Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball, where everyone needs to play nice this week:
THE FAN PROBLEM IN COLLEGE BASKETBALL
In the aftermath of Marcus Smart’s meltdown in Lubbock, it is time to discuss the fan who helped goad the Oklahoma State star into a regrettable outburst that will become a permanent part of his basketball legacy. Jeff Orr (1), the Texas Tech diehard who took it upon himself to call Smart “a piece of crap*” from close range late in the Red Raiders’ upset win Saturday night, has fortunately pledged to shut the hell up and stay the hell away from United Spirit Arena for the remainder of the season. (*The Oklahoma State radio broadcast team said Saturday night it overheard Smart telling an assistant coach that Orr called him a racial slur, but in announcing the guard’s suspension Sunday night, the school refused to divulge what Smart said he heard.)
Fans like Orr are a detriment to the game, often failing to comprehend that they are heckling real human beings who are competing like heck for their viewing pleasure – and in the college game, human beings who are at an age where impulse control is still a difficult concept. The hecklers expect composure from everyone on the court, but not from themselves.
Unfortunately, Jeff Orr can be found in virtually every college basketball arena in the country.
It wasn’t just the debacle at Texas Tech (2) on Saturday. The same night, Oregon assistant coach Brian Fish said he and trainer Clay Jamieson were spit at by a student at Arizona State (3) at halftime of the game in Tempe.
The basketball court is more accessible to fans than the playing surface in any other major sport – which is part of its appeal but also part of the inherent risk. The Jeff Orrs have seats closer than ever to the competition, in part because most schools displaced the media from courtside in order to sell those seats for big bucks. Many of those fans are more emboldened than ever to attack the players verbally – some students, but many others full-grown adults.
“I definitely think there’s a line,” said Indiana coach Tom Crean (4). “ … You can’t just rely on human decency to override the passion for the game. The line gets crossed constantly.”
Said Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings (5): “I think fans more and more are of the opinion that they can say whatever they want without regard or without ramification. That it comes with the price of admission.”
Added Iowa coach Fran McCaffery (6): “I’ve been around for a long time and quite honestly … I’m surprised it hasn’t happened more.”
Several coaches cited social media as an escalating component in fan/athlete tensions. The more personal information players put out into the public domain about themselves, the more it can be used against them by opposing fans. And given the amount of time players spend scrolling through social media sites on their phones, they will inevitably come across scores of angry people out there willing to (anonymously) call them every vulgar word in the English language.
“Fans can get to the players in more ways than just showing up for the games,” said Northwestern coach Chris Collins (7).
Thus a player with rabbit ears for criticism off the court is quite likely to carry a defensive posture with him onto the court. Playing angry may work for Wichita State, but literal anger is not conducive to nobly enduring the verbal slings and arrows of outrageous fans.
So what can be done to improve the overall atmosphere at college hoop games and hopefully prevent future Marcus Smart-style incidents? A few suggestions – none of them groundbreaking, but worth repeating as we head into the most heated part of the season:
Self-police the idiots (8). It’s not easy to do, but fans should feel a responsibility to tell an abusive cohort to back off, or to alert arena security. Or, postgame, to contact the school and provide administrators with information on where the troll was sitting and what he/she was saying. If good people sit back and allow louts to taint the reputation of their school, they’re culpable as well.
Coach involvement (9). They are the leading men in the game, handsomely paid and possessing more clout than any other coaches in sports. So they should help lead in this area if they want to improve fan behavior.
Collins referenced several times during his days as a player and assistant coach at Duke when Mike Krzyzewski personally told the famed Cameron Crazies to cease and desist when heckling crossed the line of decency. Of course, Collins also pointed out that the intimate venue size (9,314 seats) and stature of the head coach made that sort of in-game interjection more feasible. But every arena has video boards now, and this would seem like a good time for a reminder video from coaches to fans about the expectation for treating visiting teams.
“You don’t want it to be a great experience for the road team, but you don’t want it to be so abusive that it breaks their spirit of what they’re out there to do,” Crean said. “I think that’s where the line gets crossed a lot of times.”
School/league involvement (10). Florida coach Billy Donovan lauded the Southeastern Conference initiative started a few years ago that mandates security for visiting teams in the event of a court-storming and also hits the home teams in the wallet. Storming the court or field carries a fine, and that fine escalates significantly after the first offense.
League newcomer Missouri also has taken it upon itself to eject its oldest student cheering section, the infamous Antlers, en masse twice this season for inappropriate chants.
“We just want to make sure that folks are representing the institution with class,” athletic director Mike Alden said at the time.
That should be the goal everywhere. Coaches want a rowdy crowd and athletic directors don’t want to alienate season-ticket holders – but nobody wants a Jeff Orr-Marcus Smart confrontation in their arena. So it’s time to do whatever is possible to make sure it doesn’t happen.
COACHES UNDER PRESSURE
With less than five weeks until Selection Sunday, it’s time to check the temperatures of some prominent coaching seats around the country. Which coaches have gotten themselves out of good graces with the fans – and possibly the administrators who employ them:
Travis Ford (11), Oklahoma State.
Tenure: Sixth season; 120-71 overall, 48-46 in Big 12 play.
This year: 16-7 overall, 4-6 in Big 12.
The problem: Smart’s unraveling in recent weeks compounds the issues for Ford, who has been accused of losing control of his program. He also recently had to dismiss freshman point guard Stevie Clark after his second arrest of the season. A team that began the year in the Top 10 has free-fallen onto the NCAA tournament bubble.
The potential saving grace: Ford is said to still have the backing of the school administration – although that’s the case for everyone in the first half of February. And the Cowboys still could make the Big Dance. Playing the next three games without Smart will be hugely difficult for a team already in a tailspin, but if Smart comes back with his head on straight, Oklahoma State has the talent to finish strong.
Tony Barbee (12), Auburn.
Tenure: Fourth season; 46-69 overall, 15-45 in SEC play.
This year: 11-10 overall, 3-7 in SEC.
The problem: Even with the league at a miserably low ebb in recent years, Auburn has been at the bottom of it. This is probably Barbee’s best team at the school, but the Tigers still are tied for 11th in the SEC with a team featuring several upperclassmen.
The potential saving grace: Auburn started off a recent four-game stretch of respectability by routing Alabama. At a school that really doesn’t care about basketball, that has to help (so would sweeping the season series when the two meet on March 1). But Auburn did care enough to build a new arena a couple years back, so they’d probably like to have a competitive team in it – and that plan shouldn’t include Barbee.
Oliver Purnell (13), DePaul.
Tenure: Fourth season; 40-78 overall, 8-57 in Big East play.
This year: 10-14 overall, 2-9 Big East.
The problem: DePaul was overmatched in the old Big East, but things were supposed to get better when heavyweights like Louisville, Syracuse, Connecticut, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati shipped out. Yet there are the Blue Demons in their customary spot at the bottom of the league standings – and suspended leading scorer Cleveland Melvin is no longer enrolled in school, DePaul announced Monday. They’ve lost six straight and are fortunate the streak isn’t 13: DePaul’s only victories since mid-December have come by two points, one point and five points in double overtime.
The potential saving grace: Purnell will still have three years left on his original seven-year contract after this season, and this isn’t a school well-equipped to throw around buyout cash. That’s about it for saving graces.
Steve Donahue (14), Boston College.
Tenure: Fourth season; 52-69 overall, 22-38 in ACC play.
This year: 6-17 overall; 2-8 in ACC.
The problem: The only Division I team the Eagles have beaten since Thanksgiving is Virginia Tech (twice). Which, come to think of it, should probably put Hokies coach James Johnson on the hot seat too (but it's just his second year). An atrocious defensive team, BC is working on a third straight losing season after Donahue debuted with a 21-13 mark. The transition from the Ivy League has not worked.
The potential saving grace: None foreseeable.
Jeff Bzdelik (15), Wake Forest.
Tenure: Fourth season; 48-69 overall, 15-45 in ACC play.
This year: 14-9 overall, 4-6 in ACC.
The problem: Atmosphere has been toxic for a long time, as fans have mobilized against a guy who was not a popular hire to begin with. Bzdelik is winless in the ACC tournament and obviously hasn’t come close to earning an NCAA bid. This season was an improvement but has veered into troubled waters recently with three straight defeats, including a home loss to Georgia Tech. May need a strong finish to have a chance at a fifth year.
The potential saving grace: There has been gradual progress. Wake has gone from No. 271 in the Pomeroy ratings Bzdelik’s first year to 217 his second, 134 his third and now 99. Ron Wellman is a respected athletic director capable of tuning out fan noise.
Ken Bone (16), Washington State.
Tenure: Fifth season; 79-89 overall, 28-55 in Pac-12 play.
This year: 9-14 overall, 2-9 in Pac-12.
The problem: In a league with plenty of vulnerable coaches, Bone might be the most endangered. He had two seasons with future NBA player Klay Thompson and could not get into the NCAA tournament, and it’s been steadily downhill since then. Bone is 0-4 in the Pac-12 tourney and has lost five of his last six to rival Washington.
The potential saving grace: That one win against Washington did come this year, so maybe a sweep could enhance the chances of staying around (while simultaneously dooming the Huskies’ Lorenzo Romar). But there seemingly would have to be several other victories to go along with that.
Johnny Dawkins (17), Stanford.
Tenure: Sixth season; 109-81 overall, 45-55 in Pac-12 play.
This year: 15-7 overall; 6-4 in Pac-12.
The problem: Dawkins still hasn’t made an NCAA tournament, and at a school that excels in virtually everything that’s hard to swallow. The expectation this year was tourney-or-bust – and while it may happen, nothing is assured at this point. Dawkins has gradually upgraded the program to average within the league, but he needs an above-average finish this year.
The potential saving grace: With an absence of truly bad losses and some good wins, the Cardinal is in position to get that elusive NCAA bid. If Stanford takes 20 wins and a winning Pac-12 record into the conference tourney, expect to see Dawkins in the Dance and back for a seventh year on The Farm.
Stan Heath (18), South Florida.
Tenure: Seventh season; 97-103 overall, 37-82 in Big East/American Athletic play.
This year: 12-12 overall, 3-8 in AAC.
The problem: Heath has been living on 2012, when the Bulls went 22-14 and won two games in the NCAA tournament. But the record before and since is ghastly. He’s 6-23 in league play the last year-plus, and this year’s team can neither shoot from the outside nor handle the ball worth a darn. If this ends up being a fifth losing season out of seven, keeping him will be a tough sell – if the fans care enough to be outraged.
The potential saving grace: If the fans don’t care, maybe the administration won’t be compelled to make a move. And football has become such a grease fire at USF that it is probably demanding more attention and resources.
You have the right to remain nervous: Craig Robinson, Oregon State; Mark Fox, Georgia.
Working their way off the dreaded hot-seat list (for now): Rick Barnes, Texas; Herb Sendek, Arizona State; Phil Martelli, St. Joseph’s.
Next year better be good: Matt Painter, Purdue; Trent Johnson, TCU; Dave Rice, UNLV; Anthony Grant, Alabama; Lorenzo Romar, Washington; Kevin Willard, Seton Hall; Paul Hewitt, George Mason; Donnie Jones, UCF.
Feeling the heat at the mid-major level: Ben Braun, Rice; David Carter, Nevada; Louis Orr, Bowling Green; Buzz Peterson, UNC-Wilmington (but kudos to Peterson on upsetting Towson on Monday night for UNC-W’s first conference victory of the year).
RUNNING THE CONFERENCE TABLE
Eight teams are still unbeaten in conference play. Which ones can make it the rest of the way without a loss? (Spoiler alert: it's hard to win 'em all.)
League record: 10-0.
Rest of the way: Road games against No. 25 Pittsburgh, No. 8 Duke, Maryland, No. 17 Virginia and Florida State; home games against North Carolina State, Boston College and Georgia Tech.
Chance of winning them all: Slim. Too much competition in too many difficult venues. The Minutes foresees at least two losses down the stretch for the Orange, if not three.
But even if the Orange lose, they’re winners in the popular new crossover/hybrid sport of curlball. Inspired by Olympic events, Syracuse players tried their hand at curling on their basketball practice court Monday. Well done, ‘Cuse. All they need are those garish Norwegian pants.
League record: 10-0.
Rest of the way: Road games against Tennessee, No. 14, Kentucky, Mississippi, Vanderbilt and South Carolina; home games against Auburn, LSU and No. 14 Kentucky.
Chance of winning them all: Not going to happen. Don’t be surprised if the Gators drop at least one this week on their back-to-back trips to Knoxville and Lexington – they are just 1-11 in those locales in the last six years. Going to Ole Miss and Vandy won’t be picnics either.
Wichita State (21)
League: Missouri Valley
League record: 12-0.
Rest of the way: Road games at Evansville, Loyola Chicago and Bradley; home games against Southern Illinois, Drake and Missouri State.
Chance of winning them all: Excellent. After winning at Indiana State and Northern Iowa last week, the path is pretty clear for the Shockers. They have struggled historically at Evansville, but the Purple Aces are tied for last in the Valley. Maybe Bradley gives Wichita State a scare Feb. 25 in Peoria, but The Minutes expects the Shockers to be 31-0 and Division I’s first regular-season unbeaten in a decade going into Arch Madness.
San Diego State (22)
League: Mountain West.
League record: 10-0.
Rest of the way: Visits to Wyoming, New Mexico, Fresno State and UNLV; home games against Air Force, Utah State, San Jose State and New Mexico.
Chance of winning them all: Not good. With trips to The Pit, Vegas and the general difficulties of getting to Laramie, a loss is lurking out there for the Aztecs. Perhaps more than one. SDSU is the best team in the league, but not so far removed from the competition that it cannot be beaten.
Saint Louis (23)
League record: 9-0.
Rest of the way: At George Mason, VCU and Massachusetts; home against VCU, George Washington, Duquesne and Dayton.
Chance of winning them all: None. With two games left against the No. 2 team in the league, a trip to UMass and potential upset bids by bubblicious GW and Dayton, there are at least two losses out there with the Billikens’ names on them.
League: Colonial Athletic.
League record: 10-0.
Rest of the way: At Towson, Hofstra, UNC-Wilmington and College of Charleston; home against James Madison and Drexel.
Chance of winning them all: Unlikely. Blue Hens are demonstrably the best in the massively stripped-down CAA, but four of the final six are on the road. And of the six remaining opponents, Delaware only beat one of them by double digits the first time around.
Stephen F. Austin (25)
League record: 11-0.
Rest of the way: At Lamar, Sam Houston, New Orleans and Southeastern Louisiana; home against Northwestern State, Oral Roberts and Central Arkansas.
Chance of winning them all: Realistic. The Southland is another league that has been so picked-over by realignment that SFA is left with little serious competition. The game at Sam Houston State and at home against Oral Roberts are the only significant threats.
Georgia State (26)
League: Sun Belt.
League record: 10-0.
Rest of the way: At Troy, UT-Arlington, Texas State and Arkansas State; home against Texas State, Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana-Lafayette and Western Kentucky.
Chance of winning them all: Not great. Panthers have benefitted from moving into an easier league from the CAA, but they have road games remaining against one team they beat in overtime (Arlington) and another they beat by a point (Arkansas State) at home. At least one of those return games figures to be a loss.
MEMORABLE REGULAR-SEASON GAMES, REVISITED
Last week The Minutes listed the five most memorable regular-season games that came readily to mind – then put out a crowdsourcing call for assistance in fleshing out the list. Predictably, the knowledgeable, aspirational, endlessly wise Minutes readership responded with quality and quantity.
Last week’s list:
Notre Dame over UCLA in 1974. The end of the Bruins’ record 88-game winning streak.
Purdue over Indiana in 1985. The Bob Knight chair game.
Kentucky over LSU in 1994. The Mardi Gras Miracle comeback from 31 points down with 15 minutes to play.
Indiana over Kentucky in 2011. The Christian Watford shot that spawned the giddiest blueblood court storming ever.
Syracuse over Duke in 2014. An overtime classic in front of the largest-ever on-campus crowd that was the inspiration for the list.
Now, the reader-assisted additions to last week’s list:
Houston 71, UCLA 69 in 1968 (27). The first basketball game played in a football stadium – the Astrodome, specifically, a huge showdown that was played in prime time when there was no such thing as prime-time college basketball. The game matched Lew Alcindor and the No. 1 Bruins against Elvin Hayes and the No. 2 Cougars, with a then-record crowd of 52,693 in attendance (and in terrible seats). UCLA won the rematch that mattered in the Final Four and won the national title, but this was college hoops’ first true spectacle game.
Virginia 68, Georgetown 63 in 1982 (28). The first meeting between the most dominant big men of the post-UCLA dynasty period: Ralph Sampson against Patrick Ewing. Senior Sampson (23 points, 16 rebounds, seven blocked shots) outplayed sophomore Ewing (16 points, eight rebounds, five blocks). The fact that either of them were still in college is comical by modern standards. Both would be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft – Sampson in ’83 and Ewing in ’85.
Duke 98, Maryland 96 (OT) in 2001 (29). Regulation ended with what is known as the Miracle Minute: the Blue Devils scoring 10 points in 33 seconds to tie the game and then surviving a final shot by the Terrapins to get a certain loss into overtime. Duke won it there, on its way to the national title. Maryland would win it all the next year.
Missouri-Kansas series in 2012 (30). It was the perfect ending to a rivalry of endless bitterness and competitiveness. In Columbia on Feb. 4, the No. 4 Tigers scored the final 11 points to rally and beat the No. 8 Jayhawks, 74-71. Three weeks later in Lawrence, No. 4 Kansas erased a 19-point deficit to force overtime and beat No. 3 Mizzou by one. If they never play again, at least both sides can claim one of their all-time favorite victories in their final season together.
Duke 88, Michigan 85 (OT) in 1991 (31). The No. 1, undefeated, defending champion Blue Devils vs. a cocky gang of freshmen called the Fab Five. An expected Duke rout turned into a great game, with the Devils pulling it out in OT. They would meet again in the spring in the national title game.
ROAD WARRIORS OF THE WEEK
Each week The Minutes salutes the teams who manage to do the hardest thing in college hoops: win on the road in league play. This week’s honorees:
New Hampshire (32). Given just a five percent chance of winning by Ken Pomeroy, the 5-17 Wildcats shocked America East co-leader Stony Brook on the road, 73-69. New Hampshire, which at one point this season was 2-13, had lost seven straight to the Seawolves.
Virginia (33). The Cavaliers have won three straight on road, and The Minutes was remiss in not mentioning Tony Bennett’s team last week after winning at Pitt. The most recent road victory was by 19 at Georgia Tech. Virginia has outscored the opposition in the second half of its last five road games.
Cleveland State (34) has won five straight road games, including the last four in a row. The Vikings finally play a home game again Thursday against Illinois-Chicago. The Saturday home game against Green Bay will have major Horizon League title implications.
Yale (35). The Bulldogs won at Dartmouth and Harvard, with the latter being the victory that matters. Harvard had an initial 91.4 percent chance of winning, per Pomeroy. Instead the Crimson suffered its first home Ivy League loss since 2012. And Yale effectively ended any chance for its rival to earn an NCAA at-large bid if Harvard does not capture the egghead conference title.
Navy (36). Want to know the power of a rivalry? The Midshipmen went to West Point with a 7-15 record, 2-9 in the Patriot League and riding a six-game losing streak. The Cadets were 12-10, 8-3 in the league. Not only did Navy win, it blew out Army by 22 points. That outcome alone dropped Army 45 spots in the Pomeroy Ratings and elevated Navy 24 spots.
The Minutes’ weekly homage to a player who is doing good work at a lower-level program:
Neil Watson (37), Southern Mississippi. No player has meant more to the renaissance of the CUSA-leading Golden Eagles than point guard Watson. Since he arrived on campus, USM is 73-22 and pushing for its second NCAA tournament bid in the last three years under two different coaches. Watson’s stats are unspectacular, but he leads the team in scoring (11.9) and assists (4.0). Mostly, though, he has a winner’s mentality – Watson sank a 25-foot 3 with 1.6 seconds left to beat Marshall by a point Friday, and earlier in the season his last-second 3 forced overtime in an eventual victory over Georgia State. In 2012, The Minutes was in the house to see Watson hit a game-tying 3 at the buzzer against Tulsa in another USM OT victory. Watson injured an ankle over the weekend against Charlotte; here’s hoping he is healthy for the stretch run. Southern Miss won’t go far without him.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Tim Floyd (38), UTEP. Go ahead and admit it: you forgot about Floyd, didn’t you? Virtually the only news his Miners have made since he landed there in 2011, fresh off the scandal lifeboat from USC, was last month – that’s when UTEP had to kick three players off the team for gambling. Among them was leading scorer McKenzie Moore. UTEP lost its next game after that purging – and hasn’t lost since. The Miners have won eight straight and are tied for the lead in CUSA, adhering to the Floyd tenets of strangulation defense and dawdling tempo. Their game at Southern Miss on Feb. 22 could decide the league regular-season title.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Lorenzo Romar (39), Washington. His defensively indifferent Huskies have lost three straight, most recently a 25-point punking from a Colorado team that lost its best player a month ago to injury. His team is 2-7 in road/neutral games and is ticketed for a third straight season missing the NCAA tournament. Washington’s NCAA No. 1 seed in 2005 seems ages ago.
When thirsty in Larry Bird’s old college town of Terre Haute, Ind., The Minutes suggests campus hangout Ballyhoo Tavern (40). According to the trusty bartender, who was skilled in the fine art of opening a Dogfish Head Pale Ale and sliding it across the bar to The Minutes, the building is more than 100 years old and once served as a student dormitory. It has been a bar for the last 70 years, and features a striped awning with the appropriately wry “University Country Club” written on it. Stop in, reminisce about the 1979 Sycamores and thank The Minutes later.