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Wednesday, January 16, 2013
King's Court: Home sweet home

By Jason King
ESPN.com

Baylor coach Scott Drew gave up.

A year ago, after the introduction of starting lineups at Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse, Drew huddled the Bears into a tight circle near their bench and attempted to offer a final few words of encouragement. Just as he started to speak, though, a pregame video chronicling KU's rich history began to play on the arena's mammoth four-sided video board.

"Coach's mouth was moving," guard Gary Franklin says, "but we couldn't hear any of the words that were coming out of it. Eventually he just stopped talking and waited."

Allen Fieldhouse
KU fans at Allen Fieldhouse never make it easy on the opposing team.

Franklin pauses. "It was just so loud," he says.

Not that things got any easier during the game. Guard Pierre Jackson still remembers the feeling he experienced on the bench after Kansas' Thomas Robinson soared for a pass above the rim from Tyshawn Taylor. Robinson speared it with one hand and threw it down for an alley-oop dunk.

"The floor," Jackson says, "started shaking."

Allen Fieldhouse and Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium are generally regarded as the two most intimidating environments in college basketball -- and not just because of the noise. Six Division I coaches interviewed this week helped identify the five factors that go into creating a daunting home court.

1. Student seating: Coaches agreed that location of the student section plays the biggest role in creating a strong home-court advantage. It's understandable that almost all schools reserve a large number of their primo seats for wealthy donors. But the rowdiest arenas in the country always hold spots for students near the hardwood or behind the baskets.

"You hear the expression all the time about students being right on top of you," Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said. "But at places like Duke, they're literally right on top of you. When a guy is taking the ball out of bounds, those fans could literally reach out and touch him if they wanted to. That can get into your head."

So can the signs that students hold up while opponents shoot free throws or the chants they do during dead balls and timeouts. Whether it's the Antlers at Missouri, the Paint Crew at Purdue, The Show at San Diego State or the Cameron Crazies at Duke, well-organized student groups can make a huge difference in a game.

Oregon coach Dana Altman said more than 15,000 fans attended home games when he was at Creighton. But with only about 4,000 undergrads, the environment wasn't always as imposing as some might expect. Former ESPN analyst Doug Gottlieb once referred to the Qwest Center as "The Library."

"The students there are key," Altman said. "When they show up, it's on a different level."

Along those same lines, a venue's configuration is also a factor. Coaches said massive arenas like Kentucky's Rupp Arena aren't nearly as difficult to play in because things are "so big and sprawled out," meaning teams don't get as up close and personal with the fans.

"You play at Syracuse and there are 30,000 people in there, but it's just a basketball court laid on a football field," Marquette's Buzz Williams said. "You play at somewhere like Villanova, an on-campus facility, and those bleachers are at a 60-degree incline. They're right on you."

2. Consistency: Any school can draw fans for big games, but it's the ones that attract sellout crowds no matter the opponent that gain the most respect.

"I had a coach tell me a few years ago that [Bramlage Coliseum at] Kansas State was one of the toughest environments he'd ever been in," said a Big 12 assistant who asked not to be identified. "But when we played there a week later, there were only about 7,000 fans. I guess they only show up for certain games."

At some schools, particularly in the South, fans don't start paying attention to basketball until football season is over. Other fans are fickle, choosing to show up for games against high-caliber, Top 25 opponents. To truly be able to brag about having one of the nation's top home-court advantages, a program must draw sellout crowds whether it's playing North Carolina or North Carolina A&T.

3. Marketing/Noise: Players aren't the only ones who can influence a crowd's involvement in a game. What types of videos are playing on the JumboTron during media timeouts? What about promotions and halftime entertainment and giveaways? Does the band do anything to rile up the crowd? What about the cheerleaders? Are dignitaries and former stars in attendance recognized by the public-address announcer?

"The better experience you give a fan, the more excited and vocal that fan is going to be," Williams said. "If the cheerleading coach and the band director and the marketing guy are all in cahoots, you've got an even better chance to create a good ambiance."

The Big 12 assistant said Kansas' pregame video can be incredibly intimidating. Set to booming music, the montage of clips shows footage of former KU players and coaches including Danny Manning, Wilt Chamberlain, Larry Brown, Drew Gooden, the Morris twins and Thomas Robinson.

Two years ago Drew received criticism for pulling his team off the court as the video played. Although he said he did it because it was too loud, some believe Drew didn't want his players to be shaken.

"It was probably a smart move," the Big 12 assistant said. "You sit there and watch that thing with your jaw dropped, and then 20 seconds later the whistle is blowing for the opening tip and you're still rattled. It can be jarring."

4. Tradition: Before he accepted the Texas A&M job two years ago, Billy Kennedy spent five years as the head coach at mid-major power Murray State.

Kennedy said he still remembers people like Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings and former Racers coach Mark Gottfried telling him about the home-court advantage he and his teams would enjoy.

"They told me Murray State was like the [mid-major] Kansas or Duke or North Carolina," Kennedy said. "There's a certain level of fear that goes into playing there. Whenever we were behind and started making a run, I could sense a little fear and doubt in the other team about whether they could win."

Cameron Indoor Stadium
Duke's Cameron Crazies are experts at rattling opposing players.

Indeed, whether it's at a smaller school such as Murray State or Butler or a tradition-rich program from a big conference like Indiana or North Carolina, the tradition of a program can get into an opponents' head.

Altman was an assistant at Kansas State when the Wildcats broke KU's 55-game win streak under Larry Brown at Allen Fieldhouse.

"It had started getting into the back of our mind," Altman said. "We didn't know if we were ever going to get over the hump. It took quite a bit to overcome that."

Kansas' current streak is even more impressive, as the Jayhawks have won 101 of their last 102 games in Lawrence. Pittsburgh was 174-20 at the Petersen Events Center before Williams' Marquette squad beat them earlier this month.

Kentucky was riding a 55-game home winning streak before losing to Baylor on Dec. 1. Kennedy's Texas A&M squad followed suit by defeating the Wildcats at Rupp Arena on Jan. 12. Aggies guard Elston Turner scored 40 points in the win. After the game, UK coach John Calipari said that Rupp Arena can "bring out the best in opponents."

"I think that's somewhat true," Kennedy said. "It obviously was with Elston. But I think it's more the other way around. Kids know who they're playing against and how difficult it is to win. It's more of a factor for [opponents] losing than winning."

5. Players: Let's be real. All the bells and whistles in the world won't do much for teams with mediocre talent. "I've never seen a team with a good home-court advantage that didn't have really good players, too," Altman said.

Duke lost to North Carolina four years in a row at Cameron Indoor Stadium when Tyler Hansbrough was starring for the Tar Heels. Indiana's Assembly Hall is currently one of the country's toughest places to play, but that wasn't the case a few years ago, when the Hoosiers were rebuilding under Tom Crean.

"The name on the chest means a lot, but only to an extent," Kennedy said. "You've got to live up to your end of the bargain, too. You've still got to win."

In my opinion, here are the 10 current best home courts in college basketball:

1. Allen Fieldhouse, Kansas
2. Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke
3. Assembly Hall, Indiana
4. McCarthey Athletic Center, Gonzaga
5. The Pit, New Mexico
6. Breslin Center, Michigan State
7. Koch Arena, Wichita State
8. Petersen Events Center, Pittsburgh
9. Carrier Dome, Syracuse
10. Rupp Arena, Kentucky

Five other good ones: Kohl Center, Wisconsin; Joyce Center, Notre Dame; Viejas Arena, San Diego State; McKale Center, Arizona; Comcast Center, Maryland.

REPORT CARD

A: C.J. Leslie -- The North Carolina State forward scored 25 points in Saturday's victory against Duke, but his biggest moment that afternoon came not during the game, but shortly after the final horn. As NC State fans rushed the floor, Leslie hurried to the aid of a student named Will Privette who had been pushed onto the court in his wheelchair. Within seconds, Privette's wheelchair had been lost amid a sea of people. Noticing the situation, Leslie rushed toward Privette and lifted him from his chair before it was toppled. "He held me for a couple of minutes," Leslie told USA Today. "I was screaming and yelling." Privette said Leslie "saved his life" by keeping him from getting trampled. That's big-time stuff, folks.

Carson
Point guard Jahii Carson used his speed to shine last season at Arizona State.

B: Pac-12 freshmen -- The conference is already significantly better than it was last season, and the future looks even brighter. Even if highly touted freshmen such as UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson enter the NBA draft, the Pac-12 still features a slew of first-year players who will enhance the league's reputation for years to come. How can you not get excited about freshmen like Jahii Carson of Arizona State, Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson of Colorado, Jordan Adams of UCLA, Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis of Oregon and the trio of forwards at Arizona (Grant Jerrett, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski)?

C: Hot seat coaches -- A handful of coaches entered the 2012-13 season knowing that their jobs could be in jeopardy if their teams didn't perform well on the court. Barring a major collapse during conference play, count Arizona State's Herb Sendek and Ole Miss' Andy Kennedy as guys who appear to be safe. And if anyone thought Minnesota's Tubby Smith was on the hot seat, well … he's obviously fine, too. Others, though, continue to struggle. Wake Forest's Jeff Bzdelik, Northwestern's Bill Carmody and Oregon State's Craig Robinson could feel the heat if their teams don't show significant improvement.

D: Notre Dame -- Less than a week ago, the Fighting Irish had a 13-1 record, a No. 17 national ranking and, it appeared, a legitimate chance to contend for the Big East title. But the last four days haven't been kind to Mike Brey's squad, which dropped back-to-back games against Connecticut (75-68 on Saturday) and St. John's (67-63 on Tuesday). Talk about a buzzkill. You can bet Notre Dame can't wait to get back to the friendly confines of the Joyce Center.

F: USC's administration -- I just don't see the point in firing a coach in the middle of the season, especially two days after a 17-point road win that gives his team a 2-2 record in conference play. But that's exactly what USC athletic director Pat Haden did to Kevin O'Neill on Monday. It's easy to look at the Trojans' 7-10 record and assume O'Neill was doing a poor job. But USC was getting significantly better -- and it wouldn't have had nearly as bad a record if O'Neill hadn't put together a ridiculously tough nonconference slate.

For that, he has only himself to blame. My guess is that Haden knew he wanted to fire O'Neill at the end of the season and was fearful that the Trojans would have improved too much by then to make the move without a significant amount of criticism. O'Neill handled the situation with class and will be fine. He'll coach again, most likely as an assistant in the NBA. But USC handled this situation poorly and without the best interest of the players in mind.

THIS WEEK'S POLL

Ranking the best X's and O's coaches in college basketball, in order of total points, with number of first-place votes in parentheses (voters: Eamonn Brennan, Andy Katz, Myron Medcalf, Dana O'Neil and me).

1. Mike Krzyzewski, Duke -- 49 (4)
2. Bill Self, Kansas -- 43 (1)
3. Tom Izzo, Michigan State -- 41
4. Rick Pitino, Louisville -- 33
5. Brad Stevens, Butler -- 30
6. Billy Donovan, Florida -- 13
7. Dana Altman, Oregon -- 12
8. Bob Huggins, West Virginia -- 10
9. Bo Ryan, Wisconsin -- 7
10. John Beilein, Michigan -- 6

Also receiving votes: Buzz Williams, Marquette 5; Thad Matta, Ohio State 5; Kevin Stallings, Vanderbilt 5; Gregg Marshall, Wichita State 4; Mike Montgomery, Cal 3; Greg McDermott, Creighton 2; Jamie Dixon, Pittsburgh 2; Fran Dunphy, Temple 2; Jim Boeheim, Syracuse 1; Shaka Smart, VCU 1; Bob McKillop, Davidson 1; Tom Crean, Indiana 1.

THOUGHTS FROM PRESS ROW

1. Pleased as he was with Saturday's 83-71 road upset of Kentucky, Texas A&M's Billy Kennedy doesn't want to make too much of the victory. "By no means have we arrived," Kennedy told ESPN.com this week.

Indeed, the Aggies' second-year coach remembers how he felt just three weeks ago when his team lost to Southern 53-51 in College Station. Kennedy said he hadn't been getting a consistent effort out of all of his players for most of December, but things began to change shortly before the Kentucky game.

Kennedy said forward Kourtney Roberson has made the biggest improvement. The 6-foot-9 sophomore had 13 points and 12 boards in a Jan. 9 win over Arkansas before a 10-point, nine-rebound effort at Kentucky. "Guys were jumping up and down in the locker room afterward," Kennedy said. "The way we won … we were up big, then got down and then clawed back. We showed a lot of toughness."

Of Kentucky, Kennedy said: "You don't realize how young they are until you play them. They're talented, but they're still learning how to compete and learning how to play together. Anyone in our league is capable of beating anyone except for maybe Florida. They're by far the best team. Once Missouri gets [Laurence] Bowers back, [the Tigers will] be able to compete at that level, too."

Texas A&M may be able to, as well, if it gets a few more clutch performances in big games like the one Elston Turner turned in Saturday. Turner scored 40 points on 14-of-19 shooting against the Wildcats, providing a huge spark for an Aggies team that features just eight scholarship players. "We had a walk-on [Jarod Jahns] play 30 minutes in that game," Kennedy said. "Luckily, we found a way to get it done."

2. Much like Kennedy, Oregon coach Dana Altman told me Monday that he still considers his team a "work in progress" despite two important victories over Arizona State and previously unbeaten Arizona last week.

Oregon has won 14 of its first 16 games with a starting backcourt that features two freshmen in Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis. "That's always scary," Altman chuckled.

Kazemi
Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi has made a big impact for Oregon.

Dotson (11.8 points) and Artis (10.1) are both averaging double figures in scoring. And they've been aided and mentored by a cast of veterans that includes E.J. Singler, Carlos Emory and Tony Woods. Also learning the system on the fly is Rice transfer Arsalan Kazemi, a 6-foot-7 senior who leads the squad in rebounds (9.4) and steals (2.4).

Altman said he's trying to urge the defensive-minded Kazemi to be more aggressive offensively. "He's a mature young man, very intelligent," Altman said. "I want him to do more. There's so much more there. I just haven't been able to find a key to unlock it. He doesn't feel comfortable with his role on our team yet.

"He's one of the most unselfish players I've ever coached. His focus is on defense and rebounding. If he scores, great. If he doesn't, he doesn't care. I want him to be a little more assertive."

3. A well-deserved King's Court salute goes out to Kansas strength and conditioning coach Andrea Hudy, who has been named National College Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year.

Hudy earned multiple NCAA title rings working with Connecticut's men's and women's basketball teams from 1994-2004. She came to KU the following year and has been an integral part of the Jayhawks' success. Players such as Thomas Robinson, Marcus and Markieff Morris and Jeff Withey will all say they owe a lot to Hudy, whom I profiled in an ESPN.com story last year.

4. Marquette is off to a 3-0 start in the Big East, but Buzz Williams is tempering his enthusiasm. The wins (against Connecticut, Georgetown and Pittsburgh) came by a combined 14 points, and two were in overtime. "We could easily be 0-3," Williams said by phone Tuesday morning. "There are so many things that could've easily gone the other way. We're thankful with where we're at, but we've got to continue to work to find ways to improve, because we have a long, long way to go."

Buzz Williams
Buzz Williams is cautiously optimistic about Marquette's 3-0 start in the Big East.

With players such as Jae Crowder and Darius Johnson-Odom now playing professionally, Williams said this year's squad has a small margin for error. He said the Golden Eagles don't want to play a high-possession game, because every possession is critical, and his team isn't as capable of overcoming errors as it's been in the past. "Our guys are beginning to understand that," Williams said. "We're playing really hard. We're trying really hard."

5. Mississippi State coach Rick Ray had to turn down his wife's request to go to dinner and a movie on New Year's Eve. One day earlier, his team had lost to Alabama A&M in Starkville. Ray didn't want to show his face. "I had to tell her, 'I'm sorry, but I'm too embarrassed to go out in public tonight,'" Ray said in a phone interview Tuesday morning. "I relayed that story to my team, and I know they felt the same way."

Mississippi State hasn't lost since, walloping New Orleans 97-46 on Jan. 3 before opening league play with wins over South Carolina and Georgia. No one is about to mistake the Bulldogs for an upper-echelon SEC team. But there was a time about a month ago when it didn't seem far-fetched to think that Ray's squad might not win a conference game.

Largely because of injuries and players departures that occurred after Ray was hired to replace Rick Stansbury, the Bulldogs lost six of their first nine contests. When their top two returners (Jalen Steele and Wendell Lewis) went down with injuries, the Bulldogs' roster featured players that combined for one point and 70 minutes last season.

"There may be a team in the nation that's younger than us," Ray said, "but there isn't a team that's as inexperienced as we are."

Depth is such an issue that walk-on Tyson Cunningham is averaging 22.6 minutes per game. Two years ago Cunningham wasn't even on the roster. Instead he was among a group of volunteers who scrimmaged each day against the Bulldogs' women's team.

Steele, a shooting guard, missed eight games before returning on Dec. 30. He had 21 points at Georgia on Saturday. The 6-9 Lewis is out for the season with a knee injury. The senior will likely be eligible for a medical redshirt, but he's yet to announce his plans for the future. "I'd like for him to come back and play and build some sort of a résumé and have a chance to go play basketball overseas," Ray said. "I want to help the kid out. But he's got to want to come back. He's got to want to be part of the program and like what we're doing here. He's got to make sure he's two feet in."

STARTING FIVE

Each week, I'll pick the top five players -- and three reserves -- to play for a high-profile coach. Disagree with my selections? Let me hear about it.

Syracuse's All-Jim Boeheim team

Starters

PG: Pearl Washington -- The master of "shake and bake" was a first-round pick in 1986
SG: Gerry McNamara -- Swished six 3-pointers in the first half of the 2003 title game
SF: Carmelo Anthony -- Help give Boeheim his only NCAA title in 2003; NBA All-Star
PF: Derrick Coleman -- First team All-American in 1990; had jersey retired in 2006
C: Roosevelt Bouie -- Four-year starter and one of Boeheim's first recruits; went 100-18

Bench

PG: Sherman Douglas -- "The General" set the all-time NCAA assists record in 1989
SG: Lawrence Moten -- Syracuse's all-time leading scorer with 2,334 career points
PF: John Wallace -- Second-team All-American led Cuse to the 1996 NCAA title game

RAPID FIRE

Getting better: Washington and St. John's
Taking a dip: Oklahoma State and Wyoming
Star in the making (coach): Fred Hoiberg, Iowa State
Star in the making (player): Chane Behanan, Louisville
Cover your eyes when you watch: TCU
Deserves more ink: Grant Gibbs, Creighton
Encouraged about the future: Nebraska
Worried about the future: Washington State
Not too concerned about: Missouri
Some guys (don't) have all the luck: Kevin Stallings, Vanderbilt
USC should hire: Jamie Dixon (if possible) or Steve Lavin
But if he fares well, the Trojans should at least consider: Interim coach Bob Cantu
It's not easy: Ranking the Big 12 from No. 2 to No. 6
Darn near put me to sleep: All-you-can-eat ribs from Bigg's followed by a putrid KU-Baylor game

PREDICTION TIME

Minnesota 69, vs. Michigan 67: The Wolverines' efficient, high-scoring offense against Trevor Mbakwe, Rodney Williams and Minnesota's physical defense. Does it get any better? Both teams are coming off of road losses but are still expected to be in the thick of the Big Ten title race. This is my pick for game of the day.

Louisville 70, vs. Syracuse 59: The Orange were far from dominant in Big East road wins against South Florida (55-44) and Providence (72-66). So I don't expect them to beat the nation's No. 1 team at the KFC Yum! Center -- especially without James Southerland.

Olynyk
Kelly Olynyk's presence down low will be a difference-maker for Gonzaga against Butler.

Gonzaga 75, at Butler 63: Leading scorer Rotnei Clarke (injured neck) isn't expected to play. But even with Clarke, I wouldn't like Butler's chances against the Zags, who are good enough to make the Final Four. Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk will be too much down low.

Creighton 75, at Wichita State 69: Carl Hall is back for the Shockers after missing seven straight games with a thumb injury, but how effective will he be? Creighton ranks second in the nation in field goal percentage (52.2 percent), but the Bluejays haven't played in an environment as hostile as Koch Arena all season. These are easily the top two teams in the MVC.

Florida 77, vs. Missouri 66: The Tigers were thwacked by Ole Miss on Saturday without leading scorer Laurence Bowers, who is out with an injured knee. This one could get ugly if Bowers doesn't make his return against the Gators. Even if he does, Florida will be too much at home.

UCLA 75, vs. Oregon 70: Two of the Pac-12's three best teams square off in Westwood in a game that could have huge implications on the league title race. UCLA has won nine in a row, and Oregon is high on confidence after becoming the first team this season to defeat Arizona. The play of the Ducks' youthful backcourt (freshmen Damyean Dotson and Dominic Artis) will be key.

Ohio State 61, at Michigan State 57: The Buckeyes made up for a brutal 74-55 road loss to Illinois with back-to-back wins over Purdue and Michigan. Winning at the Breslin Center is never easy, but Ohio State is playing better than the Spartans, who struggled to beat Nebraska on Sunday.

PIT STOPS

Twin Peaks, various locations: I realize I mentioned America's fastest-growing restaurant chain in this space a year ago, but these are special times. In recent weeks I've learned that Twin Peaks is opening sports bars in two of my favorite spots: a mile from my home in Olathe, Kan., and across the bridge from The Cosmopolitan hotel in Las Vegas. Walls of flat screens, 29-degree draft beer, the world's best chips and queso and, um, "scenic views" -- all within walking distance during the offseason. Ruh-roh. This could be dangerous.

Penguin Drive-In, Charlotte: Charlotte is a top-notch food town, which creates a lot of angst and confusion for yours truly. I always have a tough time deciding where to go. The Penguin is always a safe fall-back plan. The joint is known for its excellent hamburgers such as The Billy Goat (bacon, pimento cheese, onion rings and slaw) and the Freak Flag Fly (queso, bacon, slaw, lettuce and tomato). But the hand-dipped, lightly battered fried pickles are the must-order item on the menu. Dip the pickles in ranch, eat your burger and wash everything down with a Cheerwine, and you'll leave with a smile.