Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball, where Marcus Smart's flopping is contagious – and hilarious:
A week from now it will officially be the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: the first NCAA tournament games will be played in Dayton. But there is plenty of ball before then, and plenty to talk about in the last days before Selection Sunday. Let's fast break into it:
HERE'S TO THE SMALL-SCHOOL GRINDERS WHO MADE IT BIG
It's fitting that in a season where Gus Malzahn completed a journey from high school coach to BCS championship game coach at Auburn, we see some similar up-from-the-bootstraps success stories in college hoops.
Start with Nebraska coach Tim Miles (1). On Sunday, the perennially futile Cornhuskers beat the Wisconsin Badgers to finish the regular season 19-11 overall, 11-7 in the Big Ten. A team picked to finish last finished fourth, and in the process may have secured the program's first NCAA bid since 1998. That may be enough to make Miles the Big Ten Coach of the Year.
He's only in his second year at Nebraska, but the 47-year-old Miles isn't a college coaching wunderkind. This is his 19th year as a head coach, at his fifth different school, in his third different level of college hoops. Miles spent the first nine of those 19 years at the NAIA and NCAA Division II levels, working at such illustrious locales as Mayville State (then of the North Dakota College Athletic Conference) and Southwest Minnesota State (of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference). Then it was off to the big-time, as it were, at North Dakota State – which was a D-II school until the president decided to make the leap to D-I independent status a decade ago. Miles spent six seasons coaching the Bison until moving to Colorado State for five more years. That's when Nebraska hired him, to the widespread yawns of an already apathetic basketball fan base.
The Corn People had no idea they'd just struck oil. Now they know.
"I've gone against a lot of great coaches in the small college divisions," Miles said Monday. He was fortunate enough to work his way up from that level, and it has sharpened his appreciation of what he has now.
"There's something to be said about being the small-college guy and having no resources at all," Miles said. "You're having to do everything yourself. … I think the smartest bankers in America make their future presidents be a bank teller."
There are several other notable former bank tellers in the Big Ten alongside Miles. In fact, look at the coach of every team that earned a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament:
John Beilein (2) of league champion Michigan spent 17 years as a head coach at the high school, junior-college and Division III levels before breaking into DI at Canisius. In year 27 as a head coach he got his first job at a power-conference school, West Virginia.
Bo Ryan (3) of Big Ten runner-up Wisconsin was a head coach at a junior high and a high school for three years before becoming an assistant at Wisconsin for eight. Then he was a Division III head coach for 15 before moving on to Milwaukee, and finally to Wisconsin at age 50.
And Tom Izzo (4) of third-place Michigan State spent one season as a high school coach and four as a Division II assistant at Northern Michigan before moving on to Jud Heathcote's staff in East Lansing. After a 12-year apprenticeship, he got the head-coaching job.
[Related: How far can undefeated Wichita State go?]
Then there is the only undefeated coach in the land, Gregg Marshall (5). He's fond of referring to himself as "a 29-year overnight sensation," since a good portion of the country never paid the 51-year-old much attention until Wichita State made the Final Four last year. Marshall spent 13 seasons as an assistant coach, all at the mid-major or lower levels. When he finally got his first head-coaching shot, it was at Winthrop of the Big South, which is Big in name only. Despite having a winning record every year and making the NCAA tourney seven times, it took him nine seasons to get the job at Wichita State – which is still nobody's idea of a blueblood program.
Taken in sum, this season is an excellent reminder that good coaches can be found on all levels of basketball. Some potential greats just need to be discovered to show what they can do.
LITTLE DANCE, CONTINUED
The big-time conference tournaments swing into action this week, with much NCAA bubble drama and seeding to be sorted out. If these tourneys are anything like what we've seen in the smaller leagues, it's going to be nuts.
Two league champions that lost just once in conference play were upset before even reaching the final: Vermont in the America East, Davidson in the Southern. At least the Catamounts had the excuse of playing Albany on its home court – but Vermont already had beaten the Great Danes there once by 10, and at home by 30. And the tourney game was a rout – Vermont never led, and trailed by 16 at halftime.
Green Bay dominated the Horizon League, going 14-2, but was taken down by 7-9 Milwaukee in the semifinals. Phoenix coach Brian Wardle has done a nice job at the school – until it becomes single-elimination time. He's lost his first Horizon League tourney game three out of his four seasons on the job.
Belmont had the best record in the Ohio Valley and the top seed, but lost in the final to Eastern Kentucky. High Point had the best record in the Big South but failed to make the final.
So the bracket-busting mayhem precedent has been set. Let's see if it continues this week. Now on to the previews of the remaining tourneys.
Storyline: The fab five and the drab five. No conference has a wider gulf between haves and have-nots – which means the quarterfinals (except Connecticut-Memphis) should be boring, but the semifinals should be sensational.
Regular-season champ: Cincinnati and Louisville tied. Bearcats won a coin flip (yes, a coin flip) for the No. 1 seed.
Bubble teams: None. Louisville, Cincinnati, SMU, Memphis and Connecticut are in. Everyone else has to win this tourney.
Best player: Compelling three-way battle between Louisville's Russ Smith, Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick and UConn's Shabazz Napier. Let them settle it this week in the FedEx Forum.
Best coach: Rick Pitino hasn't lost a postseason game since 2012. But Larry Brown (6) hasn't lost one since 1987.
Early upset chance: No. 6 seed Houston over No. 3 seed SMU. Not likely, but not impossible.
Minutes pick: Louisville (7). True to recent form under Pitino, the Cardinals hit their stride in February and are playing as well as anyone in the nation. Louisville won its last seven Big East tournament games, claiming the last two titles in that league before it splintered. It will add an American title this year before heading off to the ACC in 2014-15.
Storyline: Is this the best tournament nobody is talking about? The A-10 should have at least five NCAA teams, it features a potential quarterfinal bubble battle between Dayton and St. Joseph's, and the top-seeded Billikens looked very vulnerable down the stretch. Lots going on here.
Regular-season champ: Saint Louis. Billikens roared out to a 25-2 start and staggered home with three losses in their last four.
Bubble teams: Dayton, St. Joseph's. Saint Louis, VCU, Massachusetts and George Washington all figure to be in at this point. Everyone else must win the tourney.
[Related: Check out Brad's Bracket Big Board here]
Best player: Jordair Jett (8), Saint Louis. In conference games, the dreadlocked point guard averaged 17 points and 4.5 assists while shooting a judicious 51 percent from the floor.
Best coach: Shaka Smart (9), VCU. He's three wins away from starting his head-coaching career with five straight seasons of 27 victories or more. Most impressive.
Early upset chance: No. 11 Rhode Island over No. 6 UMass. The Rams (14-17) closed the regular season with a pair of double-digit victories and played the Minutemen tough twice.
Minutes pick: Dayton (10). Yes, the Flyers will have to win four games in four days to take the title – but nobody is hotter right now. Dayton has won nine of its last 10 games, including victories over each of the top three seeds in this tourney. The hard part could be a quarterfinal game against St. Joseph's, which swept Dayton in the regular season. But the Flyers aren't losing three times to the Hawks.
Storyline: What does the ACC do for an encore? After a drama-laden regular season that featured fantastic finishes, new rivalries, an epic coach freakout and a wholly unexpected champion, this tourney has a lot to live up to.
Regular-season champ: Virginia (11). Not many people noticed the Cavaliers until they were holding the hardware. The loss at Maryland on Sunday renewed questions about whether this really is the best team in the ACC.
Bubble teams: Pittsburgh is probably in, Florida State is probably outside looking in. Virginia, Syracuse, Duke and North Carolina are locks. Clemson could make a case by reaching the tourney final. Everyone else needs to win it.
Best player: Jabari Parker (12), Duke. In the so-called Year of the Freshman, he is the freshest and best.
Best coach: Mike Krzyzewski, Duke. The lifetime achievements are amazing, but the recent work is still strong. For the 11th time in the 12 years Ken Pomeroy has been ranking teams, the Blue Devils are in the national top 12.
Early upset chance: Either No. 8 Maryland or No. 9 Florida State over No. 1 Virginia in the quarterfinals. Both the Terrapins (last ACC tourney) and Seminoles (bubble) would have plenty of motivation for a season-altering upset.
Minutes pick: North Carolina (13). Loss at Cameron doesn't change the fact that the Tar Heels finished the regular season on quite a roll. Roy Williams doesn't love this event, but he probably would like to see this team continue that roll right through Greensboro.
Storyline: Will Kansas concede without Embiid? The absence of Jayhawks center Joel Embiid (back) could be the determining factor in who wins this tourney. On Monday, Kansas issued a release saying Embiid is out for the Big 12 tournament and likely the first weekend of the NCAA tournament with a stress fracture in his back. That's a huge blow and changes the complexion of March for the Jayhawks.
Regular-season champ: Kansas. Again. In perpetuity.
Bubble teams: West Virginia is the only bubble team, and it could take multiple tourney wins to get on the right side of it. Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa State, Kansas State, Baylor and Oklahoma State are in. Texas Tech and TCU need to win the tourney.
Best player: Andrew Wiggins, Kansas. Iowa State's Melvin Ejim has had a terrific season and won most of the Player of the Year hardware – but as The Minutes predicted two weeks ago, Wiggins is ready for liftoff to the another level of play. His 41-point, eight-rebound, five-steal, four-block performance against West Virginia may only be the beginning.
Best coach: Bill Self (14), Kansas. Consistency can sometimes go underappreciated, and nobody in America has been more consistent over the last decade-plus than Self.
Minutes pick: Iowa State (15). Cyclones haven't done much away from home in the last five weeks, but they are the most dangerous shooting team in the league. If they get hot and stay hot, look out. Not just this week but in the Big Dance as well.
Storyline: Can Villanova stake a claim to a No. 1 seed – or will the Wildcats get trucked by Creighton for a third time? Or will one of the platoon of bubble teams make a run and earn the automatic bid?
Regular-season champ: Villanova.
Bubble teams: Xavier is probably in the field now, but a first-round loss could make for an anxious Selection Sunday. Providence, Georgetown and St. John's all are in the thick of the bubble drama. Villanova and Creighton are locks. Everyone else must win the tourney.
Best player: Doug McDermott (16), Creighton. Not just the best player in the league, the best player in the nation. Having him in the father-son co-op for four years was a great thing for college basketball.
Best coach: Jay Wright. His team is the inverse of Kentucky, going from unranked preseason to the top five at the end of the regular season.
Minutes pick: Villanova (17). Yes, the presumption is that Creighton loses before it gets another chance to crush 'Nova. Wildcats beat Georgetown in an old-school Big East final.
Storyline: In a league where the bottom half had plenty of success against the top half, the possibilities are endless. Purdue finished last with five conference victories, and only one other league (the WAC) had a cellar dweller with that many wins. Expect upsets in bulk.
Regular-season champ: Michigan (18). Wolverines emerged from the masses to win the league by a full three games, impressively overcoming the December injury to center Mitch McGary and positioning themselves for a possible repeat Final Four run.
Bubble teams: The belief is that a top-four finish in this league will get Nebraska in the tourney – but just to make sure the Cornhuskers should avoid a quarterfinal loss. Minnesota is as bubblicious as it gets. Michigan, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State and Iowa all are in (though Selection Sunday can't get here fast enough for the staggering Hawkeyes). Everyone else must win the tourney.
Best player: Terran Petteway (19), Nebraska. The Big Ten coaches and media both chose Michigan sharpshooter Nik Stauskas, and there is a great case to be made for him. But The Minutes is going with the Biblical shepherd lookalike who has helped elevate the Cornhuskers to unforeseen prosperity. The Texas Tech transfer stepped up his play after Nebraska opened league play 1-5 and is averaging 18 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game.
Best coach: Tom Izzo. He doesn't often do his best work in this tournament, but he's awfully good in the one that follows. Pressure will be on to get this injury-riddled team on the same page and back to the Final Four for the first time since 2010.
Minutes pick: Ohio State (20). There was a strong temptation to pick nobody, because it seems nearly impossible to win three or four games in a row in a league where everyone can beat everyone else. But someone will do it, and the Buckeyes have a good history in this event under Thad Matta – they've won three of the past four. They're on the opposite side of the bracket from bizarre Buckeye killer Penn State, and Nebraska's Tim Miles (the potential quarterfinal opponent) has never won a Division I conference tourney.
Storyline: Aztecs-Lobos III, the rubber match? Or does someone else step up and steal a bid?
Regular-season champ: San Diego State.
Bubble teams: Nobody. San Diego State and New Mexico are in; everyone else needs to win this tourney to get in. UNLV and Boise State both aspiring to make up for disappointing seasons.
Best player: Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico. Close call between Bairstow and San Diego State's Xavier Thames, but the 6-foot-9, 250-pound Aussie (20.3 points, 7.2 rebounds) has become the biggest load in the league.
Best coach: Steve Fisher (21), San Diego State. Nobody else comes close in terms of accomplishment and consistency.
Minutes pick: New Mexico (22). Took a little while to get settled under new coach Craig Neal, but the Lobos have just three losses since Christmas, by a total of seven points. Of course, San Diego State has only three losses, period. Would be a great final if they meet up again.
Storyline: Does Arizona regain the look of a national champion? And how many teams get off the bubble and in the Dance?
Regular-season champ: Arizona. This was the Wildcats' finest season since the Lute Olson glory days.
Bubble teams: This is Bubble Central. Colorado, Arizona State, Stanford and California all have at least a little uncertainty heading into Las Vegas – some or all of them may get in, but they should all play with urgency from the opening tip. Arizona, UCLA and surging Oregon are locks. Everyone else has to win the tourney.
Best player: Nick Johnson (23), Arizona. Athletic and efficient wingman has seen his two-point shooting percentage dip in recent weeks, but he's still a tough cover with a clutch mentality. Gets the edge over versatile UCLA point forward Kyle Anderson.
Best coach: Sean Miller (24), Arizona. Probably the best coach without a Final Four on his resume. At age 44, that hasn't been a burden. But with this team there will be pressure to get to Arlington, Texas.
Minutes pick: Oregon (25). The Ducks are the No. 7 seed but also the hottest team in the league, winning seven straight to end the regular season the way they started it (opened 13-0). Dana Altman's team can score with the best of them and seems to have reached a grudging acceptance that it must play some defense as well.
Storyline: Can anyone derail the Florida freight train? And can anyone beyond Florida and Kentucky earn an NCAA bid?
Regular-season champ: Florida. First 18-0 regular-season in league history was a triumph of teamwork.
Bubble teams: Tennessee and Arkansas could both be a win away from locking up a bid. Missouri has faded to the point of needing to upset the Gators in the quarterfinals just to get back into the conversation – and they have to get to the quarterfinals first. Florida and Kentucky are locks. The rest of this sprawling mass of meh must win the tournament – including LSU, another former bubble contender before losing six of its last 10.
Best player: Since nobody can figure out who is Florida's best player, The Minutes is going with Julius Randle (26) of Kentucky. Eighteen double-doubles and counting for the freshman strongman.
Best coach: Billy Donovan, Florida. Has a great chance at a third national title, a number reached by only Wooden, Rupp, Krzyzewski, Knight and Jim Calhoun. And Donovan isn't even 50 yet.
Minutes pick: Tennessee (27). This is an admitted psycho selection. The Volunteers haven't won the SEC tourney since 1979 and have rarely come close, no matter how good they were. But that can't go on forever, can it? Tennessee closed the regular season with a rush, winning four straight – the last three by at least 27 points. And they'll be more motivated than potential semifinal opponent Florida, which will be far more concerned with the NCAAs.
Regular-season champ: Weber State (17-11, 14-6) won a conference in which two-thirds of the games were league games.
Dark horse: Montana is the second-best team in the league and won five of its last six, including a victory over Weber.
Minutes pick: Weber State (28). The tourney is in Ogden, and only the champs get a first-round bye. Play the percentages and take the Wildcats.
Regular-season champ: UC Irvine. The Anteaters (22-10, 13-3) are shooting for their first NCAA bid in school history.
Dark horse: UC-Santa Barbara. Split meetings with Irvine during the season and have a coach (Bob Williams) who has taken the Gauchos to the Big Dance twice (2010 and '11).
Minutes pick: UC-Santa Barbara (29). Just leave the idiot fan who rushed the court and confronted the Hawaii coach at home.
Regular-season champ: There was a four-way tie for first, but the top seed goes to Louisiana Tech. Michael White, age 37, is the coach. Remember the name.
Dark horse: UTEP. Miners are the tourney hosts and have the league's cagiest coach in Tim Floyd.
Minutes pick: UTEP (30). Miners have beaten half the league's quad champions. And homecourt advantage should be big in a league where most teams don't travel well.
Regular-season champ: Western Michigan and Toledo were co-champs of the West. Buffalo won the East. Western Michigan has the No. 1 seed.
Dark horse: Akron had a confidence-building close to the season, winning its last three games and securing the No. 4 seed and a bye into the quarterfinals.
Minutes pick: Akron (31). This tourney has crapshoot written all over it, so go with the coach who has won three of the last five MAC tourneys. That would be the Zips' Keith Dambrot.
Regular-season champ: North Carolina Central. The Eagles (25-5, 15-1) haven't lost since Jan. 11. Dominated the league.
Dark horse: Go with Hampton. This tourney has been a favorites' graveyard in recent years. Regular-season champ hasn't won it since 2010.
Minutes pick: North Carolina Central (32). No graveyard this time around. The Eagles look like the MEAC's best team in many years.
Regular-season champ: Stephen F. Austin. The Lumberjacks went 18-0 in a league that has been diminished by realignment.
Dark horse: Northwestern State plays the fastest of any team in the nation and can wreak havoc with its style.
Minutes pick: Stephen F. Austin (33). If the Lumberjacks lose it would probably be the biggest upset of the Little Dance.
Regular-season champ: Georgia State. Ron Hunter's team went 17-1 and won the league by five games.
Dark horse: Western Kentucky is always the dark horse under coach Ray Harper, who has won two Sun Belt tourney titles in two tries with major underdogs.
Minutes pick: Georgia State (34). The Panthers would have to beat themselves to lose this tourney. That's not out of the question, but it would be a big surprise.
Regular-season champ: Southern. This is a mess of a tournament, with four teams that are ineligible for the NCAAs due to low APR scores in the bracket – including Southern. The eligible team that advances farthest will earn the NCAA bid.
Dark horse: Texas Southern. The Tigers, coached by Mike Davis (remember him?) won their last six games, four of them on the road.
Minutes pick: Texas Southern (35). It would feel better if the tourney champ is actually eligible for the Big Dance. So this is the pick.
Regular-season champ: Utah Valley. The only thing anyone knows about the Wolverines is that their fans were willing to rumble with the New Mexico State players Feb. 27.
Dark horse: New Mexico State. The Aggies lost four close league games but won 12 others. By power ratings, this is by far the best team in the league.
Minutes pick: New Mexico State (36). Coach Marvin Menzies has taken the Aggies to the NCAAs three times in the last four years. Make it four in five.
COACH WHO EARNED HIS COMP CAR THIS WEEK
Monte Ross (38), Delaware. In his eighth season as coach of the Blue Hens, Ross earned his first NCAA tournament trip Monday night with a heart-stopping victory over William & Mary. Down six points with 1:20 left, Delaware executed well offensively and dug in defensively to pull out the one-point victory. After five straight losing seasons to start his tenure at Delaware, Ross has had three straight winning years – capped off by this 25-9 run to the Big Dance.
COACH WHO SHOULD RIDE THE BUS TO WORK
John Becker (39), Vermont. The third-year coach of the Catamounts has an Albany problem – at least in March. He is 6-0 against the Great Danes in the regular season but 0-2 against them in the America East tournament – most recently the stunning upset romp in the semifinals Sunday.
When hungry and thirsty and in need of basketball viewing in St. Louis – and The Minutes knows there will be a lot of you next week when the NCAA tournament is there – drop into reliable sports bar Flannery's Pub (40) downtown. The TV setup is great. The beer menu is extensive (order an Odell IPA) and the food is good (go with the buffalo chicken sandwich). Drop in and thank The Minutes later.
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