Few players began this season with higher hopes than Willie Warren, Oklahoma's 6-foot-4 sophomore guard. Following a sensational 2008-09 campaign in which he was the runaway choice for Big 12 Freshman of the Year, Warren was named to a bevy of preseason All-America teams (including mine) and tabbed by The Sporting News as its preseason national player of the year.
A brief glance at Warren's stats so far this season would indicate he has lived up to that promise. He leads the Sooners (and ranks fifth in the Big 12) with a 18.0 points per game, and ranks third in the league with 5.0 assists per game. A closer look, however, reveals a more troubling picture. The latest snapshot came on Saturday, when Warren took six shots, scored four points and committed five turnovers as Oklahoma, which has fallen from a No. 17 preseason ranking out of the AP poll, barely squeaked by Northern Colorado at home, 80-79. After the game, Sooners coach Jeff Capel referred to Warren's desultory performance by saying, "I'm tired of trying to figure him out."
When I reached Capel by telephone on Sunday night, he did not bother hiding the fact that Warren is going through some struggles, and he admitted the situation is putting a strain on the player-coach relationship. "It's my responsibility as a coach to try to help guys mature, try to help them grow up, try to help them become men," Capel said. "Men don't offer excuses. Willie told me he wants to be the best, but being the best is an everyday thing. It doesn't matter who you're playing, it doesn't matter if it's practice. We need him to be our best player, and if he's not acting like it, I'm going to say something because it's not OK."
Warren has played well at times, most notably when he scored 25 in a win over Arizona on Dec. 6 and when he had 27 points, eight rebounds and four assists in a win at Utah on Dec. 12. But he has also delivered clunkers like his eight-point performance (on 0-for-8 three-point shooting) in a 13-point loss at VCU on Nov. 21. That was the first loss in a three-game losing streak, and when the Sooners snapped that skid by beating Nicholls State in the Great Alaska Shootout, Warren did not play because of a coaching decision. At the time, Capel did not explain why he sat his All-America, but he told me Sunday night Warren did not play because he hadn't practiced the day before. Capel would not elaborate on why Warren missed the practice, except to say it did not involve any off-court malfeasance or improper behavior toward his coach.
Capel called the Utah game Warren's best of the season -- not because of how many points he scored, but because of how he dealt with his poor start. Warren was 1-for-10 from the field in the first half, yet he maintained a positive attitude. His shots started falling in the second half, and he hit a game-winning three-pointer from 26 feet in overtime to give OU the lead for good. "The way he was on the bench as far as being a leader, talking in our huddles, that's who we need him to be all the time," Capel said. "If he's going to be thought of as one of the best players in the country, there's a responsibility that comes with that."
Though Warren kept his cool in the Utah contest, Capel said Warren's basic problem remains losing composure when things aren't going his way. "I'd say 90, 95 percent of the time he has been great," Capel said. "When he gets frustrated, his emotions become very obvious and at times it's hard to get him out of that. It really comes down to body language. Our guys look to him and he has to have a confident look all the time. He's a guy that gives our team swagger. Nothing should be able to get him down from that."
Suddenly, though, Warren's facing more challenges than simply learning to play without Blake Griffin, last year's national Player of the Year and No. 1 draft pick. He's splitting point guard duties with freshman Tommy Mason-Griffin, and the adjustment is impacting his game. He's already committed half as many turnovers (40) as all of last season, and he's only recorded 50 assists. His three-point shooting, meanwhile, has plummeted from 37.2 percent last season to 25 percent. And he's going through a rough patch with his coach.
Capel told me he and Griffin butted heads in similar fashion last season, but that the tension never boiled over into the public because Griffin was so dominant. "Blake and I were texting yesterday. He was asking about Willie, and I reminded him that he didn't talk to me for about a month last year," Capel said. "Willie wants to be a leader. He's just trying to learn. I mean, he's 20. He's a sophomore in college. I think sometimes we tend to forget that."
Warren might be a kid, but he is operating in a man's world. If the Sooners are going to reach their potential, young Willie is going to have to grow up pretty fast.
• The reaction to the bizarre ending of Saturday's Xavier-Butler game can be summed up thusly: 1) The refs were wrong, and 2) Their blunder cost Xavier the game. The first is off-base, but even if it weren't, the second would remain wildly exaggerated.
The main mistake the refs made was not having a digital stopwatch at the scorer's table, which is why it took 13 minutes for them to issue their ruling. That aside, they made the right call. It just so happens that because of the clock malfunction in Hinkle Fieldhouse, the game lost just enough time for the refs to determine the buzzer would have gone off after Gordon Hayward shot his game-winning field goal, but before it passed through the net. Crazy, but true -- and applied exactly according to the rulebook. You can say you don't like the rule, but you can't fault the refs for adhering to it.
As for the Musketeers, even if the officials had let things stand where they were after Hayward's layup, Xavier would have had the ball under Butler's basket with just 1.2 seconds remaining. Sure, there's a miniscule chance they could have scored in that situation, but we all know that is not likely. Xavier didn't get robbed, it just lost a game. The ending wasn't pretty, but the outcome was just.
• It was some Saturday for the West Coast Conference, huh? The two primary contenders, Gonzaga and Portland, each lost by 35 points to Duke and Washington, respectively. Nothing wrong with losing to good teams, but there's no excuse for getting blown out like that.
• People underestimate how much room Kansas has for improvement. Exhibit A: Sophomore forward Marcus Morris, who delivered 23 points and 10 rebounds in the Jayhawks' win over Michigan. It seems like in each game, KU gets a solid outing from one of the Morris twins.
• Texas ranks 11th in the Big 12 in three-point percentage and made just 7-of-22 from behind the arc in its win over North Carolina. Normally, I'm suspect of teams that don't convert well from three-point land, but the flip side is that those teams are less vulnerable to an off shooting night. For Texas, an off shooting night is the norm, so they are programmed to win with defense and toughness like they did on Saturday. That's a great formula for success in March. (However, I still say free throw shooting is Texas' Achilles' heel.)
• I realize this is like fretting over the tiny pimple on Megan Fox's chin, but John Wall did have six turnovers in Kentucky's 21-point win over Austin Peay. At what point does his carelessness with the ball become a real concern?
• Tennessee senior forward Wayne Chism has done well by broadening his perimeter skills, but he needs to remember his bread is buttered under the basket. Chism's three-point percentage has gone from 32.0 last year to 42.1 this season, but his rebounding average has sunk from 8.0 to 6.3. He was at his absolute worst in Saturday's shocking 22-point loss at USC, hitting just 1-of-7 from three while grabbing one rebound and shooting one free throw. Totally inexcusable.
• Which brings me once again to Seth's Rule of the Road: At home you can shoot threes. On the road you have to shoot free throws. Write it down, kids.
• As for USC, it remains to be seen if that win was a fluke, or if the Trojans are really that good. USC clearly benefited from point guard Mike Gerrity, a second-semester transfer from Charlotte, becoming eligible. In his first game for USC, Gerrity recorded 10 assists and six turnovers. He only shot 1-for-7 from the field, but at least he got to the foul line enough to shoot 11 times (making 10). Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said USC was "a completely different team" with Gerrity running the point. Stay tuned.
• Ohio State's Evan Turner said over the weekend he plans to be play in the Buckeyes' game at Minnesota on Jan. 9. That sounds like a very ambitious timetable, but his optimism is a good sign that he'll return from his broken back sooner than originally expected. The Buckeyes need him, too. Three of their five starters played all 40 minutes in Saturday's 16-point win over Delaware State.
• Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said he made a mistake by scheduling a road game at UAB following the Bearcats' Crosstown Shootout game with Xavier. I disagree. Even though Cincy lost at UAB, I'll bet the Bearcats learned something valuable about maintaining an even keel and being emotionally prepared each time out. That kind of education pays dividends down the road.
• Interesting that in UConn's game on Sunday against UCF, Jim Calhoun started Ater Majok in his first game for the Huskies, while Gavin Edwards once again came off the bench. Edwards still played 34 minutes to Majok's 16, and Majok only had one point and three rebounds, but Calhoun has said for a while he believes Majok is his best big man. Clearly he wants the young fella to get some confidence, and he likes the jolt Edwards gives the team as a sixth man.
• Most underrated conference player of the year race: Cornell's Ryan Wittman vs. Harvard's Jeremy Lin. If the voting is tied, the trophy should go to the guy with the higher SAT scores.
• It may not be easy to find him on the tube, but catch New Mexico junior forward Darington Hobston if you can. He's a smooth, left-handed, 6-7 junior forward who is a nifty passer (4.6 assists per game). Hobson is not a great long-range shooter, but he's decent enough that defenders have to respect him out there, which gives him a better chance at beating them off the dribble.
• Anyone who remembers the way Gregg Marshall turned little Winthrop into a mid-major powerhouse should not be surprised that he is leading Wichita State to a resurgence in his third year. The Shockers are 10-1 and handed Texas Tech its first loss of the season on Saturday in Wichita.
• I continue to be mystified by how little impact freshman guard Abdul Gaddy is having at Washington. Even in a 35-point win over Portland, Gaddy went scoreless and committed four fouls in 16 minutes. He is obviously not making the adjustment defensively to college ball -- and if it hasn't happened by now, it's hard to envision it happening by the end of this season.
• Anyone else notice Northwestern is 9-1 despite losing its leading scorer and rebounder, Kevin Coble? The dream isn't dead yet folks.
• The fact that a young, thin UMass team out-rebounded Memphis by 17 during the Minutemen's upset win on Saturday should tell you everything you need to know about where Memphis' primary weakness lies. The Tigers are ranked eighth in Conference USA in rebound margin, and aside from Kansas they haven't exactly faced a murderer's row of opponents.
• Amidst all the attention being paid to players becoming eligible mid-season, don't ignore West Virginia's 6-9 freshman forward Deniz Kilicli, the Turkey native who will join the team in February after sitting out the first 20 games for accepting professional benefits while playing in Turkey. Kilicli will give the Mountaineers' a much-needed boost of depth just in time for the Big East stretch run.
• Without bothering to look at conference RPI rankings, here is how I rank the mid-major conferences (e.g. outside the Big Six): 1) Atlantic 10, 2) Mountain West, 3) West Coast, 4) CAA 5) Missouri Valley. I predict all of those leagues will get at least one at-large team into the NCAA tournament.
• I hope everyone is taking note of the outstanding season Tyler Hansbrough is having for the Indiana Pacers. It wasn't long ago many were questioning whether Hansbrough would be an impact player in the pros despite being a four-time All-America in college. If you can dominate in college, you can play in the pros -- which is why Notre Dame's Luke Harangody will have a long and lucrative NBA career.
(Last week's rankings on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Kansas (1)2. Texas (2)3. Kentucky (3)4. Purdue (4)5. West Virginia (5)6. Syracuse (6)7. Villanova (7)8. Duke (9)9. Connecticut (10)10. North Carolina (11)11. Michigan State (12)12. Kansas State (16)13. Tennessee (8)14. Florida (13)15. Temple (19)16. Georgetown (14)17. Gonzaga (15)18. Ole Miss (17)19. Dayton (18)20. New Mexico (22)21. Texas A&M (23)22. Cincinnati (24)23. Butler (25)24. Ohio State (NR)25. St. John's (NR)
Dropped from my ballot: Georgia Tech (20), Minnesota (21).
Skinny: When I sat down to do my ballot this week, I felt like a hit man from the mob, ready to whack all those ranked teams who lost in embarrassing fashion last week. Tennessee? Dead. Georgetown? Dead. Florida? Gonzaga? Cincinnati? Niedermeyer? Well, you get the idea.
Here's the problem: I couldn't find enough teams with quality wins to replace those guys and make my ballot truly punitive. My two exceptions were Kansas State, which I have been ranking ahead of my fellow pollsters for weeks now, and Temple, which scored an impressive road victory over previously undefeated Seton Hall. In fact, the pickings were so slim that I actually bumped Cincinnati up two spots, even though the Bearcats lost last week at UAB. Only in America, folks.
My increasing respect for Temple led me to put St. John's on my ballot for the first time. The Red Storm handed the Owls one of their two losses this season -- in Philly, no less. And I was impressed with the way the Johnnies laid down the hammer against a good Hofstra team in the last few minutes of their game at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon. And remember, this St. John's team is playing at less than full strength.
In the end, I rationalized that I shouldn't overreact to one game. Gonzaga in particular was a tough call because, while the margin in its loss to Duke was prodigious, the Blue Devils were already ranked ahead of the Zags. A loss is a loss, no matter the score. Tennessee was harder to excuse because its 22-point pratfall came to unranked USC, but at least that was a true road game. I decided to give the Vols a half-mulligan, for now.
As usual, I could have selected from about two dozen teams for my last eight spots. I don't rank teams purely because they're undefeated, so Missouri State has some work to do to get my vote. (It's also why I did not put Texas Tech on my ballot the last two weeks. The Red Raiders justified my skepticism by losing at Wichita State, but I do think they're an NCAA tournament team.) I did, however, give undefeated New Mexico some love because not only did it beat Texas A&M two weeks ago, but it did so in Houston.
The four teams knocking on my doorstep this week were Washington, UNLV, Northern Iowa and Wisconsin. Among that quartet, Washington, which hosts Texas A&M Tuesday night, has the best chance to notch a rankings-boosting win this week.