Stellar early-season helps make the case for summer practices
As you might imagine, I watch a lot of college basketball. Between live games, the TV, the DVR and my laptop, I can pretty much watch from morning til night. I hit this especially hard during the first few weeks of the season so I can familiarize myself with all the new faces in new places.
The season is just a couple of weeks old, but I have noticed something significant: These games are good. I don't just mean that they're close; a game can be close but poorly played. I'm talking about the quality of play -- particularly on offense, which is usually lagging this time of year. Passes seem crisper. Shot selection seems better. I'm also seeing smarter defense, fewer fouls, more teamwork.
You may have noticed this while reading the coverage of last week's Champions Classic featuring Michigan State, Kansas, Duke and Kentucky. The message from the courtside scribes was the same. Is it really only November?
I asked myself the same question while while attending the Coaches Vs. Cancer Classic at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn last weekend. In a Friday night semifinal, Saint Joseph's beat Notre Dame in a scintillating overtime game in which neither team committed a foul in the first 13 minutes. The next night, a Florida State team with seven new players beat Saint Joseph's by shooting 54.5 percent from the field, committing just 11 turnovers, and dishing 21 assists on 30 made field goals. Keep in mind this is not a program that is known for its offensive efficiency even late in the season.
It occurred to me that there might be a reason for this. This past summer, for the very first time, coaches were permitted to conduct full team practices for players who were enrolled in summer school. During a seven-week period, coaches were allotted eight hours of floor work, and no more than two hours per week. Eight hours might not seem like much, so I asked a few coaches if my theory was on the mark. Here's what they said:
Florida State's Leonard Hamilton: "No question about it."
Maryland's Mark Turgeon: "I don't think there's any question."
Notre Dame's Mike Brey: "No question."
Kansas' Bill Self: "No question it was helpful."
I guess that answers my question.
I concede the evidence for this is purely anecdotal. I asked the folks at Stats LLC to run some numbers for me comparing this season to the previous five in various offensive categories. There was no discernible difference. Still, I know what my eyes are telling me, and these coaches' eyes are telling them the same thing. "I see a lot more attention to detail," Hamilton said. "I'd hate to think where we'd be right now had I not had the opportunity to work with them in the summer."
Each coach used the eight hours for his own purposes. Since Hamilton has all those freshmen, he spent much of that time installing aspects of his motion offense. Brey returned most of his starters from last season but has added a transfer and some freshmen, so he carved out extra time for five-on-five work so he could watch them play. Self and Turgeon both installed a variety of offensive sets. "We got zoned last night [by LIU-Brooklyn], but we were ready for it because we were able to practice six or seven times already against a zone," Turgeon said. "I wouldn't have been able to do that in the past."
The coaches also pointed out ancillary benefits. "We have a much closer relationship with our players than we've had in earlier years," Hamilton said. "Our guys are more comfortable coming around the office because we've been in communication a lot more. I see a close bond." Brey also noticed that the extra workouts helped his freshmen deal with the academic adjustment. "Usually they're getting beat up in summer school, but this gave them a chance to develop their basketball, which is what they do well," he said. "They leave with their heads up." Self thinks the extra time has helped his players relate to each other better. "The chemistry was forged in June instead of August. Players aren't as shell-shocked when practice starts."
The new rule came on top of a change made several years go providing similar opportunities in the fall. A lot of these teams are also taking off-season foreign trips, which gives them 10 additional days of practice. During an era in which scoring has been on a steady decline, college teams need all the practice time they can get to sharpen their skills and develop chemistry.
Frankly, I don't know why there are any restrictions on when and how long coaches can work with their own players. As far as I'm concerned, they should be able to start full practices whenever they want. Part of the reasoning behind making everyone wait until Oct. 15 is the concern that coaches would overwork their players, but I don't believe that would be the case. The last thing a coach wants is for his guys to be burned out before the season's first game.
The rule change regarding summer workouts has helped the game, but in this case, eight is not enough. I hope the NCAA continues to allot more hours so coaches can interact even more with their players. These guys got into this profession because they love to teach. Their players want to get better. This is college, after all. Let 'em go to school.
• After visiting Columbus last month, I called Ohio State's 6-foot-11 sophomore center Amir Williams the Buckeyes' X-factor. In Ohio State's first three games, Williams has a total of eight points and seven rebounds. Guess he's not much of a factor yet.
• I'm really rooting for Memphis junior point guard Joe Jackson. He's a local kid who came in with ridiculous be-our-savior expectations, and for a while it screwed with his head. He seems to have settled in now, and I think that he (and the Tigers) are gonna have a big year.
• BYU may have lost two games at the Coaches Vs. Cancer Classic in Brooklyn, but the Cougars have some kind of player in 6-5 sophomore Tyler Haws. Unlike most players coming off a two-year LDS mission, Haws is sharp and in terrific condition. Plus, he does it all: He's averaging 22 points (on 36 percent three-point shooting) as well as seven rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.8 steals.
• Saint Joseph's can also leave Brooklyn believing it has a great chance to win the Atlantic 10, but that chance will be greater if C.J. Aiken stops hoisting ill-advised threes. The 6-9 junior is one of the nation's top shot blockers, but for some reason he thought it was a good idea to launch five three-pointers against the Seminoles. He made none. Get on the block, big fella, and go to work.
• I still like San Diego State, but the Aztecs have got to find a way to get some more inside scoring.
• It takes an entire team to get blown out by 20, but I have to say N.C. State point guard Lorenzo Brown is not off to a good start. Though he played well in the Wolfpack's win over UMass (10 assists, three turnovers), Brown was MIA in the win over Penn State (1-for-10 shooting) and the loss to Oklahoma State (one assist, seven turnovers). ESPN's Dan Dakich may have said it best: "It looks to me like he has been reading his own press clippings."
• Nice bounceback win for Washington against Seton Hall on Saturday following the loss at home to Albany. Scott Suggs must be real important to that team. The 6-6 senior left the Albany game in the second minute after suffering a concussion, but he played 32 minutes against the Pirates and had 15 points. He scored 11 in the loss to Ohio State.
• Michigan is not your father's John Beilein-coached team. These dudes can get out and go.
• Let's get this out of the way early, shall we? When you're at home, you can shoot threes. When you're on the road, you've gotta shoot free throws. Class dismissed.
• If UConn keeps winning, there will be a lot of pressure on athletic director Warde Manuel to give Kevin Ollie a long-term deal before the season is over. I think he should resist. Since the early signing period for recruiting is done, and the spring signing period doesn't begin until after the season is over, there is no need to rush this. If Ollie deserves the job, he'll get it. (It doesn't hurt, incidentally, that he just donated $100,000 towards a new practice facility.)
• Two thoughts regarding the controversial flagrant foul called on Purdue's D.J. Byrd which cost the Boilermakers dearly in their loss to Villanova during the NIT Tipoff semifinal. First, while it may have technically been a correct call, Byrd crossed the absolute minimum threshold to warrant a flagrant one. It looked to me that he was raising his arms up -- as opposed to swinging them around -- when his elbow hit Villanova guard Darrun Hilliard on the chin. I'd like to see some adjustment in the interpretation of this rule to give the referees more latitude.
But I don't agree with the commentary that this is a bad rule. It came about a few years ago out of a raised concern for player safety. The rules committee devised the flagrant one/flagrant two distinctions so that a player's elbow could make this type of contact without being ejected. In the final analysis, this is a good rule and the correct call was made, but this situation could benefit from some tinkering.
• I know Keith Appling has been terrific so far, but folks in East Lansing will tell you that 6-5 freshman Denzel Valentine is Michigan State's best passer. If he could get more minutes, that would move Appling off the ball, where he's more comfortable. More important, it would help get the Spartans' bigs, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, get going offensively.
• I see the remarkable way that Villanova junior forward JayVaughn Pinkston has slimmed down his body, and I wonder why UCLA center Josh Smith can't do the same. Smith is costing himself millions of dollars because he does not have the discipline to eat well. Smh.
• The two highest-impact, mid-semester transfers: UNLV forward Khem Birch and Missouri guard Jabari Brown. When those guys become eligible next month, those teams will kick into higher gear.
• I love that the Big Ten Network uses actual students to call preseason basketball games. Makes me appreciate how many young, eager broadcasters are ready to take over the airwaves.
• It also makes me happy to see Louisville guard Russ Smith shed his "Russ-diculous" label. Through three games, Smith's scoring average has gone from 11.5 as a sophomore to 21.3. His shooting percentages have also skyrocketed to 48.9 percent overall (up from 35.6 last year) and 48.1 percent from three (up from 30.6). Rick Pitino said Smith improved over the course of one week more than any other player he has coached.
• I'm looking forward to seeing Kelly Olynyk get back into the mix for Gonzaga. The 7-foot junior redshirted last year, and over the summer Mark Few raved to me about his improvement. Olynyk was suspended for the first three games for violating the school's code of conduct, but he'll make his return this week at the Old Spice Classic.
• I don't like it when coaches call time out during a crucial late-game possession. I prefer Bob Knight's philosophy: If my players don't know what to do in that situation, I haven't done my job in practice.
• I'll take it even further with three ideas for rules changes regarding time outs. 1) Teams should only get one full time out and one 30-second time out per half. 2) Coaches should not be allowed to call time out. 3) Time outs can only be called during a dead ball situation, which is the rule in international play. Allowing a team to get out of a bad spot by calling time out during live action is akin to letting a quarterback to call time out right before he is sacked.
• Great sign for Baylor that Brady Heslip played well against St. John's. He had been shooting terribly in the Bears' first four games but he sank 8-of-12 from three-point range and scored 29 points. When Heslip plays catch-and-shoot, the shots fall. When he puts it on the deck and tries to create for himself, they don't.
• The biggest question for Duke is how long Seth Curry can play this well if he's not practicing because of the lingering pain in his shin. Players need practice to keep them in shape and give them reps with their teammates. Curry is also unable to work on his game outside of practice. That's got to become a problem eventually, right?
• I don't like it when fans and/or commentators say referees shouldn't blow the whistle on late, critical possessions because they should "let players decide the games." Sometimes players decide games by fouling.
• Stan Van Gundy only worked half of the Georgetown-Florida game as an analyst for NBC Sports Network before it was called due to condensation aboard the USS Bataan, but I thought he sounded terrific. I didn't mind the NBA references, either -- that is his perspective, and it is an interesting one. I hope SVG finds more work calling college games.
• Mark Lyons is a terrific talent and prolific scorer, but I'm not convinced he's the best fit at Arizona. There are a lot of scorers on the team who could benefit from playing with a pass-first point guard, but Lyons isn't that type of player.
• If you get a chance to find Detroit senior forward Doug Anderson on your TV dial, seize it. Best dunker in college basketball.
• Alex Len is justifiably getting most of the love at Maryland, and the NCAA's decision to grant Dez Wells a waiver to play right away was an eye-catcher. But the guy who's making this team go right now is junior point guard Pe'Shon Howard. He still can't make threes, but through three games he has 25 assists and just six turnovers. I like what I see there.
• I'm not a big "conference" guy, but Colorado's win over Baylor was very important for the Pac 12. It also shows that the Buffaloes will be a bigger factor in the conference race than their sixth-place finish in the Pac 12's preseason poll would indicate.
1. Indiana (1)
2. Louisville (2)
3. Duke (11)
4. Kentucky (3)
5. Michigan (6)
6. Ohio State (7)
7. Syracuse (8)
8. Arizona (9)
9. Kansas (4)
10. Michigan State (17)
11. Memphis (10)
12. Florida (12)
13. North Carolina (13)
14. UNLV (14)
15. UConn (15)
16. San Diego State (18)
17. UCLA (19)
18. Gonzaga (21)
19. N.C. State (5)
20. Cincinnati (22)
21. Missouri (24)
22. Creighton (25)
23. Colorado (NR)
24. Florida State (NR)
25. Pittsburgh (NR)
Dropped out: Baylor (16), Wisconsin (20), Notre Dame (23)
The first decision was what to do with N.C. State in the wake of Sunday's 20-point loss to Oklahoma State. On the one hand, you don't want to overreact to one game. On the other hand, you also don't want to give too much stock to preseason perceptions. N.C. State might not be as good as I thought, but I don't think the Pack is as bad as it looked on Sunday.
As for Oklahoma State, you could make a case that the Cowboys should be ranked, but here again, I'm trying not to overreact to one game. If the Pokes really are that good, it's only a matter of time until they have a number next to their name.
Head-to-head results are important, but there are enough results that it's impossible to keep teams in perfect order. Even though Michigan State beat Kansas last week, I didn't think it was right to rank the Spartans ahead of the Jayhawks considering they had also lost to a then-unranked UConn team. But as you can see, I also think pretty highly of UConn despite its narrow escape over Quinnipiac. Frankly, I probably have UConn too high, but I don't like moving teams down after a win, even if it was troublesome.
From a ranking standpoint, it also helps that we know Shabazz Muhammad's status at UCLA. We'll know a lot more after Monday night, when the Bruins play Georgetown at the Legends Classic in Brooklyn. If they win there, they will probably play Indiana Tuesday night. Wouldn't that be dandy.
Further down, Colorado enters my ballot thanks to its wins over Baylor and Murray State. Florida State lost its opener at home to South Alabama, but the Seminoles are a young team, and they were playing without freshman point guard Devon Bookert in that game. I was impressed by the Seminoles as they beat a plucky Saint Joseph's on Saturday night, so I wanted to reward them. And even though Pitt needed overtime to beat Oakland at home on Saturday, I think it's only a matter of time before the Panthers are ranked in the AP poll. I figured I'd try to get ahead of the curve.