Commentary

Forde Minutes: Stretch-run story lines, monopolies and underachievers

Originally Published: February 17, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (Missing Ashley Judd [1] reference from last week included early):

Alternative reading for those who would rather share a soap bar with Rick Majerus (2) than endure another day of scrutinizing A-Rod's every muscle twitch and spoken syllable.

Stars Of The Stretch Run

With less than a month to go before Selection Sunday, it's time to zero in on what will provide the most drama to the viewing and rooting public. The Minutes presents the 10 story lines most worth monitoring over the next 26 days:
[+] EnlargeAshley Judd
Theo Wargo/WireImageAfter a week's absence, Ashley Judd makes her return.

Mid-pack (3) -- The bubble is a mile wide and an inch deep, and the jockeying in the middle of several leagues should be endless from now through the conference tournaments. In the ACC there are eight teams with between four and six league losses; five in the same range in the Pac-10 and the SEC; seven in the Big East between four and seven defeats; and seven in the same range in the Big Ten. Given that, The Minutes predicts some marathon hairsplitting by selection committee members once they arrive in Indianapolis.

Arizona (4) -- One small misstep for Aubrey Coleman. One giant leap for the Wildcats. When the Houston guard stepped on the face of Arizona's Chase Budinger on Jan. 24, it sparked a rally that hasn't stopped since. With 9:51 left in that game, Arizona trailed the Cougars by 12 and appeared on its way to a fourth straight defeat and a disappointing 11-9 overall record. But from that foul-and-ejection moment forward, Arizona has outscored its opponents by 69 points and won seven straight games. Along the way the Wildcats have rallied around interim coach Russ Pennell, who on Oct. 1 looked as vital to the Cats' season as the popcorn vendors at the McKale Center. But after Lute Olson suddenly retired and associate head coach Mike Dunlap turned the job down, it fell to Pennell to salvage the season. Now the former radio analyst at rival Arizona State might be the Pac-10 Coach of the Year. That enough story line for you?

Duke (5) -- In a span of six games, the Blue Devils have tumbled from No. 1 in the nation to one of five teams with four ACC losses. They've lost four of their past six, getting an early start on their annual late-season swoon. Duke and its short rotation went 6-5 over its last 11 games of 2008 and 4-8 over its last 12 in 2007. Mike Krzyzewski said his team seems to have lost its edge, and that appears to be the case defensively of late. Nor has it helped that Duke's two most athletic players, Gerald Henderson and Nolan Smith, are struggling on the offensive end -- Henderson hasn't shot 50 percent from the field in a game since Jan. 28, and Smith has made just 6 of his past 24 shots. There's plenty of time to reverse course, but if we're witnessing another Duke demise it will be time to question Krzyzewski's approach to pacing his team through a season.

The Mountain West (6) -- The league that has cleverly hidden itself from national audiences is having an intriguing season in obscurity. Five MWC teams -- Utah, BYU, UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State -- are between 16 and 19 victories and within two games of each other in the league race, and all of them are in the NCAA tournament hunt. Starting Tuesday night with New Mexico at BYU, the league's big five play eight games against each other before the conference tournament. We'll see where they stand by then by March 8.

[+] EnlargeJodie Meeks
AP Photo/April L. BrownJodie Meeks has been an ace for Kentucky and might have to be a bigger hero down the stretch.
Jodie Meeks (7) -- The Kentucky sharpshooter is on his way to being the school's first first-team All-American since Ron Mercer in 1997 -- but more importantly, can Meeks carry the Wildcats off the bubble and extend their NCAA tournament streak to 18 straight? If big man Patrick Patterson remains out and/or limited by an ankle sprain, the burden on Meeks will multiply. He handled it heroically last week, making a preposterously difficult 3-pointer to beat Florida and snap a three-game losing streak, then shredded Arkansas for 45 in Fayetteville. There is much work yet to be done, with four of Kentucky's last six regular-season games against teams in the thick of the NCAA race.

The Colonial Athletic Association (8) -- The top seven teams are bunched within two games of each other in what looks for now like a one-bid league. Which means the competition for seeding in the league tourney will be intense -- but nothing like the tourney itself.

Trainers and doctors (9) -- Health will be a front-burner topic the rest of the way. At least four teams are waiting to see whether they'll have key contributors back for the stretch run -- and if so, how healthy will they be? Saint Mary's desperately needs point guard Patty Mills (broken hand); Davidson is hoping Stephen Curry continues his swift recovery (sprained ankle); Kentucky is counting on Patterson (sprained ankle); and North Carolina is hoping for a return from freshman Tyler Zeller (broken wrist). And we'll see whether UConn can win at the highest level now that Jerome Dyson is done for the year following knee surgery.

The Zebras (10) -- They haven't been shy lately about tossing players from games for throwing intentional elbows. As the competition heats up and the stakes rise, will players be able to keep their cool? And will refs call them on it if they don't? An ejection or suspension at just the wrong time to just the wrong player could be fatal to a bubble team.

The No. 2 seed line (11) -- Most of Hoopsworld is in agreement that as of today, the top four seeds are North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh and Connecticut. But even if the top line looks clear-cut, don't sleep on the second line. Michigan State, Memphis and Louisville all could wind up second seeds, and all could be very dangerous. We're talking about three athletic, tough-minded teams led by coaches who have been to a combined 11 Final Fours.

The Long-Time-No-See Crowd (12) -- No fewer than seven teams with little or no NCAA tournament experience currently lead their leagues. Keep an eye on these teams to see if they position themselves for breakthrough bids: Morehead State (Ohio Valley Conference) last made the tournament in 1984; Jacksonville (Atlantic Sun) last made it in 1986; Robert Morris (Northeast Conference) last made it in 1992; Radford (Big South) last made it in 1998; and Morgan State (Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference), Buffalo (Mid-American) and North Dakota State (Summit) have never played in the Big Dance. Good luck, boys.

Multi-Bid Monopoly

At this time of year, bracket projections start to become more real. Which is why The Minutes was startled to inspect colleague Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology.

If it plays out on March 15 the way Lunardi has it now, we're going to witness the most exclusionary NCAA tournament in history.

Joe knows his stuff like few others, so this is not a slam on him. It's a slam on a system that would award at-large bids to schools from a modern-era* low of eight conferences -- the Atlantic Coast (eight total bids), Big East (eight), Big Ten (six), Pacific-10 (five), Southeastern (five), Big 12 (four), Mountain West (four) and Atlantic 10 (two).

(* The modern era defined as starting in 1985, when the field was expanded to 64 teams.)

[+] EnlargeCreighton
Bruce Thorson/US PresswireCreighton has 21 wins but isn't sniffing the bubble yet.
Everyone else would be fighting for a single bid from its respective conference.

In other words, welcome to the Rich-Get-Richer Invitational.

If Lunardi's numbers hold -- not likely, but they might not change drastically -- here's the breakdown on how the Big Dance pie would be divided:

A total of 96 schools from the above eight conferences compete for 42 bids. Chances of winning: 44 percent.

The other 233 tournament-eligible schools are left to claw each other for the remaining 23 bids. Chances of winning: 10 percent.

Keep those figures in mind the next time you hear the coach of an eighth-place team in a power league crying about how hard it is to get an NCAA bid.

You could write this off as a justifiable one-year spasm -- a year when quality mid-major leagues like the Missouri Valley (13), Western Athletic (14) and West Coast (15) are a bit down. You could say that the influx of more schools into Division I has created more bad mid-major and low-major leagues (the oft-reconfigured Sun Belt, for one, certainly isn't what it used to be).

But the fact is, college hoops has constricted access to the NCAA tournament as its most established leagues have consolidated power.

From 1985 through 1996, an average of 13 conferences a year received at-large bids (that includes the anachronism known as independents, one of whom last received a bid in 1991). From 1997 through 2008, the average was 11.

And now we could be looking at eight.

This isn't as big a shafting as the little guys get in college football -- nothing is that bad -- but it's probably all related. All of college sports began heading in this direction with the conference expansion movement earlier this decade. Now, with the vast majority of the BCS dollars going to the power six conferences, the golden geese are coming home to roost in the preferred leagues of the land.

BJ Daniels
J. Meric/Getty ImagesNiagara has double-digit road wins, but has little room for error.
And let the record show that it's a lot easier to get into tournament consideration by playing a cautious, home-heavy early schedule and then parlaying a winning league record into a bid. How else can you explain that the utterly mediocre SEC (16) is looking at five tournament bids?

LSU (17) has become the Flavor of the Month in the league, but The Minutes wonders where its confidence level would be if the Tigers hadn't played 18 of their 25 games at home so far (including a cupcake-laden 12 of their first 13 contests). Florida (18) has benefited from playing 15 home or semi-home games and just seven true road games (and going 2-5 in those). South Carolina (19) has played 15 at home and only eight on the road. Kentucky (20) also has played 15 home games and seven on the road.

They're all in Lunardi's bracket. Meanwhile, Creighton (21) is 21-6 (7-4 on the road) and left out.

Then there is the Maryland-Niagara situation. The Terrapins, No. 61 in the RPI, are at least under consideration as a bubble team. The Eagles, at No. 62, get zero bubble love after a couple of bad losses (Marist and Chattanooga).

"You can't slip up at all," Niagara coach Joe Mihalich said. "It certainly leaves no room for error."

Yet Niagara (22) has compiled a 21-6 record -- 10-4 on the road. The Eagles played zero home games between Dec. 3 and Jan. 3, the exact time when many of the big boys are hunkering down for finals and a long month of home games against directional schools. Maryland (23) has played a whopping five true road games, winning one.

"I don't know what we can do, schools like us," Mihalich said. "We get good, and people don't come here [to play Niagara at home].

"I certainly hope the tournament never loses its charm. And the charm is when George Mason is going to the Final Four, Davidson to the final eight, a Niagara or a Siena getting in at-large."

This year more than ever, charm is on life support.

Underachieving Leagues

Looking over the bid data, The Minutes identified five mid-major and low-major conferences that have fallen down on the job in recent years.

Mid-American (24). This is an established league of large-enrollment schools, many of whom have some decent basketball heritage. Yet the MAC has been a one-bid league for nine straight tournaments. Not only that, the MAC hasn't even won an NCAA game since 2003. Biggest underachiever: Ball State, which hasn't danced since 2000.

[+] EnlargeBobby Lutz
Jim Owens/Icon SMIBobby Lutz had a great run in Conference USA but has struggled in the Atlantic 10.
Conference USA (25). Yeah, we all know the league was raided by the Big East and lost other schools to the Atlantic 10. But shouldn't someone besides Memphis play pretty good basketball? Since the big breakup of 2005, UAB is the only C-USA school other than Memphis to make the NCAAs -- and the Blazers haven't done it since 2006. This looks like a one-bid league for the third year in a row. Biggest underachiever: Tulsa, which went to 13 tournaments from 1982 to 2003 under a rotating array of coaches, but hasn't been back since.

Atlantic 10 (26). The A-10 has had some great teams in recent years (Xavier last year and Saint Joseph's in 2004 come readily to mind), but rarely more than one at a time. It has been a one-bid league as often as not the past four years, and its hold on two bids this season remains tenuous. Biggest underachiever: Charlotte, which arrived with a big rep from C-USA but has added nothing significant to the league. The 49ers went to eight tourneys from 1995 to 2005 but none since, imperiling coach Bobby Lutz's job security.

Western Athletic. This was a one-bid league last year and will be again this year unless someone upsets Utah State in the conference tournament. Nevada won four NCAA games in four seasons but has flattened out. Biggest underachiever: San Jose State. This program sits close enough to too many good players to have such an ignoble NCAA record (three all-time bids, none since 1996, zero victories).

Ohio Valley (27). Believe it or not, there once was a time when the OVC was a multi-bid league -- and won games in the NCAAs. That time was the late 1980s -- in '87 the OVC put two teams in the Dance and Austin Peay upset Illinois; in '88 Murray State upset North Carolina State in the first round and nearly took out eventual national champion Kansas. Lately the OVC has been one-and-easily-done, and it could wind up with its champion in the play-in game this year. Biggest underachiever: Tennessee State, which sits on some talent in Nashville but has been to only two NCAA tournaments all-time (1993 and '94).

Foul Behavior

The Minutes advises Virginia Tech forward Jeff Allen (28) to handle that fifth-foul whistle a little better from now on. Last year Allen was suspended two games for arguing and making contact with official Zelton Steed after he fouled out against Georgia Tech. Last week, after Allen fouled out at Maryland, he greeted the often vulgar Terrapins student section with a middle-finger salute that was captured by several courtside cameras. Suggestion to Jeff for the next time you foul out: Jog to the bench, put a towel over your head and get mad at yourself, not everyone else.

Take A Charge? No Way

[+] EnlargePierre Henderson-Niles
Mark Goldman/Icon SMIWho's ready to square up on this man to take a charge?

The Minutes was an undersized center in high school, so playing against bigger bodies was a routine occurrence. But there are five college postmen The Minutes would want no part of banging with in the paint:

Arinze Onuaku (29), Syracuse. Height: 6-foot-9. Weight: 275 pounds. Looks like he could injure you on the opening tip.

Pierre Henderson-Niles (30), Memphis. Height: 6-8. Weight: 300. Why is this man not playing offensive tackle?

Jon Brockman (31), Washington. Height: 6-7. Weight: 255. Plays with so much energy that high-speed collisions are inevitable. And undoubtedly painful.

DeJuan Blair (32), Pittsburgh. Height: 6-7. Weight: 265. If you can flip a 7-foot-3 guy over your back like he's an elementary-school pest, you are a bad man. If you need a second opinion on that, ask Hasheem Thabeet.

Blake Griffin (33), Oklahoma. Height: 6-10. Weight: 251. If he doesn't run right through you, he'll jump over you and dunk on your eye. There is a reason Griffin has so many spectacular dunks -- when opponents see him coming, they run for cover and let him have the avenue to the basket.

Winless And Weak

The last teams without a single victory in conference play:

Oregon (34). Two years after advancing to a regional final, the Ducks are 0-13 in the Pacific-10 and threatening to become just the second team to go 0-18 in the league -- the other being neighboring rival Oregon State last season. Closest loss: by three points at Oregon State on Jan. 31. Best remaining chance: home against Oregon State on March 1.

[+] EnlargeJerry Wainwright
AP Photo/Jim PrischingJerry Wainwright's DePaul squad is still looking for its first Big East win of the season.
DePaul (35). The Blue Demons are 0-13 in the merciless Big East, with the past six losses all by at least 15 points -- which can't be doing wonders for Jerry Wainwright's job security, no matter what his AD says publicly. Closest loss: by four points at home against Cincinnati on Jan. 17. Best remaining chance: home against St. John's on Feb. 28.

Air Force (36). After a blissful blip of success earlier this decade, the Falcons have returned to their traditionally inept ways. They are 0-11 in the Mountain West Conference. Closest loss: by three points at home to TCU. Best remaining chance: home against 8-17 Colorado State on Feb. 21.

Southeast Missouri (37). Some season in Cape Girardeau -- they suspended and then fired sketchy coach Scott Edgar for alleged major NCAA violations, while simultaneously watching the team implode on the court as well. SEMO is a ghastly 0-15 in the Ohio Valley Conference. Closest loss: by three points at home to Eastern Kentucky on Jan. 17. Best remaining chance: at Tennessee State on Feb. 26.

Dishonorable mention to Georgia Tech (38), which is 1-10 in the ACC just five years removed from playing in the national title game. Pathetic.

Buzzer-Beater

When thirsty in the world-class basketball city of Indianapolis, The Minutes recommends grabbing a pint at The Claddagh (39), a downtown Irish pub that has outlets elsewhere as well. When the Final Four is in town you might catch Davidson coach Bob McKillop in there having a Guinness. But there is plenty of good beer and good cheer without a big event in town, including the zesty Magic Hat (40) ale.

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