— Look for Ken Davis’ mailbag on Tuesdays. And if you have a question, click here.
Q: In your opinion, is it more difficult to build a program up to a national caliber level, or for that program to maintain its status?
— Keith Anglemyer, Winfield, Kan.
A: There are a lot of factors to be considered either way, Keith, and that might make the answer different for individual situations. But as a rule, I believe it is more difficult to maintain.
A coach might have one great recruiting class, or perhaps a roster that comes together just right, and that could elevate a program to elite status for a season or two. But to maintain that status year after year requires a work ethic and a commitment from the head coach, the staff, an athletic director, and even the school’s administration.
I covered the UConn program as Jim Calhoun took it from the bottom of the Big East to a national championship. Calhoun had something he called the “starburst theory” and with that he warned against becoming too successful too fast because expectations would become unrealistic. In some ways he had to battle his own theory, taking the Huskies to new heights but falling short of a national title for so many years.
UConn surprised everyone by winning the NIT in 1988. Then the Huskies reached the Elite Eight in 1990. That’s when the high maintenance became a factor. UConn continued to win Big East championships, advancing to Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, but didn’t reach the Final Four until 1999.
It takes time and a lot of hard work to stay at that level. Calhoun made the most of his first two Final Four trips. He won the national championship both times. When he beat Duke in 1999, he said it didn’t make him a better coach than he had been the day before. He was right. But he had maintained and maintained — until he finally reached the top.
Q: A lot has been made of Syracuse’s surprising start, but what about what Billy Donovan’s done down at Florida? Please tell me my Gators can get back to the NCAA tournament after only getting to the NIT the last few years. What other teams would you rank as surprises?
— Jerry Burns, Atlanta, Ga.
A: A month ago I don’t think you would have found anyone predicting Syracuse would be ranked No. 7 and Florida No. 10 at this time.
Most surprised might be the people who are holding tickets for Thursday night’s SEC/Big East Invitational game in Tampa between the Orange and the Gators, who both enter the game with 8-0 records. What a stroke of scheduling genius that turned out to be.
Jerry, we all know Billy Donovan can coach. Back-to-back national championships are proof of that. When you consider the massive personnel losses to the pros, including combo guard Nick Calathes who headed to Greece and left the Gators without a point guard, it’s amazing Florida is off to this start. Freshman Kenny Boynton and Georgetown transfer Vernon Macklin have provided a huge boost. Non-conference victories over Florida State, Michigan State and Rutgers will look might good to the NCAA selection committee. Of course, the key is surviving the Southeastern Conference. The Gators are in the SEC East with No. 4 Kentucky, No. 9 Tennessee and No. 24 Vanderbilt (accounting for six conference games).
Syracuse and Florida are at the top of my list of surprises, but the list is already long. The Big East might not be as talented as last season, but the overall depth of the conference appears to be much better. Cincinnati has joined Syracuse in the Top 25. Marquette, Seton Hall, South Florida, Notre Dame and St. John’s are all off to solid starts.
UNLV, Texas A&M, Gonzaga, Wisconsin, Texas Tech, New Mexico, Richmond and William & Mary have been surprises as well.
Q: Memphis should have a good enough team next year, but how far do you think they might go this year?
— Chuck, Memphis, Tenn.
A: I’ve only seen the Tigers play once this season and that, of course, was the very impressive showing against No. 1 Kansas. Memphis showed a lot of poise in that 57-55 loss. The Jayhawks helped out with some sloppy play and missed free throws, but that was the kind of confidence builder Memphis needed with a new cast of players and a new coach.
Josh Pastner has a tough job replacing John Calipari, but he looked mature beyond his 32 years coaching against Bill Self and KU.
Pastner already brought in the best recruiting class in the country, so that’s a pretty good way to silence any skeptics out there. Tulsa is the favorite in Conference USA this season but don’t be surprised if Memphis is in the regular season race all the way. I think Pastner can get the Tigers to the NCAA tournament but expecting Memphis to play past the first or second round would be demanding too much. The Tigers aren’t going away, but give their young coach time.
Q: Based on the early performance of Xavier Henry at Kansas, do you think he is another one-and-done or may stay two years?
— Greg Robertson, Overland Park, Kan.
A: There’s no way to know for sure right now Greg, but my gut instinct tells me Xavier Henry will be a one-and-done guy. Coach Bill Self has done a great job of keeping top players in school. Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich are proof of that with this edition of the Jayhawks. Both could have gone pro after last season, but I think everybody would agree they made the wise choice.
I was lucky enough to be at Allen Fieldhouse for the regular season opener against Hofstra when Henry scored 27 points in 24 minutes. That’s more than any other freshman ever scored in a debut at Kansas (remember Wilt Chamberlain couldn’t play varsity until his sophomore season). The joke in the media room after the game was that Self pulled Henry before he could score 30.
Self certainly doesn’t need Henry thinking he can go out and score 30 every night. Kansas wants to get the ball inside to Aldrich first and then let the rest of the offense fall in place. Opponents know that. UCLA coach Ben Howland had two or three defenders around Aldrich every time he touched the ball Sunday. But KU’s Morris twins have matured and give the Jayhawks other scoring threats inside.
Henry scored those 27 against Hofstra with ease. The left-hander has one of the prettiest jump shots I’ve seen in a long time. He can slash and create. He can certainly rebound and score on second shots. Henry gives the Jayhawks an option they clearly didn’t have last season.
Kansas fans better get a good look because I don’t think he will be wearing the Crimson and Blue for long. Only Xavier knows for sure — and he might not know right now.
Q: What impact do you think Anthony Grant will have on Alabama basketball over the next 4 or 5 years?
— Al, Mobile, Ala.
A: It better be a positive impact because Alabama is paying Grant $1.83 million a year and he has a six-year deal. Just kidding.
Personally, I think Alabama can become a perennial SEC contender under Grant. The Crimson Tide made a great hire.
I really liked the way Grant approached his job at Virginia Commonwealth and 76 wins in three seasons — along with three consecutive conference championships — is the very definition of success no matter what the level. Grant has a terrific SEC background after working 10 years as an assistant at Florida. He got a good education as Billy Donovan’s assistant and the Gators were ready to bring Grant back if Donovan had gone through with that deal to coach the Orlando Magic. Grant handled that entire situation with class and was able to keep his own program rolling without any distraction.
By the way, Grant’s off to a good start. Alabama lost its opener to Cornell but that’s a very good Ivy team that has only lost to Seton Hall and Syracuse. The Tide also lost to Florida State but registered good wins over Baylor and Michigan. Grant has a big one coming up Saturday against Purdue. Should be interesting.