Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college basketball — super-sized to 68 for the NCAA tournament:
The 2018 NCAA TOURNAMENT: TRUST NO ONE
What a time to be a herd animal — the Bison of Bucknell and Bisons of Lipscomb are in the Big Dance, as are the Longhorns of Texas, the Bulls of Buffalo and that Thundering bunch from Marshall. It’s a great day to be an old-school warrior — the Spartans of Michigan State and UNC Greensboro, and the Aztecs of San Diego State all are in the bracket as well. There is both a Wolfpack (North Carolina State) and a Wolf Pack (Nevada). There are Ramblers (Loyola Chicago) and Racers (Murray State) and Raiders (Wright State, Texas Tech). There are Cavaliers (Virginia) and Mountaineers (West Virginia) and Musketeers (Xavier). The gang’s all here.
But amid the celebration of Selection Sunday, keep your guard up.
It’s been a season of suspicion — off the court at first, and then on the court once the games began. Off it: Who, in a time of national scandal, is playing it clean? On it: Who, in a time of widespread parity, can you confidently write on the last line of your bracket as your national championship pick?
These are the twin paths of our uncertain journey into the belly of March Madness.
Let’s start with the macro view, and the overall credibility of the sport. Given the backdrop of the ongoing federal investigation into corruption in college basketball, there are a few teams that, if they win it all, could make the Alamodome trophy presentation pretty awkward:
Arizona (1). Assistant coach Emanuel “Book” Richardson was arrested last fall and fired in January as part of the federal probe. Richardson and another assistant, Joe Pasternack, were linked with arrested former ASM Sports agency associate Christian Dawkins via Dawkins’ emails. Head coach Sean Miller sat out one game after an ESPN report about him allegedly discussing payments to a player on a wiretap; then Miller returned, rebuked the story and made a veiled threat to sue ESPN. Oh, and star wing player Allonzo Trier missed two games after a second positive steroid test, then had his eligibility restored on appeal. If ever there were to be a champion for these troubled times, the Pac-12 champion Wildcats are it.
Auburn (2). The Tigers are down five people for scandal-related reasons: assistant coach Chuck Person was arrested and subsequently fired; players Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy have been withheld from competition all season; and staffers Jordan VerHulst and Frankie Sullivan have been on paid administrative leave since November. Head coach (3) Bruce Pearl, who was fired and slapped with an NCAA show-cause penalty for violations at Tennessee, has refused to sit down for a formal interview with the university’s legal counsel. Yet he’s still coaching.
Miami (4). The Hurricanes occasionally are overlooked in the scandal roundup because no one has lost a job, been suspended or been charged by the feds. But Miami was “University-7” in the original federal complaint, the alleged school where Adidas was trying to place a star recruit in exchange for $150,000.
North Carolina State (5). Just last week, news broke that N.C. State has received a grand jury subpoena in January for records in conjunction with the federal probe. Last month Yahoo Sports reported on documents seized from ASM Sports, the agency headed by former NBA agent Andy Miller, which indicated that 2016-17 Wolfpack point guard Dennis Smith received tens of thousands of dollars from the agency before attending college. After that story published, North Carolina State released a letter dating to 2012 saying that the school had disassociated itself from Miller for a 10-year period.
THE TRUSTED FEW
Seven teams The Minutes believes are good enough to win this thing:
Virginia (6). This tournament will be all about the 31-2 Cavaliers — about their style of play, recruiting philosophy and entire program approach. They have the No. 1 team, the No. 1 overall seed, they won the ACC regular-season and tournament titles. That means the pressure to finally make the Final Four — and then win it all — will be immense for a program that has had ugly and disappointing tourney exits for four years in a row.
Can what is literally the nation’s slowest team (351st in tempo) and best defensive team (No. 1 in defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy’s ratings) generate enough offense to win it all? And in the process, can coach Tony Bennett (7) offer a recruiting model that is a repudiation of the John Calipari (8) and Mike Krzyzewski (9) one-and-done mill? Can they win over converts to a plodding pace that some purists embrace and most fans find hard to watch? And if not, if the Cavaliers fall short again with what is by every measure the nation’s best team, can it ever get done The Virginia Way?
Villanova (10). Two years after winning it all with the most dramatic of game-winning shots, the Wildcats (30-4) are once again serious contenders. This is the nation’s best offensive team, per Pomeroy’s numbers, shooting ridiculous percentages and taking good care of the ball. All along, Jay Wright had a star and alpha male in point guard Jalen Brunson — but the emergence of forward Mikal Bridges (23 points per game over the last eight games, 53 percent from 3-point range) is a difference maker.
North Carolina (11). There were times this season when the defending national champions and two-time NCAA finalists looked like a potential early round knockout (a home loss to Wofford was one of those times). But the championship nucleus of Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Luke Maye elevated their teammates in February and March, and Pittsburgh transfer Cam Johnson found his groove. A 9-3 record down the stretch against elite competition shows that Carolina is ready for another deep run.
Michigan (12). The way the Wolverines stormed through the Big Ten tournament served notice that they should be in it for the long haul this tourney — if the week off doesn’t mess with their mojo. This is by far the best defensive team John Beilein has ever coached, and perhaps his best rebounding team as well. Center Moe Wagner is a flourishing star who was the Big Ten tourney’s Most Outstanding Player — and he’s demonstrative enough on the court to aggravate every opponent.
Michigan State (13). If you remove Michigan from the equation, the Spartans haven’t lost in more than two months. But in that time they also beat exactly one NCAA tournament team (Purdue), underscoring how weak the Big Ten was this season below the top level. Still, there is no doubting Michigan State’s talent, coaching, commitment to defense and ability to smash an opponent on the glass. Disregard the Spartans at your own risk.
Duke (14). If all teams play to the full extent of their talent over the next three weeks, the Blue Devils will cut down the nets in San Antonio. They have the best players, great size, athleticism, shooters and the most accomplished coach in the game. If 6-foot-11 Marvin Bagley III decides the time is now to take over college basketball, who is going to stop him? Then again, they also have four freshmen playing alongside an unstable senior (Grayson Allen), which is not necessarily the ideal lineup to handle the rigors of March.
Arizona. The Wildcats have emerged from the maelstrom encircling the program to win their last five games, by an average margin of 12 points. And with Miller on the bench they haven’t lost in more than a month. The Wildcats are not great defensively and have played in an underwhelming conference that has produced only one Final Four team since 2008, but Arizona can match firepower with anyone. And the 49-year-old Miller is way overdue to break through to his first Final Four.
THE ULTIMATE WILD CARD (WILDCAT?)
Kentucky (15). There were times this season when the Wildcats were wobbling toward the tourney bubble — they endured the first four-game losing streak of John Calipari’s tenure at the school, and were 6-7 in the Southeastern Conference at one point. There also have been times when the Wildcats looked like a team with at least three first-round draft picks and a full rotation of NBA size. The latter Kentucky team has been the one on the floor for most of the past month, and that team can crash the San Antonio party. But UK entered Sunday 0-5 against the league’s top three teams (Auburn, Tennessee, Florida) — and there figure to be better opponents than those standing between the callow ‘Cats and the Final Four. Good luck trying to figure out what to do with Big Blue in your office pool.
TRUST ISSUES WITH HIGH SEEDS
Teams that have had great seasons but could meet an earlier demise than their seeding suggests:
Xavier (16). Pomeroy’s metrics don’t love the Musketeers the way the selection committee and Top 25 voters do. The reason why: Defense, especially on the interior. Xavier doesn’t have a great rim protector — it hasn’t blocked more than three shots in a game since Valentine’s Day — and doesn’t force many turnovers either. It’s been seven years since a team made the Final Four with a defensive efficiency ranking lower than Xavier’s 59, and that was a certifiable fluke (VCU).
Kansas (17). There is a lot to like about this team, the most recent addition being the sudden star turn from guard Malik Newman (24 points per game in the Big 12 tournament). But while the Jayhawks are eternally masters of their Midwestern domain, the nation is another story. The past nine winners of the Big 12 tournament have failed to make the Final Four, and that includes several previous Kansas flameouts. With center Udoka Azubuike’s availability unclear and depth already an issue, the Jayhawks would once again seem vulnerable to a March upset.
Auburn. The undersized Tigers have lost four of their last six, haven’t won away from home since Feb. 10 and haven’t beaten an NCAA team away from home since Jan. 24. It’s been a remarkable season on The Plains, but it won’t last much longer.
Cincinnati (18). This is Mick Cronin’s best team, earning Cincy’s highest seed since 2002. The Bearcats will guard until the last dog dies and rebound like their scholarships depend on it — but will they make enough shots? That’s shots of any variety — they’re mediocre both outside the 3-point arc and inside it, and poor at the foul line. Hard to win four or more games against quality competition when shots aren’t falling.
Texas Tech (19). Like Auburn, the Red Raiders have had an overachieving season but hit the skids late. They’ve lost five of their last seven. Yes, the competition in the Big 12 is good — but it’s also good in the NCAA tournament. The ball isn’t going through the basket as easily lately for Tech as it did in previous weeks.
TEAMS NOT NAMED VIRGINIA AND ARIZONA THAT SHOULD BE FEELING FINAL FOUR URGENCY
Their best chance in a long time to reach the final weekend of the season:
Purdue (20). NCAA tournament appearances: 30. National titles: zero. Final Fours: two. Last Final Four: 1980. The No. 16 team in all-time victories shouldn’t be on a 37-year streak without a Final Four. This team is 28-6, has a ton of shooters and a ton of size and a ton of experience — is that enough to reach the Promised Land?
Tennessee (21). NCAA tournament appearances: 21. National titles: zero. Final Fours: zero. The Volunteers have reached only one regional final in their history, falling to Michigan State in 2010. This team is a wicked defensive unit, physical, athletic and disruptive. But it’s also a young group that is bereft of NCAA tourney experience beyond coach Rick Barnes.
CONFERENCE WITH SOME PROVING TO DO
The Southeastern Conference (22). Yes, there was some major proving done last year when, after years of underachieving, the league put South Carolina in its first Final Four and three teams in the final eight. But now that America’s premier football conference has been given eight basketball bids — what will it do with them? Only two of the eight are expected, on seeding, to make the Sweet Sixteen (Auburn and Tennessee), and one of those two is not playing well. There might not be much left of the league when the tourney gets into the later rounds.
DANGER IN THE BOTTOM HALF OF THE BRACKET
Lower seeds that can blow up the Big Dance by pulling off an upset or two:
Loyola Chicago (23). This is a fun team to watch, with willing passers and skilled shooters. The difference maker from other mid-major contenders is a true low-post presence in freshman Cameron Krutwig, a 6-foot-9, 260-pound load with a nice touch around the basket. The Ramblers’ only loss in the past two months was a two-pointer on the road, and they won at Florida early in the season. They won’t scare easily.
Murray State (24). Racers bring a 13-game winning streak into Bracketville. They have quality guards, led by Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year Jonathan Stark, who has averaged 26 points over Murray’s last eight games. And they have enough athletes to not be outmanned.
Providence (25). If you saw the Friars in Madison Square Garden last week, you know this is a team that can outperform its seeding. Providence took down regular-season champion Xavier and then forced Villanova into overtime before submitting. Kyron Cartwright is a big-time point guard and forward Alpha Diallo has dramatically upgraded his performance down the stretch. After memorably ripping the seat of his trousers Saturday, coach Ed Cooley had better pack extra pants for this tourney because his team may be in this for a while.
South Dakota State (26). In Mike Daum, the Jackrabbits have the kind of matchup problem most underdogs only dream of. He’s 6-9, 250, can score from anywhere, draws fouls and will grab double-digit rebounds. If the complementary parts play well around him and South Dakota State isn’t overwhelmed defensively, this is a dangerous team.
San Diego State (27). The Aztecs have talent and a senior nucleus of point guard Trey Kell and Malik Pope — it just took them until mid-February to put it together in Year 1 after Steve Fisher retired. Now they’re on a nine-game winning streak and possess most of the building blocks of a successful tournament team. Most significantly, this is a big team that will defend with zeal.
Deandre Ayton (28), Arizona. The 7-foot-1 colossus is quite likely the top NBA prospect in this tournament, and one of the most enticing in years since the last two No. 1 picks didn’t make it this far. He’s been good all season, but over the last six games these are the numbers: 23.3 points, 14.3 rebounds, 66 percent shooting from the field and 74 percent from the foul line.
Marvin Bagley III (29), Duke. He’s 6-11 with 3-point range, can face the basket and drive, is freakishly quick off his feet and possesses plenty of motor. In other words, what’s not to love? His March averages rival Ayton’s: 24.3 points, 15 rebounds, 62 percent from the field (but just 53 percent from the line).
Jalen Brunson (30), Villanova. Has started 109 games for the Wildcats, and they’ve won 96 of them. He’s the model Jay Wright guard, fearless, unflappable and a two-way player who can score, distribute and defend. He’s also shooting 48 percent from 3 so far this March.
Moe Wagner (31), Michigan. The big Berliner is another guy who fits perfectly into his coach’s system. John Beilein likes big men with skill who can play away from the basket but also go down low when needed, and that’s Wagner. He dropped three 3-pointers on Purdue in the Big Ten tourney finale, but he can also operate with his back to the basket and pass. Wagner has developed into a solid defensive anchor as well who gets his hands on a lot of passes.
Miles Bridges (32), Michigan State. Has the skill and the will to put the Spartans on his back, though there are times when his aggressiveness disappears offensively. (Bridges has shot 103 free throws this season, but only seven in Michigan State’s four losses.) The 6-7, 230-pounder was celebrated last spring when he announced he was coming back for a second season of college ball, and the expectation was to lead the Spartans to a title like fellow Flint product Mateen Cleaves 18 years ago. Can he follow through?
Kyle Guy (33), Virginia. The Cavaliers are a team that does everything by committee, but Guy is the guy most capable of fracturing a defense with his shooting. His 3-point percentage is down 10 points from last year (.495 to .395), but that’s largely because defenses are keying on him. Guy made nine of 17 outside the arc in the ACC tournament and was named the MOP there. If he’s hitting, good luck beating Virginia.
Trevon Blueitt (34), Xavier. He can have some ugly outings (1-for-10 against Georgetown and 2-for-14 against Providence in the last five games), but when he’s on there isn’t much a defense can do with him. He made eight 3s and scored 37 on Seton Hall last month, and dropped nine 3s and 40 on rival Cincinnati last year. As a senior on a team with Final Four aspirations, look for him to go out firing.
Keita Bates-Diop (35), Ohio State. The Big Ten regular-season Player of the Year wasn’t Bridges and it wasn’t Wagner — it was this guy. The 6-7 redshirt junior flourished in his first season under Chris Holtmann, averaging 19.4 points and 8.8 rebounds. But the Buckeyes weren’t great at the end of the year; can they regain their form now?
Devonte Graham (36), Kansas. The one guy Bill Self absolutely cannot do without — which is why Graham has played 671 out of 680 minutes over the last 17 games. Graham is an iron man with an iron will whose distributing and timely shooting will be vital for the Jayhawks.
Trae Young (37), Oklahoma. Remember him? He was the toast of the sport for half the season, then it started to go south in a hurry. The Sooners swooned from 12-1 to 18-13, barely making the tournament, and the burden of carrying the team took its toll on Young. Still, the kid leads the nation in points and assists – a remarkable feat. We’ll see whether he and his team can rediscover their December magic now that it’s win-or-go-home time.
Collin Sexton, Alabama. Over the course of three great games in St. Louis last week, Sexton roared past Young as the leading man among point guards. His 28 points and breathtaking drive to beat Texas A&M at the buzzer was followed by 31 spectacular points against Auburn, and then 21 more against Kentucky. When his shot is falling, he’s unstoppable.
Three players whose health status could determine how long their teams are playing in this tournament.
Jarred Vanderbilt (38), Kentucky. John Calipari’s energy guy off the bench never left the bench in St. Louis, sidelined with an ankle injury. The Wildcats began turning their season around in earnest when Vanderbilt became fully engaged, grabbing rebounds and passing and smoothing out his raw offensive game. He’s a big piece for a team that doesn’t have a deep bench.
Udoka Azubuike (39), Kansas. A knee sprain kept the Jayhawks’ top low-post option out of the Big 12 tournament, which they won without him. But that won’t be sustainable in this tourney — his 13.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game are vital. Backup Silvio De Sousa had a breakout performance in Kansas City (16 and 10 against West Virginia, eight and 11 against Kansas State) but Azubuike is still the primary post man.
Michael Porter Jr. (40), Missouri. The No. 1 recruit in the class of 2017 played last week for the first time in four months, and the numbers were what you might expect in that situation: 5 of 17 from the floor. But the fact is, a depleted Mizzou team will need a lot from Porter in just his second full game of the season if the Tigers have any hope of advancing.
Lower-profile players not named Mike Daum who you might know a lot more about when the first weekend is over:
Kellan Grady (41), Davidson. See if this sounds familiar: Skinny shooter fits into Bob McKillop’s system and becomes one of the most dangerous weapons in college basketball. The Minutes isn’t saying Grady is the next Steph Curry — but you’re forgiven if you look at him and have at least a passing thought. The freshman is averaging 18.1 points and has dropped 70 3s this season as the sidekick to leading scorer Peyton Aldridge.
Jemerrio Jones (42), New Mexico State. He doesn’t lead the WAC champion Aggies in scoring, but he is the rare player who leads his team in both rebounds (13.2) and assists (3.1). He’s 6-5 and skinny, but he’s been on a phenomenal rebounding tear, averaging 18.2 boards over the last five games.
Joe Chealey (43), College of Charleston. The scouting report will say not to foul Chealey. They’ll foul him anyway. The 6-4 senior is a master at drawing contact and getting to the line, shooting 237 free throws thus far this year. He was 16-16 at the line in an overtime thriller against Northeastern for the Colonial Athletic Association tournament title.
Terrell Miller (44), Murray State. You’ll love this guy. He’s 6-8, 245, shoots the deep ball (62 made 3s, second on the team), had 18 defensive rebounds in the OVC semifinals and has more hair than any man in college hoops. He’s a big reason why the Racers haven’t lost since mid-January.
Grant Benzinger (45), Wright State. Son of former Major League Baseball player Todd Benzinger is the glue guy on a team of glue guys playing for underrated Scott Nagy. The 6-3 senior averages a team-high 34.5 minutes, 14.5 points and 5.4 rebounds for the Raiders
FIVE GUYS WHO DO THE MOST WITHOUT SCORING
Theo Pinson (46), North Carolina. A huge reason why the Tar Heels won the title last year was the all-around work of the 6-6 Pinson, who can guard everyone from a point guard to a power forward and is one of the most clever and astute passers in the game.
Chris Chiozza (47), Florida. Fourth on the team in scoring but first in minutes, which should tell you something. He’s Florida’s all-time leader in assists, and also leads this team in steals.
Ben Richardson (48), Loyola Chicago. As more talent arrived this season, Richardson accepted a role taking fewer shots and playing fewer minutes. The result has been a leap forward for the team. Along the way, the 6-3 senior guard was named the Missouri Valley Defensive Player of the Year, and he made several key plays in the Ramblers’ Arch Madness run.
Isaiah Wilkins (49), Virginia. He’s the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and there has been some speculation about whether he’s the best defensive player Tony Bennett has ever had at Virginia. The muscly, 6-7, 227-pound Wilkins can guard on the perimeter or in the paint, and he leads the Cavalier in rebounding and blocked shots.
Rashard Kelly (50), Wichita State. Seventh on the team in scoring, second in minutes. On a squad rife with role players, Kelly plays one of the most important — he is the Shockers’ best offensive rebounder and also an adept passer. The 6-7 senior is averaging 8.8 rebounds in March.
Seven coaches under 50 who are doing good work on smaller stages, now getting the chance to show their stuff on the biggest stage.
Danny Hurley (51), Rhode Island. Age: 45. The youngest member of one of America’s great coaching families has now taken the Rams to consecutive NCAA tournaments — something the program last accomplished in the 1990s. Hurley’s name will get a lot of traction for the vacant Connecticut and Pittsburgh jobs.
Ryan Odom (52), UMBC. Age: 43. Another coach’s son — his father, Dave Odom, was a longtime coach at Wake Forest (had Tim Duncan) and South Carolina. UMBC had seven straight seasons of more than 20 losses before Odom got there. Now the Retrievers have had two straight seasons of more than 20 victories — and a trip to the Big Dance.
Matt McMahon (53), Murray State. Age: 39. They don’t hire slouches at Murray, and McMahon has now kept up his end of a remarkable run for a school in a one-bid league: eight straight coaches have taken the Racers to the NCAA tournament over the last 30 years.
Earl Grant (54), College of Charleston. Age: 41. Took over a proud-but-dormant program in 2014-15, worked through one rocky season and has since breathed life back into the place. Charleston’s record the last two seasons is 51-17, 28-8 in the ACC.
LeVelle Moton (55), North Carolina Central. Age: 43. The Eagles have now earned their third NCAA bid in the last five years. Moton has crafted a 16-0 season in the MEAC and two 15-1 seasons.
Travis DeCuire (56), Montana. Age: 47. Mike Montgomery tried to get his assistant DeCuire named as his successor at California when he retired in 2014, but it didn’t happen. DeCuire then pulled out of the running for the Cal job last season to stay at his alma mater, Montana. He’s been there four seasons, compiling a record of 83-48 and making the NCAAs for the first time this year.
Chris Jans (57), New Mexico State. Age: 48. Here’s an interesting one. Jans has done demonstrably great work, with one major off-court issue that has altered his career course. After authoring Bowling Green’s only winning season in the last nine in his first year on the job, 2014-15, Jans was fired following an embarrassing drunken night out at a Bowling Green bar. He got a second chance this season at New Mexico State and has led the Aggies to a 28-5 record and a WAC championship.
FIRST TIME IN A LONG TIME
Imagine seeing you teams here:
Lipscomb (58) is in the NCAA tournament for the first time.
Loyola Chicago is dancing for the first time since 1985, and doing so 55 years after its Cinderella national title.
Marshall (59) was last here in 1987 — and that one was vacated. The last one the Thundering Herd could keep was 1985.
College of Charleston (60) is partying like it’s 1999, which is the last time it made the tourney.
TCU (61), long one of the most pitiful programs in the nation, has roared back in Year 2 under Jamie Dixon. Last NCAA appearance before this one: 1998.
UNC-Greensboro (62) is on the scene for the first time since 2001.
The commercials will be burned into our brains for the next three weeks, so raise a Bud Light (or something better) to …
Killian Tillie (63). Gonzaga’s French forward saw his scoring average blow up from 4.2 points as a freshman last year to 13.4 this year.
Two teams from Philly (64). Penn is going dancing for the first time since 2007; Villanova is going for the sixth straight season and 13th time under Jay Wright.
A coach named Billy (65). Texas A&M worked its way onto the right side of the bubble in the last five weeks of the season, perhaps saving Billy Kennedy’s job.
Official Ray Natili (66). Veteran NCAA tournament ref figures to be on the whistle again this March.
When hungry and thirsty in the Final Four city of San Antonio (67), The Minutes recommends a visit to Southerleigh Fine Food & Brewery (68), a fine local microbrewery with quality food to match the beer. Try the wood-fired pretzel, the jalapeño cheddar grits, the fried chicken and thank The Minutes later.
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