Mid-majors battle bluebloods for control of Bracketville
Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball – super-sized to 68 for the NCAA tournament:
The greatest three weeks of the sporting calendar are upon us; let us rejoice and be glad in it. But before we come together in the quest for the perfect office-pool entry, we have to acknowledge a growing and intriguing dynamic within the game: class warfare.
After years of being outspent and outplayed, the 99 percenters of college hoops – the 271 Division I teams from outside the six power conferences – have made a plucky push to seize the tournament from the One Percenters. (In real math terms, it’s more like the 79 Percenters vs. the 21 Percenters. But in keeping with the Occupy Wall Street theme here, we’ll stick to their jargon.)
The 99 Percenters are showing up more regularly in the Final Four: There was George Mason in 2006, Butler in 2010 and the Butler-VCU combo rebellion of 2011. And they’re showing up more regularly in the Sweet 16: In the six tournaments from 2000-05, a total of 16 “Have Nots” advanced to the second weekend; in the six tournaments since, the total jumps to 25.
Ten of those 25 Have Nots reached the Sweet 16 in the past two tournaments alone. Perhaps most telling is that nine schools make up those 10 entries; only Butler crashed both Sweet 16s. The rest: Northern Iowa, Xavier, Cornell, Saint Mary’s, San Diego State, Richmond, BYU and VCU. They represent seven conferences: the Horizon, Missouri Valley, Mountain West, Atlantic-10, Ivy, West Coast, Mountain West and Colonial.
Bottom line: The 99 Percenters are coming from everywhere, and coming in greater numbers.
Why? Because elite players go pro sooner, which destabilizes the continuity of elite programs. And while there might be fewer great players in the college game, there are more good players than ever, and most of them played AAU ball with and against the hot shots and aren’t awed when they meet up again in college. Basically, it’s a case of both the upper and lower classes trending more toward the middle.
But here’s the catch: While the peasant revolt has broken down the gates of the castle, it hasn’t overtaken the throne. The teams that win it all still are members of the rich oppressor class.
Teams from the power six leagues have won every national title since 1990, when UNLV blew out Duke. Not only that, but the programs that win it all tend to be the programs that always win it all: none of the past five champions won their first title. Florida in 2006 was the last time a school captured something it never had before.
Clearly, the chances are strong for the power structure to remain intact. The top of the polls are littered with bluebloods. Of the top eight teams in both The Associated Press and USA Today top 25s, only Missouri has not won at least one national title. The other seven have combined to win 23 titles.
So the Occupy Bracketville movement has some work left to do. Is this the year they do it? We’ll see. In particular, keep an eye on these 10 teams from outside the power six leagues with the best chance to fight the power:
Murray State (1), 30-1, Ohio Valley Conference champions.
Pedigree: 14 NCAA tournament appearances, two victories, zero Final Fours. Last appearance: 2010, reached second round after a victory over Vanderbilt.
Basketball budget (2010-11, per Department of Education figures): $1.6 million.
Why this team has a chance: The Racers were the last team to lose a game, going undefeated until Feb. 9 and becoming a national sensation. The loss to Tennessee State eased the publicity burden, and Murray won its final seven games in impressive fashion. This is a veteran team that compensates for its lack of height with athleticism and aggressiveness. Murray also can shoot the blazes out of the ball and has a stellar backcourt in Isaiah Canaan and Donte Poole. Legit threat to make a deep run.
Why it might not: Against some teams, there will be no compensating for that lack of height, which could lead to some serious rebounding issues. As good as Murray’s guards are, they sometimes get going too fast and can be careless with the ball.
Memphis (2), 26-8, Conference USA champions.
Pedigree: 23 NCAA tournament appearances, 32 victories, three Final Fours (two vacated), zero national titles. Last appearance: 2011, lost to Arizona in the first round.
Basketball budget (2010-11, per Department of Education figures): $6.7 million.
Why this team has a chance: As the budget indicates, Memphis is not a true “little guy” program – and soon enough the Tigers will be included in the power circle when they join the Big East. For now, they fit the strictest definition of a 99 Percenter – but with One Percenter players. Memphis has talent and athleticism in abundance and has played dominant basketball for the past three weeks. This now looks like the team that was picked in most preseason top 10s.
Why it might not: The Tigers are young and prone to bouts of brainlock during which they’ll violate numerous tenets of smart basketball. Memphis has feasted on mediocre competition of late, not facing an NCAA tournament team since early February. Coach Josh Pastner still has to prove himself in the tourney.
New Mexico (3), 27-6, Mountain West Conference champions.
Pedigree: 12 NCAA tournament appearances, seven victories, zero Final Fours. Last appearance: 2010, defeated Montana in the first round before losing to Washington.
Basketball budget (2010-11, per Department of Education figures): $3.8 million.
Why this team has a chance: The Lobos excelled in what was probably the best non-Big Six conference in the country this season – and, actually, it was better than one of those power leagues (the Pac-12). Coach Steve Alford slowed his team’s pace just a bit as the season wore on, with good results. In 6-foot-9, 245-pound Drew Gordon, New Mexico has the kind of big-time post presence a lot of “outsider” teams lack, but he’s not a one-man band. The Lobos are a balanced team.
Why it might not: New Mexico has had an ceiling on its program, never winning more than one game in an NCAA tourney. (Unless you want to count a consolation victory in 1974, back when there were regional consolation games.) Is this team good enough to break through that? Do the Lobos have the firepower to beat elite teams in a possible second-round matchup?
Long Beach State (4), 25-8, Big West Conference champions.
Pedigree: Eight NCAA tournament appearances, seven victories, zero Final Fours. Last appearance: 2007, lost in the first round to Tennessee.
Basketball budget (2010-11, per Department of Education figures): $1.8 million.
Why this team has a chance: One of the most experienced teams in the tournament, Long Beach was toughened by a murderous non-conference schedule (eight games against NCAA tourney teams, including North Carolina, Kansas and Louisville). The 49ers have a star capable of carrying a team in guard Casper Ware.
Why it might not: Larry Anderson, the Big West defensive player of the year, did not play in the Big West tourney after spraining the medial collateral ligament in his knee, and his availability for the Big Dance is uncertain. That could be disastrous for a team that is not overly deep. The 49ers also are foul-prone and could be beaten at the foul line.
Saint Mary’s (5), 27-5, West Coast Conference champions.
Pedigree: Six appearances, three wins, zero Final Fours. Last appearance: 2010, reached the Sweet 16 before losing to Baylor.
Basketball budget (2010-11, per Department of Education figures): $2.2 million.
Why this team has a chance: Program has steadily evolved to the point of being a consistent winner that won’t go into the tourney short-selling itself. An exquisite offensive team with a high degree of skill, the Gaels handle the ball, pass and shoot with aplomb. Coach Randy Bennett has a high-quality tandem in guard Matthew Dellavedova and forward Rob Jones, who combine to average 30.4 points, 14.0 rebounds and 8.7 assists per game.
Why it might not: The Gaels are not the toughest team defensively and could be susceptible to being pushed around. They also looked overmatched athletically in a BracketBusters blowout loss to Murray State. Sometimes, Jones tries to do too much himself offensively.
Creighton (6), 28-5, Missouri Valley Conference champions.
Pedigree: 16 appearances, nine wins, zero Final Fours. Last appearance: 2007, the Bluejays lost to Nevada in the first round.
Basketball budget (2010-11, per Department of Education figures): $4.8 million.
Why this team has a chance: Aside from a three-game wobble in early February, Creighton has had a stellar season. The Bluejays get good shots and make them, shooting 56 percent from two-point range and 43 percent from 3-point range. Forward Doug McDermott, the coach’s son, is an All-American who can carry the team when he’s hot.
Why it might not: This isn’t the most athletic bunch. Creighton will not make many teams uncomfortable defensively with pressure and quickness, and often has to rely on outscoring the opposition. With the wrong NCAA matchup, that could be a problem.
VCU (7), 28-6, Colonial Athletic Association champions.
Pedigree: 10 NCAA tournament appearances, 10 wins, one Final Four. Last appearance: 2011, made fairy-tale run to the Final Four before losing to Butler.
Basketball budget (2010-11, per Department of Education figures): $3.2 million.
Why this team has a chance: The confident Rams know how to win in the postseason, going 10-2 over the past two seasons. Lots of turnover since last season, but coach Shaka Smart remains and so does a nucleus of key contributors led by senior Brad Burgess. They put great defensive pressure on opponents, using turnovers to score easy baskets.
Why it might not: It’s unlikely that VCU can replicate the perimeter shooting roll that carried it to consecutive strafings of USC, Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas last season. It will need some new heroes without post presence Jamie Skeen and point guard Joey Rodriguez; can the younger guys step up the way that duo did last season? Nobody will overlook the Rams this season.
Belmont (8), 27-7, Atlantic Sun Conference champions.
Pedigree: Four appearances, zero wins. Last appearance: 2011, lost to Wisconsin in the first round.
Basketball budget (2010-11, per Department of Education figures): $1.9 million.
Why this team has a chance: Veteran team that has been around the NCAA block and is hungry to make history with the program’s first Big Dance victory. The Bruins played a tough non-conference schedule that should mean they won’t be awed by the opposition. This is a talented offensive team is brimming with confidence borne from a 14-game winning streak.
Why it might not: Can free-flowing Belmont succeed in what often are slower, grind-it-out defensive games in the tourney? Have the Bruins crossed the line from “seasoned” by playing high-level opponents to “beaten down” by always losing to them?
Wichita State (9), 27-5, Missouri Valley Conference regular-season champions.
Pedigree: Eight NCAA tournament appearances, eight victories, one Final Four. Last appearance: 2006, reached the Sweet 16 before losing to fellow Cinderella George Mason.
Basketball budget (2010-11, per Department of Education figures): $3.8 million.
Why this team has a chance: The Shockers have simply had a great season; their five losses are by a total of 29 points, and two were in overtime. This is a senior-laden bunch that coach Gregg Marshall has brought along steadily since they arrived on campus, winning the NIT last season and now finally earning an NCAA bid. They have inside-outside capability offensively and are solid on defense.
Why it might not: There is no NCAA experience for the players, and their Missouri Valley tournament record under Marshall (5-5) does not inspire confidence. They only played one close game in the past eight, and the Shockers lost it in an upset against Illinois State.
Harvard (10), 26-4, Ivy League champions.
Pedigree: One NCAA tournament appearance, zero wins. Last appearance: 1946, lost to both Ohio State and New York University.
Basketball budget (2010-11, per Department of Education figures): $990,000.
Why this team has a chance: The Crimson established themselves in non-conference play with victories over teams from the ACC, Pac-12, Atlantic 10 and Conference USA. They shouldn’t be scared of big-name competition and shouldn’t be seeded like the typical Ivy champ. This is a solid defensive team that will be comfortable in the halfcourt games that you generally see in the tourney.
Why it might not: Harvard might have left its best basketball behind months ago. Tommy Amaker’s team struggled to the finish line, with each of its last four games being nail-biters. If the Crimson was life-and-death to beat Columbia and Cornell, are they really ready to take on the power teams?
Arrayed against those revolutionaries are the magnificent seven Old Money programs with the inside track to win it all. The Minutes list of Establishment teams that have the best chance to protect their turf and take home the title:
Kentucky (11), 32-2, SEC regular-season champions.
Pedigree: 52 NCAA tournament appearances, 107 victories, 14 Final Fours, seven national titles. Last appearance: 2011, went to the Final Four before losing to eventual champion Connecticut.
Basketball budget (2010-11, per Department of Education figures): $12.4 million.
Why this team has a chance: It has the best talent. It has had the best season. It has the best overall seeding and path to New Orleans. It is an unselfish team that takes few bad shots and even fewer possessions off defensively. It will take a massive effort from a good team to upset the Wildcats, who should benefit from shocking loss to Vanderbilt in SEC tourney final. Nothing like a reminder of one’s mortality before entering a single-elimination tournament.
Why it might not: The SEC isn’t as tough as the Big Ten, Big 12 or Big East. Have the ‘Cats been suitably seasoned over the past two months, or were they allowed to win with intermittent execution? Expectations are title-or-bust in the commonwealth, which is a lot of pressure for a young team to bear. Will there be a free-throw or 3-point shooting meltdown at some point, as there have been for other John Calipari teams?
North Carolina (12), 29-5, Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season champions.
Pedigree: 42 appearances, 105 wins, 18 Final Fours, five national titles. Last appearance: 2011, lost to Kentucky in regional final.
Basketball budget (2010-11, per Department of Education figures): $6.5 million.
Why this team has a chance: It has the best combination of experience and talent of anyone in the field. It has played like Carolina was expected to play over the past month. Roy Williams has two national championship rings, so he knows how to get it done at this time of year.
Why it might not: Multiple injuries have curtailed the Tar Heels’ quality depth, and most recently forward John Henson’s sprained wrist in the ACC tournament is a cause for concern. Toughness occasionally has been a question with this group, notably when the Heels were stomped by 33 points in Tallahassee. This is not a great free-throw shooting team, which could be costly in later rounds.
[ East Region: Vanderbilt got little benefit after surprising SEC title ]
Ohio State (13), 27-7, Big Ten Conference regular-season tri-champions.
Pedigree: 27 NCAA tournament appearances, 47 wins, 10 Final Fours, one national title. Last appearance: 2011, lost to Kentucky in Sweet 16.
Basketball budget (2010-11, per Department of Education figures): $5.3 million.
Why this team has a chance: Emerged after a turbulent February as a better team in March, beating Michigan State in East Lansing to end the regular season, then overpowering Purdue and Michigan in the Big Ten tourney before losing to the Spartans in the final. This is an outstanding defensive team and strong on the glass, too. After an occasionally bumpy regular season, Jared Sullinger is playing like an All-American. When William Buford is shooting well, there aren’t many weaknesses.
Why it might not: There’s a difference between “aren’t many weaknesses” and “aren’t any.” Depth always is a concern with the Buckeyes, and occasionally chemistry is, too. Buford has had some major struggles in big games, including a 12-of-34 dud of a Big Ten tournament. Sometimes forward DeShaun Thomas seems to think he’s the All-American instead of Sullinger. Can coach Thad Matta take a team all the way?
Kansas (14), 27-6, Big 12 Conference regular-season champions.
Pedigree: 40 NCAA tournament appearances, 88 victories, 13 Final Fours, three national titles. Last appearance: 2011, upset by VCU in regional final.
Basketball budget (2010-11, per Department of Education figures): $9.5 million.
Why this team has a chance: Played a hellacious schedule and got better from it, becoming an unlikely title contender. Might have the best point guard-big man tandem in the country in Tyshawn Taylor (17.3 points, 4.8 assists) and Thomas Robinson (17.9 points, 11.8 rebounds). Typical Bill Self team is solid in all areas, deficient in none.
Why it might not: Is there enough of a reliable supporting cast for Robinson and Taylor? Will Kansas inexplicably seize up against a lower-tier opponent again, as it has four unforgettable times under Self (VCU, Northern Iowa, Bucknell, Bradley)?
Michigan State (15), 27-7, Big Ten Conference champions.
Pedigree: 25 NCAA tournament appearances, 52 wins, eight Final Fours, two national titles. Last appearance: 2011, lost to UCLA in the first round.
Basketball budget (2010-11, per Department of Education figures): $9.3 million.
Why this team has a chance: Tom Izzo teams always have a chance at this time of year. Draymond Green is a versatile All-American and stellar leader, with a willing group of followers. Spartans are thick, tough and don’t surrender many easy shots or second shots. Team made a point of going after the Big Ten tourney title and got it done in impressive fashion.
Why it might not: Injury to athletic wing Branden Dawson further weakens a perimeter game that is not among the nation’s elite. Point guard Keith Appling is susceptible to lapses in judgment with the ball, which helps explain the team’s high turnover percentage. Has an overachieving team maxed out with the big effort in Indianapolis, or is there more in the tank?
Syracuse (16), 31-2, Big East Conference regular-season champions.
Pedigree: 34 NCAA tournament appearances, 53 wins, four Final Fours, one national title. Last appearance: 2011, lost to Marquette in the second round.
Basketball budget (2010-11, per Department of Education figures): $7.5 million.
Why this team has a chance: Deeper-than-usual Jim Boeheim squad has plenty of options, depending on matchups and who has the hot hand. Veteran team has excelled at finding ways to win the close ones (7-1 in games decided by six or fewer points). Problematic zone defense leads to steals, blocks and easy baskets for the Orange.
Why it might not: Orange have a dominant record but have not played dominant basketball often in the past six weeks – and this has not been a vintage Big East. Depth is good, but some star power might be better. Capable of being absolutely blasted on the defensive backboard.
Missouri (17), 30-4, Big 12 Conference champions.
Pedigree: 24 NCAA tournament appearances, 22 wins, zero Final Fours. Last appearance: 2011, lost in the first round to Cincinnati.
Basketball budget (2010-11, per Department of Education figures): $5.4 million.
Why this team has a chance: Veteran group of dead-eye shooters, slick ballhandlers and fearless athletes has flourished in its first season under coach Frank Haith. Tigers play at a pace and with an attacking mentality that puts great pressure on opposing defenses. Five players are capable of a 25-point game on any given night.
Why it might not: Missouri is neither deep nor tall, with only two players in the seven-man rotation who aren’t guards. Foul trouble for post players Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore is a chronic concern, as are rebounding deficits. More than any of the above six teams, susceptible to a bad matchup that spells doom.
The five under the greatest burden to perform this NCAA tournament:
John Calipari (18). The Kentucky coach has had a star-crossed NCAA history – a lot of victories, some crushing defeats and two vacated Final Fours out of three attended. The one thing he doesn’t have is a national title. He’s never had a better chance than this year. Either Cal officially remakes the timeline for building a champion – reload every year and do it with freshman superstars – or he actually will hear Wildcats fans grumbling about whether this method is ever going to work.
Frank Haith (19). First-year Missouri coach inherited a good team and made it great. Now he’s trying to take the Tigers to the first Final Four in school history. Can a guy with one career NCAA tourney victory reel off four in a row and get to the Promised Land?
Perry Jones III (20). Baylor big man surprisingly turned down millions to return for his sophomore season, but that season hasn’t lived up to the hype. Jones has vanished more often than a card up a magician’s sleeve, often taking the Bears’ chances for big wins with him. He showed up prominently in the Big 12 tournament, averaging 22.3 points and 9.6 rebounds in three games, and he will need to replicate that in the Big Dance to restore his plummeting draft stock.
Big Ten (21). The best league in the land needs to back it up over the next three weeks. A conference that owns 10 national championships hasn’t won one since Michigan State in 2000 and has sent only one team not coached by Tom Izzo to the Final Four since 2005 (Ohio State in 2007). Bo Ryan, John Beilein, Matt Painter, Tom Crean – time to step up and show that the Midwest in March is more than just Butler and some overachieving Spartans.
Rick Pitino (22). The Louisville coach took a giant stride toward recasting this injury-plagued season as a success by winning the Big East tournament as a No. 7 seed. But there’s more work to be done. The Cardinals have lost in the first round in each of the past two NCAA tourneys, most recently a shocking upset loss to No. 13 seed Morehead State. Louisville fans enduring the trash talk of their Kentucky counterparts would love to have something to fire back with.
Welcome to Bracketville
Who’s here for the first time:
Norfolk State (23). The Spartans won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament to earn their inaugural NCAA bid. With a No. 182 Sagarin Rating and a low-rent seed, they don’t figure to be around too long to enjoy it.
South Dakota State (24). The sneaky-good Jackrabbits benefitted from having someone else take out regular-season Summit champion Oral Roberts and took advantage of the opening to beat Western Illinois in overtime for the bid. Biggest happening in the state of South Dakota since they opened Mount Rushmore?
Anthony Davis (25). Kentucky’s freshman center is just passing through, but he’ll be one of the main attractions during his one and only taste of March Madness.
Ray Harper (26). The coach of Cinderella Western Kentucky is no stranger to NCAA championships, but he never has seen the inside of the Division I variety. Harper led Kentucky Wesleyan to Division II national championships in 1999 and 2001 and then went to NAIA program Oklahoma City before heading to Western as an assistant this season. When Ken McDonald was fired at midseason, Harper took over and has taken the team on a memorable run.
It has been a while since these folks dusted off their dancing shoes:
Harvard (27). Last appearance: 1946. A lot of Nobel Prize winners, Senators and titans of industry have come and gone in Cambridge between then and now. The Minutes wonders how many of them ever attended a basketball game while on campus.
Rick Majerus (28), Saint Louis. Last appearance: 2003, as the coach of Utah. After 11 tourneys between 1989-2003, this one might feel the best for the big man.
South Florida (29). Last appearance: 1992, when the Bulls lost in the first round to Georgetown. USF never has won an NCAA tournament game, despite the best early ’90s efforts of shooter Radenko Dobras.
Southern Miss (30). Last appearance: 1991, when the Golden Eagles gave up 114 points in a first-round loss to North Carolina State. Like USF, Southern Miss never has won an NCAA tourney game. Holler if there are any Clarence Witherspoon sightings.
Sean Woods (31). Last appearance: 1992, as a player. Woods was the Kentucky point guard who made the shot that set up The Shot by Duke’s Christian Laettner in the immortal East Regional final game. He now is coach at Mississippi Valley State.
Fred Hoiberg (32). Last appearance: 1995. “The Mayor” played in three NCAA tourneys for Iowa State (including a second-round loss to Sean Woods and Kentucky his freshman year). Now he’s back as coach of the Cyclones.
Teams that got hot at the right time to win their conference tournament:
Detroit (33). In early February the Titans were 12-12 and in the middle of the Horizon League pack. They closed by winning 10 of 11 games, storming to the league tournament title and grabbing the automatic bid. Their average winning margin in four Horizon tourney games was 12.8 points, and Butler coach Brad Stevens predicted the athletic Titans could be a major threat despite a low seed.
Western Kentucky (34). The Hilltoppers made a folk hero out of Harper. It took a while to get some traction, but WKU has it now. Western stunned regular-season Sun Belt champion Middle Tennessee to end the regular season and then pulled off four nail-biter victories in the league tourney (total margin of victory: 17 points) to earn the NCAA bid.
[ Related: Biggest NCAA tournament snubs ]
Colorado (35). The Buffaloes were swept on a season-ending trip to Oregon and Oregon State but regrouped for the Pac-12 tournament and won four in a row to capture the automatic bid in that train wreck of a conference. After being stiffed by the NCAA selection committee last season as a member of the Big 12, Tad Boyle’s team didn’t leave its postseason future in the hands of anyone else this time around.
Louisville (36). The Cardinals have been boom or bust this season. They started 12-0, then lost five out of seven, then won six straight, then lost four of six to end the regular season. That meant it was time for another streak: Louisville won four in a row in Madison Square Garden to capture the Big East title, the last three victories over teams that beat the Cardinals during the regular season.
Montana (37). The Grizzlies actually have been hot for a while. After a 16-point loss to Weber State dropped them to 11-6 on Jan. 14, they simply decided to stop losing. Fourteen consecutive victories later – including two double-digit wins over Weber – the Griz are in the Dance.
Vanderbilt (38). The Commodores finally slayed the UK giant in the final of the SEC tourney, their first victory in that event since 1951. With John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor, Vandy has a one-two scoring punch that ranks with the best in the tournament. If those two stay hot, Kevin Stallings’ team will be a tough out.
Florida State (39). Speaking of tough outs, the Seminoles’ offensive evolution has caught up with their vaunted defense. After beating Duke and North Carolina a combined four times in one season, the sky just might be the limit for these guys.
Momentum isn’t everything going into March, but sometimes a lack of momentum is a sign of a team that doesn’t have much left in the tank. Five to be skeptical about when filling out your brackets:
Notre Dame (40). Overachieving Irish were 20-8 on Feb. 22. Then they lost three of their last five, including blowout losses to Georgetown and Louisville. It looks as if an entire season of overachieving has caught up to Mike Brey’s team.
Southern Miss (41). The Golden Eagles have been surviving on grit, guile and Larry Eustachy’s coaching acumen for weeks, but this is a limited team that is capable of being beaten. They’ve lost four of their past seven, none of them to NCAA tournament teams.
UNLV (42). The Runnin’ Rebels are running on fumes, going 5-5 in their past 10 games and 0-4 outside of Vegas. Star player Mike Moser has faded down the stretch, though he did revive for a couple of nice games late against Wyoming. Bad news for Moser: Wyoming isn’t in the field of 68.
Virginia (43). After a 14-1 start, the Cavaliers staggered home 8-8, with zero quality wins in that span. If it weren’t for early victories over Michigan and Oregon, this team would be in the NIT.
California (44). The Golden Bears lost three of their last four games, including two double-digit losses to Colorado. Cal’s presence in the bracket at all is an undeserved second bid for the pitiful Pac-12.
The five players most capable of taking center stage and performing like superstars:
Anthony Davis. The Kentucky center is the most impactful defensive player since Patrick Ewing 30 years ago. He has the fluidity of the guard he used to be, before he grew 8 inches during high school. If you do not put a body on him defensively, he will catch lobs and dunk on you all day. If you challenge him in the paint offensively, his palm will mark “Return to Sender” on the ball and send it away from the rim. First pick in the June draft, mortal lock.
Thomas Robinson (45). Nobody obsesses more on the virtues of feeding the post than Bill Self, and that has helped Robinson, Kansas’ power forward, become the most improved player of 2011-12. He has offensive moves, he has expanded his range, he has improved his foul shooting, he is a relentless rebounder and he is one mean man when it comes to collisions in the paint. Attack him at your own risk.
Draymond Green (46). Off-the-charts basketball smarts when it comes to feel for when to pass, when to shoot and when to get on his teammates. Ideal leader who stuffs the stat sheet and has dragged this Michigan State team beyond its potential. You get the feeling he will not let the Spartans lose without an epic fight.
Isaiah Canaan (47). The Murray State guard plays as if he’s mentally a step ahead of everyone else on the floor. He has a great feel for when to shoot the “3” (he’s deadly), when to twist into the lane for a shot (he’s crafty) and when to pass (he’s unselfish). The Minutes believes Murray can be a Final Four team in large part because The Minutes believes Canaan is the best guard in the tournament.
Doug McDermott (48). The Creighton coach’s son has had a great season, but kicked it up another notch from the BracketBusters game against Long Beach State through the Valley tournament. His pertinent averages in that time: 26.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and nine free-throw attempts per game. There isn’t a spot on the offensive end of the court where he can’t hurt you.
Five lesser-known players who could become household names soon enough:
Nate Wolters (49), South Dakota State. He’s had six games this season with 30 or more points. He’s has seven games with eight or more assists. He’s had six games with seven or more rebounds. And he’s had seven games with three or more steals. Even with a 3-point stroke that comes and goes, Wolters finds a way to impact every part of the game.
Casper Ware (50), Long Beach State. Went from 11 points in the Big West quarterfinals to 22 in the semifinals to 33 in the final, which pretty well fits the way the little guard rises to the big occasion. He put 26 on San Diego State, 28 on Pittsburgh and 29 on North Carolina early in the season. His mentality is perfectly suited for the bright lights of the NCAAs.
Ray McCallum Jr. (51), Detroit. Could have gone to a number of big-time programs out of high school but went the mid-major route to play for his dad, Titans coach Ray Sr. The Horizon tourney run was the capper, as the sophomore point guard averaged 23.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.7 steals in the last three Titans victories.
C.J. McCollum (52), Lehigh. He’s a big-time scoring guard (21.9 points per game) but a judicious shooter (52.4 percent from the floor over his past six games). He will undoubtedly have the green light to shoot it as often as is necessary to keep the Mountain Hawks in the NCAA tourney for longer than 40 minutes.
Andrew Nicholson (53), St. Bonaventure. Gifted big man went into beast mode in the A-10 tournament final to carry the Bonnies to their first NCAA berth since 2000. Nicholson had 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocks against Xavier, continuing a late-season surge that saw him average 23.8 points, 11.1 rebounds and nearly three blocks over the past 11 games. That’s called a senior salary drive.
Five guys you cannot leave open
Memo to defenders who have the following five assignments: did not sag off to give help to your teammates; do not go under screens; do not let these men out of your sight from the second they cross the midcourt line. If you do, they will make you pay by making jump shots.
Brady Heslip (54), Baylor. He has made 84 3-pointers on the season in 193 attempts (45 percent). He benefits from all the attention defenses pay to the Bears’ frontcourt, and he helps pad point guard Pierre Jackson’s assist total by burying almost every open look.
Doron Lamb (55), Kentucky. He hasn’t had a go-off game in a while, in part perhaps because opponents know they can’t give him an inch of daylight. But he’s made 131 of 277 3-point attempts in his UK career, which means he’s probably due to blow up someone in the tournament for about six in a game.
John Jenkins (56), Vanderbilt. Everyone knows what’s coming, but nobody can stop it. Jenkins has made at least three “3s” in every game since Jan. 24, and he is shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc.
Troy Daniels (57), VCU. The definition of a specialist. Daniels has hoisted 278 shots this season, and 234 have been “3s.” He gets off a “3” every 3½ minutes he’s on the floor.
Kenny Boynton (58), Florida. He always has been a 3-point specialist, but this season he’s dramatically improved his accuracy, which has given him the green light from Billy Donovan to shoot more of them. Sixteen of Boynton’s past 21 baskets have been 3-pointers.
It’s not all Wildcats, Tigers and Bulldogs out there
The five best nicknames in the Dance:
Delta Devils (59). School that owns it: Mississippi Valley State. Why: MVSU is located in the Mississippi Delta, the fertile farmland that sits to the east of the Mississippi River and produces large amounts of cotton.
Jackrabbits (60). School that owns it: South Dakota State. Why: Not hard to find the hares in South Dakota.
Catamounts (61). School that owns it: Vermont. Why: Good question. The large, wild cats reportedly have not been seen in the state in ages. The last one on record was shot in 1881.
Gaels (62). School that owns it: Saint Mary’s. Why: The tried-and-true, sportswriter-bestowed nickname. The school was known as the Saints until a writer for the San Francisco Call-Bulletin reportedly slapped “Gaels” on the school’s football team in 1926. Neither the paper nor the football program still exist, but the nickname persists.
Billikens (63). School that owns it: Saint Louis. Why: A pot-bellied charm doll created by a St. Louis art teacher apparently became something of a craze in the early 20th century. The school made the creature its mascot because its football coach in 1911, John Bender, was said to resemble a Billiken. This is not believed to be a compliment.
Four final predictions
Someone will lose a game by fouling a 3-point shooter (64). And have a hard time living it down.
The officials will break NCAA records by going to the replay monitor (65) 134 times in the course of the tournament.
Someone not mentioned in this 5,000-word opus will hit a shot that makes him a March hero (66). Hopefully with The Minutes in attendance to write about it.
Liberated by conference tournament defeat just like their 1996 predecessors, the last team standing in New Orleans will be the Kentucky Wildcats. Up in Big Blue Heaven, legendary former equipment manager Bill Keightly (67) will pour himself a celebratory bourbon.
When thirsty in the Final Four city of New Orleans and looking for a hip spot away from the hustle, hysteria and street vomit of the French Quarter, The Minutes recommends a stop at Kingpin (68). Grab an Abita and hope the Elvis impersonators are out in force. Thank The Minutes later.
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