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Addressing Ohio State skeptics, Syracuse's struggles and more

But you'd be wrong.

That's right, even fans of the top-ranked, undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes are experiencing a winter of discontent. So we lead this week's mailbag with three princes of pessimism who spy some flaws on the nation's lone perfect record:

My question is, are the Buckeyes peaking waaaay too soon? It's not yet February and there is already talk about this being the best team in the country. For now, they are. Before the tournament, are they going to start regressing to the mean? I think the eventual national champion is going to be a little under the radar now before getting its act together and peaking just before the tournament.-- Jason Koonce, Cleveland

As a Buckeye fan and alum, I am nervous that they will cruise through the regular season and Big Ten tourney but crash when it matters. Are these close wins enough to teach them how to win when it's necessary?-- Steven, Merrick, N.Y.

Should Thad Matta and Ohio State think about expanding the rotation by 1-2 more players (to 8 or 9)? Playing seven players seems to be Matta's M.O. since Xavier. Should the coach adjust?-- Jonathan, Lewis Center, Ohio

Let's take these one at a time. First, I don't think this team is peaking too early. I don't think they're peaking at all. In fact, I'd say the Buckeyes still have plenty of room to get better, as their recent string of close wins indicates. They still have two freshmen on the floor for the majority of the games, and like a lot of teams they need to do a better job when their outside shots aren't falling in the half court. They're not a terrible free-throw shooting team, but they need to be better. (Ohio State's 69.8 clip from the foul line ranks 146th nationally.)

That said, I do think Ohio State would be much better off if it loses a game or two before the start of the NCAA tournament. As I've said for years, it's hard enough to win six games without having the added pressure of a bagel on the right side of your record. There's a reason nobody has run the table in 35 years.

On question No. 2: I absolutely think it is helpful to have close wins. Again, this is somewhat counterintuitive, but I think it's very dangerous when a team starts playing not to lose. Playing in a lot of close games conditions players to functioning under pressure. You can never duplicate the pressure of playing in the NCAA tournament, but it helps to have to fight through some crucibles before you get to the games that really count.

And finally, I do not think Matta needs to lengthen his bench artificially. If he has players that can help the team win, that's one thing, but right now he doesn't. That's why the Buckeyes are ranked 331st in the country in percentage of minutes that come from their bench. As I wrote last week, I think depth is way overrated. These are young kids and the games have lots of timeouts. Fatigue is not an issue. A short bench can be more of a problem as it relates to injuries and foul trouble, but the flip side is it's good for chemistry. There's plenty of minutes -- and shots -- to go around on this team, so nobody feels they need to get theirs when they check into a game.

Ohio State is far from perfect, but there's no question the Buckeyes are playing better basketball than anyone could have reasonably expected to this point. They'll stumble and lose a game or two, but it looks like they're going to enter the NCAA tournament as the team to beat. So cheer up, princes. Your team has problems, but they're a lot smaller than the ones everyone else is facing.

Now on to the rest of the 'Bag.

How bad do the higher-ups at Wake Forest look now for firing Dino Gaudio? They didn't like that he lost in the postseason, but at least he won in the regular season. Do you think it was a bad move?-- Clarke Leichte, Black Mountain, N.C.

It wasn't just a bad move. It was disgraceful. Gaudio coached his team to the second round of the NCAA tournament, yet he was still given the pink slip by athletic director Ron Wellman. Obviously the program has been hurt this season by a lack of talent, especially after center Tony Woods was dismissed following his arrest for assault. So it's not fair to pin the Deacons' troubles on their new coach, Jeff Bzdelik. But that's the point: The problems, to the degree that this program even had problems, were not limited to the head coach. Wellman pulled a trigger he shouldn't have pulled, and right now Wake Forest is arguably the worst team in any power conference in America. That's karma for you.

Is it time for Illinois to part ways with Bruce Weber? His talented team continues to lose almost all the close games. He was severely out-coached when it counted against Ohio State. His penchant for calling out individual players in the media is awful and does not breed the confidence needed to win those tight games. What do you think?-- Bernie Biagini, Lafayette, Colo.

I would never advocate for a coach to be fired purely for on-court reasons. That's not how I roll. However, if you go back to my 10 Burning Questions column at the start of the preseason, I listed Weber at the top of a list of coaches who needed to have a big season. When we think of guys who are "on the hot seat," we tend to look for coaches whose teams are really bad, but there's far more pressure on a coach whose team has some talent but hasn't won big in a while. There is just no doubt that Illinois has a lot of talent. It also has a lot of experience, so you can't give the Illini a pass because they're so young. This team's problem is the same one it has had for several years now: It is not very tough. That's why The Jigsaw Man wanted to give the Illini Morehead State forward Kenneth Faried, not just for his rebounding but because he plays so hard.

Weber deserves his share of the blame for what's happening, but at some point the players have to bear the responsibility. It's not Weber's fault that Demetri McCamey has scored 16 points in his last three games. I also don't think there's anything to the idea that his comments to the media are hurting his players' confidence. What hurt their confidence was losing four out of five games. Maybe last night's win over Penn State will spur them to a better month. With two games coming up against Purdue and road dates with Minnesota, Michigan State and Ohio State on the docket, things are not going to get any easier for Weber or his team.

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Mike Brey not in your top-10 coach of the year candidates? Kidding, right? Even before the Pitt upset, he had his collection of third-team all-staters playing at a much higher level than you or anyone else had anticipated. But, of course, after a nice tournament run in December in which the Irish knocked off Georgia, Cal and Wisconsin, the only comment I recall from you was about the ugliness of the first half of the Cal game. So you may not be all that objective when it comes to Coach Brey's squad.-- Scott, Fairfax, Va.

I actually published my top 10 candidates for coach of the year on the morning of that Notre Dame-Pitt game. Prior to that, the Irish had not beaten anyone on the road, having lost their only three league road games to Syracuse (by 12), Marquette (by 22) and St. John's (by 18). Does that sound like a coach of the year record to you? Having said that, the win at Pitt was extremely impressive, and it was the direct result of Brey's decision to run his "burn" offense for 40 minutes. Brey is doing a great job, but I'm not quite ready to book his team's flight to Houston based on a single game.

Incidentally, if you want to accuse me of bias when I watch Brey's team, I'll plead guilty. Brey was an assistant coach at Duke when I was a student there, and even though he almost committed career suicide when he cut me from the team during open walk-on tryouts, he remains one of my favorite people on the planet.

Why would you think that Isaiah Thomas is the Pac-10 Player of the Year? Have you seen Derrick Williams play this year?-- John Bingham, San Jose, Calif.

You ever watch a football game and get the feeling that the team that has the ball last is going to win? That's how I feel about Thomas vs. Williams. Whichever player I'm watching (and I've watched them both a lot) is the one I think deserves to be the league's POY.

Right now I give Thomas the edge because he plays a more demanding position (and therefore does more to make his teammates better). The Huskies have been in first place in the conference for most of the season, and even though they're locked in a tie with Arizona right now, Washington did win their first meeting (in Seattle) convincingly. If you're asking me who's going to be the better pro, I'd say Williams in a no-brainer, but in the end the POY edge is probably going to go to the player whose teams finishes first. So circle Feb. 19 on your calendar. That's when these two guys meet again in Tucson.

Is there a bigger enigma in college basketball than Temple's Lavoy Allen? It's frustrating as a Temple fan because when he plays a little more selfishly he seems like he could really be a dominant force. Temple will need him to really step up his game if they are going to be a "dark horse" team as you suggested, don't you think?-- Pat, Ridley, Pa.

I gotta say, Pat nailed this one. I remember standing with Fran Dunphy in a gymnasium in Las Vegas last summer while Allen played against the NBA guys who were trying out for USA Basketball. Dunphy told me (again) that he wanted Allen to be more aggressive in looking for his shot, and I asked him (again) whether that simply wasn't in the kid's nature. Neither of us could have predicted that Allen would actually take a big step back this season.

It's not just that Allen's numbers are down across the board. (He's averaging 10.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists and shooting 48 percent from the floor. Last year he averaged 11.5 points, 10.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists and shot 53.6 percent.) The bigger problem is that in Temple's two biggest games, on the road at Duquesne and Xavier, Allen scored six and zero points, respectively. All of which has put way too much pressure on the guards, a problem which has been exacerbated by Juan Fernandez's injury woes.

By the way, Pat makes interesting use of the word "selfishly." Sometimes it's "selfish" not to shoot. Allen has either not worked hard enough to develop his offensive game, or he has not challenged himself enough to get out of his comfort zone and take more responsibility for scoring. Allen has good size and plenty of potential, but if he wants to make a living playing this game he is going to have to do a better job maximizing his gifts.

Seriously, what's going on with the 'Cuse? I knew it was too good to be true at 18-0, but losing four straight ain't right. Can you identify this team's main issues?-- Orange Julius, Syracuse, N.Y.

I'm assuming that Mr. Julius' first name really isn't Orange, but I admire his fealty in the midst of his team's four-game losing streak (which is about to be five, since they are playing at UConn tonight).

Obviously Syracuse has more than one issue right now, but the main one is that, in retrospect, they were never as good as we thought. Let's take a look in the rearview mirror, shall we? They beat Michigan by three points and Georgia Tech by four in Atlantic City. They beat N.C. State in the Carrier Dome by six. When they blitzed then-No. 8 Michigan State by 14 points on Dec. 7 in Madison Square Garden, the Orange looked like world beaters. Now they just look like they're 14 points better than a bubble team. The 12-point win at home over Notre Dame was impressive, but that is arguably Syracuse's only win against a definite NCAA tournament team. (We'll see how things turn out with Cincinnati and St. John's, but they both have a long way to go.)

Don't get me wrong, I don't think Syracuse is a bad team. It's a good team with some very real flaws. The biggest problem, as I've written and said many times, is a total lack of production from the center position. That has forced Jim Boeheim to play Rick Jackson in the middle of the 2-3 zone, which means the team is smaller across the board. The zone isn't stopping anyone right now, especially when it comes to keeping opponents off the foul line. (Marquette shot 33 free throws against the Orange. Villanova shot 24.) I also believe that playing against other league teams has hurt Syracuse because its opponents are taking away what the Orange do offensively -- which let's face it, ain't that hard.

As I mentioned before, I expect Syracuse to lose tonight at UConn, which would be the first five-game losing streak of Boeheim's career. But I don't think the bottom is going to completely fall out. There is too much talent on this roster, and Boeheim is too good of a coach. But it's funny how games that look great in November and December don't always look so hot in February and March. Funny, that is, unless your first name is Orange.

I realize Utah State's only losses are to BYU and Georgetown, but who have they beaten? In my best Gordon Gee impersonation, it seems like they've been playing the little sisters of the poor. If you take BYU and Georgetown (their only two tests) out of their opponents' combined record thus far, it's something like 181-217. Where's the love for more battle-tested mid-major teams like Old Dominion (three-point loss to Georgetown), Temple (win over Georgetown) or even Drexel?-- Matt, Havertown, Pa.

The question shouldn't be, who has Utah State played? The question should be, who is dumb enough to play them, especially in Logan? Yes, the Aggies got handled by 17 at Georgetown, but they only lost by six points in Provo. If they can play the No. 8 team in the country to the wire on its own home floor, surely they can play with anybody.

Besides, I don't care who you are or where you play, if you enter February without having lost a game in your conference, you're going to earn my respect, and probably my vote. None of the three teams that Matt mentioned can say that. Finally, it may surprise you to learn that I don't just read the Internet to find out results. I actually watch a lot of games. I've seen Utah State play at least a half-dozen times this season, and they pass my eye test with flying colors.

Do you think Frank Martin possibly hurt himself a bit by giving up on Saturday against KU? Seemed like he quit coaching after halftime.-- Dan, Russell, Kan.

No, because I don't think Martin gave up. His team was getting its butt kicked, and there was nothing he could do about it. I do know that Martin often talks about coaching to a bigger picture, and it's apparent that's what he was doing with Curtis Kelly. As I mentioned on Monday, I think Kelly is the most disappointing player in college basketball this season. Kelly's struggles are a prime example of the risk in taking so many transfers. (Kelly transferred to Kansas State from UConn.) There's usually a reason why kids transfer. We all know that Martin is one of the most animated coaches on the sideline, but there's only so much yelling and screaming a guy can do when his team is losing by 20.

I'm sick and tired of seeing coaches on the playing surface during game action. I'm sure you know who some of them are without me naming names. I have a simple solution. Assess an automatic technical if a coach steps on the floor during play. What do you think?-- Doug Wrightsel, Columbus, Ohio

I think you're absolutely right, Doug. The coaches' box is probably the least enforced rule in the book. I often watch these guys prance and pace the sideline and leap onto the court to yell at officials. And I think to myself, "That is a grown man doing that, right?" The NCAA's supervisor of officials, John Adams, has been trying to get his zebras to crack down on sideline comportment, but I don't see much improvement. It would be nice if coaches did a better job policing themselves, but we all know that's not going to happen. It makes me wonder if James Naismith was correct when he originally suggested that there should be no coaches in basketball. Maybe we should just let the coaches run practices and then watch the games from home. You with me?

How did you feel about the Washington State fans storming the floor after beating an 18th-ranked team in January? It was a big debate here in Seattle.-- Jake, Seattle, Wash.

I generally have two reactions when I see fans storm the floor. The first is my long-held concern that it's just a matter of time before something tragic happens. Either someone is going to get badly hurt, or there's going to be an ugly fight, maybe between a fan and an opposing player.

My second reaction is usually, "How lame." When the fans storm a court, they are saying that the other team is so much better than theirs that the simple act of scoring more points is cause for a wild, unhinged celebration. "We're so inferior, yet we won anyway! Yippee!" So to all those folks in Seattle who either mocked or criticized the Washington State students who stormed the court after the Cougars beat Washington, I say amen.

It really makes me laugh that you all (writes/reporters/whatever) get paid as much money as you do to rank teams each week. I'm not about to say that I should take your job, because I wouldn't want to have to deal with people e-mailing me complaining every week, but I digress. The point I'm trying to make is that you have a Texas team that lost to Pitt on a neutral court ranked ahead of that same Pitt team. Texas has three losses, Pitt has two. I'd love to hear your explanation.-- Justin, Philadelphia

First of all, it really makes me laugh that Justin thinks anyone gets paid to rank teams, much less "much money." Those of us who vote in the AP poll do not get paid a penny -- and yes, that's exactly what our services are worth. I'm also tickled when people criticize the polls and say they're meaningless, yet every week I get more e-mails about my poll ballot than anything else. Of course the polls matter. They're fun to talk about, even more fun to take apart. So rip away, friends. I am rubber, you are glue.

I got a lot of feedback on Twitter from Pitt fans complaining that I ranked Texas ahead of the Panthers. I never realized that ranking a team fifth was disrespecting it, but I'm happy to explain. When I fill out my ballot, I consider the results over the course of a season (including, yes, head-to-head results), recent results, and the eye test. At some point you just have to sit back and think to yourself, "Who's better?" Right now, not only do I think Texas is better than Pitt, I think Texas is better than everyone, including Ohio State. You think the Longhorns validated my belief on Monday night in College Station?

How does the NCAA selection committee view rivalry games? You brought up Xavier's loss to Cincinnati, a game which is an anomaly every time its played. Is Xavier really 20 points worse than UC? I doubt it, no more than Xavier was better than the multiple No. 1-ranked UC teams it has beaten. What does the committee do with games that mean more than just the score?-- David, Cincinnati

The committee doesn't give any weight whatsoever into which games "mean more" than others. That's the ultimate slippery slope. The more interesting question is what they do about margins of victory. Committee members will always say that they don't take into account margins, but they also say that the "eye test" comes into play when they're making decisions. You can't have it both ways. My sense is that victory margin does in fact matter at the margins. Even so, I'm also glad that scores are not part of any the official criteria. The last thing we need is to see coaches running up scores in an effort to bolster their tournament resumes. Reason No. 412 why college basketball is better than college football.