College Basketball Nation: Will Barton

In the weeks leading up to the June 27 NBA draft, we’ll be taking a look at the 20 schools that have produced the best pros in the modern draft era (since 1989, when the draft went from seven to two rounds). Click here to read Eamonn Brennan’s explanation of the series, which will be featured in the Nation blog each morning as we count down the programs from 20 to 1.

Top Five NBA Draftees Since 1989

  1. Penny Hardaway (1993)
  2. Derrick Rose (2008)
  3. Tyreke Evans (2009)
  4. Lorenzen Wright (1996)
  5. Elliot Perry (1991)
Sixth man: Will Barton (2012)

The rest: Elliot Williams, Robert Dozier, Joey Dorsey, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Rodney Carney, Shawne Williams, Antonio Burks, Dajuan Wagner, Cedric Henderson, David Vaughn

Why they're ranked where they are: Star power. Guard power. Stard power? Whatever weird phrase you'd like to try to coin to describe it -- and hopefully you can do better than "stard power," yeesh -- Memphis has it, plain and simple. No other team ranked below them in this top 20 can say the same.

Rose was the MVP of the National Basketball Association at the ripe old age of 22, and you surely don't need me to tell you why his inclusion dramatically boosts Memphis' pro pedigree. Rose suffered a major setback with his anterior cruciate ligament tear in the 2012 playoffs, and his standing among Bulls fans was hurt by his inability (or unwillingness, or any of the other motives the city of Chicago ascribed to a dude taking the long view of his sure-to-be-brilliant career, as though this was a bad thing) to come back in time to face the Miami Heat in the 2013 stretch run. But Rose is one of the game's brightest young stars and, barring injury, will be an MVP-level player at the point guard spot for the next decade.

The key phrase, of course, is "barring injury." Just ask the top player on the list.

[+] EnlargePenny Hardaway
Andy Lyons/AllsportPenny Hardaway was on a Hall of Fame trajectory before a 1997 knee injury; still, he played 14 NBA seasons.
If you're my age, and grew up with Lil' Penny, you probably don't need me to outline why Anfernee Hardaway is on this list, or even why he's No. 1 above Rose. But in case you're too young to remember, Penny Hardaway was the capital-T Truth. A 6-foot-7 point guard who could score and dish and do pretty much anything else, Hardaway blitzed the NBA in his first four seasons, averaging 20.9 points, 7.2 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game in his second season, when the Orlando Magic won 57 games and knocked the Michael Jordan-less Bulls out in the second round of the NBA playoffs. As a young Bulls fan, I remember being horrified by this new world order. Balance was soon restored to the force but not before Nike could sell a gazillion pairs of Hardaway's Air Pennys, enough to make me the most consistently jealous 10-year-old basketball camp attendee of all time.

Despite the injuries -- chief among them a 1997 knee injury -- that eventually derailed what would have been a surefire Hall of Fame career, Hardaway went on to play 14 seasons in the league. Even if he hadn't, his early brilliance would have been enough. I know what I saw.

The rest of this list, as you might expect, is just sort of blah. Evans gets the nod at No. 3 because he has been a very productive player in his first four seasons, even if he's done so for one of the NBA's worst franchises (Sacramento) and earned a huge heaping of scorn for his seeming unwillingness to get teammates involved. Wright is a name you might best recall thanks to his mysterious 2010 disappearance and death, but, before that, the beloved Tiger had a nice 13-season NBA career. Perry did pile together 10 years in the league, but is listed fifth mostly because of that grotesque list of the rest, almost none of which has made any impact in the NBA. (To be fair, one-time uber-prospect Dejuan Wagner would've almost certainly cracked this top 5 had he not been beset by a series of scary medical ailments.)

Why they could be ranked higher: Because Hardaway was the aforementioned truth? Because Rose is currently the truth? Because you believe Evans is misunderstood or in a bad situation and could be a brilliant player in a system that knew how to use him (or in any system at all, which isn't possible when you fire coaches as frequently as the Kings)? Any of these arguments is permissible, but none is particularly convincing. On the other other hand …

Why they could be ranked lower: As much as it pains me to say this, we have no idea if Rose is ever going to be Rose again. With the possible exception of Russell Westbrook, no player in the NBA -- certainly no star -- relies as much on sheer athletic genius as Rose. He cuts, he bumps, he flies, he finishes, and when he's hitting jumpers, he's basically unguardable. What if all those cuts are a little less crisp? What if he can't do the same things he used to do physically? What does that mean for his career?

We could also argue that Hardaway, for as good as he was, was essentially a six-year player -- from 1993 to 1999 there were few guards in the game not named Michael Jordan as good as Penny. But after Hardaway's body betrayed him, he was a shell of his former self, doomed to wander the NBA wilderness until limping home with a 3.8-points-per-game season in his final year with the Heat. Don't get it twisted: I love me some Penny Hardaway. But he wasn't exactly a pillar of longevity.

Likewise, Evans is arguably trending downward. As a rookie, he averaged 20.1 points per game; he's declined in each subsequent season, from 17.8 to 16.5 to 15.2. These are not the best numbers by which to judge a young player's career, and Evans did shoot his highest field goal percentage (albeit on fewer attempts) in 2012-13. But after four seasons, Evans still lacks a consistent outside jumper, doesn't find teammates as often as he should and has too many character-related questions to project much added upside.

What’s ahead? Barton's career will be interesting to watch. A two-year player under Josh Pastner at Memphis, Barton was criminally underrated (much like the Tigers) in 2011-2012, his final season at the school, in which he finished with a 115.7 offensive rating on 25.6 percent usage. Despite putting up these All-America-level efficiency numbers, the 6-foot-6 guard was passed over until the Portland Trail Blazers selected him in the second round. Barton, who had an OK rookie season, has to improve his perimeter skills if he wants to stick as a conventional 3 in the league, but there's no reason he can't be a Kawhi Leonard type for the right team one day.

In the meantime, Pastner's program continues to recruit as well as any program in the country. Adonis Thomas killed his draft stock with an awful sophomore season, but he has the size and talent to stick in the league. D.J. Stephens is a freak of nature. Down the line, keep an eye on rising sophomore Shaq Goodwin and top freshman small forward Nick King.

Final thoughts: For a program that spent the entire aughts coached by John Calipari, Memphis suffers from a distinct lack of depth when it comes to its pro pedigree since 1989. (Where have you gone, Dajuan Wagner? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.) But at the top end, the players the Tigers have produced are undeniably stellar. Hardaway was a 6-foot-7 to whom God gifted the keys to Magic Johnson's tall-triple-double-machine legacy; only the whims of fate could slow him down. Rose, meanwhile, is still at the dawn of his career and already has one MVP -- in a LeBron James-owned league, and during a season in which Dwight Howard was insanely good -- under his belt. Even with the ACL tear, the long-term prognosis is pointing toward the Hall of Fame. Evans is divisive even within his own locker room, and his stock has taken a drastic hit, but there's no escaping the fact that he was the first player since James, Jordan and Oscar Robertson to average 20, 5 and 5 in his rookie season. That's still in there, somewhere.

Where Memphis' shot at the top 10 in this list falls apart is in the huge drop between that top three and the rest of its products since 1989. Look for Pastner to change that in the coming years. Until then, No. 15 feels right.
Thomas Robinson, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist & Andre DrummondUS PresswireWhere will Thomas Robinson (left), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Andre Drummond end up?
That headline ought to be fairly self-explanatory. Here are the 10 things I'm most intrigued to see in Thursday night's NBA draft:

1. Who goes No. 1 overall?

(Kidding. I hope I have your attention now.)

2. OK, seriously, who goes No. 2?

Now this is an intriguing question, one we've argued before in this space. With Anthony Davis such an obvious No. 1 pick, this is really the only top-two suspense in this draft, made all the more so by the simple fact that the Bobcats could pick just about anybody and become immediately better. Under "needs," the Bobcats have listed "a basketball team." They could trade their pick. They could draft Thomas Robinson and shoot for the stars, or take Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and try to work on a winning culture, or do something crazy and take Andre Drummond. Whatever they do, it will be fascinating to see the implications for the other teams in the top five, and the players they select.

3. Will someone reach for Andre Drummond?

If I was a general manager, I'd be horrified to take Drummond. I'd also be horrified to not take him. There's all that physical talent. There's that apparent basketball apathy. The only time I remember seeing Drummond openly enjoying basketball as a freshman was that tip-dunk against Syracuse (just YouTube it). Being able to do that to wide-open tip-dunks would bring a smile to my face, too. Battling with NBA bigs? Not as much fun!

Austin Rivers
Mark Dolejs/US PresswireWhere will Austin Rivers, the talented yet polarizing guard from Duke, end up?
4. Who loves (or hates) Austin Rivers?

A year ago, I randomly polled some of the NBA scouts at the Nike Skills Camps in Chicago for their opinions of Rivers, the incoming Duke guard. A few loved his crossover and his swagger; others had big lingering questions about what he was (A 2-guard? A point? A combo scorer? Monta Ellis?) at the next level. Even then, he was polarizing.

That didn't change much during his one-year stopover at Duke. Rivers struggled early, had big moments (remember this?), never totally put it all together, and Duke went out in the first round to 15-seeded Lehigh. It's clear it hasn't changed at all since the NBA draft process began.

Resident draft expert Chad Ford does not like Rivers one bit, and plenty of NBA scouts have told him why: "However, here's my knock on Rivers. He thinks he's Kobe. He's not. He doesn't have the length, the height, nor the athletic ability. Take those things away from Kobe, and he's Ricky Davis -- an irritating ball hog no one wants to play with and who isn't good enough to warrant the diva act."

On the other hand, Rivers has the best dribble moves in the draft, a well-respected coach-father who knows everything about how to be a pro in the league, and a shooting mechanic ripe for improvement. I'm just as torn as everyone else. I can't wait to see where he lands, and how the franchise that takes him will affect his development.

5. More trades! Please?

On Wednesday night, my buddy Phil asked me if the draft was on. When I told him it was Thursday night, he said, "Oh. I just can't care about the NBA draft." Phil is not an NBA fan. I am. Which is why I am fascinated by the slew of trade rumors out there already, from the Houston Rockets' play for Dwight Howard to the Lakers dangling Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace. Always one of the best parts of the draft, at least for me. Your mileage may vary.

6. Which late first-round team will be smart and take Draymond Green?

I realize the dude's 22. He's definitely a tweener and there are 20 players in the draft with more enticing measurables. But Day-Day is about as versatile as any player in this draft, and he's a winner. He won't be an All-Star, but he will be a perfect fit on any already-good team looking for a solid rotation piece and a great teammate to boot. And he'll get a chance to play for a good team right away. I think that's a huge blessing in disguise.

7. How far will Jared Sullinger slide?

Get this: The guy who spent two years dominating the Big Ten, whose freshman season statistically most closely resembled Kevin Love's, who earned All-American honors and led his team to a Sweet 16 and a Final Four, might actually fall out of the first round. I get the back issues scaring people slightly, but come on! He was a top-five pick last year! NBA GMs, get it together!

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireHow far will Jared Sullinger fall on Thursday night?
8. Speaking of Sullinger ... what will this draft say about staying in school?

More often than not in the one-and-done era, players promised top-10 draft picks left after just one season in school. It just made too much sense. Last year's lockout changed that calculus, and college basketball was better for it. We got to see sophomore seasons from Sullinger, Harrison Barnes, Terrence Jones and Perry Jones, all of whom could have been top-five picks in last year's draft. This June, only Barnes has retained his top-five status. Terrence Jones is coming off being a top rotation player on a national title team, while Perry Jones came back and improved, though only marginally. Both are borderline lottery picks, according to most mock drafts. Will things go even further south Thursday night? And if so, what will that say to elite prospects considering a sophomore season in the future?

9. Will the Bulls get Will Barton?

That's what Ford has in his latest mock draft, and as a Chicago resident, let me just say: Yes, please. I think Barton could be a real steal. He had a thoroughly excellent (and underrated) season in 2012 -- he finished behind Green, Davis and Sullinger in Ken Pomeroy's final player of the year efficiency calculations. Barton definitely needs to add things to his game (more strength and girth, a more consistent outside shot) but he is already a very versatile player who could conceivably play a 2 or a 3 in the NBA for years to come. Also, he's bouncy. I like him. It would be a great pick for the Bulls, but really for any team at that level of the draft. We'll see.

10. Whose suit will be most on point?

I'm not sure anyone in this class has the chops to pull off the Joakim Noah swagger (sorry, but that suit was and is amazing, almost as amazing as this photo). Unfortunately, based on most of the personalities in this class, I don't think most of these guys will go the wacky route, either. I hope I'm wrong. Nominate in the comments.
Josh Pastner’s Memphis Tigers exited last season’s NCAA tournament after a second-round loss to St. Louis in Columbus. But the Tigers will bring back most of their firepower next year, although they’ll miss versatile wing Will Barton. Still, they’re stacked and ready for another run to the Conference USA title in their last season as a member of the league. They will be headed to the Big East in 2013-14.

Pastner recently spoke with ESPN.com about all things Tigers basketball.

What are your expectations for William 'Shaq' Goodwin (ESPN Recruiting's No. 31 prospect in the 2012 class)?

[+] EnlargeShaq Goodwin
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhThe Tigers are counting on contributions from freshman Shaq Goodwin next season.
Josh Pastner: I think Shaq’s going to have an opportunity to make an impact. I was really impressed that he made the USA 18-and-under team. I think that says a lot about his motor and his drive because he was the guy that wasn’t in basketball shape right away and here he is going to a higher altitude [tryouts were held in Colorado Springs, Colo.] and played his way to making the team. That’s a great credit to him. We’re counting on him and expecting him to help us. Regardless if he’s a freshman, we’re going to count on him to produce for us.

Will Barton (18.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 2.9 apg, 1.4 spg, 0.7 bpg) did so much for your squad last season. How do you replace him?

JP: It’s not about the points that we’ll miss. The main thing is the rebounds. He was getting eight, nine rebounds per game. We’ve got to replace those. We’ll be able to replace scoring but we’ve got to replace the rebounding. And that’s a big thing. The other thing with Will is he shot [51 percent] from the field. He was very, very efficient, so anything we try to replace that we lost with him, we’ve got to continue to be very efficient. But the most important thing is on the glass.

How have you handled the realignment talks and maneuvering this offseason with Memphis preparing for its move to the Big East in 2013-14?

JP: You know, I just kind of go with the flow. I don’t even feel the effects right now because our focus is only for this upcoming season, which we’re in Conference USA. Not until this season is finished do I really start shifting my focus because I’ve got to focus on Conference USA for this season. Now, we’re making sure we prepare for the future. … But any of the changes don’t really take place for us until 2013-14.

How did injuries, especially Adonis Thomas’ ankle problem, impact your program last season?

JP: We had two of our starters out with injuries in Adonis Thomas, who’s a pro prospect, and Charles Carmouche. Those guys we missed for the second half of the season. That’s why I was very proud of our team. We were able to win 20 of 23 games, still won 26 games, win the conference regular-season championship with two of our starters down. That’s a credit to our guys really stepping up and picking up slack where slack needed to be picked up.

What’s the ceiling for a healthy Adonis Thomas?

JP: I think Adonis can be very, very good. He’s a high level player. And he’s a high-level character guy. You put those two together ... that’s a great package and so I’m really excited for this upcoming year with Adonis.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Instant analysis from St. Louis' 61-54 win over Memphis.

Overview: St. Louis dictated the pace of the game early, something the Billikens said they had to do prior to Friday’s game. Memphis loves to run. The Tigers are one of the best transition teams in the nation. And the Billikens were clear that they had to force the Tigers to play half-court basketball.

At halftime, St. Louis and Memphis were tied, 23-23. By then, the tempo favored the Billikens in their matchup against a Tigers team that had scored only 60 points or fewer two times this season.

But the Tigers, who shot 1-for-8 from the 3-point line in the first half, launched an 11-2 run that put them ahead 37-29 with 11:54 to play. The Billikens’ offense had stalled and then, Kwamain Mitchell arrived. The junior scored 22 points and led St. Louis to a win in its first NCAA tourney appearance since 2000.

Turning point: The Billikens were down by eight points midway through the second half. But St. Louis responded to Memphis’ run with a 16-5 rally of its own that turned the game.

Key player: Mitchell was hot, especially in the second half. He scored 22 points on 9-for-14 shooting. He was 6-for-9 after halftime. Brian Conklin added 16 points.

Key stat: Memphis went 2-for-15 from beyond the arc.

Miscellaneous: Memphis initially adjusted well to the slower tempo. But a late eight-minute stretch in which the Tigers recorded two field goals turned the game and showcased St. Louis’ defensive pressure. … Will Barton was the only Memphis player who recorded double figures. He scored 16 points.

What’s next: St. Louis will face top seed Michigan State on Sunday.

Previewing Columbus: Evening games

March, 16, 2012
3/16/12
12:45
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COLUMBUS, Ohio – The fun continues at Nationwide Arena on Friday night with an appearance by a 1-seed and an 8-9 matchup featuring two squads that play opposing styles. Memphis is fast. St. Louis is slow. Which style will dictate the tempo? Michigan State is relying on its new chemistry as it enters a game against Long Island.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They all laughed at the question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the tournament, however, anything is possible.

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

“That’s not very good for the Blackbirds, because if Michigan State was looking away a little bit that might have woken them up a little bit,” he said.
Well, it’s early, but that doesn’t mean we have to wait to make predictions. And in my opinion, you don’t waiver. You make statements and projections and you stand by them, regardless of what happens in the coming weeks. Hold me to the following bold predictions about the NCAA tournament:

  1. No Big East team will reach the Final Four: Another big haul for the Big East. Nine of its teams will participate in this season’s edition of the NCAA tournament. But I don’t think the conference will send any teams to New Orleans. I think Syracuse, a team that’s vulnerable due to its challenges on the glass, has a tough path in the East with Ohio State and a pair of hot squads (Florida State and Vandy) standing in its way. Georgetown, Cincy and UConn could lose in the first round. Marquette has to get through Missouri. I just don’t see it. No Big East in the Big Easy.
  2. [+] EnlargeKim English
    Peter G. Aiken/US PresswireKim English and the Tigers could be one of two teams representing the Big 12 in New Orleans.
    The Big 12 will send two squads to New Orleans: Among the 2-seeds, Missouri has the easiest path to New Orleans. The Tigers’ speed and perimeter versatility will pose matchup problems for every team in the West Region, including No. 1 seed Michigan State. Kansas losing in the first round to Detroit? Nah. The Jayhawks will beat every team in the Midwest, including the Tar Heels if they face them in the Elite Eight.
  3. Vanderbilt will reach the Final Four: I know it’s the sexy pick following its win over Kentucky in the SEC tournament title game. But the Commodores shouldn’t be judged by that victory. And they shouldn’t be dismissed because of premature exits in past years. They have veterans. And they’ve built momentum down the stretch, a la Connecticut a year ago. They’ve hit nearly 40 percent of their 3s this season. The East Region is stronger than it looks with teams such as Syracuse, Ohio State, Florida State and Wisconsin in the mix. But the Commodores can emerge with their senior leadership and shooting. Plus, they have the confidence that comes from beating Kentucky, a team that they challenged in two previous meetings, too.
  4. Iona will win two games: I don’t agree with the Gaels’ inclusion. Washington and Drexel had stronger arguments. But just because many don’t believe they belong doesn’t mean that they won’t prove critics wrong. I think the Gaels, who own the No. 1 scoring offense in the country (83.3 ppg), are dangerous. To reach the third round in the West Region, the Gaels will have to get through BYU in Dayton and Marquette in Louisville. Mark it down. The Gaels are playing a pair of shaky defensive teams. They have three NBA-level talents in Scott Machado, Michael Glover and Lamont “Momo” Jones. As much I thought Iona didn’t have a case for a slot in the field of 68, I think the Gaels can show doubters that they’re worthy.
  5. The Badgers will go home early: I’m picking Montana over Wisconsin in the 13/4 matchup in the East Region. Wisconsin’s offense has stalled multiple times in recent weeks. Even though the Badgers are capable of neutralizing any offense, they’ve had problems capitalizing due to their own inconsistent offense. Montana will be ready. The Grizzlies beat their Big Sky rivals Weber state by 19 points in the conference’s tournament title game, their 14th consecutive victory. Plus, Will Cherry (16.0 ppg) can match Jordan Taylor. Grizzlies will advance.
  6. Long Beach State is a Sweet 16 team: Numerous NCAA tournament teams have hungry veterans. But few upperclassmen have gone through the things that T.J. Robinson, Larry Anderson and Casper Ware have throughout their careers. The seniors missed the past two NCAA tournaments after losing in the conference tournament title game to UC Santa Barbara twice. But this season they earned the Big West’s automatic bid. If Anderson’s not ready (knee injury), then that will change Long Beach State’s March Madness potential. But even without Anderson, the league’s defensive player of the year, this is a talented team that’s played the top nonconference schedule in the country. The 49ers will not be intimidated. They’ll beat New Mexico and Louisville on their way to the Sweet 16.
  7. [+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
    AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziCreighton's Doug McDermott may meet up with former high school teammate Harrison Barnes of North Carolina.
    Michigan State will be the first No. 1 seed to fall: Call me crazy. But I think Memphis’ athleticism will create problems for the Spartans in the third round. I understand the “How will the Tigers guard Draymond Green?” question. But what about Will Barton and Joe Jackson? In the Big Ten, the Spartans didn’t play teams that possessed the raw athleticism that’s anchored Memphis’ roster. The Spartans will be tougher than the Tigers in this East Region matchup, but the latter has an element that Michigan State hasn’t faced since its season-opening to loss to North Carolina.
  8. Doug McDermott will outplay Harrison Barnes on Sunday: I expect North Carolina and Creighton to advance and set up a Sunday matchup in the Midwest Region between former high school teammates Doug McDermott and Harrison Barnes, who earned two state titles together at Ames High School in Ames, Iowa. The Tar Heels will win the game, but McDermott will be the star. Both guys have talked about this potential matchup in the past. The McDermott vs. Barnes buildup will be immense. But McDermott will outperform his prep teammate in their first collegiate meeting, albeit in a loss.
  9. The VCU/Wichita State winner is headed to the Sweet 16: It’s unfortunate that this game will eliminate a potent mid-major. Wichita State and VCU, a Final Four team last year, are two of the best in the country. I predict that the winner of this game will end up facing Kentucky in the Sweet 16. They’re both tough, physical defensive teams that will pressure Indiana in the round of 32. The Hoosiers have struggled outside of Bloomington. And whether they face the Shockers or the Rams, they’ll be in for a battle, one that I expect them to lose.
  10. The West Coast Conference won’t win one game: BYU will lose to Iona. Saint Mary’s will go down against Purdue. West Virginia will beat Gonzaga. I thought the WCC would turn the corner this year with the way BYU, Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga fought for the WCC title. But all three have looked vulnerable in recent weeks. I just don’t think they’re going to advance. Plus, tough matchups for all three teams in their first games. Iona is very talented. The Boilermakers are tough, too. Kevin Jones will lead the Mountaineers to a win over the Bulldogs.
Championship Week began with automatic bids handed out Saturday. But we still need to close the book on the last full week of the regular season (save the critical Penn-Princeton game Tuesday night).

Team of the week: North Carolina

The Tar Heels firmly put themselves in the national-title conversation with a dominating performance at Duke on Saturday night. The game ended as an 18-point victory for North Carolina, but it could have been even worse.

The Heels were the aggressors from the opening tip. Every time you looked up, a Carolina player was going to the basket. P.J. Hairston, John Henson, James Michael McAdoo and Tyler Zeller all were looking to get to the basket, flush, finish and possibly get fouled. Kendall Marshall didn’t hesitate to look for his shot, either. He finished with 20 points to complement his stellar work as the top playmaker among title contenders.

UNC won’t have to make 3s if it continues to push toward the hoop on the first shot and on the offensive backboard. Zeller, Henson, Marshall and Harrison Barnes have elevated their games in the past few weeks. The Tar Heels have been pushed plenty of times -- twice against Virginia, at Miami, at NC State, etc.

But North Carolina now enters the NCAA tournament, regardless of what happens this week in the ACC tournament, as an equal title favorite with Kentucky and Syracuse.

Player of the week: Will Barton, Memphis

The Tigers have been flying under the radar for quite some time but won Conference USA with a win at Tulsa on Saturday. Barton was one of the main reasons for the victory. He scored 30 points and grabbed nine boards, and was efficient from the field, making 12 of 17 shots and nailing a pair of 3s. He also got to the line plenty.

Earlier in the week, in what appeared to be a league showdown, Barton helped the Tigers smash Central Florida by 29 points with 18 points and 11 boards. He finished the regular season averaging 18.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. The Tigers haven’t been ranked since the first month of the season, and C-USA doesn’t get much love. But Memphis is a sneaky good team heading into the NCAA tournament, and Barton could end up being a star on the NCAA stage.

Katz: Games to track this weekend

February, 3, 2012
2/03/12
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For full coverage of the Kansas-Missouri matchup, check out Weekend Watch.

Saturday

South Florida at Georgetown (ESPNU, 11 a.m. ET): OK, let’s see if South Florida is for real in the Big East. The Bulls are 6-3 and tied with Georgetown in the loss column. USF has wins at Villanova and DePaul, but that shouldn’t compare to Georgetown this season. The Hoyas have their mojo back. Georgetown can’t be ruled out to catch Syracuse with a game against the Orange next week.

Marquette at Notre Dame (1 ET): The Golden Eagles have to be applauded for playing well despite not having Chris Otule and Davante Gardner in the post. Gardner isn’t expected to be ready for this game. The Irish have been golden at home so far, save a game against UConn. The Eagles need this one in their quest to stay with Syracuse.

Vanderbilt at Florida (1 ET): The Commodores have a rough week with games at Arkansas and Florida. They’re already down one. If Vandy is going to be taken seriously as a real contender with Kentucky and Florida, it has to pull off an upset.

Virginia at Florida State (ESPN3, 1 ET): The Cavs and Seminoles are the two “other” choices to win the ACC. If either has visions of knocking off UNC or Duke from the top spot, it's got to win this game. FSU is on more of a roll. Beat back the Cavs in what should be a grinder and the Seminoles will continue to be in the chase.

Xavier at Memphis (1 ET): This had the look of a game between two teams that were the favorites in the A-10 and C-USA at the start of the season. Since then, both have taken a few shots. Neither is a lock for the NCAAs and both could use some momentum to pique the selection committee’s interest. Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons against Will Barton and Joe Jackson will headline this game.

Ohio State at Wisconsin (ESPN, 2 ET): This has become one of the most anticipated games of the Big Ten season. The Badgers don’t have the inside presence to deal with Jared Sullinger. But Jordan Taylor can certainly match up with Aaron Craft. The Badgers will have to do something special inside to win this game.

North Carolina at Maryland (ESPN, 4 ET): The Tar Heels are simply better, more talented and have the depth to dismantle the Terps. That’s what should happen. But Maryland has showed some fight lately. The Terps will have to play their best game of the season to pull off this upset.

UNLV at Wyoming (4 ET): The Runnin’ Rebels had to struggle in overtime to get past Boise State and Air Force in their last two road games. Wyoming is a better defensive team than Boise or Air Force. This will test the Runnin’ Rebels yet again. New Mexico and San Diego State were both able to get out of Laramie with a win. Will UNLV?

Old Dominion at George Mason (ESPNU, 5 ET): I was leading the chorus that George Mason should have received a television game in BracketBusters. And then the Patriots lost to Delaware. There is a four-way tie for first in the CAA between ODU, Mason, Drexel and VCU. Separation begins with this game.

Iona at Manhattan (ESPN3, 7 ET): Momo Jones went for 43 against Canisius on Thursday night. Scott Machado had 14 assists. But Manhattan is in step with the Gaels, tied atop the MAAC at 10-2. The winner will be tied with Loyola in the loss column. This game could determine all-important seeding in the MAAC tourney.

Oregon at Colorado (9 ET): The Buffaloes smacked Oregon State on Thursday by 22 at home, where they’ve been a force in their first year in the Pac-12. Oregon, meanwhile, had to come back to beat Utah. The Ducks need a split to stay in the chase for a top-three finish. Coach Tad Boyle has done a tremendous job in Boulder after losing his two best players from last season.

Sunday

Michigan at Michigan State (1 ET): Draymond Green (left knee sprain) may be a game-time decision. The Spartans do have depth to handle his possible absence. But it’s not preferred against a Michigan team that is confident going into East Lansing after knocking off the Spartans in a last-possession game in Ann Arbor. The winner here stays in the chase in the Big Ten. The loser might have to think about the second-place race if Ohio State wins at Wisconsin.
Editor's Note: For Myron's recap of Saturday's afternoon action, click here.

More Saturday games. More drama. A weekend slate that wasn’t supposed to offer much ultimately produced an impressive collection of games. Saturday night only added to the excitement.

Washington 69, Arizona 67

This game might have been a preview of the vibe we’ll see in the Pac-12 tournament. Not one team in this league can feel secure about its NCAA tournament hopes, but the conference's collective downfall does make for plenty of must-win drama.

Consider this: Between the 14:16 and 2:28 marks of the second half, Arizona recorded exactly one field goal. And yet, with two minutes to play, this was just a six-point game. Solomon Hill’s 3-pointer with 9 seconds to play tied the game at 67. He was awesome, scoring 28 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. But while he made nine of his 10 shots, the rest of team went 12-of-40 (30 percent) from the field.

And after Hill's big bucket, Josiah Turner committed a huge foul on C.J. Wilcox, who hit a pair of free throws before freshman Tony Wroten blocked Turner’s layup at the buzzer. The Pac-12 is certainly down. But it’s also a very scrappy league right now because of the uncertainty. Arizona was bad for a chunk of this game, but the Wildcats kept coming -- because, well, it's UA-UW and these matchups are always dramatic.

The Huskies, who lead the Pac-12 at 7-2, scored a crucial road win, while Zona’s at-large hopes took another major blow with its third home loss of the season. Fun game.

No. 21 Virginia 61, North Carolina State 60

The Cavaliers led 55-45 with 6:37 on the clock, but barely held on here. The Wolfpack was sloppy for the bulk of this game and finished just 2-of-15 from beyond the arc. Near the five-minute mark, Alex Johnson missed three shots on one possession. He botched a layup on a fast break, then missed a contested follow-up and a 3-pointer. It was that kind of evening for the Pack.

But they bounced back and chipped away at Virginia’s lead. They outscored UVa 15-5 in the final six minutes of the game and Scott Wood hit a late 3 to close the gap to 1. The Cavs missed a jumper in the final seconds so NC State had a chance to tie on the last possession, but Virginia’s defense clamped down on Lorenzo Brown, whose 3-point attempt at the buzzer was way off.

The Cavs continue to find ways to win and force teams to play their grind-it-out style of basketball. Mike Scott (18 points) certainly helped, but Virginia was outrebounded 42-25 -- it gave up more offensive boards (18) than it had defensive boards (17)! -- and still pulled out the win. The Cavaliers' 17th victory gives them one more than all of last season.

That’s certainly something to be proud of, but I’m not sold on the Cavs as a team that will do damage in the NCAA tournament. Not with struggles against Towson, a bad home loss against Virginia Tech and other so-so efforts this season. Their finish against NC State on Saturday showcased some of this team’s flaws.

No. 20 Saint Mary’s 80, BYU 66

Wait, wasn't this supposed to be the weekend that the Gaels fell in West Coast Conference play? As impressive as SMC's 8-0 start in the WCC was, there was a palpable buzz that suggested the Gaels' success was directly linked to the fact that they played five of their first eight conference games at home, including routs of BYU and Gonzaga.

A rematch with Brigham Young on the road -- the Marriott Center is one of the most challenging venues in the country -- spelled doom. Right? But Saint Mary’s truly separated itself from the rest of the league with a 14-point victory that really wasn't even that close, despite SMC's heavy turnover total (24). It was a scrappy game both on the floor and off it -- fans threw things onto the court at one point as the Cougars lost back-to-back home games for the first time ever under Dave Rose. Four Gaels recorded double-figure point totals, led by Brad Waldow (19 points, 8 rebounds). I already can't wait for that Saint Mary's-Gonzaga game in Spokane.

Some more observations from Saturday night ...
  • Oh Dayton, you confusing Atlantic 10 contender (pretender?). From Dec. 7 through Jan. 7, the Flyers won seven of eight games, including victories over Alabama, Ole Miss, Saint Louis and Temple. They’ve now lost three of five after Saturday’s 86-81 home loss to … wait for it … Rhode Island (4-18, 1-6 Atlantic 10). That’s not OK. What a wacky league. Xavier, Saint Louis and Dayton, three teams expected to emerge from the crowd, all have three conference losses as La Salle, St. Bonaventure and UMass (a very impressive winner over the Billikens on Saturday) share the conference lead. The A-10 seems as wide open and as unpredictable as any league in the country. Who can call it right now? Not me.
  • The last time Minnesota and Illinois faced off, the Gophers lost to the Illini in double overtime in Champaign. On Saturday, Minnesota got its revenge with a 77-72 OT win at the Barn. After losing their first four conference games, the Gophers have won four of their past five. They’re a young team with limited depth, but Tubby Smith has coached this team extremely well in this five-game stretch.
  • It was a huge night in Conference USA as the league's top four teams squared off. What we learned is that Memphis and Southern Miss, which play each other Wednesday in Hattiesburg, are the conference's co-favorites. Behind a career-high 29 from Will Barton, the Tigers rallied in the second half for a hard-fought home win against Marshall. The Golden Eagles also had a huge second half to win in Orlando, where UCF had won 16 straight (including a recent victory over Memphis). Neil Watson and Kentucky transfer Darnell Dodson combined for 45 points as Larry Eustachy's underrated squad improved to 19-3. Yes, 19-3.
  • Think the Mountain West is a pushover? No. 15 UNLV needed overtime to dismiss Boise State on the road and the Rebels needed an extra period again Saturday, when they beat Air Force 65-63. AFA is ranked 156th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted tempo ratings and Vegas is 17th, but these two squads were even on the scoreboard until the closing seconds. But the Falcons committed two turnovers in the last 15 seconds of the contest and squandered their chances to win this one late. Still, it was more evidence that the Mountain West is deeper than it appears to be on the surface. Mike Moser continued his destructive streak with 27 points and 12 rebounds.
  • Oklahoma scored a key road when it beat No. 24 Kansas State 63-60. The Sooners pressured the Wildcats, who committed 20 turnovers. Frank Martin has been preaching defense, but K-State didn’t have much against Steven Pledger, who scored 30 points. The Wildcats have lost three of their past six. Meanwhile, this had to be a satisfying win for Lon Kruger, who used to play and coach in Manhattan. What a great job he's done in his first year in Norman.
  • Seton Hall looked like an NCAA tournament team after it followed a blowout road loss at Syracuse with a four-game winning streak. But the Pirates have lost their past four and looked lackluster in a 60-51 home defeat to Louisville. Boy, that surprising season turned sour really quick, didn't it?
  • Speaking of New Jersey, how strange is this Rutgers season? After Saturday's victory over Cincinnati, the young Scarlet Knights now have wins over Florida, Connecticut and the Bearcats ... and losses to DePaul, Illinois State, Princeton and a down Richmond team.
  • Wichita State and Drake took a combined 149 shots in their triple-overtime thriller Saturday night. The Bulldogs outplayed the Shockers and deserved their 93-86 victory. Kraidon Woods’ layup for Drake sent the game into the first extra period and Rayvonte Rice hit a pair of late free throws to take the game into a second overtime. Drake’s Kurt Alexander and Wichita State’s Ben Smith traded late 3s in the second extra period to send the game into a third OT. In that third overtime, Drake scored the first five points and WSU couldn’t close the gap. The Shockers suffered their first loss since New Year’s Eve, but this is still a quality team. Wichita State is now one game behind Creighton in the MVC. Let's all count down to that Feb. 11 rematch in Omaha.

Wooden Watch: Jason King's POY ballot

January, 25, 2012
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Kansas forward Thomas Robinson still sits atop my Wooden Award ballot. But this time, the decision wasn’t as easy.

A banner week by West Virginia’s Kevin Jones and Kentucky’s Anthony Davis, along with continued steady play by Creighton’s Doug McDermott, has tightened up the race. As the weeks progress, Robinson will find out that staying at the top is just as hard as getting there.

Here’s how I’d vote if the ballot were due today:
  1. Thomas Robinson, Kansas -- The Jayhawks’ star forward clicked the “ON” switch in the second half of the KU's 64-54 come-from-behind victory over Texas A&M. Robinson scored 16 of his 18 points after intermission to help his team remain unbeaten in conference play. Two days earlier Robinson had 17 points in a win at Texas.
  2. Kevin Jones, West Virginia -- Jones averaged 25.5 points and 10 rebounds in victories over Marshall and Cincinnati last week. The 6-foot-8, 260-pound Jones has scored at least 22 points in each of his past five games and is averaging 20.7 points and 11.5 boards on the season. And he’s doing it against top-tier competition.
  3. Doug McDermott, Creighton -- With 15 points against Missouri State and 12 against Indiana State, McDermott had a mediocre week by McDermott standards. The Bluejays, though, won each game, which is all that matters to the 6-foot-7 sophomore. Considering the double- and triple-teams he faces, it’s amazing that McDermott averages 23.2 points.
  4. Anthony Davis, Kentucky -- No player in college basketball dominates on the defensive end quite like Davis, who leads the nation with 4.7 blocks per game. Davis also averages a team-high 10.3 rebounds, and his offensive game continues to improve. He’s reached double figures in nine straight games and had a career-best 27 points against Arkansas.
  5. Jared Sullinger, Ohio State -- The Buckeyes forward is still one of the toughest players in the country to stop down low. He’s averaging 17.1 points and 9.1 boards. Sullinger will need to be at his best when Ohio State hosts No. 22 Michigan on Sunday.
On the cusp:

Harrison Barnes, North Carolina -- The Tar Heels' leading scorer had nine points during a 19-0 second-half run that helped North Carolina stave off Virginia Tech.

Will Barton, Memphis -- The top all-around player in Conference USA has scored 24 points in his past two games.

Marcus Denmon, Missouri -- Had 15 points -- and the game-clinching free throw -- in Saturday’s 89-88 win at Baylor.

Pierre Jackson, Baylor -- The tough-minded point guard had 20 points and 15 assists against Missouri. He’s the Bears’ most important player.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky -- The Wildcats’ “glue guy” sets the tone for the nation’s top-ranked team.

Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut -- Had 23 points in a losing effort against Tennessee; too bad he can’t handle the ball any better, as the Huskies need another true guard.

Scott Machado, Iona -- The senior point guard averages a national-best 10.2 assists per game.

Arnett Moultrie, Mississippi State -- His 27 points and 14 rebounds helped the Bulldogs upset Vanderbilt in Nashville.

Mike Scott, Virginia -- Scott won’t stay on this list very long if the Cavaliers suffer another embarrassing loss like the one they endured Sunday against Virginia Tech.

Tyler Zeller, North Carolina -- The underrated center has double-doubles in five of his past six games.

Here's what we learned on Saturday

December, 17, 2011
12/17/11
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Saturday’s slate of games featured some surprising finishes. Teams were exposed. Others were discovered.

It was a tutorial on the unpredictable ebb and flow of the college basketball scene this time of year. Here are a few things I learned:

No. 1 Syracuse 88, North Carolina State 72

What we learned: The Orange aren’t just deep -- they're really good

Syracuse has been praised as one of the deepest teams in the country. The Big East power possesses a talented backup at every position. Sometimes, however, the “depth” tag suggests a team lacks individual talent. That’s not the case with the Orange. North Carolina State started strong but Syracuse didn’t panic. It just turned to its stars. Dion Waiters (career-high 22 points), Scoop Jardine (16 points) and Kris Joseph (21 points) led an SU squad that hit 56.5 percent of its shots. North Carolina State was up early and then -- Bam! -- the Orange snatched the game back. Even with a target on their backs as America’s new No. 1 team and a highly publicized investigation of a former assistant coach, they continue to operate like a team without any distractions. Cuse has survived every Bernie Fine development and overcome the obstacles on the floor. Can’t get overly excited quite yet about a team that just played its first road game, but the Orange seem to have it all right now.

No. 13 Florida 84, No. 22 Texas A&M 64

What we learned: Florida’s backcourt is a matchup nightmare for opposing teams

Well, the Aggies don’t belong anywhere near the top 25, judging by Saturday’s lopsided loss to the Gators. They can’t score. The Big 12’s worst scoring offense and worst free throw-shooting team couldn’t find the buckets to compete with Florida. Give UF credit for attacking early (opened the game on an 18-2 run), putting its potent offense to work and getting to the free throw line (30 attempts). The Gators are going to have trouble against bigger teams given their size disparity, but as Saturday’s game proved, opposing teams continue to have problems matching up against a team with their backcourt depth (three guards scored 16 or more, led by Kenny Boynton’s 22 points and his six 3-pointers). One question remains, though. Patric Young took two shots. You have to wonder whether he’ll become a more consistent part of Florida’s offense in SEC play. One thing is clear: When this team gets going, it’s a hard one to stop. There are still defensive concerns, but the Gators are going to compete in the SEC if they continue to produce this level of offense.

No. 7 Baylor 86, BYU 83

What we learned: Perry Jones can lead Baylor to a national championship

Baylor’s NCAA title hopes will be directly linked to its identity outside of Waco. The Bears were 1-3 away from their home floor during the nonconference portion of last season’s schedule. Those road woes followed the Bears into the Big 12 season. In a gritty game Saturday against a BYU squad that’s always tough on its home floor, Perry Jones III scored a career-high 28 points and played with the heart that’s expected of a star. After suffering a late knee injury, Jones checked back into the game and scored on a putback with 20 seconds to play that capped the win. Pierre Jackson blocked Brandon Davies’ 3-point attempt at the buzzer. BYU held a 13-point lead in the first half, but Jones kept the Bears alive in a hostile environment. He’s NBA-lottery good. We knew that before Saturday’s game, but since his return from an NCAA-mandated suspension at the start of the season, he’s looked like an NCAA championship-caliber leader, too.

Gonzaga 71, Arizona 60

[+] EnlargeElias Harris
AP Photo/Kevin P. CaseyGonzaga rode Elias Harris' 25 points to victory over Arizona.
What we learned: Gonzaga is not discouraged by early struggles, but Arizona might be

This was a significant game for a pair of teams that had dropped from the rankings in recent weeks as they failed to meet preseason projections. Both needed this game in Seattle. Gonzaga played like it understood the stakes. Arizona did not. The Bulldogs jumped out to a 14-0 lead to start the game, and Zona spent the rest of the contest trying to close the gap. But that early onslaught from Gonzaga set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. The Zags held off Arizona’s late charge that cut the deficit to 62-56 with 2:03 to play. The Wildcats’ leading scorer, Solomon Hill, went 1-for-7 and finished with six points, his second single-digit effort in three games. The fall continues for Arizona, an Elite Eight team last season but one that has lost four of its past seven games. Give Gonzaga credit, though. The Zags seemed motivated and focused, despite suffering their recent ups and downs. Saturday’s version of Elias Harris (25 points) should help Gonzaga in what should be an excellent WCC race with BYU and Saint Mary's. Hopefully, the 2-for-11 player who showed up for last weekend’s loss to Michigan State never returns.

UNLV 64, No. 19 Illinois 48

What we learned: UNLV is legit

With about 41 seconds to play in this game, Illinois' D.J. Richardson drove right in and went up for a dunk that wouldn’t have affected the outcome. But Quintrell Thomas swatted the shot like it mattered. Thomas and Mike Moser gave UNLV a combined 30 points with leading scorer Chace Stanback (2 points) struggling, as UNLV strolled into Chicago and locked up an Illinois team that came in at 10-0. The Runnin’ Rebels now have dropped a pair of undefeated, nationally ranked squads (North Carolina, Illinois), and their only two losses came against quality opponents on the road (Wichita State, Wisconsin). This Mountain West standout is legit. The Rebels can clamp down defensively. Illinois went 16-of-63 from the field (7-of-25 from the 3-point line). Surprisingly, Illinois didn’t feed big man Meyers Leonard (3-of-8) enough in the second half. During some stretches, Leonard’s teammates just missed him and settled for bad shots. Other times, however, Leonard couldn’t breathe with UNLV defenders swarming him.

No. 4 Louisville 95, Memphis 87

What we learned: Josh Pastner is still trying to figure out this team

Let’s start with giving Louisville credit. The Cardinals held off Memphis’ relentless pursuit, after watching their 13-point second-half lead become a 58-55 deficit. Behind Russ Smith’s career highs of 24 points and seven steals, Louisville pulled off a solid home win. But it also was another game in which Memphis baffled observers with its inefficient use of its immense talent. Will Barton is special (28 points, 16 boards), and he’s surrounded by a variety of highly skilled athletes. But that hasn’t been enough for the Tigers. Their four losses have come against quality opponents, but at what point will this group get over the hump? When will it stop playing in spurts and begin improving shot selection in tight stretches? Those are all key questions for Pastner going forward. He has some talented players on his roster. But getting all that talent to work together is still a challenge.

More observations from Saturday:

* No. 2 Ohio State stayed strong when Jared Sullinger left Saturday’s 74-66 victory over South Carolina with a foot injury, but you have to wonder whether the sophomore’s ailments will hamper him and the program the rest of the way.

* With Cody Zeller, who scored 21 points in Saturday’s 69-58 win over Notre Dame in Indianapolis, the No. 20 Hoosiers can compete for the Big Ten title.

* Both Mississippi State and Detroit proved they’re legitimate conference contenders during the Bulldogs’ 80-75 victory over the Titans. MSU is 11-1 now, while the return of center Eli Holman (12 points, 9 rebounds) increases Detroit’s potential of winning a Horizon League title.

* The Missouri Valley race will be the most competitive in the country. Indiana State’s 61-55 win at No. 25 Vanderbilt was just a reminder of the conference’s parity and talent. The Sycamores will compete with Creighton, Northern Iowa, Wichita State and Missouri State in what should be a heck of a two months in the Valley.

* J'Covan Brown continues to keep 9-2 Texas afloat in the Big 12’s fringe contender conversations. He scored 23 points in a nice 77-65 victory over Temple.

* A game-winning tip-in with a second to play by Butler’s Andrew Smith helped the Bulldogs snap a three-game losing skid with a 67-65 win over Purdue. The Big Ten is really big this season, and Purdue lacks a consistent interior presence. That will create a variety of issues for the Boilermakers in conference play.

A closer look: G'town 91, Memphis 88 (OT)

November, 23, 2011
11/23/11
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Georgetown celebratesAP Photo/Eugene TannerGeorgetown's Mikael Hopkins (3) and Tyler Adams (0) celebrate the overtime victory over Memphis.
Overview: One day after a double-overtime victory against Tennessee, the eighth-ranked Memphis Tigers were forced into an extra period once again in Wednesday’s fifth-place game against Georgetown. This time the results weren’t as favorable for Josh Pastner’s squad, which fell 91-88 to the Hoyas.

While Memphis, which was thumped by Michigan in Monday’s opener, leaves Hawaii as the Maui Invitational’s biggest disappointment, Georgetown was arguably the event’s most pleasant surprise. The Hoyas' roster features 10 freshmen and sophomores, but they hardly played to their age Wednesday. Georgetown kept its poise while Memphis crumbled under pressure. Jason Clark scored 26 points and Henry Sims added 24 for the Hoyas, who improved to 4-1. Will Barton had 22 points to lead the Tigers.

Turning point: With his team trailing 86-85 in overtime, Clark buried a 3-pointer with 52 seconds remaining that gave Georgetown an 88-86 lead and momentum it would never relinquish. Clark made four of his seven 3-point attempts and was 9-of-17 from the field overall. Memphis had one last shot trailing 91-88, but Antonio Barton’s guarded 3 at the buzzer barely nicked the rim.

Why Georgetown won: The Hoyas' size and overall length was certainly a factor, as Memphis had trouble establishing any sort of presence in the paint. Georgetown also pestered the Tigers into 17 turnovers. But the biggest difference was the Hoyas’ patience on offense and overall shot selection late in the game. Both teams made about 49 percent of their field-goal attempts, but Georgetown was more disciplined during crunch time than the Tigers, who forced things and pressed when it mattered most.

Why Memphis lost: Early on, Pastner’s squad was terrible defensively. There’s no way such a young Georgetown squad should have 47 points at intermission. The other problem was that Memphis made a ton of bone-headed mistakes down the stretch that likely cost it the game. One of the most crucial errors came in final seconds of regulation with Memphis leading 78-76. Instead of letting some time run off the clock, point guard Joe Jackson penetrated into traffic just a few seconds into the shot clock and tried to force a pass to Wesley Witherspoon. Georgetown came up with an easy steal with 35 seconds remaining, and the Hoyas capitalized when freshman Greg Whittington got an easy put-back off Sims’ missed jumper to force a 78-78 tie with 18 seconds left.

More sloppiness ensued moments later, when Memphis couldn’t come up with anything close to a quality shot as time expired. Instead, Adonis Thomas was forced to throw up a 27-foot 3-pointer that didn’t even hit the rim. Also, despite calling a timeout, Memphis failed to get a good look on its final shot in overtime. With none of his teammates open, Antonio Barton had no other choice but to pump fake and shoot an off-balance 3-pointer that would’ve tied the game. The attempt was way off.

Other observations: The Hoyas signed a true gem out of Missouri in freshman Otto Porter, who had 9 points, 8 rebounds, 4 steals, 3 assists and 2 blocks off the bench Wednesday. ... Speaking of freshmen, Memphis’ Thomas (5 points, 1 rebound, 4 turnovers) isn’t progressing nearly as quickly, despite being more highly touted ... Memphis forward Stan Simpson, a juco transfer, came off the bench and hit some huge free throws late in Wednesday’s game. ... The slew of NBA scouts that made the trip to Maui this week surely developed a positive opinion of Georgetown’s Hollis Thompson, whose versatility was on full display Wednesday. ... Take away Nate Lubick’s 0-for-6 performance from the field, and Georgetown went 34-of-64 Wednesday. Pretty impressive ... I’ve been saying this for two years, but Hoyas guard Clark is one of the country’s most underrated players. ... Same goes for John Thompson III in the coaching category.

What it means: There’s no way Georgetown is the 10th-best team in the Big East. The Hoyas are big, versatile, athletic and well-coached. Their biggest flaws are a lack of an experienced, high-level point guard and their overall youth. But anyone who witnessed Georgetown’s games against Kansas and Memphis could see that their younger players are seasoned beyond their years. At this point Georgetown looks like a fringe top-25 team that could break into the rankings with a few more quality wins.

No one doubts Memphis’ talent, and the Tigers have certainly come a long way from last year in terms of maturity. Still, Pastner’s team doesn’t look crisp on offense and the intensity often seems to be lacking on the defensive end. But the bottom line Wednesday was that Memphis just didn’t play smart basketball when it mattered the most.

Up next: Georgetown hosts IUPUI on Monday before traveling to Tuscaloosa for a Dec. 1 tilt with Alabama. We’ll know a lot more about the Hoyas after that game, as the Crimson Tide will provide Georgetown’s toughest test of the season to date. As for Memphis, it hosts Jackson State (Monday) and Austin Peay (Saturday) next week before traveling to Miami for a tough road game Dec. 6.

Ford in Maui: Memphis-Tennessee notes

November, 22, 2011
11/22/11
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LAHAINA, Hawaii -- It was a double-overtime street fight between two in-state rivals, but the Memphis Tigers pulled out the win 99-97 on Tuesday at the EA Sports Maui Invitational.

Here are some notes from Tuesday's opening game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even more impressive? According to Jeremy Lundblad of ESPN Stats & Info, his 30-point, 20-rebound performance puts him in rarified air. The past three players from the "power six" conferences to do it? Blake Griffin, Michael Beasley and Kevin Durant. Maymon won't get the same love those three did from NBA scouts, but he's a big reason the Volunteers should be much better than predicted this season.
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.
Last year, the star of Josh Pastner's first highly touted recruiting class decided to throw caution to the wind and make the boldest of predictions.
"We're going to win the national championship this year," Will Barton said. "I'm guaranteeing it!"

Sure, Barton was merely having some fun and trying to motivate his teammates; there was no reason to hold his feet to the fire. Whatever, right? Still, needless to say, Memphis did not win the national title. In fact, the Tigers mostly sputtered, finishing fourth in Conference USA during the regular season. While the end of the season -- a nice run to the C-USA tourney title and a hard-fought loss to Arizona in the NCAA tournament -- was encouraging, it was far from the lofty heights Barton foresaw last summer.

Surely, the kid learned his lesson about predictions. Surely he wouldn't say something like that for a second straight year, would he? Right? Right?

Wrong. Barton was back at Memphis's annual High Tops Party Thursday, and he just couldn't resist doubling down. From the Memphis Commercial Appeal:
Barton, whose national championship guarantee at last year's High Tops Party garnered national media attention, stopped just short of doing so again. Then he did -- again.

"Coach Pastner said I can't say it," Barton told the crowd.

"If he says it, he's got to back it up," Pastner chimed in.
"I'm gonna say it then. We're going to win it all," Barton announced to a cheering crowd before turning to address a reporter. "Don't put this in The Commercial Appeal. I don't want to see it on ESPN or none of that this year. Let's keep it in the party. Off the record."

That didn't happen, unfortunately, but there is some good news: No one thinks Barton is being totally serious. No one is going to get mad about this prediction, at least no one reasonable. It's all in good fun.

Plus, this year it doesn't seem so farfetched. Memphis will begin the season ranked in the top 10 in many experts' polls, as the maturation of Barton's class with the addition of Pastner's stellar 2011 haul give the Tigers a chance to be a truly elite team this season. Are they good enough to win the national title? Who knows. But 2011's prediction is at least a degree less ostentatious than 2010's.

(Hat tip: Jeff Goodman)

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