SECOND HALF: CONFERENCE CALL
Checking in on the top 10 leagues in the country as we hit the February stretch run:
Big 12 (21). State of the league: Rarely been better, at least in terms of quality depth. But is there a national title contender in the group? Seventy percent of the 10-team league has a solid chance at the Big Dance, and four of those could end up with top-four seeds. The Big 12 also has the most exciting player in the country in Oklahoma freshman Trae Young, and there is legitimate intrigue as to whether perennial bully Kansas can win the league for the millionth consecutive season. Player of the Year as of now: Young. Coach of the Year as of now: Chris Beard, Texas Tech. Game to watch this week: Kansas State at Texas, Wednesday. Both teams looking for wins to solidify NCAA résumés.
ACC (22). State of the league: Intriguingly unsettled. Two-time defending champion North Carolina is tied for sixth at present, and just a game above .500 in league play. Clemson is in second, and the Tigers haven’t finished in the top two since 1990. Duke has lost to bubble team North Carolina State and non-bubble team Boston College. When the smoke clears, though, expect the ACC to have the most teams in the tournament. Player of the Year as of now: Marvin Bagley, Duke. Coach of the Year as of now: Tony Bennett, Virginia. Game to watch this week: Duke at North Carolina, Thursday. You’ll watch.
Big East (23). State of the league: Quite good 1 thru 7, and then a significant drop-off. A lot of skilled teams that can shoot and score, which makes for fun games to watch. After big dog Villanova, there is a solid second tier of teams that could make noise in March. Player of the Year as of now: Jalen Brunson, Villanova. Coach of the Year as of now: LaVall Jordan, Butler. Game to watch this week: Butler at Villanova, Saturday. Rematch of the only game ‘Nova has lost this season.
SEC (24). State of the league: Deeper than it’s been in a long time. Right now you could put eight teams in the bracket, which is amazing for a league that hasn’t had more than five in a decade. Two teams (Auburn and Tennessee) currently are in the hunt for a No. 1 seed. Kentucky and Florida have gotten flaky but remain dangerous. This conference tournament in a new location (St. Louis) could be wild. Player of the Year as of now: Collin Sexton, Alabama. Coach of the Year as of now: Cuonzo Martin of Missouri if you care about federal investigations; Bruce Pearl of Auburn if you don’t. Game to watch this week: Tennessee at Kentucky, Tuesday. Volunteers won in Knoxville, and the Wildcats are struggling.
Big Ten (25). State of the league: Blech. After the top three of Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan State, there’s little to like here. The list of disappointments is long, and the second tier is soft enough that underwhelming Nebraska, Penn State and the worst Indiana team in seven years all could finish in the top half of the league. If more than four Big Ten teams get in the NCAA tourney, the selection committee might have made a mistake. Player of the Year so far: Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State. Coach of the Year so far: Chris Holtmann, Ohio State. Game to watch this week: Ohio State at Purdue, Wednesday. First place on the line in West Lafayette.
Pac-12 (26). State of the league: About as bad as the football product. Top two teams in the standings (Arizona and USC) are both under federal investigation. Number of tournament teams may max out at four right now — and that’s if the bubble scenarios break the Pac-12’s way. There’s not a lot of guarding going on in this league. Player of the Year so far: Deandre Ayton, Arizona. Coach of the Year so far: Mike Hopkins, Washington. Game to watch this week: USC at Arizona, Saturday. First place on the line in Tucson, too.
American (27). State of the league: Arrival of Wichita State (17-5) and ascendance of Houston (17-5) has helped offset the slide of SMU and accelerated deterioration at Connecticut and Memphis. Cincinnati is the one constant, and could give the league its best NCAA seed ever (currently that honor is Louisville’s No. 4 seed in 2014). Player of the Year so far: Gary Clark, Oklahoma. Coach of the Year so far: Kelvin Sampson, Houston. Game to watch this week: SMU at Houston, Thursday. Battle of Texas could have NCAA ramifications.
Mountain West (28). State of the league: Better, for now, than the past two years, when the MWC was a single-bid league with disadvantageous seeding. Nevada looks like the best Mountain West team since San Diego State was rolling under Steve Fisher several seasons ago. Boise State is in the bubble mix, and a couple other teams could make a push for consideration in the next month. Player of the Year so far: Caleb Martin of Nevada, a North Carolina State transfer. Coach of the Year so far: Eric Musselman, Nevada. Game to watch this week: Boise State at New Mexico, Tuesday. Lobos are showing signs of life as the season goes on, in their first year under Paul Weir.
Missouri Valley (29). State of the league: There is life after Wichita (and before that, Creighton). Not as robust a life, perhaps, but life nonetheless. The only realistic at-large tournament candidate is Loyola Chicago (19-5), which is 8-4 away from home and beat Florida in Gainesville. Player of the Year so far: Milik Yarbrough, Illinois State. Coach of the Year so far: Porter Moser, Loyola Chicago. Game to watch this week: Loyola Chicago at Indiana State, Saturday. If the Ramblers want to stay in the at-large conversation, winning their final six regular-season games would greatly help.
West Coast (30). State of the league: Very good at the top, thanks to what might be the best Saint Mary’s team yet. Gonzaga is the constant, and the Gaels are always competitive, but at 23-2 overall and 12-0 in WCC play, Randy Bennett really has it rolling. Gaels’ current winning streak: 18 games. BYU also is hanging around the Big Dance bubble but has work to do. Player of the Year so far: Jock Landale, Saint Mary’s. Coach of the Year so far: Bennett. Game to watch this week: Gonzaga at Saint Mary’s, Saturday. Zags were upset at home by their rivals in January.
STREAKS IN JEOPARDY
Four streaks that could end this season:
Kentucky (31) has made at least one 3-pointer in 1,036 straight games, longest active streak in the nation. But the Wildcats have flirted with snapping the streak a few times this season — most recently in a dismal offensive performance at Missouri on Saturday. A Wenyen Gabriel 3 with less than three minutes remaining kept the streak alive. They only made one 3 in a loss at South Carolina, and went nearly 32 minutes into the game before making one against Florida. Kentucky is shooting just 33.5 percent from outside the arc, just 28.3 percent in SEC games. At the current rate of inaccuracy, a night without a 3 seems increasingly likely.
Iowa State (32) has been to six straight NCAA tournaments. But it might take winning the Big 12 tourney to make it seven. The Cyclones are 12-10 overall, 3-7 in league play and 0-6 in true road games.
Northern Iowa (33) has had 14 straight seasons of .500 or better records in the Missouri Valley Conference. But the Panthers are 3-9 at present, which means they have to run the table the rest of the way to finish 9-9. Seven times in league games, UNI has been held to 55 or fewer points.
Northwestern (34) has participated in one straight NCAA tourney. At 14-10, 5-6 in the Big Ten, the Wildcats appear destined to returning to sitting out the Big Dance.
MINUTES STAT OF THE WEEK
When it goes bad at Minnesota (35), it goes bad. The Golden Gophers currently are riding a five-game losing streak and have lost eight of their last nine, plummeting from the Top 25 to nowhere near the NCAA bubble. This marks the fourth straight season under Richard Pitino (36) that Minnesota has lost at least five in a row. The Gophers lost the first five Big Ten games they ever played under Pitino in 2015, dropped a whopping 14 straight in 2015-16, five straight in January 2017, and the current five-game skid. The expulsion of big man Reggie Lynch (sexual assault investigation) and the Big Ten schedule have combined to do this Minnesota team no favors; only one of its last six games has been at home.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Cuonzo Martin (37), Missouri. After three straight 20-loss seasons, hopes for a quick turnaround at Mizzou were pinned on superstar recruit Michael Porter Jr. Then Porter played two minutes in the season opener, underwent back surgery and may never play college basketball again (the NBA draft beckons). In addition to lacking the most heralded recruit in program history, Martin is making it work without any semblance of a reliable point guard in the lineup. Yet Martin has authored a spectacular turnaround season, highlighted by wins over Alabama on the road and Kentucky at home last week. Mizzou is 15-8 overall, 5-5 in the SEC and in most bracket projections at the moment. The Tigers haven’t played in the Big Dance since 2013.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Tubby Smith (38), Memphis. Fifty-five games into what seems like a terrible mistake, Smith’s Memphis tenure hit a new low in a loss at atrocious East Carolina on Saturday. That’s the same East Carolina that is 11th in the 12-team American Athletic Conference. For the Tigers, a fourth straight year without an NCAA berth seems inevitable, and two dismal seasons under 66-year-old Smith calls into further question the decision to hire him and give him a lucrative five-year contract. If there were some hope for a turnaround in Year Three, fine — but Smith has made no impact to date in recruiting. One decade after playing in the national title game, a proud city program is in danger of complete irrelevance.
When hungry and thirsty in the sneaky-fun city of Mobile, Alabama, The Minutes recommends a dinner at Dumbwaiter Restaurant (39). Get the oysters, freshly procured from the nearby Gulf of Mexico. Try a steak. And sample the works from nearby Fairhope Brewing Company (40). Thank The Minutes later.
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