Monday, March 28, 2011

Tennessee Hires Cuonzo Martin

(Photo: University of Tennessee Dept. of Intercollegiate Athletics).

Last week, Tennessee fired embattled men's head basketball coach Bruce Pearl. And just as Virginia Commonwealth and Kentucky were punching their respective tickets to the 2011 Final Four on Sunday evening, Tennessee announced that Missouri State head coach Cuonzo Martin had been hired as its new men's basketball coach (more here).

Cuonzo Martin is a native of East St. Louis, IL. He played on two IHSA championship basketball teams at East St. Louis Lincoln High School. Following high school, Martin went on to Purdue, where he played for legendary coach Gene Keady from 1990-1994. In the 1994 Sweet Sixteen, Martin set a Purdue record for three point shots made in a game when he completed eight three pointers against Kansas. After playing professionally in Italy and in the old Continental Basketball Association (R.I.P.) for a short time -- with a seven-game sojourn in the NBA sprinkled in along the way -- Martin returned to the United States and successfully battled cancer. With his health improved, he joined Keady's Purdue coaching staff in 2000. After eight years as an assistant at Purdue, Cuonzo Martin accepted the vacant Missouri State coaching position in 2008.

With his move to Tennessee, Cuonzo Martin becomes the fifth active former Gene Keady assistant to helm a high major college basketball program. Other active products of the Keady/Purdue coaching tree at high majors include Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt, Bruce Weber at Illinois, Matt Painter at Purdue and Steve Lavin at St. John's.

Cuonzo Martin is a good choice for Tennessee. He's a young, up-and-coming coach who has been successful at the helm of one of the better Mid Major programs in college basketball. Missouri State won the Missouri Valley Conference regular season race this season, but were left out of the NCAA Tournament when they failed to win the MVC tournament. It's worth mentioning that in Martin's three seasons at Missouri State, none of his teams made it to the NCAA Tournament. That's notable, since Martin replaced Barry Hinson, who was fired by Missouri State after his teams made four consecutive N.I.T. appearances, but failed to make the NCAA Tournament -- even after finishing with back-to-back 22 win seasons and top 40 RPI ratings. Hinson's failure to lead the Bears program to the NCAA Tournament was widely believed to have been the deciding factor behind his ouster. Drive and Dish thought Martin was a good choice for Missouri State when he was hired. And there's no doubt that he's done well in his brief stay at that school. But it's hard to see how his stewardship of the Missouri State basketball program has been a significant improvement over that of Coach Hinson. Aside from having the aforementioned young, up-and-coming coach aura working for him, his on-court results appear remarkably similar to those of the man he replaced.

Nevertheless, congratulations are in order for Cuonzo Martin and for Tennessee. Tennessee has replaced a severely ethically-challenged coach with a new coach who's widely thought of as a good dude. But Coach Martin has his work cut out for him. On the positive side, Tennessee has good facilities, a great arena and outstanding talent on its roster. But after scandals incurred by Pearl and former football coach Lane Kiffin, Tennessee athletics will presumably be under the microscope of the NCAA (or at least they should be). And one would expect (or perhaps more accurately, hope) that some level of sanctions will be placed on the Tennessee athletic department -- and on the basketball program specifically -- by the enforcement wing of the NCAA. If NCAA sanctions come to pass, Martin will face an uphill climb at Tennessee. It's also worth bearing in mind that, as is the case at all SEC schools not named "Kentucky", football is king at Tennessee. Despite the Volunteers' recent hardwood success, men's basketball will probably always take a back seat to football (and even to women's basketball) in Knoxville. Remember, early in his tenure at Tennessee, Bruce Pearl was so desperate eager to drum up support for men's basketball by endearing himself to Tennessee fans that he donned body paint and joined the student cheering section at a Lady Volunteers basketball game. Tennessee men's basketball eventually did become popular during Pearl's reign, but the Vols were usually ranked between 10-15 in the AP Top 25 during that time. Fan support for men's basketball is a relatively new phenomenon at Tennessee. It remains to be seen if it will survive Pearl's departure.

Along those lines, it's worth noting that in 1997, Kevin O'Neill resigned as basketball coach at Tennessee to take the same position at Northwestern. At the time, Northwestern was hardly an attractive job. But O'Neill was eager to bolt Tennessee for a Big Ten school -- apparently for ANY Big Ten school -- because men's basketball was little more than an afterthought at football-crazy Tennessee. The irascible O'Neill continually clashed with an athletic department that he characterized as disinclined to devote adequate resources to the men's basketball program. Tennessee replaced Kevin O'Neill with Jerry Green, who was replaced by Buzz Peterson, who was replaced by Bruce Pearl. Now Cuonzo Martin replaces Pearl.

Kevin O'Neill left Tennessee more than a decade ago, but it remains to be seen whether the difficulties he had getting adequate support for men's basketball from the Tennessee athletic department are entirely a thing of the past. Cuonzo Martin apparently thinks they are. He'll soon find out for sure.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Mike Anderson Leaves Mizzou for Arkansas

Update (3/27/11):
Cuonzo Martin is out of the running for the head coaching position at Missouri, as he has accepted the position of head men's basketball coach at Tennessee.

Original Post:

In a move that was rumored for at least a week, Arkansas has hired Missouri head basketball coach Mike Anderson to take the reins of its once-proud men's basketball program. Anderson has proven himself to be a successful high-major head coach; between his five year tenure at Missouri and his previous four years at Alabama-Birmingham, he's compiled a 200-98 career record. The move to Arkansas amounts to something of a homecoming for Anderson, as he spent seventeen years there as an assistant on Nolan Richardson's coaching staff. And since Anderson implemented Nolan Richardson's notorious tip off-to-buzzer running, trapping, full-court pressing, "40 minutes of Hell" style of basketball at UAB and at Missouri, he promises to return the Arkansas basketball program to the style of basketball that made it famous all those years ago.

Anderson's move to the Fayetteville, AR, school appears to be the right fit. It makes all the sense in the world for both parties. After spending the greater part of the last decade in the college basketball wilderness, Arkansas now has a proven head coach who resurrected the basketball program at a historically good basketball school (Missouri) in a power conference (the Big 12), and who will provide a direct link to the Razorback basketball program's early-mid 1990s glory days (Anderson having been on Nolan Richardson's coaching staff when the "40 minutes of Hell" Razorbacks won the National Championship in 1994). Coach Anderson gets a big payday -- he goes from his $1.5 million per year salary at Missouri to $2.2 million a year at Arkansas -- and he gets to direct a history and tradition-rich basketball program that just happens to play in a less challenging conference than the conference in which his previous school played (Kentucky always dominates the SEC, but beyond UK and Florida, the league is often wide open). What's more, he gets to go home.

As for Anderson's former employer, rumors abound as to which coaches are on Missouri's wish list. There's been much speculation in the St. Louis and Kansas City media about Missouri's interest -- or purported interest -- in Purdue head coach Matt Painter, Memphis head coach Josh Pastner, Missouri State head coach Cuonzo Martin, Virginia Commonwealth head coach (and hot name du jour) Shaka Smart and Oral Roberts head coach Scott Sutton.

Drive and Dish doesn't traffic in rumors. But we note the coaches' names who have been "mentioned" with regard to the open men's head basketball coaching at Missouri for the reason of illustrating how the sports media reports on coaching searches. We know of an Athletic Director at a Division I institution who is currently involved in a search for a new men's basketball coach and who advised individuals closely tied to the coaching search and hiring process not to pay attention to media reports regarding their institution's coaching vacancy. He said that roughly between 75% - 90% of the information that would be reported by the media (and dissected ad nauseam on internet message boards devoted to men's college basketball) would be uninformed speculation, misinformation or complete fiction.

Newspapers are in business to sell papers, after all. And since nobody buys papers anymore, they're in business to garner as many hits on their websites as possible. Sports articles deliver hits, and gossipy articles about coaching searches in football and men's basketball at high profile universities deliver hits from the young, college-educated male demographic almost as reliably as gossipy articles about Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan, Lady Gaga or Brad and Angelina deliver hits from similarly situated young females. Whether or not the information contained in those types of articles happens to be true, or is based on solid information and concrete leads, is oftentimes largely beside the point. Sure, there are sports writers who have a pretty good handle on what's really going on. And yes, there are sports writers who take their craft seriously enough that they prefer not to throw various coaches' names around for the sake of, well, throwing names around. But there's always pressure on writers to start naming names.

Hardcore fans want names! Regular fans want names! Even casual fans want names! Really, just about everybody wants names!

So writers deliver names.

We won't speculatively throw names around for the sake of throwing names around, but we will talk about the nature of the Missouri men's basketball coaching position. Missouri is a very good job, but it may not a "destination" job for most coaches. Missouri has produced many good basketball teams over the years, but Kansas is the big dog in the Big 12 conference. Missouri is a solid basketball program, but the Tigers are perpetually among the cluster of Big 12 teams -- Oklahoma, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Baylor and sometimes Iowa State -- that scrape and scrap to get a shot at 3rd place, behind powerhouse Kansas and upstart Texas (which has become something of an accidental basketball power in recent years).

Respectable though it may be, Missouri is simply not a glamor program. It's definitely good, but it's not top-tier. And while Columbia, MO, is a decent college town, it's relatively small, isolated and rural. The proprietors of Drive and Dish have spent a great deal of time in Columbia. We like Columbia. But we'd never confuse it with Ann Arbor, Austin, Gainseville, or Chapel Hill. As college towns go, Columbia can seem pretty button-down and folksy. From the perspective of a coaching candidate considering the suitability of a potential move to Missouri, Columbia would probably look like a good place to raise a family, but anyone looking for the bright lights and the city is likely to be disappointed. In other words, it's a safe bet that Rick Pitino, John Calipari and Steve Lavin aren't fighting each other over the chance to jump ship to Mizzou.

Norm Stewart was the head coach at Missouri for 32 years. Stewart was a folksy, plainspoken, no-frills native son of the Show Me State. His persona fit the Missouri basketball program and Columbia like a glove. In 1999, Stewart was pushed out the door in favor of then-Duke associate head coach Quin Snyder. Snyder's hiring was seen as a coup for Missouri. He was probably the most in-demand young assistant coach in college basketball at the time. And he was the stylistic yin to Stewart's staid yang: the dynamic, young, Hollywood-esque Snyder was the polar opposite of salt-of-the-Earth Norm Stewart. Snyder was articulate, smart (he earned a J.D. from Duke Law and an M.B.A. from Duke's Fuqua School of Business in 1995, and as an undergrad, he carried double majors in Philosophy & Political Science while starting at point guard for Coach Krzyzewski's Blue Devils) charismatic, and good looking -- with his tasseled hair and perma-pout, Snyder looked like he could have been the late River Pheonix and Joaquin Phoenix's older brother. And as the lead recruiter on Mike Krzyzewski's Duke coaching staff, Snyder had been widely hailed as the man who delivered top-flight recruits to Duke's Durham, NC, campus -- Elton Brand, Corey Maggette, Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer, Chris Burgess, William Avery, Casey Sanders and Shane Battier were among Snyder's Duke recruits. Prior to Snyder's recruiting efforts, Mike Krzyzewski had been known as a great coach who won with players who fit his system. After Snyder's recruiting hauls, Krzyzweski became known as a coach who prepared players for the NBA.

But Quin Snyder turned out to be a disaster for Missouri basketball. Recruiting improved exponentially (as expected), but the Snyder era of Missouri Tigers hoops was riddled by one scandal after another. Some of the scandals were related to recruiting. Others were related to players' off-court behavior. Still, others were related to Snyder's own off-court behavior.

With its basketball program in shambles, Missouri dumped Snyder and replaced him with then-UAB coach Mike Anderson. Anderson was an excellent hire for Missouri, and his tenure in Columbia was a success. But his fast-paced, frenetic style of basketball always seemed better suited for the SEC than for the Big 12. And he was never able to successfully recruit elite basketball players to Missouri, as Snyder had. So it's no surprise that Coach Anderson left Missouri for Arkansas. He built up his resume at Missouri, but it was a good time for him to move up.

So now Missouri is left to conduct yet another coaching search. If Tigers fans were restless after 32 years of Norm Stewart's "boring" old coaching style, perhaps they're nearing their fill of fast lane excitement after 12 years of Snyder and Anderson (Anderson's teams played basketball in the fast lane; Snyder and several of his players lived in the fast lane).

Ultimately, Missouri would probably be better suited by hiring a strong Xs & Os coach who has strong Midwestern ties and has a solid history of head coaching success at the Division I level of college basketball -- no matter button-down and staid he may be -- than by hiring a hot, young, up-and-coming, flavor of the day coach; a recruiting whiz; or a coach who runs a gimmicky system (no matter how exciting the product on the court may be). A coach like UNLV's Lon Kruger or Oregon's Dana Altman would be perfect for Missouri. They're both great basketball coaches who have low-key, salt-of-the-Earth Midwestern personal styles, but they run clean, perennially successful basketball programs. Unfortunately, neither Kruger nor Altman is likely to leave his current position. Purdue's Matt Painter would be a home run hire for Missouri (he fits our criteria for an ideal Missouri basketball coach to a tee), but it's difficult to understand why he would have interest in leaving Purdue for Mizzou. Painter is a Purdue alumnus who was the hand-picked successor of legendary Purdue coach Gene Keady. He's enjoyed a tremendous amount of on-court success in the relatively short time he's been at the helm of his alma matter's basketball program. Why would Painter make what would be, at best, a lateral move to Missouri when the future looks bright for Purdue basketball?

In our opinion, Missouri could be a great fit for a successful, highly-regarded Mid Major coach like Wichita State's Gregg Marshall or Richmond's Chris Mooney. Both coaches currently have great jobs -- Wichita State and Richmond are among the better Mid Major programs in college basketball -- but Missouri would constitute a big step up. Virginia Commonwealth's Shaka Smart is currently THE flavor of the month, and will be a likely target for Mizzou. But 2011 NCAA Tournament success aside, Smart hasn't been a successful head coach for very long, and his climb through the coaching apprenticeship occurred primarily at institutions in the Southeastern United States (Clemson & Florida, respectively). As such, Smart's coaching learning curve took place in the ACC and the SEC, and the majority of his professional and recruiting ties are, no doubt, in the Southeast. He will almost certainly be pursued heavily by ACC member institution Georgia Tech, and he may ultimately feel more comfortable coaching in that region than in Columbia, MO, or in the Big 12 in general.

Missouri is in an unenviable position. It's one thing to mount a coaching search when you fired the previous coach; it's an entirely different thing to undertake a coaching search when your previous coach walked out on you to take a perceived better coaching job. Schools fire coaches when things are heading south. Hence, there's always a great deal of excitement that accompanies a post-firing coaching search. After all, the new coach always promises to be better than the bum who just got shown the door. Fans are excited to start anew. Everybody's buzzed from the promise of hope and change.

It's a different story when a coach unexpectedly leaves a program. It's akin to getting dumped by a girlfriend. Athletic Directors often find themselves reeling as they scramble to fill their unexpected coaching vacancies on the rebound. Mid Major programs have practice at conducting such coaching searches. Athletic Directors at that level actually expect to lose their successful coaches. If a Mid Major coach is considered a hot coaching prospect for high major programs, he's likely to leave. It happens all the time. That's why a school like VCU can recover from losing a coach like Anthony Grant to Alabama by replacing him with someone like Shaka Smart. It's why Tulsa once recovered from losing Nolan Richardson by replacing him with Tubby Smith . . . and later recovered from losing Tubby Smith by replacing him with Bill Self.

Such coaching searches, however, are rare at BCS conference schools like Missouri. For Missouri, getting dumped by Coach Anderson in favor of a perceived "sexier" basketball program is nothing short of a shot to the body. Everyone associated with the Missouri basketball program -- from the administration, to alumni, to the players, to the fans -- has just been served with a blow to the ego. And everyone associated with the Missouri program will be on pins and needles until the program can move forward with its new coach.

Drive and Dish wishes Missouri and its fans all the best. But don't expect Brad Stevens, Matt Painter or Shaka Smart to swoop in to the rescue, and allow everyone in Columbia to forget about losing Mike Anderson.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Drive and Dish 2011 Bracket

Drive and Dish came into existence one week before the start of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. In 2008, we began publishing our handwritten NCAA brackets (more here, and here) on the eve of the Tournament's opening day. Thanks to the explosion in popularity that March Madness has enjoyed over the last 20-25 years, the opening day of the NCAA Tournament has become one of the traditionally least productive work days in America. And since the Tournament opens on St. Patrick's Day this year, the tradition of blowing off work and/or school is only likely to continue.

On this fine day, Americans from all walks of life -- ranging from those at the top of the totem pole to those at the bottom -- will turn their attention to college basketball and green beer at the expense of workplace productivity. We at Drive and Dish, of course, applaud this. Our attention is turned to basketball (college basketball in particular) all year . It's nice to see the rest of the country catch up with us for two or three weeks every March. Unfortunately, over the last two years, time constraints have prevented our writers/editors from holding up the Drive and Dish tradition of dishing out season-long college basketball commentary. But on the opening day of the 2011 NCAA Tournament, this blog is doing what it can to make up for lost time. Hence, in the spirit of upholding tradition, Drive and Dish hereby reveals our handwritten, St. Patrick's Day green, official 2011 Drive and Dish NCAA Tournament bracket (note: Drive and Dish co-founder and former Atlantic Coast Conference bureau chief Mark Buckets has also kept his post-2008 tradition of declining to submit his bracket):


1.) As we've said over and over, we love Ohio State. The Buckeyes are strong at every position, have good senior leadership, and present potential matchup problems for their potential opponents. But despite the season-long superb play of super freshman Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft, it's never a good thing to have freshmen starting at the key positions of point guard and center (as Craft and Sullinger do for OSU). Sullinger and Craft certainly play with more composure and savvy than typical freshmen. But at some point in the Tournament -- particularly as Ohio State advances into the Tournament's later rounds -- their youth and inexperience is likely to catch up with them at crucial moments (even if it's only for a play or two).

2.) Duke lost Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas from its 2010 National Championship team to graduation (Scheyer was arguably the Blue Devils' most important player). But those losses are more or less offset by the presence of pre season All American seniors Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. Scheyer was the steady senior leader who always made the right decision at the right time, and thus put his teammates in optimal position to succeed on every possession. He has been missed all season. That said, the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee rewarded Duke with a fairly easy bracket. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski has guided Duke to four National Championships; there's no question that he knows how to win in the Tournament. And while it's fairly apparent that Duke's 2010 team was better than the 2011 team, we think the Blue Devils have all the pieces necessary to survive and advance all the way through the relatively weak 2011 NCAA Tournament field.

3.) West Virginia lost most of the key players who led them through their 2010 Final Four run. But fortunately, Bob Huggins and his Mountaineers still have senior point guard Joe Mazzulla -- the guy who's run the show for the last four years. Mazzulla is hardly a future NBA lottery pick- in-waiting. But he's an experienced, heady, athletic point guard. And paired with with his long and athletic teammates, Mazzulla and West Virginia is better than most people think. They'll be a tough out in the Tournament.

4.) Rick Barnes' Texas teams fall apart at the end of every season (excepting the Longhorns' 2003 Final Four team). This year, the Longhorns have even more talent usual, and that's saying something, since the Longhorn teams of recent years have been loaded with talent. Freshman big man Tristan Thompson is a potential NBA lottery draft pick. The Longhorns have a talented and experienced back court. We usually pick Texas' first or second round opponents in our brackets. This year, we have Texas advancing past Oakland in the first round, despite the fact that we think Oakland is more than capable of catching the Horns off guard and giving them a run for their money. Oakland is a very good team. We wouldn't be shocked if they upset Texas. We picked Texas because we think the Horns' superior size, athleticism and depth will win out in the end. But, as usual, we're skeptical of Texas.

5.) We wouldn't be surprised if Richmond upsets Vanderbilt. As we've said before, we love head coach Kevin Stallings' Vanderbilt teams. And after much back and forth, we reluctantly picked them to advance in our bracket. But we expect Richmond to give them big trouble. And we won't be the least bit surprised if Richmond knocks Stallings' Commodores out in round one. After all, a twelve seed beats a five seed every year. We may come to regret not picking coach Chris Mooney's Richmond Spiders; they could very well end up being one of those notoriously dangerous 12 seeds.

6.) We don't necessarily think that highly of Georgetown, but we think they'll survive Virginia Commonwealth and upset Purdue in the second round. If that happens, Georgetown will likely face Notre Dame in the Sweet Sixteen. Notre Dame has probably been our favorite team in college basketball over the last two years (since the Drive and Dish retirement of Duke superfan Mark Buckets, the Duke-partisan sensibilities of this blog have decreased exponentially, the past two years' brackets notwithstanding). But we think the Irish are more vulnerable than most people realize. That's why we picked Florida State to upset the Irish in the Tournament's second round . Our pick is a long shot, though. Notre Dame should win that game (and probably will if the two teams do, in fact, meet). And if Big East rivals Georgetown and Notre Dame face off in the NCAA Tournament, Notre Dame will probably win. But due to how the two teams match up, a Notre Dame vs. Georgetown could be a lot closer than most people will be inclined to think.

7.) Notre Dame's Ben Hansbrough and Pittsburgh's Brad Wanamaker have probably been our favorite players to watch in 2011 (Ohio State's equally tough Aaron Craft deserves mention too, despite being a mere freshman). Hansbrough and Wanamaker are highly skilled, tough-as-nails, high basketball IQ seniors who seem to play with ice water in their veins. They're both great college basketball players. College basketball doesn't have enough stars who stick around for their senior years. But both of these guys did. And both are exactly the kind of star who's capable of carrying his team deep into the Tournament. We're big fans of both Notre Dame and Pittsburgh. Although we didn't pick either team to advance to the Final Four, we actually hope both manage to do so.

8.) We debated for days, but we ended up selecting Butler over Old Dominion in the first round game between those two outstanding mid major teams. Both clubs are talented and superbly coached. What's more, Drive and Dish editors have seen both play in person several times over the last two or three years. It's too bad that they have to play each other in the first round, because we think both teams are more than capable of holding their own in a potential second bout with Pittsburgh.

To be sure, Butler isn't the same team as the 2010 Butler team that made the most improbable run to the National Title game in recent NCAA Tournament history. Last year's early entry of superstar point forward Gordon Hayward in the NBA draft left the Bulldogs without the player who was most responsible for getting them to the Final Four. We waited until the last minute to fill our bracket out because we couldn't decide whether to pick Old Dominion or Butler. We came ever so close to picking Old Dominion. In the end, we decided that Butler's size and NCAA Tournament savvy will probably be enough to get them past what we think promises to be a major scare from Blaine Taylor's tough Old Dominion Monarchs.

9.) We think Kansas is over-hyped this year (again). We think they're more vulnerable than most of the experts realize. But the Tournament Selection Committee rewarded KU with a favorable bracket. In theory, Notre Dame would appear to be a tough possible opponent for Bill Self's Jayhawks. But if Notre Dame survives long enough to face Kansas (which we're, regrettably, not predicting), we think Mike Brey's Fighting Irish will have trouble matching up at key positions (particularly under the basket).

10.) While still on the subject of match ups, we turn our attention to the first round game between UCLA and Michigan State. Our bracket shows Michigan State (a ten seed) making an out-of-nowhere run to the Final Four. We don't really think that's likely to happen. But we couldn't help but notice that the Spartans' bracket shapes up nicely for them if they can get past a very tough UCLA ballclub in the first round.

We went against our better judgment and kept filling Tom Izzo's Spartans in the winners' spaces because Michigan State has Final Four level talent and experience, and because they appear to match up well with most potential opponents in their bracket. There is, however, one big problem with that scenario: one team they don't appear to match up particularly well with is UCLA -- their first round opponent. Ben Howland's Bruins are a rarity for a Pac-10 team: not only are they long, athletic and highly-skilled, they're actually rugged and physical. So although Michigan State's big, tough front line should be able to give most teams in the Spartans' bracket trouble, UCLA's front line is, at the very least, equally big and tough.

UCLA vs. Michigan State could be one of the most interesting first round games to watch. Despite many experts' pre-season projections that had Michigan State playing for a Championship in 2011, the Spartans have played inexplicably poorly all season long. If they can finally pull themselves together in time for tonight's NCAA Tournament opening game (admittedly, a very big "if"), MSU has the talent, size and experience to play with anybody.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

NCAA Tournament Field Set: Drive and Dish Delivers Quick Selection Sunday Night Thoughts

NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday is winding down, and Drive and Dish has been silent all day. We've been thinking on and off about this year's NCAA Tournament field since the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee released the official 2011 NCAA Tournament bracket earlier in the evening. Unfortunately, 2011 has been a profoundly uneventful year in college basketball, and unlike recent years in which we went against the conventional wisdom to correctly predict the eventual NCAA Tournament winner in or brackets, we cannot honestly report that we have any particular unique wisdom regarding this year's NCAA Tournament field. It's been a down year for college basketball, and the Tournament field is relatively weak from top to bottom. If you've followed college basketball at all this year, you already know as much. At this point, most peoples' dogs and cats probably know it too. So there's not much we can say that hasn't probably been said many times in other forums. Nevertheless, Drive and Dish editors are contractually obligated to write about college basketball. So in the waning hours of Selection Sunday, we offer a few thoughts about the NCAA Tournament:

1.) Ohio State was awarded with the top overall seed in the Tournament. And they're probably the best team in college basketball. They're strong in every aspect of the game. They have no clear weaknesses. They have great inside scoring, courtesy of freshman superstar big man Jared Sullinger. They have strong play on the perimeter from their guards and wings. Freshman point guard Aaron Craft takes care of the ball, runs the offense, picks apart defenses and controls the tempo of the game like a seasoned veteran. Senior David Lighty can break opponents down from the wing and get to the basket whenever he wants to. William Buford is an underrated guard who would probably be a star on most other teams. Jon Diebler may very well be the most automatic shooter in all of college basketball. And head coach Thad Matta has the luxury of being able to call on a talented bench.

Ohio State's high-powered offense may get most of the attention, but it's their hard-nosed defense that makes them go. Craft is one of the best on-the-ball defenders at the point in college basketball. David Lighty is a chiseled, fleet-footed athlete with great vision and quick hands. He's as adept at slipping into passing lanes, sliding over on the help side, trapping, and recovering on the perimeter as anybody in the college game. What's more, with his combination of size, strength and athleticism, he's capable of guarding multiple positions.

Craft and Lighty's perimeter defense clearly sets the tone, but the Buckeyes team defense has the ability to simply shut teams down.

Drive and Dish loves Ohio State and thinks they're probably the best team in college basketball. But we can't get the fact that experience wins in the NCAA Tournament out of our heads. As impressive as freshmen Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft have been for Ohio State this year, we have to wonder if a team led by freshmen at the key positions of point guard and center can really win it all. Craft is so heady and plays with so much poise that we're tempted to make an exception to Drive and Dish's near-ironclad "never pick teams that have a freshman at point guard" rule. But as impressed as we've been all season with Craft, Sullinger and the Buckeyes, we're still not entirely sold. Check back to see our ultimate take on Ohio State when we release our filled-out bracket late on Tuesday night.

2.) Last Saturday, throngs of Duke fans were at wits' end following their season-ending road loss to arch-rival North Carolina. Drive and Dish editors even had to console former Drive and Dish ACC bureau chief (and rabid Duke fan) Mark Buckets after the game via several lengthy late night SMS texts. At an hour when most other people were sending and receiving booty calls, Drive and Dish staff were texting Mr. Buckets off the ledge. The crux of our argument was that ending the season by losing to a young, up-and-coming and surging team like North Carolina on the road was no big deal for a veteran team like Duke. Sure, the Blue Devils definitely miss the stalwart senior leadership that Jon Scheyer provided for last year's NCAA Championship team. Nevertheless, they return most of the other key players who helped to propel them to the 2010 Championship.

We instructed Mr. Buckets to reserve judgment on Duke's chances for defending their Championship until the conclusion of the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) tournament. We thought that if Duke's veteran team could turn on the jets in the ACC tournament, they could use that tournament to build ever-crucial momentum at just the right time. Our contention was that an ACC tournament trophy would wipe the North Carolina loss from memory and put the wind at the Blue Devils' sails just in time for the NCAA Tournament.

Succeeding in the NCAA Tournament is all about surging and going on runs. Successful veteran teams like Duke know how to surge at the right time. By beating North Carolina to win the ACC tournament, Duke has put itself in position to surge its way through the NCAA Tournament.

3.) As all the pundits say, the Big East is the best conference in college basketball. The 16-team mega-league has more good teams than any other conference. Eleven Big East teams are in the NCAA Tournament field. The league is stocked with big, physical, well coached teams feature outstanding perimeter players who handle the ball, shoot and slash to the basket like NBA guards. For people who truly love basketball, the Big East might just be the most fun league to watch. The ACC and the SEC play more of an uptempo, fast game than the often half court-oriented Big East. And that looks great on TV. But for those who truly love college basketball -- and know the Xs & Os of the game -- it's nearly impossible not to enjoy watching Big East games.

That said, the Big East is overrated.

It always is.

That's why we expect several of the eleven Big East teams to get upset in the Tournament's early rounds. It happens every year. It will happen again this year.

4.) The conventional wisdom seems to point to Kansas winning it all this year. That was the case last year too. Obviously, Duke surprised many people by holding on to the Championship in 2010. We thought Duke had a pretty obvious clear path through their bracket, but everybody else in the free world seemed to think Kansas was a shoe-in (until the Jayhawks got upset by Northern Iowa -- after that, most people who picked KU turned their allegiance to Kentucky). So it would be tempting to pick against Kansas for the simple reason that everybody else seems to be picking them. But we predict the outcomes of games by analyzing a number of factors, not the least of which is how each participant matches up against each other.

Kansas probably has the requisite pieces in place to win the NCAA Championship. Yet, Drive and Dish has serious reservations about Kansas' prospects anyway. The Jayhawks are vulnerable.

5.) Oakland (MI) might be the best team in the Tournament that nobody has heard of. As a 13 seed, they face 4 seed Texas on Friday in Tulsa, OK. Oakland should give coach Rick Barnes' ever-disappointing Longhorns a run for their money. In the end, Texas' superior size and depth will probably win out, but don't be shocked if Oakland pulls off the upset anyway.

6.) With everybody and their grandmother complaining about Virginia Commonwealth's surprising inclusion in the Tournament field, we expect VCU's players to come out with gargantuan chips on their shoulders. They face the Kevin O'Neill-coached USC Trojans in one of Wednesday's play in games in Dayton, OH. USC is big and talented, but VCU has something to prove. Drive and Dish likes VCU's chances to knock off USC en route to a Friday showdown with Georgetown in Chicago.

7.) Michigan is one of the hottest teams in the country. Fans of other schools love to hate on head coach John Beilein. But he's done quite a nice job in his time at Michigan. Beilein runs a fairly unorthodox system for college basketball. We love his system because it relies on highly skilled, fundamentally sound players with high basketball IQs, and because it emphasizes our favorite play -- the drive and dish (or drive and kick). It's much more of a wide-open offense than most college teams employ, but it requires cerebral players who can put the ball on the floor and shoot the lights out. This year, Beilein finally has a team full of players he recruited to fit into that system. And he's even moved away from his trademark 1-3-1 zone defense somewhat in favor of more man to man (and the occasional 2-3 zone).

John Beilein's teams would be fun to play for. We don't know coach Beilein personally, but coaches who do have told us that he's an outstanding human being in addition to being an outstanding coach. It's been nice to see his young 2010-11 team exceed the "experts'" expectations. We think Michigan is poised to knock off Tennessee and advance to play Duke. Michigan won't beat Duke, but we expect coach Beilein's young Wolverines to be a thorn in the Blue Devils' side for quite a while in that potential game.

8.) Penn State deserved to get into the Tournament. They're not a very well balanced team and they don't have a great deal of depth. But they're a gritty, scrapping team with a great backcourt. Senior guard Talor Battle is the all time leading scorer in the history of Penn St. basketball. Penn St. got a favorable 10 seed, and opens against 7 seed Temple on Thursday in Washington, D.C. If you like guard play, that should be a fun game to watch.

9.) Memphis is a long, athletic, but wildly undisciplined team. They play like garbage way too often, but can be truly dangerous on the occasions when they put it together. It's difficult to predict how they'll play in the NCAA Tournament, but if Memphis can somehow put together long stretches in which they're focused and play within themselves (big, big ifs), they could make some serious noise. They play a very beatable Arizona team in the first round.

Should Memphis advance past the first round, they would face the winner of the game between eminently beatable Texas and Oakland (MI) in the second round. It probably won't happen, but Memphis has the horses to get past the Tournament's first weekend.

10.) Georgia plays fast. They're a long, athletic SEC team that likes to push the ball at warp speed. They're well coached by second year head coach Mark Fox, but sometimes they play wild and undisciplined anyway. Somewhat like Memphis, Georgia has the potential to be dangerous, provided they can find a way to play within themselves. It wouldn't be a big shock if they upset Washington in the 7-10 game in Charlotte on Friday.

11.) Butler vs. Old Dominion: It's no secret that Brad Stevens has done a phenomenal job at Butler. But few people know are aware of what a great job Blaine Taylor has done at Old Dominion. Coach Taylor has made the Monarchs a fixture in the postseason. Last year, Drive and Dish picked ODU to make a Cinderella run to the Sweet Sixteen. And while that didn't quite happen, the Monarchs did upset Notre Dame in the first round. Nobody here at Drive and Dish knows coach Taylor personally, but friends and associates of ours who do know him tell us what a great coach he is. And having seen Old Dominion play in person a few times over the last two or three years, we've left the building impressed by them every time (that's why we picked them last year).

It's too bad that Butler and Old Dominion play each other in the first round. Both teams are capable of making noise in the Tournament, but only one will get to advance.

12.) Speaking of Old Dominion, it's worth noting that the NCAA Tournament field includes four mid major teams from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Lost amid the heavy attention given to the Tournament Selection Committee's controversial decision to burst Virginia Tech's "bubble" by leaving the Hokies out of the Tournament for the second straight year has been the ever-mounting body of evidence that the Commonwealth is quickly becoming the epicenter of mid major college basketball.

Virginia mid majors Old Dominion, George Mason, Virginia Commonwealth (all from the Colonial Athletic Association) and Richmond (from the Atlantic 10 Conference) all made it into the Tournament. And it's worth noting that none of those four programs are strangers to the Tournament, or merely caught "lightning in a bottle" this year. Each of the four has had recent success in the NCAA Tournament. Remember, in spite of the made-for-Hollywood, "Hoosiers"-esque storyline of Butler's 2010 Final Four run -- small, over-matched Indiana school makes improbable, "David vs. Goliath" surge to championship game against perennial basketball powerhouse -- it was George Mason that made history by being the first mid major Cinderella to break through to the Final Four in 2006. What's more, Richmond has been a frequent NCAA Tournament participant for the better part of the last 25 years. Virginia Commonwealth upset Duke in the first round of the Tournament in 2007. And, as mentioned, Old Dominion upset Notre Dame in the first round last year.

13.) Michigan State was one of the most disappointing teams in college basketball this year. Many college basketball analysts expected the Spartans to make a return trip to the Final Four. As it happens, Tom Izzo's team limped in to the Tournament as a bubble team.

But none of that matters now. The Spartans are dangerous. And they were awarded a very favorable seeding by the Selection Committee. If the Spartans can get past UCLA in the first round, a vulnerable, over-seeded Florida (2 seed) likely awaits. Should Michigan State get that far, the winners of St. John's vs. Gonzaga and BYU vs. Wofford await.

Michigan State is big and talented. Their front line can play with anybody in college basketball. But injuries and defections have taken a severe toll this year. As a result, the 2010-11 Spartans are not the kind of elite-level team that college basketball fans have come to expect from Michigan State in recent years. And unlike most Tom Izzo coached teams, this year's Spartans are not particularly deep. But since the 2011 Tournament field is so weak, Michigan State probably still has enough pieces in place to do some damage.

Senior point guard Kalin Lucas was an the Big Ten Player of the Year in 2009. But he suffered a ruptured achilles tendon in last year's NCAA Tournament during a second round game against Maryland. Achilles tendon ruptures are perhaps the most difficult injuries to recover from. A post-achilles surgery athlete will typically undergo nine months of rehabilitation before being cleared to resume athletic competition. But it's generally accepted that it takes athletes considerably longer -- one and a half to two years -- to round back into pre-achilles rupture form.

Kalin Lucas' return to the court in 2010-11 was full of ups and downs. Lucas had always been known as a "lightning quick" guard who loved to blow past perimeter defenders and loved to push the ball in transition. But on his return, he was visibly slower than he had been before. He no longer had the superior speed and quickness that he had relied on so heavily in years past. And he had trouble elevating on his jump shots. As a result, he struggled for much of the season. However, by February, Kalin Lucas was beginning to show flashes of his pre-injury self.

If Kalin Lucas can find his legs and play with quickness and bounce, Michigan State has the potential to go deep in the Tournament. But with the mid-season dismissal of Lucas' backcourt running mate Corey Lucious, the Spartans have little margin for error. Lucious picked up the slack and helped lead the Spartans to the Final Four when Lucas got injured last year. With Lucious in the backcourt, Michigan State could afford the occasional sluggish post-injury performance by Lucas. Without him, Michigan State will go only as far as Lucas can take them.

14.) Purdue has been great all year, but they're vulnerable. They run a nice 4 out 1 in motion offense, with JuJuan Johnson as their only big man around the basket. But though highly talented and tall, Johnson is too thin to handle teams that feature rugged, physical big men. What's more, although he's a good rebounder and shot-blocker, Johnson appears most comfortable in the high post. He's athletic and he's got a great jump shot for a big man, but he can't be counted on to mix it up under the basket with bruising big men night after night.

Guard E'Twaun Moore is what basketball people call a "scorer." He can shoot, create his own shot and get to the basket. It's not always pretty, but he manages to put the ball in the basket . . . a lot. And he gets to the free throw line all the time. Moore is tough and he exhibits a good amount of leadership for a non-primary ball handler.

Purdue is a very good team that has put together a great season. They play with a great deal of intensity, but they're not very big or very deep. Thanks to a favorable seeding (which they deserved), the Boilers open the Tournament in nearby Chicago. That's good for Purdue, because it should ensure that plenty of Purdue alumni and fans will be in the stands for their early Tournament games. That might give them something of a quasi-home court edge.

Purdue is a legitimate Sweet Sixteen contender. If they get that far, a potential in-state Sweet Sixteen match up with Notre Dame awaits in San Antonio (provided Notre Dame doesn't get upset by Akron, or the winner of Florida State vs. Texas A&M).

However, as much as Drive and Dish loves Purdue, we don't see the Boilermakers as a legitimate Final Four contender. Bigger, deeper and more physical teams will give them trouble as they advance through the Tournament.

15.) Kevin Stallings has done a great job at Vanderbilt. Since he's been coach, the Commodores have become a fixture in the NCAA Tournament. Historically, Vanderbilt has had quite a bit of basketball success in the SEC. But prior to Stallings' arrival at the selective Nashville school, the program hadn't found a way to sustain its success, or to be a consistent, year-in and year-out lock for the NCAA Tournament.

Stallings' Vanderbilt teams are perennial AP Top 25 ranked NCAA Tournament participants. And that's no surprise. In the 1990s, Stallings built Illinois State into a mini power in the Missouri Valley Conference. Like his Vanderbilt teams, Stallings' Redbird teams were fixtures in the NCAA Tournament. As a result of his success at Illinois State, Stallings had numerous opportunities to take head coaching jobs at higher profile institutions. Rumor has it that at one point, Stallings even turned down the opportunity to become head coach at Michigan (after the firing of Brian Ellerbe). Whether or not coach Stallings actually said no to Michigan, the Collinsville, IL, native and former Purdue point guard was clearly in no hurry to leave Illinois State for alleged greener pastures. He stayed at ISU until the right offer -- Vanderbilt -- came along.

Upon coach Stallings' departure for Vanderbilt, Illinois State fell off the college basketball map.

Vanderbilt has a rough path in the Tournament. They face a tough first round opponent in 12 seed Richmond. If they beat Richmond, they'll most likely have to play a very dangerous Louisville team. Louisville coach Rick Pitino has tough, talented guards (as usual), and has his Cardinals surging at just the right time (as usual).

Monday, March 7, 2011

Ohio State Finishes Regular Season Ranked Atop AP Top 25

The men's college basketball regular season concluded this weekend. The Final AP Top 25 rankings for the regular season were released today. Ohio State finished the regular season by retaking the No. 1 ranking. The Buckeyes now head into this week's Big Ten tournament with a figurative target on their backs. Somehow however, we don't expect that to be a problem for Coach Thad Matta's team. We'd be surprised if they don't take home the Big Ten tournament title.

Kansas is ranked No. 2. Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Duke round out the top five.

Drive and Dish doesn't expect to see many huge upsets involving top 10 teams in the conference tournaments this week, but we wouldn't be terribly surprised if a highly-seeded team or two gets upset in the Big East Tournament. Pitt and Notre Dame are the obvious favorites, but teams like Louisville, Connecticut, St. John's and West Virginia could be dangerous.

Ohio State is easily the class of the Big Ten. Purdue might be able to give them a scare in the Big Ten tournament, but OSU is the clear favorite.

Kansas is the obvious favorite in the Big 12 tournament. But Texas and Kansas State have the horses to deny Coach Bill Self's Jayhawks access to their presumed throne. It should be noted, however, that Drive and Dish always advises against picking Texas in the post season. We've said it again and again over the years, but Coach Rick Barnes' teams just aren't put together to win championships, despite their ever-impressive scores on the proverbial "eye test."

Finally, we expect North Carolina to beat Duke in the ACC tournament final. North Carolina is a young team that's surging at the right time. They enter the conference tournament with perhaps more momentum than any other team in the country. Although they struggled quite a bit early in the season, Coach Roy Williams' Tar Heels should be seen as a strong Final Four contender again this year.

AP Top 25
1Ohio State (52) 29-21,612
2Kansas (13) 29-21,569
4Notre Dame25-51,416
6North Carolina24-61,209
7San Diego State29-21,197
8Brigham Young28-31,187
17St. John's20-10462
19Kansas State22-9345
20West Virginia20-10294
23Utah State28-3234