Sifting through the offensive offense, three unbeatens and more
By Pat Forde
Updated: January 15, 2008
Toilets have lids, baskets do not
It's not yet an all-out crisis, but the threat level has been raised to orange regarding offensively offensive basketball. Evidence:
Rick Majerus' Billikens scored 20 points in a 40-minute game last week -- reportedly without wearing blindfolds. (And they thought Saint Louis was hard to watch when Brad Soderberg was the coach?)
Michigan State (2) -- a top 10 team, for the love of Magic Johnson -- scored 36 at Iowa over the weekend.
Earlier in the season, Savannah State (3) set a shot clock era record by scoring four points in a half -- breaking the old mark of six set in December by Penn (4). There have been NHL all-star games with more scoring than that.
Points and power go (hot) hand-in-hand
The old canard says defense wins championships, but offensive explosiveness might be more important. According to the latest NCAA statistics, nine of the top 15 teams in scoring are ranked in the Top 25, as opposed to five ranked teams in the top 15 in scoring defense.
The Minutes notes that the last three unbeaten teams of 2007-08 are among the national scoring leaders. Top-ranked North Carolina is second at 92.2 points per game, No. 3 Kansas is 10th at 83.7 and No. 2 Memphis is tied for 14th at 82.7.
The question now is which teams can sufficiently slow down the big three to hand them their first losses of the season. The Minutes examines:
North Carolina (5): For the first time in school history, the Tar Heels have scored 90 or more points in seven straight games (albeit aided by an overtime period against Clemson). They'll face a significant pace battle on Jan. 23 at Miami -- the Hurricanes rank 31st nationally in points allowed (60.8) and are among the top 15 in field-goal percentage defense (37.5). After that, it figures to be February before the Heels are at serious risk of losing: Florida State (Feb. 3), Duke (Feb. 6) and Clemson (Feb. 10), but the latter two come to the Dean Dome. Post-FSU, Carolina's toughest remaining road games are in March, when it visits Boston College (March 1) and Duke (March 8).
Odds of running the table into the postseason: 14-1. Not in the ACC, with nine remaining opponents in the RPI top 65. But wouldn't it be fun to see an undefeated Carolina team go into Cameron Indoor to close the regular season?
Memphis (6): The Tigers have scored at least 80 points in nine of their 15 games and should fry scoreboards throughout Conference USA. UAB (39th nationally in field-goal percentage defense) might be the only league school with a chance to grind it out and frustrate Memphis. That won't be the approach for Houston, which will try to match athleticism with the Tigers. Number cruncher extraordinaire Ken Pomeroy uses his own rating system to predict the outcome of games, and he only has two games in which Memphis has less than a 91 percent probability to win: at UAB on Feb. 16 (86 percent) and home against Tennessee on Feb. 23 (84 percent).
Odds of running the table into the postseason: Even. But The Minutes does not believe that would be a good thing for the Tigers.
Kansas (7): After Monday night's 85-55 win over Oklahoma, the Jayhawks have broken the 80-point mark 12 times in 17 games and surpassed 75 in 15 of 17. But they're great on the other end, too, which is why they'd won their last eight games by an average margin of 23.1 points. But there should be some close games coming up: at rivals Missouri on Jan. 19 and Kansas State on Jan. 30; at Texas on Feb. 11; and at Texas A&M on March 8. Mizzou, averaging 83.0 points per game, might at least be able to match points with Kansas. K-State has big-time talents in Michael Beasley and Bill Walker. Texas shouldn't be overmatched athletically. And A&M will make Kansas work the hardest to score.
Odds of running the table into the postseason: 16-1. This is a quality league, and the Jayhawks must play all their prime competition away from The Phog.
Xavier (8) has gotten all feisty about being labeled a "mid-major" program -- to the point where the Musketeers protested their inclusion in the ESPN.com mid-major poll and rejected a Rivals.com mid-major Player of the Week honor for guard Drew Lavender.
Didn't even matter that we had XU No. 1 in the mid-major poll. The Musketeers clearly feel that's like being named America's Sexiest Fat Person.
But it got The Minutes thinking about how we should define high-major, mid-major and low-major programs.
You're a high-major program if:
• Dickie V comes to campus often enough to be on a first-name basis with the team's equipment manager.
• Your coach's suits cost more than a semester's room and board.
• Your players are mortified when they have to fly commercial.
• NBA scouts are always around. So are agent runners.
• Your star players come with a "support group" of family members, friends, hangers on, hustlers and "advisers" -- all of whom are very concerned about his "touches," some of whom are now employed by the basketball program, none of whom are concerned about his grade point average.
• Coach's weekly radio show is broadcast on at least five affiliates around the state.
• Your locker room is tricked-out enough to be featured on "Cribs."
• Boxes of new gear arrive from your apparel rep every other week.
• The academic support staff backs up its "No Power Forward Left Behind" marching orders by having enough tutors to double-team every player.
• You have at least one suit (assistant coaches, managers, trainers) on the bench per uniformed player.
In terms of on-court performance and fan support, these are your impostor high-major programs in high-major conferences: Penn State (9), Auburn (10), Oregon State (11), South Florida (12) and Northwestern (13).
You're a mid-major program if:
• Your center is 6-foot-8, or a very stiff 6-10.
• Your players are all around long enough to declare a major and actually pursue a degree in it.
• Students spend days in advance of rare TV home game making occasionally clever (but mostly lame) acronym signs out of "ESPN." Students stay home for non-TV games.
• Your team flies Southwest, and tries like hell to get in the "A" boarding group.
• Every time you win 20 games, your coach is a flight risk to a high-major program.
• The same 10 people keep showing up at the local restaurant for the coach's radio show.
• The coach has to call his apparel rep instead of the rep calling him.
• Dickie V comes to your campus once every four years, and it's a big damn deal when he does.
• Your players have been told at least once in their lives that they're not good enough.
• You have two managers for the entire team.
Mid-major programs that belong on the high-major level, given their performance over time: Butler (14), Creighton (15), Southern Illinois (16) and Xavier (happy now, Musketeers?). Gonzaga (17) long ago graduated out of this classification. Memphis has been a high-major for decades but is sometimes guilty by mid-major association with C-USA riff-raff.
You're a low-major program if:
• Chemistry lab actually comes before basketball for some players.
• There is no coach's radio show.
• The coach leaves messages for his apparel rep but he never calls back.
• The coach's comp country club membership is at the local Elks Club.
• Dickie V couldn't find your campus with Mapquest and a GPS.
• Neither can NBA scouts. Or agent runners.
• Practices are open to the media, but only the student paper shows up.
• You dream of being the first 16 seed to beat a 1.
• You charter buses. Not airplanes.
• You have assistant coaches moonlighting as managers.
Low-majors that can play with the big boys most every year: Holy Cross (18), Winthrop (19), Penn (20) and Oral Roberts (21).
Bench decorum … right
Coming into the season, the edict was handed down to coaches: Clean up your sideline act. For an update on how that's going, The Minutes brings you a few snippets from Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings (22) at Rupp Arena on Saturday during the first half of the Commodores' double-overtime loss to Kentucky:
"That guy is incompetent," Stallings barked to lead official Tony Greene in reference to his partner, Mike Nance.
"You can't drop the ball and pick it up and dribble it again," Stallings commented acidly at Nance shortly afterward. "I know that's hard refereeing, but you can't do that."
"That's a f------ hold!" Stallings later screamed at the third official, Bert Smith, then spent half of an ensuing timeout outside his huddle glaring directly at Smith. Finally, Stallings walked across the court and talked to Smith and Greene as the Rupp crowd showered him with boos.
For this, Stallings received zero technical fouls. And presumably, the refs received nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.
But that wasn't supposed to be the point of this "area of emphasis." Officials are supposed to be stronger, not softer, when dealing with the excessive crabbing and manipulating that college coaches are so fond of. Enduring shrieking F-bombs and charges of incompetence shouldn't go with the new job description.
It could be that Stallings knew he was working a pliant group. Smith, after all, once famously indulged a Mike Davis (23) tantrum for the ages when Davis was the Indiana coach. Smith waited forever to throw Davis out of the game as the coach dashed around the court slapping himself in the forehead. "Quick Draw" Curtis Shaw he is not.
The more refs let coaches engage them in endless debate, the more reason there is to wonder how much psychological effect they have on the stripes. The game is better served in debate over who has the better team, not which coach is better at working over the zebras for critical calls.
Relocation report card
There were a whopping 59 coaching changes in Division I after last season. The Minutes selects the 10 coaches in new jobs who are authoring the quickest upgrades so far:
Keno Davis (24), Drake. Davis is going to the Tony Bennett playbook at Washington State -- taking over for his dad and radically improving the product.
This season: The Bulldogs are 14-1, 5-0 in the super-competitive Missouri Valley, and in the RPI top 20. Nine of their 14 victories are over teams in the top 200 RPI, and their only loss is by six at tough St. Mary's.
Last season: Drake won its fifth league game on Valentine's Day and went 6-12 in the Valley. The last time it had a winning record in MVC play was 1986.
Tubby Smith (25), Minnesota. While Billy Gillispie has struggled to put his stamp on Smith's old program at Kentucky, TubbyBall has been an instant hit in the Twin Cities.
This season: The Gophers haven't played the toughest of schedules, but that didn't stop them from being lousy in previous seasons. This season they're 12-3, 2-1 in the Big Ten -- and if you don't think 2-1 sounds like much, see below.
Last season: Minnesota lost its last nine games of the season to finish 9-22, 3-13 in league play. The 2007-08 Gophers already have doubled this team's road victory total.
Mark Turgeon (26), Texas A&M. A lot of coaches would have loved to take over the talent Gillispie left behind in College Station. But not all of them could do as much with it as Turgeon has done so far.
This season: The Aggies are 15-1 for the first time since 1922, with an average winning margin of 20.6 points. They've thumped teams from the Big Ten, Pac-10, SEC and Big 12 along the way. They've also played just one true road game and lost it, so they might be susceptible on the road at Lubbock and Manhattan this week.
Last season: As good as A&M was in 2006-07, it didn't start the season 15-1. And last season the Aggies had future lottery-pick point guard Acie Law IV.
Joe Pasternack (27), New Orleans. He's the third coach in three years at a school ravaged by Hurricane Katrina -- and he got the Privateers off to an 11-2 start. Having scoring volcano Bo McCalebb helps, but he wasn't enough to offset three straight losing seasons before this one.
This season: New Orleans stunned North Carolina State, Tulane and Colorado early in winning a school-record 11 games before Jan. 1. The Privateers have come back to earth a bit lately, losing three of their first five Sun Belt games, but all have been competitive losses.
Last season: New Orleans went 12-16, with none of its dozen wins against teams ranked better than 130th in the final RPI.
Ronnie Arrow (28), South Alabama. John Pelphrey left what he thought would be his best team in Mobile to go to Arkansas, and Arrow has kept the team on task. He's pushed every right button in Act II as coach at the school.
This season: The Jaguars have won nine straight to push their record to 12-3, 5-0 in the Sun Belt. Their three losses are by a total of 11 points, all against RPI top 35 teams. If the season ended today, USA would probably earn the Sun Belt's first at-large NCAA Tournament bid since 1994.
Last season: A wobbly start and bad finish put the Jaguars (20-11) in the NIT, where they lost in the first round to Syracuse.
Bob Huggins (29), West Virginia. Came home to his alma mater, ditching Kansas State coldly after one season. He's maintained all the offensive skill John Beilein recruited to Morgantown while augmenting the defensive and rebounding toughness.
This season: The Mountaineers were picked to finish 10th in the Big East, a major mistake when appraising any Huggins team. To date, they're 12-4 (2-2 league), with a respectable 4-3 road/neutral record and a dominant 8-1 mark at home. Nobody has come closer than 15 points of WVU in Morgantown, including Marquette and Syracuse.
Last season: The Mountaineers narrowly missed the NCAA Tournament and then won the NIT with a young team. That WVU team had a minus-3.5 rebound margin, while the current one is a plus-3.4. Attribute that to Huggins.
Steve Alford (30), New Mexico. Despite losing one of the Lobos' top returnees, swingman Tony Danridge, to a broken leg in the preseason, Alford has his new team among the five title contenders in the Mountain West.
This season: Alford has tapped into talented but troublesome senior J.R. Giddens. His scoring is down slightly while every other statistical category is up, and Giddens' 20-point, 19-rebound, seven-assist effort against UTEP ranks among the most impressive stat lines of the season.
Last season: By late January, the Lobos were 1-6 in the MWC and Ritchie McKay was on his way to being pink-slipped. This team has a good chance of returning to the NCAA Tournament.
John Pelphrey (31), Arkansas. Few new coaches inherited more talent (or pressure) than Pelphrey, who took over a roster most believed to be the best in the SEC West. Might still work out that way, although Mississippi will have something to say about it.
This season: The Razorbacks have six wins over RPI top 100 opposition, but a bad home loss to No. 113 Appalachian State. Since then, they've won four straight and have a chance to start SEC play 6-0 before beginning a February gauntlet that should tell us whether this team can end the Hogs' five-game NCAA Tournament losing streak.
Last season: Stan Heath thought his job was safe after the Hogs squeaked into the tournament. After a 17-point loss to USC in the first round, he was out and a torturous search for a replacement finally settled on Pelphrey.
Tim Jankovich (32), Illinois State. This was an underachieving program for several seasons before Jankovich arrived. Yes, he walked into experienced talent -- with five of the Redbirds' top six scorers returning -- but few people anticipated a 5-0 start in Missouri Valley play.
This season: The Redbirds were upset by Eastern Michigan on Dec. 4, falling to 5-3. They haven't lost since, ripping off eight straight victories -- four of them on the road, five of them in league play and one of them over Cincinnati.
Last season: Illinois State was 5-10 in games decided by 10 points or less, on its way to a 15-16 season (6-12 league). This season, it is 4-2 in those games.
Jim Boylen (33), Utah. He was brought in to add toughness to a program that had gone soft in the final two years under Ray Giacoletti. So far, there has been improvement in that area, with the 10-4 Utes leading the MWC in 3-point shooting percentage and ranking second in rebound margin.
This season: We'll find out more about the Utes in their next three games. They face the two teams unbeaten in league play, San Diego State and BYU, this week, then follow it up with a trip to The Pit next week.
Last season: Utah slid to 11-19, one year after going 14-15, which was one year after Andrew Bogut left the premises. That is known as cause and effect.
(Special Minutes commendation to Ball State coach Billy Taylor, whose team is 2-12 -- and he's doing a fine job. The Cardinals were 9-22 last season and then had their roster gutted in the rocky transition from Ronny Thompson to Taylor, who didn't take over until August. Despite having nobody taller than 6-foot-6, the outmanned Cards have been in almost every game.)
Signs of life in Louisville, Lexington
Earlier this month, The Minutes detailed the inglorious season starts in the Bluegrass State. Louisville (34) dropped from the preseason top 10 into triple digits in the RPI, and Kentucky (35) plummeted into the RPI 200s after home losses to Gardner-Webb and San Diego.
Now the comeback has begun.
The Cardinals are much further back, having won three straight games and seven of their last eight (including a decisive win at Kentucky). Heading into a rivalry game against Marquette at home on Thursday, Louisville is back in the NCAA Tournament field as of now. Biggest thing in the Cards' favor? Their injured senior class -- center David Padgett (36) and forward Juan Palacios (37) -- is back in uniform and performing well.
Padgett has shored up Louisville's interior defense and settled down its occasionally scatterbrained offense. Palacios is averaging a career-low 6.1 points, but all of them have been important. If sophomore point guard Edgar Sosa ever remembers how to play his position, the Cardinals will be a dangerous team in the season's second half.
For Kentucky, the lasting image from the Wildcats' 79-73 double-overtime triumph over previously unbeaten Vanderbilt was this: coach Billy Gillispie and senior guard Joe Crawford (39) embracing and walking off the court with their arms around each other.
"That was one of the first times all year we've been that happy," Crawford said.
Figuratively speaking, the two had previously spent the season with their hands around each other's throats. So this was important.
Crawford had just exhausted himself guarding Vandy shooter Shan Foster, earning praise from his coach for the effort.
"He was great all day long," Gillispie said.
Gillispie's other senior of great importance and great frustration is Ramel Bradley, who also rose to the occasion against the Commodores. Bradley played all 50 minutes, producing 20 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals. True, he also had six turnovers and took the usual assortment of bad shots, but he's trying doggedly to play the point as Gillispie wishes.
The other star for the Cats was power forward Patrick Patterson (23 points, 12 rebounds), who dramatically outplayed Vandy freshman star A.J. Ogilvy. While Ogilvy was wilting in the second overtime, literally unable to even jump after rebounds, Patterson was much more lively in the final minutes -- and he also played all 50, to Ogilvy's 34.
"I thought Patterson had a great day," Stallings said. "I did not think A.J. had a great day. I think Patterson had the best of it, for sure."
Kentucky's lousy season has obscured the fact that Patterson belongs in the same company as the most touted freshmen in the country.
Most of all, Kentucky showed the kind of grit it has lacked all season -- something Gillispie has been trying to instill through sometimes mysterious means.
"We're getting tougher," Gillispie said. "When you win a game like that, it says a lot about the toughness we're developing."
Keep this up, and Ashley Judd (39) her own self might come back to Rupp for a game this season.
When hungry in Phoenix, The Minutes recommends some no-frills Mexican food at the Tee Pee (40). The menu even includes a Presidential Special: two enchiladas, rice and beans, just the way W. ate it there four years ago. (The Minutes isn't crazy about The Prez's politics, but endorses his taste in Mexican.)
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.