Commentary

I believe in Baylor, Doug McDermott

Originally Published: January 13, 2012
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

I know where I was the day Yankees catcher Thurman Munson died: watching Spider-Man with my brother.

I don't know geography. It's a lifelong affliction, and I readily admit, it's pathetic. While driving to Champaign, Ill., from Chicago this week, the interstate sign read, "Memphis." Confused, I phoned a friend to ask why in the world it would say such a silly thing. I didn't realize that if you continued all the way south through Illinois, you'd eventually hit Tennessee. Go ahead. Cue dumb blonde jokes and pray that my kids don't ask for my help when geography tests come up in elementary school.

As for basketball, I like to think I know a few things. So here's what I know, what I think I know and what I don't know.

Five things I know

1. It is time to believe in Baylor

[+] EnlargeQuincy Miller
Scott Sewell/US PresswireBaylor proved its mettle with a road victory against Kansas State.

I have kept the Bears ranked high, impressed by their wins and overwhelmed by their athleticism. But I'll admit I wasn't all-in. I wondered if Scott Drew's team was more flash than substance, questioning whether Baylor had that special "it" factor that separated pretenders from contenders.

No more. Baylor's win against Kansas State wasn't about skill, though it's nice that Perry Jones III has it in abundance. It was about guts. Kansas State plays like Frank Martin looks -- rough, tough and physically intimidating.

Baylor took every punch the Wildcats could dish and answered, most loudly with Jones' gigantic end-game rebound.

2. Doug McDermott is a legit player of the year candidate

When I made mention last week of the wide-open race for the national pick, I failed to include McDermott in the list.

Big mistake.

The Creighton sophomore is having one of those seasons, the kind that takes a kid from a small school in Omaha, Neb., and projects him onto the national stage. He's averaging 24.5 points (second in the nation) and sinking an unbelievable 62 percent of his shots and 56 percent of his 3s.

He's doing all of that for a Bluejays team that is legit -- 14-2, atop the tough Missouri Valley standings and ranked in the Top 25.

3. The Mountain West is about to get interesting

UNLV brings its retro Runnin' Rebels game to San Diego State on Saturday, where The Show will surely be ready.

Next week, New Mexico -- which has quietly won 12 in a row since its overtime loss to Santa Clara -- hosts the Aztecs and goes to UNLV.

All three teams are good enough to make the NCAA tournament (though San Diego State's puny nonconference schedule could pose formidable at-large problems for Steve Fisher). It will be fun to watch the trio jockey for position in a league that few have given much attention to until now.

4. The Big East needs to let go

A Rhode Island judge has ordered non-binding mediation between West Virginia and its soon-to-be former conference.

Enough.

Enough lawsuits. Enough judges. Enough of all of it.

Wish the Mountaineers well in their annual trips to Lubbock, Texas, and let go.

I get that bylaws are bylaws, and legally, West Virginia is bound to stay until 2014. But why in the world do you want to hold on to a team that doesn't want to stick around? Why does a league that had no problem pillaging another one (again) feel the need to punish a member for trying to leave early?

I'd argue that most people have had just about their fill of conference commissioners and university administrators hijacking college athletics and rewriting sports' maps. Adding lawyers to the cast of villains isn't going to help anyone.

5. Old men (and women) can't jump

In an effort to inspire his players, Chris Mack joined the layup line, tried to throw down a reverse dunk and promptly tore his patellar tendon.

He's facing a long rehab stint and some major discomfort from now until Xavier's season ends.

Lesson to be learned here: Your body knows how old you are, even if you don't. I once could do handsprings. Now a cartwheel makes me dizzy.

Five things I think I know

1. La Salle's win over Xavier was no fluke

In the topsy-turvy Atlantic 10, there's plenty to be unsure about, but I'm fairly certain that the Explorers are for real.

[+] EnlargeEarl Pettis
Bill Streicher/Icon SMIEarl Pettis is second in scoring for La Salle this season, averaging 14.4 points per game.

It has taken time for John Giannini to rebuild this team, maybe more time than folks in the Olney section of the city would prefer, but the fruits of his hard labor are starting to show.

La Salle has won six in a row and 11 of its last 12.

Ramon Galloway, Tyreek Duren and Earl Pettis make for a terrific, heady backcourt. The Explorers rank 28th in assist-to-turnover ratio, and they're one of the best long-distance shooting teams in the nation. They're 24th, hitting 39.5 percent from the arc.

As unpredictable as the A-10 is this season, it's not out of the question to think a dark horse could emerge. La Salle could be just the horse.

2. What the committee should do with Murray State

This already has become a popular theme on Twitter and my email inbox, playing the what-if scenario with the Racers.

As in, what if the Racers go undefeated? What seed do they deserve? Or what if they only lose in the Ohio Valley tournament? Do they deserve an at-large bid?

The answer to the second is a lot easier than the first. Yes, Murray State deserves an at-large bid if it doesn't fall apart like tissue paper in the next month. The Racers beat Memphis, Southern Miss and Dayton, all respectable wins.

The second is trickier. Going undefeated is really hard, which is why no one has done it since 1976. My former colleague, Pat Forde, now of Yahoo!, has argued that the Racers deserve a top-four seed.

He's right.

In 2004, Saint Joseph's went undefeated until its conference tournament, losing to Xavier. Much to the consternation of Billy Packer, the Hawks were awarded a No. 1 seed. That season, Saint Joe's had beaten just one ranked opponent -- Gonzaga, in its first game of the year.

Granted, the Atlantic 10 is tougher annually than the Ohio Valley, but Murray State shouldn't be punished for the league it's in.

The Racers should be rewarded for winning games. That's the goal of sports, isn't it?

3. Kim English is the most improved player in the country

There are plenty of candidates for this one: Dion Waiters at Syracuse, Henry Sims at Georgetown and even, to an extent, North Carolina's Harrison Barnes.

English gets the nod not just because his numbers are so vastly improved but because of what he's had to do for Missouri.

Without Laurence Bowers, the Tigers have needed English to play the 4, pushing him out of his comfort zone and out of position defensively.

Offensively without Bowers, they have needed him to up his numbers.

Check off both. English is averaging 15.1 points (up from 10) and 4.6 boards (up from 3.1) per game. More critically, the player who admits that his confidence sagged last season is taking smart shots. English leads the nation in 3-point field goal percentage, knocking down a cool 53 percent from beyond the arc.

4. As of today, the Pac-12 should be a one-bid league

It's hard to imagine the committee actually having the (long pause) courage, as Temple coach Fran Dunphy would say, to award one of the "power six" merely its automatic bid, but the Pac-12 is not making a strong case to do otherwise.

The league doesn't have a single win against a team rated in the top 25 of the RPI, and is only 3-24 against the top 50.

Beating up one another, unless it's done in succession and with serious authority, isn't going to count for much, since none of the teams are highly regarded.

Here's the real issue: When you start comparing teams and arguing who from the Pac-12 might deserve a bid, you have to ask, whom are they knocking out? Does the second-place Pac-12 team deserve to be rewarded over the No. 2 team in the Missouri Valley?

I say no, at least not right now.

5. Who is the third-best team in the ACC

Yes Virginia, there is a third-place team that is worthy again in the ACC and it is your Cavaliers.

The Cavs might have lost to Duke on Thursday night but in the process Tony Bennett's team showed just how much better it is and how hard it plays. On a night when typically sure-shooting Sammy Zeglinski went 0-for-8, Virginia still was one in-and-out 3-pointer away from forcing overtime at Cameron.

Zeglinski, who probably has never and will never again have a night like that one, along with Mike Scott make for a formidable pair, especially in Bennett's deliberate tempo.

Until someone unseats North Carolina and the Blue Devils, there will be a divide between positions one, two and everyone else, but Virginia is closing the gap.

Five things I don't know

1. Who would win a shooting contest: Villanova, Louisville or Pitt

Frankly, it could be endless unless it was first team to two.

Theoretically, shooting is a rather integral part of basketball. Running with that idea, it's hard to comprehend the pandemic sweeping the Cardinals and the Wildcats.

Louisville is certainly missing Mike Marra and Preston Knowles, and Villanova is young and inexperienced.

Pitt? I'm not sure what's up there. Gary McGhee, Brad Wanamaker and Gilbert Brown are gone, and Travon Woodall is hurt, but that's no excuse for the complete collapse of one of the most stable programs in the league.

The Panthers scored 39 against Rutgers at home, their fewest points in a home loss since 1950.

Louisville lost by 31 to Providence on the road, combining inept offense with equally awful defense for a one-two punch of ineptitude.

I sat behind the baseline when Villanova played Syracuse on Wednesday night, where I could see the shots going up on the opposite end. It was as if an eagle or falcon was coming in and swiping the ball in midair to knock it off course.

Three years ago, Villanova beat Pitt in an epic to make it to the Final Four and Louisville lost in the Elite Eight.

That seems like a lifetime ago.

2. When Towson will win a game

Woeful is the plight of the Tigers, who have lost 36 in a row, tying one NCAA record and gunning for another. NJIT lost 51 consecutive games when transitioning from Division II to Division I. Towson's last win: Dec. 29, 2010, against La Salle. In overtime.

On Thursday, Towson lost to William & Mary, maybe the only team in the deep Colonial Athletic Association the Tigers had a legit chance to beat.

The good news: A good recruiting class is coming next year for first-year coach Pat Skerry.

The bad news: It's not next year.

3. What that poor chair did to Fran McCaffery

It is that time of year, when the pressure mounts and coaches start to lose their minds. Amid reports that Morgan State coach Todd Bozeman punched one of his players (Bozeman denies the allegation but has been suspended by the school), Fran McCaffery channeled his inner Bob Knight the other day.

[+] EnlargeFran McCaffery
Byron Hetzler/US PresswireIowa coach Fran McCaffery took his frustrations out on a chair in a recent loss to Michigan State.

While his team was getting annihilated by Michigan State, a fed-up and fired-up McCaffery earned a technical, loudly pleaded his case to the officials and joined his team's huddle by slamming his chair into the middle of the circle.

It was great theater. But I'm always left to wonder why it's OK for grown-ups to go crazy during a game, yet if a kid loses his composure during a game his crazy coach will yank him in a heartbeat.

4. That hungry wild boars roam freely in Kentucky

Apparently a few people in the Bluegrass State were a little miffed when their cable went kablooey during Kentucky's game against Auburn for 15 minutes. Not just any 15 minutes, mind you, but around the same crucial minutes when the Wildcats were mounting their go-ahead run.

The station manager explained that some sort of animal gnawed through a line and caused an electrical outage. The backup generator took a while to get going.

"When we get to the NCAA tournament and Final Four or Super Bowls or any other really big event, we will go over the generator prior to that event and run the station on the generator in case something happens," Mike Kanarek, the station's vice president of operations told the Lexington Herald-Leader.

We'd suggest hiring Jim Fowler of "Wild Kingdom" for the month of March.

5. How to look like Lou Henson when I'm 80

The infamous Lou-do is gone and his hair is white, but the former coach looked vibrant, tan and rested when Illinois honored him Tuesday night with a banner in the rafters.

Henson has endured two terrifying health scares -- Stage 4 non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and viral encephalitis, the latter of which left his left leg temporarily paralyzed -- yet we should all look so good as he did when he celebrated his 80th birthday with a nice gift from the Illini: an upset of Ohio State.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter @dgoneil1.

Dana O'Neil | email

College Basketball