San Diego St. and BYU on collision course, Vols' volatility, more (cont.)
After starting out like a house afire with dominating victories over the likes of Pittsburgh and Villanova, Tennessee has fallen into a struggle to stay postseason eligible that would make Sisyphus look like an amateur. Assuming that the Vols make the Big Dance, what will they have to do between now and March to get back to their early season form?
-- Jack Lail, Knoxville, Tenn.
Actually, let me correct Jack on one thing. Tennessee did not start the season like a house afire. It started the season with an NCAA investigation and an exhibition loss to a Division II team. Yes, those wins over Pitt and Villanova were impressive, but if you look at Tennessee's entire season, those games look like anomalies. That has been especially true lately as Tennessee had dropped four out of five games heading into last night's game at Vanderbilt.
However, the Volunteers did get a huge road win in Nashville last night, and I love the way they did it. The Vols were down by 11 points with just under 13 minutes to play, but they came back through defense, toughness and foul shooting. It has taken some time, but Bruce Pearl has managed to re-create his team's identity around those elements. Consider that Tennessee got the big win despite scoring just 60 points. This team's point guard play is so bad that it has a very hard time scoring in the half court. The Vols have to rely on their defense to create transition opportunities, and they must continually attack the basket. That's a good sign for them moving forward.
Today's revelations in the NCAA's notice of allegations will yield some ugly headlines, but I don't expect it will affect the team's performance. If the Vols go in the tank (which is possible), it won't be because of that. This team has been dealing with the investigation all season, and for the most part they've stuck to business.
It's that time of year again when my Hokies start closing in on 10 ACC wins and 20 wins overall. Any ACC team except the Hokies is a lock for the tournament with that record. We were passed over last year as the third-place ACC team for the fourth- and fifth-place ACC teams. Once again we currently lack top 50 wins and our nonconference schedule wasn't the strongest, but we still have Duke to play. What will we need to do to make the tournament this year? Win the conference tournament? Beat Duke and we're in?
-- Chris Willis, Washington, D.C.
First of all, I realize it's easier to believe that your team didn't make the tournament because of a nefarious bias, but the fact is that Virginia Tech did not earn an at-large bid the last three years. That's not to say that every team that gets a bid earned or deserved it, but if you've played your way onto the bubble, you forfeit the right to complain. Yes, Virginia Tech went 10-6 in the ACC regular season last year, but the Hokies also had just three top-50 wins and one of the worst nonconference schedules in the country. They also lost in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament to a bad Miami team. We have to remember that the imbalanced schedules make conference records deceiving. You'll recall that in 2008 when the Hokies went 9-7 in the ACC but only had to play the top three teams (Duke, North Carolina and Clemson) once each -- and they lost all three.
What will be their fate this year? Let's just say Saturday's home game against Duke is going to be huge. If the Hokies win that game, they're virtually assured of getting a bid. If they lose, they'll probably have to win their remaining two (home vs. Boston College, at Clemson) to have a chance at an at-large, provided they don't suffer another pratfall in the ACC tournament. Virginia Tech's only top-50 win came at home against Florida State. The Hokies' best road win was at No. 91 Maryland. Plus they got swept by Virginia. I'm sure the committee will take into account all the injuries this team has suffered, but the bottom line is, if they don't win some games, they ain't dancing.
With both Buckeye losses coming on the road against teams with veteran guard play, is this the blueprint to defeat them? Looking at the several mock tourney brackets out there, many have San Diego State, Villanova, and/or Notre Dame in the Buckeyes' projected region. All are upperclassmen-heavy teams with outstanding guard play. Thoughts?
-- Brian Gault, Elyria, Ohio
If that's the blueprint to beat Ohio State, the Buckeyes are in pretty good shape because they don't have to play any true road games during the NCAA tournament. The fact that the teams Brian mentioned are in Ohio State's region in a few bracket projections does not mean they're likely to end up there. That said, I do think Brian touched on the word that will be a recurring theme during the tournament: upperclassmen. In a year when there is so much parity (and mediocrity), older is definitely better.
That is especially true against Ohio State, because the main thing required to beat this team is defensive discipline. Very few teams have players who can defend Jared Sullinger one-on-one, but it's dangerous to double team him because he's such a good passer and the Buckeyes have so many great three-point shooters. The only answer is to help on him only when it's absolutely necessary, and to do so in a way that still allows you to close out on the shooters. That takes a lot of teamwork and experience to pull off. And as Wisconsin and Purdue demonstrated, it helps to have a talented guard with a red-hot hand.
Finally, we'll end with a pair of questions about Syracuse.
Obviously Fab Melo has not lived up to expectations and his limited playing time is understood, but at this point isn't it more embarrassing to start him and play him two minutes per game? This cameo starting-spot routine can't help his confidence.
-- John Roberts, San Diego (by way of Utica NY)
Curious what your take was on the Jim Boeheim press conference fiasco here last week and whether or not you think he is covered fairly by local and national media?
-- Dominic Carone, Syracuse
First of all, let me say in full disclosure that I really like Jim Boeheim. I think he's a brilliant coach, and he tells hilarious stories over dinner. Nor do I have a problem with a coach or anyone else taking issue with my work. If I'm going to criticize them in public, then they have every right to do the same. I've been on the receiving end of a few Boeheim phone calls over the years, and while the conversations can be unpleasant, they never get personal.
That said, I thought Boeheim's mini diatribe against Syracuse Post Standard writer Donna Ditota was mystifying. After Syracuse lost to Louisville, she wrote that Boeheim had lost seven straight games to Rick Pitino. Boeheim claimed that amounted to a personal attack. Ditota, however, didn't write that Boeheim was a bad guy, or a bad coach, or a worse coach than Pitino. She simply published a statistic that was relevant to the game. Like I said, Boeheim certainly had the right to criticize her in public, but in my eyes he came off as petulant.
Two days later, Boeheim was a guest on my CBS College Sports show Courtside. After teasing Boeheim that he had become an Internet sensation second only to Justin Bieber, I asked why a Hall of Fame coach with an NCAA championship and 850 wins to his name still lets things like that bother him. Boeheim smiled wryly and said, "That's why I'm in the Hall of Fame." He then went on to praise Ditota's work and emphasized that she had written over a hundred articles in the past year, yet that was the only one to which he took exception.
Having said all that, I will now say something that could prompt one of those tetchy phone calls: I think Boeheim has absolutely destroyed Fab Melo's confidence. Maybe part of the kid's problem is that had so little confidence to begin with, but Boeheim has done him no favors by starting him almost every game, and then yanking him after a couple of minutes and leaving him on the bench. Against Rutgers last Saturday, Boeheim pulled Melo after just seconds -- four seconds! -- because the kid committed a silly foul. I can only imagine how mortified Melo must have felt as he trotted back to the bench. Boeheim later said his mistake wasn't pulling Melo out, it was putting him into the game in the first place. If that's the case, it's a mistake Boeheim has made too often this season.