Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (Jordan Bohannon (1) bobbleheads sold separately in Iowa City)
[More Minutes: 3 rivalries to decide conference titles, NCAA seeding]
LIVING WELL IS THE BEST REVENGE
Look at the standings in the sport and you’ll see an interesting thing: A lot of coaches currently at the top were deemed expendable by at least one school. Sometimes they were fired for good reason, sometimes it might have been a close call, sometimes it might have been a bad call. Regardless, as we enter the last three weeks of the regular season, there is some impressive Second Act coaching going on out there. The Minutes list:
Rick Barnes (2). Fired: At Texas, in 2015, by an athletic director who was pushed out less than six months later. Now: At Tennessee, where his Volunteers are 22-1 and ranked No. 1 in America.
Barnes won a ton of games at Texas and made the NCAA tournament 16 times in 17 years, but his best coaching days seemed well behind him by the end. His lone Final Four appearance was in 2003, and his last four years with the Longhorns produced a 35-37 Big 12 record and just a single NCAA tourney victory. He recruited a lot of superstars, but they rarely formed super teams.
Well, look at him now. Barnes is authoring what might be the best season in Tennessee basketball history with a total of zero Rivals.com Top 100 recruits on the roster. He’s basically doing the opposite of what his last several teams did at Texas — overachieving and outperforming their recruiting rankings. If Barnes isn’t the national coach of the year at this point, nobody is.
Texas since firing Barnes: 64-60 overall, 29-34 in the Big 12, two NCAA appearances, zero wins.
Bruce Weber (3). Fired: At Illinois, in 2012. Now: He has Kansas State (18-5, 8-2) two games up in the loss column in the Big 12.
It would be something if Kansas’ 14-year reign in the Big 12 is ended by in-state rival and perpetual foil K-State. It would be even more interesting if the coach who breaks the Jayhawk lock is Weber. He’s spent 15 years in the shadow of Bill Self (4): first by replacing him at Illinois, taking the guys Self recruited all the way to the 2005 national title game, and then failing to sustain that level of success; then by taking a job in a state where Self rules the roost.
Since arriving in Manhattan, Weber was just 2-13 against Self until last week, when K-State took down Kansas 74-67 to create a real possibility that someone else will win the Big 12 — and that someone else might actually be the Wildcats. Weber had plenty of K-State critics after his first four seasons on the job, but consecutive NCAA bids and an Elite Eight run last March quieted that. Now he could be moving from tolerated to celebrated.
Illinois since firing Weber: 120-109 overall, 46-75 in the Big Ten, one NCAA appearance, one win, two coaches (John Groce, Brad Underwood).
Kelvin Sampson (5). Fired: At Indiana in 2008. Now: He has Houston atop the American Athletic Conference and in position for its highest NCAA seeding since the Phi Slama Jama days in the early 1980s.
Nobody shed a tear over Sampson’s dismissal at Indiana after NCAA violations and myriad other off-court issues within the program, nor should they have. But after seven years away from the college game, he has made the most of his bounce-back opportunity at Houston.
The Cougars returned to the NCAA tournament in 2018 for the first time in eight years, and at 23-1 this season they’re on track for a top 16 seeding. Houston is doing it with trademark Sampson defensive vigilance, allowing just 42 percent shooting.
Indiana since firing Sampson: 195-161 overall, 84-109 in the Big Ten, four NCAA appearances, six wins, two coaches (also zero NCAA probations).
Brian Gregory (6). Fired: At Georgia Tech in 2016. Now: He’s clinched South Florida’s first winning season since 2012, with a chance for a single-season school record victory total.
After four years of struggle at Tech, Gregory appeared to turn the corner in year five with a 21-15 record. He was fired anyway, and spent the 2016-17 season at Michigan State with former boss Tom Izzo. South Florida, which had completely cratered under Orlando Antigua, came calling after one year and Gregory has quickly restored competitiveness.
With just one senior in the rotation, USF has risen into the top half of the AAC. The Bulls are 17-6 overall, 7-4 in the league, and take a five-game winning streak into a Wednesday matchup with rival Central Florida. USF has never won more than 22 games in a season, and could have a shot at eclipsing that this year.
Georgia Tech since firing Gregory: 45-48 overall, 17-30 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, zero NCAA tourney appearances.
Chris Jans (7). Fired: At Bowling Green in 2015. Now: Dominating the Western Athletic Conference at New Mexico State.
Jans, the former defensive guru for Gregg Marshall (8) at Wichita State, spent one successful season at Bowling Green (21-12) before blowing up his career with drunk and inappropriate behavior in a local bar. The school received video of Jans patting a woman on the behind at the bar, and there were claims that he made a crude comment to a different woman as well.
Jans was out of coaching for two seasons before resurfacing at New Mexico State in 2017. Since then he has gone 46-10, 19-3 in the WAC, making the NCAA tourney last year. This year’s team leads the league by two games and is on a nine-game winning streak, despite bringing in 10 newcomers. Jans is doing it by committee — a big committee — with 13 players averaging more than 10 minutes per game and 12 having started at least once.
Bowling Green since firing Jans: 61-60 overall, 27-37 in the Mid-American Conference, no NCAA appearances, also no scandalous videos of the head coach.
Ritchie McKay (9). Fired: At New Mexico in 2007. Now: In the midst of a third straight 20-win season at Liberty.
McKay spent two seasons at Oregon State, then jumped to New Mexico. In his third season the Lobos went 26-7 and made the NCAA tournament, but the two years before and after that high-water mark were pedestrian at best and he was dismissed after his fifth season. McKay then went to Liberty as head coach for two seasons before joining Tony Bennett’s staff at Virginia, and returned to Liberty in 2015.
The Flames won 21 games his second season, 22 last year, and currently are 21-5 and chasing Lipscomb in the Atlantic Sun standings. Liberty’s win at UCLA on Dec. 29 was the final blow to Steve Alford — who, ironically, replaced McKay at New Mexico.
New Mexico since firing McKay: 260-132 overall, 126-69 in the Mountain West, four NCAA appearances, two wins, three coaches.
Johnny Jones (10). Fired: At LSU in 2017. Now: In his first season at Texas Southern, where the Tigers are second in the Southwestern Athletic Conference.
Jones was, infamously, the coach who couldn’t make the NCAA tournament with the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, Ben Simmons (11). When he followed that season with a 10-21 bust, LSU moved him out after five seasons.
Jones inherited the best program in the SWAC from Mike Davis and wasted no time making his mark, upsetting Baylor to open the season and then taking down Oregon three weeks later. After playing a typically brutal SWAC non-conference season (11 road games, two at home), the Tigers are on a four-game winning streak and have the highest Pomeroy Rating in the league.
LSU since firing Jones: 37-19 overall, 17-11 in the Southeastern Conference, no NCAA tournament appearances (but the Tigers are a virtual lock to make it this season).
Jeff Jones (12). Resigned: At Virginia, in 1998. Now: He has Old Dominion in first place in Conference USA.
In eight seasons coaching his alma mater, Jones won six NCAA tournament games. The revered Tony Bennett (13) has won seven in nine seasons. Each has maxed out in the Elite Eight. After Virginia, Jones went to American University for 13 seasons and made two NCAA tourney appearances.
Now at ODU, Jones is working on his fifth straight winning season while still trying to crash the Big Dance. The Monarchs are 20-6, 10-3 in the league, with wins over Syracuse and VCU. But that’s a one-bid league, and ODU hasn’t been able to win the league tourney since joining CUSA in 2014.
ONE OTHER COACH MAKING A NAME FOR HIMSELF
Have you heard about the guy at Duke? His name is Mike Krzyzewski (14). Yeah, he’s got some guys this year.
True, he’s won a bit in the past — five national titles, 12 Final Fours, winningest coach in Division I men’s history, and so forth. But after sweeping Virginia, here’s something Coach K might be able to pull for the first time since 2010: a regular-season ACC championship (the Blue Devils haven’t been the sole champion since 2006). At 9-1, Duke is tied for the lead in the league with North Carolina, heading into the Tar Heels’ game Monday night against Virginia.
The current eight-year streak without a regular-season ACC title is the longest in Krzyzewski’s 39-year tenure at the school. At this point, you’ve got to like his chances to win all the titles that are available in 2018-19.
WHAT IS YOUR 2019 RECORD?
Among the key criteria evaluated by the NCAA tournament selection committee is overall strength of schedule, and a large part of that is what a team does in pre-conference play. Thus it’s important for teams to play quality opponents, and beat quality opponents.
But what if a team did all its heavy lifting early and has struggled within its conference, when the calendar flipped to January? If the team is from a Power Six conference, it probably will be forgiven — just win half your league games, or nearly half, and you’ll usually be taken care of with an at-large selection. Those outside the power structure find conference losses much more punishing.
Here are some of the teams staggering through conference play that stand a chance of taking up at-large bids, while mid-major teams are left out:
Ohio State (15). The Buckeyes beat Cincinnati and Creighton on the road before Thanksgiving — more than four months prior to Selection Sunday. That was part of a 12-1 start. The 2019 record: 4-6, including a loss to Rutgers and wins over four teams that right now will not make the NCAA tournament. Ohio State won at Indiana on Sunday to crawl back to .500 in the Big Ten at 6-6, but the quality of play in the game was nothing short of abysmal. Yet most mock brackets have Ohio State safely in the field as of today. (Indiana surely has played its way off the bubble with a 4-9 Big Ten record, including four straight home losses.)
Arizona State (16). Beating Mississippi State and Utah State in November, then Kansas in December, put a lot of résumé hay in the barn — enough to presumably offset bad losses to Vanderbilt, Princeton and at home against Utah. The Sun Devils were 9-3 heading into January. The 2019 record: 7-4, but it’s a pretty bland 7-4 in the dismal Pac-12. ASU scored what would have to be considered the only possible quality win of league play, beating Washington on Saturday, but that was two days after a 21-point home loss to 11th place Washington State. Losses to Stanford and USC haven’t aged well either. If ASU squeaks in the field for the second straight year, it may once again owe everything to Kansas for laying down twice.
Florida (17) has played many good teams and beaten almost none of them. Yet at 12-11, some people still believe the Gators are in the picture. If so, credit those “quality losses,” a blowout of Butler, and the fact that there are virtually no true bums on the schedule. The 2019 record: 4-6. With two games remaining against Vanderbilt and one apiece against Missouri and Georgia, Florida can get to eight conference wins. The question is whether it can find a ninth and get to .500, and get that Club Member discount from the committee.
Creighton (18) is the Florida of the Midwest — a team with a lot of losses to good opponents, and not many quality wins (hence the 12-10 record). Beating Clemson in the Cayman Islands on Nov. 21 is going to have to resonate with the committee, because not much else should. The 2019 record: 3-7. If either of the Bluejays’ two gut-busting overtime losses had gone the other way — Marquette in January and Villanova last week — there would be more reason to justify Creighton as a tournament team.
North Carolina State (19) has the requisite winnable remaining games to get to 9-9 in the ACC (Boston College twice, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest). But the foundation of a 12-1 non-conference record consists almost solely of a home win over Auburn. The 2019 record: 5-6. That includes consecutive wipeout losses to Virginia Tech (24 points scored) and North Carolina (96 points scored). If the committee really wants to include a team capable of turning in a 24-point performance in its showcase event, go for it.
Oklahoma (20) started 11-1 and had wins over Wofford, Florida, Dayton, Creighton and some other teams with good names (Notre Dame, Wichita State, Northwestern) but bad records. But the January-February product has been hideous. The 2019 record: 3-8, including a 30-point home loss to Baylor. The Sooners are on a four-game losing streak, and something will have to change drastically to get them anywhere near 9-9 in the Big 12.
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