Burning questions as college basketball heats up, more Hoop Thoughts
Hoop Thoughts (Cont.)
We are just three days from the biggest sporting event in the world. That means we're four days from having millions of bereft football fans turn their lonely eyes to college basketball.
Beginning Monday (well, maybe Tuesday; gotta give everyone a day to talk about the Super Bowl), all those radio shows and television studios will need something to talk about. Since spring training hasn't yet begun, and the NBA playoffs are a long way off, college basketball provides the perfect fill. With the added attention and excitement, however, comes extra scrutiny. I suspect that casual fans arriving late to our party will have a few questions about the current season -- questions that won't necessarily reflect well on the sport. Here are the main three that I predict will come up:
Is a sport better when there's lots of parity, or is it better when there's a single powerhouse? The debate may be age-old, but it isn't much of a debate. Goliath has always been best for ratings. Why else would my bosses over at CBS preempt their regular programming on Monday to show Tiger Woods running away with a golf tournament? It's especially helpful when that powerhouse is a sneering blueblood like Duke or Kentucky. The only thing better than a dominant team is a dominant team that everybody loves to hate.
In case you haven't noticed, there are no powerhouses in college basketball this season. We are already on our fourth number one team in the AP poll (five if you count Duke's two stints at the top), and we are nowhere near through. We didn't even get to the second week of January before we lost our last undefeated team. To devoted Hoopheads like us, this is a good thing, because it means optimism touches more teams. But without Goliath, the sport loses sizzle.
It's annoying, but it's a fact of life. Whenever a great college player is mentioned, the question inevitably follows: Yeah, but will he be a good NBA player? My standard answer is: Who cares? But the truth is, a lot of people care. Many of those people are the ones who don't really start following college hoops until after the Super Bowl is over.
These things tend to go in one-year cycles, depending heavily on the current freshman class. Last year's crop was terrific. (Not just at Kentucky, either.) Combined with the return of older players like Terrence Jones and Harrison Barnes, that meant college hoops was blessed with a lot of exciting young players who were destined to thrive at the next level. Next year's freshman class also has a lot of exciting players, but this year's is just OK. There are also very few noteworthy older players for NBA fans to get excited about.
Talk to any NBA scout, and he will tell you that this will be the weakest draft he has seen in years, maybe ever. I wish I could tell you that that doesn't matter. But we all know it does.
This is one area where the questioners will have, well, a point. The downward spiral of scoring has continued unabated. The general trend is disquieting, but some of these individual games are downright embarrassing. I have joked recently that if a team can't score 50 points, it shouldn't get credit for a win even if it out-scores the other team, but at a certain point, that's not funny anymore.
It's long past time for college basketball to do some soul-searching about these low scores. For example, should the sport consider a 30-second shot clock? That might seem anathema to purists, but there was a time when putting in any shot clock was considered blasphemy. The first shot clock implemented in 1986 was 45 seconds, but it was shortened to 35 seconds in 1994. I'm not formally advocating for this change, but I am saying it should be considered. And if the scoring numbers don't come up, it will become a necessity.
There is, however, a more immediate way of addressing this problem, and that's to drastically change the way the college game is officiated. Most casual fans probably assume that the NBA game is much more physical, but that is far from true. Yes, pro players are bigger, quicker and stronger, but the NBA has done an excellent job over the last decade of adjusting its rules (most prominently with respect to hand checking the dribbler) to make sure the game is not robbed of its finesse. I'm all for tough defense, and I recognize basketball is inherently a physical game, but defenders in college are given way too much latitude to push, bump, grab and hold the offensive players they're guarding.
The good news, of course, is that despite these nagging questions, college basketball always delivers because the NCAA tournament always delivers. It is the most bullet-proof event in all of sports. So get ready for lots of fun and excitement the next six weeks, but you should also be prepared to deal with a few nettlesome questions. The nation is about to take a much closer look at college basketball. Some of those lonely eyes are not going to like what they see.
•Louisville's Peyton Siva is in some kind of miserable shooting slump. In three of his last four games, the Big East's preseason player of the year has scored three points or fewer. To his credit, he still had 10 assists and played all 40 minutes of the Cardinals' win over Pittsburgh, but you have to wonder how badly his confidence has been shaken.
•Oklahoma is winning because it is getting much more offense out of its frontcourt than expected. Amath M'Baye, a 6-foot-9 junior transfer from Wyoming, has been on a tear recently, averaging 14.8 points on 58.5 percent shooting in his last four games. I guess this guy Kruger can coach a little.
•Speaking of Oklahoma, have you seen the video of the little boy running onto the court during the Oklahoma-Baylor game Wednesday night? Cutest thing ever.
•I realize UConn can't play in the tournament, but if it it could, the Huskies would be well on their way to a bid right now. Pretty impressive given how much they lost from last season.
•I'm not surprised that Notre Dame is playing better since Mike Brey made the decision to sit Scott Martin. Martin is a terrific player, but only when he's healthy. Having him in the lineup despite being badly hobbled was hurting the team a lot more than he was helping it. Now some other guys (most notably Tom Knight) have an opportunity to step up, and they're taking advantage.
•It's just half-informed speculation, but when you ask coaches who's the leading candidate for the USC job, most of them will say Jamie Dixon. I think he'd be crazy to take it, FWIW.
•Michigan's Mitch McGary doesn't get enough mentions for being one of the top freshmen in the country. He is a strong, tough, energetic uber-rebounder and finisher who gives this team a tremendous lift off the bench. And he gets better every time he steps on the court.
•As you follow Miami, keep in mind that the Hurricanes are only going to get better as senior center Reggie Johnson gets back into shape. Johnson has battled his weight his entire career, and a five-week layoff from a broken thumb didn't help.
•I continue to be perplexed that Adonis Thomas isn't having more of a breakout season at Memphis. I sure hope he's not thinking about leaving, because he is far from being a pro right now.
•I just don't understand why Fordham and DePaul can't win more basketball games. Given where they're located, you'd think those schools would get enough good players just by accident.
•Huge stretch coming up for St. John's. The Red Storm is 6-3 in the Big East, but their next four games are at Georgetown, vs. UConn, at Syracuse, and at Louisville. They need to steal at least one of those four to be considered legit.
•I'm just gonna pencil in Kansas and Florida as number one seeds, if only because they are so head and shoulders above the other teams in their respective conferences.
•I spy an unheralded freshman: Georges Niang, a 6-7 swingman at Iowa State. Nice size, can shoot with range and drive it off the bounce. Ranked third on the team in scoring (11.3) and rebounding (5.0). Remember where you heard about him first.
•It would really help UCLA if freshman center Tony Parker could give the team more pop. He could help the Bruins with their tendency to get beat up on the boards.
•If you happen to be channel surfing one night and land a South Florida game, stick around long enough to take a gander at Jordan Omogbehin, the Bulls' 7-3, 334-pound freshman. Dude is huuuuge.
•Nice win for Indiana State Tuesday night at Wichita State. The Sycamores now have three high-quality resume wins: over Miami and Ole Miss on a neutral court, and at Wichita State on the road. Looks like the Valley is going to have at least three teams in the Dance. Works for me.
•Back and forth we go on the Mark Lyons Meter. How does a guy play point guard for 33 minutes and not have a single assist -- as Lyons did against UCLA? You'd think he'd fumble the ball once and it would end up in someone's hands for a layup. Just feels like in the end, that will be Arizona's undoing. That's my opinion for this week, anyway.
•I love it when a kid who starts off as a walk-on is awarded a scholarship. Restores my faith in humanity.
•Gonzaga sophomore guard Gary Bell is a nice defensive player, but he really needs to get going offensively. Bell's numbers are way down across the board from last season. He played 33 minutes but did not score a single point in the loss to Butler.
•Kudos to Mike DeCourcy at The Sporting News for this article on East Lansing High coach Steve Finamore, who provides clear-cut evidence demonstrating that when a team is leading by three points and its opponent has the ball, and there are seven seconds or fewer on the clock, the only proper strategy is to foul. One of the reasons is that players will not play full-throttle defense because they are afraid of fouling the three-point shooter.
•How about Nebraska coach Tim Miles tweeting after the Huskers' loss to Illinois: "We played with zero pride." That's calling out your guys in a way (and place) they can understand.
•I heard a great line during a phone conversation with La Salle coach Dr. John Giannini regarding the players on Butler: "They have Ivy League-level intelligence and military academy-level toughness."
•Love the annual sneakers-and-suits promotion for Coaches Vs. Cancer. Really smart idea for a really good cause.
I was bummed when Bradley Beal decided to enter the NBA draft, because I felt that with him, the Florida Gators had a legitimate shot at the National Championship this year. Now I'm wondering if they are even better without him, or at least just as good without him. His leaving allowed Billy D to start Scottie Wilbekin, who has been an outstanding defender as well as a solid offensive player. Some might even call him a Glue Guy candidate. Plus, it means Kenny Boynton can play two-guard rather than point guard, which I think suits him better.
--Trevor, Linden, N.J.
I can understand why a Florida fan would not want to imagine any changes to the team's roster, but let's not overthink this one. The Gators would be a much, much better team if they had Bradley Beal. Sure, Billy Donovan would have to manage a glut on the perimeter -- and maybe Mike Rosario would have to deal with fewer minutes and attempts -- but as the saying goes, that would be a high-class problem to have.
To me, the more titillating question is whether Florida is better without Erving Walker, the diminutive point guard who graduated. On the one hand, Walker left as the school's alltime assist leader, and he had them twice on the brink of the Final Four. On the other hand, he needed the ball in his hands all the time. He was also a shoot-first point guard. Contrast that with Wilbekin, who looks to pass first, second and third, and is a far better (and bigger) defender. As good as Walker was, I do think this Florida team is better with Wilbekin at the point. If Wilbekin could be throwing a few passes to Beal, Florida might be undefeated right now.
What's the deal with all these teams wearing tone-on-tone jerseys? I've seen Baylor, Tennessee, N.C. State and Kansas pull this look with their uniforms in the last month. You can hardly see the names, numbers and team names until the camera zooms in. I get that the players probably think the jerseys are neat, but what's the point of putting something on a shirt if you can't read it?
--Bobby Reynolds, Utica, NY
The reason for the kitschy jerseys is obvious: It's the marketing. And let me say, I have absolutely no problem with that. There is such wide exposure of this sport that schools have every reason -- indeed, much incentive -- to jazz up their unis to break through the clutter. So it becomes a matter of taste.
What do all the places that Bobby named have in common? They are all adidas schools. For my tastes (and apparently a lot of other people's as well) those Kansas uniforms were pretty horrendous. Perhaps the good folks at adidas were unaware that the vast majority of people who laid eyes on those uniforms would be seeing them on television. The names and numbers were impossible to read.
Contrast that with the jerseys worn by Michigan State for its game at Indiana last weekend. It wasn't just the jerseys, either. The Spartans were rocking the gold shoes, too, which I thought looked awesome. I've got no dog in this hunt, but let's face it -- Nike is just better at this stuff. Now if we can only get them to fix that unsightly court at Oregon.
Why are you so down on the Buckeyes? They beat the team you have as number one, lost a good game to number two, barely lost to Duke at Cameron when they had Ryan Kelly, barely lost on the road to a really good Michigan State team, and their only other loss was to an Illinois team that played horribly. Several teams you have in front of them have at least one if not more "bad" losses to unranked teams and have not had the resume with other games that the Buckeyes have. They are not a top 10 team but 17 seems really low as well.
--David Chandler, Lorain, Ohio
I usually reject the argument that I'm "down" on any particular team, but I do think it's fair to say that my opinion of the Buckeyes has been lower than that of many of my colleagues. No, it's not because of any bitterness that Sam Thompson dunked over me back in October. It's just that, while I do think this is a generally solid, competitive team, it still has a lower ceiling than many others because it is offensively limited.
The good news is, the Buckeyes' defense is going to keep them in most games. Nobody is better than Thad Matta at teaching his teams to play solid D without fouling. Witness their home win over Wisconsin Tuesday night, when the Badgers did not attempt a single free throw. But even though they pulled off that impressive win over Michigan, the Buckeyes did build a 21-point lead in the first half and had to hang on for dear life. Like I said, low ceiling.
As David noted, in my last AP ballot, I ranked the Buckeyes 17th. That was before they beat the Badgers (whom I ranked 18th), and before UCLA (14th) and Wichita State (15th) lost games at home. So presuming Ohio State wins at Nebraska this weekend, I would expect it move up a few spots. If I'm going to vault the Buckeyes into the top 10, however, I'm gonna need an eye-popper. They'll have a chance to get that next week when they play at Michigan, and then at home against Indiana.
Michigan at Indiana, 9 p.m., ESPN
Give both these teams credit for not looking ahead of their opponents Wednesday night. My sense is that Michigan is the better team, but Indiana is just too hard to beat at home. The Wolverines will have an especially hard time handling Cody Zeller if junior forward Jordan Morgan, who missed the win over Northwestern with a sprained ankle, isn't at full strength.
Indiana 80, Michigan 76
Oklahoma State at Kansas, 4 p.m., Big 12 Network
The Jayhawks are hard enough to beat in Allen Fieldhouse, much less with six days' rest after their win at West Virginia on Monday. I also expect KU will have a defensive gameplan for Cowboys freshman Marcus Smart, who had 21 points and seven rebounds in the Pokes' win over Iowa State Wednesday night.
Kansas 78, Oklahoma State 64
Ole Miss at Florida, 8 p.m., ESPNU
Ole Miss used to be the flavor of the month, but now the Rebs are starting to go sour. They're dealing with the Marshall Henderson sideshow, a tough loss at home to Kentucky, and injuries to two key players.
Florida 79, Ole Miss 65
Duke at Florida State, 2 p.m., ESPN
Michael Snaer has been magic for the Seminoles, having hit two game-winning threes in his last three games. But the Blue Devils are starting to figure out how to play without Ryan Kelly, even if it doesn't always look pretty.
Duke 70, Florida State 67
Syracuse at Pittsburgh, Noon, ESPN
Syracuse has had seven full days to think about its loss at Villanova, but now the Orange have to hit the road again. They're also down to seven scholarship players because of the injury to freshman center DaJuan Coleman. That doesn't bode well against a steady-eddy Pittsburgh team that is quietly building a very strong resume.
Pittsburgh 69, Syracuse 64
Oregon at Cal, 4:30 p.m., Fox Sports Net
You knew the Ducks would be hurt by having to play without freshman point guard Dominic Artis, who is out indefinitely with a foot injury, but nobody foresaw a 24-point loss at Stanford Wednesday night. It's hard to imagine a dramatic turnaround just 48 hours later.
Cal 75, Oregon 68
Miami at N.C. State, 4 p.m., CBS
This is a hard one to predict because we don't yet know whether N.C. State point guard Lorenzo Brown is going to play. What we do know is how much the Pack needs him to, considering they lost at Virginia after he left the game with a turned ankle. I would expect Brown to give it a go, but he won't be at full strength. That's a big difference.
Miami 75, N.C. State 72
Kansas State at Oklahoma, 6 p.m., ESPN2
Time to start paying attention to the Sooners, who improved to 5-2 in the Big 12 with a road win at Baylor Wednesday night. OU needs to do a better job than it did two weeks ago of containing Rodney McGruder, who scored 20 points in the Wildcats' nine-point win in Manhattan.
Oklahoma 72, Kansas State 68
Kentucky at Texas A&M, 6 p.m., ESPN
These are two very different teams than the ones that met at Rupp just three weeks ago. Since the Aggies pulled off that upset, they've lost four out of five games, while the Wildcats have won four out of five. UK has revenge on the brain, and I think it will get it.
Kentucky 77, Texas A&M 71
Marquette at Louisville, Sunday, 2 p.m., ESPN
Unless the Golden Eagles are gonna bring that bat with them, they will have a tough time grinding out a win on the road.
Louisville 71, Marquette 61
Last week: 6-4
Season total: 74-36