Monday, January 14, 2008

Hoops - "Bad Team" or "Playing Bad"

So our men's hoops team runs out to a big early lead against Miami on the road, but still manages to trail by two at half, then go on to lose the game handily. Another day, another loss. Another road loss. Another exercise in frustration for both the players and fans.

"What is it? We're not bad guys," forward Gani Lawal said. "We don't go out and do drugs and hang out in late hours of the night. We just want to know why we can't pick up the wins that we want."

"Oh, man, me and Anthony were just in the locker room asking, 'What is it?' "Smith said after his 21 points and 10 rebounds, both game highs. "We're tired of answering questions. We just don't get it. We just don't know what it is, honestly."

The players don't know what it is. Obviously the coaches don't know what it is, or you might assume they would have fixed it. So what is "it"?

Even our Athletic Director has seemingly started "looking ahead" to next season. This from his "Good Word" newsletter:

"These guys need our support more than ever as Paul Hewitt goes about re-loading for the future. "

Yikes. So, in trying to characterize this team, would you say this is a "bad team" or a team that is "playing bad". Maybe semantics, but maybe not. It speaks to coaching and potential. If they are truly a bad team, then maybe there's not much that can be done to bring them up to a higher level. If they are just "playing bad", then of course the ceiling is higher.

Now, if the definition of "team" includes the coaching staff, does that change your opinion? Has Coach Hewitt reached his ceiling in terms of developing a program?

It's interesting to think about the parallels from hoops to football. We just fired a coach for being amazingly consistent, a consistent winner, but never taking that proverbial "next step", never finishing in the top 25, and never beating our rival. "Consistent winner" was not enough to save him. On the hoops side you have a guy who has had taken us the pinnacle of NCAA Hoops - the Final Four, then on to finals where we lost. However, he has also failed to compete for a conference championship, failed to keep us in the top 25, and failed to figure out how to win on the road. "Consistent" is probably the opposite of the right word to describe his tenure.

Now, as fans, if you had your choice, what would you take - consistent winner but never reaching the "top", or a roller-coaster ride with an occasional national title appearance? Would you be willing to accept losing seasons, knowing that the payoff is the occassional "magic" season?

Part of a magic season is having "magic" players. You have to recruit and Coach Hewitt has proven his ability to get blue-chippers to campus. He just can't get them to stay there. Certainly Coach Hewitt has been decimated by "one-and-done" players. Without looking it up, I have to believe that we are one of the top 5 programs in losing one-year players (Bosh, Jack, Young, Crittenton). Throw in losses like Austin Jackson (MLB), transfers (H.Lane, Nystrom, E.Nelson, Fredrick, Diaw, Faye), and you have a lot of discontinuity in the program to overcome. However, this is life in college basketball today. That's just reality.

We all know that Javaris and Thaddeus were not "NBA ready", but that's not the criteria used to make an important financial decision in your life. So we had them for one season - and clearly they made a difference. Their raw talent raised a program with a losing record right into the NCAA tourney. Now they're gone. For the players left, have they just reached their ceiling?

At the end of the day my conclusion is simple. You ain't going very far without an experienced talented Point Guard. Paul Hewitt's desire to recruit big guards has worked against him in terms of program continuity. There is a big difference between a 6'2" PG and a 6'4" PG - from the NBA perspective. Javaris shows up for a season with his big 6'5" frame and NBA-ready body, and he's gone after a bumpy first season. Ty Lawson at UNC, a 5'11" PG, had a better freshman season at UNC than JC at GT, but here is year-two, and he's still running the show for the Tarheels. Had he been JC's size, he would have been gone. Had Jarrett Jack been 6'1", I am willing to bet he would have stayed his senior season. Hewitt's insistence on large guards is a great philosophy for the system he likes to run, but the NBA likes those kind of kids too.

It's why I'm cautiously optimistic about Mo Miller. He's big, but at 6'3", his size doesn't jump out at you, and he doesn't have the raw talent that JC had. So there's a chance for some continuity and development at the PG position......... finally.

I am absolutely convinced that Coach Hewitt needs to reevaluate his system, or how he teaches his system. But at the end of the day it's the Point Guard. Forget Thaddeus Young. Put a sophomore Javaris back on this team, and I believe they have a real shot at the NCAA's.

What do you think?

On a side note to Gani Lawal: None of the fans think anyone on the team are "bad guys". In fact, we rather like having all of you on this team. However, liking how players represent the school off the court (which mostly seems outstanding), and how they represent themselves on the court (where winning trumps virtually all). This year's team seems like a group of good guys playing badly. It doesn't help much, but just thought I'd mention it.

Side Note #2: I guess if you are frustrated with the men, it looks like the ladies are seriously representing themselves in most of our major sports, including hoops. The lady Jackets actually beat Miami the other night on a buzzer beater by one of our super-new freshman. Probably time we gave the ladies more billing over here.