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Scanning the Nation Notebook – February 13, 2015

February 13, 2015 Columns No Comments

Some brief college basketball thoughts from around the country, high and low in Division I, in the middle of February:

      • Everyone has shared their Dean Smith recollections and stories this week, and they are all enjoyable and speak well of a legend of college basketball. Never had the pleasure to meet Dean Smith, but do remember watching his teams play for a number of years. One game from this memory sums up what we saw of UNC basketball under Dean Smith.

      It was from Nov. 24, 1989, a quarterfinal game in the Maui Classic (now known as Maui Invitational). Carolina took on a James Madison team coached by Lefty Driesell, who was in his second year there and after a mediocre first year had JMU primed for a big season in the CAA, and maybe more. The Dukes played an outstanding game for 39 minutes, looking the part of a national contender against UNC, and held a 79-70 lead with just over a minute left. Then, the Tar Heels turned up the heat on their full court pressure, hit some big shots, and suddenly had the ball with a chance to win in the final seconds. King Rice (now the coach at Monmouth) dribbled into the lane and threw up a prayer of a leaner, high off the glass, through the net just as the buzzer went off. North Carolina 80, James Madison 79. If saw it once, swear saw it a couple dozen times with Smith’s Carolina teams, the Tar Heels improbably rallying in the final minutes to steal a game they  looked all but beaten in. Even with his less talented teams (the Heels were an 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament that year) it took an extraordinary effort to beat North Carolina.
    • Watching Washington at the end of its loss to 64-50 loss to Oregon State, one has to wonder just how much the Huskies have left in them this year. In the final few minutes of that game, Washington looked like a thoroughly demoralized team. The Huskie defense was half-hearted at best, with OSU players dribbling in circles like the Harlem Globetrotters, then driving into the lane completely unchallenged. That the game was decided and the Beavers were running down the clock did not matter; this wasn’t a case of the shot clock being off, Oregon State still had to shoot the ball. Washington has had a rough past 50 days or so, and undoubtedly the loss of Robert Upshaw hurt, as have six losses by six points or less. This is still a better team that it showed in the final minutes of that game, though. It will be interesting to see how much fight the Huskies have left the rest of the season, starting with a big chance at home against Arizona Friday night.
    • One team that really kind of like after watching some of this year: East Carolina. The Pirates have some nice pieces: three decent scorers (Terry Whisnant, B.J. Tyson and Caleb White), some decent size down low (Marshall Guilmette and Michael Zangari) and an unselfish all-around guy (Antonio Robinson) who is good at everything except scoring. Jeff Lebo, who played under Dean Smith, runs a good share of Carolina-style offense, with a lot of movement and the ball not hitting the floor much. Enjoyable team to watch, and one that’s improving. ECU (11-13 overall) has won three of its last four and has wins over Cincinnati and Memphis in that stretch.
    • Of the games we’ve seen this year, few coaches do a better job of exploiting individual matchups than La Salle’s John Giannini. The Explorers repeatedly took what was given them in a 64-62 win over Richmond last week, with guard Jordan Price regularly posting up the Spiders’ terrific but diminutive Kendall Anthony. You hear all the time about small guards being defensive liabilities because of their lack of height, the but reality is that’s probably more of a problem in the NBA than college basketball because so few teams have guards post up. La Salle got the Spiders in all kinds of foul trouble early and held on to win the game, and the Explorers are a decent team this year (14-10) that seems to have bounced back some after last year’s disappointingly mediocre campaign coming off the Sweet 16 in 2013.
    • We have a first-name-on-the-back-of-the-jersey sighting this season. Lamar senior Tyran de Lattibeaudiere is the latest to join the club of players who has his first name on the back of his jersey instead of his last name, understandable since ‘Tyran’ fits far easier than ‘de Lattibeaudiere’ on the back of a jersey. Tyran, er, de Lattibeaudiere, joins a club that includes former Cincinnati guard Field Williams, Houston center Akeem Olajuwon, and our personal favorite, former Stetson (and later Alabama State) center Chief Kickingstallionsims, whose name resulted in the nameplate on the back of his Stetson jersey simply reading “Chief.” It’s one of those great quirks of college basketball (but also one we’re thankful that is not a full-blown trend).
    • On the subject of Iowa center Adam Woodbury’s triple-play of eye pokes this year, we’re thinking the discussion is pointed in the wrong direction. There’s no reason to debate the kid’s character; coach Fran McCaffery has defended him vigorously, and at some point people will have to take his word for it. The reason why it keeps happening, though, is pretty simple: because officials and coaches let it happen. Remember when defensive players in basketball were taught to keep their hands up and “play defense with your feet?” On all three plays, Woodbury is playing defense with his hands, fingers pointed directly at the offensive player. Intentional or not, it’s only natural that at some point his hands will make contact with a face. If he’s making any contact at all with the hands, by rule it should be a foul, and if this is how Woodbury has always played defense since high school (as Pat Forde in his latest Forde Minutes column quoted McCaffery as saying at a Big Ten teleconference) then he should be fouling out of games in about three minutes. This is what happens when hand-checking is regularly allowed in college basketball. If Woodbury’s hands are simply back on defense, the way they should be and the way players were not just taught but forced to play by officials for the longest time, then we don’t have to worry about eye pokes. (Even if face guarding, a defender can and should have hands high, not fingers pointed at the face) This is the sport coaches and officials have jointly decided they want. As soon as the vested parties decide-coaches, rules makers, referees, fans-that they’ve had enough, then it will stop. Until then, eye pokes and assorted other unnecessary injuries will continue.
    • The more we watch college basketball on TV over the years, the more the broadcasts seem emblematic of the sport itself: lacking fundamentals and about as deep as an offense based on isolation plays and the pick-and-roll. In general, the broadcasts are fine, tolerable. They just could be much more. Watching games even 10, 15 years ago, one felt like they were learning a lot about the teams playing. One would think it’s the opposite in the so-called “information age,” but graphics and statistical use has become minimal and leaves a lot of room for improvement. Individual season averages for players when shooting free throws for the first time, or just simple biographical information about players, should be standard information for any broadcast. So should timely stats on shooting percentages, turnovers, points in the paint, or any other stats that help us understand why a game is playing out the way it is. Right now it seems like too many broadcasts rely on an analyst giving meat-and-potatoes analysis, breaking down plays or what a guy did or didn’t do on a play. Occasionally a statistic will pop up, but not often. Play-by-play guys also need to identify new players entering the game; again, it’s something so basic, but it frequently slides by without happening. Undoubtedly, part of the appeal of televising college basketball is that it can be done on a budget, but it’s time a little more was spent on putting together a broadcast that truly informs the viewer.
    • A call out to the Rice Owls, a team in the midst of rebuilding under a new coach that nonetheless is becoming a tough out in Conference USA. In its last two games, Rice (8-15 this year) has knocked off former C-USA leader Western Kentucky on the road and now took down Middle Tennessee State in two overtimes on Thursday. It’s always enjoyable to see seniors have some special moments as their seasons wind down, and senior Seth Gearhart scored a career-high 31 in the win over WKU and Marcus Jackson scored 24 in the win over MTSU. Mike Rhoades is in his first year with the Owls, and it’s going to take time to get the program turned around, but he already has the team competitive in literally every game-Rice does not have a single loss by more than 14 points.
    • Also a special mention of Illinois-Chicago. We have a soft spot for teams that may not be particularly good but that continue to play hard. While the Flames have had another tough year (7-19 record) under coach Howard Moore, every time we’ve caught them on TV we can say this: it’s a team that has not quit. UIC has eight losses by six points or less, and the Flames have even knocked off a couple Horizon League foes of late, winning at Detroit and Wright State in the last week. UIC also was the team that finished 6-25 last year but defeated Wisconsin-Milwaukee by 22 points just before the Horizon League Tournament, when Milwaukee would get on a run and make the NCAA Tournament.

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