A note to all managers: Shhhh
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (Stan Holt (1) vow of silence not included):
Nobody had ever heard of Stan Holt before Saturday, when we found out that the USC basketball manager's boss, coach Kevin O'Neill (2), was canning him. The fireable offense: being hit with a technical foul at a key juncture of the Trojans' loss to Oregon.
It might be the fastest firing in college basketball history. Seemed like word was out that Holt was gone just shortly after the official blew his whistle, brought his hands together, formed a "T" and pointed at the end of the USC bench.
Holt reportedly cussed at the refs, which is both a no-no and a waste of breath. If you've been around O'Neill, you know he does enough cussing for everyone.
Generally speaking, managers are expected to behave like Victorian-era children: seen but not heard. They do a ton of work behind the scenes, but the in-game sideline job description goes something like this:
Have water ready. Have towels ready. Have greaseboard ready for timeouts. Set up chairs for timeouts. Form human wall between timeout huddle and fans/TV cameras so they cannot see or hear coach ripping players for poor performance. Pick up shattered pieces of greaseboard after coach slams it to the floor during timeouts. Move back chairs after timeouts. Ardently cheer for your team without getting in anyone's way. Stoically endure sullen behavior of benched players when you try to hand them water. Don't lose anyone's sweats. Don't talk trash with enemy fans.
And do not, under any circumstance, get T'd up.
Though Holt was fired, at least he did not get ejected. The two best ejections of periphery personnel that The Minutes can remember:
• When Cincinnati Bearcats radio analyst Chuck Machock (3) was ejected from a 2003 NCAA tournament first-round loss to Gonzaga for ripping the refs from press row. (He followed then-Cincy coach Bob Huggins (4) out the door in that one.)
• When Rice mascot Sammy the Owl (5) was tossed from a game last year after head-butting official Curtis Shaw, who suffers fools about as readily as Bob Knight.
That's the good news, Stan. At least you're not Sammy the Owl.
When Mid-Majors Attack
With the collapse of the Pac-10 and the struggles of some other elite programs (which will be addressed later in this column), there is room at the top. And the power vacuum is being filled by teams from outside the big-six conferences.
A lot can change over the next six weeks, but in Joe Lunardi's latest Bracketology, he has a whopping nine schools from non-power conferences in the top half of his 65-team bracket. That's the most since 1999 -- and back then, schools like Louisville, Cincinnati and Marquette were outsiders, too.
Last year there were three. The average over the past decade: 4.8.
Here are Lunardi's nine, and what it will take to stay in the upper tax bracket:
Brigham Young (6). Bracketology seeding: 3. ESPN InsideRPI rank: 18. Chances of staying in the top half: lock. The Cougars have only two difficult road games left, at UNLV on Saturday and at Utah on March 3. They're undefeated and almost unchallenged at home, with only one game decided by single digits. This will be a 30-win team by Selection Sunday.
Temple (7). Bracketology seeding: 4. ESPN InsideRPI rank: 16. Chances of staying in the top half: near lock. Temple still has five road games left, but four of them are against non-contenders in the Atlantic 10. The exception is the trip to Richmond on Saturday. Big home games against Rhode Island and Dayton remain as well, but it's hard to envision the Owls going on an extended losing streak.
New Mexico (8). Bracketology seeding: 4. ESPN InsideRPI rank: 11. Chances of staying in the top half: pretty solid. The next three games are big for the Lobos; they're hosting San Diego State and then visiting UNLV and Utah. Win two of those three, don't worry about a loss at BYU later in the month, and Steve Alford's team will enter the Mountain West Conference tourney playing for a good NCAA seed.
Gonzaga (9). Bracketology seeding: 6. ESPN InsideRPI rank: 28. Chances of staying in the top half: not good if the Zags go losing to teams like San Francisco anymore. It's easy sledding after the next three games, which are: home against Portland on Thursday, at Memphis on Saturday, home against Saint Mary's on Feb. 11.
Butler (10). Bracketology seeding: 6. ESPN InsideRPI rank: 19. Chances of staying in the top half: good. It would surprise The Minutes to see the Bulldogs (11-0 in the Horizon League) drop a game to a conference opponent -- and they're on track to play every conference tourney game at home as well. But they might also need to beat Siena in an excellent BracketBusters matchup to ensure a top-8 seed.
Northern Iowa (11). Bracketology seeding: 6. ESPN InsideRPI rank: 17. Chances of staying in the top half: pretty good. The Panthers' plodding style and low number of possessions mean close games, but the league schedule is gravy the rest of the way. The only quality conference opponents left are Wichita State (Wednesday) and Illinois State (Feb. 27), and both games are at home. They also host an intriguing BracketBusters game against Old Dominion.
Xavier (12). Bracketology seeding: 7. ESPN InsideRPI rank: 21. Chances of staying in the top half: not great. Six road games and only three at home remaining for a team that is 3-6 away from home. Then again, pull out wins at Dayton, Florida or Charlotte, and suddenly the profile looks that much better.
UNLV (13). Bracketology seeding: 7. ESPN InsideRPI rank: 41. Chances of staying in the top half: dicey. The Runnin' Rebels have been great away from home (8-2 road and neutral) but face a difficult stretch over the next five games: at Wyoming, home against BYU and New Mexico, then at San Diego State and Utah. There will be losses.
UAB (14). Bracketology seeding: 8. ESPN InsideRPI rank: 27. Chances of staying in the top half: iffy. Are the Blazers headed for a swoon? They had been living right, winning all the close ones but losing at home to UTEP on Saturday hurt. They have two games left with Memphis, one with UTEP and also host Marshall and Houston. Need to win most of those to have a chance.
And that's not all. Among other "outsiders" who have a chance of crashing the bracket: Rhode Island (17-3, 10-2 in games decided by single digits); Cornell (18-3 and looking like the best Ivy League team in years); Saint Mary's (19-3, having scored 70 or more points in 20 of 22 games); Charlotte (16-5 and on a five-game winning streak); Richmond (16-6, with quality nonconference wins over Mississippi State, Missouri, Old Dominion and Florida); Old Dominion (17-6, beat Georgetown and Charlotte back-to-back in December); Utah State (16-6, four of their losses by a combined 12 points).
Player Of The Year List Getting Longer, Not Shorter
A few weeks ago, when John Wall was flying across the cover of Sports Illustrated and flashing through defenses with a smile on his face, the national player of the year race seemed headed for a landslide. Then the Kentucky point guard hit the freshman Wall, so to speak. And the smile was replaced by a temporarily petulant response to coaching criticism. And suddenly Wall might not be the top POY candidate on his own team.
So it is time to reassess, and to examine a growing list of potential candidates for the myriad POY awards.
The top 12 candidates:
Evan Turner (15), Ohio State. The most well-rounded player in college basketball, averaging 18.4 points, 9.5 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game. He's had six 20-point games, nine double-digit-rebound games, and six games with seven or more assists. And if you want impact, there's this: The Buckeyes are 13-3 with Turner and were only 3-3 when he was out with a broken back.
Wes Johnson (16), Syracuse. The Revelation of the Year while leading the surprise Team of the Year. Johnson (17.1 points, 9.2 rebounds per game and among the Big East leaders in steals and blocks) has posted 10 double-doubles while throwing in a six-steal game and a six-block game as well. Durability is no problem, either. Johnson has sat out just 15 of the last 400 minutes Syracuse has played.
DeMarcus Cousins (17), Kentucky. He's usurped the spotlight from Wall (which might also have something to do with the point guard's Saturday sulk). The big man with extraordinary hands and feet is the nation's No. 1 offensive rebounder, per Ken Pomeroy's stats; lives at the foul line; and has great touch around the basket. If Cousins (16.2 ppg, 9.7 rpg) could eliminate the thrown elbows and arguments with officials, there would be no holes in his game.
John Wall (18), Kentucky. He's averaging 16.9 points and 6.8 assists and possesses a fully developed ability to perform at crunch time -- but he's in a semi-slump. He's made just 30 of his last 77 shots (39 percent, for a season-long 48 percent rate). His assist-turnover ratio is 1.1-to-1 in the last four games (season-long ratio is 1.7-to-1). His steals are down slightly. That's why he's come back to the pack a bit, but it doesn't mean he can't return to his earlier brilliance.
Sherron Collins (19), Kansas. Collins might be the most fearless player in the game, evidenced by his game-winning drive and other big shots at Kansas State on Saturday. He is the leading scorer (15.5 points), leading assist man (4.1) and all-around leader of the No. 1 team in the country.
James Anderson (20), Oklahoma State. Wing player has always been able to shoot it, but he's diversified his game by becoming a driver. The result: His free-throw attempts have gone way up, and his scoring average has improved from 18.2 last year to 22.8 this season. If you saw Anderson gouge Texas for 24 first-half points Monday night, you saw a deluxe scorer. (Don't ask about the second half, when Anderson scored just four points and the Cowboys lost.)
Damion James (21), Texas. James is a polished all-court player who can score from anywhere (18 ppg) and rebound with the big boys (11 rpg). He's also become more active defensively, averaging a career-best 1.8 steals per game.
Kalin Lucas (22), Michigan State. One of Collins' chief rivals for the most clutch performer in the game. Lucas hit game-winning shots against Minnesota and Michigan in a three-day span and leads the Spartans in scoring (16 ppg) and assists (4 apg). He's had more assists than turnovers in each of the past seven games.
Jon Scheyer (23), Duke. Excellent four-year player who has stepped up his scoring (18.7 points) and assists (5.6) to career highs. The only concern for the drop-dead shooter is whether he can hold up to his current workload -- Scheyer has played 36 or more minutes in nine straight games, and Duke doesn't exactly sit back in a zone on defense.
Scottie Reynolds (24), Villanova. Another great player at crunch time. Reynolds has ratcheted up his efficiency, significantly improving his field-goal accuracy overall (49.6 percent) and from 3-point range (41.7). And Jay Wright has been able to scale back his minutes to fewer than 28 per game over the past five games, so Reynolds should be fresh for the stretch run.
Jimmer Fredette (25), BYU. The exquisitely named guard is shooting 48 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent from the line, and he's stepped up his scoring in recent weeks. Fredette has averaged 25 points over his last 10 games, including a 49-point eruption against Arizona. If the Cougars keep winning, he will merit watching in this race.
Devan Downey (26), South Carolina. The little man has been ridiculous in SEC play, averaging 31.6 points per game and scoring 46 percent of his team's points. He single-handedly beat No. 1 Kentucky, then came back and hit the game-winner against Georgia. If the Gamecocks improve their modest SEC standing, he cannot be ignored.
Five more on the periphery to keep an eye on:
Dominique Jones, South Florida: The junior guard has gone berserk in the past three games, averaging 37 points, 7.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists for the red-hot Bulls. For the year, he's averaging 22.1 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists.
Greivis Vasquez, Maryland: In ACC games, he's third in the league in scoring (19 ppg) and second in assists (6.2). If the Terrapins remain in this oddly scrambled ACC race, he'll get some backing.
Sylven Landesberg, Virginia: Speaking of guys to watch in ACC play, Landesberg has elevated the Cavaliers to an improbable first-place tie in the loss column by averaging 21.3 points in league games.
Luke Harangody, Notre Dame: A good guy who has all the numbers (24.2 points, 9.7 rebounds) and none of the necessary quality wins.
Jacob Pullen, Kansas State: He was every bit Collins' equal as a shot-maker in the Octagonal showdown Saturday night in Manhattan and averages 19.3 points, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals for a top-15 team.
Finally, The Minutes extends a sympathy vote for Stanford's Landry Fields, who's having a great season (22.3 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.9 steals) on an awful team.
Last Year Is so Last Year
Three of the 2009 No. 1 seeds are in danger of missing the 2010 NCAA tournament -- and the fourth (Pittsburgh) has lost three of its last four. But they're not the only bluebloods having a bad season. Five programs that need to make something happen -- fast:
Louisville (27). The overall top seed in last year's tourney had to beat equally desperate Connecticut on Monday night and did, convincingly. The Cardinals are on pace for 10-8 in Big East play -- but with December home losses to Charlotte and Western Carolina, they might need to do better than that to feel good about securing a bid. It would help the Cardinals' cause if inept Big East officials quit jobbing them (versus WVU, at Seton Hall) in late-game situations -- but it would help even more if they could execute down the stretch to hold leads.
Connecticut (28). Playing without their Hall of Fame coach is not ideal -- but the Huskies couldn't win on the road with Jim Calhoun, either. They're now 0-5 in true road games and appear to be getting worse away from home as the season wears on. This team looks closer to going in the tank than getting in the tourney.
North Carolina (29). Speaking of going in the tank: When the Tar Heels were housed at home Sunday by Virginia, Roy Williams sounded as though he had no idea how to reach his young and confused club. Unless something drastic changes, The Minutes can easily see Carolina finishing 6-10 in ACC play. A year after winning it all. That is what physicists would term a "free fall."
Memphis (30). After John Calipari left with many of the recruits, most of the staff and the last speck of Who Hash, the Tigers have been in complete rebuilding mode. Josh Pastner will have Memphis back as a national contender in another year or two, but right now it is taking some lumps from Conference USA opponents tickled to turn the tables on the league bully.
UCLA (31). After winning 123 games over the previous four years and making three straight Final Fours, the Bruins are brutally bad. Yet if they'd pulled out a win in overtime at Oregon last week, they'd actually be tied for the Pac-10 lead. That means two things: Ben Howland can make chicken salad out of a chicken flattened by a semi while trying to cross the road, and the Pac-10 is unspeakably bad.
Back From The Dead
The Minutes had given up on them, but recent events have forced a reconsideration:
Arkansas (32). While watching the Razorbacks fall behind Kentucky by roughly 120 points all of 10 days ago, this looked like a dead team walking. Since then, John Pelphrey has gotten his team to rally -- they've stunned Mississippi State and Mississippi back-to-back and are somehow just a game behind in the loss column in the SEC West. Six of Arkansas' next seven games are against teams with losing SEC records, so the chance to produce an epic bounce-back is there.
South Florida (33). The worst basketball program in the Big East has shown a pulse for the first time since inclusion in the league in 2005. The Bulls are riding their first-ever three-game Big East winning streak -- and while that seems likely to end at Georgetown on Wednesday, USF is no longer an automatic W.
Arizona (34). The nation's longest active NCAA tournament streak stretches back to 1985, and it might yet last another year. The Wildcats looked like an NIT team after falling at Oregon State and dropping to 8-9, but they've won four straight since then and are tied for the Pac-10 lead.
Ball State (35). This is more of a wide-angle resurrection. The Cardinals were decimated when Ronny Thompson acrimoniously departed the school in 2007 and the roster fell apart. Successor Billy Taylor has methodically pieced it back together. He lost his first 11 games in a 6-24 debut season, then improved to 14-17 last year, and now stands at 11-9 and 5-3 in the Mid-American Conference. The Cardinals just won consecutive road games for the first time in six years and have a pair of home games this week to try to build on a three-game winning streak.
Ashley Judd (36). The fact that she's back on the Kentucky bandwagon makes college basketball a better -- and more aesthetically pleasing -- place.
Minutes Crush Of The Week
Cornell (37), which is ranked for the first time since 1950-51 and has definitively proved that there is something in the Ivy League beyond Penn and Princeton.
But that's not what The Minutes loves most about the Big Red. No, what The Minutes loves most is what it did to Dartmouth on Friday. Not just the 71-37 annihilation, but the reducing of the Big Green to a third-grade girls' team:
Dartmouth's leading scorer was sophomore forward Josh Riddle.
With six points.
Coach Who Earned His Comp Car This Week
Congrats to Tony Bennett (38), who has become the latest Pac-10 expatriate to prove he can coach in a completely foreign environment. Last year it was former Stanford coach Trent Johnson moving to LSU and leading the Tigers to a surprise SEC title; now it's Bennett jumping from Washington State to Virginia and reviving the Cavaliers. Last year Virginia won its fourth ACC game March 7; this year it reached that mark Jan. 31.
Coach Who Should Take The Bus To Work
Southern Illinois' Chris Lowery (39), who turned down bigger jobs after guiding the Salukis to the 2007 Sweet Sixteen. Since then SIU has gone 43-42, 23-24 in the Missouri Valley. They're currently 12-9 overall and 4-7 in the Valley, with the glory days receding from view.
When hungry in the remote but festive town of Manhattan, Kan., The Minutes suggests a throwback visit to Vista Drive-In (40), which has Richie Cunningham written all over it. Get a Vistaburger and a shake and thank The Minutes later.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.