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January 11, 2010, 12:45 PM ET
Weekend in Hoops: A new spirit of Volunteerism!

by John Gasaway

Tennessee beat number one-ranked and previously undefeated Kansas 76-68 in Knoxville yesterday, despite the fact that Bruce Pearl had just kicked Tyler Smith off the team for good and suspended three other players. The Volunteers played this contest with just six scholarship players, and they were facing arguably the deepest roster in D-I. Go figure, the home team won anyway, in no small part because of walk-on Skylar McBee. With under a minute left to play and Tennessee clinging to a shaky three-point lead, McBee found himself beyond the arc with the ball but without any earthly idea that the shot clock was at “2.” You could literally hear the long vowels as the crowd yelled “Shoot!” Which he did, suddenly, awkwardly, and successfully. The shot put the Vols up six with half a minute to play. Which brings me to what I love about college basketball.

No, it’s not the sport’s relative openness to the occasional Ollie-the-manager-turned-hero type like McBee, though of course there’s nothing wrong with that. Rather it’s the way that McBee’s improbable discrete episode on one possession was balanced perfectly by 69 other hard-earned possessions of superior play by his team. Tennessee deserved to win–and they needed a little highly-memorable help from McBee to close the deal. What drives me up the wall about college football, conversely, is that its improbable discrete episode-to-justice balance can often be out of whack. In that other sport the nation’s elite teams don’t play each other nearly enough to gain a sense that there’s really a champion. And even in a ”national championship game” (ha) the outcome can hinge on something as quixotic as reserve Texas quarterback Garrett Gilbert throwing a shovel pass in the waning seconds of the first half. Yay, college hoops.  

And boo, Kansas! Let the recriminations begin! Bill Self’s phrasing was particularly lapidary: “I don’t know if Tennessee was a team until this past week,” he said after the game. “I don’t know if Kansas is a team yet.” Whoa, condign modesty from an immodestly talented figure in an epigrammatic parallel construction. Self may not be on the same bleachers as La Rochefoucauld yet. (”We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others.”) Still, that ain’t bad. Call Bartlett’s!

Self has to say stuff like that, of course. He coaches a team that just lost to an opponent with six scholarship players! He can’t just tell his players, “Hey, we’re still good. Be satisfied with where we are.” But the rest of us outside the locker room would do well to remember that KU, hiccups and all, is one of the two or three best teams in the country, period. I will not go into my spiel here about how great teams always but always play the occasional terrible game. But, well, they do. Kansas played one of theirs yesterday. There will be one or even two more of these terrible games. Get your basketball-as-self-actualization soundbites ready in advance. You will have the opportunity to use them, I assure you.

A recurring feature: Unbeatens beaten
The day before Kansas fell off the unbeaten perch, Purdue lost at Wisconsin, 73-66. In other words this weekend two of the nation’s four unbeaten teams had to play road games against ranked opponents. They both lost. When are Texas and Kentucky scheduled to play road games against ranked opponents, you ask? The Longhorns meet Kansas State in Manhattan next Monday night. UK, conversely, may have to wait until at least February 16 (Mississippi State) or even beyond. Not that the Wildcats’ game at Florida tomorrow night will necessarily be a cake walk, mind you.

Time for a presidential blue-ribbon commission: The foul-plagued Big 12
Missouri beat Kansas State 74-68 in Columbia on Saturday, in what was far and away the most unwatchable great game I’ve seen this year. The Tigers and the Wildcats combined to shoot 73 free throws in, symmetrically enough, a 73-possession game. Even during crunch time in the final four minutes of the game, virtually every possession resulted in a foul call, meaning there was no flow whatsoever to what should have been a savory collision between two very good teams. (Zaire “Big Shot” Taylor’s huge three for Mizzou with 33 seconds left was an exception to the rule. Incredibly, no foul was called on the entire possession. I rubbed my eyes and shook the remote.) An event that was advertised in advance as a basketball game was instead a glorified free throw contest, a state of affairs that has been attributed to the officials working this particular game.

Those officials weren’t shy, to be sure, but this was hardly an isolated instance. In fact the problem here is much more systemic. Last year the Big 12 was easily the most whistle-happy major conference in the country. 

Way past time for an intervention for the Big 12’s refs
Major-conference FT rates, 2009: conference games only

          FTA/FGA
Big 12     0.39
ACC        0.34
Pac-10     0.34     
SEC        0.34
Big East   0.33
Big Ten    0.32
 

Note that last year KSU’s Big 12 opponents posted an incredible 0.52 FTA/FGA rate. So, granted, it’s not all the officials’ doing. Frank Martin’s team is certainly no stranger to fouls.

Still, K-State is but one team. While the rest of the country has reached an unconscious but nevertheless clear consensus on how many of these things should be called, the Big 12 is drowning in fouls. Whistles pose an existential threat to the entertainment value of the conference’s hoops. The league office needs to get on this.

Wainwright: Good coach, better guy, tough gig
By the time you read this DePaul will have officially parted ways with coach Jerry Wainwright, whose team is currently mired in a 22-game Big East regular season losing streak. In more salubrious economic times and/or at an institution with some football revenue, the coach likely wouldn’t have lasted this long. And after last week’s sideline collision with Villanova’s Corey Fisher left Wainwright with a fractured tibia and torn MCL, whatever perseverance still lingered with either the coach or the administration may have withered in favor of a David Allen-style focus on progress via the next required action.

I’ve never met Wainwright but what I hear from peeps who have predisposes me to like him. (He’s a regular at weekday Mass: “If you want to feel young at my age, go hang with the old ladies at weekday Mass.”) He had good runs at UNC Wilmington and Richmond, but, alas, the resurrection of Blue Demon hoops proved a bridge too far. The similar struggles at St. John’s, another big-city Big East program whose glory days in the 80s are often invoked but as yet have never been repeated, suggests that the challenges faced by Wainwright were not his alone. Those challenges will be surmounted at both schools someday (Jim Calhoun has built a dominant Big East program in Storrs, Connecticut, of all places), but when that day comes history will show it took more than one coach’s best effort to do so.

Everyone is wrong except me: Oregon State winning in Eugene was indeed a big deal
Last night while I was watching Oregon State lead Oregon the whole way in Eugene, I opined that this was pretty remarkable. (The Beavers ended up winning 64-57.) Craig Robinson’s team had, after all, just lost to Seattle by 51 points. Nevertheless my opining resulted in responses from knowledgeable and savvy Pac-10 types assuring me that this wasn’t so remarkable after all. OSU is inconsistent and so, apparently, are the Ducks.

I refuse to listen to such radical talk!” Forget Seattle aberrations, my Pac-10 friends too easily lose sight of a natural evaluative advantage they enjoy with respect to other conferences. Oregon and Oregon State, just like the four other geographically-determined rivalry pairings in this admirably Euclidean league, entered last night having just played the exact same conference schedule. Those wholly non-Seattle numbers pass my desk in real time and they were telling me the Beavers had no chance last night. None.

Bear in mind that I devote no small amount of my typing to telling people to stop running around and screaming with their hands above their heads every time a highly-ranked team loses on the road to a good team. But in this instance a nominally pretty good team lost at home to a team that has played really poorly so far this year. There are times when it is in fact correct to run around and scream with your hands above your head. I stand by my astonishment. 

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Ivy League: Now home to just too darn many great sporting events!
Last week I remarked that the two upcoming contests between Harvard and Cornell hold the potential to be the biggest games the Ivy League has seen in years. The readers respond!

The strange thing about the February 19 Cornell-Harvard game is that it’s been scheduled literally at the exact same time as the Cornell-Harvard hockey game, which is a big enough event to have its own Wikipedia page.

Of course, Harvard’s hockey team has been miserable this year (2-10-2), so maybe some Crimson fans will decide to watch some hoops.

David S.

Thanks, David! So it shall be: 2010 will be remembered as liftoff for resurgent Ivy hoops mania. You heard it here first.     

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