By any measure, Khem Birch was having a promising freshman season. A 6-foot-9 forward at Pittsburgh who was just the second McDonald's All-American to play at the school, Birch was averaging 4.4 points in 15 minutes, but he was leading the team in blocks and had started the last six games, making him just the third freshman to start during Jamie Dixon's nine years as head coach. Those aren't lights-out numbers, but given the potential Birch had shown, and given Dixon's history of developing talent, Birch had every reason to believe that at some point over the next few years he would have an excellent chance at a lucrative professional career.
So imagine Dixon's surprise when Birch called him last Thursday to tell him he wanted to transfer. Birch had missed practice that day, but that didn't cause any alarm because several players were missing practice because of final exams. Dixon and Birch had another conversation the next day, and by Friday night Birch was headed back to his native Canada. He did not formally ask Pittsburgh for his release to transfer to another school, which leaves a smidgen of hope that he will return. But it's unlikely.
Reached by phone on Sunday night, Dixon offered little by way of comment, except to confirm that he was surprised by Birch's decision. "We discussed it, but we didn't really get into the reasons. There's nothing I can say as far as what his thinking was," Dixon said. "The kid has made a decision and moved on, and so have we."
Birch does not neatly fit the mold of the trigger-happy undecider. Yes, he played for three high schools before coming to Pitt, but one of those was an American prep school that de-emphasized basketball after Birch got there. Still, Birch's shocking decision to leave midway through his freshman year is on pace with the larger defects that have plagued college basketball's culture over the last decade. Players are routinely shepherded through a grassroots system that caters to their every need, where there's always another high school or AAU team ready to accept them at the first sign of adversity. No wonder so many of them bail on college. For the first time in their lives, they're being held accountable. And they can't handle it.
Yes, there are good reasons to change schools, and coaches are often at fault for over-promising during the recruiting process. But leaving mid-semester of your freshman year? When you're starting? Former Pitt guard Brad Wannamaker said it best on Twitter after Birch announced his decision: "Guess everybody ain't built for tough coaching and competing for minutes."
Birch's foolish move is the latest example of how the rush to the NBA can warp the minds of young players and, especially, the adults who are in their ears. "If you become a senior in college, in many regards you're seen as a failure. That's the starting point," Arizona coach Sean Miller says. "If things aren't going according to that timeline, if there's any type of learning curve or process or hardship or obstacles, then many times the answer becomes, I've got to change my environment."
Miller should know. His program also lost freshman, Sidiki Johnson, a 6-8 forward from the Bronx. Johnson had already been suspended in mid-November for violating team rules. He scored 18 points in the team's Red-Blue scrimmage, but he had played in just three of Arizona's first give games as a backup center. Looking back, Miller probably shouldn't have been surprised Johnson couldn't cut it. He did, after all, attend four high schools, including two prominent prep schools (St. Raymond's in the Bronx, and St. Benedict's in New Jersey), as well as the ultimate prep powerhouse, Oak Hill Academy. Last year, Johnson left Oak Hill after he violated school policy. He returned home to attend Wadleigh High.
Miller concedes he probably should do a better job screening these guys beforehand -- especially since last season he coached the ultimate undecider, Lamont "Momo" Jones. A 6-foot guard from Harlem, Jones played for three high schools, committed to four colleges and then transferred from Arizona after one year. He's currently playing for Iona -- this week, anyway.
Nurideen Lindsey played an even bigger role at St. John's than Birch and Johnson were playing at their schools. A native of Philadelphia who grew up amid unimaginable circumstances -- two of Lindsey's brothers were killed in gang-related incidents, and three years ago his closest friend died of cancer -- Lindsey transferred from Overbrook High in Philly to the South Kent school in Connecticut, but he dropped out shortly after getting there. After resuming his career at Redlands Community College in Oklahoma, Lindsey transferred to St. John's, started the Red Storm's first nine games and was third on the team in scoring (11.9) and first in assists (2.9).
Lindsey had some rough spots on the court -- he missed two free throws with 2.3 seconds left that cost the Red Storm the game against Texas A&M at Madison Square Garden, and he had just one point in a blowout loss at Kentucky -- but he was also butting heads with the coaches during practice and off the court. A parking ticket here, a missed class there. When he informed his coach, Steve Lavin, by text message that he wanted to leave, Lavin didn't try to talk -- or text -- him out of it.
Oregon coach Dana Altman, however, did his best to convince freshman guard, Jabari Brown, not to leave town after only two games. But it was to no avail. A 6-5 guard from Oakland, Brown averaged six points and 5.5 turnovers, and he shot 27 percent from the field. Still, it was only two games. When he didn't show up to practice one day and later told Altman he wanted to leave, the coach asked if they could meet the next day. At the meeting, Brown brought his father, who was fully supportive of his son's decision to quit.
"I was shocked. I didn't want him to leave, and I told him that," Altman said. "They just said he didn't fit our style and needed to look elsewhere. I was disappointed. He was a good kid, a good student, doing well academically. The only thing I had been getting on him about was working harder. You do this for 32 years, you ought to not be surprised by things, but I was surprised at that one."
Once again, he shouldn't have been. Brown began his high school career at Salesian High in Richmond, Calif. He transferred to Findlay Prep in Nevada for his senior season, but midway through the year he left Findlay and finished up at Oakland High. That's three high schools inside of a year. Altman is quick to point out that he too has a history of indecision -- in 2007, Altman left Creighton to accept a job at Arkansas, but changed his mind less than 24 hours later -- but he also acknowledges that Brown's high school shifts should have raised a red flag.
"That's a legitimate question," Altman said. "You see somebody's background, and if they've quit things before maybe they'll do it again. You can say it's hypocritical of me because I switched jobs, but you see the way guys switch high schools, switch AAU teams, so they're thinking I can just switch colleges, too. And the year they have to sit out is a tough price to pay."
Last summer, my colleague Luke Winn convened a small team of researchers to connect the dots between players switching high schools, decommitting during the recruiting process and then transferring after they get to college. No one quantifies basketball trends better than Luke, but you don't need a Moneyball spread sheet to see what is going on. Luke called his endeavor the Commitment Project. A more appropriate title might have been the Lack of Commitment Project.
The sad irony is that in the end, it's the players who suffer the most, not the schools. Khem Birch ostensibly left Pittsburgh to improve his chances to be a pro, but his move had the opposite effect. Part of being a professional is learning to fight your way through adversity. Why would any franchise commit to paying big dollars to a player who can't commit to sticking things out?
• Fab Melo already has more blocks than he had all of last season. Just making sure you knew. #IrootforFab
• Baylor, which earned its first real eye-catching win at BYU on Saturday, is going to benefit from the addition of Gary Franklin, the sophomore point guard who transferred from Cal and just became eligible. Scott Drew doesn't have one main point guard to run his team, but he does have a lot of perimeter options that will allow him to mix and match. The Bears' half-court offense looked really good in the BYU game.
• Did anyone know that Todd Mayo was this good? Marquette's 6-3 freshman guard, who's O.J. Mayo's younger brother, has scored in double figures in his last five games, including his season-high 22 in a rout of Northern Colorado. He wasn't ranked in the top 100 of his high school class by Scout.com, Rivals.com, or ESPNU.
• Arnett Moultrie, the 6-11 transfer from UTEP, has been a terrific addition for Mississippi State. I talked to a head coach recently who has scouted both Mississippi State and Florida, and he said he thought MSU was the better team -- and Moultrie was the biggest reason.
• In some ways, UNLV's win over Illinois was more impressive than its win over North Carolina. It was on the road (albeit in the United Center rather than Assembly Hall), and in the wake of the Carolina upset the Rebels can't sneak up on teams anymore.
• Guess we can forget about that whole Alabama-is-a-much-better-shooting-team narrative. The Tide is ranked 339th in the country in three-point shooting. They went 2 for 14 from in their loss at Kansas State. Think they'll be seeing much zone?
• Vanderbilt, defense. Defense, Vanderbilt.
• A good player knows how to play well when he's not playing well. Understand? Kevin Pangos does. Gonzaga's 6-1 freshman guard had his worst shooting game of the season against Arizona (1 for 9 from the floor, 0 for 5 from three), but he still found a way to contribute eight assists (to one turnover) and three rebounds. That's how you get Capone.
• If Memphis adapts a junkyard dog, pressure defense, blue-collar, get-after-it identity, this team has a chance to do some damage. And the guy who can set that tone is sophomore Will Barton, who attempted 19 free throws -- 19! -- in the loss at Louisville.
• Ian Eagle is still not on Twitter. And I'm still not happy about it.
• Oklahoma State's LeBryan Nash is the epitome of freshman inconsistency. After scoring 20 points in the Cowboys' loss to Pitt, he had six points on 2 for 15 shooting in Saturday's loss to New Mexico. Sure hope he doesn't transfer.
• That Oregon court sure looks awful on TV.
• I can see four teams from the Missouri Valley going to the NCAA tournament.
• When Jared Sullinger was cleared to play last week after missing his two previous games with a back injury, Thad Matta wanted to start him. Sullinger, however, told Matta he should start junior forward Evan Ravenel because "Evan worked so hard these past two weeks." So it is possible to be a great player as well as a great teammate.
• Arkansas hasn't had much to be happy about after Marshawn Powell's season-ending knee injury, but the play of 6-3 freshman guard B.J. Young has been a pleasant surprise. Since Powell went out, Young has been the team's leading scorer and best player. He is averaging 16.5 points (on 48.5 percent three-point shooting), 3.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists.
• When I watch Villanova, I see a lot of streaky shooters but not many good ones.
• Once more, with feeling: When you're playing at home, you shoot threes. When you're on the road, you've got to shoot free throws. Class dismissed.
• Lon Kruger very quietly has Oklahoma off to a nice start. The Sooners' 8-1 record includes wins over Washington State, Santa Clara, Oral Roberts and Arkansas.
• Tony Mitchell made his long-awaited collegiate debut Sunday night for North Texas. The 6-8 forward from Dallas, who originally committed to Missouri but couldn't qualify academically, had 14 points and 10 rebounds in 20 minutes off the bench in the Mean Green's win over Jackson State. I'll be interested in hearing from NBA scouts who watch Mitchell over the next couple of months.
• I wonder if Mike Rosario still thinks transferring from Rutgers to Florida was the right move. He'll win more at Florida, but he'll never be a featured guy.
• Speaking of Florida, the Gators are on track to be the worst free-throw shooting team in school history. That's got to cost them at some point.
• I was glad to hear no criminal charges were filed in the Cincinnati-Xavier fight. I'm also glad that nobody is talking about ending or even suspending the series. And even though the penalties were too light, I do think Yancy Gates's contrition was genuine. It will take a long time for him to recover, but his emotional news conference was a good first step.
• I'll also say it one more time: The fact that the three referees from that Cincy-Xavier game escaped any kind of sanction befuddles me.
• A coach whose team has played Georgetown this season told me he thinks the Hoyas will be hard to beat if they're making shots, but he's not sure if they're mature and physical enough to win ugly.
• For those of you who questioned my preseason selection of UConn's Andre Drummond as national freshman of the year, check out his line in Sunday's win over Holy Cross: 24 points on 11 for 12 shooting, eight rebounds and five blocks. I know it's only Holy Cross, but it's clear Drummond is starting to figure some things out.
• Don't you love seeing a former a walk-on not only earn a scholarship but a starting spot as well? That's what Gonzaga's 6-6 junior guard Mike Hart has done. He is averaging 19 minutes a game and scoring 3.2 points. Well done, Mike.
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Ohio State (1)
2. Syracuse (2)
3. Kentucky (3)
4. North Carolina (4)
5. Duke (5)
6. Florida (6)
7. Baylor (7)
8. Louisville (8)
9. Missouri (10)
10. Kansas (11)
11. UConn (12)
12. Marquette (13)
13. Georgetown (14)
14. Xavier (9)
15. Wisconsin (15)
16. Mississippi State (17)
17. Michigan State (18)
18. Indiana (19)
19. Pittsburgh (20)
20. UNLV (22)
21. Illinois (21)
22. Gonzaga (23)
23. Harvard (24)
24. Creighton (25)
25. Murray State (NR)
Dropped out: Vanderbilt (16)
Last week, I was one of just seven voters to rank Ohio State number one. Syracuse got 51 votes. Fair enough. But despite the Orange's impressive win at N.C. State, I'm not going to drop the Buckeyes if they don't lose. I guess that means I'll be in the minority again this week. What else is new.
On the other hand, I also did not have Alabama and Texas A&M on my ballot last week, and they certainly did not look rank-worthy in embarrassing losses to Kansas State and Florida, respectively. On the other hand, I had Vanderbilt nine spots ahead of where it ended up in the poll. My bad. I had been giving the Commodores every benefit of the doubt while Festus Ezeli was out, but now that he's back, it's time to hold them accountable for losing to a pretty good Indiana State team at home.
UNLV was unranked by my fellow voters last week, but the Runnin' Rebels were on my ballot, so I couldn't reward them as much as I would have liked for their win at Illinois. I also couldn't drop Illinois below Gonzaga considering the Illini beat them last week. And even though I decided not to punish Ohio State last week after it lost at Kansas without Jared Sullinger, I had to ding Xavier bit for losing by 22 to Oral Roberts, even though the Musketeers were without three suspended players.
In other words, if you're looking for perfect consistency, you'll have to look elsewhere.
As you know, I like to favor the mid-major schools for the last spots on my ballot. Since I only had one spot available, I had to choose between Murray State and Cleveland State. I went with the Racers because they haven't lost yet (Cleveland State lost to Hofstra on a neutral court), and because I thought their win at Memphis was slightly more impressive than the Vikings' win at Vanderbilt when it was sans Ezeli.
Still, there were plenty of good candidates for No. 25. I also considered Stanford (9-1; best win was over N.C. State), Seton Hall (9-1; Saint Joseph's), Minnesota (11-1; Indiana State), San Diego State (9-2; at Arizona), Virginia (9-1; Michigan) and Northern Iowa (9-1; at Iowa State). Don't worry, folks, it's a long season. I'll be watching.