Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (muzzle sold separately in Westwood for LaVar Ball):
CONGRATULATIONS, GONZAGA. YOU’VE BEEN FREED TO CHASE A TITLE
When top-ranked Gonzaga (1) was shocked late Saturday by BYU (2) – at home and after racing to an 18-2 lead, no less – it ruined an undefeated season. But it also might have saved the Bulldogs’ postseason, which is what matters most.
Lighten up, Zags. Play without the weight of March Madness pressing down upon you. You’ve just experienced a good loss.
It’s hard enough for a school to drag the bull’s-eye of a No. 1 seed into the NCAA tournament. Especially a school that does not spend the entire season in the national spotlight. Add undefeated to that, and it might be more burden than Gonzaga would be able to bear.
Wichita State handled that situation reasonably well in 2014, but still wound up losing in the second round to Kentucky thanks to horrible bracket balancing by the selection committee. The Shockers were the first team to go undefeated into the NCAA tourney since defending champion UNLV in 1991, and the ride ended abruptly on the first weekend.
If the Zags had beaten BYU and then won the West Coast Conference tournament to reach 33-0 heading into the NCAAs, they would have been the biggest story in the Big Dance. For a program that has occasionally appeared tight at tournament time while forever falling short of the Final Four, that could have been a lot of added pressure.
Now, after a loss that might not cost it a No. 1 seed or anything else, Gonzaga will be just another part of the 68-team patchwork. A prominent part, yes, but not the prominent part. Mark Few’s very talented and experienced team can simply go play, which seems like an ideal scenario.
TWEAKS FOR THE STRETCH RUN
Five Final Four contenders that have made adjustments late in the season that seem to be paying dividends:
Kentucky (3) seems to have settled on an offensive formula, turning the attack over to three freshmen and telling everyone else to find a role around them. Malik Monk from the perimeter and off the dribble, Bam Adebayo in the paint and De’Aaron Fox pushing the tempo and driving the paint – that’s the plan of attack. Sophomore Isaiah Briscoe has scored in single digits three straight games for the first time since mid-January 2016, partly due to foul trouble but also due to shifting the emphasis back to UK’s most gifted offensive players. And four-men Derek Willis and Wenyen Gabriel are being utilized as spot-up 3-point shooters. It’s a promising arrangement as long as Fox stays healthy (he’s missed two of the last eight games with leg issues), Adebayo stays assertive (10 offensive rebounds and 18 free throws the last two games) and Monk remembers how to shoot outside Rupp Arena (56 percent outside the arc last seven home games, 26 percent in his last seven road games). John Calipari has navigated the Wildcats through their mid-winter crisis and back to the top of the Southeastern Conference.
North Carolina (4) has upped the dosage of Kennedy Meeks. The powerful big man has logged six straight games playing 25 or more minutes, for the first time in his four-year college career. In the four games prior to the Tar Heels’ loss Monday at Virginia, Meeks averaged 15.5 points and 8.8 rebounds, and made 27 of 40 shots. He’s a terror on the offensive glass, using his 260 pounds to great effect going after missed Carolina shots. With Justin Jackson blazing away of late from the perimeter and becoming the focal point of opposing scouting reports, Meeks has emerged as the interior threat defenses have to contend with.
UCLA (5) has gotten its players past defensive indifference and closer to something like defensive zeal. Or at least an acknowledgement that defense matters. After surrendering 80 or more points five straight times from Jan. 12-25, the Bruins have held seven straight opponents to less than that – and won all seven games. Using Ken Pomeroy’s numbers, UCLA’s defensive efficiency ranking has improved more than 30 points in the last two weeks, from 126th to 94th. And when you pair that with the No. 1 offense in the country, it could be a sustainable equation.
Louisville (6) has reintegrated its matchup zone in order to allay some man-to-man defensive deficiencies. After beating Syracuse by 20 points Sunday, Rick Pitino said the Cardinals have increased use of their hybrid, 2-3 zone. That’s because this Louisville team has struggled stopping drives to the basket. Combine that with the fact that this is one of Pitino’s weaker teams in terms of forcing turnovers, and packing the defense in seems like a prudent response to camouflaging those issues. The side effect is a reduction in playing time for gifted freshman wing V.J. King, who needs time to learn Pitino’s esoteric zone defense assignments.
West Virginia (7) is leaning more on Jevon Carter than at any time during the season, or any time in his three-year WVU career. On a team that does just about everything by committee, Carter has become the one guy Bob Huggins needs on the floor most. Heading into the Mountaineers’ Monday game against Baylor, Carter had played 82 percent of the available minutes in Big 12 games, up from 76 percent in all games this season, and he’s taking more shots of late. Since losing at Kansas on Feb. 13, Carter is averaging 21 points and 16.3 shot attempts per game.
MUST WE REWARD HIGH-MAJOR MEDIOCRITY?
As noted in last week’s Forde Minutes, the NCAA tournament bubble is threatening to be overrun by middling teams from major conferences at the expense of mid-major squads, who are trying to do more with less while navigating brutal schedules. It’s not a positive development. It’s another manifestation of the inexorable consolidation of power in the hands of the richest and most powerful conferences in college sports, which lessens the populist appeal of the Big Dance.
With mid-major and low-major league tournaments getting underway this week (see below), some teams that have had great seasons invariably will be upset and potentially discarded to the NIT instead of getting an at-large spot in the field of 68. The selection committee would be wise to consider the merits of several power-conference teams having mediocre seasons, then decide whether they’re better inclusions than teams that could slay a few giants and add more flavor to the tourney. Among them:
Syracuse (8). The Orange is 2-10 away from the Carrier Dome, with six of the losses by 14 points or more. The two victories came by a total of eight points, and one was in overtime, and both were against teams in the bottom four in the ACC. Syracuse’s only victory in the past five games came courtesy of a banked-in 25-footer at the buzzer last week against Duke. If John Gillon’s shot misses and Syracuse falls in overtime, it’s probably not in the field at present. That’s the current margin of admission for a program that played one game outside the state of New York prior to Jan. 1.
Wake Forest (9). The Demon Deacons are 7-9 in the ACC and have just one victory over a team that seems assured of being in the field of 68 – a home victory over Miami on Jan. 18. Wake can try to play the No Bad Losses card, but that overlooks a season sweep at the hands of a Clemson team that has just four ACC wins right now. Lacking a notable victory this week or next, Wake doesn’t have much argument for inclusion.
Georgia Tech (10). Also 7-9 in the ACC, and further dragged down by non-conference losses to Ohio, Penn State, Tennessee and Georgia. (There was, to be fair, a road win over VCU.) Tech has scored some major home wins over North Carolina, Florida State and Notre Dame but like Syracuse has done very little away from home in league play (1-7). Just because the Yellow Jackets have been a pleasant surprise under first-year coach Josh Pastner, that doesn’t mean they’re bid-worthy.
TCU (11). As is the case with Pastner at Georgia Tech, Jamie Dixon has worked wonders to even get the Horned Frogs into the discussion – but they’re 6-10 in the Big 12 and haven’t won a game since Feb. 7. It’s a good league, but come on. TCU has one victory against a sure-fire tournament team, Jan. 14 over Iowa State in Fort Worth. Also: a home loss to Auburn is worthy of automatic expulsion from consideration.
Kansas State (12). Like TCU, the Wildcats are 6-10 in the Big 12 and rapidly backpedaling out of serious consideration. When you’re on the bubble and lose by 30 Saturday to a team tied for last place in the league (Oklahoma), you’ve pretty well disqualified yourself. The question is what this 2-8 stagger through the past 10 games has done to Bruce Weber’s job security.
Indiana (13). Victories over Kansas, North Carolina and Michigan State are good. But 13 losses, 10 of them in an uninspiring Big Ten, are not. A dramatic win over Northwestern on Saturday in a game filled with wild runs by both teams might do more to hurt the Wildcats’ at-large cause than help the Hoosiers’. If Indiana doesn’t win at league leader Purdue on Tuesday night, it likely will need to win the Big Ten tournament and qualify automatically.
Forty percent of the Big East (14). Marquette, Xavier, Providence and Seton Hall all are 8-8 in the league. They are the huddled masses yearning to earn a bid. If it matters, here are their records against one another: Providence 4-2, Seton Hall 3-3, Marquette and Xavier 2-3 with an Ash Wednesday Catholic Showdown on Wednesday in Cincinnati. If any of the four has a trump card it’s Marquette, which beat league kingpin Villanova.
USC (15). The Trojans have lost four straight, sliding to 8-8 in the Pac-12. They have two wins over teams in Ken Pomeroy’s current top 65, but they’re good ones: UCLA and SMU. They’re also both at home. Best win away from the Galen Center is probably over Texas A&M by two points on Nov. 18. (Note: Texas A&M is not a good team.)
California (16). The Golden Bears’ best (only?) selling point is a 10-6 conference record. But there isn’t a lot of meat on that bone – Cal’s only league win over an opponent under at-large consideration is by a point at USC on Jan. 8. The non-conference schedule, which featured zero true road games, is headlined by a win over Princeton. This week Cal makes its first trip of the season east of Tucson, playing Utah on Thursday and Colorado on Saturday. If the Bears lose both, they’ll seriously jeopardize their bubble standing.
Vanderbilt (17). The Minutes knows this much: if it comes down to an at-large comparison between the Commodores (16-13, 9-7 in the laggardly SEC) and Middle Tennessee State (25-4), case closed. The Blue Raiders beat Vandy 71-48 in December. That’s what happens when you play a quality mid-major on the road – the very opportunity that is routinely denied to most mid-majors.
Georgia (18). The Bulldogs’ tortured path to 8-8 in the mighty SEC has been littered with so many close wins and close losses that it’s a miracle Mark Fox hasn’t gone off the deep end. There isn’t much on the résumé to excite anyone, though perhaps they could sell the selection committee on the presumptive return of their best player, Yante Maten, from a knee injury in time for the Big Dance. That’s not a lot to go on.
ENDLESS BUBBLE WATCH IN EVANSTON
Northwestern (19) is doing its best not to lock up the first bid in school history, having lost five of its past seven and two in a row to lower-division Big Ten teams. Every time you want to sound the all-clear siren for the Wildcats, they do something to muddle the picture. Which is somewhat predictable, given the program’s history.
Win six in a row to reach 18-4? Follow that with consecutive losses, including a home loss to Illinois.
Win at Wisconsin? Follow that with a home loss to Maryland and a near-disaster at home against last-place Rutgers, then drop road games to Illinois and Indiana.
All of which means that this is the biggest week in program history. Northwestern closes the regular season with two at home, against Michigan on Wednesday and Purdue on Sunday. Win both and the drama is over. Win one to assure a winning record in league play, and that probably would suffice. Lose both and the Wildcats will go to Washington, D.C. for the league tournament with anvils in their backpacks.
DUMPSTER FIRE OF THE YEAR
There always is competition for this award, and this year dishonorable mention for the most dysfunctional program goes to Washington, North Carolina State, LSU, Missouri and Texas. But we have a clear winner.
Take a bow, South Florida (20).
Orlando Antigua was fired Jan. 3, ending one of the all-time disastrous tenures for a college head coach: He was 23-55 on the court, and his program was immersed in an investigation of academic fraud. That investigation led to the resignation of Antigua’s brother and assistant coach, Oliver, last summer.
Since Orlando Antigua was fired, the Bulls have only gotten worse. They’re now 7-20 overall, 1-15 in the American Athletic Conference – and they arrived at rock bottom last week.
After losing at Tulsa last Thursday, South Florida flew to Houston for a connecting flight back to Tampa. Two players, Troy Holston and Geno Thorpe, fell asleep at the gate before boarding the second flight.
And the team accidentally left them there. The plane had left the boarding gate before anyone realized, and the players had to be booked on a later flight home.
Now South Florida isn’t just losing games. It’s losing players, too.
“It’s very disappointing, and it’s a reflection of how terrible a program the men’s basketball program is,” said Monique Holston-Greene, Troy Holston’s mother, to the Tampa Bay Times.
She has a point.
THE LITTLE DANCE, PART I
It began Monday night. The Little Dance before the Big Dance, the prelude to March Madness, and in some ways it’s the best time of all. Conference tournament season features more games, more hooky ball on weekdays, more desperate scrambling for bids than in the more celebrated national tournament that follows.
To help you get ready, The Minutes boldly predicts how the first 13 league tourneys will fare. Next week’s Forde Minutes will cover the remaining tournaments.
America East (21) – March 1-11
Top seed: Vermont (26-5, 16-0, No. 69 in Pomeroy Ratings). The Catamounts have won 18 straight, and only four of those have been by single digits. Freshman Anthony Lamb is a recruiting steal who will be a future star. If someone else pulls the shocker and wins this tourney, Vermont should get at-large consideration.
Top threat to the top seed: Albany, the No. 3 seed, which won the league tourney three straight years from 2013-15.
Minutes pick: Vermont.
Atlantic Sun (22) – Feb. 27-March 5
Top seed: Florida Gulf Coast (23-7, 12-2, No. 119 in Pomeroy Ratings). The defending champions might be the best team out of the A-Sun since the Mercer squad that shocked Duke in the first round of the 2014 NCAA tourney.
Top threat to the top seed: Lipscomb. Won at FGCU on Feb. 9, and has won eight of its past nine.
Minutes pick: Florida Gulf Coast.
Big South (23) – Feb. 28-March 5
Top seed: Winthrop. The Eagles (23-6, 15-3, No. 113 in Pomeroy Ratings) won the tiebreaker with UNC-Asheville. They’ve lost in the championship game the past two seasons.
Top threat to the top seed: UNC-Asheville. Beat Winthrop in double overtime at home, lost to Winthrop by three on the road. You could say they’re evenly matched.
Minutes pick: Winthrop
Colonial (24) – March 3-6
Top seed: UNC-Wilmington. The Seahawks (26-5, 15-3, No. 58 in Pomeroy Ratings) are the defending champs, but it wasn’t easy last year – their three tourney wins came by a total of 12 points, with the final game going into overtime. The nucleus of that team returned and has been even better this time around.
Top threat to the top seed: College of Charleston. Finished one game out of first and split a pair with UNC-Wilmington during the season. The Cougars might be a year away from dominating the league.
Minutes pick: UNC-Wilmington
Horizon (25) – March 3-7
Top seed: Oakland (24-7, 14-4, No. 108 in Pomeroy Ratings). The Grizzlies won the No. 1 seed tiebreaker with Valparaiso by virtue of a season sweep of the Crusaders. Up-tempo team closed the regular season on a nine-game winning streak.
Top threat to the top seed: Valparaiso gave away the outright league title on Sunday with a loss at Northern Kentucky, in large part because four-year star Alec Peters was out with a leg injury. If he can’t play this tournament, Valpo is in trouble.
Minutes pick: Northern Kentucky. The fourth-seeded Norse have rocketed from 20 losses to 20 wins in two seasons under John Brannen, and enter the tournament having won seven of their past eight.
Metro Atlantic (26) – March 2-6
Top seed: Monmouth (26-5, 18-2, No. 79 in Pomeroy Ratings). The Hawks captured the regular-season title for the second straight season – this time by a whopping four games. They fell short in the tourney title game last year and were unjustly snubbed for an at-large bid. Currently riding a 16-game winning streak, Monmouth will be hard to beat this time around.
Top threat to the top seed: Iona. The third-seeded Gaels get a first-round bye, and swept No. 2 seed St. Peter’s. Tim Cluess has taken Iona to three of the past five NCAA tournaments.
Minutes pick: Monmouth
Missouri Valley (27) – March 2-5
Top seed: Illinois State (25-5, 17-1, No. 45 in Pomeroy Ratings). The veteran Redbirds put it all together this year. They won the tiebreaker with Wichita State and are seeking their first NCAA tournament bid since 1998. Senior point guard Paris Lee is a Minutes fave.
Top threat to the top seed: Wichita State. The Shockers have been the dominant Valley program over a decade under Gregg Marshall, and this year they have the top power ratings across the board. But they have won only one league tournament with Marshall, and that was the undefeated team of 2014.
Minutes pick: Illinois State
Northeast (28) – March 1-7
Top seed: Mount St. Mary’s (16-15, 14-4, No. 214 in Pomeroy Ratings). Suicidal early schedule – first nine all on the road – uglied up the Mountaineers’ record. Then they won 10 of their first 11 in league play to take control.
Top threat to the top seed: LIU-Brooklyn. The Blackbirds won at Mount St. Mary’s last week, part of a six-game winning streak to end the regular season.
Minutes pick: Robert Morris. There always are a few shocking tournament champions. The seventh-seeded Colonials (13-18) would apply. But they draw an LIU-Brooklyn team in the quarterfinals that they beat on the road Feb. 2.
Ohio Valley (29) – March 1-4
Top seed: Belmont (22-5, 15-1, No. 84 in Pomeroy Ratings). The Bruins have been to four of the past six NCAA tournaments and dominated the league this year. With Murray State taking a step back, Belmont is pretty much without peer this year. Forward Evan Bradds is third in Division history in career field-goal percentage at .674.
Top threat to the top seed: Jacksonville State. The fourth-seeded Gamecocks aren’t much of a threat, but first-year coach Ray Harper did pull off two miracle Sun Belt tournament title runs when he was the coach at Western Kentucky.
Minutes pick: Belmont.
Patriot (30) – Feb. 28-March 8
Top seed: Bucknell (23-8, 15-3, No. 80 in Pomeroy Ratings). The Bison are the league’s best offensive team, best defensive team and won the conference by three games.
Top threat to the top seed: Lehigh. The Engineers swept Bucknell in the regular season – but they’ll likely have to get past a Boston U. team that swept Lehigh to reach the Patriot final.
Minutes pick: Lehigh. After last year’s stunning final loss to Holy Cross, the Engineers are due.
Southern (31) – March 3-6
Top seed: UNC-Greensboro (23-8, 14-4, No. 121 in Pomeroy Ratings). The Spartans won their past seven games, knocking off Furman and East Tennessee State along the way, to claim the No. 1 seed. Their last NCAA tournament appearance was 2001.
Top threat to the top seed: ETSU. Pomeroy says the Buccaneers are 41 spots better than the second-best team in the league, Furman. Steve Forbes’ team can throw some athletes and pressure at opponents.
Minutes pick: East Tennessee State
Summit (32) – March 4-7
Top seed: South Dakota (21-10, 12-4, No. 137 in Pomeroy Ratings). The Coyotes had never previously come close to winning this league, just once finishing with a winning Summit record. Now a six-game winning streak has propelled them to within dreaming range of the first Big Dance bid in school history.
Top threat to the top seed: North Dakota State. The Bison, who have been to two of the past three NCAA tourneys, were 7-1 in league play before sliding through a 4-4 February.
Minutes pick: South Dakota State. Sometimes you’ve got to take a flyer. Might as well go with the school that has the best player in the league: 6-foot-9 sophomore Mike Daum, who scored 107 points in the Jackrabbits’ three-game winning streak to close the regular season.
West Coast (33) – March 3-7
Top seed: Gonzaga (29-1, 17-1, No. 1 in Pomeroy Ratings). The Zags absolutely flattened the league until that little comeuppance Saturday. Provided they refocus, they shouldn’t have a very difficult three-game run here.
Top threat to the top seed: BYU, the only team to beat Gonzaga all season. Still, the Cougars will have to go through Saint Mary’s in the semifinals, and they’ve lost twice this season to the Gaels.
Minutes pick: Gonzaga
THERE’S ALWAYS NEXT YEAR
Via ineligibility or ineptitude, the following teams have been eliminated from competing in their conference tournaments, which means that prior to the start of the Little Dance on Monday night they already have been eliminated from national championship contention (34):
Brown, Cornell and Dartmouth from the Ivy League; Austin Peay, Eastern Illinois, Eastern Kentucky and SIU-Edwardsville from the OVC; Central Connecticut and St. Francis of New York from the NEC; UMass-Lowell of the America East; Oral Roberts from the Summit; North Carolina A&T of the MEAC; Northern Colorado from the Big Sky; Alabama A&M of the SWAC; Florida International and North Texas from C-USA; Abilene Christian, Incarnate Word and McNeese State from the Southland; Grand Canyon from the WAC.
On Monday night, we lost four more in the A-Sun quarterfinals. Say goodbye to Stetson, NJIT, Jacksonville and South Carolina Upstate.
That leaves 327 teams with a chance. If you’re the lowest seed in your conference tourney, hey, dare to dream. All it would take is somewhere between eight and 12 straight victories to cut down the nets in Arizona come April.
FIVE QUESTIONS WITH A COACH
Every week The Minutes has a brief conversation with a coach about some element of the game. This week’s subject: Tom Izzo (35) of Michigan State. The topic: circling the wagons and soldiering on after a major injury.
FM: On Feb. 18, you lost starting guard Eron Harris to a season-ending knee injury. What was the message to the team after that?
TI: I listen to a lot of football guys who talk about “next man up” after an injury. That always sounds good in theory, but if the next man was as good as the starter, he would be a starter. So you’ve got to be honest with the guys and not have (the replacement) try to do what he can’t do. We lost a good defender in Eron Harris. We put the whole thing on the whole team to pick it up defensively.
FM: In what ways specifically can you make up for his absence defensively?
TI: Eron is very good against ball screens. Now we’re not as good in that area, so we’ve changed our big guys a bit, stepping them up a little bit more. It has to be everyone.
FM: You also had preseason injuries to two big men, Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter. That has tested your depth. How important is it to keep all your players buying in and ready to contribute, because you never know when you may need them?
TI: That is an important part, especially when you have a year like this. This is by far our worst year (for injuries), I’ve never had anything like this. Fortunately, I played more guys early, which everyone criticized me for. But now those guys are key guys.
FM: Technically, Eron Harris’ injury didn’t end his season. On Senior Day Sunday you put him in the game in the final seconds, and he got to make one final appearance at Michigan State and kiss the Spartan logo at center court. How did that idea come about?
TI: Senior Day is always a big day for me. I was laying in bed the night before the game and I told my equipment guy, “Hey, make sure you get a uniform on Eron Harris. If we get ahead by enough or behind by enough, we’re going to put him in so he can kiss the helmet.” It was one of the neater things I’ve got to do. Sometimes you ask yourself, “Why am I in this profession?” That’s why I’m in this profession.
FM: Your teams almost always rise to the occasion of March. That time is now. How do you get them to collectively raise their game?
TI: We’ve had a little success the last couple games – how do we handle it? We close with two on the road – how do our young guys handle the road? I don’t know how this stuff (NCAA at-large selections) works anymore – I see two 4-10 teams getting consideration. I don’t know what’s what. But I do like that we are getting better late.
We’re not the typical Michigan State team. I go to bed at night telling my wife to pray that my bigs don’t get in foul trouble. She says, “Why would you say bigs, plural? You only have one.” The pregame speeches used to be “Go out and kick their ass.” Now before games we say, “Hey, don’t foul, don’t touch a guy, and if we can get to the last 10 minutes without foul trouble, then we can play normal.” It’s been a different year.
UNDER THE RADAR LOVE
Patrick Cole (36), North Carolina Central. Heading into the Eagles’ game Monday night, the versatile senior guard leads the MEAC regular-season champions in scoring (19.7) and assists (5.8) and is second in rebounds (6.9). Prior to Monday night, Cole had three straight double-doubles in one form or another – two times with points and rebounds, one time with points and assists. He had a triple-double earlier in the season.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Mitch Henderson (37), Princeton. If this were any other year in Ivy League history, Henderson’s team would need just one win in two home games this week to lock up an NCAA tournament bid. But since this is the first year for the Ivy to have a conference tourney, that bid will have to be contested March 11-12. Still, the Tigers have dominated the league, going 12-0 to this point and 19-6 overall. The Ivy hasn’t had a team go unbeaten in the league since Cornell in 2008, and Princeton is angling for its first NCAA bid since 2011. Henderson has authored six straight winning seasons as coach at Princeton.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Rob Ehsan (38), UAB. He was promoted to replace Jerod Haase, who left for Stanford. The transition has not been smooth. UAB returned every key player but one from a team that went 26-7 last year, but there has been little carryover success. The Blazers are 15-14, 8-8 in a very weak Conference USA, and have lost six of their past seven games. They do get the league tourney in their hometown, though, so perhaps Ehsan can find the formula Haase tapped into in 2015 when UAB won three straight in Birmingham to earn an unlikely NCAA bid and then shocked Iowa State in the first round.
When hungry and thirsty in Knoxville, The Minutes recommends hitting Tupelo Honey Café (39). They’ve opened a number of Tupelo Honeys in the South, but the quality has not declined. Order the buffalo chicken mac and cheese, pair it with a Tennessee Blonde Ale from Fanatic Brewing Company (40) and thank The Minutes later.
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