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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (“Make DePaul Great Again” hats sold separately):
THE COACHING EDITION
Who Is Unexpectedly Killing It:
Fran McCaffery (1), Iowa. If The Minutes had to fill out a national Coach of the Year ballot today, he would be the choice. All the preseason talk in the Big Ten was about Maryland, Purdue, Michigan State and Indiana. The Hawkeyes were not in the preseason Top 25 rankings, and weren’t even in the top 40 among those receiving votes in the AP poll. Today, Iowa leads the conference, has been ranked in the top five for the past four weeks, and is a No. 1 seed in most NCAA tournament projections. With a four-senior nucleus led by potential All-American Jarrod Uthoff, Iowa could win the Big Ten for the first time since 1979.
Jay Wright (2), Villanova. The Wildcats were a 33-3 team last season, but lost three of their top four in minutes played: Dylan Ennis (transfer) and Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston (graduation). That figured to necessitate a step back. There hasn’t been one. 'Nova is 22-3, ranked No. 1 in every poll, human and computer, and has only lost once (in overtime) since before Christmas. Understandable skepticism remains about this team as an NCAA tournament favorite, but that doesn’t diminish the job Wright has done maintaining a high level of play.
Bob Huggins (3), West Virginia. Huggs is chronically underrated, perhaps because he’s not out beating Mike Krzyzewski and John Calipari for five-star recruits. But yet again, he has taken a team few people were talking about before the season and crafted it into a big-time winner. The Mountaineers are 20-5, tied for first in the murderous Big 12 and ranked in the AP Top 10. Press Virginia is a classic Huggins team: all confrontation, all the time. WVU leads the nation in turnovers forced and steals per possession, while also putting opponents on the foul line more than anyone else in the land. The next three games – at Texas on Tuesday, home against Oklahoma and Iowa State – may decide whether WVU can win its first Big 12 title.
Chris Mack (4), Xavier. His team entered the season unranked but wasted no time proving itself. The Musketeers had a brilliant non-conference run, with double-digit victories over Michigan, Alabama, USC, Dayton and Cincinnati. They haven’t let up much since, going 10-3 in the Big East. This is Mack’s best team, and it could earn Xavier’s highest NCAA tourney seed – the Musketeers have never been better than a No. 3.
Jim Larranaga (5), Miami. Every few years, Larranaga unleashes a surprise power. In 2013, his Miami team went 29-7, won the ACC and earned a No. 2 NCAA seed. His current, senior-led squad is trying to do the same. Unranked before the season, the Hurricanes are 20-4 overall, 9-3 in the ACC and are undefeated in February. If they can win in Chapel Hill on Saturday against league-leading North Carolina, they could have a strong say in who wins the ACC.
Andy Enfield (6), USC. For several years, USC basketball was missing and presumed dead. But after going 43-85 from 2011-12 thru last season, the Trojans have been found. Enfield’s third team since coming over after the Florida Gulf Coast miracle run has gone 18-7, 7-5 in the Pac-12, with a 14-0 record at home. It’s hard to go from 20 losses to 20 wins in a year, but USC looks like it will make that jump. And with no seniors in the rotation, this looks more like the start of an upward trend than a one-year blip.
Archie Miller (7), Dayton. The gifted young coach has endured plenty of personnel disruption – only three players have appeared in all 24 games – but the Flyers are 21-3. Key player Dyshawn Pierre did not play until Dec. 30, and there have been extensive adventures in small ball – nobody taller than 6-foot-6 on the court for long stretches. But with two losses by four points or less, and no losses since Jan. 9, Dayton has firmly established itself as an NCAA tournament team for the third straight year. And this time, there will be no need for a controversial play-in appearance in the home gym.
Frank Martin (8), South Carolina. If you can remove the last impression of the Gamecocks from your memory – a 27-point undressing at home against a Kentucky team that lost its coach in less than three minutes – this has been a great season. South Carolina already has its most SEC victories (eight) since 2009, and has a good chance to secure a bye to the quarterfinals in the league tournament. Wins earlier this month at Texas A&M and over LSU likely went a long way toward securing the school’s first NCAA tournament bid in 12 years.
Who Is Not Killing It:
Kevin Stallings (9), Vanderbilt. With a strong roster returning, the Commodores started the year in the Top 20. That didn’t last long, and even in an SEC that has offered several teams the chance to rise up, Vandy hasn’t been one of them. It’s true that 7-footer Luke Kornet missed five games with an injury, and the Commodores were 2-3 without him. But since he’s come back they’re just 7-5, 15-10 overall, and in need of a strong finish. If Vandy misses the tournament, it will be the fourth straight season after five bids in the previous six years.
Josh Pastner (10), Memphis. At a school that values basketball as much as Memphis, it’s hard to justify consecutive seasons being nowhere near good enough to play in the NCAA tournament. Yes, the unforeseen summer transfer of forward Austin Nichols certainly hurt, but in Year Seven, Pastner should have more in the bank to withstand such a loss – both in terms of personnel and in terms of public support if the season goes bad. The season has gone bad – Memphis is 14-11, 5-7 in the American, coming off a loss to an awful Tulane team – and Pastner may be gone soon, too.
Mark Gottfried (11), North Carolina State. If Gottfried is going to do what he does best – squeaking into the NCAA tournament after a regular season rife with underachievement – he’d best get busy. The Wolfpack is 13-13, just 3-10 in the ACC after losing Monday at Virginia, and still trying to live down home losses to William & Mary and Georgia Tech, plus road losses to Virginia Tech and Wake Forest (the Demon Deacons’ only league win of the year). N.C. State might need to win out to get into the bubble discussion, and that doesn’t seem likely with games remaining against North Carolina, Syracuse and Notre Dame.
Richard Pitino (12), Minnesota. He lost the nucleus of a team that won the NIT his first season, then slid to 18-15 last year. Now with an inexperienced roster, the bottom has fallen out in Year Three. The Gophers are 6-19 overall, 0-13 in the Big Ten, and two remaining games against Rutgers might be their only chances to win for the first time since mid-December. Minnesota still appears to be trying – five of their last seven losses are by six points or less – but cannot figure out how to finish a game.
Johnny Jones (13), LSU. The Tigers are a tricky team to appraise. They’re tied for first in the SEC, yet only recently seem to have gained secure footing in the NCAA tourney bracket. There were player absences early, but no team with the No. 1 pick in the draft should be down 22 to College of Charleston at halftime (ultimately losing by 12). A home loss to Wake Forest was bad, too. There’s still plenty of opportunity to author a great ending to this season, but for now Jones has not dazzled anyone with his work with a flush hand.
Danny Manning (14), Wake Forest. There were many hopeful signs early: neutral-court wins over Indiana and UCLA; victories over Arkansas and LSU; even a close loss at Louisville to open ACC play was seen as an indication that the Demon Deacons were on their way back to respectability. But now Wake is mired in a 10-game losing streak that includes home losses by 14, 20 and 28 points, plus the incomprehensible blown seven-point lead in the final 15 seconds against Virginia. Wake’s sixth straight season without making the NCAA tourney is assured unless the Deacons win the ACC tourney.
Steve Prohm (15), Iowa State. Prohm got the upgrade from Murray State in the summer, when Fred Hoiberg left for the NBA. While he’s certainly not bombed at 18-7 overall, neither has he thrived with one of the most experienced teams in the nation. On some occasions you wonder whether the Cyclones are tuning out Prohm – which might have been why he suspended center Jameel McKay for two games for something that happened in practice. Prohm might be trying to overcome Substitute Teacher Syndrome with the outgoing senior class.
SAME SURNAME, DIFFERENT RESULTS
Drew (16) Up, Drew Down: Bryce is having another great year at Valparaiso, where the Crusaders are 21-5 and playing some of the best defense in the nation. Scott just lost at home by 18 to Texas Tech – Baylor's third defeat in four games.
Rice (17) Up, Rice Down: King has positioned Monmouth, of all programs, for a potential at-large NCAA bid – and positioned himself as one of the hottest coaching commodities on the market. Dave has been out of a job since early January after failing to do anything with all the talent he had recruited in 4 ½ seasons at UNLV.
POTENTIAL JOB OPENINGS
There could be some big-time coaching positions coming open in the coming weeks. The Minutes takes a look at seven of them:
Louisville (18). Rick Pitino’s future has been the subject of great conjecture ever since October, when the escort scandal engulfed his program in scrutiny, controversy and an NCAA investigation. He’s coaching as well as ever and still has the support of many in the community, but this situation could be difficult to endure for him and the administration. Pitino may well face a suspension for multiple games next season, and a coaching change may further mitigate further NCAA punishment – in addition to the self-imposed postseason ban, which blindsided Pitino earlier this month. After 15 seasons it might be time for a reset. How good is the job: Among the best in the country. No expenses spared, no better facilities. Who might get the call: Athletic director Tom Jurich’s fall-back guy if Pitino did not come in 2001 was a little-known guy at Hofstra named Jay Wright. He’s turned out OK. But that was before he became an institution in Philadelphia.
Indiana (19). If The Minutes were the AD, Tom Crean certainly would be back next year. He’s 20-6, 10-3 in the Big Ten, despite losing leading scorer James Blackmon to injury 13 games ago. That’s great work – and his buyout still is no small sum. But for many Hoosiers fans who alternate between hating Crean (like after the loss to Penn State) and loving him (beating Iowa five days later), the NCAA tournament will tell the tale. Indiana hasn’t won a game in the tourney since 2013, when it was upset in the Sweet 16, and hasn’t reached the Final Four since 2002. A good run would lessen the noise in the system. How good is the job: Elite. Everything is top-notch, including the home recruiting soil. Who might get the call: Assuming that Brad Stevens isn’t picking up the phone in Boston, maybe a Miller brother or Chris Mack. Maudlin alum sentiment will surface for Steve Alford.
Wisconsin (20). Greg Gard’s on-the-job interview is going better and better – the Badgers have won seven straight, after he started off 2-4 following the strange mid-December retirement of icon Bo Ryan. Despite Gard’s status as Ryan’s longtime right-hand man, and his good work of late, there are some industry insiders who believe Barry Alvarez wants to go after a big name. How good is the job: Better than it’s ever been. Great fan support, a very nice arena, and the Upper Midwest has proven to be fertile enough recruiting ground to win big. Who might get the call: Tony Bennett, Wisconsin native and former Badgers assistant, this could be your chance to come home if you want it.
Memphis (21). For reasons mentioned above, Josh Pastner might be running out of rope. His buyout is huge – a reported $10.6 million – but Memphis may well have to bite the bullet and pay it to start over and reverse the program’s slide. How good is the job: Very good, in terms of facilities and community backing and local talent. But life isn’t getting any easier outside the Power 5 conferences, as the media-rights revenue disparity continues to grow. Who might get the call: Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall may not leave one non-Power 5 job for another, but Memphis might have enough money to get his attention. If not – Bruce Pearl, anyone? Maudlin alum sentiment: Penny Hardaway.
Missouri (22). No sure thing that this job comes open, but the program has quickly become a quagmire under Kim Anderson. His record to date: 18-39. Anderson inherited a slew of problems from escape artist Frank Haith, including an NCAA investigation that resulted in the school self-imposing a postseason ban for this year. (Net result: Mizzou will miss one game in the SEC tournament.) But the former Division II coach hasn’t shown anything yet to prove he can get it done at this level. If Anderson has a chance to land local hotshot Michael Porter – the No. 3 recruit in the class of 2017 – that might earn him a third season. How good is the job: Iffy at present, which might also impact whether it comes open. If Mizzou can’t sell an attractive candidate on a program still working its way through the NCAA enforcement process, Anderson may get longer. Who might get the call: Jerod Haase of UAB might get a look, despite his Kansas roots. Maudlin alum sentiment died with Anderson.
Oklahoma State (23). There have been some high notes – including several wins in recent years over Big 12 kingpin Kansas – but Travis Ford's overall résumé is pretty average in eight years on the job, so it’s almost assuredly time for a change at a place that aspires to be better than average. How good is the job: Trails Kansas and Texas within the league, but better than most of the rest. Who might get the call: Feels like a Gregg Marshall job to The Minutes. Maudlin alum sentiment will be with TV/radio guy Doug Gottlieb, and Doug Gottlieb will do his best to stoke that sentiment.
Georgia Tech (24). Brian Gregory is well on his way to a fifth straight season without an NCAA bid, something that hasn’t happened at Tech since the first half of the 1980s. That should be enough. How good is the job: There are better ones in the ACC, certainly, but with a refurbished arena and the same surplus of local talent, Georgia Tech is a place where a good coach can win. (If that coach can navigate the occasionally turgid recruiting waters of Atlanta.) Who might get the call: This could be a spot for King Rice or Bryce Drew, or perhaps Jerod Haase. Maudlin alum sentiment for Mark Price or Craig Neal not likely to be heeded.
The X-factor in all this: Roy Williams and North Carolina. If Williams decides to retire, that changes the pecking order rather substantially.
Already open: UNLV. Other Power 5 jobs not mentioned above that are very likely to come open: Rutgers, TCU. Next level down: Tulane, Central Florida, East Carolina.
FIVE THAT NEED A GOOD WEEK
The Minutes looks at five teams facing a couple of big games that could upgrade seeding, stop a slide or otherwise change the tenor of the season:
Duke (25). The games: at North Carolina Wednesday, at Louisville Saturday. The Blue Devils (19-6, 8-4) slid out of the Top 25 for a couple of weeks, but returned Monday on the strength of a four-game winning streak. The highlight of said streak: Grayson Allen’s buzzer-beater to beat Virginia Saturday, which was basically a Swallow the Whistle Special. (Allen traveled twice and was bumped twice, none called.) If Duke is going to be Duke and compete for the ACC and national titles, this seems like a great week to show it.
Connecticut (26). The games: SMU Thursday, at Cincinnati Saturday. The Huskies haven’t missed the NCAA tournament in consecutive seasons since 1988-89. They missed last year. At present, they’re in the bracket – but if they want to stay that way and avoid a bad '80s flashback, at least a split of these two games would go a long way. The Huskies don’t have any bad losses, but they could use another quality win to firm up the résumé. Here are a couple of chances.
Texas A&M (27). The games: Mississippi Tuesday, Kentucky Saturday. The Aggies’ feel-good season started feeling bad the last two weeks – they’ve lost four straight and five of the last six. This is an opportunity to halt the tailspin, restore confidence and possibly get back into the SEC title race if they can beat the Wildcats. The scheduling gods have given A&M a break: Kentucky plays Tennessee on Thursday night in Lexington. Texas A&M gets a 48-hour preparation advantage and UK has to travel.
Oklahoma (28). The games: at Texas Tech Wednesday, at West Virginia Saturday. The Sooners have wobbled a tad lately, losing two of their last three and the win was a controversial escape at home against Texas. They’ll have to play a little better to avoid a road sweep this week. The Red Raiders beat Iowa State and Baylor last week to rejuvenate their season, and Oklahoma has lost its last two games at West Virginia.
USC (29). The games: Colorado Wednesday, Utah Sunday. The Trojans are undefeated at home this season, and two victories would keep them in the race for the Pac-12 title and/or a first-round tourney bye in a tightly packed league. With just two games in the loss column separating third and 10th in the conference, weekend home stands are huge. If USC wins out in the Galen Center, it will have 11 Pac-12 victories for the first time since 2008.
YEAR OF THE MID-MAJOR?
In a season of complete flux in the power conferences, maybe this is the time to take a more open-minded look at some mid-major teams as potential at-large selections for the tournament. These are teams that can’t schedule their way to a dozen non-conference victories, and often have to endure some brutal travel trials. Yet these seven teams have authored excellent records and deserve strong consideration should they fall short in what traditionally are one-bid leagues:
Chattanooga (30). Conference: Southern. Record: 23-4, 12-2. Power ratings: 33 RPI, 80 KenPom, 93 Sagarin. Best win: at Dayton (No. 12 RPI). Worst loss: at Western Carolina (No. 218 RPI). But here’s the thing about that worst loss: it fell during an obscene stretch of SoCon scheduling. Chattanooga played seven games in a 15-day stretch between Jan. 30 and Feb. 13. On consecutive weeks, the Mocs played Monday-Thursday-Saturday – and the second week was all on the road. That’s part of the price for having your mid-major tournament on ESPN’s Championship Week: it compresses the time for playing the regular season. So you endure some ugly scheduling pileups.
Even for a team that is demonstrably the best in its conference, seven games in 15 days is an invitation to collapse and lose a bunch of them. First-year coach Matt McCall, a former Billy Donovan assistant, relayed the travelogue from the last four games: the Mocs played Furman on Saturday; left Sunday at 4 p.m. ET for a three-hour bus ride to Mercer; played Monday night and returned to Chattanooga at 2 a.m. Tuesday; left again Wednesday for a four-hour bus ride to Western Carolina; played and lost Thursday night; bused 3 ½ hours directly to Johnson City, Tenn.; played Saturday with first place in the league on the line; won the game and straggled home late that night.
McCall’s one word to describe the journey from Florida to Chattanooga: “Humbling.”
“At Florida, you bus to the airport to get on a private plane,” he said. “Here, you’re busing as much as six, seven, eight hours. You’ve got to be tough. Your kids have to be resilient.
“We didn’t play well against Western Carolina. But if you told me before the season you’re going to play seven games in 15 days and go 6-1, I’d probably take that.”
Monmouth (31). Conference: Metro Atlantic Athletic. Record: 22-5, 14-2. Power ratings: 35 RPI, 55 KenPom, 67 Sagarin. Best win: Notre Dame (No. 19 RPI) on a neutral floor. Worst loss: at Army (No. 235 RPI) three days after Christmas, at the end of a four-road-games-in-14-days stretch. With victories over USC, Notre Dame, UCLA and Georgetown, it would be difficult to argue against the Hawks at this point.
Arkansas-Little Rock (32) Conference: Sun Belt. Record: 22-3, 12-2. Power ratings: 51 RPI, 45 KenPom, 68 Sagarin. Best win: at Tulsa (No. 43 RPI). Worst loss: at Arkansas State (No. 256), a rivalry game the Trojans trailed by 18 at the half before closing within one in the last minute and losing by three. UALR allows the fewest points per game in the nation, has two RPI Top 50 road wins (San Diego State is the other), and its three losses are by a total of 19 points.
Valparaiso (33) Conference: Horizon. Record: 21-5, 11-2. Power ratings: 66 RPI, 29 KenPom, 46 Sagarin. Best win: at Oregon State (No. 38 RPI). Worst loss: at Ball State (No. 167 RPI) in the third of three road games in six days the week of Thanksgiving. Valpo missed a 3-pointer to tie at the buzzer.
Stony Brook (34) Conference: America East. Record: 22-4, 13-0. Power ratings: 55 RPI, 54 KenPom, 69 Sagarin. Best win: Princeton (No. 41 RPI). Worst loss: at Western Kentucky (No. 202 RPI) by a point, in a game that started 41 hours after the Seawolves played at Vanderbilt.
Akron (35) Conference: Mid-American. Record: 20-5, 9-3. Power ratings: 48 RPI, 68 KenPom, 83 Sagarin. Best win: at Ohio (No. 77 RPI). Worst loss: at Central Michigan (No. 169 RPI).
Hawaii (36) Conference: Big West. Record: 20-3, 9-1. Power ratings: 85 RPI, 52 KenPom, 64 Sagarin. Best win: UC Irvine (No. 74 RPI). Worst loss: Long Beach State (No. 88 RPI).
The Monmouth Bench Mob beats Michael Phelps and the Arizona State Curtain of Distraction for the best sideline distraction of 2015-16. The Minutes thanks those who voted.
New Reader Poll Question: Which is your favorite Mountain West Conference officiating imbroglio of 2015-16?
Been a great year for the stripes in that league.
The Minutes’ weekly appreciation for a player doing good work at a lower-profile program:
Kay Felder (37), Oakland. The 5-9, 176-pound junior is producing at a jaw-dropping rate as the hub of coach Greg Kampe’s no-holds-barred offense. Felder leads the nation in assists (9.1) and is fourth in scoring (24.7), and had a 15-point, 12-dime game Monday night in a victory at Wright State. Felder also continued his perfect February from the foul line – he’s now made 46 straight heading into a titanic, offense-versus-defense clash at Valparaiso on Friday.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Greg Gard (38), Wisconsin. As mentioned above, Bo Ryan’s replacement has gotten the Badgers off the mat after a brief transition period and back into the NCAA bid chase. The current seven-game winning streak featured home victories over Michigan State and Indiana, but took on added gravitas with the startling road upset of Maryland on Saturday. Gard has at least earned serious consideration for the full-time job.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
John Calipari (39), Kentucky. Though touched by the extraordinary apologia from ESPN’s Seth Greenberg Monday night – he was tired, he was stressed, the same ref should never give both technicals – The Minutes would like to hear an explanation of what really led to Calipari’s spectacular meltdown and ejection three minutes into the game at South Carolina on Saturday. Cal didn’t speak to the media after the game (for the second time in three years following an ejection at South Carolina) and batted away the question on the SEC teleconference Monday: “I can’t talk about it.”
So we’ll just assume that the official who ran off Cal, Doug Sirmons, is a corrupt and conniving skunk who has it in for Calipari. (As have so many other people throughout the coach’s career.) That’s a handy justification for Cal so completely losing his cool that he had to be restrained by numerous players and was escorted off the court with his shirt untucked and composure shredded. Go with that one.
When hungry in Oklahoma City, The Minutes recommends a stop at Iron Starr Barbecue (40). It’s slightly fancier than your classic barbecue joint, but still not pricey and definitely delicious. Try the deviled eggs appetizer, then go hard at the ribs. Drink an Abita Grapefuit IPA with it and thank The Minutes later.
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