|English: 'We trust each other. And we trust our coach [Haith]. We buy in -- and we defend.' (US Presswire)|
Kim English makes a valid point when addressing the size deficiency his Missouri Tigers face when facing physically imposing teams such as Baylor and Kansas.
"They have to match up with us," Mizzou's 6-foot-5 senior power forward (yes, power forward) said. "It's a reciprocal effect. I've got to battle a 6-foot-9 guy, but then they have to chase me around off screens ... I'll take quickness over size any day."
It's still difficult for me to buy into the fact that this undersized group of perimeter guys (and its lone threat in the paint, Ricardo Ratliffe) is in position not only to win the Big 12, but also stand as a legitimate threat to earn a No. 1 seed when the brackets are unveiled next month. Sure, there's still seven regular-season games and the league tournament remaining, but this is a group that has gone 22-2 overall and 9-2 in conference play.
|More on Missouri|
And has knocked off both Kansas and Baylor.
English said that, as much as anything, it's the senior leadership and chemistry that has played into this team thriving while a near-identical group from a year ago struggled.
"It was abysmal last year," English said. "We had too much freedom. Now we have structure.
"We trust each other. And we trust our coach. We buy in -- and we defend."
English has heaped plenty of praise on new coach Frank Haith, who would have coached the Baltimore native at Miami if not for DeQuan Jones committing the weekend prior to his visit to Florida.
"I remember the call," English said. "I was supposed to visit Miami the next weekend, but he called me and said they got a commitment from a highly rated guy out of Georgia. He basically told me he didn't need me anymore."
But now the pair are a perfect fit. Both have revitalized their careers with one another, English regaining his focus after a brutal junior campaign and Haith getting a new lease on life after being on the verge of being let go at Miami.
"As horrible as last year was for me and for the team, it was a blessing," English said. "It opened my eyes to how team success will give you what you want individually."
|Tigers, Pastner to Big East|
Memphis hasn't been able to win the Conference USA over the past few years. How the heck is Josh Pastner going to win -- really win -- in the Big East?
Those in Memphis are celebrating the fact that their beloved Tigers are heading to the Big East in 2013 and while that league won't be what it has been (Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia will be history by the time Memphis arrives), it's difficult to imagine a scenario that has Memphis edging out the Marquette's, Georgetown's and Louisville's for conference championships.
Pastner is having a difficult enough time with the Southern Misses, Marshalls, Tulsas and Central Floridas in C-USA.
It was a no-brainer for the Big East, a league in desperate need of another marquee program after swapping out the Jim Boeheim, Jamie Dixon and Bob Huggins with Donnie Jones (Central Florida), James Dickey (Houston) and Matt Doherty (SMU).
But this fan base will need to lower its expectations.
Sure, the Big East isn't all-powerful as it's been in recent years. But there aren't many "easy outs" in the league -- as has been the case in C-USA. The top of the Big East certainly won't be as powerful and intimidating, but bottom teams such as Rutgers and Providence are improving -- and Villanova shouldn't be down for long.
Memphis fans will finally get to see some of the big boys come into the FedEx Forum.
But would they prefer to watch wins over East Carolina and Tulane -- or losses against Marquette and Louisville?
I think I know the answer.
Draymond Green didn't sleep much, maybe 10 minutes here and 15 there.
He was worried the knee injury he suffered late in the loss to Illinois might be one that ended his college career prematurely. The well-wishing calls and texts -- including one from Purdue's Robbie Hummel -- came in after everyone saw Green limp off the court and unable to return against the Ilini.
"I tried to keep a positive mind, but I slept about an hour that night," Green said. "It was awful. I was so nervous."
Then Green went in for an MRI a week ago and the big wide smile returned when he was told it was nothing serious. Just a sprain.
Not only did Green return against rival Michigan, a matchup that has given him fits throughout his career, but he played one of the best games of his career. He finished with 14 points and outrebounded the entire Michigan team, 16-15.
"It's about time," Green laughed. "They had my number. The last few games against them had been tough on me individually."
Green and the Spartans (18-5, 7-3 Big Ten) are only one game in the loss column behind first-place Ohio State. He hears everyone handing the Buckeyes the league crown, but with two games against Jared Sullinger & Co. left, he still thinks his team has a shot.
"We've got to go take it," Green said. "We know they're up one, but we've got a shot."
"We need to improve offensively," he said. "Make sure we don't go through droughts. Our defense has been great. We're defending and rebounding, but we need to execute better on the offensive end."
Just imagine how tough that would have been without Green.
|Hurricanes' Johnson has no ill feelings|
Reggie Johnson isn't jealous.
Miami's big man has watched his former coach, Frank Haith, get plenty of accolades at his new spot in Columbia, Mo., as the Hurricanes have struggled to get into the NCAA tournament picture.
"I knew he was going to win there," Johnson said. "He's done a heck of a job and I'm proud of him. He gave me a shot to play in the ACC at Miami. "Fans were tired of him here. It was good for us and good for him to get a chance to start over."
Now Johnson, who missed the first part of the season because of injury, is doing his best to get the Hurricanes (14-7, 5-3 ACC) into the NCAA tournament for the first time since he's been in college. He had 27 points and a dozen boards in Miami's road win at Cameron against Duke on Sunday.
"I'm not going to sit here and say we're in now," Johnson said. "That would be foolish. Our mindset is that we're not in yet -- and we still have a lot more work to do. We are one step closer and that's our goal."
Miami's strength was believed to be on the perimeter, but it was Johnson and frontcourt mate Kenny Kadji who combined for 42 points and 20 boards in the win over the Blue Devils. The Hurricanes won despite leading scorer Malcolm Grant finishing with only two points on 1-of-9 shooting.
"We're getting closer, but we still haven't arrived yet," Johnson said.
|Noel should be a Burger Boy|
I'm starting the push for Nerlens Noel in the McDonald's All-American Game.
It's not often that I go back to my roots and throw some recruiting info in here, but it's also not often that guys like Noel come around.
Noel, a Massachusetts native who has spent the past couple years at Tilton School (N.H.), made news last week when he told ESPN.com's recruiting guru (and my former colleague) Dave Telep he'd be re-classifying into the Class of 2012.
The 6-foot-10 Noel is a game-changer and the most potent shot-blocker I've seen come through the high school or college ranks.
He made the decision to go back into the Class of 2012 (he went into 2013 after missing all but five games of his sophomore season at Everett High) after the voting deadline had passed for the McDonald's Game.
"I know I made the decision after everyone had already voted and I understand," Noel told me on Sunday. "It's been a dream of mine forever to play in the McDonald's game and if they feel I'm worthy, I'd love to play in the game. I don't want to take anyone's spot, but I'd love to be in the game."
Noel immediately moves into the top spot in many recruiting analysts eyes in the Class of 2012 and should be added to the prestigious game.
As far as his recruitment is concerned, he told CBSSports.com he'll visit Providence this week, go to Syracuse for an unofficial this weekend and take a trip to Kentucky the following weekend (Feb. 17-18). He is also considering Georgetown, North Carolina and Florida.
|Shaka still Ram-tough|
Maybe Shaka Smart and the VCU Rams weren't a fluke.
Smart, after losing a ton off last year's out-of-nowhere Final Four team, has quietly made VCU way into a player for the CAA title. Remember, this was a team that finished in fourth place in the conference a year ago, but earned one of the final at-large spots and wound up shocking the nation in going from the inaugural First Four to the Final Four.
VCU is now in a three-way tie with Drexel and George Mason at 11-2 in conference play with Old Dominion a game back at 10-3.
"I think everyone expected Drexel and George Mason to be there," Smart said. "They haven't disappointed and people were waiting to see us and ODU since we were both young. A lot of people doubted us with what we lost, but we've both put ourselves in position."
The next few weeks will be telling with two games against George Mason and a road contest against Old Dominion.
Smart said that this year's team doesn't shoot nearly as well as the veteran group from last season, so the Rams have hung their hat on defense.
"We could bang in 3s and outscore people," Smart said. "We haven't shot it bad; just not as well. But we're a much better defensive team."
Each week we talk to an NBA executive who gives us his off-the-record thoughts on a player he has seen recently. This week we take a look at Florida's group:
"Everyone seems to be talking about Austin Rivers and Jeremy Lamb as the top two-guards on the board, but I'd go with [Bradley] Beal. He can really shoot it from deep, has a high IQ and also makes good decisions with the ball in his hands. He's got a good frame and will be able to come into our league and physically handle it right away. He rebounds extremely well for someone his size and also has a terrific demeanor. I'm not quite sure of the Ray Allen comparisons that have been thrown out there because he's not an automatic shooter by any means at the college level, but he'll be a more well-rounded overall player than Ray Allen. I'd be shocked if he doesn't go in the lottery whenever he chooses to leave."
"Patric Young is overrated. I wouldn't take him in the first round this year, especially with all the big guys that will be available. I'm not sure who had him as a lottery pick coming into the season, but they obviously didn't watch him. The kid looks the part physically and he plays hard most of the time, but he's so limited offensively. He's improved, but he's still not a threat in the post. The other thing that worries me is that he's not a dominant rebounder and for someone with his frame and lack of skill, he needs to be averaging double-digit rebounds. He's a guy that needs to stay in school and work on his skill-set."
"The guy that I think has a chance to play in our league that few talk about is Erik Murphy. He's every bit of 6-10 and can really step out and shoot it. He's a smart player who is a tough match-up. He's not a great athlete, but if you can stroke it like he can and you possess that size and length, I think there's a place for you in the league. He needs to become a better rebounder and defender, I think he'll be a second-rounder who has a chance to stick."
Notre Dame: The Irish have reeled off four straight against teams that could all wind up in the NCAA tournament. Mike Brey seems to do his best coaching jobs after losing his best player.
Tyler Zeller: We all overlook the veteran North Carolina 7-footer. We gush about John Henson's defense, Harrison Barnes' ability to shoot from the perimeter and Kendall Marshall's distributing ability. However, Zeller has been the model of consistency of late, averaging 17.8 points and 9.8 rebounds over the past eight games.
Travon Woodall: No one's stock has risen higher because of his team's performance with him on and off the court. Woodall is finally healthy and Pittsburgh has won four straight to climb back into the NCAA tournament picture.
Seton Hall: At one time, not all that long ago, Kevin Willard's team appeared a lock to make the NCAA tournament. Now the Pirates have lost six straight and are 4-7 in Big East play. They had better stop the bleeding -- soon.
Purdue: Robbie Hummel is having trouble finding his shot, Lewis Jackson's back is hurting and Matt Painter can't get anything from his big men. After a home loss this past weekend to Indiana and a close call at Ohio State, the Boilermakers may need to win five of their final eight Big Ten games for Hummel & Co. to go dancing.
Patric Young: Florida's big man needs another year in college. He's dealt with tendinitis in his ankle and is also trying to learn how to play hard all the time. The last two games, leading up to a 12-point, four-rebound performance against Kentucky, he scored a total of seven points and grabbed nine rebounds.
|Running out the shot clock|
• My top half-dozen candidates for Coach of the Year? Notre Dame's Mike Brey, San Diego State's Steve Fisher, Missouri's Frank Haith, Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Georgetown's John Thompson III and Murray State's Steve Prohm.
• There are nine teams still unbeaten in league play: Long Beach State (Big West), Utah Valley (Great West), Harvard (Ivy), Murray State (Ohio Valley), Bucknell (Patriot), Kentucky (SEC), UT-Arlington (Southland), Mississippi Valley State (SWAC) and Saint Mary's (11-0).
• On the flip side, there are a dozen teams without a win in conference action: Binghamton (America East), Kennesaw State (Atlantic Sun), Texas Tech (Big 12), UC Davis (Big West), Loyola (Ill.) (Horizon), Dartmouth (Ivy), South Carolina State (MEAC), Boise State (Mountain West), Tennessee-Martin (Ohio Valley), Navy (Patriot), Santa Clara (WCC) and San Jose State (WAC).
• Saturday just might be the best day of college hoops all year. I'll be one of the matchups involving a pair of Top 25 teams: San Diego State at UNLV. Baylor heads to Missouri, Michigan State goes to Ohio State, Virginia is at UNC, Kentucky is at Vandy, UConn travels to Syracuse, Wichita State and Creighton play in Omaha, Harvard faces Princeton on the road and Louisville is at West Virginia. Loaded.