Today is a landmark day at the University of Connecticut, where the school's president, Susan Herbst, announced that she has hired a new athletic director. He is Warde Manuel, a 43-year-old former football player at the University of Michigan who spent the last six years serving as the AD at the University of Buffalo. Manuel replaces not only Jeff Hathaway, who was forced out of the position last summer, but also Paul Pendergast, who had served as an interim AD while Herbst conducted her search.
From the standpoint of UConn men's basketball, Manuel's hire should provide some stability. Good thing, too, because this program is approaching a perilous and uncertain time. Consider:
• The Huskies have lost six of their last seven games to drop to 5-7 in the Big East (15-9 overall). Their prospects for an NCAA at-large bid are better than those numbers would indicate. UConn is ranked 21st in the RPI, it has five wins over teams in the top 50, and it boasts the number one-ranked strength of schedule. However, if this slide continues the Huskies would be in danger of becoming just the fifth NCAA champion since the tournament expanded in 1985 to fail to qualify for the tournament the following year.
• Coach Jim Calhoun still has not returned from the leave of absence he was forced to take because of a lower back condition. That raises yet again the question of whether Calhoun, who is three months shy of his 70th birthday, will (or should) retire for the sake of his long-term health.
• Last week, the NCAA predictably denied UConn's appeal for a waiver that would allow the Huskies to play in the 2013 NCAA tournament. The team is currently ineligible because it failed to meet standards that are set forth as part of the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate. UConn's appeal of that decision will now be heard by an outside subcommittee. These things are difficult to predict with certainty, but based on conversations I've had with people at UConn and inside the NCAA, it's highly unlikely UConn will be granted this waiver. Which means it is highly unlikely the Huskies will play in the 2013 NCAA tournament.
• Despite its abysmal performance of late, this UConn team has two underclassmen, freshman center Andre Drummond and sophomore guard Jeremy Lamb, who are projected to be lottery picks in this year's draft. If those guys are even considering coming back next season -- and I'm guessing they aren't -- then the specter of not being able to play in the tournament could tip the balance the other way.
• If UConn can't play in next year's NCAA tournament, then its lone returning senior, 6-foot-9 forward Alex Oriakhi, would have the opportunity to apply for a waiver that would allow him to transfer to another school and compete right away. That is what typically happens in infractions cases where a player is denied a postseason opportunity for his remaining seasons of eligibility.
• Right now, UConn only has one recruit committed for next season. He is Omar Calhoun, a 6-3 guard from Brooklyn. Calhoun is a good player but he's no one-and-done; Rivals.com ranks him the 38th-best player in his class. If Calhoun doesn't return and/or UConn isn't allowed to play in the tournament, then the player could ask to be released from his letter of intent.
• Whenever Calhoun decides to retire, there is no obvious replacement. He currently has three assistants on his staff with head coaching experience, including two (Karl Hobbs and Glen Miller) who played for him. Yet, Calhoun has made no secret of his belief that another assistant, Kevin Ollie, should get the job.
Ollie is certainly head coaching material. He was UConn's point guard from 1991 to 1995, and he squeezed every ounce of his abilities to enjoy a 13-year career in the NBA. Ollie is smart, charismatic and energetic, so he has all the assets you'd look for -- except experience. He has never coached a big-time game, nor does he have an extensive network of contacts in the recruiting world. He isn't even coaching this team in Calhoun's absence. That responsibility has fallen to associate head coach George Blaney. Being the head basketball coach at the University of Connecticut is a big job. Is Ollie truly ready for it?
That is the question that Manuel will have to answer someday. He could be the AD at UConn for the next 30 years and never face a more important decision. Does Manuel hand the reins to a guy with no head coaching experience? Or does he risk alienating Calhoun and the fan base by plucking someone from outside the family?
The situation UConn basketball faces reminds me of the one at Indiana when Tom Crean was hired in 2008. That came in the wake of the Kelvin Sampson firing, which left the program with just one scholarship player -- and he was a former walk-on. Four years later, Indiana is just now fighting its way back to relevance.
With all due respect to UConn, it is not Indiana. That school had a championship tradition that extended well beyond Crean's predecessor. UConn, on the other hand, does not. Jim Calhoun is UConn basketball. He came to the wilderness of central Connecticut 26 years ago and engineered one of the most remarkable building jobs in the history of college sports. This man would be hard to replace under the best of conditions, much less at a time when the program is bereft of players.
For now, Jim Calhoun is still the head coach, which means UConn basketball has a fighting chance. Yet, on this landmark day for the university, it's hard to shake the lingering sense of uncertainty. This is a strong, proud, championship program, but it appears to be headed for a long, cold walk back into the wilderness.
• Anthony Davis is my choice right now for National Player of the Year -- he's the best freshman interior defender since Patrick Ewing -- but when I watch Kentucky play, I focus mostly on freshman point guard Marquis Teague. His 13-point, 8-assist, 1-turnover performance in the win at Vanderbilt was his best of the season, and over his last eight games Teague had 46 assists to just 17 turnovers. Looks to me like young Marquis is all grown-up.
• My primary take-away from Ohio State's loss to Michigan State: The Buckeyes are much less effective if their opponent doesn't have to double-team Jared Sullinger. Big Sully fought hard against Michigan State, but he was clearly frustrated (and too worried about the refs). In the meantime, William Buford shot 2-for-12 and scored four points because he was denied open looks that would normally come from passes out of a double team.
• As for Michigan State, what in the world got into Adreian Payne? That was the best game he has ever played in a Spartan uniform. It was great to see him play with so much energy and swagger.
• One more Sparty Hoop Thought: Keith Appling's shooting has to be a major concern. It has been a very difficult adjustment for him to move from shooting guard to the point. Just as Appling was starting to look comfortable running the show, his outside shooting suffered. On the season he is converting just 27.1 percent from three-point range, down from 41.4 as a freshman.
• Speaking of shooting (or non-shooting) point guards, I don't know why North Carolina's Kendall Marshall doesn't take more threes. He's only making 30.4 percent, but I'll bet he's a better shooter than that. If nothing else, he has to keep defenses honest.
• Tough call between UConn's Alex Oriakhi and UCLA's Josh Smith as the most disappointing big man in America.
• Just for fun, here are Perry Jones' averages in the two games against Missouri plus the one at home against Kansas: 5.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 25.9 percent shooting. Don't think NBA scouts haven't noticed.
• What's really remarkable about Duke senior center Miles Plumlee's 22 rebounds against Maryland is that he did it in just 28 minutes. I'd call that a fine day's work.
• I thought I might go an entire season without having to revive my Erving Walker free-and-three meter, but the Florida senior point guard has left me no choice. On the season, Walker has taken 132 three-pointers and just 90 free throws. He was especially unaggressive last week in the Gators' losses to Kentucky and Tennessee, shooting just one total free throw while going 1-for-10 from behind the arc. That's not how you get Capone.
• Turns out Jeff Withey's bagel against Missouri was an aberration, not the start of something. He followed up his 25-point performance against Baylor by grabbing 20 rebounds to go along with 18 points and seven blocks in Saturday's win over Oklahoma State. When Withey is playing like that, Kansas is darn near impossible to beat.
• Creighton's problem is simple: This team only wants to play one end of the floor.
• It has been a long season at Georgia, but I see that Bulldogs freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is enjoying a nice little stretch. This kid has been the epitome of a "volume shooter" but over his last three games Caldwell-Pope averaged 18 points on 47.4 percent shooting (including 11-for-25 from three-point range). He also had a big step-back three in overtime on Saturday to lead the Bulldogs to an upset road win at Mississippi State.
• Just when you thought things couldn't get worse for Maryland, sophomore guard Pe'shon Howard, who missed the season's first nine games with a broken foot, tears his ACL last Thursday and is done for the year.
• I'm almost afraid to say it out loud, but here goes: I think Northwestern is gonna play in the NCAA tournament.
• I honestly don't believe anyone outside Milwaukee realizes how good of a job Buzz Williams is doing at Marquette.
• I wish mid-majors could keep their coaches forever, but I'd be, well, shocked if Gregg Marshall is back at Wichita State next year. Remember, in his previous stint Marshall took Winthrop to seven NCAA tournaments in nine years.
• How about VCU going into Old Dominion and winning by four? That is not easy to do. The Rams have now won 11 straight. Could it be that VCU is this year's VCU?
• The Big Ten getting nine is this year's Big East getting 11.
• If Draymond Green and Royce White played on the same team, you wouldn't even need a point guard.
• Indiana State shot 12-for-12 from three-point range during its win over Southern Illinois on Saturday. That's an NCAA record for most three-point attempts without a miss. Just making sure you knew.
• If a team doesn't make threes, it might as well play four-on-five. You put yourself at a disadvantage if you don't utilize all the available tools.
• West Virginia sure is in some kind of tailspin. The Mountaineers have now lost five of their last six games, and their next two are on the road at Pittsburgh and Notre Dame. Truck Bryant really killed 'em against Louisville by shooting 3-for-17 from the floor (including 2-for-10 from three-point range). Unreal that he took that many shots.
• One more West Virginia thought: I'm very disappointed the school settled its dispute with the Big East, which now clears the way for the Mountaineers to play in the Big 12 next season. I was hoping this thing would drag out and cost everyone a whole lot of embarrassment (and money). I just can't stand this conference expansion stuff.
• As for Louisville, I'm frankly stunned that Wayne Blackshear, the Cardinals' heralded 6-5 freshman forward from Chicago, managed to have 13 points and four rebounds in 20 minutes in his first game of the season. Blackshear has been out all season because of a shoulder injury, but if he's going to keep producing like that, Louisville is going to have a very exciting next few weeks. Imagine: Good injury news about Louisville.
• This might be the most incredible stat I've seen in a long time: Over their last 76 meetings, Duke has scored 5,943 points to North Carolina's 5,941.
• Let me tell you, Tennessee State's win at Murray State was no fluke. The Tigers have won seven in a row and nine of their last 10. I had never seen their 6-8 junior forward, Robert Covington, before, but he is an impressive, versatile player. Covington is averaging 17.7 points and 8.0 rebounds while shooting 44.4 percent from three-point range. I'll bet he's on the radar of more than a few NBA scouts.
• Speaking of Tennessee State, here's something else I had never seen before: When the Tigers were inbounding the ball, the four players on the court were in constant motion until the ball was inbounded. Terrific idea, when you think about it.
• Grammar pet peeve: I don't like it when announcers say of a team, "Their RPI is 45." No, their RPI ranking is 45.
• I've always thought it was a tremendous weapon to have a great rebounder who can rip and run -- that is, grab a rebound and then dribble out of the post to initiate the fast break. Thinking here of UNLV forward Mike Moser.
• Syracuse doesn't have many weaknesses, but defensive rebounding is one. That's a natural concern when you play so much zone defense, but the Orange need to tighten that up. According to kenpom.com, they rank 337th in the country in defensive rebound percentage. They gave up 20 offensive rebounds to Georgetown and were out-rebounded by 18 overall in the game. That's why Jim Boeheim was so mad during his postgame news conference.
• Let me make something very clear: In any year, the absolute worst team in the NBA would absolutely crush the absolute best team in college basketball. If you mistakenly believed otherwise, I hereby absolve you.
• If you've never seen Hoop Dreams, shame on you. Drop everything you're doing and watch it immediately.
• Random Missouri stat: Through their first 24 games this season, the Tigers took 50 charges. Last season, they took 40 charges in 34 games. Think it's an accident they are where they are?
• Oh, and by the way, it's just silly to denigrate what Frank Haith is doing by saying he is coaching Mike Anderson's players. People who say that have no idea how hard it is to walk into a new situation and teach a brand new system to a bunch of kids you didn't recruit. Haith is such an obvious choice for National Coach of the Year that I don't even think there needs to be a discussion.
THIS WEEK'S AP BALLOT
(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Kentucky (1)
2. Syracuse (2)
3. Missouri (4)
4. Kansas (5)
5. Michigan State (8)
6. Ohio State (3)
7. Duke (15)
8. North Carolina (7)
9. Baylor (6)
10. UNLV (11)
11. Georgetown (14)
12. Marquette (18)
13. Michigan (12)
14. San Diego State (19)
15. Florida (9)
16. Murray State (13)
17. Florida State (10)
18. Virginia (16)
19. Wisconsin (20)
20. Indiana (23)
21. Notre Dame (24)
22. Wichita State (25)
23. Saint Mary's (21)
24. Temple (NR)
25. VCU (NR)
Dropped out: Mississippi State (17), Creighton (22)
The big question voters faced this week was where to rank Murray State. To me, this shouldn't be hard. It was always misguided to rank the Racers extra high just because they were undefeated. You may recall that I said I would cap them at No. 14 even if they kept winning. I violated my little rule by letting them get to 13, but that means they did not have far to fall once they lost. I still believe Murray State is one of the top 20 teams in America, and until they lose again my ballot will reflect that.
Elsewhere, there was some shuffling at the top. Michigan State clearly needed to be ranked ahead of Ohio State. Even though the Spartans lost to North Carolina and Duke, that was eons ago. Some might think I have Baylor ranked too high, but the Bears have lost to just two teams all season -- and both of them are ranked in my top four. If nothing else, you have to give Baylor credit for beating everyone it was supposed to beat, including on the road.
We often hear that there is no such thing as moral victories, but I think San Diego State earned that last Saturday in Las Vegas. I thought UNLV would win the game in decisive fashion, but the Aztecs gave the Rebels all they wanted before succumbing by a deuce. In fact, both games between these teams this season were decided by two points. Can we call off the rest of the Mountain West season and let the Aztecs and Rebels complete their best-of-seven series?
I usually don't like to brag about my rankings (cough, cough), but you'll note that while the rest of the country is just now hopping on the Wichita State bandwagon, I was one of the few who ranked the Shockers last week. Their win at Creighton moved them up a few spots, but more significantly, it knocked the Bluejays out. Unless Creighton runs the table from here and wins the league tournament -- which is possible -- it has made its last appearance in my top 25.
I tend not to penalize teams for losing to good teams on the road, which is why Saint Mary's is still ranked despite losing at Gonzaga. Likewise, I didn't think it was right to overly reward the Zags for winning at home, especially since they lost so badly on the road to St. Mary's and BYU earlier this season.
As for my final two spots, Temple, which has now won eight straight thanks to the return of injured center Micheal Eric, was an easy choice at No. 24. Since I tend to favor mid-majors at No. 25, my decision came down to George Mason and VCU. I went with the Rams because they have been on such a tear, but those two will fight it out on Tuesday night without my help.
I also took a long look at Nevada, Iowa State, Weber State and Louisville. I am intrigued by how well the Cardinals have been playing, and now that freshman Wayne Blackshear is back they could very well have a number next to their name by this time next week. All they have to do is beat Syracuse at home tonight. Simple, right?