Commentary

Here's to the league overachievers ... and the underachievers too

Originally Published: March 4, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball ("Unconscious," the Tyrese Rice (1) highlight tape, sold separately -- running time only 21 minutes):

Conference Call


Time to hand out some Minutes hardware to high-achieving players and coaches, not to mention underachieving teams and individuals, in America's top 10 leagues:

ACC


Player of the Year: Tyler Hansbrough (2), North Carolina. His stats (23.4 ppg, 10.4 rpg) and the Tar Heels' (27-2) record speak for themselves. But if you really want to get an appreciation for the guy, listen to how other coaches speak about Psycho T: "I think he's the best player in the country. … His sheer toughness and competitive spirit comes out every time he laces them up," said Miami's Frank Haith. "He's gradually built his game but never lost sight of being part of a team," said Georgia Tech's Paul Hewitt.

Coach of the Year: Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams have done their customary excellent work. And you have to applaud the job done by Haith at Miami, pushing a team picked to finish last in the ACC into the upper half of the league and into NCAA Tournament contention. But the choice here is Dino Gaudio (3) of Wake Forest. He didn't get the job until July, after the sudden death of beloved coach Skip Prosser, and his previous D-I head-coaching experience were defeat-intensive tenures at Army and Loyola (Md.). Gaudio took a grieving team picked to finish 11th and has guided it to a 16-11 overall mark, 6-8 in the league, good for seventh place at present. Until a recent three-game losing streak, Wake was in the at-large conversation. Talk about doing your best work amid trying circumstances.

[+] EnlargeDino Gaudio
AP Photo/Chuck BurtonDespite the exploits of usual suspects Duke and North Carolina, Dino Gaudio's job at Wake Forest has stood out the most in the ACC this season.
Unsung Hero of the Year: Quentin Thomas, North Carolina. If you told most Heels fans five weeks ago that Thomas would be the point guard of record through February, they probably wouldn't have predicted a 6-1 record in that month. But that's what they got, thanks to very solid play by Carolina's third-team point.

Bust of the Year: North Carolina State. A team expected to chase Duke and Carolina for the ACC title is now on a seven-game losing streak and struggling to stay out of the ACC basement. The home loss to the Blue Devils Saturday was capped by coach Sidney Lowe's curious decision not to foul while trailing by a point in the final minute; he let Duke run the shot clock to nothing and the game clock to about five seconds. Even with the rebound, State had no chance to get off a decent shot and blew a 13-point second-half lead.

Minutes Moment of the Year: Even better than the K-Roy snipefest over who played the injury card and who didn't was Virginia Tech's Dorenzo Hudson hurling on the hardwood during the Hokies' game at Maryland. That's leaving it all on the court.

Atlantic 10


Player of the Year: Xavier's cast of thousands cancels each other out, which leaves a three-man race between Massachusetts forward Gary Forbes, Rhode Island forward Will Daniels and Dayton guard Brian Roberts. Give the narrow nod to Forbes, who stepped forward out of a supporting role to star on a surprise team. He leads the A-10 in scoring, ranks fourth in rebounding and is in the top 15 in assists, field-goal percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio.

Coach of the Year: Sean Miller (4), Xavier. Miller's Musketeers have trampled the league to the point that he's the only logical candidate. What remains to be seen is whether he's a candidate for the vacant job at Indiana.

Unsung Hero of the Year: Stanley Burrell, Xavier. Instead of worrying about his own stats, Burrell dialed back his offense and focused on lockdown defense his senior season. He's done great work on hotshot shooters from Eric Gordon to Chris Lofton to Sean Singletary, and the results can be seen in X's 25-4 record.

Bust of the Year: Fordham was picked to finish fourth but instead has lapsed back into habitual mediocrity, sitting tied for 12th in the league at 5-9 and 11-15 overall.

Minutes Moment of the Year: Make that moments, plural. The choice has to be the schizophrenic play of Saint Louis (5), which upset Saint Joseph's on the road last Thursday, then came home to collapse and lose by 20 points to 20-loss St. Bonaventure two days later.

Big 12


Player of the Year: Michael Beasley (6), Kansas State. Every bit the slam-dunk choice that Hansbrough is in the ACC. Has the Wildcats in position to earn their first NCAA bid since 1996.

Coach of the Year: Scott Drew, Baylor. Brought the Bears back from oblivion, racking up just the fourth 20-win season in 102 years of basketball at the school. Barring a three-game losing streak between now and Selection Sunday, they'll be one of the great success stories in the NCAA Tournament.

Unsung Hero of the Year: Mario Chalmers (7), Kansas. Another guy who majors in unselfishness. The junior guard only shoots when necessary, averaging 1.6 points per shot. More important to the Jayhawks are his passing (a team-high 4.7 assists) and defense (2.4 steals per game and incessant pressure on the ball). (Edges out Texas glue guy Connor Atchley, who has the intriguing combination of 36 3-pointers made and 58 blocked shots this season.)

Bust of the Year: Missouri. Bad behavior off the court, bad play on it. Mike Anderson did the right thing dismissing leading scorer Stefhon Hannah, but it's helped land a preseason upper division Big 12 team in 10th place.

Minutes Moment of the Year: Baylor and Texas A&M play five overtimes in College Station, and the only people who saw it were in the gym. It wasn't carried on TV.

Big East


Player of the Year: Luke Harangody, Notre Dame. Has molded himself into a 20-10 guy on one of the more surprising teams in the country. Went for 40 and 12 at Louisville last week, making the first three 3-pointers of his college career.

[+] EnlargeRick Pitino
Icon SMI Rick Pitino narrowly missed out on the Minutes' coaching honors but takes the wardrobe award in a landslide with his all-white suit against Georgetown. Even if it only lasted for one half.
Coach of the Year: Could be Mike Brey for his work with the Fighting Irish. Could be Rick Pitino for bringing his Louisville team on like a freight train. Could be Bob Huggins for his immediate impact at West Virginia. Could be Mick Cronin's ahead-of-schedule work at Cincinnati. Instead it's Jim Calhoun (8), Connecticut. He's gotten three points and 30 minutes of play from former leading scorer Jerome Dyson in the last 11 games. UConn's record in that time has been 10-1.

Unsung Hero of the Year: David Padgett, Louisville. The numbers don't dazzle (11.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists), but the results do. Louisville is 15-3 and on a nine-game winning streak with Padgett back. The Cards were 7-3 when he was out with a broken kneecap. There are more outstanding players in the country, but nobody more valuable to his team's performance.

Bust of the Year: Providence (9). Experienced Friars were supposed to have a great shot at their first winning Big East record in four years. Instead they're 5-11 and still scrambling to make the 12-team league tourney, and coach Tim Welsh is under fire.

Minutes Moment of the Year: The wardrobe malfunction in the Ville. Rick Pitino wore an all-white suit during Louisville's White Out night against Georgetown -- for a half. When he started sweating through it and his blue underwear was showing, he changed to a dark suit for the second half.

Big Ten


Player of the Year: D.J. White, Indiana. Eric Gordon averages more points, but White is the more important player to the Hoosiers. He's racked up 18 double-doubles and is he unquestioned locker-room leader at IU. The senior has career highs in scoring average (17 ppg), rebounding (10.4 rpg) and field-goal percentage (60.7).

Coach of the Year: Matt Painter, Purdue. Excellent recruiting has positioned the Boilermakers for big success in the coming years. Excellent coaching has taken the Boilers to the top of the league early. They're 14-2 and a pair of road victories away from at least sharing their first league title in 12 years.

Unsung Hero of the Year: Purdue guard Chris Kramer (10), who might be the league's Defensive Player of the Year and embodies the relentless competitive spirit of the Boilers. He's averaged 3.2 steals per game over Purdue's last nine.

Bust of the Year: Ohio State. The Buckeyes were picked to finish third in the preseason, but a four-game losing streak has them at 8-8 in league play and on the wrong side of the bubble. To make matters worse, none of those eight victories has come against the four teams at the top of the league: Wisconsin, Purdue, Michigan State and Indiana. Ohio State's combined record against those four: 0-5, with two chances left.

Minutes Moment of the Year: Kelvin Sampson (11), phone home.

Conference USA


Player of the Year: Chris Douglas-Roberts (12), Memphis. Could find ways to score with both arms tied behind his back -- but that might require forcing shots, and CDR doesn't go there. Strongest competition for this award is from his teammate Derrick Rose.

Coach of the Year: John Calipari, Memphis. What, you were expecting Matt Doherty? Cal has awakened the echoes of 1985 in a city that has a long-standing love affair with its college hoops team.

Unsung Hero of the Year: Robert Vaden (13), UAB. Lost amid the Memphis massacre of C-USA, the Indiana transfer is having a tremendous scoring season. He's averaging 22 points this season, 27.4 ppg over the Blazers' last five games. Vaden shoots a ton of 3-pointers (297 of them, more than 10 per game), but he makes a ton of them, too (127, an excellent 42.8 percent).

Bust of the Year: Rice. The Owls are 3-24 overall, 0-14 in the league. Nobody expected greatness from Rice. But if you're winless in C-USA, you're not good.

Pierre Niles
AP Photo/Hal YeaHere's looking at you, Memphis forward Pierre Niles, for providing one of the more memorable moments in the C-USA this season.

Minutes Moment of the Year: On Feb. 16, Memphis backup center Pierre Niles slapped a UAB fan after the Tigers won by a point in Birmingham. On Feb. 19, a C-USA spokesperson said the league was "still gathering information" on the incident. Fourteen days later, the league remains Marcel Marceau on the matter. Meanwhile, word is C-USA officials were shocked to recently learn that Marquette, Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida have left the league for the Big East.

Missouri Valley


Player of the Year: Josh Young, Drake. He's the leading scorer on a balanced team that dominated the league. The sweet-shooting sophomore has hit 45.3 percent of his 3s this season and was at his best scoring 25 points against Butler in a high-profile BracketBusters game.

Coach of the Year: Keno Davis (14), Drake. Any questions?

Unsung Hero of the Year: Illinois State sophomore guard Osiris Eldridge has elevated his game and brought the Redbirds up with him, all the way to second place in the Valley. Eldridge is averaging 16.3 points and an impressive 5.6 rebounds per game for a guy who goes 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds.

Bust of the Year: Wichita State (15). Former Winthrop coach Gregg Marshall has landed in a disaster area. The normally competitive Shockers' next loss with be their 20th, and they are next-to-last in the league. Two years ago, they were in the NCAA Sweet 16.

Minutes Moment of the Year: ESPN GameDay arrives in Carbondale, Ill., for showdown between league rivals and perennial powers Creighton and Southern Illinois. Bluejays and Salukis bore America senseless with 48-44 display of crawl ball.

Mountain West


Player of the Year: J.R. Giddens (16), New Mexico. Former problem child at Kansas is playing superb all-around basketball as a senior in Albuquerque. Giddens ranks among the league leaders in points (sixth at 15.6 ppg), rebounds (first at 8.4 rpg), assists (10th at 3.0 apg), steals (tied for sixth at 1.5 spg) and blocks (second at 1.3 bpg). Last six games he's averaging 24.3 points and 8.5 boards.

Coach of the Year: Lon Kruger (17), UNLV. Kruger lost a bunch of talent from last year's Sweet 16 team. But the Rebels have run back into NCAA Tournament and league title contention at 22-6 overall and 11-3 in MWC play, just a game behind heavy preseason favorite BYU with two to play.

Unsung Hero of the Year: Lee Cummard (18), BYU. Skinnier than a Victoria's Secret model, but the 6-7, 185-pounder packs a wallop in every area of the game. He scores (15.9 ppg), rebounds (6.5 rpg), dishes (3.4 apg) and shoots dynamite percentages (57.2 from the field, 84 from the line and 45.3 from 3). Vital to the Cougars' hopes to make noise in March.

Bust of the Year: Utah. Utes were expected to be in the upper division and perhaps in the title hunt, but a four-game losing streak has dropped them to 6-8 in MWC play and 15-12 overall. Simply put, when Utah gives up 67 or more points, it cannot keep up. The Utes are 1-8 when opponents meet or exceed that number, 14-4 when they don't.

Minutes Moment of the Year: Colorado State gagging at home to Division II Panhandle State on Jan. 8, part of the Rams' current 15-game losing streak. Last D-I win for the 6-22 Rams came on Dec. 5. Panhandle State is now 10-17 and lost to Incarnate Word by 42 last time out.

Pac-10


Player of the Year: Kevin Love, UCLA. Why do the Bruins have a chance to win it all this year, as opposed to hitting a brick wall in the Final Four? Because they finally have a low-post hoss who can score, rebound, defend, pass and force other teams to play UCLA honestly. Those who thought Love was an overrated Great White Hope have been proven double-double wrong.

Coach of the Year: Trent Johnson, Stanford (19). Arizona State has been a surprise few people saw coming in Herb Sendek's second season, but Johnson has the Cardinal contending for the league crown into the last week. He can be terribly serious and thoroughly old school, but Johnson has rebuilt Stanford to the stature it enjoyed under former coach Mike Montgomery.

Unsung Hero of the Year: Ryan Anderson, California. Easy to get lost in a league full of stars, but Anderson deserves props for averaging a league-leading 21.5 points per game and 9.9 boards.

Bust of the Year: Washington (20). The Huskies' big seasons in 2004-05 and 2005-06 are starting to seem like a very long time ago. They're 7-10 in league play this year and may not finish with an overall record above .500.

Minutes Moment of the Year: The near-brawl between Oregon State and Washington -- two flaming disappointments -- the day before they played in Corvallis. The excessive testosterone reportedly included a voice-mail invitation from an Oregon State player to a Husky to step outside the team hotel room for a rumble in the parking lot.

[+] EnlargeJarvis Varnado
AP Photo/Kristen HinesMississippi State's Jarvis Varnado, the nation's leading shot-blocker, gets props from the Minutes for fueling the Bulldogs' success in the SEC this season.

SEC


Player of the Year: Tyler Smith (21), Tennessee. And not just because he made the shot to beat Memphis. In league play, Smith is the Volunteers' second-leading scorer, leading rebounder and leading assist man. If the NCAA hadn't granted him immediately eligibility as a transfer to be near his dying father, Tennessee would not be in the race for a No. 1 seed.

Coach of the Year: Billy Gillispie, Kentucky. He wasn't among the 200 best coaches in November and December, when his team wasn't among the 200 best teams in the country. But the Wildcats have persevered through a torrent of injuries to reach 10-4 in SEC play, grinding out one victory after another. They might be two wins away from an unlikely push into the Dance.

Unsung Hero of the Year: Jarvis Varnado, Mississippi State. Stringbean shot blocker has keyed the Bulldogs' defense, which in turn has keyed their rise to the top of the SEC West. Varnado is averaging nearly 5 blocks per game and has six games with seven or more swats.

Bust of the Year: Alabama. You knew it would be bad when point guard Ronald Steele went out for the year with recurring knee issues. But nobody expected 4-10 in league play or 15-14 overall -- especially with 17 home games played so far. Small wonder the few Bama fans not zoned in on spring football are stewing over coach Mark Gottfried.

Minutes Moment of the Year: Gardner-Webb (22) houses Kentucky in Rupp Arena 84-68. And it wasn't even that close. Ashley Judd (23) hasn't been the same since. Which means The Minutes hasn't been the same since, either.

Little Dance


The first indelible moments of March start this week. Elimination games begin Tuesday, as the low-major and mid-major conference tournaments distribute the first bids to the Big Dance. (Ivy League notwithstanding. Congrats, Cornell (24)).

The Minutes has always enjoyed the all-or-nothing urgency of the single-bid conference tourneys and the joy of earning that invitation to play with the biggest programs in the country. For low-profile schools and their low-profile players, stepping out of the shadows and into the NCAA Tournament klieg lights is the biggest thrill.

Hoops junkies not just fixated on the glam leagues -- and perhaps scouting for an NCAA sleeper team for the office pool -- don't want to miss these games. Neither do office slackers, who can rejoice at the arrival of weekday afternoon basketball to monitor when they're supposed to be working. (Jacksonville-Mercer, 3:15 ET tip Wednesday in the Atlantic Sun (25) quarterfinals. Thank me later, brothers and sisters.)

For junkies and slackers alike, The Minutes offers five intriguing smaller-scale conference tourneys to eyeball as they begin play this week:

Patriot League (26). Quarterfinals: Wednesday at campus sites. Semifinals: March 9 at campus sites. Championship: March 14 at site of highest seeded team.

Why watch: Has any league been more unpredictable than this one? Preseason favorite and defending champion Holy Cross finished last. Predicted runner-up Bucknell is seeded seventh. The top two teams, American and Navy, were picked to finish fifth and seventh, respectively.

American has home-court advantage for as long as it can hold it in pursuit of its first-ever NCAA Tournament bid. But Navy swept the Eagles in the regular season.

NCAA Sleeper Meter: Low. Patriot League teams have been tough outs in the past -- Bucknell has beaten Kansas and Arkansas in recent years, and Holy Cross has come agonizingly close to major shockers. But it doesn't seem likely this year.

Sun Belt (27). First round: Wednesday at campus sites. Quarterfinals, semis and final: March 9-11 in Mobile, Ala.

Why watch: This could be the best championship game of any off-Broadway league. South Alabama (25-5 overall, 16-2 in conference play, RPI of 29) looks like an at-large NCAA team, but a loss short of the title game could make it dicey. The likely finals opponent would be Western Kentucky (24-6, 16-2, RPI of 49), seeking an auto bid of its own if it doesn't win this thing.

The Jaguars are playing at home and swept the season series from the Hilltoppers -- but only by a total of nine points.

NCAA Sleeper Meter: High. If South Alabama and/or Western Kentucky are in, either could win a game. At least.

West Coast Conference (28). March 7-10 in San Diego. Third and fourth seeds get a one-round bye into the quarterfinals; first and second seeds get a two-round bye into the semifinals.

Why watch: This is a league with two teams in or near the Top 25 (kingpin Gonzaga and challenger Saint Mary's), but there's an intriguing third option as well: host San Diego, coached by former Zags assistant Bill Grier. The Toreros have gone 11-3 in the WCC after a 7-10 start to the season -- which included an upset of Kentucky in Lexington.

NCAA Sleeper Meter: Not applicable. Hard to sleep on either Gonzaga or St. Mary's, both of which would seem to be at-large locks and very dangerous tournament opponents.

Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (29). March 7-10 in Albany, N.Y. Top two seeds get a one-round bye.

[+] EnlargeAshley Judd
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesThe Minutes wonders how Ashley Judd feels about Kentucky's recent performance.
Why watch: Six teams are bunched within two games of first place. The top four are bunched within 42 spots of each other in the RPI. This might be the most competitive league in the country -- and you never know when the wife of Siena's coach might pop off about the officiating again.

NCAA Sleeper Meter: Moderate. The league's top three teams -- Siena, Rider and Niagara -- all have beaten a team from a BCS conference this season.

Ohio Valley Conference (30). Quarterfinals: Tuesday at campus sites. Semifinals and final: Friday and Saturday in Nashville.

Why watch: With the bottom three teams in the league eliminated, all of the eight remaining contestants are .500 or better in conference play. Seven of them rank between 187 and 282 in RPI, with the lone exception being regular-season champion Austin Peay at No. 90. But here's the kicker with Peay: The last two times it has won the OVC regular-season title, it has been upset in the league tournament.

NCAA Sleeper Meter: Low. Poor conference RPI means a poor seed. Only Austin Peay could potentially avoid a No. 16 seed.

Gut Check


Six bubble teams face immensely important assignments over the weekend and came away with vastly different results. The Minutes report card:

Kentucky (31). Grade: guts plus. When the news came out Friday that stud freshman Patrick Patterson was done for the season with a stress fracture, the Wildcats' season appeared to be over. The selection committee would have little interest in a double-digit-loss team without its best player, and a nationally televised execution at Tennessee loomed. Except the Cats nearly won, pushing the Volunteers to the final horn. Now the committee will have to watch Kentucky closely in its final two games (at South Carolina, home against Florida) and in the SEC tournament to appraise it anew. Understand this: No team that finished 10-6 or better in SEC play has ever missed the tourney unless it declared itself ineligible for rules violations. Kentucky is 10-4.

Maryland (32). Grade: intestinally challenged. The Terrapins yacked up a 20-point lead at home on Senior Night and lost to Clemson in the final seconds. Not sure a bubble team could have a worse loss. And the problem is, outside of the shocker over North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the Terps have zero signature wins. Haven't beat another team with an RPI better than 70.

Clemson (33). Grade: guts aplenty. The Tigers were on the other end of that stunner in College Park, pulling off a miracle rally to reach 21 wins this season, assure themselves a winning ACC record and move into the top 20 in the RPI. Put it all together, and the team that always seems to find a way out of the Big Dance should now be in.

Syracuse (34). Grade: decent guts, no brains. The Orange have battled decently all season after losing Eric Devendorf and Andy Rautins to injury -- but a big part of the reason they're 7-9 in the Big East is questionable decision-making and execution in the clutch. Exhibit A being Saturday, when they yacked up an 11-point lead at home in the final four minutes against Pittsburgh, capped by a mind-blowing turnover under their own basket with less than 15 seconds remaining. Jim Boeheim can lobby all he wants for the NCAAs to expand to 128, 256 or something in the thousands, but his team is absolutely bubblicious for the third year in a row.

Arizona (35). Grade: gutty scheduling, gutter ball performance. The Wildcats have played the No. 1 schedule in the country, which means that even at 17-12 they've got a good shot of getting in the tourney -- if they sweep their series in Oregon this week. But they blew their margin for error by being swept in Tucson last week by UCLA and USC and have lost six of their last eight.

Texas A&M (36). Grade: intestinally challenged to the extreme. Ahead 10-9 at Oklahoma Saturday, the Aggies staged a work stoppage. They went the next 16 minutes, 12 seconds without a point, believed to be the longest scoring drought of the shot-clock era. By the time it was over, the Sooners led 33-10 and A&M was hurtling toward its fourth loss in the last five games. (Of course, the lone win was a 44-point napalming of Texas Tech, which has become Team Schizo under Pat Knight. The Red Raiders followed that by shocking Texas, then turned around and were atomized by 58 at Kansas.)

[+] EnlargeTommy Amaker
AP Photo/Michael DwyerSay it ain't so Harvard. Have the Crimson tainted their pristine image?

Scales Of Justice


The Minutes said earlier this season that the officiating was shaky nationwide. The latest evidence: the Washington State-Stanford (37) game. The zebras' first seven blasts of the whistle were to call fouls on the Cougars, including two borderline calls that shelved Wazzu's best player, Kyle Weaver, for 15 minutes. Shifting quickly into makeup mode, the next nine calls all went against the Cardinal, including a technical foul on an apoplectic Trent Johnson.

Let's hope the refs are getting these kinds of debacles out of their systems in time for postseason play.

Et Tu, Crimson?


From the nothing-is-sacred files, New York Times sportswriter Pete Thamel wrote a story Sunday detailing potential rule breaking (and almost definite rule bending) at … Harvard (38). So if you want to know who is playing it absolutely clean in college hoops, the answer might be nobody.

Buzzer Beater


The Minutes spent a couple days in Palo Alto last week and was treated to a deluxe time by several Stanford students. They showed off some of the classic college hangouts in the area, most notably the Dutch Goose (39), which had Sierra Nevada on tap and freakishly good deviled eggs; and the Oasis (40), where we stayed local with pitchers of Anchor Steam. Bring your Sharpie to autograph the walls at the Goose and your pocket knife to carve the tables at the O.

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