UK-UConn: The unlikeable semifinal

April 2, 2011

Since Kentucky beat North Carolina to clinch a trip to Houston, there have been lots of jokes going around about John Calipari making his first Final Four. You might remember Calipari taking Massachusetts and Memphis that far in the Tournament, but according to the NCAA, those Final Four appearances were actually made by “Vacated.”

Calipari’s previous teams got caught for various … ahem … improprieties after he left for better jobs. In both cases, he managed to keep his own hands clean, but it’s kind of hard not to be suspicious of the guy.

All of which brings us to this story reported today by FoxSports.com:

[F]orgotten in Calipari’s quick turnaround of Kentucky is a native of this bustling metroplex who was instrumental in the Wildcats’ resurrection: Bilal Batley.

Batley abruptly resigned as assistant director of basketball operations/manager after he violated NCAA rules by rebounding for a player during a workout in July 2009. Kentucky self-reported the secondary violation and sent Batley a letter of admonishment.

Batley’s job did not allow him to have on-court interaction with players. When he resigned, a team spokesman said he did so to return home because of an illness in his family.

But a nearly two-year FOXSports.com investigation revealed that Batley also broke NCAA rules by making repeated impermissible telephone calls while at both Memphis and Kentucky to recruits, such as DeMarcus Cousins, and their parents.

When approached by a FOXSports.com reporter after his news conference on Friday, Calipari refused to address any questions concerning whether he was aware of Batley’s calls and whether or not Kentucky self-reported the violations.

NCAA rules state that all telephone calls made to or received from a recruit, his parents, legal guardians or coaches must be made and received by a team’s head coach or three countable assistant coaches.

The only thing surprising about this is that it didn’t come out two years from now after Calipari has suckered some NBA team into giving him another pro job.

And in case you didn’t already feel dirty about watching tonight’s Kentucky-Connecticut game, The New York Times reported this about UConn yesterday:

Connecticut and its longtime coach, Jim Calhoun, have already been punished for a variety of sins in their recruitment of [Nate] Miles. The N.C.A.A. has limited the number of scholarships Connecticut can award, has placed its basketball program on probation and suspended Calhoun for three games next season.

But the N.C.A.A., which issued its punishments in February and declared its investigation over, never interviewed Miles, who refused to take part in the investigation. He now says he is ready to tell the full story of his journey from cherished prospect to Connecticut recruit to leading man in a significant university scandal to homeless young father.

“I’d probably be open to talk to them, and, you know, get some things straight,” Miles said.

The N.C.A.A. is taking Miles seriously; a representative of the organization went to his grandmother’s house on Friday.

It’s hard to imagine anyone outside of Kentucky’s or UConn’s own fans cheering for the winner of this game against the Butler-VCU winner. Apparently, Calipari and Calhoun don’t even like each other, going all the way back to Calipari’s recruitment of Marcus Camby in 1993.

Any guess about who the NCAA might want to win on Monday night?

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Houston, we have a Final Four preview

April 2, 2011

After licking our wounds from bombing badly on our Tournament predictions, the IoT team took a bit of time out during a hectic week to reflect on how we got to tonight’s unusual Final Four.

Jimmy: Jeremy, this year’s NCAA Tournament is forcing all of us to rethink some things that seemed pretty certain a few weeks ago: the strength of the Big East and the competitive distance between the majors and mid-major, to name two.

I think Connecticut and Virginia Commonwealth may be challenging fundamental ideas about the effect of fatigue on tournament teams. There’s been a school of thought in bracket-building that says to avoid teams coming off grueling, four-game conference tournament apperances. Some coaches, Roy Williams, for instance, have a reputation for easing up during conference tournaments to save their teams for the NCAAs. I think we’ve all been burned by the team that “gets hot at the right time” by winning several conference tourney games, only to flame out in the first round of the Big Dance.

And then along come UConn and Virginia Commonwealth, who have taken the longest Final Four paths in history. The Huskies played — and won — nine games in 18 days. That’s a month’s worth of competition in a little more than two weeks. UConn’s ability to play at such a high level so often is even more impressive when you consider how much the Huskies lean on one player, Kemba Walker. He’s playing 38 minutes a game over that period and has scored more than a third of UConn’s postseason points.

Just to give Walker his due, here’s his stat line for the last nine games:

Min/gm Pts/gm Asst/gm Reb/gm Stl/gm
Kemba Walker 38.2 26.3 5.3 5.9 2.2

He’s also shooting better from the field and the line than he did during the regular season, and getting 10 free-throw attempts per game. If the tournament ended right now, he’d easily be your most outstanding player.

VCU, meanwhile, has won more March Madness games than any national semifinalist in history. The Rams are the first play-in team to reach the Final Four since the NCAA began handing out fake tournament berths in 2001. I’m wondering if we should rethink our stance on the “First Four” — it may be a bad idea, but there’s no denying that the extra NCAA tournament game makes VCU’s achievement that much richer.

Jeremy, are UConn and VCU’s performances cause for fundamentally rethinking the role of fatigue in tournament performance? Or are we just looking at two very special teams?

Jeremy: Jimmy, what we’re looking at has been a fundamentally screwy NCAA Tournament.

Not to diminish UConn’s or VCU’s feats of endurance (especially UConn’s), but fatigue really shouldn’t have been a factor for either team once they got to the second weekend of the Tournament. And honestly, I’m not sure how big of a deal it was on the first weekend.

Don’t get me wrong. UConn winning five games in five days to take the Big East Tournament title was one of the more amazing accomplishments in college basketball history. I’m also sure they could have used another day or two off before their first game. But the Huskies got nearly five days to rest before playing Bucknell in their opener, and that wasn’t exactly a challenge.

In fact, I’d say UConn benefited in terms of rest from their seeding and draw. Before they won the Big East, the Huskies were projected in at least one bracket as a 5 seed. By getting upgraded to a 3 seed, they got an easier opener. I suspect their familiarity with fellow Big East team Cincinnati helped in their second game (although that, of course, could have cut either way).

As for VCU, I would have been a little more worried about them from a fatigue standpoint if they had faced Clemson’s ridiculous First Four schedule. Instead, they got the late game in their pod for the second round and had a much shorter distance to travel than the Tigers.

Again, both great accomplishments, but I don’t see them redefining the role of fatigue in the Tournament.

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The Classic 68 Tournament

March 13, 2011

Just in case you need some help getting in the mood for March Madness, NCAA.com is running the “Classic 68” bracket to determine the greatest game in NCAA Tournament history. The bracket matches up memorable games from Tournaments past and lets fans pick the winners until a champion is crowned.

Even if you don’t want to vote, this is definitely worth checking out because the NCAA has posted complete videos of nearly every game in the bracket. So if you’re an N.C. State fan who wants to relive some past glory, you can watch Jimmy V run around the court looking for someone to hug after the 1983 title game upset over Houston. Or if you’d just rather experience a little schadenfreude, there are a couple of gems from 1999 available: Carolina’s first-round loss to Weber State and Harold “The Show” Arceneaux and the Connecticut-Duke title game, which ended with Trajan Langdon dribbling the ball off his foot.

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