Addressing Ohio State skeptics, Syracuse's struggles and more
Is it time for Illinois and steady coach Bruce Weber to go their separate ways?
Stellar battle for Pac-10 Player of the Year: Isaiah Thomas vs. Derrick Williams
Is there a bigger enigma in college basketball than Temple's Lavoy Allen?
For my weekly Hoop Thoughts column on Monday, I expounded on the prevailing wisdom that college basketball is awash in mediocrity. So it's understandable that many fans would feel unsettled. However, you'd think that if there were one last enclave of optimism out there, it would emanate from Columbus, Ohio.
But you'd be wrong.
That's right, even fans of the top-ranked, undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes are experiencing a winter of discontent. So we lead this week's mailbag with three princes of pessimism who spy some flaws on the nation's lone perfect record:
My question is, are the Buckeyes peaking waaaay too soon? It's not yet February and there is already talk about this being the best team in the country. For now, they are. Before the tournament, are they going to start regressing to the mean? I think the eventual national champion is going to be a little under the radar now before getting its act together and peaking just before the tournament.
-- Jason Koonce, Cleveland
As a Buckeye fan and alum, I am nervous that they will cruise through the regular season and Big Ten tourney but crash when it matters. Are these close wins enough to teach them how to win when it's necessary?
-- Steven, Merrick, N.Y.
Should Thad Matta and Ohio State think about expanding the rotation by 1-2 more players (to 8 or 9)? Playing seven players seems to be Matta's M.O. since Xavier. Should the coach adjust?
-- Jonathan, Lewis Center, Ohio
Let's take these one at a time. First, I don't think this team is peaking too early. I don't think they're peaking at all. In fact, I'd say the Buckeyes still have plenty of room to get better, as their recent string of close wins indicates. They still have two freshmen on the floor for the majority of the games, and like a lot of teams they need to do a better job when their outside shots aren't falling in the half court. They're not a terrible free-throw shooting team, but they need to be better. (Ohio State's 69.8 clip from the foul line ranks 146th nationally.)
That said, I do think Ohio State would be much better off if it loses a game or two before the start of the NCAA tournament. As I've said for years, it's hard enough to win six games without having the added pressure of a bagel on the right side of your record. There's a reason nobody has run the table in 35 years.
On question No. 2: I absolutely think it is helpful to have close wins. Again, this is somewhat counterintuitive, but I think it's very dangerous when a team starts playing not to lose. Playing in a lot of close games conditions players to functioning under pressure. You can never duplicate the pressure of playing in the NCAA tournament, but it helps to have to fight through some crucibles before you get to the games that really count.
And finally, I do not think Matta needs to lengthen his bench artificially. If he has players that can help the team win, that's one thing, but right now he doesn't. That's why the Buckeyes are ranked 331st in the country in percentage of minutes that come from their bench. As I wrote last week, I think depth is way overrated. These are young kids and the games have lots of timeouts. Fatigue is not an issue. A short bench can be more of a problem as it relates to injuries and foul trouble, but the flip side is it's good for chemistry. There's plenty of minutes -- and shots -- to go around on this team, so nobody feels they need to get theirs when they check into a game.
Ohio State is far from perfect, but there's no question the Buckeyes are playing better basketball than anyone could have reasonably expected to this point. They'll stumble and lose a game or two, but it looks like they're going to enter the NCAA tournament as the team to beat. So cheer up, princes. Your team has problems, but they're a lot smaller than the ones everyone else is facing.
Now on to the rest of the 'Bag.
How bad do the higher-ups at Wake Forest look now for firing Dino Gaudio? They didn't like that he lost in the postseason, but at least he won in the regular season. Do you think it was a bad move?
-- Clarke Leichte, Black Mountain, N.C.
It wasn't just a bad move. It was disgraceful. Gaudio coached his team to the second round of the NCAA tournament, yet he was still given the pink slip by athletic director Ron Wellman. Obviously the program has been hurt this season by a lack of talent, especially after center Tony Woods was dismissed following his arrest for assault. So it's not fair to pin the Deacons' troubles on their new coach, Jeff Bzdelik. But that's the point: The problems, to the degree that this program even had problems, were not limited to the head coach. Wellman pulled a trigger he shouldn't have pulled, and right now Wake Forest is arguably the worst team in any power conference in America. That's karma for you.
Is it time for Illinois to part ways with Bruce Weber? His talented team continues to lose almost all the close games. He was severely out-coached when it counted against Ohio State. His penchant for calling out individual players in the media is awful and does not breed the confidence needed to win those tight games. What do you think?
-- Bernie Biagini, Lafayette, Colo.
I would never advocate for a coach to be fired purely for on-court reasons. That's not how I roll. However, if you go back to my 10 Burning Questions column at the start of the preseason, I listed Weber at the top of a list of coaches who needed to have a big season. When we think of guys who are "on the hot seat," we tend to look for coaches whose teams are really bad, but there's far more pressure on a coach whose team has some talent but hasn't won big in a while. There is just no doubt that Illinois has a lot of talent. It also has a lot of experience, so you can't give the Illini a pass because they're so young. This team's problem is the same one it has had for several years now: It is not very tough. That's why The Jigsaw Man wanted to give the Illini Morehead State forward Kenneth Faried, not just for his rebounding but because he plays so hard.
Weber deserves his share of the blame for what's happening, but at some point the players have to bear the responsibility. It's not Weber's fault that Demetri McCamey has scored 16 points in his last three games. I also don't think there's anything to the idea that his comments to the media are hurting his players' confidence. What hurt their confidence was losing four out of five games. Maybe last night's win over Penn State will spur them to a better month. With two games coming up against Purdue and road dates with Minnesota, Michigan State and Ohio State on the docket, things are not going to get any easier for Weber or his team.
Mike Brey not in your top-10 coach of the year candidates? Kidding, right? Even before the Pitt upset, he had his collection of third-team all-staters playing at a much higher level than you or anyone else had anticipated. But, of course, after a nice tournament run in December in which the Irish knocked off Georgia, Cal and Wisconsin, the only comment I recall from you was about the ugliness of the first half of the Cal game. So you may not be all that objective when it comes to Coach Brey's squad.
-- Scott, Fairfax, Va.
I actually published my top 10 candidates for coach of the year on the morning of that Notre Dame-Pitt game. Prior to that, the Irish had not beaten anyone on the road, having lost their only three league road games to Syracuse (by 12), Marquette (by 22) and St. John's (by 18). Does that sound like a coach of the year record to you? Having said that, the win at Pitt was extremely impressive, and it was the direct result of Brey's decision to run his "burn" offense for 40 minutes. Brey is doing a great job, but I'm not quite ready to book his team's flight to Houston based on a single game.
Incidentally, if you want to accuse me of bias when I watch Brey's team, I'll plead guilty. Brey was an assistant coach at Duke when I was a student there, and even though he almost committed career suicide when he cut me from the team during open walk-on tryouts, he remains one of my favorite people on the planet.
Why would you think that Isaiah Thomas is the Pac-10 Player of the Year? Have you seen Derrick Williams play this year?
-- John Bingham, San Jose, Calif.
You ever watch a football game and get the feeling that the team that has the ball last is going to win? That's how I feel about Thomas vs. Williams. Whichever player I'm watching (and I've watched them both a lot) is the one I think deserves to be the league's POY.
Right now I give Thomas the edge because he plays a more demanding position (and therefore does more to make his teammates better). The Huskies have been in first place in the conference for most of the season, and even though they're locked in a tie with Arizona right now, Washington did win their first meeting (in Seattle) convincingly. If you're asking me who's going to be the better pro, I'd say Williams in a no-brainer, but in the end the POY edge is probably going to go to the player whose teams finishes first. So circle Feb. 19 on your calendar. That's when these two guys meet again in Tucson.