The undefeated dream has ended, but the conversation about postseason bans still needs to begin.
I speak, of course, about SMU and its ageless Hall of Fame coach, Larry Brown. Brown has coached 42 seasons for 13 different teams, college and pro, but he has never experienced a campaign like this one. His Mustangs are down to just seven scholarship players, yet until they lost at Temple on Sunday they were the lone undefeated team in Division I. To top it off, they are ineligible to compete in the American Athletic Conference or the NCAA tournaments because the NCAA served the program a one-year postseason ban as punishment for major infractions.
“I’ve been in some crazy situations, but this is probably as rewarding as any season I’ve had,” Brown told me by phone last week. “Every day I’m more in awe of these kids and what they’re doing. It blows me away.”
Depending on one’s perspective, this remarkable confluence represents a grave injustice or a validation for the NCAA’s much-maligned enforcement operation. Yet, there is no disagreement who will suffer the most: the team’s three seniors, point guard Nic Moore and forwards Markus Kennedy and Jordan Tolbert. The NCAA meted out its penalty in late September, which was too late for them to transfer. (Under NCAA rules, they would have been allowed to play for another school right away.) SMU elected not to appeal, which at the least would have likely postponed the ban for one year. Given these circumstances, the Mustangs’ pursuit of perfection was indeed awe-inspiring, but it pales in comparison to what they really want, which is to pursue a national championship.
Postseason bans have traditionally been the NCAA’s heaviest hammer, but they have an unsettling way of inflicting collateral damage. Then again, during a time when its enforcement operation has rightfully come under fire for being hapless and laggard, the NCAA can point to the SMU case as further evidence that it is cracking down. Even Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, whose program was hit with a postseason ban last season, concedes that the penalty serves its purpose.
“It’s the only big deterrent [the NCAA has],” Boeheim said. “You could take away scholarships and recruiting time and all that, or you could punish the coach, but the most compelling punishment is to take away the postseason. That’s why schools do everything they can to avoid it.”
Moreover, as the chair of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions, Greg Sankey, points out, every penalty inflicts collateral damage. So does cheating, for that matter.
“We can talk about a super hefty fine, but then you’re going to impact individuals whose budgets will get cut, so they won’t have the same resources because of violations committed by someone else at the school,” said Sankey, who is also the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference. “When violations occur, a competitive advantage is gained that negatively impacts student-athletes at other programs. Part of the reason penalties have become more aggressive is to make clear the expectations are to follow the rules. So the message to schools is don’t be involved in major rules violations that trigger these penalties.”
Ideally, the NCAA could find a suitable deterrent that did not have such a direct impact on players who did nothing wrong. Steeper fines and longer coach suspensions come to mind as possibilities. Or if the NCAA wants postseason bans to continue, perhaps it would be more fair to push them back a full season. That would allow current players to transfer and future recruits to reconsider.
On the other hand, it’s important to keep in mind that the member schools ultimately set these rules. Putting off a postseason ban for a full year would be exponentially more crushing. Brown can complain all he wants about how unfair the current situation is to his seniors, but would he really prefer to sit out the 2017 postseason instead, which would have a profound negative impact on his recruiting? Would any school prefer that?
The drama at SMU is playing out during a period of significant reform. In 2012, the NCAA more than doubled the number of people who serve on the Committee on Infractions and created multiple panels in hopes of producing more timely decisions. The changes also included establishing a four-tier violation structure (as opposed to the previous two-tier model), which set forth automatic penalties and ratcheted up the harshness for more serious breaches. Further, it established the head coach accountability rule, which ensnared Brown after his administrative assistant was found to have completed an online course for one of his incoming players.
Though Sankey says his top priority as chair is to continue making the process quicker and more efficient, he concedes it may be time to have a broad discussion about whether it would be better to push back postseason bans for a year.
“I have seen that argument made, and I do think it is a point of consideration,” he said.
Wherever that discussion leads, it’s high time it got started. It’s just too bad that it won’t happen in time to give SMU’s seniors the finish they deserve.
Other Hoop Thoughts
• No one will project Derek Willis to be a lottery pick, but he is emerging as a potential, and highly unlikely, savior for Kentucky’s season. After Willis had 12 points and 12 rebounds in 31 minutes off the bench of Kentucky’s loss at Auburn, John Calipari finally inserted the 6'9" junior forward into his starting lineup for good. Willis averaged 32.5 minutes in last week’s wins over Arkansas and Vanderbilt, and even though he was 1-for-6 from three-point range against the Commodores, he still had nine rebounds, one block and one steal in the 21-point win. Willis is not a star, but he is a dependable upperclassmen. After scoring 77 points in his first 40 games, Willis has now scored 76 in his last 12.
• All Texas A&M does is win. The Aggies are 7–0 in the SEC and ranked in the top 10 of each national poll, thanks to some solid, older players who will not make anyone’s All-America lists. This team is all cattle and no hat, and I love it.
• I propose one weekend where every coach has to dress like Bob Huggins.
• I believe that winning is a habit and confidence is precious, so the Big Ten scheduling gods could not have been kinder to Indiana. The Hoosiers are undefeated in conference play and have won 12 games in a row, but they haven’t played a ranked team since Dec. 2 at Duke. Three of their next four games are on the road, and then the real test begins on Feb. 11, when Indiana heads into a final stretch that includes two games against Iowa, a road test at Michigan State, and home games against Purdue and Maryland.
• Notre Dame is in better position to make the NCAA tournament than you might think. Besides the road win at Duke, the Fighting Irish also have a neutral court win over Iowa, which looks even better now than it did in November. The team’s best player, point guard Demetrius Jackson, injured his hamstring early in Saturday’s home win over Boston College and did not return, but Mike Brey is hopeful he will be back in time for the team’s game at Syracuse on Thursday.
• I'm not sure I’ve seen a player get steadily worse as an outside shooter the way Miami guard Angel Rodriguez has. The 5'11" senior, who began his career at Kansas State, made 34.4% from deep as a sophomore, 30.4% last season and as a senior he is making 27.7%. That includes going 7-for-36 over his last nine games. Yikes.
• I guess we can put off all those “Danny Manning Has Wake Forest Back” stories till next year.
• How about Tennessee guard Kevin Punter Jr. going for 36 points (14-for-15 from the foul line!) in the Volunteers’ win over South Carolina on Saturday. I love my CBS colleague Adam Zucker’s line about him: “This punter makes field goals!” Incidentally, Punter is scoring 23 points per game to go along with four rebounds and four assists. Last year, he averaged 10 points, two rebounds and two assists. Should we have an award for Most Improved Senior?
• I’ve been saying the last couple of weeks that I was noticing a slippage among referees with regards to enforcing the directives against physical play. So I called the NCAA’s head ref, J.D. Collins, to see if I was seeing things. Turns out I was not. “The two areas where it looks like things are more physical are on the post and on rebounds,” he said. Collins estimated that there are two to four more fouls being committed per game, yet the number of fouls per contest is still flat. That, by the way, is an improvement on years past, when the number of fouls declined slightly as the season wore on. To address this concern, Collins told me he had a conference call with referee coordinators last Monday, he cut a video illustrating the plays that concerned him so they could distribute it to officials, and he is going to record an automated message that every official will hear in the next few days expressing his concerns. All of this, incidentally, was preplanned because Collins, who was a referee himself for 19 years, knows that as January turns to February, the games get a lot more physical.
• It is predictable and smart to see Mike Krzyzewski going to a zone defense in the wake of the Blue Devils’ recent troubles. He did the same thing last year, and for the same reasons: suspect perimeter defense and a short bench, which means guys can’t be as aggressive for fear of foul trouble. I especially like that against NC State, Coach K threw in a little 1-3-1. I could have sworn I saw Duke play three different defenses on a single possession—a 1-3-1, followed by a man-to-man, followed by a 2–3 zone. I realize NC State isn’t exactly the ’86 Celtics, but Duke very badly needed that win, and it got it.
• Oh, and the news is getting a little better with respect to Amile Jefferson. He is finally out of his boot and ready to do a some pool work. Jefferson is still a good three weeks at least from returning, but at least it’s starting to look like he will. Remember, his foot was broken early enough for him to take a medical redshirt this season if he chooses.
• LSU freshman guard Antonio Blakeney is a highly gifted athlete, but he played 25 minutes in the Tigers’ win at Alabama without getting a single assist or shooting a single free throw. That should never happen.
• Hope you all have gotten a chance to see Oregon’s Chris Boucher in action. At 6'10" and 190 pounds, he looks like he could be swept away by a stiff breeze, but he is a dynamic athlete who leads the nation in blocks (3.3 average) and has made 19 three-pointers this season, including two during Saturday’s win over UCLA. It’s hard to project sometimes, but if this kid has a motor to match his potential, then you’ll be hearing a lot more about him in future years.
• I see you, Creighton!
• It’s kind of weird the way Purdue center Isaac Haas’s production has dropped off the last few weeks. He has scored in double digits twice in his last 10 games, and he played just eight minutes in Sunday’s loss at Iowa.
• Have to give credit to Jerod Haase for the rebuilding job he is doing at UAB. The Blazers upset Iowa State in last year’s NCAA tournament, and this season they are 17–3 after setting a school record with their 14th straight win on Sunday over North Texas. UAB has a big game coming up on Saturday at Marshall, which is tied for second in Conference USA with a 6–1 record.
• I’m sorry if it seems like I’m picking on the guy, but Marcus Paige had another disastrous week for North Carolina. In wins over Wake Forest and Virginia Tech, Paige shot a combined 3-for-18 from the floor and 0-for-10 from three. In his last four games, he is 5-for-35 from the floor and 1-for-22 from three. That’s some kind of slump.
• Another terrific outing for Providence sophomore forward Ben Bentil, who played every minute of the Friars’ overtime win at Villanova, finishing with 31 points and 13 rebounds, seven of them offensive. I’ll remind you Bentil averaged six points and five rebounds during his freshman season.
• I think you all know by now that I don’t like court-storms for a variety of reasons (primarily safety), but I am glad that schools are doing a much better job using security to protect players, coaches and officials once the games are over.
• I was watching a game over the weekend and heard an announcer say he thought coaches should have the ability to call live-ball time outs because they are under so much pressure to win. Let’s just say I’m glad this person is part of a very slim minority opinion on this issue.
• I’m also hearing suggestions from some that college basketball should go to six fouls per player. By my estimation, that would mean six to eight more fouls called per game, which would lead to 10 to 14 more free throws. Is that what this sport needs? Just as the games are finally being sped up?
• I remember attending a Louisville practice two years ago and being very intrigued by a seven-foot freshman from Egypt. The kid was skinny and the game clearly moved too fast for him, but he was very coordinated and skilled. I thought he had potential. That player is now a sophomore, and on Saturday Anas Mahmoud had 15 points and a critical late block in the Cardinals’ come-from-behind win at Georgia Tech. It was the first time in Mahmoud’s career that he scored in double digits, and I’ve got a feeling it won’t be the last. If the last 10 minutes of that game is an indicator of who Mahmoud has become, then the game has truly changed for Louisville.
• Ditto for St. Bonaventure sophomore guard Jaylen Adams. He didn’t play great in Sunday’s home loss to VCU, but he’s a lot of fun. He’s not real tall (6'1") but he’s got jets and a quick release, and he’s a 46% three-point shooter. He’s also averaging five assists and 3.5 rebounds per game.
• Speaking of VCU, I am duly impressed at how 6'4" senior guard Melvin Johnson has rounded out his game. During his first three years he was primarily a standstill shooter, but Johnson is scoring in a lot more ways this year, and yet he has upped his three-point percentage from 36% as a junior to 44% this season. The Rams don’t have much size, but they are a bunch of junkyard dogs who share the ball and know how to play.
• Cal lost its leading scorer, Tyrone Wallace, to a broken wrist for 4–6 weeks. And 6'3" junior guard Jordan Mathews matched his career high with 28 points (including six three-pointers) in a pivotal home win over Arizona. Love it when the Next Man Up steps up.
• Speaking of Arizona, Sean Miller is not getting nearly enough credit for keeping the Wildcats this competitive. Besides losing four starters from last year’s Elite Eight squad, Miller has now lost his two best freshmen to injury. Ray Smith, a 6'8" forward from Las Vegas, suffered a season-ending knee injury in October. And Allonzo Trier, a 6'4" guard who is the team’s second-leading scorer, broke his hand and will be out at least another three weeks. Furthermore, backup guard Elliott Pitts, a 6'5" junior, has not played since early December because of an undisclosed personal issue. Yet, the Wildcats have lost just four games this season by a total of 10 points—and one of those came after four overtimes at USC. I don’t know how much longer Miller can hold this thing together, but he has done his best coaching job since coming to Tucson.
• Michigan has played remarkably well without Caris LeVert, going 4–2 including a win at home over Maryland. Last week, John Beilein, who is super secretive when it comes to injuries, expressed confidence that LeVert would return at some point this season, perhaps soon. Beilein also said LeVert’s current “lower leg injury” is not related to the stress fracture that cost him the last two months of his junior season. LeVert is starting to run on a treadmill and doing some court work, but he has yet to be cleared for an unrestricted practice.
• I’ll tell you what, I certainly didn’t expect Northern Iowa to start out 2–6 in the Missouri Valley.
• I love it how coaches still use the word “film” or “tape” when they are all watching digital video. Most of the guys coaching today are way too young to have ever watched “film” except in a movie theater.
• A big reason why Wichita State is surging is that 6'8" senior forward Anton Grady is playing strong inside again. Remember, Grady missed four games in November and December because of a neck injury and it has taken him a while to get back into the flow. But he had 17 points and seven rebounds in the Shockers’ big win over Evansville on Jan. 6, and he gives this team a badly needed big body defensively in the frontcourt.
• I knew that the RPI formula takes setting into account (road games count 1.4 towards a team’s record; home games count 0.6), but I didn’t realize until stats maven Ken Pomeroy wrote it recently that that is accounted for only with regard to a team’s won-loss record. That accounts for for 25% of its RPI number. The rest is calculated using opponents’ record and opponents’ opponents’ record, yet in that each game counts the same regardless of where it was played. I don’t know if that was an oversight or intentionally done, but it seems to me that it ought be changed, no?
• I loved Saint Mary’s guard Joe Rahon’s line when he was asked about the foul he intentionally committed on Gonzaga’s Eric McClellan, even though the Gaels were up by one point with just a few seconds left. “I had a brain fart there,” he said. He also had an unbelievable stroke of good luck when McClellan missed the front end of a one-and-one and Saint Mary’s scored its biggest win of the season. You’ve only got eight lives left, Joe.
• Speaking of which, that loss was the third time this season that Gonzaga blew a double-digit lead. It’s pretty amazing that Gonzaga and Wisconsin have each been to 17 straight NCAA tournaments, yet it is quite possible that each will be left out this year.
• Finally, last week I shared with you a video of ESPN reporter Andy Katz’s daughter singing the national anthem at a UConn game. Well, if you haven’t seen it yet, check out this video of police officer Carlton Smith crushing the anthem before West Virginia’s home game against Kansas. Smith was a late fill-in for a scheduled singer who got stuck in traffic. It turns out, he’s not just a cop but also a former contestant on American Idol. Check him out.
Five games I’m psyched to see this week
Duke at Miami, Monday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Logically speaking, Miami should win this game because it is playing at home, the Hurricanes have excellent guards and Duke struggles with defending dribble penetration. Except that Coral Gables is not usually a tough environment, Krzyzewski has gone to a zone defense to contain dribble penetration and, as my friend and CBS colleague Pete Gillen likes to say, “Dook is Dook.”
Duke 75, Miami 71
Kansas at Iowa State, Monday, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Kansas is a good team, but Bill Self is having to do more with less than he has in the recent past. Iowa State is a really good offensive team with a limited bench that is nearly impossible to beat at home. This is gonna be a fun one.
Iowa State 84, Kansas 77
Xavier at Providence, Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. ET, FS1
It’s hard to go against Providence at home, but Xavier is one of the few teams in the country that has multiple defenders who can somewhat bother Kris Dunn just an itty witty bit. And the Musketeers’ culture of toughness is built for success on the road. Hope the trainers bring extra ice packs.
Xavier 71, Providence 70
Iowa at Maryland, Thursday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
The Terps have all these great pieces, but except for Melo Trimble and Diamond Stone, they don’t seem to fit well together. Iowa’s pieces, on the other hand, fit together beautifully. I’ll go with Maryland at home because I think these guys will rise to the occasion, but something is just not clicking.
Maryland 82, Iowa 79
Oregon at Arizona, Thursday, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN2
I’m starting to believe Oregon may be the best team in the Pac-12, but a man could go broke picking against Arizona at the McKale Center.
Arizona 78, Oregon 70
This week’s AP ballot
* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Oklahoma (1)
2. North Carolina (2)
3. Iowa (7)
4. West Virginia (3)
5. Kansas (4)
6. Xavier (6)
7. Texas A&M (10)
8. Maryland (9)
9. Providence (23)
10. Villanova (5)
11. Michigan State (17)
12. Iowa State (16)
13. Baylor (12)
14. Louisville (19)
15. SMU (8)
16. Miami (11)
17. Arizona (13)
18. Indiana (18)
19. Wichita State (21)
20. Virginia (22)
21. Oregon (NR)
22. Clemson (24)
23. VCU (NR)
24. Kentucky (NR)
25. Valparaiso (20)
Dropped out: South Carolina (14), Butler (15), USC (25)
Does it surprise you that I left Oklahoma at No. 1 even though it lost at Iowa State? Good. I like surprising you.
I also don’t like automatics when it comes to the rankings. Just because a team loses does not mean it has to lose its ranking. What the Sooners did on Saturday in shredding a very good Baylor team at home made a much bigger impression on me than North Carolina’s five-point win at Virginia Tech. I’m not saying the Tar Heels aren’t worthy of consideration at No. 1, and I fully expect that’s where they will be when the polls come out later on Monday. But just consider that North Carolina has not even played a ranked team since it beat UCLA on Dec. 19. Whereas Oklahoma, besides having embarrassed Villanova by 21 points in December, has beaten Iowa State and West Virginia at home, Baylor on the road and it played Kansas to a standstill in Allen Fieldhouse. On this one, I trusted my eyes and stuck with the Sooners.
That’s the beauty of this exercise. It is entirely subjective. For instance, what is a voter to do with Michigan State? On the one hand, the Spartans lost at home to a pretty bad Nebraska team. On the other hand, they also knocked off a very good Maryland team. I couldn’t totally discount that loss, which is why I still have Michigan State behind the Terps (the game was in East Lansing, after all), but my eyes told me that Denzel Valentine is getting back into the groove again after missing four games because of knee surgery. That more than anything is why I moved Michigan State up six spots.
Yes, Kentucky, welcome back to my ballot. You were gone a whole two weeks! Again, my decision to reinstate the Wildcats is not just based on what they did (which was impressive enough, winning at Arkansas and thrashing Vanderbilt at home), but what I saw. This was the best week of the season for the Wildcats. I’m not sure how high their ceiling really is, but I like the direction they’re headed. For now, anyway.
Duke, on the other hand, is still in absentia due to its home loss to Syracuse. The Blue Devils play at Miami on Monday and at Georgia Tech on Sunday. Those are not easy games, but if they win them both, the Devils will have a number next to their name next week, I promise.
I may have been a little harsh in dropping out South Carolina after the Gamecocks lost just their second game of the season, but let’s face it, they have yet to beat anyone really good. If you’re worthy of a top-25 ranking, you should be able to win at Tennessee. Also, I’m afraid the jig is up at Butler. For a while, the Bulldogs’ main arguments were a win over Purdue (which doesn’t look as good now as it did then) and the fact that every team they lost to was ranked ahead of them. After they lost by eight points at Creighton on Saturday, I figured it was time to give someone else their spot.
Other teams I considered this week include UAB, which is perfect in Conference USA and has lost just three games all season; Saint Mary’s, which took over first place in the West Coast Conference with that comeback win over Gonzaga; Dayton, which is just one game behind VCU in the Atlantic 10 standings; Michigan, which is 5–2 in the Big Ten after wins last week over Minnesota and Nebraska; Seton Hall, which lost to Villanova at home on the final possession; and Washington, which, believe it or not, is in first place in the Pac 12 with a 5–1 record.