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It’s the Home of Shooting Stars

If Steve Drabyn and Adam Mark ever sat around their apartment on the Belmont University campus in Nashville shooting wads of paper into a trash can or dirty clothes into a hamper, there wouldn’t be much to clean up afterward.

These are two of the best shooters in America, and together they helped the tiny Tennessee school knock off Missouri in a late-December game that will stand as one of the biggest upsets of the season.

Drabyn -- who once made 354 consecutive free throws during a high school practice -- led the nation in free-throw percentage last season with the second-highest mark in NCAA history by making 78 of 82 shots, or 95.1%.

He actually missed one against Missouri with 12 seconds left, but Mark grabbed the rebound and Drabyn was fouled again. He calmly turned a two-point lead into a 71-67 victory by making two free throws with eight seconds left in front of a stunned Missouri crowd of almost 11,000.

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“My best friend saw the score on the ESPN ticker and said, ‘I thought they messed it up,’ ” Mark said. “I said, ‘Thanks for believing in us.’ ”

Missouri had been ranked as high as No. 3 this season. But the troubled Tigers, their program under NCAA scrutiny, have lost five of their last seven -- including the upset at the hands of Belmont on Missouri’s home court.

“It’s still a little hard to believe,” Mark said.

He is no slouch at shooting either: Mark has led the NCAA in field-goal percentage the last two seasons, shooting 67% last season and 70.8% the season before, the fifth-highest mark in NCAA history. (He is one of only six players to lead the NCAA in shooting percentage in consecutive seasons.)

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A 6-foot-8 forward, he earns his stats with more than a high-percentage repertoire of layups and dunks, with 61 three-point baskets in his career.

Still, Mark isn’t among the NCAA field-goal percentage leaders this season at a mere 63%, and he doesn’t believe he is likely to lead the nation again.

“Last year we had another post player, Adam Sonn, and the defenses focused more on him than me,” he said. “This year, the defenses key more off me.”

Like Mark, Drabyn has competition for his title. He already has missed four free throws, going 33 of 37.

The NCAA leader, Duke’s J.J. Redick, has yet to miss from the line, going 39 for 39.

“Shooting free throws, what I tell people is to keep it as simple as you can,” Drabyn said. “No. 1, get a routine, and do the same thing every time.

“I keep as little movement as possible. You see guys in the NBA who take a dribble, spin the ball. I think that’s too much movement.”

Surprisingly, it wasn’t a lights-out shooting performance by Belmont (8-3) that beat Missouri. Belmont shot 45.5% overall but made 13 of 35 three-point shots, including five by Nick Otis -- like Drabyn and Mark a product of the state of Indiana’s tradition of great shooters.

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But one of the keys was a Belmont zone defense that helped hold Missouri to 42.1%, seven of 26 from long range.

In case you’re wondering, Belmont’s upset won’t mean anything come March despite many results this season that suggest the gap between college basketball’s powers and everybody else is narrower than ever.

The only way for 3,300-student Belmont to reach the NCAA tournament will be to win the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament. There will be competition from such teams as Troy State -- which played in the NCAA tournament last season and has beaten San Diego State -- Georgia State, Central Florida and Mercer.

Belmont has one advantage: It plays host to the tournament.

“That’s been our goal from Day One -- play every possession to be ready for those three days in March that would allow us to get where we want to go,” Drabyn said.

Arizona-Stanford, Round 1

Despite Pacific 10 Conference coaches’ protests that it isn’t the case, the Pac-10 looks like Stanford and Arizona at the top with everybody else far behind.

It isn’t beyond imagining that a UCLA team that lost to UC Santa Barbara is going to make a successful case for an NCAA tournament bid by winning enough games to finish third, especially after Oregon’s Aaron Brooks broke his wrist in a loss to the Bruins on Sunday.

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That’s how wide-open the race behind Arizona and Stanford is, making their first showdown Saturday in Tucson -- with both ranked in the top five of the Associated Press poll -- one of the Pac-10 games of the year. (The rematch Feb. 7 at Stanford is probably the other.)

Here’s the oddest statistic in the Stanford-Arizona series: The visiting team has won the last six meetings.

It might happen again Saturday.

“They’re far and away the most experienced team in the league,” Arizona Coach Lute Olson said of still-unbeaten No. 4 Stanford. (Arizona, with only a loss to Florida, is No. 3.)

“When you look at [Stanford] you don’t see any weaknesses, and [Coach Mike Montgomery] has a bench that can go pretty deep,” Olson said.

“I think [Arizona State Coach] Rob Evans said it best after our game at ASU Saturday. Even though we beat them handily, why, he said, ‘We’ve got a better team coming in next week.’

“I think that’s probably the feeling of a lot of people right now.”

(Evans, by the way, has his dander up about Olson after Olson responded to profane chants from the Arizona State student section by pointing to the scoreboard during Arizona’s 93-74 victory at Arizona State. The Arizona Republic quoted Evans calling Olson’s move “a classless act.” Olson had no comment.)

Gonzaga Regroups

There have been seasons when injuries to two of Gonzaga’s top nine players might have been enough to set the Bulldogs back. Don’t count on that this season.

As No. 16 Gonzaga makes its Southern California swing to play Pepperdine today and Loyola Marymount on Saturday, the Bulldogs are adjusting to playing without starting forward Tony Skinner, who has a broken bone in his right hand, and reserve center Richard Fox, who is sidelined after arthroscopic knee surgery.

Erroll Knight, a transfer from Washington, started in Skinner’s place in a victory over Montana Sunday. But the reason Gonzaga should be able to manage without two valuable players is depth and balance.

Four players are averaging in double figures -- veterans Ronny Turiaf, Blake Stepp and Cory Violette as well as freshman Adam Morrison, who continues to come off the bench. Worth remembering: Loyola Marymount upset Gonzaga last season at Gersten Pavilion.


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