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Talk hoops all year long in Luke Winn's blog, a journal of commentary, news and reader-driven discussions about the college game.
10/26/2006 08:56:00 PM

The Full Story On 'Nova And 50 Cent

50 Cent
The Villanovan, Oct. 26 edition
Only a basketball curmudgeon would claim that the greatest thing about Villanova's Hoops Mania, which took place on Oct. 26, was the fact that Curtis Sumpter returned to score 10 points in the scrimmage. That was nice, but completely overshadowed by the special guests, whom coach Jay Wright introduced with the proper call of "G-G-G-Unit!": Tony Yayo ... and 50 Cent.

Two 'Nova students e-mailed the blog (while I was on the road at LSU) to let me know; and Deadspin linked to a video clip this week, but the real dirt on the whole deal was unearthed on Thursday by the school's student weekly, The Villanovan.

The paper reported that the rappers' surprise appearance was hooked up through ex-Wildcat Tim Thomas, who helped Wright book Yayo for the Pavilion. "Tim is a big friend of me and 50 and all of G-Unit," Yayo told the paper. "He said he had a contact with the school and that Jay Wright was trying to figure out who was the biggest name in the business right now. Tim gave them my name, and everything else just happened."

I'll kindly let the "Yayo: biggest name in the business" claim slide and advance the story: Basically, Yayo one-upped Wright by secretly bringing along the headliner: "[Villanova] only had me scheduled to come, but I called up 50, who's like a brother to me, and he said he wanted to roll up," Yayo said. "Jay Wright wanted to surprise the students by having me there, so I had to outdo him and surprise everyone with 50."

The players mobbed the rappers, the cheerleaders backup-danced, the students hyperventilated ... and yeah, it pretty much blew every other school's Madness out of the water. Who else had a rapper, much less anyone like 50? (UNC had an emcee who once poetry-slammed on SportsCenter, but that's not even close.) A student columnist summed up the momentousness of the occasion with these words: "Even as I write this, I am having a hard time believing that 50 Cent played on the same court to which I brought my limited set of basketball skills in last year's B-League Intramural playoffs. Simply put, this just isn't supposed to happen at Villanova."

I'll leave you with a couple of YouTubes:



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10/26/2006 08:00:00 PM

Patton's Pre-emptive Strike

Ricardo Patton
Ricardo Patton and the Buffaloes were picked to finish dead last in the Big 12 this year by the league's coaches.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
The fact that Ricardo Patton won't be back at Colorado next season is not a shock; he didn't expect his $750,000-a-year contract to be renewed after it expired on July 1, 2007, and neither did most people surrounding the program. In a poll on the Rocky Mountain News' Web site, 79.5 percent of readers (as of Thursday afternoon) said Patton "hasn't done enough to keep the Buffs consistently good, especially in the postseason." Patton is entering the 11th year of a 170-144 stretch and didn't want his team to endure a winter's worth of speculation about his impending dismissal, so it's tough to fault him for the pre-emptive strike.

What made Patton's Wednesday announcement that he'll resign at the end of the season so strange was its timing and execution: He dropped the bomb on CU's media day, without informing athletic director Mike Bohn first (Patton had reportedly tried to reach Bohn earlier in the day, but failed). And the coach served as a one-man PR department, typing up (and photocopying) his own, four-page press release complete with a Q&A section, a bio and a retrospective of the dismal 10 years that preceded his first decade in Boulder.

You can check out Patton's self-published release here in PDF form, but these are the choice parts:

• In the final paragraph of the statement, on Page 1, he writes, "I would like to thank the University of Colorado and especially Bill Marolt who hired me, and former athletic director Dick Tharp, for the support I received."

It's a classic damnation-by-omission move: Bohn's name is glaringly missing from the thank-you portion.

• The "10 Years Before Coach Patton" page -- in which he makes a strong case about the program's dire situation before he arrived -- is heavy on the word "only." Such as (I've inserted the italics for emphasis):

"1984-85: Randy Downs only third player in CU history to reach 1,000 points as a junior"
"1985-86: Only team in Big 8 history to go winless in league play"
"1994-95: The Buffs receive only their second bid to the NIT Tournament in the last 25 years"

Patton is now the only coach to be on the way out before the season has even started. Will a certain Denver Nuggets assistant get the first call from the Buffs? Mike Dunlap passed up on Division I offers while at Metro State in order to keep his family in the Mile High, but the commute to Boulder would only be a half hour ...
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10/26/2006 09:50:00 AM

Extras, Extras (From LSU)

LSU
Luke Winn/SI

I escaped the Northeast to pay a two-day visit to LSU this week -- both for an extended SI.com postcard and these extras. Enjoy.

Big Baby

LSU Practice

Tasmin Mitchell

Luke Winn/SI
• The first photo at right is Big Baby (Glen Davis) in his primary piece of furniture: a giant bean-bag chair. His primary after-practice pastime is playing Madden 2007 on his Xbox 360 ... while lounging in the bean bag. He said he's always the Chargers -- "Throwing bombs to Antonio Gates, running with L.T., bringing their linebackers off the end on blitzes" -- and is still a huge football fan. He played running back and line in high school, and had a shot to become an NFL O-lineman had he not given up the game for basketball. Davis is also a big LSU fan: "I get excited for football season, man," he said ... but with his school out of the BCS hunt, he seemed kind of bummed.

Dameon Mason was wearing a black Jordan headband in practice, and Magnum Rolle hinted that coach John Brady's longtime ban on headgear may be coming down. "I started wearing [a headband] over the summer, just a little bit at a time, then Chris [Johnson] did, then Mace did," Rolle said. "I got Mace to go ask coach about it, because I didn't want him coming down on me. But it's been a big part of my persona. I felt awkward as hell as year playing without it; I couldn't do any of my signature things." Rolle's signature move, which he demonstrated, is a two-hand dab of the 'band after a sick play.

• The third shot at right is Tasmin Mitchell, showing off his bling following the private Final Four ring ceremony LSU had after practice. We took one shot, and then a second ... and then a third with a digi-cam before he was satisfied with this one.

• The Tigers -- well, Brady in particular -- have reason to boast about the non-conference schedule they've put together. It doesn't get much tougher than playing UConn, Texas A&M and Wichita State at home, Texas on a neutral court (in Houston) and Washington and Oregon State on the road. Four of those opponents reached the Sweet 16 last year and another, the Aggies, came within a Darrel Mitchell three-pointer of KO-ing LSU in the second round. The Tigers took a similar approach last year, playing West Virginia, Ohio State and UConn on the road, Houston and Northern Iowa at home and Cincinnati in Las Vegas. Even though LSU went a woeful 1-5 in those games, it went on to win the SEC regular-season title. Brady said, "Our team got better and gained confidence by losing close rather than crushing teams they were supposed to beat."

• Brady and his staff wanted to land Texas Tech transfer Terry Martin, a native of Monroe, La., the first time around, but Bobby Knight swept in and lured him to Lubbock. "We went up there in the spring of Terry's junior year to visit him, but maybe we didn't pressure him enough," Brady said. "Knight came in and Terry said, 'OK, I'm coming,' and never even visited. ... But it worked out great for us in the end." The Tigers have to wait until Dec. 17 -- their West Coast swing against the Beavers and Huskies -- to get Martin in the floor. At one point while watching the talented combo guard in practice, Brady said, "I wish he were eligible now."

Readers: Sound off on all things LSU in the comments section.

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10/20/2006 04:27:00 AM

Extras, Extras (From Wisconsin)

Wisconsin
Luke Winn/SI

I was packin' the digi-cam for Thursday's visit to Wisconsin preseason camp, and like I did to accompany the Marquette story, I've posted a few (amateurish and random) pics to go along with the full Badgers file.

Marquette

Marquette

Luke Winn/SI
• At the top is coach Bo Ryan addressing his players in the UW's Nicholas-Johnson Pavilion, which has giant banners of each of the upperclassmen hanging on the wall in the background. Even little-used, 5-foot-11 fan favorite Tanner Bronson has his own panel, which is about five times his actual size.

• Ryan allows some of his peers to visit his practices (start time: 1:30, from the sign at right) and study components of the swing offense; on Thursday there were coaches from Bo's old school, UW-Platteville, as well as Northern Illinois. Significant chunks of practice time are spent on the finer points of running the swing -- exercises such as teaching cutters how to read screens and properly run off their men, or having big men fade off of picks for open 3-pointers on the wings.

• Alando Tucker is not a musician -- he just plays one. The bass he's holding belongs to his roommate, sophomore forward Marcus Landry, who also has it hooked up to a small amp in his room. Landry is a multi-instrumentalist who grew up in a musical family in Milwaukee; he also has a keyboard set up in their apartment and put in some piano work on the Badgers' trip to Italy.

• When Jason Chappell's basketball career is over, he hopes to have a future in fashion -- or at least t-shirt -- design. His parents own a screen-printing and embroidery business in New Berlin, Wis., called Chappell Sports, and he's been working on a line of gear inspired by his nickname, "JCHEEZY," since his freshman year. "They have an NCAA rule that you can't own your own business, so that's been a little bit of a setback," he says, but plans on getting a Cheezy Web site up after the season. His best shirt thus far, he says, is a spoof on the Jack Daniel's logo ... with JCHEEZY on the label.

Readers: Sound off on all things Wisconsin in the comments section.

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10/19/2006 03:04:00 AM

Extras, Extras (From Marquette)

Marquette
Luke Winn/SI

The 'ol digital camera, which came in mighty handy during our tourney blogging days, was packed for the trip to Marquette this week. The real dirt on the Golden Eagles can be found in the Postcard that went up on the site today; random photos and extra nuggets are the basis for this post.

Marquette

Marquette

Luke Winn/SI
• At the top is the tip-off for a scrimmage in the Al McGuire Center, the state-of-the-art facility that opened in 2003 and -- along with membership in the Big East -- cemented Marquette's status as a major national program. The banner Tom Crean put up in the practice gym, which has padded walls and no windows, says, "The Star of the Team is the Team." Crean has signs everywhere; there was one over the urinals in the locker room that said -- to the best of my recollection -- "Fatigue is never an excuse."

• The next photo features Dominic James (left) and Wes Matthews, who are roommates and will star together in Marquette's backcourt. James says he, Matthews and fellow guard Jerel McNeal are inseparable; apparently Matthews and McNeal constantly play video games (most recently, NBA 2K7) while James provides the commentary. Dominic -- pronounced like Dominique -- says he's the kind of announcer who "lets you hear it when you're losing."

• The last shot is of one of the Dwyane Wade "altars" up around the Al. There was this trophy case, myriad items hanging on the wall and a giant image of D-Wade in his Heat gear hanging over the practice court. Marquette is even waiving its graduation requirement for jersey-retirement in order to honor him in February. You can't blame them for the semi-idolatry. As much as the McGuire Center is beautiful, Crean's greatest recruiting tool is probably the ability to tell a blue-chip prospect: "I coached Dwyane Wade."

• The Eagles have a rule in practice that there are no whistles on tie-ups. No jump balls, no alternating possessions -- the players just fight on the floor until someone comes out with the rock. McNeal and freshman guard David Cubillan went at it on Wednesday -- with Crean yelling to the rest of the team, "Spread out [from the scrap], it's going to come loose!" -- and McNeal won despite being put in a full headlock.

Readers: Want to discuss the Golden Eagles? Fire away in the comments section.

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10/16/2006 02:24:00 AM

Moving On After The Madness

Gordon
Eric Gordon's recruiting saga has set off a coaching rivalry.
Greg Nelson/SI
The news that mattered most from Midnight Madness weekend (and by that we don't mean the Izzos dressed as vampires):

No. 1, and it wasn't even close: Indianapolis' Eric Gordon, the nation's top-ranked shooting guard in the Class of 2007, went to Indiana's Midnight Madness and switched his commitment from Illinois to the Hoosiers, ending one of the great recruiting dramas of this decade.

Gordon is talented enough to be a one-and-done player in Bloomington, but the reverberations of his decision will last much longer than his stay in college. Here's why:

Gordon ignited a bitter Big Ten coaching rivarly: Bruce Weber vs. Kelvin Sampson. Weber can't come out and say it, but he and the Illinois staff are incensed over Sampson's recruiting coup. The Illini secured Gordon's commitment in November 2005 and based their entire recruiting plan around him, halting their pursuit of other shooting guards and luring players based on the fact they'd play along with the future superstar everyone called "EJ."

When Sampson took the IU job in March, he felt it necessary to attempt to succeed where Mike Davis had failed -- at recruiting the Hoosier state's No. 1 prep player. By chasing Gordon, Sampson sparked a debate over the ethics of pursuing opponents' verbally committed players. And EJ eventually opted to spurn Weber and become Sampson's signature recruit -- a feat the coach managed to pull off while being on campus-arrest for his phone-call violations at Oklahoma. Neither Weber nor Sampson are going anywhere for a while ... and this could turn into a long-lasting grudge.

The heat from Illinois fans is back on Weber, even though he's just two years removed from a run to the national title game. The headline on on an Illiniboard.com story from Nov. 28, 2005 -- the day Gordon pledged himself to Illinois -- was, "Bruce Weber Can Silence Critics Now." With Gordon gone, so is the silence, replaced by this painful reality: the UofI did not sign a top-50 player in its class of 2006, and has not yet secured one for '07 or '08.

Before the Illini lost Chicagoan Sherron Collins, the No. 2-rated point guard in the Class of 2006, to Kansas, Scout.com's Dave Telep told me that as long as Weber got either Collins or Derrick Rose -- the second-rated 2007 point guard, also from Chicago -- the coach would be fine.

Collins is in Lawrence. Rose recently removed Illinois from his short list and looks to be headed to Memphis. And this weekend, Gordon jumped ship. Weber is a talented-enough coach to meld a team of three- and four-star prospects into a Big Ten contender, but a return to the Final Four will be difficult without one of those superlative guards.

No. 2: Syracuse's Paul Harris stayed up late, and took the "freshman leader" concept to a new level.

Harris, the Orange's rookie guard with a hybrid NBA/NFL body (he's already 6-foot-5, 220 pounds and chiseled) went to work on the night before 'Cuse's first practice. According to the Syracuse Post-Standard, Harris put in calls to every member of the team -- including the coaching staff -- to send one last preseason message. Senior Terence Roberts got a voice mail from Harris saying, "It's your last year and I don't want you going out like any of those guys the last two years." Assistant Mike Hopkins woke up with a Harris voice mail, too ... and saw that the kid called him at 2:15 a.m.

Those are bold moves for a true frosh, but Harris isn't overstepping his bounds. He may not be the second coming of 'Melo, but he's already the Orange's best athlete, and with Gerry McNamara gone it's very possible that Harris could be the team's leading scorer ... and then leave for the NBA after one season.

No. 3: High-profile big men are in limbo all across the country.


You've heard about Ohio State super-frosh center Greg Oden: out until Jan. 1 ... or at least that's what the Buckeyes are saying. At Washington, headline-recruit Spencer Hawes is out 2-4 weeks after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. He's not the only Pac-10 big man who went under the knife: UCLA's Lorenzo Mata had arthro of his own and is out 4-5 weeks. At UConn, 7-foot-3 Tanzanian Hasheem Thabeet still needs the NCAA Clearinghouse to approve his transcripts. Finally, at Louisville, big boy Derrick Caracter is out of limbo but suspended for the team's first three games; he had to repay what the school is calling (readers, make your finger-quotes here) a loan from a family friend (end finger-quotes) of more than $2,000. The pal, after making the loan, went to work for a sports agent.

No. 4: Midnight Movies


An exhaustive search of YouTube for Midnight Madness-related footage yielded the following (I'll embed two of 'em, and link to the rest, in an attempt to keep your browser from crashing):

Billy D plays prankster at Florida:



(Sad that Kentucky can pack Rupp Arena for its Midnight Madness, while at UF, the national champs can fold back most of the floor-level seats at the O-Dome and still accommodate everyone.)

• Better Tina Than Ike: Cincy guard Jamaul Warren goes in drag to sing What's Love Got To Do With It.



The rest: Kansas went for goosebumps with its scoreboard intro (and therefore kept NCAA tournament footage out of the montage). Corey Brewer dunked over Al Horford ... while Horford was in a chair. Brian Randle did the same thing to former Flyin' Illini guard (and now announcer) Stephen Bardo. Jim Larranaga says "Mason Madness is not about last season." And at Maryland, they love their Gymkana ... until it nearly sets Comcast on fire.

UPDATE: The error about Gordon's younger brother, Evan -- who is not an IU student -- has been edited. I apologize for the mistake.
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10/13/2006 01:05:00 PM

Talk Amongst Yourselves

The first Power Rankings of the season are out, and I wanted to give readers a place to sound off (or channel their fury) -- a place other than my SI inbox, that is. Why write a harrassing e-mail that only one person can see, when you can submit a blog comment read by thousands? Put your best stuff in the comments section today, and I'll craft an actual post out of the choice replies on Monday. I promise.

And one other thing: Please identify yourself in the comments. We left the registration feature turned off to make it easier to reply, but way too many of you are copping out and staying anonymous. It's weak. I don't care if you leave your real info or assume the pseudonym Uwe Blab; anything is better than John Doe.
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10/11/2006 01:26:00 AM

The Supergroup In Kansas (And By That, We Don't Mean The Leftoverture Guys)

Rush
Brandon Rush spent his offseason focusing on weight training to aid his explosiveness.
David Bergman/SI
Nearly all of the best bands have broken up. At Villanova, Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry, and Allan Ray are all gone to the NBA, leaving Mike Nardi as a lonely leftover. Veteran point-men have departed from UCLA, Tennessee, UConn and George Mason, leaving varying degrees of offensive uncertainty in their wake. As I was compiling my Power Rankings for the end of this week, weighing the various teams, it became clear that at only one place in the country does a truly great backcourt reside:

Kansas.

Maybe that's a blasphemous statement if you're a fan of UNC, Memphis, UCLA, Arizona, Marquette, Hofstra, Creighton, Southern Illinois and a few others ... but no team stacks up with the sheer volume of talent the Jayhawks have at the guard position: three returning standouts -- Russell Robinson, Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush -- and one incoming McDonald's All-American, Sherron Collins. The real question is, how will they coexist?

For the answer, the Blog went straight to the source: coach Bill Self, who talked to us three days before he'll unveil his loaded squad in Late Night at the Phog. In the same vein as the "New Identities" series from September, here's what was gleaned:

Self has no intention of becoming this year's Villanova. He said he intends to get all four guards 25 minutes per game, but would only consider playing them all at once to maintain a late-game lead by protecting the ball. He simply has too many quality big men -- Julian Wright, Darrell Arthur, Darnell Jackson, C.J. Giles and Sasha Kaun -- to keep them off the floor.

The possibility of using Robinson (at 6-foot-1), Chalmers (6-1) and Collins (5-11) together on the perimeter, though, has crossed his mind -- but it hinges on a situation outside the backcourt: "We'll play small at times," Self said, "but a lot of it will depend on who emerges as Brandon Rush's backup [at the three]. I'd like for Julian to become more of a wing guy for us, but more than likely he'll start at the four."

If Wright remains a power forward, we could see Mount Oread's version of the Three Musketeers.

Robinson may be the least dangerous scorer in the quartet, but he's the leader of the Jayhawks. "Russell is the pulse of the team," said Self. "Especially with the intangibles: He's the toughest, most consistent worker, and he's as focused as anybody. He's the best initiator of the offense, and the best at getting in the paint and making things happen." Self also called Robinson his team's top perimeter defender, and while Chalmers may have had more steals (89) than Robinson (76), the two fed off of each other so much that Robinson's ball-hawking often resulted in thefts by Chalmers.

Collins will be ready to contribute from Day 1. "He's such a fast study that I think he'll have an impact right out of the chute," Self said of the freshman guard. However, even though Collins was a 30-point scorer last year in high school, expect him to rein that in and serve more as a pure point guard this season. "Sherron is the best guy we have in our program right now as far as getting other players shots off the dribble," Self said. "Russell is good, but Sherron is the best guard we've had at it."

As long as Collins is steady in relief of Robinson, Chalmers -- who's a combo guard by definition -- won't have to play much point. Which is fine by Self, who defines the Alaska product as "a natural scorer who's become a pretty good shooter -- and likes to have the ball in the clutch."

Last, and perhaps most obvious: No matter what happens, Brandon Rush should remain KU's leading scorer. He averaged a team-best 13.5 points as a freshman, shooting 47.2 percent on 3s, and although he was already a well-built guard, he focused his offseason weight training on becoming more explosive. Still, Self assured that "we're not going to have a team where anybody scores 18 a game -- it's going to be different guys stepping up on different nights."

For now, it seems like a dangerous formula for opposing defenses. And according to Self, everyone is happy on the eve of the official beginning of full-team workouts. "There's always good chemistry in practice," he said. "Because then, you can get 10 guys on the floor."

Readers, does Kansas really have the nation's No. 1 backcourt? Sound off in the comments section.
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10/10/2006 10:59:00 AM

Presenting ... The All-Attribute Team

Gray
Aaron Gray's rebounding percentage lands him on the All-Atribute team.
David Bergman/SI
All-America teams are everywhere. But where else can you get an All-Attribute squad? As an encore to last week's All-Breakout Team, this starting five was formed by piecing together players with unique statistical attributes (all non-traditional stats are from kenpom.com):

THE TIRELESS POINT GUARD: Jared Jordan, Sr., Marist.

The ultimate floor general never takes a break. Alabama's Ronald Steele was called an Ironman in this space a few weeks ago, but there's one returning player in Division I who logged more minutes than the Tide's point man: Jordan. He was on the floor for an absurd 97.4 percent of the Red Foxes' overall minutes last season -- 1,130 in total, which meant he averaged a few ticks under 39 per game. A Hartford product who led the nation in assists last season (8.5 per game) was lightly recruited -- for a reason: he wasn't much of a prospect -- Jordan is now good enough to start for UConn.

THE HIGH-VOLUME SHOOTING GUARD: Rodney Stuckey, Soph., Eastern Washington.

That title is somewhat of a euphemism for ballhog, which Stuckey is to some degree, but he's enough of a pure scorer -- and a 49.0 percent shooter -- for me to be willing to let him get away with it. (And with a nickname like "Hot Rod," did you expect him not to shoot?) As a freshman last season, Stuckey lit up the Big Sky Conference with 24.2 points per game, in the process taking a stunning 38.0 percent of his team's total shots when he was on the floor -- which ranked him as the No. 7 high-volume shooter in the nation. Rod ripped off 510 field-goal attempts on the season ... and his next-highest teammate had 208.

Stuckey plays the point, but we'll use him at the two and let him take feeds from Jordan. Not that Rod couldn't handle the point; he averaged 4.1 assists and EWU coach Mike Burns once described his contribution to the team as thus: "He's kind of waiting on the table, bussing the table and he's back in the kitchen cooking the food. He's doing quite a bit."

THE SMALL(-TIME THIEF AT) FORWARD: Jacob Burtschi, Sr., Air Force

Every squad needs a defensive playmaker, and I'll take Burtschi, who's considered a big man at the Academy but only 6-foot-6, so on this All-Star squad he'll play the three. The NCAA's raw stats make Jake look decent -- at 2.3 steals per game last season, he was one of just two non-guards among the nation's top 50 pickpockets -- but significantly underplay his thievability (it's a new word, like truthiness). How? The Falcons were the second-slowest team in D-I last season, at 56.8 possessions per game; compare that to a fast team, such as Washington at 73.4, and you realizes how many fewer opportunities Burtschi had. In the NCAA's standings he ranked 37th in steals, but in that new-fangled thing called steal percentage -- the percent of possessions on which he had rips -- Burtschi ranked 19th. He and Stuckey (at 2.2 steals/game) would wreak havoc on the perimeter.

THE NON-BRICK-LAYING POWER FORWARD: Nick Fazekas, Sr., Nevada.

I wanted a four who wouldn't be a liability at the free-throw line, and Fazekas, at 6-11, is hardly a liability. The Nevada star got to the stripe a healthy 182 times last season and made 154, a rate of 84.6 percent. Only two players as tall as Faz bested him from the charity-stripe, and they were both seniors: West Virginia's Kevin Pittsnogle (85.7) and Michigan State's Paul Davis (87.0). Lest you think Fazekas is all finesse -- and that, somewhat, has been NBA scouts' knock on him -- he is capable of crashing the boards, grabbing 10.4 per game last season. Not that he'd need to, with this center ...

THE GLASSMASTER-AT-BOTH-ENDS CENTER: Aaron Gray, Sr., Pitt.

Rebounding percentage -- not total rebounds, but the percent of available boards grabbed while on the floor -- was the determining factor in this pick. And in that department, no one comes close to Gray, who ranked in the top-10 nationally in both offensive and defensive rebounding. The Panthers' 7-footer, who matured from reserve to national star last season and was a late scratch from the 2006 NBA Draft, got his hands on 15.7 percent of offensive boards (seventh in the country) and an amazing 27.0 percent of defensive boards (fourth in the country) -- better than such monsters as Tyrus Thomas of LSU, Leon Powe of Cal and Paul Millsap of Louisiana Tech. The pros may have been skeptical about Gray's athleticism, but he's welcome on this team any time.

Readers, do you agree with these picks? Discuss the All-Attribute team and offer your write-in votes in the comments.
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10/06/2006 03:35:00 AM

Blog Q&A With ... Creighton's Nate Funk

Funk
Nate Funk returns from a shoulder injury for a fifth season at Creighton.
AP
As part of the blog's ongoing series of offseason Q&As, I spoke with Creighton shooting guard Nate Funk this week by phone from Omaha, Neb. Funk, who received a medical redshirt last season due to a shoulder injury (and averaged 17.0 points in limited action), has returned for a fifth year to lead the Bluejays. They'll enter 2006-07 as the favorite in a loaded Missouri Valley Conference.

Luke Winn: At this time last year, you were entering what you thought was your final season at Creighton -- before the injury, and the surgery, and the redshirt. Back then, where did you expect to be in October 2006?

Nate Funk: First of all, I didn’t expect to be sitting in an apartment in Omaha, waiting to play another season. I was going to see how I played, and if I had the season I wanted to, and if the team was successful enough, I hoped I'd have a good chance to play pro basketball somewhere, wherever was the highest level that I could play it.

LW: And that infamous shoulder? How is it feeling now?

NF: The rehab has been over for a while. It's just to a point where I have to keep it strong so that it won't happen again. I was cleared to do everything 100 percent back in July. I've had a couple of months to get the rust off and get back into playing shape. It feels 110 percent right now.

LW: I heard you spent part of your summer working out with [the Sixers'] Kyle Korver in Philadelphia. What was that like?

NF: Well, Kyle and I, we go back to my freshman year, which was his senior year at Creighton. He was my roommate on the road, so that's how I got to know him pretty well. We stayed in touch ever since he left. He's always asked me to come out [to Philly] and this was the first year that I could. It was more just to go and hang out, and see his place, rather than work out. But we still worked out every day while I was there.

LW: And what were your impressions of the NBA lifestyle?

NF: From what I saw, the people in Philly love him. We would go places and he'd get confronted by fans; he says they're great supporters, and I could see that while we were out.

LW: Better groupies in Philly than in Omaha?

NF: Well, from what I understand, the fans there are a little bit more intense. They're really intense. But no comment on the girls.

LW: You get tagged with the "Next Korver" label from time to time. Is that something you like?

NF: I don't, because we have dissimilar games. He came to Creighton as a straight shooter and then he had to develop his game from there, because initially that's all they said he could do. He was 6-7 and I'm 6-3, so it's hard to compare us. I can understand the label though -- people around here do it because we're both Iowa guys and both have moppy hair, but on the floor it doesn't work.

LW: Did you request to be paired up with him on the road in your rookie year?

NF: I don't think either of us requested it. The coaches wanted Kyle to take me under his wing a little bit, because I was the only freshman that was traveling on the road and getting significant minutes. They felt Kyle could help me develop. It was nice that the coaches saw something in me back then, and hoped that I'd be where Kyle was his senior year. I'm not sure what exactly the coaches saw, because I was having doubts about whether I could even play at this level.

LW: Really? How long did it take you to get over those doubts?

NF: It took a while. For a stretch of my freshman year I was playing well, but the last game of that season [a 79-73 loss to Central Michigan in the first round of the NCAA tournament] was my worst. I took that bad taste into the offseason, and over the next couple of years I started to feel a lot more confident playing on this level, and got my body ready, physically, to handle the style of play.

LW: Can you explain the phenomenon of Creighton basketball to the rest of the country? I'm not sure how many people are aware of the level of support you get, with fans packing a huge, nearly new arena for every regular season game.

NF: The people of Omaha are unbelievable fans, whether they're Nebraska fans or Creighton fans -- and some of those Nebraska football fans are Creighton basketball fans. They've been excellent to me ever since I got here ... and it feels like I've been here forever. It's really grown over the past four years; my freshman year, we played in the 10,000-seat Civic Center, and started to sell it out at the end of that season. Once we moved into the Qwest Center [in the winter of 2003], it jumped to even bigger crowds. Even though we haven't had a lot of success in the NCAAs lately, the guys the coaches have recruited brought in a winning attitude -- and the fans keep coming.

This year, they're expanding the Qwest Center to fit 17,000 people. There aren't a whole lot of teams in the country that get to play in front of 17,000 people, and it's going to create an even better home atmosphere for us.

LW: Was it tough for you, watching the Valley rise in stature nationally -- getting four teams into the NCAA tournament -- while you were injured, and your team was in the NIT?

NF: No, I was rooting for them. I was really going for Bradley, and Wichita State, and Southern [Illinois], and even George Mason, because they're teams like us, and we don't get a lot of publicity. Our downfall in the past is that we say we can compete [with the major-conference teams], but when we get to the NCAAs, most of us flop.

LW: Watching Mason, though -- a team you beat by 20 at their place last year -- go on to the Final Four had to be tough, right?

NF: A lot of people have said that, but I didn't think about it too much. Maybe we caught them on a bad night. They went on to play their best basketball at the end of the year, when it counted. If I were them, and I looked back on the season, I'm sure they remember their Final Four run a lot more than they remember losing to Creighton.

LW: It looks like you'll be going into this season as the favorite in the Valley -- a year when the expectations for mid-majors are higher than ever. What kind of expectations do you have for Creighton?

NF: Well, I kind of made a mistake going into last year. I made all these high expectations for my team and myself -- I was saying [in the press], 'We're shooting to make the Sweet 16,' and stuff like that -- and then I got hurt. I felt like I kind of bit the bullet a little bit. I told myself I wasn't going to do that this year, and keep that stuff inside the locker room. I just want us to be playing our best basketball in March.

LW: But behind closed doors, I assume you still have lofty goals, right?

NF: What's said in the locker room, is said in the locker room.

LW: The injury that's affecting your point guard, Josh Dotzler, could really affect the structure of the lineup. Are you ready to help out at point guard if necessary?

NF: Until we receive word that Josh isn't ready to go, he's still the point guard. If I have to step in, I'll do it. There's speculation he won't be ready [for the start of the season], and then the position will go to the best man for the job. I'm not sure if that would be my starting role; we've also got Isaac Miles, a freshman, and Nick Bahe, who transferred from Kansas and is finally getting to play. Everybody's excited that he's finally playing.

LW: Switching up a little bit ... since you've spent so much time in Omaha, have you gotten into the city's music scene? It's produced quite a few bands ... Bright Eyes, all those Conor Oberst side projects …

NF: My favorite band from here is 311. I've gone to a couple of their concerts when they've come home. I'm a rock fan, but I'll listen to rap every once in a while, just because that's what everybody listens to in the locker room, so I've gotta listen to a little bit --

LW: No funk, though.

NF: No, no James Brown. No funk.

LW: Had to ask, sorry. I assume you get sick of all the headlines that play off your last name. So here's the last question: Which is the worst, most played-out one?

NF: I've seen them all. People probably think they're creative when they come up with all that stuff, but it's like, "I saw that five years ago." The worst has to be "Funk Yeah" -- it's all right to use, but really, how creative is that?
posted by Luke Winn | View comments (9) | Add a comment
10/04/2006 03:20:00 PM

Presenting ... The All-Breakout Team

Hardin
DeVon Hardin is already a defensive force for the Bears, but will his offensive game to improve this year?
Robert Beck/SI
Ten days 'til Midnight Madness, and there's something I wanted to get a jump on in the Blog: staking claim to an All-Breakout Team for 2006-07. Not freshmen, not transfers -- just returnees who are ready to elevate their profiles from "glue guy" or "role player" into something more significant. Here's the criteria for player selection: Only those who were active last season (not redshirting or injured) are eligible. The player cannot be one of the top two scorers in his team's starting lineup from '05-06, nor can he have been considered one of the team's on-court leaders. And finally, his minutes-played average must be sub-30. Herewith, the starting five, bolstered by stats from kenpom.com:

G: Ronald Ramon, Pitt, Junior

LAST SEASON: 8.0 points, 2.2 assists in 24.9 minutes/game

BREAKOUT FORMULA: The Panthers operated under a low-efficiency arrangement last season. Their point guard and leader, Carl Krauser, took an overwhelming amount of the team's shots -- 391, compared to star center Aaron Gray's 323 and Ramon's 175. The problem? Krauser was hardly the team's most efficient player: He fired at a pedestrian 40.2 percent clip from the field and 36.8 from long distance.

The division of labor in Pitt's backcourt will be more traditional this year: Levance Fields will handle the ball and distribute, and Ramon will likely fill some of the 15-points-per-game scoring void left by Krauser. Putting the ball in Ramon's hands should pay off: With limited opportunities in '05-06, he led the Big East in 3-point percentage at 50.8 during conference games. More importantly, Ramon's personal efficiency rating of 124.6 was more than 19 points higher than either Krauser's (104.5) or Gray's (105.3). Those numbers mean that if one had given Krauser and Ramon 100 possessions each to score last season, Ramon would have produced 20.1 more points than his fellow Bronx product.

G: Maureece Rice, George Washington, Junior

LAST SEASON: 12.6 points, 2.8 assists in 25.8 minutes/game

BREAKOUT FORMULA: Rice is a near-lock for a junior-year explosion, seeing that he averaged double-figures last season without starting a game, and only one of the Colonials' five starters -- senior point guard Carl Elliott -- is back. Rice, who's the all-time leading scorer in Philadelphia prep history, knows how to score in bunches, and is hardly afraid to shoot: When he was on the floor in '05-06, he took a higher percentage of GW's shots (27.1) than any other player -- and was reasonably efficient doing it, seeing that his offensive rating (111.8) was second on the team. A starting role, raw scoring ability and an ability to take care of the ball (his turnover rate of 15.6 percent was the lowest among GW's guards) could equal an 18-to-20 PPG season for Rice.

F: Jeff Adrien, UConn, Soph.

LAST SEASON: 6.5 points, 5.0 rebounds in 16.5 minutes/game

BREAKOUT FORMULA: Adrien's likely rise was something covered in the blog's look at UConn's new identity back on Sept. 21. Adrien's primary asset as a freshman was toughness; he provided the Huskies with interior muscle in times when coach Jim Calhoun was questioning the aggressiveness of upperclass post-men Josh Boone and Hilton Armstrong. Quietly (given that he was UConn's seventh-leading scorer), Adrien was an ultra productive on the stat sheet, shooting 61 percent from the field and posting rebounding percentages -- 14.1 on offense, 17.2 on defense -- the put Boone and Armstrong to shame. The Huskies' top six options are gone, five of them to the NBA, and it's Adrien's time to establish himself in the lane.

F: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, UCLA, Soph.

LAST SEASON: 9.1 points, 8.2 rebounds in 29.5 minutes/game

BREAKOUT FORMULA: I know what you're thinking: way too obvious of a pick. Fine. Mbah a Moute is no secret. The Cameroonian prince was a regular starter and a prolific rebounder as a freshman, and observers of UCLA in the NCAA tournament came away astonished at how active he was as an undersized power forward. The reason he makes this squad, though, is because he could average a double-double as a sophomore and get his name into the All-America mix. He said in a summer blog Q&A that he'll be playing the three and the four this season, but more perimeter time probably won't diminish his glasswork; he's athletic enough to rebound from anywhere on the floor.

C: DeVon Hardin, Cal, Junior

LAST SEASON: 7.3 points, 6.6 rebounds, 48 blocks in 23.5 minutes/game

BREAKOUT FORMULA: All-American Leon Powe -- as well as his 20.5 points and 10.5 rebounds per game -- are gone, and Hardin, who's 6-10 and wildly athletic, is now the Bears' big tree in the lane. Hardin was already a more menacing shot-blocker than Powe (he had 48 to Leon's 15 last season), and get this: the junior's glass-productivity numbers were actually very comparable to Powe's. Hardin grabbed 11.9 percent of the offensive rebounds available while he was on the floor, while Powe got 12.2; and Hardin pulled down 24.3 percent of defensive boards, compared to Powe's 24.6. The two question marks for Hardin are an offseason shoulder surgery (from which he's reportedly recovered) and whether he can become a legitimate force on offense. With increased minutes and a few decent moves in the post, Hardin could emerge as a force in the Pac-10.

Readers, do you agree with these picks? Discuss the breakout team and offer your write-in votes in the comments.
posted by Luke Winn | View comments (77) | Add a comment
10/02/2006 04:53:00 AM

The Lobbyist, The Strategist And The Big Dance

From a basketball standpoint, the Washington, D.C., block of the 2002 NCAA tournament produced nary a lasting memory in March Madness lore. Eventual national champ Maryland emerged from that first- and second-round site after coasting past Siena (by 15) and Wisconsin (by 30); the lone close game of the six played at the then-MCI Center was a 77-74 UConn win over NC State that featured a showdown between future pros Caron Butler and Julius Hodge, who was then a freshman.

And yet, in the annals of American political history -- scandalous political history, to be more specific -- those unremarkable games provided a setting for a curious, albeit circumstantial, rendezvous. In the skybox of arena owner Abe Pollin, disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who in January pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiring to bribe public officials, hosted a V.I.P. for the dance: Karl Rove, the President's chief political strategist.

Details of that meeting were made public on Sept. 29 in the House Committee on Government Reform's report on its investigation into Abramoff. The New York Times' analysis of the report stated that, despite Rove describing Abramoff as a "casual acquaintance," the ex-lobbyist had 82 contacts with Rove's office, including 10 directly with Rove, from 2001-2004. The Times said Abramoff sent a post-game message to a cohort about Rove that read, "He's a great guy. Told me anytime we need something just let him know through Susan [Ralston, Abramoff's ex-secretary who had become Rove's executive assistant in 2001]."

The Los Angeles Times says the report suggests that Rove paid Abramoff $50 apiece for the tickets, keeping the interaction monetarily above board, and quotes an Abramoff e-mail saying Rove was "really jazzed" about seeing the NCAA tournament. Newsweek quotes an e-mail Abramoff sent to a friend -- described as a militant Israeli settler -- after the game that said:

"I was sitting with Karl Rove, Bush's top advisor, at the NCAA basketball game, discussing Israel when [your] email came in. I showed it to him. It seems that the President was very sad to have to come out negatively regarding Israel but that they needed to mollify the Arabs for the upcoming war on Iraq. That did not seem to work anyway. Bush seems to love Sharon and Israel, and thinks Arabfat [sic] is nothing but a liar. I thought I'd pass that on."

So while the Terrapins, including Lonny Baxter, who was arrested on Aug. 16 for firing a gun into the air within a few blocks of the White House, were in the early stages of their run at a national title, heavy political lobbying was going down in Pollin's executive suite -- between a guy who appeared on Time's Jan. 9, 2006, cover with the headline "The Man Who Bought Washington" and a political operative commonly nicknamed "Bush's Brain."

Baxter, a former Washington Wizard and Charlotte Bobcat, reportedly pulled the trigger while celebrating his last night in the states before leaving to continue his pro basketball career in Italy. Perhaps that wasn't the truth, though (and we're just speculating here): What if he had become aware of the skybox dealings, and was upset that Rove had the impudence to attach a shady footnote to an early stage of Maryland's One Shining Moment?
posted by Luke Winn | View comments (6) | Add a comment
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