North Carolina proves it’s a title contender

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (defibrillators sold separately in the Southern Conference (1), where Western Carolina and Davidson gave us the definition of single-bid conference tournament drama Monday night):

Starting five

A quintet of opinions to get rolling before breaking down the second wave of conference championships:

Roy Williams led North Carolina to an 88-70 victory over Duke on March 3.
(Getty Images)

North Carolina (2) has returned as a legitimate national title contender. The Tar Heels’ torturing of Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium was the sign The Minutes has been waiting for – the sign that says the team with the best combination of talent and experience is serious about winning the whole thing. For weeks, that did not appear to be the case, most notably when Carolina was slaughtered by 33 points at Florida State. As was noted here at the time, nobody ever has lost a game by that many points and gone on to win a national championship. But maybe it’s time to throw out that stat – and that result – and consider Carolina on the merits of what it’s showing now. Because the Heels look like one of the few teams capable of beating Kentucky.

Duke (3) has exposed itself as ripe for another NCAA tourney blowout loss to a lower-seeded team. The Blue Devils have had another great season; they’re 26-5 and still in the mix for a No. 1 NCAA seed. But high seeding hasn’t been enough to protect them from some spectacular pratfalls in recent seasons:

• 2011: A 16-point loss as a No. 1 seed to fifth-seeded Arizona in the Sweet 16.
• 2009: A 23-point loss as a No. 2 seed to third-seeded Villanova in the Sweet 16.
• 2008: A six-point loss as a No. 2 seed to seventh-seeded West Virginia in the round of 32.
• 2006: An eight-point loss as a No. 1 seed to fourth-seeded LSU in 2006 in the Sweet 16.
• 2005: A 10-point loss as a No. 1 seed to fifth-seeded Michigan State in the Sweet 16.

Duke has had a tendency to overachieve during the regular season, then get slapped with reality in the NCAA tourney. After watching the Devils get overwhelmed by Carolina on Saturday, you have to wonder if this team is headed for a familiar fate.

Kentucky (4) still needs to lose. Perhaps now more than ever. The bull’s-eye on the Wildcats officially is visible from space – satellite photos show it clearly. To reiterate from last week, nobody since 1976 has taken a winning streak as long as Kentucky’s current 22-game run into the NCAA tournament and emerged the champion. And you have to wonder whether the underwhelming SEC might lull even a well-grounded team into a false sense of security. Using the Sagarin and Ken Pomeroy ratings as a guide, Kentucky hasn’t played a top-15 opponent since early December, when it lost to Indiana. Using RPI, Kentucky hasn’t played a top-25 team in that long. Every other team that figures to get No. 1 or 2 seeds – Syracuse, Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, Missouri, Michigan State and Ohio State – has played at least one February/March game against a top-15 opponent. Most have played multiple games. The ‘Cats are the best team in the country and a deserving favorite heading into the NCAAs, but a “shocking stumble” in New Orleans this week might actually help.

The Little Dance (5) is cruel. The Minutes is thinking of you, Oral Roberts, Iona and Middle Tennessee. You were a combined 46-6 in league play this season. You dominated your peers. You loomed as potential bracket-busters in the NCAAs – until you bombed. None of you won your league tournament – or even made the final. All that good work for months, but now you’re going to the NIT. Tough gig, being a mid-major.

Drexel guard Frantz Massenat averaged 13.6 PPG this season.
(US Presswire)

Let Drexel (6) in. If the selection committee sends a mid-pack team from a power conference to the NCAAs at the expense of the Dragons, it would be a shame. Drexel won 19 consecutive games between Jan. 2 and the final of the Colonial Athletic Association tourney, which it lost by three points to VCU. The Colonial is a strong enough league to merit two bids, especially when the at-large candidate is 27-6 and won the regular-season title. Drexel started the season poorly (2-4), but it should be noted that all those games were away from home; the Dragons did not play a home game until Dec. 10. From that point forward, they went 25-2. Put them in the field of 68, gentlemen.

And one off the bench …

Someone in the miserable Pac-12 needs to make a serious run at Randy Bennett (7). The Saint Mary’s coach has crafted five consecutive seasons of at least 25 wins and single-digit defeats. In the shadow of Gonzaga in the West Coast Conference, saddled with underwhelming facilities, Bennett has built an unlikely power that is enjoyable to watch. (If, for instance, you value skill – passing, shooting, dribbling – in basketball.) There should be some coaching turnover in the Pac-12 (if there’s not, then the athletic directors should be fired) and Bennett would be a no-brainer hire. If he wants to go.

The dance before the dance

The Forde Minutes Championship Week wish list:

Kansas-Missouri Part III (8) in the Big 12 tournament final.

At least one absurd run by a bottom-feeder (9) to a conference tourney final (say, Arizona State in the Pac-12, Nebraska in the Big Ten or Georgia in the SEC).

A shooting star who averages 30 points per game and nails 3-pointers from all over in leading his team on a great run. Kemba (10) redux, if you will.

A coach as crazy as LSU’s Dale Brown (11), who once stayed awake for an entire SEC tournament to convince his players fatigue would be no factor in trying to win games day after day after day.

No major injuries. Bad enough watching Michigan State’s Branden Dawson (12) go down on the final day of the regular season with a torn ACL.

[Related: Third meeting between rivals Kansas, Missouri would make Big 12 tourney a classic]

Now on to the rundown of the rest of the conference tournaments (Part I was last week):

Atlantic 10

St. Bonaventure’s Andrew Nicholson averaged 17.9 points and 8.3 rebounds this season.
(AP)

Regular-season champ: Temple.

NCAA outlook: Temple and Saint Louis are in. Xavier is on the bubble. A bunch of others (Saint Joseph’s, Dayton, La Salle, St. Bonaventure, Massachusetts) could have an outside shot with a run to the final. Everyone else must win the tourney to get a bid.

Best player: Andrew Nicholson (13), St. Bonaventure. The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Canadian is averaging 17.9 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks, and has been on a tear down the stretch.

Player who could steal the show: Tu Holloway, Xavier. It has been a weird, erratic, controversy-stained season for the senior guard who was the preseason A-10

Player of the Year. But there’s one way to put all that behind him: a stellar performance in a big Musketeers run in Atlantic City. Holloway has the ability to take over this tourney if his mind is right and his teammates contribute.

Coach who needs a good run: John Giannini, La Salle. Probably has his best team in eight seasons at the school. Capping it off with an NCAA bid would be huge.

Fans who won’t show: George Washington. The Colonials don’t have many fans in general, and even fewer willing to travel to watch a 20-loss team.

Fans who will: Saint Joseph’s. Short commute from Philly, and the Hawks have a committed student fan base. Dark horse: St. Bonaventure. Bona has the size to beat up on people and put opponents in foul trouble, and has a star player to ride.

Flop candidate: Xavier (14). Can’t trust a team that hasn’t won back-to-back games since Jan. 28-Feb. 1.

Winner: St. Bonaventure. Bonnies go dancing for the first time in 12 years.

Atlantic Coast

UNC’s Tyler Zeller had 19 points and 10 rebounds vs. Duke.
(Getty Images)

Regular-season champ: North Carolina.

NCAA outlook: Duke, North Carolina, Florida State and Virginia are in. Miami and North Carolina State are on the bubble. Everyone else must win the tourney to get in.

Best player: Tyler Zeller (15), North Carolina. Not a landslide choice; heck, he’s not even a landslide choice on his own team. But Zeller probably has had the most consistent season of any Tar Heel (with the calamitous exception of the final minute against Duke in Chapel Hill).

Player who could steal the show: Mike Scott, Virginia. The Cavaliers big man comes into the tourney averaging 31.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in his past two games. He already has had a great season, and now is showing signs of making a senior surge in March.

Coach who needs a good run: Seth Greenberg (16), Virginia Tech. Mr. Bubble isn’t even close to the NCAA tourney this season, which is a departure from the angst of years past. Given the Hokies’ slide to 15-16 and four-year streak of missed NCAA tourneys, this might be a good time for Greenberg to give the fan base renewed enthusiasm.

Fans who won’t show: Miami. Even with a competitive team that’s battling for a bid, the Hurricanes will bring friends and family members only.

Fans who will: North Carolina. Not as easy to pack the tourney as when it’s in the traditional Greensboro locale, but plenty of Tar Heels fans will get to Atlanta.

Dark horse: Clemson. The Tigers closed the regular season winning five of their final seven games to reach .500 in ACC play. Brad Brownell knows what he’s doing and will have them ready.

[Related: Video: Will North Carolina and Duke meet for a third time in ACC title game?]

Flop candidate: Florida State. The Seminoles are the clutch-shootingest team in America this season. That’s a good thing, but also probably a lucky thing. You win four games in league play by three or fewer points, you’re probably due for that to even out sometime.

This might be the time.

Winner: North Carolina. The Tar Heels have their eyes on a bigger prize, and their coach tends to be indifferent about this tournament. But they have the most talent and appear to be peaking, so they might as well win three games in Atlanta to prepare for the Big Dance next week.

Big 12

Iowa State forward Royce White celebrates after his team’s 80-72 victory over Baylor.
(AP)

Regular-season champ: Kansas.

NCAA outlook: Kansas, Missouri, Baylor, Kansas State and Iowa State are in. Texas is on the bubble. Everyone else must win the tourney to get in.

Best player: Thomas Robinson, Kansas. He’s not the best player (that’s Anthony Davis of Kentucky), but he’s probably the most improved player in the country this season. And he heads to Kansas City on a roll, averaging 23.3 points and 12.3 rebounds in his past three games.

Player who could steal the show: Royce White (17), Iowa State. The Minnesota transfer has been the driving force in the Cyclones’ emergence this season as an NCAA tournament team for the first time since 2005. White has a little Draymond Green in him, leading Iowa State in scoring (12.9 points), rebounds (9.2) and assists (5.2). He’s had one triple-double this season; could there be another one this week?

Coach who needs a good run: Travis Ford, Oklahoma State. After three consecutive 20-win seasons under Ford, the Cowboys have slumped to 14-17. That’s not enough to put Ford on the hot seat, but if freshman LeBryan Nash should decide to go pro – these days, rule nothing out – next season suddenly would look dicey as well. Thus, there’s no time like the present to bank some good will.

Fans who won’t show: Texas Tech. They don’t go to games in Lubbock. Why would they travel all the way to Kansas City to see one of the worst teams in Big 12 history?

[Related: Video: Kansas aims to carry momentum in the NCAA tournament]

Fans who will: Kansas. And Missouri. The battle for tickets in the Last Big 12 Tournament As We Know It should be epic.

Dark horse: Iowa State. The Cyclones have a tough opening game against desperate Texas, but they’ve won four of their past five, losing only at Missouri – and there’s no shame in that.

Flop candidate: Baylor. Maybe talent will prevail, but inconsistent effort and sketchy coaching make the Bears a popular candidate for an early exit.

Winner: Missouri (18). An undersized, seven-man rotation might not hold up well in a three-games-in-three-days format, but the Tigers’ style of play could fatigue opponents even more than themselves. If Mizzou is hitting outside shots, only Kansas has a chance to beat the Tigers.

Big East

Syracuse’s Kris Joseph dunks against Louisville.
(AP)

Regular-season champ: Syracuse.

NCAA outlook: Syracuse, Marquette, Georgetown, Notre Dame, Cincinnati and Louisville are in. West Virginia probably is in. Connecticut might have punched its ticket by avoiding a bad loss Tuesday. USF and Seton Hall are on the bubble. Everyone else must win the tourney to get in.

Best player: Kevin Jones, West Virginia. He led the league in scoring and rebounding. What else do you want from the guy? Player who could steal the show: Jeremy Lamb, UConn. He put 25 points, five rebounds and four assists on the board against DePaul and has the talent to be Kemba Lite this week in New York. And if the Huskies want to be sure of their spot in the Big Dance, they might need a big performance from Lamb against West Virginia on Wednesday.

Coach who needs a good run: Jim Calhoun (19), UConn. He has missed games with a spinal issue. His team has underachieved. Given his age, his health and the academics-related postseason ban to come in 2013, this could be his last roundup in a tourney he has been a big part of making memorable.

Fans who won’t show: USF. There might be a few more Bulls backers than usual on the bandwagon, but don’t look for them to make much of a dent on the Madison Square Garden ticket market.

Fans who will: Syracuse. It’ll be loud and Orange in MSG come Thursday, as usual. Dark horse: Cincinnati. Only loss in the past six games was by a point at USF, and there have been some good wins in that time (Marquette, Louisville). Solid defense is a constant; if their streaky 3-point shooting is on, look out for the Bearcats.

Flop candidate: Notre Dame. After a sensational, overachieving run, the Fighting Irish look like they’re flattening out a bit late. They were upset by St. John’s, then routed by Georgetown before beating Providence to end the regular season. What’s left in the tank for the postseason?

[Related: Video: Can Syracuse handle distractions during tournament?]

Winner: Syracuse (20). The Orange was the dominant team in the league, even though quite a few of its 17 victories were far short of dominant. But Syracuse is playing well at the right time, and if the Orange’s handling of the Bernie Fine bombshell early in the season is any indication, the players seem to be immune to outside distraction. That will be important after the Yahoo! Sports story Monday about drug-testing policy failures within the Syracuse program over the previous decade.

Big Sky

Regular-season champ: Montana. Other contender: Weber State.

Winner: Montana (21). Grizzlies have won 13 in a row, have home-court advantage and will face a Weber State team Wednesday night that they handled by 14 points in the same building just last week. If they control superb Weber guard Damian Lillard again (they limited him to 19 hard-earned points last time), they’ll cut down the nets.

Big Ten

Iowa guard Matt Gatens celebrates with fans.
(AP)

Regular-season champ: Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan shared the title. The Spartans are the top seed.

NCAA outlook: Michigan State, Ohio State, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Purdue are in. Northwestern is on the bubble. Everyone else must win the tourney to get in.

Best player: Draymond Green, Michigan State. Double-double guy will have to be even more productive in both those categories now that Branden Dawson, Sparty’s third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, is out with an injury.

Player who could steal the show: Matt Gatens (22), Iowa. Senior guard has had some blistering shooting games recently, making 24-of-33 3-pointers in a four-game February stretch. If he gets hot, he might ignite a Hawkeyes run in Indianapolis.

Coach who needs a good run: Bruce Weber, Illinois. It doesn’t seem likely, given the Illini’s miserable tailspin over the past month. And, really, anything less than a Big Ten tourney title might be too little and too late to save his job at this point. But if ever a coach needed his team to rally around him, this is the guy and this is the time.

Fans who won’t show: Penn State. Never noticed basketball season started, much less that it’s now ending.

Fans who will: Indiana. Hoosiers fans have been half-hearted tourney-goers in recent seasons, given the travails of the program. Now that the program is back, the home-state volume will be as well.

[Related: Video: Can Michigan State right itself in time to avoid a tournament upset?]

Dark horse: Iowa lost to Illinois last month, but if they get past the Illini in the first round, they’ll face a Michigan State team trying to overcome the loss of Dawson and perhaps a bit leg-weary from a rigorous closing stretch. Win those two games and the Hawkeyes could face a semifinal against Wisconsin (swept the Badgers in the regular season) or the Indiana (split with the Hoosiers). Not impossible.

Flop candidate: Michigan State. See above reasoning for why Sparty is vulnerable against the Iowa-Illinois winner.

Winner: Indiana (23). The Hoosiers have been a sensational home team this season, beating Kentucky, Ohio State and Michigan State in Bloomington. If their fans can transform Bankers Life Fieldhouse (among the worst names ever) into Assembly Hall North, that will help a team that comes in on a solid four-game roll.

Big West

Regular-season champ: Long Beach State. The 49ers dominated the season before being upset in the regular-season finale for their only league loss. Other contenders: Cal State-Fullerton, UC-Santa Barbara.

Winner: Long Beach State (24). The 49ers might get a challenge from Fullerton, but nobody should stand in the way of a team that is much the best in this league. Coach Dan Monson played a brutal regular-season schedule to prepare for this and will ride Casper Ware into the Big Dance.

Conference USA

Memphis guard Will Barton
(Getty Images)

Regular-season champ: Memphis.

NCAA outlook: Memphis and Southern Miss are in. UCF is on the outskirts of the bubble. Everyone else must win the tourney to get in.

Best player: Will Barton (25), Memphis. Deluxe athlete has played more this season like the hyped prospect he was last season as a freshman. He’s averaging 18.7 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists, and playing at an especially high level down the stretch.

Player who could steal the show: Cam Moore, UAB. The Blazers’ big man averages 16.2 points and 10. 4 rebounds for a team that got better late, winning six of its last eight. If Mike Davis’ team is going to make a move in this tourney, it will be on the shoulders of Moore.

Coach who needs a good run: Doug Wojcik (26), Tulsa. Got the program up off the deck, but hasn’t been able to get it back into the NCAA tournament. And at a place that went to eight tourneys from 1993-2003, that’s starting to become a problem. This is Wojcik’s seventh season at the school. Clock’s ticking.

Fans who won’t show: SMU. Team is not good and not entertaining, having had some epic scoring struggles. How much of an already fickle fan base is going to travel from Dallas to Memphis to see that?

Fans who will: Memphis. There are several reasons the C-USA tournament is almost always in Memphis – the most important being that the locals will fill the seats. Dark horse: East Carolina. The Minutes has crawled out onto a thin limb with the 10th-seeded Pirates, but sometimes long shots come in. East Carolina won its only regular-season matchup with first-round opponent Rice, then would face a Southern Miss team that has wildly overachieved and isn’t that talented. Stranger things have happened. But not much stranger.

Flop candidate: Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles are among the least-impressive 24-win teams in recent memory, getting this far on grit and coaching and winning the close ones. (They’re 11-5 in games decided by four or fewer points, or in overtime.) They’ve maxed out.

Winner: Memphis. The Tigers are starting to look like they could be a dangerous team in the Big Dance, and should easily outclass the competition in this tourney.

Mid-American

Regular-season champ: Akron. The Zips won the regular season and are the defending tourney champions, but they didn’t exactly finish the season on a roll, losing three of their last five against the best competition in the league. Other contenders: Buffalo, Ohio, Kent State.

Winner: Akron (27), but it won’t be easy. The Zips might have to beat Buffalo in the final, and they’ve lost to the Bulls twice this season.

Mid-Eastern Athletic

Regular-season champ: Savannah State, which completed a remarkable rebuilding job under former Georgetown standout Horace Broadnax. Savannah State was winless in 2005, but now has won the MEAC in its first year of membership. Other contenders: Norfolk State, Delaware State.

[Related: Horace Broadnax has Savannah State on brink of bid, but is still haunted by 1985]

Winner: Savannah State (28). The Tigers have won 13 consecutive games, 11 of them by double digits. The only major question is whether they can handle the pressure of playing for the first NCAA tournament bid in school history.

Mountain West

New Mexico forward Drew Gordon
(AP)

Regular-season champ: San Diego State and New Mexico tied for the title, with the Aztecs getting the No. 1 seed.

NCAA outlook: UNLV, New Mexico and San Diego State are in. Colorado State is on the bubble. Everyone else must win the tourney to get in.

Best player: Drew Gordon (29), New Mexico. Close call between Gordon and fellow UCLA transfer and double-double machine Mike Moser of UNLV, but Gordon has finished the season much stronger.

Player who could steal the show: Wes Eikmeier, Colorado State. Streak-shooting guard has had some boom-and-bust games – but more boom than bust. If he catches fire in Las Vegas, he could carry the Rams to the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2003.

Coach who needs a good run: Jim Christian, TCU. He gradually has brought the Horned Frogs back to competitiveness in his fourth season, securing the school’s first winning record since 2005. A couple of victories in Vegas would be a big boost heading into next season.

Fans who won’t show: Air Force. Nothing to see here.

Fans who will: UNLV. There will be a home-court advantage for the Runnin’ Rebels. Dark horse: Colorado State. The Rams are on the bubble and thus highly motivated. They have won four of their past five games, including two over ranked teams.

The catch: The Rams haven’t won a Mountain West tourney game since 2008. Flop candidate: New Mexico. The Lobos should win their quarterfinal against Air Force, then would face a potential semifinal matchup with UNLV in a city where the Lobos have lost four of their past six games.

Winner: UNLV (30). Been great in Vegas all year. Will be this week, too.

Pac-12

Washington’s Tony Wroten
(AP)

Regular-season champ: Washington. NCAA outlook: California, Washington and Arizona are on the bubble. Everyone else must win the tourney to get in.

Best player: Jorge Gutierrez, California. Relentless guard didn’t have as good a season as he did last season, but, hey, neither did the league. What he can do is fill every part of the box score, from points (12.9) to rebounds (5.3) to assists (4.0) to steals (1.2).

Player who could steal the show: Tony Wroten (31), Washington. Super-athletic wing finds ways to score, even without an outside shot (he hasn’t made a 3-pointer since January). At his best in transition, when slashing to the basket and getting to the foul line.

Coach who needs a good run: Johnny Dawkins (32), Stanford. The Cardinal was an NCAA tournament regular under Mark Montgomery and Trent Johnson, but Stanford hasn’t yet been under Dawkins – and this is his fourth season on The Farm. He shouldn’t need a bid to make it this year to keep his job, but some success would help. (USC’s Kevin O’Neill figures to be a lost cause, and Arizona State’s Herb Sendek either will be back or be gone irrespective of what happens in Los Angeles – unless, of course, the Sun Devils win the thing.)

Fans who won’t show: Washington State. Long way from the Palouse to L.A., and the fans weren’t prone to making that trip even to see a good Cougars team. This is not a good Cougars team.

Fans who will: Arizona. This is the best basketball fan base in the Pac-12, and their team needs the support while trying to fight its way off the bubble and into the field of 68.

Dark horse: Arizona State. There’s not much to like about the Sun Devils, but then again, there’s not much to like about anyone in this league. They do enter this tourney on their first winning streak of the season, having won two in a row. That includes an out-of-body performance in the finale against Arizona, scoring 87 points – the most ASU has put on the board in a game since January 2010. So, what the heck: Fork ‘em.

Flop candidate: California. The Golden Bears limp in on a two-game losing streak and haven’t had much success in this tournament under Mike Montgomery. They’re 2-3 in three previous visits.

Winner: Washington. The Huskies lost a close one to UCLA in Los Angeles to close the regular season, but before that had won five in a row and played closer to their fairly lofty potential. Even with a regular-season title, they shouldn’t feel so secure in an NCAA bid that they don’t show up primed to play.

Southeastern

Kentucky’s Anthony Davis
(AP)

Regular-season champ: Kentucky NCAA outlook: Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt and Alabama are in. Tennessee and Mississippi State are on the bubble. Everyone else must win the tourney to get in.

Best player: Anthony Davis (33), Kentucky. Not just the best player in the conference, but the best player in the nation.

Player who could steal the show: John Jenkins, Vanderbilt. He has had a couple of big SEC tourney games in his career (25 against Georgia as a freshman, 29 against Mississippi State as a sophomore), and the Commodores will face one of those two teams in their first game. If Jenkins is getting free for “3s,” Vandy will have a chance to play Kentucky a third time this season in the final.

Coach who needs a good run: Andy Kennedy, Mississippi. Finishing his sixth season in Oxford and still searching for that first NCAA tourney bid. If the Rebels don’t secure one in this event – and a run to the final might give them a chance – Kennedy might not get a seventh season.

Fans who won’t show: South Carolina. Too busy studying spring football depth charts.

Fans who will: Kentucky, but will they overwhelm every other fan base to the usual degree? They dominate this event when it’s held in Atlanta and Nashville, but this is farther away. And you have to wonder: Are Big Blue fans saving their money for an April trip to New Orleans instead of this one in March?

Dark horse: Tennessee (34). The Volunteers won eight of their last nine to scramble out of the grave and into contention for an NCAA berth. With a No. 2 SEC seed – a clear indication that this isn’t a great season in the league – Tennessee is positioned for success and motivated to crack the Big Dance.

Flop candidate: Florida. The Gators have lost their past three games and are without injured big man Will Yeguete, which hurts them defensively.

Winner: Kentucky. What, you were expecting Auburn?

Southland

Regular-season champ: UT Arlington. The Mavericks dominated the league all season, going 15-0 until surprisingly losing to UT San Antonio in the regular-season finale. Other contenders: Lamar, Stephen F. Austin, UTSA.

Winner: Lamar (35). You may remember when coach Pat Knight publicly kneecapped his team after back-to-back losses in late February. It worked. The Cardinals won their last three games of the regular season by an average margin of 16.3 points. If Lamar can retain that mindset for three more games, the Cardinals will be dancing.

Southwestern Athletic

Regular-season champ: Mississippi Valley State. The Delta Devils were unbeaten in league play before being upset in the regular-season finale. (Same as UT Arlington in the Southland and Long Beach State in the Big West. Odd.) Other contenders: Texas Southern.

Winner: Mississippi Valley State (36). The Delta Devils probably benefitted from that upset loss to Arkansas-Pine Bluff and should enter this single-elimination tournament with a heightened sense of urgency. (Are you listening, Kentucky?)

Western Athletic

Regular-season champ: Nevada. Other contenders: New Mexico State, Idaho, Utah State.

Winner: Nevada (37). Wolf Pack has won a lot of close games in league play – but it beats losing those games. They only lost one, by four points, and that was more than a month ago. Time to win the WAC tourney for the first time in six seasons.

Coach who earned his comp car this week

Western Kentucky coach Ray Harper
(AP)

Ray Harper (38), Western Kentucky. The Minutes doubted his hire when he was surprisingly elevated from interim coach to full-time coach during the season after going 4-7 as the stopgap replacement for abruptly fired Ken McDonald. The Minutes was wrong. Harper has guided the Hilltoppers to six consecutive wins, including the Sun Belt tournament title; that means Western earned a stunning NCAA bid at 15-18. Job well done.

Coach who should take the bus to work

Johnny Jones (39), North Texas. With 11 seconds left in the Sun Belt final, down two to Western Kentucky, Jones’ players watched a Hilltoppers free throw clang off the rim. It was the front end of a one-and-one, not a two-shot foul. When Western Kentucky laid the ball in for the clinching basket, the Mean Green realized the fatal error. That’s on the players, but also the coaches. Maybe someone on the bench could have yelled, “Box out”?

Buzzer beater

When hungry for classic Mexican food in Los Angeles, The Minutes recommends a visit to El Cholo (40), which is the oldest of the old school. There are multiple locations, one of which claims to have invented nachos. The place has dishes on the menu dating to 1923. And the margaritas are righteous.

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Pat Forde is Yahoo! Sports’ national college columnist. He is an award-winning writer, author and commentator with 25 years experience in newspapers and online. Follow him on Twitter. Send Pat a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Mar 7, 2012