Editor’s note: ESPN.com writers Eamonn Brennan, Jason King and Myron Medcalf are joined by ESPN Insider John Gasaway to discuss four burning questions in college basketball.
Seems everywhere you look, there's a jumbled conference race. Which one intrigues you the most?
Eamonn Brennan: The Pac-12. And I’m not kidding. Unlike most leagues, this one is wide-open. Sure, Cal is the favorite, but Washington is coming on strong and Oregon is hanging around. Plus, none of the top teams in the conference are so good that they can't be upset by any of the dregs on any given night ... AND there's a legitimate possibility these guys will end up fighting for, what, one at-large bid? It's downright fascinating.
John Gasaway: The ACC this year intrigues me. No league's been dominated by two teams the way this one’s been dominated by a certain two teams. But in 2012 we have two feisty newcomers in the form of Florida State and Virginia. In the standings and in terms of per-possession performance, all four teams are more or less equal right now. This shapes up as an epic confrontation between traditional haves and have-nots, and it's going to be a jewel of a conference race. And in closing, I wish to offer a subliminal message: Mike Scott for ACC POY. That is all.
Jason King: The Big 12 race intrigues me most. It’s a three-team affair, and I honestly can’t decide which is better between Baylor, Missouri and Kansas. I thought it was the Tigers, but then they lost to a dreadful Oklahoma State team. Then I switched to the Jayhawks, but then they were upset by Iowa State. Baylor has already lost to both schools, but there’s no shame in falling at Allen Fieldhouse, and the Bears have bounced back nicely from the Mizzou defeat by winning three straight. Baylor is clearly the most talented team, but I’m not sure that even matters. I expect there to be a three-way tie for first when Kansas visits Waco on Feb. 8.
Myron Medcalf: The Big 12. Kansas, Missouri and Baylor are all set to battle over the next week or so. Then you have this Iowa State team that’s been gold at home and played its way into the conversation. So many teams struggling on the road. I think there will be a lot of movement in the Big 12 standings in the coming weeks. Should be fun.
In order, who would make up your top three right now in national coach of the year voting?
Brennan: Steve Fisher immediately and unflinchingly replaced one first-round NBA draft pick, three senior starters and the heart of last year's team, and look at the Aztecs just one year later. Remarkable. Then let’s go with Steve Prohm. The first-year coach has done a brilliant job guiding Murray State through its as-yet undefeated campaign, with all the unique motivational challenges and solutions that kind of quest entails. I’ll take John Calipari at third. Maybe it’s more of a statement inclusion than anything else, but every year we expect Kentucky to be good (for good reason), but we tend to underrate the job Calipari does not only in recruiting these players but in getting them to play stifling team defense together from Day 1. Managing stars is hard enough when you've got one or two. Calipari manages entire teams of All-Americans and future lottery picks and does it better than anyone year in and year out.
Gasaway: Thad Matta at No. 1. This is the best team he's had in Columbus, even if no one realizes it yet. John Calipari: This is the best team he's had in Lexington, and as good as this visually spectacular defense is, the offense is even better. Then Randy Bennett at Saint Mary’s. If I had to choose one D-I coach to take a randomly selected group of five D-I players and score the most points per possession, I would take a long look at Bennett.
King: Right now I’d rank them in this order: Frank Haith (Missouri), Tom Crean (Indiana) and Bill Self (Kansas). There’s usually a transition period with a first-year coach, but that hasn’t been the case in Columbia. Despite a flurry of offseason controversy and the loss of one of his top players to a knee injury, Haith has turned the Tigers into legitimate Final Four contenders. Crean’s team has struggled of late, but touts victories over Kentucky and Ohio State. Not many teams in the country lost as much as Self’s Jayhawks, who returned just one starter from last year’s squad. The Jayhawks are as thin as they’ve ever been under Self, yet somehow he has them back in the top 10 and in position to win an eighth straight Big 12 title.
Medcalf: Steve Fisher is No. 1. Look at what he lost and look and what he’s done with that Aztecs program. I’d go with Frank Haith at No. 2. His Missouri team has no size or depth and he might just win the Big 12 anyway. Murray State’s Steve Prohm is my third. A first-year coach who’s undefeated heading into February despite losing three starters? Impressive stuff.
Which currently unranked team would you NOT want to face off with in March?
Brennan: West Virginia doesn't look like much fun, I'll tell you that. Kevin Jones can bury you before you know it. And despite the Huskies' struggles, I doubt too many teams want to see UConn in an elimination game. And I would happily take a pass on Middle Tennessee State, which plays hard-nosed pressure defense and forces a lot of turnovers, and could be an absolute beast to deal with in a neutral-court situation in March.
Gasaway: The best team in the country outside the Top 25 right now is Wichita State. The Shockers have dropped a couple of games in Missouri Valley play and, unlike a certain Valley rival of theirs, they don't have a high-scoring star whose name can be effortlessly linked to a smash hit single. (Teach me how to Garrett Stutz!) All Gregg Marshall's team does is combine outstanding offense with punishing defense. You do not want to see this team in your bracket. The Shockers were born to be badly under-seeded, and people will yell at you incorrectly when you lose to them.
King: I feel sorry for the No. 3- or No. 4-seeded school that draws Long Beach State in the NCAA tournament. The 49ers are one of the top 30 or 40 teams in the country. Dan Monson’s squad has traveled all over the country and faced Kansas, North Carolina, Louisville, Kansas State, Xavier and Pittsburgh. It won’t be intimidated by anyone.
Medcalf: Iowa State, although the Cyclones should be ranked next week. They have experienced transfers (Chris Allen has played in two Final Fours). And they have college basketball’s enigma in Royce White. Who do you put on a guy who’s 6-foot-8, 270 pounds and can play point guard? Kansas and Kansas State are witnesses.
Because of some high-profile misses, the perception is that officiating has been awful this season. What's your take?
Brennan: It hasn't been universally awful, but it's been bad more often -- and more glaringly -- than not. The good news, I think, is that the restricted area has made it easier for officials to call the block/charge, which is always the most difficult and most maddening play in the game. But beyond the high-profile bad calls and the usual complaints, the real issue this year has been the way referees manage games. Now, after NCAA officials coordinator John Adams sent last week's memo, I fear we'll see a marked rise in technical fouls as the officials' needle swings back in the other direction. What a thankless gig, huh?
Gasaway: The officiating this year has been no more or less awful than customary. True, the missed goaltending call in the West Virginia-Syracuse game was both blatantly obvious in real time and unusually decisive. It occurred in the closing seconds, and it had the net effect of deducting two points from one team in what was then a two-point game. I think people reacted to that decisiveness, and I don't blame them. That being said, in any given year human-based officiating is what it is.
King: I think the officiating has been noticeably bad. In the last week, I’ve seen three really bad calls that affected the outcome of games. West Virginia got hosed against Syracuse, as we all know. Texas’ Myck Kabongo was clearly hacked on a game-winning shot attempt against Missouri as time expired. And moments before Iowa State’s Royce White hit a game winner to beat Kansas State, Wildcats guard Rodney McGruder was knocked from his feet as he attempted a shot from the free throw line on the other end. What’s even more frustrating is when refs call ticky-tacky fouls to make up for missing the hard ones.
Medcalf: I don’t think the problem is with officiating. The problem is with the limitations of instant replay. Coaches and officials need more flexibility -- not unlimited review power -- to fix the wrongs. I think officiating has been fine. The late-game blunders have made things look worse than they really are.