Forde Minutes: Coaching chaos, bubble watch and the battle for No. 1 seeds

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (where freshman ineligibility is the clubhouse leader for Dumbest College Sports Idea of 2015):

IT’S LATE FEBRUARY; DO YOU HATE YOUR TEAM YET?

On Sunday, Louisville coach Rick Pitino (1) announced that point guard Chris Jones (2) had completed a suspended-reinstated-dismissed cycle in all of five days – a major blow to the thin Cardinals, given Jones’ status as the team’s third-leading scorer, leader in assists and most important pressure defender. According to university police, Jones threatened last week via text message to hit his girlfriend, The (Louisville) Courier-Journal reported Monday – but she did not want to press charges and no charges were filed. A second incident report involving Jones was not released due to a pending investigation. Minus Jones on Monday night, Louisville played a gruesome first 30 minutes before rallying furiously to nudge Georgia Tech, 52-51. There was no sign that the Cardinals will be anything but an afterthought without Jones.

Later Sunday, Nebraska coach Tim Miles (3) threw his team out of its own plush locker room for the foreseeable future, after the disappointing Cornhuskers laid down in a 28-point home loss against Iowa. Miles said the locker room will be padlocked from the outside and players will have to dress and shower elsewhere.

“We gave up,” Miles said.

On Monday, Florida coach Billy Donovan (4) said that second-leading scorer and top rebounder Dorian Finney-Smith (5) remains suspended and will miss his third straight game Tuesday at Missouri. Finney-Smith, who also was suspended for the first two games of the season last year, is one of four Gators to miss games this season due to suspension. And Donovan already had tossed his underachieving team from its practice facility and stripped the Gators of their nice workout gear earlier in the season.

Dorian Finney-Smith remains in Florida coach Billy Donovan's doghouse. (Getty)
Dorian Finney-Smith remains in Florida coach Billy Donovan's doghouse. (Getty)

All of which is fairly tame compared to what is happening at tailspinning Seton Hall (6).

Welcome to the dog days of late February, often a time of simmering strife in college hoops. The excitement of March isn’t here yet, but the same nagging annoyances are. Roster turmoil abounds.

Coaches are tired of players making the same mistakes, on and off the court. Players are tired of being screamed at by coaches. Locker room feuds can reach a boiling point. The practice calendar now starts earlier than ever, which makes the season longer than ever, which may breed some of the mutual burnout that tends to happen at this time of year – especially if your team is not winning.

There are some toxic elements that go into the modern player-coach relationship in college hoops. Among them: an AAU culture that breeds a premature sense of entitlement and inflated self-worth in players, and views wins and losses as largely disposable (there’s always another game to play); a belief by some players that they’re merely killing time (and risking injury) until going pro; a cynicism among players due to receiving the short end of the ever-lengthening revenue stick, while their schools clean up; a suspicion among coaches that the dazzling facilities built to lure recruits ironically help breed a softness that dulls competitive edge.

That’s not all players, not all coaches, not all programs, of course. But those elements are out there. Contrary attitudes can make the dog days even longer, and the generation gap between coaches and collegians even wider.

After reflecting on the fiasco against Iowa, Miles said, “It’s a little bit generational. It’s easy to quit. It’s easy to hit reset on your … Wii or whatever it is. That’s unacceptable. … The ability to bounce back has got to be a staple in your life. We have some of the most spectacular fans around – we had 15,900 fans at that game. They deserve to be paid back. We should have been picking up garbage like we did in the ‘90s at Southwest Minnesota State … to pay these people back, because we’re out there not competing. So if they’re not in their locker room, they can think about how important Nebraska basketball is, the privilege to play at Nebraska, to play major-college basketball. … Compared to our efforts, the punishment is less than punitive.”

Another way of looking at it: if the players are tossed out of their fancy facilities, do the millionaire coaches toss themselves out of their fancy offices, too? Do they deny themselves the perks of their jobs? Is Billy Donovan hunkering down in a media relations cubicle until his team’s performance improves? Is Tim Miles parking his comp car and taking the bus to work until the Cornhuskers remember how to compete?

Because they’re all in it together, right?

Anyway, this is a time that taxes the bonds of a team. The remarkable truth is that the team divvying up minutes between the most talented players seems to be among the happiest. Take a bow, Kentucky. To date, you’ve aced what many believed would be your toughest test – the chemistry exam.

OVERCOMING MISSING PERSONNEL

Suspensions and dismissals don’t have to be the ruination of a season. Sometimes it can help. Two prime examples: Duke (7) and Southern Methodist (8).

Both teams got better after losing seemingly key players for the season in January. Both have thrived ever since. No, it doesn’t hurt to have Hall of Fame coaches, but the players who left were no slouches.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski dismissed Rasheed Sulaimon (14) in late January. (USAT)
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski dismissed Rasheed Sulaimon (14) in late January. (USAT)

Mike Krzyzewski tossed Rasheed Sulaimon (9), who was within 100 points of becoming a 1,000-point scorer in three years. It was the first player dismissal in Krzyzewski’s nearly 40 years as a head coach – and his team hasn’t lost since. The Blue Devils are 7-0, more cohesive and more defined in terms of roles. Backups Grayson Allen and Matt Jones have picked up Sulaimon’s minutes effectively, and he really hasn’t been missed.

Larry Brown had to part ways with former McDonald’s All-American Keith Frazier (10), and while an NCAA investigative mushroom cloud is looming over SMU, the Mustangs are playing superbly. In 10 games since Frazier left, SMU is 9-1 and has taken the lead in the American Athletic Conference. Ryan Manuel and Sterling Brown have picked up most of Frazier’s minutes and have improved the team’s defense along the way.

“Sometimes there is a player or two who has shown a lot of improvement and just wasn’t getting a lot of playing time,” Krzyzewski said of the addition-by-subtraction phenomenon. “Or it can be a shot of adrenaline for a team.”

SEVEN TEAMS, FOUR SPOTS

Assessing the top seed line for the NCAA tournament as we head down the stretch, half of it would seem to be etched in stone:

Kentucky (11) is a lock. The Wildcats would have to suffer an injury plague that led to three or more losses to not be a No. 1 seed. That’s not going to happen. UK will open the tourney in Louisville as a tempting bet against the entire field.

Virginia (12) should be a lock. The only thing that could shake that status would seem to be complications to the injury recoveries of guards Justin Anderson and London Perrantes. If they’re good to go for the tournament, the Cavaliers will have a top seed and begin play in Charlotte.

Then it gets interesting. Being a No. 1 could matter a lot this year, because it would mean avoiding Kentucky as long as possible – better to see the Wildcats in Indianapolis than in a regional final as a No. 2 seed. The Minutes would rank the current chase for the last two No. 1s thusly:

Duke. Of the three most impressive victories of the year, The Minutes would argue that the Blue Devils have two of them: at Wisconsin in early December and at Virginia in late January (the third is Kentucky atomizing Kansas in late November). Yes, the Blue Devils also have an inexplicable, 16-point home loss to Miami and a 12-point loss at North Carolina State, but that can be chalked up to a single bad week. Since then Duke’s defense has been better, and this team always has had sufficient firepower. If the Devils simply avoid a bad loss in their next three games (at Virginia Tech, home against Syracuse and Wake Forest) or in an ACC tourney quarterfinal, expect to see them pull down a No. 1.

Frank Kaminsky and the Badgers face a tough stretch run to close the regular season. (USAT)
Frank Kaminsky and the Badgers face a tough stretch run to close the regular season. (USAT)

Wisconsin (13). The Badgers have a slightly better strength of schedule than Villanova and Arizona, and much better than Gonzaga – and that’s with a back-loaded schedule. If Wisconsin can close 3-1 or better at Maryland on Tuesday, Michigan State on Sunday, at Minnesota on March 5 and at Ohio State on March 8, it should be a lock for a top seed. True, the Badgers have the worst loss of any top-seed contender – at miserable Rutgers – but that would be forgotten with a strong finish.

Gonzaga (14). The Zags have just a single loss, by three points at Arizona in overtime. That’s a quality loss. The problem is the quality wins. Gonzaga has just four against the RPI Top 50 and just eight against the Top 100. There are too many wins against lightweight opponents – many from their West Coast Conference – to earn a No. 1 seed without some slippage from others.

Villanova (15). The Wildcats have piled up wins against good teams – VCU, Michigan when it was healthy, Illinois, Temple, Syracuse and most of the Big East. But the high-end opponents in the Big East aren’t quite on the level of the high-end opponents in, say, the ACC. The loss to Seton Hall looks worse now that the Pirates are out of the bracket, and losing by 20 to Georgetown was ugly. This is a big week, with Providence in Philly and then a trip to play at Xavier.

Arizona (16). Yes, the Wildcats do have that win over Gonzaga, plus a neutral-floor win over San Diego State and a December beatdown of Michigan. A home victory over Utah is nice as well. But all three losses are to non-tournament teams: UNLV, Oregon State and Arizona State. A victory in Salt Lake City on Saturday would be a boost, but for the most part the Pac-12 hasn’t provided enough quality competition.

THE SWEATIN’ SIXTEEN

Bubble teams of particular intrigue going down the stretch:

Georgia (17). Record: 17-9, 8-6 in SEC. RPI: 37. KenPom: 41. Sagarin: 42. Until consecutive home flops against Auburn and South Carolina, the Bulldogs were in good shape. Now it’s a scramble. If they can beat Ole Miss on Wednesday for a season sweep of the Rebels, that would be big. Of course, Kentucky offers the Get Off The Bubble Free card next week in Athens, but good luck winning that game. Georgia most likely will have 20 wins overall heading to the league tournament, 10 in the SEC, but still need at least one win there to have any sense of security.

Tulsa (18). Record: 19-7, 12-2 in American. RPI: 39. KenPom: 72. Sagarin: 65. Clearly, there is dissent among the computers about the Golden Hurricane. A gaudy record in a pretty good league (at least at the top) is Tulsa’s strongest selling point. A puny non-conference record that includes losses to Southeast Oklahoma State and Oral Roberts is not. There are some good opportunities left, at SMU and Memphis and home against Connecticut, but anything less than a sweep of those games could send Tulsa to the conference tourney still unsure about where it stands.

Purdue (19). Record: 18-9, 10-4 in Big Ten. RPI: 60. KenPom: 45. Sagarin: 33. The Boilermakers are one of the most interesting cases in the nation – they should have 11 league wins after hosting Rutgers on Thursday, including a sweep of Indiana and victories over Ohio State and Iowa. But Purdue still is trying to scrub the stain of home losses to North Florida and Gardner-Webb off its resume, and has four losses outside the RPI Top 100. This has looked like an NCAA team the past month, though, and Purdue should get in if it gets to 20-11 and 12-6.

Stanford (20). Record: 17-9, 8-6 in Pac-12. RPI: 51. KenPom: 37. Sagarin: 40. A 2-5 record against the RPI Top 50 is not good. A 9-6 record against the Top 100 improves the look, but may indicate that the Cardinal has the look of an NIT champion more than an NCAA team. Quality wins are scarce, especially with Texas sliding and UConn and UNLV both outside the bracket. Stanford may need something big down the stretch (Oregon State and Oregon at home, at Arizona State and Arizona) or in the Pac-12 tourney to earn a bid.

North Carolina State (21). Record: 16-11, 7-7 in ACC. RPI: 52. KenPom: 40. Sagarin: 36. Despite a lot of losses, the Wolfpack have put themselves in the discussion by beating Duke at home and Louisville on the road – both handily. There also are a couple wins over fellow bubble teams that could loom large in a compare-contrast contest at the end, over Pitt and Boise State. N.C. State has a statement opportunity Tuesday at North Carolina. Win that, finish above .500 in the league, and chances are good. But as with any Mark Gottfried team, you never know.

Will Norman Powell (R) and the Bruins go dancing? They've got work left. (USAT)
Will Norman Powell (R) and the Bruins go dancing? They've got work left. (USAT)

UCLA (22). Record: 16-12, 8-7 in Pac-12. RPI: 47. KenPom: 44. Sagarin: 53. Being tied for fifth in an underwhelming Pac-12 is not helping the Bruins’ cause. Neither is a 3-11 road/neutral record. The good news is a home win over Utah, a sweep of Stanford and a regular-season-ending three-game home stand against beatable teams. But UCLA looks like a team that may need to win multiple games in the league tournament. A possible 4-5 game against Stanford in the quarterfinals could have major bubble implications if it happens.

Oregon (23). Record: 20-8, 10-5 in Pac-12. RPI: 44. KenPom: 55. Sagarin: 55. The Ducks have won six of their last seven – capped by an upset of Utah on Sunday – to get into the conversation. They also close with three straight on the road – Cal, Stanford, Oregon State – which could knock them back out of the conversation. Oregon played a home-centric non-conference schedule, but beating Illinois in Chicago in December could be the kind of thing that tips a close call in the Ducks’ favor. And unless they win the Pac-12 tournament, it figures to be a close call.

Illinois (24). Record: 17-10, 7-7 in Big Ten. RPI: 57. KenPom: 61. Sagarin: 46. The Illini hope that what happened in Vegas in November doesn’t stay in Vegas – they want the Selection Committee to remember their Las Vegas Invitational championship, particularly the victory over Baylor in the final. There’s nothing else worth mentioning in non-conference play, especially since beating miserable Missouri does not constitute a quality win. League wins over Maryland and Michigan State help, though. Illinois must hold serve at home (Northwestern, Nebraska) to have a chance at an at-large bid. Winning at Iowa or Purdue could be a game-changer.

Davidson (25). Record: 19-6, 10-4 in Atlantic-10. RPI: 57. KenPom: 36. Sagarin: 35. This is a team that will require some liner notes for the committee to consider – namely, key guard Jack Gibbs (15.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists) missed seven games due to inury, including the Wildcats’ two worst losses of the year (St. Joseph’s and St. Bonaventure). With Gibbs in the lineup they are 14-4, and the losses are to Virginia, North Carolina, VCU and Richmond. The problem is a paucity of quality wins. Remaining games against George Washington at home and Duquesne on the road are must-win; splitting games at Rhode Island and home against VCU would certainly help.

Texas (26). Record: 17-10, 6-8 in Big 12. RPI: 40. KenPom: 21. Sagarin: 21. The good news: the Longhorns have a robust strength of schedule due to playing in the Big 12 and a challenging non-conference slate. The bad news: they’re flailing down the stretch, having lost six of their last nine and with no easy games left. A team once thought to be solidly in the field now is trying to explain away a 1-9 record against the RPI top 50 and a losing league record. This is a huge week (at West Virginia, at Kansas) to potentially reverse the slide.

Boise State (27). Record: 20-7, 10-4 in the Mountain West. RPI: 41. KenPom: 48. Sagarin: 47. The Broncos lost a very good player early in Anthony Drmic, and still have had a successful season. But whether it ends with an NCAA bid remains to be seen. They’ve played a ton of games away from home (14) and have a winning record (8-6), but the only victory of note is at St. Mary’s in December and there were losses at Loyola (Chicago) and Fresno State. Beating San Diego State and Colorado State in Boise was big. Just four games so far against the RPI top 50 (2-2 record), which makes trip to San Diego State on Saturday huge.

Pittsburgh (28). Record: 18-10, 7-7 in ACC. RPI: 36. KenPom: 74. Sagarin: 62. Guard Cameron Wright missed the first seven games, and three of them were losses – that includes a damaging loss to Hawaii. But there still are seven losses to account for in which Wright played, including one to Virginia Tech and one at home to Clemson. Pitt has quality wins over Notre Dame, North Carolina and Syracuse twice, yet it may need to sweep four winnable games (Boston College, at Wake Forest, Miami, at Florida State) to enter the ACC tournament feeling like it has locked up a bid.

Cincinnati (29). Record: 18-9, 9-5 in the American. RPI: 49. KenPom: 46. Sagarin: 56. The Bearcats have gone most of the way without coach Mick Cronin, but he won’t be back for the tournament so that’s a non-factor. With a sweep of SMU and wins over San Diego State and North Carolina State, Cincinnati should be in the field at present. But that margin for error shrank noticeably when the Bearcats lost at home to Tulane on Valentine’s Day. If they win at home against Central Florida on Wednesday and get payback on the Green Wave on Saturday – then avoid a first-round flop in the league tourney – Cincy should be dancing.

Tim Quarterman and LSU nearly pulled off the upset of the season against Kentucky. (USAT)
Tim Quarterman and LSU nearly pulled off the upset of the season against Kentucky. (USAT)

LSU (30). Record: 19-8, 8-6 in SEC. RPI: 54. KenPom: 32. Sagarin: 44. The Tigers have some bragging points: a win at West Virginia, and a 7-5 road/neutral record. They also are the only SEC team to have lost to Missouri, and also lost to Mississippi State and Auburn – the latter at home. If Johnny Jones could draw up a play, LSU could have beaten Kentucky and would be in the field – but he can’t and the Tigers are on the bubble as a result. Finish with a winning SEC record and win at least one in Nashville, and LSU could be making its first NCAA tourney appearance since 2009.

Rhode Island (31). Record: 19-6, 11-3 in the A-10. RPI: 63. Kenpom: 50. Sagarin: 57. The Rams are ahead of schedule by a year, but behind schedule to make this year’s NCAA tourney. The record is good, but the quality wins are not there – they’re just 1-4 against the RPI top 50 and 4-4 against the top 100. Rhode Island needs a strong last two weeks and then may need to reach the A-10 final to have an at-large shot.

Miami (32). Record: 17-10, 7-7 in ACC. RPI: 67. KenPom: 57. Sagarin: 41. It could turn out that Chris Jones’ final act as a college basketball player was to help shoot the Hurricanes out of the NCAA field, as Louisville handed them a two-point defeat Saturday. That victory would have given Miami a big boost; now the ‘Canes will need a huge final flourish. They at least have a schedule that affords some opportunities: namely North Carolina on Saturday and fellow bubble team Pitt next week. Even still, Miami likely will have to make some noise in Greensboro in the tournament – and that means it must get guard Angel Rodriguez (6-37 from 3-point range the last eight games) back on track.

BEST MID-MAJOR CONFERENCE RACES

Aside from the Big 12, the power five conferences don’t have a lot of drama right now. Kentucky is running away with the SEC. Wisconsin and Virginia solidly lead the Big Ten and ACC, respectively. Arizona is one successful road trip from icing the Pac-12. But there is some drama out there, if you look for it. And The Minutes looked for it, identifying these as the best remaining league races:

Atlantic-10 (33). Who’s in the mix: VCU and Rhode Island are tied for the lead at 11-3, with Davidson and Dayton a game back at 10-4. And all of them have two games to play against the rest of the top four. With only VCU assured of an NCAA bid at this point, these games take on added significance.

Missouri Valley (34). Who’s in the mix: only two teams, defending champion Wichita State and powerful challenger Northern Iowa. They’re both 15-1, and the Panthers are the only Valley team to beat the Shockers since 2013. UNI is a blown late lead at Evansville away from being unbeaten in the league (star Seth Tuttle fouled out in that one). One of the biggest games in Valley history will be Saturday, when UNI visits Wichita State for the rematch with an ESPN GameDay crew along for the ride.

Conference USA (35). Who’s in the mix: Louisiana Tech (12-3) has a half-game lead on UTEP (11-3), which has a half-game lead on UAB (11-4). Showdown game is Thursday, when UTEP visits Louisiana Tech. Advantage is to the Bulldogs, who have three games remaining at home and haven’t lost there in ages. But the Miners are on a seven-game winning streak.

Sun Belt (36). Who’s in the mix: There is a three-way tie at the top between Georgia State, Georgia Southern and Louisiana-Monroe, all at 12-4. Georgia State plays them both the last week, going to Monroe on March 5 and closing at home against Georgia on Southern March 7.

UNDER THE RADAR LOVE

How much noise will Cameron Payne and the Racers make in March? (USAT file photo)
How much noise will Cameron Payne and the Racers make in March? (USAT file photo)

Each week The Minutes gives some deserving attention to a player who is doing good work outside the major-conference spotlight. This week’s honoree: Cameron Payne (37) of Murray State. The 6-2 sophomore from Bartlett, Tenn., is the biggest reason why the Racers are 24-4, undefeated in the Ohio Valley Conference and riding a 22-game winning streak. Payne leads the team in points (19.7), assists (5.8) and steals (2.0), and he’s been especially hot the last four games. He’s averaged 23.8 points per game in that stretch, scoring 1.8 points per field-goal attempt and averaging 33.3 points per 40 minutes. If you want an NCAA bracket buster, Murray is a great candidate – largely because of Payne.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Chris Collins (38), Northwestern. There are signs of life in Evanston. After going 1-10 to start Big Ten play, the Wildcats now have won three straight – punctuated by a 21-point beatdown of Penn State on Saturday. That’s Northwestern’s biggest margin of victory in a Big Ten game in six years. The Wildcats lost three straight games by a total of five points in mid-January, but they did not quit on the season. Now they’re positioned to shake up the standings above them with a closing stretch of Indiana on Wednesday, at Illinois on Saturday, Michigan on March 3 and at Iowa on March 7. The purple is no longer a pushover.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Patrick Chambers (39), Penn State. His Nittany Lions (15-13, 3-12) not only lost to Northwestern by 21, it scored 39 points. That’s ugly.

BUZZER BEATER

Due mostly to lousy weather conditions, The Minutes ate no interesting food and drank no interesting beer last week. But that’s no excuse to just give up on the readership – right, Tim Miles? There is no giving up at Minutes HQ. So enjoy this stellar video bomb of Indiana coach Tom Crean by the Rutgers Scarlet Knight (40) as a poor substitute for a restaurant/bar recommendation.