Commentary

Designed devotion, undesigned results

Originally Published: January 18, 2011
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball, where sympathy cards and any recruiting leads should be sent to Centenary (1) (the Gentlemen are 0-19 and embarking on a four-game road stretch):

Linked by ink

As a baby in Wichita, Kan., one of Kat Steward's (2) first spoken words was "Jayhawks." As a young girl, Kat used to cry every single Senior Day, such was her emotional attachment to every Kansas player. As an adult, she took her devotion to Kansas basketball a step further.

[+] EnlargeKat Steward
Kat StewardThere can be no questioning of Kat Steward's devotion to her beloved Kansas Jayhawks.

She had it tattooed across her upper back, mural style.

There are plenty of fans who have expressed their sporting loyalties in ink form on their bodies. But The Minutes hasn't seen anyone -- especially anyone female -- take it to such a rock-chalking extreme.

A tattooed replica of legendary Allen Fieldhouse (3) -- with an accompanying Jayhawk bird, basketball and flowers -- stretches from shoulder blade to shoulder blade. That took a couple of months of planning and 15 hours of inking in 2007 with Wichita tattoo artist Kris Harness at Elektrik Chair Salon.

"Allen Fieldhouse has such tradition and history," Steward said. "There's no place like it on Earth."

But as elaborate as the building is, it was incomplete. Steward made a standing appointment at Elektrik Chair just in case Kansas won it all.

When the Jayhawks beat Memphis to win the national title the next season, it was time to add that in banner form across the base of her neck: "2008 NATIONAL CHAMPIONS." That update required another three hours in the chair. (If Kansas wins any more titles, she might have to get creative with any corporeal signage to commemorate it. There's only so much skin to go around.)

Although you might question Steward's sanity, you cannot question her long-term investment.

"I don't need to buy KU shirts," she said. "I have it on my skin."

Steward, 30, has nine tattoos, all of them with a floral theme -- that's why the flowers were integrated around Allen Fieldhouse.

"I wanted to add a feminine touch," she said.

The decision was not met with great enthusiasm from her parents. Especially her father.

"He's never been a tattoo fan -- at all," Steward said. "I told him, 'I blame you for getting me obsessed with the Jayhawks.' Now he shows it off."

[+] EnlargeBill Self and Kat Steward
Courtesy Kat StewardEven head coach Bill Self got a firsthand view of hardcore Kansas fandom.

Indeed, the quality of the work has won over many skeptics, including some of the rival Missouri fans Steward works with in Kansas City, Mo. Her skin art has garnered attention from Kansas players and coaches, a K.C.-area talk radio host and plenty of others. She said someone even sneaked a picture of her back one day in church.

"You don't get a tattoo like this and not expect people to look," she said.

The Minutes looked -- and came to a conclusion: Kat Steward has challenged America's college basketball fans. So, to use a coaching term, which fan base is willing to match her intensity? Who will step into their friendly neighborhood dermatological pain emporium and prove their loyalty?

While you're mulling that over, here are a few suggested back-tat designs for other blueblood programs:

North Carolina (4) -- A diagram of Dean Smith's Four Corners offense.

(Going with Michael Jordan's Jumpman logo is stealing. And it postdated MJ's time in Chapel Hill anyway.)

Duke (5) -- Christian Laettner, letting it fly against Kentucky.

Kentucky (6) -- This is a harder call than it should be because the thing that defines the Wildcats more than anything is their rabid fan base -- and how do you tattoo that? You could make a case for late radio announcer Cawood Ledford or late equipment manager Bill Keightley. Or you could just go with Ashley Judd (7).

Indiana (8) -- Candy-cane warm-up pants.

UCLA (9) -- A rolled-up program.

A final word to all future basketball back-tat customers, from Kat Steward: "Make sure it's something you're proud of, not just to get attention. Make it something that you're passionate about. And keep it a little bit classy."

Not a lot classy, necessarily. But at least a little bit.

Even the losers get lucky sometimes

Take a look at the current conference standings in Hoopsworld and you see some normally downtrodden programs in unfamiliar territory. Namely, near the top of their leagues. A quick rundown of five early surprises:

Colorado (11). Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2003. Last victory in a tourney game: 1997. Last victory before that: 1963.

The Buffaloes are 3-0 in the Big 12 for the first time since Chauncey Billups was in uniform (1996-97). What makes it more impressive is the fact that two of those victories came over ranked opponents (Missouri and Kansas State). Next up: at Nebraska on Tuesday night.

[+] EnlargeBoyle
Ron Chenoy/US PresswireIn a matter of weeks, first-year coach Tad Boyle has seen his Buffs turn into a contenders.

New coach Tad Boyle (12), a former star high school player in the state who built a program at Northern Colorado, is off to a blazing start. He has made the most of some talented offensive players recruited by Jeff Bzdelik, but he also has sharpened the team's defense.

While Bzdelik is drowning at Wake Forest, Boyle has injected new enthusiasm into a dead program. The Buffaloes actually sold out their weekend victory over Oklahoma State, something that doesn't happen every day in Boulder.

"They're starting to buy in," Boyle said of the fans. "People want to see, 'OK, are these guys for real or not?' Hopefully they'll come back now."

They'll come back to see leading scorers Alec Burks and Cory Higgins, but also to see senior shooter Levi Knutson. A guy who never averaged more than 4.6 points per game under Bzdelik, Knutson is producing 11.6 points for Boyle, including 20 at Kansas State.

"Confidence is key with him, and right now he's playing with a lot of confidence," Boyle said. "The coaching change has been better for him than anyone else."

Penn State (13). Last NCAA appearance: 2001.

In a loaded Big Ten, the Nittany Lions are a surprisingly respectable 3-3. That includes consecutive victories over ranked opponents (Michigan State and Illinois, followed by a three-point loss at powerful Ohio State). After seven seasons on the job without producing an NCAA berth, coach Ed DeChellis is doing what he can to restore confidence in his ability.

It helps to have senior guard Talor Battle, one of the more underrated players in America. But it really helps if Battle has a sidekick, and one has emerged this season. Forward Jeff Brooks (14), a career 4.5-points-per-game guy heading into his senior season, is averaging 13.2 points and eight rebounds.

With eight games left against currently ranked opponents, Penn State will have its chances to earn its way back into the NCAA field for the first time in a decade.

Duquesne (15). Last NCAA appearance: 1977.

The Dukes are 3-0 in the Atlantic 10, with all three victories by double digits -- including Saturday's beatdown of preseason favorite Temple. The average winning margin of those three games is 15.3, and Duquesne was up 22-2 on Temple before the Owls knew the game had started.

Duquesne has risen from the absolute dregs under coach Ron Everhart (16), now going for his fourth straight non-losing season. But Duquesne hasn't been better than fifth in the A-10 under him, and it will take better than fifth to end that long absence from the Big Dance.

[+] EnlargeMaine-Penn State
AP PhotoPenn State has turned things around, but the Nittany Lions sure know how tough Maine can be.

Maine (17). Last NCAA appearance: never.

For those who haven't been keeping up with the America East, shame on you. For those who have, you know the Black Bears are off to a 4-1 start and a half-game lead pending a prove-it game Tuesday at perennial conference contender Vermont. You also know they've beaten UMass and Penn State on the road by double digits.

The go-to guy for Maine has been senior Troy Barnies (18). He's averaged 20.2 points and nine rebounds in the Black Bears' past six games. You can almost feel the frenzy emanating south and west from Orono.

Coastal Carolina (19). Last NCAA appearance: 1993. All-time NCAA tourney record: 0-2.

The delightfully nicknamed Chanticleers pulled former Clemson and Auburn coach Cliff Ellis (20) out of cold storage, and he has delivered results. Ellis has loaded up on junior-college players, four-year transfers and prep schoolers, and the result is a 16-2 record, 7-0 in the Big South, and a 14-game winning streak stretching back to before Thanksgiving.

Coastal Carolina won 28 games last season but lost in the Big South tournament finals. This season, it appears to be much the best in its league.

Who's really No. 1?

A week ago, there were five unbeatens in the country. Today there are three, after Duke was dispatched by Florida State and Syracuse taken down by Pittsburgh. The Minutes examines the remaining three and reaches a verdict on pecking order:

Ohio State (21). Ranking in the polls: 1st. Sagarin: 1st. Ken Pomeroy: 2nd. Highlights: decisive road wins over Florida and Florida State. Nagging doubt: The Buckeyes have not played an opponent currently in the top half of the Big Ten -- zero meetings to date with Purdue, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Illinois. And Thad Matta persists in tightening his rotation to barely more than six players, even though that strategy helped eliminate the Buckeyes from the 2010 NCAA tournament.

Kansas (22). Ranking in the polls: 2nd. Sagarin rank: 2nd. Ken Pomeroy: 3rd. Highlights: Seven road/neutral victories, most notably a rout of Baylor on Monday night and a November win over Arizona in Las Vegas. Nagging doubt: The Jayhawks staggered past UCLA, USC, Michigan, Iowa State and Nebraska by a combined 18 points -- and none of them figures to be in the NCAA tournament as of today.

[+] EnlargeKawhi Leonard
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PrSan Diego State is one of the three remaining unbeatens in Division I.

San Diego State (23). Ranking in the polls: 6th. Sagarin rank: 7th (one spot behind Mountain West Conference colleague BYU). Ken Pomeroy: 16th. Highlights: The basketball version of TCU football -- unbeaten but unloved in some precincts, at least compared to the high-profile boys -- has beaten Gonzaga, Wichita State, Saint Mary's, UNLV and New Mexico. The Aztecs have a whopping 11 road/neutral victories. Fortunately, unlike in football, San Diego State ultimately will get a chance to prove its worth against the power teams on the court.

As of this writing, The Minutes would rank Kansas No. 1 and Ohio State No. 2. Although neither of them might be playing as well as one-loss Pittsburgh. And Syracuse has an injury excuse for its lone loss. And, really, so does Duke. San Diego State, though certainly worthy of respect, cannot be ranked ahead of those teams.

(Worth noting: The margin between Ohio State and Kansas in Pomeroy's rankings after Monday night is .0001. Mathematicians consider that close.)

Worst of the big boys

Then there is the other end of the spectrum. Which major-conference team is the weakest in the land? The Minutes gives you the powerless six from the power six leagues, listed best to worst:

Iowa (24), representing the Big Ten. Record: 7-10 overall, 0-5 in the league. Lowlights: Opened the season with a loss to South Dakota State. Lost at fellow powerless program Wake Forest. Beaten by 19 at home by Northwestern. Sagarin rank: 133. Pomeroy rank: 78. When will the Hawkeyes win again: home against Indiana, Jan. 23.

Oregon (25), representing the Pacific-10. Record: 8-10 overall, 1-5 in the league. Lowlights: Ducks have a losing record despite playing just three road games to date. They've won just once since Dec. 13, at home over USC. Losses to San Jose State and Idaho not helping the power rankings. Sagarin rank: 185. Pomeroy rank: 113. When will the Ducks win again: home against Oregon State, Feb. 19.

Texas Tech (26), representing the Big 12. Record: 8-10 overall, 0-3 in the league. Sagarin rank: 191. Pomeroy rank: 143. Lowlights: Tech wins a pillow fight over Oklahoma for worst in the league because it isn't just losing conference games but is being ransacked. Average margin of defeat: 25.7 points. Best victory is probably over Stephen F. Austin on Nov. 19. When will the Red Raiders win again: maybe Tuesday night at Oklahoma in a battle of the enfeebled. If not, possibly at home against Oklahoma State, Jan. 29.

DePaul (27), representing the Big East. Record: 6-11 overall, 0-5 in the league. Sagarin rank: 213. Pomeroy rank: 156. Lowlights: Losing at home to Western Carolina was bad. Losing by 22 in Anaheim to Cal State Northridge is worse. Zero quality wins. When will the Blue Demons win again: With no conviction whatsoever, The Minutes will call for a DePaul upset of South Florida in Tampa on Jan. 27.

[+] EnlargeTony Barbee
AP Photo/Dave MartinThe talent simply isn't there yet for Tony Barbee, who's had a rough first season at Auburn.

Auburn (28), representing the Southeastern Conference. Record: 7-10 overall, 0-3 in the league. Sagarin rank: 289. Pomeroy rank: 254. Lowlights: As good as the football team was, the basketball team is every bit that bad. When you open the season with home losses to UNC-Asheville, Samford and Campbell, you're not good. The only thing keeping the Tigers from being the worst of all big-conference teams is their incomprehensible upset of Florida State on Jan. 3. When will the Tigers win again: Home against Alabama, Jan. 22. It will be Iron Bowl glory redux.

Wake Forest (29) representing the Atlantic Coast Conference. Record: 7-11 overall, 0-3 in the league. Sagarin rank: 242. Pomeroy rank: 211. Lowlights: The Demon Deacons have been pulverized by ACC opponents so far, beaten by an average of 23 points -- and they haven't seen Duke yet. Home losses to Stetson, Winthrop and Presbyterian have intensified the misery in Winston-Salem. When the Demon Deacons will win again: It's conceivable that Wake might not win again until March, when the Georgia Tech Psycho Jackets come to town.

King of the comeback

When Louisville (30) rallied from 18 points down in the final 5:44 to beat Marquette (31) on Saturday, coach Rick Pitino (32) called it one of the top five comebacks of his career. The college list:

1. Kentucky vs. LSU in 1994, otherwise known as the Mardi Gras Miracle. Down by 31 to LSU with 15:30 left, the Wildcats won 99-95. It remains the largest road comeback in college basketball history.

2. Louisville vs. West Virginia in 2005 in the NCAA tournament West Regional final. The Cardinals trailed by 20 in the first half, and by 10 with less than six minutes to play, before winning in overtime. After scoring the opening basket, Louisville did not lead again until OT.

3. Louisville vs. Marquette on Saturday. The shots guard Preston Knowles made in that comeback were simply ridiculous.

4. Louisville vs. Tennessee in 2001. The Cardinals were down 10 with a minute to play, and down six with 35 seconds left, before Reece Gaines made the winning 3 with four seconds left.

5. Kentucky vs. Arkansas in 1995 in the SEC tournament title game. It wasn't just that the Cats trailed by six with 38 seconds to play in overtime; it was the fact that they had to beat the defending national champions.

Freshman wake-up calls

Five first-year guys who seem to be getting it more as the season goes along:

Harrison Barnes (33), North Carolina. No, the 3-for-13 backslide against Georgia Tech on Sunday didn't help. But he made huge shots last week against Virginia Tech, looking like the superstar recruit he was touted to be. Those moments need to be more frequent for the Tar Heels.

Keith Appling (34), Michigan State. The guard has made plenty of mistakes this season, but Appling might have had his breakout game Saturday. He scored a career-high 19 points in a career-high 30 minutes against Northwestern.

[+] EnlargeCraft
Greg Bartram/US PresswireThe Bucks are hoping a healthier Aaron Craft can deliver more offense this season.

Tobias Harris (35), Tennessee. Scoring has come rather easily for Harris, but rebounding has not. That has started to change. He's had four double-doubles in the past six games and is averaging 16.7 points and 10.2 rebounds in that span.

Aaron Craft (36), Ohio State. He's been an excellent distributor since opening day, and now the scoring is picking up, as well. Craft has averaged 13.3 points the past three games, topped by a career-high 19 in that close win against Penn State. A player well worth inviting to your cookout. Just don't lie about it.

Dwight Powell (37), Stanford. The 6-9 guy out of Toronto is averaging 10.6 points and 6.2 rebounds in Pac-10 play, helping the Cardinal to a respectable 3-2 start that includes an upset of Washington and a pounding of rival California. A winning record in league play -- even a lousy league like this -- would do wonders for Johnny Dawkins, who went 13-23 in that department his first two seasons on The Farm.

Coach who earned his comp car

Clemson's Brad Brownell (38), who has the Tigers on an eight-game winning streak that includes consecutive ACC victories over Miami and Georgia Tech. Clemson shot 69 percent from the field against the Psycho Jackets, its best ever in an ACC game. Brownell came from Wright State and wasn't the first choice at Clemson, but he should end up being an excellent hire.

Coach who should find a ride to work

That award has to go to the guy who gave Brownell his opportunity to upgrade to the ACC, DePaul's Oliver Purnell (39). Purnell was paid well to take this dead-end job, but they say money can't buy happiness. Not when you're winless in the Big East.

Point after

When hungry in the swank Phoenix satellite city of Scottsdale, The Minutes recommends a meal at Cowboy Ciao (40). Bring your adventurous side because the menu is unusual. The Minutes is still full from a pork shoulder that came with a bone big enough to use as a cudgel.

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