This time last year, Larry Brown was the toast of college basketball. He was a septuagenarian Hall of Famer who had returned to college and was revitalizing a perennially moribund program. Even when his SMU Mustangs failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament, there was much hope for the future. Brown’s best players were returning, and they were going to be joined by a stellar recruiting class that included a potential top-three NBA draft pick.
A lot has happened since then, and much of it has not been toast-worthy. Brown’s prized prospect, 6-foot-5 guard Emmanuel Mudiay, couldn’t get cleared academically by the NCAA, so he decided last fall to forego college and play professionally in China. Brown's best frontcourt player, Markus Kennedy, was academically ineligible for the first semester. SMU is 16-4 (7-1 in the American Athletic Conference) and is in good shape for a tournament bid, but the program has been rocked by a spate of bad news over the last few weeks. To wit:
• On Jan. 10, Justin Martin, a 6-6 senior forward who had transferred from Xavier, left SMU to pursue a professional career. Martin had battled injuries and was only playing about 12 minutes a game, but his decision to leave was also related to academics.
• On Jan. 13, the school announced that assistant coach Ulric Maligi was taking an indefinite leave of absence for what was described as “a private matter.”
• On Jan. 16, ESPN’s Jeff Goodman revealed that SMU had received a Notice of Allegations from the NCAA, which has been investigating the circumstances that allowed 6-5 sophomore guard Keith Frazier, a former McDonald’s All-American, to get qualified academically to play in college. Later in the day, the school confirmed Goodman’s report. None of this came as any surprise to Brown and the folks at SMU, because I’m told the NCAA first notified them last summer that it was investigating the program.
• Last Friday, Brown revealed that Frazier, who had been averaging 10.5 points and 4.0 rebounds per game, will be academically ineligible for the rest of the season after he lost an appeal to the NCAA.
It’s not hard to connect some of these dots. Maligi was the point person for Frazier’s recruitment out of Kimball High School in Dallas. Frazier has been the subject of scrutiny since the fall of 2013, when a local television station reported that one of Frazier’s grades had been improperly changed so he could graduate. That report further revealed that Maligi had called the high school’s guidance counselor to discuss Frazier’s grades, but Maligi insisted he was only calling to find out what Frazier needed to do to become eligible, not to pressure anyone to change a grade. The transcript that SMU accepted when it admitted Frazier did not include the changed grade.
SMU’s decision to jettison Maligi right after receiving the Notice of Allegations is an indication that the school is expecting many of those allegations to hold up, and is therefore trying to self-impose penalties to soften the NCAA’s blow. SMU has 90 days to respond to the notice, and a hearing before the Committee on Infracations won’t happen until later this summer.
When I spoke with Brown by phone Sunday night, he said he could not discuss details of the investigation, but he did his best to strike an upbeat note. “I’m ready to coach the kids I’ve got,” he said. “The team has played great and the kids are dealing with whatever happened in a real positive way. I just have to wait until the process plays out, and I’m confident that things are going to be OK.”
Thus far, there is no reason to believe that Brown has violated NCAA rules himself. That, however, does not matter. Unlike his previous experiences at UCLA and Kansas, where the programs were hit with probation after he left for violations that for the most part were not tied to Brown, the NCAA now works under a system where the head coach is automatically culpable. The so-called “Coach Responsibility Rule,” which went into effect in Aug. 2013, states that “an institution’s head coach is presumed to be responsible for the actions of all assistant coaches and administrators who report, directly or indirectly, to the head coach.” So even if Brown proves that he had no knowledge of anything improper, the NCAA could still suspend him or even issue a show-cause penalty if it believes that major violations were committed by people who worked for him.
So there is a lot at stake beyond whether Brown can lead his short-handed Mustangs to their first NCAA tournament since 1993. If the NCAA lays down its hammer, it would be a devastating blow for an athletic department that is still haunted by the the death penalty meted out against the football program in 1987. It would severely damage the basketball program that is finally on the rebound, and the man who was doing such a masterful job rebuilding it. The season, the program, the school, Brown’s legacy -- all of it hangs in the balance these next few months. Maybe Brown’s prediction that things will end up OK will come true, but at the moment, this feel-good story doesn’t feel so good.
Other Hoop Thoughts
• From the that-wasn’t-in-the-scouting-report department: Going into Saturday’s home against Iowa, Purdue junior guard Rapheal Davis had made four three-pointers all season. He was 3-for-5 from behind the arc to spur Purdue to a much-needed 67-63 win. Go figure.
• Incidentally, the Boilermakers converted 47 percent of their field goals in the win. Amazing how teams tend to shoot abnormally well against the Hawkeyes. Quite a coincidence.
• It’s time to start wondering what’s wrong with Texas. For much of the season, the Longhorns were supposedly suffering because their point guard, sophomore Isaiah Taylor, was out with a wrist injury. When Taylor came back a couple of weeks ago, he was rusty. But Taylor had 23 points against Kansas at home on Saturday, and the Longhorns still lost for the third time in their last five games.
Texas’ main problem is that it does not create enough offense through its defense. According to KenPom.com, the Longhorns are 11th nationally in defensive efficiency but they are 339th in steals percentage. The Jayhawks had just three turnovers on Saturday, and none in the second half. Rick Barnes played mostly zone in that game, and the Jayhawks carved it up, but Texas is simply not good enough in the halfcourt offense to beat good teams that way alone. This team has some problems that need to be fixed, pronto.
• It’s no big deal that Iowa State lost on Saturday at Texas Tech, which had been winless in the Big 12. Stuff happens. But when and if the Cyclones lose in the NCAA tournament, we know what it’s going to look like. They were 6-for-31 from three-point range against the Red Raiders, just like they were 1-for-18 from three when they lost to South Carolina in Brooklyn. Even when they’re missing, they keep shooting.
• Arizona’s Stanley Johnson hit the freshman wall all right. It lasted one whole game. Since taking just four shots and scoring seven points in the Wildcats’ loss at Oregon State, Johnson has averaged 19.3 points on 52 percent shooting. Senior point guard T.J. McConnell is a very good offensive player, but Arizona is at its best when Johnson is its primary option.
• Wisconsin wasn’t a real deep team even before starting point guard Traevon Jackson got hurt. On Saturday, the Badgers’ bench was outscored 26-0 and needed overtime to beat a Michigan team that has had a rough season and just lost its leading scorer to a season-ending injury. Four of Wisconsin’s starters played at least 40 minutes in that game. Just something to keep your eye on.
• I love seeing a player grind his way on the pine for three years and then break out as a senior. The latest example is Kansas State’s Nino Williams, a 6-foot-5 guard who has gone from averaging 6.2 points in 16.3 minutes as a junior to 12 points in 27 minutes as a senior. He has been especially good of late, averaging 20 points over his last three games while making 25 of his 37 shot attempts. Way to hang in there, young fella. Most guys would have transferred twice by now.
• Y’all know that Tulsa is undefeated and alone in first place in the American, right? I think the Golden Hurricane can win this league, even though they have no seniors on this roster. I expect them to get some top 25 consideration next preseason.
• I like what I’m seeing from Georgetown’s freshmen reserves. Isaac Copeland, a 6-9 forward from Raleigh, has scored 17, 17 and 10 in his last three games. Those were his first double-digit performances since early December. And 6-2 guard Tre Campbell scored a season-high 14 points in Saturday’s overtime win at Marquette. Georgetown is playing a little bit faster than it has in recent years, so if it can keep getting that kind of offensive pop from the youngbloods off the bench, it could be a difference maker.
• I love the annual tradition of coaches wearing sneakers with their suits to draw awareness for Coaches versus Cancer. A lot of them sported the no-tie casual look, too. I’ll bet more than a few thought to themselves, “Hey, I’m a lot more comfortable when I coach without a tie.” So why do they ever wear one?
• Sure hope for UCLA’s sake that its starting center, Tony Parker, gets back soon. Parker missed the Oregon trip with back spasms, and the Bruins lost them both. This team lost three underclassmen to the NBA last spring, two players in the preseason who failed to qualify, a backup center last month also because of academics, and now Parker. Steve Alford has a decent recruiting class coming in, but the season can’t end soon enough for this team.
• Maybe it’s because I’m a dad now who gets really nervous watching his kids play youth sports, but it just crushes me when I see a player do something that costs his team a game. Utah State forward David Collette, who had played so well at UNLV while scoring 24 points, committed a boneheaded foul 90 feet from the basket with the score tied and two seconds remaining. That allowed UNLV guard Cody Doolin to make the winning free throws.
• This is the week of reckoning for Virginia. The Cavs’ next four games: vs. Duke, at North Carolina, vs. Louisville, at N.C. State. I’ve got to believe there’s a loss in there somewhere. Just don’t ask me where.
• Lost in the all of the hullabaloo surrounding Mike Krzyzewski’s 1,000th career win was the surprising adjustment Coach K made against St. John’s on Saturday: For the first time this season, he played 7-foot junior center Marshall Plumlee alongside 6-foot-11 freshman Jahlil Okafor for extended minutes. When Duke is playing man-to-man, both those guys can't be on the court at the same time, but when the Blue Devils go zone, it can be a very potent combination. Given that it helped turn the tide on Saturday, so I expect Krzyzewski will do that more.
• New Mexico guard David Greenwood credited someone on Twitter for motivating him in the Lobos’ win at UNLV. Apparently this “person” tweeted at Greenwood some nasty references to his mother’s fight against cancer. One of the tweets suggested that Greenwood should ride to the game in a hearse. The fact that such a vile creature exists on this planet is just plain sad. If you know of who this person is, please “out” him or her. The lowlife deserves it.
• That was a weird deal last week when Louisville forward Montrezl Harrell revealed that he had voluntarily removed himself as team captain. Rick Pitino tried to tamp down the situation by saying publicly it was no big deal, but when have you ever heard of that happening? Not to mention that Harrell entered the season as a consensus preseason All-America. Pitino said Harrell made the decision because he was growing impatient with the team’s young reserves. Harrell has not been playing well the last couple of weeks, so maybe that’s a part of it, but this team is only going to go as far as Harrell carries it. The Cardinals need him to provide more production and better leadership.
• North Carolina got some bad news last week when reserve freshman forward Theo Pinson broke his foot last week in the win over Wake Forest. The Tar Heels are so banged up now that they only had seven players dress for practice last Friday. One of the players who sat out was Marcus Paige, who has been bothered by plantar fasciitis in his right foot for several weeks. Paige hasn’t participated in a full contact practice since early in the season. That explains why he has underperformed at times. Remember, his best asset is his outside shooting. It’s not easy to shoot well in games if you’re not getting your reps.
• One of the most common mistakes I hear broadcasters make is when they comment on whether a player intended to commit a flagrant foul during a replay review. The issue is whether the player’s movement was excessive, not intentional. There is nothing in the rule about intent.
• Saint Joseph’s is in rebuilding mode after winning the Atlantic 10 tournament last season, so not many people are noticing the incredible season that 6-6 sophomore forward DeAndre Bembry is having. Bembry is one of just six players in the country who leads their teams in points (17.5), rebounds (6.5), assists (3.1), steals (1.9) and minutes (37.7). Over his last three games, he is averaging 25.7 points. Remember where you heard the name first, because you’ll be hearing it quite a bit moving forward.
• Man, Seton Hall is really coming unglued. The Pirates, who have appeared in the rankings a couple of times this season, have now lost three in a row and four of their last five. This team is very streaky offensively, and when the shots aren’t going in, the Pirates can’t overcome it with their defense. Freshman Isaiah Whitehead should be back in another week or so from his broken foot, but it will take some time for him to get back into the flow. And the Big East is unforgiving.
• I see Lorenzo Romar is now playing zone at Washington. Converts be converting.
• Tell you what, Gary Payton’s kid is a pretty good player. Not only is the 6-3 junior at Oregon State ranked second in the country in steals (2.94), but he is third in the Pac 12 in rebounds at 8.5 per game. Payton II also leads the Beavers in scoring at 12.6 per game on 51 percent shooting, and he had a combined 31 points, 17 rebounds, 8 assists and 7 steals in the Beavers’ wins over USC and UCLA last week.
• Can’t remember a team suffering so many gut-wrenching close losses in a short period of time as Northwestern has. When the Wildcats blew an 11-point lead in the last four minutes to lose at Maryland Sunday night, it was their third straight loss by one or two points They also lost at Michigan State in overtime this season by seven. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be coaches.
• Finally, from the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up-department: Just before tipoff of Saturday’s Northeastern-Bucknell game in Boston -- a game played in Boston between teams in the Patriot League -- the officials determined that the official game ball was over-inflated. So they replaced it with another one that was more acceptable. Damn those atmospheric conditions!
Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week
*Weekend games not included
Texas at Iowa State, Monday, 9 p.m., ESPN
Texas has not been playing well lately, and Iowa State is going to be raring for a bounce-back from that ugly loss at Texas Tech. Not good timing for the Longhorns.
Iowa State 78, Texas 63
George Washington at VCU, Tuesday, 7 p.m., CBS Sports Network
This is going to be a fun game between two of the best teams in the Atlantic 10. VCU was fortunate to escape with a win at Saint Louis last Friday night, but winning is a habit, and the Rams are awfully tough to beat at home.
VCU 72, George Washington 64
West Virginia at Kansas State, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN2
The Wildcats have been close to earning a signature win but have yet to break through. This is a great opportunity to do so. Kansas State as a solid group of guards who should be able to handle the Mountaineers’ fullcourt pressure.
Kansas State 71, West Virginia 67
Duke at Notre Dame, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2
Both teams are going to have to deal with a quick turnaround from emotional wins on Sunday -- Duke’s win over St. John’s to get Coach K his historic win, and Notre Dame’s squeaker in overtime at N.C. State. Duke has the added burden of knowing it has to travel to Charlottesville on Saturday to play Virginia. That’s a little too much emotion for a young team to muster.
Notre Dame 74, Duke 70
Maryland at Ohio State, Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN
The Terps have clearly lost a little mojo. They got embarrassed at Indiana and were very fortunate to survive at home against Northwestern. D’Angelo Russell is playing as well as anyone in the country. It’s hard to pick against him in a home game right now.
Ohio State 66, Maryland 63
This Week's AP Ballot
*(Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Kentucky (1)
2. Virginia (2)
3. Wisconsin (3)
4. Duke (5)
5. Gonzaga (6)
6. Arizona (9)
7. Kansas (16)
8. Notre Dame (8)
9. VCU (10)
10. Villanova (4)
11. North Carolina (12)
12. Utah (13)
13. Indiana (22)
14. Maryland (7)
15. Louisville (14)
16. Miami (15)
17. Iowa State (11)
18. Wichita State (18)
19. Georgetown (25)
20. West Virginia (19)
21. Ohio State (NR)
22. Texas (17)
23. Northern Iowa (20)
24. Providence (24)
25. Dayton (NR)
Dropped out: Michigan State (21), Oklahoma (23)
If you are a regular visitor to this space, and if you are on Twitter, then you are probably familiar with my Sunday night ritual of tweeting out my AP ballot. I call this “feeding the trolls,” for I am blessed to receive no shortage of opinionated feedback from my hairy-knuckled friends who live under bridges. The give and take is good fun (mostly), and it serves to give me immediate feedback on which of my selections will be outliers. This week, the two teams that drew the most, uh, reaction were VCU and Indiana.
So let’s examine each case. VCU has lost three games all season. It has yet to lose in the Atlantic 10. As is the case with Gonzaga and Wichita State, ranking the Rams can be tricky because their conference is not as tough as many of the teams they’re being compared with. My followers especially took issue with my decision to rank VCU ahead of Villanova, given that 'Nova pounded VCU by 24 points when they played.
Here’s the thing, though. That game was played on Nov. 24, more than two months ago. A lot of games have been played since then, including Villanova’s 20-point drubbing at Georgetown last Monday. On Jan. 3, the Wildcats also lost to a Seton Hall team that has since come apart at the seams. So 'Nova needed to get dinged. VCU was a beneficiary of that, and the fact that Villanova beat them on Nov. 24 did not stop its fall.
Did VCU benefit unfairly from Villanova’s drop, and the losses of other teams playing in better conferences? Perhaps. Is VCU’s stock overinflated right now? Could be. These things have a way of working themselves out. If VCU loses a game or two, its bubble will pop. For the time being, though, I think the Rams deserve to be where they are.
As for Indiana, I have been ranking the Hoosiers ahead of my fellow voters for most of the season, and more often than not I have been proven to be prescient. Maryland had been playing excellent basketball when it visited Assembly Hall last Thursday, and the Hoosiers ran them out of the gym. Yes, Indiana lost at Ohio State on Sunday, but I thought the Hoosiers competed pretty well, especially considering they are playing without their only serviceable big man, Hanner Mosquera-Perea. And much like the Villanova-VCU comparison, I am not swayed that Louisville beat Indiana on Dec. 9.
Meanwhile, Kansas was the big riser this week. The Jayhawks have looked really good on the eye test lately, even when they lost at Iowa State a week ago. And speaking of the Cyclones, I gave them a half-mulligan for their hiccup at Texas Tech. Good teams are entitled to a stinker every now and again.
Dayton got my final spot, not just because of what the Flyers have done but how they are doing it. Dayton is 6-1 in the Atlantic 10 (16-3 overall) despite having just six scholarship players, none of whom are taller than 6-6. The Flyers got blown out at Davidson last Tuesday, but they have lost only three games all season.
As usual, the most interesting decisions came at the bottom of the ballot. I came very close to ranking Tulsa at No. 25. I realize the Golden Hurricane have gotten to 7-0 in the American by beating up on some of the weaker teams in the league, but it’s almost February and they still not lost a league game. They deserve some love.
This is the first week of the season that Oklahoma is not on my ballot. The Sooners have lost four of their last five games. Three of those losses came on the road against ranked teams, including last week’s defeats at Kansas and Baylor. There is some relief coming up on the scheule in the next couple of weeks. Let’s hope Isaiah Cousins gets back soon (he missed most of the second half of the loss at Baylor because of an injured wrist), because the Sooners need all hands on deck right now.
Michigan State has been in and out all season, but they’re out after losing their last two league road games at Maryland and Nebraska. The Spartans’ two home wins weren’t convincing, either, coming in overtime over Northwestern and by six points over Penn State. That’s not what a top 25 team should be doing in late January.
I also came close to ranking Kansas State. The Wildcats lost at Iowa State last week and then beat Oklahoma State at home by 10. But I held off because they have a pivotal stretch coming up: at Kansas, at Texas Tech, vs. Texas, at West Virginia and vs. Oklahoma. Can they win three of those five? If they do, they will almost certainly be ranked.
The list of teams I also considered included Baylor, which has home wins over Iowa State and Oklahoma but could use a road win at Oklahoma State on Tuesday; N.C. State, which probably would have been ranked had it pulled off that game against Notre Dame; Colorado State and Wyoming, which are tied atop the Mountain West standings; and Arkansas, which won two games last week to secure a spot in that five-way tie for second place in the SEC.