First-year overachievers and struggling legends
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (applications for ACC officiating jobs sold separately):
Three-fourths of a season of work is not sufficient evidence for a lifetime contract or a pink slip. If sweeping decisions on new coaches could be made that quickly, Quin Snyder would own Columbia, Mo., and Mike Krzyzewski would have been run out of Durham long before he became a legend.
But it is February, and we have learned some things by now. The Minutes surveyed the nearly 40 first-year coaches in college hoops this year and found the 10 doing the best job. In reverse order:
10. Rob Jeter (1), Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Yeah, the Panthers wobbled last week, losing twice on the road and endangering their at-large bid status. But at 16-6 and 9-3 in the Horizon League, they're still the best team in the conference and haven't suffered a dramatic decline without Bruce Pearl. (Taking over a team of talented veterans doesn't hurt.)
9. Matt Doherty (2), Florida Atlantic. Remember him? Doherty plummeted from North Carolina to unemployment to obscurity, landing with the Fighting Owls of the Atlantic Sun Conference. He took over a team that went 10-17 last year and has it at .500 overall (11-11) and 10-5 in league play, just one game out of first place. It's a long way from coaching May, Felton and McCants, but it's a job.
8. Rodney Tention (3), Loyola Marymount. LMU has established itself as Best West Coast Conference Team Not Named Gonzaga, and that's got to be good for something. Especially when you went 3-11 in the league last year. Tention had the luxury of taking over an experienced team, but the Lions had not finished higher than fifth in the WCC in a decade. At 7-2, he's doing all right.
7. Mike Lonergan (4), Vermont. This program was a prime contender for a first-to-worst slide in the America East after losing coach Tom Brennan and star players Taylor Coppenrath and T.J. Sorrentine. But without a single senior on the roster, the Catamounts are 10-11 overall against a tough schedule and a solid 6-5 in league play.
6. Rob Spivery (5), Southern. After enduring a typical SWAC non-league schedule (nine of 11 games on the road, most against high-powered teams), Spivery has a team picked to finish mid-pack in first place. But he knows all about that, previously having guided Alabama State to four SWAC tournament finals in five years.
5. Jeff Bzdelik (6), Air Force. The former NBA coach has showed he can make the transition to something approaching the polar opposite, coaching service academy ball. Give credit to the juniors and seniors for adapting to their third coach in three years, but give credit as well to Bzdelik for giving them a slightly faster playing style. Next chore is doing better on the road (Falcons have lost three of their four Mountain West road games).
4. Andy Kennedy (7), Cincinnati. Nobody has worked in a tougher spot this year than Kennedy, who had to replace his lightning-rod former boss (Bob Huggins), deal with a fan boycott by some Huggins loyalists, move up to the brutal Big East and then lose his most versatile player (Armein Kirkland) to injury. And still the Bearcats keep bringing it every night. Beating Louisville Monday night, after injuries to Eric Hicks to start the second half and James White at the end, showed Cincy's guts. Kennedy has virtually no shot at keeping this job on a permanent basis, but consider this: Last year he lost out on the Louisiana-Monroe gig. He'll get a better job than that this spring.
3. Dave Rose (8), BYU. He took over a 20-loss team and now has the Cougars 14-7 and second in the Mountain West. His leading scorer is a redshirt freshman (forward Trent Plaisted) and his No. 2 scorer (senior guard Brock Reichner) has more than quadrupled his points per game from last year (2.5 to 10.7).
2. Dave Leitao (9), Virginia. The Cavaliers were a popular pick to finish last in the new, 12-team ACC. Instead, without a senior on the roster, they're a creditable 5-5 in the league and 11-9 overall. Leitao benefited from taking over an explosive backcourt of Sean Singletary (18.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.9 assists) and J.R. Reynolds (15.5 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists), but he's dramatically upgraded the team's toughness and commitment to defense.
1. Bruce Pearl (10), Tennessee. He's the most popular Pearl in the Volunteer State since Minnie (11), despite an orange suit coat even uglier than her straw hat. (Which makes The Minutes wonder: Did urban kids steal the idea of leaving the price tag on their hats from the "Hee Haw" lady? Hmmmm.) They loved Pearl when he mixed it up with LSU's student section at a game in Baton Rouge. They adored Pearl when his team upset undefeated Florida in Knoxville. They're ready to canonize Pearl now that he knocked off kingpin Kentucky in Lexington. (But yo, Bruce, you might want to lighten up on the high school refs at your son's games.)
No fewer than six coaches who are in the Hall of Fame, on their way there or building up a potential HOF resume are doing the low-belly crawl these days:
Lute Olson (12), Arizona. Old Permafrost Lute, for so long a picture of sideline cool, seems to spend all his time angry these days. Then again, if your preseason top-10 team were 6-5 in a rotten Pac-10 and in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Steve Kerr was a teenager, you'd be cranky, too.
Bob Knight (13), Texas Tech. Here's hoping "Knight School" makes for better TV than actual Red Raiders games. His teams stunningly have taken three 30-plus-point beatings this year and, at 12-11, could give the General his first losing season since his West Point days.
Rick Pitino (14), Louisville. Before the season started, Pitino stated that the major rebuilding work was done at the 'Ville, and that the Cardinals would be a Top 25 program for the foreseeable future. Not only is Louisville not in the Top 25, it's not in the field of 65.
Tubby Smith (15), Kentucky. Wildcats fans who had been chortling over the demise of the Cards can no longer even revel in their schadenfreude. After consecutive losses to Florida and Tennessee, and with a tough road schedule remaining, the Cats could finish 8-8 in SEC play and enter the league tournament back on the NCAA bubble. Of even greater concern to The Minutes is the possibility that UK's poor play will drive Ashley Judd (16) away. He's already driving away some of the more hysterical fans, like this guy, who wrote on one message board, verbatim, "delete me ban me kill me i don't care but when tubby but when tubby is just standing there and not helping his team at the end of the game he can go back to wherever he came from and stay and give me a coach that wants to help during the game." Go ahead and kill the man.
Jim Boeheim (17), Syracuse. At least the six Big East losses are quality losses -- but since when does the 'Cuse have six league losses in early February? And remember, the only thing separating the Orange from a six-game losing streak is an unlikely 3-pointer by big man Terrence Roberts against Rutgers. At times you wonder whether Greg Robinson is coaching the basketball team, too.
Eddie Sutton (18), Oklahoma State. Four two-point losses are symptomatic of a frightfully young team. But the selection committed doesn't hand out youth exceptions, and at 13-10 and 3-6, the Cowboys are currently out.
The Minutes spent time within the last week in Morgantown, W.Va., and Chapel Hill, N.C. Suffice to say, there was a fair amount of culture shock between the two.
There's no preppy quite like North Carolina (19) preppy, and there's no country quite like West Virginia (20) country. The differences were glaringly obvious in visits to a pair of local drinkeries:
At West Virginia's Purple Cow Lounge (21), 99.5 percent of the crowd was attired in jeans, and there are plenty of boots (cowboy and work). Facial hair was ubiquitous (at least among the males -- and perhaps a few chicks). The band was playing Charlie Daniels, the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd, with a confederate flag as a backdrop. If you wanted a beer more exotic than Coors Light, you were out of luck. There was no discernible discussion of Mountaineers hoops.
At North Carolina's La Residence (22), where the trees outside are adorned with white Christmas lights, about 70 percent of the males were wearing khakis after the Duke game. Their hair was pre-law precious. Virtually all the Carolina jerseys being worn in the place were on girls, not guys. The piped-in music was so innocuous that it cannot be remembered, but the beer selection was solid. There was extensive slurred cussing and discussing of the loss to the Blue Devils.
Vive la difference.
... Eastern Washington guard Rodney Stuckey (23). Before you say Rodney Who, know this: He has a higher-scoring game -- 45 points against Northern Arizona in early January -- than either Adam Morrison (24) or J.J. Redick (25). And Stuckey is a freshman. Stuckey sat out last season as an academic non-qualifier, but since then the Kent, Wash., native has gone off, averaging 24.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.4 steals. He submitted to a ruthless interrogation from The Minutes this week:
Forde Minutes: What was that 45-point game like? You got it done in only 32 minutes and 21 shots.
Rodney Stuckey: It was fun, but we lost, so it wasn't that great. I was picking and choosing my shots, and they were going in. It felt great. It was one of those games where you score 45 points you expect to win, but it didn't come out that way.
FM: Since freshmen can be inconsistent, we must note that you also had a zero-assist, 10-turnover game this year. What happened there?
RS: I wasn't catching passes and I made some stupid passes. If I would have taken care of the ball that game, we would have won easily. But I learned from those mistakes -- if I take care of the ball, good things will happen. It's part of being a freshman. I'm learning new things as the year goes along. I forget about [the 10-turnover game] until people bring it up.
FM: You're part of a talent explosion in Washington in recent years. What's behind that explosion, and who is the best player the state has produced in your time?
RS: This state has produced a lot. Washington hasn't always been on the high end of producing great players, but it is now. Marvin Williams (26) is in the NBA and Adam Morrison is one of the top players in the NCAA. I think Marvin Williams [is the best player produced by the state in recent years]. I've watched him in high school and have played select basketball with him. He's unstoppable and a great player.
FM: Academics held you back coming out of high school; did that play a role in your college choice? How are you doing in the college classroom so far?
RS: In high school, I didn't take academics seriously until my senior year. I should have been doing that my entire high school career. It held me back, but things happen for a reason. I'm here at Eastern and I'm loving it. I'm doing well in my classes [with a 3.34 GPA]. Taking the year off and getting my academics straight has helped me out tremendously. I'm ahead in my [progress toward a degree], and I'm not having to take a heavy load every quarter. The year away from basketball and summer school has really helped me out with my academics, and it's leading to great things on the basketball court. It has taken a lot of stress off of me. I just don't want to be in that position again where I'm not eligible and I can't play. Watching games and not playing is not really fun.
FM: Tell us three interesting things about Cheney, Wash., home of EWU.
RS: It's hot here and I really like that. I like the sun and like it when it's hot. [Walter Payton Award winner] Erik Meyer (27) is a great player, and I loved watching him play football. He's one of the top quarterbacks I've ever seen play. And Cheney keeps you focused on getting things done. It's not that big, but it's big enough for me. I like it here.
With the upsets continuing to roll in, The Minutes ticks off a half-dozen games that have defied rational explanation this season:
North Dakota State 62, Wisconsin 55 (28) -- Badgers coach Bo Ryan (29), true to know-it-all form, announced on the Big Ten teleconference two days after this debacle that the result spoke most loudly about how remarkable his team was for winning so many games this season. Sure, coach. Whatever helps you get through. Bottom line: the Bison are No. 177 RPI, and the Badgers are No. 25.
Chattanooga 69, Creighton 64 (29) -- This happened back in December, so it pretty well went unnoticed. But since then the Mocs have turned out to be simply awful (RPI: 219) and the Bluejays, as usual, have turned out to be very good (RPI: 18). So how did this happen?
Indiana State 72, Indiana 67 (30) -- Hey, at least at the time the Sycamores were undefeated -- it was a little later when they went on an 11-game losing streak (yes, they were missing leading scorer David Moss for much of that run, but 11 straight losses?). ISU currently is No. 162 RPI, while the Hoosiers are No. 23. Another piece of evidence against embattled Indiana coach Mike Davis (31).
Penn State 66, Illinois 65 (32) -- How does a wretched road team beat a great home team? Beats the hell out of The Minutes, but there's your score. For this game alone, the Illini should be disqualified from any consideration for a second consecutive No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed.
South Carolina sweeps Florida (33) -- A Gamecocks victory in Columbia is believable. A Gamecocks victory in Gainesville, where the Gators had compiled the nation's second-longest active home winning streak, is not. You think Florida was still feeling a wee bit proud of itself for housing Kentucky last Saturday?
New Mexico 95, Mississippi 42 (34) -- There is no actual evidence that the real Rebels showed up for this game. It's believed that a local rec-league team came to The Pit in its stead. No other way to explain how a team currently No. 134 in the RPI beat a team ranked 30 spots higher by 53.
South Alabama's John Pelphrey (35). After starting his head-coaching career with three straight non-winning seasons, the former Florida assistant finally has hit his stride. His Jaguars are currently 15-5, 7-2 in Sun Belt Conference play, and can harbor at least a slim hope of an NCAA at-large bid. (Fellow Sun Belt team Western Kentucky would be a better bet.)
Wake Forest's Skip Prosser (36). The hot rumor all year in college basketball has had Prosser scooting out of Winston-Salem this spring to take over as the new coach at Cincinnati. But how can Cincy sell a coach currently saddled with a 1-9 ACC record and riding a six-game losing streak? Come back, Chris Paul, come back.
Beloit 120, Grinnell 112 (37). As is often the case when freakish Grinnell is involved, the box is a wild distortion of common-sense basketball. For instance, Grinnell made 26 3s and lost, while Beloit didn't even attempt a 3 and won.
Then there was the line by Beloit's Josh Hinz (38). He went for a Chamberlainesque 50 points and 36 rebounds, outrebounding Grinnell all by himself by nine boards.
Hinz's line was slightly better than that of Texas A&M forward Chris Walker (39) against Texas last weekend. Walker played 16 minutes without recording a positive statistic, racking up four fouls and one turnover and a bunch of zeroes.
That stat comes courtesy of Minutes colleague Wendell Barnhouse (40) of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Mr. Wendell, not a man to keep waiting on deadline, also reports rather crankily that the final 4:02 of that Aggies-Longhorns game took 18 minutes of real time to play. Proof, once more, that teams have way too many timeouts.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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