Welcome to the first mailbag for what has already been a thrilling college basketball season. One of the things I like about answering your emails is the chance to shine light on the topics you send, topics I might not otherwise focus on that day. So let's start with a pair of missives about a certain program in the Pacific northwest:
When will Oregon start to get some national attention? They are straight putting opponents away this year.
First of all, the Ducks are ranked No. 17 in both polls this week. So the argument that they are not getting "national attention" falls flat. However, I have yet to rank Oregon on my AP ballot. The Ducks did look pretty good in beating Georgetown in their season opener, but since I didn't rank the Hoyas either, I didn't see that as enough reason to put a number next to Oregon's name.
However, I'm sure it's only a matter of time before I do. Keep in mind that the 3-0 Ducks have been undermanned to this point. They are playing the first nine games of the season without two of their best players, 6-foot-1 sophomore point guard Dominic Artis and 6-8 sophomore forward Ben Carter, who were suspended for selling university-issued sneakers. In addition, 6-5 freshman guard A.J. Lapray just made his return after missing four weeks because of a hip injury, and 6-4 junior guard Jalil Abdul-Bassitt has yet to play because of a bum ankle. Oregon coach Dana Altman told me Wednesday night that he hopes Abdul-Bassitt will be in the lineup sometime next week.
What's most striking about the Ducks is the way the program has benefited from transfers the last few years. On the one hand, Oregon suffered a tough setback two years ago when freshman guard Jabari Brown, an Oakland native who was the program¹s most heralded recruit in years, decided to transfer just two games into his freshman season -- both of which he started. Yet, the Ducks still finished 24-10 thanks to the addition of three other transfers: Devoe Joseph (from Minnesota), Olu Ashaolu (Louisiana Tech) and Tony Woods (Wake Forest). Last year, the Ducks benefited greatly from the rebounding prowess of 6-7 forward Arsalan Kazemi, who transferred in from Rice.
So it's fitting -- and hardly surprising -- that three of Oregon's top four scorers this season are transfers. Joseph Young, a 6-2 junior who is scoring an eye-popping 26.7 points per game, was granted a waiver to play right away after transferring in from Houston. (Young's father, Michael, had been demoted from his position as director of basketball operations at the school.) The team's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, Mike Moser, is a Portland native who is now on his third school after previously leaving UCLA and UNLV. And 6-2 senior guard Jason Calliste transferred from the University of Detroit. Moser and Calliste were able to play right away because they earned their undergraduate degrees.
I asked Altman if becoming Transfer U was his grand plan when he got hired from Creighton in the spring of 2010. "At first it was out of necessity. We needed to make a quick turnaround," he said. "So it wasn't by design, but it has worked out for us. Mike Moser being from Portland and coming home, that was a good fit. Joe Young and [6-5 sophomore guard] Damyean Dotson played together in high school. Jason, Devoe and Olu all knew each other. So it just all came together."
As for the two players sitting out NCAA suspensions, Altman said he was naturally disappointed with their actions but he did not sound angry. "They've been here over a year and most of the decisions they've made have been really good," he said. Altman would not guarantee that Artis will be the starting point guard when his sentence is up, but if that does not happen right away, it will happen soon enough. In the meantime, Altman is taking advantage of the opportunity to develop his depth. "You have to look at it that way," he said. "There's nothing you can do but play the hand that you've got."
I don't believe Oregon is nearly as good as Arizona. UCLA probably has more talent (albeit the younger kind) and Arizona State served notice with its road win over UNLV that it is ready to compete. But the Ducks have every reason to believe they can be in the top tier of the Pac-12 and, at the very least, maintain their position in the lower tier of the top 25. Does that qualify as national attention? Maybe not. But it's a start.
Here is the second Oregon-related question this week:
I suppose at some point we are going to tire of talking about the "new rules" -- I addressed the topic in Hoop Thoughts on Monday -- but I'll give it one last go. Yes, the game that Caleb is referring to was hard to watch at times; there were a total of 59 fouls called which yielded 74 free throw attempts. But as I wrote, such examples are more outliers than reflections of the new normal. In the column, I cited some numbers from #KPI Analytics. Well, here is a more updated version of their numbers:
Through Tuesday night's games, scoring has increased by 9.2 percent (6.2 points per game per team) over the same period last year. Yes, some of that can be attributed to the extra free throws -- but only some. Last year, teams scored 20.3 percent of their points from made free throws. This year that number has climbed to 22.5. That's a near-negligible difference.
In fact, #KPI found that the offensive numbers are up across the board: teams are getting 4.53 more possessions per game, scoring .023 more points per possession and attempting 3.13 more field goals. And what is the downside? Teams on average are committing 3.06 more fouls and shooting 4.48 more free throws. So the combined damage is around six more whistles per game. That¹s right -- six. As I've said, that is a small price to pay for better basketball.
If you follow me on Twitter -- which of course you do -- then you know that I am really big on sportsmanship. This is especially true when it comes to court storms (get off my lawn!) and postgame handshakes between coaches (show some class!). So if players are hanging on rims or slapping backboards for the sole purpose of showboating, then by all means, the ref should call a technical foul.
But I actually think that referees need to be more lenient, not less, with this rule. Most of the instances I see appear to result from a desire to protect a player's safety. Players need to have as wide a berth as possible to ensure that they don't hurt themselves or others by landing on them. So my feeling is, unless an egregious act of poor sportsmanship is being committed, the refs should let 'em hang.
Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart and Arizona State guard Jahii Carson (not to mention Wisconsin forward Frank Kaminsky) made it clear this week that there are some very good non-freshman in college hoops this season. But I do recognize that much of the early excitement has been generated by the three superfrosh. So until further notice, my order is listed exactly in the order that John placed them: Parker, then Randle, then Wiggins.
The reason I chose Parker for the top spot is because he excels in the most areas of the game. People doubted his athletic ability before the season began, but he has established that he's at least comparable to Wiggins, if not equal to him, in that department.
Rule number one: There's no worrying in November. However, I do concede that Tennessee is off to an uninspiring start. I ranked the Volunteers No. 20 on my preseason ballot but dropped them after their season-opening loss at Xavier. I believe the Musketeers are an NCAA tournament team, but they were playing without two injured starters.
The biggest question I have right now with Tennessee is how long it will take Jeronne Maymon to get up to speed. The 6-8 senior forward was the team's leading scorer and rebounder in SEC play two years ago, but he missed all of last season because of an injured left knee. Maymon looked rusty against Xavier, finishing with seven points and 10 rebounds, and I've got to believe it will take several more weeks for him to get his stamina and rhythm back. Also, I know that Vols head coach Cuonzo Martin has high hopes for 6-6 freshman guard Robert Hubbs III, but he has been a little slow out of the gate (6.3 ppg, 35.0% FG).
So there's plenty of room for Tennessee to get better -- as there is for every team this time of year. I will be seeing the Vols up close for three straight games next week at the Battle 4 Atlantis, so check back in next week¹s Hoop Thoughts for more info.
Finally, I have been very gratified by the response to the story I wrote in last week's college basketball preview issue about Duke guard Andre Dawkins' battles with clinical depression. (If you haven't seen the video produced by the folks here at SI.com, be sure to give it a look in that link above.) Here is one such email I received:
I appreciate Jim giving me his thanks, but we all know that Andre is the one to be thanked for showing such courage in telling me his story. As I conducted our interviews, I kept waiting for Andre to say to me, "I'd rather not answer that question. Too private." But he never did. The reason is that he hopes other people who are struggling with depression might read the story and get some help. I hope he feels good about what he did. He had a chance to make a difference, and he took it.
Twenty For Tuesday Leftovers
I do a live Twitter chat every Tuesday in which I answer at least 20 questions from my faithful followers. Here are a few good ones I couldn't quite get to this week:
I realize the Cyclones are front and center following their wins over Michigan and BYU, but I still believe the Hawkeyes are going to have their say. I really like Devyn Marble's maturation as a point guard. However, I reserve the right to change my mind after watching Iowa compete next week in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
To be honest, I probably haven't been giving the Billikens as much thought as I should, given that they return four starters from the team that won the Atlantic 10 last season. It's hard to judge them based on three wins against mediocre local teams (although it's good to see that Dwayne Evans is still beasting his way to the foul line). We'll know a lot more about them after the Cancun Challenge, where they will open with Wisconsin, as well as their home game against Wichita State on Dec. 1. Believe me, if St. Louis wins those games, it will have all the love it wants.
I chose this question because it reflects on the sad state of Utah basketball. Finishing in the top half of its league is considered a goal? Somewhere Rick Majerus is shaking his head while devouring a fist full of Hershey bars. I know that head coach Larry Krystkowiak has brought in a bunch of junior college transfers, but he isn't scheduling like he believes he is coaching a top-flight team. The only challenging nonconference games the Utes will play are on the road at Boise State on Dec. 3 and at home against BYU on Dec. 14. So even if Utah takes a big step forward this season, it will still most likely be in the bottom half of the conference.
There is no doubt that this is the Blue Devils' biggest concern -- and it will be especially huge if they have to go up against Arizona's prodigious frontcourt in Madison Square Garden next week. According to kenpom.com, Duke is ranked 270th in the country in offensive rebound percentage and 204th in defensive rebound percentage. Overall, the Devils are 53rd nationally in defensive efficiency, and if you saw East Carolina's speedy guards continually slice into the paint on Tuesday night, you know why. Mike Krzyzewski is too good of a defensive coach not to expect rapid improvement on stopping dribble penetration, but even the great Coach K can't make his guys taller.