Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football (Tre Jones Voodoo Missed Shot Potion sold separately in Durham):
HOT MESS ALERTS
They looked good in October, so we fell for them. Hard. Now it’s February, and we see that so many of our preseason crushes are dysfunctional disappointments. Regrets? Yeah, we have a few. Let’s name them:
North Carolina (1). Preseason: No. 9 AP, No. 4 in The Minutes’ rankings. Now: The Tar Heels are 10-13 overall, 3-9 and in 13th place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and have lost three straight. Yes, there have been injuries, a plague of them. But this team also has found ways to lose that defy belief—most notably Saturday when the Heels had a monster upset of hated rival Duke all but locked up on multiple occasions. There were certainly some questionable calls in the game that went against Carolina. There also were some possessions that reinforced the fact that point guard Cole Anthony is a freshman. And there were so many missed free throws. It was, all things considered, a ghastly collapse after being up 13 with four minutes to play, emblematic of a season that has gone completely wrong.
Florida (2). Preseason: No. 6 AP, No. 8 in The Minutes. Now: The Gators are 14-9, 6-4 in the SEC and have lost four of their last six. They are 2-6 against Quadrant 1 opponents, and have a pair of flat-out embarrassing conference road losses against lower-echelon teams (Missouri by 16 and Mississippi by 17). Florida isn’t guarding like a Mike White team, and its touted freshman class hasn’t had anywhere near the desired impact. When Virginia Tech transfer Kerry Blackshear chose the Gators, it looked like the last piece of a potential Final Four puzzle. Today this looks more like a First Four team.
Michigan State (3). Preseason: The Spartans weren’t just a landslide preseason No. 1, they were almost unanimous. They received 60 of 65 first-place votes in the AP poll and 30 of 32 in the coaches’ poll. The Minutes was the maverick, ranking Michigan State No. 2. Now: They’re 16-8 overall, 8-5 and tied for fourth in the Big Ten, riding a three-game losing streak. Losing best supporting actor Josh Langford for the season obviously was a big blow, and the Spartans have failed to adequately compensate for his loss despite having all season to try and figure it out. That has left an inordinate burden on point guard Cassius Winston and big man Xavier Tillman, and they’re showing signs of wear at this stage. In terms of effective field-goal percentage, this is Tom Izzo’s worst team in seven years.
Indiana (4). Preseason: The Hoosiers were unranked, but hopes were high for their first NCAA tournament berth since 2016. Now: Indiana 15-8 overall but 5-7 in the Big Ten and on a four-game losing streak. Worse yet, the Hoosiers have plenty of losable games remaining—Ken Pomeroy projects them to lose their next six. Has a team ever made the tourney after a 10-game losing streak? Seems doubtful. The guards are experienced but underwhelming. The general lack of fire playing rival Purdue in a packed house Saturday might be the biggest concern of all for Indiana fans. Where is the urgency?
Washington (5). Preseason: The Huskies were 26th in AP voting, just missing the rankings. They were picked by the media to finish third in the Pac-12, with a strong freshman class expected to compensate for the loss of much of the 2019 conference champions. Now: Washington is 12-12 overall, 2-9 and dead last in the Pac-12, and stumbling through a six-game losing streak. It’s hard to believe this is the team that began the season by handing Baylor what has been its only loss so far. When Kentucky transfer Quade Green was ruled academically ineligible a month ago, it took away the one semi-reliable ballhandler Mike Hopkins had—which explains why this is one of the most turnover-prone teams in the nation.
Virginia (6). Preseason: The reigning national champions were No. 11 in the AP poll, No. 13 in The Minutes’ Top 25. Now: Everyone overrated the Cavaliers’ ability to replace three excellent players. Without DeAndre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, this is a simply dreadful offensive team, shooting just 28.7% from three-point range and 48% inside the arc. (They finally shot well Saturday against Louisville — but surrendered 80 points for the first time in almost exactly a year.) There have been just two Quad 1 wins, and one of those was the season opener Nov. 6 at Syracuse, but the schedule does provide some more chances in the coming weeks.
Villanova (7). Preseason: ‘Nova was 10th in the preseason poll and 20th in The Minutes’ Top 25. Now: The Wildcats are 17-6, 7-4 in the Big East, which isn’t bad—but they’re on a three-game losing streak and have lost consecutive home conference games for the first time since 2012. This team is lacking a rim protector defensively and is susceptible to being beaten off the dribble at some positions as well. Forward Jeremiah Robinson-Earl looks like he’s hit a February freshman wall: he’s made just 6 of 28 field-goal attempts this month, and is 0 for 6 from three-point range. Making the NCAA tourney isn’t an issue for Nova, but maintaining high seeding could be if the losses continue.
There are the established Hot Messes above, and then there are the teams that have played well for large stretches of the season—often over-performing—but now they could be sliding into Hot Mess territory. The list:
LSU (8). Was last week just a rough stretch on the road, or a sign of escalating trouble? Losing by a point in overtime at the buzzer at Auburn is no shame at all—but the loss before that, as Vanderbilt, was a shocker. The Commodores had lost a record 28 straight games to SEC competition, then all of sudden dropped 99 points on the Tigers. This is not a good defensive team, a fact that was underscored last week. If LSU loses at home Tuesday to a Missouri team that hasn’t come close to winning an SEC road game this season, it will be time to hit the panic button.
Memphis (9). The Tigers were 12-1 in 2019, seemingly transitioning well after the unexpected bailout of star big man James Wiseman. Since the calendar flipped to 2020 they’re 5-5, with bad home losses to Georgia, SMU and, most recently, South Florida. Throw in a 40-point loss at Tulsa and Memphis has wandered out onto the thinner margins of the bubble. They’ll probably be without forward D.J. Jeffries for the remainder of this month as he works through a knee injury, which makes a challenging closing stretch (five on the road, three at home) all the more difficult.
Oregon (10). With five home games remaining sandwiching a trip to play the Arizona schools, chances are good that the Ducks will get over their recent funk and finish strong. But the consecutive losses to Stanford and Oregon State are enough to make you wonder, especially since they follow erratic wins over California, USC and Washington and a bad loss at Washington State. Freshman big man N’Faly Dante has spent more time either ineligible or injured (15 games) than in the lineup (nine games). Fellow big man Francis Okoro missed Oregon’s last game as well, traveling back to Africa for the funeral of his father. The Ducks could use them both.
West Virginia (11). This week will be a huge wellness check for the Mountaineers, who are coming off a beatdown at Oklahoma. They host Kansas Wednesday and then play at Baylor Saturday, taking their shot at two of the four No. 1 NCAA tournament seeds in the selection committee’s early top 16 reveal. Win both and everything is wonderful. Win one and things are fine. Lose both and West Virginia is dealing with a three-game losing streak and a four-game road losing streak.
Ohio State (12). The Buckeyes successfully navigated their first two games without five-star freshman guard DJ Carton, who is taking a mental health leave. Then the walls caved in at Wisconsin Sunday in a blowout loss. Ohio State committed turnovers on 23% of its possessions in that game, the most since the Buckeyes were in the grips of a four-game losing streak a month ago. Sweeping home games this week against Rutgers and Purdue would restore confidence in what has been a season of scarlet-and-gray mood swings.
Tulsa (13). The Minutes Jinx struck a savage blow to the Golden Hurricane. One week after being lauded in this column for their 7-1 start to American Athletic Conference play, Tulsa now has lost two straight without leading for a minute in the second half against Connecticut at home and UCF on the road. The at-large résumé isn’t great right now, so Frank Haith’s team needs to pile up some wins down the stretch to get back into that conversation.
Rutgers (14). Yes, the Scarlet Knights moved to 16-0 at home Sunday night—but what were they doing in a life-and-death, overtime battle with Northwestern, the worst team in the Big Ten? That followed losses to Michigan and Maryland. Fact is, Rutgers is 1-7 in road/neutral games, and that one win is against 7-16 Nebraska. As good as the Rutgers resurrection story has been, can the Knights keep it going for seven more games, four of which are on the road?
Six teams that haven’t had great seasons, but could be getting hot in time to make a late run:
Purdue (15). Heading into February, the Boilermakers were 11-10 overall and 4-6 in the Big Ten. They were coming off their first-ever Big Ten loss to Rutgers. They were winless on the road in conference play. Now they’re on a three-game winning streak—two of them on the road—and riding the high of scoring 104 points on Iowa and then spoiling Bob Knight’s Assembly Hall homecoming. Making 27 of 50 threes in the past two games does tend to help make a team look dramatically better.
Xavier (16). Another February turnaround story. After failing to close out Markus Howard-less Marquette at home Jan. 29, the Musketeers stood 13-8 overall and just 2-6 in the Big East. Now they’re on a three-game winning streak, the centerpiece of which was annihilating Seton Hall on the glass in a 12-point road upset. That sharpened X’s NCAA résumé, and now the next three games (at Butler, at St. John’s, home against Villanova) could be critical.
Notre Dame (17). This has been the nation’s least-clutch team, with its last five ACC losses by a total of 14 points. The Fighting Irish turned that around Sunday at Clemson, finally winning a close league game, and now they’re riding their first four-game ACC winning streak since 2017. Beating Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Pittsburgh and Clemson in succession doesn’t get a team into the tournament, but it inches the Irish toward the bubble discussion with a big week upcoming (at Virginia, at Duke).
UCLA (18). On Saturday, the Bruins scored what Ken Pomeroy rates as their best win since Lonzo Ball was in uniform, beating Arizona by 13 on the road. That made them 5-2 in its last seven, with a victory over league-leading Colorado also during that stretch. UCLA was dreadful until mid-January, but now it is only two games out of first place in the Pac-12. First-year coach Mick Cronin’s lineup tinkering may finally be finding the right combinations.
Colorado State (19). After a loss to Nevada on New Year’s Day, the Rams were 9-7 overall and 0-3 in the Mountain West. Since then they are 8-1, and while a soft scheduling run has played a part, it’s not the whole story. Freshman point guard Isaiah Stevens has played very well during this stretch, averaging 16 points and five assists, and center Nico Carvacho is putting up 16.3 points and 14 rebounds over the last three games.
South Carolina (20). The Gamecocks have improved 25 spots in the Pomeroy Ratings in the past month while winning six of their last eight. They’re playing fast on offense and it’s working, having scored 74 or more points in their last six victories. They’re also fouling everyone on defense, ranking 352nd nationally out of 353 teams in free-throw rate, but depth has been Frank Martin’s friend lately. South Carolina still has a long way to go to even get near bubble consideration, however.
HOT ENOUGH TO CRASH THE TOP LINE?
As of today, there is universal agreement on the NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds: Baylor, Kansas, Gonzaga, San Diego State. But if any of the four falters, who is standing in line to grab a No. 1?
The first and best answer is the ACC champion. Right now that’s a three-team race, heading into a very big game Monday night. A quick look at the ACC contenders:
Louisville (21) was the No. 7 overall team in the selection committee’s Saturday rankings, same as its NCAA NET ranking. It leads the conference at 12-1, with a road win over Duke and a home loss to Florida State. (For tiebreaker purposes, the Cardinals will be rooting for the Blue Devils in their Big Monday clash with the Seminoles.) Louisville is on a 10-game winning streak and will be solidly favored in its next four games (at Georgia Tech and Clemson this week, home against Syracuse and North Carolina the following week). The Cards are shooting a blistering 44.9% from three-point range during ACC play, and their offense has found another dimension with the ascension of freshman David Johnson as a 6-foot-5, pick-and-roll defense shredder. He is an elite passer. Biggest remaining games: at Florida State Feb. 24, at Virginia March 7. (The Cards are 0-5 in Charlottesville since joining the league.)
Duke (22) was the No. 5 overall team and is No. 6 in the NET. It is 10-2 but 0-1 against the rest of the ACC top three, and it’s a home loss at that. The Blue Devils would have taken a step back in the race if they hadn’t pulled off an escape for the ages in the Dean Dome Saturday night, with an amazing pileup of clutch plays and flukish bounces and North Carolina gaffes and controversial calls. Guard Tre Jones is either a physics savant or the luckiest player on Earth, but either way his planned free-throw miss, subsequent rebound and made jumper to force overtime is the Sequence of the Year thus far in college hoops. In terms of lobbying for a No. 1 seed, Duke does have this in the back pocket: Wendell Moore missed both league losses with an injury. He played his best game against Carolina, racking up 17 points and 10 rebounds. But consider this: can a team be a No. 1 seed in the same season it loses at home to Stephen F. Austin?
Florida State (23) is the No. 10 team with the committee, No. 13 in the NET. The Seminoles are 10-2 in the league, with that big win at Louisville on the résumé—and now they could catch Duke at the right time coming off the dramatic overtime win Saturday night. This is a classic Leonard Hamilton team of long, athletic defenders, leading the nation in blocked shot percentage and ranking in the top 10 in steal percentage. But the ‘Noles can also shoot it from the three-point line and the foul line better than they have in years. Florida State also has an injury it can enter into the seeding argument: freshman Patrick Williams missed two games with a sprained toe, one of them a loss at Virginia. He’s averaged 14 points and seven rebounds the past two games.
If not the ACC champ, then who? A couple of other contenders:
How about Maryland (24)? The Terrapins were No. 9 with the committee and No. 8 in the NET. They have risen to the top of the nation’s best conference, the Big Ten, and are on a six-game winning streak—in reality, they have the only team sheet in the league that currently calls for No. 1 consideration. They have a pair of what should be walkover games at home (Nebraska Tuesday and Northwestern Feb. 18), but the rest of the schedule is fierce: two games with Michigan State, plus trips to Ohio State, Minnesota and Rutgers. Chances of getting through that gauntlet without multiple losses are slim—but if the Terps win the league by multiple games, they will deserve a long look at a No. 1 seed.
What about Dayton (25), you ask? The Flyers, No. 6 with the committee and No. 5 in the NET, are having a huge season. If they run the table in the Atlantic-10, which Ken Pomeroy rates as the eighth-best league in the land, that deserves strong consideration. The only issue would be finishing the regular season with 13 games against Quad 1 and 2 competition and 18 games against Quad 3 and 4. That’s flipped from what most of the other four teams will have on the résumé. (Maryland, for example, is looking at 21 games against Quads 1 and 2, and 10 games against Quads 3 and 4.
WHEN FILLING THE BRACKET, DON’T FORGET THE MID-MAJORS
The Minutes has long had a problem with the selection committee giving too many at-large bids to teams that have had a lot of advantages (scheduling, revenue, conference affiliation) and leaving out teams from traditional one-bid leagues that had great seasons but didn’t win their league’s automatic bid. In a season this muddled, there are plenty of candidates in that pool, should they fall short in their conference tournaments. Among them:
East Tennessee State (26). The Buccaneers are No. 44 NET, No. 54 KenPom. They are 21-4, 10-2 in the Southern Conference, and have played 11 road games to this point—compared to, say, six by Mississippi State. Their trump card: a win at LSU, the only game the Tigers have lost at home all season. They have one truly bad loss, at home to a Mercer team that is 12-13, but if they win out and enter the SoCon tourney at 27-4, that is bid-worthy.
Northern Iowa (27). The Panthers are No. 36 in both the NET and KenPom. They’re 21-3, 10-2 in the Missouri Valley Conference. They’ve scored a win at Colorado, which leads the Pac-12, and beat South Carolina on a neutral floor. Their two MVC losses are by a total of eight points, both on the road. This is the best offensive team longtime coach Ben Jacobson has had in a long time, and nobody will want to play Northern Iowa in the Big Dance.
Yale (28). The Bulldogs are No. 58 NET, No. 51 KenPom. They’re 17-5, 5-1 in the Ivy League. By the time the season is over, Yale will have played 11 games at home and 17 true road games, plus two more at neutral sites. That includes a win at Clemson. There also was a home win over perennial America East power Vermont (see below). Its five losses are by a total of 18 points. It scheduled four games against Power 6 competition—none of them at home, of course.
Liberty (29). The Flames are No. 59 NET, No. 57 KenPom. They’re 23-3, 9-2 in the Atlantic Sun, with the league losses coming by a total of six points in a bad-week road stretch at North Florida and Stetson. There are not a lot of standout wins—Akron on a neutral court, at Vanderbilt—but there are a lot of wins. And a 12-3 record away from home. Liberty showed what it can do in last year’s tourney, taking down Mississippi State.
Utah State (30). The Aggies are No. 48 NET, No. 45 KenPom. In addition to playing in a Top-10 conference, Utah State’s selling power resides largely in two neutral-floor wins over SEC teams: LSU in Jamaica and Florida in Sunrise, Fla. A neutral-court win over the leader of Conference USA, North Texas, helps as well. There are a couple of ugly losses—by 17 at UNLV and by 19 at Air Force—which make a strong finish imperative.
Furman (31). There is more to the SoCon than just ETSU. The Paladins are No. 74 NET, No. 66 KenPom. They’re 20-5, 10-2, and were among the most aggrieved parties last Selection Sunday after being left out of the Big Dance. They’ve already beaten ETSU once and have two more chances for quality regular-season wins: the rematch with the Buccaneers and a game at UNC Greensboro. Three games against non-Division I opponents do not enhance the résumé.
UNC Greensboro (32). Still more SoCon love. The Spartans are No. 64 NET, No. 67 KenPom. At 19-6, 9-3, they have a good record that includes a couple of quality skins on the wall—a win at Georgetown and a win at Vermont. There is one bad home loss, to Montana State, but here’s the context: it was by a point on a half-court buzzer beater in mid-November.
Vermont (33). The Catamounts are No. 84 NET, No. 71 KenPom. They’re on a nine-game winning streak that has pushed their record to 19-6, 9-1 in the America East. Eight of their first 10 games were away from home, and they include wins at St. John’s and St. Bonaventure. They do have losses to a couple of other teams on this mid-major list, and a neutral-court loss to Rider that wasn’t great. The conference isn’t great, either. But Anthony Lamb is a big-time player who could carry the Catamounts to an NCAA upset—if they get a chance.
Stephen F. Austin (34). The Lumberjacks don’t have great metrics—they’re No. 85 NET and No. 107 KenPom. The Southland Conference is one of the weakest leagues in the country. But here’s what they do have, that no other mid-major can match: a win at Duke. Combine that with a 21-3 overall record and just one league loss, by one point, and SFA has done what it can to at least merit at-large consideration.
STAT OF THE WEEK
There have been a lot of dramas about Harvard (35): “The Paper Chase,” “Good Will Hunting,” “The Social Network” and so forth. None of them have anything on this basketball season for the Crimson. It has been ridiculous.
Harvard has ended regulation of its last four games tied (vs. Penn), down a point (Princeton), up a point (Yale) and down a point (Brown). It has played eight straight games decided by five points or fewer, winning five of them and losing three. If the rest of the Crimson’s Ivy League season is going to go like this, coach Tommy Amaker isn’t going to make it.
UNDER THE RADAR LOVE
Each week The Minutes salutes a player from a lower level of the sport who isn’t getting the attention he deserves. This week: A.J. Green (36) of Northern Iowa.
You read about the Panthers above. Green, a sophomore guard, is the biggest reason why UNI is having one of its best seasons. Playing for a coach who usually has balanced attacks, he’s the unquestioned offensive centerpiece of this team. Green scored 34 points Saturday against Drake, his eighth game of 25 or more this season. He’s shooting 40.7% from three-point range on the season and is the leading candidate to be Missouri Valley Player of the Year.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Pat Chambers (37), Penn State. Here, in year nine at the school, is the team he’s been waiting for. The Nittany Lions are a lock to earn their first NCAA bid under Chambers, and they actually have a chance to win their first Big Ten regular-season title. They’re on a six-game winning streak and the remaining schedule is as manageable as it gets in a very deep league. It’s a new day in Happy Valley.
COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK
Chris Collins (38), Northwestern. Collins once had a breakthrough season like the one Chambers is enjoying, but it seems a long time ago now. He took Northwestern to its first and only NCAA tournament berth in 2017, then completely lost any momentum from that season. Since then, the Wildcats are 34-52, 11-39 in the Big Ten. This year is the worst yet, a 6-16 pit of despair that includes a 1-11 league record. Northwestern had its chance for a shocking win at Rutgers Sunday night, leading by 18 points in the first half, but folded down the stretch and lost in overtime. Should the guy who authored the best season in school history be on the hot seat? It depends what Northwestern’s expectations are for the program.
When thirsty in the basketball bedrock city of Indianapolis, The Minutes suggests a visit to Chatham Tap (39), located on the Butler campus just a Bobby Plump jump shot from Hinkle Fieldhouse. It’s a quality combination of English pub and modern sports bar, with solid food and an excellent beer list. Try one of the offerings from local Sun King Brewing (40) and thank The Minutes later.