College Basketball Nation: Northwestern Wildcats

Video: Northwestern-NC State preview

December, 3, 2013
12/03/13
5:00
PM ET

Andy Katz and Seth Greenberg take a look at the matchup between Northwestern and NC State in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
This week, ESPN.com is breaking down the nonconference schedules of each team in nine of the nation's top leagues. Next up: the Big Ten.

ILLINOIS

Toughest: at UNLV (Nov. 26), vs. Oregon (Dec. 14 in Portland, Ore.), vs. Missouri (Dec. 21 in St. Louis)
Next toughest: at Georgia Tech (Dec. 3)
The rest: Alabama State (Nov. 8), Jacksonville State (Nov. 10), Valparaiso (Nov. 13), Bradley (Nov. 17), Chicago State (Nov. 22), IPFW (Nov. 29), vs. Auburn (Dec. 8 in Atlanta), Dartmonth (Dec. 10), UIC (Dec. 28 in Chicago)

Toughness scale: 6 -- It's hard to really give the Illini a solid schedule grade, because it's hard to know just how good Illinois' best opponents really are. For example: It is never easy to win in the Thomas & Mack Center, but still-unproven center Khem Birch is the most certain thing about the Rebels' personnel in 2013-14; it looks like Dave Rice's team will be a quality road opponent, but impossible to make a guarantee to this effect. The same goes for Oregon and Missouri, both of whom should be solid at the very least, either of which could completely disappoint if their respective transfers don't pan out. A six feels fair to me, but it's an educated guess.

INDIANA

Toughest: 2K Sports Classic (Nov. 21-22), at Syracuse (Dec. 3), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis)
Next toughest: N/A?
The rest: Chicago State (Nov. 8), LIU Brooklyn (Nov. 12), Samford (Nov. 15), Stony Brook (Nov. 17), Evansville (Nov. 26), North Florida (Dec. 7), Oakland (Dec. 10), Nicholls State (Dec. 20), Kennesaw State (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale: 5 -- Two years since the collapse of its long-standing annual date with Kentucky, the Hoosiers have yet to find a home-and-home or even a neutral-court partnership to replace the strength they lost when the rivalry went awry. As such, Indiana's marquee nonconference games have been reduced to their participation in events: The 2K Sports Classic, where they'll play Washington and then either Boston College or Connecticut; the Crossroads Classic, where they'll play Notre Dame in front of a predominantly crimson crowd in downtown Indianapolis; and the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The good news, at least as it pertains to schedule strength, is that this season's ACC/Big Ten draw sends IU to Syracuse, where they'll face a rabid Orange crowd and another very good Jim Boeheim team just months removed from their season-ending loss to the Cuse in March.

IOWA

Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30), Notre Dame (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: at Iowa State (Dec. 13)
The rest: UNC-Wilmington (Nov. 8), Nebraska-Omaha (Nov. 10), Maryland Eastern Shore (Nov. 14), Abilene Christian (Nov. 17), Penn (Nov. 22), vs. Drake (Dec. 7 in Des Moines, Iowa), Farleigh Dickinson (Dec. 9), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale: 6 -- Last season, the ahead-of-schedule Hawkeyes played some of the best defense in the Big Ten, finished top 20 in the Pomeroy adjusted efficiency rankings and made a deep run in the NIT. They were easily one of the best 60 teams in the country, but their nonconference schedule was so weak it precluded Fran McCaffery's squad from serious tournament consideration even as it played tight games with the best teams in the Big Ten every night. That shouldn't be as much of a problem this season, when Iowa will benefit from participation in the Battle 4 Atlantis (they'll face Xavier in the first round, and either Tennessee or UTEP in the second, maybe Kansas in the final?) and a much better opponent (Notre Dame) in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They also get Iowa State -- which lost much of last season's excellent offensive group, but retained rising sophomore Georges Niang and that insane Hilton Coliseum home court -- in a quality true road fixture. This slate still isn't a murderers' row, but it shouldn't hold the Big Ten's most fashionable title sleeper back, either.

MICHIGAN

Toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24), at Duke (Dec. 3), Arizona (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: at Iowa State (Nov. 17), vs. Stanford (Dec. 21 in Brooklyn)
The rest: UMass-Lowell (Nov. 8), South Carolina State (Nov. 12), Coppin State (Nov. 29), Houston Baptist (Dec. 7), Holy Cross (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 9 -- The 2012-13 national runners-up, and 2013-14 Big Ten co-favorites, will play a nonconference schedule befitting their newly elevated aspirations. The Puerto Rico Tip-Off, with VCU and Georgetown lurking, ranks among the best tournament events of November. The trip to Duke for the ACC/Big Ten needs little in the way of explanation. (Man, that is going to be a fun game.) The trip to Iowa State is no laughing matter, for reasons outlined in Iowa's blurb; the trip to Brooklyn to face defensive-minded Stanford will be a challenge, too. But the X factor in this schedule comes Dec. 14 when Sean Miller's loaded Arizona group arrives in Ann Arbor for a good old-fashioned campus nonconference tilt. Those kinds of games are rare in our modern, neutral court-dominated landscape, and neither program needed to schedule this one. But I'm happy to speak for most college basketball fans when I say how glad I am that they did.

MICHIGAN STATE

Toughest: vs. Kentucky (Nov. 12 in Chicago), North Carolina (Dec. 4), vs. Georgetown (Feb. 1 in New York City)
Next toughest: Coaches vs. Cancer Classic (Nov. 22-23), at Texas (Dec. 21)
The rest: McNeese State (Nov. 8), Columbia (Nov. 15), Portland (Nov. 18), Mount St. Mary's (Nov. 29), Oakland (Dec. 14), North Florida (Dec. 17), New Orleans (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 8 -- Most of Michigan State's schedule strength is derived from that monster Champions Classic matchup with potential preseason No. 1 Kentucky, John Calipari's most laughably-loaded group of talented freshmen ever -- which, two years removed from the 2012's 38-2 national title run, is saying something. The Dec. 4 home date against North Carolina won't be easy, but if the Tar Heels are without leading scorer and noted rental car enthusiast P.J. Hairston, the Spartans will be obvious favorites in the Breslin Center. Best-case scenario in the Coaches vs. Cancer (a win over Virginia Tech and a matchup with Oklahoma) still isn't much. The real pivot point comes in late December at Texas. For much of the past decade, that has been a brutal road test having less to do with Texas' crowds (sleepy) than with its teams (defensively brutal). If Barnes' team rebounds from last season's struggles and gets back to its usual spot in the top third of the Big 12, Tom Izzo's schedule looks a good sight harder. If not, it really comes down to that Kentucky game -- and what a game it will be. (Update: My first dig into the Spartans' schedule missed their Feb. 1 Super Bowl Sunday game against Georgetown in Madison Square Garden. The Hoyas are a bit of an unknown quantity without Otto Porter, but that's almost guaranteed to be a tough win to come away with, so I bumped them from seven to eight.)

MINNESOTA

Toughest: Maui Invitational (Nov. 25-27),
Next toughest: at Richmond (Nov. 16), Florida State (Dec. 3)
The rest: Lehigh (Nov. 8), Montana (Nov. 12), Coastal Carolina (Nov. 19), Wofford (Nov. 21), New Orleans (Dec. 7), South Dakota State (Dec. 10), Nebraska-Omaha (Dec. 20), Texas A&M Corpus Christi (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 4 -- The Gophers have at least one true standout game on their schedule: Their first-round Maui Invitational matchup with Syracuse, the best the 2013 Maui field has to offer. Which is not to say their trip to Richmond will be easy; indeed, after an injury-plagued 2012-13 season, Chris Mooney's program looks ready to pop back into tourney-bid contention this season. But that's basically it, besides a decent second Maui game with either Arkansas or Cal. Without would-be freshmen Andrew Wiggins (who chose Kansas instead) and Xavier Rathan-Meyes (who chose FSU, but wasn't cleared academically by the NCAA), the Seminoles could be in for another sub-.500 campaign, and from there it's all home cupcakes befitting a transitioning group -- which, under first-year coach Richard Pitino, is exactly what the Gophers are.

NEBRASKA

Toughest: at Creighton (Dec. 8), at Cincinnati (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: Charleston Classic (Nov. 21-22)
The rest: Florida Gulf Coast (Nov. 8), Western Illinois (Nov. 12), South Carolina State (Nov. 17), Northern Illinois (Nov. 30), Miami (Dec. 4), Arkansas State (Dec. 14), The Citadel (Dec. 21)

Toughness scale: 5 -- The signs of second-year coach Tim Miles' tepid forward progress are evident not only in the impending opening of Nebraska's new $300 million arena, or in his signing of impressive New Zealand native Tai Webster (who will immediately be the Cornhuskers' best player when he takes the court against Dunk City in early November), but also in Nebraska's schedule. The Charleston Classic could yield a matchup with New Mexico (not to mention first-round opponent UMass), the Dec. 28 trip to Cincinnati is a perfectly respectable road trip, and Dec. 8's visit to Creighton -- the one program whose success can be said to have played a role in Nebraska's newfound commitment to hoops -- has a chance to put the Cornhuskers on the radar before Big Ten play commences. Miles & Co. are still a year or two away, but there are green shoots all over the place here, and the slightly improved schedule is just one more piece of evidence.

NORTHWESTERN

Toughest: Las Vegas Invitational (Nov. 28-29), at NC State (Dec. 4)
Next toughest: at Stanford (Nov. 14)
The rest: Eastern Illinois (Nov. 9), Illinois State (Nov. 17), UIC (Nov. 20), IUPUI (Nov. 22), Gardner-Webb (Nov. 25), Western Michigan (Dec. 7), Mississippi Valley State (Dec. 16), Brown (Dec. 22), DePaul (Dec. 27)

Toughness scale: 6 -- First-year coach Chris Collins is the first person to admit that his rebuilding project will be a multiyear affair. The immediate future will be just as challenging: Collins has to get a group of players recruited to play former coach Bill Carmody's very specific (some would say gimmicky) style to update their entire philosophy toward a modern and more conventional approach. But Collins does have some players at his disposal in Year 1 -- fifth-year medical redshirt Drew Crawford, post-suspension junior JerShon Cobb, promising sophomore center Alex Olah -- set to play a nonconference schedule that helpfully avoids the softness that plagued the Wildcats' nascent tournament hopes in recent seasons. Two true road noncon games at Stanford and NC State complement a solid pair of back-to-back fixtures (Missouri, UCLA) in the Las Vegas Invitational. The point of all this? Northwestern has the schedule to compete for a tournament bid in Year 1. Whether it will have the results to get there -- and make Collins a lionized, conquering hero in 12 months’ time -- will be fascinating to see.

OHIO STATE

Toughest: at Marquette (Nov. 16), vs. Notre Dame (Dec. 21 in New York City)
Next toughest: Maryland (Dec. 4)
The rest: Morgan State (Nov. 9), Ohio (Nov. 12), American (Nov. 20), Wyoming (Nov. 25), North Florida (Nov. 29), Central Connecticut State (Dec. 7), Bryant (Dec. 11), North Dakota State (Dec. 14), Delaware (Dec. 18), Louisiana-Monroe (Dec. 27)

Toughness scale: 4 -- Save a trip to Duke, the Buckeyes' early schedule in 2012 was so gentle as to make their quality difficult to gauge. It took until February, when Shannon Scott, Aaron Craft, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson congealed into a monster on the defensive perimeter, for the Buckeyes took on the look of a national title contender. (And they would have gotten to the Final Four, too, if it wasn't for those meddling kids Wichita State Shockers.) This season's slate is a bit more difficult, but not too much; its main attraction is that early road trip to Marquette, where Buzz Williams has forged an annual Sweet 16 attendee. Even if Dez Wells and the Maryland Terrapins prove better than expected, it's hard to see how they can put enough points on the Buckeyes in Columbus to keep pace. Four seems about right.

PENN STATE

Toughest: at Pittsburgh (Dec. 3)
Next toughest: La Salle (Nov. 19), Barclays Center Classic (Nov. 29-30 in Brooklyn, N.Y.)
The rest: Wagner (Nov. 9), Bucknell (Nov. 13), Longwood (Nov. 24), Monmouth (Nov. 26), Marshall (Dec. 7), Princeton (Dec. 14), Mount St. Mary's (Dec. 22)

Toughness scale: 4 -- Like Nebraska, Penn State's schedule is improved over recent seasons, and with D.J. Newbill returning and 2011-12's do-everything star Tim Frazier back from a season-ending Achilles tear, the Nittany Lions should improve along with it. It might be unfair to La Salle to keep them off that top line; the Explorers could still be a very dangerous team even without senior guard Ramon Galloway. The Barclays Center Classic offers a game against St. John's and a matchup with either Georgia Tech or Ole Miss, and putting a trip to Pittsburgh on the schedule doesn't only help coach Pat Chambers build his program's brand in a local recruiting zone, it also gives the Nittany Lions a real-deal road game against one of the nation's most consistent (and consistently RPI-friendly) programs.

PURDUE

Toughest: Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1)
Next toughest: Boston College (Dec. 4), vs. Butler (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis), at West Virginia (Dec. 22)
The rest: Northern Kentucky (Nov. 8), Central Connecticut State (Nov. 13), Rider (Nov. 17), Eastern Illinois (Nov. 20), Siena (Nov. 24), Eastern Michigan (Dec. 7), Maryland Eastern Shore (Dec. 17)

Toughness scale: 5 -- The Boilermakers have one of those schedules that doesn't necessarily look great from this vantage point, but stands a reasonable chance of looking tougher and tougher as the season rolls on. How so? For starters, there's at least one really good game here -- the first-round Old Spice matchup with Oklahoma State and star point guard Marcus Smart. But a trip to West Virginia is never easy, and it's hard to imagine Bob Huggins' team repeating last season's monumental struggles. Boston College is a fringe ACC sleeper. And if Butler is better than most expect -- the Boilermakers could play the Bulldogs twice, if the two teams meet at the Old Spice in Orlando -- Matt Painter's team could benefit from a slate that proves better than the sum of its parts.

WISCONSIN

Toughest: Florida (Nov. 12), at Virginia (Dec. 4), Marquette (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Cancun Challenge (Nov. 26-27), vs. St. John's (Nov. 8 in Sioux Falls, S.D.)
The rest: at Green Bay (Nov. 16), North Dakota (Nov. 19), Bowling Green (Nov. 21), Oral Roberts (Nov. 23), Milwaukee (Dec. 11), Eastern Kentucky (Dec. 14), Prairie View A&M (Dec. 28)

Toughness scale: 9 -- The Badgers' schedule is tough enough in the abstract. It's even tougher when you consider how quickly Bo Ryan will throw his team into the fire. The geographically baffling season opener against St. John's in Sioux Falls is one thing, but that game is followed by a visit from Florida just four days later. In late November, the Badgers will be the likely favorite in the two-game Cancun Challenge, but will have to get by both Saint Louis and (probably) West Virginia to come away with two wins. Then it's off to Charlottesville for a revenge game against Virginia, just three days before Marquette comes to the Kohl Center for another edition of Wisconsin's best basketball rivalry. Merely listing these games out doesn't quite do the schedule justice. You need to see the chronology to get the full, brutal picture.

Correction: An earlier version of this post substituted Temple coach Fran Dunphy for Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. It also neglected to list Michigan State's Feb. 1 game vs. Georgetown in Madison Square Garden, which is a pretty awesome game. Eamonn regrets the errors, and is now atoning via self-flagellation.

Times/networks for Big Ten/ACC Challenge

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
11:00
AM ET
The times and networks have been finalized for the 15th annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge, which will take place Dec. 3-4 on ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU.

All 12 Big Ten teams and 12 of the 15 ACC schools will participate in the 2013 Challenge, including the three newest ACC members (Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse). Clemson, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest will not play in this year's event.

The ACC and Big Ten split last year’s Challenge with six wins each. In the event of a tie, the Commissioner’s Cup remains with the conference that won the previous year, which was the Big Ten in 2011. The ACC holds a 10-3-1 Challenge record, winning the first 10 events (1999-2008) before the Big Ten won the next three (2009-2011).

For an analysis of this year's matchups, check out Eamonn Brennan's take from back in May. As for the times and networks, here they are ...

Tuesday, Dec. 3 (all times ET)
7:15 - Indiana at Syracuse (ESPN)
7:15 - Illinois at Georgia Tech (ESPN2)
7:30 - Penn State at Pittsburgh (ESPNU)
9:15 - Michigan at Duke (ESPN)
9:15 - Notre Dame at Iowa (ESPN2)
9:30 - Florida State at Minnesota (ESPNU)

Wednesday, Dec. 4 (all times ET)
7:00 - Maryland at Ohio State (ESPN or ESPN2)
7:00 - Wisconsin at Virginia (ESPN or ESPN2)
7:30 - Northwestern at NC State (ESPNU)
9:00 - North Carolina at Michigan State (ESPN)
9:00 - Boston College at Purdue (ESPN2)
9:30 - Miami at Nebraska (ESPNU)

A few notes on this year's matchups:
  • Seven of the 12 games will mark first-time Challenge matchups: Michigan-Duke, Maryland-Ohio State, Miami-Nebraska and Boston College-Purdue, plus the debut of the three new ACC members Syracuse (vs. Indiana), Notre Dame (at Iowa) and Pitt (vs. Penn State).
  • In addition to first-time Challenge games, several of the teams are infrequent opponents: Nebraska holds a 3-1 record against Miami; Purdue won both previous meetings against BC; Ohio State and Maryland last played in 1985 with OSU three out of the five all-time games; and Notre Dame will play Iowa for the first time since 1990 and holds a 8-5 series record.
  • Old Pennsylvania rivals Pitt and Penn State will meet for the first time since 2005. The Panthers have won the past five contests.
  • Illinois/Georgia Tech and Wisconsin/Virginia will follow their first-time Challenge meetings in 2012 with a rematch in the 2013 event. The Illini and Cavaliers won last year's matchups.
  • Best Three Out of Five: North Carolina/Michigan State and Minnesota/Florida State will meet in the Challenge for the fifth time. Both series are 2-2.
  • Rubber Match: Northwestern and NC State will square off in the Challenge for the third time. Northwestern won in 2009 and NC State in 2002.
  • Syracuse and Indiana have met five previous times in non-Challenge games, with the Orange winning the past four, including last season’s Sweet 16 matchup.
On July 4, while you were grilling meats and hanging out with family and friends and doing other awesome things we Americans do on the Fourth of July, something profoundly strange happened: Northwestern landed a top-75 recruit.

No, seriously: Northwestern landed a top-75 recruit.

[+] EnlargeVictor Law
Kelly Kline/Getty ImagesVictor Law is the first top-75 recruit slated to join Northwestern in 20 years.
His name is Vic Law, he's the No. 66-ranked player in the class of 2014, per the ESPN 100. Law hails from South Holland, Ill., and he's a 6-foot-6 athlete with versatile skills -- he can rebound, handle, start the break, finish in traffic, knock down open jumpers, and defend multiple positions, according to our Recruiting Nation scouting report. And the news of his signing, almost surely thanks to the timing, passed us all by, at least until Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn examined the Law signing, and what it means for Northwestern, in a Wednesday column:
One four-star commitment can't change a program, and there are higher-impact players than Law in the class of 2014, but in terms of need and momentum, his pledge will go down as one of the biggest of the summer. Collins was used to pulling in elite players as a Duke assistant, but Northwestern? Zero-NCAA-bids-ever Northwestern? Its last top-75 recruit was center Evan Eschmeyer -- in 1993. Three months into Collins' tenure at NU, he ended that 20-year drought by selling the promise of a turnaround. "He just needed one person to believe in him," Law said. "And I believe. I know we're going to win."

It's difficult to overstate just how important Law's signing is to Northwestern. For more than a decade under Bill Carmody, the Wildcats never recruited a player as talented as Law. Under Carmody, Northwestern's rosters were always assemblages of misfit toys -- talented but tiny guards, lights-out shooters who couldn't slide their feet and forward "projects." When Wildcats fans asked why their teams always looked like the baby day-care room in "Toy Story 3," they were given, whether directly or indirectly, a maxim to repeat: Because it's Northwestern. Of course NU couldn't recruit. Of course the facilities weren't attractive. Of course the academic standards were too limiting. Of course recruiting meant plucking leftovers and unknowns. The roster would always look like a market inefficiency experiment taken too far, because ... well, because it was Northwestern.

Now, just a couple months into the job, new coach Chris Collins has made that maxim obsolete. How? Law provides a handy case-study, as Luke writes:
Law Sr. can explain [why his son didn't like Northwestern before Collins was hired]; he recently retired from the Chicago Police Department after 27 years, part of that time spent as a homicide detective on the city's troubled South Side, and is not one to mince words. "When we went up there to visit [sophomore year]," Law Sr. said, "Carmody came across as arrogant -- like that the university would sell itself, and either you want to come here or you don't. And I'm saying to myself, 'You haven't won anything!' You had a sour taste in your mouth when you left, and to be honest with you, had Carmody still been there, we never would have considered Northwestern. Not ever. That's how bad it was for us."

Yikes.

Now, that's probably not the sole reason Carmody struggled to recruit, or even the most important one. Nor is Collins going to suddenly turn into John Calipari 2.0. But for the biggest signing in the past two decades of Northwestern basketball, the difference really was that simple. Attitude. Salesmanship. Belief. You know, oh, what's the word? Oh, right: recruiting.

You know that scene in "Pleasantville" when Joan Allen sees the stained glass in vivid color for the first time? Remember the look on her face? That's your average Northwestern fan right now. Law may or may not revolutionize Evanston, Ill., in the next five years, and Collins will surely face his share of struggles. But the new coach has, in remarkably short order, sent a clear signal to beleaguered fans: Their program doesn't have to be bad. What a concept.
Editor's Note: Over two days, we're releasing the brackets/matchups for 11 of the top early-season events. Starting Wednesday at 10 a.m. ET, we'll unveil the final six: Charleston, 2K Sports, Diamond Head, CBE, Wooden and Maui. A thread of previews and info for all 11 tourneys can be found here.

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

Schedule for the Las Vegas Invitational:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five players to watch:

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: There's no title game in this one, but my prediction is that UCLA and Missouri will get out of Las Vegas 2-0. That's what they need to do for some momentum heading into the heart of the nonconference schedule. But Northwestern may be able to upset the projected headliners. Don't sleep on the Wildcats.
1. In two weeks, the draft will be over and it will be easy to assess by reviewing the draft to see who made a mistake by coming out too soon from college. Late second-round picks usually don't get guaranteed money and not getting drafted means the player will have a harder time having to earn a spot. So much can change in the next two weeks but two players whose decisions appeared questionable may have been well-advised on their decisions after all. North Carolina's Reggie Bullock has the size and the quick shooting ability to make the transition. In watching him work out, he has solid first-round ability. He still needs to work on his ballhandling but can more than hold his own in a comparable position battle. The same could be true of New Mexico's Tony Snell. Bullock seems to be a lock for the first while Snell is making his case to be chosen late in the first round, too. There will be others who missed and some who surprise even more. But these two look like they made the right call.

2. Former Holy Cross and Seton Hall coach George Blaney retired Thursday at UConn after serving in a top assistant role for Jim Calhoun and then for Kevin Ollie in his first season as a head coach. Blaney was an unheralded person for the Huskies but a key behind the scenes during the rise to a title and then navigating through difficult times. Calhoun's health problems and suspension could have steered the program off course. But Blaney was always there as the sage adviser. Blaney had great command of his team, was well versed on the league and had a competent, realistic grasp on the current team. He was able to calm Calhoun down, offer respected advice and mentor the younger coaches on the staff. He should feel proud that he served the school well.

3. Northwestern coach Chris Collins said as a young head coach he wanted someone with experience to help him out. Hiring his former Glenbrook North High School coach Brian James, a longtime NBA assistant, who had worked with his father Doug, was a mature and intelligent move. Collins has played and coached, as an assistant, in high-pressure moments at Duke. But he had never been in those situations where the onus is on him to make the decision. Having James on his side will be a huge plus. Memphis coach Josh Pastner hired Willis Wilson in this capacity when he first got his job. Not every first-time coach makes the right decisions on a staff. There has to be trust and familiarity to make it work. This one should prove to be smart for Northwestern and Collins.
1. The NCAA's random date of April 16 to declare for the NBA draft isn't pressuring a number of players into making quick decisions. Coaches are now savvy to the date as being meaningless. That's why Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk may wait to decide until the NBA's own early-entry deadline of April 28. Olynyk is probably going to be the same player in the NBA whether he declares next season or this. He is a Wooden All-America and, if he were to return, would be one of the contenders for player of the year. Missouri's Phil Pressey is also weighing a similar decision over the next few weeks. A number of players haven't outlined their intentions but have plenty of time, like Miami's Shane Larkin, Kansas' Ben McLemore, Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, Georgetown's Otto Porter, Ohio State's Deshaun Thomas, Syracuse's C.J. Fair and Michael Carter-Williams, Louisville's Russ Smith as well as Indiana's Cody Zeller. Cal's Allen Crabbe joined the list of draftees earlier Wednesday. I fully expect Indiana's Victor Oladipo, Louisville's Gorgui Dieng, UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad and Michigan's Trey Burke to declare soon. No official word out of Connecticut, but the staff is anticipating -- at this point -- that guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright will return (smart move if it happens, since they don't have an NBA home to go to next season).

2. The Big Ten suddenly got incredibly younger with this week's two coaching hires -- Northwestern announcing Chris Collins and Minnesota tabbing Richard Pitino. The under-40 club will give the league a new look. The two take over programs that are striving for consistency, but both desperately need an upgrade in facilities to hang with the big boys. Collins and Pitino will need to use their youthful enthusiasm to build momentum since the dollars aren't in place for facilities they were used to -- Collins was at Duke and Pitino at Louisville and Florida before his stop at Florida International. Northwestern had been looking at Collins for quite some time. But Pitino was clearly a new name for Minnesota in the past week as athletic director Norwood Teague looked for an off-the-grid-type hire like he made at Virginia Commonwealth. Pitino got off to an impressive start in his coaching career at FIU with the upset of Middle Tennessee in the Sun Belt tournament and a chance to earn the league's automatic NCAA tournament berth. Now he'll face his toughest challenge of his career. He has a brand name in basketball, which carries weight, but will need to put together a strong staff to quickly earn the trust of his players this spring and summer. This can work at both places. Memphis, for example, has been a soaring success under Josh Pastner. Pastner led the Tigers to conference titles and NCAA tournament appearances as a young, vibrant assistant-turned-head-coach of a major program. Collins was a fit at Northwestern so there's no issue there. But give Pitino a chance to see if this could work.

3. Old Dominion looked like it was set to go to former Western Kentucky and Georgia coach Dennis Felton before the Monarchs and athletic director Wood Selig tabbed American's Jeff Jones. This hire came out of left field, but might end up being one of the better fits. Jones played and coached at Virginia and should be able to recruit well in the fertile Tidewater area. Jones had made American a consistent Patriot League contender, which isn't easy to do in a conference where Bucknell and Lehigh are the anchors. ODU knows who it is and wanted to gravitate toward a coach that made sense. This hire does.
1. Anthony Bennett's decision to leave for the NBA was expected. The UNLV freshman forward will contend for a top five position in the draft. But Bennett is not the norm in this season's class of possible draft picks. A number of players are making decisions to leave without any guarantee of position in the first round, let alone the second. The NCAA has given this new draft date rule a go and it's a failure. Having players make up their mind within a week after the Final Four (this year April 16) gives players no chance for a real read on their status without the chance to play in Chicago at the draft camp or for teams. The NBA's deadline of two weeks later is the one that holds real meaning. Still, international players can withdraw from the draft up until 10 days prior to the draft in June. Why shouldn't American college players be given the same chance? The ACC started this mess by pushing this rule to help coaches fill roster spots in the spring. Well, the talent level is hardly equal at this time of the year. The end product for the NBA and the college game would be better served with a more informed decision by any of the players considering leaving.

2. Tubby Smith's decision to go to Texas Tech should go down as one of the most surprising recent moves. I was convinced Smith would either take some time off after he was fired at Minnesota or maybe go back to the mid-Atlantic area to coach -- even if it were at a lower level. Smith can coach at any spot. But I wasn't sure he would want to take on another rebuild. Texas Tech will always have a hard climb in men's basketball in the Big 12. The Red Raiders have facilities but drawing has been an issue and the program hasn't resonated as much within the state. Texas Tech hasn't shied away from brand names with Bob Knight and now Smith. Smith has had to face plenty of challenges in his career. Clearly, he isn't ducking another chance at a point when he could have sought a softer landing. He'll need to ensure he's got a solid staff that is as energized for this tall task as much as he must be to take on getting the Red Raiders out the bottom of the Big 12.

3. As Chris Collins gets ready to take over Northwestern officially Tuesday, remember that coaching wasn't the issue with the Wildcats. Bill Carmody performed well in coaching Northwestern, as expected. The issue for Northwestern was unfortunate injuries and a few late-game plays/decisions on the court that cost them a chance to go to the NCAA tournament in each of the last three seasons. This past season never got off right due to the loss of three starters at various points of the season. Collins will provide positive energy and give Northwestern the youthful voice it now craves. Collins shouldn't have an issue recruiting, either. Players will want to sign up for the challenge of playing for him and getting the Wildcats to its first-ever NCAA tournament. Collins has a positive vibe about him and an ability to connect to any age group. This program was on the doorstep of breaking through. Carmody got them to that point. There's no reason Collins won't bust that door down. Finishing in the top eight in the eventual new 14-team Big Ten is more than palatable for Northwestern every few seasons. And the Big Ten should be in contention for eight bids on a yearly basis with Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Illinois and then a rotation from the rest, including 2014 newcomer Maryland, taking turns at No. 7 and No. 8.
1. Tubby Smith and his staff had no idea they were about to be fired Monday morning as they sat in a staff meeting at 10 a.m. going over recruiting, offseason workout plans and evaluations of the Gophers' loss to Florida the previous day. Members of the Minnesota staff said they were sitting in the meeting when they started receiving text messages from coaching colleagues telling them they had been fired. Smith told them that he had to meet with the administration at 1 p.m. It was then, according to the staff, that Smith and ultimately the staff found out they had been fired. Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague obviously has the right to fire Smith and the staff. But he should have handled this differently. This was akin to how Seth Greenberg and his staff found out he was being fired a year ago at Virginia Tech. Greenberg was unaware that a decision had already been made. A news conference had been called but Greenberg wasn't informed of the details of the event. ADs need to make sure the staff knows before the public. That's called common courtesy.

2. Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips is expected to name a coach to replace Bill Carmody by the end of the week, according to a source. I'll be surprised if it's not Chris Collins of Duke. The Duke associate head coach has been interested in this job for years. The timing is right for him to leave Duke and forge his own path. He'll energize the program. But he'll need to have an experienced staff to deal with going against coaches like Tom Izzo and Bo Ryan. Collins shouldn't fret about being in crazed environments. He's done that his whole playing and coaching career at Duke.

3. I don't understand why schools are releasing that players are checking out the draft process but will make up their mind by April 16, the arbitrary NCAA deadline. There is no need to go public when all they're doing is seeking an opinion from the NBA advisory committee, which players do every year through their college coaches. There is no more testing the waters. And even if a player decides or states publicly he's coming back on April 16, he still has two weeks to tell the NBA he's in the draft. The NBA's deadline is the only one that matters for entering the NBA draft.
1. Jaren Sina, a top recruit out of New Jersey for Northwestern, was granted a release by NU AD Jim Phillips Monday, according to the Chicago Tribune. Sina may still go to Northwestern, his father was quoted by the Trib. But the actions of Phillips should be applauded. He took the time to fly out to New Jersey Monday upon making the decision of firing Bill Carmody. He wanted to talk to the prospective recruit and make an attempt to keep him but at the same time honor the family's request. There is no reason to turn this into some protracted fight when a player may not want to attend the school. The genuine gesture by Phillips would likely be respected by the Sina family if they connect with the new hire. Northwestern could easily play hard ball and not release Sina. But what would that prove? Phillips is being a hands-on athletic director, trying to get this hire right with the correct fit and at the same time ensuring there is a comfort level with the incoming players. More ADs should take note.

2. Arizona coach Sean Miller was fined $25,000 by the Pac-12 for his postgame behavior during the conference tournament in questioning the officiating. Rutgers fined Mike Rice $50,000 during the season and suspended him for three games for his behavior in practice in the previous year. The NCAA committee on infractions suspended Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett for the first five games of the WCC season in 2013-14 for a failure to monitor violations. This is no longer a trend. This is the new normal for coaches. They are being singled out and, in some cases, being held accountable and, in other cases, being held responsible for the actions of their subordinates. This is a new era and coaches now have to be on guard and on edge for the way they are being watched -- and ultimately punished -- for actions by schools, conferences and the NCAA.

3. I'd love to say more players will stay but the draft may be the weakest in years, which means spots are available. That's why it should come as no surprise that Tony Mitchell of North Texas will declare for the draft Wednesday, as first reported by CBSSports.com. North Texas coach Tony Benford said Monday night Mitchell still has to make it official but this is not a shock. UNT struggled through an injury-riddled season and went 12-20. Mitchell is still a potential lottery pick, assuming he comes out, according to Benford due to his skill set. Mitchell will be one of the first to declare but he likely will lead another exodus.

3-point shot: Howland over Altman

March, 15, 2013
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1. Oregon's Dana Altman got the Pac-12 coach-of-the-year award, but the honor should have gone to UCLA's Ben Howland. Howland has done his best coaching job since he has been at UCLA -- and that includes the three consecutive Final Four runs. Consider this: UCLA won the Pac-12 outright despite losing two rotation players, had to deal with eligibility and injury issues with Shabazz Muhammad and pieced together a team that had a mix of transfers and freshmen to win the conference. Howland was able to get Larry Drew II to play to his potential in his last season in college. Howland had to alter the way he coached. And he did all of this under the pressure and scrutiny that accompanied a perception that his job was in jeopardy. The Bruins had their moments of hard-to-fathom losses like Cal Poly early and at Washington State late -- but they still found a way to win the conference and are a real threat to make a run in March.

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

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

Video: Michigan St. 71, Northwestern 61

March, 10, 2013
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Four of Michigan State's starters scored in double figures as they defeated Northwestern 71-61.

Observations from Thursday night

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John Calipari has tried numerous tactics in recent weeks to light a spark within his Kentucky basketball team. One afternoon, he even staged an impromptu dodgeball game to loosen the mood and improve chemistry.

Nothing has worked.

Thursday’s 72-62 loss at Georgia marked the fourth defeat in the past seven games for the Wildcats, who will probably need to beat Florida in Saturday’s regular-season finale to have any shot of making the NCAA tournament.

Center Willie Cauley-Stein shrugged his shoulders when he was asked what Kentucky could do to turn things around.

“Have faith?” he said. “Go to church? Maybe that’s what we need to -- go to church as a team and pray for each other.”

Even divine intervention might not be enough to help the Wildcats at this point. If Kentucky can’t beat Arkansas and Georgia, there is no reason to believe it can get past a Florida squad many pundits have tagged as a Final Four contender.

The Gators defeated Calipari’s team 69-52 in Gainesville on Feb. 12. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky’s best player, tore his anterior cruciate ligament in that contest and UK hasn’t been the same since. Granted, even before Noel’s injury, the Wildcats weren’t very good. Kentucky’s résumé includes very few quality wins -- and a bunch of bad losses.

“I’m mad,” guard Archie Goodwin told reporters after Thursday’s loss. “There’s no way we should lose to Georgia. There’s no way we should lose to Arkansas.

“When we play like we’re supposed to, there’s not anyone in the country we can’t beat. When we play like this, when we play soft as a team, anyone can beat us.”

Calipari, to his credit, said he is to blame for his squad’s collapse.

“I’m so disappointed in the job I’ve done with this team,” he said Thursday night. “I’ve never had a team not cohesive at this time of year. Every one of my teams ... cohesive. Every one of them had a will to win. Every one of them had a fight.

“If this team doesn’t have that, that’s on me.”

[+] EnlargeJosh Scott
Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY SportsJosh Scott and Colorado outmuscled an Oregon team that could've nabbed a share of the Pac-12 title.
Here are a few other observations from Thursday’s games:

1. Does anyone want to win the Pac-12?

UCLA and Oregon entered the week tied for first in the conference standings with two games to play. Somehow, though, UCLA lost to last-place Washington State in Pullman on Wednesday, which meant Oregon could’ve clinched at least a share of the league's regular-season crown by beating Colorado on Thursday.

The Ducks responded by losing 76-53 in Boulder. And the Buffs didn’t even have Andre Roberson, who missed the game with a viral illness. Each team has one game remaining. UCLA plays at Washington on Saturday; Oregon takes on Utah in Salt Lake City the same day.

Whatever happens, no one can argue that the parity in the Pac-12 is greater than any conference in the country. Next week’s league tournament should be fun.

2. I loved the shot of Michigan State coach Tom Izzo jumping up and wrapping his arms around the neck of 6-foot-10 forward Adreian Payne during a timeout in the Spartans’ 58-43 victory over Wisconsin. Payne had just taken a hard fall under the basket after missing a dunk, but he eventually popped back up. Izzo loved seeing that toughness and resiliency -- not just from Payne, but from his entire team.

Michigan State entered the game toting three consecutive losses, all by single digits and all against ranked opponents. But by winning Thursday, Michigan State put itself in a position to clinch a share of the Big Ten title. Indiana sits atop the conference standings at 13-4. Three other teams (Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State) are 12-5.

If Michigan defeats Indiana on Sunday in Ann Arbor, four teams will finish in a tie for first. That’s assuming, of course, that Michigan State and Ohio State take care of business in their regular-season finales against Northwestern and Illinois, respectively.

Whatever happens, Michigan State should feel good about itself entering the Big Ten tournament following Thursday’s dominating victory over an excellent Wisconsin squad.

3. I’ve got to think Northwestern’s loss to Penn State on Thursday marked Bill Carmody’s final home game as the Wildcats’ head coach. Northwestern has never made the NCAA tournament and it won’t get there this year under Carmody, who is in his 13th season. Losing to the Big Ten’s worst team on Senior Night is about as bad as it gets. Duke assistant Chris Collins has been mentioned as a possible replacement. Another coach who would be a good fit: Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew.

4. Michael Snaer’s ability to come through in the clutch continues to amaze me. The Florida State guard scored on a left-handed runner in traffic with 4 seconds remaining to propel the Seminoles past Virginia 53-51. Snaer was fouled on the play, and he made the ensuing free throw.

The game winner was the fourth for Snaer this season and his sixth over the past two.

Virginia, which had fought back from an 11-point deficit to take the lead, has now lost four of its past six games. The Cavaliers are on the NCAA tournament bubble.

Video: Ohio State 63, Northwestern 53

February, 28, 2013
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Lenzelle Smith scored 24 points as No. 16 Ohio State won 63-53 at Northwestern.

Video: Ohio State 69, Northwestern 59

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Deshaun Thomas scored 22 points as 13th-ranked Ohio State outran Northwestern down the stretch to end a two-game losing streak, 69-59.

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