For a guy whose team is undefeated and ranked third in the country, Bill Self sure is in a foul mood these days.
On a recent episode of his television show, the Kansas coach narrated highlights of the Jayhawks' 25-point thrashing of Texas-Arlington. You'd think he'd have lots of compliments, but you'd be wrong. "Here Josh [Selby] misses his defensive assignment, but we still get a breakaway layup out of it. That's the kind of thing that really burns us as coaches," Self said. That was gentle compared to the pique he showed when he learned after a 47-point win over UMKC that his players let slip to the media that Self told the team to try to beat the Kangaroos by 20 points in the second half. "They should never have said that to you," Self said. "As a matter of fact, it pisses me off that they did."
As far as I know, Self has not been spotted standing on his porch in his bathrobe screaming, "You kids get off my lawn!" But he did demote his best player, Marcus Morris, from the starting lineup for two games after Morris was ejected from a win at Cal for throwing a flagrant elbow. He also put the team through a series of run-and-run-some-more practices over the holiday break. "It was very terrible," Morris told the Lawrence Journal-World. "You can't beat coach, you know what I mean? He always has the last word on everything."
This sourpuss countenance is very much at odds with the likable, easygoing, aw-shucks hillbilly fellow we've come to know. So I called Self last week to ask a simple question: Are you really as mad as you seem?
"No, no, not really," he answered. (Aw, shucks.) But the more he talked about his team, the more agitated he became. "We're getting better, but we're not as mature as we should be. It's like we have to get the last word on everything. If someone talks trash to you, do you have to get the last word in? If someone hits you, do you have to hit them back?"
The main problem Self saw was an inability to close out games in dominating fashion. That's why he told his team he wanted them to beat UMKC by 20 in the second half. "When we get a team down, we don't bury 'em. We don't have that killer instinct in us yet," he told me. Right on cue, Kansas almost blew a 15-point lead at Michigan on Sunday before escaping with a 67-60 win in overtime. In much the same fashion, the Jayhawks frittered late leads against UCLA (eight points) and USC (14) in Allen Fieldhouse in December before winning by one and two points, respectively.
"When players win by 25 or 30 points, after the game they leave happy regardless of how we played, and I don't want them to feel that way," he said. "They see the end result. I want them to see the process."
Most of Self's concerns were directed at the players he described as the keys to his team -- Marcus Morris and his twin brother, Markieff. He was especially perturbed at the elbow that Marcus threw in the Cal game. "How can that happen? To me that's a selfish play, a premeditated act, and he deserved to be tossed." Self also told me that his players have been complaining too much to referees. On several occasions the refs have come over to Self to warn him to tell his guys to knock it off. "As many big games as these guys have played in, they shouldn't let little things bother them."
On the other hand, Self had words of praise for freshman point guard Josh Selby. (This was before Selby shot 1-for-10 against the Wolverines.) "He's probably a little further along than I thought he'd be," Self said. "He has done a great job adjusting to everyone else instead of making them adjust to him. He's smart."
Keep in mind that for the most part, Kansas hasn't just been beating opponents, they've been embarrassing them. The Jayhawks entered the Michigan game ranked second nationally in scoring margin (25.9), 12th in rebound margin (plus-9.4), first in field-goal percentage (53.7), second in assists (19.4) and eighth in field-goal-percentage defense (37.1). Self isn't ticked because he doesn't think his team is good. He's ticked because he knows it's good. He wants his players to start acting like it.
"What drives me nuts about this team is, I don't think we grasp yet that we're in the game," he said, referring to the national championship chase. "These guys need to operate more on edge, so that's one reason why I've been harder on them. This team here has the potential to be as good as last year's team, and hopefully better when it counts the most. But right now, we're not there yet."
When newly appointed NCAA president Mark Emmert addressed the non-decision handed down in the Cam Newton case, he expressed ambivalence about what his association had done -- as if he knew the NCAA had no other choice but he still wasn't happy about it. There was, however, no such equivocation when I talked to Emmert on Sunday about Kentucky freshman Enes Kanter. Although the NCAA president has no involvement in the enforcement process, Emmert gave a full-throated defense of his staff's decision to declare Kanter permanently ineligible for accepting more than $33,000 above necessary expenses from the pro team he played for in his native Turkey. That decision was upheld by an appeals committee last Friday.
"The facts are utterly unambiguous, the rule is utterly unambiguous, and the intention of the membership is utterly unambiguous," Emmert said. "The vast majority of people in collegiate basketball knew that this was an issue with Enes Kanter. Kentucky knew it. Everybody who talked with him knew it. So I'm amazed that people are shocked by the fact that he is ineligible."
The main criticism being lobbed at the NCAA these days is that its enforcement decisions have been inconsistent, to put it mildly. Kansas guard Josh Selby and Mississippi State forward Renardo Sidney were also found to have accepted impermissible benefits, yet both were allowed to play after serving a suspension and repaying the loot. On the flip side, Auburn quarterback Cam Newton got off scot free even though his father was caught trying to pimp his son. The biggest travesty of all was the amnesty granted to five Ohio State football players to play in the Sugar Bowl before beginning their five-game suspensions next season.
Emmert didn't disagree with my suggestion that the penalties have been inconsistent, but he said there was good reason for that. "They are all very different cases with very different facts," he said. "You mentioned Selby. Here was an individual who took somewhere over $5,000 worth of impermissible benefits. It wasn't from a professional team. It was from a third party. That wasn't a violation of our rules regarding professional athletics."
I also asked Emmert about the important question of intent. Kanter turned down far more money, perhaps in the millions, to try to come to the States to play college basketball. Unlike Newton's dad, who clearly tried to cash in on his son's talents, Kanter's family appears to have made a good-faith effort to keep him eligible. "I can't describe what a good-faith effort is," Emmet replied. "I don't know the young man or his family. If their intention all along was to have him come play in the United States, then it would simply have been a matter of not accepting pay. We've seen a threefold increase in the number of international athletes coming to college, so it's not right to say the environment is not conducive for them to come here and play. They simply have to not do it for money."
Finally, I asked Emmert about the very serious allegation made by Dick Vitale during ESPN's telecast of the UConn-Texas game Saturday. Vitale asserted that the reason Kanter was made permanently ineligible -- as opposed to temporarily suspended and forced to return the money -- was because he plays at Kentucky for the NCAA's nemesis, John Calipari. Vitale made this claim despite the fact that last season, the NCAA suspended Kentucky point guard John Wall for just two games for receiving impermissible benefits, similar to what it did with Selby. After the game, Vitale wrote on Twitter that he believed if Kanter were playing at Washington instead of Kentucky, he would not have been declared permanently ineligible.
Some background. Kanter turned down lucrative offers from teams in Turkey and Greece because he wanted to play high school and college ball in the United States. But when Kanter came here in 2009, two top prep schools turned him down because of concerns about his quasi-pro experience. He eventually enrolled at Stoneridge Prep in Simi Valley, Calif., and in November he verbally committed to the University of Washington. On the day he committed, the president at the University of Washington was a man named Mark Emmert.
What happened from there is a matter of some debate. It has been widely reported that to Washington's chagrin, Kanter de-committed last February, re-opened his recruitment and two months later signed with Kentucky. When I asked Emmert why Washington recruited Kanter, he told me that as university president he did not get involved with basketball recruiting and thus did not know his coach's thinking. My own sources have indicated to me that the Washington coaching staff originally believed Kanter would have to miss some time but could retain his eligibility. But the more information they received on Kanter following his commitment, the more the Washington coaches realized it was unlikely he would ever be eligible. Kanter never visited the Washington campus and never applied for admission. He also never contacted Lorenzo Romar to tell him he was de-committing. The two just quietly went their separate ways.
Would Washington have rolled the dice like Kentucky did if Kanter wanted to come? Possibly. They would have had nothing to lose, right? Still, the fact is, Washington, like everyone else who was involved with Kanter, believed he would never clear the NCAA's amateurism hurdle. That's why Romar eventually backed off.
To suggest that Kanter would have been eligible had he gone to the NCAA president's former school is to give full embrace to conspiracy theory. I'm sure it will not shock you to hear that Emmert scoffed at Vitale's allegation. "Not to put too fine a point on it, but that's ridiculous," he said. "By all accounts this is a very talented basketball player, but yet there were very few schools recruiting him. Why was that? Because everyone understood that there was a very large probability that he was not going to be deemed eligible. This has nothing to do with Kentucky or Coach Calipari. It has to do with a clear rule and a clear set of facts."
• Some final thoughts on the Renardo Sidney mess at Mississippi State. First, if you think that the player Sidney fought in the stands in Hawaii, Elgin Bailey, came up with the idea to transfer on his own without some very strong prodding from coach Rick Stansbury, then I've got a bridge to sell you. Second, some people have made the point that the reason Stansbury didn't punish Sidney harder is because he wants to win games. But that's the thing: Renardo Sidney can't help anyone win games right now. Besides being woefully out of shape, he is obviously an emotionally troubled young man, partly because he has had too many adults in his life who enable his worst behaviors. Sidney had all of two points (on 1-for-8 shooting) and five turnovers in 26 minutes during the Bulldogs' 17-point home loss to Alabama on Saturday. Does that sound like a guy worth taking a public-relations hit for?
• Reason No. 124 to love the Pittsburgh Panthers: They're ranked third in the country in assist-to-field goals percentage. They had 24 assists on 30 made field goals in Saturday's win over Marquette.
• I still believe there is a better chance than not that Kyrie Irving will not play for Duke again this year. But I am sensing a mite more optimism coming out of the Duke camp regarding the prospect of his return. The problem is not just the seriousness of the injury, but also the uniqueness. Irving essentially has turf toe, which is primarily a football malady, so there's a lot of uncertainty about how to proceed. It appears the initial decision to hold off surgery was the right one. Irving's toe is healing, albeit slowly, and last week he started doing some cardio workouts for the first time. Even under the best-case scenario, he will be in a cast for another month and then have to rehab for a month after that. If all goes perfectly, that would make him available in early March. It's hard to tell how sharp or conditioned he'll be by then, but I do know this: If Irving can get himself on the court, he can help this team win. So stay tuned.
• True college hoops denizens already knew about Colorado sophomore guard Alec Burks, but I'm guessing more casual fans will follow him more closely after he hung a career-high 36 points on Missouri last Saturday. At this point Burks is more of a scorer than a shooter (he has only made 11 three-pointers all season, including three on Saturday), but he has the size of a prototypical NBA two-guard.
• I realize most people will remember Kemba Walker's 22 points, including the game-winning bucket in overtime and a time-capsule desperation three-pointer that beat the shot clock, in UConn's big win over Texas on Saturday. To me, however, the more important performance was turned in by sophomore center Alex Oriakhi, who grabbed 21 rebounds, including 10 offensive, while helping the Huskies to a 10-rebound advantage. (The Longhorns came in ranked 22nd nationally in rebound margin at plus-8.1.) We know Walker is going to score -- and in fact, his late-game heroics overshadowed the fact that he needed 27 shots to score those 22 points -- but he is going to need more help for this to be a great team. These Huskies could do a lot worse than build their identity around defense and rebounding.
• If you count my four years in college, then I have been covering this sport for 21 years. And I have never seen the ACC this bad. Not even close.
• While I'm at it, here are my top five worst power-conference teams in the country: 1) Auburn; 2) Wake Forest; 3) DePaul; 4) Oregon; 5) Iowa.
• Is there enough oxygen in the atmosphere in Provo for Jackson Emery to get a little love? Emery, a 6-foot-3 senior guard, is no Jimmer. (No mere mortal is.) But if defenses are too aggressive in swarming The Jimmer, Emery makes them pay -- which prevents defenses from being too aggressive against The Jimmer in the first place. Emery is the team's second-leading scorer at 12.4 points per game, and even though his three-point shooting is down from last season, he's still making 38.8 percent. Emery had 22 points on 6-for-9 three-point shooting in the Cougars' very impressive win at UNLV last week.
• With so many ranked teams losing on the road over the weekend, allow me to remind you of my simple rule for success on the road. When you're at home, you can shoot three-pointers. When you're on the road, you have to shoot free throws. Class dismissed.
• One man's midseason All-America team: BYU's Jimmer Fredette, Duke's Nolan Smith, UConn's Kemba Walker, Purdue's JaJuan Johnson, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger. Took me about 20 seconds to make that decision.
• You all know I have been pretty much the lone passenger on the Washington bandwagon this season, so let me assure you that the season-ending ACL injury to sophomore guard Abdul Gaddy does not change my opinion. This team would obviously be better off with Gaddy healthy, but two things are happening that could make them just as good if not better. First, Venoy Overton has been promoted to the starting lineup. Overton is not as good a scorer as Gaddy, but he is a much better defender. Second, the injury will force Romar to give 6-6 freshman guard Terrence Ross more minutes. Ross had 25 points in 27 minutes (both season highs) in a win over Oregon, and he added 14 points and a season-high seven rebounds in a win over Oregon State.
• You probably forgot this (if you even knew in the first place), but we're coming up on 10 years since the Midwestern Collegiate Conference changed its name to the Horizon League. The move was made to help the conference differentiate itself from other mid-major leagues. Looking back, you'd have to say it was a brilliant marketing move. Whoever made that decision should be hired by Jim Delany to come up with the names of the Big Ten's new divisions.
• UNLV's offense has two main problems: The Rebels can't score in the post and they can't make three-pointers. Not sure what else there is.
• I got a message last week from someone I respect who took exception with my labeling Virginia Tech as the season's biggest disappointment in my Hoop Thoughts column two weeks ago. (I won't say who called, but his name rhymes with Schmeth Feenberg.) This person pointed out that I neglected to mention that the reason the Hokies have been disappointing is because they have suffered a rash of injuries. This person was right. Mea culpa. So yes, the Hokies are down to eight scholarship players after losing four guys -- J.T. Thompson, Allan Chaney, Dorenzo Hudson and Cadarian Raines -- to injury or illness. (Though Hudson did play 31 minutes in the Hokies' loss at home to Virginia on Dec. 5.) Virginia Tech has won six straight, but we'll know a lot more about the Hokies future prospects when they play at North Carolina on Wednesday night.
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Duke (1)2. Kansas (2)3. Ohio State (3)4. Syracuse (4)5. Pittsburgh (5)6. Villanova (6)7. Connecticut (9)8. Kentucky (7)9. Texas (8)10. San Diego State (10)11. Notre Dame (15)12. Illinois (13)13. Washington (14)14. Purdue (18)15. BYU (NR)16. Missouri (11)17. Vanderbilt (19)18. Temple (25)19. North Carolina (21)20. Texas A&M (24)21. Georgetown (16)22. Gonzaga (22)23. Minnesota (20)24. Georgia (NR)25. Utah State (NR)
Dropped off my ballot: Michigan State (12), Kansas State (17), UCF (23).
There was a lot of road kill to sort through this week. With so many ranked teams losing on the road to conference opponents over the weekend, it was hard to punish them as much as I would like. Remember, if one team moves down, another must move up, and as a voter I have to make sure both teams get what they deserve.
The biggest fall was by Michigan State. I probably gave the Spartans too much benefit of the doubt -- which they've earned -- by leaving them at No. 12 last week. But after Michigan State lost at Penn State -- a team that has lost at home to Maine 10 points and Purdue by 15 -- that benefit has been taken away. The Spartans' other losses were all to ranked teams, but two of them were by double-digit margins, and their best win came over Washington on a neutral court in Maui. The Spartans may well be one of the 25 best teams in the country, but right now they don't deserve to be ranked.
Neither does Kansas State after the Wildcats lost at Oklahoma State by 14. Yes, I am taking scoring margin into account. Voter's prerogative. I realize K-State is still without Curtis Kelly, but a lot of teams are missing players right now, and Kelly is no Kyrie Irving or Robbie Hummel. Kelly and Jacob Pullen were also both in the lineup when K-State lost to Florida by 13 points last month.
I am usually the first guy to stick up for mid-majors, but I am holding the line at San Diego State at No. 10 for now. As I said last week, I think this is a good team, but I don't believe in pushing a team up in the rankings purely because others are losing to good teams. If the Aztecs keep running the table in the Mountain West they'll get into my top five, but I want to give it a couple of weeks. My fellow voters apparently disagree.
Purdue fans don't like to hear my skepticism about their team either, but the fact is the Boilermakers' four Big Ten wins have come against Michigan, Northwestern, Penn State and Iowa. I'm not saying Purdue's not good, I'm just suggesting we hold off planning their parade just yet. The Boilermakers have a big week ahead of them. They play at Minnesota on Wednesday in a huge game for the Gophers, and then they travel to West Virginia on Saturday. We'll know a lot more about how good they are after that.
Speaking of Minnesota, which is 1-3 in the Big Ten, I was inclined to drop the Gophers off my ballot, but it's hard to punish a team for losing on the road to Wisconsin, Michigan State and Ohio State, all by respectable margins. I also moved Georgia onto my ballot and dropped out UCF for the simple reason that beating Kentucky at home is harder to do than beating Florida on a neutral court.
Why did I rank Utah State at 25? To quote the great philosopher John Blutarsky: "(Belch) ... Why not?!" Stew Morrill's Aggies very quietly hold a 15-2 record. Their two losses were at BYU and at Georgetown. True they don't have any wins over ranked teams, but what ranked team is dumb enough to play in Logan? Think of this as a vote for the little guys.
I might have ranked Butler on the heels of their rout of Cleveland State, but the close escape at home against Youngstown State two days later spooked me. The Bulldogs need to learn to bring their A game night in and night out, and not try to choose their spots. Beyond that the next man up is Missouri State, which scored an impressive win at Wichita State Sunday night to improve to 5-0 in the Missouri Valley and 13-3 overall. I see you, Bears.