Posted on: November 25, 2011 8:52 pm
Edited on: November 25, 2011 8:53 pm

Stanford shows more strengths than weaknesses

By Matt Norlander

NEW YORK — The fact Stanford was the final Pac-12 team to lose this season tells you something about that league and something about the Cardinal.

Against what Johnny Dawkins said is “definitely one of the best teams in the nation,” his club played well. And dating back to Wednesday, it’s fair to say Stanford had a prideful showing in its two games at Madison Square Garden — it merely showed its inexperience and hesitancy in the big moment. It was almost as if the Cardinal was a bit surprised to be in it, amid the Orange fan-catalyzed hysteria with four minutes to go in a 60-58 game they had a lead in.

The Garden was rocking near the end; it was then that Stanford fell apart, shooting 1 for 5 with two turnovers and four fouls after the final TV timeout. Syracuse made three field goals and five free throws during the same time span.

To say Stanford lacked a go-to guy, an alpha, a floor leader in the critical stretch of the game is to be completely fair. In fact, the Cardinal’s surprise player, Aaron Bright (listed at 5-11; there’s no chance he’s within two inches of that) — who had only played in two of Stanford’s game heading into this one — was the man on the floor with the most points (13). Bright tried to make something happen, but he was overmatched, and by then the Orange knew he was coming.

“It was really tough to make plays, trying to jump down to [Josh Owens] or (Andrew) Zimmermann or whoever is down there,” Bright said. “He (Syracuse center Fab Melo) had a presence in every pass I made and every shot that I took.”

The runty ringer got rung and hung out to dry, finishing up his day with three fouls, a turnover and no made field goals in the final 6:46.  

“Really, they have long arms, they're big inside,” Stanford’s Chasson Randle said. “They really pressured us to make bad decisions sometimes.  It was on us.  It's what we have to work on and improve on.”

Defensively, it got tougher and tougher as well. Maybe it was the crowd, Syracuse’s talent or just a wave of momentum that couldn’t be ultimately reversed. The Cardinal watched the Orange shot 61 percent from the field, and 44 percent from 3, in the second half.  

“Before we arrived, it's so early in the season that you don't really know the make‑up of your team, how good you can be, because it's still early,” Dawkins. “I found out a lot about our guys during these last couple of days.” 

Orange coach Jim Boeheim learned something as well: he said without the full-court press his team had, Syracuse wouldn’t have won. The team's worked on it in practice since the start of the season, but it never had to be unleashed like it was during this game. Because of that, Dawkins realized his team's weaknesses in the paint thereafter. The press did what it's supposed to do in throwing the other team off its rhythm, often creating turnovers in the process.

“We didn't get some of the things we normally get out of it,” Dawkins said. “You credit them for playing well down there in the paint.  They're physical, they're long.  And it was difficult for us to score on them down there.”

We've got some time to figure out how good Stanford is. It held its own against a top-five team and blew out a fringe NCAA tournament squad in Oklahoma State. That could be good enough to be top-four in the meek Pac-12.

Photo: AP

Posted on: November 23, 2011 10:04 pm
Edited on: November 23, 2011 10:39 pm

Stanford's Owens taking advantage of 2nd chance

By Jeff Goodman

NEW YORK - There was a time when Stanford's Josh Owens wasn't certain he'd ever play again.

"There were all types of possibilities," Owens said. "But I just followed what the doctors and medical staff told me."

Stanford's athletic forward missed the entire 2009-10 campaign due to an undisclosed medical condition that he did not elaborate on following arguably the best offensive performance of his college career.

"I'm thankful," Owens said after scoring 13 of his team's first 15 points and finishing with 21 in a 82-67 win over Oklahoma State.

Owens started as a sophomore, but then was diagnosed with the medical condition and wasn't allowed to practice with the team his junior season.

"I just worked out on my own," Owens said. "It was tough."

"I just took it day by day," he added.

Owens said he appreciates being able to get on the court - and is trying to make his final go-around with the Cardinal a memorable one.

With the recent stumbles in the Pac-12 by just about everyone in the league, Stanford - picked to finish sixth in the preseason poll - could sneak up and make a postseason run.

Especially if Owens continues to play with the energy and assertiveness he displayed at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night -- and freshman Chasson Randle (17 points, 5 rebounds) acclimates to the college game quickly. Sophomore Dwight Powell and Anthony Brown are also talented guys who, if they develop, could put the Cardinal in the equation for an NCAA tournament bid.

But Owens said while he is keeping tabs on the league, that's not his concern.

"We're focused on us," Owens said. "It's all about us."

Photo: AP
Posted on: November 20, 2011 12:09 pm

Cunningham ready to become an elite player

By Matt Norlander

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Is Jared Cunningham on the precipice of becoming a top-level player? If so, we need to look at what Oregon State’s capable of and how much of a run this team can make in the Pac-12.

Cunningham put up 37 points in overtime Saturday night, as Oregon State knocked off Texas 100-95. But the irony first: Oregon State coach Craig Robinson thinks he’s got a defensive team, not one that's capable of putting up 100 on a regular basis. 

The Beavers weren’t good defensively, but against a Texas squad that’s drastically different from what it was last year, Robinson’s team didn’t need to throw down an all-world effort on that end of the floor. It needed a hallmark performance from its alpha -- and that's what it got.

OSU’s trajectory lies in how complete of an offensive player Cunningham becomes. He’s already got an incredible pogo stick and pops his head in there around the rim, but if he develops a reliable jump shot and morphs into a threat from 17 feet and in, then this goes to another level as he does.

"Jared has evolved as a player since I saw him when he was a sophomore (in high school) and I was at Brown and trying to recruit him before he blew up,” Robinson said. “He has just come a long way. The reason is because he is extremely receptive to coaching. He wants to get better and what you saw out there was a culmination of his hard work. We get to see it all the time out west. He does everything for us. He guards the best guy. He scores points. He makes assists. He makes his foul shots. The magnitude of what he had to do today, on this stage and in this tournament against this team, is big time. And it's getting to be a regular thing with Jared."

Cunningham took a hit to the mouth in overtime. He didn’t want to come out, of course; he did his best to prevent blood from dripping on his jersey. He's tough, smart, the kind of player Robinson knows is special.

“I’m very proud of the team,” Cunningham said. “We all believe in each other, we’ve got confidence in each other and we want to do well.”

Was Saturday night more about Texas or Oregon State? I’m inclined to believe the latter, because it feels like Robinson’s truly going to rise to the next level of capability and positive result with this group.

“Getting a hundred on them … that surprised me more than anything,” Robinson said.  He added, in terms of getting a win over UT and what it means to his regime. “In our program, this is near the top. Don’t’ get me wrong, this isn’t the same Texas team. It feels like they lost 15 pros. They had more pros on the bench—it was unbelievable. But this was a big win for us this season, and one of the bigger wins for the program.”

Photo: AP
Posted on: November 19, 2011 10:54 am
Edited on: November 19, 2011 11:03 am

Arizona freshman Turner admits growing pains

By Jeff Goodman

The first step is admitting it.

That's what Arizona's talented freshman Josiah Turner did to some of his teammates last week.

"He apologized to me," Arizona veteran guard Kyle Fogg said. "It meant a lot to me."

"I wasn't working hard," Turner said after Friday night's loss to Mississippi State in New York. "I had a nonchalant attitude."

Then Arizona coach Sean Miller benched him - for an entire game.

"It wasn't so much that it was embarrassing," Turner said. "It gave me a mindset that I needed to start working harder. It was a wake-up call."

Turner played well in spurts on Thursday and Friday night at Madison Square Garden. It's clear that he'll have some growing pains - and even Turner, a highly touted point guard - understands that now.

"The transition is more difficult than I thought it would be to be honest," Turner said. "I think I've been humbled, but I also think I'm starting to get used to it."

This Arizona team is not a Top 25 ballclub right now. Not with Kevin Parrom at less than 100 percent - and not with Turner looking like, well, an ordinary freshman.

Turner logged 17 minutes on Friday night and while his numbers were mediocre (eight points, two assists, two rebounds), he played with more poise than he had all season - and made fewer mistakes.

"I think it's just going to take time," Turner said.

For Turner - and for Arizona.
Posted on: November 18, 2011 10:31 pm
Edited on: November 18, 2011 10:42 pm

Arizona is the good and bad of Pac-12 this year

By Matt Norlander

NEW YORK — If this is supposed to be the Pac-12's third-best team, then the conference needs to prepare for another down year.

Those in the league and fans of it knew this wouldn't be another banner season in the Pac-12, but for as much as No. 15 Arizona has to grow, who knows how much depth -- and more importantly, good basketball -- we're going to see out West. Again.

It goes Washington and Cal, pick whichever you'd like atop the league, then Arizona. And the Wildcats aren't a top-30 team as they are right now. UCLA probably comes next, but it's got its issues to sort out. You think the Bruins or Wildcats are sure-fire reliable teams, worthy of rankings right now? You know they're not.

I'm not saying the Pac-12's only going to send three teams to The Dance this year, but there's a good chance it won't crack four. Arizona could represent the fracture line in this league. And it got outplayed by a muscular, talented and extremely flawed team -- that didn't play incredibly well -- Friday night at Madison Square Garden.

The Bulldogs won the 2K Sports Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer, 67-57. But let's keep our focus here on Arizona, which is an overrated team right now (well, maybe not after tonight) that lacks a star and a semblance of what it can be. It will likely get better, but this is not looking like an elite group. It's yet to crack 60 twice already this season; that happened three times total (and came consecutively) last season.

Arizona was held to eight field goals in the second half. It had myriad opportunities to tip the boat against MSU, but "could never get that big shot we needed," Wildcats head coach Sean Miller said, adding, “they had the tempo right where they wanted it."

Miller also said the team has no identity yet (I'd venture about 80 percent of college basketball could say the same right now), but they're building. Losing No. 2 NBA draft pick Derrick Williams will do that to a club. Miller credited Mississippi State. He liked the opportunity and learned more about his team. I think he knows this groups limits. He's got faith, but he didn't push out platitudes like other coaches tend to do once they saunter into the press room and flip to cruise control.

“If you watched us last night, you saw the good of Arizona, what we can be in a positive light," Miller said. "Tonight, you can see what we have to get better at. Playing against a big, physical team, we have to do a better job defensively and playing against a tempo like that — it slowed us down as well.”

Arizona's bigs didn't take control (would you expect them to) against Mississippi State's Arnett Moultrie and Renardo Sidney(who had a bad left hand and really didn't do all that much), two players with a high chance of one day being drafted into the NBA.

“They made it harder to score around the rim — but we weren’t aggressive coming out of the start, and they took over from the beginning,” Perry said.

You'd figure Arizona would want to, and later admit, to have some tenacity early on. But it wasn't there. The good news: the Wildcats aren't going to have many foes this season that can offer the type of beef and immovability down low that the Bulldogs employ. 

“The biggest thing we had a hard time doing today is getting to the foul line,” Miller said. “Their length and size did a good job keeping us off the line, which is a big part of our offense. It’s the difference in our offense.”

I think the turnaround for the Wildcats was also an issue. The team's not ready to adapt to drastically different teams on back-to-back nights.

“You play against St. John’,” said Miller, “it’s such a frenetic, zone-oriented game. And the next day you’re playing against a slow-tempoed , half-court, tough, man-to-man team. That was a change we didn’t handle well today. ... When the ball got down low, Moultrie was better than our guys."

Here's what Miller's taking from the game -- a loss that should look OK come March. Unless Mississippi State has another implosion, it's going to the NCAA tournament. Arizona got beat, but if it minimizes the losses, this one will look good in comparison to what other top-40 BCS teams have right now.

“At the end of the day, you want to have quality wins and you look back sometimes and say, ‘That was a really good game for us to play,’” Miller said.

One last thing -- I did get Miller one-on-one and wanted him to share what his thoughts on recently embattled freshman guard Josiah Turner were. Here's what he said:

“Josiah’s moving in the right direction,” he said. “With some players it doesn’t always happen in the first three or four weeks of the year. Where are team’s going to be eight weeks from now, or four weeks from now, will have a lot of similarities. He’s going to learn, like all of our freshmen, how to handle the highs and lows of the game.”

Growing process, you know how this time of year goes. Seeing Arizona up close, it looks like there's a lot of growing to do, and it'd be best if we adjusted our perspective on this team -- sort of in the opposite way from last year, when 'Zona took most of us by surprise.

Photo: AP
Category: NCAAB
Posted on: November 18, 2011 11:36 am
Edited on: November 18, 2011 11:38 am

Wait, who's currently No. 1 in the RPI??

By Jeff Goodman

President Obama has taken control of the RPI.

Otherwise, none of this makes any sense. I can't think of any other avenue in which Oregon State sits atop the flawed statistical formula that many utilize to help determine which college basketball teams are ultimate deserving of getting into the NCAA tournament.

Sure, I know it's early - and we shouldn't put much (if any) stock into the rankings right now. But this is yet another reason why I don't pay much attention to the RPI. Guess who checks in at No. 1 in the country at the present time? Oregon State.

Yes, this is the same team that has a resume that includes a 86-62 victory over Cal State Bakersfield and also a 10-point win over Hofstra. It's also the same team coached by the President-in-law, Craig Robinson. Both wins came in Corvallis.

There was also that impressive 93-60 victory over West Alabama, but thankfully that one didn't figure into the mathematical equation since West Alabama in a non-Division 1 team. Last time I checked Hofstra no longer had star Charles Jenkins - and Cal State Bakersfield wasn't even worthy of being affiliated with a conference.

Oregon State has a chance to be a solid team this season - and I don't want to get on President Obama's bad side here. But No. 1 in the nation? I'll stick with North Carolina or Kentucky.

Photo: AP
Category: NCAAB
Posted on: November 16, 2011 8:23 pm
Edited on: November 16, 2011 8:24 pm

UCLA's Howland reinstates Reeves Nelson

By Jeff Goodman

I never thought Ben Howland would sell out. 

UCLA's coach is feeling the heat, following an 0-2 start after an embarrassing loss to Loyola Marymount and a 20-point drubbing at the hands of Middle Tennessee State to begin the season.

The Bruins are desperate and headed to play in a loaded Maui Invitational early next week.

So, what did Howland do?

Howland reinstated Reeves Nelson, his most productive player, on Wednesday afternoon.

"After much deliberation, I have decided to reinstate Reeves Nelson,” Howland in a statement. “Reeves understands that his reinstatement is contingent on his ability to continually meet the high standards we have established for all UCLA men’s basketball players. He expressed to me in our meeting earlier today that he desires to be a better person and better teammate going forward, and, given that, I feel as though I should give him that opportunity.”

Maybe this will serve as a wake-up call for Nelson, but multiple sources close to the UCLA program maintain Nelson is near the top of the list when it comes to "chemistry killers."

Again, Howland isn't the only coach in America to make a decision in which talent supersedes everything else.

He realizes that this team - one with the Wear Twins and a plump Josh Smith up front - and Lazeric Jones and Tyler Lamb in the backcourt - doesn't have enough talent to compete with the big boys. In fact, it may not be enough to finish in the top half of a mediocre Pac-12. 

Howland wants to win. No, needs to win.

So, he's decided to bring back Nelson - whom he has clashed with throughout much of his career.


We know why.

Sometimes winning trumps everything else.

This was one of those cases.
Posted on: November 16, 2011 10:32 am

Winless UCLA on verge of its season unraveling

By Matt Norlander

I'm going to abandon convention and completely undress, evaluate, conclusion-jump and criticize Ben Howland and UCLA right now.

Because seriously, man -- what the hell? An 86-66 loss to Middle Tennessee State last night? In Los Angeles? Howland is having his Billy Gillispie moment. He's having trouble recruiting, and the talent that should be winning games isn't. I'm not merely talking this season, of course. This has been building, and now you're starting to see a real possibility the flames take down the house.
The Bruins missed Nelson's fire and grit in the first game of the Maui Invitational, not to mention his scoring and rebounding, but their second straight double-digit defeat against a no-name opponent was certainly no fluke.

The Blue Raiders appeared to possess better athletes and played with more poise on both ends of the court on the way to their first 3-0 start in 10 years.

Middle Tennessee State also made shots, an art form that continued to elude the Bruins (0-2). The Blue Raiders buried their first nine three-point attempts and finished 10 of 11 (90.9%) from behind the arc.

They seemingly couldn't miss from anywhere while making 35 of 49 shots (71.4%), building leads that swelled to as many as 22 points in the second half. Forward LaRon Dendy had 16 points and 13 rebounds as one of five Blue Raiders to score in double figures.
Last night was a convergence of a team lacking in passion going up against a group that had an all-time 3-point shooting performance. If MTSU hadn't missed the second-to-last 3-point shot it took, it would've set the NCAA record by going 10 for 10.

What's more for UCLA, there are clearly issues amongst the team, too, as Reeves Nelson didn't play last night and could just as easily ask for a transfer out of the program before this post is finished. Nelson is indefinitely suspended, and no one knows the exact reason why. But from the outside, it seems evident he's been a malcontent. Having talked with him before, I can tell you he's an eccentric guy, for sure. He's like a less-talented, more renegade version of Bill Walton (who famously clashed with John Wooden).

Josh Smith talked smack on Twitter about the team that beat him. He then recanted. Smith is an amazing talent, but lazy and overweight. He should not be speaking out of turn when his team's 0-2 and he looks perpetually afraid of the treadmill.

UCLA's season already feels like its on the brink. It's been eight years since the Bruins started 0-2. That season was Steve Lavin's last; the Bruins finished 10-19. Fans are not anxious or panicking -- they are full-on freaking out. This awful start puts a threat that 2012 No. 1 recruit Shabazz Muhammad will consider the Bruins. If Howland doesn't get Muhammad and UCLA misses the tournament this year, is he out? Plenty will make the case he's a coach who will have gone through his life cycle there. The month of November is a crucial one for Howland's future in Los Angeles.

It is no secret that Howland is not considered easy to play for. He's had to bring in Korey McCray, an AAU coach out of Atlanta, to help with recruiting. It may not be enough. Howland's going up against coaches who no doubt are killing him behind closed doors. With the talent UCLA has on the team right now, this has to be an NCAA tournament team this year. But we're already at a point where a post like this is justified.

Now comes the Maui tournament, though technically the tournament began with a loss, as the MTSU game was part of the mainland portion of the bracket. It starts with a game against D-II Chaminade, then will be followed by a tilt with Georgetown or Kansas. The field also has Duke, Tennessee, Michigan and Memphis. Some believe its the deepest crop the Maui Invitational has ever hosted. Could UCLA only get one win there? Is this team going to be 1-4 by the end of next week?

It feels make-or-break. If UCLA emerges 2-3, it will have done the inconceivable and smothered the issue in duct tape. UCLA's season can essentially go up in flames in the next three weeks, which ends with a home game against enigmatic Texas. Howland's faced a lot of pressure in Westwood since arriving. It's never been as much of a squeeze as it is right now.

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com