Commentary

Chaos theory reigns supreme

Originally Published: February 1, 2011
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (Maine Train (1) tickets sold separately -- and going fast):

[+] EnlargeTed Woodward
Matt Cashore/US PresswireMaine coach Ted Woodward has the Black Bears in prime position in the America East.

Your Maine update, because The Minutes knows you need one: In their most recent game, the Black Bears charged back from a 22-point deficit at Binghamton to win 77-74. Their record in America East play is 8-1 with victories over second-place Vermont and third-place Boston U. The winning streak stands at seven heading into a road showdown with the Terriers on Tuesday. The quest for the first NCAA tournament appearance in school history is stronger than ever -- and it would help to win the regular-season league title, because the highest remaining seed will host the America East tournament championship game.

If you don't have Black Bear fever by now, The Minutes feels sorry for you.

Hoops gone mad

Ever since Kyrie Irving hurt his big toe, the working title to this season has been No Great Teams. After a weekend of spectacular carnage, that title has been changed to No Very Good Teams. (With possible apologies to Ohio State (2).)

What we have now is chaos. Enjoyable, entertaining chaos.

Fourteen teams ranked in the ESPN/USA Today Top 25 lost this past weekend. Ten of them lost to unranked opponents. And even some of the highest-ranked winners easily could have lost to unranked also-rans, namely the No. 1 Buckeyes (one-point win at Northwestern) and then-No. 2 Pittsburgh (three-point win at Rutgers).

The five biggest weekend shockers:

Auburn 79, South Carolina 64 (3). This was part of a startling 3-1 weekend for SEC West teams against the seemingly superior SEC East. The Tigers entered the game winless in league play, winless on the road and generally hapless in their first season under Tony Barbee. (When you lose to North Carolina-Asheville, Samford, Campbell, Jacksonville and Presbyterian before Christmas, you define haplessness.) Yet in Columbia on Saturday, 14-point underdog Auburn led for the final 28-plus minutes on its way to its highest point total in regulation this season.

Arkansas 89, Vanderbilt 78 (4). This was another major component of the SEC West uprising. The Razorbacks lost at Florida by 32 just a week earlier and had lost nine of their previous 10 road games against Eastern Division opponents. So what do the Hogs do? Lead comfortably for the entire second half to hand the No. 24 Commodores their first home loss of the season.

[+] EnlargeRotnei Clarke
Don McPeak/US PresswireRotnei Clarke and Arkansas scored one for the SEC West after the Razorbacks handed Vanderbilt a home loss.

St. John's 93, Duke 78 (5). The Blue Devils' worst loss in the past 15 years to an unranked opponent was not as close as the score indicates. It's dangerous to extrapolate too much from a single game, but if the 11th-place team in the Big East can destroy the leader of the Atlantic Coast Conference, the selection committee might consider sending several potential Big Dance bids from the ACC to the middle of the Big East pack. "They're fighting for an NCAA tournament bid," a disgusted Mike Krzyzewski said in his postgame radio interview. "We didn't fight for anything today."

Wake Forest 76, Virginia 71 (6). The only major-conference team worse than Auburn this season had been Wake, which entered this game 0-5 and not even close in ACC play. (Average margin of defeat: 25.6 points.) Yet the Demon Deacons rallied from 10 points down with 12:18 to play for coach Jeff Bzdelik's first ACC victory.

Northern Iowa 60, Missouri State 59 (7). The Panthers have owned the Missouri Valley Conference the past two seasons, but Missouri State was on top of the standings this season -- and the Bears hadn't lost a home game in a year. Now they have. Last time it happened was by a single point against UNI, too. And now Ben Jacobson's team once again will be a prime factor in the Valley race.

As The Minutes goes through this week's Associated Press ballots via pollspeak.com, voters clearly don't know what to think. There are a whopping 17 teams with a double-digit variance between their highest and lowest rankings. The list:

Arizona (8). Highest ranking of 10, lowest of unranked. AP rank: 21. Minutes comment: The Wildcats probably deserve the Top 25 but definitely do not deserve the top 10. They don't have a single win against the RPI top 40.

Cincinnati (9). High of 15, low of unranked. AP: unranked. Minutes comment: Not sure what the Bearcats did to deserve a No. 15 ranking after losing at home to West Virginia. Unranked sounds right.

Duke (10). High of 2, low of 16. AP: 5. Minutes comment: With the demise of Kansas State, Michigan State and Butler, the Blue Devils are a stunning 0-0 against teams in the current AP Top 25.

Georgetown (11). High of 7, low of 24. AP: 13. Minutes comment: On a roll after a 1-4 start in the Big East.

Louisville (12). High of 5, low of 19. AP: 15. Minutes comment: Might be the top overachiever in college basketball at the moment, given the injuries and lack of star power.

[+] EnlargePeyton Siva
David Butler II/US PresswirePeyton Siva helped navigate Louisville higher up the Big East standings with wins over West Virginia and UConn.

Minnesota (13). High of 10, low of unranked. AP: 18. Minutes comment: Whoever has the Gophers in the top 10 needs therapy.

Missouri (14). High of 9, low of 19. AP: 14. Minutes comment: The range and actual ranking for the Tigers make sense.

North Carolina (15). High of 15, low of unranked. AP: T-23. Minutes comment: The Tar Heels are 5-5 outside of the Dean Dome, and none of the five victories has come against a team in the RPI top 70.

Notre Dame (16). High of 5, low of 16. AP: 9. Minutes comment: The Fighting Irish did the best possible thing to help their ranking -- take the weekend off.

Purdue (17). High of 6, low of 17. AP: 11. Minutes comment: The Boilermakers have lost their past three road games -- but won their past 14 home games.

San Diego State (18). High of 3, low of 13. AP: 7. Minutes comment: The Aztecs should not have been harshly penalized for their loss at BYU, and they weren't.

Syracuse (19). High of 7, low of unranked. AP: 17. Minutes comment: Whoever has the Orange at No. 7, put down the hallucinogens.

Texas A&M (20). High of 11, low of unranked. AP: 16. Minutes comment: The Aggies have averaged just 55.3 points in losing three of their past four games.

Utah State (21). High of 14, low of unranked. AP: 22. Minutes comment: Lots of wins (20, in fact). None of them worth noting.

Villanova (22). High of 7, low of 17. AP: 12. Minutes comment: Nova had a bad week. Which can happen very easily in the Big East.

Washington (23). High of 12, low of unranked. AP: 20. Minutes comment: A loss at rival Washington State on Sunday night temporarily loosened the Huskies' grip on the Pac-10 lead.

Wisconsin (24). High of 14, low of unranked. AP: 19. Minutes comment: The Badgers were not the first Big Ten team to lose this season in State College, and they won't be the last.

So January ended on a suitably wild note. But it might be only the start of chaos to come.

February forecast

After a month like the last one, only an idiot would try to predict what's to come. The Minutes is idiot enough for the task. Eight February storylines -- and how they will turn out.

Storyline: How on Earth will the Big East (25) sort itself out?

Preseason favorite Pittsburgh is where it was supposed to be (on top), but after that it's a complete free-for-all. The teams in second (Louisville) and third (Notre Dame) were picked to finish eighth and seventh, respectively. Preseason No. 10 UConn is tied for fourth. The longest current winning streak in the league is Georgetown's five games, after a 1-4 league start. The coldest team in the league is Syracuse, which started the season merely 18-0.

Seton Hall is suddenly dangerous. Nobody wants to play at Providence. St. John's floundered through three straight losses -- two of them blowouts -- then routed Duke. The comeback Cardinals have won three league games by a single point.

So how will the league look by March 1? Pitt will go from 8-1 to 12-4, tied for third with Louisville and a half-game behind co-leaders Notre Dame and Villanova. Georgetown will be a game behind in the loss column. Connecticut will be sliding, and Jim Calhoun (26) will be getting testy with the media. Bracketologist Joe Lunardi will still have double-figure representation from the league in his field of (gag) 68. The rest of the nation will be howling at the Obvious East Coast Bias.

[+] EnlargeCalhoun
Brian Spurlock/US PresswirePicked to finish 10th in the Big East, Jim Calhoun's UConn team has surpassed expectations.

Storyline: Will Ohio State still be unbeaten on March 1?

Tell Quinn Buckner, Kent Benson and Scott May they have nothing to worry about from Columbus. There are losses -- plural -- in the Buckeyes' near future.

They have won consistently but have hardly dominated on a nightly basis, with six of their nine Big Ten victories by five points or fewer. From Feb. 6-22, Ohio State will play five straight games against teams currently in the RPI top 40, and three of them will be on the road. Two will be losses.

But you can still keep the Buckeyes on the No. 1 seed line heading into March.

Storyline: Who will be ranked No. 1 by March?

That will be Texas (27). After finishing a dominating season sweep of Texas A&M on Monday night, the streaking Longhorns have relatively smooth sailing until the postseason. They have zero games remaining against teams currently ranked.

Kansas has just one February game against a ranked opponent (Missouri), and it's at home. But something might give when you combine that rivalry skirmish with potential trap games at Nebraska (Feb. 5, just two days before facing the Tigers) and at Kansas State (a dysfunctional and disappointing season for the Wildcats, but they'll probably play their best game of the season when the Jayhawks come to town). Then Kansas will close the regular season against Texas A&M and at Missouri.

So the opportunity exists for the Horns to seize the day and the season. If they can keep their dramatically improved chemistry intact.

(Nebraska, meanwhile, has the opportunity to be Spoiler of the Year. The defense-obsessed Cornhuskers are a pain in the neck to play, are 14-0 at home and get shots at the three highest-ranked Big 12 teams in Lincoln: Kansas on Feb. 5, Texas on Feb. 19 and Missouri on March 1. If they don't get demolished on the glass, look for at least one upset from the Huskers in those three games.)

Storyline: Will anyone challenge Duke in the ACC (28)?

The month opens and closes with tricky road games for the Blue Devils. They're at Maryland on Wednesday -- and nothing seems to bring out the best in the Terrapins (and worst in their fans) like the sight of Duke. On Feb. 26, they'll play Virginia Tech in Blacksburg -- and by then, Seth Greenberg will be deep into his annual bubble angst.

In between is the first Tobacco Road taffy pull with North Carolina, this one at Cameron Indoor Stadium. As noted above, the Heels have yet to prove themselves on the road, so their upset odds would seem long.

If anyone other than Carolina is going to mount a February charge at Duke, it might be Clemson. The Tigers (15-6, 4-3) could conceivably be favored in all seven games this month.

Storyline: Will the lopsided SEC (29) go a second straight season without a single NCAA tournament bid for the West?

Lunardi currently has Alabama in, but that's only based on a Bracketology rule that awards a league's auto bid to the team with the best record (Bama is 5-1). But Sagarin says the top five teams in the league are still all from the East, and the Crimson Tide have a one-game résumé right now: the upset of Kentucky on Jan. 18.

[+] EnlargeAnthony Grant
Kelly Lambert/US PresswireIs Alabama the best team in the SEC? The standings suggest so, but the rankings suggest the balance of power still lies in the SEC East.

The team to watch from the West could be Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have had a terrible season and would almost certainly need to win the SEC tourney to get in the Big Dance, but they do not lack for talent now that everyone is eligible. With guards Dee Bost and Ravern Johnson, forward Kodi Augustus and big man Renardo Sidney, State has the firepower to score on anyone. The question is whether the Bulldogs  especially Sidney -- have the mindset to stop anyone.

Kentucky clearly is the most talented team in the league but has yet to hit the toughest part of its schedule, with six games remaining against Florida, Vanderbilt and Tennessee. If the Wildcats continue to mature, they could be headed toward a No. 1 NCAA tourney seed by the end of the month. If they continue to struggle on the road or suffer a key injury, they won't win their division.

Storyline: What will be the Pac-10 (30) Game of the Month?

Washington at Arizona, Feb. 19. The Huskies shouldn't lose between now and then, putting them at 12-2 in league play. The Wildcats could drop one on their trip this week to the Bay Area, putting them at 10-3 on Showdown Saturday.

Washington controlled the first meeting in Seattle. But if Arizona involves splendid sophomore Derrick Williams early and often, it will have a chance for payback in Tucson. (Stat of the Week: The 6-foot-8, 241-pound Williams is a silly 11-for-15 from 3-point range in Pac-10 play.)

The only problem for Arizona is that it must follow that Washington game with a Los Angeles trip. Says here that even if the Wildcats beat the Huskies, Washington will win the league.

Storyline: Who will be the BracketBuster (31) darling?

Pairings were announced Monday night for the annual mid-major hoopfest, with the headline acts being Utah Sate at Saint Mary's and Cleveland State at Old Dominion. The Minutes will take Saint Mary's and Cleveland State to win those games to solidify their at-large credentials and establish themselves as NCAA sleepers.

Last year, The Minutes watched Butler beat Siena in Hinkle Fieldhouse and came away sold on the Bulldogs as a significant NCAA tournament threat. Nobody is likely to match the run Butler made, but for future NCAA tournament office pool purposes, it's worth watching these games.

Storyline: Who will be on the hot seat (32) heading into March?

Ten guys to keep an eye on:

[+] EnlargePaul Hewitt
Josh D. Weiss/US PresswireAttendance has been declining at Georgia Tech home games.

Paul Hewitt, Georgia Tech. His seat has been warm for years, but a bulletproof contract has helped keep him employed. Now, however, the fans have started to bail out on the Psycho Jackets. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Sunday that season-ticket sales are down 24 percent from last season, and overall ticket sales are down 33 percent. Tech is averaging 6,022 fans per home game, lowest in Hewitt's 10-year tenure.

Sidney Lowe, NC State. The Wolfpack are working on a fifth straight noncompetitive ACC season under Lowe. NC State hasn't finished better than ninth in the league under Lowe and hasn't sniffed the NCAA tournament.

Pat Knight, Texas Tech. The good news: The Red Raiders are on a three-game Big 12 winning streak. The bad news: That still leaves Knight with a 14-35 league record as head coach. Knight The Younger never has been in a position of strength, getting the job in a late-season handoff from Knight The Elder -- and he hasn't done much to earn a lot of administrative enthusiasm since then.

Andy Kennedy, Ole Miss. The Minutes understands that this isn't an easy place to win. But Kennedy is now in his fifth season with the Rebels and still looking for that first NCAA tournament bid. With a 1-5 SEC record, it doesn't look as though it'll happen this season, either.

John Pelphrey, Arkansas. A stellar recruiting class should earn Pelphrey a fifth season. But after making the NCAAs in his first season, his record with the Razorbacks is 42-40 overall and 13-26 in the SEC. And they're accustomed to better than that in Fayetteville.

Rick Majerus, Saint Louis. He's in his fourth year earning a lot of money (by Saint Louis standards) and currently backsliding in the Atlantic 10. The Billikens are 7-13, having suspended 2009-10 leading scorer Kwamain Mitchell and leading rebounder Willie Reed before the season for off-the-court reasons. And Majerus is once again missing games for health reasons -- one with an illness and three with an infected leg.

Stan Heath, USF. The Bulls have been buried in the merciless Big East. While that might be unavoidable for a Conference USA refugee with no basketball heritage, Heath appears to be losing traction in his fourth season. South Florida is 8-14 overall, 2-7 in league play and has lost 11 of its last 14.

Matt Doherty, SMU. The Mustangs are in the middle of a muddled battle in Conference USA, just a game out of first place. For Doherty's sake, SMU needs to stay there, after going 17-47 in the league in his first four seasons.

Jim Les, Bradley. Four straight 20-win seasons from 2006 to 2009, including an NCAA tournament Sweet 16 run, are probably enough to get Les more time to get it back on the rails -- but it's pretty far off right now. The Braves are 6-16 this year, 0-11 in the Valley.

[+] EnlargeTom Crean
Brian Spurlock/US PresswireIndiana's fan base would surely love coach Tom Crean agreeing to a series of games with Louisville.

Karl Hobbs, George Washington. He took the Colonials to three straight NCAA tournaments from 2005 to '07, but GW has been a nonfactor in the four seasons since. It's 19-36 in that time.

Go crazy, kids -- just don't break the furniture

There were two joyful images from last week that rank as the best The Minutes has seen this turbulent season:

Tom Crean (33) in the concourse.

Jimmer Fredette (34) getting the Beatles treatment.

For some reason, both drew criticism from some locales. Excessive celebration, they were called. In truth, both were wholly appropriate.

Years ago, after an epidemic of questionable court stormings from student sections, The Minutes established clear and firm guidelines for when it was permissible to rush the floor.

Indiana violated the rules last week after beating Illinois -- interestingly enough, five years after a similar Hoosiers violation that followed an upset of the Illini. But what really got some people sideways was Coach Crean making an impromptu appearance in the Assembly Hall concourse to revel with the students.

The common line of thinking: It was beneath the IU coach to act so giddy after the kind of victory the Hoosiers once enjoyed twice a month with far less fanfare.

The Minutes line of thinking: Celebrate away, Tom. Enjoy it with the young people who bring the energy and passion to your games. It was a great, inclusive, appreciative gesture.

It's OK to have fun in college basketball -- especially when Indiana has had almost no fun at all for several years. If you want to know how much the Hoosiers faithful and their ambitious coach have suffered, that video explains it.

When BYU's students hit the floor in Provo after the Cougars beat San Diego State (36), shots were immediately fired via Twitter. How can you storm the court when you were favored? And who storms the court for beating San Diego State?

Fact is, the historically humble Aztecs were unbeaten and ranked in the top five. And if you're BYU, how many opportunities have you ever had to celebrate like this? How often do you have players like The Jimmer?

He is their espresso, their six-pack, their buzz. Let 'em binge on The Jimmer.

[+] EnlargeJimmer Fredette
AP Photo/George FreyJimmer Fredette is enjoying star treatment from the BYU faithful.

Of course, what goes up must come down -- and BYU almost predictably crash-landed next time out at New Mexico (36). The Lobos faithful responded with a court-storming of their own, before which the students busted up several rows of recently installed bleachers by apparently jumping on them too much.

(The school spent $60 million getting its arena refurbished during the offseason. It might ask for a refund on the bleachers.)

Property damage is a pretty good place to draw the celebratory line. But there is no reason to curtail the jubilation we saw emanating from Tom Crean and surrounding Jimmer Fredette.

Turnaround of the year (so far)

Nobody has done a more startling 180 than UNC-Greensboro (37), which has gone from catastrophe to competitive in the Southern Conference.

The Spartans started the season 0-15, 12 of the losses by double digits. Since then they've gone 4-1, capped off by a 19-point road win over Samford on Saturday. Their only loss in the past five games was by one point in double overtime at division-leading Chattanooga.

Freshman guard Trevis Simpson has been emblematic of the turnaround. He averaged 7.3 points in UNCG's first 16 games. Since then he's averaging 20.5 and has made 28 of 43 shots from the field.

Coach who earned his comp car this week

Kansas' Bill Self (38). His Jayhawks got two emphatic victories, but that's only a small part of the story. Between those games, Self took his entire team to Washington, D.C., for the funeral of forward Thomas Robinson's mother. Self got plenty of help from his staff in dealing with the tragedy, most notably director of basketball operations Barry Hinson, who spent several days in D.C. with Robinson. It's been an unfathomably sad season for Robinson, who also lost his grandmother and grandfather in January, but the level of support he's received from his teammates and coaches has been touching.

Coach who should find a ride to work

Syracuse's Jim Boeheim (39). The Orange have unraveled recently, losing four straight. The most glaring problem has been Syracuse's normally befuddling 2-3 zone. Cuse has allowed 74 or more points during each game of the losing streak and was strafed at home by both Villanova and Seton Hall. If the Orange lose Wednesday to UConn, it will be the longest losing streak of Boeheim's brilliant career.

Buzzer-beater

The Minutes didn't travel to a game last week, but did hit a good spot near worldwide Minutes Headquarters in Louisville, Ky. When in town and thirsty, drop in on Saints (40) in the St. Matthews neighborhood and order a Sierra Nevada.