Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball, where God clearly is not a fan of realignment – His snowstorm having postponed the first-ever Michigan State-Rutgers Big Ten game and imperiled the first-ever Louisville-Boston College ACC game:
COLLEGE BASKETBALL’S BIG PROBLEM
Jay Bilas is the leading television voice in the sport – a smart, outspoken and fully confident guy who has both played and coached the game. And Jay Bilas basically says college basketball sucks right now.
Actually, “unwatchable” is the modifier he’s often used. He has a point.
Here is the biggest problem as it relates to the game as a whole: it is ugly and slow and unskilled.
Here is an ancillary problem specific to this season: the two teams currently atop the rankings aren’t helping.
The disappointing aspect of the overall pace and aesthetics of college hoops is that the sport’s decision makers were in the process of fixing it last year. And then they lost their nerve.
After a lot of early whistles and the beginning of a nationwide adjustment for the better, officials abdicated on calling it tight (1). At the start of conference play last January, we started backsliding to wrestling matches in the paint, hand-to-hand combat on drives, cutters bracing for collisions and secondary defenders collecting bogus charge calls. That has continued this season, with awful results.
“We made great progress a year ago … to try and limit contact in the game,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. “I think we can’t lose sight of that, because it helped last year. We need to stay the course with the rule changes made a year ago.”
Scoring has plummeted back to where it was before the refs tried to clean up the game – actually even a little bit lower. Not coincidentally, TV ratings are far from robust. There isn’t much fun to watch.
Yes, there is undefeated and top-ranked Kentucky (2) – a huge brand name and lightning-rod program. UK has a realistic chance to be 34-0 entering the NCAA tournament and make a run at being the first undefeated champion since 1976, which provides a meaty storyline for casual fans to gravitate toward. Chasing history is interesting.
But the twice-weekly grind of watching the Wildcats play is not exactly a thrill ride – and not just because they’re miles better than most of their competition.
Their primary attribute is sheer size – they may be the biggest college team ever. And sheer size is not terribly entertaining in and of itself. Sometimes huge can be fun – like when Willie Cauley-Stein (3) soars in to flush an alley-oop or block a shot into outer space. But even with all that size, this is not a great lob team – not like the Anthony Davis days at UK, that’s for sure. The offense is often more brute force than scintillating skill.
There are games where Kentucky’s best offense is throwing the ball at the rim, retrieving it and laying it in – per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers, the Cats are third nationally in offensive rebounding rate and 90th in effective field-goal percentage.
Brilliant shooting and creative ball-handling can be fun, and Kentucky has players who can do that – but the two best both come off the bench and are fifth and sixth in minutes played. Freshman Devin Booker (4) is the knock-down shooter and fellow freshman Tyler Ulis (5) is the deft handler – and they play behind the Harrison twins, sophomores Andrew and Aaron, who are having inferior offensive seasons to their backups, and inferior offensive seasons to their freshman selves. (In his last 10 games, Andrew Harrison is 7-for-39 from two-point range – a cringe-worthy 18 percent. Aaron Harrison’s shooting percentages also are down from last season across the board, as is his free-throw rate.)
There is no need for John Calipari to repair something that’s running just fine. He does not owe America a skills clinic. His job is to win games – and if he wins all of them, this team will go down in history as an all-time great. Even if he loses a game or two and just wins the last one, Kentucky fans will take it gladly. But when it comes to entertainment value, gigantic UK squashing the overmatched SEC is somewhere short of riveting.
Then there is the other unbeaten, Virginia (6). There are 351 teams playing Division-I basketball. All but one of them (American U.) plays at a faster tempo than the Cadavers – uh, Cavaliers. Just like his dad, Tony Bennett always has been a slow-down guy – yet this is his slowest team in nine seasons as a college head coach.
Watching Virginia beat Rutgers 45-26 or Georgia Tech 57-28 certainly is enjoyable for fans of the team. It isn’t for anyone else.
But as of now, Kentucky and Virginia are the two teams at the head of college basketball’s motley pack. So you can imagine what most of the rest of the nation looks like. Unwatchable.
SAVE IT FOR MARCH
Teams that have showed a lot so far – but none of it will matter if they flame out again in the postseason:
Gonzaga (7). Where the Zags currently stand: 20-1 and ranked third in the AP poll. Best wins: SMU, Georgia, St. John’s. Loss: by three points in overtime at Arizona. Skinny: There are a lot of people saying this is the best team in school history – a complete team of abundant size and skill, sufficient athleticism and veteran leadership. What’s the problem: Gonzaga has made 16 straight NCAA tournament appearances without reaching the Final Four, 15 straight without reaching a regional final and five straight without reaching a Sweet 16. That includes a round-of-32 ouster as a No. 1 seed in 2013 against Wichita State, and several other painful elimination games. There are abundant questions about whether the West Coast Conference sufficiently seasons Mark Few’s program for NCAA play. Until the Zags make a Final Four, those questions will remain.
Notre Dame (8). Where the Fighting Irish currently stand: 19-2 and ranked eighth in the AP poll. Best wins: Michigan State, at North Carolina, at North Carolina State. Losses: Providence by a point on a neutral court, Virginia by six at home. Skinny: The Irish are the nation’s most efficient offensive team, per Ken Pomeroy, shooting a sensational 60 percent from two-point range, 40 percent from 3-point range and fastidiously taking care of the basketball. Mike Brey has a star in guard Jerian Grant and a veteran supporting cast around him. What’s the problem: The Irish haven’t reached the tournament’s second weekend since 2003 and haven’t been to a Final Four since 1978. Given a No. 2 seed in 2011, Notre Dame was thumped by 10th-seeded Florida State in the round of 32. Can the Irish guard well enough to make any kind of postseason statement?
Villanova (9). Where the Wildcats currently stand: 18-2 and ranked seventh in the AP poll. Best wins: VCU on a neutral court, St. John’s on the road, Butler and Xavier at home. Losses: at Seton Hall in overtime, at Georgetown by 20. Skinny: Cohesive, veteran group jumped out to a 13-0 start that was inflated by victories over a couple of name teams having down years (Michigan, Syracuse). It’s unclear whether the Big East is an underrated snake pit or an overrated collection of average. What’s the problem: Since going to the 2009 Final Four, ‘Nova has had its postseason struggles. It is 2-5 in conference tournaments, having lost its first game each of the last two years, and 2-4 in the NCAAs. Last year’s round-of-32 flameout as a No. 2 seed kickstarted Connecticut’s improbable title run.
Oklahoma (10). Where the Sooners currently stand: 12-7 and 24th in the AP poll after a rough week in a rough conference. Best wins: at Texas and Tulsa, neutral court against Butler, home against Baylor and Oklahoma State. Losses: at Creighton, West Virginia, Kansas and Baylor, home against Kansas State, neutral court against Wisconsin and Washington. Skinny: Oklahoma has had some highs and lows against a difficult schedule, and currently has lost four of its last five. Athletic team of tenacious defenders is a bit undersized and sometimes too reliant on jump shots. What’s the problem: The Minutes is a long-time Lon Kruger admirer, but his postseason record at Oklahoma is perfectly abysmal. He’s 0-5, with three losses in the Big 12 tournament and two in the NCAAs. Going back to his UNLV days, Kruger has lost five straight NCAA tournament games.
Arizona (11). Where the Wildcats currently stand: 18-2 and ranked sixth in the AP poll. Best wins: Gonzaga, Utah by 18, at Stanford, San Diego State on a neutral court. Losses: by four at UNLV and by two at Oregon State. Skinny: this is a high-quality team that has a lot going for it – especially now that star freshman Stanley Johnson appears to be buying in to Sean Miller’s demands after a transition period. The schedule is very manageable until the final three games of the regular season. What’s the problem: it’s somewhat unfair to say Arizona has underachieved under Miller in the postseason, because a whole lot of programs would take Miller’s 8-3 U of A record in the Big Dance. But Lute Olson took the Wildcats to four Final Fours, and Miller was hired with the expectation of a return to that status – and last year’s gut-busting, one-point regional final loss to Wisconsin still lingers.
(Basically, if your school name ends in “a,” you’ve got something to prove in the tournament.)
Things The Minutes has seen enough of already – and it isn’t even February:
Dribblers tossing their heads back like they’ve been tased (12). This is the annoying latest iteration of the search for foul calls – offensive players aggrandizing any contact (or even non-contact) while driving the ball. They wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work, though refs are catching on. Then again, offensive players wouldn’t need to get melodramatic if the refs called more of the assault and battery that dribblers endure (see above note on officiating).
Flopping on 3-point shots (13). Not a new phenomenon, but seemingly more popular than ever. There are more leg kicks than ever out there, as shooters grasp for any incidental contact that will draw three free throws. In an era of increasingly common pack-line defenses, closing out on 3-point shooters is a more risky endeavor because there is so much ground to close – thus there is more contact at the arc. But plenty of shooters are faking it – often in key situations.
Video of coaches dancing in the locker room (14) after victories. The Minutes applauds all coaches wanting to celebrate a win with their players – too often the agony of defeat tends to outweigh the thrill of victory in sports. So enjoy. But does there have to be video every time? This smells like recruiting propaganda to show young players just how much fun it is to play for Coach Travolta. (The F-bomb locker-room scenes after losses tend not to make their way onto social media.)
Seven Nation Army (15). Enough. The song was released March 7, 2003 – a month before Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade went to the Final Four. That makes it old. Student sections of America, please jump around and chant to something else.
The Minutes is OK for now with players poking themselves in the side of the head with three fingers (16) after making a 3-point shot. But the suspicion is that it’s going to get very old by the time the tournament rolls around. And there is always the chance that someone gets overly excited and pokes himself in the eye.
GOING, GOING … GONE?
Teams that started the year in the AP Top 25 and have slipped to unranked – and could be on their way to uninvited to the Big Dance:
Florida (17). The last time Billy Donovan was rebuilding after a Final Four run, in 2007-08, his Gators missed the NCAA tourney and wound up in the NIT. That could be the case this time as well, as Florida has plummeted from 36-3 last season to 10-9 this time around against an overly ambitious schedule. “This is not a surprise to me at all,” Donovan said Monday, but it comes as a surprise to the coaches and media members who voted the Gators into the preseason top 10. Florida is on a three-game SEC losing streak, with a trip to Alabama on Tuesday.
Harvard (18). It’s been tough sledding since being ranked No. 25 in the preseason AP poll. There was a one-point loss to Holy Cross, a 49-point annihilation against Virginia, a 10-point loss to disappointing Arizona State, an overtime loss to Boston College – and most recently the Crimson was shocked at home by Dartmouth to drop to 1-1 in the league. Thus, hopes of an at-large bid are all but extinguished – and now it’s go time in Ivy League play. The next four are on the road – including visits to league-leading Yale and Princeton.
Connecticut (19). The defending national champions are struggling in close games – they’re 0-3 in games decided by one possession or in overtime, including a one-point loss to Yale. What looked like a big win at Florida now doesn’t count for much. And seven of the final 12 regular-season games are on the road. The Minutes could not count out UConn winning the league tournament, which will be played in Hartford, but the Huskies may need to win to have a shot at defending their title.
The whole state of Michigan (20). The Spartans and Wolverines are a combined 25-15. Last year at this time: 34-6. Two years ago at this time: 36-4. There have been major losses to the NBA and/or graduation, plus key injuries – Michigan leading scorer Caris Levert is done for the year, while Michigan State mainstay Branden Dawson missed three games and freshman Javon Bess missed the first 10. The schedule provides some hope for the Spartans to get on a roll, but the Wolverines are on the bubble and up against it.
Nebraska (21). The Cornhuskers returned the nucleus of a team that earned a surprise NCAA tournament berth, but the going has been tougher amid higher expectations. Losses to Incarnate Word (at home, no less) and Hawaii have severely jeopardized Nebraska’s at-large hopes. A road game at Michigan on Tuesday will match two desperate teams.
RESPECT THE STREAK
Teams that are dominating their conferences for the second straight year:
Wichita State (22). The conference: Missouri Valley. The streak: 29 straight, including three wins in the 2014 league tournament. The last Valley team to beat the Shockers isn’t even in the league anymore (Creighton, 2013). Closest call since then: 72-69 in overtime at Missouri State, Jan. 11, 2014. Other than that, no Valley games have been closer than seven points.
Stephen F. Austin (23). The conference: Southland. The streak: 27, including two wins in the 2014 league tournament and a rout of Lamar on Monday night. Last loss was by two points to Northwestern State in the tourney final on March 16, 2013. Closest call since then: 68-66 over Incarnate Word, Feb. 1, 2014. The Lumberjacks trailed by seven with less than four minutes to play and won it on a tip-in with two seconds left.
North Carolina Central (24). The conference: Mid-Eastern Athletic. The streak: 26, including three games in the 2014 league tournament. Last loss was by three points in the MEAC opener last season at Florida A&M. Closest call since then: 55-54 Monday night against Delaware State in a crazy, officiating-marred finish. The Eagles trailed most of the game and were down two in the final minute when guard Anthony McDonald lost control of the ball and regained it while stepping out of bounds for a turnover – except N.C. Central was awarded a timeout that appeared to clearly be called after McDonald had stepped out of bounds. On the ensuing possession, McDonald hit a 3 for a one-point lead. Eventually, Delaware State got off a desperation three just before the buzzer that missed – but Hornets guard Amere May drew an absurd foul call with a wild leg kick (see above peeve) and got three shots for the win with .4 seconds left. He made the first, but missed the next two (his only misses in nine attempts on the night) and N.C. Central held on.
Honorable mention to Albany, which won three straight as a No. 4 seed to take the America East tournament last year and now has started this season with seven straight league wins.
INJURY, LARCENY AND NO VICTORY IN COLUMBUS
As The Minutes wrote last Thursday, Indiana (25) is playing far above gloomy preseason expectations. But the Hoosiers were thoroughly outplayed at Ohio State on Sunday, in a game where the host school added both injury and insult to defeat. If you thought dealing with Buckeyes stud D’Angelo Russell was enough of a challenge, check out what else befell Indiana:
There was the knee injury suffered by starting guard Robert Johnson (26), which Indiana coach Tom Crean said Monday occurred when Johnson slipped on a folder that was on the baseline near the Ohio State cheerleaders. Crean said Johnson’s status for Indiana’s game against rival Purdue on Wednesday is up in the air. The Hoosiers already are down two key players due to injury in Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Devin Davis.
Then there was an alleged theft. An Ohio State student says he stole Crean’s Diet Coke (27) from courtside during the game, as chronicled by Justin Albers of AllHoosiers.com.
Win a national title in football and everyone gets a little cocky in Columbus, it seems.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
The Minutes presents eight games to help drown out the bloviating about deflated footballs between now and kickoff of the Super Bowl:
George Washington at VCU (28), Tuesday. At stake: the lead in the Atlantic-10. The Rams are 6-0 in league play, but four of the wins are by six points or fewer. GW has backed up last year’s NCAA bid with a 16-4 overall start, 6-1 in the A-10 – but all the victories are against the bottom half of the league. This would be a major statement win for the Colonials, if they’re good enough.
Duke at Notre Dame (29), Wednesday. At stake: Both teams are trying to stay within range of league-leading Virginia – the Blue Devils are 4-2 in the ACC, the Irish are 6-1. Both teams played potentially draining games Sunday – Duke earning Mike Krzyzewski his 1,000th victory and Notre Dame rallying improbably to beat North Carolina State in overtime. Which team is more prepared to tee it up again? Duke has been excellent away from Cameron Indoor Stadium, beating Michigan State, Stanford, Wisconsin, Louisville and St. John’s in road/neutral games.
Western Kentucky at Louisiana Tech (30), Thursday. At stake: the lead in Conference USA. The Hilltoppers are 7-0 in the league, with five home games and only two on the road. Tech is 6-1, with two at home and five on the road. If WKU can win in Ruston, La., and break Tech’s 22-game home winning streak, that will say something.
Duke at Virginia (31), Saturday. At stake: Virginia’s ongoing supremacy of the ACC, after winning both the regular-season and tournament titles last year. The Cavaliers' next four games are Duke, at North Carolina, Louisville and at North Carolina State. If they’re still unbeaten after that run, they should be all the way until March. But winning that quartet of games will be brutally difficult.
North Carolina at Louisville (32), Saturday. At stake: Rematch of one of the most exciting games of the season, which the Tar Heels won in the final seconds in Chapel Hill earlier this month. Rick Pitino did some overhauling of his team’s offense after shooting a miserable 29.5 percent at home against Duke, and the next time out the Cardinals shot 65.2 percent at Pittsburgh – highest percentage by a Louisville team since 1993. But can they keep the Tar Heels off the glass?
Wichita State at Northern Iowa (33), Saturday. At stake: First place in the Missouri Valley, and the Shockers’ aforementioned conference winning streak. The Panthers have built a solid at-large NCAA tourney portfolio with wins over Iowa, Stephen F. Austin and Richmond. This would greatly add to the resumé, in addition to the revenge factor against the league bully that has beaten them six of the last seven meetings.
Memphis at Gonzaga (34), Saturday. At stake: seeding for one team, bubble status for the other. The Tigers are a disappointment, with one quality win (Cincinnati at home) and a lot of work to do just to get into the bubble conversation – winning a game like this, however unlikely, would make the season. Gonzaga can use all the RPI Top 100 wins it can get in its quest for a No. 1 seed, and Memphis does present that opportunity.
Auburn at Tennessee (35), Saturday. At stake: the sanity of Volunteers fans, who may not know how to properly greet former coach Bruce Pearl in his return to Rocky Top. Pearly was wildly popular and quite successful at Tennessee – but he also left in disgrace after lying to the NCAA about violations he had committed. Orange is part of Auburn’s color scheme, too; any chance Pearl digs out the old orange blazer for this one?
UNDER THE RADAR LOVE
A.J. English III (36), Iona. There is one person in Division I ball averaging 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game. That person is English, a Delaware product whose only D-I scholarship offer coming out of prep school was a late one from Iona. Now 2 ½ seasons into his college career, the junior point guard has compiled 1,122 points, 292 rebounds and 281 assists for the Gaels. In a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference full of balky offenses, English and forward Davie Laury (21.1 points, 9.2 rebounds) make the league’s most explosive attack go.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Frank Haith (37), Tulsa. Give Haith credit for this much: the astute ability to escape the posse, make a lateral move and inherit a good team. He did it at Missouri, bailing out on dissatisfied Miami fans and going 30-5 his first season with Mike Anderson’s players. Now after leaving Mizzou he’s doing it at Tulsa with Danny Manning’s players: the Golden Hurricane is 14-5 and leading the American Athletic Conference at 7-0. Hey, it beats leaving a year too late, with a pink slip in your back pocket.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Brian Gregory (38), Georgia Tech. This is starting to strongly resemble the end of the line for Gregory, whose Yellow Jackets are 0-7 in ACC play in his fourth season at the school. There were some good wins early this season, against Georgia and Rhode Island and Vanderbilt, but that seems a long time ago now. Put it this way: Wake Forest’s only ACC win is against Georgia Tech, and so is Boston College’s. And then there was the 28-point debacle against Virginia. Gregory was never a slam-dunk hire, and his 16-43 record in league games has done nothing to convince anyone he’s the right man for the job.
When hungry for a quality meal in the excellent eating town (and miserable driving town) of Austin, The Minutes recommends a visit to Clark’s Oyster Bar (39). The oysters are brought in fresh from the coasts, and they will change your opinion of what a good oyster tastes like. The fish is ridiculous – The Minutes had a grilled redfish that ranked among the most delicious things that ever swam in the ocean – and the grilled kale and roasted cauliflower was deluxe, too. Accompany it with a Fire Eagle American IPA (40) from Austin Beerworks and thank The Minutes later.