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Scanning the Nation Notebook: On CFP ratings, injuries, South Carolina and more

January 14, 2016 Columns No Comments

Some college basketball thoughts in mid-January, as we start to settle into the grind of conference play for the next 1 1/2 months:

It’s notable that there was little more than cursory note by the movers and shakers in college basketball of the fact that the rating for the Alabama/Clemson College Football Playoff title game was lower than that for last year’s Duke/Wisconsin college hoops NCAA national championship game. One would think this is something for the sport to celebrate, not at the expense of college football but as a sign that interest in the sport-or at the very least, its crown jewel event-is not nearly as far behind football as sometimes implied.

Of course, that little nugget just doesn’t jibe with the narrative pushed so hard a year ago about how “unwatchable” college basketball was, and that the sport was hemorrhaging viewers and interest unless it took rash measures and instituted numerous major rule changes, preferably in an attempt to make it as enlightened as the NBA or international basketball. No further proof than those TV numbers should be required to show just how overstated so much of that moaning by the talking heads was.

Undoubtedly, at least a part of the reason for the ratings results was the difference between broadcast TV and cable (a warning for some future years, when the NCAA foolishly plays the national title game to cable). And for sure, college basketball needed some adjustments. But those could’ve been addressed simply by continuing the emphasis on freedom and reducing the number of timeouts coaches have, and didn’t require things such as the repeal of the five-second closely guarded call. (Isn’t it fun watching players for the team in the lead dribble near halfcourt for 25 seconds every possession in the last two minutes of a close game?)

We’re told time and again that football is king of college sports to all, and college basketball is a distant afterthought and thus is in a perpetual state of “needs improvement.” If so, then the ratings for the two sports’ crown jewel events should reflect that. They don’t. College basketball will never be college football, but it also never needed the extreme makeover treatment…

Go ahead and try to make a list of all the college basketball teams this season that have been/are being temporarily but heavily affected by injuries.

Of course, the first names that will come to mind are Michigan State, Arizona, Texas, North Carolina, maybe Wichita State. Others who have gone into games significantly shorthanded at times include Dayton, Valparaiso, Tennessee-Chattanooga and Missouri State. Undoubtedly, you’ll hear TV heads talking about how the losses (and even wins) while the injured are out may mean less for the most familiar teams, but you may not hear as much about the latter because, of course, they aren’t on TV as much.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee and try to consider how the results of games would’ve been when every one of those teams had every one of their players available. Try to do this fairly for every team.

Is there a word stronger than ‘impossible?’ This is exactly why the injury consideration should not see the light of day as part of the selection process for the tourney.

It’s no secret that there is a bias in the injury consideration provision in the selection process, and that injuries tend to be factored in more with the highest profile teams than with others. That’s human nature, but it’s also unfair.

Put simply: there is no possible way to evaluate how injuries have affected all 350+ Division I schools. Subjectivity is going to be part of the selection process, but as much as it can be removed, it should be, and this is one place where it absolutely needs to be. There is plenty of hard data available from 30+ game regular season schedules to judge teams. It is also impossible (there’s that word again) to put a number on the importance of a lost player in a game, the same way it cannot be graded if a player was playing at 70%, 80%, etc., and the fact that some computer formulas try to do so doesn’t change that.

It’s unfortunate that North Carolina lost at Northern Iowa without Marcus Paige. It’s also lousy that two of Chattanooga’s three losses this year came without two of its best players (Justin Tuoyo and Casey Jones, the latter who remains out). Carolina’s loss will be talked about more, but UTC’s could be every bit as significant if the Mocs are sitting on the bubble on Selection Sunday. If you’re expecting the committee to give both the same treatment, though, don’t hold your breath. In fact, the only way to do so would be to forget about trying to quantify the injuries and just grade the information and hard numbers that we do have…

Going back almost two weeks…even as it included 99 free throws (yes, 99) and 68 fouls, the contest between Memphis and South Carolina was one of the more enjoyable ones we’ve watched on TV this year. The intensity at the game was self-evident even through the screen; this was one of the most intense non-conference games of the season. Of course, the two schools do have a history, as one-time rivals in the Metro Conference. That was nearly 25 years ago now, but the game clearly still held meaning. Non-conference play is so, so much better when more games like this are scheduled, and less “buy” games are played. If those involved in the sport really are looking for ways to increase interest-and not just line pocketbooks-then they should take note…

By the way, Frank Martin’s Gamecocks are a lot of fun to watch, playing their denial defense all over the floor (defensively, it’s stunning just how much South Carolina’s defense looks so much like that played by Stephen F. Austin, which of course is coached by former Martin assistant Brad Underwood). Michael Carrera is a good mid-sized inside-out player, Mindaugas Kacinas does a little of everything (glue guy alert) and Sindarius Thornwell was emerging as a legitimate scoring option before scoring just two in the team’s decisive loss to Alabama on Wednesday. Despite its 15-0 start, because of its softish schedule South Carolina is anything but a lock for the NCAA Tournament, but the opportunity is certainly there if the Gamecocks can find a way to stick out from another pack of very similar teams in the SEC. SC would be advised to guard the three-point line better (opponents are averaging eight triples per game, and Alabama hit 13, including eight from Riley Norris) and the continued development of 6-7 freshman point guard P.J. Dozier bears watching. The highly touted Dozier has been up and down in his first year, but obviously his size and athleticism is intriguing, especially as the Gamecocks continue to run into bigger teams in the SEC…

Saint Mary’s lost a tough game on the road Saturday at Pepperdine, a team that was anticipated to be in the Gaels’ place as Gonzaga’s top challenger in the West Coast Conference but kind of fell off some radars after a 2-4 start to the season as well as a 0-2 start in the WCC. We’re still bullish on SMC’s prospects for the season, though, and think it has a real chance to knock off the Zags for conference honors. The Gaels are a really, really nice offensive team-efficient, skilled, good-shooting, unselfish and balanced, with post-up big men and a number of players who can score. The Gaels also are improving defensively, allowing just 57.8 points per game so far. A problem against Pepperdine was that freshman Evan Fitzner spent almost the entire game in foul trouble and played just nine minutes. Fitzner is a mobile and versatile inside-outside player who can shoot the three, play in deep and also moves well without the ball, and he makes a big difference in keeping defenses honest. One concern as the season goes on would be the team’s youth-Saint Mary’s has no seniors and just two juniors, and with so many young players one hopes the grind of the season doesn’t wear the team down.

Speaking of Saint Mary’s: how many players have even thought of sporting a bandanna plus Matt Stainbrook-style glasses for games? Gaels’ sharpshooter guard Calvin Hermanson does, and as awkward as it sounds, it’s pretty sweet. Almost as much as his jump shot (which hits at a 41.3% rate from three-point range), and in its own way may even rank right up there in coolness factor with Saint Joseph’s forward Deandre Bembry’s Afro

Just to offer a small refuge, perhaps a support group in case you thought otherwise: you can be a college basketball fan and be totally okay with it if LSU doesn’t make the NCAA Tournament. This idea that somehow the tourney won’t be the tourney if Ben Simmons isn’t in it is rubbish. LSU is making at least 22 appearances on national television this year, including a number of them against NCAA tourney-like teams. There are plenty of chances to see Simmons play in big games this year, and if his team is not good enough to take advantage of its advantageous position-major conference visibility and funding, all the scheduling and recruiting strength in the world-to get into the tourney, then we really aren’t missing that much. It’s entirely fair to hope the Tigers prove themselves to be an NCAA Tournament team, the same way it’s fair to hope every team does enough to reach that status. And if they don’t? The tourney will go on just fine…

P.S. If you want a really harsh, cynical view on that? Ask someone just how much is remembered from Kevin Durant’s two-and-out in the 2007 tourney in his one year at Texas. The answer is: not a whole lot…

Speaking of Texas, it’s hard to fight the notion that the Longhorns, as they are right now, will go as far as Isaiah Taylor takes them. Of course, Taylor already was a pivotal player for the team before-including field goals and free throws, Taylor is taking 22.9% of all shot attempts by Texas this year, but that has increased to 31.2% over the five games since Ridley went out, and the end of games has been heavy, heavy doses of Taylor with everyone else playing a light supporting role. Javan Felix will continue to pitch in some shots and Prince Ibeh will provide the defense and rebounding, but the Horns will benefit greatly as freshmen like Tevin Mack and Eric Davis continue to develop. Mack scored 12 in the first half of Texas’s upset of Iowa State and Davis added 11 in the second half…

File this away for March: if you’re looking for a team to take a flyer on as a surprise pick to win its conference tournament, you could do a lot worse than Florida International in Conference USA. The Panthers (unfortunately, they’re no longer the “Golden” Panthers, though it’s even more unfortunate they ever shed their old “Sunblazers” nickname) have a difference-maker inside in Adrian Diaz, a 6-11 one-time Kansas State transfer who leads the nation with 3.4 blocks per game and also is averaging 15.7 points and 9.7 rebounds. Diaz is the type of player who can put a team on his back, the way Andrew Nicholson did with St. Bonaventure in the 2012 Atlantic 10 Tournament. He also is flanked by a 15-ppg scorer (Donte McGill) plus a rugged inside-outside threat in Daviyon Draper (14.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg), who has three straight terrific games in league play to start January. FIU is just 7-7 but lost three non-conference games in overtime and also has any number of players who could get hot from deep, with six players having hit at least 12 three-pointers this year…

Finally, we know how much fun it is to talk about freshmen and Diaper Dandies. There are all kinds of quality freshmen across the country, though-far more than just one-and-dones-and one of the best is Eastern Michigan’s James Thompson. The 6-10 freshman center is leading the Eagles with 15.2 points, 11.0 rebounds (tied for ninth nationally) and 1.8 blocks per game, and he leads the nation with his 71.6% shooting percentage from the field. Thompson recently tied an NCAA record by making 26 consecutive field goals, and he also is second in the country in offensive rebounding (4.6 per game) and his nine double-doubles are tied for 11th in the nation. Watching him in the Eagles’ opener this year against Vermont, one could see Thompson is raw but had potential to make an impact quickly, and he is adapting quickly to the college level, which is bad, bad news for MAC opponents.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
E-mail: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

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