Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
My first offseason as a college basketball columnist has been spent far from hoops heaven. Instead, I've spent a good part of the summer working on my ever-fading golf game.
However, it is amazing how the links brings about a certain camaraderie between the corporate types and weekend hackers. The nearby Muni is the male's beauty parlor -- a place where guys are pampered with imported beverages, the competition of sport and the scantily-clad cart girl.
While attempting to get off the tee, I have picked the brains of anyone and everyone about the sport I extensively cover for a living. I've asked questions about an assortment of topics ranging from NCAA Tournament expansion to Kelvin Sampson's hiring at Indiana.
I've talked to high school basketball coaches and current and former members of the sports writing fraternity. The answers were intriguing, based on knowledge of basketball's nuances and supported by many first-hand accounts.
I've also talked to my drinking buddies, random maintenance workers working hard on the nearby fairways and my proud pop about North Carolina's star recruiting class, the popularity of the NCAA's hit musical single "One Shining Moment," and teams that won and lost this offseason by holding onto or letting go of top collegiate talent.
Their answers are also telling, with slightly more comic relief and passion that exudes from one too many Rolling Rocks.
Below, From the End of the Bench delves into the hot topics of college basketball's offseason with pointed opinions and analysis in part one of a three-part summer series.
1. Indiana turned its back on prodigal sons Steve Alford and Randy Whitman, instead selecting Sampson as the successor to Mike Davis. Sampson comes with a winning pedigree, but also lingering recruiting violations. Good move?
First, no one can argue that Sampson wins. He won nearly 72 percent of his games at Oklahoma, led the Sooners to 10 20-plus win seasons with a Final Four appearance in 2002 and his players excelled in the classroom.
Indiana knew the NCAA was investigating Kelvin Sampson when it hired him as head coach in late March. Yet, it probably didn't expect the harsh slap on the wrist Sampson received on May 25.
However, the wins came at what cost for Sampson's new employer?
Indiana knew the NCAA was investigating Sampson when it hired him as head coach in late March. Yet, it probably didn't expect the harsh slap on the wrist Sampson received on May 25.
In simple terms, Sampson was grounded. No car. No phone. No girls.
The NCAA handed down a one-year recruiting restriction, banning Indiana's new coach from calling recruits and participating in off-campus recruiting activities. The infractions committee ruled that Sampson violated NCAA rules by making 577 impermissible phone calls from 2000 to 2004.
Infractions committee chairman Thomas Yeager, who also wears the hat as commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association, used words such as "deliberate noncompliance," and "willful actions."
Not exactly a glowing endorsement for Sampson's professional edict. Now, he takes over a program dying for a champion and is already behind the eight ball.
Think Indiana's name recruits itself? That way of thinking will be put to the test this season with Sampson off the road and without access to free minutes from Verizon Wireless.
Several high school coaches I chatted with thought the violations should raise their responsibility in the matter, making sure their star players understand the rules while guiding them in their college decision.
Sampson has been affiliated with USA Basketball, has appeared at various coaching clinics attended by Pennsylvania high school hoops coaches and seems like a hard-working, "X's" and "O's" coach that parents can trust their son with.
Yet, in terms of immediate success on the court and in the community, Indiana's hire of Sampson makes no sense. Alford was a star at Assembly Hall and has had success at a major Division I college program. Whitman was also a talent in a Hoosier uniform and has spent several years learning under coaches at both the collegiate and pro level.
Both men would have been better and safer choices. Now, a program in disarray has to juggle a hush-hush rebuilding project with a coaching staff that must stay within Bloomington's outer limits or fear being caught by the NCAA's parole officer.
Oh, and every person I've spoken with has reiterated one common plea. Kelvin, get rid of the denim.
2. The NCAA decided against expanding the NCAA Tournament...for now. Isn't the NCAA cutting off major cash flow by nixing the idea?
Yes, expansion would generate more revenue, but the committee realizes a great sporting event doesn't need to be touched. The 10-person committee spent considerable time examining the implications of expanding the tournament and also reviewed feedback from a variety of individuals both inside and outside of the membership.
The results were overwhelming. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
"There is no enthusiasm on the part of the committee to expand the tournament at this time," said director of athletics at the University of Virginia and chair of the men's basketball committee Craig Littlepage. "In the interest of sustaining the quality of the tournament, the committee has decided to maintain the current structure."
Littlepage is right in emphasizing the tournament's quality. What makes the single-elimination format addictive is how well it lends to gambling and water-cooler fodder among co-workers.
If you only knew the statistician in the cubicle to your right as, "Dude," or "Man" before the beginning of March Madness, one single selection based on anything from a school's colors to a coin flip can turn him into a living legend.
Lunch is on me for Mr. "I picked Vermont to knock defending champion Syracuse out of the NCAAs," or I'll buy a round for everybody who knows Mr. "I knew Harold 'Big Show' Arceneaux before he went all MJ on UNC in the Big Dance."
The science is in the tournament's structure. And those who have barked loudly about not receiving invitations should listen to a member of my customary foursome.
"People that cry don't win. They just aren't good enough."
Parity in college basketball is at an all-time high. George Mason's magical run to the Final Four last season was a strong indicator of scholarship restrictions and a more level playing field among hoops' storied programs.
That's great for the game.
Coaches that recruit the prized stars understand their window for winning is much smaller compared to someone who brings in student athletes and molds them over the course of four years.
Those are two schools of thought. They both work, and the greatest sporting event in the world has shown us just that.
3. If the season started today, who would be your preseason Top Five?
I've heard several people's expectations for North Carolina, Kansas and Ohio State to the point where it seems Florida's amazing play down the stretch is an afterthought.
The Gators not only cut down the nets in Indianapolis, but return all five starters from that national championship team. As of now, that can't be ignored, but tune back in for From The End of the Bench's College Basketball Preview in late October for the preseason Top-25.
1. Florida -- The Gators return Corey Brewer, Lee Humphrey, Joakim Noah and Al Horford from a team that won it all last season. No team has repeated as national champions since Duke in 1991 and 1992.
2. North Carolina -- The recruiting class is loaded with dynamic point guard Ty Lawson, shooting guard Wayne Ellington and forward Brendan Wright. The trio should gel nicely with likely preseason All-American Tyler Hansbrough and the rest of his sophomore friends.
3. Kansas -- The Jayhawks have been an extreme disappoint in the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons. However, Bill Self's 2005 recruiting class has had a year to adjust to the college game and Darrel Arthur has to be on the short list of candidates for National Freshman of the Year.
4. Ohio State -- Greg Oden has been hyped to a degree that nears LeBron James territory. The difference is that Oden will spend at least one year in college, making the Buckeyes a dangerous squad for the upcoming season. Ohio State is strong on the perimeter and the rest of the recruiting class is also solid.
5. Pittsburgh -- Aaron Gray returns in the middle with Sam Young complementing the big man and forming a solid frontline. The loss of point guard Carl Krauser hurts, so expect head coach Jamie Dixon to use a trio of off-guards (Levance Fields, Ronald Ramon, Antonio Graves) in a rotation at the point.