BATTLE FOR THE TOP SEED LINE
It’s February, which means it’s time for the NCAA tournament bracket to start slowly coming into focus. The primary talking points from now until Selection Sunday will involve who should be at the top of the selection process, and who is on the bubble. The Minutes addresses both, starting with the best of the best. The Minutes' No. 1 seeds if the field were decided today:
Syracuse (1). The Orange won the Game of the Year to date Saturday, 91-89 over Duke in overtime, and rose to the No. 1 spot in the polls. Then they avoided a complete letdown Monday night against Notre Dame, pushing their school-record start to 22-0 overall and 9-0 in the ACC. This isn’t a perfect team, but nobody is playing better. The concern going forward: depth. Jim Boeheim usually plays a short rotation and it’s fine, but it does create a risk factor. ‘Cuse lost backup center DaJuan Coleman for the season last month to a knee injury – and although Coleman was little more than a role player (4.3 points and 4.2 rebounds), the Orange have had a painful recent history of losing big men and coming up short of the Final Four as a No. 1 seed (Arinze Onuaku in 2010; Fab Melo in ’12). Key games the rest of the way: five on the road ranging from very tough (Pittsburgh, Duke, Viriginia) to tricky (Maryland, Florida State).
Arizona (2). The loss at Cal cost the Wildcats an undefeated season and (for now) the No. 1 ranking. But that’s it. Losing by two points on the road to an NCAA-bound conference opponent is no great shame, and it may alleviate any pressure Arizona was starting to feel wearing the unbeaten bull's-eye. This is still a team with all the ingredients of a No. 1 seed and potential national champion, although losing 6-foot-8, 230-pound power forward Brandon Ashley (11.5 points, 5.8 rebounds) is a significant blow. If the Wildcats struggle from this point forward without Ashley it will affect their seeding. The committee will appraise the team based on what it does in Ashley’s absence. Key games the rest of the way: Three-game road swing against Arizona State, Utah and Colorado Feb. 14-22.
Wichita State (3). We’re supposed to view the undefeated Shockers (and every other team) exclusively through the prism of the 2013-14 season. But in this case, that’s impossible. Wichita State is coming off an impressive Final Four season and has not lost since that April Saturday night in the Georgia Dome against eventual national champion Louisville. With most of the same key players back from that team, the level of play has remained sky high. Thus it seems unfair to penalize Wichita State for a weaker schedule – just five games to date against RPI top 100 competition – than its top-seed competition. The Shockers have beaten all comers, and that includes Saint Louis on the road, BYU on a neutral court and a pair of SEC teams (Tennessee at home, Alabama on the road). Key games the rest of the way: at Indiana State on Wednesday; at Northern Iowa on Saturday. If the Shockers are going to lose before the postseason, this is the week it could happen.
Florida (4). The Gators (19-2) don’t have a bad loss, dropping only two road games by a total of seven points at Wisconsin and Connecticut. They have three quality non-conference wins: Kansas and Florida State at home, Memphis at a neutral site. And they are dominating the SEC: 8-0 so far, with blue-chip freshman Chris Walker just eligible last week to add another big and athletic body to the rotation. But the league is again underwhelming, and in SEC play Florida has been far more impressive at home (24.3 point margin of victory) than on the road (7.3). In other words, this spot is hardly written in ink. Key games the rest of the way: at Tennessee and Kentucky on Feb. 11 and 15; at Mississippi on Feb. 22; hosting Kentucky on March 8.
Lurking just off the top line:
Kansas (5). The 17-5 Jayhawks were a Forde Minutes top seed until being beaten at Texas on Saturday. While losing to the surprising Longhorns is not an embarrassment, being blown out virtually all game is not a good look for an aspiring top seed. Defensively, this is not a vintage Bill Self team – at least not yet. Kansas still has all the parts of a potential national champion, but with five losses in 21 games it must play well the rest of the way to get back on the top seed line. Key games the rest of the way: Four of the Jayhawks’ final 10 games are against probable NCAA tourney teams, plus a trip to Baylor on Tuesday and a pair of games against improving West Virginia. Plenty of quality wins to be found down the stretch – but plenty of potential losses as well.
Big Ten champion (6). It stands to reason that the winner of the nation’s toughest league at least has an argument for a No. 1 seed. That argument could be very persuasive if the champion is 19-3 Michigan State – especially if the Spartans return to full strength with the eventual reintroduction of injured Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson. But there are some head-scratching non-conference losses for Michigan State (Georgetown, neutral floor) and Big Ten co-leader Michigan (Charlotte, neutral floor). And given the recent rise of the bottom half of the league – Penn State, Northwestern, Minnesota, Nebraska and Indiana all have pulled major upsets in recent days – there could be more losses to come. The Big Ten may beat itself up to the point that it has no strong candidate for a No. 1 seed.
Big East champion (7). Creighton (18-3) and Villanova (20-2) have taken over the new Big East, and both are playing at a top-10 level according to all the major power ratings. If they continue to dominate the league and don’t suffer any bad defeats, the winner of the regular-season title and/or tournament title and/or the season series between these two could have an argument for top-four inclusion. (However, there is some question as to whether a No. 1 seed has ever lost a home game by 28 points, as Villanova did to Creighton last month.)
Oh yeah, Duke: On Saturday, in an electrifying Carrier Dome, Duke certainly looked the part of a No. 1 seed. But the Blue Devils also have a pair of bad losses on the resume – to Notre Dame and by 13 to Clemson – that will need to be overcome. They may have to win out in the regular season to seriously interject themselves into the top seed debate.
MOST INTRIGUING BUBBLE TEAMS
North Carolina (8). Power ratings: No. 32 Pomeroy, 42 Sagarin, 43 RPI. The Tar Heels have gotten up off the mat, winning three straight to get to .500 in the ACC and put themselves back in the field of 68. For now. Because the only certainty about this UNC team is that there’s no certainty. The Heels don’t have a winning streak of longer than three games all season, and those losses to Belmont, UAB and Wake Forest dilute the strength of victories over Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky. If UNC can beat all the non-tourney teams remaining on the schedule (Maryland, Notre Dame twice, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and North Carolina State), it should be OK.
Indiana (9). Power ratings: 55 Pomeroy, 50 Sagarin, 67 RPI. The Hoosiers are on the outside looking in at present, with a losing record in the Big Ten (4-5) and absolutely nothing of note on the resume from non-conference play. But point guard Yogi Ferrell has keyed a couple of big home upsets (Wisconsin and Michigan) and the Hoosiers will have several other opportunities for quality wins in the next month. They’ll likely have to beat someone good on the road to get the attention of the committee.
Northwestern (10). Power ratings: 109 Pomeroy, 85 Sagarin, 118 RPI. As you can see, the computers hate the Wildcats. And there is plenty to hate when you consider losses to Illinois State and DePaul, and the dearth of quality non-conference wins. But they are 5-5 in the Big Ten – their best 10-game mark in a decade – and fourth in the league. Which has to count for something. Northwestern probably will have to win 10 or more league games and do something in the Big Ten tourney to make the field, but this is closer to the Promised Land than the eternally futile Wildcats have gotten in quite some time.
Oregon (11). Power ratings: 40 Pomeroy, 46 Sagarin, 40 RPI. The Ducks are basically the anti-Northwestern. Respectable computer ratings but bombing in conference play at 3-6 – and they visit Arizona and Arizona State this week, making 3-8 a real possibility. There are some good non-conference victories (Georgetown, Mississippi, BYU) but the Pac-12 may not be strong enough to support inclusion of a team with a losing league record.
Colorado (12). Power ratings: 58 Pomeroy, 25 Sagarin, 46 RPI. The poor Buffaloes are trying to stay afloat after losing top player Spencer Dinwiddie for the season to a blown knee Jan. 12. After starting 14-2 overall and 3-0 in the Pac-12, the Buffs are now 16-6 and 5-4. The committee will appraise them on their play without Dinwiddie, so it’s an uphill climb at this point. But it’s also shaping up to be a soft bubble, so it’s far too early for Colorado to abandon hope.
Mississippi (13). Power ratings: 69 Pomeroy, 37 Sagarin, 69 RPI. The Rebels are a house of cards at this point – a 6-2 SEC record built mostly on victories over bad teams. They have to regret some of the close games that got away in the first half of the season (four losses by four points or less, or in overtime). But they have some big opportunities coming up, including Marshall Henderson’s Rupp Arena debut Tuesday night (Lord only knows what he will do). Kentucky and Florida also come to Oxford. A winning SEC record doesn’t figure to be enough unless some of those marquee opponents are among the beaten.
Baylor (14). Power ratings: 54 Pomeroy, 55 Sagarin, 54 RPI. The Bears’ five-game Big 12 tailspin, which included losses to Texas Tech and West Virginia (at home), likely has them on the wrong side of the bubble at present. But they won a big road game at Oklahoma State on Saturday, which buttresses non-conference victories over Kentucky, Colorado and Dayton. Kansas provides an inviting signature-win target Tuesday night in Waco, but there will have to be a lot of victories down the stretch for a team that’s 2-6 in the league.
Louisiana Tech (15). Power ratings: 48 Pomeroy, 34 Sagarin, 78 RPI. There is no computer consensus on Tech, which is 18-5 but playing in a weak Conference USA and lacking marquee opponents the rest of the way. (Playing a 16-game league schedule in a 16-team league means the few quality teams – Southern Mississippi, Louisiana Tech, UTEP – can’t augment their strength of schedule by playing each other twice). The Bulldogs hanging their hat on a win at Oklahoma, but may need to win out in the regular season to have a chance at an at-large bid.
Harvard (16). Power ratings: 34 Pomeroy, 32 Sagarin, 41 RPI. This probably will not be an issue – it would be a shock if the Crimson doesn’t win the Ivy League title. But if for some reason Harvard is dethroned, this will get interesting. The computer ratings are all good, but the best victories are over Green Bay and Vermont – good teams that may win their leagues, but not household names. And there is a 15-point loss to awful Florida Atlantic that needs explaining.
Dayton (17). Power ratings: 65 Pomeroy, 65 Sagarin, 65 RPI. The computers are unanimous in regard to the Flyers, and their appraisal is not flattering. Nor is Dayton’s 2-5 record in the Atlantic-10. But this team has developed a knack for the big win: Gonzaga and Cal on a neutral floor; Ole Miss on the road; George Washington and Iona at home. Is that enough to offset losses to Illinois State, USC and Rhode Island? Probably not yet. But if the Flyers can get to .500 or better in the A-10, the quality wins will create conversation for the selection committee.
COMING FROM WAY OFF-RADAR
Teams that haven’t done much yet, but are getting better and have an opportunity to jump into the bubble/conference championship picture:
St. Joseph’s (18). The Hawks are an NIT team at present, but have won six of their last seven – including victories last week over Dayton and Massachusetts. Now comes the biggest week of the year for Phil Martelli’s team: home games against league-leading Saint Louis on Wednesday and second-place VCU on Saturday. Sweep those two and we will be looking at St. Joe’s in an entirely different light a week from now.
St. John’s (19). In mid-January, the Red Storm was 9-8 overall and 0-5 in the Big East – a bust. Since then the Johnnies have won four out of five and nearly shocked Creighton in Omaha by letting Doug McDermott go wild and covering the heck out of everyone else. On either side of the Creighton loss were blowouts of Butler and Marquette, signaling that a fairly talented team is finally hitting its stride. This is another team with a huge week ahead: at Providence on Wednesday and hosting Creighton on Sunday.
West Virginia (20). Through the Mountaineers' first 25 Big 12 games, they were 7-0 against league dregs Texas Tech and TCU, and 2-16 against the rest of the conference. Then came a redemptive pair of victories last week – at Baylor and over Kansas State – powered by point guard Juwan Staten (50 points, 14 assists). Now Bob Huggins’ team is 5-4 in the league, and if the fan base is re-energized, Oklahoma will find out Wednesday how unfriendly Morgantown can be.
MOST MEMORABLE REGULAR SEASON GAMES
The epic nature of Duke-Syracuse on Saturday got The Minutes to thinking about the regular-season games that stick most in memory. The top-of-the-head list:
Notre Dame 71, UCLA 70 (21). Jan. 19, 1974. The game that ended the Bruins’ record 88-game winning streak, and it happened in dramatic fashion. Down 70-59, the Fighting Irish shut out UCLA over the final 3:30 to pull the stunner, capped by Dwight Clay’s corner jumper and a flurry of UCLA misses near the basket before the buzzer. That signaled the beginning of the end of the Bruins’ dynasty; North Carolina State snapped their seven-year run of national titles that season.
Purdue 72, Indiana 63 (22). Feb. 23, 1985. Otherwise known as the Bob Knight Chair Game. Early in the proceedings, Knight protested a call and was hit with a technical foul. While Steve Reid stood at the foul line in Assembly Hall to shoot the T, Knight hurled his chair from the IU bench across the floor. That earned him an ejection, and then there was a third T for good measure before Knight could be herded off the floor. In a profession with a long, florid and regrettable history of coaching hissy fits, it remains the most shocking.
Kentucky 99, LSU 95 (23). Feb. 15, 1994. The Mardi Gras Miracle. On Fat Tuesday, Rick Pitino’s Wildcats were hopelessly beaten in Baton Rouge, trailing 68-37 in the second half. They proceeded to score 62 points in the remaining 15 minutes, raining 3-pointers on the Tigers to pull out the biggest comeback in Division I history.
Indiana 73, Kentucky 72 (24). Dec. 10, 2011. You almost never see an all-out, berserk, sea-of-humanity court storming at a blueblood program. But these were extraordinary circumstances, at the extraordinary end to an extraordinary game. Christian Watford’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave the Hoosiers the upset of the No. 1 Wildcats, announcing Indiana’s return to national contender status. Kentucky won the rematch that mattered – in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen – but this may be Indiana fans’ favorite victory of the last 20-plus years.
Clearly, there are plenty of other options. Send your most memorable regular-season game nominees to The Minutes at Fordesports@yahoo.com and the results will appear in a Future Forde Minutes.
CONFERENCE-BY-CONFERENCE COACH OF THE YEAR RACES
We are smack at the midpoint of most of the power conference seasons, which makes this a good time to take a (preliminary) look at the coaches doing the best work in 2013-14:
American: Mick Cronin (25) of Cincinnati for now. But don’t forget about SMU’s Larry Brown. The Bearcats are 10-0 in the league, two games up in the loss column over Louisville. They are guarding with prototypical Cronin tenacity, but this is also a rapidly improving offensive team. The only significant competition for COY is from the ageless Brown, who has the Mustangs 17-5 and pushing for their first NCAA tournament berth since 1993. Cronin won the first meeting with Brown in Cincy on New Year’s Day; the rematch is Saturday in Dallas.
Atlantic Coast: Jim Boeheim (26) of Syracuse. And no, it’s not close at this point.
Big 12: Rick Barnes (27), Texas. A guy who failed to maximize some incredible talent in recent years now is doing more with far less than usual. The Longhorns are among the youngest teams in the country, and this is not a collection of guys killing time before becoming first-round draft picks. After thumping Kansas, Texas is 17-4, 6-2 in the Big 12. And Barnes has persuasively removed himself from the hot seat.
Big Ten: There are at least four good candidates at this juncture, but give the slight edge to Michigan’s John Beilein (28) – yes, even after the Wolverines coughed up that hairball at Indiana on Sunday. He lost All-American candidate center Mitch McGary 13 games ago, and Michigan is 12-1 in that time. Tom Izzo is giving chase, with his injury-plagued Spartans tied with the Wolverines for first in the league.
Pac-12: Sean Miller (29), Arizona. It’s been a brilliant season in Tucson, surpassing what were already high expectations. If Miller can keep the Wildcats operating at title-contender status without the injured Ashley, he’ll put a hammerlock on this award. If not, Mike Montgomery of California is an option.
Southeastern: Billy Donovan (30), Florida. This is every bit as close as the ACC race. Donovan is the only realistic candidate at this point.
Kudos to Friend of Minutes Seth Davis (31), the versatile writer/talking head for Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports, for his excellent new book, “Wooden: A Coach’s Life.” Davis ventured into tricky territory with this book, writing about a man who had almost become a secular saint over the years since his retirement at the top of his profession in 1975.
Davis gave due respect and credit to Wooden’s myriad positives and accomplishments without diving headfirst into mythologizing the UCLA legend. That’s been done often enough. Davis dared go where few writers have gone before – in particular, booster Sam Gilbert’s relationship with UCLA basketball. The result is a clear-eyed, compelling appraisal of the most successful coach in college hoops history. Read it.
SATURDAY: SHOT-MAKER’S PARADISE
Rasheed Sulaimon’s shot to tie the Duke-Syracuse game and send it into overtime? Fabulous. But it didn’t win the game for the Blue Devils. Three other shots that beat the buzzer and the opposition Saturday:
Justin Cobbs (32), California. The 6-foot-3 guard’s fall-away baseline jumper over 7-footer Kaleb Tarczewski beat No. 1 and previously undefeated Arizona. The fact that it fell nine-tenths of a second before the final horn also gave us the comical image of Montgomery charging around the court bullying prematurely celebrating students back into the stands, embodying the grumpy old man dealing with these meddling kids.
Glenn Cosey (33), Eastern Kentucky. With the 15-7 Colonels down two and on the brink of a bad home loss to Southeast Missouri State, Cosey brought the ball up in the waning seconds and fired from the Colonel’s hat on the McBrayer Arena floor. His 37-footer banked in as time expired for the win.
Dylan Garrity (34), Sacramento State. The above shots were great. But they’re veritable layups compared to Garrity’s bomb that capped a completely berserk ending to the Weber State-Sac State game. There were three technical fouls and two 3-point shots in the final 15 seconds, with the final play being Garrity’s 75-foot dead swish. That shot may be the difference between Sac State (8-11 overall, 4-6 in the Big Sky) making the seven-team Big Sky conference tournament or being left out. It also allowed the Hornets to beat perennial power Weber State for just the fifth time in last 40 meetings.
ROAD WARRIORS OF THE WEEK
Each week The Minutes salutes the teams that accomplish the most difficult of all tasks in college hoops: winning league games on the road. This week’s honor roll:
Northwestern at Wisconsin and Minnesota. Combine those two victories with the Wildcats’ win at Indiana on Jan. 18 and this is a downright revolution. According to the Big Ten Network, this is Northwestern’s first three-game league road winning streak in 54 years.
Penn State (35) at Ohio State. It’s not just that the Nittany Lions are perennially inferior to the Buckeyes, having lost 18 straight to them. It’s not just that Pat Chambers’ team was 1-6 in the Big Ten. You take those two glum facts, and add this degree of difficult: Penn State was down 11 with eight minutes to play. Yet somehow, the Nittanies battled back and won. They’ve now won three straight Big Ten games, for the first time since the 2011 conference tournament.
Cincinnati (36) at Louisville. The Bearcats had this game totally in control, leading by 17 early in the second half. Then the Cardinals had one of their patented runs, roaring back for a three-point lead with five minutes still to play. Cincy showed its veteran poise and toughness, regrouping and pulling out a three-point victory behind stud guard Sean Kilpatrick.
Baylor at Oklahoma State. The underachieving Bears hadn’t done anything on the road in Big 12 play, and not much at home either. But they went into Gallagher-Iba Arena Saturday and played up to their talent level, leading most of the way and then finishing strong for their best win since beating Kentucky on Dec. 6.
Clemson (37) at Florida State. Why does it matter? Because these are two bubble teams, and road wins against decent opposition will be worth their weight in gold when the selection committee gets down to scrubbing the resumes of the last at-large candidates. Of course, Clemson’s win was only payback for Florida State winning in Littlejohn Coliseum earlier this year.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Craig Robinson (38), Oregon State. The First Brother-In-Law looked like he was headed for a pink slip coming into the season – and that was before his Beavers opened with a loss to Coppin State. But after upsetting UCLA on Sunday and sweeping the Los Angeles schools in Corvallis, Oregon State is part of a five-team tie for fourth place in the Pac-12 at 5-4. The Beavers also have beaten Maryland, Oregon and Stanford, putting together a respectable season amid very low expectations. It still could get ugly before it’s over, but for now Robinson is doing solid work and at least giving his administration an argument for being retained.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Travis Ford (39), Oklahoma State. The triple-overtime loss to Iowa State on Monday night was only the latest bad news for Ford’s Cowboys. Earlier in the day, he had to dismiss freshman guard Stevie Clark, who proved to be an incorrigible knucklehead in his short time with the program. Ford’s All-American guard, Marcus Smart, has developed the unseemly habit of flopping for fouls – and bricking shots (4-for-33 from 3-point range his last five games). Once a top-10 team, Oklahoma State has lost four of its last five games. Have a bus token, Travis.
When hungry in Syracuse, a visit to Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (40) is mandated. The frozen tundra of upstate New York is not the prototypical place to look for good ‘cue, but Dinosaur is legit. Get the ribs and thank The Minutes later.