Kevin McNeill's weekly 5 Things column breaks down what's important in the world of college basketball.
This week, we learned that...
1) Kentucky may be getting better, but it’s hard to tell in the weak SEC
There were no shortage of Kentucky fans already calling for the head of second year Coach Billy Gillispie after his Wildcats started the season off with a stunning loss to VMI and a blowout to North Carolina. After engineering incredible turnarounds at UTEP and Texas A&M, Gillispie was beginning to hear grumblings that he is simply unable to work that kind of magic in Lexington.
The nation’s all time winningest team won 18 games last season, was sitting at 7-9 at this point last year, and hasn’t advanced past the second round of the NCAA Tournament since losing in double overtime to Michigan State in the Elite Eight four years ago.
But after Jodie Meeks’ record-setting day on the road against Tennessee, scoring an amazing 54 points, the Wildcats found themselves with a bona-fide star on their hands and newfound respect nationally. Kentucky is also off to a 4-0 start in the SEC.
Whether they can keep it up remains to be seen. That same Jodie Meeks shot 5 for 20 against UNC, and 4 for 17 in a loss against Miami (including just 2 for 12 from behind the arc), but now is playing better than ever. Perry Stevenson had been in foul trouble or fouled out in every loss but the opener to VMI, and fouled out again against Tennessee. But he also scored in double figures against Vandy and Georgia, on 9 of 12 shooting, and only committed 2 and 3 fouls, respectively. Patrick Patterson has been solid all season, and was especially impressive against Louisville.
But is Kentucky back to its old self, now that they are 14-2 since that brutal start? This is the SEC after all. If Florida stumbles before their meeting with the Wildcats on February 10th, it is possible that the Wildcats could go the remainder of the season without playing a single ranked team. In fact, should West Virginia not re-enter the Top 25 before season’s end, they could go the entire season without even beating a team ranked in the final regular season polls. Outside of the Tennessee rout, their most impressive performance may actually have been a loss, the 74-71 thriller in front of a raucous crowd at Freedom Hall two weeks ago against Louisville.
It looks like we won’t know if the Kentucky Wildcats are back to being the Wildcats we all remember until March.
2) St. Mary’s could end Gonzaga’s stranglehold over the WCC this season
When you think of the West Coast Conference in recent years, there really has been only one team that comes to mind. Gonzaga has won the conference regular season title six years in a row. They have won the WCC Tournament 7 of the last 9 years, with San Diego stunning them in the finals in 2003 and last season. The Zags have also been in every WCC finals game for the last decade. The “Cinderella” that almost knocked off eventual champ UConn in the Elite Eight in 1999, is now considered a major program, every bit the equal of a program in the Big 6 or Memphis. The rest of the WCC? Not so much.
St. Mary’s on the other hand has made it to three NCAA Tournaments in the last 50 years (1989, 1997, 2005), never winning a game. They have won the WCC’s automatic bid just once, in 1997, and the regular season outright twice – in 1989 and…1959. They were however tied for the regular season title in 1997 and 1980.
In other words, the WCC has long been the Zags’ playground. But this week that could all change.
The #22 ranked Gaels have developed into one of the best rebounding teams in the nation, and have a brutal road trip coming up this week against San Diego, Portland, and, of course, Gonzaga. Those three teams are a combined 9-1 in conference play and two or three victories could well mean that not only is St. Mary’s looking good for another trip to the NCAA Tournament, but could do some serious damage once they get there. No WCC team besides Gonzaga has advanced to the Sweet 16 since Loyola Marymount was hammered by UNLV in the Elite Eight in 1990.
3) Its getting harder not to like Oklahoma’s chances
In snapping their six game losing streak to the Texas Longhorns, and earning a big win Saturday on the road at Texas A&M, Oklahoma now not only is starting to look like the runaway favorite in the Big 12, but a certified threat to bring the conference its second national title in as many years.
Of course, the conversation with the Sooners begins and ends with Blake Griffin. The frontrunner for the Wooden Award already has 14 double doubles, is shooting a staggering 63% from the field (the eighth highest in the country, and that’s with roughly 80 more attempts than the top two), and leads the Big 12 in rebounding by a mile. There just doesn’t seem to be anybody who can stop him right now, other than the referees, and the foul line.
But Griffin isn’t the only reason Oklahoma is dangerous. Freshman Willie Warren has lived up to the hype, averaging over 15 points a game and shooting right around 50%.
Point guard Austin Johnson also has really come alive, especially against Texas A&M, dramatically improving his court vision while providing much needed senior leadership to the young team. He is also developing into the team’s emotional leader, even if those emotions sometimes get the better of him (just ask Coach Mark Turgeon and the A&M bench, who were on the receiving end of an uncharacteristic outburst Saturday).
Looking back on the most recent NCAA champions, there is definitely a pattern of solid inside-outside combinations. Whether you are talking about Brandon Rush and Darrell Arthur, Ray Felton and Sean May, Ben Gordon and Emeka Okafor, Lee Humphrey and, well, take your pick, it is not hard to imagine Warren and Griffin comfortably in that company, and making it all the way to Detroit.
4) The ACC proposed a good idea
According to the Associated Press, the Atlantic Coast Conference recently proposed a new rule, to be voted on in some form by the NCAA in April, that underclassmen have only a 10-day period to decide whether to remain committed to entering the NBA draft. As the rule stands today, a player who declares for the draft after this season will have all the way up to June 15th, 2009 to withdraw their name and return to school. The NBA Draft is on June 25th.
Those two months that some players spend deciding what to do are excruciating for their college programs. Right after the Final Four is a crucial recruiting period, and for a coach to be twisting in the wind for two months, and in that time being unable to tell a prospect that they don’t know whether or not they will have a scholarship available is simply too much to ask.
But to me the more pressing problem is the effect the lengthy evaluation period has on the athletes themselves.
Last year, there were 39 collegiate underclassmen (not including international players) that stayed in the 2008 NBA Draft, only 21 of which were chosen in the first round. In the previous season, there were 32 players who forfeited their college eligibility and decided to remain in the NBA Draft, and only 19 went in the first round. In other words, 31 underclassmen found themselves without any guaranteed NBA contracts by either being drafted in the second round, or not at all.
How many of these college players were told by their agents that this would be the case? That, based on what they heard, they might not be first round NBA picks? My guess is somewhere around zero.
A player does not need over 60 days to gather information from scouts, coaches and others on where they are likely to wind up in the NBA Draft. But it is plenty of time for hovering would-be agents, to hammer home to them and their families, that riches await them no matter what should they sign on the dotted line.
There are some who make the argument that there are coaches are just as bad as some agents, that they apply as much constant pressure in those two months (as well as supposedly false information on draft stock) for kids to return to school as unscrupulous agents do for them to leave it.
I have never, ever heard of a kid returning to school because they said they wrongly believed they were not a first round choice. If someone is good enough to be a first round pick, there will be no shortage of friends, scouts and would-be-agents telling them as much. Secondly, rarely is coming back to school a bad decision. No one who was ever considered a future pro has ever come back to school and suffered a career-ending injury, and by and large their future draft stock only improves once they come back. This isn’t always the case of course, Glen Davis not coming out after LSU’s Final Four run, for example, eventually hurt him in the wallet. But he was the exception, not the rule.
Finally, how can there be equal amounts of pressure? What is more tempting? Becoming a multi-millionaire or being a broke college kid for another year? I think agents have the slight upper hand.
There are kinks to be worked out sure. Almost everyone agrees the 10 day number was only a starting point, something to begin negotiations, and that the amended rule that will actually be voted on in April will allow for a longer period. Also, there will need to be an agreement with the NBA to ensure the continuation for some form of pre-draft workouts for underclassmen put on by NBA teams, considering the importance NBA scouts place on it in determining talent.
In other words there will be a compromise between a time period that is too short and forces athletes to rush what is a life-altering decision, and one that draws out for months at the expense of putting college programs in limbo, and to the benefit of persistent, and unscrupulous, agents.
It’s a step in the right direction.
5) Northern Iowa can put itself in the driver’s seat in the MVC this week
After stumbling out of the conference gate with a double overtime loss to Indiana State, a game where they were down 41-24 at halftime, the Panthers have quietly put together a six game winning streak that has landed them in the top spot in the Missouri Valley Conference.
With home games coming up against Bradley and Illinois State, Northern Iowa could open up a two game lead, and put itself in great position for an MVC regular season title and a possible NCAA Tournament berth.
This is quite an accomplishment so far for 3rd year Coach Ben Jacobson, whose team was picked to finish sixth in the MVC in the preseason, after losing three starters from last year’s 18 win squad.
For the record, Northern Iowa has only one NCAA Tournament win, a first round victory over Missouri in 1990, since moving up from Division II. The Panthers have participated in three other tourneys since, all in a row between 2004 and 2006, and all first round losses. Interestingly enough, their current win streak began around the same time a certain famous UNI alum began leading the Arizona Cardinals, who have won just one NFL playoff game in their history, to the Super Bowl.