Ten Tuesday Scribbles: On Realignment, UConn, Maui and More…Posted by Brian Otskey on November 20th, 2012
Brian Otskey is a regular contributor for RTC. Every Tuesday during the regular season he’ll be giving his 10 thoughts on the previous week’s action. You can find him on Twitter @botskey
- As someone who doesn’t watch one minute of college football but loves college basketball to no end, conference realignment frustrates me to no end as you might imagine. It’s actually quite depressing and I hate talking/writing about it. However, it’s a relevant story and must be discussed because of the far-reaching impacts it will have on the sport I love. I realize this is all about “stability,” TV markets and football. It bothers me like nothing else but I accept it. I’m in the minority when it comes to this and the minority holds very little influence in our country. The consequences (both intended and unintended) of realignment for basketball are distressing. The Big East conference, the pre-eminent college basketball league for the last 25 to 30 years, is on life support. The conference I grew up watching, with the best conference tournament of them all, is all but gone. Yes, Connecticut and Louisville are still in the league, but make no mistake, they’ll bolt at the first opportunity they get as we saw this week with Rutgers going to the Big Ten. Once everything shakes out, I find it hard to believe any Big East football program will remain in the league. It simply makes no sense to do so at this point and they’re looking out for themselves in doing so. I don’t blame them. I blame the greedy conference leadership concerned about how many eyeballs the Big Ten Network can draw in New York and New Jersey, the schools who set this in motion (Syracuse and Pittsburgh), and the Big East as a whole for turning down a massive TV deal that could have given the conference a great deal of security. Once the football schools leave, the Big East will be down to seven Catholic basketball-only schools: DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova. As an alumnus and fan of one of those seven schools, this pains me greatly. I could live with Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Notre Dame leaving the league. The real punch to the gut was Syracuse, a Big East founding member, saying it could find long-term stability in the ACC. The final, fatal blow will be Connecticut and/or Louisville bolting, likely in short order. The basketball-only schools have no leverage and must wait and see as everything crashes around them. Hopefully they get together, keep the Big East name and pick up a few other schools like Butler, St. Joe’s and Xavier. That wouldn’t be a bad league and it would get back to the roots of the Big East, basketball and basketball only.
- How does realignment affect other schools and conferences? For one, the bottom teams in the ACC may stay there for a very long time. With Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Notre Dame coming in (and possibly Connecticut/Louisville), how will schools like Wake Forest and Boston College compete? There will be a good five or six programs ahead of them each and every year, plus they have to battle it out with the likes of Clemson, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech just to make it into the middle of the pack. It’s a vicious cycle that will keep programs like these as the bottom of their respective conference for many years to come. They always said it was tough to climb up the Big East ladder but now the ACC is effectively the Big East (six of the ACC’s 14 future members, not including Maryland, will be former Big East schools). It’s going to be extraordinarily tough for schools like Boston College to compete in the revamped ACC. Only the strong shall survive in conference realignment, it seems. As for the Big Ten, the impact isn’t as significant. Penn State, Nebraska and Northwestern will always be among the worst programs in the league but the climb to respectability isn’t as difficult. Look at Northwestern. The Wildcats have never made the NCAA Tournament despite knocking on the door in the last few seasons, showing how it isn’t impossible to climb the conference ladder. Now though, the addition of a similarly starved program at Rutgers and a strong program at Maryland makes it more difficult for Northwestern to make a move. It’s uncertain what Rutgers is getting itself into. The Scarlet Knights haven’t made the NCAA Tournament in 22 seasons but have shown signs of progress under Mike Rice. You have to think it can go either way for Rutgers. The new recruiting avenues can help but the school is already situated in the middle of the talent-rich New York City area. That said, road trips to Wisconsin and Michigan State aren’t as simple as heading over to St. John’s or up to Providence. I’d lean towards Rutgers struggling in the Big Ten.
- Alright, let’s move on from conference realignment and talk about the silliness that is Connecticut being ranking in the Top 25. Yes, this is a team that beat Michigan State. But let’s take a step back from that. This was a game made for TV at an exotic location in Germany. The Connecticut players were clearly hyped up for Kevin Ollie’s debut and had a chip on their shoulder. Michigan State just wasn’t ready and got blitzed out of the gate by a team surging with adrenaline. If the Michigan State team that showed up last Tuesday in Atlanta played Connecticut, the Spartans would have wiped the floor with the Huskies. The real measure of UConn, at least at this time, is what has happened since. The Huskies beat Vermont at home and then struggled at the Paradise Jam. Does a team that barely beat a bad Wake Forest team, needed a frantic comeback to force overtime against Quinnipiac, and lost to New Mexico deserve to be in the Top 25? I’m not sure why anyone would answer yes to that question. If that isn’t enough for you, look at the roster. Connecticut has two scorers, Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier. After them, there’s not much else. Freshman Omar Calhoun is promising but when DeAndre Daniels is your number four scorer, you have depth and talent issues. This is not a vintage Connecticut team. Just because they beat Michigan State in the first game of the season (when many fluky results happen) doesn’t mean they should be in the Top 25. This is likely a case of voters looking at the name on the jersey instead of the play on the court. What if a team like South Florida, picked #8 in the Big East coaches poll (UConn was #9) put together the exact same results through five games? Would they be in the Top 25? You know the answer.
- I was taken aback by the score of the Texas/Chaminade game last night when I got home. How did this happen? This isn’t’ a vintage Texas team by any stretch but beating Chaminade should not be difficult for the Longhorns. They didn’t just lose, they were shellacked by the Silverswords. I’ve long defended Rick Barnes from what I felt was unfair criticism. After all, he’s never had a losing record in Big 12 play in 14 seasons at Texas, a remarkable achievement. That has led to an NCAA Tournament berth in every one of those 14 years. This may be the breaking point in that relationship. It’s impossible to defend Barnes and his team after this disaster. Yes it’s early in the season but there is simply no excuse for a performance like that. Even if Texas recovers and goes 2-1 in Maui (beating USC and likely Mississippi State), this trip is a failure for them. That’s a game any team with postseason aspirations simply cannot lose. After Sheldon McClellan, who is terrific, what does Texas have? They need Myck Kabongo eligible but that’s not Barnes’ only issue. This team is going to have a lot of trouble scoring and will need to win games in the 50s and 60s to put together a good season. Barnes has been a fantastic defensive coach in the past and will need to work that magic with this group of Longhorns for them to succeed.
- The Maui Invitational always provides incredible excitement but I have to ask this question: Is this the worst Maui field ever? With tournaments like the Battle 4 Atlantis also in fantastic but more accessible locations, are Maui’s days as the top early season tournament drawing to a close? This year’s field is comprised of an awful Mississippi State team, rebuilding USC and Illinois, and the trio of Texas, Marquette and North Carolina, all considered “down” by the lofty standards those programs have established. North Carolina is the only legitimate Top 25 team of the bunch, a far cry from the likes of Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State (hey, that’s the Champions Classic, what a coincidence!) gracing the Lahaina Civic Center hardwood. Even schools like Washington, Connecticut and Gonzaga have brought very competitive teams to the event over the years. There’s no doubt that college basketball teams going on a pre-Thanksgiving “business trip” to Maui is the highlight of the year for many of the nation’s elite teams but Atlantis and some other locations are nice too and not a long plane ride away. Maui will continue to exist as a viable tournament but its days as the best tournament may be drawing to a close.
- Two teams that performed extremely well in early tournaments this past week were Oklahoma State and Colorado. Let’s start with the Cowboys, who blasted media darling NC State in the title game of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Led by Marcus Smart, Le’Bryan Nash and the steady hand of Markel Brown, Oklahoma State put on an impressive display. Smart is one of the biggest and most powerful guards I’ve ever seen and that’s not even his greatest strength. Smart is a born leader and should fit right in on a team that has been in desperate need of one. Add in Smart’s high school teammate Phil Forte and Travis Ford has a team that just put the nation on notice. A big concern for the Pokes right now is the status of 6’6” senior J.P. Olukemi who is out with a knee injury. Ford has said it doesn’t look good and it could be a while before we see Olukemi, who won an NCAA appeal which granted him eligibility for the full season. Let’s hope he’s ok because he’ll add valuable leadership and depth to a good basketball team. Down in Charleston, South Carolina, Colorado upset Baylor (exacting revenge for last season’s NCAA loss) along the way and knocked off Murray State to win the Charleston Classic. Tad Boyle won 24 games in each of his first two seasons in Boulder and now has a team that can contend in the wide open Pac -12. The addition of the Buffaloes to the conference last season didn’t cause much fanfare but this team is proving to be an immediate factor in the league race. Boyle took Northern Colorado from four wins to 25 in only three seasons at the Big Sky school. There’s no doubt he can coach and he’ll do great work at Colorado. Boyle has all the pieces: a talented combo guard (Askia Booker), a smart and consistent three point shooter (Spencer Dinwiddie), a promising freshman big man (Josh Scott) and a terrific rebounder and defender (Andre Roberson). What’s even better is none of those guys are seniors. Boyle is quickly building Colorado into a strong power out west.
- Shabazz Muhammad made his heralded debut last night in Brooklyn but the UCLA Bruins lost to Georgetown in the Legends Classic nightcap. I was in the building and it was clear Muhammad was rusty. He did not start and Ben Howland said after the game that he didn’t even plan to play the star freshman as much as he did. Coming off a summer of injury and eligibility concerns, it’ll take some time for Muhammad to get into a flow and begin to blossom. He did score 15 points but wasn’t a huge factor in the game. The 6’6” swingman will help UCLA in a major way but expecting instant gratification is unrealistic. Of greater concern to UCLA is team defense. Howland has the difficult task of blending a bunch of offensively talented freshman together into a unit that can win a Pac-12 title and make a run in March. The Bruins will have no trouble scoring but they need to defend at a high level in order to meet their lofty expectations. Patience is running thin in Westwood and Howland needs to get it done with this group. He’ll have to start with a major emphasis on help defense and rotations in order to get his team ready for conference play. UCLA has three major non-conference tests still remaining on its schedule after the Legends Classic so time is of the essence.
- The team that beat UCLA, Georgetown, continues to impress me (at least in regular season play). This is John Thompson III’s ninth season in DC and the remarkable consistency and winning culture is consistent. JT3’s teams have won at least 10 Big East games and 20 games overall in six of his eight full seasons at Georgetown. The postseason success hasn’t always been there but the Hoyas are always in a position to be a factor in March. Why? It’s simple. While talent is important in college basketball, it’s not the number one concern at Georgetown. If you’re going to play for JT3, you better have a commitment to defense and a strong understanding of the Princeton-style offense full of screens and backdoor cuts. The Hoyas have finished outside the top 50 in defensive efficiency in just two of Thompson III’s eight seasons in the nation’s capital and have been in the top 10 in offensive efficiency a stellar three out of eight times. JT3 finds players who fit his system best and molds them into key contributors throughout their careers. Look at Markel Starks for example. The junior was a non-factor his freshman season before being thrown into the fire when Chris Wright went down. He picked up valuable experience and parlayed that into regular playing time last year. Now he’s ready to break out like he did last night against UCLA (23 points, four steals). From Starks and Nate Lubick to Jason Clark and Hollis Thompson, the player development in the Georgetown program is second to none.
- Another program that has shown remarkable consistency over the last decade is Wisconsin. Bo Ryan, now in his 12th season in Madison, has turned the Badgers into a top Big Ten program by building off of what Dick Bennett started in the late 1990s. Before Bennett and Ryan, Wisconsin made exactly ONE NCAA Tournament since 1947. One! Now the Badgers are a model of consistent winning. However, this leads me to last week’s game at Florida. Sure it was only one game but Wisconsin looked nothing like the Bo Ryan teams of the last decade. The Badgers were shredded by Erik Murphy and Florida and were never in the game. Offensively, Wisconsin really misses Josh Gasser. Their point guard and leader is out for the season and this team needs to find a go-to guy in a hurry. Jordan Taylor bailed them out of late clock possessions over the last few years but there’s nobody on this roster who has attempted to take the reins. Jared Berggren is a really good player but, being a big man, he’s not the type of guy who can take over late in a possession. Will it be Ben Brust or Sam Dekker? Brust is a talented shooter but it remains to be seen if he can create his own shot. Dekker is Wisconsin’s most talented recruit in a long time but it’s asking a lot for him to be the man immediately on this team. Wisconsin will be good and maybe the defense against Florida was an off night but expecting this team to contend for a Big Ten title is a stretch.
- While watching the Villanova/Purdue game late Thursday night, the sheer idiocy of college basketball’s “elbow rule” was on full display. Purdue had the ball and a four-point lead with under a minute to play when Villanova trapped D.J. Byrd along the sideline. Byrd swung his elbows around to protect the ball but with no intent to injure a Villanova player. He was called for an offensive foul, which was the correct call because contact was made. Then however, the officials went to the replay monitor to see if a flagrant foul had occurred. After some time and looking like they weren’t too sure, they charged Byrd with a flagrant one foul. Per the NCAA rulebook, a flagrant one is a foul in which the player makes non-excessive contact above the shoulders. By definition, the officials made the proper call (although some say Byrd’s elbow never actually made contact). My problem is not with the officials doing their job and enforcing the rules as they are written, my problem is with the rule itself. This is not the first time the so-called “elbow rule” has impacted the outcome of a game and it won’t be the last as long as this rule is on the books. I understand the premise of the rule is to increase player safety and provide a deterrent. But it hasn’t changed player behavior and likely won’t in the future. When I played basketball, one of the first things I was taught after grabbing a rebound was to use your elbows to clear space if you’re being harassed by a defender. What Byrd did was a simple basketball play and one that shouldn’t be penalized further than it already was. The offensive foul was because his elbows made contact and that’ all it should be. Instead, Villanova got the ball and two shots, eventually forcing overtime and winning the game. Flying elbows have been part of basketball at all levels for many years. I have no problem with the rules saying an intentional elbow is grounds for ejection. That should be. If a player wants to be an idiot and elbow somebody intentionally, he should be thrown out and suspended. Maybe that will change his behavior patterns. But the flagrant one rule is a travesty. A player (and team) should not be penalized for non-intentional elbow contact. Offensive fouls are fine if contact occurs but two shots and the ball is excessive and unnecessary. All it does is potentially change the outcome of a game while failing to deter players from swinging elbows (the intent of the rule), something they’ve been taught to do from a young age. It’s part of the game and if somebody gets hurt, so be it. Injuries have always been a part of any sport and players and coaches assume the risk.