Kentucky Vs. Kansas Part I: The Heyday of Xavier Henry

November 18, 2009

There are two realities regarding the title chances of this year’s Kansas team.

Reality 1: If they’re going to be a title team they’re going to need Xavier Henry.

Reality 2: By needing Xavier Henry they’re not going to be a title team.

Now the above two aren’t a knock on the Jayhawks’ pre-Henry talents. They aren’t an assertion that Kansas can’t win with underwhelming showings from Aldrich and Collins. They aren’t indications Henry has to be the star of this team for them to matter. No, the two truths are based exclusively on concerns over Henry, a one and done talent who knows he’s one and done, knows he’s talented and will probably play as such. As a primer let’s assume that there have historically been four kinds of one and done talent:

1)      The transcendent player: Critics can pan the one and done rule all they want and we won’t argue with many of their arguments, however the idea that the rule has somehow been bad for college basketball and has hurt, and not helped, teams, we can’t agree with. No, since the NBA’s institution of the rule a one and done hasn’t won a championship. But that doesn’t change the fact that a one and done has won a championship (hello Carmelo) and that a number of talents (Greg Oden & Mike Conley, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose) have come close. You can’t claim a rule is ineffective when the last three year’s Final Fours have been populated by said rule’s cast of characters. Consequently we have seen great players do great things with teams they made great and left subsequently. The aforementioned Anthony, Oden, Conley, Love, Rose, Luol Deng. Freshmen may not always dominate championship games but their talent has been felt late into the tournament.

2)       The great player who makes a pretty good team good: Probably the largest population of one and dones are talents who go, whether owed to proximity, AAU coaching promotions, glamour or Sonny Vaccaro, to teams that are not necessarily talent factories and turn those programs, however briefly, around. Michael Beasley at Kansas State. O.J. Mayo at U.S.C. Also included in this category are those who go to revolving door programs where outgoing Freshmen are replaced on an ongoing basis by incoming Freshmen. Chris Bosh at George Tech. Thaddeus Young & Javaris Crittendon at Georgia Tech. Probably Derrick Favors at Georgia Tech. Kosta Koufos at Ohio State. BJ Mullens at Ohio State. Other Tall White Guy at Ohio State.

3)      The subdued bench talent on the perennial contender: Probably the smallest group, because usually the highly touted recruit that goes to a championship team and wins a championship has had a tendency to return, despite their lottery status. Charlie Vilaneuva at Connecticut. Marreese Speights at Florida. Ed Davis at North Carolina. Whether for the sake of solidifying their stock or the promise of a leadership role on a reloaded roster these young guns have, to varying degrees of success, returned for at least one more year before the siren song of playing the Timberwolves in January called them away. There seems to be one notable exception to this category, which is why it exists at all, Marvin Williams. But because the temptation for the players to bounce out early exists, the inevitably is sooner or later some of them will, and that’s why we’ll keep this as a category.

4)      The demonstrative bench talent on the perennial contender: The scourge to many opponents (and even proponents) of the one and done rule, this is the kid who comes to the deep roster with every intention of leaving early and every intention, team be damned, of showcasing why he should be leaving early. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the player is selfish. There’s a fine line between selfishness and the sort of tunnel vision drive that sculpts greatness (anyone watch Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech?). What it does mean, though, is that the player can disrupt the delicate imperative of any legitimate Tournament team, chemistry. Think Brandan Wright at North Carolina. Jerryd Bayless on an Arizona team that would make the Sweet 16 a year after his departure. Jrue Holliday. Donte Greene. Some of these criticisms may not be fair. Clearly Kevin O’Neill had much to do with Arizona’s underwhelming performance two years ago. Jrue Holliday never really worked in Ben Howland’s system. But in each of these instance’s a player distracted by the NBA distracted his team.

I bring all of this up not to bore you, but to point out that it is a feeling, and purely a feeling, Xavier Henry lands squarely in that fourth category. Yes the season is young. No it is not fair to generalize a player as a teammate on the basis of past behavior (look at O.J. Mayo’s brief Trojan tenure). But there have been past examples of a tendency in Henry to behave, not diva-ish, but with the aura of someone comfortably situated with himself as the center of his own universe. Does committing and de-committing to  programs with a Favre indecisiveness, all with the constant justifcating of parents, translate to on court ineffectiveness? Not really. But there were instances in that Memphis game where Henry displayed all the patience of a participant in a McDonald’s All American game, jacking up 3’s 3 seconds into a shot clock, lazyily patrolling the perimeter defensively. This could work on some rosters. It does not work on Kansas’.

This is why I feel differently about John Wall and Kentucky’s current dynamics. Kentucky needs John Wall. Without him they aren’t a top 10 ranked team, without him they aren’t a dark horse – to most, to me they’re a clear cut – candidate for 2010 Tournament champions. John Wall has that rare ability to right previous Calipari wrongs and validate the entirety of poor Patrick Patteron’s sorted Wildcat career. Kansas does not need Xavier Henry. Had they returned with nothing more than last April’s roster intact they still would be a Final Four contender. Henry helps, without question; they need him to get out of the Final Four. But they don’t need him to get to the Final Four. And that creates a difficult dynamic. Particularly for a player of Henry’s talent, and underlying understanding of that talent.  It’s only November, and I’ve lost fortunes on late fall speculations of what will happen in spring. But there are reasons for said speculations. And I believe some of them to be sound.


A Reminder to Jay Williams

November 4, 2009

In a posting today over at ESPN Jay Williams gives a thoughtful analysis of why Texas should win it all this year.

He focuses on three reasons:

1) Guard Stability

2) Leaders with a chip on their shoulder

3) Jordan Hamilton

I’d, briefly, like to focus on the reason’s Texas won’t win it all this year:

1) Rick Barnes

I win!


Hold Me Closer Tiny Dancer

January 22, 2009

Probably my least favorite aspect of College Basketball is its tendency to take itself too seriously. I’m not entirely sure of the reasons why pundits, coaches, fans, often treat the sport so sanctimoniously, but I would guess it has to do with some combination of the NCAA, however misguidedly, positioning itself as the anti-NBA; the breezy feel goodiness of Cinderella Sweet Sixteens; and the fact that college basketballs’ past and present are still so intimately intertwined. That last point is a particularly pertinent one because, though it’s largely notional, it cuts to the crux of the reason. There is little that separates what has happened and what is happening in college hoops. The teams that were relevant a century ago are still relevant now. The games’ best coaches can trace their lineage to not just Smith but Naismith. The sport’s most celebrated stadiums are often its oldest venues. Consequently while the culture at large has shifted, the culture of college basketball often has not. Old sages are still listened to a tad too intently, to the fan base’s benefit and detriment. I love John Wooden, any fan would, this blog is in many ways an homage to him, but even Bobby Knight has said he’s somberly self important. As a result college basketball tends to comport itself with the self righteous earnestness of an urban farmer’s market or suburban Trader Joe’s.

Kudos, then, to ESPN and their current “College Game Day” commercial for providing a bit of levity. The spot, featuring Bobby Knight staring down a military figurine and a dancing Digger Phelps isn’t this,

hell it isn’t even the current Comcast commercials, but it’s charming and offbeat and unassuming, much like the sport its advertising.

To be honest ESPN (and CBS), perhaps as an act of penance for unleashing Those Whose Names we Dare Not Speak unto the world, have been particularly good at covering college basketball over the years. ESPN has avoided, by and large, the sort of celebrity hires that lead me to listening to Emmitt Smith recite the USA Today box scores as a form of “analysis” on Sunday mornings. And the few risks they have taken, Robert Montgomery Knight for one, have provided unexpected, understated improvements. There are still, without question, complaints. I’m not sure if Knight’s that funny or if Bilas is simply petrified he’s going to become the on air equivalent of Neil Reed. And there is apparently some kind of contractual obligation that states whatever one analyst you have from another conference you must have 3 from the ACC. But it’s hard to think of two more diametrically opposed coaches, in terms of program and personality, than Steve Lavin and Tom Brennan, and both have provided unique insight from a venue equally accommodating. I realize the reality that I just referred to Steve Lavin as insightful has all 2 readers of this blog clamoring to join my March Madness pool. Fuck it. Point is, for college hoops fans that watch the season sometime before March a bit of buoyancy, in tandem with why a mid-January Missouri win means they could upset in the first round, is all I ask. Is it terrifying that I’m essentially asking for Digger Phelps? Yes. But dude can dance.


The Curious Case of Jeremy Lin

January 8, 2009

In 2006 a historically whitebread, scholastically oriented, Northern California public high school, one better known for its Robotics team than any of its athletic ones, defeated Southern California basketball uber-power Mater Dei.  The upstart school, Palo Alto High, was led by an athletic 6’2” point guard whose versatile stats (points, assists, steals, rebounds…you name it) were overshadowed only by obvious leadership skills and an almost obsessive drive to win.  When said point guard didn’t get a single D1 scholarship offer, the last thing you would think would factor into his being overlooked is race.  Basketball, after all, is the most integrated of sports, right?  Well, yes…except if that point guard is Asian-American.

 

Jeremy Lin leads his team in points, assists, steals, and is second (barely) in rebounds.  He shoots better than 50% from the field and 40% from the new three point stripe.  He just led his team to a 12 point win over the #17 team in the country, a team who three nights previously defeated the seemingly invincible and formerly top-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels.  That Lin does this for Harvard has little to do with his basketball prowess and more to do with perception.  Lin and the issues of athletics and race when it comes to Asians were recently addressed in an excellent piece in the San Francisco Chronicle.  However, in the wake of his leading Harvard to the school’s first victory over a ranked opponent, it bears revisiting.lin

 

I remember following Lin that year in which, in the wake of the Mater Dei upset, he was named the Chronicle’s Player of the Year.  As with all Bay Area prep stars I was curious as to where he was going to be playing his college ball.  Or more correctly, I wanted to know if he would follow former Player of the Year Jason Kidd’s path and lead Cal back to Tournament relevance.  When I saw he was attending Harvard, I figured his vital statistics (they did list him at 6’2”) were terribly exaggerated.  Using a picture of him standing atop a hoop, like some 6th grade CYO pose, didn’t help.

 

But Lin is no Spud Webb.  He is, in fact, at least as tall as most of the Golden State Warriors’ point guards (So am I, but still…).  That no Division 1 school recruited him is a shame.  That no Bay Area college (thank you, Ben Braun) recruited him is a crime.  That Stanford didn’t recruit a kid who played just down El Camino Real and academically qualified for Harvard is a goddamn travesty.  Off the top of my head I can’t come up with any NBA players from the Ivy League beyond Bill Bradley and Chris Dudley, but I sure as hell am hoping Jeremy Lin breaks the mold; there’s something to be said about a kid who exceeds expectations wherever he goes.  Of course if Mike Montgomery weren’t working miracles with Jerome Randle this year, I’d just be pissed.

 

Good luck Jeremy.


College Basketball Just Got A Little Dumber

November 19, 2008

Bay Area college basketball legend Pete Newell died yesterday at age 93.  We’re not nearly old enough to have ever seen the coach in action, but we do remember him fondly for a couple of different reasons. 

 

The first is the Pete Newell Challenge, a two game event played in Oakland (and later San Jose) during the holidays, which provided some major league matchups and great moments, the most well publicized being Tiger Woods leaping out of his courtside seat behind Casey Jacobsen after he nailed a three to ice an upset over Duke.  The Challenge would inevitably include a between game tribute, where the dignified, kind-looking Newell would shuffle out and acknowledge the crowd.

 

The other memory I have of Newell is a meeting during a long O’Hare layover with Tandy Gillis, who played on Pete Newell’s 1959 National Championship team at Cal, and who my father professed had one of the best jumpshots he had newell-knightever seen (Of course dad was a 6’3” rebounder who probably never took a shot outside of ten feet, but still…)  Gillis, a coach himself, spoke reverentially about Newell.  He joked that Newell was the only person around whom Bobby Knight didn’t talk like he was the lead in a Mamet play.  Apparently Knight was also flabbergasted that Newell allowed his former players to call him “Pete” rather than “Coach”, which speaks volumes about both men.

 

We had originally planned to participate in ESPN’s College Basketball Marathon by heading over to Moraga to check out the St. Mary’s/Fresno State game.  Then someone told us that 11:00 start wasn’t Eastern time, and sorry, that “Moesha” rerun isn’t going to watch itself.  So tonight we’ll be attending the Cal/USF game.  It’s a fitting tribute not only to dad’s one year of college ball, but to the only man to have coached both schools.  Sadly, with Newell passing and the premature death of Bill Walsh, the closest the Bay Area has to coaching genius emeritus now is Dusty Baker.  Grim times indeed.


What the Hell?

November 18, 2008

So Don Draper responded to the potential dissolution of Sterling Cooper by taking the UMASS coaching job?


AP Top 25 (as in we Attend to our Blog Periodically)

November 15, 2008

North Carolina

The Tarheels are just too easy. A flawless team in a flawed college basketball season; a roster with no weaknesses when virtually every other roster in every other conference has myriad; and a four year star in an era of one and done’s. Yes, March in North Carolina is going to be something special this season…assuming you’re a Duke fan.

UConn

It’s always tough to tell which Husky team we’ll see in a given season, the highly rated one that gets upset in the first round of the tournament, or the highly rated one that gets upset in the Elite Eight.

Louisville

Good enough for us to make a momentary digression. Given that Pitino is still synonymous in hoops circles with college to pro futility should it worry a person that one of his star players (Francisco Garcia) and one of his star assistants (Reggie Theus) are two of the foundations of your favorite NBA team?

UCLA

At this point penciling in the Bruins for another Final Four is a mere formality. Ben Howland is simultaneously one of the greatest recruiters and defensive coaches in all of college hoops. Unfortunately the two don’t always lend themselves well to one another. If Howland had Pete Maravich on his roster for three seasons the Pistol would be leaving with averages of 12 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists.

Pittsburgh

As has been discussed in these parts previously College Basketball is the one sport where coaching clichés and generalizations tend not to last. Given the length of the season, structure of the tournament and instantaneous improvements of incoming kids a coach can fairly easily outlive his legacy (see Boeheim, Jim and Carmelo Anthony) or just as easily live theirs down (see Calhoun, Jim and UConn’s tournament history in the post-Emeka era.) Point being each and every year Pitt gets us geared up for a Final Four and each and every year stops just short. Not this year.

Michigan State

Michigan’s year in review: The auto industry is on the brink of collapse; Kwame Kilpatrick is embarrassed out of office; the Wolverines are channeling their inner Lions; the Lions are channeling their inner Lions; Kid Rock is channeling his inner Rob Thomas; and Semi-Pro was the least successful Will Ferrell film since Drowning Mona. This ranking may be the only inspiring thing to happen The Great Lakes State in the entirety of 2008.

Texas

You know what we were saying about coaching clichés and outliving legacies in the Pitt section? That doesn’t apply to Rick Barnes.

Duke

Probably the most underreported but intriguing storyline in regards to Krzyzewski’s sojourn with Team USA is his relationship with Kobe Bryant. Speculating on the collegiate careers of penultimate preps to pros is a favorite game of college hoops fans but none more so than Kobe and Duke. No two figures in all of basketball have legacies so dependent on one another while that dependence is simultaneously completely useless. Without Kobe Krzyzewski will forever remain haunted by the legacy of Duke NBA busts. And without Krzyzewski Kobe will perpetually have to answer questions about his deficiencies as a teammate. And we’ll all be left to wonder if the two, already considered insufferable by the public at large, could really have been that much less liked.

Notre Dame

So let’s recap, Connecticut, UCLA, Pitt, Michigan State and Notre Dame are all in the preseason Top 10. The question you should be asking isn’t “Will this be one of the most boring seasons in the history of college basketball?” It is “Will this be the most boring season in the history of college basketball?”

Gonzaga

People talk about this team as still being fairly young but doesn’t it seem like the roster’s been around for forever? Didn’t Heytvelt and Rony Turiaf share the same front court? Wasn’t Jeremy Pargo a Dan Monson recruit? Why is Richie Frahm still playing? Oh, sorry about that Matt Bouldin.

Purdue

Take heart Big 10 fans, after spending four months being inaccurately told you have the worst conference in college football you get to spend the next four months accurately being told you have the worst conference in college basketball.

Oklahoma

The Big 12, where the football teams score like basketball teams and the basketball teams score like football teams.

Memphis

Calipari’s kids could discover a stomach cancer cure during the third quarter of a February game against UAB and pundits would still complain about their inability to hit free throws.

Tennessee

Top 25 polls aren’t always the best indicator of conference quality. Tennessee may be one of only two SEC teams in these rankings but we have a gut feeling, with Florida on the rebound, Georgia on the rise and Trent Johnson at LSU, that this could be as durable a season as we’ve seen from the Southeastern Conference.

As for Kentucky? They’ll just have to take comfort in Pat Forde’s Ashley Judd induced erection.

Somwhere Pat Forde has a boner...

Somwhere Pat Forde has a boner...

Arizona State

Perhaps the most underrated aspect of Lute Olsen’s tenure in Tucson was his ability to recruit Southern California effortlessly without giving short shrift to prep stars in Phoenix. This almost never happens. But given the hometowns of this year’s Sun Devils squad, and given our feeling that this ranking is a little low for them, it appears Herb Sendek figured that formula out much sooner than we ever could have thought or Wildcat fans could have feared.

Marquette

The best part about this ranking? We’ve already established the long-term highlight of Buzz Williams’ wikipedia bio.

Miami

How is it that a school with a football program synonymous with Michael Irvin, Ray Lewis and Jeremy Shockey has a basketball program synonymous with…John Salmons?

USC

What would make DeMar DeRozan’s one year tenure as a Trojan more successful than his predecessor’s? Saving Tim Floyd from another first round upset or spending Bill Duffy’s money at someplace other than the Carson Sizzler?

Florida

Florida is always so much more entertaining when it has a scrawny white kid with a flat top dishing out no look passes. Speaking of, while it is well established that Pat Calathes, former Temple standout, is Nick Calathes’ older brother, why, consequently, hasn’t there been a bigger deal made about Nick’s younger brother, the Gators head basketball coach?

Davidson

That this ranking makes no sense is exactly why it makes perfect sense, at least for Davidson. We don’t dispute the magic of March Madness nor the good fortune of a virtual home crowd your first few days of the tourney. But to dismiss this team as a Cinderella novelty hurts only the other 19 squads they’re ranked below. Allow us to momentarily channel our inner Skip Bayless. There is a whole hell of a lot of good basketball teams in North Carolina this year, this team we believe to be the best.

Side-note, are we the only ones intrigued by where Curry gets drafted next year? Particularly with the Bobcats and their xenophobic tendencies competing in the lottery with the Kings and their love of scrawny shooting guards.

Wake Forest

Because so many potential one and dones have ended up one and dones the talent pool in college basketball is stretched strangely thin this season. Incoming Freshmen aren’t so much additions as stopgaps, Kevin Love leaves UCLA? Here’s Drew Gordon. Kosta Koufas leaves Ohio State? Here’s B.J. Mullens. Derrick Rose leaves Memphis? Here’s Tyreke Evans. Wake is one of the few classes where the blue chips aren’t addition by subtraction. In a wide open season that should mean something.

Georgetown & Villanova

For those keeping score at home there are the sixth and seventh Big East teams to make the rankings, which brings us to one of the season’s more intriguing storylines, whether or not Myles Brand would at all consider including Euroleague teams in the 2009 tournament.

Kansas

Now that Bill Self’s gotten that championship out of his system it’ll be nice to see him returning to his old self and us to ours; Kansas will be getting knocked out of the first round of the tourney by some WCC team and we’ll have said Kansas team in our Final Four.

Wisconsin

One of our bosses is from Wisconsin and we figured we put the Badgers in strictly as a favor to him. Until we realized we weren’t making the list, only commenting on it.


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