‘Tis The Season…

by Terrence Mayrose

WLTW-FM 106.7 in New York began playing Christmas music 24 hours a day starting the day after Thanksgiving. I would argue the station may be a little excessive with their “holiday spirit”, but nonetheless it brings up a very good point, the Christmas season is here; whether we want it to be or not.

In the college basketball world, coaches and players are approaching a time that is just as difficult as the Christmas season…conference play. The same way normal fans must deal with shopping, traffic, cold weather, and untangling the lights; college coaches must deal with their own struggles of hostile student sections, academic eligibility, road trips, and most importantly winning games.

In the first installment of this year’s Triangle and Two blog, I thought it’d be a good time to use Christmas songs to explain some of the story lines on the college hardwood thus far.

*- All I Want For Christmas Is You-*

The best Christmas song of all time should is the best way to describe Kemba Walker, the best player in the country. UCONN’s Walker, took his previously unranked team to #9 in this week’s poll, in large part to an offensive onslaught in the Maui Invitational. Averaging an even 30 points in a three game stretch, with wins over Kentucky and Michigan State (both ranked in the top ten). Walker’s currently averaging 29.1 ppg, even more impressive given he’s dishing out 4.3 assists per game.

UCONN is 7-0 and expect the Huskies to ride Walker’s hot hand as far as it will take them. Although, I wonder if a one man team can survive in a conference as strong as the Big East. In addition to her Christmas classic Mariah Carey has a slew of #1 hits to fall back on; if Walker has an off night I don’t think UCONN has anyone else ready to step up to the mic, and Calhoun may know it too: “Nobody in the country is playing any better than Kemba, but I’m not the only person who knows that. Everybody who sees him is going to try to keep him out for the game, so we’ve got to come up with another answer.”

*-Away In A Manger-*

Tennessee’s Bruce Pearl will be away(in a manger) from his team during their first 8 SEC conference games, serving a suspension for recruiting violations. Pearl’s suspension from January 8th to February 5th including key contests against Florida, and Vanderbilt.

*-Blue Christmas-*

No one in the country should have more Christmas cheer than Duke fans. Entering the season as a favorite to repeat as champions, they are quickly putting themselves ahead of all contenders with wins over two top ten teams (Kansas State and Michigan State).

The terrific play of Freshman Point Guard Kyrie Irving, improvement from Mason and Miles Plumlee, and celebration of Coach K’s 800th win in Durham are all big contributors to the holiday cheer clearly seen in Duke fans (like myself) faces.

Although Duke fans shouldn’t book a flight to the Final Four just yet. Kyrie Iriving was recently ruled “out indefinitely” with an injury to his big toe. When asked if he could be out for the year, Coach K responded “he could be, he could be.”

Two Duke squads always stood out to me as their best ever. 1998-1999 (national runner up) and 2000-2001(national champion). This year’s team could do something that neither of those two did; finish undefeated. With just five games (@ Florida State, vs UNC, @Maryland, @ VaTech, and @Unc) left on the schedule as the only real tests, it’s certainly an attainable task.

That is if Irving’s running the team. Without him it’s a different story.

*-Christ Is Born In Bethlehem-*

Lehigh’s 4-4 start hasn’t set the world on fire, but don’t blame Sophomore guard C.J. McCollum. The closest thing to a “savior” on Lehigh’s Bethlehem, Pennsylvania campus, McCollum is averaging 22.3 points per game, tied for the 12th best in the nation. Outbursts like the 42 against Kent State, and 31 against Stony Brook, keep hope alive that The Mountain Hawks will return to a second straight NCAA Tournament. McCollum was a catalyst during his freshman campaign as well, averaging 19.1 ppg.

*-Christmas In Killarney-*

The Irish were truly fighting as Notre Dame started off with an 8-0 start, including a win over Wisconsin in The Old Spice Classic. Mike Brey’s team  traveled to #11 Kentucky, and suffered it’s first loss of the season. The success of the Irish is quickly making them biggest surprise in the Big East, but that success may not last very long.

Hosting #24 Gonzaga before Christmas break, and opening their Big East slate against # 14 Georgtown, @ #7 Syracuse, and #9 Uconn. South Bend faithful can only hope that Irish eyes are still smiling after the holidays.

*-Christmas Shoes-*

The saddest Christmas song of all time meet the saddest team in college hoops. #344 Centenary is 0-9 to start the season, with a 104-60 loss to Memphis, and a 77-36 loss to Tulane. Santa may have an early gift for The Gentlemen (yes that’s actually their mascot), on December 11th, when they travel to #311 Lousiana Monroe, likely it’s most winnable game.

*-Fame and Fortune-*

Kentucky coach John Calpiari is not on Santa’s “good” list,in fact he’s probably gotten coal in his stocking for years. Despite what ESPN analysts may try to convince you into believing, Calipari’s never been to a Final Four. His appearance in 1996 while coaching UMASS, and his 2008 season as National Runner-up were both vacated. 1996 was vacated when the NCAA found Marcus Camby guilty of accepting gifts and money from an agent, and 2008’s campaign was vacated after it came out Derrick Rose had someone else take  the SAT for him.

Calipari was quoted in July about his recruiting philosophy; “”If you recruit guys who you know are going to be there for four years, you’ll probably be in the NIT, and that’s not a good thing at Kentucky,” he said. “You recruit the best players you can, and if someone is going to take them in the first round, I tell them to go.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but weren’t Duke’s Jon Scheyer and Brian Zoubek a pivotal part of the team last year ? Weren’t Scheyer and Zoubek seniors ? Did Duke win the NCAA title last year ? Is Duke a favorite to repeat as champions this year ? Are Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith playing a big part of this year’s team ? Aren’t they both seniors ? What about that West Virginia team that eliminated you in the Elite Eight last year ? Did senior De’Sean Butler’s 18 points or senior Joe Mazzulla’s 17 points have anything to do with it ?

Calipari’s historyof NCAA infractions, and quickness to find a new job right before those infractions are disclosed is disgusting enough, but to try and lecture on how to win, when you haven’t ever won…anything, is truly appalling. 

*-Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer-*

Virginia Tech Head Coach Seth Greenberg may not celebrate Christmas, but he is a dead ringer (pun intended) for this Christmas song. Each year on Selection Sunday, Greenberg is found complaining his team was left out of the NCAA Tournament. Greenberg usually gets backing from Dick Vitale, who claims “they got a raw deal”, but that support should be taken with a grain of salt given that Vitale is incapable of criticism (if my count’s correct, Vitale has claimed that 23,807 teams were doing a “phenomenal job” in the past two years).

Greenberg’s complaining should quickly be put to rest by anyone who looks at their strength of schedule during those seasons. According to stats guru Ken Pomeroy of Kenpom.com, V Tech Non Conference strength of schedule ranked #307 last season, #144  the year before, and #165 during 2008-2009. The selection committee sent a clear message to Virginia Tech: Play tougher teams !

This season was expected by many experts to be the one in which Virginia Tech could make the NCAA Tournament, given the returning talent of Malcolm Delaney and Jeff Allen. Greenberg even did his part in following through on playing tougher teams; scheduling Final Four favorite Kansas State, UNLV, and Big Ten power Purdue. Sounds like all the pieces are in place for things to work out in Blacksburg.

So how have the Hokies done ?

Plain and simple…they got run over by a reindeer. Going 0-3 in games against Kansas State, UNLV and Purdue,coupled with an inexplicable conference loss to Virginia, Greenberg’s squad is 4-4 to start the year. Virginia Tech’s still stocking up on the cupcakes with early wins over #213 Campbell, #314 NC Greensboro,and #234 Cal State Northridge.

Greenberg better hope his team turns it around by the start of conference play because as it stands right now, he has an inconsistent team with no marquee win. A marquee win which won’t be found against #162 St.Bonaventure,#315 South Carolina Upstate and #246 Mount St.Mary’s who are still on the schedule.

I’m sure Greenberg didn’t expect his team’s shaky start but as Grandma can attest to, you can’t see everything coming…even a reindeer. In my opinion, Greenberg should see one thing coming, a fourth straight N.I.T. appearance.

*-I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus-*

The best kept secret in college basketball: Richmond University’s Kevin Anderson. The returning A-10 player of the year has The Spiders off to a 7-2 start behind his 16.4 ppg, and 3.7 assists per game. Trust me, his game is far too good for him to fly this far under the radar.

*-It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year-*

Jimmy V week concludes Tuesday with a doubleheader featuring Memphis vs Kansas, and UNC vs Michigan State. I can’t watch Valvano’s “don’t give up” speech without being inspired.

*-Jolly Old Saint Nicholas-*

There is no more enjoyable announcer to listen to than Bill Raftery. I can’t hear “Onions”, “with a kiss” or “send it Jerome” without cracking a smile. Raftery’s knowledge and passion for the game are second to none, but it’s the way in which he conveys that is extremely entertaining.

*-Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! -*

I’m not a big fan of snow, but the people of Syracuse should be quite use to it; just like they’ve become use to early season success. The Orange are off to an 9-0 start, started 13-0 last season, and 9-0 in 08-09. Memo to anyone traveling to The Carrier Dome: make sure you’re shooting isn’t as cold as the temperature or that 2-3 defense will doom you.

*-Mr. Grinch-*

Have you seen some of the faces made by Kansas State’s Frank Martin during games ? President Obama described him “as a scary dude”.

If this (and this) isn’t the face of someone who’ll steal Christmas, I’d hate to see the one that does.

*-Oh Holy Night-*

There is only one “holy knight” in college basketball, recently diseased UCLA legend John Wooden. Sadly, one of Wooden’s many accomplishments is at risk to be topped. An NCAA record 88 straight wins could be broken by the UCONN’s Women team and Head Coach  Geno Auriemma. Auriemma’s squad just won it’s 86th consecutive game, and has a chance to tie UCLA and Wooden’s mark of 88 on December 19th against Ohio State.  

I hope the basketball gods are pulling for an Ohio State win to help keep Wooden’s streak as the best ever. Fitting, given Wooden was a better person than he is a coach.

*-Same Auld Lang Syne-*

While this may be very good, ( a personal favorite of both my father and my former college roommate), I’ve always considered it pretty sad. In a nutshell, a man runs into an old girlfriend, who tells him her life didn’t turn out so great, and gives a strong sense that he still misses her.

A perfect tune for the way things are going at Wake Forest. Before the season, I was baffled that The Deamon Deacons had chosen to remove Head Coach Dino Gaudio. While Wake Forest fans may not agree and will be quick to point out Gaudio’s 1-5 record in ACC and NCAA Tournament games in his three year tenure, including an 84-69 thrashing from #13 seed Cleveland State in 2009, let’s not shortchange his accomplishments.

Gaudio posted a 61-31 career record at Wake, led the Deamon Deacons to a #1 Ranking in 2009, and recruited the #9 freshman class for this season.

Black and gold fans shouldn’t forget that this is a coach who took over the job after the unexpected death of Skip Prosser in 2007. When he kept the team (that wasn’t overly talented) together and managed to produce a 17-13 record.

The man was 30 games over .500 in 3 seasons !! Are you that quick to dismiss him, that you wouldn’t want to see what he could do with a young crop of talent ?

Ultimately, I think Gaudio deserves a little more slack. He produced an average of 20 wins a season, with a winning record in conference play. A conference, you would be generous if you called it a “super loaded”. Last season 10 of the 12 teams in the ACC won 20 or more games. Yes, 83% of the teams in a conference reached the plateau that most deem a successful season. This is the same conference that is home to the past two NCAA Champions (UNC 09′, Duke 10′).

I can see why the early exits in March leave stingers but a wise friend of mine, Mickey Tighe, once told me, “the evil you know is a lot better than the evil you don’t know.”

Meaning, Gaudio has problems in the Tournament but are you sure the new coach can navigate through the loaded ACC, inspire a team, and even reach the tournament ? It’s no guarantee anywhere, just look to ACC foe UNC and the failed Matt Dougherty experiment, or Kentucky’s Billy Gillispie’s 27 losses in 2 years. Nothing’s a guarantee.

And that “evil you don’t know” is what Wake is currently dealing with. New Head Coach Jeff Bzdelik. Bzdelik’s 5-3 is extremely inflated with wins over Hampton, Elon, Marist, and Holy Cross. Losses to Stetson, and Winthrop certainly don’t help a team who lost Al-Faroug-Aminu to the N.B.A.

An upcoming stretch against at Xavier, @ Richmond, and hosting Gonzaga, will be difficult for a team trying to find their way. I can’t help but wonder if when March rolls around and Wake Forest isn’t in the NCAA Tournament(a place Gaudio consistently got them to), Deacons fans will be like the singer in the song..sad about an old partner they wish they still had.

*-We Three Kings-*

Bill Raftery is one of the best announcers in the game, and he’s complimented by two other standouts, Jay Bilas and Sean McDonough on ESPN’s Big Monday broadcast. Even if the game isn’t great, tune in to listen to the best broadcasting team in the country, it’ll be worth it.

*-We’re A Couple Of Misfits-*

Villanova’s Jayvaughn Pinskton has been suspended for the season by school officials following an assault charge. Villanova was at the topic of rumors about a fight between teammates last March, when Corey Fisher and Scottie Reynolds were suspended for The Wildcats First Round game against Robert Morris.

What are they putting in the cheese steaks down there ?

*-What Child Is This?-*

Coming into this season, two freshmen were expected to be instant impacts for their teams. Kyrie Irving is living up to his hype at Duke, but the other,Harrison Barnes, is struggling. Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, along with nearly everyone in the country, expected big things from Barnes. “He is the high school version of Tyler (Hansborough) in some ways, because he’s the most focused high school player I’ve ever recruited, the most disciplined high school player I’ve ever recruited.”

Barnes is averaging 11.4 ppg on a spotty 34.4 % from the field (including a dreadful 0-12 vs Minnesota), with 15 assists and 15 turnovers through 8 games. Extremely different results from what many predicted before the season when he was voted First Team All American. Barnes will need to mature quickly for a 6-3 North Carolina squad looking to reach the NCAA Tournament after missing out last year.

In my opinion, Roy Williams has done extremely well in developing solid point guards at UNC. The current success of Ty Lawson and Raymond Felton at the NBA level, has a lot to do with how much they learned playing in Williams system. I don’t know if Harrison Barnes is a true superstar yet, but I do know that the best way for him to become a superstar is to follow in the footsteps of Lawson and Felton, who have one major thing in common : they weren’t “one and done’s.” I realize I’m fighting a losing battle in trying to convince Barnes to stay at UNC and mature under the experienced Williams ; but if he really wants to reach his full potential, Williams will be the one to bring it out. Look no further than Felton and Lawson for a perfect example.

Wait. Did I, a Duke fan, just say Carolina’s best player should stay another year ? All this Christmas music must be getting to me.

Follow Terrence Mayrose on Twitter : http://twitter.com/triangle_and_2

All questions and comments are strongly encouraged. And remember to, always, “Foul up three”.

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