College Basketball Nation: Tarik Black

ST. LOUIS -- There he sat on Friday, a 7-foot specimen -- taller in shoes -- on the bench, dressed in that familiar blue warm-up.

The breakout star of this Kansas basketball season, freshman Joel Embiid didn’t play in Kansas’ tough test of an NCAA tournament opener, an 80-69 victory over 15th-seeded Eastern Kentucky.

His presence at the Scottrade Center, no doubt, torments some of the thousands who drove across the state of Missouri this week. Nursing an injured back, Embiid won’t play in St. Louis. He didn’t play at the Big 12 tournament as Kansas exited in the semifinals.

[+] EnlargeJoel Embiid
MCT via Getty ImagesJoel Embiid, right, has become a fixture on Kansas' bench but could return to the lineup if the Jayhawks advance to the second weekend of the tournament.
He might return next week if the Jayhawks beat Stanford on Sunday and advance to the Sweet 16.

And all of it mattered very little on Friday.

Forget those longing looks to the bench. Kansas trailed 23-14 less than 12 minutes into the game, and it had almost nothing to do with the absence of the imported big man from Cameroon.

The Jayhawks committed 13 turnovers in the first half against EKU’s frenetic-paced defense. Kansas owned the inside, even without Embiid. It did not make a 3-point field goal all day, attempting only seven.

But if it can’t take care of the basketball, even Embiid can’t help.

Which is why the second half on Friday ought to provide hope.

The Jayhawks entered the tournament with a national ranking of No. 299 in turnover margin. Against the Colonels, they hit their per-game figure in the first half -- then lost the handle just once in the final 20 minutes.

Credit Conner Frankamp. He’s another freshman. He’s the antithesis of Embiid, 12 inches shorter and from Wichita, Kan. On Friday, Frankamp understood exactly what the Jayhawks needed.

“There’s a lot of pressure on Conner to be a calming influence on us,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I thought he handled everything beautifully. He ran our team.”

Frankamp started tournament play right there alongside Embiid, figuring he might sit all day. Before Friday, he played 1.8 minutes per game.

Against the Ohio Valley Conference champion, Frankamp stayed on the court for 25, a season high.

“I just try to get in there and feed the ball to whoever is open as best I can and play sound on the offensive end and defensive end,” Frankamp said.

He said he focused on taking care of the basketball. He committed no turnovers, scored 10 points and dished four assists.

Mission accomplished. Little man to the rescue.

Self said the Jayhawks felt fortunate to escape Eastern Kentucky, which used a 10-0 run in the second half to regain a 48-45 lead after Kansas began to assert control.

“The key was to pound the ball inside,” KU forward Perry Ellis said, “and we did that.”

[+] EnlargeConner Frankamp
Icon SMIConner Frankamp's poise and patience helped push Kansas past Eastern Kentucky.
Tarik Black and Jamari Traylor took over. Embiid himself couldn’t have done better work in the paint.

Kansas didn’t need him on Friday. It needed Frankamp, who watched Duke fall to No. 14 seed Mercer before KU took the floor in St. Louis. The game in Raleigh, N.C., reminded the Jayhawks that anything can happen in the tournament.

Still, Self said, he didn’t know if his players “totally respected” Eastern Kentucky’s ability to create havoc.

Senior guard Glenn Cosey led the charge early for the Colonels, hitting four of his first five 3-pointers. He was everywhere on the offensive and defensive ends.

Eastern Kentucky shook Kansas with a tricky zone defense for a few possessions before halftime.

“I didn’t think we attacked it well at all,” Self said.

Once Frankamp entered to restore some order, though, another Kansas freshman, leading scorer Andrew Wiggins -- the rookie who began this season with all the hype -- sent a message with a pair of sky-high dunks en route to 19 points.

The first dunk, an alley-oop in transition from Frank Mason, forced an immediate timeout from EKU coach Jeff Neubauer. The Colonels recovered.

With each slam from Wiggins and Black, who delivered an array of his own after halftime, the Jayhawks looked closer to hammering their way to victory.

But EKU never cracked. The key to victory existed elsewhere on the court.

“We knew that Kansas was a great rebounding team,” Neubauer said, “and we absolutely had to steal it before they could rebound it. In the first half we did that really well.”

Not so well after halftime.

Credit the secret weapon on the bench, the 6-foot freshman who saved the day.

Thanks to Frankamp, that other freshman may soon shed his warm-up and receive an opportunity to return.

What we’re reading ... (And as alweays, submit links via Twitter.

  • Jason King chronicles the friendship Adreian Payne formed with Lacey Holsworth, an eight-year old Michigan State fan fighting for her life. It’s a sincere and beautiful bond between a young girl and the player she calls “Superman,” and, hey, who started chopping onions in my apartment?
  • Kansas, as you know, has at least a few future NBA stars on its roster. But what about the NFL? Center Tarik Black has already garnered tight-end conversion attention — from none other than Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. "He said, ‘I want to try that guy at tight end,’" Self said. "I said, ‘Tight end? He can’t go across the middle and get hit.’" But then I started thinking about it ... they (NFL teams) love to have basketball players. He [Rodgers] said, ‘I want to throw balls at him and see what he can do.’ Certainly [Black] is a phenomenal athlete for his size.’”
  • Looking for early NCAA tournament Cinderella candidates? Allow us to suggest Green Bay.
  • Insider’s John Gasaway tries to answer a bedeviling question: Just who is Arizona’s MVP?
  • Here’s a wild stat to close things out. From ESPN Stats and Info: “Elias tells us that this is the first time in 30 years that that none of the top nine teams in the AP Poll come from the same conference. It last happened in the poll of January 31, 1984. In all, 11 different conferences are represented in the top-25 this week.” The word “parity” is among college basketball’s most egregiously overused. But this season, it fits.

Season of Change: Instant Jayhawks

November, 6, 2013

Now that you know what you need to watch in every conference in the country in 2013-14, we've turned our attention to the theme of change -- from coaching swaps to player development to good old-fashioned rules, and anywhere in between. Today: Bill Self's sudden youth movement.

For starters, let's get this out of the way: Bill Self's success at Kansas is remarkable -- period, that's it, sentence over, the end. Self's Jayhawks have now won or shared nine consecutive Big 12 regular-season titles, a streak that would be crazy in a top-heavy mid-major league but is utterly jaw-dropping in a league like the Big 12. He has won more back-to-back regular-season Big 12 titles than he has lost home games at Allen Fieldhouse. And no, I have no problem doubling down on that stat. It's completely insane.

[+] EnlargeKansas' Naadir Tharpe
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiJunior point guard Naadir Tharpe is one of the few veterans on a Kansas team dominated by freshmen.
Just as impressive is how Self has gone about this unparalleled run of conference success: By building a program even the most old-school, anti-one-and-done hard-liners could love.

To dig into the past decade of Kansas rosters is to gaze upon the glories of personnel development. Every season, Self's teams have been a combination of talented youngsters, promising stars and reliable, program-sculpted veterans; every season, players from one group slowly move into the other.

In 2008, when Kansas won a national title, Sherron Collins played 50.2 percent of the Jayhawks' available minutes; in 2009, he was the team's leading scorer. That season, sophomore Cole Aldrich anchored the low block; Marcus and Markieff Morris served as understudies. In 2010, Marcus Morris earned a starting role at power forward alongside Collins, Aldrich, and rare one-and-done freshman Xavier Henry. In 2011, all three players left, and the Morris twins were backed up by an intriguing sophomore named Thomas Robinson. In 2012, after the Morris twins departed, Robinson morphed into a national player of the year candidate, and little-used three-year center Jeff Withey assumed the other frontcourt role. Last season, Withey was the stalwart on the low block, senior forward Kevin Young jumped from playing 27.6 percent of his team's available minutes to starting and seniors Travis Releford and Elijah Johnson joined lottery pick freshman Ben McLemore in the backcourt.

And so on. This is the single defining characteristic of Self's tenure: He has built lineups in the classical style -- developing players from clueless freshmen into All-American-level veterans while adding a dash of raw talent along the way. Every season, his teams are extremely good because every season there's another guy finally ready to make the most of his shot.

Every season, that is, except this one.

It is entirely possible Self has assembled his most purely talented group this season. There's some kid named Andrew Wiggins, and maybe you've heard of him, but there's also Wayne Selden, Joel Embiid, Perry Ellis, Conner Frankamp and Jamari Traylor. Are all of these players good? Yes. Are any of them seniors? No. Well, OK, but are any of them juniors? Also no!

Self has three upperclassmen on his team. They are point guard Naadir Tharpe (who earned his first major, and often shaky, run last season), forward Tarik Black (a graduate-exception transfer from Memphis who arrived in Lawrence just a few months ago) and Justin Wesley (a barely-used redshirt senior). That's it.

Which is what makes this such a completely fascinating season for Kansas beyond the Wigginsanity. For the first team since 2007, Self is coaching a team whose best players are freshmen, whose most reliable returning player (Ellis) is a sophomore, whose lone key senior spent the last three years 500 miles to the east, whose junior point guard remains an open question.

It's a good thing Wiggins and Selden and everyone else are so talented. They better be quick studies. Self Basketball 101 is usually a multiyear course. The advanced seminar is a matter of weeks.

Naadir TharpeAP Photo/Sue OgrockiNaadir Tharpe is a veteran point guard on a team that's lacking in both veterans and point guards.
It's an exciting time to be a Kansas fan.

That sounds a little silly, doesn't it? Really, when isn't it a good time to be a Kansas fan? In 10 seasons under Bill Self, the Jayhawks have won or shared the last nine Big 12 regular-season titles, a ridiculous streak no program in the country, not even the most dominant mid-majors, can match. They've won six conference tournament titles, and averaged 30.6 wins per season in that span. In 2008, Kansas won the program's third national title thanks to one of the most thrilling shots in college hoops history. They've been seeded No. 1 in the NCAA tournament bracket in five of the last seven seasons.

This success didn't come after some extended period of suffering; it came after an already very successful coach (Roy Williams) made the difficult decision to take his dream job (North Carolina), which ended up working out for everyone. The Jayhawks play in arguably the best -- and probably the loudest -- building in the country. "Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk" is one of the best sporting songs this side of English football.

Should we go on? The point is, it's always good to be a Kansas fan. Even in the darkest, Ali Farokhmanesh-induced days, the Jayhawks faithful have it better than just about any other program in the country.

And despite all that, I am still willing to argue that this is an especially exciting time for Kansas, mostly thanks to two words:

Andrew Wiggins.

Before Wiggins' commitment, Kansas was losing all five of its starters -- four seniors and a freshman who might be the No. 1 overall pick -- and replacing them with a handful of minor contributors and a crop of talented but hardly overwhelming talent. Marcus Smart was back at Oklahoma State and gunning for a conference title. The notion that 2013-14 would be the year Kansas' force-choke grip on the Big 12 finally loosened ran rampant through the college basketball cognoscenti.

After Wiggins' commitment, followed by the news that Memphis senior forward Tarik Black would also join up, the whole notion seemed laughable. Self had already reloaded with a very good recruiting class, including Joel Embiid, the No. 1 center, and Wayne Selden, the No. 4 small forward. Then he added a highly skilled 2-3-4 hybrid with handles and a 3-point shot.

It would be easy, given Wiggins' recruitment and the accompanying giddiness, to assume the hardest part of Self's job was over. False. In its own way, this season may be the toughest challenge of Self's already illustrious career. This isn't the usual Jayhawks' reload. Typically, when a score of players leaves Lawrence for NBA glory, Self replaces them with a crop of fully ripened second-, third-, and fourth-year players who can play his high-low offense from sheer muscle memory. The Jayhawks have had one-and-dones, but in an now seven-year era culturally dominated by eight-month players, Self has more often achieved success by unleashing the Thomas Robinsons and Jeff Witheys of the world after two or three seasons on the bench.

He won't have that luxury this season. He will be playing more freshmen at the same time than at any point in recent memory.

Because of those freshmen, it has been easy to gloss over how important Kansas' returning players always are to the Jayhawks' success, and how little that will change next season. There are three returning contributors likely to play big minutes: sophomore forwards Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor, and junior guard Naadir Tharpe.

Tharpe is easily the most important of the three.

That's not to say he's the best. Ellis, a four-time class 6A Kansas state champion at Wichita Heights High School, had by far the most efficient season of the three in his rookie campaign, posting a 114.1 usage rate and comparable offensive and defensive rebounding percentages to Withey. He played just 33.4 percent of the Jayhawks' available minutes, and he struggled at times, but more often than not he was good. He will be good. Traylor, for his part, is extremely raw and athletic, which also makes him extremely exciting.

But Ellis and Traylor are forwards and with Wiggins, Black, Selden and Embiid, Kansas has at least four guys who can play some combination of the traditional 3, 4, and 5 spots. Ellis will play plenty; he's something close to a lock to start at the power forward spot, thanks to systemic experience alone. It's not that Ellis isn't good. It's that Self doesn't need Ellis to be good -- at least as much as he needs Tharpe.

That's because Tharpe is a veteran point guard on a team noticeably short on both veterans and point guards. Unless mostly untouted freshman Frank Mason surprises, four-star freshman Connor Frankamp, the No. 10 ranked point in the class, is the only other option at the spot.

That sound you heard was Kansas fans collectively shuddering. Tharpe is that kind of player -- clearly talented, clearly getting better, still maddeningly frustrating. His, ahem, nadir (sorry, but it had to happen eventually) last season came in Kansas' loss at TCU, when he finished 1-of-15 on some of the least-advised late-game shots you'll ever see. Tharpe wasn't that bad, obviously, but he was never a really efficient player; he finished with a 99.9 offensive rating, shooting 35.8 percent from inside the arc and 33.0 percent from beyond. Likewise, while he assisted on 28.3 percent of his possessions, he turned the ball over on 21.1 of them. At times, it seemed the only thing keeping Tharpe off the bench was senior guard Elijah Johnson's profound struggles.

For Kansas to legitimately contend as a national title candidate, Tharpe will have to be better. The good news? He won't have to score. Not with Wiggins and Selden, Embiid, Ellis and Black. However, what Tharpe will have to do is arguably just as important. He'll have to play great defense at the point of attack. He'll have to avoid turnovers. He'll have to hit the occasional outside shot. And he'll have to lead Kansas on the break, when it can avoid getting bogged down in the crowded half court, and most effectively unleash Wiggins' massive ability.

The first three, if not givens, seem eminently achievable. The fast-breaking responsibilities are the biggest concern. Last season, per Synergy scouting data, Tharpe ranked in the seventh percentile in the country in transition efficiency. Overall, Tharpe averaged just 0.654 points per transition possession. As the ballhandler, he averaged .821 -- better, but average at best.

Tharpe will have the luxury of playing alongside a swath of talented big men and probably the best amateur basketball player on earth. He won't have to do everything; he won't even have to do all that much. What he will have to do is make good decisions, particularly on the break.

The 2013-14 season is new territory for both Self and the Jayhawks. It is extremely exciting, yes, but like anything worth getting excited about, it's a little scary, too. Tharpe is a three-year veteran at a veteran-led program that is suddenly devoid of veterans, in the most important position on the floor. It's his job to minimize the scary parts and maximize the excitement, to represent the solidity that has defined Kansas in one of the more successful decades in the sport's history.

It's a different kind of pressure than what Wiggins will face -- but it is pressure all the same.
Remember when the 2013-14 Kansas Jayhawks were going to be a shaky proposition? I do!

Just two weeks ago, Kansas was the team losing all five of last season's starters, among them four seniors and one freshman top-five draft pick. Left in their wake was an unusually young team. Sophomore Perry Ellis would have to be a star. Naadir Tharpe would have to develop into a less erratic distributor. A crop of promising freshmen would have to step up right away.

[+] EnlargeTarik Black
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsTarik Black averaged 8.1 points and 4.8 rebounds per game for Memphis last season.
After nine straight titles, Kansas' stranglehold on the top of the Big 12 must be taken as an article of faith. But with Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart back, and Baylor looking plenty talented in its own right, said stranglehold appeared to be straining at the knuckles. Would this finally be the year?

Those were the days, weren't they? Of course, that was before Kansas landed arguably the best young prospect in the past decade in Andrew Wiggins, and also before Monday evening's news that Memphis senior Tarik Black had chosen to play his final year of collegiate eligibility -- available immediately via the graduate transfer exemption -- in Lawrence, Kan.

Black's decision is more icing than cake. Whereas Wiggins was a revolutionary addition, by all accounts the type of player who could have lifted an 18-16 Florida State team into ACC title contention, Black is merely a nice bonus. Which is not to say he isn't talented. He is, and always has been. But after arriving as a highly touted prospect, he was disappointing in three seasons at Memphis, primarily thanks to his inability to stay out of foul trouble. Over three seasons, Black averaged 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes. His lowest rate, 5.1 as a sophomore in 2011-12, also coincided with his most efficient performances. His 68.9 effective field goal percentage was the second-highest in the country that season.

Whether or not Black will be able to stay on the court long enough to put his combination of skills and size to work is an open question, but it's almost beside the point. Kansas needed another big body, not a star, and preferably a veteran. Black should be able to play 20-25 effective minutes, when he can take some pressure off the nation's top-ranked incoming center, Joel Embiid. That's a baseline expectation KU coach Bill Self would surely be happy with. Anything else is, again, a bonus.

In any case, any thoughts you might have had about the Jayhawks two weeks ago are essentially irrelevant. Kansas is still young, sure, but not as young as it was. It is more talented than ever now, with the exact thing it lacked -- a veteran in the frontcourt -- signed up for the ride. The end result is another KU team that will enter the season as the Big 12 favorite and a national title contenders. Same as it ever was.
1. Oregon is now one-year U. The Ducks under Dana Altman have made a habit of finding players for one season who can make an impact. UNLV's Mike Moser is the latest to choose Oregon in this situation, picking the Ducks over Washington and Gonzaga. Moser, who will be at his third school in his college career after starting out at UCLA, follows Devoe Joseph (Minnesota), Olu Ashaolu (Louisiana Tech) and Arsalan Kazemi (Rice), who all flourished in their one season in Eugene. Adding transfers with more than one year left is also fair game -- the Ducks have taken in Wake Forest's Tony Woods. But credit the Oregon staff, led by Altman, for filling needs. The Ducks have needed mostly big men as their young guards develop; losing E.J. Singler and Kazemi off last season's NCAA team left a glaring opening for a rebounder and a potential inside scorer. If Moser can return to being one of the best on the boards in the country, as he was two seasons ago (an elbow injury slowed him this past season), the Ducks will have the complement needed to young guards Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson. Meanwhile, Memphis' Tarik Black was on campus Tuesday and will leave Wednesday for visits to Georgetown, Kansas and Duke, according to a source with direct knowledge -- so the Ducks could add even more to the stable of one-year transfers. As one assistant coach who has recruited these type of players said, the one-year player at the end of his college career is in high demand because he can make more of an impact than an average freshman.

2. The NCAA rules committee, men's basketball tournament selection committee and the National Association of Basketball Coaches board met Tuesday in Indianapolis as one group to discuss the NCAA tournament and any potential rules changes. The rules committee should have a decision on any changes sometime Thursday. NCAA vice president Dan Gavitt and West Coast Conference commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, who is on the selection committee, were both present; according to sources, neither has shown signs that his selection as the next commissioner of the new Big East is imminent -- though sources said the new league's presidents are close to a decision. If that is the case and it's not Gavitt, a former Big East associate commissioner, or Zaninovich, a favorite of many in the league, it could be someone from outside the league. That list is broad but could include Tim Brosnan, a Major League Baseball executive. Someone like Brosnan would make sense considering that the new Big East has partnered with Fox, which has a strong relationship with MLB. A few administrators would prefer a strong person in the NCAA membership who has already been a commissioner. But the new Big East presidents -- who also selected former CBS executive Mike Aresco as commissioner of the old Big East, now the American Conference -- were looking for someone with strong television connections. The new Big East needs to get a commissioner soon, with the clock ticking toward fall sports starting and an office, championships, bylaws, scheduling and compliance still to be determined.

3. Next week's NBA draft combine in Chicago could be one of the most intriguing camps because of the parity in the draft and the unknowns beyond some of the top players. The injuries to Nerlens Noel, Anthony Bennett and Alex Len mean there are even more questions than answers heading into the event. There is hardly a consensus beyond the top three of Noel, Bennett and Ben McLemore. Team workouts will be even more important for so many players who could play their way not just into the first round but into the late lottery. This will be even more of a need draft for teams picking after the top five and looking for a specific position. Which player is the best available will be highly debatable since you could ask 10 people at a given spot and receive 10 different answers.
1. New American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco relished the moment Monday night as one of his teams -- for this season and, yes, for next -- won a national title. He was guaranteed of another heading into the women's final Tuesday night, which featured American-bound current Big East teams Louisville and Connecticut. It is true that Louisville is heading to the ACC in the fall of 2014. But that won't keep the league from celebrating the titles this fall. The old Big East guard is trying to brand the new league as the American rather than as the AAC. Aresco doesn't want the acronym used if possible.

2. Memphis coach Josh Pastner said he gave Tarik Black a Tuesday deadline to decide if he wanted to stay with the Tigers. He did not, even though he was graduating. "I want guys to be here with enthusiasm to be here,'' said Pastner. Black will transfer and try to play immediately next season. The Tigers also lost Adonis Thomas, who is declaring for the NBA draft. But the American-bound Tigers have one of the top recruiting classes in the country. "(Black) is a good guy and I wish him the very best. He graduated," Pastner said. "But we'll be fine. We're still really talented. We've got the main corps and we've got the No. 2 recruiting class.''

3. I had new Minnesota coach Richard Pitino on "Katz Korner" on Tuesday and I was struck by his confidence. Pitino is just like his father in that regard. Pitino had no hesitation in taking the Minnesota job once offered. Now, one would assume that no one coaching at Florida International would turn that down. But Pitino definitely has the confidence that he will win. Pitino's hire was overshadowed by the events of last week; now he's got to get into the grind of the new job. He was on the Georgia Dome floor Monday night after the NCAA title game, spent the post-game hours with his dad -- Rick, head coach of the champion Louisville Cardinals -- and said they didn't get to bed until 5 a.m. before Richard was up at 7 a.m. Richard Pitino now must spend his time wisely, re-recruiting the local players and trying to make inroads with a stellar underclassman crew in the state of Minnesota.

Memphis disappoints on big stage again

December, 15, 2012
Joe Jackson AP Photo/Lance MurpheyJoe Jackson, right, and Memphis let another big lead slip away, this time to Louisville.
Throughout No. 6 Louisville’s 87-78 come-from-way-behind victory at Memphis on Saturday, fans booed the Big East officiating crew because it was the easiest target. But the guys in Tigers uniforms and the staff guiding them deserved that condemnation too.

Josh Pastner is now 0-11 against ranked teams. That’s still the story, folks.

I admit that the foul discrepancy (33 for Memphis, 20 for Louisville) -- just like some of the offensive foul calls -- was questionable. I am not sure how the Tigers shot 20 free throws and the Cardinals took 46.

The refs alone, however, did not cost the Tigers this game. Memphis’ minds did.

Another meltdown for the Memphis Letdown.

Memphis led by 16 points (25-9) in the first half but refused to get out of its own way. Late in the second half, it hit the repeat button as another undoing ensued.

It led UTEP 19-6 in 2011-12 but lost by two. It was ahead 16-4 against Southern Miss last season but lost by three.

The most costly collapse, prior to Saturday’s mess, came against Saint Louis in the NCAA tournament in Columbus, Ohio, last March. I watched that one from press row. Midway through the second half, Memphis led by an eight-point margin that few trusted. The Tigers lost by seven.

Memphis on Saturday was in control again -- its 87th matchup against the rival Cardinals -- and then, the thrill was gone.

It committed 24 turnovers, a ridiculous number for any team at any level.

The Cardinals get credit for most of those takeaways, but Memphis was culpable, including a blown fast break, the result of a bad pass to a streaking Joe Jackson, and Shaq Goodwin's bounce-pass fumbled by Tarik Black under the basket.

The Tigers also relented on defense. They pressured Louisville early, but as the Cardinals toughened up, their opponent unraveled after halftime. The Cardinals shot 13-for-26 in the second half.

"We started to see by their body language that they were breaking down defensively," said Peyton Siva, who finished with 19 points (5-for-10) and seven assists.

Louisville played without an injured Gorgui Dieng. Russ Smith (3-for-11) wasn’t himself after injuring his ankle late in the first half. Louisville recorded eight field goals before halftime. Did I mention that the team was down by 16 points on the road?

Yet the Cardinals -- perhaps America’s best squad when considering they lost to presumptive No. 1 Duke without Dieng -- were resilient and suffocating in another impressive effort without their full rotation. The Cardinals are No. 1 in defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy.

Rick Pitino is a genius. Pastner is still a mystery.

The Memphis coach has managed to land some of the nation’s best recruiting classes. He has dominated Conference USA, but in the big games, he has failed. That’s the ultimate measuring stick for coaches who control programs that pluck elite talent from the prep circuit like shoppers in the fruit section.

His personality, professional accomplishments and charitable work mean little in this conversation. You either win at this level or you don’t. And the Tigers haven’t won enough meaningful games under Pastner.

Why has Memphis, a team stocked with top-level athletes each year, struggled so often on the big stage? It doesn’t make sense.

The Tigers were at home. They were up. They were rolling. Then they weren’t.

But Louisville seemed oblivious to the opposition’s drama.

“It was tough, but we’ve been there before,” Siva said.

If you’re a Memphis fan, you probably feel the same way.
Unlike shooting or rebounding or point guard play or the variety of other specific basketball skills we’ve been highlighting in our Best of the Best lists throughout this week, the category of “most important” is far trickier to quantify. It depends not only on a player’s contributions, but on the team around him and where the two dynamics meet in the middle. There is also a constant temptation to conflate “most important” with “best” or “most valuable,” and those arguments (hello, baseball) always make my head hurt.

My editors asked me to name the 10 players most important to their teams in the country, and that’s precisely what I’m going to try to do. But I also attempted to avoid the rabbit hole that is individual talent at the mid-major level. Instead, I tried to narrow the criteria down to players most important to their teams’ chances of winning a national title, or making a deep tournament run, or maintaining some level of national relevance. Let’s give it a shot:

[+] EnlargeIsaiah Canaan
AP Photo/Dave Martin, FileWith much of last season's cast gone, Isaiah Canaan is even more key to Murray State this season.
1. Isaiah Canaan, Murray State: Last season, Canaan was hands down the best and most important player on a team that went 31–2, leading his team in minutes, points, assists, offensive rating (122.2), 3-point field goal percentage (45.6) and a wide swath of other statistical categories. He dominated the ball, scored at will and facilitated to boot. He was really, really good.

And that was on a team that included seniors Donte Poole, Ivan Aska and Jewuan Long, on a team that already was beginning to bring along guard Zay Jackson as Canaan’s new backcourt partner. The first three players are gone to graduation; Jackson is missing the entire season after pleading guilty to wanton endangerment for running over two people with his car in a Walmart parking lot. (True story.) So Canaan, already crucial to his team’s success a year ago, becomes the primary returner on a squad that still very much maintains conference-title and NCAA tournament aspirations. No one player in the country will mean more to his team this season.

2. Cody Zeller, Indiana: Zeller, the AP Preseason Player of the Year, obviously is important. He is the unifying force on a team that desperately needed exactly what he provided as a freshman: interior scoring, rebounding, strength, efficiency, you name it. He led the Hoosiers in field goal attempts by a wide margin, and Indiana fans could frequently be heard complaining that Zeller wasn’t getting enough touches. Truth is, they probably were right. Before he arrived, with similar personnel, Indiana won 12 games. Afterward, they went 27–9. He doesn’t get credit for all 15 wins of that improvement -- other players got better, too -- but there’s no question his impact was immense. You know all this already.

Here’s the twist, though: All offseason, we’ve been praising the Hoosiers’ depth, and there’s no question Tom Crean has a wealth of pieces at his disposal. But right now, aside from Zeller, the frontcourt is looking a little slim. Forward Derek Elston (better as a 15-foot jump-shooter anyway) is injured, and the eligibility statuses of freshman Hanner Mosquera-Perea (a wide-shouldered rebounding force) and Peter Jurkin (a 7-foot center) are both up in the air. Zeller already has much riding on his shoulders, and more help was supposed to be on the way. If it isn’t, Zeller’s task becomes even more daunting.

3. Doug McDermott, Creighton: Last season, there were two players in the country who used at least 28 percent of their team’s available possessions and posted offensive ratings (a measure of individual player efficiency) above 120. The first was Damian Lillard, who did this for the Portland Trail Blazers the other night. The other: Doug McDermott. He shot 63.2 percent from inside the arc (on 400 shots) and 48.6 percent outside (on 111), and he rebounded well on both ends for good measure. Creighton has guys who can play. Grant Gibbs is a sublime entry passer, Jahenns Manigat is coming on strong and Ethan Wragge can shoot it. But there’s no getting around the fact that McDermott’s incredible inside-out offensive versatility was the main reason his team boasted the fifth-most efficient offense in the country last season, per Seeing as Creighton’s defense was so lackluster, the Bluejays very much needed that offense. Even assuming they improve somewhat on the defensive end this season, they’ll still need to score like crazy in 2012-13. That’s where McDermott comes in.

4. Peyton Siva, Louisville: Every time we talk about the huge talents returning at Louisville, we talk about how good the defense is going to be. This is for good reason: It was the best in the country last season, good enough to get the No. 4-seeded Cardinals to the Final Four. It will keep them in excellent shape in the season to come. It’s bankable like that. Then, after we sing the defensive hosannas, we get around to talking about how so-so Louisville’s offense was, and how if the Cardinals are truly a national title contender they have to find ways to score.

Siva is the most crucial piece in this discussion. The UL senior point guard is 5-foot-11 and quick as lightning; the problem is that he just isn’t very efficient. He shot 24.6 percent from 3 in 2011-12. He turned the ball over on nearly a third of his possessions (29.3 percent). According to Synergy scouting data, Louisville uses Siva more frequently than any other player to initiate pick-and-roll sets at the top of the key, a play type it favors as a team, but he is merely average in his execution. Why? Because defenses don’t have to respect his jumper. They play under the screen, the play dies and Louisville goes to Plan B.

To me, if Louisville is going to turn its offense to something more coherent, Siva is the key. Without a more efficient performance at the point guard spot, the Cardinals will still be a brutally tough out. But they won’t reach their full potential.

[+] EnlargeRyan Harrow
Mark Zerof/US PresswireNC State transfer Ryan Harrow takes the reins of a talented, but again young, Kentucky squad.
5. Ryan Harrow, Kentucky: The NC State transfer is getting his moment in the John Calipari point-guard spotlight this season, a vaunted role typically reserved for NBA lottery picks. That spotlight can be harsh -- never more so than from Calipari himself -- but there are good reasons for Calipari’s insistence on point guard excellence. For one, his dribble-drive offensive system (which he has used variously in recent seasons, and might return to more in 2012-13) thrives on point guard play more than most.

The second reason? Harrow, who spent last season on the bench after a freshman campaign in Raleigh, is in many ways a veteran in Kentucky’s latest amalgamation of highly talented but still raw freshmen. His ability to run an effective offense, while dealing with players still getting used to each other and the college level at the same time, will be key to Kentucky’s success this season.

6. Trey Burke, Michigan: Burke has something of a similar challenge to Harrow’s, but one accentuated by what could be a major adjustment at the offensive end. Last season, Burke sprang onto the scene at the helm of an archetypal John Beilein-style "spread the floor and fire away" 3-point-shooting team. The team’s three most efficient shooters are gone, replaced by touted freshmen (Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary) unlike anything Beilein has had the luxury of landing during his tenure in Ann Arbor. Now, Michigan’s best lineup will look more conventional, with big, athletic, bruising players.

This could be a boon on defense, but it will require a shift on offense; it seems almost unfathomable the Wolverines will shoot nearly as many 3s this season. At the middle of it all will be Burke, a preseason All-American who will see his distribution and leadership abilities fully put to the test.

7. Adonis Thomas, Memphis: It was tempting to put point guard Joe Jackson in this spot. The same could be said for center Tarik Black. Jackson has still yet to harness his immense talent in a totally cohesive way; Black can’t seem to stay out of foul trouble. But I decided to go with Thomas. Why? For one, he’ll be stepping into former Tiger Will Barton’s shoes, and there was no mistaking Barton was the best player on a pretty underrated 2011-12 Memphis team. But Thomas could arguably be even better, at least on the offensive end; by all accounts, the 6-6 small forward has been utterly lacing long-range shots all offseason. That versatility would make Thomas, who played power forward until his injury last season, an utter nightmare to guard and could introduce a new dynamism to a Memphis offense that was already pretty good in the first place. I’m really intrigued.

8. Lorenzo Brown, NC State: C.J. Leslie is the obvious pick here, but I think we kind of know what we’re going to get with him. He’s athletic, he’s one of the best in the country at catching on the block or elbow and diving to either side of the rim, and he should be locked in from start to finish this season. Maybe that’s presumptuous, but I’m taking Leslie’s productivity as a given. (OK, it’s definitely presumptuous. Make me look smart, C.J.) Brown, on the other hand, feels more crucial because, like some of the other PGs on this list, it is his job to make the whole Wolfpack thing work. That includes integrating Rodney Purvis; playing better defense at the point of attack; and keeping Leslie involved and finding sharpshooter Scott Wood on the wing. If Brown has a top season, NC State might indeed be worthy of that lofty, tourney-run-infused No. 6 preseason ranking. If not, the “overrated” refrain will ring out early and often.

9. Phil Pressey, Missouri: Senior guard Michael Dixon’s indefinite suspension probably won’t last too long, but that’s hardly the only reason Pressey deserves a nod here. Along with Dixon -- who is more of a catch-and-shoot player than Pressey, a gifted ball handler, penetrator and creator -- Missouri’s backcourt has kind of a crazy/thrilling challenge on its hands in 2012-13. The Tigers have to replace the losses of Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe and Marcus Denmon with four transfers: Keion Bell (from Pepperdine), Jabari Brown (from Oregon), Alex Oriakhi (from Connecticut) and Earnest Ross (from Auburn). Those players have all been on campus for a while, and it’s not exactly like figuring out guys you just picked up in an open run ... but compared to the rest of the country, it’s not all that far off, either.

10. James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina: It will be easy, in the coming months and years, to forget just how good North Carolina’s 2011-12 frontcourt was. That’s what happens when you have gigantic expectations and bow out of the NCAA tournament short of the Final Four. But let it be known: Tyler Zeller and John Henson (and, oh yeah, Harrison Barnes) were really good. Not only did they control the paint and score easily on the offensive end, but they were fast enough to race down the floor in Roy Williams’ up-tempo system, getting easy buckets on offense and turning UNC’s interior defense into its overall team strength.

Given all that, McAdoo has a ton riding on him in 2012-13. He was a highly touted recruit who probably could have been a lottery pick last season, but he chose to avoid that route (word to Marvin Williams) and come back to prove himself on the college stage. Carolina returns some promising wings (P.J. Hairston, Leslie McDonald) and brings in a really interesting frosh at point guard (Iowa native Marcus Paige), but McAdoo will be in charge of the low block. If he lives up to his heady NBA potential, look out. If not, UNC will labor. It’s that simple.

3-point shot: Silver lining for N. Iowa?

September, 19, 2012
1. Northern Iowa actually could benefit from the three-game suspension to leading scorer Anthony James. The Panthers start the season with three winnable games at home -- against Wartburg, Toledo and North Dakota -- before opening up the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas against Final Four favorite Louisville. UNI coach Ben Jacobson said junior Matt Morrison, sophomore Max Martino and redshirt freshman Matt Bohannon will take the minutes vacated by the senior James. So by the time the Panthers get to the Bahamas, they should be even more experienced and with quality depth. No one would expect Northern Iowa to beat Louisville, but if the team is deeper and more prepared off the bench, games two (Missouri or Stanford) and three (Duke, Memphis, Minnesota or Virginia Commonwealth) in the tournament might be more manageable.

2. Harvard is unlikely to make an official announcement until practice starts, but the Crimson expect seniors Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry to take the year off and return to the Crimson in 2013-14, if admitted, after being involved in the school-wide academic scandal involving a take-home exam in a government class.

3. Memphis coach Josh Pastner said the Tigers had their first team workout and it was “sloppy." But that shouldn’t discourage Memphis fans. He’s confident in the development of the newcomers, and particularly confident in the returnees. Pastner said Tarik Black has done a quality job of improving his conditioning, and has become a more efficient rebounder. “He’s got to make his free throws since he’ll get fouled a lot," Pastner said. The junior forward averaged 10.7 points and 4.9 rebounds but shot just 59.4 percent at the line last season.

Previewing Columbus: Evening games

March, 16, 2012
COLUMBUS, Ohio – The fun continues at Nationwide Arena on Friday night with an appearance by a 1-seed and an 8-9 matchup featuring two squads that play opposing styles. Memphis is fast. St. Louis is slow. Which style will dictate the tempo? Michigan State is relying on its new chemistry as it enters a game against Long Island.

No. 9 Saint Louis (25-7) vs. No. 8 Memphis (26-8), 6:50 p.m. ET

If Rick Majerus’ demeanor was any reflection of his team’s mood entering its Friday matchup against Memphis, the Billikens will be in good shape. He drew laughs for the bulk of his news conference and appeared to be quite relaxed.

Majerus cracked jokes about Twitter: “I can’t see this Twitter thing … you know, 'Just went to the beach, the water was wet.' You know, I mean, it’s like what is that?”

Majerus also talked about a recent health situation in which he mixed up his medication and missed a game as a result: “And so I’m sitting there, and of course they want you to go to the hospital. And they’re saying, ‘Well, what pills did you mix up?’ I said I wasn’t trying to, you know ... the team hadn’t been playing that bad that I wanted to go south, you know.”

His players seemed just as serene as they talked about their tough matchup against the Tigers, a team that’s ranked 19th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency ratings and 11th in adjusted defensive efficiency.

They’re one of the fastest teams in the country and can run with anyone.

And that’s what the Billikens want to stop. St. Louis is one of slowest teams in the country (No. 303 in adjusted tempo). It hopes to use its rugged style to its advantage when it faces Memphis.

“It’s definitely going to be getting more guys back and getting kind of packed in the lane and then building out from there,” said St. Louis standout Brian Conklin (13.9 points per game). “So definitely going to stop their early transition and make sure they use all 35 seconds of the shot clock, and we have to box out.”

The Billikens have one of the top defenses in the country (No. 10 in Pomeroy’s ratings). Their slow tempo didn’t stop them from finishing second in the Atlantic 10.

But the Tigers are a special group with elite athleticism. They have weapons in every spot. Will Barton, Joe Jackson and Tarik Black anchor a team that’s shooting 49.4 percent from the field, fifth in the nation.

And now they’ve reached a point where players have accepted their roles, which has led a new level of chemistry for this talented group that says it’s ready for the Billikens.

“They’re a solid team. They play as one. They’re not a team that’s going to shoot themselves in the foot. They don’t turn the ball over much,” Black said. “They have good players.”

No. 1 Michigan State (27-7) v. No. 16 LIU Brooklyn (25-8), 9:20 p.m. ET

They all laughed at the question.

During their press conference Thursday, Michigan State’s Draymond Green, Austin Thornton and Keith Appling snickered when asked about the changes from last year’s team.

“Well, it was funny. We did all kind of laugh because we were instructed not to talk about last year,” Thornton admitted.

Last year was an abrupt change from the program’s two previous seasons.

The 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons ended with Final Four appearances. Last year’s campaign ended with a second-round loss to UCLA.

The summer before the 2010-11 season saw various team members undergo six major surgeries. But Thornton suggested that the problems extended beyond injuries.

“So a lot of things in the last couple years, especially even last year, just guys had minds elsewhere. It wasn’t entirely focused on the success of this program, and that’s what is different and what’s special about this year’s team,” he said. “Everyone bought in and understands what’s best for them is what’s best for this program and is what’s led to the success we had this year.”

The Spartans will need that bond to help them get through a region that features a variety of athletic teams. Missouri, Florida, Memphis, Marquette and Murray State make the West region one of the most competitive in the field.

“I think the advantage is everything’s almost similar," said All-America candidate Green. "So where some nights in the NCAA tournament you may go from playing against somebody who just may run a Princeton-style offense and then the next night to maybe playing someone who hardly runs any offense or just run all motion or they really run and gun for the most part.”

First, however, the Spartans have to take care of LIU Brooklyn, a team that won the Northeast Conference tournament.

The Blackbirds have some skill inside with Julian Boyd (a 6-foot-7 forward averaging 17.4 points, 9.5 rebounds) and Jamal Olasewere (a 6-7 forward averaging 16.8 points, 7.5 rebounds).

That duo has to avoid foul trouble for the Blackbirds to have a chance at the upset.

“I feel like every game this year, if me and Julian [are] on the bench, it will hurt this team,” Olasewere said. “So going into this one, with I guess, the style of play … physical, we have to just play with our hands straight up and try hard not to foul.”

The Spartans are one of the most physical teams in the country. They average 38 rebounds per game. Green, Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix will defend the glass and attack in the post.

But they also have talented perimeter players such as Appling and Brandon Wood.

In the tournament, however, anything is possible.

On Thursday, UNC Asheville came close to becoming the first-ever 16-seed to beat a 1-seed when it pushed Syracuse for 40 minutes. But Blackbirds coach Jim Ferry doesn’t think UNC Asheville’s effort did his team any favors.

“That’s not very good for the Blackbirds, because if Michigan State was looking away a little bit that might have woken them up a little bit,” he said.

Ford in Maui: Memphis-Tennessee notes

November, 22, 2011

LAHAINA, Hawaii -- It was a double-overtime street fight between two in-state rivals, but the Memphis Tigers pulled out the win 99-97 on Tuesday at the EA Sports Maui Invitational.

Here are some notes from Tuesday's opening game.

1. The win was an important one for the Tigers. While they are loaded with terrific athletes, they were out-executed by Michigan on Monday and almost out-hustled by the Volunteers on Tuesday. The talent is there for Memphis ... but can it jell into a team?

There still are serious questions about who will emerge as the leader on the team. Will Barton led the Tigers with 25 points but made a number of questionable decisions when the game got tight. Still, coach Josh Pastner was pleased that Barton took only two 3s and instead concentrated on getting to the basket. Barton also added 11 rebounds Tuesday.

The Tigers' two other top scorers, Antonio Barton (21 points) and freshman Adonis Thomas (19 points), came off the bench.

Point guard Joe Jackson recorded just one assist. Big man Tarik Black was plagued by foul trouble again, and, despite a lot of preseason hype, had just six points and three rebounds. Wesley Witherspoon, the team's most veteran player, also had just six points and continued to play soft.

If Memphis is going to live up to its lofty early ranking, it is going to have to get much more out of all three.

2. It's pretty clear the Tigers’ best player on the floor is Thomas. He played very well Monday but did so without any plays really being run for him. Thomas was much more active Tuesday, and when he touched the ball, good things happened.

"Adonis was in attack mode," Pastner said. "He's a hard matchup. Whether a 2-man is guarding him, a 3-man guarding him or a 4-man, he's a tough matchup because he's a multidimensional guy."

Thomas looks frustrated at times when his teammates ignore him on the floor. But on Tuesday, he made a more concerted effort to get things done when he got the opportunity. After the game, he said he's willing to be patient coming off the bench.

"Basically I just wanted to come in and make an impact whether I started or got off the bench," Thomas said after the game. "Coach recruited me as a freshman to get things done. Whether I start or come off the bench, what's important is that I just come in and play hard. "

3. Jeronne Maymon is a beast. The Tigers brought a bevy of elite athletes to the fight. The Vols? The lightly regarded squad was carried by big man Maymon, who did the bulk of the damage with 32 points, 20 rebounds and the shot that sent the game into its first OT. Maymon took the last shot of the game for Tennessee, but it fell short and the Volunteers walked away with yet another heartbreaking loss.

Maymon, a 6-foot-7, 260-pound transfer from Marquette, was a beast in the paint. He pounded the Memphis big men inside all game, getting both Black and Stan Simpson into early foul trouble. Maymon's 20 rebounds were a record at the Maui Invitational.

Even more impressive? According to Jeremy Lundblad of ESPN Stats & Info, his 30-point, 20-rebound performance puts him in rarified air. The past three players from the "power six" conferences to do it? Blake Griffin, Michael Beasley and Kevin Durant. Maymon won't get the same love those three did from NBA scouts, but he's a big reason the Volunteers should be much better than predicted this season.

Previewing Tulsa: The day games

March, 18, 2011
TULSA, Okla. -- The NCAA tournament is back here for the first time in 26 years, and in a shiny modern arena -- the BOK Center.

Historically speaking, this has been a good town in which to launch a big tournament performance. In five previous NCAA tourneys in Tulsa, four teams have started their Final Four run: Houston in 1982, Notre Dame in 1978, Louisville in 1975 and Kansas in 1974.

The Jayhawks, here as the No. 1 seed in the Southwest Region, certainly hope that history repeats, as opposed to their catastrophic NCAA history elsewhere in the state. Kansas was shocked in the second round last year in Oklahoma City, and in the first round by Bucknell in 2005.

A brief breakdown of the two day games Friday:

No. 13 seed Oakland (25-9) vs. No. 4 seed Texas (27-7), 12:15 p.m. ET (CBS)

What to watch: This will be a primo interior matchup, and the winner in the paint may win the game. The Golden Grizzlies have one of the best big men in the country in 6-foot-11 Keith Benson, the Summit League Player of the Year who averages 18 points, 10.1 rebounds and 3.6 blocked shots. But he’s going up against the Longhorns’ array of physical postmen, led by freshman Tristan Thompson (13.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.2 blocks). Texas might be the best interior defensive team in the nation.

Who to watch: The most talented player on the floor will be Texas forward Jordan Hamilton, a versatile scorer who at 6-foot-7 is a matchup nightmare. Most importantly for the Longhorns, Hamilton appeared to get his shooting stroke back at the Big 12 tourney in Kansas City, where he made 48 percent of his shots. In the previous six games, half of them losses, Hamilton made just 31 percent of his field goals. If Hamilton is hot, it will be tough for Oakland to win.

Why to watch: This has upset potential. Oakland is a very talented offensive team that got valuable NCAA tourney experience last season and played a rigorous non-conference schedule to prepare for this moment. Texas is a national title contender -- but is also not invincible. And if Thursday afternoon showed us anything, anyone can be beaten -- or at least taken down to the wire.

What they’re saying: “I don’t think we’re scared,” Benson said. “We’re coming in with the mindset of getting the upset.” … Thompson, on Texas’ late-season struggle: “To be honest, we totally forgot about that. We’re not focused on what happened in the past. Situations happen, and we got the losses and that’s good for us to experience those heartaches. But now it’s tournament time. We know it’s a lose-or-go-home situation, so now we’ve got to pull up our socks and it’s time to grind.” (It is assumed the freshman meant win-or-go-home, but that was the quote.) … Oakland coach Greg Kampe, on seeing President Barack Obama pick Texas in his bracket for ESPN: “I didn’t vote for him either, so I guess we’re even now.”

Of note: The Grizzlies have played seven teams in this tournament and went 1-6 against them. The victory was at Tennessee. The losses were against Illinois, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and West Virginia. Texas is 8-5 against the NCAA field. … Oakland has won eight straight and averaged more than 90 points in that span. In other words, it would love to turn this game into a shootout. … Texas has advanced to 12 straight NCAA tournaments, and has won at least one game in eight of those.

No. 12 seed Memphis (25-9) vs. No. 5 seed Arizona (27-7), 2:45 p.m. ET (CBS)

What to watch: Which green group handles the pressure of the tournament best? The Wildcats have only two players who played meaningful minutes in Arizona’s previous NCAA tournament game -- Kyle Fogg and Jamelle Horne combined to play 57 minutes and scored five points in a Sweet 16 blowout against Louisville in 2009. Not a single current Tiger played in Memphis’ previous tournament game, a Sweet 16 loss to Missouri in ’09. The Tigers’ coach, Josh Pastner, has never led a team into a Big Dance game either.

Who to watch: The best player on the floor is Arizona forward Derrick Williams, a 19-point, 8-rebound guy who can get his points efficiently -- and from anywhere. He’s a 62 percent shooter, a crazy 60 percent from 3-point range and 74 percent at the line, where he takes 8.5 foul shots per game. Memphis has some size in Tarik Black and Will Coleman, but the question is whether either can check Williams all over the court.

Why to watch: To see which traditionally powerful program is on the rebound fastest. Both missed the Big Dance last season after coaching changes, and both now have taken steps back to national contender status. Arizona (four Final Fours, one national title) won the Pac-10 regular-season title this year to re-establish itself in Year 2 under Sean Miller. Memphis (three Final Fours, no titles) had to earn its bid by winning the Conference USA title on UTEP’s home court in Year 2 under Josh Pastner.

What they’re saying: Coleman, on the youth of the Tigers: “We’re all goofy. We’re a goofy bunch of guys that just like to have fun, and there is nothing wrong with that."

Williams, on choosing Arizona over Memphis in recruiting: “That’s all I did is ate barbecue the whole time (on his official visit to Memphis). It was a great time, a great experience for me. … Pastner did recruit me very hard. Like I said, I couldn’t go wrong either way whether I chose Arizona or Memphis, but I’m glad I chose here.”

Pastner, on the feeling of winning the C-USA tournament Saturday and seeing Memphis in the field the following day: “Those 40 hours, it was probably the greatest 40 hours of just adrenaline, of emotion, of just being happy that you can experience. If somebody came to me today and wanted to give me $100 million to trade for that, I wouldn’t. I mean that.”

Of note: Tulsa is a Memphis-friendly location. The city is only about a six-hour drive, so expect a fair amount of Tiger blue in the stands. … Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said he spoke with Miller earlier this week and that Miller has “zero interest” in other jobs, most notably North Carolina State, where he was a former assistant coach.
Saddle Up is our daily preview of the night's best basketball action. Tonight's installment focuses primarily on the Jimmy V Classic. Why? Because look at these games! That's why.

No. 14 Memphis vs. No. 4 Kansas, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Who are the Memphis Tigers? The truth is, even after seven wins in seven games, we still don't know.

That has a lot to do with Memphis' nonconference schedule to this point. The Tigers have played only two teams with a shot at making the NCAA tournament thus far (Miami and Western Kentucky, both at home) and while they handled both opponents with relative ease, they've also struggled at times, especially in a narrow overtime win over Arkansas State last week. Tonight's matchup with Kansas will be, without question, Memphis' first entreé into the realm of the elite, and thanks to a paltry schedule, we have few indicators as to how Josh Pastner's team will perform against top competition. Is this a team destined to win a conference title and little more? Or can this team reach for the Final Four?

It's not just schedule, though. Our questions about the Tigers also have to do with personnel. Pastner's team is heavy on freshmen, which is a little like saying the ocean is heavy on water. The wunderkind coach snared a top-four recruiting class in 2010, and those first-year players have wasted no time claiming the majority of Memphis' offensive responsibilities. Four of the Tigers' five biggest contributors on a per-possession basis are freshmen: Joe Jackson, Will Barton, Chris Crawford and Tarik Black all average between 28.1 and 20.0 percent in usage rate. Jackson, who owns that 28.1 percent, has especially dominated the ball.

[+] EnlargeJosh Pastner
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireMemphis coach Josh Pastner and his young team face their first serious test in No. 4 Kansas.
Those freshmen have been effective, but on an inconsistent basis. In fact, the most efficient offensive player on the team has been junior Wesley Witherspoon, who has combined an impressive ability to get to the line -- Witherspoon shoots free throws more often than any other player in the country -- with highly accurate shooting from the field.

What does all this mean? It means a team dominated by freshmen should think about getting its junior forward involved as often as possible. That could stand as a general rule, but it makes extra sense tonight (in so far as something can make "extra sense," I guess). Memphis is forced to make up for its lack of interior size and experience with athleticism on the wing. That won't change against Kansas, which has a handful of viable forwards (Marcus and Markieff Morris, Thomas Robinson, Jeff Withey) who excel on the defensive glass but are sporadically foul-prone. To have a chance against a team like KU, the Tigers have to do what they do best on offense: get to the free throw line.

Meanwhile, Memphis' biggest task on defense will be finding someone to deal with the aforementioned Morii. The Morris twins are almost perfectly complementary: Marcus is the elite stretch-post scorer, Markieff the standout rebounder, particularly on the defensive end. Until Josh Selby finishes his NCAA-mandated suspension, KU's forwards will continue to key the team's success on both ends of the floor. That's been going well so far -- Kansas is No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy's overall adjusted efficiency ranking, after all -- but as UCLA showed us Thursday, the Jayhawks are far from complete, and far from invincible.

Still, they'll be by far the biggest challenge these Memphis freshmen have faced so far. So how good are they? How good are the Memphis Tigers? We're about to get a pretty good idea.

(For more on Memphis and Kansas, read Dana O'Neil's preview here.)

No. 8 Michigan State vs. No. 7 Syracuse, 9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN: Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to present reason No. 5,498 that rankings don't matter.

Syracuse is ranked a spot higher than Michigan State in the latest coaches' poll, but few would consider Syracuse the better team right now, or the better prospect to make the Final Four by the end of the season. Michigan State's diminished ranking is due to two losses -- vs. the Connecticut Kemba Walkers in Maui, and at Duke last Wednesday night -- that hardly indict the Spartans as pretenders. Meanwhile, Syracuse is undefeated at 8-0, but six of those wins came at home, and at least four of them came after nail-biting affairs with so-so teams like William & Mary (63-60), Michigan (53-50), Georgia Tech (80-76), and NC State (65-59). There might not be a tourney team in that bunch. It's not exactly the most glittering résumé.

What's wrong with Syracuse? Why hasn't Jim Boeheim's team been blowing opponents out? Start with shooting: Syracuse is averaging 29.7 percent from 3, 49.8 percent from 2, and 63.0 percent from the foul line. Absent anyone with consistent outside shooting ability -- Andy Rautins and Wesley Johnson are not walking through that door -- the Orange have been getting by on a steady diet of offensive rebounds and low-turnover hoops. And, of course, Boeheim's fabled 2-3 zone. The zone is working yet again; Syracuse almost never fouls opposing shooters -- it ranks No. 5 in opponent free throw rate -- and the Orange have contained outside shooting and forced enough turnovers to squeak by against mediocre competition.

Michigan State, as you might have heard, is not mediocre. The Spartans are already quite good at pretty much -- key phrase there -- everything. They shoot the ball well, both from beyond the arc (41.7 percent) and inside it (52.3 percent). They stifle opposing scorers. They clean up on the glass, especially on defense. Draymond Green is as versatile and effective as big men get. Kalin Lucas has already showed plenty of his pre-Achilles tear self. Durrell Summers can be an unstoppable scorer. The Spartans' front court is deep and physical. Korie Lucious might be the best reserve point guard in the country. (Given his usage rate, Lucious barely qualifies as a reserve.) The list goes on and on.

The only thing holding Michigan State back? (Here's where that "pretty much" rears its ugly head.) Turnovers. The Spartans are one of the worst teams in the country at wasting possessions with turnovers. Izzo's team turns the ball over on 25.8 percent of its possessions, ranking it No. 325 in the stat; the only major-conference teams giving the ball away more frequently are Baylor and Florida State.

That sounds bad enough on paper, but it was evident in action Wednesday night at Duke. Michigan State turned the ball over 20 times on the road against the best team in the country, and somehow still had a chance to win. Turnovers have been a recurring blight on Izzo's otherwise brilliantly coached teams in recent years, and if Michigan State wants to accomplish its goals -- this year, that means national title or bust -- it has to find a way to cut down on giveaways.

How does this play out tonight? If recent trends hold, Michigan State should take, and make, a lot of 3-pointers. It will stifle Syracuse's sputtering scorers from the outside-in. And the game will be close, because the Spartans will give the ball away far too often.

Both teams need to break the cycle of self-defeating tendencies. What better time than now?

(For more on Michigan State and Syracuse, read Andy Katz's preview here.)

Josh Pastner tossed into a swimming pool

September, 20, 2010
Josh Pastner was thrown into the fire when he succeeded John Calipari at Memphis last year at age 31, and these days, he's in a good enough mood to get thrown into a hotel swimming pool by his players.

The Arizona Daily Star's profile on Pastner leads with this anecdote from the Tigers' preseason tour of the Bahamas:
Upon arriving, the 32-year-old former Arizona Wildcats basketball player and assistant coach noticed forward Wesley Witherspoon dart suspiciously out of the pool. Then he turned around and saw bruising forwards Will Coleman and Tarik Black coming toward him.

"He knew something was up," Witherspoon said. "So he tried to back up and he backed up into a corner."

Coleman was kind enough to check Pastner's pockets for cell phones and other non-waterproof items. He also took the coach's shoes off.

Then, he, Witherspoon and Black tossed Pastner in the hotel pool with hardly a struggle.

"Will's 6-9 and 250. I wasn't going to win that battle," Pastner said. "They picked me up and I was like, 'Let's go.' "

Certainly a trip with teenagers to a tropical island -- a different type of vacation, if you will -- lends itself to this type of horseplay, and it also reflects the good vibes surrounding the program.

In place of turbulence is an era of Tigers tranquility coming off a 24-win season and second-place finish in Conference USA.

Pastner's players are not only eligible, but appear ready to return to the NCAA tournament based on a freshman class that ESNU has ranked as the No. 4 recruiting class in the nation.

Already, they've made a big splash.