College Basketball Nation: Virginia Commonwealth Rams

A Saturday full of thrillers

December, 15, 2013
Well, we were certainly spoiled on Saturday.

College basketball offered up a variety of high-profile affairs. There were so many competitive, thrilling matchups. It all began with an exciting game between Arizona and Michigan in Ann Arbor and from there, beautiful chaos followed.

I have so many thoughts about this Saturday that I had to break it down into a bunch of random categories.

Best Game: Arizona might be a step above everyone else in college basketball right now. Yeah, the No. 1 ranking suggests that. But we've witnessed so much movement at the top of the rankings that no team really had separated itself from the rest. Until Saturday. The Wildcats weathered adversity (down 11 early in the second half of a 72-70 win at Michigan) in a true road environment. None of this neutral-site stuff. Sean Miller's squad was in Ann Arbor facing a Michigan team that was really hungry for a top-25 win (the Wolverines now have losses to Duke, Iowa State, Arizona and Charlotte).

[+] EnlargeArizona/Michigan
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioCenter Kaleb Tarczewski and the Arizona frontcourt keyed Saturday's win at Michigan.
And the young Wildcats showcased their maturity by overcoming both the environment and a good Michigan team. The Wolverines had the best team in America on the ropes. They fought until the end. There were five lead changes in the final 2 minutes, 32 seconds. Nick Johnson's free throws down the stretch sealed it for Arizona. But Nik Stauskas had a good look in the final seconds. Spike Albrecht hit a 3-pointer with 2 seconds to play.

You didn't want to blink in this one. So much drama. So much excitement. In the end, the Arizona frontcourt (Kaleb Tarczewski, Brandon Ashley and Aaron Gordon combined to score 46 points) was too much. But Michigan continues to improve. Plus, Mitch McGary is still not the player I know he'll be in the coming weeks and months.

There was a fight in Ann Arbor on Saturday. We were privileged to witness it.

Most Significant Loss: Virginia Commonwealth is still wreaking havoc on college basketball (second in defensive turnover percentage, according to Ken Pomeroy). But that number alone doesn't define a defense with some obvious challenges. The Rams' opponents have shot 46 percent from the field this season. Duquesne is the only Atlantic 10 squad that has given up a higher mark.

Those numbers matter, because the Rams forced 16 turnovers at Northern Iowa. But they still suffered a 77-68 loss to the Panthers after allowing UNI to shoot 53.1 percent in VCU's third loss of the season. Shaka Smart probably has his best VCU squad based on talent. But this group hasn't shown it yet. Saturday was a setback.

Most Significant Win: Kansas finally can exhale for the first time in nearly a month. The Jayhawks had lost three of four entering Saturday's 80-63 win over New Mexico in Kansas City, Mo. They were more than desperate for a win. And they played like it.

Kansas launched a 14-2 second-half run that changed everything. Perry Ellis (21 points) bounced back from a rare three-shot effort in Tuesday's loss to Florida. And the Jayhawks seemed revitalized.

With home matchups against Georgetown and San Diego State in the next three weeks, Bill Self's squad definitely needed that victory. More than that, the Jayhawks needed the confidence that could come from it.

[+] EnlargeTekele Cotton
Travis Heying/Wichita Eagle/Getty ImagesJunior Tekele Cotton scored 19 points Saturday to lead unbeaten Wichita State past Tennessee.
MVP: With Ron Baker nursing an ankle injury, Wichita State's Tekele Cotton (19 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and a block) stepped up and carried the Shockers on both ends in a 70-61 victory over Tennessee.

The undefeated Shockers should be a top-10 squad. This team might be better than the one Gregg Marshall led to the Final Four last year. Why? Because the Shockers can turn to guys like Cotton when necessary. So much depth.

Most Important Performance: Marcus Paige was the difference in North Carolina's 82-77 win over Kentucky. And not only because he scored 21 of his 23 points in the second half (two assists and three steals, too). But Paige was the rallying point and the leader for a Tar Heels squad that wouldn't have won that game without him.

The game was fiery and competitive for 40 minutes. But as Kentucky played tight and chose individualism over team ball, Paige just seemed to steady things on that North Carolina sideline.

That's the guy that Kentucky lacks. Perhaps Andrew Harrison and/or Aaron Harrison will mature into that player, that leader the Wildcats need.

But Paige continues to prove that he's willing to shoulder the load for the Tar Heels. And that goes beyond buckets. On Saturday, they just needed someone to keep everything and everyone calm. Paige did that in another crucial moment.

Most Interesting Battle: Raise your hand if you had a two-win Oakland squad leading Michigan State 31-30 at halftime. Anyone? Oakland kept things close as Duke Mondy (24 points, seven steals) and Travis Bader (18 points, 5-for-20) tried to lead their squad to a major upset, though the Spartans ultimately won 67-63.

I think this game should be a warning to every high major. With players headed home for the holidays soon and enjoying some rare downtime after fall classes, teams can be vulnerable.

I don't think Michigan State realized it was in a game until the second half. And it nearly cost the Spartans. But Gary Harris missed the contest, and that clearly made a difference.

But the bigger point is that December can be dangerous. Not many easy games at this level. Saturday's battle between Michigan State and Oakland in Auburn Hills proved as much.

Most Redemptive Win: On Wednesday, Notre Dame suffered a 73-69 loss to North Dakota State in South Bend, Ind. It was the team's third loss of the season. Not the start most had anticipated for a Fighting Irish team that hasn't missed the NCAA tournament since 2009.

But a 79-72 victory over Indiana in Indianapolis on Saturday probably made that loss to NDSU somewhat easier to swallow. Had Notre Dame lost to the Hoosiers, things really could have gone from rough start to downward spiral for the Irish with matchups against Ohio State and Duke in the next three weeks.

Saturday's "What planet is he from?" Performance: Did you see the move? In the second half of his team's win, Joel Embiid put together a spin move that had lottery pick written all over it. The Kansas freshman is gradually becoming more comfortable against the bigger bodies he's facing each time out. And he's also showing off his diverse offensive arsenal.

But the 7-footer has been playing the game for only a few years. If he continues to grow at this pace, he might be the best NBA prospect in college basketball soon. Seriously.

He finished Saturday's win over New Mexico with this ridiculous stat line: 18 points, 6 rebounds, 4 blocks and 3 steals in 25 minutes. If he can avoid foul trouble and continue to mature into a more assertive player, he might realize that he's unstoppable at this level.

Embiid, not Andrew Wiggins, might develop into the No. 1 pick in next summer's NBA draft.

Top Under-the-Radar Performance: Jackson State senior Brandon West finished with 14 points, 22 rebounds and 4 blocks in a 57-51 win at Evansville.

You Gotta See This: Atlantic 10

September, 30, 2013
Shaka SmartAP Photo/Clement BrittShaka Smart may have his most talented team this coming season at VCU.

It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Today: Havoc in the Atlantic 10.

The backlash is bound to happen soon.

You know how this works: As soon as any style or system or musical genre or meme or anything else reaches cultural critical mass, people get sick of hearing about it. They get grumpy. They start finding flaws, start calling names, start parsing the image from the substance. The Internet allows us to wage these backlashes publicly and at lightning speed, but it's not a new phenomenon. We're Americans. We build you up, and we tear you down. It's always been this way.

Since 2011, when Shaka Smart led his suddenly scorching Rams from the First Four in Dayton to the Final Four in Houston, VCU men's basketball has been on the steady, comfortable ascension portion of the backlash curve. More specifically, the defensive style pioneered by Smart -- HAVOC, he calls it, in all capitals -- has become the hottest, and best-branded, system in all of college hoops. The best part? It works.

Well, sort of. This is why I fear the backlash: Because HAVOC, in which Smart's players aggressively smother opposing ball handlers over the entire floor, for the entire game, got exposed.

Just a few months after the Rams dominated point guard-less Butler, and had the whole world singing HAVOC's praises, a team with a very good point guard proved that if VCU couldn't force turnovers, it couldn't get stops. The numbers bore that out: In 2012-13, VCU forced opponents to turn the ball over on 28.5 percent of its possessions, the highest mark in the country. But if teams didn't turn the ball over, they shot well, grabbed a ton of offensive rebounds, and went to the free throw line all the time. In March, when Naismith player of the year Trey Burke shrugged off the HAVOC, VCU's high-octane system shut down.

That's why this is a pivotal season for the Rams, and for Smart. This may be his most talented team, with few obvious challengers in the realignment-thinned Atlantic 10. But can VCU adjust? Can it force gobs of turnovers without surrendering the other defensive factors? This is the defining question of VCU's 2013-14 season.

But for now, forget all that. Because from an entertainment perspective, there are few teams in the country that offer more fun for your buck than VCU -- gritty, speedy guards flying up and down the floor, harassing opposing ball handlers into submission, the Siegel Center crowd roaring its approval. Flaws or not, VCU's HAVOC is not to be missed.

Video: Saint Louis captures first A-10 title

March, 17, 2013

Kwamain Mitchell scored 19 points to lead the Saint Louis Billikens past the VCU Rams 62-56.
This week, my colleague Myron Medcalf described the Atlantic 10 to me as a "beautiful mess." That sounds about right. We know Virginia Commonwealth and Butler are really good. We know Temple and Saint Louis aren't too far behind. But the middle of the league -- from the fifth spot to the 11th or so -- is a gigantic muddle, one that is sure to trade body blows and/or confusing results for the next three months.

So: As much fun as it is to to get lathered up about where your team is or isn't ranked, the bottom line is that these rankings aren't definitive, and they aren't going to be for a while -- we're still just beginning the most enlightening portion of the season (actual intra-A-10 play). But I'm excited to kick things off. You?

1. Virginia Commonwealth. One thing I remain certain of, at least right now, is that VCU is the best team in this league. That hasn't changed since last Friday. The Rams kicked things off with a solid home win over Dayton on Wednesday, and will road-trip it to St. Bonaventure Saturday.

2. Butler. VCU's first A-10 win was a somewhat ho-hum home-court stand against an inferior squad; Butler's was a truly impressive road victory over a team (Saint Joseph's) desperate to start turning their thus-far disappointing season around. Butler scored 1.14 points per possession, and held the Hawks to 1.05, in that win. As I detailed last week, 2011-12 Butler and 2012-13 Butler couldn't be more stylistically opposite. Last season, the Bulldogs guarded but couldn't throw it in the ocean. This season, their offense is their greatest strength.

3. Saint Louis. UMass gave Saint Louis just about all it could handle in each team's conference opener Thursday night, but the Billikens held on, breaking open enough space at the end -- helped in part by a really bad (and questionably called) foul on UMass forward Raphiael Putney -- to win 70-62. The Billikens are not particularly pretty to watch: They play at the A-10's slowest pace, and they rely on stalwart defense more than any particularly attractive sense of offensive creativity. But they are effective.

4. Temple. I'll be honest: I did not expect Temple to lose at Xavier on Thursday night. I definitely did not expect them to score a mere 52 points in 63 possessions. But I also refuse to overreact to a road loss in conference play, even against a team riding a four-game losing streak. It is never easy to come away with victories in the Cintas Center, and I would imagine more than a few of the teams ranked above Temple in this list will be confronted with that reality before the end of the season.

5. Massachusetts. This is a huge, huge leap for UMass this week. Why? First of all, because I said so! You're not the king of Dirk! I'm the king of Dirk! Second, because I watched almost all of UMass's loss at Saint Louis on Thursday night, and I came away awfully impressed. The Billikens tend to grind unprepared and sloppy teams into pulp, particularly on their own floor, but the Minutemen were neck-and-neck for about 37 minutes. Plus, they really don't have a bad loss yet. So here they are.

Take heed: This team's per-possession numbers tell a different story. They are not promising. So, yes, I reserve the right to yank them back down to the lower portions of the league at a week's notice. But for now, I'll give a little credit where it's due.

6. Charlotte. On Wednesday night, La Salle star Ramon Galloway went a positively Allen Iverson-esque 7-for-29 at Charlotte. Those 22 misses were the most by any player in regulation since 2008. And, sure, while some of that is a bad shooting night, some of it is also the stifling defense the 49ers are playing under coach Alan Major. The 49ers hold opponents to the 10th-lowest effective field goal percentage (41.6 percent) in the country. They will, as Mr. Galloway learned, make you miss. Now, if they can just shape up that ugly offense …

7. La Salle. Charlotte's defense is going to wreak havoc on plenty of opponents' shooting performances this season, so you can't really punish the Explorers too much for falling short on the road. Still, if this is supposed to be an NCAA tournament team -- and I'm not sure it is, though I've thought the Explorers were a nice sleeper throughout the offseason -- it's going to have to go out and get a few road wins at some point.

8. Saint Joseph's. I'm trying to not be overly negative about the Hawks, because it isn't their fault they were picked to win the league based on the fact that they returned five starters from last season's team. Bringing back five starters is all well and good, but what people seem to miss when they make obvious picks like that is that a lack of turnover is no guarantee of sudden improvement. Just as often, teams remain what they were. At the end of last season, Saint Joe's finished ranked No. 52 in adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 106 in adjusted defense, per Through 13 games this season, they are ranked No. 62 on offense and No. 94 on defense. Last year, Saint Joe's finished 20-14. This year, the Hawks are 8-5. Each week it gets harder to locate differences.

9. Dayton. Dayton was at No. 7 last week, and while the Flyers didn't cover themselves in glory at VCU this week, that's a tall order for most any team. The problem with Dayton right now is turnovers. When Dayton keeps the turnovers low, it has an offense that can compete with the rest of this league. When it coughs the ball up -- which is more often than not -- it is going to struggle. It's that simple.

10. Xavier. Give credit where it's due: On Wednesday night, despite an injury to point guard Dee Davis (which kept him out for much of the game), Xavier held off Temple for a 57-52 home victory. In any of the past five seasons, that might have been the win that sealed Xavier's superiority in the league regular season. This time around, it broke the program's longest losing streak (four games) in 33 years. I still wouldn't want to play at Xavier if I'm an opposing coach, but we have to see more from this young team before it starts climbing.

11. Richmond. A win is a win, I suppose, but the fact that the Spiders -- for whom offense is a core (OK, only) strength -- barely mustered just 64 points in 63 possessions at home against Rhode Island on Wednesday is slightly disconcerting. Again, Chris Mooney's team held on, 64-61, but if the Spiders are going to be an efficient offense that can't guard anybody, you'd like to see them, oh, I don't know … play well on the offensive end?

12. George Washington. For all of the nonconference season, George Washington's offense was among the worst -- if not the worst -- in the A-10. Its defense was among the 40-or-so best in the country, but offense? Not GW's thing. But in their first A-10 game, the Colonials dropped 78 points in 67 possessions, the highest figure of the A-10 conference season to date. Which is, of course, why we use caution with small sample sizes. But seriously, if this team can manage even a point per trip against decent teams, it'll pick up more than a few wins going forward.

13. St. Bonaventure. As you just read, the Bonnies were on the losing end of a game in which basically nothing went right. Not only did George Washington's dormant offense come roaring to life, but its typically stout defense held Chris Johnson and Co. to just .88 points per trip. And it doesn't get any easier this weekend: On Saturday, VCU comes to town.

14. Rhode Island. The Rams are not good. But they are better than last year (this is not a high hurdle) and, at the very least, are giving opponents serious tests (a la their near miss at Richmond on Wednesday).

15. Fordham. This is the first time Fordham has moved out of the wooden spoon position in these rankings all season. That immense honor comes courtesy of a seven-point home win over Duquesne.

16. Duquesne. Lost to Fordham by seven points. Verbum sap.

Numbers to Know: Wednesday recap

January, 10, 2013
Player of the Night – Ben McLemore, Kansas

Ben McLemore scored 33 points, including a game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation, to give Kansas a 97-89 overtime win over Iowa State. He fell just two points shy of Danny Manning’s freshman scoring record set in 1985. McLemore finished 6-for-6 from 3-point range, matching Rex Walters’ school record for 3s in a game without a miss.

Stat Sheet Stuffer – Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State

Highlighted by an off-the-backboard dunk, Jamaal Franklin finished with 20 points, 18 rebounds, five assists and three blocks in the Aztecs’ 65-62 win over Fresno State. Over the past 10 seasons, the only other players to equal that line are North TexasTony Mitchell and Oakland’s Keith Benson. The last player on a ranked team to do it? Seton Hall’s Eddie Griffin in 2000.

Scorer of the Night – Cleanthony Early, Wichita State

Cleanthony Early dropped a career-high 39 points to lift Wichita State to an 82-76 win over Southern Illinois. It’s the most points for a Shocker since the great Xavier McDaniel scored 43 against Bradley in 1985.

Bench Player of the Night – Briante Weber, VCU

It’s not often that the most impactful bench player of the night is someone who didn’t make a field goal, but Briante Weber continues to make a difference with his defense. He finished with nine steals in VCU’s 74-62 win over Dayton. Earlier this season, he had 10 steals off the bench against Florida Gulf Coast. Despite playing just 22 minutes per game, Weber leads the nation in steals (3.7 SPG). His 6.6 steals per 40 minutes would be the most since Alabama A&M’s Desmond Cambridge (7.5) in 2002.

Ugly Stat of the Night – UAB Blazers

UAB went 0-for-23 from 3-point range in a 64-48 loss to UCF. That snapped a streak of 517 straight games with a 3-pointer. The 23 misses without a make is just three shy of the record set by Northwestern State last season against Sam Houston State.
Another week of Atlantic-10 power rankings, another week spent reading through the kind words of my adoring readers. Let's do this, guys!

1. Virginia Commonwealth. In my experience, Butler fans are not only some of the nicest people around, there's also eminently reasonable. By and large, each week I've ranked VCU above the Bulldogs, Butler fans have typically (not always, but typically) responded with some version of "I'm a Butler fan, but that's cool. That VCU team is good."

Call it the Pax Atlanta: This year, this league's two teams (at least to date) are also its two newest, recent products of conference realignment, 2011 mid-major Dance-crashing brothers in arms, with mutual respect for each other's young star coaches and greatly contrasting styles of play. That's the vibe I'm picking up, anyway, and it has been refreshing to see -- even after that victory over Indiana -- Bulldogs fans take a step back and look at just what this VCU team is doing and say, "Yeah, you know? They're really good too."

Because they are: After their latest offensive explosion against East Tennessee State -- in which guard Troy Daniels made 11-of-20 from 3, for 33 points and 10 rebounds -- this year's Rams team is mixing its typically fantastic ball-hawking defense (VCU forces both turnovers and pure steals at the highest rate in the country) with efficient, balanced, long-range offense. It has been a lot of fun to watch, and with A-10 play picking up, it's only going to get better.

2. Butler. What's most interesting about this Butler team to date is not that the Bulldogs are good. I expected that, and I was hardly alone. What's interesting is how Butler is good. To wit:

See? Butler has made a sudden and drastic shift, from a putrid offense with a stubborn defense to much more efficient scoring with a much more forgiving defense. The obvious culprits -- not that this is a bad thing, because man was Butler hard to watch last season -- are the additions of sharpshooting Rotnei Clarke and Kellen Dunham in place of defensive specialist Ronald Nored and frustrating shooting guard Chrishawn Hopkins. But Andrew Smith has also taken his game to another level, Roosevelt Jones is a great glue type, and Butler is actually shooting the ball disproportionately better inside the arc than outside it. Perhaps the threat of Clarke and Dunham launching from range is as important as the execution. Whatever it is, it's working.

3. Temple. We discussed Temple -- or, rather, the reaction to Temple's Dec. 22 road win over Syracuse -- in great detail last week, so we won't spend too much time breaking the Owls down this week. Instead, a heads up: On Sunday, Temple travels to Kansas. If they win there, I will put the Owls No. 1 in next week's rankings. I don't think that's going to happen, but still, it would be awesome to see -- especially because it would give Canisius transitive-property bragging rights over both Syracuse and Kansas. I sense a great disturbance in the force.

4. Saint Louis. New Year's Eve was big for the Billikens in a couple of different ways. For one, guard Kwamain Mitchell made just his second appearance of the season after returning from a November injury, and with 29 minutes Monday was his first return to full-time duty. Oh, and there's this: Saint Louis beat New Mexico at home, 60-46. The game came just a couple of days after New Mexico fought hard for a win at Cincinnati (before Cincinnati went to Pittsburgh and got what might end up as one of the most impressive road wins of the season), so you could forgive UNM for being a little worn out with the road trip by the time they passed under the Arch. But no matter, that's a really nice home win for Jim Crews' bunch, one that should stand the test of time as it pertains to the NCAA tournament at-large picture. With Mitchell healthy, this team is a real A-10 title challenger. But we knew that already.

5. Saint Joseph's. The Hawks move back into the top five almost by default this week thanks to some of the second-tier teams' performances, but their own struggles (in addition to Xavier's) appear to have made the Atlantic 10 not quite as elite-deep as it appeared to be back when everyone was jocking St. Joe's in the offseason. The Hawks' issues have primarily come by being a bit soft on defense -- they neither force turnovers nor protect their own glass -- and their offense hasn't been good enough.

6. La Salle. After a second-half collapse, La Salle took an L at Miami on Wednesday, which isn't an incriminating loss: Even without injured forward Reggie Johnson, the Hurricanes are really tough at home. So if you're willing to forgive La Salle its Nov. 18 home loss to Central Connecticut State (and I am, because it was Nov. 18) and are willing to dive into some of the Explorers' tempo-free numbers (you know it), you'll find an above-average offense led by senior Ramon Galloway, which is thus far carrying a below-average defense that gets, according to Synergy scouting services, absolutely shredded by opponents' pick-and-rolls. That play set has dragged down the Explorers' entire half-court defense (they do a nice job in transition, partially because they don't turn the ball over often on the other end of the floor), and could be one fruitful adjustment to make to start the A-10 season.

7. Dayton. So, I'm a little bit torn on Dayton's latest result. That result? A 63-61 overtime loss at USC. Why am I torn? Because on the one hand, USC is pretty objectively bad. On the other hand, USC has played a brutal nonconference schedule, Kevin O'Neill's USC teams have tended to pick up steam (especially defensively) as the season goes along, and you get the feeling that Dayton won't be the only team held to .79 points per trip on USC's floor this season.

8. Charlotte. Charlotte is shooting 28.3 percent from beyond the arc this season. The good news? Charlotte rarely attempts 3-pointers. So at least the 49ers are self-aware. Unfortunately, this has made their offense a bit one-dimensional, and despite the gaudy 12-2 record Alan Major's team is still barely scoring more than a point per trip overall this season. Meanwhile, its victory at Davidson remains the only real sign that this team is considerably better than it was last season. The A-10 campaign will tell us much.

9. Xavier. It will be interesting to see how we look back on Xavier's four-game late-December losing streak. Will it become part of a young-team-comes-together narrative? There's still plenty of time for that, after all, and no A-10 fan is willing to count out the Musketeers before conference play even begins. But my hunch is that this team just isn't all that good, at least not yet; it doesn't have any area of the game in which it really excels.

10. Richmond. The Spiders, on the other hand, have an identity: They score the basketball. Richmond's offense is still top-40 good, efficiency-wise, and the Spiders get after people on the defensive end, forcing opponents into a turnover on 24.4 percent of their possessions. But the defense is suspect in all of the other important factors, and while you can sing the praises of an efficient offense all you want, Richmond hasn't beaten anyone even remotely good (including George Mason and Davidson, the latter a home loss).

11. Massachusetts. Thus far this season, Massachusetts has scored .983 points per trip. It has allowed .990. This is obviously not a sustainable winning formula. But the Minutemen do have one thing in their favor: pace. Per, Massachusetts crams the third-highest number of possessions (adjusted for competition) into 40 minutes in the country: 74.6. You can see, with a guard as quick as Chaz Williams, why coach Derek Kellogg would want to get out and run. The problem is that UMass hasn't really guarded anybody, and shoots a lot of 3s despite knocking down just 30.2 percent to date. UMass fans seem convinced this team is drastically underrated here, but I'm not seeing it, at least not yet.

12. St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies, at least, can knock down shots. Indeed, at 7-5 this may be one of the sneaky-underrated teams in the league right now. The Bonnies have three efficient senior guards going right now (Demitrius Conger, Chris Johnson and Eric Mosley, who comes off the bench and has the highest offensive rating on the team) and 6-foot-8 junior forward Marquise Simmons has been especially effective on the glass, too. Last week, I made the comment that Mark Schmidt's team was especially generous to opposing 3-point shooters, and that at some point we had to consider that a flaw; as one commenter corrected me, that might not actually be the case. If opponents cool off a little bit, this team's defense won't look so questionable.

13. George Washington. George Washington is the opposite of St. Bonaventure: The Colonials' offense is ugly (.967 points per trip) but its defense is actually a top-50 unit, allowing just .899 points per trip thus far. I'll be interested to see if GW can steal a win at a bad Georgia team Friday night, and if so, whether our perception of the Colonials as a total low-end A-10 also-ran this season ought to change.

14. Duquesne. Back-to-back road losses are no big deal. Back-to-back road losses at Louisiana-Lafayette and Penn State mean you're probably not very good. (Anyone who has seen Penn State play is nodding his or her head while reading this.)

15. Rhode Island. The Dec. 27 game at Saint Mary's was never going to be a win, so it's not like the opinion of the Rams has changed much. And conference season is going to be tough. But it was good to see first-year coach Dan Hurley coax a few wins out of his rebuilding squad before league play begins.

16. Fordham. In a league that features Rhode Island and Duquesne, Fordham seems to pretty clearly be the worst team on offer.
Greetings from the post-Festivus edition of the Atlantic 10 power rankings! While the reads on many teams will remain the same -- college hoops mostly takes a break during the holidays -- this is also the post-Temple-upsetting-Syracuse edition of the Atlantic 10 power rankings, and I got a lot of problems with you people.

1. Virginia Commonwealth. The Rams' only game since last week's rankings was a 93-56 win over Longwood, which is the margin you would expect against a team ranked No. 345 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings. Same deal here: VCU plays efficient offense but really shines on the defensive end, where Darius Theus and Briante Weber (who leads the nation in steal percentage) put opposing ball handlers in the equivalent of the wood-chipper scene in "Fargo." Yah.

2. Butler. But for a Dec. 5 victory over IUPUI, the Bulldogs have stuck to an all-Saturday schedule in December. It has served them well. Butler followed up its thrilling Dec. 15 neutral-court win over then-No. 1 Indiana with this past Saturday's solid home victory over Evansville. Next up: Saturday's road game against Vanderbilt, which is rebuilding but dangerous enough to warrant some caution, particularly in its own building.

3. Temple. OK, people, let's get a few things straight: You can criticize my power rankings all you want. You can politely disagree. Or you can call me stupid. You can call my name "weird." (That kind of bugs my mom, but I went to grade school. I can take it.) I have a thick skin, I take feedback well, I don't believe my rankings to be the end of the conversation but the beginning, and no, I don't take December power rankings based on 10 or 11 games all that seriously anyway. Neither should you.

Here's the one thing you cannot do: criticize the power rankings with the benefit of hindsight.

To wit: Last week, I ranked Temple 10th. This was immediately after a 10-point home loss to Canisius. It was also after a 23-point loss to Duke in which Temple never really looked competitive and no other good wins to speak of (barring a 15-point win at Villanova, which I probably should have paid more attention to). So, Temple comes out a few days after losing by 10 at home to Canisius and, of course, beats Syracuse on a neutral court. And then a bunch of people on Twitter and in the comments section write things like this: "Eamonn Brennan looks like a fool after the Temple game."

Ha! Yes, because you, all-knowing and wise college basketball fan, absolutely knew Temple was not only not mediocre but also good enough to take down Syracuse in Madison Square Garden. You're right! I should have known! How could I have missed that? It must be because I am such a hater!


Anyway, great win for Temple. The Owls were never the 10th-best team in the league; you'll notice in a lot of these descriptions I say something like "[Team X] is not this bad, but ..." and that certainly applied here. Frankly, I'm not sure if Temple is really the third-best team in the league. Let's wait and see. The point is I can't predict the future and hate to even try.

4. Saint Louis. The Billikens beat Loyola Marymount on Saturday; Kwamain Mitchell is still returning from the broken foot he suffered in the first week of practice in October; and the last best nonconference opportunity for the Billikens comes Monday at home against New Mexico. Big game.

5. Dayton. I was not inclined to punish Dayton for losing to Illinois State at home last week, and a similar disinclination remains today. It helped that the Flyers held serve at home against Murray State on Saturday. This team's biggest question is whether its defensive play will be consistent enough to prevent the larger inconsistent modus operandi we've talked (OK, laughed) about so often with the Flyers already this season.

6. La Salle. The Explorers shoot the ball well and don't turn it over -- they have the 19th-lowest turnover rate in the country as of this writing -- and their lack of fouls on the defensive end is keeping their per-possession numbers respectable. What this team needs now is a statement win, or something like it, and a win in Wednesday's visit to Miami would be exactly that.

7. Charlotte. I'm becoming less convinced by the 49ers by the week. I was on board after the win at Davidson, and I'm willing to forgive a loss at Miami even if the margin (31 points) is glaring. But I've seen Florida State plenty this season, enough to know that it is hard for me to take you totally seriously if you can't muster a win over the Seminoles in a quasi-home environment in your home city. That was the case on Saturday, when Charlotte fell to Florida State at the Time Warner Cable Arena, and I am losing the faith.

8. Saint Joseph's. Losing to Florida State is fine on its own. Losing to Creighton by 29 is cool; Creighton's really good. Losing to Villanova on the road in a Holy War game you probably should have -- or at least could have -- won? Fine. Taking an 11-day break and then losing to Fairfield at home? Now we need to talk. The Hawks were touted as the conference's offseason title favorite thanks largely to their huge number of returning contributors, but what if those contributors really just are what they are?

9. Xavier. Don't look now, but Xavier might actually be having a real-life down season. It feels weird to write that, because the Musketeers don't do down seasons. For nearly a decade, they've turned over coaches and players and still been among the best teams in the A-10 and a constant threat to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Last Wednesday's Crosstown loss to Cincinnati was entirely forgivable (the Musketeers cramped up late and stopped scoring entirely), but following it up with 55 points in a home loss to Wofford? Yikes. Chris Mack's team has a long way to go.

10. Richmond. The Spiders' offense has been their clear strength this season, but it betrayed them in a big way against George Mason at the Richmond Coliseum last Saturday. Richmond held the Patriots to just 1.03 points per possession but mustered only .98 of its own, and that is a recipe for losses. Saturday provides a nice chance at redemption when Davidson comes to town.

11. Massachusetts. You may have a higher opinion of East Carolina this season than I do, and I do like that Ohio win, but for now I'm still not buying the Minutemen. There's just too much ugliness on both ends of the floor -- UMass shoots the ball poorly and fouls way too often, to name a couple of examples -- to expect much sustained success going forward.

12. St. Bonaventure. Now that we're not punishing teams for losses to Canisius (the Bonnies lost by three at the Koessler Athletic Center back on Nov. 17), you can argue that three of St. Bonaventure's four losses (at Ohio and last week's loss at NC State) are entirely forgivable. But there is still the matter of that loss at Arkansas State, not to mention the fact that St. Bonaventure opponents seem to shoot the ball exceedingly well from beyond the arc. After a certain number of games, that is less about luck and more about perimeter defense.

13. George Washington. After 11 days off, George Washington recovered from its three-game losing streak to hold off VMI at home. It moves up the rankings one spot because Duquesne lost to Louisiana-Lafayette by 12.

14. Duquesne. Yep, you read that correctly: Duquesne lost to Louisiana-Lafayette by 12. Granted, it was a road game, and Lafayette did give Michigan State some problems early in the season, but -- actually, no, not granted. That needs to be a win.

15. Rhode Island. Keep an eye out for Rhode Island. No, seriously! The Rams have won four of their past six games, and though none of those wins has been particularly fancy, they are wins -- already more than half of the seven victories the Rams won all last season.

16. Fordham. Speaking of mini-win streaks, Fordham has won two of its past three, including a Dec. 15 win over Princeton on a neutral floor. The problem is it lost seven of eight before then, albeit against a brutal schedule.
With the possible exception of Ohio State's just-too-close-for-comfort grind over Winthrop and Wake Forest's win over Furman (sorry), Tuesday night's college hoops results went mostly according to plan. Arizona and Kansas cruised at home, Michigan State toughed out a win at Bowling Green, NC State got a good challenge from Stanford but managed to pull away and get a win at home, and so on. As expected, it was a relatively standard night of college basketball. There were no Alex Barlows to be uncovered here.

Virginia Commonwealth's victory over Western Kentucky fit this theme. The Hilltoppers came in 8-3 and miles better than they were last season, but they're still nowhere near VCU's level, and the Rams handled business at home. No big deal.

Except that VCU's win produced a handful of eye-popping statistics. To wit:
  • VCU forced Western Kentucky into 32 turnovers.
  • The Hilltoppers turned the ball over on 45.7 percent of their possessions.
  • VCU attempted 66 shots. WKU attempted 42. Typically, when you are take 24 fewer shots than your opponent, your chances of winning tend to decrease. That's just, like, science, man.
  • Western Kentucky averaged .62 points per possession. Yow.

Those are pretty awesome, but these last three -- which were passed along last night by VCU spokesman Scott Day -- are probably my favorites:
  • Darius Theus played a grand total of 17 minutes and 8 seconds the win. While Theus was on the court, WKU scored a total of four points. Yes, you read that correctly. Four points.
  • Theus played 33 defensive possessions Tuesday night. Twenty-one of those ended in a WKU turnover.
  • A team has posted 20-plus steals against a Division I opponent just eight times in the past two seasons. VCU perpetrated three of those games (against UNC-Wilmington last season and Florida Gulf Coast and Western Kentucky this fall).

So, yeah. Tough night for Western Kentucky. The good news for the Hilltoppers is T.J. Price and Jamal Crook -- the team's two starting guards and leading scorers -- both missed the game. So it's not like Western Kentucky is that bad.

Mostly, VCU is that good. The Rams won't always make their opponents look like a junior-varsity team trying to bring the ball up the floor; really, you have to feel for those WKU backups, facing the lockdown turnover machine that is Darius Theus. But VCU will pretty much always make you cough it up. Tuesday night was just a dramatic reminder.

King's Saturday observations

December, 16, 2012
Nearly 12 hours after Butler topped Indiana 88-86 in overtime in arguably the best game of the college basketball season thus far, Arizona ended the day with an even more exciting victory over Florida. The Wildcats rallied from a six-point deficit with less than two minutes remaining and won 65-64 on Mark Lyons’ layup with 7.1 ticks left. Here are a few random thoughts from a memorable Saturday in college hoops.

It’s time to stop thinking of Brad Stevens as one of the best mid-major coaches in college basketball. He’s simply one of the game’s top coaches, period. Seriously, if you had to rank the top 10 coaches in the game -- not by their overall résumé, but just on how good they are right now -- Stevens would have to be in the top 10, if not the top five. As if leading Butler to the NCAA title game in two of the past three seasons wasn’t enough, this year’s team already touts wins over Big Six heavyweights Marquette, North Carolina (in a blowout) and top-ranked Indiana.

Speaking of Saturday’s Butler-Indiana game, the Bulldogs’ victory also did a lot to legitimize Illinois. The Illini defeated Butler 78-61 in the championship game of the Maui Invitational last month. Still, in the ensuing weeks, the common refrain surrounding John Groce’s squad was that it “hadn’t beaten anyone.” Illinois silenced some doubters by defeating Gonzaga in Spokane last week. After Saturday, it’s evident the Butler team the Illini whipped in November was pretty darn good. Illinois plays Eastern Kentucky on Sunday before hitting the road for next Saturday’s game against No. 12 Missouri in St. Louis.

I’ll be interested to see where unranked Butler ends up -- and how far Indiana falls -- in the next Associated Press poll. My guess is that Butler makes its debut in the Nos. 14 to 18 range. I’d pencil Indiana in somewhere between No. 4 and 6. Duke, Michigan and Syracuse will probably occupy the top three spots. Each has yet to lose.

Arizona’s freshmen big men received a ton of offseason hype, but make no mistake: The most important pieces of this team are still its less-ballyhooed veterans. Solomon Hill (18 points), Nick Johnson (15) and Lyons (14) all played more than 31 minutes and were the only players other than senior Kevin Parrom (7 points) to sniff double figures against Florida. The win should provide a huge momentum boost for Arizona, and it will go a long way toward enhancing the national perception of the Wildcats, who hadn’t been tested by a quality team before Saturday. The win was also good for the Pac-12, which didn’t experience a victory of this magnitude all last season.

Johnson, a sophomore shooting guard, is averaging 17.3 points in his past four games and has gone 9-of-16 from 3-point range during that span.

Even in a loss, I was impressed with the way Florida played in a hostile road environment. Well, at least until the final minute, when the Gators were clearly rattled and unnerved to the point where they couldn’t even get the ball inbounds after a made basket by Arizona. That’s uncharacteristic of a Billy Donovan team, especially one with so many veterans. Florida lost despite outrebounding Arizona 27-21 (including 11-4 on the offensive end) and going 10-of-18 from beyond the arc. I’d still rank Florida no lower than No. 7 in next week’s poll.

I’m still not sure what to make of North Carolina. The Tar Heels led East Carolina by 16 points at intermission, but the Pirates got back in the game by scoring 61 second-half points. Read that again: East Carolina scored 61 points in a single half against North Carolina in the Dean Dome. That’s just hard to fathom. It was a four-point game with 30 seconds remaining, but the Tar Heels held on for a 93-87 victory. Roy Williams spent most of the game red-faced and screaming, and who could blame him? It’s hard to feel good about a team that defends that poorly.

Kentucky’s Kyle Wiltjer broke out of his shooting slump by going 7-of-9 from 3-point range in the Wildcats’ 88-50 win over Lipscomb. Wiltjer had made just 10 of his 38 attempts from long range before Saturday, when he was replaced in the starting lineup by point guard Ryan Harrow. Beneficial as his points might have been, it was Wiltjer’s rebounding -- he snared a career-high 12 boards -- that impressed Kentucky coach John Calipari the most.

One other thought on Kentucky: Calipari is doing everything he can to instill confidence in Harrow, who had difficulty early in the season dealing with Calipari’s tough-love approach. Harrow, who missed four games in November because of flu-like symptoms and an undisclosed family issue, played 31 minutes Saturday and attempted a team-high 13 shots. He made six of them and finished with 12 points.

I learned from a television commentator Saturday that Louisville’s Russ Smith weighed only 137 pounds when he showed up on campus as a freshman. Two years and 30 pounds later, Smith is averaging a team-high 20.3 points for a team that rallied from a 16-point deficit to defeat Memphis, 87-78. Smith performance was particularly inspiring considering he suffered an ankle sprain that appeared to knock him out of the game for good midway through the second half. Smith returned, though, and finished with 19 points, and 12 of them came from the free throw line, where he didn’t miss a shot.

I think Louisville has a chance to be the best team in the country when center Gorgui Dieng returns from a wrist injury next month. Louisville -- along with Kansas and Arizona -- is among a handful of top-10 teams that haven’t come anywhere close to reaching their ceiling. Besides winning in a tough road environment, the most encouraging thing about Saturday was a 22-point effort from forward Chane Behanan, a sophomore who entered the game averaging just 8.8 points. If Rick Pitino can get Behanan and Wayne Blackshear to play at a high level consistently, the Cardinals will be capable of winning it all.

I heard a bunch of boos from the Memphis crowd as the final seconds ticked away Saturday, and while a lot of them were probably aimed at an officiating crew that sent Louisville to the foul stripe 46 times (compared to 20 for Memphis), I’m sure a lot of them were directed at Memphis coach Josh Pastner. Hired when he was 31 to replace John Calipari, Pastner won more games in his first three seasons (75) than any coach in school history. But he’s yet to win an NCAA tournament game and is 0-11 against ranked teams. You have to wonder if Memphis will make the NCAA tournament this season if it doesn’t gain the automatic bid by winning the Conference USA tournament. Memphis’ best win is against Northern Iowa, and the Tigers don’t have a ranked team left on the their schedule. To me, this team looks so much better than the one I watched lose 2 of 3 games in the Bahamas last month. But that might not matter to the selection committee -- or to fans.

Two other thoughts about Memphis, which I thought played extremely hard: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a player jump as high, consistently, as D.J. Stephens. And I love the energy junior college transfer Geron Johnson brings to the court. In the past, the Tigers had a tendency to take plays off and go through the motions, to the point where they often appeared disinterested. Johnson keeps them revved up. Well, most of them. Shaq Goodwin definitely needs to play with more fire. He’s capable of so much more.

I’m not ready to predict that Oklahoma will make the NCAA tournament, but the Sooners are the most improved team in the Big 12. Other than Kansas and maybe Oklahoma State, there isn’t a team in the league that has separated itself from the rest of the pack. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see Lon Kruger’s squad finish second, third or fourth in this abysmal league. Oklahoma defeated Texas A&M 64-54 on Saturday.

Back-to-back wins over Colorado and Belmont -- two NCAA tournament-caliber teams -- would’ve been impressive enough. Kansas, though, didn’t just beat those schools. It crushed them. One week after thumping Colorado 90-54, Kansas thumped Belmont 89-60 on Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse. With the Big 12 struggling, Belmont might have been the toughest home game remaining on KU’s schedule. The Jayhawks host Richmond on Tuesday before taking on Ohio State in Columbus on Saturday.

Jeff Withey and Ben McLemore have been commanding most of the headlines, and rightfully so. But one of the biggest reasons for Kansas’ 8-1 start is senior guard Travis Releford, who is blossoming into the on-court leader KU so glaringly lacked when it opened the season. Releford entered Saturday’s game averaging 12.8 points. Even more importantly, he’s embracing his role as the Jayhawks’ defensive stopper. No KU player improved as much during the offseason as Releford.

Virginia Tech continues to backslide after a 7-0 start. The Hokies fell to Georgia Southern 78-73 at home Saturday. Erick Green had 28 points in a losing effort. Green has scored 20 points in each of his team’s 10 games.

If you’re an AP voter, it’s time to put VCU in the Top 25. Heck, I might even put the Rams in the top 20. Shaka Smart’s team annihilated Alabama 73-54 on Saturday to improve to 7-3. VCU’s only losses are to Wichita State (53-51 in the second game of the year), No. 1 Duke (67-58) and No. 12 Missouri (68-65). I was in attendance for those final two defeats at the Battle 4 Atlantis and I can honestly say that, even in a losing effort, the Rams were among the top 20 teams I’ve seen all year. Along with their trademark, suffocating defense, VCU is a dangerous 3-point shooting team that poses huge matchup problems when it employs its four-guard lineup.

Two hot teams that were brought back down to earth Saturday: SMU and Nebraska. Larry Brown’s Mustangs were manhandled 72-50 by a Rhode Island squad that was just 2-7. Oregon defeated Nebraska and first-year coach Tim Miles, 60-38. Ouch. Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi had 10 points, 17 rebound and 4 steals for Oregon.

It’s tough to take much from Ohio State’s 90-72 blowout of UNC-Asheville, but one thing that’s obvious is that the notion that the Buckeyes lack scorers beyond DeShaun Thomas is false. Evan Ravenel, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Sam Thompson all reached double figures Saturday along with Thomas. Point guard Aaron Craft had 8 assists and no turnovers. Ohio State’s offense is incredibly efficient, which is a credit to Craft and coach Thad Matta. Scoring won’t be a problem because players are getting high-quality shots.

The race for the Cousy Award, which is given annually to the nation’s top point guard, is going to be as competitive as it’s been in years. Two of the leading candidates made major statements Saturday. Michael Carter-Williams of Syracuse had 14 assists in a win over Canisius. He’s averaging 12.8 assists in his past four games. That’s almost unheard of. Michigan posted an 81-66 victory over West Virginia thanks, in part, to Trey Burke, who had 27 points and 8 assists -- and no turnovers.

3-point shot: Scoping out BracketBusters

November, 15, 2012
1. Participants for 2013's BracketBusters and the home/road breakdown were released Wednesday, and already it's easy to pick out what should be the best matchups for the Feb. 22-23 event. The home-road split works out for a Creighton-at-Murray State matchup. If the two teams continue to perform well during the next two months (before actual pairings are announced Jan. 28), that will be a natural game. Davidson and Valparaiso are the other marquee home teams and the Wildcats and Crusaders probably should get either a team from the Missouri Valley (Illinois State), the Mid-American Conference (Ohio or Kent State) or Horizon (Detroit). The other two teams to keep an eye on over the next two months to see if they are worthy of a high-profile game are road teams Albany (won at Washington) and UC Irvine (lost in overtime at UCLA).

2. The surprise of the Tip-Off Marathon might have been Wichita State upsetting Virginia Commonwealth. Sure, Xavier playing as hard as it did and dominating Butler was a shocker. The Bulldogs being so offensively challenged and without a game-changing guard was disappointing. Gonzaga's shutdown of West Virginia was the most significant development. But the Shockers' two-point victory in Richmond should send shock waves in the Valley that Wichita State will be a player in the race behind Creighton. Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said Tuesday that he is playing with eight newcomers and that they "competed their ass off. (VCU) had not lost in November since 2002. In the last two-plus seasons we have the best winning percentage on the road in the country now at 21-3.'' If Marshall's stats are correct, they indicate how much he has his team ready for foreign courts. And if the first week is any indication, the Shockers will have shelf life through the winter.

3. Let's just give Mississippi State a pass for the season. This simply won't be fair. New coach Rick Ray is down to six scholarship players for next week's Maui Invitational. The latest setbacks are an injury to Jalen Steele (fractured right wrist) and a suspension of Colin Borchert; Andre Applewhite and Jacoby Davis are already out. Ray said Wednesday that he'll have two walk-ons to use against North Carolina on Monday in Hawaii. The Bulldogs split the first two games -- a loss at Troy and a win over Florida Atlantic. But to expect much out of this Bulldogs team is simply not right. Ray deserves a freebie this season as he establishes his program.

Video: Wichita State 53, VCU 51

November, 13, 2012
Carl Hall scored 12 points and grabbed 11 boards as Wichita State beat Virginia Commonwealth 53-51 in a rematch of last season's NCAA tournament meeting, won by the Rams.
College basketball is a multibillion-dollar sport. With so much money at stake -- along with the prestige and exposure that comes with consistent success -- there’s always pressure on coaches to win.

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

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

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

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

Asking a cross-country team to, in fact, travel cross country for a meet? Replacing old rivalry games with contrived ones?

Like liver and broccoli, it’s all for the student-athletes’ own good.

Yet here we are, on another day of the conference carousel, with Old Dominion announcing it is leaving the Colonial Athletic Association for Conference USA -- and the welfare of student-athletes is being ignored.

CAA bylaws state that "upon notice of an institution’s intent to withdraw, the institution’s teams become ineligible on a date determined by the remaining members to compete for Association team championships."

Or in elementary school parlance: If you don’t want to play with me, than I don’t want to play with you, either.

The rationale is that a departing team shouldn’t take away a title opportunity from a team committed to the conference for the future.

Look, there is no denying that the CAA is more victim than villain in all of this. The CAA has been picked over like a dead animal on the side of the road, with Conference USA, the Sun Belt and the Atlantic 10 hovering over the carcass taking the meatier parts -- Old Dominion to C-USA, Georgia State to the Sun Belt, and VCU to the A-10.

But should the league enforce its petty bylaw and deny both ODU and Georgia State a chance to compete (a two-thirds vote in favor from remaining members is needed to overturn it), it will manage to trump its pickpocketing brethren in disloyalty.

Forget how foolish, childish and vindictive the league looks and sounds. Concentrate instead on the simple fact that instead of punishing the grownups who’ve made these decisions, the CAA is penalizing the athletes who have about as much say in conference realignment as my golden retriever has in my finances.

This is not their fault. This is not even their fight. They are having all sorts of things done to them for "their own good" and given the voice of Marcel Marceau.

You want to stick it to a school in the wallet and charge an exit fee? Feel free.

You want to require, like the Big East does, a timeframe to withdrawal without penalty? Go for it.

But absolutely nothing is gained by denying athletes a reason to compete and a chance to win a championship.

They have done nothing wrong and they certainly shouldn’t be asked to pay the only real penalty.

It is not just petty and vindictive. It’s mean-spirited and cruel.

ODU coach Blaine Taylor told Andy Katz that he hopes "cooler heads would prevail," but that certainly doesn’t sound likely. CAA commissioner Tom Yeager said overriding it required a "pretty steep standard," and likened the rule to a company parting ways early with an employee who has given notice.

He also pointed out that Old Dominion administrators were in the room when the bylaw was adopted 12 years ago and made their decision to leave fully aware of the possible repercussions.

“They knew the consequences that applied to their student athletes and still made the decision,’’ he said. “I’ve got 4,000 other student-athletes in this thing and their decision was made with full knowledge of what the consequence was and still made the decision.

“One of the hardest things,’’ he said, “was looking those student-athletes in the eyes and telling them because of their institution’s decisions, they were "ineligible."

And while that is technically fair and reasoned thinking, it doesn’t preclude the conference from simply doing the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing.

Yes, that’s an outlandish form of thinking in this day and age, when no one is thinking of anything but themselves but if you’re going to dare to be different why not dare to be different for the betterment of the student-athlete?

Video: VCU moving to A-10

May, 15, 2012

ESPN's Andy Katz and Michele Steele discuss VCU's decision to move to the Atlantic 10 immediately.
The Colonial Athletic Association, like so many other mid-major college hoops conferences, suddenly finds itself at a crossroads. Conference realignment on both coasts has moved on from the football-driven musical chairs game played by BCS big boys and has now begun to trickle down to places where football isn't even on the radar. The Big East takes teams from the Atlantic-10 and Conference USA, so the A-10 and C-USA turn around and take teams from leagues smaller than itself.

That's the idea, anyway. Turns out, George Mason has other plans. The CAA stalwart was among three teams being considered -- and considering -- a move to the Atlantic-10, along with Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion. Both of those schools have yet to announce their intentions, but Mason ended the speculation this afternoon, announcing in a statement that it would turn down other leagues' advances and remain in the Colonial:
Athletic director Tom O'Connor says a committee of senior officials assessed the goals and priorities of the Virginia school and decided that the CAA best met George Mason's interests.

He says the panel felt George Mason's status as a founding member of the league was important. It also concluded that the geography and competitiveness of the league provides stability and that the future of the conference is "exciting." [...]

"Through this process we've engaged in open communication with senior executives at George Mason University," CAA commissioner Tom Yeager said in a statement. "We respected the process George Mason University went through and are pleased it decided that continued membership in the CAA is in the best interest of the university and its athletic programs."

Pretty straightforward stuff, sure, but it does give CAA fans reason to rejoice. The loss of a founding member is a sure sign your league is in trouble (just ask John Marinatto), and if Mason had decided to leave, would VCU and ODU have been far behind?

Those schools still have to make their own decisions, but if Old Dominion's poised and altogether reasonable stance remains at the fore, there's a good chance all three schools could return to the comfy confines of the Colonial. If that happens, one of the nation's best mid-major hoops leagues -- one that sent four teams to the NCAA tournament as recently as 2011 -- could continue its rise to national relevance without making a major realignment move of its own. In any case, the goal for smaller, less protected leagues like this is simple: survival. The CAA may yet come out of this realignment mess intact.