King's Court: Back to school, Larry
DALLAS -- One of his players takes a charge but is whistled for a block. An out-of-bounds call goes the wrong way and, twice in the waning minutes, officials miss traveling violations that would've given his SMU team possession.
Larry Brown has had enough.
The only coach in history to win both an NBA and NCAA title rises from his seat on the bench at Moody Coliseum. With fewer than 3,500 fans watching from the stands, Brown asks an assistant for the name of the referee standing on the other side of the court.
Darron, he's told.
"Darron!" the 72-year-old Hall of Famer barks. "DAR-RON! Come over here!"
Official Darron George trots to the sideline, and Brown leans toward him and lowers his voice. "Hey," the coach says, "can't I get a little frickin' respect?"
That's never been a problem for Brown in the past. Whether he was stalking the sidelines at Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse or UCLA's Pauley Pavilion, coaching Allen Iverson in the NBA or working with the U.S. Olympic team, Brown has always been given his due regard.
None of that matters here, though. Not as he begs for calls in the closing moments of a 59-56 loss to Wyoming. And not when he's on the practice court the following day at SMU, where Brown is facing a whole new kind of challenge.
It was less than a year ago, in April, when SMU lured Brown out of retirement to resurrect a program that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since 1993. The hire generated national headlines for a Mustangs program that is spending $47 million on facility renovations as it prepares to move from Conference USA to the Big East.
But it was also met with skepticism because of Brown's age and his habit of jumping from one job to the next. Brown's average coaching stop has lasted just 3.1 years. Brown, though, insists he's long for the SMU job and that he wants to see the rebuilding project through. Located in the heart of fertile Texas recruiting ground, Brown said there's no reason he can't turn the Mustangs into NCAA title contenders.
"Butler has figured it out," he says. "Gonzaga has it figured out. When Cal [John Calipari] was at Memphis, he figured it out. We'll figure it out here, too. I think we're gonna be good a lot quicker than people expect."
SMU is 10-6, with five of the losses coming in the past seven games. The last two -- against Tulsa and undefeated Wyoming -- were by a combined four points. Considering that he doesn't have a true point guard and didn't recruit any of his current players off a 4-12 C-USA team, it'd be natural to assume Brown is pleased with how things have gone thus far.
But that's hardly the case.
The morning after last week's loss to Wyoming, Brown sat at the head of a large, oval table in a conference room adjacent to his office. An empty coffee cup was nearby along with the morning newspaper, still folded and unread. Grayish bags had formed under Brown's eyes, which was no surprise since he hadn't slept.
Brown says he stayed at the office past midnight reviewing the game with coaches. Then he went to his living quarters at the W Hotel and watched a replay of that night's Creighton-Illinois State game -- "I love the way Creighton executes," Brown says -- before returning to campus at 7 in the morning.
Brown put his team through a two-hour practice before lunch, and another one was scheduled for the afternoon. The coach bristled when asked whether a nonconference loss like the Wyoming one stung as much as the setbacks he suffered at Kansas, UCLA and in the pros.
"What do you think?" he says.
Brown rolls his chair toward the dry-erase board, picks up a marker and illustrates the formation his players are supposed to be in as they run down the court after a made basket.
"Our 2-man runs this lane, our 3-man runs this lane, our first big man runs down the middle and our second big is the trailer," he says. "Since April 27, when I got the job, I've been coaching our guys to do that. Last night, and in the 15 games we've played, I don't know if we've done it 5 percent of the time."
Brown rolls back to the table.
"It's amazing to me how little we know," he says. "Each day we write out a practice plan with about 15 things to cover. We usually only get to a third of it.
"I know I coined the phrase, 'Play the right way.' I know I was the first guy to say it over and over again in Detroit. Now everybody says it. But these kids, you ask them to do that, and they have no idea what you mean."
Still, as much as it eats at Brown, this is what he loves.
He could be lying on a beach and counting his money, or bouncing across the country to hobnob with Calipari, Bill Self, Tad Boyle or any of the other members of his coaching tree he visited so often during his years of retirement.
At his core, though, Brown is a teacher, an icon who loves practices more than games, a man who isn't truly happy without a whistle around his neck. Brown has told friends he wants to coach until he's 80.
His current task may be more difficult than others. The players at SMU aren't as talented as the ones he coached in Lawrence or Westwood. At least not yet. Maddening as that can be at times, Brown knows he'll be all the more gratified once they experience success.
"With his background," guard Nick Russell said, "I thought he'd come into our practices and think, 'Oh my gosh, what am I getting myself into?' But I think he's enjoying it.
"X's and O's-wise, I'm learning things I never even fathomed. I've been playing basketball my whole life but have never thought about some of the stuff he says."
SMU is averaging 3,222 fans for home games, which is up significantly from the 2,013 average it posted last season. The Mustangs are confident that number will rise even higher once students return from winter break and conference play kicks into gear.
"We know a lot of people will come to our games just to see him," Williams said. "But when they come to see him, they've got to see us too. Things are definitely working out in our favor."
Brown knows his team won't make the NCAA tournament this season. Even the NIT is a stretch for a team picked by most publications to finish near the bottom of Conference USA. Still, there are plenty of reasons to be encouraged about the future.
SMU's current roster features just one senior, and former Illinois State standout Nic Moore will take over at point guard after sitting out this season under NCAA transfer rules. In his final three games as a freshman in 2011-12, Moore averaged 23 points and 5.7 assists. The Mustangs have also signed 6-foot-11 center Yanick Moreira, the top-rated junior college prospect in the country.
"[Brown] said, 'If you promise me you're going to work and play hard every single day, I'm going to make sure you become a pro," Moreira said. "I think we can be pretty good at SMU. We can make big schools scared to play us."
Brown also has a staff that includes two of college basketball's top young recruiters in Jerrance Howard and Ulric Maligi. And former Kansas assistant and Illinois State head coach Tim Jankovich has been named the program's coach-in-waiting.
"I knew this would be an uphill climb," Brown says, "but I'm thrilled with everything we have in place."
So pleased is he with the situation that Brown doesn't even mind the four-hour bus rides to cities such as San Marcos and Houston. While he grew used to taking charter flights in the NBA, Brown is enjoying the old-school feel and the opportunity to bond with his team.
"When Michael Jordan was playing minor league baseball," Brown says, "he said the greatest fun he had was when the bus stopped at a convenience store with all of the playing getting out to buy soft drinks and chips. I love it, too.
"I love being around these players. I love being around the game."
A: Travis Releford's shooting stats -- There's no reason the Kansas guard should be taking a back seat to Jeff Withey and Ben McLemore in terms of publicity. Along with being KU's top perimeter defender, Releford leads the country in the two most important advanced shooting statistics. The first is effective field goal percentage, which gives a player 1.5 times the credit for 3-pointers. The next is true shooting percentage, which calculates free throw shooting into the equation, as well.
Releford is shooting .727 in the first category and .756 in the next. That's incredible for a player who ranked 244th and 306th in those fields a year ago. Releford averages 13.4 points per game. My good friend Jesse Newell of the Lawrence Journal-World put together a riveting chart chronicling Releford's success and how it stands up both nationally and in KU history.
Bonus A: Arizona's late defensive pressure -- Whether you think the officials "handed" Arizona a victory over Colorado last week or not, it was impossible not to be impressed with the gumption the Wildcats showed just to get back in the game. Especially on the defensive end. Arizona, which trailed by 10 points with 1:53 remaining, forced two huge turnovers in the waning seconds and turned both into points. Then it held Colorado to just one field goal in overtime.
A few weeks earlier, in a win over then-undefeated Florida, Arizona pressured the Gators into three turnovers in the final 56 seconds as it rallied from a six-point deficit. And let's not forget Nick Johnson's game-saving block on the final play against San Diego State. No team in America has been as good in the clutch as Arizona.
B: Isaiah Austin -- Baylor coach Scott Drew said he's been pleased with the progress of his 7-foot-1 freshman center, who could be a top-10 pick in this summer's NBA draft. Austin, the No. 3-ranked player in the Class of 2012 by ESPN.com, averages 14.8 points and 8.9 rebounds. He has four double-doubles in his last five games. "His maturation has been on steroids," Drew told me last week. "He doesn't mind contact, he's passing well out of double-teams and he's starting to get into a rhythm with his shooting."
Drew said Austin's biggest strides need to come on the defensive end. "He needs to do his work earlier as a post player," the coach said. "Once you get buried in the paint, it's hard to recover. Against Gonzaga [on Dec. 28], he had zero offensive rebounds. That's not good." Austin had six offensive boards a week later against Texas.
C: The Missouri Valley Conference's depth -- Creighton is just as good, and maybe even better, than everyone expected it to be. And Wichita State continues to surpass expectations. The Shockers are 14-1 despite a rash of injuries and the loss of their top five scorers from last year's squad. Overall, though, the depth everyone had hoped for in this conference simply isn't there. Illinois State, which was expected to contend for the MVC title, is off to an 0-3 start in league play. Northern Iowa, which is almost always tough, is 1-2.
So once again this appears to be a two-bid league that will feature a two-team race for the conference title. The sleeper could be Indiana State, which boasts victories over Ole Miss, Miami, Northern Iowa and Illinois State and has single-digit losses to New Mexico and San Diego State. Evansville is also a solid team.
D: North Carolina -- I watched North Carolina's loss to Virginia on Sunday -- and I also saw the Tar Heels get blown out against Texas last month -- and I'm shocked at how mediocre this team is. I realize UNC lost its top four players from last year's squad, but there are still good pieces on that roster. Reggie Bullock, James Michael McAdoo, P.J. Hairston, Dexter Strickland & Co. are too good to be getting punked by a Texas squad that probably won't make the NCAA tournament for the first time in 14 years and a Virginia team that is incredibly well-coached but not nearly as gifted. North Carolina lacks leadership, chemistry, fire and, most of all, toughness.
F: "Are you kidding me?" -- Television announcers -- whether they're doing play-by-play or color analysis -- have tough jobs. It's not easy to talk for three hours without stuttering, being at a loss for words or simply saying something stupid. Thus, repeating certain phrases so much that they become cliched is unavoidable, and this year's favorite line seems to be "Are you kidding me?"
Sometimes announcers scream it after a dunk. "ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?!?!?!" Other times they say it two or three times in a row as a no-look pass is replayed in slow motion. "Are yoooouuuu kiddddinggg meeee?" Then there's the slow, drawn-out approach after a buzzer-beater. You know, for effect. "Are you kidding me?" Any chance we can come up with something new, guys? Because it's kind of getting annoying. And no, I'm not kidding.
THIS WEEK'S POLL
Ranking the best freshmen in college basketball, in order of total points, with number of first-place votes in parentheses (voters: Eamonn Brennan, Andy Katz, Myron Medcalf, Dana O'Neil and me).
1. Anthony Bennett, UNLV -- 47 (4)
2. Ben McLemore, Kansas -- 44 (1)
3. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State -- 34
4. Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA -- 33
5. Jordan Adams, UCLA -- 17
6. Isaiah Austin, Baylor -- 16
7. Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke -- 13
8. Jahii Carson, Arizona State -- 12
9. Glenn Robinson III, Michigan -- 11
10. Archie Goodwin, Kentucky -- 10
Also receiving votes: Nik Stauskas, Michigan 8; Yogi Ferrell, Indiana 7; Gary Harris, Michigan State 5; T.J. Warren, North Carolina State 5; Damyean Dotson, Oregon 5; Nerlens Noel, Kentucky 4; Alex Poythress, Kentucky 4.
THOUGHTS FROM PRESS ROW
1. His team is 13-1 and ranked fifth in America, but Indiana coach Tom Crean knows the Hoosiers need to get better -- a lot better -- if they hope to win a loaded Big Ten conference before embarking on a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Crean's biggest area of concern? Depth. Or rather, a lack of it.
"We want to have a deep team, but we haven't gotten there yet," Crean told me by phone after Monday's victory over Penn State. "I think it's going to happen, though. Right now we're really focused on getting more guys interjected into the lineup."
In the coming weeks, Crean said he plans to increase the roles of players such as Hanner Mosquera-Perea, Jeremy Hollowell and Derek Elston. Maurice Creek will see his share of time, too, once he returns from a foot injury.
"We want to sub a little more, I know that," Crean said. "We need to get our main guys more blows, so they'll have a little more burst when they're in there instead of having these long drawn-out periods on the court."
2. UNLV forward Anthony Bennett is a first-team All-American candidate, which makes him the clear-cut leader in the race for Mountain West Player of the Year honors. But here's another player who deserves to be in the mix: Leonard Washington of Wyoming.
Countless times during last week's 59-56 victory at SMU, Washington shouted "I'm a grown man, son," at Mustangs players. It was a fitting taunt, considering that the bearded 6-7, 230-pounder looked, and played, like a man among boys.
The 24-year-old Washington, who began his career at USC but was kicked off the team after two seasons, is averaging a team-high 15.1 points and 8.8 rebounds for the Cowboys, who are 13-0 and one of the country's four remaining undefeated teams.
"I'm playing with a lot of fire, a lot of passion," Washington told me after the SMU game. "I want to make my last season my best."
Washington single-handedly brought the Cowboys back from a second-half deficit against the Mustangs, scoring 13 points in the final six minutes while also contributing a block, an assist and a huge steal in the final minute that led to his own game-clinching layup.
"He's come such a long way," Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt said of Washington, who is scheduled to graduate in May. "I'm as proud of him as I've been of any player in a long time."
3. Kentucky forward Alex Poythress will return to his native Tennessee on Thursday when the Wildcats face the Commdores in Nashville. The freshman is having a solid season, averaging 14 points and 6.3 rebounds while shooting 64.2 percent from the field.
Coach John Calipari, though, said Poythress -- a potential top-10 NBA draft pick -- is capable of much more.
Asked to specify the areas where Poythress can improve, Calipari said: "More exertion, more effort, pushing through comfort levels. If it were normal, and he wasn't in a program that's on warp speed, he'd be fine. He's a freshman. He'd get it sooner or later. This year, next year or the following year, he'd get it and become unbelievable.
"But this stuff is on warp speed and you're held to a different standard as a player [at Kentucky]. Here he is as a freshman, practically getting a double-double every night, and it's not good enough."
4. One of the season's most surprising teams thus far is Arizona State, whose 10-21 record in 2011-12 planted coach Herb Sendek squarely on the hot seat. Sendek, though, has things rolling in Tempe for the first time since the days of James Harden. The Sun Devils are 13-2 overall and 2-0 in the Pac-12 following Sunday's mild upset of Colorado.
Sendek's past teams have been known for playing at a slow, plodding pace. But this year's squad is capitalizing on the speed and quickness of redshirt freshman point guard Jahii Carson and pushing the tempo. As a result, the Sun Devils are averaging 73.2 points per game while shooting 46.2 percent from the field.
Adding former NBA head coach Eric Musselman and former NBA assistant Larry Greer to his staff has also been a huge plus for Sendek and his players.
"When they speak, guys listen, just because they have that credibility from being in the league," 7-2 center Jordan Bachynski told me by phone Monday night. "The way they approach the game it's no BS. They say, 'This is how it's done. If you don't like it, you're not going to play.'"
As good as they've been on the offensive end, the Sun Devils have also been pests defensively. Arizona State has 120 blocks in 15 games, and opponents have taken 926 shots. That means the Sun Devils are swatting one out of every 7.7 field goal attempts. Bachynski ranks third nationally with 4.6 blocks per game.
Bachynski, by the way, is one of the more interesting stories on the team. The junior spent two years away from college on a Mormon church mission. He's also married, having wed former ASU volleyball player Malia Marquardt in May 2011.
"I'm definitely living a different life than a lot of the guys on the team," Bachynski said. "I'm in bed by 10 and I'm up at 7. I have a wife and a dog. I'm starting my own family. I'm at a different point in my life. It's an advantage because I have a little more life experience, and I can share it with the guys."
5. Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin deserves credit for making the right decision to redshirt injured forward Jeronne Maymon, who has yet to practice this season because of a knee injury. Martin had hinted that he may try to bring Maymon, a senior who averaged a team-high 8.1 rebounds last season, back for SEC play. But at this point there's no reason to waste a full year of eligibility on Maymon for 18-20 games, especially when he likely wouldn't have been at full speed.
"When you think about Tennessee basketball, the first thing you'll probably bring up is Jeronne Maymon," Martin said this week. "Just a physical, tough-nosed guy. He plays with a lot of passion, a really good leader. His teammates love playing with him and being around him. When you lose that type of leadership and quality of a person, it's not easy."
Perhaps, but Tennessee fans and players will be glad a year from now that Martin made this decision, as Maymon and Jarnell Stokes could form one of the SEC's top frontcourts in 2013-14.
Each week, I'll pick the top five players -- and three reserves -- to play for a high-profile coach. Disagree with my selections? Let me hear about it.
North Carolina's All-Roy Williams team
Ty Lawson: Cousy Award winner, ACC Player of the Year and NCAA champ in 2009
Raymond Felton: Point guard for Williams' first NCAA championship team in 2005
Rashad McCants: Led ACC in scoring in 2004; won NCAA title, in 2005
Tyler Hansbrough: The ACC's all-time leading scorer had his jersey retired in 2010
Sean May: Named Most Outstanding Player in the 2005 NCAA tournament
Marvin Williams: The No. 2 pick in the 2005 NBA draft played just one year at UNC
Kendall Marshall: The top point guard in America in 2011-12 averaged 9.8 assists
Wayne Ellington: Scored 16.6 points as a sophomore, 15.8 points as a junior in 2009
Coming on strong: Ryan Harrow, Kentucky
File a missing persons report on: Jordan Henriquez, Kansas State
Earning his paycheck: Tony Bennett, Virginia
Best off the bench: Jerome Tang (Baylor assistant who went 2-0 filling in for a suspended Scott Drew)
Feed him the rock: Troy Daniels, VCU's 3-point specialist
Getting better: Oregon
Getting worse: Virginia Tech
Why aren't more people talking about: Ryan Boatright, Connecticut
Should've been on our top-10 point guard list: Quinn Cook, Duke
Looks like Mitch Kramer from "Dazed and Confused": Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga
Looks like the lead singer from Midnight Oil: Andy Kennedy, Ole Miss
Minnesota 65, at Illinois 61: The Illini continue to be one of the toughest teams in the country to gauge. John Groce's squad can look unbeatable one night (just ask Ohio State) and incredibly mediocre the next. Minnesota, meanwhile, has played with consistency and fire all season.
New Mexico 68, vs. UNLV 62: The Pit is one of the toughest places to play in the country. UNLV was ranked 11th when it lost by 20 points there last season. Granted, the Runnin' Rebels won at the Pit the previous two years and lost in overtime in 2009. So it's not as if they haven't experienced recent success in Albuquerque. But I still like the Lobos in a close one.
Oregon 71, vs. Arizona 65: His team is undefeated, but Wildcats coach Sean Miller said he isn't pleased with how the Wildcats are playing. Arizona probably got away with one against Colorado last week and then struggled to beat Pac-12 bottom-feeder Utah at home. The Wildcats have played just two true road games, and Oregon is high on confidence after thwacking Oregon State on Sunday.
Gonzaga 74, vs. Saint Mary's 62: The Gaels ended Gonzaga's run of 11 straight league titles last season, so there's no doubt Mark Few's squad will be motivated for this one. I won't be surprised if the Zags win this game convincingly. Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk form one of the top frontcourts in the country, and Gonzaga's overall talent, experience and depth is tough to match.
NC State 72, vs. Duke 71: If the Blue Devils are going to lose any game during ACC play, this would be it. North Carolina doesn't appear capable of challenging the Blue Devils. Maryland may be tough to beat in College Park. But North Carolina State has more talent than any team in the conference other than the Blue Devils. And the No. 20 Wolfpack will take the court boasting an eight-game win streak.
Notre Dame 75, vs. Connecticut 65: The Fighting Irish may be one of the most unselfish teams in America, as Mike Brey's squad averages a national-best 19.1 assists per game. Notre Dame should also have a significant edge on Connecticut in the paint, where the Huskies struggle to rebound. The Fighting Irish are 14-1, with their only loss coming against Saint Joseph's way back on Nov. 16.
Indiana 76, vs. Minnesota 69: The game of the week in the Big Ten -- and, heck, it could be the game of the year -- is between two top-10 teams. Indiana leads the country in scoring with 87 points per game, but it hasn't faced a team as physically tough as the Gophers, whose only loss is against top-ranked Duke.
"They've got an extremely experienced team," Crean told me Monday night. "The Big Ten schedule for them last year was good, but their NIT run was much better. It gave them a ton of confidence and they carried that over at a high level.
"They're moving the ball really well. They're a great rebounding team. They're averaging over 16 offensive rebounds a game. That's really strong stuff. They're also really long. It's one thing to be athletic and jump, but they're really long, too. It's going to be a great game."
Last week: 5-2
Season total: 19-9
Nodding Donkey, Dallas: Major kudos to SMU administrative assistant Katie Cowan for steering me to one of the city's top new sports bars. Well, the location near SMU is new. The original Nodding Donkey opened in Uptown in 2010 and was named Best Sports Bar by D Magazine last year. Both locations feature a slew of TVs, so Oregon's seal-clubbing of K-State in last week's Fiesta Bowl was viewable throughout the restaurant, while Arizona's hoops "win" over Colorado played on a smaller screen. The food was excellent. I initially fell in love with the guacamole, which had a smoky flavor and included chunks of bacon. But then the waitress plunked down one of the specialties: a grilled cheese sandwich dressed with shredded barbecued beef, bacon and a few jalapenos. Yahtzee. The thin-crust pizzas looked good, too.
Casey's General Store pizza, Midwest: Sometimes you have to eat on the run. Or rather, behind the steering wheel of your rental car. And on those rare days in the Midwest when a 99-cent McDouble just doesn't sound appealing, there's always a Casey's General Store in some small town where you can buy Flamin' Hot Cheetos, a Diet Coke and a slice or four of fresh-baked pizza. There are a few places in America that make better pizzas than the ones I buy at Casey's, but I can count them on one hand. The toppings are always plentiful, the hand-tossed crust is firm without being hard and crunchy and, most importantly, the pie isn't overloaded with tomato sauce, which means no drippage on your jeans or slacks as you're driving.
MORE MEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL HEADLINES
- Xavier completes sweep of No. 21 G'town
- Oklahoma State takes down No. 20 Baylor
- UW dismisses Upshaw for violating team rules
- Unbeatens Kentucky, Virginia still atop AP poll