Forde Minutes: Why college basketball is must-see TV this week

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports
NCAA Basketball: Duke at Syracuse
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C.J. Fair had 28 in Syracuse's win over Duke on Feb. 1. Will he take over again Saturday?

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (title and deed verifying ownership of Villanova on file in Omaha):

IF YOU HAVEN’T PAID ATTENTION YET, THIS IS A GOOD TIME TO START

We interrupt Bode Miller’s tears, the American speedskating uniform brouhaha, the Sochi stray-dog rescue efforts and Bob Costas Eye Watch to deliver this important news: this is the best week of the year so far in college basketball.

More precisely, the best weekend. There are fascinating and important games all over the place. Conference races, NCAA seeding and bubble drama will be hashed out from Saturday morning until Sunday night. The 10 weekend games you must be aware of if you call yourself a serious college hoops fan:

Syracuse at Duke (1). When: Saturday at 7 p.m. ET. The Rematch. The Orange were undefeated and No. 1 when the two played the Game of the Year on Feb. 1, and somehow they still are after a series of amazing escapes. It took overtime to subdue the Blue Devils. It took a 35-footer at the buzzer by Tyler Ennis last week to beat Pittsburgh. And it took multiple last-minute turnovers by North Carolina State to avoid a staggering home upset Saturday. They won’t need any luck to get past miserable Boston College on Wednesday, but then it gets difficult. Can Syracuse’s ridiculous good fortune survive a visit to Cameron Indoor? Syracuse caught one last good break, with Duke having to play a rescheduled rivalry game against North Carolina on Thursday and then taking on the Orange less than 48 hours later. With three games in five days, the Blue Devils’ not-terribly-deep roster will be challenged to the fullest. (Virginia, which is a game behind Syracuse in the ACC loss column, will also be rooting for a favor from Duke.)

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Cincy's Sean Kilpatrick put it on Louisville on Jan. 30. (USA Today)

Louisville at Cincinnati (2). When: Saturday at noon ET. Another rematch of a big-time meeting from a few weeks ago. The Bearcats got a huge lead, weathered a furious Cardinals comeback and won at the end behind the heroics of Sean Kilpatrick. Cincinnati is a game up on Louisville for first in the American Athletic Conference, and a victory in this game could almost cinch the league title for Mick Cronin’s team. But the Cardinals have been brutalizing teams since that loss and lead the nation in margin of victory at 21.3 points per game. If that holds up, it would be the highest since Duke (24.7) in 1999. Six of the last 15 national leaders in scoring margin won the national title (Kentucky 2012, North Carolina 2009, Kansas 2008, Florida 2007, UNC 2005, Duke 2001); two lost in the title game (Kansas 2003, Duke 1999); five had No. 1 or 2 seeds but were upset before reaching the Final Four (Gonzaga twice, Kentucky 2010, Duke 2002, Stanford 2000) and two were small-school outliers (Belmont 2011, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 2006). This game also matches two of the three leading AAC Player of the Year candidates: Kilpatrick against Russ Smith (Shabazz Napier of Connecticut is the third).

Texas Tech at Oklahoma State (3). When: Saturday at 1:30 p.m. ET. Last time these two teams played, Marcus Smart and Jeff Orr came together in the most regrettable in-game moment of the season. Smart hasn’t played since then, and this will be his first game back. The Cowboys were in free-fall even with their best player in the lineup, and that has continued during his three-game suspension. Oklahoma State will take a seven-game losing streak and 4-9 Big 12 record into what clearly is a must-win game.

Michigan State at Michigan (4). When: Sunday at noon ET. They’re the co-leaders in the Big Ten – for the moment. The Spartans and Wolverines appeared to have a hammerlock on the conference heading into February, but they now have three league losses apiece and Iowa is looming as a title contender as well. Key battle not only for Big Ten purposes, but also NCAA seeding purposes.

Florida at Mississippi (5). When: Saturday at noon ET. If the Gators (23-2, 12-0 in the Southeastern Conference) are going to lose a league game, this may be the biggest remaining threat. Ole Miss is not great, but it has won 10 straight SEC home games and is in need of big wins to get into the NCAA tournament. The Rebels and mercurial Marshall Henderson get their first resume-building home game of the week Tuesday against Kentucky, then welcome in the No. 2 team in the land. They’ll have to be ready to play the full 40, though, because Florida has become the ultimate closer: the Gators have outscored their last seven opponents by an average of 13 points in the second half.

Wisconsin at Iowa (6). When: Saturday at noon ET. The Badgers have won four straight, which makes them the hottest team in a league that is cannibalizing itself as the season wears on. A lot of people gave up on Wisconsin when it lost five of six between Jan. 14 and Feb. 1, but Bo Ryan’s team has regrouped impressively since then – including an authoritative win at Michigan on Sunday. In a league where seemingly everyone has had boom-and-bust cycles, Iowa hasn’t lost two straight all season. The Hawkeyes are pushing for a high NCAA seed and to stay in the Big Ten race.

Arizona at Colorado (7). When: Saturday at 9 p.m. ET. Two teams have different experiences since major injuries changed the course of their seasons. The Buffaloes have done an admirable job keeping the ship afloat since losing Spencer Dinwiddie, going 5-4 without their leading scorer and assist man. The Wildcats, once No. 1, are 2-2 since losing Brandon Ashley, their No. 3 scorer and No. 2 rebounder. On Saturday, Arizona goes to a place where it is 0-2 since the Buffaloes joined the Pac-12. And before that is a trip to Utah that won’t be easy either.

San Diego State at New Mexico (8). When: Saturday at 10 p.m. ET. The first of two meetings that will decide who wins the Mountain West Conference. The Aztecs (22-2, 11-1) currently have a one-game lead on the Lobos (19-5, 10-2) and are still in the periphery of the No. 1 seed discussion, but haven’t played great lately. Leading scorer Xavier Thames made just 6 of 26 field goals in SDSU’s last two games. New Mexico power forward Cameron Bairstow, meanwhile, may be the most improved player in the nation (20.3 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, after averaging 9.7, 5.9 and 0.6 last year).

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Texas handled Kansas in the first meeting between the teams this season. (AP)

Texas at Kansas (9). When: Saturday at 9:30 p.m. ET. If the Longhorns win at Iowa State on Tuesday (big if) this game will have Big 12 title implications. Texas already beat the Jayhawks handily in Austin, and sweeping the season series could loosen Kansas’ eternal vice grip on the league championship. Bill Self’s team has played the hardest schedule in the nation by a wide margin, but six losses by mid-February makes it difficult to mount a case for a No. 1 NCAA tourney seed. The biggest question, literally and figuratively: will Jayhawks 7-footer Joel Embiid be 100 percent after a back injury last week?

SMU at Connecticut (10). When: Sunday at 2 p.m. ET. The Mustangs are one of the nation’s surprise stories, but their quest for their first NCAA tournament bid since 1993 has gotten more arduous with recent road losses to abysmal South Florida and Temple. (One horrible loss? That happens. Two and people start to wonder.) UConn, meanwhile, wants to add to its AAC collection of quality wins (two over Memphis, 0-3 against the rest of the league’s power teams).

Two other things to watch this weekend:

The officiating: Fans (and media, and coaches) complain too much about the refs, but there have been some poor no-calls and inactions in the last 10 days.

Start with the fact that Smart was not ejected at Texas Tech – although Big 12 supervisor of officials Curtis Shaw said his officials did not have jurisdiction to eject Smart, another supervisor of officials told The Minutes that’s not entirely true. The refs have the leeway to do what they need to do to maintain control of the game.

Then there was the lack of technical fouls the Iowa State-West Virginia game last week. Near the end of a Mountaineers blowout, the Cyclones’ Dustin Hogue went Bruce Lee kick-crazy and WVU’s Eron Harris responded with a punch to the neck of an Iowa State player. And nobody was ejected.

“Given time, score, how ugly both plays were, I toss them both w/ no fighting penalties,” one veteran supervisor of officials told The Minutes.

Finally, there was Arizona State guard Jahii Carson hanging on the rim for roughly 30 minutes Friday night against Arizona with no technical foul call. It’s a dumb rule – but as long as the rule is on the books, enforce it.

One other thing to watch: emblematic of Indiana’s freshman struggles, forward Devin Davis is 190 minutes into his college career and is still searching for his first assist. Maybe Davis can get one Tuesday against Iowa or Saturday at Northwestern.

THE FEARED BEARD

Being snowbound in Philadelphia can apparently cause men to get a little crazy. The Cardinals went to Philly to play Temple last week, had the game postponed a day – and then emerged with a teamwide vow not to shave until they lose a game.

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Billy Donovan's impression of Patric Young. (Credit: Gatorzone.com)

That includes everyone – players, staffers, assistant coaches and the head coach, Rick Pitino (11), who always keeps things interesting. Last year it was a tattoo after the national title and on the way to the Hall of Fame; this year it is what the coach says is his the first beard attempt of his life.

Through two games, the results are sadly scraggly. Pitino looks a bit like a vagrant in a $5,000 suit. He joked this week about adding some color to the gray scruff, but the only thing that will improve his appearance is a loss – and all things considered he’d rather look bad and keep winning.

This got The Minutes thinking about the historic lack of beards among college basketball coaches. After consulting with several other writers, the list of bearded hoops coaches is shockingly short – it’s pretty much former Seton Hall coach P.J. Carlesimo (12) and Florida Atlantic boss Mike Jarvis (13). (Whose beard was more pronounced and impressive during his St. John’s days.)

(True story: After Carlesimo nearly won the national title in 1989, he interviewed for the Kentucky job. Among the talking points surrounding Carlesimo’s candidacy for the job was whether the Kentucky coach can have a beard, or whether he’d have to shave it. Seriously. P.J. turned down the job to stay at Seton Hall, and Kentucky wound up hiring the beardless Pitino.)

There have been a few unremarkable goatees in recent years – but for the most part college basketball coaches are about as clean-shaven as service academy cadets. For whatever reason, you're as likely to see a beard on a presidential candidate as you are a hoops coach. Until Pitino’s latest stunt, the closest we’ve come to a coach with facial hair are Billy Donovan (14) and Frank Martin (15) putting on fake beards in honor of their own players (Patric Young for Donovan; Jacob Pullen for Martin).

In this conservative realm where the razor gets a daily workout, The Minutes is here to speculate on what other coaches would look good in facial hair:

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Frank Martin, with a fake beard. Because, why not? (Credit: CoreyBrinn.com)

Bob Huggins (16): Biker handlebar mustache. Think Paul Teutul Sr. from “American Choppers.” It takes a permascowl to properly wear the biker ‘stache, and Huggins has that in spades on the sidelines.

Tom Izzo (17): Mutton-chop sideburns. Role model: Nicolas Cage in “Raising Arizona.” Izzo is among the most overtly macho coaches in the country and could easily pull off the manly mutton chops.

Steve Lavin (18): Soul patch. The Bruce Springsteen/Billy Ray Cyrus micro-patch, not the Apollo Anton Ohno full-chin version. Why not?

John Calipari (19): Wax mustache. Not the kind currently in vogue with world-weary, skinny-jean hipsters tending bar in every major city near you. More like Snidely Whiplash or other cartoon villains. Cal could complete the look with a black top hat and tails.

Mike Krzyzewski (20): Chin beard, like Shaggy from “Scooby Doo.” Because what would be more preposterous than Coach K with that, especially dyed dark black?

Andy Enfield (21): Line beard. With big and gaudy facial hair in vogue, it’s time for L.A. to go counter-trendy with a subtle skinny beard. Steve Alford is not an option, so Enfield is the candidate – as long as his supermodel wife goes along with it.

Mark Few (22): Lumberjack beard. Believe it or not, he can pull it off. The Gonzaga coach is perfectly happy to disappear into the Pacific Northwest for a couple weeks of salmon fishing every summer and return with a full face of fur. Now if we can only get him to keep the beard for the season and coach in plaid shirts.

MOCK SELECTION REPORT

Last week, The Minutes was among a group of media members invited to attend the NCAA’s annual Mock Selection Committee meeting in Indianapolis. The Minutes attended the first one, several years ago, but had not been back since. Some things have changed, virtually all for the better. The biggest takeaways from 25 hours in the committee war room with the NCAA’s David Worlock, Jeanne Boyd and others:

Seeding lines 5-12 will be truer and fairer (23). The most significant change to the process is in seeding, where the rigid old rules of trying to avoid conference rematches earlier in the tournament have been relaxed. The reason: with conferences expanding, it’s gotten progressively harder to avoid conflicts, and the committee was skewing the seed lines too far to make its rules work. Now the goal will be to keep everyone where they were seeded to begin with.

So these are the new rules: play a team once in league play and you could meet them again in the round of 32; play a team twice and you could meet them again in the round of 16; play a team three times and you could meet them in the regional final – which used to be the old threshold for league competitors. Thus if, say, Syracuse is a No. 1 seed and Virginia is a No. 8, and the two don’t meet in the ACC tourney, they could conceivably match up in the round of 32 because they have only played once.

Bottom line: a No. 7 seed is not going to be jerked down to a No. 9 or inflated to a No. 5 anymore in order to make the bracket work. That’s a good thing.

The technology has advanced radically (24). Just a decade ago, NCAA staffers were using Velcro nametags to stick teams on a board. More recently than that, the floor of the selection committee war room was covered in so much paper it looked like a ticker tape parade went through. Gary Johnson, keeper of the NCAA’s RPI numbers for the past 30 years, said the RPI used to “eat my house,” due to the reams of printouts.

Now the process is virtually all electronic, and set up for maximum efficiency. In-house computer programmer Colin Chappell has developed software that makes every potential bracketing roadblock and conflict obvious, saving plenty of trial-and-error time. For an institution that doesn’t change easily, the NCAA has caught up with the technological times when it comes to filling out the 68-team field.

This year’s field looks diverse at the top (25). When the mock selection bracket was done, our top seven seeds were from seven different conferences. In order: Syracuse, Arizona, Wichita State, Florida, Kansas, Michigan State, Villanova. (Since then ‘Nova was blown out (again) by Creighton, which probably drops the Wildcats to a No. 3 seed, and Michigan State’s home loss to Nebraska sure didn’t help its standing). There are good teams from all over the country this year, which always makes for a better tournament.

The last four/first four (26) broke down this way. Last four in were Providence, West Virginia, Missouri and St. Joseph's. First four out were Dayton, Richmond, Southern Miss, St. John’s. Since then, St. John’s and Missouri have improved their standing with important weekend wins (the Tigers over Tennessee, the Red Storm over Georgetown). And Southern Miss has probably seen its bubble burst with consecutive blowout losses to non-tourney teams (UAB and Middle Tennessee). This will remain a very fluid situation from now until Selection Sunday, which is of course part of the fun.

SURVIVING INJURIES AND SUSPENSIONS

By this time of year, college basketball almost becomes survival of the fittest. Who has enough healthy (and eligible) bodies for the stretch run? The Minutes took a look at the top 25 teams in the Pomeroy Ratings and gauged who has dealt with a lot (in terms of injuries and suspensions) and who has dealt with a little.

Teams that have faced the biggest personnel losses:

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Sparty coach Tom Izzo has plenty of reasons to worry these days. (USA Today)

Michigan State (27). It’s SRO in the training room at the Breslin Center. The list of games missed: Gary Harris, three; Adreian Payne, seven; Keith Appling, three (and counting); Branden Dawson, eight (and counting); Kenny Kaminski, seven; Travis Trice two; Matt Costello, four. Izzo said Monday that Appling could be shut down for the rest of the regular season. Seeding the Spartans will be difficult unless they put a full team on the court in the Big Ten tournament and show that that will be their lineup in the Big Dance.

Louisville (28). Power forward Chane Behanan, a key part of the national championship run last year, was booted off the team 13 games ago. Guard Kevin Ware was shut down at the same time to continue recovery from last year’s ghastly leg fracture. Starting point guard Chris Jones missed four games, and wingmen Luke Hancock and Wayne Blackshear have missed one apiece. Despite all that, the Cardinals have a better record (21-4) than last year at this point (20-5).

Michigan (29). Powerhouse center Mitch McGary has missed 17 games, and will miss the rest of the season due to back surgery. Losing a lottery pick in December has not derailed the Wolverines, though. Their record is three games worse than last year’s runner-up at this juncture (18-7 now, 21-4 then), but Michigan remains in Big Ten title contention and remains a Final Four-level March threat.

Pittsburgh (30). The Panthers lost 3-point shooting threat Durand Johnson ten games ago to a season-ending knee injury. With him they were 15-1; without him they are 5-5.

Arizona (31). The Wildcats’ national title hopes might have gone down with Brandon Ashley when he broke his foot very early in their loss to California on Feb. 1. Everything has been a struggle since then.

North Carolina (32). The Tar Heels spent the first month of the season in limbo, playing without guards P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald and wondering when they could return. McDonald came back after nine games, and Hairston never came back at all due to NCAA violations. After five weeks of sorting out the pieces, Roy Williams’ team now has won seven straight and catapulted itself up to fourth in the ACC. Nobody feels sorry for Williams given the circumstances, but he’s done a nice job turning around a season that appeared headed off a cliff.

Who has gotten lucky: Virginia, Wichita State, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Kentucky. None has had a major player miss appreciable time due to injury, suspension or other issues yet this year.

ROAD WARRIORS OF THE WEEK

Each week The Minutes salutes the teams that pull off the hardest thing to do in college basketball – win conference games on the road. This week’s warriors:

Florida (33). Until last week, the Gators had lost six straight at Kentucky and seven out of eight at Tennessee. Then they swept their Interstate 75 rivals, performing with aplomb and toughness in crunch-time situations in loud arenas. Nobody in college basketball had a better week than Florida.

Wisconsin-Green Bay (34). After an upset home loss to Milwaukee loosened the Phoenix’s grasp on the Horizon League, they went on the road and took care of business twice. First was a 31-point massacre at Youngstown State, then came an authoritative win at Cleveland State in a game that all but decided the regular-season title. Green Bay (21-5) blew out to a 24-5 lead on the Vikings and was never seriously threatened en route to building a two-game league lead with three to play.

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Frank Kaminsky has the Badgers moving up in the feisty Big Ten. (AP)

Wisconsin (35). The Badgers thoroughly handled Michigan in Ann Arbor on Sunday, their third consecutive road victory – all by double digits. After losing five games out of six from Jan. 14-Feb. 1, Wisconsin now has won four in a row in a league with precious few soft spots.

California (36). After sweeping Washington and Washington State, the Golden Bears are now 5-2 on the road in the Pac-12 and 8-4 overall. Cal is now 6-0 against the league’s Pacific Northwest quadrant of the Oregon and Washington schools.

UNDER-THE-RADAR LOVE

Davon Usher (37), Delaware. After averaging 38 points, six rebounds and four steals in the Blue Hens’ previous two games – victories over College of Charleston and James Madison – Usher was held to 24 Monday night in a loss at Towson. The 6-foot-6 senior guard, a transfer from Mississippi Valley State, has attempted 42 free throws in the last three games and made 35.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Tim Miles (38), Nebraska. Yes, his Cornhuskers could qualify for Road Warrior status as well after shocking Michigan State in East Lansing. But the bigger picture is this: Miles has dramatically upgraded a traditionally lackluster product at Nebraska. Picked to finish last in the Big Ten, he guaranteed at media days in October that would not come to pass – and sure enough, at 6-6 the Huskers are closer to first than last in a brutally tough league. Everywhere he’s coached, the witty Miles has succeeded in having fun while winning – often a rare combination in big-time sports.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

John Groce (39), Illinois. His team has lost 10 of its last 11, bottoming out with a 39-point home effort Saturday against Ohio State. The Illini don’t have the interior players to pound it in, but can’t shoot very well from the outside, either. Which is why they’re last in the Big Ten. Maybe next year for Groce, who is 11-20 in Big Ten games since taking over for fired Bruce Weber.

BUZZER BEATER

When thirsty before or after a game in Columbus, Ohio, The Minutes recommends a stop at the Columbus Ale House (40), which is just a few minutes from the Schottenstein Center. There are a bunch of Ale Houses around the country, but just because it’s a chain doesn’t make it bad. Location and beer selection alone make it worth a stop. Try it and thank The Minutes later.

 

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