College Basketball: 5 Things We Learned This Week

December 23rd, 2008

Kevin McNeill's weekly 5 Things column breaks down what's important in the world of college basketball.


This week, we learned that...


1) Minnesota is once again a factor in the Big Ten


After a huge win against # 9 Louisville, Coach Tubby Smith now has the Golden Gophers off to their best start since 1976, when they began 11-0. 


Granted the game, played in front of a very sparse crowd in a football stadium in Glendale, Arizona, was the first real test this year for Minnesota.   It was only the second time they played away from home, the other being a squeaker against Colorado State in Fort Collins, and had so far only beaten up on the likes of state schools from the Dakotas.  


Still, the Gophers completely neutralized Samardo Samuels, who fouled out after only making two field goals, and committing four turnovers, and held the Cardinals to just 37% shooting overall for the win.  They made their free throws and held their own poise when Louisville rallied down the stretch.  In other words, they looked like a well coached team that is ready for conference play to begin.


This is pretty remarkable considering that the Gophers went 8-22 two years ago, before hiring Smith.  The very next year, Minnesota posted a 20-13 record, with many of the same players, earning only their third 20 win season in ten years.  Smith also hauled in a nationally heralded recruiting class, a rarity in Minneapolis. 


Technically, the Gophers have not advanced past the first round of the NCAA Tournament since their Elite Eight run in 1990 (the NCAA voided Minnesota’s tournament participation in 1994, 1995 and their Final Four run of 1997 for academic cheating).  They have had only two appearances since then – in 1999 and 2005.  Minnesota also has not won the Big Ten since 1982 (Again, their 1997 title was voided by the NCAA).


But that could all be changing.  The Gophers are very young; they start two freshmen and one sophomore, Al Nolen, who is showing tremendous improvement over every facet of his game.  Smith also has another solid recruiting class coming in next year.  A Big Ten title may not be that far off.



2) Weak schedules make it hard to know just how good some teams really are


Several teams have been receiving votes in the AP and Coaches polls recently and are either inching their way towards the Top 25 or are already ranked.  Only problem is, they haven’t beaten any real competition. 


Illinois State may be undefeated, but their best win so far came Saturday against Illinois-Chicago.  In fact, Illinois-Chicago is one of only two teams the Redbirds have faced so far – the other being 6-4 Nicholls State – that don’t currently have a losing record.  Stanford and # 20 Clemson are also unbeaten but their best wins so far came this weekend as well, against Northwestern and Miami, respectively. 


Illinois may be 10-1, their one loss coming against Clemson, but the only victory so far that the Selection Committee will even notice come March came against Vanderbilt in November.  The Illini will play Missouri in St. Louis on Tuesday, so that game should tell us something.  Lastly, until their defeat this week at the hands of Texas A&M, LSU had played – in order – Northwestern State, Centenary, Troy, Cal State Fullerton, Grambling State and Nicholls State. 



3) UConn – Gonzaga is just a great game


The intriguing storyline about how these programs both rose to prominence 10 seasons ago by facing each other in the Elite Eight has been well covered by ESPN’s Andy Katz, deservingly so.  Gonzaga, considered a “Cinderella” in 1999, has since emerged as a perennial power, making three trips back to the Sweet 16 and not missing the Big Dance once.  UConn for its part went on to win its first of two national championships that year. 


But what is also intriguing is just how good these two teams have been in the three games they have played against each other since.  Saturday’s barnburner was no exception.


The game had everything.  Big rallies, momentum swings, AJ Price’s improbable 3 pointer to send the game to overtime, players giving it everything they had on every possession – as if it was closer to Easter than Christmas.  There was also a sold-out crowd that was absolutely thunderous in supporting the Bulldogs, despite the fact that the game was played in Seattle, nearly 300 miles from Spokane.  Heck, it even had a great name, “The Battle in Seattle,” and an accompanying logo that covered what seemed like most of the court.


It brought back memories of the previous two meetings between these programs, and how good those games were.  The first came over Thanksgiving week in 2005, when Denham Brown hit a turnaround jumper with a second remaining to edge Adam Morrison and the Zags in the championship game of the EA Sports Maui Invitational.  Two years later Gonzaga got revenge by beating the Huskies, ironically enough, on a so-called neutral court in Boston filled with UConn fans.  Even more ironic was that Price missed a potential game-tying three at the end of the game.


We can only hope these two meet again in March.



4) The RPI continues to be a joke


Quick, what do Northwestern, Clemson, Temple, Florida State and California all have in common?  Give up? All are better teams than undefeated North Carolina, if you believe the latest edition of the Ratings Percentage Index.


That’s not all.  For those readers new to college basketball, you might be interested to know that, at 5-3, including a 32 point loss to Evansville, Western Kentucky (RPI #20) is better than Memphis (RPI #29), Arizona State (RPI #31), and Michigan State (RPI # 33).  In fact, 8-4 Rhode Island (RPI # 41) 6-3 Illinois-Chicago (RPI #44) and, of course, a 5-3 Jacksonville State team (RPI #55), are also all far superior to Louisville (RPI # 62), Notre Dame (RPI # 89) and UCLA (RPI # 75). 


In other words, the sheer inanity of the RPI in college basketball continues to be readily apparent.  Yet, once again, come Selection Sunday, few things will matter more in the minds of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee when deciding which teams can potentially play in the Final Four, and which see their bubbles burst. 


Obviously as the season progresses and conference play gets underway, the RPI will begin to correct itself and will somewhat resemble the AP and Coaches polls.  But as long as I have a forum to do so, I will never stop complaining about it. 


Computers and sports just don’t mix.  I don’t care whether it’s college football (don’t get me started), the NFL quarterback rating, which nobody outside of MIT’s campus fully understands, or the RPI in college basketball.  Is it so old fashioned just to judge teams and players by watching the games?



5) Billy Donovan made the right decision to stay in college


This week Reggie Theus became the sixth NBA head coach to be fired within the first two months of this season, when he was let go by the Sacramento Kings.  He was just 24 games into his second season.  His predecessor, Eric Musselman, lasted just one year as head coach.


It’s easy to forget that Reggie Theus was once one of the hottest coaching prospects in the country prior to being lured away to the NBA.  He was hired following the resignation of legendary coach Lou Henson at New Mexico State and transformed a 6-24 Aggie team into a 16-14 squad in just his first year.  The following season he led the Aggies to 25 wins and the WAC championship before leaving for the pros.


In other words, he’s a good coach.  And he will not be unemployed for very long.  But the fact remains that NBA coaches are not given anywhere close to the latitude and time to build a team that many college coaches take for granted.  Where college coaches are given almost total control over the direction of the program and the players they bring to campus, most NBA coaches have to make do with simply what they are given.  They become easy scapegoats for inept GMs and executives that draft poorly, botch free agency and trade away good prospects. 


With NCAA coaching salaries at major programs approaching parity with NBA teams, one has to wonder why any successful NCAA coach would even consider leaving for the pros, considering what others, John Calipari and now Reggie Theus for example, have already experienced. 


With exceedingly fewer exceptions, the best basketball coaches in America are in college, and they all would be well advised to stay there.