College Basketball Nation: Corey Fisher

Preview: Sunday in Cleveland

March, 20, 2011

CLEVELAND -- The four remaining teams in this East Region pod know how to move on in March. All four have been to a Final Four since 2003, and three of them have national championship trophies encased in glass back home.

Beyond that, we've got the top overall seed (Ohio State) taking on a mid-major power (George Mason). Then it's a Big East grudge match between Syracuse and Marquette in which the lower seed had the upper hand earlier this season.

Let's rock and roll in Cleveland.

No. 8 George Mason (27-6) vs. No. 1 Ohio State (33-2), 5:15 p.m. ET

What to watch: The 3-point arc. Ohio State has been on fire from the outside lately, and the Buckeyes are nearly impossible to beat when William Buford and Jon Diebler are as dialed in as they've been from 3-point range. George Mason was a good shooting team this season (39.4 percent on 3s) but struggled with shot selection against Villanova. The Patriots were able to turn that into a defensive slugfest, but that's probably not going to work against Ohio State. The Buckeyes are holding opponents to 32 percent shooting on 3s in four postseason games.

Who to watch: Jared Sullinger didn't have to do a whole lot in the romp against Texas San-Antonio on Friday, but the Ohio State big man will be a key player against George Mason. The Patriots had a hard time keeping Nova's post players off the glass in the last round, and Sullinger is much more of a load than any of those Wildcats. George Mason will have to clamp down on Buford and Diebler like they did against the Wildcats' Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher in the second half while still accounting for Sullinger inside.

You can bet the Bucks will keep a close eye on George Mason guard Luke Hancock, who had 18 points and the clinching 3-pointer with 20 seconds left in Friday's win against Villanova. Forward Mike Morrison also had a big game on Friday, and the Patriots will need the 6-foot-9 junior to help contain Sullinger.

Why to watch: George Mason is tired of the 2006 comparisons, but that Final Four team beat some of the sport's heavyweights on its way to glory, including a No. 1 seed in UConn. This team will have to take the same path through a powerful Ohio State club that is firing on all cylinders. And the crowd will be heavily on the Buckeyes' side.

What they're saying: "I don't think you want to be an underdog. You probably want to be in Ohio State's position of being the No. 1 overall [seed]. But we're ready to play against a good team. We have confidence in ourselves. We're not worried about being called the underdog." -- George Mason's Hancock.

"Our defense needs to be at its very best on first shots. We've got to limit second shots. But the biggest thing is, based on the way we played yesterday, we've really got to encourage our guys to understand that we're going to have to put the ball in the basket [Sunday]." -- George Mason coach Jim Larranaga

"With us, it's pick your poison. Whatever you want to do, we have a way to counter it." -- Ohio State's Dallas Lauderdale.

"I think they're kind of similar to us. They've got a lot of different guys that can do a lot of different things, from driving the ball, to 3-point shooting, to post-ups. They've got a lot of trigger-pullers within the course of their offense. They do a good job moving the basketball. I think that's the big key -- you have to defend all five guys. And with a one-day prep, you've got to have a great understanding of what all five guys on the floor are capable of doing, because, as I said, they're multi-dimensional players." -- Ohio State coach Thad Matta.

Of note: A win by George Mason would set the school single-season record for victories. The 2006 Final Four team won 27 games. ... Sunday is the winter graduation ceremony at Ohio State, and Diebler, David Lighty and Lauderdale all earned their degrees last week. They'll be a bit too busy to walk in the ceremony, however. ... Watch the pace. Ohio State is 23-0 when scoring at least 75 points. George Mason is 3-5 when opponents score at least 70.

No. 11 Marquette (21-14) vs. No. 3 Syracuse (27-7), approx. 7:40 p.m. ET

What to watch: We went to Cleveland, and a Big East tournament semifinal broke out. These teams might be league rivals, but because the Big East is so big, it's not like they play each other all the time. In fact, they met only once this season, and Marquette won 76-70 back on Jan. 29. The Golden Eagles guards penetrated the Orange's 2-3 zone and got to the rim, shooting 33 free throws and getting the Syracuse post players in foul trouble. They even outrebounded the Orange that night in Milwaukee. Syracuse has a distinct size advantage, but Marquette hopes to neutralize that with quickness.

Who to watch: Syracuse's Rick Jackson had a big night against Indiana State on Friday with 23 points and seven rebounds. Marquette doesn't have many guys who can match his 6-foot-9, 240-pound body. But Golden Eagles forward Jae Crowder had 25 points and seven rebounds in the first matchup of the Orange.

Guards Jimmy Butler and Darius Johnson-Odom will be key for Marquette against the zone. Syracuse guards Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche will have to do a good job handling the Golden Eagles' pressure on the perimeter and slowing down Butler and Johnson-Odom.

Why to watch: Syracuse is a dangerous tournament team because of its length in that zone, which can overwhelm unfamiliar opponents. But Marquette knows the zone and is coming off a terrific performance against Xavier on Friday night. This might be an 11 vs. 3 matchup on paper, but this has all the makings of a hard-fought, Big East-style game.

What they're saying: "You've got to move the ball more than once, and we can't fall into taking quick shots. The key thing is to get it in the middle or behind the zone. We pretty much know where we can get into the gaps and make plays for each other, by us already having seen it." -- Marquette guard Dwight Buycks

"The first time around, our defense wasn't as good as it is now. Our defense is much improved, and it should mess them up a little because we'll be quicker in getting to spots we weren't able to get to in the game we lost to them." -- Syracuse guard Brandon Triche.

"I told one of our assistants, when we were leaving [Madison Square] Garden, after Louisville beat us the [in the Big East tournament], I'm so thankful that we don't have to talk about or prepare or play against a Big East program until next Christmas. And so on Sunday we're doing the Selection Show and they show Xavier first, they're the higher seed, then they show us. Everybody's like rah, rah, rah. And then the next team that pops up is Syracuse." -- Marquette coach Buzz Williams.

Of note: The Jan. 29 game was the last of a four-game losing streak for Syracuse. Orange players said their strong second-half effort in that game helped them get their season back on track by playing with more effort. ... Marquette has lost its second game in the NCAA tournament in each of the last two years and hasn't won two games since the 2003 Final Four run. ... If Marquette hits a big 3, you can be sure to see players making the "3-point goggles" gesture. The Golden Eagles claim to be the first college team to adopt the new trend, which started with the Portland Trail Blazers this season. Marquette grad Wesley Matthews told the Golden Eagles about it, and they have run with it. The goggles made an appearance in Friday's win against Xavier.

CLEVELAND -- The current George Mason players have nothing but respect for the 2005-06 Patriots team that made it to the Final Four. Many of them are at the school now at least partly because that team raised the profile of the program.

But, honestly, talking about the past gets a little tiring sometimes.

"Every interview you do, every person you talk to wants to talk about the '06 team," sophomore guard Luke Hancock said. "We're definitely trying to make our own name."

While these current Patriots have a long way to go to match the 2006 legacy, they've finally made a new March memory.

Friday's 61-57 win over Villanova wasn't an upset, since George Mason was the No. 8 seed to Villanova's No. 9. But it was the school's first NCAA tournament win since that 2006 run, and it came in pretty dramatic fashion.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Mason's Mike Morrison
Rick Osentoski/US PRESSWIREAfter celebrating a victory over Villanova, Mike Morrison wore a shirt that read "We are this year's George Mason."
Down 10 late in the first half, the Patriots kept hanging around until Mike Morrison's rebound dunk with 55 seconds left gave them their first lead of the second half. After Villanova's Corey Fisher was fouled on a 3-pointer and made all three free throws, Hancock provided the play that can be added to the George Mason highlight library.

The play was designed as a double high ball screen. Hancock, though, refused the screen and jabbed to his right, intending to cut back left and then either look for teammate Cam Long in the corner or shoot. Villanova's Corey Stokes was determined not to let Hancock go right, however, and he overplayed that side. As Stokes went flying by toward the lane, Hancock calmly stepped back, paused and then drained the clinching 3 with 20 seconds to go.

"I wasn't the first option coming off the screens," he said. "I was definitely looking to penetrate and pitch, because we've got such good shooters on this team."

Neither team shot all that well or even took good shots most of the game. For a while, it looked like George Mason's season would get canceled by an episode of The Two Coreys. Villanova's Stokes and Fisher dominated the first half, combining for 22 of their team's first 23 points and 24 overall by halftime. Fisher was getting into the lane easily, opening up 3-point shots for Stokes, who made three in a row at one point.

The Patriots then concentrated on picking up the two guards closer to half court, giving into their chests defensively and fighting through ball screens more ferociously.

"When we got down early, we wanted to try and speed them up a little bit," forward Ryan Pearson said. "Their guys were taking their time, and we were letting them run their offense. We had to keep Fisher out of the lane and not give up second shots."

Stokes and Fisher went 0-for-8 combined to start the second half and would finish 11-of-32 from the floor. The ending had to seem like a recurring nightmare for the Wildcats, who closed their season with six straight losses and a 5-11 mark from Jan. 17 on. They blew leads and were unable to close out games in many of those defeats.

"In our program, we talk about each class's legacy, and this class has been to the Sweet 16, final eight, Final Four," Villanova coach Jay Wright said. "But they've endured a really tough season that would have crumbled a lot of guys personally."

The 2006 legacy has hung over every George Mason team since. Morrison wore a T-shirt that read, "We are this year's George Mason," to the postgame news conference, anticipating the inevitable questions about the school's most famous team.

"We've been forced into a lot of comparisons," he said. "And this is why it's my favorite shirt. I just like to ignore what everybody says and just worry about my own team."

It's not 2006 anymore. But 2011 is worth talking about.

CLEVELAND -- For George Mason, it was shades of 2006. For Villanova, it was more of the same.

The Patriots won their first NCAA tournament game since their magical 2006 Final Four run with a 61-57 victory over No. 9 seed Villanova on Friday afternoon. Trailing most of the way, they closed with a flourish thanks to Luke Hancock and Mike Morrison.

Morrison's follow-up dunk with under a minute to play gave George Mason its first lead of the second half. Moments later, Hancock hit a 3-pointer to regain the lead for good. In the final seconds, Hancock picked up a loose ball and found Morrison for a breakaway dunk as the Patriots fans in Quicken Loans Arena went nuts.

Turning point: There were plenty of turning points in the final minute, but the biggest change was the improved defense George Mason played in the second half. After allowing Villanova's Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher to combine for 24 points in the first half -- and falling behind by double digits late in the half -- the Patriots started picking up the Wildcats' guards further away from the basket and making others beat them. Fisher and Stokes had only three field goals in the second half.

Key stat: Villanova went just 7-of-22 from the field and scored only 22 points in the second half. The defensive effort allowed George Mason to climb back in it despite some questionable shot selection.

Star player(s): Hancock and Morrison share the honor. Hancock finished with 18 points and five assists and hit the biggest shot for George Mason in five years. Morrison had 10 points and 11 rebounds.

Miscellany: George Mason got a big lift off the bench from Johnny Williams. The forward came in averaging just 2.1 points. He made 4-of-5 shots to finish with a season-best eight points, which were crucial in a close game.

What's next: Barring an earth-shattering upset by Texas-San Antonio, George Mason will get No. 1 overall seed Ohio State on Sunday. It will be a virtual road game as Quicken Loans Arena was packed with Buckeye fans on Friday afternoon. Villanova coach Jay Wright will have to figure out what went wrong with his team, which started out 16-1 but lost 11 of its final 16 games, including the last six to end the season.

Video: No. 14 Villanova tops DePaul in OT

February, 19, 2011

Corey Fisher hits the tying three-pointer in the final seconds of regulation and scores seven of his 34 points in overtime, lifting the Wildcats to a 77-75 road victory.

Katz: Five observations from the week

February, 14, 2011
Five observations from the past week:

1. Officials had an interesting week. The out-of-bounds call on Alabama’s JaMychal Green by official Tim Higgins was more than questionable in the Crimson Tide's 81-77 loss at Vanderbilt on Thursday. Green thought he got fouled but the more egregious call was when he was ruled to have stepped out of bounds on a drive along the baseline with Higgins looking down at the line. Alabama coach Anthony Grant was as upset as he has ever been as a head coach. After all, Green was on his way to possibly tying a crucial game for Bama.

The call on Corey Fisher of Villanova against Rutgers’ Jonathan Mitchell was a good call as Fisher bumped Mitchell on a game-ending 3-point shot. Mitchell got to the line, converted the free throw and the Scarlet Knights won on a rare four-point play at the RAC. Fisher had no business being up on Mitchell with the Wildcats up three points. So he put himself in a position for the officials to make a call.

[+] EnlargeRutgers' Jonathan Mitchell
AP Photo/Mel EvansJonathan Mitchell sank this free throw to complete a four-point play with 0.8 seconds left, giving Rutgers a 77-76 win against Nova.
And then late Saturday night in Boulder, Kansas State’s Rodney McGruder hit an apparent game-winning 3-pointer for the Wildcats. But the officials looked at multiple camera angles and the ESPNU shot from the other basket clearly showed the ball was in McGruder’s hands when the clock hit all zeroes. That allowed Colorado to escape with a 58-56 win, leading the Wildcats to go from celebrating to hanging their heads in a matter of minutes. The win for CU came just a few days after Texas A&M won in Boulder by three points after B.J. Holmes hit a 3-pointer with 1.9 seconds remaining in regulation to tie the game and send it into overtime.

2. Utah State’s margin of error is always incredibly thin. The Aggies are probably under the most pressure of any mid-major power to win every conference game. Well, Utah State was on national TV Wednesday night and lost at Idaho, a team that turned around and lost to Boise State over the weekend. Utah State is 23-3 overall, 12-1 in the WAC and has a strong chance of going 15-1 in the league with three remaining games. Utah State got an at-large berth last season after finishing 14-2 in the WAC. So there is a precedent for the Aggies to get an at-large berth without running the table in the conference. Yet there is a perception that they almost have to do so. To expect a conference team to win every road game is asking quite a bit. Utah State is a target every time it goes on the road. Losing one or two road games a season is quite an accomplishment and if there are no egregious losses, it’s hard not to include a team in the field that has such an outstanding record.

The NCAA is charged with putting the best 37 at-large teams in the field. But the NCAA also looks to reward conference champs that win convincingly. If the Aggies do so again, it will be interesting to see how the committee handles them. The two key nonconference games the Aggies played they lost -- at BYU and at Georgetown. USU coach Stew Morrill has always said that he doesn’t need to change his scheduling philosophy since the Aggies have earned at-large berths with the current plan. He did tweak it a bit this season by going to Georgetown. He still needs to do more and get into a key neutral-site tournament in the coming years. But he might sneak into the tournament again, doing it his way if Utah State finishes with a 15-1 WAC mark. Beating Saint Mary’s on the road in the BracketBusters on Saturday would certainly help.

3. Some coaches have resurfaced quite well this season and are proving that they can check their egos at the door and be successful at a lower level. Cliff Ellis, who had his share of success at Clemson and Auburn, is leading quite a run at Coastal Carolina with the Chanticleers atop the Big South (15-0) and holding the longest win streak in the country at 22 games. Dan Monson was pushed out of Minnesota after seven games of the 2006-07 season and resurfaced the next season at Long Beach State. He now has the 49ers at the top of the Big West with a 10-2 record and looking at a No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. Bobby Cremins, who left Georgia Tech -- where they named the court after him -- in 2000, has led a resurgence at the College of Charleston. The Cougars have a 12-2 mark and stand atop the South Division in the Southern Conference and are in a position to get to the NCAA tournament. And in the Sun Belt, the home of so many second and third chances, the two division leaders are led by former big-time coaches in Mike Jarvis (St. John’s) at Florida Atlantic in the East and John Brady (LSU) with Arkansas State in the West.

[+] EnlargeUCLA's Joshua Smith
AP Photo/Danny MoloshokDespite an early-season loss to Montana, Joshua Smith and the Bruins are still in the hunt for the Pac-10 title.
4. I’m guilty every season of overreacting to early-season losses. UCLA and Florida are the two latest examples. The Bruins lost at home to Montana and didn’t look good in New York in November. Now the Bruins are in position to possibly win the Pac-10 with a 9-3 league record and nonconference wins over BYU and St. John’s that may make the Bruins an at-large lock fairly soon. Meanwhile, Florida has assumed its place atop the SEC East with a two-game lead, finishing off close games at home and on the road because of its experienced perimeter and inspired play from Chandler Parsons, who played 37 minutes with a bruised hip/thigh that will likely keep him out of practice all week (Florida doesn’t play again until Sunday at LSU). How Florida lost at home to Jacksonville and South Carolina is still hard to fathom. But it happened and the Gators are hardly worse off for it now that they’re 20-5 overall and 9-2 in the SEC. When will I and others learn to chill over odd losses in November and December? (Remember St. John’s losing to Fordham and St. Bonaventure in back-to- back games?) Well, probably never.

5. Long Island University hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1997. But the Blackbirds are atop the Northeast Conference with a 12-2 record and are 20-5 overall. The main reason is the return of Julian Boyd. The 6-7 sophomore sat out last season with a heart condition that was being reviewed and examined. Well, he has come back, and has been the leader of the LIU revival with 12.2 points and 8.7 rebounds a game. Boyd’s return to the Blackbirds has transformed the team and the NEC race. Boyd had a monster effort earlier in the season when he scored 34 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, one of his seven double-doubles on the season. The turnaround of Boyd and LIU is one of the hidden gems of this season.
Gary McGheeAP Photo/Matt SlocumGary McGhee and the Panthers won a hard-fought match against the Wildcats.
VILLANOVA, Pa. -- At first it looked harmless, like Isaiah Armwood actually was trying to pull Mouphtaou Yarou away from a potential fracas.

On replay, however, it was viewed otherwise. As Armwood, the Villanova sophomore, wrapped his arm around Yarou, he hit Nasir Robinson in the left eye.

“A cheap shot,’’ Robinson called it.

A technical Jim Burr ruled it.

Another day at the office, Pittsburgh declared.

Pitt always has been the sort of team that prides itself on taking an opponent’s best punch and responding. The Panthers typically mean that in the figurative sense.

Apparently they can take the literal body blows, too.

“He reached around Yarou and extended his arm,’’ Robinson said. “It was definitely intentional, a cheap shot. But that sort of stuff happens every day in practice. We get bloody noses, black eyes, you name it. It doesn’t matter. We just let the refs call it and keep playing.’’

Handling friendly fire is one thing. Walking onto a campus 14 hours into its fevered pitch and handling a punch to the face in a heated game that featured three technicals, 43 fouls, and so many floor burns and loose-ball dives that you were waiting for the coaches to call for their cut men, is another.

Brad Wanamaker and James Bell
Brad Wanamaker (left) and James Bell combined for 8 personal fouls. Brad Wanamaker (left) and James Bell combined for a total of 8 personal fouls.
Yet Pitt absorbed the hits and kept on coming, not only keeping its composure but running on a post-punch 15-4 streak that ultimately proved the difference in a 57-54 victory against Villanova.

The Panthers, who halted the Wildcats’ 46-game win streak at the on-campus Pavilion, now stand atop the sequoia of conference perches, 11-1 in the Big East.

Which will mean what, exactly, on Monday?

Not likely a spot atop the rankings.

When the conversation tracks to who ranks among the nation’s best -- a conversation sure to take on a rowdier tenor after Ohio State’s loss at Wisconsin -- it rarely loops around to the Panthers.

Most everyone agrees that the Big East is the best conference in the country and no one will argue that the Panthers aren’t the best in the Big East.

But in 14 weeks of poll voting, the best team from the best league has yet to receive a single vote.

“I think it’s time for us to be in the conversation among the elite,’’ Brad Wanamaker said. “But really, we want to be in the conversation among the elite at the end of the season, not now. When they start talking about the national championship, that’s when we want to be talked about.’’

Ah, but therein lies the chronic rub with the Panthers, the dirty little secret that maybe has kept voters from casting their ballots in Pitt’s favor.

The Panthers have won at least 10 conference games in each of the past 10 seasons and have won 211 games since Jamie Dixon took over as head coach for the 2003-2004 season -- the fifth-most among Division I teams.

For all of that success, Pitt has no Final Fours appearances during that time. The Panthers were tantalizingly close two seasons ago, making it to the Elite Eight before Nova's Scottie Reynolds quashed the Panthers’ dream in one coast-to-coast dash.

Other than that, it has been during the Sweet 16 or earlier rounds that Pitt leaves the party.

And so fairly or not, the Panthers have been labeled a team built to withstand the rigors of the Big East but not necessarily built to win it all.

This team, though, might be different.

“This is as tough and as good a team as they’ve had,’’ Villanova coach Jay Wright said.

Pitt seems to have a knack for losing key players at critical times. Mike Cook, Levance Fields, Jermaine Dixon are among the who's who to have missed stretches during their careers.

Now the Panthers can add Ashton Gibbs to the list. The junior, and most improved Big East player a year ago, is sidelined with an MCL injury in his left knee. He sat nattily dressed in a suit on the bench while his teammates played a game that was more akin to a brawl.

In the past, the Panthers sort of looked to survive without their star, finding a way to piecemeal their way to enough success while their injured player mended.

This time Dixon sent a much simpler message: relax.

“We’ve emphasized that since day one, that there’s no need to do anything differently,’’ Dixon said. “We’ve practiced without him, played without him. We don’t have to make it more than it is.’’

Echoed Wanamaker, “We were confident. We knew without Ashton somebody would have to step up but that didn’t meant someone had to fill Ashton’s shoes. We just had to go play our game.’’

And in arguably two of the toughest environments they’ll face this year -- at backyard brawl rival West Virginia and at "College GameDay" juiced Villanova -- the Panthers did exactly that.

This game was ugly, brutal and mean, just the way Pitt likes it. At times, the fans were crazy that the officials were blowing the whistle too much and others, angry that they were letting too much go.

When Robinson all but tackled Corey Fisher on a fast break, the play itself resulted merely in a foul call. It was the jawing after that earned the pair a double technical.

That’s sort of how it went all night, with bodies flying and shots not falling, a thing of beauty to those who prefer their basketball served with a side of hand-to-hand combat.

Not until the final minutes did there seem to be any fluidity, and naturally when it arrived, it came from the most nonsensical of sources.

In a game where the two teams would combine to shoot 4-of-25 from beyond the arc, a guy who took five 3-pointers all season drained one like it was nothing. Antonio Pena's 3 with under a minute got the Wildcats within three and after Pena stripped Wanamaker, Villanova -- burned by Rutgers on a 4-point play at the buzzer a game ago -- had a chance to at least force overtime.

Dominic Cheek missed a 3 from the baseline but Maurice Sutton corralled the rebound and passed it out to Maalik Wayns. Falling and eventually landing on his backside, Wayns drained the 3.

But it came a split second after Jim Burr already ruled the shot was after the buzzer. The game was over.

“We made too many mistakes in the second half,’’ Wright said. “I just think they were just physically older and tougher than us. It seemed like every time there was a loose ball in this game, we’d both get a hand on it but in the end, they’d end up ripping it out of ours.’’

Not just absorbing the punch, but delivering the knockout.

Don't forget about Austin Freeman

January, 29, 2011

PHILADELPHIA -- You forget.

With Kemba Walker trying to outjimmer the Jimmer every night and the topsy-turvy Big East spin-cycling teams into a muddled mess, you forget that Austin Freeman was named the league’s preseason player of the year.

Then the senior comes along and shakes the cobwebs from your brain with this performance on Saturday: 30 points, six assists, 10 of Georgetown’s final 12 points, and the assist on the other basket in a gut-check 69-66 Hoya win against Villanova at the Wells Fargo Center.

[+] EnlargeAustin Freeman
Rich Barnes/Icon SMIAustin Freeman's 30 points and last-minute heroics helped key Georgetown's victory over Villanova.
Now let’s get this out of the way. Freeman isn’t going to be the conference’s player of the year. Barring a cataclysmic disaster in the next month, Walker is the surest bet since Secretariat at the Belmont.

But one shining star doesn’t necessarily eclipse all of the others and there’s no way Freeman ought to be in anyone’s backseat.

“Austin Freeman in most situations is unflappable,” Georgetown coach John Thompson III said. “So the last three minutes of the game were only indicative of what he’s done the last four years. They’re running, trapping and making it hard to do what you want to do, so you put the ball in his hands because good things happen.”

The Hoyas were in need of some good things. Georgetown started the league season 1-4, and even though they have ripped off three victories in a row, they were wins with an asterisk. Three of the four came against the league’s bottom-feeders -- Rutgers, DePaul and Seton Hall -- with sliding St. John’s being the lone exception. Those four teams compiled a combined record of 35-21. The teams that beat Hoyas, on the other hand, boast a 60-20 record.

In other words, not much to hang your hat on.

But the same team that nosedived into disaster two seasons ago -- from 10-1 to 16-15 -- has learned not to fret.

“They realize now that there is time to climb out,” Thompson said. “There’s no panic.”

They take the cue from Freeman. The guard won the game not once, but twice for Georgetown.

Buried in the corner, and practically sitting on the laps of his walk-on teammates, he buried a jumper with three seconds left on the shot clock and 43 ticks on the game clock to put the Hoyas up two.

And Freeman’s reaction? We’re still looking for it. Unflappable doesn’t do the senior justice. Flat line may be better.

Thirty points in a hostile environment against your longtime rival? Accounting for 43 percent of your team’s offense?

He shrugs.

“I just want to play well in every game,” he said. “It isn’t about Villanova or Syracuse or anybody. I just want to play well.”

Playing well is the formula that Villanova is searching for right now. After starting 16-1, the Wildcats are now 17-4. Philadelphia fans have started to collectively gasp and are muttering, "not again."

In the previous season, Nova started 20-1 and finished 25-8. The early expectations built on a ranking that soared as high as No. 2 fizzled into a coughing and sputtering finish. A year after their Final Four run, the second-seeded Wildcats barely escaped Robert Morris in the first round and were quickly sent packing by Saint Mary’s in the second.

This season, Villanova has partnered an eye-opening win at Syracuse with back-to-back losses at Providence and at home to Georgetown, losing three times in the past 12 days.

“I don’t know if this team has a personality yet,” Nova coach Jay Wright said. “We’ve got to get one but I do think we’re in a better place than last year. We’re closer to being the kind of team we want to be. We just have to get there.”

What Wright wants Villanova to be, what he always has wanted Villanova to be, is a team that relies on its defense and not on its offense. The Wildcats have gotten away from that a little bit in the past two seasons. The D is better but the Cats are still fairly easy to figure out: when they don’t shoot well, they don’t win.

That may sound simplistic -- score more and you win, duh -- but it’s not. In the past Nova could win games when it didn’t score well or easily, using its scrappy defense to keep things together.

This season that hasn’t been the case. In the Wildcats’ 17 wins, they are averaging 78.5 points and shooting 46.8 percent.

[+] EnlargeVillanova Wildcats
AP Photo/Matt SlocumAfter starting 16-1, Villanova has now lost three of its past four games.
In their four losses, they’re scoring only 65.2 points and shooting just 35.7 percent.

“We’ve got to bring it with our defense,” guard Corey Fisher said. “If we can do that, the rest will take of itself. We’re a good team and to be a good team, you have to be able to win when you’re not shooting well.’’

Fisher, though, insists he’s not worried.

He and the Wildcats are no more wringing their hands over their skid than the Hoyas are celebrating their win streak.

You can’t.

Not in the Big East.

The league is smoke and mirrors, what you think is real isn’t.

Just as Villanova was losing to Georgetown, Connecticut was going down at home to Louisville, two games after Louisville lost to Providence.

Syracuse looked unbeatable and then it looked awful.

Pitt never loses at home -- except when Notre Dame, which never wins on the road, comes to town.

“Jamie Dixon said last week, and he’s right, that in the first part of the season, Big East teams beat up on the rest of the country and then we beat each other up,” Thompson said. “People start questioning and thinking, what’s wrong with this team? There’s nothing wrong. This league is outstanding. It’s crazy.”

So crazy and so outstanding that you can temporarily forget about someone as good as Freeman.

Dana O’Neil covers college basketball for and can be reached at
Welcome to Saturday. Or, at least for college hoops fans, Saturday as it should be. There's no baseball, college football, NFL playoffs, or any other popular-but-inferior (kidding!) sport to distract the casual fan from the hoopy goodness you and I have been enjoying for two months now. No, it's just college hoops, and what better way to welcome in the sports tourist than with two huge conference games featuring two ranked league contenders apiece?

Yes, I'm talking Villanova-Syracuse and Ohio State-Illinois, both of which deserve the recap treatment. So, without further ado:

No. 7 Villanova 83, No. 3 Syracuse 72: Well, this was a surprise.

[+] EnlargeJay Wright
AP Photo/Kevin RivoliVillanova coach Jay Wright, left, and Corey Fisher had an easy time picking apart Syracuse's zone.
It's not so much that Villanova's double-digit win was surprising in and of itself, though it was; at this point, any double-digit win at the Carrier Dome must be greeted with some measure of shock. Syracuse entered the game having lost exactly five home games in the past two and a half seasons, the last coming Feb. 14, 2010, when Louisville legitimately shocked Jim Boeheim's team in Syracuse. The Orangemen haven't lost often in recent seasons, and they certainly haven't suffered many of those losses at home.

But more surprising than the win itself was the way Villanova got it. Jay Wright's team didn't just solve Syracuse's famed 2-3 zone. The Wildcats shredded it. The Cuse entered Saturday's top 10 matchup with the stingiest zone in the Big East, one that was allowing a mere .95 points per possession to conference opponents. Villanova scored 1.58 points per trip on offense Saturday afternoon (per That's a crazy number for any game -- Villanova came into Saturday averaging 1.13 points per trip against Big East foes -- let alone one against this rangy, athletic Boeheim zone.

With the exception of some late press-break trouble and a 9-0 Syracuse run in the closing minutes, believe it or not, this Villanova team made Syracuse's elite defense look downright pedestrian. Impressed? Of course. Surprised? That too. A few more assorted thoughts follow:

  • Syracuse's zone might have been shredded, but the Orange didn't play poorly on the offensive end. On a tempo-free basis -- Boeheim's team scored 1.39 ppp Saturday -- they were downright excellent. What was the difference? For one, Villanova simply made more shots. The Wildcats shot 50 percent from the field, including an 11-of-24 mark from beyond the arc. Syracuse, by contrast, was 43 percent from the field overall and made only 10 of its 26 tries from 3.
  • And, as they so often do, free throws changed the game. Villanova got to the foul line at a much higher rate (48.0 percent to Syracuse's 19.4), which is an advantage in and of itself. But when you make 22 of 24 from the foul line, as Nova did, that advantage is exponential and difficult to overcome. (It should be noted that a chunk of those free throw attempts came late in the game when Syracuse needed to foul, but the Wildcats still made them count, and the free throw disparity existed before the game was in last-ditch-comeback mode.)
  • Villanova might have the perfect blueprint for Syracuse's zone. The Wildcats are a balanced team with a host of capable ball handlers and big men who can comfortably operate from the high block. Syracuse loves to extend its zone, trap guards, force long skip passes, and jump in passing lanes. They collapse on interior passes and use their length to challenge post shots. But when you've got guys like Maalik Wayns and Corey Fisher -- who can not only handle those traps but split them, creating odd-man advantages and open shots -- as well as swingmen like Corey Stokes and forwards like Antonio Pena and Mouphtaou Yarou, you can get into the zone, break it down, get layups and open looks, and your life is that much easier.
  • Syracuse's poor perimeter shooting continues to be an issue. The Cuse have been winning in spite of their low (32.6 percent) 3-point field goal percentage for much of the season. That's because Syracuse's defense is tough, its transition game is great, and its athleticism is such that it can get interior looks for Rick Jackson and Kris Joseph almost at will. But when an opposing offense is taking your defense apart, you have to be able to keep pace -- especially when you need to put together a late rally -- and if you can't hit shots from long range, it's hard to do that.
  • What about the Big East? Where does this game put Villanova (which lost at Connecticut on Monday) and Syracuse (which lost at Pittsburgh) in the context of their conference? I think you might downgrade Syracuse just a notch; if this defense doesn't carry Boeheim's team, the Cuse will struggle to keep pace with Pittsburgh in the conference chase. You might also be inclined to upgrade Villanova (and maybe, by extension, UConn), because away wins against elite Big East teams are very difficult to come by.
  • Overall, though, I'm not sure this game moves the needle much. We still have three bona fide contenders for the Big East crown -- Pittsburgh, Villanova and Syracuse -- a potential outside challenge from UConn, and a host of teams (Louisville, Georgetown and the rest) that will win their share of games against the top three before the year is out. Syracuse could use some work on offense, and it did not have the best pair of defensive outings in its past two games, but overall, the conference picture looks pretty constant for now.

No. 1 Ohio State 73, No. 22 Illinois 68: If you pegged this game as the first loss of Ohio State's season, you weren't alone. Thousands of orange-clad Illinois fans -- and, as if you care, yours truly -- were right there with you.

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger
AP Photo/Robin ScholzOhio State's Jared Sullinger drives by llinois' Mike Tisdale on Saturday. Sullinger finished with 27 points.
It certainly had that feel, didn't it? A tough environment. A ranked conference opponent. An apparently vulnerable No. 1 coming off a couple weeks of unimpressive performances, including a four-point escape at Michigan and three-point home wins against Minnesota and Penn State. All the warning signs of a No. 1 upset -- which would have been only the third in Illinois hoops history, a stat I had trouble believing when CBS put it into my brain -- were there.

Instead, we got another impressive performance from Ohio State, another comprehensive game from freshman Jared Sullinger, and another example of why this Buckeyes team is now your undefeated No. 1 in the first place: They're really, really tough to beat.

  • For all of OSU's perimeter weapons, that toughness starts in the post, which means it starts with Sullinger. The freshman put up another classic line Saturday, scoring 27 points and grabbing 16 rebounds in a full 40 minutes on the floor. But perhaps most impressive was Sullinger's free throw shooting. The big man, who is shooting about 73 percent from the line this season, made 13 of his 15 foul attempts Saturday. You probably don't need me to tell you just how lethal that is. Sullinger is so good at getting early position on the block, and so strong once he's there, that you practically have to foul him if you don't want him to get two easy points. But what good is fouling if Sullinger makes his free throws? Big Ten coaches of the world: You are now free to slam your heads repeatedly against your desks. (As if you weren't already.)
  • Sullinger isn't the only player that played 40 minutes for Ohio State on Saturday. That honor also went to Jon Diebler and David Lighty, both of whom played every available minute at Illinois. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta appears to have already settled on a seven-man rotation. Forward Dallas Lauderdale is still a starter, but he's averaging 18.7 minutes per game. Instead, Matta goes early and often to freshman Aaron Craft, whose 31 minutes also cut into the playing time of William Buford, arguably OSU's best all-around perimeter scorer, because Craft is the only thing resembling a point guard that the Buckeyes have.
  • This rotation also features spot duty -- Saturday, that meant 12 minutes -- for highly touted recruit Deshaun Thomas. Thomas is like a secret weapon: He doesn't get on the court all that often, but he's dangerous when he does. Unlike a lot of bench players, Thomas isn't remotely hesitant to shoot the ball; he has the highest usage rate of any Buckeye when he's on the floor, which basically means "he takes a lot of shots." You saw that in the second half Saturday. With the game tied at 50-50 and 9:34 remaining, Thomas hit the first of two quick 3-pointers -- one of which came on a wide-open fast break -- and then scored on a nice post move over Illinois freshman Jereme Richmond with 5:35 remaining. By the time he left the game, Thomas had scored a quick eight points, Ohio State built a six-point lead, and the Buckeyes would never trail again.
  • If you're a particularly positive Illinois fan, you might actually be encouraged by this home loss. Why? Because your opponent -- the ruthlessly efficient No. 1 team in the land -- played relatively well. Your best player, Demetri McCamey, did not. And not only did you lead for much of the second half, you had a chance to win the game in the final seconds. That's not so bad, is it?
  • And boy, did McCamey ever play poorly. It's safe to say that Illinois won't win too many games when McCamey goes 2-for-11 from the field, 1-of-5 from 3, and has nearly as many turnovers (four) as assists (five). It was fitting, then, that Illinois' final chance to tie the game came on a poor decision by McCamey, when the guard passed up a long three to enter the ball to Mike Tisdale in traffic. Tisdale lost the handle, and the game was over. McCamey has been brilliant all season long, so this is nothing to worry about. Everyone has bad games. Unfortunately for Bruce Weber's team, McCamey picked this day -- with a winnable upset of the No. 1 team on the table -- to have his ugliest game of the season. (And yes, as a few commenters below have pointed out, much of the credit for McCamey's bad day goes to Aaron Craft, who played a stellar on-ball defensive game.)
  • Another encouraging sign for Illinois: After facing transfer rumors last week, freshman forward Richmond continues to play well. Richmond scored 18 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the field and added 10 rebounds, three of which came on the offensive end. Richmond is one of the few players on Illinois who can bang down low and get easy buckets in the paint; unlike Illinois' guards and true forwards, he's not really an inside-out player. If Richmond can add that sort of offensive production to a team that is still a bit too reliant on the long two-point jump shot, he could change the face of Illinois' attack. This loss was not without its silver linings.

Hey, wait a second. Did I just spend 1700 words recapping two games? Yes. I did. The day's first fixtures were just that good.

But here's the best part: This day isn't even close to over yet. I hope your couch groove is ready. Mine certainly is.

Walker wins another for UConn

January, 17, 2011

STORRS, Conn. -- Kemba Walker is performing for Connecticut as if he is an NBA All-Star. He's well-aware that he will take the last shot, and he won't have any doubt about making it.

He won’t always make it -- plenty of NBA stars don’t. But the Huskies believe their best chance to win is with Walker taking the shot, no matter the moment’s conditions.

Don’t mistake Walker with an actual NBA All-Star -- he’s not. But he’s carrying the burden more than any other player on a top-25 team.

Ealier this month at Texas everyone knew that Walker had to take the winning shot, no matter what. He took it, and he made it with five seconds left.

Game over.

There was no doubt who was going to take the last shot for Connecticut against Villanova on Monday with the game tied at 59.

“No matter what I was going to give the ball to Kemba,’’ said Connecticut freshman guard Shabazz Napier, who handed the ball to Walker on the far side of the 3-point line. “If I was pressured too much, I would have called timeout. We all know who to give the ball to when time is running out.’’

[+] EnlargeKemba Walker
David Butler II/US PresswireKemba Walker scored 24 points against Villanova, including the game winner with 2.5 seconds left.
Napier drew the analogy that Walker is like a reliever, ready to close the game like the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera.

There aren’t many in college basketball who are doing that this season. As sensational as Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, Duke’s Nolan Smith and BYU’s Jimmer Fredette have been this season, Walker has got them beat on game-winning shots. You can make arguments for any of them for player of the year, but none of their teams have as little experienced help as the Huskies, which likely makes Walker the current favorite.

So how do you defend Walker once he got the handoff from Napier?

“There’s nothing you can do,’’ said Villanova’s Corey Fisher, who went back and forth scoring with Walker. In the closing minutes, Fisher matched Walker’s 3-pointer and free throws, enough to prompt Villanova coach Jay Wright to say that Fisher is as good as Walker but that Walker had the last possession.

“We wanted to trap him but he’s so fast and he got it and we couldn’t catch him,’’ Wright said of Walker, who zipped into the lane and converted a floater with 2.5 seconds remaining for the 61-59 victory. All Fisher could do was heave a desperate shot at the buzzer that was wide left.

“When he handed it off, we couldn’t catch him and he went full speed,’’ Wright said. “He’s got another speed. He goes so fast and stops on a dime. As soon as he created separation he hit a floater. He’s better at going to the middle of the lane than to the rim.’’

“Of course the ball was going to be in my hands,’’ Walker said. “Being the leader of this team, I wanted it to be in my hands. I was able to get a nice little shot off. I knew the other guy was going to come. I just tried to go before he came. I was able to go by my man and get a shot off.’’

Walker is not without his imperfections.

He played his typical game. He dominated the ball when he had to, taking a high volume of shots (18), making a low percentage (six) and getting to the free throw line (9-of-12).

Walker hit a key bucket -- a step-back 3-pointer over Corey Stokes -- to give Connecticut a 57-54 lead with 1:03 left. That was after Fisher scored a few baskets in a row to bring Villanova back to a tie.

Walker made two free throws to give the Huskies a five-point lead before Fisher buried a 3-pointer to bring the Wildcats to within two.

Walker had a chance to stretch the lead but missed two free throws, giving Nova a chance. Walker then put Fisher at the line with 22 seconds left, ensuring that UConn would have the last shot.

Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said Walker didn’t foul Fisher on purpose. He said he was so frustrated about missing the free throws that he gambled on the steal.

Fisher made both free throws to tie the game and set up Walker for his personal time -- ending the game on his terms.

“We’ve got a lot of confidence at the end of the game that they were going to double and we actually thought someone else might get it this time, but Kemba is so clutch and he was able to knock it down,’’ said UConn freshman wing Jeremy Lamb.

If the Huskies are to be more than the Walker show, Lamb will have to become the necessary complementary player. Calhoun said Lamb is ready to assume that role and the Georgia native scored 14 points Monday. Someone has to take on that responsibility.

“I think it can be true,’’ Lamb said. “I just have to be more consistent. I was able to knock down shots and be more aggressive.’’

Calhoun is well-aware of the importance of Monday’s win. The Huskies have to protect homecourt in the Big East if they’re going to be a competitor for a top-three finish. They have tremendous nonconference wins like Michigan State, Kentucky and at Texas and could get another one Saturday against Tennessee.

“The early season wins in Maui look terrific, but you have to come up with a good Big East record, and if you start looking ahead we still have to go to Marquette and play Louisville and Syracuse,” Calhoun said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.’’

There has been so much attention on Walker -- and rightfully so -- but what is getting lost is the coaching job done by Calhoun. The season started with him missing the first practice to be in front of the NCAA committee on infractions for recruiting violations involving Nate Miles and answering to the charge of failing to create an atmosphere of compliance. The COI’s report hasn’t been sent to UConn yet or been made public.

In the meantime, Calhoun has coached Walker and a cast of freshmen to a top-10 ranking, a 15-2 overall record and a 4-2 record in the Big East. He is the early favorite for Big East coach of the year.

“I thought they’d be at this point now, but never thought they’d play well this long,’’ Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “It started in Hawaii with a lot of young guys and they’ve been playing well the whole season. It’s amazing what they’ve done.’’

For Villanova this would have been a steal, picking up a road win where most won’t get one, if any, this season. The Cats suffered their first Big East loss, and Syracuse is up next on Saturday at the Carrier Dome. Villanova might get reserve guard Dominic Cheek back for that game after Wright said Cheek’s MRI didn’t indicate a tear of his meniscus. Swelling in his knee, which started during the Maryland win Saturday, caused him to sit against the Huskies.

“We’re going to be better and learn from this,’’ Fisher said. “We played a good team on the road. We’ve got another one in their house in Syracuse. This was fun but we lost.’’

Walker had the ball one more time than Fisher did to win the game. This is no longer a fluke, but rather a trend and one that is carrying the Huskies toward an NCAA tournament berth.

PHILADELPHIA -- With about two minutes left in the first half, Mick Cronin lost, in order, his cool, his jacket and nearly his mind.

Two minutes into the second half, Cincinnati lost its big man.

And so it followed suit that the Bearcats, in their first real show-me game of the season, lost to Villanova 72-61.

The irony in this loss is Cincinnati answered the question that dogged its 15-0 start.

Yes, the record is inflated by one of the weakest schedules (rated 324th) in the country, (a byproduct more of down years from Xavier, Dayton and Oklahoma than it is cowardice from the coaching staff) but the Bearcats can play.

They are not top-four elite in the Big East but they are good enough to be in the mix, with a scrappy backcourt, a mountain on the boards in Ibrahima Thomas and most important, a thinned-down Yancy Gates, who is finally playing with both the intensity and ability his high school career promised.

[+] EnlargeFisher
AP Photo/Tom MihalekVillanova's Corey Fisher scored 21 points in a win against a self-destructing Cincinnati team.
They turned a 19-point deficit into a seven-point ballgame -- a testimony to both their feistiness and Villanova’s basketball narcolepsy -- and were in a game that statistically they had no reason to be in.

Here’s the caveat: If the Bearcats want to move out of their overcrowded residence in the middle of the pack and towards the top of the league, they need to have a group therapy session on how to keep their composure.

“You can’t leave an arena in the Big East thinking, ‘We could have won,’’’ Cronin said. “I’m not saying we would have won, but we could have won. To play in this league, you have to play smart.’’

And the Bearcats didn’t -- not long enough, anyway.

They sent a Villanova team that shoots 76 percent from the free-throw line to the charity stripe 20 times in the first half and their coach went gonzo (or maybe more accurately, Gonzo) when his team was already losing its cool.

His team down nine and playing far too fast, Cronin went bananas when Nova's James Bell wasn’t called for a foul on an offensive rebound.

He screamed his rage at referee John Cahill, earned a technical, had to be restrained by his assistants, tore off his jacket and glared at Cahill while Corey Fisher sunk the freebies.

“I’m not going to comment on the officials at all,’’ Cronin said. “You’re not going to get me in trouble.'’

Two minutes into the second half, Cincinnati made bad things worse. Ibrahima Thomas, the 6-11 big man who, together with Gates gave the Bearcats a terrific size advantage, was whistled for a push-off on a made Gates bucket. As he came down the other end, he was whistled for fouling Mouphtaou Yarou, complained about it and earned a technical.

That was three fouls in 20 seconds and the end of Thomas, who fouled out with the technical. (For the record, Cronin sort of commented on the officiating, saying "Thomas got that foul. Well, a foul was called on Thomas for standing up straight.")

It doesn’t matter whether they were the right calls or the wrong calls -- and, for the record, they weren’t reprehensibly egregious.

Big East games are like hand-to-hand combat, physical survivals of the fittest, and tend to be called tightly. Calls are going to go against you. Shots aren’t going to fall. You’re going to end up, like Gates did, with a band-aid over half your eyeball and not necessarily reap the reward for the effort with a foul call.

The teams that win in this conference know how to handle all of that and keep playing.

The coaches that win time their meltdowns a little better, too -- picking a moment where their emotion can serve as motivation instead of piling on a team already in disarray.

“We all complain to the refs and then we can go back and look at the film and realize they could have called 50 fouls,’’ Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “But it’s so intense, you just get caught up in it.’’

Cronin criticized himself -- not for the technical but for not putting his team in any real dogfights early. He thinks his team suffered a bit of culture shock early, made fat by too many easy games that they lost their heads when the frenzy of a tight game hit them square.

His players concurred.

“I think we got caught up in all the fouls being called in the first half,’’ Rashad Bishop said. “After the first half, we got into the mentality that this is the Big East. Nothing is going to be easy.’’

Here’s the kicker. After Thomas was sent to the bench, the Bearcats settled down and the Wildcats lost their poise.

Cincinnati completely turned the table on Villanova, using a half-court trap to force turnovers and get the Wildcats in foul trouble. By game’s end, Wright’s entire starting lineup was playing with four fouls and the Wildcats were actually whistled more than the Bearcats (35 to 33).

Twice the Bearcats cut it to seven and ultimately ended up leaving Villanova feeling far better than a team that shot 2-of-20 from behind the arc would normally have the right to feel.

“I think we’re real good,’’ Bishop said. “We came to Villanova, got down early and fought back. That showed a lot of maturity. That’s the kind of game where, last year, or usually we would have given up and we didn’t.’’

Maturity. That’s the word Bishop used.

An interesting choice considering the way the first half went.

“Yeah,’’ Bishop conceded. “That’s something we have to work on.’’

Resilient Vols return focus to basketball

November, 26, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

No one on, that’s for sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s what they got.

Guard trio carries Nova over UCLA

November, 25, 2010

NEW YORK -- Scottie Reynolds got Villanova back to a Final Four with an epic, game-ending layup to beat Pitt in the 2009 Elite Eight.

The shot will forever be etched in Nova lore.

But Reynolds' influence on the Wildcats is now gone and it shows.

A trio of Villanova guards -- Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Maalik Wayns -- don’t mean any disrespect by this, but they feel they leaned too much on Reynolds last season. They looked for him to constantly bail them out of a bad situation.

Now they’ve all moved on.

“Ever since Scotty’s freshman year, he had the ball in his hands,’’ Stokes said. “The team relied on Scotty. He was one of the greatest players in Villanova history. I don’t want to take anything away from him, but we can all score. It doesn’t matter who has the ball. Coach [Jay Wright] feels comfortable with either me, Maalik or Fish with the ball in his hands.’’

[+] EnlargeCorey Fisher
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesCorey Fisher scored 26 points in the win over UCLA.
And so the baton has been passed from Reynolds to the trio of Stokes, Fisher and Wayns. The Villanova guards dominated the ball in an 82-70 NIT Season Tip-Off semifinal victory over UCLA Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden. The Wildcats will play Tennessee in Friday's championship. The three guards combined for 45 of the Wildcats’ 62 shots. They made 17. And didn’t hurt that they were a combined 22-of-24 at the free throw line. Fisher finished with 26 points, Wayns with 19 and Stokes with 16.

Nova has Mouphtaou Yarou inside (13 points and 16 boards vs. UCLA) and if a Villanova student code of conduct committee gives suspended freshman forward JayVaughn Pinkston a chance to play sometime this season (he’s facing simple assault charges for a punch on another Villanova student at a party earlier this month), then there will be even more balance. Wright said earlier Wednesday that the committee could hear Pinkston’s case next week. He is allowed to practice with the team but can’t represent the university and sit on the bench.

Seeing Pinkston in practice Wednesday, it was clear that he would have a major impact on this squad at both ends of the court. But instead of waiting on the legal case, the team will wait on the school's verdict since this was a student-on-student crime.

For now and the foreseeable future, Nova will be driven by its guards, much like it was on that 2006 Elite Eight team led by Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Kyle Lowry.

“That’s our offense,’’ Wayns said. “That’s the way coach Wright tells us to play. We’re not where those guys were [Foye, Ray and Lowry] since they’re all pros. But we’re aggressive and we’re giving our team the best chance to win. Last year, if things got bad we turned to Scottie. We leaned on Scottie. Now it doesn’t matter since any of us can make a play.’’

UCLA’s trio of Malcolm Lee, Lazeric Jones and Jerime Anderson had their moments, but weren’t in the same level on a consistent basis as Nova’s guards.

The Wildcats don't have the one star like Connecticut’s Kemba Walker. A more appropriate comparison might be the tandem of Brad Wanamaker and Ashton Gibbs of Pitt or Georgetown’s Austin Freeman, Chris Wright and Jason Clark.

“We’ve had more time together,’’ Fisher said of his senior classmate Stokes. “Maalik played with us last year too. We had time to watch Scottie and learn from him and we’ve had time to gel.’’

What Villanova has this season -- something that was lost at times last season in falling flat against Saint Mary’s in the second round of the NCAA tournament -- is a cohesion among the guards.

“We’ve got great chemistry,’’ Stokes said. “We’re always together off the court and it translates on the court. It should be like this the whole year.’’

The Legend of Corey Fisher confirmed

August, 13, 2010
It’s true.

The Legend of Corey Fisher has been affirmed.

The Villanova guard said he did, in fact, score 105 points in a summer-league game, confirming the message board and Twitter-fed buzz circling the past week.

“I kept scoring and people kept yelling,’’ Fisher said. “I had 72 after the third quarter and I just kept scoring and scoring. I didn’t realize I was near 100 and then I go to the free throw line and people started going crazy.’’

Fisher’s Wilt Chamberlain moment came during a Watson Basketball Classic Summer League game in the Bronx. He swears there was defense -- “double-team, box-and-one, zone, man,’’ he said -- and can’t recall the final score but knows he did break "someone’s record."

The someone is Fly Williams, the streetball legend who helped coin the unforgettable Austin Peay chant -- "Fly is open; let’s go Peay!" Williams dropped 100 during an IS8 League game in Jamaica, Queens in 1978.

Fisher said he had no idea how many he was scoring, but just knew that every 3-pointer he tossed up went in (somewhere Jay Wright is wondering why that never happened at Villanova. Fisher’s collegiate career high is 24 and he’s never drained more than five 3s in a game).

And he didn’t realize until after the game was over, how fast word had spread.

“I heard from everybody,’’ he said. “My Twitter account went crazy. People were calling on the phone every five minutes. I didn’t know it was going to get this big.’’

Unfortunately there is no video evidence, so skeptics will have to simply take Fisher at his word.

Or head back to Watson-Gleason Playground on Saturday night at 8.

That’s when Fisher plays again.
This is at least a day old now -- you'll have to forgive me, as I was staring down a strange case of food poisoning for much of the weekend -- but it's a story I can't simply let pass thanks to a day or so on the shelf.

The story is this: According to a variety of trustworthy sources, Villanova guard Corey Fisher scored -- prepare yourself here -- 105 points in a New York City summer league game. Yes, you read that correctly. One. Zero. Five.

One hundred and five points sounds like an urban legend, something created after years of word-of-mouth exaggeration. Apparently not. Bounce Magazine, Dime, and have all confirmed the scoreline, and the Hoop Doctors have something like a box score to go along with it. Fisher attempted 28 3-point shots and made 23 of them; he scored 72 of his 105 in the second half. Defense isn't exactly a priority at summer league showcase games, but the description from Fisher's game is that of a frustrated opponent double- and triple-teaming Fisher in an attempt to get the ball out of his hands. I'm guessing that didn't work.

Unfortunately, the one data point missing here is video. That tends to cast suspicion over the scoreline; doesn't pretty much every basketball game in the world, including summer league and park games, end up on YouTube eventually? Did no one have a camera out during a 105-point performance? Until we see video, we'll always assume the worst. Such is the nature of the Internet in 2010.

So, yes, be advised: This could still be a hoax. But I sure don't want it to be. I want it to be real, because I want to see it, and not the other way around.
Villanova WildcatsElsa/Getty ImagesVillanova came together to overcame a slow start and the benching of starters Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher to begin the game and beat a determined Robert Morris team in overtime.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Villanova isn’t completely right.

The Wildcats can point to the benching of starters Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher -- for not handling their business as starters in game preparation Wednesday night (that’s about as detailed as anyone would say) or the reinclusion of Taylor King back to the active roster. Or they can point to the lack of pregame shooting for Reynolds as a reason for his erratic play.

But know this: Villanova coach Jay Wright said the Wildcats haven’t played a full 40 minutes of good basketball since winning at West Virginia Feb. 8.

“That’s a long time ago,’’ Wright said after the No. 2-seeded Wildcats escaped with a 73-70 overtime win over No. 15 Robert Morris in the NCAA tournament South Regional first-round game at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center Thursday.

But can Villanova play like that again? Since that win over the Mountaineers, the Cats had lost four of seven games prior to the win Thursday. Getting 10 blocked shots was a huge key in the win over the Colonials, including four from Maurice Sutton and three from Mouphtaou Yarou.

“We can keep getting better,’’ Wright said. “If we can win this next game and get more practice, we can. I don’t know if we’re ready to win this next game.’’

The reason for that may be the focus of this group. Wright said it’s hard to argue with an outside perspective that the Wildcats look like a team that has gone adrift with multiple disciplinary actions of late for unexplained reasons. Wright said these are issues that are dealt with in-house and the team moves on.

He maintained there aren’t issues in the program, but “I do understand what it looks like. I can’t argue that. If anybody says something, I told our guys you can’t argue with them. It happened.’’

Wright emphasized that there are expectations for starters that weren’t met by Reynolds and Fisher. He said that both would start Saturday in the second round and that the issue was over. Still, something was amiss since Reynolds shot 2 of 15 from the field, 1 of 8 on 3s. His only 3-pointer came with one minute left in overtime. Reynolds did get to the line to make 15 of 16 free throws to still finish with an odd 20. Fisher was a moderate contributor with six points.

Wright said that not getting Reynolds his pregame shots up with assistant Doug West hurt Reynolds’ preparation. He said that the early tip time of 12:25 p.m. disrupted the game plan and that Saturday the Wildcats would find a gym for Reynolds to work out in prior to the game.

The decision to discipline his best player was made Friday night, Wright said, to send a message that the starters have to do their job in prepping for the game.

Reynolds said he heard it loud and clear and wouldn’t let it happen again, whatever “it” is.

“It’s not a big deal, it was coach’s decision,’’ Reynolds said. “I’m the leader and as the leader I’ve got to be that rock. I can’t have no chips on that rock. [Thursday] there was a chip in the rock.’’

Reynolds said he didn’t know the benching was coming. But he wasn’t shocked. Reynolds sat the first four minutes. He played 34.

He said he didn’t blame the benching for his poor shooting. He said he didn’t have his legs.

“As both a leader and a captain and a starter I’ve got to be solid and excellent all the time,’’ Reynolds said. “Robert Morris played a heckuva game. I think they did a great job on us and that had something to do with our shooting.’’

Lost among the Reynolds’ benching talk was an unbelievable effort by Robert Morris freshman Karon Abraham who scored 23 points and made five 3s. But that will be a blip on the record as Reynolds goes forward in the tournament.

“I’m a starter and if coach is punishing me, my choice is either sulk and let everybody know it and give other guys a reason to do the same thing,’’ Reynolds said. “He made an example out of me and I knew what he was doing. It didn’t affect me at all. Everybody learns from it and we’ll be better from it.’’