Friday March 14th, 2008

The 'Bag hopes everyone is enjoying "Championship Week," a.k.a. Cheap TV Drama Week, a.k.a. "Let's Pump Up Bad Teams as Bubble Teams Week." But here at the 'Bag, we've always been a curmudgeon about the inanity of conference tournaments, and that will probably never change.

The 'Bag is very much fired up for the NCAA tournament, however, and so as we worked the phones with a few top coaches in recent days we asked them a simple question: Aside from your own team, who do you think is the team to beat in the NCAA tournament?

Last year everyone I spoke to said the same thing: Florida (even though the Gators had lost three of four late in the season). But this year the 'Bag heard a range of responses.

Who's the team to beat?

Kansas' Bill Self: "From what I've seen the last month, UCLA and North Carolina impress me more than anybody else. There are a lot of teams you could make a case for -- Memphis, Tennessee, Duke -- but over the last month those two have been the most impressive teams. I think it's more wide-open this year than in quite some time."

Tennessee's Bruce Pearl: "North Carolina. They've got it all: the size, the quickness, the center, the point guard, the shooters, the athletes, the depth, the coaching, the tradition. They have the strongest team in the country right now."

Texas' Rick Barnes: "I've got a lot of respect for what Kansas has. They've stayed together, they've got guards that defend you and they've got great balance. They're not just counting on one guy every night."

UConn's Jim Calhoun: "Out of the Big East I'd say Louisville. I still fear Carolina. Carolina has the guy I'd vote for for national Player of the Year [Tyler Hansbrough] and a one-man fast-break in [Ty] Lawson and guys who run their system as well as anybody. UCLA has some very good players. Tennessee's athleticism is astounding. Memphis scares you a little bit only because they don't have the pure size and not a particularly good shooting team, although they're very athletic."

Stanford's Trent Johnson: "I think Louisville is awfully good. They have a great inside-outside presence. But there are a bunch of teams: Memphis, Tennessee, UCLA, Kansas. You can go down the line."

Memphis' John Calipari unleashed the stream-of-consciousness: "You have North Carolina because they've got the inside-outside game. Kansas, who I think is off the chain. Kansas is ridiculous. We played Tennessee; talk about a ridiculous team because of how they play and shoot threes. They could make 15 threes in a game, and I'm talking bad threes. They shoot it and it goes. Georgetown, because of [Roy] Hibbert and [Jonathan] Wallace. Then Louisville, they play that zone to perfection and have [David] Padgett, who I think has had an All-America year. [I don't want to be] leaving out UCLA. I just hope they don't get calls in the tournament like they're getting now. If they get calls like that they're going all the way. Then Texas, because of guard play. That combination of guards may be the best in the country. And it could be Stanford because of the two big kids [the Lopez twins]. Connecticut is playing better, too. There are probably eight or nine teams [to beat]."

UCLA's Ben Howland: "Honestly, I think nine or 10 teams have a great chance to advance to the Final Four, and when you get there anything can happen. You start with Carolina and Duke, and I think Georgetown and Louisville have great opportunities to get there. Tennessee and Memphis, Texas and Kansas, Wisconsin and ourselves, so there are a lot of teams out there. Stanford has a shot, no question. I don't think it's clear-cut like it was a year ago. [Florida] was unique. In this day and age, to have all those kids return from a previous champion when two or three could have been lottery picks, I don't know how many times you'll see that again."

What's the 'Bag's take on what's going on with the coaching situation at Arizona? -- Randall Allen, Hachuca City, Ariz.

Boy, that turned out poorly, didn't it? For all that Lute Olson has achieved over the years, the players (and fans) in Tucson deserved better than they got this year, and a lot of the blame has to lie at Olson's feet. How could he announce that his leave was not medically-related and then come back last week and say, well, yeah, it was medically-related? I also never understood why Arizona was so quick to anoint Kevin O'Neill as Olson's successor when a long list of coaches with better resumes than O'Neill's would have jumped at the chance to coach the Wildcats.

One of the reasons Bruce Pearl is so popular with Tennessee fans is because he has brought success to a perennially underachieving program in a way that O'Neill never did during his stay in Knoxville. Nor was O'Neill's three-year tenure at Northwestern (30-56) impressive, either. I guess it's possible that Olson could make like Joe Paterno and start an unexpected revival at Arizona in the next couple years, but right now I just don't see it happening.

Billy Donovan is forever a saint in my book, but the creampuff non-conference schedule did not seem to prepare a young Gators team for SEC games. Do you think that he would schedule the same way if given another chance? Come on, give us some press while we are still two-time defending champions. -- Pete Nicandri, Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

Donovan certainly bought himself a grace period with those two titles, but my guess is he wishes he'd scheduled some tougher games for his young Gators in the non-conference season. Hearing Billy D criticize his players after Florida's loss to Alabama reminded me of the conversation I had with Donovan last year, in which he admitted that recruiting is never an exact science. You just can't predict how chemistry will (or won't) develop, and as a coach you can only influence things so much. Let's see how the Gators look next year before we render a final judgment on the current group, but from the way Donovan talked on Thursday, it wouldn't surprise me to see a transfer or two out of that program perhaps.

Do you think it's fair to say that if Carolina rebounds and defends as it did on Saturday [against Duke] it's a lock for the Final Four? -- Joey Litman, New York City

Nobody's ever a lock for anything in the NCAA tournament, but I like the Tar Heels' chances for reaching San Antonio if they can continue defending like they did in the final minutes against Duke. Carolina has been a better defensive team in recent weeks, a few hiccups (i.e., Tyrese Rice) notwithstanding. Another reason to like Carolina is that (unlike a lot of title contenders) they don't depend on the three-point shot to win. It's hard to rely on outside shooting if you want to win six straight games in the NCAAs.

The Stanford-UCLA game was one of the hardest fought, best-defended games I have watched all season. The way both teams defend high ball-screens was particularly impressive. Both Ben Howland and Trent Johnson's teams tend to "hedge" or "show" on these screens, forcing the ball-handler out away from the basket until the screened defender can recover. We saw an interesting contrast to this last week with Roy Williams effectively choosing to have his defenders switch every Duke screen, on the ball or not, no matter what matchup problems it created. I've seen a number of teams struggle with defending the screen throughout the season, particularly Texas A&M. What's your take on defending ball screens? Hedge? Switch? Fight through it? -- Maxwell Ludington, Moose, Wy.

Good question. What was surprising about Williams' decision to switch on every screen is that it goes against what he's always done, which is to demand that players fight through every screen. (It's one of the few areas where he has always differed from his mentor, Dean Smith.) But switching against Duke's small line-up made sense for Carolina, especially because Williams now has much more confidence in Tyler Hansbrough's ability to move his feet on perimeter defense. In fact, Williams told me recently that Hansbrough's defensive mobility is probably the skill that he has improved most between his sophomore and junior seasons. For me, it's all about what works best when it comes to dealing with ball-screens. Watching the UCLA and Stanford big guys hedge so well was a treat for a hoops junkie, though Kevin Love has to watch it a little bit or he'll start getting called for fouls if his hedge-bumping becomes too obvious.

I was watching UConn play Providence the other day, and I wondered how Providence was able to handle the Huskies twice this year so handily when UConn got so hot in between those games. It seems to me that the return of Jerome Dyson has upset the excellent chemistry that UConn developed when Dyson was out. I think Craig Austrie is one of the most underappreciated guards among Top 25 teams, but he doesn't seem to play as well when Dyson is around. How do you think UConn should have handled Dyson's suspension and subsequent return? Jim Calhoun has definitely faced situations of having to defend players who have dealt with legal troubles recently. It seems like there is a line between being loyal to players and subscribing to a zero-tolerance policy advocated in many places. Where should he or any coach draw the line in dealing with maturing young men while pursuing wins for fans and team success? -- Billy Broaddus, Easthampton, Mass.

To answer your last question first, I think in most cases you have to give players a second chance when they screw up, and Calhoun has done that with Dyson. In some ways, it probably helped Calhoun that UConn won on the road at Indiana in its first game without Dyson and Doug Wiggins, because it showed those guys first-hand that the team could be just fine without them. How to re-work Dyson back into the rotation has clearly been a challenge, though, which is why you still don't see him playing more minutes or starting games. I happen to think Calhoun has handled this situation in the best way he could.

What ever happened to the NCAA tournament third-place game? I know that some people feel that after losing in the national semifinals there is no reason to play another game (and maybe there isn't) but I would have to imagine the game would be a great treat for fans. Can you imagine the following third-place games over the past decade:

2007: UCLA vs. Georgetown

2006: LSU vs. George Mason

2005: Michigan State vs. Louisville

2004: Duke vs. Oklahoma State

2003: Texas vs. Marquette

2002: Kansas vs. Oklahoma

2001: Michigan State vs. Maryland

2000: Wisconsin vs. UNC

It would give fans a pair of games to watch and a nice prelude to the title game. What are your thoughts on the subject? -- Nicole Mackinder, St. Clair, Mich.

I know the third-place matchups look good on paper, Nicole, but trust me: You don't want to see them revived. I also cover soccer, and the third-place game in the World Cup is one of the lamest games you'll ever see (unless one of the teams is the host team, and then it's worth watching). The big thing is this: Teams need to want to win, and third-place games are like a conference tournament game in which one team knows it can lose and still be fine for the NCAAs.

The NCAA tournament play-in game between two teams who have won their conference tournaments would seem much more fair if the last two teams that got in with at-large berths played in that Tuesday game, with the winner getting a 12- or 13- seed. Do you think this is unreasonable? -- Marty Goodman, Sarasota, Fla.

A lot of folks (including the 'Bag) have been pushing for the abolition of the Play-In Game, or at the very least, requiring that the two worst at-large teams have to participate instead. Another alternative I wouldn't mind: If they have to play ball that day in Dayton, why not take the final eight bubble teams (i.e., the at-larges from No. 31 to No. 38) and have them play a quadruple-header in Dayton. Those might actually be some good games to watch, and there would be way more on the line than in most big-conference tournaments.

Herb Welling, the Dribble-Drive Motion videotape guru, wrote in to inform us that at least three high school teams running DDM won state titles last weekend: Welling's Omaha (Neb.) Central High, as well as Bob Hurley Sr.'s St. Anthony of Jersey City, N.J., and Webster Groves (Mo.) High.

See you next week.

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