December 27, 2013

Tom Lindley: Real basketball is on the way

— One of the best Christmas presents for college basketball fans is the end of the dreadful pre-conference schedule.

Except for a few made-for-TV matchups, until this point in the season the competitive offerings are slim. Most college powers set up schedules guaranteeing 10 wins by the time they play their first conference game.

That’s becoming a problem for college basketball, where the early games are often boring and the outcomes mostly assured. It’s good for a coach who wants to pad his schedule, but not so for fans who pay good money to watch bad teams.

Recent estimates of the Rating Percentage Index (RPI) — which factors schedule strength and is used to evaluate teams for tournament play — showed that Indiana had played seven teams ranked 150th or lower. The Hoosiers aren’t alone. Louisville had six victories against bottom-feeders, while Kentucky, UCLA and Duke had five. The list could be much longer.

Conversely, teams with the poorest records play the toughest schedules, although they do get paid well — in ticket receipts — for their beatings.

It wasn’t always this way. When Denny Crum coached Louisville to national championships in 1980 and 1986, he loaded up the early portion of his schedule in hopes of getting his teams ready for conference play. For instance, in the 1985-86 season his schedule before New Year’s Day included Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Miami (Ohio), Purdue, St. John’s and Tulsa — and it worked, with the Cardinals winning the NCAA tournament that spring.

Today’s soft schedules make it harder to tell which teams are the better ones in the opening weeks of the season. It’s generally safe to say the powers use the initial weeks to reload and work new players into their systems.

The most interesting aspect of the season so far has been the introduction of high-level freshman phenoms. Given the hype, big things were to be expected at Duke, Kansas and Kentucky. So far, the freshmen have played well, but not like the memorable, one-and-done game-changers they were projected to be.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim was the first to acknowledge that not all that glitters is gold. Good players, yes; great players, no.

At least not so far.

“There’s no player that’s out there on the horizon that’s a Tim Duncan or a LeBron James,” he said in a phone interview with SportsNet New York. “I’ve seen all these guys play. I think they’re very talented players. They’re not that kind of player.”

That’s not the assessment that was expected at John Calipari U., where Kentucky’s freshmen had already been dubbed “the greatest class ever.” There was banter about an undefeated season, but Calipari’s Wildcats have already lost three of their first 12 games. A showdown against defending national champion Louisville (11-1) is on tap for Saturday.

It’s been much the same at Kansas (8-3), where Andrew Wiggins arrived on campus amid comparisons to former Jayhawks star Wilt Chamberlain. Early losses have tempered those comments, but Kansas has played the toughest schedule of the major powers so far, much to its credit.

Duke is off to a 9-2 start and looks to have the best freshman in the country in 6-foot-8-inch Jabari Parker, who is averaging 22 points per game. The Blue Devils have been ranked in the Top 10 dating back 222 games. That’s likely to continue.

All these teams should survive the two month-plus grind of conference games to play in the NCAA tournament in March. How far they go will depend on whether the freshmen have matured as college players and shaken off bad habits from high school and Amateur Athletic Union basketball.

Calipari recently summed up the situation accurately in an assessment of his own players on his website, but it probably could go for other budding stars, as well.

“They are great kids,” he said, “but they have bad basketball habits they keep falling back to.”

The good news is that the shakeout is about over. The days of playing no-names will be done, and it will be time to step up and play or get out of the way.

Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. You can write to him at