Two players, two transgressions, two penalties, two different sets of facts. Yet both situations beg the same question: Did the coach do the right thing?
The answer is also the same: It depends.
Case No. 1: On Jan. 11, Minnesota junior forward Trevor Mbakwe was arrested and briefly jailed for violating a restraining order executed against him at the request of a former girlfriend. This is the same player who sat all of last season while he faced felony battery charges stemming from an incident at his junior college. Mbakwe avoided trial in that case by entering a pretrial program, but he never admitted guilt.
Despite Mbakwe's checkered past, Gophers coach Tubby Smith chose not to suspend him. Smith did keep Mbakwe out of the starting lineup for Minnesota's game at home against Purdue last Thursday, but Mbakwe entered the game at the 16:24 mark of the first half and played 31 minutes in the Gophers' 70-67 win. Mbakwe came off the bench once again on Sunday against Iowa, but he logged 35 minutes with 16 points and 12 rebounds.
Doesn't that seem like a rather light penalty given all these circumstances? "That's your prerogative, that's your opinion," Smith told me on the phone last week. "Until you're in a position to have to make these decisions, you really never know all that goes into it."
Case No. 2: Following Memphis' 64-58 loss at SMU last Wednesday, the Tigers' second-leading scorer, junior forward Wesley Witherspoon, was riding on the team bus back to school from the Memphis airport. There were no coaches on board. At one point Witherspoon grabbed the microphone and playfully imitated one of the assistant coaches. When Memphis coach Josh Pastner heard what Witherspoon had done, he called the player into his office and informed him he was being suspended from all team activities. Indefinitely.
An indefinite suspension for making fun of a coach? Doesn't that seem a little harsh? "I'm a big believer in having consequences for certain behavior," Pastner told me. "If the behavior doesn't change, that means you probably have to change the consequences."
These weren't the first disciplinary cases that Smith and Pastner have faced this season. Earlier this season, Smith suspended junior guard Devoe Joseph for six games for academic and off-court reasons. Joseph was reinstated, but two weeks ago he announced he was transferring. At the beginning of practice this past fall, Pastner booted freshman forward Jelan Kendrick off the team for disrespecting his coaches just a few days after returning from his own brief suspension.
Now, if you look at what Mbakwe did to actually violate that restraining order, you begin to understand why Smith was so lenient. Mbakwe was found to have violated his restraining order because he wrote a message to the woman through her Facebook page. The message seemed rather benign. "I know we haven't talked in forever and trust me I'm not trying to start any drama with nobody in your life or anything," Mbakwe wrote in part. "I just wanted to wish u the best with everything and I hope all has been well with you and your family."
Smith wasn't happy about what happened, but he didn't feel it warranted a heavy hammer. "I told him, I don't appreciate what you did and there's no excuse for it, but there are often two sides to these things, sometimes four sides to them," Smith said. "I have to be the judge who executes the decision. People can take it the way they want to take it."
And if Pastner's suspension of Witherspoon seems harsh, consider that this was not the first time Pastner had warned Witherspoon to act more maturely and show more leadership. He had already removed him from the starting lineup the previous two games for this very reason. Since the Tigers are one of the youngest teams in the country, Pastner, who is just 33 years old and in his second season as head coach, has his eyes trained on the long term. "I will not tolerate anyone making light of losing," he said. "Wesley's a very good kid, but I'm trying to build something here. I have to set the standards early of what's acceptable and what's not."
Coaches have to make these decisions all the time, whether they want to or not. Every situation is different, and part of what they have to weigh is how much of a risk they should take on a particular player. Needless to say, the better the player, the bigger the risk they're willing to take. Kendrick couldn't make it to the first game at Memphis, yet Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy has already accepted him as a transfer. Dana Altman welcomed Joseph to Oregon with open arms. These cases are far from unusual. Tony Woods, a talented 6-foot-11 center, was kicked out of Wake Forest following his arrest on charges of assault against a woman. He's enrolled at a junior college now, and it looks like he could be playing for Louisville next fall.
As for Mbakwe, he has a court hearing in the coming days, but Smith told me that he doesn't expect to discipline Mbakwe any further (absent any more facts, of course). Likewise, Pastner said he plans to meet with Witherspoon to revisit his situation on Monday. Pastner would not commit to anything, but if you read the tea leaves it sounds like Witherspoon will be back in uniform for the Tigers' game at Southern Miss Wednesday night.
So, then: Did these coaches do the right thing? There really is no clear-cut answer. When you're playing coach, judge and jury, you have to do your best with what you know. In the meantime, you better win a lot of games.
A lot of Missouri fans have been asking for an update on Tony Mitchell the last couple of weeks, so here's what I've found out.
It's amazing how little attention this case has drawn compared to those of Enes Kanter and Josh Selby, even though we're talking about an elite recruit for a prominent team. (Mitchell was ranked 12th in the Class of 2010 by Rivals.com.) The 6-8 freshman forward from Dallas has not been academically cleared by the NCAA and has yet to enroll in school.
To cut to the chase: This thing doesn't look good. Mitchell finished his senior year at Pinkston High under some very questionable circumstances, reportedly earning nine course credits in a matter of days shortly before he was supposed to graduate. Complicating matters further is the fact that Mitchell spent his junior year at a Florida prep school that was not accredited. All this has left him well short of the NCAA's requirements regarding core courses. So this was a longshot from the beginning.
From what I'm told, part of the reason this case has dragged on for so long is that Missouri has had a hard time getting information from Mitchell's former school, the Center of Life Academy in Florida. (There may be good reason for that.) Last week, the NCAA informed Missouri that Mitchell will not be declared eligible for the second semester. The school and the NCAA were preparing to make that decision public, but late last week Missouri received a FedEx package from Center of Life Academy which it hopes will help Mitchell's status. The NCAA is reviewing that new information, and we should have a final word by the end of this week.
The stakes for Mitchell are enormous. If he does not enroll at Missouri by Tuesday Jan. 25, he cannot be a student this year. NCAA rules allow a student to make up one core course requirement by the end of what would have been his freshman year of college, but I'm told Mitchell has much more than one course to make up. If he does not get eligible by the end of this spring, Mitchell will never be able to play Division I basketball. He can play in the NAIA or find a junior college. The more likely outcome is that he will have to try to make it somewhere as a professional.
• It might surprise you to learn that Ohio State's biggest problem right now is rebounding. Yes, Jared The Man-Child is grabbing nearly 10 boards a game, but in the Buckeyes' last three games, their opponents got a combined 14 more rebounds than they did -- including Penn State, which owned a 25-15 advantage on Saturday. In Big Ten games, Ohio State is ranked seventh in rebound margin.
The main reason for this shortcoming is the necessity to play freshman point guard Aaron Craft a lot of minutes. That means sending senior center Dallas Lauderdale has to spend a lot more time on the bench. (Craft played 35 minutes against the Nittany Lions, Lauderdale played nine.) Buckeye fans should enjoy the view from the top of the polls for now, but they also shouldn't ignore the warning signs. Like I've been saying, there simply aren't any great teams in college basketball now.
• Josh Selby is hitting the proverbial freshman wall kind of early, isn't he? In his last three games, Selby has shot 7-for-26 from the field. In the close shave over Nebraska, he had three points on 1-for-4 shooting and four turnovers to zero assists. He was so bad that Bill Self only played him for 13 minutes. That's not gonna get Capone.
• I'll say it again: Pitt center Gary McGhee needs more love. He had a team-high 13 points and 10 boards in the Panthers' win over Seton Hall on Saturday. It's easy to dismiss McGhee because he seems to do everything in super-slow-motion, but not many teams are that big, strong and experienced at the center position.
• I've doubted San Diego State lately, but the Aztecs' win at New Mexico over the weekend was their most impressive victory of the season. Yes, they won at Gonzaga, but that was in the season's second game, long before the target on their back got so big. And yes, they beat UNLV last Wednesday, but that was at home. To win a game on the road, in your conference, when you're ranked sixth in the country and one of four unbeaten teams left ... that to me shows you're for real. (Not to mention that the Aztecs got a career-high 30 points from point guard D.J. Gay. If he starts giving them more pop, they'll be that much tougher to beat.)
• If you had told me Missouri would score 89 points against Texas A&M, I would have told you the Tigers are going to win by 15 points. Bravo, Aggies.
• You think it's hard for Jeff Capel to watch Blake Griffin highlights these days?
• The most overrated facet in college basketball is depth. I actually prefer teams that play six or seven guys to the ones who play 10 or 11. Players are in good enough shape to play 30-plus minutes a game, especially with long television timeouts. I also think it's better for chemistry to have a short bench. Depth helps a team overcome injuries and foul trouble, but fatigue is a non-issue.
• Nobody puts The Jimmer in a corner.
• You think anybody besides geeks like us know how good Wisconsin guard Jordan Taylor is? Another virtuoso performance in the win over Illinois Saturday: 22 points, including 16-for-18 from the foul line. It was the sixth straight game Taylor scored 19 or more points.
• It wasn't quite as dramatic as his Kentucky team's comeback from 31 points down to beat LSU, but Rick Pitino called Louisville's comeback against Marquette one of the top five he has ever experienced. The Cards trailed 65-47 with under six minutes to play before closing the game in a blur with a 24-5 run to win by one. It was even more impressive when you consider that this team is minus three injured players right now, including sophomore guard Mike Marra, who missed the Marquette game because of an ankle injury.
• Nobody on Duke has suffered more from the absence of Kyrie Irving than Duke sophomore center Mason Plumlee. Still, there are signs Plumlee is regaining his sea legs. He is not going to be a great back-to-the-basket scorer this season, but he at least is turning himself into a prolific rebounder. Plumlee grabbed a total of 30 boards combined against Florida State and Virginia last week. If he can average double-figure rebounds the rest of the way, he'll be a tremendous asset.
• Kansas State shot 13-for-16 from the foul line in its win over Texas Tech. I actually had to read that three times before I believed it.
• I like Villanova, but the Wildcats are letting their identity evolve too much around their offense. That's exactly what got them into trouble last season. Jay Wright said after the win over Maryland that when his team's shots aren't falling, they tend to slack off on defense. Gotta fix that, guys.
• It says here the Missouri Valley is a shoo-in for at least two bids. And believe me, you do not want your favorite team to pop up next to Missouri State or Wichita State on the CBS Selection Show.
• I see you Bill Clark! The 6-5 senior forward from Duquesne is averaging nearly 17 points and seven rebounds per game, and he's shooting 43.5 percent from three-point range. Clark scored 20 points in the Dukes' loss at Pittsburgh last month, and he lit up Temple for 22 points (including 10-for-10 from the foul line) in Duquesne's 78-66 upset of the Owls last Saturday.
• Yes, Michigan State's overtime win at home over Northwestern was closer than it should have been, but there was still some good news to come out of it. Freshman guard Keith Appling is starting to emerge as an offensive threat (he had a career-high 19 points in the win), and junior forward Delvon Roe turned in another great defensive performance. Roe limited John Shurna to a season-low six points.
• If it's possible to have a season-saving win in mid-January, Tennessee did just that when it came back from 17 down to beat Vanderbilt by three. The Vols were staring at 0-3 in the SEC with road games this week at Georgia and UConn. Hopefully Tennessee is learning that it can't be a really good team without contributions from senior center Brian Williams. He had eight points and 12 rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench. Keep it up, big fella.
• How about Harvard going down to D.C. over the weekend and beating George Washington by five? I realize GW isn't great but still, this Crimson team is for real, folks.
• A win is a win, especially on the road, so good for UCLA to win at Oregon on Saturday. But how about my man Reeves Nelson committing five fouls and four turnovers in just 15 minutes? As the philosopher king Cliff Clavin would say, "What's up with that?"
• I am usually not a proponent of hiring as your coach an ex-player who has never coached (especially in college). But you have to give props to Iowa State's Fred Hoiberg for a real good start. Hoiberg's Cyclones got the biggest win of his young career when they knocked off Baylor at home by 15 points over the weekend. That improved ISU to 14-4 (1-2 Big 12). To answer your questions: Yes, I am sticking by my pick for Baylor to beat Kansas tonight. And no, I am not feeling nearly as confident about it.
1. Kansas (2)
Dropped out: Temple (18), North Carolina (19), Georgetown (21), Georgia (24)
The big change, of course, comes at the top. I know I'm going to be in the minority putting Kansas at No. 1 instead of Ohio State. There's no huge reason why I'm going with the Jayhawks, except I've been ranking them ahead of the Buckeyes all season, and I'm not going to change it now just to go with the flow. Besides, I still think Kansas is the best team in the country, though after watching them sweat out a win at home over Nebraska I'm certainly not shouting that to the hills. But did Ohio State look that much better squeaking by Penn State in Columbus?
Given how many ranked teams lost last week, I expected there to be a lot of shake-up on my ballot, but every time I tried to move a team down I kept stumbling onto other teams who also lost. So I figured this was a good time to step back from the week-to-week results and sort this out according to my eye test. That makes this exercise even more subjective than it usually is.
The big mover this week was Texas A&M. In fact, I thought so highly of the Aggies that I also bumped Missouri up three spots just for taking A&M into overtime in College Station. If I was going to rank Mizzou 13th, I figured I also had to move Colorado into my Top 25. The Buffaloes' 3-0 start in the Big 12 (14-4 overall) includes a win over Missouri in Boulder on Jan. 8.
The other major move was made by West Virginia. At some point you have to narrow your analysis to what has happened recently, and during the last two weeks the Mountaineers won at Georgetown and at home over Purdue. On the flip side, Notre Dame looked pretty miserable while getting walloped at St. John's. The Irish are officially on notice: Get something done away from South Bend, or there will be no more soup for you.
I'm probably a week late in dropping Georgetown off my ballot. I'm not sure it's fair to penalize the Hoyas for losing to Pittsburgh, but I can't in good conscience rank a team that is 2-4 in its own league. That demotion also took its toll on Temple. The Owls' best win of the season came at home against the Hoyas, which now does not look so good in retrospect. Temple also got embarrassed at Duquesne on Saturday. So they're out.
I was concerned I would not have room for Missouri State on my ballot, but North Carolina made it easier for me Sunday night by losing badly at Georgia Tech. (Looks like I'm the last to leave the North Carolina bandwagon. I'll turn out the lights.) I slotted the Bears behind Utah State, which beat Boise State and Fresno State last week to improve to 5-0 in the WAC and 16-2 overall.