February 24, 2009

Around the Nation - College Hoops

Some college hoops thoughts as we head into March:

9) I wanted to start with a team from the state of Indiana. The best program in the state of Indiana in fact. Not Purdue. Not ND. Not IU. The Butler Bulldogs. Great win for them on Saturday over Davidson, but I have to ask one question.

Why is Butler even in the Bracket Busters event?? It's an insult to them as a program!!

In the last 12 years, Butler has played in the NCAA Tournament seven times with an eighth on the way this year. They've been to 2 Sweet 16s since 2003, and they've also had two other years where they went to the NCAA 2nd round. Last year's squad went 30-4 and got screwed with a 7 seed before losing an epic matchup to Tennessee in the second round. They've dominated their league and cemented a reputation for beating bigger name programs throughout the Midwest. By every measurable out there, Butler has been one of the 25 or so best programs in the nation this decade. If Butler is in the Bracket Busters, why isn't someone like St. Johns or Seton Hall in it as well?? Butler is every bit as high-profile as those programs.

In my eyes, schools like Butler and Xavier and Gonzaga are no longer "mid-majors" these days. If you are playing Butler on a neutral court, that is a 50/50 game at best for most of the major conference teams out there. They might have a lot of white guys, but they know how to play basketball and they can play half court offense and defense as well as anyone.

And Butler is young this year. They have zero seniors, and their three leading scorers are freshmen and sophomores. Gordon Hayward is only a freshman and is going to be a superstar, and Howard is a really good college big man. Just go ahead and pencil them into a Sweet 16 in 2010 and 2011.

8) How bad is the SEC this year?? I know the SEC gets a bad rap for not being a basketball league and because no one down there cares about hoops, but there have usually been at least a couple teams capable of making a run in the tournament. Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas, even Bama and LSU and Vandy have done some damage.

But this year, the league has really fallen on hard times. My god, the team currently leading the SEC right now is an LSU team that beat absolutely no one in OOC play. LSU lost to Texas A&M by 11, lost to Xavier by 10 at home, and lost to Utah by 30 on the road.

Then again, the SEC is one of those leagues that always seems to overachieve in the NCAA tournament because there are so many athletes down in that league. LSU basically rolled the balls out a couple years ago and made the Final Four as a 4 seed. The league looks bad on paper, but someone will probably emerge and make a little run.

My sleeper pick this year from the SEC: South Carolina. I've been casually following them because Devan Downey transferred out of Cincy down there during the Huggins fiasco. Downey was a stud at UC as a freshman, and now he's one of the best players in the SEC scoring 20 a game. He's a lot of fun to watch. They are a young team, but have been getting steadily better. If they end up as an 9 or a 10 seed or something like that, I think they could end up giving a top team all they can handle.

7) For the recruiting gurus, I watched a very interesting Outside the Lines story the other day on the hunt for this John Wall guy. This one seems to be destined for another OJ Mayo situation. He's already on his 3rd high school in five years, he's been kicked off a team for attitude problems, he's linked with a shoe company, and he's already announced that he is only playing one year in college before heading to the NBA. Sounds like a real asset to the college game.

And yet Coach K wants him badly!! Apparently Coach K is realizing that the "whitewash" method of recruiting doesn't get you past the 2nd round of the NCAA Tournament. You aren't going to win games just because you wear Duke uniforms and slap the floor a lot. You need athletes.

I have no idea who will land him, but Baylor is the frontrunner at the moment. Why?? Because they hired Wall's AAU coach as the director of recruiting development and another guy is enrolled at a JUCO in Waco, Texas near the Baylor campus.

I'm not normally one to get all high and mighty about recruiting and other shenanigans in college sports, but I think this "hire the AAU coach as an assistant" thing is a little bogus. Why not just give the guy an envelope full of cash while you're at it?? When you are hiring the kid's dad or AAU coach as an assistant, how is that all that different from him having an agent?? There's just too much smoke around it, and it looks silly when Calipari and others are saying that they hired the guy for long term basketball reasons instead of just as an incentive to get a recruit. Does anyone expect me to believe that Calipari would have hired some recruit's dad as an assistant if his kid wasn't a top recruit??

It just feels slimy, and there is an obvious solution. Ban this type of activity. If you want a kid, you can't hire his dad or his coach or any of his associates. And if you don't want to go that far, just put a timeline on it so that you can't hire a guy for three years or something like that. If Calipari wants to hire some kid's dad three years later, then go ahead once the conflict of interest is gone.

6) Jim Calhoun is my hero. This is awesome.

Could this "activist" be any dumber?? Listen you hippie clown, the budget deficit in the state of Connecticut currently sits at two BILLION dollars. Calhoun makes $1.6 million. Even if you cut his salary down in half, the budget deficit remains at $1 billion, 999 million or whatever. Grandstanding about Calhoun's salary is absurd when you consider that his salary makes up for very little of the state budget.

And if you are going to go after "overpaid" state employees, why go after a guy who actually MAKES money for the state?? As Calhoun stated, he made $12 million for the UConn athletic department. He is a profitable employee in every way. Why isn't this degenerate going after some tenured anthropology professor at UConn who makes $400,000 and doesn't bring in a dime of revenue for the state?? Of course, that wouldn't give this clown any publicity, so he goes after the high-profile guy.

I thought Calhoun's response to this guy was perfect. The only thing that would have made it better would have been if Calhoun had finished his answer by saying something like "maybe I should think about leaving UConn for a job at a private university or at another state school where I don't have to deal with questions like yours." This guy wouldn't have made it five steps out of the interview room before some raging UConn fan beat him within an inch of his life for angering Calhoun.

5) As of right now, Joe Lunardi has 7 Big Ten teams in the NCAA Tournament, including Ohio State. Buckeye fans, do you feel even remotely safe about the NCAA Tournament?? I think it's time to start getting concerned. They have gone from an NCAA lock playing for a good seed to a 7-7 team that appears to be fading yet again. I think the Buckeyes need to go to at least 10-8 to feel solid going into conference tournament play.

The Big Ten standings are really getting interesting.

Michigan State 11-3 21-5
Purdue 10-4 21-6
Illinois 10-5 22-6
Penn State 8-6 19-8
Minnesota 8-7 20-7
Wisconsin 8-7 17-10
Ohio State 7-7 17-8
Michigan 7-8 17-11
Northwestern 5-9 14-11
Iowa 4-10 14-13
Indiana 1-13 6-20

There are three locks at this point, but how many teams from the Big Ten are getting in?? I don't see 7 teams getting in out of the Big Ten. Out of the bubble teams, here are their remaining schedules.

Penn State (RPI - 61) - @ Ohio State, Indiana, Illinois, @ Iowa

Minnesota (RPI - 34) - @ Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan

Wisconsin (RPI 28) - Michigan, @ Minnesota, Indiana

Ohio State (RPI 43) - Penn State, @ Purdue, @ Iowa, Northwestern

Of those four teams, I think Wisconsin is probably in the best shape. An RPI at 28 and a borderline lock to get to at least 10 conference wins. They have the easiest path to an NCAA bid. Minny probably needs to win that Wisconsin game to feel good. And Penn State is still in pretty good shape to get to 10 wins.

That leaves the Buckeyes. I think a best case scenario for Ohio State is to get to 10-8 in the league, and even that would require a road win at Iowa that has not treated them kindly in recent years. 9-9 in the league is going to put them in a very tough spot. I know the Big Ten has a good conference RPI this year, but does anyone really feel comfortable saying that the Big Ten is getting 7 out of 11 teams into the dance after all the Big Ten bashing that has gone on in football and basketball in the last few years?? I don't. I think you gotta get into that top 6 to feel ok about yourself.

On paper, Ohio State should be an NCAA Tournament team. My god, Evan Turner is an all-conference player and a future NBA first round pick, Mullens is a lottery pick right now, and Buford will probably be a lottery pick after next year. How is this team on the bubble?? That amazes me. I like Thad Matta, but he's had second straight shaky year. Bad program management has really hurt him, and his team seems to be wilting in Big 10 play. When you have this many young guys, your team is going to hit the wall. If you are tired, you take bad shots and don't guard people. They need to figure out a way to get better quality depth and more upperclassmen who stick around. The Final Four in 2006 was great, but back to back NITs would be a severe blow for the momentum of the program. I think Matta needs to take a serious look at this program in the offseaon and make some long term changes in his philosophy for recruiting.

The conference tournament wll probably also have a say in things. I still think there will be only 6 teams getting in from the Big 10 (at best), so you may have a Minny-OSU type matchup on Friday that amounts to a play-in game.

4) I'm annoyed by Memphis. Not in the sense that I dont think they are a good team. I haven't watched them in months, but I have no doubt that they are probably really good right now. Just looking at what they have been doing to people lately, they are bludgeoning teams. And Memphis' reputation speaks for itself in the NCAAs of late. Memphis has talent and Coach Cal. That's a good start.

But here's the thing about Memphis getting a #1 seed. They don't deserve it based on who they have played and beaten this year. I would have understood it last year based on a tough OOC schedule and a dominating regular season, but this year's team lost to Syracuse and Xavier at home and Georgetown on the road in OOC play. They really haven't beaten anyone of note in OOC play other than Gonzaga. I just don't think it's fair to give them a #1 seed even if you think they are one of the four best teams in the country. Those seeds are for what you have accomplished and who you have beaten. Memphis has destroyed the CUSA. That's not enough for a #1 seed (or even a #2 seed in my opinion).

3) As for the Irish, I don't know what to say about this team. I still think we are a longshot, but the Lunardis and Katzes of the world are basically stating that ND will get in if we can get to 9-9 in the league as the 8th team out of the Big East. Based on Lunardi's track record, why would I doubt him?? He gets the whole bracket right almost every year. If he's saying ND is in, I'm listening.

With that said, my feeling is that it is still too early to judge what the bubble is going to look like in a few weeks. I can't get really comfortable about ND's chances until we see how the conference tournaments shake out. I think ND would be in good shape if the bubble stands exactly as it stands today in three weeks, but you know there are going to be some upsets in the conference tournaments that eat up at-large bids for the bubble teams. For example, the A-10 tourney this year is in Atlantic City. Is it inconveivable that someone like Temple will win the A-10 tourney this year?? The A-10 suddenly would go from a 2 bid league to a 3 bid league since Xavier and Dayton are most likely getting in. What if Butler doesn't win the Horizon?? The Mountain West has a few viable at-large teams, and you have Utah State out there at 25-3 in the WAC. Plus, there's Gonzaga and the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. Even though it doesn't look like it, I bet the MVC will get at least 2 teams this year. That heartland Peoria/Omaha/Des Moines area of the country is a college hoops hotbed, and the NCAA is going to want to make sure that league is represented in the NCAAs.

And that's before you even get to the heavyweight leagues. Last year, Georgia won the SEC tournament and got in as a 14 seed. There have been quite a few of those "out of nowhere" conference tournament winners that take up a bid.

If there are upsets in the conference tournament (and there always are), all those leagues suddenly become multi-bid leagues and knock other teams off the bubble. It seems like that happens every year. I remember several teams were considered "safe" until conference tournaments started last year, and then they got pushed off the bubble as the "Championship Week" went along.

Add all that up, and you are talking about 4-6 extra bids that are unaccounted for at the moment. If you are on the bubble headed into Championship Week, you are getting knocked out unless you definitively play your way in by making a run in the conference tournament. How many times have we heard the "all they need to do is win one conference tournament" game thing and then the team gets knocked out anyway when they do that?? You gotta go the extra mile.

9-9 with all those quality wins would give us a shot, but I still think it's a long shot at the moment. I still think we'd have to make a serious run into the semis at the BET. Beating the #16 and the #8 teams in the BET would establish us as the 8th best team in the Big East. Is that going to be enough?? I don't know, but I do know that the 8th team from the Big East is probably going to be one of the first teams knocked out if the committee gets in a jam and needs to make some cuts.

The 9-9 conference record isn't bad in itself, but the RPI rating at 72 is killing us. Our best case scenario would be to get that RPI down into the high 40s/low 50s. I won't even address the OOC scheduling issue because we've been talking about this for at least 5 years. If you still don't understand the RPI and why scheduling 250+ RPI teams instead of 100ish RPI teams for your home OOC games is a bad thing, you never will. Apparently Mike Brey is determined not to learn this lesson, and our RPI remains an albatross because of it.

With that said, I hope we win all four and end up at 10-8. If we do that, we're a lock. Our RPI would be solid, we'd have a winning conference record, probably be in around 7th place in the league, and we'd be the hottest team in the Big East. That said, I'm obviously not counting on a win at UConn even without Dyson.

Either way, I'm not going to complain if we don't get in. We dug ourselves into the hole, and finishing 9-9 in your league with a bad RPI is asking for the committee to leave you out. If you are on the bubble, it's a complete crap shoot.

Oh well, I'm glad we are at least back in the conversation.

2) One final thought on Brey while I'm here. I have always been a Brey champion, but this season has really created some bouts of pessisism for me about the state of the ND basketball program. The pattern that has emerged with this program is that we are only good when we are off the radar. In other words, in the years when no one is talking about us, we tend to "surprise" and have a good regular season. Or when we are sitting at 3-7 in the league and dead to the world, we suddenly will show signs of life and surprise some teams to get back in it. We are at our best when no one is focusing on ND. I almost think Brey prefers to be that "off the radar" team that other teams underestimate. The fact that we trot out all these white guys only adds to the aura of us being an overlooked team.

But as soon as you stick a target on our back, we fold up. In the NCAAs, we have been mediocre at best. In years when we were highly ranked in the preseason, we have come up short of expectations (including this year). In the Big East Tournament when every team is scrapping and fighting to advance, we bow out early.

Why is that?? I think it's because our style of play is more designed to try to catch teams off guard. We hope to come out and get a bunch of open 3s before other teams wake up and adjust. When that is working and the other team isn't ready for it, it's great. But it also goes cold in a hurry when teams are focusing on us and locking us down defensively. In a setting like the NCAAs or the BET where every team is going all out to advance to the next week and bringing that extra level of intensity on defense, that formula isn't built for success. We have never shown the ability to win a bunch of games with our defense, so it's tough to get wins when the shots aren't falling.

Anyway, I'm not completely down on Brey or anything. I like Brey, and I want him at ND. He's a good coach who has done a lot of good for the program and has generally produced winning teams. But the pattern that has emerged with this program tells me that we are pretty much maxed out on the Mike Brey era. It might get a little better than this at times when we are off the radar, but any hopes of big time success are probably not realistic after nine years.

1) WEISND power poll:

5. Michigan State
4. Oklahoma
3. UConn
2. Pitt
1. North Carolina

That's my top five for now based on who I think is the best team in the country regardless of record or recent losses or whatever other criteria is used for the polls. I don't think they are necessarily going to win it all, but North Carolina is still the team that has the best chance to win it all in my eyes. If they could ever commit to locking down defensively, they would win this thing going away. No one else has their combination of talent and experience. Because I consider them a mortal lock to make the Final Four and can't say that about anyone else right now, they are my #1 team in the land.

I think this NCAA Tournament has the chance to be really really wacky. Last year, we had four really good teams that were just better than everyone else: UNC, Memphis, UCLA, and Kansas. All those teams were far and away the best teams in their particular region of the country and were never in any real jeopardy until at least the Elite 8. This year, the only team I would say that about is UNC. Everyone else is beatable as early as the 2nd round. I think we're going to see at least one 3-6 seed type team in the Final Four and maybe two.

Look at some of the #2 type seeds out there right now. Marquette, Duke, Clemson, Missouri, Nova? Does anyone feel that great about any of those teams?? Me neither. Every one of those teams has major flaws.

I'm not even sure what to make of the #1s either. I love this Pitt team, but how will they play once you take them out of the rough and tumble Big East and into a more tightly-officiated game?? They seem to run into that problem every year. They also have free throw issues and shooting issues at times.

As for UConn, they are the other team that I would have put down as an elite team until that Dyson injury. Now, I don't know what to make of them. It's tough to retool this late in the year.

Looking forward to the Madness!


Matt said...

5 things:

1. How is it possible that ND can come out flat in a must win game. Brey damn near had to slap people upside the head to get them to show any emotion. I have already penciled in Nova and UConn as losses. And if we play like we did tonight we will lose to that athletic St. Johns team.

2. That Providence win looks a lot better after they dismantled Pitt.

3. This may be an overreaction or controversial, but I really think that Harangody needs to stop whining to the refs after every miss and stop flailing and flopping around. I think he's getting a reputation with the refs in the Big East. Just play ball and you'll get the calls. Maybe I'm way off base here.

4. I feel really bad for Dominic James and Marquette. I think they were poised to make a run in March, he seems like a good guy, and to have his career end like that is a shame.

5. ND is going to the NIT. I just don't see this team mustering up the enthusiasm or energy to win a game in NYC. I foresee a Holy Cross like situation when we host that game.

Ravi said...

Great points Lips. Wanted to make the Providence comment and also wanted to comment on the James injury. Sucks to see a guy (as long as he’s not from Purdue) stay in school for four years only to miss his senior year NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, this just gives credence to all the early entries.

Instead I’ll comment on the fact that I would have paid big money to see someone question Robert Montgomery Knight the same way that d-bag questioned Calhoun. What would Knight have done? The possibilities are as endless as they are entertaining.

Since I’ve got nothing else to say I’ll just mention that Tiger started his 2009 season birdie-eagle behind two PERFECT irons. He’s back. Hope we see the “Resurrection of Tiger Woods on Easter (Masters’) Sunday.” James William Nantz III is primed and ready.