Welcome to Fieldhouse Confidential, a regular college basketball feature from Will Leitch, Mike Tanier and Matt Brown, published every Friday.
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After losing to Tennessee by 30 points last Saturday night, Kentucky basketball players and coaches probably wanted to fling the ball at each other as hard as they could. So why not go for it?
John Calipari thought that a midweek game of dodgeball might take pressure off his Wildcats, who were reeling after losing superstar Nerlens Noel to an ACL injury. "We just were talking, and what can we do?" the coach told reporters on Wednesday. "We've got to lighten this mood up. These guys are with the weight of the world on their shoulders, let's do something."
Calipari and his staff faced off against the players. Calipari wore a helmet, knowing full well that he would be a prime target. He tried to give as well as he got, but his fastball has lost its zip. "I can't throw like I used to," he said. "I got hit a couple times. And I thought I was throwing it hard but it kind of like looped and they just caught mine." Good thinking coach: Get the guys working on their hands, and don't hit anyone too hard, because a) the team is already banged up and b) it could cause a scandal. Calipari Beans Player In Dome, Receives Harsh Reprimand.
The dodgeball ploy may have worked, as Kentucky bounced back from the Tennessee drubbing to beat Vanderbilt 74-70 on Wednesday night. Or perhaps the Wildcats simply bottomed out against the Volunteers and benefited from playing a weak Commodores team. But don't count out the value of playground-style motivational tactics for a team that is very young, even by college basketball standards.
Freshman Willie Cauley-Stein certainly needed a mood lifter. Cauley-Stein has been forced into Noel's role and looked awful against the Vols: 1-of-4 from the field, four turnovers, lots of "where am I supposed to be" defense and a foul out. Cauley-Stein had 20 points, seven rebounds and three blocked shots against the Commodores. "It wipes everything out," Cauley-Stein said on coachcal.com. "That's kind of what it did. It was like, 'Oh, dodgeball!' Right when he said dodgeball, anything you were thinking was gone." Or maybe when Cauley-Stein took one upside the head, anything he was thinking was gone. Either way, Cauley-Stein and the Wildcats needed a Tennessee memory wipe.
There was more to the Kentucky team-building exercise than dodgeball. A players-only meeting also got everyone on the same page, and it prompted erratic guard Ryan Harrow to ask for his starting job back. "The players had our own meeting and they just were telling me that they wanted me to be out there to make plays," Harrow said after the game. "I sat down with some other people and talked to them, and I just felt like I needed to go to Coach Calipari and tell him that I was going to do whatever he needed me to do." Harrow finished with 12 points, four assists, five rebounds and zero turnovers.
Kentucky needs all the togetherness it can get if it hopes to crawl back into the NCAA tournament picture. The Tennessee and Florida losses loom large in bubble scenarios, and a win over a 10-15 opponent does little to move back the needle. The selection committee tends to shy away from teams that are trending downward, and few teams were trending quite as downward as Kentucky when Noel got hurt. The Wildcats need a win against Missouri on Saturday to get back in the bracket conversation, and they need a strong showing in the SEC tournament, because the SEC is unlikely to send more than three teams.
But Calipari is not out of motivational ideas. And he is also looking for some payback against the players who pelted him and his staff this week. "We're going to play Wiffle ball Friday," he said. "I promise they will lose Friday." And nobody will need a helmet.
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The Place to Be
For all the BracketBuster madness going on, the most thrilling mid-major on the board this weekend -- if you can classify the Atlantic-10 as mid-major, and this year, you probably shouldn't -- is a conference battle. Friday night, Butler hosts St. Louis in a battle of the two teams that have established themselves as the most intriguing in the Atlantic-10, a conference that's perhaps the most intriguing in the country.
St. Louis' win over VCU in its underrated Chaifetz Arena this week essentially locked them into the tournament, barring a late-season collapse, and they're currently in first place in the conference. But Butler is the big dog in the A-10 -- particularly impressive considering it's the Bulldogs' first year since moving from the Horizon League -- and Brad Stevens' crew is eager to show they can win whatever conference they end up in.
The whole league is stacked with tourney-quality teams: Eight teams have a legitimate argument to at least be on the bubble (Butler, St. Louis, VCU, La Salle, Xavier, Temple, Charlotte, Massachusetts). Of course, the A-10 has 16 teams in total; with that many, you have to sort of be trying not to be on the bubble. In an odd decision that sort of takes the fun out of having 16 teams in your conference, the A-10 will only be sending its traditional 12 teams to its conference tournament at Barclays Center in March. So, sorry, Rhode Island, Fordham, Duquesne and one of St. Joseph's, St. Bonaventure, Dayton or Richmond: You must suffer through the indignity of not even qualifying for your conference tourney.
I'll be at Barclays for the tournament this year; I actually chose it over the Big East tourney, I'm so enamored of the A-10 this year. But its champion -- and potential protected seed -- very well may be decided tonight in Indianapolis.
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Remember: The S-Curve lets you know the top team on each line, the one closest to the next seed. There are geographic and regional concerns with the seeding that must be accounted for, but we won't worry about those until we get closer to Selection Sunday. And, as always, the main purpose of fake brackets is to remind us that, sometime very soon, we will get a real one.
(automatic qualifiers in CAPS)
No. 1: INDIANA, MIAMI (FLA.), Duke, GONZAGA
No. 2: FLORIDA, Michigan State, SYRACUSE, Michigan
No. 3: NEW MEXICO, KANSAS, ARIZONA, Louisville
No. 4: Georgetown, Marquette, Kansas State, Wisconsin
No. 5: Oklahoma State, BUTLER, Pittsburgh, Ohio State
No. 6: Notre Dame, N.C. State, Missouri, San Diego State
No. 7: Minnesota, Oregon, Nevada-Las Vegas, Colorado State
No. 8: Illinois, MEMPHIS, Cincinnati, Colorado
No. 9: Oklahoma, Ucla, WICHITA STATE, St. Louis
No. 10: Creighton, North Carolina, Virginia Commonwealth, Iowa State
No. 11: California, La Salle, Villanova, Baylor
No. 12: LOUISIANA TECH, MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE, Kentucky (play-in), Temple (play-in), St. John's (play-in), Mississippi (play-in)
No. 13: AKRON, BUCKNELL, BELMONT, HARVARD
No. 14: STEPHEN F. AUSTIN, DAVIDSON, VALPARAISO, NORTH DAKOTA STATE
No. 15: LONG BEACH STATE, NORTHEASTERN, NIAGARA, MONTANA
No. 16: SOUTHERN, STONY BROOK, NORFOLK STATE (play-in), MERCER (play-in), ROBERT MORRIS (play-in), HIGH POINT (play-in)
Last Four In: Kentucky, Temple, St. John's, Mississippi
Last Four Out: St. Mary's, Arizona State, Virginia, Southern Mississippi
Next Five Out: Maryland, Boise State, Alabama, Iowa
The field is starting to tighten; if you're not one of these last eight out, you're in serious trouble. On Sunday, we'll be only three weeks away from Selection Sunday. We're so close.
Locks: Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Wisconsin
Not Entirely Dead: Iowa
Locks: Louisville, Syracuse, Marquette, Pittsburgh, Georgetown
Probables: Notre Dame
Bubbling: Cincinnati, St. John's, Villanova
Not Entirely Dead: Providence
Locks: Duke, Miami (Fla.)
Probables: North Carolina State
Bubbling: North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia
Not Entirely Dead: Florida State
Locks: New Mexico
Probables: Colorado State, San Diego State
Bubbling: UNLV, Boise State
Not Dead Yet: Wyoming
Locks: Arizona, Oregon
Bubbling: UCLA, Arizona State, Colorado, California
Not Dead Yet: Washington, Stanford
Locks: Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State
Bubbling: Baylor, Iowa State
Not Dead Yet: None
Bubbling: Mississippi, Kentucky
Not Dead Yet: Texas A&M, Alabama, Arkansas
Probables: St. Louis
Bubbling: Virginia Commonwealth, Temple, La Salle
Not Dead Yet: Xavier, Charlotte, Massachusetts
Any questions or obvious omissions, leave 'em in the comments or email me at email@example.com. And enjoy the games this weekend.
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The Missouri Valley Conference reprimanded the officiating team that called Sunday night's Wichita State-Illinois State game for awarding free throws to the wrong Wichita State player in the final minute of the game.
Illinois State's Jackie Carmichael kicked Wichita State's Tekele Cotton in the chest while coming down for a defensive rebound. There was no call immediately after the kick, but when the Shockers fouled on the defensive end, the officials conferred, checked the tape and called a Flagrant One foul against Carmichael. But Cotton did not shoot the free throws; Cleanthony Early went to the line instead. This is significant because Early is an 79.1 percent free-throw shooter and Cotton is a 58.6 percent shooter. Early made both free throws to cut the Illinois State lead to five points. The Shockers scored six more points in the final minute, with Early's three-pointer with 4.8 seconds left providing the margin of victory in a 68-67 win.
There's a lot to unpack here. First, there was the kick. Carmichael grabbed the rebound and performed some serious wire fu on the way down. His right legs splayed as he descended, making him look like Super Mario at the end of a double-jump, only angry. Carmichael looked directly at Cotton, and he appeared to aim his foot directly at the Wichita State guard, landing the sole of his shoe right around Cotton's collarbone.
"There's an elbow rule, but there is no Size 16 rule," ESPN commentator Mark Adams said as the officials reviewed the film. Some message board commenters around this fine Internet suggested that the Flagrant One was an inappropriate call because Carmichael could not control his legs in such a way, which is zany, but then many people failed to notice when Tom Brady kicked Ed Reed in the AFC playoffs. NCAA basketball is not NFL football, however, so the officials did not shrug their shoulders and say, "gee, there is nothing about hauling off and kicking someone in the chest in our copious rulebook, and therefore it must be legal." Carmichael earned a Flagrant One. So far, so good.
But then, Early replaced Cotton at the line. Early is 6-foot-10. Cotton is 6-foot-2. Early is clean shaven. Cotton has a bristly beard. Early wears uniform number 11, Cotton 32, so there are no lookalike digits. Early is one of the stars of the MVC, the kind of player officials should start to recognize by mid-February. Cotton is more of a role player. The officials spent well over a minute looking at replays of Carmichael's foot hitting just below the bearded face of a player who was short enough (by basketball standards) to be in the way of a flying drop kick of anyone other than Spider-man. They then sent a baby-faced 6-foot-10 forward who was about six feet away from the play to the line, one who happened to be a better shooter.
So how could officials spend such a long period of time watching replays of a few seconds of basketball footage and miss a critical, fundamental piece of information? The answer is inattention blindness, "a failure to notice an unexpected stimulus that is in one's eyesight when other attention demanding tasks are being performed," According to Wikipedia. One of the most famous inattention blindness tests actually involves basketball. Watch the video carefully, and make sure you get an accurate total of passes for the white team.
Inattention blindness is one reason why eye witnesses to events are often unreliable: If you are paying attention to the road instead of the accident, you are likely to miss or misinterpret critical events which happened within your field of vision. In the case of the Wichita State-Illinois State game, the officials were so focused on determining Carmichael's intent by reading his eyes and body language that they lost track of who got kicked. That's a mistake worthy of reprimand, as the officials had no business being "inattentive" of Cotton, who was as important as Carmichael to the play which the crew was getting paid to analyze properly. Interestingly, though, Adams did not spot the mistake, either. That's inattention bias, as the color commentator is too busy focusing on Carmichael, then on the free throws and game situation, to quickly process an unusual piece of information.
The Shockers came away with a win, then beat Indiana State on Tuesday to raise their record to 23-5, 12-4 in the always deep-and-tough MVC. Bracketologists have the Shockers locked into the tournament, with Creighton (22-6, 11-5) on the bubble. Everything can change suddenly in a mid-major tournament, however, and the MVC is unlikely to send more than two teams. Imagine Northern Iowa, Indiana State or Illinois State winning the conference tourney. Now, imagine Wichita State with a loss to the Redbirds on their resume. The Shockers face Creighton next Saturday. In a universe where Cotton missed a few free throws, that game would have had much greater bubble buster potential.
So the reprimand against David Hall, Gerry Pollard and Paul Janssen was warranted, and officials around the NCAA need a reminder to sweat every detail, lest the fate of some high-quality mid-major team be decided by a moonwalking bear.
What to Watch
No. 4 Michigan State at No. 18 Ohio State (4 p.m. Sunday, CBS)
Illinois at No. 7 Michigan (1 p.m. Sunday, ESPN)
The juxtaposition from the fall to winter is an amazing thing. Months of Big Ten bashing and SEC love from September to January have dissipated on the hardwood, where the SEC is abysmal and the Big Ten is carrying college basketball with exciting play. On the surface, the season has been spectacular thanks to many upsets and down-to-the-wire games, but, really, the actual basketball often hasn't been good. Take Wednesday's double-overtime "thriller" between Oklahoma State and Kansas: The refs hijacked the game, the clock was a mess, likely lottery picks Marcus Smart and Ben McLemore combined to shoot 5 of 26 from the field and Kansas -- which won -- made one field goal in 10 minutes of overtime. (The best part of the game may have been Bill Self's dance.) College basketball has glaring problems on the court, and games like that highlight what's wrong.
But things have been different in the Big Ten. It's typically mocked for its slow play in both football and basketball, and sure, the basketball has been sloppy, at times, like always in the college game, and, sure, Bo Ryan's Wisconsin Badgers continue to be happy to win games in the 30s if they have to. But week after week the nation's best and most exciting games are played in the Big Ten.
As someone who attended a Big Ten university and watches too much Big Ten Network, I still fully expect this season to end in a national championship for Florida and no Big Ten teams reaching the Final Four, because that's how football has trained us to think. That's not an impossible thought, even if Indiana is emerging as the national favorite after beating Michigan State, even if the two best national player of the year candidates -- Michigan's Trey Burke and Indiana's Victor Oladipo -- belong to the league. But for now the league has the on-court success to back up its unlimited power in the bank, and it's refreshing to watch.
Georgetown-Syracuse very well could be a great game on Saturday, but the way things are going, odds are good the best game of the weekend will come Sunday, when Gary Harris and Keith Appling meet Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft in Columbus, and when Michigan and Illinois duel in Ann Arbor.
Picks: Michigan State 71, Ohio State 69; Michigan 81, Illinois 75
No. 11 Georgetown at No. 8 Syracuse (4 p.m. Saturday, CBS)
Conference realignment has created an endless parade of "this will be the last time these play" storylines, and here we have one of the biggest in basketball. Georgetown and Syracuse will meet at the Carrier Dome for the final time as Big East rivals on Saturday, with the Orange holding a 48-39 all-time series edge. This isn't the last time they'll play -- not even this year. They'll meet again in Washington on March 9 to close out the regular season, and it's possible they'll meet the next week at Madison Square Garden in the Big East tournament, but the Carrier Dome brings about much more nostalgia -- not to mention 35,000 fans -- than the Verizon Center.
Of course, the only reason for these rivalries not to continue is petty grudges. Georgetown coach John Thompson III, to his credit, doesn't appear to be holding one, saying he anticipates the rivalry continuing in some capacity despite Syracuse making the first move by joining the ACC and putting the demise of the Big East into motion. In football, the fact that teams play only three or four nonconference games and everyone is hell bent on playing a certain number of home games makes scheduling complicated and avoiding rivals almost in the realm of being understandable. But, really, there are no excuses for West Virginia to stop playing Pitt, for Texas to stop playing Texas A&M. The fans and players all want to see it, and in basketball there are two whole months of nonconference scheduling opportunities for schools to get over it and give us what we want. Syracuse fans are prepared to pack the Carrier Dome on Saturday for what doubles as an important Big East showdown thanks to Georgetown's eight-game winning streak. Nostalgia is fine and all, seeing as this is the last time they'll meet at the Carrier Dome, but, well, chances are it won't be. It better not be.
Pick: Syracuse 64, Georgetown 61
Arkansas at No. 5 Florida (7 p.m. Saturday, ESPNU)
Only two things have broken Florida's ridiculous stride in SEC play this season: road trips to Arkansas and Missouri, two teams totally incapable of winning anywhere outside their home courts. In 11 SEC wins, the Gators have won by an average margin of 25.9 points, which is absurd no matter how awful the SEC is at basketball. In their two losses, they've lost by 11 at Arkansas on Feb. 5 and by three at Missouri on Tuesday. So far this season, the Razorbacks have only one home loss -- to Syracuse -- but they didn't win on the road until last Wednesday against lowly Auburn. Being a middle-of-the-road SEC team in 2013 isn't anything to brag about, and don't expect a repeat of the last meeting between these teams. Florida has blown every visitor to Gainesville away by double digits -- which it apparently needs to do, since it loses the few close games it's played -- and the Gators aren't going to fall behind by 23 in the first half, like they did in Fayetteville. Instead, they'll build a big enough lead so Kenny Boynton doesn't have to jack up a wild three-pointer with the game on the line again, something nobody outside of Arkansas wants to ever see again.
Pick: Florida 77, Arkansas 64
No. 16 New Mexico at No. 22 Colorado State (4 p.m. Saturday, NBCSN)
The only bad part about watching Colorado State basketball is having to spend two hours staring at the Moby Arena court. I understand the need for programs to distinguish themselves, be it with blue turf, or Oregon's unique everything, or the raised courts at Vanderbilt and Minnesota. It's more fun when arenas/stadiums/courts are instantly recognizable, as opposed to the cookie-cutter stadiums of modern professional sports. But … There's no need to overcomplicate things. You can barely even see the lines on the floor, the paint is the paint in name only, and while the ram horns are kind of clever, they're just excessive. Yes, I'm boring, but give me North Carolina's floor any day.
Oh, right, the basketball ... Larry Eustachy's personal reclamation continues, and in his first season at Colorado State the Rams have emerged as a tournament-caliber team once again despite playing in a very tough Mountain West. They suffered a crushing defeat at UNLV on Wednesday in what would have been a big road win for their tournament resume, losing on a shot in the closing seconds after erasing an 11-point halftime deficit. They're lacking a big win on the road, but a home win over New Mexico would certainly put the Rams in great position for their second tournament bid in a row, and it would also put them in a tie with the Lobos for first in a league in which everyone else has at least five conference losses.
Pick: Colorado State 64, New Mexico 60
Creighton at St. Mary's (6 p.m. Saturday, ESPN)
BracketBusters will undergo a quiet death after 11 years this weekend, as the once-fun novelty has lost its luster and is a blip on the radar at this point, with few games that can actually help tournament profiles. With that said, there are a few intriguing matchups, from Detroit's visit to Wichita State to the Creighton-St. Mary's showdown. Led by star center Doug McDermott, Creighton is essentially a lock for the tournament despite its shaky Missouri Valley season, but St. Mary's is still hoping to find its way into the mix with a 23-5 record and its only conference losses coming to Gonzaga. The glaring problem, of course, is that the Gaels have few notable wins, meaning Saturday is a must to notch an impressive victory for its resume.
Pick: Creighton 71, St. Mary's 66