College Basketball Nation: LeBryan Nash


SAN DIEGO -- In a matter of months, it all crumbled. More like the brick exterior of an old church than a cookie. A gradual but obvious decline.

Marcus Smart returned to Oklahoma State to rid his program of the lingering stench that arose in the weeks that followed last season’s opening-round loss to Oregon in the NCAA tournament. He wanted to refine his skills in hopes of securing a lengthier future in the NBA, too.

But Smart had the chance to take a top-three slot in the draft a year ago. He came back to help his teammates -- his brothers -- make a run in March. To pursue a national championship.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Smart
AP Photo/Gregory BullOklahoma State guard Marcus Smart, who scored 23 points and grabbed 13 rebounds vs. Gonzaga, is likely headed for the 2014 NBA draft.
And he could see that opportunity evaporating against No. 8 seed Gonzaga on Friday afternoon. But he couldn’t plug the leak.

Seconds later, it was over. And then, Smart walked off the court.

“It’s very difficult,” said Smart, who finished with 23 points, 13 rebounds, 7 assists, 6 steals and 1 block. “This team has been through a lot this season, a lot of downs and a lot of ups, and it’s especially difficult for me -- Markel [Brown] being a senior -- words can’t explain it right now.”

It was likely Smart’s last collegiate game, as most expect him to turn pro. He refused to discuss his future in detail after the game, but he suggested that the loss wouldn’t change that plan.

But the game, an 85-77 loss for No. 9 seed Oklahoma State, was also the conclusion of a bizarre season for the program. The Pokes entered the season tied with Syracuse in eighth place in the Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll.

That position seemed solid. With Smart, Brown and Le’Bryan Nash anchoring the team, Oklahoma State had the look of a Big 12 and national title contender.

From there, calamity ensued. Big man Michael Cobbins suffered a season-ending injury in late December. In early February, Stevie Clark was dismissed by coach Travis Ford following an arrest. Smart shoved a Texas Tech fan shortly after that and earned a three-game suspension and national scrutiny. Plus, the team endured a seven-game losing streak.

And it was over, it seemed.

But somehow, the Pokes fought back and became just the second team since 1985 to secure an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament after suffering a seven-game losing streak, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And that’s notable, considering their challenges.

“In a sense, you could say that because 64 teams make it to this point and to be considered one of those teams is always an accomplishment, to be a part of this tournament,” said Brown, who finished with 20 points. “We fell short of our goals, but it’s always a positive when you get into the NCAA tournament.”

They could not escape their past in San Diego, though. Without Cobbins, the Cowboys were futile in their attempt to contain 7-foot-1 big man Przemek Karnowski (15 points, 10 rebounds). They couldn’t stop Gary Bell Jr. (17 points) or Kevin Pangos (26 points, 12-for-14 from the charity stripe), either.

Smart played 38 minutes even though he picked up four fouls. Nash, the team’s best threat inside, played just 17 minutes due to foul trouble.

[+] EnlargeMarkel Brown and Kevin Pangos
Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY SportsIn his final game for the Cowboys, senior Markel Brown scored 20 points.
The Cowboys weren’t big enough, deep enough or strong enough to stop a Gonzaga squad that shot 9-for-18 beyond the arc. Coach Mark Few’s program is 6-0 now against the Cowboys and will advance to face No. 1 seed Arizona Sunday at Viejas Arena.

The postgame news conference for the Cowboys felt like a funeral. Brown fought off tears from the podium. Phil Forte III buried his head in his hands.

Coaches, team officials and trainers stood along the concrete wall outside the locker room in silence.

But Smart told the press that he had no regrets about returning for his sophomore season. A day earlier, he’d discussed the bond that developed within the team as it endured the drama. And even though Oklahoma State fell short of its dreams, Smart said he was proud of its effort Friday and throughout the season.

“I definitely think I left it all out there,” Smart said. “This team left it all out there.”

And that’s not debatable. Oklahoma State’s determination cannot be questioned.

But the season will end in mystery. The Cowboys left it out there, but how much more would they have left right now if everything had come together instead of fallen apart midway through the season?

We’ll never know because it’s over.
There are plenty of things to ponder in the wake of Stevie Clark's dismissal from the Oklahoma State basketball team.

Top of the list is why Clark would think that urinating out of a moving vehicle was a good idea. Outraging public decency, the violation cited in his arrest, sounds about right for this one.

Second is why Clark, who also was arrested in January for a seatbelt violation and then offered the added bonus of having marijuana in his car, would so much as jaywalk.

But Clark’s combination of stupidity and immaturity is the least of coach Travis Ford’s problems. (Officially, now that Ford made the easy decision and booted Clark off the team.)

[+] EnlargeMarcus Smart, Travis Ford
Brendan Maloney/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Smart and Travis Ford are running out of time to right the ship and now have a further depleted roster.
In five years in Stillwater, Ford has three NCAA tournament berths but has never gotten the Pokes out of the first weekend. That was supposed to change this year. After Marcus Smart defied conventional wisdom and opted to return for his sophomore season, Oklahoma State was picked to share the Big 12 title with Kansas.

Instead, here we are. The Cowboys have dropped three of their past four to fall to 4-4 in the league. They have just one conference win (Texas) with any meat on the bone and are a long way from sharing much of anything with Kansas.

Some of this is just bad luck. Michael Cobbins' Achilles injury has devastated the Cowboys’ inside game, and while Le'Bryan Nash and Kamari Murphy have tried to help inside, they can only do so much.

But some of it is self-inflicted, too.

Clark probably should have been booted in January. That was his second arrest since coming to Oklahoma State, and blown second chances are usually the sign of a pattern instead of the road to penitence.

Now his lack of concern for his team and his apparent disregard for his Bible studies -- according to a recent Oklahoman story, Clark was meeting daily with his mother, to prevent, in his mother’s words, the devil a chance "to get in and get busy" -- have left the Cowboys even more depleted on the bench. Oklahoma State went only seven-deep with Clark on the roster.

And then there is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. That would be Smart. The onetime lock for national player of the year isn’t even in the conversation right now. He’s in a woeful shooting slump (13-of-53 in his past four games) and has been relatively ineffective in the entire Big 12 season, shooting only 34 percent in eight games.

Worse, he’s acted less and less like the leader the Cowboys desperately need. A helpless chair took the brunt of his frustrations amid a lousy shooting night against West Virginia, and when people talk at all about Smart these days, it’s usually more about his flopping than his play.

If Oklahoma State is to salvage this season, it has to start with Smart playing smart and acting a whole lot smarter.

The Cowboys are at the strange time of the season when there is plenty of time to fix what’s wrong but time also is quickly flying by. We are a little more than a month away from the end of the regular season, six weeks from Selection Sunday.

What ails the Cowboys isn’t easy to fix, especially in the Big 12, but Oklahoma State had better start searching for some answers before a season that started with such promise ends in a heap of a mess.

Planning for Success: Big 12 speed

January, 27, 2014
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Just for kicks, let’s start with a quiz: Is Oklahoma State a better offensive or defensive team?

Last season, the answer was obvious: The Cowboys were defined by their defense. Nowhere was the impact of Marcus Smart’s arrival felt more acutely. In the matter of one season, Oklahoma State went from allowing nearly a point per possession to 0.90. The offense got better, but the gains were fractional compared to how Oklahoma State guarded.

This season, things are not so simple. Overall, Oklahoma State’s year-over-year efficiency leap on offense rivals 2012-13’s defensive jump. Meanwhile, the Cowboys' defense gives up 0.95 points per trip (adjusted, per kenpom.com) -- still very good, but a slight upward tick from last season.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Smart
AP Photo/Brody SchmidtExpect Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State to push the pace against another team that likes to run, Oklahoma.
But! Since the start of Big 12 play, the Cowboys have played the league’s tightest defense and rank a mere fourth in points per possession on offense. Some of that has to do with having nearly a fourth of their shots blocked by Joel Embiid at Kansas, but still. Confusing, right? If you asked the opening question to a Magic 8 Ball, it would tell you to concentrate and try again.

Fortunately, one Cowboys trait has remained consistent all season: speed. Also fortunately, it’s one that Oklahoma happens to share and one that all but guarantees another gripping, up-and-down Big 12 affair Monday night in Norman, Okla. Because, believe it or not, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are more alike than different.

The Cowboys average a healthy 70.8 possessions per game. This season, Ken Pomeroy introduced possession length data into his team reports, which provides a fine-grained look at exactly how fast teams are on both ends of the floor. Oklahoma State wants to score in a hurry: It averages just 15.5 seconds per offensive possession, the 15th-shortest average in the country.

This all makes sense: Oklahoma State has Smart pushing the ball and Le’Bryan Nash, Markel Brown and Phil Forte filling in on the wings. Of course it wants to run. It also wants to slow opposing offenses down: Oklahoma State opponents take 18.3 seconds (rank: 272) to fully deliberate the best course of action. It is this ability to dictate games -- to push the pace on offense and then force a struggle on the return serve -- that makes playing Oklahoma State so challenging in the first place.

Meanwhile, in Norman, the Sooners’ success has been one of the surprises of the season. But it pales in comparison to the how. Lon Kruger’s reputation for smart, solid basketball teams -- teams that don’t hurt themselves with mistakes -- was well earned at UNLV, where Kruger’s teams rarely ranked above average in matters of pace.

His first two teams at Oklahoma largely followed that script. This season, the Sooners are positively run-and-gun. They average 72.9 possessions per contest and 1.17 points per trip, and they dispose of those possessions even faster than State -- in just 15.0 seconds, 10th fastest in college basketball. Much like the Cowboys, the Sooners also seek to delay opponents in defensive transition but they’re not nearly as good at it, which is among the reasons their defense is giving up 1.07 points per possession in Big 12 play.

That’s where the similarities stop. Both teams will be happy to play a fast-paced game. Both teams will look to score in transition and secondary breaks. Both teams will try to do that, all while halting the other. Thus far, though, there is no confusion about what Oklahoma is. It has to outscore you to beat you. Oklahoma State has more than one tool in its box -- and the best two-way point guard in the country to wield them.

It was another eventful Saturday in the world of college basketball.

These 10 players were responsible for some of the most significant performances of the day.

  1. Melvin Ejim (Iowa State) -- A few weeks ago, Fred Hoiberg identified the senior as the glue guy who has helped him rebuild Iowa State basketball. The veteran recorded 20 points, nine rebounds, two assists, three steals and three blocks in No. 16 Iowa State’s 81-75 home win over No. 22 Kansas State. He also blocked Shane Southwell's 3-point attempt in the final seconds, snatched a key rebound and hit a pair of late free throws to seal it.
  2. Treveon Graham (VCU) -- The junior guard scored a career-high 34 points in VCU’s 97-89 double-overtime win at La Salle. Graham scored six straight points to send the game into its first overtime. He also finished with 12 rebounds and two assists for a VCU squad that has won 12 of its last 14 games.
  3. [+] EnlargeLe'Bryan Nash
    AP Photo/Sue OgrockiWith Marcus Smart struggling, Le'Bryan Nash came through with a huge game to lead Oklahoma State past West Virginia.
  4. Le'Bryan Nash (Oklahoma State) -- Travis Ford needed some help on a horrible day for Marcus Smart, who fouled out with just four points and a 1-for-7 tally. Nash stepped up. He recorded 29 points, nine rebounds, two assists and two blocks in No. 11 Oklahoma State’s 81-75 win over West Virginia, which played tough for 40 minutes.
  5. Ryan Arcidiacono (Villanova) -- The controversial offensive foul call at the end of No. 4 Villanova’s 94-85 overtime win over Marquette shouldn’t mask the exceptional effort by Arcidiacono. The point guard finished with 20 points, 11 assists and, most impressively, zero turnovers in 39 minutes. He also grabbed a critical loose ball and steadied the Wildcats in the extra period.
  6. Isaiah Taylor (Texas) -- Why are the Longhorns legitimate Big 12 contenders now after winning three consecutive games against ranked opponents (Iowa State, Kansas State and Baylor)? Because players such as Taylor continue to step up for Rick Barnes. The guard finished with 27 points (10-for-18), three assists and three steals in Texas’ 74-60 road win over Baylor.
  7. Kendall Williams (New Mexico) -- The Lobos dealt with some tough losses during the nonconference season, but they’re 6-1 in league play after a 68-66 victory over Colorado State. Williams finished with 23 points, five assists and one steal in that game. He hit 5 of 10 3-pointers.
  8. Michael Frazier II (Florida) -- The guard anchored a balanced attack in No. 6 Florida’s 67-41 win over Tennessee. Frazier finished with 17 points (3-for-6 from beyond the arc), four rebounds and two assists. The Gators haven’t lost since Dec. 2.
  9. Tyler Ennis (Syracuse) -- It wasn’t a pretty performance. But No. 2 Syracuse scored a 64-52 win at Miami in a tough road game. Ennis continues to make a case for “best point guard in America” status. He finished with 14 points, five rebounds and four assists. That effort included some clutch plays in the final minutes.
  10. Willie Cauley-Stein (Kentucky) -- The sophomore hasn’t been a consistent offensive threat, but his defensive presence is undeniable. He only scored eight points in No. 14 Kentucky’s 79-54 win over Georgia. But he also recorded six steals, six blocks and altered multiple shots. He's such a vital player for that young Kentucky team.
  11. Chase Fieler (Florida Gulf Coast) -- The “Dunk City” contributor had an impressive stat line during Florida Gulf Coast’s 83-62 win over Kennesaw State. He hit 7 of 14 shots and went 9-for-9 from the free throw line for 24 points while also recording 7 rebounds, one block and two steals.

Kansas has lost exactly twice in the past 46 games at Allen Fieldhouse, so the Jayhawks and their dedicated fan base tend to remember the L's.

Follow up a road win at the Phog with a celebratory backflip and you’re certain to never be forgotten.

Follow up a road win at the Phog and celebratory backflip with a shot over the bow directed at Kansas’ stud freshman?

Welcome to infamy, Marcus Smart.

The Jayhawks were in need of someone new to hate after Missouri ditched them for the SEC. Thanks to Smart’s perfect 10 and preseason suggestion that perhaps Andrew Wiggins play a game before being considered the greatest college basketball player of all time, Oklahoma State has at least temporarily filled the void.

To which we say, thank you, Mr. Smart.

The truth is, the Oklahoma State sophomore was merely doing what kids do when he turned his flip, and as for his preseason "knock" against Wiggins, he was just speaking the truth. The kid had to prove it.

But there is nothing like a little vitriol, contrived or not, to make a game more fun.

And Allen Fieldhouse will be a whole lot of fun Saturday for the 4 p.m. ET tipoff.

This game lost a little bit of its luster early, as Kansas’ record got a little sideways through growing pains and Oklahoma State regrouped after losing Michael Cobbins. But everything seems back in order.

The Big 12 right now is the best conference in the country, and with apologies to Iowa State, these are the top teams in that league.

Once dogged by questions of what ails them, the Jayhawks are hitting their stride. They have won three in a row, including an absolute drubbing of Kansas State and on the road at Iowa State. Wiggins, who was doing too much alone early in the season, now has plenty of help, much of it coming in the form of fellow lottery pick Joel Embiid.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys have a three-game tear of their own to claim, with Smart averaging 22 over that span.

Aside from the sideshow shenanigans, what makes this game intriguing is that one team’s weakness is really the other’s strength. Kansas’ biggest attribute is its frontcourt, Oklahoma State’s the backcourt.

Naadir Tharpe has to find a way to stop Smart from driving the ball while the Cowboys, sans Cobbins, need Le’Bryan Nash and Kamari Murphy to somehow contain Wiggins, Embiid and Perry Ellis.

And then there is the X factor: Allen Fieldhouse, where Oklahoma State knows it can win and Kansas remembers ...
Oklahoma State enters its Big 12 opener at Kansas State on Saturday trapped in drama created by a few recent developments.

On Tuesday, Travis Ford’s program announced that center and top shot-blocker Michael Cobbins will miss the rest of the season due to an Achilles injury. On Wednesday, backup point guard Stevie Clark was arrested for marijuana possession.

ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla recently tweeted that a college coach’s greatest role is “crisis management coordinator.” Oklahoma State’s situation seems to back that statement, although Ford’s predicament is not necessarily a “crisis” at this point. Plus, he still has one of the best players in the game -- Marcus Smart -- leading his squad. And Smart’s teammates Le'Bryan Nash and Markel Brown are both elite talents.

But Cobbins was significant for a team that is currently 17th in adjusted defensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy. Oklahoma State’s greatest challenge in league play will be its limited size. That’s why the loss of Cobbins is such a blow for the program.

And Clark has averaged nearly 20 minutes per game for Oklahoma State. His 3.7 APG against 1.9 TPG comprises a better assist-to-turnover ratio than Smart’s (4.1 APG, 2.9 TPG). He also answers the most significant question each night about Smart. What happens if the sophomore star endures early foul trouble?

With Clark’s future in jeopardy and Cobbins out, Oklahoma State enters its matchup against Kansas State with questions that it can’t answer until tipoff. But this is a different team without Clark and Cobbins.

If Smart is on the floor, Oklahoma State is still a contender. Its road to the title, however, is more complicated now. Depending on what Ford does with his lineup, Nash could log more minutes inside. Sophomore Karami Murphy's time on the floor should increase, too. And sharpshooter Phil Forte will be a greater factor in the backcourt.

Oklahoma State can make these adjustments and win the Big 12. But the Pokes will be on the road against a Kansas State squad that hasn’t lost since Nov. 22 and owns a win over WCC contender Gonzaga.

With three or four potential contenders in the Big 12, one or two losses could separate the champ from the No. 2 team in the league. So an early stumble on Saturday could cost Oklahoma State down the road.

Oklahoma State’s most immediate concern, however, is its new reality and the pressure it will face on the road in its first game of conference action.

Video: Oklahoma State 76, Kansas State 70

March, 9, 2013
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Le'Bryan Nash scored 24 points to lift No. 13 Oklahoma State past No. 9 Kansas State, 76-70.

Video: Oklahoma State 64, TCU 47

February, 28, 2013
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Le'Bryan Nash scored a career-high 28 points as No. 15 Oklahoma State rolled to a 64-47 victory at TCU.

Conference Power Rankings: Big 12

January, 11, 2013
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Kansas is still the heavy favorite to win a ninth consecutive Big 12 title. But its path to the championship may be more difficult than Big 12 fans expected. That was evident Wednesday, when Iowa State nearly upset Bill Self's squad at Allen Fieldhouse. Some late-game heroics by Ben McLemore sparked a furious comeback that resulted in a 97-89 Kansas victory in overtime. Still, the effort by the unranked Cyclones served as a reminder that there are other capable teams in this league besides the Jayhawks. Here's a look at this week's Big 12 power rankings.

1. Kansas. The Jayhawks have won 100 of their past 101 games at Allen Fieldhouse. The only home game they've lost there in the last six-plus years came against Texas in 2011, the morning after forward Thomas Robinson's mother passed away unexpectedly. KU plays at Texas Tech on Saturday before hosting Baylor on Monday. McLemore averages a team-high 16.9 points.

2. Iowa State. It's rare that a team moves up in the polls after a loss, but the poise the Cyclones displayed in Wednesday's setback against KU was remarkable considering the opponent and venue. This team has a lot of nice pieces and will continue to improve as long as Michigan State transfer Korie Lucious plays at a high level. Fred Hoiberg is one of the country's more underrated coaches.

3. Baylor. The Bears opened Big 12 play with an overtime win against Texas and looked scary good in Tuesday's road-thumping of Texas Tech. Baylor won by 34 points but probably could've beaten the Red Raiders by 60. Scott Drew, who returns to the bench this weekend after serving a two-game suspension, has already led his team to a victory at Kentucky's Rupp Arena. Winning against Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse on Monday will be even tougher.

4. Kansas State. Rodney McGruder looked like the best player in the league while scoring 26 points in the second half of Saturday's home victory against then-No. 22 Oklahoma State. Winnable road games against West Virginia (Saturday) and TCU (Wednesday) are up next. Reserve forward Nino Williams is averaging 16.5 points off the bench in his past two games.

5. Oklahoma State. The Cowboys snapped a two-game losing streak with an 18-point home win over TCU on Wednesday. OSU needs to get more production out of wing Le'Bryan Nash. The potential first-round NBA draft pick ranks third on the team in scoring with 13.7 points per game. But he's shooting just 42.8 percent from the field and 24.1 percent from 3-point range.

6. Oklahoma. The Sooners are the Big 12's most improved team. Lon Kruger's squad opened conference play with a road victory at West Virginia. Sure, the Mountaineers are struggling. But winning in Morgantown isn't easy no matter what. A victory in Saturday's Bedlam game against Oklahoma State in Norman would give the Sooners a huge jolt of momentum and generate legitimate NCAA tournament buzz.

7. West Virginia. Bob Huggins' squad showed a ton of resolve by battling back from a double-digit deficit to force overtime against Texas in Austin on Wednesday. WVU went on to win 57-53 for its first league victory as a member of the Big 12. As poorly as things have gone for the Mountaineers thus far, a home win over K-State on Saturday could alter the course of their season. Huggins spent a year as KSU's head coach before taking over at WVU in 2007.

8. Texas. After two consecutive overtime losses to open Big 12 play, it's tough to envision the Longhorns (8-7, 0-2) extending their streak of 14 straight NCAA tournament berths. Heck, at this point, they might not even make the NIT. Texas' next three games are: on the road against Iowa State, at home against Kansas and on the road against Oklahoma. The Longhorns will be underdogs in each.

9. Texas Tech. Longtime followers of the Big 12 have opined that TCU might be the worst team in the history of the conference -- and that Texas Tech might be the second-worst. The Red Raiders weren't even close to being competitive in Tuesday's 34-point loss to Baylor. Whoever takes over this program in the spring will have a massive rebuilding job on his hands.

10. TCU. No one will be surprised if the injury-riddled Horned Frogs finish 0-18 in Big 12 play. Their best chance for a victory game in last week's league opener against Texas Tech, but TCU lost at home by nine points. Saturday's road tilt at Baylor will be followed by back-to-back home games against Kansas State and Iowa State.

Conference Power Rankings: Big 12

December, 21, 2012
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A Big 12 team other than Kansas finally picked up a quality nonconference victory when Texas upset North Carolina in Austin on Wednesday. Don’t get too excited, though. This league still has a long way to go. Here are this week’s power rankings.

1. Kansas. Saturday’s tilt with No. 7 Ohio State in Columbus will be the first true road game for Bill Self’s squad. The Jayhawks’ three most recent victories -- against Colorado, Belmont and Richmond -- came by an average of 31 points. Jeff Withey leads the nation with 5.4 blocks per game.

2. Oklahoma State. Kudos to the Cowboys, who have won four straight since losing at Virginia Tech on Dec. 1. Travis Ford’s squad, which gets a combined 30.2 points per game from Le’Bryan Nash and Markel Brown, hosts Tennessee Tech on Saturday and then has eight days off before a New Year’s Eve date with Gonzaga in Stillwater.

3. Iowa State. Christmas has come early for the Cyclones, who don’t play again until Jan. 1. Guard Tyrus McGee has been playing extremely well for Fred Hoiberg’s squad. He’s averaging 13.3 points and shooting 48 percent from 3-point range. Iowa State is 9-3 with losses to Cincinnati, UNLV and Iowa.

4. Baylor. The Bears host Brigham Young on Friday. They. Have. To. Win. Seriously, a team that’s already toting home losses to College of Charleston and Northwestern can’t afford to drop another non-league game against an inferior opponent. Baylor has zero chemistry on offense.

5. Kansas State. The Wildcats’ two losses are to Michigan (in New York) and to Gonzaga (in Seattle. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Still, even against mediocre teams at home, Kansas State has struggled to score. That’s not a good thing for a team that takes on Florida on Saturday in Kansas City.

6. Texas. Myck Kabongo won’t play for the Longhorns this season, but Texas didn’t even need him during Wednesday’s 85-67 whacking of an alarmingly sloppy, uninspired North Carolina club. Texas, which is getting 15.5 points from Sheldon McClellan, could pick up some additional momentum with a victory at Michigan State on Saturday.

7. Oklahoma. Wouldn’t you know it? The minute I start complimenting the Sooners for the strides they’ve made under Lon Kruger, Oklahoma goes out and drops a game to Stephen F. Austin. That’s inexcusable, boys. The Sooners' next game, a Dec. 29 visit from Ohio University, won’t be a cakewalk.

8. West Virginia. The Mountaineers ended a two-game losing streak by squeaking past Oakland on Wednesday. Still, Bob Huggins’ squad may be the Big 12’s biggest disappointment thus far. Transfers Aaric Murray and Juwan Staten are averaging a collective 20.5 points.

9. Texas Tech. Chris Walker is going to have a tough time earning the permanent head-coaching position if his team can’t beat McNeese State at home. The Red Raiders showed some fight against Alabama three nights later but still lost 66-62. Arizona State, Saturday’s opponent, is pesky.

10. TCU. The Horned Frogs haven’t caught any breaks in Trent Johnson’s first season. Aaron Durley and Amric Fields were both lost to ACL injuries, and now Jarvis Ray is out six to eight weeks with a broken foot.

Conference Power Rankings: Big 12

November, 30, 2012
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While most Big 12 programs are mired in a “transition year,” the team at the top -- not surprisingly -- remains the same. Ranking the league beyond Kansas isn’t quite as simple, but here’s my best guess three weeks into the season.

1. Kansas. Jeff Withey leads the Jayhawks in scoring (14.2) and rebounding (8.7) -- and his 6.2 blocks per game rank first in the nation. Kansas, though, needs to improve its outside shooting. Bill Self’s squad is making just 29.6 percent of its 3-pointers. KU needs more leadership from senior point guard Elijah Johnson.

2. Oklahoma State. The Cowboys’ victories over Tennessee and North Carolina State are the two best wins of the season by any Big 12 team. Guard Marcus Smart is playing as well as any freshman in the country and Le’Bryan Nash has made noticeable strides.

3. Kansas State. Wildcats fans were upset that K-State lost to No. 3 Michigan. But seriously ... who thought they had a chance to win that game? Bruce Weber is doing a nice job as he experiments with his roster. Eleven players are averaging double-digit minutes. That’s too many.

4. Baylor. The league’s most talented team has been its biggest disappointment thus far. The Bears lost a two-point heartbreaker to Colorado, but the game would’ve been lopsided if the Buffaloes had hit their free throws. Even without Brady Heslip, losing at home to Charleston was inexcusable. A victory against a vulnerable Kentucky squad in Lexington on Saturday could get Baylor back on track.

5. Oklahoma. Lon Kruger is in just his second season in Norman and already the hire is paying off. The Sooners are 5-1, with the only setback coming against a top-10-caliber Gonzaga squad. Four of Oklahoma’s five victories have come by single digits. A win at Arkansas on Tuesday would be huge.

6. Iowa State. The Cyclones have the potential to move all the way up to No. 2 in these rankings -- especially during a down year for the league. Iowa State’s two losses came against ranked teams (UNLV and Cincinnati) and Fred Hoiberg’s squad performed admirably in both games. Michigan State transfer Korie Lucious (28.6 field goal percentage) needs to get on track.

7. Texas. The Longhorns’ 13-point loss to Division II Chaminade at the Maui Invitational ranks as one of the worst setbacks in Big 12 history. This team has no chance of making the NCAA tournament unless the NCAA clears point guard Myck Kabongo. And even that might not be enough to save a squad with one of the nation’s toughest schedules. Texas plays Georgetown on Tuesday.

8. West Virginia. The Mountaineers are attempting to incorporate three transfers into their rotation, and it isn’t working. At least not yet. Bob Huggins’ squad is shooting just 41.2 percent overall, and point guard Juwan Staten is only averaging 1.8 assists. Upcoming games against Marshall and Virginia Tech won’t be easy.

9. Texas Tech. Interim head coach Chris Walker has made a good impression thus far -- but the undefeated Red Raiders haven’t played anyone. That, of course, was by design as Texas Tech tries to build momentum for its dormant program. Saturday’s home game against No. 9 Arizona will be Texas Tech’s first test against a formidable opponent.

10. TCU. The Horned Frogs have won five games by single digits, but none of those victories came against good teams. The most telling score is a 24-point loss to Northwestern, in which TCU only scored 31 points. Trent Johnson’s squad averages just 55.3 points per game.

So, Oklahoma State looks better

November, 16, 2012
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A couple of caveats are required here:

1. It is still very early in the season. Maybe this entire blog post will be rendered useless if/when No. 6 NC State (or UMass) dominates OSU Sunday afternoon. It's possible.

2. Tennessee played terrible offensive basketball Friday. I mean, just terrible. Cuonzo Martin's team made a grand total of eight -- eight! -- two-point field goals, and went 5-of-23 from 3, for a grand total of 26.0 percent from the field, 31 percent eFG% and .72 points per trip. No one played well. Jarnell Stokes was 2-of-8. Trae Golden was 4-of-12. No other player converted more than one field goal apiece. Give Oklahoma State's team some defensive credit if you like, but the Cowboys didn't get that much better on the defensive end a day after an OT win over Akron. Tennessee just threw up a complete and utter stinker. This much is undeniable.

But despite those two things, there were a lot of positive signs in Oklahoma State's performance Friday.

Besides some general impressions -- most notably the spacing Oklahoma State maintained, which opened the court brilliantly for their talented and athletic wings -- the first is Marcus Smart. Just about everyone who had spent considerable time watching Smart play high school basketball, from Dave Telep to Billy Donovan, who coached Smart in the USA U-18s and came away singing Smart's praises from the mountaintop, said Smart was by far the best competitor and teammate of any player in the 2012 class.

That is always good to hear. But there are lots of good teammates in the world; Smart can really play, too. On Friday he had 17 points (5-of-12 from the field, 6-of-8 from the free throw line) with nine rebounds, three assists, and two steals, all the way taking the majority of OSU's ballhandling responsibilities. He doesn't just have the intangibles -- he's a strong, well-built 6-foot-3 point guard with every tool in the toolbox. He could very well be a star.

But perhaps more importantly, LeBryan Nash -- a top-10 recruit in the class of 2011 -- looks improved, too. In three games this season, he's scored 16/7 , 18/7 and 17/5, but even better than the numbers is the way he's getting them: at the free throw line. Against Akron, Nash took 12 free throws (he made eight); against Tennessee, he went 11-of-13.

Why is this important? Because Nash's freshman season showcased a truly talented player who didn't quite seem to get what he was good at. Too often you'd see him settle for silly outside shots; too often he would try complicated things with a high degree of difficulty instead of merely getting past his man and getting to the rim. So far this season -- and I've seen 80 of Nash's minutes so far -- he looks far more polished, with better movement and a clearer desire to get to the rim, where basically no one in college basketball is athletic enough to check him. (One example: On Thursday, Nash beat his man down the floor, flashed to the near short-corner, caught an entry pass, took one dribble, and then finished with a powerful one-handed dunk. Last season, Nash might have gone into "check this out" mode as soon as he caught the pass, and ended up with a wild reverse layup or something.)

As a freshman, Nash's usage rate was 29.0 percent, and his offensive rating was 89.2. Even if his overall court game doesn't improve (and it appears on track already), Nash is going to get more efficient this season if he merely focuses on getting to the rim and getting fouled. So far, so good.
College basketball is a multibillion-dollar sport. With so much money at stake -- along with the prestige and exposure that comes with consistent success -- there’s always pressure on coaches to win.

The following list doesn’t necessarily include coaches who are on the “hot seat.” Only the athletic directors and insiders privy to the true statuses of these coaches know what’s necessary for each to maintain his current position. From the outside, however, they all appear to be coaches who need to win. Now.

Another lukewarm season might not cost them their jobs. But it certainly won’t help their respective causes.

Here’s my list of 10 coaches who need to win now:

  1. [+] EnlargeSmith
    Bruce Thorson/US PresswireTubby Smith has yet to lead Minnesota to an NCAA tournament victory in five seasons on the job.
    Tubby Smith (Minnesota) -- Smith has reached the NCAA tournament twice in five seasons since he left Kentucky to take the Minnesota gig in 2007. But he hasn’t won a game in the Big Dance during his time with the Gophers. The extension he signed in the offseason will mean little if the Gophers miss the NCAA tournament again. New athletic director Norwood Teague came from Virginia Commonwealth, where Shaka Smart helped that program attain national relevancy. Teague expects the same in Minneapolis. So the pressure continues to rise for Smith, who’s endured multiple off-court incidents during his term. Proof that he’s seeking public support: Smith now allows media in the locker room after games, a first in his tenure.
  2. Ben Howland (UCLA) -- Accomplishments in college basketball are quickly forgotten. That’s why Howland’s back-to-back-to-back run to the Final Four from 2006 to 2008 seems like an ancient feat. Howland’s recent years have been plagued by personnel issues and underachievement. But there’s a strong buzz surrounding his 2012 recruiting class. Howland, once again, has a roster than can make a run in March, assuming Shabazz Muhammad is cleared by the NCAA. The flip side of the hoopla is that UCLA’s fan base will likely bemoan anything less. So the Bruins must reach their potential, it seems, to keep Howland’s seat cool.
  3. Bill Carmody (Northwestern) -- Northwestern is not a football school or a basketball school. It’s a school school, one that places a great emphasis on its broad academic imprint. But there is discontent with the men’s basketball team’s inability to reach the NCAA tournament. It has never happened. The Wildcats have come close in the past three years -- the most fruitful stretch in the program’s history -- but those seasons all ended without a bid. The swell of disappointment has grown with each close call. Athletic director Jim Phillips reportedly considered a change but ultimately gave Carmody, who is entering his 13th season, a vote of confidence after another possible berth slipped away last season. He might not receive the same support in a similar scenario this season.
  4. Travis Ford (Oklahoma State) -- In his first two seasons, Ford led the Cowboys to the NCAA tournament. But the program hasn’t met that bar since 2010. Last year, Ford had an NBA prospect (Le'Bryan Nash) and multiple high-level athletes but still struggled in the Big 12 due to a subpar defense (the Cowboys' 70.8 points per game allowed was the second-highest tally in the league). Oklahoma State continues to invest in basketball. Its latest project, a multimillion-dollar upgrade of the program’s locker room, illustrated its commitment to the sport. But it’s equally interested in winning. And Ford has missed the mark in recent years. He had a young team a year ago, but this season’s group is so talented -- enter Marcus Smart -- that youth won’t be a valid excuse again.
  5. Herb Sendek (Arizona State) -- Few programs endured Arizona State’s offseason shift. Sendek added assistants Eric Musselman and Larry Greer, two men who’ve coached in the NBA, to his staff after finishing with a 10-21 record in 2011-12. Sendek also lost top scorer Trent Lockett (13.0 ppg), who transferred to Marquette to be closer to an ailing mother in Minnesota. The good news: Talented point guard Jahii Carson is eligible. But Carson's presence and the additions to his staff won’t guarantee additional years for Sendek, who was the Pac-12’s coach of the year in 2010. He has to find a way to climb out of the league’s basement in 2012-13.
  6. Craig Robinson (Oregon State) -- President Barack Obama’s brother-in-law has gradually upgraded the talent in Corvallis in his first four years. His best player last year, Jared Cunningham, was a first-round pick in the 2012 NBA draft. But Robinson is still trying to prove that the Beavers are on the rise after finishing seven games under .500 in his first four years (64-71). Last year’s 21-win season was both promising and disappointing. Oregon State had its chances but ultimately finished with a 7-11 mark in Pac-12 play. The loss of Cunningham was a tough one for the program. But its greatest problem last season -- a defense that was ranked 154th in defensive efficiency -- was a collective issue. It’s something Robinson must address in 2012-13.
  7. Kevin Ollie (Connecticut)/Chris Walker (Texas Tech) -- Both Ollie and Walker were placed in similarly uninspiring situations during the offseason. After Jim Calhoun retired, Ollie signed a one-year contract to coach a Huskies team that lost top talents Jeremy Lamb, Andre Drummond, Roscoe Smith and Alex Oriakhi and will not compete in the postseason due to a subpar Academic Progress Rate score. After former head coach Billy Gillispie’s messy offseason exit, Walker inherited a Texas Tech squad that earned one Big 12 victory last season (1-17). Neither Ollie nor Walker is promised anything beyond this season. And their circumstances will limit their abilities to turn their “temporary” tags into permanent ones.
  8. [+] EnlargeJeff Bzdelik
    Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesJeff Bzdelik enters his third year at Wake Forest with just five total ACC victories to his credit.
    Jeff Bzdelik (Wake Forest) -- From 2001 to 2005, the Demon Deacons reached the NCAA tournament. They also secured back-to-back trips in 2009 and 2010. But Bzdelik’s first two seasons were rocky. Under his watch, Wake Forest achieved one ACC victory in 2010-11 and four last year. That’s progress. But is it enough to satisfy a fan base that will watch the neighbors on Tobacco Road (North Carolina State, North Carolina and Duke) enter the season as potential national championship contenders? Bzdelik is on the right track, and Travis McKie and C.J. Harris should help the program move forward in his third season, too. Any movement in the other direction, however, will encourage more scrutiny of Bzdelik’s job status.
  9. Andy Kennedy (Ole Miss) -- Kennedy averaged more than 20 wins in his first six seasons, but his program’s name was never called on Selection Sunday. And close never suffices in college basketball. Kennedy’s legacy won’t be defined by his consistency as much it will be marked by the program’s ongoing NCAA tournament drought and his efforts to end it in 2012-13. That’s crucial for Kennedy, who might have a tough time convincing his superiors to keep him with another respectable finish that doesn’t involve a trip to the Big Dance.
  10. Ken Bone (Washington State) -- Bone’s program returns the Pac-12’s leading scorer, Brock Motum (18.0 ppg last season). But Motum’s presence only intensifies the expectations for the Cougars. Bone hasn’t led the team to the NCAA tournament since replacing Tony Bennett in 2009. The Cougars have been inconsistent. A suspect defense (141st in defensive efficiency last year) hasn’t helped. But this season’s Pac-12 is filled with unknowns. Washington State can rise in the standings if it’s tough on both ends of the floor. Another mediocre year sans an NCAA tournament berth, however, will not help Bone extend his time in Pullman.

What I can't wait to see: Big 12

October, 18, 2012
10/18/12
11:30
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Here are five storylines I look forward to following in the Big 12 this season.

What I can’t wait to see:

How will Kansas replace Thomas Robinson?

I know the Jayhawks have the goods to make a run at their ninth consecutive Big 12 title. Jeff Withey proved his worth in last season’s run to the Final Four. He’s one of the top interior defenders in America. And he has spent a lot of time working on his mid-range game. He should be a different player this season.

Highly touted recruit Perry Ellis joins the fold. I think Elijah Johnson can carry the program. And Ben McLemore is a projected lottery pick on some boards. Losing Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson will hurt, but it’s not as though Bill Self hasn’t replaced top-notch talent in the past.

Robinson, however, was an emotional leader for the team as much as he was its top player a season ago. There were moments in which the Jayhawks appeared to be on the brink of collapse and he simply willed them to a victory. I think that’s the one question facing this team. Who’s that guy right now? Perhaps it’s Withey or Johnson. But someone clearly has to assume that role early, especially with so many young players in the mix. A failure to identify a player in that vital position could prove detrimental in Big 12 play.

What is Oklahoma State’s ceiling?

Oklahoma State should challenge Kansas and Baylor for the Big 12 title. “Should” is the key word. But the Cowboys will fulfill their potential only if they find a way to play disciplined basketball, a challenge for the program last season.

It just didn’t make sense for a program with this talent (Le'Bryan Nash, Markel Brown) to struggle the way it did last season (15-18, 7-11 Big 12). Freshman Marcus Smart has been listed as one of the top young point guards in America. If he can bring Oklahoma State’s talented contributors together and teach them to man up on defense, Travis Ford could have a special year with this program. That, however, is the biggest "if" in the Big 12.

How will Bruce Weber and Bob Huggins fare in the Big 12?

The league welcomes Kansas State’s Bruce Weber and West Virginia’s Bob Huggins to the mix this season. Both coaches found success in their former leagues (Big Ten and Big East, respectively). And I think they have the talent to make a great first impression (though Huggins coached at Kansas State, so he has been in the Big 12 before) in 2012-13.

Rodney McGruder and Jordan Henriquez give Weber the building blocks for a successful debut. Weber scored solid recruits at Illinois, but he couldn’t meet expectations after the program’s Final Four run. The expectations at Kansas State should be more modest, which should allow Weber to coach comfortably and challenge for a spot in the top tier of the league.

Huggins might have a sleeper in West Virginia. The Mountaineers are all over the board on preseason projections. But Deniz Kilicli and a heap of impact transfers (Juwan Staten, Aaric Murray and Matt Humphrey) form a nucleus that could surprise the conference in 2012-13.

Last place goes to TCU or Texas Tech?

Both teams are hurting. Texas Tech lost Billy Gillispie during a highly publicized offseason mess. And according to players, that’s what they wanted. But even with him, Texas Tech’s chances of escaping the bottom of the league were slim with only six scholarship players returning from last season’s 8-23 squad. Trent Johnson introduces TCU to the league in what could be a very humbling debut. Johnson just doesn’t have a lot of talent on the roster. He’ll certainly take his lumps early. He already has added some pieces that will be available for the future. But for both TCU and Texas Tech, 2012-13 will be a tough season.

Can Baylor put it all together and upset Kansas?

Baylor is America’s “on paper” team. On paper, last season, the Bears looked like national championship contenders with Quincy Miller, Perry Jones and Quincy Acy. They were good. But various challenges throughout the season brought criticism to Waco. Even though they reached the Elite Eight, the Bears didn’t seem to come together until March. In 2012-13, Scott Drew has a roster that can challenge Kansas for the Big 12 title. He has one of the best backcourts in America (Pierre Jackson, Brady Heslip, Deuce Bello, Gary Franklin and A.J. Walton) and he’s bringing in one of the top freshmen in the country in Isaiah Austin. If he can get this group to play to its strengths, Baylor will be the Jayhawks’ toughest challenger for the Big 12 crown. The potential, once again, is very high. But seeing is believing with the Bears.

Bracket reveal: Puerto Rico Tip-Off

July, 26, 2012
7/26/12
12:00
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Tournament bracket for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off

When and where: Nov. 15-16, 18 at Coliseo de Puerto Rico in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Initial thoughts: NC State is hardly a lock to win this event. The Wolfpack will be getting all the preseason praise but Tennessee is a legit SEC top-three contender and will be one of the hardest teams NC State has to play if the two teams meet in the final. ... Oklahoma State will debut one of the most heralded freshmen in Marcus Smart, who was beloved by the U18 USA coaches when they won gold in Brazil last month. ... Don’t sleep on UMass. The Minutemen are a legit A-10 contender and have a quality guard in Chaz Williams, formerly of Hofstra. ... Providence coach Ed Cooley said he has the best guard in the Big East in Vincent Council. He may be right. ... Penn State will be on national display in this event for the first time with its men’s basketball team. By the time this game occurs, the football story will be nearly over for the fall and the Nittany Lions will need a new team to rally around. Pat Chambers has the personality to spark belief in his product. ... Back to NCSU. This is a critical tournament for its credibility. The Wolfpack have rightfully received preseason publicity as a potential ACC champ, but a flameout in Puerto Rico will fuel the narrative that they’re not ready for primetime. ... The field in this event may not seem filled with NCAA-bound teams, but Oklahoma State and Massachusetts have a real shot to be on the bubble in March.

Matchup I can’t wait to see: As odd as this sounds, a UMass-Providence matchup in Puerto Rico is tantalizing. If Williams and Council were to guard each other it could be the toughest test either will face during the season. PC is still holding out hope that Ricky Ledo is eligible, too. The Minutemen have a strong producer inside in Terrell Vinson. I can’t see Providence advancing past NC State. UMass would give the Pack a better game but the Minutemen will be pushed in this opener and may have a difficult time getting out of the first round.

Potential matchup I can’t wait to see: Oklahoma State-Tennessee in the semis would put quite a bit of talent on the floor. The Volunteers have Jarnell Stokes and Trae Golden to go along with Jeronne Maymon, while Oklahoma State has Smart, Le'Bryan Nash and Cezar Guerrero, who can all fill the stat sheet. But if this matchup occurs, expect the Vols to make life extremely difficult for the more finesse Cowboys.

Key players to watch

Jeremy Atkinson and Jaron Lane, UNC Asheville: The pair of rising seniors have to take significant steps forward after the Bulldogs lost their top three scorers from a team that won the Big South, earned a No. 16 seed and went toe to toe with Syracuse in the NCAA tourney. Asheville is one of the more inexperienced teams in this field and may struggle to avoid being in the 0-2 seventh-eighth-place game.

[+] EnlargeLorenzo Brown
Tony Dejak/AP PhotoNC State needs a healthy Lorenzo Brown to lead the team.
Lorenzo Brown, NC State: Brown had offseason knee surgery and his status for the Wolfpack's trip to Spain is in jeopardy. But if the Wolfpack are going to be an ACC title team, Brown must be the leader Mark Gottfried needs in key games like these in Puerto Rico. He’ll have plenty of help with the arrival of Rodney Purvis, T.J. Warren and Tyler Lewis and the return of C.J. Leslie, Richard Howell and Scott Wood. But Brown must be the team’s designated leader.

Vincent Council, Providence: Council’s numbers have continued to rise during his three seasons. He finds scoring rather easy. The departure of Gerard Coleman and the unknown status of Ricky Ledo and the injury to Kris Dunn means even more pressure will be on Council to shine early and often next season.

Tim Frazier, Penn State: The Nittany Lions tended to have at least one go-to player/headliner under Ed DeChellis. Now Chambers has one in Frazier, who shined with more opportunities and averaged 18.8 points a game. Expect him to have the ball in all critical situations for PSU. Frazier has All-Big Ten potential. This event will be a solid prep for him going into the conference.

Zeke Marshall, Akron: I remember seeing Marshall at the LeBron James camp in Akron when he was a junior in high school and wondering why this shot-blocker was going to the MAC. But Keith Dambrot stayed on him from the beginning and landed the best big man in the league. Marshall should get a chance to shine in three games in Puerto Rico and start to build a following for his senior season.

Le'Bryan Nash, Oklahoma State: Nash had his moments where he was a star and others when he was an enigma during his freshman season. He has a shot to be one of the more productive players in the Big 12. He doesn’t have all the pressure on him anymore with Smart’s arrival. This is a significant season for Nash, both in college and in shaping how the NBA views him as a possible draft pick.

Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee: Stokes started off last season season in high school, graduated early and suddenly was having a major impact scoring and on the backboard in the SEC. Now Cuonzo Martin gets Stokes for a full offseason and to tip off the year. He has a wide base and should be the most immovable post player in this event. He is on a team with experience and that trusts him to finish when he calls for the ball in the post.

Chaz Williams, UMass: Derek Kellogg’s program was struggling, rudderless at the most important position until Williams became eligible. He saved the team and the program from being mediocre and now he can elevate the Minutemen to the NCAA tournament. Williams will have the ball in his hands plenty throughout the four-day, three-game tournament.

Predicted winner: If Brown is healthy, then NC State wins this event over Tennessee. But the Vols are more than capable of taking down the Wolfpack even with a healthy Brown playing. If any other teams are in the final, then it’s a disappointing start for NCSU and UT. The pressure is on the Pack to get off to a signature start before high-profile games which follow in late November and early December. They are going to have to defend to beat Tennessee and do it with more purpose. The Vols will be ready for a physical scrum. This is the type of early-season tournament that could upset the rankings if UT wins. But I’ll stick with NC State for now as the favorite.

Who others are picking:

Eamonn Brennan: NC State over Oklahoma State
Jason King: NC State over Oklahoma State
Myron Medcalf: NC State over Tennessee
Dana O'Neil: NC State over Tennessee

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