NCAA : Saturday Basketball

NCAA : Saturday Basketball

No. 12 Pittsburgh gets first test outside city limits
December 7, 2007

Associated Press

SEATTLE (AP) -- Final exams won't begin on the University of Washington campus until next week.

When the Huskies and No. 12 Pittsburgh meet on Saturday, each will be facing a fairly big test.

"They're strong enough to where if we don't play a very good game we're going to have a tough time," Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said.

For the Panthers, Saturday's matchup will be their first game outside the city of Pittsburgh. Their first road game wasn't until Wednesday night, when the Panthers (8-0) simply drove across town and held off a challenge from city rival Duquesne, beating the Dukes 73-68.

For Washington, facing Pittsburgh provides the Huskies (4-3) another opportunity to beat a big-name program from a major conference. Already this season Washington has missed chances against Texas A&M and Syracuse in the NIT Season Tip-Off, and last weekend was overwhelmed in a 96-71 loss at Oklahoma State.

"Those three are missed opportunities. We had a lot of those missed opportunities last year," Washington's Quincy Pondexter said. "This year, we have a better recognition of what's at stake."

What is at stake for Washington is getting critical non-conference victories to boost its resume and hopefully find a way back into the NCAA tournament. Last year, the Huskies went 19-12, but won just twice away from home -- both times against Arizona State, the last-place team in the Pac-10. Their only notable non-conference win was over LSU at home, a victory that became less and less impressive as the Tigers faltered during the season.

Washington wasn't even impressive enough to find a spot in the postseason NIT and the Huskies' final record included a 65-61 loss at Pittsburgh in February.

This season, Washington has dropped three of its last four games, all three important losses in terms of its postseason resume. That makes a win over the Panthers critical.

"We're all disappointed at this point," Romar said. "But it's a young season."

This will be Pitt's first game at Washington since 1950, when the Panthers lost here twice in two days during an eight-game, two-week holiday road trip that saw them go west on a train and return via plane and train.

It wasn't a very successful trip -- Pitt went 0-8. The Panthers face a similar road now. They return home to face Oklahoma State next weekend, they play a neutral site game in New York against Duke and face Dayton, before playing Lafayette at home on Jan. 2.

Six of the Panthers' next eight games are away from the Petersen Events Center.

"That's what you get for playing seven at home. It's based around TV," Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "All these games are nationally televised. That's the reason. It's never going to be perfect flying five hours across the country."

Pittsburgh is led by forward Sam Young, averaging 18.6 points and 8.5 rebounds. He should engage in an entertaining matchup with Washington's Jon Brockman. Brockman has carried Washington in its first seven games, averaging 19.3 points and 11.3 rebounds.

But Brockman may be getting some help. Ryan Appleby, the Huskies' sharpshooting guard who made a school-record 84 3-pointers last year, has been out all season with a broken right thumb, but could return against the Panthers.

"They have to respect him all over the court," Brockman said. "They can't just leave him alone."

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Suddenly, No. 7 UCLA's matchup with Davidson is enticing
December 7, 2007

Associated Press

ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) -- UCLA's matchup against Davidson in the John Wooden Classic looks a lot more enticing than it did when originally announced.

That's because the seventh-ranked Bruins (7-1) will face a mid-major team that put scares into No. 1 North Carolina and Duke this season.

The pesky Wildcats (3-4) lost both of those games, by four to the Tar Heels and by six to the Blue Devils, then ranked seventh.

"Those games were right down to the wire," UCLA coach Ben Howland said Friday. "They had leads at Carolina. They're that good."

Davidson coach Bob McKillop beefed up his team's schedule after losing to Maryland in the first round of last season's NCAA tournament, hoping the Wildcats would be more experienced next time around.

"It makes you significantly better with your fundamental aspects of the game than if you were playing teams that would not push buttons to beat you as well as they do," he said.

UCLA is coming off its first loss, 63-61 to Texas in which the Bruins gave up an offensive rebound that led to a dunk with 8 seconds remaining last Sunday.

"You're always more intense after a loss because of the disappointment," Howland said.

This week's practices included 11 healthy players for the first time this season. Previously, only eight scholarship players were available.

The Bruins and Wildcats will play the second game of Saturday's Wooden Classic doubleheader. Two schools representing the opposite ends of California, Saint Mary's (6-0) and San Diego State (8-1), will meet in the opener.

Freshman Kevin Love leads four UCLA starters in double figures, with 17.3 points and 9.9 rebounds.

McKillop compared UCLA's transition game to Texas Tech, which played Davidson in the NIT several years ago.

"I was very impressed with how quick they changed in transition and we started calling that the Texas two-step," he said. "UCLA is known for their defense, but they got as good a Texas two-step as I've seen and of course being triggered by Kevin Love makes it even more lethal."

Davidson's Stephen Curry, the son of NBA 3-point specialist Del Curry, averages 26 points, making him the first prolific scorer the Bruins have played this season.

"It's just a big challenge because he's such a good shooter," Howland said, comparing Curry's quick release of the ball to former Arizona star Salim Stoudamire.

"He's also a good ballhander because he can put the ball on the floor, he can penetrate, make plays for himself, make plays for others. He creates a lot of problems."

It'll be guard Russell Westbrook's job to stop Curry, with help provided by swingman Michael Roll, Josh Shipp and point guard Darren Collison.

Curry scored 24 points against North Carolina and 20 against Duke, adding to the sophomore guard's double-figure streak of 34 consecutive games.

"He balances the chip on his shoulder with a sense of humility that is rather unique in our world of competitive athletics today and he's answered every bell," McKillop said.

"He's played against some of the best defenders in the country in the first three weeks of the season and done quite well for himself."

So why the chip on Curry's shoulder?

"Well, he's playing at Davidson College instead of the ACC or the Big East or the Southeastern Conference or the Pac-10," McKillop said.

The Wildcats also feature guard Jason Richards, the nation's assist leader at 9.4 per game. He had 14 points and 11 assists against Duke.

Roll is expected to play much more than the 5 minutes he did in his season debut against Texas. Collison, however, isn't likely to duplicate the 39 minutes he logged after returning last week from a left knee sprain.

"It was really unfair to play him 39 minutes because you're getting diminishing return on yourself when you're playing tired, tired, tired at that high level," Howland said. "That's my fault. It's hard for me to pull that guy out, especially a guy like Darren who plays both ends and really has pride in his defense."

The only other time Davidson and UCLA have played was in 1975, Wooden's final season when the Bruins won by 27 points.

They advanced to the Final Four, beating Louisville in overtime before Wooden announced he would retire after the championship game. The Bruins responded with a victory over Kentucky for Wooden's 10th and final national title.

The 97-year-old coach said he didn't recall the Davidson game.

"I remember the Louisville game," he said, smiling. "I remember the championship game against Kentucky."

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Indiana, Kentucky add brotherly subplot to annual rivalry
December 7, 2007

Associated Press

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) -- Joe and Jordan Crawford used to play basketball for family bragging rights.

Now the reward could include Top 25 rankings and national respect.

Perhaps that's why the Crawfords spent this week putting their regular phone calls and sibling rivalry on hold, opting instead for the motivation of winning one of the nation's most prestigious college rivalries: No. 15 Indiana vs. Kentucky.

"There is going to be a little bit of trash talking, but I am trying not to make this an individual battle," said Jordan Crawford, the Hoosiers' freshman guard. "This is way bigger than that. Kentucky versus Indiana, it's a big game."

The brother-against-brother subplot has suddenly taken center stage in this heated border contest.

Joe Crawford recently joined Kentucky's 1,000-point club and has become a focal point of the Hoosiers' defensive approach, while the younger Crawford is returning from a three-game suspension imposed by Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson for violating team rules.

Jordan Crawford's return couldn't come at a better time for the Hoosiers (7-1), who have lacked depth in the backcourt and will now see top scorer Eric Gordon play with a bruised lower back he sustained in a hard fall Monday night.

So which Crawford is better?

"There are some similarities, as far as moves and stuff like that," Joe Crawford said when asked to compare their freshman seasons. "He's really skinny, though, so he won't overpower anyone even though he thinks he can."

But that discussion can continue at the next family dinner.

They'd rather talk about the significance of Indiana-Kentucky, a series that has included a myriad of embarrassing moments over the past decade.

There was the time Mike Davis ran onto the court and berated an official and another time when he said he wasn't the right man for the job after losing to the Wildcats. Davis was also at the helm when Indiana suffered its worst loss ever in the series, 80-41, in December 2003.

Two years later, Davis avenged the defeat by handing Kentucky its worst loss in the 50-game series, 79-53. It was the only time Davis ever beat the Wildcats in his six-year tenure.

When Sampson arrived in Bloomington last year, many Hoosiers fans hoped it would start a new trend. Instead, the Hoosiers lost 59-54, their 11th defeat in 13 years to Kentucky.

Now, the tables have turned.

Kentucky (4-2) is getting acclimated to a new coach. Billy Gillispie will get his first taste of the rivalry.

Traditionally, the game has been played either in Louisville or Indianapolis with the tickets split evenly. But because of a conflict in Louisville last season, the game was moved to Rupp Arena and now Kentucky is visiting Jordan Crawford's new home, Assembly Hall, for the first time since December 1990.

"I can relate to what Billy has been going through early," Sampson said. "You have a new team and new guys adjusting to him, trying to figure out what it is they are good at. It is just teaching."

At times, the growing pains have been difficult.

There was Kentucky's inexplicable 16-point loss to Gardner-Webb last month and another close call two weeks ago against Stony Brook. Still, they were competitive against No. 1 North Carolina in last week's 86-77 loss.

Not surprisingly, the elder Crawford leads the Wildcats in scoring (18.3) and freshman forward Patrick Patterson has been solid inside. But Kentucky has been plagued by turnovers (16.3 per game) and must start making more 3-pointers than the 5.5 it has averaged this season.

"I don't see this team not ever being turnover-prone," Gillispie said. "I don't think we are great ball handlers. I think we hold onto the ball a little bit too long. I don't think we have enough guys that see plays before they are about to develop. I hope that's going to change."

Indiana (7-1), meanwhile, has thrived with a more diverse offense.

Senior forward D.J. White has been a strong inside presence and carried the Hoosiers when Gordon left early Monday night, while Jordan Crawford was averaging 12.6 points before his suspension was announced Nov. 27.

His return will force Kentucky to contend with yet another option.

"Jordan might have been our second-best player during that stretch when he was in there," Sampson said.

Jordan Crawford's teammates have even called this week's game the Crawford Bowl, much to the chagrin of the brothers who understand there's more to it than bragging rights.

"It's our second big game in a row," Joe Crawford said. "It's important for us to be recognized as a top-20 team."

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Cyclones looking to bounce back from historic loss against Drake
December 7, 2007

Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Don't bother asking Iowa State coach Greg McDermott what exactly went wrong against Drake.

That's one game tape he swears he'll never watch.

Few could blame McDermott for trying to forget Iowa State's 79-44 loss to the Bulldogs. It was an historical whipping for the Cyclones -- who lost by the biggest margin in the 167-game series between the instate rivals -- and it left McDermott struggling to comprehend how his team could come out so flat in a rivalry game.

Iowa State (3-4) won't have much time to sort out what went wrong. Another instate rival, Iowa (6-4), comes to town on Saturday. The Cyclones are now one loss away from being swept in Big Four play for the second straight season.

That's never happened at Iowa State.

"We've got to stick together. Life's full of things like this. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Sometimes there aren't any answers for it," McDermott said Wednesday. "Sometimes you've just got to dig deep and find out who we are and what we want to stand for, get up the next morning and go to work at it. That's our plan."

Though Iowa isn't that far ahead of Iowa State in terms of progress, the Hawkeyes are feeling much better about themselves after beating Northern Iowa 62-55 on Wednesday. The win -- Iowa's best so far this season -- featured the return of junior guard Tony Freeman, who missed nine games with a broken foot.

Freeman came off the bench to score 15 points in just 24 minutes against the Panthers. Iowa coach Todd Lickliter said that Freeman's foot responded well during light workouts Thursday, and that he should be ready to go against the Cyclones.

Freeman should provide much-needed veteran leadership for a team that last week started three freshmen.

"Tony has a presence, and he has a poise you really need, and I think his teammates really appreciate him being out there," Lickliter said on Friday. "He's a competitor and he wants to contribute right away."

Lickliter was also pleased with the performance of freshman guard Jake Kelly, who scored a career-high 19 points, including a 3-pointer with 3:51 left that helped stunt Northern Iowa's momentum.

Kelly got off to a hot start against the Panthers, and that confidence seemed to carry over to the second half.

"That comes through preparation. That comes through putting the time in," Lickliter said. "You have to earn confidence."

The biggest concern for Iowa State remains Wesley Johnson, whose left foot doesn't seem to be getting better. Though he led the Cyclones with 10 points in their debacle in Des Moines, he hasn't been able to get much lateral movement since coming back from a bone bruise in his foot against Northern Iowa on Nov. 27.

Iowa State will have nine days off after Saturday's game. If Johnson's foot doesn't heal by the time the Cyclones head to the Las Vegas Classic Dec. 22, a medical redshirt remains a possibility.

"He's not even close to the same player he was a year ago and before the injury and it's probably going to be awhile before he gets back to that," McDermott said. "But we have to get some production out of some other areas and right now we're not."

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No. 11 Marquette eyes Wisconsin's 28-game home win streak
December 7, 2007

Associated Press

MILWAUKEE (AP) -- Marquette's Dominic James flicked through the messages on his cell phone this week, finding one from his tech-savvy coach Tom Crean, who wanted to remind him of Wisconsin's Trevon Hughes.

The message hit its mark, firing up the highly touted junior point guard for the No. 11 Golden Eagles (5-1), who face off for the 114th time against Wisconsin (6-1) on Saturday.

"He said he's a good point guard, and told me a couple of things I'll keep to myself," a wry James said. "But, I love a challenge."

The sophomore Hughes has been one of Wisconsin's biggest surprises, averaging 16.7 points this season after only scoring 42 points his entire freshman year. He's a big reason why Wisconsin is off to a strong start.

"He's playing with a ton of confidence and he's got a green light," Crean said. "He'll be a handful, no question about it."

Another reason for Wisconsin's success is how dominant the Badgers are at home, with a streak of 28 straight victories. Winning in Madison is a measure of success almost no road team has, and that's what makes it so tantalizing to Marquette's Jerel McNeal.

"It's one of those things we've been talking about since our freshman year," said McNeal, who leads Marquette with 16 points a game.

Since Bo Ryan was named Wisconsin's coach in 2001, only four teams have come in and gotten wins. Marquette has never won in the Kohl Center with its last success in Madison in 1997.

Ryan is 97-5 at home with losses to Illinois (twice), Temple, Wake Forest and North Dakota State (a loss that Marquette fans took great delight in only to have the Bison do it on the Golden Eagles' home court the next season).

While James gets most of the publicity and Wesley Matthews is from Madison, McNeal may be the most rounded of the heralded three guards that came to Marquette two seasons ago with dreams of Final Fours in the footsteps of Dwyane Wade.

Their story isn't rosy so far. They've had no success in the postseason, being bounced from the first round of the NCAA tournament twice.

While Saturday's game will neither make or break either team's season, both programs know how important it is, even though the rivalry doesn't draw the passion of Duke-North Carolina or Louisville-Kentucky.

Marquette was clearly overmatched in Madison two years ago, and lost 70-66 at home to the Badgers last season. Wisconsin has won seven of the last nine in the series.

"Right now, where the two programs sit, it's a signature win," Crean said. "Whoever gets it is going to have a very, very good nonconference win to hold on to throughout the year. It's not what you would call a bad loss to whoever ends up losing the game, but it's certainly nice to have that win."

A victory would probably mean more to Wisconsin after the Badgers were routed by Duke in their only loss in Durham, N.C.

Marquette lost to Duke, too, but the Golden Eagles' quickness gave the Blue Devils fits at the Maui Invitational before they faltered after James and McNeal failed to convert on several easy opportunities down the stretch in a four-point loss.

"Marquette is very similar to Duke," Badgers forward Marcus Landry said. "If we want to succeed and win that game, we have to learn from the mistakes we had in the Duke game and turn the negative things that we've done around into positive things."

Those positive things include improving Wisconsin's already impressive rebounding margin. The Badgers, who have four starters 6-foot-7 or taller, have held a 13.1 rebound advantage thus far this season with an average of 15 offensive rebounds a game.

Marquette is undersized, with only four players 6-8 or taller, and since the teams play every year, they already know what to prepare for.

"They have an extremely big lineup, probably one of the biggest in college basketball," Crean said. "They're going to probably high-low us to death when we get in there."

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Freshmen taking the early spotlight
Associated Press

This week's Jimmy V Classic looked like a freshmen pledge meeting.

Instead of fraternities deciding which of the campus newcomers they would allow in their ranks, it was college basketball fans getting a look at some of the big names in what is becoming a freshman class for the ages.

Michael Beasley of Kansas State, Derrick Rose of Memphis and O.J. Mayo of Southern California, along with teammate and fellow freshman co-star Davon Jefferson, were all in Madison Square Garden for the annual doubleheader that raises money for the V Foundation.

None of the rookies lit it up, but even those who hate the system had to thank the NBA for changing the draft rules that allowed them to see these players for even one season.

Last season's freshman class was dominated by Kevin Durant of Texas and Greg Oden of Ohio State, who went on to All-American seasons and the first two spots in the NBA draft, and included fine seasons by Michael Conley of Ohio State, Brandan Wright of North Carolina and Stephen Curry of Davidson.

This season, in addition to those freshmen already mentioned, there are a gaggle of first-year wonders who have caught the nation's eye such as Eric Gordon of Indiana, Kyle Singler of Duke, Kevin Love of UCLA and the duo of Donte Greene and Jonny Flynn at Syracuse.

Memphis coach John Calipari was honest about the Rose-Mayo matchup, in which both players struggled from the field in the Tigers' overtime victory.

``I think what you saw tonight was maturity, decision-making in the flow of the game, when to go and when to stop,'' he said. ``They both did the same things, took bad shots. That's freshmen stuff.''

Beasley entered the loss to Notre Dame in the Jimmy V Classic leading the nation in scoring (26.7) and rebounding (15.0) and Love was also averaging a double-double (19.3 points, 10.5 rebounds).

``This is the best group of freshmen I've seen in all the years of coaching by far,'' said Syracuse's Jim Boeheim, a Hall of Fame coach who won the national championship in 2003 with a couple of freshmen named Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara. ``There are more physically ready players than I've ever seen.''

This group will have to go some to match the freshman class of 1979-80 that included Sam Bowie of Kentucky, Terry Cummings of DePaul, Clark Kellogg of Ohio State, Ralph Sampson of Virginia, Isiah Thomas of Indiana, Dominique Wilkins of Georgia and James Worthy of North Carolina.


SURE SCOUTING: Notre Dame coach Mike Brey was asked about Kansas State freshman Michael Beasley after the Fighting Irish's victory in the Jimmy V Classic. He recounted a story that involved one of last season's star freshmen.

Brey was a speaker at DerMarr Johnson's basketball camp in Landover, Md., and he was talking with Curtis Malone, the coach of the D.C. Assault traveling AAU team.

``The guy running the camp said, 'Hey, you've got to see our 12-year-olds playing on another court.' Well, there was Beasley and (Kevin) Durant playing against each other as 12-year-old olds. You knew then they were going to be special. They had great length, they knew how to play, there was a special aura about both of them.''

Then Brey laughed when he said what all but two college coaches have said: ``I didn't get either one of them.''


FOUR TWENTIES: In Texas' 97-78 victory over Tennessee in the championship game of the Legends Classic, the Longhorns had four 20-point scorers in a game for the first time in school history.

D.J. Augustin scored 23, Connor Atchley had 22, A.J. Abrams 21, and Justin Mason 21 to set off some press room talk about how often there were four 20-point scorers on the same team in the same game.

Nicholas Loucks of ESPN Research did the leg work to find out that Texas was the sixth team to do it since the start of the 1999-2000 season.

Arizona did it twice against Pac-10 opponents: Arizona State in 2004 and Washington in 2007. Virginia did it in a triple-overtime loss to Georgetown in the third round of the NIT and Fresno State did it in a double-overtime victory over Hawaii in the semifinals of the Western Athletic Conference tournament.

The others besides Texas were: Texas Christian in a 134-91 victory over North Texas on Jan. 3, 2000 (Marquise Gainous 27, Estell Laster 26, Myron Anthony 23 and Vladimir Jaksic 21); Fresno State 103, Hawaii 100, 2OT on March 10, 2000 (Courtney Alexander 27, Terrance Roberson 23, Melvin Ely 22 and Demetrius Porter 20); Georgetown 115, Virginia 111, 3OT on March 15, 2000 (Chris Williams 23, Donald Hand 22, Adam Hall 21, Travis Watson 20); Arizona 106, Arizona State 81 on March 7, 2004 (Salim Stoudamire 21, Hassan Adams 21, Chris Rodgers 20, Channing Frye 20); Arizona 96, Washington 87 on Jan. 4, 2007 (Chase Budinger 23, Marcus Williams 22, Jawaan McClellan 22, Mustafa Shakur 21).


REAL RUN: Texas Tech's 42-1 run against Louisiana Tech this week started discussions about how many timeouts the coach of the team with the ``1'' should have called during the spurt that spanned the last 10 minutes of the first half and the first nine of the second half.

Bulldogs coach Kerry Rupp called only one timeout as his team fell behind 58-13 on the way to an 86-31 loss. He sounded like a coach after his team fell to 1-5.

``We got taught some hard lessons tonight,'' he said. ``There are little things we have to do as a basketball team. We can't come out and not contest shots. I give them credit; they did some good things defensively. We have to compete at the end of the day.''

The NCAA record book lists the largest scoring run as Utah State's 37-0 run against Idaho on Feb. 15, 2006. The longest run at the start of a game against a Division I opponent was Connecticut's 32-0 burst against New Hampshire on Dec. 12, 1990.


LONG TRIP: Seton Hall spent Thanksgiving weekend in Philadelphia, where the Pirates beat Navy and upset then-No. 23 Virginia to win a share of the Philly Hoop Group Classic. After that, they played at Princeton on Nov. 28.

So you can imagine that Bobby Gonzalez's team was hardly thrilled to be headed way out West for a matchup with tiny - and dangerous - Saint Mary's. The Pirates left McKeon Pavilion in Moraga, Calif., with their first loss of the season, an 85-70 defeat that kept the Gaels unbeaten to begin the week and on the bubble of entering the Top 25.

For Seton Hall, this was a return trip after the Pirates beat Saint Mary's last year in New Jersey. Gonzalez knows many big programs might have blown off the road game with a buyout of the contract rather than play in an intimate gym before a sellout crowd of 3,500.

``Playing in this atmosphere, this venue, it was so raucous,'' Gonzalez said. ``We had to go in the lion's den. We faced constant pressure. Not a lot of teams in general would put themselves in a place like this. There's a lot to lose and not much to gain.''

Oregon coach Ernie Kent felt the same way about returning to his former school only to lose 99-87 on Nov. 20. But Gonzalez and seventh-year Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett have moved through the coaching ranks together, not to mention there was a sense of duty and fairness on Seton Hall's end.

``It was important to follow through on that,'' Seton Hall athletic director Joe Quinlan said, noting both are Catholic-influenced schools.

Said Bennett: ``I respect Bobby Gonzalez for coming out here and playing when we set this thing up. You don't see a lot of teams who will do that.''


WILD WIN: Providence's 98-89 overtime victory over Boston College last weekend was one of those games that backed up all those coaches who lecture the media and fans about college basketball being a game of runs.

Providence took a 62-38 lead with 15 minutes to play. BC went on a 17-0 run over the next 7 minutes to get to 62-55. The Friars seemed to have things under control with a 70-61 lead with 5:11 left, but Boston College scored the next 13 points to go ahead 74-70 with 2:10 left.

BC led 76-70 when Providence hit two 3s in the final 1:05 to force overtime. The Friars opened the extra five minutes with a 13-2 run.

From 24 up to six down to 11 up in a span of 18 minutes on the clock.

``Obviously it was a tale of three games, not two and not one for sure,'' Providence coach Tim Welsh said.

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Baby steps: Tubby instills confidence in Gophers
December 8, 2007

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -When Tubby Smith came to Minnesota, he saw in his new team a group of players beaten down by failure.

They were carrying the weight of a school-record 22 losses, and no doubt some felt responsible for the firing of coach Dan Monson early last season and the university's subsequent decision not to retain well-liked interim coach Jim Molinari.

With nearly every player returning from that team, Smith had plenty of work to do to rebuild their confidence and rekindle their love of the game.

Six games into his tenure, the Gophers are taking baby steps in the right direction.

With a schedule softer than a pillowtop mattress and a renewed focus on defense, the Gophers (5-1) are off to their best start in five years.

They have beat up on Army, Iowa State, Central Michigan, UC-Riverside and North Dakota State and taken their lumps at Florida State, but senior Lawrence McKenzie said there is no reason to snicker at the weak schedule.

``It's the same schedule as last year, but we were losing some of these games,'' McKenzie said.

The Gophers started last season 2-6 and also lost an exhibition game in Williams Arena to Division II Winona State during a season that was one of the low points in the program's proud history.

This year they have done what a Big Ten team is supposed to do: squash the smaller guys. Including two exhibition games, their average margin of victory is more than 27 points a game, including a 10-point win at Iowa State.

For Smith, the confidence gained from performances like those outweigh any second-guessing about the strength of the opponent.

``We're trying to instill that in our guys,'' Smith said. ``There are going to be nights where you're not going to shoot the ball well, but when you win, you get a lot more confidence.

``It's a better teacher than losing. You can really get a lot more done. Guys are energetic, enthusiastic when they come off a win versus a loss. And they see that they're successful.''

Smith brought with him from Kentucky an aggressive defensive system and an up-tempo offensive style that the Gophers have embraced to hide their shortcomings, which include a lack of athleticism and shooting touch.

``If you're not skilled enough offensively, defensively you can make up for it with hustle and sheer determination and effort,'' Smith said. ``We feel like we have to overachieve.''

The Gophers have home games against Colorado State on Saturday, South Dakota State and Santa Clara before heading out to Las Vegas for a three-game tournament that precedes Big Ten play.

They know they're going to need all the bravado they can muster when they open conference play at Michigan State on Jan. 5.

``It's a big learning experience. Everyone's still learning,'' senior Dan Coleman said. ``I think we have a lot of growth to go through still as a team. But we're making strides to get there.''

McKenzie really started seeing the progress after a 75-61 loss at Florida State on Nov. 27. Rather than wallow in self pity, the Gophers went back to work and followed with easy wins over Riverside and the Bison.

``That was very important,'' McKenzie said. ``A team like us coming off a season like we did last year, I think one loss can make the whole team lose confidence.''

The real test won't come until the Big Ten season starts, but for a team rebuilding from disaster, the Gophers will take every win they can get.

``You definitely want to build a lot of momentum in these games going into the Big Ten season so you can come out with confidence,'' McKenzie said. ``It's definitely a goal to come in with confidence in these first couple Big Ten games.''

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