Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball, where it's safer to roller skate on the interstate than to be ranked in the top five:
A consensus-free February
Last time American voters were this conflicted, we ended up inspecting hanging chads in Palm Beach County. And wasn't that enjoyable
Fortunately, this conflict is slightly less important to the country. At least until Selection Sunday.
Have you seen the latest polls? Five teams received first-place votes in the ESPN/USA Today Top 25, and a preposterous eight teams are within 200 points of the top. Six are getting first-place votes in the AP, which longtime poll czar Jim O'Connell wagers is the most he's ever seen this late in the season -- but then again, he's only been working the poll numbers for AP for 28 years.
Like this is November or something, seven teams are getting first-place votes in the two polls combined. If you're scoring at home, Duke (1) has 54 votes and the top spot in both rankings; Pittsburgh (2) has the second-most at 16, but is ranked fourth by AP and sixth by ESPN/USA Today; Ohio State (3) has 14 votes despite losing two of its past three; Kansas (4) has six votes; San Diego State (5) gets three; Brigham Young (6) gets two; and Texas (7) picks up the lone remaining nod for No. 1.
Just to add to the chaos, all seven of those teams have a solid chance of losing again at least once before postseason tournament time. Duke has four games left against solid opponents that are either in the Dance or on the bubble, culminating in the rematch with North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Pitt has three remaining dates with RPI top-25 competition. Ohio State has a return date with Wisconsin and a potentially tricky trip to Penn State. Kansas must travel to archrival Missouri. San Diego State and BYU play each other in a highly anticipated rematch Saturday. And Texas plays three more bubble teams desperate for victories, two of them on the road.
"This," O'Connell said, "is just crazy."
What a mess. What a melting pot of conflicting worldviews. What a mishmash of semi-mediocrity.
If parity is inevitable -- and because of a freshman Blue Devil's big toe, it appears to be -- sit back and enjoy it. We like our sports unpredictable, right? Well, college basketball is taking unpredictability to new levels -- not just in the polls but also in the standings.
First, it was Coastal Carolina (8) losing a shocker to the law firm of Gardner-Webb. Then it was Texas being upset by Nebraska. Finally, it was Princeton (9) going down to Brown.
In a five-day span, the last three teams unbeaten in league play all lost. With two full weeks to go before the end of the regular season, we're left with none for the first time in a decade and just the second time in the past 21 years.
The only other time nobody in that span ran the table in conference play was 2001 -- and if that year is a guidepost for what's to come, we're on the bullet train to the cuckoo's nest come tournament time.
Of the 29 conference tournaments in 2001, 14 were not won by the top seeds. That included Iowa (7-9 league record) winning the Big Ten, Hawaii (8-8) winning the WAC, Indiana State (10-8) winning the Missouri Valley and Northwestern State (11-9) winning the Southland.
Then the Big Dance got really goofy. There were 13 first-round upsets in 32 games, still the NCAA tournament record since the field was expanded to 64 in 1985. The upset epidemic included the last 15-over-2 we've seen (Hampton over Iowa State), two 13-over-4s (Kent State over Indiana and Indiana State over Oklahoma), and the obligatory 12-over-5s (Utah State over Ohio State and Gonzaga over Virginia). A double-digit seed (No. 11 Temple) advanced to the Elite Eight, too.
Everything returned to form by the end, when two No. 1s (Duke and Michigan State) were joined in the Final Four by a No. 2 (Arizona) and a No. 3 (Maryland). The Blue Devils defeated the Wildcats for their first title since 1992, and people went back to hating Duke all over again.
(A note on that: The Minutes believes the Dukies would win over converts among the critics with one simple fashion alteration: A Blue Devil needs to grow a goofy, jump-off-the-chin Lincoln beard. Not a tasteful growth like Brian Zoubek had last year -- something dumber. The enthusiastic fellows at Ballin' Is A Habit sent The Minutes a photo compilation of the best facial hair in the game, and it sparked a thought: Beards are all over college basketball -- with the notable exception of the image-conscious Durham-Chapel Hill axis. A Plumlee sporting the Lucas O'Rear (10) look would be swell. And it might create some competition at comparably stuffy North Carolina, where John Henson could try out the Chris Warren (11) facial fur. Seriously, Tobacco Road could use a little collegiate silliness to leaven that We Take Our Wholesomeness Seriously Here thing. Part of the college experience is at least one regrettable hairstyle, on your head or your chin. So throw away the razors, boys! The world will like you more because of it. Now back to your regularly scheduled column.)
Last week, The Minutes argued that the pool of potential top seeds for the NCAAs should be expanding, not contracting, and recent results have backed that up. The selection committee has an exceedingly challenging task this year -- not so much picking the 68 teams, because if you cannot make this field this year, don't go crying on March 13. You had your chances.
No, the challenge will be seeding. Telling these teams apart is as tough in 2011 as it's ever been in the long history of the tournament.
Nobody's perfect, but a few are imperfect
Although there are no teams without a loss in conference play, there are three teams in danger of running the table in reverse.
That's hard to do. Even manifestly inept teams such as Wake Forest and DePaul have managed to win a league game, to the everlasting chagrin of Virginia and Providence, respectively. Seemingly, everyone can have at least one "on" night against a conference opponent -- a night when just enough shots drop, when the ball bounces the right way, when the whistle is kind -- but apparently not.
So keep a kind thought in mind for these teams still suffering their way to the finish line:
Fordham (12). The record: 0-12 in the Atlantic 10, 6-18 overall. How bad is it: The Rams haven't come closer to a win than six points. Closest brush with glory: Fordham incomprehensibly led first-place Xavier 54-53 on the road Saturday with 11 minutes left before capitulating. Lowest point: a 34-point loss at Dayton. Schedule the rest of the way: at St. Bonaventure on Wednesday; home against Rhode Island on Saturday; at LaSalle on March 2; home against Massachusetts on March 5. Best chance to get off the schneid: the finale against UMass.
Towson (13). The record: 0-16 in the Colonial Athletic Association, 4-23 overall, as coach Pat Kennedy continues a remarkable late-career tailspin. This is his 11th consecutive losing season at three schools, an astonishing run of sustained failure. How bad is it: The Tigers haven't won a home game since Dec. 1. Closest brush with glory: Towson led by 20 in the second half at home against North Carolina-Wilmington before losing in overtime. Lowest point: a Feb. 5 home loss to Georgia State, which had not won on the road in CAA play since 2009. Schedule the rest of the way: at Delaware on Wednesday, home against Drexel on Saturday. Best chance to get off the schneid: at Delaware. Towson led the Blue Hens by nine with less than seven minutes to play at home in the first meeting before folding.
Centenary (14). The record: 0-16 in the Summit League, 0-28 overall. Alas, they've learned to lose like Gentlemen at Centenary, the only winless overall team in Division I. How bad is it: Centenary hasn't come closer than 20 points since Jan. 27. Closest brush with glory: The Gents were tied at 50 with Western Illinois on the road with less than two minutes to play before losing 57-51. Lowest point: On Feb. 12 at Missouri-Kansas City, Centenary trailed 17-3 after three minutes on its way to a 33-point loss to the not-very-good Kangaroos. Schedule the rest of the way: home against Western Illinois on Thursday and IUPUI on Saturday. Best chance to get off the schneid: the Thursday battle with the Leathernecks, who are 7-20 themselves.
Players who need more love
A six-pack of guys who are not anonymous but who deserve some more national merit for their fine work this season and throughout their careers:
Derrick Williams (15), Arizona. Even before he had 26 points, 11 rebounds and one exquisitely timed (and timely) blocked shot against Washington, he had carved out room for himself in the national player of the year debate. Williams is remarkably productive with the ball, shooting 63 percent from the field, 75 percent from the foul line (on nearly 10 attempts per game) and a not-flukish 68 percent from 3-point range. And now he has led the Wildcats to the cusp of their first Pac-10 title in six years.
Andrew Goudelock (16), Charleston. Senior guard has upgraded his production every season, from 13.2 points per game as a freshman to 16.7 as a sophomore, 19.4 as a junior and 23.4 this season. And as tough as he's been on Southern Conference competition this season, check his averages in four games against teams from "power six" conferences: 26.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.3 assists. He'll be more than ready for prime time if Charleston makes the NCAA tourney.
Jorge Gutierrez (17), California. The Minutes has always liked Gutierrez's hustle, but the junior from Mexico took that effort to an inspired new level Sunday night in the Golden Bears' upset of UCLA. Playing 41 tireless minutes, Gutierrez drove the ball at the Bruins like Ginobili Lite, charging fearlessly to the rim at every opportunity and repeatedly ending up on the deck (and did it without charging, a shocking rarity in today's charge-happy game). He got up every time, on his way to a career-high 34 points, 6 assists, 3 rebounds and 3 steals. One of the best games anyone has played this season.
Charles Jenkins (18), Hofstra. The 6-3 senior guard will have his jersey retired this weekend, the first athlete in school history to have it done while he's still an active player. He deserves it. Jenkins is a scorer but not a gunner, averaging 23.3 points while shooting an extraordinary 53 percent from the field and dishing out 4.8 assists. Worth watching to see whether he can carry the Pride to the Big Dance in what should be a very good CAA tournament.
Chandler Parsons (19), Florida. There is legitimate consternation about who should be the player of the year in the Southeastern Conference. Although it sounds antithetical to give it to a guy averaging 10.8 points per game, Parsons at least deserves consideration. The senior leads the Gators in rebounds (7.7) and assists (3.6) and had been stuffing the stat sheet the past month until a thigh bruise took him out of action last week.
Keith Benson (20), Oakland. He's the nation's second-leading shot-blocker, but that's only the beginning of his role for the Summit-leading Golden Grizzlies. Benson also is averaging a double-double (17.6 points and 10 rebounds) while shooting 54 percent from the field. Among his 16 double-doubles, four came against West Virginia, Purdue, Michigan State and Tennessee.
Among the 22,776 in attendance at the KFC Yum! Center on Friday for Louisville's victory over Connecticut was one particularly interesting visitor: Western Kentucky athletic director Ross Bjork (21). He was the guest of a guy named Joe Iracane, who has dual citizenship as a major WKU booster and a close friend of Louisville coach Rick Pitino.
Bjork was in the press room for Pitino's postgame news conference, in which the coach was effusive-and-then-some in his praise of the scouting work done by assistant Steve Masiello (22) -- both in preparation for the Huskies and throughout the season. By the time Pitino was finished, you'd have thought Masiello had taken a lead role in the Human Genome Project and figured out how to deny the ball to Kemba Walker.
Anyway, this was all very intriguing when you factor in the declining fortunes of Western Kentucky coach Ken McDonald (23). He went 25-8 his first season and advanced to the NCAA tourney second round after taking over a robust program from Darrin Horn, who left for South Carolina. Last season, the Hilltoppers missed the NCAAs. This season, they're 13-14 and plagued by off-court issues, with the demanding WKU fans increasingly restless.
Connect those dots and it seems fair to wonder whether a change is in the wind at one of the traditional mid-major powers, with Masiello a strong theoretical candidate should the job come open. Unless, of course, he gets the presumptively open job at Manhattan (24), where Barry Rohrssen is snorkeling through his fifth straight losing season.
Five other jobs where the current occupant is advised to keep a few moving boxes handy heading toward firing season:
North Carolina State (25). Sidney Lowe signed a big recruiting class last year that was supposed to help him keep his job. With a 14-12 overall record, 4-8 in the ACC, not even another ACC tournament run is likely to save Sidney now.
Georgia Tech (26). Tech finally has to bite the bullet and buy its way out of Paul Hewitt's golden contract. Either that or help him get another job. Anything but more of what Yellow Jackets fans have been subjected to this season (11-15 overall, 3-9 ACC).
Utah (27). School brass gave Jim Boylen a nice raise and extension after the Utes made the NCAAs in 2009. Since then: 26-32, major underachieving for one of the strongest programs in the Mountain West. And the runaway success at rival BYU has only heightened the pressure. Will the school decide it must make a change to be prepared for the move to the Pac-12?
Texas Tech (28). Pat Knight got the job as a hand-me-down from his dad and hasn't done much with it -- the veteran-laden Red Raiders are tied for ninth in the Big 12 (4-8, 12-15 overall) and in the process of missing the NCAAs for the fourth straight season. They shockingly won at Baylor on Saturday and have some winnable games remaining, but it seemingly would take a major Big 12 tourney run to rekindle faith in Knight going forward.
Providence (29). Keno Davis is in only his third season at Providence, but the negatives are piling up. There's the sliding record: 10-8 in Big East play in 2009, then 4-14 last year, now 3-11 and a home loss to miserable DePaul last week. And there are the off-court problems that led to the dismissal or transfer of a few players in the offseason.
The great thing about sports is, of course, that you never know. Once they throw the ball in the air, anything can happen -- regardless of expectation, prediction or whatever common sense said a minute earlier. For proof, The Minutes offers three obscure results from last week that defy logical explanation:
Binghamton 77, Hartford 47 (30), Feb. 16 in Hartford. The Bearcats came into the game 6-19 overall, 3-9 in the America East and riding a nine-game losing streak. They were on the road against a team that was two games ahead of them in the conference standings. Yet on this night, Binghamton hit 63 percent of its 3-point shots, outrebounded the Hawks by 30 -- 30! -- and blew them out of their own building. Naturally, Binghamton lost its next game and Hartford won.
Southern Utah 80, IUPUI 68 (31), Feb. 17 in Indianapolis. Surprising enough that Southern Utah could enter this game 8-17 and defeat the 16-11 Jaguars on the road. But then examine the way the Thunderbirds did it: They were down 16 points with less than a minute to play in the first half, then perpetrated a 28-point turnaround in 21 minutes -- on the road, against a superior opponent. IUPUI scored one point in the final 3 minutes, 56 seconds. Southern Utah had lost at home by 26 to the Jaguars earlier in the season.
Akron 89, Bowling Green 54 (32), Feb. 15 in Bowling Green. The Zips entered this one a game behind the Falcons in the Mid-American Conference standings. But they built a 20-point lead after 18 minutes, stretched it to 40 with eight minutes to play and coasted in. Speaking of MAC mysteries
Why does this league stink?
The MAC (33) currently is rated the No. 18 league in the land by Jeff Sagarin's computer (and 21st in the RPI). That's a fairly precipitous fall from even the modest position the Midwestern collection of colleges once held.
From 2000 to '05, the MAC average was No. 11 in Sagarin's ratings. From 2006 to the present, that rank is No. 16. And this season, it's all the way down to 18 -- just behind the Summit League and just ahead of the Big West (not to be confused in the slightest with the Big East).
Sagarin does not rank a single MAC school in his top 100 -- there simply isn't a single entity in the 12-team league to get overly excited about. As recently as 2007-08, the MAC had five in the Sagarin top 100.
In 2002, Kent State (34) reached the Elite Eight with Antonio Gates playing power forward. In 1999, Miami (Ohio) (35) made the Sweet 16 behind Wally Szczerbiak. In 1990, Ball State (36) advanced to the Sweet 16, where the Cardinals nearly upset eventual national champion UNLV. The next season, Eastern Michigan (37) made it to that round.
So this is a league with some history. But it now has become a mystery.
Maybe the general population decline in the industrial centers of the upper Midwest has had an impact on recruiting. Maybe schools have felt the budgetary crunch of playing football at the highest classification and it has affected the basketball bottom line. Maybe there are too many aging facilities, mismanaged athletic departments and uninspiring coaches.
Whatever the root cause, MAC basketball is floundering. And there's no reason to believe that will change anytime soon.
Coach who earned his comp car this season
Doc Sadler (38), Nebraska. As recently as two weeks ago, there was no reason to pay attention to the Cornhuskers. They were 3-6 in the Big 12. Arguably their best player, Christian Standhardinger, had taken all his syllables and left the team. Nebraska couldn't score, and it couldn't win on the road.
Today, the Huskers are 6-6 in the Big 12, 18-8 overall; on a three-game winning streak; and owners of a major upset of Texas. They're on the bubble and in the NCAA conversation. They even won a road game in this stretch, at Oklahoma. Credit Sadler for steadily nursing a nowhere program into relevance.
Coach who should find his own way to work
Ken Bone (39), Washington State. The Cougars have too much talent to be tied for sixth in the weak Pac-10, but there they are, behind projected cellar-dweller Oregon. After working their way into the NCAA tournament bubble debate, they've backed out with three losses in their past four games -- one of them a résumé-killing loss at brutal Arizona State. Bone isn't making anyone forget Tony Bennett just yet on the Palouse.
The Minutes did not hit the road to watch basketball this past weekend, but it did eat some splendid barbecue at Frankfort Avenue Beer Depot (40) in Louisville. It's a no-frills place with a startlingly good beer selection, a homemade miniature golf course in the back and the telltale smoker in the front parking lot. Get the ribs, potato salad and spicy green beans and thank The Minutes later.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.