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Wednesday, January 11, 2012
The Hype Machine: Believe it or not?

By Myron Medcalf
ESPN.com

Is it really early January?

The Hype Machine asks only because the midseason hoopla has already approached typical postseason levels.

A Big East squad is struggling for the first time in a long time, and some fans think it's time for a change. Are they concerned or just spoiled?

A premier guard turned his team's leadership issues into a public debate. It's about time.

And, believe it or not, they're still playing basketball west of the Mississippi. Trust the Hype Machine on this one. That's going to matter soon.

Jamie Dixon
Despite Pitt's recent struggles, Jamie Dixon's résumé speaks for itself.

The Past: Jamie Dixon should be on the hot seat

DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE:

Keep things in perspective -- things aren't nearly as bad as they seem, and if there were a coaching draft tomorrow, Dixon would still be a lottery pick. (CardiacHill)

I understand the frustration Pitt fans feel. Their Panthers were nationally ranked entering the season. And with Ashton Gibbs returning and a recruiting class anchored by Khem Birch, all signs pointed to continued success for the Panthers.

But that hasn't happened. And now there's talk from a segment of the program's supporters that Dixon, who's never made the Final Four, belongs on the hot seat.

Before I refute this madness, let's take a look at some of Dixon's accomplishments:


1. He's never missed the NCAA tournament at Pitt.
2. He's been to the Sweet 16 three times, the Elite Eight once.
3. He set the Division I record for wins after eight seasons (216) last season.

Dixon belongs at Pitt for the foreseeable future. His squad's current four-game losing skid is alarming and disappointing, despite the injuries and Birch's surprising decision to transfer last month. But doesn't the guy get any credit for everything that's happened prior to this rough stretch?

Fans are quick to turn on a coach during hard times. But Dixon's résumé is one of the best in the country. And at 46, he's still a relatively young coach.

For fans seeking Final Four glory, remember that Coach K didn't get national title No. 1 until his 11th year at Duke, his 16th as a Division I head coach.

I don't know whether Pitt will turn things around. But Dixon's job status shouldn't be questioned even if it doesn't.

The Present: UConn isn't the only team with leadership issues

BELIEVE THE HYPE:

"I try to tell the guys, I feel as if I'm their best leader. Sometimes they give me a chance, sometimes they don't. That's just how it is. It's just basketball, I guess. Losing like this, I'm not here to … be the captain because it gives you an ego boost. I'm here to win games. I hate losing games as much as anybody in the world. I try my best to be a leader, even though guys don't give me a chance to be that person. It shows in the game, I can't lie. When we have a tipped ball and big guys get the ball and I'm yelling for the ball back out, we've got a new shot clock and they go back up … that shows I'm not that much of a leader. When a play starts breaking down and I'm yelling, 'Bring it out! Bring it out!' and Boat [freshman guard Ryan Boatright] or Jeremy [Lamb] takes a shot, that just shows that I'm not a leader. It sucks, because we lose games like that. But I try my best. I'm just a human being, I try to do my best in helping my teammates out. If they don't want me to do it, that's on them, but I'm still going to be scratching and trying to do it, because I hate losing. That's the worst thing ever." (New Haven Register)

I don't know whether UConn sophomore Shabazz Napier took the right approach toward addressing his team's leadership issues when he recently went public with the Register's David Borges. But his program is not alone in its leadership challenges.

The national buzz before this season was all about the talented sophomores who'd passed on the opportunity to play pro ball and returned to their respective programs. What was often overlooked, however, was the leadership void that some of those top squads had to fill.

The Huskies lost Kemba Walker's mojo. And as much as Lamb's game progressed in the offseason and helped UConn earn top-10 preseason recognition, there were questions about UConn's potential without its former catalyst.

Ohio State is one of the most talented teams in the country. But there were rough stretches in Tuesday's loss at Illinois, its third on the road. David Lighty, Mr. Everything and a respected leader during his tenure, had a rare confidence that helped the Buckeyes win games in tough environments last season. The Buckeyes have Final Four talent, but they clearly miss Lighty's intangibles.

Think Coach K would love to have Nolan Smith's determination for another season? And yes, Pitt misses Khem Birch. But the Panthers miss Brad Wanamaker's experience, too.

Some of the squads that have failed to meet expectations aren't dealing with talent deficiencies. They're looking for leadership. The latter is much harder to identify and develop than skill.

You have to wonder whether UConn and other squads with leadership challenges will survive the early rounds in March.

Mike Moser
UNLV coach Dave Rice will surely be counting on star forward Mike Moser to put up big numbers again this upcoming season.

The Future: Basketball in the West will matter soon

BELIEVE THE HYPE:

The Rebels won one game last week, an 89-57 victory at Cal State Bakersfield. With a 16-2 overall record, UNLV is tied with Murray State (16-0) for the second-most victories for a Division I team in the country, trailing only Syracuse (17-0). UNLV has won seven consecutive games and eight of its last nine in wrapping up a very successful nonconference season. San Diego State, which hosts UNLV on Jan. 14 to open Mountain West Conference play, is No. 22 in the AP poll, up two spots from last week. New Mexico didn't crack the Top 25 but received the 30th-most votes in the country. (Las Vegas Sun)

If we ignored the western half of the United States for the rest of the season, would anyone notice? It doesn't seem like it right now. The Pac-12's problems have pulled the spotlight away from that part of the country. As a result, some talented squads have been overlooked.

Gonzaga hasn't lost since Dec. 10. Its Thursday matchup against fellow WCC contender Saint Mary's will have major implications on the national scene. Both teams look like potential players in March.

The Mountain West matchup Saturday between No. 22 San Diego State and No. 12 UNLV is big-time basketball. The Aztecs have been criticized for a soft schedule, but climbing back into the national rankings sans Kawhi Leonard has Steve Fisher on some early national coach of the year lists. However, New Mexico, ranked No. 23 in Ken Pomeroy's ratings, might be the best squad in the league. All I know is that Mountain West basketball will be must-see TV for the next two months.

Check out Dan Monson's turnaround at Long Beach State and Orlando Johnson's EA Sports numbers (20.4 points per game) in the Big West. And although the Pac-12 has been a disappointment, the league is as wide open as any in the country.

As the national landscape takes shape in the coming weeks and the buildup toward Selection Sunday grows, college basketball west of the Mississippi will become more relevant. Even if it doesn't seem that way now.

The Hoopla: Expect the Illini to go on a tear in the Big Ten after Tuesday's upset over Ohio State (DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE) … Will Barton (18.9 ppg, 8.9 rpg) should be in the national player of the year conversation (BELIEVE THE HYPE) … Scott Drew's impressive start with Baylor proves he's also a premier coach, not just a recruiter (BELIEVE THE HYPE) … Anthony Davis' developing offense will be the key to Kentucky's national title hopes (BELIEVE THE HYPE) … It's OK to start the "Vanderbilt is back" chants before the Commodores face Alabama (road) and No. 20 Mississippi State next week (DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE).

Myron Medcalf covers college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at mmedcalf3030@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MedcalfbyESPN.