Commentary

NCAA cheaters, SEC championship coaches and the tenuous bubble

Originally Published: February 26, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (three-way calling feature costs extra -- especially in Bloomington):

Crackdown in effect


Observations while raking through the smoldering wreckage of the past two weeks at Indiana (1):

• The major violations charge against Kelvin Sampson (2) could be the first shot in a new cleanup offensive by the NCAA Enforcement staff. Despite being terminally understaffed and occasionally undermined by the Committee on Infractions, Enforcement has been given a directive from on high: Crack down on men's basketball.

College hoops has long been something of a rogue state -- roguish enough lately to arouse the attention and concern of officials up to and including NCAA president Myles Brand (3). In 2007, the association developed a renewed interest in catching cheaters -- which meant Sampson's phone foibles came at a very bad time for the coach.

[+] EnlargeKelvin Sampson
AP Photo/Ty RussellThe NCAA brought Kelvin Sampson to his knees, but is he the first casualty in a series of crackdowns?
Here we had a perfect storm: a repeat violator some 50 miles from NCAA headquarters, breaking his latest set of rules at a high-profile school. What better way to make a statement than nailing Sampson and Indiana?

We'll see whether the scofflaws are paying attention. Because The Minutes predicts that the NCAA will start taking a closer look at some of the many things that don't pass the smell test, yet are accepted on campuses across the country. Such as:

Does it seem at all strange to anyone else when a teenager's family uproots and moves to the town where he's going to school? How do they find jobs?

What about the family that shows up at every single road game, no matter how far away it is?

Or when his AAU coach, brother, father, uncle or "legal guardian" gets a job (and a place on the bench) at the kid's school?

How about the unofficial visit (i.e., unpaid for by the college) to a campus that's 2,500 miles away?

Or the AAU program that's set up as a charitable organization, thus freeing itself for anonymous "contributions" from coaches or boosters?

Does anyone else wonder whatever happened to freshman ineligibility? Virtually everyone is eligible these days. How does that happen? (One answer: untimed tests arranged for prospects with learning disabilities. Some coaches specialize in getting a player labeled learning disabled, just so he can take the untimed test.)

Anyone else think about agent influence in AAU hoops? Like assistant coaches who double as runners?

Then there's the garden-variety stuff: the SUVs in the player parking lot; the high-end clothes in the lockers; the latest technology gadgets. One thing you hear often in college hoops is that flat-out buying players on the front end is far less common than players knowing who will take care of them once they get to campus.

But some schools buy players, too, finding all kinds of creative ways to funnel the cash to whoever did the selling.

Hopefully, enough of the scofflaws will get caught to scare the others straight. We'll see. But consider Indiana the first target of an NCAA Enforcement offensive.

• The "it's just phone calls" segment of the populace that finds Sampson's penalty excessive invariably points out that many worse things are happening every day in college basketball. They're probably right. And if they have firsthand information, they should come forward with what they know if they want to really clean up the sport. Until then, the NCAA is going to nail who it can nail and prosecute who it can prosecute.

• The Minutes has said that Sampson's chances of coaching again in Division I are slim and none, and here's why: A show-cause restriction seems to be an inevitable penalty from the Committee on Infractions. That means a school will have to make an appeal to the NCAA to hire Sampson, demonstrating why doing so would be a swell idea. No school is going to do that, which is why such show-cause restrictions are considered a de facto ban. If Sampson gets a five-year show-cause penalty, it will be tough to come back after being away that long.

He knows better than to expect leniency. In fact, some insiders suspect this investigation was fast-tracked for the express purpose of presenting a body-slam opportunity to some of the Committee on Infractions members who heard the coach's last phone scam case, in 2006, when he was at Oklahoma (4). It's never a good thing to go back before the same judge and jury for the same offense.

• The Minutes isn't sure who ponied up the $550,000 to help make Sampson go away at Indiana, but one rumor is bogus. It wasn't former Hoosiers hero Damon Bailey (5), whose appearance at Assembly Hall Friday night caused a bit of a ruckus. Bailey tells The Minutes he makes a nice living, but not nice enough to be writing checks for more than half a million dollars just to buy a coach out of a contract.

SEC hegemony, cont.


With the rise of Tennessee (6) to No. 1 in the polls, the Southeastern Conference is threatening to extend its run atop the college sports world. Remember, the last four football-basketball national championships have been won by SEC schools: Florida (7) in basketball twice and football once, and LSU (8) in football.

[+] EnlargeBilly Donovan
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeBilly Donovan is one example of an East Coast native bringing success to the SEC.
If Bostonian and BC graduate Bruce Pearl (9) leads Tennessee to the title, it also would extend the SEC's track record of importing its brightest basketball minds from outside the league's geographic footprint. Only one of the SEC's 10 national champions was coached by someone born and raised in SEC country: Joe B. Hall (10) of Cynthiana, Ky., who led Kentucky to the 1978 title.

The others:

Billy Donovan (11). Native New Yorker. Providence College grad. Led Florida to consecutive titles in 2006 and '07.

Tubby Smith (12). Born and raised in Maryland. Graduated from High Point College in North Carolina. Won title at Kentucky in 1998.

Rick Pitino (13). New York native. Massachusetts grad. Won title at Kentucky in '96.

Nolan Richardson (14). Native of El Paso, Texas. Graduate of Texas Western. Led Arkansas to 1994 title.

Adolph Rupp (15). Born in Halstead, Kan., and played at KU. Won four NCAA titles at Kentucky: 1948, '49, '51 and '58.

February form


Tennessee's heavyweight 66-62 victory over Memphis (16) served both teams well. It gave the Volunteers their first No. 1 ranking and solidified their spot on the No. 1 seed line -- pending the trap-game visit to Vanderbilt (17) Tuesday night (ESPN, 9 ET). Meanwhile, it was a net gain for the losers, too.

The Tigers will still be a No. 1 seed, will shed the burden of being undefeated and will be able to refocus on the only task that still matters: winning six games in the NCAA Tournament.

February losses are never fatal. Ten of the past 11 national champions lost at least once in the shortest month. The only exception: the 2002 Maryland squad(18), which went 7-0 through February.

But even though a late loss or two does not indicate NCAA doom, future Final Four teams must have the ability to win tough games over an extended period of time. In other words, you've got to be able to get hot and stay hot. If you haven't demonstrated the ability to win at least four games in a row once the calendar turns to January, you won't win four in a row in the Big Dance.

The proof: The last 28 Final Four teams have had at least one winning streak of four or more games in January or later. Last time it didn't happen was 2000, when both North Carolina (19) and Wisconsin (20) stumbled into a flukish Final Four as No. 8 seeds. Both the Tar Heels and Badgers won no more than three in a row between January and the NCAAs.

It's slippery on the bubble


After playing well for most of the season, five teams now are on the verge of playing themselves out of the Big Dance and into the NIT. The Minutes examines:

Baylor (21)

The start: The Bears were 15-2, 4-0 in Big 12 play as of Jan. 23.

The slide: They're 2-6 since then, surrendering 83 points per game in that stretch.

The chance for a comeback: Baylor should win three of its final four in the regular season. Combine that with a solid RPI (34) and a winning road/neutral record, and the Bears will make the Dance.

Dayton (22)

The start: The Flyers were 14-1, 2-0 in the Atlantic 10 as of Jan. 12. They beat Louisville on the road and mugged Pitt at home by 25.

The slide: They're 3-8 since then, with half of the losses to teams with triple-digit RPIs. Injuries have been a major factor.

The chance for a comeback: Dayton could win its final three games, reaching 8-8 in league play heading into the Atlantic 10 tournament. But the Flyers are trying to break in from the outside right now, which means it might take a run to the tourney final to make the field of 65.

Ashley Judd
The Minutes doesn't want to be the one to have to tell Ashley Judd that Kentucky will be spending its postseason in the NIT, not the NCAA Tournament.

Mississippi (23)

The start: The Rebels were 15-1, with their only loss a close one on the road against Tennessee.

The slide: They're 3-7 since then, with five of the losses against opponents with RPIs of 128 or worse.

The chance for a comeback: At 4-8 in a mediocre SEC, Ole Miss might need to win out in the regular season. The Rebels have a huge bubble game against Kentucky on Wednesday night (ESPN Full Court, 8 ET) in Lexington. The loser will be in trouble.

Texas A&M (24)

The start: The Aggies were 14-1 on Jan. 5, having played just one true road game to that point.

The slide: They're 6-6 since then, sandwiching a five-game winning streak between two three-game losing streaks.

The chance for a comeback: Their remaining four games all are against RPI top-55 competition: Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Baylor and Kansas. Right now they're in, and even a split of those four should keep it that way.

Ohio State (25).

The start: The Buckeyes were 15-6, 6-2 in the Big Ten heading into February.

The slide: They've lost four of six, including road losses to bad Iowa and Michigan teams.

The chance for a comeback: Ohio State might have won its last regular-season game. The Buckeyes finish up at Indiana, at Minnesota, home against Purdue and home against Michigan State. Protecting home court will be vital to making the Dance.

Playing their way into the conversation


Kent State (26): The Golden Flashes have won six straight, capped by a BracketBuster road win over Saint Mary's. That boosted their record to 23-5 and RPI into the top 30, which should make them close to a sure thing with three regular-season games and the MAC tournament left.

Kentucky (27): The biggest name on the bubble, and subject to the most interesting Selection Committee debate. The Wildcats are 9-3 in the SEC, the kind of record in a big-time league that normally locks up a bid. But they've also been outscored in league play, winning all nine games by 10 points or less and being crushed by Vanderbilt. Combine that with an awful pre-conference run (home losses to Gardner-Webb and San Diego), and the committee could be faced with the unpleasant task of telling Ashley Judd (28) that her team is going to the NIT.

Miami (29): The Hurricanes are looking good now, after beating Duke and Maryland as part of a four-game winning streak. But prior to that they lost six of seven, dropping to 2-6 in the ACC. Pre-conference wins on the road against Mississippi State and a neutral floor against Virginia Commonwealth might tip the scales in the Canes' favor.

New Mexico (30): A six-game winning streak has pushed the Lobos into the RPI top 50. A split of their next two games against BYU and UNLV could do enough to earn a bid. A sweep could lock it up. Being swept might mean a ticket to the NIT.

Davidson (31): The Wildcats are 18-0 in the Southern Conference. They're also 0-5 against the RPI top 100, losing all their ambitiously scheduled nonconference games. With a 61 RPI, nothing will be assured unless/until Davidson wins the Southern Conference tournament.

Hurting their seeding


Two teams that are in but playing themselves into tougher first-round matchups:

Washington State (32): The Cougars have lost four Pac-10 home games, ceding the league race to UCLA and Stanford and raising questions about how far their slowdown style can take them. And now they have to worry about coach Tony Bennett potentially being courted by Indiana.

[+] EnlargeDavid Padgett
AP Photo/Don WrightDavid Padgett has led a Louisville surge that has made the Cardinals one of the most dangerous teams in the country.
Pittsburgh (33): The wounded Panthers will win at least two more regular-season games, get to 20 victories on the season and assure themselves of a .500 league record. But they haven't beaten an RPI top-100 team on the road all season and are riding a three-game losing streak.

Helping their seeding


Two teams that are in and playing their way into elite territory:

Louisville (34): The Cardinals have won seven straight Big East games, four of them on the road. Their six losses are by a total of 28 points, and half of them came with seniors David Padgett and Juan Palacios out injured. Their game with Notre Dame on Thursday night (ESPN, 7 ET) matches the two hottest teams in the league and will help decide the regular-season champion.

Xavier (35): By Selection Sunday, the Musketeers might be working on a two-month winning streak. They've already won 10 straight, rising to sixth in the RPI. They're a veteran team with lots of firepower, and they're coming through an A-10 that is strong enough to season them for the NCAAs.

Men (and women) behaving badly


The Minutes hears things. The stranger those things are, the faster they're passed on to you. The latest silliness from the coaching ranks:

Siena coach Fran McCaffery (36) apparently needs to fit his wife, Margaret (37), with a muzzle. According to ESPN.com's Kyle Whelliston, she went into the media room after the Saints lost in overtime to Loyola on Feb. 16 and told the fourth estate, "Do you want a headline? We got hosed. H-O-S-E-D. Hosed." This was not in response to a question, just a volunteered observation.

Apparently the family that rips the refs together stays together. Both of the McCafferys were ejected from a game once in 2006.

Spies tell The Minutes that a Big East coach who shall remain nameless (38) recently got into a halftime argument with one of his assistants in a hallway outside the locker room. According to a source, it escalated to the point where punches were thrown.

Buzzer beater


When thirsty in Indianapolis, The Minutes recommends a coldie at the Ram Brewery (39) downtown. The 71 Pale Ale (40) goes particularly well with basketball on the big screen.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.