It's not easy to come up with good ideas for column leads. (I only make it look easy.) So I am always grateful to all you Hoop Thinkers for coming up with terrific suggestions to start the day off right. So let's tip off this week's Mailbag with an intriguing question from Shane Hale of Las Vegas:
As I read your midseason awards, I noticed you didn't mention any non-BCS conference candidates for the Player of the Year award. It made me think of all of the sensational non-BCS players. In the near future, do you see any non-BCS players that could be the player of the year? If so, who?
First, I want to commend Shane for asking me to look at "non-BCS conferences" as opposed to "mid-majors." That term is very hard to define and you always insult people by including them. (My producers at CBS encourage me to use the phrase "non-power conference schools," which is a mouthful.) I tend to define "mid-major" as a school that competes in a non-BCS conference, but that raises two problems. One, most intelligent people rightly despise the BCS. Second, that category includes a few schools like Memphis, Xavier and Gonzaga, which have better facilities, resources and recent success in the NCAA tournament than a lot of schools from the Big Six.
As for Shane's question, you might think it's close to impossible for a player from one of those non-BCS schools to win POY, but a quick check of the past winners of the Wooden and/or Naismith awards reveals a surprisingly long list: Andrew Bogut, Utah, 2005; Jameer Nelson, Saint Joseph's, 2004; Marcus Camby, UMass, 1996; Larry Johnson, UNLV, 1991; Lionel Simmons, LaSalle, 1990; David Robinson, Navy, 1987; and Larry Bird, Indiana State, 1979. Will someone join that exclusive club this year?
My answer: Not bloody likely. But here is how I would rank the top six candidates from non-BCS colleges:
1. Matt Bouldin, 6-foot-5 senior guard, Gonzaga. Leads the 13th-ranked Zags in points, assists, steals, minutes and free throw percentage. Might be the most versatile player in America, and that includes Evan Turner.
2. Jimmer Fredette, 6-2 junior guard, BYU. A terrific point guard who can really score. Ask Arizona, which saw Fredette explode for 49 points on Dec. 28. Fredette leads the Mountain West in scoring (20.2 ppg) and free throw percentage (89.7), and he is ranked second in the league in assists (5.0) and seventh in steals (1.53).
3. Luke Babbitt, 6-9 sophomore forward, Nevada. Ranks third in the WAC in scoring (21.5), second in rebounding (10.0) and 10th in steals (1.2). A highly-skilled big man who can score around the rim and is also shooting 40.8 percent from three-point range.
4. Omar Samhan, 6-11 senior center, Saint Mary's. A devastating post player who leads the WCC in points (21.6), rebounds (10.7) and blocks (2.5). Believe me, there are plenty of BCS schools who would love to have a big stud like this in the middle.
5. Darington Hobson, 6-7 junior forward, New Mexico. A smooth, crafty lefty whose versatility has lifted the Lobos to the No. 23 ranking in this week's AP poll. Hobson ranks third in the Mountain West in rebounding (8.1), fourth in scoring (15.3) and fifth in assists (4.1).
6. Ryan Wittman, 6-6 senior guard, Cornell. There may be nobody in the country I'd rather have taking a last-second shot than Wittman. He drilled a 30-footer at the buzzer to beat Davidson in overtime and cap off a 30-point effort. Wittman, whose father, Randy, was a Big Ten player of the year at Indiana and is the former coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, is second in the Ivy League in points (18.2), field goal percentage (47.5), three-point percentage (42.2) and free throw percentage (86.0).
Great players all, but I don't think anyone will be able to claim national POY honors. However, one thing that is even more infrequent than a non-BCS player winning a POY award is a freshman winning it. That is a list of one: Kevin Durant, Texas, 2007. I've got a feeling another name will be added in a couple of months.
Now on to the rest of the 'Bag ...
As things currently stand, UNC is 12-7. They have 12 games remaining in the regular season -- all ACC contests. While ACC play this season suggests anything can happen during the conference tournament, let us assume that UNC wins no more than one game in Greensboro. That being the hypothetical case, how many games must UNC win the balance of the regular season to make the NCAA tournament? The Tar Heels have marquee wins over Michigan State and Ohio State, but given their schedule, could they go sub-.500 in ACC play?-- Adil Haq, McLean, Va.
This was written before the Tar Heels' road win at N.C. State Tuesday night, but even so the panic among North Carolina fans has been grossly premature. In the first place, did you really expect this to be one of the top teams in the country given all they lost from last season? I fear writer-voters like myself did you all a disservice by voting UNC sixth in the preseason AP poll. Adil makes a good point about their wins over Ohio State (with a healthy Evan Turner) and Michigan State, so they have more margin for error than people are recognizing. Plus, not nearly enough is being said about how much injuries have contributed this recent rough patch. That is something the selection committee will definitely take into consideration.
If this team can stay healthy, and assuming the young guys improve, I think they'll get to .500 in the ACC, which should put them into the tournament with room to spare. So take a deep breath, Tar Heel Nation. All will be well in due time.
I've been an Arizona Wildcats fan for many years (as I lived 32 of my nearly 47 years in Arizona). I wonder this: Would the Wildcats be as good, worse, or better than they are now if they had hired Josh Pastner instead of Sean Miller? I'm not complaining about the job Miller is doing (19-point win at ASU shows good progress) but there was a lot of support from fans in Tucson for Pastner. Whaddya think? Would Pastner have done well at his alma mater?-- Randall Allen, Fruita, Colo.
It's safe to say Josh Pastner would do well wherever he was coaching. But it's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job at Arizona than Miller is doing right now. Yes, this is not a very good team, but neither is Memphis. Plus, Pastner had much more to work with by way of returning players (Nic Wise was the only decent returning vet at U of A), and he also got extremely lucky when Elliott Williams transferred from Duke and received a waiver from the NCAA to compete right away. Do you know where Memphis would be without Williams? About where Arizona is now.
Miller did an outstanding job bringing in quality freshmen last spring after he got hired, and he continues to make inroads on the trail with much help from the New York-area ties maintained by his assistant, Emanuel "Book" Richardson. The bottom line is, both Miller and Pastner are excellent recruiters and coaches who will represent their universities well in all facets of the job.
I think you need to consider Duke as one of the teams that might have hurt themselves with preseason scheduling. While it's great to make nearly everyone come to your court, a lack of road games (only Wisconsin and Iowa State) may have made them vulnerable to the road grind in the ACC. It'll be interesting to see if they improve on the road as the season wears on.-- Anthony Fiorito, Blue Bell, Pa.
The list I compiled of teams that helped or hurt themselves was based purely on the RPI data. Duke's nonconference strength of schedule is ranked 34th, so Anthony's theory does not hold up. Plus, a team's NC SOS ranking really only comes into play if that team is on the bubble, and we all know that will not be the case with Duke.
That aside, I do agree that Coach K has been disappointingly passive in his nonconference schedule the last few years. Yes, Duke always plays great teams and rarely schedules a bunch of clunkers, but too often those games are held in neutral sites like Madison Square Garden instead of true road environments. (The Iowa State game was played at the United Center, not Hilton Coliseum.) And Duke had to play a road game at Wisconsin because it was part of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. No wonder the team started off 0-2 on the road once league play began. They were unaccustomed to handling that type of test. To be fair, the Blue Devils are playing at Georgetown on Saturday, but I'd prefer to see them play more true road games in November and December to prepare for the rigors of conference play.
I liked your article on Jim Calhoun. And as much as I hate to see him go, if conditions persist, you may be right, and it will be time for him to retire. Which leads to the next question: Who would replace him? Calhoun's coaching tree is large, with former players and assistant coaches. Who would be your top nominees?-- Lee Feder, Waterbury, Conn.
This is a tantalizing question, but I'll be honest with you, Lee: I have no idea. My guess would be that UConn would have go outside the family because there are no obvious candidates who either played for or coached under Calhoun -- which is odd considering how long he has been in the business.
The former assistant who had the most success as a head coach is Dave Leitao, but his resume is not exactly overwhelming. Following a mediocre stint at Northeastern (which culminated with his decision to rejoin Calhoun in Storrs), Leitao went 58-34 in three years at DePaul before being hired by Virginia -- and then fired four years later. Karl Hobbs is in his eighth year at George Washington, but his team is currently 11-7 (1-4 Atlantic 10). That leaves Tom Moore, who is in his second season at Quinnipiac, and Howie Dickenman, who is in his 13th season at Central Connecticut State. Glen Miller, another former assistant, would hardly be considered a hot candidate considering he just got fired by Penn midseason.
Nor has Calhoun groomed a successor on his own staff the way Syracuse's Jim Boeheim has done with Mike Hopkins. So it's a pretty open field. However, even though it's always hard to follow a legend, Calhoun has unquestionably turned UConn into one of the great jobs in America. When the time comes for him to step down, I promise there will be no shortage of very well-qualified candidates vying to take his place.
I know that no one outside of Minnesota cares, but I really feel like Tubby Smith has been nothing short of brilliant during his brief tenure with the Golden Gophers. He took a program that was pretty much dead and turned it around in a hurry. While the team is not ready to shine yet (as was evident in their loss to IU), they have shown huge progress under Smith. Can Minnesota fans be optimistic about the future, or is Tubby still not enough to bring a Big Ten title to the Twin Cities?-- Aaron Popowitz, Cottage Grove, Minn.
You think Tubby doesn't love coaching at Minnesota? Smith was never appreciated at Kentucky, even though he won an NCAA championship there and never finished his season short of the NCAA tournament's second round. Yet, at Minnesota he goes 17-19 in the Big Ten during his first two years and his team is currently 3-4 (12-7 overall) and I get an e-mail citing his team's "huge progress." That will get a guy through a cold Minneapolis winter.
I've made this point before, but if Tubby had a team in Lexington that endured the kind of turmoil his squad has dealt with this season, it would be a 24/7 soap opera. The reality is, Smith's players have had far too many off-court issues. It was questionable enough that he let freshman forward Royce White back on the team even though White has pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct and theft for stealing clothes and shoving a mall security guard. Last week, White was also charged with misdemeanor trespassing in connection with an alleged theft of a laptop computer from another student's dorm room. (White is practicing with the team, but he has not played in a game.)
In addition, junior forward Trevor Mbakwe remains suspended while he awaits a court appearance on an aggravated battery charge, and last week the Gophers' starting point guard, Al Nolen, was declared academically ineligible and could be out the rest of the season pending an appeal. So forgive me if I don't see "huge progress." What I see instead is a program with far too many problems off the court.
Does Georgia look like a top 25 team next year if Trey Thompkins stays? On the same subject, what are the odds [athletic director] Damon Evans can keep Mark Fox from pulling a Tubby Smith if he's really the coach he looks to be at this point?-- Robert, Portland, Ore.
Again, it's amazing that a fan whose team is 1-3 in the conference (9-8 overall) is writing out of concern he might lose his first-year coach. There are a lot of guys out there with that kind of record who would be happy to hang on to the jobs they have!
Not that I disagree with Robert's assessment about Mark Fox. I thought it was kind of a strange hire because Fox has no history in that part of the country and no ties to the SEC, but there was never a doubt that the man was a good coach. The only thing sillier than the idea of losing Fox is the possibility that Thompkins would leave. He's a big, strong kid who has done well to expand his perimeter game, but it would be a huge mistake if he tried to turn pro this year.
I also anticipate that Fox will eventually lure some players to Athens because the state is always loaded with good high school players, but his top recruit for next season, 6-8 forward Cady Lalanne, is ranked No. 142 in his class nationally by Rivals.com. So I hope Georgia fans will keep their expectations reasonable. Fox's rebuilding project will take a little longer than Robert seems to be anticipating.
Why isn't [Oklahoma State guard] James Anderson getting the attention he deserves? He pretty much whipped K-State by himself by scoring 30 points. He leads the Big 12 in scoring, and has scored in double digits in 33 straight games. He is one of the best shooters in the country, and nothing is being said about him.-- Scott Cook, Beardon, Ark.
Scott is totally right. Anderson deserves more attention for the season he is having, but in order for him to get it his team is going to have to get some more significant wins. Upsetting Kansas State in Manhattan was impressive, but this is still the team that lost on the road at Tulsa, Rhode Island and Oklahoma. I like that Anderson's assist and rebound numbers have improved over last season, but his three-point percentage has dropped dramatically from 40.8 percent to 31.9. At any rate, I promise I'll be watching, and when Anderson goes off again I'll make sure to point it out.
And finally, I got the usual spate of e-mails questioning why I did not include 40 teams in my Top 25:
Not only do you have it in for New Mexico but now BYU? Wow, something smells. Do you want to talk about it?! E-mail me and get it off your chest. This is not healthy for you.-- Patrick Chavez, Albuquerque, N.M.
Why so much hate on Vandy? Still wanting to say "I told you so" for the Siena loss a couple of years ago? I think the Missouri win at home and the St. Mary's (38-3 there, by the way) win on their wood aren't too bad, either. Even if we drop back-to-back road games to two of your top 10s, will that make us a bad team?-- John Peterson, Nashville, Tenn.
I enjoy your columns. But I was curious why Wake Forest is not getting any consideration from anyone, not just you. They have had one really bad loss at Duke, but it was closer than the 20-point difference with one bad call affecting the game. The other losses are turning out to be OK (Purdue, W&M, and a one-pointer at Miami). Plus they have had some nice wins, including at Gonzaga, Xavier, Richmond and UNC. I am not claiming they are top 10 (hardly), but top 25, I think that can be justified.-- Phillip Norton, McLean, Va.
After completing the sweep of your No. 18 team [Georgia Tech], a 15-4 record with three nonconference wins at a neutral site, how is it that you cannot even mention Florida State as one of your next few teams? I and many others would appreciate an explanation.-- Robert Marsh, Tallahassee, Fla.
Like I said, I can only rank 25 teams, and you can certainly make a good case for including any of the ones that were mentioned. Vandy and New Mexico made the AP poll without my vote, and the other two were at the top of "others receiving votes."
When I do my rankings, I try not to be too hidebound by where I ranked teams in the past. If I feel like a team should be dropped even though it hadn't lost, or boosted despite losing, then by golly that's what I am going to do. Furthermore, as I stated in Monday's column, when I got toward the end of my ballot I made a decision to put greater weight on quality wins, e.g. wins against other teams I wanted to rank. That's why I dropped BYU from 17 to 23, though if they win at New Mexico tonight that will surely make an impression.
Wake Forest is arguably one of the best 25 teams in the country, but I disagree with Phillip that losing at Miami isn't a bad loss. Also, maybe this is a little unfair, but I have to put an asterisk on that win at Gonzaga because Elias Harris, the Zags' stud freshman forward, was ejected in the first half for throwing a flagrant elbow. If the Deacs can knock off Georgia Tech in Atlanta this weekend, I'll give them strong consideration next week.
As for Vandy, I'm sorry but it's hard to rank a team based on a two-point win at Saint Mary's (impressive though that was). Why would I rank Vanderbilt ahead of Cincinnati when the Bearcats beat them on a neutral court and also have wins over Maryland and UConn?
The one school mentioned in these e-mails that has a legit case to be ranked is Florida State, especially in light of its sweep of Georgia Tech. I may have been overly influenced by the Seminoles' losses at Maryland and at home to N.C. State. Obviously, if they can win in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday, they won't need my vote to be ranked next week.