OK, deep breath.
North Carolina won't win the national championship.
At least that's what the 'Bag's saying in our ninth annual Magic Eight, the eight teams from which we guarantee the national champion will emerge.
Do we feel good about leaving Carolina out? Not at all. Actually, we're about to vomit on our keyboard right now. UNC is the nation's No. 1-ranked team. It's undefeated. It has tremendous depth, a balanced and relentless offensive attack, a Hall of Fame coach and a top contender for national Player of the Year (Tyler Hansbrough). What's more, the Tar Heels will probably have the chance to punch a Final Four ticket without leaving the state of North Carolina.
But the Magic Eight, which has successfully tabbed the eventual national champion in January every year since 2000 except one (2003: Syracuse), isn't about simply listing the eight best teams in the country. That would be lame and boring.
And so, during a season in which college hoops has been ruled by four teams -- UNC, Kansas, Memphis and UCLA -- the 'Bag decided to eliminate one of them here. While all four are terrific outfits with potent offenses and are easily capable of winning it all, one of these four is not quite like the others.
Carolina just doesn't defend as well as the other three.
Memphis is the nation's top defensive team, allowing 78.9 points per 100 possessions (according to kenpom.com's stats, which are adjusted for schedule strength). Kansas has the second-best defense (79.9), and UCLA is No. 7 (84.7) after a remarkable lockdown of Washington State last Saturday.
North Carolina, however, is No. 26 (88.9), a dangerously low number for a team that hopes to win a national title. And if we're going to let one indicator dictate which of the four to leave out, that'll be the one.
Longtime readers know how much time I've spent around Carolina and Roy Williams over the years, know how much respect I have for his accomplishments (I even wrote the guy's Hall of Fame induction program piece), and know that I'd be psyched to write a UNC championship story for Sports Illustrated in April. (Journalists don't care who wins, but we do appreciate teams that provide good reporting access, and Carolina is one of the best.)
So how about we do this for the Magic Eight guarantee: If UNC ends up winning the national title, I'll let Williams decide what sort of payback I have to make. Run 30 minutes of suicides in the Smith Center? Post a picture of myself wearing a Carolina-blue T-shirt with the slogan DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS? Endure a skin-tingling hour of Texas-Style Ping-Pong with Hansbrough? It's the coach's call.
Which teams did survive the cut and make this year's Magic Eight? Here they are (in alphabetical order):
We know the Hoyas are coming off a loss at Pittsburgh and faltered at Memphis, but Georgetown is still the class of the Big East, and its ability to execute in high-pressure tournament situations (thanks largely to point guard Jonathan Wallace) is tremendous. If Roy Hibbert can return to the form he showed at the end of last season and talented freshmen Austin Freeman and Chris Wright keep improving, I like the Hoyas' chances on neutral courts in the NCAAs.
The 'Bag has dinged Kelvin Sampson plenty this season for off-the-court stuff, but let's give him some credit for using the bountiful strengths of freshman guard Eric Gordon without relying on him too much. The Hoosiers are way more dangerous when the ball also goes to D.J. White early and often, a strategy that wasn't happening nearly as much at the start of the season.
The Jayhawks are just killing teams right now and should be on every college hoops fan's list of DVR musts. Bill Self has done a terrific job convincing NBA-level talent to buy into the team concept, even if it means sacrificing some stats. The result is a suffocating defense (especially on the perimeter), scary depth and the sort of explosive, but team-first attack, that just overwhelms opponents. When a player like Sherron Collins isn't even starting, you know there's something special brewing in Lawrence.
Every year we take a flier on an unranked team in the Magic Eight (not to be confused with the Dayton Flyers, who just missed the cut), and this year's pick is the Cardinals, who've run off three straight decent wins (at Kentucky, West Virginia, at Rutgers) and could snag a major scalp in Marquette at Freedom Hall on Thursday. There's a reason, after all, that the 'Ville was a preseason Top 10 pick, and now that David Padgett and Juan Palacios are back from injury they have a chance to show it.
The Tigers are blessed with skilled depth, even at the post position, and their frenetic pressure at both ends tends to crush the will of opponents. John Calipari put this team together knowing exactly which parts he wanted, and (aside from maybe a deadeye three-point shooter) he got them. My only real concern in the NCAAs will be how Memphis handles junk defenses, which Tim Floyd of USC used to confuse the Tigers earlier this season. I don't think even Bob Knight would play man-to-man against Memphis at this point.
No, Chris Lofton won't be national Player of the Year (or probably even an All-America), but that won't matter if the Volunteers keep winning. Bruce Pearl has found the right balance -- even if we don't count the sidelined Duke Crews, the Vols have a ridiculous 11 players averaging at least 10 minutes a game -- and UT's half-court defense has improved to the point that it can actually stop teams. J.P. Prince has been a welcome mid-season addition, and if Wayne Chism, Brian Williams and Ryan Childress can keep defending the post, I like the possibilities here.
Kevin Love's 27-point, 14-board tour de force against Wazzu should immediately put him in the discussion for Player of the Year, with extra degree-of-difficulty points for doing it against one of the nation's stingiest defenses. Russell Westbrook just became the nation's best sixth-man with his move out of the lineup (when was the last time a non-starter was an All-America candidate in college hoops?), but the real story here is UCLA's defense. The Bruins' first-half assault on Washington State was the single best half of D we've seen all season. We fear what the Bruins will do to USC in Pauley on Saturday after a week's rest.
After tough losses to Arizona State and Tennessee, Xavier has cranked it up again, blowing out Kansas State and Virginia to right the ship before diving into a tougher-than-expected Atlantic 10 schedule. The A-10 could get four (or even five) NCAA bids, which means its teams should be well-prepared for the NCAA tournament. I wavered between Xavier and Dayton in this slot but finally went with the Musketeers who have the slightest edge when it comes to postseason experience. Can't wait to see Xavier-Dayton on Jan. 24 at the Cintas Center.
Ladies and gentlemen, your ninth-annual Magic Eight. Feel free to discuss.
Have you noticed that the hard foul has morphed into an intentional foul (two shots and the ball)? When did this transition happen? When a player pushes an opposing player in the back going for a breakaway lay-up, I understand the need for the call. However, when a player drives the lane after the transition defense has already established itself and the offense is actually running its offensive set, why are the officials awarding a two-shot penalty plus the ball when the defender fouls the offensive player hard? Is it because the defensive play looks "ugly," the reaction from the coach/crowd, etc.? -- Brett, South Elgin, Ill.
This is an interesting question. I've always thought it can be exceedingly hard for a referee to be clairvoyant and know for certain an athlete's intentions (this is the same problem in soccer when a referee has to divine intent on a handball), so I looked up the current definition of intentional foul. You'll note that nowhere does it discuss "breakaways":
According to the latest NCAA officiating guidelines, "Any personal foul that is not a legitimate attempt to directly play the ball or the player is an intentional personal foul; running into the back of a player who has the ball, wrapping the arm(s) around a player and grabbing a player around the torso or legs are intentional personal fouls; grabbing a player's arm or body while initially attempting to gain control by playing the ball directly is an intentional personal foul; grabbing, holding or pushing a player away from the ball is an intentional personal foul; undue roughness used to stop the game clock is an intentional personal foul and, if severe, should be called a flagrant personal foul; it is an intentional personal foul when, while playing the ball, a player causes excessive contact with an opponent."
But it also adds, "The intentional personal foul must be called within the spirit and intent of the intentional-foul rule." That's the kicker. Is the spirit and intent changing? I prefer not to see the referees make a decision that can have too much of an impact on a close game late. That's why I'm one of the guys who thinks the ref made the right (non-intentional foul) call on Greg Oden's hard foul late against Xavier in last year's NCAA tournament.
What's your sense, readers? Are intentional fouls being whistled more frequently than before? Should they be?
Are you going to be smart enough to have Pitt in your Magic Eight? The Mike Cook injury hurts and the Levance Fields injury hurts more, but if Fields is back for March then Pitt will be much better for it. Look at the depth that is being created by their absence. Three freshmen (two true, one redshirt) are getting tons of PT because of the injuries. I would just advise you to consider them as the dark horse candidate. When Fields comes back, they are going to go deep into March regardless of seed. -- Josh Grubbs, Gibsonia, Pa.
I couldn't go far enough to put Pitt in the Magic Eight, but I'm awfully impressed by how Jamie Dixon has handled the injuries to Cook and Fields, and the Georgetown win was particularly striking. Dixon is making his bones as a coach this season, and if he can keep Pitt in the top three of the Big East he'll be a candidate for Coach of the Year.
It looks like Oklahoma is finally beginning to pick up the pieces and rebuild its program. Do you think this year's team can make a run at the tourney? -- Mark Howard, Boston
I liked what I saw in the virtual road win against West Virginia, and freshman Blake Griffin was really starting to perform (witness his mano-a-mano classic against K-State's Mike Beasley last Saturday) until he suffered a sprained ligament in his left knee Monday night against Kansas. But now OU could be in trouble for an NCAA tournament bid with Griffin out for up to four weeks and an 0-2 start in Big 12 play. Bad luck for Jeff Capel.
What has happened to Georgia Tech? All of the preseason projections I saw indicated that they would be decent and probably at least make a run at the tourney. Now I would be surprised if they won five more games. -- David Meyer, Corpus Christi, Texas
I thought the Yellow Jackets (7-8) might really turn the corner after nearly picking off Kansas in Atlanta last month, but instead they've struggled, starting 0-2 in the ACC (including a home loss to Florida State) as they head into Wednesday's home game against North Carolina. Georgia Tech has a decent offensive attack, but it turns the ball over a lot, and the defense is brutal (No. 128 in the country in defensive efficiency per kenpom.com). GT sends opponents to the line way too often and doesn't defend or shoot the three-pointer worth a lick. Paul Hewitt's guys are hitting only 31 percent of their threes while opponents are shooting 40 percent. That translates to a lot of losses.
They should win a few more than five more games, though. Keep in mind, aside from UNC and Duke, the ACC is pretty bad this season.
One elite program that used a "junk defense" was UCLA in the 1968 national semifinal against Houston. John Wooden put in a modified box-and-one. It was a 1-2-1, as opposed to the traditional 2-2 as Wooden wanted to have Lew Alcindor under the basket, with the "one" guarding Elvin Hayes man-to-man. Worked pretty well as the Bruins won by 32. -- Scott Grandi, El Cajon, Calif.
So what you're saying is it was a diamond-and-one, right? Calipari told me this week that ever since USC used its triangle-and-two on the Tigers, opponents have thrown his team the sort of junk that would make Michael Milken proud. The list includes more triangle-and-two, a 1-3-1 zone, a one-man zone, a two-man zone (with two post defenders on the blocks), a 3-2 zone and lots of 2-3 zone.
After last week's classic O.J. Mayo story told by Mike Beasley's mom, Fatima Smith, we thought we'd share another good unused anecdote that has to do with David and Dana Pump and their search firm ChampSearch, which placed Eddie Sutton at San Francisco this season.
According to the L.A. Times, since forming ChampSearch in 2004 the well-connected Pumps have head-hunted coaches for Ole Miss, Nebraska, Colorado, Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine and Long Beach State. But their biggest gig to date was earning a $25,000 fee from Tennessee for helping the Vols land Bruce Pearl in 2005.
There are all sorts of potential conflicts with the Adidas-backed Pumps being hired by collegiate programs, not least because they could hypothetically steer recruits from Adidas-sponsored AAU teams to schools whose coaches were hired through ChampSearch (which would have a stake in their success). But we'll save that story for another day.
For now we'd like to share a more amusing anecdote, courtesy of Tennessee AD Mike Hamilton. It's set in a Dallas conference room during the first weekend of the 2005 NCAA tournament as Pearl's Wisconsin-Milwaukee team was in Cleveland preparing to upset Boston College and Alabama. Let Hamilton pick it up from here:
"We were sitting in a room in Dallas talking about different coaches. I had my short list. [ChampSearch consultant and former NCAA president] Cedric Dempsey was there, Dana Pump and [UT senior associate AD] John Currie. I said, 'Let's start talking to coaches and see what the interest is. Dana Pump picks up the phone and calls Bruce."
"He says, 'Hey Bruce, this is Pump! I've got the Tennessee search, I'm helping them with it. They're very interested in you, they love you, you just need to keep winning and things look great.' Well, Bruce is having dinner with his AD in Cleveland preparing to play Alabama in the first round, and he got up from the table to take the call. Bruce says, 'Hey Dana, I'm trying to win a game here, but I'd be interested.' And he goes back to the table."
"So Pump gets off the phone and says, 'Pearl's in. Who do we want to call next?' I give him a particular name to test the waters on, and he picks up the phone. 'Hey Coach, this is Pump! I've got the Tennessee search, they've got their eyes on you, you've done a great job at X University.'"
"Then Pump goes stone-cold, gets red-faced and says, 'I'm just kidding.' He hung up the phone and died laughing. He says, 'You're not going to believe this, but I just called Pearl back.' On the other end Pearl had gone back to his table and Pump's number showed up again. He walks out of the room again, says hello and Pump starts into his antics. Bruce decides he's just going to listen and see what's happening here."
"So when Pump got to the part about X University, Pearl says, 'Hey Pump, this is Bruce. You called me back. I will never let you live this down.'"
"True story," says a laughing Pearl, who still busts the Pumps' chops about it.
• We first got intrigued by Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado when we saw him unleash a block party on Miami earlier this season, but we were blown away again on Tuesday by his triple-double against Kentucky: 10 points, 12 rebounds and a ridiculous 10 blocks.
• Longtime 'Bag reader Justin Odum is a Kentucky fan living in Ulaanbataar, Mongolia (not a bad place to be if you're a UK supporter these days). But thanks to ESPN Asia, he's been able to check out Rutgers-South Florida and Arizona-Houston in the past week. "Something tells me not many other Mongolian households are tuning in," Justin writes (though Billy Packer no doubt believes it's a flawed ratings system that neglects to include Mongolian sports bars).
• Can we get more of Gus Johnson and Clark Kellogg on future CBS broadcasts? They were money on Saturday's Vanderbilt-Kentucky tilt. Gus Johnson is Gus Johnson, and Kellogg does his legwork watching games on TV and in person around the country. The pros always go the extra mile when they don't have to do it, and Kellogg's one of them.
• One more thing to like about Kevin Love and Mike Beasley: their ability as big guys to put up a feather-soft shot after a quick pull-up on the fast break.
• I want to see more from Vanderbilt freshman A.J. Ogilvy against Tennessee on Thursday than I saw against Kentucky. Patrick Patterson ate Ogilvy up for most of the game.
• The continuing benefit of living in Baltimore: seeing actors from The Wire. The 'Bag shared a flight from B-more to Los Angeles last week with Ronald Ramón look-alike Andre Royo, the terrific actor who plays the recovering heroin addict Bubbles. (We could barely recognize the guy without his 'hood makeup.) True to his character, Royo was sitting in coach with the rest of us proles: in Row 32, in fact, in a crappy window seat next to the bathroom. ("I'd have a hard time imagining Bubs in first-class," noted SI editor/fellow Wire freak Hank Hersch. Good point.)
• We're trying to pick up as much Baltimore lingo as possible after moving here, and the last couple weeks have been huge. K-State's Michael Beasley (a Maryland native) taught us the term red, a reference to light-skinned blacks (as in his phrase "Red gotta stick together"). And we also snagged an excellent term for a helicopter: ghetto bird. We're trying to compile a list of terms from B-more, one of the nation's top hoops hotbeds, in our efforts to become a sort of roundball Bill Safire. Any reader help would be appreciated.
Juno. We're still putting together our Best Films of 2007 list -- actual work has been getting in the way -- but Juno's a keeper. I was a little worried about the sometimes too-cute dialogue that nobody would say in real life (the 'Bag Lady compared it to Gilmore Girls), but the material is just too good in the end not to like. Who would have thought that Comedies About Unplanned Pregnancies would become a successful genre? Fact is, though, the 'Bag enjoyed Juno and its quirky star, Ellen Page, significantly more than Knocked Up (which never explained why Katherine Heigl would have gone for such a dopey dude).
Keep the questions coming in. See you next week.