Coaching: Who's doing it right, who's doing it wrong and who's gone a bit crazy this season
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (“Harlem Shake” instructions sold separately):
FORDE MINUTES COACHING EDITION
It’s that time of year where coaches start to get unnaturally feisty. A long season begins to wear on the guys who put in the longest hours, worry the most and suffer the greatest when their teams lose. Of course, they’re also paid the most of anyone involved in the game and talk the loudest about being leaders of men, so there is a limit to the sympathy The Minutes feels.
Here are some examples from the past week as we reach the ragged edge of February dysfunction before diving head-long into (March) madness:
Jim Boeheim (1)
going off on Andy Katz. When: Feb. 13. Where: After a loss to Connecticut. What happened: When the ESPN college basketball reporter tried to ask the Syracuse coach a question in his postgame press conference, Boeheim shot him down in insulting fashion. Boeheim called Katz an “idiot” and a “disloyal person,” his displeasure reportedly dating back to Katz’ reporting on the Bernie Fine abuse allegations. Boeheim has blown up at plenty of reporters in public before, but rarely a national reporter like Katz. Full disclosure: Boeheim once took issue with The Minutes, but voiced his displeasure in private in the locker room. Which was fine. He should have handled this situation that way as well.
Mike Montgomery (2) shoving his best player on national TV. When: Feb. 17. Where: During California’s comeback win over USC in Berkeley. What happened: Monty got crabby with Allen Crabbe. He called timeout after two consecutive bad defensive possessions by star player Crabbe, and when the junior swingman arrived at the huddle the enraged coach shoved him with two hands in the chest. That resulted in some understandable verbal backlash from Crabbe, which led to two teammates shoving him out of the huddle. Crabbe actually left the court briefly, then returned and played exceptionally as the Golden Bears rallied for their third straight victory and continued to improve their NCAA tourney résumé. Good result, bad method. A coach should never put hands on a player, period. That’s why Monty apologized in a written statement late Sunday night, and athletic director Sandy Barbour admonished him, and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott reprimanded the coach. (Crabbe, for his part, downplayed the incident.) Montgomery has had a long, distinguished and largely classy tenure in college basketball, so a five-second meltdown shouldn’t outweigh all of that. But the behavior can’t be repeated.
John Calipari (3) psychobabbling about love, then tossing his players under the bus, then extricating them from beneath the bus. When: Feb. 8-17. Where: Just about every time he opened his mouth. What happened: Here was Calipari on Feb. 8, before Kentucky played Auburn, getting existential: “I’m not watching game tape with them. None. The staff is doing that. I don’t want them to see me in a basketball sense right now. I’m just teaching life skills. That’s all. … What does it mean to love? Tell me what it means to love.” Here is Calipari in a postgame press conference Feb. 16, after Nerlens Noel went down for the year with a blown knee and Kentucky was destroyed by Tennessee 88-58 five days later, no longer spreading the love: “We’ve got a couple of guys that are basically not real coachable. You tell them over and over and over what you want them to do, what we have to do, and they do their own thing.” Calipari on Monday, continuing a two-day backpedal from the “uncoachable” line: “I’ve got a good group of kids. They’re very young. We’re treading new water. It wasn’t like a postgame tirade. That’s not what this was. This was during the game that we’re talking about guys got to listen better.” If the Cats lose to a lousy Vanderbilt team Wednesday in Rupp Arena, this will definitely be love on the rocks.
[Also: Who's gonna come out of the Big East on top?]
Tom Crean (4) tweaking the Big Ten for selecting Michigan guard Trey Burke as Player of the Week. When: Monday morning. Where: The weekly Big Ten teleconference. What happened: The Indiana coach questioned Big Ten call moderator and basketball media relations director Dan Mihalik, ”Can you give me the criteria, so I can understand this once and for all, what the criteria is for the Player of the Week, what you’re judging that on? … Just give me this: where does winning fit into it?” Crean revisited the topic, pointedly, at the end of his segment as well. He was taking issue with the league honoring Burke, who had good numbers (23.5 points, 4.5 assists) for the week but whose team was blown out by Michigan State. Meanwhile, Indiana won two games and Will Sheehey set a school record by making all nine of his shots in a rout of Purdue. But The Minutes wonders if there is more at play here; namely, the ongoing belief in some circles that Michigan and Ohio State routinely get the backrubs from the league office. Some Hoosiers were already miffed that complaints about Michigan guard Glenn Robinson III hitting IU’s Jordan Hulls in the face Feb. 2 (could have been a punch, could have been incidental contact) yielded no action from the Big Ten. This much is clear: Indiana at Michigan on March 10 keeps getting juicier.
COACH OF THE YEAR VOTING IS CLOSED
There is only one candidate. No one else need be nominated. This is the biggest landslide The Minutes can remember.
Jim Larranaga (5), come collect your hardware. The Miami coach has taken a team that had missed the previous four NCAA tournaments and led it to the best season in school history. The Hurricanes are 21-3, winners of 13 straight games, and ranked No. 2 in both major polls. That’s after starting the season unranked and not even among the top 40 teams receiving votes.
In his second season at Miami, Larranaga has an absurdly experienced team, flush with seniors (some fifth- and sixth-year seniors). But few of those guys had any experience winning big. That has changed under the gentlemanly, 63-year-old coach who miraculously took George Mason to the 2006 Final Four.
The only debate left is whether that run with Mason or this run with the Hurricanes is the best work of Larranaga’s career. We’ll have to wait and see how this season finishes before making that call.
BEST OF THE REST
Larranaga’s dominance doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some fine coaching elsewhere. Among the other notable coaching jobs:
Bo Ryan (6), Wisconsin. When starting point guard Josh Gasser blew a knee two weeks before the season opener, expectations for the Badgers were downgraded for a team that figured to struggle in the super-tough Big Ten anyway. Instead, Ryan has fashioned a typically successful season: 18-8 overall against a rugged schedule, 9-4 in the league (including the only win at Indiana this year, plus victories over Michigan and Ohio State). Wisconsin’s slate eases up the rest of the way, so a 13-5 Big Ten record is quite conceivable. Then Ryan will face the annual question of whether he can follow an overachieving regular season with a strong NCAA tournament run.
[Watch: Greg Anthony's Ball So Hard teams]
Dana Altman (7), Oregon. His Ducks were picked seventh in the Pac-12 preseason poll. Today they’re 10-3 in league play despite starting point guard Dominic Artis missing the last seven games with a broken foot. They’re in first place, owning victories over preseason favorites Arizona and UCLA and with a remaining schedule that makes them the strong favorite to win the title. Oregon is a lock for its first NCAA bid in five years, in its third season under Altman.
Jim Crews (8), Saint Louis. When head coach Rick Majerus’ heart issues turned grave in the fall, the team was handed over to assistant Crews, a longtime head coach at Evansville and Army. After a 3-3 start, the Billikens have won 16 of their last 18 games and are tied for first in the loss column in the competitive Atlantic 10. Amid tragic circumstances, Crews has done some of the best work of his long career.
Mark Few (9)
, Gonzaga. Super-consistent winner may have his best team yet, and it could yield the first NCAA tourney No. 1 seed in school history. The 'Zags have victories over probable NCAA teams in Oklahoma, Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State, and just one of them was in their home gym. And one of their two losses was the semi-fluke at the buzzer at Butler. Like Ryan, Few will ultimately have to win as big in the Dance as he has in the regular season.
Billy Donovan (10), Florida. The Gators were expected to be good this year, but good has been upgraded to dominant. They have played exactly one bad game since Christmas, an upset loss at Arkansas. Otherwise SEC play has been a succession of blowouts, buttressing non-conference wipeouts of Wisconsin, Marquette, Middle Tennessee State, Florida State and Central Florida. Donovan’s 21-3 team is No.1 in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings and No. 2 in Jeff Sagarin’s.
[Watch: Big battle for Big Ten crown]
John Thompson III (11), Georgetown. The Hoyas have done one of the most elusive things in basketball: launch a prolonged Big East winning streak. After a 2-3 start in league play, Georgetown has reeled off seven straight victories, four of them against likely NCAA tourney teams. Great defense, rigid tempo control, Otto Porter and some clutch shooting have made the Hoyas potential Big East champs.
Buzz Williams (12), Marquette. Last year’s Sweet 16 team lost its two dominant players in guard Darius Johnson-Odom and interior player Jae Crowder. But the backslide hasn’t happened. Marquette has beaten Wisconsin, Georgetown and Pittsburgh (twice) on its way to an 18-6 record, 9-3 in the Big East. That’s good enough for a tie for the league lead, and nobody was talking about this team winning the Big East back in November.
Mike Krzyzewski (13), Duke. The Blue Devils began the year in the Top 10, but that was as much by rote as anything else. They were replacing three starters, including leading scorer Austin Rivers and the unexpected redshirt of shooter Andre Dawkins. Those voids were filled spectacularly as Duke raced undefeated through one of the most challenging non-conference schedules in the country. Since then Krzyzewski has been managing without starting forward Ryan Kelly, who has been out with an injury, and still the Devils remain in the Top 10.
Larry Eustachy (14), Colorado State. No doubt, Eustachy inherited a strong team from Tim Miles when he arrived in Fort Collins this offseason. But even with a solid hand to play, nobody was predicting a royal flush of a season. The Rams are 21-4 and ranked in the Top 25 for the first time in 59 years heading into a huge week. This could go down as the best season in school history, provided CSU finishes well.
Travis Ford (15), Oklahoma State. Cowboys fans were getting a little antsy with Ford after missing the last two NCAA tournaments, but he recruited a couple excellent freshmen (Marcus Smart, Phil Forte) to go with a solid returning cast. The result has been a 19-5 record and co-leadership of the Big 12. This could end up being the best Oklahoma State team since 2005, when Eddie Sutton was still running the show.
Michael White (16), Louisiana Tech. In just his second year as a head coach, the son of the Duke athletic director has Tech on a winning streak that stretches back before Christmas. Success has always been slippery in Ruston, but this year’s 23-3 team has won 12 games away from home, including eight straight.
[Also: How a flying kick to the chest helped Wichita State rally]
Tom Izzo (17)
, Michigan State. Last year’s 29-win team was a Draymond Green production, in just about every way. Without him, the Spartans have retooled without regressing. They are 22-4, 11-2 in the league, and doing it by committee. Nobody expected Michigan State to go away, but a lot of people thought they might give ground to Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten race. That hasn’t happened.
Shaka Smart (18), VCU. The Rams moved up in class this season from the Colonial Athletic Association to the A-10. But they haven’t stopped winning. VCU is 21-5 and 9-2 in the league, with both losses coming in a two-day span in late January. Prior to that their last losses were Thanksgiving weekend in the Bahamas. Smart’s havoc defensive style remains lethal, even in a new league.
NOT COACH OF THE YEAR
Well-compensated, big-name guys whose teams are not getting it done this season:
Ben Howland (19), UCLA. There is nothing reliable about the 19-7 Bruins, including their NCAA tourney seeding. They’ve been all over the map this season, looking brilliant and awful, sometimes within a single week. Howland recruited a vast arsenal of talent, but its young talent has not integrated with the veterans as smoothly as hoped. Every quality win (at Arizona, Missouri, at Colorado) has been offset by a dismal loss (Cal Poly, USC, a blowout at California).
Roy Williams (20), North Carolina. The Tar Heels (17-8, 7-5) should finish ACC play with a winning record, and that combined with a not-horrible non-conference performance should get them into the NCAAs. But just squeaking into the tourney has never been the goal at UNC. Everyone knew this would be a transition year for the Heels after losing a lot of talent to the pros, but multiple blowout losses and huge deficits should never have been part of the equation in Chapel Hill.
Rick Barnes (21), Texas. Bereft of the usual talent level, Barnes’ coaching weaknesses have been laid bare in an awful season. The Longhorns are among the most offensively inept teams in the nation, a brutal shooting and ball-handling team that is 11-14 overall and 3-9 in the Big 12. When you lose to Division II Chaminade and are swept by the worst West Virginia team in years, you’re not good.
Mark Gottfried (22), North Carolina State. His Wolfpack began the year in the Top 10 and currently are unranked after a succession of road losses (2-5 in true road games). This can still end well if the Pack can answer the bell a couple more times away from home, but the dreamed-of return to ACC primacy isn’t going to happen – at least in the regular season.
[Also: Cal coach Mike Montgomery shoves player to motivate him]
Leonard Hamilton (23), Florida State. Speaking of ACC flops: A team that started off in the Top 25 had non-conference losses to South Alabama, Mercer and Auburn. It has followed those pratfalls with a 6-6 league record, and those half-dozen victories came by a total of 18 points. Beyond Michael Snaer’s flair for the dramatic, there is nothing to like about this team.
Frank Haith (24), Missouri. After the football team struggled in its transition to the SEC, the basketball team was supposed to make Tigers fans feel better. Instead, they have been a putrid road team, going 1-5 on the road in a very soft league. Mizzou still should have enough on the résumé to make the tourney – neutral-floor wins over VCU and Illinois will stand out – but dreams of contending for the league title have proven wildly unrealistic.
John Calipari, Kentucky. Reloading annually with freshmen isn’t automatic after all, at least not without a few talented veterans to provide stability and poise in times in difficult spots. Calipari ran out of experience this season, and depth – one injury and a wobbly season now is on the verge of collapse. The best recruiter in the business did not sufficiently fill all the major holes on the roster, and the result could be a plummet from national champs to the NIT.
FIRST-PLACE SHOWDOWN GAMES
Without expecting it, this week has morphed into a big one in terms of conference races. No fewer than five leagues have showdown games that will affect the very top of the standings:
Indiana-Michigan State (25), Tuesday. They’re tied for first in the Big Ten with a two-game cushion over their closest pursuers. They’re both ranked in the top five. They played a sensational game earlier this season in Bloomington. And the Spartans are flying high after a beatdown of Michigan in the Breslin Center last week. This is must-watch.
[Also: Egregious blunder by WSU hands Oregon key win]
VCU-Saint Louis (26), Tuesday. Don’t call it a mid-major game; call it one of the Games of the Week. The Rams hold a half-game lead on the Billikens, but must travel to face a team that has won seven straight by an average margin of more than 14 points. Tempo tug-of-war will be key, since VCU wants to play significantly faster than Saint Louis.
Kansas-Oklahoma State (27), Wednesday. The Jayhawks’ longtime Big 12 hegemony will be directly challenged in Gallagher-Iba Arena. Oklahoma State won the stunner in Lawrence a couple of weeks ago, and sweeping the series would give the Cowboys a de facto two-game lead on Kansas with five games to play. One of the biggest games in recent Oklahoma State history.
New Mexico-Colorado State (28), Saturday. Not a matchup anyone was talking about in November, but now the Lobos and Rams have separation in the Mountain West – they’re three games up in the loss column on preseason darlings San Diego State and UNLV. But to make this one matter as much as it can, CSU must first win at UNLV on Wednesday.
Georgetown-Syracuse (29), Saturday. Longtime rivals will say a more formal goodbye March 9 when they play in Washington, D.C., but this will be the chance for the Orange to pack the Carrier Dome to somewhere near record-setting numbers one last time against the Hoyas. Only fitting that first place almost certainly will be on the line.
FIRST TIME IN A LONG TIME?
Five schools that are flirting with a breakthrough NCAA bid, at places where basketball success is forever fleeting:
High Point (30). Last time in the Big Dance: Never. Now: The Panthers are a league-best 10-3 and lead the North Division of the Big South. They’re close to wrapping up the division title and No. 1 seed from the North, but in a one-bid league it will all come down to what happens in Myrtle Beach, S.C., March 5-10.
Middle Tennessee State (31). Last time in the Big Dance: 1989. Now: The Blue Raiders are 23-4 overall, 15-1 in the Sun Belt and actually building an argument for an at-large bid if they happen to get upset in the league tournament. They have a No. 27 RPI and just one loss that could be considered bad, in overtime Jan. 3 at Arkansas State. If they win their last four regular-season games as a strong favorite and avoid a first-game flameout in the Sun Belt tourney, Middle Tennessee could well make the field.
[Also: Tourney chances improve for Arizona State after buzzer beater at Colorado]
Northeastern (32). Last time in the Big Dance: 1991. Now: The Huskies hit the skids last week, being upset at home in overtime to Delaware and at UNC-Wilmington. That cut their lead in the diminished Colonial Athletic Association to two games with three to play. At very worst, Northeastern should get a bye to the CAA semifinals, which means it would need two wins in a one-bid league.
Louisiana Tech (33). Last time in the Big Dance: 1991.The Bulldogs are dominating a gutted Western Athletic Conference, rolling to a 14-0 conference record. They have to finish with a difficult Thursday-Saturday road trip to New Mexico State and Denver on March 7-9, then turn around the next week and play the league tourney in Las Vegas. La. Tech would be wise to win that tourney instead of leaving it up to the selection committee, especially since it has a modest résumé in terms of quality wins.
Mississippi (34). Last time in the Big Dance: 2002. Ole Miss (19-6, 8-4 in the SEC) has at least momentarily stopped its free fall with an overtime win at home against Georgia, just the Rebels’ second win in its last six games. The schedule is not daunting the rest of the way (Alabama is the only remaining opponent with a winning league record), giving Andy Kennedy a chance to wrap up that elusive NCAA bid before the SEC tourney in Nashville even begins.
MINUTES RANT OF THE WEEK
There is entirely too much ritualistic slapping of hands (35) in college basketball.
On many teams, players at the foul line have become conditioned to slap hands with every teammate after every free throw, including the misses, and there is nothing quite so silly as seeing players all converge upon a shooter to low-five him after he bricks an uncontested shot.
When players are removed from the game, they often traverse the entire length of the bench to five everyone there. That can include not just bench warmers, but training staff, managers, perhaps even a stray priest if it’s a Catholic school.
[Also: Kansas freshman Ben McLemore hits an in-game 360 jam against Texas]
And then there are the players who slap five/bump fists with teammates, the officials, the radio crew, the stat crew, the mascot and anyone else who presents him/herself during pregame introductions.
Friendliness is fine. Togetherness is encouraged. Enthusiasm is a must.
But in a germ-ridden world, there either needs to be more hand sanitizer or less hand interaction in college hoops. So says the curmudgeonly Minutes.
Give it up for Augustine Rubit (36) of South Alabama, a 6-foot-7, 230-pound strong man who is the only player to rank among the national top 20 in scoring (16th at 19.6 points per game) and rebounding (ninth at 10.6 per game). Rubit is coming off a 34-point, 12-rebound game against Louisiana-Lafayette in which he shot a career-high 16 free throws. He is averaging nearly 10 foul shots per game and clearly relishes the hard work inside, having never made a 3-pointer in three seasons of college ball.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
John Groce (37), Illinois. After an ugly 2-7 start to Big Ten play, the Illini have stabilized their season and chances at making the NCAA tourney with four straight victories. The first two were landmark, upsetting Indiana in Champaign and Minnesota in Minneapolis. Groce’s club followed that up with blowouts of Purdue and Northwestern, and Illinois probably need only avoid a bad loss to either Penn State or Nebraska at home to feel good about its at-large chances. Groce has done good work in his first season replacing Bruce Weber, who missed the NCAA tourney three of his final five seasons with the Illini.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Mike Jarvis (38), Florida Atlantic. The Owls have played a lot of close games – 10 decided by three points or less. The Owls have lost a lot of close games – they’re 3-7 in those contests. Lately, the Owls have lost close games because their offense grinds to a gruesome halt in the late going.
In a one-point loss to Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday, FAU did not score in the final three-plus minutes, losing a five-point lead. In a one-point loss at South Alabama on Feb. 9, FAU scored two points in the final four minutes. In a three-point loss at Arkansas-Little Rock Jan. 24, FAU scored three points in the final four minutes and was outscored 11-3 down the stretch.
Whatever Jarvis is drawing up on the greaseboard during late-game timeouts, it’s time to try something different.
When thirsty in the festive college town of Gainesville, Fla., The Minutes recommends a stop at The Top (39) near campus. The rotating beer selection is lavish, and the burgers are highly touted. Have a locally brewed Swamp Head Big Nose IPA (40) and thank The Minutes later.
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