Too early to worry

Originally Published: November 19, 2003
By Jay Bilas | Special to ESPN.com

The hand-wringing has begun.

Top-ranked Connecticut didn't steamroll Yale at Gampel in its first game of the season.

Gonzaga lost to St. Joseph's in the Garden, when every preseason pollster had the Zags in or near the top 10.

Marquette didn't torch the nets in its first game since the Final Four, while Pittsburgh struggled with a young and thin Alabama team.

What gives?

Everybody take a deep breath. Relax. The earth is not about to spin off its axis.

The teams that have already lost a game or looked a little shaky in their opener are still in the hunt for conference honors and the NCAA Tournament. This isn't football for crying out loud, and there are reasons for some early bumps in the road.

Remember, Syracuse lost its first game of the season last year, and looked less than stellar. Kansas lost to Ball State a couple of years ago in Maui, and seized up in cramps before it was over. Duke and UConn lost their first games in 2000, and both teams recovered to be pretty darn good.

Youth is often punished in November. Remember, the game is younger than it was years ago, and very few teams are playing with seniors and juniors that have been in the program for a while, and hardly any teams have played together for any real length of time.

It's why the so-called "mid-majors" can be so tough this time of year. Teams from outside of the power conferences are more likely to have older players who have played together for a period of years, and those teams can hurt young and inexperienced teams early in the season because youth breeds inconsistency, especially early in a season.

Rattle off the teams that have played well in early games, chances are those teams are full of veterans. As old as you think UConn is, the Huskies still have a lot of freshmen and sophomores who play major minutes. It only takes one guy on the floor making a bad decision to make the offense or defense suffer.

Young or old, most teams have only had 20 to 25 practices, and a couple of meaningless exhibition games in front of the home folks. This is hardly enough time for five guys to think together, let alone jell and act as a cohesive unit in the first game. Most teams don't even have their full set of plays or defensive sets in place, but they are expected to perform as if the Final Four is a week from Tuesday.

Young teams are going into these early games not fully prepared for everything they may see, and the price for that is a low shooting percentage or a defensive breakdown. That's why you saw some teams, including UConn, struggle against zone defenses. Most teams have not had the opportunity to work on zone offense, and looked timid and shaky against the zone.

A veteran team will be able to weather this lack of practice, but younger teams have a tougher time. The coaches know that not every weapon in the arsenal is always available to be used in the early games, but will be used in due time.

And finally, because of limited practices, defense is usually ahead of offense early in the year. Why? Offensive sets require precise timing and execution, and the understanding of all five guys on the floor to take advantage of the options available. Players have to be able to make reads and react accordingly, and that understanding of the game comes with time, which players and coaches have in only limited supply.

As the season progresses, so will these young players and young teams who carry the label of a top 25 program.

So, there is no need to panic in Milwaukee, Memphis, Storrs or Tuscaloosa. Jim Boeheim didn't panic last season when he started out with a loss. He knew he had a nice group of young players, and things worked out pretty well for him.

There is plenty of great basketball ahead. And the best is still to come.

Bilas Bytes

  • Slow NCAA judgment: I am a believer in rules. And I am a believer in the NCAA. The NCAA has rules, and its rules need to be enforced. However, the rules need to be fairly applied and enforced, and the current practice of holding a player out of competition until he is proven innocent of wrongdoing is, in my judgment, unfair and it hurts the NCAA's credibility.

    Unless the case is incredibly complicated (and the vast majority are not), the NCAA's enforcement arm should be able to rule objectively upon a matter within a couple of months. Players have a finite amount of time to compete, and there must be greater urgency to decide these matters.

    A case in point is UConn's Charlie Villanueva.

    On April 11, the NCAA began its investigation into Villanueva's eligibility, and the NCAA is still not finished over six months later, forcing the player to sit out of two exhibition games and at least one regular season game. Ultimately, the NCAA may determine that Villanueva is indeed ineligible. But it may also be determined that he violated no rules whatsoever.

    In my judgment, to lend credibility and trust to the process, the NCAA and the member institution in question need to jointly hire an independent and disinterested investigative firm to conduct such an investigation, with the sole objective of finding the truth. Whether it is accurate or not, many view the NCAA as they would a prosecutor, with a goal not of finding the truth but of gaining a conviction. That is counterproductive.

    According to sources, UConn has already spent over $60,000 defending Villanueva's case, and the NCAA has spent considerable dollars as well. The amounts spent, including the NCAA's overall budget, could be reduced by jointly paying the costs of an independent investigative firm to seek out the truth.

    Another problem with the NCAA process is that there is no standard of proof in such investigations. Is the standard based upon a preponderance of the evidence, or is it clear and convincing evidence? In practice, the standard of proof is what the NCAA says it is in a particular case, what the NCAA decides to interpret as the truth. That is not good enough. There is a higher standard for the use of instant replay in the NFL.

    With so much at stake, there needs to be a higher standard to prove a rules violation exists, and an independent investigation would bring greater credibility to the process.

  • Fast track to stardom:Memphis sophomore Rodney Carney may be the best run-and-jump athlete in the nation. And in time, Carney can blossom into a star.

    Carney is 6-foot-7, can run like a sprinter, has incredible hops, and needs only to learn how to play. At the New York Athletic Club, the Manhattan Jaspers were coming onto the floor as Memphis was ending its practice, and the players cajoled Carney into a match race with Manhattan's Kenny Minor -- a 5-8 point guard with great speed.

    Carney and Minor lined up on the baseline, John Calipari blew the whistle, and Carney shot out of the blocks like a bullet. Before Minor passed halfcourt, Carney was nearly to the finish line. My jaw was on the floor, but Calipari sees this kind of thing every day.

    In team sprints, Calipari makes Carney start two full steps behind his teammates, yet Carney wins every time. When he learns to run the floor in a game without waiting for the ball to catch up with him, he can be devastating. In time, Carney can be truly special.

  • Ball-Hawkers: Saint Joseph's defense is spectacular. The Hawks are true ball-hawks, and put great pressure on the ball to force turnovers, out of control drives to break the pressure, and Phil Martelli gives his opponents different looks to keep them off balance. There are no easy shots against Saint Joseph's, and the Hawks take great pride in playing defense.

    To me, this type of team defense is as much fun to watch as a team that can hang 90 on you, in part because I think it is more difficult to do. Of course, Martelli has two senior guards in Jameer Nelson and Tyrone Barley, a junior in Delonte West, and a terrific shot-blocker in Dwayne Jones, who can erase any mistakes and allows his teammates to defend with confidence.

    However, don't be fooled into thinking that Gonzaga isn't all that because the Zags lost in the Garden. Rony Turiaf wasn't nearly 100 percent, while Blake Stepp had the least effective performance I have ever seen from him. Gonzaga was still right there in the hunt.

  • No more exhibitions: The NCAA must eliminate the current rule that allows two exhibition games against traveling teams sponsored by shoe companies or AAU organizations. There is no way that the NCAA should sanction these exhibitions and watch member institutions pay thousands of dollars to AAU organizations, when they could be playing each other instead.

    It is not that these games all provide slush money to those with influence over potential recruits, because they don't. There are many legitimate teams out there, as well as legitimate games, but there are also many that are not. At the very least, there is an appearance of impropriety, and there is no valid reason to enrich these AAU programs on the backs of college players when there is ample competition among the ranks of NCAA member institutions.

    The NFL plays exhibitions against other NFL teams. Major League Baseball and the NBA play exhibitions against their own teams. Why should Duke and Indiana play the EA Sports All-Stars, made up of former college players or pros, and provide them with a check?

    These teams travel around on bare bones budgets and the organizers pocket the money. These exhibition games take the same amount of time, preparation, and commitment as a real game. The schools sell tickets, and some of the games are on television. The solution is simple. Either allow member schools to have two controlled scrimmages against other Division I schools within a 250 mile radius; allow the schools to play two games against Division II teams; or allow the schools to play two additional games, one home and one away, which would count on their schedules. These kids are laying out significant time and resources anyway, so why not let the games count?

    The NCAA should not be in the business of funding outside interests. These exhibitions are of limited value, and are a minefield of potential conflicts of interest. It is time to end the practice. You will not hear a single coach complain, just the AAU organizations that will have to find another way to influence the process.

    Jay Bilas is a college basketball analyst at ESPN and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send Jay a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

    Jay Bilas

    College Basketball analyst