Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball, where storming the court is an increasingly bad idea:
MARCH MOVERS AND LOSERS
Major-conference teams have less than two weeks to secure (or fumble) a place in the 68-team NCAA tournament field. It is time to improve (or damage) seeding. To make a stirring (or stumbling) stretch run.
With great drama comes great pressure, and of course great debates. A few to consider heading into the stretch run:
Has Syracuse (1) lost its grip on a No. 1 seed? The Orange were the nation’s last unbeaten from a major conference, reeling off 25 straight victories before losing. But the wheels started to wobble three weeks ago at Pittsburgh, and it's only gotten worse since. Syracuse has lost three of its last four games – including the true stunner against miserable but inspired Boston College – and hasn’t won a game by more than two points since Feb. 9. In the latest loss, a 19-point pasting at Virginia, forward Jerami Grant played just 13 minutes due to a bad back. A team that already lost center DaJuan Coleman for the season to injury cannot afford another significant front-court injury – although this may create an opportunity for touted freshman Tyler Roberson, who has languished on Jim Boeheim’s bench most of the year. To The Minutes, Syracuse is a No. 2 seed at present.
So who gets the fourth No. 1, alongside solid top seeds Arizona, Florida and Wichita State? There are a surprisingly large number of viable candidates:
Kansas (2). (22-7 overall, 13-3 in the Big 12. Ranked No. 2 RPI, No. 4 Sagarin, No. 9 Pomeroy.)
The case for: The Jayhawks have played the nation’s toughest schedule, according to virtually every metric, and have clinched the title in what many consider the nation’s toughest conference (Big 12). None of Kansas’ seven losses is bad; all seven opponents are likely NCAA tourney teams. Nobody has played more games against the RPI top 50 (19) or won more games against the RPI top 50 (12).
The case against: Seven losses is a lot – no No. 1 seed has ever had more, and only three top seeds have had that many. Kansas also hasn’t played well away from home in a month, with losses to Kansas State and Oklahoma State and narrowly avoiding a huge upset at Texas Tech. How serious is the back injury for Joel Embiid? The center will miss the rest of the regular season; will it affect him in the postseason as well?
Record against the other No. 1 seeds/candidates: 1-2. Beat Duke, lost to Villanova and Florida.
What’s left: Home against Texas Tech on Wednesday, at West Virginia on Saturday.
Virginia (3). (25-5 overall, 16-1 in the ACC. Ranked No. 10 RPI, No. 7 Sagarin, No. 2 Pomeroy.)
The case for: In a league with three No. 1 seed candidates, guess who is the regular-season champion? That would be the Cavaliers, who are a remarkable 16-1 in the ACC after smacking Syracuse on Saturday. They have won 13 straight games, including the last three by an average margin of 21.7 points. All five Virginia losses are to teams in the RPI top 50.
The case against: There are only four victories against that same RPI top 50. The Cavaliers’ ACC title run was aided and abetted by a schedule that included just one game against the league’s other top teams: Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina. Two of those (‘Cuse and Carolina) were at home, and the road trip to Duke is Virginia’s last loss. The non-conference schedule also includes a 35-point mauling at Tennessee, a 38-point home effort against Wisconsin and a loss to Green Bay.
Record against the other No. 1 seeds/candidates: 1-2. Beat Syracuse, lost to Duke and Wisconsin.
What’s left: At Maryland on Sunday.
Villanova (4). (26-3 overall, 14-2 in the Big East. Ranked No. 4 RPI, No. 3 Sagarin, No. 8 Pomeroy.)
The case for: There are no bad losses on the resume, and a couple of very good wins (Kansas and Iowa, both on a neutral floor). ‘Nova has played 17 of its games against the RPI top 100 and 23 against the RPI top 150.
The case against: The Big East has plenty of pretty good teams, but only one very good one aside from the Wildcats. That’s Creighton, and the Bluejays destroyed Villanova twice, by a combined 49 points. Since November, the only team ‘Nova has beaten that is solidly in the field of 68 is Xavier.
Record against the other No. 1 seeds/candidates: 1-1. Beat Kansas, lost to Syracuse.
What’s left: At Xavier on Thursday, Georgetown on Saturday.
Wisconsin (5). (24-5 overall, 11-5 in the Big Ten. Ranked No. 5 RPI, No. 9 Sagarin, No. 10 Pomeroy.)
The case for: The Badgers also have faced a brutal schedule, taking on 12 RPI top 50 opponents and 19 in the top 100. And aside from an 18-day crisis from Jan. 14 through Feb. 1, it’s been a spectacular season. Wisconsin is the hottest team in the powerful Big Ten, winning seven straight and beating all three of the league’s other top teams in that stretch. The Badgers also have five victories over teams that are leading or have won their conferences.
The case against: About that 18-day crisis – it featured five losses in six games, including one at home to a Northwestern team that currently is tied for last in the Big Ten. Aside from Syracuse’s loss to BC, no other top-seed contender has a defeat that bad on its resume.
Record against the other No. 1 seeds/candidates: 2-0. Beat Florida and Virginia. What’s left: Purdue on Wednesday, at Nebraska on Sunday.
Duke (6). (23-6 overall, 12-4 in the ACC. Ranked No. 9 RPI, No. 2 Sagarin, No. 3 Pomeroy.)
The case for: Consistently good against a high-quality schedule. There has never been a significant stretch where the Blue Devils didn’t look like a Final Four contender, and their play in two games against Syracuse is as good as anyone’s all season. In addition to beating Virginia, there are quality non-conference victories over Michigan and UCLA.
The case against: Duke is just 4-4 in true road games, including a loss at Notre Dame (RPI 120). The 13-point loss at Clemson is no prize, either. Aside from the controversy-soaked home win against Syracuse, the Blue Devils haven’t beaten an NCAA tourney team since January.
Record against the other No. 1 seeds/candidates: 2-3. Beat Syracuse and Virginia, lost to Arizona, Syracuse and Kansas.
What’s left: At Wake Forest on Wednesday, North Carolina on Saturday.
Final answer: As of right now, The Minutes would award the fourth No. 1 seed to Kansas. But Wisconsin will bear watching.
How should Oklahoma State (7) be seeded? With the return of Marcus Smart from his three-game suspension, the Cowboys have revived their season with three straight victories – the most recent and biggest being over Kansas on Saturday. Oklahoma State could get some benefit of the doubt from the selection committee for the three losses while Smart was out – but the committee tends to be more understanding of injuries than disciplinary suspensions. (And shoving a fan in the stands is not exactly a move that will play well in the committee room when the Cowboys come up.) Still, it seems clear now that Oklahoma State has weathered a horrendous seven-game losing streak with its bid still intact and a chance for anything from a No. 7-10 seed as of today. A run in the Big 12 tourney could further improve that.
Is Arkansas (8) in or out? In one spectacular week, the Razorbacks seem to have vaulted from the wrong side of the bubble to a snug No. 11 seed – at least according to the three mock brackets The Minutes checked out Monday. Beating Kentucky in Rupp Arena for a season sweep of the Wildcats was huge. Following that up with a victory over Georgia on Saturday was the final frontier. The Minutes had some sport with “Home-court Mike” Anderson for his road futility, but he’s turned that around this year with three SEC road victories. If the Hogs take care of business this week (home against Mississippi, at Alabama) they should be dancing for certain.
How does Northwestern (9) factor into all this? The Wildcats are 12-17 overall and tied for last in the Big Ten at 5-11. Yet they have had a significant and detrimental impact on their league in terms of NCAA tourney standing. On Jan. 18, the Wildcats won at Indiana – a loss that is helping keep the suddenly hot Hoosiers tracking toward the NIT. On Jan. 29, the Wildcats had their shocking win at Wisconsin – a loss that, as mentioned above, may keep the Badgers from a No. 1 NCAA seed. And three days later, the Wildcats won at Minnesota, which at this point is the biggest cause for bubble anxiety for the Gophers. Jim Delany cannot be happy with you, Chris Collins.
Are those warning lights flashing on the Saint Louis (10) bandwagon? Yes they are. Take them seriously. The Billikens’ gaudy record took two big hits last week – a stunning home loss to 12-15 Duquesne, and then a scarcely competitive road defeat against VCU. A 25-4 record is still a wonderful thing, but there is not a lot of quality-win sizzle on the Saint Louis resume. This could be a tough team for the committee to properly seed.
The Minutes perused Ken Pomeroy’s current (through Sunday) power ratings for every team in the eight power conferences, then compared those numbers to where he ranked those teams heading into the season. (Here is the explanation for KenPom’s preseason rating methodology.)
The result is a conference-by-conference look at who has had the biggest improvements and biggest drops since the season began.
American Athletic (11)
The success stories:
Houston started the season No. 190, currently No. 122. Rise: 68 spots. Somebody has to be the sixth-best team in a league sharply divided between the top five and bottom five, and thanks to victories over Memphis and Connecticut, the Cougars are that team.
SMU started the season No. 76, currently No. 19. Rise: 57 spots. Why is Larry Brown the AAC Coach of the Year? This is why.
Cincinnati started the season No. 45, currently No. 18. Rise: 27 spots. This may be the best Bearcats team of Mick Cronin’s eight-year tenure.
South Florida started the season No. 110, currently No. 187. Drop: 77 spots. If the school cares enough, it will change coaches after this season.
Temple started the season No. 87, currently No. 163. Drop: 76 spots. Fran Dunphy’s admirable consistency has been interrupted by a nightmare season.
Central Florida started the season No. 115, currently No. 189. Drop: 74 spots. Upgrade from Conference USA has been hard and humbling. The Knights are in over their heads.
Rutgers started the season No. 107, currently No. 177. Drop: 70 spots. New coach Eddie Jordan inherited some talent, but it has not come together for the Scarlet Knights – who could be in an even more adverse situation next year in the Big Ten.
The success stories:
George Washington started the season No. 120, currently No. 44. Rise: 76 spots. It took Mike Lonergan a couple years of acclimation, but his Colonials are enjoying their best season since 2007.
Saint Bonaventure started the season No. 152, currently No. 85. Rise: 67 spots. At 16-14, this is not a great team. But Pomeroy had the Bonnies underrated to start the season.
La Salle started the season No. 55, currently No. 111. Drop: 56 spots. Back to reality after last year’s magical Sweet 16 run. The Explorers played a rigorous schedule – and lost to just about every quality opponent they faced.
George Mason started the season No. 89, currently No. 119. Drop: 30 spots. The Patriots came tantalizingly close to beating A-10 kingpin Saint Louis twice, losing both in overtime. Close doesn’t count – and losses to Fordham, Old Dominion and other scrubs don’t help.
Richmond started the season No. 66, currently No. 88. Drop: 22 spots. Injury-riddled Spiders get a pass on this season. Chris Mooney knows what he’s doing.
Atlantic Coast (13)
The success stories:
Florida State started the season No. 105, currently No. 36. Rise: 69 spots. Pomeroy’s low expectations were quickly refuted when the Seminoles beat VCU in a November tournament. They’ve avoided truly bad losses most of the year.
Clemson started the season No. 96, currently No. 50. Rise: 46 spots. K.J. McDaniels has blossomed into a very good player, and the Tigers are playing vintage Brad Brownell defense.
Boston College started the season No. 37, currently No. 139. Drop: 102 spots. One Shining Moment in the Carrier Dome. Otherwise, a debacle of a season.
Georgia Tech started the season No. 58, currently No. 137. Drop: 79 spots. A lukewarm hire to begin with, Brian Gregory still has not won over the fan base in his third year on the job.
Notre Dame started the season No. 32, currently No. 97. Drop: 65 spots. Jerian Grant’s ineligibility after 12 games set the stage for a dismal ACC debut season.
Big 12 (14)
The success stories:
Texas Tech started the season No. 158, currently No. 79. Rise: 79 spots. Tubby Smith has quickly upgraded the Red Raiders from awful to at least competitive.
Oklahoma started the season No. 77, currently No. 31. Rise: 46 spots. Lon Kruger’s unheralded but athletic team is surprisingly tied for second in the league.
Texas started the season No. 80, currently No. 39. Rise: 41 spots. Four losses in the last seven games has cooled the Rick Barnes Coach of the Year talk, but the Longhorns still are much better than expected.
Oklahoma State started the season No. 4, currently No. 27. Drop: 23 spots. As referenced above, the Pokes still have a chance to salvage a melodramatic year that has included a season-ending injury, a disciplinary dismissal and the Marcus Smart fandango. But this has not been the breakthrough season Oklahoma State fans were anticipating.
Big East (15)
The success stories:
Villanova started the season No. 26, currently No. 8. Rise: 18 spots. There have been no huge surprise stories in this repurposed league, but ‘Nova’s jump from unranked into the top 10 is impressive.
Xavier started the season No. 57, currently No. 40. Rise: 17 spots.
Butler started the season No. 50, currently No. 127. Drop: 77 spots. Cataclysmic confluence of events – Brad Stevens leaves, best player Roosevelt Jones misses the year due to injury, school relocates into more difficult league.
DePaul started the season No. 85, currently No. 157. Drop: 72 spots. This was supposed to be the gentler path, with no Syracuse, Louisville, Cincinnati and UConn to deal with. It hasn’t worked out that way.
Georgetown started the season No. 14, currently No. 55. Drop: 41 spots. Injury and ineligibility doomed the Hoyas a couple of months ago. At the very least, they’ll be spared the annual shocking NCAA tourney upset at the hands of a double-digit seed.
Big Ten (16)
The success stories:
Nebraska started the season No. 123, currently No. 56. Rise: 67 spots. It’s a corn-fed hoops miracle.
Purdue started the season No. 30, currently No. 98. Drop: 68 spots. The Matt Painter Era hasn’t been the same since JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore left – and since Painter nearly took the Missouri job.
Northwestern started the season No. 86, currently No. 130. Drop: 44 spots. Some key injuries, big blowouts and a late-season fade have taken the shine off Chris Collins’ debut season.
Indiana started the season No. 25, currently No. 58. Drop: 33 spots. The Hoosiers are trying to salvage a lost season, one home upset at a time. But this is a long way from last year’s Big Ten champions.
The success stories:
Utah started the season No. 150, currently No. 35. Rise: 115 spots. By Pomeroy numbers, Larry Krystkowiak is the national Coach of the Year.
Oregon started the season No. 56, currently No. 29. Rise: 27 spots. Took one game for the Ducks to jump into Pomeroy’s top 50, and they’ve never left it since. Five-game winning streak has improved their position and strengthened hold on an NCAA tourney bid.
Washington State started the season No. 103, currently No. 202. Drop: 99 spots. A 9-19 overall record, 2-14 in the league, will probably end Ken Bone’s tenure after five seasons.
USC started the season No. 113, currently No. 169. Drop: 56 spots. Everyone knew it would be a rebuilding job for Andy Enfield. But with one win in 2014, it’s even worse than we thought.
The success stories:
Arkansas started the season No. 118, currently No. 47. Rise: 71 spots. Pomeroy appraised the Razorbacks to be bottom-five in the league; now they’re in his top five.
Auburn started the season No. 175, currently No. 120. Rise: 55 spots. Maybe John Calipari is right and Tony Barbee is the SEC Coach of the Year. Or maybe the Tigers have just barely exceeded the lowest possible expectations.
Georgia started the season No. 122, currently No. 80. Rise: 42 spots. Mark Fox in all likelihood has saved his job, as the Bulldogs close in on a surprising third seed for the SEC tourney.
Alabama started the season No. 33, currently No. 101. Drop: 68 spots. Last time the Crimson Tide won away from home? Last season.
Texas A&M started the season No. 86, currently No. 125. Drop: 39 spots. The glimmer of hope that accompanied the Aggies’ 3-0 SEC start is long gone.
It began last night – the conference tournament run that provides the final narrowing of the NCAA tournament field from more than 300 aspiring teams to the great 68. The Patriot League got it started with a pair of semifinal games at campus sites – congratulations to Colgate and Lafayette, the first teams to survive and advance.
The Minutes loves the urgency of the smaller conference tourneys, where only a single NCAA bid is up for grabs. The drama, desperation and competitiveness in those events is an underrated and sometimes undervalued aspect of March Madness. So pay attention when the first automatic bids start being doled out Saturday, and on through next week. Here is your Minutes microguide to the first wave of conference tourneys, all of which tip-off this week:
AMERICA EAST (19)
Regular-season champ: Vermont (21-9, 15-1).
Dark horse: Runner-up Stony Brook is the only league team to beat the Catamounts. But the Seawolves have never won a league tournament.
Minutes pick: Vermont is the only realistic choice.
ATLANTIC SUN (20)
Regular-season champ: Florida Gulf Coast and Mercer tied for the league championship. FGCU is the No. 1 seed.
Dark horse: Lipscomb won eight of its last 10 games, including a 21-point whipping of Florida Gulf Coast last week.
Minutes pick: Can’t go against Dunk City, the overnight sensation of last March. Mercer has been eliminated the past two years by the Eagles.
BIG SOUTH (21)
Regular-season champ: High Point in the North Division and Coastal Carolina won the South.
Dark horse: Winthrop split with Coastal Carolina and lost its only meeting with High Point on a late basket on the road. The Eagles can get hot from 3-point range and pull an upset or two.
Minutes pick: Winthrop. This is a weak league, tourney figures to be a crapshoot.
COLONIAL ATHLETIC (22)
Regular-season champ: Delaware led every step of the way, starting league play with 11 straight victories.
Dark horse: Towson has won its last six games and 10 of its last 11.
Minutes pick: Stripped-down league moved its tourney from Richmond to Baltimore, which plays into the hands of Towson. Tigers finish miraculous rebuild from 1-31 in 2012 to an NCAA bid.
Regular-season champ: In year one of life after Butler, Green Bay (24-5, 14-2) was a dominant league champion.
Dark horse: Cleveland State (21-10, 12-4) is the only other viable contender, having lost just once in the last six weeks.
Minutes pick: Green Bay. The tourney format favors the regular-season champion, and the Phoenix have been very impressive all season.
METRO ATLANTIC (24)
Regular-season champ: Iona (20-9, 17-3) won it for the second time in three seasons.
Dark horse: Manhattan (22-7, 15-5) has slightly higher power ratings than Iona according to both Pomeroy and Sagarin, and beat them last week.
Minutes pick: The Jaspers beat the Gaels in the latest installment of what’s become a spicy rivalry.
MISSOURI VALLEY (25)
Regular-season champ: Wichita State. In case you hadn’t noticed.
Dark horse: No viable one. But just for the heck of it, let’s say Northern Iowa and its cagey coach, Ben Jacobson.
Minutes pick: Going out on a limb with the Shockers.
Regular-season champ: Robert Morris (19-12, 14-2) piled up a dominant league record but was in a ton of close games.
Dark horse: Leaning on dogged defense, Wagner won its final eight games of the regular season.
Minutes pick: Wagner will upset Robert Morris to earn the second NCAA bid in school history, and first since 2003.
OHIO VALLEY (27)
Regular-season champ: Belmont (23-8, 14-2) won the East. Murray State (18-10, 13-3) won the West.
Dark horse: Eastern Kentucky isn’t much of a defensive team, but the Colonels are a veteran bunch who split with Belmont in the regular season.
Minutes pick: Belmont and Murray State have developed an excellent instant rivalry since the Bruins arrived from the A-Sun. Belmont beats the Racers in the final for the second straight year.
Regular-season champ: First-year member Boston U. (22-9, 15-3), which has its most victories in a decade.
Dark horse: Bucknell finished fourth in the league but won its final six games, including wins over Boston and second-place American.
Minutes pick: Bucknell, playing for its third NCAA bid in four seasons, gets it done.
Regular-season champ: In its final season before upgrading to the CAA, Davidson (19-11, 15-1) won the league by three games.
Dark horse: Wofford. With zero conviction or enthusiasm.
Minutes pick: Davidson. It’s the only proper way for the Wildcats and league boss Bob McKillop to exit.
Regular-season champ: North Dakota State (23-6, 12-2) followed up quality non-conference victories over Notre Dame, Delaware and Towson with a strong league run.
Dark horse: IPFW. The mighty Mastodons closed the season with three straight wins, all on the road, and split games with league kingpins North Dakota State and South Dakota State.
Minutes pick: North Dakota State. The Bison made a spirited run at the title last year before losing to Nate Wolters and South Dakota State. With the core of that team back, this is a determined group.
WEST COAST (31)
Regular-season champ: Gonzaga (25-6, 15-3), which has won 25 games seven straight seasons.
Dark horse: BYU. The league’s best offensive team has beaten the Zags, Saint Mary’s (twice) and San Francisco while finishing the season 8-1.
Minutes pick: BYU. The Cougars are on the bubble and will be motivated to earn the automatic bid and remove all doubt about their NCAA chances.
ROAD WARRIORS OF THE WEEK
The Minutes’ weekly ode to the teams performing the toughest task in college hoops, winning conference games on the road. This week’s Warriors:
Oregon (32). The Ducks crawled back to .500 in the league with a sweep of the Los Angeles schools last week. Beating USC is no big deal, but winning at UCLA in double overtime was a big step toward locking up an NCAA bid.
North Carolina (33). The Tar Heels pulled out a slightly miraculous road win at rival North Carolina State in overtime last Wednesday, then followed it up with a victory at Virginia Tech. UNC has now won five straight ACC road games, and would love to make it six Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
St. Joseph’s (34). Few teams have improved their NCAA resumes more dramatically in the last few weeks than the Hawks, whose victory at St. Bonaventure Saturday was their fourth straight A-10 road win. One more big road game awaits, at George Washington on Wednesday.
Providence (35). The Friars kept their NCAA hopes viable last week with wins at Butler and Seton Hall. This is a big week for Ed Cooley’s team, hosting Marquette on Tuesday and then visiting Creighton for McBucket's Senior Day (good luck in that one).
Tulsa (36). The Golden Hurricane lost their first six road games of the season, but since then they are 5-1. The most recent road triumph was at 22-win UTEP, as Danny Manning’s team has developed into a viable threat for the C-USA tournament.
The Minutes’ weekly salute to a player doing good things somewhere outside the college hoops center stage:
Matt Carlino (37), Brigham Young. BYU isn’t really a low-profile program, and Carlino was a high-profile recruit. But life in the West Coast Conference can sometimes get lonely, and Carlino deserves some praise for the Cougars’ late-season roll. Carlino normally is the set-up man for high-scoring guard Tyler Haws, but he dropped 30 against Portland on Feb. 22, two days after 15 points and six assists in a victory over Gonzaga. Carlino’s final regular-season game was a 14-point, six-assist effort against San Diego. He will be key to the Cougars’ title hopes in the WCC tourney.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Tony Bennett (38), Virginia. He’s on his way to a third top-four NCAA tourney seed in eight years as a head coach, while working at non-blueblood locales (Washington State, now Virginia). An ACC title is highly prized at a place that has watched the Tobacco Road schools rule the roost, and in a league that looked for a long time like it might belong to Big East invader Syracuse.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Rick Pitino (39), Louisville. The defending national champions have forgotten how to finish a close game against a quality team. In each of the Cardinals’ five games against Cincinnati (two), Memphis (two) and Kentucky (one), they have had a lead in the latter stages and fallen apart. Against the Wildcats, they took a 52-51 lead and were then outscored 15-5 over the next six minutes on the way to a seven-point loss. In the two Memphis losses, the Tigers outscored Louisville an astounding 27-4 in the final four minutes. And in the two games against the Bearcats, the Cardinals were outscored 23-9 down the stretch – but got a split of the two games when Russ Smith made a jumper with two seconds left at Cincy. Bottom line: this is a veteran team that should be executing better at crunch time, and it reflects poorly on the coach.
When hungry and thirsty in Durham, N.C., The Minutes heartily recommends a visit to Dain’s Place (40). It’s a no-frills neighborhood bar that is all fun. Order a grilled cheese with tater tots – the kitchen is open late – and indulge in a silly-good beer selection. Thank The Minutes later.