Wednesday March 2nd, 2011

Since Duke was the latest team to lose its No. 1 ranking, it's only fitting that we begin this week's mailbag with a pair of e-mails from Blue Devil Nation, one searching for hope, the other expressing concern.

What are the chances that Kyrie Irving will suit up for Duke? I have heard rumors that he could be ready to go when the ACC Tourney starts. -- Jason, Waterloo, Ill.

It isn't easy getting concrete answers about Irving. The program is keeping a tight lid on any information regarding his progress (or lack thereof). Second, Mike Krzyzewski has flatly declared that Irving will not come back because the coach doesn't want his team looking over its collective shoulders waiting for the savior to return. Coach K wants his guys to assume that Irving is done. If the comes back, that's an unexpected bonus.

Still, based on everything I'm hearing, I would be shocked if Irving ever played another game for Duke. And yes, that includes next season. Part of the reason Kyrie is being so conservative in his rehab is that he wants to make sure he is in the best possible health for the NBA draft. If he comes back too early, it could jeopardize his options in June.

I know Irving had his heart set on playing for Duke in the NCAA tournament, but the team has grown less optimistic, not more, in the last couple of weeks. I can't completely discount the possibility of a miracle comeback, but like I said, I'll be really, really shocked if it happens. It's a bad break for the Blue Devils, but I'm guessing there aren't a lot of people shedding tears over Duke's misfortune.

Can we file a missing-person report on Andre Dawkins? I know Seth Curry has played some great ball in the last few weeks, but Dawkins is barely getting more court time than the long-injured Kyrie Irving. Is Dawkins being punished for some unknown reason? Seems like Duke could really use his outside shooting. -- Ken Young, Old Bethpage, N.Y.

We've seen this movie before. Coach K tends to reach a tipping point where he loses confidence in a player and buries him on the bench. I remember back in 1997 when midway through the season he gave up on 6-foot-10 forward Greg Newton, even though Newton was a senior and one of the few legit big men on the roster. Krzyzewski kept Newton on the bench for almost the entire game in the second round of the NCAA tournament as the Blue Devils were being pummeled on the boards by Providence. Newton stayed on the pine, and Duke lost the game.

It's unfortunate that Dawkins' regression has coincided with Curry's promotion to the starting lineup following his explosion in the win over North Carolina. I see no reason why the two can't coexist. Plus, with Irving out of the lineup, freshman Tyler Thornton, who is a true point guard and a much better on-ball defender than Dawkins, has been getting more minutes.

Like Ken, I can't help but wonder whether Coach K is making a mistake by squelching Dawkins' confidence. When Curry fouled out without scoring in Saturday night's loss to Virginia Tech, Duke could have used a few pops from Dawkins off the bench, but he could only muster six points in 18 minutes. I agree that at some point Duke is going to need a good game from Dawkins to advance in the NCAA tournament. I'm just not sure they'll get it.

If one were to take the names off the résumés and only look at RPI, strength of schedule and wins versus the top teams, who should be the No. 1 overall seed at this point? -- Robert Crandall, Idaho Falls, Idaho

I'm glad Robert asked me this question the way he did because it allows me to make a couple of points. First, the name of the school has nothing to do with where it gets placed in the bracket. Nothing. I realize some people prefer to peddle conspiracy theories, but that's the truth. If the so-called big names are the ones who end up on the top seed lines, maybe it's because they have the best players and won the most games.

Second, I am really not a fan of those TV gimmicks where you put up two "résumés" and ask the announcers to choose which one should go to the NCAA tournament. It may be a fun little exercise for viewers, but you can never make those decisions based on three or four pieces of information. You have to look much, much deeper.

That's especially true if one of those pieces of info is the team's overall RPI ranking. That number might be the least relevant piece of data on the résumé. The RPI is used to organize a team's "sheet" so the committee members can get a good look at how that team fared against the top 50 of the RPI, the bottom 150, and so forth. When I participated in the NCAA's mock selection seminar in Indianapolis, my partner and I literally never once checked on where a team was ranked in the RPI.

As to the question of which team is the No. 1 overall seed, right now it's a two-horse race between Kansas and Ohio State. It doesn't much matter which team finishes first because either way Ohio State would be sent to the East (Newark) and Kansas would go to the Southwest (San Antonio). Both teams are 6-2 against the top 50 of the RPI. Kansas is 16-2 against the top 100 while Ohio State is 14-2. Right now my choice would be Ohio State because one of Kansas' losses came at home, and Ohio State has three true road wins against the top 50 while Kansas has none. But it's close.

My beloved Bruins haven't cracked your top 25! You said they have the best chance of any Pac-10 team to get to the Sweet 16. Their last two top-25 wins are over St John's and Arizona, but still no love. Plus they are one of only two teams to have tamed the BYU Cougars this year. I am not claiming Final Four here, but what do they need to do get in that top 25? -- John O, La Jolla, Calif.

I did give the Bruins strong consideration for the final spot on my ballot but went with George Mason instead. Still, even John would have to admit that I've been more bullish on UCLA than many of my peers. I even went so far as to write on Twitter that this team could be ranked in the preseason top five next year if everyone comes back. (And by "everyone," I'm basically referring to Tyler Honeycutt. I think he's going to enter the draft.) The Bruins have no seniors, and next year they will be joined by the Wear twins, who transferred in last summer from North Carolina. So things are looking up in Westwood.

The main reason UCLA hasn't cracked the top 25 yet is that the Pac-10 is once again having a down year. So all those wins over league teams don't help as much as a loss at Cal hurts (even though it was in overtime). John makes a good point about those wins over BYU and Arizona, and that will help the Bruins' seeding. And if UCLA sweeps the Washington schools on the road this weekend, I can promise you that they will be on my ballot next Sunday.

It's clear you have been skeptical of Purdue this year, but could you see the Boilers sneaking in as a 1 seed if they win their remaining regular season games and the Big Ten tourney in Indy? Texas is struggling, BYU is facing another San Diego State game in the Mountain West tourney, and Pittsburgh deals with the no-guarantees Big East tournament. -- Josh, Indianapolis

It's always humorous to me when fan bases argue that I have been skeptical of their team, and I have been hearing a lot of that from Boiler Nation this season. So I looked up a few of my ballots on pollspeak.com, and what do you know -- it's true! I was actually less skeptical than most voters at the outset of the season. My name appears toward the top of the Purdue voters list the first few weeks, but for most of the middle weeks I brought up the rear. This week, I am smack dab in the middle: The highest Purdue was ranked on any ballot was second, and the lowest was ninth; I ranked them sixth, which is where they ended up in the poll.

To be sure, Purdue gave me reason to be skeptical at times. The Boilermakers lost to Richmond by 11 points on Nov. 27, and they dropped four consecutive road games (albeit to good teams) in January and early February. Despite my so-called skepticism, I did pick the Boilermakers to beat Ohio State at home two weeks ago, but to me their more impressive wins came at Illinois and Michigan State. We all know how hard it is to win on the road, especially inside the conference.

The bottom line is that this team has a very real chance to claim a No. 1 seed -- that is, assuming that all of Josh's "ifs" come to pass. IF they win the Big Ten tournament, and IF BYU loses to San Diego State, and IF either Pittsburgh, Kansas or Duke loses in their respective conference tournaments, then Purdue would indeed be a 1 seed. That sounds to me like a few too many ifs, but maybe that's just silly me being skeptical again.

Please help me attempt to restore sanity to this country. I have had the opportunity to watch four BYU games this season and I have yet to see Jimmer Fredette play anything that resembles defense. Why don't the in-game announcers or any media members bring up this fact? I think the national media has been brainwashed by his offensive numbers and has chosen to ignore the fact that outside of his shooting ability he is extremely limited as a basketball player. I'm not trying to tear the kid apart, but I always thought you had to be the best player in the country to win National Player of the Year, not just a guy who only plays offense and takes a majority of his team's shots. -- Dave, Dallas

I'm just going to go there and ask: How much of the "perception" of Jimmer Fredette is based on the fact that he is white? Would he still be considered a national player of the year candidate if he weren't? Would he still be looked on as a cult figure? And on the flip side, would people so consistently question his defense? (Contrary to Dave's belief, a lot of people question Jimmer's defense.)

I believe the answer is yes on all three fronts. Fredette is a cult figure because he's a huge scorer who plays off the beaten path. It adds to his mystique. Stephen Curry was popular for the same reason. Curry was also not known for his defensive prowess, but I don't believe that was remarked upon as often as it is in the case of Fredette.

I will allow that Fredette will never be known as a defensive stopper, but I strongly reject the argument that he is just a shooter. Fredette is a great scorer as well as a shooter; his best asset is his ability to get to the foul line. He has never been "just" a scorer, either. Fredette has averaged over four assists per game during each of the last three seasons, and this year he is ranked third in the Mountain West with 4.3 per game. As for his D, he is averaging 3.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals, which ain't too shabby.

Most of all, Fredette is a terrific leader who has carried his team to the cusp of a No. 1 seed. People can make all the arguments they want, but to me, this national player of the year award is over. The winner is The Jimmer.

Villanova has really fallen apart over past few weeks, and Jay Wright seems to have given up coaching. If the 'Cats lose their first game in the Big East tournament, do they even deserve an NCAA bid? I think that they have already had their final victory of the season. -- Mike McLaughlin, Houston

That seemed like a ridiculous assertion to me until I checked Villanova's schedule and saw that they only have one regular-season game remaining, and that's at Pittsburgh. Still, I doubt very much that they're going to lose their first game in the conference tournament and their first-round game in the NCAAs. Things at Villanova are bad, but they're not that bad.

Yes, the Wildcats have lost five of their last seven games, but four of those losses were to ranked teams. The fifth was the freakish loss at Rutgers on a late four-point play. Also keep in mind that Villanova had to play three games this month without Corey Stokes. (They lost to Pitt by three points at home without him but won at Seton Hall and DePaul.) However, that 21-point spanking at Notre Dame Monday night was genuinely alarming. It's one thing to lose to a good team on the road. It's another to fail to compete. That's not Villanova basketball.

I can assure you, Mike, that Jay Wright has not given up on coaching, nor have his guys given up on playing. I just think this team needs to get back to basics. The guards need to attack the rim again and do a better job feeding their bigs. And the whole team needs to renew its commitment to defense. This roster has too many good pieces to be playing the way it did Monday night in South Bend. I don't share Mike's belief that Villanova has won its last game, but the Wildcats do not strike me as a team that's ready to do some serious damage in the NCAA tournament.

Has the NCAA considered revisiting the definition of blocking versus charging? These calls seem to be the most controversial, subjective and most difficult to call. I really despise the inconsistency of these calls and wish the definition of each could be more clear cut. -- Jerry Davis, Pittsburgh

It doesn't make sense to say that on the one hand, the block-charge is the most difficult call to make (which it is), yet on the other hand you don't like the inconsistency. I think the rules-committee folks have done a good job defining the difference between a block and charge, though there remain a lot of misconceptions from the public. For example, a lot of people think a defender cannot be moving at all and draw a charge, but that is not true. As long as the defender has established position in the space between the dribbler and the basket, then he is granted some leeway as far as his movement.

The one adjustment that I do expect to be made in the near future -- perhaps as soon as next year -- is the addition of the arc under the basket. Two years ago, the Division I rules committee made a change stipulating that if a player attempted to take a charge under the basket, the official must whistle him for a blocking call. Before then, the situation was often ruled a no-call. The rules committee was hesitant to add the arc to the floor off the bat, but earlier this season the arc was used in a few experimental games, and it was a huge hit.

Please don't tell me some lucky bank shot ended the tourney hopes for Michigan. Will the committee take into account our close losses against top teams, or is it more of a black and white picture? -- Harry Hillman, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Alas, it is indeed quite possible that the difference between Michigan playing in the NCAA tournament and the NIT is that banked-in three-pointer hoisted by Wisconsin freshman Josh Gasser. The Wolverines have had their share of close shaves against marquee opponents. They took Kansas to overtime at home before losing, and they lost to Syracuse and Illinois by a total of five points.

The committee is not supposed to take into account margins of victory, but I have to believe the individual members notice these things. Then again, Michigan plays in a lot of close games because John Beilein does such a good job of slowing the tempo. That's why this is such a slippery slope.

Besides, if Harry is going to ask committee members to take into account close losses, would he also argue they penalize the Wolverines for close wins? After all, Michigan needed overtime to win at Iowa, it beat Indiana at home by four points and it won at Michigan State and Penn State by a total of seven points. The bottom line for Michigan is: Just win, baby. Saturday's home game against Michigan State will not guarantee the Wolverines a bid, but it would really, really help.

Is it déjà vu all over again for us Pitt fans? The Panthers have a fantastic year in the Big East, figure to go deep into the tournament, yet I feel like if they meet a BYU or even St. John's again in the tournament, they are going to get beat by their up-tempo game. Does Pitt legitimately have the scoring necessary to get to the Final Four? And if they don't do it this time, then when? -- Joe, San Antonio

I asked Jamie Dixon virtually the same question in December. Not surprisingly, he disagreed with the premise. "I think we have this perception about us that is inaccurate," Dixon said. "Two years ago when we had DeJuan Blair and those guys, we ended up second in the country in offensive efficiency behind North Carolina. We might be in the middle of the pack offensively in our league, but there's only a few points difference between us and the top team. Maybe it comes with being from Pittsburgh. No matter what we do, we're going to be known as a physical, defensive team."

This year's numbers back Dixon -- sort of. In Big East games, Pitt is ranked fifth in the league in scoring at 70.1. Marquette is first at 74.1. Not a huge difference. Pitt ranks second in the league in field-goal percentage and second in three-point percentage, but it is 12th in made threes at 5.6 per game. Nationally, Pitt is ranked sixth in offensive efficiency and fourth in assists per made field goals. Yet, it is 298th in tempo and 260th in percentage of points from threes. Most concerning of all is Pitt's free-throw shooting, where the Panthers rank 270th in the country at 66 percent.

I think it's fair to say that Pitt has a few concerns heading into the NCAA tournament. I also think it's fair to say that a lot of coaches would love to have Jamie Dixon's concerns heading into the NCAA tournament.

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