College Basketball Nation: Dana Altman
Here are a few surprises from the initial set of rankings:
Buzz Williams (No. 38): Marquette entered last season as the favorite to win the title in the (new) Big East’s first season. The Golden Eagles fell short of those expectations when they finished sixth and missed the NCAA tournament. Not the best regular season for Williams, who left to fill Virginia Tech’s opening a few weeks ago, but Marquette was coming off a shared league title in a much tougher version of the conference. The Golden Eagles split that 2012-13 crown with a Louisville team that won the national championship that season and a Georgetown team that looked like a Final Four squad before Dunk City ruined those plans in the opening round. Marquette made five consecutive NCAA tourney appearances (2009-2013) under Williams. That run included two Sweet 16 appearances and an Elite Eight run in 2013. Nothing against Colorado's Tad Boyle (No. 34) and Nebraska's Tim Miles (No. 32) -- both good coaches -- but they can’t match that. Seems too low for Williams.
Archie Miller (No. 26): Miller is no longer just Sean Miller’s brother; he has his own legacy now. Last season, he not only led Dayton to its first NCAA tourney appearance since 2009 but also guided the program to its first Elite Eight appearance in 30 years. It was an impressive feat. The Flyers won 26 games as Miller became one of the hottest young coaches in the game with that memorable tournament run. But No. 26 in the rankings? It’s only Miller’s third season as a head coach. Although he's done more in three seasons than other coaches with lengthier résumés have achieved in their careers, longevity has to be a factor, and it’s too early to know whether Miller will continue this success in the coming years. Plus, he has to turn Dayton into a consistent contender for the A-10 crown. He definitely has the tools to get there, but No. 26 might be premature.
John Thompson III (No. 46): Georgetown struggled in the new Big East last season. After losing key pieces from the previous season, the Hoyas finished seventh in league play. Plus, the 2012-13 Georgetown team lost in a major upset to Florida Gulf Coast in the Big Dance. But the program also has won or shared three Big East championships and reached the Final Four in 2007 and the Sweet 16 in 2006 under JTIII. Those achievements seem ancient now, though; Thompson has amassed a 2-5 record in the NCAA tournament since that Final Four appearance. That’s why JTIII barely cracked the top 50 in these rankings. But again, he has a résumé that surpasses what some of the coaches ranked ahead of him have.
Scott Drew (No. 50, tie): Drew is one of the most polarizing coaches in college basketball. Ask other coaches or media folks about him, and they’ll probably express an extreme view. The people who think he’s a bad coach think he’s a really bad coach. The folks who think those critics are just haters believe that he’s flawless. The truth, as it is with any coach, is somewhere in the middle. But here’s the reality: Drew turned Baylor into a player on the national scene after a major scandal nearly crippled the program before his arrival in 2003. Drew’s talent hasn’t always matched his team’s results. Last season, Baylor began Big 12 play with eight losses in 10 games, but the Bears recovered and reached the Big 12 tournament championship game and the Sweet 16. Drew has guided Baylor to four NCAA tourney appearances and two Elite Eight berths. Baylor had reached the NCAA tournament only four times before his arrival. He’s certainly guilty of missed opportunities and in-game coaching errors, but Tubby Smith (No. 39), Jim Crews (No. 29) and Ed Cooley (No. 41) can’t match his achievements over the past six seasons. An argument, a strong one, could be made that Drew deserves a higher ranking.
"Our defense," Michigan forward Glenn Robinson III said, "is going to make us or break us."
Defense pushed Robinson and his teammates into the round of 32 after their normally fluid offense zigged and zagged against Wofford. The Wolverines made just one-third of their field goal attempts in the second half but allowed just 20 points, the same total they allowed in the first 20 minutes.
Wisconsin, a program famous for stifling defense -- but one that hasn't always delivered it this season -- was even better at keeping American off the scoreboard. The Badgers allowed only 13 points in the second half -- the fewest in a half for a Badgers opponent in any modern-era NCAA tournament game -- and just 18 points in the final 29 minutes, 17 seconds.
"Obviously, we were very good," Badgers assistant Greg Gard said, "but it will be a totally different challenge [Saturday]. It goes from a test of your discipline and your focus for 30 seconds, to the shot clock might not even get to 30 at times for Oregon."
Dana Altman might not be college basketball's Chip Kelly, but his team, unlike American, is all about pushing the tempo. Oregon led the Pac-12 and ranked 11th nationally in scoring offense, reaching 90 points in nine games and 100 points in four. Offensive threats are everywhere, from the starters to the bench, which needs 18 more points to reach 1,000 for the season.
The Ducks showcased their scoring speed and prowess Thursday against BYU, tallying 87 points on 50 percent shooting. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan wondered aloud whether any tournament team will face a bigger contrast in opponents than his Badgers.
"It's crazy," said junior guard Josh Gasser, Wisconsin's top defender. "They are just completely opposite. Their philosophies, what they're trying to do, even their personnel. But we've played teams that like to slow it down, we've played teams that like to push it in transition.
"We're pretty much used to anything by now."
The Badgers have seen shades of Oregon in Big Ten foes like Iowa and Michigan State. Their defense hasn't been bad -- 63.7 points per game allowed, 42.9 percent opponent shooting percentage -- but it hasn't always met the Ryan standard, in part because of a stronger, quicker offense and a new-look front line.
Oregon is mostly perimeter-oriented but could target the post more with veteran Mike Moser and Elgin Cook, who had a career-high 23 points against BYU in his Milwaukee homecoming.
"We're attacking from every direction," Ducks point guard Johnathan Loyd said. "Anybody can go get 20 on any given night. It's just tough to defend. ... [Opponents] kind of start bickering with each other, like, 'Hey, you should have been there! Nah, I had this guy!'
"That's when you know our offense is really clicking."
Michigan faces much bigger post problems with Texas. Longhorns center Cameron Ridley and forward Jonathan Holmes combined for 483 rebounds during the regular season, including 187 offensive boards.
"We're a good rebounding team," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "They're a great rebounding team."
Texas isn't Wofford, which started no players taller than 6-foot-7 and went 1-for-19 from 3-point range.
"I don't think that's going to happen again," Michigan forward Jon Horford said, "so we have to be realistic about defensive expectations but still bring that emphasis into every game."
Longhorns players liken Michigan's perimeter-oriented style to Iowa State, a team it split with during the regular season.
"I look to attack more," Ridley said. "This is an opportunity for me and Jon, Prince [Ibeh] and Connor [Lammert] to show how good we are and exploit the advantage we might have."
Michigan is one of the more efficient offensive teams in the country, but its defense has slipped at times, including late in the regular season. Beilein unveiled some 2-3 zone during the Big Ten tournament as a changeup from the team's standard man-to-man or 1-3-1 zone looks.
The Wolverines geared their defense against Wofford toward stopping guard Karl Cochran, the team's offensive catalyst. Texas, meanwhile, has four players who average in double figures and six who reached the mark against BYU.
"We have to vary our defensive coverages," Michigan assistant Bacari Alexander said, "whether that be man-to-man or trapping or zones, and see if we can get them off rhythm."
Even if the Wolverines succeed at forcing missed shots, Texas could still make them pay.
"Any time you can get offensive rebounds, it breaks their back," Holmes said. "Another 35 seconds of defense is never fun."
Michigan and Wisconsin had plenty of fun on defense Thursday. Both teams must dig in to keep the good times going.
January is always tough, but this January was brutal — the coldest month of the century they say, an unrelenting onslaught of polar vortices and transport disasters and Los Angeles news anchors shivering in the 60-degree chill.
Let’s all come together, then, and celebrate the end of January 2014. The Oregon Ducks can be our college hoops guests of honor. Because it’s settled now, after Thursday’s 70-68 home loss to UCLA: No team in the sport has had a more miserable month.
It seems crazy now, but it really did happen. The Ducks entered the New Year unbeaten. They began the 2013-14 season with a solid victory over a surprisingly game Georgetown at the Armed Forces Tip-Off in Seoul, South Korea, throttled a series of overmatched home opponents, and from there they just kept on winning: at Ole Miss, versus Illinois in Portland, in overtime versus BYU. Led by Houston transfer Joseph Young and UNLV transfer Mike Moser, Oregon was playing hyper-efficient, stylish, up-tempo offense -- it exceeded 100 points on four separate occasions.
On Jan. 2, Oregon traveled to Utah and opened Pac-12 play with a win. Save No. 1-ranked Arizona, no team in the West looked as good as Dana Altman’s. Plus, much of that stretch had been accomplished without suspended players Dominic Artis and Ben Carter. As both returned, and the Ducks stretched their unbeaten start to 14-0, Altman’s team had the look of a conference title contender.
Since then, Oregon is 1-6. Its first three losses -- a road defeat to Colorado and home losses to Stanford and Cal -- were forgivable. Following them with losses to Oregon State and Washington? Not so much. The Ducks lost five in a row in total before Sunday’s pounding of lowly Washington State. Even worse? Those wins that looked so promising in November and December all came against teams that have fallen apart themselves to various degrees in January. The Ducks’ month was so bad it’s infecting everything it touches.
In their eight Pac-12 games, the Ducks are now allowing more points per possession (1.074) than they are scoring (1.07). They haven’t played well, and they didn’t play well for much of Thursday night. That they still had a chance to salvage that win was lucky, all things considered.
Focusing too much on Oregon could cause one to overlook UCLA, and that would be a mistake. After Thursday’s win -- based not only on their talent but on résumé and efficiency, too -- it now seems safe to call the Bruins the second-best team in the Pac-12. Arizona State might be in that mix, same with Cal and Stanford. But the Bruins have beaten all of those teams (albeit at home) in January, and Anderson and Jordan Adams form a one-two scoring punch most of those teams don’t have.
Is the Pac-12 finally taking shape? Arizona is far and away its best team, obviously. But pulling UCLA out of the rest of a muddled middle feels fair. The Bruins are 16-4 with no bad losses on their résumé (road games at Mizzou and Utah, neutral court to Duke, home to Arizona), the most efficient offense (1.11 PPP) in Pac-12 play and, most surprising of all, the second-ranked per-possession defense (.96). They play faster and smarter and more well-executed basketball than they did a year ago under Ben Howland, and they’re not sacrificing defensive strength in doing so. They don’t belong in the same group as Cal, Stanford, Arizona State, etc., at least not right now.
Whatever your sense is of the hierarchy at work in the Pac-12 this season, UCLA certainly doesn’t belong in the same group as Oregon. The Ducks are flailing. Where they go from here is a matter of better defense, sure, but also a rediscovery of the offensive skill that made them such a thrilling proposition in November and December.
We’re crossing our fingers and hoping for a slightly warmer February to salvage this winter. Altman’s team will have to do far more than that.
For most, it was just another drive-by example of quintessential NCAA silliness: two players selling their own school-provided Nike basketball shoes for the exact same reason (ahem: money) that Oregon can provide such nice new Nike basketball shoes in the first place.
But when Dominic Artis and Ben Carter were suspended by the NCAA for the first nine games of the Ducks' season, it was something far more tangible in Eugene. It meant beginning a season already defined by turnover and transfers without two rising sophomores, the best of which (Artis) was a crucial cog in Oregon's backcourt a season ago. It was a real thing: Two players whose not-terribly-smart decision made their coach and teammates' lives considerably harder.
And then, just as soon as the season started, it was forgotten. Credit the volume of targets for NCAA criticism. Credit the roving-horde outrage industry that makes up approximately 65 percent of the Internet these days. ("Twerking? Dennis Rodman? 'Affluence?' LOUD NOISES!")
But it has much more to do with the simple fact of Oregon's success. Despite losing Artis and Carter to a nine-game suspension, Dana Altman's team went ahead and started 9-0 anyway -- the latest victory coming Saturday night at Illinois.
Young is probably the player of the year favorite in the Pac-12 right now, a searing and incisive scoring guard shooting 47.5 percent from 3, 58.3 percent from 2 and 81 percent from the line. Young's offensive rating (141.1) is off the charts in 22 percent usage, he almost never turns the ball over and he's managed to draw fouls at a higher rate (6.0 per 40 minutes) than ever in his career.
Moser, meanwhile, has rediscovered what made him so enticing as a sophomore at UNLV in 2011-12, before 2012-13's productivity cliff dive. Moser looks more engaged, to be sure, and there are any number of possible explanations -- fuzzy things about a change of scenery or the attention afforded Anthony Bennett last season at UNLV. But the key difference in Moser's game is shot selection: He is forcing far fewer awkward midrange jump shots than he did a year ago and making more 3s than ever before. And his rebounding is crucial for a team that doesn't have much in the way of "true" post players.
Meanwhile, senior guard Johnathan Loyd has been a revelation. In Artis' absence, Loyd's assist rate is 42.5 percent, sixth highest in the country; he's shooting 45.5 percent from 3 (compared to 31 percent a year ago); and his offensive rating hockey-sticked to 135.4 from last season's 89.3. Those are all insane, unsustainable numbers, but they've held on for nine games, and their sheer existence in the first place will allow Altman to work Artis and Carter into the rotation gradually.
All of which is to say: Those nine-game suspensions are over. Artis and Carter are free to rejoin their teammates on the floor, beginning Tuesday night at home versus UC-Irvine. Artis' quickness and perimeter defense will be an immediate asset even if his offense hasn't progressed much and Carter's 6-foot-8 size is exactly what the Ducks need. Oh, and 6-foot-7 freshman Jordan Bell, now admitted after a trimester in partial-qualifier purgatory, could join the team, too. (He could also redshirt.)
Point is, the same Ducks that began the season 9-0 (with impressive-enough wins over Georgetown, Ole Miss and Illinois, all away from their home court) are getting deeper on the perimeter and bigger on the block, which is exactly what they needed. They're going to be good.
On Tuesday night, the shoe sale mini-scandal will officially, legally become a matter of the past. It is to Oregon's credit that it felt that way already.
It's college basketball preview season, and you know what that means: tons of preseason info to get you primed for 2013-14. But what do you really need to know? Each day for the next month, we'll highlight the most important, interesting or just plain amusing thing each conference has to offer this season -- from great teams to thrilling players to wild fans and anything in between. Up next: Can Arizona put it all together?
Is Arizona the most fascinating story in the 2013-14 Pac-12? Probably not! Indeed, the travails of the UCLA Bruins and new coach Steve Alford surely offer more pure intrigue. Alford will step into a breach occupied by the insane subconscious expectations of UCLA fans, who were already in somewhat of an open revolt against their entire athletics program before they were miffed by the hire. Alford has a gigantic, inexplicable contract buyout, so he's not going anywhere anytime soon, and how he handles his first season -- when he will have as talented a roster as he's ever coached -- will set the tone for the next five.
It's interesting stuff, and yet I can't help but feel that UCLA -- like brilliant Arizona State point guard Jahii Carson, like Dana Altman's steadily improving Oregon Ducks, like Mike Montgomery's quiet solidity at Cal -- are mere bit players in this production. In the 2013-14 Pac-12, Arizona's name is the one in lights.
In four seasons at Arizona, Sean Miller's teams have had one defining characteristic: talent. No one on the West Coast has recruited elite prospects as well as Miller. But this season feels different. This season doesn't include a productive but ultimately makeshift option (Mark Lyons) at point guard. It isn't staking its season on a freshman such as Josiah Turner. (Remember him?) It isn't mixing in maybe one too many young forwards with seniors (Solomon Hill) who have to play. This season Arizona doesn't feel like a collection of really good pieces; it feels like a really good team.
Rest assured: There will still be talent. Even without forward Grant Jerrett, who made a surprise move to the NBA this past spring, the Wildcats have one of the deepest and most talented frontcourts in the country. Sophomores Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley are star-level talents willing to bang on the low block, and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is the fifth-ranked small forward in the class of 2013. And then there's Aaron Gordon. Go ahead and type his name into the YouTube search field now. The Blake Griffin comparisons are non-stop at this point; Gordon isn't talked about as much as Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle or Jabari Parker, but he has a chance to be better than all three.
But what really separates this year's Arizona team from slightly underachieving groups of the recent past is the backcourt. Last season, Miller turned to Lyons, his former recruit at Xavier, after Lyons' relationship with Chris Mack broke down; that meant putting all that frontcourt talent (along with Hill) on the floor with a point guard whose game would never be described as "pass-first." And don't get me wrong: Lyons had a good season, as did the Arizona offense. But one couldn't watch the Wildcats' fourth-place Pac-12 finish and not feel like much had been left on the table, like everything didn't quite fit.
Duquesne transfer T.J. McConnell, who will take over at the point this fall, should snap into place immediately. And his backcourt mate, junior Nick Johnson, is probably the most polished player on the team -- an ideal outside-in college two.
That's why Arizona is (or should be) a top-five team in just about every poll despite losing Lyons, Hill, Jerrett and Kevin Parrom: Because the product of Miller's years of recruiting success are finally taking shape in more ways than mere acquisition. This could be the best team in the country. At the very worst, there will be lots and lots of lobs. Either prospect is worth the price of admission.
"He said he spilled his coffee all over himself," Moser told the Oregonian. "He was really excited."
Why all the excitement and/or dangerous coffee burns? Because when Moser called, it was to let Altman know that he had chosen the Ducks as his final collegiate destination for 2013-14, when he will play his senior season of eligibility as a graduate student. Moser had been considering Washington and Gonzaga, but ultimately he wanted to be as close to home as possible. Fun fact: Oregon is Moser's homestate. So that worked out!
The question, of course, is whether it will work for Oregon. Moser was a highly sought-after graduate exemption chip this offseason, no thanks to his 2012-13 season. Two years ago, as a sophomore, Moser was a beast, an athletic and versatile power forward who dominated the glass for the Runnin' Rebels. Even better, Moser's body and skill set looked ready to blossom; he was almost too easy to imagine as an NBA small forward. He was the prototype.
The only problem? He's not a college small forward, at least not yet. Last season, as he moved more to the perimeter, his averages dropped from 14.0 points to 7.1, from 10.5 rebounds per game to 6.1. It was ugly stuff, but it was the work of a player lost in an attempt to revolutionize himself in the midst of a college basketball season. That 14.0 and 10.5 line didn't vanish into thin air. It's still in there.
It will be Altman's job to extract it once more. Moser has the ability to be not only a great rebounder but an immense defender, not dissimilar in size and physical ability to last year's hugely important transfer (and possibly Bill Walton's favorite player), forward Arsalan Kazemi. Kazemi is gone but a solid, young group remains, and Moser -- if he is at his best in his hometown -- could be a lynchpin.
2. The NCAA rules committee, men's basketball tournament selection committee and the National Association of Basketball Coaches board met Tuesday in Indianapolis as one group to discuss the NCAA tournament and any potential rules changes. The rules committee should have a decision on any changes sometime Thursday. NCAA vice president Dan Gavitt and West Coast Conference commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, who is on the selection committee, were both present; according to sources, neither has shown signs that his selection as the next commissioner of the new Big East is imminent -- though sources said the new league's presidents are close to a decision. If that is the case and it's not Gavitt, a former Big East associate commissioner, or Zaninovich, a favorite of many in the league, it could be someone from outside the league. That list is broad but could include Tim Brosnan, a Major League Baseball executive. Someone like Brosnan would make sense considering that the new Big East has partnered with Fox, which has a strong relationship with MLB. A few administrators would prefer a strong person in the NCAA membership who has already been a commissioner. But the new Big East presidents -- who also selected former CBS executive Mike Aresco as commissioner of the old Big East, now the American Conference -- were looking for someone with strong television connections. The new Big East needs to get a commissioner soon, with the clock ticking toward fall sports starting and an office, championships, bylaws, scheduling and compliance still to be determined.
3. Next week's NBA draft combine in Chicago could be one of the most intriguing camps because of the parity in the draft and the unknowns beyond some of the top players. The injuries to Nerlens Noel, Anthony Bennett and Alex Len mean there are even more questions than answers heading into the event. There is hardly a consensus beyond the top three of Noel, Bennett and Ben McLemore. Team workouts will be even more important for so many players who could play their way not just into the first round but into the late lottery. This will be even more of a need draft for teams picking after the top five and looking for a specific position. Which player is the best available will be highly debatable since you could ask 10 people at a given spot and receive 10 different answers.
2. Oregon is getting creative with its schedule for a team that should be, like Colorado, in the upper half of the Pac-12 in 2014. Oregon coach Dana Altman said the Ducks have signed up with a new home-and-home series with Ole Miss, starting in Oxford. That game should have some sensational guards with Ole Miss' Marshall Henderson and the Ducks' backcourt of Dominic Artis and Damyean Dotson. Oregon is also playing Illinois in the Rose Garden in Portland with a return game the following season at the United Center in Chicago. BYU is also coming to Eugene. This schedule gives the Ducks bubble teams to start the season. The Ducks' willingness to go to Oxford should be applauded since few teams look to play the Rebels at home. This is a win-win for both schools.
3. An attorney who specializes in NCAA cases said late Monday night that it would be impossible for any school to influence and/or police the behavior of an extended family or coach of a student athlete. The school is supposed to promote compliance to the player and his immediate family. But the Ben McLemore case is an example of how hard it would be to check on whether a third-party is profiting to steer a client to an agent without the player coming forward that he was on the take, too. But having the NCAA investigate is still never a good sign because they can find information relative to the case that can spur other issues. "You never want the enforcement staff to look at you,'' said the attorney. "But this isn't a case of a recruiting violation. It's hard to say in this case that Kansas should be expected to police and monitor the actors in this case.''
“We just had to get our guys through it, and hopefully we’ll get better,” Pitino said. “The only problem was, on every timeout Russ is hacking in our faces.”
And on cue, Smith started to cough directly into the microphone.
Pitino just shook his head while Smith tried to stifle the coughing fit.
Asked to explain just how sick he was, Smith downplayed his initial diagnosis of “terribly sick” between more bouts of coughing.
“I’m pretty sick (hack, hack),” Smith said. “It affected my conditioning a lot, but coach just told me I had to dig in.”
(cough, hack, cough)
So this wasn’t exactly Willis Reed limping onto the court, or a fevered Michael Jordan dropping 38 in the NBA Finals. But if this is Smith sick, everyone should want what he has.
In a Sweet 16 game where Louisville just wasn’t itself defensively, Smith played like himself even if he didn’t feel it.
The junior tied his career high with 31 points, scoring in every which way possible -- left-handed, right-handed, easily and with ample degrees of difficulty. He almost single-handedly lifted the Cardinals back into the Elite Eight with a 77-69 win over Oregon.
“We were short of gas tonight and without Russ, we couldn’t win,” Pitino said. “Our defense was porous at best, but Russ carried us.”
This weekend was the elimination game for top seeds -- Indiana lost on Thursday night, Kansas on Friday -- but the overall No. 1 seed is the lone top seed still playing because Smith wouldn’t let his team lose.
It’s not necessarily how the Cards would like to play. Certainly it's not Pitino's choice to win with offense instead of defense. In this tournament, you take your wins any way you can get them -- offensively, defensively, germ-infested.
"I told our guys, 'Guys we don't have it tonight,'" Pitino said. "We're winning with offense and that's great, but we've got to start digging in and getting stops.”
That didn't happen much, or at least not with the frequency the Cards achieved most of this season. Oregon shot 44 percent from the floor and limited everything Louisville usually does to win. The Cards had only 10 points off fast breaks and managed just seven steals.
Kevin Ware said the Ducks guards were “by far the quickest we’ve played this season.”
Every time Louisville looked ready to run away -- a Luke Hancock dagger 3-pointer seemed to be the moment in the second half -- Oregon kept coming. The Ducks even managed to cut the lead to as few as six points late in the game.
Smith made up for every defensive deficiency with his offense.
“Russ Smith is a talented young man,” Oregon coach Dana Altman said. “When he got going, we didn’t have an answer.”
The Ducks have plenty of company there. Lots of teams haven’t been able to solve the ridiculous riddle that is Smith.
Although he’s arguably the most dominant player on the most dominant team in this NCAA tournament, you won’t find Smith’s name on any draft lists. He doesn’t fit the NBA's models or prototypes. He’s too short, too skinny, and his diminutive stature ironically overshadows his game.
But what Smith does, what he does awfully well, is score. He can find a sliver of space between big men and slice through it so quickly they don’t realize he has been there until he’s headed up the other end of the court.
Louisville outscored Oregon 42-34 in the paint -- most of that was Smith.
“When I’m on the court, I just see little spaces and I try to get to that spot before another defender does,” Smith said. “And if I can beat them to the spot before they slide, that’s how I create some contact and I always try to create some contact because I feel like if I get to the free throw line, that’s the highest-percentage shot that I can have.”
(hack, hack, cough)
When he wasn’t in the game -- all of six minutes since Peyton Siva hit the bench five minutes into the first half with two fouls -- Smith was perched on the lonely stool reserved for the head coach on the raised courts used in domes.
Pitino motioned him there when he brought him out for his first breather.
At the time, it looked like Smith was being put in timeout, left alone and segregated from his teammates below him on the bench.
Turns out he was merely being quarantined.
2. We'll see what happens over the weekend, but I still think Flip Saunders would be the perfect fit for Minnesota. He's working for ESPN as an NBA analyst and loves the Gophers. He could do for Minnesota what Fred Hoiberg has done for Iowa State. A former UCLA staffer is convinced that the Bruins could end up with Washington's Lorenzo Romar. The point being made was that the Bruins need a coach who can work Los Angeles as well as the country club crew. He also would play an up-tempo style. Romar won the Pac-12 in 2012, but didn't make the NCAAs. He didn't make it again this year. Romar could be a fall-back candidate, but he wouldn't be a bad settling choice for the Bruins at this point. UCLA, USC and Minnesota had to make plays for names, but in the end they all got played.
3. Indiana could be a Big Ten title contender again in 2014 with Cody Zeller. He has a month to consider (by the time of the NBA deadline) and get worked by agents. But Zeller was exposed against Syracuse as playing too short and not being able to get his shot off in a half-court set. Zeller will have to seriously consider if he's ready. He can get drafted, but he won't be able to contribute, and so much now is about the second contract. He needs to get into the league and be ready to play. He's not. Meanwhile, Indiana's Victor Oladipo is and will be a lottery pick with his overall athleticism, and ability to defend and score in a variety of ways. I would be shocked if he returned.
"We have a tough time when we go up against it," Gorgui Dieng said. "And we know what’s coming."
Rick Pitino has made pesky defense his calling card since the day he broke into coaching, and while the coach has had better, more talented teams, it’s hard to imagine one clicking the way the Cards are as they head into the Sweet 16 game against Oregon on Friday (7:15 p.m. ET).
In a season that has had a distinct aversion to dominance, Louisville is about the closest thing right now. One No. 1 seed is gone; one struggled in two games; one struggled in its Round of 32 game.
Louisville hasn’t broken a sweat.
"I think it’s a fair statement [to say we’re playing our best right now]," Russ Smith said. "Coach has really gotten us focused after that loss."
Not that the Cards’ coach will say so. To hear Pitino tell it, Louisville is a good team about to go up against the Dream Team. Pitino continued his parade of praise directed at the Ducks on Thursday, insisting that this will be a "very close game."
It may well be and he may well mean it, but veteran Pitino watchers will tell you that his poor-mouthing of his own team and praise of an opponent often results in a proportionally opposite winning margin.
Which means Oregon could be in for it. And coach Dana Altman knows it.
"We had two games in the NCAA tournament where we turned it over 18 times each night," Altman said. "We’ve got to figure out what the number is that we can live with. I’m hoping 15, 16 is a number we can hold it to."
If that sounds fatalistic, well, it’s probably more realistic. Louisville’s defense is not something you beat so much as you hope to survive.
That goes for Cardinals players, too. The end product now is a thing of disruptive beauty, but the process -- how the sausage is made, so to speak -- isn’t always so lovely.
Rare is the player who comes out of high school committed to playing good defense; nonexistent is the recent grad prepared for Pitino.
"Coach Pitino has never had a perfect player," Luke Hancock said. "So it’s an ongoing process. I think even some four-year guys make mistakes."
Fewer and fewer, it would seem lately.
Louisville has forced 47 turnovers in its first two tourney games -- swiping a tourney-record 20 steals against North Carolina A&T alone.
"I think they’ll have a harder time guarding our half-court stuff," Oregon forward Arsalan Kazemi said. "It’s just a matter of getting the ball across the court."
Which sounds easier than it is.
Ask Gorgui Dieng.
WHO TO WATCH
Louisville’s Chane Behanan (with help from Dieng): One of Oregon’s biggest strengths is on the boards, where the Ducks rank 20th in the nation in rebounding margin. Much of that comes on the back of Kazemi, who averages 9.6 rebounds per game. Behanan and Dieng have to negate that advantage, especially limiting UO’s offensive rebounding.
Oregon’s Dominic Artis: The freshman’s return has made all the difference for the Ducks, who are 21-4 with him in the lineup. He’s been sensational all season, but he has never faced pressure like he’ll see from the Cardinals, never faced anyone quite so quick as Russ Smith. How he handles the frenzy Louisville promises to deliver will determine how well Oregon does.
WHAT TO WATCH
Deflections and turnovers. This isn’t complicated. Louisville has made its living this season off other people’s mistakes, disrupting teams by getting its hands on the ball to either take opponents out of rhythm or swipe the ball altogether. The Cardinals rank second in the nation in steals and forced Colorado State --- a team that doesn’t even cough it up much -- into 19 turnovers. Taking care of the basketball has not been Oregon’s strength -- the Ducks average 15 giveaways a game. If that number doesn’t come down, it could be a long night for Nike U.
STAT TO WATCH
At the risk of beating a dead horse, you’ve got to watch the turnovers for Oregon. Too many is too much trouble for the Ducks. On the flip side, here’s one to watch for the Cardinals -- fouls. Louisville has played very aggressively but very intelligently so far in this tournament. That has to continue.
2. NC State has made it clear that coach Mark Gottfried hasn’t heard anything from UCLA. Athletic director Debbie Yow also is quick to remind everyone of the $3.75 million buyout in Gottfried’s contract, which she terms non-negotiable. Much as he got many in the Research Triangle to warm to NC State, Gottfried would fit at UCLA. But it would be too hard for UCLA to pry him out of Raleigh. Multiple sources continue to think the Bruins may have to go with an NBA coach. But there are other options out there -- Washington’s Lorenzo Romar, a former UCLA assistant, hasn’t been contacted; apparently neither has Colorado’s Tad Boyle, who has recruited Los Angeles well. USC, meanwhile, might end up going with a quality coach, albeit not a huge name. Remember, Oregon didn’t get its first choice, but did land a big-time talent in Dana Altman. It can be done.
3. Hofstra athletic director Jeff Hathaway has made it clear he wants a current head coach for its vacancy, according to sources, making it seem more realistic he would lean toward coaches like Iona’s Tim Cluess and/or Tom Moore of Quinnipiac. Quality openings like Old Dominion and Siena remain. Meanwhile, sources close to former UCLA coach Ben Howland anticipate he’ll sit out next season rather than take a job.
Take Oregon guard Damyean Dotson. He's a true freshman. But there's no reason he can't score 40 points in his first two tournament games, including a career-high 23 in a dominant 74-57 "upset" victory over Saint Louis.
And there's Dotson's team, Oregon. You might have heard the selection committee put a "No. 12" by it, and controversy ensued: "Bad seed!" just about every one said.
Yet that number -- 12 -- is now merely a curiosity. The one that now truly matters is 16, as in "Sweet." The Ducks, who improved to 28-8, are headed to Indianapolis to face top-seeded Louisville. If Dotson and his teammates play like they did in HP Pavilion, Rick Pitino and the Cardinals should be nervous.
Dotson entered the NCAA tournament averaging 10.8 points per game, which ranked third on his team. He was named to the Pac-12 all-tournament team as the Ducks rolled to the title, averaging 14.7 points. And he's ramped things up even further in do-or-die tourney situations when he and his teammates have been doing a lot of doing.
As for Dotson, Oregon folks don't seem very surprised he's taken a step up during the postseason. While the foot injury to fellow freshman guard Dominic Artis grabbed headlines during the Ducks' late-season swoon, Dotson also got banged up and his play suffered.
He seems pretty healthy now.
"Dot has made great progress all year and I'm telling you, there's so much more there," coach Dana Altman said. "He and [Artis], they've got so much upside, we're fortunate to have some of those guys, because they've got a lot of upside."
The Ducks grabbed control in the first half with a 21-4 run and took a 35-19 lead into the locker room. They never yielded after the break. They built their advantage to 24 with 6:28 left and coasted home.
When Saint Louis briefly looked to be within striking distance -- four times in the second half the Billikens narrowed the margin to 11 -- Dotson ripped a pair of treys. Fair to say they were deflating to the Billikens.
Dotson was the key player for Oregon in the stat of the game: 3-point shooting. The Ducks hit 8-of-11 3-pointers, while the Billikens were 3-for-21 from behind the arc, hitting just one of their first 17. The Ducks shot well overall, while the Billikens didn't. Nuff said.
"I'm just trying to stay aggressive, offense and defense, and just do whatever Coach tells me," Dotson said. "He tells me to shoot the catch-and-shoots, and that's what I've been doing."
Said Saint Louis coach Jim Crews, whose team finished 28-7, the most wins in program history: "[Dotson is] a good athlete -- he's got great touch. We didn't get him off of shot spots like we wanted to. And sometimes it looked like we had pretty good pressure on him. He's long and really has a good lift on it, which is a little unorthodox, but you can't complain with the results if you're an Oregon fan."
Nope. Nor will many Oregon fans continue to fret that ole 12th seed.
The Ducks last reached the Elite Eight in 2007. To get there again, they need to eclipse No. 1.
Hey, it's just a number.
If Saint Louis, the fourth seed in the Midwest, beats No. 12 Oregon, it will play in the program's first Sweet 16. The Ducks' pedigree, despite winning the first NCAA tourney in 1939, isn't much better, at least not lately. The Ducks had an Elite Eight run in 2007 but hadn't won a tournament game since. Their regular-season record from 2009-10 and 2010-11 was 32-33.
So this is mostly unexplored territory for these players and programs.
"Saint Louis basketball really wasn't on the map, even [in] Saint Louis," he said.
The compelling angle, of course, is that Saint Louis has posted its greatest season after tragedy, as Majerus took a medical leave from the program in August and then died of heart failure on Dec. 1. Jim Crews took over. After a meandering start, the Billikens got hot. Their 28 wins is the most in program history. They entered the tournament ranked 13th in both major polls, having been in the polls for four consecutive weeks, which hadn't happened since 1993-94.
Saint Louis beat Memphis in the second round last year before falling to Michigan State. And, unlike Oregon, this is a veteran team that's seen a lot of action together.
"Last year, we were kind of wide-eyed and just kind of there for the experience, and obviously we were taking on the No. 1 seed, Michigan State. I think there were some nerves there," Evans said. "But this year we're a confident, veteran team. We know how good we can be. And we have bigger goals than making it to the round of 32."
Of course, the Ducks played like a cohesive, veteran unit while upsetting Oklahoma State and All-American guard Marcus Smart. While the Ducks start a pair of freshmen and are transfer heavy, they're a hot, confident team, coming off an impressive run through the Pac-12 tournament.
The Ducks, notorious for their baffling 12th seed, still have something to prove. A Sweet 16 run would prove it.
"Yeah, that would be huge for us, to get more respect," senior center Tony Woods said. "A lot of people didn't predict us to win the game last night. That was big for us, getting respect. We never cared about the 12-seed, we're just happy to be here, happy to stay alive and keep playing."
In order to keep playing, one team will need to dictate the tempo. Oregon likes to run in transition. Saint Louis can run but prefers more half-court sets. Saint Louis isn't very good at rebounding but protects the ball. Oregon is prone to turnovers but is fantastic on the boards. Both teams play good defense. Neither team is terribly good behind the 3-point arc.
Saint Louis will like its chances if the Billikens keep the game low-scoring. Oregon would like to inject a bit of frenzy into the evening.
"They do not give up easy baskets. They know what they want from every possession," Oregon coach Dana Altman said. "It's about as veteran a team as we played. The most veteran team we've played all year ... They have a little better idea what they want out of a possession. So we've got to try to get a few more possessions going. We've got to try to open the floor a little bit. I think at some positions our athletes can make a difference, if we can get them out in the open court."
Both teams are on the cusp of a special season for their program. But they need to win Saturday to make it happen.
SAN JOSE NEWS & NOTES
- California point guard Justin Cobbs was asked about how the Bears can beat Syracuse's notorious zone defense: "Just try not to get stagnant. Usually in zone it's easy to get stagnant and just pass the ball around the perimeter, and not get in the interior of the defense. Just as a point guard, try to penetrate the zone. Obviously in their 2-2-1 or 2-3, whatever you want to call it, the middle is going to be open. They trap the corners and things like that. So try to just get in the interior, try to get the ball to the high post and find shooters like Allen [Crabbe], and try to break the zone from the inside out."
- California coach Mike Montgomery has long been a coach who preferred man-to-man defense, but the Bears used a zone almost exclusively in their win over UNLV. He said, "Ours is more of a 3-2 zone. We started off trying to play a 2-3 zone. And I played 2-3 primarily for years and years and years. And we had the rules down, knew exactly who had what coverage. But we weren't able to get our forwards and center to do what we wanted to do. And a lot of times we weren't able to get our guards to continue to run out and switch the forward down and so forth and so on. So we decided to try the 3-2 zone because Crabbe at the top gave us a 6-6 long-arm guy that was able to do a little bit more than some others."
- Suffice it to say, the subject of zone defense was a big one during the news conferences Friday, as was the friendship between Montgomery and Syracuse's Jim Boeheim. That led to this when Boeheim was asked about Montgomery's newfound love of zone defenses: "Well, he once asked my wife if I was wearing a skirt [when playing zone defenses]," Boeheim said. "So when we were watching last year I think it was, we texted immediately when he was playing zone to see if he was wearing a skirt, as well. But I guess he was. He's a man-to-man coach, he always has been. But I think you see really almost everybody play some zone now, teams that coaches that have never played zone play zone."
- Playing in San Jose means California is practically playing a home game. But Syracuse senior forward James Southerland downplayed that as an issue. He said, "This is California, so the team from the University of California are going to have about 90 percent of their fans here. I feel like it's not going to be much of a problem for us. It shouldn't be because we played in great games like Arkansas, and Louisville and pulled out a win with a No. 1 team. So we are just going to focus on what we need to do."
- Syracuse is leaving the Big East for the ACC next season. Boeheim was asked if he felt like he was representing the Big East or the ACC. He said, "That's a good question. Yeah, you know, right now we're still members of the Big East, and we're representing the Big East right now. But it's kind of, it's a real gray area, there, I think, as well. I think really when we get to this stage that we're representing Syracuse at this stage."
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The NCAA hasn't had a good year. In fact, it's been on a poor run for a few years now. Still, the men's basketball tournament is the organization's annual shining beacon. It's a time when the term "NCAA" is used and not immediately preceded -- or followed -- by an expletive.
Ah, but even here the NCAA can't catch a break. As in: Did you hear about the tournament selection committee giving Oregon a No. 12 seed? Yeah, a 26-win team -- 4-1 versus the top 25 -- that is fresh off a Pac-12 tournament title run.
Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford managed to grin Thursday when asked about the Ducks' controversial seeding. His fifth-seeded team had just been dominated by Oregon 68-55 in a second-round Midwest Regional whipping.
"We ran into a very hot team," he said. "A very hot team."
Were the Ducks poorly seeded by the committee?
"I think they would admit to that," Ford said.
The Ducks used an 8-0 run to take an early lead, and the Cowboys didn't put up much of a challenge in the second half, never cutting the margin to single digits.
Oregon, now 27-8, won with dogged defense, rebounding and superior depth. It shut down Oklahoma State's All-America guard Marcus Smart, and the offensively challenged Cowboys struggled to pick up the slack.
Smart, who hurt his right hand in the second half, had 14 points, but shot 5-of-13 from the field. He had more turnovers (five) than assists (four).
"I let my team down," the freshman said.
Said Ducks guard Dominic Artis, who had four steals: "We tried to keep him real uncomfortable with what he likes to do."
Oregon, which will face No. 4 seed Saint Louis in the round of 32 on Saturday at HP Pavilion, outrebounded the Cowboys 44-30, including a 14-4 advantage on the offensive glass. Coach Dana Altman called those numbers "the difference in the game."
"That was the one area where we felt we could dominate the game," he said.
The Ducks' depth was also an advantage. While the Cowboys looked lost with Smart struggling, Oregon thrived despite leading scorer E.J. Singler and Pac-12 tournament Most Outstanding Player Johnathan Loyd combining for just 13 points. Freshman Damyean Dotson offered up a game-high 17 points -- 3-for-9 from 3-point range -- and Carlos Emory added 12. Senior Arsalan Kazemi had 11 and, more important, led the charge on the boards with 17 rebounds.
"Sometimes my teammates tell me I grab their rebounds," the Iranian-born forward said. "I apologize to them."
The Ducks' bench outscored Oklahoma State's 17-9. They also had a 12-6 advantage in second-chance points.
As for the 12th seed, Oregon had downplayed the subject during pregame news conferences, essentially saying it was just glad to be in the tournament. After all, the Ducks hadn't even received an invitation since 2008, last winning a game during an Elite Eight run in 2007.
Even after the victory, Altman didn't act like a wronged party.
"We downplayed it because we weren't going to change it," he said. "There was nothing we could do about it."
Well, other than beat the 5-seed by 13 points and look like a team that still might not yet be done in the tourney.