SEOUL (ABC) - Former NBA star Dennis Rodman is on way to Pyongyang today for a five-day visit to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, but the trip he said is not to free jailed American missionary Kenneth Bae.
"I'm going to North Korea to meet my friend, Kim," Rodman told reporters while transiting at Beijing's airport earlier today. "It's a friendly gesture."
Bae, currently serving a 15 year sentence of hard labor in North Korea, was arrested for attempting to overthrow the communist government. Negotiations for his release was canceled at the last minute by North Korea just before Robert King, U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights issues, was to visit Pyongyang last week.
Pyongyang's excuse for the abrupt withdrawal was disapproval of the U.S. military participating in annual joint drills with South Korea.
Rodman, the first American to have met Kim in February, noted this trip is "another basketball diplomacy tour." His earlier visit had stunned the diplomatic world when very little was known about Kim Jong Un's personality.
The former basketball star was spotted hugging, drinking, and laughing with Kim who is known to have been a fan of Rodman from teenage years when he was educated in Switzerland. The trip had been organized by the cable channel Vice to promote an exhibition game and make a documentary.
Rodman has referred Kim as "an awesome kid" and gave lavish praises after spending time with him earlier this year.
Rodman said that Kim's father and grandfather Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, "were great leaders," according to the Associated Press. "He's proud, his country likes him — not like him, love him, love him," Rodman said of Kim Jong Un. "Guess what, I love him. The guy's really awesome."
Jim Crews served as the interim coach for the SLU Billikens men's basketball team.
Crews led the team to their first A-10 title in decades and a number 4 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The deal is reportedly long-term, but specifics have not been released.
After Larkin's first field goal in about 9 1/2 minutes, D.J. Richardson missed a 3-pointer. In the fight for the rebound, the ball appeared to ricochet off the hands of Miami's Kenny Kadji out of bounds. But the Hurricanes kept the ball, and Durand Scott made two free throws after that.
Miami (29-6) is in the round of 16 for only the second time in school history. The Hurricanes play Marquette (25-8) in Washington D.C. on Thursday night.
Larkin, the only non-senior starter for Miami and the ACC player of the year, finished with 17 points. Rion Brown had 21 with five 3s.
Brandon Paul had 18 points for Illinois (23-13).
"It's never perfect, but that was fun to watch," interim Coach Jim Crews said after No. 16 Saint Louis trounced La Salle in the second half and clinched a share of the Atlantic 10 title with a 78-54 victory Saturday. "Really, they kept getting better and better, and that's unusual. That's very unusual."
Dwayne Evans had 16 points and 17 rebounds for Saint Louis, which led by just two points at halftime and then made 17 of 20 shots. Kwamain Mitchell had 19 points and six assists on senior day to help the Billikens (24-6, 13-3) win their first conference title since 1970-71 in the Missouri Valley and clinch the top seed in the A-10 Tournament next week in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"Everyone made plays," Mitchell said. "We kept pushing it and pushing it, and we came up with some great shots."
Rob Loe matched his career best with 20 points, hitting all seven shots. The Billikens shot 58 percent overall, one game after shooting a season-worst 30 percent in an overtime loss at Xavier.
"I couldn't be more pleased or proud or tickled for these guys to win a championship," Crews said. "It's hard to win a game, much less a championship."
Saint Louis has won 12 of its last 13 under Crews, who made it a smooth transition after taking over for the late Rick Majerus with no assurances past the end of the season. The Billikens can take the title outright if VCU loses at Temple today.
Seniors Cory Remeken, Cody Ellis and Mitchell were among the first to snip the nets.
"I'm sure he's proud right now," Ellis, an Australian import whose parents made the trip for the last two games, said in reference to Majerus. "He's watching this from somewhere. "
Tyrone Garland had 15 points off the bench for La Salle (21-8, 11-5). The Explorers entered the day in second place after winning seven of eight and had been 2-0 in the Chaifetz Arena before absorbing a 24-point loss that was the school's worst of the season.
"That was about as bad a beating as you could take in the second half," La Salle Coach John Giannini said. "I'm really disappointed with the way we played. They took it to us. They won a lot of individual battles — maybe all of them in the second half."
Ramon Galloway, who leads the Explorers with a 17.8-point average, was just 3 for 12 and had eight points.
A return to form in the regular-season finale Saturday for Ellis greatly increases the odds for a school that's one win away from its first conference title in more than 40 years.
Ellis was 0 for 15 in an overtime loss Wednesday at Xavier, 11 of the misses from 3-point range. And with his parents right behind the bench after making the arduous, 40-hour globe-hopping trip to see the 6-foot-8 senior off in style, too.
"I'm just going to try to get it out of my head," Ellis said. "Probably next game, the law of averages says I should knock a couple down, eh?"
Ellis has made three or more 3-pointers nine times this season, including six at Fordham to tie his career best. He leads the team with 52 3-pointers and reasoned, "I've just got to stay confident."
Interim coach Jim Crews' advice at Xavier was simple: Fire away.
"I told him probably three times in the game to keep shooting," Crews said. "You're not going to pinch-hit for Pujols or Mantle or Musial or someone who's good, are you? If he's open, I want him shooting it."
Crews has kept the program built by the late Rick Majerus humming with the 16th-ranked Billikens (23-6, 12-3 Atlantic 10) tied for first place in the conference heading into the finale against La Salle (21-7, 11-4), which also has a title shot.
Saint Louis last earned at least a share of a conference regular season title in 1970-71, in the Missouri Valley. The last outright title was in 1956-57.
To accomplish that, the Billikens need a win coupled with a VCU loss against Temple.
Crews won four conference championships at Indiana as a player, including the Hoosiers' unbeaten season in 1976, but coaching has been a reality check. In 24 years at Evansville and Army, he produced four NCAA tournament teams.
"I'd say the majority of players go through college without a championship," Crews said. "This league has 16 teams and that body of work, you've got to earn it."
The opponent is no pushover. La Salle, which has won seven of eight, needs a win on Saturday and a VCU loss against Temple to take the championship.
La Salle has beaten two Top 25 teams and is 2-0 at Saint Louis' Chaifetz Center.
"It's a big game for La Salle, it's a big game for us," Crews said. "It would really be neat and cool for these kids, all the things they've been through, to win a championship."
That Saint Louis is NCAA tournament-bound for the second straight season after ending a 12-year drought last year is a given.
"When I first got here we were on the bottom of the league," senior reserve forward Cory Remekun said. "Now we're fighting for a championship. It's crazy to see how much we've improved."
The Xavier loss ended an 11-game winning streak for Saint Louis, which has had a season of high notes with one of the stingiest defenses in the country and a balanced attack with six players averaging seven or more points.
"Some of the guys I've played with have gone through a lot," said senior guard Kwamain Mitchell, who was suspended for a semester in 2010 and returned as a calming presence on the court. "I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of it and I'm going to leave everything on the court."
The three seniors plus Femi John, who had a career-ending knee injury a few seasons ago, will be honored after the game.
"It is emotional, should be emotional," Crews said. "Personally, I've always had a hard time with senior day. It's hard on the coaches, too."