Thoughts and observations from the 2K Sports Classic in New York City as well as other notes from around the country. Michigan and Duke will meet in the final Friday night at Madison Square Garden (ESPN2, ESPN360, 7 p.m. ET). Southern Illinois and UCLA will play in the consolation game (ESPN2, ESPN360, 5 p.m. ET).
Coach John Beilein employs an unusual and unconventional style on offense and defense, and a style like that requires really good talent. In the Big Ten, there are not many teams that have been able to employ unusual or unconventional styles and win consistently. Beilein has a reputation of "doing more with less," but in the Big Ten he will have to do "more with more" and recruit better players. I believe that he will. But one thing about unconventional styles ... teams in your league get used to that style and learn how to deal with it. The Princeton style took some getting used to in the Big Ten, but teams eventually learned how to guard it effectively. The same is true in the Ivy League. Princeton won not because of the style but because of the quality of the players running it.
• Playing against Michigan's 1-3-1 half-court zone, you have to throw it over the top and attack the baseline. The Wolverines have a small guard on the back line of that defense and opponents have to go after him. And you have to go to the offensive glass because offensive rebounds are available. When Beilein employed the 1-3-1 at West Virginia, Syracuse did just that and also played the unconventional offense of the Mountaineers with a long and athletic 2-3 zone. It would take an extraordinary 3-point shooting night for West Virginia to beat Syracuse then, and it rarely happened. But Orange coach Jim Boeheim is pretty darn smart, and few play the percentages as well as he does.
• UCLA has really good guards, but the Bruins need to improve their frontcourt play. Of course, losing Kevin Love to the NBA was a big deal, but just as big of a deal was losing Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. He was a long, athletic rebounder and defender, and he was particularly adept at stifling double-teams in the post. UCLA is a good team but the Bruins were probably too highly ranked to begin the season. UCLA may get there, but the Bruins still have a lot of developing to do.
• The Duke versus Southern Illinois game was the kind of early-season game that college basketball needs. The best majors should be playing some of the best mid-majors. Division I basketball has too many teams, and many big conference teams choose to play some of the bottom teams of Division I instead of playing the top mid-majors. While that is understandable, we need to move away from that way of approaching scheduling.
• If Duke expects to reach the highest level as a team, the Blue Devils have to do two things ... rebound better and guard the dribble. Better rebounding means sending all five guys to the defensive glass. When a team pressures the ball the way Duke does and gets out in passing lanes, boxing out is really difficult. Duke had better find a way on the glass. Guarding the bounce means staying in front and not giving up straight-line drives. Duke plays great team defense, but at times the Blue Devils have to play great individual defense, as well.
• Southern Illinois is one of the best and most disciplined defensive teams I have seen. The Salukis close down shooters better than any other team in the nation. But when I watch SIU or another great defensive team, I always wonder why it is so difficult to have a defensive identity and be a proficient offensive team. Southern Illinois grinds it out on the defensive end, but scoring is a problem for the Salukis. Some teams can balance great offense and great defense, but few teams seem to do both at the very highest level.
• Can someone please explain to me what a "trap game" is? I never heard that term when I was playing or coaching. I was familiar with the concept of a letdown, but a "trap game" seems like a concept brought forward by those who never played. If both teams can see the "trap" coming, would it be a "trap-trap game"? Or would it be a "trap game" just for the team expecting a "trap game"? There can be a lot of traps, if you really think about it.
• When teams play in tournaments in Maui, Orlando or Puerto Rico, the coaching staffs wear golf shirts with their team's logo on them. I think that coaches should do that all the time. I never understand why basketball coaches have to wear suits and ties during games. I don't think that college basketball would crumble if the coaches wore athletic attire during games.
• Kentucky is not a very good team and probably won't be an NCAA tournament team this season. The reason is guard play. Kentucky's guards are either young or ill-suited to be primary handlers, and that is backed up by the Wildcats' 53 turnovers in their first two games.
Kentucky fans don't like to hear this, but they have to be patient. Generally, the second year after a coaching change is a really rough ride, and this is the second year for Billy Gillispie. I consider Gillispie to be a very good coach and an excellent recruiter. I really believe that Gillispie will get it going at Kentucky. This may be painful now, but it was painful in Rick Pitino's first couple of seasons, and from 1996-98 Kentucky had a run that few teams in NCAA history have had. The Wildcats were an overtime period away from a three-peat with three different teams and two different coaches. That incredible accomplishment has never really been given its due. I thought that Kentucky was the program of the decade in the 1990s.
And even though this may not be one of Kentucky's best teams, the Cats' new uniforms are sweet. To paraphrase SNL's version of Fernando Lamas, it is better for UK to look good than to play good.
• The end of the UAB-Arizona game (a 72-71 UAB win) was odd, but it points to the need for coaches to run game situations in practice. Arizona has a lot of things to deal with and teach, but game situations have to be a part of practice for any good team. When a coach gives his team a game situation to play out, he can critique and teach the different situations that come up and players can learn from their mistakes. Then, if the players encounter similar situations in games, they feel like they have been there before. Plus, it trains the players to think critically about time and score so they can think and react the right way under pressure.
• It is utterly amazing how many traveling violations are missed by officials. I wish I could say it was just early in the season and that officials will start to call it, but this is a constant problem. When a player catches the ball on the wing and establishes a pivot foot, then pivots off the other foot, it is a clear traveling violation. The officials miss it more often than charge and block calls.
• How great was it to see Davidson play Oklahoma in Norman? The contrast of star performers was delicious. Stephen Curry is an example of a superstar who simply knows how to play. He is a great shooter who plays with pace, can stop on a dime and has a quick release. Curry is never off-balance, yet he keeps his defender off-balance because of his shot credibility. Every time Curry twitches his arm, his defender goes for it. Oklahoma's Blake Griffin is a skilled big man who combines skill and power in a uniquely impressive way. Griffin is averaging almost 20 rebounds per game early in the season, and he is absolutely unstoppable.
• Does anyone really think the headband is a good look? In 20 or 30 years, do you really think we will all look back and think the headband trend is a good one? I think it is the upper-body equivalent of the old "short shorts" look.
• Xavier's Sean Miller is one fine basketball coach. In my judgment, Xavier is a great job and Miller should stay there unless he lands one of the top five jobs in the country. Like Mark Few at Gonzaga, when you coach at Xavier, you have it knocked and you would be crazy to leave. The grass is plenty green in front of the Cintas Center.
• Do you think Michigan State's Tom Izzo will get any brownie points from the NCAA tournament selection committee for going on the road to play IPFW? I doubt it. When a major conference team like Michigan State goes on the road to play a mid-major, the only notice it gets is if it loses.
• When discussing teams and relative strengths throughout the season, we need to make a distinction between a team that "can win" and a team that is the "better team." Most of the best mid-major teams can win on any given night against the best of the major conference teams, but that doesn't make them the "better team."
Sometimes, though, a mid-major is the better team. We need to be able to discuss these teams without people getting their undies in a bunch about it. This isn't about classifications, it is about basketball.
• If you wind up playing Missouri, you need to make use of shot fakes and pass fakes. The Tigers go after you so hard defensively and they do it all over the floor, but they react to fakes by leaving the floor or lunging at the ball. Pass fakes and shot fakes will be successful against Missouri.
In a freak occurrence, Zeller was fouled on a breakaway late in the game. But it was just one of those things that cannot be faulted to anyone. The foul was not an issue, as Ramon Harris made a play on the ball and the contact was minimal. UNC coach Roy Williams did not make any kind of mistake in having Zeller in the game, and I would strenuously disagree with any suggestion otherwise.
The only thing that might have avoided the injury is the manner in which Zeller took the ball to the basket. Please understand that Zeller did absolutely nothing wrong on the breakaway, but I think he could have done it better. I have always believed that in a breakaway scenario, the offensive player needs to protect himself by squaring up to the backboard and going up off of two feet. Zeller went off of one foot and opened up his chest to the defender, where he could be more easily knocked off-balance, making a recovery very difficult. Off of two feet and squared up, the defender would have had to come over Zeller's back, and Zeller would have had a better opportunity to complete the play and protect himself. Plus, off of two feet, Zeller would have the opportunity to use a shot fake and let the defender fly by.
A lot of players go off of one foot, and there is nothing wrong with that. But sometimes going off of two feet can be the better choice in a breakaway scenario. The same thing applies to the breakaway that Kyle Singler had in which Singler went off of one foot against Southern Illinois. It was just a matter of chance that Zeller was injured and Singler was not.
As for Zeller's injury, I thought Roy Williams and the North Carolina team handled the foul and injury situation very well. In what could have been a very frustrating situation, especially considering the rash of injuries suffered by the Heels lately, North Carolina displayed uncommon cool.
• If you have the opportunity to check out the basketball museum on North Carolina's campus near the Dean Dome, do it. It is the best I have ever seen, and anyone who appreciates basketball can spend hours in there and it would seem like minutes. When I was leaving after spending a couple of hours there last month, a gentleman working the door asked if I had seen the "Coach K letter." I told him I had not. He sent me back in to see it, and there was a letter displayed from Coach K to Michael Jordan in 1980. Coach K wrote to "Mike Jordan" that he was sorry to hear that Jordan no longer had an interest in Duke, but he wished him well and wrote that he would have an immediate impact on whatever school he chose. Pretty good stuff. When leaving the second time, the gentleman at the door said that the second most frequent question he gets is about the "Coach K letter." The most asked question? "Where is the restroom?"