It is not often that one can be guided down the road to the Final Four with such specificity and accuracy. You are quite lucky, but no need to thank me. You're welcome.
Circle of trust
On College GameDay, we did a segment on the teams that we trust heading into the NCAA tournament. Of the teams that I "trust" most, I would include Michigan State, Villanova, Purdue and Duke. It's funny, because there are quite a few people who believe that all of those teams will be bounced early from the tournament. So, anybody can win ... except the teams that won the most during the regular season? That is hard for me to believe.
Look, anybody can lose, and we very well might have another top seed with an early exit, like Michigan State two years ago. But not anybody can win. We will have upsets, because we always have had upsets. Yet the most consistent teams are certainly more trustworthy than the less consistent teams. Remember, North Carolina lost seven games last season, including getting drubbed at Virginia, and I was saying North Carolina was the best team all season long.
What makes this season so interesting is the variance between offense and defense among the top teams. I cannot recall a season in which so many teams were proficient in one area yet deficient in another. The key might lie in upward trends. The teams that are trending up toward the end of the season, even though overall numbers might seem anemic, can be the hardest to beat in March. By the end of the season, I believe Michigan State will be the best team. In October, I believed that Michigan State would be the best team. It's weird how our first impressions are usually (not always, but usually) our best ones.
If not Michigan State, it's Villanova
Jay Wright has developed the best culture, on and off the floor, in college basketball. That is not to say that other programs do not have great cultures, because they do. But Villanova's is the best. On the floor, Villanova bounced back from a couple of weaker performances in the dog days of February to put together a great road win against Xavier, and it did so without Phil Booth. When one of the heroes of the 2016 NCAA championship team returns, and he will, Villanova will be as formidable as anyone. With Booth out, several players had to step forward and take on bigger roles, and they did.
Booth will be returning to a more capable and confident group. And with Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, Wright has two legitimate national player of the year candidates. The more I watch Donte DiVincenzo, the more I believe he will play in the NBA, and Omari Spellman is turning into a legit, versatile, star-caliber stretch big. Can Villanova be beaten? Of course. But there is nobody this team cannot beat.
Duke is Duke again?
Duke is the most talented team in the country, and it is not a close call. No team has as many potential pros, no team can score with such ease and no team has the interior and paint strength. But Duke is very inexperienced, and the Blue Devils have had difficulty defending as a cohesive unit. So, with Marvin Bagley III out with a mild knee sprain, Mike Krzyzewski made some changes. First, Duke is now a zone defensive team. With the Blue Devils' size and length, zone defense allows Duke to be better positioned without having to guard ball screens -- a real weak spot. Now Duke is playing exclusively against an opponent's secondary and less-practiced offense. And Duke is able to keep key players out of foul trouble.
Second, Duke has put the ball into Grayson Allen's hands and is letting him run the point. Now there is a legit scorer initiating the offense, and he has to be guarded higher out on the floor. Allen, with Bagley out, has been re-energized and has had three of his best games since the change. In 2015, Duke played more zone in the middle of the season, and it really helped Duke become an effective man-to-man team later in the campaign. This team likely will stay with the zone, but there will come a time when it will have to play some man. Duke is trending upward at the right time. When Bagley is back, Duke will be a Final Four favorite again.
When the selection committee put out its top 16 seeds last week, the announcement did just as it was intended: It created discussion and debate. But it also revealed that the NCAA still doesn't have its act together with regard to data organization and process.
There is nothing wrong with the idea of the quadrants. The purpose of the quadrants was to weight road and neutral site games a bit more heavily. For example, a Quadrant 1 win is a home win over a team ranked No. 1 to No. 30, a neutral site win over a team ranked No. 1 to No. 50 or a true road win over a team ranked No. 1 to No. 75. The quads were recommended by a committee of college coaches, but the coaches wanted the baseline to be a composite number from the ESPN Basketball Power Index, the Sagarin Ratings, KenPom.com and some other metrics. Instead, the NCAA based the quadrant System on RPI, the flawed measure the coaches were trying to avoid in the first place.
As a result of the system being based upon RPI, there are some odd results. The committee seemed to indicate a reliance on the quadrants in how it ranked the top 16 seeds. First, Michigan State, clearly a top-five team by any reasonable basketball person, was ranked No. 11 overall. Second, Oklahoma, a team in free fall that will struggle to make the NCAA tournament, was ranked No. 16 overall. Put simply, it made no rational sense.
Many will tell you that selection committee members vote as they please, based upon whatever they feel is important. If that is indeed the case, there is no need for in-person meetings between members. Just vote. A meeting will only serve as a venue for the some committee members to influence the others. If you are a basketball person, you don't need anyone telling you what you think. You know what you think. And you don't need information separated into quadrants. All that does is organize flawed information for the less discerning basketball minds.
The Trae Young bandwagon has people jumping off of it, left and right. Well, not me. That kid is a great young talent, and I am a believer. He is getting the best shot of every defense, and he has not handled it well of late, but he is the real thing.
His relative struggles over the past three weeks are not issues of "one-and-done." Remember, Oklahoma did not have any one-and-dones last season and did not come close to winning and competing like it is this season. Young is learning how to be a superstar, which is an incredible burden. It is one thing to be consistent; it is quite another to be consistently excellent. Young is compared favorably to Stephen Curry, but the comparison is made with Curry's junior year numbers. What we forget is that Young is playing against far better competition that Curry did in his freshman season at Davidson. Struggles and all, Young has been incredible to watch all season long.
Speaking of one-and-done
It's funny, but we seem to blame everything we don't like on the one-and-done rule. Before long, the one-and-done rule will be declared responsible for Russian interference in American elections. Think for a moment where this season would be without one-and-done players. We would not have the compelling Young of Oklahoma leading the nation in scoring and assists. We would not have Bagley of Duke leading the ACC in scoring and rebounding, bidding to be the first freshman to do so. We would not have Mo Bamba setting records for blocked shots and rebounds at Texas. We would not have Deandre Ayton dominating inside and out at Arizona. We would not have Gary Trent Jr. of Duke shooting 50 percent from deep in ACC games.
Andy Kennedy and Ole Miss
Most every coach has a shelf life; that's just a sad part of the business. But that there comes a time when a parting is appropriate doesn't mean it isn't sad or that the coach departing didn't do a great job. Andy Kennedy resigned at Ole Miss, and perhaps it was time for both to move on. Only they truly know that. But what I know for sure is that Andy Kennedy is, by far, the best coach ever at Ole Miss.
Kennedy was coach of the Rebels from 2006 to 2018 and won over half of his SEC games, the only coach in Ole Miss history even close to .500 in league play, let alone above that line. Kennedy also won 11 postseason games, more than all other Ole Miss coaches combined. Ole Miss is not an easy place to coach basketball, and Kennedy proved himself to be an outstanding coach in Oxford. I knew that before he arrived, having watched him closely when he took over for Bob Huggins at Cincinnati. Kennedy was a terrific player at NC State and UAB, and he has spent his life around the game. If any athletic director or search firm is looking for an outstanding coach, they should call Andy Kennedy. That's exactly what he is.
The Wildcats have been through a lot this season, with the FBI probe to start the year to injuries to questions about how hard the Cats were willing to play. But it has become pretty clear that Ayton is the best prospect in the country, if not the best player in the country. This dude is ridiculous. Ayton shoots the ball like a guard and has amazing footwork and a flawless stroke. He is chiseled out of stone, and he can do absolutely anything on a basketball floor. With Rawle Alkins, Allonzo Trier and a steady big man in Dusan Ristic, Arizona has everything. If the Wildcats continue to improve on the defensive end, why can't Arizona be one of the scariest teams out there? By Selection Sunday, Arizona will be among the top eight overall teams.
Did any rational person believe Louisville would win its appeal of sanctions in the stripper case? Not me. This case wasn't anything like that of North Carolina, in which the underlying actions were not against the rules. The Louisville case was an extra benefits case, right in the NCAA's wheelhouse. After multiple investigations, the NCAA learned that the value of the services performed in the Cardinals' dorm (house calls for dancing and sometimes more) did not rise to the level of vacation of wins. But rather than place a dollar value on each act, which would have been quite uncomfortable, the NCAA ruled that the actions were so unseemly as to be worthy of the vacation of wins, without regard to the value of the services rendered.
Unrelated to the denial of the appeal is the policy question of whether the vacation of wins and banners is an effective deterrent or a worthless exercise and total waste of time. I believe it to be the latter. Everyone knows that Louisville won the 2013 NCAA championship. Those involved in the wrongdoing lost their careers. That is the effective deterrent, not pretending that games played were not played. Sanctioning the wrong people does not do anything, nor is it an effective deterrent. Lastly, if taking away Louisville's title is the fair thing to do for Michigan and others that Louisville beat, then why do they all keep the losses? The NCAA vacates wins but leaves the losses in place.
One of my favorite NCAA sanctions is the "show cause" penalty. A show-cause penalty is never applied to an administrator, only to a coach or player. Andre McGee, the Louisville assistant who arranged for the dancers, received a 10-year show-cause penalty, which means he cannot be hired as a coach at an NCAA member school without the school showing cause why he should be hired. Of course, no such cause can be shown. But McGee can still work at an NCAA member school ... as a university president. Remember, former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel was given a show-cause penalty and fired, and he later was hired as -- wait for it -- a university president at Youngstown State. Not trustworthy enough to be a coach, but trustworthy enough to preside over all students as a university president. Good one. Only the NCAA.
There was quite a stir after the Mountaineers blew a double-digit lead in a loss to Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence. West Virginia coach Bob Huggins was tossed after vociferously pointing out the free throw disparity, which was 35-2 at the end of the game. Many fans and others around the basketball community pointed to the disparity as clear evidence that something was wrong.
Well, I sat courtside for that game, and there was nothing wrong. Were there some missed calls? Yes. Did the officials miss the call that was the last straw for Huggins? Yes. I watched the game again, and there were about 15 calls that should have or could have been called. But nine of those calls should have or could have gone against West Virginia, including an offensive basket interference call against the Mountaineers that went uncalled and resulted in a bucket.
Free throw disparity is a function of style of play and how teams play on that day. West Virginia settled for a lot of jump shots, while Kansas drove the ball into the lane and punched the ball into its big guy, Udoka Azubuike. West Virginia presses and fouls more than most teams, and it allows more free throws by opponents than all but 13 Division I teams. Kansas does not play pressure defense, and it is in the top 20 in Division I in allowing the fewest free throws. The officials made some mistakes, yes. But the officials did not cost West Virginia the game. The Mountaineers did that all by themselves.
Opining on calls
In most games I call, I will give my opinion on certain calls that stand out to me. I don't opine on all calls, just a few. The truth is, so do you. I just have a microphone.
Well, giving an opinion on calls tends to rub officials the wrong way, both the game officials and any officials at any level who are watching. So, after the uproar from the West Virginia game, it might serve to address the issue of voicing an opinion on officials' calls.
Here is what I do: I don't opine on officials; I give my opinion on a call. I don't know who the good officials are, who the average officials are and who the bad officials are. I do not evaluate officials. However, I believe I know a good call and a bad call when I see one. If I see a call I differ with, and see it live from my broadcast position, I say so. If I have to consult replay to opine on a call, I generally leave it alone. If I didn't see it, how can I expect the officials to see it?
As a game announcer, I am just expressing an opinion. That opinion does not have any impact on the outcome of calls or the outcome of the game. Some would say that announcers should shut up about calls because we are not officials and therefore not qualified to opine on calls. I differ with that. I am not a chef, but I opine on meals. I am not a movie producer, but I opine on movies. The officials are the law of the court. Our opinions, whether voiced behind the mic, on the couch or in a bar, do not impact the games in any way. I respect all officials and the job that they do. But that doesn't mean we cannot have an opinion. The officials' calls are respected. My opinion cannot and does not overturn a single call. Only the officials can overturn one of their calls.
But like the officials, I want to get it right. If I am incorrect on a rule or if an official differs with me on my judgment, they all have my phone number. I have always encouraged all of them to call me to discuss it. When I have had discussions with officials over the years, I have left those discussions better educated about their perspective, and I hope the officials felt the same way. Officials are not above getting second-guessed and critiqued. Neither am I. Neither are any of us.
But it stops at opinions
There is nothing wrong with disagreeing with an official's call or calls. Go ahead, differ. Boo, if you wish. You can even question the official's eyesight. But taking it any further than that is wholly inappropriate. I am not a believer in personal attacks on particular officials. Rather, it is appropriate to discuss a particular call, not the person who made the call. We can discuss the call, the rule -- all of that is fair game.
Here is what I suggest: If you differ with a call, point out the call (or non-call) and discuss why it was right or wrong. If you're going after a particular official, you had better have more than belief or a feeling; you had better have hard data. Otherwise, you lose me. I know a lot of officials, and I don't know any who are not totally professional and want to make the right call each and every time. Do they screw up from time to time? Yes. Do they lose their cool once in a great while? Seldom, but yes. Officials are indispensable to the game; we need to treat them as such.
Huggins made an interesting point regarding officials, one that I have heard before. He wondered why the unpaid, amateur players were made to answer questions after games but the paid officials were not. I believe that having an official available after a game to answer targeted rules questions from a pool reporter would be appropriate, and it would serve to educate fans and others about the rules. But I am not in favor of using press to shame or embarrass officials.
The officials are accountable. They are evaluated and are awarded assignments based upon performance. Do they suffer public losses like players and coaches? No, of course not. But they are accountable. The only reason I would like to hear from an official after a game is so I can learn something about the game and its rules. Aside from that narrow reason, having an official talk to the media serves no legitimate purpose. After the game is over, there is nothing that can be done about the result, so a public flogging of the officials is hardly worthwhile. I cannot think of a single sport for which officials are made to face the media after a game.
I have seen a bunch of outstanding players this season, and most of the best players I have seen are getting a lot of ink. (Is it ink, or are they getting a lot of cyber pub?) Aside from the usual suspects, here are some of the most underrated players in America, and players you should keep in mind as the NCAA tournament nears: Mike Daum, South Dakota State; Fletcher Magee, Wofford; Tony Carr, Penn State; Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure; Peyton Aldridge, Davidson; Justin Robinson, Virginia Tech; Mo Wagner, Michigan; Aaron Holiday, UCLA; Gary Clark, Cincinnati; Omer Yurtseven, NC State; Ray Spalding, Louisville.
The players care: For those who believe these athletes don't care, they do. In late February, these are the dog days of the season. Players can be tired, aching and each game is taking on added importance.
On Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse, West Virginia found itself in familiar position, up double-digits against the Jayhawks, looking to close out an opponent the Mountaineers simply cannot seem to beat. West Virginia was ahead in large measure due to the fabulous play of senior Daxter Miles Jr., who had been outstanding all game long, at both ends of the floor. Then, with under a minute to go, Miles rose up for a shot, his teammates turned to rebound, and in midair, Miles decided to pass. The suspect decision was picked off, taken the other way for a bucket, and the door began to close on WVU.
After that play, Miles was devastated. In the handshake line and walking off the court, you couldn't miss the tears. It was moving to see the inconsolable Miles in contrast to the jubilant Jayhawks, and it was unmistakable that these players care deeply about these games.
Then, on Monday night, Notre Dame was fighting valiantly to get a home win over Miami while down three players to injury (Bonzie Colson, Rex Pflueger and D.J. Harvey). The Irish battled to the end, and lost by three. As the defeated, but unbowed, Notre Dame players walked off of the floor, you could see the red eyes and tears on many of their faces. A preseason top-25 team will likely miss the NCAA tournament due to injuries, and the Irish saw their door closing.
As fans and observers, we can sometimes be critical of these players as we sit comfortably on the sidelines, and that is OK. They get it, that's part of the deal. They put themselves out there willingly for praise and criticism, and they do it largely without complaint. But, there is no question that these players care, and care deeply.