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Notes from around the nation

1/18/2008

Some blog items for Friday:

Positively Pittsburgh: I have been amazed at the strength of character shown by Pittsburgh since Mike Cook and Levance Fields went down with season-ending injuries. After Fields was lost against Dayton, coach Jamie Dixon was admittedly feeling sorry for his team's plight ... for about five minutes. After a very short pity party, Dixon said to his staff, "we'll be fine." He also told his team that they could be as good as they wanted to be, and that they had individuals that were more than capable of doing more. They may have been a player in a role, but they were not just role players. Since the Fields injury, Keith Benjamin (17 ppg over the last five games) and Ronald Ramon (32 assists and 11 turnovers over the last five games, 32 points in the last two) have been nothing short of brilliant. Dixon has simplified things and shortened his playbook, going from over 50 set play calls to about 20, and the Panthers have been more efficient as a result. Dixon has been upbeat and encouraging, while at the same time demanding accountability. We talk about toughness a lot, and sometimes that is taken to mean physical toughness. Pittsburgh is tough. They will also be in the NCAA Tournament.

White Wash: I am one of the media horde that has been negligent in not fawning over the performances of Indiana senior D.J. White. After a stellar freshman year in which White was a bouncy athlete that could run the floor like a poor man's James Worthy, he suffered some injuries that slowed him considerably. This year, White is healthy and playing more like an athlete, and he has been fabulous all season long. White is averaging 16 points, 11 rebounds, 2 blocks and is shooting 63 percent from the floor. Remember, White is playing with the potent scorer and freshman phenom Eric Gordon, and he gets less than 10 shots per game. To date, White has twice as many double figure rebounding games as he has double-figure shot attempt games. Very few big men can claim to have been as good as White, especially on a good team.

Tubby's Ties: Of the new coaches this season, few can top the job that Tubby Smith has done at Minnesota. While the schedule may not have been at the top of the RPI ratings to date, after the first 15 games the Gophers are 12-4. We will learn a lot about the Gophers over the next five games, as Tubby takes on Indiana, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Tubby's best player is Dan Coleman, who is strong, versatile and averages 14 points and 7 rebounds, and is aided by big man Spencer Tollackson and Lawrence McKenzie. Tubby has gotten the Gophers in better shape, and has gotten them to believe. One thing you can count on: Tubby will be wearing some nice ties. Always sporting elegant threads, Tubby told me that one of the perks of a new job is that people provide you with some fancy cravats. At Georgia, he got some nice red ones. At Kentucky, Tubby gave up the red ones when he received quite a few eye-catching Kentucky blue ones. Now, at Minnesota, Tubby is sporting new Minnesota red and gold ties. Smith gets a new tie from Rick Pitino every Christmas, and this year's was more in line with his new digs. You may think that a coach's choice of ties is unimportant, but Billy Gillispie took some heat for wearing a yellow tie early in the season instead of a Kentucky blue one. If he's looking for some extra blue ties, Tubby is probably willing to let some of his blue ones go on the cheap.

Say Cheese: Look which team is at the top of the Big Ten ... Wisconsin. Bo Ryan and his Badgers are in the midst of a very favorable starting schedule, but Wisconsin is pretty darn good, too. Wisconsin is clearly an NCAA Tournament team, and while I still think that Indiana and Michigan State may be better, the road to the Big Ten title will go through Madison. In the first six games of the Big Ten season, Wisconsin plays Michigan (twice), Penn State, Northwestern, Iowa and Illinois. Wisconsin may be 6-0 before going to Purdue, and the Badgers do not have to go to Indiana or Michigan State. Wisconsin is looking better and better.

Duke on the Road: If I had told you prior to the Duke at Florida State game that the Blue Devils would have 10 turnovers, a bagel from leading scorer DeMarcus Nelson, and only eight total points from the starters at the half, what would you have thought? Probably that Florida State was drilling Duke, and that it was going to be a long night for Mike Krzyzewski in Tallahassee. Well, behind a couple of bombs from Taylor King and a magnificent performance by the ultra-competitive gamer Jon Scheyer (16 first half points on 7-of-10 shooting), Duke turned what could have been a deficit into a substantial lead. In the second half, Florida State made a great and determined run to take the lead late. But, behind the cool of Krzyzewski (who projected as calm and determined a demeanor as I can remember), Duke answered with a pick and pop three from Kyle Singler, a tough drive and finish from Greg Paulus, and some big time plays from Gerald Henderson. The young Blue Devils, which took a lot of hits last season, gained a lot of confidence in picking up such a tough win on the road. They also gained a lot of respect.

Winning Culture: I cannot be the only one thinking this ... why doesn't Florida State play as hard and together against other teams as they do against Duke and North Carolina? Why don't the Seminole fans get as riled up to give their team a homecourt advantage against other teams? Well, because that is part of a winning culture, not just a winning team. Leonard Hamilton has done great jobs rebuilding programs such as Oklahoma State, Miami and now Florida State, but he has also seen how it works on the truly elite level when he was an assistant to Joe B. Hall at Kentucky. Hamilton understands that there has to be a culture, ethos and tradition of giving maximum effort every day, and that is not just something you say. It is okay to dislike Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, UCLA or their ilk, but you have to respect one thing: Those programs play hard together, and play hard all the time. They are not the only ones, of course. Many programs play hard, and playing hard is not easy. But, they are among the programs that face opponents' best effort every time they step on the floor. That can be an overwhelming responsibility.

Officials and Charges: The charge/block call is the toughest call an official has to make. I applaud any player that will lay his body on the line to take a charge, whether the player gets the call or not. There are, however, a couple of things that are pretty clear to me. One, there are too many charges called that are actually blocks, and most of them are from help defenders. Second, there are too many charges awarded for help defenders that take a stand right in front of the rim. In my judgment, and with certain exceptions, a player that sets up right under or in front of the rim is not making a basketball play. I believe that most of those should be either blocks or no-calls. While I do not like to add additional burdens to officials, I believe it is time to institute a semi-circle in the lane like there is in the NBA. It is now needed. Third, there are too many players being rewarded for flops. Players that are big and strong should not be going to the floor as easily as they too often do in college games. If a player flops (which is a judgment that can reasonably be made by an official), it should be a block or a no-call. The charge is an important part of great defensive play, and it is one of the best plays in the game. But, it still needs to be earned.

Managing Your Dreams: With the exception of the coaching staff, nobody works any harder toward the success of their team than a student manager. While carrying a full course load, a student manager arrives early to practice to set up and prepare, goes through a full workout with the players, and stays after practice for further work. Road trips are work trips. Managers perform every thankless task one can imagine, and are incredibly capable. If I were looking for a proficient employee, I would look to hire a former manager. Many former managers have gone on to greater things in the game, and out of it. Lawrence Frank is a former manager, and now the coach of the New Jersey Nets. Joe Pasternack is a former manager, and now the coach at New Orleans. But precious few managers ever get to play. Well, Michigan coach John Beilein, with a depleted roster, suited up a manager for the Northwestern game. Ann Arbor native Pete Burak had always dreamed of playing for the Maize and Blue, and had tried out for the team ... twice. Burak suited up in a Michigan uniform, warmed up with as a member of the team, and sat the bench for the road win. How great is that? No word on how sales of Pete Burak jerseys are going. I'd buy one. Burak may have suited up with the team at Northwestern, but he was a member of the team all along.

Slumping Stars: After averaging 21 points per game and being called the best contested shooter in the country last year, Tennessee's Chris Lofton has not shot the ball well this season. As a result, his publicity has waned. But is his shooting all we cared about last season? This year, Lofton is shooting better from the line, his rebounding is steady, his assists are up, his assist-to-turnover ratio is improved, and his defense is better. But, his shooting percentage is down 14 percentage points (34 percent from 48 percent), and his three point percentage is down nine percentage points (33 percent from 42 percent). Lofton seems to be consistently drifting on his shot, including open shots. But he is not alone in struggling to shoot the ball of late. Oregon guard Tajuan Porter's shots are up, but his scoring is down. Porter's three point percentage is down 14 percentage points (29 percent from 44 percent), and last season Porter hit 110 threes to only 31 threes thus far this season. Porter's shooting issues seem to do with shot selection, and the number of quick and contested shots he takes. Michigan State's Drew Neitzel has hit just 13 of his last 33 shots, including only 6-of-24 threes. His shots are down, but his numbers are up in every other category, including a staggering 4 to 1 assist to turnover ratio. I believe that Netizel is a better player this year, despite the recent shooting slump. While we can be seduced by the shooting numbers and points scored, there is more to the game than that.

Basketball IQ.: A friend of mine was trying to make the case to me that the players of 20 and 30 years ago were better than the players of today because the old school guys had a far better understanding of the game and a better Basketball IQ. Well, it is an interesting theory, but it is completely bogus. Generally, the players of today coming out of high school are far better than the players of 20 and 30 years ago. They are better athletically, better skilled, better schooled and better prepared to play at the highest level. Today's player has better training, better coaching and more exposure to the game than we did. They are just better, generally, and that is how it should be. I don't know what makes us romanticize the old days and believe that we were better, but we weren't. If you want to, go back and look at old game tapes or box scores and see for yourself. The only leg we have to stand on is experience. Because players leave early so often now, the veteran teams of yesterday might be able to win by being wiry veterans against the young kids playing as freshmen and sophomores now. So there's the bone I just threw you ... chew on it and admit these kids are really good. And be proud of them.

Florida Speaker: I had a chance to spend some time with Florida quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow the other day. Tebow, who seems like a truly nice kid, told me that Urban Meyer brings in speakers for the team on a regular basis. And while Tebow spoke glowingly about so many of the speakers brought in by Meyer, he reserved a spot for one above all the rest as the best he had heard ... Florida basketball coach Billy Donovan. Tebow said that Donovan had the football team absolutely riveted, and motivated and inspired like no other they had heard. Maybe Donovan ought to raise his speaking fee.

No More Mid-Major Talk: I'm going to try my best to stop using the term "mid-major". It is not that I consider the term to be demeaning, rather I don't think the label advances the ball in any discussion. We are talking about good teams, and which good teams should be invited to the NCAA Tournament to compete for a championship. So, why do we need to label any team a "mid-major", a "major" or anything else? When a team is good, we should be able to say so. Labeling a team doesn't help any.

Self Criticism: When Kansas coach Bill Self said that he wanted Brandon Rush to be more aggressive, it was perceived to be criticism. That may be a reasonable interpretation, but I didn't see it that way. You see, I think it is okay for a coach to hold a player accountable for his actions, or inaction, on the floor. Self wanted Rush to be more of a threat to score, and to really look to score. It is not selfish to look to score, it is selfish to take bad shots. There is a difference. If you have five guys on the floor that are working together and all looking to score, you will have a very tough team to guard. Cutters need to cut hard and look for the ball. Post players need to post hard and call for the ball. Screeners need to set a screen and immediately look for an offensive opening. When coaching the 1984 United States Olympic Team, Bob Knight told Michael Jordan that, in order to shoot the ball, he had to set a screen first. After setting a screen, Jordan was more likely to be open, and when drawing more defensive attention, the cutter off of his screen was more likely to be open as well. In looking to score, Rush is actually being a better teammate. And, considering that the kid had ACL surgery over the summer, he's doing pretty well as it is.