Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Rollie Massimino

Bad week for college basketball continued as it lost another of its legendary coaches as former Villanova coach Rollie Massimino passed away today. Massimino was the coach of the 1985 Villanova team that shocked Georgetown in the NCAA Final as a 8-seed. 

Massimino was one of the many great characters of the Big Easy heyday. Boeheim, Thompson, Carlesimo, Carnesecca and Massimino stalked the sidelines throughout the 80's all taking their respective schools to at least one Final Four. Of all those coaches, Massimino's Wildcats were often the underdog and they relished the role. Massimino left Villanova following the 91-92 season with a bitter taste in his mouth. Accused of breaking up the Big 5 games and a grumbling fan base helped push him to UNLV.

He didn't find much success after leaving Philadelphia but was still widely respected as one of the great basketball coaches of not only the northeast, but all of college hoops. Forever a coach, Massimino spent the last 11 years coaching at Division II NAIA Keiser University in Florida.

Eventually, former assistant Jay Wright brought Rollie back into the Villanova family and Massimino was seen in the crowd during the Wildcats title win over North Carolina in 2016. 

His passing is a reminder that many of the great characters of the sport are long gone. In the corporatized world of college athletics, the days of coaches like Massimino are long gone. Like Jud Heathcote, it's doubtful someone like Rollie could survive in today's 24/7 media glare. It's a shame. While his teams played a grinding style I'd certainly hate today, Massimino was the type of guy you'd love to have a beer with. College basketball needs more Massimino's not less.

I've thought about what coaches today are true characters of the sport. Roy Williams? John Calipari? Jim Boeheim? Bob Huggins Those are the 4 I could think of and all 4 are throwbacks to contemporaries of Rollie Massimino. And out of those 4,Calipari is the closest thing. Love him or hate him, but his brutal honesty about himself and the sport is refreshing. Ive developed a begrudging respect for Huggins since his Cincinnati days. Boeheim has just become an angry old man.

RIP, Rollie.  You made college hoops fun.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Jud Heathcote

Jud Heathcote passed away yesterday at the age of 90. If you're of a certain age from Wisconsin and a college hoops fans, you remember guys like him, Gene Keady and Bob Knight inflicting yearly beatings on Steve Yoder's Badgers. Knight may be the most famous of that troika but I'd argue Heathcote's reach on the game will last far longer.

Jud Heathcote won a national title in 1979 with Magic Johnson. As we know, that game is often lauded as the one that put college basketball on the map. We can argue whether that's the case or not but there is little doubt the impact it had on all of basketball. It jump started the Bird-Magic rivalry that propelled the NBA into a new stratosphere.

While he'd never win another national title, the Spartans remained a perennial Big Ten contender in his tenure. He'd also send numerous players into the association including players like Steve Smith and Scott Skiles. His final team included former Milwaukee Buck Shawn Respert and Eric Snow. The guy knew talented guards.

Upon his retirement, he strongly pushed for his protege Tom Izzo to replace him. After a slow transition, Izzo produced the Spartans second national championship and have continued the winning ways Heathcote began decades ago. There aren't many more coaches as influential in the college game today as Tom Izzo, for better or worse, and Jud Heathcote helped assure that.

There are couple final thoughts about his legacy as well. In his retirement, Heathcote was a regular behind the bench at Gonzaga basketball games. Former Zags coach Dan Monson had served as an assistant under Heathcote at Michigan State. Jud would form a strong relationship with Mark Few, another highly respected coach who has built one of the great national programs.

There's a local connection as well. Marquette basketball experienced a renaissance and great growth under Tom Crean, a Tom Izzo assistant. Say what you want about Crean, but what he did for and at Marquette was as nearly important as what Al McGuire did. 

Jud Heathcote may not be as remembered as a Dean Smith but his impact on basketball was nearly as big. His reach throughout the sport is still felt in many places today. Bob Knight may have the national titles, Jud Heathcote has the greater legacy and lasting impact.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Summer Top 10

We've had just about all the key transfers make decisions and all the top incoming freshman make decisions. Here's my early top 10:

10. USC: They were one of the last teams in the field in 2017. That will not be the case in 2018. This is Andy Enfield's best team.

9. Florida: Michael White has put his signature on the program and it is trending up. After a bit of a blip following Billy Donovan's departure, the Gators look ready for another run.

8. Kansas: I put them here solely on betting on Bill Self. Having Devontae Graham back helps. They get former top 10 prospect Malik Newman and super frogs Billy Preston. 

7. Louisville: Expectations are high even after Donovan Mitchell decided to stay in the draft. Expect the sophomores to take big jumps.

6. Duke: This might be too high. Banking on Bolden being a complement to Allen. 
 
5. Wichita State: Everyone is back. Competition will be tougher. Record won't be as good but they won't get underseeded unless the AAC is a complete wreck.

4. Villanova: They lose the POY but add Omari Spellman who basically had a redshirt season. Mikal Bridges is the guy to watch. Expect a big season from him.

3. Kentucky: Almost no minutes return but I'm pretty bullish on them being a problem come March. It's an athletic class coming in that might be as good as the Wall group and Davis group. 

2. Michigan State: Even with close calls since 2000, this could be Izzo's best team since then. Clear Big 14 favorites. Izzo is March takes will strangle you in 2018.

1. Arizona: Not sure if Rawls Alkins is going pro. If not, I'm confident in this ranking. If he does go pro, a little less so. A full season of Allonzo Trier, my early POY, is pretty exciting. Good mix of youth and vets.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Wichita State and the American

In a move that was widely expected, the AAC added Wichita State as its 12th basketball member this week. In a week that saw nearly all of Memphis returning players transfer coupled with many defections from UConn, I guess this qualifies as a win for the league.

My initia reaction was this was a desperate move. It may still turn out to be that but ultimately, it's a short term win at the worst for both parties. 

Wichita State had made 1 tourney in 20 years prior to the arrival of Gregg Marshall. Initial blush makes you think their recent success is coach driven. While his presence has helped make them successful, we have two examples of how a mid-major can sustain with one coach and with multiple coaches.

Gonzaga made a Cinderella run with Dan Monson and then Mark Few came along and grew on that magical March. Despite many offers at more prestigious places, Few stuck around and turned the Zags into a national power despite league affiliation. In the Midwest, Butler did the same running through many coaches. Marshall can stay at Wichita and be another Mark Few or Wichita can sustain without him. Both are doable. Either way, the Shockers are in a better position to sustain where they are and even exceed. Also, Gregg Marshall has a lot more reason to stay.

As for the AAC, it was a shot worth taking. The league has plenty of good basketball schools that are simply in a period of flux. The league can be very good. They also have to be realists. UConn & Cincinnati will always be expansion targets. While the Shockers don't have D-1 football, rumblings are they want to work their way to that point. Also, they have the Koch Brothers willing to spend some $ on them.

The loser is the Missouri Valley. Once the shining beacon of the mid-majors, they've lost their most rabid fan base in Creighton and their most marketable team in Wichita State. Rumored Shocker replacements Valpo or Murray State are very good basketball schools with success stories in their histories but it seems like decades since the Valley looked like a 3-4 bid league. That's too bad in this new world.

When Wichita State go their 10-seed, this was fair accompli. They had no choice but to make this move. The big shots in college athletics will be happy as well as it continues to weaken the mid-majors. Understandable series of events. Also a sad series of events. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Final Game Thoughts

The title game between North Carolina and Gonzaga was not an aesthetically pleasing affair. While close, it wasn't a well-played game.

That doesn't diminish North Carolina's championship. They were and are a deserving champ. They've been one of the best teams all year long. The Zags were deserving title game participants as well. The game itself simply mirrored what was a largely uninspiring tournament full of mediocre basketball.

A lot of people are trying to pin this on the officials and they deserve some of the blame but the college basketball game is in transition at the moment. The move to allow players freedom of movement comes at a price and that price is teams and coaches adapting to a tighter called game.

Something similar happened in the NBA about 20 years ago. Rick Pitino discussed this on the radio yesterday about when he was in the NBA and David Stern wanted more offense. The league pushed for less physical play to open the game up. Not everyone I know agrees with me, but today's NBA is the best it's been in my lifetime since the heyday of Bird and Magic.

That's the goal of college hoops. Am I certain coaches can adapt? Not necessarily but I think we'll see more offensive innovation. When thinking about this, I tried to recall the last major program to adopt any type of offensive first mentality. It's been at least 25 years. The Runnin' Rebels have been long gone.

Coaches don't get fired for preaching defense. It's the easiest coaching cliche there is. But, if we allow the game to adapt to the officials calling it tighter, we may see more offensive innovation and better basketball, basketball where the best players aren't being grinded down by Johnny Try Hard and allowed to play freely.  Hopefully, anyway.

Now, that doesn't excuse missing out-of-bounds calls or continually butchering charge calls. Or missing obvious goaltends or travels after an offensive player bounces off a stationery dude. That is just painful to watch and happens way too often.

We're now into the off-season. It's only 200 days until next season begins where someone from the ACC will probably win the National Title and where Arizona finally makes a Final 4.

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Final Pick

Remember when I casually mentioned North Carolina's offensive rebounding in my picks Saturday? Blind squirrel, nut and so on.

With how the regions fell this year, this was the best possible matchup we could have via KenPom. We have the 1 and 3 matching up (Had the 2, Nova, made it here, they'd have faced The Zags on Saturday). Remarkably, Gonzaga is a 4-point favorite with a 63% probability.

The Zags have the most efficient defense in the nation. The key tonight will be keeping their bigs on the court and not in foul trouble. The Zags are good at limiting offensive rebounds. Carolina is hands down the best offensive rebounding team in the nation. It'll be harder to limit extra chances for the Tar Heels if Karnowski, Collins and Williams are battling foul trouble.

The Zags are the better shooting team and have a much better effective fg% on defense. Tempo won't be an issue. Both teams average about the same amount of possessions per game. 

Joel Berry says he's good to go. He'll have to be against the Zags backcourt. I think the guy that decides this game is Justin Jackson. A projected lottery pick, a big night I think gives the edge to UNC.

People on the radio this morning seem to think this is Carolina's to lose. The Zags still aren't getting much respect. As much as I want to see them win to end such silly talks, I think Carolina wins a close one. And I think it's a big game from Justin Jackson that carries them. Still, go Zags.

The Pick: North Carolina 79 Gonzaga 77

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sunday Final 4 Ramblings

Let's start with the nightcap. That was an interesting game. While it ended close, it never felt close. The Ducks never got the star contributions they needed from Brooks and Dorsey and yet...

It wasn't a good game. Close finishes don't equal good games. Oregon played the first half turning the ball over too much and played the second half missing and taking too many challenged 3's. Carolina seemingly played ahead 7-9 points the entire second half. 

The player of the game was Kennedy Meeks who picked up the scoring heft in absence of Isaiah Hicks who was a non-factor. He was a man last night. 

The end of the game was ridiculous. The Ducks going for the quick two was fine. Failing to box out on 4 missed free throws was not. Carolina didn't make a bucket in the final five minutes or so. It was typical of this tournament. A game that finished with tension caused not by great play but by folly. 

Jordan Bell will take a lot of grief, but he was the Ducks best player last night. And he was arguably their best player in March. Sports can be painfully cruel.

The early game was much better. The first 16 minutes were really well played. The Zags made a run after Karnowski went out. How he nearly loses an eye and there's no foul, I'll never know. The Zags picked up the pace without him and Carolina looked gassed heading into halftime.

After being nearly invisible in the first half, the refs made their presence felt in the second half. The Zags built a 14-point lead that was erased in the blink of an eye as they appeared to slow down on offense and Sindarious Thornwell drew a terrible charge call. To the Zags credit, they didn't flinch. They regained the lead and held off a tough Gamecocks team.

The problem in the second half were the whistle happy zebras. What was a great paced game got bogged down by a ref show. Both teams played well through it. Gonzaga executed as well as any team this month in the final moments. The foul to deny a potential tying three, the sure handed rebound and a freshman calmly drilling the two FTs to ice it. It was a pleasure seeing a team execute late.

Freshman Zach Collins was the player of the game. He provided rebounding, timely scoring (his dead ball three was a thing of beauty for Zags fans) and a toughness inside I don't think South Carolina anticipated. His name had popped up in 2018 draft talk. His name now is popping up in 2017 draft talk. So, we may have a one-and-done.

There's still a lot of chatter about the "easy path" the Zags have had to the title game. It's silly. After watching South Carolina embarrass Duke, humble Baylor and beat Florida, that was a grown-ass team. The Zags played like champions and reacted like champions after SC blitzed them to take a brief lead. If you don't think this is a worthy team, you're an idiot. Forget the analytics which love them, watch this team. If you don't see a great team, you simply have a bias. Win or lose Monday, Gonzaga was a great team this year and is one of the best college basketball programs in the nation.