Best (and worst) college hoops towns
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (remedial chemistry lessons offered separately in Austin, Texas):
Rivalry Week offered its first statement game Monday night. A two-way statement game.
The statement made in one direction: Kansas (1) looked more like a future national champion than anyone has in a high-profile road game all season. The Jayhawks were relentless, poised, deep, occasionally cocky and periodically nasty.
The statement made in the other direction: Texas (2) looked more like a dysfunctional mess of a former championship contender than anyone else has all season. The Longhorns were too discordant, too unsure and too self-absorbed to rise to a very big occasion.
Bottom line: Red-hot Kansas is right on schedule, and slumping Texas is badly off course.
May the rest of Rivalry Week make similarly exclamatory statements about the involved teams.
Hitting You Where You Live ... And Where You Cheer
While driving into the vast nothingness that is the middle of Kansas last month, The Minutes had a couple of thoughts:
1. Being a third-shift toll booth operator on the Kansas Turnpike in the dead of winter has to rank among the sorriest jobs in America.
2. Even the pheasant have to be bored out here.
But the drive also got The Minutes to thinking about why people live where they live. And why people build colleges where they do. And why students choose to attend colleges where they do.
Clearly, it's all a matter of individual taste. That's why we have people who love Manhattan, N.Y., and others who love Manhattan, Kan.
Anyway, this rumination led to a Minutes Media Poll of sports writers who do their work in the college towns of America. The Minutes asked writers who cover the six major conferences to name the best and worst towns in their respective leagues -- and the best and worst basketball towns. (There can be a distinct difference.)
The results are as follows, with anonymous quotes from the respondents. Feel free to get outraged on behalf of your school's town if it does not get sufficient praise and adoration -- but remember, this is the work of more than 50 writers, not just the opinion of The Minutes:
Best Town: tie between Atlanta (3) and Boston/Chestnut Hill (4).
Comments: On Atlanta: "Easy to move around, although the traffic can be bad on occasion. Lots to do. Great overall place. You simply cannot do bad in Atlanta."
On Boston: "A sports fan's or history buff's dream -- and a city where you can always find something to do."
Also receiving votes: Charlottesville.
Worst Town: College Park (5).
Comment: "The town is a dump, the campus dull. The late, not-so-great Rendezvous Inn is hands-down the nastiest bar in which I've raised a glass."
Also receiving votes: Tallahassee, Durham, Raleigh.
Best Basketball Town: Chapel Hill (6).
Comment: "Great tradition and love of basketball. Wonderful downtown and campus atmosphere. Plenty of places to eat and visit. The Smith Center has become much more raucous under Ol' Roy."
Also receiving votes: Durham.
Worst Basketball Town: Miami (7).
Comment: "How many South Floridians could name the ACC's 12 schools? Hell, how many know what ACC stands for?"
Also receiving votes: Tallahassee, Winston-Salem.
BIG 12Best Town: Austin (8).
Comment: "Contrary to popular belief, being on the road is not always a vacation, but when I go to Austin, I feel like it is. Good places to eat. Live music if you want. You find time to have a little fun while you're there."
Also receiving votes: Boulder, Lawrence.
Worst Town: Waco (9).
Comment: "One time, a Baylor assistant football coach got arrested for urinating on the bar at Scruffy Murphy's. That was the century's high-water mark for nightlife excitement."
Also receiving votes: Ames, Manhattan.
Best Basketball Town: Lawrence (10).
Comment: "Lawrence is clearly the class of the Big 12 in hoops, the only one to win an NCAA title since the league was formed. Before KU won as a Big Eight team in 1988, the last titles belonged to Kansas in 1952 and Oklahoma State, twice in the 1940s when, I believe, they were playing three-on-three at each end, no crossing midcourt. As for Allen Fieldhouse, it's like a museum, maybe one that is haunted. I always think a famous dead guy is going reach out and shake my hand."
Also receiving votes: None. Lawrence was the lone unanimous pick in the entire survey.
Worst Basketball Town: Boulder (11).
Comment: "There are so many great things to do in Boulder during the winter. Watching college basketball doesn't make the list."
Also receiving votes: Lincoln.
BIG EASTBest Town: Washington, D.C. (12)
Comment: "You can head over to Georgetown's campus and hit The Tombs or venture to M Street. A quick Metro ride gets you to the Verizon Center where you might end up sitting next to the president."
Also receiving votes: New York, Milwaukee, Morgantown.
Worst Town: Storrs (13)
Comment: "Only college town I've ever seen that reminds you of a retirement community, and LIKES it that way."
Also receiving votes: Morgantown, South Bend, South Orange/Newark.
Best Basketball Town: Syracuse (14)
Comment: "The epitome of Big East basketball -- a cold winter's night, 30,000-plus flock to the Carrier Dome on campus and ESPN trucks are parked at the arena loading dock. Brings back memories of what made the league so special. A stop at Dinosaur BBQ is a must before and even after the game. The threat of being buried by three feet of lake-effect snow just adds to the mystique."
Also receiving votes: Louisville, Philadelphia, Cincinnati.
Worst Basketball Town: tie between Piscataway (15) and Tampa (16).
Comments: On Piscataway: "I'll put the vote in for Piscataway. Rutgers hasn't been relevant since the Carter administration, the RAC is falling down and apathy is at an all-time high. The Knights have made plenty of advances in football, expanding the stadium and what not, but it hasn't done a thing to upgrade basketball."
On Tampa: "The Sun Dome has all the ambiance of an airplane hangar and the interest in Bulls basketball (until recently) has been nearly nonexistent. And the nice weather serves only as a constant reminder that there's 6 inches of snow gathering on your driveway back home."
Also receiving votes: Chicago.
Best Town: Madison (17).
Comment: "As cosmopolitan as any Midwestern town could hope to be. Mad City, by reputation and reality. And the people take on the personality of coach Bo Ryan -- with a smirk and a half-smile as if you say, 'What, you doubt us?'"
Also receiving votes: Minneapolis, State College, Ann Arbor, Indianapolis (for the Big Ten tourney).
Worst Town: Champaign (18).
Comment: "Champaign has never done anything for me. It's flat and has no natural selling point -- no river or hills or lake or, well, anything."
Also receiving votes: West Lafayette, Bloomington, Columbus, State College.
Best Basketball Town: Bloomington (19).
Comment: "No one else in the league is as year-round hoops-centric -- yeah, thanks in part to the lack of football presence. Game-day atmosphere is great everywhere -- in town, on campus, in the arena. Assembly Hall has its flaws, but the banners bring home the tradition."
Also receiving votes: East Lansing.
Worst Basketball Town: State College (20).
Comment: "No one cares unless they're good ... and they're never good."
Also receiving votes: Iowa City.
PAC-10Best Town: San Francisco (21). Which, technically, does not have a Pac-10 school within its city limits. However, Palo Alto and Berkeley are close enough for The Minutes. No use getting overly strict if it will keep one of the world's great cities off the list.
Comment: "San Francisco. And it will remain that way until the league expands to Prague."
Also receiving votes: Seattle, Eugene, Pullman, Tucson.
Worst Town: Pullman (22).
Comment: "It's Starkville covered in snow."
Also receiving votes: Corvallis, Los Angeles.
Best Basketball Town: Tucson (23).
Comment: "By default. There's no other choice, really. Because UCLA is in L.A., fighting with the Lakers and everything else for attention."
Also receiving votes: Los Angeles, Eugene, Palo Alto (for the Tree).
Worst Basketball Town: Corvallis (24).
Comment: "I can't remember a good team there other than the ones Gary Payton was on. That was, what, 100 years ago? Gym was never full. Sometimes so quiet you could hear yourself trying to come up with a funny lead."
Also receiving votes: Tempe, Los Angeles, Palo Alto.
SECBest Town: Nashville (25).
Comment: "Athens is a great college town. It's a great football town. But Nashville is an actual sorta-city, with cultural offerings and pro sports and a real, honest-to-goodness downtown."
Also receiving votes: Athens, Baton Rouge.
Worst Town: Starkville (26).
Comment: "The most appropriately named city in the United States."
Also receiving votes: Auburn, Fayetteville.
Best Basketball Town: Lexington (27). Easy choice. By far the best program, by far the best fans, by far the biggest arena. And by far the most Ashley Judd (28).
Comment: "Lexington by a long shot. Probably the best hoops town/state in the country."
Also receiving votes: Nashville.
Worst Basketball Town: Auburn (29).
Comment: "No one else is even close. This is a school that once booted the basketball team across the state line to Columbus, Ga., to play an exhibition game because the school scheduled an R.E.M. concert for the same night and didn't tell the basketball coach. And that was during the team's never-before, never-again run of five straight NCAA tournament trips. What does it say when they have to drop a curtain [to cover the upper deck] and down-size the seating capacity for high-flying Chris Porter and the 1999 SEC champions that went 29-4? When they budget $92.5 million for a new arena but set the seating capacity at 9,600? Football's pregame Tiger Walks draw bigger and more enthusiastic crowds."
Also receiving votes: Tuscaloosa, Athens, Oxford.
Running The Table?
We know that an undefeated season is a pipe dream. But one of the annually underappreciated feats in college basketball is an undefeated conference season. If you want to know how difficult it is to do, check recent history.
Last year it happened only twice -- Memphis in Conference USA and Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference -- and it hasn't happened more than three times in the same season since 1996. No member of a big-six conference has run the table since Kentucky did it to the SEC in 2003.
All of that serves as a warning shot for at least a few teams on this list, because there are eight out there that have yet to lose a league game. Their time is going to come. But until it does, let's break down the unbeatens:
League record: The Big Red are 6-0 in the Ivy League, with the closest game being 14 points. RPI: 48, 74 spots higher than second-place Princeton.
Remaining league schedule: At Penn (2-2 in Ivy play) Friday; at Princeton (4-0) Saturday; at Harvard (4-2) Feb. 19; at Dartmouth (0-6) Feb. 20; Princeton (4-0) Feb. 26; Penn (2-2) Feb. 27; at Brown (1-5) March 5; at Yale (3-3) March 6.
Scariest game: At Harvard, although the Big Red already have punished the Crimson once.
Chances of running it: 80 percent.
League record: The Saints are 14-0 in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, which they won last year. As of Tuesday morning, their RPI was 32, 54 spots higher than second-place Iona.
Remaining league schedule: At Niagara (6-8 in the MAAC) Thursday; at Canisius (6-8) Saturday; at Rider (7-7) Feb. 26; Marist (1-13) Feb. 28.
Scariest game: The next one. Niagara has struggled lately, losing seven of its past 10, but this was a hot rivalry last season and the Purple Eagles will play hard on their home turf.
Chances of running it: 75 percent. Siena is easily the class of the league.
League record: The Bulldogs are 14-0 in the Horizon League. RPI: 15, 117 spots higher than second-place Cleveland State.
Remaining league schedule: At Youngstown State (2-11 in Horizon play) Thursday; at Cleveland State (8-4) Saturday; Illinois-Chicago (2-12) Feb. 17; at Valparaiso (8-6) Feb. 26.
Scariest game: At Cleveland State. The Vikings shocked Butler in the Horizon tournament final last season and have won their past five games. The teams' past four meetings have all been decided by single digits.
Chances of running it: 72.5 percent.
Morgan State (33)
League record: The Bears are 10-0 in the MEAC, winners of 21 of their past 22 league games dating to last year. RPI: 120, 99 spots higher than second-place Delaware State.
Remaining league schedule: South Carolina State (7-3 in MEAC play) Feb. 15; at Delaware State (7-3) Feb. 17; at Maryland-Eastern Shore (5-5) Feb. 22; Norfolk State (4-6) Feb. 27; North Carolina A&T (4-6) March 1; Coppin State (1-9) March 4.
Scariest game: At Delaware State. The Bears had to rally from a 13-point halftime deficit at home against the Hornets just a couple of weeks ago.
Chances of running it: 50 percent. But it still might not be enough to get coach Todd Bozeman a return shot at a high-profile coaching job after years of NCAA scandal-induced exile.
League record: The Jayhawks are 9-0 in the Big 12. RPI: 1, six spots higher than Kansas State.
Remaining league schedule: Iowa State (2-6) Saturday; at Texas A&M (6-3) Feb. 15; Colorado (2-7) Feb. 20; Oklahoma (4-4) Feb. 22; at Oklahoma State (4-5) Feb. 27; Kansas State (6-3) March 3; at Missouri (5-3) March 6.
Chances of running it: 49 percent.
Sam Houston State (34)
League record: The Bearkats are 8-0 in the Southland Conference West Division. RPI: 76, 87 spots higher than East Division-leading Stephen F. Austin.
Remaining league schedule: At Nicholls State (3-6 in Southland play) Wednesday; Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (6-2) Saturday; at Lamar (5-4) Feb. 17; at UT-San Antonio (3-5) Feb. 20; McNeese State (3-5) Feb. 24; Texas-Arlington (4-4) Feb. 27; at Northwestern State (2-6) March 3; at Texas State (5-4) March 6.
Scariest game: At Texas State, which is 9-2 at home, including an upset of SMU.
Chances of running it: 35 percent.
Murray State (35)
League record: The Racers are 13-0 in the Ohio Valley Conference, shooting for their first NCAA tournament bid in four years after qualifying 11 times between 1988 and 2006. RPI: 90, 17 spots ahead of second-place Morehead State.
Remaining league schedule: At Tennessee Tech (6-7 in OVC play) Thursday; at Jacksonville State (6-7) Saturday; Southeast Missouri State (3-9) Feb. 16; at Morehead State (11-2) Feb. 25; at Eastern Kentucky (9-4) Feb. 27.
Scariest game: At Morehead. The defending OVC tournament champions were waxed by 30 at Murray -- but that game was all the way back on Dec. 5. The Eagles have lost only once, by a single point on the road, since Christmas.
Chances of running it: 33 percent. If Morehead doesn't get Murray, Eastern Kentucky might in the next game.
League record: The Tigers are 4-0 in the Ivy League. RPI: 122, 74 spots lower than league leader Cornell.
Remaining league schedule: Columbia (2-4 in Ivy play) Friday; Cornell (6-0) Saturday; at Penn (2-2) Feb. 16; Yale (3-3) Feb. 19; Brown (1-5) Feb. 20; at Cornell (6-0) Feb. 26; at Columbia (2-4) Feb. 27; Dartmouth (0-6) March 5; Harvard (4-2) March 6; Penn (2-2) March 9.
Scariest game: Either Cornell game.
Chances of running it: 1 percent.
Minutes Crush Of The Week
Northwestern forward John Shurna (37), who has gone from under-recruited and underexposed to overly vital to the Wildcats' gradually strengthening hopes for a first-ever NCAA tournament bid.
Growing up in the Chicago area, Shurna didn't even play AAU summer ball until after his junior season of high school. Prior to that it was lifeguarding, caddying, a couple of mission trips -- pretty much everything but the Nike Peach Jam and the adidas Big Time. His college plan: to go be a regular student somewhere.
But after his junior season, college basketball coaches finally began to take notice of the sweet-shooting forward. Among them was Northwestern, where he suddenly has become the team's leading man after the season-ending injury to senior star Kevin Coble.
In his past four games, Shurna is averaging 20.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.5 blocks while making 18 of his 36 3-point attempts. For the season he's averaging 17.7 points and 6.7 rebounds, more than doubling last season's averages.
And now, at 16-7 overall and 5-6 in the league, riding a two-game winning streak, the Wildcats could be poised for a groundbreaking Selection Sunday celebration. They might be favored in seven of their last eight games, and a 10-8 Big Ten mark would be a fairly compelling part of the NCAA résumé.
If they get there at last, remember the no-name recruit who led them there.
Coach Who Earned His Comp Car This Week
Mark Turgeon (38) of Texas A&M. When the brackets are revealed next month, the Aggies might look back on last week as what got them into the tournament. They rallied from nine down in the final 12½ minutes, on the road, to end Missouri's 32-game home-court winning streak, then rallied from 12 down in the first half to beat Baylor and stay unbeaten at home.
Coach Who Should Take The Bus To Work This Week
Ed DeChellis (39) of Penn State. He presided over the Nittany Lions' 11th straight loss Saturday, at home against Minnesota, to stay winless in the Big Ten. The earnest young folks at Penn State's Daily Collegian ran a story this week under the hopeful headline, "Losing brings team closer." The Minutes suspects that the Nittany Lions have had all the closeness they can stand.
When hungry and thirsty in that Beer Belt city of Milwaukee, The Minutes recommends a visit to Mo's Irish Pub (40). Get a burger and a beer and discuss Marquette's latest narrow win/loss with those around you.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.