(Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball ("Take Kiffin with You, Kevin" T-shirts sold separately in Los Angeles):
IT'S GETTING LATE EARLY
With the staggering news that Yogi Berra is considering starting a Twitter account, it seems an appropriate time to break out a Yogi-ism to describe the plights of last year's two best teams. A season after winning a combined 70 games, both Kentucky (1) and North Carolina (2) find themselves in NCAA tournament trouble.
Both are 10-5, with threadbare NCAA tournament résumés and sketchy power ratings. It's only mid-January, but it's fair to put both blue bloods on the bubble. Unless their seasons turn around, they will need their names to carry more weight with the selection committee than their bodies of work.
Coming off its second home loss of the season, defending champion Kentucky is No. 68 in the RPI (51st Sagarin, 16th Pomeroy). The Wildcats are a missed shot-clock violation at Vanderbilt away from a possible 0-2 start in the very weak Southeastern Conference. Their only Top 100 victory is by three points in the season opener over a Maryland team that ranks 90th in the RPI.
The lousy start increases the pressure on Kentucky to capitalize on the few quality opponents it has left to face. Namely: two games with Florida, a home game against Missouri and road trips to Texas A&M and Mississippi. Everyone else is outside the RPI top 70 – several of them way outside. The average RPI of UK's 16 remaining opponents is 113.
If all else fails, John Calipari can try the tactic he once used while on the bubble at his previous place of employment: questioning the integrity of the RPI itself.
"We've got to get a Memphis guy putting the numbers into that computer," he said in 2005. "Or at least somebody who isn't against Memphis."
Maybe if Ashley Judd (3) has some free time, she can offer to become the Official RPI Input Person.
At least North Carolina (No. 45 RPI, 57 Sagarin, 50 Pomeroy) has a couple of good wins on its résumé: over UNLV and at Florida State Saturday. But the Tar Heels also have lost to Texas and Virginia, both of which might be fortunate to make the NIT.
UNC also has five major get-well games to come against current RPI top 12 opponents: Duke and North Carolina State twice, and a visit to Miami (which beat the Heels in Chapel Hill last week). But unless Roy Williams' team starts playing appreciably better, those could be five defeats – and the rest of the league is shaky. Average RPI of Carolina's remaining 15 opponents: 83rd.
The bigger takeaway from this: when Kentucky won it all last year in dominant fashion with a team of early-entry guys, we all proclaimed that to be the new model. Lose those guys, then plug in a new collection of blue chips and do it again.
But that Kentucky team may turn out to be more of an anomaly than a trend-starter. Freshmen who are that good and that unselfish don't come along every year, or every decade. And the contributions of inherited veterans Darius Miller, DeAndre Liggins and Josh Harrellson were vital – now there is nobody left to fill those roles.
North Carolina, which was a Kendall Marshall wrist fracture away from a potentially epic title-game matchup with UK last April, lost three players early to the NBA, plus senior Tyler Zeller. The Tar Heels were expected to take a step back while filling that void, but not this big of a step back. Replenishing the roster is one thing; replenishing it with instant-impact players is another. Even at North Carolina.
Bottom line: Building a team around guys who are only going to be on campus for one or two seasons is probably more likely to produce boom-and-bust cycles than unending dominance. Kentucky and North Carolina are enduring that reality right now.
SUCCESSFUL SECOND ACTS
F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "There are no second acts in American lives." But there is in American college basketball.
Sometimes in life, you have to start over. And in hoops, too. Sometimes a coach or player has a good gig going, then loses it or leaves it. The Minutes salutes those who are making the most of the next stage of their careers.
Jim Larranaga (4). Last act: Taking George Mason to the 2006 Final Four and winning 273 games as coach of the Patriots. Current act: Second-year coach at Miami.
If you thought Larranaga relocated to Coral Gables to slip into working retirement, you're wrong. Despite losing double-double man Reggie Johnson for several weeks to a broken thumb and missing point guard Durand Scott for three games, the Hurricanes are 12-3 overall and 3-0 in the ACC. They have a Top 10 RPI, having played fewer than half their games at home and owning victories over Michigan State and North Carolina. If the 'Canes keep the ship afloat until Johnson comes back, they'll make their first NCAA tournament appearance in five years.
Tubby Smith (5). Last act: Coach at Kentucky, where he won a national title and 263 games. Current act: Sixth-year coach at Minnesota.
Smith has not had a winning Big Ten record in his previous five seasons with the Gophers, and has not won an NCAA tournament game since his last year with the Wildcats. Both of those things could change this season. Smith's best Minnesota team is 15-2 to date, with the only losses coming to top-five Duke and Indiana. In terms of balance, experience, athleticism and toughness, this group bears a slight resemblance to Tubby's 2002-03 Kentucky team, which won 32 games and stormed through the SEC undefeated. He is a strong early candidate for Big Ten Coach of the Year.
Tubby Smith's mustache (6). First act: As an assistant at Kentucky in the early 1990s. Current act: On Smith's face this season.
The current, mostly gray version is almost out of the Wilford Brimley (7) style catalog, only uglier. Smith's wife, Donna, reportedly hates it, and with good reason. But as long as the Gophers are playing this well, don't mess with the mustache mojo. Keep that thing.
Rotnei Clarke (8). Last act: Shooting lots of three-pointers and losing lots of games at Arkansas. Current act: Shooting lots of three-pointers and winning lots of games at Butler.
Clarke sat out last season as a transfer to play his final year of college ball for the Bulldogs. So far, so good (at least until he was plastered into the basket standard Saturday at Dayton in a scary collision). Clarke is the leading scorer for a Top 15 team, averaging career highs in 3-pointers attempted and made per game, and accuracy. Provided he returns to full health as expected from the injury at Dayton, expect Clarke to finally play in the NCAA tournament come March.
Jim Crews (9). Last act: Fired as the coach at Army. Current act: Carrying on the good work of Rick Majerus (10) as interim coach at Saint Louis.
Majerus' tragic heart failure left the Billikens in the hands of his top assistant, a man with 24 years head-coaching experience at Evansville and Army, but also a guy who hadn't had a winning season since 2000. Crews has kept Saint Louis competitive, scoring a neutral-court victory over Texas A&M and routing New Mexico at home. If the Billikens can get to 10 wins in the Atlantic-10, they should have a shot at an NCAA at-large berth. That would be validation for Crews, who might have thought he'd never get another shot as a head coach.
Larry Shyatt (11). First act: Coach for a year at Wyoming. Current act: Coaching again at Wyoming.
Between Shyatt's successful first year as a head coach – he went 19-9 in Laramie in 1997-98 – and now, he did five frustrating seasons as head coach at Clemson and seven glory-filled seasons as an assistant at Florida. Given the chance to return to Wyoming and to head coaching in 2011, he jumped at it, and the results have been positive. The Cowboys went 21-12 last year and are off to a 14-1 start this year, with the only loss by two points to a sneaky-good Boise State team. In a hyper-competitive Mountain West Conference, overlook Wyoming at your own peril. (Though the indefinite suspension of second-leading scorer Luke Martinez following his arrest for aggravated assault in connection with a Laramie bar brawl does not help.)
Elston Turner (12). Last act: Role player at Washington. Current act: Star player at Texas A&M.
After two seasons with the Huskies, Turner transferred back closer to his home of Missouri City, Texas, and has had a productive year-and-a-half with the Aggies. On Saturday in Rupp Arena, Elston Basketball had his Johnny Football moment – doing unto Kentucky what Johnny Manziel (13) did unto Alabama in November. Turner lit up the Wildcats for 40 points in A&M's upset victory, upping his team-leading average to 17.1 points per game.
(Could a first-year SEC school have two bigger and better athletic statements than winning in football at Alabama and in basketball at Kentucky? Aggies, you are on a serious roll. And Missouri, you are on the clock.)
Steve Alford (14). Last act: Moderately successful coach at Iowa. Current act: Highly successful coach at New Mexico.
What seemed like a jarring move for a life-long Midwesterner has turned out to be a perfect fit in the Mountain Time Zone. Alford is working on his sixth-straight 20-win season and third NCAA tourney berth with the Lobos. This team might not be quite as good as the group that pushed eventual Final Four team Louisville to the brink in the round of 32, but it will contend for the MWC title and could make a run in the NCAAs with the right draw.
Bruce Weber (15). Last act: Fired amid diminishing returns last year at Illinois. Current act: Rebounding quickly at Kansas State.
Weber wore out his welcome in Champaign but has been a hit so far in Manhattan, guiding the Wildcats to a 13-2 start that includes a 2-0 Big 12 record and an upset of Florida in Kansas City. Given the soft state of the Big 12, K-State could end up second in the league behind Kansas. Of course, we already know that Weber can do well with someone else's players (See: Bill Self's at Illinois). It will take a while before we know whether that history is repeating itself at K-State or whether he can build a contender on his own.
Mark Lyons (16). Last act: Talented but troublesome guard at Xavier. Current act: Leading scorer and purported non-trouble-maker at Arizona.
After butting heads with Musketeers coach Chris Mack (17), Lyons left and landed in the desert as the starting point guard for Sean Miller (18). To date the transition has been almost flawless – Lyons is a more efficient offensive player, doing everything better in Tucson than in Cincinnati except shooting accurately from 3-point range. He's led the Wildcats to a 15-1 start, with plenty more victories on the schedule.
FIRST COACH FIRED … WHO ELSE SHOULD BE NERVOUS?
USC's Kevin O'Neill was thrown overboard by athletic director Pat Haden, perhaps becoming the first coach ever to be canned two days after a 17-point road conference victory. While the timing was unusual, it was overdue – Haden should have made the change last March, after the Trojans' misery-steeped 6-26 season that included one Pac-12 victory.
But whatever. The O'Neill dismissal merely primes the pump for the annual Dismissal Derby in college hoops. The Minutes looks at a few coaches who might be feeling some pressure down the stretch this season:
Ben Howland (19), UCLA. The coach could be well on his way to pulling himself off the hot seat with the turnaround at Westwood. Letting go of the choke-hold on the Bruins' tempo has freed his talented team to reel off nine straight victories, including a 4-0 start in Pac-12 play. Still, player turnover remain a concern, and if UCLA hits the skids at any point then Howland could still be in trouble.
Jeff Bzdelik (20), Wake Forest. With a 2-1 start in the ACC, there are signs of life in Winston-Salem. But the competition has been soft so far, and Bzdelik remains 18 games under .500 as coach of the Demon Deacons and 23 games under .500 against league opponents. This is only his third year and the program was wobbling when he inherited it, so he may get another season if Wake remains competitive this season, but another ACC collapse will ratchet up the discontent of the fans.
Bill Carmody (21), Northwestern. Seriously, Bill. It's year 13. Make the NCAA tournament already. Just once.
Josh Pastner (22), Memphis. Yes, it seems crazy to say the guy is even being questioned after averaging 25 victories in his first three seasons on the job. On the other hand, Memphis was averaging 35 victories in the three previous seasons under John Calipari. Pastner has been an all-world recruiter but still seems to be figuring it out on the court. He's yet to win an NCAA tournament game, and it could be a scramble to make the Big Dance this season if the Tigers somehow fail to win the C-USA automatic bid.
Ben Braun (23), Rice. His team is epically bad: 3-12 and No. 332 out of 347 in the RPI. A 19-16 season a year ago could easily be forgotten as this turns into a fourth losing season in his five years on the job. That is, if Rice cares enough about basketball to make a change.
Buzz Peterson (24), UNC-Wilmington. The Minutes' vote for the worst administrative decision of the last 10 years was UNCW letting Brad Brownell make a lateral move to Wright State in 2006. The program has not been the same since, and Peterson isn't helping matters any. He is 29-49 overall and 6-10 this season. That includes a 1-3 mark in the worst Colonial Athletic Association in recent memory. The school must decide whether three years is too soon, but the results have been bad and getting worse under Peterson.
Addendum: Chris Walker, interim coach at Texas Tech: forget what temperature his seat is, he won't keep it. The Red Raiders are 8-6 despite somehow playing 13 of 14 games at home so far. They may not win more than once or twice the rest of the way.
Squads that The Minutes simply cannot figure out without a Rorschach Test and a full psychological profile:
Virginia (25). What’s to like: Beat Wisconsin in the Kohl Center, where the Badgers rarely lose. Also beat North Carolina and Tennessee. What’s to hate: Cavaliers are 0-3 against CAA opposition, despite the fact that the league is just awful this year. That includes a loss to 2-14 Old Dominion. Record: 11-5, 1-2 in the ACC.
Xavier (26). What’s to like: Rolled Butler early by 15, beat Purdue in Mackey Arena and beat Temple as part of a good start in the A-10. What’s to hate: Home losses to Wofford and Vanderbilt and a neutral-court loss to Pacific. Record: 9-6 overall, 2-0 in A-10.
Illinois State (27). What’s to like: Beat Dayton on the road and took Louisville to the wire on the road before losing by three. What’s to hate: 0-5 start in the Missouri Valley, including consecutive losses to Missouri State and Drake (combined record 12-21). Record: 9-8, 0-5 in MVC.
Mercer (28): What’s to like: Upset Florida State in Tallahassee and Alabama in Tuscaloosa. What’s to hate: Lost by 29 to Denver and 26 to Illinois-Chicago – not to mention league losses to lightweights Kennesaw State and Jacksonville. Record: 10-8, 3-2 in the Atlantic Sun.
Illinois-Chicago (29): What’s to like: Started 9-1, including wins over Northwestern and Colorado State. What’s to hate: 1-6 since then, with multiple bad losses. Record: 10-7, 1-3 in the Horizon League.
FIVE GAMES EVERY SELF-RESPECTING HOOP HEAD MUST WATCH THIS WEEK
UNLV at San Diego State (30), Wednesday. This will be a gangbusters race in the Mountain West, with as many as six teams capable of contending for the title. These are two of them, and they have a history. Last five meetings between them have been decided by six points or less. Good conference Player of the Year battle here as well, with the Aztecs’ Jamaal Franklin going up against the Runnin’ Rebels’ Anthony Bennett.
Michigan at Minnesota (31), Thursday. Loser will drop two games back in the loss column in the Big Ten race, and have its first losing streak of the season. Should be a great matchup of John Beilein’s efficient offense against Tubby Smith’s disciplined defense. The Big Ten will be a brawl the rest of the way, and this is the best of the brawls this week.
Syracuse at Louisville (32), Saturday. Marquee Big East matchup of the season loses some luster if James Southerland remains suspended for the Orange. But watching quick Louisville guards Peyton Siva and Russ Smith take on Syracuse’s big Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche should be as good as backcourt matchups get this year.
Creighton at Wichita State (33), Saturday. Missouri Valley heavyweights face off for the first of two or three times. Key question is whether the Shockers can keep their career-long lid on Bluejays star Doug McDermott. He’s never scored more than 13 in four games against Wichita State, and the Bluejays have lost three of the games.
Gonzaga at Butler (34), Saturday. As good as it gets outside the big-six conferences, though the absence of Clarke with the neck injury takes some luster off the game. There are still some great potential matchups in the frontcourt (Roosevelt Jones vs. Elias Harris) and the middle (Andrew Smith vs. Kelly Olynyk). Gonzaga has been better for longer, but it is still trying to prove it can make the mid-major Final Four run that Butler has accomplished twice.
(And keep an eye on Missouri-Florida on Saturday while you’re at it. But if Laurence Bowers isn’t back for the Tigers, you might have to switch channels to something else.)
MINUTES RANT OF THE WEEK
Why can’t foul shooting improve?
The one uncontested skill in the game has been stagnant for the past 50 years. In that time the national accuracy rate has stayed between a low of 67.1 percent (in 1994) and a high of 69.7 percent (in 1979).
This may be an apples-and-oranges deal, but compare that to the almost uncontested skill of place-kicking in football. (Yes, a few get blocked, but generally speaking it’s just a matter of snap, hold, kick.) This used to be a wildly unpredictable venture, but in recent years it has become dramatically more accurate. Mechanics and techniques have been improved to the point of near-perfection.
In fact, it’s now easier to make a football field goal than a basketball free throw. This past season, college football teams made 72 percent of their field goals. In the 2011-12 college basketball season, the national average was 69.1 percent.
Why hasn’t there been similar improvement at the foul line? Perhaps because players cannot simply specialize in free-throw shooting. But there still doesn’t seem to be enough time spent in an area that often decides games – especially the close, pressurized games of March and April.
The latest crimes at the line were committed Sunday night by Miami (35) and Maryland (36), a pair of decent teams that combined to shoot 13 for 31. That’s just pathetic.
Each week this season The Minutes will feature a player from a more obscure team and league who deserves a little pub:
Greg Gantt (37), Florida Atlantic. The 6-foor-2 guard has blown up as a senior, upping his scoring average from 14 last year to 22.4 this year. He has an active streak of nine straight 20-point games, with a season high of 34. He’s diversified his game from shooting jump shots, having shot a career-high 94 free throws this season and making 84 percent of them.
The Owls are 9-9 overall, a solid rebound to date from last year’s 11-19 season.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Rick Ray (38), Mississippi State. His team is terrible, but that’s not his fault. The Bulldogs are down to seven scholarship players, due to injuries and the state in which former coach Rick Stansbury left the program. Ray recently found himself scouring the bios of football players, searching for anyone with basketball experience who might be able to walk on and help out.
But after a miserable 4-7 start that included losses to Troy and Alabama A&M, Mississippi State has actually won three in a row – and started SEC play 2-0, beating South Carolina and Georgia. Yes, that is an indictment of the league, but also an affirmation that Ray has the program going in the right direction. There may not be many more victories this season for the Bulldogs, but the program is being run with more class than it had been in many years.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Pat Knight (39), Lamar. Yes, he lost a lot of seniors from the team he took to the NCAA tournament last year, but this has been brutal. The Cardinals are 2-15, 0-5 in the Southland Conference. Their two victories are by a total of five points over IUPUI and Long Island.
Knight has a glaring lack of shooters on this team. Lamar has attempted just 107 3-pointers (just 6.3 per game) and made just 29 (1.7 per game). In the first four games of conference play, the Cardinals made a total of one 3-pointer.
When hungry in the underrated food town of Birmingham, Ala., The Minutes recommends a meal at Five (40). There are, cleverly enough, five standing menu items for dinner, appetizers, red wines, white wines, “standard” beers and Southern beers, plus nightly specials. Try the baked avocado appetizer, the pork tenderloin and a Good People IPA. Thank The Minutes later.
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