Forde Minutes: Will Big Ten's early conference tournament gambit pay off?

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Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (PED-free urine samples sold separately in Tucson):

First Half: Three rule changes to save college basketball

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THE BIG TEN’S GOTHAM GAMBIT

The most tradition-steeped of all conferences is doing the most untraditional thing this week. The Big Ten is playing its basketball tournament a week early and 800 miles eastward from its base.

This is either part of a shrewd strategic plan or an egotistical indulgence by commissioner and South Orange, New Jersey, native Jim Delany (21). He has been a savvy navigator of the shifting college sports landscape, and his role in birthing the Big Ten Network has helped make his league the richest in the land. But the obsession with the East Coast has hardly yielded great fruit in terms of competitive enhancement of the conference — and this league tourney in Madison Square Garden comes with no small risk.

Adding Rutgers and Maryland has largely been a competitive bust in the marquee sports. The Terrapins have made the previous three NCAA tournaments but won’t this year without doing something significant in the Garden, while the Scarlet Knights have added nothing. Opting for league tourneys in Washington, D.C., and New York plays to alumni bases in those areas and maybe — maybe — provides an exposure boost, but it also deprives most of the loyal season-ticket buyers of a reasonable commute to the event.

And then there are the difficulties presented by cramming the entire schedule in with one fewer week. Delany acknowledged to the Chicago Tribune last week that was a mistake, creating a hardship for many teams that won’t be repeated. The league could have played in the New York metro area the following week, with the rest of the major tournaments, but Delany was fixated on the Garden.

Will Tom Izzo and Michigan State benefit from an earlier conference tournament? (AP)
Will Tom Izzo and Michigan State benefit from an earlier conference tournament? (AP)

The great unknown is how having next week off will affect the Big Ten’s few NCAA tourney teams. Gonzaga coach Mark Few, a veteran of this calendar, told The Minutes he believes it will be beneficial. But an early elimination in New York could lead to two weeks without a game.

While waiting to see how that will play out, here’s how The Minutes expects this week to play out in MSG. Your Big Ten snap preview:

League power rating: Fourth out of 32, per Ken Pomeroy’s numbers.

League champion: Michigan State. The Spartans win this thing in even years — 2012, ’14, ’16 — but not this year.

Spoiler: Nebraska has won eight of its last nine games — but has done so without playing a single likely NCAA tournament team in that span. That tells you the miserable state of the league this year.

Who wins: Michigan (22). A Wagnerian opera in the Garden, as opposed to Lincoln Center? Yes. Get ready for a full dose of center Moe Wagner.

THE LITTLE DANCE

The small-conference tournaments that play out this week should be supported and cheered more than ever, because there is less likelihood the players on the court were compromised by agents and sneaker pimps and AAU godfathers. So watch these tourneys and appreciate the fact that — for the most part — you don’t have to wonder who’s been bought and paid for.

OHIO VALLEY

Dates: Wednesday-Saturday.

League power rating: 22nd out of 32.

League champion: Murray State.

Spoiler: No. 4 seed Jacksonville State.

Who wins: Jacksonville State (23). League tourney warlock Ray Harper does it again.

BIG SOUTH

Dates: Tuesday-Sunday.

League power rating: 28th out of 32.

League champion: UNC Asheville.

Spoiler: No. 5 seed Liberty

Who wins: Radford (24). Highlanders finished regular season on a four-game winning streak, split with UNC Asheville and defend well enough to be a difficult out.

ATLANTIC SUN

Dates: Monday-Sunday.

League power rating: 30th out of 32.

League champion: Florida Gulf Coast.

Spoiler: No. 2 seed Lipscomb.

Who wins: Florida Gulf Coast (25). Eagles had one complacent week, losing to Kennesaw State and Lipscomb at home Feb. 15 and 17, but otherwise have dominated the league again. They should be locked in.

MISSOURI VALLEY

Dates: Thursday-Sunday.

League power rating: Ninth out of 32.

League champion: Loyola Chicago.

Spoiler: No. 3 seed Illinois State.

Who wins: Loyola (26). Fifty-five years after one of the most unlikely of NCAA championships, the Ramblers are going back to the Big Dance. This is a fun team to watch.

COLONIAL

Dates: March 3-6.

League power rating: 18th out of 32.

League champion: Northeastern and College of Charleston tied, with Charleston getting the top seed.

Spoiler: No. 3 seed Hofstra.

Who wins: College of Charleston (27). Plenty of firepower between Grant Riller (18.4 points per game), Joe Chealey (18) and Jarrell Brantley (17.3) to carry the Cougars through three games in a high-scoring league.

METRO ATLANTIC

Dates: March 1-5.

League power rating: 20th out of 32.

League champion: Rider.

Spoiler: No. 6 seed Fairfield.

Who wins: Fairfield (28). This is The Minutes’ long-shot special of the week. The Stags (14-15) are riding a season-high four-game winning streak and have won seven of their last nine. Why not?

WEST COAST

Dates: March 2-6.

League power rating: 10th out of 32.

League champion: Gonzaga.

Spoiler: No. 4 seed San Francisco.

Who wins: Gonzaga (29). What, you were expecting Pepperdine?

It’s safe to say Mark Few and Gonzaga are going to be rolling into March on the right note. (AP)
It’s safe to say Mark Few and Gonzaga are going to be rolling into March on the right note. (AP)

SUMMIT

Dates: March 3-6.

League power rating: 13th out of 32.

League champion: South Dakota State.

Spoiler: No. 3 seed Denver.

Who wins: South Dakota State (30). The Dauminator, Mike Daum, has had 11 30-point games this year. He’ll have a couple more in Sioux Falls to earn a second straight NCAA bid.

HORIZON

Dates: March 2-6.

League power rating: 26th out of 32.

League champion: Northern Kentucky.

Spoiler: No. 4 seed Oakland.

Who wins: Wright State (31). Defensively diligent second seed defeated NKU twice during the regular season and will make it three straight if they meet up in the final.

NORTHEAST

Dates: Wednesday-March 6.

League power rating: 29th out of 32.

League champion: Wagner.

Spoiler: No. 3 seed Mount St. Mary’s.

Who wins: Wagner (32). The Seahawks have won 14 straight at home, and this is a tournament played in campus arenas. As the top seed, Wagner will be in its home gym for as long as it keeps winning. Last NCAA bid: 2003.

PATRIOT

Dates: Tuesday-March 7.

League power rating: 28th of 32.

League champion: Bucknell.

Spoiler: No. 4 seed Lehigh, which has won eight straight games, including victories over Bucknell and No. 2 seed Colgate.

Who wins: Bucknell (33). Bison dominated the league and are led by three seniors looking to go out with consecutive NCAA tourney appearances.

AMERICA EAST

Dates: March 3-10.

League power rating: 25th of 32.

League champion: Vermont.

Spoiler: No. 4 seed Albany.

Who wins: Vermont (34). The Catamounts lost one league game by one point this season. If injured star Anthony Lamb comes back from a foot fracture, Vermont could be the most lopsided favorite in any league tourney.

FIVE QUESTIONS WITH A COACH

This week The Minutes decided it was time to talk to the last honest man in college hoops. OK, Belmont’s Rick Byrd (35) might not really be the last honest man, but he’s certainly one of the most enduring honest men in the sport. Byrd is completing his 33rd season with the Bruins and is one of the most respected coaches in the game.

Q. What do you make of the current state of the sport?

A. I kind of agree with Mark Fox when he said it’s not only disappointing, but in many ways it’s disgusting. And as many people have said, this is only one agent; there’s more out there. I’ve played a lot of golf in my life and I’m a believer in playing the game by the rules, or you didn’t shoot the score you said you did. I’m not interested in succeeding with shortcuts.

When I see so many people choose that path, I just wonder what went wrong. You can’t just say, ‘I’m a competitor and I want to win.’ There’s a lot of competitive people who play by the rules. People say it’s the money, but some coaches would cheat making $25,000 a year as much as at $10 million a year.

Q. Any suggested changes?

A. All this starts with the hiring process. Presidents and athletic directors have to do a super examination of the character of the people they’re hiring. What so often is forgotten, we work for academic institutions. I know there is all kinds of talk about opening things wide up (paying players), but for now we are academic institutions. We are educators. What are they learning from us? The educational process is completely lost in all this.

Belmont head coach Rick Byrd looks on against TCU during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, in Fort Worth, Texas. TCU won 87-76. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)
Belmont head coach Rick Byrd looks on against TCU during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, in Fort Worth, Texas. TCU won 87-76. (AP Photo/Ron Jenkins)

Q. You’ve thrived at the mid-major level. Is it better working at a level where you don’t encounter pervasive cheating?

A. Recruiting violations at our level are guys talking to parents after a game when they’re not supposed to, or maybe giving them a pair of shoes. But a lot of the guys that come from our level end up in trouble when they get to the higher level. I’m not sure we’re all lily-white at this level.

I do believe that at all levels, a lot more guys are doing it for the right reason. But a decent percentage of them are not.

Q. What about this year’s Belmont team? You’re 23-8 and the No. 2 seed in the OVC tournament. How has this team progressed?

A. We’ve had some injuries and we don’t have an inside scoring presence. Most of our teams have been four shooters around one inside guy who can really score, but this has been different. It seems like I’m making stuff up before every game. We’ve ended up with a good offensive-efficiency rating, but it hasn’t seemed to come as easily.

Q. What is the conference tournament like in a one-bid league?

A. It’s all I’ve ever known. Those of us who like fairness think the best way to name a champion is the regular season, but basketball is a tournament game and people love that. It’s a lot of pressure, especially when you know your team is good enough to do it. You don’t get a lot of sleep and your stomach churns non-stop as you get closer to that first game. But for excitement, basketball tournaments are hard to beat.

MINUTES STAT OF THE WEEK

Dayton (36) has misplaced its defense. In their first year under Anthony Grant, the Flyers have their worst KenPom defensive rating in the 17-year history of the Pomeroy metrics — a ghastly 238th nationally. The previous three seasons that ranking was 43rd, 15th and 30th. Grant inherited a young team and the struggle has been real. Dayton is 13-15 and could be headed for its first losing season since 2006.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Tony Bennett (37), Virginia. His team has 26 wins. It has two losses. It has no known scandals. It held Pittsburgh to seven first-half points last week. This is pretty much Peak Bennett, though the real proving ground will be next month.

COACH WHO SHOULD RIDE THE BUS TO WORK

Josh Pastner (38), Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets’ losing streak is now seven, with 11 losses in the last 12. And then there are the bizarre lawsuits back and forth between Pastner and a couple in Arizona who used to be friends with the coach. (With friends like that …)

BUZZER BEATER

The Minutes was slightly occupied last week but did find time for a bite and a beer in Louisville at Brick House Tavern (39). Try a Dragonfly IPA from Indiana-based Upland Brewing Co. (40) and thank The Minutes later.

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