Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball – Big Dance Edition, supersized to 68 for the NCAA tournament:
Happy Selection Sunday, and welcome to the most wonderful time of the year. The Minutes hopes all of you stay in the running for a billion dollars as long as you can – but in reality, your bracket is far more likely to start being busted by mid-afternoon Thursday. The predictable unpredictability of the tourney is what makes it magical and maddening at the same time.
Before we provide withering insight that will allow you to dominate your office pool and talk trash to family members at the dinner table, a few recognitions are in order.
It's been a good year for chickens: the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (1) are in the Big Dance for the first time since 1993; the Delaware Blue Hens (2) for the first time since 1999; and Kentucky coach John Calipari (3) for the first time since he refused to continue playing Indiana home-and-home in 2012.
Even with the demise of Butler, it's been a good year for canines: the Albany Great Danes (4) pulled a succession of upsets to win the America East tournament; the Wofford Terriers (5) benefited from a bracket collapse to win the SoCon; the Gonzaga Bulldogs (6) did what they normally do in dominating the West Coast Conference; and Glenn Robinson III (7), son of former Purdue great Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson, is a key part of Michigan's Big Ten title team.
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It's been a good year for the clergy: the Providence Friars (8) make their first tournament appearance in a decade; so do the Manhattan Jaspers (9), whose nickname is derived from Brother Jasper of Mary, a prominent figure at the school in the 19th century.
It's also been a good year for 1980s player icons, two of whom will face each other as coaches. UCLA coach Steve Alford (10) was the Most Outstanding Player of the 1987 Final Four. Tulsa coach Danny Manning (11) was the MOP of the '88 Final Four.
And it's been a very good year for the states of New Mexico (12) and Kansas (13), which put all of their Division I schools – New Mexico, New Mexico State, Kansas, Kansas State and Wichita State – in the field of 68. A good year in Oklahoma (14) as well, which put three out of four D-I schools – Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Tulsa, everyone but Oral Roberts – in the Dance. Not such a good year for the basketball bedrock state of Indiana (15), which somehow has none of its 10 D-I schools in the tourney. (Compounding the misery for the Indiana Hoosiers is the fact that Mike Davis (16), the coach they ran off in 2006, is back in the tourney as the coach at Texas Southern.)
THE ELITE EIGHT
The national champion should come from the following group of heavyweights. But let's try to apply a little science to the art of picking who wins it all.
The Minutes is a devotee of Ken Pomeroy's advanced stats and acquired all of his rankings from the past 11 Selection Sundays. Pomeroy cautioned against manufacturing any hard-and-fast "rules" related to his rankings, which is wise. But there are some generalities to be drawn:
None of the past 11 national champions ranked outside the top 20 in adjusted offensive efficiency heading into the tournament, or outside the top 50 in adjusted defensive efficiency. (Interestingly, the best offensive teams have tended to fare better than the best defensive teams in the tournament. Pomeroy's top offensive unit has won three national titles and been to six Final Fours in 11 years, while his top defensive unit has won one national title and been to two Final Fours.) Of those 11 champions, all but three were in Pomeroy's Top 10 in either offensive or defensive efficiency going into the tourney – in other words, they were all elite in at least one of the two facets of the game.
[Gallery: Players to watch in the NCAA tournament]
The ones who were not also happened to be the three most surprising winners: Syracuse in 2003; Florida in 2006; and Connecticut in 2011. All of them were No. 3 seeds led by NBA-level talents, and all appreciably raised their games in March – especially defensively. Syracuse rose 25 spots defensively during the tourney, Florida 12 spots and UConn 16. Defense is certainly more effort-based than offense, and despite the old coaching bromides, it is possible to "flip a switch" to a degree and improve dramatically in that area come tournament time. The best example: North Carolina's dominant 2009 team was No. 49 nationally in defense when the tourney began and No. 21 when it ended.
Using Pomeroy's metrics through Saturday night as a guide, here are your prime contenders:
Florida (17). Pomeroy offensive rank: 15. Pomeroy defensive rank: 5. Strengths: The Gators are among the most experienced teams in the tourney, with a cast of veterans who have reached the Elite Eight three years in a row. This is a team with the pieces to win it all. There is sufficient size, athleticism, depth and shooting, and Billy Donovan already has two championship rings. (Keep in mind: 13 of the last 14 champion coaches had been to the Final Four at least once already, including the last five.) Florida is undefeated with its full roster intact. Concerns: There is no go-to star who can carry the Gators in a crisis point. Was the Southeastern Conference too soft to produce a national champion?
Wichita State (18). Pomeroy offensive rank: 8. Pomeroy defensive rank: 10. Strengths: Fifteen teams have ranked in the Pomeroy Top 10 in both offense and defense, with four winning the national title, nine making the Final Four and 12 making the Elite Eight. This is the same core group that went to the Final Four a year ago and had eventual champion Louisville on the ropes before relenting – except the Shockers are better this time around. They are more unselfish with the ball, less foul-prone and have developed a remarkable group confidence. Marshall got the vital Final Four experience last season. Anyone dismissing the Shockers based on strength of schedule is making a mistake. Concerns: As the first undefeated team in the tourney since 1991, the spotlight will be blinding and the bull's-eye on their backs is immense – neither of which are the preferred status for a chip-on-the-shoulder program from a mid-major conference. Are the Shockers good enough at center and offensively from behind the 3-point arc?
Louisville (19). Pomeroy offensive rank: 10. Pomeroy defensive rank: 6. Strengths: See above stats on teams in the top 10 in both offense and defense. Rick Pitino has crafted so many coaching masterpieces during his career that it's hard to keep them all straight, but this is one of his best – remember, Louisville lost key power forward Chane Behanan and backup guard Kevin Ware in December. Despite that, the Cardinals are on a roll similar to last season. They are explosive and disruptive in the backcourt, and Montrezl Harrell is elevating his game in the frontcourt. This core group has won 12 straight postseason games, and 20 of its last 21. They are the definition of a tough out. Concerns: Susceptible to being dominated inside by a big opponent. Execution in close games has been a significant weakness, as has foul shooting.
Michigan State (20). Pomeroy offensive rank: 12. Pomeroy defensive rank: 45. Strengths: The Spartans do not fit the pre-tourney statistical rubric of a champion, but they have a very good excuse for that – an absolute injury plague. Now healthy, they were fantastic in Indianapolis at the Big Ten tournament. This is a team with every necessary piece, including an elite coach, and it is peaking at the right time. Concerns: Michigan State hasn't played up to its usual defensive standard, though that may change now. The Spartans made the last two Sweet Sixteens but were beaten handily there and were a clear cut below the elite teams. Have they closed that gap?
Michigan (21). Pomeroy offensive rank: 3. Pomeroy defensive rank: 103. Strengths: Few teams can shoot from the perimeter like the Wolverines, who have up to six dangerous 3-point bombers. They have also been excellent in late-game execution, which is essential at tournament time. John Beilein has done masterful work remodeling this team after the early loss of center Mitch McGary, and a return Final Four trip would not be a surprise. Concerns: That defensive ranking is glaring – but Michigan was similarly ranked last year and made the title game. Few teams are as battle-tested as the Big Ten regular-season champions.
Arizona (22). Pomeroy offensive rank: 35. Pomeroy defensive rank: 1. Strengths: In terms of overall soundness and tenacity, this is the best defensive team in the tournament. Few points will come easy for opponents against the length and athleticism of the Wildcats. Nick Johnson is a high-level scorer, and freshman Aaron Gordon is an NBA talent who is probably ready to raise his game another level in this tourney. Sean Miller is ready for his March breakthrough. Concerns: The offensive efficiency number is higher than the champion's profile. Arizona has done a nice job overcoming the season-ending injury to forward Brandon Ashley, but still isn't as good as the team that started 21-0. Miller hasn't been to the Final Four, which as noted has become a precursor to winning it all.
Virginia (23). Pomeroy offensive rank: 28. Pomeroy defensive rank: 3. Strengths: The Minutes was a slow convert to the Cavaliers, but there is reason to believe. They are airtight defensively and adept at controlling tempo. In 2014, their only two losses were on the road in the final seconds or overtime. Balanced scoring keeps defenses from a simple gameplan to stop one guy. Tony Bennett is a rising coaching star. Concerns: Like Arizona, the offensive efficiency ranking is not ideal. Balanced scoring is nice, but who gets the hard baskets when the Cavaliers have to have them? Bennett has no Final Four experience, and the players have had no previous NCAA tourney success.
Villanova (24). Pomeroy offensive rank: 17. Pomeroy defensive rank: 15. Strengths: In Pomeroy We Trust. The Wildcats fit the statistical profile of a championship team, even if they lack sexy conference wins or big-time players. They've lost just four times all season and just once in the last month, on a buzzer beater in the conference tournament. Jay Wright has Final Four experience (2009). Concerns: The only high-caliber teams 'Nova has played since December were Syracuse and Creighton, which beat the Wildcats three times by a total of 65 points. Pack-it-in defensive philosophy can leave them susceptible to being shot out of the tournament by a team that is hot from the outside.
THE DANGEROUS TWO
Keep an eye on these talented teams that underachieved in the regular season but have gotten it together late:
Kentucky (25). Pomeroy offensive rank: 19. Pomeroy defensive rank: 41. Whether it was The Tweak of the offense or simply some masterful mind games from Calipari, he has made everyone remember how talented this once-dysfunctional group truly is. Suddenly their immense potential seems within reach. Huge and imposing, don't be surprised to see the Wildcats radically improve that defensive ranking and make a serious run at the Final Four. With a coach who knows how to win in March, Kentucky will be a daunting opponent in the Midwest region.
Baylor (26). Pomeroy offensive rank: 7. Pomeroy defensive rank: 114. Another huge team that slumbered through long stretches of the season, playing an indifferent zone defense and at one point losing eight out of 10 games. But those same Bears now have won 10 of their past 12 and will be a formidable opponent physically (we'll see how they do with the mental approach). Scott Drew has never been to the Final Four without a ticket, though.
THE WOUNDED ONE
Kansas (27) was a potential Minutes pick to win it all until center Joel Embiid injured his back. Now, with Embiid expected to miss at least the first week of the tournament, the Jayhawks must be viewed very differently. They still do not lack for talent, but their 3-2 record without Embiid – including giving up more than 90 points in both losses – indicates the 7-footer's importance to the Kansas defense. A key injury alters a team's script every year, and it is Kansas' turn this time.
THE BRACKET WRECKERS
Five teams seeded outside the top 16 that could pull an upset or two:
Tennessee (28). The Volunteers barely got in, but they have the interior muscle to make life miserable. Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon, each 260-pound post punishers, are a challenge to box out and move off the block. And Jordan McRae is a skilled scorer. Cuonzo Martin must prove he can coach his way through close-game situations, but the Vols will be a tough matchup.
VCU (29). Who wants to handle the Rams' havoc style? No one. VCU sometimes can beat itself with haywire offensive execution, but the defensive pressure is difficult to handle and coach Shaka Smart has done some memorable March damage. There are a couple key holdovers (Rob Brandenburg and Juvonte Reddic) from that 2011 Final Four run.
Providence (30). This is a team with firepower. The Friars have four players averaging double figures, four who can shoot the 3, and two senior leaders (Bryce Cotton and Kadeem Batts) motivated to leave their mark. Ed Cooley has done a great job coaching the Big East tourney champions.
Manhattan (31). Veteran team that has won 11 of its past 12 games, with the lone loss by four points on the road. Jaspers coach Steve Masiello is the latest hot commodity off the Pitino coaching tree and will have his team primed for a first-round ambush.
North Dakota State (32). Disciplined Bison take care of the ball and take good shots. If a team isn't ready to hunker down and guard on every possession, Saul Phillips' veteran group will make it look bad.
THE FRAUDULENT FIVE
Five teams staggering at the end and ripe for an early exit:
Saint Louis (33). Billikens (26-6) have lost four of their last five. They're a very good defensive team but prone to bogging down offensively. Can they hit shots from the perimeter when they have to?
Memphis (34). Nobody questions the Tigers' talent. Everybody questions their focus and attention to detail. Nineteen-point loss on home floor in conference tournament was enough to scare most folks off the bandwagon.
Kansas State (35). Yes, the Big 12 is a tough league. But the Wildcats lost their last three games and eight of their past 14. They have done precious little outside of their home arena all year.
Cincinnati (36). The Bearcats are 5-4 over their last nine, with the only quality victory over Memphis – and since Memphis is also on this list, you know what The Minutes thinks of that win. The question is always the same with Mick Cronin's team: can it score enough points?
Texas (37). Longhorns have had an overachieving season, but also a season that was far better in Austin than out of it. Last victory over an NCAA tournament team away from home? Jan. 25 at Baylor, where the Bears were in their dysfunctional phase. There also was a win in Chapel Hill, but that was mid-December. Rick Barnes has one NCAA tournament win since 2009.
LET'S HEAR IT FOR THE OLD GUYS …
This was supposed to be the Year of the Freshman, but a group of seniors stole the spotlight. That's right, those four-year players who are often scoffed at these days as deficient players because they haven't turned pro and are actually on schedule to graduate – yeah, those guys. The elder statesmen who will be the leading men of March Madness:
Doug McDermott (38), Creighton. He's the landslide national player of the year, a career 3,000-point scorer who has helped catapult Creighton from Midwest mid-major to Big East glamour team. Averaged 34.8 points in his last four games. Can McDermott pull a Jimmer Fredette, a Gordon Hayward or a Steph Curry and take his program to new heights?
Russ Smith (39), Louisville. The most exciting player in the nation. The 6-foot-1 Smith dunked over 6-9 Julius Randle earlier in the year. He nailed six 3-pointers in less than nine minutes at SMU. He scored 42 in the American Athletic tournament semifinals. He is part showman and part mad man, capable of just about anything at just about any time. Can he put a third Final Four and second national title on his college resume?
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The Florida Four (40). The quartet of Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete have had careers that cover just about every facet of the college athletic experience: overhyped and unprepared; slow maturing; in the doghouse; out of the doghouse; gradually improving; learning new roles; accepting the reality of being four-year players; embracing the reality of being four-year players; and leading the nation's No. 1 team. Now they try to surmount the Final Four hurdle that has proven impassable the previous three seasons.
Sean Kilpatrick (41), Cincinnati. On a team lacking firepower, the fifth-year senior is the offense. It's routinely up to Kilpatrick at the end of the shot clock and at the end of games, and he routinely has come through in leading the Bearcats to a surprising 27-6 season and American Athletic co-championship. Perhaps only McDermott is more indispensible to his team.
Adreian Payne (42), Michigan State. Staying in school has allowed Payne to go from a maddeningly inconsistent talent to a reliable leader of a team that could possibly win it all. The 6-foot-10 Payne shot three 3-pointers in his first two seasons at Michigan State, making one. Last year, he went 16 of 42. This year he is 33 of 77, while maintaining his ability to score in the post. He has made himself into an NBA player.
… AND THE YOUNG GUYS
That's not to say the freshman class hasn't been good – it just hasn't quite lived up to the massive early hype. Nevertheless, here are the first-year players who could heavily impact the tourney:
Jabari Parker (43), Duke. The Minutes would take him first in the NBA draft, and he may end up being the best player in this tournament. Beyond Parker's immense talent, he is a fierce competitor who has enthusiastically played out of position to shore up the Blue Devils' lackluster interior. If you're a casual college hoops fan, you'll be watching him for the next 15 years in the pros – so beat the rush and start now.
Andrew Wiggins (44), Kansas. Offensive game has started to lift off: he averaged 31 ppg over the last three games, shooting 39 free throws (and making 31) in the process. He's the best athlete in the field, and the length of the Jayhawks' stay in Bracketville will rest in no small part on his sculpted shoulders.
Aaron Gordon (45), Arizona. Low-maintenance five-star who is a key piece of the nation's best defense. Nearly had a triple-double in the Pac-12 title game (11 points, eight rebounds, eight assists). The only glaring weakness is foul shooting (44 percent).
Tyler Ennis (46), Syracuse. As the Orange have staggered down the stretch, the unflappable point guard has taken on more of an offensive burden in trying to right the ship. The result has been more points and more missed shots and turnovers as well. But that's just a byproduct of trying to win, and Ennis is a winner. He's averaging 12.7 points and 5.6 assists, and will be vital to any run Syracuse can muster.
Randle/Young/Harrison/Harrison (47), Kentucky. They've all had their trials and tribulations, and at various points looked like lost causes (especially the Harrison twins). But all four are future pros – perhaps the near future – and will be difficult to deal with when playing with a fresh coat of confidence.
FIVE ON A SALARY DRIVE
Players who are performing at a high level and improving their NBA draft stock:
Kyle Anderson (48), UCLA. The 6-9 sophomore is the nation's most versatile player, capable of doing just about anything on the court. He's the Bruins' No. 2 scorer (14.9), leading rebounder (8.8) and leader in assists (6.6). Averaged a double-double (14.7 points, 10.3 rebounds) in the Pac-12 tourney title run.
Montrezl Harrell (49), Louisville. Spectacular dunker who is diversifying his offensive game to include hook shots and turnaround jumpers. Averaging 19.1 points and 8.5 rebounds over the last eight games. The sophomore's only major weakness is the foul line, where he shoots less than 50 percent.
[Related: Team that will break up a perfect bracket]
Bryce Cotton (50), Providence. Quick, fearless iron man is averaging 39.9 minutes per game, and his more team-oriented play over the last seven games is the biggest reason why the Friars are in the Big Dance. Cotton has shot less in that time (98 field goal attempts, down from 117 the previous seven games) and Providence has won more (6-1 as opposed to 2-5).
Nick Johnson (51), Arizona. Deluxe athlete who excels in the open floor and can attack in a variety of ways. Junior wingman can have some clunker shooting games but seems to have rediscovered his 3-point stroke at the right time (14-of-33, 42 percent, over the last seven games).
Cleanthony Early (52), Wichita State. The most talented of the Shockers' four-man core group can score inside or outside. Driving or back to the basket. Shooting the 3 or battling in the paint. Senior forward wore out Louisville last year in the Final Four, posting 24 points and 10 rebounds.
There are no Indiana teams in the Big Dance, but there are plenty of players from the state:
Half the Michigan rotation (53). Forward Glenn Robinson III is from St. John. Guard Zak Irvin is from Fishers. Guard Spike Albrecht is from Crown Point. Then there are bench jockeys Sean Lonergan (Fishers) and Andrew Dakich (Zionsville) and injured center Mitch McGary (Chesterton). No wonder Tom Crean was so mad at Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer last year.
Gary Harris and Branden Dawson (54), Michigan State. Harris (Fishers) is the Spartans' leading scorer. Dawson (Gary) is their leading rebounder. Russell Byrd (Fort Wayne) will occasionally come off the bench to shoot a 3.
Justin Martin and Dee Davis (55), Xavier. Martin (Indianapolis) is second in scoring for the Musketeers. Davis (Bloomington) leads the team in assists.
Marshall Plumlee (56) of Warsaw, the third and final Duke Plumlee, is a backup center.
Stephan Van Treese (57), Louisville. Fifth-year senior center from Indy has hustled and muscled his way into the starting lineup as a rebounder (5.7), screen setter and defensive presence.
Five coaches who may be feeling a bigger burden than their peers:
Gregg Marshall (58), Wichita State. Merely trying to become the first team since Indiana in 1976 to go undefeated all season, and the first ever to go 40-0. And roughly half the nation thinks the Shockers are overrated impostors. Is that enough pressure? The Minutes thinks so.
Sean Miller (59), Arizona. Probably the first name on the list of Best Coaches Without a Final Four. He clearly has the team to get there in his 10th season as a head coach. Wildcats haven't been since 2001, and the fan base is hungry for a return to past glory.
Bo Ryan (60), Wisconsin. If anyone's name is above Miller's on the above list, it's Ryan's. Bo isn't getting any younger and may have his best shot to get there, since his team has more offensive firepower than ever. The style of play is effective, but can it win the toughest of NCAA tournament games? We shall see.
Greg McDermott (61), Creighton. Has a once-in-a-lifetime player who also happens to be his son. This opportunity will never come around again. Bluejays haven't been to the Sweet 16 since 1974 – and back then you only had to win one game to get there. Now or never?
Tom Izzo (62), Michigan State. In 18 seasons as a head coach, Izzo has never had a four-year player fail to reach a Final Four. That streak is on the line for the current senior class. With a season that began in the top five and then was sidetracked by injury, can the Spartans put it back together in time to play in Dallas in April?
FOR YOUR VIEWING DISPLEASURE
Things we will see and hear entirely too much of over the next three weeks:
Endless end-of-game situations (63). Basketball games are far less of a time suck than football – except for the end of a close game. Then the final minutes can drag like a weekend visit to the in-laws. Fouling, timeouts, replay reviews all add up to test the patience of even the most committed fans. The Minutes would love to see timeouts reduced to three per team from the current five, and to reduce by half the one minute a coach gets to select a substitute when a player fouls out. But those rule changes aren't happening anytime soon – certainly not soon enough for this NCAA tournament. So prepare yourself for some really drawn-out endings.
Coaches trespassing onto the court (64). It's been a season-long epidemic – coaches straying outside the box to yell at their team and yell at the officials. The coaching box exists for a reason, refs. Enforce it.
The high ball screen at the end of the shot clock (65). This doesn't seem quite as cliché this year as it has been in the recent past, but it is still the default play call for just about everyone when the shot clock is winding down. Big man sets screen at top of key, guard dithers around and then plays off of it. In addition to the utter lack of creativity, this play also leads to more collisions in the paint, and thus more block-charge calls. The world is a better place with fewer block-charge calls, not more.
Officials going to the monitor (66). More situations are under replay review now than ever, especially in the last two minutes. While the desire to get the calls right is laudable, replay can become a crutch for uncertain officials. Games that are held up for extended periods while high elbows, out-of-bounds calls and clock malfunctions are pored over can become exercises in frustration. (Speaking of which: there have been way too many clock malfunctions this year.)
Griping over officiating (67). You'll hear it from coaches, media members and fans. Keep in mind that officiating is an inexact non-science, and errors do occur. And keep in mind the old Minutes axiom: if you blame the refs when your team loses, you are a loser.
When hungry in the Final Four town of Dallas, The Minutes recommends a pilgrimage to upscale barbecue joint Smoke (68). While running counter to the hole-in-the-wall barbecue ethos of the state, it's worth a try. Order the smoked sausage, the coffee-cured brisket and a locally brewed beer, and thank The Minutes later.
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