Commentary

Call-in radio shows, the Pitt paradox

Originally Published: January 25, 2011
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball, where Lamar (1) is the life of the party. (The Cardinals were the only Division I team in America to break 100 points last weekend.)

Don't call me

Last week North Carolina coach Roy Williams (2) basically told some members of the Tar Heels fan base to lose his number -- specifically, the number to his call-in radio show. Seems Ol' Roy was dadgum peeved at the criticism that came in the wake of Carolina's 20-point loss to the Georgia Tech Psycho Jackets (3).

When the Heels bounced back by beating Clemson the following game, Williams went off.

"I'm really proud of those kids," Williams said. "Everybody talked about how poorly they played at Georgia Tech. My radio call … stunk. Everybody was talking about how they were Carolina fans for nine million years and how bad we are. I don't give a damn how long you're a Carolina fan, those are kids in the locker room, and they played their buns off tonight."

[+] EnlargeRoy Williams
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireDuring his radio call-in show, Roy Williams bristled at criticism levelled at his North Carolina team after its loss to Georgia Tech.

Williams followed that up with this valentine: "Don't call me next week and say how good we are. Keep your damn phone calls to yourself."

If the calls went directly to the delicate teenage flowers Williams coaches, that would be one thing. Instead, they went to the multimillionaire who derives a decent chunk of his pay from doing the call-in show and handling the occasional slings and arrows of outrageous fandom. And if said multimillionaire was expecting universal praise after a 20-point loss to a team that ranks 108th nationally in the Sagarin Ratings, well, that's slightly misguided.

The Minutes spoke to three coaches Monday who offered general defenses of the fans' right to ask a pointed question or two.

Tom Crean (4), Indiana: "I think it's part of the responsibility, and each question is what it is. I think you answer as honestly as you can. If you feel it's out of bounds, maybe you're quick with it or let the caller know. I'm not into situations where people are just ranting. I can get that in my coaches' office. If somebody has a valid question or valid point, I have no problem with it. The obvious fact is, you're being paid to be on that show. …

"Anytime you have a fan base like at Indiana, the No. 1 ingredient that makes it what it is, is the passion of the fans. You have to take the highs and lows of that, because they're living with the highs and lows, especially with the way we've struggled the last couple years."

Chris Mack (5), Xavier: "I can relate [to angry callers]. I'm a Bengals fan, and sometimes I feel like calling in and blasting them when they don't play well. But obviously, we have more information than anybody else does. We're at practice. … While it's not necessarily fun being on the hot seat on a radio show, it's part of the job."

Kevin Stallings (6), Vanderbilt: "You're going to get some suspect comments and questions at times. … Sometimes I'm more patient than other times. I don't make it a habit of getting confrontational with callers. People are entitled to their opinions. Sometimes you get suspect comments that are positive when you don't deserve positive comments."

Nevertheless, there are three mitigating factors in semi-defense of Ol' Roy's point of view:

No. 1: Fans do have a tendency to dehumanize the players -- probably more so online these days than on the radio, but still.

"I think it's good if people can remember these are 18-, 19-, 21-, 22-year-old guys," Stallings said. "They are on scholarship, but it's not like they're getting paid. Sometimes people -- heck, I do it myself -- forget that these guys are doing the best they can. People can write and call and say things now in a very faceless manner, and it's probably gotten worse because of that."

Said Crean: "You do have a responsibility to protect your players and your program more than you do anything else. … I don't blame [Williams] at all for wanting to protect them in that light. But at the same time, you do have a responsibility to take those calls."

No. 2: Plenty of coaches have rigged the radio-show game to avoid doing exactly that. Some screen calls. Some only take e-mail inquiries. And if you're Mike Krzyzewski, you take your show onto national satellite radio and do whatever you want -- none of it involving fan questions of any kind. Prior to landing that gig, Coach K treated radio shows like sideline interviews: he delegated them to his assistants.

No. 3: Most call-in shows are frankly excruciating.

Not all of them can be like the Tom Izzo Radio Show (7) before Christmas. This is Izzo at his cornball Upper Peninsula best, breaking out the accordion and playing Christmas carols while his players sing along with the audience at the host restaurant.

The rest of them are painful. If you ask The Minutes, this is where many coaches truly earn their big salaries. It's a surprise there aren't more injuries during these shows from coaches beating their heads against the table.

Not surprisingly, given the over-the-top ardor of its fans, Kentucky has a history of sanity-challenging call-in shows. Tubby Smith (8) probably deserves some kind of humanitarian award for 10 years of enduring them. Tubby isn't a gifted orator -- he starts and stops and hems and haws and will employ the confusing thematic jump-switch in mid-sentence -- but he was a true diplomat during his days in the Bluegrass.

A lot of the calls to Tubby went like this:

"Coach Smith? This is Orville from Monkey's Eyebrow (9)*. I just want to know what it's going to take for us to play more up-tempo, like we used to, and when you're going to put Josh Carrier in the starting lineup. He's a Kentucky boy and I think he deserves a shot."

Translation: When are you going to resign?

Tubby's response: "Well, Orville, you certainly bring up some good points. We'll have to take a look at that."

Translation: You have absolutely no clue. Fifty-five minutes until we're off the air.

*Monkey's Eyebrow is a real town in Kentucky. Check the map

[+] EnlargePitt
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicAs is customary of his Pitt teams, Jamie Dixon has created a contending Panther team without blue-chip recruits.

The Pitt paradox

Despite losing Monday night to Notre Dame, Pittsburgh (10) is again having a brilliant season. Once again, Pitt is ranked in the top five. Once again, the 19-2 Panthers are among the elite in the toughest conference in America.

And once again, everyone wonders whether Pitt will still be around when the going gets serious in late March and early April. More than ever after the home pratfall against the Fighting Irish.

Meanwhile, in the Midwest, Wisconsin (11) throttled Northwestern 78-46 Sunday to run its record to 15-4. Once again, the Badgers are nationally ranked and forwardly placed in the powerful Big Ten.

And once again, you won't find many people willing to bet on Bucky making a Final Four run.

Both recruit more for stylistic fit than for outrageous talent, and they do it extremely well. But while Pitt and Wisconsin have established admirable consistency, those well-established styles seem to have placed a lid on how high they can climb. Come NCAA tournament time, the party always ends early.

In seven-plus seasons under Jamie Dixon (12), Pittsburgh has won 79 percent of its games and 72 percent of its Big East contests -- but just 59 percent of its NCAA tourney games. Each of the past three years, Pitt has lost before its seeding dictates it should.

In nine-plus seasons under Bo Ryan (13), Wisconsin has won 73 percent of its games and 71 percent of its Big Ten contests -- but just 57 percent of its NCAA tourney games. Until 2009, Ryan had never beaten a team seeded in the top half of the field; he counterbalanced that breakthrough upset of No. 5 seed Florida State with a second-round loss to No. 12 seed Cornell in 2010.

[+] EnlargeBo Ryan
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireOnce again, Bo Ryan has Wisconsin back in the thick of the Big Ten race.

So here are the pertinent questions for their fans:

Are you OK with always being good, but never being good enough to win it all? Would you rather have the security of a 25-win season that maxes out at the Sweet 16, or the boom-and-bust cycles that can come with recruiting a lot of early-entry NBA prospects? Are the national title runs and Final Fours worth the occasional humility of missing the Big Dance? Would you trade the rock-solid chemistry and consistency of four-year players for the risk/reward of potential high-maintenance one-and-done guys?

Dixon and Ryan don't recruit future first-round talent. From an NBA perspective, the vast majority of their players over the years have been JAGs -- Just A Guy.

The evidence shows pretty conclusively that teams consisting solely of even the smartest, toughest and most cohesive JAGs don't win national titles. Teams with pros do.

Dixon has never had a first-rounder (that's partially the fault of the NBA, which somehow let DeJuan Blair slip into the second round in 2009). Ryan has had just two (lottery pick Devin Harris in '04 and overall No. 29 pick Alando Tucker in '07). Yet neither coach has missed an NCAA tourney even once in their current jobs, and they sure won't miss this year.

The Minutes asked ESPN.com senior college basketball recruiting analyst Dave Telep for his take on the two programs:

"Pittsburgh has lived in the top 50-100 range of prospects," Telep said. "It's my feeling that Dixon is the next Gary Williams (14) in that he can maximize the talents of his guys as well as anyone. …

"Wisconsin has lived in the 75-100 range with guys like [Jon] Leuer and [Keaton] Nankivil. They are getting fringe 100 guys at best, but like Pittsburgh they have recruited so well for their specific style that the thing is in autopilot in terms of wins."

Compare autopilot to some of the highs and lows of blue-blooded programs during the same time frame:

UCLA (15). The Bruins rode early-entry talent to three straight Final Fours from 2006-08 but had a losing record last season and haven't sniffed the Top 25 this year.

North Carolina (16). The Tar Heels won national titles in 2005 and '09 but were relegated to the NIT last year and have failed to match top-10 expectations this season.

Kentucky (17). Tubby Smith, Billy Gillispie and John Calipari coached seven future first-round draft picks in the last 10 years at UK. Yet the Wildcats have had one more NIT appearance (in '09) than Final Four appearance in that time.

[+] EnlargeSteve Fisher
Derrick Tuskan/Icon SMIIt's safe to say Steve Fisher hasn't had as important a regular season game at San Diego State as the Aztecs face when they travel to BYU.

Texas (18). The Longhorns made the 2003 Final Four but have not returned, despite regularly landing elite prospects. Last season's team was flush with talent but crumbled amid feuding egos and was bounced in the first round of the NCAAs.

In sum, this is the best time of year to be a Pitt fan or a Wisconsin fan. Your teams never underachieve. They never fall apart unexpectedly. They always excel in January and February, and often for the first half of March as well.

But will an honest winter's work ever translate to a spring hardware harvest? That's the question.

King of the mountain

Steve Fisher (19) says it's the Game of the Year in the Mountain West Conference (20). But that's an understatement.

It's the biggest game in MWC history. But that's an understatement, too.

Here's the proper statement: The San Diego State-BYU (21) matchup Wednesday night in Provo, pitting the No. 4 team in the polls against No. 9, is the biggest game in many years for every team that resides outside the power six conferences.

Near as The Minutes can figure, this is the first top-10 matchup of conference opponents from outside the big six leagues in seven years. On Jan. 21, 2004, No. 5 Louisville met No. 6 Cincinnati when both were members of Conference USA -- but even that's a fudge. Less than two years after that, those historic power programs were members of the Big East.

This is something else altogether. These are two up-from-the-bootstraps programs unaccustomed to such stakes and such a stage. Especially undefeated San Diego State.

BYU has had a few moments. Won the NIT back when the NIT mattered, in 1951. Won it again in 1966. Made the NCAA regional finals in 1981, thanks to Danny Ainge (22).

But still, it's been a while. These games don't come along every decade when you're BYU.

[+] EnlargeJimmer Fredette
AP Photo/ Ed AndrieskiJimmer Fredette continued his torrid scoring pace with a 42-point outburst in a win over Colorado State on Saturday.

"Both teams are gunning for each other because it's such a big game," said the shooting star of the Cougars, Jimmer Fredette (23). "We know how big it is and how important it is, nationally and in the conference."

If it's big for BYU, then it's gigantic for San Diego State. These games don't come along every century when you're SDSU.

The Aztecs have just a slightly richer tradition than the Washington Generals. They've been to the NCAA tournament -- but never won a game there. They won a national title -- an NAIA national title, in 1941.

No wonder Fisher -- a veteran of some huge games as coach of Michigan's Fab Five half a lifetime ago -- didn't hesitate Monday to revel in moment.

"The game on Wednesday is going to demand huge national attention," Fisher said. " … Embrace it, be proud of it, enjoy it -- but don't lose sight of the ball."

More importantly, don't lose sight of Fredette. His national player of the year candidacy has only gained steam in recent weeks, with road eruptions for 39 points at UNLV, 47 at Utah and 42 at Colorado State. If he goes off in this game and BYU wins, Fredette may take over the race from prime competitors Kemba Walker (24) of UConn and Jared Sullinger (25) of Ohio State.

The Aztecs, of course, will do their best to prevent another Fredette frolic. They have the athletes to switch a lot of defensive assignments, which should produce a lot of hands in Jimmer's face outside. But that's only part of the guy's game; he also can get into the paint against all kinds of gimmick defenses.

"I don't know if we've seen it all [defensively]," BYU coach Dave Rose (26) said. "But we've seen a lot."

The Cougars have seen enough stiff competition this season that they're No. 1 in the RPI. The Aztecs are fourth. Both teams will get a solid RPI bump just from playing this game.

[+] EnlargeJared Sullinger and Aaron Craft
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallJared Sullinger and Aaron Craft figure to have more promising futures on the hardwood than in the studio.

And even though there is a ton of basketball to play after this, the winner will be able to stake an early claim to a No. 1 seed.

Undercard games to watch

Five other tussles The Minutes recommends monitoring this week:

Purdue at Ohio State (27), Tuesday (ESPN, 9 p.m. ET). Boilermakers coach Matt Painter is The Minutes' Coach of the Year to date for stabilizing his squad after the loss of Robbie Hummel at the start of practice. As for the Buckeyes, it's an extremely good thing that they play better than they sing. Jared Sullinger (28), Jon Diebler (29) and especially Aaron Craft (30) commit some serious crimes against eardrums in this video.

Between belly laughs, Sullinger attempted to explain to ESPN.com's Dana O'Neil: "All right, all right, this is what happened. We thought that was only going to be for the scoreboard. We did not know it would be leaked out to the Internet. But I'm kind of glad it was. It shows what kind of team we are. We're not a singing team, but we like to have fun.

"We had so much fun making it and we thought our fans would love it. Something funny. Unfortunately some of our fans outside of the arena got to see it, too. I'm getting all kinds of texts and messages."

Sullinger on Craft's horrifying vocal skills: "Um, yeah, he was trying to be like Miley Cyrus. It didn't turn out too well.'"

And finally, whether they'll get the band back together for a Justin Bieber track: "No, no. My video career is over. I'm a one-hit wonder."

Kansas at Colorado (31), Tuesday (ESPN3, 8 p.m. ET). There is nothing sadder in college basketball than what has happened to Jayhawks forward Thomas Robinson (32), who has lost two grandparents and now his mother in recent weeks. Mom Lisa died suddenly Friday night, leaving Robinson and his 9-year-old sister, Jayla, without a present parent. Robinson has taken leave of the Kansas team to return home to Washington, D.C., with his sister for an indefinite period of time. The entire Jayhawks team is tentatively scheduled to fly to D.C. Friday for the funeral.

What effect all this will have on Kansas heading into a difficult road game at high altitude coming off a showdown with Texas Saturday, nobody knows. But the Jayhawks already looked like an emotionally spent team in that game. Can they rally?

Texas at Oklahoma State (33), Wednesday (ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET). If Kansas' emotional state is in question this week, the Longhorns' is as well. Whether Texas can avoid a letdown after one of the biggest wins in program history will be key to the outcome in what sets up as a classic trap game.

[+] EnlargeTristan Thompson
Denny Medley/US PresswireThe Minutes is hoping for a Texas-North Texas NCAA tourney matchup to settle the Tristan Thompson supremacy debate once and for all.

Saint Mary's at Gonzaga (34), Thursday (ESPN2, 11 p.m. ET). The Zags are a shocking fourth in the West Coast Conference after a lost weekend in the Bay Area, dropping games to Santa Clara and San Francisco. The Gaels, meanwhile, are a surprising 5-0 in league play, making Randy Bennett another contender for national coach of the year. This game should show whether Gonzaga will surrender its kingpin WCC status with or without a fight.

Georgia at Kentucky (35) (ESPN, 4 p.m. ET), Saturday. Mark Fox has fared well against John Calipari. His Bulldogs scored an authoritative victory over the Wildcats earlier this month in Athens, and gave them a solid test last year in Rupp Arena. If Georgia somehow sweeps this week -- Florida on Tuesday, then the Cats -- it would all but punch an NCAA tournament ticket. But this Kentucky team has been unbeaten and impressive in Rupp Arena.

Tristan Thompson times two

How's this for a Texas two-step: the Big 12 Rookie of the Week was Tristan Thompson. The Sun Belt Player of the Week was also Tristan Thompson.

One is a forward at Texas (36). The other is a guard at North Texas (37). Some additional distinguishing characteristics:

The Texas Tristan Thompson is a 6-foot-8 freshman from Ontario, Canada. The North Texas Tristan Thompson is a senior from Angleton, Texas.

The Texas Tristan Thompson is averaging 13.1 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. The North Texas Tristan Thompson is averaging 18 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game.

The Texas Tristan Thompson is a lock to play in the NCAA tournament with the Longhorns. The North Texas Tristan Thompson needs his 16-4 Mean Green to win the Sun Belt tournament to assure a bid to the Big Dance.

[+] EnlargeThompson
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezTristan Thompson has led North Texas to a 16-4 record.

If that happens, The Minutes can only hope that Texas draws North Texas, and these two guys can battle for worldwide Tristan Thompson superiority once and for all.

Coach who earned his comp car

Notre Dame's Mike Brey (38). After his team scored 80 points in a home victory Saturday over Marquette, Brey applied the brakes on the road at Pitt Monday night. The Irish's slowdown tactics worked perfectly, taking the air out of the ball and the bounce out of the Panthers in a major road upset. Notre Dame is 6-3 in the Big East with a favorable league schedule down the stretch, potentially positioning it for high seeds in both the league tournament and the NCAAs.

Coach who should find a ride to work

Northwestern's Bill Carmody (39). In 10 previous seasons, Carmody has been unable to break the Wildcats' all-time NCAA tourney invitation bagel. Despite that, and a record this year that was bereft of big wins, the school gave him a contract extension Jan. 10. You have to wonder how excited fans (and administrators) are about that after Northwestern's latest effort, a 32-point home loss Sunday to Wisconsin. The Wildcats (13-6, 3-5 Big Ten) were down 30 with 14:36 left to play, giving everyone in the building plenty of time to ponder whether this was the most poorly timed contract extension in hoops history.

Buzzer beater

When hungry in Kansas City, The Minutes enthusiastically recommends a visit to Oklahoma Joe's (40), one of the best barbecue joints in the country. And not just because it's in the back of a gas station on the Kansas side of the border (though that keep-it-real aura certainly doesn't hurt). If possible, go on a Wednesday or Saturday -- the only days they serve the delicacy that is burnt ends. Get those and a sack of seasoned fries, and thank The Minutes later for tipping you to a religious barbecue experience.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.