In case you were fixated on Super Bowl coverage for the entire weekend, news released Friday that Connecticut head coach Jim Calhounwould take a leave of absence from the bench for an undetermined amount of time (possibly the remainder of the season?) to deal with spinal stenosis, a painful back ailment that can become debilitating. Although the general consensus from the national pundits was that a Huskies team already on the brink of self-destruction could find the edge of the falls, it’s probably not in the competitive coach’s character and disposition to walk away from the game after yet another health problem. For what it’s worth, UConn dispatched Seton Hall at home on Saturday afternoon, but they must travel to Louisville for a Big Monday game tonight and, as Mike DeCourcy notes in his above piece, the Huskies are only 9-9 in games after the first that Calhoun is not available to coach. We certainly wish him a speedy recovery and hope to see the three-time national champion back on the sideline soon.
The ACC has released its plans for a new basketball schedule once Pittsburgh and Syracuse join the conference, pushing league membership up to 14 teams. The first significant change will be the addition of two games to the conference schedule to get to 18 games (ACC teams currently play 16 games), and the second major change will be a pairing of natural rivals to play home-and-home series every year (e.g., Duke-North Carolina; Pittsburgh-Syracuse; etc.). Several long-time rivalries, especially among the “Big Four” North Carolina schools, will be scaled back in that the remaining schools will play home-and-homes with each of the other ACC schools on a revolving three-year basis. The good news within this system, though, is that at least every school will play the other 13 at least once per season.
With Frank Haith‘s Missouri team already owning huge wins over Kansas and Baylor this season, is it fair to say that he’s the early February favorite for National Coach of the Year? Considering just how obviously mediocre his teams were at Miami (FL), this season has been nothing short of eye-opening, especially in light of the fact that he walked into a less-than-welcoming environment in Columbia AND he lost his star forward, Laurence Bowers, to a season-ending injury prior to the start of the year. As Gary Parrish writes in his own mea culpa offering to Haith, nobody but nobody saw this coming. No matter how this season turns out for Mizzou and its coach, perhaps everyone (ourselves included) will think a little harder before rushing to judge a coaching hire based solely on his past performance. Sometimes a change of environment can make all the difference.
Remember the weird incident last Thursday night involving Cal’s Jorge Gutierrez and Arizona assistant coach Joe Pasternack where the Bears guard thought that Pasternack kicked at him when he crashed into the Wildcats’ bench? He thought it because it appears from the video that Pasternack may have let the heat of a close game get the best of him in the situation, kicking out at Gutierrez in a showing of immediate anger. Regardless of whether it was intentional or not, Pasternack released a statement on Saturday about the incdient: “I would like to clarify that my actions last night were a reflex in response to a player falling on top of me while running at top speed toward our bench… In no way was I deliberately attempting to engage him. My hope is that this statement will clear up any misconceptions about the incident and that we can move on in a positive fashion.” Take that for what it’s worth.
This week isn’t just the first week without any football nonsense to get in the way of college basketball, it also happens to be the best week of the regular season to date in terms of the games on the docket. As Mike DeCourcywrites in his Weekly Walkthrough, the coming week is an “embarrassment of basketball wealth,” with games like Duke-UNC, Florida-Kentucky, Baylor-Kansas, UNLV-SDSU and Ohio State-Michigan State on the menu. There are only five weeks left until Selection Sunday — let’s all enjoy the remainder of the ride.
On February 5, 2011, then-Findlay Prep star Nick Johnson tuned in from Nevada to watch his future team, Arizona, travel to Berkeley to face off against California. What he witnessed was a wild, back-and-forth, triple-overtime game that Arizona eventually won, 107-105. So Thursday, when the now-freshman starter Johnson and his teammates headed to Berkeley for the rematch, he was ready. Johnson scored 11 points and dished out five assists, and senior Kyle Fogg played what coach Sean Miller called “his best game since I have been at Arizona,” and the Wildcats held off a furious rally by late to win, 78-74, proving that there are still at least seven teams who have legitimate chances at winning the conference title.
Arizona Picked Up Its Biggest Pac-12 Win In Berkeley (AP/J. Chiu)
“I was telling the guys, I watched the game last year,” Johnson said. “So I knew it was going to be crazy, and I prepared for that.” Despite Johnson’s claims, it didn’t look like he or his teammates were prepared for the start of the game as they let the Bears jump out to an early 22-9 lead, looking lost on offense and uninspired on defense. But then, with Haas Pavilion rocking and their team looking to deliver an early knockout blow to an inexperienced opponent, Arizona methodically climbed back into the game and then Fogg took over. In the last 10 minutes of the first-half, Fogg had 10 points, two assists, two steals, and a rebound as Arizona stormed back (with the help of some generous whistles) to take a 45-34 lead at the half.
When all is said and done in the regular season, a night like Thursday night may be the kind of night that determines our eventual regular season champion. Coming into the evening, both Washington and California were tied for first place in the Pac-12, and both teams were treated to rough-and-tumble battles on their home courts against traditional powers in the conference. But, in the end, only one of those teams was able to pull out a victory. For the first time this season, Washington sits atop the Pac-12 standings, alone in first place after pulling out a thrilling victory overUCLA at the Hec Edmundson Pavilion. Midway through the second half, as the Bruins pulled out to a 10-point lead, it looked like the bad Husky team featuring incoherent offense, lazy defense and out-of-control play on both ends was going to doom Lorenzo Romar’s team again. But, sophomore wing Terrence Ross dragged the Huskies back, scoring 10 of their final 12 points, including a couple of threes from Abdul Gaddy assists, and the Huskies were able to pull out an important win. UCLA got a career-high 24 points out of sophomore center Joshua Smith, who was unusually active throughout, but the Bruins squandered a final opportunity. Down two, after having earned a defensive stop, UCLA has a timeout in the bank and 30 seconds on the clock. Instead of using that timeout to set up a play, the Bruins let the clock run down far enough that they were only able to get one shot as time expired. We’ve seen this on multiple occasions this season in the Pac-12 (Oregon State has done it multiple times, Arizona did it against Colorado), and it doesn’t get any easier to watch. It is just plain old bad game theory that doesn’t make a lick of sense. But, that’s a rant for another time. Also of interest in this game is that Tony Wroten sat out the final eight minutes of the game. While he was limping a bit during the game and perhaps bruised a knee, it remains to be seen whether this was a case of Romar benching an inefficient and wild freshman.
California’s game was just as wild as Washington’s, but in Berkeley it was Arizonathat came out on top, behind a season-high 23 points from senior guard Kyle Fogg. Fogg drilled a go-ahead three-pointer with 1:10 remaining, then came up with a huge running block of a potential game-tying three from Cal’s Allen Crabbe with 26 seconds remaining. Freshman Nick Johnson followed that up on the next possession with a swat of his own, this one on a runner by the Bears’ Justin Cobbs. But perhaps the most memorable portion of this game came when Jorge Gutierrez made a diving attempt at saving a loose ball and fell into the Arizona bench, where Wildcat assistant coach Joe Pasternack kicked Gutierrez. Gutierrez then went after Pasternack, yelling and pointing at him, and he had to be held back by Arizona head coach Sean Miller. In the end, no fouls were assessed, but Cal did appear to get some momentum out of the incident. However, the Bears were unable to score on their final three possessions, and now sink back into a traffic jam of three teams tied for second place at 7-3. It wasn’t all good news for Arizona, however, as sophomore point guard Jordin Mayes may have been lost for the season with an injury to his left foot, the same one he broke last spring.
Oregon is in the group a game back of first place after they took care of Utah in Salt Lake City on Thursday night. The Ducks started slowly and still trailed to the 5-17 Utes deep into the second half, but junior wing Carlos Emory, who, along with center Tony Woods, did not play in the first half for disciplinary reasons, sparked a 10-0 run that gave the Ducks control for good. Despite missing the first half, Emory was excellent when it counted, hitting all four of his field goal attempts and all five of his free throws en route to a career-high 14 points. Utah played well, getting 20 points and four threes from junior Chris Hines, while freshman point guard Kareem Storey played his best game of his career, handing out 11 assists against just one turnover.
Colorado is the third team sitting a game back of Washington, following their 22-point drubbing of Oregon State on Thursday night. The Buffaloes used a 22-9 run in the middle of the first half to build a 15-point halftime lead in Boulder, then expanded on that in the second half, running the lead out as far as 28 points in the second half. Sophomore forward Andre Roberson notched his 14th double-double of the season, grabbing 15 boards to go with his 16 points, and the CU defense held the Beaver backcourt combo of Jared Cunningham and Ahmad Starks to just six-of-20 shooting, 15 points, three assists and two turnovers.
Elsewhere, Stanfordsnapped its three-game losing streak by handling Arizona State with ease, and the Cardinal now sit tied with Arizona two games out of first in the conference. While at the bottom of the conference, Washington State handed USC its ninth loss in 10 games and saw junior Mike Ladd earn his first minutes in five games, returning from a thumb injury that had just this week had the remainder of his season in doubt. He scored six points and grabbed four rebounds in 24 minutes of action. Brock Motum led the way for the Cougars, though, with 26 points and eight boards.
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Austin Hatch Makes Progress, Continues to Fight: An update on the health of the Michigan commit following the recent airplane crash. (UM Hoops)
Calipari’s Buyout Helps Retain Him At UK: “John Calipari’s new contract extension already serves as a sign of a long-term marriage between himself and the school, but there’s a little provision that might have been overlooked earlier that might strengthen that. Calipari’s buyout is set at $1 million for each of the next three years, higher than what was included in the original deal. Under the previous agreement, Calipari had a $1 million buyout after this season, $500,000 after 2013 and no buyout in 2014.” (Kentucky Sports Radio)
New assistant hoops coach has family ties to Arizona: A look at the background of newly-hired basketball assistant Joe Pasternack. (Arizona Desert Swarm)
FIBA Americas Cup 2011 — USA Beats Argentina Twice in 72 Hours, Takes Gold: Led by a group of talented high schoolers the US dominated the competition en route to the gold. (Villanova by the Numbers)
WYN2K. The Sun Belt is a league that has seen better days in the eyes of the basketball world. In the 80s and early 90s, the conference was a top ten league that regularly sent multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament (10 times from 1980-95), peaking at four bids in 1986. Since 1995, however, the league has been exclusively a one-bid conference, as its corresponding seed average has dropped from a #10.9 (1985 to present), to a #12.6 (1995 to present), to a #13.8 seed in the last five years. In other words, the Sun Belt is trending downward (and league officials know it). What was once a proud mid-major league is now clearly a low-major (albeit near the top of that heap), despite its relatively robust 167-208 (.445) record against OOC opponents in the last three years. Some of this may be attributable to a loss of league identity, as the conference expanded away from its mid-South roots and has swelled to thirteen schools that span three time zones in locations that often have very little in common with each other (i.e., Boca Raton, FL, Bowling Green, KY, and Denver, CO).
Predicted Champion.Western Kentucky (#13 seed NCAA). Darrin Horn’s Hilltoppers have been a bit of a hard luck team over the past few seasons, averaging 20.5 wins over his four year tenure and winning one regular season championship, but having no NCAA appearances to show for it. Guards Courtney Lee, Tyrone Brazelton and TyRogers comprise a returning perimeter corps that is among the most experienced and talented in the league, and three other significant contributors return from a 22-11 (12-6) team. If WKU is to slip up, it will probably be because of its sometimes porous defense that has a tendency to give up easy baskets (allowing an eFG% of 52.6% – #272 nationally) and foul a lot (43.2 FTAs given up per game – #284 nationally). We believe this is the year that the Toppers get it done. Check the nasty follow dunk from C-Lee below.
Others Considered. Should WKU falter, the next best teams we see are Louisiana-Monroe and Florida Atlantic. Monroe returns all five starters from an 11-7 team that lost in overtime in the conference finals against North Texas last year. They were nearly unbeatable at home (14-0) and seemed to win all the close games (5-0 in games decided by <6 pts in conference) last year. Because of this, they were considered one of the “luckiest” teams in America last year (#10 via Pomeroy), earning 2.7 wins more than expected by their overall profile. Notwithstanding their luck, we’re just not comfortable picking a team that has nobody taller than 6’8 on their roster. Florida Atlantic is another team that returns substantial experience including the league’s best big man Carlos Monroe, a burly 6’8, 245 lb. beast who shot nearly 60% from the field and pulled down over a quarter (25.8%, #18 nationally) of his team’s defensive boards last year. The Owls also finished strong, winning six of their last seven games and pestering WKU in a tough quarterfinal matchup in the conference tourney before bowing out. New Orleans is also intriguing simply because the Privateers have a new coach in former Cal assistant and Bob Knight disciple Joe Pasternack, but they also have the league’s best player in Bo McCalebb, a Wooden Award candidate who averaged mind-numbing numbers last year (25 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.3 apg, 2.0 spg). Did we mention that he was the team’s leading rebounder as a 6’0 guard? There are three other starters returning from a 9-9 team that was #4 nationally in 3fg% (41.4%), #5 nationally in stl% (7.1%) and #11 nationally in to% (17.0%). The Privateers shoot well, take care of the ball, and have a fantastic player – if any team was going to make a huge improvement with a new coach, it would be this team. Quick note: last year’s regular season and tourney champs simply lost too much to be considered as a contender this year – South Alabama lost three starters and its head coach, John Pelphrey, while North Texas lost its top two scorers.
Games to Watch. The top of this league should be exciting to watch this year, as there are several excellent players (Courtney Lee, Bo McCalebb, Carlos Monroe) who could singlehandedly influence the conference race. With the unbalanced schedule in this league, New Orleans appears to be the most likely beneficiary (only three games against the other three, two at home).
RPI Booster Games. Given its location (spanning 2000+ miles from Denver to Miami), the Sun Belt takes on a full complement of SEC and Big 12 teams every year. Last year the league was 2-30 (.063) against BCS teams (WKU 70, Georgia 67; Ark-Little Rock 67, Minnesota 66), and there are a similar amount of games scheduled this year. Here are some highlights.
Louisiana-Monroe @ Kansas (11.09.07)
Florida Atlantic @ Boston College (11.12.07)
South Alabama @ Mississippi (11.13.07)
New Orleans @ NC State (11.18.07)
WKU @ Gonzaga (11.22.07)
Nebraska @ WKU (12.05.07)
Middle Tennessee St. @ Memphis (12.05.07)
Mississippi St. @ South Alabama (12.15.07)
WKU @ Southern Illinois (12.22.07)
Louisiana-Monroe @ Arkansas (12.29.07)
Odds of Multiple NCAA Bids. We’re a long way removed from the Sun Belt’s glory years, so none this year.
Neat-o Stat. Joe Scott is returning to Colorado to take over as head coach at Denver, just a few clicks down the road from where he revitalized the Air Force program in the early 2000s. What should we make of this guy? Using the Princeton offense that he learned under Pete Carril in the 80s as a player and 90s as an assistant, he successfully built the Air Force Academy into a Mountain West champion and NCAA Tournament team in 2004. So how do we explain how he went back to Princeton in 2005 and orchestrated two (out of three) terrible seasons and an overall record of 18-24 in the Ivy League (2-12 in 2007) during his time there? He has yeoman’s work ahead of him, as Denver ranked in the bottom five teams nationally in defensive efficiency (#330) and four other defensive statistics, as well as in the bottom dozen two-point fg% (42.8%) teams in America. Work on layup drills, perhaps?
64/65-Team Era. The Sun Belt is 11-32 (.256) in the NCAA Tourney during this era, but due to the severe drop in league cachet over the last ten to fifteen years, those numbers are somewhat skewed for present consideration, especially when you consider that the league’s last NCAA victory was in 1995 (#8 WKU defeated #9 Michigan 82-76). Despite ten trips to the second round (most trips: WKU with 4), only one team has broken through to the Sweet 16, Ralph Willard’s #7 Western Kentucky squad in 1993. In fact, that Hilltopper team was an overtime loss away (Florida St. 81, WKU 78) from meeting Rick Pitino’s Kentucky team in the elite eight.
Final Thought. We’d love to be able to say that the Sun Belt contains solid mid-major material at the top, but recent history belies that position as only once in the last four years has a Sun Belt team so much as tested its first round NCAA opponent (2005: Louisville 68, Louisiana-Lafayette 62). The other three years the Sun Belt team got blitzed by an average of 16.7 pts, and we’re not sure we see a way for this league to turn things around. It’s uncertain if there’s been any talk to this effect, but perhaps going the WAC/Mountain West route and drafting a few more teams, only to split into two leagues, is the way to re-focus itself.
For some reason, we don’t recall summers growing up as this boring…
Mizzou players Kalen Grimes (accused of assault with a shotgun in, of all places, a Jack in the Box) and DeMarre Carroll (shot in the ankle outside a nightclub) were involved in separate incidents within five days of each other. Mike Anderson’s honeymoon is apparently over in Columbia.
Bad Luck in Durham: Duke’s Brian Zoubek broke his foot in a pickup game; and Demarcus Nelson broke his wrist at the Pan Am trials within the last week. No word on whether Greg Paulus’s mishap with autoerotic asphyxiation will affect his play next year.
SEC Commish Mike Slive will head the NCAA Selection Committee in 2009 – Ole Miss and Vandy are already making hotel reservations to reward their 18-10 records.
New Ohio St. President Gordon Gee says that he will not tolerate bad behavior on his watch within the Buckeye program… we’re still waiting on the punchline here.
The 2007 HOF Challenge on December 1 is set with two solid matchups: UConn vs. Gonzaga and BC vs. Providence.
Cal assistant Joe Pasternack takes the head coaching job at the University of New Orleans. Bears fans lament that Ben Braun didn’t take the job.
The Fanhouse put together its admittedly premature top 20 for the summer. Georgetown is too low on their list and Indiana is too high.
UCLA’s incoming frosh Kevin Love is the Gatorade POY. Still not sure how we feel about him – is he another Psycho T or Aaron Gray?
Wake got 2008 verbals from the #3 and #18 players last week (to go along with already committed #10), but is the Class of 2008 any good? Speaking of Wake, TrueHoop unearthed a fantastic introspective piece into the mind of the greatest Deac of all, Tim Duncan.
Seth Davis gives his takes from the road on the summer circuit.
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George Mason’s band director, Dr. Michael W. Nickens, has his swagger on. Pic via @davestipe on Twitter.