Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Stubling Into the Off Season

As a college basketball fan, I consider myself blessed to live in Wisconsin.  Over the past decade, Wisconsin and Marquette have routinely found their way into the NCAA tournament, and UW-Milwaukee has kicked in a few nice tournament runs as well.  So there is rarely a lack of excitement in the basketball world in my fair home state.  There is a lot that is good about college basketball in Wisconsin.

This young off season, however, has been a bit of a downer for me.  Transfers and premature departures come to most teams during the off season, but the handling of the first (and hopefully only) departures of the off season by Wisconsin and Marquette have left me somewhat disappointed in each of the programs.  While I’m normally a positive guy, today I want to take a look at the start of an off season that, so far, has me shaking my head in disappointment.

(Note: I was also disappointed to see that UWM’s Lonnie Boga, who I had pegged for stardom early in his freshman year, announce his intention to transfer after sitting out this year with an injury.  However, there seems to be nothing unsavory about that situation–I’ll just miss seeing him play.  And saying his insanely cool name.)

So here’s my take on each of the player departure scenarios that raised my eyebrows:

Wisconsin and Jarrod Uthoff

If you’re a Wisconsin fan and you don’t feel at least somewhat uneasy about the way things shook out with the Jarrod Uthoff situation, you’re not assessing things honestly.

I’m a huge Wisconsin fan, and just as huge a Bo Ryan fan.  I believe that there’s much more that’s good about the fact that Wisconsin has Bo Ryan as a coach than there is bad.  But that doesn’t mean that I have to love everything that Bo Ryan does.  And this was one of those rare instances when I couldn’t really defend his actions.  Outside of situations where there has clearly been something shady going on (which no one has alleged has been the case here), barring Uthoff from transferring to 26 schools (Big Ten, ACC, Iowa State and Marquette) seems remarkably excessive.

I’ve heard a lot of talk from Wisconsin fans giving excuses for Ryan’s actions.  There’s been plenty of discussion about how poorly Uthoff handled the situation.  And there’s been assertions that Ryan always intended to take schools off of the banned list, but wanted to ensure a face-to-face meeting with Uthoff about the issue by forcing him to appeal the restrictions on his transfer. For a variety of reasons, I see both of those explanations as flimsy excuses.  At best, Ryan acted tactlessly in this situation.  At worst, he acted vindictively.

To those that note that Uthoff handled his decision to transfer badly, it is hard to disagree.  I understand that Uthoff was anxious to begin his transfer process.  And upon his decision to transfer, he was not able to meet face-to-face with Bo Ryan because Ryan was out of town for two weeks, first at the Final Four, and then on vacation.  But while a two-week wait to have an in-person talk prior to trying to find a new home and making the transfer news public is not ideal, it’s the sort of minor concession that you make to a coach who has invested a year in you, and who Uthoff himself has said he thought he had a good relationship with.

All that said, I think that Ryan severely overreacted to what was ultimately a small, but unfortunate error in judgment by a college freshman.  If nothing else, Ryan should have seen how his actions would be viewed by the public.  One of Ryan’s young players impatiently pushed for a release from his scholarship before getting the chance to meet with him.  Ryan then restricted that player from receiving a scholarship at a large number of schools, including a handful of schools that Uthoff was likely to be considering.  For not paying him the proper courtesy, Ryan effectively decided to drastically alter Uthoff’s future path.  The reaction looked both disproportionate and petty, particularly given that the reputation of Uthoff prior to this whole situation had almost universally been one of a good student and person.  And I say all of this with a full belief that Uthoff was, at least partially, in the wrong.

As to the assertion that Ryan’s restrictions were put in place to force an appeal (and by implication, a discussion) from Uthoff, I’m not buying it.  First, this version of the story came out fairly late in the process.  Had Ryan commented immediately that he was willing to consider releasing restrictions, pending a conversation with Uthoff, I’d be a lot more inclined to buy this explanation.  But he didn’t.  He initially was silent (not a bad approach, I might add).  Then he said that he wasn’t sure how to deal with the situation, given the infrequency that he deals with transfers and that other division one coaches that he had spoken to supported his move.  The more reasonable version of things only came out during some serious backpedaling.  More importantly, Ryan and Uthoff were generally not believed to have a strained relationship prior to the transfer.  And when you have someone that you get along with, you don’t force that person into a procedural paradigm in order to get what you want from them.  You ask them nicely for what you would like.  Ryan forcing Uthoff to appeal in order to ensure a conversation about the transfer is akin to me loaning money to a friend and then taking my friend to court when he’s two days late paying me back.  No reasonable person operates that way.  

Lost in the firestorm over Ryan denying Uthoff the ability to freely transfer were his actions towards a fellow coach with whom I’d always assumed (perhaps wrongly) he had a good relationship.  Virginia coach Tony Bennett had been an assistant coach under Ryan, having stuck around at Wisconsin for a bit after his father, Dick, had retired as the Badgers’ coach.  It was reported that Bennett contacted Wisconsin to inquire about speaking with Uthoff.  The following day, Ryan restricted Uthoff from transferring to any ACC school, citing the possibility of facing an ACC opponent in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.  If you don’t think that Ryan’s ACC restriction was a badly veiled way of barring Uthoff from transferring to Virginia without actually singling out the Virginia program, you’re kidding yourself.  It is unfathomable to me why Ryan would act this discourteously towards a former assistant (unless I was always wrong about Ryan and Bennett getting along). Tony Bennett’s not a dumb man, so I presume that he feels pretty strongly offended (as he should) by this slight.  And I would think that this will give Bennett a little extra motivation in the future when he comes back to Wisconsin to recruit for his program.

So in sum, Ryan wielded power in an attempt to win an insignificant battle with a 19-year-old player, and treated a colleague with whom he used to work in a less than respectful manner.  On the positive side, Uthoff ultimately did get his release to transfer to any school outside of the Big Ten, a much more reasonable restriction.  Whether cooler heads prevailed, or Wisconsin succumbed to media pressure, the result is a positive one for Uthoff.  It was an awful ride getting there, though.  On the positive side, this ordeal did help shed some light on an NCAA rule that is fraught with potential for abuse.  As for Ryan, this was not his finest moment, but I’m hopeful that he has learned from it.  One needs to have a good-sized ego to be a college basketball coach, but sometimes it is best to keep that ego in check.

Marquette and Aaron Durley

If you’re a Marquette fan and you don’t feel at least somewhat uneasy about the way things shook out with the Aaron Durley situation, then you’re not assessing things honestly.

Admittedly, while I like Marquette, I’m more of a Wisconsin fan.  As such, I’m sort of out on an island amongst many of my friends when I express that I don’t think that Buzz Williams is a bad guy.  Perhaps I’m naive in buying his persona, but to me he genuinely seems like a hard-working, guy of average intelligence who sometimes acts well before he thinks things out.  And to me, the release of Aaron Durley is just the latest example of that. 

Buzz Williams’ mistake in the Durley situation wasn’t releasing Durley from his letter of intent. The true mistake was made months earlier when Marquette signed him to the letter of intent in the first place.  Reports are that Durley didn’t have an outstanding senior year, likely would have struggled to find court time at Marquette, and therefore might not have been the best fit with the Golden Eagles.  I certainly see the logic in the idea that releasing Durley from his letter of intent allows him to find an opportunity that better suits his abilities.  But I also believe that to be an overly simplistic view of things.  It ignores the fact that five months earlier, when Durley signed his letter of intent and was presumably considered fit to play at Marquette, he relied on that and closed off plenty of other options for himself.  That’s a more unsettling way of seeing of things, particularly in light of Marquette’s history with personnel issues like this.

Regarding Marquette’s history, one needn’t look back very far to see two situations which are somewhat analogous to Durley’s release.  Two years ago, many eyebrows were raised when Marquette rescinded a scholarship promised to incoming guard D.J. Newbill the summer before he was slated to begin his freshman year.  Conveniently (for Marquette, at least), Newbill’s release from his letter of intent amidst strange rumors about him failing to be admitted to the university came the same week that talented Racine native Jamil Wilson announced that he was transferring back home from Oregon to play at Marquette.  So suddenly, the team had a scholarship available for Wilson.

Newbill was not the first to leave the program before the year even began.  During the summer prior to Newbill’s release, Marquette released incoming big man Brett Roseboro from his scholarship.  Roseboro, who had spent the summer before his freshman year in Milwaukee training with his anticipated Marquette teammates, parted ways with mutually with Marquette after it became evident to everyone involved that he was not a player of the same caliber as the others on the roster.  He was left with just weeks to find a new school when he was released from his letter of intent in late August.

The common thread in the Durley, Roseboro and Newbill situations is the parting of ways with a player whose talent level appears not up to the level of other options available to Marquette.  This was explicit with Newbill, who was literally replaced by another player the week that he was released from scholarship.  It was implied with Roseboro and Durley.  Though neither had his scholarship immediately given to another player, the implication of the view that both would be better off at a lower-level school was that Marquette could find someone better to fill the open spot.

In the immediate, it’s probably correct that Durley, Roseboro and Newbill are better off not burning a year or two of eligibility at Marquette when they’re not particularly wanted or needed there.  However, all three of those players also closed off other opportunities when they committed to Marquette.  Newbill’s mid-summer release left him with two months to find a new school.  Roseboro, who parted ways in late August, had roughly two weeks to find a new home before most academic calendars began.  Both found spots, and Newbill actually thrived during a solid freshman season at the seemingly random destination of Southern Mississippi.  But it should come as no surprise to anyone that both Newbill and Roseboro ultimately ended up transferring from the first school that each of them landed at after their respective releases from Marquette.  Both had to scramble at the last minute to find a spot from the limited number of schools that had not yet filled their rosters by mid to late summer.  And it’s a lot harder to find the right fit when one is severely restricted by both time and scholarship availability.

I respect that when things like this don’t work out, the player is not the only one who loses out.  Marquette would obviously like the players that it signs to letters of intent to pan out.  But the consequences to the player, whose life path is drastically altered, is a bit more severe than it is for the school, which is merely charged with finding another player to fill its 13th roster spot.  The job of being a division one college basketball coach is not just about coaching basketball–it heavily involves evaluating talent and recruiting players, as well.  Not doing that part of the job well is a reckless act by a coach and can end up hurting players.  And the fact that Buzz Williams has had three such incidents in the past four years suggests to me that he may need to work a bit harder at properly evaluating the players to whom he offers scholarships.

The takeaway from all of this?  As I said earlier, I don’t think Buzz Williams is a sinister guy.  I think he’s a guy who sometimes lets his own excitement cloud his judgment.  I would simply like him to take a hard look at some of the recruiting mistakes that he’s made and take steps to ensure that he stops making the same mistakes.  Continuing as he has is detrimental to the players that he ends up releasing, as well as his own program.  I won’t deny that he is doing the correct thing by releasing players who will likely never play at Marquette so that they may pursue other opportunities.  However, I think praising Williams for doing that is like praising a doctor for getting a diagnosis correct on the second try.  Some level of harm is still likely done if you don’t get things right initially. 


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