'Bag: On Pitt, scholarships and the Heat

Every week, your humble college basketball hoops blogger (er, me) will respond to your questions, comments and nonsensical rants in this here Hoopsbag. To submit a query, visit this page by clicking the link under my name in the upper right-hand corner of the blog. You can also email me or send me your entries via Twitter. (Honestly, the best way to get me is Twitter.)

Alex Goldstein in Baltimore writes: After Notre Dame's win over Pittsburgh Tuesday night, is Maryland's win over Note Dame a quality win?

Eamonn Brennan: In the words of the old Fake Steve Jobs: namaste, Alex. I honor the place where your transitive property and the Hoopsbag meet, but I'm afraid I have to disagree. For one, Notre Dame beat Pitt at home, and home wins in the Big East only go so far. More importantly, though, I'm not sure a win over Pittsburgh can be reasonably termed "quality" at this point, either. The Panthers looked atrocious in South Bend last night, particularly on the defensive end, where they have been uncharacteristically bad all season.

They're ranked No. 159 in Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency, and they allowed 1.24 points per possession to a Notre Dame team that has itself struggled mightily since losing star Tim Abromaitis to an ACL tear in November. Pitt's offense let it down, too, which is something we saw in the Panthers' only other true road game this season, a 61-56 win at Tennessee. I remain entirely unsold on Pittsburgh. Thus, I remain entirely unsold on Notre Dame. So, yeah, no, Maryland doesn't get much credit for the win over ND. If the Irish's win Tuesday marks the beginning of a major turnaround, this status could change. But right now, I don't know that any of these three teams, or any of their wins to date, are deserving of the q-word. Sorry.

@betterball writes: Did u see Norris Cole last night for the Heat? He played in Horizon League, correct? Can you educate me/us on him a little?

Brennan: I did see him, yes, and my immediate reaction -- as a Bulls fan, mind you -- was "oh, no." The idea of a surprisingly awesome Norris Cole giving the Heat athleticism, penetration and spot-up shooting at the point guard spot is just utterly terrifying.

In any case, as a college hoops fan, I loved Cole's game almost as much as I loved his high-top fade. He was one of the most versatile and athletic players in the country, let alone the Horizon League, a guy who not only scored and set up teammates but who rebounded at a high rate on the defensive end. (To wit: He went for 41 points, 20 rebounds and nine assists in 40 minutes against Youngstown State last season. Youngstown State is hardly the Boston Celtics, but still. Crazy.) He isn't -- or at least wasn't -- much of a 3-point shooter, averaging around 34 percent from beyond the arc last season. But he's athletic enough to create his own shot against other point guards. He can score from the mid-range. He can get to the rim and finish with contact. He's a knockdown free-throw shooter. And for a team like the Heat -- a team that features two of the best five basketball players on planet Earth -- NBA fans could see Cole do a lot of what he did last night, when he caught the ball against defensive rotation, found his spots with ease and finished efficiently from 20 feet and in.

Thanks to questions about his size and outside shooting, Cole slipped to the Heat at the very bottom of the first round in June's NBA draft. Of course he did. Like I said: terrifying.

Dave Brown in West Paducah, Ky. writes: Eamonn, please tell me how UConn forward Andre Drummond is being allowed to play this year when he was recruited by Jim Calhoun and other coaches as a prep star? I didn't think recruits could walk on, and shouldn't he have to sit out the first year? The Huskies did not have any scholarships to give due to NCAA sanctions, correct?

Jamie Steele in Winchester, Ky. writes: There seems to be some misunderstanding about the recruited/walk on rule and how UConn is able to use Drummond as a walk-on, playing immediately, without taking a hit against their scholarship limit that has been reduced by NCAA penalty. Can you clear this up for those not in the know?

Brennan: OK, so here's how it works. Typically, Jamie and Dave are right -- a recruited player isn't allowed to become a walk-on and play right away, because that is a way around each team's scholarship limits, and the NCAA doesn't like that. But Drummond and Connecticut were able to get around this rule thanks to another, less malignant, scholarship loophole. According to Connecticut -- which couldn't possibly afford another NCAA violation, so a large amount of due diligence and work with the NCAA went into this move -- Drummond is allowed to be a walk-on provided the aid he receives this season is "non-institutional." In other words, Connecticut can't give him the kind of affiliated loans you and I took out when we were in school (and which I'll be paying off forever, it seems). But Drummond and his family could go to a separate financial institution and ask for a loan, which he was apparently granted. The Hartford Courant's Don Amore wrote an excellent recap of the situation last week.

We don't know where or how Drummond got this loan, but it would presumably be easy to attain, considering he's a likely top-five pick in the 2012 NBA draft and sure to make millions whenever he decides to leave UConn. Drummond hails from Connecticut, so he's on in-state tuition, making the loan even less substantial. In other words, it works, and it's a nice little story, too. Future NBA draft pick takes out loans so his walk-on teammate doesn't have to; it's a direct reversal of the seediness that characterized Drummond's decision to attend UConn despite the Huskies' NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions.

That said, there are some nagging questions here. The one I'm most interested in is this: Could other top players follow Drummond's lead? Has Connecticut figured out a way to get a highly touted, highly recruited player -- the kind of guy a program is required to put on scholarship -- on the team without having to use that scholarship? Could another future NBA draft pick choose a school with no place for him and decide, "Hey, I'll be a millionaire in eight months anyway, I might as well just take out $30,000 in loans and pay it off later?" If I'm a highly touted player, I'm not doing that, because $30,000 is still $30,000, and the NBA is never a 100 percent guarantee. I don't imagine we'll see a major trend in this direction. But if there's one thing we know about college hoops coaches, it's this: If there's a loophole to be found and exploited, they will find it and exploit it. We'll see.

Which brings us, right on cue, to an excellent idea from Matt B in Philly. Matt, the floor is yours.

Matt B from Philadelphia writes: Last week, it was discovered that Andre Drummond, and not Michael Bradley, is a walk-on. One of the top players in the country, who was recruited heavily by UConn and others, suddenly doesn't count towards their roster limit? This makes even less sense than when we thought that Bradley lost his scholly. This is absolutely nothing against UConn since they are playing by the rules given to them, and adhering to their punishment as written. Their punishment however turned out to be toothless and meaningless because roster size is determined by scholarships. Wouldn't it be a good idea to base roster limits (at least for head count sports) on the number of recruited players? The NCAA rule book already has definitions to separate recruited and non recruited players, so the change would be fairly simple to make. It would have two great benefits: it would make roster limitations truly stick, and it would allow schools to reward deserving walk-ons with scholarships no matter how many recruited players were on the roster. BTW, the NCAA definition of a "recruited player" is very strict, so it would be nearly impossible to get a top player on a roster without him counting against the limit.

Brennan: There's a decent chance someone more familiar with the vagaries of NCAA scholarship rules -- and the guiding principles therein -- will be able to find holes in this. (I'm looking at you, Mr. Infante.) But I can't. It makes perfect sense to me.

You'd still have to have some overriding scholarship limit, of course, if only to keep the set number of roster spots and available scholarships consistent across all teams and leagues. The playing field must remain level, as it were. And really, at the end of the day, this might not make a huge difference. Drummond's situation is one of a kind for a reason; we necessarily shouldn't expect a deluge of highly recruited players suddenly being willing to leverage their debt against their unknown long-term potential basketball earnings. But Matt's rule would, in essence, cut out any potential of gray area: You can recruit X number of players to your team at any given time. That's that.

Again, there may be flaws here, and maybe someone else can point them out to us. But I'm struggling to see them.

@thisisirbe writes: With Indiana facing injuries to starter Verdell Jones and sixth man Will Sheehey, do they still have a shot to win at Michigan State tonight?

Brennan: The loss of Jones is hardly drastic. Sure, he gives the Hoosiers some nice mid-range scoring and a touch of veteran leadership, but he remains -- as he has for his entire IU career -- prone to turnovers and questionable decisions on the offensive end in addition to occasionally lackluster defense. Indiana may not be better without Jones, but I'm not willing to say they're necessarily worse, either.

Of course, if Jones was the only injury, Sheehey could slot right in to that starting spot, and Indiana would be just fine. But Sheehey's loss is a problem. He might be the best bench player in the country, a versatile 6-foot-6 shooting guard who hits 3s, spots up from mid-range and can guard a handful of positions at any given time. Without him, Indiana's depth -- hardly the Hoosiers' strong suit in the first place -- takes a major hit. Little-used guards like Matt Roth and Remy Abell will almost certainly see some time. That's fine in a home date with UMBC. But on the road, facing a very tough, physical, defensive-minded Michigan State team, that's a tall order indeed. A loss would hardly be a surprise.

@oldenburgc writes: With Xavier on a slide and out of the top 25. How much do you see those losses hurting them even with the quality wins they already have?

Brennan: If we're talking NCAA tournament seeding, yeah, it's going to hurt. Some may make the argument that the NCAA tournament selection committee should view Xavier's three recent losses -- all of which came after the Cincinnati brawl with some various undermanned teams on the floor -- the same way it would view a team who lost a handful of games with its best player on the sidelines. (See: Vanderbilt.) I disagree. These weren't injuries. They were suspensions, deserved ones. Frankly, the players involved (particularly Tu Holloway, who did much to instigate the Cincy brawl and received only one game of suspension) probably should have had to sit for longer. Besides, Xavier had Holloway back for its loss to Long Beach State in the first round of the Diamond Head Classic, and Mark Lyons returned in time for Xavier to lose in OT to a bad Hawaii team the next day.

If I'm a member of the selection committee, I'm not letting the Musketeers off the hook for three straight losses to Oral Roberts, LBSU and Hawaii. To me, those results are worth as much as any other. If that means Xavier's seed takes a hit in March, well, whose fault is that?

Frank in Louisville writes: Do you really believe Rick Pitino will retire when he said he would, in 2017?

Brennan: Some Louisville fans seem to be holding out hope that Pitino will change his mind between now and the end of his current contract, and will decide to keep coaching in 2017 and beyond. My answer? I don't know. It's hard to imagine Pitino making this sort of statement if he doesn't really believe it. But 2017 is also a long time from now. I mean, I don't even know what I'm doing next week. (Besides writing words about college basketball, that is.) Could he change his mind in the next five years? Sure! Will he? I don't know! Unfortunately, I am not Professor Charles Xavier. That's the best I can do.

Colorado Cat in Denver writes: Surprise school of 2011? Kansas State was picked to finish 8th in the Big 12 and we now know they've outperformed expectations. After a few weeks of play, do you think Frank Martin's 'Cats have what it takes to contend for the conference title -- despite preseason predictions?

Brennan: There's no question about it: Kansas State has been much better than pretty much everyone expected this season, and their title in last week's Diamond Head Classic was a nice little confirmation of that fact. (Some might turn their nose up at those three wins in the Diamond Head Classic, let's keep in mind that K-State beat a very good LBSU team by 17 in the tournament final. That's impressive.) The Wildcats are playing stellar defense, and their offense thus far appears to be much less stagnant than it was when it held them back for much of 2010-11. This is thanks primarily to physicality. Forwards Thomas Gipson, Jamar Samuels and Jordan Henriquez protect the rim on defense and crash the glass on offense, getting second-chance looks and frequent trips to the foul line against frontcourts that simply can't match up. (Which is, you know, a lot of them.)

To your question -- can they contend for the Big 12? -- I think the answer has to be yes. Are they the favorite? No. That's Baylor right now, followed closely by Missouri and Kansas. But through 11 games K-State has proven it deserves a spot in, or at least near, the league's second-tier. Considering the struggles of last season, and the talent lost in the offseason (namely senior star Jacob Pullen) that's an accomplish in itself.