Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball (Buzz Williams (1) audition tape for "Dancing With the Stars" sold separately):
Five final February questions
Hot topics to cuss and discuss as we end the regular season and get into the best month of the year:
Syracuse (2) or Kentucky (3) for the overall No. 1 seed?
The correct answer is Kentucky, but it's not by a wide margin. The RPI prefers the Orange, though Jeff Sagarin and Ken Pomeroy do not. Even in a slightly down season, the Big East is tougher than the SEC, which has failed to live up to preseason billing. Florida, Vanderbilt and Alabama are not quite as good as advertised, and Mississippi State is a rapidly unraveling NIT team. Total bids for the SEC, as of now: four. Total bids for the Big East, as of now: at least eight.
The Orange and the Wildcats have two common power opponents, Louisville and Florida. Kentucky handled both more easily, but also played both in Rupp Arena. Syracuse hosted the Gators but visited the Cardinals (and have a return date with Louisville in the Carrier Dome on Saturday).
The Wildcats earn the advantage by beating likely fellow No. 1 seed Kansas on a neutral court and potential No. 1 North Carolina in Lexington. Syracuse's only nonconference game against an assured NCAA tourney team was Florida.
But Kentucky's easy conference path to this point leads us to the second burning question: Would the Wildcats benefit from a loss (4) heading into the NCAA tournament?
The emphatic answer is yes. If you don't believe The Minutes, look at the history books.
Kentucky is on a 20-game winning streak. Nobody has successfully carried a streak that long all the way to the finish line since Indiana in 1976, which went undefeated all season. That's 35 years of precedent the 'Cats are trying to buck.
The vast majority of national champions over the past 35 years were toughened (and occasionally refocused) by losses in conference play. Most of them lost at least once in February along the way to the title. There are examples from coast to coast of championship teams that lost late and regrouped to win it all, but the Wildcats don't have to look far to find two great ones:
• The 1996 Wildcats were on a 27-game winning streak when Rick Pitino all but threw the SEC tournament title game, benching forward Antoine Walker for the final 18 minutes to teach him a lesson. Kentucky lost that game to Mississippi State, then won six in a row for the title with Walker playing a vital role.
• The 1980 Louisville Cardinals had just one loss and were on an 18-game winning streak before being stunned by Jeff Ruland, Jim Valvano and Iona on Feb. 21. Denny Crum's team didn't lose again while claiming the school's first championship.
Despite its youth, this Kentucky team has shown no signs of getting the big head, but human nature is hard to combat. After 20 consecutive victories a reminder of fallibility wouldn't be a bad thing, and it wouldn't cost anything. With every victory, the big blue bull's-eye on the 'Cats' backs grows bigger.
Kansas-Missouri (5) or Duke-North Carolina (6) for best rivalry of 2012?
Too soon to declare. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels have yet to play a second time, and there could be a third meeting for both in conference tournament play.
But the ESPN-decreed Greatest Rivalry on Earth (Non-Yankees-Red Sox Division) has its work cut out for it this Saturday. The Jayhawks and Tigers have turned in two classics. First, Missouri claimed a come-from-behind, three-point victory in Columbia on Feb. 4. Then, Kansas countered Saturday with a come-from-behind, one-point victory in Lawrence. Both games went down to the wire – the second one did so twice, since it went into overtime. The drama and tension were remarkable, and the stakes were immense: a Big 12 title, a potential No. 1 NCAA seed and Big 12 Coach of the Year all were being contested by the Jayhawks and Tigers.
Of course, Duke and Carolina staged a classic of their own earlier this month in Chapel Hill, with Austin Rivers settling it with a 3-pointer at the buzzer to cap a desperate Duke rally. They're halfway to a matched pair of epic battles but have a lot to live up to after what's happened in the heartland.
Should the Player of the Year race really be just a two-man contest?
No, it shouldn't. Kentucky center Anthony Davis (7) deserves to be the leading candidate at this point. Kansas forward Thomas Robinson (8) deserves to be the second choice. But it's not as if those two have run off and hid from Michigan State's Draymond Green (9) and Murray State's Isaiah Canaan (10).
A brief rundown of all four:
Davis: 14.3 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.8 blocks (leads the nation), 66 percent shooting. Team record: 28-1. What the stats don't tell you: His full defensive impact, which is greater than anyone else's in the country; plus the stress he puts on opposing defenses that are terrified of being dunked on via lobs off pick-and-roll situations.
Robinson: 17.8 points, 11.8 rebounds, 1.1 blocks (including – ahem – those in which he levels a driving point guard with no foul call in the final seconds), 53 percent shooting. Team record: 25-5. What the stats don't tell you: Full value to a team that might be headed to the NIT if he had gone pro after last season.
Green: 15.6 points, 10.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists (second on the team), 45 percent shooting. Team record: 24-5. What the stats don't tell you: The leadership and basketball IQ Green brings to a team that has significantly outperformed expectations.
Canaan: 19.4 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 49 percent shooting (48 percent from 3-point range). Team record: 28-1. What the stats don't tell you: He is the key to the finest season in school history, elevating Murray out of the Division I shadows and into the spotlight like never before.
There is nothing wrong with keeping an open mind to all four players for the next few weeks.
What is the dumbest rule (8) in college hoops?
The archaic, puritanical one that says players cannot dunk during warm-ups when the officials are on the floor. Florida found out the hard way at Georgia on Saturday that the rule A.) still exists and B.) still can be enforced. The Gators were whistled for a technical foul for pre-game dunking, Georgia made two free throws and Florida officially trailed for every second of the game.
Really, what's the point of the rule? Protecting the fans from excessive displays of entertainment? Protecting players from doing something that is 95 times safer than any drive to the basket against actual defense? A show of respect to an officiating crew that could not care less about anything pregame other than where they park and where the dressing room is located?
Seriously, change the rule.
It began in earnest Monday night: the whittling down of national title aspirants from more than 300 to the 68 that will be unveiled on Selection Sunday, March 11.
What started in the Big South Conference on Monday will spread to the Horizon League on Tuesday and beyond in the days that follow.
The beauty of college basketball, as opposed to the odious football postseason, is that everyone can hope for a miracle. Towson and Binghamton may only have one win each, but they get a fresh start this week in their conference tournaments. All teams can leave the baggage of a bad season behind, and dream anew. Catch fire, win three or four games, shock the world, cut down some nets – why not us, why not now?
That's why The Minutes strongly encourages keeping an eye on the conference tournaments, especially the smaller ones that get cranked up this week. As many as 12 of the 14 that tip off this week could be one-bid leagues. They're playing for keeps. They're playing for bids. And quite a few of these teams could be Cinderella candidates in the NCAA tournament, so scout them with your office pool in mind.
To help, The Minutes has brief scouting reports on each of the Little Dance tourneys:
America East (9) When: March 1-10. Sagarin conference ranking: 29th of 32. All-time NCAA tournament record (using current conference membership): 3-15. Top seed: Stony Brook (20-8 overall, 14-2 in the league). Storyline: The historically unsuccessful Seawolves are seeking their first NCAA tournament bid. To get there, they'll have to overthrow the league establishment. Other contenders: Vermont (20-11), Boston U. (16-15), Albany (18-13). Minutes pick: Vermont (10). This tournament has been known to deviate from form, and if you throw out a mind-boggling loss to Binghamton, the Catamounts have been coming on.
Atlantic Sun (11) When: Feb. 29-March 3. Sagarin conference ranking: 17th of 32. All-time NCAA tournament record (using current conference membership): 6-21. Top seed: Belmont (24-7 overall, 16-2 in the league). Storyline: Can anyone stop the Belmont juggernaut? The Bruins head to Macon, Ga., on an 11-game winning streak and are miles ahead of the league in the power ratings. But they have to play on Mercer's home floor, and the Bears had Belmont down in the second half Saturday before losing by a point. Other contenders: Mercer (21-10), USC Upstate (20-11), East Tennessee State (16-13). Minutes pick: Belmont (12). A Mercer-Belmont final seems likely – and intriguing. Mercer would try to slow the pace, and if that strategy is successful, it could be a white-knuckle finish.
Big South (13) When: Feb. 27-March 3. Sagarin conference ranking: 26th of 32. All-time NCAA tournament record (using current conference membership): 6-22. Top seed: UNC-Asheville (21-9 overall, 16-2 in the league). Storyline: The third year of a zesty rivalry between UNC-Asheville and second-place finisher Coastal Carolina. Last season, the Bulldogs upset Coastal on its home floor to win the tourney and take the automatic bid; the year before, Coastal eliminated UNCA in the semis before losing in the final to Winthrop. The schools split their two regular-season meetings this season. Other contenders: Coastal Carolina (19-10), Charleston Southern (18-11). Minutes pick: Charleston Southern (14). The Buccaneers would catch UNCA in the semifinals and already have beaten the Bulldogs on their home floor. Do it again and they'd be 40 minutes from the title. It's a long shot, but something strange always happens in the Little Dance.
Colonial (15) When: March 2-5. Sagarin conference ranking: 14th of 32. All-time NCAA tournament record (using current conference membership): 27-58. Top seed: Drexel (25-5 overall, 16-2 in the league). Storyline: This should be the most compelling of the early tournaments, with three bubble teams – Drexel, VCU and George Mason – battling to at least make the tourney final and buttress their NCAA résumés. And given the Final Four runs by VCU and Mason in recent seasons, this one definitely bears watching for NCAA picks. Other contenders: VCU (25-6), George Mason (23-8), Old Dominion (19-12). Minutes pick: VCU (16). The Rams have lost just once since Jan. 8, and that was by a single point on a miracle comeback by Mason on the road. They're playing like the team that peaked last March and won five NCAA tourney games. The Rams played Drexel only once and lost on the road after leading in the second half. They'll win a rematch in the final.
Horizon (17) When: Feb. 28-March 6. Sagarin conference ranking: 12th of 32. All-time NCAA tournament record (using current conference membership): 39-41. Top seed: Valparaiso (21-10, 14-4 in the league). Storyline: League bully Butler is as vulnerable as it has been in years. Can the Bulldogs be knocked off, and can former Valpo hero-turned-coach Bryce Drew take the Crusaders back to the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2004? Other contenders: Cleveland State (22-9), Milwaukee (19-12), Detroit (18-13), Butler (18-13). Minutes pick: Butler (18). This tournament is weighted heavily in favor of the top two seeds, who have byes to the semifinals. Butler is not one of them, but how do you bet against the Bulldogs, especially now that they're playing better at the end of a transition season? They'll have to make shots for four consecutive games, which might be more than this Butler team can do, but they'll be a tough out.
Metro Atlantic Athletic (19) When: March 2-5. Sagarin conference ranking: 20th of 32. All-time NCAA tournament record (using current conference membership): 15-40. Top seed: Iona (24-6 overall, 15-3 in the league). Storyline: Who steps up in year two of the post-Siena power vacuum? Last season, regular-season champion Fairfield was upset in the semifinals by Cinderella St. Peter's, which then knocked off Iona for the NCAA bid. This season, Iona is in prime position, but has competition. Other contenders: Loyola (21-8),Manhattan (20-11), Fairfield (17-13). Minutes pick: Iona (20). The Gaels have three big-time players in Scott Machado, Momo Jones and Mike Glover. After coming close to the Big Dance last season, they'll be locked in on finishing the job this time.
Missouri Valley (21) When: March 1-4. Sagarin conference ranking: 9th of 32. All-time NCAA tournament record (using current membership): 54-75. Top seed: Wichita State (26-4 overall, 16-2 in the league). Storyline: The Valley has two NCAA locks; can a member of its sprawling middle class rise up to win the tourney and get a third team in? After Wichita State and Creighton comes a five-way tie for third in the league with Northern Iowa, Missouri State, Illinois State, Evansville and Drake. They should have more motivation than the two schools who already have made the Big Dance. Other contenders: Creighton (25-5). Minutes pick: Wichita State (22). The Shockers have experienced plenty of "Arch Madness" heartburn the past three seasons; they were upset in the semifinals by Indiana State last season, beaten in a contentious final by Northern Iowa in 2010 and lost at the buzzer to Creighton in the semis in '09. Time for them to finally break through.
Northeast (23) When: March 1-7. Sagarin conference ranking: 27th of 32. All-time NCAA tournament record (using current conference membership): 3-27. Top seed: Long Island (22-8 overall, 16-2 in the league). Storyline: Can LIU outrun everyone into the Big Dance again? The Blackbirds did it last season, but the competition looks tougher this time around. Still, Long Island will have every game on its home court as long as it keeps winning, and it has won 24 in a row there. Other contenders: Wagner (24-5), Robert Morris (22-9). Minutes pick: Long Island (24). It's not just the home-court winning streak that makes the Blackbirds the pick. It's the four straight victories over primary rival Wagner, too.
Ohio Valley (25) When: Feb. 29-March 3. Sagarin conference ranking: 22nd of 32. All-time NCAA tournament record (using current conference membership): 9-41. Top seed: Murray State (28-1 overall, 15-1 in the league). Storyline: Can the Racers complete the coronation? They've dominated the season like few other OVC teams ever have, seemingly assuring themselves a rare at-large NCAA tournament bid. But if they want to remove the last shred of doubt, they need to win two games in Nashville. Other contenders: Tennessee State (19-11), Morehead State (17-14). Minutes pick: Murray State (26). They have a bye to the semifinals, and they happen to be the best team in the league by a wide margin. But it says here that the rest of the league will rise up and give the Racers all they want on the way to the crown.
Patriot (27) When: Feb. 29-March 7. Sagarin conference ranking: 23rd of 32. All-time NCAA tournament record (using current conference membership): 17-41. Top seed: Bucknell (22-8 overall, 12-2 in the league). Storyline: Can Bucknell be blocked in its bid for a second straight NCAA appearance? The Bison have lost just three of their past 31 games against Patriot opponents, and the two losses this season were by a total of five points. Coach Dave Paulsen could have a mini-dynasty in the making. Other contenders: Lehigh (23-7), American (19-10). Minutes pick: Lehigh (28). The Mountain Hawks have higher power ratings than Bucknell and split the season series, each winning at home in close games. Lehigh comes in with momentum, riding a five-game winning streak.
Southern (29) When: March 2-5. Sagarin conference ranking: 25th of 32. All-time NCAA tournament record (using current conference membership): 13-44. Top seed: Davidson (22-7 overall, 16-2 in the league). Storyline: The return of the Wildcats. They haven't been to the NCAAs since Stephen Curry led the magical run to the Elite Eight in 2008. Since then, they're just 1-3 in the SoCon tourney, but now come equipped for a return to prominence. Other contenders: College of Charleston (19-11), Wofford (19-12). Minutes pick: Davidson (30). A potential semifinal game against Samford, which split the season series with the Wildcats, could be interesting. But expect to see Bob McKillop's team roll through three games and head back into the Big Dance.
Summit (31) When: March 3-6. Sagarin conference ranking: 18th of 32. All-time NCAA tournament record (using current conference membership): 3-11. Top seed: Oral Roberts (26-5 overall, 17-1 in the league). Storyline: Are we headed for an ORU-South Dakota State rubber game? The two best teams in the league by a long shot split their regular-season meetings, with their star players taking turns dominating. In ORU's January victory, Dominique Morrison went off for 38 points and seven rebounds. When SDSU got payback in February, point guard Nate Wolters had 24 points and nine assists. Other contenders: South Dakota State (24-7). Minutes pick: Oral Roberts (32). The Golden Eagles have not been as dominant after a 12-0 start in Summit play, but they've still only dropped one game since Dec. 15. As long as they can handle playing the tourney in South Dakota, expect ORU to make its first NCAA appearance since 2008.
Sun Belt (33) When: March 3-6. Sagarin conference ranking: 19th of 32. All-time NCAA tournament record (using current conference membership): 19-58. Top seed: Middle Tennessee (25-5 overall, 14-2 in the league). Storyline: Can the Blue Raiders regain their mojo after a slight stumble down the stretch? Middle Tennessee was 10-0 in the Sun Belt on Feb. 3, but finished 4-2 with a 15-point loss at Denver and a stunning upset at Western Kentucky. Those losses killed hopes of an NCAA at-large bid and made this tournament a must-win situation. Other contenders: Denver (21-8), North Texas (16-13). Minutes pick: Denver (34). The Pioneers' last six games have been five double-digit victories and a one-point road loss after being ahead by four points with 14 seconds left. They've hit their stride just as Middle Tennessee has wobbled. Result: The first NCAA bid for a school better known for hockey.
West Coast (35) When: Feb. 29-March 5. Sagarin conference ranking: 11th of 32. All-time NCAA tournament record (using current conference membership): 76-100. Top seed: Saint Mary's (25-5 overall, 14-2 in the league). Storyline: Will the Gaels and Gonzaga slug it out again, or does newcomer BYU crash the party? The two traditional WCC powers have met in the tourney title game three years in a row and could be headed for a fourth, unless Mountain West transplant BYU can beat the Zags in the semifinals. Other contenders: BYU (24-7), Loyola Marymount (19-11). Minutes pick: Gonzaga (36). Just not convinced Saint Mary's has the will to combat the Zags inside. Plenty of skill, but perhaps not enough will.
Coach who earned his comp car this week
Mark Macon (37), Binghamton. For avoiding the schneid. The last winless team in the nation pulled a shocker last Tuesday, beating Vermont 57-53. Ken Pomeroy's numbers gave Binghamton just a 6 percent chance of winning, but the Bearcats jumped on top early and led for the better part of 38 minutes, even weathering a late rally that saw a double-digit second-half lead shrink to two. Congrats to the former Temple great.
Coach who should take the bus to work
Tubby Smith (38), Minnesota. The Gophers lost their fifth in a row Sunday, a 19-point no-show against Indiana that marked their worst home loss in 10 years. Minnesota's losing streak drops Tubby's February-March record in the past two seasons to 2-15. That makes Dan Monson look like a pretty good finisher by comparison.
When hungry and thirsty in the big city of Indianapolis (39) but wanting to escape the downtown vortex, The Minutes suggests a short trip to Binkley's (40), not far from the Butler campus. Try the Louisiana Spinach Artichoke Dip, order a beer and watch hoops on the multitude of TVs, then thank The Minutes later.
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