ATB: Jared Cunningham’s Reversal, Wisconsin’s D, and 1,092 Days…

Posted by rtmsf on December 16th, 2011

Tonight’s Lede. Whether you’re a student-athlete feeling the stress of exams or a fan of those players ready to pull your eyelids out with no excitement on the tube this week, the worst is nearly over. On Saturday we’ll have a full slate on the schedule and next week there will be a lot more action around the country in a mad rush before the Christmas holiday weekend. Let’s jump into what little there was going on tonight, secure in the thought that the worst is indeed over…

Dunkdafied. Oregon State’s Jared Cunningham didn’t have the best shooting night, but one of his two buckets on the night more than made up for it…

Tonight’s Quick Hits...

  • Oregon State’s 8-2 Start. Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how down certain programs have been for so long, but Oregon State is one of those schools. With tonight’s easy win over Howard, the Beavers moved to 8-2 on the season. That record, a good but not exceptional mark for mid-December, represents the best start to a season in Corvallis since the 1984-85 season. That was last season before the shot clock, folks. Read the rest of this entry »
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Checking In On… the Pac-12

Posted by rtmsf on December 8th, 2011

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-12 and Mountain West conferences.  

Reader’s Take

 

Top Storylines

  • More Behavioral Problems – While the struggles of the Pac-12 conference as a whole has been well-documented, the sheer number of off-the-court distractions coaches up and down the conference have had to deal with has been astounding. There’s the ongoing Reeves Nelson soap opera at UCLA. Josiah Turner has been patently unable to get it together in Arizona. Jabari Brown quit on his team after just two games because he was “only” getting about 26 minutes a game. This week Utah suspended Josh Watkins, one of just three players in the Pac-12 to score in double figures in each of his team’s games (Washington’s Terrence Ross and Washington State’s Brock Motum the other two). Then there are lesser lights like Oregon’s Bruce Barron (quit on his team as well), Arizona’s Sidiki Johnson (suspended, dismissed and now transferring out) and Washington State’s D.J. Shelton (suspended). That’s not even including Joshua Smith’s issues, Jerime Anderson’s legal troubles, or Jahii Carson’s inability to get eligible. While the play on the court has been less than stellar around the conference, it is the off-the-court nonsense that is giving the conference the biggest black eye.

Josh Watkins' Troubles Are Only the Latest and Greatest...

  • Surprising Players Stepping Up – In the place of all the missing or invisible players, these teams have needed somebody to step up, and there have been some surprising players that are doing their part. Just looking at the five players that were nominated for the Pac-12 Player of the Week last week gives you a list of surprising names: Charlie Enquist, Ahmad Starks, Anthony Brown, Keala King and, the winner of the award, Solomon Hill. No disrespect to any of those guys, but I don’t think you would have found any of those names on most preseason all-Pac-12 teams. Hill has been a versatile and steadying force for Arizona.  Not only is the junior post leading the team in points (12.4 PPG), assists (3.1 APG) and minutes (31.5 MPG), but Hill is also grabbing the second most rebounds (7.8 RPG), and he’ll likely be a candidate for the Pac-12 award on a semi-regular basis throughout the year. But Charlie Enquist? That’s a guy who had scored a total of 50 points and grabbed a total of 41 rebounds in his 54 games in his previous three years in Pullman. This week he scored 28 and grabbed 19 rebounds. Meanwhile, King was awful at Arizona State last year (36.5% from the field, 1-18 threes, more turnovers than assists), but has scored 65 points in his last three games while posting a 75.8 eFG%. Starks had 16 points and four threes in Oregon State’s win over Montana, and Anthony Brown scored 27 points in two games for Stanford this week. For the underachieving teams in this conference to improve between now and March, they’ll need players to step up and make bigger-than-expected contributions.
  • Stanford For Real? – At the start of the season, it was more or less consensus that there were four teams in the upper tier of the Pac-12: Arizona, Cal, UCLA and Washington. It didn’t take long for one of those four teams to drop from that group (I’ll let you guess which one that was), but with Stanford sporting the best record in the Pac-12 at 8-1 so far (the lone loss a tough six-point defeat at Madison Square Garden to Syracuse), the Cardinal may have jumped up into that group. Of Stanford’s eight victories this season, seven of them have come by 12 or more, with only their most recent come-from-behind win against NC State being a tight one. And at least one RTC correspondent came away from that game impressed enough to confirm that Stanford is good enough, at least defensively, to contend for the conference title. The Cardinal are now in the midst of 13 days off surrounding finals, and really only have one challenging non-conference game remaining (December 22 against Butler). But, if the Cardinal can pick up where it left off, coach Johnny Dawkins‘ squad will be a tough out during conference play.

Player of the Year Watch

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RTC Live: Legends Classic Finals & Consolation

Posted by rtmsf on November 21st, 2011

RTC Live is back at the IZOD Center this evening for another double-header involving four teams with a lot on the line in the early going of this season. In the third place game, Texas will face NC State, followed by the championship game featuring Vanderbilt and a surprising Oregon State squad.  Join us for the conversation on a busy Monday of Feast Week, after the jump.

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RTC Live: Legends Classic Semifinals

Posted by rtmsf on November 19th, 2011

It’s Feast Week around the hoops nation and RTC Live is in New Jersey tonight for the semifinal round of the Legends Classic. Interestingly, the only team with a loss is the only ranked team here, but Vanderbilt vs. NC State followed by Texas vs. Oregon State should make for a great evening of college hoops. Join the conversation from the Izod Center, after the jump.

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20 Questions: Which Coaches Are Feeling the Heat This Season?

Posted by rtmsf on October 21st, 2011

Question: Which Coaches Are Feeling the Heat This Season?

It’s the nature of the business that college coaches are hired to be fired.  With only a handful of exceptions around the country, job security among the coaching fraternity is hard to come by.  Every offseason roughly 15 to 20 percent of the profession turns over, with approximately half of those open jobs coming as a result of some unfortunate soul’s termination.  As we entered last season, the names of the men on the hot seat were easy to predict, and four of the five coaches listed didn’t let us down — Paul Hewitt (Georgia Tech), Jeff Capel (Oklahoma), Sidney Lowe (NC State), and Bruce Pearl (Tennessee) were all ousted after disappointing seasons (our fifth choice, Cincinnati’s Mick Cronin, got his team into the Dance and cooled his seat considerably).

Let’s take a quick look at one coach from each of the power conferences who could really use a breakthrough season in 2011-12.

ACC: Jeff Bzdelik, Wake Forest.  This was a tough league to choose from because eight of the 12 ACC coaches are in one of their first three seasons at their school.  But if we have to choose someone, it’s probably going to be the coach who guided his program to a historically awful season in his first year at the helm.  A one-win conference slate in addition to home losses to the likes of Stetson, Winthrop, UNC-Wilmington, and Presbyterian won’t buy you a great deal of slack from a program still trying to recover from the death of Skip Prosser four years ago.  Throw in the fact that several players have gotten into legal and academic trouble under Bzdelik’s watch and you start to wonder if he can survive another miserable season.  If the second-year coach expects to last much longer, he’s going to have to show some improvement in Winston-Salem this year.

There's Bad... Then There's Historically Bad...

Big East: Stan Heath, South Florida.  The five bottom-feeder Big East programs have all changed coaches in the last two years… except one — South Florida’s Stan Heath.  Heath enters his fifth season in Tampa with a total of one winning season and 19 Big East victories.  After putting together a solid 20-13 season resulting in an NIT appearance in his third year at the helm, USF backslid significantly last year to a 10-23 (3-15 Big East) mess.  Even at a school where basketball isn’t taken very seriously, a coach cannot expect to finish at or near the bottom of the standings of a 16-team league regularly and expect to stay employed very long.  He returns a verified talent in Gus Gilchrist in the post, but the Bulls don’t have a legitimate point guard and will spend this season shuttling around between different venues while the Sun Dome is refurbished.  If he’s not careful, the playing facility may not be the only new thing in USF hoops a year from now.

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Where 2011-12 Happens: Reason #19 We Love College Basketball

Posted by rtmsf on October 17th, 2011

Another preseason preview gives us reason to roll out the 2011-12 edition of Thirty Reasons We Love College Basketball, our annual compendium of YouTube clips from the previous season 100% guaranteed to make you wish games were starting tonight. We’ve captured the most compelling moments from the 2010-11 season, many of which will bring back the goosebumps and some of which will leave you shaking your head in frustration. For the complete list of this year’s reasons, click here. Enjoy!

#19 – Where Dunk of the Year Happens

We also encourage you to re-visit the entire archive of this feature from the 2008-09, 2009-10, and 2010-11 seasons.

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Bruce Pearl’s Show Cause: Which Schools Might Take a Shot at Him?

Posted by rtmsf on August 24th, 2011

News leaked on Tuesday night that the NCAA will hit Bruce Pearl with a three-year “show cause” penalty for his role in facilitating and later lying about numerous violations while acting as the Tennessee head basketball coach from 2005-11.  We all remember the story of NCAA investigators presenting Pearl with a photograph of current Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft standing next to him at his own cookout, and his subsequent disavowal of knowledge of such a thing.  But his transgressions were considerably more than that incident alone — it was the systematic and rather clumsy attempts at a subsequent cover-up that ultimately doomed the jocular head coach to the harsh penalty he faces today.  Here’s the relevant statement from the NCAA’s 21-page Infractions Report:

A Scene at Pearl's Home, Apparently (credit: KSR)

From the 2008-09 academic year through June 14, 2010, the former head men’s basketball coach acted contrary to the principle of ethical conduct when he knowingly engaged in violations of NCAA recruiting legislation and failed to deport himself in accordance with the generally recognized high standards of honesty and sportsmanship normally associated with the conduct and administration of intercollegiate athletics by providing false and misleading information to the institution and the enforcement staff and by attempting to influence others to furnish the institution and enforcement staff false and misleading information concerning their involvement in or knowledge of matters relevant to a violation of an NCAA regulation.

Ouch.  Once again, the lesson learned from an organization in an authoritative position is that the cover-up carries more weight than the actual crime.

What does this really mean, though?  It seems as if most commentators are interpreting this as an effective banishment of Pearl from the NCAA for the next several years as a direct result of carrying a cheetos-colored letter on his chest, but a reading of the fine print of the NCAA’s report shows that this isn’t true.  Mike DeCourcy points out in an article today that the “show cause” is one of the most misunderstood penalties that the NCAA has at its disposal.  Even a spectacularly reliable source such as Wikipedia states in its first sentence about such a penalty that “a coach involved in major rules violations at a university’s athletic program may not be hired by any other NCAA member institutions without permission from the Infractions Committee for a set period of time.”

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Morning Five: 07.12.11 Edition

Posted by rtmsf on July 12th, 2011

  1. It’s a somewhat weird time to come out with a Top 15 list for the 2011-12 season, but the folks in the City of Angels would be remiss if they didn’t do things a little differently.  There are no major surprises in this version, but Alabama at #11 is a bit ambitious for an NIT team.  The Big East carries the day with four teams — #4 Connecticut, #5 Syracuse, #13 Pittsburgh, and #15 Louisville –  which are the same four (albeit in a different order) our conference correspondent Brian Otskey chose in his summer update yesterday.  The team that is consistently showing up in everyone’s top ten because of its returning talent but despite consecutive First Round upsets as high seeds is #6 Vanderbilt.  The trio of Jeffery Taylor, John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli are all-SEC talents, but we’re going to need to see a little more evidence of getting over their mental hangups before believing that Kevin Stallings’ team is better than the likes of #7 Arizona or #8 Wisconsin.
  2. We may have missed out on this until now, but you shouldn’t.  CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd and Brett McMurphy are halfway through a five-part series examining cheating in college football, and it’s clear that, put rather simply, cheating pays off.  In part three, an examination of the five-year program outcomes after major violations, the writers found that winning percentages actually rose.  Although their analysis doesn’t touch on college hoops, we all know that athletic departments are often rather insular places — some of the findings from this analysis will without question apply to basketball programs facing similar demands for success and a common enemy (the NCAA).  It’s a thoughtful series of pieces, and we highly recommend that you keep up with it.
  3. The hits keep on coming at Wake Forest, as the Demon Deacon basketball program, still reeling from the ouster of head coach Dino Gaudio last summer, lost two more players on Monday.  Rising senior/perennial disappointment Ty Walker and rising sophomore Melvin Tabb were suspended from the squad indefinitely, with no reasons stated other than to say the causes were not academically-related.  You probably recall that Tony Woods, one of the other highly touted recruits along with Walker in the Class of 2008, was booted after getting into a fight with his girlfriend that resulted in a misdemeanor assault charge against him.  He was also suspended at Wake indefinitely, eventually left school, and is expected to suit up at Texas next season.  Wake was one of the worst power conference programs in America last season; head coach Jeff Bzdelik has a huge rebuilding project ahead of him for the Deacs to merely rise back up to respectability.
  4. While on the subject of disappointments, Mississippi State’s Renardo Sidney has transformed himself Jerod Ward-style from one of the elite players in his class to someone many scouts believe may have peaked at the age of 16.  The Jackson (MS) Clarion-Ledger caught up with Sidney as he is spending his summer working out at John Lucas’ facility in Houston, and having already lost 23 pounds, he seems motivated to get back into shape.  At his playing weight of 270 lbs. last season, he averaged 14/8 but often appeared winded and uninterested for several plays at a time.  There’s not much question that Sidney has the requisite size and touch to play this game for pay, but second and third chances won’t come easily, so he’d serve himself well to come into next season at a chiseled 250 lbs. and enjoy the spoils of hard work that will accompany it.
  5. Oregon State’s Roberto Nelson came to Corvallis as the most highly-rated recruit to enter the Beaver program in years.  After two-thirds of a freshman season in 2010-11 where he averaged 8/2 APG in about 17 minutes per contest, big things are expected for the talented Southern California native.  During a recent summer foreign tour called “Beavers Without Borders” in Macedonia, as the below video shows, Nelson destroyed a glass backboard with a dunk in a game that seemed more pick-up than organized (start at the 2:00 mark).  The ensuing spill Nelson took as a result of his force was no joke, as he celebrated his powerful jam in the aftermath with a bloodied and broken nose.  This isn’t the Jordan Crawford/LeBron dunk from a couple of summers ago, but expect to see this one shown on numerous Pac-12 broadcasts next season.

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NCAA Attendance Figures: A Closer Examination

Posted by rtmsf on April 27th, 2011

It’s always interesting to see the numbers when the NCAA releases its annual attendance figures for the prior season.  After all, ticket sales are still what drives the operating budget of most of these schools, and if a coach can’t consistently put fannies in the seats, he’s unlikely to have a job for very long.  The NCAA’s figures, though, mostly deal in the aggregate: A total of 27.6 million fans attending Division I men’s basketball games;  the usual suspects, Kentucky, Syracuse, North Carolina and Louisville, leading the way; the Big East cracking the three million mark with its sixteen-team lineup.  While it’s interesting to know that those schools and leagues are getting massive numbers of people through the turnstiles, it doesn’t really tell us the whole story without the subcontext of arena size.  Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium is the classic example – Duke ranks #48 in total home attendance (158,338 fans), but that figure represents 17 home dates at 100% capacity (9,314 fans each game) — so the truth here is that demand for seats within CIS far equals (or more likely, outstrips) availability.  Let’s take a look at some of the schools in the NCAA’s top 100 from the perspective of that alternate reality.

Changes things a little, right?  Twenty-one of the top 100 schools in average attendance were at 90% or higher in capacity last season.  And although some of the bigger arenas such as those at Kentucky (#3), Louisville (#8) and Memphis (#19) are still represented, this metric gives some love to the smaller-capacity schools like K-State (#1), Gonzaga (#5), Wichita State (#7) and others who consistently sold out (or nearly did so) every night the home team took the floor.  Some extra props need to go to the high-mids who support their teams through thick and thin, as seven of the top 21 on this list came from non-BCS conferences.

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Morning Five: 01.04.11 Edition

Posted by rtmsf on January 4th, 2011

  1. Minnesota’s Devoe Joseph will be suspended for the second time this season as a result of “some things that he needs to work on” according to head coach Tubby Smith, and has apparently told team members that he intends to transfer out of the program.  Joseph missed the first six games of the season for an undisclosed violation of team rules and academic problems, but the timing on this particular suspension/transfer threat is particularly discouraging, as the Gophers need the talented guard in order to compete in the rugged Big Ten.  Minnesota is already 0-2 in league play after road losses at Wisconsin and Michigan State, so their margin for error going into games versus Indiana and at Ohio State is slim.
  2. Oral Roberts’ best player, Dominique Morrison, will be out of action for up to three weeks as a result of a torn left lateral meniscus that he  recently suffered.  The Summit League’s second-leading scorer this season at 18.4 PPG is a key component of a team that had been expected to compete with Oakland for the SL championship.  The Golden Eagles, though, have had trouble putting things together for Scott Sutton this season, limping to a 5-11 overall start and 2-2 in the conference.  Losing a player of this caliber makes it all but impossible to make up any ground on rival Oakland in the interim.
  3. Missouri has had a promising season thus far in no small part due to the services of KC-born Marcus Denmon, the junior guard who has put together a tremendous campaign with averages of 18/4/2 APG/2 SPG in leading the Tigers to a 13-1 record and a top ten national rating.  Sam Mellinger of the KC Star tells the story of the kid from the rough streets of Kansas City who has turned himself from Mike Anderson’s most valuable bench player last season to, quite simply, his most valuable player this year.
  4. Reggie Smith, the freshman guard who transferred from Marquette last week after only a handful of games played is being sought by several  mid-major schools including Fairfield, LaSalle, South Alabama and Tulane, with a few higher-majors such as Nebraska, TCU and UNLV also showing interest.  Whether Smith and his stepfather will find the star-making vehicle they hoped for at any of those schools remains to be seen.
  5. Were you left wondering how Oregon State handled Arizona over the weekend?  So were we.  And apparently so was head coach Sean Miller, as he called out the lack of toughness and aggressiveness from his team in that loss.  After Washington, you might as well throw a bunch of hats into a circle to pick who the second-best team in the Pac-10 is this year.  No fewer than five or six other teams have shown the capability to be that team, but as soon as you think somebody is wearing it well, something like an Arizona loss in Corvallis happens.
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ATB: New Year’s Weekend Edition

Posted by rtmsf on January 3rd, 2011

The Lede.  Here’s hoping everyone had a very safe and happy New Year’s 2011.  Just typing those numbers makes it hard for us to believe that there are ten-year olds who never experienced the awesomeness of the 1990s.  Speaking of irrelevant references to timing, with the calendar change we’re now heading into the heart of the season.  Frankly, the first two months in some ways seemed interminable, with far too many mismatches merely acting as a prelude for the conference season where the contenders and pretenders will be inevitably ferreted out.  As a case in point, take a look at last year’s AP Top 10 from one year ago today.  Texas, a first-round NCAA loser, was #2; Kansas and Villanova, both second round losers, were #1 and #6, respectively; the #9 team, North Carolina, ended up in the NIT.  The lesson here is that there are no finished products yet — many teams have barely tested themselves, and it wouldn’t be the first time that a school with a lofty pre-conference record collapses after seeing its own blood on the road.  Who will those teams be?  We have some ideas but it’ll have to wait until later this week.

Your Watercooler MomentMemphis Fan Ejected From Game.  This is a no-brainer.  There weren’t all that many great games this weekend, but an incident that took place near the end of Memphis’ 91-86 win over Tennessee State on Sunday is what will be talked about on Monday morning.  After an on-court scrum where a prominent donor’s wife (is she really the spouse of the Lenny’s Sub Shop guy? — someone please confirm) got agitated from the front row and allegedly yelled at one of the TSU players to “choke on” his mouthpiece, the nearby referee Mark Whitehead threw her out of the game.  Yes, you read that correctly, a fan!  And not just any fan, but a middle-aged female fan who quite obviously presented a clear and present danger to the players on the floor, especially considering the way that she was pumping and waving around those blue pom-pons.  (h/t Chris Littman for the video)

Your Watercooler Moment, Vol. II. Dear Ron: Don’t Eff With Jeannine Edwards — Signed, Billy Gillispie.  This has absolutely nothing to do with college basketball per se, but it involves two media personalities who regularly cover the game and it’s hilarious nevertheless.  SportsByBrooks reported over the weekend that ESPN commentator Ron Franklin (he of the Big Twelve games, mostly) condescendingly called reporter Jeannine Edwards “sweetcakes” and “a-hole” during a production meeting prior to the Chick-Fil-A Bowl on New Year’s Eve.  Franklin was allowed to work that game but he was then pulled from the Fiesta Bowl radio broadcast on Saturday night.  We’re not sure if this is a much more common occurrence with female reporters or what, but people seem to enjoy talking down to Jeannine Edwards.  Former Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie of course was widely ridiculed for his treatment of the sideline reporter during an Ole Miss game in 2009, and many people in Wildcat country believe strongly that particular embarrassment was the straw that broke his back as the UK coach.  It’s undetermined what will happen to Franklin as a result of his latest comments, but it should be noted that he had a similar incident five years ago with Holly Rowe and he still remained with the company.  Will Jeannine go two-for-two in her latest battle of the sexes?  Let’s hope so.

This Weekend’s Quick Hits

  • Kansas: Best Team in America. So says Miami (OH) forward Antonio Ballard, whose team has had the privilege to play the top three teams in the polls so far this season.  The Red Hawks lost to Duke by 34, Ohio State by 21, and Kansas by 27, but it was the athleticism of the Morris twins who combined for 38/15 coming off the bench that seemed to make the biggest impression.
  • Illinois Starts off Big Ten 2-0.  The Illini got a key home win on Sunday with its victory over Wisconsin in Champaign.  Combined with a win at Iowa last week, and Bruce Weber’s team crystallizes just how important scheduling is in conference races.  A winnable road game followed by a home game against a team they’ll likely battle all year in the second tier of the conference race.  Contrast this with Minnesota who currently sits at 0-2 as a result of road games to Wisconsin and Michigan State.
  • Syracuse, Cincinnati & St. John’s Do Likewise.  With respect to SU and UC, again, scheduling.  Syracuse feasted on two more home meals with Seton Hall and Notre Dame visiting the Carrier Dome, while Cincy got DePaul and the Hall to visit the Queen City.  The anomaly of this group is Steve Lavin’s Johnnies.  Somehow the same team that lost to Fordham and St. Bonnie managed to get Big East road wins at WVU and Providence last week.  If his team is turning a corner, we’ll find out on Big Monday as they host Georgetown at MSG.
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Checking in on… the Pac-10

Posted by rtmsf on December 23rd, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West conferences.

A Look Back

  • For the first time this season, the Pac-10 had a week where a handful of teams combined to put together some good efforts, and more importantly, some good wins over quality competition. As of Saturday morning, it looked like more of the same for Pac-10 teams, as USC headed to Lawrence and put up a valiant effort against Kansas, before letting it slip away – a familiar course of action from around the conference. But, later that afternoon UCLA handed BYU its first loss of the season in the Wooden Classic, one of the leading candidates to that point for the best win of the season by a Pac-10 school. The next day, Arizona beat North Carolina State in Raleigh, qualifying as a decent road win. And then on Tuesday, USC wrapped up its tough two-game road trip with a win at Tennessee, probably making the Saturday UCLA win take a back seat. At any rate, while some success has come the Pac-10’s way lately, the conference still sits at 72-39 on the season, with the really quality wins over quality opponents remaining few and far between.
  • Team of the Week.  USC – This award was headed to the Southland one way or another. But USC gets the nod over its L.A. rival after basically playing Kansas and Tennessee to draws on the road, escaping with a win in Knoxville despite coming up short at the Allen Fieldhouse. The Trojan win over Tennessee gives Kevin O’Neill’s club perhaps the two best Pac-10 wins in non-conference play to this point (the other a win over Texas), with the start of Pac-10 play a week away. Junior point guard Jio Fontan saw his first action as a Trojan this week, after sitting out the first semester due to his transfer from Fordham. He was effective in his first two games (he had 15 points at Kansas and 13 points,  four assists and three steals at Tennessee), but is still working on getting comfortable with his teammates. As he settles into his role, he has the ability to make the rest of his team better, meaning the Trojans of February and March should be even more dangerous than they are now.
  • Player of the Week. Klay Thompson, Junior, Washington State – The week started out a little iffy for Thompson, as for most of the Cougars’ game at Santa Clara on Sunday, his shots weren’t falling. Throw in six turnovers and Thompson had his Washington State club on the verge of being upset. But with 17 seconds to go, he hit a three to tie the game at 71. From there the game went to overtime, where Thompson scored another seven points and his Cougs pulled out a tough one by six. Thompson wound up with 23 points (albeit on 5/16 shooting), seven rebounds, six assists, five steals, a couple blocks and four threes along the way. Not bad for a rough night. He followed that performance up with a much crisper performance in the opening round of the Diamond Head Classic on Wednesday, with 28 points and four more threes in a Cougar win over Mississippi State. He is now averaging 21 points per game on the season while hitting 48% of his shots and leading his team in assists and steals.
  • Newcomer of the Week.  Josh Smith, Freshman, UCLA – Smith was a major factor in UCLA’s Saturday win over BYU, scoring 15 points, grabbing eight rebounds and playing gutsy and smart minutes down the stretch, despite playing with four fouls, as UCLA fought off the Cougars. Smith picked up his fourth foul on a questionable call with about 15 minutes left in the game, and after he went to the bench BYU scored 11 straight points to cut the UCLA lead to just two. However, rather than keep Smith on the pine until late in the game, head coach Ben Howland showed a lot of faith in his big kid, putting him back in the game with over ten minutes still to play. Smith responded immediately, rebounding his own miss and getting the put-back just after re-entering on his way to seven points, three rebounds and perhaps the biggest defensive play of the game in a span of just over four minutes. That big defensive play occurred when Smith, playing with those four fouls, slid over in the lane in front of a driving Jimmer Fredette, and drew an offensive foul, the fourth foul on BYU’s All-American candidate. Smith has been up and down in his first month as a collegiate player, but if the Bruins entertain hopes of an NCAA Tournament invitation, they’ll need to continue to get play like this from their big and talented youngster.
  • Game of the Week.  USC 65, Tennessee 64 – In all honesty, that USC/Kansas game was probably the more entertaining game. But in a week where the Pac-10 actually pulled out some big wins, I wanted to mention a Pac-10 win in this space for the first time this season. After leading by as much as eight in the middle of the second half at Thompson-Boling Arena, the Trojans had to hang on down the stretch in order to pull this one out. Senior guard Donte Smith continued his hot play of late by hitting a big three with just over two minutes left to give USC some breathing room at 65-60, but Tennessee pulled back within striking distance with four straight free throws. But USC stepped up the defensive pressure down the stretch and forced a deep Volunteer three which rattled off the rim as time expired to earn the win. USC won despite a rough night for leading scorer Nikola Vucevic who was held to just four points and one rebound before fouling out after just 24 minutes. The Trojans were led by 5’7 freshman guard Maurice Jones and his 15 points, four rebounds, four assists, four steals and three three-pointers.
  • Game of the Upcoming Week.  Washington State in the Diamond Head Classic, ESPN on 12/23 and 12/25 – The Cougs should get a chance or two at some quality opponents in Honolulu. With a win over a short-handed Mississippi State team already under their belts, they get to face Baylor in the semifinal round. Baylor will present quite a challenge for WSU, but it also gives the Cougars a chance to put another good win on their resume. Win or lose, they should then get a chance to face either Butler or Florida State on Christmas Day, either in the championship game or the third-place game. While neither one of those opponents is ranked, they each present Ken Bone’s club with another opportunity to face some big-league competition.

Power Rankings

1. Washington State 9-1.  We mentioned the Cougars’ overtime win at Santa Clara above while awarding the Player of the Week award to Klay Thompson, but several other Cougs contributed in that game. Junior forward Marcus Capers hit all five of his shots in that game, ending up with 14 points and seven rebounds, and front-court mate DeAngelo Casto scored 15, including five in the overtime period, and added ten more rebounds. From Santa Clara, WSU headed to Honolulu for the Diamond Head Classic, and got things off to a strong start there, taking apart Mississippi State in the second half of their opening round game there. WSU outscored MSU 44-17 in the second half while hitting 12 of their 24 three-point attempts for the game and outrebounding the Bulldogs 39-23.

Looking ahead: Baylor awaits in the second round of the Diamond Head tournament, with Butler or Florida State rounding up the weekend. Once back on the mainland, all thoughts turn to conference play as a trip to Pauley Pavilion opens Pac-10 play next Wednesday.

2. Washington 7-3.  Two wins this week by an average of 29 points over teams with a combined 7-15 record tells us little or nothing about this Husky team. We know they can beat up on bad teams – they’ve made a living out of doing so. Isaiah Thomas led the way for the Huskies as he broke out his own personal 10-0 run to start the second half of Washington’s 30-point victory over San Francisco. And he took that streak and turned it into a season-high 24 points in the 28-point win over Nevada on Wednesday. Thomas’ numbers this season thus far are up nearly all the way across the board. While his scoring average is down a bit, he’s averaging career-bests in assists, steals, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio, with a career low in turnovers. With competition going up a notch as conference play nears, we’ll keep an eye on those numbers to see if Thomas can keep up that level of play.

Looking ahead: A trip to Los Angeles in advance of the new year, with the Pac-10 opener at USC on 12/29 followed by a visit to Pauley Pavilion on New Year’s Eve.

3. UCLA 7-4.  The importance of the UCLA win over BYU can’t be overstated. For a young team, bouncing back from a horrific 09-10 campaign, with an 0-3 record in their three biggest games of the season and a painful loss to Montana to boot, the BYU win showed this young team that they are capable of playing with top-25 caliber programs. But, just as important as their performance in a highly anticipated game was how they would respond in the next game, against a team without as much name recognition. After UCLA’s strong performance in a loss at Kansas a few weeks back, they got caught napping in their next game against Montana. This time, they faced Montana State after the BYU game, and while there were lapses of concentration (after leading by as many as 15 in the first half, UCLA got sloppy and allowed Montana  State to retake the lead), UCLA was able to pull away late and secure a 16-point win behind Malcolm Lee’s 18 points. Ben Howland would have preferred more consistent play in the follow-up game, but at least his team was able to come away with the win.

Looking ahead: The Bruins wrap up their pre-Pac-10 non-conference slate on Thursday with a visit from UC Irvine before hosting the Washington schools in the opening weekend of conference play.

4. Arizona 11-2.  The Wildcats looked pretty bad in knocking off Northern Arizona by five last Thursday, but bounced back with a solid win over NC State on Sunday night, and then a blowout of overmatched Robert Morris on Wednesday. In the NAU game, Arizona was outrebounded 28-18 and had to fight back from a seven-point half-time deficit to get to a tie game with just over a minute left. From there, Kevin Parrom connected on a three-point play, and then Brendon Lavender got a steal that led to a breakaway bucket to complete the final margin. The NC State game was much less dramatic, as the Wildcats never trailed in the second half, but they did get outrebounded again, this time by a 36-28 margin, including an 18-7 deficit on the offensive end. The Robert Morris game was a whole other level of undramatic, as the Wildcats won by 26. Derrick Williams continued his efficient play, scoring almost 19 points per game this week, although his rebounding numbers have fallen off some – he had just eight total rebounds in the first two games before grabbing nine against RMU. The sophomore Parrom was the most impressive Wildcat this week, with his 14 points, five rebounds, four assists and three threes against NAU making up the best line of his young career.

Looking ahead: Nothing but Pac-10 play from here, as the Wildcats open with visits to the Oregon schools beginning on 12/30.

5. USC 7-5.  We’ve talked about USC pretty extensively above, so we’ll just point out here that aside from the addition of Fontan, the Trojans have plenty of room to grow defensively. In each of the last four seasons, USC ranked in the top 25 teams in the nation in terms of defensive efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy, and last year they were number two in the country in that area. This year, they sit at a respectable 44th, but if we know Kevin O’Neill, you can expect that ranking to improve as the year goes on.

Looking ahead: Lehigh on Thursday is the last non-conference game of the regular season, with conference play kicking off Wednesday with a visit from pre-season Pac-10 favorite, Washington.

6. Arizona State 6-4.  The Sun Devils scored a couple of solid wins this week, with a three-point road-win over Nevada and a 17-point home handling of Long Beach State. The concern around Tempe has been the relatively quiet performances from seniors Rihards Kuksiks, Ty Abbott and Jamelle McMillan, but no such worries this week. Kuksiks led the way in the Nevada game with 20 points and four threes. But it was Ty Abbott who hit a clutch three just under a minute to silence a run by the Wolfpack and give the Sun Devils some breathing room. Abbott wound up with 17 in that game, then followed that up with a team-high 15 against LBSU. McMillan was also solid this week, averaging six assists per game and snagging six steals in the Long Beach game alone. Freshman Kyle Cain also had a big game against the 49ers, grabbing 16 rebounds and scoring 12 points.

Looking ahead: North Carolina A&T is the final non-conference visitor prior to Pac-10 play, with a trip to Corvallis kicking things off there next Thursday.

7. Cal 6-5.  Win a game you should win, lose a game you should lose. That’s the story of the Golden Bear week, as a loss to Kansas followed a win over Cal Poly. The bad news is this team doesn’t seem to be improving a whole lot as the season goes on. We knew that this Cal team had some growing pains ahead of it, with a slew of youngsters trying to replace last year’s decorated but now-departed seniors. In the early going, Mike Montgomery has relied on veterans like front-court grinders Markhuri Sanders-Frison and Harper Kamp and backcourt annoyance Jorge Gutierrez to keep the Bears in games out of sheer determination. These guys fight and scrap and bother the opposition (at times to the point of retaliation, as we saw with Kansas’ Marcus Morris and his flagrant elbow on Wednesday night), but they’re just not the type of guys who you can create offensive opportunities, a problem which leads to things like the infamous Cal five-point half. The hope for Golden Bear fans was that freshmen guards Allen Crabbe and Gary Franklin would use the non-conference season to settle in and be ready to break out in Pac-10 play, but while Crabbe has had some moments on his way to averaging 7.4 points and 4.7 assists per game, Franklin has struggled mightily. He’s turned the ball over more than he’s handed out assists and he’s shooting an awful 28.4% from the field. Montgomery keeps running him out there though, for 26-plus minutes a night every night, hoping that his confidence in his talented freshman will rub off some. If it does, this Cal team could surprise some people; if it doesn’t, they’ll just continue to annoy people.

Looking ahead: A meeting with Hartford on Tuesday wraps up the non-conference slate, then it is on to Palo Alto for their Pac-10 opener with Stanford.

8. Stanford 6-4.  From here on down to the last place team in the conference, there is nothing but bad news and losses this week. Stanford’s struggles started Saturday when they were dominated at Butler. After already trailing by 19 at halftime, the Cardinal were outscored 10-0 to start the half by Matt Howard alone as Butler got all over Johnny Dawkins’ club in every aspect of the game. On Tuesday, in what was the final game of an 8-4 Big 12 win in the Big 12/Pac-10 challenge, Stanford tripped up against at Oklahoma State. Juniors Jeremy Green and Josh Owens led the Cardinal again this week, as they have done most of the season, scoring 33.5 points per game between the two of them this week, as opposed to the 28 they normally average. However, there hasn’t been even a semi-consistent third option anywhere else, although freshman guard Aaron Bright threw his hat into the ring for that role against Oklahoma State with 15 points and four assists.

Looking ahead: The Cardinal host Yale on Thursday, then get their conference play opened on the second day of the new year with a battle against Bay Area rival Cal at the Farm.

9. Oregon 7-5.  Losses to Virginia and Idaho this week turn what had been a reasonably good non-conference slate for the Ducks into just a typical ugly record for a team expected to finish near the bottom of the conference. Oregon showed this week that not only are they an undersized team, they’re also simply an under-talented team, as they shot just 34% from the field combined. Senior Joevan Catron continued to produce – he led the Ducks in scoring and rebounding in each game – but he’s still playing out of position and is more or less surrounded by an underwhelming cast.

Looking ahead: The Arizona schools come to town, starting on Thursday, in what should be a long and ugly conference run for the Ducks.

10. Oregon State 5-6.  The Beavers had two very winnable games this week at home, and came away with a 1-1 record. First, the bad news: a loss against George Washington in which they turned the ball over 19 times, forced just nine turnovers and missed 15 of their 19 attempts from three. A forgettable performance, so let’s just forget it, especially since the win this week was a 20-point blowout of Illinois-Chicago, a team that just got done beating Illinois, a top 25 team. Not only is that a pretty good win for the Beavs, the way that did it has to have their fans excited, as four OSU players scored in double figures: a sophomore, a redshirt freshman and two true freshmen. Sophomore Jared Cunningham led the way with 22 points and three steals. Highly-anticipated redshirt freshman Roberto Nelson went from 14 in just his third game in a Beaver uniform. Freshman Ahmad Starks had 12 points, three assists and four threes, and fellow freshman Devon Collier had ten points, seven rebounds and three steals. When Craig Robinson assembled these kinds of recruits in Corvallis, this is what OSU fans had in mind. Throw in guys like senior forward Omari Johnson and sophomore centers Joe Burton and Angus Brandt and all of a sudden you’ve got the makings of a rotation that looks like a passable Pac-10 group. And that’s without even mentioning senior guard Calvin Haynes, a guy capable of going for 27 points, as he did against Charlotte, although just as likely to go for two points on five field goals attempts in 25 minutes, as he did in a blowout loss at Colorado. This is still a bad Beaver team, but there is no reason this team can’t at least be competitive in many games in a down Pac-10.

Looking ahead: It’s all Pac-10 play from here, as the Beavers will host the Arizona schools next week.

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