Forde Minutes: College basketball narrative takes dark turn as March arrives

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (Jerome entries sold separately):

BAD TIMING FOR BAD HEADLINES

We’ve finally made it to March, and what’s here greeting us? A pile of unpleasant stories. Not really what fans of the sport had in mind.

But as is often the case, college basketball succeeds in being its own worst enemy. Earlier in the season, the dominant storyline was the sheer ugliness of the game – the painfully slow pace, the offensive futility, the inability to end a close game in anything less than an eternity. Now, with the Super Bowl, National Signing Day and the NFL draft combine all past and the calendar pretty much belonging to college hoops, here are the major stories currently in the news:

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski spent much of Monday's ACC teleconference swatting away questions about dismissed guard Rasheed Sulaimon (1) in the wake of a startling story in The Chronicle, the Duke student newspaper. The story says that two female students told separate retreat groups that they were sexually assaulted by Sulaimon, although neither filed a complaint with the police or with the school. The claims were made against Sulaimon during the 2013-14 school year, according to The Chronicle, and the paper said those claims were brought to the attention of the Duke basketball staff and athletic administration in March 2014. Sulaimon played until Jan. 29, 2015 – six days after a student assistant in the Duke basketball office met with deputy athletic director Mike Cragg and discussed what he had heard about Sulaimon. The student assistant had quit his job the previous day when he learned about the claims against Sulaimon.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski declined to comment on Rasheed Sulaimon on Monday. (USAT file photo)
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski declined to comment on Rasheed Sulaimon on Monday. (USAT file photo)

Kansas is without freshman Cliff Alexander (2) for an indefinite period due to an ongoing “NCAA matter.” Alexander has retained an attorney who formerly worked in NCAA compliance and has worked as outside counsel for schools under NCAA investigation. The Alexander problem may be bigger off-court than on, because the former five-star recruit had seen his playing time and productivity plummet over the previous 10 games – he’s averaged just 3.8 points in fewer than 15 minutes per game in that span.

Louisville is emerging from a nightmarish several days regarding former starting point guard Chris Jones (3), who went from suspended Feb. 17 to reinstated Feb. 20 to dismissed Feb. 22 to charged with rape Feb. 26. Jones entered a not-guilty plea last Thursday. Later that day, Cardinals coach Rick Pitino laid out the timeline of events with Jones, starting with a suspension for a threatening text message to a girl, then to his reinstatement after a meeting with a Louisville disciplinary administrator. Then, while on a 9 p.m. curfew, Jones allegedly went out following a stellar performance in a close victory over Miami and found further trouble with women. He was dismissed the following day.

The ACC tournament (4), annually one of the highlights of the season, this year will be held amid a maelstrom of off-court negativity. Not only will Duke be there without Sulaimon and Louisville there without Jones, but Syracuse won’t be there, period, after self-imposing a postseason ban a few weeks ago. North Carolina will be there, and presumably at full strength, but the Tar Heels are laboring under the weight of an ongoing NCAA investigation. Virginia’s glorious 28-1 season continues to be overshadowed by events beyond its control.

Dating to the point-shaving scandals of the 1950s, college basketball has always been a sport that carries with it the faint but unmistakable aroma of corruption. Given the current embattled state of the game, these headlines aren’t helping to bring the casual fan back around to the excitement of March.

COACH OF THE YEAR CAGE MATCH – TWO MEN ENTER, ONE MAN LEAVES

There are only two viable candidates remaining for Coach of the Year honors. Everyone else can try again next year. The Minutes takes a look at the résumés for each:

John Calipari (5): The Kentucky coach is authoring one of the great seasons in recent college basketball history. The Wildcats are 29-0 and two wins this week away from becoming the first major-conference team to complete an undefeated regular season since Indiana in 1976. Of course, those Hoosiers also are the last team to complete an entire season undefeated by winning the national title and cutting down the nets. Bob Knight was AP national Coach of the Year that season, and he had a lot of company on the COY list among unbeatens. John Wooden was AP national Coach of the Year in each of his four undefeated seasons (here’s your stat of the day: in seven seasons from 1966-67 through 1972-73, Wooden and UCLA lost five games). Gregg Marshall of Wichita State, Phil Martelli of St. Joseph’s and Bill Hodges of Indiana State all were AP national coach of the year while going undefeated through the regular season in 2014, 2004 and 1979, respectively. The exception to the undefeated team/coach of the year: Jerry Tarkanian in 1991 at UNLV. The similarity between that UNLV team and this Kentucky team: both were top-heavy favorites from the opening tip of the season, which made it impossible to exceed expectations. The AP COY in ’91 went to Randy Ayers of Ohio State, whose team went 25-3 in the regular season and was ranked No. 2 going into the postseason. Maybe there’s something to be said about being the coach of the No. 2 team in a year when the heavy favorite runs the table (see below).

Will Kentucky's John Calipari win Coach of the Year? He's got stiff competition from one ACC boss. (Getty)
Will Kentucky's John Calipari win Coach of the Year? He's got stiff competition from one ACC boss. (Getty)

Tony Bennett (6): His Cavaliers improved to 28-1 Monday night, overcoming a horrendous, two-points-in-13-minutes start to roar past Syracuse, 59-47. In addition to winning a better league than Kentucky’s Southeastern Conference, Bennett has taken Virginia this far without having second-leading scorer Justin Anderson for the past 7 ½ games and without top playmaker London Perrantes for 1 ½ games recently. The Cavaliers began the year ranked behind ACC competitors Duke, North Carolina and Louisville, but clinched the league title in the Carrier Dome. And for comparison’s sake, it must be noted that Bennett is coaching nine fewer McDonald’s All-Americans than Calipari’s nine – he’s never had one in nine years as a head coach. His team has maximized its talent.

If coaching up the players you have is your COY criterion, Bennett is a very compelling choice. But being the most successful recruiter since Wooden is part of the coaching equation, too, and Calipari fits that description. Assuming Kentucky finishes running the regular-season table, Calipari should get all the hardware he can carry. But if Virginia wins at Louisville on Saturday to go 29-1 without Anderson for nearly 30 percent of the season, that at least will enliven the debate.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR CAGE MATCH – TWO MEN ENTER, ONE MAN LEAVES

Jahlil Okafor (7): The Duke big man is the most gifted low-post offensive player to come through college in a while. He has an abundance of touch, power, footwork and passing ability, and he’s comfortable in his 6-foot-11, 270-pound body – no desire to be an oversized point guard. Okafor (18.2 points, 9.6 rebounds) has scored double figures in every game, and has had double-doubles 11 times. His best days are still ahead of him in the NBA, as he learns how to play defense and (perhaps) improves his foul shooting – but here and now he already is really good.

Frank Kaminsky (8): The Wisconsin big man is one of the great four-year success stories in recent years, morphing from a 1.8 points-per-game freshman to a senior now averaging 18.1 points and 8.3 rebounds – numbers nearly identical to Okafor’s despite playing on a team that averages 7 percent fewer possessions per game than Duke. Kaminsky also has more shooting range than Okafor and is a far better foul shooter, although his low-post game is not as good. Tough call – and really, it’s too early to make a call with the most important games of the season still ahead. But if forced to declare right now, The Minutes would favor Kaminsky.

BIGGEST BUBBLE GAMES

This is a high-pressure week for teams sweating out their standing in (or out of) the tentative field of 68. Five games that have huge bubble implications:

Kansas State at Texas (9), Saturday. The Longhorns completed the first half of a must-have Texas Two-Step on Monday night, rallying furiously to beat Baylor in overtime in a wild game in Austin. There were seven ejections during a near-bench-clearing pseudo-scuffle late in the game, followed by a two-team staredown after the final horn. The Horns had better hope the league office doesn’t add any penalties before they play fellow bubble denizen K-State, in what could be an NCAA elimination game. The winner may not be comfortably in, but the loser may well be out pending a deep run in the Big 12 tournament.

Cincinnati at Tulsa (10), Wednesday. Both teams are still searching for some assurance that they’re in the bracket. The winner here will at least get a boost in their only regular-season meeting. Tulsa has a 14-2 American Athletic Conference record that is undercut by the fact that none of those 14 victories is over a team that is a sure-fire NCAA tournament team (come to think of it, neither are any of their seven non-conference wins, either). And there are brutal losses to Division II Southeast Oklahoma State and Oral Roberts to atone for. Cincinnati has followed a three-game losing streak with a three-game winning streak, but its season sweep of SMU and non-conference victories over North Carolina State and San Diego State all were mildly downgraded after weekend losses by those teams. Bottom line, both teams should play with maximum urgency – and then Tulsa wraps up the regular season against SMU.

Illinois at Purdue (11), Saturday. The Boilermakers get a chance at a major résumé enhancement Wednesday at Michigan State, but if they lose that ratchets up the stakes on this game against a fellow bubble team. Illinois must avoid a season sweep against cratering Nebraska on Wednesday to make this game of maximum importance. The Illini pulled away late to win against Purdue in January, but likely will have to contend with a more engaged A.J. Hammons this time around.

Miami at Pittsburgh (12), Wednesday. Both might be on the wrong side of the bubble at present – which means the loser will feel really bad and the winner still has nothing guaranteed. Pitt’s good wins – Notre Dame, North Carolina, a sweep of Syracuse – are counterbalanced by losses to Hawaii, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. The Hurricanes have resounding road wins over Duke and Syracuse, and also an incomprehensible, 28-point home loss to Eastern Kentucky.

The Atlantic-10 double: Rhode Island at Dayton (13) on Tuesday and VCU at Davidson (14) on Thursday. The A-10 has been an entertaining mess of a league at the top, heading into the final week with a three-way tie for first and three other teams still within two games of first. The Flyers and Rams are two-thirds of the lead group at present, and match two of the brightest young coaches in the game in Archie Miller and Danny Hurley. Davidson is the third team in first, and VCU sits a game back in second – the Rams have not been the same team since the season-ending injury to guard Briante Weber, while the Wildcats are rolling since the return of guard Jack Gibbs from injury. The A-10 tourney should be fabulous, but the end to the regular season offers a fascinating first act.

BIGGEST GAMES FOR SEEDING PURPOSES

Three teams that may have some doubts to erase with the selection committee – and have big opportunities to do so this week:

Does Rick Pitino have enough firepower at Louisville to make a postseason run? (USAT)
Does Rick Pitino have enough firepower at Louisville to make a postseason run? (USAT)

Louisville (15) hosts Notre Dame on Wednesday and Virginia on Saturday. What’s at stake for the Cardinals: proving they’re worthy of a relatively high seed without dismissed point guard Chris Jones. To date Louisville is 2-1 without Jones, with improved performance each time: a loss to Syracuse, a furious rally to eke past Georgia Tech, and a 22-point win against Florida State – all on the road. Now the Cards will see if they can get a continuation of the sudden surges from shrinking violets Wayne Blackshear (18 against FSU, and two key 3s late against Tech) and Anton Gill (a 4-for-4 performance from 3-point range against FSU from a guy who had made just six 3s all year). A sweep would greatly enhance chances of a top-four seed; being swept may result in dropping to a No. 6; a split could mean a No. 5. Pending what happens in the ACC tourney, of course.

Wisconsin (16) hits the road twice to play Minnesota and Ohio State. The Badgers have played a pretty soft Big Ten slate until beating Michigan State on Sunday. Now they’ll try to add a couple of road victories that would buttress the argument for a No. 1 seed – with or without injured guard Traevon Jackson, whose return date still remains unclear. It’ been a while since Wisconsin beat a high-quality team away from the Kohl Center, so that meeting with the Buckeyes could loom large.

Kansas (17) hosts West Virginia and is at Oklahoma. The Jayhawks are 1-0 without Cliff Alexander, but if he’s done for the year it may be a moot point with the committee given his declining role in recent weeks. Kansas would need a whole lot of things to go right to wind up on the No. 1 seed line, but being a No. 2 is realistic. And there is a greater difference between a No. 2 and a No. 3 than is often acknowledged – 18 times a No. 3 has lost its first NCAA game to a No. 14, and only seven times has a No. 2 lost to a No. 15.

THE PERILS OF PROMOTING FROM WITHIN

In a coaching change at a successful program, the first reaction often is to seek continuity by tapping a trusted lieutenant to take over as the head man. There are three programs in specific right now that are struggling to sustain what they had built after promoting an assistant to the head job.

New Mexico (18). The Lobos have not had a losing season overall or in the Mountain West since 2007, their last year under Ritchie McKay. He was replaced by Steve Alford, who won 20 games every season. Alford then was replaced by Craig Neal, who sustained things nicely with a 27-7 record and 15-3 mark in league play last season. This year the bottom has fallen out – New Mexico is 14-15 overall, 6-11 in the MWC, and went 0-for-February. Not good.

Saint Louis (19). When Rick Majerus took leave with a failing heart, the school understandably turned to Jim Crews, a veteran head coach at Evansville and Army. He first was given the job on an interim basis, and then full-time. Crews rewarded that trust with two great seasons, going a combined 55-14. But with the loss of several key, multi-year players, the Billikens have collapsed. They’re 11-18, 3-13 in the league and now losing badly to fellow A-10 also-rans like George Mason and Duquesne. The good news is that the entire roster should be back next year – if that is indeed good news.

Will Josh Pastner ever return Memphis to national prominence? (USAT)
Will Josh Pastner ever return Memphis to national prominence? (USAT)

Memphis (20). Josh Pastner’s biggest problem isn’t that he has a poor record – he’s 149-56 in nearly six full seasons. His biggest problem is that he’s not John Calipari, competing for one-and-done superstars and national championships. After four straight NCAA bids, Memphis (17-12, 9-7 in the American) is a long shot to make it this year. To his credit, Pastner has been a more willing disciplinarian – despite a shaky approval rating with the Memphis fans. But eventually he will need a big-time season to make everyone stop grumbling about the program’s slippage.

Then again, sometimes promoting from within works out just fine …

Murray State (21). Steve Prohm started his head-coaching career with 23 straight victories and went 31-2 his first season, advancing to the NCAA round of 32. Murray missed the NCAAs the next two years, and some wondered whether Prohm had lost his momentum after losing the nucleus he inherited from Billy Kennedy. But this year has eradicated any doubts – the Racers are 26-4 and riding a 24-game winning streak, with a perfect record in the Ohio Valley Conference. They likely still need to win the league to make the NCAA tourney, but even an OVC tourney loss would not diminish the fact that Prohm has been yet another great hire at Murray. Now the hard part may be keeping him from following Kennedy, Mick Cronin and many other predecessors to a bigger school.

Butler (22). One season does not define Chris Holtmann as a long-term success. But given the way he took over, after head coach Brandon Miller took a leave of absence, he’s done phenomenal work. After having their brains beaten in during their first year in the Big East (and first year after Brad Stevens), Butler is back to being Butler – a 21-8 overall record, 11-5 in the league, and a lock to make the Big Dance. Time will tell with Holtmann, but he’s off to a great start.

And, way back in the day, Gonzaga (23). Mark Few once was the assistant to Dan Monson. Now he’s the architect of a perennial winner, putting his team into the NCAA tournament every one of his 16 seasons on the job and winning the West Coast Conference 14 times.

THE LITTLE DANCE, PART I

America East (24). When: starts March 4, ends March 14. Where: campus sites.

Top seed: Albany (21-8, 15-1).

Dark horse: Stony Brook. The third-seeded Seawolves have a painful history of upset losses in this tournament to overcome, but this may be the team to do it. Stony Brook has won six straight, including a triumph at Albany to hand the Great Danes their only league loss of the year.

Minutes pick: Albany. Coach Will Brown has won this tournament four times, including the last two in a row. He’s on a six-game America East tourney winning streak, and it should be nine after this year.

Atlantic Sun (25). When: starts March 3, ends March 8. Where: campus sites.

Top seed: North Florida (20-11, 12-2).

Dark horse: South Carolina Upstate. The third-seeded Spartans were only 8-6 in the league and lost half of their final six games, but they also handed champ North Florida its only two conference losses. If they get a third shot, they might do it again.

Minutes pick: Florida Gulf Coast. The second-seeded Eagles have the last key players from the Dunk City run of 2013, and they’ll make another one.

Big South (26). When: starts March 4, ends March 8. Where: Conway, S.C.

Top seed: Charleston Southern (19-10, 13-5).

Dark horse: Coastal Carolina. The third-seeded Chanticleers are one of three teams to get a bye into the quarterfinals, and they own a 3-1 record against the top two seeds, Charleston Southern and High Point. Veteran coach Cliff Ellis got a lesser team than this into the Big Dance last year.

Minutes pick: Coastal Carolina.

Colonial (27). When: starts March 6, ends March 9. Where: Baltimore.

Top seed: William & Mary (18-11, 12-6). Pretty good team with a perfectly miserable record of conference tournament futility. William & Mary has never been to the NCAAs.

Dark horse: Northeastern. It’s not fair to call the third-seeded Huskies a true dark horse – they’re one of four teams that ended up tied for the regular-season championship, and they’re the only CAA team with 20 wins. But by seed, they’re not supposed to win this thing.

Minutes pick: Northeastern. Bill Coen finally gets his dancing shoes on in his ninth year on the job.

Bryce Drew has Valpo sitting atop the Horizon league. (USAT)
Bryce Drew has Valpo sitting atop the Horizon league. (USAT)

Horizon (28). When: starts March 3, ends March 10. Where: campus sites.

Top seed: Valparaiso (26-5, 13-3). Bryce Drew’s Crusaders are very tough to score on.

Dark horse: Oakland. Greg Kampe’s fourth-seeded team can perform well playing at a tempo that is uncomfortable to most of the best teams in the Horizon.

Minutes pick: Valpo. The Crusaders could play every game on their home court, where they have won nine straight league games dating back to last season. But they also play a lot of close games. Don’t expect blowouts.

Metro Atlantic (29). When: starts March 5, ends March 9. Where: Albany, N.Y.

Top seed: Iona (24-7, 17-3). Shocking regular-season finale loss to St. Peter’s ended an 11-game winning streak.

Dark horse: Quinnipiac. Senior-laden team had some good wins early in the season and some close losses late. Make a few more plays and the record (15-14, 9-11) is a lot better.

Minutes pick: Iona. Gaels have had the best season and have the two best players in the league – but the margin for error over the other top seeds is very slim.

Missouri Valley (30). When: starts March 5, ends March 8. Where: St. Louis.

Top seed: Wichita State (27-3, 17-1). The run the Shockers have been on the past three seasons is simply amazing: 92-13 overall.

Dark horse: Illinois State. In what everyone views as a two-team league, Redbirds are the dangerous fourth seed.

Minutes pick: Northern Iowa. Panthers have beaten three power-five opponents on neutral floors this season (Virginia Tech, Northwestern, Iowa). They can win the rubber match against the Shockers on a neutral floor, too.

Northeast (31). When: starts March 4, ends March 10.

Top seed: St. Francis (N.Y.) (21-10, 15-3).

Dark horse: Bryant. The Bulldogs upset St. Francis to close the regular season and gave Pittsburgh a scare a few weeks ago.

Minutes pick: St. Francis. The Terriers are ready to earn the first NCAA bid in school history.

Ohio Valley (32). When: starts March 4, ends March 7. Where: Nashville.

Top seed: Murray State (26-4, 16-0). Racers may have the two best players in the league in guard Cameron Payne and forward Jarvis Williams.

Dark horse: Belmont. Rick Byrd has taken the Bruins to six NCAA tourneys, so don’t count him out here.

Minutes pick: Murray State. Clear class of the league, though there will be no walkovers in Nashville – especially in a potential final against Belmont or Eastern Kentucky.

Patriot (33). When: starts March 3, ends March 11. Where: campus sites.

Top seed: Bucknell (18-13, 13-5). The Bison are 61-17 in Patriot play over the past five seasons.

Dark horse: Lehigh. Sophomore center Tim Kempton could carry the Engineers to an upset victory or two.

Minutes pick: Colgate. Although the Red Raiders are only 15-16, they’re 12-6 in the league and swept Bucknell. Last NCAA appearance: 1996.

Southern (34). When: starts March 6, ends March 9. Where: Asheville, N.C.

Top seed: Wofford (25-6, 16-2). The Terriers have won 12 of their last 13.

Dark horse: Mercer. The Bears moved up in class from the Atlantic Sun this season but have the same coach (Bob Hoffman) who guided them to the shocking upset of Duke last year in the NCAAs.

Minutes pick: Wofford. The Terriers have beaten North Carolina State, Iona and Sam Houston State. They can handle whatever the Davidson-less SoCon throws at them.

Summit (35). When: starts March 7, ends March 10. Where: Sioux Falls, S.D.

Top seed: South Dakota State (21-9, 12-4). The Jackrabbits have finished first or second in the league for four straight years.

Dark horse: IPFW. The Mastodons hit their stride late, winning eight of their last 10.

Minutes pick: IPFW. It’s time for the 'Dons to lumber out of the Ice Age and into their first NCAA tournament.

Will Tyler Haws and BYU pull off another upset of Gonzaga in the WCC tournament? (USAT)
Will Tyler Haws and BYU pull off another upset of Gonzaga in the WCC tournament? (USAT)

West Coast (36). When: starts March 6, ends March 10. Where: Las Vegas.

Top seed: Gonzaga (29-2, 17-1). What, you were expecting Pepperdine?

Dark horse: BYU. Not really much of a dark horse, but the Cougars aren’t the champions and they finished the regular season on a six-game winning streak – including a shocking upset of Gonzaga in Spokane.

Minutes pick: Gonzaga. Foolish to pick against the Zags, even though BYU offers an intriguing challenge.

UNDER THE RADAR LOVE

Each week The Minutes will shine some light on a player doing good work outside the power-five mainstream. This week: Corey Hawkins (37), UC Davis. The Arizona State transfer and son of Hersey Hawkins averages 20.2 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.6 assists for the Big West-leading Aggies. Hawkins ranks in the Big West top 10 in scoring, assists and rebounds.

"Corey is an elite scorer who is extremely efficient,” coach Jim Les said. “His ability to be a complete player has helped elevate our team."

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Mark Turgeon (38), Maryland. A very important year for the school (transitioning into the Big Ten) and Turgeon (no NCAA bids his previous three seasons on the job) is panning out splendidly. The Terrapins are 24-5 overall and in sole possession of second place in the league at the moment at 12-4. They’re a lock for the NCAAs and riding a five-game winning streak with two winnable games remaining (at Rutgers and at Nebraska). A good Maryland basketball program is a quality addition to the Big Ten, and Turgeon is delivering.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Kevin Stallings (39), Vanderbilt. There’s probably a better way to handle a taunting player than yelling, “I’m going to f------ kill you!” within range of microphones and TV cameras while going through the postgame handshake line. Just a thought.

BUZZER BEATER

For anyone attending the Duke-North Carolina rematch Saturday in Chapel Hill, The Minutes recommends dinner at Elaine’s On Franklin (40) – a classy joint that will rekindle the aristocratic air of a rivalry dragged down by sordid headlines and five years since the last Final Four for either school. Try the house-smoked pork tenderloin with sweet potato waffles and thank The Minutes later.

 

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