Gonzaga looking to make history, JTIII shines, weekend picks, more
Hoop Thoughts (Cont.)
Is Gonzaga ready for its closeup?
That question is going to dominate the college basketball conversation over the next two-and-a-half weeks. In the wake of Indiana's loss at Minnesota on Tuesday night, Gonzaga has a chance to do something it has never done in its history -- ascend to the No. 1 ranking in both polls. It won't be easy for the Bulldogs to win at BYU Thursday night, but considering they beat the Cougars by 20 points at the Kennel four weeks ago, and considering what's at stake, you've got to like their odds.
That, however, is small fry compared to what's really on the line: a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. This is also something that Gonzaga has never done. The cute, cuddly, Little Basketball Program That Could is about to cast a giant shadow over the sport. It is going to be a delectable storyline in a season that has been chock-full of them.
That is, if the men's basketball committee sees fit to put Gonzaga in that position. Despite what you may have heard, it is far from an open-and-shut case. Consider that of the top nine candidates for a No. 1 seed, Gonzaga has the fewest wins over the RPI top 25 (one) and is tied for Florida with fewest over the top 50 (five). But it has by far the lowest overall strength of schedule ranking (68, compared to Florida's 25). Contrast that with, say, Miami, which most people project to be a No. 2 seed if the tournament started today. The Hurricanes are 4-1 against the top 25, 6-1 against the top 50, and their overall strength of schedule rank is fourth. And only one of Miami's four losses came when the Hurricanes were at full strength.
I've often said that the conversation about the No. 1 seeds is one of the more disproportionate in all of sports. At the end of the day, what does it really matter if a team is a No. 1 or a No. 2? The biggest difference is usually geography, because a higher seed gets priority over what region it will be sent to, but that does not apply here. Regardless of whether Gonzaga is a No. 1 or No. 2, it will be sent out west to Los Angeles and probably be paired with the same team either way.
So does it really matter if Gonzaga gets a No. 1 seed? I asked this question to Zags coach Mark Few on Tuesday afternoon, several hours before Indiana's game at Minnesota tipped off. He agreed that from a competitive standpoint, it didn't really matter. "Especially not this year," he said. "Maybe in years past there was a difference, but from what I've seen, the group of teams that are bunched up as eight, nine and 10 [seeds] are pretty formidable squads. Either way you're not going to just waltz through the first weekend. Nobody is dominant like Kentucky was last year."
Some might argue that it would be unfair to deny Gonzaga a No. 1 seed on the basis of its conference, when the team played as difficult a nonconference schedule as you will find. They held up well, too. Gonzaga won at Oklahoma State and it beat Kansas State and Oklahoma on neutral courts. Sure, the Zags lost at home to Illinois and at Butler when it did not have its best player, but every team has lost games this season.
On the other hand, the reality is that since Dec. 31, the Zags have only played one team (Saint Mary's) ranked in the top 40 of the RPI. Overall, the West Coast Conference is ranked 10th in the RPI, behind the Atlantic 10, SEC and Missouri Valley. So if the issue is fairness, is it really fair to reward a team for rolling through a mediocre league when the other candidates have faced difficult tests nearly every night?
This calls to mind the argument over whether Saint Joseph's should be granted a No. 1 seed after it finished the regular season undefeated in 2004. Or going further back, the debate over whether undefeated Indiana State should be ranked No. 1 at the end of the 1978-79 season. When I asked Few if he believed his team would still have zero conference losses if it played in the Big Ten, he admitted that it probably would not. But he wasn't conceding anything else. "I don't know if we'd be undefeated, but I do know we'd represent ourselves fine," he said. "You could turn that around and say that it would be interesting to put any of those teams in our situation, where it's an absolute crusade every time you play on the road. I think they would be fairly surprised just how tough it is to win at BYU. There are going to be 26,000 people there on Thursday night. Or win in that crackerbox gym at St. Mary's. I don't know how many of those other teams are dealing with that."
I recognize that there is a great deal of symbolic significance to having the number "1" next to your name, whether it's in a poll or a bracket. If Gonzaga pulls either one off, it will mean a lot to this team, this school, and this community. And to be honest, it would be great for college basketball. In the end, however, this is just a number. The more important question is whether Gonzaga can finally break through and get to its first Final Four. We won't know that answer for another few weeks. In the meantime, we'll be watching them very, very closely.
• I keep hearing that the reason scoring is down is because kids don't have good fundamentals anymore. So why did Kansas and Iowa State each have 90 points at the end of regulation Monday night? The problem isn't the players, it's over-controlling coaches. Don't tell me these kids can't shoot. It's hard to shoot while you're wearing handcuffs.
• Speaking of that game, I hate to be a Debbie Downer, but I can't help but wonder whether Elijah Johnson's 30-point outburst in the second half is fools gold. Remember, he's supposed to be the point guard. I don't think the Jayhawks are at their best when he is hunting his shot like that. Anyone else notice that Ben McLemore hasn't been as much of a factor the last few games?
• One more thing. I admit I was skeptical when Iowa State hired Fred Hoiberg because he had no previous coaching experience. And I'm still not crazy about the blueprint of bringing in a bunch of transfers for a quick-fix rebuild, because usually you're asking for trouble. But I must say, I really like the way Hoiberg coaches. He lets his guys play, and he uses some innovative NBA-style sets to free them up. Most of all, I like his even-keeled demeanor on the sidelines. Iowa State fans have every reason to be excited about the program's future with The Mayor at the helm.
• Over the next two weeks, we're going to see a lot of video from Senior Night celebrations. This is one of the all-time greatest rituals in sports. It's reason 1,689 why college hoops is better than the NBA.
• What has two thumbs and left John Thompson III out of his top 25 candidates for coach of the year? This guy! Turnover, Davis.
• I also think Steve Alford needs more recognition nationally for the job he's doing at New Mexico. You won't find a better example of a group of players who know exactly what they can and cannot do and play accordingly.
• It's encouraging to see Tennessee make this late-season surge, but the real upgrade for this team is going to be next season. Not only will the Vols return their top four scorers, but they will also add arguably their best player, 6-foot-7 forward Jeronne Maymon, who redshirted this season because of a knee injury.
• You really saw how much Florida needs Will Yeguete during its loss at Tennessee this week. At 6-7, Yeguete would have been well-equipped to guard the 6-5 Jordan McRae. Without him, McRae was able to light up the Gators for 27 points. Florida fans also have to be concerned that Kenny Boynton once again looks like he is wearing down at the end of the season. It's hard to make jump shots when your legs are tired.
• What in the world has happened to my beloved Missouri Valley Conference? I used to think it could be a four-bid league, but now it'll be lucky to get two. If I'm a highly-seeded team in the NCAA tournament, the one team from this league I would not want to face is Illinois State. But the Redbirds will probably have to win the league tournament to get into the field.
• I guess Maryland doesn't want a bid, either. Why can a team get up for home games against ranked teams, but not for road games against unranked teams?
• Do you remember Duquesne forward Sam Ashaolu, the player who was injured in a campus shooting seven years ago? He has had a tough time putting his life back together, but he has now set up a website detailing his journey. It's pretty good stuff. Check it out.
• I honestly don't know why Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett doesn't schedule more aggressively in the nonconference. Does he want his program to fly with the eagles or doesn't he?
• I normally don't like to publish coaching rumors, but this one has become so rampant around the college hoops grapevine, I figured I'd pass it along. It has Jamie Dixon leaving Pitt to coach at USC, and Ben Howland leaving UCLA and returning to Pitt. I'm not buying it (at least not the Howland part), but you can expect to hear this repeated many times over the next several weeks.
• Pet peeve alert: Stop saying a team's RPI is 44. Their RPI rank is 44. Signed, the Grammar Police.
• Another reason to like Oklahoma State (besides my man-crush Marcus Smart): Sophomore forward Brian Williams is getting his groove back. Williams is a defender/rebounder/Glue Guy who missed most of the season with a wrist injury, but he returned three weeks ago and played his most extensive minutes in the Cowboys' most recent wins over West Virginia and TCU. Williams will give this team some added depth and toughness for the home stretch.
• Love the way freshman forward Sam Dekker is coming on for Wisconsin. I imagine he will get a lot of preseason all-conference and All-America consideration next fall.
• I have to believe a big reason for Michigan's struggles is the way junior forward Jordan Morgan's progress was impeded by the ankle injury that cost him all or most of seven games. I'm not saying he's Olajuwon, but the Wolverines' guards are so good, all they need is a serviceable post option, and everything else falls into place.
• If N.C. State isn't the most disappointing team this season, it has to be one of the top three. The problem is not that these guys can't play good defense, it's that they don't want to.
• Why do coaches need so much time to make a substitution when a player fouls out? Shouldn't that be just be a normal substitution procedure?
• Here's another way we can move things along. As you may know, in a college game there are four media time outs each half. They take place on the first whistle under the 16-minute mark, the 12-minute mark, the eight-minute mark, and the four-minute mark. If the clock passes one of those marks and a coach calls time out, the game is still stopped on the next whistle to break for commercials. In the NBA, however, if a coach does that, then that is used as the media time out. I'd love to see that adopted for the college game.
• Did you know that in the old days, coaches were not allowed to speak to their own players during time outs? The players had to huddle on the court and discuss strategy amongst themselves. Reminds me of something the late, great Pete Newell often said: "Basketball needs more teaching and less coaching."
• I'd also like to see the college game use the wider arc under the basket that the NBA uses (four-foot radius), instead of the current one (three-foot radius). If you want fewer charges called -- which we all do -- then this is a good start.
• Two book plugs for ya: Michael Lenehan, a former editorial executive of the Chicago Reader, has written a book called Ramblers, which tells the story of the Loyola team that won the 1963 NCAA championship. Also, I highly recommend Jay Bilas' book on toughness. It is thoroughly researched and very, very well-written.
• That was a pretty bad loss Memphis suffered at Xavier on Tuesday night. This was the Tigers' chance to prove that their record wasn't inflated by playing in a weak conference, and they couldn't win on the road against a team that is probably not going to the NCAA tournament. For me, the issue isn't that Memphis isn't good, it's that they're not getting tested every night out the way teams get tested in better conferences. That prevents them from having to develop more of a mental edge.
• Finally, I don't usually use this space to plug my television work, but I wanted to let you know about a very cool two-hour special that is premiering on CBS Sports Network this Saturday at 7 p.m. It's called "The Ultimate Bracket." In honor of the 75th anniversary of the NCAA tournament, the producers took statistical information for all 74 NCAA champs and fed them into a computer program which simulated 50,000 tournaments played between those teams. They then squared off round by round until we had one ultimate champion. I can't tell you who won, but here is the bracket whittled down to the round of 64.
It has been a while since I answered emails, so let me start with a pair of questions that are related to each other:
It seems that the selection committee has a clause about considering an injured player, or injuries in their seeding process. Can you explain that, perhaps in context of how the committee views Oregon based on how they play without Dominic Artis in the lineup? Does the committee discount the games Oregon played without him?
-- Bob, San Jose, Calif.
If the NCAA committee really takes injuries into account, why doesn't Wisconsin's loss of Josh Gasser just as the season started have more of an impact on evaluating their non-conference losses?
-- Brandon, Bagley, Wisc.
There is a lot of confusion about how the committee treats injuries. Here's the bottom line: The committee selects and seeds the teams based on who they are, and who they have, going into the NCAA tournament. Oregon is a great example. The Ducks have now played nine games without their freshman point guard. They lost four of them. Before Artis went out, they had lost twice in 19 games. Clearly, they are a much better team with him. Artis is expected to return for Thursday's home game against Oregon State. If he looks good and plays well, the committee will take into account that during those four losses, Oregon was a different team than the one that will be competing in the tournament.
That, incidentally, also has ramifications for other teams. If Stanford, for example, is on the bubble, the committee will be fully aware that when the Cardinal beat the Ducks at home, Artis didn't play. You shouldn't overstate the significance of such things -- a win is a win, after all -- but they should and do become part of the conversation.
On the other hand, in Wisconsin's case, we know that Gasser is not coming back. So the Badgers would not be cut slack for their losses because they lost those games with the same group of players they will be taking into the tournament.
This is also why Nerlens Noel's injury is such a hindrance to Kentucky's chances. Before he went down, the Wildcats' best win came on the road at Ole Miss in a game where Noel had 12 blocks. Since he's not coming back, it is incumbent upon Kentucky to prove it can beat good teams without him -- which is why that win at home over Missouri was so important.
One wrinkle in all of this is the question of whether the committee can get accurate information about injuries. We all remember when Syracuse said before Selection Sunday that Arinze Onuaku would probably be back from his leg injury by the second week, and it turned out it took him nearly a year to recover. The same thing happened last season with Duke, which hinted that Ryan Kelly could be available for the NCAA tournament. Turns out Kelly was hurt so badly that he needed surgery to repair his broken foot.
The committee does the best it can with this, but it is an imperfect system. The NCAA has set up a secure, internal website through which conferences pass along information, but there is no guarantee that that information is 100 percent accurate. In the end, they can only vote based on what they see.
How much should advanced stats like Kenpom be used in terms of NCAA tournament seeding? How much should you weigh a team's play by play performance versus it's actual wins and losses?
-- Dustin McCauley, Lexington, Ky.
This is a popular misconception that I addressed in my Hoop Thoughts column last week. My own belief is that we should be very careful about delving too far into the weeds with advanced stats when it comes to selecting and seeding the tournament. This process should be about rewarding (or penalizing) teams based on wins and losses, period. If we stipulate that the more efficient teams win more often, then it is somewhat redundant to use advanced stats in this process. And while I'm sure members process the scoring margins in these games, that is a very slippery slope. Margins can be deceiving. In the won-loss column, a one-point win counts the same as a 30-point win.
However, to the degree that Ken Pomeroy's efficiency ratings and other metrics can deepen the committee's understandings of these teams, I see nothing wrong with including those ratings in the process. In fact, as I reported last week, the committee members do just that. The NCAA has links to many other ratings systems (including Pomeroy and Sagarin) on the website the committee members use, and some members have been known to bring their own rankings that aren't included on that list. If a member notices a major discrepancy between two sets of rankings, he or she will try to figure out why that is and include the information in the discussion.
This idea that the committee is somehow ignoring all of these metrics is just simply untrue. It is part of the broader misunderstandings about the RPI. The RPI is an organizing tool that gives them a starting point. It is not the end-all, be-all. Not even close.
With the craziness happening this year with upsets and number ones going down, I gotta ask about the ultimate upset. Is a 16 going to beat a 1 this year? (Albany grad here, we came close in '06 against UConn.)
-- Kyle Detwiler, Penn Yan, NY
I'm not heedless enough to predict that it will happen this year, but I have been saying for a while that it is only a matter of time before a No. 16 seed defeats a No. 1. Kyle referenced UConn's scare against Albany in 2006, but there have been far more close calls than a lot of people realize. In fact, during the 1989 NCAA tournament, three No. 1 seeds were on the verge of losing during the first round. Oklahoma escaped East Tennessee State, 72-71; Illinois beat McNeese State, 77-71; and in the most famous close call of all time, Georgetown got by Princeton, 50-49, by the length of Alonzo Mourning's fingertip.
Perhaps last year was a harbinger of things to come. Going into the NCAA tournament, there had only been four instances of a No. 15 seed defeating a No. 2, and it had been 11 years since the last one. On Friday of the first week, two No. 2 seeds, Missouri and Duke, lost within a few hours of each other. We are in a different world, my friends, and that world is flat. If a No. 1 seed doesn't go down next month, trust me, it is going to happen soon. Try not to be too surprised.
I've noticed the inability of college guards to deliver an entry pass to the post. It's true that focus on a low post offense has given way to three-point shooting and motion offense, but it seems that sometimes the most effective play is to get the ball down low and get a high percentage shot or reverse the ball. What are your thoughts on that?
-- Pete Covino, Howell, NJ
This is an excellent observation. Feeding the post has become a lost art in college basketball, primarily because there are so few true centers anymore. Nobody wants to be "just" a post player anymore. It starts at the grassroots level. A big 13-year-old doesn't want to be Shaquille O'Neal. He wants to be Kevin Garnett. Look at Baylor freshman Isaiah Austin. He's 7-feet tall, but he couldn't play with his back to the basket if his life depended on it. He'd rather roam the perimeter and jack up threes. So how can a guard throw it to the post, when the best big men aren't posting up?
Pete also makes a good point about the value of a good entry feed on the rest of the offense. That pass doesn't have to lead to a post move for a layup. If the center is good enough to force a double team, he can pass out and get the ball moving until someone has an open shot. Alas, that kind of offense seems to be going the way of short shorts.
Arizona has been frustrating to watch this season. They are an inconsistent group, especially offensively. They seem to rely too much on one-on-one play and struggle to find a rhythm as a team. What needs to happen to turn this team from also-ran to contender by mid-March? Right now they have the look of a 2 or 3 seed that gets knocked out in the second round.
-- Nick Owen, Flagstaff, Ariz.
Nick sent me this email before Arizona lost at USC, so give him credit for some prescience.
I do think the Wildcats have a lot of talent, but I also think they have two very big problems. The first is that they are not a great defensive team, especially on the perimeter. Arizona is ranked last in the Pac-12 in three-point defense (35.7 percent), and the Wildcats are fifth in overall field goal defense (40.5). This can be a big problem in the Age of the Ball Screen. Arizona allowed USC to shoot 61 percent from the floor and 6 of 10 from three-point range on Wednesday night. And even though the Trojans shot lights out, they still out-rebounded Zona by nine. That's darn near unforgivable.
The other problem Arizona has is the one I have been writing about since November. I just have a hard time trusting teams that rely so heavily on a scoring point guard. Mark Lyons gives the Wildcats a lot of swagger, and when he is in a good shooting rhythm he makes them very hard to beat. When he had an off shooting night on Wednesday (although I do give him credit for going 12-for-16 from the foul line), he only had two assists in 32 minutes. When Arizona lost at home to UCLA, Lyons had zero assists in 33 minutes. Lyons strikes me as one of those guards who's just good enough to get you beat. Arizona can beat a lot of teams, but as we've seen all over the country this season, it can also lose to a lot of teams.
Gonzaga at BYU, Thursday, 11 p.m.
I might have been inclined to pick the Cougars because they're at home, but given what's at stake for Gonzaga, I think the Zags will come out guns blazing. Look for Kelly Olynyk to eat up Brandon Davies inside like he did the first time these two teams played.
Gonzaga 76, BYU 66
Harvard at Princeton, Friday, 7 p.m.
This is the biggest regular-season game of the year in the Ivy League, where Harvard has a one-game lead over Princeton in the loss column. Harvard won by 12 points when the teams played in Cambridge, but with the game moving to Jadwin I'll go with the home team.
Princeton 61, Harvard 59
Miami at Duke, Saturday, 6 p.m.
The Blue Devils are playing at home, and they're out for revenge. That's usually a pretty effective combination.
Duke 77, Miami 71
Louisville at Syracuse, Saturday, Noon
I just can't see Syracuse losing three in a row.
Syracuse 72, Louisville 67
Arizona at UCLA, Saturday, 9 p.m.
UCLA has a maddening tendency to play up or down to the level of its competition. They'll need to get up for this one, and I think they will.
UCLA 80, Arizona 75
Kansas State at Baylor, Saturday, 7 p.m.
Kansas State has sewn up an at-large bid, but this may be Baylor's last hope to get one. I spy a desperate home team.
Baylor 72, Kansas State 70
Butler at VCU, Saturday, Noon
VCU is lacking a marquee win, and Butler's guards don't like to be pressed. Plus, the game is in Richmond. Sounds like a winning trifecta.
VCU 70, Butler 67
Kentucky at Arkansas, Saturday, 4 p.m.
Lots of teams are different at home and on the road, but few teams demonstrate that more drastically than Arkansas. I just have a hard time seeing Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin handling Arkansas' defensive pressure, especially in such a pitched environment.
Arkansas 79, Kentucky 69
Wichita State at Creighton, Saturday, 2 p.m.
For all the twists and turns in the Valley this season, we all knew it would come down to this game to decide the league champ. These teams played a thrilling game in Wichita on Jan. 19, when the Shockers escaped with a three-point win. I think Creighton will benefit from the change of scenery.
Creighton 74, Wichita State 71
Michigan State at Michigan, Sunday, 4 p.m.
For most of the season, these have been two of the top teams in the country. Now they're just looking for a win. I'll take the Wolverines because they're at home, but it's hard to feel real confident about it after that embarrassing loss at Penn State.
Michigan 71, Michigan State 69
Last week: 5-5
Season record: 101-49