<
>

Shorter bench, more success

Eight is apparently enough to make a run at an NCAA Tournament berth. And it may also be enough for a run at the Final Four.

Missouri didn't plan on shortening the bench. But injuries and attrition trimmed the Tigers down to a more manageable number. Since Quin Snyder was forced to shorten his bench, the Tigers have won five straight and are finally playing up to expectations. Now 14-10 and a half-game behind third-place Kansas in the Big 12, Missouri is certainly among those playing for an at-large bid over the final two weeks of the season.

Michigan State planned on rotating as many as 10 players in and out of games this season. The Spartans' depth would wear down foes, or so it seemed before they too stumbled through the nonconference season and saw injuries and defections thin the ranks. But like Missouri, the Spartans have played their best with less.

In a 72-69 victory at Michigan on Tuesday, Michigan State's starters each played at least 25 minutes and only seven Spartans logged at least 15 minutes. With eight, sometimes nine, players in the rotation, Michigan State has played its way to the top of the Big Ten on its way to the NCAA Tournament.

Connecticut was tabbed the preseason No. 1 team because of its depth. On paper, the Huskies were two-deep at every position, and those 10 players were interchangeable on and off the bench. But as the season went along, it became clear the Huskies weren't a perfect 10. The Huskies didn't exactly struggle, but UConn hasn't dominated the way they were expected to, either.

Then, like Missouri and Michigan State, attrition seemed to change the Huskies' chemistry. An academic suspension and injury took two Huskies out of the mix, trimmed Jim Calhoun's' rotation to a more manageable eight regular players, and now UConn has what its coach says is the perfect number of able bodies to make its expected Final Four run.

So, why is it that everyone make a fuss about depth in the preseason when teams rarely go 10 deep into March?

"We had a legitimate nine when we won the title (in 1999)," Calhoun said. "Eight is a good number. But it's got to be the right eight."

Connecticut lost backup point guard Marcus Williams to academic problems, while backup forward Marcus White is out for the season with a back injury. Minus those two reserves, the Huskies now have three primary players off the bench in forward Charlie Villanueva, guard Rashad Anderson or Denham Brown (whoever isn't starting) and backup center Hilton Armstrong, who plays sparingly behind Emeka Okafor. The Huskies catch a break when it comes to backing up the point, with shooting guard Ben Gordon's ability to play the position when Taliek Brown is on the bench.

"The key is for the players to stop worrying about minutes, but some kids can't get over that," Calhoun said. "Charlie is fighting that. The key is to stay true to your rotation. The teams that are successful know their rotation. That way the players know what is expected of them."

Providence coach Tim Welsh also likes a rotation of eight players, but one of the three reserves must be able to back up the point, while the other two can be on the wing or frontline. If you have those three players on the bench to start a game, a team should be fine come tournament time, said Welsh.

Michigan State, as evident from its win over the Wolverines, really is only playing seven players for significant minutes. And they aren't the same seven Tom Izzo thought he would be playing at the beginning of the season.

Delco Rowley has been injured and only has played sparingly in four Big Ten games. Izzo said Rowley would have been a starter by now if injuries hadn't derailed his season. Izzo also had penciled in Brandon Cotton as State's potential starting point guard, but Cotton suffered a stress fracture to begin the season. And, after playing in three games, Cotton transferred to Detroit in January.

"We finally got some stability in our substitution pattern by the end of December," said Izzo, whose Spartans have won 11 of 13 games since Jan. 10.

"Sometimes it's easier to coach with only six or seven guys," continued Izzo. "Duke has done it. It all depends on your injuries, but we've had a lot of them over the years.

"The reason you can get away with it in the NCAA Tournament is that there are timeouts that last two minutes and 30 seconds, so it's plenty of time for your guys to get rest."

Missouri didn't intend on going with a thin bench. In fact, with midseason transfers such as Jason Conley and Randy Pulley joining a preseason Final Four pick, the Tigers seemed deeper than any team outside of Storrs, Ct. But the Tigers have had no choice but to beef up starters' minutes. And, whether it's coincidence or a feeling of desperation, Missouri has turned its season around since Pulley was cut loose after the Nebraska win (Jan. 24) and freshman forward Linas Kleiza suffered a season-ending shoulder injury (Jan. 28).

During Missouri's 93-92 double-overtime win over Oklahoma State on Tuesday, Conley and the five Tiger starters each played at least 33 minutes. Senior center Arthur Johnson played all but one of the 50 minutes, while seniors Travon Bryant and Rickey Paulding played 44 and 45 minutes, respectively. Sophomore Jimmy McKinney played 35 minutes, freshman Thomas Gardner played 36 minutes, while Conley played 33. A few token minutes were thrown to Kevin Young, Josh Kroenke and Spencer Laurie (a total of eight among the three).

Obviously, the Tigers could use Kleiza's rebounding prowess. Kleiza was leading the Tigers in rebounding (8.4 rpg) when his season ended. But Missouri was 8-8 overall, 3-3 in the Big 12 with the full compliment of players.

"It's a coincidence," Paulding said of the Tigers' turnaround and the shorter bench. "But this has brought us closer. We all have to play hard all of the time because we don't have the deep bench."

Missing, however, was a backup at point. The Tigers needed somebody to spell McKinney. Enter Conley, who arrived at Columbia, Mo., with a reputation as a scorer after leading the country in scoring two seasons ago as a freshman at VMI.

The Tigers experimented with Conley playing point and he's responded in a newfound role. Conley (6.4 ppg, 1.5 apg) handed out a season-high seven assists to go with 17 points and eight rebounds in a win at UNLV (Feb. 15). He then led the Tigers with 24 points six days later in a win at Baylor. And against Oklahoma State, the 6-foot-5 junior had eight points, seven rebounds and three assists.

Gardner's confidence is also soaring without anyone breathing down his neck. He had 20 points against UNLV and has played at least 20 minutes in every game during the Tigers' turnaround. Gardner's breakout game came against UNLV with 20 points on 4 of 6 shooting from behind the arc. He also isn't afraid to take a tough shot, making an off-balanced 3-pointer with 24 seconds left to tie the game against the Cowboys and force the second overtime.

The same seems to be true of McKinney, who busted out for 21 points in Missouri's win over Iowa State, making 9 of 9 free throws and grabbing six boards. The confidence in his game has grown ever since.

Even when Young is in the game, albeit for a few minutes, he's apparently bringing the necessary energy and physical presence the Tigers need. And he's not complaining about a few minutes here or there.

But what has propelled the Tigers to the verge of an at-large bid is the leadership shown by the senior trio of Johnson, Bryant and Paulding. The core of Missouri's preseason promise is producing as the postseason nears.

Paulding had his best game of the season against Oklahoma State, scoring 31 points and making 5 of 6 3s in the Tigers' biggest win of the season. Johnson put up his best game, too, scoring 29 points, grabbing 13 boards and making 9 of 14 at the free-throw line in 49 minutes.

Bryant's production has improved minus Kleiza, too, scoring 17 points and grabbing nine boards in a win over Colorado and nearly getting a double-double in the win over the Cowboys with 12 and eight.

"I still think if we had all of those guys we would have gotten better," Johnson said. "But guys don't have to look over their shoulder. They're more comfortable. They have to perform."

The criticism of Missouri early in the season was Snyder didn't know who to play and when. While managing egos as well as playing time, the formula clearly wasn't working. Missouri lost at home to Belmont and was routed by Syracuse in Columbia and by the Buffaloes in Colorado. Even in close losses to Texas, at Iowa State, at Memphis and to Illinois in St. Louis, something just wasn't right with the Tigers.

"The better teams don't use a ton of players," Missouri assistant Lane Odom said. "But there aren't always easy solutions. Sometimes now we've got to use AJ and Kevin Young together, and they're the same position. If Travon is in foul trouble, that's like having two AJs on the floor. When Kleiza was playing we didn't run into that situation."

The flip side, according to Odom, players now know that they'll be on the floor for extended minutes. Gardner wasn't expected to be in the mix, but he has earned his time and understands his role. The same is now finally true for McKinney and Conley. Both players were still trying to find themselves as they flirted with different positions.

Regardless of the coincidence, Missouri turned its season around. And now, with players understanding their roles and getting plenty of minutes to produce, wins at Kansas State and Texas Tech, not to mention at home against Kansas, are each attainable.

Win all three and the Tigers are a lock to get into the Dance.

Lose just once, and Mizzou remains on the bubble -- but in very good shape to get a bid, regardless of what happens in the Big 12 tournament.

"I feel like we've got new life, that we've been coming together for some time," Johnson said. "People only remember what you did in March, but we don't have a short-term memory. We remember in this locker room this whole season."

"We never doubted ourselves," Paulding said. "But it's still up in the air for us. This would be more satisfying if we could get in after what we went through. We'll still be pretty dangerous if we find our potential. As long as we continue to get better, the sky's the limit for us."

All eight of 'em.

What else we're hearing ...
At Gonzaga ... Coach Mark Few wants to make it clear: he doesn't expect nor is he demanding the Bulldogs get a No. 1 seed. He told ESPN.com Friday that if the Bulldogs went undefeated in the WCC regular season and then won the WCC conference tournament, the Bulldogs should be considered for a No. 1, but didn't necessarily deserve one. Few said there is a perception that he is demanding the Bulldogs be tabbed as a No. 1 seed. "We really have taken the attitude this year that we don't care what seed we are," Few said. "We'll go play anybody. It doesn't matter."

At St. John's ... News that the Red Storm are focusing in on Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt and Providence's Tim Welsh shouldn't come as a shock. These have been the two top names for months. It has been reported here in the past, and it's worth repeating, that Hewitt is extremely happy in Atlanta. Georgia Tech athletic director Dave Braine gave Hewitt an extension after each of the past three seasons. His family enjoys Atlanta and Georgia Tech is a top-half ACC team for the foreseeable future. It would make no sense, regardless of the personal ties to New York, for Hewitt to go to a school at the bottom of the Big East and to work for people that have shown a tendency to react quickly to any duress. Meanwhile, Welsh will listen but he's also in a good situation with his relationship with his athletic director Bob Driscoll. Welsh is from New York, but would be more inclined to stay in Providence and wait for a big-time job at a football power. If Welsh were enticed by St. John's, Providence would be foolish to pass on assistant Steve DeMeo. Pittsburgh is proving that a trusted assistant (Jamie Dixon) is a legitimate successor to a departed head coach.

On Cincinnati ... The Bearcats' staff isn't closing the door on a Robert Whaley return, but it does seem unlikely this season. The assistants never say never when it comes to Bob Huggins having a change of heart. But they don't see Whaley buying into Huggins' demands. Whaley wasn't the same after a knee injury sidelined him in December. The expectation was that he would return sooner, but his rehab went slower than the staff expected. Whaley could have been the Bearcats' most talented frontcourt player. But now he might end up declaring for the NBA draft.

On scheduling ... The Mountain West and ESPN are discussing changing Big Monday in 2005. The MWC is looking at getting rid of a Saturday-Monday format. If that's the case, ESPN may eliminate the midnight ET tipoff game on Big Monday. The current MWC games on Big Monday start at 10 p.m. local time, a tip time that has been an issue. ... Providence and Michigan State are two of the teams being discussed as possible teams in the BB&T Classic next year, with Maryland and George Washington. Providence, like Saint Joseph's this season, is starting to get plenty of calls for made-for-TV events with the expectation that Ryan Gomes will return for his senior season. Saint Joseph's is playing at Kansas next season. Kansas will return the game by playing the Hawks in the 2005-06 Jimmy V Classic in New York.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.