You can feel it fast approaching. It's not over the horizon anymore, not far off in the distance. Rather, it's just around that bend up ahead, a few paces away.
The stretch run.
It's coming all right. The finish line to the 2012-13 college basketball season is almost in sight. Except your team isn't ready for the mad dash. It's close. It's real close. But it's not ready. That's because it is still one piece away from being a complete picture. Problem is, that piece is nowhere to be found. Not by you, anyway. So who can you call?
The Jigsaw Man, that's who.
That's right, the Jigsaw Man is back to work his benevolent magic. He has been scouring the country looking for missing pieces that will transform good teams into great ones. Today, he is ready to produce his findings for 10 very lucky teams.
Loyal Hoop Thinkers know that the Jigsaw Man likes to challenge himself. He doesn't like obvious choices. He prefers to find unheralded players who could benefit from a change of scenery. The Jigsaw Man is as creative as he is magnanimous. You might say it brings him inner piece.
If your team was not chosen this time around, do not despair. The Jigsaw Man is always lurking. When you least expect him, he alights to bestow his findings. In the meantime, here are the 10 puzzles that he has solved. Happy piecemaking:
NORTH CAROLINA STATE
SAN DIEGO STATE
Other Hoop Thoughts
? Yes, Duke played horribly Wednesday night, but let's not lose sight that Miami is a strong, experienced, tough defensive team. When the Canes are also making shots and sharing the ball, they can beat anyone. And they are very fortunate to get their senior center, Reggie Johnson, back in the lineup much earlier than projected. Johnson only played 16 minutes against the Blue Devils, but as he gets back into game shape, it's going to make Miami that much harder to deal with.
? Cody Zeller is a great example of someone whose field goal percentage is too high. He's shooting 61 percent, which tells me he's playing too safe.
? New Mexico is a much better team when junior guard Tony Snell is hunting his shot. He had 22 and 23 points, respectively, in the Lobos' last two wins over Boise State and Colorado State. Before that, he had not cracked the 20-point mark since Nov. 18.
? On behalf of the All-Glue committee, let me just say: I see you, Melvin Ejim!
? Interesting to see Kansas freshman forward Perry Ellis starting to get a little more run. Ellis isn't going to win any bodybuilding contests, but he is a naturally gifted scorer, and his emergence could really add to the Jayhawks' frontcourt depth.
? The difference between this Florida team and those of the last several years is the Gators are playing D. They are ranked first in the country in defensive efficiency, they're fifth in field goal defense, and they're 18th in rebound margin. That's going to go a long way in March.
? Reason number 1,578 why college hoops is better than the NBA: Coaches who wear school colors on their ties.
? It was tough for me to watch Ohio State guard Shannon Scott's reaction after his ill-advised shot on the final possession of the Buckeyes' loss at Michigan State. Scott was so embarrassed at what he's done that he briefly hid his face in his jersey. That's the same thing my eight-year-old son does when he feels embarrassed during a game. The point is not that Scott is immature. The point is that it was a reminder that these are still kids. They're all somebody's son. (In Scott's case, he's the son of one of the greatest players of all time, former North Carolina Tar Heel Charlie Scott.) It's a good idea for fans and media guys to add a strong dose of empathy when we're criticizing college athletes.
? I strongly disagree with any suggestion that Rick Barnes should fear for his job. As I mentioned above, Texas is literally the youngest team in the entire country. You can see there is some talent there, and when it develops the team will be better. If the Longhorns do miss out on the NCAA tournament, it will be the first time in Barnes' 15 years there that that has happened. He has way too much equity in that program to be jettisoned after one miserable season.
? I love that Creighton coach Greg McDermott has the number "222" stamped on his players' practice uniforms. That was where the team ranked nationally last season in field goal percentage defense. Calls to mind one of my favorite coachisms: If you want to achieve it, you have to emphasize it.
? I want to alert you to a cool new piece of fiction just released by Rus Bradburd, a former assistant coach at UTEP and New Mexico State who was the co-author of Nolan Richardson's autobiography. Rus's novel is called
? Bummer to see Utah State lose two of their top three scorers to injuries just as the conference season was heating up. Senior forward Kyisean Reed is done for the season with an ACL tear, but junior guard Preston Medlin, their leading scorer, is due to return in six to eight weeks following a bad knee injury.
? Here's a great under-the-radar, circle-your-calendar game: Belmont at Murray State, Feb. 7. They are the top two teams in the Ohio Valley Conference, but since they are in different divisions, this is the only time they will play all season. Both teams could make a surprise run in the NCAA tournament, but only one of them will get there.
? I've said it before and I'll say it again: Louisville really needs Luke Hancock to get going. Rick Pitino said in October that Hancock, a transfer from George Mason, was the key to their whole season. Instead, he has been a virtual non-factor.
? I used to be concerned about Mark Lyons' ability to run the point for Arizona. Not anymore. Yes, he is a scoring point guard, but the way he scores, that is a positive, not a negative. Plus, I like the way Sean Miller can switch Nick Johnson to the point and let Lyons slide off the ball. This team is getting better in all the right ways.
? It's easy to forget that Michigan State sophomore forward Branden Dawson suffered a torn ACL less than a year ago. He is still getting his strength back in that knee. He also just played his best game in a Spartan uniform when he had 18 points and 13 rebounds against Wisconsin. Considering the final score was 49-47, that's like getting 25 and 18 in a more normal game. If Dawson keeps doing that, Michigan State will have a very real chance to win the Big Ten championship. Again.
? When I interviewed Jim Boeheim on my CBS Sports Network show Courtside on Wednesday, he sounded cautiously optimistic that James Southerland will be back in uniform at some point this season. The Orange haven't lost yet without him, but they could sure use the margin of error that his three-point shooting gives them.
Dipping Into The Email Bag
I appreciate Nate's passion. I really do. But I will never understand the knee-jerk reactions of fans who believe that changing the coach is the cure for every ill. As Nate notes, it was just last season that Hamilton coached the Seminoles to the first ACC tournament championship in school history. Those four straight NCAA tournaments were also a first at the school. That Sweet 16 appearance was just two years ago. By any reasonable measure, Hamilton is the best basketball coach the school has ever had.
It is only natural that at some point, the program would experience a downturn. Florida State lost four starters from last season. The Seminoles have a freshman point guard and one of the most inexperienced teams in the country. And Hamilton has a very good chance to sign Andrew Wiggins, who is the nation's top high school player. The idea that a one-year downturn is somehow a bad reflection on the coach simply does not jibe with reality. Every program has bad years. Just look at North Carolina.
So my advice to Nate and other Florida State fans, don't go looking for someone else to lead this program. The grass is plenty green in Tallahassee right now.
Ricardo obviously doesn't follow me on Twitter (@SethDavisHoops) or wasn't following the night of the game, because I noted the blatant push-off right away. (As did many others.) Although I must say, the more times I saw it, the less I came to believe that it was blatant. But it was a push. The refs just missed it.
However, the refs did not throw a careless in-bounds lob. That was Gonzaga's David Stockton. And while I generally subscribe to the argument that a foul is a foul whether it's in the first seconds or the final seconds, the reality is that most referees are not going to blow the whistle in that situation unless the push is truly blatant. If anything, the refs can be faulted for watching the ball on that play as opposed to the body contact. I also noticed upon further review that while Jones definitely fouled Olynyk, Olynyk also extended his arm in an effort to gain some separation. At live speed, it's understandable that the ref would swallow his whistle and render it a play-on.
As I've said many times, players make mistakes, coaches make mistakes, and refs make mistakes. In this case, the refs made a mistake, but it did not decide the game. The players did.
This is a very astute observation. I've said many times that Pitino has undergone a more dramatic personal transformation than any other person I've covered. I was around Rick a lot during his Kentucky days, and let me tell you, he was pretty insufferable. He would be the first to admit this. He was always a hard-charging, take-no-prisoners guy, and considering how well it served him professionally, it's understandable why he kept it up.
Then, two things happened. First, Pitino endured an embarrassing failure with the Boston Celtics. Then, more poignantly, he lost his best friend and brother-in-law, Billy Minardi, on 9/11. This was a sad full-circle tragedy for Pitino. On the eve of his career-launching run to the Final Four with Providence in 1987, Pitino's infant son died of heart disease. Now, just at the moment when his professional life was bottoming out, he suffered another personal loss. It humbled and humanized him. It made him take himself less seriously. This has, in my opinion, not only made him a better person, it has also made him a better coach. All you have to do is look at what he has accomplished at Louisville the last few years and you can see that.
The most amazing part about all of this is how aware Pitino is of this change. To wit: Last year, I was interviewing Pitino for a television special, I asked him about his son, Richard, who was then an assistant at Louisville. (He has since been hired to be the head coach at FIU.) Rick told me he thought Richard was a much better coach than he was at the same age. When I asked him why, Pitino replied, "Because he's humble. I didn't learn to be humble until I was 50." That is an amazingly self-actualized thing for a multimillionaire college basketball coach to say. As Tom so aptly put it, I could never imagine the Kentucky version of Pitino saying anything remotely like it.
When the Bruins are playing well, there are not many teams in the country that are better. But UCLA is not built for the road, and I think the spirited young Cats are going to bring their A game.
Who were those strangers in the blue jerseys getting run out of Miami on Wednesday night? The Blue Devils obviously didn't take their talents to Coral Gables. Returning to Cameron should help, but you have to wonder whether this team's confidence has been irrevocably shattered by that rout.
This might have been a trap game for Syracuse if Villanova hadn't upset Louisville Tuesday night. Now, instead of walking into a trap, they're getting Villanova at exactly the right time.
I still don't think Kansas is going undefeated in the Big 12. But I also don't think they're going to lose at home.
Georgetown is playing better basketball the last two weeks, but there's no way the Cardinals will lose three in a row. And it's not like the Verizon Center is a huge homecourt advantage.
Both of these teams are coming off disappointing losses -- Kansas State at home to Kansas on Monday, and Iowa State at Texas Tech Wednesday night. If the Cyclones are a good team (which I think they are), then they need to win this one at home. They have five players averaging double figure scoring, including point guard Korie Luscious, a transfer from Michigan State.
The Badgers aren't easy to figure out. Since they won at Indiana, they've lost at Iowa and then at home to Michigan State. They're tough to beat at the Kohl Center, but I also think the Gophers will be comfortable playing Wisconsin's slower, physical style. Minnesota suffered a disappointing loss at Northwestern on Wednesday, so they should primed to rebound.
San Diego State has been struggling to score, but after dropping two games last week, the Aztecs need this one very badly. And you know how much I like desperate home teams.
N.C. State likes to pick its spots. Is there any doubt that it will pick this one?
Michigan State wants to win, but Indiana needs to win in order to establish its bona fides as a national championship contender. I think the Hoosiers will rise to the occasion, but it will require getting points from someone who hasn't produced it lately. Will Sheehey, anyone?