Commotion has exploded around the UCLA basketball scene today amidst reports that DePaul University has thrown major bucks at current Bruins coach Ben Howland. DePaul is making it known that they’re willing to pay for a high-quality coach. The Blue Demons endured four losing seasons in five years before firing coach Jerry Wainwright mid-season en route to a 8-23 season. They were 0-18 in Big East play two seasons ago and went 1-17 in conference this year so they’re obviously looking for major improvement. Though Howland could move to Chicago and position himself to become the savior once again, keep in mind that DePaul hasn’t won more than 22 games in a season for 25 years; their potential for greatness is low and nowhere near UCLA’s. In essence, I treat this story similarly to the way I view St. John’s efforts to woo Billy Donovan by offering him $3 million a year — it’s a nice dream but it won’t happen. While I’m dismissing the notion that Ben Howland will leave for DePaul — he’s already unequivocally denied interest — I’m not dismissing the notion that Howland has reasons to be dissatisfied at UCLA.
One of my favorite parts of the NCAA tournament is the way relatively unknown players raise their national profile because of their awesome play on the court. Stephen Curry is probably the best example of a kid from a small school who exploded in popularity when he shot the lights out and carried Davidson to the Elite Eight three years ago. Anthony Johnson of Montana threatened to be that guy when he single-handedly carried the Grizzlies to the Big Sky championship by scoring 42 points in the title game including 34 in the second half. Of course, Montana flamed out in the first round against New Mexico, leaving the the door open for someone else to become the tournament darling. Through one week of March Madness, it’s fair to say that darling has become St. Mary’s center Omar Samhan.
Samhan already captured my attention with his dominant play against both Richmond and Villanova, and then he forced his way onto LBS with his funny remarks about his mom. If you couldn’t already tell, Samhan is just oozing with personality. The guy has a hilarious YouTube account, he’s on the media’s all-quote team, and then there’s this video shared by Andy Gray of SI Hot Clicks where Samhan clowns around with a Comcast broadcast team. In the video, play-by-play man Jim Kozimor joked that Samhan might be running for mayor of Moraga — the city where St. Mary’s is located. With that, a perfect nickname was born. From now on, Omar Samhan will be The Mayor of Moraga. Let’s just hope we can keep saying it beyond this weekend. Here’s the aforementioned video:
A celebration of Marys [SI Hot Clicks]
Kentucky coach John Calipari has made some strange comments to the media recently and I’m trying to figure what it’s all about. Right before the SEC tournament, he said his team probably needed to win two games in the SEC tourney to be a number one seed in the Big Dance. Kentucky would have been 29-3 even with a first-round loss in the SEC tourney and a lock for a one seed along with Kansas and Syracuse. Calipari was downplaying his team’s accomplishments and level of national respect, perhaps to keep his players motivated. Fast forward to Saturday night after Kentucky got done hammering Wake Forest by 30 points. The Wildcats were already a number one seed and picked to reach the championship game by most analysts. They were the second most popular pick to win the title behind Kansas. As soon as Kansas was upset by Northern Iowa, Kentucky became even more of a favorite than they already were. Not in Calipari’s eyes. Check out what he said:
“I don’t know if we’re the overwhelming favorite. Everyone was picking us to lose today, be in a tough game. They were also saying we’d be the first number one [seed] out. So how do they change those talking heads overnight? With one game? Come on. We’re still a bunch of freshmen and sophomores in our second NCAA tournament game, they’ve never played in any other games. All we’re going to worry about is us.”
I honestly don’t know what planet he’s inhabiting. Everywhere I’ve looked people have been in agreement — it was Kansas and Kentucky and everyone else at least a step below. I don’t know of anyone picking Kentucky to be eliminated in the second round; most people had them in the championship game from what I could tell. I don’t know if there are some talking heads disparaging Kentucky to whom Calipari has something to prove or if the guy is just being really crafty and playing mind games. Most likely, he’s trying to keep himself and his players from believing their press clippings and hype so that they maintain their edge. The guy has me scratching my head right now, but if this is part of his strategy to keep his players hungry and operating in an underdog role, then more power to him. In the meantime, I’m trying to figure it all out.
While half of America and everyone in Lawrence is still trying to figure out if Kansas really lost on Saturday, a caller on my radio show made an excellent point that I had overlooked: Northern Iowa should have never been playing Kansas. At least not in the second round. When the brackets were first released on Selection Sunday, my immediate observations were that Kansas got screwed being placed in a ridiculously difficult Midwest bracket, Kentucky’s East bracket was also tough, and that Duke lucked out with the easiest draw of all. I was so consumed with complaining about Kansas’ bad draw (the toughest two seed in Ohio State, what I thought was one of the toughest threes in Georgetown, difficult fours and fives in Maryland and Michigan State, the best six seed in Tennessee, and a team that already beat them in Oklahoma State at seven), that I totally ignored how under-seeded Northern Iowa was.
Northern Iowa was 28-4 entering the tournament and they had spent almost the entire season in the Top 25. Even knocking them down a few pegs for the lack of difficult competition on their schedule, you figure they’d be a six seed in the tournament — seven at the lowest. Instead, the Panthers got dogged as a nine, four seeds lower than Butler who had an identical record (but much more difficult non-conference schedule). While Notre Dame went from being a bubble squad to a six seed, teams like Northern Iowa got dropped by the committee. For all the complaining I did about Kansas’ difficult draw, the one team I ignored was Northern Iowa. Perhaps they were the most under-seeded team in the tournament. We knew they were a solid team the entire season and they proved they were even more than that this weekend in Oklahoma City. And with Kalin Lucas out for Michigan State, they even have a legitimate shot at the Elite Eight.
St. Mary’s center Omar Samhan has proven himself to be one of the biggest difference-makers in the tournament. He also has the coolest name this side of Ali Farokhmanesh, but that’s a story for a different day. Today’s story is about Samhan’s mom, Marianne Black-Samhan, and how she had more confidence in St. Mary’s than any of the players did.
Omar shared a story after St. Mary’s second-round win over Villanova, of his mom who bought plane tickets to Houston as soon as the brackets were released on Selection Sunday. Houston was the location of the regional semis and finals for the South Regional, not the first and second round games in Providence, Rhode Island where St. Mary’s spent their first weekend. As St. Mary’s spent their first two games struggling to beat Richmond and Villanova, Samhan’s mom was making dinner plans in Houston for when the Gaels won their games.
I’m actually exaggerating about the dinner plans, but Omar joked after the Nova win that the team really did get its confidence from his mom. I’m guessing Marianne saw St. Mary’s’ matchups against Richmond and Villanova and knew neither team had the size to contend with her son; Omar Samhan has averaged 30.5 points and 9.5 rebounds in the Gaels’ two tournament wins. No doubt Baylor will have their hands full with Samhan on Friday. The Bears will likely call on John Lomers to counter. Good luck with that.
Kelvin Sampson was fired unceremoniously by Indiana two years ago for committing several recruiting violations, the same issue that got him into trouble at Oklahoma. The Hoosiers started out the ’05-’06 season promisingly, going 17-1 and ultimately 22-4 before losing in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Many of the IU players were upset that Sampson was fired and they were further angered when assistant Dan Dakich was appointed the interim coach. Several players stopped attending class during that tumultuous time and a few of them were kicked off the team (reports of drug and grade issues also could have contributed to the departures).
Armon Bassett was one of those players and he eventually transferred to UAB — former IU coach Mike Davis’ new school — before ultimately deciding on Ohio. Bassett led Ohio to the MAC tourney championship and the Bobcats to an upset win over Georgetown in the first-round of this year’s tournament, scoring 32 in the game. Xavier star player Jordan Crawford, best known for not dunking on LeBron James, was another player caught up in the Sampson mess. A freshman at the time, Crawford wasn’t too fond of Tom Crean’s new regime, so he decided to transfer to Xavier. Crawford’s averaged 20 points per game in his first year at Xavier and put up 28 in their first round win over Minnesota. While I recognized Armon Bassett’s name from the ’08 IU team, I have to thank my uncle for pointing out that Crawford was on that team too. Clearly that Indiana team had talent, but that’s not even where Sampson’s ties end!
As good of a program as Michigan State is, you figure they wouldn’t need much help to take care of the second place team from the WAC — one that went 22-12 in the regular season. That wasn’t the case on Friday night when Michigan State never held more than a four point lead in the final 10 minutes of their game with New Mexico State. Things were interesting down the stretch with the Spartans pulling it out 70-67. The outcome would have been more in question had Michigan State not received favorable and surprising calls from the refs. The foul disparity over the final seven minutes in the game was 7-3 in favor of Michigan State. Several of the calls on New Mexico State were ticky-tacky hand checking fouls including the two called on Jahmar Young that fouled him out of the game. Any coincidence Young is New Mexico State’s highest scorer? Probably not.
It also was quite odd that the refs called a lane violation on New Mexico State on Raymar Morgan’s second free throw attempt with 20 seconds left (pictured). Morgan missed the free throw but the violation allowed him to shoot again. He made the shot which put the Spartans up 70-67. The second chance make forced the Aggies to take a low percentage three pointer to tie instead of a higher-percentage shot in the paint. They missed a couple of desperation heaves and lost the game. New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies knows they got screwed: “You know, I wish [the lane violation] would have gone uncalled in this particular instance. In Ray’s opinion, he felt he should call it. We would have had a much different approach to the last few seconds. I think I would have had something designed to get us to the foul line at least.” I’m not saying New Mexico State would have won the game, I just wish it were called more evenly down the stretch.