Good 'N Plenty: Soft nonconference schedules not good for hoops

by | College Basketball Insider

College basketball needs to change in order to be more relevant early in the season, Leonard Washington has gone from a misfit to a Player of the Year candidate, why Murray State isn't the same even with the return of its star and VCU's marksman -- and how he was poked fun of in his first two seasons under Shaka. All in this week's edition of Good 'N Plenty.

Jamie Dixon is one of the top coaches in the country, enjoys as much job stability as just about anyone not named Mike Krzyzewski and has won 250 games faster than all but a dozen coaches in NCAA history.

So then why does he play such a putrid non-conference schedule? Dixon isn't alone, but he's been one of the primary culprits to why college basketball struggles to grab a foothold early in the year, especially when college football goes dark for about a month in December.

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Here's Pittsburgh's schedule before Big East play: Mount St. Mary's, Fordham, Lehigh, Oakland, Michigan, Delaware, Howard, Detroit, Duquesne, North Florida, Bethune-Cookman, Delaware State and Kennesaw State. That's 13 non-league games -- with only one coming against a major-conference school. Nine of those contests took place at the Peterson Events Center, where the Panthers were 174-19 before a league-opening loss to Cincinnati. The slate is an embarrassment.

Nobody wants the majority of those games. Not the fans, the media or even Dixon's players. The only winners are the low-major schools, some programs getting paid six-figures to help support their fledging athletic department in exchange for being a sacrificial lamb.

Indiana coach Tom Crean told me the other day that he isn't in a position to ramp up his non-conference schedule until all the major conferences play the same amount of league games and are on an equal playing field. His Indiana Hoosiers were ranked No. 1 in the preseason and played 10 of the 13 non-league contests in Bloomington with only four total games coming against what we considered "quality opponents" entering the season. Jim Boeheim is known to play a soft schedule each and every year. Last year, he left the state of New York only once before Big East play.

Coaches need to stop thinking about job security and their won-loss record and more about the state of the game. There's a three-week gap until the college football bowl games get going -- and college hoops needs to take advantage of the lull. That doesn't mean feasting on cupcakes, either. It means playing people.

We don't want to see Michigan play Central Michigan, Kansas face American, Syracuse go up against Alcorn State, N.C. State play Western Michigan or Kansas State battle UMKC. Those were all matchups that took place this past Saturday. There should be a rule in place that you can't qualify to play in the NCAA tournament if you schedule more than one non-Division I opponent. San Diego State, a preseason Top 25 club, had San Diego Christian and Point Loma Nazarene on this year's slate. Stephen F. Austin had Howard Payne, Jarvis Christian, LSU-Shreveport and Lubbock Christian on its schedule. That's four gimme wins for Danny Kaspar and the Lumberjacks.

VCU coach Shaka Smart's suggestion was to increase the weight of road victories in the RPI.

"If there was more value on going on the road, everyone -- us included -- would do that more," Smart said. "At the higher level, they can buy four or five games -- or even as much as two-thirds of your non-conference games, it makes sense for them -- until they change the RPI."

Here's my solution: Push back the start of the college basketball season until early or even mid-December, maybe the Sunday following the football conference championship games. That way you can kick off the college hoops campaign with a bang, and basically make it a one-semester sport. That would ease the academic load on the kids and the sport would enjoy regular-season relevance for more than merely the month of February.

Start the NCAA tournament immediately after The Masters, work out a cooperative deal with the NBA (it should be easier now that David Stern is on his way out) that the league doesn't have playoff games on the Saturday and Monday night of Final Four weekend.

College hoops needs to be proactive. The NCAA tournament is the best event in the world, but the regular season doesn't have enough sizzle. Dixon, Boeheim and Steve Fisher aren't the only ones at fault here, but it needs to change. For the good of the game.

Leonard Washington Mountain West Player of the Year?

Leonard Washington was only 2 for 10 from the field, he wasn't getting an advantageous whistle from the guys in the striped shirts and Wyoming was in a dogfight with SMU on the road. In the old days, Washington would have melted down, let his emotions get the best of him. But this is the new Leonard Washington, the guy who has begun to display leadership skills and self-restraint.

"Leonard's come a long way," Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt said. "He's been really good this year."

I wrote the first-ever story on him back on May 27, 2005, when the Louisiana native had just finished his sophomore season in high school and was playing in an AAU tournament in Texas. To me, he looked like a carbon copy of former Texas star P.J. Tucker, an undersized, relentless forward who was a mismatch nightmare. But Washington's career has been marred by incidents. There was the brawl in Las Vegas on the summer circuit, the time he whacked Blake Griffin below the belt when he was a freshman at USC and the suspension at Wyoming this past offseason after being charged with battery and criminal entry.

"I've made some mistakes," Washington told me after scoring 19 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in the victory against SMU on Wednesday night. "But I've learned to control my emotions and that was the biggest thing holding me back."

Washington is a legitimate Mountain West Player of the Year candidate. In fact, in a league with UNLV's Anthony Bennett and San Diego State's Jamaal Franklin, Washington might well be the front-runner. Obviously, much will depend on how Wyoming fares in league play -- but the Cowboys are one of four remaining unbeaten teams in the nation after the victory against Larry Brown & Co.

Washington is recording 15.1 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.3 assists and a pair of blocks per game. Wyoming hasn't played a stellar schedule, but the Cowboys have beaten Colorado and Illinois State on the road.

"It's been a great ride so far," Washington said. "We're off to one of the best starts in school history -- and we're really coming together as a team."

"I wasn't sure what was going to happen after I was suspended this past summer," he added. "I credit my teammates and the coaching staff for putting me in a position that forced me to mature. I'm just happy I got another chance. ... I'm really proud of myself for making it this far from where I was."

Murray State not the same -- even with Canaan

A year ago, Steve Prohm was Boy Wonder, Isaiah Canaan was beginning to capture the nation's attention en route to All-American honors and Murray State was rolling as the nation's final unbeaten team.

Canaan returned after flirting with the NBA, Ed Daniels was set to emerge after a strong summer in which he more than held his own at the Amar'e Stoudemire Camp and the Racers added UAB transfer Dexter Fields. This was supposed to be the most dangerous true mid-major team in the country.

But this Murray State team has already dropped three games on the non-conference slate. There was a setback to Colorado back in Charleston and the Racers are currently on a two-game losing skid after a road loss to Dayton and dropping one at home against Valparaiso.

Prohm is hoping to get 6-foot-5 senior forward Latreze Mushatt back in the next week or so. Mushatt, who was effective a year ago in filling in for Ivan Aska, has missed the entire season with a torn Achilles. Then there's Zay Jackson. He was supposed to start in the backcourt this season, but he has been suspended for the year and is likely headed to jail after an incident back in September when he used his vehicle to hit a pair of pedestrians in a Wal-Mart parking lot.

Now there's the matter of Canaan, who is battling an injury to the arc in his foot.

"He's playing hurt and it's hard for him to get better without rest," Prohm said. "We may end up having him sit out practice and playing in games. I'm not sure what to do with him yet, though."

Canaan has to shoulder much of the load on this year's team, without Jackson and Mushatt and the departure of Donte Poole, Aska and Jewuan Long off last season's squad. He's still averaging 21.2 points, 4.1 assists and 3.7 rebounds while shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc and Daniel is putting up a double-double (16 ppg, 10.5 rpg), but the difference with the Racers is depth.

"I think it may be the difference between us being 9-3 or 11-1 right now," Prohm admitted.

Jackson would have allowed Canaan to be able to defend the team's third-best perimeter player, instead of the go-to guy. He also would have given the Racers another athletic guard who can put the ball on the floor and help get Canaan uncontested looks. Mushatt would have allowed Brandon Garrett to come off the bench instead of having to start every game this season.

Now Murray State will enter Ohio Valley play with the mindset of having to tear through the league, one that now features Belmont, to have any shot of getting an at-large berth. Even that, Prohm realizes, may not be enough.

"Are their enough high-major teams to fill the field without putting in some mid-majors?" Prohm asked.

That's a valid question.

Daniels' swagger pays off in marksmanship

VCU's Troy Daniels has been on an absolute tear from beyond the arc. The Rams senior guard buried a school-record nine trifectas against FDU on Saturday and then went 11 for 20 in a rout over East Tennessee State on Wednesday night. Over the past three games, Daniels has made 27 of 49 shots from deep -- good for a 55 percent clip.

"I don't want to sound like I'm not surprised, because I am, but I'm really not that surprised," VCU coach Shaka Smart said. "He's always been capable of this."

But Daniels couldn't get on the floor his first two seasons in the program. He averaged 4.7 minutes as a freshman and a whopping six minutes his sophomore season. His confidence was also low, having to deal with the relentless ribbing from Joey Rodriguez and Brandon Rozzell.

"Those guys picked on me and I didn't understand it when I was younger," Daniels said. "They would say things all the time about how come I could make shots in practice, but couldn't do it in the games."

"He wasn't mentally ready," Smart added. "And those guys were tough on him."

But when Rodriguez and Rozzell moved on, Daniels began to find himself and some swagger. He made our Top 50 shooters list, but has taken his game to a new level recently.

Double dribbles

  • Wichita State improved to 4-0 since the Shockers have been without three starters. The team's top player, Carl Hall (broken thumb) and Ron Baker (stress fracture) have both been out since the team's lone setback of the season, against Tennessee. Evan Wessel (broken finger) has missed the past six games, but Gregg Marshall's team is now 13-1 after league victories against Northern Iowa and on the road against Drake.
  • Tennessee State star Robert Covington will miss the next six weeks or so with a torn meniscus he suffered in the final minutes of a 77-48 loss to Middle Tennessee State on Dec. 18. The 6-foot-8 senior, who is on the radar of many NBA guys, was averaging 17.4 points but only shooting 33 percent from beyond the arc. "He's been up and down," Tennessee State rookie coach Travis Williams told "But now's an opportunity for other guys to step up."
  • Duke big man Marshall Plumlee was available for the victory against Davidson on Wednesday, but didn't get into the game. It'll be interesting to see how much Coach K uses the youngest Plumlee brother, who has redshirted last season and has missed all season with foot injuries.
  • I received plenty of criticism from Minnesota fans when I wrote that it was difficult to watch Trevor Mbakwe early in the season because he just didn't look the same athletically following the torn ACL that sidelined him for most of last year. Well, the Gophers sixth-year forward shed his knee brace last weekend in the victory against Michigan State and has begun to show more explosiveness. He had 11 points and 12 boards in a season-high 28 minutes against the Spartans.
  • Old Dominion is 2-12 this season and 0-2 in CAA play after losses to William & Mary and James Madison at home. This is a program that has averaged more than 25 wins per season over the past four years.
  • Here's the apology to Cincinnati's Cashmere Wright: You deserve a spot among our Top 50 point guards in America. Our bad.

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