With conference play getting underway, it's an exciting, eventful time for college basketball. I sat down to give my thoughts on several things going on in the sport, including my take on the nation's best freshman, shooter and shot-blocker, Jim Boeheim's place among the all-time greats and my midseason top-5 ballot for the Wooden Award.
But I'll start with a look at a new proposal on transfer rules.
A new idea on transfers: John Infante of the Bylaw Blog reported Thursday that the NCAA is considering a new model for athletes seeking to transfer from one school to another and compete on scholarship.
According to Infante, the new policy being considered states that an athlete wishing to transfer will need to gain permission to contact another school, but that requirement is tied to playing rather than receiving financial aid. If the player's current school denies the athlete permission to contact other schools, he can still transfer and receive a scholarship; he just cannot play immediately. If the athlete has a 2.6 GPA or higher, he would be eligible to play right away without sitting out. If his GPA is below 2.6, the athlete must sit out a year. Tampering would be considered the most severe violation of the new enforcement model.
The current transfer rules seem to most observers to be a mess, lacking consistency, common sense and an overall guiding principle. There seems to be little rhyme or reason to the different transfer policies of conferences and the NCAA.
Many find it unfair that the athlete, who the NCAA says is supposed to be treated like any other student, is made to ask permission to contact another school and can then be subject to a coach or administrator blocking his ability to transfer to the school of his choosing and accept aid.
Most objections I hear about the current transfer rules center on issues of competitive balance. Most coaches and administrators object to some players leaving their current team and being immediately eligible to play on another, while another similarly situated player is forced to sit out a year. There are concerns about incentives for other coaches to recruit off current college rosters.
Here is my take on the proposal, as reported:
1. The proposal falls way short of the ideal and does not address issues of competitive balance, which should be the main concern of an athletic association.
2. The GPA requirement for immediate eligibility is based upon the same NCAA data behind the Academic Progress Rate that suggests a better graduation rate. The NCAA doesn't appear concerned about the effect of transfers on competitive balance. Rather, it appears concerned only with prospects for the graduation of transfers. Even though the NCAA says it has good data on it, linking eligibility to GPA over 350 member schools seems arbitrary. If a player wishes to leave one school for another, what difference does his GPA make?
3. The new proposal doesn't strike me as being intellectually honest. The NCAA consistently states that athletes are to be treated like any other student and that these are unpaid amateurs. But no other student is restricted from transferring from one school to another, accepting financial aid and participating immediately in his chosen field of endeavor; only athletes are restricted. The current transfer rules and the proposed new model operate essentially as a noncompete clause would for an employee, with a wide variance in the waivers and exceptions granted to some athletes and not to others. Restrictions on player movement suggest that the athlete is a valuable asset of the university rather than simply a student like any other.
In my judgment, the NCAA needs to do one of two things in order to remain consistent with its stated principles and commitment to a level playing field. If athletes really are just amateur students who happen to be athletes, allow them to transfer at will just as every other student is allowed to do. Or if athletes are indeed valuable assets of the university in a multibillion dollar industry and the NCAA is truly committed to a level playing field, issues of competitive balance should be the top priority and all athletes should be required to sit out for a season.
The truth is that this proposal may be the best athletes and schools can get given the glacial pace at which the NCAA moves. Is it better than the current system? Probably, even if it's not that much better and will likely still be confusing, inconsistent and subject to a different set of unintended consequences.
I say let's give the NCAA a little something for the effort and give this new proposal a try.
Top freshman: Last season, the best freshman in the country was Kentucky's Anthony Davis. This season, the best freshman I have seen is Anthony Bennett of the UNLV Rebels. Bennett is the closest thing UNLV has seen to Larry Johnson, and his overall game is impressive.
Bennett is explosive and fabulously skilled. He can shoot the ball to 3-point range, drive it either way, finish with authority through contact and post up with a wide variety of moves and great feel. UNLV coach Dave Rice played Bennett at center early and believes that helped his confidence playing with his back to the basket.
The next step for Bennett is to improve as a defender and to accept Rice's charge to "bust out" more often after a defensive rebound. Like Mike Moser did last season, Rice wants Bennett to grab a rebound and take it up the court himself, which can be difficult for an opponent to deal with.
Space versus stretch: Floor spacing is important. Having all five offensive players spaced properly and using the whole court is something coaches and broadcasters talk about a lot and fans hear a lot, but it is relatively easy for an offense to "space the floor."
The real and most important question is, can that well-spaced offense stretch the defense? It doesn't really matter how you space the floor if the defense doesn't come out and guard you.
Of the teams I have seen and studied, two of the best in stretching the defense are Duke and Michigan. Duke has five starters who can all score, four who can pass, four who can shoot, two who can penetrate and two big men who can handle and pass.
Most importantly, Duke has a true stretch 4 in Ryan Kelly, who makes everything come together. A lot of players are referred to as stretch 4s but really aren't. Kelly can really shoot, but he can also use fakes, play with pace and drive the ball off a close out. Having so many players who can dribble, pass and shoot, including a true stretch 4, allows Duke to be creative offensively and puts a lot of pressure on defenses.
Boeheim among all-time greats: Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim passed Bob Knight for second in all-time wins with 903, and the talk immediately went to whether Boeheim belongs with the true greats of the coaching game.
If we are just counting championships, go ahead and put John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Bob Knight, Jim Calhoun and Adolph Rupp on their own plane. But if you want to talk pure coaching ability, understanding of the game and how to win, I will put Boeheim up with anyone from any era.
Perhaps because Boeheim doesn't self-promote or perhaps because he has the audacity to play zone as his primary defense, he is not looked upon as being among the best tacticians. That is absolutely wrong. Boeheim is one of the smartest basketball minds in the game and can X and O with anyone.
If you think teaching and coaching zone defense is easy, ask yourself this: Why doesn't everyone do it? Syracuse leads the Big East and is among the nation's leaders in 3-point percentage defense and steals almost every season. And remember, the best-shooting teams put up high numbers primarily against man-to-man defenses, not Boeheim's zone.
People who suggest Boeheim can't X and O may have a bit of an X-and-O knowledge deficit themselves. Boeheim is one of the game's all-time greats.
Best shooter: I have seen some really good and hot shooters this season, but none is better or hotter than VCU's Troy Daniels. The 6-foot-4 senior made 27 3s in his past three games before Saturday, hitting 27 of 49 (55 percent) and averaging 28.3 points per game. On the season, Daniels has hit 64 3-point field goals and is shooting 44 percent from deep.
The rest of the best shooters I have seen are Butler's Rotnei Clarke, Oakland's Travis Bader, Creighton's Doug McDermott and Ethan Wragge, Duke's Seth Curry, NC State's Scott Wood, Cal's Allen Crabbe, Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos, Santa Clara's Kevin Foster, Michigan's Nik Stauskas, Iona's Sean Armand and LaSalle's Ramon Galloway.
Block partiers: The best defensive player in the country is Kansas' Jeff Withey. The 7-foot senior is an excellent shot-blocker and shot-changer, and he does it without fouling. But the most productive shot-blocker in the nation is Chris Obekpa of the St. John's Red Storm.
Obekpa, a 6-9 freshman from Nigeria, leads the nation in blocks with 68 (for an average of 5.2 blocks per game). To illustrate Withey's prowess, consider that Obekpa has 68 blocks and 41 personal fouls for a 1.7-to-1 block-to-foul ratio. Withey has 59 blocks and 14 personal fouls for a 4.2-to-1 block-to-foul ratio. That is remarkable.
Withey is able to use his size, length and mobility to block shots, keeping offensive players from getting into his body at the same time. He is productive and does not put his opponent on the free throw line. Obekpa's block-to-foul ratio isn't bad. Withey's is just amazing.
Doubling the post: A lot of teams double-team the post upon a post feed. Some of the post doubles come from the guard spot, and some from post to post. One of the best and most effective post doubles I have seen are those put on by Davidson.
Bob McKillop is committed to doubling the post from the baseline side, which is unusual and effective. All offensive post players are taught to catch and look middle immediately. McKillop uses that to his advantage.
Against Duke, when the ball was fed into the post, the post defender gets on the top shoulder of the offensive post man. When the offensive post looks middle and can feel the defender on the top side, the obvious read is a drop-step move. Yet when the move is made, another defender comes from the baseline side, in effect blindsiding the post man in the middle of his move. The result can be a charge, a travel or a hurried and contested shot. Davidson's baseline post doubles were effective against Duke and are a terrific, interesting strategy.
Midseason Wooden Award: Here is my vote for the Wooden Award, to date:
1. Mason Plumlee, Duke
2. Trey Burke, Michigan
3. Doug McDermott, Creighton
4. Cody Zeller, Indiana
5. Russ Smith, Louisville
Plumlee has been the most productive and consistent against the best competition, even though he was slowed by Davidson's double-teams. Burke has been the best point guard and most efficient player, and McDermott has been the most versatile inside-out player and toughest matchup. Zeller is Indiana's best and most efficient player and has made so many things easier for his teammates. And Smith is the most productive at both ends of the floor.
There is still a long way to go, and conference play will determine the award, but those are my top five heading into the new year.
Evaluating Ollie: Now that UConn's soap opera over the long-term status of coach Kevin Ollie is over, it is clear that the entire "evaluation period" was pointless and silly. Exactly what was UConn "evaluating"? No reasonable basketball person questioned Ollie's knowledge of the game, character or temperament. Yet after a dozen nonconference games, it is now clear he is the "right guy"? On what basis? You need to see him handle a news conference after a loss? You need to see the players' grades in one semester? The current players were not an issue in the APR penalties, and exactly what can one discern from a single semester?
So many coaches do well initially with someone else's team and struggle in later seasons. Other coaches struggle out of the gate and build a program up over time. Ollie hasn't been through conference play yet. Will that gauntlet need to be evaluated too?
Reasonable minds can differ, but this decision was no better made now than it would have been when Jim Calhoun stepped down. I said in Germany, before the Huskies' win over Michigan State, that UConn should lock up Ollie for a variety of reasons. I'm glad UConn finally figured it out, even if it was needlessly late.