It’s the Year of the Dragon in college hoops

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (tickets to the Matt Painter-Branden Dawson MMA cage match sold separately):

UAB Blazers mascot
(Getty Images)

Happy Year of the Dragon, hoops fans. Perhaps this means a reversal of fortune for UAB (1) (6-12, losers of five of its past six) and Illinois-Chicago (2) (6-13, on a two-game losing streak). Both have dragon mascots – “Blaze” and “Spark,” respectively – if not dragon nicknames. The only D-I dragon, Drexel (3), already has a head start on the Chinese New Year, owning a seven-game winning streak and standing 15-5 overall, tied for second in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Where have the great teams gone?

When the season began, The Minutes was convinced it would be a great one. Why? Because after a couple of seasons of a rather mediocre upper crust in college basketball, we had the potential for at least three great teams. Enough first-round NBA draft picks stuck around college to give their programs a shot at something special.

Roughly midway through the season, those teams have not lived up to their potential.

The Minutes is looking at you, North Carolina (4). You go and lose to Florida State by 33, which simply should not happen no matter how well the Seminoles are playing. And you suffer another season-ending knee injury in the backcourt (Dexter Strickland joining Leslie McDonald, who went out before the season began). Now what do we make of you, Tar Heels? Still capable of winning the ACC, but are you capable of winning it all? Strong doubts.

And The Minutes is looking at you, Ohio State (5). The loss at Kansas was understandable – the Jayhawks are better than expected, especially in the Phog, and Jared Sullinger didn’t play. But the 5-2 Big Ten record is not what we envisioned. The Buckeyes haven’t proven much on the road yet – beating up on Iowa and Nebraska does not offset losing to Indiana and Illinois, both of which currently are leaking oil. Ohio State has five road games remaining, four against teams ranked in Jeff Sagarin’s top 45. The Bucks are slightly deeper than last season, but concerns remain about whether they might wear down in the bruising Big Ten over the next six weeks.

Maybe Syracuse is ready for a good-to-great leap into the vacuum left by Carolina and Ohio State. Even after being thumped at Notre Dame on Saturday, the Orange got a strong bounce-back victory at Cincinnati on Monday night and theoretically will get center Fab Melo back if/when he resolves his “academic issue” that kept him out of that two-game road trip. (Say this for the ‘Cuse: This is a team that can make 3-point shots from a few feet behind the arc. That’s a small but important detail because a lot of college defenders are accustomed to only closing out to 21 feet. When your guys can shoot from 23, that’s 2 feet of extra space to make shots.)

Kentucky’s Doron Lamb
(Getty Images)

The third team with preseason greatness potential, Kentucky (6), may fill the bill. If The Minutes had to name a national title favorite today, the Wildcats would be the choice. But they’ve played sporadically in recent weeks, rarely putting together the kind of crushing runs we saw from this collection of athletes in November and December. And the SEC schedule is so user-friendly right now that we won’t see the ‘Cats play a premier league opponent outside of Rupp Arena until Feb. 11.

Speaking of league schedules …

How league offices are shaping league races

At conference headquarters across the land, two things are givens: complaints from schools about the officiating and complaints from schools about the schedule.

In the case of the former, leagues must try to hire well – both refs and supervisors of officials – and simply hope for the best. In the case of the latter, the job is nearly impossible and always thankless.

There is annual crabbing about who has to play where on how much rest, and who has the most difficult stretches of games. In the days of full round-robin scheduling, it all used to even out in the end. Then conferences became the size of China, and it became even more arduous to schedule fairness into the question.

So The Minutes sympathizes with the suits in charge of putting together a balanced slate. But it’s interesting to see how much strength-of-schedule appears to be impacting conference races at this point. Check Ken Pomeroy’s SOS numbers in the top 10 leagues and you’ll see the perks of an easy entry into conference play.

Big Ten (7): Co-leaders are Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan at 5-2. The Buckeyes have played the 11th-hardest league schedule out of 12.The Wolverines have had five home games and only two on the road, and have had the ninth-hardest schedule to date. Only the Spartans have kept it real, with the No. 5 schedule and one more road game than at home.

Toughest Big Ten schedule to date: Nebraska, which is 2-6 and tied for last. So much for a honeymoon period for the Huskers, who already have played Ohio State and Wisconsin twice, plus Indiana and Michigan State.

Kansas’ Thomas Robinson
(Getty Images)

Big 12 (8): As if perennial kingpin Kansas needed the assist, it has played the 10th-toughest schedule out of 10. The Jayhawks (7-0) have played four at home and three on the road, visiting relative lightweights Oklahoma and Texas Tech. They received another assist Monday night, when Texas A&M’s Khris Middleton was injured before the game and guard Dash Harris was injured during it.

Toughest Big 12 schedule to date: Kansas State, which is 3-3 and in fifth place. The Wildcats still have six games left against the four schools considered the weakest in the league (Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma).

Big East (9): Before Monday night’s game at Cincinnati, league leader Syracuse had played the No. 15 schedule out of 16. Pomeroy rates six of the Orange’s first nine opponents 75th or worse – though Syracuse has played five on the road and only four at home.

Toughest Big East schedule to date: Providence, which is 1-6 and tied for 14th in the league. St. John’s is the only team the Friars have faced that doesn’t look like an eventual NCAA tournament team.

[Related: Boeheim passes Rupp for fourth on wins list]

SEC (10): The top three teams in the league standings – Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida – have played schedules ranked 10th, 11th and 12th, respectively, out of 12. It will be Feb. 11 before the Wildcats play a league road game against a team currently ranked in Sagarin’s top 75. And because they are the TV darlings of the league, gobbling up Tuesday night ESPN spots, Kentucky has zero Thursday-Saturday turnaround games. Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings, whose team just ran that 48-hour gantlet and split against Alabama and Mississippi State, pointed that out last week. SEC officials were too busy counting bowl revenues to hear him.

Toughest SEC schedule to date: South Carolina, which is 0-4 and last in the league. As if Darrin Horn’s job already wasn’t hard enough, he had to open with Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Florida in succession.

ACC (11): Duke, Florida State and North Carolina State are tied for the top at 4-1. The Blue Devils have played the No. 9 ACC schedule out of 12 and the Wolfpack have played the easiest of the 12. Props to the Seminoles, rolling hard despite playing the No. 2 schedule. NC State was gifted with an opening stroll against Maryland, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Boston College and Miami, but still managed to lose at home to the putrid Yellow Jackets.

Toughest ACC schedule to date: Miami, which is 1-3 and tied for 10th place. Opening at Virginia and North Carolina was cruel.

Missouri Valley (12): Co-leader Wichita State has played the No. 10 schedule out of 10, and fellow co-leader Creighton has played the No. 7 schedule. The Shockers already have played softies Bradley and Southern Illinois twice each.

Toughest Valley schedule to date: Southern Illinois, which is 3-6 in the league and in eighth place. And that’s after a non-conference schedule that was too difficult for the Salukis (Saint Louis, Kansas State, Xavier, Clemson).

Cal’s Allen Crabbe
(AP)

Pac-12 (13): Leader California has played the No. 8 schedule out of 12 in America’s most underachieving league. (How underachieving? The Pac-12 is 3-36 against Sagarin top 50 competition, and the three wins belong to Washington State and Oregon State – neither of which is a serious title contender.) The Golden Bears have had the luxury of playing Utah and USC.

Toughest Pac-12 schedule to date: UCLA, which is 3-4 and tied for seventh place. The Bruins have played five on the road and two at home to date.

Conference USA (14): Leader UCF has played the seventh-toughest schedule out of 12. Opening against Tulane, Houston and East Carolina has its rewards.

Toughest C-USA schedule to date: UAB, which is 1-4 and tied for 11th. The depth-shy Blazers have played each of the league’s top four teams – UCF, Memphis, Marshall and Southern Miss – and have the losses to show for it.

Exceptions to the soft-schedule influence on the standings:

Atlantic 10 (15): Leader Dayton has played the second-hardest league schedule. Give credit to the Flyers under first-year coach Archie Miller for already having knocked off Xavier, Temple, Saint Louis and La Salle.

Mountain West (16): Leader San Diego State has played the second-hardest league schedule, with victories over UNLV and New Mexico. Then again, MWC teams have played only three league games, which means a limited sample size.

In praise of the passers

Scorers are the glamour boys in basketball; it always has been that way. But The Minutes has to give it up to those who give it up: the unselfish passers who make the shooters look good. In particular, six players who dished the ball with aplomb this past weekend and will be key to their teams’ success the rest of the way.

Cameron Crazies taunt Florida State’s Luke Loucks as he attempts to inbound the ball against Duke in the final seconds of play. Florida State won 76-73 to end Duke’s 44-game home winning streak.
(Getty Images)

Luke Loucks (17), Florida State. Loucks became an instant favorite in the final seconds Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium by refusing to commit a Minutes pet peeve: He passed the ball in the final seconds instead of playing the hero and jacking up a bad shot just because he had the ball in his hands on the final play.

It’s become a basketball epidemic: one guy pounding the ball to the exclusion of his four teammates as the offense dies, leading to a bad shot that doesn’t challenge the defense at all. And unless the shooter is Kobe Bryant, it usually misses.

But not Loucks. He went rushing up the court in a tie game with less than five seconds to play against the Blue Devils and … ah, heck, let him tell you about it:

” ‘B.J.’ [Bernard James] was setting a drag screen near midcourt. It ended up a little early, but it worked great. When I got free, there were a couple Duke defenders ahead of me. I was facing the shot clock and saw 2.1, so I knew I had time. I had Ryan Murphy in front of me and a few others on the wings.

“I was about to pull up and shoot a long, contested ‘3,’ then I looked up and saw Mike [Snaer] wide open. Andre Dawkins was kind of watching the ball and lost Mike, so I passed it to him.”

Loucks laughed.

“I had a lot of thoughts going on in 4.5 seconds,” he said.

A lot of thoughts beats no thought. And it led to Snaer hitting the most dramatic shot of the season this side of Christian Watford’s Wildcat killer in Bloomington, Ind., on Dec. 10.

Loucks admitted he did have a hankering to take the hero shot.

“I did have a little selfish thought: ‘This play’s designed for me to take the last shot,’ ” he said. “But Mike had a better shot. That’s something that’s helped our whole team the last couple weeks: getting open shots for others and not necessarily for ourselves.”

The Minutes thanks you, Luke Loucks. So does Michael Snaer and every Florida State fan.

Missouri’s Phil Pressey
(Getty Images)

The Flip and Pierre Show (18). The point-guard play Saturday in Missouri’s pulsating 89-88 victory over Baylor was sublime. The Tigers’ Phil “Flip” Pressey had 18 points, seven assists, six steals and five rebounds. The Bears’ Pierre Jackson finished with 20 points and 15 assists. Both are listed at 5 feet 10, but both probably are shorter. Neither is deterred.

Scott Machado (19), Iona. Machado, a senior, leads the nation in assists (10.2 per game) and has five games of at least 15 dimes already. He missed a triple-double by a single rebound Friday night against Rider. Not coincidentally, the Gaels are tied for the lead in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

Kendall Marshall (20), North Carolina. His role for the Tar Heels only grows with Dexter Strickland’s season-ending knee injury. Marshall is second nationally in assists (9.5 per game), enjoying the luxury of finding Tyler Zeller and John Henson inside and Harrison Barnes on the wing. But Marshall helps make them look good, too. He handles with his head up and is the best at the long hit-ahead pass for hard-running big men in transition. Marshall’s perimeter shooting will be critical later in the season, and he’s made only one of his past 10 3-point attempts.

Draymond Green (21), Michigan State. The most clever frontcourt passer in the game had a season-high seven assists in the Spartans’ rout of Purdue on Saturday. He routinely outsmarts double-teams with passes out of the post, many of which set up the next pass for an open shot. (If this were hockey and you could get multiple assists on a single basket, Green would have more than his 71 assists on the season.) When the guy they call “Day-Day” has at least five assists in a game this season, the Spartans are undefeated and win by an average of 28.6 points.

[The Dagger: Purdue coach has heated exchange with rival fans after loss]

The final frontier

Missouri’s rise to No. 2 in the rankings has inflamed Tigers fans with early-onset Final Four fever. Why? Because Mizzou never has advanced that far in the NCAA tournament.

That got The Minutes wondering which teams have been the biggest heartbreakers at Madness time. Here’s a look at the schools with the most NCAA tournament wins without a Final Four berth.

Missouri (22). The Tigers have 22 NCAA tourney victories over the years, but never have won a regional final. Closest call: 2009 regional final loss to Connecticut.

Boston College (23). The Eagles also have 22 NCAA victories without ever playing on the season’s final weekend. Closest call: John Bagley & Co.’s 1982 regional final loss to Phi Slama Jama Houston.

Alabama (24). The Crimson Tide have 20 NCAA wins but has reached only one regional final; the Tide was crushed upon arrival by eventual national champion UConn in 2004.

Xavier (25). The Musketeers have 19 NCAA victories and two regional-final losses. Closest call: A red-hot Xavier team – coached by Thad Matta – suffered a three-point loss to Duke in 2004.

Tennessee (26). The Volunteers have 16 tournament wins but only one Elite Eight appearance. That came two years ago, and it nearly resulted in a Final Four berth until Michigan State pulled out a 70-69 victory. That would prove to be the high-water mark of the Bruce Pearl Era in Knoxville.

Gonzaga (27). The Bulldogs also have 16 tourney wins. Their closest run at a Final Four came in the tourney that put the program on the map, in 1999. The Zags lost by five points to eventual national champ UConn in a regional final.

These schools have made the Final Four, but they haven’t figured out how to win it all yet. They have the most NCAA tournament wins without a national title.

Illinois (28). The Illini have won 39 NCAA games and advanced to five Final Fours but never cut down the nets. Closest call: They reached the championship game and lost a great game against North Carolina in 2005, but the better chance was in 1989. That team lost in the semifinals to eventual champion Michigan on a Sean Higgins putback in the final seconds. Illinois had beaten the Wolverines twice that season.

Oklahoma (29). The Sooners have 35 NCAA wins without a title. Closest call: the 1988 national title loss to Danny Manning and Kansas. Oklahoma was the No. 1 team going into the tournament and played like it for five games, all double-digit victories. But in the final, they lost by four points. As with Illinois above, Oklahoma had beaten the Jayhawks twice earlier in the season.

Purdue (30). The Boilermakers have a terrific history, with one glaring hole: no title, and nothing terribly close. They’ve won 34 NCAA games, but their only championship-game appearance ended in a blowout at the hands of Lew Alcindor and UCLA in 1969.

Texas (31). The Longhorns have 34 NCAA wins but only two Final Four appearances, and those were a mere 56 years apart. But if anyone has a more painful Final Four loss than the Longhorns, The Minutes wants to hear about it. In 1947, Texas led Oklahoma by a point in the final seconds when a Sooners sub threw in a shot from 40 feet to beat the Longhorns 55-54. Nothing in the Red River football rivalry can be as brutal a beat as that.

Temple (32). The Owls have won 32 NCAA games but haven’t reached a Final Four since 1958. That run ended with a one-point loss to eventual champion Kentucky on a Vernon Hatton layup with 16 seconds left.

Kansas State (33). As with Temple, the Wildcats had their chances in the early days of the NCAA tourney but haven’t been back since. They’ve won 32 NCAA games and made four Final Fours, most recently in 1964. Closest call: a 10-point loss to Kentucky in the championship game in 1951.

Memphis (34). The Tigers also have 32 NCAA victories but never, never on a Monday. The closest call in theory was the Mario Chalmers gut-punch in 2008. But since that Final Four appearance is vacated, the closest call is a 1973 championship-game loss to UCLA in which Bill Walton was 21-of-22 from the floor.

Perfection/imperfection update

We’re down to three teams with a zero in either the left-hand or right-hand column. The update:

Binghamton (35). Now 0-19, the Bearcats gave it a run last Thursday at Maryland-Baltimore County, losing by six in a game that featured some late window-dressing by the losing team. Misery statistic: Binghamton hasn’t had a second-half lead since Jan. 5. This week: at Albany on Wednesday and at Maine on Saturday. Ken Pomeroy gives Binghamton a 2 percent chance of winning the first game and a 5 percent chance of winning the second.

Towson (36). The Tigers are 0-21 after losing Monday night at Delaware. The Tigers were in it for about 31 minutes before submitting. Misery statistic: Towson has lost 40 in a row. Say that out loud if you dare. This week: The Tigers do get two more chances, and both at home. They play host to VCU on Wednesday and to UNC-Wilmington on Saturday. Pomeroy is predicting a 23-point rout at the hands of the Rams but only a 13-point loss to UNCW.

Murray State (37). And now for the happier side of 0: The Racers improved to 20-0 after road victories over Morehead State and SIU-Edwardsville. With every victory, Murray solidifies an at-large bid should it stumble in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament and seemingly improves its NCAA seeding. This week: Murray plays host to Eastern Illinois and Southeast Missouri State in what should be a pair of beatdowns.

The Minutes figures to be writing about all three teams again next week.

Coach who earned his comp car

Leonard Hamilton
(Getty Images)

Leonard Hamilton (38), Florida State. Has anyone had a better week this season than Hambo? His Seminoles mauled North Carolina at home and stunned Duke on the road, with a 14-point victory over Maryland squeezed in-between. That’s good enough to make everyone forget about being 0-2 against the Ivy League (losses to Harvard and Princeton). The ‘Noles suddenly are a live threat to break up the Duke-Carolina Tobacco Road cartel at the top of the ACC.

Coach who should take the bus to work

Jamie Dixon (39), Pittsburgh. The losing streak is now eight, stretching back to before Christmas. Included in that tailspin are a 23-point home loss to Rutgers, a 54-point effort against Wagner and just once scoring more than 63 points in that span. If Pitt doesn’t win at home Wednesday against Providence, well, seriously, when?

Buzzer beater

With the Final Four in mind, The Minutes dished a New Orleans recommendation last week. But why stop at just one NOLA joint when there are so many to tout? When hungry for a deluxe dinner away from the madness of the French Quarter, The Minutes recommends a visit to Patois (40). The entire menu, from appetizer to dessert, is completely absurd. But the gumbo was the best. Ever. Order it and thank The Minutes later.

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Pat Forde is Yahoo! Sports’ national college columnist. He is an award-winning writer, author and commentator with 25 years experience in newspapers and online. Follow him on Twitter. Send Pat a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Jan 24, 2012