Thursday night in college basketball, a number of exasperating teams stepped on the hardwood.
Iowa is playing well this season, but that doesn’t mean the Hawkeyes don’t know how to toy with the emotions of their fan base. A penchant for blown second-half leads is the most central reason this season had been such a bumpy ride before a comparatively stable period over the past few weeks. Few teams were more bipolar last season in college basketball, and it has taken Iowa many miles to finally get to a point where NCAA berths under Fran McCaffery are more likely than not.
Cincinnati, covered closely by TSS college basketball writer Scott King, can lose to East Carolina and then sweep SMU out of Dallas in its next game. That’s pretty typical for the Mick Cronin era… even in a season when Cronin isn’t actually coaching the team due to health problems. Cincinnati rarely if ever honors linear logic, in moments good and bad. Exasperation City USA, Bay-Bee!
Also on Thursday night, Stanford tried to salvage a season split with UCLA — the same UCLA team it dominated for 32 minutes a month ago in Pauley Pavilion before gacking down the stretch in an overtime loss. The Cardinal had to make the NCAA tournament last season to save coach Johnny Dawkins’s job. They barely did so… and then once they got in, they merely knocked off second-seeded Kansas in the round of 32 to make the Sweet 16. Ho-hum.
Last night against UCLA, Stanford seemed like a safe NCAA team, but that was built upon the presumption it would get the split with the Bruins. After playing paralyzed, body-snatched basketball for 30 minutes (especially star Chasson Randle, who never found himself on Thursday), Stanford finally sprung into action and improbably managed to whittle a 58-36 deficit (at the 10-minute mark of the second half) to 69-67 in the final seconds. The Cardinal even got a decent look at the basket from 25 feet, as UCLA coach Steve Alford inexplicably called a timeout before Stanford inbounded the ball under its own basket with roughly three seconds to go. (The Cardinal had no timeouts, so Alford enabled Dawkins, his counterpart, to draw up a good play.)
Randle, who finished 4-of-13 from the field with only one assist in 39 futile minutes, could not hit the three-pointer that would have wiped out a full night of frustration. Stanford fell short, and now an NCAA berth is a lot less certain on The Farm.
If you were coming up with a seed list of “most exasperating college basketball teams,” you could make cases for Iowa, Cincinnati and Stanford. Yet, if you had to look for a No. 1 overall seed, there can be no doubt: The LSU Tigers would sit at the top of a bracket no team wants to dominate.
LSU owns two jump-out-of-the-building talents in Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, plus one of the more noticeably athletic reserves in the country in Tim Quarterman. Martin and Mickey are both 16-points-per-game scorers, and well they should be, because they’re light on their feet yet solidly built. Strength and swiftness in a coordinated basketball body? Martin and Mickey both offer that combination of qualities, and while Quarterman’s body has yet to fill out — he’s a string bean at 187 pounds — his presence as a 6-6 guard enables him to see the floor more easily and play over the top of the smaller defenders he usually sees.
In an SEC where Florida has fallen off the map and Arkansas has failed to take charge the way a number of analysts thought it would, LSU should be the team stepping into the breach, the team with more than enough quality to be a strong second-place team comfortably positioned to make the NCAA tournament. Yet, after Thursday night’s 81-77 home-court loss to Bruce Pearl’s rebuilding Auburn squad, LSU is more an NIT team than an NCAA team. It will need to beat Kentucky next week — no big deal, right? — to feel confident about its NCAA chances.
Here’s the thing about LSU, though: Having just lost to both Auburn and — last Saturday — Mississippi State, the casual college basketball fan would think that the Bayou Bengals have NOOOOO shot at all against Big Blue and John Calipari. Yet, it would be very much in the nature of LSU basketball to do just that.
This is, after all, a program with a history of being exasperating.
It’s true that former coach Dale Brown got the Tigers to two Final Fours. He did preside over an era of relative prosperity as far as Baton Rouge basketball is concerned. Yet, Brown was the embodiment of exasperation as a coach. His best work occurred with ragtag squads that played junk defenses and flustered far superior foes. The 1986 Final Four run — made complete with a titanic upset of Eddie Sutton’s best (and most violation-plagued) Kentucky team in the Southeast Regional final — was Brown’s crown jewel. The 1987 run to the Elite Eight — which narrowly missed out on the Final Four in a heartbreaking loss to eventual national champion Indiana — was almost as good as the ’86 magic carpet ride. Brown knew how to coach ’em up as an underdog.
As a favorite, only in 1981 did LSU translate a high seed into a successful tournament journey. The Tigers made the Final Four as as No. 1 seed. Otherwise, Brown left some achievements on the table. A top seed in 1980 didn’t quite get Brown to the Final Four — he lost in the Elite Eight. In 1979, a third seed progressed no further than the Sweet 16.
Yet, that point in history (the late 1970s and early ’80s) is not what LSU fans remember as the reason why Brown’s tenure failed to be what it could have been. What will linger as the “what might have been” portion of Brown’s career is that with Shaquille O’Neal and Chris Jackson (later Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf), two transcendent talents, LSU couldn’t even get to a single Sweet 16, let alone the Final Four. Even to this day, it’s a source of amazement that two astonishingly gifted players on the same court at the same time could not propel LSU to a lofty height.
Dale Brown could certainly do more with less — he was a genius in that regard — but doing less with more? Sadly, that was also part of Brown’s coaching portfolio.
Current LSU coach Johnny Jones is taking the baton from Brown this season, and those who cover LSU sure wish that baton would be dropped in Baton Rouge.
LSU is, as you know, a strong football school with a rich baseball identity. Basketball gets lost in the shuffle, but there are some devoted chroniclers of LSU basketball in particular. One of them is Chris Abshire of SB Nation, who offered several informative contextual tweets after the Bayou Bengals’ loss to Auburn.
This is one of them:
Just remember, Johnny Jones got a $400K raise and an extension BEFORE THIS SEASON.
— Chris Abshire (@ChrisAbshire) February 6, 2015
It’s true that if coaches can land top-tier recruits such as widely-perceived superstar-in-the-making Ben Simmons, they improve their chances of winning at a high level. Johnny Jones is certainly knocking ’em dead on the recruiting trail at LSU.
Yet — you can call this “Ron Zook Syndrome” in football or “Josh Pastner Syndrome” in basketball — if a coach can’t, you know, COACH elite talent with skill and care, it becomes very hard to justify keeping him around.
This raises a very important point about coaching in college basketball: People say that anyone could win with the talent Roy Williams has brought to North Carolina over the years, or that anyone could win with what John Calipari is able to pull into Kentucky.
Well, do we remember how difficult it was for Bill Guthridge and especially Matt Doherty to win at UNC following Dean Smith’s retirement? Not just anyone could win there.
After Calipari left Memphis, Pastner hasn’t come remotely close to matching his predecessor’s level of success — in regular seasons or in March.
The “anyone could win with that level of talent” line is one of the great and pervasive myths in college basketball coaching. No, you actually have to know what you’re doing — you can’t just roll the ball on the court.
At LSU, Johnny Jones needs to begin to show he knows what he’s doing. Right now, he is the coach of the No. 1 overall seed in the United States… in terms of driving his fan base insane.