Understanding the Smart fallout, an interview with Jim Boeheim, more
It was an ugly incident that provoked an ugly conversation, but hopefully the worst is behind us. Having been suspended three games for shoving a fan toward the end of Oklahoma State's loss at Texas Tech Saturday night, Marcus Smart faced the cameras on Sunday night, apologized, and promised to do better. The consensus among media and fans seemed to be that Smart spoke well and the Big 12 got the punishment right. Before we (hopefully) move on and enjoy a (hopefully) fabulous stretch run to the end of the college basketball season, here's one final look at the primary takeaways from all that sound and fury.
• Nothing moves the needle like race. A young black man shoves an older white male. One side alleges racial epithets and the other tosses around stupid words like "thug." The stereotypes flowed all too freely, whether it was about college athletes or people who live in Texas. It played out on Twitter, on radio, on television -- everywhere.
Thus were we reminded of what we already knew. Once race is involved, it is no longer a sports story, it's a news story. And everyone chooses sides. It ain't pretty, but it's the world we live in.
• A player can never go into the stands to confront a fan physically. Sucks, right? Some yahoo yells the vilest insults your way, and you can't even go up there to knock his block off. Some people tried to defend Smart by drawing an equivalence between him and the fan, Jeff Orr, but the fact is, the player has a higher obligation to abide by the rules of engagement.
Given that Smart is just 19 years old, was frustrated at having to suffer yet another loss and honestly believed that someone called him the N-word, it is understandable that he lost his composure. But that does not make it excusable. You just can't do it. Even he has conceded as much.
• Just because you bought a ticket does not give you license to say whatever you want. I'm not here to defend Jeff Orr, but let's be fair: The initial claims that he shouted something racist at Smart appear to have been unfounded. Nobody who was within earshot has said they heard him use that word, and video obtained by the school confirmed Orr's claim that he called Smart a "piece of crap." Should Orr have done that? Of course not. But there is a big difference between calling someone a piece of crap and using the N-word. On that score, Orr got a raw deal.
Having said that, I was quite pleased that video surfaced on Twitter showing Orr, a self-proclaimed "superfan" of Texas Tech hoops, making an obscene gesture and an obnoxious face at an opposing player several years ago. His actions on that video were repulsive, but the real problem is that Orr's behavior has gone unchecked for so long. Indeed, he has been the subject of articles extolling his loyalty to the program. I mean, seriously, what kind of adult calls a college kid a piece of crap anyway? Smart was playing his heart out for Orr's entertainment. And where were the people in that section who should have told Orr to shut his trap? Smart may have crossed the line of acceptable behavior, but he's just a young man. What is the adult's excuse?
My hope is that this incident spurs a badly needed conversation about fan behavior. It doesn't matter the particulars of what was said in this case. We must develop a higher standard of civility in our stadiums and arenas. Unfortunately, as anyone who has been to a game lately can attest, we've got a long way to go.
• The referees should have ejected Smart. Technically, this is a gray area. A referee is permitted to call an unsportsmanlike conduct technical if a player incites the crowd. If a player balls his fist and tries to hit an opponent, he is automatically ejected. However, there is nothing in the rule book that explicitly covers a player fighting a fan.
Still, I don't buy the argument the refs did not have jurisdiction to eject Smart. Clearly, they saw him shove the fan. They could have called him for a double technical on the spot and sent him to the locker room. The game was basically over, anyway. If the final determination is that the referees did not have that ability, then that needs to be changed. Call it the Marcus Smart rule if you want, but by all means, get it in the book.
• This is why I don't like court storms. If you saw the scene that unfolded after the game ended, then you know why I am so adamantly opposed to the court storming which has become so rampant in college basketball -- and only in college basketball. There is a sacred line between the athletes and the fans that should never be bridged. Smart violated that, but so did the fans who stormed. Yet, we allow and even celebrate these storms all the time.
With all those fans on the court, it was very difficult to get Smart out of there. His blood was running so hot that if any fan went up to him and shouted something he didn't appreciate, there's no telling what could have happened. I hear people say all the time, "They're college kids, let 'em have fun." But there are other college kids I'm worried about, too, and those are the players who just lost a game and aren't happy about it. Setting aside the potential for serious injury, I believe it's only a matter of time before a player takes a swing at a fan who is storming the court. And college hoops will suffer another black eye.
• This too shall pass. It's amazing how fast news stories flame out these days. By the time Oklahoma State finished its press conference Sunday night, we were not even 24 hours removed from the incident. Yet, everyone was already exhausted by it. Today, tomorrow, or sometime real soon, someone else who is famous is going to do something stupid, and we'll all move onto the next Twitterized drama. Ain't that America.
For Smart, however, it will be harder to move forward. First, he has to serve his three-game suspension. That's three games spent sitting on the bench in street clothes. Think the TV cameras will find him? Then he'll have to do a round of interviews, which will serve him well because he is thoughtful and well spoken. When he returns to action, that will be another big story (his first game will be against Texas Tech, naturally), and wherever he goes the rest of his life, he will be asked about The Incident. This is Marcus Smart's albatross, and he will carry it forever.
Just because we watch a kid play basketball or interview him a few times, that does not mean we really know him. Until he started unraveling the last few weeks, everything I had heard about Smart indicated he was a man of the utmost character. Maybe those reports weren't quite right, but maybe the current assessments aren't right, either. Only Smart and those closest to him can know for sure.
I hope he does not despair too badly. We live in a forgiving society. Not many of us could have handled this kind of pressure and scrutiny as a sophomore in college. If Smart has anger management issues, he needs to deal with them. If he made mistakes, he needs to learn from them. This has been a trying few weeks, but it's the kind of experience that can make Smart a better player. More importantly, it can make him a better man.
Continue reading: Five games to watch ... An interview with Jim Boeheim ... Seth's Top 25
Kansas at Kansas State, Monday, 9 p.m., ESPN
This is arguably the most imbalanced major rivalry in college athletics. That's especially true when the teams play in Manhattan, where Kansas has prevailed 28 of the last 30 meetings. As much as I love Marcus Foster, I don't see that trend reversing here, especially now that Andrew Wiggins is attacking the rim with such regularity.
Kansas 82, Kansas State 70
Michigan at Ohio State, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN
Funny how quickly narratives can change. A week ago, the Buckeyes were in a tailspin. Now, it's the Wolverines who are sliding the wrong way, having lost two of their last three, both on the road (at Indiana and Iowa), to fall into a tie with Michigan State for first place in the Big Ten. Guess that means it's time for the narrative to switch once more. I know Ohio State is at home, but John Beilein is one scary dude when he needs to figure out what's wrong with his team.
Michigan 72, Ohio State 66
Oklahoma State at Texas, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2
It will be interesting to see how the Cowboys play their first game without Marcus Smart. My guess is not all that well, especially considering they are going up against a Texas squad that a) is far bigger in the frontcourt and b) is returning home to regroup after an embarrassing loss at Kansas State.
Texas 80, Oklahoma State 68
Duke at North Carolina, Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPN
For all the talk about how exciting Syracuse-Duke can become, this is still the best rivalry in college basketball, not to mention all of sports. There's been nothing Jekyll-and-Hyde about North Carolina lately. The Heels have won five in a row and six of their last seven, and you know they will be ready to give Duke their best shot. Still, the Blue Devils are a vastly improved team from a month ago, and that's largely due to the maturity of Jabari Parker, who had career-high 29 points and 16 rebounds in a win at Boston College on Saturday.
Duke 85, North Carolina 77
Syracuse at Pittsburgh, Wednesday, 7 p.m., ESPN
Yes, Syracuse is due to be clipped, as Jim Boeheim acknowledges below. But Pitt, which needed double overtime to escape Virginia Tech at home on Saturday, has been exposed as a mediocre offensive team that does not have the necessary shooters to beat the Orange's zone.
Syracuse 64, Pittsburgh 60
SI.com: Let's start with your freshman point guard, Tyler Ennis. Everyone knew he would be good, but no one knew he was this good. When did you start to realize it?
Boeheim: We played an exhibition tour in Canada last summer against some really good teams. We had one close game, and he took it over. We came from 10 points behind and won. I knew he was pretty good, but that was the first indication that he could be real good.
SI.com: It's odd because he's not that big and not that quick. So what makes him so effective?
Boeheim: He's just calm. Things don't bother him. He has good instincts, so when he sees a play isn't working, he knows he has to make a play. And he gets to the rim. I don't know how, but he's good at that.
SI.com: Do you think he'll turn pro after the season is over?
Boeheim: I don't think so. I think he knows and his father knows that he's a really good college player. He has to become a better shooter and get stronger to go to the next level. He'd go in the first round, but look at the number of first-round picks who are already out of the league in the last two years. It's a huge number.
SI.com: How realistic is it for you to go undefeated?
Boeheim: We're not even thinking about it. We've had some close games. Villanova had us 18 down. Miami had us down, and we pulled it out. We were down against BC, down against Pittsburgh late, down in overtime against Duke. It's very unrealistic to think you could run the table when you've been in so many games that could have gone the other way.
SI.com: I've always thought it's better to have a loss before the NCAA tournament because it's hard enough to win that thing without the added pressure. Do you agree?
Boeheim: I disagree because I think the more pressure you have in the regular season, then you're going to be used to that pressure in the NCAA tournament. Once you get to the tournament the pressure is huge, whether you've lost none or one or two. So I don't buy into that.
SI.com: Your overtime win over Duke was just incredible, especially considering how hyped it was in advance. Is it fun to coach in a game like that?
Boeheim: It's not fun. It's not fun. Your guts are churning, you're trying to make decisions, you're thinking about what play are they doing. It's a continual adjustment. The only thing you say at the end of the day is it's satisfying to be in a game like that, but you don't say that it's fun.
SI.com: What do you think about the new emphasis on limiting physical defense?
Boeheim: It's a great thing. The best thing is the new charge rule, because if you've noticed, people are not trying to take charges. I'd like to see a 24-second shot clock. Twenty-four seconds is enough time to get a good shot, but I don't think they'll go for that.
SI.com: Your former player, Carmelo Anthony, is going to be a free agent this summer. Do you think he'll stay with the Knicks?
Boeheim: He came to New York, he wanted to be in New York. I think he still wants to be in New York, but your legacy now is only on one thing: Did you win a championship? It doesn't seem like he can win one with the Knicks, but where do you go? It's hard.
SI.com: I hear you're into Pilates now. That's very new age of you. How did that come about?
Boeheim: I needed to do something because if I was sitting in a chair, I was having trouble just standing up. I do 55 minutes twice a week, and it's all core. It's not killer, but it's not easy, either. It's helped tremendously.
SI.com: You're 69 years old. Are you going to be like Vin Scully and work until you're 86?
Boeheim: I'd like to say I won't be coaching when I'm 86, but I can't really say that because when I was 50, I said I'll never be coaching when I'm 60. I would say that I feel better than I ever did and the program's in better shape than it's ever been in, but I feel like I am getting closer. I feel that.
*(Last week's rank in parentheses)
1. Syracuse (1)
2. Arizona (2)
3. Florida (3)
4. Michigan State (4)
5. Wichita State (5)
6. San Diego State (6)
7. Kansas (7)
8. Duke (10)
9. Villanova (12)
10. Cincinnati (8)
11. Louisville (13)
12. Saint Louis (19)
13. Iowa State (16)
14. Kentucky (15)
15. Iowa (11)
16. Michigan (9)
17. UConn (19)
18. Virginia (21)
19. Memphis (22)
20. Creighton (20)
21. Texas (14)
22. Ohio State (NR)
23. Oklahoma (17)
24. New Mexico (25)
25. SMU (NR)
Dropped out: Pittsburgh (23), Oklahoma State (24)
We're getting late enough in the year that a single game, or even a single week, is going to yield less movement. Sure, Michigan State lost at Wisconsin, but the Spartans were once again down two starters and took a good team to the wire on the road. Yes, Cincinnati got drilled at SMU, but look at the Bearcats' body of work. They're still a top-10 team. Creighton lost at St. John's but kept its spot at No. 20 -- which, mind you, was already eight places lower than where my fellow voters ranked the Bluejays last week.
As for the teams that did drop, there was Iowa, which fell five spots because it lost at home; Michigan, which fell eight spots because it lost twice; and Texas, which dropped six spots because it got embarrassed on the road and was probably a little overrated last week because it happened to catch Kansas on a bad day.
You'll also notice that I've stuck with my limitation on ranking Wichita State no higher than No. 5 and San Diego State no higher than No. 6 because they are not playing the same caliber of competition as the other top-10 schools. However, it is important to understand the difference between rankings and NCAA tournament seeding. A rank is the voter's general opinion of who is better than whom, but the seeds are a reflection of what a team has accomplished -- and therefore earned -- during the season. If the season were to end today, Wichita State should and would be a No. 1 seed. The Aztecs also have an outside chance to get to the one line by virtue of their road win at Kansas, but they would have to run the table from here on out to get there. I wouldn't bet against them.
Meanwhile, I'd like to welcome Larry Brown -- Larry Brown! -- back to the Top 25. I don't know if my fellow voters will see fit to rank the Mustangs as well, but I'm telling you, that win over Cincinnati was no fluke. SMU now has victories over UConn, Memphis and Cincinnati, and it darn near knocked off Virginia on a neutral court back in November. The only fly in the ointment is that the Mustangs have no quality wins away from home, but they'll have some opportunities in the next four weeks to claim some. Last week, they saw their best center, 6-11 Yanick Moreira, return to the lineup after he missed a month because of a knee injury.
You'll notice I dropped Pitt off my ballot even though it did not lose last week. Both of its wins came in overtime against non-NCAA tournament teams in Miami (road) and Virginia Tech (home). That's not something you do if you're one of the 25 best teams in the country. If the Panthers can beat Syracuse at home Wednesday night, they will probably have a number next to their name next week.
As usual, some good teams finished in a tie for 26th. Wisconsin had a good week with wins over Illinois and Michigan State, but given how poorly the Badgers played to that point, I want to give them another week. Their next three games are home against Minnesota, followed by road dates at Michigan and Iowa. So they have some quality chances.
I probably would have ranked Gonzaga had it closed out a win at Memphis. The problem now is that there are no more quality wins left to be had in the West Coast Conference, so the Zags will not likely re-enter my ballot before the start of the NCAA tournament.
It's pretty remarkable that at this late juncture, only one Pac-12 team is on my ballot. Just sayin'.
I might have ranked VCU, but the Rams' loss at Saint Joseph's, which snapped their six-game winning streak, took them out of contention. VCU's conference schedule is ridiculously back-loaded, with an upcoming stretch of four out of five games on the road -- and the home game is against league leader Saint Louis.
North Carolina has sneaked back onto my radar with its most recent winning streak. Last week, I listed the Tar Heels as one of my bubble teams who could make a run in the NCAA tournament. If they beat Duke on Wednesday, the Tar Heels will likely be back on my ballot.
There are three teams sitting atop Conference USA that are worthy of mentioning, but unfortunately, they are not worthy of ranking. Southern Miss and UTEP are 8-1 in the league -- which is remarkable considering UTEP dismissed three players, including its leading scorer, for gambling last month -- and Louisiana Tech is one game behind at 8-2. The problem is that none of those teams can earn quality wins because of the overall weakness of Conference USA, which is going to be a one-bid league. But whichever team emerges from that conference is going to be a tough out in the NCAA tournament.