College Basketball Nation: Trae Golden

1. Not all redshirt transfers are created equally at Gonzaga. And that's why it would be unfair to expect Kyle Wiltjer to come back as thick and strong as Kelly Olynyk -- an All-American and the No. 13 pick in the NBA draft -- after Wiljter redshirts next season. "The similarities are the size and skill package and feel for the game," said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. "Both came to the conclusion part way through their careers that they needed to make a change in what they were doing.'' Wiltjer transferred from Kentucky after his sophomore season and will sit as a third-year player. Olynyk played two seasons at Gonzaga and then sat out one before playing again as a fourth-year junior. "But they're going to be different. Now it's our job to provide the means and guidance. Hopefully for both parties, Kyle will reap the rewards of making this change and putting in the hard work and hopefully Gonzaga will too,'' Few said. Wiltjer has the advantage of playing with Zag Kevin Pangos on the World University Games Canadian team in Kazan, Russia. So the teammates won't be all foreign. But it's clear Wiltjer needs to get stronger and improve his back-to-the-basket game just like Olynyk needed to do when he sat two years ago. The Zags had two players sitting out last season -- Providence's Gerard Coleman and Louisville's Angel Nunez. Coleman will be eligible to play in the fall while Nunez has to wait until December. But the expectations for the redshirt year to turn a player into an all-American weren't there with these two like it was with Olynyk and will be with Wiltjer. "It all comes down to the guy being properly motivated,'' said Few. "How willing is the guy to really, really make this all about him to get better for a year?'' That's what Gonzaga will find out about Wiltjer next season.

2. Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory said he is confident Tennessee transfer Trae Golden can get eligible immediately. Gregory said as important as when he will play, is what he brings to the program next season. "He adds value to our team because he brings experience,'' said Gregory, whose Yellow Jackets need to start climbing upward in the 15-team ACC. "Currently he's the only perimeter player who has more than one year of playing experience and proven scoring ability. In this league, you need high quality guards and multiple ball handlers who can handle pressure, score and create. Trae's versatility should help address that need.''

3. USA Basketball is capitalizing on the fantasy camp marketplace this week by hosting a three-day $7,500 adult basketball camp with all-star coaches. The camp coincides with USA basketball's minicamp in Las Vegas and the coaches participating are a who's who from college basketball. According to the USA Basketball website, Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, Kentucky's John Calipari, Florida's Billy Donovan, Gonzaga's Mark Few, Villanova's Jay Wright, Miami's Jim Larranaga, Washington's Lorenzo Romar and Grand Canyon's Dan Majerle are the coaches with former college and NBA coach and current ESPN analyst P.J. Carlesimo serving as camp director. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has a highly successful adult fantasy basketball camp and other coaches are getting into the mix as well. There is a market out there for this and USA basketball has found its spot to potentially get a piece as well. The camp does cut into a few days of the last recruiting period, but with the camp in Las Vegas the college coaches can simply stay in the city and evaluate at the various high school tournaments.
1. UNLV lost another player over the weekend. The latest to depart is Katin Reinhardt, who apparently had issues with the way he was being used by coach Dave Rice and wants to play the point more than shooting guard, Rice told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Reinhardt will have to see if Andy Enfield plays him at the point if ends up at USC, as the Review-Journal reported is a likely destination. Reinhardt shouldn't play immediately (I feel like I have to say that now with everyone getting waivers) and can use the redshirt year to become a point if that's his chosen position. The Runnin' Rebels already lost Anthony Bennett to the NBA draft after one season, and then Mike Moser graduated and transferred to Oregon to play immediately. (UNLV was also set to lose seniors Justin Hawkins and Anthony Marshall.) The Rebels will be scrapping with San Diego State to catch New Mexico and maybe Boise State in the Mountain West. But Rice shouldn't be worried. He needs players who want to be in Las Vegas, and the Rebels have replacements. Bryce Dejean-Jones can play shooting guard. UConn transfer Roscoe Smith had a year to better understand the game and how to play power forward. Depth is available with Carlos Lopez-Sosa and Kendall Smith, who can play either the point or the two for the Rebels. Khem Birch is eligible for a full year and can try to be more assertive offensively and dominant defensively. This team will be in flux, but the pieces are still in play to be an NCAA team.

2. Players don't necessarily have the allegiances that fans do. That's why Antonio Barton has no issues going from Memphis to rival Tennessee. The Vols desperately needed another guard after losing Trae Golden. And of course the Vols are now a beneficiary of the new free agency in college basketball. "It's safe to say kids are more concerned with the best opportunity,'' Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said about players holding rivalry grudges. As for picking up players on the fly, Martin said, "Free agency, it's a tough call. We're on the good side of free agency. I think a lot of mid-major programs are affected by the market.'' Martin used to be the coach at Missouri State and knows all too well about life at a lower level.

3. Former Michigan guard Tim Hardaway Jr. said on our college basketball podcast Friday that Caris LeVert is ready for a breakthrough season in 2013-14. Hardaway heaped high praise on LeVert. Meanwhile, Kansas coach Bill Self hit on a number of topics, including Ben McLemore, a recruiting class that he said had tremendous promise even before Andrew Wiggins signed, and coaching Wiggins next season. You can listen to the podcast here.
We see transfers all the time, but this one sticks out. A rising senior point guard announces he will be transferring ... in late May. His friend insinuates via Twitter that the player's decision wasn't actually the player's choice. Another former teammate (the son of the former coach, no less) does the same. And the weirdest thing of all? The team he's leaving doesn't even have another point guard.

This is the story of Tennessee guard Trae Golden, whose release Tuesday was sudden and short:
"I had a great three years here at Tennessee, but I plan to play my senior year somewhere else this fall," Golden said in a news release. "I really appreciate the staff and all the great support from Vol fans. I'm definitely going to miss my teammates. I want them to have nothing but success in the future."

"We want nothing but the best for Trae," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said in the statement. "Everyone associated with our program wants to see him be successful, and we wish him well."

Of course, it's not weird to see a fourth-year player pursue a graduate transfer, as Golden will, which will likely allow him to play right away this year if his academics are in order. That's happening a lot these days, after all. But usually this sort of decision is made earlier in the offseason, as players typically prefer to take as much time as possible to find a new school and still leave themselves enough time to move and pick up summer workouts with their new teammates. This isn't too late, logistically speaking. But it is noticeably late.

[+] EnlargeTrae Golden
AP Photo/Wade PayneTrae Golden's impending transfer leaves the Volunteers without a point guard on the roster.
Meanwhile, former Vols Tobias Harris and Steven Pearl have spent much of the afternoon tweeting about the Golden news, both insinuating -- if not outright arguing -- that the decision wasn't Golden's, that in fact it came from the top, borne of a "rocky" relationship between player and coach and/or a vague "academic issue" that was reported by CBS' Gary Parrish, among others. Martin has not responded to media requests for comment (including those from yet, but there seems to be a consensus here -- that Golden wasn't right for Martin's style, that Golden was just plain bad, or that, as Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy put it, Tennessee "needed Trae Golden to move on for the Vols to move up."

As Mike writes:
Tennessee will field one of the nation’s most powerful frontcourts next winter, with Jeronne Maymon returning from injury to rejoin Jarnell Stokes, as well as developing scoring star Jordan McRae in the backcourt. All of that offensive talent will be of less value if the playmaker in charge of the team either can’t or won’t get those guys the ball.

There’s some debate regarding which category best describes Golden, but it’s one of the two. Although he only 38.3 percent from the field last season, he tried eight more shots than Stokes. Although Golden shot only 29.5 percent from 3-point range, he still attempted 95. He produced 12 games of two or fewer assists as a junior, including none in the Vols’ embarrassing NIT home loss to Mercer. Decision-making has not been the strongest area for Golden.

Allow me to halfheartedly defend Golden: No, he shouldn't be taking more shots than Stokes, but what other perimeter options did Tennessee have? Other than McRae, a 35.5 percent 3-point shooter, no Vol who played even remote minutes was a credible perimeter threat. Assuming Martin didn't tell his guards to never shoot 3s -- which would be analytically counterproductive -- 95 3s from your starting point guard at a 30 percent clip isn't terrible. Besides, it's not like Golden shot UT into a different style. The Vols finished 222nd in the nation in their ratio of 3-point attempts to overall field goals. They were an interior group.

And by the way: Golden finished the season with a totally respectable 29.0 assist rate, by far the highest on the team, and a 107.2 offensive rating, which was just barely less efficient than the still-unconvincing Stokes (107.4). I'm not saying Golden was Magic Johnson, but clearly the ball was getting to the right places pretty frequently and Golden drew enough fouls to compensate for his abysmal shooting.

The numbers aren't everything, of course. Martin and the words "hard-nosed" are frequently used in conjunction, but UT was actually at its worst on the defensive end last season, and that began with Golden's total lack of pressure at the point of attack. And intangibles do matter, everything from leadership to confidence to the little timing-ticks when a point guard swings the ball and runs the offense and establishes that zen-like flow -- or in brutish UT's case, lack thereof -- and whether his teammates all respond.

So, sure, you can see why some Vols fans, or even Martin himself, might be saying good riddance. But you can also see why others would be puzzled, because when you drill down into the things Golden does, he's not a bad player. Just flawed. And certainly better than anyone Tennessee has waiting in the point guard wings, because, you know, there is no one waiting. (The best option would seem to be incoming shooting guard recruit Robert Hubbs, who, according to our ESPN recruiting analysts, has yet to develop the decision-making skills to make him anything more than a scorer. Maybe Jordan McRae could move over and play some at the point? Maybe the Vols are confident late commit Darius Thompson is ready from Day One? Plenty of questions here.)

Facing a potential lineup gap like this, there must be some onus on the coach to mold his point guard into a more viable piece, right? Did that effort fail so miserably that Martin genuinely thinks his team will be better without its only point guard, a senior who assists teammates on a third of his possessions? Isn't that a huge risk? Or did Golden simply decide to leave the program? And if not, how much criticism, if any, will Martin deserve for running off a senior starter? Or is it something else entirely? Academic issues?

We don't know. But I do know this: Golden's is the strangest transfer of the offseason to date, and he hasn't even picked a destination. Stay tuned.

Alabama focused on wins, not bubble

March, 15, 2013

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- All Tennessee can do now is sit and wait for Sunday’s NCAA tournament selection show.

It will be an agonizing wait for the Vols, who sit ever so precariously on the proverbial bubble.

But while the Vols wait, Alabama plays on after slugging out a 58-48 victory Friday over cold-shooting Tennessee to move into the SEC tournament semifinals Saturday against top-seeded Florida at Bridgestone Arena.

“We didn’t come into this tournament worrying about what we had to do to get into the NCAA tournament,” said Alabama junior guard Trevor Releford, who scored 14 points and got the best of his Tennessee counterpart, Trae Golden, who was held to two points on 1-of-7 shooting.

“All we control is what we do here, and then it’s automatic if we win [the SEC tournament]. We don’t have to worry about anybody giving us a bid. We’re not going to settle. We just wanted to come out and win basketball games.”

[+] EnlargeTrevor Releford
AP Photo/John BazemoreGuard Trevor Releford proved key in Alabama's SEC tourney win over Tennessee on Friday.
The Crimson Tide (21-11) needed to do just that to keep their NCAA tournament hopes alive. Simply beating Tennessee wasn’t going to be enough. But taking down Florida on Saturday could make things interesting when the bids go out on Sunday.

“The only thing we were worried about was what was right in front of us,” Releford said. “That’s winning this championship.”

Alabama was among the “next four out” in ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s latest projection of the NCAA tournament field. Tennessee was among the “last four in” heading into Friday's game.

But whereas Alabama played with a sense of urgency -- and held steady when Tennessee made a mini run to pull within four points with 5:27 to play -- the Vols played tight and looked a little leg-weary in the second half. They also jacked up 23 3-point shots and made just five.

The Crimson Tide pressed most of the game and dropped back into a zone defense that gave the Vols fits. Jordan McRae, who had been brilliant down the regular-season stretch for Tennessee, was held to nine points and shot just 3-of-13 from the field.

Combined, Golden and McRae shot 4-of-20 from the field. Josh Richardson led the Vols with 16 points.

“They did a good job of pressuring the ball the whole game, and shots were hard to come by,” Richardson said.

Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said following the 64-62 win over Missouri to close the regular season that he thought the Vols had done enough to get into the NCAA tournament.

Unfortunately for his Vols (20-12), he won't be the one making the call.

He reiterated his belief Friday that he felt like Tennessee was an NCAA tournament team and added that it would be an “insult” to the SEC if the league didn’t get more than four teams in the field.

Either way, it’s going to be close. It probably helped Tennessee that both Virginia and LaSalle, two other bubble teams, lost Friday in their conference tournaments. The Vols also wouldn’t mind if Kentucky and Ole Miss both lost later Friday night in their SEC tournament games.

Alabama had even more work to do than Tennessee entering the SEC tournament, which made Friday’s contest as must-win as a must-win game could be.

The Crimson Tide don’t own a lot of marquee wins this season, and that makes Saturday’s shot at the Gators crucial.

“When you’re at this point in the season, they all count the same,” Releford said. “You better play every game like it's your last.”

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

March, 8, 2013
Another attempt, my final attempt to rank the SEC. … It’s been real.

  1. Florida. The Gators are still the kings of the SEC. Yes, they’ve fallen a few times this season. But they’ve been the most dominant team in the conference. They’ve suffered three SEC losses, all on the road, against Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri. But they’ve also achieved the league’s top scoring margin (plus-18.8 points per game). The Gators already have won the SEC crown, but a win at Kentucky on Saturday would truly stamp their supremacy within the league.
  2. Missouri. I can’t tell you whether Mizzou will make a run in the NCAA tournament. The Tigers are just too inconsistent. But they’re 4-1 in their past five games. And Tuesday’s 93-63 win against Arkansas -- in Columbia, of course -- allowed the Tigers to display their potential. Phil Pressey has become a more efficient distributor. He has finished with eight or more assists in Mizzou’s past four games. He also has recorded 14 turnovers combined in the same stretch. Saturday’s road game at Tennessee is a serious test for a Missouri squad that has been shaky off campus. But its ceiling is high, especially if Pressey continues to play maestro and limits his mishaps.
  3. Tennessee. Cuonzo Martin’s team faces Missouri on Saturday in a critical game. A loss to the Tigers won’t destroy its NCAA tourney hopes. But a win might seal an at-large bid. The Vols lost to Georgia this past weekend, but that didn’t nullify the momentum they have amassed in the past month. They have won seven of their past eight entering the weekend. Jarnell Stokes, Jordan McRae and Trae Golden anchor a team that has outplayed most of America’s bubble teams in recent weeks.
  4. LSU. The SEC tournament is wide open. Any team could reach the final, it seems. And in a league with so many bubble squads vying for an at-large bid, the tournament's action should reflect the stakes. Johnny Jones’ program is not one of the SEC’s bubble teams. But it’s certainly a sleeper to make a run and spoil the postseason plans of its conference colleagues. The Tigers have won three of their past four and are 8-3 since Jan. 30. With Johnny O'Bryant III (13.7 PPG, 8.7 RPG) inside and its ability to defend the perimeter (SEC squads are shooting just 28.9 percent from the perimeter against LSU, second in the conference), LSU could shock the field in Nashville next week.
  5. Kentucky. Still talented. Still a mess. Still on the bubble. Somehow. After Thursday night’s 72-62 loss at Georgia, John Calipari blamed himself for the loss. "I've done a crap job with this team," he said. Well, it’s not completely Cal’s fault, but it’s refreshing to hear a coach accept blame. The Wildcats are young. The Wildcats lack veteran leadership. The Wildcats lost their best player during the most important stretch of the year. But they’ve had so many chances to play their way off the bubble and they’ve stumbled. Taking that L at Georgia hurt their NCAA tournament hopes and might have guaranteed an NIT berth. But a win against Florida on Saturday could lead Kentucky to the Big Dance.
  6. Alabama. Let me say this. Trevor Releford (15.5 PPG, 2.1 SPG) could carry Bama to the SEC championship. At this point, I’m convinced any team could win that thing. But Anthony Grant’s program also could lose its first game and go home with nothing more than an NIT berth. There’s just nothing about the Crimson Tide that makes me a believer. They have lost three of their past four matchups (all road games). This lukewarm stretch sums up Alabama’s entire season. So-so. Defense has helped Bama stay alive all year (59.8 PPG allowed in SEC play, No. 2 in the conference). But the team is so inconsistent everywhere else that it has reached the end of the season with minimal mojo.
  7. Georgia. So … Mark Fox’s team is 8-4 since Jan. 26. The Bulldogs have knocked off Kentucky and Tennessee in their past two games. Fox’s young squad has matured in recent weeks. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (18.2 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 2.1 SPG) is a star. But without an offensively astute crew around him, the Bulldogs have focused on defense (56th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy). Georgia hasn’t even cracked the RPI’s top 100. This is not a bubble team. But it’s certainly a dream killer right now.
  8. Ole Miss. Last week, a few Ole Miss fans told me they didn’t like my placement of the Rebels in the most recent rankings. They were justified in their frustration. Ole Miss should have been lower. This is an average team (at best). We were all blinded by the Marshall Henderson Show earlier this season. For once, Ole Miss was fascinating. Then Andy Kennedy’s program caught an allergy to defense (71.2 PPG allowed in SEC play, 12th in the league). Sure, the Rebels are a bubble team. But they’re not playing like a tournament team (see Saturday’s inexplicable 73-67 road loss to rival Mississippi State).
  9. Arkansas. The Razorbacks aren’t that different from the rest of the conference. They’re a dazzling spectacle at home. Just bad whenever they’re on the road. That’s the story of the entire conference -- the nation, really. But Saturday’s 30-point loss at Missouri was enough to send any bandwagon into a ditch. Arkansas has lost three of its past four. Not exactly the kind of convincing conclusion to the regular season that the selection committee would like to see from a bubble squad. But … this is Arkansas. A lot of teams have lost on the road this season. Few, however, have matched the extremes of Arkansas’ Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde routine.
  10. Texas A&M. I wanted to trust the Aggies. Really, I did. That January road win against Kentucky and an early February victory against Missouri convinced me that Elston Turner (17.7 PPG) & Co. would end the season on a high note. Didn’t happen. Things fell apart for this program.
  11. Vanderbilt. The bad news is that Kevin Stallings’ program sits at the bottom of the SEC. The good news is that his top five scorers should return next season. And incoming four-star recruit Damian Jones should help in his first season with the squad.
  12. South Carolina. Can Frank Martin build something special with the Gamecocks? We’ll see. His first year was a rough one.
  13. Auburn. Bottom line is that Auburn’s administration will soon decide whether it’s going to give Tony Barbee more time to rebuild after another tough season.
  14. Mississippi State. Last night, Rick Ray sent me a text message that simply said, “Can’t make this up. Jalen Steele tore his ACL last night. That’s FOUR season ending knee injuries.” I know you think your favorite team has endured tough times in 2012-13. But I don’t think any team in the country has matched Mississippi State’s situation. Still, MSU’s fan base will feast on last weekend’s win against Ole Miss for months.

Conference Power Rankings: SEC

March, 1, 2013
My latest attempt to rank the SEC ...

1. Florida. Still No. 1 to me. I’m not going to drop the Gators for a loss to a hungry Tennessee team this week. Billy Donovan’s squad was short-handed. But Will Yeguete and Michael Frazier II will be available for Saturday’s matchup against Alabama. The Gators have followed the trend within the SEC and nationally by struggling on the road. Every squad on this list, however, has encountered the same off-campus struggles. But no team in this conference possesses Florida’s talent, skills and résumé.

2. Missouri. Frank Haith’s program has improved. The Tigers are finally fulfilling their potential. Perhaps it took three, four months for this group to achieve the chemistry necessary to make it happen. Injuries to Keion Bell and Laurence Bowers did not help. But they’re jelling now. Sure, it’s just a win over South Carolina but the Tigers topped 80 points in their second consecutive road game with that 90-68 victory Thursday night. Also, Phil Pressey did not attempt a field goal in the game, but he finished with nine assists. His recent performances prove he realizes Mizzou needs him to be a better distributor.

3. Tennessee. Cuonzo Martin is cooking something in Knoxville. The Vols are sitting on the NCAA tournament bubble after six consecutive wins, a streak that includes victories over Kentucky and Florida. Tuesday night’s win over the Gators was crucial for Martin’s squad. The Vols have certainly dealt with a variety of obstacles this year. Jeronne Maymon has been sidelined all year with a knee injury. The Vols lost four of their first five SEC games. But they’re playing great basketball right now. Jarnell Stokes is more assertive now. Trae Golden is leading. Jordan McRae is balling. This could be a very dangerous squad if it cracks the field in the NCAA tournament.

4. Kentucky. Kudos to John Calipari’s team. It’s not easy for a veteran squad to move forward after losing its best player. This crew is making a push with freshmen. The Wildcats have won three of four without star Nerlens Noel. The 30-point loss they suffered at Tennessee in their first full game without the freshman standout projected trouble for the young crew. But the Wildcats are fighting for an at-large bid. Alex Poythress is a matchup problem for any team in America when he wants to be. And his recent efforts prove he recognizes his significance to this team’s postseason, especially with Noel sidelined. He scored 16 points in Wednesday’s 85-55 victory at Mississippi State, and he dropped 21 points in Saturday’s 90-83 overtime win against Missouri.

5. Alabama. Bama has won four of its past five games. But the Crimson Tide didn’t achieve that success against the league’s best -- and the Tide suffered a triple-overtime road loss to LSU over the weekend. Their next two matchups, road games against Florida and Ole Miss, however, will give Anthony Grant’s team a chance to prove it’s a top-tier team in this league and one that should be feared in the conference tournament. Trevor Releford can lead Bama in this final stretch, but he’ll need other scorers to step up consistently to avoid a late collapse (61.7 PPG in SEC play, ninth in the league).

6. LSU. Johnny Jones' squad has won four of five. The Tigers are not in the NCAA tournament conversation. But if you’re looking for a team that could rally in the SEC tournament, check out the Tigers. They play fast (41st in adjusted tempo per Ken Pomeroy). They defend the 3-point line (SEC squads are shooting just 28.9 percent from the arc against the Tigers). And sophomore Johnny O’Bryant III (13.6 PPG, 8.7 RPG) is a young star.

7. Arkansas. It’s the same story with the Razorbacks. They can contend with America’s best when they’re home. The road is a completely different tale for this squad. They’ve secured double-digit home wins against Tennessee and Florida. They have a win over Missouri, too. They’ve lost to South Carolina and Vandy on the road. The Razorbacks would be in the mix for the conference title if they had avoided those road losses to subpar SEC squads.

8. Ole Miss. It’s getting hot for Andy Kennedy and his program. The Rebels have tumbled in the standings after losing five of their past nine games. The good news? They’ve actually won three of four and they can win the last three SEC games on their slate. The bad news? Their at-large hopes have been jeopardized by their recent fall. They’re the league’s best offensive team (75.9 PPG) and one of its worst defensive squads (70.3 PPG allowed). That’s a formula for chaos.

9. and 10. Texas A&M/Vandy. Both are 6-9 in the SEC, and that’s surprising for different reasons. Texas A&M has wins over Kentucky and Missouri but the Aggies have had far more lows than highs. Kevin Stallings’ young squad has won four of its past six games. That’s a finish that his program can build on for next season.

11. Georgia. Mark Fox’s program had amassed momentum during a five-game winning streak. Since then? The Bulldogs have lost four of their past five.

12.-14. South Carolina/Mississippi State/Auburn. It’s difficult to separate these three teams. The good news for all three? It’s March. This will end soon.
A few observations from another intriguing Saturday night of college basketball…

Kentucky stepped up in the most important game of its season. Prior to Saturday’s Missouri-Kentucky matchup, the SEC had already completed multiple exciting games earlier in the day. LSU beat Alabama in triple overtime. Georgia defeated South Carolina in overtime. And Tennessee outplayed Texas A&M in quadruple overtime. But Kentucky and Missouri delivered in the conference’s most significant matchup. After losing Nerlens Noel to a season-ending knee injury, the Wildcats lost to Tennessee by 30 points. Season over, right? I mean, that team competed like a team that just wanted the season to end. Kentucky didn’t do anything that a squad should do when it’s trying to convince the selection committee that it’s worthy of an NCAA tournament bid. I had no faith in this group. The Wildcats, however, silenced some of their critics with their overtime win against Missouri at Rupp Arena on Saturday. The 90-83 victory might help UK get into the field of 68 -- and the Cats might have changed the trajectory of their entire season with the gutsy win. Julius Mays led the Wildcats (four reached double figures) with 24 points. By the end of the game, he could barely walk. Kentucky had earned that exhaustion. Missouri, meanwhile, earned criticism. More criticism. Once again, the Tigers collapsed on the road. They were up by 13 points in the first half, and then they unraveled. They always do outside Columbia, it seems. Phil Pressey's costly turnover with 48 seconds remaining in overtime summed up Mizzou’s entire season: talent marred by mistakes and chemistry issues. In the end, a Tigers team comprised of veterans lost to a group of raw youngsters which graduated from high school a year ago. Give Kentucky credit. Doubt the Tigers.

Health will be Florida’s top concern in March. The Gators proved that they’re still a high-powered team when they bullied Arkansas 71-54 on Saturday. Florida’s loss to Missouri -- and an earlier loss at Arkansas -- sparked questions about Billy Donovan’s program, but the Gators have been one of the nation’s most dominant teams all season. And their successes outweigh their stumbles. In March, they’re not going to run into many teams that can handle their backcourt and Patric Young (14 points, 7 rebounds and a block on Saturday). What about their health? Michael Frazier II suffered a concussion in the victory over the Razorbacks. Erik Murphy tweaked an ankle this week. Will Yeguete is out with a knee injury. Donovan’s program hasn’t been 100 percent in a long time. That’s a concern now and as March Madness approaches. A healthy Gators team can contend with any program in the country. There will be less certainty, however, if Florida enters the NCAA tournament at anything less than 100 percent.

[+] EnlargeMouphtaou Yarou
P Photo/H. Rumph JrMouphtaou Yarou throws down a pair of his 10 points in Nova's upset of Marquette.

I don’t understand Villanova, but I like its style. Check Villanova’s résumé. Confused? You should be. The Wildcats have been swept by Providence. They have a nonconference loss to Columbia. Alabama beat them by 22 points in the first half of the season. But the Wildcats also have recent victories over Louisville and Syracuse. They’re 7-9 against the RPI top 100 but 3-1 against its top 25. Still, the Wildcats had zero guarantees entering Saturday’s matchup with a Marquette team that was locked in a three-way tie for first place in the Big East, and they played like a team that recognized its predicament. And I dig that. I mean, don’t expect a bid. Take one. And that’s what Villanova may have done with Saturday’s victory. Mouphtaou Yarou finished with 10 points, 7 rebounds, 2 steals and an assist in his final game at The Pavilion. Yarou and his teammates (Darrun Hilliard led all scorers with 22 points) fought. Marquette (19 turnovers) made a late push, but it couldn’t overcome the Wildcats’ lead. Villanova’s résumé is not perfect, but you can’t tell me that the Wildcats aren’t playing like a tourney team right now.

Saint Mary’s is doing what it can. The Gaels entered their home game against Creighton in a bubble situation. Their one problem all year? Gonzaga. The Zags are five steps beyond the rest of the league, and the West Coast Conference doesn’t offer any other true quality opponents (BYU is OK, I guess). So Saturday’s home game against a Creighton team that looked like a lock for the tourney was crucial for the Gaels. Saint Mary's toyed with the Bluejays in a 74-66 win. That’s what a team in SMC's situation should do. The Gaels can’t enhance the WCC in the coming weeks, but they can win convincingly in their toughest remaining matchups. Saturday was a good start. It also proves that the Missouri Valley Conference is not as good as many expected it to be. A few weeks ago, Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall told me that the Valley was like a “mini-Big Ten,” and I agreed with him. At the time, Indiana State, Creighton, and Wichita State were all tourney teams. Not today. Creighton has struggled on the road in MVC play. The Bluejays could lose to Bradley next week and then stumble in the conference tourney. And now a mid-major conference that appeared to possess three bids could enter Selection Sunday with one lock (Wichita State) and a Creighton team sitting on the bubble.

  • I believe in Trae Golden and Jarnell Stokes. The duo has fueled Tennessee’s five-game winning streak. On Saturday, Golden (32 points) and Stokes (20 points, 16 rebounds) -- along with Jordan McRae (23 points) -- led the Vols to a 93-85 four-overtime road win over Texas A&M. The SEC is a very lukewarm league. Most teams have suffered surprising road losses. Few have compiled impressive runs. But Tennessee is playing its best basketball right now. There are no guarantees in the SEC tourney. The Vols aren’t in the dance right now, but they could be in a few weeks.
  • What a week for Cal. The Bears held off Oregon State for a 60-59 win on Saturday. On Thursday, Justin Cobbs hit a shot in the final seconds to seal his team's two-point victory over Oregon. Cal has won five in row. With three games left, the Bears still in the mix for the Pac-12 title.

My Saturday afternoon observations

February, 16, 2013
Just last week, NCAA tournament selection committee chair Mike Bobinski hosted the first of a handful of teleconferences heading toward Selection Sunday. It was just a day after Nerlens Noel tore his anterior cruciate ligament, so naturally Bobinski was asked how the loss of Kentucky’s best player would affect the Wildcats’ chance at an NCAA tourney berth.

Here’s what he said:

“The reality is we have about 4 1/2 weeks of basketball left to be able to watch Kentucky play and see how they perform without him in the lineup now, and that will really tell the story I think of how we ultimately judge and view Kentucky."

Well, here’s what the committee saw:

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsA rocky road got worse Saturday for John Calipari and defending-champion Kentucky.
Tennessee 88, Kentucky 58. Tied for the fourth-worst loss for UK in the past 80 years. John Calipari's worst loss since Feb. 18, 1989. That was a lifetime ago, in his first season at Massachusetts, when the Minutemen lost to Duquesne by 31. He didn’t have quite as many McDonald's All Americans on that roster.

If this were an audition for the tourney bracket, the director would be yelling, "Next!"

Just barely on the bubble to begin with -- Kentucky has zero top-50 RPI wins now that free-falling Ole Miss has dropped to 51 -- the Wildcats were quickly dumped to the First Four Out by Joe Lunardi on Saturday afternoon (remember, even before Noel got hurt, UK was getting essentially run out of the gym by Florida).

There is no question that losing Noel is a huge blow, but it is not just in terms of X's and O's. That Tennessee loss -- and give the Vols credit for playing a near-flawless game (especially point guard Trae Golden) -- exposed the real crux of the problem for Kentucky sans Noel.

For most of the season, he has been the only one playing with a combination of consistent ferocity and passion. The rest of the team tends to disappear frequently, lollygags on defense often and shows such dispassionate body language at times that you have to wonder whether the players are clock-watching.

In Noel’s absence, his freshman classmates Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin combined for 13 points, 13 fouls and nine turnovers.

A year after coaching one of the best collections of hard-working, unselfish players, Calipari has a group he cannot cajole, bullwhip or beg into cohesion. It has gotten so bad that the coach spent the week before the Florida game talking about his team’s need to find love. Not the Valentine kind, but the bromance of basketball.

Thanks to the cottony soft bubble, Kentucky isn’t dead yet. But the Grim Reaper is standing by. The Wildcats have six regular-season games left -- four that can only hurt them (against Vanderbilt, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Georgia) and two that will mean everything (visits from Missouri and Florida).

Noel, of course, won’t be there for any of them, but for Kentucky right now, it’s more about channeling the way he played.

Some other observations from Saturday afternoon:

1. Opportunity knocked ... And North Carolina answered. Oklahoma couldn’t unlock the door. Stanford didn’t hear the doorbell. In what might go down as an ACC bracket-buster game, the Tar Heels topped Virginia, 93-81. That doesn’t officially seal either team’s fate, but certainly it’s a feather for UNC and a glancing blow for the Cavaliers.

Meanwhile, in the Big 12, Oklahoma blew an 11-point lead and lost 84-79 in overtime at Oklahoma State, which has won seven consecutive league games for the first time in nearly a decade. It’s a body blow for the rival Sooners, who have a confusing NCAA résumé -- an RPI of 20 but a 3-5 record against the RPI top 50.

As for Stanford, Bill Walton quite naturally put it best. Somebody, the analyst said, needs to start watering the roots of the Tree. Just two weeks ago, the Cardinal looked like the team that promised to capitalize on its NIT run from last season, winning three games in a row, including one against hot Oregon. Now, Stanford has lost three of four, blowing show-me opportunities against both Arizona and now UCLA.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Smart
AP Photo/Sue OgrockiFreshman Marcus Smart scored 28 in OK State's rivalry win, the Cowboys' seventh in a row.
2. Pay attention to Marcus Smart: The Oklahoma State guard might be the most unheralded player in the country right now. Seriously. The reason might be that on their own, none of his numbers jumps off the stat line -- he averages 14.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 3.0 steals per game -- but then go back and look at that list collectively.

He’s good at everything. Offense, defense, scoring and sharing, he is the consummate individual player and the consummate teammate. In the victory against the Sooners, he had 28 points, seven rebounds and four assists. Just another day at the office. He's also the reason the Cowboys are poised for their first NCAA tournament bid since 2010. Oklahoma State has won seven in a row. In that stretch, Smart is averaging 19.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 3.4 steals.

3. What would happen if ... Arkansas and Missouri played on a neutral court? Would the game ever end? Or better yet, would it ever start? Would both teams be turned into pillars of salt, frozen in fear by the unfamiliar, away-from-home surroundings? Give the Hogs credit -- they're now 15-1 at home after squeaking past Mizzou, 73-71. But neither team can win on the road, which is something the selection committee kind of likes to see every once in a while.

4. Can a player win national player of the year and not make the NCAA tournament? It has never happened with a Wooden winner, but Doug McDermott might be on the verge of rewriting history in a decidedly twisted way. McDermott is continuing to put up huge numbers -- he is averaging 23 points per game and just eclipsed the 2,000-point plateau -- but his team isn’t doing much to prove it belongs in the field of 68.

The Bluejays rallied from a double-digit deficit to win 71-68 at Evansville and end their three-game skid. Feel free to celebrate the end of the losing streak, but then realize that Evansville is 14-13 overall and just 7-8 in the league, so skating to a three-point win doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence, does it?

In the latest player-of-the-year straw poll of actual voters, collected by Michael Rothstein, McDermott was second behind Michigan’s Trey Burke. He had 118 points and 21 first-place votes to Burke’s 136 and 30 (the poll is done every two weeks), and the next-closest vote getter, Mason Plumlee, wasn’t even in the neighborhood, with 35 points and only four first-place votes.

Numbers matter in player of the year ballots, but don’t think for a minute winning isn’t (and shouldn’t be) a factor. If Creighton doesn’t right the ship well enough soon, it will be interesting to see whether McDermott is part of the collateral damage.

5. Watch out for Providence: No, I’m not joking. Done in by injuries and down to five scholarship players early, the Friars appeared destined for their annual bottom-third-of-the-Big East finish. Not so fast. Coach Ed Cooley has talent -- Bryce Cotton, Kadeem Batts, Vincent Council and Kris Dunn -- and now he's getting something out of it. Providence has won four consecutive Big East games for the first time since 2004, including wins against Cincinnati and today's 71-54 victory over Notre Dame, which snapped a nine-game losing streak to the Irish.

I’m not sure whether the Friars are good enough to keep that streak going -- they go to Syracuse next -- but after too many lean years to count, Cooley has this team headed in the right direction. In a confusing Big East -- explain Villanova, please? -- Providence is good enough to make things even more confounding.

A closer look: G'town 37, Tennessee 36

November, 30, 2012
Overview: No. 20 Georgetown's 37-36 victory over visiting Tennessee was one of the sloppiest games of the season to date. At one point in the first half, Tennessee was shooting below 19 percent from the field against Georgetown’s frustrating 2-3 zone. But the Vols climbed back into the low-scoring matchup because their opponent failed to register a field goal in the last 10 minutes of the first half. Trae Golden's floater beat the buzzer to give Tennessee a -- wait for it -- 18-16 lead at halftime. It was the worst half for the Vols in nearly a decade. The offensive production was mediocre in the second half, too. But Georgetown started with a 13-5 run. Tennessee answered with a 13-6 run. There were six lead changes in the final 8 minutes, 19 seconds of the game. But neither team scored in the final 4:08 of regulation as the Hoyas preserved the one-point lead. According to ESPN Stats & Information, it was the first time that Georgetown had won by scoring 37 points or fewer since beating Catholic during the 1945-46 season. Wow.

Turning point: Tennessee made two crucial surges. It responded to Georgetown's early eight-point lead in the first half, then it fired back when it rallied early in the second. But the game was ultimately decided in the final seconds. With his team up 37-36, Greg Whittington fumbled a pass, resulting in a turnover that gave the Vols possession with 22 seconds left. But the home team pressured the 3-point line all night, which was evident when Skylar McBee and Jordan McRae missed contested 3-pointers in the final seconds.

[+] EnlargeMikael Hopkins
AP Photo/Nick WassGeorgetown's Mikeal Hopkins (3) and Greg Whittington, who combined for 16 points, surround Tennessee's Kenny Hall.
Why Georgetown won: Well, Markel Starks scored the winning basket with 4:08 to play. But the Hoyas really won because of their defensive pressure. No player on either team scored in double figures. It was one of those gritty November matchups. Defense really was the difference because shots weren't falling. John Thompson III's squad forced 12 turnovers and held Tennessee to a 3-for-16 clip from the 3-point line.

Why Tennessee lost: The Vols spent the night digging out of ditches. They were down in the first half but bounced back. They were down in the second but bounced back. Those early holes, however, affected them down the stretch. They missed so many easy shots, shots that have fallen in other games this season. And they expended a lot of energy trying to make up for it. Credit Georgetown's defense for its role in creating that offensive chaos. But Tennessee did have a chance in the waning seconds. Not sure why the best plays were a couple of 3-pointers -- shots that hadn't gone in most of the evening -- when the Vols were down by a point. Paging Jeronne Maymon (12.7 points, 8.1 rebounds per game in 2011-12). He's still recovering from knee surgery. Tennessee could have used him Friday night.

Star(s) of the game: Hard to identify a star in a game that featured so many droughts, right? Otto Porter had eight points, seven rebounds and three steals. Whittington had the same stat line. They were both 4-for-11. JTIII is obviously cloning 6-foot-8 forwards.

What it means for Georgetown: It means the Hoyas need to become a better offensive team to beat top-tier squads in the Big East. They certainly have the defense to do it. And it seems Porter and Whittington are stars. But the offensive gaps will crush them against tougher teams.

What it means for Tennessee: The Vols need Maymon. Yes, they have to take smarter shots, but they also need Maymon. I think he changes the program's prospects. And they're just not tough enough defensively to afford the offensive lapses that plagued them against the Hoyas.

What’s next: Tennessee will face Virginia on the road Wednesday. Georgetown will take on Texas on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden in the Jimmy V Classic.

3-point shot: Vols' Italian experience

August, 24, 2012
1. What did Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin learn about the Vols on the recent trip to Italy? "Jarnell Stokes and Yemi Makanjuola are more explosive; Trae Golden did a good job running the team and he really exerted energy on the defensive end; Jeronne Maymon is healthy." Martin, whose squad should be in the top four in the SEC with Kentucky, Florida and Missouri, also said the Vols got great experience playing together in tough atmospheres, got plenty of reps for the newcomers and the extra practice time on fundamentals was a must. The team bonding was invaluable for a squad and staff that is entering its second season together. Meanwhile, the Vols lost freshman guard Derek Reese for the next six months due to right shoulder surgery. But the Vols actually have depth and Martin said it won’t hurt UT at this time. The Vols finished 10-6 in the SEC, 19-15 overall and lost to Middle Tennessee State in the NIT second round.

2. Wyoming head coach and former Florida assistant coach Larry Shyatt has been organizing a coaching clinic for fellow colleagues the past 29 years, with this year's event the ninth straight in Gainesville. The clinic has been a major hit for coaches in their professional growth. NBA and college coaches get together to discuss their own specialties. The roster of coaches that were attendance this week from college basketball reached all levels with Shyatt, Florida’s Billy Donovan, Purdue’s Matt Painter, Pitt’s Jamie Dixon, San Diego’s Bill Grier, UTEP’s Tim Floyd, UNC-Wilmington’s Buzz Peterson, Wofford’s Mike Young, UCF’s Donnie Jones, Bucknell’s Dave Paulsen and Weber State’s Randy Rahe highlighting the list of head college coaches. Shyatt, Dixon and Grier said they were enriched by the clinic and it aided in their professional development.

3. The 16-team NIT Season Tip-Off still isn’t finalized despite a number of schools starting the fall semester. The NIT is still waiting for one more team to fill a pod. That means the four hosts -- Kansas State, Virginia, Pitt and Michigan -- still don’t know how the bracket would be set if they all advanced to New York for the Thanksgiving week tournament. The NIT won’t tell the four schools the exact pairings since the final team may force a possible change in the other pods. The NIT is the only remaining pre-conference tournament that leads to a neutral site without predetermining the semifinalists.

Hopefully, you ignored college football. Hopefully, you procrastinated putting up your Christmas decorations. Hopefully, after Kentucky's thrilling win over North Carolina this afternoon, you stayed plopped in that couch groove, remote in one hand and snacks in the other, ready to flip from one hoops affair to the next.

Why? Because UK-UNC was merely this Saturday's opening salvo. Sure, it was the best and most important and most entertaining and most talented and most insert-your-adjective-of-choice-here game of the day. But it wasn't the only one. Let's run through the rest of this afternoon's action -- beginning with Xavier's remarkable comeback win over Purdue. (Tu!)

No. 11 Xavier 66, Purdue 63: Technically, a brief glance at the Game Flow illustration in the link to the left tells the story here. The Purdue lead was 20-6 after 10 minutes. It was 33-22 after 20 minutes. It was -- get this -- 55-36 after 30 minutes. Then, in the final 10 minutes, and especially the final five, Xavier staged a marvelous comeback, ending the game on a 30-8 run and holding on in the end to get the most unlikely of wins.

You can look at the box score and know this, and therefore know the story of the game. But believe me when I say this is one you had to see to believe. In particular, you needed to see X guard Tu Holloway, whose late-game transformations -- Holloway goes from inefficient to "oh my God, did you just see that?!?" -- are one of the strangest and most compelling performance storylines in college basketball this season. It pains me to say this, but in his past two games, Tu Holloway became college basketball's Tim Tebow. (I know, I know. I couldn't resist.)

As in Xavier's victory at Vanderbilt on Monday, Holloway was pedestrian to downright bad for much of Saturday afternoon. Before the final five minutes, he was borderline invisible, when he wasn't committing one of his six turnovers, that is. And then, just as it did Monday night in Nashville, something clicked. After the five-minute mark, Holloway went 3-of-4 and scored 13 of his 21 total points, including the three consecutive dagger 3s he stuck in the closing moments when his team needed them most. He won the game with his shooting and finished it off with his free throws.

It's strange, this lightbulb that seems to click only in the closing moments. But whatever it is that goes off in Holloway's head when the game is on the line in the closing moments, Xavier fans will take it. Thanks in large part to Holloway's late-game heroics, the Musketeers end this week with two crucial nonconference wins over two power-six teams, one of which came on the road.

There's a ton of season left, but would anyone want to draw the Muskies in an elimination game right now? For all its occasional struggles -- and by occasional, I mean "for the first 35 minutes of any given game" -- this Xavier team not only appears to be balanced and talented, but also appears to be as difficult an out as any team in the country. If you're up on the Musketeers, you better bury them deep. As long as Holloway's on the floor and the lead is mathematically in reach, you're never, ever safe.

As for Purdue, Matt Painter and Co. will certainly be unhappy to lose a game they controlled for so long in such heartbreaking fashion. And the sight of Robbie Hummel wincing at the end of the Boilermakers bench -- Hummel was crippled by apparently excruciating cramps for much of the afternoon -- was certainly an unwelcome one. But there are bright sides. For one, Hummel's injuries were merely cramps. (Seeing the Purdue senior, in the midst of a heartwarming comeback from two major ACL surgeries, hold his leg after contact is the quickest way this side of an Eli Roth movie to feel one's stomach turn in knots.)

More important, it should be noted that Purdue was the vastly superior team for much of the game. A loss is a loss, of course; no distinction will be made for its type during the résumé comparison season in early March. But the Boilers can take something from this game. They were the better team for its majority -- on the road, in a tough environment, against an experienced and talented team, with its best player cramping late -- and at the end of the day, maybe that's what's worth remembering.

No. 16 Marquette 61, No. 7 Wisconsin 54: Make no mistake: Marquette is a good team. Arguably a very good one. Even without star Jimmy Butler, last season's do-everything scorer, rebounder, glue guy and teammate extraordinaire, the Golden Eagles are still very good.

Even so, this is a borderline shocking result. Why? Because Wisconsin doesn't lose at home, like, ever. Before Saturday, in 11 seasons under Bo Ryan, UW was 156-11 at the Kohl Center. The Badgers were working on a 23-game home winning streak against all opponents; the last time they lost a nonconference home game was Dec. 23, 2008. So for the Golden Eagles to come in and get a win in this underrated in-state hoops rivalry -- well, yeah, that's a shocker, no matter how good this Marquette team is.

Of course, the Badgers gave Marquette the opportunity almost from the starting tip. Wisconsin posted an uncharacteristically awful shooting performance Saturday afternoon, particularly in the first half, when the Badgers scored just 22 points and found themselves in a 10-point hole at halftime. Things improved slightly in the second, but UW still finished 16-of-50 from the field and 5-of-19 from 3. For a team averaging 44 percent from 3 and 50 percent from 2 this season -- a team that relies on slowly working the ball in pursuit of a high-percentage final shot -- that simply won't get it done.

Wisconsin's slow pace -- its greatest advantage at times -- also makes it very difficult for the Badgers to mount a comeback. They tried, and cut the lead to within striking distance late in the second half even despite a tough charging call on point guard Jordan Taylor that cost the Badgers a three-point play and sent Taylor to the bench with his fourth foul. But Marquette was just as good down the stretch. Guard Darius Johnson-Odom didn't have a hugely efficient night (17 points on 15 shots), but anytime he can get his 18-foot step-back jumper off, it becomes an unstoppable offensive weapon. Meanwhile, Marquette is getting good contributions from sophomore Vander Blue and freshman guard Todd Mayo (younger brother of O.J.).

Wisconsin may have shot itself in the foot in this one -- not unlike Tuesday's close call at North Carolina -- but Marquette deserves the credit. The Golden Eagles took advantage early, made enough plays to finish the game and in the process notched one of the biggest wins of Buzz Williams' ever-promising tenure at the program. Impressive stuff.

Illinois 82, No. 18 Gonzaga 75: Maybe Gonzaga beats Illinois on a neutral court. But maybe not.

That's the feeling one got while watching this game, in which Illinois -- a young team but one with talent, which is something yours truly has been saying all season -- never looked overmatched or overwhelmed against a ranked Bulldogs team with designs on a deep tournament run. A little like UK-UNC, this win didn't feel like the benefit of home-court advantage as some deciding factor. Illinois can play with people. Now we know.

[+] EnlargeMeyers Leonard
AP Photo/Robert K. O'DaniellSophomore Meyers Leonard's second-half surge helped Illinois to the upset of visiting Gonzaga.
Of special note? Illinois forward Meyers Leonard. The sophomore missed much of the first half thanks to foul trouble, but he returned in the second with a determined style of play. The end result: 21 points and 6 rebounds on 9-for-11 shooting from the field. Those are impressive tallies any way you slice them, but considering Leonard posted those numbers while matched up with Gonzaga center Robert Sacre, they're doubly so. Throw in the balanced performances from starters D.J. Richardson (19 points), Brandon Paul (13 points, 5 assists, 4 rebounds) and Sam Maniscalco (10 points, 6 assists, 4 rebounds) and, well, don't look now, but this Illinois team might well be better than last season's disappointing senior-led squad. It certainly looked the part Saturday.

No. 17 Pittsburgh 61, Tennessee 56: In Maui, the Tennessee Volunteers proved themselves to be a flawed but hard-nosed and pesky bunch, one that would refuse to roll over for their apparently more talented opponents. That quality was on full display against Pitt, which led UT by eight with 1:46 to go. That's when the Vols began fouling, and after an elbow cost guard Ashton Gibbs a technical foul -- and gave Tennessee the customary shots and possession -- the Panthers missed the front end of two one-and-ones and watched as Trae Golden's 3 cut the lead to 58-56 with 11 seconds remaining.

It wasn't pretty, but the Panthers pulled this one out after forcing a jump ball on Tennessee's key possession late. They'll be thankful for that when seeding time comes around this spring. But let it be known: Tennessee was supposed to be rebuilding. That may be true. But don't tell the Volunteers. Because they aren't yielding anything in the meantime.

Other noteworthy results from the afternoon: The jury is still out on Iowa State; the Cyclones don't have any truly bad losses (at Drake is forgivable, and so is a home loss to UNI), but after Saturday's 75-65 loss at Michigan, Fred Hoiberg's rebuilt team hasn't made us sit up and take notice either. ... Ryan Boatright's home debut after a six-game NCAA rules suspension went swimmingly: The freshman guard scored 23 points and led his team to a game-opening 14-2 run in what was arguably a struggling UConn team's most impressive performance of the year, a 75-62 victory over Arkansas. ... Usually, UCLA-Texas is a marquee game. Not this season. The Bruins are now 2-5 after today's home loss to the Longhorns, which was briefly interrupted by a power surge that caused the lights to dim in the aging Los Angeles Sports Arena, UCLA's temporary home. One imagines Ben Howland would have preferred the lights stay off. ... BYU played at the home of the Utah Jazz (hey, there's nothing going on there) and dusted off Oregon with a 13-0 run in the second half of its impressive 79-65 win. Noah Hartsock led the way with 23 points and 12 boards for the Cougars. In other news, the Horizon League began conference play -- yes, conference play -- on Saturday, with the two biggest results a 77-71 overtime win by Valpo at Butler and Cleveland State's 66-61 win at preseason Horizon favorite Detroit. We know to never count out Butler (or Detroit if Eli Holman ever returns), but it's becoming apparent that the Crusaders and Vikings are the teams to beat in the Horizon.

Overview: On Monday, it took us until the fourth matchup of the day to get a really competitive, tight game. On Tuesday, the Maui Invitational wasted no such time. In the first game of the day -- a 9 a.m. tipoff locally -- the Memphis Tigers and Tennessee Volunteers played a high-octane rivalry thriller that took two overtimes to decide. Memphis led for much of the game and by as much as 16 in the first half, but Tennessee closed the lead in the second half, and the Volunteers -- led by a brilliant performance from forward Jeronne Maymon -- kept finding bucket after bucket as they refused to go away.

There was suspense until the final whistle. With 3.5 seconds remaining, Tennessee's inbounds pass was stolen by Memphis forward Wesley Witherspoon, but Witherspoon -- thinking the game was over -- traveled and gave the ball back to the Vols with one second left on the clock. Maymon's fadeaway elbow jumper missed everything, though, and Memphis escaped with the 99-97 win.

What a game.

Turning point: The final moments of the second overtime decided the game, but Tennessee, after battling back for 45 minutes, squandered a major opportunity to seal a win in the first OT. With 35 seconds left, UT guard Trae Golden drove to the rim and attempted a wild reverse layup -- one of Golden's 16 misses Tuesday (3-of-19) -- that was rebounded by Memphis guard Will Barton. Barton quickly fired the ball upcourt to teammate Chris Crawford, who dipped into Tennessee's defense and converted a quick layup on the break. That tied the game at 91-all, the Vols couldn't get a good look in the final 26 seconds and the game moved to double overtime.

Why Memphis won: Its offense thrived. After an anemic and confused offensive performance in Monday's loss to Michigan, the Tigers relentlessly attacked UT's defense, creating a score of quality interior looks in the process. By the end of the game, the Tigers had shot 36-of-70 from the field -- including a tidy 6-of-9 mark from the 3-point line -- filling it up to the tune of 1.27 points per possession. The Tigers weren't much to look at on the defensive end and they still had their fair share of mistakes all over the floor, but the fluidity of their offense and the ease with which they generated quality opportunities held them together during wave after wave of Volunteers attacks.

Why Tennessee lost: Impatience. Tennessee was at its best when it worked into the teeth of Memphis' defense, generating post opportunities and easy catches for Maymon on the low block. When it got impatient and settled for 3s, it rarely found success. Tennessee shot 7-of-21 from beyond the arc, as Golden and guard Cameron Tatum combined to make just two of their 12 3-point attempts. Even worse, a handful of those misses came late in regulation and overtime, when every possession was crucial. If just a few of those shots had gone down -- or a few of those looks had gone to Maymon in the low block -- this outcome might have been very different.

Star of the game: There were too many to pick just one. For Memphis, the stars came in brotherly form: Will and Antonio Barton combined for 46 points, 16 rebounds and 17-of-28 shooting from the field. Both brothers were impressive. Will is approaching mastery of the midrange game; he slices to the rim and curls off screens to create easy look after easy look. Antonio's shooting (4-of-5 from 3, 8-of-11 from the field) and intelligent work off the ball -- his hand-off wing jumper with 1:16 left in the second overtime was a rare moment of beautiful old-school basketball in this streetfight of a game -- could be major boosts for the Tigers all season.

But the award for the game's best performance has to go to Maymon, who had a borderline legendary day in the Volunteers' interior. Maymon shredded the Tigers' defense time after time; when he didn't catch the ball and score it himself, he worked the offensive glass for an easy putback. Maymon finished with 32 points (8-of-15 from the field, 16-of-17 from the free throw line) and 20 rebounds (nine of which were offensive boards), becoming the first power-six conference player to post a 30-point, 20-rebound game since -- get this -- Blake Griffin. Considering Maymon had never scored more than 14 points or grabbed more than 12 boards in his career, it feels safe to say a star is born.

What it means: Both teams have plenty to improve on. The Tigers seem to have flipped 180 degrees from last season's style, when they were turnover-prone and ugly on offense but tough and rangy on defense. This season, Memphis has to start congealing on defense. The same can be said for Tennessee, which struggled to get stops all afternoon Tuesday, but more important for the Volunteers is getting intelligent play from Golden at the guard spot. Golden can really score, but his decision-making raises serious questions, and his 3-for-19 shooting performance -- and his tendency to force those shots outside the flow of Cuonzo Martin's offense -- was a big reason Tennessee could never overtake the Tigers.

Still, both teams will take away more positives than negatives from this one. Memphis will be encouraged to see its offense achieve this balanced early form, and coach Josh Pastner will be especially thrilled with how well his team took care of the ball. (The Tigers were one of the most turnover-prone teams in the country last season. On Tuesday, they coughed it up just 12 times in 75 possessions.)

And Tennessee fans should be absolutely stoked. After losing their former coach to NCAA scandal, seven seniors to graduation, and Scotty Hopson and Tobias Harris to the NBA draft, the Volunteers were supposed to face a daunting rebuilding project this season. Instead, they're discovering that even Bruce Pearl's reserves are talented. Maymon might be one of the best big men in the SEC, while Golden and Tatum -- despite their shooting struggles Tuesday -- clearly are capable of hanging with some of the best talent in the country. Add in Martin's hard-nosed style and the inherent improvements this inexperienced team will make, and it would the appear the Vols are way ahead of that so-called rebuilding schedule.

More observations: Pastner has a lot of weapons, and he might still be figuring out his rotation. For example: Starting guards Joe Jackson and Charles Carmouche played just 19 and 15 minutes, respectively, while reserves Antonio Barton and Chris Crawford played 33 and 37, including almost all of the two overtime periods. Freshman Adonis Thomas didn't start, either, but he played 38 minutes (and scored 19 points on 7-of-10 from the floor). If Pastner wanted to, he probably could run five-man shifts a la Division III novelty Grinnell. Short of that, Pastner's allocation of minutes appears very much in flux. That's a problem -- starters typically want to play starter minutes -- but it's the good kind of problem. Memphis has a deep rotation of viable options, and Pastner has plenty of time in this 2011-12 season to figure out which combination works best.

What’s next: Memphis moves forward in the consolation bracket, where, barring a major shock, it will play Georgetown in the fifth-place game at 5 p.m. ET Wednesday. Unfortunately for Tennessee, the Volunteers now are slated to head to the seventh-place game, in which they likely will play tiny Chaminade at 2:30 p.m. ET Wednesday. Why is that unfortunate? Because the Vols have played well in Maui, first against Duke and then against Memphis, and on those merits, they deserve to head back to the continental United States with more than a win over Chaminade to show for their efforts. Still, anyone who saw this team this week would have to have been impressed. Big things await.

The numbers you need to know

November, 14, 2011
A look at some of the notable performances and the numbers you need to know from the weekend in college hoops.

Familiar Faces
•  South Dakota State’s Nate Wolters went off for 32 points and 11 assists on Saturday vs Western Michigan. Last season, only five players put up 30-point, 10-assist games. Wolters is the first to do it in November since 2008 when both Stephen Curry and David Holston pulled it off.

•  North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall dished out 15 assists while committing only one turnover in the Tar Heels win over UNC Asheville on Sunday. The assist total fell one shy of his career-high from last season. The last ACC player with 15 more assists and one turnover or fewer? Maryland’s Terrell Stokes in November 1998.

•  Starting for the first time since his freshman season, J’Covan Brown matched a career-high with 28 points and set a new one with eight assists as Texas topped Boston University on Sunday. He’s the first Longhorns player with at least 28 points and eight assists in a game since D.J. Augustin in 2007.

Old Names, New Playing Time
•  UNLV’s Mike Moser went off for 16 points and 20 rebounds on Friday vs Grand Canyon in his first game with the Runnin’ Rebels. As a freshman at UCLA in 2009-10, Moser finished the season with nine points and seven rebounds.

•  Last season, Jamal Wilson scored 38 points in Friday’s season opener for URI. That’s the most by a Rhode Island player since Zach Marbury, Stephon’s younger brother, scored 38 against La Salle in January 2001. Last season, he scored 87 points in 17 games, and didn’t score his 38th point until his 10th game.

•  San Diego State lost its top four scorers from a year ago. So who will fill that void? Sophomore Jamaal Franklin made a statement on Sunday with 31 points against UC-Davis. Franklin scored only 64 points all last season, and already had a career high at halftime in this one.

•  Tennessee sophomore Trae Golden scored 29 points in the season opener against UNC-Greensboro. He managed just 93 points all last season, and never scored in double figures. He was 5-for-9 from three-point range, after hitting just six all last season.

Nice First Impressions
•  Virginia Tech freshman Dorian Finney-Smith put up 10 points, 16 rebounds, five assists and four blocks in his first career game against Monmouth. He was the first Hokies player with a double-double in his debut since Jeff Allen in 2009. Over the past 15 seasons, no ACC freshman had at least 15 rebounds and five assists in a game.

•  Anthony Davis scored 23 points and added 10 rebounds, as Kentucky beat Marist 108-58 on Friday. Davis became just the third Kentucky freshman with 20 points and 10 rebounds in his debut. He joins current teammate Terrence Jones and Sam Bowie.

•  Iowa freshman Aaron White needed only 18 minutes of action to pick up a double-double in his first career game. White finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds in Friday’s 96-53 win over Chicago State. The 19 points are believed to be the most by an Iowa freshman in a season opener. He’s the first Hawkeye freshman with 10 points and 10 rebounds in his debut since Jess Settles in 1993.

Resilient Vols return focus to basketball

November, 26, 2010

NEW YORK -- The NCAA mess that Bruce Pearl and his staff got the Tennessee program into will rear its ugly head again when the NCAA releases its official document of allegations, most likely within the next month.

But for one night at least, the Volunteer basketball team shifted the focus to actual basketball -- in this case an improbable NIT Season Tip-Off trophy after an impressive 78-68 win over seventh-ranked Villanova in the championship game at Madison Square Garden.

It’s become clear now that the more Tennessee wins, the less likely an NCAA investigation will have a major effect on this particular team.

The reason is the Vols have a basketball team that is again worthy of attention, and a freshman in Tobias Harris that should at least be in the same conversation with Jared Sullinger of Ohio State, Harrison Barnes of North Carolina, Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight of Kentucky and in a few weeks, Josh Selby of Kansas.

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AP Photos/Henny Ray AbramsTourney MVP Scotty Hopson and his Tennessee teammates were all smiles on Friday night.
“We showed toughness, in a tough environment and we had an edge coming in,’’ said Pearl. “Nobody picked Tennessee to win.’’

No one on, that’s for sure.

“I wouldn’t blame you,’’ Pearl said. “I would have picked Villanova against the field, too.’’

After this 10-point victory, in which they led for the final 12 minutes and for most of the game, the 24th-ranked Vols will certainly move up in the rankings. But just as importantly, perhaps, they’ll strike a bit of fear in the minds of every team in the SEC East, after Tennessee was picked to finish fourth in the division despite several pieces of the Elite Eight team returning and Harris’ arrival.

“We wanted the focus of our basketball program to be on the basketball,’’ said Tennessee senior wing Steven Pearl, whose scrappy 15 minutes didn’t go unnoticed. “I think [my dad] has handled it great. You can’t tell any difference with his coaching this team. He has acted normal. Off the court we talk about it, but he’s handling it very well. He’s done a good job of keeping it away, from it being a distraction.’’

The University of Tennessee and the Southeastern Conference had made it difficult to ignore. The school self-imposed penalties on Pearl and his staff, from docking salary to taking them off the recruiting road after Pearl misled NCAA investigators about high school recruits at a Pearl-housed barbeque. And then SEC commissioner Mike Slive put the focus back on Pearl with his unique eight-gamedays suspension to start league play, which doesn’t prevent Pearl from traveling with the team, coaching them in practice or -- in the middle of the suspension -- coaching the Vols at Connecticut on Jan. 22.

With that as a backdrop, the Vols arrived in New York perceived as sort of a team turmoil.

Well, they hardly fit the part. The only disruption Tennessee had here was backup point guard Trae Golden’s 102-degree fever that kept him out of the game against Villanova. Pearl said it was going to be a problem prior to tipoff because of Villanova’s guards.

But point guard Melvin Goins, a backup last season and now a starter, and Skylar McBee among others (including Hopson), handled the Nova guards quite well as Corey Fisher went 1-for-10 for three points (after scoring 26 in the semis) and Maalik Wayns went 3-for-11 for 11 points. The trio of Fisher, Wayne and Corey Stokes -- the same group that combined for 61 points against UCLA -- tallied just 25 against the Vols.

Villanova coach Jay Wright warned his guards about driving against Tennessee’s bigs and said they might have to make an extra pass. He foresaw that the Cats wouldn’t be able to get to the rim -- and they didn’t.

“What impressed me the most was how physical they all were, from Melvin Goins to Skylar McBee to Tobias Harris, their physicality,’’ Wright said.

The Vols had great balance against Nova, shutting down the Wildcats on 3s (4-of-21) and then hitting 3s at a more efficient manner on their end (6-of-16). Harris’ ability to be a point forward -- to take the ball and drive on his own to the hoop -- makes him a tough mismatch. Wright noticed.

“I want to win and I’m trying to do everything I can to help this team win,’’ said Harris, the freshman from Long Island.

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Nick Laham/Getty ImagesA team many expected to lose its first game in New York instead won two en route to the NIT title.
“I think you saw what he was capable of, making tough plays,’’ said Pearl of Harris, who finished with 15 points and nine boards. “We put the ball in his hands a lot. He was recruited to play that point forward. He can be a good passer too. We need him to score. He’s an inside-out player and those are tough matchups.’’

The NIT was also the official arrival of Scotty Hopson as a go-to scorer. Hopson was a celebrated recruit as a McDonald’s All-American, but admittedly took a backseat the past two seasons. At SEC media day last month, he said he needed to be much more assertive.

Mission accomplished in New York. He was named the NIT’s MVP after scoring a team-high 18 (to go along with 19 against VCU). Cameron Tatum’s 17 showed how balanced offensively this team can be throughout the season. And the gritty play of another New Yorker, forward Brian Williams (12 points and seven boards), only adds to the Vols’ toughness.

“We were an Elite Eight team last year, but this is a new team with a lot of new guys,’’ Pearl said. “Our depth will always be a factor, but we played hard and were unselfish. We can rebound and we can defend.’’

On Dec. 11 at the SEC-Big East Invitational, Tennessee plays Pittsburgh at the CONSOL Energy Center, home of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Then the Vols have yet another Big East date Jan. 22 at UConn. And in between, Tennessee hosts USC and Memphis as well as a sneaky good College of Charleston. So there are plenty of potential potholes on the nonconference schedule.

As for league play, picking Florida, Kentucky or Vanderbilt ahead of Tennessee in the SEC East is still not a reach, based on the rosters and the flashes each of shown at times already this season. Georgia has been a bit of disappointment so far, but the Bulldogs haven’t had SEC preseason player of the year Trey Thompkins at full strength yet. Still, all those other teams have lost. The Vols have not. And they have the best win of that group so far.

“We understand that we’re not a great basketball team and we can’t get carried away and say we’re the best team in the country,’’ Steven Pearl said. “We beat a good Villanova team. We’ve got to stay grounded. Playing Pitt could be a different animal. But we’re excited for the test.’’

The players were certainly euphoric after the game, jumping on the back of Bruce Pearl at center court. Pearl kept saying the right things -- that this wasn’t about him, but rather about the team. And on this night at least, he was right. The shift from off the court to on the court was real.

“We had to get the issues focused on the court,’’ Williams said. “That’s what we wanted.’’

And that’s what they got.