Time for Weber to go

What happened to the Fighting Illini? Whatever it is, it’s pretty certain that Bruce Weber will not be there next year.

This about sums up Illinois' season

Illinois has now lost six straight games (and nine out of 10) in conference, falling to 5-10 in the Big Ten. This was a team with high hopes to finish in the top third of the conference, and that looked like a good bet after wins against not only Ohio State, but Michigan State as well. They are one of two teams in the nation (Michigan being the other) to beat those two Big Ten powerhouses.

Right before their big win against MSU back on Jan. 31, the Fighting Illini had lost three games by single digits coming off of the OSU win. Instead of that big win over the Spartans giving them confidence, it appeared to do just the opposite. In their current six-game losing streak, they have lost three of the games by double figures, including an 83-67 loss to the Buckeyes back on Tuesday. The defense has been especially bad during this stretch, as they have given up 80+ points three times. We knew the ‘S’ was silent in ‘Illinois’, apparently the ‘D’ is too.

There is still time for them to get on track, with games against Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin to end the year. The bubble has burst for this squad, but winning a couple of those games, most notably the latter two against ranked competition, could give them the momentum they need going into the tournament.

But no matter if they make a run in the conference tournament, Illinois will likely not be going to the NCAA’s, meaning Weber should be gone. Since Weber brought the 2005 Fighting Illini to the NCAA Championship game, he has failed to get his team past the first weekend in the NCAA Tournament. Simply put, they have choked. Also, they are just 60-56 in the Big Ten since that year — definitely unacceptable for Illinois.

Following a loss last week, Weber publicly said he has “coached not to lose all year.” The frustration is there from Weber, and that has carried over to his players.

Let’s not forget that Illinois has a new Athletic Director in Mike Thomas, who fired football coach Ron Zook soon after he was hired. Thomas appears to want to start fresh.

Weber did amazing things at Southern Illinois before he came to Champaign, maybe he’s just better at the mid-major level. He’s a class-act guy, but it’s time for him to pack up.


On The Edge (2-21)

Things are starting to shape up for several teams in hopes of making it to the NCAA Tournament. After last week, it’s safe to say that Vanderbilt, Virginia and Notre Dame have punched in their tickets for the Big Dance. But who else is close to joining them?

Shabazz Napier shocked Villanova on Monday, pushing his UConn team near a NCAA Tournament berth.

Connecticut: Shabazz Napier had the biggest shot of the season for the Huskies on Monday, a 30-foot buzzer beater to beat Villanova. I realize ‘Nova is not playing up to par this year, but this could be a win for Connecticut that can shoot some life into them. A win against Syracuse on Saturday and they are a lock. If not, wins against Pittsburgh and Providence, as well as a couple wins in the Big East Tournament will be enough. The strength of schedule (1) and RPI (23) will be the biggest things the selection committee will look at. Feb. 21 status: In

Seton Hall: It’s hard to believe a team that lost six straight in conference play still has a shot, but that’s the case for the Pirates. A win against West Virginia and splitting the season-series with Connecticut could go a long way. If they beat Georgetown tonight, they will be a lock. At 18-9. they don’t have too many flashy wins, but they have beaten the teams they should, and now will look to pull of a big upset to get their bid. Feb. 21 status: In

West Virginia: This is a big week for the Mountaineers, as they face both Notre Dame and Marquette. They have to win one of those, or else they can say goodbye to their chances of making the tournament. Easier said than done though, with those two teams are playing some of the best ball in the country. They’ve lost five out of their last seven games, so they will certainly still have a lot to do in order to punch in their bid. Feb. 21 status: Out

Miami: How crucial is next week’s game against North Carolina State for the Hurricnaes? Whoever wins that one will likely be in, while the other may be out, depending on how they do in the ACC Tournament. But before that game, Miami has a home date with Florida State, who they lost to by just five points two weekends ago. If they win that one, the game three days later against the Wolfpack may not be as crucial for the Hurricanes. I don’t see both Miami and NC State making it, and I’d give the edge to the Hurricanes, thanks to that victory at Duke Feb. 5. Feb. 21 status: In

Illinois: What is going on in Champaign? The Illini look to be doing everything they can to go to the NIT. They’ve now lost five straight games, and it’s hard to find the light at the end of the tunnel with games still to play against Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin. They will need to win a couple of those, which is definitely easier said than done. Feb. 21 status: Out

Purdue: The Boilermakers had a solid week last week, beating fellow bubble teams Northwestern and Illinois before falling to the hot Michigan State squad. They have now swept the season series with both Northwestern and Illinois. Barring a late-season collapse, that may be all Purdue needs. A .500 Big Ten record should be enough to get them in. Feb. 21 status: In

Northwestern: It’s hard to overlook the Wildcats, but with a strong SOS (9) and RPI (40), they are just one big win away. They have already beaten Michigan State, and will now look forward to a home game tonight against Michigan, who they lost to in overtime back in January. If they win that one, they have a shot at going .500 in the Big Ten and becoming a virtual lock of making the tournament. Feb. 21 status: In

Texas: Two straight losses have hurt the Longhorns a little bit, but they aren’t out of it just yet. They need to beat Texas Tech and Oklahoma in their next two games, and they should. But with no big wins on their schedule, and an early season loss to fellow bubble team NC State, they certainly need a win to brag about. Feb. 21 status: Out

Iowa State and Kansas State: I’m bunching these two teams together because they have similar resumes and they are in the same conference. They play each other on Saturday in a win-and-you’re-in game. The loser still has a good shot though, as they each have a big marquee conference win (Baylor for Kansas State, Kansas for Iowa State). We’ll see what happens on Saturday.

Alabama and Mississippi State: Just like the last two teams, both of these two SEC squads have similar resumes and will meet this weekend. The Bulldogs probably need this one more, as they have dropped three straight (and a likely fourth tonight to Kentucky), while Alabama has won four out of six after dropping four straight. Alabama has beaten Wichita State and Purdue this year, but haven’t gotten a big SEC win this year, unless you count splitting with LSU or beating Tennessee. Wins against West Virginia and Vanderbilt were the big ones this year for Miss. State, as well as the first meeting of the year against the Crimson Tide.

PHOTO: GOOGLE IMAGES/COURANT.COM


Murray guards lift Racers to win over Gaels

Murray State's Zay Jackson drives to the lane against St. Mary's Rob Jones in their game Saturday night in Murray, Ky.

MURRAY, Ky — Murray State made a statement in their 65-51 victory over St. Mary’s on Saturday . Meanwhile, the Gaels missed out on a big chance to impress the NCAA Tournament bracket committee.

The Racers didn’t let go of their lead once, as Isaiah Canaan went off for 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting, 5-of-8 from three. With the game still well within reach for the Gaels eight minutes into the second half, Canaan scored all eight points in an 8-2 run for the Racers, extending their lead to 16 points. He had two 3-pointers and layup in the stretch.

“He can shoot it so well,” St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett said following the game. “He reminds me of (Weber State’s) Damian Lillard. His ability to shoot makes him exceptional.”

Canaan was the spark-plug, but it was Donte Poole who provided the big lift to begin the game. He scored all of his 11 points in the first half. Murray’s starting guards (Canaan, Poole and Jewuan Long) combined to shoot 16-of-24 in the game.

“When you play a team like Murray who is a very good team, they will expose you,” Bennett said. “Their guards are really good. Their bigs are better than you’d think. With those type of teams, if you don’t do anything right you’ll get exposed.”

St. Mary’s was forced to play without top defender and third-leading scorer Stephen Holt due to an injury he sustained in Wednesday’s loss against Loyola Marymount. To make matters worse, Matthew Dellavedova played nowhere near 100 percent after a recent ankle injury. Dellavedova still managed 17 points on 6-of-13 shooting, adding in six assists.

“He’s a stud — he essentially played on one leg,” Bennett said. “He’s an unbelievable competitor. I didn’t want him to play, but he wanted to play. But he was dragging his leg up there, he can’t accelerate. I hope he didn’t set himself back at all. We need him too much down the stretch.”

With Canaan and Poole nearly lights out shooting threes for the Racers, it wasn’t quite the same for the Gaels, who shot 2-of-14 from deep.

Murray got the big win they so desperately needed and proved they were worthy of not only an NCAA Tournament bid, but a top-15 ranking as well.

“Anyone who is 26-1 at this time is really good,” Bennett said. “There are good teams in their conference, and they have played on the road at some tough places.”

St. Mary’s will likely fall out of the top-25 in the rankings, after losing three-of-four games. The losing streak will also mean they will probably need to win the West Coast Conference Tournament next month to receive a bid in the NCAA Tournament. Bennett said the tough late-season schedule and the recent injuries should be put into perspective.

“You could have predicted we’d lose the (games at Gonzaga and Murray),” he said. “We got beat up a little. Losing will surface. We just have to get back to work and identify what the problems are and what we can control.”

Murray has two games left in the year, at Tennessee Tech and Tennsssee State, who handed the Racers their first loss of the year. St. Mary’s faces Portland and San Fransicso to close out the year.

-PHOTO: GOOGLE IMAGES/ESPNPENSACOLA.COM


Murray State-St. Mary’s game a must-win on both sides

Murray State's Isaiah Canaan will need to have a big game to get the Racers the win over St. Mary's

Just because they each had a couple hiccups within the last week doesn’t mean tomorrow’s Murray State-St. Mary’s game won’t be the biggest game of BracketBuster Saturday. In fact, the game might be bigger now.

The Racers lost last week on their home court to Tennessee State, 76-68, to end their shot at a perfect record. Meanwhile, the Gaels dropped two games last week in double figures — one against their rival Gonzaga and another to Loyola Marymount. Suddenly, this is a must-win game for both teams.

After the St. Mary’s game, Murray’s last two games of the year are against Tennessee State on the road, the fourth place team in the Ohio Valley, and a rematch AT Tennessee State. A loss to one of those teams could all of a sudden put the Racers on the bubble and in a position where they would have to win the OVC Tournament to advance to the NCAA Tournament.

But a win against St. Mary’s would be huge for the Racers, and it would finally give them a marquee win and something to show the bracket committee besides a bunch of wins against lowly competition. The campus will be abuzz as well, with Dick Vitale (and myself for that matter) in attendance. Add in the fact that it’s Senior Night, and the Racers have a lot to play for.

But so do the Gaels. You can’t drop two out of three games by double-digits in the West Coast Conference and have people not at least be a little concerned. This will be their last big chance before their conference tournament. A win against the Racers, and St. Mary’s should be in.

I expect a good, high scoring-game tomorrow night in Murray. The Racers will need to get out to a good start in this one — they have had a tendency to be forced to come back in ball games. If they let the Gaels get out to an 8-10 point lead, they will have a tougher time coming back than they would against a team in the OVC.

It’s not often you have a “win-and-you’re in” game in non-conference play, but that is certainly the case in this one. It’s also not often these two squads, especially Murray, get national exposure — so they will need to make the most of it.

All week I’ve wanted to pick St. Mary’s to win, but this is the Racers’ biggest regular-reason game in years, and it will be played in front of a loud, sold-out home crowd. Racers win this tight affair 74-69.

And stay glued here tomorrow, as me and David Harten will be at the CFSB Center to provide extensive coverage of this big game.


On The Edge (2-14)

Every week leading up to the NCAA Tournament we will feature several bubble teams with their current chances of making the tournament and key games ahead for them.

Illinois: The Fighting Illini have had a free-fall as of late, losing six of their last seven conference games. This is a team that has a solid resume though, with wins over Michigan State and Ohio State heading it. They still have three more games against top-20 teams. If they take care of the games they should win (Nebraska, Iowa) and win one of those three games against ranked teams, they should be in. If they don’t, losses to Penn State as well as fellow-bubble teams Northwestern and Purdue could be crucial. They play Purdue again on Wednesday night — a loss to them for the second straight time this year could be detrimental, especially if bracket-builders are forced to decide between the two. Feb. 14 status: In

Illinois and Purdue will both be searching for a crucial when, as they face each other Wednesday night at Purdue.

Purdue: Speaking of the Boilermakers, they have a solid 6-6 conference record, but those six wins won’t impress many, as none of them have been against teams with winning records in the conference. They are 0-6 for the year against top-25 teams and aside from solid-but-not-astounding victories against Miami and Illinois, don’t have many wins to brag about. They face three more ranked Big Ten foes this year, which may be the difference for the Boilermakers. Feb. 14 status: Out

Texas: The Big 12 has been a very top-heavy conference, and surprisingly Texas has not been one of those teams at the top. They have lost to all of the teams at the top of the conference this year, the last three coming by a combined nine points. The Longhorns best victory this year is against Temple, but a win over the weekend against bubble-team Kansas State did help. They face both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State this week on the road, and although those two teams are in the bottom tier of the conference, they would still be two quality and much-needed wins. Feb. 14 status: Out

Alabama: The Crimson Tide could be on the down slope, as coach Anthony Grant suspended four of his top players over the weekend due to a violation of team rules. The timing was bad, as they have a home date with Florida tonight. Alabama is in desperate need for a big one — they have some of the top teams close, but haven’t gotten that marquee win. If they don’t beat the Gators, a win over the suddenly surging Tennessee Volunteers this weekend will be necessary to keep their chances alive. Feb. 14 status: Out

Connecticut: The reigning champion Huskies surely still have some work to do. They sport the top strength of schedule in the nation and the No. 19 RPI, but are just 15-9 for the year and 5-7 in the Big East. They’ve beaten Florida State, Harvard and Notre Dame, but they have double-digit losses in their last three games against ranked foes. They are sitting in the bottom-half of a weakened Big East, but a win against Marquette this weekend may put them in for the time being. Feb. 14 status: Out

Notre Dame: The Irish are rolling right now, winning six straight games, including three over top-15 teams. Right now they should be in, especially since they sit third in the Big East at 9-3. Five of their last six games are against unranked teams, and although that might sound good, if they drop a couple of those this is suddenly a team that might need to win a couple of games in the Big East Tournament to get into the dance. They have the victories (Louisville, Syracuse, Connecticut, Marquette) but have also suffered conference losses to Cincinnati and Rutgers. They face Rutgers tonight, which will be a big revenge game for the Irish. Feb. 14 status: In

Miami: The Hurricanes will always have that win over Duke, but that’s their only marquee win. They missed out on a chance against Florida State over the weekend, but will get another chance this month to beat them. Miami faces the Tar Heels at home tomorrow night, hoping to avenge a 17-point loss to them last month. If they upset the Tar Heels, there shouldn’t be much doubt about letting the Hurricanes in, but if not, there won’t be many more chances to impress the committee. Feb. 14 status: Out

Virginia: The Cavaliers sport a solid 19-5 record, but just one win over a ranked team (Michigan). If they win their four games against teams with sub-500 ACC records and one of their games against Florida State and UNC, it will be hard to bypass Virginia. I don’t see both Miami and Virginia getting in, however, so their 52-51 win last month over the Hurricanes could be a deciding factor. Feb. 14 status: In


Memphis: How their departure affects the Big East and C-USA

Just when you thought the Big East Conference was about to fall apart, they go and do something like this —and totally redeem themselves!

Since they are losing Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia after this season, the Big East had to do something big to stay at/near the top of the college basketball stratosphere. Enter Memphis. The Conference-USA powerhouse is set to join the Big East in 2013, adding a bit of life to a conference that needed a jolt.

They have already added Central Florida, Houston and Southern Methodist — but none of those teams can provide the star-power that the Tigers will provide. It is a great move for both sides, certainly as far as revenue is concerned. And Memphis will no longer have to beef up their non-conference schedule to impress the NCAA come March.

Memphis entering could be a big move in trying to keep Louisville from joining the Big 12 as well. Rick Pitino has publicly vouched for the Tigers entering the conference, and now the Louisville-Memphis rivalry can possibly get back to what it used to be in the mid-2000’s, when the Cardinals were a member of the C-USA. They played this year for the first time since Louisville defected, and this really has a chance to be one of the premier Big East rivalries.

With Connecticut, Georgetown and Villanova, the Big East was already going to be a top conference even with the departing teams, but it was likely that the Atlantic Coast Conference or Big 10 could have overtaken them. With Memphis coming in, they will still have a strong chance to be near the top still.

Right now, Memphis would not be a top-tier Big East school, but that’s no fault against the Tigers. The guys they have on their team were recruited to play in the C-USA. Think about the new, different recruiting pitches Josh Pastner and his staff can make with his team now being able to play at Madison Square Garden every year for the Big East Tournament. It’s a win-win for every party. They should be a top five team in the conference in the foreseeable future.

But what happens to the C-USA? They already had three schools leave, and now their most relevant school is on its way out. You’d think this would kill them, but with a scheduled merger with the Mountain West Conference on the way, this will still be one of, if not the top, mid-major conference. After the merger, their conference will span literally the whole country.

C-USA will lose much of its exposure in the key markets of Memphis, Houston, Orlando and Memphis — that’s why a merger is. necessary. Memphis leaving won’t be the end of the world for the C-USA, just as it was not when Louisville and Marquette left in 2005.


The Enigmatic Commodores

John Jenkins looks to carry the Commodores deep into March.

Will the real Vanderbilt Commodores please stand up? Seriously, I can’t get a grip on this team, and that’s the way they have been for the last few years.

This team is talented enough to make the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament, as shown by their No. 7 preseason national rank. But they tend to have mental lapses, which could see them falling in the first round (for the third straight year).

When they finally started to show they are a threat in the Southeastern Conference (going 6-1 to begin conference play), they lost two road games at Arkansas and Florida. Neither loss is necessarily bad, as both teams are in the top third in the SEC standings, but if they can’t beat those two teams, they will have an awfully tough go against Kentucky.

The Commodores face the Wildcats twice in February, the first one coming Saturday on their home court. Vandy should be in the tournament with their current record, but they could use a marquee win against a team like UK (who couldn’t?). They have beaten just one ranked opponent all year, a convincing 74-57 win at Marquette. But that’s it. They have fallen to three ranked teams in overtime (Xavier, Louisville and Mississippi State), and also boast a couple home losses that could be resume killers (Cleveland State and Indiana State).

Vanderbilt’s success lies on the talented wing-duo of John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor, one of the top duos in the country. Jenkins averages 19.7 a game and has the ability to make three’s from any spot on the floor. Taylor averages 17.7 points a game, as the slasher on the team. Vandy can go as far as their wing-tandem can take them.

Vanderbilt will need improved play from their post players in order to see more success. They rank just 136th in the nation in rebounding for the year. One of their post-players, Festus Ezeli, missed 10 games early in the season with a knee injury, but he

still has not been able to put up the numbers he did in his junior season when he averaged 13 points and 6.3 rebounds a game.

This is the year for Vanderbilt, as they have six seniors with loads of experience on their team. The Commodores have been known as an underachiever for quite some time now, and this is the last chance Kevin Stallings’ team has to quiet the critics.

I’ve picked the Commodores to make it to the Sweet 16 in my bracket each of the last two years, only to see them be upset by a mid-major both years. Odds are, I’m going to pick them to advance to at least the second round again this season, but would anyone be surprised anymore if they don’t?


Creighton’s Supporting Cast

Grant Gibbs (left) is just one of the guys supporting Creighton star Doug McDermott (right) this season for the Missouri Valley Conference leaders.

It might be unfair for Creighton to have Doug McDermott on his team. I mean look at his stats, he averages 23.6 points per game with 8.3 rebounds. Oh and he’s shooting 52 percent — not from the field, that’s too pedestrian for McDermott. The sophomore forward is shooting that good from the 3-point line (62 percent from the field, for the record).

McDermott is a big reason why Creighton is having their best season since the Kyle Korver-era. They stand at 21-3 for the year and 11-2 in the tough Missouri Valley Conference. But as good as the Bluejays’ star is, he isn’t all they’ve got.

Creighton has five guys averaging at least seven points a game, which may not seem a lot, but when you take into account their top guy is one of the leading scorers in the country, that’s pretty good.

One of those players is senior guard Antoine Young, who is averaging 11 points and 4.5 assists for Creighton. He went off for 23 points in their buzzer-beater loss to Northern Iowa on Saturday — the second time he has gotten over 20 against them this year.

He isn’t even their top assist guy either, as Grant Gibbs is averaging 5.8 a game. Gibbs is a Gonzaga transfer who is filling up the statbook, also averaging 7.9 points and 4.5 boards. Led by the guard play of Gibbs and Young, Creighton is second in the country in assists with 19.3 a game, trailing only Iona. Creighton is 17-0 this year when one of their players has at least six assists in a game. Having pass-first guards has been a key in helping McDermott be the prolific scorer he is.

Add in Gregory Echenique (9.5 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and Jahenns Manigat (7.1 ppg) and this is a very formidable team with a chance to make a run in the NCAA’s.

But no mid major can be ranked as high as Creighton is without a little luck.No one on their rotation has missed any time this year, as they have had nine guys play all 23 games this year.

And this team is shooting deadly, and it doesn’t matter where they are on the court. They are first in the nation in both field goal percentage (.514) and 3-point percentage (.449).

McDermott will be the MVC Player of the Year and a possible All-American, but he will be double teamed by the best teams in the nation come March. His teammates have had his back all year, and they will have to keep doing so in order to make a run to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.


Can Florida State win the ACC?

Florida State's Michael Snaer (21) and Ian Miller celebrate Snaer's game-winning shot against Duke on Jan. 21, 2012. Florida State won 76-73. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Last season Florida State shocked most everyone by making it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. This year they did their surprises a couple of months early.

Thanks to upset victories against North Carolina and at Duke, the Seminoles have put the rest of the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the nation for that matter, on notice.  If it weren’t for a couple of losses to Ivy League schools in Harvard and Princeton, this would be a top-15 team. They go into their weekend contest against Virgina ranked No. 21 in the AP poll with a 15-6 record.

They have posted 19+ wins in each of the past six seasons, but they still have been flying under the radar. Once Chris Singleton graduated last season and departed to the NBA, it appeared like the Seminoles had lost their star power, but guys have kept stepping up to lead this team.

Junior guard Michael Snaer has been the main benefactor upon Singleton’s graduation, as he has bumped his freshman-sohpomore year averages of 8.8 points up to 14.1 points per game this year, including a 21 point outing against Georgia Tech on Wednesday. He has been deadly from behind the 3-point line, making 11 of his past 14 attempts over the course of the last three games. The Dukies won’t soon forget him, as he was the one that made the buzzer-beater 3 to shock the Cameron Crazies.

Senior Bernard James has also been a key contributor, averaging 10.5 points and 8.8 rebounds a game, putting up six double-doubles this year.

But the Seminoles have been known as a defensive team for many years, and that hasn’t changed this year. They rank fourth in the country in defensive field goal percentage, holding their opponents to 37 percent. They are also ninth in the nation in blocks and 16th in steals.

Approaching the midway point of conference season, Florida State surprisingly is tops in the conference, but they still have some tough games ahead of them. They face No. 18 Virginia twice still, the first one being a home match tomorrow afternoon.

But the main question is, can they win the ACC? If they win tomorrow’s game against Virginia, they should be favored in the rest of their games this year, except for possibly the home re-match against Duke. They only face the Tar Heels once the year, so they hold the tiebreaker with them.

But Florida State won’t have many cupcake games from here on out. They close the year with a five-game stretch against some of the best teams in the conference — at NC State, vs. Duke, at Miami who looks like a possible bubble team, at Virginia, and against a Clemson team who handed the Seminoles their only conference loss of they year.

On paper, Duke and UNC look like the better teams, but Florida State doesn’t realize that. Beating both of those teams has given this bunch a sense of confidence that only a few teams in the nation have had this year, and they plan on riding that to the close of the year.