College Basketball Nation: Mike Davis

You Gotta See This: SWAC

October, 16, 2013
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Mike DavisPeter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesMike Davis' Texas Southern team went 16-2 in SWAC play in his first season.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Mike Davis won't stop.

When UAB fired Mike Davis in March 2012, it was reasonable to assume Davis would take some time off.

The past 12 years couldn't have been easy. In 2000, Davis was the poor soul charged with keeping Indiana's players on board after the school fired iconic coach Bob Knight. Like most internal post-icon replacements, Davis probably would have been let go within a year or two but for one problem: For the first few years of his tenure, Indiana was good. The same players exhausted by Knight's rigid motion offense thrived in Davis' spread pro system. In 2002, Jared Jeffries led the hot Hoosiers all the way to the national title game. There would be no replacing Davis now.

That runner-up run was as much a curse as a blessing. Davis, never before a head coach at the college level, was suddenly the man, and as his teams' success dwindled and top recruits (too few of whom came from Indiana, by fans' lights) failed to reach their potential, Indiana embarked on a full-fledged existential crisis. Davis, through no fault of his own, found himself at its center.

When Indiana finally accepted Davis' resignation in 2006, UAB happily snapped him up, eager to see what the high-profile and well-worn Alabama recruiting connections could produce at a program recently elevated by Mike Anderson. He had some success -- three NIT trips and an NCAA tournament bid in 2010-11. But UAB fans were put off. Attendance declined. The program saw an "increase in fan empathy," as athletic director Brian Mackin said at the time. Weeks before he was let go, the Birmingham News asked Davis about his job security. He was defiant: "For someone to speculate on that is an insult to me as a coach," Davis said in 2012. "My body of work speaks for itself. I would think. No one could have gone through what I've gone through the way I've stood up." UAB fans disagreed.

That is why, in the spring of 2012, Davis seemed like the perfect candidate for a year off. Instead, he took a job. At Texas Southern. In the SWAC.

It's an easy punchline. From Indiana to SWAC in less than 15 years. I'm sure I've made it before. But to reduce Davis' trajectory to "one-time successor to Bobby Knight, now coach in a league whose athletics departments often struggle to keep air in the basketballs" does a disservice to everyone involved, Davis especially. The man didn't need the Texas Southern job. If he cared about status, he probably wouldn't have. But to take on a job like Texas Southern -- let alone to lift the Tigers from No. 287 in Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings in 2011-12 to No. 140 in 2012-13 -- requires much more than any surface motivation. If anyone deserved some R and R last year, it was Mike Davis. If anyone could have gotten used to the perks, it's Mike Davis. Instead, he just keeps coaching.

If that's supposed to be a joke, we all need a better sense of humor.
Aaric Murray is a classic archetype. "Talented but troubled." So named because the alliteration is usually too much for our sportswriting brethren to resist, but also because it deftly sums up the situation. Murray, like so many before him, is a very good basketball player. When he's interested and engaged -- and sometimes even when he's not -- he's an excellent interior scorer and rebounder, an obvious asset.

[+] EnlargeAaric Murray
Howard Smith/US PresswireAaric Murray's third school will be Texas Southern. He began his college career at LaSalle.
The only problem is, well, everything else. In 2011, in search of more exposure and in the doghouse of the coaching staff, Murray left La Salle. His departure was greeted with dismay by some, because it seemed to rob a rebuilt La Salle team of its interior anchor just as the Explorers were cresting. But the response also included a few "good riddance" rumblings from around the team. In December 2011, Murray was sitting out his transfer year en route to West Virginia when he was arrested and charged with marijuana possession. When he became eligible, he was supposed to play a large role in Bob Huggins' transfer-heavy Mountaineers reconfiguration. Instead, Huggins suspended him for a violation of team rules in 2012, and when the season rolled around, his minutes, points and rebounds all dropped. WVU limped to a truly ugly 13-19 campaign. In July, Huggins announced he and Murray had arrived at a "mutual decision" -- the polite way to say, "I kicked him off the team" -- and that Murray would finish his final year of eligibility elsewhere.

That elsewhere, we now know, is the Island of Misfit Toys. You may know it better as Texas Southern:
"I am very fortunate to be afforded the opportunity to be mentored by Coach John Lucas, while I attend Texas Southern University. Although, this is not the road I expected to take, this journey will undoubtedly support my goals long term.

"I also feel that being mentored by Coach Lucas and Coach Mike Davis will support my mission to be the best Aaric Murray I can be. Publicly, there are tons of expectations of what I should be. This however is the best opportunity I have in efforts of reaching my full potential. In addition anything that can be done in college basketball can be done at Texas Southern."

And there's this from Texas Southern coach Mike Davis:
"Aaric Murray will be a big addition to our team and he will give us a chance to compete at the highest level of the SWAC."

Which is just ... actually, yeah, I'm not going to touch that.

Anyway, while there is some weirdness afoot here, not least of which is the notion that a player needs to be mentored by John Lucas while he is being coached by another person on a day-to-day basis, ultimately, the "Island of Misfit Toys" is meant out of love. Maybe Murray really does need to get away from things. Maybe he needs to be somewhere where basketball is the sole focus and distractions are at a minimum. Maybe he needs to be coached by someone who knows the insanity of the high-profile college basketball program, and who has refused to recede from coaching but instead been willing to go from Indiana to Texas Southern if it meant he got to keep coaching.

There's something to admire there, and maybe something Murray can learn. And if something insane happens next spring, and the Mike Davis-Aaric Murray duo wins a game in the tournament or something, I call dibs on the movie rights. That's legally binding, right?

3-point shot: Calhoun still a presence

October, 11, 2012
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1. UConn coach Kevin Ollie said Wednesday night that his predecessor, Jim Calhoun, has been at most of the individual and team workouts leading up to Friday's start of practice. Ollie, who was at the Jimmy V Classic dinner at New York City's Pier Sixty, said that Calhoun -- still recovering from hip surgery -- has been taking notes and waving his cane around to illustrate his points. Calhoun uses a cane at times to get around but is aggressively rehabbing from his injury. Ollie said Calhoun keeps his distance when Ollie is going over team issues so as not to distract the players -- but added that it's good to have Calhoun involved and for the players to see him still actively contributing. UConn officials confirmed Calhoun's statement last week that he plans on making the trip to Germany for the Huskies' opener against Michigan State at Ramstein Air Base on Nov. 9.

2. The freaky, scary injury to Wisconsin forward Mike Bruesewitz rocked the Badgers on Tuesday, according to a UW official. The Badgers were understandably anxious when they saw the gory cut on Bruesewitz's right leg after he sliced it on the back of a basket standard while chasing an loose ball. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan was there to comfort Bruesewitz and the training staff was apparently quick to treat him before he was taken away by ambulance. Bruesewitz has become the leader of this squad and is easily one of the most well-liked Badgers in the past three years. He will have to take his time returning from this injury. He was apparently fortunate that the prognosis is for him to be out only four to six weeks. The Badgers have two big-time games in their first five that will be much harder if Bruesewitz isn't available -- a Nov. 14 visit to Florida and a Nov. 23 meeting with Creighton in Las Vegas.

3. Texas Southern was banned from the 2013 postseason due to rules violations. TSU hired Mike Davis to shepherd the program through the season before it knew of the penalties. If Davis wants the job long-term, the Southwestern Athletic Conference school should sign him to a lengthy contract to get the program right. Texas Southern isn't going to get a coach with Davis' experience. The school has him now -- it should do everything in its power to keep him.
1. Mike Davis did not want to sit out the year. He knew that being off the bench and off television makes it nearly impossible to get back and get a head coaching job. A number of coaches have found out the hard way that being idle means it’s very difficult to come back. That’s why Davis said he took the interim job at Texas Southern after the school fired Tony Harvey. Davis said Thursday from Houston, “I just want to coach. I love coaching. It’s a great opportunity to stay in the game. The AD gave me a call and it was a no brainer to me.’’ Davis is still befuddled as to his firing at UAB after a 15-16 overall, 9-7 C-USA season. Davis followed a similar pattern when he left Indiana in the middle of the Big Ten season. He didn’t last long on the unemployment line, getting the UAB gig. Now he won’t have to sit out a season as he drops down another level. “It’s hard to get back in,’’ said Davis. “I’m really excited about the opportunity. I just didn’t want to sit out. I want to coach.’’

2. Montana State is scheduled to go to Canada this month, but the Bobcats’ trip is now an uncertainty, according to the Big Sky conference. The reason is the massive attrition that has recently occurred. Two players -- walk-on Tor Anderson and Shawn Reid (10.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg) -- quit the team after the season. Rising senior Mohammed Fall (7.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg in 24.4 mpg) lost a year of eligibility once the NCAA changed his class standing to a senior after his junior season due to exhibition games he played four years ago (they equaled a season in NCAA’s interpretation). And then Jeffery Budinich (4.5 ppg) and Tre Johnson (8.8 ppg) were arrested and charged with two counts of criminal trespass due to breaking into a vehicle and theft, as well. The incident occurred last weekend in Bozeman. Montana State coach Brad Huse suspended both on Tuesday. Montana State finished 12-17 last season, 7-9 in the Big Sky.

3. The Atlantis Bracket announcement Thursday leaves just one major tournament to be completely unveiled: the 16-team NIT Season Tip-Off Nov. 21-23. The four hosts are Kansas State, Pitt, Virginia and Michigan. If you were to seed this event then it would probably go 1. Michigan. 2. Kansas State. 3. Pitt 4. Virginia. Virginia and Pitt probably have the most to gain. Michigan and Kansas State play in power-rating rich conferences and are playing strong schedules. Pitt is in the Big East, which will provide plenty of RPI pop and quality wins, but has a soft nonconference slate, putting even more pressure on this event. Virginia needs quality nonconference wins since the ACC is once again top heavy with NC State, North Carolina, Duke and Florida State.

Conference USA's most important players

July, 25, 2012
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Editor's note: ESPN.com’s Summer Shootaround series catches up on the offseason storylines for each conference. For more on C-USA, click here.

The most important player for each team in the conference ...

East Carolina: Miguel Paul
Paul ran the show in effective fashion for ECU last season, posting a 108.8 offensive rating while leading his team in usage and submitting the ninth-best assist rate in the nation (40.6). He'll be just as crucial in his final season.

Houston: Danuel House
House is the most talented recruit the Houston men's basketball program has landed in a long time. He could have chosen just about any destination for college ball, but he chose to stay in Houston and play for third-year coach James Dickey. House could be a star on a previously irrelevant team from day one.

Marshall: Dennis Tinnon
Marshall didn't miss the NCAA tournament by much last season, but miss the tourney it did. If that changes, it will be in part because Tinnon -- who posted a 120.2 offensive rating and ranked in the top 50 nationally in defensive and offensive rebounding rate -- takes on an even larger share of the offense.

Memphis: Joe Jackson
The lightning-quick Memphis native carries the weight of a city on his back every time he plays. Through his first two seasons, Jackson has often displayed why those childhood expectations started in the first place -- even if it feels like we haven't seen him put it all together just yet.

[+] EnlargeArsalan Kazemi
AP Photo/Erich SchlegelArsalan Kazemi, who plays for Iran's national team, averaged 12.1 points and 10.3 rebounds as a junior last season.
Rice: Arsalan Kazemi
One of the nation's unknown stars is Rice's best player and its most important, a rebounding force who needs to command double-teams to help the Owls improve last season's putrid offense.

SMU: Jalen Jones
Speaking of putrid offense, SMU was awful on that side of the floor in 2011-12. But freshman guard Jones showed plenty of potential along the way.

Southern Miss: Neil Watson
The 5-foot-11 guard was former coach Larry Eustachy's second-most-used offensive option last season, when he shot 37.5 percent from the 3-point line and posted a 30.7 percent assist rate. Both of those figures should improve in 2012.

Tulane: Ricky Tarrant
It has been a tough decade or so for Tulane hoops, but Tarrant, who averaged 14.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3.3 assists (and efficiently so) as a freshman last season, will give the Green Wave at least one go-to option going forward.

Tulsa: Scottie Haralson
Losing leading scorer Jordan Clarkson to an unflattering (for Tulsa) transfer scenario was a major blow, which is chief among the reasons why Haralson must step up as a senior.

UAB: Preston Purifoy
The Blazers are in rebuilding mode after firing coach Mike Davis, so all personnel bets are off. That means Purifoy, by far the team's most efficient player last season, could get more opportunities to show his skills.

UCF: Marcus Jordan
Keith Clanton is the more obvious pick, but he and Isaiah Sykes form a nice rebounding tandem on the low block. Jordan will have the ball in his hands more often and will have to be far more consistent to live up to the flashes of excellence we've seen in his time at UCF.

UTEP: Julian Washburn
Junior John Bohannon is a known quantity, a solid post man and an active rebounder who converts his opportunities well. Washburn, a 6-7 sophomore, has tons of upside, but he will have to become much more efficient in his second season.
1. The Ivy League is once again discussing whether it is prudent to have a conference tournament. What may be more pressing is to have a set plan for a playoff. Ivy commissioner Robin Harris said she can see the push for a possible playoff as the league continues to get better. I don’t think the Ivy should have a playoff. The Ivy needs to have its best teams represented. Check the Sun Belt where Middle Tennessee State would have given a better effort than Western Kentucky. The Ivy coaches want a tournament, the ADs are mixed. But it’s the presidents' call.

2. Rick Stansbury’s “retirement" shouldn’t come as a shock as a change was likely to happen at Mississippi State. Stansbury could have been out last year after that train wreck (handling of Renardo Sidney, schedule) of a season. The Bulldogs seemed to have righted themselves this season with the early play of UTEP transfer Arnett Moultrie. But from afar it appeared Stansbury had lost this group. A new voice was probably needed in Starkville. But this job will get increasingly difficult with the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M in the SEC, two schools that can affect recruiting adversely for Mississippi State.

3. UAB coach Mike Davis won’t know his fate until next week when he meets with the athletic director. But there are ominous signs. Why? He did make the NCAA tournament last season, didn’t he? These jobs in leagues like the hybrid MWC-CUSA aren’t easy and changing coaches too often isn’t a recipe for success.

3-point shot: Racers' Aska out

January, 12, 2012
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1. Murray State coach Steve Prohm said senior forward Ivan Aska (broken right hand) won’t play Thursday (Jacksonville State) and Saturday (Tennessee Tech) after being checked by a doctor Wednesday. Aska, who leads the undefeated Racers with six rebounds a game, missed the past two games. Prohm said it may be 2-to-4 weeks before Aska is back in the lineup.

2. UAB coach Mike Davis is convinced that Saint Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli is the only one holding up Todd O'Brien's eligibility. SI.com reported O’Brien’s latest waiver attempt with the NCAA was rejected on Friday. O’Brien, a reserve at Saint Joe’s last season, transferred after he graduated and wanted to play his final year of eligibility immediately as a grad student at UAB. But the waiver was rejected. The NCAA told ESPN.com that St. Joe’s not supporting his case was one of the factors. O’Brien has been practicing with the Blazers but can’t play. Martelli won’t return messages to explain his decision to withhold an endorsement of O’Brien’s transfer.

3. I know a number of Northwestern basketball fans in the media and they are a passionate lot. But their faith is akin to the nearby Cubs. It’s amazing how many close games the Wildcats get in but can’t close. Wednesday night was yet another example. The Wildcats were on the verge of getting their first signature win of the season at Michigan. But the Wolverines rode Trey Burke's hot hand and won in overtime. Northwestern missed a chance to take out Illinois, too. The Wildcats have never made the NCAA tournament. Barring a run through the Big Ten tournament it’s hard to see history happening in Evanston.

3-point shot: No answer on Shaheen

December, 27, 2011
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1. No clear answer was given by NCAA vice president of communications Bob Williams regarding Greg Shaheen’s uncertain job status. Shaheen, executive vice president in charge of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, who was recently charged with administering all NCAA championships, is not a lock to stay on in his current position through this year’s tournament. A decision is expected in February, but there’s been no clear word out of Indianapolis as to why the widely-respected Shaheen would not continue in his current capacity. It’s a head-scratching stance, to be polite.

2. Saint Joseph’s continues to give no response on why it won’t release fifth-year senior Todd O'Brien and at least see if O'Brien could get a waiver to play immediately at UAB since he’s been at grad school and practicing on the Birmingham campus. UAB coach Mike Davis remains miffed at the Hawks’ lack of response. Hawk officials continue to say they have a good reason and once everyone knows the other side they will understand. That may be true. But the silence gives only one version of the story.

3. The AP and Coaches’ poll are a reflection of the state of the sport. The back end of the top 25 includes Creighton, Harvard, UNLV, Murray State and San Diego State amid teams like Virginia and Kansas State. The new norm is to have teams outside the power six jockeying with high-majors that are in the 3-5 range in high-level leagues. And once again the Pac-12 will need the NCAA tournament to prove it should be considered a power six league by season’s end.

Catching up with A.J. Moye

July, 19, 2011
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You may remember A.J. Moye from his block of Carlos Boozer in Indiana's upset of No. 1 seeded Duke in the 2002 NCAA tournament, the year the Hoosiers made an unlikely run to the precipice of a national title under Mike Davis, Bob Knight's embattled successor. Indiana fans certainly do. Moye was a fan favorite in Bloomington; his determination, aggression and willingness to play in the low block despite his lack of size earned him seemingly endless "A-J-Moy-yay" chants throughout his four years in the program.

It was that size that prevented Moye from pursuing a pro career in the U.S. Instead, the former Hoosier went overseas, where he has excelled in Finland and elsewhere. Most recently, Moye had been plying his trade in Germany for the Deutsche Bank Skyliners Frankfurt.

That's when disaster struck. Last November, Moye was struck on the temple during a practice. He was out cold for 20 minutes, but finished the practice. Later that evening, he struggled to communicate with his stepfather on a phone conversation, and he was taken to the hospital for "intensive examinations." After a few days, the doctor made his diagnosis. Moye had suffered a stroke.

Peegs.com writer Jeff Rabjohns caught up with Moye at an Indianapolis Pro-Am tournament recently. The result is must-read stuff. Moye describes his injury in detail -- the right side of his body is still affected by the stroke -- and talks about how difficult it has been to forever abandon the most important part of his life: basketball.
"I was trying to dribble. I thought maybe I just can't wake up or something. I was telling guys on my team I was feeling this way and they were like, 'Oh, he's drunk or something,' even though I'm never drunk but I'm always a character," Moye said. "I saw Marco and told him, 'Man, it feels like I'm dying or something, something's really wrong. Then the ambulance came. That was Tuesday. I woke up on Thursday."

[...] "I'm still me. I can still make a great move, but the right side of my body doesn't feel like me," Moye said. "And honestly, man, nothing's worth dying for. But to me, it almost was worth dying for. I had to look up and say, 'Am I going to die trying to play basketball?' The answer's no. Now it's about finding myself, finding what I could be comfortable doing for the rest of my life. The end of the road happened five or six years earlier than I'd have liked."

There's plenty more where that come from, and it would be bad form to excerpt too much of it here. Moye's struggle goes beyond Indiana and beyond basketball; it's about mortality, the shelter of professional life, and what we do when those things unfairly come crashing down around us.

Plus, if you're one of those people that watches classic basketball games and thinks "Hey, whatever happened to that guy?" well, now you know. In Moye's case, the answering is incredibly compelling.

Fighting Illini finally show up

March, 19, 2011
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TULSA, Okla. -- Better late than never, the Illinois team we thought we’d see this season showed up.

In force.

It’s been a disappointing slog of a season for the Illini, which began the year in the AP top 15 and ended it sliding close to the 68-team bubble. But with the season on the line Friday night against No. 8 seed UNLV, No. 9 seed Illinois played a spectacular game in a 73-62 victory.

“We’d been inconsistent,” coach Bruce Weber said. “But tonight we were definitely consistent, played at a high level.”

[+] EnlargeMike Davis
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelMike Davis' 22 points and nine rebounds were a team high as Illinois easily handled UNLV.
This is how high: Illinois shot 60 percent from the field, 54 percent from 3-point range, and got every shot it wanted thanks to a half-hearted UNLV defense. The final score was laughably deceptive, with a 13-2 closing run by UNLV making it look much closer than reality. Illinois led by 22 at halftime and was never threatened thereafter.

Now we’ll see whether the Illini can put together back-to-back stellar performances.

Illinois hasn’t won two straight games since early January. That doesn’t exactly engender confidence that this team is ready to take down No. 1 seed Kansas on Sunday in the round of 32, but there was plenty of optimism in the Illini locker room Friday night.

“It’s going to be a tough game, but they’re beatable,” said forward Mike Davis, who tore up the Runnin’ Rebels for 22 points and 10 rebounds.

The Illini can harbor optimism for a couple of reasons. One, they’ve played a rigorous schedule -- 18 games against teams in the NCAA tourney field, eight of them against teams with top-four tourney seeds. Two, they’ve come close to having a much better record than their current 20-13 -- they’re 1-8 in games decided by five points or fewer, or in overtime. Finish half of those games correctly, and Illinois is maybe a 5-seed.

But there’s no re-doing what’s already done. Instead, there is simply the chance to make good at the most important time of the year.

“It’s not what you do at the beginning of the year …” said guard Demetri McCamey. “It’s about what you do now. Everybody forgets about what you did at the beginning of the season or the Big Ten season if you go out and win in March.”

It’s been a long time since Illinois won in March. Since 2006, in terms of the NCAA tournament. For a team with four senior starters, getting at least one career Big Dance victory was a major incentive.

“Coming in, we just said we’re going to go as hard as we can,” Davis said. “If we lose and don’t play as hard as we can, I can’t live with that for the rest of my life.”

The one Illinois player who is living with regret right now is freshman swingman Jereme Richmond. One of the team’s top seven players, Richmond did not play Friday night for what Weber termed “a violation of athletic department team rules, nothing more than that.” Weber was non-committal when asked whether Richmond would play Sunday against the Jayhawks.

“It’s something we’ll talk about,” he said.

Friday night, there was finally something good to talk about with this Illinois basketball team. We’ll see how long the Illini can keep the positive vibes flowing.

Rapid Reaction: Illinois 73, UNLV 62

March, 18, 2011
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TULSA, Okla. -- Thoughts on Illinois' 73-62 win over UNLV:

Turning point: From a 5-5 tie, Illinois went on a 24-9 run and was never again threatened.

Key player: Illini forward Mike Davis had 22 points and 10 rebounds, hitting an array of open jump shots from inside the arc and UNLV defenders had a difficult time locating him.

Key stat: Illinois shot 60 percent from the field and UNLV 39 percent. That's how you get a blowout.

Miscellaneous: UNLV observers thought this would be a problematic matchup, and they were right. Vegas was unable to get good 3-point looks, and its offense isn't very efficient without good perimeter play. ... Meanwhile, Illinois ran its offense crisply and got just about every conceivable shot it wanted. ... On-again, off-again senior guard Demetri McCamey had a big night for the Illini with 17 points and seven assists.

What's next: Illinois will take on No. 1 seed Kansas on Sunday. UNLV will fly home to regroup.

Previewing Tulsa: The night games

March, 18, 2011
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TULSA, Okla. -- A brief breakdown of the two night games here Friday

No. 1 seed Kansas (32-2) vs. No. 15 seed Boston (21-13), 6:50 p.m. ET (TBS)

What to watch: Are the Jayhawks ready to take care of business? The No. 1 seed in the Southwest was handed a huge potential gift Thursday when the 4 and 5 seeds in the region, Louisville and Vanderbilt, both lost. That means Kansas will face either a No. 12 (Richmond) or a No. 13 (Morehead State) in the Sweet Sixteen … IF it gets there. Last year, as the overall No. 1 seed in the tourney, the Jayhawks were shocked by Northern Iowa in the second round, and there have been other early NCAA pratfalls in Bill Self’s time in Lawrence. Odds of a loss Friday to Boston U. are astronomical, so the question is whether or not Kansas passes the “look test” as a title contender against the Terriers.

Who to watch: The Morris twins are where it starts for the Jayhawks. Marcus and Markieff combine for 31 points and 15 rebounds and will be a major challenge for a Boston front line that is not overly long. The Terriers counter with America East Player of the Year John Holland, a 6-5 combo player who averages 19.2 points and 5.9 rebounds. Holland already has set the school record for points in a season and is No. 2 in school history in scoring.

Why to watch: If history is made and Boston becomes the first No. 16 seed to beat a No. 1, you’ll hate yourself if you miss it.

What they’re saying: Kansas guard Mario Little, on Self putting copies of the Sports Illustrated cover of Northern Iowa hero Ali Farokhmanesh in every locker: “Kind of got flashbacks. Couple of guys took the clippings and threw it in the garbage. I don’t think anybody laughed, but it brought back memories.” … Boston coach Pat Chambers, a former assistant at Villanova, where he saw the Morris twins play a lot growing up in Philadelphia: “I just saw them in the hallway and they gave me big hugs, so it was good to see them. They got bigger.” … Self, on his all-over-the-board tourney history: “If anybody has lived out all ends of the spectrum, we probably have, because we lost in the first round a couple times and we’ve cut down the nets. I don’t know if there are too many people that can say they’ve done all those things. So our guys understand that one or two possessions is the difference in advancing or going home.”

Of note: If you’re into omens, note that Kansas’ two recent first-round flameouts came against schools with the initials B.U. -- Bucknell and Bradley. Now comes Boston U. … If the Terriers are somehow in contention late, they should have confidence going to the foul line. They’ve made 73 percent of their free throws in the final five minutes plus overtime this year, and 81 percent in the final one plus plus overtime. … Boston’s only two NCAA tourney victories came in 1959.

No. 8 seed UNLV (19-13) vs. No. 9 seed Illinois (24-8), 9:20 p.m. ET (TBS)

What to watch: Who rules at the 3-point arc, the Vegas offense or the Illini defense? UNLV predicates its offense on driving and kicking the ball to open shooters. The Rebels have four players capable of shooting the 3 – but the rangy Illinois defenders have done a solid job this year covering the perimeter. Illini opponents have made just 30.5 percent of their 3-point shots. But it may be more complicated than the stats indicate; Illinois is susceptible to quickness, so it must concern itself with UNLV’s drivers and then try to recover to the shooters.

Who to watch: A pair of veteran guards who have had roller-coaster seasons. UNLV is led by Tre'von Willis, whose scoring and shooting percentages have dipped from last year. but who remains the most important Rebel. Illinois is led by Demetri McCamey, who went from first-team all-Big Ten as a junior to third team as a senior but nevertheless dictates the offense as the team’s leading scorer (14.8 ppg) and distributor (6.1 apg).

Why to watch: To see which disappointing team can help salvage its season with a first-round NCAA win. With seven experienced players back at UNLV and after a 9-0 start, more was expected of the Rebels than a distant third-place finish in the Mountain West Conference. The same can be said for Illinois, which starts four seniors and was ranked as high as No. 12 nationally in December. One fan base will feel a bit better Friday night, while the other will be left to ruminate on a season that got away.

What they’re saying: Illinois coach Bruce Weber: “We’re good enough. We’ve just got to find that new life and hope some balls bounce our way a little bit. Maybe March will be good to us.” … Vegas’ Anthony Marshall, on trying to bring the program back to prominence: “I think right now is a big platform for us to make a national statement.” … Illinois senior Mike Davis, on a sense of urgency: “It’s do or die. It’s our last game if we lose.”

Of note: UNLV is 2-7 against teams in the tournament, while Illinois is 8-10. … Illinois has lost its past four games away from home, while UNLV has won its past four. … They might as well name this place Reunion Arena for Illinois. Vegas coach Lon Kruger is a former coach of the Illini, and so is Bill Self. His Kansas Jayhawks could be next up for Illinois if both teams win Friday.


DAYTON, Ohio -- Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith was spotted wearing headphones on press row during the second half of Tuesday's Clemson-UAB game.

Perhaps Smith wanted to shield his ears from further howling about the NCAA tournament selection committee that he chaired this year. Those who had already shouted that UAB didn't belong in this year's field -- which includes virtually everybody outside of the committee -- had all their talking points accurately documented in a 70-52 loss to Clemson in the First Four.

Clemson players yelled "Let's get 'em from the jump!" as they huddled in the tunnel before the game. And it seemed just that easy as they rolled out to a 25-7 lead, then stayed ahead by double digits most of the game. Hopefully for his own well-being, Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg couldn't find truTV on his satellite or cable provider.

The first-round game clearly and quickly exposed UAB as an impostor better suited for the NIT. Let's not forget, though, that Clemson came here with some gaps in its résumé as well. The only NCAA tournament teams the Tigers beat all year were Wofford and Florida State, at home.

"We definitely had some doubters," senior forward Jerai Grant said.

[+] EnlargeClemson coach Brad Brownell
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesFirst-year Clemson coach Brad Brownell's Tigers appeared to have everything clicking against UAB.
First-round asterisk or not, the fact remains that Clemson just won its first tournament game since 1997. And maybe that's not all because of the opponent.

The Tigers ended their season strong, beating fellow bubble team Virginia Tech and then wiping out Boston College by 23 points in their first ACC tournament game. They led North Carolina by 10 at halftime before falling in overtime in the ACC semis.

This is a team that plays solid defense and knows where its strength lies -- inside the 3-point arc. Grant continued his senior renaissance with a career-high 22 points, while forwards Devin Booker and Milton Jennings combined for another 21 points. Clemson outscored UAB 40-12 in the paint.

"That was our game plan offensively," guard Tanner Smith said. "Our post guys did a great job of taking their time and controlling the paint."

This is also a team playing for a first-year head coach in Brad Brownell, who installed a new motion offense. It shouldn't be too surprising that things seem to be coming together at the end of the season.

"I think we're playing the best basketball we've played all season, and that's how it's supposed to be right here toward the end," guard Andre Young said.

The end might not have arrived yet. The Tigers have a favorable draw in Round 2 against East Regional No. 5 seed West Virginia. Like them, the Mountaineers are a defensive-minded team with versatile big guys that doesn't shoot well from the outside.

But as with all First Four winners, Clemson faces a difficult travel turnaround. Tuesday's game didn't end until after midnight, and the second-round game in Tampa loomed about 36 hours later Thursday afternoon. At least the Tigers should have worked any tournament nerves out of their system.

"We can't have the excuse of having to play [Tuesday]," Tanner Smith said. "We can ride momentum into a game like that. I'm sure West Virginia and teams that haven't played feel like the tournament hasn't really started yet. For us, we're in the tournament grind already."

It's a grind made easier by a questionable opponent in the first round. We can pile on UAB, but all the team did was get on the charter plane that the NCAA provided. Head coach Mike Davis described it as "heartbreaking" when his players heard all the criticism immediately following their selection. And with star senior guard Aaron Johnson breaking his leg in the final minutes and limping out of University of Dayton Arena on crutches, it was hard not to feel a little sorry for the Blazers.

As for the selection committee, that's another story. Gene Smith might want to have those headphones ready again for Wednesday night. That's when VCU plays.

Bruce Weber is not having his finest season at Illinois. It's not just that the Illini are mediocre. It's that the Illini are mediocre despite having one of the most talented teams in the Big Ten, a team stocked with top-level recruits, three senior starters, a coterie of accurate outside shooters and a point guard who has at various times in his career looked like the best guard -- and arguably the best player -- in the country.

That point guard is Demetri McCamey. As you probably know, McCamey's senior season has not lived up to advance billing, especially during Big Ten play. The guard's overall season averages -- 14.4 points and 6.5 assists per game -- look solid, but they belie McCamey's ugly two-point field goal percentage (41.8 percent; by contrast, McCamey is shooting 47.2 percent from 3) and a recent midseason disappearing act. Since Jan. 11, Illinois has lost six of nine Big Ten games. In that span, McCamey has posted four single-digit scoring performances and a flurry of ugly shooting nights, including the following: 3-of-8, 3-of-13, 4-of-11, 2-of-11, 2-of-11, 2-of-9, 1-of-10. (His assist totals have also plummeted; McCamey hasn't posted most than five assists in any game since Jan. 18.)

[+] EnlargeBruce Weber
AP Photo/Darron CummingsBruce Weber's Illini haven't met the high expectations that were set heading into this season.
That most recent effort -- four points on 1-of-10 from the field in a home loss to Purdue -- came just three days after Illinois had seemed to right its ship with a solid win at Minnesota. That's when Bruce Weber benched McCamey, freshman Jereme Richmond and senior forward Mike Tisdale for the start of the game in one of those last-ditch, "Well, I've got to try something!" coaching moves you see desperate coaches use every now and again. And it seemed to work! McCamey played well, Illinois got the win, and whatever it was that had been bothering this team for weeks seemed to be a thing of the past.

Then Purdue came to town, Illinois lost thanks to a meandering, weakly played second half, and the Illini were suddenly right back to square one.

What's the cause of all this? What mysterious factors have caused a seemingly talented team -- and its seemingly elite point guard -- to be so uneven on the court? Is it chemistry? Coaching? Playing style? Something else? As reported by ESPN Chicago's Scott Powers, in an interview Friday on ESPN 1000 (two days before the Purdue loss), Weber took a crack at his own version of an answer:
"It's disappointing, some of it is Demetri, obviously," Weber said Friday on "The Waddle & Silvy Show" on ESPN 1000. "But the outside influences, just kill kids, I'm just telling you. I feel bad. He was playing so well, and all of a sudden, the runners, the agents, the third-party people, they're all telling him he's an all-American and this and that.

"Then, he stopped coming in to work hard and spend extra time on his shot and all the stuff you need to do. Here, I'm saying give a five-month commitment, put more time in, and they're telling him how great he is. It just screws up kids. It's not just me. If you talk to our the football coaches, you can talk to other coaches in the Big Ten, it's one of the worst things we have to deal with in college basketball is the outside influences, the third parties, the agents, the runners, whatever. It's that honestly.

[...] "He's a kid," Weber said. "If you're a kid, would you rather hear Coach Weber say 'come in and work harder' or 'you're great?'"

Later in the interview, Weber extended that philosophy to his whole team, saying the Illini hadn't been playing hard because "outside influences" started to infect individual players with concerns over playing time, minutes, exposure and the like.

Weber's right: This is not a problem unique to the Illini, nor is it a problem that is easily solved from a coaching perspective. "Outside influences," like that weird ant parasite from "Planet Earth," have a way of insinuating themselves into the fabric of successful teams, and once they're there they're very hard to expel.

Still, as much as you might feel for Weber -- battling all these sexy "outside influences" with the unappetizing alternatives of "commitment" and "hard work" and "more hours in the gym," which is not a fair fight -- at some point, the coach bears the brunt of the blame here. Ultimately, it's the program's job to make sure its players are collectively focused. Ultimately, it's the coach's job to make sure his program is adequately equipped for that effort. There's an old-fashioned term for failing in this regard. It's called "losing your team." Has Weber lost his?

We'll find out the rest of the way. No, it isn't the Big Ten contender we thought it could be; the Illini don't have the interior strength they need to compete with big, athletic frontcourts, and no level of emotional commitment is going to change that. (Illinois also continues to be a victim of poor shot selection; based on its percentages, it would behoove this team to take a few more 3s, which is something we've been saying since the loss to UIC.)

Still, this team is -- or at least should be -- too talented to keep this up. Can Weber wrest control of his squad back from the nefarious outside influences in time for a late-season push? Or is it already too late? If so, how much blame will he face for this season's disappointments? How restless will the natives -- who have vacillated on Weber throughout his up-and-down tenure at Illinois -- become then?

Illinois might not be the most entertaining bunch to watch this season, but you can't fault it for lacking intrigue. This remains a fascinating team. And not always for the right reasons.

The real reason Illinois lost to UIC

December, 21, 2010
12/21/10
11:56
AM ET
Yes, the Illinois-Chicago Flames beat the Illinois Fighting Illini. This happened Saturday. It's pretty hard to believe, all things considered, but it's right there, 57-54, etched in pixels forever, and no matter how hard you rub your eyes, that scoreline doesn't change.

How did it happen? How did a team with losses to Akron, Valparaiso, Central Michigan, Charleston, Illinois State, and Northern Illinois beat a loaded Illini machine expected to compete for the Big Ten title and a spot in the Final Four? According to coach Bruce Weber and guard Demetri McCamey, it's because the Illini haven't been practicing hard lately. From the Chicago Trib's Chris Hine:
The Illini skirted by Oakland and Northern Colorado before the house of cards crumbled Saturday in a stunning 57-54 defeat to Illinois-Chicago at the United Center.

"I have been alarmed by last week, after the Gonzaga game, how we played and our approach to practice," Weber said. "It caught up with us."

"We just lost our sense of urgency as far as how practice was," senior guard Demetri McCamey said. "Guys were earning minutes, pushing each other and going at it. Now it's a little bit soft and relaxed."

To be sure, practices are important, and lackadaisical practices can often lead to lackadaisical games. But a team as talented and experienced as Illinois shouldn't need good practices to beat a team like UIC. The Illini should be able to spend practice time playing NBA2K11 and still roll vastly inferior programs at the United Center.

The reason they didn't is far more disconcerting, at least if I'm an Illinois fan. It has less to do with nebulous concepts like "intensity" and much more to do with how Illinois approaches scoring on the offensive end: The Illini take way, way too many mid-range jump shots.

Despite the constant punditized bleating over the "lost art" of mid-range play, statistically, you're much better off taking interior shots and 3-pointers; those shots are either higher percentage attempts (layups, dunks, etc.) or reward you proportionately for the difficulty of the shot (3-pointers). This is something most coaches have by now figured out. (Speaking of NBA2K11, there's even a little piece in the game from digital Doris Burke, which quotes Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, who says this exact thing. Man, NBA2K11 is awesome.) The Illini, running Bruce Weber's old-school screen motion offense, end up taking a lot of 18-foot catch-and-shoot jumpers. Those should either be 3s, or the beginnings of dribble penetration. Far too often, those possessions end with jump shots.

This does two things. It robs the Illini of more attempts at the free throw line; Illinois ranks No. 317 in the nation in free throw rate. It also wastes points. Illinois shoots 40.6 percent from beyond the arc, the 19th-best mark in the country. But Weber's team only shoots 3s about 30 percent of the time the ball goes in the air, which is 245th-best. The calculus is simple: Shoot more 3s, score more points. Those shots are going to go in.

This is all somewhat worrisome, of course, but the good news is that this would seem relatively easy to change, at least as easy as demanding more intensity and competition from your players during practices. Illinois has loads of talent, but until they start to maximize it intelligently on the court -- and, yes, some stronger interior play from Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale wouldn't hurt, either -- the Illini are going to live and die by the least statistically accurate shot on the basketball court. That's suicide by a thousand cuts. This team is too talented, and its coach too smart, to let this go on much longer.

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