National / Sports / February 23, 2011

A down season for college basketball

Coming into Tuesday night, hoops guru extraordinaire Ken Pomeroy had Bruce Weber’s Fighting Illini pegged as the 20th best team in college basketball. And, though the Ohio State Buckeyes destroyed Illinois Tuesday evening, there’s no reason to believe the Illini will slip much in the rankings.

Though both sets of published rankings (the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll and the Associated Press Poll) dropped Illinois from consideration weeks ago, the computers still like the Illini for their few marquee wins—a waxing of surging North Carolina back in November and a solid win over Wisconsin on Jan. 2—as well as their incredible strength of schedule.

Furthermore, the Illini are a shoo-in to reach the NCAA tournament, so long as they take care of business at home against Big Ten also-rans Iowa and Indiana. No one expects them to beat Purdue on the road on March 1, and it doesn’t matter; the Illini appear to be comfortably in.

While this may be a product of the new 68-team format the NCAA is debuting this season, it seems more emblematic of a different aspect of the 2010-2011 hoops season: the quality of play is awful.

What’s good for the Illini?

Ultimately, I’m not even sure it’s good for Illinois to make it to the NCAA tournament. I’ve defended head coach Bruce Weber during every disappointing campaign since the magical run in 2004-2005, but I’m running out of excuses.

The blame could very easily fall on the weak class of Illini seniors: Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis, Demetri McCamey and Bill Cole. But, at the same time, these are Weber’s guys, and the former three have been significant contributors for the last three seasons. That they haven’t developed the requisite leadership skills by now should be on the coaching staff as much as it is on them.

If they reach the NIT once again, the seat will get a little bit warmer for Weber—though it appears athletic director Ron Guenther is a big fan of his. And, with the ongoing academic scandal at the University, I seriously doubt a scuffling administration wants to seem like it’s overly concerned with athletic performance, no matter how much sense the proverbial house-cleaning may make.

More broadly, however, there are multiple factors making this college hoops season forgettable on a national level.

Lack of a national star

Though Brigham Young University’s Jimmer Fredette has captivated the country with his prolific scoring and incredible range, he’s not enough of a figure to be a true superstar on the national stage. Is Jimmer a cool story? Of course—what’s not cool about a Mormon from upstate New York who shoots at will from 35 feet?

But he’s not going to have a career at the next level. He lacks the quickness and handles to have much of an impact in the NBA. He’s like Stephen Curry in some ways—deadly shooting and an incredible basketball IQ—but he is athletically reminiscent of former Duke point guard Greg Paulus. (Paulus was a once-in-a-lifetime high school athlete and a role player miscast as the starting at point guard for the Duke Blue Devils.)

After Fredette, most of the hype has been about Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger. But Sullinger is, right now, nothing more than a good-but-not-great post player with decent moves and a penchant for getting his fat ass in position. He also has a bad habit of catching the ball off the block and putting up ill-advised turnaround jumpers.

On defense, he’ll make the occasional swat here and there. Aside from that, however, Sullinger is a non-factor on defense. During Tuesday night’s game against Illinois, ESPN analyst Dan Dakich made much of the fact that Sullinger was having a hard time closing out on Illini center Mike Tisdale. (Tisdale terrorized the Buckeyes from the perimeter, shooting 4-5 from three). Sullinger could barely get up the court after chasing Tisdale for three or four possessions.

It should go without saying: National Basketball Association big men tend to be of a higher quality than Tisdale.

No dominant team

Though last year’s national champion, Duke, returned most of their key players, they have struggled to establish themselves as the quintessential team of 2010-2011. Part of this is due to freshman point guard Kyrie Irving’s injuries; part of it is due to Kyle Singler being a colossal disappointment in his senior season.

Kansas recently suspended guard Tyshawn Taylor indefinitely for violating team rules. Knowing how Bill Self runs a program, I’m guessing Taylor had the gall to attend class or do homework on the team bus. They don’t do that stuff at Kansas, TT.

Purdue, even without senior Robbie Hummel, is quietly positioning themselves as a potential no. 1 seed come March, and a dark-horse pick for the national championship.

Still, the field itself is unimpressive. Can you imagine what the 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 UCLA Bruins would do this season? Remember: NBA stars Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook could only get those very good teams to the national semifinals both years. (Love was only there in 2007-2008.) The Bruins ran into Derrick Rose and Memphis in 2006-2007 and Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Florida in 2007-2008.

Odd timing for 68-team field

This will be the first year with an expanded NCAA tournament field. And, given the paucity of good teams, it doesn’t look like it will be a good first year for the new format.

Though it could be worse; the NCAA was supposedly close to pulling the trigger on a colossal 96-team field. What awful dregs would be let in? I’m not sure Tom Crean’s awful crimson-and-cream Indiana Hoosiers would make it in. At the same time, I can see an argument for actually letting them in. Good grief.

Luckily for the NCAA, their unfortunate timing will be combated by a long-awaited and late-arriving decision to broadcast all games across a variety of Viacom networks. No longer will fans have to order a “special” Direct TV package in order to catch all games. CBS sportsdesk anchor Greg Gumbel will no longer have the power of God to dictate whether or not a selected audience gets to watch this 5/12 game or that 7/10 game on a Thursday afternoon.

And thank God for that.

Kevin Morris

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