It doesn’t usually take much to set Roy Williams off, but even by his standards the man was in rare form last week.
“I’ve got to watch on TV where somebody’s [showing a] college basketball game and they’re talking about the freaking green room? That’s the most ridiculous thing,” the North Carolina coach told reporters on Friday in Chapel Hill. “That’s the most ridiculous freaking thing I’ve ever seen. And put it in capital letters and send it to ESPN. And tell them if they want me to tell them privately what the crap I think of them, I’ll do that.”
Tell us how you really feel, coach.
Williams was referring to a brief promotional campaign that ESPN launched last week called “Green Room Guys,” which highlighted potential NBA draft lottery picks who were playing in that night’s game and others around the country. My assumption was that ESPN might be collecting footage of these players for programs that would air in the weeks leading up to the NBA draft (which ESPN broadcasts), but a network spokesman, Josh Krulewitz, told me in an email that that was not the case.
“It was something different we tried as a way to serve fans by bridging the interest in different levels of basketball,” Krulewitz wrote. “While we focused on it this past week, we are still determining how much we plan to integrate the concept into our coverage as the season progresses.”
I realize that ESPN is an easy target for criticism, and as someone whose mug pops up on television from time to time, I am naturally sympathetic to the need for networks to attract as many eyeballs as they can. I also recognize that a few NBA fans tune into college hoops so they can get a look at future pros, and we all know that there is a cottage industry devoted to projecting the draft year-round. That is all well and good.
Still, Williams’s rant touched on a concern I have been having for several years. Too many people in the media put too much focus on the NBA when they are covering college basketball. I’m not saying there is no place at all for that discussion, but I firmly believe the time devoted to draft speculation is well out of proportion with the interest that college basketball fans have in the subject.
Perhaps it’s because fans understand that most of this blather is irrelevant. The draft does not take place until the end of June—nearly three months after the last college game is played. While every NBA team sends multiple scouts to college games throughout the season, the real work does not begin until the season is over. That’s when teams work the phones, interview prospects, bring guys in for workouts, and watch hours and hours of video. Only then do they start to make some real decisions as to whom they will draft and when.
Yet, we are constantly subjected to speculation regarding how much a player’s stock is fluctuating on the basis of a handful of games. Remember two years ago, when Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle made their debut at the Champions Classic? Much of the chatter on that night and in the weeks that followed centered on what order those guys were going to be selected in the draft. I’m not just talking about the on-air broadcasters, I’m talking about the wags on press row and in radio studios, too. And it’s too bad, because those youngsters did some really cool things for their teams on the court that that season. Lotta folks missed it.
This isn’t about putting blinders on. It’s about serving viewers and readers in a way that is good for business. I promise you LSU fans are more concerned with whether Ben Simmons can lead the Tigers to the NCAA tournament than where he will be selected in the NBA draft. Ditto for Buddy Hield at Oklahoma and Kris Dunn at Providence. And don’t even get me started on the wall-to-wall bloviating over whether Kentucky freshman Skal Labissiere should be a late first-rounder or an early second-rounder. The kid is not even a good college player right now. I’m far more curious as to whether he improves enough over the next two months to lead the Wildcats on one of their patented tournament runs.
The thing that bugs me most about all the draft chatter is the insinuation that if a player does not succeed at the “next level,” then he is not worth watching on this one. There are more than 4,000 players currently competing in Division I men’s basketball, and only a few dozen, tops, have a chance at a pro career. For the rest of those players, this is as good as basketball will ever get. That means it is our only chance to see them compete. We should be excited by that, not dismissive of it.
There is no doubt that ESPN does an incredible job promoting college basketball. Sure, the network is promoting itself in the process, but the sport still reaps the benefits. Look no further than the Big 12/SEC Challenge, which was entirely ESPN’s creation. The games gave college basketball a tremendous jolt, highlighted by the back-to-back tipoffs between LSU-Oklahoma and Kansas-Kentucky. It was the first weekend since August when there was not a single football game being played. (The Pro Bowl didn’t kick off until Sunday night.) All eyes were on college hoops, and the sport delivered beautifully. Even Lil Wayne tweeted about the Simmons-Hield matchup.
So I’m hoping that ESPN—and the rest of us who cover this sport—will take Roy Williams’s admonition to heart. His remarks were timely. The Super Bowl is just six days away, which means that college basketball is about to have the stage to itself for two glorious months. While nothing can match the Super Bowl when it comes to audience size and cross-cultural appeal, fans do not have the same special feeling about that game as they have for the NCAA tournament. For three-and-half weeks in March, the nation will become transfixed once more by a bunch of wide-eyed, lion-hearted young men who are playing for nothing more than the chance to extend their season by one more game. It is a spectacle worth watching, celebrating and, yes, promoting.
So let us all resolve to enjoy the ride while it lasts. March Madness is coming. The green room can wait.
Other Hoop Thoughts
• I have to start with a couple of thoughts from the Kansas-Kentucky game. It’s pretty amazing, but hardly surprising, that when the regular season is over, we’ll probably look back and say the best two games of the season were played in Allen Fieldhouse. Obviously, the disparity in fouls was a huge factor in Kansas’s win. The Jayhawks shot poorly (30–47) from the stripe, but they still outscored the Wildcats by 17 points from the line. Before you all start carping about the home-cooked officiating, consider that Perry Ellis missed most of the first half because he picked up two early fouls, and Bill Self went to a triangle-and-two midway through the second half, which curtailed Kentucky’s ability to score off penetration and get offensive rebounds. Meanwhile, even as Kentucky’s frontcourt players were fouling like mad, John Calipari refused to go to a zone. As a result, four Wildcats fouled out. By overtime, the Wildcats were severely undermanned. Give Self credit for making the critical in-game adjustment, and pass the word to Calipari that he needs to get a decent zone in his arsenal and be ready to use it if he’s in that situation again.
• As for Kentucky, once again Calipari is showing that he is as good as there is when it comes to developing his team over the course of the season. Even when his teams are on huge winning streaks, Calipari is eager to tinker. Derek Willis didn’t have a major impact on this game (six points in 23 minutes because of foul trouble), but Calipari’s decision to insert Willis into the starting lineup two weeks ago staunched the bleeding. Long-term, I don’t think Kentucky can rely on Tyler Ulis playing like Superman, but if there were ever such a thing as a moral victory (and I always say it beats an immoral victory), then this was it.
• And don’t you love that the game was played on the same night Kansas unveiled the 13 original rules drafted by former KU coach James Naismith, which the school now owns thanks to the $4.3 million purchase by a wealthy fan? One of my favorite alltime books is Naismith’s autobiography. It’s titled Basketball: Its Origin and Development. It’s a quick and highly entertaining read. Treat yourself and get it immediately.
• How about Texas’s schedule the next few weeks. Between now and the end of February, the Longhorns have road games at Baylor, Oklahoma, Iowa State and Kansas State, plus home games against West Virginia, Baylor, Oklahoma and Kansas. That’s not a gauntlet, that’s a death march.
• I feel like I should like Texas A&M more than I do. But I don’t.
• Don’t look now, but Mike White has Florida in position to make the NCAA tournament. White’s teams at Louisiana Tech were always real tough defensively, so it’s no surprise the Gators are guarding with tenacity. But now their offense is starting to come around, which surprises me. During Saturday’s home rout over West Virginia, Florida shot 12-for-20 from three-point range and outscored the Mountaineers by seven from the foul line. Senior forward Dorian Finney-Smith is having an All-SEC caliber season, and 6'2" freshman guard KeVaughn Allen has been lighting it up the last three weeks. He had 19 points in 35 minutes on Saturday. True, Florida was fortunate to get a highly ranked team on its homecourt with nothing to play for, but give the Gators credit for taking advantage.
• I am truly mystified why Ben Simmons does not attempt jump shots. I’ve seen him make outside shots in practice, but I believe LSU coach Johnny Jones made a mistake by not forcing Simmons to jack up jumpers in some of the early games against lesser opponents. Now, opposing teams have figured out that they don’t have to guard Simmons out on the perimeter. He had 14 points in the loss to Oklahoma and didn’t attempt a field goal in the final 10 minutes. That should never happen again.
• Incidentally, that was the 88th consecutive game that Oklahoma’s core four of Buddy Hield, Isaiah Cousins, Jordan Woodard and Ryan Spangler have started together. If you’re wondering why Oklahoma is so hard to beat, that’s a good place to start.
• I’m wondering how long it will take until basketball coaches start making sure their players get pedicures regularly. I guess it’s not real manly, but those dogs are important.
• Providence forward Ben Bentil continues to be one of this season’s great, great stories. The 6'9" sophomore, who averaged 6.4 points last season, had 26 points and nine rebounds in the Friars’ win at Georgetown. I don’t know if there’s enough oxygen out there for Bentil and Kris Dunn, but hardcore college hoops fans know all about him.
• Speaking of Georgetown, remember when sophomore guard Tre Campbell came out of nowhere and scored 21 points in that big win at Xavier? Guess that was an aberration. He has scored 10 points in his last three games, including a bagel against Providence.
• By the way, Virginia’s defense was so bad at Wake Forest that Tony Bennett actually played zone for a couple of possessions. Just when you thought you’ve seen it all.
• Yogi Ferrell gets all the attention at Indiana, and rightly so, but keep your eye on steadily improving Thomas Bryant, the 6'10" freshman center. He had 23 points and eight rebounds in Saturday’s win over Minnesota, and best of all he only committed two fouls. When Indiana starts playing the upper-echelon teams in the Big Ten later this month, it will be imperative that Bryant stays out of foul trouble.
• Huge development for UConn, which finally got 7-foot junior center Amida Brimah back on Sunday. Brimah, who missed 11 games because of a broken finger, played 18 minutes and had six points and two blocks in the Huskies’ win at Central Florida. Brimah is one of the top shot blockers in the country, and while UConn missed him badly when he was out, the Huskies now have a chance to finish strong and prove to the NCAA’s selection committee that they are a tournament-worthy team with Brimah in the lineup.
• I love that Thad Matta’s childhood hometown is called Hoopeston.
• Here comes Wichita State. The team won its biggest league game of the season at Evansville on Sunday thanks to 32 points from the incomparable Fred VanVleet. Better hop on the Shockers’ bandwagon while there’s still room.
• Can we at least float the possibility that someone other than Ben Simmons is the best freshman in the country? Marquette’s 6'10" forward Henry Ellenson had 32 points, 10 rebounds and six blocks in the Golden Eagles’ home win over Butler on Saturday. Why don’t you marinate on that for a while and get back to me.
• As long as I’m talking about freshman, have you checked out Oklahoma State’s 6-foot guard Jawun Evans? Averages 5.1 assists, makes 47.5% of his three-point shots, and despite his lack of size is grabbing 4.5 rebounds per game. Remember where you heard about him first.
• I get the sense people still think Marcus Paige is running the point for North Carolina, but 6-foot sophomore Joel Berry II is the one running that offense, and he’s doing a really nice job of late. During his last five games, Berry has had 20 assists against just three turnovers. That’s especially impressive considering how fast this team plays.
• Anyone who coaches in the Pac-12 will tell you that the second game of a road trip is really tough on the players because it is almost always a two-day turnaround.
• Purdue senior center A.J. Hammons has been really good all season, but he has never been better than on Saturday, when he put up 32 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and four blocks in a win at home over Nebraska. For much of his college career, Hammons has been plagued by a low motor, but he has consistently shown effort and intensity all season long. Love seeing a young man develop like that over four years.
• No one has a funkier free throw shooting form than Louisville’s Chinanu Onuaku, who is shooting underhanded a la Rick Barry this season, but Davidson’s Jack Gibbs comes close. When the referee tosses Gibbs the ball, he steps into it, catches it and shoots it right away like it’s a regular jump shot. He’s converting 82.9% from the line this season, so it must work.
• Anyone else notice that San Diego State is 9–0 in the Mountain West? The Aztecs were sort of written off during the nonconference season, but that loss at home to Little Rock looks a lot better now than it did then. (The Trojans are 19–2 overall and 9–1 in the Sun Belt.) Once again, the Aztecs are grinding down opponents by slowing the tempo and funneling everything to their uber shot blocker, Skylar Spencer. I haven’t thought that this team could get an at-large bid if it doesn’t win the conference tourney, but I’m starting to come around.
• You know, if the Terrapins really put their collective minds to it, they could be a great, not good, defensive team. I’ve seen flashes but not enough consistency.
• Gotta love Ivy League dramatics. On Saturday night, Columbia fell behind to Harvard 14–0 and trailed 29–9 late in the first half, but the Lions came back and won on a buzzer-beating jumper by senior forward Alex Rosenberg. Columbia is now 4–0 in the Ivy, its best league start in 22 years. How do you like them apples?
• A few people have asked me if I think men’s basketball should go to four quarters like the women have. I have no idea why the women did it, or what the upside would be, and have no reason to believe the men should adopt it.
• I love that a college player is not allowed to commit an intentional foul off the ball the way players can in the NBA. Can you imagine how that would ruin the NCAA tournament?
• Michigan State freshman guard Matt McQuaid, who’s one of the best high school shooters I’ve ever seen, finally broke out to score 17 points on 5-for-8 three-point shooting in a win at Northwestern on Thursday. McQuaid will be a role player from here on out, but it’s not hard to imagine him stepping in during a pivotal moment in the NCAA tournament and banging in a few trifectas to help deliver the Spartans to a victory. Grayson Allen, anyone?
• Remember when Iowa lost an exhibition game and people (O.K., I’m talking about myself) basically wrote the Hawkeyes off? Well, the team that beat them, Augustana (S.D.), is currently ranked No. 1 in the national D-II coaches’ poll. Just making sure you knew.
• I love, love, love that Michael Phelps donned a Speedo, wore his Olympic medals and joined the Arizona State student section’s “curtain of distraction.” Phelps is training at ASU for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
• On the flip side, you can call me a fuddy duddy, but I fear the Monmouth bench has jumped the shark. That was quick.
• If you think it’s impressive that Oregon snapped Arizona’s 49-game home win streak and now leads the Pac-12 with a 7–2 record (18–4 overall), consider that the Ducks are doing this without the guy who was supposed to be their starting point guard, Dylan Ennis, a graduate transfer from Villanova who played two games in December but then re-aggravated a foot injury and was lost for the season.
Five games I’m psyched to see this week
North Carolina at Louisville, Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN
Louisville was so awful offensively in Saturday’s loss to Virginia, you’d have to believe the Cardinals will struggle against a Tar Heels’ squad that is considerably more talented, especially in the frontcourt. In this crazy season, we should expect to be surprised, but I have a hard time envisioning Louisville turning things around so quickly.
North Carolina 78, Louisville 68
Georgetown at Butler, Tuesday, 7 p.m., FS1
We’re a long way from seriously pondering the idea that Butler could miss out on the NCAA tournament, but the Bulldogs sure could use some wins to get themselves back to the middle of the pack in the Big East. With four road games coming up in their next six, this is about as much of a must win as a team can have in early February.
Butler 66, Georgetown 61
West Virginia at Iowa State, Tuesday, 8 p.m., ESPN2
The Cyclones have had a nice little stretch here with four wins in their last five games, thanks largely to an improved defense. I know West Virginia will be looking to bounce back from that disappointing performance in Gainesville, but Iowa State has one of the most dependable point guards in the country in Monte Morris. That, plus the usual Hilton magic, should allow them to survive the Mountaineers’ suffocating fullcourt pressure.
Iowa State 85, West Virginia 80
Indiana at Michigan, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN
The Wolverines have won five out of seven games—including a home win over Maryland—since senior forward Caris LeVert was lost to injury. Indiana has had its own personnel issue with the loss of James Blackmon, but the Hoosiers have gotten much better on the defensive end, and they are in need of a quality signature road win. I say they get it.
Indiana 79, Michigan 76
UCLA at USC, Thursday, 10:30 p.m., Pac-12 Network
Bryce Alford had one of the worst games of the season on Jan. 13, shooting 4-for-13 from the floor and scoring nine points in a loss at home to crosstown rival USC. I think it’s time for Alford and his teammates to repay the favor.
UCLA 75, USC 73
This week’s AP ballot
* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Oklahoma (1)
2. North Carolina (2)
3. Maryland (8)
4. Iowa (3)
5. Xavier (6)
6. Texas A&M (7)
7. Providence (9)
8. Villanova (10)
9. Michigan State (11)
10. Kansas (5)
11. Iowa State (12)
12. West Virginia (4)
13. Oregon (21)
14. Baylor (13)
15. SMU (15)
16. Virginia (20)
17. Wichita State (19)
18. Miami (16)
19. Arizona (17)
20. Indiana (18)
21. Kentucky (24)
22. Louisville (14)
23. VCU (23)
24. Florida (NR)
25. Valparaiso (25)
Dropped out: Clemson (22)
I’ve been saying for several weeks now that the landscape would become increasingly settled as conference season moves along. To wit, this is the first time all season that only one team was dropped from my ballot, and even that was not a dramatic fall.
Many of the losses are happening on the road, so if a team loses to a good team on the road and passes my eye test, I probably will not penalize it that much. Indiana is a good example. The Hoosiers played Wisconsin tough in Madison but lost by three in overtime. They blew a healthy lead at home against Minnesota but held on to win. So I only dropped them two spots.
I have also explained in the past that I rely on the eye test more heavily than I imagine most voters do. That’s because, between my studio work, my TV habits and my ability to download games onto my laptop, I watch a lot more games than most voters do. That doesn’t mean my opinions are any more valid, mind you. It just explains my voting. Thus, even though Kansas lost on the road at Iowa State and held on to beat a plucky Kentucky squad, I still dropped the Jayhawks five spots because of what I am seeing. Although if Wayne Selden really has gotten his groove back, the Jayhawks will rise once more.
Oregon was my biggest climber this week. The Ducks did well to end Arizona’s home court win streak, and while the Pac-12 is pretty topsy-turvy, the Ducks do not have to take the road trip to L.A. until the first week of March. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see Oregon keep winning, and therefore keep climbing my ballot.
Valparaiso still has my confidence, as well as my sentimental vote at No. 25. I had a lot of good choices for No. 24. I went with Florida because, again, it looked terrific in walloping a very good West Virginia team in Gainesville over the weekend. If you think I am allowing one really good performance to have too much sway over my decisions, consider that the Gators also have neutral-court wins over Saint Joseph’s and Oklahoma State, and they played both Michigan State and Texas A&M tough on the road before losing by six and three points, respectively. Florida is also No. 22 in Ken Pomeroy’s national efficiency rankings. Maybe the Gators will get their comeuppance this week when they play at home against Arkansas and then at Kentucky on Saturday, but for now, I thought Mike White’s group deserved a little love.
Other schools I considered this week were Dayton, which has still lost just one Atlantic-10 game and is ranked No. 13 in the RPI; Syracuse, which has now won five of its last six and is playing tournament-worthy basketball again; Cincinnati, which won a tough road game by one point at UConn last Thursday; Georgetown, which won at Xavier two weeks ago and made an inspired comeback at home against Providence before losing by four; San Diego State, which got off to a tough start but is undefeated in the Mountain West; Purdue, which is No. 13 in the Pomeroy rankings but has gotten its wins over the bottom tier teams in the Big Ten; Saint Mary’s, which is in first place in the WCC but does not play at Gonzaga until Feb. 20; Saint Joseph’s, which has lost just three games and is 6–0 on the road; Little Rock, which is 19–2 overall and alone in first place in the Sun Belt; and Monmouth, which is also alone in first place in the MAAC and has a road game at second-place Siena Monday night.
You know the rules, boys. You have to win to get in.
See ya next Monday, hoopheads.