Friends, Romans, hoops obsessives: Let’s do a mailbag. It’s been a minute, and you all had upwards of triple-digit questions for me in the prompt, so it’s nice to see everyone still raring and enthusiastic for college hoops discussion even in these early-stage summer doldrums. (At least we still have the NBA Draft and transfer portal decisions to keep us somewhat engaged for now. July and August are the truly dark times.)
Of course, I wasn’t able to get to everything you guys asked, but I did my best to get to a healthy sampling of it. Let’s begin:
If you could make a team composed only of anyone who went through the transfer portal this year, how well do you think you could do? — Kevin J.
Very well indeed. Just take a look at Sam Vecenie and CJ Moore’s list of the top transfer portal commitments for the 2022 offseason. You could run out a starting five of …
G: Kendric Davis
G: Nijel Pack
W: Baylor Scheierman
W: Kevin McCullar
F: Johni Broome
… with Tyrese Hunter, Matthew Mayer, Kyle Lofton and take your pick of other talented and/or veteran college players coming off the bench (Brandon Murray as your ninth? Yes, please!) and that’s without getting to guys that haven’t decided where they’re ending up yet: Isiaih Mosley, Emoni Bates, Courtney Ramey, Patrick Baldwin Jr., so on and so forth. That starting five alone could go with just about any team in the country, right? Would it rank No. 1 to start the season? Maybe.
There are lot of good players in the portal every year.
What are reasonable expectations for Thad Matta’s return to coaching at Butler? Ohio State fans were made to understand that his health is what really impacted his ability to recruit and coach during his last few years in Columbus. Are these issues largely in the past? If so do you think he’s got the ability to recruit at that elite level again? — Joe B.
By all accounts, Matta is feeling much better these days, and much more willing to really hop back into coaching all the way, which is why he made himself available for the Butler job. How much his health matters is up for debate, but it was clearly a big limiter toward the end of his Ohio State tenure. Anyone who suffers from chronic pain, as my father did — especially someone as ritualistically active as a basketball coach — would probably tell you it makes a big difference in every aspect of day-to-day life.
Still, the thing here is that it kind of doesn’t matter. If Matta is even 75 percent as good at Butler as he was during his OSU heyday, that will represent a huge improvement for the Bulldogs — including yearly NCAA Tournament appearances and possibly even some Big East title contention, the likes of which the program hasn’t consistently managed of late. You’re probably not going to get Evan Turner and Jared Sullinger types on a consistent basis at Butler, because it’s a different animal in Columbus, but if Matta can get back to even some partial version of his peak, he’s going to have that program, by its own standards, humming.
Been wondering about this since Kendric Davis made his decision to commit to Memphis. How do coaches view that when a player stays in the same conference? Especially because Davis was the top player in the portal. Maybe it’s not that big of a deal since Tim Jankovich retired? — Cody M.
Most coaches, if forced to be totally honest about this topic, would tell you that they absolutely detest it. Of course, opinions differ. Some would come right out and say they hate it publicly; some pretend they’re cool with it or just know better than to talk too openly about the practice; some genuinely mind less than others. But there’s a reason why so many coaches were so willing for so long to put destination limits on transfers, back when that was a thing, which wasn’t all that long ago, either, and a reason those limitations almost always included the rest of a prospective transfer’s current league.
Those are, in many ways, the most desirable locations for a guy to go. It’s familiar, you know people, you know other coaches, you’re well scouted, your family travels in that area to come see you already. It’s not nearly as much of a leap to switch between two Big 12 schools as it is to go from somewhere in the ACC to somewhere in the Pac-12. Coaches worked extremely hard to collectively discourage this practice for a long, long time.
Davis’ situation, as you note, is a bit circumstantial, as his coach left. There’s not much of a moral case, so to speak, for Davis to avoid his own league in that instance — but the point is there isn’t really that case anyway. Yes, it is frustrating for coaches to lose players, and doubly frustrating when they have to play that same guy twice the following season, but, like, oh well? Get over it? Let the kids go where they want, and recruit another guy you think is as good or better. This is just kind of where we are with transfers at this point, and for as much as it annoys programs and coaches and even fans, it is a slightly more equitable landscape than the coach-controlled one that existed mere years ago.
Will the Atlantic 10 ever reclaim the glory days (i.e. sending at least 3 teams consistently to the tournament)? Or has the new NIL era simply made it harder for the “good” mid-major conferences? — Joe
I think the league is probably capable of it right now? All indications point to this young Dayton team being really good for a while; Anthony Grant looks like he’s building that program into a sustainable fixture. Davidson is almost always tournament-level good. And VCU is usually in the conversation, if not just obviously in the field. Throw in Saint Louis, which Travis Ford looks like he’s establishing, and there’s another semi-regular tournament candidate, and then take your pick of a few other programs that either have been good lately or have a chance to get good reasonably soon — your Richmonds, Rhode Islands, George Masons and George Washingtons — and there should be enough quality in the league to be hitting that over at least some of the time.
I do understand the concerns about long-term prospects, though. It is going to be hard for A-10 teams to build and rebuild in the new world, at least in ways that the biggest high-majors do. But it should be noted that the A-10 has had plenty of struggles in the past few seasons before NIL came, in ways that look a lot more like the usual fluctuations of league quality that happen over time. It could be on the upswing anyway, environment notwithstanding.
Can you talk me off the ledge as a Villanova fan? I know I have no reasonable right to complain, but coming off a third Final Four in six years with a Hall of Fame coach I actually went against my better judgement and assumed the good times would last. With Coach Wright gone, can Villanova still be close to what it was the past decade, or is it back to what it’s traditionally been – a pretty good program that surprises people every now and then but isn’t really relevant? — Ray
Does Jay Wright’s departure open up the Big 5 or is this new guy going to continue to keep the Owls in purgatory forever? — Evan H.
These are two versions of the same question: How good will Villanova be now? And the answer, of course, is that we don’t know. My hunch is that there is a certain programmatic inertia that takes root at places that are as good as long as Jay Wright was at Villanova. You don’t just lose all of that overnight.
In terms of the Big 5, Villanova will continue to be the power in that special basketball relationship until further notice. Everyone else is a long way behind. (Frankly, were Wright a different kind of dude, he probably could have gotten away with just leaving the thing entirely and opening up his nonconference schedule for another high-profile game in a football stadium or some nonsense — but because he was Good Guy Jay Wright, and very much a Philly man to boot, he kept playing those games, even as Villanova lapped the field.)
But in the long term, is Villanova too big to fail? I wouldn’t go that far. It is a very good basketball program with high expectations, but it will need another guy as good as Wright to sustain where it was for the better part of the past two decades. That’s … really hard to imagine. Not impossible. But difficult. And so it’s probably best for Villanova fans to recalibrate their expectations slightly downward, cognizant of the fact that they lived through the greatest time in program history and understanding that guys like Wright don’t come along very often, and eras like his can’t possibly last forever.
What is Mike Brey brewing at Notre Dame? – Jim R.
It would appear Brey is brewing up a refined version of what he is basically always trying to brew up: an experienced team with at least four (and ideally five) shooters on the floor, punctuated, if possible, by NBA potential. Blake Wesley is gone, sure, but bringing in combo guard JJ Starling is a coup, particularly because Starling can just vibe while the rest of a very experienced team coming off an excellent postseason handles the rest. Notre Dame will probably be very good on the offensive end, just OK on the defensive end, fun to watch, and not very much fun to play.
Mostly I wanted to use this question to note my recent love of this meme, which I see posted after NBA coaches (and English Premier League managers) do something dumb or fail in some funny way:
It always makes me laugh. I don’t know why. It’s so dumb. But it gets me every time.
Will the new NIL rules lead to a reshuffling of the dominant teams? Maybe as one possible example, Texas becoming dominant and Kansas falling into the second tier (or worse) of national contenders. — Barry S.
I think there could be some of that, sure. You see some of this with the Nick Saban-Jimbo Fisher verbal slapfight. Clearly, huge NIL initiatives at “upstart” schools represent some threat to the established powers in the sport. Texas, not just as an institution of higher learning but as a cultural collection of sports-interested people, has a lot of money. It has already used some of that money to lure Chris Beard away from Texas Tech. It could ostensibly do the same with plenty of players, especially relative to other programs of similar traditional success levels — Texas has always been decent at basketball, but never anything remotely close to a blueblood.
But that might be where the Gilded Age-style upward mobility ends. It is going to be really hard to unseat true bluebloods on sheer financial terms. Kansas is Kansas for a reason, and its boosters aren’t going to let it fade because of $20,000 in NIL money to this kid or that. Bluebloods of the Kansas, North Carolina and Kentucky ilk are self-reinforcing behemoths; they are too big to fail. Frankly, if Indiana had the ability to pay players back in 2000, when Bob Knight left, it probably would have retained more of its cultural cachet, and won more games, than it has over the past 20 years. The boosters would have stepped into the vacuum. (And let’s not go into the whole Kelvin Sampson alternate history stuff, either, but yeah. Think about that.)
Eamonn, it brings me no pleasure to ask this as a Gooner since I first discovered Thierry Henry in middle school after getting my first FIFA game in 2002 (get the cool shoe shine!): Which will happen first, Arsenal back in the Champions League or Indiana back in the Final Four? — Louis S.
Arsenal. I answered a version of this question last year, and the answer was the same then. Arsenal narrowly missed top four this season by a game. They were the youngest team in the league by a significant margin. If not for devastating injuries down the stretch (and a total lack of goals in the central attacking areas basically the whole year), Mik Arteta’s Tricky Reds would have finished the job fairly easily. They will likely be better next season — most of the team’s best players are still pre-prime and developing upwards, everyone will be healthy come August, and the mooted major signings for this summer (Gabriel Jesus, Youri Tielemans) would immediately improve the team in key areas — and every bit as much in the hunt for a top-four place, even in a world in which Spurs sign a bunch of Antonio Conte’s preferred 34-year-olds on silly wages. Also, there are potentially five English UCL spots next year thanks to the new UEFA coefficient, so the cost of admission is getting marginally lower.
Indiana barely made the tournament last year. The Hoosiers had a nice win over Wyoming in the play-in and then got smoked by Saint Mary’s after a cross-country flight. The Trayce Jackson-Davis return is huge, and they have a chance to be really good this time around — but the Final Four is damn hard to do even if you’re a No. 1 seed. The odds there are just way, way longer. Arsenal has a better chance to win the Europa League. This isn’t particularly close.
Was any of the Gonzaga-to-the-Big-East rumor earlier this spring true? With BYU on its way out do the Zags need to move to a bigger conference at some point? — Chris S.
Gonzaga doesn’t need to do anything. Mark Few has built a national powerhouse program in the West Coast Conference, a world-conquering process which began long before BYU showed up. The WCC has been a happy home for Gonzaga.
That said, the whole Gonzaga-in-the-Big-East thing at least seems like it has been the subject of some tangible discussion, along the lines of “Well, we are located in Spokane, Wash., which is an entire continent away from most of your current league, so … yeah. How does that work? Any thoughts there?” And the answer, thus far, has been “Not sure, but let’s workshop it.” If there was a way to make it work logistically that didn’t seem totally ludicrous, it seems like the kind of thing both parties would be really interested in. But the sell is pretty hard, verging on impossible, unless something really drastic and weird (like the formation of very western half of a new national “Big East”) happens. I’m not sure the league would want to go that far. It’s got a pretty good thing going as is.
Was it “fair” for a No. 1 seed to have to play UNC in the second round? — Matt C.
Yes? North Carolina wasn’t that good for most of the year? Lest we forget, before that hilarious win at Duke March 5, UNC had lost to every good team it had played, usually by a lot, and had lost at home to Pitt as recently as Feb. 16. And it’s not like the Tar Heels blitzed the ACC tournament — Virginia Tech beat them 72-59. They obviously improved down the stretch, but they improved to the extent that they earned a No. 9 seed, as opposed to a spot on the bubble. There was hardly much indication that Carolina was a sleeping giant that would fully arise in the NCAA Tournament in the way that it did. If people were complaining about Baylor’s draw at the time, they were probably more focused on UCLA as the No. 4 seed on that side of the bracket. Hindsight and all.
I’m a Georgetown alum that was ready to quit caring after the re-commitment to Ewing. Am I crazy to be happy with the off-season moves? Can we be a middle-of-the-pack Big East team this year that hangs around the edges of the bubble and is generally not an embarrassment? — Brad V.
The Qudus Wahab return is one of the great prodigal son moves in the history of college basketball, certainly in the transfer portal era. It seemed like a pretty wild choice at the time, coming off a star turn for a tournament team, but the decision to move to Maryland, rather than play for one of the best big men in college basketball history, also felt like an indictment of how low the program had fallen, how little trust was there. Now that Wahab has come back, it feels like some minor slice of dignity has been restored.
And yes, Georgetown has done well with the signing of former LSU coach Kevin Nickelberry, who brought LSU freshman transfer Brandon Murray, who could be really good as soon as this season. (He was one of the Tigers’ more intriguing talents, which, on that team, was genuinely saying something.) Akok Akok, Amir Spears, Jay Heath — there are some viable high-major players making their way to the Hilltop this year, guys that might not all specifically be Nickelberry gets but that Georgetown wasn’t competing for before Nickelberry showed up. And if rebound machine wing Aminu Mohammed — who remains a really interesting player that I personally think has a chance to be fantastic, but probably isn’t ready for the NBA right now — comes back, Georgetown might actually be cooking something interesting after its worst season in the past half-century.
I’ve been waiting weeks for a mailbag to ask you this question — how concerned should I be about how many players transferred from BYU? — John G.
Some, but less than you would have been 10 years ago. It is very normal for players to transfer now, obviously, and as such exoduses aren’t necessarily disasters. In fact, after writing about similar situations, I’ve had coaches at places that lost a gazillion kids in one spring reach out and basically say it was the coach’s choice, that they had a bunch of bad dudes and needed to reboot the entire culture, and now the portal allows them to do so in a way that doesn’t doom kids to sitting out for a year. Not exactly how you want to run your program, but it does happen.
Things have generally trended well under Mark Pope, last season notwithstanding, and it’s 2022, so it’s too early to say a spiral is impending. But, sure, some.
One unintended consequence of the transfer rules is the devaluation of recruiting HS players. How do you see this playing out? — Robert G.
Yeah, the market has undoubtedly gotten tougher for high school prospects, particularly fringe guys. It’s not like top 200 players aren’t going to find schools, but there are going to be plenty of times when coaches will choose to take a player with some college experience (and a man’s body) over a raw 18-year-old who may or may not ever get there. That said, I don’t want to overstate the case, either. If you can play, you’ll get recruited, and then if things don’t work out for you right away you can always find a school that works better for you after year one, which is cool too. It works both ways. Water finds its level.
Eamonn, I am missing something about Oscar Tshiebwe. Mock drafts seemed very low for a rebounder (translates well) who had the kind of year he had. Why wasn’t/isn’t there more interest? I understand that it is not just that, but also NIL, which lead to his staying in college, but I am really not clear on his shortcomings in the eyes of the NBA. — Richard F.
It’s pretty straightforward: Tshiebwe, for all his gifts, is a traditional big man, which is to say he doesn’t shoot the ball from the perimeter and doesn’t have anything resembling guard skills, and the NBA doesn’t really value these kinds of players anymore. The NBA game is about space, about finding it and using it. If you’re going to be a traditional big, you better be Rudy Gobert. As a rebounder and interior second-chance bucket-getter, there’s no doubt Tshiebwe is good enough to be a pro, but if you can’t space to the 3-point line in the corner, if you can’t occasionally handle the ball, if you can’t take a ball screen as well as set one, NBA scouts and GMs sort of look at you funny.
The good news is, with NIL money available to him, Tshiebwe didn’t have to take his player of the year trophies and try to force his way into the NBA against his own best interests and desires.
Even though Jon Scheyer is in his first year of being head coach, he has an all time recruiting class coming in and has experience coaching at Duke. How much leeway is he going to be given going into next year? What would be considered a failure of a season? Not beating UNC? Not making the second weekend? What would it take to raise concern from the Duke fanbase? — Jeff R.
I was about to write “nothing,” but that’s not actually true. It is definitely possible for concerns to be raised. If Duke doesn’t compete for the ACC title, concerns will be raised. Concerns will be raised if the Blue Devils get stomped twice by North Carolina. If the strategic system doesn’t work, or Scheyer tactically misuses timeouts, then ditto. It’s just very hard to imagine any of these extreme outcomes, and thus pretty hard to imagine any scenario in which Duke fans genuinely voice displeasure with a first-year coach they all seem to like a great deal. It would take a disaster for anything but patience to be the common thread in year one. And, frankly, that’s how it should be.
Assuming a new coach receives a five-year contract and has disappointing results, and the school is willing to buy out the contract, what would you say the minimum amount of time should be before a school relieves the coach of his duties? The conventional wisdom has historically been perceived by many to be four seasons or a full cycle of recruiting classes. However, with the substantial increase in transfers, do you think this has been reduced, and if so, do you think this is fair to the coach? — Adam V.
Really good question. This is something I think about a fair amount. Generally, I find myself very predisposed to patience. I think, if you’re going to hire a coach, you should give him a reasonable runway with which to work. These things take time. College basketball rebuilds aren’t just about talent, they’re about facilities, about culture, about hiring the right people, about managing up, about getting buy-in from beyond your own staff and players but from the greater school and community around you. This all case-by-case, and things depend on the context, but all of that stuff can take variable amounts of time to develop, and if you’re already looking to fire a coach after a disappointing second season, or whatever, you’re putting yourself into a cycle from which it can be difficult to escape, particularly if you’re a program that needs to build something sustainable to be successful long term.
That said, the timeline has definitely shrunk. You don’t have to recruit and rebuild in four-year cycles anymore. A savvy transfer market operator/recruiter can get things going right away, and you can understand why fans would see immediate success at some places and wonder why it’s taking their coach three years to start pushing for an NCAA Tournament bid. I just think, more often than not, it’s better to let things breathe, but that’s a personal preference and I understand if fans — who actually have to pay for tickets to watch their struggling program — don’t share my patience. It’s really rare that I think “Wow, I can’t believe this coach didn’t get fired.” (Cough, Georgetown, cough.) I can usually see some light at the end of the tunnel. But you have to demonstrate it earlier and earlier for folks these days, and I can also understand that, too.
When you’re at a big game, how often do people mispronounce your name? I’m never sure if that’s a long A or short A in Brennan. — Jim J.
Was genuinely shocked when the second part of this question referenced my surname rather than my given. Trust me when I say that the “Brennan” half of “Eamonn Brennan” has never been the primary pronunciation-related problem.
How are you doing after being yelled at by Christian Braun in the title game? — Tim M.
Still occasionally chuckling about it, honestly, whenever someone randomly retweets it again. Ridiculous. Anyone that happened to be sitting in my exact seat would have gotten the exact same treatment from Braun in that moment. It was indiscriminate, though still very disconcerting — it’s not often you lock eyes with anyone in the middle of the Superdome, and less often that you see the sort of unhinged, animalistic fervor Braun was projecting into the world in that moment. There was something deeply troubling behind those eyes. If someone on the street ever gives you that look, there’s a decent chance what happens next will involve knife crime. Run.
Anyway it was one of the funniest things I’ve experienced in any basketball game, like, ever.
Put yourself in the shoes of a top prospect/transfer. Are you scared off from going to a school under IARP investigation for fear of a tournament ban? — Kelly J.
Snark aside, OK, maybe a little bit. A tiny bit? You have to take care of yourself, and not blindly walk into a situation that is going to be an obvious disaster, and if you think or know a school is going to miss the tournament in the next calendar year then, yeah, sure, find somewhere else. But broadly speaking, look around. How many programs under IARP review are remotely close to feeling any sort of tangible punishment? How long has it taken any of this to get done? How many players — your Kevin McCullars, for example — are getting scared off from playing at Kansas, the reigning national champs still staring down those five Level 1 violations. You don’t want to do anything dumb, but are you really going to reorient your entire decision because of some barely extant punishment that may or may not ever happen?
This is my first time back on here since my Zags slipped up and gave the haters even more ammunition lol. Not really a question so much as a request. Give me some hope that my Zags can still win a title in the near future. If some draft decisions don’t swing the Zags’ way this next week, could be a down year this year. And no Chets or Suggses in the pipeline currently. The Euro pipeline left with Tommy. Zags will still churn out some good teams, but has our window as a title favorite forever passed?! Give it to me straight. You’re probably more optimistic than I am, as the sting of GU losing to JD Notae going 8 for a million and Jaylin Williams falling whenever a butterfly lands on him hasn’t yet dissipated. Please come back Timme and Strawther. Love the work, Eamonn. — Andrei L.
Oh, Andrei. Sweet, sweet Andrei. It’s going to be OK, Andrei. It’s going to be OK.
And, yes, this is giving it to you straight. Offseasons can be hard. The NCAA Tournament is brutal. It is easy to feel like every missed national title opportunity is the last one that is ever going to come around. It is very, very easy for status anxiety to take hold, and very hard to shake it once it does. What if we’re never this good again? And, sure, there have been some changes at Gonzaga lately; it would be silly to think losing Tommy Lloyd won’t have some downstream impact on the kinds of guys Mark Few puts on the floor.
But here’s the thing: He’s still Mark Few. See how things go this week, for starters, but even if the Drew Timme and Julian Strawther decisions both go the “wrong” way, I’d still trust Few to get even a slightly diminished, young, non-dominant version of the Bulldogs to the tournament, at which point anything can happen. Dominant teams don’t always win the title. In fact, they frequently fail. It’s college basketball. You know this better than most; you’ve eloquently written it in the comments of this site more than once. Hang in there. Keep the faith. The offseason will be over soon enough.
(Top photo of Kendric Davis: Matthew Visinsky / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)