Posted on: January 14, 2011 12:58 am
Edited on: January 14, 2011 12:46 pm
Posted by MATT JONES
As the horn ticked down the final seconds in Tallahassee on Wednesday night and it became clear that No. 1 Duke would drop from the rank of the unbeatens, the refrain from the pundits in the sports world could be heard once again. "It is impossible to go undefeated in college basketball now and I guarantee it will never happen again!" In reality, it is hard to argue that point. No team has gone undefeated since Indiana in 1976 and with the exception of UNLV in 1991 and Memphis in 2008, no team has really come all that close. College basketball has seen a seismic shift due to the increased attention on basketball in all BCS programs, early entry into the NBA Draft and a changed television landscape that allows more than just the top ten programs to sell the idea of regular national exposure. In that landscape, realistically there are simply too many land mines for a team to ever complete an undefeated season.
Realism however, is overrated. Anyone can say something can't happen. It is much more fun to imagine what could be. In that vein, it is worth exploring which of the four currently undefeated teams is most likely to finish the season without a blemish. To navigate such a road, a team must possess four important traits:
1. Top-Level Coach: Every team, no matter how talented, will be faced with 2-3 games that will be won with late coaching decisions and end-of-game scenarios in which a particular designed play, substitution or defensive adjustment is the difference between victory and defeat. A few years back, current Minnesota coach Tubby Smith told me that coaching was about two things primarily, pre-game preparation/motivation and making the right decision in the last two minutes. With close games inevitable for any team looking to go unblemished, there simply must be a master tactician on the sidelines.
2. Adaptable Personnel: Great teams can come in many shapes and sizes. The 1992 Duke team was built around three superstars (Laettner, Hurley and Grant Hill) and a group of talented role players, the 2007 Florida team had a core starting five as good as any in the last 25 years and the 1996 Kentucky team simply tried to overwhelm its opponents with eight future NBA players. However each of these teams had a vulnerability that when exploited, caused the group to drop random games during the season. An undefeated team must have a very unique quality. It must be adaptable to any style of play and with no obvious stylistic weakness. If your team can't shoot, isn't athletic enough, doesn't play hard-nosed defense or can't rebound, chances are you will face one team on your schedule whose best strength is exploiting that weakness, and your undefeated run will end.
3. A Favorable Schedule: In order to go undefeated, it isn't simply enough that a team be great, its opponents need to also be decidedly mediocre. Every team will face at least eight conference games on the road and potentially another couple of tough games on the road or neutral sites in the non-conference season. Those are at least ten chances to slip up without your home crowd there to rescue you from a bad game. If these opponents are teams like SMU and Houston, as Memphis faced in 2008, the chances of an undefeated season are much greater than if you get UCONN and Pitt. Schedules matter and if an undefeated team is ever to exist, chances are they will play a weak one.
4. Luck: You don't go undefeated without winning at least one game you should/could have lost due to a favorable bounce, loose ball or questionable call. Again, go back to the team that came the closest to accomplishing this feat, the 2008 Memphis Tigers. In two games, Memphis was defeated by end of game shots. If Mario Chalmers misses one three-pointer just an inch to the left or right, John Calipari and the Tigers become immortal legends. Nothing Calipari did (well, except not fouling before the shot went off) had any effect on the shot, but rather his team's fate was in another's hands. Chalmers takes the shot, the ball goes in and 1976 Indiana remains the gold standard. One moment changes history and for an undefeated team, that 50-50 moment must fall with them, instead of against them.
With those four requirements in place, the question then becomes, which of the current undefeateds best meet the criteria? Currently, we are left with Ohio State, Kansas, Syracuse and San Diego State as the sole remaining undefeated teams and in reality, none is likely to approach an undefeated season. However with realism not our goal, it is worth ranking the teams in order of potential to reach undefeated immortality:
The Jayhawks' stellar play has been one of the surprises of the early season and with the experience returning from last year's disappointing NCAA Tournament exit, there is a core group of players who have tasted enough big games to contend come March. Bill Self has a National Championship under his belt, but he does have detractors who believe that his in-game adjustments leave something to be desired. Kansas has already survived two games it could have lost this year against USC and UCLA and has an overtime win on the road at Michigan that it was fortunate to escape. The roster is likely the most diverse of all the undefeated teams, with the Morris twins and Josh Selby ensuring that there will be no team the Jayhawks can't score on, or defend. The Big 12 is good, but not great, and with the disappointing play of Kansas State, a couple of games that seemed like hurdles now seem a bit more doable. The only ranked teams the Jayhawks will face on the road are Missouri and potentially Kansas State, thus putting Kansas in the spot of most likely to accomplish this impossible dream.
Most Likely Loss: Missouri, in the final game of the regular season. In the unlikely event Kansas comes in undefeated, Mike Anderson's squad will ensure that no team goes into NCAA play without a blemish.
2. OHIO STATE
The Buckeyes have a superstar in Jared Sullinger and a balanced attack that allows a number of different scoring options depending on how teams choose to defend them. Like Kansas, Ohio State can adapt to a number of different styles and are likely only vulnerable against a team that runs and can put up points in a hurry, a type of play that it doesn't see in the Big Ten. Thad Matta is one of the most underrated tacticians in college basketball and his ability to produce a gameplan specifically designed to exploit his opponent's weakness is consistently undervalued. He has in the past been to the national title game with a young big man and Ohio State wins more than its share of close games. Early this year, the Buckeyes haven't been tested a great deal, but they play in the Big Ten, which this season is the best conference in America. The schedule includes road games at Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Purdue. Matta gets Michigan State in Columbus, but the run of road games against good teams makes for a couple of likely stumbles.
Most Likely Loss: Minnesota on February 6. Tubby Smith's team does not necessarily like to run, but it can shoot and has size in order to attempt to neutralize Jared Sullinger. Smith will need a top win at home and this is exactly the type of game he takes pride in stealing.
No team has been consistently overlooked more often this season than Syracuse. The combination of the "never leave New York" non-conference schedule and the disappointing ending in last year's NCAA Tournament has made the 'Cuse a team with more than its share of skeptics early. Jim Boeheim is one of the best coaches in America and is one of the best at the tactical side of the game. He does however have one of the least adaptable teams among the Top 10 however, as Syracuse has shown itself to be vulnerable to any team that tries to push tempo and can hit threes at a rapid rate. The schedule is brutal, with road games at Pittsburgh, UCONN, Villanova and Georgetown. Syracuse isn't a contender to go undefeated, and its main concern should be finishing in the top three in the Big East.
Most Likely Loss: Pittsburgh on Monday. Pitt is better on both offense and defense and will have a home crowd rocking for the national television audience on Martin Luther King Day. The Orange ride ends then.
4. SAN DIEGO STATE
The Aztecs are a great story, playing in the forgotten Mountain West and bringing the name Steve Fisher back to the mainstream. The team is on the precipice of a top 5 ranking and is getting national attention for the first time in decades. After making the NCAA Tournament last year and with a roster of experienced and talented players, San Diego State is for real. Steve Fischer is a much-maligned figure, who is often given the label as "worst coach to ever win an NCAA title." Still, one can't argue with how he has built the San Diego State program and his winning percentage is impressive. San Diego State matches up well with a host of different teams, but could struggle with the talent gap if it plays one of the other top teams in America. The schedule is harder than it may appear, with three very difficult road games at New Mexico, BYU and UNLV highlighting the rest of the season. Even if it were to get through that run, San Diego State is not a team built to win a championship and would fall in March.
Most Likely Loss: BYU on January 26. The Aztecs could fall this weekend in the Pit vs New Mexico, but if not, will surely see a defeat when Jimmer is unleashed in two weeks.
Posted on: January 13, 2011 8:16 pm
Edited on: January 13, 2011 8:27 pm
Posted by Matt Norlander
For the second time this season, second-year coach Josh Pastner has shown he's not afraid to run the Memphis men's basketball program by his exact, no-tolerance rules.
At least that's how it looks from the outside.
Who knows how long it's taking for Pastner to come to these domineering decisions privately — what series of actions behind closed doors are piling up — but at the very least the Memphis coach isn't letting things wiggle from his grip from a public perspective.
First it was Jelan Kendrick who earned a suspension under Pastner's rule in November. He eventually left the program and landed at Mississippi last month. And now, tonight, it's junior Wesley Witherspoon who's being put on ice for an indefinite amount of time. This coming one night after Memphis lost for the second straight season at mediocre Southern Methodist.
The news broke a short while ago, when Pastner informed the media after a Tigers practice.
From the outside, it seems Pastner's basically saying, if this team is going to lose, it's going to do it with the future of this program and the guys who are fully invested. That anyone who's immature, lacks leadership and embodies apathy, those guys, they can take a hike and do some soul searching. That's what Pastner's put in front of Witherspoon now.
Will he be back? After Kendrick's jettison act, who knows for certain? This team is young and talented and we all expected some drama. Who knew we'd get a fireworks show like this, though?
The 20-year-old, 6-9 Witherspoon was thought to be the leader of this team back in October. But the forward's had far too may non-impactful performances throughout Memphis' 12-4 season so far. He's been anything but a model alpha for this group. Many close to the program have seen the proof first-hand: he doesn't work hard, he doesn't guard anybody and he generally doesn't care too much about which way the ship sails.
Basically the feeling is losing doesn't bother him. And with Pastner, that's something he won't tolerate — all the way to the point where he'll temporarily remove a guy from the team.
The second-year coach is trying to change the tone. Pastner's a young guy too (33), so it's all the more impressive he's so insistent with his team like this. He knows this decision immediately creates a swirling melodrama around his already unstable team.
Tells all you need to know about how fed up Pastner is with Witherspoon.
Posted on: January 13, 2011 4:17 pm
Edited on: January 13, 2011 5:25 pm
Posted by Eric Angevine
We all know that guy who hangs out in college way too long , getting his second degree or filing for twelve minor concentrations like an academic version of Brooks from The Shawshank Redemption . Once you get inside that warm cocoon of institutional calm, you just don't want to leave.
Seton Hall guard Jeremy Hazell was starting to seem like that guy. Already 25 years old, Hazell seemed prepared to come back again next season after a series of personal setbacks assailed him. It was bad enough when he injured his left wrist in November, but while he was coming back from that injury, he was shot in the right armpit while on Christmas break in his hometown of Harlem, NY. Nobody would have blamed him if he chose to take a redshirt and come back to help Seton Hall win games next season.
But he didn't. Hazell visited the doctor on Monday - that much we knew right away. But he and coach Kevin Willard would only say that he was cleared to play, not whether he planned to actually do so. We started to suspect something was up when he joined the team on a road trip to Chicago, but still thought that the prospect of joining this season's tough sledding might not appeal to the senior.
If you're like me, your estimation of Hazell shot way, way up yesterday afternoon when you heard that he would, indeed, play at DePaul. It climbed a couple more notches when the news came down that he not only played, but scored 23 points after coming off the bench in the fourth minute of the first half.
Just to recap, Hazell came back from his wrist injury in the absolute minimum time his doctor would allow. He was also shot -- SHOT -- by a gunman just eighteen days ago, and he came back playing out-of-his-mind, not tentative or ginger on the ol' wings at all. As the Associated Press reported, "Hazell, a first-team preseason All-Big East selection, had an alley-oop dunk to make it 77-60 with 2:17 left. He scored 15 points in the second half. Hazell said he never doubted that he would return to the court even after being shot."
I think I'd be a DNP - quivering pile of goo for the rest of the season if I had been shot by a robber, but it wasn't nothin' but a thang to Hazell. That's pretty tough, both mentally and physically.
It also shows loyalty to his teammates, who will have absolutely no excuses for slacking off in practice any more this season. Turf toe? Man up. Broken ribs? Get in the gym, jackwagon. Hazell here was SHOT a couple of weeks ago, and do you hear him whining? No, you don't.
All kidding aside, this is huge for the Pirates. Hazell's presence on the court should inspire his teammates to, in essence, 'win one for the Gipper'. He's got Willis Reed cred now. Seton Hall is now a respectable enough 2-3 in the Big East, just behind West Virginia and UConn, which are both 2-2. Even Hazell probably can't help them win at Pitt on Saturday, but next week's home games against slumping Georgetown and rebuilding Rutgers are winnable.
When you know your team has the toughest player on the floor, anything starts to seem possible.
Photo: US PRESSWIRE
Posted on: January 13, 2011 3:19 pm
Edited on: January 13, 2011 3:38 pm
Posted by Matt Norlander
Not how I planned it, but it's time I panned it.
(Very aware that comes off as Jay-Z-esque, but it's not what I was going for; goodness, was that lede awful, so let's move on. Like, now.)
Yesterday I praised Penn State and Boston College. Today, I've embraced my inner Billy Packer. The crankier, critical side of me, which is good to let out of the cage every now and again (just like Billy Packer!). I chopped down Kansas State around breakfast, and now I've got to do the same with Georgetown, which lost to Pittsburgh on its home floor last night. The Georgetown faithful are probably hating me plenty now, but I promise I'm not going out of my way to pick on their team. I love so much about how Georgetown plays and wins games ... but it's gotten uncomfortable pretty quickly, right Hoyas fans?
For the non-Hoya viewer, I posit you probably know Georgetown as the team that's consistently been relevant nationally ever since John Thompson III took over in 2004. The program has been good-to-great with JT3 running the show, which has been good for the Big East, naturally. The program's adapted to the Princeton offense and managed to recruit a variety of players with different skill sets, from big men like Roy Hibbert and Greg Monroe to versatile wing players such as DaJaun Summers and Jeff Green. Now, of course, the three-guard look of Austin Freeman (above), Jason Clark and Chris Wright is the drink-stirring, three-pronged straw of the Hoya machine.
What we must recognize Georgetown as now: a team that can't handle too much success. Ever since its 2007 Final Four appearance, this group hasn't gotten back to an elite level. There's been pressure and expectation (and some really good wins mixed in with all that), but a lot of letdown. Remember the first round of last year's Tournament? A Lohan-like low point.
And now the Hoyas are 1-4 in the Big East — only ahead of winless DePaul, South Florida and Providence — carving their rears firmly into the bubble, which is forming before our very eyes. I don't think I'd be writing this today if Georgetown kept the game close and lost by five or six to Pitt. But that was a snoozer last night. Pitt ran its sets effectively and with ease.
Georgetown just off right now. It happens, but the worthwhile teams shake themselves out of it before a trend sets in, usually. The Hoyas had their chance to curb the crap last night and didn't get it done on their home floor. Something's not right, and I'm not talking about the ever-valuable Chris Wright — because that's been addressed, too.
Fortunately, the Hoyas get their gut check at the right time, you'd think, because the trinity of NYC-area games is next up on the slate. JT3's team plays at 10-6 Rutgers Saturday, then gets 8-9 Seton Hall on the road Tuesday, finishing up with 10-5 St. John's eight full nights later, on Jan. 26. A big break, and one Georgetown will want, even if it gets two wins upcoming on the road.
The sirens are now blaring, the lights crawling, because in a deep Big East, a 1-4 start can be like quicksand. Now's the time for the Hoyas to turn it around, lest they never get off that bubble and play the remainder of the year at an uphill pace.
Photo: Getty Images
Posted on: January 13, 2011 2:07 pm
Edited on: January 13, 2011 2:26 pm
Posted by MATT JONES
I am talking about the rest of the college basketball world, who either actively despises Duke or, among the more genteel fans, simply enjoys watching the Blue Devils squirm. For those folks, games like Wednesday night’s loss to Florida State are a lot of fun.
In college basketball, Duke is without question the hall monitor. With the exception of Kyrie Irving (who is now hurt), there isn’t a Duke player on the roster who would be considered one of the “cool” kids anywhere outside of New Jersey and some parts of upstate New York. All of Duke’s players have appropriate haircuts, say “yes sir, no sir” and occasionally even help old ladies across the street. They have all the swagger of Mark O’Meara , combined with the street cred of Glenn Beck. Coach K complains to the refs incessantly and the players always seem incredulous at the mere thought they could have committed a foul. When other players engage in any action that is not basketball the “Duke way” (such as oh, I don’t know … being interesting), K and the players go running to the principal, tattling and threatening to tell their NCAA sugar daddies. It can all be a bit much.
That is of course combined with the continued reality of every announcer, pundit or writer falling all over herself to let us know that Coach K does things “the right way” and that the players put the word “student” into “student-athlete.” To watch a Duke game is to be berated into accepting that you have drifted upon a set of players that are a physical embodiment of a mix between Oscar Robertson and Socrates , with the occasional floor slap mixed in. To those that pontificate on basketball, Duke is what A.J. Leibling’s “Sweet Science” is to books about sports, a dash of exquisite college basketball literature in a world of mediocrity and drivel.
It can all be a bit much. But when Duke loses … well those of us in the unwashed masses have something to celebrate. The “know-it-all” at the back of the classroom asking if more homework is going to be assigned or if the NCAA can crack down on this bully who is trying to recruit my players, gets his comeuppance in the most profound way. And then, when that loss comes from a team that is actually a football school and sees basketball as a hobby instead of a way of life…well that is even more grand.
Such a game happens every season. Nearly every year, Duke goes into some ACC team’s home arena, usually Florida State or Virginia Tech, puts their arms around each other in a little-too-tight huddle, sprints to Coach K’s every beckon call and looks terrified of the big, bruising bodies that are taking over and rudely beating them at their own game. Then as the minutes wind down, Coach K goes from cursing at the referees to inner acceptance of his fate and the players hit the one great moment where they no longer believe they will win and realize that for the first time, life is truly not fair. I love that moment every year and if you are honest, so do you.
Posted on: January 13, 2011 12:08 pm
Edited on: January 13, 2011 12:25 pm
Posted by Eric Angevine
1. Size: This is the first thing that jumps out at a viewer watching an SDSU game. Only three players on the roster are listed below the 200-lb. mark, which means even the guards are packing some muscle. Kawhi Leonard, Malcolm Thomas and Billy White play even taller than they really are (each is under 6-foot-10), which makes the Aztecs nearly unstoppable inside. The SDSU offense takes a massive 60.8 of its shots inside the arc, and they sport a low 4.1 offensive block percentage that makes them tops in the nation at putting the orange roundie in the net.
2. Flow: No doubt, the Aztecs play a slow game with all those big men on the floor. Their offensive pace is 64 possessions per game, well under the national average. But that’s where lack of exposure to a team can fool those of us who value what stats can tell us: watching them live, I saw a team that can run when opportunity knocks or necessity dictates. They’d prefer not to, of course. This team imposes its will by slowing the pace, but it’s not limited to one way of attacking the basket by any means.
3. Cool: This year’s MWC is a house of horrors. Really. The Aztecs just beat a tough, Lon Kruger-coached UNLV team, but they can’t look forward and start gameplanning for BYU and the Jimmer Show because they have to go to New Mexico and face the likes of Dairise Gary, Drew Gordon and Emannuel Negedu -- not to mention a couple of tough young guards in Phillip McDonald and Kendall Williams -- in the Pit first. This league’s top four is better than anything the Pac-10 has to offer right now (possibly because so many current MWC stars transferred from Pac-10 schools, but still). Despite all that, these guys never appear to panic. They bring the lunchpail every night.
4. ABC: I don’t mean alphabet soup, the Jackson Five or a rival television network. I mean Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross: Always Be Closing. You may have heard that ace reliever Trevor Hoffman retired this week and joined the front office of the San Diego Padres. In an inspired move, the public address crew at Viejas Arena broke out Hoffman’s entrance music -- AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells -- when the going got tough late in last night’s game. The Aztecs responded and put the clamps on to seal a 55-49 win. SDSU will play a lot of low-scoring games, so they’ll need that closer’s mentality to stay unbeaten.
5. Fish: Steve Fisher might look and sound like your kindly old grampa, but don’t you fall for that act. You’re looking at a guy who played in the DII Final Four with the Illinois State Redbirds, and won a DI national championship in his tumultuous first few weeks of head coaching experience at Michigan. He recruited the Fab Five and went back to the tourney’s final day two more times. The fact that he got fired amid scandal from that recruitment doesn’t change the fact that he’s been to the mountaintop and knows how to coach. Opponents might have been caught napping on his skills last season, but this year his imprint can be seen in every aspect of the top-ten ranking this team has earned and held.
If I had the wherewithal to be in the Pit on Saturday, or BYU’s Marriott Center on January 26, no bias on earth would stop me from watching this team go to the mattresses.
Posted on: January 13, 2011 10:58 am
Edited on: January 13, 2011 11:47 am
Posted by MATT JONES
Everyone in America has said something about the most famous player to never step on a college court, Enes Kanter. But likely no one knows the situation around Kanter more thoroughly than Mike DeCourcy of Sporting News. He spoke out about Kanter this week and his comments were quite interesting concerning the inconsistencies shown by the NCAA over the last few months:
Posted on: January 13, 2011 10:36 am
Edited on: January 13, 2011 11:45 am
Posted by Eric Angevine
Announcers have trouble telling the Morris brothers apart in the heat of game action. The brothers have similar abilities, similar jersey numbers, and only the small designation Mk. or Mc. on the back of the jersey for clarification. Kansas fans long ago gave up on using first names, and refer to the twins from Philadelphia as simply "the Morii" in casual conversation.
Some twins bristle at the notion that outsiders can't tell them apart, but not the Morrii. The more the legend of Marcus grows -- as it did following his 33-point show in keeping Kansas undefeated last night -- the more he wants to drag his brother into the limelight with him. "I personally think there will be games Kieff can get 30 and Selby can get 30 ,” Marcus told Gary Bedore of the Lawrence Journal-World. “I had an on-night tonight. There’s other players on my team who can do it, too.”
It's not that Marcus lacks confidence. More that he seems to understand, perhaps better than a non-twin can, how much his own success is intertwined with that of the man standing next to him. Marcus and Markieff have always had that preternatural ability to bring out the best in one another, but it's becoming more and more obvious that the 'family' tag applies to the entire Kansas team these days. When Bill Self benched the brothers and started sophomore Thomas Robinson for a handful of games, the motivational ploy worked. There seems to be no bitterness between the three men who ply the frontcourt for the Jayhawks, regardless of who's starting. The backcourt situation is even more crowded, but nobody has complained publicly (way to go, Tyshawn !) about playing time. It's almost as if the entire team has adopted the Motto of the Morii: F.O.E.
The acronym is etched on the twins' biceps in indelible ink. It stands for Family Over Everything. "It means family first," Markieff told Joe Davis of Jayhawk Tip-Off. "With my family, we've been through thick and thin. That's who's by my side all the time, so that's what I preach."
The definition of family includes Sean Evans of St. John's and Lamar Trice of Mount St. Mary's, as well as a few other non-DI hoopsters who grew up in Philly with the Morrii, each of whom has the same tat. The Jayhawks are a relatively ink-free group, but it's easy to imagine that the family label is metaphorically stamped on everyone from superstar-in-waiting Josh Selby to benchwarming walk-on Jordan Juenemann. With Bill Self as patriarch and Danny Manning as the cool uncle, this KU team has forged a bond that has allowed for smooth sailing despite some big bumps in the road.
Think about how tough it must be to integrate a new scoring point guard after a third of the season has already been played. Imagine the jittery feelings that must surround something like Mario Little's suspension and reinstatement. Picture, if you can, what it takes to go undefeated through all that, while your school is hiring a new AD in the midst of scandal. Doubt any part of the Kansas gameplan you wish -- Self loves to keep his guys humble -- but don't question their team concept. It's rock solid.
Those of us who get paid to punditize will try to break down a team's prospects six ways from Sunday. We can examine personnel, coaching, strategy and tactics, etcetera. That ineffable thing called chemistry is the toughest to root out, however, and it plays such a huge role. It's not just 'does everyone get along'; there's also 'who's on the floor in crunch time?', 'how do they respond to adversity?' and 'how do they act when coach isn't around?' The best beat reporters can sometimes ferret out those types of details by virtue of proximity and persistence, but the rest of us must fill in the blanks based on on-court performance, for the most part.
From a distance, this KU team looks like a band of brothers, led by a pair of actual brothers. It's the sort of invisible bond that can be seen briefly when Michigan forces overtime, or when Hilton Coliseum is roaring and jumping for The Mayor the way it did when the great Johnny Orr patrolled the sidelines over a decade ago.
If Kansas is on a Final Four path, as it seems to be at this early date, credit the extra mojo to those three letters: F.O.E.