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Khem Birch teaches lesson about Twitter-era opinion makers

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This piece isn’t really about Khem Birch. More or less, he’s just the latest example.

In the first few months of his college career, the Pittsburgh transfer is learning about the power of suggestion.

After a 15-point, 10-rebound double-double performance against Penn in his first start of the season, it looked like Birch could be the post asset that the Panthers needed to make a push in the Big East.

That was the power of suggestion, then.

Now, in an attempt here to neither defend nor chastise Birch, that same phenomenon has worked against him, since his decision to transfer.

First it was former Pitt guard Brad Wanamaker, who tweeted, “Guess everybody ain’t built for tough coaching and competing for minutes.”

Then another former player, Jermaine Dixon: “If he think some just going be giving to him cause of who he is than he went to wrong school…..not going happen under Coach Dixon n#PITT[sic]

From that alone, rightly or wrongly, one begins to form an image of Khem Birch.

Follow that with a report from CBS’ Jeff Goodman that Pitt would deny a release for Birch to attend Missouri, evoking possible tampering allegations, and the plot thickens, all putting Birch and his situation in a negative light.

Welcome to the very emotionally-driven and highly reactive world of 21st-century social media. Everyone has a voice and, if there are enough that lean in one direction, it quickly forms a pattern and a pattern turns into an image, and an image can be passed off as character.

This unfortunate, new-age cycle has not reached completion with Birch but, with former players chiming in and Birch narrowing his list of schools, it asks a bigger question.

In the age of Twitter, who sets the tone?

In the past, media had the advantage of an outlet. They had the byline and the newspaper job and the title of “journalist.” They spoke with sources and players and were the gatekeepers of public opinion. Now, those floodgates have been blown open. The power of suggestion, with one click, can reach millions, with no accountability.

It was suggested that Birch left Jamie Dixon’s program at Pitt because of his feeling of entitlement, as Wanamaker and Dixon tweeted. Birch countered by saying it was a basketball decision.

“I want to play more (power forward),” he told CBS. “That’s one of the main reasons I went to Pittsburgh in the first place. I know I don’t have the four-man skills yet, but I want to develop them.”

But which rationalization holds more weight and resonates more in the public forum: the straightforward response from Birch, or the snowballed, more inflammatory opinion of Wanamaker and Dixon?

Don’t get me wrong, freedom of information is a beautiful thing. It keeps people honest. It can reveal the truth.

But, to quote a famous comic book series, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

People will never stop giving their opinions, which means the onus falls on the reader to sift, mine, and aggregate viewpoints before expressing their own.

It’s difficult, especially when that “retweet” button makes it so easy to pass it along and wash your hands clean.

Who is Khem Birch? Really, who is he, as a young man? There are some who hold that he is a self-centered player, a guy only looking out for “number one.” Others hold that what’s been said is misleading about his character. Is it one or the other, or somewhere in-between?

Unfortunately, that’s for Twitter to decide.

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

After blowout of South Carolina, is No. 22 Kentucky a Final Four contender?

Kentucky guard Tyler Ulis (3) guards the ball after a rebound during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Auburn, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, in Auburn, Ala. Auburn won 75-70. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
(AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
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It only took 2:26 for official Doug Sirmons to plant two technical fouls on Kentucky head coach John Calipari, and that may have been the worst thing that could have happened to South Carolina.

He poked the bear, and the result was that a ticked off No. 22 Wildcat team proceeded to run the Gamecocks out of their own gym, 89-62.

The star of the show was interim head coach Tyler Ulis, who put together as dominating of a performance as you’ll ever see out of a player that stands 5-foot-9. Ulis finished with 27 points and 12 assists, hitting 4-for-8 from three and turning the ball over just once.

Marcus Lee added 11 points and 13 boards, including six on the offensive end, and Jamal Murray had his customary 26 points on 9-for-21 shooting, but the story of this game was Ulis.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seed a player under 6-foot capable of dominating a game the way that Ulis can dominate. Murray can take over with the best of them — we saw it against Florida and Ohio State — but when it comes to the NCAA tournament, this Kentucky team will go as far as Ulis carries them.

And based on the way that he’s played in the last six weeks, that could end up being pretty far. In SEC play, Ulis is averaging 19.4 points and 7.6 assists. He’s scored at least 17 points in 12 of the last 14 games and has notched as least five assists in all 14. He just orchestrated a total mollywhopping of a Frank Martin-coached team that was tied for first place in the SEC while playing without his head coach and on the road.

The issue with Kentucky is the same today as it was a month ago. They’re a two-man team with an inconsistent supporting cast. When their two studs play like this, they can beat anyone in the country. When they don’t, they can struggle against anyone.

But here’s the thing: When Ulis is playing the way that he’s played of late, they don’t really need all that much from their supporting cast. Derek Willis needs to be able to space the floor. Lee and Skal Labissiere need to be able to hold their own against opposing big men.

And when that happens?

Kentucky is clearly the best team in the SEC and good enough to be able to win four straight in the Big Dance and get to a Final Four.

No. 25 Wichita State falls to Northern Iowa as at-large chances take critical hit

Northern Iowa's Matt Bohannon drives in the lane past Wichita State's Conner Frankamp during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2016, in Cedar Falls, Iowa. (Matthew Putney/The Waterloo Courier via AP)
(Matthew Putney/The Waterloo Courier via AP)
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Northern Iowa has been a confusing team to follow this season but the Panthers peaked against a ranked team once again on Saturday in a 53-50 upset of No. 25 Wichita State. While the Panthers looked like a potential at-large NCAA tournament team during the non-conference season with wins over North Carolina and Iowa State, they’ve faltered in Missouri Valley Conference play.

Saturday’s road win at Koch Arena proves that Northern Iowa (16-11, 8-6) is still a credible threat in the conference tournament as they’ve now won six consecutive games. The loss for the Shockers could end their at-large hopes and their 43-game home winning streak — the longest such streak in the nation — was snapped.

A defensive adjustment was the difference for the Panthers as a switch to a 2-3 zone in the first half confused Wichita State’s offense enough for Northern Iowa to jump out to a 38-27 halftime lead. The Shockers (18-7, 12-2) recovered enough to make it a tight game, but Northern Iowa came up with big shots down the stretch to come up with the road win. Klint Carlson was a tough matchup for the Wichita State defense as he led the Panthers with 12 points while Wyatt Lohaus contributed 11.

Wichita State had two good looks from 3-point range to tie in the game’s final 10 seconds, but Ron Baker (12 points) and Connor Frankamp (0 points) both missed. Senior Fred Van Vleet was held scoreless in the first half and finished with eight points on 3-for-15 shooting.

This loss is concerning for Wichita State, not only because they hurt their dwindling at-large chances, but they didn’t look prepared to face the zone and 3/4 court press that Northern Iowa threw at them. The Shockers shot 30 percent (20-for-66) from the field and 22 percent (7-for-31) from 3-point range as they really couldn’t get much of anything going on the offensive end. Van Vleet and Baker couldn’t get their shots to fall and Northern Iowa mustered just enough offense to pull off the win.

As noted before, this win is another confidence builder for Northern Iowa, as they’ve reeled off six consecutive wins after a puzzling 2-6 start in the Valley. It’s also nice that the Panthers won a slow, grind-it-out game on the road over a quality opponent, since the North Carolina and Iowa State wins came in more uptempo settings.

The Missouri Valley is looking like a one-bid league as we inch closer to Arch Madness and with Wichita State falling to Illinois State and Northern Iowa recently, the conference tournament could have a lot of teams with a realistic chance for the autobid.