On court storming, bad coaching behavior and more as March begins
I hate to say I told you so.
In the past, the debate about court storming has ranged from cheeky to petty to tiresome, but we have reached an inflection point. In the wake of the regrettable fight that occurred at the end of New Mexico State's game at Utah Valley Thursday night, people are coming to understand what I have been arguing for a long time: Court storms are bad, and they need to be stopped.
You didn't have to be a genius to see this coming. In fact, there have already been several tense exchanges between storming fans and opposing players this season. Kentucky guard Aaron Harrison momentarily squared off with a fan at Arkansas after the Wildcats lost there in January, but fortunately no punches were thrown. Likewise, shortly after Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart shoved a fan in the waning seconds of his team's loss at Texas Tech, he had a hard time finding his way off the court as the Texas Tech fans rushed to celebrate. It weren't for the vigilance of Oklahoma State assistants who ushered Smart through the throng, an ugly incident could have turned much, much worse.
Many people tried to blame last week's fight on New Mexico State guard K.C. Ross-Miller, who fired a ball at a Utah Valley player as the final buzzer sounded. Ross-Miller was clearly in the wrong, which is why the WAC suspended him for two games. But as soon as that happened, the New Mexico State coaches stepped in front of Ross-Miller and guided him off the floor. The incident would have ended there if the Utah Valley fans hadn't stormed the court. That is indisputable. The court storm created an environment that was unsafe for both the players and the fans.
Besides being unsafe, court storms can interfere with the way games are administered. In both of Arizona's losses, officials had to clear the court of fans who had rushed the floor before time had expired. When I called Pac 12 commissioner Larry Scott over the weekend, he confirmed that he intends for his conference to take action after the season is over. This would be following the example set by the SEC, which several years ago put in a policy indicating that schools will be fined if their fans storm the court.
"It's something we've been discussing in the conference office, and I intend to take this up at our spring meetings," Scott said. "We were looking hard at it anyway based on things that happened in our conference, but what Thursday night did was show everyone the additional danger involved in fans storming the court. Our highest responsibility should be safety."
Don't tell me this is about tradition, and don't tell me this is about letting college kids have fun. This is about safety, common sense, and most of all, respect. The players, coaches and officials have earned the right to be on that floor. The fans have not. If they can't have fun while staying in their seats, they don't belong at the game.
Thoughts On Cronin vs. Valentine And Coaches Behaving Badly
Some great basketball took place the last two days, but unfortunately the weekend was marred by yet another ugly incident between an official and a coach.
This one took place on Saturday afternoon between Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin and official Ted Valentine, a veteran of multiple Final Fours whose volatile behavior over the years has too often overshadowed his widely praised skills as an referee. With 10:01 remaining in the second half of Cincinnati's 51-45 loss at UConn, Cronin was arguing an out-of-bounds call that Valentine made in UConn's favor. Suddenly, Valentine stepped aggressively toward Cronin, and for a moment, the two men were nose-to-nose. This set off Cronin so badly that several of his players had to restrain him. Valentine would have been well within his bounds to give Cronin a technical, but he chose not to do so. The two could be seen talking on the sidelines later in the game, and the game concluded without incident.
After the game, Valentine called the AAC's supervisor of officials and acknowledged that he should not have stepped toward Cronin in such an aggressive manner. "I was just totally wrong. I was out of place by walking into his space," Valentine told me by phone on Sunday. "It was just one of those situations where I got caught up in the moment. I was out of bounds because I walked into his domain. That's why I didn't give him a technical because I knew I was wrong, and two wrongs don't make a right. If it had been 15, 16 years ago, I never would have caught myself like that."
Cronin, as you might expect, had some pointed comments after the game, not so much about Valentine so much as the inequitable treatment he believes coaches receive. I also spoke with Cronin on Sunday, and you can read our Q&A below. Cronin had a good point, but this incident did not happen in a vacuum. Rather, it occurred during a time when the behavior of coaches on the sidelines toward officials has gotten more and more out of control.
Look, I understand that coaches are under enormous strain this time of year. However, with the increased television exposure college basketball attracts, combined with the power of social media to turn every confrontation into a viral explosion, it is long past time for this kind of behavior to end.
I'm not the only one who feels this way. Jay Bilas made a compelling case for change on ESPN on Saturday. "I think there's a lack of humility with the way referees are addressed," he told The Sporting News. "If we think that coach behavior influences the officials, then that's a competitive advantage, and we need to put a stop to it. If we don't think it's an influence, then it looks horrible and it erodes public confidence in officiating and we need to stop it. So tell me how we don't need to stop it. We have to stop it. The coaches have to take the lead and police themselves."
The problem, of course, is that coaches won't police themselves. The rules need to be re-written, or re-emphasized, or both. I predict -- or at least, I hope -- that the rules committee will issue a directive along those lines following its annual spring meetings. Refs aren't perfect just like coaches aren't perfect, and the constant badgering is debasing the game that all of us care about. Enough is enough.
Other Hoop Thoughts
- Mark Cuban says a lot of smart things, but his assertion that the D League is better than college for preparing young men to become NBA players was dumb. Yes, college is not for everyone, and I oppose the NBA's age minimum -- and remember, it is an NBA rule -- because it forces kids to go to college even if they don't want to. But there is far more teaching in college than in the D-League. College is also a far better place for a person to develop character.
- Kentucky was never going to be as good as people said they'd be at the start of the season, and they're not as bad as people are saying now. Too many people forgot that for all the brilliance of Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the 2012 champs were anchored by three non-freshmen who showed the youngsters how to win. This team doesn't have that. Maybe in the future, this season's disappointment will convince John Calipari to recruit some four-year "program guys" to complement those talented one-and-doners. If he doesn't, this will keep happening.
- I still really like Kansas, but my goodness, these guys have got to stop turning the ball over. Also, be prepared for daily -- strike that, hourly updates on Joel Embiid's back. Good times.
- Florida is ranked No. 1 in the country and still undefeated in the SEC, but it is also still getting better. For their game against LSU on Saturday, the Gators welcomed back speedy freshman point guard Kasey Hill, who had missed three games with a groin injury. He gave them 21 solid minutes in the 18-point win. Also, redshirt sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith has become an offensive weapon. After reaching double-figures just once in his last 11 games, Finney-Smith scored 19 and 16 points in his two games last week. Is it possible to be the No. 1 team in the country and still be underrated?
- By the way, I cannot type the words "groin injury" without thinking of Sam Malone of Cheers rapping on local TV. For the under-30 crowd, that musical device on the desk next to him is what we used to call a "boom box."
- I have argued that Wichita State deserves (and will receive) a No. 1 seed, but I do think the Shockers still need to win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament to close the deal. If Arizona, Syracuse, Kansas and Florida all win their conference tournaments, it's going to be really hard to keep them off the top line.
- Kansas' streak of 10 straight Big 12 titles is a truly great achievement, but I do think there is something to the criticism that this is also an indictment on the rest of the league. At some point, one of these other schools has to step up and break this string, especially considering this is the third time Bill Self has won a title at Kansas after having to replace his entire starting five.
- Feels like it has been a long time since Trevor Cooney has had a great shooting game for Syracuse. Actually, it has been exactly a month, when Cooney had nine threes in a home win over Notre Dame. Cooney has been especially bad in his last five games, shooting a combined 13-for-48 from three-point range. Temporary blip or the new normal? Wish I could say.
- I picked Louisville to beat Memphis, but I'm not surprised the Cardinals lost. I am, however, very surprised at the way they lost, falling apart late and being outscored 15-1 down the stretch. Too bad, because I was enjoying watching Rick Pitino's grow his beard.
- Speaking of Memphis, the thing I like most about this team is its maturity. The Tigers know they are not a good outside shooting team, so they don't take a lot of threes. Against Louisville, they attempted just nine threes but because they drove the ball so aggressively, they took 26 free throws.
- The best bubble win of the weekend was Xavier's over Creighton. The Musketeers finish the regular season with Seton Hall on the road and Villanova at home. I think they're in, but one more win would erase all doubt.
- I've liked Saint Louis all season, but the Billikens have a difficult time scoring. Which is a problem, because scoring is kind of important in basketball.
- One of the most surprising individual performances of the weekend was turned in by San Diego State junior guard Aqeel Quinn, a former walk-on and transfer from Cal State-Northridge who came off the bench to score a season-high 17 points in Saturday's win at Fresno State. The Aztecs are another great defensive team that struggles to score, so this could be a promising development if it lasts.
- Please tell me you're not one of those people who thinks Michigan is better off without Mitch McGary.
- Look at Illinois showing signs of life. The Illini's defense has sparked a three-game win streak, including road wins at Minnesota and Michigan State. Obviously, the Illini will have to win the Big Ten tournament to get an NCAA bid, and that is highly unlikely, but it will really help these young players if they can finish the season feeling good about themselves.
- Speaking of Michigan State, it's apparent that this team is broken right now. Keith Appling's wrist injury on his shooting hand is a major problem that doesn't look like it's going to get better.
- North Carolina has put together a nice win streak, but the Tar Heels' horrific foul shooting will be their undoing in the tournament. You watch.
- Don't think for a minute it's not real important to those folks in the American Athletic Conference that they send more teams to the NCAA tournament than the Big East. Of course, that will be harder to do after Louisville joins the ACC next season.
- I have often praised the way the good people in Dayton have embraced being the regular site for the First Four. So I can't think of a better reward for their passion for college hoops than to see the Dayton Flyers sent there. Of course, that would be a tough situation for Dayton's opponent to deal with, but dems da breaks.
- Huge SEC bubble game coming up on Saturday: Missouri at Tennessee. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a play-in game, but it's sure gonna feel like one. I noticed Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin re-inserted Memphis transfer Antonio Barton into the starting lineup at point guard. If Barton is ready to handle that responsibility, the Vols will be dancing.
- Also a big, big bubble week coming up for Baylor: home vs. Iowa State, and at Kansas State, which hasn't lost in Manhattan all season. If the Bears can split those two, they could be in business. Two losses, and they will really be up against it.
- I think Gonzaga will get an at-large bid regardless of whether it wins the WCC tournament, but when you only have one top-50 win, it's best not to take any chances.
- I'm guessing you remember Winthrop coach Pat Kelsey's impromptu words of angst and inspiration regarding the Sandy Hook tragedy last year following the Eagles' loss at Ohio State. On Saturday, Kelsey invited the parents of one of the children lost that day to attend a Winthrop game, where the players wore the names of the Sandy Hook victims on the backs of their jerseys. Besides being a terrific coach, Kelsey is a charismatic bundle of energy, and he should be commended for following up his words with real action so those victims are not forgotten.
- Please understand there is a fundamental difference between a poll ranking and an NCAA tournament seed list. A poll ballot should reflect the voter's subjective assessment of where teams stand today. The seed list reflects where teams should be assigned based on their full body of work. In other words, if you don't think Wichita State is one of the top four teams in the country, don't vote them there, but there is no doubt that, as of today, they should be one of the top four overall seeds in the NCAA tournament based on their resume.
- I admit there's a big part of me that hopes Stephen F. Austin loses in the Southland tournament just so a) we can have the debate about whether the Lumberjacks should get an at-large bid and b) they can get that bid over a mediocre team from a power conference. If any of those who are left out have a problem with that, they are free to schedule a road game in Nacogdoches next year.
- Villanova is 8-0 in games decided by seven points or fewer, and 4-0 in games that went to overtime. Reminds me what a high school coach from West Haven, Connecticut, named Gary Palladino used to say: Basketball is 70 percent talent, 20 percent coaching and 10 percent luck. Sounds about right, doesn't it?
- He has done it rather quietly, but Saint Joseph's senior guard Langston Galloway is about to close out one of the best careers in the history of that storied program. He has already set the school's all-time record for made threes in a career (319 and counting), and he will finish third on the all-time scoring list behind Jameer Nelson and Bernard Blunt. And based on the way the Hawks have been playing lately, you'll probably get a chance to watch Galloway do his thing in the NCAA tournament.
- Three under-the-radar homecourt advantages to look out for during the first week of the tournament: Wisconsin in Milwaukee, Saint Louis in St. Louis, Gonzaga in Spokane. San Diego is also a first-round site, but the Aztecs can't play there because it is being held in their home arena. Ditto for Memphis and the regionals in Memphis.
- We've seen some complaining from coaches lately (Tom Izzo, Rick Pitino and Fran McCaffrey, to name a few) about the perils of social media. Call them out-of-touch fuddy duddies if you will, but I understand their point. Like everyone else on Twitter, I get some very vicious tweets from my followers, but that comes with the territory. I'm a man! I'm 40! (OK, 43.) But it's different for college kids. If you tweet nasty things at college players, then you are truly among the lowest forms of humanity.
- Best under-the-radar conference tournament will be in Conference USA. It's a one-bid league that has a four-way tie for first place, with a plucky UTEP squad one game behind in fifth.
- Someone please launch the Jim Boeheim Press Conference Channel.
- Most coaches I've been speaking with believe officials have once again reverted to old habits when it comes to enforcing the new guidelines that are supposed to limit physical defense. Well, guess what: Those whistles are gonna get a lot tighter the next couple of weeks. The refs know that's the best way to advance in the NCAA tournament. Consider yourselves warned.
- I'm not a huge fan of sitting a guy for the rest of the first half after he picks up his second foul. You're better off teaching him to defend without fouling.
- Speaking of which, I'm not saying Doug McDermott will ever be a lockdown defender, but he can't go all-out on that side of the floor because if he gets in foul trouble, then Creighton has no chance to beat a good team. McDermott knows that, and so do the teams he'll be playing against in the NCAA tournament.
- Don't you just love the way freshman forward Nigel Hayes has sparked Wisconsin the second half of the season with his toughness and energy?
- Biggest misconception about what the selection committee does: There is no S-curve. Teams are placed in the bracket according to geography, first. The committee can make adjustments for competitive balance, but the top No. 2 seed will not automatically be paired with the last No. 1 seed, and so on and so forth. Please make a note of it.
- I'm excited to see what North Carolina freshman forward Kennedy Meeks can do once he gets his body into shape. The school lists him at 6-foot-9, 290 pounds, so you know he's probably more than three bills.
- Speaking of the Heels, thought you might enjoy this video of me singing the UNC alma mater on FS1's Crowd Goes Wild after I lost a game to Jerry Stackhouse. After you watch the video, it will be erased from your memory. It's true, though: You can only hate something you love.
- I've liked Iowa for most of the season, but it has been discouraging to see the Hawkeyes regress on the defensive end. They have the ability, just not the commitment.
- You probably know that VCU's halfcourt offense isn't all that great, but did you know the Rams are ranked eighth in the Atlantic 10 in field goal percentage defense? So their halfcourt D ain't much better. Part of that is because they give up some easy buckets against their press, but the bottom line is, if you can handle Havoc (big if!), the Rams are just another good team.
- If I were czar of college basketball -- and as you know, that is only a matter of time -- I would rearrange the First Four so that in each of the four games, an at-large team would play an automatic qualifier. Wouldn't it be more fun to see Cinderella get four bites at the apple?
- Spoke with Ben Howland last week. Aside from a shoulder injury he sustained recently while riding a bike, he is tanned, rested and ready to return to coaching. You can be sure his name will be on a lot of short lists once the carousel gets moving in a couple of weeks.
- Too bad there was no Bracket Busters this year. The matchups were fun, it gave smaller schools got some good exposure, and it set up return games the following year that spiced up the first two months of the season.
- Did you see Jamie Dixon call a time out just as it appeared Lamar Patterson was driving for a game-winning bucket against Notre Dame? Yet another reason why coaches should have only two time outs per game. Sometimes they need to be saved from themselves.
Continue reading: Five games to watch ... a few minutes with Mick Cronin ... Seth's Top 25
Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week
Iowa State at Baylor, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2
If you're a bubble team, and you want to make the tournament, and you have a highly ranked team coming to your gym, you've got to win the game.
Baylor 74, Iowa State 70
Louisville at SMU, Wednesday, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network
You've probably seen Louisville play a bunch of times, but if you haven't checked out SMU yet, here is your chance. Larry Brown's Mustangs can really guard. They're also really hard to beat at home.
SMU 80, Louisville 73
San Diego State at UNLV, Wednesday, 11 p.m., CBS Sports Network
UNLV has won 8 of its last 11 to make things interesting. Still, the Rebels have a hard time scoring against good defensive teams, so I expect they will struggle against a great one.
San Diego State 66, UNLV 60
Memphis at Cincinnati, Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN
Memphis is the better team, but Cincinnati is the more desperate one right now. And UC is playing at home.
Cincinnati 59, Memphis 56
Iowa at Michigan State, Thursday, 9 p.m., ESPN
The Spartans aren't as good as I assumed they would be by now, but they aren't as bad as they've looked, either. I think.
Michigan State 79, Iowa 71
A Few Minutes With ... Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin
SI.com: Looking back on your confrontation with Ted Valentine on Saturday, are you surprised you didn't get a technical?
Cronin: He's the one who deserved the T. He ran and got in my face. I didn't get a T because I wasn't in the wrong. I was on my bench pointing out that the ball was clearly off UConn. I didn't get upset until people were putting their hands on me. The reason he didn't "T" me up was because he was clearly in the wrong. Teddy is veteran enough to know that he's the one that escalated the situation.
SI.com: It was pretty interesting that your players were the ones holding you back.
Cronin: My players love me and I'm extremely close with them, but they don't realize that I know Teddy. As a coach, if I want to get a T, that's up to me. I don't need to be held back.
SI.com: What will happen the next time Valentine works one of your games?
Cronin: I have no problems with Ted. Five minutes later, we were fine. This is the problem with our voyeuristic society. When my father was a high school coach in Cincinnati, he would go out to eat with the officials and the opposing coach. You could never do that now because we sensationalize everything. I welcome Ted on games because he's not afraid to control the game. He's a veteran and he tries to make it fair for both teams.
SI.com: As you know, this is not the only confrontation between coaches and officials that we've seen this season. I believe, as does Jay Bilas and many others, that we need to clamp down on coaches' behavior. Are we wrong?
Cronin: I know what you're getting at, and I'm going to give you the truth. The truth is that in college basketball, it's not equitable. Coaches are treated differently. Officials in different leagues officiate differently. This is in defense of the officials. These guys are independent contractors. They don't have benefits, they don't have a union, they don't have a governing body. If a guy is working in two different leagues, he might be getting two different directives as to how they want their league games officiated. At the same time he's getting NCAA bulletins from John Adams. So it puts the ref in a tough position. Who does he answer to?
SI.com: The problem is that coaches berate officials because they think they're gaining a competitive edge. Otherwise, they wouldn't do it, right?
Cronin: That's my point. If Seth Davis is the coach at New York State and he's going against Jim Boeheim, his fans feel like they don't get respect so they blow up the blogs and say they want a veteran coach. You can't sit there and not make sure you're getting equality. And by the way, neither can Jim Boeheim. Jim Calhoun didn't build UConn in the '80s by letting Rollie, Louis and Big John get all the calls.
SI.com: Meanwhile, somewhat lost in all this is the fact that you guys have really been struggling offensively lately. What's the problem?
Cronin: Our last two games we had 39 turnovers, and Justin Jackson hasn't been involved in our offense. Those are our two main problems. We're a team that needs to turn over our opponents. Our first 20 games, our biggest stat was turnover differential. We need to get back to that.
SI.com: Can this team do damage in the tournament?
Cronin: I think the tournament is going to be as wide open as I've ever seen. If we're healthy and we play our best, I like our chances on a neutral floor, but obviously we've got to get our offensive efficiency corrected. If I had told you we'd hold Louisville to 58 and UConn to 51, you'd have said those are two great wins.
This Week's AP Ballot
*(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Florida (1)
2. Wichita State (2)
3. Arizona (4)
5. Kansas (3)
6. Creighton (8)
7. Villanova (13)
8. Virginia (16)
9. Wisconsin (14)
10. Syracuse (6)
11. Louisville (7)
12. San Diego State (10)
13. Michigan (15)
14. North Carolina (17)
15. Cincinnati (9)
16. SMU (20)
17. UConn (21)
18. Iowa State (22)
19. Memphis (23)
20. New Mexico (25)
21. St. Louis (11)
22. Kansas State (NR)
23. Oklahoma (NR)
24. Stephen F. Austin (NR)
25. Harvard (NR)
Dropped out: Kentucky (12), Michigan State (18), Iowa (19), Ohio State (24)
Now this was a fun ballot. With the carnage that took place over the weekend, I felt like a stockholder who needed to dump a lot of overpriced blue-chip companies. Not only did that make me feel lighter, it opened up spots to accommodate not one but two off-the-radar midmajors.
For all of us who watched Kentucky and Michigan State tango at the Champions Classic on Nov. 12, we probably would have taken pretty good odds that at least one one them would be in the Top 25 on March 3rd. The Spartans may have their full complement of players, but they are hardly at full strength. Keith Appling's right wrist is not getting better (and probably won't until the season is over), and it will be a while before Branden Dawson is up to speed. We've been waiting for this team to be something it's not, but after losing six times in its last 11 games, we see what it is -- and right now Michigan State is not very good.
Ditto for Kentucky. The Wildcats are headed in the wrong direction at the wrong time. I did not expect this team to romp through the season like many others did, but nobody could have foreseen the way its problems have metastasized. I actually think Kentucky has a better chance to turn things around than Michigan State, because at least its players are healthy.
For an AP voter this time of year, the eye test is a huge deal. We've been watching these teams for four months now. We know what's what. That was the reasoning behind my decision to elevate Virginia and Wisconsin. Yes, their resumes are impressive (especially lately), but just watch 'em play. They are good.
It's hard for a team to drop from No. 11 to out of the rankings, so I gave Saint Louis some benefit of the doubt by leaving it at No. 21. There's no shame in losing a road game at VCU, and every team has a hiccup like the one the Billikens suffered at home against Duquesne. But I do think this team's offensive deficiencies will eventually prove fatal.
You may recall that I ranked Stephen F. Austin 25th two weeks ago, but dropped them out last week to make room for New Mexico after the Lobos walloped San Diego State. The Lumberjacks still have not lost since Nov. 23 so I'm happy to restore them at No. 24. You may also recall that I drove the Crimson bandwagon for the first two months of the season. I dropped them after they lost at FAU in January, but they are now 24-4 overall. With an 11-1 convergence record, they have already clinched at least a share of the Ivy League crown. Believe me, you do not want to face these guys in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Just ask New Mexico.
Am I biased and sentimental toward the little guys when it comes to my rankings? Absolutely. It's my ballot, and I'll cry if I want to. So there are some very good teams that I have tied for 26th, including Saint Joseph's, VCU, UCLA, Green Bay and Gonzaga. As for the four teams that I dropped from last week, they still have a chance to make up ground in the next two weeks, but I think it's safe to say they have bigger concerns than just getting back on to my AP ballot. It's the most wonderful month of the year, but for Kentucky, Iowa, Michigan State and Ohio State, it's getting late a little early around here.