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February 8, 2007

Notebook: Rubbing shoulders with a giant

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Quick, what do UCLA and Austin Peay have in common?

They are the only teams in the country that have both the best record in their conference and no seniors on their entire roster.

For the Bruins, that isn't necessarily unheard of. UCLA often attracts the kind of talent that doesn't hang around for four years.

The Governors have produced a couple of NBA players, but it's fair to say that coach Dave Loos expects to see the guys he signs at APSU for the duration.

"We're distinctly different from that program," Loos said with a laugh when told of his team's similarity to UCLA this season. "It's the first time in my 17 years here that we don't have any seniors. I think it's the first time since I've been coaching that I haven't had any.

"At the beginning of the year when we took drubbings at Illinois (80-35) and Memphis (88-63) I thought maybe not having any was a bad thing. But it's a plus right now."

The lack of veterans saw his APSU team picked sixth by the media in the Ohio Valley Conference preseason poll.

The coach took it all in stride. He shouldn't have. Would the ACC media pick a Mike Krzyzewski team to finish in the lower division? Loos has meant as much to the OVC, where he hasn't had a losing record in the conference in the past 13 seasons. The Governors have won 61 of their past 82 OVC games, including a 12-2 mark this season.

"We thought we were better than sixth, but I can't tell you that we're not a little surprised," Loos said. "We're playing very well in most facets of the game. We're shooting well and taking care of the ball. We're not very big, but we're holding our own on the boards."

Loos has taken APSU to the NCAA Tournament twice but has yet to win a game there. Perhaps his best team, the 2003-04 squad, didn't make the dance. The Govs went 16-0 in the OVC regular season only to be upset in the conference tournament.

Still, APSU harbors the George Mason-like dreams of all mid-majors.

"It was sure fun watching George Mason last year," Loos said. "All of us on this level looked at that, and it does give you a little hope. It could happen. It energizes you a little bit."

Loos will get a boost, too, out of next season. After all, everybody on his roster should be returning.

"We went through some painful situations with trying to find the right chemistry and rotation and we've done that," Loos said. "It's turned into a nice thing to think about next year."

N.C. State redshirt freshman Brandon Costner was all but forgotten entering this season with the bevy of heralded true freshmen invading the ACC.

Over in Chapel Hill Roy Williams welcomed Rivals' No. 1 class – yes, a class rated even higher than Ohio State's haul with Greg Oden. The Tar Heels signed six players, including five-star prospects Brandan Wright, Wayne Ellington and Tywon Lawson.

Georgia Tech also made a splash with Rivals' seventh-ranked class, including five-star prospects Thaddeus Young and Javaris Crittenton.

You had to figure Duke would show up in there somewhere, too, and the Blue Devils did. They inked a pair of five-star prospects as well – Gerald Henderson and Brian Zoubek.

So who leads all ACC freshmen in scoring and rebounding? That would be Costner, a former four-star prospect out of West Orange (N.J.) Seton Hall Prep. He redshirted after playing in five games in 2005-06 when it was discovered he had a stress fracture in his leg.

Healthy and ready to go this season, Costner has been a revelation. He's averaging 16.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per game to rank in the top 10 in the ACC in both categories. He has been remarkably consistent: He has failed to reach double figures in scoring only once, and that was a nine-point game, and he has had at least six rebounds in 18 of the Wolfpack's 22 games.

The only problem for N.C. State is that Costner might be hitting the wall. He's averaging 35 minutes per game, and after shooting 49.5 percent in the first 17 games, he's in a five-game shooting slump at the moment. He has made only 17 of 52 shots (32.7 percent) in that stretch.

Things aren't looking good for two of last year's Final Four participants even to reach the 2007 NCAA Tournament, something that has happened only once since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

LSU's 70-67 loss at Tennessee on Tuesday night was its sixth in a row. It dropped the Tigers to 13-10, and just 2-7 in the SEC. Barring a winning streak of unforeseen proportions, LSU won't be in the NCAAs.

Neither will last year's Cinderella, George Mason. The Patriots also are 13-10 and would have to win the Colonial Athletic Association's automatic bid to get in the tournament.

The comedown for GMU is hardly a surprise. Coach Jim Larranaga's team lost its three leading scorers in seniors Jai Lewis, Tony Skinn and Lamar Butler.

The Tigers, though, had high hopes. A return to the NCAA Tournament was supposed to be a given, and even another berth in the Final Four wasn't out of the question. LSU was ranked fifth in The Associated Press preseason poll, mostly because Glen Davis decided to return for his junior season. Davis led the SEC in scoring and rebounding last year, the first player to do so since LSU's Shaquille O'Neal in 1991, and he was the league's player of the year.

But the loss of point guard Darrel Mitchell has crippled the Tigers. They haven't gotten very good play at the position, and they don't have a second scorer as good as Mitchell was. They also lost Tyrus Thomas early to the NBA Draft, and he was a big help to Big Baby. Without him, it seems Davis is content to take more of his offense out on the perimeter and shoot jumpers. LSU was fourth in scoring in the SEC last season, but it's 11th this season. It was second in field-goal percentage a year ago, but it's ninth today.

The last time two teams from a Final Four didn't make the NCAA Tournament the following season was in 1996. National runner-up Syracuse and Mississippi State missed out in 1997.

Two weeks ago Texas Tech was on top of the world, just having completed a two-game conference homestand with stunning victories over then-No. 5 Kansas and then-No. 6 Texas A&M. The Red Raiders were 15-5 and 4-1 in the Big 12.

Now, the Red Raiders are reeling. They've lost four in a row including a heartbreaker Tuesday night against visiting Nebraska when Huskers guard Charles Richardson hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer. TTU led 29-16 at the half but gave up 45 second-half points.

If Bob Knight can't right the ship it appears as though the NIT will be the Red Raiders' postseason destination. The schedule is brutal, with three of the next four on the road against Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Texas. If Tech can't beat Big 12 cellar dweller Colorado at home, the losing streak could very well hit eight.

Jim Calhoun picked up his 500th victory at UConn when the Huskies beat visiting Syracuse 67-60 on Monday night. The Orangemen were held without a field goal over the final 7 minutes. … Ohio State point guard Mike Conley Jr., the Big Ten assists leader, had a career-high 23 points in Tuesday's victory over visiting Michigan. The freshman made 9 of 12 shots and had six assists to just one turnover. … Speaking of the Big Ten and dishing the rock, there isn't a single senior among the top 10 assists leaders in the league. … In the past nine games Oregon point guard Aaron Brooks has played 357 of a possible 365 minutes (the Ducks had one overtime game in that stretch). … Hofstra is the only team in the country with two of the nation's top 20 scorers: guards Loren Stokes (14th at 20.9 ppg) and Antoine Agudio (19th at 20.3).



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