For some reason, the Mailbag has an ACC flavor this week. We begin with a comment that is ACC-centric but applies to a broader narrative taking over college sports right now:
As a diehard fan of North Carolina (I know, you don't have to tell me), I feel you missed what may be the biggest point of how the inclusion of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College hurt ACC basketball. What used to be one of the greatest traditions in college basketball, the round robin scheduling of ACC hoops, was sacrificed and left cold and dead at the altar of college football. It was amazing how much fun it was knowing that each team had a home and away with every other team each year, so if you lost to a school during the first half of the conference schedule, you were assured a chance at revenge. Now some teams are forced to play home and away against the best schools, and other teams get two chances at the dregs of the conference. I was outraged by the loss of round robin and time has not healed those wounds. I still miss it!-- Eric, Arbutus, Md.
I miss it too, Eric, and we're not the only ones. Gary Williams made this same point to me last week on the phone. This, alas, is the result of conference expansion, and the ACC is not the only league that has suffered. The unbalanced conference scheduling has also made the NCAA men's basketball committee's job much more difficult. It used to be you could at least set the order of teams based on their conference record, but nowadays a team can be behind another team in the league standings yet be more worthy of inclusion in the NCAA tournament. Go figure.
I have a feeling in a couple of years I'm going to get the same e-mail from a fan from the Pac-10. Right now the Pac-10 is the only BCS league that still plays the double round robin, but if the league goes to 12 teams as expected, that will also become a thing of the past. As much as we all love college hoops, it is college football that drives the money bus, and the Pac-10 simply can't resist the conference championship football game that has been such a revenue generator for the other leagues. Bigger is not always better, but that's where everything in college sports is headed.
Here are some more ACC-related emails:
In the era of a 64-team tournament, what is the fewest number of ACC teams to be invited to the big dance? I started following the ACC when I first moved to Maryland in 1981 -- probably about the time you were old enough to start following them as a precocious child -- and this seems to be the weakest I've seen the ACC. What do you think? How few could be invited this year?-- Scott Votey, Greer, S.C.
Scott's sense that this is the weakest the ACC has been in 29 years has more to do with the dearth of teams in (and at the top of) the rankings than the overall strength of the conference. This week's AP poll includes just two teams from the league, the same number representing the Atlantic 10 and Mountain West. The fact that the ACC's signature program is having an epically bad year also deepens that impression.
But let's remember, there have been two times in the last 11 years that the ACC put just three teams into the NCAA tournament. That was in 1999 and 2000. Since Boston College was added to the league before the 2005-06 season (bringing the total to 12 teams), the ACC has twice sent just four teams to the tournament, in '06 and '08. There is still a lot of basketball to be played, but I think the ACC is looking at a minimum of six teams in this year's field, more likely seven given the way Virginia Tech is playing. So while this is far from the best the league has been, I don't think you can say this is the weakest ACC we've seen in the last three decades.
In regards to Greivis Vasquez, I got into a debate over whether he is an all-time Maryland great. I have spent the better part of four seasons pulling my hair out over his turnovers and poor shot selection. However, looking into the record book, I found some shocking tidbits. Vasquez will probably leave as Maryland's No. 2 or 3 all-time leading scorer (he is on the cusp of 2,000 points) and will finish as the No. 2 all-time assist man with around 800. The Maryland fan in me wants to love him for all he has done for four years, but every time he shimmy shakes after a three-pointer, I cringe.-- Lennie, Springfield, Va.
Would you rather that Vazquez missed more threes? I would think that would be more cringe-inducing for a Terps fan.
As Lennie's numbers demonstrate, there is no doubt that Vazquez will go down as one of Maryland's all-time greats -- maybe not Len Elmore-Juan Dixon-Albert King-Len Bias great, but great nonetheless. He is a throwback to the days when we expected players to develop and mature gradually during four years in college. Vasquez's numbers have improved every season (most notably his three-point percentage, which is up to 40.0 percent from 32.7 as a junior), but the best thing about Vasquez's development has been his poise. In the past he let his emotions get the better of him, but now he is channeling those emotions constructively. Remember, he put his name into the draft last year and almost didn't come back, but instead of playing for the scouts, he appears to be at peace out there just trying to help his team win (which in turn is dramatically bolstering his NBA stock). When I spoke with Gary Williams last week, he pointed out that Vasquez has a lot more trust in his teammates now than at any time in his career.
Greivis Vasquez is pure joy to watch. As far as I'm concerned, he can shimmy and shake as much as he wants. He's earned it.
As a Georgia Tech fan, I felt compelled to give you my two cents on [freshman Derrick] Favors' struggles. Another problem he faces is getting himself into early foul trouble. I think I remember both Favors and [Gani] Lawal getting into early foul trouble at Duke and getting blown out. Basically, it seems he gets into early foul trouble, misses much of the first half, then plays tentatively when he's in the game. I worry that teams know this and are attacking him more in the beginning of the game knowing that they can take him out of it when he commits fouls.-- Pulin Patel, Jacksonville, Fla.
I have had several ACC coaches tell me off the record that it was an explicit part of their game plan to go at Favors and try to get him in foul trouble, so Pulin's analysis is spot-on. The numbers also back him up. According to statsheet.com, Favors is ranked fourth in the ACC in total number of fouls committed (71) and 12th in fouls per game (2.7), though his rankings are a little better in conference games. Still, Favors has yet to foul out of a game this season, which indicates that Paul Hewitt is doing a good job managing his minutes to keep him on the floor.
I still maintain that Favors' biggest problem this season has been Georgia Tech's guards. Feeding the post has become a lost art in college basketball, but D'Andre Bell and Iman Shumpert seem particularly lost. Favors is great at running the floor and finishing around the rim, but like a lot of young post players, he does not have a lot of polished moves on the block. Alas, his huge potential will be enough for NBA teams to select him very high in the draft, so it seems Favors will have to develop that part of his game somewhere else.
What's with Coach K benching Andre Dawkins for the entire game against Georgia Tech? This was inexcusable since the game was well in hand (up by 20) in the last ten minutes. Given the fact that Dawkins sacrificed his senior year in high school to "help" out Duke, don't you think that Coach K has some ethical right to play him more? And how about the fact that he lost his sister a couple months ago? Don't you think that Coach K also needs to show some more compassion to this poor kid instead of being so stringent? And lastly, given how many recent former Duke freshmen that have transferred due to lack of playing time, don't you think he needs to start playing freshmen more period?-- John Menser, Charlotte, N.C.
Lotta questions there, John, so I'll take 'em one at a time. Regarding the Georgia Tech game, my understanding is that the Duke coaches had not been happy with Dawkins' work ethic so they were trying to send him a message. He played 10 minutes against North Carolina and Maryland, so he may have gotten it. None of us can know for sure the extent to which the death of Dawkins' sister is affecting him, but it must be a terribly heavy burden. I think it would be naïve to think that his performance on the court wouldn't be affected by that. I have also written that I believe Coach K has been too tentative this season to play his freshmen, especially Mason Plumlee. In my view, it's worth losing a game or two in January and February to give your younger guys a chance to play through their mistakes, which will make them more ready to help you win games in March.
As for your other two questions -- rewarding Dawkins for skipping his senior year of high school and giving him more minutes so he won't transfer -- I very much disagree. The one thing I've long admired about Mike Krzyzewski is he allocates playing time purely on the basis of performance. Remember last year when he benched Greg Paulus, who was a senior, in favor of Nolan Smith and, later, Elliott Williams? Coach K has never hesitated to give a younger player more run than a veteran if that youngster has earned it, so there's no reason for him to give special treatment to Dawkins for either of those reasons. Dawkins didn't skip his senior year of high school as a favor to Duke. He did it because he saw an opportunity for playing time that might not be there next year when Kyrie Irving arrives and Seth Curry becomes eligible. Duke will need his outside shooting at some point if it is going to get to a Final Four, but if there's one thing the last few weeks have demonstrated, it's that Dawkins, like every other player in college basketball, will have to earn his way onto the court.
And now for a few non-ACC-related emails.
I cover Butler for the Indy Star. My question: If you believe Butler is over-seeded at No. 6, why did you submit an AP ballot with Butler 20th? Also, Butler has improved since its difficult nonleague schedule, but my sense is that minds were made up about Butler before Jan. 1 and nothing that has happened since then matters. Is that the case?-- David Woods, Indianapolis
First of all, it is totally unfair of David to use actual facts to rebut my arguments. Typical sleazy media guy.
That said, I'm not sure we should be drawing too close of a correlation between the polls and the seeds. It was only because of the coverage of last week's mock selection that I learned that, along with the writers and coaches polls, the NCAA also provides its committee members a third poll featuring regional rankings by so-called "basketball people" to help them with their voting. I'm not surprised that none of the members of the mock committee even consulted those polls, and I doubt the actual committee will spend much time on them as well.
As for Butler, I do like this team, and I am not one to pooh-pooh the accomplishment of going undefeated (so far) in the Horizon. Looking at the teams the media seeded in the West, Illinois at No. 8 was probably a more egregious example of overseeding. (I did include the Illini in that category.) I guess my only hesitancy regarding Butler is that both of its top-50 wins came at home. The first was by one point against Xavier and the other was against an Ohio State that was not only missing Evan Turner but was also playing its first game since Turner got injured. That meant they were as unprepared as they could be to figure out how to play without him. Even so, I don't want this to come off that I am down on Butler because I'm not. I still think this team will be a very tough out in the tournament and should be seeded no lower than eighth.
Watching the pathetic Longhorns shoot 10-for-27 from the free throw line against OU just solidified my fears that they are either a second-round exit or a first-round upset this year. How can such highly recruited players tank so badly at the line? It's sad because they have the talent to play with anyone.-- Tobin Avery, Arlington, Texas
I guess it depends on what the definition of "talent" is. I mean, isn't making free throws a talent? Just because a player can run, jump and dunk doesn't make him talented, at least not in a basketball sense.
In the end, this is Texas' problem. It has a lot of good athletes, but the Longhorns simply do not make jump shots. They don't make three-pointers, they don't make midrange shots, and they sure as heck don't make free throws. As I've pointed out before, it is astonishing that Texas is ranked 330th in the nation in foul shooting (62.1 percent), yet still have one player, point guard J'Covan Brown, who is ranked fourth in the U.S. at 91.3 percent. Imagine how bad the rest of the team must be from the stripe.
Brown, of course, is just a freshman, as are two of the other key parts of Texas's rotation, Avery Bradley and Jordan Hamilton. I still think this team has some very good pieces, and if Rick Barnes can figure out how they should all fit together, there is plenty of time for Texas to get on a roll and make a run in the tourney. Having spoken with Barnes a few times, I sense he is frustrated but not panicked and still believes that is possible. But until we see it, the frustration will continue to pile up.
Incidentally, you can click here to see my interview of Barnes on Monday for my Courtside show on CBS College Sports.
In your opinion, is a 20-win season good enough for South Florida to enter into the NCAA Tournament? What would USF have to achieve (other than win the conference tourney) to get an opportunity to play in the Big Dance? How do you see USF's recruiting following this obviously improved season in the Big East?-- Gerald Woods, Tampa, Fla.
It used to be that 20 was some kind of magic number, but we know it's not anymore. South Florida has 16 wins, so looking at the Bulls' schedule they could beat St. John's and Providence at home as well as DePaul on the road, then win their first-round game in the Big East tournament. That would still give them just two wins against teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI and six losses against teams ranked lower than 50. That, plus their nonconference strength of schedule ranking of 214, would probably leave them on the outside looking in. The other problem South Florida has is its performance against other bubble teams with whom they will be compared in that committee room. The Bulls lost to Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette on the road and to South Carolina on a neutral court. Worst of all, they got swept by Notre Dame.
These things never come down to one game, but South Florida's make-or-break game will come in the regular season finale against UConn in Tampa. If the Bulls can win those games I mentioned plus add that one, it will leave them with a pretty strong case. But this is one example where there is nothing magic about getting to 20 wins.
I keep hearing about Michigan State without Lucas and the Ohio State record without Turner. I realize that Turner is one of the top five players in the country and Lucas is pretty good himself, but how come nothing is ever written about how Wisconsin is playing without Jon Leuer? He's Wisconsin's leading scorer and only post presence and is a huge loss. He could have easily been the difference in Wisconsin's two-point loss at Purdue and nobody seemed to give Wisconsin a break for that loss, yet MSU is granted a free pass for losing to Illinois without Lucas. Doesn't seem right.-- Jeff Kowalksi, Milwaukee
I've tried to give Wisconsin as much credit as I can, but I'm happy to re-enforce the message for Jeff's sake. There is no doubt the Badgers have played admirably well without Leuer, who was having an all-Big Ten-quality season when he injured his wrist on his non-shooting hand during a win over Purdue on Jan. 9. The Badgers have gone 6-3 in his absence heading into Thursday night's game at Minnesota, largely because guys like Jordan Taylor and Keaton Nankivil have taken advantage of the opportunity to get some of his minutes. (This, incidentally, is the quintessential quality of a Bo Ryan-coached team. He always seems to have somebody ready to plug into a hole created by graduation or injury.)
The good news for Wisconsin is Leuer started practicing again this week, so there's a good chance he will be available for games soon. That means the team he will play for will be even better than the one he was playing for a month ago. And that means Wisconsin will be one tough out in the tournament. You'll note, Jeff, that when I broke down the media's mock bracket on Monday, I had Wisconsin advancing to the Elite Eight.
What does it say about a team that shows the ability to win games not only when it is playing well, but when it is playing badly? An example is Kansas versus Colorado -- not exactly the best effort that Kansas can give, yet despite the horrid free-throw and perimeter shooting, the Jayhawks were able to make the defensive play at the end of the game to force overtime and then pull away in overtime for the win. Doesn't a win in that scenario say more about their chances come March than the blowout of Missouri a week earlier?-- David Tosage, Lewisville, Texas
I could not agree with you more, David. You may recall that several weeks ago, I passed along the following Zen Hoop Thought: "A good player knows how to play well when he's not playing well." The same can be said for a great team -- and Kansas is a great team. The Colorado game is a good example, but Monday's win at Texas A&M is an even better one. The Aggies are a solid team, they were playing at home, they and their fans were hyped to the gills, the Jayhawks got seven points from Sherron Collins and made just 1-for-10 from three-point range ... and still found a way to win. You have to dig out that kind of a win at some point during the NCAA tournament, and no team in the country is better at playing well when it is not playing well (though Kentucky is growing up fast in this regard). That's why the Jayhawks are my pick to win it all.
I am a huge St. John's fan and follow every game waiting for them to turn the corner, but after a promising start with wins over Temple, Georgia and Siena, they have fallen off and remain a bottom feeder in the Big East. I know the conference is tough, but I see schools like Seton Hall, South Florida and others achieve big wins against the top-tier programs in the conference and I am beyond frustrated with our being on the cusp but unable to make the next step. I appreciate what Norm Roberts has done in the wake of the Mike Jarvis era, but I think it is time for a change of direction. What are your thoughts on the situation at St. John's and what candidates would you look toward as potential replacements?-- Russell Corbin, Syracuse, N.Y.
This is a common lament, Russell, and I wish I had an easy answer for you. I have written in the past about the depth of St. Johns' problems, and why it will be difficult (more likely impossible) to re-capture the glory years of Lou Carnesecca.
Norm Roberts is now in his sixth year as coach, but to be fair the first two really shouldn't count given how depleted the program was in the wake of Jarvis' departure. Even so, four years is enough to prove to fans that the program is headed in the right direction. As for what is going to happen with Roberts, I know most people assume he will not make it, but Jim O'Connell of the Associated Press, a St. John's alum who knows the program as well as anyone, told me recently that he believes Roberts has a good chance of coming back. The way Oc sees it, there is only one person that will have a say into whether Roberts will be retained as coach, and that is Rev. Donald Harrington, the St. John's president. Harrington is far less concerned with the team's performance on the court than its performance in the classroom and in the community. There are no more scandals at St. John's, no blaring headlines to embarrass the university. As long as that is the case, Roberts will have a fighting chance to keep his job.