Inaugural Minutes: Picking a hardwood Cabinet and bailing out the SEC
The Minutes does solemnly swear for the rest of the season to faithfully execute a weekly rundown of 40 names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball. So help me Wooden (1).
The new guy regularly plays pickup ball. (The Minutes wonders whether Secret Service will intervene in the event of a hard foul. Then again, not even Rick Mahorn would dare lay out the leader of the free world on a drive to the hole.) His brother-in-law, Craig Robinson (2), is the head coach at Oregon State. He's been known to fill out an NCAA tournament bracket or two (for entertainment purposes only, of course).
So when they play "Hail to The Chief," basketball fans will have someone else to think about other than Robert Parish. Barack Obama (3) is a baller.
On with the inauguration. And with the inaugural Minutes of '09.
Time to fill in The Minutes' cabinet based on the proceedings to date:
• State Department: North Carolina (4). It has produced teams currently ranked first (Wake Forest), second (Duke) and sixth (North Carolina). The Minutes can remember way back in December when some people were wondering whether the Tar Heels would go undefeated. Now they're the third-ranked team in their own state.
• Defense Department: Louisville (5). The Cardinals top Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency stats, but they've been especially merciless at the end of their last two games. Against Notre Dame, Louisville limited the high-octane Irish to a single field goal and 1-for-14 shooting in the final seven minutes of regulation and five minutes of overtime. Then on Saturday, Louisville locked up No. 1 Pitt down the stretch, holding the Panthers to 1-for-16 shooting over the final nine minutes as the Cards rallied from a 10-point deficit.
• Secretary of the Interior: Jarvis Varnado (6) of Mississippi State leads the nation in blocked shots at 5.3 per game and also pulls down 9.8 rebounds per contest.
• Energy Secretary: The Minutes doesn't think anyone has injected a bigger jolt of adrenaline into this season than Jodie Meeks (7), who got everyone buzzing with that 54-point explosion at Tennessee last week.
• Secretary of Veterans Affairs: That has to be Tyler Hansbrough (8), who seemingly has been in Carolina's lineup since the late '90s.
• Attorney General: Someone able to re-establish law and order after a weekend that saw Providence guard Jeff Xavier's brother walk unimpeded onto the court and accost an official during a home game against Marquette, and saw a Clemson (9) fan wrestle with Wake Forest player Chas McFarland after he sailed out of bounds trying to save a ball.
• Labor Secretary: No single player is working harder on a nightly basis to help his team succeed than Davidson's Stephen Curry (10). He's averaging 29 of the Wildcats' 81 points per game and assisting on another 13 points per game. More than 50 percent of Davidson's point production passes through Curry's hands on its way to the basket.
• Secretary of Hotness: Ashley Judd (12), naturally.
• Press Secretary: Taking applications for someone capable of dissuading Kimber Kennedy (13), wife of Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy, from filing her you-cannot-be-serious lawsuit in Cincinnati last week against the cab driver and valet who alleged that Andy Kennedy struck the cabbie and directed racial slurs at him last month. Andy Kennedy was arrested, and Kimber Kennedy's suit alleged that the trauma resulting from the arrest has led to a "lack of consortium." Or, in plain English, it's damaged the Kennedys' sex life. The Minutes' press secretary would gently try to convince Kimber, "THIS IS NOT HELPING." Call a sex therapist, hon. Do not give even more ammo to every student section in the SEC. (In fact, The Minutes has been apprised of a potential sign when Ole Miss visits rival Mississippi State later this month in Humphrey Coliseum, known as The Hump. "Hey Kennedy, glad you came to Hump. We heard it's been a while.")
Speaking of the SEC, fixing it leads The Minutes' agenda for the next 100 days
In Need Of A Bailout
The league most resembling the automotive industry at this juncture is the Southeastern Conference. The SEC got fat and happy off Florida's back-to-back national titles in 2006 and '07, and now the place is a mess.
When The Minutes last saw SEC commissioner Mike Slive (14), he was on the field at Dolphin Stadium pumping fists, patting backs and shaking hands. Slive had just seen Florida deliver the SEC its third consecutive football national championship -- a phenomenal run.
He deserved to live it up a little -- especially since the commish had to return home to find his 12 basketball teams in tatters. As good as the league is on the gridiron, it's about that bad on the hardwood.
That's a tradeoff a vast majority of the football-crazed conference will happily make -- but the SEC isn't accustomed to being either/or. It's accustomed to a strong basketball presence in addition to grid glory. And this year it has nothing going in hoops.
For the second straight week, the SEC placed zero teams in the ESPN/USA Today Top 25. Prior to last week, that hadn't happened since ESPN became involved with the poll back in 1997-98.
As of Monday morning, the SEC remained absent from ESPN.com's InsideRPI Top 25 as well. There are nine leagues represented above the SEC in the RPI, including the Horizon, the Atlantic 10, the Mountain West and Conference USA.
Even with an alarming number of SEC teams hiding out at home during the nonconference season and playing nobodies -- 10 of the 12 schools rank 196th or lower in strength of schedule, according to Jeff Sagarin -- there have been plenty of ghastly defeats. Ducking quality opponents has not paid off.
Kentucky lost its opener to VMI. Mercer swept the state of Alabama, beating both the Crimson Tide and Auburn. Vanderbilt lost to Illinois-Chicago. Mississippi lost by 33 to New Mexico and 19 to Southern Mississippi. Georgia lost to Loyola Chicago by 21, and to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. Arkansas lost to Missouri State. South Carolina lost to College of Charleston. And don't forget LSU, which lost by 30 to a Utah team that opened the season by losing to something called Southwest Baptist.
Part of the problem: This is a league almost entirely bereft of standout seniors and freshmen. Not enough experience at one end of the spectrum, and not enough fresh talent at the other end. The SEC's top six scorers and top four rebounders are sophomores or juniors.
There are issues in the coaching ranks as well. At present, 25 percent of the league's coaches are sweating it out. Georgia's Dennis Felton (15), Alabama's Mark Gottfried (16) and Auburn's Jeff Lebo (17) are on seats of varying heat. (Lebo's longevity could be aided by the fact that the school just spent an outrageous sum to rid itself of Tommy Tuberville and hire Gene Chizik. And the fact that Auburn really doesn't care about basketball. But then again, the school is opening a new arena in 2010-11 and probably would like some people to pay to enter it.)
Tennessee (18) was supposed to be the class of the conference, but it is a long way from that right now. The Volunteers (11-5 overall, 2-1 SEC) are guard-poor and have struggled against a challenging early schedule, in large part because their touted freshman class has not lived up to early hype.
Being scorched beyond recognition at home by Meeks might have been rock-bottom. We'll see if the Vols dig out from that.
Meanwhile, perennial kingpin Kentucky (19) is still in the process of returning to Kentucky-like form after years of substandard performance. Owing largely to youth, Florida (20) has endured a post-repeat dip that's lasted a bit longer than anticipated. (Though both the Wildcats and Gators are off to 3-0 league starts.) Arkansas (21) is all wild mood swings; the Razorbacks upset Oklahoma and Texas but have started SEC play 0-3. There is a power vacuum in the SEC West. And a power outage across the league.
Stimulus Package At Work
The flip side of the sagging SEC is the surging Big Ten (22), which has seen a revival of several important programs. A league that earned just four NCAA tournament bids last season and advanced no team to the final eight has bounced back this season.
Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio State all missed the '08 tourney but are in solid position to play in the Big Dance two months from now -- barring disaster. Michigan State looks like the Final Four contender it was billed to be before the season started. Purdue and Wisconsin also will be in the mix after taking a few lumps during ambitious nonconference scheduling.
This season has been a vindication for several of the league's best coaches.
Thanks to a few high-profile recruiting misses and a subsequent talent dip, Illinois' Bruce Weber (23) was actually catching heat last year while going 16-19, just three seasons removed from going 37-2. Now the Illini are sufficiently reloaded to stand 15-3, reminding everyone how good a coach Weber is.
At Minnesota, Tubby Smith (24) is finding the upper Midwestern air easier to breathe than in the pressure-cooker that was Kentucky. The Gophers were one of the most improved teams in the nation last year, Smith's first at the school, and now they have taken another major step forward this season. Even with a stunning loss at Northwestern over the weekend, people in Minnesota are giddy about a 15-2 record that includes a neutral-floor upset of Louisville, a road win at Wisconsin and a 2-1 road record in league play.
John Beilein (25) heard plenty of people doubt whether his unique style would work in the Big Ten, especially when his first Michigan team staggered to 22 losses last season. There is considerably less doubt today, after the Wolverines upset UCLA and Duke and have split their first six Big Ten games. Michigan has eight remaining road games and only five left at home, so the jury remains out on how it will finish. But at this point it would take a complete collapse to sour Beilein's sophomore season in Ann Arbor.
It will never be this bad again, Hoosiers. You'll never again lose by 13 at home to Northeastern. Never again blow a big lead and lose to Lipscomb. Never again face the threat of a winless Big Ten season (0-5 and counting, part of an ongoing eight-game losing streak).
These are the sins of Sampson come home to roost in Bloomington, but they won't last forever. Tom Crean (27) has a plan. Just grit your teeth and stick it out -- and hope for a victory either Feb. 4 (when Iowa visits) or Feb. 25 (when Northwestern visits). Because if it doesn't happen on either of those two dates, Indiana might not win again this season.
State Of Emergency
If there is one place where basketball is in need of disaster relief, it's the state of Colorado (28). Try finding a decent Division I program there. In RPI terms, the state is headed by Colorado State at No. 159, followed by Colorado at 230, Air Force at 277, Denver at 297 and Northern Colorado at 298. Neither the Buffaloes nor the Falcons have beaten a Division I opponent since Dec. 28, when Colorado triumphed over Coppin State and Air Force beat Dartmouth. At least the skiing is good if the basketball isn't.
The new prez will now be getting a daily intelligence briefing, detailing events worth noting from around the globe. If possible, maybe they can slip in the occasional hoops update like this one, fresh from a weekend of high-level clashes across the country.
Among the things we learned:
• There will be free-for-alls on both coasts, where 18-game league schedules will only add to the mayhem. The Big East (29) winner will have at least three losses, possibly four. Same in the Pacific-10 (30), where already everyone has lost at least one league game. However, the Big East's version of parity will be better than the Pac-10's.
• UCLA (31) hasn't done anything special yet this year. After losing at home to Arizona State, the Bruins are 0-2 against ranked opponents (Texas is the other loss). They've played only four road games -- one across town against USC, two on a trip to play the woeful Oregon schools. The next 12 games all are against teams rated in Jeff Sagarin's top 62, so we'll see what UCLA is made of from here on out.
• Clemson (32) is still hard to trust, especially if a big game comes down to free throws. The Tigers have won a lot of games in the past couple of years under Oliver Purnell, but think how many more they could have won if they weren't chronically terrible from the foul line. Clemson shot 55 percent at the line in losing at home to Wake Forest on Saturday, continuing a trend from its last five losses of last season. The Tigers shot 61 percent while coughing up an NCAA tournament first-round game against Villanova, 54 percent against North Carolina in the ACC tournament title game, 53 percent at Georgia Tech, 52 percent at Florida State and a preposterous 14 percent in a double-overtime loss to the Tar Heels. Clemson has improved its season foul shooting to 67 percent this season after years of killing itself at the charity stripe, but it reverted against the Demon Deacons.
• There may have been a mystery loudmouth (34) who affected the Duke-Georgetown outcome. You probably heard how Hoyas freshman star Greg Monroe was banged for a crucial, out-of-the-blue technical while sitting on the bench by official John Cahill for allegedly mouthing off. Monroe insisted to media members afterward that he didn't say anything, and Washington Post columnist Mike Wise reports that the actual culprit might have been a guy in a Steelers hat sitting behind the Georgetown bench. But the guy wasn't owning up to anything. Moral of the story: Screaming at the officials rarely works and can often backfire. Unless you're Mike Krzyzewski.
• After Davidson, Utah State (35) might be the biggest league lock in the country. The Aggies are 17-1 overall, 5-0 in the Western Athletic Conference, and miles ahead of the competition now that Nevada appears to be in rebuilding mode. Utah State is shooting 58 percent from 2-point range, 37 percent from 3-point range and 75 percent at the foul line, which tends to make the game look very easy.
The shortest inaugural address came from POTUS No. 1, George Washington, whose second inauguration was accompanied by a 135-word speech. Hard to build much television programming around an oration of that length. The basketball equivalent would probably be a postgame press conference with Bob Huggins (36), who saves most of his verbiage for the officials in-game.
The longest inaugural address was from William Henry Harrison, who besieged the people with 8,495 words. Or, roughly the average response of former South Carolina coach Dave Odom (37) to every postgame question. Dave could go a while.
When hungry in the well-above-average college town of Knoxville (38), The Dash recommends local landmark Calhoun's (39) by the Tennessee River. The ribs are excellent either dry or wet, and there are local microbrews on tap. If you're seeking less saturated fat, Koi (40) serves up some some swell ahi on Market Square in the middle of downtown.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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