshman on UNC’s ’09 NCAA title team.] I’m all about trying to make history.

3-point shot: Drew II will start for UCLA

September, 12, 2012
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1. UCLA coach Ben Howland said that North Carolina transfer Larry Drew II will start at the point. “That’s going to happen,’’ said Howland. “He’s our most indispensable player.’’ Drew is getting a second chance at his college career after he was removed from the Tar Heels' starting lineup two years ago in favor of Kendall Marshall. Drew subsequently left the team in the middle of the ACC season. But he has won over the UCLA coaching staff and offered needed experience on the recent trip to China. The current eligibility issues surrounding Kyle Anderson make Drew’s role even more important. Anderson is considered an offensive possibility at the point, but is lacking on the defensive end.

2. Marquette sophomore Todd Mayo said the player who might have improved the most over the summer for the Golden Eagles is Vander Blue. “His jump shot,’’ said Mayo of what aspect of the junior guard's game has changed for the better. Meanwhile, Mayo shrugged off the firing of Marquette assistant Scott Monarch for an NCAA violation. “The team handled it pretty well,’’ said Mayo. “We’ve lost five coaches and Monarch is the last to go. We just looked at it as a business and there are consequences so we just keep moving forward.’’

3. Arkansas coach Mike Anderson is incredibly positive about the upcoming season. Anderson said last Friday that the summer tour the Hogs went on was a huge success. He also promised that the Hogs are ready to embark on playing his fastest 40 minutes of basketball, a knockoff of the 40 minutes of hell made famous by Anderson's mentor, Nolan Richardson. The SEC needs Arkansas to be a program of record again. If Anderson's good feelings are indeed borne out, it will give the league the depth that it so sorely requires, especially with the addition of two more teams this season.
1. Ben Howland took Larry Drew II into his office Monday to continue coaching his mind as much as his playmaking skills. He needs both from Drew for UCLA to be a Pac-12 champ in the upcoming season. The North Carolina transfer has one season to play for the Bruins but he is the only true playmaker for UCLA. “He has the quickness and speed that we haven’t seen since Darren Collison,’’ said Howland. “He’s a very good decision maker. He’s gotten much stronger and improved his body. We have high expectations for him.’’ The only other option for UCLA at the point isn’t really a true point in 6-foot-7 Kyle Anderson. Howland said Anderson isn’t cleared yet for contact after offseason thumb surgery while fellow freshman Shabazz Muhammad isn’t working out with the team yet either. Muhammad is recovering from a sprained ankle from earlier in the month. Howland said the Bruins will start practicing for an August trip to China on July 31, Aug. 1-4 and then Aug. 14-21 with one day off on Aug. 18. The Bruins won’t be practicing in the renovated Pauley Pavilion until October.

2. Valparaiso coach Bryce Drew is doing everything he can to put together a possible at-large schedule if the Crusaders don’t win the Horizon League automatic berth. Drew capped his schedule with a road game at Atlantic 10 favorite Saint Louis. Drew had already said the Crusaders will play at Murray State (OVC favorite) and New Mexico (MWC contender) in addition to possibly challenging games against Nebraska, Kent State, Oakland and Missouri State.

3. Former URI and current Canisius coach Jim Baron said that the Rams hadn’t settled up on his final two years that he was owed after being fired in March. URI responded Monday: “The University of Rhode Island Athletics Department continues to honor its financial obligation to former URI head men's basketball coach Jim Baron, since he was released from the final two years of his contract on March 4, 2012,” said URI spokeswoman Linda Acciardo. “University officials have had ongoing discussions with Coach Baron's attorney to negotiate a final resolution. Although we are disappointed that this remains unresolved, we will continue to work with Jim Baron's representatives to negotiate a fair resolution.’’ URI said Baron has received a total of $126,708.09 in regular salary payments since he was fired. Baron earned $350,000 a year in his final URI deal.
North Carolina’s basketball program scored a 963 in the latest APR rankings, released Wednesday. Ranked sixth in the ACC, the number exceeded the national men's basketball average of 950, but it was the lowest score for Tar Heels basketball in the seven years of the of the multi-season number.

The APR measures the classroom performance of every Division I team, and a score below 925 can lead to sanctions, including scholarship reductions and eventually postseason bans. This year's data calculated the rates from 2007-08 through 2010-11, and UNC coach Roy Williams said last week that the lower-than-usual score stemmed from the high number the transfers late in that time period.

After 2009-10, twin forwards David and Travis Wear left UNC for UCLA. Just before 2010-11, Williams dismissed senior wing Will Graves from the team. Then in February 2011, point guard Larry Drew II left the team in the middle of the season and eventually transferred to UCLA.

“We’re concerned about it, but everybody’s concerned about it. There’s no magic potion that you’re going to be able to put out there that’s going to have kids stay at the same school,’’ Williams said last week. “We’re going to have record numbers of transfers this year; I wouldn't be surprised if we had a record number of transfers next year.

"… The culture of college basketball is kids expect instant gratification and to play immediately, and if it doesn’t happen, either their or mom or dad or somebody is going to decide they want to go play somewhere else. It’s a shame, but that’s what we’re faced with. … Those numbers are not going to go down by any rules we make."

Williams noted that APR scores are not going to keep athletes from transferring: "Kids are going to leave because they, and their families, thought it would be better for them to be somewhere else. I cannot convince a kid to stay. In today’s world, sometimes you don’t even have the opportunity to talk to find out why they’re leaving."

Williams said the APR has some great points, “but it is severely lacking in some of the understanding of what’s going on in today’s world.”

In a prepared statement, UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham said the school -- which had 21 teams exceed the national average -- had room for improvement in some sports, including basketball.

“The APR for several men’s sports was lower in 2010-11, and those are areas where we will focus our efforts in the future,’’ Cunningham said in the statement. “The NCAA had honored men’s basketball in the six previous seasons for having one of the top APRs in the country, but the number for 2010-11 was lower because one player was dismissed from the team right before the season started and another left the squad in the middle of conference play.”

Nationally, a record 10 basketball teams will be banned from next year's NCAA tournament because of sub-par APR scores.

Here are the latest APR basketball scores in the ACC, from the 2007-08 to 2010-11 time period:
  • Duke 995
  • Miami 980
  • Virginia Tech 976
  • NC State 974
  • Maryland 970
  • North Carolina 963
  • Boston College 958
  • Clemson 953
  • Florida State 946
  • Virginia 939
  • Wake Forest 939
  • Georgia Tech 935
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.
1. Former Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg was convinced he had a much-improved team next season. Erick Green would likely be an all-ACC guard. Dorian Finney-Smith is a possible star in the league. Last season’s team had only three seniors. That’s why this reeks of a classic athletic-director move of firing a head coach to set up a winning roster so the new coach has success in year one before a rebuild begins. The timing, with two-plus weeks left in the spring signing period, and the spring semester ending soon, might make it harder for anyone to leave.

2. UCLA has a chance for a special season with the top-rated recruiting class led by Shabazz Muhammad, Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and now Tony Parker, too. This is a Calipari-Kentucky-like class, oozing with one-and-done NBA potential. But for the Bruins to have a unique season like Kentucky just had, they must get veteran leadership, too. UK always had at least two selfless contributors who were upperclassmen. That puts the burden on Josh Smith, David and Travis Wear, Larry Drew II and Tyler Lamb to show significant improvement in leadership as well as their production.

3. Schools looking at Mark Lyons should pause after reading Xavier coach Chris Mack’s statement. If Lyons was against the constructive criticism about what he needs to improve upon, then why toss a potential disruptive force into a locker room for only one season? Lyons has to share some of the blame for Xavier’s mid-season collapse before the Musketeers rebounded to reach the Sweet 16. But something is clearly wrong if he can’t finish his final year at Xavier.

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