Wednesday November 28th, 2007

Before the 'Bag jumps into this week's reader questions (send 'em in, guys; we need as many as possible, the more creative the better), a few thoughts after ODing on games over the past week:

•You can't get away with carrying the ball anymore. It's been a point of emphasis for refs before, of course, but I'm seeing it called more than ever. Arizona's Jerryd Bayless, Texas' D.J. Augustin, USC's O.J. Mayo, Tennessee's Ramar Smith: all of them got whistled for palming in games I saw last week. As long as the zebras don't get excessive, I'm all for it. If you turn it over, it's a turnover.

•Biggest disappointment so far: Tennessee. Watching the Vols get drilled by Texas, I remembered something Bruce Pearl told me in late October when I asked about his team's half-court defense: "I'm gonna give you a new theory, Grant: If you want to play better defense, recruit it. The way to fix your defense more than anything is to recruit it." Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the current squad, which is going one-on-one and settling for threes far too often on the offensive end, too.

• USC is fast becoming the college hoops version of the 1978 Yankees, and it's addictive to watch. What'll happen in Trojanland this week? A tussle between teammates? An upset loss to Mercer? Or a 70-45 destruction of Southern Illinois (the best the Missouri Valley has to offer)? Even in that game, stars O.J. Mayo and Taj Gibson sat on the bench for nearly seven minutes to start things off. (A source close to Mayo told me they were late for a team dinner, but coach Tim Floyd said he just wanted to mix things up.) All we know is the Trojans are suddenly rolling and the 'Bag is thoroughly fired up for USC-Kansas and USC-Memphis in a three-day stretch starting Sunday.

• Another positive trend: Efficiency is finally becoming a mainstream buzzword. Points per possession is just a better metric for measuring offensive and defensive performance. Even Dick Vitale was talking up efficiency last week, while Jay Bilas uses the E-word about as often as he pulls out long at the Draft.

• Breakout alert I: BYU big man Trent Plaisted had a monster second half to finish with 24 points and 17 boards in the Romneys' near-upset of North Carolina the night after he had 21 and 12 to help take down Louisville. You'd think putting up those kinds of numbers against Top 10 teams would perk up the NBA scouts, but is there any chance Rafael Araujo has poisoned the NBA well for BYU big men? BYU goes out of its way to promote Plaisted's athleticism (41-inch vertical, can touch 12-2, 4.6 40-yard dash), which makes me think the Cougs are acutely aware of the Araujo Curse.

If the 6-foot-11 Plaisted was able to shred UNC's interior defense, how much damage might Ohio State's 7-foot frosh Kosta Koufos inflict on Wednesday night in Columbus?

• There's a reason the 'Bag had Xavier at No. 10 in our pre-season Top 20 voting at SI HQ, which became clear in the wake of the Musketeers' 15-point win over Indiana. Xavier can defend in numbers, Drew Lavender has become much more of a team player, and Stanley "Hammertime" Burrell is a two-way force for perhaps the nation's most underrated backcourt. If the frontcourt is halfway decent -- and it has been so far with B.J. Raymond, Josh Duncan and C.J. Anderson -- then Sean Miller's team will be even better than the one that should have taken out Ohio State in last year's NCAAs.

• Big ups to 'Bag fave Charlie Coles, the inimitable coach at Miami (Ohio), whose RedHawks nipped Xavier at home (before the X beat Indiana) and took down Mississippi State last week. The MAC has been down for a few years, but Miami has a tough team led by Michael Bramos and Tim Pollitz.

This also gives me a chance to revive one of my favorite Coles theories, which came from a story I did for SI a few years ago on the basketball-coaching class he was teaching. According to Coles, the steady decline of defense over the years is directly connected to the enactment of leash laws in communities around the country. The result: a nation of chronically flat-footed youth. "Getting chased by dogs helped me as an athlete," Coles told me, tongue only halfway in cheek. "Defense is anticipation, and if you were in a neighborhood and you didn't know where the dog was, it put some fear into you."

This is the same guy who said teaching offense was like saying, 'I'm putting $50,000 in cash up here, now come up in an orderly fashion and get your share.' I love Coach Coles.

• Breakout alert II: USC freshman Davon Jefferson scored 20 points in 23 minutes in the Trojans' win over Southern Illinois. Jefferson used to be known mainly as the guy O.J. Mayo recruited to USC after promising Floyd he'd take care of recruiting. No longer. If Jefferson ever figures out what the Trojans are doing in the halfcourt on offense or defense, he'll be even better.

• Kansas State freshman Michael Beasley is putting up huge numbers (averaging 27.2 points and 15.5 boards), but he'll still be wearing a gag when he goes from the Little Apple (Manhattan, Kan.) to the Big Apple (Manhattan, NYC) for his big-stage debut against Notre Dame next Tuesday. Rookie K-State coach Frank Martin isn't letting his freshmen (including Beasley) speak to the media until Dec. 16, claiming they don't know enough yet to have an opinion worth hearing. If I'm Beasley, I'm none too happy about that development. Nobody expects Beasley to stay in college more than one season, and he needs as much media experience as possible before he moves to the NBA. What's more, if Beasley wants to get his personality out there and help increase his endorsement potential, he can't be wearing a muzzle.

• Two lessons from Kansas' OT win over Arizona: 1) Jayhawks guard Mario Chalmers does all the little things right. What a smart player. 2) Arizona guard Chase Budinger is playing with a lot more toughness and can really do his thing now that Marcus Williams has left Tucson. The Wildcats may have lost, but staying that close in Allen Fieldhouse was an encouraging sign, and with Lute Olson's return to practice this week things are looking up in the desert.

• One more thing to love about living in Baltimore: rampant speculation, rumors and half-truths (perhaps even whole-truths?) about what's to come in Season 5 of The Wire. The latest: a friend of mine says he ran into the guy who plays Bubbles at the gym and asked him if Omar would make it through the season. To which Bubs said something cryptic about how "Marlo's a bad dude." Gotta love on-location shooting: over the summer the 'Bag spotted Kima and Bunk (living in our building) and Carcetti (riding his bike in Fells Point). We fully expect to see David Simon hanging out our coffee shop, The Daily Grind, one of these days.

After just capturing the Great Alaska Shootout championship I am even more convinced that the Butler Bulldogs are about to embark on a fairy-tale, mid-major season for the ages (think Jameer Nelson/Delonte West St. Joe's squad) that very well may not end until San Antonio. What a backcourt, the way they make teams defend at 100 percent effort for the full 35 seconds has a body punch-like effect over the course of an entire game. No chance they enter postseason play with more than two losses. Thoughts? -- Michael Mangarelli, Indianapolis

You may be right, Michael. Butler's combination of a talented, experienced roster (led by A.J. Graves, Mike Green and Pete Campbell), an impressive run in Alaska (beating Michigan, Virginia Tech and Texas Tech) and a somewhat weak but favorable schedule (with Thad Matta doing his old school a favor and bringing Ohio State to Hinkle Fieldhouse on Saturday and Florida State coming to Conseco on Dec. 15) means that the Bulldogs may have a shot at duplicating Saint Joseph's run from a few years ago. Keep in mind, though, the Horizon League has some tough places to play. I just wish Butler was on TV more often so I could watch these guys.

Who do you think will end up being the best team out of Texas at the end of the season? And how far could they go? -- Nick Miller, Lake Jackson, Texas

Baylor. (I'm only half-kidding.) The obvious top two are Texas and Texas A&M, both of which picked up impressive wins last week with the Longhorns handling Tennessee and A&M throttling Ohio State. I'll go with Texas for now. There's still a lot of basketball to play, but UT is much better than A&M at the point (D.J. Augustin plays with so much control it's scary) and the 'Horns have a better upside with Gary Johnson waiting to join the rotation and make an impact down low. That said, I came away impressed with A&M's 7-foot freshman DeAndre Jordan and new coach Mark Turgeon has a lot to work with in College Station. These are both teams that could make the NCAA tournament's second weekend, and once you get there anything can happen.

Which player would benefit Ohio State the most this season if he had stayed, Mike Conley or Greg Oden? -- Bruno, Columbus, Ohio

The answer has more to do with the current roster than with Conley or Oden. Given the star potential of Koufos and the fact that Conley was just as important to the Buckeyes as Oden was by the end of last season, I'd say Conley would help this team more. Jamar Butler is a pretty good point guard, but the drop-off between Conley and Butler is bigger than the one between last year's Oden and this year's Koufos.

In the fall, Dennis Franchione, the then-football coach at Texas A&M, wrote a letter to boosters who contributed a certain amount of money to the program. This letter contained, among many things, insider knowledge of the football team and criticisms of certain players. Meanwhile, Mike Krzyzewski had a "leadership seminar" that consisted of Coach K criticizing players in the presence of those who purchased a spot in the course. My question is: How are these different? What am I missing? Why was one coach lambasted and the other not? Isn't this inconsistent? -- Ben Allaire, Raleigh, N.C.

Franchione drew criticism not because he was critical of players; he did so because he didn't reveal to his AD the existence of the ongoing newsletter scheme for boosters, a for-profit side-business which helped finance his personal Web site (not the Aggies program as you described). Krzyzewski's open-mike practice (pun intended) is a once-a-year event that's held not for boosters but for participants in a university-sponsored conference run by Duke's Fuqua School of Business. One is above-board, known to everyone. The other was below-board. Apples and oranges.

Can John Beilein turn around Michigan basketball and make it a contender again? -- Ryan, Santa Monica, Calif.

In a word: yes. Avid 'Bag readers know we think Beilein is one of the most innovative coaches in the nation, and once he gets his own players in Ann Arbor he'll win lots of games, just as he did at West Virginia, Richmond and Canisius. But he needs unique guys to run his quirky system, and it's no wonder his first teams at West Virginia (14-15) and even Canisius (10-18) didn't light it up right off the bat. This season could be a tough one, in other words, especially with losses to three good teams already in the bank (Georgetown, Butler, Western Kentucky) and games against Duke and UCLA on the way.

I notice that college hoops announcers are, ahem, reticent in honestly critiquing programs, players or, god forbid, coaches. It's not only the absence of genuine critique but the hideous gushing and fawning over the coaching fraternity. Why is this blight so prevalent in college hoops? Why don't the networks that hire these sycophants demand a more professional product? -- Matthew Fee, San Francisco

It's a simple problem: Most of the analysts are former coaches themselves. My theory is that college hoops may have even more rah-rah analysts than other sports because the coaches (and not the players, who change too often) have become the enduring symbols of programs. But not everyone doing TV is all-fluff-all-the-time. I don't always agree with ESPN's Doug Gottlieb, but I like that he brings a harder edge to his commentary. (It's no coincidence that he's not a former coach.) ESPN's Jay Bilas questioned the secrecy around Lute Olson's recent leave, and Steve Lavin was quick to lampoon USC's stated reason ("matchups") for benching Mayo and Gibson last week. And I don't think the word sycophant will ever be used to describe CBS's Billy Packer (like Bilas, a former high-level college player who only spent a short time as an assistant coach before going to the TV side).

As a townie in Princeton, N.J., I grew up idolizing Pete Carril and the Princeton offense. Recently, I watched the team lose to Duke. While that in and of itself is not a crime, I was shocked at how low the skill level has fallen. Is this the end of the Princeton offense and tradition? I mean, after all, Princeton did eventually scrap the Single Wing in football. Can Sydney Johnson restore Princeton to the Pete Carril/Andy's Tavern glory days? -- Phil O'Donoghue, Florence, Mass.

Wow, a former Princeton townie? Does that mean you used to skateboard all the time up on Nassau Street? (Or maybe you're one of the former players the 'Bag coached to a winless season mark in the Princeton Rec League in 1995?) Anyway, Princeton is definitely in rebuilding mode after the shockingly still-born tenure of Joe Scott (who left for the U of Denver after last season). Johnson, a former Ivy League Player of the Year who was an assistant on Georgetown's Final Four team, has a big challenge ahead of him, but he'll need some time, as evidenced by an 0-3 run in Hawaii (including a loss to Chaminade).

Carril's slower version of the Princeton offense may indeed be a thing of the past. The coaches who have hewn most closely to it (Scott and Northwestern's Bill Carmody) have had their struggles in recent years, while the coaches who have sped things up (most notably Georgetown's John Thompson III) have been making the headlines.

We've been catching up on recent releases lately, checking out American Gangster, Into the Wild and No Country For Old Men. All of them are worth seeing -- Javier Bardem (and his haircut) scared the bejesus out of me in the last one -- but one movie that I was surprised to like so much was Dan In Real Life. Terrible title, but a good date movie (even with Dane Cook involved). I would never have expected a pairing of Steve Carell and Juliette Binoche would work in a romantic comedy, but somehow it does. And if we weren't already Emily Blunt fans after seeing My Summer of Love, we would be after this one.

Reader Eli Groner of Elazar, Israel, sent in a few suggestions, the most intriguing of which was a former N.C. State player under Jim Valvano. And so we ask:

Where in the world is Chris Washburn?

Send those questions in -- and see you next Wednesday.

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