It has been a few weeks since I opened up the mailbag, so we might as well begin at the top. Well, maybe not the very top, but at the No. 2 spot, where the Missouri Tigers reside. Despite its ranking, Mizzou is arguably the top story in college basketball right now.
It's about time you stopped dissing Missouri and woke up to reality. Sure, the team is unconventional, with the four-guard lineup and an undersized "big" inside, but they play unselfishly and with great spirit. Frank Haith is remarkable -- taking basically the same roster and turning the team from a lackluster, middle of the pack group into, well, number two. I'm under no illusion that Missouri will win it all, and there will be bumps in the road, but they deserve far more credit than you've offered until (almost grudgingly) now.-- John, Columbia, Mo.
Hey, I wrote it, I'll own it. During my annual Hoop Thoughts Stock Report three weeks ago, I not only rated Missouri a "Sell," but I also deemed it an "easy call." My logic: "Missouri has shot the ball extremely well so far, but the Tigers have very little height and even less depth. That is going to bite them on the rear end at some point."
While it's true the Tigers got pushed around in their lone defeat at Kansas State, the only rear end that is being nipped these days is mine. In the wake of Mizzou's win at Baylor (Missouri only won by a point, but the game wasn't nearly that close), it's apparent that, like many other so-called experts, I severely underestimated this team's toughness, savvy and chemistry.
If anybody deserves to bite my rear end, it's Missouri coach Frank Haith, who I'm sure is an avid reader of my columns. I was lucky to catch Haith on his cellphone Tuesday night. He was in Stillwater, where his Tigers are preparing to take on Oklahoma State tonight. Ever the gentleman, Haith declined my invitation to serve up some crow, but he did pass along some insights to explain why his team is riding high despite having "very little height and even less depth." To wit:
• The Tigers are not overly reliant on making three-pointers. According to Kenpom.com, they are ranked 90th in the country in three-point rate, which divides the number of three-pointers attempted by the number of shots attempted. Yes, they're second in the Big 12 in threes made per game (8.2), but they're also second in three-point percentage (39.6). So they're not just jacking it up. Their best outside shooters, Marcus Denmon and Kim English, are both taking between 52 and 57 percent from three-point range, but nobody else is over 50 percent.
Therefore, Missouri is not as susceptible to losing should it suffer a bad shooting night, which is inevitable during the NCAA tournament. "We don't take a lot of threes," Haith said. "We play inside-out and get to the free throw line. That's our formula, and it's why we've been successful on the road."
• They are a solid rebounding team. Notice I didn't say excellent, just solid. But when you can score like Missouri can (the team's 83.1 points per game ranks fourth nationally), solid is more than good enough.
The Tigers are out-rebounding opponents by 3.2 per game and they rank 122nd nationally in offensive rebound percentage. They have been out-rebounded just twice in Big 12 games. The first was in their loss at Kansas State, the second when they shot the lights out in a win over Texas.
How is it possible that a team that starts four guards and whose center is 6-foot-8 has been holding its own on the boards? "Because we talk about it a lot," Haith said. "You hear that I keep talking to you about it. When we have a film session, that's the one thing we emphasize the most. We show bad blockouts, good blockouts, and we grade all of it. If you emphasize it every day as a coach, your players will understand it's important."
• Ricardo Ratliffe has been a man's man. When the Tigers lost at Kansas State, Ratliffe, a 6-8 senior, got into foul trouble, attempted just one shot and had one rebound in 14 minutes. By contrast, Ratliffe was a man among boys in the win at Baylor last Saturday, putting up 27 points (on 11-for-14 shooting) and eight rebounds. That shows you how valuable he is to this team. On the season, Ratliffe is making an astounding 77.2 percent of his shots. If he stays at that clip, he will set a new NCAA Division I record.
How can a player with limited height and athleticism be so unstoppable as a scorer? "He catches the ball on the move as well as anybody I've ever been around," Haith said. "He's not such a great jumper, but he's quick, he understands angles, and he's a strong kid." Not surprisingly, Haith believes much of Ratliffe's improvement has occurred between his ears. "Trust is a big word for Ricardo, whether it's with his teammates or coaches," Haith said. "He had to develop that. He's one of those guys who's hard on himself. In the past, if things didn't go his way he would go in the tank a little bit. He's learning to move on to the next play."
• They have great chemistry. This is one area where Haith believes the lack of depth (they only have seven players on scholarship) has actually been helpful. "There's something to be said when you only have seven guys," he said. "Everybody knows they're going to play. Everybody knows what their role is."
Trust and chemistry go hand-in-hand. That's why Haith believes this team benefited from the two days of team-building exercises he put his guys through under the direction of some Navy SEALS. He got the idea from his assistant, Ernie Nestor, who had been a part of the same experiment while he was on staff last season at Penn State.
The SEALS came to Columbia in September and conducted one day of exercises outdoors and a second day in an indoor pool. That was especially frightening for Ratliffe, who can't swim. "They did exercises where they put him in the water and he had to trust his teammates," Haith said. "They put all these sweatshirts on the guys, and you have to take them off and put them back on. I really think it helped our team."
• They're well-coached. Bob Knight recently tried to make this point to Haith after Knight called a Missouri game for ESPN. When Haith tried to brush him off and compliment his own players, Knight interrupted and said, "I'm not part of the media, y'know, I'm a coach. I know what coaches do. You are coaching this team."
Haith admits that it was a challenge to get his players to buy what he was selling after he took over for Mike Anderson. "It's not an easy deal," he said. "They won playing a certain way, and we weren't going to play that way. It took time."
In the end, Haith knows how lucky he is to have players that are not only this good but also this mature. His starting lineup includes four seniors and a sophomore, and he brings a junior and senior off the bench. Seniors aren't just smart, they're desperate. This is their last go-round. They have no choice but to be all in.
Haith said he has been getting calls from coaches around the country encouraging him to enjoy the ride. As for all those experts (cough, cough) who have doubted him, whether by questioning the school's decision to hire him in the first place or his team's ability to keep winning, Haith isn't going to waste his energy gloating. "I'm just happy and grateful and feel very humble by the opportunity I have," he said. "We've got super kids. They're competitive and they're excited to learn. I just want them to stay focused and keep getting better."
So there, John from Columbia. Have I answered your question?
On to the rest of the Mailbag.....
I can't imagine a dumber, more useless idea than giving scholarship athletes $2,000. Just a way for the NCAA to pretend it is trying to fix a problem. How many athletes are on scholarship and how many have been connected to scandal? If this results in tickets being raised one cent it is an outrage; if it results in schools offering less scholarships, it is an outrage; and if it results in any way in a raise in tuition even one cent, it is an outrage.-- Ben Miller, Boston
There does seem to be a lot of outrage over this issue, but most of it comes from people who believe players should get more money. I happen to like the proposed legislation to allow schools to pay a $2,000 stipend to its student-athletes. That legislation has been tabled for now, but as I wrote in Hoop Thoughts this week, I believe it's only a matter of time before the kinks get worked out and it is passed.
Ben makes some good points, but there's a difference between what he's arguing and what's being proposed. This legislation addresses the gap between what a scholarship covers and the cost of attending school. The current scholarship is basically outdated, so I think this could be a reasonable remedy. What this is not about -- and what I strongly object to -- is a desire to compensate college athletes as if they were professionals. The people who are advocating doing that (including nonsports writers like Joe Nocera and Taylor Branch) are operating in an irrelevant universe. (If we're going to treat them like pros, that means they can be traded, right?) There simply is not enough money to compensate them like professionals or ward off cheating.
Furthermore, I am vehemently opposed to eliminating sports that don't make a profit, which would mean taking away scholarship opportunities from thousands of young people who might not otherwise be able to afford college. Only a small fraction of college athletes even have the ability to make money playing sports. If that's what they want to do, they are free to leave college and do just that.
If Murray State loses, how big of a hit do they take in the polls? I realize the OVC doesn't have the prestige of the power conferences, but conference play -- no matter the conference -- is difficult because how familiar the teams are to each other.-- Dave Honchul, Tokyo
First of all, Dave, great to hear from you. Clearly, Hoop Thoughts is a mega hit in East Asia.
What really matters as far as Murray State is concerned is its seed in the NCAA tournament. But I realize people care about polls, so I'll give you my take as an AP voter. At the moment, I have decided to cap the Racers at number No. 14. However, if they lost a game, I would not drop them out of my top 25 entirely. How far I drop them would depend whom they lost to, where and by how much.
As for the NCAA tournament, I think the highest seed Murray State could possibly get is a three. More likely, it would be a four if the team went into the tournament undefeated. That would be significant because it would mean the committee would have to give them a homecourt advantage for its first two games. That could mean playing in Louisville, which would be terrific for fans.
The problem for Murray State is that if loses a couple of games, it could fall pretty quickly down the seed line. And if the Racers lose a few regular season games and then fail to win the Ohio Valley Conference tournament .... well, let's just say that are some scenarios that are too depressing to contemplate.
Go ahead and join the SI media bandwagon of San Diego State doubters. I'm sure if they were playing back east they'd be the story of the year. But being that they play in the MWC, the lack of respect continues from you all. It's OK, we're all used to it over here. Continue to doubt and they'll continue to win. Go Aztecs!!-- David Cantu, Los Angeles
I love this e-mail, and I love all the angry tweets and e-mails I get from San Diego State fans. (Well, almost all of them, anyway.) The Aztecs are ranked 16th on my AP ballot. This is what is known as "doubting them." Ludicrous as it sounds, that is a strong statement about this program's rabid fans and how far it has come.
I'll fully admit that I came late to the San Diego State party. It's not that I didn't think the Aztecs were any good. I was just waiting for them to notch a signature win before I ranked them. They got two of them when they beat UNLV at home and, more impressively, handled a pretty good New Mexico team in the Pit.
Keep in mind that rankings reflect a team's entire body of work, not just head-to-head results. Given that UNLV beat North Carolina in Vegas and Illinois on the road, and given that the Aztecs needed a last-second layup from Jamaal Franklin to beat the Rebels at home, I still have UNLV five spots ahead on my ballot. That obviously means very little, but it doesn't stop Aztecs fans from caring. Good for them.
What Steve Fisher has done is incredible, even more so than taking the team to the Sweet 16 last year. Any mid-major program can catch lightning in a bottle, but when you lose your top four scorers, including lottery pick Kawhi Leonard, and you are still good enough to be ranked in late December? Now that's what I call putting on a Show.
Why are you so critical of John Calipari and UK with regard to recruiting players that will be turning pro after only one year? Other coaches would love to have these players on their teams. Coach Cal just seems to have a lot more success and he is frowned upon by some talking heads such as yourself.-- Robert Abner, London, Ky.
Robert asks a very good question. He is referring to a remark I made during a CBS halftime as part of my New Years resolutions. My line was: "Hey John Calipari, how about recruiting some four-and-dones?" Needless to say, my Twitter feed instantly blew up with acrimony from the Big Blue Nation.
Hey, I kid because I care, right?
To explain: I have not, in fact, been critical of Calipari's recruitment of the so-called "one-and-dones." There is nothing remotely unethical about it. If anything, it has proved to be quite smart. During his first two years in Lexington, Calipari took the Wildcats to the Elite Eight and the Final Four. In Year 3, he could very well take them all the way. If that happens, his recruiting strategy will be emphatically validated.
My only point -- and it's one I've debated with Calipari directly -- is that at some point, it would behoove him to recruit "program guys." That is, guys who have good talent but even better character, and who are not quite good enough to take off for the pros after just one year. Teams need experience and maturity to go with all that talent. Calipari's response to me -- and it has a great deal of merit -- is that if you recruit players who aren't good enough to turn pro as underclassmen, then you won't win the way you're supposed to at Kentucky. So far he is right, but I do believe in the long run, his program will be better off if he can surround the younguns with some upperclassmen.
I was highly amused at your response about Iowa coach Fran McCaffrey slamming the chair. It seems you haven't watched Iowa basketball the last 10 years. Iowa fans are excited that there's a coach in place who has passion and has brought interest back to Iowa City.-- Pat Kelly, San Diego
Iowa fans have every reason to be excited about Coach Fran. I was a huge fan of his Siena teams, and I praised the school's decision to hire him. And I actually didn't have a problem with his slamming a chair to fire up his players. Given the recent history of the program, I can understand why an Iowa fan like Pat would be gratified to have a coach who cares so much.
My issue with McCaffrey centered on what happened before his tirade. He was given a technical foul that appears to have been undeserved. But as soon as he was teed up, McCaffrey went ballistic on the officials. While the ref who gave him the T walked away, the other two refs to calm McCaffrey down. They should have tossed him right away.
I've made mention on several occasions that I believe sportsmanship among coaches have hit a new low. John Adams, the NCAA's supervisor of officials, bemoaned to me a couple of weeks ago that while sportsmanship was supposed to be an area of emphasis coming into this season, it clearly isn't being emphasized enough. I would expect that in the near future, the rules committee will give its refs more latitude to enforce good behavior, much like the NBA has done the last couple of years.
In the meantime, I also expect Iowa to keep winning. McCaffrey isn't some doltish hothead. He knows what he's doing, and it shows.
What kind of price do you think Phil Martelli is going to pay for his intransigence over giving Todd O'Brien a release to play basketball? If I were a coach I'd be using this against Martelli in recruiting as much as I could.-- Jon Scott, Lexington, Ky.
I've seen this theory postulated in many places, but I don't buy it. Martelli is a very good coach, and Saint Joseph's is a great school. He'll continue to get his share of good players and he'll do a very good job teaching them the game.
Now that O'Brien's final appeal has been denied by the NCAA, this discussion needs to move beyond his situation and toward some much-needed reforms. Think about it: A scholarship agreement lasts for just one year. When that year is over, a coach can tell a player he is not good enough to be renewed. If the coach wants to take a job at a different school, he may do so without delay. But if a player wants to transfer, not only does he have to sit out a year, he is also at the mercy of his previous coach's discretion. That coach can decide whether or not he wants to "release" that player, and to whom.
Todd O'Brien's playing career is over for no other reason than a grown man's spite. That is a shame. But if his case leads to reforms that players more freedom in the future, then his cause will not have been entirely lost.