Commentary

Chemistry lesson: Handing out grades

Originally Published: February 23, 2010
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (game-winning shots now on sale two-for-one at Maryland (1)):

Bluebloodied

Forget what the Mayan calendar says about 2012; this is the surest sign that the human race is imperiled:

[+] EnlargeBen Howland
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireA few more losses and Ben Howland will have his second losing season at UCLA.

UCLA (2) and North Carolina (3) both stand a fair chance of finishing the year with losing records. Last time that happened in the same season? 1939.

The Bruins at 12-14, with a two-game Arizona road trip still to come? It's enough to make John Wooden smack Ben Howland (4) with a rolled-up program. UCLA has had all of two losing seasons since 1948.

The Tar Heels at 14-13, with three losable regular-season games left (Florida State, at Wake Forest, at Duke)? It's enough make Dean Smith send Roy Williams (5) and his three assistants to stand in the four corners of the basketball office, noses to the wall. North Carolina has had six losing seasons since 1920.

We've never seen such simultaneous lousiness from what The Minutes believes are the top two programs in college basketball history.

And it's not just that the records are bad -- the teams actually are worse than their records indicate. UCLA is in the middle of the worst Pac-10 in memory and has lost to Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and Portland (by 27 points). North Carolina is 3-9 in an underwhelming ACC, and six of those nine defeats are by double digits. Average their rankings from RPI, Ken Pomeroy and Jeff Sagarin, and the Bruins check in at No. 116 and the Tar Heels at No. 71.

Yeah, there have been multiple injuries at both places. And both programs were staggered by early entries into the NBA draft. But are winning records too much to ask when you're UCLA and North Carolina?

More royalty on the rocks

Indiana (6) is a top-5 all-time program, but it has lost eight straight -- the last five by an average of 20 points per game -- while slumping to 9-17. The Hoosiers are well on their way to back-to-back 20-loss seasons. Before last season, the school had never experienced a single 20-loss season. The gift that was Kelvin Sampson keeps on giving.

Chemistry: Who's flunking it, who's acing it?

When this basketball season began, Texas (7) was ranked third and Kentucky (8) fifth in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll. One of the big reasons for the high early rankings was the strength of both schools' 2009 recruiting classes -- UK's was ranked No. 1 by ESPN.com, UT's No. 4.

[+] EnlargeJohn Calipari
Mark Zerof/US PresswireJohn Calipari has been able to mix the new guys with the veterans.

Today, the Wildcats are 26-1 and No. 2 in the polls, riding a seven-game winning streak. The Longhorns are 21-6 and No. 21, having lost six of their last 10. The two programs have been speeding in opposite directions for a few weeks now, largely because they have done drastically different jobs meshing newcomers and veterans into a cohesive unit.

John Calipari (9) has done a terrific job of it at Kentucky. Rick Barnes (10) has done a poor job of it at Texas.

Calipari's greatest strength as a coach is his ability to create teams that play together. His 1992 Massachusetts team remains one of the most overachieving units The Minutes has ever seen, featuring a shooting guard with range so limited he made one 3-pointer all season (Jim McCoy), a 6-foot-3 power forward (Will Herndon), and a left-handed center who stood all of 6-7 (Harper Williams). Somehow, that collection of marginal talent went 30-5 and advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16. His next four teams averaged 29 wins per season, capped off by a 35-2 squad that went to the Final Four* with one superstar (Marcus Camby) and a collection of complementary parts. (*Since vacated.)

Calipari did more of the same at Memphis, although with significantly better talent. The trick there was getting a bunch of highly touted recruits to coalesce into a team -- and again he succeeded spectacularly, capped off by the 2008 Final Four* run. (*Since vacated.)

Now Calipari's greatest chemistry success at Memphis has been duplicated at Kentucky: working five-star freshmen into leading roles without alienating existing players. He did it with Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans, and he's done it again with John Wall (11), DeMarcus Cousins (12) and Eric Bledsoe (13).

Beyond a talent for team-building, there are a few reasons why Calipari has been able to throw together a brand-new lineup and make it work:

• He's a first-year coach at Kentucky taking over a massive underachiever that went to the NIT last year. So he had a clear mandate to tear down what was in place and start over -- a remake that included running off five players. The remaining Wildcats got a pretty clear signal that it was time to buy in or get lost.

• Kentucky's best returning player, junior Patrick Patterson, is a good soldier. He didn't resist taking on a reduced role and surrendering some spotlight to the new guys. After two years of nastiness and losing with Billy Gillispie, he was open to change.

• The new players were so clearly better than any veterans they were competing with for minutes that there was no use pouting over lost playing time.

• From the top of the stat sheet on down, individual ego had to be sublimated to maximize team success.

"They like each other," Calipari said Monday. "They respect each other. The veterans respect the talent of the young kids, and I think the young kids respect the talent of the veterans. They've all accepted roles."

Still, this group needed to be molded rather quickly from a collection of strangers into a team. That required a little player nature and a little coaching nurture.

"Some of it's got to be natural," Calipari said. "You've got guys who are respectful to each other. The other part of it is, you're getting them to understand how important it is to get along."

[+] EnlargeRick Barnes
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireRick Barnes has been searching for the right lineup.

The Minutes doesn't know where or how the Texas chemistry experiment turned into a lab explosion, but it has. Freshman guards Avery Bradley (14), J'Covan Brown (15) and Jordan Hamilton (16) are talented players who have had some great games and great moments, but it seems the more influence they exert on the team, the worse the results.

In games Texas has won, that trio has taken 42.2 percent of the team's shots. In games Texas has lost, they've taken 48 percent of the shots -- and most of them miss. Bradley has made 39.7 percent of his shots in six Longhorns losses, Hamilton 33.9 percent and Brown 32.1. And if you remove one hot game each for indiscriminate gunner Hamilton (10-of-16 at Missouri) and helter-skelter Brown (9-of-19 against Kansas), the percentages are truly awful -- 22.5 percent for Hamilton and 24.3 percent for Brown.

In Texas' past three losses, the trio of freshmen have jacked up a majority of their shots: 54.4 percent against Oklahoma, 52.5 percent against Kansas and 67.7 percent against Missouri.

Along the way, Barnes has been guessing wildly at what might be the right lineup combination. He played everyone but Bevo in the first half against Kansas, hoping something would click. (Nothing did.) He benched senior guard Justin Mason, a starter since the fifth game of his freshman year, playing him a total of 10 minutes in a three-game stretch -- then started him at Texas Tech on Saturday and played him 38 minutes.

While a return to the form that took Texas to the No. 1 ranking earlier this season is not out of the question, it seems increasingly unlikely (especially with the season-ending injury to guard Dogus Balbay). But there are reasons why Barnes had a harder chemistry exam than Calipari:

• He had more returning veterans who had proved themselves. It's tougher to limit the roles of guys you won games with in previous seasons.

• He isn't a first-year coach. Barnes already had established a bond with his players and did not have the starting-from-scratch imprimatur afforded Calipari.

• He's in a much tougher league. Kentucky's thrown-together team probably would have encountered more struggles (and more losses) in the Big 12 than it has in the SEC.

• His freshmen aren't as good as Kentucky's -- even if they think they are. The hardest guy to coach in college basketball might be a five-star recruit with a three-star understanding of the game and a seven-star opinion of himself. The Minutes cannot say for sure that that's the case with the Texas freshmen, but at times you wonder.

All of that leaves Barnes in the particularly anguished coaching place of second-guessing yourself while trying to ignore the second-guesses of others (such as The Minutes). We'll see how it plays out, but for now, give Calipari an A in chemistry and Barnes a D.

Dandy dozen games between now and Madness

And by Madness, The Minutes means the postseason, which starts with conference-tournament action. Until then, there are regular-season conference titles to be won. These are the games you must watch, or your life is a meaningless mockery:

[+] EnlargeCarrier Dome
Don McPeak/US PresswireSyracuse's game against Villanova is expected to break the on-campus attendance record.

Villanova at Syracuse (17), Saturday. They're expecting 35,000 people in the Carrier Dome for the Game of the Year in the Big East. It could decide the league title and could heavily influence who wins league player of the year honors between Nova's Scottie Reynolds and Cuse's Wes Johnson.

Kentucky at Tennessee (18), Saturday. If the Wildcats are going to lose a second game before the postseason, this would be the spot. The Volunteers, who beat Kansas in Thompson-Boling Arena earlier this year, played the Cats dead even for 31 minutes before relenting in Lexington on Feb. 13.

New Mexico at BYU (19), Saturday. The Mountain West Conference title figures to be on the line, and more. Winner could come close to securing a top-4 NCAA seed and potential geographic protection in the weakened West. The Lobos won the first meeting, but BYU hasn't lost at home in more than a year.

Arizona State at California (20), Saturday. The Sun Devils haven't won a league title in 35 years. The Golden Bears haven't won one in 50. Yet they're tied for first in the loss column in the Pac-10, so history could be made one way or the other in Berkeley. ASU also is an NCAA bubble team in pressing need of a quality road victory.

Richmond at Xavier (21), Sunday. An entertaining Atlantic 10 season could come down to this game (though Temple is very much in the mix as well). The surprising Spiders have all week to rest up for this showdown with the league's traditional big dogs, who first must negotiate a tricky trip to Saint Louis on Wednesday. Xavier has won or shared the A-10 title three years running.

Michigan State at Purdue (22), Sunday. Since the schedules first came out, this game was circled as a likely Big Ten conference decider. It has lived up to it, with Purdue up a game in the loss column on defending champion Michigan State and Ohio State. The Boilermakers won in East Lansing; can Sparty return the favor in West Lafayette?

Kansas State at Kansas (23), March 3. The first game between these two is on the short list of best games of the year to date, an overtime thriller won by the Jayhawks in Manhattan. An upset win here could secure a No. 2 NCAA seed for K-State, and even keep the Wildcats alive for a back-door No. 1 if other top teams slide late.

Duke at Maryland (24), March 3. The Terrapins have two difficult games between now and this one (Clemson on Wednesday, at Virginia Tech on Saturday). But if they win them, there will be ACC title implications on the line. Duke has no fear of the Turtle, though, having beaten Maryland six straight times.

Charlotte at Rhode Island (25), March 3. Might be the ultimate bubble game. Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has the Rams as one of the last four in and Charlotte one of the first eight out. If that status remains quo, this could be a desperately competitive game.

North Carolina at Duke (26), March 6. You think the Blue Devils might revel in the opportunity to push the Tar Heels closer to a losing record for the season? If that isn't enough motivation, the push for a potential No. 1 NCAA seed would add to it.

Syracuse at Louisville (27), March 6. Much more than just the rematch of a major upset in the Carrier Dome. After 54 years this is also the Cardinals' last game in historic Freedom Hall -- and as of this writing, they're also angling for a top-four Big East finish and double-bye in the 16-team league tournament.

Kansas at Missouri (28), March 6. Some good potential drama here, with the Jayhawks conceivably trying to ice a 16-0 Big 12 season on the home court of their bitter rivals.

Directional indicators

Three teams hitting their stride, and three hitting the skids, down the stretch:

[+] EnlargeJim Calhoun
Tony Spinelli/ESPN.comJim Calhoun's Huskies have won three straight for the first time since late December.

On the way up: Connecticut (29). Streak: won three in a row, two of them over top-10 teams (Villanova, West Virginia). What's working: The Huskies are responding to coach rage. After missing seven games for health reasons, Jim Calhoun ripped his team when it lost his first game back -- the Huskies haven't lost since. Then Monday night, Calhoun picked up a technical just 47 seconds into the game against the Mountaineers, prompting a 14-1 run. UConn never trailed again en route to a 73-62 victory.

(Key issue: Will Calhoun's health-related absence be taken into consideration by the selection committee, same as a player injury would be? The Huskies were 3-4 without him and are 14-7 with him.)

On the way down: Wake Forest (30). Streak: lost two in a row. Since taking an 11-point lead at Virginia Tech with 17 minutes left last week, the Demon Deacons have been outscored by 29 points by the Hokies and cellar-dwelling NC State in consecutive defeats. They had defensive issues in the second half in Blacksburg (surrendering 55 points) and offensive issues in the first half in Raleigh (scoring 18). Wake is a near-lock to make the NCAAs, but warning lights are flashing.

Up: UTEP (31). Streak: The Miners haven't lost in more than a month. Guard Randy Culpepper is developing into one of the best players you know nothing about, averaging 37 points in UTEP's last two games and 18 for the season. Coach Tony Barbee's team has four other players averaging double figures for the probable Conference USA champions.

Down: Arizona (32). Streak: Lost four of its past five. After rising to 6-3 in the Pac-10 on Jan. 31, February has been a flop in Tucson. The Wildcats were swept in Washington and have lost consecutive home games to Oregon State and Arizona State. Result: Arizona's 25-year NCAA tournament streak stays alive only if it wins the Pac-10 tournament.

Up: Utah State (33). Streak: Won 12 in a row. The Aggies started Western Athletic Conference play 0-2 and haven't lost since, forcing their way at least into the periphery of the at-large conversation for the NCAAs. The winning streak has been aided by the fact that their four most prolific 3-point shooters all are 40 percent or better from outside the arc.

Down: South Florida (34). Streak: Lost three of past four. The Bulls grabbed national attention with four straight wins in late January and early February, riding some insane play by guard Dominique Jones. But the mojo couldn't last, for the team or its leading scorer. USF bottomed out with a 16-point home loss to St. John's over the weekend -- and after averaging 35 points in that four-game winning streak, Jones has averaged less than half that the past four while hitting just 22 of 68 shots.

Minutes crush of the week

What's not to love about Murray State (35)? The Racers are 26-3, undefeated in the Ohio Valley Conference, and have a freshman guard named Isaiah Canaan (36) who might have won himself an ESPY with this shot.

The Racers have redefined the term "balance," with eight players averaging between 15 and 25 minutes per game and six players averaging between 9.5 and 10.6 points. They have won 17 straight games heading into a showdown with defending OVC champion Morehead State on Thursday. And most impressively, they have now pieced together 23 straight winning seasons under six different coaches.

Coach who earned his comp car this week

Give some credit to Memphis coach Josh Pastner (37). John Calipari left for Kentucky with everything that wasn't nailed down, blue-chip recruits most prominently included. While the Tigers have predictably dipped this season, they also have locked up a 10th straight 20-win season in Pastner's first year as a head coach.

Coach who should find a ride to work

Ernie Kent (38). With a five-game losing streak and a 4-10 record in the puffy Pac-10, he's probably in the process of getting himself canned at Oregon. If you're last in this league, you're awful -- especially with all the recruiting help offered by William "Worldwide Wes" Wesley.

Buzzer-beater

When you're thirsty in Columbus, Ohio, The Minutes recommends a campus-friendly visit to the Varsity Club (39) -- just a short walk from all of Ohio State's massive stadia. It's been there more than half a century, but they have modern beer amenities, among them a highly drinkable Columbus Pale Ale (40).

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