Wednesday December 5th, 2007

Rick Barnes can coach.

There. We said it. The 'Bag has always believed this, and yet few coaches in the nation have taken a more public beating than Texas' Barnes has in the past year, mainly for what was perceived in some precincts as his team's inability to get the ball in the hands of Kevin Durant more often.

Implicit in that criticism was another indictment: that Longhorns point guard D.J. Augustin wasn't up to the task.

Well, now look: Durant may be gone, but Texas has pulled off the nation's most impressive pair of wins so far this season, knocking off two of the 'Bag's preseason Final Four picks: Tennessee (on a neutral court) and UCLA (in Pauley Pavilion).

Both times Augustin was the best player on the floor, combining timely scoring with near-flawless passing and the wisdom to know when to push the pace and when to slow it down. (Don't use Darren Collison's rustiness as an excuse for Augustin's poise.) And both times Barnes outcoached an accomplished counterpart: Tennessee's Bruce Pearl and UCLA's Ben Howland.

Barnes put on a coaching clinic Sunday. The Longhorns' 2-3 zone flummoxed a UCLA team that didn't have an Arron Afflalo-quality outside shooter to bust it open (Josh Shipp needs to be that guy). It was Barnes who managed his timeouts smartly, rather than Howland, who burned his last TO at the 2:23 mark and had Kevin Love watching on the bench over the final 2:12.

And whatever Barnes has done to increase the confidence of Connor Atchley and Damion James, it's clearly working. The Longhorns are indeed a better team this season, yet another lesson that talent doesn't always trump chemistry. If Texas can get past three more tough non-conference foes--Michigan State (on Dec. 22 in Auburn Hills, Mich.), Wisconsin and Saint Mary's -- it's entirely possible that Barnes' Bunch could take a spotless record into Big 12 play.

Then maybe some people will finally admit that the man can coach.

Onward ...

Of all the teams starting freshmen and sophomores that either do not have any senior leadership or very little of it, which one do you think has the best chance of making the Big Dance and going deep? --Kim Griffis, Winter Park, Fla.

Good question, Kim. I'm going to take your question to ask about teams that are extremely inexperienced. Several Top 20 teams don't have any senior starters -- North Carolina, Texas, UCLA, Marquette and Louisville -- but you can have leadership without being a senior (consider Collison or Tyler Hansbrough).

To answer your question, though, I'd name two inexperienced teams that could potentially make a deep NCAA tourney run in March:

Florida: The Gators start two freshmen (Nick Calathes, Jai Lucas), two sophomores (Marreese Speights, Dan Werner) and one junior (Walter Hodge), and while they're still a work in progress (as we saw in that home loss to Florida State) you can be sure that Billy Donovan will have them prepared for the SEC season and beyond. Don't underestimate the experience that some of these guys got as role players during Final Four runs past.

USC: The Trojans start two freshmen (O.J. Mayo, Davon Jefferson) and three sophs (Taj Gibson, Daniel Hackett, Dwight Lewis), and coach Tim Floyd may be right when he claims his guys have the biggest upside of any team in the country. Any team that can play ugly and still take Kansas and Memphis to the wire deserves respect, but when that team is this green it's even more impressive. Gibson has to learn how to be aggressive without getting into foul trouble, though. It's becoming a constant problem.

To take Kim's question one step further, the 'Bag checked out the starting lineups of all 44 teams that received votes in this week's AP poll. On the other end of the scale, the most experienced starting fives were:

Butler: The Bulldogs were the only team to boast five senior starters. Last weekend's come-from-behind win against Ohio State was only the latest proof that Butler is for real. If it can take care of business in the Horizon league (for a change), a run similar to St. Joseph's in 2002-03 is a real possibility. (Also, many thanks to reader Jon in Chicago, who responded to my lament about the lack of televised Butler games with a link to the Horizon League's own streaming-video Web site.)

Washington State: The Cougars start three seniors (Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver, Robbie Cowgill) and two juniors (Taylor Rochestie, Aron Baynes), one explanation for the poise Wazzu had in winning at Baylor last week. Wednesday's Inland Empire showdown at Gonzaga should be a great one (although the 'Bag remains steamed that he can't get ESPNU anywhere on Comcast and is fed up with both parties).

Georgetown: Even the Hoyas' lone underclassman starter (sophomore DaJuan Summers) is experienced, and it certainly helps to have three seniors (Roy Hibbert, Jonathan Wallace, Patrick Ewing Jr.) to shoulder the leadership load. Wednesday's virtual road game against Alabama should provide a bit of a test; a throwdown at Memphis on Dec. 22 will be even bigger.

Xavier: We already talked up the X last week. Three senior starters (Drew Lavender, Stanley Burrell, Josh Duncan) will be a key for the Musketeers, who are coached by rising star Sean Miller. Wednesday's home game against Creighton pits the best of the Atlantic-10 against the best of the Missouri Valley.

Speaking of Creighton, we don't know which fact we love more:

• That Kyle Korver's younger brother Kaleb, a freshman guard, is a following in the family footsteps at Creighton.

• That Kaleb looks just like Kyle, which is to say, just like Ashton Kutcher.

• That a third Korver sibling, Klayton, is a starter for Drake.

• That a fourth Korver brother, Kirk, is a 17-year-old player at Pella (Iowa ) High.

• Or that all four Korver boys' names begin with a K, like Roger Clemens' sons.

(Even though he can no doubt join Kyle's NBA posse if he doesn't end up playing hoops for a living, Kirk will no doubt be under pressure to become the fourth Korver brother to earn a Division I basketball scholarship. Which causes the 'Bag to ask our readers: Can you name any other examples of four brothers who earned full rides in basketball to D-I schools? The closest we can recall are the Jacobsen brothers: Casey (Stanford), Adam (Pacific) and Brock (San Diego), whose fourth bro, Derek, just missed out. Don't feel sorry for Derek Jacobsen, however; it appears that he's now a male model.

In response to your comment that the BYU big man [Trent Plaisted] supposedly "shredded" the UNC defense in Las Vegas last week and predicting that overrated freshman center Kosta Koufos would do the same (1-10 from the field, 4 points, with an uglier inside game than Tyler Hansbrough's), when are you going to talk about this UNC team that is playing tournament-worthy games in November and December and step down off of the West Coast throne on which you perch? --Steve, Charlotte, N.C.

Guilty as charged. Plaisted did indeed shred the UNC defense, but Koufos (while still an impressive prospect) has some developing to do, as shown by his struggles against the bigger front-lines of Carolina and Texas A&M. (Maybe it should have been a warning sign that his top performance came against the defensive matadors from Syracuse.) Anyway, Roy Williams' decision to play so many challenging games away from Chapel Hill (Davidson, Old Dominion, BYU, Ohio State, Kentucky, Penn, Rutgers) deserves to be commended, and the No. 1 Heels are playing some seriously good basketball. You could hear a pin drop in Rupp Arena for most of the second half last weekend.

Although Arkansas dropped quickly from the rankings and has a penchant for turning the ball over 20+ times a game, I think I'm detecting a toughness that wasn't there in the Stan Heath era. Am I hopelessly optimistic to think we'll make some noise in March? --Adam, Madison, Wisc.

I consider Arkansas to be one of the nation's most intriguing teams, a talented outfit with the possibility to be this year's version of last year's Oregon Elite Eight squad (i.e., underachievers who finally start reaching their potential). New coach John Pelphrey has three senior starters Steven Hill, Charles Thomas, Sonny Weems) and one of the SEC's most impressive guards in sophomore Patrick Beverley. A neutral-court loss to Providence is nothing to be ashamed of; wins over VCU and Missouri were solid and what I saw in this week's blowout of Missouri State has me growing ever warmer toward the Razorbacks. So far, so good. Remember: the SEC is wide-open this year, and few teams can match the talent the Hogs are putting on the court.

People say the Big Ten has been down the past few years. How many teams will be dancing in March? My Spartans, Indiana and Ohio State .... but who else? --Joe Eovaldi, East Lansing, Mich.

In order, I'd say Wisconsin, Illinois and possibly Purdue. The Badgers are an experienced bunch that won't have many down games like their loss to Duke. Illinois looked pretty good in Hawaii (beating Hawaii, Arizona State and Oklahoma State). And Purdue, although painfully young, put up a good fight in its only loss (at Clemson). There's reason to be excited if you're a Boilermakers fan.

Grant, This is your 75-year-old basketball junkie mom. I sincerely think the best television basketball broadcaster is ESPN's Jay Bilas. Sometimes I even watch games I'm not too interested in just to listen to him. (I think I'm in love with Bilas). What is your take (have I got the lingo right?) on Lute Olson's "self-imposed exile" and its effect on his assistants and potential recruits? He has returned to practices, but says he's not returning to games yet. --Helen Wahl, Green Valley, Ariz.

Geez Mom, can't we talk about this on the phone or something? Does the 'Bag Dad know about this Bilas infatuation? (Loyal 'Bag readers will recall that nothing in the 'Bag Family is sacred, since we once led an essay in Sports Illustrated by asking the 'Bag Mom if she was one of Wilt Chamberlain's 30,000 conquests when they were both on campus at Kansas at the same time.)

Anyway, my take on Olson is this: He needs to decide soon if he's going to miss the season or not. The college basketball calendar is just too short to leave his players and assistants hanging. That said, fill-in Kevin O'Neill is doing a solid job with this team, as evidenced by the huge comeback to beat Texas A&M and the OT loss at Kansas. Who would have thought that Arizona would show more toughness than UCLA in erasing big home deficits over the weekend (and actually winning the game)?

A couple more Arizona points: freshman point guard Jerryd Bayless is the subject of this week's Breakout Alert after his 26-point, six-assist, one-turnover coming-out party against A&M. The 'Bag likes the way this Wildcats team is shaping up with young stars in Bayless and Chase Budinger and a couple of All-Glue candidates in Bret Brielmaier and Jawann McClellan (who doesn't have the explosiveness he had before his injuries but can still hit big shots).

(One suggestion, though: It might be time to remove the "1997 National Champions" slogan painted on the court in Tucson. Banners are fine. On-court proclamations should have a statute of limitations.)

Why isn't Duke getting more love after two dominating wins over ranked opponents already this season? --Kahlil Carazo, Roanoke, Va.

Wait a second: You're asking why Duke isn't getting enough attention? You're kidding, right? (We'll make certain to address the Blue Devils soon. The 'Bag is certainly intrigued by all the wrinkles that Mike Krzyzewski has inserted into his schemes based on the influence of his U.S. Olympic Team assistants Mike D'Antoni and Jim Boeheim.) Anyone have any good Duke-related questions for next week's 'Bag? The floor is open.

Got a chance to catch Kevin Love a couple times so far and love his game. Just wondering how you think it translates to the pro game. Is he a one-and-done player like I'm sure Michael Beasley and Derrick Rose will be, or will he be hanging around Westwood for a couple years? --Jeff Carpenter, Hayward, Calif.

I'm notoriously bad at predicting how college stars will fare in the pros, mainly because I don't follow the NBA very closely. For what it's worth, nbadraft.net projects Love in the middle of the first round, but it also had Oklahoma's Blake Griffin at No. 4, and I've been underwhelmed by Griffin both times I've seen him play. Love's leading UCLA in points (17.3) and rebounds (9.9) per game, and he can be a phenomenal passer -- witness his remarkable full-court outlet to Russell Westbrook against Texas -- but I have to admit that I was expecting those outlets a bit more often. Love and Collison came into the season promising fast-breaks galore, and yet UCLA is still plodding along at the same pace as last year for the most part.

As for Love's height, that's also a concern of NBA scouts. He's listed at 6-10, but Love told me that he's really 6-9, although he added that doctors recently told him he's still growing. "Without my shoes on, they're hoping I could be around 6-10," Love explained.

Bottom line: If I was a betting man, I'd say Love is out after one college season. I don't see how his skills wouldn't translate to the pros. But I'd say Love is also less likely to leave after this season than Michael Beasley or O.J. Mayo, for a number of reasons, including Love's height and his family's better financial situation.

• Kevin Love is a heck of a passer, but the best-passing post player I've seen so far this season is Providence's Geoff McDermott. (And Georgetown's Roy Hibbert isn't far behind.)

• More teams appear to be using zone defense effectively than in recent years, with the conspicuous exception of Syracuse and the zone-master himself, Jim Boeheim.

• Random question for any of you readers who happen to be high school and college coaches: What sort of things do you look for when you're watching a college basketball game on TV? In what ways are they different from what a "normal" fan would be looking for?

• The Pac-10/Big 12 Hardwood Series has been a total treat to watch. We'll support anything that promotes good matchups in November and December.

• What's up with Washington when it hits the road? That loss at Oklahoma State was fugly.

• Question I: Why is it considered "news" when a player says he thought about transferring at one point? These are teenagers playing a high-pressure sport. Wouldn't it be more newsworthy if the player had never considered transferring during his career?

• Question II: Will TV announcers please stop spreading the (Bob Knight-started) falsehood that one-and-done players have no incentive to go to class in the second semester? The APR rules provide a huge incentive to keep going to class because programs will be punished with fewer scholarships if players who leave school aren't in good academic standing. Just ask Texas and Kevin Durant, among others.

• I haven't found a player as fascinatingly smart and as dumb in the same game as USC's Daniel Hackett. He has amazing vision when it comes to finding the open man on baseline inbounds passes, and his ability to draw cheap fouls (often with embellished pratfalls) reminds me of the soccer players in the country where he grew up (Italy). But Hackett also takes his share of misguided shots and often commits bad fouls. Only one more reason why USC remains the 'Bag's Most Intriguing Team.

We finally saw The Darjeeling Limited last week, and it's a shame that we hated it. Understand, this is no small admission: We've been a Wes Anderson fan back through The Life Aquatic to The Royal Tenenbaums all the way to Bottle Rocket, but he's finally lost us. Having custom-designed LV luggage and Adidas shoes in your movies may be quirky, but you need to have a story in the end, and the characters here (played by Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman and Adrien Brody) aren't even interesting. If I wanted to hear about the ne'er-do-well children of wealthy parents who didn't love them enough, I'd take a trip back through time and visit the prep-school burnouts from my freshman year of college.

But we can happily recommend (on DVD) the complete series of Freaks and Geeks, the often hilarious but short-lived NBC show by Judd Apatow (the guy who brought us The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up). Not only does it recreate the traumas of high school better than just about anything the 'Bag has seen, it has a Future Star cast that includes Seth Rogen, James Franco and Linda Cardellini. Great, great stuff.

Make sure to send in a question, and we'll see you next Wednesday!

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