Wednesday January 30th, 2008

As the 'Bag gets amped for Wednesday's Sunflower State Showdown between Kansas and Kansas State -- the last undefeated teams in the Big 12 -- we begin this week's column on a note of reader cynicism:

Last week you wrote: "I was starting to worry that [Kansas State's] Michael Beasley and USC's O.J. Mayo might never play in an NCAA tournament game, but their teams appear to be coming around at just the right time." I promise that you're more worried about that than Beasley and Mayo themselves. Do you honestly think that any of these one-and-done players cares even the least bit about how his "team for six months" fares? -- Evan, Philadelphia

This may sound crazy to you, Evan, but I do think Beasley, Mayo and other likely one-and-doners care. I've spoken to Beasley and Mayo for more than two hours each this season, and I'm convinced that both players sincerely want to win. What have you seen either player do or say that would suggest otherwise? In fact, I'd argue that K-State and USC are two of the hottest teams in the country over the past three weeks in large part because Beasley and Mayo have performed at high levels while involving their teammates more than at any time in the season. What's more, both players could be on the verge of a huge week with Kansas State aiming to take down the Jayhawks at home and USC hosting the Arizona schools in Pac-10 play. Even if they were thinking only about the NBA (and I don't think that's the case), wouldn't they have a big financial incentive to succeed in the marketing bonanza that is the NCAA tournament?

I have a good idea for a parlor game. I was thinking the other day how unique it was that the Big 12 has two coaches who played for Big 12 teams yet coach different schools. They are Bill Self (played at Oklahoma State, coaches Kansas) and Mark Turgeon (played at Kansas, coaches Texas A&M). So that got me thinking: Are there other instances where a conference had two coaches at the same time who played for a school in the conference but coached at a different school? The only other example I could think of was when Bob Knight and Steve Alford were both coaching in the Big Ten at the same time. Bob Knight played for Ohio State but coached at Indiana, and of course Alford played at Indiana but coached Iowa. -- Evan Ferrier, Lawrence, Kan.

Great idea, Evan. Help me out, readers, the 'Bag can't come up with any other doubles. In fact, the only other single current examples we can think of who qualify are Arkansas coach John Pelphrey (played at Kentucky) and Brown coach Craig Robinson (played at Princeton). Yes, we know we'll be subjected to ridicule when you point out how many instances I'm no doubt missing, but we're OK with that if it creates our first good parlor game in a while. Fire away.

In response to the Q&A on Duke flopping, I agree with you. I think Duke players -- who as part of the offense are supposed to attack the rim -- do a good job of avoiding charges because it's something they are drilled to take in practice. On the points made by your readers, I think blaming Duke for the increase in "flopping" is like blaming a good tax attorney for taking advantage of loopholes in the IRS code. Just because your attorney isn't as good, don't get angry. Get a better attorney! There was a great article a few years back about the charge and how eliminating it could improve the game. What do you think of that proposal: if a defender has position then contact generates a no-call, and if he doesn't it's a foul? It's still hard to make a shot when you slam into a guy on your drive to the hoop, and now that's a good defensive tactic without it being a foul on the offensive player. -- Jeremy Mario, Durham, N.C.

Would there be unintended consequences? Probably. But I like this idea. How many times do you find yourself watching a game and saying "good no-call" in a similar situation? If you're like me, it happens a lot.

In your "scariest coaches" column, you responded to a reader comment on the art of "flopping" by saying that you doubted that coaches had flopping drills in practice. I was a manager of the Columbia men's basketball team from 1985-1987 and I can affirm that the "take-charge drill" was part of practice daily in the preseason, and at least once weekly during the season. A player would stand in the paint and another would come barreling toward him, fast-break style. If you "flopped" correctly, you were done for the day. If the coach decided you would have been called for a block, you had to do it again. Perhaps you'd like to add Wayne Szoke to your "scariest coaches" list. -- Laurie Kearney, San Diego

Great story, Laurie. Which reminds me, if any readers can submit a Youtube clip of a college team practicing flops we'll be happy to link to it in a future column.

I don't know about you, but I find it impressive that Florida is having the year they're having with such a young roster. -- Forrest White, Charlottesville, Va.

If we can say the same thing a week from now, I'm with you. The blowout of Vanderbilt in Gainesville was a nice win against a Commodores team that was probably overvalued due to carrying an undefeated record for so long. Still, the Gators' only road wins came against SEC bottom-feeders Alabama and South Carolina, which makes us wonder if Florida will come crashing back to earth with upcoming games at Arkansas (on Saturday) and at Tennessee (Tuesday).

As a college hoops writer and fan of The Wire, you may be interested to know that Ohio State freshman Jon Diebler looks exactly like Bubbles' junkie sidekick. -- Ben Lewis, Columbus, Ohio

Excellent. So if Diebler is this guy and Pitt's Ronald Ramon is a dead-ringer for Bubbles, can you guys suggest any other Wire look-alikes in college hoops?

The 'Bag writes, "Keep in mind, aside from UNC and Duke, the ACC is pretty bad this season." What? Aside from the fact that the ACC gave the Big Ten its annual beatdown for the 90th consecutive year in the annual ACC/Big Ten Bloodletting, the ACC has the highest-rated RPI by conference. -- Lee Cheyne, Silver Spring, Md.

I always find conference-vs.-conference debates to be overblown, but let's be honest, everyone: perplexing RPI numbers aside, no reasonable observer can argue that the Pac-10 isn't the best league in the country right now. It's not even close. That comes from watching games, which should count for something. The ACC has a tremendous history and has been the nation's best conference more often than any other, but this is a down season for the league, which is not meeting its previously high standards. ACC fans tend to be smart and know their hoops, but I sometimes encounter a sense of entitlement that just because the ACC logo is on the floor it means the teams playing on it are elite. And that's not always the case.

I've never bought the idea that the best team often doesn't win the title. Often the highest-rated team doesn't win the title, but that doesn't mean they were actually the best. Ratings are often the result of preseason expectation, schedule strength and other perceptions that are often wrong. Looking back, I would say the overwhelming majority of recent champions are teams that I would pick to win in a seven-game series against anybody. I would argue that seven of the last eight champions were in fact the best team in the country that year--maybe not at the start of the season but by tournament time. -- Al, Washington, D.C.

If you're wondering, I think the NCAA tournament is the best way of deciding a champion. That said: If the match-ups were all decided by seven-game series instead of by single-elimination knockout games, in which years would we have had different champions? I'd argue: 2006, 2005, 2003, 1999, 1997, 1993 and 1991 (going back to 1990). That's "often" to me.

Re: your Frightening 15, what about women's basketball coaches? Pat Summitt of Tennessee has a cold stare that is the epitome of being able to kill someone with just a stare! -- Grant Cole, Alexandria, Va.

The old Sports Illustrated cover with the black-and-white photo of a scowling Summitt is one of the scariest SI covers of all time, which is why I love it so much. When I finally got to interview Summitt for the first time last summer, I was actually disarmed by her smile, which comes quite freely.

Have there ever been a better crop of freshman names than the following: O.J. Mayo, Derrick Rose and Michael Beasley. I love saying Beasley, don't you? Did you see O.J. MAYO? How quick is that D-ROSE! Beasley was just Beasting people last night, Beasting Beasley! -- Ryan C., Hoboken, N.J.

Did the average age of the 'Bag reader have an unexpected drop this week?

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The 'Bag and 'Bag Lady saw four (!) movies in a single weekend recently, and we were slightly surprised that we liked this one better than The Savages (which was still pretty good). This is only the third feature film directed by Julian Schnabel, who also did 'Bag faves Basquiat and Before Night Falls, and he does a fantastic job of re-creating the terrifying (and ultimately inspiring) world of Jean-Dominique Bauby. A famous French fashion editor, Bauby writes a memoir despite suffering from "locked-in syndrome," which renders him paralyzed and unable to communicate aside from blinking his left eye. We know some readers (like the 'Bag Dad) don't like reading sub-titles, but trust me, this one's worth the effort.

The 'Bag recently enjoyed a Q&A with Andrew Hemminger and Dave Bensch, the authors of Destination Basketball: A Once in a Lifetime Adventure to Meet the Best Coaches in College Hoops. During the summer before their senior years of college in June 2006, the two Ohio-based friends and hoops fans came up with an improbable idea: to meet and interview more than two dozen of the best coaches in college basketball.

Less than a week later they were driving to Louisville to sit down with Rick Pitino. More than 27,000 driving miles later, after interviewing everyone from Coach K to Billy Donovan to John Wooden and just about every other big-name coach you could imagine, they had themselves a heck of a story to tell.

'Bag: How insane do you have to be to come up with an idea like this?

Dave: We certainly don't think we're insane. But the whole time was so incredible, and looking back now, we were just two normal fans one day watching the games and the next day sitting in the coach's office. As we went along we knew from the beginning that because of how busy these coaches are, we knew that if they were going to call and say we're available on a Monday we'd have to leave on a Sunday to meet them. We couldn't wait around. So we knew from the beginning it would take some crazy driving and scheduling. If people call that insane, then so be it.

'Bag: Lead me through how you guys came up with the idea.

Dave: It was the summer before our senior year of college. We had a conversation along the lines of, this is our senior year, the real world's about to hit us. So we were outside shooting hoops in Andrew's driveway on an eight-and-a-half-foot hoop throwing down dunks and just talking. We always enjoyed college basketball as fans, and it would be great to talk with these guys. It was fun shooting around, putting a list together and writing it down. After we got the list, we laughed at ourselves saying how are we going to meet these guys? They're like the president, some of them. How do you even get in touch with them? It was just an idea at the beginning, but it was one last hurrah before the real world came.

'Bag: Why do you think all these coaches agreed to participate?

Andrew: The biggest thing is we were very up-front with them and honest about what we were looking for. I still don't know why Coach Pitino said yes, but he did, and we're certainly grateful. To have that first guy on-board and a name the magnitude of Coach Pitino was great. But after that, whether coaches talked to Coach Pitino or checked up on us before we came, I think because we were college kids they were more willing to talk. We were just honest about what we were doing and sticking to that. Talking to both Dean Smith and Roy Williams on consecutive days, we asked for 15 to 20 minutes, we got in and out in 15 to 20 minutes, and both of them made a point as we were leaving to say thanks for doing what you said you were going to do. Being college kids and being honest were the two big things that got us in.

And Jay Bilas helped quite a bit too. He got on-board and liked the project, and after we went through every avenue we could to try and get in, if there was someone we were struggling with he'd do what he could to help us out.

'Bag: Which coaches surprised you the most with the extent of their hospitality?

Dave: Initially, Bo Ryan. He was in the first wave of coaches, and we didn't know what to expect going into that or whether we'd have an interview at all. And then to spend four hours at his home having dinner ... He was leaving the country the next day, but he didn't put any pressure on us to leave. He extended us this courtesy to two strangers by inviting us into his home. It was just ridiculous with security these days, but it was great. It really set the tone for the rest of these interviews. Gene Keady and John Wooden let us into their homes, and people let us into their offices and their lives. It was really neat.

Andrew: Coach Wooden, the fact he'd call us back on the phone and invite us out to his home, the guy is definitely No. 1 on the list. Ten national titles, everyone looks up to him. for him to call us and invite us out and welcome us into his home and give us as much time as we wanted, particularly at the age of 97, that was extremely special as well.

'Bag: Do you have any other favorite stories from the road?

Dave: Coach Keady is a funny one. He also invited us to his home. As we were entering, we were standing outside in his driveway, and he said, "I've never let any strangers into my home. You guys are the first strangers. So I want to let you guys know that my wife's in the back with a shotgun." He gave a little smirk, but we still don't know if he was kidding. From what we've been told, we wouldn't be surprised if she did. That's always fun to look back on.

Andrew: Some of the craziness of drives isn't as insane to us anymore, but most people who haven't experienced this kind of thing would say how crazy it is to get a call from Kansas on a Friday and drive from Ohio to Kansas and back in 32 hours to meet Coach Self or to drive from here to Gainesville, Fla., and back without sleeping to meet Coach Donovan, or staying in a car in sub-freezing temperatures at UConn to meet Coach Calhoun. We kind of get numb to them, but there were a lot of crazy experiences in the car. You're in there hour after hour after hour, and some people would say that's crazy. It was just a necessary evil we had to go through if we wanted to get with these guys.

'Bag: What was your caffeine fuel of choice?

Dave: The longest trip was out to Lubbock, as far as driving. Usually we just had pop and stuff, but that day I enlisted some Red Bull.

Andrew: It was nice -- we had Sirius radio in my car, so you at least had some noise and not just fuzz on the dial. You had something you could listen to to keep you going.

'Bag: I've talked to a lot of these coaches. Sometimes they're great interviews, sometimes you get a lot of coach-speak boilerplate. What was your experience? Did you feel like you were able to get them off that a little bit?

Andrew: The questions that we asked weren't prodding questions into stuff that maybe media needs to ask to do typical stories for newspapers and radio shows. Once they heard we were asking questions that were based more on their own philosophies and dealing with players and young men, I think that showed them that we weren't going in after them or really hunting for a breaking news story. That allowed them to open up a lot better. For the most part coaches gave us a lot of good stuff. They were willing to share.

'Bag: I got stopped for a speeding ticket last week on the way to interview a coach. Did that ever happen to you?

Andrew: Throughout the book we were able to get no speeding tickets and no tickets of any kind. Now within the tour that we've been doing, we were just in Manhattan a few weeks ago for the Duke-Pittsburgh game. We parked in Manhattan, and we [got] a $115 ticket, which we are disputing at this time. Then we had a little rough-up on the way home with a snowbank with the car, so we didn't have any problems with the book, but now that the tour has been going on we've had a couple things.

'Bag: So you mentioned the Lubbock trip. You drove 44 hours round-trip to see Bob Knight and he ended up being the only coach who stiffed you. That's a long way to drive for no interview.

Andrew: The timing just worked out badly. Certainly this was as much our fault as anyone's. Because we couldn't afford a plane ticket, the only opportunity we had to get down to Lubbock was to drive down there over Christmas break. It coincided with Coach Knight's attempt to break the record against UNLV, and it didn't work out timing-wise. We couldn't ever pin it down where Coach Knight was definitely going to be in Lubbock. Certainly after driving that one time you wanted to be guaranteed you wouldn't drive it a second time and have him be out of town or something.

'Bag: So that was a fairly quiet ride back to Ohio?

Andrew: We took a third friend with us, and he helped with morale a little bit. But that's a long trip when you've got an interview, let alone without an interview.

'Bag: If it makes you feel any better, I went to Lubbock a few years ago for SI and didn't get an interview either.

Andrew: It was a long process getting with some coaches. Billy Donovan took about a year by the time we were able to solidify it between national titles. One time we talked with Fred [Demarest, the Florida SID], and he'd be like, "I had to turn down Bob Costas today, so I'd better not say yes." So it was hard to feel too bad a couple times that we got shot down.

'Bag: Welcome to my world. So after all that driving, did you guys ever do the stats on how many miles you drove?

Andrew: It was about 15 months. For the book alone it was over 27,000 miles. If you'd drive around the world at the Equator, should you be able to do that, it would be about 24,900. So we literally went around the world mileage-wise. And beat up on some Civics pretty good.

'Bag: So after all that driving, do you still think it was worth the effort?

Dave: Absolutely. I mean, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. These coaches, just to be in that environment, for them to take us in and be advocates for our story was great. Obviously, watching and experiencing the game on TV or in the newspapers was something we enjoyed, but to be more on the inside, to learn how generous these guys are, to learn how tight-knit the sport is in general, is pretty special.

Andrew: I think when we started this we put together a list, and you're able to interview Coach Pitino, and it was like, how far can we get this to go? And you're like, we'll probably never get to meet Coach Smith or Coach K, and then you meet with those guys, and then we'll never get to meet with Coach Wooden. Then we'll never get it published. So we got everybody that we wanted and we got it published, and now we're trying to get it in bookstores around the country. I was thinking about how far it's come from a simple idea that started while we were shooting hoops. It's been more than worth it.

'Bag: Have you heard any feedback from the coaches you've interviewed?

Andrew: Yeah. We talked to Coach Matta at Ohio State before the UNC game, and he said, "I really liked it, I take it on the plane with me." We sent each coach a copy, so we've gotten some good feedback. Coach Self actually called us one night and said, "Thanks a lot, I thought it was good." So coaches have been really cool. A number of coaches have agreed to do signings with us, and we give a percentage of that money to the charity of their choice. Coach Self did one. John Beilein, Denny Crum, Coach Keady, Jay Wright. All these guys have said yes to do more stuff with us. We also give a dollar of each one to the V Foundation. So we've been able to give several thousand dollars now to them, and hopefully we'll keep it going.

'Bag: If I asked you to describe your single-most memorable moment, what would it be?

Dave: The thing that stands out the most was with Coach Wooden. He lived on the first floor, and he had an elevator down the parking garage. The fact that we were standing outside the elevator knowing Coach Wooden would be coming out those doors, it kind of froze in time a little bit. To hear that elevator door ring and have him come out and extend his hand -- "Hi, I'm Coach Wooden" -- all these coaches look up to him. It was just a culmination of the whole experience interviewing the coaches.

'Bag: Do you guys have any desire to be sports journalists?

Andrew: I'm a sports management major, and I think college basketball is what I want to be around. Dave, on the other hand, is a math major.

Dave: I'm a math major who was along for the ride and a huge sports fan. I was blessed to be a part of this. In writing, the coach interviews we knew would be good because it was something from the coaches. Then to write down what happened with us leading up to the interview was easy because it happened to us. It was a great experience, but I don't see myself pursuing sports journalism. I'll forever respect what they do day in and day out.

'Bag: So are you guys still in college?

Andrew: We both graduated, and we do this kind of full-time now, doing speaking events and signing events with coaches and traveling around the country to get the word out. So we'll do this at least until sometime around the start of the summer. It's really just two fans who had the chance to do something that a lot of other fans would love to do if they had the opportunity. I think that's why people have enjoyed reading it.

Many thanks to Dave and Andrew. Their book is available at read more about Destination Basketball, check out Cory McCartney's column next week.

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