Mailbag: Can UCLA make the NIT? Who is the most improved freshman?
Note: Seth Davis will periodically answer questions posed to him over Twitter, Facebook and emails sent through SI.com. Be sure to check out his Hoop Thoughts column every Monday and to send questions during his Twenty for Tuesday Q&A on Twitter at @SethDavisHoops. Tweets have been edited for clarity. Trolls have not been included.
What current longshot can make the tournament? -- Josh (@Josh12_25_80)
Lists, lists, I love to make lists. In order:
1. Oregon State (current RPI rank: 73). Don’t look now, but the Beavers have won five of their last six, including at home against Arizona. If this keeps up, they could be comfortably in the field, which would be a remarkable achievement for first-year coach Wayne Tinkle.
2. Syracuse (67). The Orange sure don’t look like an NCAA tournament team when you watch them, but they do have a neutral court win over Iowa on their resume. Right now, they are two games above .500 in the ACC. If they can keep that margin and don’t suffer a pratfall in the conference tournament, they’ll have a legitimate shot.
3. Michigan (current RPI rank: 66). A couple of weeks ago, we left the Wolverines for dead, but are they showing signs of life? In their last two games, the Wolverines, sans Caris LeVert, took Wisconsin to overtime and knocked off Nebraska. They have no top-50 wins, but they do have five games remaining against top-50 teams, two of which (Michigan State and Ohio State) will be at home. They also have a home game against Iowa coming up next week. Not a whole lot of margin for error here, but opportunities abound.
4. Evansville (69). It will be very difficult for the Aces to get an at-large bid, but they did beat Northern Iowa at home on New Years Day. So it’s not out of the question that they pull of a surprise and win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament.
5. Marquette (118). The Golden Eagles are 2-5 in the Big East, but many of those losses have been close. This league will give them the chance to win enough games to get into the tournament, but they pretty much have to run the table from here on out.
If coaches can wear whatever they want during preseason tournaments and charity games, why do most keep wearing suits? -- Okerland (@okerland)
I appreciate this question because I seem to be the only person who cares enough to comment and write about this issue. Why do basketball coaches dress like they’re going to a GQ shoot? I’m all for looking good, but how about being comfortable?
This is why we are seeing more and more coaches go to the casual look. Mark Few, Fred Hoiberg, Mike Brey and Steve Lavin are some of the more prominent names, but then there are also coaches like Kerry Keating at Santa Clara. When Keating was working at UCLA, he once got named best-dressed assistant. Now, Keating sports an equally sharp but low-maintenance golf shirt and slacks. And he’ll never go back. He even arranged for a donor to provide custom pants for his assistants, all of whom have children.
There’s another issue as well: It costs a lot of money to buy all those suits. It’s one thing for head coaches, who usually make a pretty penny, to invest in a wardrobe, but it seems silly that assistant coaches who make far less have to spend so much money on gear. Keating told me a hilarious story about a game UCLA played against Georgetown back in 1995. It was a big game in the Meadowlands, with 18,000-plus in the house. Keating was rocking his Sunday best double-breasted wise guy look when, during pregame handshakes he felt a big hand on his shoulder. It belonged to Georgetown coach John Thompson, who said to Keating, “Hey, kid. F--- the clothes. Keep the cash.”
John Thompson was so money.
Over/under of conference losses for Big 12 champ? -- Paul Gowen (@pdxjayhawk)
I don’t know about you, but I can’t get enough of this league. Games between ranked teams are hard to come by this time of year, but the Big 12 gives us one almost every night. That includes Tuesday night’s wild affair in Ames, where No. 15 Iowa State nearly blew a eight-point lead over No. 19 with one minute to play before escaping with an 89-86 victory.
We also have the added intriguing narrative of whether Kansas can win its 11th straight league title, which would be an incredible achievement given that the Jayhawks lost two of the top three players selected in last year’s NBA draft. Coming into the season, many people speculated that Texas would be the ones to end the Jayhawks’ string, but now Iowa State and West Virginia have emerged as the biggest threats.
So how many losses will the champ have? Well, Kansas has one, and those other two challengers have two. We’ve got a full six weeks go to, but Kansas’ only remaining road games against teams currently ranked are at West Virginia on Feb. 16 and at Oklahoma on March 7. That’s the final day of the regular season. The idea of KU needing that win to clinch its 11th of the row sends shivers down my leg.
Let’s say Kansas splits those two road games. I’ll also assume the Jayhawks have a hiccup somewhere along the way. So I’ll set the over/under for losses by the conference champ at three. But check back with me in a few weeks.
Still a believer in the Terps? How far do you see them going in the tourney? -- Blank (@BlanksTweets)
In a word: Abso-frickin-lutely. We are now in the dog days of the season, where teams like Maryland will struggle to find the requisite energy to play at their highest level. The Terps know they are going to play in the NCAA tournament, but that is still six weeks away. So playing a game at Indiana and home against Northwestern means far more to those opponents than it does to Maryland. Terps fans may be chagrined that it took a late, crazy comeback to beat lowly Northwestern at home, but the fact that this team could pull that off when it was clearly not at its best say a lot about its character.
So Maryland fans should not be surprised or discouraged if the team loses at Ohio State Thursday night. I’ve already predicted that is going to happen, so you can pretty much book it, right? The schedule from there looks pretty favorable. Maryland will not play any more road games against ranked teams in the Big Ten, but it will get two of those teams (Indiana and Wisconsin) at home. Besides, given the tumultuous off-season, new league and low expectations coming into the season, I’d imagine that Terps fans everywhere would want to just sit back and enjoy this ride, even if it’s a tad bumpy at times.
How the hell does Northwestern get over its recent choke jobs? Especially the absurd finish in Maryland. -- Walto (@WalterHorn)
Well, one man’s choke job is another man’s plucky effort, but the point is the same: Northwestern is having a dickens of a time getting out of this self-destructive tailspin. I didn’t see the end of the Maryland game live, but I watched it on my laptop the next day, and even knowing what was coming it was painful to watch. The Wildcats absolutely self-destructed against Maryland’s press. Northwestern led by 11 -- 11! -- with 3:28 to play but still managed to lose on a Dez Wells tip-in. Incidentally, that tip-in was the only time Maryland led the whole game.
It was the Wildcats’ sixth straight loss, but aside from a 23-point loss at home to Wisconsin, all of those losses were within reach. The Wildcats lost in overtime at Michigan State by seven points, then they lost by five at home to Illinois, by two at Michigan, by two at home to Ohio State, and then by two at Maryland. Chris Collins must feel like it’s Groundhog Day when he walks into a postgame press conference. I'm sure his players are incredibly frustrated.
Of course, the fact that Northwestern is even this competitive is remarkable. This is the program that famously has never played in the NCAA tournament. Two of Northwestern’s starters are freshmen, including leading scorer Bryant McIntosh, a 6-foot-3 guard from Indiana who is averaging 12.4 points (on 38.8 percent three-point shooting) to go along with 4.5 assists and 2.8 rebounds. Collins also has a commitment from Aaron Felton, a 6-7 forward from Massachusetts who is ranked No. 99 in the senior class by Rivals.com. That’s exactly the kind of player around whom Collins is going to build this program – good enough to play in the Big Ten, but not good enough to leave early for the NBA. It’s easy to envision that three or four years down the road, this program will be stocked with such players, only then they will be upperclassmen who have been tested by adversity.
So my advice to the rest of the Big Ten is to beat up on Northwestern while you can. This program is headed in the right direction. It’s just going to take a little while before it reaches a more palatable destination.
Most improved freshman besides D'Angelo Russell and Stanley Johnson since start of the season? -- KG (@kdag90)
Yeah! I get to make another list! Most Improved Freshmen, in order:
1. Kelly Oubre, 6-7 forward, Kansas. This is an easy one for the top spot. For the first month of the season, Oubre was barely getting off the bench. He broke out for his first double-digit game on Dec. 20, when he lit up Lafayette for 23 points, and though he still tends to disappear, his improvement is a big reason the Jayhawks have gotten so much better the last month. Witness his 19-point, nine-rebound performance in last week’s win over Oklahoma.
2. Isaac Copeland, 6-9 forward, Georgetown. He was the most heralded of John Thompson III’s recruits, but it is only within the last couple of weeks that he is starting to assert himself. Copeland had back-to-back 17-point games in recent wins over Villanova and Marquette.
3. Jae’Sean Tate, 6-4 guard, Ohio State. Wait, the Buckeyes have another freshman in the starting lineup? Yes they do, and he had 20 points on 9-for-10 shooting in the most important win of the season last Sunday over Indiana.
4. Terry Larrier, 6-8 forward, VCU. After going more than a month between double-digit scoring performances, Larrier now has four in his last eight games, including a season-high 15 in Tuesday night’s throttling of George Washington.
5. Khadeen Carrington, 6-3 guard, Seton Hall. He has had to shoulder more of the load since fellow frosh Isaiah Whitehead went out with a broken foot. In his last five games, Carrington has averaged 14.4 points, 3.4 rebounds and 1.8 assists.
Does UCLA even get an NIT bid? Is Alford out? -- Pat Keller (@PKelz)
To answer the second part first: Puh-leeze. Alford is only in his second year. It’s ludicrous to judge someone on such a brief span, and besides, UCLA couldn't afford his buyout even if they wanted to fire him.
Consider what has happened since the end of last season. In the spring, UCLA lost three underclassmen to the NBA, one of whom, Zach LaVine, wasn’t even a starter. Before the season began, two of the players Alford thought he would have, freshman forward Jonah Bolden and graduate transfer Jon Octeus, were lost for the season because of academics. (Octeus is now starting at point guard for Purdue.) The bench was thin even before Alford lost one of his few serviceable reserves, forward Wanaah Bail, to academic ineligibilty for the second semester. And last week, the Bruins had to play at Oregon and Oregon State without their starting center, Tony Parker, who was out with back spasms. Yes, the head coach is ultimately responsible for the program, but to lay this all at Alford’s feet is silly.
Clearly, UCLA is not an NCAA tournament team, but I had not considered the possibility that the Bruins wouldn’t even make the NIT. I’m sure the NIT would want them, so long as the Bruins fulfill the requirement of finishing with a .500 record or better. Right now, UCLA is two games over that mark. Looking at their remaining schedule, let’s say for the sake of argument they lose vs. Utah, at Stanford, vs. Oregon State, vs. Oregon, at Arizona State, at Arizona and vs. Washington. Let’s give them wins vs. Colorado, at Cal, vs. Washington State and vs. USC. That’s seven losses to four wins, which would leave them one game under .500 heading into the Pac-12 tournament.
However, if they split those Oregon games at home and win at Arizona State, which is very doable, that would put them three games over .500 when the regular season ends. So it’s going to be touch and go for UCLA to make the NIT. How the mighty have fallen.