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Pirate Notebook No. 378
Monday, April 13, 2009

Denny O'Brien

Stage set for parity in C-USA hoops

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Memphis didnít just lose a basketball coach when John Calipari bolted for the Bluegrass. The Tigers also lost their automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

They certainly didnít maintain it with the announcement that 31-year old former assistant Josh Pastner would take the programís reigns. Though a decorated recruiter, he has zero experience leading a Division I program, let alone one that was considered one of the nationís 15 best.

While some might suggest that his hound-dog recruiting should keep Memphis permanently atop Conference USA, there is an important footnote that should be attached to his rťsumť. While he is a slick salesman in the AAU and summer camp circles, he has always had coaching heavyweights Lute Olson and Calipari waiting to close the deal.

Now he must assume that role.

Pastnerís hiring is a fairly clear indication that Memphis couldnít attract another home run hitter to replace the departure of one of the gameís coaching giants. The only other explanation for the hire would be an attempt to salvage one of the nationís best recruiting classes, which is a short-sighted perspective that doesnít guarantee long-term results.

But it could certainly lay the groundwork for parityís return to C-USA. That seems more inevitable than the possibility that Memphis will remain an annual 30-game winner that runs through conference play unscathed.

Up-and-coming Tulsa Coach Doug Wojcik has the Golden Hurricane threatening a return to the days when it was an annual contender for the Big Dance. Calipariís exodus could be the remedy Wojcik needs, as Tulsa now has a legitimate chance to secure C-USAís lone tournament bid.

Ditto for Mike Davis at UAB, Tom Penders at Houston, and Tony Barbee at Texas-El Paso. All three are much more experienced front men than Pastner, and an inevitable retreat by Memphis provides each with an entryway into the Field of 65.

While most will insist that Calipariís departure was a huge blow to C-USA, there is an outside chance that this could enhance the leagueís overall perception. With increased parity, it could shed many of the punch lines that were attached when Memphis was bludgeoning league foes with regularity.

Instead of one lead dog, C-USA could become a solid pack of three or four. That ultimately could lead the conference out of the one-bid category and into the same competitive category as the Atlantic 10 or Missouri Valley Conference.

Itís not exactly where C-USA was during the pre-expansion days, but it would be a step in the right direction for the leagueís perception.

No madness this March

This yearís NCAA Tournament didnít live up to its annual billing. From start to finish, there was very little madness as the higher seeds reigned and blowouts were the rule.

Outside of a little magic from Western Kentucky and Siena, there werenít many candidates for the glass slipper this year. Arizona, one of the last teams to make the field as a 12 seed, didnít count given its standing as one of the nationís top-tier programs.

Much of the charm in March is contingent on surprising runs from schools expected to check out during the first weekend. Itís why we fill out brackets and telecommute during the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament.

But anyone who watched the CBS Selection Show should have known from the start that the tournament would lack the inspirational runs that have highlighted it in the past. The NCAA selection committee sent its at-large invitations almost exclusively to schools from Bowl Championship Series conferences, leaving out the likes of Creighton and St. Maryís.

It was a move that won the committee praise from talking heads on Selection Sunday. Itís also one that helped pave the way to one of the dullest NCAA Tournaments in recent memory.

Packer missed

Another key element missing from March Madness was the analysis of Billy Packer, formerly a fixture at the Final Four. CBSís decision to remove him in favor of Clark Kellogg was praised by many college hoops fans who felt Packerís style was far too negative.

What fans got instead was a complete 180, an exuberant cheerleader who, at times, was just plain annoying and goofy.

Love him or hate him, there simply is no one better at breaking down a game than Packer. He offers no-nonsense insights into the game that the casual fan otherwise wonít pick up, and he generously divvies out both praise and criticism when each is appropriate.

Whatís most interesting about Packer is that each fan base was convinced that Packer held a passionate grudge against its team. That was true among most ACC fans who were certain Packer had it out for their team, as well as from other leagues whose fans were convinced he was a propaganda artist for ACC commissioner John Swofford.

Sure, Packer had his flaws. He occasionally made statements that came back to bite him, like his criticism of the NCAA selection committee prior to the 2006 tournament that too many ďmid-majorsĒ made the field. George Mason proved that, perhaps, there werenít enough.

But all in all, there simply isnít a better college hoops analyst than Packer. CBS would be wise to lure him back.

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04/13/2009 12:37:06 AM

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