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Forde Minutes: Biggest surprises this college basketball season

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (blindfolds sold separately at California, where the Golden Bears are 8-18 and within three games of tying the school record for most losses in a season with five left to go): 

FIRST HALF: How Trae Young lost grip on Player of the Year

SECOND HALF: WHERE DID THESE GUYS COME FROM?

When the men’s basketball selection committee released its month-out top 16 NCAA tournament seeds Sunday, it was a glimpse into the revolutionary nature of this season. While a few power programs are sliding, five unusual suspects have jumped up to take their place.

Texas Tech (21). Early tourney seed: No. 3. Highest tourney seed ever: No. 3, in 1996. Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2016. Why it’s working this season: Second-year coach Chris Beard has blended two talented freshmen into an otherwise veteran lineup with optimal results. Senior guard Keenan Evans is having an All-American season, despite a 3-point stroke that can come and go from week to week. Tech is the third-best defensive team in the nation, per Ken Pomeroy, and has won its three February games to date by a combined 49 points.

Auburn (22). Early tourney seed: No. 2. Highest tourney seed ever: No. 1, in 1999. Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2003. Why it’s working this season: Bruce Pearl is coaching his tail off, despite the ongoing federal investigation that has sidelined one assistant coach, two staffers and two players. His fast-paced, balanced team has scored a minimum of 78 points each of the last seven games, and is eight points from being undefeated in the SEC.

Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl celebrates with guards Davion Mitchell, left, and Jared Harper (1) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018, in Athens, Ga. Auburn won 78-61. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Clemson (23). Early tourney seed: No. 3. Highest tourney seed ever: No. 4, in 1997 and ’87. Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2011. Why it’s working this season: Let Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton explain:  “They’re playing connected. They’re playing with a lot of determination, like they have a goal in mind. … They’ve been very fun to watch, I’m not sure about coaching against them. Watching them is what basketball is all about.” Athletic director Dan Radakovich’s long-term faith in Brad Brownell has paid off.

Tennessee (24). Early tourney seed: No. 4. Highest tourney seed ever: No. 2, in 2008 and ’06. Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2014. Why it’s working this season: A gritty bunch that lacks height makes up for it in defensive tenacity — the Volunteers get their hands on a lot of stuff with steals, blocks and deflections. Rick Barnes has rejuvenated his career this year.

Ohio State (25). Early tourney seed: No. 4. Highest tourney seed ever: No. 1, in 2011, ’07 ,’92 and ’91. Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2015. What’s working this season: As mentioned in the Minutes First Half, the evolution of Keita Bates-Diop into a star. Also, the instant impact of freshman Kaleb Wesson and, (see below) the instant impact of first-year coach Chris Holtmann.

If our tiny slice of history in this exercise can serve as prelude, the teams seeded the top 16 Sunday should feel good about their standing. Last year, the first time the committee did an early reveal, 15 of the 16 teams remained on the top four seed lines on Selection Sunday.

MAKING THE RIGHT HIRE AT THE RIGHT TIME …

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith (26) shocked the college basketball world last June by ushering longtime, highly successful coach Thad Matta (27) out the door. The Buckeyes program had declined the last couple of years under Matta, but a June coaching change seemed both abrupt and ill-conceived — if only because of the presumed difficulty in attracting a quality coach at that time of year.

As it turned out, Smith’s gambit worked brilliantly. He was able to quickly land highly regarded Butler coach Chris Holtmann (28), who in turn was able to quickly put his stamp on a roster that had talent but had underachieved for two seasons. What Holtmann has been able to do in just 27 games is remarkable (though, it must be pointed out in this era of unbalanced scheduling, Ohio State has played the easiest Big Ten schedule to date).

When Smith made his bombshell decision to remove Matta, he knew one thing: The Ohio State job was an elite one, and quality coaches would want it. That’s largely thanks to the work Matta did building the program, but the entire process also showed that Gene Smith had a good grasp on where his program stood and where it could go.

… AND THE WRONG HIRE AT THE WRONG TIME

The flip side of Smith’s master stroke is unfolding at Pittsburgh, where the program has become a disaster in astonishingly short order. Lacking a clear understanding of exactly how valuable Jamie Dixon (29) was in building and sustaining Pitt basketball, school administrators let him walk to alma mater TCU in 2016.

Turns out, replacing a guy who never had a losing season and went to 11 NCAA tournaments in 13 seasons wouldn’t be all that easy. Especially if you hire the absolutely wrong guy.

That’s what athletic director Scott Barnes (30) did when he tabbed Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings (31). This arrangement very likely was created by the buddy-buddy search firm business: Barnes hired College Sports Associates, run by his former boss at Washington, Todd Turner, who also happened to be Stallings’ former boss at Vandy. It was all very convenient, except for the inconvenient truth that Stallings was a very bad fit for the Pitt job. Nine months later, Barnes left Pitt for Oregon State. In his wake, the Stallings Era has been a complete debacle.

Pitt’s long run of winning records ended last year, when the Panthers went 16-17. This year, with a threadbare roster, has been much worse — Pitt is 8-18 overall and 0-13 in the ACC. The last three losses have been by 31 (at North Carolina), 24 (at Clemson), and 34 (home against a Louisville team playing without its leading scorer). Stallings easily could be two-and-through at Pitt.

THE ERA OF INDIFFERENCE IN THE SEC IS ENDING

Given the emphasis on football, the SEC has been a pretty cushy place to be a moderately successful basketball coach. At most schools, the money is good and the demands are reasonable. But the recent successes of Frank Martin at South Carolina (2017 Final Four), Bruce Pearl at Auburn (current Top 10 status), Rick Barnes at Tennessee (Top 20 status) and Ben Howland at Mississippi State (regained respectability) has changed the dynamic.

Proven coaches are in, and the clock is ticking elsewhere. That was clear Monday when Andy Kennedy (32) announced he is stepping down at Mississippi, effective at the end of the season.

Mississippi head coach Andy Kennedy speaks at a press conference at the Pavilion at Ole Miss in Oxford, Miss. on Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. Kennedy, in his 12th season as Mississippi head coach, announced he would not return as coach following this season.(Bruce Newman/Oxford Eagle via AP)

Kennedy was given a luxurious leash by athletic director Ross Bjork: This is his 12th season, with only two NCAA tourney bids to show for the previous 11. But with a recently constructed arena and escalating competition elsewhere, Ole Miss is making a move.

Georgia, where Mark Fox is in his ninth year with just two NCAA bids, could make the next move. Mike Anderson, in his seventh season at Arkansas with two bids thus far, might be feeling a little nervous looking at the landscape. After waiting a year too long, LSU fired Johnny Jones last year and replaced him with VCU’s Will Wade.

With as many as eight teams in line to make this year’s NCAAs, the ante is being upped in the SEC.

MOST ACCOMPLISHED PROGRAMS NEVER TO MAKE A FINAL FOUR

Over the weekend, Notre Dame had a 40-year reunion for its only Final Four team. The 1978 squad holds a special place in school annals, in no small part because it keeps Notre Dame from an ignominious distinction: The winningest program without a Final Four.

These are the three programs currently laboring under the distinction of the most wins while never having competed in a Final Four:

BYU (33). All-time victory total: 1,986, good for 11th in Division I history. Closest brush with a Final Four: Lost to Baylor by a point in the 1950 regional final — back when it was an eight-team tournament, and the regional final also was the first round.

Washington (34). All-time victory total: 1,761, good for 21st in Division I history. Closest brush with a Final Four: Lost to Oklahoma State by four in the 1951 regional final, when the tournament had expanded from eight to 16 teams.

Alabama (35). All-time victory total: 1,653, good for 31st in Division I history. Closest brush with a Final Four: Trucked by eventual national champion Connecticut in the 2004 regional final.

DASH STAT OF THE WEEK

While there is mounting anticipation for a return to action by injured Missouri freshman Michael Porter Jr., his brother Jontay Porter (36) has actually proven to be the Tigers’ bellwether performer. Since Dec. 23, the younger Porter has scored in double figures in all seven Mizzou victories and in single figures in all six Mizzou defeats. Numbers in those seven wins: 14 points, 6.9 rebounds, 50 percent 3-point shooting. Numbers in those six losses: 4.2 points, 5.3 rebounds, 18 percent 3-point shooting.

Maybe we’re all fixating on the wrong Porter.

FIVE QUESTIONS WITH A COACH

The Minutes caught up with Tim Miles (37) of Nebraska this week and got his thoughts on five pressing topics.

Q: What has been the response to your team’s “Hate Will Never Win” statement over the weekend?

A: We’ve had a massive outpouring of support and acceptance that our guys decided to stand out and stand up for something. I’m very proud of them for doing that. … This isn’t a political message. This is, “Let’s take a stand against racism, prejudice and hate.”

Q: What does it feel like to be 19-8 overall, 10-4 and in fourth place in the Big Ten, and yet very much on the NCAA bubble?

A: We caught a tough break with our schedule. Most of our Quadrant 1 games were on the road and against high-level Quadrant 1 teams (losses to Michigan State, Creighton, Purdue and Ohio State). When we beat Minnesota (Dec. 5), they were a Top 15 team with Reggie Lynch and Amir Coffey (since out). Now we don’t get much credit for that win. All we can do is keep winning and take care of our bid ourselves. You can’t go fanatical about something that has nothing to do with you.

Q. After three straight losing seasons and heavy player turnover, how have you righted the ship this year?

A. We have talent. Last year we had three guys sitting out who are now starters. We had some guys leave and it created quite a stir, but at the same time it galvanized the guys who stayed. I think it made them more committed to Nebraska and to their coach and to each other.

Q. You’ve stopped the in-game tweets but now are regularly tweeting pictures of your dog. What’s up with that transition?

A. When your career’s looking down the wrong end of the barrel, you need somebody with you. My wife and kids are with me, but there’s nothing better than Sammy, my yellow lab. When I’m watching tape at night, he’s right there with me, with his wet nose. It’s gross, but it’s adorable in its own way.

Q. You went from the low of a blowout loss for your beloved Minnesota Vikings to the high of a Twitter conversation with Rob Riggle. Walk us through those emotions.

A. The Vikings thing was, ‘This cannot be happening again.’ I went through it all again: the Raiders, Jack Tatum, Fred Biletnikoff, beating us in the Super Bowl; total hatred for [Dallas receiver] Drew Pearson pushing off and not being called for it in Met Stadium; it brought back a flood of devastating feelings. But then we’re in Minneapolis at the hotel and I find Rob Riggle’s hanging bag in my room (two days after the Super Bowl) … and I decided to tweet the picture to him. I think it’s pretty cool that he tweeted back.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Chris Mullin (38), St. John’s. Has likely accomplished the uprecedented, dwelling in last place in a league and beating two top-five teams in consecutive games. The first shocker was over Duke, the second at Villanova — and just to show that the run isn’t done, the Red Storm tacked on a victory over Marquette on Saturday. It remains to be seen whether St. John’s can climb out of the Big East basement, but if the conference tournament began today the Storm would be the scariest No. 10 seed in history.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK 

John Calipari (39), Kentucky. His Wildcats are 6-6 in the SEC and riding the first three-game losing streak of his UK tenure. The remaining six-game schedule includes five games against likely NCAA tournament teams. Last time Kentucky had a losing record in SEC play was 1988-89, Eddie Sutton’s last year. Cal needs to stage another late rally to avoid the most disappointing season of his nine in Lexington.

BUZZER BEATER 

When hungry and thirsty in the peerless eating-and-drink city of New Orleans, The Minutes recommends a visit to Gautreau’s (40), a classy Uptown joint where you cannot go wrong with the fresh catch from the Gulf. And while in NOLA, check out the expanding array of local beers — nothing wrong with a Canebrake Wheat Ale from Parish Brewing Co. Check it out and thank The Minutes later.

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