The real SEC basketball drama is off the court

Ole Miss basketball players took a knee during the national anthem prior to a game against the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday. (AP)

Ole Miss basketball players took a knee during the national anthem prior to a game against the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday. (AP)

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (newfound humility sold separately at Villanova, currently enduring its first three-game losing streak in six years):

THE SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE IS OFF THE RAILS

If you thought the SEC (1) only saved its controversies for football season, guess again. There is a whole lot happening in the league right now that qualifies as headline news, and not all of it pertains to the actual competitive basketball product on the floor.

Start with Mississippi (2), which saw its players and administration bravely, forthrightly and adeptly handle a racial powderkeg that rolled onto campus Saturday. Applause for the Rebels.

Athletic director Ross Bjork (3) told Yahoo Sports that he was standing near the team bench during the national anthem before Ole Miss played Georgia. With no warning to coach Kermit Davis or anyone in the athletic department, a Rebel player sank to a knee. Then others joined him. By the latter stages of the anthem, six Rebels were on bended knee, and two more knelt for the final lines.

“I was surprised,” Bjork said. “I gathered our staff and we went back to a conference room and began monitoring [reaction]. We went to work immediately instead of watching the game. We wanted to make sure Kermit was prepared and our players were prepared after the game.”

The kneeling provoked some boos from the crowd within The Pavilion. But what was happening outside the arena pushed the players to make their silent statement — the same gesture that elevated pro quarterback Colin Kaepernick beyond a sports figure while simultaneously ending his NFL career. Outside, two pro-Confederacy groups had marched from downtown Oxford to the Ole Miss campus, waving Confederate flags in an attempt “to support Confederate history and veterans.”

The Confederate veterans have been dead for more than a century and the history is shameful, which means that this rally was really an attempt to further inflame racial tensions in a state that knows that terrain far too well. This was brought to the Ole Miss doorstep and sat there smoldering Saturday, just a short walk from where a surprisingly good Rebels team was about to tip off.

The players weren’t going to take the hateful intrusion standing up. Despite lacking the stature and security of professional athletes, and surely knowing that some blowback would be coming, they acted on their convictions.

“We are tired of these hate groups coming to our school and portraying our campus like it is actually our university having these hate groups,” said guard Breein Tyree (4). “The majority of it was, we saw one of our teammates doing it and we didn’t want him to be alone.”

Tyree followed up with a tweet of support for the American military, making the point that there was no disrespect intended toward those men and women. Bjork strongly supported the players postgame as well.

“If you’re going to blame me for erring on the side of our student-athletes, I’ll be on that side every time,” he said. “They were trying to play a basketball game, and groups totally unaffiliated with our university were trying to portray our university a certain way.”

Davis, caught in an awkward situation of his own making, was less outspoken than his boss. “I think our players made an emotional decision to show those people they’re not welcome on our campus,” Davis said. “I respect our players’ freedom and ability to choose that.”

Less than a year earlier, Davis had rather bizarrely invoked respect for the flag in his introductory news conference at Ole Miss. He volunteered that stance, perhaps grandstanding to what he perceived as the program’s fan base. Now he’s got a team acting at what can be considered cross purposes to that proclamation, necessitating that Davis walk back the rhetoric.

Not surprisingly, Bjork said he has received “pretty direct” reaction to the team’s stance via email and phone calls. “Quite a few in support, and a lot of negative ones,” he put it.

While Ole Miss assuredly would like to see this as an isolated episode, it should take pride in its empowered players’ actions — and, in fact, encourage more dialogue on the issue. It would be great to hear from every player who took a knee — why they did it, and what they wanted to achieve. This required some fortitude.

“It takes a lot for a college player to take a stand like that,” said veteran Mississippi columnist Rick Cleveland (5), who wrote a great column on the subject Sunday. “I’ve been reading on social media, and people are complaining about doing it that way. But what other way did they have, really? I think it was the perfect way to take a stand, and the school handled it really well.

“The university has been fighting this a long time. I don’t know that the fight will ever end, but I certainly approve of what they did Saturday.”

Mississippi guard Breein Tyree (4) pushes past Mississippi State guard Nick Weatherspoon (0) on his way to a layup during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. (AP)

Mississippi guard Breein Tyree (4) pushes past Mississippi State guard Nick Weatherspoon (0) on his way to a layup during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. (AP)

Mississippi guard Breein Tyree (4) pushes past Mississippi State guard Nick Weatherspoon (0) on his way to a layup during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Oxford, Miss., Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. (AP)

At LSU (6), there is less to applaud. Yes, the Tigers are playing great basketball, currently tied for the league lead and close to locking up a high NCAA tournament seed after literal last-second triumphs over fellow leaders Kentucky and Tennessee in recent games. But the Yahoo Sports report Monday that coach Will Wade (7) will be subpoenaed in the April federal corruption trial could be the kind of plot twist that derails a successful season.

How Wade handles this unsettling development while trying to win the school’s first SEC men’s basketball title in a decade will be most interesting to watch. If the coach dares to term it a distraction, well, it’s one of his own making. If there is no conversation with agent-runner Christian Dawkins caught on FBI wiretap, there likely is no subpoena with Wade’s name on it.

Meanwhile, some Tennessee (8) fans aren’t taking their Saturday overtime loss to LSU very well. The same fan base that did its best to destroy the football coaching career of Greg Schiano has now gone after basketball official Anthony Jordan (9), who worked the LSU-Tennessee game and made the pivotal call in that game in the final second of overtime.

A 2014 Facebook photo of Jordan ostensibly on vacation in Spain showed the ref holding up an LSU T-shirt he found in a store there, with the caption, “Strolling thru D-town Granada doing a lil site-seeing and look what I saw. To all my Bama’s … Geaux Tigers …”

The photo, while hardly conclusive proof of bias, certainly is a bad look for someone whose job depends on impartiality.

The SEC office issued a statement: “Anthony Jordan, the official in this social media post, has communicated to us that while traveling in Spain five years ago he saw the T-shirt from an SEC team for sale in a store. He took a picture and posted that picture to be seen by friends via his social media account. He said it was his intent to make a light-hearted social media post about having seen the T-shirt in another country and not to express affinity for a particular school.

“Jordan has officiated at a high level in the SEC for 19 years, including 11 assignments in NCAA postseason tournaments.

“We do not find this social media post to be acceptable with our expectations and will proceed accordingly, while also acknowledging Mr. Jordan has a lengthy track record as a fair and impartial basketball official.”

The assumption is that the SEC will no longer assign Jordan to games involving LSU, and perhaps not involving Tennessee, either. But here’s the thing with the Big Orange outrage regarding the foul Jordan whistled against Vols forward Grant Williams (10): It was the right call.

After a missed Tennessee shot near the buzzer, LSU’s Javonte Smart got control of the rebound and was heading upcourt for a prayer of a heave when Williams lunged into his path, then tried to flop for a charging call. It was a tough call at that point in a tie game, 80 feet from the basket, but it was a foul. If Tennessee fans want to launch yet another conspiracy theory in a league rife with them, that call is a dubious place to start.

REPAIRING A BROKEN BUBBLE

If the NCAA tournament selection committee wants to break the mold of rewarding mediocre teams from the lower half of power conferences, it has the perfect opportunity this season. There are half a dozen teams currently under .500 in league play who are included in most bracket projections, and it would be a fine year to boot them from the field of 68, replacing them with mid-major teams having great seasons.

(The big hitch in pinning this to league record is that the current bloated conference structure means there are wide variances in strength of league schedule. Not all conference slates are created equally. For leagues that don’t play a full round-robin, The Minutes notes below where bubble teams rank in terms of league SOS.)

The six that should be under scrutiny:

Seton Hall (11). Overall record: 16-11. Big East record: 7-8. Regular-season games remaining: three. Power ratings: No. 62 NCAA NET; No. 61 Pomeroy; No. 4 Sagarin. NCAA seeding: No. 11 or 12 in most brackets. The Pirates basically are subsisting on a good December, which included wins over Kentucky, Maryland and St. John’s. Since then they are 5-8 and haven’t beaten a likely NCAA tourney team since Dec. 29.

Oklahoma (12). Overall record: 17-10. Big 12 record: 5-9. Regular-season games remaining: four. Power ratings: No. 40 NCAA NET; No. 38 Pomeroy; No. 31 Sagarin. NCAA seeding: No. 9 or 10. The Sooners regained some Big 12 respectability with wins over TCU and Texas last week, but they need to win out to reach 9-9. Oklahoma’s 11-1 non-conference slate included wins over Wofford, Florida and Dayton, but other victories over teams that have gone south (Notre Dame, Wichita State, USC, Creighton, Northwestern).

TCU (13). Overall record: 18-9. Big 12 record: 6-8. Regular-season games remaining: four. Power ratings: No. 41 NCAA NET; No. 42 Pomeroy; No. 37 Sagarin. NCAA seeding: Anywhere from No. 8 to No. 10. Sweeping Iowa State was huge — but then again, the Horned Frogs were swept by Oklahoma, which has just three other conference wins. A home loss to Lipscomb is not a bad loss, but the Bisons could be on the bubble as well and have far fewer losses for the committee to excuse.

Ohio State (14). Overall record: 17-10. Big Ten record: 7-9. Regular-season games remaining: four. Power ratings: No. 42 NCAA NET; No. 37 Pomeroy; No. 36 Sagarin. NCAA seeding: primarily a No. 10. The Buckeyes still appear to have some breathing room with the bracketologists, despite zero victories over teams that are locks to be in the Big Dance since the season opener over Cincinnati. There was a January loss to Rutgers, a February home loss to Illinois, and a league schedule Pomeroy rates as just the 10th hardest out of 14 Big Ten teams.

Minnesota (15). Overall record: 17-11. Big Ten record: 7-10. Regular-season games remaining: three. Power ratings: No. 59 NCAA ET; No. 48 Pomeroy; No. 51 Sagarin. NCAA seeding: anywhere from No. 10 to 12. The Gophers need to win out to reach .500 in the league. Their résumé leans heavily on a road win over Wisconsin, a home win over Iowa and a November neutral-site win over Washington. In February, Minnesota is 1-6. The league SOS is seventh of 14 teams.

Clemson (16). Overall record: 16-11. Atlantic Coast record: 6-8. Regular-season games remaining: four. Power ratings: No. 43 NCAA NET; No. 33 Pomeroy; No. 34 Sagarin. NCAA seeding: anywhere from No. 12 to out. The Tigers have exactly one win over a team that is sure to make the Big Dance, beating Virginia Tech at home earlier this month when the Hokies were without starting point guard Justin Robinson. Other than that, Clemson’s sole selling point is losing close to a number of pretty good teams. The Tigers haven’t even played one of the more rigorous ACC schedules, with a conference SOS of 10th out of 15 teams.

TRADITIONAL ONE-BID LEAGUES WORTH MULTI-BID CONSIDERATION

The Southern Conference (17). There is a quartet of quality teams in the SoCon, which Pomeroy rates the 10th-best league in the land out of 32. Wofford, UNC-Greensboro, East Tennessee State and Furman are a combined 40-1 against the rest of the conference, 12-12 against each other.

Wofford is 24-4 overall, 16-0 in the SoCon, and 6-0 against the rest of the league’s Big Four. If the Terriers aren’t an at-large team at this point then the committee might as well disband. Power ratings: No. 19 NCAA NET; No. 26 Pomeroy; No. 41 Sagarin.

Furman is 22-6 overall, 11-5 in the SoCon and 2-4 against the rest of the Big Four. The Paladins scored eye-opening road wins in November over 2018 Final Four teams Loyola Chicago and Villanova, and the lone bad loss is at home to Samford. Power ratings: No. 48 NCAA NET; No. 55 Pomeroy; No. 79 Sagarin.

UNC-Greensboro is 24-5 overall, 13-3 in the SoCon and 3-3 against the rest of the Big Four. The only team that has outclassed the defending SoCon tourney champions is Wofford (twice). UNC-G led Kentucky in Rupp Arena with less than 10 minutes to play before the Wildcats pulled away, and lost at LSU by six. Power ratings: No. 61 NCAA NET; No. 98 Pomeroy; No. 95 Sagarin.

East Tennessee State is 22-8 overall, 12-5 in the SoCon and 1-5 against the rest of the Big Four. No team in the NCAA NET has played as many road/neutral games as the Buccaneers’ 16 — and they’ve won 10 of them. Power ratings: No. 65 NCAA NET; No. 63 Pomeroy; No. 85 Sagarin.

The Ohio Valley Conference (18). This is another league with four teams performing far better than the rest: Belmont, Murray State, Jacksonville State and Austin Peay are a combined 47-3 against everyone else. Realistically, though, only the Bruins and Racers would have NCAA at-large hopes.

Belmont is 23-4 overall, 14-2 in the OVC, and 2-2 against the rest of the Big Four. The Bruins haven’t lost since an overtime game at Jacksonville State on Jan. 17, and they own a two-game sweep over Nashville rival Lipscomb plus a win at UCLA. Belmont’s last eight wins have come by an average margin of 20 points. Power ratings: No. 52 NCAA NET; No. 56 Pomeroy; No. 60 Sagarin. Conference SOS is 11th out of 12.

Murray State is 23-4 overall, 14-2 in the OVC, and 1-2 against the rest of the Big Four. The Racers have competitive road losses to Alabama and Auburn, and consecutive bad Thursday performances against Belmont (home) and Jax State (road). In the first of those two Thursday games, do-everything guard Ja Morant rolled an ankle 90 seconds into the game and tried to play through it. The NCAA tourney would be much more interesting with Morant in it than out of it, which could be a chip in Murray’s favor if it goes down to the wire from an at-large standpoint. Power ratings: No. 55 NCAA NET; No. 53 Pomeroy; No. 66 Sagarin. Conference SOS is 10th out of 12.

The Atlantic Sun (19). This is a two-team league that, if both advance to the A-Sun tourney final, should have the loser in the at-large discussion. (Interestingly, both Liberty and Lipscomb were upset on the road within the last week, perhaps hinting at some tourney upheaval to come.)

Lipscomb is 21-6 overall, 12-2 in the league, and 1-1 against Liberty. Despite being swept by Belmont, the Bisons had an impressive non-conference run — beating TCU in Fort Worth and Vermont at home, and pushing Louisville to the brink before falling on the road. Lipscomb’s 10 true road wins ties for the most in the NCAA NET top 85. Power ratings: No. 45 NCAA NET; No. 45 Pomeroy; No. 71 Sagarin.

Liberty is 21-6 overall, 12-2 in the league, 1-1 against Lipscomb. Like Belmont, the Flames have a road win over UCLA that counts for something but hasn’t aged as well as expected. The far better victory was Feb. 13 at Lipscomb. Power ratings: No. 64 NCAA NET; No. 65 Pomeroy; No. 111 Sagarin.

The Mid-American (20). Let’s assume that Buffalo (24-3, 12-2) is in the field of 68. But the Bulls could have company from either Toledo or Bowling Green as the MAC shoots for its first multi-bid year since 1999.

Toledo is 21-6 overall, 9-5 in the league, and has played a markedly more difficult league (sixth out of 12) schedule than either Buffalo (11th) or Bowling Green (12th). The problem for the Rockets is that they have played no true high-caliber opponents other than Buffalo, and lost to the Bulls twice. Power ratings: No. 66 NCAA NET; No. 59 Pomeroy; No. 83 Sagarin.

Bowling Green is 19-8 overall, 11-3 in the MAC, and is one of just two conference teams to have beaten Buffalo (they play against March 8). Some bad early losses are problematic (Detroit, Hartford, Cleveland State), but if the Falcons can sweep the Bulls that would greatly improve the résumé. Power ratings: No. 99 NCAA NET; No. 88 Pomeroy; No. 120 Sagarin.

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