Monday December 22nd, 2014

EAST LANSING, Michigan -- To three or not to three? That is the question.

At least, that was the question I posed to Michigan State coach Tom Izzo in his office last Wednesday morning, a few hours before his Spartans tipped off at home against Eastern Michigan. When we think of Izzo-coached teams, we think about blue-collar basketball: rebounding, manly screens, lock-down defense, attacking the rim, getting to the foul line, and of course, winning. Up until that point, Izzo's team had for the most part taken care of the winning, but the way they did so was highly unusual.

Heading into their game against Eastern Michigan, the Spartans were leading the nation in three-point shooting at 49.4 percent. Three players were making better than 50 percent from behind the arc, while a fourth, senior point guard Travis Trice, was converting a mere 42 percent. Moreover, Michigan State had been taking a lot of threes, averaging 9.1 makes per game, which was 15th in the country. During the 19 years Izzo has been Michigan State’s head coach, his team has never led the country in three-point shooting, and it has only cracked the top 20 three times (in 2003-04, when it was eighth; in 2001-02, when it was 19th; and last year, when it was 20th).

This is a wonderful way to play -- as long as the shots are falling. When they don’t, a team has to turn to Plan B, or Plan C, and it’s not clear what that plan is for Michigan State. Izzo conceded as much. “Yeah, and it’s hurt us at times,” he said when I asked if the Spartans were becoming too three-happy. “I’m a little surprised, frankly, that we’re shooting it as well as we have been. We’ve also been a better rebounding team and a better defensive team than I thought, but we haven’t been a great turnover team, and we’re an awful free throw shooting team. So yeah, there are plenty of concerns.”

• CBB POWER RANKINGS: Analyzing Arizona's scoring, Kentucky's platoons

Izzo was more prescient than he realized. Three days after we spoke, Michigan State lost in overtime at home to Texas Southern, 71-64. That’s the same Texas Southern team that had won just once in its previous nine games. The Tigers’ previous three losses had come by 26 points at Baylor, by 25 at Florida and by 40 at Gonzaga. Yes, the Spartans were playing without the Big Ten’s leading rebounder, Branden Dawson, who injured his left wrist in the second half of the win over Eastern Michigan, but clearly, they still had more than enough talent to win the game.

So why didn’t they? You guessed it: They shot terribly from three-point range, making just 4 of their 21 attempts. And yet, there was no Plan B (or C or D or E) in sight. Trice took 13 shots but did not attempt a single free throw, which is the sixth time this season he failed to get to the stripe -- inexcusable for a starting point guard. When they did get to the foul line, the Spartans shot just 12-for-21, and their defense was even worse, as they allowed Texas Southern to shoot 53 percent from the floor.

After it was over, Izzo took full responsibility, blaming himself for conducting light practices because he thought his guys were tired. “As you get older, you start worrying about people liking you, and I did not work my team,” he said. “I’m going to find out what the NCAA will legally allow me to practice tomorrow, and then I’m going to probably exceed it.”

Izzo’s players don’t need to be punished. They just need a new identity. As it turns out, all those threes were fools’ gold. The strategy worked well against lesser teams, but in their four losses, Michigan State shot 32.0 percent from three-point range (24-for-75). In the one loss where they did shoot it well (9-for-17 against Notre Dame), the Spartans only shot nine free throws, while the Irish shot 25.

• MORE CBB: Virginia showed off its Final Four potential against Harvard

Still, I don’t expect Izzo to abandon the three-ball altogether -- nor should he. Much of the Spartans’ proficiency has come about through excellent ball movement. Their first option has been to try to score in transition, but when they are running their halfcourt offense, they use a whip-it-around style that is reminiscent of the San Antonio Spurs. That’s no accident, because Izzo’s former assistant, Jim Boylen, is now an assistant with the Spurs, and Izzo spent a lot of time over the summer picking his brain. The Spartans’ offense is beautiful to watch. Michigan State ranks 12th in the country in assists per made field goals, and they are on pace to set a single-season school record in assists for the second straight year.

So yes, it would be foolish for Michigan State to stop utilizing its primary strength. It just needs to develop more strengths. If the Spartans didn’t realize it before, they certainly do now.

Other Hoop Thoughts

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• It was very impressive to see Louisville guard Terry Rozier totally take over the Cardinals’ game against Western Kentucky after Montrezl Harrell was ejected early in the first half. I especially love the way Rozier repeatedly attacked the rim, making 11-for-13 from the foul line to finish with a career-high 32 points. As good as Harrell is (and he’s probably the frontrunner for national POY at this early stage), one-man teams rarely make the Final Four.

• That Syracuse loss at Villanova is gonna sting for a long, long time. The Orange never even trailed until overtime. I’m glad Jim Boeheim and Jay Wright both said afterward they want to continue the series. Give Boeheim credit for doing that, and for also setting up a series with St. John’s and Georgetown. UConn and Georgetown will also start a home-and-home next year. Games like these are wonderful for college basketball.

• Incidentally, Syracuse is ranked dead last in the country in three-point shooting. That’s, you know, a problem.

• And how come no one has launched the Jim Boeheim Press Conference Channel?

• Please tell me you’re not one of those fools who gave up on Kansas freshman Kelly Oubre. After scoring a total of 31 points in his first nine games, Oubre exploded for 23 points to go along with 10 rebounds in the Jayhawks’ rout of Lafayette on Saturday. I’ve been saying from the beginning that people overreacted to KU’s blowout loss to Kentucky. This is a young but very talented team with lots of room to get better. It’s just amazing to me how people lose patience because it takes a highly touted freshman all of two months to figure out how to have an impact at the college level.

• I feel like I shouldn’t like the phrase “score the ball,” but I can’t help it. It’s like when Hubie Brown says “in the paint area.” It just sounds right.

• Obviously beating Ohio State was huge for North Carolina, but I’m still concerned with how poorly Marcus Paige is shooting. If he’s not All-America good, the Tar Heels are going to have a hard time contending for an ACC crown and playing deep into March. One thing I do expect to see is Paige playing alongside freshman point guard Joel Berry II. That combination allows Paige to move off the ball, where he is clearly more comfortable.

• If there’s any coach in college basketball history who has made better use of bringing in transfers than Fred Hoiberg, I can’t think of him. On Saturday, Hoiberg’s latest addition, 6-foot-9 junior forward Jameel McKay, made his Cyclones debut, scoring eight points and collecting five rebounds in just 13 minutes of a 29-point win over Drake. McKay was one of the top jucos in the country for Indian Hills Community College before transferring to Marquette. He left that school before the start of last season, so this was his Division I debut -- and he could be a game-changer for a team that lacks a bona fide rim protector. And if that weren't enough, last week Hoiberg landed yet another transfer from Marquette, Deonte Burton, a 6-4 sophomore who chose Iowa State over UCLA. Burton will become eligible in December next season.

• Speaking of midseason transfers, Florida desperately needs Alex Murphy to bolster its lagging offense. Murphy is a versatile 6-10 junior who transferred from Duke and is the younger brother of former Gator forward Erik Murphy. Alex came off the bench to score nine points in Saturday’s win over Wake Forest but trust me, he is going to become an integral part of the Gators’ rotation as soon as Billy Donovan can get him up to speed.

• Meanwhile, Florida guard Eli Carter missed yet another game, this time because he has come down with strep throat and has lost 13 pounds. It takes a while to recover from something like that. That dude cannot catch a break.

• This is a really down year for the point guard position. You’d be hard pressed to come up with a first team All-America at that spot.

• Trust me, Notre Dame is a lot better than you think. The Irish could be the best offensive team in the country.

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• If you’re an Indiana fan, you’re already thrilled with a win over Butler, but it’s especially pleasing considering the Hoosiers did it without a great game from freshman guard James Blackmon Jr., who scored just 5 points on 2-for-12 shooting. Funny how nobody is talking about Tom Crean’s firing like it’s so imminent anymore.

• Along those lines, I cannot believe that anyone would seriously suggest that Brad Stevens would want to leave the Celtics for Indiana or any other college job. It’s pure fantasy.

• For the last couple of years I’ve been pining for VCU guard Treveon Graham to develop his long-range shooting -- because he’s so good at everything else. Well, it looks like that is finally happening. The 6-6 senior is making 42.6 percent from behind the arc, up from 33.7 last season. He has been especially good of late, making 13-for-25 in his last four games. If he keeps this up, the Rams are going to run away with the Atlantic-10 crown.

• In fact, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that the A-10 will be a one-bid league, especially now that Dayton dismissed its starting center and a key backup last week for violating team rules. Chances are the conference will sneak in at least one more, but it’s far from a lock.

• Depth is overrated. The ideal number of players to have in your rotation is seven -- if they can stay healthy. See also: Gonzaga and St. John’s.

• Admit it, Tennessee fans: It’s killing you to see Cuonzo Martin have this much success at Cal. You had a good man and a good coach, and you ran him out of town.

• You think SMU was happy to see Markus Kennedy back? The Mustangs’ starting center made his return on Saturday against Michigan after sitting out the first semester because of academics. Kennedy is out of shape so he only played 10 minutes, but he still scored five points and grabbed three rebounds in the 62-51 win. SMU has suffered a couple of disappointing losses without him, but now that he is back they could very well win a wide-open American Conference.

• Incidentally, from the standpoint of the NCAA tournament selection committee, SMU's season has just begun. Every game they played before this will be dismissed with the phrase "but they didn't have Markus Kennedy."

• Speaking of the American Conference, how about Tulane at the top of the standings with a 9-1 record. Sure, the one loss came at home by 22 points to a lousy Wake Forest team, and the Green Wave will probably get slaughtered at Washington tonight, but still, it has been a long, long time since we could write anything positive about Tulane basketball. Makes me feel like listening to The Radiators. Then again, I always feel like listening to The Radiators.

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Freshman D'Angelo Russell boosting Ohio State's Big Ten dreams

• And I still do not understand how the NCAA failed to include New Orleans in its list of future Final Four sites. This is a criminal act of the highest order.

• I’m starting to worry that Virginia junior forward Justin Anderson is being called underrated so often, that he’s about to become overrated.

• I love when a coach comes out of a time out and puts in a completely different defense than the one he used before the time out. Usually this involves a switch between man-to-man and zone. That’s why it’s important for the coaches to be able to draw up plays that work against either defense.

• You know what else I love? Guards who rebound and bigs who can pass.

• I realize Purdue junior center A.J. Hammons has taken a lot of abuse over the years, but it pretty disappointing to see him regress the way he has this season. Hammons is averaging one fewer point than he did last year, but he also has gone from shooting 51.1 percent to 45.8 percent. He played 19 minutes in the Boilermakers’ loss to Notre Dame on Saturday, and he got only two rebounds. Hammons is currently coming off the bench because his coach, Matt Painter, prefers to start freshman Isaac Haas. But if Purdue is going to get back to the NCAA tournament, then Hammons is going to have to be a much bigger factor during Big Ten play.

Maryland’s program reminds me a lot of where Texas was this time last year. Like Texas, Maryland lost a lot of personnel in the offseason, which fueled speculation that Mark Turgeon’s job was in jeopardy. Yet, the Terps are winning because Turgeon rebuilt with players who fit more into the culture he wants to create. And look at em now: The Terps are an NCAA tournament-caliber team, and they will finish in the upper tier of the Big Ten. Pretty surprising -- and impressive. And a good lesson for all of us.

• Another reason to believe Kentucky will go undefeated in the SEC: The Cats don’t have to play a road game at Arkansas. They do have to play at Florida and LSU, but I still think if they do lose, it will be to a lesser team that they overlook. You saw in that UCLA game how good Kentucky is when its players are amped. You know they’ll be that way again on Saturday at Louisville, although I’d be shocked if that were not a competitive game.

• I know it’s fun to talk about all the good teams in the Ivy League this year, but just remember the Ivy has never gotten an at-large bid, and it’s not about to start this season. So let’s put that to rest. I’ve actually thought for a while that the Ivy should just go ahead and do a postseason tournament already. It’s fun!

• Sure hope Mick Cronin gets well soon.

• Courtesy of USA Today writer Dan Wolken, here’s a list of teams that Big Ten schools have lost to this season: NJIT, Eastern Michigan, Saint Peter’s, St. Francis, Central Michigan, Incarnate Word, North Florida, EWU and Texas Southern.

• Have you noticed how easily Jahlil Okafor palms the basketball? He holds that thing like it’s a frickin’ tennis ball. That is such a huge asset.

• I like that Rick Pitino and Roy Williams are so eager to play games against teams coached by former assistants. Most coaches try to avoid doing that, which never made sense to me.

• It wasn’t that long ago that serious people were openly speculating about Jay Wright’s job security. Just keep that in mind.

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No. 1 Kentucky takes domination to new level in demolition of UCLA

• I totally agree with Jay Bilas about the lunacy of the 10-second time out rule. Right now, in college basketball, if a team calls time out in the backcourt, the 10-second count is reset, even though the shot clock is not. So if you’ve played great defense and put your opponent on the verge of a violation, that team can simply call time out and get a fresh count. Like I said, lunacy.

• And yes, that’s another reason to drastically reduce the number of time outs. I say one per team per half, tops.

• How is UNLV first in the country in blocks per game (9.1) but 330th in offensive rebound percentage? If you can do it at one end of the floor, you should be able to do it at the other.

• I also don’t get UNLV’s schedule. I’m all for coaches playing tough games in the nonconference, but Dave Rice knew he’d have a young, rebuilding team. Yet, so far the Rebels have played Stanford, Temple and Utah on a neutral court; a road game at Arizona State; and they still have to play Arizona at home this Tuesday and Kansas on the road on January 4th. Someone bit off more than his kids can chew.

• It’s becoming apparent that Wichita State is missing Cleanthony Early more than I thought it would. Part of that is because the Shockers are not as strong in the paint (especially defensively) as they were a year ago. They were very fortunate to escape Alabama at home last week. I think they’re due for a comedown.

• It’s funny to me that so many people want to figure out who is the second-best team in the Big Ten. Isn’t that what the season is for?

• We all knew Arizona freshman Stanley Johnson was a good athlete and a natural scorer, but I certainly did not anticipate him being this good of a three-point shooter so early in his career. Makes a big difference for a team that can struggle at times scoring in the halfcourt. That was a very, very good win the Wildcats earned at UTEP on Friday night, and Johnson was the biggest reason they did.

• Did you know Gary Payton’s son plays for Oregon State? His name is Gary II, and they call him the Mitten. He had a triple double (10 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) in the Beavers’ win over Grambling State last week.

Five Games I'm Psyched to See This Week

Kathy Willens/AP

Wisconsin at Cal, Monday, 9 p.m., ESPN2

In an otherwise slow week for college hoops, the chance to see Cal junior guard Tyrone Wallace, who is having an All-American caliber season, go up against Frank the Tank and his pals is a holiday delight. I’d be inclined to go with the home team in an upset, but Haas Pavilion isn’t exactly the most intimidating environment.

Wisconsin 70, Cal 64

Stanford at Texas, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2

The Cardinal hung tough at BYU on Saturday but couldn’t quite pull off the road win. It’s hard to imagine them faring better against a Longhorns team that is one of the few in the country who has a bigger, stronger and more talented frontcourt than Stanford’s.

Texas 80, Stanford 68

Kansas at Temple, Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN2

I’ll say it again because it cannot be said enough: Thank goodness for coaches like Bill Self, who schedule true road nonconference games against quality teams. The Owls just added two important midseason transfers in 6-5 senior guard Jesse Morgan and 6-2 junior guard Devin Coleman, but that won’t be enough to overtake a young Jayhawks squad that is growing up fast.

Kansas 78, Temple 64

Arizona at UNLV, Tuesday, 10 p.m., CBS Sports Network

As I noted above, the last thing that UNLV needs is to deal with Arizona right now. Maybe the Wildcats will take them lightly, but they are so smothering defensively that they could potentially overwhelm the Rebels’ untested guards.

Arizona 79, UNLV 60

NJIT at Villanova, Tuesday, 7 p.m., FS1

The Highlanders have lost two of the four games they’ve played since their epic win at Michigan. Still, it will be fun to watch them try to take down the Goliathan Wildcats, which were extremely sluggish defensively in their overtime escape over Syracuse last weekend.

Villanova 78, NJIT 62

This Week's AP Ballot

*(Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)

1. Kentucky (1)
2. Duke (2)
3. Arizona (3)
4. Wisconsin (4)
5. Gonzaga (5)
6. Louisville (6)
7. Texas (7)
8. Virginia (8)
9. Villanova (9)
10. Kansas (10)
11. Wichita State (11)
12. Utah (12)
13. Washington (15)
14. Oklahoma (14)
15. Maryland (16)
16. Iowa State (17)
17. St. John’s (20)
18. Notre Dame (22)
19. North Carolina (NR)
20. Ohio State (13)
21. Northern Iowa (23)
22. VCU (24)
23. Indiana (NR)
24. West Virginia (NR)
25. California (21)

Dropped out: Michigan State (18), Butler (19), Colorado State (25)

It was a pretty quiet week, but this week is going to be even quieter. Washington beat Oklahoma to remain undefeated, so I bumped up the Huskies a couple of spots. I also felt North Carolina passed the eye test in beating Ohio State in Chicago on Saturday. I’ve said all along that the Tar Heels had the pieces to be a good team. They just didn’t have the right identity. But they’re getting there.

A hearty welcome to the Indiana Hoosiers, who not only got onto my ballot for the first time this season, but knocked off rival Butler in the process. That’s a twofer.

Wichita State had an oh-so-close call at home against Alabama, but the Shockers escaped by a single point, so I decided not to drop them.

Two additional teams that were in the AP poll last week lost, Miami (to Eastern Kentucky) and San Diego State (to Cincinnati), but you will notice I did not have either team on my ballot last week -- and in fact, I have never ranked Miami.

Among the teams that are tied for 26th are Colorado State, Baylor, Seton Hall, Old Dominion and Butler. Elsewhere, Davidson’s 9-1 start is quite impressive until you look closer and see that the Wildcats’ best win was at home over Charlotte by six points, and that the one good team they played, North Carolina, blew them out by 18 in Chapel Hill. We’ll know a lot more about this team when it plays at Virginia on Dec. 30.

Penn State is 11-1, but again, what are its best wins? Over USC by 2, over Virginia Tech by 3, and over George Washington by 13. The Nittany Lions’ lone defeat came against Charlotte on a neutral court in double overtime. That’s a nice resume -- but not even close to rank-worthy at this point. Ditto for TCU and its 11-0 start. Trent Johnson did the right thing in setting up the easiest possible schedule, but there is no reason to believe this is one of the top 25 teams in the country.

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