So many players, so little hardware to give out
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (Jason McElwain Fan Club memberships sold separately):
The conference tournaments are the madness before the Madness, the little dance before the Big Dance, the first audition for Cinderella. They should be watched and enjoyed on a level only slightly below the actual NCAA Tournament -- especially in the one-bid league, where winning the title is as big as winning a first-round NCAA game.
But before we dive into Championship Week like Kyle Lowry (1) in pursuit of a loose ball, let's take a moment to appraise what we've seen during the four-month prelude to March. Winners and sinners from the major conferences:
Player of the Year: Steven Smith (2), La Salle. George Washington's powerhouse-by-committee approach leaves the POY award open for the guy who has keyed the Explorers' unexpected bounce-back season. Six-foot-9 Smith, who took his name out of the NBA draft last summer, is averaging 19.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists for a La Salle team that won seven straight late and sits a surprising fourth in the A-10.
Coach of the Year: Karl Hobbs (3), George Washington. At 24-1 and 14-0 in the A-10, this is merely the best season in school history. Credit the former Jim Calhoun assistant with building a great program the right way. In his fifth year, Hobbs has a veteran, balanced team that does just about everything well (the free-throw shooting could be better). The question is whether Hobbs is headed for a bigger job when this season ends.
Bust of the Year: Xavier (4). Five weeks ago, the Musketeers appeared well on their way to a Top 25 season and an NCAA Tournament berth. Today, they're 17-9 overall and 8-7 in the league, having lost seven of their last 12. Losing big man Brian Thornton five games ago to a season-ending injury sure didn't help, but this team was in the tank before Thornton went down.
Minutes Moment of the Year: When Saint Louis finally got off its supernaturally long win-loss-win-loss streak by winning two in a row. It took until the 19th and 20th games of the year, but once the Billikens got it done? Look out. They've won seven of their last eight and have moved into a tie for second in the league.
Coach of the Year: Roy Williams (6), North Carolina. Of all Williams' great coaching jobs at Kansas and Carolina, you're looking at the best. This was supposed to be the year the rest of the ACC got its shots at the Tar Heels, after they lost their seven leading scorers from the 2005 championship team. Instead, the Heels could wind up second in the league and owning a top-four NCAA seed. Amazing.
Bust of the Year: Wake Forest (7). This was a team that began the year in most Top 25s and could finish it with two ACC wins. Skip Prosser's teams are never obsessed with defense, but this has been ridiculous: In league games, the Demon Deacons are last in points allowed, field goal percentage defense and 3-point percentage defense.
Minutes Moment of the Year: If you're a Dookie, it was Redick's setting the league's all-time scoring record. If you're not, it was the day the ACC suspended the officiating crew that gave Duke a break with a bad technical foul call on Florida State center Alexander Johnson.
Player of the Year: P.J. Tucker (8), Texas. He's Adrian Dantley reincarnated: a 6-foot-5 low-post power averaging 16.4 points and 9.2 rebounds. On a team flush with talent, he has been the most consistent performer (10 double-doubles and counting), showing impressive development after being sidelined by academics midway through last season.
Coach of the Year: Bill Self (9), Kansas. Roy Williams' replacement had his own Roy-style rebuilding job this year, replacing four key players with a cast of raw rookies. After some early wobbles, the Jayhawks went on a 10-game winning streak that solidified their NCAA bid -- and solidified Self as the COY.
Bust of the Year: Iowa State (10). Early on, the Cyclones beat the other two state powers -- Iowa and Northern Iowa -- and they probably should have packed it in right there. They've been a washout in league play (6-9, including a 17-point loss at cellar-dwelling Baylor). The backcourt of Curtis Stinson and Will Blalock has largely lived up to the hype, but hasn't gotten enough frontcourt help.
Minutes Moment of the Year: Jan. 11, 2006. The day Baylor finally got to play a game. The punishment for NCAA rules violations was severe. And you know what? It should have been.
Player of the Year: Randy Foye (11), Villanova. It's awfully hard to go against Connecticut forward Rudy Gay, especially after Gay's length helped force Foye into a 4-for-18 shooting day in Storrs this past Sunday. But over the season, The Minutes has been more impressed with Foye's killer instinct, compared with laid-back Gay. At 6-4, Foye never backs down from his matchups with post players standing half a foot taller. At 20.2 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.1 steals per game, Foye delivers more than all but a few players anywhere.
Coach of the Year: Louis Orr (12), Seton Hall. This could have gone to Tom Crean, Andy Kennedy, John Thompson, Jamie Dixon ... the list goes on. But consider this: On Big East media day, the Pirates were picked to finish 15th in the 16-team league. After defeating Cincinnati on Tuesday night, they clinched a first-division finish and a .500-or-better league record and greatly enhanced their NCAA Tournament hopes. Orr entered the season under heavy speculation that he'd be fired, and that only intensified after Seton Hall opened league play 1-3. He coached through it without a Mike Davis-style meltdown and turned his team's season around.
Bust of the Year: Louisville (13). And then there are the Cardinals, picked third on media day and now scrambling to make the 12-team league tournament. Moving into this meat-grinder league with a young team was tough. Suffering a string of injuries to key players made it tougher. But nobody could have foreseen a Rick Pitino team that (a) has failed to beat a ranked team all year and (b) has played at such a laborious, boring pace.
Minutes Moment of the Year: When West Virginia center Kevin Pittsnogle rolled out of labor and delivery on a Friday and hit four 3-pointers against Cincinnati on a Saturday. Who's your daddy, Kwynsie James Pittsnogle? The guy wearing No. 34.
Player of the Year: Dee Brown (14), Illinois. The Minutes was sorely tempted to cast this vote for Ohio State point guard Jamar Butler, whose play has been vital to the Buckeyes' breakthrough season and who misses far fewer shots than Brown. But even Dee's tangible assets (a team-leading 14.9 points per game in conference play, a Big Ten-leading 5.8 assists, a Big Ten-leading 38-plus minutes per game) are not as important as his intangible assets. You can almost feel his will keeping the Illini among the national elite this season.
Coach of the Year: Thad Matta (15), Ohio State. In October, the program slogan should have been "Wait 'til next year," when Greg Oden comes aboard. Today, it should be "the future is now," as Matta's second Buckeyes team stunningly has roared to the top of a very, very tough Big Ten.
Bust of the Year: Michigan State (16). You know the world has gone haywire when Rick Pitino's team can't run and Tom Izzo's team can't guard. Welcome to the new reality. The Spartans were a popular Final Four pick before the season, but now they're an underdog to reach the final four of the Big Ten Tournament.
Minutes Moment of the Year: Mike Davis' calling in sick when Steve Alford came to Bloomington. Indiana even produced a note from his doctor saying the coach was really, truly, honestly sick ... but did anybody check the handwriting on that thing?
Player of the Year: Rodney Carney (17), Memphis. By the time the season is over, Carney should be the No. 3 scorer in the rather excellent history of Memphis basketball. He can beat you with 3-pointers, alley-oops or running the floor from the wings. And yes, the NBA will be calling his name come June.
Coach of the Year: John Calipari (18), Memphis. Calipari always has been an excellent college coach, but he showed his flexibility this year. With a roster full of athleticism, Calipari took off the restrictor plates and let his guys push the tempo full throttle. Result: Memphis (26-2) ranks third nationally in scoring at 83.1 points per game. Calipari also deserves credit for an aggressive nonconference schedule that has kept C-USA from weighing down his team's power ratings. That's why the Tigers still have a shot at a No. 1 seed.
Bust of the Year: The Bottom Eight (19). It's understandable for this to be the Memphis Show in the league, but UAB, UTEP and Houston should not be miles better than the octet of sorriness beneath them. The lower two-thirds of the league ranks between 194th and 289th in the RPI, which just about puts that group on par with the Atlantic Sun. Nice work.
Minutes Moment of the Year: When the refs T'd up Houston's Tom Penders for having the temerity to collapse during the Cougars' game against UAB. Even when Penders was treated by medical personnel, officials refused to rescind the call. You're all heart, guys.
Player of the Year: You'd have an easier time getting Ashley Judd (20) to wear Tennessee orange in Rupp Arena than selecting the POY in this league, but this is no time to cop out. The pick here is Northern Iowa guard Ben Jacobson (21). He showed classic signs of trying to do too much this season (decreased field goal percentage, increased turnovers, with much of the trouble coinciding with the injury to teammate Erik Crawford). But his all-around game (14.3 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.6 steals), maturity and competitive fire will be essential to the Panthers' postseason.
Coach of the Year: Mark Turgeon (22), Wichita State. In his five years on the job, Turgeon improved the program but couldn't get into the NCAA Tournament -- until now. The Shockers won the MVC regular-season title in what was supposed to be a transition year after Wichita State lost three four-year starters.
Bust of the Year: State of Indiana (23). The Minutes remains flabbergasted at the extended suffering by the Valley's Hoosier State delegation. Evansville and Indiana State are a combined 9-27 in league play. Coaches Royce Waltman (Indiana State) and Steve Merfeld (Evansville) beat Big Brother this year (see below) and have worked a bit of March magic in their pasts, but they enter this March wobbling.
Minutes Moment of the Year: Say hello to my little friends. Creighton beats the in-state BCS school, Nebraska, by 26. Northern Iowa beats Iowa. Indiana State beats Indiana. Evansville beats Purdue. Bradley beats DePaul by 15. Makes you wonder what might happen if Kansas would play Wichita State, Missouri would play Missouri State or Illinois would play Southern Illinois, doesn't it?
Player of the Year: Marcus Slaughter (24), San Diego State. Fourteen double-doubles on the year and averages of 16.8 points and 10.7 rebounds for the low-post leader of the league's regular-season champs. After spending his first two years dabbling with a perimeter game, Slaughter has parked himself on the low block, taken just one 3-pointer, shot a higher percentage and gotten to the line more often.
Coach of the Year: Dave Rose (25), BYU. Nobody could have envisioned the Cougars would have entered the final week of the regular season with a chance to tie for the league title, but here they are, 10-4 and just a loss behind the league-winning Aztecs. Under first-year coach Rose, BYU has won eight of its past nine to keep faint at-large hopes alive.
Bust of the Year: Utah (26). The Minutes knew the Utes would take a step back without Andrew Bogut, but this has been a full-fledged backslide. An early loss to 200-level RPI opponent Rice and a 27-point beatdown from a lousy Washington State team were signs of the struggle to come. Tuesday night's loss at bottom-dweller TCU shows things haven't improved much. At 12-14 overall, Utah is scrambling to avoid its first losing season since 1988-89.
Minutes Moment of the Year: Jan. 28, 2006, when San Diego State gave Wyoming the Lorenzo Charles Treatment (plus one) in Laramie. The Aztecs were down two in the final seconds when leading scorer Brandon Heath air-balled a 3-pointer. But Trimaine Davis grabbed the ball and put it in while being fouled, then dropped in the free throw for the win with .8 seconds left.
Player of the Year: Brandon Roy (27), Washington. With sincere apologies to Leon Powe, who joins Rudy Gay on the list of guys The Minutes cannot believe are not getting its POY awards. But the fact is, Roy has played wonderfully versatile basketball all season -- averaging 19.9 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.4 steals while shooting 51 percent from the floor -- and has brought his game to a late-season crescendo. He has scored 20 or more points his last nine games.
Coach of the Year: Ben Howland (28), UCLA. Nobody in the country has had to work harder at keeping a team together through every sprain, strain, fracture and tear imaginable. Not only have the Bruins survived, they've thrived. They lead the Pac-10 heading into the final weekend.
Bust of the Year: Oregon (29). A third consecutive season of .500-or-below play in the league, plus some off-court issues, could cost Ernie Kent his job. For a team that returned three double-digit scorers from last year, seventh place in a weak Pac-10 is not what anyone was hoping for.
Minutes Moment of the Year: The offensive agony that is Washington State basketball. In their last three games, the Cougars have scored 37, 41 and 37 points. And don't forget the 30-point masterpiece against UCLA a couple of weeks earlier. Yes, in fact, it is time for Dick Bennett to retire at Wazzu.
Player of the Year: Glen "Big Baby" Davis (30), LSU. Eight straight double-doubles by the SEC's Round Mound of Rebound Redux have led the Tigers to the overall regular-season title. During this streak, he's averaging 20.5 points and 13 boards, and nobody has the faintest idea how to handle him in the paint.
Coach of the Year: Bruce Pearl (31), Tennessee. The record (20-6, 11-4) speaks for itself, but how about the psychology behind the record? This was a soft program when Pearl arrived last spring -- indifferent defensively, uninterested in mixing it up inside and always willing to back down against a tough opponent at crunch time. Today, Tennessee is 180 degrees opposite. That's great work on the mental and physical toughness front.
Bust of the Year: Kentucky (32). Remember when the Wildcats were going to be saved by the return of Randolph Morris from NCAA suspension? Here's how that has worked out: They were 10-4 without Morris, and they're 9-6 with him. Bottom line on this Kentucky team: It beats bad teams and loses to good ones (last night's win at Tennessee being a notable exception). Even if the Wildcats hadn't beaten the Vols -- and regardless whether they win at Florida this weekend -- they would have made the NCAAs on name alone.
Minutes Moment of the Year: Pearl's wardrobe malfunctions. The orange blazer? Well, at least it's popular in one arena. The orange suspenders? Again, he's appealing to his audience. The sweated-through gray suit at Florida. Uh, no. And then there was the postgame locker room scene when the Volunteers beat Kentucky in Rupp Arena. Point guard C.J. Watson reported it thusly: "Coach was ripping his shirt off in excitement. He told us before the game to act like we've won here before."
Player of the Year: Nick Fazekas (33), Nevada. By a whisker (not that the baby-faced junior has many) over Louisiana Tech's Paul Millsap. How do you decide between a pair of guys who rank 1-2 in the league in scoring (Fazekas-Millsap) and rebounding (Millsap-Fazekas)? You look at head-to-head. Nevada swept the season series, and Fazekas had a slight edge in production (35 points and 25 rebounds to 33 points and 21 rebounds).
Coach of the Year: Reggie Theus (34), New Mexico State. The former NBA star and Louisville assistant is more than just a pretty face and a sharp sideline suit. He can coach. Picked to finish near the bottom in their first WAC season, the Aggies instead are 10-5 in league play. They're riding a six-game winning streak and have won eight of their last 10, with the only losses to league champ Nevada.
Bust of the Year: Idaho (35). The Minutes had no expectations of glory from the Vandals (4-23, 1-14) this season. Even so, an 0-13 road record and an average defeat margin of 20.5 points in those games is ugly.
Minutes Moment of the Year: Dec. 1, 2005: Nevada 72, Kansas 70. In Allen Fieldhouse. The Wolf Pack's RPI has been boosted significantly by that win ever since.
... Marquette's Steve Novak (36). Full disclosure: The Minutes caught up with Novak via phone, not e-mail, while he was riding the team bus to Notre Dame last Friday. (Work with me here.) Novak has missed exactly two free throws all season after Wednesday night's shocking 0-for-1 at Louisville; he's 72 of 74 for the season. He submitted to the following ruthless interrogation (before that miss) from The Minutes:
Forde Minutes: So what happened on the free throw against Cincinnati?
Steve Novak: I don't know. I went back and watched it a couple times on film. It was just long. It was bound to happen sooner or later. Back rim. That's all there was to it.
It's really just something I take a lot of pride in, from a young age. My dad built into me that free-throw shooting was very important. He taught me his routine that he used in high school and in college. It's a three-dribble routine: line up my right foot with the nail hole and limit my motion.
FM: How many plays does Tom Crean have, and how do you keep them all straight? How many of them are for you?
SN: There's a lot. We have all the plays drawn up for us the day after they're put in, to study them and memorize them. We probably have about 200 in.
How many do I know? (Laughs) I know all the ones we're going to run in the game tomorrow.
FM: If you and Kevin Pittsnogle had a Big East big man shoot-off from 3-point range, who would win? We know he beats you on tattoos, but what about range?
SN: He definitely has me on tattoos. In his gym, he shoots it pretty well there. In the Bradley Center, I think I'd have the edge. On a neutral court, it would be something to see. He's definitely a great shooter. On range, I think we're pretty similar.
FM: Some long-standing swimming world records were once set in your hometown of Brown Deer, Wis. What other interesting factoids can you tell us about the town?
SN: It's not the most interesting place in the entire world. It's a village of about 12,000. I guess it's your typical small-town suburb kind of place. Right across the street from Milwaukee. It's about 20 minutes from my house to campus.
My dad coached me at Brown Deer, and he's been the AD and coach there for 23 years now. He might be a historical fact by now.
FM: If Marquette ever has a throwback jersey game, what would you think of wearing the old 1977 uniforms, with the untucked jerseys and names at the bottom?
SN: That would be awesome. Bo Ellis designed those, and he was our assistant coach last year. Whenever they came up in conversation, he made sure we knew he designed those.
We all have on throwback jerseys right now for the trip. I'm wearing the Jabbar jersey from when he played at UCLA. We got a Wes Unseld jersey and a Dirk Nowitzki, and a Doc Rivers Marquette throwback. It's quite a collection.
So you think you're a college basketball fan? Willing to drive several hours to see your team play? Terrific. Now meet Dan Kowalski (37), who has arrived in the United States from his native Australia this week for one purpose: to watch Duke basketball. The former Olympic swimmer -- he won four medals at the 1996 and 2000 games -- was at Duke-Florida State on Wednesday night, and will be at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday for Duke-North Carolina.
"I was lucky enough to walk out in the Opening Ceremony at the Sydney Olympics in front of 110,000 crazy, passionate fans and had the amazing feeling of standing on the Olympic medal dais," Kowalski said. "But this, seeing this game live, on Senior Night, is an absolute dream come true."
Kowalski, the coordinator for the 2007 World Swimming Championships in Melbourne, caught the college hoops bug watching Aussie Andrew Gaze play for Seton Hall in the late 1980s. Then he happened to be in the U.S. when Duke made the national title game in 1990.
"I watched UNLV absolutely kick Duke's butt, so I decided to follow them from that point," Kowalski said. "It is very Australian to cheer for the underdog. The only way I could find out how they were going over the next few years was via my grandparents, who would send magazines from Canada. Quite often, I would get the news months later. The next time I saw a game was during the '95-96 season, when I was in America on a training camp. In 1996, Australia got ESPN, and shortly after, I got online, and it exploded from there. I am passionate about swimming; I love Duke basketball!
"For me, college basketball is the ultimate sport. If I could have my athletic career over again, I would trade in my Olympic medals to be the point guard at Duke for Coach K."
Good on ya, Dan.
Stetson's Derek Waugh (38). The Hatters have won their last eight games, shooting up the Atlantic Sun standings and carrying big mo' into the A-Sun tournament in bustling Johnson City, Tenn. (Just one question: Do they have comp cars for the head coach at Stetson?)
Maryland coach Gary Williams (39), who recently ripped the proliferation of bracket projections, saying they put too much pressure on players. Well, after the Terps lost four of five and slid to 6-8 in the ACC before beating Miami on Wednesday night, the pressure probably is off your guys now, Gary.
UC Irvine 82, UC Davis 68 (40). The Anteaters went to the line 21 times in this game and made 21 foul shots. That's second-best in the nation this year, behind a 22-for-22 effort from Old Dominion in December. Irvine's top six scorers all shoot at least 71 percent from the line, which helps.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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