Some random college basketball notes during a very interesting and busy final week to the season.
This has already erupted over in the diaries, but let's talk for a moment about the Stan Heath firing at Arkansas, as well as the rumored replacement candidate, Billy Gillespie. Let's start with Heath, who took over for Nolan Richardson in March 2002. During each of his first four seasons, Heath improved Arkansas' season win total. He won 22 games in 2005-06, and 21 this year, including five straight at the end of the year before a loss to Florida in the SEC Championship game. He made the NCAA Tournament in each of the last two seasons, losing in the first round each time.
Heath wasn't exactly dominating the field in his first five seasons at Arkansas, but he'd certainly brought the program back to respectability after Richardson burned things down to the ground. I don't know that firing him at this point is particularly fair, but his 31-49 record in SEC play had to have weighed heavily in the decision. Season ticket sales were reportedly slumping, too, which I suspect is the real reason outgoing Athletic Director Frank Broyles made the decision to let Heath go.
Now the rumors are flying fast and furious that Billy Gillespie will replace Heath as head coach, with an announcement coming as soon as tomorrow. Fox Sports' Jeff Goodman reports that sources have told him Gillespie has agreed to a deal in principle and could be introduced Tuesday afternoon.
As sexy a story as that is, I'm puzzled by the details here. For one thing, as much as I'm sure Arkansas' is willing to pay Gillespie, it's practically unfathomable that the Aggies wouldn't match that offer to keep the man who put the program on the map. The enthusiasm for Texas A&M basketball this season is unprecedented in College Station, and though I personally wonder how much of it will stick if the Aggies aren't contending for the Big 12 title, there's no question that a lot of the support is for Gillespie himself. It's difficult to imagine A&M letting Gillespie go because of money.
If money's not going to be an issue, what, exactly, is the draw for Gillespie? The Razorback fan support has a rich history, but as noted above, the Aggie faithful are supporting the basketball team as much as anyone in the country right now. Further, this reeks of the same silliness that we saw at Alabama during football season: a crazy old athletic director making a borderline firing because he thinks he can just lure in whatever coach he pleases. Most people thought the Alabama situation was sleazy, and I suspect they'll view the Heath ousting similarly. I don't know that Gillespie's Saban-sleazy enough to pack his bags from College Station and head to Little Rock.
In fact, the more you think through this, the less it makes sense. The move from A&M to Arkansas is barely an upgrade, despite Texas A&M's sad history in basketball. Unless there's an angle here we're all missing, I think it's far, far more likely that the next announcement we hear is a contract extension and raise for Gillespie at A&M than a hiring of Chicken Wings at Arkansas.
Back to the tournament for a moment here. Remember the whole business about how the NCAAs are won with great guard play?
This year's participants may have something to say about that.
Florida's led by Joakim Noah, Al Horford, and a powerful inside game; the Hoyas thrive on elite play from center Roy Hibbert and forward Jeff Green; Ohio State lives and dies with their seven foot freshman center and though UCLA lacks an elite frontcourt star, they thrive as much on their physical interior play as anything else.
This isn't to say guard play is no longer important - each team has outstanding backcourt players they rely on heavily - but guard-oriented teams didn't perform as well in this tournament as they historically have. Texas fans know this all too well, as the lack of a strong interior presence hurt the team all season. Even Oregon, which went on a great run to get to the Elite Eight with strong guard play, found itself totally overwhelmed when it encountered a team as big and physical as Florida.
Just something to note...
Last, be skeptical any time you hear someone try to ravage a clearly accomplished player or coach for not being able to win the big one. They said it about Mack Brown, Phil Mickelson, Roy Williams, Billy Donovan - the list is nearly endless. You're hearing it now about Bill Self and Rick Barnes. You'll hear it about countless others over the next five years.
Just be careful about joining the chorus. If a coach or player is consistently hanging around the edge of a championship, the odds are he'll get one at some point, at which point everyone shuts up. It's easy to forget that winning the whole thing takes a lot more than just skill... it takes some luck, too.