Talk hoops all year long in Luke Winn's blog, a journal of commentary, news and reader-driven discussions about the college game.
2/17/2008 02:34:00 PM
The Weekend That Was: Four Parting Thoughts
Memphis is still unbeaten -- but only after Robert Vaden's last-second shot missed the mark for UAB.
(Consider this a warmup for all the tourney blogging that awaits next month ... and beware, there's a minuscule Wire spoiler in part 2.)
1. If ESPN were to begin hyping up Tennessee-Memphis six days early, as if it were college hoops' Super Bowl, I wouldn't have any problem with it. Given what's on the line, the battle for Volunteer State supremacy feels about 10 times more important than the Nos. 2-vs.-3 Duke-Carolina game on Feb. 6. And yet I can't escape the feeling that if the Tigers were going to actually lose during the regular season, it would've happened in an out-of-the-spotlight, on-the-road situation like Saturday night's game in Birmingham.
Memphis-UAB was only televised regionally by CSS, and therefore most of the country only caught the Tigers' amazing comeback (and the ugly postgame melee, with classless Blazers fans throwing debris, and Joey Dorsey being restrained from attacking them) via highlight reels. Down 77-70 with 1:23 to go, the Tigers went on an 9-1 run -- with six of the points coming from All-America lock Chris Douglas-Roberts -- to close the game and save their undefeated season. Whereas Memphis has been prone to cold streaks from the field and the free-throw line in less-hyped Conference USA games, it has looked unbeatable in its marquee matchups at FedEx Forum. Just ask Georgetown, Arizona and Gonzaga how difficult it is to pull off an upset in that building.
(Update: Thanks to this photo posted on the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Web site Sunday, there's evidence of a player identified as Tigers forward Pierre Nilesslapping a fan in the UAB student section. So it appears -- beyond what was presented in the highlights -- that there was a lack of class on both sides. Conference USA said on Sunday night that it was investigating the matter.)
2. Damn, Indiana. Did you really go from treating Kelvin Sampson like persona non grata when he walked onto Assembly Hall's court on Saturday night, to chanting his name with less than two minutes left in that 80-61 win over Michigan State? Sampson's entry was met with a mix of boos and groans and uncomfortable silence. Somehow he managed to walk off the court like Sen. Clay Davis emerged from this week's grand jury hearing in The Wire: gleefully victorious. I'm happy there will be no postseason ban for the Hoosiers. None of the players had anything to do with Sampson's deceptions and disregard for NCAA rules, after all. But letting Sampson continue to coach while IU sharpens the guillotine -- and athletic director Rick Greenspan figures out ways to suggest he wasn't solely to blame for Sampson's hiring -- just makes for sad theater.
3. Brook and Robin Lopez put on quite the show for Stanford on Saturday at Arizona, with Brook (23 points, 10 boards) hitting the game-winning free throws, and Robin (14 points, eight rebounds) swatting Chase Budinger's last-second layup attempt. Brook, who seems to get at least one touch on every Cardinal offensive possession, is already listed as the fourth pick in DraftExpress' 2008 mock, but you have to wonder: If there were just one Lopez, rather than twins, and he had Brook's offensive skills and Robin's defensive skills, would he be regarded as a better NBA prospect than Greg Oden was last year?
4. I just watched Notre Dame barely survive against Rutgers at the RAC, and was reminded of something that Irish guard Kyle McAlarney had pointed out after Wednesday's loss to UConn: That meeting with the Huskies -- which took place on Feb. 13, mind you -- was Notre Dame's first road game in an on-campus arena all season. How in the name of Kelly Tripucka could that happen? To start, the Irish didn't play a single true road game outside of the Big East: they played only neutral-site affairs in St. Thomas (the Paradise Jam) and New York (the Jimmy V). And then their first four Big East road games were all at off-campus, NBA-style arenas used by Marquette (Bradley Center), Georgetown (Verizon Center), Villanova (Wachovia Center) and Seton Hall (Prudential Center). The Irish are a high-quality team with a legit All-America candidate in Luke Harangody, but they haven't exactly been battle-tested away from South Bend.
Kansas State freshman Michael Beasley has totaled 62 points and 38 rebounds in his first collegiate games.
It's difficult to ascertain when, exactly, the college hoops season begins. Sports Illustrated's preview issue -- what I've been working on lately rather than blogging -- comes out tomorrow. The first real "tournament" of the winter, the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic, takes place on Thursday and Friday at Madison Square Garden. Some teams have already played two regular-season games. Others have yet to play one. Basically: we're right in the middle of the beginning. And already, there has been no shortage of surprises: 1. The Zestier Mayonnaise
University of Illinois-Chicago's Josh Mayo was a huge prospect coming out of Merrillville, Ind., in the Class of 2005. So huge that he was assigned two stars in a photo-less, news-less profile in Scout.com's recruiting database. So huge that he wasn't even in Rivals.com's recruiting database. USC's O.J. Mayo, meanwhile, was a slightly huger prospect coming out of Huntington, W.V.: five stars in every recruiting service, and the No. 1 overall prospect in Scout.com's rankings. O.J. also was on the cover of SLAM last month standing in front of a Bentley. They are neither brothers nor cousins, nor did they, coming into this season, appear to be operating in the same basketball universe.
Until they went and actually played the games, that is. When the first weekend of the 2007-08 season was said and done, Josh Mayo > O.J. Mayo. The pride of Merrillville -- now a junior at UIC -- dropped 34 points on 11-of-17 shooting in an upset of Bradley on Saturday. The Fresh(man) Prince of L.A. had 32 against Mercer -- but he needed 27 shots to get there, also committed eight turnovers, and his Trojans lost by 15. To Mercer! Prediction: When Mayo is still taking 20-plus shots a game in three or four years -- for a bad NBA team -- he will not care about this. And Josh Mayo will still have yet to appear in a national publication, standing in front of a Bentley.
2. The Yellow Tie ... and that other thing
Oh, does Billy Gillispie long for the days -- just a week ago, really -- when his yellow tie was the only thing Kentucky fans were worried about. (Seriously, there was enough buzz over Billy Clyde's sartorial decision in UK's first exhibition game that Lexington columnist John Clay was justified in discussing it in his new YouTube series. He paraphrased the reactions of a few fans as, "Why was Billy Gillispie wearing a yellow tie? Doesn't he know he's in Kentucky? He's supposed to wear blue.")
Now the 'Cats, who were to be one of the main attractions in this weekend's 2K Sports College Hoops Classic at Madison Square Garden, are stuck at home, game-less, for two weeks after a rather stunning collapse: an 84-68 loss, on Wednesday, to a Gardner-Webb team that won nine games the previous year, and drew fewer people to all of its conference home games combined than UK did to its Big Blue Madness. (Thanks to mid-major guru Bill Trocchi for that absurd stat.)
3. B-Easy There, Young Fella
First came the rumors, that Kansas State freshman Michael Beasley (nickname: B-Easy) had scored 42 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in a closed scrimmage against Marquette. Then came non-nationally televised confirmation of his dominance: Through the Wildcats' first two games, he's averaged 31 points and 19 rebounds. The opponents were Sacramento State and Pittsburg State, but do you see anyone else putting up those kinds of numbers? I ranked instant-impact freshmen in a gallery a few weeks ago and put Beasley fourth, behind UCLA's Kevin Love, Memphis' Derrick Rose and USC's Mayo. In hindsight, I'd revise the order of my top five to Beasley, Rose, Love, Indiana's Eric Gordon and O.J. Mayo. Rose will get the most wins of any of them ... but Beasley, as crazy as it sounds, could actually surpass Kevin Durant's freshman numbers of 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game.
4. The D2 Invasion
Grand Valley State, the Division II team that sunk No. 8 Michigan State in the Spartans' first exhibition game of the season, appeared in this blog-space last Monday. When I asked the Lakers' L.J. Kilgore if he'd played in any environments as tough as the Breslin Center, he mentioned that the University of Findlay's Croy Gymnasium is rather intense, because "it gets so loud in there that it seems like a million people are against you." This was rather amusing, since Croy is more than 12,000 seats smaller than Breslin. I also figured it would be the last I heard about either Grand Valley State or Findlay all season. Four days later, Findlay upsets Ohio State in Columbus, 70-68. And much like the stunning Josh Mayo > O.J. Mayo development, we also have this: the Division II Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference > the big, bad Big Ten.
Grand Valley State had a lot to celebrate after defeating Michigan State at the Breslin Center.
Of the strange things that happened on the weekend before the season actually started -- namely, Darren Collison's knee scare (just a sprain, not a tear!), or Lute Olson's leave of absence (just a family issue, not retirement!) -- there was none more eye-opening than this score from Friday night: Grand Valley State 85, No. 8-ranked Michigan State 82, in double overtime.
After Grand Valley senior Callistus Eziukwu -- a 6-10, 220-pound center they call "Bean," which is short for stringbean -- scored the game's final basket, and then got a finger on Drew Neitzel's buzzer-beating, three-point attempt, the Lakers rejoiced on the Breslin Center floor. Most of the 14,759 in the sold-out building, save for the 300 or so Grand Valley supporters scattered throughout, went silent. Said senior L.J. Kilgore, whose defense helped hold Neitzel, a Wooden Award candidate who grew up 20 minutes from Grand Valley, to 3-of-15 shooting, "You could just see everybody in the crowd's mouths wide open. Like, 'Wow, Michigan State just got beat by this Division II basketball team.'"
It was only an exhibition game, and thus won't go down on the Spartans' permanent record. It was, however, an early blow to their reputation. Grand Valley State, located an 80-minute drive west of East Lansing in Allendale, isn't just any D-II opponent, mind you; it's a veritable Ohio State of the second division. The Lakers are currently ranked No. 1 nationally in football. Their basketball coach, Ric Wesley, has significant D-I experience as an assistant under Barry Hinson at Missouri State. Wesley led them to the Elite Eight last year -- and nearly knocked off the Spartans in an exhibition game last year in Grand Rapids. But there remain some very fundamental differences between the two schools.
This one is my favorite: Kilgore, like Neitzel, is from Grand Rapids, and had faced Neitzel twice in high-school AAU games, losing both. When I asked Kilgore on Saturday if anyone on his team grew up rooting for Michigan State, he said he not only owned a pair of Spartans shorts -- he was presently wearing them. "I'm not doing it to be funny -- they're just one of my favorite pairs of shorts," he said. "I've cheered Michigan State on since I was young." One would assume that no Spartans player owns a pair of Grand Valley trunks.
Kilgore was not alone among the Lakers in his MSU fandom. Eziukwu, who hails from Muskegon, was not wearing any green on Saturday, but said, "I've always been a fan of [Michigan State's] program. When they go to play whoever they play, I root for them. I just couldn't root for them last night." Again, will anyone at Michigan State be pulling for -- or even paying attention to -- Grand Valley during the rest of its season?
Kilgore said the toughest gym the Lakers play in during their regular season is at the University of Findlay, because "it gets so loud in there that it seems like a million people are against you." The attendance listed for last year's Grand Valley game at Findlay's Croy Gymnasium was 1,957 -- 12,802 fewer people than were at the Breslin Center on Friday. The Spartans are used to huge crowds, and coach Tom Izzo suggested afterwards that they were not exactly hyped for their first exhibition. "The effort," he said, was "most disappointing."
Rather than intimidating Grand Valley, the atmosphere seemed to elevate them. Said Wesley, "We're not fortunate enough to be in those environments, where you have 14,000 people every night, and we didn't take it for granted. It inspired us. It really energized our guys."
So much so that they pulled off the first great upset of 2007-08. Wesley made sure to add that he didn't want this to be the "defining moment" of the Lakers' season. Neither, I'm sure, does Izzo want it to be that for the Spartans, who did not look, in the least, like Big Ten favorites.
Drew Neitzel returns to Michigan State for his senior season after a summer of international play at the Pan Am games.
Mark Cowan/Icon SMI
For the latest edition of the Blog Q&A series, I chatted with Michigan State point guard Drew Neitzel, who returns to lead the Spartans after averaging 18.1 points and 4.3 assists as a junior in 2006-07. This summer, Neitzel was one of 12 college stars to be named to the U.S. Pan American Games team, which finished fifth in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The conversation below is an edited compilation of two interviews: the first was conducted in person at the Pam Am trials in July, and the second was by phone last week.
Luke Winn: You've been around the Big Ten for a pretty long time now, since 2004. What's the toughest road place to play in the league?
Drew Neitzel: It's a tough conference to play on the road. Every place is unique, and sometimes it depends on what kind of a year a team is having. Illinois is tough. Indiana might be No. 1, though. It's not just their student section; it's their whole fan base. They love basketball. The arena [Assembly Hall] is huge. It's like a theater -- it goes up really high on both sides, and the sound seems to echo in there. It feels like the fans are right on top of you, and they get pretty loud.
LW: What's been the most memorable harassment you've received from a Big Ten student section?
DN: It usually happens at the free-throw line. Kids will start chanting "Marshall Mathers" or "Slim Shady," for Eminem. Last year, when Britney shaved her head, and we played at Wisconsin, they were calling me Britney Spears.
LW: How long has the shaved head been your style?
DN: It's been like that since I can remember. Since elementary school. I grew it out for a month and a half at the end of [the '06-07] season, but I had to cut it. It was thick and nasty. It got to the point where a lot of people didn't recognize me.
LW: I assume you'd prefer to avoid Britney comparisons, but what about Eminem? Are you a fan?
DN: That's fine. He's one of my favorite rappers; he's on my pre-game list on my iPod, with Young Jeezy and Nas. I don't really want to be like Eminem, but it doesn't bother me at all. My teammates get more laughs out of that stuff than I do. After games they'll be making fun of me on the bus.
LW: What about basketball players that you admire? Do you have a favorite lefty shooter?
DN: As far as lefties, I don't know. Right now I like to watch Gilbert Arenas and Kirk Hinrich. They're probably my two favorite players. Arenas, because he can hit shots from anywhere, plus create off the dribble and score in a lot of different ways. Hinrich, I like the way he plays the point, sort of similar to the way I do. He's a point guard but he looks to score a lot as well as get his teammates involved.
LW: I guess you shouldn't be limited to lefties; aside from shooting you're known as somewhat of an ambidextrous player. How did that come about?
DN: My dad [Craig] worked with me since I was little -- probably starting at 8 or 9 -- and it gradually happened. On the court, we'd do different kinds of ballhandling drills, especially two-ball dribbling. [Neitzel was the two-ball national champ at age 12]. Off the court, I'd do things like eating or brushing my teeth with both hands. I've always worked both hands equally.
LW: Are there any players you've tried to emulate from watching YouTube clips?
DN: That site is pretty cool; I go on and look up a lot of different guys. Pistol Pete highlight tapes. Jason Williams highlight tapes. I think there's about four of his that I have saved. There are a couple of highlight videos our fans at Michigan State made, too.
LW: We weren't able to see any of the action from [the Pan-Am games in] Brazil this summer. How was that experience for you? And how did the team handle the shock of losing its first two games, to Uruguay and Panama, and finishing fifth?
DN: I took a lot of good things from it. It was my first experience with the international game, and to get to hang out with some of the other top college guys around the country was a lot of fun. When I watched the Olympic team [the U.S. senior men's squad] play in Las Vegas, I saw lot of the same guys we played against down in Brazil.
Losing early on was hard; we didn't get a whole lot of practice time before we played our first game, and we struggled with two close losses. We improved throughout the whole tourney, though, and by the end, we ended up beating a team -- Panama -- that we lost to earlier in the tournament. That showed our progress.
LW: Which players did you end up living with in Rio?
DN: We lived in suites of six in an Olympic Village-type place. My actual roommate was Maarty Leunen [of Oregon], and there were four other guys in the two other bedrooms: Roy Hibbert [of Georgetown] and Shan Foster [of Vanderbilt] were in one, and Scottie Reynolds [of Villanova] and James Gist [of Maryland] were in the other. It was a pretty tight living situation.
LW: What will you remember most about Brazil, off the court?
DN: We played five games in five days, so it was tough to do much; we got to see the city and some of the sights once we were done playing. The thing that surprised me most was the security. Everywhere you went there were armed security guards, or armed military people. You couldn't go anywhere without showing your ID. When you entered and exited the village, they'd search the bus. I think they said there were 5,000 athletes and 25,000 security and military people.
LW: On the Michigan State front, you're welcoming in two new, four-star guards [freshmen Chris Allen and Kalin Lucas] to a backcourt that was extremely thin last year. How much will that help, especially having a second point guard in Lucas?
DN: It's going to be really nice to have some depth this year. As a player, you always want to play 40 minutes a game and never come off the court. But a couple of minutes here and a couple there really make a difference for me as far as my body. I think I'll be more effective [with Lucas spelling him]. Having more options on the wing, too, is going to open up the floor. Teams won't be able to double me as much.
LW: Is this going to be a breakout year for [sophomore forward] Raymar Morgan? He showed flashes of being a future star last year, and you desperately need another quality scorer.
DN: Raymar had a great season as a freshman, even if he was injured for a lot of the year. This summer he went to Serbia with the Under-19 [World Championship] team and played well. He's improved his jump shot a lot. I can remember a year ago, before he even started school, he'd come up and shoot and he couldn't hit anything. Now you can't leave him open, because he'll knock it down. That's going to be a big step in his game, because people are going to have to pressure up on him, and then he can go by them on the dribble.
LW: I've heard you have an interest in coaching when your playing days are over ...
DN: I would like to get into coaching. I want to do something with basketball. That's my love, my passion. Hopefully it would be for a college team; I could work my way up to that level.
LW: Should we expect to see you back on the Michigan State bench down the road?
DN: I don't know. A couple of [Spartans] assistants said maybe I could work for them if they got a head-coaching job. It'd be interesting. But I'm not trying to get into coaching yet. I want to keep playing until my legs fall off, and then I'll think about that.