Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (parachutes sold separately at free-falling Mississippi):
STATE OF THE GAME: FLAWED BUT FUN
For everyone moaning about the state of college hoops, a better approach might be taking a page from the Mike Brey (1) playbook.
Did you see the Notre Dame coach Saturday night? Locked in a 3½-hour, five-overtime endurance test with Louisville, Brey ended every period clapping, smiling and laughing at the gloriously messy but undeniably entertaining extravaganza he was part of.
"We were having fun," Brey said. "It was awesome."
That's the message for the season as a whole: We are having fun. It may not all be awesome, but it has been really fun.
If you're too busy complaining to see that, well, sorry.
That's The Minutes' take after listening to a bunch of bellyaching about how bad the product is. Here is the truth: The teams are not as good as they once were, and they'll never be that good again. The early-entry horse is out of the barn and not going back in, which brings potentially great teams back to the merely good pack.
There are other issues: Namely, pace of play continues to gradually bog down, taking scoring down with it. Part of that comes from coaches controlling the game too much, which is why The Minutes would love to see a reduction in the number of timeouts per team from five to four, and a reduction in the amount of time a coach has to replace a fouled-out player. Fewer committee meetings, not more.
But there is no reason to buy into the doomsday hyperbole you hear from people who probably never liked college hoops much to begin with. Yes, The Minutes is looking at you, DeLoss Dodds (2).
The Texas athletic director recently told the Austin American-Statesman, "The sport of basketball is in shambles." The more accurate statement would be that Texas basketball (10-13 overall, 2-8 in the Big 12) is in shambles. The rest of it, while flawed and diminished compared to 20 years ago, is still good entertainment.
Unless, of course, you enjoy none of the following, all of which transpired within the last week:
Jerian Grant (3) going Reggie Miller on Louisville in the final minute of regulation for Notre Dame and launching the Game That Would Not End into bonus basketball. Grant scored the last 12 points for the Fighting Irish in a dazzling 23-second splurge that erased an eight-point deficit. Grant's run included a trio of 3-pointers that were either well-defended or NBA length. He was berserk.
Ben Brust (4) making what has to be the greatest shot of the year. The Wisconsin guard's 40-footer against Michigan sent the game into overtime, and the Badgers prevailed from there. But it wasn't just the length of the shot; Brust was blanketed by Michigan's Caris LeVert, who is three inches taller. And the shot didn't just go in; it was a pure swish that ripped through the net like William Tell's arrow through an apple. It was perfection.
Larry Drew II (5) making a brutally difficult buzzer-beater of his own Thursday to take down Washington. On a three-dribble traverse from right to left, Drew shook his original defender with a screen from teammate Travis Wear, eluded Huskies center Aziz N'Diaye and then shot a fadeaway swish over onrushing Shawn Kemp Jr. It was a lovely ending to an ugly game.
Tyler Griffey (6) appearing all by his lonesome in the paint for the shockingly easy basket that beat No. 1 Indiana Thursday. The Illinois forward got loose for the winning layup at the buzzer when the Hoosiers, in direct disobedience of cinematic orders from their namesake movie, got caught watching the paint dry.
TCU 62, Kansas 55 (7). Numbers guru Ken Pomeroy says this is his second-biggest upset of the season, with the Jayhawks giving a 97.3 percent likelihood of winning pregame. The only bigger upset was Winthrop over Ohio (97.5 percent) earlier in the year, but since then Winthrop has improved. "Given what we know now, there's a strong case TCU-Kansas was more unlikely," Pomeroy told The Minutes. After conquering Kansas, the Horned Frogs promptly returned to being the Horned Frogs by losing at home to a bad West Virginia team by 13, then failing to score for the first eight-plus minutes in a 75-48 loss to Oklahoma. TCU is 10-14 overall, 1-10 in the Big 12, and the upset of the Jayhawks is its only win in the 2013 calendar year. KU coach Bill Self's pitiless (but accurate) appraisal: "It was the worst team Kansas has ever put on the floor since Dr. Naismith was there."
Those are five amazing occurrences in the last week alone, plus other exciting conclusions, jarring upsets and crazy plot twists too numerous to mention. Expect every week to be this way from now into early April. College hoops isn't a perfect product, but it will keep you watching if you'll bother to tune in.
HOMECOURT ADVANTAGE: OVERRATED
The popular saying in college hoops is that no loss on the road is an upset – a statement The Minutes actually heard applied to TCU-Kansas, which is patently absurd. That was an upset. But according to stat master Jeff Sagarin (8), home-court advantage has been in steady decline for the past six years.
Sagarin computes a general home-court advantage number across the sport, and as of Monday home court was worth 3.37 points. That's down from 3.51 last year, which was down from 3.76 in 2011, and so forth. The gradual decline has been in effect every year since 2007, when home court was worth 4.2 points. (Of the 15 seasons of Sagarin Ratings available on his website, the highest was 4.44 in 1999.)
"I lean toward believing there is significance to it," Sagarin told The Minutes.
Sagarin doesn't pretend to know what's behind the trend, but did offer one interesting possible explanation: the rise of travel teams in youth basketball. Players simply are more accustomed to going on the road.
To his point, traveling tends to be easier now than years ago. More charter flights and fewer commercial flights for elite programs. More commercial flights and fewer bus rides for mid-majors and low-majors.
Another possibility: more lower-arena seats for fat-cat boosters and fewer for students. Maybe, despite the best efforts to coordinate color-outs and create zany student sections, a lot of arenas are less loud today than they used to be.
Or perhaps officials have become more professional and less easily swayed by crowd pressure to favor the home team. Goodness knows no fans want to credit the refs with improving at their jobs, but it's possible.
(Worth noting: Sagarin's home-field advantage for college football also has trended down in the last 15 years, though far less uniformly. The high was 4.56 points in 1999, the low was 1.94 points in 2006 and last season was 2.84. Seven of the last eight seasons have been less than 3, whereas the previous seven all were more than 3.)
Whether owing to that trend or not, there were some major road victories in the past week:
Illinois (9) won at Minnesota Sunday. That capped resurrection week for the Illini, who got off the mat by stunning Indiana Thursday and backed it up with the win in Williams Arena. For a team that had lost six of its last seven, that was a big turn of events.
Indiana (10) won at Ohio State Sunday, after Bob Knight talked trash to the Hoosiers on the Value City Arena video board. The Ohio State alum, better known as the three-time national championship coach at Indiana, got the crowd fired up with a taped appearance saying, "I used to coach a little bit, and there's nothing like Ohio State basketball." Yet another sign that Knight is mellowing with age and getting over his grudge against the IU. Right. There are, of course, plenty of things like Ohio State basketball. And none of those things are as good as Indiana basketball.
California (11) won at Arizona Sunday. This was a true stunner. The Golden Bears (13-9 coming in) were sizeable underdogs at the 20-2 Wildcats, but went on a 16-2 run to start the second half and take control of the game. Arizona now has two dispiriting home losses in Pac-12 play, the other being a 40-minute rout at the hands of UCLA.
Memphis (12) won at Southern Mississippi Saturday. This was supposed to be the Conference USA Game of the Year, with the Golden Eagles bringing a 23-game home winning streak to the table against the perennial kingpin of the conference. The Tigers pulled away late in the first half and never looked back, putting a rare quality win on their ledger.
Illinois State (13) won at Creighton Saturday. The Missouri Valley Conference has been psycho all season, and no team has embodied that more than the Redbirds. They started out 9-3 against a quality schedule, then promptly lost their first six league games. Now they've won six of the last seven, capped off by stunning the league leaders in Omaha.
Then there is the state of Arkansas, which is in direct refutation of the Road Warrior trend. Check out what that bunch of homebodies has done this season:
Arkansas (14). Under Homecourt Mike Anderson, a guy whose teams tend to excel in their own building and flounder elsewhere, this year's Razorbacks are 14-1 in Bud Walton Arena. They are 0-8 in road/neutral games. The home-hero, road-zero extremes were never more pronounced than last week, when the Hogs stunningly destroyed then-No. 2 Florida in Fayetteville and promptly were blown out five days later at miserable Vanderbilt.
Arkansas State (15). The Red Wolves are 11-2 in Jonesboro, 4-7 on the road. Though they did get a rousing road victory in their last game, an 18-point triumph at Western Kentucky.
Arkansas-Little Rock (16). The Trojans are 11-2 at home and 4-8 in road/neutral games. But they are bucking both trends of late: They've won three straight on the road and lost their last one at home. Next up is a trip to home-heavy Arkansas State (see above).
Arkansas-Pine Bluff (17). The Golden Lions mauled Alcorn State at home Monday night to improve their home record to 7-0. The road/neutral mark is a sobering 5-13 – but that's life in the SWAC. UAPB played a masochistic early schedule, opening with 12 straight games away from home. They were 1-11 before playing their first game in their own gym on Jan. 2. Since then the Lions are 11-2.
Central Arkansas (18). The Bears are a recent upgrade to Division I. Under coach Corliss "Big Nasty" Williamson, the former Arkansas great, they are neither terribly big nor overly nasty. Central Arkansas is 6-5 at home, 3-8 on the road.
Combined state home record: 49-10.
Combined state road/neutral record: 16-44.
Whatever dynamic is at work in Arkansas, it may be spreading north to Missouri (18). The Tigers – who had their own Homecourt Mike moments when Anderson coached there – are 14-0 at home, 3-1 at neutral courts and 0-5 on the road.
THROWING IT DOWN, ON A COACH'S HEAD
Listening to Bill Walton (19) call a game is like jumping on the back of a wild horse. The ride is likely to be quite entertaining, but could take some crazy turns and ultimately end badly.
But in the end, Walton is worth the weirdness that comes along with him. Mostly because he is notably honest, often quite humorous, and not the least bit interested in chumming up to the coaches working the games he is calling.
Especially when that coach is Ben Howland (20).
Walton spent much of last Thursday night skewering the coach at his alma mater as the Bruins slogged painfully to what ultimately was a thrilling victory (see above). This has been a running theme in Walton's work this season. It got to the point against Washington that play-by-play man Dave Pasch basically called Walton on it, and Big Red responded without flinching. In so many words, he said UCLA would have a different coach if he were calling the shots.
Which is when a lot of people started losing their minds. (The best part was when some folks started whining that Walton was disrespecting a guy who has been to three Final Fours. Um, Walton went to three Final Fours, too, in three seasons of college eligibility. And won two of them. And shot 21 of 22 from the floor in one of the title games. Don't get into a college basketball resume contest with Walton and expect to win, unless your name is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.)
[Also: Miami: America's hotbed of hoops]
The Minutes loved it. An analyst with a critical opinion of a coach, and he's willing to air it? That is ground-breaking television.
There are more than a few UCLA fans who share Walton's view of Howland. The coach came into the season on the hot seat and has not done enough yet to get off it. Attendance is spotty, as is the team's play. Walton is the one guy unwilling to pretend every coach is worthy of a lifetime contract.
RIVALRY WEEK – WHICH TEAM NEEDS IT MORE?
Kansas pulled out of a three-game tailspin Monday night by hammering in-state rival Kansas State for a vital victory. The rest of the week features several other major in-conference rivalry games, so The Minutes examines which team is most in need of a win.
Michigan-Michigan State (22), Tuesday. Who needs it more? The Wolverines. They're several spots ahead in the rankings, but a game behind the Spartans in the Big Ten standings. Beyond that, they're light years behind them in terms of accomplishment. Last year Michigan won a share of the conference title, but really hasn't owned anything tangible since the 1989 national title. The Fab Five, for all the hoopla and hype, won zero Big Ten titles and zero national titles. There's a lot more hardware in Tom Izzo's name than John Beilein's, and this is the season where Beilein can start to reduce that deficit.
Kentucky-Florida (23), Tuesday. Who needs it more? The Wildcats, without question. Win this game and they're in the NCAA tournament, done deal. Lose it and nothing is guaranteed. But the Gators should have massive motivation of their own, having had a lot of sand kicked in their faces by the Cats lately. (Kentucky's winning streak over Florida is five, and it has won seven of eight in the series since John Calipari arrived in Lexington.) Know this: The loss of injured Florida big man Will Yeguete could loom large against the very long Cats.
North Carolina-Duke (24), Wednesday. Who needs it more? The Tar Heels, clearly. Like Kentucky, they are still scrambling to secure a spot in the Big Dance. And like Kentucky, a road win over a top-10 opponent could take care of everything. But if Carolina is anywhere near as bad as it was Saturday at Miami, it could also lose by 30.
Gonzaga-St. Mary's (25), Thursday. Who needs it more? Probably the 21-4 Gaels, who at No. 50 in the RPI could use a signature victory to end any bubble doubt. But Gonzaga is gunning for the first No. 1 NCAA tournament seed in school history, so it has plenty to play for as well. This and San Diego State-UNLV have become the premier rivalries in the West in recent years, which tells you all you need to know about the state of the Pac-12.
Wisconsin-Minnesota (26), Thursday. Who needs it more? The Gophers, who are backsliding toward the NCAA tournament bubble after a sensational first half of the season. They're 2-6 in their last eight games, with four on the road and two very tough home games among the seven remaining. Tubby Smith needs to stop the slide.
Purdue-Indiana (27), Saturday. Who needs it more? Well, a Boilermakers upset would make a miserable season a whole lot better. But it wouldn't change their lot in life (no Big Dance without winning the Big Ten tourney), so The Minutes will say the Hoosiers need it more. They're battling for a Big Ten title and No. 1 NCAA seed while trying to hold down the AP No. 1 ranking. A loss here could destroy all those things.
Oklahoma-Oklahoma State (28), Saturday. Who needs it more? The Cowboys, by a little. Both teams had their NCAA hopes buttressed by beating Kansas and will feel even more secure by winning this game. But since Oklahoma won the first meeting, and since this one is in Stillwater, and since Travis Ford has more critics than Lon Kruger at this point, Oklahoma State needs it more.
SELECTION COMMITTEE CONUNDRUMS
NCAA tournament selection committee chairman Mike Bobinski has his first teleconference with the media to discuss the tourney Wednesday, which means we're semi-officially on the clock for picking the field of 68. And while it's still early, the bubble is a mess. The committee will have some brutal decisions to make to fill the final spots, choosing among a multitude of flawed teams. Among those who figure to be in the thick of the debate and discussion:
Virginia (29). The issue: feast or famine. The Cavaliers have some very good wins: at Wisconsin, North Carolina, North Carolina State, at Maryland. They also have some abjectly miserable losses: George Mason, Delaware, Old Dominion, Wake Forest. They are among the most bipolar teams in recent memory. If Tony Bennett's team can get to 12 wins in an 18-game ACC schedule, you have to think some of those early gaffes can be forgiven.
Indiana State (30). The issue: feast or famine, cont. The Sycamores beat Miami on a neutral court, which is like gold right now. They also beat Mississippi on a neutral floor, Wichita State on the road and Creighton at home – there will be several bubble teams wishing they had half that many quality wins. But Indiana State also has lost to Morehead State, Southern Illinois and Drake. A team that has played 10 games that were decided by five points or less or went into overtime should be used to the drama by now.
Illinois. The issue: excessive losses. The Illini already have seven league losses, and although the schedule eases up a little down the stretch there is still a very good chance for a losing league record. Fortunately for them, they play in the best league in the country and that will factor heavily into the committee's thinking. And they do have some great victories: Butler on a neutral floor, Gonzaga and Minnesota on the road, Ohio State and Indiana at home. If Illinois can avoid a bad loss down the stretch, they should be OK.
California. The issue: overcoming a slow start. The Golden Bears (14-9) really didn't have a quality win until February, but they've made up for lost time with upsets of Oregon in Berkeley and Arizona in Tucson. With five home games left and two on the road, they need to hold serve at home and hope for some bubble luck.
Alabama (31). The issue: holiday horror show. The Crimson Tide gagged up a pair of home games in late December, losing to Mercer Dec. 22 and Tulane Dec. 30. Since then they are 8-3 and beat Kentucky, but there is a lot of work left to do. The SEC is so bad that even a 12-6 record hardly qualifies as a strong showing. Alabama's final two opportunities for quality wins are both on the road and in succession, at Florida March 2 and at Ole Miss March 5. And by then, Ole Miss may no longer be a quality win. So this is an uphill climb.
Kentucky (32). The issue: Who have you beaten? The Wildcats are in the tourney right now, with some room to spare. But they have exactly one quality win, at Ole Miss, and as mentioned above: If the Rebels continue their current slide, Kentucky will have zero RPI top-50 wins – unless they beat Florida (two games left with the Gators) or Missouri (one). And they certainly can't afford to drop another game against the league's sprawling lower class.
Villanova (33). The issue: Can five days in late January outweigh everything else? The Wildcats beat Louisville and Syracuse in succession (both at home) but otherwise have done nothing to distinguish themselves. Unless they win more key games down the stretch (and there are opportunities), it will be hard to get the committee to forget an 18-point home loss to, um, Columbia.
MINUTES RANT OF THE WEEK
It's called Hero Syndrome, and it's a raging epidemic in modern basketball.
For some players, there is a zeal for taking the last shot that borders on obsession. And in the process it nullifies basketball IQ, common sense and any semblance of team dynamics.
We saw Hero Syndrome from two players last week: one who never got the last shot, and another who got too many of them.
Shabazz Muhammad (34) of UCLA all but demanded the ball as Larry Drew II was weaving his way toward the winning jump shot. He held up his hands. He clapped his hands. On the positive side, he refrained from going and stealing the ball from Drew himself.
When Drew's shot went in, the Bruins quickly dog-piled him near the team bench. Except for Muhammad. When the shot went through, the five-star freshman walked from beneath the basket past the dog pile without bothering to join the festivities.
On ESPN, Scott Van Pelt dryly commented on the non-celebratory actions of Muhammad: "He seems rather unfazed by the proceedings. Maybe he's just a cool customer."
Or maybe he has Hero Syndrome, in which the need for personal glory outweighs the joy of team victory.
Two nights later, Louisville watched Russ Smith (35) Hero Syndrome the Cardinals into defeat in five OTs. Smith has long been a can't-live-with-him, can't-live-without-him kind of player. You must put up with some horrifying shots and decisions in exchange for his ability to score and create in the clutch.
But Smith was an OT train wreck in South Bend. He jacked a 30-foot shot to end one overtime (shockingly, it missed). He fired three other futile last shots at the end of other OTs (they missed as well). You couldn't get the ball out of his hands without a court order.
Worst of all was a driving layup attempt with 30 seconds left in the fourth OT, up two, while leading a 3-on-1 fast break. As usual with Smith, there was no pass. Instead of dishing to a teammate or killing clock and drawing a foul, his shot missed and Notre Dame scored the tying basket 20 seconds later.
A successful team needs players unafraid to fail by taking the big shots. But it should not come at the exclusion of teammates, and it should not begrudge the success of a teammate, either.
Nate Wolters (36), South Dakota State. He's had a great four-year career, scoring more than 2,000 points. But he's really had a great week, scoring 89 points in two games.
Wolters had 53 against IPFW, hitting nine 3-pointers, on Thursday. Then he backed that up with 36 points, six rebounds and seven assists in a shootout loss at Oakland. (Former Under-The-Radar Love Honoree Travis Bader had 31 in that game.)
For the season Wolters is averaging 22.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists for the Jackrabbits, who are 19-7.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Jim Corrigan (37), Old Dominion. When long-time coach Blaine Taylor was suddenly fired last week for reasons that probably went beyond the Monarchs' 2-20 record, assistant Corrigan was given control of a bad team in a tough stretch. He's made the best of it.
In his first game, Corrigan oversaw a startling upset of Drexel on the road. Two days later, Old Dominion took league-leading Northeastern into overtime before falling. And then two days after that, on Monday night, the Monarchs went back on the road and nearly pulled an upset of Delaware before falling by two.
The schedule is saner the rest of the way, so Corrigan should have a chance to show what he can do. The early results are certainly better than the disaster that occurred on Taylor's watch.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Pat Chambers (38), Penn State. Say it up front: This season was doomed to failure when the Nittany Lions' best player, guard Tim Frazier, was injured early in the fourth game of the year. But, still, the level of hopelessness since then has been startling. Penn State is 0-11 in league play, and having already lost twice to Nebraska there may not be a win left on the schedule. (Best chance is Thursday, home against Iowa.) If it goes down that way, Chambers' second season on the job will end with one victory over a big-six conference opponent. That would be Providence on Nov. 16, when Frazier was still in uniform.
When hungry in the great city of Nashville, The Minutes recommends a visit to South Street (39) for the Smokehouse Trio of grilled meat. The smoked sausage will possibly bring tears to your eyes, and the hush puppies/tater tots are legendary. Wash it down with a locally brewed Yazoo Pale Ale (40) and thank The Minutes later.
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