College Basketball Nation: Providence Friars
For most of the season, Providence has been without Dunn, who re-injured a torn labrum in his shoulder during an exhibition game back on Nov. 2. Dunn missed the first three games of the season, returned for four (against Vermont, Vanderbilt, La Salle and Maryland), played a combined 106 minutes, during which he averaged 3.8 points and posted a drastically low 69.8 offensive rating. He clearly looked hurt, in other words, and both player and program seem to be making the prudent decision: repair, heal, take your time.
That decision might be less of a blow to Dunn than the original injury, or these weeks of stop-and-start hope. The sophomore guard arrived at Providence alongside Ricky Ledo, backcourt gems of Cooley's startling 2012 class, and neither player's career has gone as planned. Ledo, a top-five point guard, failed to qualify academically, never played a game in a Providence uniform, and went pro at first opportunity. (There is an argument to be made that Cooley should have known as much and stayed away, and maybe he did. But was the risk not worth taking?) Dunn's ordeal is just plain bad luck: He missed most of his freshman year with the first torn labrum instance last fall, and he still hasn't had a chance to really play healthy, worry-free basketball.
What's worse, this year's promising pair of recruits -- four-star forward Brandon Austin, the No. 12-ranked small forward in the country; and Rodney Bullock, a three-star win -- haven't played a minute between them. Both players were suspended indefinitely by Cooley for team rules violations; they have yet to be given a reprieve.
Fortunately, Cooley has seniors Bryce Cotton and Kadeem Batts, junior LaDontae Henton, and sophomores Tyler Harris and Josh Fortune. Cooley has recruited well, despite the mishaps; he has a quality blend of players. But a Big East title run, or an NCAA tournament berth? Those expectations, like Dunn's injury, might require more patience.
There is always danger in the sentimental hire.
Just ask NC State. In spring of 2006, after the conspicously unloved Herb Sendek fled Raleigh, N.C., for Arizona State, Wolfpack fans got one of their own: Sidney Lowe, point guard for Jim Valvano's legendary 1983 title team, a man with no shortage of blood-red sportcoats. After a decade bouncing around various NBA jobs, Lowe had come home, and the Wolfpack family was ready to fall back in love.
Five years, 86 wins and zero NCAA tournament berths later, Lowe was fired. Such are the perils of sentiment. The warm and fuzzy hire is not always the right one.
Three years ago, when Iowa State coach Greg McDermott saw the writing on the wall, the Cyclones went sentimental, too. It was fair to raise concerns about Fred Hoiberg. He was an Iowa State legend with a solid NBA track record and zero experience as a college coach. Sound familiar? But Hoiberg has defied any such concerns. Not only have his teams been immediately successful, they've been thrilling, too. Iowa State is as consistently entertaining a program as there is in college basketball; Hoiberg is one of the hottest names in the sport.
Third-year Providence coach Ed Cooley, a hometown kid who struggled in the poverty of South Providence before scratching his way into college basketball -- first as a player then a coach -- appears to sit far closer to the Hoiberg end of the spectrum. Three years in, the jury is leaning that way, but it is still out.
It is this season -- and, in the immediate term, this weekend -- that will tell us much about whether that verdict should stick.
Why this weekend? After three years of suddenly competitive recruiting and steady on-court improvement, Providence has begun its 2013-14 season 4-0. That's all well and good, but the only notable win came on opening night at home against a better-but-hardly-elite Boston College. But this weekend at the Paradise Jam, Providence's mix of impressive seniors (Bryce Cotton, Kadeem Batts) and emerging sophomores (Josh Fortune, Tyler Harris, former top-five guard prospect Kris Dunn, who is still recovering from a shoulder injury) get a mix of totally winnable but nonetheless intriguing tests. The first comes in Friday's opening round against a depleted Vanderbilt, but the especially interesting stuff comes later -- a possible second-round matchup with La Salle, and a shot, if seeds hold, to play Maryland in the title game next week.
A few months ago, you'd have picked Maryland to win the Paradise. But the Terps have stumbled -- they allowed 90 points in a home loss to Oregon State Sunday night -- while Providence has looked like a top-half Big East team or better.
Early as it is, this is one of those prove-it weekends for Friars hoops, and for Cooley generally. Providence should get to the NCAA tournament. It should be better this year. Cooley's resurrection of a proud but long-dormant program should continue. Should the Paradise Jam be a referendum on all of the above? Of course not. But these are the kinds of games you win on the way there.
- For a vast majority of the possessions they played during the 2012-13 season, the Virginia Cavaliers were a solid college basketball team. Virginia held opponents to the 16th-lowest effective field-goal percentage in the country last season; they finished 24th in defensive efficiency; they ranked 40th overall; they beat Duke and North Carolina and nearly toppled the ACC champs (Miami) on the road; and their best player, guard Joe Harris, was an all-conference first-teamer.
If you repeated the above information to the uninitiated -- and yes, I will take credit for not shoehorning a Bane joke in here -- you would assume Virginia ended the 2012-13 season in the NCAA tournament.
Nope: UVa spent March in the NIT. There were a few reasons for this: a soft schedule, missed opportunities, a few untimely ACC flops. But more than anything, Virginia missed out because by Christmas it had already lost to George Mason (RPI: 123), Delaware (RPI: 141) and -- worst of all -- Old Dominion (RPI: 318!). The Cavaliers never did enough to recover.
On Wednesday night, Providence, Maryland and Illinois -- 2014 tourney hopefuls all -- avoided precisely that fate.
Providence's win over Brown was the most harrowing of the bunch. The Friars, a promising and talented group under impressive third-year coach Ed Cooley, handled the lion's share of their home matchup with Brown with expected ease. Kadeem Batts, Bryce Cotton and Co. opened an early 20-4 lead over the Bears, and stretched it to 42-27 in the closing minutes of the first half. The rout appeared to be on.
But Brown, believe it or not, came roaring back in the second half. Providence went cold. Brown's Cedric Kuakumensah got hot. By the 9-minute mark, it was 58-58. With five minutes to play, Brown led 63-60. But if not for two late 3-pointers by LaDontae Henton and Josh Fortune, Providence may well have lost to a team that finished 12-20 and ranked 240 in the RPI last season. Is it possible the Bears are much better this season? Sure. It is almost certain a home loss to Brown would have destroyed Providence's RPI? Yes.
That damage would have paled in comparison what would have happened to Maryland had the Terps fallen to -- gulp -- Abilene Christian. Mark Turgeon's team pulled away in the second half, and eventually cruised to a 67-44 win that will look fine three months from now. But Maryland actually entered halftime trailing -- yes, trailing -- the Wildcats 30-29. Heck, Abilene's lead lasted during a disconcertingly large chunk of into the second half; they were up 44-38 with 14 minutes to play. If you think a loss to Brown would be bad, try on a home loss to a team that wasn't even in Division I last season. Thanks to Maryland's bonkers 29-0 game-ending run, it didn't have to come to that. But still, what a nervy 25 minutes.
Illinois' win over Valparaiso may have been a bit less drastic. Valpo, after all, won the Horizon League last season. It is a name mid-major program. It is no Brown, to say nothing of Abilene. But still, the Cavaliers lost six seniors, including stars Kevin Van Wijk and Ryan Broekhoff, from last season and are in full-on rebuilding mode in Bryce Drew's second season, which made their mere two-point deficit at the six-minute mark of the second half in Champaign all the more troubling.
Throw Indiana into this mix, too. The Hoosiers narrowly survived LIU-Brooklyn at home Tuesday night. Don't get it twisted: The Blackbirds have made the last three tournaments for a reason. That's a good program. They schemed IU well and baited the Hoosiers into too many outside shots. But no matter. IU is supposed to beat LIU-Brooklyn at home, and a loss would have veered the young Hoosiers in an RPI ditch in the first week of the season.
Instead, all of these teams survived résumé calamity. Wednesday night hardly offered the most inspiring slate of games. It was a harsh comedown after Tuesday night's Champions Classic high. But for Illinois, Providence and Maryland, Wednesday was a season-changing night.
You know the NCAA tournament cliché, survive and advance? It's a good one. Just remember: You have to survive November first.
Toughest: Old Spice Classic (Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in Orlando, Fla.), Purdue (Dec. 14 in Indianapolis)
Next toughest: Princeton (Nov. 16)
The rest: Lamar (Nov. 9), Vanderbilt (Nov. 19), at Ball State (Nov. 23), North Dakota (Dec. 7), Manchester (Dec. 9), at Evansville (Dec. 21), NJIT (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 4 -- This isn’t an overwhelming schedule for first-year coach Brandon Miller, but it’s not a complete cakewalk either -- especially since Roosevelt Jones is out for the year. The Old Spice Classic gives the Bulldogs some pop, with a potential date with Marcus Smart and Oklahoma State in the second round (with Washington State as the opener) or Memphis down the road.
Toughest: Wooden Legacy (Nov. 28-Dec.1 in Fullerton and Anaheim, Calif.)
Next toughest: at Saint Joseph’s (Nov. 16), California (Nov. 22), at Long Beach State (Dec. 3), Nebraska (Dec. 8)
The rest: Alcorn State (Nov. 8), UMKC (Nov. 11), Tulsa (Nov. 23), Arkansas-Pine Bluff (Dec. 17)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- The hefty Wooden Legacy gives the Bluejays a challenge. There’s a first-round date with Arizona State and Jahii Carson then possibly San Diego State and a potential matchup with either Marquette or Miami on the other side. But for a loaded lineup like Creighton has, I would have hoped to see a little more meat in the nonconference schedule.
Toughest: CBE Classic (Nov. 25-26 in Kansas City, Mo.), Arizona State (Dec. 6)
Next toughest: at Northwestern (Dec. 27)
The rest: Grambling State (Nov. 9), Southern Miss (Nov. 13), Wright State (Nov. 16), at Milwaukee (Nov. 19), Oregon State (Dec. 1), Florida Atlantic (Dec. 12), Chicago State (Dec. 15), Houston Baptist (Dec. 18), at Illinois State (Dec. 22)
Toughness scale (1-10): 5 -- If this is the year the Blue Demons turn the corner, they will have earned their stripes. This is a decent schedule, thanks largely to an opening date with Final Four participant Wichita State in the semis of the CBE Classic. (Texas and BYU are on the other side.) Tussles with Arizona State and Northwestern also add some muscle.
Toughest: Oregon (Nov. 8 in Seoul, South Korea), at Kansas (Dec. 21), Michigan State (Feb. 1 in New York)
Next toughest: Puerto Rico Tip-Off (Nov. 21-24)
The rest: Wright State (Nov. 13), Lipscomb (Nov. 30), High Point (Dec. 5), Colgate (Dec. 7), Elon (Dec. 17), Florida International (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- Short of matching up with Kentucky in Kabul, I’m not sure how John Thompson III could have made his schedule much more daunting. From South Korea to Lawrence, with a date with Michigan State for added fun, that’s literally anyone anywhere. There’s also a pretty decent Puerto Rico Tip-Off field, with VCU, Michigan, Kansas State and Florida State.
Toughest: Ohio State (Nov. 16), New Mexico (Nov. 21), at Wisconsin (Dec. 7)
Next toughest: Arizona State (Nov. 25), Wooden Legacy (Nov. 28-Dec. 1 in Fullerton and Anaheim, Calif.)
The rest: Southern (Nov. 8), Grambling State (Nov. 12), New Hampshire (Nov. 21), IUPUI (Dec. 14), Ball State (Dec. 17), Samford (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 10 -- Love when a good team plays a good schedule. Buzz Williams has a delicious mix, traipsing across leagues (Big Ten, Pac-12 and Mountain West) and mixing in a decent tourney as well. The only oddity is that the Wooden Legacy title game might merely be a Big East preview, with Creighton and Marquette seemingly headed toward each other.
Toughest: Kentucky (Dec. 1 in Brooklyn)
Next toughest: Boston College (Nov. 8), Paradise Jam (Nov. 22-25 in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands), UMass (Dec. 28)
The rest: Brown (Nov. 13), Marist (Nov. 16), Vermont (Nov. 18), Fairfield (Nov. 29), at Rhode Island (Dec. 5), Yale (Dec. 17), Maine (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale (1 to 10): 4 -- Yes, Kentucky is on the schedule, which is big, but one game does not a schedule make. The Paradise Jam is a bunch of meh, with Maryland and La Salle the only intriguing opponents available. The rest of the Friars’ schedule is just a trip through New England.
Toughest: Coaches vs. Cancer (Nov. 22-23 in New York)
Next toughest: at Rutgers (Dec. 8)
The rest: Niagara (Nov. 9), Kent State (Nov. 13), at Mercer (Nov. 16), Monmouth (Nov. 18), Fairleigh Dickinson (Dec. 1), LIU Brooklyn (Dec. 5), NJIT (Dec. 10), St. Peter’s (Dec. 14), Eastern Washington (Dec. 22), Lafayette (Dec. 27)
Toughness scale (1 to 10): 2 -- If the Pirates beat Oklahoma in the Coaches vs. Cancer, they might face Michigan State. Or they might not. And that’s about all there is to like about this schedule.
Toughest: Wisconsin (Nov. 8 in Sioux Falls, S.D.), Syracuse (Dec. 15)
Next toughest: Bucknell (Nov. 19), Barclays Center Classic (Nov. 29-30 in Brooklyn)
The rest: Wagner (Nov. 15), Monmouth (Nov. 22), Longwood (Nov. 26), Fordham (Dec. 7), San Francisco (Dec. 18), Youngstown State (Dec. 21), Columbia (Dec. 28), Dartmouth (Jan. 18)
Toughness scale (1 to 10): 6 -- The Red Storm’s top two games are pretty good, and bonus points for playing the Badgers in Sioux Falls. After Penn State in Brooklyn, they face a decent test from either Ole Miss or Georgia Tech. The rest isn’t much to look at.
Toughest: Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30 in the Bahamas), at Syracuse (Dec. 28)
Next toughest: at Saint Joseph’s (Dec. 7), La Salle (Dec. 15), at Temple (Feb. 1)
The rest: Lafayette (Nov. 8), Mount St. Mary’s (Nov. 13), Towson (Nov. 17), Delaware (Nov. 22), Penn (Dec. 4), Rider (Dec. 21)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- To understand this ranking, you have to understand the Big Five. Even when the Philly schools are down, the games are brutal, and with La Salle, Penn and St. Joe’s on the uptick, the city series is a beast. Now mix in a Battle 4 Atlantis that opens with USC and then likely Kansas (with Tennessee, Iowa or Xavier as likely third opponents) plus a visit to the Carrier Dome and you have a solid slate for Jay Wright’s crew.
Toughest: Tennessee (Nov. 12), Battle 4 Atlantis (Nov. 28-30 in the Bahamas), Cincinnati (Dec. 14)
Next toughest: Alabama (Dec. 21)
The rest: Gardner-Webb (Nov. 8), Morehead State (Nov. 18), Miami (Ohio) (Nov. 20), Abilene Christian (Nov. 25), Bowling Green (Dec. 7), Evansville (Dec. 10), Wake Forest (Dec. 28)
Toughness scale (1-10): 8 -- Like Villanova, the Musketeers get a nice boost from playing in Atlantis, taking on a good Iowa team in the opening round. An on-the-rise Tennessee offers bonus points (and they could face the Vols for a second time in the Bahamas), as does the annual Crosstown Classic with the Bearcats.
By the time his career is over -- and in some ways this is already the case -- Rick Pitino will be mentioned among the greatest college basketball coaches of all time. What separates him is how winding his path has been. The coaches we maintain as the game's greatest almost universally built their legacies on decadeslong, storied tenures at blue-blooded schools. They become institutions synonymous with their programs.
John Wooden at UCLA, Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, Bob Knight at Indiana, Dean Smith at North Carolina, Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, Jim Calhoun at Connecticut -- these are men who, as I wrote already Wednesday morning, built their basketball Valhallas in their own image and settled in for a lifetime. Pitino left his own Valhalla -- Kentucky -- in 1997, at the height of his powers -- only the most memorable and notable fork in a career full of them.
Here is a look at some of Pitino's defining moments -- some good, some bad, all of a piece with his story.
1. "The Untouchables": For all the twists and turns that would come before, and all the strange and florid detours that would follow, Rick Pitino's defining moment as a coach will always be the 1995-96 season, when he achieved something like Pitino Basketball Nirvana. After the better part of a decade spent resurrecting Kentucky's proud but bruised program in the wake of the post-Eddie Sutton sanctions, Pitino's beautiful Wildcats machine morphed into its ideal form in 1995-96, when Pitino led a team that eventually would send 11 players to the NBA draft to a 34-2 season, a national title and a place at any "best college basketball team of all time" table.
That season wasn't special just because the Wildcats were so talented. That was part of it, sure, but only the baseline. It was the fact that Pitino managed to unleash that many future NBA players within a style -- his up-tempo, high-pressure, defensively masterful style -- he had been working toward his entire career. He realized it fully, with a team deep enough and balanced enough to utterly dominate with it, in one of those just-about-perfect seasons every coach sees when he closes his eyes at night. Imagine how it must have felt. I'll use the phrase again: In 1995-96, Pitino achieved Basketball Nirvana. It was beautiful to watch.
Also, it happened in these uniforms. Which is pretty great, as bonuses go.
2. The Redeem Team: The decades since Pitino descended from Valhalla were less kind. By the late 2000s, Pitino's personal and professional reputation had been thoroughly bruised, while his old personal rival, Kentucky coach John Calipari, was rapidly turning Pitino's former program into a constant national title contender perennially stocked with the type of pro talent few programs in history have been able to boast. But in 2011-12, Pitino's Louisville group made a surprise run to the Final Four, and all of a sudden a seemingly mediocre team had the look of a national title contender. In 2012-13, that batch of seemingly ragtag guys -- a barely recruited guard best known for biting his nails and no-no-YES shot-selection, a Senegalese center who didn't understand why everyone took basketball so seriously, a point guard who couldn't shoot, an undersized sophomore power forward, and a slow, tweener George Mason transfer -- morphed into a dominant two-way force, a modern update of Pitino's old pressing style capable of seamlessly shifting into any tune their emphatic sideline conductor demanded.
After Luke Hancock, Peyton Siva, & Co. outlasted Michigan in a classic finale, Pitino became the first man in college basketball history to win national titles at two different programs. In April, the lasting shot -- of Pitino and his family drenched in confetti on the Georgia Dome floor, of Louisville's players staring in awe at a cheesy old tradition -- marked Pitino's redemption after years of personal and professional struggle.
3. And everything that went with it: How far had the karmic balance swung back in Pitino's favor this spring? Not only did he win a national title -- which surely would have been more than enough -- within a handful of days at the Final Four, he also 1) congratulated his 30-year-old son on being hired as the head coach at Minnesota, 2) was informed that his horse had won the Santa Anita Derby and qualified to run in the Kentucky Derby, and 3) learned he was going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. A few weeks later, he reveled in simultaneous horse and hoops heaven at the Kentucky Derby -- unofficial king of all he surveyed. Forget coaches; from March to September, few people anywhere had quite as much fun as Pitino. Even fewer changed the tone of their public-facing lives quite so jubilantly.
4. The Shot: Before Pitino really got his Kentucky machine humming, he had to reform UK out of the rubble of the late-'80s sanctions. That process appeared to come to a symbolic head in 1992 when Sean Woods led the Wildcats to what appeared to be a win over a star-studded Duke team -- just 2.1 seconds before Christian Laettner made the most famous shot in college basketball history. This past March, in advance of Pitino's Elite Eight rematch with Duke, both Pitino and Krzyzewski explained their shared membership in the rarest, most unlikely club. "I think when the basketball gods deem you worthy enough to put you in a great moment, sometimes you're placed in that moment as a winner, and sometimes you lose," Coach K said. "But sometimes the loser shines more than the winner. I thought how [Pitino] reacted and has reacted since made him shine."
"Larry Bird is not walking through that door, fans. Kevin McHale is not walking through that door, and Robert Parish is not walking through that door. And if you expect them to walk through that door, they're going to be gray and old. What we are is young, exciting, hardworking, and we're going to improve. People don't realize that, and as soon as they realize those three guys are not coming through that door, the better this town will be for all of us because there are young guys in that (locker) room playing their asses off. I wish we had $90 million under the salary cap. I wish we could buy the world. We can't; the only thing we can do is work hard, and all the negativity that's in this town sucks. I've been around when Jim Rice was booed. I've been around when Yastrzemski was booed. And it stinks. It makes the greatest town, greatest city in the world, lousy. The only thing that will turn this around is being upbeat and positive like we are in that locker room ... and if you think I'm going to succumb to negativity, you're wrong. You've got the wrong guy leading this team."
Had Pitino turned his struggling Celtics teams around, that March 1, 2000, speech might have gone down as a turning point. At worst, it would have been forgotten. (Landing Tim Duncan in the 1997 draft after a league-worst 15-67 season would have helped, too.) Instead, as Celtics head coach, GM, CEO and president of basketball operations, Pitino's failure in Boston was total, and the "Fellowship of the Miserable," Pitino's name for the Celtics' infamously intense fans, quickly turned.
If there was one bright spot (besides "Fellowship of the Miserable," which is amazing), it was when Pitino gave Sports Illustrated the definitive Kenny Anderson quote: "Celtics coach, after hearing that point guard Kenny Anderson has hired a track coach to improve his speed and conditioning: 'Who's he going to hire to run for him?'"
6. Say hello to Billy the Kid: Before the New York Knicks, Kentucky, Boston and Louisville, Rick Pitino earned his national reputation as an upstart coach who turned Providence around from an 11-20 outfit the year before his arrival to a Final Four team in a matter of two seasons. He did so in large part thanks to the arrival of Billy Donovan. Then better known as "Billy the Kid," thanks to Pitino's shameless marketing savvy (Pitino made Donovan dress up like a cowboy on the cover of the Providence season program), he transformed from an overweight, unused sophomore reserve to a star. In 1986-87, Donovan's senior year and the first with a collegiate 3-point line, the Kid posted arguably the most statistically impressive individual season (20.6 points, 7.1 assists, 3.0 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game, and 41 percent from 3) of any Pitino player while leading the Friars to the program's second Final Four. It would be the first of Pitino's seven trips -- and counting.
7. Sept. 11, 2001: One of the most profound tragedies in American history was a personal nightmare for Pitino and his family. Pitino's brother-in-law and best friend, Billy Minardi, was working as a bond trader for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 105th floor of the north World Trade Center tower when the planes hit. Processing that senseless loss has taken Pitino and his family years, and the coach has talked (and written) openly about that struggle -- and the familial bonds it forged.
8. Karen Cunagin Sypher: A decade later, those bonds were tested in the most public way possible. In early 2009, Pitino announced that he was the victim of an extortion attempt, and a week later Karen Cunagin Sypher, the wife of Louisville equipment manager Tim Sypher, was arraigned in federal court on charges of extortion and lying to federal agents. The details of the case -- in which Pitino admitted he had sexual relations with Sypher in a Louisville restaurant, and that he paid Sypher $3,000 when she said she did not have health insurance for an abortion -- were not only embarrassing, they drew Pitino, an avowed family man and devoted Catholic, in a dismal light.
9. The tattoo: Save the family portrait moment at the Final Four in April, perhaps the sharpest contrast to that ugly period in Pitino's life came a few weeks later, in a downtown Louisville tattoo parlor. After his team won the national title, Pitino revealed that, after Feb. 9's five-OT loss at Notre Dame, he had promised his players that if they won the national title, he would get a tattoo. His players proved giddy about the idea (no surprise there) and held up their end of the bargain. Which is essentially how a 60-year-old multimillionaire with a horse-racing hobby and suits that make Sinatra look like a hobo came to stroll into a place called Tattoo Salvation in downtown Louisville, where he obtained his first-ever tattoo.
10. And now, the Hall of Fame: It takes a special career to earn Hall of Fame induction by the age of 60, and Pitino's, for better or worse, has most certainly been that. Now that he seems to be having more fun than ever, how much longer will Pitino coach? How many more games -- how many more titles -- can he win? Whatever the final number, the journey will be just as interesting as the destination. That much is a guarantee.
Rick Pitino's march through college basketball history has been unusual in more ways than one.
The other unusual aspect to Pitino's legacy is that his best teams have always been ensemble casts. This is not to say Pitino hasn't coached some great players. He certainly has. But unlike, say, Jerry Tarkanian, whose best players we ranked Tuesday -- or Dean Smith, or Mike Krzyzewski, or John Wooden, or even Bob Knight, who had at least one individual talent (Isiah Thomas) as good as any in college hoops history -- Pitino's brightest stars have always existed less as centerpieces to be built around than cogs in variously terrifying machines.
This is impressive in and of itself, but how do you parse guys whose careers feel interdependent and inseparable? How do you distinguish between the best of those dominant mid-90s groups? Does anyone from the 2012-13 title team belong? Are Kentucky and Louisville fans going to argue about this list?
After no small amount of statistical research and mental haggling, I know the answer to exactly one of those questions. But hey, let's give this thing a shot anyway, shall we? My colleague Myron Medcalf took a stab at it as well. How did we do?
1. Jamal Mashburn, Kentucky: On Tuesday, I wrote that Tarkanian's No. 1 player, Larry Johnson, was a lock at the top before my fingers even hit the keyboard. Pitino's No. 1 is not nearly as certain. Still, while Mashburn didn't win a national title like his successors on this list, he was as gifted and productive an individual talent as Pitino ever coached at the college level -- averaging 18.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 37.6 percent from 3 and 51.6 percent from the field in his three seasons at Kentucky. In 1992-93 -- one year after Kentucky's destined-to-be-replayed-forever loss to Christian Laettner and the Duke Blue Devils -- Mashburn averaged 21 points on 15.5 shots (and 8.4 rebounds) per game, and was rewarded with a First-Team All-American honor and the fourth overall pick in the NBA draft. He might not have been the world-devouring monster that Johnson was, at least relative to the rest of Pitino's talent, but I think he deserves the top nod.
2. Tony Delk, Kentucky: And, having said all that, I would have absolutely no problem if you chose to rank Delk No. 1 instead, as Myron did. Delk's statistics (14.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.6 steals) during his four-year UK career don't look as impressive as Mashburn's three-year run, but that's less a product of Delk's ability than the immensely balanced group of future pros he led to the national title in 1996. He might well have been the best player on that 1996 team; he was certainly its most important, an undisputed team leader that got a large group of future pros to coalesce around Pitino's desire to unleash all that talent in a concerted, balanced, full-court-pressing behemoth. Delk's defense (also something that doesn't show up much in old box scores) was truly fearsome, and his best performances came at the best times.
In that memorable 1995-96 season, he was the SEC Player of the Year, First Team All-American and the NCAA tournament's Most Outstanding Player, and his seven 3s in UK's 76-67 national title win over Syracuse ranks near the top of any of list of best all-time individual performances by a Wildcat. Given the program we're talking about, the team he played for and, frankly, the other 1996 first team All-Americans (which, get this: Allen Iverson, Kerry Kittles, Marcus Camby, Ray Allen), Delk's legacy in Lexington is deservedly sealed.
3. Antoine Walker, Kentucky: Given Walker's future as a swaggering, shimmying, well-paid 3-point chuck, it's hard to grasp the fact that he shot just .188 percent from 3 in 1995-96 -- and attempted a mere 48 3-pointers in the first place. Even crazier? Despite that lowly figure, Walker finished the 1995-96 season with averages of 15.2 points and 8.4 rebounds per. Even crazier? Delk averaged 17.8, Walter McCarty averaged 11.3, Derek Anderson averaged 9.4, Ron Mercer averaged 8.0, Mark Pope averaged 7.6, Anthony Epps averaged 6.7 … I mean, has there ever been a deeper, more balanced national title team? The mind boggles, and now we're digressing again, and anyway: If Delk was the stoic senior leader, Walker (then a sophomore) was the young hotshot. Both were equally important to Pitino's first national title run.
4. Ron Mercer, Kentucky: This is where things start to get a little bit hilarious with the mid-90s Wildcats: Ron Mercer a guy who would put up 18.1/5.3/2.4/1.7 averages as a First Team All-American in 1996-97 and go on to have a totally respectable, lengthy and profitable NBA career, was UK's fifth banana as a freshman in 1995-96. That's, like, borderline unfair. Mercer's excellence after the national title season helps elevate him in this list, and frankly only adds to the mystique involved with that 34-2 national title run.
Donovan, who, like Providence's program in general, went from a non-entity before Pitino to a star under him. Some good timing helped: Donovan's senior year, 1986-87, was college basketball's first year with a 3-point line, which he exploited to the tune of 40.9 percent. The once-pudgy benchwarmer finished his magical senior season with crazy numbers -- 20.6 points, 7.1 assists, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.4 steals per game -- as well as an unlikely run to the Final Four, a fantastic nickname ("Billy the Kid") and a rest-is-history future in basketball waiting for him. Not bad for a couple years' work, eh?
6. Derek Anderson, Kentucky: The 6-foot-5 guard's supporting role in 1995-96 might have been enough to get him on this list in the first place, but his breakout follow-up was cut short when an injury ending his season after just 19 games. And even so, Anderson made his mark, shooting 40.4 from 3 and 81.1 percent from the free throw line and averaging 17.7 points, 4.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.9 steals. His overall Kentucky legacy could have been something even greater, but maybe it's even more impressive that he was able to accomplish so much in just a season and a half.
7. Sean Woods, Kentucky: Younger fans might know Woods best from his unfortunate handling of one of his Morehead State players last November, or maybe for the criticism he took for his (prophetic-in-retrospect) blasting of the 2012-13 Wildcats' "sense of entitlement." But before all that, Woods was (and is) a Kentucky legend, part of the "Unforgettables" group that played through three years of Eddie Sutton-era sanctions, resurrected UK basketball in the process. His retired No. 11 hangs from the Rupp Arena rafters for good reason: In just 91 games, Woods handed out 482 assists -- fifth all-time at Kentucky, and the highest per-game average (5.3) of any Wildcat ever. Woods was nearly a March Madness legend, too. His 10-foot floater with 2.1 seconds left in overtime against Duke in the 1992 Elite Eight should have sealed the Unforgettables' Final Four bid. Instead, Laettner made The Shot, and Woods' magnificent performance became a historical footnote. Even so, it's impossible to understate just how important Woods' career was.
8. Russ Smith, Louisville: What if I told you that the best and most important offensive player on a national title team -- one who posted a 108.9 offensive rating on 32.0 usage (11th-highest in the country), assisted on 21.1 percent of his possessions and drew 6.7 fouls per 40 minutes -- was also arguably the best defender in the country? What if I told you that this two-sided excellence caused a reliable advanced statistical formula to rank him as the best player in the country by a significant margin? What if I then told you that same player -- again, arguably the best offensive and defensive player for the team that won its last 16 games, the Big East regular-season and tournament titles, and the national championship -- wasn't even a second-team All-American?
The point is, understanding Smith's career is all about perspective. If the only time you saw Smith was his disastrous five-OT performance at Notre Dame and/or his not-much-better Final Four, you probably agreed with the voters who left him off their final All-American tallies. If you have watched Smith more intently, though, you've seen an occasionally frustrating but often brilliant player blossom into one of the nation's best. By the way: In the past two seasons, Smith has helped Louisville win two Big East tournament titles, gone to two Final Fours, and won the aforementioned national title -- and he still has one more season to add to his legacy. No joke: By the time 2013-14 is over, he could crack the top five of this list. Maybe higher. Frankly, I'm not sure he shouldn't be higher already.
9. Wayne Turner, Kentucky: Another of those relatively unsung 1990s UK guys that were nonetheless really, really good (word to Anthony Epps, Jamaal Magloire and Travis Ford), Turner played in a then-record 151 total collegiate games for the Wildcats and finished his career with 494 career assists (fourth-most in school history) and 238 steals (No. 1 at UK all-time). Turner only played two seasons for Pitino before the Celtics came a'calling, but he was a major reason Pitino's then-revolutionary all-hands-on-deck full court pressure worked in the first place.
10. Francisco Garcia, Louisville: Another classic Pitino player rounds out this list, and while I like that symbolic consistency, Garcia wouldn't be here were he not a very good collegiate player in his own right. As a sophomore at Louisville in 2003-04, Garcia averaged 16.4 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.4 blocks; as a junior (his final season), he posted 15.7, 4.2, 3.9, 1.7, and 1.5, leading the Cardinals to their first Final Four in 17 years, which made Pitino the first coach to take three different programs to the Final Four. Like most of the players above, Garcia wasn't an obvious can't-miss pro prospect (though he has carved out a perfectly respectable NBA career), but rather a versatile, rangy, defensive-minded wing who did just about everything his coach asked of him when he took the floor.
If there's a unifying theme to this list -- beyond "the 1995-96 Kentucky Wildcats were awesome at basketball," that is -- it's that. Pitino's best players didn't always have elite pro pedigree. They didn't always wow you with one unstoppable skill. But they were almost always perfect for their coach and his system -- a testament to his ability to build cohesive, dominant basketball teams from a wide swath of unlikely parts.
In sum: Rick Pitino is really good at coaching basketball. You know, in case that wasn't already clear.
2. Providence College coach Ed Cooley said he called as many schools as possible and could not schedule a home-and-home game out of the region. Providence has consistently had issues trying to get games, regardless of who their head coach is. There have been a few series with schools like Alabama and Texas, due to the connection of former coach Rick Barnes. PC also had one with Wichita State. That's why Cooley had to think out of the box with the new 18-game, round-robin Big East schedule. The Friars play Boston College at home, go to UMass (because Cooley said he was convinced the Minutemen would be a high RPI game), play Kentucky at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn and have the annual series with Rhode Island (this time in Kingston). They will also play in the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, against Vanderbilt and with La Salle as a possibility in the second round (Explorers play Morgan State). Maryland is on the other side of the bracket (with Northern Iowa as another player on that side). The Friars reached the NIT quarterfinals before losing to Baylor. Kris Dunn and Bryce Cotton give the Friars a shot to get back to the postseason and Cooley did a solid job of building a legitimate schedule to make the Friars potentially matter in March.
3. Memphis coach Josh Pastner knew when he took over for John Calipari he had to manage his staff as effectively as he did the team. He hired veteran head coach Willis Wilson. He later added former teammate Luke Walton during the lockout and also hired Damon Stoudamire. Stoudamire left and Pastner went back to his alma mater and hired former teammate Jason Gardner, who had been an assistant at Loyola. Gardner was on the 2001 national runnerup Wildcats and was one of the most competent four-year point guards in the last 14 years. He should immediately help the youthful backcourt for the Tigers. He's a winner and was a tough, rugged point guard. Meanwhile, Missouri coach Frank Haith added former Drake coach Mark Phelps on his staff. That gives Haith another former head coach on his veteran staff to go along with former DePaul and Virginia coach Dave Leitao.
2. Providence coach Ed Cooley said it was worthwhile to have Ricky Ledo practice with the team for a season, even though Ledo will never play for the Friars after being declared academically ineligible and he decided to declare for the NBA draft. "The year off helped him see the game differently," said Cooley. "I told him to come to practice with a purpose and within the purpose what is his plan. He definitely improved defensively. We would have loved to have had him. Had he played for us he would have been one of the leading scorers in the country next season. But our guys got to play against him and got better. Our scout team was unbelievable.''
3. Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said Marshall Henderson is staying in Oxford this summer, taking classes and working on his game. The high-volume shooter is working on his ballhandling and strength, according to Kennedy. Henderson has to diversify his game if he wants to play in the NBA. He returns for his senior season as one of the storylines and with plenty of hype to lead the Rebels back to the NCAA tournament.
2. NC State blocked Rodney Purvis from transferring to any ACC school or Missouri or Cincinnati, two schools on the Wolfpack's upcoming schedule. NC State athletic director Debbie Yow said she was OK with that because Purvis could be playing at NC State. I don't get this. It is being petty. It may not matter with Purvis likely headed to UConn. Still, blocking a player from transferring to a possible non-conference opponent, for one game a season, just looks small. I understand blocking teams from the conference; every league essentially looks to do that. But blocking transfers to a non-conference opponent is a weak response. Coaches have freedom of movement, even within a league, but players don't without having to give up a scholarship or fight for a waiver. UPDATE: Coach Mark Gottfried said the school is now reworking the release and has no problems releasing him to any school outside of the ACC.
3. Providence coach Ed Cooley will find out Tuesday if Ricky Ledo will return for his redshirt freshman season or declare for the NBA draft, he said Friday. Ledo was a big-time get for the Friars but was unlikely to ever get eligible this season. He sat out and was apparently an instrumental part of the team in practice. Now, Ledo may leave without ever playing a game for the Friars. Ledo and the school may have still benefited from his year in between high school and the NBA. If he became a better player, and more importantly more mature, then it would help him in the league. Having a year of college is better than none.
What it means: In the first of four games at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, No. 9 seed Cincinnati advanced to the Big East tournament quarterfinals, defeating No. 8 seed Providence, 61-44.
The Bearcats (22-10, 9-9) likely sealed an NCAA tournament at-large bid with the win. The Friars (17-14, 9-9) are almost certainly eliminated from NCAA tournament contention.
The turning point: Cincinnati came out with great energy at both ends of the floor, and Providence couldn't buy a bucket in the early going. The Bearcats led by as many as 18 in the first half, 26-8, after back-to-back treys by JaQuon Parker. But the Friars closed the half on a 12-3 run to get back in the game, trailing by just eight, 31-23, at intermission.
Providence scored the first four points of the second half to close within four -- but that's as close as it would get. The Friars hung around for most of the second half, but could never get within one possession. Cincinnati finally expanded its lead to double-digits again, 49-39, on Parker's conventional 3-point play with 4:15 remaining. Parker added two more free throws 20 seconds later to make it 51-39, and the Bearcats salted the game away from there.
Star watch: Sean Kilpatrick, the fourth-leading scorer in the Big East (17.3 PPG), hit his average, with 12 of his 17 points coming in the second half. Parker finished with 15 points and also had 10 rebounds. Kadeem Batts had 14 points to pace Providence.
Bryce Cotton, the leading scorer in the conference (19.6 PPG), scored just 12, shooting 5-for-17 from the field and 0-for-7 from 3-point range.
Number crunch: Providence didn't shoot as badly as South Florida did in the opening round Tuesday night -- but it was close. The Friars were 18-for-64 from the field (28.1 percent), and 1-for-16 from beyond the arc (6.3 percent).
What's next: Cincinnati will play No. 1 seed Georgetown, Thursday at noon. The Bearcats lost at home to the Hoyas, 62-55, on Feb. 15. Providence likely will receive an invitation to the NIT.
OK, so of course everyone wants to play in the NCAA tournament. But watching the past week or so of college hoops, you could have been convinced otherwise. Why, it was just last Saturday that basically every SEC bubble team lost a bad game, while Arizona State, St. John's, Iowa State, Indiana State and Akron, just to name a few, suffered the kind of losses that can cost you a bid in the tournament.
The weekdays since haven't been much better. Virginia spent all week undoing the résumé boost earned with its victory over Duke. Kentucky lost at Georgia. Baylor flopped against Texas. It got so bad we had to begin considering the fringiest of the fringe -- Southern Miss, Iowa, Providence, Maryland -- even though it was almost physically painful to imagine most of those teams in the tournament.
And then, finally, mercifully, some of these teams started acting like they wanted to play meaningful basketball in March. Kentucky, Tennessee, Boise State and Baylor all got huge wins at home. Iowa State held on at West Virginia. Even Cincinnati, which had been quietly slipping toward the bubble in recent weeks, avoided a brutal loss to South Florida.
It wasn't all good news. Oklahoma lost at TCU. Arizona State fell flat at Arizona. Xavier, Providence and St. John's all missed chances to get somewhere near reality in this thing. There were, as there always are, a handful of head-scratchers -- how Louisiana Tech goes three months without losing once and then drops back-to-back games in the matter of two days is beyond this humble bubbleologist.
But the end effect is clear: The bubble is just a little more firm than it was at the start of the day, a little tougher to crack. Good things happen when players play like they actually care about making the tournament. Who knew?
Kentucky: The biggest bubble story of the day, and almost certainly the most impactful, Kentucky's win over Florida put the Wildcats back on the right side of the bubble in their final regular-season opportunity. Considering where Kentucky was after its loss at Georgia this week -- all self-recrimination and disbelief -- it was a bit remarkable to stand up at the last possible moment, once and for all.
I won't spend a whole lot of time here, because you can read my reaction from this afternoon here. Long story short: UK is no lock to make the tournament, and it still has to navigate a tangle of prospective bad losses in the SEC tournament, but right now, compared to much of the rest of the bubble, the Wildcats are closer to being in than not.
Baylor: I am not above making a tired and dumb bodysnatchers joke -- see pretty much anything I've tweeted about Keith Appling for the past three weeks -- but rare is the opportunity to do so in regards to a team that plays inexplicably well. Today, Baylor is that team.
I mean, how else do you explain the Bears not just beating Kansas in Waco, Texas, but blowing Kansas out? When in the past seven days we've seen a) Baylor lose at home to K-State on one of the most heartbreaking (and poorly executed) final seconds of the season and b) lose 79-70 at Texas? That team -- a team that was admittedly still playing hard but looking utterly lost in doing so -- turned around and beat the Jayhawks by 23 points in the penultimate game of the regular season. How does that happen?
Complete shock aside, the bad news for the Bears (sorry) is that they're just 2-10 against the RPI top 50, 5-10 against the top 100, and still have a prohibitively high RPI (No. 73 entering Saturday). As nice as Saturday's win was, and for as much as it helped the Bears, the damage they did in recent weeks isn't so easy to overcome in one fell swoop. They still need more -- and a first-round Big 12 tourney shot against Oklahoma State is an awfully good place to start.
Boise State: In case you're not up to speed on the Broncos -- and no, they don't play their home games on blue hardwood -- they established their potential tournament case all the way back on Nov. 28, when they shocked Creighton (then the No. 11 team in the country) on its home floor. (Eight days earlier, they had pushed Michigan State 74-70, and we all wondered what was wrong with the Spartans. Go figure.) Since then, they've trucked along in the Mountain West in almost exactly the fashion you'd expect: They've beaten some of the league's toughest teams (UNLV, Colorado State) at home and fallen to some of the league's lesser squads (Air Force isn't a bad loss; Nevada is) on the road. In other words, today's win over San Diego State wasn't exactly revolutionary; it was a realistic get, and the Broncos got it. The one thing really setting Jeff Elorriaga & Co. apart from the rest of the bubble dregs is their quality wins. Add one more.
Tennessee: What is it with Tennessee and late-season boosts? The Volunteers did this last season, too, when they turned a brutal first two months into a 10-6 SEC performance and a late desperate push to get into the NCAA tournament. It didn't happen then, but after Saturday's home win over Missouri -- a thank-you card addressed to Phil Pressey is currently in the mail - it looks very much like it's happening now.
I'm not saying that a home win over Missouri is this huge bubble landmark. It's at least a degree or four below a win over Florida. Missouri's only true road wins all season came at Mississippi State and South Carolina. Road warriors these Tigers are not, but combined with UT's other work -- eight wins in its past nine games, including a 30-point demolition of Kentucky and its own victory over Florida -- the résumé is now right in the middle of the bubble picture. Like Kentucky, or really any of these SEC teams, anything can happen going away. But for now, the news is good.
Iowa State: Of any of these bubble winners, Iowa State should be in the best shape. For one, the Cyclones are easily the best team in this group; even a cursory glance at their efficiency numbers (especially when contrasted with the rest of these teams) reveals one of the best offenses in the country and a top-35-ish team overall. I also happen to think the committee will go outside its nitty-gritty sheets and delve into Iowa State's two losses to Kansas, both of which came in overtime, the latter of which was ripped from them thanks to some truly diabolical officiating. Anyway, I wouldn't be able to say any of this had Iowa State lost at West Virginia on Saturday. It didn't, and so I can.
Ole Miss: The Rebels won by 14 at LSU. Were they in better position to start the day -- had they not lost to Mississippi State last week, perhaps -- I might have stuck them down in the "Survivors" category. As it is, they remain in the picture, but have a ton of work to do in the SEC tournament. One win won't get it done.
Arizona State: The Sun Devils are basically done. It's not just a loss at Arizona -- that is obviously forgivable, even if the Wildcats aren't nearly as good as we thought they'd be this season -- it's the four losses in a row (to Washington, UCLA and USC, the latter two of which were on the road, before today's loss at Arizona) as well as an RPI in the 90s, the 283rd-hardest schedule, and so on. Credit Herb Sendek and Jahii Carson for getting this program back in the mix in short order, but it's hard to see an at-large here.
La Salle: The Explorers aren't in bad shape, relatively speaking, and you can hardly fault any team for taking one on the chin at Saint Louis, which they did today. But La Salle has been sort of quietly sliding toward the bubble in the past couple of weeks, and losing 78-54 at this point in the season is hardly the best way to impress the committee. Definitely worth keeping an eye on right now.
Oklahoma: Oklahoma has been in great tournament shape for the majority of the past month -- the Sooners have been playing solid hoops, and their RPI and SOS figures are great -- but it nonetheless entered Saturday outside the comfort of lockdom. And then the Sooners lost to TCU. That probably isn't enough to put Oklahoma below a score of the teams you see here, but when you really dig in to its résumé, there's not much about it that screams "lock." A first-round loss to Iowa State next week could have the Sooners wavering by Selection Sunday.
Colorado: This week's Bubble Watch included a little homily on how the Buffaloes' résumé wasn't all that much different from UCLA's, but Colorado was frequently a No. 10 seed while the Bruins were most often placed on the No. 6 line. That was wrong, I wrote. Naturally, Colorado proceeded to lose at home to Oregon State. Like Oklahoma, the Buffaloes are still in better shape than, say, Baylor, but their regular-season finale was enough to introduce some serious questions going forward.
Minnesota: How do you follow up a win against Indiana? If you're Minnesota, you lose at Nebraska and Purdue. I don't really understand how that works, but I don't understand anything about this Gophers team. I don't think Tubby Smith does, either. The good news is Minnesota is still in much better shape than almost anyone on this list, thanks to its batch of top-50 wins and some pretty peerless computer numbers (RPI: 20; SOS: 2). But the Gophers did just finish the Big Ten season at 8-10, and what if they fall in the first round of the Big Ten tournament? You have to at least consider them to be on the bubble right now, right?
Alabama: The Crimson Tide scraped out a three-point home win over Georgia on Saturday. That is the definition of bubble survival: A loss probably would have knocked Anthony Grant's team totally out of the conversation. As it is, it's still a bit of a long shot -- the Tide were Joe Lunardi's last team among the first four out Saturday evening -- with absolutely zero good wins on its docket. Just a totally uninspiring résumé.
Southern Miss: Speaking of totally uninspiring résumés: the Golden Eagles, everyone! To be honest, it sort of baffles me that Southern Miss is even in the conversation; its best wins are at Denver and a sweep of East Carolina. But the Golden Eagles are hanging around the very fringes of the bubble, and Saturday's home victory over UCF preserved that ungainly status.
Iowa: If Iowa doesn't make the tournament -- and right now it looks very much like Iowa is not going to make the tournament -- Fran McCaffery will really only have himself to blame. The Hawkeyes' nonconference schedule was that of a team still in rebuilding mode, looking for some forgiving opponents and early-season wins. It didn't help that Northern Iowa wasn't as good as advertised, but still, the overall nonconference schedule rank of 308 looks like it is going to keep this .500 Big Ten team -- which would normally be a worthy distinction -- from serious bubble consideration, barring a big push in Chicago next week.
Cincinnati: What if Cincinnati had lost to South Florida on Saturday? That would have been the Bearcats' seventh loss in their past nine games, would have put them at 8-10 in Big East play and, worst of all, would have been a loss to South Florida, which has been just flat-out bad all season long. Fortunately, Cincinnati didn't lose to South Florida. Mick Cronin's team held on 61-53 and should be in solid shape moving forward.
Belmont: This sort-of-kind-of doesn't count, because Belmont won the Ohio Valley Conference tournament in thrilling fashion Saturday, and its Dance status is now of the automatic variety. But had they lost, it's entirely possible the Bruins would have missed the tournament altogether.
Xavier: Two weeks ago, despite the young Musketeers' growing pains, it was impossible to look at Xavier's schedule and not have your saliva glands start working a little overdrive. Chris Mack's kids would get VCU, Memphis, UMass and Saint Louis all at home, and then they'd finish the season with a trip to Butler. The Cintas Center is a difficult place to play; a 4-1 record was entirely believable, and could have been a season-changing stretch. Instead, Xavier went 2-3 -- it lost at Butler on Saturday 67-62 -- and its tournament credentials look about as so-so as they did back in mid-February. Alas.
Providence: An even bigger long shot than better-than-you-think brothers-in-arms Iowa at this point, at least Providence, which would close the season at Connecticut, had the best chance of notching an impressive road victory on the final weekend of the season. Instead, UConn held on 63-59. Keep an eye on the Friars going forward; like McCaffery at Iowa, Ed Cooley has them playing better basketball than anyone expected this early in his tenure. But a tournament bid will have to wait.
St. John's: After suspending D'Angelo Harrison, sitting Sir'Dominic Pointer for a one-game fighting suspension and losing three in a row, St. John's looked totally cooked coming in to the weekend, both on the bubble and on the court. But the Red Storm didn't roll over. Instead, they gave Marquette a genuine test, forcing guard Vander Blue to make a last-second running layup to win and secure Buzz Williams a share of the Big East title. It was an impressive showing by the Red Storm, albeit one that came up just short. No chance this team gets in the tournament now.
1. Louisville. Don’t look now, but the Cardinals are getting hot again, as in red-hot. Louisville has won six in a row and nine of 10. The Cardinals have a shot at a Big East regular-season title and possibly a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. First, though, is the regular-season finale against Notre Dame. Expect overtime.
2. Marquette. And on the Cardinals’ heels, here come the Golden Eagles. Marquette has won three in a row and five of six to clinch a double-bye in the Big East tournament. By now we ought to expect this from the Golden Eagles, but after losing the league’s leading scorer and player of the year, it’s a pretty impressive run.
3. Georgetown. The Hoyas’ 11-game streak came crashing to an end due to (depending on your point of view) 22 turnovers or an insanely lopsided foul disparity against Villanova. It’s not the end of the world. Georgetown can still claim a Big East title and make a case for a No. 1 seed. Of course, there’s a pesky little game Saturday against rival Syracuse, officially the last league game between the two.
4. Notre Dame. The Irish have one game left. Or four, depending on how many overtimes Notre Dame and Louisville decide to play. Regardless of the result, Notre Dame is assured of a solid finish in the Big East thanks largely to Mike Brey’s ability to once again redefine his team in the wake of an injury. Without Scott Martin, Notre Dame has gone all-in on defense.
5. Syracuse. Nothing like a game against DePaul to cure what ails you. The bottom-of-the-league-dwelling Blue Demons were the perfect antidote for the reeling Orange, which had lost three in a row. Now it’s time to see if Syracuse’s issues are really solved or if that game was merely a mask. It’s time for the last dance with Georgetown.
6. Pittsburgh. The Panthers will be a very dangerous team heading into New York. With DePaul as their last game, they'll likely be riding a four-game winning streak and, most importantly, surging confidence. Credit Tray Woodall with keeping this team on track all season.
7. Villanova. Enough bubble and roller coaster. The Wildcats are in the NCAA tournament after a ticket-sealing win against Georgetown. Now it’s about momentum. Villanova has been up and down all season, and while the Wildcats have shown remarkable resiliency, a little consistency would do them a world of good.
8. Providence. That people are even asking if the Friars have a shot at an at-large bid says everything about the job Ed Cooley has done. Providence could claim its 10th league win when it faces Connecticut to finish the regular season. Regardless, the Friars head to New York as a team no one wants to play.
9. Connecticut. The wheels are coming off a little bit here for UConn, which is trying to finish out the regular season without Shabazz Napier. The Huskies have lost three in a row, including a bad loss to South Florida. Connecticut’s season is over this weekend because of APR penalties.
10. Cincinnati. The best news for the Bearcats: They get a second chance. This season went off track in the past month, with six losses in eight games. Cincinnati finishes with South Florida, but it has to hope for good things in New York to turn around its postseason fate.
11. St. John’s. And the drama continues for the Red Storm. Steve Lavin suspended leading scorer D’Angelo Harrison for the rest of the regular season due to, he said, repeated failure to live up to the team’s standards. Then a game later, St. John’s and Notre Dame exchanged haymakers in a game-ending brawl. Lost in the confusion -- a three-game losing streak.
12. Rutgers. Give the Scarlet Knights credit. Without their leading scorer and with little left to fight for, they did just that -- they fought. Rutgers gave both Georgetown and Marquette plenty to handle before eventually losing each game. The Scarlet Knights close out the season against rival Seton Hall.
13. Seton Hall. The Pirates have won just once in the month of February. After an injury-plagued season, they probably won’t mind putting this year behind them. But if there is something to motivate them, it is this -- a game against Rutgers, the team that beat them by two earlier in the season.
14. South Florida. The Bulls are doing their best to have a good finish to erase the taste of a bad season. South Florida has won two in a row heading into its finale at Cincinnati. The difference in both Bulls victories: USF scored points.
15. DePaul. The Blue Demons have assumed their customary place in the Big East standings -- at the bottom. DePaul must beat Pitt and hope USF doesn’t beat Cincinnati if it wants to crawl out of last place in the league.
2. I don't understand why four Stanford assistant coaches and Cal assistant Gregg Gottlieb were ejected from the Cal-Stanford game for coming onto the floor to break up a scuffle Wednesday night. The assistant coaches were acting as peacemakers and trying to ensure the situation didn't escalate. Gottlieb was reacting to a volatile situation. Were the assistant coaches expected to just sit there and watch a full-scale fight? At some point, common sense has to factor into some of these decisions. If the assistant coaches were doing more harm than good, fine. Gabriel Harris of Stanford and Richard Solomon of Cal were also ejected -- but not for fighting, meaning they wouldn't have to miss their respective teams' next games, in the Pac-12 tournament. The conference could always add to the discipline if warranted.
3. Give Washington State coach Ken Bone and Georgia Tech coach Brian Gregory a lot of credit for ensuring their teams were still playing with purpose and passion in the final week of the regular season, despite no shot at the postseason (barring miraculous runs in the Pac-12 and ACC tournaments, respectively). The Cougars' victory over UCLA in Pullman on Wednesday had to give Bone such relief after a rough season. The Yellow Jackets, mired in the bottom third of the ACC, denied Miami the chance to clinch the league's regular-season title with a last-second putback. The same is true of Nebraska's Tim Miles, who had the Huskers ready to pounce on Minnesota in Lincoln. South Florida, meanwhile, has won two in a row at the bottom of the Big East. This final week of the season has proven to be as unpredictable as the season as a whole.