Season's final weeks are dripping with effort
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (Joe Lunardi bobblehead dolls sold separately):
Ten snap judgments formed while watching Judgment Week on the Worldwide Leader:
1) Bruce Pearl (1) needs help.
Better antiperspirant. Thinner suits. A halftime wardrobe change. Something.
The Tennessee coach/national coach of the year took sideline sweat to a new level Wednesday night in Gainesville, soaking his pants as if, um, he'd had an accident. Maryland perspiration freak Gary Williams (2) has officially met his match. But, man, can Pearl coach.
2) The bubble (3) is wider (and weaker) than ever.
How would you like to be in charge of selecting the 34 at-large teams from the tub of live bait that is Division I basketball in 2006? Fewer teams than ever have established solid NCAA credentials at this point, and fewer than ever have any meaningful momentum heading into March.
Consider: 75 percent of the teams in the ACC, 82 percent of the Big Ten, 90 percent of the Pacific-10 and 83 percent of the Southeastern Conference went into Wednesday night riding winning or losing streaks of two games or less. The Minutes is getting motion sickness from all the up-and-down turbulence.
Pac-10 (4): No sooner does California rise to the top of the Pac-10 than it loses at home to last-place Arizona State -- performing the rare first-to-bubble plummet in a span of 40 minutes. Home losses to Oregon State (No. 179 RPI) and the Sun Devils (No. 165) form ugly bookends on an otherwise excellent league run by the Bears. For the first time in 20 years, the Pac-10 might not have one of the top 16 NCAA seeds.
Big 12 (5): Then-leader Texas loses by 21 to then-10th place Oklahoma State, jeopardizing a No. 1 seed. Colorado has become enfeebled on the road. Texas Tech has neither won nor lost more than two in a row since November, likely dooming the Red Raiders to the NIT. Entering Wednesday's games, five teams were within two games of each other for fourth place (and the final first-round bye) in the Big 12 Tournament.
Big Ten (6): For just the second time in the last 23 years, the champion could end up with five league losses. Co-leaders Iowa, Ohio State and Wisconsin all have four, and each has at least one highly difficult road game remaining. Winning on the road in this league is harder than watching ice dancing.
SEC (7): Alabama greatly helped its NCAA Tournament cause by routing Tennessee, then backslid by blowing an 18-point lead at bubble brethren Arkansas three days later. Kentucky lost three straight, then won five straight, then lost three straight, then won three straight with its three McDonald's All-Americans all coming off the bench, leaving everyone -- including Minutes girl Ashley Judd (8) -- utterly confused. Guard Ramel Bradley celebrated the team's latest hot streak by slamming his left hand into the basket support at practice Monday, breaking a bone.
ACC (9): Anyone capable of making meaningful distinction between Virginia, Maryland, Florida State and Miami -- and their disparate league schedules -- should forward his/her conclusions to the selection committee (of which Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage is chair, a less-than-ideal situation). The ACC figures to get a fifth bid (at least), but it's awfully hard to tell which of the Flimsy Four actually deserves it. This probably won't be decided until the league tourney in Greensboro, N.C.
Missouri Valley (10): Is there room for a sixth team from this league in the NCAA discussion? There is now, after Bradley shredded No. 25 Northern Iowa by 22 points on the road Wednesday night. The Valley has become almost as cannibalistic as the Big Ten.
Big East (11): Eight teams are in the RPI Top 40 and holding winning records in this meat-grinder league, which means they should get in the tournament. But what about No. 9, Seton Hall? The Pirates have a winning league record, too, at 7-6, and they beat likely NCAA teams North Carolina State and Syracuse on the road. Their home game against Cincinnati Tuesday looks huge. And what if the one team nobody wants to play (Notre Dame) doesn't even make the league tournament? Speaking of which
3) The Big East Tournament (12) should include all 16 teams.
The Minutes knows that the league doesn't want to wear out its best teams by playing four games in four days the week before the Big Dance. So don't. Make it 16 teams, instead of 12, and play the first round at home sites of the top eight seeds on Monday and Tuesday. Then bring the eight winners to Madison Square Garden and play Thursday through Saturday.
You want a 16-team league? Fine. But make it a truly inclusive one. And stage the greatest conference tournament ever.
4) Rick Majerus (13) might be right. No, not about the pronunciation of "offense," but about Notre Dame's Mike Brey (14) being Big East Coach of the Year.
It's amazing that his team has never lost its will to compete, despite the serial heartbreak losses. So Brey has got to be in the discussion, but it's a long discussion. Other legitimate candidates for the award: Andy Kennedy of Cincinnati, Tom Crean of Marquette, Jay Wright of Villanova, Jim Calhoun of Connecticut, Jamie Dixon of Pittsburgh, Louis Orr of Seton Hall and John Thompson III of Georgetown.
5) Nobody seems to actually run offense in last-shot situations anymore.
Here's the popular end-game strategy: One guy dribbles the air out of the ball as four teammates watch, then he drives solo to the hoop and throws something at the rim. Success rate? Not very high, it seems to The Minutes.
West Virginia (15) went down meekly Monday against Syracuse when its last possession produced nothing short of paralysis, as the Mountaineers went into a veritable stall while trailing. Oklahoma (16) got a kind bounce and alert tip-in by Kevin Bookout of a difficult shot by Terrell Everett later that night against Texas Tech. Penn State (17) guard Ben Luber went solo and launched a 3 against Indiana with nine seconds left that was so low percentage, it would have been a bad shot at the buzzer. And Notre Dame (18) had a final overtime possession against UConn Tuesday that boggled the mind.
Getting the ball in the offensive court with 27.6 seconds to play and trailing by one, Quinn pounded the ball through the floorboards for nearly 20 seconds before setting the (one-man) offense in motion. His drive resulted in a tough shot over the best shot-blocking interior in America. Naturally, it missed.
Quinn is a fine player, but he's now oh-for-5 this year in last-shot, one-on-one scenarios, having also failed against Michigan, Georgetown, West Virginia and Louisville. It should be noted that he did dish off for an errant end-of-regulation shot by Colin Falls against UConn, but the general Notre Dame end-game philosophy seems to be Quinn-on-five. Might be time for a new plan, if only to take some pressure off the poor guy.
6) Marcus Williams (19) is the best point guard in America.
The Minutes didn't need a triple-double to reach that conclusion (though the UConn sophomore's 18 points, 13 assists and 10 rebounds against Notre Dame were something to behold). Just watching him put the ball in teammates' hands for easy baskets repeatedly over the past seven weeks was enough.
Williams has been known to go three weeks between made 3-pointers. He's been known to take some bad shots on drives to the basket. He's been known to zone in and out with his intensity, like the rest of his Huskies teammates. But when the game's on the line, he's Jason Kidd with the basketball, just a little less physically imposing.
That said, don't look for him on many All-America teams. Sitting out the first half of the year for his involvement in laptop theft is no way to win any awards. But you can look for him and the rest of the Huskies in Indianapolis come April.
7) Ronald Steele (20) might be the most underrated point guard in America.
Last game the Alabama sophomore played fewer than 39 minutes was in December. He's tireless and fearless, and he's done significant work picking up the slack after the Crimson Tide lost its best all-around player, Chuck Davis, to a season-ending injury.
Before Davis' injury, Steele was averaging 10.6 points. In 11 games since, he's averaging 18.5 points, including a career-high 29 against Arkansas Tuesday. Alabama is 7-4 in those games, keeping its NCAA hopes alive.
8) Stan Heath (21) might be the next Steve Lavin, winning just enough to keep school administrators from knowing what to do with you.
Just when it looked like Heath was cooked at Arkansas, the Razorbacks rebounded to upset Florida and Alabama in consecutive games. If they pull the hat trick at Tennessee Saturday, they might wind up in the NCAAs -- and Heath might wind up keeping his job.
9) Rod Barnes (22) is not as lucky.
When asked by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi athletic director Pete Boone declined to give his basketball coach a vote of confidence. And that was before the Rebels lost by 40 at Kentucky Wednesday night, dropping to 14-12 overall and 4-9 in the SEC. Ole Miss has lost nine of its last 10. Don't underestimate the damage of a 29-point loss to archrival Mississippi State in that span.
10) John Calipari (23) will be on guard for the C-USA shaft.
Despite a 13-game winning streak, the Memphis coach was girding this week for a demotion in the polls from No. 3 to No. 4. If it happened, Calipari told the Memphis Commercial Appeal, his players would be suitably outraged to "kill the next three teams."
It happened. Memphis' response was not homicide against stubborn UTEP Wednesday night -- the Tigers won ugly, 66-56. But the bump down in the polls should spike the paranoia Calipari always keeps handy.
After watching last year's C-USA champion Louisville get an inexplicable No. 4 seed -- when a No. 2 looked like the worst-case scenario -- Memphis isn't likely to take its seeding for granted. If the Tigers win out and don't get a No. 1, expect to hear some howling from the general direction of Beale Street.
Eight players nobody was talking about in October, but can't be ignored now:
Je'Kel Foster (24), Ohio State -- Averaged an unremarkable 7.7 points per game last year as a junior college transfer. This year he's up to more than 14 ppg, and he leads the Buckeyes' bomb squad by shooting 50 percent from 3-point range.
Michael Neal (25), Oklahoma -- He was a junior-college All-American, but it's not likely that anyone in Norman foresaw Neal as the team's No. 1 offensive option -- and that's what he's been the last two weeks. Neal has hit a smokin' 26 of 45 treys in that time.
Andre Collins (26), Loyola (Md.) -- The former Maryland Terrapin has come out of his shell. After averaging two points per game in College Park, he moved up to Baltimore and now ranks fourth in the nation in scoring at 26.6 ppg.
Roy Hibbert (27), Georgetown -- Last year's scouting report on the 7-foot-2 Hibbert: He's tall and that's all. This year? He leads the Hoyas in scoring and rebounding. In his last three games, he's averaged 20.7 points and nine boards.
Aaron Gray (28), Pittsburgh -- The Steel City version of Hibbert. Gray slimmed down and sharpened his skills, more than tripling his scoring (up to 14 points per game) and nearly tripling his rebounding (10.5) in the process.
Reyshawn Terry (29), North Carolina -- One of the biggest reasons the defending champion Tar Heels have not fallen off the map after losing their top seven scorers is this guy. His scoring has soared from 2.3 to 14.4 points per game, and he's cranked it up to 18.7 ppg in February.
Ayinde Ubaka (30), California -- He averaged six points per game and missed almost half of last season with a broken bone in his foot. This year, with improved shooting and shot selection, his scoring average has shot up to 15 ppg. Ubaka provides the counterpunch when teams sag on power forward Leon Powe inside.
Cartier Martin (31), Kansas State -- The biggest reason Martin's scoring average has risen from 10.5 to 18.7? He's already gone to the line 65 more times than last season, and his free-throw percentage has shot up 15 points, from 69 to 84. His value to the Wildcats was underscored Wednesday night, when foul trouble limited him to 17 minutes in a must-have game against Texas that ended in a one-point loss.
... Tennessee sharp-shooter Chris Lofton (32). Arguably the favorite for SEC Player of the Year, the sophomore is averaging 17.8 points per game (25.4 over his last five) in leading the stunningly good Volunteers to the top of the SEC East. He recently submitted to a ruthless interrogation from The Minutes:
Forde Minutes: What does it feel like to have the basketball team receiving football treatment in Knoxville? Did you ever think you'd see the day?
Chris Lofton: I never thought about that before. I guess this shows that hard work pays off. Everyone is congratulating us and talking to us everywhere we go.
FM: Give us your best Bruce Pearl story.
CL: Right after he got the job here, we had to run at 5 a.m. for leaving study hall early. That let us know that he wasn't playing around. He is here to win.
FM: You're a great shooter, but you don't have "classic form." Where, how and why did you learn your fall-back method, for lack of a better term?
CL: It's just from shooting a lot of shots. I don't know how many shots I've taken, but it is a lot. I shot outside, inside, anywhere I could find a goal. As a kid I played a lot of H-O-R-S-E with my family and friends. I don't know if I have ever lost a game.
FM: One of your teammates told The Minutes, "Chris never says anything on the court." Have you ever been a trash talker? If so, why did you stop? If not, why not?
CL: I've never been someone who talks a lot of trash. One time in high school this guy said something to me and I said something back to him. I didn't have one of my better games so I haven't said anything since.
FM: You were a Kentucky high school hero who went unloved by both Kentucky (33) and Louisville (34). You're not the type to say, "I told you so," but tell me what it was like to be snubbed by those schools -- and what it was like lighting up the Wildcats for 31 recently at Rupp Arena.
CL: It was great because our team won. That's what is important to me. I am happy the way things have worked out for me at Tennessee. This is a great place to be. Coach Pearl is a great coach to play for and the fan support has been awesome. Things have a way of working their way out. I think this is the best situation for me.
Western Kentucky's Darrin Horn (35). The third-year head coach is without the benefit of a legitimate point guard, but Horn's Hilltoppers have won eight straight games and 14 of their last 15 to take command of the Sun Belt Conference. At 20-5 and possessing a road win over UAB, a home win over Virginia and an ESPN DailyRPI of 40, WKU is an underappreciated at-large candidate.
Arizona's Lute Olson (36), for his situational discipline with guard Chris Rodgers (37). Olson kicked Rodgers off the team in mid-January, but after the Wildcats went a shaky 5-3 in that time and it was learned that Jawann McLellan was done for the year with a wrist injury -- voila -- Rodgers is back. The bubblicious Wildcats will tell you this wasn't a desperation move. Don't believe them.
Last year's uber-Cinderella was Mid-Continent Conference tournament champion Oakland (38), which entered the postseason 9-18 and wound up shocking Oral Roberts (39) to reach the Big Dance, where the Golden Grizzlies survived the play-in game against Alabama A&M before being squashed by North Carolina.
The Minutes happily reports that Oakland didn't let that success go to its head. The Grizz are back on the same flight path for this postseason, skulking along at 10-16 and on their way to another No. 7 seed in the Mid-Con Tournament. If Oakland does it again, The Minutes will personally drive to Dayton and wear Grizz face paint for their second annual play-in game appearance.
Syracuse 60, West Virginia 58 (40).
The key numbers: zero free throws made, zero free throws attempted by the Mountaineers. The Minutes understands that West Virginia is a jump-shooting team, and The Minutes understands that Syracuse plays a zone that discourages forays to the basket -- and, thus, into contact. But The Minutes fails to understand how a team can get through an entire Big East game without doing anything forceful enough offensively to necessitate one trip to the foul line. This isn't H-O-R-S-E, guys.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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