It's hunting season for underdog teams and they're on the prowl
Posted: Tuesday December 2, 2003 12:20PM; Updated: Tuesday December 2, 2003 1:59PM
Teams across the land are gunning for Bill Self's Jayhawks.
The moment Charlotte coach Bobby Lutz heard that Syracuse was looking for an opponent for its home opener, he jumped at the chance. "Some people thought I was crazy," Lutz said, "but it was an opportunity for our guys to play the defending national champions, and we took that opportunity." The 49ers were unranked and Syracuse was No. 7, but Lutz's boys still came away with a 96-92 victory last Wednesday that was much more convincing than the score would indicate. Said Lutz, "We knew nobody expected us to win that game besides us, and our guys enjoy the challenge of proving everyone wrong."
Likewise, since last summer Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt had been talking to his sophomore guard, B.J. Elder, about his impending matchup with UConn's Ben Gordon last week at Madison Square Garden. Elder has been reluctant to assert himself in the past, but against Gordon he scored 22 points and Tech won by 16. You think Jim Calhoun fired up Gordon by talking to him about Elder?
Then there was Purdue coach Gene Keady, beaming on the court moments after his Boilermakers upended second-ranked Duke at the Great Alaska Shootout. "I told our players this was our only opportunity this season to play an opponent of this caliber," Keady said, momentarily forgetting that there are some pretty good teams in the Big Ten. "It was up to them to take advantage of it."
That's right, folks, it's hunting season again. We see a rash of upsets like this twice a year: In November and December (the "pre-conference" season) and again during the NCAA tournament. The hunter is the underdog, who derives motivation from a preseason poll or the tournament seeding of the team in its crosshairs. It's a devastating formula: The hunter has something to prove and nothing to lose. The hunter holds an even bigger advantage during a non-conference game because the favorite is unfamiliar with its pent-up, snarling opponent. Thus, the team that's being hunted tends to dodge bullets rather than take its own aim.
Coaches of ranked teams can talk to their players all they want about the quality of their opponents this time of year, but unless that team has a number in front of it, the youngsters don't always listen. That's why you get not only lots of early-season upsets, but also even more close calls. "We thought it would be easy," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said on Saturday, right after his Tar Heels squeaked out an 82-76 win at Cleveland State after trailing by four points with three minutes to play. "We got casual on the defensive end and we got casual on the backboards. And [Cleveland State was] not casual." Similar sentiments were echoed after close calls by Missouri (which beat Oakland 90-85), Gonzaga (which outlasted Georgia 82-76 in overtime) and Oklahoma State (which edged Pepperdine 84-82). After Saint Joseph's slipped past by Old Dominion 75-72, Hawks coach Phil Martelli said, "We walked out of here with a win, but the better team did not win tonight."
That's not true, actually. St. Joseph's may not have been the better team Saturday night, but it is certainly a better team than Old Dominion is. That, however, isn't always enough. Therein lies the peril of hunting season, because if a team posts a significant win or two, a bullseye is sure to follow. Lutz can no doubt see that trouble lurking ahead, beginning Wednesday night when Charlotte plays at Alabama. "I guarantee you," Lutz said, "that Alabama's players are looking at us a little differently than they were in the beginning of the year."
Other Hoop Thoughts
* My early pick for pluckiest coach of the year goes to Jim O'Brien of Ohio State. O'Brien has been recovering from a damaged vocal chord sustained during Oct. 1 surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck. He can only speak in a loud whisper. During the Buckeyes' season opener against San Francisco on Nov. 21, O'Brien was upset with the officiating, so he wrote the words "This is sad" on a greaseboard. The ref T'd him up. A few minutes later, O'Brien was arguing a call and got a second technical foul, which is an automatic ejection.
* Oklahoma's chances of competing for a Big 12 title will hinge on how 6-foot-8 sophomore Kevin Bookout is able to compete with a sprained right shoulder. Bookout has hurt the shoulder before and re-injured it on Oct. 21. He will probably need surgery in the offseason. Until then, he'll have to play in pain.
* I'm telling you, folks, Cincinnati is a monster waiting to rise.
* Kentucky guard Gerald Fitch, who scored 36 points against Tennessee Tech and 24 against Marshall, is apparently ready to deliver on his promise to be a primary scorer this season. The downside to this is that Fitch is jeopardizing his place as the poster boy for my annual All-Glue Guys team.
* I see that Gonzaga has dropped to 24th in the coaches' poll. Not that polls matter in our sport, but the coaches have overreacted to the Zags' season-opening loss to Saint Joseph's.
* I say it at least once a season, so here goes: As a Maryland native, I find it unconscionable that Georgetown and Maryland don't play in an annual series.
* You won't find many better fits between a school and a first-time head coach than the one between Dayton and Brian Gregory.
* Word has it that Colorado's Ricardo Patton could very well be the best golfer among Division I coaches. I pass this along because any point that fuses golf and college hoops is worth making.
* Stanford is simply a different team with a healthy Chris Hernandez at point guard.
* I admit it, Kansas is better than I thought. We all knew Wayne Simien was tough on the blocks, but against Michigan State he showed considerable improvement in his range and offensive moves. I've also been slow in coming around on Aaron Miles, but so far I'm impressed.
* Did you hear that Yale coach James Jones refused to give UConn's Jim Calhoun a tape of Yale's exhibition game in advance of the contest between the two teams Nov. 17?
* I'd love to see Jim Harrick and the University of Georgia in court. Let's get all the dirty laundry out in the open where we can see it.
* Michigan is a big-time sleeper that won't snooze for long.
* Speaking of bruisers who have learned how to score, keep your eye on LSU's Jaime Lloreda, a 6-9 Panamanian strongman who has averaged 26.3 points in the Tigers' first four games.
* At least one major college coach I spoke with wasn't surprised by UConn's loss to Georgia Tech: "If you can stop Connecticut's transition game and keep them off the offensive glass, they can be beat because they are god-awful in the halfcourt. They don't run anything."
* My take on the experimental rules: Yes to the extended 3-point line; no on the trapezoidal lane.
The danger of compiling any sort of list is that I must invariably leave worthy candidates off of it. So it came as no surprise that I was flooded with e-mails from readers who were infuriated that I left their favorite second-year player off of last week's list of sophs to watch. Some of the readers missed the point of the list. As I wrote last week, these were players who had "nondescript freshman years" and are not necessarily the best sophs in the country.
That concept apparently did not reach the good state of Arizona, because many of you complained that I left off ASU's Ike Diogu and Arizona's Hassan Adams and Andre Iguodala. None of those guys had what I would call a nondescript freshman season, so as far as I'm concerned they've already broken out. Ditto for Michigan's Daniel Horton (suggested by Joey Litman of New York) and BC's Craig Smith (from Terrance Kerr of St. Andrews, Mass.).
The same, however, cannot be said for Kentucky swingman Kelenna Azubuike (Lewis Fermaglich of Washington predicts the 6-5 sophomore "will easily slip into Keith Bogans' sneakers"). Azubuike is off to a pretty good start, averaging 12.5 points (on 64.7 percent field goal shooting) and a team-leading 8.5 rebounds in Kentucky's first two games.
Seth Davis will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his Hoop Thoughts column.
Kevin Bonds of Woodstock, Ga., proved prescient when he suggested Georgia Tech's Elder, who was outstanding last week during the preseason NIT. Northeastern point guard Jose Juan Barea, who was third in America East last season in scoring and assists, also got a shout-out from Jose Fernandez of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Barea's native island. Andy from Austin thinks I should add Texas' Brad Buckman to the list. Close enough, Andy -- Buckman was No. 11.
You might think that Louisville fans would be happy to see 6-7 forward Francisco Garcia included on my list, but David Ricardo from Glasgow, Ky., only wanted to take me to the woodshed for saying that Garcia is better than Reece Gaines. Well, allowing that Garcia will turn 23 on New Year's Eve and is thus not your typical soph, the numbers from his freshman season were well ahead of what Gaines did in his first year at Louisville. Last season, Garcia averaged 11.2 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists while shooting 42.5 percent from the field, 42.5 percent from 3-point range and 89.1 percent from the foul line. Gaines averaged 9.1 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.4 assists while shooting 44.5 percent, 31.1 percent and 76.7 percent. They're both great players, but I'll still give a slight edge to Garcia.
I also heard from lots of Wisconsin fans who took issue with my taking issue with 6-11 freshman Brian Butch's decision to redshirt this season. Nicholas Gerou of Escanaba, Mich., writes: "I'm sure I have read an article or two about kids making the wrong choice of going to the pros early. Yet, this young man decides he can't help the team this year and needs more work behind the scenes. He shouldn't be judged as weak." Adds Kyle Moore of New Berlin, Wis.: "Why do you question Butch's competitiveness? He is getting his rear end kicked in practice by Mike Wilkinson every day and knows he needs to get better."
First of all, I seriously disagree with the suggestion that Butch cannot help Wisconsin this year. Even if he only plays eight to 10 minutes a game (which I doubt he would, by the way), he would still give the Badgers another big body and five fouls to spend. And what are the chances Wisconsin will not have any injuries this season in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten? I do agree that Butch needs to get better. I just think the best way for him to get better is to play in games.
Butch's situation reminds me of Paul Davis' last year at Michigan State. Davis also came in as a highly touted freshman who had good height and skills. He was, however, very thin and wallowed on the bench for most of the season. Yet by the time February came along Davis found his groove and gained confidence, and he was crucial in helping the Spartans reach the Elite Eight. That prepared him for this season and he is now one of the best centers in the country. The same could happen to Butch, but I'm afraid it won't if he's sitting on the sidelines.
Moving on, this week's Jewish hoops report comes from Scott Granowitz of Boston, who works for the Web site JewishSports.com. (In the movie Airplane, we only had a leaflet of "Famous Jewish Sports Legends." Now we've got a Web site!) Scott reports that Yale actually has five MOTs on its roster because Josh Greenberg made the team as a walk-on. And you thought LeBron James was the "chosen one."
In response to my item about Coaches Versus Cancer, Ben Lowenberg of Boston, asked me to direct your attention to the Pan-Mass Challenge, a bicycle race that raises money for cancer research. You can check out the event's Web site at http://www.pmc.org/. Also, Bill Campo from North Wales, Pa., who assists the six Philadelphia schools in their Coaches Versus Cancer efforts, wants everyone to know that CVC's national awareness day is Feb. 7, 2004. All coaches and their staffs are asked to wear sneakers on that day.
Finally, we have our Radiators Roll Call, your favorite songs from the world's greatest rock band: Blind, Crippled and Crazy (John Mace, California, Mo.), Suck the Head (Charlie Singleton, Tucson, Ariz.), Everybody Ought to Treat a Stranger Right (Eric Derr, Ventnor, N.J. -- and of course I've been to the Snafu shows at Jazzfest) and Total Evaporation (Lex from New Orleans).