Commentary

No. 1 seeds not locked up

Originally Published: February 24, 2009
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (ambush-interview response strategies available in Storrs (1) now):

Fragile Four

For several weeks the consensus built that the four No. 1 seeds were pretty solidly set for the NCAA tournament. Then things started getting weird -- Hasheem Thabeet got flipped, Blake Griffin got concussed, North Carolina got Greivis'd.
[+] EnlargeDeJuan Blair
Elsa/Getty ImagesDeJuan Blair and Pitt might be the safest bet for a No. 1 seed.

They might all still be the top seeds three weeks from now, but the path to Selection Sunday is not without peril. Chasers such as Memphis and Louisville and Michigan State and Marquette all have hope that they can play their way onto the top line down the stretch.

Pittsburgh (2) -- The Panthers are the safest top seed, but the closing schedule is no breeze: consecutive road games against desperate Providence and Seton Hall, followed by home games against Marquette and Connecticut. Drop a couple of those and they might encounter an argument from a fellow Big East team that finishes stronger. (If Louisville or Marquette wins the league, the committee will have to make some tough choices.)

Oklahoma (3) -- The Sooners should be solid as well, especially because two of their three losses have an injury asterisk after Griffin was knocked out against Texas. Griffin didn't look stellar in that embroidered suit coat on the sideline Monday night against Kansas, but for the second straight game, his teammates staged a gritty rally without him. Still, if Griffin's return is delayed any longer, you wonder whether Oklahoma could permanently misplace its mojo. (Soap box moment: Griffin has been roughed up by opponents too much this season, intentionally -- tripping, elbowing, etc. -- and otherwise. And while we're on the subject, Tyler Hansbrough probably can sympathize.)

Connecticut (4) -- No Jerome Dyson could mean no dice for the Huskies, who are lacking a slashing playmaker without their injured No. 2 scorer. The committee seeds teams based on who they will be in the tournament, not who they were at full strength, so a late UConn swoon sans Dyson could have an impact.

North Carolina (5) -- Getting the Tar Heels to commit to defense for longer than a few games is like getting two straight weeks of February sunshine in Chicago. Ain't gonna happen. The Heels surrendered 80 points twice during their 13-0 start but have done so six times in their past 14 games. They've lost three of those six. Even their hammerlock on the ACC regular-season title has been loosened, with the lead in the loss column down to a single game over three teams.

Got Some Facts ...

The most memorable postgame interview session of the season took place Saturday in Hartford. Not because Connecticut's 64-50 victory over South Florida elicited much excitement, but because Huskies coach Jim Calhoun (6) turned a blindside question about his $1.6 million salary from a state school during troubled economic times into a Gundy Lite rant.
Jim Calhoun
Gary Hamilton/Icon SMIJim Calhoun has never been shy about expressing his feelings to the media.

"Get some facts, and come back and see me!" Calhoun bellowed more than once, after calling a reporter (of sorts) stupid and telling him to shut up.

The Minutes got some facts. But first, let's review a brouhaha that reignited the ancient debate about fiscal priorities on college campuses.

Neither Calhoun nor his inquisitor -- a dude named Ken Krayeske (7), who is a freelance journalist and political activist and never in a million years a guy The Minutes thought would be boldfaced in a column -- covered himself in glory. If you're scoring at home, here were the problems:

Krayeske was grandstanding. If he wanted legitimate answers, he would have requested a moment of Calhoun's time away from the podium after his news conference was concluded. That's the smart way to ask a sensitive question. If for some reason that request is rebuffed, the reporter (of sorts) has no alternative but to fire away in a group format.

This guy was a provocateur, interested in creating a scene. Mission accomplished, at a price to all involved.

UConn officials say Krayeske did not come with a warning label -- he has been credentialed for games before and has been around the program without incident. But that means he knew what kind of response his line of questioning would provoke.

Calhoun has a long history of sticking his chest out and charging when challenged -- he's a big, glowering, combustible, combative guy. He's not exactly Tony Dungy when it comes to forbearance.

But even by Calhoun standards, the velocity at which he went on the defensive and then into insult-and-attack mode was startling. And he made himself look out of touch in the process.

Before the full question was asked about whether he should give back any of his large salary after Connecticut Gov. Jodi Rell's call for shared sacrifice, Calhoun barked, "Not a dime." Then he said he needed the money for retirement.

Jimmy C., the vast majority of Americans would love to try to scrape through their golden years on your nest egg. But let them eat cake, right?

Then Calhoun charmingly bragged he makes "a lot more" than $1.6 million. How much? Nobody at UConn could or would put a number on the exact figure Monday, but money that Calhoun makes from a Comcast media deal and the school's 10-year, $45 million Nike contract is presumably significant. And that doesn't include other endorsements.

Then Calhoun bellowed that his program turns over $12 million to the university annually, and he invited Krayeske to get factual.

Here are the facts as the U.S. Department of Education sees them, per an annual financial report submitted by UConn assistant athletic director Maureen O'Connor: The men's basketball program generated $7.3 million in revenues in 2007-08. It spent $6.1 million.

One UConn source said those numbers don't tell the whole story. The source said men's basketball is conservatively responsible for an additional $4 million in corporate marketing revenue and $4.5 million in donations to the school's booster organization, the UConn Club. That gets closer to a net profit of $12 million, but not all the way there.

Five bottom-line thoughts from this:

• Calhoun has turned an obscure basketball program into a national power and deserves to be compensated very near the top of his profession for his efforts.

[+] EnlargeHerb Sendek
Victor Decolongon/Getty ImagesThings could be worse for Calhoun. Coaches like Herb Sendek are being forced to take unpaid furloughs.

• Nobody likes millionaires who act as if they're underpaid.

• Calhoun should keep in mind that even some of his fellow millionaires are taking it in the pocketbook these days. Both Herb Sendek (8) at Arizona State and Oliver Purnell (9) at Clemson are part of university staffs that must take mandatory, unpaid furloughs.

• Calhoun might not want to give back any of his salary, but he has given back to the community. According to the school, the Jim and Pat Calhoun Cardiology Research Endowment Fund has raised $3 million in the past 10 years, and the Calhoun family and UConn basketball have raised more than $1 million each year for the Connecticut Food Bank and Foodshare.

• Krayeske's questions can be asked of dozens of rich coaches at struggling public universities nationwide. Calhoun was just unlucky enough to be the guy with the political activist in the crowd.

More precisely, those questions should be asked of the presidents and athletic directors of said universities. Or perhaps of the elected officials in those states. Whoever OKs the salaries and signs the checks should have the answers. No worker in America will volunteer for a salary cut.

Five Other Don't-Go-There Questions

If you're ever in a news conference setting with the following coaches, please avoid the following approaches:

For North Carolina's Roy Williams (10): "Does it strike you as at all inconsistent to project an Andy Griffith wholesomeness but cuss like Howard Stern on live broadcasts?" (See: naughty word dropped on Bonnie Bernstein after losing the 2003 national championship; F-bomb in postgame news conference last week following 89-80 victory over North Carolina State.)

For Mississippi's Andy Kennedy (11): "Want to go out for drinks and grab a cab home?"

For Memphis' John Calipari (12): "Is it true that you're going to rename the team's MVP award the William Wesley Trophy?"

For Minnesota's Tubby Smith (13): "Seriously, didn't you think that 'Ten-Loss Tubby' nickname at Kentucky was kind of clever?"

For Smith's successor at Kentucky, Billy Gillispie (14): Any halftime question is a bad question.

Coach Of The Year Candidates

There's no need to declare a winner yet, not with this much season left to play. But it's probably safe to cull the list of the best coaching jobs of 2008-09 to a top 10, as follows in alphabetical order:
[+] EnlargeMike Anderson
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesMike Anderson has done so well at Missouri that he might be lured away.

Mike Anderson (15), Missouri: The Tigers were picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 and earned zero votes in the preseason Top 25 polls. But Anderson has integrated seven newcomers with a few solid veterans to produce a 23-4 team that is ranked in the top 10 and has a shot at the Big 12 title. There's a reason Mizzou athletic director Mike Alden might need to launch a pre-emptive contract extension to discourage Alabama from courting the Birmingham native to return home and coach the Crimson Tide.

Jim Boylen (16), Utah: Can you be a coach of the year candidate and lose to Southwest Baptist in the same season? If you're Boylen, yes. The Utes began the season with a staggering upset loss to the Division II team and threw in a loss to Idaho State in early December for good measure. But Utah also has beaten Gonzaga and the SEC's best team, LSU, by 30 points. And it has won 10 of 12 Mountain West games to take a two-game lead in that league.

John Calipari, Memphis: The Tigers lost the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, Derrick Rose. They lost first-team All-American Chris Douglas-Roberts. They lost powerful rebounder and shot-blocker Joey Dorsey. Then they lost three of their first nine games while fumbling for an offensive identity. Calipari solved that problem by moving freshman star Tyreke Evans to point guard, and the Tigers haven't lost since. Look out for these guys in March.

Leonard Hamilton (17), Florida State: The Seminoles were picked to finish 10th in the ACC, but here they are tied for second and close to locking up their elusive first NCAA tournament bid under Hamilton. He's running everything through stellar senior guard Toney Douglas and getting great results.

Trent Johnson (18), LSU: This looked like a strange marriage in the spring, a West Coast guy moving from Stanford to the bayou. Instead, it has worked out splendidly, as the Tigers have clinched the SEC West with four games still to play.

Russ Pennell (19), Arizona: Nobody has come from further off the radar than Pennell to be a candidate for this award -- unless you consider it normal to be a radio analyst for rival Arizona State and the last-minute, second-choice interim coach replacing a legend. Pennell has gone from nobody to a potential NCAA tournament coach with a talented Wildcats team. (The Pac-10 COY race is a good one and a fluid one, with Pennell temporarily ahead of Oregon State's Craig Robinson, Washington's Lorenzo Romar and California's Mike Montgomery.)

[+] EnlargeOliver Purnell
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAfter another torrid start, Oliver Purnell has let his Tigers swoon in the second half of the season.

Oliver Purnell (20), Clemson: The Tigers were picked fifth in the ACC in the preseason before going on their usual season-opening tear. But the impressive thing about this team is that it has avoided the usual collapse following the usual season-opening tear. Clemson is forwardly placed in the league and should earn Purnell his first NCAA tournament victory come March. Then it will be interesting to see whether he's a candidate for other jobs that might come open. (He's a Maryland native and former Maryland assistant, if you catch The Minutes' drift.)

Bill Self (21), Kansas: The Jayhawks hemorrhaged experienced talent from their national championship team: no Mario Chalmers, no Russell Robinson, no Darrell Arthur, no Darnell Jackson, no Brandon Rush. No matter. Self has coalesced a precocious group of youngsters around tough holdovers Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich to create a potential Big 12 title team. Anderson and Self can potentially battle for first place and league coach of the year honors this weekend in Lawrence.

Brad Stevens (22), Butler: The Bulldogs were picked to finish fifth in the Horizon League, but a team starting three freshmen can win it outright with two home victories this week. That's especially important in the Horizon, which puts the regular-season champ on its home court for as long as it lasts in the league tournament. Stevens inherited a good thing and has made it better during the past two years, recruiting several really good in-state players and supplementing them with just the right additions from elsewhere.

Buzz Williams (23), Marquette: The Golden Eagles had a stacked roster coming into the season -- the only question was the coach, assistant Williams replacing the highly successful Tom Crean. The questions about Williams have been answered -- his ability to make a good thing better has Marquette in the thick of the title hunt in America's toughest conference.

Dear Big Ten: The 1950s Called, They Want Their Playing Style Back

When Penn State beat Illinois by the crime-against-basketball score of 38-33 last week, it underscored the creeping nature of the Big Ten (24).

There are other slow leagues out there -- the Pacific-10 (25) comes immediately to mind -- but none that features nothing but grind-it-out, half-court teams. In the Pac-10 you at least have Washington and Oregon getting up and down the floor and squeezing off more possessions. In the Big Ten, nobody runs.

Check Ken Pomeroy's stats for proof. His adjusted pace figures show that every one of America's other 30 conferences has at least one team ranked higher than the Big Ten's fastest team.

That would be Purdue (26), which ranks 128th nationally in pace. The Boilermakers broke the speed barrier Saturday by scoring 81 points against Indiana, the first time in February that a Big Ten team scored 80 in regulation.

It also marked just the third time anyone has scored 80 in regulation in a league game this season. The other two both came in the same game: Ohio State 93, Indiana 81 on Jan. 31.

Big Ten ball comes in three speeds:

Walk it up (27): Purdue, Michigan State (140th pace ranking), Indiana (142nd) and Minnesota (187th).

Crawl it up (28): Ohio State (265th), Michigan (267th), Penn State (288th) and Illinois (299th).

Give up (29): Northwestern (318th), Wisconsin (333rd) and Iowa (343rd).

ASU Sells Out!

You might recall that The Minutes called out Arizona State (30) fans for not only failing to pack the Wells Fargo Arena even once this season, but largely failing to come close. Well, ASU sports information director Doug Tammaro made sure to get the word out that the Sun Devils sold every seat for their Sunday night game against archrival Arizona, and filled most of them with yellow-shirted supporters who helped provide a legit home-court advantage.

The fans should have liked what they saw: 22 combined made 3-pointers, some tidal shifts in momentum and an ASU victory. Maybe they'll show up next time, too.

Hollywood Drama

There has been a lack of victories but no lack of controversy lately at USC (31). The Trojans have lost four of their past five and are fading from NCAA tournament contention, but things are never dull in and around Tim Floyd's program.

After the team lost to Washington on Saturday, the Los Angeles Times reported that guard Daniel Hackett (32) and his father, assistant strength coach Rudy Hackett, were arguing in both Italian and English in the locker room. Media members were tossed so they could continue arguing in privacy.

[+] EnlargeDaniel Hackett
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesDaniel Hackett has been in the middle of the latest escapades at USC.
In addition to the loss, neither of the Hacketts nor Floyd was especially pleased with an ESPN "Outside The Lines" report Sunday on package deals in college basketball -- the practice of bringing in a family member or other influential figure so the team can sign a player. Floyd strongly defended Rudy Hackett's credentials, though The Minutes has always wondered how an assistant strength coach had such a prominent seat on the bench for games. It also was amusing that Floyd said his decision to hire Hackett came partly on a recommendation by L.A. youth basketball maven Pat Barrett (33) -- a guy outed 20 years ago as a shady recruiting character in the seminal investigative book, "Raw Recruits."

Meanwhile, the L.A. Daily News reported that eyewitnesses saw Daniel Hackett and fellow guard Dwight Lewis (34) get into a shoving match on the court 20 minutes after the game, and the altercation was broken up by security.

The good news came Monday for USC, when hugely hyped big man and Sonny Vaccaro pet project Renardo Sidney (35) verbally committed to the Trojans. Sidney is almost a mortal lock to be a one-and-done collegian like predecessor O.J. Mayo, who helped USC to zero NCAA tournament victories and one NCAA investigation.

The only question is whether Sidney will actually make it to USC's campus. The Times reports that the 6-foot-11 center/forward has not yet taken the SAT.

Even if it's a one-year forced marriage, the Sidneys did not scrimp on ostentation at the announcement. According to Times writer Eric Sondheimer, this was "such an elaborate production that it made quarterback Jimmy Clausen showing up to his news conference three years ago in a Hummer limousine to announce Notre Dame look amateurish."

Sondheimer described the scene: "... [Thirteen] tables set up in the gym, complete with rose centerpieces, immaculate tablecloths, folding chairs covered with white linen, red and gold balloons and a catered meal of chicken and ribs for more than 100 family and friends ... "

Where it really gets good is the guest list for the announcement. It included:

• Reebok director of basketball Chris Rivers -- because, really, what teenager doesn't need a shoe rep on hand for his verbal commitment?

• Another blast from shady recruitments past, Claude Mills (36). He's the father of Chris Mills, an L.A. recruit who signed with Kentucky in 1987. In 1988, an overnight envelope from the Kentucky basketball office to Mills popped open in transit, and out spilled $1,000 in cash, sparking one of the juicier scandals in college hoops history. (Consult Wildcats superfan Ashley Judd (37) for details.)

Drama With The Other Trojans, Too

In a fairly remarkable move for a team in first place in its division and gunning for what figures to be the lone bid in the Sun Belt Conference, Arkansas-Little Rock coach Steve Shields (38) kicked his leading scorer off the team this week.

Steven Moore (39) met with Shields on Monday and was shown the door, four days after being suspended by the coach. Moore, who averaged 13.6 points per game, was benched in UALR's home loss to Western Kentucky. He was so pleased by the benching that he went and sat in the stands for part of the game -- never a good career move, even if you're the leading scorer. (Unless you average, say, 31 ppg instead of 13.)

Buzzer-beater

If you're ever in the 700-person town of Sandy Hook, Ky. -- OK, you won't be, but work with me here -- stop in for a cheeseburger and a game of rook at the Frosty Freeze (40). They love their Kentucky Wildcats there -- so much so that among the many Big Blue posters on the wall is one of current Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford in his UK uniform, circa 1994.

Why was The Minutes there? Working on a story on Elliott County High School basketball, which has a chance to be a modern-day "Hoosiers" story in the Kentucky state tournament.

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