Wednesday February 20th, 2008

After a four-day siege in Bloomington, the 'Bag is ready to talk about ... something besides Kelvin Sampson. So let's dive in:

Is Tennessee-Memphis the biggest game of the regular season? -- Richard Schulz, Elon, N.C.

Yes, and it's not even close. This season has been kind of a downer when it comes to heavyweight battles between elite teams. The most highly anticipated non-conference showdown until Saturday's Tennessee-Memphis showdown has probably been Memphis-Georgetown, and after a tight first half, that one wasn't all that close. Nor have the most hyped in-league rivalry games been that great. The first North Carolina-Duke game was marred by the absence of Ty Lawson, and while Kansas-Texas was a fun game, it was the only scheduled meeting between the two Big 12 powerhouses all season.

As for No. 1 Memphis and No. 2 Tennessee, they're so far and away the best teams in their respective conferences that their league games have been lacking in the drama department (aside from the near-throwdown between UAB students and Memphis players on Saturday, which is the kind of drama we don't want).

Thank god for Vols-Tigers, which features a host of dynamite storylines: No. 1 vs. No. 2; two hard-driving coaches with big personalities (John Calipari and Bruce Pearl) who don't much like each other; two fan bases in close proximity that like each other even less; and two fun-to-watch teams that have plenty of contrasts and similarities.

How are Memphis and Tennessee similar? Both like to play fast, harassing defense and hope that their depth and conditioning will eventually wear you down. You might recall the last time Pearl's Vols met a team that ran Dribble-Drive Motion was the first round of last year's NCAA tournament, when Tennessee won a hugely entertaining game over Long Beach State, 121-86. (However, you might also recall that Memphis plays much better defense than LBSU.)

How are Memphis and Tennessee different? Well, Memphis has more punch down low, even though Joey Dorsey hasn't been Joey Dorsey of late. And Tennessee has more deadly shooting threats from the outside now that Chris Lofton is back to being Chris Lofton. For me, the big variable (as with any team that faces Memphis) is what kind of defense Pearl chooses to put out there. Pearl has never been a proponent of zone, but zones (and hybrids) are clearly the most effective ways to defend DDM.

I'm going to go with a lukewarm endorsement of Memphis to defend a hair better than the Vols and win on its home court, even though I think Tennessee will end up being more battle-tested for March. What the 'Bag knows for certain is that we've spent far more time in the state of Tennessee this season than in any of our 12 years covering college basketball. We've eaten great barbecue in Memphis (Corky's) and Knoxville (Chandler's Deli), and we've had a blast writing stories on Pearl and on Calipari's offense.

In other words, these are basketball times to remember in the Volunteer State --and not just because of the Volunteers.

How about a Players-Who-Deserved-a-Better-Fate team? My poster child is Sean Singletary of Virginia. -- Dick Friedman, Princeton Junction, N.J.

Let's give this a crack:

Sean Singletary, Virginia (12-12, 2-9 ACC). The Cavaliers have been utterly schizophrenic this season, beating Arizona and Boston College on the road but losing 10 of their last 12 games (including a 31-point loss to Clemson that should never, ever happen on your home court). But Singletary remains a bright spot, averaging 18.8 points a game.

Richard Hendrix, Alabama (14-12, 3-8 SEC). These are tough times in Tuscaloosa, but Hendrix has been terrific, averaging 18.6 points and 10.2 boards a game. Oh, what might have been if Ronnie Steele had his old knees back.

Geoff McDermott, Providence (13-13, 4-10 Big East). The Friars have fallen on hard times in the Big East, but McDermott is one my favorite players and among the best-passing big guys in the country. He does a little bit of everything, averaging 10.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 4.6 assists.

Ryan Anderson, Cal (15-9, 6-7 Pac-10). The Bears are yet another example of the Pac-10's strength, and Anderson is the best example of the Bears' strength. You can't help but like a 6-10 forward who shoots 46 percent from three-point range (with a high volume, I might add) and averages 22.0 points and 10.2 rebounds a game.

Kentrell Gransberry, South Florida (11-15, 2-11 Big East). You had to feel for Gransberry after the Bulls' 74-73 overtime loss to UConn last Saturday. All the guy did was put up 26 and 15, par for the course for a player who's averaging 17.2 and 11.0.

Everyone talks about Duke's one weakness being the lack of an inside presence, yet Wake Forest beat the Blue Devils with its best post player in foul trouble the entire game. It seemed to me that Wake won because of its superior athletes. With two lightning-quick point guards on the court at the same time, players like Jon Scheyer and Greg Paulus had trouble on both defense and offense. It might sound crazy, but would you consider Duke's overall lack of athleticism (other than Gerald Henderson and DeMarcus Nelson) to be a weakness that could plague them in the NCAA tournament? -- Joshua Newell, Charlotte

I would caution against taking too much out of one game. Duke played probably its worst game of the year, and the Deacs were inspired all night. (Plus, there was all sorts of strangeness with all five Duke starters fouling out. What are the chances of that happening again?) I don't know if I'd say that Duke has a huge lack of athleticism (I'd add Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith to Henderson and Nelson as the team's most athletic guys), but my concern with the Blue Devils right now is fatigue. We'll see if any of that continues in the coming games or if the Wake loss was a one-night aberration. Right now I'm leaning toward the latter.

Could Kelvin Sampson screw over Washington State again? Almost 15 years ago, Sampson brought WSU to the hallowed ground of the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than a decade. He immediately used his newfound cachet to bolt and land the vacant Oklahoma coaching position, sending WSU's basketball program back into its familiar abyss. Now WSU has arguably the finest young coach in the country in Tony Bennett. Could Sampson's likely firing leave an opening for Bennett that he couldn't refuse? -- Ster, Dallas

It's certainly possible, though I try not to engage in too much speculation without any hard news (and I have none on Sampson's status at Indiana or his potential successors). Clearly Bennett's first two seasons as the head man in Pullman have been remarkable, and as a Wisconsin native he knows Big Ten country well. It would strike me as a good fit for Indiana. But the same could be true for Dan Dakich or Scott Skiles or Lawrence Frank or Steve Alford or Sean Miller or ... you get my point. (i.e., it's too early. We aren't even sure yet if Sampson's out the door.)

Here's what I do know about Indiana: 1) I've now seen two games at IU after making (strangely) my first trip to Bloomington, and the amount of fan support Hoosiers basketball receives is overwhelming. It's a special place, one that deserves a special coach. 2) The Hoosiers are a genuine Final Four contender. The wins over Michigan State and Purdue only reinforced that notion. Any team that has Eric Gordon and D.J. White can make it to San Antonio, but it certainly helps to have a third significant attacking option (when either Armon Bassett or Jordan Crawford is playing well).

What do you think about Saint Mary's this year? -- Megan, Lafayette, Calif.

I like what Randy Bennett has done in Moraga by assembling a team that can compete toe-to-toe with Gonzaga (for the last two seasons, at least) and spread you out on the offensive end. Bennett was smart to construct his Australian pipeline, and even better, the Gaels are a young squad that should be dangerous in the seasons to come. Do I think they have the firepower to get to the second week of the NCAA tournament? Probably not. But just winning a game in the tourney would be enough to end this ascendant season on the right note.

What do you think of Stanford's chances in the tournament? The Cardinal team can dominate in the low post with the Lopez twins, but could its weakness in guard play send it out early? -- Devin Mitchell, South Pasadena, Calif.

You know, the Lopez brothers (especially Brook) are so good I think Stanford might be able to make up for the dropoff on the perimeter -- not for six games in the tournament, but maybe three or four. It all depends on matchups. If I'm Stanford, I wouldn't want to face a high-pressure perimeter-oriented team with reasonably capable post guys (i.e., Texas). The X-factor for me is Lawrence Hill, a swingman who can look really good on some occasions and pretty weak on others. Keep in mind, though, Stanford is a hard-nosed team. You have to be tough to win at Washington State and Arizona.

On Rivals.com Terrelle Pryor is the 28th-ranked recruit ... in basketball! Does he plan to play both football and basketball in college? -- Nick Sloan Washington, D.C.

Nope. Pryor has said that for now he has no plans to play basketball in college.

Last week you wrote: "But I do think it's a sign of the Pac-10's depth that a team near the bottom of the league standings can take down a national-title contender" when talking about UCLA's loss to Washington. But it seems when a Big Ten team like Michigan State loses to Iowa or Penn State the Spartans are automatically "overrated" and the Big Ten is "down"? I'm not accusing you of that by any means, but that seems to be the national perspective. -- Chris Mackinder

First, let's be clear: I haven't called Michigan State "overrated." But I was actually talking about the very topic of your question with Spartans coach Tom Izzo the other night in Bloomington. Izzo was lamenting the Big Ten's performance in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge last fall, noting that it set a tone for the negative evaluations of the Big Ten that the conference has yet to escape. Izzo's point was that the Big Ten has a solid record of performance in recent years when it counts (read: the NCAA tournament) and that in three of his four Final Four appearances (1999, 2000, 2001, 2005) there has been another Big Ten team involved.

Ultimately, I think your question comes down less to what people think about the Pac-10 or the Big Ten than what they think of Washington, Penn State and Iowa. Although Washington has had a disappointing season (by its recent standards), you could certainly argue that U-Dub is one of the nation's top 65 teams (even though an NCAA at-large bid seems out of reach). You couldn't make that argument about Iowa or Penn State.

Last week you may recall that a reader cited Kansas' recent win over Baylor, in which the Jayhawks cracked triple-digits but failed to make a single three-pointer, and asked when was the last time that happened. Thankfully, one of our 'Bag Hall of Fame members looked into it:

Last year Eastern Washington scored 100 with no three-pointers (0-5) against Sacramento State. The box score is here. -- Charlie Hart, Noblesville, Ind.

Which college coach would you want your son to play for in the following situations: One, your son is a one-and-done lottery pick. Two, your son is a good player but won't make the league without a great college career. Finally, your son is a walk-on who will never see significant minutes. -- Brendan Murtha, San Jose, Calif.

Intriguing question, Brendan. The 'Bag doesn't have any kids, but we'll play hypothetical on this one. If my son was a likely one-and-done, I'd want him to play for a coach who commands respect, who preaches (and teaches) defense, who demands that his players value time management in a way that prepares them for the NBA. To me, nobody does those things better than North Carolina's Roy Williams, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski, UCLA's Ben Howland and Ohio State's Thad Matta (who has more recent experience with one-and-dones than anybody).

If my son is a good player who won't make the NBA without a great college career, I'd be looking for coaches who are the best at player development. I'm not going to repeat names from the first group, but coaches that come to mind here are Texas' Rick Barnes, Louisville's Rick Pitino, Michigan State's Tom Izzo, Gonzaga's Mark Few, UConn's Jim Calhoun and Georgetown's John Thompson III.

Lastly, if my son were a walk-on who'd never see significant minutes, I'd tell him to choose a school for reasons other than basketball. But if we're limiting this to hoops, I'd want him to be at a college with a rich basketball tradition, like North Carolina or Kansas or Kentucky or Indiana. You could list several schools here and wouldn't go wrong.

In the next week or two we'll make sure to break down what's looking like a two-man race between Kansas State's Mike Beasley and North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough for national Player of the Year. That one's a tough call to make right now, but the 'Bag has already concluded that Beasley wins our vote as the best player interview of the season.

And so, to celebrate the dog days of the academic calendar, we went back and found some of the unused academic-themed gems from our two-hour-long interview with B-Easy back in December:

• On whether he'd stop going to classes this semester if he decides to declare for the NBA after his freshman season, even though doing so would hurt Kansas State when it comes to future scholarships:

"I made a joking comment about that scenario to my tutor. I was like, 'The first semester [grade-wise] keeps you eligible for the second semester and second semester keeps you eligible for next year. So if I come out and average a thousand points then I'm not going to school the second semester.' And she said, 'No!' I was kind of heartbroken. I'm like any student. I'd rather not go to school. But if you don't make a 2.0 then we lose a scholarship, and I wouldn't feel right doing that."

• On his first-semester mass-communications class:

"That was a fun class. We were learning about technology. Say you work at a big-time corporation, and they take a scan of your eye so you can get into the building. So we were coming up with different things you can scan, and one student came up with a feces scan. That was pretty funny to me. Like, how would you feel if every day you go to work you've gotta make sure you eat so you can take a dump to get in?"

• On learning the "undo" function in his "bogus" computers class:

"What's the fun of erasing something when you can just press the undo button?"

(Mike Beasley and his mom: the gift that keeps on giving. I'll miss them next year.)

In recent 'Bags we've talked about why there are no female coaches of men's Division-I teams at a time when a woman has a much better chance of being elected President of the United States. Reader James from Montreal writes:

I wanted to bring your attention to a woman who is a successful men's basketball coach: Olga Hrycak of the University of Quebec at Montreal (UQAM). UQAM plays in the CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport). The CIS is the Canadian equivalent of the NCAA and competes at around the same level as NCAA Division II. She is a Montreal basketball legend. Prior to coaching at UQAM, she was a two-time Canadian Colleges Athletic Association (Canadian junior college) coach of the year. She has coached many players that went on to get NCAA Division-I scholarships, including Joel Anthony, who played at UNLV and is now playing for the Miami Heat.

Big men are notoriously unreliable free-throw shooters, but who has the NCAA record for highest FT percentage by a player 6-10 or taller? Austin Daye of Gonzaga is shooting 91 percent from the line this year on 79 attempts. -- Andy Demetra Winston-Salem, N.C.

Charlie Hart from Noblesville, Ind.? Please answer the white courtesy phone.

See you next week.

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