— Maybe it’s the snow. Maybe it’s the frigid temperatures. Maybe it’s just the stress of the conference play. But strange things are happening.
John Calipari is cussing out his players and then apologizing for it. Roy Williams is losing conference games by 20 points and asking Carolina fans (of 9 million years) to keep their phone calls to themselves. When Roy starts acting that way, I start thinking about 2003, and New Orleans, and that T-shirt I bought in Lawrence, Kan., that read, “I don't give a SH*T about North Carolina.”
Oh, boy. This is crazy. And then Bill (below) has to go and bring up that loss to Syracuse in his question. Is this 2003 all over again? I really hope not.
A: Kyle, I respect Tom Izzo as much as any coach in college basketball, but there is something wrong with this Michigan State team. The chemistry doesn’t seem good at all and at this stage of the season, I can’t see the Spartans reaching the Final Four. Now, there’s a lot of basketball to be played and things can change. What’s important is how a team is playing going into the NCAA tournament. I think that may be more important this year than any other tournament we have witnessed. In my Jan. 10 notebook for AthlonSports.com, I wrote, “I’ve never seen Izzo as dumbfounded as he was Dec. 7 at Madison Square Garden when Syracuse crushed the Spartans. … Izzo leaned against a wall outside his team’s locker room and looked like a man without any answers.” Earlier this week, Izzo told the Detroit Free Press this has been “probably my toughest year, as far as trying to get everybody on the same page.”
Izzo also said a coach “isn’t God” meaning he can’t cure senior point guard Kalin Lucas’ injured Achilles’ tendon rupture. Durrell Summers has been sulking, so Izzo benched him. These things happen. Izzo has found a way to survive and advance in the past. If he gets this Michigan State team to the Final Four, he should head directly to the Hall of Fame in Springfield.
A: There are so many things involved in making a deep run in the NCAA tournament. In order to string together some victories and go deep, a team has to be playing its best basketball of the season. Put that together with the team’s seed and the other teams in the bracket, then you can make a prediction. That’s why things become clearer on Selection Sunday. And UConn will be a real interesting case this season. When the season started, it wasn’t even a certainty the Huskies were NCAA bound.
Kemba Walker will continue to be UConn’s main weapon. He had his worst shooting performance of the season against Villanova, yet he was able to shake off two big missed free throws and still make the play of his game with his game-winning floater in the lane. That’s a special player. The best news for UConn Monday was the prime-time performance by freshman Jeremy Lamb. Coach Jim Calhoun is practically begging Lamb to score. As a player, is there anything better than that? If Lamb continues to grow into his role (and I think he will), UConn will benefit. Lamb could join Walker and Alex Oriakhi to give the Huskies three offensive threats.
That Villanova victory was huge for the Huskies. UConn has to keep pace in the Big East. The Huskies have already put together a nice portfolio. Combined with some conference success, the Huskies could grab a No. 2 or No. 3 seed. That could keep the Huskies in the NCAA hunt all the way to the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. That would be remarkable for a team picked to finish 10th in the Big East.
A: Gee, Bill, thanks for bringing up a bad memory in my household. If you’ve read anything in this space before, you probably know I’m a Kansas grad. It was truly painful watching the Jayhawks that night in the Superdome. A team with 30 wins shot a dreadful 40 percent from the line and 20 percent from 3-point range. Syracuse wasn’t any great shakes from the line, either, going 10-for-17 (58.8 percent). But the difference in my mind (along with the missed free throws) was Carmelo Anthony and Gerry McNamara combining to hit 9 of 15 from 3-point range. The irony was that Syracuse used to be one of those teams you write about missing free throws and losing big games in the tournament. This time around, the Orange just happened to benefit from their opponents’ ineptitude.
To answer your question, I don’t think there’s a coach who has ever ignored free throw shooting. That really would be like shooting yourself in the foot. I’ve been to practices and watched the games coaches play with their teams. Reward good shooting with prizes like T-shirts or sneakers. Punish bad shooting with sprints and laps. No player wants to be responsible for teammates running more in practice. But it happens. Many coaches have paid shooting “gurus” to work with their teams.
I really don’t think you can blame the coaches. Most coaches keep statistics from practice and then they will tell you after a game lost at the line, “I don’t get it. We shoot it 95 percent in practice.” But practice doesn’t include crowds, noise, TV cameras, foreign rims and backgrounds on the roads, and real pressure. Think about the 2008 Memphis team. Just one more made free throw in the national championship game and ….
I think this is on the players. Practice. Practice. Practice. Players should be working on their free throw shooting all the time. Coaches can only devote so much practice time to free throw shooting. Players can go back inside the gym any hour of the day. It’s that simple. I think.
And thanks for dragging up 2003 again.
A: This idea gets kicked around from time to time. I don’t like it. The coach gets an extra timeout because he was only planning for a regulation game. Why should a player in foul trouble get rewarded just because the game is tied and going into OT? In my book, he needs to figure out how to make it through five more minutes. Why let him hack away in the extra period and just excuse it? If a baseball game went extra innings, you wouldn’t allow a previously used pitcher to re-enter the game would you? It all seems so Little League. Leave the rules like they are.