Open letter to Chuck Driesell

Dear Coach Driesell (mind if I call you Chuck?) —

Congrats on being named head coach at The Citadel.  I liked your choice of tie at the press conference.  You and your family will enjoy Charleston.  Whether or not you enjoy your new job will depend on how you approach it.  Here are some tips:

—  Know your history.  I assume Larry Leckonby told you all about The Citadel’s hoops past.  If not, here is a primer:  Link

I hope you’re not having second thoughts…

Now, that post in the link covers everything up to Ed Conroy’s last two years at The Citadel, which were really good by Bulldog standards.  Conroy won 20 games in 2009 and went 16-16 this past season; he parlayed that into a nice gig at Tulane.  This is good news for you, Chuck, if you have designs on moving up the D-1 coaching ladder. Imagine if you actually won the Southern Conference.  That might be worth an ACC job.

(Who am I kidding.  That would be worth an NBA job.)

—  If you want to make the NCAAs from The Citadel, you will have to win the Southern Conference tournament.  The Southern Conference is a one-bid league; there hasn’t been an at-large bid out of the SoCon since 1950.

Winning the SoCon tourney while at The Citadel will be a tall order, however.  The school’s postseason tournament history?  Ugly.

Now, you remember your father’s struggles in the ACC tournament, so you can appreciate a tourney hex — maybe not one quite on the scale of The Citadel’s foibles at the SoCon tourney, but you probably understand the frustration.  Of course, you also were on the team the year Lefty finally won the ACC tourney, so you know it’s possible to climb the mountain. Admittedly, you aren’t going to have the services of anyone as talented as Len Bias while at The Citadel.

—  Speaking of the left-hander, feel free to invite your father to show up at McAlister Field House whenever he wants.  We’re used to celebrities with connections to the program showing up at basketball games now, since Pat Conroy jumped on the bandwagon the last two seasons.  All I ask is that whenever there is an article in The New York Times about the team’s success, or if Wright Thompson writes a long, thoughtful piece on ESPN.com about the basketball program, that maybe the stories might actually mention a current player.  Just once?

It’s like the program got overshadowed by an ancillary figure.  5700 combined words, no mention of any player.  Sigh.

(By the way, there has to be a great photo op involving General (the bulldog, not Rosa) and Lefty Driesell.  Russ Pace, be ready.)

—  Learn as much as you can about The Citadel, but don’t sweat it if you don’t understand everything about the school. I’m a graduate, and I do not understand everything about the place, and never will.  If you really understand everything about The Citadel, you are certifiably insane.

One thing I will say is that you can’t quite lean on your time in the Navy, or at NAPS. There are some similarities but also some major differences.

You’re going to have to get a crash course in a new culture from somebody who was recently in your situation (Leckonby), and you should seriously consider having at least one guy on your staff with connections to the school. It’s kind of like having an interpreter.

—  You have a reputation as a solid talent evaluator.  I’m glad to hear that is the case, because I think that skill is critical to having success at The Citadel, much more so than just being a “getter” of players.  You’re going to have to look for under-the-radar types.

I’ll give you an example, Chuck.  Remember when Maryland was recruiting Jai Lucas? Of course you do, you were front and center on that recruitment.  Maryland didn’t get him, though, which must have been very disappointing, especially with his father (the great John Lucas) having played for your father at Maryland.

Jai Lucas wound up going to Florida, and then later transferred to Texas.  He was a big-time recruit.  Big-time recruits don’t go to The Citadel.

When you were watching his high school games, though, did you happen to notice the other guard for Bellaire?  Skinny kid, but a solid player.  Wasn’t getting offers from any of the high-majors, or any of the mid-majors for that matter.  I’m guessing you noticed him, at least enough to recognize him…even if you saw him now, in his cadet uniform.

His name was and is Cameron Wells, and he’s currently on pace to be the all-time leading scorer at The Citadel.  I would argue that he has had a much better college career than Jai Lucas, and that’s even taking the level of competition into consideration.  That’s the type of player you are seeking.  Wells wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American, but it’s not inconceivable he could eventually become the first alum from The Citadel to play in the NBA.

—  Besides finding “hidden” talent, Chuck, there is something else you need to keep in mind, something very important, and something quite a few coaches at The Citadel have found out the hard way.  When you recruit, you have to recruit cadets and make them players.  You can’t recruit players and make them cadets.

You have to bring in guys who are willing to embrace the challenge that is The Citadel. That’s what you’re selling, basically — a unique challenge, one that will stay with you all your life, along with a scholarship and the opportunity to play D-1 basketball.

It isn’t easy. No matter how good a salesman you are, The Citadel is never going to become the UCLA of the East.

The key to long-term success for any coach of any sport at The Citadel is to keep attrition low.  I can’t emphasize that enough.  You have to develop players over a four-year period.  It doesn’t do you any good to recruit some on-court stud if he’s only around for a year or two because he can’t handle the military system.

Also, remember to work with the system, not against it.  Don’t enable your players at the expense of the military side of things, as it will do you no good and will turn the corps of cadets (and a significant number of alumni) against you.  You need to have the corps on your side.

That line you had at the presser about players “taking that experience [of The Citadel’s military system] to the court” — that was solid, Chuck.  You at least talked a good game there.

—  Speaking of the corps of cadets, you need to confer with Leckonby and General Rosa and some of the cadet leadership to figure out how to make McAlister Field House a decided homecourt advantage again.  It wasn’t last season, and that’s a concern, because in the SoCon, you need to defend your homecourt.

The big problem is that league games are usually played on Thursdays and Saturdays.  On Saturday, the corps is generally on leave, and a leave that is both much-anticipated and much-needed.  On Thursday nights, you have a combination of things working against you, but I think you can work with the corps on that night.

See if you can arrange it so that a minimum of one-fourth (or at least one-fifth) of the corps is in attendance on Thursday nights, at least for SoCon games.  Saturday is a tough nut to crack; at the very least, make sure cadets stuck on campus are at the games.  Try to get cadets some rewards for supporting the team.

You have to understand, Chuck, that by and large cadets at The Citadel are not sports fans.  At Maryland, you could count on a large student body with a healthy number of hoops nuts.  You had a built-in student fan base.  That isn’t the case at The Citadel, with just over 2000 members of the corps of cadets, only a very small percentage of whom grew up following college basketball on any level.

—  That’s why, Chuck, you also need to reach out to the community.  In terms of selling the program to outsiders, you’re going to have to be a little bit more like your father, I think.  You’re competing with a lot of entertainment options, and Charleston is not really a sports town. However, it’s something you have to do.  The Citadel has one of the oldest fan bases in the league, if not the country.  You need to find some fresh blood.

— This is sort of an aside, Chuck, but I wanted to warn you in advance about Southern Conference officiating.  It can be, uh, inconsistent.  This is particularly true on Saturdays, when all the high-profile officials are working major-conference games.

Weekday games usually aren’t so bad, because there is sometimes a quality ref or two available for SoCon games. Saturdays, though, are often just short of an officiating debacle (actually, last season’s Davidson-Wofford game in Spartanburg was a debacle).

It’s just another reason why you need to have a good, boisterous crowd at McAlister for Saturday night games.

— Also, if you don’t mind, I would like for you to fix the uniforms.  The next time we break out new duds, please be sure that the lettering on them reads “The Citadel” and not “Citadel”.  It’s a pet peeve of mine, but still.  Get the name of the school right.  I bet General Grimsley would shake your hand if you made a point of correcting that, and it’s always good to be on the right side of the Grimmer.

—  Your predecessor, Ed Conroy, made a point of scheduling quality non-conference opposition, with occasional home games against the likes of Michigan State and Southern California.  I really liked this approach, and hope that you keep doing it.  You probably are going to have to play two or three “guarantee” games at a minimum every year, anyway.

With that in mind, Chuck, see if you can schedule games against Big 10 and/or SEC opponents.  Every Big 10 home game is televised on the Big Ten Network (BTN), and many of the SEC games are on one of the various ESPN platforms.  Even a game on ESPN3.com is worth it for The Citadel.

Last season the Bulldogs were on television a grand total of three times, once on ESPNU and twice on SportSouth.  To raise the profile of the program, and for recruiting purposes, I think it’s important to get on TV as much as possible. Besides, if we’re going to play elite teams to pay the bills, we might as well get something else out of it other than cash.

—  You are going to be in an unusual situation at The Citadel for a new coach, in that you will be inheriting a team that has the potential to be good next season.  I already mentioned Cameron Wells, but you have several other excellent players with whom to work.

At the press conference you mentioned that next season’s team could be “very special”.  I was interested in the way you described the number of returning starters. Instead of saying that “all five starters will be back,” you noted that (I’m paraphrasing slightly) “at the end of the season all five starters were coming back.”

There have been some rumblings that at least a couple of players are considering leaving the school, including two regulars in the rotation, so your first recruiting job is going to be trying to keep them from bolting.  It appears you are well aware of this, which is good.  I hope they stay, as if everyone comes back next season really could be special.

Despite the expectations for next year, you won’t really be under any pressure to win immediately, and can think long-term.  Ed Conroy left for a better job after four seasons.  The three coaches before him had a combined winning percentage of 41.2%, but despite that coached for 11 (Les Robinson), 7 (Randy Nesbit), and 14 (Pat Dennis) seasons at The Citadel.

The job isn’t a career-killer like it’s occasionally been made out to be.  Four of the last eight coaches, in fact, left to coach other Division I schools; one of them, Norm Sloan, would later win the national title.  Sloan and Robinson would actually coach two other D-1 schools after leaving The Citadel (counting Sloan’s two stops at Florida just once).

Congrats again for getting your first shot as a D-1 head coach, Coach Driesell.  Your opportunity comes at a place that is unusual and not for the faint of heart, but very special nonetheless.  Cherish the experience.

We’ll be rooting for you.

Sincerely,

SS

Urban Meyer’s easy decision

You may have heard that Tim Tebow suffered a concussion against Kentucky on Saturday.  (If you hadn’t heard it, it’s probably because you suffered a concussion yourself.)  There has been a lot of debate in the media about whether Tebow should play at LSU on October 10 (the Gators don’t play this Saturday).

The discussion is likely to be amplified after the NFL released a report suggesting that:

Alzheimer’s disease or similar memory-related diseases appear to have been diagnosed in the league’s former players vastly more often than in the national population — including a rate of 19 times the normal rate for men ages 30 through 49.

Even if that doesn’t have anything to do with Tebow’s case, a connection will be made in some (if not many) quarters.

At any rate, everyone has an opinion, from professional contrarian Gregg Doyel to Orson Swindle at Every Day Should Be Saturday.  Josh Levin at Slate also opines on the matter (lots of good links in that piece).  I have a slightly different take on the Tebow situation, or at least I hope it’s a little different.

The Gators are 4-0, with wins over Charleston Southern, Troy, Tennessee, and Kentucky.  Florida’s next three games are:

  • at LSU, October 10
  • Arkansas, October 17 (Homecoming in Gainesville)
  • at Mississippi State, October 24

The goal for Florida, obviously, is to win the BCS title.  To do that, Florida has to finish #1 or #2 in the BCS standings after the conclusion of the regular season.

Let’s say Tebow doesn’t play against LSU and the Gators lose.  Does that end UF’s chances of winning the BCS title?  Of course not.  After all, last season Florida was 3-0 before losing (at home, no less) to unranked Mississippi.  After that loss, the Gators fell from #4 in both major polls to #12 (AP Poll) and #13 (USA Today Coaches’ Poll).  Florida still managed to advance to the championship game anyway.

Florida is currently ranked #1 in both polls, and would be unlikely to fall further than #5 if it lost to LSU (which is currently ranked #4) in a game played in Baton Rouge, and a game in which its All-World quarterback did not play.  There would be plenty of time for the Gators to make their way back up the rankings, particularly since two of the teams that would be above them (Alabama and LSU) play each other, and Florida would then presumably get to play the winner of that contest in the SEC Championship game.

A one-loss Florida team (with the one loss coming without Tebow) would almost certainly get the BCS title game nod over an undefeated Boise State squad or any other one-loss team from a major conference (like Southern California, Ohio State, Penn State, Virginia Tech, or Oklahoma).

Undefeated BCS teams would be a trickier proposition, but other than Texas (which is already #2 and wouldn’t have to move past the Gators in the rankings anyway), I don’t see any other team that would jump over Florida in the polls/computer rankings.  That would include teams like Iowa, Michigan, and Cincinnati.

If Tebow actually suffered a “severe concussion”, which seems possible, as he reportedly lost consciousness for about two minutes after getting hit, then he is probably better off not returning for three or four weeks.  That would mean in addition to not playing against LSU,  he could miss the Arkansas game and the Mississippi State game.  After traveling to Starkville, the Gators then play Georgia in Jacksonville.

Assuming a one-loss Florida team would play for the BCS title, it stands to reason that if the Gators can handle at least two of their next three opponents without Tebow, then there is no urgency for his return to the field, at least not until the game against UGA.  The question becomes, can Florida win those games without its talismanic quarterback?

Of course it can.  Tebow’s replacement would be backup QB John Brantley, a redshirt sophomore who was a major high school star.  Brantley originally committed to Texas before changing his mind and signing with the Gators.  His father was a quarterback at UF, and his uncle was an All-American linebacker there as well, so he has something of a pedigree.

In limited time last season, Brantley averaged over eight yards per pass attempt and threw three TDs.  Obviously almost all of that came in mop-up duty, but he definitely has potential.  Basically, there is a better than even chance that Brantley is a college quarterback stud-in-waiting.

Not only that, but I suspect a few of Florida’s players would like to prove that there is a little more to the team than just Tim Tebow.  Urban Meyer could use an extended Tebow absence to challenge his squad.

Florida without Tebow should be good enough to beat Arkansas in Gainesville, and a trip the following week to Starkville will hold no terrors, other than the incessant ringing of cowbells.  LSU in Baton Rouge is a different story, but I’m not sure how good the Bayou Bengals really are, particularly after watching them escape Mississippi State last week.  LSU will probably have its hands full with Georgia on Saturday.

(Note:  LSU may or may not be that good, but Chad Jones is that good, and at apparently just about anything, from playing the outfield to pitching to roaming the secondary to returning punts.  With or without Tebow, the Gators better keep a close watch on Mr. Jones.)

The only danger to UF in holding out Tebow that long is if the Gators A) lose two of the three games (or all three of them), or B) lose one of the three games, and then lose again later in the season.  However, even if Florida were undefeated after that stretch, losing late in the season may cost the Gators a shot at the BCS title game regardless.  A late-season loss to Vanderbilt or South Carolina (to say nothing of Florida International) would be costly no matter if UF had one loss or no losses, and losing to Florida State (in the regular-season finale) or in the SEC title game would almost certainly rule the Gators out of championship consideration.

Semi-tangent:  Another potential issue is the effect missing multiple games would have on Tebow’s Heisman candidacy.  To be honest, I think he’s playing from behind this season already as far as that award is concerned.  I get the sense that it’s Colt McCoy’s “turn” this year.

Of course, Urban Meyer technically isn’t the one making the call on Tebow’s availability; that would be the Florida medical staff (and Tebow himself).  However, he could make a statement by telling Tebow to relax for a few weeks and wait until he’s completely ready (another factor in all this is that Tebow was apparently struggling with flu-like symptoms before he suffered the concussion).  Meyer would get major kudos from just about everyone in the media for putting Tebow’s health above Florida’s title considerations, without actually risking much in the way of those considerations.

I don’t think Meyer really cares about those types of plaudits.  Meyer cares about winning; his job is to win games.  That’s fine, but I think he has an opportunity here to look good with no real downside.  Also, parents of potential recruits would probably look favorably on the decision (as in “he’ll do what’s right for my kid”), although Florida certainly has few worries when it comes to recruiting anyway.  My guess is the university’s administration would also appreciate the school being cast in a “non-troglodyte” light.

What do I think will happen?  I believe Tebow will start in Baton Rouge on October 10.  I think he’ll play well, and Florida will win, whether or not it really needs Tebow to win the game.

Football, week 1: The Citadel vs. North Carolina

There will be a lot of blue on display in this game.  If Kenan Stadium could sing a song on Saturday, it might sound like this:

I’m blue da ba dee da ba di da ba dee da ba di da ba dee da ba di…

That’s right, an Eiffel 65 reference.  What other game preview gives you that?

The Citadel begins another football season this Saturday.  Doesn’t it seem like the anticipation increases every year?  Of course, this year part of the reason Bulldog fans want the season to hurry up and get here is so the team doesn’t lose any more running backs before the first game.

Some fast facts:

–Series:  UNC leads 3-0 (all three games played in Chapel Hill)
–Scores:  14-7 UNC (1915), 50-0 UNC (1939), 45-14 UNC (1986)
–The Citadel alltime against current ACC schools:  6-63-2
–The Citadel alltime against ACC schools (when those schools were actually members of the ACC):  0-24

The last time the Bulldogs beat a current ACC school was in 1931, when The Citadel edged Clemson, 6-0 (in a game played in Florence, of all places).  The Citadel also tied Florida State in 1960, 0-0.  The Bulldogs haven’t seriously threatened an ACC opponent on the gridiron since 1976, when Clemson slipped past a solid Bobby Ross squad, 10-7.

The 1939 UNC team that thrashed the Bulldogs 50-0 was pretty good, going 8-1-1 that season.  Alas, the loss was to Duke.  The coach of the Tar Heels at the time was Raymond “Bear” Wolf.  Yes, “Bear” Wolf.  Years before, Wolf had been a baseball player; he played in one game in the majors, for Cincinnati, getting one more at bat than Moonlight Graham did (speaking of UNC alums).  Wolf had a good run in Chapel Hill until 1941, when he went 3-7.

The new coach was Jim Tatum, who is in the College Football Hall of Fame, but mostly for his work at Maryland.  Tatum only coached at UNC (his alma mater) for one year before enlisting in the Navy; he would later have enormous success in College Park, winning a national title with the Terrapins in 1953, before returning to North Carolina in 1956.  Tatum coached three more seasons in Chapel Hill before dying suddenly of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever in 1959.  He was only 46.

While Tatum was building a championship team at Maryland (he also coached Oklahoma for one season), UNC was having a very good run of its own, thanks in large part to the exploits of the great Charlie “Choo Choo” Justice.  Justice is surely one of the best college football players not to win the Heisman Trophy (he was the runner-up twice).  North Carolina played in three major bowl games during this period, the only three times the Heels have ever played in a major bowl.  UNC lost all three games.

After some good (and bad) seasons through the 1960s, UNC would have another outstanding streak of success in the early 1970s under Bill Dooley, including an 11-1 season in 1972, marred only by a loss to Ohio State.  Interestingly, North Carolina did not finish the year in the top 10 of either poll.  Dooley would move on to Virginia Tech (and later Wake Forest).

Dick Crum took over the program from Dooley, and had some excellent seasons of his own, including 1980, when the Tar Heels (featuring Lawrence Taylor) would again go 11-1, again go undefeated in ACC play — and again struggle against a big-name non-conference opponent, this time Oklahoma (losing 41-7).  That 1980 season marks the last time UNC won the ACC title.

The next year could arguably serve as a microcosm of North Carolina’s football history.  UNC, led by tailback Kelvin Bryant, scored 161 points in its first three games in 1981.  Bryant scored an amazing 15 touchdowns in those three matchups.  Then, against Georgia Tech, Bryant injured his knee.  He would miss the next four games.  UNC hung on for two games, but after improving its record to 6-0, the Tar Heels were soundly beaten at home by a mediocre South Carolina team, 31-13.

North Carolina rebounded to beat Maryland, and then played Clemson in a game that was essentially for the ACC title.  The Heels had won 11 straight ACC contests, and the Tigers were undefeated (and had beaten Herschel Walker and Georgia).  It was the first time two ACC schools had met in football when both were ranked in the AP top 10, and it would be a memorable encounter.  Clemson prevailed, 10-8, in a game where the intensity was palpable, even to TV viewers.

North Carolina would not lose again that season, buoyed to an extent by the return of Bryant for the final two regular-season games and the Gator Bowl (where the Tar Heels would defeat Arkansas).  There was, however, one final twist of the knife.  From the “Scorecard” section of Sports Illustrated (January 11, 1982):

They say you can prove anything with statistics, and in the case of North Carolina running back Kelvin Bryant, official NCAA figures would appear to show that he didn’t exist in 1981. NCAA rules specify that to qualify as a season statistical leader a football player must appear in at least 75% of his team’s regular-season games; for the Tar Heels, who played an 11-game schedule, that meant a minimum of eight games. Because of knee surgery, Bryant played in only seven games, but he made the most of his limited participation, to put it mildly, scoring 108 points. The NCAA determines scoring leaders on a per-game basis, and it awarded the scoring title to USC’s Marcus Allen, who averaged 12.5 points a game. Because he played too few games, Bryant, with a 15.4 average, didn’t qualify to be the scoring champion, which may be fair enough. But Bryant also was excluded from the list of 25 top scorers even though—surely there’s an injustice here—he ranked fifth in total points behind Allen (138 points), Georgia’s Herschel Walker (120), SMU’s Eric Dickerson (114) and McNeese State’s Buford Johnson (l10). Absurdly, Iowa State’s Dwayne Crutchfield, who scored just 104 points, is listed in fifth place, while Bryant and his 108 points are nowhere to be seen.

This little blurb came in the same edition of the magazine  that featured Clemson wide receiver Perry Tuttle on the cover, as the Tigers had just won the national championship by defeating Nebraska in the Orange Bowl.  Talk about a double whammy of what might have beens…

Crum never had a team that good again, and by the late 1980s the program was beginning to fade.  Mack Brown then arrived and basically decided to start over.  After consecutive 1-10 seasons, that may have looked like a mistake, but Brown gradually built things back up, and in his last two seasons in Chapel Hill the team went 10-2 and 11-1 .  He couldn’t quite get that one big win to push the program to the next level, though, as the Heels could not beat Florida State.  After that 11-1 season (in 1997), Brown left for a program that he felt he could push over the top — Texas.

As the above paragraphs illustrate, UNC has had an occasionally-close-but-no-cigar kind of history in football — sometimes good, sometimes very good, but never quite getting over the hump (at least nationally) for various reasons, and thus always remaining in the large shadow cast by the school’s basketball program.  As the years have gone by, the degree of difficulty in trying to escape that shadow seems to have increased.

After ten seasons of around .500 ball under two coaches, the folks at UNC decided to shake things up and bring in Butch Davis, who is known as somebody who can really recruit (proof:  the 2001 Miami Hurricanes, which had 16 future NFL first-round draft picks on its roster).  Whether Davis can put it all together at North Carolina is the big question.  There are high hopes in Chapel Hill this season, however, as he returns 38 lettermen (including 15 starters) from a team that won eight games last season and is ranked #20 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll.

One of those returning starters is quarterback T.J. Yates, who presumably will have fully recovered from an injury suffered this past spring while playing Ultimate Frisbee.  I’m guessing that summer activities for the Tar Heels were restricted to checkers and backgammon in an attempt to keep everyone healthy.

Speaking of UNC quarterbacks, one of the curious things about the Heels’ football history is the lack of success of any North Carolina quarterback in the NFL (at least as a QB).  There have been 182 UNC football players who went on to the NFL (as of the conclusion of the 2008-09 season), but only two of them have been quarterbacks — and one of them, Jim Camp, never threw a pass in the league.  The other, Scott Stankavich, played in only four career games (no starts); two of those games came as a “replacement player” during the 1987 players’ strike.

Ronald Curry has had a decent career in the NFL, but as a wide receiver.  Curry has attempted four passes in the league, completing none of them.  There have actually been fifteen former Tar Heels who have attempted at least one NFL pass.  Only six of them, however, have actually completed one.  Stankavage is one of those six, but the Heel with the most yards passing in the NFL is halfback Ed Sutton, who threw for 146 yards in his career, with one TD.  Don McCauley is the only other UNC player to throw a TD pass in the NFL.

I totalled all the NFL passing statistics for former UNC players.  I also totalled the passing statistics for The Citadel’s Stump Mitchell (who threw nine passes during his career, including a TD toss to Roy Green) and Paul Maguire (who threw one pass during his career, completing it for 19 yards).  Check out the cumulative stats comparison:

UNC:  19-70, 315 yards, 2 TDs, 6 INTs, QB rating of 19.6
The Citadel:  5-10, 102 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs, QB rating of 119.6

A 100-point difference in QB rating?!  Advantage, Bulldogs.  Of course, that won’t mean anything on Saturday.

Last season, the Bulldogs were 4-8.  This followed a 7-4 campaign in 2007 that had fans thinking a return to the FCS playoffs was not far away.  Instead, the Bulldogs lost six straight games during the course of the 2008 season, narrowly avoided a seventh straight defeat to a poor UT-Chattanooga squad, and then got pummeled by Tim Tebow and eventual BCS champion Florida in the season finale.

Some of those games were close (The Citadel lost three Southern Conference games by a total of 12 points), but on the whole the 4-8 record was a fair reflection of the Bulldogs’ play.  Comparing some league-only statistics from the 2007 and 2008 seasons is illuminating.  Ignoring the raw totals, which are a touch misleading (scoring was down in the SoCon last season as compared to 2007), and looking at league rankings:

-Scoring defense:  4th (2007), 8th (2008)
-Pass efficiency defense:  3rd (2007), 9th (2008)
-Red Zone defense:  2nd (2007), 9th (2008)
-Turnover margin:  2nd (2007), 5th (2008)
-3rd down conversion offense:  2nd (2007), 5th (2008)
-3rd down conversion defense:  2nd (2007, 5th (2008)

That’s basically the story of the 2008 season right there.  The defense had trouble getting off the field (SoCon opponents completed over 64% of their passes against The Citadel, and the Bulldogs only intercepted two passes all season in league play).  Inside the 20, The Citadel’s defense had no answers (allowing 23 touchdowns in 31 red zone situations).

Offensively, the running game struggled, as rushing yardage per game dropped by one-third.  Perhaps more ominously, the number of third downs converted via the rush fell substantially.  This also affected the offense’s red zone success rate, as the team scored only 18 touchdowns in 34 opportunities inside the 20 (the worst ratio in the league), and led to over-reliance on an erratic (I’m being kind here) placekicking game.  The Bulldogs only made 7 of 12 field goals attempted in red zone possessions.  No other conference team missed more than one such attempt all season.

After a season like that, it’s not surprising changes were made.  The Bulldogs are going to return to a 4-3 defense after last year’s attempt at a 3-4 resulted in the D getting pushed all over the gridiron.  That rather obvious lack of physicality was also addressed by an aggressive offseason conditioning program.  There are a couple of new defensive coaches, too.

There has been a good pre-season buzz about the defensive line, which is nice, but there also needs to be more playmaking from the linebackers and secondary.  In other words:  get stops and force turnovers.  The key is to corral more interceptions (fumble recoveries tend to be somewhat random).  Scoring touchdowns on defense would be a plus, too, but you have to get the turnovers first before you can think six.  The Bulldogs have recorded 13 sacks in conference play each of the last two seasons; a few more this year certainly couldn’t hurt.

The offensive line should be strong, although illness has been a problem in fall practice, what with one lineman suffering from an acid-reflux problem and another battling mononucleosis.  That’s still much better than the Bulldogs’ running back situation.  The starter for UNC may be walk-on freshman Bucky Kennedy, walk-on freshman Remi Biakabutuka, or one of the backup bagpipers.  Biakabutuka would definitely be the choice if the opening-game opponent were Ohio State rather than North Carolina, as just the name “Biakabutuka” on his jersey would be enough to unnerve the Buckeyes, thanks to his older brother Tim.

Another potential threat as a runner is backup quarterback Miguel Starks, who last year impressed many observers just by standing on the sideline during games.  However, he’s never played a down of college football.  It will be interesting to see what he can do once he gets on the field.

I’m of the opinion that the incumbent starting quarterback, Bart Blanchard, didn’t have that bad a season last year, as I don’t think he got much help from the rest of the backfield (and the offensive line seemed to lack consistency).  He is a bit limited as a runner, which is not ideal in Kevin Higgins’ offense, but that was true the year before as well and the Bulldogs managed just fine when he stepped in for Duran Lawson.  Higgins wants him to have a better completion percentage, but part of the problem Blanchard had last season trying to avoid incompletions was a limited number of passing targets — basically, his options were the tight ends and Andre Roberts.

Of course, Roberts is a nice target to have.  It would really help Roberts (and Blanchard) if a second receiver emerged this season (Kevin Hardy?), which never happened last year.  If another Bulldog wideout does develop into a threat, Roberts could wind up with fewer catches but more yards per reception.  Roberts in space is a big play waiting to happen, as anyone who has watched him return punts can attest.  I’m glad he’s not going to be returning kickoffs this year, though.  I worry about him wearing down over the course of the season.

The placekicking needs to be much improved.  Last year was just not acceptable.  The Bulldogs also must replace Mark Kasper, who was a solid punter for four seasons (second in the league in net punting last year).  The Citadel needs to improve its kickoff coverage (next-to-last in the conference in 2008).  Basically, the special teams must get better across the board (with the exception of the punt return team, which thanks to Roberts was the nation’s best unit).

As for Saturday’s game, a lot depends on whether Blanchard and Roberts have fully recovered from sprained ankles each suffered during fall practice.  If they are both good to go, I would expect the Bulldogs to be reasonably competitive against North Carolina.

While the Heels return 15 starters, they must replace some excellent wide receivers (including Hakeem Nicks) and two starters on their offensive line.  UNC’s o-line has taken a bit of a hit in the pre-season with some injuries and attrition (nothing like The Citadel’s running back situation, though).  The starting group should still be solid, however.

T.J. Yates should be okay after his frisbee ordeal.  This will be his third year starting games at QB for UNC.  Yates is good at taking care of the ball (only four interceptions last season).  UNC has a nice corps of running backs, led by Shaun Draughn, who rushed for 866 yards in 2008.  The Tar Heels will definitely need to find some new wideouts, as no returning receiver caught more than 11 passes last year.

UNC rotates a number of defensive linemen, and almost all of them are very good athletes (and most of them are huge).  Marvin Austin has first-round pick potential, Cam Thomas has all the makings of a future NFL nosetackle, and Ladson native Robert Quinn won the ACC’s Piccolo Award after recovering from a brain tumor to have an outstanding freshman campaign.

Despite this embarrassment of riches, the Tar Heels didn’t do a particularly good job creating sacks last season (only 22 all season; the d-line only had 5.5 of those).  Still, this group will be a formidable challenge for The Citadel’s offensive line.

North Carolina has a really good trio of starting linebackers, led by Bruce Carter, who doubles as a great kick-blocker (five last year).  The defensive backfield should be excellent, with several ball hawks ready to repeat last year’s success in intercepting passes (the Heels had 20 picks).

UNC did struggle defensively on third down conversions, ranking last in the ACC in that category.

North Carolina’s special teams were okay last year, although its net punting was mediocre.  The Heels will be breaking in a new punter this season, which might be good news for Andre Roberts (and Mel Capers), although first The Citadel’s defense has to actually force a punt.

Last season UNC opened with McNeese State, and struggled before finally winning the game 35-27.  It should be pointed out that the Cowboys were a solid FCS club (finishing 7-4, and featuring a quality offense), and that the game was affected by a lightning delay.  If anything, that relatively close call may make the North Carolina players more wary of FCS opposition.

The goals for this game, from The Citadel’s point of view, are for the team to be as competitive as possible, and to avoid major injuries.  It isn’t realistic to expect a victory, particularly against a pre-season Top 20 team.  The Bulldogs just want to make UNC work for a win.

To do that, avoiding turnovers on offense is a must.  I suspect that The Citadel is not going to have much of a rushing attack in this game, which is going to be a problem.  It’s also going to be a tough game to break in a new punter.  I think the Bulldog defense has a chance to establish itself to a certain extent.  However, the UNC offense is not turnover-prone and is more than capable of grinding out drives (although this may not be a bad thing for The Citadel; the fewer big plays, the better).

Obviously, the players won’t be thinking the way I’m thinking.  They’re traveling to Chapel Hill looking for a victory, which is a good thing.  That’s how they should approach this game.  Besides, you never know what might happen.  After all, my fantasy football team is called The Jack Crowes.

I’m just ready for kickoff.

The Citadel’s 2009-10 basketball “guarantee” games

It’s the first of July, so naturally I’m going to briefly blog about college basketball…

About a month ago Jeff Hartsell wrote an article in The Post and Courier detailing The Citadel’s budget for its department of athletics.  Among other things, he mentioned:

The two guarantee games The Citadel’s football team played at Clemson and Florida last season certainly helped with the 2009 bottom line, boosting football revenues to $1.5 million…

…By NCAA rule, the football team — the department’s largest revenue-producing program — is allowed to play only 11 games next season (the Bulldogs played 12 in 2009). Only five of those games will be at home, and only one will be a big-money guarantee game, at North Carolina on Sept. 5. There’s also a road game at Princeton that will require a $59,000 airplane flight (a bus ride was deemed too long).

All of that adds up to about $420,000 less in football revenue next year than in 2009, money that has to be made up elsewhere.

Where? The Citadel’s basketball team will play three guarantee games next year, boosting basketball revenue by more than $275,000…

Since that was written, I had wondered about those basketball guarantee games.  I know that The Citadel was still looking for at least one guarantee game as late as mid-June (and is possibly still looking for one, I suppose).  Well, on Wednesday morning Ed Conroy sent a Twitter message that read:

Schedule for next year coming together, possible trips to Texas & Missouri. It should be a very challenging but exciting schedule.

Edit (8/5):  it may be that the reference to Texas is actually about a game against Texas A&M (not UT-Austin).  The game against the Aggies has been confirmed by that school.

Edit (8/30):  Instead of Missouri, The Citadel will be playing Missouri State.  The Bulldogs are also playing West Virginia.

So those may be two of the three games (assuming there are only three).  I don’t know if a game against Clemson or South Carolina would be considered a “guarantee” game, but assuming the Bulldogs play one or the other of those schools, which is fairly typical for The Citadel in any given year, and also assuming that the expected home game against Michigan State comes to pass (part of a three-for-one deal, I believe), then The Citadel will indeed have a very challenging slate of non-conference games.

It’s not official yet, of course.  As it happens, The Citadel has never played Texas or Missouri in hoops (I’m not sure the Bulldogs have faced either school in any athletic competition, actually).  The Citadel is 1-4 alltime against current Big XII schools, with the lone victory a 62-61 decision over Texas A&M in 1971.  The Bulldogs lost three games to Nebraska in the early 1990s, and also dropped a much-closer-than-expected game to Kansas in 1987 (74-71).

That win over Texas A&M is one of two for Bulldog basketball squads against Lone Star State opponents, having also defeated Southwestern University in 2003.  The Citadel has also played Rice twice (1972 and 1973), losing both times, so all told the Bulldogs are 2-2 against teams from Texas.  As far as I can tell, The Citadel has never played a basketball game against a school from the state of Missouri.

SoCon tourney “flip” is a flop

Well, I’m disappointed The Citadel lost its tourney opener today to Appalachian State, obviously, but what I wanted to write about doesn’t have much to do with today’s game, but rather the conference tournament as a whole.  It’s a topic that features the SoCon, but it could apply to any conference tournament.  This is going to take a bit of explaining, also, so please bear with me while I outline what I think is a serious flaw in the conference tournament format.

The Southern Conference tournament has two distinct four-team pools (at least, they should be distinct).  One team from each of those pools survives to play on Sunday in a single-game championship.  In other words, it’s possible for a team to go undefeated in its pool, and play a one-loss team for the title, lose the title game, and thus finish with just one loss but no championship.  This is done for television (SportSouth will televise the title game on Sunday).

Now, we’ve all seen this one-game-for-all-the-marbles deal before.  The College World Series did this for over a decade, and nobody really liked the idea of a team in a double-elimination tournament not winning the title despite only losing one game, especially when there were no other undefeated teams.  It happened occasionally, too (Texas did not lose until it fell to one-loss Wichita State in the 1989 final, in only the second year of the single-game championship format; the very next year one-loss Georgia beat previously undefeated Oklahoma State for the crown).

The NCAA has now changed to a best-of-three series for the title, which I think everyone likes.  The current setup is exactly what the college baseball championship should be.  However, what I want to emphasize is that even in its imperfect single-game state, the College World Series bracket was not set up the way the Southern Conference bracket is this year.

Essentially, the league is “flipping” two teams in the bracket for Saturday’s play.  This concept can be confusing, so much so that the conference initially released a bracket .pdf that was incorrect.  It’s now been fixed, and you can see it here.  Jeff Hartsell of The Post and Courier describes the “flipping” of the bracket:

There are two four-team brackets — Cid, App State, Davidson and GSU in one, and Elon, Furman, C of C and WCU in the other. On day three (Saturday), however, the bracket is flipped, with the 2-0 team from each bracket sent to the other.
If The Cid, for example, wins its first two games in bracket one, it will be off Friday and sent to bracket two for its third game on Saturday. This keeps one team from playing another three times in the tournament. It also means two teams from the same bracket could meet in the finals.

The next-to-last sentence explains the rationale for the “flip” — but the last sentence exposes the problem with it.  Let me give an example:

Let’s say that Appalachian State follows up its win over The Citadel by beating Georgia Southern, and then (after the flip) beats Elon on Saturday in the early afternoon game to advance to the championship game on Sunday.  The Mountaineers would be undefeated, and would have beaten the top three seeds in the tourney.  However, what happens if the opponent in the title game on Sunday were to be The Citadel or Georgia Southern?  That would mean that Appalachian State would have to beat one of those teams twice without losing to win the championship.

In other words, say in that scenario Georgia Southern beats Appy.  They would both have one loss (to each other) but GSU would be the champs and the Mountaineers would be out of luck.  Avoiding a potential third game between the two schools by employing the “flip” would thus prove detrimental to the Mountaineers.

The difference between flipping and not flipping the teams is this:  if you have a one-loss team and an undefeated team, and they come from completely separate pools, then at least you could make the argument that the one-loss team came from a stronger pool, so it winning the title against an undefeated team from the other pool isn’t quite as unfair.  You really don’t even have to make that argument; the fact that the two pools are distinct from one another makes things at least somewhat equitable (in theory).  You certainly don’t have to worry about a situation where two teams beat each other, but one gets an edge because it lost in a double-elimination situation before a one-shot title game.

Flipping teams like this isn’t a bad idea for a true double-elimination tournament.  In fact, in that situation it’s probably a good thing.  When there is already an inherent flaw in a format, however, trying to get even cuter with the bracketing just serves to exponentially increase the chances of having an unjust resolution to the tournament.

Bubbling Basketball, 3/2/09

With two weeks to go until Selection Sunday, there is still a fairly large group of bubble teams, but the potential at-large pool has become more defined.  My current groups of eight:

Group 1:  Connecticut, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Memphis, Michigan State, Duke

I have three Big East teams in the top five of my S-curve, but it is unlikely that conference winds up with three #1 seeds.  UConn and Pitt still have to play again in the regular season (at Pitt), and then the Big East tournament will have a culling effect of sorts.  Memphis is also a strong candidate for a #1 seed.  Oklahoma may not win the Big XII regular season after losing two games due to Blake Griffin’s concussion, but I don’t think that is going to cost the Sooners much, if anything, in terms of grabbing a #1.

Group 2:  Kansas, Wake Forest, Washington, Missouri, Villanova, LSU, Purdue, Marquette

Kansas and Missouri both being on the 3 line after this weekend’s blowout win for the Jayhawks gave me pause, but that’s just the way it is.  Washington has made a strong push, with nine wins in its last twelve games (six of its last seven).  LSU is going to run away with the SEC regular season title, and even in a bad year for that league, it’s hard to see the Bayou Bengals not being rewarded with a top 16 seed.  If LSU chokes in the SEC tourney, though, that could change.

Marquette stays where it is, and will continue to do so, until it is demonstrated that Marquette is significantly affected by the season-ending injury to Dominic James.  I think it’s almost certain that his injury will have a negative effect on the team’s performance over time, but losing a competitive game to Louisville doesn’t really make it obvious.

Group 3:  Xavier, Florida State, UCLA, Clemson, Illinois, Butler, Gonzaga, Utah

I think you have to rate Florida State ahead of Clemson at this point.  The Tigers are only 6-6 in their last 12 games, which includes a loss at Virginia and a home loss to Virginia Tech, in addition to the sweep at the hands of the Seminoles.  Butler has eleven “true” road wins, including a victory at Xavier.  In other respects its profile does not really scream “6 seed”, though.

Gonzaga is going to play USC Upstate and its 290 RPI before beginning play in the WCC tournament.  It will be the sixth time Mark Few’s men have played a team with a current RPI of 276 or worse.  Four of those are conference games against Loyola-Marymount and Pepperdine.  Two other teams in the WCC also have RPIs below 200.  Keep that in mind, but not to hold against Gonzaga.   Just wait until we get to the bubble teams and one league in particular…

Group 4:  Arizona State, Syracuse, West Virginia, California, Dayton, Boston College, Tennessee, Texas

Most of these teams can just about book their tournament reservations at this point.  Syracuse is essentially a lock, and the rest probably need just one more win.  You could make a good argument that ASU and the ‘Cuse should be rated ahead of Utah.  Tennessee separated itself from the other SEC bubblers with its win on Sunday against Florida (completing a sweep of the Gators), thanks in large part to separating itself from its league brethren before the season started with its strong non-conference schedule.

Group 5:  Wisconsin, Brigham Young, Ohio State, UNLV, Creighton, Minnesota, Texas A&M, South Carolina

Ah, here is where the fun really starts…

Wisconsin played a very good schedule (currently rated sixth nationally).  Its biggest non-conference scalp came at Virginia Tech, which will come in handy, along with sweeps of Michigan and Penn State and a victory over Ohio State.  The Badgers next play Minnesota, and need to win to avoid being swept by the Gophers.  A win in Minneapolis won’t be easy, but if Wisconsin gets it and beats Indiana in its home finale, it should be set.  Even a loss to Minnesota won’t be fatal, although the Badgers may want to win a game or two in the Big 10 tourney just to be safe.  The average RPI of the teams Wisconsin has defeated is 104, which is a very impressive number.

BYU is 8-3 on the road this season, and also has a neutral-site victory over Utah State.  None of the road victories was a really good one, but on the other hand, BYU played a representative schedule and only has one serious flaw on its resume, a sweep at the hands of UNLV.  There are worse teams to have been swept by, though.  I’m not overly enthused by the Cougars’ profile, but they’ve done what they needed to do, which is why the RPI is 22, and BYU will make the NCAAs unless it badly stumbles down the stretch.  I will give BYU credit for not scheduling a lot of games against 200+ RPI teams.

Ohio State beat Butler at home, Notre Dame in Indianapolis, and Miami (FL) on the road (where it got lucky, frankly).  Those results and no bad losses will go a long way to getting an at-large bid, but the Buckeyes are only 8-8 in the Big 10 (including getting thumped over the weekend by Purdue) and probably need two more wins.  As it happens, they close with games at Iowa and home to Northwestern.

UNLV has the aforementioned sweep of BYU, a win over Utah, and most importantly, a win at Louisville.  The Rebels have also lost at Colorado State and at TCU, and as a result find themselves in fifth place in the Mountain West.  I think UNLV has the profile to get an at-large bid and become team #3 ouf of the MWC, but it needs to win its last two (including at San Diego State, which would get the Rebels at least a tie for 4th in the league), and then not fall apart at the Mountain West tournament, particularly since that tournament is in Vegas this year.

Creighton has won ten straight games and heads into the Missouri Valley tournament with the #2 seed (losing a tiebreaker after tying for the regular season title).  The Blue Jays don’t have a win on their resume that will make you stand up and take notice, but one thing Creighton apparently did was try to figure out what other mid-majors might be good this season, and then proceeded to schedule them.  In addition to the Bracketbusters game against George Mason, Creighton has also played Dayton, New Mexico, Arkansas-Little Rock, Oral Roberts, and St. Joseph’s, winning all of those games with the exception of a last-second lost to UALR.  I would like the profile a little better without the losses to Wichita State and Drake, but 25 wins while playing in the nation’s ninth-rated conference is worth serious consideration when doling out at-large bids.

Minnesota has a neutral-site win over Louisville, a win at Wisconsin, and a win over Illinois in one of the Big 10’s notorious “first to 40 wins” contests.  The Gophers are only 5-7 in their last twelve and really need a couple of wins down the stretch to feel secure.  They have two home games remaining, both of serious bubble interest, as they play Wisconsin and Michigan.  The Gophers are the quintessential major-conference bubble team.

Texas A&M has excellent computer numbers (RPI of 35).  The Aggies have a neutral-site win over LSU and home wins over Texas and Arizona.  The problem for A&M is that it is only 7-7 in a Big XII that no one is favorably comparing to the ACC or Big East.  Texas A&M is building momentum, though, with four straight wins, and it figures to be five after a game at Colorado on Wednesday.  The Aggies finish the regular season with a home game against Missouri and a chance to play its way into the NCAAs.

Before getting to South Carolina, let’s review Group 6, which has six teams, and then the rest of the hopefuls which as of right now aren’t in my tournament projections:

Group 6:  Oklahoma State, Miami (FL), Arizona, Maryland, Florida, Michigan

Also hoping:  Virginia Tech, St. Mary’s, Providence, Rhode Island, Utah State, Georgetown, Penn State, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, Kentucky, Davidson, Siena, New Mexico, UAB, San Diego State

Oklahoma State is a lot like Texas A&M; I have a hard time separating them.  They split two meetings.  Oklahoma State has a one-game lead over A&M in the conference standings.  The Aggies beat LSU and Arizona; the Cowboys have neutral-site wins over Siena and Rhode Island.  Both beat Texas.  Okie State has won five straight and finishes with Kansas State at home and Oklahoma in Norman.

Miami (FL) and Arizona are similar in that they need to take care of business.  The Hurricanes have two very winnable games to get to 8-8 in the ACC; then Miami probably needs to win a game in the ACC tournament.  Arizona is 8-8 in the Pac-10 and is poised to get the fifth bid from that league, but needs to beat Stanford and either Cal or its first-round opponent in the Pac-10 tournament (which may in fact be Cal).

Maryland and Michigan have some similarities as well.  Both have played difficult schedules.  Both have major out of conference victories (North Carolina and Michigan State for the Terps; Duke and UCLA for the Wolverines).  Of course, Maryland beat Michigan earlier in the season, which is another solid OOC victory for the  Terps.  Maryland is 7-7 in ACC play; Michigan is 8-9 in the Big 10, with a game at Minnesota left to conclude its regular season.  I think Maryland needs to finish 8-8 in conference, and possibly (but not necessarily) win an ACC tourney game.  Michigan might be good to go if it can get that win against Minnesota (which would have the added benefit of hurting the chances of another bubble team).  Otherwise, the Wolverines may have to do some damage in the Big 10 tournament.

South Carolina, Florida, and Kentucky — let’s look at the SEC bubblers, shall we?

Earlier I noted that Gonzaga had played six teams with RPIs of 276 or worse.  Four of them are in the Bulldogs’ league, which means Gonzaga had no control over the scheduling of those games.  Because of these games, the average RPI of the teams Gonzaga has beaten this season is 160.

The average RPI of the teams Florida has defeated is 179.  Kentucky?  173.  South Carolina?  172.

Florida has actually played seven teams with RPIs worse than 276, all as part of its non-conference slate.  The Gators have 21 wins, but has beaten only two teams in the top 75 of the RPI — Washington (in Kansas City) and South Carolina.

The Gamecocks have not much more heft to their resume, with a sweep of Kentucky to go with a win over Florida and a victory at Baylor, all as part of a schedule not much stronger than that of the Gators.

Kentucky has swept Tennessee and beaten the Gators, and has a neutral-site win over West Virginia.  Kentucky also has six wins against teams with RPIs of 299 or worse, dragging down its computer numbers, which are also affected by home losses to Mississippi State and (especially) VMI.

Just to give you an idea of how the SEC teams compare with other teams in terms of scheduling wins, the average RPI of the teams defeated by some of their fellow major conference bubblers:

Michigan – 133, Arizona – 139, Miami (FL) – 139, Oklahoma State – 148, Texas A&M – 143, Minnesota – 142, Maryland – 146, Virginia Tech – 150, Cincinnati – 152, Georgetown – 110, Notre Dame – 167, Providence – 165, Penn State – 170

It’s rather striking when looked at that way.  It shows why Georgetown is still a bubbler despite all its losses, why Penn State has work to do (despite road wins over Michigan State and Illinois), and why Notre Dame is essentially done, especially after losing at home by 17 to Villanova.  Georgetown got its win over Villanova, and Providence still has a game to play against the Wildcats.

It also shows why the SEC resumes are less than the sum of their parts.  Florida and Kentucky face each other in what some are calling a “play-in” game; I would suggest it should be called a “play-out” game, with the winner still having work to do in the SEC tourney.

Rhode Island has played a lot of “close but no cigar” games, including a three-point loss at Duke, a one-point loss at Providence, and a two-point loss to Xavier.  The Rams have won 10 of their last 11 games and will get a look from the committee if they go deep in the A-10 tournament.  If you don’t take into account the close losses, though, URI’s profile isn’t quite good enough, and I’m not sure you should take into account close losses.

As to what the committee will do if St. Mary’s makes the WCC final and loses to Gonzaga, I really don’t know.  I suspect the Gaels, with a healthy Patty Mills, are at-large quality.  The resume doesn’t really bear that out, however.

I don’t think the remaining non-BCS candidates have much of a shot at an at-large bid.  Of the group, I like Davidson the best, but I don’t think Stephen Curry and crew can absorb another loss, even if it would be to one of the better SoCon teams, like The Citadel or the College of Charleston.  UAB had a chance to make a statement against Memphis; instead, Memphis made the statement.  The Blazers do have a win over Arizona, but have not really been dominant against the non-Memphis C-USA teams.

Siena’s loss on Friday to Niagara probably torpedoed any at-large hopes.  New Mexico, San Diego State, and Utah State all have less-than-imposing resumes with little to offer in the way of significant non-conference wins.  Utah State does have a win over Utah, and probably has the best shot of an at-large among the western non-BCS schools.

There is still a lot of action remaining in the regular season.  Not unlike the weather, if there is something you don’t like concerning the bubble picture, just wait — things will change.

Michigan State’s “brutal” hoops schedule is not really that brutal after all

Yesterday’s USA Today included a story titled “Spartans hope brutal schedule gets them ready for primetime,” which began:

One of the hallmarks of Tom Izzo’s coaching career at Michigan State has been to embrace a rugged non-conference schedule…

Izzo is at it again this season. Michigan State will play 10 games against teams that reached last year’s tournament, including defending national champion Kansas and this season’s probable No. 1, North Carolina. The Spartans will also play Texas and could meet Georgetown, Tennessee and Gonzaga.

“I just never want to be on Dick Vitale’s ‘cream puff’ scheduling list,” Izzo joked. “But many years ago we took on the ‘any time, any where’ theory of playing people and it’s kind of stayed with me.”

Izzo is not a masochist. He believes MSU can not only survive this schedule, but flourish against it.

Now, I like Tom Izzo.  He seems to be one of the very few bigtime college basketball coaches who may actually be a nice guy.  And Michigan State’s non-conference schedule does have some tough teams on it, as mentioned in the article.  However, when I saw that headline, I immediately did a double-take, because I was well aware that on that same non-conference schedule is a game in East Lansing against one of the toughest teams of all…The Citadel.

For the uninformed, The Citadel did not make the NCAA tournament last season.  No, the Bulldogs did not win the Southern Conference tournament, and were not deemed worthy of an at-large bid, possibly because of a 6-24 record that included just two wins over Division I opponents.  I quickly checked to see if a McDonald’s All-American had accidentally signed a letter of intent to play for The Citadel this season.  Nope.

Of course, you can have a cupcake or two (The Citadel had an RPI of 334 last season; there were 341 Division I teams) and still have a very difficult schedule.  However, the Spartans are also playing Idaho (last season’s RPI:  299), and Alcorn State (336, an RPI worse than The Citadel’s!), both at home, and have a road game against IPFW (RPI of 218).  The Spartans also have a game at Oakland (which I suspect might be a “home away from home” situation) and a home game against Bradley, which should be decent but not that big a test for MSU.

The rest of the non-conference schedule, admittedly, is impressive.  Michigan State plays Maryland in the first round of the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, a tournament that features several other teams that should be good this season, including Gonzaga, Tennessee, and Georgetown.  However, the article suggests Michigan State “could meet Georgetown, Tennessee and Gonzaga” when that’s not the case; the Spartans could only face two of them at most.  Michigan State plays Texas in Houston, and the Spartans also drew North Carolina in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge (a game that will be played in Detroit) .  MSU concludes its non-conference slate with a home game against defending national champion Kansas.

Michigan State will play twelve non-conference games.  Five are against teams it should defeat easily, and a sixth (Bradley) is a home game against a middle-of-the-pack mid-major.  The other six games include only one matchup (Texas) in which Michigan State will be the road team, and even that game is not on the opponent’s home court.  Michigan State will play three games on a neutral site in Orlando, with the first of those coming against Maryland, a team that is projected to finish seventh in the ACC.  North Carolina is favored by many to win the national title, but last year’s champs, Kansas, lost seven of the nine players that made up its rotation.  I’m sure the Jayhawks will have plenty of talent replacing those players, but the Spartans will have the opportunity of playing them at home and in early January, before those players have had a chance to mesh with each other.  Considering Michigan State won 27 games last season and has three starters returning (along with most of its regular rotation), I think the advantage lies with the Spartans.

That’s a fair schedule, and not one deserving of any criticism.  It strikes me as balanced.  I like the fact that Izzo is going on the road (at least the Ft. Wayne trip is a true road game; as I said, I’m not sure about that game in Oakland) against smaller schools.  The UNC, Texas, and Kansas games should be a lot of fun, and the tournament in Orlando should be excellent — I’m looking forward to watching it.  The Spartans will be well-prepared by the time the Big 10 season rolls around.

It’s not a brutal non-conference schedule, though.

You want to see a brutal non-conference schedule?  Just take a gander at what Fang Mitchell has put together for his squad this season (and seemingly every season).  Coppin State’s coach has set up a slate with nine road games and three neutral-site games in Hawaii:  at Purdue, at Kansas, at Richmond, at Loyola (MD), at Dayton, at Wisconsin, at Syracuse, the Rainbow Classic (Colorado is the first-round opponent), at Oklahoma, and at Missouri.  Coppin State actually mixes in a road conference game in there, so the Eagles will play thirteen games before their first home contest on January 10.

Now, that’s a brutal non-conference schedule.