Rewind back to the fall of 2005. The Irish are riding high in Charlie Weis' first season, on their way to a Fiesta Bowl appearance in January 2006. Excitement was not restricted to the playing field, however, as Weis began to show his tireless recruiting chops, crisscrossing the country to land his first full class. A consensus Top 10 group (#5 - Scout, #8 - Rivals) and one of the biggest classes in ND history (post-scholarship reduction), the 2006 class was lauded as the foundation on which Weis would return the Irish to the glory days.
Now that the class of 2006 is entering its 4th year on campus, its time to take a look back to measure the impact of Weis' first full class, and also offer some predictions on individuals who will contribute to the Irish in 2009.
Scout: 3-star, #34 QB Rivals: 4-star, #2 QB (Dual Threat) (#54 in Rivals 100, #1 Player in IL) Offers: OSU, Tennessee, Louisville
1 game played (2007 Georgia Tech) 1-3, 4 yards passing 12 rushes, 28 yards 2 fumbles lost
Transfer to Cincinnati
The poster boy for the disaster that was the 2007 season, Jones' story is well-documented throughout the interwebs, so I'll spare Irish fans a repeat of the distasteful saga. Jones came to ND with much fanfare. The #1 player in Illinois to Rivals, DJ was a signal that Weis would focus his attention on the traditional recruiting ground of the greater Chicago area that had been largely ignored by his predecessors, particulary Willingham. Praised for his leadership abilities, Jones was tabbed as the successor to Brady Quinn and Charlie's guinea pig for the horrendous attempt to bring the read option to South Bend.
Irish fans received a bit of closure to the Jones saga with the recent news that DJ would be moving to OLB for the Bearcats, effectively signaling the end of his QB career. Many depth chart engineers among the ND faithful had predicted an eventual move to WR or S for the talented athlete from Morgan Park once he reached campus. Looks like they were right.
Frazer set passing records in Pennsylvania during his junior year of HS, but his future was clearly written on the wall as soon as Jimmy Clausen verbally committed to ND at the College Football Hall of Fame. To his credit, Frazer handled the situation as well as could be expected, and ended up with Randy Edsall and the Huskies. Injuries allowed Frazer to see some serious playing time during his first year in Storrs, starting against UNC and Rutgers, and appearing in several other games as well.
Frazer will have the opportunity to obtain some measure of revenge against his former teammates as the Huskies come to South Bend on November 21.
Scout: 5-star, #7 RB Rivals: 5-star, #3 RB (#27 in Rivals 100, #1 Player in IN) Offers: OSU, Nebraska, Iowa
Lost in the mix somewhat, Aldridge was one of the biggest recruits of the class, as evidenced by Rivals' ranking as the #3 RB in the country. Aldridge has never seemed to fully recover from the major knee injury suffered during his senior year and has seemingly lost some of the explosiveness that garnered the 5-star rankings. Aldridge has improved every year, and at times, looked like the most effective RB in the Irish rotation in 2008.
Rumors of a move to FB/H-back have been confirmed by spring practice reports, as Aldridge has been working in sets as both tailback and fullback. Should he continue to try his hand as a fullback, he will certainly be more likely to see the field in 2009.
Scout: 3-star, #38 RB Rivals: 3-star, #25 RB (#6 Player in MO) Offers: Nebraska, Missouri, MSU, Iowa
15 rushes, 21 yards (2006) 3 tackles (2007)
Transfer to Missouri
Famously referred to as "Whoosh" by Weis following apparent impressive performances in practice, Prince couldn't find his way onto the playing field, thanks mostly to the steady Darius Walker. Moved to the secondary where he again found himself lost on the depth chart. Mutually beneficial transfer to Missouri where he is listed as the #3 CB on the depth chart for 2009.
Scout: 4-star, #26 RB Rivals: 3-star, #4 FB (#3 Player in IN) Offers: Oklahoma, Purdue, Louisville
2 carries, 6 yards (2007) 3 receptions, 16 yards
Off Team Due to Concussions
The first of several recruits in this class also targeted by Bob Stoops and the Sooners, Schmidt matriculated to ND following an impressive Indiana high school career. Recruitniks hoped Schmidt could revive the dormant fullback/power back position at ND that had made a brief resurgence with Rashon Powers-Neal in 2005. Schmidt was also given the chance to step into the TE/H-Back position, but several concussions during the 2008 season effectively ended his career.
Scout: 3-star, #52 WR Rivals: 3-star, #74 WR (#9 Player in New England) Offers: BC, Syracuse, Wisconsin
Appeared on Special Teams
Given Weis' penchant for undersized, no-name WRs during his OC years with the Patriots, it wasn't difficult for ND fans to envision good things for Gallup out of the slot position. But talent in the classes in front (Stovall, McKnight, Shark, Grimes) and behind (Kamara, Tate, Floyd) left few opportunities to see the field. Gallup has played sparingly on special teams, and moved to tailback during spring practice 2008. Given the depth chart, unlikely to have much of an impact for the remainder of his career.
Scout: 3-star, #63 WR Rivals: 4-star, #25 WR (#40 Player in FL) Offers: Miami, Pitt, South Carolina, Clemson
Transfer to Central Florida
Irish fans were excited when Weis went down into Florida and took away a WR prospect from the likes of the Miami Hurricanes. Unfortunately, a combination of injuries and drops, coupled with the subsequent talented recruiting classes left Jackson without much of an opportunity to get on the field. Transfer #4 from the 2006 class.
Scout: 3-star, #44 WR Rivals: 3-star, #64 WR (#24 Player in OH) Offers: Michigan, Iowa, BC
39 receptions, 418 yards, 1 TD
Parris displayed amazing hands in his recruiting videos, and during his career at powerhouse Cleveland St. Ignatius, reminding Irish fans of another lanky WR who was adding to his own legend in Soth Bend during the 2005 season. Given the opportunity to get in the mix during the abominable 2007 season, Parris had flashes of competency coupled with some terrible drops and was essentially passed up by younger receivers in later classes.
With Floyd and Tate locked in to the two primary WR positions, Parris is certainly in the mix for a complementary role. In fact, at times throughout the 2008 seasons, he looked like the #1 option as a #3 wideout. Will be prominently involved in one of the more interesting position battles this spring.
Scout: 3-star, #100 WR Rivals: 3-star, #53 ATH (#12 Player in OK) Offers: Texas Tech, Kansas, Baylor
Another waterbug-type WR, West scored the first time he touched the ball, on an end around against Purdue in 2006. The remainder of his contributions have come on special teams, including a few solid kickoff returns.
Should provide good depth for the return corps in 2009, but unlikely to make much more of an impact beyond special teams.
Scout: 5-star, #2 TE Rivals: 4-star, #3 TE (#81 in Rivals 100, #13 Player in CA) Offers: USC, Miami, Nebraska
Transfer to Stanford
One of two recruiting battles against SC won by Weis, Reuland was passed on the depth chart by his classmate, Yeatman, and later by Mike Ragone of the 2007 class. Reading the writing on the wall, Reuland transferred to the Farm and will be eligible to face the Irish in Palo Alto this year.
Scout: 3-star, #38 TE Rivals: 3-star, #39 TE (#94 Player in CA) Offers: Michigan, Nebraska, Arizona, Maryland
8 receptions, 43 yards
Transfer to Maryland
His blocking chops allowed him to move ahead of Konrad Reuland and slide in behind John Carlson as the #2 TE. Seemingly destined for an All-American lacrosse career to go along with his football exploits, Yeatman found himself in trouble with the notorious Residence Life office at ND, earning a suspension for his troubles. Strike two, an off-campus party during the 2008 season, resulted in his effective "expulsion" and a transfer to Maryland.
While this is neither the time nor the place to debate the disciplinary policies of Our Lady's university, Yeatman's absence during 2008 opened the door for Kyle Rudolph to step in and make an immediate impact. However, it also left a gaping hole for Weis' two-TE sets, resulting in several disastrous short-yardage plays throughout the course of the season. In my book, Yeatman's transfer has hurt more than any other.
Scout: 3-star, #35 TE Rivals: 3-star, #23 TE (#10 Player in MO) Offers: Nebraska, Missouri, MSU, Ole Miss
Moved to DL: One tackle in career
Mullen arrived to campus as a man without a position. A glut of TEs guaranteed some creative depth chart engineering. Mullen was moved to the defensive line almost immediately upon his arrival. Packing on more than 30 pounds, Mullen has transformed himself to try to make a positive contribution to the Irish.
Large holes in the interior defensive line have allowed Mullen to fight for playing time, and this could be the year that he works himself into the rotation.
Scout: 4-star, #52 OL Rivals: 3-star, #29 OT (#6 Player in AK) Offers: Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Arkansas
Shoulder injury required career-ending surgery
One of the members of the legendary Springdale, AK high school class that included Mitch Mustain, Webb suffered a career-ending injury, derailing a promising career and leaving a hole at the tackle position. As an interesting sidenote, Webb's former HS teammate (Mustain) was reportedly considering the Irish during his recruitment. Although rumors suggested Mustain was prepared to commit to ND himself, Weis chose to honor the scholarships given to Frazer and Jones.
Scout: 5-star, #2 OL Rivals: 5-star, #1 OT (#11 in Rivals 100, #2 Player in FL) Offers: USC, Florida, Miami, Michigan
Has started every game since stepping foot on campus. RT incumbent.
Undoubtedly the #1 recruit in the class, Young was perhaps the most sought-after OL target in the country. Perhaps more out of necessity than anything else, Young earned a start in the 2006 opener against Georgia Tech at RT and has started every game since. A wildly unsuccessful switch to LT in 2007 and continuing spurts of inconsistency have led many to label him as a disappointment.
Has emerged as one of the leaders of the team after his famous late-night visit to the JACC for a heart-to-heart with Weis during the 2007 season. Hopefully more comfortable after moving back to his more natural RT position in 2008. Expecting huge things from the senior in 2009.
Scout: 4-star, #49 OL Rivals: 4-star, #6 OT (Rivals 250, #2 Player in NY) Offers: Miami, BC, Virginia, Syracuse
Started 6 games in 2007, and all 13 in 2008. LG incumbent.
Flew under the radar a bit when compared with his classmates, but has emerged as one of the better linemen on the team. Slid into a starting role at the end of 2007 and started every game during 2008. Sports one of the meaner streaks on the team, but plagued by occasional bouts of inconsistency.
Expected to anchor the interior again in 2009, Olsen should be one of the biggest beneficiaries of (hopefully) better technique-focused coaching from new OL coach Frank Verducci.
Scout: 4-star, #10 OL Rivals: 4-star, #5 OT (Rivals 250, #1 Player in MN) Offers: Florida, Miami, Iowa, Minnesota
Transfer to Minnesota during 2007 season.
Carufel is Exhibit A for the "ND is not for everyone" axiom. Apparently homesick throughout much of his first year on campus, Carufel never fit in on campus and went home during the 2007 season. Damaging transfer on the surface considering the extreme need for O-linemen on the awful 2007 squad, Carufel's departure opened the door for fellow ex-classmates Eric Olsen and Chris Stewart.
Scheduled to man a starting spot for the Gophers this year. Good luck to Carufel, another in a long line of great prospects from Cretin-Derham Hall.
Scout: 4-star, #42 OL Rivals: 4-star, #11 OG (Rivals 250, #31 Player in TX) Offers: Nebraska, Texas A&M, Oklahoma St.
Saw action in 6 games in 2007. Took over at RG in 2008. RG incumbent.
A mountain of a man when he reported to campus, Stewart was a pet project of Ruben Mendoza, who has transferred the big man from Texas into a serviceable interior lineman. Manning the RG spot for the 2008 year, Stewart had his share of highs and lows, culminating in a nice performance in the Hawaii Bowl where he showed his athleticism by leading Armando Allen into the end zone on a screen pass in the 2nd half.
Expected to battle for his job with Trevor Robinson this year, Stewart is another who will greatly benefit from some improved coaching. Along with Sam Young, should make for a formidable right side of the line.
Scout: 4-star, #20 OL Rivals: 4-star, #3 C (Rivals 250, #35 Player in FL) Offers: Florida, Oklahoma, PSU, Pitt
Played in 8 games in 2007. Starting C in 2008. Incumbent C.
Joined his HS teammate, Sam Young (St. Thomas Aquinas in FL) by making the trek to South Bend. Took over for John Sullivan at C during the nightmare 2007 season, and started every game in 2008. Also plagued with bouts of inconsistency, Wenger will not only benefit from the Verducci effect, but also some competition provided by those behind him, namely Braxston Cave and Mike Golic, Jr.
Must improve, particularly in the run game, if this line (and the team) is to make the necessary steps to become a more consistent and powerful squad in 2009.
Scout: 4-star, #17 DE Rivals: 3-star, #10 WDE (#18 Player in OH) Offers: BC, Illinois, Kentucky
Hasn't registered a tackle.
Perhaps a victim of the constantly switching philosophies on defense, Wade has had 3 different defensive coordinators during his career thus far, none of whom has found a spot for him. Bouncing back and forth between a DE and OLB spot, Wade appears to have been passed by more talented and younger athletes in the classes behind him.
Here's hoping Wade can contribute something to the almost non-existent Irish pass rush and provide some punch from his (current) DE spot.
Scout: 3-star, #38 DE Rivals: 3-star, #31 SDE (#16 Player in OH) Offers: MSU, BC, Maryland, Syracuse
Another product of the legendary Cleveland St. Ignatius, Ryan has had something of a checkered career thus far. Somewhat surprisingly (given his rather pedestrian recruiting ranking) thrust into starting roles, both on the defensive line and at an OLB spot, Ryan has been the target of much grumbling amongst Irish fans. Constant nagging injuries, including a shoulder problem that limited his ability to build weight, haven't helped either. However, when on the field, he has had some spurts of productivity.
Seemingly completely healthy this spring, Ryan has been given the chance to crack the starting lineup, due mostly to other injuries along the line. Here's guessing this is his last good shot to make a positive impression on the ND faithful.
Scout: 3-star, #52 LB Rivals: 3-star, #15 ILB (#19 Player in GA) Offers: Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, Alabama
His offer list screams big-time LB, but Smith has yet to do much in his ND career. Passed by smaller LBs (including Mo Crum and Brian Smith) at the ILB position. Injuries to Brian Smith last year gave him his first real extended shot at playing time. The inability to crack the lineup would seem to speak volumes about the coaches' confidence in his ability to make contributions of a larger scale. Many fans have cited a lack of footspeed as the most likely culprit keeping him on the sidelines.
The move back to a 4-3, and hints that Brian Smith will remain inside, appear to suggest that Smith's time may have come and gone. However, practice reports and a recent Weis interview have suggested that Toryan may be turning heads so far this spring. Corey Mays similarly waited for his chance and made a serious impact during his senior year (2005). Can Smith do the same in 2009?
Scout: 3-star, #64 DE Rivals: 3-star, #31 OLB (#28 Player in GA) Offers: Oklahoma, Florida, Nebraska, Alabama, Va. Tech
18 tackles (3 TFL), 2 sacks
Another LB from Georgia with an impressive offer sheet. Richardson was heralded as the successor to Justin Tuck and Victor Abiamiri, and expected to wreak havoc from the DE position. Alas, his career has also been something of a disappointment. Largely ineffective when on the field, and often benched for curious replacements (John Ryan?) Richardson has been an enigma, wrapped in a riddle...you get the point.
The move back to the traditional 4-3 defense this year may give Mo the opportunity to rush the passer and become the stud DE many expected when he showed up on campus. However, the emergence of Kapron Lewis-Moore and the expected move of Ethan Johnson to the outside might result in another squeeze for Richardson.
Scout: 4-star, #7 CB Rivals: 4-star, #3 CB (#51 in Rivals 100, #3 Player in PA) Offers: Florida, Michigan, PSU, Pitt
36 tackles in 11 starts. 2.5 TFL. 1 INT (for TD vs. PSU). 10 Pass Breakups 5 Kick Returns, 84 yards
One of the more pleasant surprises in the class, Weis was able to snag Walls away from Wanny and Joe Pa. Perhaps the best and most consistent cover corner on the team, Walls played sparingly in 2006, and became a full-time starter in 2007, providing one of the few highlights of the season with his INT return during the PSU game.
Left school during the 2008 season, but has returned and will be battling a host of others to win back his CB spot. Will provide invaluable depth to what should be an incredibly deep group of corners.
Scout: 4-star, #9 CB Rivals: 4-star, #7 CB (#74 in Rivals 100, #3 Player in NC) Offers: Clemson, South Carolina, Virgina
Combined with Walls to make up the best CB class in the country. McNeil shone at the Army AA game, shutting down some of the best WR prospects in the nation. Gave many Irish fans a stroke with his 11th hour visit to Gainesville (the first taste of Urban-Poaching). Largely a special teams contributor prior to 2008, McNeil took over for Walls as the #1 cover CB last year. Had some trouble with Hakeem Nicks (who didn't?) but served as a very reliable CB overall.
Slated to continue as one of the starting corners this spring, McNeil, Walls and some of the younger studs (Blanton, Slaughter, etc.) may make CB the strongest position on the team.
Scout: 4-star, #10 S Rivals: 3-star, #32 S (#9 Player in IL) Offers: Nebraska, Illinois, Purdue, Iowa
39 tackles (2 TFL), 1 sack, 6 Pass Breakups, 1 Fumble Recovery Special Teams Stud with several blocked kicks
After spending most of his career on the special teams units, Brown exploded onto the scene in 2008 as the primary nickel back. Continued to make his presence felt on special teams, especially on punt coverage, registering several punt blocks. Brings a swagger and attitude to the defense that's largely been missing since the Shane Walton years.
Bruton's graduation leaves a hole at one of the safety spots, but Brown will have a battle on his hands with Harrison Smith, Danny McCarthy and other to win a starting job. Given his penchant for blitzing, Tenuta may keep him at a nickel spot and move him around in a "rover" type role. In any event, look for Brown to continue his harassing ways this year.
Scout: 4-star, #20 S Rivals: 3-star, #34 CB (#6 Player in KY) Offers: PSU, Louisville, Kentucky, West Virginia
Now listed as CB on depth chart. No meaningful PT on defense. Special teams player for several years.
Has appeared largely as a ST contributor for the Irish, with very limited time in the secondary thus far. Will provide depth at both S and CB in 2009, but don't expect him to see much time.
Scout: 3-star, #29 S Rivals: 3-star, #34 S (#4 Player in NV) Offers: Oklahoma, Nebraska, Washington
6 tackles in 2007.
No longer enrolled.
No longer listed on the ND roster, Gaines was primarily a ST player as well.
Scout: 2-star, NR Rivals: 2-star, #14 K Offers: Illinois, Indiana, Ball St.
Story has it that Weis offered Kai Forbath, the studly UCLA kicker, but wasn't willing to wait for him to make a decision, and opted for the hometown Burkhart instead. Forbath probably wouldn't have come to ND anyway, but Burkhart has been a disappointment thus far, to put it lightly. Passed by the freshman Brandon Walker in 2007, Burkhart was handed the kickoff duties, which he has handled with mixed results the past two years.
Walker appears to have cemented his place as the primary placekicker, and the signing of Nick Tausch in the 2009 class may signal the end of Burkhart's hold on the kickoff duties.
28 recruits. 10 of whom are no longer on the team, including 7 transfers. While this doesn't come close to the attrition seen in some of the Willingham recruiting classes, losing over 35% of the class seems a bit high, especially in a class ranked in the Top 10 to both services.
So what can we say about this class, 4 years into their time under the Dome? Well, its pretty clear that there's plenty of good and bad to take away.
The offensive line and the defensive backfield (particularly the corners) were seen as the strength of the class, and this has held true 4 years later.
4 of the 5 starting offensive linemen in 2008 came from this class (Young, Wenger, Olsen, Stewart), and (barring injury) the same 4 will likely be starting against Nevada in the fall. Although judging high school offensive line talent is something of a crapshoot, the offer lists from this class suggest that there was little or no dispute that this represented one of, if not the, best offensive line hauls in the country. Those that have remained in the program have made significant (albeit often inconsistent) contributions to the team. All will return this year, and Stewart, Wenger and Olsen should be back again in 2010, providing valuable stability and depth to perhaps the most important position on the field.
Similarly, there was no question that Walls and McNeil would become important players for the Irish. It was only a question of when. Walls played as a freshman in 2006, and became the #1 corner as a sophomore. McNeil had to bide his time, but played well in 2008 and should take his place opposite Walls as 1A this year. Sergio Brown first made his presence felt on special teams, but assumed the role as the primary nickel back in 2008 and was often a menace on the blitz, harassing the QB and batting down passes at the line. Brown, Walls and McNeil will help to make the secondary the strongest part of the 2009 Irish.
The transfers were really more aesthetically displeasing than anything else, however plenty of people in the media and elsewhere argued that the "mass defections" signaled that Weis had lost the team during the 2007 season. The bottom line is that the majority of the transfers were purely due to position squeezes. Only Carufel (apparent homesickness) and Demetrius Jones were sacrificing the potential for playing time by leaving South Bend.
But upon further reflection, it is clear that Weis whiffed badly in the class at the skill positions. Both QBs are gone, and likely wouldn't have played much anyway after Clausen's arrival. Only one member of the backfield remains (Aldridge) and he's been squeezed out of the rotation for the most part, acquiescing to a move to fullback to get on the field. Parris has played sparingly, and at best is a 3rd WR in 2009. Yeatman played early and often, especially in blocking situations but was recruited almost as an afterthought, and forced to transfer.
Defensive line was also a disappointment, especially with the lack of bodies. The popular rumor among the recruiting gurus was that the Irish had Gerald McCoy, he of Oklahoma Sooner fame, all but locked up until a personal issue "forced" him to stay close to home and commit to the Bob Stoops at the 11th hour. We might never know whether this was the case, but missing out on McCoy was perhaps Weis' biggest miss to date. The failure to consider a Plan B at the DT spot was perhaps Weis' first recruiting lesson. The constant changing philosophies on defense probably contributed to the stunting of development amongst Mo Richardson and Kallen Wade, and now that younger, more talented players have been brought into the fold, we may have seen the last of these two DEs.
Giving Sergio Brown the benefit of the doubt, the class has produced 7 starters. If Alrdridge becomes the starter at FB, the number could bump to 8. Given the lofty recruiting rankings and the disastrous 2007 and 2008 seasons, its difficult to judge the class as anything better than disappointing. Some of the blame for the poor offensive line performance can be placed at the feet of the departed John Latina, but there's really no explanation for how so many huge guys with so much obvious talent can be so mediocre.
However, many of these players (save Young, Walls and I believe Sergio Brown) have the potential for a 5th year in 2010, and will have plenty of opportunities to make their mark in Irish lore. Only Paul Duncan, Scott Smith, Kyle McCarthy and Ray Herring remain from the dark days of Willingham, so the team is now almost exclusively made up of Weis recruits who will need to step up and prove their worth.
10) Thomas Montgomery Izzo. Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.
Throwing this challenge out there to our readers. If anyone wants to come on here and get into a spirited debate about who is the best college basketball coach in America, I'm in. I'll take Tom Izzo and write 10,000 words on his behalf. Fire away if you want to promote someone else. I'm all ears, and I accept the challenge if anyone wants it. Give me Izzo, and everyone else can have the rest of the field.
Five Final Fours in 11 years!! FIVE!! Are you kidding me?? Just to point out how amazing that is, every four year player who has come to play for Tom Izzo has played in at least one Final Four.
And he's doing it at Michigan State! It's not like he's at Carolina or Duke or Kansas or UCLA or Kentucky with a national recruiting base and national spotlight. Izzo has recruited good players to MSU, but he's basically done it by recruiting good, solid 3-4 star guys from the Michigan and Ohio area. No one talks about Michigan State all year and very few people are even paying attention to them, and yet there they are in the Final Four every other year and always in the Sweet 16.
Pound for pound, I think Tom Izzo is the best college basketball coach in America. He's not fancy, he doesn't win by running up and down the court and recruiting five star guys, but he gets it done.
Izzo coached the pants off Pitino on Sunday. It was a clinic, especially since he only had two days to put together the game plan. Louisville has been ripe for an upset all year, and it took Izzo to finally implement the strategy to take them out. Louisville never really had to get down and play halfcourt offense against a tough man-to-man defense all year, and that's pretty much what they got from Sparty. MSU took away the 3 and the easy transition buckets, and Louisville panicked.
As great as Louisville played on Friday night against Arizona, I walked out of the dome thinking that Michigan State had a great chance to win that game. Louisville was a little bit too cocky coming off that win, and Sparty is a nightmare opponent for any team that comes in overconfident. Sparty scraped and clawed to get that win over Kansas. You knew they were ready to go. Louisville is a great team, but they weren't some juggernaut. After Friday night, it seemed like they bought into their own hype a little bit.
I read a great story in the Indianapolis Star the other day on the drive out of Indy about the "War Drill" at Michigan State. Essentially, the players do a drill with no out of bounds and no fouls where they just go crazy and get into scrums to fight for the ball. Travis Walton was saying that guys will come out of that drill with blood literally running down their legs and out of their noses. He said they even put on football pads at times.
How great is that drill?? Is there any wonder why Michigan State is always playing deep in March?? It's not because Tom Izzo yells and screams that they have to be tough. He doesn't just talk about "nasty" and "pound it" and other cliches about toughness. It's because they PRACTICE this stuff. They work on drills specifically designed to make them tougher, and they do it throughout the year. I've heard that Izzo has MULTIPLE practices where they don't even touch a basketball. How many of our readers think Mike Brey has ever held a "war drill" at Notre Dame?? I would be willing to bet anyone here that we've never done that type of drill. We probably have 3 point contests and free throw shooting drills. That's Notre Dame basketball, and that's why we're in the NIT instead of playing to go to the Final Four.
Interesting note about Izzo's recruiting. Most of their guys are from Michigan, but they have three key guys from Ohio. Raymar Morgan, Delvon Roe, and Travis Walton. Wonder if Thad Matta would like to have those guys instead of BJ Mullens and Kosta Koufos these days.
Anyway, with the Final Four in Detroit, doesn't Michigan State have a pretty darn good shot to cut down the nets and win this thing?? I'm expecting a HUGE Sparty contingent, so it could be like a borderline home game for them. I don't know, Izzo just seems to love his team this year, and you KNOW he is going to have something drummed up for UConn and Thabeet. It's probably not going to happen, but I'd love to see it. Izzo is the most underrated legendary coach of all time, and he is first class all the way. I'd love to see him get a second ring.
9) I had a chance to attend the Midwest Regional on Friday night, so I figured I'd throw out some thoughts on the experience.
Gus Johnson - The ticket lottery gods smiled on us in a big way for this thing because we somehow ended up in the very front row behind one of the baskets and right near the press row for Friday night's games. Anyway, we had a great time spotting various notable figures in the basketball world walking around all night (Danny Manning, Peter Edward Gillen, Len Elmore, Will Purdue, etc), but no one quite got the crowd going like Mr. Gus Johnson. As he walked by us to head to the bathroom, there were a good thirty people chanting his name. He actually seemed happy to get the acknowledgment. Probably the best part of the Gus Johnson experience was that he was rocking some old school Air Jordans underneath his CBS Sports suit. What a special human!! What other sports announcer would be sporting Air Jordans with his suit?? Pretty sure Nantz hasn't worn anything but penny loafers in 25 years at CBS. Seems like the cult of Gus Johnson continues to grow.
Louisville band - The Louisville band was probably the worst of the four bands, but they did do one thing that was spectacular. As the Cards came out of the locker room to start the game, they jumped into the fight song at full throttle. And then they just went silent. We looked over and there was Richard Pitino slowly walking into the arena as the Louisville band started playing the theme music to "The Godfather." Are you kidding me?? How great is that?? Pitino walking out to the floor looking as sharp as ever with The Godfather music humming in the background. We were sitting next to a couple from Arizona, and they just about went ghost white when they heard the music. You wouldn't think it was intimidating, but it was one of the more chilling and intimidating intros I've ever heard at a sporting event.
Kansas band and the Jayhawk Nation - I admittedly do not know a ton about Kansas basketball other than the basic stuff, so I was interested to see what their collective fanbase was like during a game. WOW. What a great fanbase they have. Kansas was not exactly a close drive to Indy (about 8 hours from what I had heard), but they were out in full force on Friday night. Our seats ended up being right behind the Kansas band, and they were easily the best band of the night. Just rocking all night with KU songs and other random pop songs. Dr. Kenneth Dye might have a rival if he wants ND to remain as the current reigning "TBDITL." That band director at KU was a feisty chap with some serious 'tude. I think he might be on my shortlist for replacements when Dr. Kenneth Dye hangs up his conductor's stick someday.
After the game, I figured we'd be running into about a million Louisville and MSU fans celebrating their victories, so I was blown away when the KU fans showed up en masse after the game. Maybe they were just pissed about the game and wanted to blow off some steam, or maybe they just like having a good time. Either way, we closed down the bar with some great KU fans. Great fanbase.
Indianapolis - To be perfectly honest, I've always been a little jealous of the city of Indianapolis. As someone who grew up in Cincy and watched in envy as Indy hosted Final Fours and other big college events even though the two cities are comparable in size, I always wondered how Indy got to host all these big time events. What was so great about Indy?? It's a Midwestern city in the middle of farm country with bad weather and no real glamour. And yet they have Final Fours every five years, and always seem to be hosting something big with the NCAA.
Well, now that I've been to Indy four or five times for basketball games in the last five years or so, I can understand why they get these events on a regular basis. Indy is a fun city. Everything is centrally located downtown, the venues are really nice and brand new, there are good hotels that are close to the action, there are plenty of bars and restaurants to go drink some beers, it's inexpensive, and the people in Indy are nice. Isn't that pretty much what you want if you are going to a city for an NCAA Tournament event?? I'll put it this way. I'd much rather go to a regional in Indy than a city like Glendale, Arizona where you have to drive everywhere to do anything. There are cities that are more fun to visit than Indianapolis, but it serves its purpose for these types of events.
The Louisville Nation - MY GOD. I have always known that Louisville had a passionate fanbase that lived for their Cards, and UL routinely would bring a couple thousand people up to Cincinnati to pack the Shoemaker Center when UL and UC got together. I know a handful of Louisville fans, and they are diehards.
But I did not expect to see 20,000 Louisville fans in the dome on Friday night or whatever it was that they brought up to Indy. That is awfully impressive. I know it's only two hours away, but that is some serious support for a college basketball game. And I hear that they had close to 30,000 fans for the Sunday game. I honestly did not know that they would have enough support to bring those types of numbers. Louisville has a very regional fanbase. It's pretty much confined to the city of Louisville. I knew they would bring people, but I didn't quite expect them to take over the city. Pretty impressive.
Kentucky is probably the best fanbase for travel purposes in the country, but I think Louisville has to be right up there in the top 10 if not higher.
Player families - We were about twenty feet from all the player families at Kansas. High comedy!! There were about 20 Aldriches there in all their hillbilly glory, and then you have Tyshawn Taylor's family sitting right behind them rocking some "street attire." I can't even imagine those two families interacting.
One thing I was curious about. Does Kansas pick up the tab for travel for some of these player families, or are they on their own?? Call me a racist or whatever, but I wonder how Tyshawn Taylor's family traveled to see him play all year.
It would be crazy to be a college basketball coach. When you watch the families react to things happening on the court, it felt like high school all over again. These coaches probably spend a surprisingly large amount of their day talking to moms and dads during the season wondering why their kid isn't getting minutes or touches or whatever. You would think that stuff ends once they get to college, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's actually worse.
NCAA alcohol policy - On the surface, maybe this isn't that big of a deal. So you can't drink at the NCAA Tournament games. Big whoop. You can't drink at a lot of college games. That's what tailgating is for. I understand all that.
But the thing about the NCAA Tournament is that it's a LOOOOOOOOOOOONG event. Between the two games and a half hour break, it's a five hour event.
Here's how this thing shook out on Friday evening:
6-7pm - crowd is jacked; mostly Louisville fans who had been partying for several hours before the game; loud crowd, very energetic, most people have definitely had a few adult beverages and are feeling pretty exuberant 7pm-9pm - LVille-Zona game - people are still in good spirits; crowd is still excited to see the basketball; alcohol is wearing off a bit, but people are into the games 9pm -10pm - game ends; LVille fans start to hit the exits and the MSU and KU fans start to get amped up; crowd is still feeling pretty good, and the casual fans are hoping for a good game 10-11 - KU and MSU fans are going toe to toe and bringing their A games for the first half, but a lot of the other fans are sort of getting worn out 11pm-11:30pm - right about at the 15 or so minute mark of the second half, the crowd just died, including the KU and MSU fans; there were multiple stretches where you could literally hear individual fans talking or yelling things; people are getting antsy and tired and ready for a beer or at least a change of venue; casual fans are either hitting the exits or trying their best to stay interested; 75% of the people are in stage two of a hangover after not having touched a drink for about 5 hours 11:30pm-12:15pm - crowd picks back up for an exciting finish, but everyone is ready to go to a bar or go home by that point; after five hours, most people are saying that they had a great time but might be a little burnt out on basketball
The thing about the NCAA Tournament is that it's a really really long evening of hoops. Why not serve beer?? If anything, it might give your crowd a second life during that second game. If everyone is out partying before that first game, they're going to be dead by the middle of game two. A high percentage of people who attend these games are from out of town, so of course they are going to be looking to party it up a little before the games. Your typical NCAA Tournament attenders are not locals who are driving in from the suburbs after work. Why not let these out of towners keep the good times rolling during the games??
Lucas Oil Stadium/dome stadiums - I've been to the Lucas Oil Stadium once before for the ND-Ohio State hoops game in December, and it's a spectacular facility. Everything is really nice, the concourses are amazing, and I don't think I've ever waited for even one second to use the bathroom. I'm in awe of the size of the place, and can't even imagine how much money it cost to build it.
I'm actually not even anti-dome. If anything, I think it's a great idea for a city to build a dome. I've long come to terms with the fact that the Final Four has to be played in a dome to maximize ticket sales. Why play these games in an 18,000 seat arena when you can sell 65,000 seats in a dome?? It makes complete sense to hold Final Four in a dome.
But a regional?? I don't think it works to be perfectly honest. There is simply no way to fill up a 65,000 seat stadium for a regional, and it makes the stadium look empty if it is not filled all the way. Case in point, there were 35,000 people in Indy on Friday night. 35,000!! And the place looked dead when you looked around. There were huge gaps of empty seats throughout the dome. The dome also sucks the noise out of the building with the high ceiling. I don't know how 35,000 jacked up hoops fans can produce that little noise, so it had to be the building.
Now contrast that with the regional in Boston. There were 18,000 people there for the Nova-Pitt game. That's HALF the number of people who attended the Indy event. And yet that place was buzzing all night and went to another level during the second half. It all comes down to the arena in my opinion. If you put 20,000 of the fans at the Indy event into Conseco Fieldhouse or Assembly Hall in Bloomington, it would have been nuts. In the dome, it was a lifeless crowd.
The Pac 10 - Think about this for a second. If you had to pick teams that you WOULDN'T want to see in your regional, wouldn't just about every team be from the Pac 10?? Is there even one good fanbase in the Pac 10 that actually travels well??
I saw maybe ten Arizona fans in Indy. I know it's not a close location, but come on Zona. I thought you were supposed to be a big time college basketball program. You've been to 25 NCAA Tournaments in a row and multiple Final Fours. Where were your fans?? Does anyone think IU or Purdue or Kentucky wouldn't send a bunch of fans to Phoenix to a regional out there??
And the Pac 10 wonders why they don't get any respect. If they don't care about their programs, why should we??
8) Some other thoughts on the Final Four/Elite Eight teams.
Villanova - Speaking of teams and coaches I love.....
Well, we finally got our memorable game for this tournament. Man, that Pitt-Nova game was phenomenal. Should have known it would be special with Verne Lundquist involved!! While I don't want to rile up the NBA people out there, it is games like Nova-Pitt that remind me of why college basketball is the best. There is no way for the NBA to replicate a do-or-die format like that where every shot could mean the end of your college career.
I thought Pitt played a great game on Saturday night. Pitt is one of those teams that you need to watch multiple times in a row to start to appreciate. After watching them against Xavier and then watching them again two days later against Nova, you start to notice things about Pitt that make you appreciate how they play. Their out of bounds plays, their defense, their rebounding, their bench, the way they pass, etc. Everyone on that Pitt team seems to have a complete understanding of their role. Everything starts with that defense and the boards. I was rooting for Nova, but I felt bad for Pitt. So close to the Final Four, and now they are rebuilding next year.
As for Nova, I'm excited to see how they match up with North Carolina. EVERYONE is going to be writing them off in this game, but I actually think UNC is a decent matchup for Nova. As talented as UNC is, Villanova is every bit as quick as North Carolina. And they are probably the most physical team that UNC will play all year. If Fisher and Reynolds and company can get in Lawson's face and make him know right from the tip that they are going to be in his grill all night, I think they can throw off UNC. Heck, they very nearly beat Carolina in 2005 with Foye and Lowry and Ray.
Scottie Reynolds. What a shot. If he is back at Nova next year, look out. They could be headed to back to back Final Fours. Then again, he seems like a pretty good guy, so it would be nice to see him play himself into the first round this year.
Connecticut - Man, UConn got genuinely lucky to get by Missouri. There were multiple times when I thought they were going down in that game, but they pulled it out.
Even though they struggled, I still have UConn as the team to beat going into the Final Four. When they are at their best, they have the ingredients that you need to win a national title. They have an elite lead guard (Price), a dominant low post scorer (Adrien), an intimidating defender in the middle (Thabeet), a dynamic forward (Robinson), and 2-3 really solid role players (Walker, Austrie, Edwards) who bring something to the table. Plus, Jim Calhoun.
I've watched all these teams, and I still think UConn has the best overall talent. Physically, they are the most impressive team. Thabeet is a lottery pick, Adrien has an NBA body, Price is an NBA player, Robinson has NBA athleticism, and even Walker is a really explosive player. I just don't see any other team with that level of talent. UConn can win games with their offense and their defense. They can run up and the down the court, but they are just as capable of bogging down and getting good looks in the halfcourt game. Price can drive and score, Adrien does his work down low and at the free throw line, Thabeet gets buckets in close, and now they have Robinson to fly in from the wing. It's not always pretty, but they have so many weapons.
Michigan State is going to be awfully tough to beat for UConn, but the Huskies SHOULD win that game. They have better players at every position, and they can play the halfcourt game unlike Louisville.
North Carolina - Carolina plays such a "pretty" game, so it's awfully hard not to be impressed with them year in and year out. When Lawson is cruising up and down the court and dropping dimes all over the place, they give off a vibe like they are unstoppable. Plus, everyone on Carolina is so highly-skilled. Even that guy Ed Davis is an incredible talent off the bench. Roy Williams is pretty much the perfect coach for North Carolina with his preference for an uptempo offense. If you were a talented player, why would you not want to play in that offense?? It seems like he is pretty much on autopilot these days to take UNC to at least the Final Four.
But isn't North Carolina sort of like Oklahoma in football?? As great as OU is year in and year out on offense under Stoops, the only thing that matters is how they look in a title game against a great defensive team. OU can score 60+ a game every week in the Big 12, but I don't really buy it until I see them against a defense like Florida or USC. And for the most part, they have come up small against those great defenses once they get into the title game. That's sort of how I feel about North Carolina. They have enough talent to run roughshod over teams like Gonzaga and Oklahoma, but how are they going to fare when they get smacked in the mouth by teams like Villanova and Connecticut?? When guys like Fisher and Reynolds get into Lawson and Ellington's face, how are they going to respond?? Wasn't everyone trying to hand the national title to UNC last year before the Final Four and then they got popped by Kansas??
As for a UNC-UConn matchup, I look at those matchups and like how things shape up for UConn. Thabeet is capable of owning the paint, and I think UConn's guards/wings are every bit as good as UNC's guys.
Missouri - Couldn't have been more impressed with Missouri on Saturday. It's a shame that a lot of their best players are seniors. I'd love to see those guys back next year for another run at the Final Four. Mike Anderson is an outstanding coach. He used to beat Huggins regularly in his UAB days, and now he's really got something going at Mizzou. Mizzou is lucky to have him, and they play an exciting style of ball.
7) Some thoughts on the players who impressed me and didn't impress me this weekend.
Hasheem Thabeet - Wanted to start with some thoughts on Hasheem Thabeet. While I do understand what he brings to the table, I cannot get on board with him as the #2 overall pick. I know he's a project, but how many of these huge projects actually turn into superstars?? Don't you need to have some level of basketball skill?? I could get behind the idea of Thabeet if he was a highly-skilled and athletic big man who just didn't have enough experience or strength, but that's not how I view Thabeet at all.
Look at Thabeet's game as we stand today:
TERRIBLE hands - One of the most important things you want to see out of any big man is that the guy has good hands and reflexes in the paint. Thabeet cannot catch the ball!! Price will drive to the bucket and dump it to Thabeet, and he'll fumble the pass before collecting it. He can sort of get away with it in college, but there's no way he can drop passes right under the bucket and get away with it in the NBA. My feeling on hands is that you either have good hands or you don't. Thabeet has bad hands. Maybe they'll get a little better, but it's never going to be a strength for him. He'll certainly never have hands like Blake Griffin.
Bad instincts - The other thing for Thabeet offensively is that he has almost zero offensive skills or instincts. How many times does he grab a rebound two feet from the basket and try to put it on the floor?? Why would you do that?? You're 7'3"!!! Catch the ball and go up with it. Thabeet has no offensive moves either. He's been at UConn for 3 years. How does he not have any real moves??
Relies too much on the shotblock - For all the fuss about Thabeet as a defender (some of the praise is obviously deserved), how many times have we seen him unnecessarily go for the block and then leave the weak side wide open for someone to sneak in and steal an offensive rebound?? It seems like UConn gives up a ton of cheap putbacks simply because Thabeet wasn't there to block out and clean the glass. And Thabeet seems to pick bad times to take a chance on a block when all he really should be doing is staying home and grabbing the board.
I don't know, Thabeet does have an intimidation effect on teams (Missouri was a little spooked by him), but he's still fairly raw even on defense.
So what is his ceiling as a pro?? Dikembe Mutumbo?? Dalembert?? Couldn't he easily turn out to be Desagna Diop?? If so, is that really worth the #2 pick in the draft?? If he turns out to be Mutombo, I would say yes. But I don't think he's a lock to get to that level by any stretch. Thabeet will get better of course and probably can stay in the NBA a long time with his size and athletic ability, but you think of a #2 pick as a guy who can be a big time difference maker. I don't think of Thabeet at that level.
Jordan Hill - Ok, maybe he won't be a huge bust, but a top 5 pick?? My god, how weak is this draft?? Is this the weakest draft of all time?? I watched this guy intently in Indy, and there's nothing all that special about him. I thought he got outplayed badly by Samardo Samuels.
Plus, he's a junior. For some reason, I thought he was only a freshman, and now I'm seeing that he's actually a junior. For a junior, he's really not all that polished.
The guy that came to mind for me is Anderson Varejao. He seems like he can be an energy guy who does things around the bucket, but not a go-to-guy. I like Varejao, but is that the guy I want if I have a top 5 pick?? Not going to lie, I'd hope to get more than that out of that pick.
Chase Budinger - I think Budinger can be a good value pick somewhere in the middle of the first round. Even though his team was getting killed, I thought he was the best all-around player on the floor in that Zona-Louisville game. Budinger has steadily gotten better and better, and now he's got a really solid all-around game. He's a good shooter, good rebounder for a guard, good ballhandler, and it seems like he plays really hard. Arizona didn't show up to play at all, but Budinger was at least out there scrapping and going hard.
If he was a European guy, he'd be going in the top 6-7 picks. I'm not crazy about white NBA big men, but there are a lot of good European wings and shooting guards out there who give you energy and good offensive production. That's how I view Budinger.
Dejuan Blair - Dejuan Blair is a MANCHILD. That was an awesome performance by him on Saturday night. There were stretches of the game where Villanova would have 2 and even 3 guys on him, and he'd still get the ball. When you have that superhuman strength, there's a place for you to succeed in the NBA.
Even though Blair is only 6'6", it seems like a lot of these undersized power forwards are finding a place in the NBA if you work at it and stay in great shape. Jason Maxiell is about 6'5", but he has settled into a nice career up in Detroit. Blair has to take care of his body, but I think he can be successful. He has a 7'3" wingspan and great hands. Plus, Dejuan Blair is a warrior. That type of attitude will carry over into the pros. He's not a star, but I'd take him on my roster.
Sam Young - Another guy who I really like. Sort of this year's CDR. How can you not like what he brings to the table?? He can score, he defends, he rebounds, he's a team player, and he's a winner. When I watch Sam Young, I think of that dude Aaron McKie who used to play for Temple. Is there any reason why he can't be in an 8 man rotation somewhere in the league as early as next year??
There's only one thing about Sam Young that concerns me. He's 23!! By the time the NBA Draft rolls around, he'll be 24. No wonder he's so good. Plus, the guy looks like he's 30. If you draft Sam Young, you get a guy who has already physically matured into his body. He basically has no upside. Did he even attend school this year or was he just a basketball player?? How could he possibly still have classes?? It seems like he has been at Pitt for about 10 years, and his age confirms that. Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich - Kansas has struck gold with these two guys, and they are the perfect guys to have in college. They're not quite good enough to be real threats to go to the NBA, but they're both great players for college. Isn't that exactly what you shoot for in college?? You don't want a bunch of one and dones, but you want guys who at least have the ability to someday be considered NBA players.
Bill Self seems to have a great knack for identifying those guys. They really haven't had any one and dones that I can think of, but he always seems to have a lot of 3-4 year guys that will eventually get drafted in the NBA.
After watching Cole Aldrich in person, I am starting to understand why NBA GMs talk themselves into big white guys. On the surface, he's just a big white lug who instantly sends out signals that he's a future stiff in the NBA someday. But if you watch him closely in person, he does all these little things that probably tug at the hearstrings of some old school scout!! Aldrich throws some of the best outlet passes you will ever see. He gets the ball off the glass and is immediately firing off a two-handed overhead pass to one of the guards at halfcourt. It was amazing to watch. He's also a great defender who really seems to understand positioning, and he finishes well around the basket. I could see some scout falling in love with all those things, and that's how a guy like Aldrich ends up going in the top 10 someday. But then you take a step back and remember that he's a 6'10" white guy!! Those guys never pan out in the NBA, but his outstanding play against Michigan State temporarily made me forget that he's slow and white. Either way, he's a great college big man.
Collins is also sweet. I remember him being a contributor from last year's team, but I hadn't realized how good he has become.
Just throwing this out there now. If both those guys are back next year, Kansas is probably my preseason pick to cut down the nets next year. I can't think of any other team off the top of my head that returns two better players than Aldrich and Collins. They also seem to have a bunch of athletic wing guys in Morris and Taylor who are only going to get better as they get older. I was really impressed with Kansas, and they play really hard. I still don't know how they didn't win that Michigan State game. They controlled the game for about 55 minutes, and then Sparty just clamped down and surged past them.
6) Another great blurb I read in the Indy newspaper. I always love to read about rising young stars in the college basketball coaching world, and it appears that there might be a rising star on the Louisville staff right now: RICHARD PITINO, JR!! I love it! Pitino's son. Rick Sr. has been saying to anyone who will listen that RPJ is the best young recruiter in America right now, and there are already rumors that RPJ is about to get a head job at Boston University. He's only 26 years old and graduated from Providence. Plus, he's basically a clone of Rick Sr with the slicked back hair and snazzy suits.
If you were the athletic director at Boston University, why would you NOT hire Richard Pitino Jr?? BLOODLINES!!! BLOODLINES!! BLOODLINES!! Anyone who learned at the knee (literally) of a living legend like Rick Pitino should be a no-brainer, and he's already gotten a crash course on what it takes to recruit on the east coast.
And I'll say this as well. If Richard Pitino Jr ends up going to a place like Boston University and takes them to the NCAA Tournament or something like that, he would immediately move into my very short list for the next head coach at Notre Dame. And I bet if ND came calling, he'd be listening. The whole Pitino family loves ND, and I think Rick Sr. would really encourage his son to take a look at ND if it ever came to that point.
Tell me you wouldn't get weak at the knees to see a young Richard Pitino Jr. pacing that sideline in South Bend in those Italian suits with the hair slicked back in about 5-6 years and bringing in tough NYC kids who can go to the rack and D up. I'm giddy just thinking about it.
5) Tiger - Tiger Woods is not human. Unreal. The man does not miss putts when he needs them to drop. Even if he never wins another major, he's already the greatest putter of all time.
4) Lebron - Speaking of great ones, Lebron James showed up at his high school's state championship game in Columbus on Saturday and sat behind the bench. I guess it was St. Vincent/St. Mary's first appearance in the Division II title game since he had graduated, so he drove down for the game. SVSM won, and Lebron was celebrating with the team after the game. And the best part is that he wore his high school letter jacket!! That is awesome. I love Lebron. How cool would that be to play in your high school title game with Lebron sitting right there cheering and going crazy??
Great 60 Minutes feature of him as well. After watching that, I'm going on record as saying that Lebron is retiring as a Cleveland Cavalier. I couldn't make up my mind on whether he was leaving, but he's just not that kind of guy. Lebron knows how much he means to everyone in northeast Ohio, and his friends from Akron are basically running his company. I can't see him leaving Cleveland.
3) ND in the NIT - I don't want to belittle our fanbase for getting into the NIT run, but come on. Can people just stop with the "an NIT title would be as good as a Sweet 16 run" talk?? That's laughable. In my eyes, we could win ten NIT titles, and it wouldn't match up with one NCAA tournament appearance even if we got blown out in the first round. Just making the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team is an accomplishment in an itself. If you make the NCAAs, you've had a good season. And if you go to the Sweet 16, you've had a GREAT season. Playing in the NIT means you've already had a disappointing year no matter what you do in the event. The NIT is a glorified exhibition event. Half the teams in the field could care less. Can anyone say that about the NCAA Tournament??
Winning the NIT is better than going out in the first round of the NIT, but it's the equivalent of a baseball team that is 20 games out of first place on September 1 that goes 20-10 in September and "only" finishes 12 games out. The strong finish is nice, but it's nothing more than a nice finish to a bad year.
The only way I could ever get interested in the NIT would be if ND had a really young team that struggled for most of the year but really came on strong at the end of the year and made a deep run into the NIT. That's the type of run that can give you a ton of momentum heading into the following year. But this ND team has 6 juniors and seniors on the roster and was ranked in the top 10. Playing in the NIT is not some building block. This team should have made the NCAA Tournament, and I can't get into an NIT appearance for a veteran team.
2) The Kentucky job - While I think there are legitimate questions about Calipari and whether Kentucky has sold their souls to the devil by going after this guy, I think it's a home run hire by Kentucky. John Calipari was probably the one guy out there who is an absolute lock to return Kentucky back to national prominence.
Kentucky NEEDED to make this hire. The only comparable situation that I can think of was the Saban hire at Alabama. Bama was becoming a dying football program, and they were probably one or two bad hires away from getting completely passed up by the other SEC schools. They NEEDED to hit that home run when they fired Mike Shula, and they made it happen with Saban. Now, Bama is back and probably going to be a superpower for the next decade. No matter what you say about Saban being a mercenary, the bottom line is that he wins games and recruits like crazy.
That was pretty much what Kentucky needed to do as well. They were in some danger of becoming a regional school that couldn't recruit at a national level. With Pitino already in state in Louisville and the perception out there that SEC basketball is an inferior product, Kentucky was reaching the point where they really needed to get a home run A lister to put them back on the map. The elite guys were signing with Duke and Kansas and North Carolina but not really looking at Kentucky. Guys like John Wall were looking at Memphis instead of Kentucky. They needed to change that before that perception got worse.
Calipari changes all that. Maybe he's shady with this Worldwide Wes guy locking up his talent through suspicious methods, but I think that is probably overblown. At the end of the day, these guys are coming to play for Calipari because he wins games and gets them to the NBA. Calipari is going to sell the school and go after the best players. With a guy like Calipari in the fold, UK is probably going to be able to compete with the Kansas' and UNC's and Duke's and Louisville's of the world. They consistently have lost to those teams in OOC games under Gillespie and Tubby Smith in the last 5-6 years. That could all change with Calipari.
Lexington is a classy town and not particularly flashy, but I think UK fans like the basketball program to be flashy and glamorous. They want a coach who recruits Burger Boys and plays up tempo and wears fancy suits. Even though Tom Izzo is a better coach than Calipari and also a better guy who appeals to their types of values, I bet most UK fans would prefer Calipari to Izzo. Maybe it's the horse racing culture in Lexington that attracts them to flashier guys like Calipari. If you asked me, I'd take Izzo. I can't possibly think of a better representative for your school than Tom Izzo, and he's probably the finest game prep coach in the country. But UK fans seem to want to relive the Pitino days, and they have zeroed in on Calipari as the guy to bring back their swagger.
Sounds like Calipari might bring all those stud recruits from Memphis with him. Wall, Cousins, and Henry were the Rivals #1-3 players in America. If you add those three to Patterson and Meeks and the recruits that Gillespie had signed, they could be a top 5 team as soon as next year. Who else would have that much talent?? There would be like 5-6 NBA players on that roster.
As for Calipari, I think it's a great move for him as well. Even though he's had a ton of success at Memphis, isn't it tainted by the fact that he's done it at Memphis?? Who cares if he beat Southern Miss? If he ever wants to be considered one of the all-time great coaches, he needs to get it done at a BCS school. I think he needed to make a move out of Memphis at some point, and what better place to do it than Kentucky.
By the way, I've heard a lot of people saying that Calipari shouldn't take the Kentucky job because "the fans are nuts." If that is the perception out there nationally, it couldn't be more wrong. Kentucky fans aren't crazy. They just demand excellence. Believe me, when Pitino was the head coach at Kentucky, no one complained about him when he lost. Pitino was a god in the entire state of Kentucky when he was at UK. Kentucky fans will worship you if you win big and recruit big. Kentucky fans never embraced Tubby because he never recruited at an elite level. Fans got tired of him signing a bunch of 2 and 3 star players while UNC and Duke signed all the elite players. He hurt the overall perception of the program, and fans got tired of it. They weren't being unrealistic. They just didn't think Tubby was performing up to the level of expectation that comes with the Kentucky job and thought someone else out there could do better. I'm fine with that, and it turns out that they were right. If Tubby was still at UK these days, he would have struggled just as much as Gillespie did.
Now they have Calipari, and I think Kentucky will return to prominence in the very near future. I hope it happens.
1) WEISND power poll
Only four teams left, so here's how I see them as we head into the Final Four weekend:
4) Villanova 3) Michigan State 2) North Carolina 1) Connecticut
All right, time for some Final Four picks as we head into the round of 16.
Midwest Regional (Friday and Sunday - Indianapolis)
I know that Louisville has been the shakiest of the #1 seeds. Should a championship contender really be struggling against the likes of Siena? And I know that there are questions out there about who is going to score for them when push comes to shove. I think since the Big East Tournament though, Terrence Williams has proven to be that guy. He is pulling a Kirby Puckett with this team, as everyone else is just jumping on his back while he makes play after play. He singlehandedly won that game against Siena. Pitino has strapped Sosa to the bench, and Samuels and Clark are making just enough plays to keep the Cardinals advancing. Louisville marches on to the Final Four.
Although I do not believe that Louisville is the best team this year, they appear to be a team of destiny. After all, the Cardinals were fortunate enough to avoid having to play the top television schedule in the Big East, which created an easier path to a regular season crown. Thereafter, Louisville was the beneficiary of a very manageable route to a Big East Tournament championship, particularly considering that Syracuse had nothing left in the tank by Saturday. Most recently, the Cardinals played a Siena team coming off a tough overtime battle against Ohio State and now Rick Pitino’s troops are rewarded with the relatively simple task of dispatching Arizona to reach the Elite Eight. Either Kansas, which was especially impressive against Dayton, or Michigan State could beat UL, but the Cards should be mentally fresh and, of course, well prepared by their head coach.
Doug: Michigan State
I'm headed to Indianpolis on Friday and Sunday for this regional. Looking forward to it. I've only been to two NCAA tournament sessions (Cleveland in 2005 and Greeneville, South Carolina in 2002) and enjoyed the heck out of both experiences. I'm expecting a great crowd in Indy. Three GREAT fanbases between Louisville fans, Kansas fans, and Michigan State fans. I really couldn't ask for any better. Hope they are in the mood to party it up a bit in Indy after the games on Friday night.
I'm actually mad at myself for falling into the Louisville trap before the tournament started because I have had it in my plans all year to take Michigan State as one of my Final Four teams. I've been solidly in the corner of Sparty all year. It's just a classic Tom Izzo team. They have a lot of good veterans, they grind and grind, clean up the boards, knock down big shots when they need them, they are impeccably coached, and they are probably the best team in the country at taking away what you do well. Michigan State completely took Tajh Gibson out of the game on Saturday. That's the only reason they won that game, but that's what they do. I actually thought Michigan State had the most impressive win of the weekend. USC is GOOD. They probably could have beaten at least half the teams in the Sweet 16. Michigan State just gets it done. If you are filling out a bracket and pick Michigan State to lose before the Sweet 16, just rip up your sheet.
And yet I talked myself into Louisville out of this region after watching them blow by Nova and the Cuse on back to back nights in Vegas. I got caught up in their athleticism and Pitino and how impressive they looked at Madison Square Garden. Louisville will play like garbage for 20 minutes and then blow you away for about 10 and completely make you forget about how poorly they looked in the first half. That's how it's easy to fall in love with Louisville even though I wasn't very high on them all year.
Anyway, now that Louisville has shown their true colors again, I'm bailing on them and reembracing Michigan State. Michigan State can play the halfcourt game, and Louisville can't. I actually would not be shocked to see Arizona knock off Louisville in the Sweet 16.
Michigan State isn't pretty, but they win. Sparty marches on to Detroit, which could be interesting considering that it would be a borderline home game for them in the Final Four. Has any team ever played that close to home in a Final Four game??
My only hedge on this Michigan State pick is that there's a chance that Louisville just coasted through the first two rounds and that they show up in Indy back on a mission with Pitino lighting a fire under them. Obviously that would not surprise me. When Louisville is at their best, they are as good or better than anyone.
East Regional (Thursday and Saturday - Boston)
Let me say that I think the winner of the Nova-Duke game is going to the Final Four. I just haven’t been that impressed with Pitt. Their guard play isn’t good enough to get it done. So let’s break down this Nova-Duke matchup. The way I see it, it comes down to Nova’s ability to guard Henderson. Duke doesn’t have a big guy (the pu-pu platter of Lance Thomas and Zoubek inspires fear in no one), so Cunningham will most likely guard Singler. Should be something to watch. Does Nova put their best defender, the undersized Reggie Redding, on Henderson? Or go with someone like Dwayne Anderson? Jay Wright is going to earn his money matching wits with K for this one.
Villanova is probably my favorite team to watch this year. I can’t even believe there is a debate going on on NDNation regarding the comparison of Brey and Wright. Come on people. Jay Wright has taken Nova to four out of five Sweet Sixteen’s! End of discussion.
How great is it to see the dominance of the Big East. They play a different brand of basketball than everyone in the country. Did anyone see that Villanova-UCLA game? The Bruins were TOTALLY unprepared for the physicality that Nova gave them. Collison was whining to the refs and the press afterwards. They just don’t play that way in the PAC 10. Even further reason that Notre Dame is a fish out of water with their style of play. The next sign of physicality or defense I see out of the Irish will be the first in a long time with Brey roaming the sideline.
Sorry for the soapbox moment, but has the Duke vitriol become unbearable or is it just me? I’ve never had any strong feelings about Duke, either positive or negative, and I understand that fans tend to dislike the traditional powers, but I am not really sure why so many people harbor such overwhelming contempt for the Blue Devils. Perhaps Coach K is a bit self righteous, but he runs his program the right way: he recruits good citizens who work hard, attend real classes and stay out of trouble. Would you rather see a program like Duke get rewarded or would you rather have the spoils go to those coaches who flout the rules and bring in a bunch of illiterate criminals? I’ll go with the former.
All four of these teams in the East Region have flaws, so this bracket was probably the one I had the most trouble with. I came down to Duke and Villanova, and I'm sticking with Nova here even though I'm wavering a little on it.
I've been stuck all year in the "Duke has a flawed roster with too many white guys" mindset that I can't get rid of, but the reality is that Duke is good this year! Henderson is a lottery pick, and Singler and Scheyer are very good college players. The days of Greg Paulus slapping the floor and playing 35 minutes while his man blows by him are in the rearview mirror for this year. They had their little rough patch, but it seems like they have turned the corner.
In retrospect, Duke has been pretty legit all year. They blew out Purdue and Xavier in OOC play. I definitely would not be surprised if they end up in the Final Four.
I'm going with Villanova though. For some reason, I just like their matchups. Duke has a lot of really good wings, and Nova is going to counter them with bullet quick and tough guards. I like that matchup for Nova. I think guys like Fisher and Reynolds can get to the bucket on those Duke wings. And they have Cunningham down low.
Should be a great game. Probably the game I'm most looking forward to in the Sweet 16 matchups. Both teams are really evenly matched. There's some serious conference bragging righs on the line. If Nova knocks off Duke, I think it sends a strong message that the Big East is far and away the best conference in America these days.
I really don't have a ton of thoughts on that Xavier-Pitt game. Xavier has been getting it done, but they are still a year away. Pitt hasn't shown me enough to think they are a title contender.
South Region (Friday and Sunday - Memphis)
Dan: North Carolina
UNC was a totally different team when Lawson was dominating in the 2nd half against LSU. That game was really close in the 1st half and Lawson was a total non-factor. But in the 2nd half, UNC just took it to another level that no other team in the country can do. Ellington is playing out of his mind (and making himself a lot of money come Draft time), Hansbrough is doing his same routine of flailing on every shot and getting to the foul line, and Ed Davis has stepped up along with Deon Thompson.
The game that I’m most looking forward to is UNC-Syracuse. The ‘Cuse has totally raised their game to another level. Devendara has become as clutch as any player in the country. Rautins is draining every open look he gets. And Jonny Flynn is playing the point guard position as well as it’s been played in the postseason in recent memory. A UNC – Syracuse game would be epic.
Mike: North Carolina
Assuming that Ty Lawson can pick up where he left off against LSU, there is no team in this bracket that can hang with the Tar Heels. Although I expect Syracuse to defeat Oklahoma in the Sweet 16 (perhaps even handily), Carolina will be too much to handle. As an aside, it will be interesting to see whether Jonny Flynn decides to return to SU for his junior season. If Syracuse somehow manages to make the Final Four, I believe that Flynn will bolt. Either way, after witnessing the saga of Chris Thomas, I would not blame Flynn for turning pro if he believes that he will be a top 20 pick. Moreover, Flynn hails from Niagara Falls, which is a very depressed town, and it would serve his financial interests to strike while the iron is hot.
This bracket is LOADED. My god, you have UNC with NBA players all over the roster, an OU team with the #1 pick in the draft, a Syracuse team that is loaded with talent, and a Gonzaga team that has multiple NBA players. For the NBA junkies out there who just watch the NCAA Tournament to look at future stars, this bracket is for you. If you are a tournament promoter in the Memphis area, it's a dream group.
What if Memphis had been the #1 team in America this year?? Would they have played a regional semifinal and final in Memphis?? I think that would have been completely bogus. In fact, I'm not a huge fan of these "pod" regions in general. I understand the argument that the best teams deserve a break for great regular seasons, but aren't they already getting a break by getting a good seed?? Why do you get a virtual home court as well?? I think it's bogus that UNC and Duke get two borderline home games every year in the NCAA Tournament, and the home cooking for Villanova was ridiculous. The Villanova-UCLA and Villanova-American games should not have even read as "UCLA vs. Villanova" or "American vs. Villanova." It would have been more appropriate to substitute "vs" with "at" there. It's the NCAA Tournament. These games should be somewhat neutral. I definitely think that has contributed to the lack of upsets in the first two rounds in recent years. Then again, maybe it's better that there are fewer upsets. Fewer upsets means better games in the Sweet 16. For the record, I realize that ticket sales are also a huge factor here, so the pod regions are probably not going away anytime soon.
Gotta go with the Cuse here. I think this Oklahoma game is a great matchup for Syracuse. They are going to zone up on OU and have some sort of game plan to limit Griffin's touches. Say what you want about Boeheim, but he's one of those coaches who just gets on a roll at times. He'll have something drawn up for OU, and they have enough big bodies to frustrate Blake Griffin. The guards are a complete mismatch for the Cuse.
Seems like everyone is back on the UNC bandwagon, but we'll see. I think they still have issues. For all the fuss about UNC's talent, do they have the big men to beat Gonzaga?? Gonzaga has some serious size. Hansborough doesn't play any defense. I could see Gonzaga trying to take it to the Heels inside.
I'm going with the Cuse. When Boeheim gets the right type of team, he's not the type of coach I want to bet against in the NCAA Tournament. Flynn and Devendorf are red hot, and I gotta go with the hot team. My only hope is that the Cuse come out of the locker room singing "Cuse is in the house, OH MY GOD, OH MY GOD!"
West Region (Thursday and Saturday - Glendale)
UConn has gone from the pre-tournament ‘#1 seed most likely to lose early’ to ‘most dominant team in the tournament’. There is no denying that they are playing well, and as Doug pointed out, Stanley Robinson has elevated his game to another level. When Notre Dame played them in Storrs, Robinson almost singlehandedly delivered the game to ND with a combination of bad shots, turnovers and general lousy plays. Now, he is right there with Adrien and Price as key players.
But…I picked Memphis to win the tournament, and I see no reason to back of that now. Roburt (love the spelling!) Sallie has given them a whole ‘nother dimension. The guy has been absolutely unconscious. Evans has looked really good running the point, and Taggart and Dozier provide the muscle down low. Am I crazy to say that Taggart is a more complete player than Thabeet at this point? If I’m an NBA team, I wouldn’t draft Thabeet. The guy is a bust. He can’t score and disappears against most good competition.
I am obviously taking a flyer here, but I just sense that something is still missing for UConn. While the Huskies ran roughshod through their overmatched opponents in the first two rounds and A.J. Price appeared primed to make a run at M.O.P. of the tournament, there is a chance that they will be exposed with this week’s class jump. Meanwhile, Purdue is finally starting to exhibit the defensive tenacity and offensive balance that many envisioned for the Boilers at the start of the season. On the other side of the bracket, my head says “Memphis” but my heart screams “anyone but Memphis.” Regardless, both Purdue and UConn have the capability of locking down Memphis in a half-court game, which will be good enough to save this great sport from another Final Four turning into The Longest Yard: Basketball Edition.
Man, tough call here. I like all four of these teams a lot. I really wanted to get bold here and take Purdue. Purdue is a really good team this year with this JaJuan Johnson guy in the middle. He has changed them into a legitimate contender. If you took off the Purdue uniforms and put UConn uniforms on them, I think there would be a better perception of that team. I definitely think they can beat UConn if they play the way they've been playing lately. Big fan of Matt Painter. You can tell that he has his teams prepared to play. Their trend in March this year has been to jump ALL OVER teams. They'll be 10 minutes into the game and Purdue is up 19-8. They've been doing it throughout the Big Ten tournament and the NCAA Tournament.
I love this Memphis-Missouri game. Doug Gottlieb has been saying it's the best game of the weekend. If Gottlieb is saying that, I'm a believer. I have no idea who I think is going to win this one. Seems like Gottlieb is leaning toward Missouri, so I might have to take them here. Missouri can pretty much score points on anyone, and Mike Anderson has had success against Calipari.
Speaking of Calipari, I wanted to get in a couple thoughts on this Billy Gillespie thing at Kentucky. If Kentucky wants to get a head coach who is a LOCK to put them back on the map and back in the top 10 on the regular basis, go get Calipari. That's your guy. Go offer him $5-6 million a year and give him full control. Calipari is the safest bet of anyone out there, and he's probably the one guy who I could see wanting to take the next step to a place like Kentucky. Calipari is bringing the types of guys to Memphis (Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, etc) that Kentucky used to get under Pitino. Look at what Calipari is doing out on the recruiting trail right now. He has already recruited the #2 and #3 players on Rivals.com for 2009, and he's the frontrunner for the #1 player, John Wall. It's absurd! He's putting the rest of college basketball to shame. Those guys aren't even sniffing at Kentucky these days.
Those are the types of players that Kentucky needs to get to be relevant again. If you look at Kentucky's roster, it's not a whole lot different than the typical mediocre SEC roster. Kentucky's roster should look like Kansas and Syracuse and UNC and Duke. If you look at UK's players, they have Alabama/Georgia talent right now. Kentucky has some athletic guys, but where are the skilled players?? Where are the Antoine Walkers and the Tony Delks and the Ron Mercers and the Jamal Mashburns and Rajon Randos?? Those guys weren't just athletes. They had ability. Kentucky doesn't have the players right now. Part of that was Tubby, but Gillespie is not really cleaning up either out on the trail.
I thought Gillespie was a great hire when it happened. I didn't know anything about him, but I liked his track record and his progression. If a guy can win at Texas A&M, I figured he'd win at Kentucky. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to fit at UK for whatever reason. UK plays sloppy basketball. Maybe Gillespie really is a good coach who just hasn't worked out at Kentucky and will go down to Texas Tech and thrive again. I don't know. All I know is that he's not working out at UK. It sounds like they are going to pull the plug on Gillespie within the next couple days. I think it's the right move.
Sounds like Billy Donovan is also on the list, but isn't there some level of concern that he's now made back to back NIT trips now?? How does that happen?? They have to talk to Billy Donovan, but they also probably need to make sure they are getting a lock if they hire Donovan. Kentucky needs a lock. I think Donovan is probably a lock to do great things at UK, but you never know. Maybe he was just incredibly lucky to land Horford, Brewer, and Noah all in the same class and have them all blossom into NBA lottery picks.
The other guy that I think they have to talk to is Travis Ford. I know he's young, I know he's inexperienced, I know he's got a little bit of a Gillespie in him with some rumors of boorish behavior, and I know he hasn't been at any particular job for more than a couple years, but everything about this guy screams out that he's a rising star in the coaching world. It would be one thing if he was this self-made man who learned the game his own way, but Travis Ford is a disciple of the best Kentucky coach since Adolph Rupp. He would be coming to UK to bring back the Pitino system. That is the kind of system that recruits like. Up tempo, aggressive, attacking. That's what you see at Kansas and UNC and Memphis. That's what UK needs to get back to. The good news is that Kentucky can probably pass on Travis Ford if they have a better candidate and then go after him in 10 years if he's still having success at Oklahoma State. Travis Ford would drop everything and come home to UK whenever it is offered in my opinion.
I'm taking UConn here in this region, but I don't have much to say about UConn other than what I said about them already earlier in the week. Calhoun broke this team down in February, and now he's building them back up. I like the Huskies a lot. I'm more interested in this recruiting scandal that seems to be bubbling up at UConn. Does this surprise anyone?? I always wondered how a guy like Calhoun could recruit as well as he does. If you were a stud recruit who could go anywhere, why would you play for some curmudgeon like Jim Calhoun?? I always wondered if there was some shady stuff going on up there. I'm interested to see if more scandals come out of this story.
Figured I would put in a plug for my brother's podcast. They are two weeks in, and "Fireside Chats at the Butler Cabin" is already sweeping the nation. Should be some great stuff coming up as we get closer to The Masters, and I can guarantee that you will learn something about "The Tour" if you tune in. Might get some other good discussion of all things going on in the world of the Bengals/Blue Jackets/Reds/Buckeyes and some takes on the best pizza, golf courses, and bars in the Columbus area.
Anyway, the show is every Tuesday evening at 6 pm EST. Enjoy!
In my line of work, I do run across the occasional "celebrity" who has gotten himself into a little bit of trouble with the law here in Columbus. Typically, these run-ins are limited to current and former Buckeyes, but you never know who may find himself in lockup down at the county jail.
Today's special guest prisoner of the State of Ohio was Mr. Gary Trent, aka "The Shaq of the Mac." I felt a duty to give a little tribute to Gary Trent since I had the pleasure of watching him plead not guilty to an assault charge this morning. Not one of his better days I would imagine.
I vividly remember Gary Trent during his days at Ohio University, but I don't remember him being a lottery pick coming out of college. How many MAC players have been drafted in the NBA lottery in the last 25 years?? This is the list I can think of for now.
Gary Trent - Ohio University Antonio Daniels - Bowling Green Wally Szcerzerbiak - Miami Ron Harper - Miami. Bonzi Wells - Ball State Chris Kaman - Central Michigan
There have to be one or two others out there, but I can't think of anyone else. Someone chime in if there any others that I'm missing. I don't want to sell the MAC short.
At some point, I'd love to break down that legendary Shawn Respert for Gary Trent trade on draft day. Wonder if both teams were as satisfied as the rest of America with the franchise-altering effects of that trade. Not a bad draft class in 1995 with Mr. Gary Trent: Kevin Garnett, Rasheed Wallace, Jerry Stackhouse, Antonio McDyess, Joe Smith, Michael Finley, Theo Ratliff. Some other fun names: Bob Sura, Big Country Bryant Reeves (wonder if he is bummed out that Gary Wilkinson tried to steal his mojo), Randolph Childress, Junior Burrough, Lou Roe, Cuonzo Martin, Andrew DeClercq, Alan Henderson, and "The Mayor" Fred Hoiberg.
This blurb from an ESPN blog on the Florida players' response to Lane Kiffin should be bone-chilling if you are a Tennessee fan.
Several Florida players say that pictures of Kiffin are pasted throughout their locker room, and they're still fuming over what they say was a blatant show of disrespect for their coach.
"I couldn't believe what he said," Florida junior safety Ahmad Black said. "Not trying to be cocky or anything, but we've beaten them four years in a row ... by a lot, too. But taking shots at our coach is like taking shots at us. We're family. It's definitely personal now."
"That's OK, because they've got something coming," Pouncey said. "(Kiffin) went public with all his stuff, but we'll do all our talking on the field. That's when we'll have something to say about it."
Florida cornerback Joe Haden said when word started to spread about Kiffin accusing Meyer of cheating that Meyer and the players all started texting each other.
"I guess (Kiffin) was doing that for his team, but he could have done that behind closed doors," Haden said. "To put our coach out there like that for something he didn't do was crazy. Coach Meyer is one of the best coaches in college football, and he's like a father to a lot of the players on this team.
"When we heard about it, the players were sending Coach Meyer text messages telling him, 'We've got your back.' We've got a family bond here, and when somebody attacks somebody in your family like that, it's on then."
Black said Meyer made it clear that he didn't take anything Kiffin said lightly.
"Coach was texting us, and we were texting him back," Black said. "We're there with him all day long. He's our coach." Ummm, Lane?? Any thoughts?? That beatdown in the Swamp is going to be epic.
I'm embarrassed to admit how much basketball I watched over the weekend, so I got a lot on my mind. Here goes.
9) Are we headed for four Big East teams in the final four?? I'm not going to say it's likely, but it's definitely a strong possibility.
East - Nova and Pitt Midwest - Louisville South - Syracuse West - UConn
Not a bad first weekend for the Big East. The Big East may very well end up with 0 teams in the Final Four, but I think the odds are looking good for multiple Big East bids. And if the Big East has all four teams in the Final Four, they should just move the Final Four to Madison Square Garden. Either way, it's great for the league, and it's going to reap benefits in future years for getting more NCAA bids.
The arms race in the Big East is really starting to ramp up. The coaches in the league are superb, and the recruiting in the league has really exploded to the point where the Big East has far and away the best collection of talent in the country. Between Pitt, Nova, Louisville, Syracuse, UConn, and Georgetown, you now have 6 programs in the Big East that are going into every season with legitimate Final Four aspirations. And that's before you get to West Virginia and Marquette and ND and Cincy. Scary.
8) Is parity a thing of the past in college basketball?? Remember about 5-7 years ago when it seemed like every tournament produced all kinds of insane upsets and crazy brackets with #8 seeds going to the Final Four and all kinds of double digit seeds in the Sweet 16?? Look at what has happened in the last two NCAA tournaments. Last year, we had all four #1 seeds in the Final Four. This year, we have all the #1 seeds, all the #2 seeds, and all the #3 seeds intact headed into the Sweet 16. When was the last time that happened?? There were virtually zero upsets this weekend. Lots of close games and close calls, but the major powers got it done and advanced.
So what's the deal?? Why has the balance of power shifted back to the heavyweights?? I think it comes down to head coaches. There are a ton of GREAT coaches at the big time schools:
UNC - Roy Williams Duke - Coach K UConn - Calhoun Memphis - Calipari LVille - Pitino Michigan State - Izzo Kansas - Bill Self Syracuse - Boeheim Pitt - Dixon Nova - Jay Wright
If you are some feisty 6 seed or 10 seed, who are you beating in that group?? When all the top teams have great coaches, there just aren't going to be that many upsets. Guys like Izzo and Roy and Calhoun and Pitino and Self aren't losing in the early going of the NCAA tournament all that often these days. I don't think the mid-majors are worse. A lot of midmajors played their butts off over the weekend but couldn't get a win. I just think the power teams are really really strong these days.
The only highly seeded team that really bowed out early was Wake Forest. No offense to Dino Gaudio, but he's not one of the elite coaches in the game. If anything, the Prosser-Gaudio model has proven to be a failure in the NCAA tournament, so it probably wasn't a huge surprise that Wake was vulnerable to an upset.
The plus side to the dominance of the major powers is that we're going to get a ton of great games in the Sweet 16 and beyond. You have some great games coming up this week:
The days of Iowa State being a 2 seed and losing in the first round or a Huggins coached UC team being a 2 seed and losing early seem to be gone for now. The big boys are loaded, and I don't think it's going to be easy for the small schools to rise up and knock those teams off.
7) Some teams that most impressed me this weekend. These teams aren't all necessarily teams that I see going to the Final Four or anything. Just teams that I watched and enjoyed for one reason or another. I didn't get to watch everyone, so I know there are teams like Missouri and Gonzaga that probably would have impressed me if I had watched more of them.
UConn - Couldn't have been more impressed with UConn on Saturday against Texas A&M. That was a clinical dismantling. UConn went from the #1 seed that I thought would be the first to bow out to the team that I now think might be the favorite to cut down the nets. They went through their adjustment period without Dyson, and now they look like they're back. There's always one lead guard who takes his game to the next level in the NCAA Tournament every year (call it the Juan Dixon Memorial Award or something like that), and I think the guy this year might be AJ Price. He was unguardable this weekend, and he gives off the vibe like he is not going to be denied this year.
Another key guy who has emerged out of nowhere for UConn?? Stanley Robinson. My god, where did this guy come from?? Where has he been all year?? He might be one of the most athletic forwards I've seen all year. Between Price, Robinson, and Adrien, UConn now has 3 guys who can score. And that's before you talk about Thabeet.
I don't know why I even doubted UConn. They have Jim freaking Calhoun!! The guy is one of the best tournament coaches of the last 25 years, and they've been a pretty cohesive group all year. The only time Calhoun has ever underachieved at UConn was with that Rudy Gay team that lost to George Mason, and that team was just flaky all year. This team has been really good all year, and now they appear to be playing their best ball in March.
I don't know, maybe A&M was just the perfect matchup for them or something, but UConn looked about as impressive as they could possibly look on Saturday.
Villanova - Is there a more enjoyable team to watch in the country than Villanova?? I love how they play, and Jay Wright has the perfect formula for that program. It seems like he just loads up on these lightning quick bulldog combo guards from New York and Philly who can all go to rack like crazy, and then just unleashes them on teams that cannot keep up. Between Reynolds, Fisher, Stokes, Anderson, etc, they have so many different guards who can create off the dribble. And their defense is suffocating. I never have thought of UCLA as an unathletic team, and yet the Bruins looked like a MAC team compared to Villanova. Cunningham is a really really good college big man as well. I was never a huge fan of him, but he has been so solid this year. He can score inside and outside, and he's a good rebounder and defender.
There are only a handful of teams that can win this thing, and I think I'd put Villanova down as one of the teams that could cut down the nets (maybe even ahead of a team like Pitt). With their guards and defense and Cunningham inside, aren't they sort of like those Arizona teams in the late 90s with Bibby and Simon?? I think Nova is going to the Final Four out of the East Region.
As for Jay Wright, it's not even really debatable between him and Brey anymore. If you think Brey is on the same level as Wright at this point, you're just not paying attention. Wright is one of the elite recruiters and coaches in the game, and is headed to his fourth Sweet 16 in the last five years. Mike Brey is headed to the NIT for the 4th time in 6 years. I'm embarrassed to even admit that I once put those two on the same level.
Memphis - Honestly, I think Memphis and UConn in the regional final might decide the title. After that shaky opening round performance by Memphis, I was prepared to say that maybe their hype had exceeded them this year, but how could you not be impressed by what they did to Maryland?? Just ran them out of the building. Tyreke Evans is spectacular with the ball, and their overall athleticism is so intimidating. They don't really shoot that well, but it doesn't even seem to matter. No one can really deal with their athleticism. They own the glass, they get in your shorts, and they get to the rim. They just come out and play their game, and there's nothing you can do about it.
Calipari is one of the five best coaches in the country. Just win baby. That's what he does. He doesn't have any Rhodes scholars on that roster, but that's not what he's paid to do. Getting high and mighty about Memphis being a bunch of thugs who can't read is pretty silly when your team is in the NIT and they are going deep in the NCAA Tournament every year. I'd gladly trade places with them.
Purdue - Purdue is the only team I've listed that I don't think can get to a Final Four, but how can you not be impressed with what Purdue has done in March this year?? First, they plowed through the Big Ten Tournament, and now they are in the Sweet 16 after beating Washington in front of a hugely partisan UW crowd. I'll admit that I've been a Purdue skeptic all year, and couldn't have been more wrong about them. Great year for Purdue basketball, and their future is really really bright. Grant, Hummel, Moore, and JaJuan Johnson are all underclassmen. Purdue is going to be a top 10 team in 2009 (not that they aren't already a top 15 team) with definitely Final Four aspirations.
Most impressive thing about Purdue when you watch them? DEFENSE. Man, they get in your shorts as soon as you cross half court. I love watching teams play defense like that. Always on the attack to shut you down and take you out of your game. Teams like Purdue and Nova love to make life extremely difficult for opposing offenses. What I would give to see an ND team do something like that. Has ND ever had a disruptive defense at any point in the Mike Brey era?? Don't give me stats. I can see with my two eyeballs that we have never played defense like Purdue and Villanova do.
Syracuse - Devendorf and Flynn. Enough said. Syracuse can definitely get to the Final Four, and I think they can definitely win it all. I've felt that they had the potential to make a deep run since the first time I watched them against ND back in January, and now they've actually put it together to the point where they are playing great team basketball. They've stopped turning it over and stepped it up defensively and on the glass. Devendorf has become as clutch as anyone in college basketball, and Flynn is spectacular.
Syracuse is a funny program. They have their down stretches, but every few years Boeheim just gets a perfect mix of alpha dogs and role players that he can ride deep into the NCAA tournament. This year, he has Flynn and Devendorf as his warriors, and they also have a perfect blend of role guys like Rautins and Onganaet and Onuaku and Jackson that fill a role. The Orange aren't perennially in the top 10, but they get on these rolls every few years where things start clicking in March. The 1996 team that lost to Kentucky in the Finals was very similar. They plodded along for the most of the year as a #3/#4 seed, and then John Wallace turned into this superhuman player in March and all those role guys like Otis Hill and Lazarus Sims and Jason Cippola filled in around him.
Anyway, I'm going with the Cuse as my Final Four team out of the South bracket and probably beyond that.
6) Now for some teams that did not impress me through the first two rounds:
Louisville - Maybe Louisville will turn on the jets again in the next couple weeks, but I'm not counting on it. Championship teams don't flake out as often as Louisville does. At some point, they are going to run into a team that gets out to a huge lead while the Cards are sleepwalking and they won't be able to come back from it. Great teams don't fall behind to freaking Siena late in the second half. Louisville can't seem to play 40 minutes of basketball.
Maybe they can get to the Final Four (I'm not all that convinced that they'll even get that far), but I don't even consider Louisville as a viable national title contender at this point. I've seen what I need to see out of them. Pitino is great, but they are too inconsistent to win 6 games in a row in this tournament. Pitino has always been at his best when he has a perimeter guy (i.e. Tony Delk) who can carry the team when they need buckets. Terrance Williams is a great player, but he's not that guy. And guys like Clark and Samuels and McGee and Sosa can't do it consistently.
Pitt - Pitt is one of the teams I came into the tournament rooting for, so I was curious to see how they looked in the first couple rounds. A little shaky. I don't see how you can win a national title without elite guard play, and I don't think Pitt has the guards. It's one thing to be rugged (i.e. Michigan State). It's another thing to just play ugly, and that's who Pitt is. I love the coach, love the team, love how they play in the Big East, but their style of play is not made for a national title run in March. I'm crossing Pitt off my list of teams that can win the title.
North Carolina - I didn't get to watch more than a couple minutes of live look-ins for UNC, but I pretty much know what UNC is all about. And after watching some other teams play, I don't think Carolina will be there in the end. That offense is deadly when it's clicking, but this tournament is going to be won with defense. If I had to pick an exit point for UNC, it would be against Syracuse in the Elite Eight.
5) If it isn't readily apparent from the paragraphs above, this March Madness has served as yet another reminder of why it is becoming more and more obvious that Mike Brey is not the long term answer at ND. The Mike Brey model for success is finesse play and 3 point shooting and trying to outscore teams. It's the type of model that you would see at a place like North Dakota State. Everything about that formula screams out mid-major style of basketball. Brey views ND as this plucky underdog that can't lock people up defensively and has to outshoot people to get wins, and yet the only way to win in March is with defense and toughness and athleticism. Teams like Michigan State win every year because they fight for every loose ball, they own the glass, and they battle for every inch of the court. Villanova is another team that really attacks you and doesn't give up an inch on the defensive end.
More and more, college basketball is becoming a game of inches. In March, you have to scratch and claw for every inch on the court, and the teams that consistently can beat other teams to a spot on the floor win basketball games. If you can get past your man to the bucket or cut your man off or box your man out to get a rebound, you are going to be successful. It has almost become like football in some respects in that teams are fighting for field position. If you are getting good looks close to the basket on dribble drives and second chances on rebounds and the other team isn't getting those looks, you are going to probably win the basketball game. These good coaches really preach that in the NCAAs. Mike Brey doesn't preach that philosophy at all.
I have been a fervent Mike Brey supporter, but I can't stand the fact that we don't lock teams up defensively. Everyone is out there scraping and clawing for every inch of the court, and we're giving up open layups and easy putbacks left and right. There's nothing that we do well defensively. We don't protect the rim, but we also don't put any pressure out on the 3 point line. Our only response is to try to hoist up more 3s to make up for defensive liabilities.
And that's before you get to recruiting. How does a team like Villanova get 5 lightning quick guards from NYC and yet we can't get one?? How does a school like Purdue get a 6'10" beast like JaJuan Johnson and yet we can't seem to ever get guys like that?? How does a team like freaking Gonzaga look more athletic than ND?? I see a kid like Sherron Collins from Chicago going to Kansas. Why couldn't a kid like that ever go to ND?? At some point, Mike Brey needs to get more athletic players. There is no reason that schools like Michigan State and Purdue and Xavier always have better athletes than us even though we recruit in the same region as them. Bottom line, Brey has too many white players on the team. We should not have more than 2-3 white players on the roster at any one time, and next year we are going to have 7. SEVEN!! The current team has four. That can't happen if we want to hang around with the big boys.
Mike Brey will probably be at ND for a long time if he can get ND back to the tournament with some level of regularity, but I think it's safe to say that ND is not going to take the next step as a basketball program under Mike Brey unless he completely overhauls his program. If I had my druthers, I would be quietly looking around at other coaches. It's time to step up as a program. Get the new facility built and loosen up the academic restrictions. If we do all that and Brey is still bringing in 3 white man recruiting classes and bowing out early in the NCAAs (if we even make it), I'd pull the trigger and go get a big time young coach who knows defense. If we are committed to the program financially, I think we can lure in a really good young coach.
4) I miss Billy Packer. There I said it. I know he was probably the most disliked college basketball analyst in the country, but wasn't there something to be said for Billy Packer adding a "big game feel" to any game that he called?? Say what you want about Packer, but at least he was INTO THE GAME right from the start. Once the ball went up into the air, the only thing he focused on was the game in front of him. No fuss. No schtick or Vitale nonsense. Just giving you his thoughts on what he was seeing.
Plus, even though Packer wasn't funny at all and probably never cracked a joke in 30 years, there was always the unintentional comedy of Packer pointing out 25 times that "Derrick Rose is tired" even though the game had just started. And I think I laughed out loud every time Packer pointed out a "good timeout by Jim Calhoun." Where else are you getting that type of analysis?? And I'm dead serious. I was never a Billy Packer hater, and I actually think the tournament misses him a little. Not a ton, but it's noticeable.
Clark Kellogg is an extremely likable guy who lives in the Columbus area and who I really like as a person, but he gives me nothing as an analyst. It's just white noise to me. Whether you agree with Packer or not, at least you were listening to what he had to say. I respect that. With Kellogg, I'm basically tuning him out. He's also an awful match for Nantz because he makes Nantz even more boring than he normally is (and I'm saying that as someone who thinks the world of Jim Nantz). The tv might as well be on mute with the Nantz-Kellogg pairing, and I think it will really stick out in the Final Four when everyone is falling asleep during the telecast.
The best color analyst in the game right now?? I'd vote Jay Bilas, and it's not even close. I love that Enberg-Bilas combo. Enberg is more than willing to do his thing calling the action, and then he just lets Bilas take over and do what Bilas does. Great pair. Bilas gives you insight that no one else is giving. Whenever I watch a game that Bilas does, he can immediately tell you exactly why Team A is outplaying Team B. Surprisingly, there are very few analysts who can do that. There are too many guys out there who are just giving you fluff and superficial stuff. Bilas gives you the real insight. As a basketball fan, I appreciate it.
The other combo that just gets better and better every year: Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery. I would all but guarantee that those two closed down several bars in the Greater Dayton area this weekend. You cannot beat Verne Lundquist calling a great game, and he was at his very best for that Ohio State-Siena game. I think Verne Lundquist will go down as the greatest play by play announcer of all time when it's all said and done. He's my favorite college football play by play guy of all time, he's probably my favorite college hoops play by play guy alongside Gus Johnson of all time, and he's made two of the most famous calls in the history of The Masters (if not all of golf). Plus, he called the Laettner-Kentucky game. If I had to pick one guy to call a great game, Verne Lundquist would be my pick. The Golden Throat. One of the best nicknames ever.
The Gus Johnson-Len Elmore pairing is underrated as well as is the Kevin Harlan-Dan Bonner duo.
By the way, is CBS going to make the huge mistake of bringing back James Brown for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight like they did last year?? Nothing against James Brown (who is one of the best studio hosts of all time), but he was woefully unprepared for the NCAAs last year. I hope he doesn't do the basketball again this year. Just do what you do best and stick to the NFL studio.
3) Some player thoughts while I'm here:
Blake Griffin - I'll admit that I have not really sat down and watched Blake Griffin at all until the tournament, so I was sort of intrigued to see him in action against Michigan the other day. I didn't know anything about his game, so it was a complete blank slate for me.
I was impressed with Griffin, but I definitely don't think he's a franchise type player in the NBA. Who does he remind me of?? The guy that keeps coming up for me is Antawn Jamison for some reason. They have similar games. Very quick feet with incredible hands and coordination for their size. Not your classic low post player, but they do a lot of their work in the paint. When I'd see Griffin flash open in the low post, it reminded me of what Jamison used to do at UNC. They are the types of guys who don't blow you away with anything, but then you look at the scoreboard and they each have 25 points on about 8 layups and 9 free throws. Griffin is definitely a better ballhandler at this stage of his career, and I think he'll be the type of guy who can knock down the 15 footer with ease in the NBA. There are so few good big men in college these days that I enjoyed watching a good big man for a change. Most of the big men in college have bad hands and no body control, so Griffin is an anomaly. Carlos Boozer is probably another name that comes to mind, but I think of Boozer as more of a power player than Griffin seemed to be.
I like Griffin. His bust potential is almost zero from what I could tell. If you can catch the ball and run the floor and finish down low, you are going to be able to do things in the NBA. Most big men don't come into the NBA with those skills. As noted earlier, Griffin looks like the type of guy who will be draining 15-18 footers once he has the chance to expand his game from what he is being asked to do in college. I didn't know what to expect out of him, and it turns out that he's pretty much your prototype power forward. I don't want to overdo it with Griffin because he won't blow you away by any means. But at least he showed me why people really like him.
Anyway, Griffin passed the look test for me, but he has more of a Kenyon Martin/Antawn Jamison career ahead of him than a Tim Duncan/Dwight Howard type career if you ask me. Not a superstar but a really good player who probably will be making franchise money at some point even if he's not really a franchise player. That's not a bad thing either. He'll be one of those guys who goes 20-10 quite a bit, and he'll make a ton of money doing it. Good for him.
I'd like to see Oklahoma and UNC meet up in the regional final. Would love to see Griffin and Hansborough lock horns. I wasn't blown away by Oklahoma, but I definitely think they have the ability to get to the Final Four. The winner of that OU-Cuse game is my pick for the Final Four out of the South.
James Harden - This guy is a lottery pick?? Really?? Am I missing something?? Not only do I not think he's worthy of being a top 5 pick, I'm not even sure he would start for a good Big East team!!
I had been hearing about how spectacular this guy was all year, so I was curious to see him play at some point this season. I was picturing like a Dwayne Wade type player with explosive moves who could take over a game at any moment. I first watched Harden during the Pac 10 tournament, and my initial impression was that he was one of those Chris Douglas-Roberts guys who isn't an athletic beast but seems to find ways to score even though he's not a pure shooter. But after watching him play against Syracuse, I don't really see what this guy brings to the table. Did he just play horribly or is really not that good?? Are there any Sun Devil fans who read this blog?? I saw a guy who looked disinterested, can't shoot, turned the ball over, and seemed perfectly content to defer to the other guys on his team. He gave off a vibe like he didn't care. If a guy can't get fired up for the NCAA tournament, what is he going to be like for 82 games in an NBA season?? He's not even Chris Douglas-Roberts. He's like the homeless man's CDR. That sentence alone should scare the heck out of an NBA team.
And yet NBA teams are drooling over this guy?? Can someone explain why?? From what I could tell, he didn't even look like he would have started at Syracuse or several other Big East teams.
By the way, for you CDR fans out there, he has scored 20 and 18 in his last two games for the Nets. Always thought he would be a good NBA player if he got the chance. James Harden is no CDR.
Jonny Flynn - At this point, if you don't like Jonny Flynn, I don't know what to say to you. I don't know how anyone COULDN'T like Jonny Flynn. If there's one guy left in this tournament who I would pay to watch, it's Jonny Flynn. What a gamer.
I don't know where he is projected to go in the draft, but don't you think some NBA team would talk themselves into taking him in the late lottery if he came out after this year?? If he takes the Cuse to the Final Four (or further), I can't imagine that his stock would ever be higher. I'd love to see him back at Syracuse, but I think I'd take a hard look at coming out if I was Jonny Flynn. How many times have we seen point guards stay a year or two too long in college basketball and knock themselves down about ten spots in the draft by doing so?? Ty Lawson went from a late lottery guy after his freshman year to a guy who is probably going to be lucky to get drafted in the first round. Chris Thomas would be another example. If Flynn comes back next year and plays about the same as he did this year, then he's viewed as having less upside. As dumb as that logic is, it's how NBA GMs seem to operate.
I don't know what the Knicks' point guard situation is, but don't you think the New York fans would be going bonkers if the Knicks drafted Jonny Flynn with the 10th pick or whatever?? I think they would be thrilled. This 2009 draft class looks really weak (especially when the likes of James Harden are being talked about as top 5 picks), so now might be the time to strike for Sir Jonny.
Demarr Derozan - Another guy who has been EXTREMELY impressive throughout March. Other than maybe Griffin, I thought Derozan had the most professional ability of anyone I saw in the tournament. He already has an NBA body, and his athleticism and body control were really impressive. If he actually stayed for 3 years, he'd be Vince Carter or somebody like that. I don't see how anyone would be able to guard him. I watched this guy in about 4 games between the Pac 10 tournament and the NCAAs, and he was the best player on the court in every game. For a true freshman, that's mighty impressive.
I know there are a ton of 6'6" wings in the NBA with great bodies and great athleticism, but Derozan seems like a really safe bet to be a really good NBA player. Honestly, looking at how weak this draft class is, I'm not sure Derozan isn't the 2nd best prospect in this draft.
Anyway, just wanted to get those thoughts out there about a few guys. I have some thoughts on some other guys, but I'll save those for another week. I'm headed to Indy next weekend for the Midwest Regional on Friday and Sunday, so I'm hoping to throw in some thoughts next week on Sherron Collins and Aldrich and Budinger and Jordan Hill and maybe some of the Louisville guys.
2) Bold prediction: I'm predicting that Ben Howland's seat gets a little warm at some point in the next five years. Howland is a fabulous coach, but he had his big chance to win a title in the last couple years and didn't do it. Now it looks like UCLA is rebuilding a little bit, and they got completely blown off the floor by Villanova with somewhat of a veteran team. I always assumed it was a matter of when and not if Ben Howland won a national title at UCLA, but now I think it's going to be awhile. If he doesn't win a national title in the next few years at UCLA, are the fans in Westwood going to get a little restless?? At these big time schools, they want to know that you are capable of cutting the nets down at some point. Heck, it seemed like Kansas fans were getting a little anxious about Bill Self until he pulled through last year. It will be interesting to see how quickly Howland gets the Bruins back in position to try to win a national title. Three straight Final Fours buys you a lot of time, but he's got to keep the momentum going toward an eventual national championship.
1) Power poll (admittedly did not see some of these teams play). This list is obviously subject to change, but this would be my personal ranking on what team has the best shot to cut down the nets based on what I saw over the weekend.