VCU will fuel more talk of tourney expansion; it's still a bad idea (cont.)
I think way too much time is devoted to parsing so-called coaching decisions regarding shot selection at the end of games. I'm thinking specifically of Arizona and Florida, which lost their respective regional finals following questionable three-point shots. Fans and sportswriters dramatically overestimate the degree to which a coach can control those situations. I've often said that Florida junior guard Erving Walker is one of those players who keeps both teams in the game, but the Gators would not have been where they were unless Billy Donovan had given him such a long leash. Ditto for Sean Miller and Derrick Williams. The kid is a 60 percent three-point shooter, and he got a clean look at the goal from the top of the key for a chance to win the game. Jamelle Horne, who attempted the follow-up three, has made 40 percent from behind the arc this season. Would each coach rather have seen his guy drive or pass the ball into the paint in hopes of scoring or getting fouled? Of course. But the coaches are smart enough to put the game in the hands of their best players and trust them to make the right decisions. And we all know if those shots go in, Donovan and Miller would get praised for their daring.
I must admit that when I first heard Sullinger say he was coming back to Ohio State, my reaction was, "Yeah, right." Lots of players make that kind of statement after an emotional loss in the tournament, only to change their mind a few days later. But in the follow-up reporting to Sullinger's initial declaration, it sounds like the kid really is coming back. That is a pleasant surprise considering he would almost certainly be a top-five NBA draft pick. Sullinger's decision is great news for Ohio State, but it's also great news for college basketball. Having such a talented, high-profile player will give the sport a nice pop heading into next season.
I also think there has been way too much time and energy devoted to the topic of how good Jimmer Fredette will be as a professional. Why do so many people feel that a player's career can only be validated if he is a huge success at "the next level"? Why can't we just appreciate what great college players do while they are in college? By any measure, Fredette has had an incredible career at BYU, and he has just completed one of the great individual seasons in the history of college basketball. He's not the greatest player ever, and I don't think he'll be a great player in the NBA. (Though I think he'll play in the league for many years.) But too many people have looked at Fredette and focused on all the things he's not. The bottom line is he got a lot of people talking about college basketball this season, and for that we should all be grateful.
One player who quietly turned in a disappointing performance this tournament is San Diego State's Kawhi Leonard. The 6-7 sophomore forward is a great rebounder as well as a skilled dribbler and passer, but his best asset has always been his motor. So it was a surprise to see him play three NCAA tournament games with so little passion. Leonard's numbers in the tournament were okay (he averaged 16 points and nine rebounds), but he came up short in the leadership department. He should think seriously about returning to school to improve his skills and maturity.
A few months after UConn lost to Michigan State in the Final Four two years ago, Jim Calhoun mentioned to me at his charity golf tournament that if the Huskies had won the NCAA championship he was going to retire. I didn't really believe him -- it's easy to say something like that when you weren't presented with that scenario -- but I would not be surprised to see Calhoun retire if the Huskies win two games in Houston. You couldn't script a better way to go out, and it would save Calhoun the embarrassment of having to serve a three-game NCAA-mandated suspension. Then again, Calhoun might be stubborn enough to coach another year just to prove that the NCAA couldn't chase him off the sidelines. Any way you cut it, Calhoun has done arguably his finest coaching job with this team. It also looks like he has enjoyed this season more than any other.
People are often judged by how they handle adversity, but I've been extremely impressed with the way Butler coach Brad Stevens has handled success. After the Bulldogs won that crazy game against Pitt, Stevens' first comment in the postgame interview was to express how badly he felt for the Panthers. After Butler clinched a Final Four berth on Saturday, the first thing Stevens did was shake Billy Donovan's hand, tell Donovan that he had outcoached him and then shake hands with all of the Florida players. He did all of that before celebrating with his guys. Stevens is mature, intelligent and classy, but he also proved this month that he is really, really tough. The big boys will inevitably come calling -- specifically Purdue if Matt Painter takes the Missouri job -- but I wouldn't be surprised if Stevens stays at Butler for the balance of his career.
Speaking of the coaching carousel, I have to say I am increasingly distressed by how quickly coaches are getting fired these days. Jeff Capel was only two years removed from taking Oklahoma to the Elite Eight, yet he was given the axe following a 14-18 season. Keno Davis was fired after spending just three years at Providence. Jim Boylen just finished his fourth season at Utah, but he was fired by athletic director Chris Hill, who had given Boylen's predecessor, Ray Giacoletti, a pink slip after just three seasons. (Why does Hill get to fire two guys in seven years while still being able to keep his own job?) John Pelphrey had just four years at Arkansas, and he was let go even though he had his best recruiting class coming in. Short of NCAA violations or some other non-basketball malfeasance, a coach should get a minimum of five years to be properly evaluated. It takes that long to build something real. This is why you'll never hear me bemoan a lack of loyalty when a coach leaves a school for a better job. There is no loyalty in this business. Any coach who doesn't grab a good opportunity when it presents itself is being naive or just plain foolish.
As for the two biggest hires so far, I think Tennessee and Georgia Tech did well with Cuonzo Martin and Brian Gregory, respectively, but it sounds like the fan bases are a little disappointed they didn't get splashier hires. Fans need to understand just how difficult it is to convince a coach to leave a good, secure, high-paying job. I laugh when I see these initial short lists that include names like Rick Barnes, Jamie Dixon and Jay Wright. It sounds like a lot of well-known coaches, and several not-so-well-known coaches, have brushed aside N.C. State's advances, and I still think that is one of the better gigs in the country. I also realize Shaka Smart is a hot name right now, but athletic directors can overreact to a single run in the NCAA tournament in hopes of winning the press conference. The smart ADs find coaches who are on their way up and will commit to building a program for the long-term. Martin and Gregory have walked into challenging situations (Martin especially), but if their fans and administrations give them the necessary time and support, I am confident that both will succeed.