Never too early for 'B' word

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball:


Selection Sunday is still about two months, three blizzards and four-dozen John Clougherty sightings away, but that doesn't mean there aren't a few teams likely to start hearing the "B" word.

Yeah, the Bubble. As in, "When are you going to beat someone we've heard of?"

Forde Minutes is ready to get the anxiety meter running for the following schools:

Pittsburgh (1): The Panthers might be 18th in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll, but they're just 70th in ESPN's Daily RPI. They've played the nation's 305th-toughest schedule to date, according to Jeff Sagarin. Pitt hasn't beaten a team currently in the RPI top 80 (thanks to Memphis' collapse), and is only 2-2 against the top 100 -- including a home loss to Bucknell. They'll get chances for marquee wins the next two Saturdays against Connecticut and Syracuse.

Notre Dame (2): Staying in the Big East, it's time for the Fighting Irish to assert themselves. They're 11-3 but have beaten only one top-100 opponent (Villanova, in South Bend). The good news is that the final 13 opponents are all in the top 100. One big problem: Notre Dame gets little out of its road win over Indiana, given the Hoosiers' sagging power ratings.

Charlotte (3): Another team that probably figured a win in Assembly Hall would do more for its resume. The 49ers are No. 94 in the Daily RPI, but do own a road win over No. 49 UAB. Six of their next eight games are against top-60 opponents.

North Carolina State (4): With a Daily RPI of 110, the Wolfpack actually aren't even accomplished enough to get on the bubble yet. They're 10-5 overall but 0-3 against the top 70, with a six-point home win over Louisiana-Lafayette standing as their signature win to date. Injuries have provided an excuse, but excuses don't get teams into the tournament.

Arkansas (5): Stan Heath has rekindled some of the interest in a fan base that has turned apathetic, but the Razorbacks' 13-4 record is built on balsa wood. A win at Missouri is the Hogs' only victory over an opponent in the RPI top 120, and they're off to a 1-3 start in the SEC. Admittedly the league losses have come against high-grade competition: Florida, Alabama and Mississippi State. But Arkansas needs to win a couple of those games to establish credibility.

Memphis (6): This season has been a full-blown debacle for John Calipari. He's got a team of me-first players (Rodney Carney, Sean Banks, Darius Washington and Anthony Rice are combining to jack up nearly 80 percent of the Tigers' shots, yet none are making even 44 percent of their attempts). He's got a key player up on criminal charges (Jeremy Hunt). He's got another key player with a broken nose (Rice). He's got a 9-8 record, an RPI of 126 and a home loss to Louisiana Tech. The talent is there, but this team isn't going anywhere without a major turnaround in chemistry.

Most teams have a guy whose importance seems larger his stats. He might not be the star player or leading scorer, but good luck trying to win when he's off his game. Forde Minutes has identified seven players (many of them point guards, not coincidentally) whose teams tend to go as they go:

Taquan Dean, Louisville (7): The gutty junior guard is the captain and MVP of the All-Bellwether Team. When Dean suffered a hernia last season, the Cardinals plummeted from 15-1 to 20-10. While still working his way back to peak health this season, Dean is scoring 16.8 points and shooting 48 percent in Louisville's 13 victories. He's averaging 5.6 points and shooting 32 percent in its three losses.

Marshall Strickland, Indiana (8): It's all about assertiveness for the oft-passive junior point guard. In the Hoosiers' seven wins, Strickland is averaging 9.4 points and four rebounds, has attempted 31 free throws and made 12 steals. In six defeats, he's averaging 5.7 points, 2.3 rebounds, has attempted just three free throws and made only four steals.

Darius Washington, Memphis (9): The Minutes realize that placing your offense in the hands of a freshman, no matter how talented, is a risk. Check Memphis' last 10 games for evidence. In four victories, Washington has been productive and prudent with the ball (24 assists, 10 turnovers). In six losses, Washington has been more careless than generous (11 assists, 27 turnovers).

Mike Gansey, West Virginia (10): He led the Mountaineers to a fast start, but his recent shooting struggles have mirrored the team's. Gansey is shooting a phenomenal 62 percent from the field in West Virginia wins, including 45 percent from three-point range, but is just 7-of-25 from the field in its three losses, including 2-of-14 on threes.

Jordan Farmar, UCLA (11): He hasn't played much like a freshman this year, averaging 13.8 points and five assists per game, but his youth has shown in defeat. Farmar committed nine turnovers in a loss at Oregon State and shot just 9-for-35 in losses to Boston College, Michigan State and Arizona.

Tack Minor, LSU (12): The mercurial sophomore point guard is maturing, but he's still prone to some ghastly lapses in shot selection and decision making. When Minor is aggressively going to the basket and finding teammates, the Tigers are better. When he's trying to win games from the perimeter, they're not. Stat that backs it up: LSU is 24-8 over the past two seasons when Minor shoots five or fewer three-pointers in a game, and 1-8 when he shoots six or more.

Jason Klotz, Texas (13): The Longhorns' big man has scored in double figures in 10 of the 12 wins he played in. In their three losses he's 8-for-28 from the field and reached double figures in points just once, against Iowa -- before fouling out.

You don't have to be Ashley Judd (14) to believe that Kentucky freshman Joe Crawford (15) made a petulant and impetuous decision in leaving Lexington last week after just 13 college games. But Kentucky's refusal to release Crawford from his National Letter of Intent shows once again that all the power rests with the schools, not the athletes.

Crawford is now interested in returning to Kentucky, and intends to discuss his status with coach Tubby Smith (16). But is his return motivated by the school holding his NLI over his head like an anvil, or because he realized he made a mistake? Without a release from his letter, Crawford will lose a year of eligibility -- leverage the school should not be given.

The Minutes understand Kentucky's stance: It does not want to be used as a one-semester tryout and then dumped when playing time doesn't materialize. But the fact that a transferring player must already sit out a year is penalty enough. Schools should not be able to exert additional control over a departing player's future.

(As for Crawford's disappointment with his early playing time at Kentucky: Which program was the kid watching before he made his decision to come to Lexington? Smith is an honor-thy-upperclassmen coach who generally dispenses minutes to freshmen with an eyedropper. If Crawford thought he was walking into a ready-made 30 minutes a game at Kentucky, he was badly deluded.)

For excellence in the glamorless-but-vital areas of the game goes to Wake Forest (17). The Demon Deacons' 32-for-32 masterpiece from the free-throw line against North Carolina Saturday should have brought tears to the eyes of persnickety old foul shooter Rick Barry (18). The Minutes offer special commendation to Wake big men Jamaal Levy (19), Vytus Danelius (20) and Chris Ellis (21). For the season they're shooting 46, 61 and 67 percent from the line, respectively, yet they stepped up to go 14-for-14 against the Tar Heels.

Phil Martelli (22) of St. Joseph's. You thought St. Yo was dead after losing Jameer Nelson and Delonte West? Not yet. The Hawks started off 3-6, but since then they're 4-0 in the Atlantic 10. St. Joe's has won 21 straight A-10 games, and senior Pat Carroll (23) has been part of a first-place team in the A-10 East for all but one day of his career at the school.

Make no mistake, Southern Mississippi is a better basketball program with Larry Eustachy (24), but it's gotten ugly of late in Hattiesburg. The Golden Eagles (9-7) have lost five straight and have been run out of the gym in the first half of the last three. They trailed Memphis 43-18, Louisville 60-27 and Houston 33-23 at intermission.

If you're looking for some R & R in Kalamazoo, report to the Western Michigan campus to check out Rost and Reed. That's Levi Rost (25) and Ben Reed (26), the tandem powering the Broncos to a 12-3 overall record and a 5-0 start in the Mid-American Conference.

The 6-foot-7 Rost is averaging a team-high 18 points and 5.7 rebounds and making 48 percent of his 3-point shots. Reed is averaging 17.7 points and a team-leading 5.9 rebounds -- not a bad number for a 6-foot-3 guard.

On Saturday the Broncos defeated the only other MAC unbeaten, Bowling Green, on the road. In their previous game they beat the MAC team with the most impressive non-conference body of work, Kent State, by 16 in Kalamazoo. R & R combined for 74 points and 24 rebounds in those two games.

One of The Minutes' pet hoops peeves is watching teams fumble through endgame situations. Bad decisions, bad passes, bad shots, missed free throws and turnovers in close games leave The Minutes cranky, so we've compiled a list of 10 reliable players when the game is on the line.

John Lucas (27): The Oklahoma State guard not only takes care of the ball (3.3 to 1 assist/turnover ratio), he makes his free throws (88 percent) and will take and make the big shot (ask St. Joseph's and Georgia Tech).

Patrick Sparks (28): The Kentucky guard leads the SEC in assist-to-turnover at 3 to 1 and shoots 80 percent from the foul line. His clutch free throws and big baskets sealed the Wildcats' signature win to date, at Louisville.

Filiberto Rivera (29): Never heard of him? It's time to. The UTEP point guard averages 12.4 points per game, shoots 85 percent from the line and leads the WAC in assist-to-turnover (3 to 1).

Chris Paul (30): Wake Forest's super sophomore can drive, shoot the three, makes his free throws (83 percent) and takes care of the rock (2.3 to 1 assist-to-turnover). And he's utterly fearless.

J.J. Redick (31): When Duke is ahead late -- which is to say, almost all the time -- opponents hate seeing the ball in Redick's hands. Fouling him is like giving away two points to the 94.5 percent foul shooter.

Travis Diener (32): The Marquette senior almost always has the ball, and is almost always doing something productive with it. He's 13th nationally in scoring (20.9), 17th in assists (6.6), 22nd in foul shooting and only turns it over once for every 2.8 assists. And he hungers for the big moment. Cousin Drake (33), who plays for DePaul, is another guy you don't want to foul. He's making 90.5 percent of his free throws.

Tim Drisdom (34): It helps having Andrew Bogut to pass to, but Drisdom makes 2.4 assists for every turnover and is shooting 84 percent from the line.

The Illinois backcourt of Luther Head (35), Dee Brown (36) and Deron Williams (37): They're the biggest reason the Illini are undefeated and No. 1, and the biggest reason beating them will be very difficult come March. They've combined to average 43 points and 16.6 assists per game. They've produced 299 assists and just 114 turnovers. They're all shooting at least 74 percent from the line. And they're relishing the spot they're in right now.

... Dwight Clay (38). Wednesday marks the 30th anniversary of one of the most famous shots (and games) in college basketball history, Clay's corner jumper with 29 seconds left to help Notre Dame past UCLA 71-70 and end the Bruins' record 88-game winning streak. UCLA had five shots in the final seconds to win the game but missed them all before the ball came down in the hands of Notre Dame center John Shumate (39), who threw the ball skyward before being trampled by delirious Fighting Irish fans. The Minutes appreciate any information about "Ice Man" Clay's whereabouts.

The Minutes are dying for a look at the freak show being run at Redlands (40), a Division-III joint in California where the amphetamines-in-action Bulldogs are averaging a scarcely believable 147 points per game. Coach Gary Smith is in his 34th year in charge, and his 9-3 team has scored 136 or more points on 10 occasions this season, with a high of 172 points against La Sierra College. (Redlands also gave up 181 to Cal Baptist in a loss.)

Everything about Redlands seemed oversized, from its 21-man roster to the ludicrous 71 3-point attempts per game (and making 24.6 an outing). If anyone has videotape of this operation in action, please apprise The Minutes.

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