I have watched the Missouri Tigers closely over the past few seasons, and the Tigers have finally found the right balance. Mizzou is really impressive and has a legitimate chance to win the Big 12 this season.
In a departure from their frenetic pressing system, the Tigers are valuing possessions more and being more efficient while still running and taking advantage of their superior quickness and speed. Missouri averaged around 75 possessions per game in 2010-11 and are down to 69 possessions per game this season. The Tigers are scoring 1.25 points per possession this season, best in the nation.
Missouri may be small, starting four guards and nobody over 6-foot-8, but the Tigers are really tough to match up with. I have not seen a better all-around guard this season than Marcus Denmon. The only other guards I would put with Denmon right now would be the Xavier Musketeers' Tu Holloway (who has been outstanding in Xavier's hot start) and Scott Machado of the Iona Gaels. In addition to Denmon, Missouri has gotten great performances from Kim English, who has been incredibly efficient and has bought in completely, and Phil Pressey, who is nearly impossible to stay in front of and is a wonderful passer and disruptive defender).
The spacing, movement, shooting and defensive intensity of Missouri have all been at a very high level. Can the Tigers still fall into "chuck-and-duck" mode sometimes? Sure. But when Missouri plays with a purpose and balances its attack mentality with disciplined decisions, the Tigers can beat anybody.
In Madison Square Garden this week, Missouri and the Marquette Golden Eagles showed the extremes in game preparation and how there is more than one way to properly prepare a team. At the shootaround before their game against the Washington Huskies, Marquette's players laced up their shoes tight and had as intense, detailed and complete a workout as any team had all year, let alone hours before a game. In contrast, Missouri just got shots up and walked through a couple of out-of-bounds plays.
Mizzou coach Frank Haith goes through his major game preparation the day before the game, and he just wants his team to get loose, stay loose and be ready to perform on game day. Marquette coach Buzz Williams knows only one speed: all out, all the time. Both work, and work well, because the coaches believe in their method of preparation. The players believe in it too. There is no one way to do it right.
Fool me once ...
I was fooled going into this season, but I think I fooled myself. Based on the return of pro prospects we expected to leave college early, I believed the quality of play this season would take a big jump and we would see more "great" in college basketball.
I was wrong.
Maybe I just really wanted things to be substantially better, but my eyes and the numbers tell me they are not. The quality of play, overall, has been really disappointing. The middle-to-lower half of most of the power conferences are as soft as tissue paper, and there are simply a lot of average to bad teams out there.
The teams at the top of the power conferences, such as Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio State and Syracuse, are really good, but they are not going to get the kind of resistance they should traditionally expect from the middle and bottom of their leagues. The games have been competitive and hard-fought, but I would be lying if I told you that I believed the quality of play was high. It's not. This is not 2008, where the top teams were dominant and quality of play was good across the board. Nor is this 2009, when the Big East was so strong it was scary and North Carolina and Connecticut were dominant.
We talk a lot about the eye test, but I think we all can trust what we see. It is clear that the ACC, Big 12, Big East and Pac-12 are nowhere near as powerful and good as they have been in years past. And it is not a close call.
The ACC, SEC and Pac-12 each have just four teams ranked in the top 50 of the KenPom.com rankings. By contrast, the Big Ten and the Big East each have eight teams ranked in the top 50, and the Big 12 has seven. Twenty of the power conference teams are ranked outside of the Top 100.
What does this mean for college basketball this season? It will be much like last season. The best teams are very good, but it would not be surprising in the least to see some of the top-rated teams get beat in or before the Elite Eight and have another quality "little guy" make a run. The middle of the game is weak, and teams like Xavier, UNLV, Saint Louis, Creighton, Wichita State, Iona and Harvard could have some success and take advantage of some upsets in their bracket. It will be wild and compelling but perhaps not as high quality as we saw in recent years.
The Big Ten and NCAA have overreached
It is understandable that there is anger and concern over Penn State's leadership failures relating to the disturbing allegations of child sexual abuse. Penn State's failure to properly address and report these allegations is being investigated and prosecuted by federal and state law enforcement, and other federal agencies are investigating the matters.
On top of those investigations and another by Penn State itself, the NCAA and Big Ten have unnecessarily injected themselves into this matter. NCAA president Mark Emmert sent a letter to Penn State requesting specific answers to certain questions by Dec. 16, which was an impossible target from the day the letter was sent, and threatened NCAA action and possible sanctions based on NCAA bylaws relating to unethical conduct and institutional control. The Big Ten, through its Council of Presidents and Chancellors, has stated that it will also investigate the matter and reserved the right to sanction Penn State. The Big Ten expressed concern that a concentration of power in a single individual or program may have eroded institutional control.
I have carefully considered these actions by the NCAA and the Big Ten, and I have spoken with several thoughtful and smart people in college athletics. While we appreciate the concern expressed by the NCAA and Big Ten, all have come away shaking their heads at the actions of both institutions in the Penn State matter. The NCAA and Big Ten are overreaching, injecting themselves into areas in which they do not belong. These actions are inappropriate and could lead the NCAA into a tricky area.
With federal and state prosecutions looming, not to mention civil actions that may be filed, does anyone really believe that Penn State officials have any real concern over potential NCAA (and/or Big Ten) sanctions?
What, will the NCAA Committee on Infractions hold a hearing in Indianapolis and hit Penn State with a bowl ban or a loss of scholarships? Will the NCAA make Penn State vacate wins or return a bowl trophy? Such responses would be meaningless in an incident of this magnitude. With the backdrop of child sexual abuse, innumerable lawsuits and state and federal prosecutions, NCAA action is the least of Penn State's concerns.
There are some things that are too small for the NCAA to concern itself with, such as meals, stationery, practice times and bagel spreads. Emmert has admitted to as much. Similarly, there are some things that are just too big for the NCAA to handle and are out of the NCAA's area of influence. The Penn State scandal is a sad example of a matter that is far too weighty and important for an athletic association to tackle.
Penn State has fired those involved, and several of them may face state, federal and civil penalties. That is enough. There is nothing of substance that the NCAA can and should do with regard to such matters.
In addition, how far does this NCAA bylaw extend? Does it apply to sexual harassment complaints in the athletic department but not in other departments on campus? How does the NCAA process a situation like the tragic death of Notre Dame student Declan Sullivan? Does it trivialize the tragedy to determine whether institutional control is at issue in the safety of students and staff, especially when the NCAA would have to defer to state and federal prosecutions as well as civil actions? What about DUIs by athletic directors?
Focus on what matters. The NCAA should not stretch simple rules too far into areas it cannot and should not police. At some point, it will get to the point where it's trying to police those who rip the tags off mattresses.
Rather than supply line-item advice on this topic, as the NCAA usually does with its rules, here's the clear-cut message: If the situation doesn't directly have an impact on athletics and the NCAA's rules of competition, step off.
The NCAA and Big Ten have good intentions, I am certain, but they have no business in such matters. These matters should be left to the appropriate authorities, and the NCAA and Big Ten should get out of the way.