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The College Basketball Notebook

February 2, 2012 1:49 PM

The Race For March Madness: The Big 12's Middle Five

KState.jpgThe Big 12 has three teams that tower above the rest in Kansas, Missouri and Baylor when it comes to the conference championship. Below the Power Trio are five more teams angling for NCAA Tournament berths and it's that Middle Five that draw the attention of TheSportsNotebook today.

We can break the five teams down into three categories. Based on the NCAA bracket projections of Joe Lunardi at ESPN.com, Kansas State and Iowa State would make the field if the season ended today. Texas would be in the group of teams just missing the field. And Texas A&M and Oklahoma aren't currently in the picture, but have a good enough overall record to get there in the next six weeks. Here's a look at where each of the five stands, what they've done and who they have.

Kansas State (15-5, 4-4, projected #7 seed): Frank Martin has done a fabulous coaching job with a team that had to rebuild this year and doesn't have much depth. Rodney McGruder, the junior two-guard has answered the bell with a 16 ppg average, while Jamar Samuels has been solid down low with 11 points/7 rebounds per night. These were the core two players that Martin was counting on in November. He's also gotten some nice rebounding help from Thomas Gipson and backcourt scoring from sophomore Will Spradling. K-State's biggest weakness is they don't shoot the three-pointer well and its tough see them rising any higher than their current status. But they've found ways to beat Missouri and Texas, along with Alabama in non-conference play, so you can't count out a Martin-coached team.

Iowa State (15-6, 5-3, projected #12 seed): The 12 seeds are the last of the at-large bids in the NCAA Tournament, with everything below that going to small-conference automatics. Iowa State's win over Kansas on Saturday put them on the map, but the seed projection shows that win must be seen as a beginning and not as an ending. The Cyclones are undersized in the paint, but 6'8" Royce White cures a lot of ills with his 14/10 average, and the backcourt is deep. They could use a true playmaker and this is another team that I find it hard to imagine playing much better than they are right now. Senior guard Scott Christopherson is a good three-point shooter and having him steal a win in February with some long-range bombing might be the difference in whether or not they make the field.

Iowa State and Kansas State go head-to-head in Ames tonight, with both teams having games against Oklahoma and Texas A&M respectively on the weekend.

Texas (13-9, 3-6, projected missing the field by 5-8 spots): The Longhorns are really young with five freshmen being a part of Rick Barnes' seven-man rotation. They're making improvements, having suffered a one-point loss to Missouri last night, a heartbreaker in Baylor on Saturday and a nailbiter against Kansas prior to that. With Texas Tech and Texas A&M coming up this week, the 'Horns have to start getting in the W column immediately. J'Covan Brown is an outstanding all-around point guard, scoring 20 a game, while freshmen Sheldon McClellan and Myck Kabongo are making improvements as his running mates and scoring in double digits. The development of the frosh inside, Jonathan Holmes and Clint Chapman hasn't progressed as well. Between the lack of a post scorer and a three-point shooter, the Longhorns are going to have a tough time getting on the sustained winning streak they'll need to play their way back in. We should also note that their current bracket projection doesn't include last night's game, although a close loss to Missouri might actually work in UT's favor.

Oklahoma (13-7, 3-5): The Sooners have beaten Kansas State twice and the losses include all three conference heavyweights, plus solid teams in St. Louis and Cincinnati. It's the L to Texas A&M that hurts them, and the one to Oklahoma State that looks even worse. OU isn't deep up front, but their two core players, Andrew Fitzgerald and Romeo Osby do a lot of damage, combining for a 25/13 line each night. Steve Pledger is the leading scorer at the guard spot and is a great three-point shooter. Filling in the gaps around these three is the challenge, but regardless, it's easy to see a Pledger, Fitzgerald, Osby core leading a push to March Madness. With the next game being a road trip to Kansas, we'll probably have to wait until Saturday's home game with Iowa State to see if such a push is in the cards.

Texas A&M (12-8, 3-5): A&M also has a good pair at the forward spots, with Khris Middleton and David Lobeau. Unlike OU, they don't have a pure shooter on the outside, but they do have extra help on the frontline with forward Ray Turner, a 6'9" double-digit scorer. Middleton, Lobeau and Turner can present matchup problems in a college landscape that's backcourt heavy. And while A&M doesn't have a three-point threat, two-guard Elston Turner still averages 15 ppg, with senior Dash Harris running the show. It's easy to see the Aggies making a strong push in these coming weeks, although like Oklahoma, the weekend is the more likely coming-out party. Not only is Baylor the opponent, but Harris and Middleton are both questionable.

The Big 12 has become one of the nation's best basketball conferences and quite frankly I'd probably consider it the best combined football/hoops league out there right now. I find it tough to imagine they get any fewer than the currently projected five teams in the NCAA Tournament, and at the end of the day, my guess is that six will make it. I'm picking both current outcasts, A&M and Oklahoma to move on up and join Kansas State when the field of 68 is announced on March 12.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of TheSportsNotebook.com, offering daily, commentary and historical perspective.

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January 31, 2012 11:36 AM

Big East Report: Marquette Surges; Cincinnati Slides

Has anyone noticed that Marquette is right on the heels of Syracuse in the Big East race? Not only that, but that the Golden Eagles are the only team within a game of the frontrunning Orange? Marquette has quietly rattled off six straight wins, including a come-from-behind effort at Villanova on Saturday. When Georgetown was unable to handle the same kind of road test at Pitt, MU had second place in the Big East all to themselves.

Marquette has usurped Cincinnati as the Big East's sleeper team in the Midwest. While the Golden Eagles have soared, the Bearcats have struggled, as their three straight losses pull them back to the back. The SportsNotebook takes a look at both MU and Cincy today--how their teams are put together, what's characterized the recent streaks and what lies ahead.

Marquette (18-4, 7-2): Buzz Williams' team is guard-heavy with a particular reliance on senior Darius Johnson-Odom, who can play both spots in the backcourt, but has settled into a role as the shooting guard, where he's averaging 19 ppg. Johnson-Odom can penetrate and hit the three-point shot. He's paired up with point guard Junior Cadougan, a perfect foil in that he can dish and find the open man.

Senior forward Jae Crowder has been the main man on the frontline, but at 6'6", he needed help from someone a little bigger. He's found it in Davante Gardner, a 6'8" sophomore whose averaging 10 points/5 rebounds a night and is gradually playing a bigger role.

The Golden Eagles drew a tough early conference schedule and consecutive road losses at Syracuse and Georgetown dropped them to 1-2 in the league. Their current six-game win streak has come mostly at home, with four wins in the friendly confines of downtown Milwaukee over Pitt, St. John's, Louisville and a surprisingly good South Florida team who is 6-3 in the Big East.

Johnson-Odom has been the centerpiece of the surge, churning out anywhere from 17 to 26 points a night in each game, while different players have stepped up around him. Gardner has played his best basketball in this span and being the only true inside player, that's something that will have to continue if the team is going to keep winning. Crowder has filled his responsibility of being a reliable second option in the offense.

Marquette hosts Seton Hall on Tuesday and the odds say the winning streak will continue. Then on Saturday they go to Notre Dame, a trip that signals the start of more difficult road tests. Down the stretch in February, MU will have to play at UConn, West Virginia and Cincinnati. To date, they've shown they can match up at home and beat who they're supposed to on the road. That's enough to have a nice season and get a decent seed in the NCAA Tournament (they're currently a #5 in Joe Lunardi's Bracketology on ESPN.com). But if this team wants to bring home an unlikely Big East title, then tough road games will have to be won.

Cincinnati (15-7, 5-4): On January 18, Cincinnati had beaten UConn on the road and was riding high, just a game back of Syracuse, with the win over the Huskies joining a road win at Georgetown. The Bearcats are a team similar to Marquette in that they rely very heavily on the backcourt. There's no one clear scorer in the way MU goes to Johnson-Odom, but the trio of Cashmere Wright, Dion Dixon and Sean Kilpatrick is well-balanced, with Wright running the offense, Kilpatrick shooting the trey and Dixon a 14 ppg scorer. Down low senior Yancy Gates was playing the basketball of his career, as the talented 6'9" forward overcame the inconsistencies that often plagued him, and delivered a steady 13/10 average each night.

Then came an overtime loss at West Virginia, something not alarming in of itself, and when Syracuse lost to Notre Dame the same day, the Bearcats were still within a game of the conference lead. It set up a head-to-head game with the Orange in Cincinnati, but the home team only shot 34 percent in a seven-point loss. This past weekend came the biggest alarm bell when they again shot poorly and lost at Rutgers. Gates has been a constant, playing as well now as he did in the good times, but the backcourt has been up and down and sophomore forward Justin Jackson has not developed for Cincy the way Gardner did for Marquette.

A week off couldn't have come at a better time for the Bearcats, who don't play again until Saturday and then it's a home game against DePaul. As far as the conference championship goes, I suspect that this losing streak was more a case of the team being pulled back to the median, as Cincinnati just isn't deep enough up front to win a championship in the Big East. What they are good enough to do is make the NCAA Tournament and be a decent threat to advance, and that's why righting the ship now is so important. The Bearcats now look up at five teams in the Big East, are tied in the loss column with three others and have Seton Hall right behind them. In this conference, things can get away quickly and Lunardi currently projects Cincy as a #10 seed, dipping down to close to the end of the at-larges. It's imperative that head coach Mick Cronin use the week off and easy home game to steady the ship.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of TheSportsNotebook.com, offering daily commentary, analysis and historical perspective.

Dan Flaher

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January 21, 2012 10:16 AM

The Weekend In College Hoops

MissouriBaylor.jpgHere is a conference by conference summary of what's going down in college basketball this weekend...

BIG 12: Missouri-Baylor (2 PM ET, ESPN) is the best game of the weekend, a great contrast in styles, as Mizzou's deep backcourt takes on Baylor's deep frontline. Kansas got a big win over Baylor on Monday and now goes into Texas (4 PM ET, CBS). The Longhorns are rebuilding and this would certainly be a game Rick Barnes would have circled as a breakout moment. Overall, great day for the Big 12.

BIG EAST: Syracuse faces a tough test early this evening in South Bend, when they visit Notre Dame for a 6 PM ET tip on ESPN. The Irish have been up-and-down this year, and you get the strong feeling that a nationally televised home date with the unbeaten #1 team in the country will get them up. Cincinnati is quietly just one game back after a big road win over UConn earlier this week, and the Bearcats again take to the road against a good West Virginia team (3 PM ET, ESPNU). Louisville-Pitt goes in prime-time at 9 PM ET, a game ESPN doubtless thought would be better than it is, as the Panthers have yet to win a game in league play, while the Cards have struggled since Big East games began.

ATLANTIC 10: Xavier-Dayton (1 PM ET, ESPN2) is the battle for the soul of western Ohio, as these two Catholic universities square off, and it's also an important game in the A-10 race. If Dayton wins this game at home, it signals that it's "Game On", lest I sound like Rick Santorum. If Xavier goes in and wins on the road, the Musketeers still hold the status of top-heavy favorite.

ACC: Florida State's been playing good basketball since ACC play started and last week they hammered North Carolina by 33 points. Now, at 3-1 in the league, they visit 4-0 Duke for a 4 PM EST game on ESPN. On Sunday, N.C. State, a team looking like a live darkhorse, goes to Miami, whose talented backcourt has yet to produce consistency.

BIG TEN: Michigan State hosts Purdue this afternoon for an early tip (Noon ET, ESPN). Three conference games go Sunday in a Big Ten Network tripleheader, apparently designed for people who like sports, but really hate the NFL playoffs. Improving Penn State goes to slumping Indiana, and Illinois hosts Wisconsin.

SEC: The Alabama-Kentucky game today (Noon ET, CBS) loses some of its luster, with the injury to 'Bama's power forward JaMychal Green. The Crimson Tide would have been a longshot in Rupp Arena away, but with their best player hobbled, it's truly a hopeless cause. Mississippi State and Vanderbilt go tonight (7 PM ET, ESPN2) in a matchup of teams with hopes of challenging the Wildcats for the conference title.

MOUNTAIN WEST: San Diego State is off to a 2-0 start in league play after losing most of last year's championship team to graduation and the NBA draft. The Aztecs host Air Force today, while New Mexico and UNLV meet in a key matchup of contenders in Las Vegas.
PAC-12: Cal is playing good basketball, at 6-1 in conference play and leading the way. They visit Washington State. Stanford and Washington are each a game back and go head-to-head in the league's best game.

I have a hard time taking non-conference games seriously at this point in the schedule, but CBS will foist a couple on us. The network that televises the SEC will follow Kentucky-Alabama by showing UConn-Tennessee and Arkansas-Michigan. The one non-league game that would intrigue me is St. Joe's-Penn, if only because of the rivalry implications in the city of Philadelphia. And another Philly team, Temple, takes on Maryland at 11 AM ET today on ESPNU.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of TheSportsNotebook.com, a site offering daily commentary, analysis and historical perspective.

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January 19, 2012 2:39 PM

Big Ten Basketball's Top Four Contenders

2012BigTen.jpgMichigan State (15-3, 4-1): It was supposed to a rebuilding year for Tom Izzo's program too, but the Spartan head coach keeps finding a cadre of players who hit the boards hard and keep the team in games. Draymond Green is the stud in the post, averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds a game, but what's really impressive is the slew of depth Izzo brings off the bench. Adrien Payne and Derrick Nix don't stand out, but they each grab 4-5 rebounds a game, as does Branden Dawson. That's called bringing a complete team effort to rebounding the ball and it's what Izzo has consistently produced through his Hall of Fame-caliber run in East Lansing. Think Izzo's happy he turned down the "opportunity" to go to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the summer of 2010?

Keith Appling leads a backcourt that isn't as deep, but can at least provide some offense. Appling is averaging 13 ppg and shoots the ball well from the floor. The same goes for Brandon Wood. What neither does really well is hit from behind the arc, so MSU will be vulnerable in games where an opponent gets heated up.

Illinois (15-3, 4-1): It was a week ago tonight that Illini guard Brandon Paul stunned Ohio State with a 43-point showing and led the way to a win over the Buckeyes that really re-shaped the conference race. It marked Illinois as a contender and pulled preseason favorite Ohio State clearly back to the pack. Bruce Weber still has some concerns to deal with--the defense does not always play at a championship level. Purdue shot 56 percent against Illinois, in the one conference loss, and the Illini also allowed Nebraska to hit 50 percent. It goes without saying you don't want to be in spots where Paul has to hang 40-plus for the team to beat quality opponents.

Paul has a good running mate in the backcourt with D.J. Richardson, who's not only a double-digit scorer, but is a solid three-point shooter, making him a perfect foil for 7'1" sophomore center Meyers Leonard who's averaging 13/8. That's a good inside-outside combo to put together around Paul, and if third guard Sam Maniscalco can get beyond his nagging ankle injury, Weber will have a deep backcourt, good three-point shooter, solid post option and go-to star. That's a championship formula, as long as they D it up.

Ohio State (14-4, 4-2): They were the #1 team in the country going into last year's NCAA Tournament and with sophomore forward Jared Sullinger coming back, this year was supposed to be more of the same. It still might, but the Buckeyes are looking very beatable in the Big Ten. The Notebook broke them down more extensively last week in the lineup, looking at the key foursome of Sullinger, DeShaun Thomas, William Buford and Aaron Craft. In looking at the losses to Indiana and Illinois, we can look at the backcourt. They gave up the aforementioned 43 to Paul, and against IU there were 17 turnovers. What the Buckeyes have going for them is a demonstrated ability to blow people out when they're clicking, with an average victory margin of 27.5 points in their four Big Ten wins. If they can find a way to win close games too, those preseason expectations are still well within reach.

Michigan (14-4, 4-2): The talent doesn't overwhelm you in Ann Arbor, at least beyond 6'6" sophomore guard Tim Hardaway Jr, who's averaging 16 ppg. John Beilein is still looking for consistent production down low. Sophomores Evan Smotrycz and Jordan Morgan are respectable rebounders, but neither has really emerged as a top-flight offensive option at this stage of their careers. In the backcourt, senior Zack Novak is a decent shooter, but won't wake up memories of Glen Rice anytime soon. The pleasant surprise has been the play of freshman point guard Trey Burke, who's running the show and doing a good enough job with his shot to make defenses come out and play him.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of TheSportsNotebook.com, offering daily analysis, commentary and historical perspective.

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January 19, 2012 2:35 PM

Six Teams Chase Syracuse In The Big East

BigEast2012.jpgSyracuse is setting the tone in the Big East and the nation as a whole with their undefeated season, but in the rugged Big East there are six solid teams giving the Orange chase. Today the Notebook breaks down the "Secondary Six" as we'll call them. The group is comprised of Cincinnati & UConn, Georgetown, Marquette, West Virginia and surprising Seton Hall. All six have good overall records and no more than two conference losses. Louisville is 14-5, but with a 2-4 mark in league play, they didn't qualify for this list. Everyone else is running a little bit over .500. So who represents the biggest challenge to Jim Boeheim's Orange. On with the show...

UConn (14-3, 4-2): The defending national champs are ranked 13th and look like they haven't really hit a good rhythm yet. They weren't sharp in wins over South Florida and Rutgers and were beaten decisively by Seton Hall. The backcourt is very good, as Jeremy Lamb has made the leap from being Kemba Walker's running mate to being the man himself. Lamb is averaging 18 points a game and hits 50 percent from the floor. Shabazz Napier has succeeded in a similar promotion, from role player last year to #2 option this time and he's met the test, averaging 14 ppg and dishing seven assists. The Huskies took a blow when they lost three-point shooter Ryan Boatright to eligibility problems earlier this week and they'll likely need some more scoring punch on the blocks.

Alex Oriahki is a tremendous talent who's just never blossomed into a good offensive player and he can be inconsistent. Sophomore Tyler Olander gives some rebounding help. The X-factor for Jim Calhoun's team is 6'11" freshman Andre Drummond, who's become the best scorer down low. More important, he blocks three shots a game and gives the defense more liberty to take some chances on the perimeter. Overall, I like UConn--a really good backcourt, solid shotblocker and championship experience comprise a good package. But they still have some improving to do.

Georgetown (15-3, 5-2): At #10 in the country, the Hoyas are the highest-ranked team in the Secondary Six. They've won their last two games, abusing St. John's and DePaul by dominating on the glass, and have split out against better competition. John Thompson III has a good inside-out combo. Jason Clark can both distribute and score, while Hollis Thompson is a tough scorer and rebounder at power forward, and he can also step out and nail the three.

Hoya fans have to like the way the pieces are filling in around this group, with 6'10" Henry Sims becoming an all-purpose scorer, rebounder and even passer down low and Markel Starks able to loosen up defenses with the three-ball. Otto Porter fills his role by grabbing seven rebounds a game. I'd pick this team to do great things, but every time I do, is when they fail--notably the 2010 NCAA Tournament when I picked them to go the distance and they lost by 14 to Ohio in the first round. So I'll spare Hoya Nation another edition of the Flaherty Jinx.

Cincinnati (14-4, 4-1): Cincy is quietly the one team who's within one game of Syracuse and tonight's game with UConn is the start of a key schedule stretch, where they also go to West Virginia and then host the Orange next Monday night on ESPN. In the next five days we'll know what we have with the Bearcats. For now we can say that the backcourt is excellent, with Cashmere Wright running the show, Sean Kilpatrick hitting from behind the arc and Dion Dixon providing further scoring punch. The trio's skills complement each other and all average in double digits.

The Bearcats have a good option down low too with Yancy Gates, the 6'9" senior who's known for showing flashes of talent that don't become consistent, making him synonymous with the entire program. Gates is posting a 12/9 year thus far. His presence, plus the guards makes Cincy a threat in any given game, but head coach Mick Cronin needs to find Gates more help down low if this team is to survive the long Big East haul and stay near the top.

Marquette (15-4, 4-2): MU's won three straight, including wins over Pitt and Louisville and with the upcoming schedule being at Providence, South Florida and at Villanova, a 7-2 conference record is well within striking distance. But if you think Cincinnati has frontcourt depth problems, that's nothing compared to Marquette. Davante Gardner, a sophomore still developing, is the only one getting any kind of minutes in the post. His numbers, 10 points/6 rebounds aren't bad, but there is absolutely no way this team keeps winning in this conference with this little material up front.

Darius Johnson-Odom scores 18 ppg in the backcourt and 6'6" swingman Jae Crowder works at playing bigger than he is, to help out Gardner. Crowder is a solid player who can match up with anyone in the Big East, but there's precious little help after that. A salute to Marquette for their nice start, but the guess here is that they're barely hanging on to the NCAA bubble when it's all over (I should note that I'm entirely free of bias here--I grew up going to Marquette games and eventually jumped ship and became a Wisconsin fan).

West Virginia (13-5, 4-2): Two years removed from a team that contended for the Big East title and then made a Final Four run, Bob Huggins is again producing a competitive team after low expectations marked the preseason. The frontcourt, with Kevin Jones and Deniz Kilich is potent, combining for 31 points and 18 rebounds a game. Jones excels at popping out for the three-point shot, giving the Mountaineer offense an added dimension. Daryl Bryant is a solid scorer and leader in the backcourt. Like many Big East teams, WVA could use some depth, but this is a good core three to start with, giving Huggins strength in each area of the game. Another thing to like about West Virginia is blowout potential--they've not just beaten Rutgers(twice) and Villanova, they've hammered them, and WVA knocked off Georgetown by double-digits.

Seton Hall (15-3, 4-2): The Pirates are the surprise entry in the group and we do need to note that it's been done with a relatively soft schedule, with the last three games coming against Providence, DePaul and South Florida...and the Hall dropped the last one to South Florida. But they beat UConn and West Virginia by an average margin of 14.5 points, so they remain an interesting team as they head into a schedule stretch of Notre Dame, Louisville, at Marquette and at UConn that will take them up through Super Bowl weekend and tell us what to expect in February.

Senior forward Herb Pope has finally emerged from being a steady rebounder and inconsistent scorer, to doing both well and is averaging a 17/11 line, while Jordan Theodore owns the perimeter averaging 16 ppg and eight assists, marking him one of the best playmakers in the country. But the big emergence has come from sophomore swingman Fuquan Edwin, who's come a solid third option in the offense and is hitting the boards. That's a good and well-balance team, and I like the Pirates to at least stay in the mix all year and get to the NCAA Tournament.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of TheSportsNotebook.com, offering daily analysis, commentary and historical perspective.

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January 12, 2012 2:30 PM

Exciting Atlantic 10 Basketball Race Ahead

A10Hoops.jpgThe Atlantic 10 is usually good for 2-3 teams in the NCAA Tournament, and schools like Xavier and Temple have each made an impact in March. There are a couple key conference games tonight, with the Musketeers meeting Duquesne, while the Owls play St. Louis. The Notebook will take today to give an overview of how this conference race is shaping up.

THE CONTENDERS

Xavier: It's been a tough year so far for the program that was the top-heavy favorite to win the league championship and make a splash on the national stage. The problems can be directly traced to a brawl against Cincinnati that resulted in multiple suspensions. Xavier lost their next three games, all too beatable opponents and haven't really found their mojo. They have a very explosive backcourt, with Tu Holloway being one of the best guards in the nation and Mark Lyons scoring 17 ppg as his running mate. There's three good rebounders down low. I have to think it's just a matter of time before Xavier gets back into the swing of things, but for now, their struggles have made this a live race.

Temple: A win over Duke last week gave the Owls some national attention, although they dropped a tough game to Dayton immediately thereafter. Regardless, Temple has a fine backcourt trio. Ramone Moore produces points off the dribble, as does Khaliff Wyatt. Juan Fernandez hits the three-ball and that's enough to keep Temple competitive night-in, night-out. Where this team has been hurt is a knee injury to Michael Eric, the post man who could elevate them to the next level. He's expected to be out into February.

Dayton: The Flyers are off to a 2-0 start in conference play with solid wins over Temple & St. Louis. They also beat Alabama in non-conference action. Dayton has a good front line, with Josh Benson able to score and rebound in the post, and Matt Kavanaugh settled into a role hitting the boards. Chris Johnson, a 6'6" forward who can score inside and out is a big key for this team, although a concussion he's dealing with right now is a big red flag. The backcourt is where they need some help. Kevin Dillard runs the show, and someone else to step up would complete this team and make them a national contender.

St. Louis: Rick Majerus is on the sidelines here now and has the Billikens out to a 13-3 start, including wins over Washington and Oklahoma and a close loss to New Mexico. The production comes from swingman Brian Conklin, who averages 15 points/5 rebounds a game, and Majerus gets good work running the show from Kwamain Mitchell. A big help to this team would be if 6'8" post player Cody Ellis, an Australian import, took over in the paint.

KEEP AN EYE ON

Duquesne: I really want to classify this team as a contender, because the talent is there and they've been knocking on the door for a couple years. But the losses to Western Michigan, Robert Morris and Valparaiso say otherwise. Duquesne is backcourt-oriented with T.J. McConnell being a good scorer and distributor, B.J. Monteiro scoring on the wings and Eric Evans a nice role player. They need help inside and the cause for tonight's game isn't helped by a report that Monteiro may not play due to hand injury.

LaSalle: The Explorers are off to a 2-0 start in A-10 games, and with one of those wins being over Xavier I was tempted to move them up one tier. This is a guard-heavy team with Tyreek Duren running the offense, Ramon Galloway and Earl Pettis producing the points and Sam Mills kicking in some help. The only inside game comes from freshman Jerrell Wright. LaSalle's playing well, but I would like to see a better post option emerge before considering them for either a conference title or NCAA Tournament berth.

St. Joe's: Phil Martinelli's progam fell off the map after a big year in 2004 when they got a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and came within a basket of the Final Four. A bad season in '11 saw light finally come up at the end of the tunnel when the Hawks played well their last few games. Now they're 11-5, have a good backcourt with Carl Jones and Langston Galloway, to go with a balanced frontcourt of C.J. Aiken, Ronald Roberts and Hali Kanacevic. They haven't been consistent enough to be a real championship contender, but St. Joe's is the best dark horse possibility in this league.

NIT POSSIBILITIES

Charlotte: At 2-0 in the conference, Charlotte fans can point to their win over St. Joe's and Richmond and wonder why they aren't positioned at least one level higher. There's just not enough depth of talent within the starting lineup. Chris Braswell is a good player at forward and Jarvarris Barnett is a solid swingman. But there's no true post player, no true point guard and no one to step up if either Braswell or Barnett have a bad night.

UMass:  Exciting point guard Chaz Williams makes the Minutemen a threat in any situation, but his ball distribution skills are wasted on a team without other scorers who can finish.

Richmond: The Spiders are in a rebuilding year and have already lost seven games, but this will be a live spoiler possibility down the stretch. The backcourt has come together with Cedrick Lindsay leading the way and Darien Brothers and Kendall Anthony producing the points. A pair of sophomores inside, Darius Garrett and Derrick Williams have to rebound a little more and Richmond can make a nice NIT run, or perhaps even be a surprise winner of the A-10 Tournament in March.

St. Bonaventure: I really hoped to have the Bonnies rated a little higher at this point, as Andrew Nicholson has been one of the hidden gems in college basketball. The 6'9" senior has consistently carried bad teams with his scoring and rebounding and he's got some help now from Da'Quan Cook and Demetrius Conger. Where no help is come is in the backcourt and a team will never run efficiently without that. That's why St. Bonaventure is only 8-6.

THE BASEMENT

Rhode Island: It might have been different for the 3-13 Rams, but leading scorer Jamal Wilson was kicked off the team, a key complementary piece Nikola Malsevic is out with a hand injury and forward Orion Outerbridge is going day-to-day with a back problem. Those latter two problems will fix themselves, but the loss of Wilson was devastating.

Fordham: At 7-8, this is a team that should be better than it s. Chris Gaston, a forward who scores 16 ppg and grabs 11 rbg is another underrated gem, while Branden Frazier and Bryan Smith handle backcourt duties pretty well. They get rebounding help from Kervin Bristol, a 6'10" senior. Perhaps this is another team whose best basketball is ahead, but the record speaks pretty clearly about where they are right now.

George Washington: A usually competitive program is on hard times, with Tony Taylor and Lasan Kromah being the only notable players. Neither one is taller than 6'5" and nobody else scores or rebounds.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of TheSportsNotebook.com, a site offering daily analysis, commentary and historical perspective.

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January 10, 2012 3:22 PM

Inside Ohio State

OSUHoops.jpgOhio State gets the ESPN stage tonight at Illinois (9 PM ET), as we start the run of Tuesdays being Big Ten-SEC night for a college hoops doubleheader. The Buckeyes are 15-2 and ranked #5 in the country. Coming off a season in which they won the Big Ten and earned a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament before losing in the Sweet 16 to Kentucky, Ohio State has great expectations for this year's team, especially when forward Jared Sullinger decided to return for his sophomore season. The record and ranking suggest they're living up to it, although they are one of five Big Ten teams trailing league leader Michigan State by a half-game. Let's break down the Ohio State lineup and see what the future might hold...

Jared Sullinger (6'9" Sophomore): He's the man the hopes in Columbus are built around and is averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds a game. Sullinger is a pure post player. He's not a hybrid that you'll see step out and take three-point shots. Given that, I would like to see a little more dominance on the glass against good teams. In the three toughest opponents he's faced--Florida, Duke and Indiana, Sullinger has yet to have a 10-plus rebound game. That's a high bar to set, and in fairness he's not been  AWOL in any of those games. The one game he was out was Kansas, and the Buckeyes lost that one. I only set the 10-rebound benchmark because Ohio State's expectations are so high and Sullinger has to be the man that puts them on his back.

DeShaun Thomas (6'7" Sophomore): Thomas' emergence this season has been huge in getting Sullinger some help down low. Thomas averages 15 points a game, and while he's not a great rebounder, this is the forward who can step out and drain it from behind the arc. Like Sullinger, Thomas shoots a good percentage from the floor and his outside touch makes him a big X-factor against good teams.

Lenzell Smith (6'4" Sophomore): Smith is the weak link in this starting lineup, averaging five points a game and he's a 47 percent foul shooter. His big moment might be in March when Ohio State's trying to hold a slim lead and an opponent forces the ball to Smith so they can foul him. Then those free throws decide how a 19-year old kid will be remembered in Columbus. I'm getting ahead of myself in the hypotheticals here, but right now Smith is a non-factor in this lineup.

William Buford (6'6" Senior): The veteran is the big scorer on the wings. He shoots a respectable 44 percent from the floor and 36 percent from behind the arc. You want the ball in his hands at the end of games as a vet who can hit his free throws. Buford has also played big in the biggest games--21 points against Florida, 20 against Duke and 21 at Kansas. At least until New Year's Eve in Indiana when the Hoosiers held him to eight. The fact Ohio State lost that game tells you something about the importance of Buford's scoring. He's  the second-most important player on the team behind Sullinger.

Aaron Craft (6'2" Sophomore): Craft runs the show and averages a solid five assists a game. The surest way to cause problems for the Buckeyes is to force Craft into turnovers and that's what Indiana was able to do. Craft is a pretty good shooter from the floor, so you can't back off him and play the pass. But at the free throw line he's only 68 percent and this is the guy who's going to have to break pressure in close games down the stretch.

This lineup overall is nicely balanced, with Sullinger being a pure post man, something that's hard to find in college hoops, with Buford handling the backcourt scoring, Craft distributing and Thomas working as a solid support player. The problems this team has is depth and experience. You may have noted that four of the starters are sophomores, and while this matters a lot less than it once did, thanks to all the early entries for the NBA, it still has to be something that concerns head coach Thad Matta. Depth is also a critical factor. There's no one beyond the starting five really accumulating notable minutes and even with the starting five, Smith is a dead spot. Ohio State's Core Four of Sullinger, Thomas, Buford and Craft is going to have to carry them.

After tonight's game at Illinois, Ohio State gets a rematch on Sunday with Indiana (4:30 PM ET, CBS). It looks like the best way to beat the Buckeyes is to create some flow problems in the backcourt and get Craft to turn the ball over. Illinois has a good guard combination in D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul, although Richardson is nursing an ankle injury. He'll play tonight, but who knows what the effectiveness level will be. Illinois is also missing third guard Sam Manicalco, so for this night Bruce Weber has a bigger depth problem than Matta. Then it's the rematch with Indiana, a must-win game. Ohio State lost the first game because they turned it over 17 times. While IU is tough down low with Cody Zeller at center, the Buckeyes beat them on the glass, an area they've dominating in the Big Ten. With homecourt advantage and perhaps less sloppy play, Ohio State can get two wins this week.

Wins over Illinois and Indiana are followed by an easy week with games against Nebraska and Penn state. If Ohio State is 7-1 in conference play by then, the Big Ten schedule can start for real on January 29 when they play Michigan and usher in a set of four tough gamest that include a battle with Michigan State.

So can Ohio State fulfill its promise? I have deep doubts, due to the lack of depth. I would still pick them to win the Big Ten, but in a much more balanced race than was originally anticipated and I see them a step behind a team like North Carolina or even Baylor, who could be the ones standing in the way of a national title.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of TheSportsNotebook.com, offering daily analysis, commentary and historical perspective.

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November 29, 2011 9:17 PM

Atlantic 10 Makes November Noise

A10PreviewStl.jpgThe Atlantic 10 falls somewhere between the mid-majors and the power conferences in college basketball. The league consistently gets multiple NCAA bids, so it's at the very least on a par with the Pac-12, but there's also no doubt it's not seen as even a mid-level power conference, along the lines of the SEC. Whether the league can change that perception for the better this year is anyone's guess, but they're off to a good start. Xavier beat highly regarded Vanderbilt on the road. Dayton, a team without big expectations, beat Minnesota and Wake Forest, comparable opponents in their own conferences. And Rick Majerus' St. Louis Billikens have topped them all, winning the 76 Classic in Anaheim over Thanksgiving weekend. St. Louis beat Boston College, Villanova and Oklahoma in succession, and also has a non-conference win over Washington. There are four separate BCS conferences Majerus' team knocked off and it signals the potential for a good year in the A-10.

St. Louis is off to the hot start, but they will need some consistent frontcourt help to go along with guards Kyle Cassidy and Mike McCall. Xavier, the perennial power of this league has no such concerns. With seven-footer Kenny Frease manning the middle and still not at the ceiling of his potential in his senior year, the Musketeers have the chance to be a great team, as Frease combines with A-10 Player of the Year Tu Holloway in the backcourt. Off-guard Mark Lyons can take some of the pressure off Holloway and with Xavier it's not about whether they are the favorite in the Atlantic 10, it's about whether they can make a major splash on a national level. If the incoming freshman can provide a little depth, they have a chance.

Temple is off to a slow start, with a loss at Bowling Green going along with a more respectable defeat at Purdue, but the Owls should bounce back thanks to excellent perimeter depth. Juan Fernandez is a quality shooter, and he's joined by Ramone Moore and Khalif Wyatt. The key to Temple's success will be the play of 6'11" senior Michael Eric in the post. He has to assert himself on a nightly basis for the Owls to rise above the NCAA bubble.

The Notebook would regard Xavier as a clear favorite, Temple as an NCAA team and St. Louis has to be given some respect after what they've done on the floor. Duquesne has a chance for a run at March Madness. I thought the Dukes would be better last year, and they need help up front, but they have quality sophomore guards back in T.J. McConnell and Mike Talley to go with a good swingman in B.J. Monteiro. A date with intra-city rival Pitt on Wednesday promises an interesting test. Beyond this though, there is some serious rebuilding to do. Consider the following...

*Richmond, a part of the league's upper-crust and regular NCAA participant, loses outstanding players in guard Kevin Anderson and forward Justin Harper, not to mention the supporting cast.

*UMass loses leading scorer Anthony Gurley and with head coach Derek Kellogg feeling some heat to do more than go .500, it could be a long season in Amherst.

*Charlotte has a top forward in Chris Braswell, but almost nothing else and second-year coach Alan Major is beginning the rebuilding process after a horrible year in 2011.

*LaSalle lost its best player, center Aaric Murray when  he transferred to West Virginia.

*Fordham has another one of the league's better forwards in Chris Gaston, but he's going to get lonely there in the Bronx trying to carry the Rams by himself.

*Dayton's been a good, albeit frustrating team for their fans as they tease in November and December and then fade in league play. New coach Archie Miller has to rebuild the team around forward Chris Johnson, a good scorer and rebounder.

*George Washington has the same combo of a new head coach--Mike Lonergan in this case--and one good building block. Here it's Tony Taylor, one of the A-10's best point guards after Holloway.

*Rhode Island lost everyone from last year and now they're losing games left and right, already off to a 1-5 start.

Is anyone else left? St. Bonaventure and St. Joe's have hope for good seasons. The Bonnies have 6'9" post man Andrew Nicholson, one of the best players in the league and he's got help up front with Da'Quan Cook, and swingman Michael Davenport. They could be a real darkhorse, and I'd be higher on them, but an early loss to Cleveland State makes me worry that perhaps this program hasn't reached the maturity level to win consistently. St. Joe's has run with the big boys in the past (recall in 2004 they were the #1 seed in the East and reached a regional final) and has gone through a rough patch of late. Phil Martinelli rebuilt with underclassmen last year, finished the season on an up note and I would expect them to fight their way back to NIT level this season.

As for the NCAA Tournament, it looks like a Xavier-Temple-St. Louis league, but the positive is that trio could make a national splash.


Dan Flaherty is the editor of www.thesportsnotebook.com

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November 22, 2011 12:53 PM

Is The Big Ten All Ohio State?

SullingerB10Preview.jpgOhio State won its first 24 games of last season, won the Big Ten title and was ranked #1 going into the NCAA Tournament, before a disappointing loss to Kentucky ended their Final Four dreams. The Buckeyes are a team of great expectations again this year, with sophomore power forward Jared Sullinger, one of the best players in the country, opting for another year of college ball in Columbus rather than sit through an NBA lockout. Ohio State is ranked #3 nationally, but I believe the preseason focus has not given enough credence to what Thad Matta's program lost.

While Sullinger is the go-to guy and William Buford and Aaron Lighty are both good backcourt pieces, Matta is going to miss the senior leadership and outside shooting of Jon Diebler. Ohio State will miss the frontcourt presence of Dallas Lauderdale and they will certainly miss the offensive capabilities of swingman David Lighty, all of whom have graduated. This is a good team, but a beatable one. The real question is whether any of the most likely challengers in the Big Ten are up to the task, given that all of them face substantial rebuilding projects. Consider the following...

*Purdue lost two outstanding players in guard E'Twaun Moore and center JaJuan Johnson. Matt Painter has a trio of guards who got playing time and now need to take up Moore's points. The X-factor for Purdue and perhaps for the entire Big Ten race is Robbie Hummel. The power forward who can go inside and out was one of the conference's best players until knee surgery ended his season. He's healthy and Purdue needs him back at full stride.

*Wisconsin guard Jordan Taylor is one of the best in the nation, but UW lost forward Jon Leuer to the NBA two hours down the road, as the Milwaukee Bucks drafted him. Bo Ryan needs to put together a frontcourt or the Badgers will spend the season on the NCAA bubble.

*Michigan State is missing its pace-setter and scorer, point guard Kalin Lucas, who has graduated and also lost key pieces in Korie Lucious and Durrell Summers. The Spartans, who have already lost to North Carolina and Duke, need Draymond Green to hit the boards and Keith Appling to be up to the task of leading the backcourt. Then Tom Izzo needs to find more of his trademark rebounders. A November 30 date with Florida State looms, as MSU tries to avoid going 0-3 against the ACC in November.

*Illinois lost its frontcourt duo of Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis, along with guard Demetri McCamey. I suppose the upside for Bruce Weber is that the Tisdale/Davis duo was maddeningly inconsistent, but there's no one who looks ready to step in. This could be the year that finishes Weber in Champaign.

*Minnesota had a disappointing season a year ago, so maybe rebuilding with a new foundation isn't such a bad thing. But there will still be growing pains for Tubby Smith's program, particularly in the backcourt. The Gophs can play up front with Trevor Mbakwe, Ralph Sampson III and Rodney Williams, but finding floor leadership and outside shooting will determine their season. Keep an eye on Minnesota as an improving team in February, but they are not a dark horse championship challenger.

Wisconsin, Michigan State and Purdue are the most likely challengers to Ohio State, while Illinois and Minnesota each have pedigrees that deserve some respect and none are in any kind of position to make a title run. Therefore perhaps the real story of this conference is whether any of the following programs can step up and push into the upper tier...

*Michigan is already pretty close to that upper tier, making the NCAA Tournament last year, winning one game and giving Duke a good run in the Round of 32. Tim Hardaway Jr. leads the way scoring-wise in the backcourt and needs reliable help from Zack Novak shooting the three-ball. I'm skeptical of the frontcourt and depth, but they did knock off Memphis yesterday afternoon in the first round of the Maui Invitational out in Hawaii and get a shot at Duke tonight  (7:00 ET, ESPN)

*Northwestern has won 57 games over the last three years, but still can't shed the status of the only BCS program not to make the NCAA Tournament. If they're going to do it this year, the frontcourt duo of Luka Mirkovic and John Shurna has to get more physical, Drew Crawford needs to loose things up in the backcourt and someone has to replace Michael Thompson's floor-directing capabilities. They've started off by beating LSU and Seton Hall, which isn't earth-shattering, but notable in that the Wildcats are still clearly a step ahead of lower-echelon BCS teams.

*Indiana might be finally turning the corner under Tom Crean. They have a nice backcourt to work with in Jordan Hulls and Maurice Cheeks, while Christian Watford can give them a scoring threat at forward. The key to the Hoosiers' improvement will be better rebounding and to that end the key is the arrival of highly touted 6'11" freshman Cody Zeller.

*Nebraska lost its best player in Lance Jeter, but has everyone else back, including post man Brian Jorge-Diaz. The challenge they will face is replacing Jeter's ability to make the offense run smoothly and they'll need more offensive punch.

There's only two teams in the Big Ten that appear to be hopeless cases this season. Iowa's only selling point is 6'5" guard Matt Gatens who is a nice scorer, but in no way one who can carry a team the way he'll have to for the Hawkeyes. Penn State made a run to the NCAAs a year ago, but they lost almost every contributor to that team. And really, just by saying they lost guard Talor Battle, is tantamount to saying "everybody" as the 20 ppg scorer was one of the conference's underrated gems, at least in terms of national media attention. Lion head coach Ed DeChellis knew to leave town while the getting was good and he took the job at Navy. PSU's rebuilding project, now much tougher with all the scandals looming over the football program, is in the hands of Patrick Chambers, a  young coach who had success at Boston University.

Ohio State might not be as powerful as reported--we'll find out more when they host Duke on November 29 and go to Kansas on December 10--but at least within this conference, there's no real contender to challenge. The Big Ten's most interesting storyline will be the race for NCAA bids in the muddled middle.


Dan Flaherty is the editor at www.thesportsnotebook.com

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November 11, 2011 10:28 AM

UNC-Michigan States Tips Off College Basketball

UNCMichState.jpgThe first big game of the college basketball season tips off tonight in a unique environment. Top-ranked North Carolina meets Michigan State on an aircraft carrier in San Diego. The game will be played on the deck where the flights normally land and we'll get the unusual atmosphere of seeing organized basketball played as the sun goes down (The 7 PM ET start on ESPN will be a 4 PM tip local time).

North Carolina started to find its form last year after the New Year when the inserted Kendall Marshall at point guard. Up to that point a team that had tremendous size and potential on the frontline had floundered for a season-plus due to the inability of a true playmaker to make the offense function. Marshall filled the role, the Tar Heels took off and didn't stop until they'd won the ACC crown and then advanced to the regional final of the NCAA Tournament before losing to Kentucky. Marshall is back and so is the loaded front line. 6'10" John Henson and 7'0" Tyler Zeller are pure post players and rebounders, while 6'8" Harrison Barnes is a National Player of the Year candidate and capable of doing it all. The Tar Heels are as loaded as their high preseason ranking suggests.

Michigan State would appear to be outmatched in this game as the Spartans are rebuilding in a year where they look to be several notches behind Big Ten favorite Ohio State. Tom Izzo returns guard Keith Appling and 6'7" forward Draymond Green who is a respectable scorer and good rebounder. Rebounding is something Izzo's teams always do well and to that end he'll break in young frontline starters in 6'9" Alex Guana and 6'10" Adriene Payne. They'll both be tested hard on Friday night.

The game will be played under the watchful eye of the Commander-in-Chief, as President Obama will be in attendance and it's a fun way to really get college basketball rolling for another year.

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