Posted on: December 27, 2011 8:59 am
Edited on: January 6, 2012 3:35 pm

Conference Reset

As well roll into January that can only mean one thing -- we're about to launch full swing into conference play.

For some teams, non-conference play was a wake-up call. Teams that many thought would easily stroll into the NCAA tournament come March will now have to pick up the pace in league play.

Through Jan. 5, the CBSSports.com college basketball crew will be putting the spotlight on every major league, letting you know what you may have missed and what do you need to watch out for going forward.

  • ACC
    The ACC is going to be great soon with the additions of Syracuse and Pittsburgh. But is it great right now? Not really. North Carolina remains a national title contender, Duke is Duke (despite Wednesday's loss at Temple) and Virginia is a surprise. But the league's other nine teams are either unproven or proven to be average or bad, and that's not a good look for a conference that prides itself on playing a high level of basketball. Read More >>
  • Atlantic 10
    For a while, it appeared the Atlantic 10 might finish without a conference champ. Xavier got off to a sizzling start with nine straight victories. Then came The Brawl -- followed by the Fall. Xavier suspended Tu Holloway, Mark Lyons and Dez Wells after the fight with cross-town rival Cincinnati -- and it all fell apart. Chris Mack's team lost three of its next four, including setbacks to Oral Roberts and Hawaii, which gave hope to everyone else in the league. Now Rick Majerus' Saint Louis team, which has only one loss thus far, may have a shot. Temple has struggled at times, but the Owls could challenge. And Saint Joseph's finally appears back in contention after two brutal campaigns. Read More >>
  • Big 12
    The Big 12 title is up for grabs. Kansas has been king of the league for most of the past decade, but this season the Jayhawks look vulnerable. No one can match the talent and length of Scott Drew's Baylor squad, but the Bears haven't been the most impressive team in the conference thus far -- that honor belongs to Missouri and new coach Frank Haith. But don't count out Kansas State as long as Frank Martin has this group of somewhat anonymous Wildcats buying into his brand of basketball -- which means playing hard. Read More >>
  • Big East
    When compared to last season, the Big East might look down this year. It's not going to be in the mix for 10 or 11 NCAA tournament bids, and the bottom of the league is not very strong. With that said, don't underestimate the conference too much; it has at least three legitimate top 10 teams and six teams who should receive top-four seeds in the NCAA tournament. Read More >>
  • Big Ten
    How many teams can enter league play these days and legitimately say they have eight teams in the equation for an NCAA tournament bid? Probably just one, and that's the Big Ten. After Ohio State, there's plenty of depth in this conference, which has established itself as the premiere league in the country this season. Read More >>
  • Conference USA
    Though Memphis is a disappointment, it's still the best team in Conference USA by a wide margin. But don't take my word for it. Take Ken Pomeroy's. His invaluable site (KenPom.com) still has Memphis ranked 31st and projected to be favored in every game it plays the rest of the way. So that 8-5 record is likely to turn into something like 26-8 on Selection Sunday (barring serious injuries or notable suspensions, the latter of which is always a possibility at Memphis). So Memphis will win C-USA. The real question is whether C-USA can put two teams in the NCAA tournament. Read More >>
  • Horizon League
    It doesn't seem likely that the Horizon will produce a national finalist for the third year in a row, but that doesn't mean the conference has taken a huge fall. Cleveland State and Wisconsin-Milwaukee have played well during non-conference play, and the league has had a few marquee clips against BCS-league teams. And what about Butler, the aforementioned two-time national finalist? The Bulldogs are turning things around as we enter conference play. But the rest of the league won't let Brad Stevens' troops waltz to a yet another Horizon title. Read More >>
  • Missouri Valley
    It's been a few years since the Valley was this good, even though the bottom part of this one (like most leagues) has a few bad teams. The race to win the league should be among four teams. For whatever reason, MVC clubs capture the hope of many in the tournament. Creighton, Northern Iowa, Bradley, Southern Illinois are all schools that have had big March moments. Two of the aforementioned can and should get into the Big Dance this year. Read More >>
  • Mountain West
    It's better than the Pac-12, and the case could be made it's the fourth-best collection of teams in college hoops. There isn't one group that's even flirting with .500. For a non-BCS conference, that's pretty unexpected and really good. And its success so far goes much deeper than Vegas' defeat of UNC back in November and Steve Fisher's insistence on looking like he teaches grad-level lit classes. Read More >>
  • Pac-12
    The Pac-12 has become the rebellious teenager that gets in its own way and is hurtling toward a life with no future. Here we are again having the same discussion we’ve been having the past few years. Nothing seems to be changing. This league is putrid yet again, and where’s the hope? Not an overstatement: Three Pac-12 teams making the NCAA tournament will be a genuine achievement. Read More >>
  • SEC
    Some fans take joy in the fact that John Calipari has never won a national title. If you're one of those, you might be in trouble. Kentucky really might do it this year. The Wildcats are big and strong and long and talented. They have shooters. They have shot-blockers. They've got everything you need to win a national championship, and they are, right now, the favorites out in Las Vegas. Read More >>
  • West Coast
    Outside of the six BCS-affiliated conferences, the No. 7 spot in league rankings is up for grabs. Why not the West Coast Conference? With three legitimate threats to win a game in the NCAA tournament, the WCC has as good of an argument as anyone. Moreover, with some of the non-conference wins the bottom half of the league picked up in November, the quality victories are there as well. Read More >>

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Posted on: November 12, 2011 7:22 pm

Butler involved in another controversial finish

By Jeff Borzello

The ending of last year’s game between Butler and Pittsburgh in the NCAA tournament might have been the most memorable finish of the season. This season, the Bulldogs might be part of the most exciting ending once again – but on the losing end this time.

Butler blew a 12-point lead in the second half against Evansville, en route to an 80-77 defeat. The end of regulation and overtime will undoubtedly leave a sour taste in the mouth of the Bulldogs.

In regulation, Evansville tied the game on a Colt Ryan free throw with 0.9 seconds left after a controversial foul sent him to the line. On the ensuing possession, Butler threw the ball the length of the court to Andrew Smith, who made a four-footer at the buzzer to win it – or so everything thought. The refs called a foul with 0.2 seconds left, although the lights on the backboard at Evansville’s new arena didn’t light up when the clock struck triple zero, meaning it was difficult to tell whether if Smith got the shot off in time.

Evansville head coach Marty Simmons did not think Smith got the shot off in time.

With 0.2 seconds left, Smith clanked both free throws, sending the game into overtime. In the final minute of the extra session, with Evansville up by one, Ryan drove to the rim and missed. Smith got rebound, but Ryan – while standing out of bounds – knocked the ball out of his hands and laid it in. Evansville held on from there.

“More than anything, we feel fortunate,” Simmons said by phone after the game. “That game could’ve went either way. We just have so much respect for them. When you’re able to beat them, it feels good.”

Ryan finished with 23 points, six rebounds and five steals for Evansville, while Smith went for 21 points and nine rebounds for Butler. Chrishawn Hopkins had 22 points and five assists for Brad Stevens’ troops.

When Butler lost to Division-II Northern State last week, it was clear that this season would be a rebuilding one for the Bulldogs.

Saturday’s overtime loss to Evansville only cements that assertion – even though the Bulldogs also lost to the Aces in November last season, before turning things around and making a run to the title game.

This is simply not the same team as last year. There’s no Shelvin Mack to bail Butler out when the shot clock is winding down, and there are not enough outside shooters to take the pressure off Smith down low. Khyle Marshall was expected to have a breakout season, but he only finished with six points and four fouls. Highly-touted freshmen Roosevelt Jones and Kameron Woods both did not play for the Bulldogs on Saturday.

Can Butler bounce back and win the Horizon? Of course – it’s only November 12, the Bulldogs do have talent on the roster and this was certainly a fluky loss. Moreover, if Smith hit one of his two free throws, we probably wouldn’t even be writing this post.

“I think they’re really good,” Simmons said. “They lost some really great players, but they have a great system of play and they have really good players. Their staff puts them in position to win. They’re really difficult team to play against. They have a lot of really, really good pieces.”

With that said, Stevens does have his work cut out for him this season.

As for Evansville, Simmons is hoping the win gives the Aces some momentum going forward.

“We’ll see,” he said. “I’m really proud of our guys, the way they were able to hang in there. It was a gut check.” 

For both teams.

Posted on: November 8, 2011 1:54 pm

Bryce Drew's symbolic first game as Valpo coach

By Matt Norlander

In a formal setting, last night was not the first time Bryce Drew had ever acted as a head coach. During Valparaiso’s foreign trip in 2010, father (Homer Drew) let son run the team. It was prep for the job he’d have one day, even if both men weren’t sure when or if they would certainly happen.

Monday night, the college basketball season began, and Bryce Drew was labeled in the scorebooks for the first time, officially, as a head coach. His Valpo team fell 73-64 to No. 16 Arizona, at Arizona. Drew wore that dapper jacket as means of tribute. That hue of blue is the official color of the fight against prostate cancer—exactly in the way pink has become synonymous with battling breast cancer—and so Drew wore it to honor his father, who is battling prostate cancer; his mother, who is battling bladder cancer; and the Coaches vs. Cancer tournament, which Valpo is coincidentally a part of this season.

The assistants wore light blue ties. Drew wanted to get the team to wear light blue undershirts to go with the uniforms, but apparently they didn’t all get the right sizes, so the squad will don that look in its first home game next week. The school will also be selling the shirts to raise money in the fight against cancer.

Finding that specific kind of jacket was a tough task. Drew said folks in the program eventually corralled one via online purchase. As for his family, “They’re both doing a lot better,” Drew said. He talked to Homer before and after the game.

“They really wanted to be here, but couldn’t make it so they had to watch it back home,” Drew said. “It’s nice to have my mom and dad both be at home now.”

He wasn’t nervous either. Said with all the prep and march on toward the first night of the season, it was more focus, then excitement just a few minutes before game time. Outside of the shirt-size mishap, Drew said the game and experience as head coach didn’t offer up any surprises. The 37-year-old coach was most impressed by Arizona’s quickness, specifically at guard.

“Yeah, they are so quick. I love their two freshmen guards, (Nick) Johnson and (Josiah) Turner,” he said. “I think they’re going to be very good for them this year.”

But what about Arizona’s primary weakness? Sure it’s a ranked team right now, but I and many others see some flaws with this group. Drew’s take: “I think he (Sean Miller) needs to get those guys experience. He just has a lot of young guys that need playing time. As a coach, we try to speed that process up, but it takes time.”

Valpo hung around with Arizona for most of the first half; Drew said a stretch in the second half that was rife with turnovers is when it got away from his guys.

“When you play a team like that you don’t have a large margin of error,” Drew said. “But we fought through, and I want to say the last six minutes we outscored them by 11. And also, the second [weak area] for us was our 3-point shooting. We didn’t shoot the way we wanted to.”

Drew said his team won't be 3-point-minded this year, that it will always look to adjust on offense to what the defense is providing. After the game, he spoke with his dad, and it was casual, he said. Wasn't this big thing or huge conversation. The day had finally come for Bryce to take the reigns from Homer. Mom and Pop always in mind, he's now officially started manning the program his way.

Photo: AP
Posted on: September 8, 2011 10:38 am

Walk-on Green Bay shorty surprised with schollie

By Matt Norlander

What happened to Eric Valentin Tuesday was pretty much the dream of 99 percent of those who played basketball at the high school level at some point in their life.

The 5-foot-4 senior walk-on was surprised with a scholarship by head coach Brian Wardle, a gesture of appreciation from the program for Valentin’s undeniable work ethic and positive attitude.

"I call him the Mayor of Campus,” Wardle said. “He's so well-liked and has a huge heart. He’s a small kid, but he's a 7-footer when it comes to his personality."

In fact, Valentin’s listed at 5-4, but if you look at the video below, even that might be a stretch, making his accomplishment all the more impressive. Wardle said his decision was made to give Valentin this opportunity at the end of last season, which was Wardle’s first as head coach of the Phoenix; he’d been an assistant at the program for the previous five years.

"We have a very young team this year,” Wardle said. “We have 12 scholarships and I didn't want to bring in a class of six, so with that 13th scholarship laid over, I knew wanted to give it to [Valentin]. I knew there was no doubt about it -- he'd appreciate that scholarship more than anyone. He's the best walk-on I’ve ever been around."

Wardle, 32, made a point that Valentin was never promised a scholarship -- nor did he expect one. Like so many bench players, Valentin's become a fan favorite in Green Bay in the past year. On the phone, Wardle and I joked, in that town, it’s Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Greg Jennings … then probably Valentin.

Wardle and Valentin first met a little more than a year ago, when Wardle got the head gig with the Phoenix. Valentin sat in the new coach’s office, and the two had a 30-minute conversation. Wardle immediately knew he wanted Valentin on his team, in the program in some facet or another. Wardle tells the story of Valentin’s first impression when he speaks publicly.

"What I love is the video, and if you watch it you see how much he appreciates the scholarship and how it's a privilege to play Division I college basketball,” Wardle said. “A lot of these kids these days take for granted scholarships, like they're handing them out everywhere."

Valentin made headlines last year after he set the world record for most half-court shots made in a minute.

The part about the story I love is that Valentin adapted in a new town (he’s from Ovieto, Fla.) to earn an in-state internship over the summer -- something he thought he'd have to do to pay his way through his senior year of school. He landed an 8-to-6 gig with the United States Department of Agriculture, something Wardle ribs him about in the video below, right before handing him his new full-time job.

As for the team, it’s going to be an interesting year in Green Bay. The expectations aren’t as high for the hoops team as the Packers, primarily because of the age issue.

"We are very, very young,” Wardle said. “I don't know if there are any other teams that are as young as us. Every player in our program is in their second year or the first year."

Alec Brown, a key 7-foot sophomore, has logged more minutes than anyone on the team.

And now, your day gets better, because feel-good basketball videos don't come much warmer than this. Valentin getting his scholarship:

Category: NCAAB
Posted on: August 31, 2011 8:52 am
Edited on: August 31, 2011 8:54 am

Hidden Gem: Meet 7-footer Alec Brown

By Jeff Goodman

Jared Sullinger was there. So were the Plumlee brothers (Mason and Miles). Thomas Robinson got the invite, along with Alex Oriakhi, Mouph Yarou, Trevor Mbakwe, Aaric Murray and highly touted incoming freshmen Anthony Davis and James McAdoo.

That was the college roster for this past summer's Amar'e Stoudemire Camp.

And, oh yeah, some kid named Alec Brown.

A few years back, in the midst of his freshman season, I watched a then-anonymous player in the Horizon League named Gordon Hayward and walked away saying he would eventually become a lottery pick. I remember telling Brad Stevens after the game that he'd be fortunate to have Hayward for more than a couple years - and he didn't argue.

I’m not ready to bestow the same path and success on Green Bay’s Brown, but he could turn into the next Horizon League star.

The 7-foot-1 Minnesota native was as shocked as anyone by his near-immediate success as a freshman last season, averaging 10.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game.

"I was really surprised," Brown said. "I was a lot weaker than a lot of the guys and wasn't confident."

But that's changed after an appearance at the Amar'e Camp in which Brown says he played "OK" and "held his own."

Brown was a lightly recruited, skinny kid coming out of high school in Winona, Minn., and was first spotted by former Green Bay assistant Brian Wardle, now the head coach, in the state tournament when he was a sophomore.

"He was probably 6-foot-7 and was skinny, but had good skill level and moved really well," Wardle recalled. "We monitored him and then he grew a bunch and the next thing we knew he was 7-feet."

However, the high-majors never truly came hard. Home-state Minnesota never showed much of an interest, beyond the courtesy form letter. Wardle said that Northwestern and Colorado were both dabbling, but hadn't made him anything close to a priority.

So Brown went the mid-major route.

"I'm glad I picked Green Bay," Brown said. "Because if I went to a bigger school, I probably would have sat on the bench."

Instead, Brown played more than 25 minutes a game as a frosh.

"I knew he was going to be good; I didn't know how good," Wardle admitted. "Physically, he was so weak - and I didn't know how he'd hold up. One of the selling points to him was he could learn the game on the fly, get experience and confidence."

What shocked Wardle as much as anything is that Brown actually improved as the season dragged into February - instead of wearing down.

"He's a lot mentally tougher than we realized," Wardle said. "He doesn't back down."

Wardle said that NBA execs are already aware of the 220-pound Brown - although his name is still somewhat anonymous to much of the league. He's a legitimate 7-foot-1 with a high IQ, can step out and shoot the ball, run the court and also score on the block. His biggest drawback is his strength.

"That's crazy," Brown said of the NBA starting to pay attention. "I never expected that."

Those are the same words Hayward uttered to me a few years back.
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