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Forde Minutes: With March proving ground upon us, every team is fighting for something

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball, where jerseys with sleeves are making a regrettable comeback thanks to the continuing questionable fashion sense of Adidas:

This is the week we’ve been waiting for – the first of five great weeks, really. The great whittling down, from more than 300 teams to one, begins in earnest with the start of conference tournament play. Winthrop vs. Radford at noon Tuesday in the Big South tournament; get your popcorn ready. 

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Indiana guard Victor Oladipo. (USA Today Sports)

The Minutes will delve into the first half of the conference tourneys later in this missive. But first, let’s address some other pressing issues as the calendar flips to March and the Madness begins. 

BRACKET BATTLEGROUNDS

Where the action is hottest and stakes highest between now and Selection Sunday, as the NCAA selection committee tries to make order out of season-long chaos:

The top of the Big Ten (1). This is relatively simple: if Indiana beats Ohio State at home Tuesday night to win the league title outright, the Hoosiers will almost certainly stake claim to pseudo-homecourt advantage in the NCAAs. Specifically, they will be the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region and have the luxury of playing the Sweet 16 and regional final games in Indianapolis. (Provided, of course, they get to Indianapolis, after presumably starting in Dayton. Take nothing for granted, especially this year.)

[Bracket Brad's Big Board: 'Zags make jump to No. 1]

That’s the assessment of Greg Shaheen, the bracket master of the tournament for the NCAA from 2001-2012. Shaheen, who no longer is with the NCAA and is now doing consulting work, told The Minutes that the battle for Indianapolis in the nation’s most competitive conference will reward the winner but also have a significant effect on the Big Ten teams that follow.

Per NCAA bracketing guidelines, the second- and third-best teams in the Big Ten (in the eyes of the committee) would be shipped to different regionals to avoid meeting again in Indy. If the Hoosiers are the champs, the committee then must prioritize four teams that are closely bunched on paper: Michigan State (22-7 overall, 11-5 in the Big Ten, No. 8 RPI), Michigan (24-5, 11-5, No. 10 RPI), Ohio State (21-7, 11-5, No. 21 RPI) and Wisconsin (20-9, 11-5, No. 41 RPI). Head-to-head won’t help much: Wisconsin is 2-2 against the other three; Michigan State is 3-2; Michigan is 2-3; Ohio State is 3-3.

So whoever winds up No. 2 and No. 3 among Big Ten teams can start checking flight schedules, because they’ll spend the second weekend of the tourney further from home – in Arlington, Texas, Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles. (Provided, again, they win two games to get that far.) From a geographic standpoint, it’s better to be fourth than first on the Big Ten pecking order, because that team can be placed in the Midwest region (though it would mean, at least in theory, having to beat Indiana in Indy to reach the Final Four).

The Southeastern Conference (2). This is Bubble Central, with no fewer than five teams struggling to earn a spot in the field of 68. Florida is a lock and Missouri is presumed in, thanks to a strong non-conference résumé outweighing its SEC road ineptitude. After that, it’s chaos: defending national champion Kentucky, fading Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama are all bunched right on the fault line, their fortunes soaring or sagging with each outcome. And Arkansas (like Missouri, a home hero and road zero) is trying to butt into the conversation as well.

The opening two days of the SEC tourney in Nashville could be a festival of desperate basketball, with so many teams striving for more wins to gain a spot in the field.

(An aside: The Minutes is amused by the complete football role reversal for the above two conferences. Big Ten fans are now the haughty ones, dismissing other highly ranked team as “no better than fifth in our league” and talking about the “week-in and week-out toll” from playing so many tough games. Meanwhile, SEC fans are trying to forget non-conference foibles and convince everyone that beating the other average-at-best teams in the league constitutes quality wins. Naturally, both sides think the other is full of bunk.)

[Related: A look at this season’s four leading national player of the year candidates]

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Georgetown head coach John Thompson III. (AP)

The Big East (3) vs. other top contenders. Is it possible for the league to be kept off the No. 1 seed line for the first time since 2008? Maybe. Figuring Indiana and Duke as strong favorites to be No. 1s, the other two likely will be fought over between Gonzaga, Kansas, Miami and the top two contenders from the Big East, Louisville and Georgetown. The latter might be the hottest two teams in major-conference basketball, with the Hoyas on a nine-game winning streak and Louisville having won nine of its last 10 (with the loss being the five-overtime extravaganza at Notre Dame). If the Hoyas pull down a top seed, they could not play in the Washington, D.C. regional, so it would almost certainly be either Arlington or Los Angeles.

The West (4) as a whole. For the first time since Ben Howland was under-utilizing Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love five years ago, there is a geographic fit for a top seed in the West regional – that is, if Gonzaga wins out and the committee is convinced it deserves the spot over other strong contenders. (Last No. 1 seed from outside a power-six conference: Memphis in 2008.) The next question is how much seeding and geographic protection to offer the best teams in the Mountain West and Pac-12. New Mexico has an RPI to die for (No. 2) and is the best team in a very good MWC, but its other power rankings are much softer (No. 24 Sagarin, No. 25 Pomeroy). Meanwhile, Arizona has the strongest power rankings of any Pac-12 team (No. 13 RPI, No. 21 Pomeroy, No. 25 Sagarin) but is a combined 0-3 against primary league rivals UCLA and Oregon. Who gets preferential treatment, and who gets shipped out?

The Atlantic-10 (5). The upper-middle class section of an upper-middle class league is coming on, raising the possibility of a record-tying five or record-breaking six A-10 teams making the field. Saint Louis, VCU and Butler are locks (although the Bulldogs have plummeted from a seeding perspective of late). Temple and LaSalle have charged, with the Owls on a five-game winning streak and the Explorers winning six of their last seven (lone loss is to Temple). And don’t forget about Massachusetts, which crept back into the conversation last week with victories over Dayton and Xavier and has a big opportunity at home against Butler on Thursday.

BUBBLE ROOTING INTERESTS

If your team is on the bubble, these are the teams you’re suddenly and ardently rooting for in their conference tournaments. Because if they lose, an automatic bid goes up for grabs to a team that probably wouldn’t make the field otherwise, shrinking the at-large pool:

Middle Tennessee (6). The Blue Raiders have a solid profile: a 27-4 overall record, 19-1 in the Sun Belt Conference, a stellar 11-3 road record, RPI of 26, Pomeroy rating of 27, Sagarin rating of 50. If they’re beaten in the Belt tourney – and this is a program that has never won the tournament in 12 tries – then MTSU may snag an at-large bid from someone in a power conference.

Belmont (7). The first year in the Ohio Valley Conference has been a rousing success for the Bruins, who are 24-6 overall, 14-2 in the league and packing power ratings of RPI No. 23, Pomeroy No. 40 and Sagarin No. 54. They get a bye into the semifinals and the tournament is in their hometown of Nashville, but they may still have to slay perennial power Murray State to win the title. If Belmont fails to do so, other bubble teams will be nervous.

[Related: Mr. Bracket no longer part of selection process]

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Wichita State Shockers mascot WuShock. (USA Today Sports)

Wichita State (8) and Creighton (9). The Shockers and Bluejays are in the field of 68. But if neither wins the famously unpredictable Missouri Valley Conference tournament, then someone steals a bid.

Memphis (10). Eternal bully of the Conference USA block has won seven of the last eight league tourneys, but this year will have to do it in Tulsa – the one place the Tigers were beaten, back in 2010. Memphis has to win three games to secure the automatic bid and keep a non-NCAA impostor from swiping it.

Akron (11). The Zips damaged their claim to an at-large bid with an upset loss at Buffalo on Saturday, but still can be part of the debate with a 23-5 overall record, 15-1 in the MAC. If they don’t win the MAC tourney, they’ll have to play the “We beat Middle Tennessee” card, and while that’s not an overly strong hand, Akron would be at least one more at-large contender to consider.

Louisiana Tech (12). If the Bulldogs win on the road against New Mexico State and Denver this week, they’ll enter the Western Athletic Conference tournament with an argument for at-large inclusion. They’d have a 28-3 record, an undefeated WAC run and power ratings that should improve appreciably from the current 48 (RPI), 64 (Pomeroy) and 73 (Sagarin). So, potentially, one more threat added to the at-large pool.

HORRIBLE LOSS HALL OF SHAME, ’13 INDUCTION CLASS

As many Twitter followers know, The Minutes is a scrupulous watchdog for Horrible Losses, sending out Horrible Loss Alerts as they are unfolding. But this year, the HLAs started earlier than ever and seem to have come more frequently than ever.

There has been an epidemic of inexplicable losses this season, but the past week took it to a new level. By The Minutes’ reckoning, three of the seven most Horrible Losses of the season happened within the last seven days. The complete list:

TCU over Kansas (13), Feb. 6. Remains the No Freakin’ Way gold standard of the 2012-13 season. Jayhawks now No. 4 in RPI, Horned Frogs No. 242. TCU had not won a Big 12 game before that radar blip, and has not won one since. All things being equal, a loss that bad should be a roadblock to Kansas getting a No. 1 seed.

[Related: Trey Burke comes up clutch not once, but twice in Michigan win over MSU]

Penn State over Michigan (14), Feb. 27. It is the Nittany Lions’ only Big Ten victory, and it came when the Wolverines were in the argument to move back up to the No. 1 ranking. This one also defied the usual staggering upset scenario, in which the huge underdog catches the complacent favorite napping, gets out to an early lead and holds on for dear life. This time, Michigan had a 15-point lead with less than 11 minutes to play and … just … simply … stopped … playing against a team that should never have had the firepower to score 33 points in the final 10-plus minutes. Truly bizarre.

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Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson dives for a ball. (USA Today Sports)

Mississippi State over Mississippi (15), March 2. In terms of tangible impact beyond mere shame, this is the worst of the bunch – because it probably doomed the Rebels to missing the NCAA tournament for the 11th consecutive season, and may cost coach Andy Kennedy his job. The Bulldogs had been so preposterously bad heading into this game – 13 straight losses, the last two by a combined 71 points – that this was an inconceivable outcome. It’s also testament to the extraordinary power of a true college rivalry.

South Florida over Georgetown (16), Jan. 19. This one has gotten stranger over time, as the Hoyas have rolled (11 straight wins) and the Bulls have rolled over (10 losses in their last 11 games). At the time it was not a colossal shock, since early-season Georgetown was perfectly capable of going five-minute stretches without scoring and giving up 11-point leads.

Virginia to Old Dominion (17), Dec. 22. At the time the Cavaliers were 9-2 and the Monarchs were 1-10. Today the Cavaliers are 20-9 and the Monarchs are 5-25. But the loss was part of Virginia’s season-long trend of brutal stumbles (George Mason, Delaware, Wake Forest, Clemson, Boston College) that have mitigated the gains of some huge wins (Wisconsin, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Duke).

Saint Louis to Rhode Island (18), Jan. 19. The differentiating factor in this Horrible Loss is that it came at home – the Billikens somehow gave one away in their own gym to a Rams team that was 5-10. Like the USF-Georgetown game, this has gotten more surprising as the season has progressed. Saint Louis hasn’t lost since, while Rhode Island is now 8-19.

Wisconsin to Purdue (19), March 3. Also a home Horrible Loss, and truly shocking given the Badgers’ strength at the Kohl Center. (The 13-point margin of defeat was the worst under Bo Ryan against an unranked opponent at home.) Wisconsin dropkicked any realistic hopes of a Big Ten title by missing their final 18 3-point attempts of the game and scoring 20 second-half points, which is precisely why nobody picks the Badgers to go to the Final Four. Games like this seem to happen to them at this time of year.

[Related: Nebraska assistant inspired by son’s perseverance through leukemia]

THE LITTLE DANCE

Withering insight and fearless predictions for the 15 conference tournaments that kick off March Madness (the rest will be previewed next week):

America East (20). March 8-10 in Albany, N.Y., then the championship March 16 at highest remaining seed.

Top seed: Stony Brook.

Dark horse: Vermont. Catamounts have won two of the past three league tournaments.

Minutes stat: The regular-season runner-up has won the last three AE tourneys.

Minutes pick: Stony Brook. The Sea Wolves have been the class of the league all year and enter the tourney on a six-game winning streak. Time to get over a history of heartbreak in this tourney and lock down the first NCAA bid in school history.

Atlantic Sun (21). March 6-9 in Macon, Ga.

Top seed: Mercer.

Dark horse: Florida Gulf Coast. Winners of nine of last 11 games, including beating Mercer last week to split the season series.

Minutes stat: Only one coach in the league has ever taken a team to the NCAA tournament: Murry Bartow of East Tennessee State, whose team is a long shot this time around at 10-21.

Minutes pick: Mercer. Won the regular-season title and has the tourney in its hometown of Macon, Ga. The Bears haven't been Dancing since 1985.

[Related: Could Michigan be an early out in the NCAA tournament?]

Big Sky (22). March 14-16 at site of the regular-season champion.

Top seed: With a week to go the league race is still in doubt; Montana holds a one-game lead over Weber State. 

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Montana coach Wayne Tinkle. (Getty)

Dark horse: None. This is a two-team league.

Minutes stat: The Grizzlies are 34-2 in their last 36 Big Sky games, with both losses against Weber State. The Wildcats, meanwhile, are 24-4 in their last 28 Big Sky games, with three of the losses coming to Montana.

Minutes pick: Weber State. There is life in Ogden after Damian Lillard, especially since chief rival Montana's NCAA bid was compromised by an injury to guard Will Cherry.

Big South (23). March 5-10 in Conway, S.C.

Top seed: Charleston Southern and High Point won their respective divisions and are co-No. 1 seeds.

Dark horse: Gardner-Webb. The Bulldogs have won seven straight games and swept Charleston Southern.

Minutes stat: The Big South tourney champion has been a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament four years in a row.

Minutes pick: Gardner-Webb. In a crapshoot league tourney, go with the hot team. It would be the Bulldogs’ first NCAA bid.

Colonial Athletic (24). March 9-11 in Richmond, Va.

Top seed: Northeastern.

Dark horse: Plenty of them. As many as four teams could win this tourney.

Minutes stat: Delaware is addicted to drama. The Blue Hens’ last seven games have all been decided by five points or less, including a stretch of six straight decided by two points or less. Their record in that time: 6-1.

Minutes pick: Delaware. The Blue Hens have mastered the art of winning the close ones, and all the games figure to be close in a tourney diminished by the departure of VCU.

Horizon (25). March 5-12 on campus sites in first round, at Valparaiso second round and semifinals, and at highest remaining seed for championship game.

Top seed: Valparaiso.

Dark horse: Detroit, which has won eight of its last nine league games.

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Iona's Lamont Jones. (USA Today Sports)

Minutes stat: Valpo is 10-2 at home in February and March the last two seasons, with both losses coming against Detroit.

Minutes pick: Detroit. Ray McCallum Jr. raised his game and carried the Titans to the title last year, and he can do it again, especially with no Butler to deal with this time around.

Metro Atlantic (26). March 7-11 in Springfield, Mass.

Top seed: Niagara.

Dark horse: Rider, which enters the tournament on a five-game winning streak.

Minutes stat: Count on Lamont “MoMo” Jones leading the tourney in shots if Iona stays in it long enough. Jones, an Arizona transfer, has attempted at least 15 field goals in each of the Gaels’ last 10 games, including 25 shots against Marist on Feb. 7.

Minutes pick: Rider. The Broncos showed a spark late, beating Charleston Southern in the BracketBusters game and finishing a sweep of regular-season champion Niagara.

Missouri Valley (27). March 7-10 in St. Louis.

Top seed: Creighton.

Dark horse: Northern Iowa. The tempo-strangling Panthers beat both Creighton and Wichita State during a six-game February winning streak. Coach Ben Jacobson still has three players who were part of the 2010 NCAA sweet sixteen run.

Minutes stat: Wichita State was 42-12 from 2010-12 in regular-season Valley play, but just 4-3 in the tournament – and won zero titles.

Minutes pick: Creighton. This could be a chaotic tournament, as it often is, or the best player in the league (Doug McDermott) may put the Bluejays on his back for three games.

Northeast (28). March 6-11 at campus sites of higher seeds.

Top seed: Robert Morris.

Dark horse: Mount St. Mary’s has won seven straight games by an average margin of 12.7 points.

Minutes stat: Robert Morris has become a quiet dynasty. The Colonials have averaged 23.4 victories over the previous five seasons under three different coaches, and have 22 wins so far this year.

Minutes pick: Robert Morris. Regular-season champions have won 14 of their last 16 after starting league play 0-2.

Ohio Valley (29)
. March 6-9 in Nashville, Tenn.

Top seed: Belmont.

Dark horse: Murray State has Isaiah Canaan, but the biggest team threat to the Bruins is probably Eastern Kentucky. The Colonels are 23-8, beat Murray State on the road and had a second-half lead on Belmont in Nashville before submitting.

Minutes stat: Belmont’s last loss in the city of Nashville was Jan. 6, 2012, a winning streak of 20 games.

Minutes pick: Belmont. Some people will pick Murray State here, but unless Isaiah Canaan scores 50 on consecutive nights in Nashville, it won't happen. The Bruins have been the best in their first season in the league.

Patriot (30). March 6-13 at campus sites of higher seeds.

Top seed: Bucknell.

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Bucknell's Mike Muscala. (USA Today Sports)

Dark horse: Lafayette. The Leopards have won five straight, including victories over Bucknell and Lehigh.

Minutes stat: Six of Bucknell’s top seven players in minutes have positive assist-to-turnover ratios, and the seventh is even. Combined, the seven Bison have 128 more assists than turnovers.

Minutes pick: Bucknell. Going with the dominant player theory here (see: McDermott and McCallum) and saying Mike Muscala carries the Bison to the NCAAs.

Southern (31). March 8-11 in Asheville, N.C.

Top seed: South champ Davidson and North champ Elon are the co-top seeds.

Dark horse: College of Charleston, which won 10 of its last 11 league games.

Minutes stat: Davidson not only has won 14 straight games, it has led at halftime in 13 of them – most of those by double digits.

Minutes pick: Davidson. Best team. Best coach. Case closed.

Summit (32). March 9-12 in Sioux Falls, S.D.

Top seed: South Dakota State.

Dark horse: North Dakota State, which has the best Pomeroy rating in the league by 41 spots.

Minutes stat: South Dakota State guard Nate Wolters had a pretty fair February from the 3-point line. He was 50 of 77 from the arc, 65 percent accuracy. He made more than six 3s per game in that time.

Minutes pick: North Dakota State. Best defensive team in the league will guard its way into the Big Dance.

[Also: Baylor will have to pull off big surprise in Big 12 tourney to go Dancing]

Sun Belt (33). March 8-11 in Hot Springs, Ark.

Top seed: Middle Tennessee State.

Dark horse: Western Kentucky and Arkansas State could both make some noise.

Minutes stat: The last two Sun Belt tournament winners – Western Kentucky last year and Arkansas-Little Rock in 2011 – were both 7-9 in league play before catching fire in the tourney.

Minutes pick: Middle Tennessee State. There are some intriguing spoiler possibilities in the Belt, but it would be a massive upset if anyone beats the 27-4 Blue Raiders.

West Coast (34). March 6-11 in Las Vegas.

Top seed: Gonzaga.

Dark horse: St. Mary’s, the eternal Avis to the 'Zags’ Hertz.

Minutes stat: Gonzaga has won all 26 of its games against teams from west of the Mississippi this season.

Minutes pick: Gonzaga. The 'Zags didn't lose to a single WCC opponent all year, home or away. It's hard to see that changing now on a neutral court.

[Related: Will Gonzaga earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament?]

MINUTES RANT OF THE WEEK

Stop flopping (35).

Players, stop falling down every time an offensive player bumps into you on his way to the basket.

Officials, stop rewarding the floppers for halfway getting in position and halfway getting set and then collapsing all the way.

Coaches, stop teaching 7-footers to faint at the first hint of contact instead of standing tall and blocking a shot.

Offensive players, stop driving idiotically to the basket. Shane Larkin and Durand Scott of Miami have made a living this year shooting floaters in the lane, pulling up instead of slamming into someone in their path. Follow their lead.

If March and April are going to be a parade of charging calls, it will decrease the quality of play and our enjoyment of it. Stop the flop.

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Army head coach Zach Spiker. (AP)

UNDER-THE-RADAR LOVE

Jamal Olasewere (36) of LIU-Brooklyn. The active 6-foot-7 senior ranks third in the NEC in scoring (19.2 points per game) and fourth in rebounds (8.4). His Senior Day was a smash: a career-high 33 points and 10 rebounds in a 96-90 victory over Quinnipiac. Olasewere gets another shot at The Q on Wednesday in the first round of the NEC tournament.

COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK

Zach Spiker (37), Army. In his fourth year, Spiker has clinched the Cadets’ first .500-or-better season record since 1984-85. Army is 15-14 heading into the Patriot League tournament and will host American on Wednesday night. The Minutes will stand up and salute that.

COACH WHO SHOULD TAKE THE BUS TO WORK

Joseph Price (38), of winless Grambling. You’ve got to feel for the man. In his first year in a difficult job, Grambling bottomed out, sliding from 4-24 last year to 0-27 this year – losing every game by double digits. According to Pomeroy’s statistics, the Tigers were the worst team in the nation both offensively AND defensively, which is fairly mind-boggling.

[Related: Injured Tim Williams delivers poignant end to Saint Mary's senior night]

But no, all is not lost. Grambling opens Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament play March 13 in Garland, Texas. Win three games in the nation’s weakest conference and the Tigers can go to the NCAA tournament.

OK, maybe Grambling should just focus on winning one game. The Minutes will be rooting for that, because nobody deserves to go 0-28.

BUZZER BEATER

When thirsty in the Tobacco Road town of Durham, The Minutes recommends a visit to The Federal (39). It’s an actual bar, not a corporatized chain restaurant/sports bar where a Guest Experience Captain materializes at your table to make sure everything is just swell, so you will keep coming back and eventually have a positive effect on the chain’s stock price. (Yes, The Minutes experienced the Guest Experience Captain at another locale last week. It was gross.)

The Federal serves a lot of good beer, both on tap and in the bottle. Keep it semi-local with an Asheville-brewed Highland Gaelic Ale (40) and thank The Minutes later.

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