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Forde Minutes: Don't call it a comeback

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (Jeff Ruland [1] sympathy cards sold separately):

DON'T CALL IT A COMEBACK -- WELL, OK, GO AHEAD
Now that The Minutes can turn its attention to the sport that knows how to hold a tournament and crown a champion, it seems an inordinate amount of people and teams are rallying after being written off -- either this season, or over the course of several seasons.

Here are The Minutes' top 10 comeback stories of 2007 (so far):

Ernie Kent (2). The Oregon coach was under considerable fan and media duress at the end of last season, which was his third straight without an NCAA Tournament bid or a winning record in Pacific-10 play. But just when you thought Kent's mojo left years ago with Luke Ridnour and Luke Jackson, his Ducks have grown up. They're 16-1, gave UCLA its only loss, upset Arizona in Tucson Sunday night and are 6-0 in road/neutral site games. Looks like they won't clear out Kent's office space for Mark Few (3) just yet in Eugene.

Kentucky (4). This is an exceedingly rare sight: an underrated and underappreciated Kentucky basketball team.

The Wildcats are 14-3 and have won 10 straight games since early losses to UCLA, Memphis and North Carolina. Still, they might have to go door-to-door to get votes for the Top 25. The Cats crept back into the AP poll at 25th this week, but remain on the outside in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll, despite ranking sixth in the RPI.

"For Kentucky to be under the radar and still have the kind of winning streak they've got going, that is amazing to me," South Carolina coach Dave Odom (5) said. "… I think Tubby Smith's done one of his best jobs. I really do."

Despite the recent run, Smith is not lobbying for more love.

"We haven't really played to our potential yet," he said. "We're still trying to find ourselves."

What they've found so far is the usual Tubbinator defense: Kentucky leads the Southeastern Conference in field goal percentage D at 37.2 percent. What they haven't found is the toughest part of the schedule: Until the Cats host Tennessee on Jan. 28, they will have gone since Dec. 9 without playing an opponent currently ranked in the RPI top 65. Average RPI rank of the 14 teams Kentucky has beaten: 115th.

Indiana (6). Expectations were low for the Hoosiers -- and that was before they were beaten by Butler in the NIT Season Tip-Off. That turned out to be a respectable loss, and since then Kelvin Sampson's first Indiana team has nothing but quality defeats, if there is such an animal: at Duke, at Kentucky and at Ohio State, by a total of 15 points.

Since the loss in Columbus on Jan. 2, Indiana has smoked Michigan State, Purdue and Penn State by a combined 59 points, and could conceivably be 6-1 in Big Ten play when Wisconsin visits Jan. 31. Sampson has constructed a solid, veteran perimeter cast around post man D.J. White (7), and the Hoosiers appear to be buying into the new coach's tough-guy mentality.

Curtis Sumpter (8). The Villanova power forward with the worst knees in college hoops has come back yet again, averaging 18.8 points and 6.9 rebounds after missing all of 2005-06 after re-tearing an ACL in the preseason -- which occurred after he originally wrecked the knee in March 2005. Sumpter has diversified his game to incorporate more perimeter shooting but also is getting to the foul line more often. If there's one player The Minutes can root for without hesitation, he's it.

Creighton (9). The Bluejays were the trendy Missouri Valley Conference team before the season. Then they crashed, falling out of the Top 25 after a 4-3 start that included losses to Nebraska and Fresno State. Now they are piecing it back together, sprinting to the top of the Valley standings at 5-2. Guard Nate Funk is averaging 17.9 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists in league play, and was 28-of-31 at the foul line.

Old Dominion (10). After a huge 2004-05 season, the Monarchs underachieved slightly last season and were shoved to the fringe of the Colonial Athletic Association's coming-out party. Then they were widely picked to finish fourth or lower in the CAA before this season. Now they're 12-5 overall, 5-1 in the league and own victories over Georgetown, UAB and early-season CAA hotshot Drexel. But six of the next eight are on the road.

Lon Kruger (11). He made a pile of cash in the NBA, but bombing out there tarnished his reputation as a supremely solid coach. Now, in his third season at UNLV, Kruger is starting to remind people why he took Florida to the 1994 Final Four and Kansas State to the 1988 regional finals. His Runnin' Rebels are 14-4 and own road victories over Nevada, Hawaii, Texas Tech and Houston. That's why UNLV is 13th in the RPI, despite a couple of losses (UC Santa Barbara at home, Wyoming in Laramie) to teams outside the top 100.

Sammy Mejia (12). There was a time during the DePaul guard's sophomore year when it appeared personal issues would derail his career, and he missed some playing time dealing with them. Now a senior, Mejia is averaging 15.1 points and 6.9 rebounds. He's still capable of wild inconsistency (40 points one game on 17-of-24 shooting, eight points the next while going 3-for-14), but so are the Blue Demons as a whole.

James Mays (13). The Clemson junior missed most of last season because of academic ineligibility. With him active into December last season, the Tigers were 11-0. With him this season, they were 17-0 until losing to Maryland Saturday. Not many college players can say they ever went on a personal 28-game winning streak. Clearly, Clemson is glad the 6-foot-9 forward made it back to the court.

Marquette (14). The Golden Eagles looked great in an 8-0 start on the season, then were stunned at home by North Dakota State, lost a hard-fought game to Wisconsin and dropped their first two in Big East play. Since then they've won three straight impressively: at Connecticut, by 18 over West Virginia and by nine at Louisville Monday night.

Marquette has reinserted itself into the Big East's best-besides-Pittsburgh discussion because, in the words of coach Tom Crean (15), "We're starting to learn how we're supposed to play. Before you win, you've got to learn why you lose."

The Eagles lost to Providence and Syracuse because they relied too much on 3-pointers, didn't get to the free-throw line and were beaten up on the glass. In a word, they were soft. Temporarily.

After averaging 22 attempted 3s in those losses, they've shaved that to 14.7 in three victories. Free-throw attempts went from 18 to 25. The rebounding margin went from minus-8 to plus-9.7.

Those are classic Crean-style stats.

"We have to learn how to play in character," guard Wesley Matthews (16) said.

Leading Marquette's cast of characters is Dominic James (17), who was The Minutes' preseason choice for first-team All-America point guard and played that way Monday in Freedom Hall. When Louisville closed from 15 down to five in the middle of the second half, James responded like a stone-cold stud. He scored 13 straight Marquette points -- nine of them on contested 3s from out top and four on difficult drives to the basket. Then James dished the assist on a Matthews 3-pointer that effectively ended it.

Crean was tipped off about James at the beginning of the kid's junior year at Richmond (Ind.) High School by former assistant Tim Buckley, then the head coach at Ball State. All it took was one look at James in action for the Marquette staff to be hooked.

"It was a no-brainer," Crean said. "We made him a priority."

So did Louisville Monday night. Didn't matter.

"We played him great," Louisville coach Rick Pitino (18) said. "He's a great little player, maybe the best point guard in the nation. He's very tough -- very tough-minded. There's a young man who's only a sophomore but has the mentality of a 40-year-old."

Forgive Pitino for feeling a bit envious of a sophomore with a titanium toughness about him. His youth-laden roster is riddled with mental frailty that leads to critical lapses in shot selection, offensive execution and defensive focus at key times.

Which is a big reason why the 12-6 Cardinals look like an NIT team -- at best. And why Louisville isn't on this comeback list.

ROOKIE REPORT
Rookie head coaches have probably spent the past two months being disrespected by officials, questioned by fans and wondering why they got into this racket to begin with. (One good reason: payday.) But here are five off to a great start:

Tony Bennett (19), Washington State. If you saw the Cougars execute at the end of a close loss to UCLA and an overtime upset of Arizona, you'd hardly believe this was a bunch of underdogs being led by a 37-year-old in his first season as the boss. Bennett has taken daddy Dick's super-solid principles and upped the tempo a touch, and the result has been an unexpected contender in a rock-'em-sock-'em Pac-10.

Anthony Grant (20), Virginia Commonwealth. The longtime Billy Donovan assistant was patient in his pursuit of a head-coaching job and it's paid off. He inherited plenty of talent from Jeff Capel and has known what to do with it. The Rams are 6-0 and alone in first in the CAA, and their three losses this season have come by a total of seven points. They're also 6-0 in road games, and only one of those has been close.

Sean Sutton (21), Oklahoma State. Sutton had plenty of training as his dad's right-hand man in Stillwater and took over as the interim head coach at the end of last season. But at 14-2 and ranked 18th in the RPI, the Cowboys have once again surpassed preseason expectations. (An annual rite of winter is watching Oklahoma State inexorably move from unranked into the Top 25, then the top 20, then the top 15 … ) The Cowboys have already beaten Pittsburgh, Missouri State and Syracuse and might be the best team in the Big 12 not from Lawrence or College Station.

Ben Jacobson (22), Northern Iowa. The Panthers were predicted to finish midpack in the Missouri Valley but currently are tied for second, and own league wins over Bradley, Wichita State and Southern Illinois. Beating Iowa State and Iowa looks good, too.

Donnie Tyndall (23), Morehead State. This has long been on the short list of Worst Jobs in Division I -- and rarely more so than after last season, when the Eagles went 4-23 and finished the year No. 321 out of 334 in the RPI. Tyndall, a former Morehead player, at least knew what he was getting into -- and has done a remarkable job. Predicted to finish 10th in the 11-team Ohio Valley Conference, Morehead currently is 6-2 in league play and 10-6 overall, with an RPI of 230. Morehead's last four losses have come by a combined 13 points.

RUTHLESS INTERROGATION
The Minutes asks a few pressing questions of Marquette's Dominic James. He's a little man (listed at 5-11) who played his high school ball in a league with the biggest of gyms: Indiana's legendary North Central Conference, where the average seating capacity is more than 7,100.

Minutes: Best North Central Conference gym you played in?

James: Richmond (24).

Minutes: No fair, that's where you went to school. OK, toughest North Central fans?

James: Muncie Central (25).

Minutes: How many times have Indiana fans said they can't believe you got away from the Hoosiers?

James: Too many. It was one of the toughest decisions of my life, but I couldn't have made a better decision. I love playing for coach Crean and playing at Marquette.

Minutes: How many times have you been told you're too small to play big-time basketball?

James: (Puts his hand to his ear.)

Minutes: How many times have you been told you're too small to play big-time basketball?

James: (Puts his hand to his ear again.) That's what I do when people say that. I ignore it.

Minutes: Favorite pregame meal?

James: We eat the same meal before every game -- chicken with spaghetti and a baked potato.

Minutes: And if you were making up the menu?

James: Same thing. It's been working. Actually, I'd have my grandma do the cooking -- ham, mac and cheese and about 15 Gatorades.

SIMILAR TO A "T"
If you're like The Minutes, you've probably had some momentary confusion over the prominent presence of a Jamon Gordon (26) and a Jamont Gordon (27) this college basketball season. But they don't just have similar names, they have similar games.

As a public service, The Minutes offers the following differences:

Mississippi State guard Jamont is an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than Virginia Tech guard Jamon.

Jamon, from Jacksonville, Fla., is two years and eight months older than Jamont, from Nashville.

Jamon is majoring in sociology. Jamont is seeking a degree in educational psychology.

Jamont has the edge in minutes per game (30.7 to 30.2), points (15.3 to 12.4), rebounds (7.5 to 4.2) and assists (4.8 to 4.3).

Jamon has the edge in turnovers (2.5 per game to 4.5), steals (2.6 to 0.9) and field goal percentage (48.1 to 42.6). And his team has the better record (13-4 to 10-6).

Jamon is enduring life in Blacksburg. Jamont is sucking it up in Starkville. Call that one dead even (and deadly dull).

INSCRUTABLE
The Minutes is having a hard time figuring out the following teams:

Maryland (28): The Terrapins lost at home last week to a horrible Miami team, then turned around and knocked off America's last unbeaten, Clemson, three days later. Scored 58 against the Hurricanes, 92 against the Tigers.

Virginia Tech (29): Losses to Western Michigan (No. 161 RPI) and Marshall (No. 152). Wins over Duke (in Durham) and North Carolina.

Southern Mississippi (30): Knocked off Auburn on Jan. 2, then followed that with a loss to Savannah State four days later -- on the road. Who plays Savannah State on the road (besides UMass)? (Insert urgent and strident opinion: Sav State second-year coach Horace Broadnax (31) should be a legitimate candidate for national Coach of the Year. He's taken the worst program in America -- 2-56 record the previous two years -- to a 7-14 record. That's a miracle in its own right, and especially strong when you consider that the Tigers played nine games on the road in a 30-day stretch from Nov. 21 to Dec. 20.)

New Mexico (32): Actually, the Lobos aren't that hard to figure out. They're killers at home (11-1), candy apples on the road (0-5) and neutral on neutral courts (1-1). The same team that beat Kansas State by 24 in Albuquerque lost to the Wildcats by 16 a month later in Las Vegas.

Indiana State (33): Has four wins over RPI Top 50 opponents. Has also lost to Ball State (No. 273) and Middle Tennessee State (No. 118).

LOSING IT
Then there are the teams that seem quite easy to figure out, as they slide quickly out of contention in their respective league races:

Wake Forest (34): Consecutive double-digit ACC losses at home confirm what seemed apparent in December: The Demon Deacons are no good for the second straight season. Last season the final RPI was 85th; so far this season, it's 128th.

Missouri (35): Yes, the Tigers are 0-4 in Big 12 play, but Mike Anderson was a great hire who proved his mettle again Monday night, when the Tigers nearly upset archrival Kansas in Lawrence. There isn't lavish talent in Columbia, but Mizzou is breaking a sweat every time out -- more than can be said for the tail end of the Quin Snyder era.

Arizona State (36): You knew it wasn't going to be a quick fix for Herb Sendek when the Sun Devils lost their first two Division I games of the season -- to Northern Arizona and Portland State. Currently on a seven-game losing streak with seven road games and five at home still to play, it's officially gotten ugly in Tempe. Fortunately for Sendek, the Suns and the weather are both too fabulous for anyone to notice how bad his team is.

Cincinnati (37): How much nothing does first-year coach Mick Cronin have to work with? Here's how much: The Bearcats lost in November to a Wofford team that currently is 0-7 in the Southern Conference and No. 305 in the RPI. Cincy got a soft entry into the Big East schedule with Rutgers and South Florida -- and promptly lost both games by double digits. The real question is how in the world the Bearcats beat a pretty decent Xavier team. (Rivalry game, 'nuff said.)

Utah (38): Life after Andrew Bogut continues to be misery for the Utes -- they're 18-27 since he went pro. Their last win was before Christmas. Their last home win was a month ago. Their last Mountain West Conference win was last March.

BUZZER BEATER
The Minutes offers an Ashley Judd (39) souvenir tiny T-shirt (pit stains included) to Butler's A.J. Graves (40) for his near-flawlessness at the free-throw line this season. The product of Switz City, Ind., is 82-for-83 at the stripe, his lone miss coming Nov. 25 against Kent State. Not even Jimmy Chitwood shot it any better than that.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.