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Drew's deplorable departure; Spartans' fall from grace

Jared Trexler
College Basketball Contributing Editor


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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - North Carolina players hearing surprising news on Facebook, Michigan State's rapid descent (is Tom Izzo thinking, "This is what I returned to East Lansing for?"), the changing of the guard in the Pac-10 happening so quickly, and more thoughts as February establishes some clarity to a murky landscape From The End of the Bench.

1. "Stunning" seemed to be the overwhelming emotion in the aftermath of North Carolina point guard Larry Drew's decision to leave the program and transfer with one season of eligibility remaining. Drew will have to sit out a season if he transfers to another Division I program (insert jokes about Drew's overall performance level here), but truth be told he and the team were growing into a new arrangement that found the former starter playing solid minutes off the bench in relief of freshman Kendall Marshall, who has started to remind me of former Tar Heel Ed Cota, a solid ball-handler with above- average decision-making skills, a quick first step off the bounce, but a limited, though still-developing, offensive skill set.

Drew had perhaps his best game of the season in Wednesday's eye-opening 106-74 pasting of Boston College in Chestnut Hill. He scored just two points, but finished with nine assists to one turnover, playing nearly identical minutes to Marshall. Then, news came to North Carolina head coach Roy Williams via a conversation with Drew's father, Atlanta Hawks head coach Larry Drew, signaling that a transfer was in the best interest of his son.

It's a puzzling decision, especially so late in the season and with no leaks of discontent between the player, who has been the brunt of criticism from fans and talk radio this season, and his coach, who has been Drew's ardent father figure throughout a rough individual season. Drew seemed to have finally found his role, and the rest of the Tar Heels seemed to have found their footing to form one of the nation's hottest teams.

Marshall told TarHeelBlue.com's Adam Lucas: "I saw it on Facebook. It was surprising to me." Added Williams in the same story, "I was shocked." Williams, often emotional and many times speaking off the cuff, expounded, "It was hurtful. I'll spend a lot of time thinking and looking and trying to decide what could've been done better and what went wrong."

That time will have to wait until after the season. The Tar Heels began life after Drew with a 20-point victory over Florida State, in which Marshall registered 16 assists, the most by a UNC player in any Atlantic Coast Conference game.

It's tough to draw conclusions from one game. The loss of Drew hurts North Carolina's ball-handling depth behind a freshman point guard in the middle of a telling three-game stretch.

To say it was a shock would be an understatement.

2. Michigan State has officially hit rock bottom, and Izzo is entering the final stage of denial. Maybe acceptance comes next for the Spartans head coach in what may be his most trying season in East Lansing. After entertaining overtures from the Cleveland Cavaliers, Izzo decided to remain with the Spartans in part because of the state of his program with so much experience and talent returning.

The Spartans have had trouble scoring, Kalin Lucas has not looked like the same player following the ACL injury, Korie Lucious was kicked off the team and now their trademark defensive pressure and intensity is lacking.

The Spartans now have one more loss than they had all of last season.
Opponents have made 54.3 percent of their shots, including 50.5 percent from three-point range, in the last six games. Wisconsin made 65.2 percent of its shots in running out to a 43-25 halftime lead on Sunday, scoring on a staggering 14 of its last 17 first-half possessions. The Badgers led by as many as 32 points in a 82-56 thrashing, dropping the preseason conference favorites to 5-6 in league play and 13-10 overall.

The Spartans now have one more loss than they had all of last season and reached double-digit defeats faster than in any campaign since 1987-1988, and yet after the game Izzo played the part of nurturing psychologist, tip-toeing his way through answers to hold on to what is left of his team's fragile psyche.

"Today was great in every way except the score," Izzo said, "and if we do that we're gonna win some games and we're gonna get back on track."

Michigan State does not have much time to right the train's course. Right now, the tracks are leading to a ditch of despair.

3. Not even two weeks ago, Washington looked like not just the cream of the crop in the Pac-10 but a sleeper nationally with point guard Isaiah Thomas and swingman Matt Bryan-Amaning. Since steamrolling Arizona and Arizona State in succession, the Huskies have lost three straight road games to Washington State, Oregon State and Oregon. The problems have been game-based so it is tough to point out a large declining trend. Bryan-Amaning, who shoots nearly 57 percent from the floor on the season, made just 1-of-8 attempts in the loss to the rival Cougars, Thomas converted on only 2-of-11 shots and committed an uncharacteristic seven turnovers in the loss to Oregon State and the Huskies lost the game of aggression (a 19-to-5 deficit in free throws made) against Oregon.

In the meantime, the Wildcats have won five straight since the loss to Washington, including an instant-classic 107-105 triple-overtime victory over California. Arizona has ridden Derrick Williams, who scored 12 points with 18 rebounds despite fouling out at the end of regulation against the Bears and has overtaken Washington's Thomas as the chic selection for conference player of the year. The Wildcats now have a full two-game lead in the conference on Washington and a 1 1/2-game edge on UCLA, fully in the driver's seat thanks to Williams, who has played (and exceeded expectations) despite dealing with an injury to his right pinkie.

As Wildcat fans have found out recently, you don't need a healthy finger to have a hot hand, and collectively the Wildcats have leapfrogged the struggling Huskies because their stars have outperformed Washington's dynamic duo, which has struggled in recent weeks.

THOUGHTS BEFORE FILLING OUT YOUR HOOPS BRACKET

Below is an excerpt from my just-released book, "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before...Filling Out Your Hoops Bracket." You can purchase it at Amazon.com or in a variety of formats at www.99-series.com. I will publish two tips during each column to prepare you for bracket madness.

#25: The RPI

A team's tournament success can be based on its RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) ranking and its record against teams in the RPI Top 50. Many of the teams in the Top 50 end up in the NCAA Tournament so these records are a good indication of a team's success against tournament-caliber competition. When using a seed differential of three or less, the team with the better record against the RPI top 50 won 52.9% of the tournament contests from 1992 to 2007. That number is not statistically significant (unless you are putting down pounds of cash on the Vegas line), but the record still has merit as a means to an end.

Note to self: Write down the RPI of each team and each team's record versus the RPI Top 50. If the RPI numbers and the records are close, then monitor each team's schedule line by line. It may seem arduous but just pulling up a team's regular-season schedule on a school's website is a click away. Some teams are far better or worse in November or December (when they appeared on the schedule) than in March when the final RPI is calculated.

BUBBLE DUEL

From now through Selection Sunday, I will dissect two at-large candidates' profiles to determine which (at the time of publication) is more worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid. In the last two columns before that fateful Sunday afternoon, I will compare multiple teams to determine their at-large candidacy. If you agree or disagree, feel free to email me at jtt128@comcast.net. I'll include the best entries in the next column.

With power-conference carnage now the norm, it has opened the door (along with the addition of two more at-large selections) for some of the smaller conferences to sneak into the at-large conversation. No longer are automatic bids the be-all, end-all for selection hopes, and while each of the below teams may in fact grab those conference tournament crowns, it may not be mandatory.

Wichita State vs. Old Dominion

Grid:

RPI = Ratings Percentage Index

SOS = Strength of Schedule

KenPom = Mathematical Algorithm from statistical expert Ken Pomeroy

Wichita State

Record: 18-4 (RPI 39, SOS 101, KenPom 39)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 0-3

Profile Dissection: The Shockers have been close to pulling out that signature victory the selection committee looks for when navigating the mid-major landscape, and they have three more chances against RPI Top 70 competition. The likelihood of winning all three contests (especially with two on the road) is remote, but it may be mandatory to secure an at-large bid. The Shockers have lost three times to RPI Top 52 competition by four points or less, so they pass the eye test, yet the best victories are an early November win over Virginia in Maui and a late December win over middling Conference USA contender Tulsa. Seven of the 18 victories are over teams with an RPI above 200. Right now it does not look like Wichita State's profile has enough, but a grand finish with victories over Missouri State, Northern Iowa and a BracketBusters bout with Virginia Commonwealth could be enough in a soft year for at-large candidacy.

Old Dominion

Record: 18-5 (RPI 29, SOS 55, KenPom 70)

Record vs. RPI Top 50: 2-3

Profile Dissection: The Monarchs have a lot of what I call "solid as a rock" victories over teams in the RPI 50-100 range, including wins over Clemson, Richmond and Dayton. Add those victories to an early-season takedown of Xavier and a split with another Colonial Athletic Association bubble team, George Mason, and the Monarchs' at-large profile looks very solid. An RPI in the 20s is a big indicator of tournament selection, and while its statistical measurables don't equate to a lengthy tournament stay, its inclusion has much merit. The effort on Saturday versus George Mason wasn't there, and a lot of its profile plusses were achieved months ago, so it's advisable it claims at least one of its final two tall tests, at Virginia Commonwealth and a BracketBusters date with the Horizon League's top team, Cleveland State. Three of the last six are against the RPI Top 100, so the overall RPI won't drop much (if at all) by the end of the regular season.

Selection: Old Dominion. At this time the Monarchs have just achieved more. Close calls indicate Wichita State's ability to compete, but Old Dominion has closed, beating four tournament-quality clubs. The Shockers still have the possibility to jump over or join the Monarchs on the at-large line, but the margin for error is thin.

FINE 15

1. Ohio State (24-0): Losing indisputably makes sense for the Buckeyes. Having that heavy undefeated burden on their back with a young front line and point guard would not bring out the lively, reactionary basketball that has bred their perfect season to date. And a loss could be coming soon with three difficult road dates still left: Wisconsin, Purdue, and the place top conference teams have gone to die this season, State College, Pennsylvania.

2. Kansas (22-1): No Josh Selby, no problem. Kansas' depth was on full display in Lincoln on Saturday, as fifth-year senior Brady Morningstar made five of the Jayhawks' season-best 13 three-pointers in a 20-point waxing over a better-than-you think Nebraska team. Hopefully Selby's injured right foot heals in time for Monday's date with Missouri.

3. Texas (20-3): The eye test puts the Longhorns at the top of this list, but their overall profile still puts them behind the Buckeyes and Jayhawks. Texas' best long-term statistic is its defensive efficiency. It holds opponents to a 39.9 effective field goal percentage (national average is 49 percent), tops in the nation.

4. Pittsburgh (21-2): When Ashton Gibbs shoots like he did Saturday against Cincinnati, these Panthers are legit contenders for Houston. Gary McGhee, one of the nation's best rebounders per minutes played, pulled down 13 in the most minutes he's played all season (33 minutes).

5. Duke (21-2): I like the way the Blue Devils responded from the embarrassment at Madison Square Garden, attacking the seams and playing to its strengths in impressive thumpings of Maryland and North Carolina State. The 16-point, 12-rebound stat line for Mason Plumlee on Saturday against the Wolfpack was a breath of fresh air for Duke's much-maligned (and discussed) front line, but can he provide consistency?

6. BYU (22-2): I understand the media is always looking ahead, but if that is the business, then why not picture Gus Johnson calling a Jimmer Fredette shooting expo in March rather than analyzing how Fredette will guard quicker perimeter players in the NBA? I'm going to enjoy Jimmer until BYU's clock strikes midnight.

7. San Diego State (23-1): Not a great week offensively for the Aztecs (and that may be this team's downfall in March), but wins are wins. The countdown is less than three weeks until BYU-SDSU, Part 2.

8. Villanova (19-4): A good finish on the back-end of a three-game home stretch with victories over Marquette and West Virginia. The Wildcats heeded my advice, attempting just 14 of their 46 field goals from beyond the arc in a 66-50 takedown of the Mountaineers.

9. Notre Dame (19-4): The Fighting Irish have been more impressive than the Wildcats over the last two weeks (a five-game winning streak in a conference like the Big East is no small feat), but I just think Villanova has more routes to victory than the Irish, who are sapping every ounce of talent out of their outfit and riding the leadership of Ben Hansbrough.

10. Connecticut (18-4): The 7-for-19 shooting effort from Kemba Walker, despite the rally to beat Seton Hall, gives me pause. The one-time lock for All-American status has made just 28-of-89 shots (31 percent) in his last five games. If that continues, the Huskies are hitting their heads on their proverbial ceiling.

11. Georgetown (18-5): The run of four straight Big East teams (five total in the top 11) ends with the Hoyas, who have won six straight since being left for dead three weeks ago. Three straight wins by three points or less speaks to their collective ball-handling in late-game situations and the clutch play of Austin Freeman.

12. Purdue (18-5): Surprisingly, the Boilermakers were murdered on the backboards in Madison last week, surrendering 16 offensive rebounds to the Badgers in a seven-point setback. JaJuan Johnson only pulled down four total rebounds in 39 minutes, an inexplicable stat.

13. North Carolina (17-5): Not mentioned in the above dissection of North Carolina's new backcourt construction was the way in which Drew informed his team of the decision. I can respect a player for following his heart, and if the ticker wasn't with his team, than his subtraction is addition in the long run. However, having your father make the call and not mentioning a word to teammates is bush league and childish. It's a fitting end to Drew's disappointing time in Chapel Hill.

14. Syracuse (20-4): The Orange rediscovered their patented zone last week, suffocating Walker and the Huskies then holding South Florida to a 2-of-15 effort from long range in a 72-49 victory.

15. Missouri (18-5): Avenging an earlier loss to Colorado was a good start; now let's see if the Tigers can handle the bright lights of Allen Fieldhouse.


Trexler is the author of "99 Things You Wish You Knew Before...Filling Out Your Hoops Bracket." Click HERE to purchase the Kindle version...and stay tuned on an updated hardcopy edition this winter! Trexler also wrote "Penn State Football: An Interactive Guide To The World of Sports", a detailed look at the Nittany Lions' storied football history. It can be purchased HERE.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Jared Trexler at jtt128@comcast.net.

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