Commentary

Forde Minutes: Coaches and teams feel the heat in the middle of winter

Originally Published: January 27, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (pink slips sold separately at Alabama (1):

Next?


With Mark Gottfried (2) becoming the first major coaching casualty of 2009, speculation season officially is under way. Nine other jobs in "Big Six" conferences that could come open sometime between now and April:

Dennis Felton
AP Photo/Phil CoaleIt might take another shocking SEC tourney title for Georgia coach Dennis Felton to keep his job.
Georgia (3). The coach: Dennis Felton. The problem: Felton is six games below .500 in 5½ seasons at Georgia, and just 26-58 in SEC games. If the Bulldogs hadn't had that miracle Southeastern Conference tournament championship last March, Felton probably would have been out then. There has been no carryover from that run, as the Bulldogs have staggered their way to the only losing record in a bad SEC.

Auburn (4). The coach: Jeff Lebo. The problem: Even in a division that has had plenty of fluidity in recent years, the Tigers cannot make any headway. In 4½ years under Lebo, Auburn has never had a .500 league record and has done better than 4-12 only once. And a new $92 million arena is under construction, which could add some sense of urgency.

St. John's (5). The coach: Norm Roberts. The problem: The top players from the New York City area keep going elsewhere -- often elsewhere within the same conference, so they can haunt the hometown team they snubbed. With insufficient talent, Roberts is just 59-75 in his fifth season. For those who think contracts matter, Roberts did receive a five-year extension last spring.

Seton Hall (6). The coach: Bobby Gonzalez. The problem: Crazy can be tolerated when you win, not so easily when you don't. Gonzalez has coached only 80 games at Seton Hall, so the jury hasn't yet returned a verdict on his long-term ability to field a winner -- although the early returns are mediocre at best, with a 12-27 record in league play. The attendant issue with Gonzalez is a combustible personality that has gotten him into trouble at times, such as when he was suspended by the school for the first Big East game of this season after a postgame tantrum following a loss to Rutgers last March. Seton Hall is only 1-6 in Big East play right now, but is hitting a soft (by Big East standards) stretch that could right the ship.

DePaul (7). The coach: Jerry Wainwright. The problem: The Blue Demons are as bad in Year 4 under Wainwright as they were in Year 1. Maybe worse. Since a blip of success in his second season (20-14 record, NIT berth, 9-7 in the Big East), DePaul has won just six of 19 Big East games and is a miserable 0-7 this season. Being swept by South Florida, including a 22-point loss at home, is not good. Losing to Morgan State doesn't help, either.

Rutgers (8). The coach: Fred Hill. The problem: The athletic director who hired him was fired in December, and you never know what the new guy is going to think of a 6-35 Big East record to date. Hill is in only his third season and scored a big recruiting class last year that helped earn him a two-year extension in the spring, but some on-court victories would help (the Scarlet Knights are 0-7 in league play this season).

Northwestern (9). The coach: Bill Carmody. The problem: Even Northwestern would like to win every once in a while. The Wildcats have never been to the NCAA tournament ... let that sink in for a moment. That was supposed to change under Carmody, but we're now nine seasons into his tenure without a postseason bid to show for it. (In fact, his eighth year was his worst; 8-22 overall and 1-17 in the Big Ten.) Northwestern scored perhaps its biggest victory under Carmody last week when it shocked Michigan State in East Lansing, and if the purple can pull off their first .500 season in league play in five years, that might be enough for Carmody to keep his job.

Oregon (10). The coach: Ernie Kent. The problem: Sustained success has been elusive, never more than in Kent's 12th season in Eugene. He's hit some real high notes: twice reaching the NCAA Elite Eight, twice winning the Pac-10 tournament, once winning the Pac-10 regular-season title. But there have been about as many low notes: more losing seasons than winning seasons in league play, and this season's grisly 0-8 Pac-10 start. There might be mutual relationship fatigue for fans and the coach.

Florida State (11). The coach: Leonard Hamilton. The problem: Zero NCAA bids in Hambo's first six seasons with the Seminoles. That is on course to change this year, with FSU 16-4 and currently holding a healthy 18 RPI -- but don't chalk up anything for sure. Florida State has been barely on the wrong side of the bubble more often under Hamilton than it even wants to count. But if the Noles get in, Leonard should be back.

(Paul Hewitt of Georgia Tech [12] would have made the list, but he landed superstar recruit Derrick Favors recently. That's instant job security, at least for the one year Favors may be on campus.)

Why Super Bowl Week Is A Great Time To Cover College Basketball


The Minutes loves football, but The Minutes hates Super Bowl week from a journalistic perspective. Why? Because it's impossible to conduct a decent interview. Too much media, too many criss-crossing agendas, too little sanity.

If you wait long enough during an interview session at the Super Bowl, you might finally get a player to delve into something deep and intimate. Inevitably, though, that soul-bearing will be interrupted after two questions by a reporter barking out something like, "Edgerrin, talk about the challenge of finding cutback lanes against the Steelers' 3-4." Kinda kills the mood.

Or, even better, the Wacky Morning Radio Moron who shows up to shout questions about whether the players are getting any action in Ybor City. Those are the times when media-on-media crime is perfectly understandable.

One Super Bowl media day, The Minutes got into a shoving match on the field of the Georgia Dome with a hyperactive camera man for MTV diva Downtown Julie Brown -- it nearly escalated into a fistfight -- after the pair arrived to hijack a player interview with a blizzard of banalities. For what it's worth, when examined up close, even in-her-prime Julie Brown was no Ashley Judd (13).

So this is a week when a trip to Winston-Salem for Duke versus Wake Forest (14) is a heavenly assignment. Neither MTV nor any Wacky Morning Radio Morons figure to be staffing that game. The Minutes will be there, wishing good luck to the reporters slugging it out for the right to squeeze in an intelligent question in Tampa.

Because It's Never Too Early To Panic …


January is dwindling, which means it's time for teams to begin taking serious appraisal of their NCAA tournament chances. With Selection Sunday 48 days away, there are a few prominent programs that earlier in the season were near-locks but now have some work to do:

Notre Dame (15). Record: 12-7, 3-5 in Big East play. RPI as of Tuesday: 75. The Fighting Irish began the season ranked in the top 10 but have been backpedaling recently in the ferocious Big East. Quality wins over Texas and Georgetown are offset by a bad loss to St. John's and a lack of anything else tangible on the nonconference schedule to date. The Irish do visit UCLA next month and will have several more opportunities against ranked Big East teams, but the time to make a move is now. Coach Mike Brey knows that, which is why he juggled the starting lineup before Notre Dame hosted streaking Marquette Monday night. Didn't work.

Austin Daye
Don McPeak/US PresswireAustin Daye and Gonzaga could certainly help their stock with a win over Memphis on Feb. 7.
Gonzaga (16). Record: 14-4, 5-0 in West Coast Conference play. RPI as of Tuesday: 51. Hard to imagine the Zags on the outside for the first time since 1998, but their strength of schedule ranking is only 127th after wins over Tennessee (twice), Oklahoma State, Maryland and Indiana all lost value. They need to make hay between now and Feb. 12 to solidify their résumé. During that time, the Bulldogs will play league rival Saint Mary's twice and will host Memphis. After that comes a closing stretch of six games against teams all with an RPI of 133 or worse -- three of them with RPIs in the 300s. Jerry Palm's projection at CollegeRPI.com calls for the Zags to finish up No. 53 in the RPI, which is definite bubble territory -- unless, of course, they win their league tournament.

Kentucky (17). Record: 16-4, 5-0 in Southeastern Conference play. RPI as of Tuesday: 48. It would be a shock for the Wildcats not to make the tournament -- heck, Joe Lunardi's most recent Bracketology makes them a No. 4 seed -- but there's no room for a February fade. Two of the last three teams to finish the season with an RPI of 50 were left out, and the 'Cats are hovering right around that number. Nevertheless, if Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson stay healthy and productive, Kentucky's RPI should climb, and it will be the class of a bad league (see below). The Cats are on a roll right now, with only Florida looming as a serious challenger in the SEC.

Maryland (18). Record: 13-6, 2-3 in Atlantic Coast Conference play. RPI as of Tuesday: 70. Losing by 41 points -- even to Duke, even in Cameron Indoor -- is almost like getting an engraved invitation to the NIT. Except that Kentucky lost to Vanderbilt last year by 41 and wound up in the tournament five weeks later. Still, there is little to recommend the Terrapins beyond early victories over Michigan State and Michigan, which were almost completely canceled out by a loss to Morgan State. The Terps will have to regroup dramatically to make the tournament, and Maryland fans are forgiven for thinking that 2002 seems like it was 100 years ago.

The entire SEC West (19). Since the Southeastern Conference expanded to 12 teams and split into two divisions in 1991-92, neither division has ever failed to put a team in the NCAA tournament field. That could easily change this season, with the West populated by disappointments. Arkansas got early attention for beating Oklahoma and Texas, but since has gone 0-4 in SEC play, bottoming out with a 22-point home loss Saturday to Auburn. Mississippi has the best RPI at 76, while Alabama the worst at 137 -- and that was bad enough to cost Crimson Tide coach Mark Gottfried his job Monday afternoon.

Contender Or Pretender?


There are a few unusual suspects sporting strong records to date. The Minutes examines which early surprise teams are legit and which are due to collapse come February.

Penn State (20). Record: 16-5 overall, 5-3 in Big Ten. The Nittany Lions have their best eight-game conference mark in 13 years after a huge comeback to beat Iowa. Ed DeChellis definitely has his best team in six years at Penn State -- but questions remain about how good it is. The Nits have no bad losses, but not many great wins aside from upsetting Purdue in State College -- and now the competition stiffens with six road games and four at home down the stretch. If they get to 20 wins and a 9-9 Big Ten mark, they'll have a shot at a bid. But until they win another big one, this is still a pretender.

DeMarre Carroll
Dale Zanine/US PresswireDeMarre Carroll is the leading scorer for a never-stop Mizzou team that has reached 97 points in three of its last four games.
Missouri (21). Record: 17-3 overall, 4-1 in Big 12. Some people love the Tigers -- namely Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin, whose power ratings put them seventh and 17th in the country, respectively, thanks to their gaudy margin of victory. Some people see the helter-skelter style that keeps both teams in the game, remember the blowout loss to Illinois, and wonder. What can't be argued is that Mike Anderson has his best team in three seasons in Columbia, and earned a valuable road victory over Oklahoma State last week. The remaining schedule is manageable, with Missouri potentially favored in four of six road games and having won all 13 home games this year. This is a contender that should wind up in the NCAAs.

California (22). Record: 16-4 overall, 5-2 in Pac-10. Until the Golden Bears were tripped up twice recently against Stanford and Oregon State, this was arguably the biggest surprise team in the country in its first year under Mike Montgomery. Even with those losses, Cal is well-placed in an uninspiring Pac-10 and has proven its mettle on the road (4-2 against good competition). What Cal lacks in athleticism it makes up for in offensive efficiency, shooting excellent percentages from the FT line, the field and the 3-point line. Contender.

Providence (23). Record: 13-6 overall, 5-2 in Big East. The Friars' record has been built on the backs of bad teams, both within and outside the conference. Providence is showing signs of life under Keno Davis, but it has up to seven no-hope games left on the schedule, plus a couple more that could be losses as well. Without any signature victories to date, this team is still a pretender.

Dayton (24). Record: 18-2 overall, 4-1 in Atlantic 10. The Flyers are living right, owning a 7-0 record in games decided by five points or less. But the A-10 is weak this season, and Dayton has played only two teams from a "Big Six" conference: a one-point win over Auburn and a 12-point victory against Marquette, the latter of which looks better with each Golden Eagles victory. Still, Dayton would feel better about its status as an at-large contender if it wins at least one of its four remaining games against Saint Joseph's, Temple and Xavier (twice).

Stat Of The Week


Last week, The Minutes mentioned the end-game defense being played by Louisville (25) against ranked opponents Notre Dame and Pittsburgh. Consider the trend ongoing.

On Sunday, the Cardinals shut down another ranked opponent down the stretch, holding Syracuse (26) to two points the final three minutes for a 10-point victory. The close-out runs for the Cards in those three games: 16-2 against the Irish, 24-8 against the Panthers and 13-2 against the Orange. That's the sign of a well-conditioned, veteran team that will guard 'til the last dog dies.

Men Behaving Badly


The angriest guy in college basketball last week appeared to be Florida Atlantic coach Mike Jarvis (27), who was banged for at least three and possibly all four of FAU's technical fouls on his way to being bum-rushed out of the Owls' home gym (cheesily nicknamed The Burrow) against Louisiana-Monroe. ULM made seven of eight free throws after the eruption to pull away and win.

Maybe Jarvis was ticked because his team is 4-16, 0-8 in the Sun Belt Conference. Maybe he was ticked because it's a long way from Boca Raton back to the big-time level he once coached at with St. John's. Either way, the Sun Belt bestowed a one-game suspension on Jarvis for his efforts.

But then Jarvis was bypassed on the bad-boy scale by Houston guard Aubrey Coleman (28), who was so pleased to be called for a charge against Arizona that he responded by stepping on the face of chargee Chase Budinger (29) as he was lying on the floor. Coleman apologized later and said he didn't intend to step on Budinger's mug, but Conference USA wasn't buying. It suspended Coleman for Houston's next game, Wednesday night against UTEP.

(The Minutes has just one question for C-USA brass: last year when Memphis enforcer Pierre Niles [30] reached up to slap a UAB fan who was in the stands, why did the league respond by doing nothing? Perhaps because there wasn't nationwide video of that slap to force action, as there was of the Coleman stomp. Perhaps because the league jumps only when John Calipari tells it to.)

Whether Coleman truly meant to step on Budinger or not, he certainly did nothing to avoid him. In fact, he was stepping over the top of his adversary no matter what, and The Minutes invites you to keep track of how many times both college football and basketball players love to stand menacingly astride, or over the top of, a fallen opponent. It's cheap machismo that diminishes the perpetrators.

However, Coleman's Nike smooch to Budinger's kisser did rekindle memories of the much more famous stomp of college basketball lore, when Duke star Christian Laettner (31) dropped his foot squarely on the chest of Kentucky trivia question answer Aminu Timberlake (32) in the middle of the GGE -- Greatest Game Ever -- in the 1992 East Regional finals.

Monday Muscle-Flexing


Two teams that had been on a roll stayed that way in big road victories against highly motivated rivals on Big Monday.

Marquette
AP Photo/Jim PrischingWith Jerel McNeal and Wes Matthews by his side, Marquette head coach Buzz Williams has plenty to smile about these days.
First was Marquette (33), which is making a national Coach of the Year candidate out of first-year boss Buzz Williams -- and which has gone a long way, at 7-0 in the Big East, toward securing a top-four seed and a coveted double-bye in the 16-team league tournament.

Thanks to their power perimeter triumvirate of Jerel McNeal (34), Wesley Matthews (35) and Dominic James (36), the Golden Eagles handed Notre Dame its second straight home loss after the Irish had won 45 in a row previously. How well do the three share the ball and the limelight? Consider: in 2006-07, Marquette's leading scorer was James; last year it was McNeal; this year it's Matthews. Williams has to be reveling in the rare modern luxury of coaching three senior guards who can really play.

Then came resilient Oklahoma (37), which withstood surge after surge from Oklahoma State in Stillwater. If there's one team with a chance to break up the ACC/Big East hegemony and their potential hammerlock on the No. 1 NCAA Tournament seeds, it's the Sooners.

Their success obviously starts (and often ends) with the power and explosiveness of superstar Blake Griffin (38), but there's much more to the Oklahoma package. Like Buzz Williams, Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel is enjoying using someone else's seniors -- in his case, Blake's big brother Taylor and guard Austin Johnson (39), who has really stepped up his game in conference play (14.2 points, 5.2 assists per game). Capel has steadily expanded his rotation to the point where Oklahoma's depth has gone from a liability to a strength.

Buzzer-Beater


The Minutes was off the road last week but not without excellent food and a good restaurant recommendation. When hungry in Louisville, get your fondue freak on at The Melting Pot (40), where you can cook up a ridiculous feast of cheese, meat, seafood and chocolate at your own table. It's worth the price, and the price isn't cheap.

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