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Flying elbows out of control

2/8/2009

I cannot get over the number of purposeful and intentional elbows that have been thrown this season. Swinging an elbow is not toughness; it is not competitiveness; it does not demonstrate a will to win. It is an affront to sportsmanship. Everyone is subject to getting a little frustrated and reacting negatively. It can happen. But when elbows are thrown purposefully, that is a problem.

Just this weekend, after a week in which Michigan had two players ejected and a national debate on the topic, it was "Elbow-Palooza" on Saturday. DeQuan Jones of Miami was ejected for elbowing a Duke player. Devan Dumes of Indiana threw three elbows against Michigan State and was suspended for it by Tom Crean on Sunday. Hasheem Thabeet of UConn was whistled for throwing an elbow into a Michigan player. And those were just the ones that were easily identifiable. When the Michigan elbow incidents were discussed, I went out of my way to preface my pointed comments that Manny Harris is a great kid, and he is. But after this weekend, I started thinking, so what? Great kid or not, these elbow incidents are flat wrong and there is no place in the game for it. John Adams, the NCAA supervisor of officials, has been right on top of the matter, but he cannot do it alone. Conference commissioners need to step in and police the matter within their own leagues. And if you think this is much ado about nothing, Purdue's Lewis Jackson missed a game with a concussion and Chris Kramer is wearing a mask and looking at two surgeries to repair the damage.

Important To Remember: While we fixate on title-contending teams, value wins and losses, elevate and write off teams, deify and dismiss players (all of which is fair game and fine), we can sometimes overlook just how important these games are to the players and coaches. Case in point is Nebraska's Doc Sadler. After a hard-fought win over Texas, Sadler broke down in tears talking about how much the win meant to his team. The Cornhuskers are a hard-working bunch, laying the foundation for a program that can compete with the Big 12 powers. They go to work every day and plow and sweat to get better and compete with the best teams. And nobody works any harder to win. Nebraska lays it on the line every game, and they are striving to make every game, and every possession, important. And Nebraska is not alone. We can argue about which teams are "NCAA tournament-worthy," but we also have to respect the effort put in to win, and how much it hurts to lose. These players and coaches are laying their hearts on the line every time they step onto the court.

Memphis Defense: For those that hold the perception that Memphis plays undisciplined basketball, you are incorrect. Memphis plays as hard as any team in the nation, and they play truly outstanding man-to-man defense. It is easy to chalk up the Tigers' defensive prowess to athleticism and length, both of which they possess, but Memphis plays five-as-one on the defensive end and is really difficult to score upon. That can only come from competitive practices, and very few of the Tigers' opponents can simulate their pressure or length in preparation.

Best Freshman: The best first-year player in the country is Memphis' Tyreke Evans. At 6-foot-6 and with the wingspan of a 7-footer, Evans has been playing the point guard position for John Calipari over the past 14 games. Not coincidentally, Memphis has won all 14 games, and the Tigers are getting better. Evans is a better player with the ball in his hands, and can really get to the rim in transition and in half-court offense. He has huge hands and great poise. Since the move to the point, Evans is averaging over 18 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists on just under 50 percent shooting. He also leads the team in steals, and put up a mature 22 points against Gonzaga.

Incredible Run: Over the past four years, Memphis has won 124 games (33, 33, 38 and 20 so far this year), and Antonio Anderson and Robert Dozier are on pace to become the winningest players in NCAA history. It would be easy to diminish the accomplishment by pointing out that Memphis plays in a "lesser" conference, but the Tigers have been to the Elite Eight twice and the NCAA championship game over that span. That's 11-3 in the NCAA tournament over the past three years. That is an incredible run.

Fighter: Memphis guard Anderson is one tough player. He guards people, he runs the floor and he rebounds on every play. I am really impressed by him. He really fights. And since Evans has taken over the point-guard spot, Anderson has been much more productive, averaging just under 13 points per game over his past 13 games.

Fighter II: Say what you will about Duke's Greg Paulus -- and he has taken plenty of shots from observers -- but the kid is a fighter. Paulus has had a very good career in the ACC, but has been a lightning rod for criticism ever since he stepped into the point-guard role at Duke in 2006. This year, Paulus saw his minutes decrease as Nolan Smith ran the point, but the senior never once complained. He just kept plugging. Against Miami in the latest "must-win" game, Paulus played 40 minutes and scored 18 points in a gritty performance. There might be some things that Paulus lacks as a player, but he doesn't lack toughness, competitiveness or character.

Top Seeds: It seems pretty clear that North Carolina, UConn, Oklahoma and Pittsburgh are the leading candidates for the four No. 1 seeds. I keep hearing people opine that seeds don't really matter in the NCAA tournament, but I would still rather be a No. 1 seed. If it doesn't matter, then why not be a No. 1? I think seeding is important, especially if you can be one of the top-seeded teams. It keeps you closer to home and you have an easier path. There are no guarantees, and any team can lose no matter where it is seeded, but the No. 1 seeds generally have it easier.

Selection Politics: We always hear how no politics are played in the NCAA tournament selection process, and I am not suggesting that there are any. I have always found it hard to believe that people are not influenced by the more powerful voices in the committee room, and by the people with the best basketball judgment. How many times have you heard that committee members with experienced basketball backgrounds carry a lot of weight in their arguments? But if you accept that smart basketball people cannot be swayed from their reasoned judgments, why does the committee need to meet together for five days to select the teams? Once we get to the end of the regular season, can't each committee member simply submit his or her personal rankings of the teams? Why do we need to have five days of debate and deliberation over the selection when it could be so much cleaner and simpler? We don't sit down for five days and debate our Top 25 ballots, do we?

Here's what I think we should do: Each committee member should be required to compile and submit a weekly list of his or her top 50 teams, and those ballots should be tallied up and released to the public every week. How an individual member votes would not have to be disclosed. It would be a good exercise for the committee members and it would give everyone an accurate picture of where they stand with the committee. And it would take away the prescribed approach to the process. The truth is, the way the system works now, you don't even have to watch the games to accurately determine what the committee will do. A mathematician that has never seen a basketball game could match the committee by simply reviewing the selection criteria, game results and data on paper that is reviewed by the committee. It has become that predictable and formulaic.

Stop It: I see the potential in Gonzaga's Austin Daye, who is a very talented player, but the talk of him coming out in the NBA draft this year needs to stop. Daye needs to grow up and mature as a player and a person before he is thrown into the NBA waters. Right now, Daye would drown in those waters. The NBA is a man's league, and he is not yet a man on the floor. He is a talented kid that is going through the normal ups and downs for a really good player, and he has had some great moments, but he needs more time. There is no need to rush something good. Daye has the tools; he just needs to sharpen them up and be allowed to grow up. What's the hurry?

POY: UConn is right with North Carolina as the best team in the country. And while the Huskies are No. 1, the glow that comes with it is making some in the media a little crazy. The campaign for Thabeet for National Player of the Year has begun. Don't get me wrong; Thabeet is a presence that nobody else is. He's 7-3 and can block and change shots. But let's not get crazy about National Player of the Year just yet. First, there is already an award for National Defensive Player of the Year, and Thabeet is among the leading candidates for that. While people are pumping Thabeet for the amount of shots that people don't take because of his presence, you're hearing a reprise of Thabeet's coach, and not empirical evidence. After 23 games, Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado has blocked 112 shots to Thabeet's 94. And Varnado changes plenty of shots. Thabeet is averaging 13 points, 10 rebounds and 4.1 blocks while shooting 65 percent from the field and 63 percent from the line. Varnado is averaging over 12 points per game, 10 rebounds and 4.4 blocks while shooting 60 percent from the floor and 67 percent from the line. Varnado has fouled less and has over twice the assists. Does that mean Varnado should be right with Thabeet for National Player of the Year? And when we talk about a POY candidate with great offensive stats, we ask if he plays at both ends. Well, Blake Griffin does. Griffin not only averages 22 points, 14 rebounds, and 2.5 assists on 63 percent shooting, but also 1.3 blocks and 1.3 steals a game. And his team has only lost once, too. Griffin is the top candidate for National Player of the Year, and it is not that close.

Winning Play: Of all the plays I saw Saturday, the one that impressed me the most was the loose ball secured by Nebraska's Ade Dagunduro. When the ball was on the floor, Dagunduro dove for it and laid out to get it without regard for his body. That was as important as any "big shot" in that win over Texas, and was a "winning play." That's toughness.

Attacking Zones: In watching UConn take on the unorthodox style of Michigan, the Huskies too often allowed the Michigan zone defenses to make their offense stationary. Zone defenses cause offensive players to stand, and UConn needs to do a better job of dribble-penetrating the gaps of zone defenses and getting the ball into the middle to cutters flashing opposite or from behind the zone. Of course, UConn is not alone in this. Too many teams are content to throw the ball around the zone and settle for a jump shot, which is exactly what a zone wants the offense to take. When you dribble-penetrate a zone, you force two defenders to play one, and you put yourself in a position to get fouled.

Here's To Not Noticing: The past few games I have done, I barely even noticed the officials. Usually that means the officials did a really good job, and when I went back and looked at the tapes of those games, they really did do a good job. But one other reason I didn't notice them was because they had great demeanors. When they called a foul or a violation, they did so dispassionately and without making a scene. The majority of basketball officials do their job right, and with the right tone. Basketball officials need to take cues from football officials. In a football game, the official throws a flag and reports the call. There are no gyrating, glaring, excessive gesturing or over-the-top motions. Football officials keep it simple and professional. A few college basketball officials need to tone it down, take the scowls off of their faces when making a call and quit acting like they're pointing out a purse snatcher when they make a call. Some of these officials are showing up the players, and that is wrong.

Supporting Cast: Oklahoma's Blake Griffin is the best player in the country, and he's a really good teammate. Griffin is the biggest reason the Sooners are worthy of a No. 1, but there are a lot of other big factors. Guards Tony Crocker, Austin Johnson and Willie Warren can all put up numbers from the perimeter, and all complement Griffin very well. The Sooner perimeter players know their roles, but can step out of those roles and take starring roles when they have openings. And the addition of JC transfer Juan Pattillo gives Jeff Capel another athletic body that can guard people and rebound with vigor. Oklahoma's players seem to really relate well to each other, and the Sooners play like a tight crew.

New Terminology: I wish we could get a better descriptive term for "easy basket." You have to do some really difficult things to get an easy basket. But difficult shots are really easy to get.

Beaten Down: Notre Dame has been beaten down by a brutal stretch in the schedule, and the Irish have let it affect their psyches. While Georgetown and Wisconsin have faced similar tough stretches, the Hoyas and Badgers are have not been beaten by the same large margin as Notre Dame has been in a couple of games. The schedule has been a killer for ND. But the Irish don't have to worry about the NCAA tournament ... it starts now for them, and Notre Dame has to start 0-0 from here on out.

Florida State: The Seminoles' win over Clemson might be the most important of Leonard Hamilton's tenure in Tallahassee. Florida State was down by 19 points in the second half at Littlejohn Coliseum before pulling off the improbable comeback win. Florida State has been doing some really good things and has been close to breaking through, and this victory will be a major confidence boost.

Travel: When you look at some of the "mega conferences" closely, you realize quickly that they make little geographic sense. Consider the ACC's Boston College and the Big East's South Florida. There is not a single game that Boston College can bus to, and the closest opponent is Maryland. North Carolina can bus to NC State, Duke, Wake Forest, and have short hops to Clemson, Virginia Tech, Virginia and Georgia Tech. Every trip for South Florida is a haul, with the closest trips being two-hour flights to Georgetown and West Virginia. Do you think that doesn't have an effect? And some of these teams fly commercial instead of charters. Being able to charter to road games is an advantage, and the teams with resources take advantage of it. They should.

Coming On: One of the players really coming on in the Big Ten is Purdue's JaJuan Johnson. The long and lanky big man has really made big strides this season, and netted 30 points against Ohio State by going over the Buckeyes' interior defenders. Johnson has only been playing basketball since the 8th grade, and was a 9th grade B-teamer, finally making the varsity squad as a junior. According to Purdue coach Matt Painter, Johnson has not always played with the ego or "swagger" of a super-confident player. Well, Johnson is now breaking out of that, and he should be confident, because he is a very good player.

Inconsistency: The NCAA tournament selection process will be difficult this season. Not because there is an abundance of great teams, but because there is a glut of inconsistent ones. One day a team looks like world-beaters, the next day it looks like egg-beaters. The differentiating factor among teams that have proven they can lose will be the number of wins against high-quality teams. If you haven't beaten some of the really good teams you have played, what claim can you make for the NCAA tournament?