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Early awards debates, legitimate title contenders and much more

What is it about meaningless awards that give our life so much meaning?

Each Monday, every conference announces its player and rookie of the week awards, to be followed by end-of-year awards for player, rookie and coach. The season also ends with a slew of conference awards for player, rookie and coach, joined of course by a bevy of all-conference and All-America teams (including the all-important SI.com All-Glue Team). It never ceases to amaze me how much time, energy and space is devoted to what is really a silly and subjective exercise. And thank goodness for that. Otherwise, a guy like me would have to go out and get a real job.

Though there is no single award in college basketball that comes close to matching the hype of football's Heisman Trophy, the debates over national player and coach of the year override any other discussions. Those debates have already begun in earnest, as evidenced by the many e-mails I received about them this week. To wit:

All I hear about is John Wall for player of the year. It sounds like he pretty much has it sewn up. What about Damion James? He has the same number of ppg, better rpg, but less apg and half as many turnovers and more blocks. He's definitely the leader on a very talented Texas team. I think he deserves more love.-- Jason, Austin, Texas

Should we just engrave the coach of the year award with Jamie Dixon's name? What he has done this year is astounding. A 4-0 start in the Big East with road wins at Cuse, Conn and Cincy. The guy loses 4 or 5 starters to pro ball (to in the NBA) and his team doesn't miss a beat. He is winning with players that Cuse or Conn wouldn't even recruit. Are you ready to jump on the Pitt bandwagon yet?-- Sean Epstein, Pittsburgh

Jason's question is very timely, even though James played poorly in the Longhorns' loss at Kansas State Monday night. I would say Wall is still the man to beat, but while many of us nattering nabobs had proclaimed him to be the runaway favorite, there is no question he has come back to the pack -- and there is a case to be made that James is the leader of that pack. Over his last four games, Wall has averaged 16.5 points on 42.6 percent shooting, but he also has 17 turnovers to go with 19 assists. Meanwhile, in the four games before his nine-point, seven-rebound outing at Kansas State, James averaged 22.3 points (on 54.2 percent shooting) and 12.3 rebounds. Overall, their numbers are very similar: Wall is averaging 17.1 points, James is scoring 17.3. Wall obviously has more assists and James more rebounds, but surprisingly it is James who has the higher three-point percentage: 37.0 percent to Wall's 34.0. You also have to wonder how many voters will give James an edge because he's a senior, even though he only came back to Austin this year because he wasn't projected as a high enough draft pick.

Of course, neither might end up winning the award because Ohio State's Evan Turner is clearly the best all-around player in college basketball. Others have thrown Syracuse's Wesley Johnson and Duke's Jon Scheyer into the mix, but I don't think those guys will end up posting POY kind of numbers. Kansas' Sherron Collins will draw some consideration if he keeps up his current pace, but my personal sleeper is Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds.

As for the COY, there is no doubt Dixon has done a terrific job at Pitt, but I am a wait-and-see kind of guy. The Panthers' win at Syracuse was as good a win as any team has had this season, and while I would never pooh-pooh a road win inside the conference, their subsequent victories at Cincinnati and UConn, plus their overtime comeback win at home over Louisville, do not include a win over another team that is currently ranked. They've got Georgetown at home tonight, so maybe I won't be as skeptical if they win that, but I just want to see how they play over the long haul before I do any anointing.

But really, is the case for Dixon that much stronger than the case for Kansas State's Frank Martin? Why not Jim Boeheim, whose team started the season unranked but is now ranked ahead of both of them? BYU's Dave Rose has the Cougars off to their best start in more than two decades despite having to overcome pancreatic cancer in the offseason. The criteria for COY is very ill-defined, but too often we writers vote for the guy who most exceeded our own expectations. In other words, the more wrong we were, the better job a guy has done.

But if you really think about it, this thing shouldn't even be close. (WARNING!! SHAMELESS PLUG ALERT!!!) As I said on my new show Courtside on CBS College Sports this week, this should be the easiest COY race to handicap in the last 10 years. Just think for a minute what John Calipari is doing at Kentucky. He took over a school that was demoralized after not making the NCAA tournament and the firing of Billy Gillispie, and he instantly transformed it into a favorite to win the national championship. In many respects, what Dixon is doing is a lot easier because he has been at Pitt for several years and therefore has had a long time to recruit and develop players who benefited from learning from the examples of older players who came before. Calipari had none of that when he got to Lexington.

I've always felt that people didn't give nearly enough weight to recruiting when voting for COY -- even though everyone recognizes it is by far the most important part of the job. Not only did Calipari bring in the best freshman class in the nation (whatever you think about his methods), but he had to install a new system with the returning vets and take the whole show against a very demanding schedule. Despite all this, he is the coach of the last remaining unbeaten team in America and the team that will surely ascend to the No. 1 ranking if it beats Arkansas at home on Saturday. You can dope out this contest any way you want, but from where I type, the choice for coach of the year is easy.

I'm sure this is not the end of those debates -- I can just hear the dissenters pecking away at their keyboards now -- so I look forward to updating my take the rest of the season.

In the meantime, let's dip into the rest of the mailbag:

The group of legitimate national championship contenders is very small this year. I really don't see a team other than Texas, Kansas, Kentucky, 'Nova or Syracuse being able to sustain a run in March to win it all. Every other team has pretty big flaws. Duke has the same problems it always has -- shoots too many threes and is not very athletic. Michigan State has no inside game. Purdue just doesn't have the IT factor or any real star power. Tennessee and Georgetown lack depth. Gonzaga and Pitt can never get it over the hump come tourney time. Thoughts?-- Brian Callahan, Washington, D.C.

While I have taken over Grant Wahl's duties on the Mailbag, I haven't yet assumed ownership of his Magic Eight. (I believe you have to go to court for that.) But if you're going to put together a Magic Five, Brian has come up with the correct quintet. The one quibble I would have is with his elimination of Duke, which I would consider 5-A. The Blue Devils may be efficient from behind the three-point line (they're second in the ACC in both percentage and makes), but this team butters its bread with defense and rebounding -- the two elements you most need to be successful in the tournament.

Seth, your discussion about strength of schedule has me wondering what the actual process is for schools to create their schedules. Does the head coach control that? How far in advance are games scheduled? Do schools look at the opponent's future rosters to gauge how good (or bad) they will be when deciding on scheduling that team?-- Chris Calvin, Indianapolis

Excellent question. Each school puts together its own nonconference schedule. At many places, the head coach has broad discretion, though often times the athletic director will push him towards scheduling tougher opponents who will bring in more revenue. The schedules get done during the offseason, but many of the games are played as part of multiyear contracts. The most common is a home-and-home, but you will often see a series signed in a "two-for-one" deal, meaning a three-year deal where one team (usually the more prominent one) gets two games at home and plays one on the other team's floor.

I'm sure it will shock Chris to learn that the upper echelon schools have a major advantage when it comes to putting together a nonconference schedule. That's because they have huge budgets to play what are known as "guarantee games," wherein they pay a mid- or low-major school upwards of $75,000 to come to their home gym and play a game with referees that the home school has basically selected. I often hear coaches from lesser programs complaining that the big boys can just "buy" a bunch of wins. Needless to say, if you're coaching at a quality mid-major program like Northern Iowa, BYU or Butler, it's darn near impossible to get a high-caliber opponent to come to your gym and play. If the big boys are going to deign to play those guys, they will do it either at a tournament that plays at a neutral site, or schedule a neutral-site road game (e.g., Illinois playing at the United Center instead of Champaign, or Duke playing at Madison Square Garden, a.k.a. Cameron North).

People have tried to legislate fairness into this process, but the top-tier schools are always going to have an advantage over everyone else. That is, until I get appointed dictator of the sport. (Could happen any day now.) One of my first edicts would be to assign the last five teams from BCS conferences to receive at-large bids to the NCAA tournament to play true road games the following year against the top five mid-majors who were excluded. Wouldn't that be fun?

I think this year it's really possible that a team arrives undefeated to the NCAA tournament. (I know it is the old discussion.) Kentucky won games with troubles when they were adjusting to the competition, and now they have more experience and the most terrible rival in the remaining schedule, Tennessee, is decimated. It will not be easy, but I think it is really, really possible (much more than for Texas).-- Cecilio Cajaraville, Galiza, Spain

What, you didn't know Hoop Thoughts was all the rage in western Europe? I'm almost as big in Germany as David Hasselhoff.

The fact that Señor Cecilio sent me this e-mail before Texas lost at Kansas State underscores what I have been saying not just for weeks but for several years: There will never be another team that goes wire-to-wire undefeated and wins the tournament. I know never is a long time, but there is a reason nobody has pulled it off since Indiana last did it in 1976. It is even harder to do in today's media-hyped environment, and you know that machine will not be receding anytime soon. Two other changes since 1976 are the slew of early entries to the NBA, which prevents a team from becoming so dominant, and the far greater number of games being played. (Back then, games didn't even start until around Thanksgiving.) I've also long averred that it is better for a team not to go into the tournament undefeated. It's hard enough to win those six games without that added pressure. Remember, these are college kids -- they're not professionals and they're certainly not robots -- and at some point an undefeated team stops playing to win and starts playing not to lose.

As for Kentucky, their time to lose will come soon, and I think it will more likely be against a team that nobody expects will beat them -- like Auburn, which erased a 19-point deficit at home last weekend to close to within three with 30 seconds to play before losing 72-67. The Wildcats are too young and have had too many close calls to make me believe they will enter the tournament with a spotless record. Believe me, they will be much better off if they lose, and even though John Calipari would never say that out loud, I'll bet he agrees with me wholeheartedly.

Ask and ye shall receive. Your wish to just once see a player block a shot toward a teammate was answered by Al-Farouq Aminu of Wake Forest during an overtime victory over Maryland (video here).-- George Leite, Atlanta

I'm not sure Aminu intentionally blocked this shot to his teammate -- it looked to me like he had to jump as high as he could to get his fingers on the ball -- but it is a great play, especially since he also ran the floor and finished with a dunk at the other end. Nice find, George.

Since Rashad Anderson left Storrs a while ago, UConn has not had a legitimate three-point threat and it has been a huge problem. Why hasn't Jim Calhoun recruited and kept a good shooter? I thought he had one last year in Scottie Haralson, but he ran him out of town.-- Ken Lassen, Philadelphia

First of all, let's keep in mind that UConn made the Final Four last year, so the team's lack of a three-point shooter could not have been a "huge" problem. Plus, while A.J. Price was not recruited to be a three-point shooter, by the end of his career he was very good from behind the arc (40.2 percent as a senior). Jerome Dyson was also shooting a respectable 34.8 percent before he was lost for the year. As for Haralson, he only made 26.9 percent from behind the arc in 4.1 minutes last season, so I doubt he would have made much of a difference.

Having said all that, the Huskies' poor shooting is one of many concerns right now. (For my thoughts on Calhoun's temporary leave, click here.) They are ranked eighth in the Big East in three-point percentage (34.9) and dead last in threes made per game (3.8). I've long felt that a team not making threes is akin to playing four-on-five because you're not using every part of the game to your advantage. Another way to look at it is to think of outside shooting in hoops like putting in golf. If you're rolling in a lot of 15-footers, that erases a lot of wayward drives. And right now, UConn is slicing a lot of drives into the woods by committing a lot of turnovers and failing to get more offense from its frontcourt.

Even though the final score of Thursday night's Indiana-Michigan game looked impressive from a Michigan standpoint, I still question whether the team's talent and on-court chemistry meshes well with John Beilein's style of offense and defense. He was able to recruit well to his system at West Virginia, but I'm not sure it will be as easy to do at Michigan. The fan base expects to get high school All-Americans, not the Kevin Pittsnogles and Mike Ganseys of the world who fit his system better. Are Beilein and Michigan basketball a better match than Rich Rodriguez and Michigan football?-- Jon, Ardsley, N.Y.

Jon makes some excellent points, but the one I would take issue with is his assertion that Beilein will not be able to recruit well enough to Michigan. U of M still is a very big brand in college sports, and Beilein should have a much easier time convincing guys to play for him than he did at West Virginia.

Jon's point about the fan base calls to mind something I've been saying ever since Beilein took over the job. Beilein's offense is so hard to defend precisely because it requires a very unique set of skills. Thus, I would encourage Michigan fans not to judge his recruiting by where the players are ranked on the various websites, but rather by how the team performs on the court. I also mentioned in a recent column that it must be tough for Michigan fans to watch Ekpe Udoh blossom into a first-round draft pick at Baylor after transferring from Michigan because he did not have the perimeter skills necessary to flourish in Beilein's system.

Sunday's win over UConn should give fans like Jon hope, but there is no doubt the Wolverines have been a disappointment this season, largely because of their surprising inability to make threes -- the very facet of the game around which Beilein's offense is built. So while I do expect that Beilein will be able to recruit the players that will enable Michigan to challenge for a Big Ten title, it obviously hasn't happened yet. And until it does, the fans will continue to wonder whether he is a good fit in Ann Arbor.

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