This Week in College Hoops

April 3, 2009

Here are some random college basketball thoughts as we approach the final 3 games of the season:

Tim Floyd Makes the Safe Choice

This week USC coach Tim Floyd declined a job offer from Arizona so that he could stay at his present position. At first glance, turning down a long-time basketball power for a football school would seem foolhardy. Nevertheless, it appears that Floyd probably made the wise move.

Unlike a traditional basketball juggernaut such as UCLA, Arizona's rise as a basketball power occurred only relatively recently when coach Lute Olson arrived on campus. And it was Olson's excellent coaching and recruiting that developed Arizona into an elite, top 20 team each year.

Because the state of Arizona is not a recruiting hotbed when compared to New York City or Los Angeles, a huge part of Olson's success was rooted in his ability to nab talented out-of-state recruits. From Khalid Reeves to Chase Budinger to Luke Walton to Miles Simon, Olson had the charisma to sell his program to players outside of Arizona because he knew that he could guarantee them television exposure and good coaching. Because he was Lute Olson, those recruits knew the tv cameras were sure to follow.

That same personality also allowed Olson to enjoy a monopoly over the occasional in-state elite recruits produced by the desert, as he convinced such local preps as Mike Bibby, Sean Elliott, and Channing Frye to attend U of A.

Now that Olson is gone, and his last batch of stars appears ready to declare for the upcoming NBA draft, there will be a bit of a vacuum for the next Arizona head coach.

On the one hand, that new hire could step in and not miss a beat, picking up where Olson left off by signing top recruits and maintaining Arizona's stature as a Top 20 program.

On the other hand, the next head coach could be walking into UNLV Part II.

UNLV also was an unknown desert school with a marginal local talent pool until the arrival of coach Jerry Tarkanian. Once hired, Tark the Shark began nabbing talented out-of-state recruits and built the program into a perennial national power. Similar to Olson, Tark was a charismatic former Long Beach State coach who drew the television cameras his way, eventually producing a championship team.

When Tark left UNLV amid NCAA turmoil, the program declined. Without Tark's leadership at the top, the out-of-state recruits stopped coming. A revolving door of head coaches could not stop the downward spiral, and to this day UNLV has not reached its prior stature.

So, had Tim Floyd taken the Arizona gig, he might have very well walked into the next UNLV.

To succeed, Floyd would have needed to land top 100-caliber out-of-state talent. Although Floyd has shown in the past three years that he can sell recruits on attending school in Los Angeles, there is no guarantee that he could convince future preps to come to the desert.

More importantly, Floyd would be inheriting a bare cupboard, as Arizona's three best players - Nic Wise, Budinger, and Jordan Hill - all could be bound for the pros. Hence, he would probably be walking into at least 1-2 years of struggle at Arizona.

Meanwhile, Floyd has developed a little up-and-coming program at 'SC. For the past three years he has been able to land Top 10 recruits by selling them on playing time and on the Los Angeles area itself. West Virginia native and NBA rookie O.J. Mayo came to Troy specifically because he wanted to play in the nation's second largest media market. DeMar Derozan committed to 'SC partly because of the added benefit of playing close to home.

One reason Floyd has achieved some success at Troy is because he did not inherit a mess from day one. In other words, when Floyd arrived he had future NBA draft picks Nick Young and Gabe Pruitt already on the roster. That initial talent base allowed him to produce winning seasons immediately, and thus, made his recruiting pitches that much easier. At Arizona, he would have no such luxury.

By staying in Los Angeles, Floyd has access to perhaps the nation's best talent pool. Unlike other coaches who must convince the California kids to leave their ties behind and go out of state, Floyd can sell the local recruits on playing in front of loved ones in the new Galen Center.

Essentially, Floyd took the less risky option. Although his program will always be inferior on the recruiting trail to cross-town rival UCLA, it nevertheless will continue to have a say in the Pac-10 conference and the NCAA Tournament. Had Floyd gone to Arizona, he would have probably had a rough opening year. Beyond that, not even Lute Olson could predict what would have happened. In the end, Floyd saved himself some struggle, and took the less risky option. Smart choice.

Kentucky Hires the Right Man

This week Kentucky hired former Memphis coach John Calipari after scrapping its two-year experiment with Billy Gillespie. Gillespie failed to meet the high expectations of the rabid Kentucky fan base, in part because of his inability to secure a berth in this year's NCAA Tournament.

In Calipari, however, Kentucky has an elite coach at the peak of his game. Had he been hired at an earlier point in his career, the fit might have been poor. Instead, it is precisely because of Calipari's career journey that he is now ready to right the ship at Kentucky.

At UMass, Calipari's teams played like a Big East school, displaying gritty, half court defense, and methodical, disciplined offense. His best UMass team, the "refuse to lose" squad that featured Lou Roe, Marcus Camby, Edgar Padilla, and Carmelo Travieso, advanced to the Final Four before losing ironically, to a Rick Pitino-led Kentucky squad.

That success catapulted Calipari to the NBA and the mess that is New Jersey. During his tenure with the Nets, Calipari enjoyed limited success, taking the team to the playoffs only once. After only a few seasons, he was canned, and took an assistant's role under Larry Brown in Philadelphia. Eventually, the head coaching position opened at Memphis, and Calipari jumped at the opportunity.

In Memphis, Calipari instituted the dribble drive motion offense. That offense allowed his creative backcourt players the freedom to attack, and brought a more entertaining, uptempo style of play to his teams than in his UMass days.

More importantly, Calipari capitalized on his NBA background to convince out-of-state players to come to Memphis. The list of out-of-state talent represents a virtual who's who of the program's stars for the past nine years - Derrick Rose, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Dajuan Wagner, Tyreke Evans, Rodney Carney, and Joey Dorsey, to name a few. That outside talent helped elevate Memphis into a national power after years of scandals and underachievement.

At Memphis, Calipari exuded an inner calm that he did not seem to have at UMass. Perhaps it was because he played in the cakewalk Conference USA, or perhaps because his NBA struggles had provided him with a new dose of perspective, in any case, Calipari appeared to have developed a greater confidence in his abilities as a coach. And now, Kentucky will have the benefit of being led by this polished veteran. At this point in his career, Calipari is one of the few that can handle the inherent pressures of being the Head Coach of the Kentucky Wildcats.

For Coach Cal, the Kentucky job is an upgrade. Historically, Kentucky has had little difficulty in attracting talent outside of Lexington. Because of this recruiting potential, Calipari can now bring in more well-rounded classes than the one-and-done stars he was reliant upon in Memphis. In addition, he will certainly get more exposure with the Wildcats, as the SEC tends to get far more television coverage than Conference USA.

With Coach Cal, expect a quick end to the Wildcats' Tournament drought.

Final Four Predictions

Each of the four remaining survivors can make a valid case for winning the national title. On paper, Michigan State is the weakest of the four squads, but they pound the glass and will enjoy the added benefit of playing near home in Detroit. North Carolina now has a healthier Ty Lawson to energize their devastating attack. Connecticut brings toughness, athleticism, and a player nobody can match in shotblocker Hasheem Thabeet. Finally, Villanova features the best guard corps in the Tourney, as they have beaten three powerhouse teams in UCLA, Pittsburgh, and Duke.

So, what does all this mean?

In the Michigan State-Connecticut matchup, expect UConn to pull away after an emotional first half from the Spartans. Ultimately, Thabeet, Adrien, Price, and the rest of the Huskies will prevail on the strength of their superior talent. For the Spartans to have any shot, Goran Suton must step up big and draw Thabeet away from the basket when UConn goes man-to-man.

In the 'Nova-Carolina game, expect Villanova's guards to lead them to victory once more. Carolina's Lawson and Ellington will more than hold their own, but 'Nova will find their success at the other matchups. In other words, 'Nova will put 4-5 players on the floor who can handle the rock, and thus, will put pressure on the Carolina bigs defensively. To counter this, Roy Williams might have to go small in order to prevail.

In an all Big East championship game, count on UConn to finally end the 'Nova dream, avoiding any repeat of 1985. Thabeet again is the difference, altering shots after the Wildcat guards break down their perimeter defenders. UConn wins the title.

By Mike Elliott
Staff Editor for

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