Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (humility sold separately in Chapel Hill, in large quantities):
YOUR 2019-20 SEASON UPDATE: IT’S MESSY
For those of you waiting until the last whistle of the last football game to turn your gaze to college hoops, welcome. You’ve missed a lot, but a lot of what you missed was pretty brutal.
It has not been a vintage season thus far. The NCAA tournament could be completely unpredictable, which would be fun, but that doesn’t equate to high-quality basketball. We’ll see how the product looks when we get there.
For now, the highlights are sketchy. Among the most noteworthy developments of the past two weeks are these acts of antisocial behavior:
Houston player DeJon Jarreau's (1) biting the leg of Cincinnati’s Mamoudou Diarra during a scramble Saturday. Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson insisted after the game that his player didn’t bite Diarra, then backtracked Sunday and suspended Jarreau for all of one game. That’s a light penalty for attempted cannibalism.
Wisconsin player Brad Davison's (2) groin-punching Iowa’s Connor McCaffery late in the Badgers’ game against the Hawkeyes on Jan. 27, and being assessed a flagrant foul. That earned Davison a one-game suspension from the Big Ten—again, a light penalty, especially considering this isn’t Davison’s first low-blow rodeo. He was assessed a flagrant foul in December 2018 during a game against Marquette for a remarkably similar play—hitting a screener in the groin (in that case Joey Hauser) while chasing his man around the screen. Davison told The Athletic that he “would never intentionally try to hit anyone anywhere, especially not in the nuts.” Intentional or not, Davison’s fist has found its way into some sensitive spots on more than one occasion.
Kansas player Silvio De Sousa's (3) wielding a stool like a potential weapon before dropping it (or having it knocked out of his hands) during the wild melee with Kansas State on Jan. 21. That earned De Sousa a 12-game suspension that will still allow him to return for the Jayhawks’ final regular-season game and all of the postseason.
Beyond biting, groin-punching and all-out brawling, here are other problems facing the game:
The talent level is down (4). There is no Zion Williamson or Ja Morant in college hoops this season, that’s for sure, and very few players who would even qualify as a rung below those transcendent talents of last year.
So what happened? A couple of factors. First, there were a record number of NBA early entries from the college ranks (86 of them), and half of those were not selected in the draft. The product would be considerably better if those 40-plus undrafted players were still on campus. At the moment, metrics guru Ken Pomeroy has Iowa big man Luka Garza (5) as his National Player of the Year—and while the junior is a spectacular success story who has improved dramatically year over year, he isn’t even registering in NBA mock drafts yet.
Second, the freshman class already was weak—and that was before players started bailing on college ball. Two of the highest-rated prospects are overseas playing professionally: R.J. Hampton and LaMelo Ball. Two more from the rivals.com top 15 have withdrawn from their schools and are not playing anywhere: No. 1 player James Wiseman left Memphis, and No. 14 Kahlil Whitney left Kentucky.
Among those who are still playing, the impact is modest. Anthony Edwards (6), the No. 3 prospect in the class, has not been able to elevate Georgia to anywhere near tournament contention. Cole Anthony (7), the No. 4 prospect, just returned Saturday after missing 11 games with injury— and he’s been a high-volume shooter on a North Carolina team that already was showing signs of being really weak.
At this point, the top four Rivals Class of 2019 players, and six of the top seven, are highly unlikely to play in the NCAA tournament. Duke big man Vernon Carey (8) looks like the only freshman in the running to be named a first-team All-American. The touted freshmen at Florida and Washington have been disappointing parts of disappointing teams. The normally impactful Kentucky class barely registers beyond Tyrese Maxey (9).
Combine the loss of older players with an underwhelming group of freshmen, and this could be the lowest talent ebb in quite some time—if not ever.
The shooting is bad (10). When the rules committee moved the three-point arc back nearly 17 inches to the international distance of 22 feet, 1 3/4 inches, a decrease in long-range accuracy was to be expected this season. That’s exactly what has happened. Through games played Jan. 26, Division I players were making an all-time-low 33.59% of their three-pointers. That’s a drop of 0.95% from 2018-19, the largest the sport has seen year over year in at least 26 years.
The most recent significant drop in three-point accuracy was 12 years ago, when it fell from 35.23 to 34.4%. That’s the last time the line was moved back (by a foot then), and it resulted in a significant reduction in threes attempted (from 19.1 per game to 18.3).
Although three-point accuracy is down this season, volume three-point shooting remains in vogue—teams are hoisting 21.89 threes per game, second-highest in history to last year’s 22.43. Do the math: We’re seeing more missed jump shots than ever before.
The other added side effect: an apparent spike in players' catching the ball in the corners while standing out of bounds and being whistled for a turnover. Always a fun play.
The bluebloods are struggling (11). That isn't necessarily a bad thing, but bad seasons by some brand names does dampen casual fan interest.
This is the worst North Carolina (12) team in at least a decade, and perhaps since 2002. Kentucky (13) is No. 37 as of Tuesday morning in the Ken Pomeroy ratings—its lowest KenPom ranking, at any point in time, since the 2013 season. (That's in addition to the worst loss of the John Calipari era, to an Evansville team that is last in the Missouri Valley Conference.) Duke (14) suffered what was probably its most embarrassing regular-season loss of the last 35 years, at home to Stephen F. Austin, and although it has bounced back well, the Blue Devils are fighting uphill to try to win the Atlantic Coast Conference. Indiana (15) needs to avoid a poor finish, or it will miss the NCAA tournament for the fourth-straight season. UCLA (16), which barely still counts, has home losses to Hofstra and Cal State Fullerton and has no chance of making the NCAA tourney without winning the Pac-12 tourney.
That pretty much just leaves Kansas (17). And while the Jayhawks (18-3) are having a fine season, they do not lead the Big 12 at present and are playing under the cloud of an ongoing NCAA infractions case.
The defending champion is struggling, too. Virginia (18) is working on one of the weirdest three-season arcs ever: from being the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 in the first round to winning the national title to perhaps missing the Big Dance entirely. The Cavaliers, owning the second-worst offenses in the Power 6 leagues according to Ken Pomeroy (slightly better than Texas A&M), are 14-6. They finally scored their first quality win last week against Florida State, but will need to add more to the résumé in the coming weeks.
Their travails are part of a dramatically down year in the nation’s flagship conference, the ACC (19). As it stands today, a league that has inhaled 25 bids the past three years may get only three teams in the field of 68. Most everyone saw this downturn coming in the preseason, but nobody thought it would be this bad.
All of this means the NCAA bubble is going to be hysterically—and perhaps historically—awful (20). We complain about the shoddy state of the bubble every year, but the ugly truth about 2020 is out there in a lot of mock brackets right now. There are as many as five Big Ten teams with losing league records that are currently projected as in the field or on the bubble. At least one veteran bracketologist has Xavier (3-6 in the Big East) in the field. Several mock brackets include Memphis, which lost by 40 to Tulsa less than two weeks ago. Rhode Island, which lost to Brown, is getting a lot of at-large love. Texas, with a lone quality win that came on Nov. 9, is considered to be in the mix. Yuck.
Bottom line: The Minutes doesn’t want to hear any whining from any team that can’t make this field of 68.
So that is a brief summation of what the season lacks. Now let’s look at what it has.
OUT WITH THE BLUEBLOODS, IN WITH THE NEW BLOOD
The positive side effect of all the upheaval has been increased upward mobility for programs, conferences and even entire regions unaccustomed to the level of success they’re currently enjoying. A brief rundown:
Fresh No. 1 seeds (21). By acclimation, the current No. 1 seeds nationally are Kansas (ho hum), Gonzaga (been there) and … San Diego State and Baylor. We’ll see if the NCAA tournament selection committee agrees when it give us its annual sneak peek of the top 16 seeds Saturday. For now, almost everyone—from the mock brackets to the NCAA NET formula to the Top 25 polls—has those four in some order.
The undefeated Aztecs have never been a No. 1 seed—their high-water mark is a No. 2 in 2011, led by a kid named Kawhi Leonard. They’ve also never advanced past the Sweet 16. The one-loss Bears have never been seeded better than third. They last made the Final Four in 1950.
West Coast/non–Power 6 power (22). If San Diego State of the Mountain West and Gonzaga of the West Coast Conference both nail down No. 1 seeds, it would be something the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the very first year the NCAA publicized its seedings in 1979. That’s the last time two teams from outside the putative power conferences were top seeds in the same tournament—and even then it was kind of murky.
(Those teams were Indiana State of the Missouri Valley Conference and Notre Dame, which was an independent—back when independents were both plentiful and powerful. You could argue that 1983 also fits that rubric with Louisville of the Metro and Houston of the late Southwest Conference, but the SWC was a power conference at the time.)
It’s also been rare that two teams from the West both locked down No. 1 seeds in the same season—rare enough that it’s happened only once, in 2000, when Pac-12 teams Arizona and Stanford both were top seeds. (Neither made the Final Four.) With as many as five Pac-12 teams in the mix for bids, plus multiple bids possible for the WCC and MWC, the Pacific and Mountain time zones could have their most consequential NCAA tourney in years.
Rutgers (23). The Scarlet Knights (16–6, 7–4 in the Big Ten) have already clinched their first winning regular season since—wow—2005-06. They have a good chance for their first 20-win season since—what?—2003-04. They could well earn their first NCAA tournament berth and record their first winning conference record since—seriously?—1990-91. They might produce their first undefeated home season since—golly—1975-76. Pile all that up and you can see why Steve Pikiell is The Minutes’ National Coach of the Year at this juncture.
Dayton (24). The Flyers have a whole lot of history, but this could still be an unprecedented season in several respects. They have never had a better record through 22 games than the current 20-2—and both of the losses came in overtime. With one more victory they will have their first 10-0 conference start in school history. NCAA seeding could end up being an all-time high as well, with the current best being a No. 4 seed in 2003. But they’ll have to go a long way—like, all the way—to record their best NCAA tournament run ever. The 1966-67 team lost in the national championship game to UCLA.
Illinois (25). The team tied with preseason favorite Michigan State atop the Big Ten at 8-3? It’s none other than the Illini, who haven’t been to the NCAA tourney since 2013 and haven’t had a winning Big Ten record since 2010. Their seven-game league winning streak in January is the longest for the Illini since the great national runner-up team of 2005 went 15-1 in the Big Ten. The next four games will all be difficult (Maryland and Michigan State at home, Penn State and Rutgers on the road), but Illinois is probably just a win or two away from locking up that elusive Big Dance bid.
Florida State (26). The Seminoles haven’t won a regular season conference championship since 1988-89, when they were in the Metro. At 9-2, they have a chance to win their first-ever ACC title this season. Florida State is a game behind Louisville right now, but has a head-to-head win over the Cardinals and will host them in Tallahassee Feb. 24. Florida State has been a consistent winner under Leonard Hamilton, but this might be his best team yet—or at least the one positioned to go furthest.
Seton Hall (27). The Pirates are your Big East leader at the midway point of the conference season at 8-1. They haven’t won the league regular-season title since 1993, so it would be a big deal. (Two games remaining with Villanova, on the road Saturday and at home March 4, could well decide the race.)
Tulsa (28). Picked to finish 10th in the American Athletic before the season, the Golden Hurricane currently sit atop it at 7-1, 15-6 overall. Tulsa has made the NCAA tourney in only two of the last 16 seasons and hasn’t won a conference title since 2000, when Bill Self was the coach and the league was the WAC. The Hurricane has won six straight games, including wins over Houston, Memphis (by 40, the largest margin of victory by an unranked team over a ranked team in 27 years) and Wichita State. The winning basket against the Shockers on Saturday came courtesy of guard Elijah Joiner, who afterward supplied one of the more touching moments of the season when talking about his father.
YEAR OF THE GRINDER?
Projecting all the way to late March or early April is a fool’s errand, but The Minutes is foolish enough to do it. There are several longtime coaches with a chance to take a team farther in the NCAA tourney than they ever have before.
Leonard Hamilton (29), Florida State. Career ceiling thus far: Elite Eight. Hamilton may look 55, but he’s actually 71 and is in his 33rd year as a head coach at three different schools and one NBA franchise. He took the Seminoles to the West Region final in 2018 before falling to Michigan. Could this team finally get him to the Final Four?
Bob Huggins (30), West Virginia. Career ceiling thus far: Final Four semifinal. Could the Mountaineers win it all? In a season this muddled, who’s to say they can’t? After one of the few bad seasons in his brilliant career last year, the 66-year-old Huggins has rebounded with a fury and his team stands 17–4 to date. This is another great Huggins defensive team, but in a different mold than many of his recent WVU teams that thrived with pressure and creating turnovers. The current Mountaineers are a relentless half-court defensive team that gives up very few open shots.
Scott Drew (31), Baylor. Career ceiling thus far: Elite Eight. He’s only 49 but has been a college head coach for 18 seasons, the last 17 of them in Waco. Drew has been a consistent winner, but has never won a Big 12 title and lost to the eventual national champion in both his regional final appearances (Duke in 2010 and Kentucky in 2012). The Bears are on an 18-game winning streak at present and look like they will be a very tough out in the postseason.
Anthony Grant (32), Dayton. Career ceiling thus far: Round of 32. His first season as a head coach, in 2007, he guided VCU to a first-round upset of Duke. He hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since, losing a one-pointer as coach of a No. 11-seed Rams team in ’09 and a one-pointer as coach of a No. 9-seed Alabama team in 2012. Unless things really go South, the seeding will be in Grant’s favor this season and he could make his first real March run.
Kevin Willard (33), Seton Hall. Career ceiling thus far: Round of 32. Willard is just 44 years old but got his first head-coaching job at 31. It took him until his ninth season (three at Iona, six at Seton Hall) to reach the Big Dance, but now he’s working on a fifth straight tournament bid. The only victory came in the first round in 2018. With Myles Powell and a veteran team, the Pirates could make a move this year.
Frank Haith (34), Tulsa. Career ceiling thus far: Round of 32. The 54-year-old Haith spent the first 10 years of his head-coaching career at Miami and Missouri—and left messes in both places—before landing in Tulsa six years ago. He won the first NCAA tournament game he coached, in 2008 (with a power forward who became a pretty good tight end, Jimmy Graham), and hasn’t won one since. Haith presided over a disaster in 2012 when his No. 2 seed Missouri Tigers were beaten by No. 15 Norfolk State, then lost a First Four game at Tulsa four years ago. Thus Golden Hurricane team still has to secure its spot in the field, but they are on a roll at the moment.
Brian Dutcher (35), San Diego State. Career ceiling thus far: Round of 64. After devoting nearly 30 years to working for Steve Fisher at Michigan and San Diego State, Dutcher finally got his chance to be a head coach in 2017. He’s won 20 games in all three seasons, but this year’s 23-0 mark is something special. The 60-year-old Dutcher’s first and only NCAA tourney trip, in 2018, ended in a first-round loss at the buzzer to Houston, which then had a first-round loss at the buzzer to Michigan, when went on to play in the national title game. A first-round loss this season would be a major disappointment.
HOT TAKE DEPT.
Do not do away with the postgame handshake line (36). Do not enable sore losing and a lack of sportsmanship. Tell everyone to be adults and deal with whatever just happened on the court and show some class on the way off it.
Eradicating the handshake line has been a growing sentiment in and around the game. The idea is based on sparing coaches and players any confrontational interactions after a hard-fought game, as if comporting oneself with a little dignity for 30 seconds is too much to ask.
The latest flunking of that simple test came after the Iowa-Illinois game last week. After some barking from an Illinois assistant coach, Hawkeyes head coach Fran McCaffery pulled out of the line and waved off his players, sending them to the locker room. The “offense” that allegedly set everyone off: Iowa threw a long pass for a dunk in the final seconds of a game it had put away.
The idea that teams shouldn’t play until the final horn is stupid. The idea that anyone would get mad about playing to the final horn is stupid. But the idea that some misplaced resentment should carry over to yelling match between well-compensated coaches in a handshake line is the most stupid thing of all.
The players can almost always handle the situation. The coaches should be able to as well without terminating a long-held postgame tradition that reinforces a valuable life lesson—be gracious and respectful in both good times and bad.
UNDER THE RADAR LOVE
Each week, The Minutes salutes a player from outside the college basketball mainstream who is doing good work on the court. This week: Tyler Hagedorn (37) of South Dakota.
The 6-foot-10 senior is shooting 57.4% from three-point range, making 58 of 101 attempts thus far. If he maintains that accuracy rate, that will be the highest single-season percentage in Division I since 1992. And if he can make 42 more threes while maintaining his current shooting percentage, he would nip Steve Kerr’s single-season Division I record of 57.3% for players with 100 made threes in a season. Kerr set the mark while at Arizona in 1988.
This season has been a huge leap forward for Hagedorn, who was a career 36.5% three-point shooter his first three years. At 16-8, 7-3 in the Summit, the Coyotes are third in the conference standings behind South Dakota State and North Dakota State.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Darrell Walker (38), Little Rock. After playing 10 years in the NBA and working for nearly 20 as an assistant coach at that level, the former Arkansas Razorback great took what at the time looked like one of the toughest jobs in the country in 2018. The Trojans were coming off a 7–25 season and finished last in the Sun Belt. But after a 10-21 debut season, Walker now has Little Rock thinking big.
A team with no seniors is 17–7 overall and leading the Sun Belt at 11–2. The Trojans are riding a six-game winning streak, their longest in league play since Chris Beard was the coach four years ago. They were picked to finish 11th in the Sun Belt in the preseason.
COACH WHO SHOULD RIDE THE BUS TO WORK
Mike Boynton (39), Oklahoma State. In its proud history, Oklahoma State has never gone winless in conference play in a season. Right now, the Cowboys are nearly halfway there at 0-8. They’ll probably win one or more—and the first one may come at home Wednesday against TCU—but the program is reeling in the wrong direction in its third season under bargain hire Boynton.
Consider the plight of the Gallagher-Iba Arena fans: They haven’t seen the home team win a game since Dec. 29.
When thirsty and feeling adventurous in Anaheim, The Minutes recommends visiting the Blind Rabbit (40) speakeasy. Yes, a speakeasy in Orange County. And an extremely cool one at that.
First, you’ll need a reservation Monday through Friday—there are just 23 seats in the place, and everyone is on a two-hour clock once you get in. Second, you need to be able to find it—there is no signage, and it is tucked discreetly in the back of a brightly lit food hall. (As the menu says: Enter through the sake barrels on the wall and exit through the bookcase.)
Third, bring your adventurous drinking spirit. There are a lot of exotic cocktails to sample (they love their bitters at the Blind Rabbit). Try a Pistols At Dawn (rye, amaro, mezcal, green chartreuse, demarra, cardamom and mole bitters) and thank The Minutes later.
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