Billikens, Zips and Pitt, too
Teams from WAC and Mountain West also get a nod
Rex Chapman, an All-SEC player at Kentucky in 1986-87 and ’87-88 and an NABC All-American in 1988, gives his opinion each week on five teams that impress. Team statistics are through March 3.
Jim Crews and his Saint Louis Billikens squad may just be on a mission here in 2012-13.
Crews was named interim head coach of the St. Louis basketball program this past August when Rick Majerus, one of the game's best coaches and biggest personalities of the past 20 years, took a leave of absence due to a heart condition. Sadly, Majerus passed away roughly three months later. Left was a giant void in our great game of basketball and much closer to home in the men's program at SLU.
|SAINT LOUIS THIS WEEK|
|March 6: No. 16 Saint Louis at Xavier|
|March 9: La Salle at No. 16 Saint Louis|
|Full Season Schedule|
Majerus enjoyed success at every stop, from Marquette to Ball State to Utah to finally SLU. Every young man on the current Billikens roster came to Saint Louis to play his college basketball for Majerus and each of those kids at times this season has had to have had days when he's carried around a heavy heart. A college basketball coach is a huge part of every player's young life.
Crews hopefully will have the "interim" tag removed from his title following the season. The job that Crews and his staff have done this year in Saint Louis is nothing if not remarkable. The Billikens are 23-5 overall and lead the always rough and tough Atlantic 10 conference by a full game at 12-2 with a week remaining in the regular season. SLU has beaten ranked teams Butler twice and VCU once this year and currently are on an 11-game winning streak. The Billikens go nine deep and their leading scorer, Dwayne Evans, averages just 12.6 points per game.
Crews' squad plays the game the way it's meant to be played -- sharing the ball and playing stingy defense. Opponents know what they are facing each night when they square off against St. Louis. But few teams this season have been able to defeat these Billikens. This squad may just best destined for a nice run in this year's NCAA tourney.
Head coach Jamie Dixon has managed to do it once again. His Pittsburgh Panthers are a squad no team in there right mind would want to face come tourney time.
I always watch somewhat amazed at Dixon's Pitt teams. They're almost never the most athletic or tallest or -- in the extremely deep Big East Conference -- most talented team each time they take the court. But almost every time the Panthers step between the lines they are the toughest team out there. I love that about them.
|PITTSBURGH THIS WEEK|
|March 9: No. 20 Pittsburgh at DePaul|
|Full Season Schedule|
This 2012-13 Pitt squad is currently 18-12 overall and 9-8 in the big, bad Big East. On the surface Pitt's record doesn't inspire a ton of confidence. But look a little deeper and you see a team which has beaten ranked teams Syracuse, Cincinnati and the red-hot Georgetown Hoyas. You'll also see a squad which suffered close and heartbreaking losses to Marquette (in OT), Louisville (by three) and Michigan (by five). Obviously the Pitt Panthers are a team this season who can beat anyone they face.
Pitt is led by tough-as-nails senior guard Tray Woodall, who's averaging a team-high 11.5 points, 5.1 assists, 2.3 rebounds and 1.5 steals. Woodall also keeps opposing teams honest as he knocks down a solid 38.3 percent from beyond the arc. Junior forward Lamar Patterson is the only other Panthers player averaging double figures (10 points), which tells you exactly where Pitt's bread is buttered -- on the defensive end.
Pitt, in typical Dixon fashion, plays hard-nosed, physical, in-your-face defense. Dixon and his staff do not recruit "softies." Yes, both defense and physical play have become staples of Pittsburgh basketball in recent years, but this Pitt squad can flat put the ball in the hole at a high rate. The Panthers aren't the highest scoring team in the world (69.6 points per game), but they are 26th in the country in field-goal percentage as they shoot an exceptional 47.2 percent from the floor. Oh, and did I mention that Pitt is ranked ninth nationally in assists per contest, as well? Well, it is.
Tough 'D,' great shooting and unselfish play. A coach and fan base can't ask for much more. Forget records, this Pitt squad is legit.
Louisiana Tech head coach Michael White and his Bulldogs are all the rage in the Western Athletic Conference. With a 16-0 league record (26-3 overall), Louisiana Tech has put together some kind of season in Ruston, La.
Simply, these Bulldogs are rollin'.
When White took over the reigns of this La. Tech program in 2011 he vowed to make the Bulldogs an NCAA tournament team. Most in the basketball world and even many of the team's staunchest supporters snickered when White made such a bold statement in his first day on the job. But only a few months later White's 'Dogs made a serious late-season run and nearly shocked New Mexico State in the WAC tournament to advance to the big dance. People in Rulston quickly realized White's tourney hopes for the La. Tech men's hoops team was more than press-conference babble.
|LOUISIANA TECH THIS WEEK|
|March 7: Louisiana Tech at New Mexico State|
|March 9: Louisiana Tech at Denver|
|Full Season Schedule|
That was Year 1. In Year 2 of White's regime, La. Tech has dominated the WAC. If the Bulldogs can manage to go on the road at New Mexico State (no easy task, ever) and Denver this week and come away with wins they will have run the table. I know the WAC has seen deeper years, but I don't care who you're playing -- to sweep bitter conference foes and is an extremely rare accomplishment. And it's not like New Mexico State or Denver will lay over; Denver is currently second in the WAC at 14-2 and New Mexico State is third at 12-4.
Louisiana Tech was rewarded by the pollsters this past week with its first Top 25 ranking (checking in at No. 25; it fell out of the AP poll this week) since Karl Malone was wearing his Bulldogs uniform and running roughshod on Tech opponents during the 1984-85 season. This current 'Dogs team likely doesn't have a future Hall of Famer on its roster as White plays 10 guys more than 10 minutes per game. He keeps fresh bodies on the court at all times and pushes the ball up and down the court. La. Tech averages a little less than 75 points -- good for 31st in the country. The Bulldogs also hit the glass extremely well, as they are ranked 19th nationally in rebounds per contest. Sophomore guard Raheem Appleby leads Tech in scoring at 14.8 points in just 25.9 minutes and is the only Bulldogs player to score in double digits on a nightly basis.
No matter your rooting interest you have to appreciate what White has been able to accomplish for this La. Tech basketball program in less than two years' time. If all goes to plan in the next couple of weeks, White's goal of returning the La. Tech program to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991 no longer will be perceived as a pipe dream -- it'll be the Bulldogs' reality.
I'm pulling for them.
The Akron Zips are for real.
To be honest, I've watched this team from afar this season with a bit of skepticism. But no longer. Head coach Keith Dambrot's Akron team has been quietly putting up one heck of a season. Akron stubbed its toe Saturday night in losing on the road to Buffalo, but until that loss the Zips had a nation-best 19-game winning streak -- and had won seven in a row on the road.
As I've mentioned many times this season, I'm not a huge fan of carrying lengthy winning streaks into the postseason. I've just always felt that for a team to be at its best it needs to fight through a little adversity and be a bit "on edge" as the postseason nears. So, as much as the recent Zips loss may have disappointed the Akron faithful I'm not so sure it won't be the best thing for them as they head into the always-tough Mid-American Conference tournament the middle of next week in Cleveland.
|AKRON THIS WEEK|
|March 5: Miami (Ohio) at Akron|
|March 8: Kent State at Akron|
|Full Season Schedule|
Dambrot's Zips are solid from top to bottom. Check out these team stats:
• Scoring: 73.7 (45th nationally)
• Rebounds: 37.9 (44th)
• Assists: 15.1 (35th)
• Field-goal percentage: 46.0 (51st)
Akron has exhibited something each night that every coach in America wants from his team -- consistency. Leading the way for the Zips is 7-foot senior Zeke Marshall. Marshall is one of the top centers in college basketball as he averages a team-high 12.9 points and a little less than seven rebounds per game. But Marshall does most of his work on the defensive end where he holds things down in the middle and blocks an incredible 3.6 shots per contest. The big fella, through 28 games this year, has blocked 101 shots, giving him 347 for his career. Marshall entered this season as Akron's all-time career leader in blocked shots.
I for one will be paying close attention to the MAC tourney as the conference has had its fair share of upsets in recent years. But I just don't see it this year. Dambrot and his staff have put together one heck of a Zips basketball squad and with their 23-5 (13-1 conference) record they are hands-down the class of the MAC. I say these guys will be dancing.
Head coach Larry Eustachy has pumped some much-needed energy and life into a Colorado State program that was in desperate need of something, anything prior to his arrival in April 2012.
In his first season at the helm Eustachy has worked miracles. Kudos to the folks behind the scenes at CSU for stepping up and hiring a big-time basketball mind.
Eustachy has brought an upbeat style of play to the Rams. They put up roughly 73 points a game (good for 53rd nationally) and are the fourth-best rebounding team in all of college basketball. Most of the time if you control the glass you'll control the game -- and the Rams have done their fair share of controlling opponents this season. At 22-7 (9-5 in the Mountain West Conference) the Rams could very well make it back to the NCAA tournament for the second time in as many years.
|COLORADO STATE THIS WEEK|
|March 6: Colorado State at Wyoming|
|March 9: Nevada at Colorado State|
|Full Season Schedule|
Eustachy's Rams popped into the Top 25 rankings (22nd) a couple of weeks ago before stumbling on the road at UNLV and then losing a hard-fought home game versus then-No. 16 New Mexico (which is 12th this week) when Lobos forward Kendall Williams went off for a career-high 46 points. Having lost three of its past four games CSU is reeling a bit at the moment and is in desperate need of regrouping this week on the road at Wyoming. The Dome of Doom in Laramie, Wyo., is never an easy venue in which to play, much less to go in search of a much-needed win.
The Rams finish the regular season at home this weekend versus a struggling Nevada squad. CSU big man Colton Iverson, a 6-10 senior center from the mean streets of Yankton, S.D., will need to step up his game and put his teammates on those broad shoulders of his in order to right the ship this week before heading into next week's all-important MWC tournament in Las Vegas. Iverson averages 13.9 points and 9.8 rebounds and is one of the more improved players in the country.
Colorado State is one of the feel-good stories of the 2012-13 season. These next two weeks are big ones for the Rams, who are up against it a little bit right now. But Eustachy is a gamer. Don't count out CSU.
Rex Chapman played at Kentucky from 1986-88. He was a two-time All-SEC selection as well as an NABC All-American in 1988 before opting for the NBA Draft. He was the No. 1 choice — eighth overall — of Charlotte and played for the Hornets (1988-92), Washington Bullets (1992-95), Miami Heat (1995-96) and Phoenix Suns (1996-2000). Follow Rex on Twitter @rexchapman