Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (Marcus Smart chair-kicking exercise video sold separately):
Check the calendar, hoops fans. We are fast-breaking toward February, which means it’s time to assess the major conference pecking order one month into the fray. The Minutes takes a look at the races and traces the path from here to March. Biggest winner to date, the Big East diaspora (1), which has dispersed across the East Coast and leads three leagues at once. The breakdown:
BATTLE FOR THE ACC’S SOUL: DUKE VS. INVADERS FROM THE NORTH
Now that Duke (2) has beaten Pittsburgh (3) on the road, the Tobacco Road bluebloods can probably call off the doomsday panic. The endtimes do not appear to be upon us after all, at least not yet.
Prior to tipoff Monday, one of the great streaks in college basketball was starting to teeter. In a league that started in 1953-54, there hasn’t been a season in which neither Duke nor North Carolina (4) finished in the top three of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
As in, never.
Heading into this week the Blue Devils were fourth in the ACC, behind Big East imports Syracuse (5) and Pitt, plus third-place Virginia. The Orange is 7-0, Virginia and Pitt were 6-1 – and the Panthers’ only loss was to ‘Cuse. Duke was 5-2.
The Tar Heels? They’re an afterthought, snorkeling along in 10th place at 2-4. Thankfully for them, they got to play Lucy with the football to Clemson’s Charlie Brown for the 57th consecutive time in Chapel Hill on Sunday, a blowout victory that at least temporarily slowed UNC's slide out of contention.
Now, increasingly, the ACC looks like it will come down to the old blood vs. the new. Duke, representing Tobacco Road, vs. Syracuse, arriving like Genghis Khan from the north for a hostile takeover.
And they happen to play each other Saturday in the Carrier Dome. Mike Krzyzewski vs. Jim Boeheim, the two winningest coaches in the history of Division I. Two programs capable of competing for the national title just about every year, and capable of looking down their proud noses at each other and everyone else.
This is the challenge of change the ACC wished upon itself, with none other than Krzyzewski as its driving force. With football pushing conference realignment, K advocated that the ACC be true to its basketball DNA and get predatory for the sake of hoops.
That’s how Syracuse and Pittsburgh came to be poached from the Big East, with Louisville to follow next year and add one more basketball powerhouse to the mix. The collateral damage is to the league’s geographic and cultural identity, but that began slipping away with the first raid on the Big East (for Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College) earlier this century.
“I call it a slow merger,” said Lenox Rawlings, who covered the ACC for decades before retiring from the Winston-Salem Journal 13 months ago. “I don’t think the people identify with the ACC the way they once did. The dilution has been going on for a while. You’ve weakened the chemistry that creates a league environment. It’s a business arrangement, not a conference.
“When the conference stretches from the Great Lakes to Miami Beach, there’s no way it can be what it once was.”
Fifty-one out of 60 seasons, the regular-season champion has hailed from Tobacco Road – Duke, Carolina, North Carolina State or Wake Forest. Titles have been won with extreme rarity by the commoners outside that basketball holy land.
Last year Miami jarred 60 years of status quo by winning the ACC. Now Syracuse is positioned to do the same – if it can avoid another slow fade after a ferocious season start. (The Orange’s record through its first 18 games of the previous four seasons: 70-2. The Orange’s record the rest of the regular season the previous four seasons: 36-16.)
Duke, the old blueblood reliable from the league bedrock territory, may be the only thing standing in the way.
BIG TEN: EVERYONE IS CHASING THE STATE OF MICHIGAN
“I always look at road records,” John Beilein said, beginning a butter-up of Purdue on the Big Ten teleconference Monday. But what the road record really says is that Beilein’s Michigan (6) team is having an extraordinary run.
The Wolverines are 7-0 in the Big Ten, with four of the victories coming on the road – the latest one at rival Michigan State (more on the road run later). Since losing starting center and likely lottery pick Mitch McGary to season-ending back surgery, they are 9-0. Combine the absence of McGary with the personnel losses from last year’s national runner-up (first-round draft picks Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.), and Beilein is operating at the height of his coaching acumen. Which is saying something.
But here’s the thing: Michigan State (7) grudgingly lost to the Wolverines by five without center Adriean Payne (16.2 points, 7.7 rebounds) and forward Branden Dawson (10.2 points and a team-high 8.7 rebounds). They are expected to get both back for the stretch run. And Tom Izzo teams are almost always better in March than at any previous point in the season. And this team was already very good.
If Michigan State wins at Iowa (8) on Tuesday, the Big Ten will boil down to a two-team race. If the Hawkeyes hold serve at home, where they have not lost since playing the Spartans on Jan. 10, 2013, they figure to be in the mix for the long haul. Iowa doesn’t have to play Wisconsin in Madison, and at present Pomeroy only has them an underdog in one remaining game: at Michigan State on March 6.
The big February question: Does Ohio State (9) get it back together? After losing four in a row, the Buckeyes bounced back with a home victory over Illinois and now get Penn State in Columbus on Wednesday. If they win both of those and take some confidence with them on the road for two tough tests in a row – at Wisconsin on Saturday, at Iowa next Tuesday – the Bucks can at least return to the periphery of the race.
Ohio State doesn’t have much in the way of jump-off-the-page victories, but by every measurement the Buckeyes are a near-lock NCAA team. They shrewdly scheduled plenty of not-terrible teams for guaranteed home games – 11 of 13 non-conference opponents rank in the top 200 in the RPI, and eight are in the top 100. (Memo to Gene Smith: this is the prudent alternative to scheduling Florida A&M in football.)
But the annual expectation in Columbus isn’t just making the tournament field. It’s getting in with a high seed and doing some damage. And competing for the Big Ten title, too – especially when the front-runner is hated Michigan, who visits the Buckeyes on Feb. 11.
SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE: SAME AS IT EVER WAS (MORE OR LESS)
For the fifth consecutive season, the SEC standings look like this: Florida (10) and/or Kentucky (11) on top, followed by a bunch of schools killing time until spring football starts.
The Gators are No. 5 in the RPI, No. 10 in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings and No. 13 with Jeff Sagarin. They have won 11 straight games since a Dec. 2 loss at Connecticut, and there is fresh speculation this week that ineligible freshman big man Chris Walker may finally be cleared for immediate competition by the NCAA. (But remember: Only fools pretend to know what the NCAA will do.)
The coalescing Wildcats are No. 12 in the RPI, No. 15 Pomeroy, No. 19 Sagarin. They’ve won seven of their last eight, losing only in overtime on a buzzer-beating rebound dunk at Arkansas.
Kentucky hosts Florida on Feb. 15, and will end the regular season with a return game in Gainesville. But before either of those things take place, the 'Cats will present a large, juicy target over the next eight days to three bubble teams in need of signature victories: at LSU on Tuesday, at Missouri on Saturday, and hosting Mississippi next Tuesday.
The road games will be especially pertinent, since Kentucky still has not accomplished much outside of Rupp Arena (the 'Cats are 2-4, including losses to bubblicious Baylor, North Carolina and Arkansas). And the home game is against an Ole Miss (12) team that appears to be hitting its stride.
The Rebels have won four straight. The matchups have been advantageous, but Marshall Henderson (13) is back to doing what he does best: scoring points and strutting around like the cockiest player in college basketball. After being suspended the first two SEC games for basically being a persistent knucklehead last year, Henderson has averaged 18.5 points, 3.5 assists and 2.5 steals in Ole Miss’ current winning streak. Near the end of Saturday’s victory over Mississippi State, Henderson’s literal swagger incited Bulldogs coach Rick Ray (14) to direct an uncharitable remark his way. That was quickly followed by an apology.
Henderson is the February must-watch player in this league. As for the rest of the SEC outside the top two? Viewing optional.
The number crunchers consider Tennessee the third-best team in the league, checking in at No. 52 RPI, No. 28 Pomeroy and No. 43 Sagarin. But the Volunteers are just 3-3 in SEC play, including a home loss to Texas A&M. They’ve been blasted on the road by the Gators and lost by eight at Kentucky – and unfortunately for the Vols, they don’t get a return game in Knoxville against the Wildcats. (For only the third time since 1922 – the other times were due to World War II in 1944 and UK’s de facto death penalty from the NCAA in 1953. Disposable rivalries are the price of expansion.)
Ole Miss and Missouri are the other teams within closest reach of an NCAA bid at present, followed by LSU and Arkansas. The SEC hired former NCAA tournament guru Greg Shaheen (15) last year as a schedule consultant, and there has been some immediate returns on that – the average RPI rank of an SEC team is up 29 spots over last year, and no team is currently in the 200s (three were last season).
But a league with more money than God is still tracking toward an underachieving season in terms of quality depth. The SEC has averaged just 3.8 NCAA teams over the previous five seasons, and doesn’t look likely to exceed that by much (if at all) in 2014.
BIG 12: DOES THE JAYHAWK HAMMERLOCK CONTINUE IN PERPETUITY?
Kansas (16) has won nine straight conference titles, and the way it is playing at present, it would take something completely unforeseen to derail championship No. 10. The Jayhawks have a two-game lead in the loss column on Texas and Oklahoma after Monday night. They could lose two games the rest of the way and still be assured of at least a share of the title, and probably could lose three or four and still win at least a co-championship.
For The Minutes’ money, Kansas would join Arizona, Syracuse and the Big Ten champion on the No. 1 seed line if the season ended today. Fortunately, it doesn’t, because establishing the pecking order in the Big 12 after KU should be very interesting.
Oklahoma State (17) is the second-most talented team in the league. But the Cowboys are compromised inside by the season-ending injury to 6-foot-8 strong man Michael Cobbins. They can neither defend inside nor rebound at a championship level, which was part of the problem in their 88-76 loss Monday night at Oklahoma. (But not the only problem.)
The big mystery is the real-time collapse of Baylor (18), which at one point was No. 13 in the RPI and now is a perilous 55th. The Bears, losers of four straight and 1-5 in the league, are one of five RPI Top-100 teams to be winless on the road to date. (The others: Nebraska, Arkansas, Alabama and Notre Dame.)
PAC-12: CAN ANYONE BEAT ARIZONA?
The only way Arizona (19) loses in the regular season is if the Wildcats are complicit in their own demise. That could happen – especially with seven of their final 11 regular-season games on the road – but the competition is not overly rigorous the rest of the way.
Arizona already has beaten the second-best team in the league (UCLA) on its home court. And the Bruins do not come to Tucson. No other Pac-12 team ranks in the Top 20 of the RPI, the Top 25 of Sagarin or Top 30 of Pomeroy.
There will be some intrigue accompanying Arizona’s trip to the Bay Area (20) this week: at Stanford on Wednesday and at California on Saturday. With the Pac-12 getting away from the traditional Thursday-Saturday games in some instances for TV purposes, there is a danger in getting stale while on the road for that long.
The other road game of interest: at Utah (21) in February. The Utes used switching defenses to throw off Arizona in Tucson on Sunday, staying in the game until the final minutes. The Wildcats cannot coast into Salt Lake City.
AMERICAN ATHLETIC CONFERENCE: BIG EAST OWNS THAT, TOO
The teams at the top of the hybrid AAC are fresh from the Big East: Cincinnati (22) leads at 7-0 and Louisville (23) is right behind at 6-1. The two meet Thursday in Louisville, with the rematch coming Feb. 22 in Cincy.
Unless they have a third game in the AAC tournament, that is the last scheduled game between two schools that have played 97 times and followed each other around from one league to the next – the Missouri Valley, the Metro, Conference USA, the Big East, and now this short-term hook-up in the AAC looks like the end of the road. Another rivalry on the brink of realignment-induced extinction.
The Bearcats will be disadvantaged in the Yum! Center if forward Justin Jackson – one of the most improved players in the country – cannot go after injuring an ankle over the weekend against Temple. Pro scouts will be hoping Jackson is in the lineup for the potential matchup with Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell, a similarly hyperactive 4-man.
The Cardinals probably will welcome back point guard Chris Jones, a blue-chip junior-college transfer who has missed three games with a strained oblique. After watching his teammates reel off three straight impressive victories without him, Jones has had to listen to loud questions about whether the team is better without him.
Fact is, it takes a special point guard – like, verging on sainthood – to harmoniously coexist with Russ Smith in the backcourt. Peyton Siva was that point guard. Jones has not been, but might have learned a few things watching freshman Terry Rozier run the team in his absence.
The surprise story of the league is SMU (24), which as of right now is an NCAA tournament team for the first time in 21 years. Then again, maybe this should not be that surprising when the coach is the magnificent Larry Brown. But neither should it be surprising that controversy is hot on Brown’s heels, after a Dallas TV station reported that touted freshman Keith Frazier’s high-school grades are under scrutiny.
Brown’s previous two college stops, at UCLA and Kansas, ended in NCAA probation. Why not go for the hat trick, LB?
BIG EAST: WESTWARD HO?
Creighton (25), brought into the New Big East as the westernmost outpost in league history, may be the only thing standing between the diaspora and three titles. The Bluejays routed co-league leader and diaspora member Villanova in Philadelphia behind a stunning barrage of 3-point shooting. If they can win the rematch in Omaha, they could well win the league, which would only enhance Doug McDermott’s national Player of the Year campaign.
This could well come down to whether a great offense (Creighton) beats a very good defense (Villanova) twice. But Nova also has to deal with a schedule that includes this three-game road swing in seven days: at DePaul on Feb. 12, at Creighton on Feb. 16, at Providence on Feb. 18. A two-day turnaround to go from Nebraska to Rhode Island? Thanks a lot, Val Ackerman.
BEAT THE SHOCKERS? IT WON’T BE EASY
The Missouri Valley bears monitoring for its 800-pound prairie gorilla, Wichita State (26). As much as there is to like about Arizona’s chances of running the regular-season table, the 21-0 Shockers should have it even easier.
The most obvious potential road land mines are at Indiana State (27) on Feb. 5, and at Northern Iowa (28) on Feb. 8. The Sycamores are easily the second-best team in the Valley, and the Panthers are undefeated at home this season.
But beware Evansville (29), Feb. 16. The Purple Aces aren’t terribly good, but they improbably swept Wichita State last season. Evansville coach Marty Simmons is 4-2 against Gregg Marshall at home, despite having the inferior team in almost all of those matchups.
ARE THE OFFICIALS BACKSLIDING?
If you think you’re seeing the creeping, insidious return of physical play (30) in college hoops, you’re not alone. Anecdotally speaking, the game is getting rougher as the season goes along.
Freedom of movement certainly seems less free than at the beginning of the year – The Minutes saw more body-checked drives that went uncalled over this past weekend than in all of November. According to the treasure trove of stats available here from Friend of The Minutes Kevin Pauga, officials have been backing off the foul calls for quite some time.
From the first week of the season through Dec. 29, the number of fouls called per game decreased every week – from 21.2 to 18.5. Then officials seemed to re-establish the strict foul-calling in the first two weeks of conference play, rising back up to 19.4 fouls per game. Now the tweets are declining again, to 19.1 and 19.0 the previous two weeks.
The Minutes would prefer a tightly called game that prevents a return to the wrestling matches of recent years. But most of all, let's hope that there is some reasonable level of expectation for how games will be called by March. If the conference tournaments and March Madness become Whistle Lottery, with arbitrary officiating from game to game, the complaining will reach record levels.
Nobody likes a whiner, but we’ll hear plenty of them if that’s the case.
ONE SHINING MOMENT … THEN A LOT OF MISERY
In retrospect, it is the most stunning score of the entire season: Cornell (31) led Syracuse by 14 at one point in the season opener, led by six at halftime, and led for almost the entire first 24 minutes of the game. The Big Red eventually capitulated to the Orange, 82-60, but what happened thereafter made those first 24 minutes very hard to believe.
Cornell is 1-15 and ranked No. 337 in the RPI, No. 339 by Sagarin and No. 345 out of 351 teams by Pomeroy. The Big Red’s only victory was over Oberlin, which is a Division III school. Cornell has lost at home by 10 to Binghamton (4-16) and at home by 10 to St. Francis, Pa. (4-15).
The Big Red is absolutely putrid, and a fourth straight losing season should cost coach Bill Courtney his job after taking over a program that went to the NCAA tournament in 2010. But if this year is the end, at least Courtney can say his team had Syracuse – undefeated, No. 2 Syracuse – on the ropes for a while in the Carrier Dome.
FOR PETE’S SAKE UPDATE
Last week The Minutes wrote about Dan Peters and Akron (32), which is rallying around its cancer-stricken director of basketball operations. It’s a sad story, but the support being shown to Peters is heartening – and spreading.
In addition to involving every Mid-American Conference school and every school where Peters coached, others have inquired about how they can help. The Indiana coaching staff will wear “4 Pete’s Sake” pins this week, and Arizona coaches (where Peters’ son, Danny, is on staff) did over the weekend.
Kudos to everyone who is getting involved in raising awareness for pancreatic cancer, and raising one man’s spirits along the way.
ROAD WARRIORS OF THE WEEK
Every week The Minutes salutes the teams pulling off the toughest feat in college hoops: winning league games on the road. This week’s honorees:
Michigan over Michigan State. After their latest away-game achievement, the Wolverines are very close to putting a hammerlock on Road Warriors of the Year. Consider this stat: the Spartans, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Nebraska are a combined 39-5 at home. And four of those losses have come against Michigan.
VCU (33) over Dayton and LaSalle. The Rams visited a pair of RPI top 100 opponents and beat them both. They controlled the game throughout at Dayton, but had to rally from 10 points down in the final five minutes of regulation to eventually beat the Explorers in double overtime. That allowed Shaka Smart’s team to stay on the heels of Atlantic-10-leading Saint Louis, heading into a three-game home stand.
Stephen F. Austin (34) over everyone. When the schedule came out, first-year Lumberjacks coach Brad Underwood was free to wonder what the Southland Conference had against his school. SFA was stuck with five straight league road games from Jan. 9-25, an incomprehensible stretch. But danged if the Lumberjacks didn’t win them all, and four of them by double digits. Now they get four straight – and eight of their last 11 – at home. SFA is 18-2 overall – and if they make the field of 68, this is the kind of team you do not want to see opposite your favorite squad when the NCAA tournament brackets come out.
Wisconsin-Green Bay (35) over slightly less of everyone. UWGB is the Stephen F. Austin of the Upper Midwest – assigned a crazy January road stretch and coming out of it undefeated. From Jan. 7-19, the Phoenix played one non-conference game and three Horizon League games on the road and won them all. Then they followed that up with consecutive home victories over Oakland and Detroit. Now they’re 17-3, and every bit the kind of team that could be a giant killer come March if it makes the field.
Bowling Green (36). At 6-9 and headed toward a fifth straight non-winning season, it seemed to be curtains for Louis Orr. And, in fact, it may still be. But the Falcons regrouped to win three straight games, including consecutive road upsets of Western Michigan and Ohio to reach .500 at 9-9.
Each week The Minutes shines a light on a player who is excelling outside the mainstream. This week the honor goes to Keifer Sykes (37) of the aforementioned Wisconsin-Green Bay. The 5-foot-11 junior from Chicago is doing everything for the Phoenix, averaging 20.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 5.1 assists for a team that has cracked Ken Pomeroy’s top 50. Against probable NCAA tournament teams Wisconsin, Harvard and Virginia, Sykes averaged 26.3 ppg.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Rick Barnes (38), Texas. Coming off a 16-18 season and with many people (including The Minutes) figuring his job is on the line, Barnes has done some of his best work. His least-talented team in years is 16-4 overall, 5-2 in the super-competitive Big 12. The winning streak is at five, and if it reaches six Saturday at home against Kansas you will have your front-runner for Big 12 Coach of the Year.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Pat Knight (39), Lamar. You remember when Bob’s kid pulled some classic Knight Theater his first year at Lamar, lit a fire under the Cardinals and coaxed them to the NCAA tournament? Well, it was a long time ago – 2012, to be exact. Since then Lamar has been a disaster: 5-46 overall, and 2-24 in the Southland. Knight inherited a veteran team and has not replenished the roster sufficiently to beat anyone. Hard to see him getting a fourth year at this rate.
When hungry and thirsty in the ACC tournament town of Greensboro, make a reservation at Lucky 32 (40). This is New South cuisine at its freshest and finest, not to mention half a dozen North Carolina microbrews on tap. Try them all and thank The Dash later.