Saturday, July 31, 2010

Leonard Washington To Wyoming Team At Crossroads

Wyoming got some welcome good news today with ex-USC player Leonard Washington announcing that he'll use his final two seasons of eligibility at Wyoming. Washington is, unfortunately, best known for delivering a punch to Blake Griffin nearly two years ago. Not surprisingly he's known as a tough player who will do a good job of anchoring Wyoming against the far more talented teams they'll be playing in the Mountain West.

Wyoming is an interesting basketball situation right now. Most casual fans have no idea that they're in the Mountain West because of how irrelevant they've been in recent seasons (they haven't made the NCAA Tournament since 2002). This coming year, as was the case last season, the top four Mountain West teams (BYU, New Mexico, UNLV and San Diego State) will be worlds better than any other team in the conference.

That said, I actually talked a bit about Wyoming in my 2010-11 Mountain West Conference preview. I talked about how young the team was, with freshmen and sophomores making up three of their top four scorers. They had only one junior and only one senior in their regular rotation. I projected them to only move up from 8th place to 7th place in the conference, which doesn't seem like much. But after going only 3-13 in 2009-10, I expected them to be a pesky team in 2010-11, with a real chance to finish in the middle of the pack in 2011-12. Leonard Washington should make that 2011-12 team even better.

But before we get too optimistic, it's important to point out that Wyoming fans actually very much disagree with me on the program's direction. Two weeks ago ESPN talked about how unpopular Wyoming coach Heath Schroyer is on campus and among fans. Fans have been frustrated with the seeming lack of progress over the past few years, as well as specific roster moves. That said, I do think the team has made progress. They haven't made progress in the standings, but they've gotten younger and more talented. In my opinion, the most exciting player on the team was a freshman in 2009-10, Desmar Jackson. He didn't put up great overall stats because he was sloppy with the ball and had a high turnover-to-assist ratio, but that's typical of freshmen. He's very active, and creates a lot of offense and is a pest on defense. When he cleans up his turnover problems he'll be one of the best guards in the Mountain West.

To be honest, I don't know much about Wyoming head coach Heath Schroyer. He has only been a head coach for three years, and spent most of his time as an assistant learning under Steve Cleveland, who is a relatively mediocre coach. So just because he has talent doesn't mean he'll develop it. But he has a young core going forward, particularly with Leonard Washington, to have his team up to at least .500 in the Mountain West by the 2011-12 season. If they don't show improvement over the next two years then I'll agree with Wyoming's fans that he should go. Just because a coach can put pieces in place doesn't mean he can coach them. Some coaches are such good recruiters that they can get away with being mediocre in-game coaches simply because of overwhelming talent (the "Go out there and play basketball, boys" style of coaching, as I like to say). The talent at Wyoming is good, but not that good. Schroyer has to coach them. We'll see how he does.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Disaster For Drexel

I haven't commented yet on the situation at Drexel, but it's worth mentioning that two of their players have been suspended indefinitely after a botched robbery. Much of the robbery was caught on surveillance tape, so it doesn't seem too likely that they'll be found innocent. Kevin Phillip is a bench player and won't be much of a loss, but Jamie Harris was the team's leading scorer and assist man last season. Considering the fact that it's highly likely that neither of those players will suit up for Drexel again, this is a disastrous loss for Bruiser Flint's squad.

This is a relatively minor story because Drexel really just isn't that relevant right now. They've never been a huge program, and are not even part of Philadelphia's Big Five. If you've ever talked to somebody who is or has recently been a student or staff at Drexel you'll know that they're a bit sensitive about that, and like to argue that Philly really has a Big Six (officially they're in the "City 6", although few people are aware of that compared to the relatively well known "Big Five").

That said, I actually thought Drexel would be decent this coming season. I had projected them fourth in the Colonial, and in the most recent BP68 I actually listed them as a long shot bubble team. Obviously they can forget about that now, and will not contend for the Colonial title any longer.

This story does bring up for the first time the serious possibility that Bruiser Flint's days at Drexel are numbered. After a fairly succesful first few season, including a few NIT trips, they haven't finished higher than fourth in the Colonial since the 2003-04 season. And over the past three seasons they're a combined 26-28 in conference play. It's possible for coaches at schools without a ton of basketball tradition to continue to float along for many years without seriously contending for any titles as long as they can keep the team decent and competitive, and Bruiser Flint definitely has achieved that. But a key player getting in this much trouble is the type of catalyst that can wake an athletic department up to the fact that they might need a change.

I'll be shocked if Bruiser Flint is fired before the end of the 2010-11 season, but if the team finishes poorly and doesn't develop a good young core for going forward I wouldn't be completely surprised if he is let go after the season.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Northwestern Can't Catch A Break

Northwestern looked primed in 2009-10 to finally make their first ever NCAA Tournament. And then Kevin Coble and Jeff Ryan went down with season-ending injuries and the team came up just a bit short. But with Coble granted a redshirt and all of their key parts returning, it seemed like the Tournament would finally come calling in 2010-11. In my most recent BP68 I gave them a 10 seed, safely into the field.

But there's a reason why Northwestern has spent so many years on the bubble without getting into the Tournament - they just can't catch a break. And they got another awful break with Kevin Coble choosing to decline that redshirt, and to just graduate. Some of the more web-traffic motivated bloggers are going out and calling Coble a quitter, but I'm not going to go there. There are a lot of reasons why he might want to move on with his life, including the fact that we have no good evidence that his injury completely healed, and he might have been in for a year of pain and missed time.

But either way, the loss is a blow for Northwestern. They lack the type of bluechip talent that teams like Michigan State and Ohio State have, and they rely on players like Coble who can score points in bunches. John Shurna has that type of game, but he would have been even more effective if teams had to guard him and Coble at the same time. Michael Thompson is developing into a pretty good offensive creator, and Northwestern will look to Drew Crawford to really step up into a court leadership position after a very strong freshman season.

But this news definitely drops Northwestern to the bubble, which made me think about an interesting fact: as strong as everybody expects the Big Ten to be next season, the conference could potentially end up with only five NCAA Tournament teams (Michigan State, Purdue, Ohio State, Illinois and Wisconsin). My full 2010-11 Big Ten preview is here, but in short I have to put Northwestern, Minnesota and Indiana on the bubble, and at the moment I'd leave all three out of the field. Penn State and Michigan are long shot NCAA Tournament teams, while Iowa is... Iowa. The conference will still be very strong, and is as likely as any conference to be the best in the country, but it has the potential to be very top heavy.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Maurice Creek Playing Basketball Again

There is some good news and some bad news for Indiana. The good news is that Maurice Creek made it back onto the court this week for the first time since his gruesome knee injury in December, playing in a pick-up game. The bad news is that I would have thought it wouldn't have taken this long for him to get back on the court, particularly since there's a big gap between playing a pick-up game and being in good shape. He said, "I felt probably 70, 75 percent playing on it. There’s still a couple of tweaks here and there. but as far as being back on the court, it felt pretty good."

Maurice Creek was the best player on Indiana last season as a true freshman, or at least he was before his season was cut short. Before the injury the Hoosiers were showing a ton of improvement, as you would have expected with Tom Crean at the helm. The program hit rock-bottom in late 2008, and I projected in early 2009 that the team would show nice improvement in 2009-10 before getting back to the NCAA Tournament in 2011. I still believe that Indiana would have had a great shot of making the 2010 NIT if Creek hadn't gone down with an injury. If they're going to take that next step and get back to the NCAA Tournament in 2011 it's going to require a fully healthy and fit Creek.

It may seem like the college basketball season is a long way off, but it's really not. Today marks 12 weeks until Midnight Madness, and we're only about three months away from the first exhibition games. The concern isn't Creek being able to play - barring a new injury he'll be ready to start in their opening game - but Creek being fit enough to play 30+ minutes a game all season long. The Big Ten season is grueling, and they don't need him wearing out late in games, or late in the season. In my most recent BP68 I had Indiana just outside of the bubble, and this news about Creek isn't enough to move Indiana up onto the bubble itself.

So at this point it's up to the Indiana trainers and Creek himself. We'll know in a few months just how well Creek is able to whip himself into shape, and whether it will be enough to make Indiana a viable bubble team.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Nevada's Devonte Elliott Cleared To Play

Nevada originally signed Devonte Elliott back in November 2008, but he was declared academically ineligible and missed the entire 2009-10 season. After spending a year taking classes he finally was told today that he has been cleared to play in 2010-11. Elliott was rated the 40th best power forward in the 2009 class by, and 44th by ESPN. He was recruited by some major conference schools and I'm aware of official offers he got from both Gonzaga and UTEP, so he was a pretty big signing originally. And Nevada claims he's actually grown to 6'10" in his year off, and is even better.

Back in April I picked Utah State to win the WAC relatively easily with Nevada back in fourth place. And only a few weeks later I talked about how the WAC was being completely decimated by NBA defections, including Nevada losing Armon Johnson, and that the upcoming season would be an absolute cakewalk for Utah State.

That said, the Elliott (re)signing is just the biggest piece in what has been a very big offseason for Nevada. They have a very deep recruiting class coming in, led by an extremely athletic shooting guard in Deonte Burton, along with 6'7" swing forward Jordan Burris. But the biggest signing at all is probably Olek Czyz, the Duke transfer who will be eligible halfway through the 2010-11 season. It's easy to forget that he was once a pretty promising recruit, and I wrote almost two years ago that he was considered a raw talent and project for Duke. But he got buried on the bench behind the Plumlees, Brian Zoubek and others, and he realized he was never going to start at Duke. But with a lot of playing time ahead at Nevada he could still potentially fulfill that talent and become a very good player.

I still don't think Nevada will seriously challenge a Utah State team that is probably going to be even better than the team that earned an at-large bid to the 2010 NCAA Tournament. They have lost three starters, including their two stars (Armon Johnson and Luke Babbitt). The one very good player they return is Brandon Fields, who is a good scorer (14.5 points per game in 2009-10) but isn't much of a shooter (51.9% on two-pointers, 33.3% on three-pointers). By the end of the season their frontline of Olek Czyz, Dario Hunt and Devonte Elliott should be pretty strong, but probably still relatively raw. But the rest of the team will be fairly weak.

Fields is a good starting shooting guard by WAC standards, but it's not clear who the starting point guard will be, and the team really lacks shooters. Luke Babbitt really opened things up for the team last year with his outside shooting, and an underrated loss is Ray Kraemer, who was able to be a good three-point shooter when Babbitt was off the floor (he hit two per game at a 49% clip). As mediocre of a shooter as Fields is, he's the team's best returning shooter, and the incoming guards are still raw athletic talents without great dribbling and shooting skills. With no shooters to spread the floor, Nevada's opponents will be able to stack the paint and force Nevada's relatively mediocre dribblers to create offense in traffic. The team will be athletic, and should be vicious on the fast break, but I don't think their half court offense will be good enough for them to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007.

But that said, Nevada has restocked on raw talent, and with the right direction this could be a very dangerous team down the road. And considering how senior-heavy Utah State will be in 2010-11, the WAC could really open up for a Nevada run in 2011-12.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The New Bracket Format, And Why

The New Format: What Is It?

The new NCAA Tournament format is out. You can read the details here. It's a little confusing, but in short there will be four play-in games. Two games will involve the final four at-large teams playing each other, and the other two will involve the four worst automatic bid teams. The latter part is easy: we'll now have six teams that are 16 seeds. The top two will automatically play 1 seeds. The other four will be paired into two games, with the two winners going to play the other two 1 seeds. As for the at-large teams, the Selection Committee will identify four teams as the "last four at-large teams", which will be paired into two games.

Let's say that the last two at-large spots are an 11 and a 12 seed. If that's the case then we'll have five 11 seeds and five 12 seeds. Two of the 11 seeds will play each other, with the winner getting a 6 seed. Two of the 12 seeds will play each other, with the winner getting a 5 seed.

Why This Format?

I looked to all of the major sports websites looking for somebody explaining the reason for this format, and none had the right answer. You can read, if you want, the takes of ESPN, CBS and Sports Illustrated (you can find more yourself, I just wanted to throw a few links out there). I had cynically projected a solution like this a few weeks ago.

It's obvious to me that the NCAA wants to expand the field to 96 teams. Nobody thinks 68 is a number they want to stay at forever. The key is, how can they make the public want 96 teams? The answer is: make them watch the play-in games. Make fans get used to watching seven rounds instead of six. If you have eight 16 seeds playing each other in the play-in games nobody is going to watch. They had to include the final at-large teams into this to make people watch, to get people used to seven rounds, and to eventually get the public ready for 96 teams.

What's The Downside Of This Format?

There are a bunch of downsides. For one, it will somewhat ruin the best part of the first round: the 5/12 games. I've spoken many times about why the 5/12 games are always so close, and why there are so many 12-over-5 upsets compared to what you'd expect (you can read my extended thoughts here, here and here). The fact is that most of these at-large play-in games will involve 12 seeds, meaning that most years two of our 12 seeds will be coming in exhausted from a play-in game in another city that happened just two or three days previous. And remember (if you read those links I just posted) that it's the at-large 12 seeds that pull off most of the 12-over-5 upsets. So even if only half of the 12 seeds are handicapped this way, it's going to affect a majority of potential upsets.

The other downside is that it ruins the simple elegance and symmetry of the bracket. Not only the simplicity of two rounds a week for three weeks, but also the fact that same seed will have different paths. We'll have 12 seeds that play 5 seeds, and 12 seeds that have to open against another 12 seed. And each year we'll have a different number of 12 and 11 seeds. It makes it difficult to put together brackets, or bracket compilation sites like The Bracket Matrix.

And, of course, it means for certain that we're on an inexorable slide to a field of 96 teams. There's no way around that now. I doubt we'll even make it 5 years before people are clamoring for a new format, and we'll probably expand again within the next decade. The number of quality basketball teams is expanding, but it's not expanding fast enough that a field of 96 won't mean a bunch of very mediocre teams getting to Dance. It makes the Tournament less exclusive.

What Are The Benefits?

It's hard to think of one. The one upside is the one I'm mad about, because we're being played by the NCAA: the fact that we'll now have an extra set of enjoyable games between Selection Sunday and the round of 64. No casual fans watched the 64/65 play-in game we've had the past few years, but fans will tune their televisions to watch the two play-in games involving at-large teams. But as I said, we're being played. They want us to not only enjoy these games but to get used to a seventh round. It won't be long before we have 32 play-in games, instead of four.

Final Thoughts

To me, this is depressing. I don't like the new format, and I don't like how the "expert" writers out there are all praising the move either oblivious to, or complicit in, the obvious move to 96 teams that this foreshadows. But it is what it is, and college basketball is still a wonderful sport, and the NCAA Tournament will still be great to watch. So let's roll with the punches and enjoy it for what it is.

Iowa State Adds Another Transfer: Royce White

Iowa State made a small splash today, although it's not clear yet how much impact the news will have on the court for them. Fred Hoiberg's first big signing is Royce White, who will transfer from Minnesota.

White was a big star out of high school, winning Minnesota's Mr. Basketball in 2009. He was Minnesota's top 2009 recruit, but ended up not playing a single minute on the floor for the Gophers in 2009-10 because of off-the-court struggles.

White is going to appeal to play in 2010-11, claiming that since he didn't play a minute in 2009-10 that it should count as his transfer red shirt year. The NCAA probably won't agree, and I'll be shocked if he's on the court when they open the regular season. If he does play he'll probably have to sit out at least a semester.

Fred Hoiberg has been trying to re-fill the Iowa State roster since taking over in April. I talked about the team when he was fired hired, and I still agree that there's no chance of them going dancing in 2011. And if White contributes it probably won't be until 2011-12, so he could be part a future solid Iowa State team. The Cyclones also added Anthony Booker from Southern Illinois, but he also will have to sit out the 2010-11 season. The one new transfer who will be able to play right away is Darion Anderson from Northern Illinois.

So Iowa State does have a little bit of talent going forward, including Scott Christopherson and 2010 recruit Melvin Ejim. Booker and White qualify as talents for the future. So the 2010-11 season will be about developing these players and seeing just where Hoiberg is going to take this team from a style perspective. But even with these three transfers, the team still is at least a year or two away from being competitive in the Big 12.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Tennessee Wins John Fields Lottery

There is big news out of Tennessee that you probably haven't seen reported anywhere, but that could affect the Final Four participants in 2011:

John Fields has decided to take his services to Tennessee. He had graduated from UNC-Wilmington in four years while using only three seasons of eligibility, which allowed him to head to another school for graduate school and to play right away, without having to redshirt a year like a standard transfer.

I actually missed this story when it first happened, which was more than a week ago, because it went completely under the radar. But this is a huge story, and I'll tell you why:

John Fields is a name that you don't know unless you are a big fan of the Colonial Athletic Association or are a hardcore college basketball fan. UNC-Wilmington was an atrocious team in 2009-10, finishing in a tie for 9th place in the Colonial at 5-13. But the one bright spot was John Fields, who was an absolute monster in the paint. According to Pomeroy he was in the Top 50 in the nation in offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding and defensive block percentage. And 80th in the nation in fouls drawn per 40 minutes. UNC-Wilmington was atrocious in every offensive category, except for offensive rebounding, and Fields led the way with 3.1 per game. He's very long and very athletic, which means he fits in perfectly with Bruce Pearl's team.

Tennessee was already going to be very long and athletic at the frontcourt positions. They return Scotty Hopson, Cameron Tatum, Brian Williams, Kenny Hall and Renaldo Woolridge. They also bring in Tobias Harris, who is considered by some rating services (such as as the top power forward in the 2010 class, as well as Jeronne Maymon, a very talented 6'7" transfer from Marquette. They aren't quite as deep at the guard position, but should still be strong. Melvin Goins is very good, and will likely have Skylar McBee starting along with him. Josh Bone is a talented backup, and Steven Pearl is a great hustle and energy presence off the bench. Jordan McRae and Trae Golden are two shooting guard recruits coming in, with McRae more likely to play a big role as a true freshman.

The SEC is going to be pretty weak in 2010-11, with Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida being the only sure NCAA Tournament teams. I initially previewed the conference in April, and wrote more about the conference in May. I projected Tennessee as the narrow favorite to win the conference over Kentucky, their only serious competition. And I awarded them a 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament bracket. Fields, with his ability to clean up the mistakes of others on defense, and his ability to dominate the boards on offense and defense, is that small piece that could push Tennessee over the top to their first ever Final Four.

Some have questioned the decision of Fields to head to a team that is already so deep at the forward position, since he's going to have to share time with so many other talented players. He was offered a starting position at Xavier, Miami and Rutgers. But he's taking less playing time because he senses a real chance to do something special. With only one year of eligibility left, it's a very understandable desire.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Tim Floyd Already Making Bad Headlines At UTEP

Tim Floyd took the UTEP job this offseason while still embroiled in the USC mess. He continues to insist his innocence in the OJ Mayo case, even though nobody believes a word he's saying. Floyd took over a rapidly improving UTEP program that was coming off of an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. Back in April I projected them to finish second in Conference USA behind Memphis, and most recently I projected them as a 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Floyd made his first recruiting splash about two months ago, collecting Michael Haynes and Desmond Lee, a swing forward and a scoring guard, respectively. But Tim Floyd is like John Calipari - the question isn't whether he'll end up in a recruiting scandal, it's when. And the answer for Floyd is: his first recruit. Floyd made news last weekend by hiring Jason Niblett as an assistant coach. Niblett just happened to be the coach of both Lee and Haynes.

The hiring of relatives and coaches of high school recruits has long been a scandal in college sports. The NCAA has stepped in and passed rules that keep teams from hiring coaches of players to non-basketball positions (if you're willing to click on a .pdf with the entirety of the rules, click here). Floyd has found a loophole by hiring Niblett as an assistant coach, rather than as a fitness coach or as a consultant or something else. Of course, big money college basketball teams now have about a dozen assistant coaches, so it's not a big sacrifice to waste a spot on a guy who will bring you two big recruits.

This became a big story last summer with the recruiting of Xavier Henry and Marquise Teague, and I gave my thoughts and proposed new rules. It's really simple:

1) A school cannot hire somebody who is a relative or coach of a player signed in the past three years.
2) A school cannot sign a player who has a relative or coach that was hired by the school in the past three years.

Pass those rules and you end this problem immediately. Of course, coaches like Tim Floyd and John Calipari will always find the newest loophole. But let's at least make things a little bit more difficult on them.

If anybody thinks that either Floyd or Calipari will not leave their school because of a scandal or an NBA job in the next five years, I've got a monorail to sell them.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Dominique Sutton To Leave K-State, Possibly To ACC

There is some fairly big news out of Kansas State as Dominique Sutton is leaving school for family reasons. He wants to be closer to his family in North Carolina, and so NC State and Wake Forest seem to be at the top of the list for where he'll be playing in 2011-12.

By no means is Sutton a unique player in the Kansas State lineup. He is a 6'5" swingman who was 5th on the team in points, 2nd in rebounding, and 3rd in assists per game last season. But he did start every game but one, and was expected to be one of three senior starters to lead the team, along with Jacob Pullen and Curtis Kelly. Wally Judge and Jamar Samuels will both get a lot of time down low, but the player who I think will really see his minutes increased with Sutton gone is Rodney McGruder, who showed real flashes of athleticism in limited minutes off of the bench as a freshman. If McGruder can show that skill in extended minutes then I don't think Kansas State will lose too much without Sutton, even if it will definitely hurt their depth.

That said, there is not a lot of room to spare at the top of the Big 12. When previewing the conference back in April, I spoke about how there were four teams that all could plausibly be called the Big 12 favorite: Kansas, Texas, Kansas State and Baylor. I thought all four teams could reasonably be projected as a Top Ten team next season. So while I picked Kansas State to finish second among that group, they could easily slip with something like the loss of Dominique Sutton.

I still think that Kansas State is a clear Top 25 team, but right now I've got to drop them at least one spot from the 3 seed I had them in my most recent bracket projection.