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Championship Week puts all local teams in the here and now

SMU, TCU and UTA have definitely all had different roads through this college basketball season, with different twists, turns and bumps.

Despite that, all three are essentially in the same position now as Championship Week begins – looking to win their conference tournament to get that automatic spot in the NCAA Tournament. Regardless of what their status currently is in the eyes of the media and the selection committee, that is the one equalizing factor.

For the SMU Mustangs, the time is definitely now, having just won the AAC regular season championship and going into Championship Week still ranked in the top 25. But despite having won the program’s first regular season title since 1988, no one on University Park is comfortable yet, remembering what happened last year,

“We’re a little apprehensive,” coach Larry Brown told The Dallas Morning News. “I didn’t say anything last year about us being slighted because I didn’t think it was fair for teams that got in. But we got slighted. We were 4-6 against top 20 teams. We really had a team that was worthy of going there. When we didn’t get in, it was like a big cloud was over our head. I don’t think anybody here is taking anything for granted.”

“I felt we should have got in last year,” said senior Cannen Cunningham. “But the only guarantee is to win the (AAC) tournament, so that’s what’s on our plate now.

So the Mustangs have turned their focus to the tournament in Connecticut, hoping for a better result than last year, when a first-round bounce against Houston capped off a three-game losing streak that appeared influential in the selection committee passing them over for the NCAAs.

If there’s one program, though, that would be happy to have the NIT come calling, it would be TCU. It almost seems unheard of that Trent Johnson’s program could have any shot at that one year after going winless in the Big 12.

But while the Frogs still finished ninth in the conference, four games back of the rest of the pack, their 13-0 start to the season might help them get in with a surprise performance in the Big 12 Tournament, which starts tonight against a Kansas State team they have already beaten once.

While Johnson has said he hasn’t talked to his team about the postseason, he wasn’t afraid to tell the Morning News they might have been a few games away from the Big Dance, citing close losses to Baylor, West Virginia and Oklahoma.

“You look at those three games, if we win two out of three, we’re probably a bubble team in the conversation of the NCAA tournament.”

In between those two schools in Arlington, Scott Cross knows his UTA Mavericks will once again need to win the Sun Belt tournament in order to get into the postseason.

If there’s one thing the Maverick had to overcome this season en route to a fifth place finish in the conference, it may be inexperience, with at least four key players being sophomores or younger. They definitely had to deal with on-the-job training, especially with late season injuries to Drew Charles and Johnny Hill.

Having so many young guys playing at once can definitely be a challenge, but Cross has continued to look at the positive.

“It hasn’t been as hard as one would think. Every year has it’s own set of challenges. Our freshman have really tried to buy in to our defensive philosophy and are very intelligent basketball players with great work ethics. I have been very, very pleased with all of them.”

Still, Cross is willing to admit that the future is what looks even brighter for his program.

“I am very excited about the future of UT Arlington Basketball. Next year, we will only have two seniors on our roster, but we will be a much older, more experienced team than our current team. The following year we will be even older and more experienced, so we should have a couple of very promising years ahead of us. “

But neither Cross, Johnson, Brown or any of their players are looking at the future right now, Because this season is still active, and they know that, as Yogi Berra once said, it ain’t over until it’s over.

FC DALLAS 1 SAN JOSE 0

Blas Perez came through in the end, as FCD’s leading scorer last season finally got a rebound with Quakes goalkeeper David Bingham off his mark in stoppage time to give Dallas an Opening night win.

UTA 60 APPALACHIAN STATE 72

A healthy, loaded roster could push FC Dallas to the top

There is a growing trend that at least one local team’s season last year was faulted solely on injuries and the belief that everything will be better with everyone healthy. But while many are making that claim toward the Texas Rangers, it probably applies better to the soccer team that will begin its season in Frisco tomorrow.

Yes, FC Dallas did make the playoffs for the first time in three years, but there still might be a sense that things could have been better. Take away a two-month stretch in late spring when Mauro Diaz and Michel were out of action, and Dallas might have been a contender for the Supporters’ Shield, or at least a better seed that could have helped them in the MLS Cup playoffs.

But that year is behind them, and the club at Toyota Stadium has all the tools in place to make a serious run at that Cup, especially since Landon Donovan’s retirement has left the LA Galaxy as no longer the perennial threat it has looked like for years and MLS even more wide open than before.

Could Oscar Pareja’s club be the one to punch through the door? With Diaz, Michel, Fabian Castillo, Blas Perez, David Texeria and last season’s Rookie of the Year Tesho Akindele, the club has as many weapons on offense as anyone in MLS.

It gives Pareja a lot of flexibility to his lineup as who to mix and match on any given day. For a club playing in the hot summer heat of North Texas, especially when they will be competing in the US Open Cup as well as the MLS season, that type of depth is invaluable as Pareja can rest certain players for a particular game.

That isn’t to say the club was willing to rest on its laurels. Despite having a great goalkeeping prospect in Raul Fernandez, they believed they could get even better in the nets. So they scooped up Dan Kennedy from the currently defunct Chivas USA in the dispersal draft to play alongside Chris Seitz.

It might have looked like Kennedy’s future in Dallas would be uncertain given how loyal he he’d been to Chivas USA to the end. But the club and MLS came to terms on a contract extension, with Kennedy replying via Twitter: “Excited to get to work with my new teammates and the staff @FCDallas, and looking forward to making a new home in a great city w great fans”

That’s a good sign for FCD, as they are getting one of the flashiest keepers in the game. One of the few spots worth watching throughout Chivas USA’s struggles was seeing the spectacular saves Kennedy was capable of.

But an even better sign is that he may not need to make as many great saves as he did with his previous team. That’s because here he’ll be behind one of the sturdiest defenses in the league. Led by Zach Lloyd, and Matt Hedges, FCD’s back line could be an absolute brick wall at times that simply did not allow any attacker to get past them, forcing clubs to take low-percentage shots that the goalies could handle with ease.

It all adds up to one of the most complete clubs in North American soccer. And it could be the start of very good things when FC Dallas opens play against San Jose Saturday night at Toyota Stadium.

STARS 3 @ FLORIDA 3 (1-0 SO)

UTA 64 @ GEORGIA SOUTHERN 76

STARS 3 ISLANDERS 2 (OT)

D-League needs to be used better for the players’ sake

Myck Kabongo, we hardly knew you.

If you missed the former Texas Longhorns star’s tour with the Texas Legends, few could blame you. It lasted all of five days and two games averaging six points before he was waived by the Legends. (By contrast, William Buford, who was taken in the same player pool, remains in Frisco, averaging 7.5 points per game.)

Kabongo’s fall from grace could be used as yet another example of athletes, particularly within basketball, who sadly fall victim to their own hype and see a promising career derailed because of it. At one time thought to be a first-round pick, he declared for the draft in 2013 following a sophomore season in Austin that saw him suspended for the first 23 games of that season for his contact with agent Rich Paul. A 14.6 scoring average in 11 games that year for the Longhorns was not enough to get him drafted, and he currently remains in limbo with no NBA experience (he was with the Miami Heat’s Summer League team and then signed with San Antonio before being cut in 2013) and stops in three D-League teams.

Chris Douglas-Roberts is another example who’s tumultuous path included a stop in Frisco. He was a second-round pick of the New Jersey Nets in 2008 after playing just one year at the University of Memphis. But Roberts is another currently unemployed player after he was traded from the Clippers to Boston and waived by the Celtics three days later. (Given how much the Celtics are desperately stocking up on young talent, that says something.)

Currently, Roberts’ six-year pro career has his best NBA season at just 9.8 points in 67 games with the 2009-10 Nets. He averaged 18.7 points for the Legends in 2013 before Charlotte signed him, praised by head coach Steve Clifford for his “toughness and experience,” but averaging 6.9 points for the Bobcats didn’t lead to much else, as he wasn’t re-signed and only averaged 1.6 points for the Clippers this season.

Kabongo and Douglas-Roberts thus join numerous projected NBA prospects that bring about one question: Would things have been different in a system where you know you start for a development team before moving to the big league instead of going there being an immediate sign that you can’t cut it in the NBA?

Basketball prep stars have made it clear that they really don’t want to play in college, having been convinced they’re being cheated by only getting a free ride to an education in exchange for the NCAA and school’s chance at making millions of dollars off their games. So they play one year expecting to declare for the draft after that. And that’s their right and choice. It’s pretty much still their best choice now so long as the NBA has its age rule of needing to be one year removed from high school – which I have advocated against for years.

The problem remains that, even with the D-League in existence, the NBA continues to force the NCAA to be its real de facto development league while continuing the culture that most prospects should enter the draft expecting to play in the big league immediately.

So with more people turning pro while still very green, the chance of a player turning out like Greg Oden or Kabongo is still more likely that turning out like LeBron James or Kevin Durant. And even if the player eventually does become an All-Star caliber player, chances are it’s going to be longer into his career than it used to be.

Consider: From 1979 to 1999, 14 number one draft picks averaged at least 18 points per game in their rookie seasons, including nine that averaged at least 20. Three others – James Worthy, Brad Daugherty and Chris Webber – went on to appear in at least five All-Star Games; Worthy was the only one of those to average less than 15 in his first season. Six of those 17 players are already in the Hall of Fame, with at least Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, Webber and Allen Iverson likely to join them. Of those 17, only Magic Johnson, Iverson and Elton Brand entered the draft before their junior years in college. (Joe Smith turned pro after his sophomore year; he averaged 15.3 points his rookie year and never made an All-Star Game)

But since 2001, the year Kwame Brown became the first high schooler to be taken first, no number one pick has been taken with more than two years college experience; Blake Griffin is the only player to be taken first with more than one. Nine of those 14 top picks averaged less than 15 points in their rookie seasons, including four that failed to average double figures, bottoming out last year when Anthony Bennett’s 4.2 was the lowest rookie scoring average for a number one pick since 1948.

Simply put, the majority of players simply are not ready, they do not have the seasoning, the maturity or the realization of just how tougher the game is at that level just one year or less removed from high school.

How much more different could it be if draft picks weren’t expected to go straight to the NBA, at least if they were only a year or two removed from high school? If a player, instead of playing one year of college ball and then getting his fat thrown into the fire, instead could turn pro right out of high school but instead started by playing two to three years with a professional development team, coached by a staff that understood part of its job was to prepare players for the NBA as opposed to NBA coaches who need to worry about immediate success and nothing else, it’s not unreasonable to think the turnaround of top picks having immediate returns could return to what it once was.

Developing players in the minors works in baseball. It works in hockey. There’s no reason it can’t work in basketball.

There are, fortunately, those who want it to change. Donnie Nelson, owner of the Legends in addition to being the Mavericks, says the D-League is gradually working toward eventually having one separate affiliate for every NBA team. Currently, the D-League needs 12 more teams to make that dream a reality.

But more will need to change. Teams and owners have to rein themselves in and understand they can’t expect draft picks that turn pro so early to be NBA ready immediately.

It can start as soon as now with one general manager having the courage to say his first-round pick will play for his team’s D-League affiliate first, even if that player was taken number one. The league should seriously consider removing it’s current age restriction rule and replacing it with a (temporary) rule saying players can turn pro out of high school but must play at least two years for a D-League team first.

The NBA can’t expect college teams to fully develop players for them anymore; they need to start doing it themselves. And then maybe we’ll start seeing more Duncans and Shaqs than Kabongos and Douglas-Roberts’.