College Basketball: 5 Things We Learned This Week

January 6th, 2009

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


This week, we learned that...


1) St. John’s is finally on the way back


It hasn’t exactly been a banner five years for the St. John’s Red Storm. 


Since winning the NIT championship in 2003, the tradition-rich New York City institution seemingly endured every imaginable indignity.  There was the notorious strip club scandal in 2004 that resulted in the suspensions of five players and the expulsion of a sixth, resulting in St. John’s playing with mostly walk-ons for the rest of the season.  The following season the school was forced to acknowledge allegations that starter Abe Keita, one of the strip club six, was receiving illegal payments from Coach Mike Jarvis’s staff.  To avoid NCAA penalties, the school put itself on two years’ probation, banned itself from postseason play for the season, and forfeited 43 wins – including the aforementioned NIT championship.  Jarvis became the first Big East coach in history to be fired mid-season.


That year, they won all of six games, with a 1-15 Big East record.  The next season, under new Coach Norm Roberts, they won nine.  St. John’s – a program with over 1600 wins and 27 NCAA Tournament appearances in their long and proud history - had officially hit rock bottom.


But now, in the 100th year of St. John’s basketball, things are starting to look up.  Coach Roberts has delivered on his promise to recruit top NYC talent, such as Malik Boothe and Justin Burrell, and has his young players buying into his system.  The Red Storm played terrific defense against # 7 Notre Dame Saturday, and pulled off the upset despite being without the services of their starting point guard, Boothe, who was out with a thumb injury.


The extremely young team (which started four sophomores and a freshman against the Irish) are now 10-4, and of course has now matched their Big East win total from five years ago.  While the loss of Anthony Mason, Jr. for the rest of the season was a huge blow, and they clearly still have some ways to go, St. John’s could be finally developing into the St. John’s program of old, and that is bad news for the rest of the Big East in the years to come.



2) The SEC is completely up for grabs


What to make of this conference.  The sole ranked team of the SEC, Tennessee, came back from a miserable showing against Temple to beat a quality Marquette squad – then three weeks and two cupcakes later was upset on the road by Kansas despite putting up 54 points in the second half. 


LSU hasn’t beaten anyone outside of Washington State and is still an anomaly despite their 12-1 record.  Kentucky lost a heartbreaker to archrival Louisville in Freedom Hall on Edgar Sosa’s 25 footer with under 3 seconds on the clock.  However, the Wildcats still have only one high quality win on their resume – West Virginia – since starting their season with a stunning loss to VMI.


11-1 Arkansas had one of the softest schedules in the country up until their monumental upset of # 4 Oklahoma last week.  Ditto South Carolina, which earned a tough victory on the road at # 20 Baylor after losing to in-state rival Clemson.  Nick Calathes scored nearly half of Florida’s points, as well as 5 of the team’s 9 total assists, in a home win over NC State – further underscoring the point that the Gators will only go as far as Calathes can carry them.


In other words, more so than any other major conference, the SEC is anyone’s guess right now, with several teams capable of beating – and losing – to anyone at any given time.  But what else should you expect from a league that sent a Georgia team with a 4-12 SEC record to the NCAA Tournament as their conference champion a year ago. 



3) Don Meyer is a warrior and a teacher


Saturday night, Coach Don Meyer quietly tied Bob Knight for the most coaching wins in college basketball history with his 902nd victory.  The 63-58 win over Upper Iowa University improved his Northern State squad to 11-2 overall and 4-2 in conference play. 


Meyer was back coaching despite a devastating auto accident in September that crushed the entire left side of his body and resulted in the loss of one of his legs.  During the emergency surgery, doctors discovered cancer in his liver and intestines, for which he is still undergoing treatment.


His accomplishments on the court over his career are truly remarkable.  He led NAIA Lipscomb to 665 wins, including 16 consecutive 25-win seasons, and the 1986 NAIA championship.  He has seven consecutive 20 win seasons with Division II Northern State, and is well on his way to an eighth this season.  Last year, the Wolves went 29-4 and advanced to the Sweet 16 of the Division II tournament for the second time in three seasons.


But all those statistics still do not match his most impressive.  It’s this one – in 36 years of coaching, Don Meyer has only failed to graduate one player.  One player.



4) The new 3 point line hasn’t changed college basketball


When the NCAA rules committee decided to move the three point line back a full foot in 2007 to 20 feet 9 inches starting this season, there was plenty of consternation about how much it would change the college game.   While just about everyone agreed that the old three point line was too easy, there were dire predictions of longer, less exciting games, with slower tempos, lower field goal percentages, and more foul shooting as teams forced the ball inside more.


Well, midway through the season, it appears those fears were unfounded.  On Sunday,

Marquette made no less than 15 of 25 three point attempts in their rout of Cincinnati, with Jerel McNeal going 7 for 7 behind the arc. 


Overall, not only are the number of three point attempts so far this season virtually unchanged from this point a year ago, but three point field goal percentage is the same as well.  Currently, two Pac-10 teams – Arizona and Cal – are in fact shooting better from three than any team had been at this point last year. 


If anything, many teams are actually throwing up more threes than ever.  VMI, the Playstation team of college basketball, led the nation in three point attempts per game in 2007-08 with 11.6.  This season, they’ve already shot 150 in just their first 11 games, for an average of 13.6.  Belmont, another grip-it-and-rip-it team, hocked up over 350 three pointers last year.  They have already tried 90 of them in their first 8 games.     


Just based on general observation, I would go so far as to say that not only are players still bombing away from three just as much as before, but more and more are shooting from beyond the NBA line.  Players today are just that good, and moving the three point line back a foot hasn’t done anything to change the way they play the game.



5) Conference play has gotten off to an interesting start


Not long after some idiot CHN columnist compared North Carolina to a UNLV team team that went undefeated right up until the Final Four, the Tar Heels were shocked at home by then-unranked Boston College in their ACC opener.


That wasn’t all.  The Big East began their conference slate, not just with St. John’s huge upset, but with Marquette knocking off then #13 Villanova.  Not only that, but Cal upended # 14 Arizona State (with a four-point play down the stretch no less), and Wisconsin beat #20 Michigan to open Big Ten play. 


So far, Wisconsin-Milwaukee is 4-0 in the Horizon League and, in the best conference game no one saw, Portland State beat Northern Arizona in four overtimes behind 41 points from Dominic Waters. 


All in all, not a bad start for conference play.