Commentary

Lessons learned from this offseason

Originally Published: May 10, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

The tenor of this offseason and lead-in to next season was set in a dismal locker room in Newark, N.J., on March 25.

With his teammates scattered around the room, stoically and in some cases, tearfully, answering questions, Jared Sullinger made his assertion in a clear and strong voice.

[+] EnlargeMatta/Sullinger
AP Photo/Tony DejakJared Sullinger's decision to return to Ohio State was music to the ears of Buckeyes fans and head coach Thad Matta.

"I'm going to be an Ohio State Buckeye next year," the future freshman of the year said minutes after his team was eliminated by Kentucky in the NCAA tournament. "I'm a man of my word. I don't change my word and no one changes it for me. This is what I want."

Reporters scratched Sullinger's words into their notebooks, went back to their laptops and typed them in so all the world could snicker at his vow.

Right, Sullinger was returning -- just like Carmelo Anthony, Greg Oden and Michael Beasley once said they were coming back to college.

Except a funny thing happened on the way to another victory for cynicism: Sullinger meant what he said. When coach Thad Matta opens practice in October, his big man will be there in uniform.

That Sullinger actually meant what he said in that solemn locker room is only slightly less stunning than the fact that a player who was a sure-bet first-round draft pick elected to remain in college.

That double whammy of wow is in keeping with how this past month has been. What at first looked to be a rather tame and docile offseason instead has become a month of surprises -- surprise decisions, surprise no-decisions and surprise hires -- all of which will dramatically affect the 2011-12 season.

Here are the most significant of those decisions, measuring the degree to which they came as surprises as well as their impact on the game:

1. Be true to your school

Sullinger may have been first, but he wasn't the last to shun the NBA for another year in college. Harrison Barnes, Perry Jones III and Terrence Jones all elected to return to college; all were guaranteed first-round picks.

Sullinger, Barnes and Terrence Jones elevate what were already going to be very good teams to great team status, while Perry Jones gives Baylor a leg up on what is becoming, thanks to the decisions of others (more on that later), an increasingly wide-open Big 12.

Selfishly, for those of us who love the college game, their return also allows us to enjoy that rare treasure: really talented sophomores.

Surprise factor: 10; impact: 10.

2. Meanwhile, in Texas ...

A week before Sullinger made his promise to Ohio State fans, Texas freshmen Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph and sophomore Jordan Hamilton made similar pledges during the Longhorns' NCAA run. Thompson and Joseph, in particular, said repeatedly how much they were looking forward to reuniting with fellow Canadian Myck Kabongo, a Texas recruit.

[+] EnlargeTristan Thompson & Jordan Hamilton
Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesDespite initial declarations to the contrary, Texas' Tristan Thompson, left, and Jordan Hamilton, right, along with Corey Joseph, opted to leave school for the NBA draft.

And then all three Longhorns did what everyone expected Sullinger to do -- they changed their minds and opted to leave for the NBA. Their 180s were greeted with the expected disdain and derision.

The twisted irony in all of this is that they left in part because Sullinger, Barnes and Co. decided to stay, arguing that their draft value improved because the others had stayed in college.

And the upshot is, what once looked like a very good Texas team instead has some serious holes to fill.

Surprise factor: 8; impact: 9.

3. The ACC shake-up

That NC State and Georgia Tech parted ways with coaches Sidney Lowe and Paul Hewitt, respectively, didn't stun anyone. The two have spent more time under the hot lights than Snooki. That the two schools had such a tough time replacing them is.

This is supposed to be "The Basketball League," yet both schools failed to attract big names for their openings. There were reasons: Georgia Tech owed Hewitt a king's ransom, and NC State exists in the overbearing shadow of Duke and North Carolina.

So how to explain Maryland? Gary Williams' retirement opened up a good job -- devoted fans, good facilities, tradition and a deep recruiting backyard -- yet Terps athletic director Kevin Anderson was spurned by Mike Brey, Jay Wright and Sean Miller before landing on Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon.

In the past three years, eight coaches have either cut bait or been cut loose by ACC schools.

Surprise factor: 8; impact 10.

4. Missouri stunner

I was in Houston at the Final Four when word spread that Missouri was about to name Frank Haith its new basketball coach.

Let's just say the reaction went from tepid indifference to apoplectic shock, with not a lot in between.

Missouri may not be the best job in the Big 12 but it is certainly a very good one, good enough to be more than a little bit intriguing and enticing to Purdue's Matt Painter, who turned down the job to remain with the Boilermakers. So when athletic director Mike Alden went with Haith, a man who spent six fairly undistinguished years at Miami, it wasn't exactly seen as a slam-dunk hire.

[+] EnlargeFrank Haith
AP Photo/Jeff RobersonAfter missing out on Purdue's Matt Painter, Missouri turned to Miami's Frank Haith to fill its head coaching vacancy.

Haith will have a very good team to work with this season -- the Tigers lost only Justin Safford among the players who contributed significant minutes -- which will only ratchet up the pressure and scrutiny on him and Alden.

Surprise factor 10; impact TBD.

5. Indiana upheaval

It's been a pass-the-Tums month for fans in the Hoosier state. First came the Matt Painter to Mizzou "is he or isn't he drama," a coaching tap dance that absolutely no one saw coming. Purdue got to keep its head coach but lost one of its top assistants, when Paul Lusk went to Missouri State.

Fresh off its strong Big East season, Notre Dame lost Carleton Scott to the draft in one of the more head-scratching early-entry decisions and endured rumors that its coach, Mike Brey, was on Maryland's short list.

And Butler not only lost coach Brad Stevens' right-hand man, Micah Shrewsberry -- he was hired as an assistant at Purdue -- but for the second year in a row the Bulldogs lost a player early to the NBA, as junior guard Shelvin Mack followed Gordon Hayward's path to the pros.

Who'd a thunk that?

Surprise factor: 7; impact: 6.

6. New terms in and around Washington, D.C.

The nation's capital is used to new faces in its politics, but in basketball things have been pretty steady for some time.

Gary Williams logged 22 years at Maryland; Jim Larranaga 14 at George Mason; Karl Hobbs 10 at George Washington; and Billy Lange seven at Navy.

Now those four represent retired, hired, fired and rehired.

On the surprise-o-meter, Larranaga's decision to leave George Mason for Miami caught most people by surprise. Five years ago, after the Patriots' run to the Final Four, he could have bolted for a spot at Providence, his alma mater, but didn't. Now he takes on an equally tough job in the ACC. Lange's decision -- to give up a head-coaching gig at Navy for an associate head-coaching job at Villanova, where he served for three seasons before arriving at Navy -- flies in the face of the typical coaching ladder, but Lange has positioned himself as the right-hand man at a Big East school instead of the boss at a service academy with all the challenges that presents.

The four schools exist at different levels of Division I, but all are, or can be, very good jobs.

Kudos to George Mason, George Washington and Maryland for making good hires. The Patriots brought in Hewitt, a big name for a big job in the Colonial Athletic Association; GW hired Mike Lonergan, who has done a good job at Vermont and should be able to make the Colonials competitive in the Atlantic 10 again; and while Turgeon may not be the splashy or sexy hire some were clamoring for at Maryland, he is a very good coach who spent his first day on the job reaching out to the AAU and high school coaches in the area.

Surprise factor 7; impact 7.

7. The no-decision decisions

Society dames have nothing on college basketball coaches when it comes to the art of ladder climbing.

Which is why when this postseason's "It Boys," Shaka Smart and Chris Mooney, elected to stay put, people were flat-out stunned. Typically, the college game is played by orderly rules: Coach wins big at mid-major, coach leaves for bigger job.

Yet Smart, who led VCU to the Final Four, and Mooney, who took Richmond to the Sweet 16, said "no thank you." Both had chances to move upward and onward and both passed.

Two coaches do not a trend make, but certainly their non-decisions speak volumes for how this game is going and growing and bode well not just for their own programs, but for the strength and attractiveness of mid-majors everywhere.

Surprise factor: 8; impact: 8.

8. 16 Equals Three

The Big East put 11 teams in the NCAA tournament, but has only three players on the NBA draft early-entry list -- Kemba Walker, Terrence Jennings and Carleton Scott. And frankly, two of them (Jennings and Scott) should be heading back to school.

Which means what? Maybe the league was overinflated or maybe it overachieved with young players.

It also could very well mean that you may grow tired about how hearing how strong the Big East is again next season. Consider: Syracuse returns Scoop Jardine, Kris Joseph and Fab Melo and welcomes Rakeem Christmas. Maalik Wayns is back for Villanova and JayVaughn Pinkston will be reinstated. Jeremy Lamb, Alex Oriakhi and Shabazz Napier are back at national champion Connecticut. Kevin Jones returns to Bob Huggins for another season and Yancy Gates is back at Cincinnati.

Surprise factor: 6; impact 8.

9. Pac-10 to Pac-12 to Big Money

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Getty ImagesThe soon-to-be Pac-12 scored a significant offseason coup with the announcement of a lucrative television deal.

Derrick Williams, who will be one of the top five picks next month in the draft, was named national player of the week by the media just once this season. It was after Arizona played on ESPN in a nationally televised game.

Think that's a coincidence? It isn't.

Face time matters. It matters to players. It matters to coaches and it matters to programs and for too many years, the Pac-10 existed in relative obscurity.

What may be construed as East Coast bias to some could have been more accurately attributed to West Coast informational black hole. It's hard to appreciate basketball that most people can't watch regularly.

That won't be a problem anymore. Thanks to the Pac-12's new mega-television deal, the West Coast will finally earn its equal opportunity air time.

Under the new deal, 68 regular-season games will be on either ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU or Fox Sports Net.

In just two years at the helm, new commissioner Larry Scott has fast-tracked the once lollygagging conference into the new century and ahead of the competition. Everyone knew this deal was coming, but how big -- and how potentially important -- it could be for the league turned plenty of heads.

Surprise factor 5; impact 10.

10. To NBA or not to NBA

And last but not least, the potential blockbuster. The possible game-changer for college basketball will come from no one at the NCAA or in college basketball. It will come from the NBA.

If there is a prolonged lockout -- and all signs point to at least some sort of work stoppage -- college basketball could be the immediate beneficiary. With the pro game on hiatus, the college version might step into both the void and the spotlight.

But the undercard, of course, is what the new collective bargaining agreement will look like and how drastically it will or could affect college hoops. At stake -- the one-and-done rule. Will it survive, be extended to two-and-done, or tossed altogether? Though any alterations will affect the 2012-13 season, it could impact how coaches recruit -- and who is and isn't available -- next season.

Surprise factor: TBD; impact: Potentially a 20.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

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